22.06.2008 - 08.07.2008
Wow! – we are finally on our next stage. London was fun – it was great to hook up with our friends and family and catch up. A special thanks to Matt (again!) for giving us somewhere to sleep and drink far too much.
We had a lovely day in Balham park and caught up with Matt, Justin, Larry, Eva and Clare.
We spent most of the time organising the European element. When I say “organising”, I mean getting gadgets and camping gear. We didn’t actually plan anything travel related.
We wandered into Millets in Wimbledon, and after some negotiations, left with practically everything we needed. A 6-man tent. No point in being cramped. A 12volt fridge, sleeping bags, cookers, inflatable mattress, tent lights (yep, we have tent ceiling lights that have a switch by the “door” and also in the bedroom) and lots of other things – not forgetting a HUGE solar panel. A 15Watt jobby that comes with a regulator that uses the car battery to “help” when you need it but stops you from drawing the battery until it’s dead. To give you an idea of scale, the solar panels in my backpack kick out 2.5Watts. 15Watt is enough to fully charge a car battery in 3 days of sunlight.
Being a bit of a nerd I decided that a “test erection” was in order….
Matt and I struggled. It took over an hour to get it up (phnarr phnarr). This would have to improve…..
The other sunbathers in Balham park looked bemused but entertained.
The next step was loading the car. Bearing in mind it has a 144 litre boot it was no small task! Imagine the boot of a normal car, then fill it as full as you think it will go, then look at the space left – that’s about the size of our boot. I had to load everything in a precise order, using every available inch of space. So much so we’ve done away with the spare wheel and now carry a can of “tyre weld” – the stuff that has air and foam in a can to get you out of an emergency until you can get another tyre.
I grabbed a cheapo boot rack and a super cheap bag and that’s where the tent, the folding chairs and table, and one rucksack go. Oh, and all the kitchen stuff.
Not bad really, considering how much stuff we have.
All packed and ready to go, so that’s what we did. I booked us a cheap crossing to Calais. At this stage Kirstin questioned whether Calais was the right place to go and I realised that we had no idea really. I just went on the assumption of “start from the top and you can’t go wrong”. Not a bad philosophy I reckon.
(waiting for our boat)
I have to say, it felt fantastic to be on the road again. The only catch was we had no plan whatsoever and France is an awfully big place. We have got a Michelin camping guide, some random book on France (which is hilariously useless – it has such quotes as “we won’t cover the really famous places like Caen as you will surely know about them already…” – great) and a road atlas.
Fortunately Richard Davies recently sent me 6 rambling emails about his favourite places in France, being a huge Francofile, so we grabbed the 1st place he suggested – Honfleur, and went for it, keying it into the GPS but telling it to avoid motorways / pay routes. No point being in a rag-top and going 130k’s on a motorway.
We were quite tired and pretty much caned it down, relieved that the HUGE bag on the boot was staying where it was supposed to. When we eventually found our chosen campsite at about 4pm it was a big culture shock…. In a good way.
We’ve read that France is set up for camping (say “camping” in an overly French accent and you have it down to a tee – especially exaggerating the “ping”) and that it’s a national past-time. Well what we have read it true. I’ve spent many an early-teenage year with my family camping in the South of France, but that’s a little different – all sand and sea and at that age, little interest in what’s going on around you other than girls and cheap booze. In the country side it’s stunning. And boy are they organised!
Practically every single village and town has a camp site, and if the village is too small to host a campsite, they let you camp on their football pitch for free. The campsites have every facility you can think of – including pools, bars, restaurants, steak-frite vendors, washing, showers, TV, electricity, water, shops, you name it, but the beauty is , you can choose how basic you want to be, and how insular, or how involved you want to be.
When we arrived at our 1st site, in Honfleur, we got the choice of a “plot” – which is a neatly hedged off square buy a through-track, supplied with running water and electricity, or, a large field area with no ‘leccy or water but in a wide open space – eu naturalle if you like. You still of course have access to all the facilities. With all our solar self sufficiency we of course opted for the basic option and found ourselves in a large grassed area to ourselves. Save money and get closer to Mother Nature. That was the plan, and it worked fine.
We whacked the tent up in far less than the hour that Matt and I managed on the 1st attempt…
You can clearly tell Kirstin is loving the camping life : - )
Pleased as punch we unpacked and got ourselves settled, with our portable fridge plugged into the car and our solar panels out. At this stage we realised why everyone else with a tent was pitched on the one other open area – we were right behind a road and the grass what littered with dog shit. Can’t have everything.
The next day we drove 3k’s down to Honfleur. A stunning harbour town with even more stunning architecture. The whole harbour is surrounded by restaurants offering Moule Frites for 12 Euros. Not bad we thought. It was when we ordered our drinks we realised we were in a tourist trap. 4.5 Euros for a half… that’s £8 a pint!!! We had a lovely day to be fair but quickly realised we will have to be a little more wise in future. The local restaurant near the campsite was a fraction of the price and the service was superb.
We made a few discoveries that caught us out. i.e. we ended up having to buy wine from the restaurant after discovering the French shops all close from 12.30 to 2.30, and we missed ordering our bread and croissants by half an hour.
We also discovered that the “regulator” that is supposed to stop the car battery going dead doesn’t work! – flat battery. Fortunately, half an hour’s charge with the solar panels was enough to get us started.
After 2 nights at Honfleur we set off for Mont St Michell. This time the drive was spectacular. Roof off, in the sun, no rush. A real joy. We drove through village after village, all with old beam style houses. Bags of character. Saw a particularly odd “water sphere” on a roundabout in one town.
Rocking up at the campsite at Mont St Michelle today, we were a little more savvy than last time, though we still made mistakes. We realised that electricity was only an extra 2 Euros per day, but still turned it down assuming we didn’t need it.
(all parked and ready to unpack)
We managed with little effort to get the tent up and complete within less than 30 minutes this time!
(Notice the solar panels in the dash board of the car.. they usually sit up outside)
It turns out we are a lot close to Mont St Michell than we thought. I went for a walk around the site, and after about 20 paces was this view….
Not bad! – we are planning to walk to it tomorrow.
All said and done, we are loving the camping so far. We’ve already made one compromise though… we now have ELECTRICITY! – I noticed the power supplies on the pitch next to us so we bought the relevant cables. Having the laptop going flat all the time was becoming a pain, and we can also use our electric mosquito repeller now. And we need it! – both got several huge bites already. I felt a sting half an hour ago and looked down to see a monster of a mozzie sucking my blood. Can’t have that and the normal mosquito coils that burn don’t seem such a good idea in a tent…..
Loving it and looking forward to scouring France for adventure and views.
A Tout a l’heur!
Update – well, we don’t get much access to the web so here is my next instalment….
Mont St Michell – Impressive sight – I’ve been there before , can’t remember when. We took a stroll (climb) up to the abbey at the top but bailed out of going in as they wanted 9 Euros each. Bit of a rip off and we aren’t really churchy people
We didn’t stay long. I guess we are culturally vacuous. Maybe an hour! : - ) – was a good healthy walk though – about a mile from the campsite.
On our walk back we decided there was little point staying any longer so we packed up. We’ve got it down to under an hour now. Off we went, in search of a bit more sun. We got caught in some rain in Honfleur. It started drizzling so we got in the tent and closed the “doors”. I made a comment about hoping we got some “proper” rain to test the tent out. I got what I wished for – it absolutely chucked it down, so much so that it started coming in where the zips meet the fabric in places. Nothing problematic, but we certainly had to make damn sure the ground sheet was inside the fly sheet. Not seen rain like that in a while…
All packed… and nowhere to go. No plan of course – we must get better at this. We grabbed the map and picked the Loire Valley as it’s further south (better weather) and of course famous for its river and chateaus. Randomly, we decided to head for the river near Angers as it seemed a feasible distance and kind of in the right place. We had a super drive down. Half on fast dual carriageways with the hood up, and half down lovely country roads with the hood down. I’ve found I can’t fling the car round roundabouts at speed as the front wheels skip – there is so much weight on the boot. Ahh well.
One of the odd things about this region we have discovered is that it doesn’t get dark until about 11pm. This gives the great advantage that you don’t need to worry about arriving at your next campsite early to pitch up. The disadvantage, is that the sun doesn’t really seem to work until about 11am.
We got to our target campsite just below Angers mid afternoon, and being the experienced campers (tenters!) we now are, we took a stroll around to check it out. A good move. It was all neat and sectioned off with hedges like the previous ones, but it lacked the image we had of camping by the river – which was 40 yards away across a large concrete road. It just wasn’t right so we grabbed the map and then decided to drive along the North bank of the river and picked another camp site from the Michelin guide and headed for that (at La Rosiere). En-route we passed several other campsites which we made a mental note of.
The camp site at Les Rosier was another Michelin 4 star jobby, and to be honest, after strolling around, we both agreed it had a very “Butlins” feel to it. All very neat and sectioned off, with big pools and lots of families. We’ve already had our fill of these affairs. It’s just too “camping for the sake of camping”. You end up enclosed in a fake world. SO we headed back up the river to check out one of the other sites we passed. This move proved to be a breakthrough. We are now pitched by the river, in a fairly empty field at a place called La Menitre. There is no swimming pool, no games room, no restaurant. There is however a wooden hut that serves draught cold beer, frites and chicken, there is also a shower block and the use of a freezer for the ice blocks we now use as my electric fridge kills the car in 10 minutes flat. We also have electricity!
The whole feeling is far more “back to nature”. It’s peaceful, apart from a rave a neighbour had last night and it’s very green. Honest camping I’d call it.
(That’s the Loire!)
The host is a lovely French lady who seems to run the place with her husband and lives in a static home in a hedge. They held a Spanish evening last night, with tables laid under the trees, serving fantastic looking Paella accompanied by a mad French guitarist who was supposed to be playing flamenco but most definitely wasn’t.
We hadn’t made reservations so we sat near by and ate frites and pizza but the husband of the outfit plied us with plenty of free sangria (possibly the most alcoholic version we’ve ever tried!) and proclaimed to me he was the “champion de sangria”. Great fun. We sat and got sozzled watching the locals (the guests all seemed to be from the local village) dance and clap to the music.
(I can’t do clever shots of sunsets with our compact camera so I got creative and hid the sun behind a sign! : - ) )
(Or another trick is to avoid the sun altogether! – the sky was so lilac I wish I could have captured it)
(We left the big Canon DSLR in England – it’s just too heavy and bulky. *sob*… )
The price is cheap too! – we have so far been paying about 22 Euros a day for a pitch with power on the “mega sites”. This one comes in at 6 Euros a day with power. The one further down the road that we poo-pooed was 35 a day!
So lesson learnt – ignore the guide book and just keep an eye out for “country” sites.
Our French is coming on well. We set the sat-nav to French the moment we set off. The upshot is we can now give and receive directions fluently! - Apres huit cent metre, traverse le rond point, deusiemme sortie, prui, alle tu driot! - more useful that you think : - ) - the rest is coming on well too. We hope to grab a dictionary today as we have big gaps in our vocab – though it’s Sunday so the only thing open seems to be the church. Talking of which, up next is a drive down the road to look at some famous abbeys and chateaus.
p.s. sitting with my coffee tying away, overlooking the Loire with an Abbey on the other side – not bad hey!!?! : - )
So next day! – We went on a little sight seeing trip today. We headed down the Loire to see Gennes and Saumur. On the way , keeping an eye out for a good café, all the while overtaking the Tour De France and trying not to kill them, we happened across a small market affair lining the road. People selling various farm produce and local wines – with lots of tasting going on. An easy decision to stop really. Had a lovely coffee and sat and watched the French taste wine with overly pursed lips and an air of seriousness , accompanied by lots of kissing. Nice start to the day.
Gennes was fairly uneventful. We went there as we read there are Roman ruins. We got to the entrance and a lone fat Frenchman with a scary looking skin condition was sitting at a desk. 6 Euro later he asked if we needed a guided tour. After establishing that it was free he told us it would be about 10 minutes.
10 Minutes later, he locked the gate and the tour proceeded, him being the guide. Not sure what the 10 minute wait was for. Interesting but we’ve seen far better amphitheatres. He was entertaining though and it was a nice way to spend the morning.
After that we headed to Saumur – famous for it’s sparkling wine. Very picturesque, with the Chateau dominating the skyline.
We had a good look around the outside (3 Euros each again. Nothing here is for free) – we couldn’t go inside as they are restoring it. After that it was a hearty lunch in the main square by the bridge, some bread shopping, and now we are back on the site drinking beers from our fridge that I have truly got a handle on now.
I’ve sussed the secret of solar power – use it when the sun is out.
(The Loire is a very flat area)
Oh – we have once again fallen into the silly accent trap – neither of us can help talking in an “Allo Allo” accent most of the time. It’s tiring at times but you just can’t ‘elp it.
Talking about accents, I missed a great opportunity for hilarity today. I was putting our ice block in the freezer at the camp site entrance when a car and caravan arrived. The clearly English woman said to me (imagine very poor French in a very English accent), “Bonjour – et tu have un pitch for le caravan?” – Now I could have replied along the lines of, “Pardon, parlez vous Francais, je ne compronde pas!”, or, “Pardon? My eengleesh iz not so well, you ‘ave to talk slow wiz me.”, and then broken into fluent English. Alas , I’m not that quick on my feet. I said, “you are English! So am I”. Sigh.
Another update - went to Angers today in search of books (French language) and wifi. Unbelievably we could not find wifi anywhere. We ended up driving round local villages with the laptop open searching for unsecured networks. Found one in the end, in a tiny village. Just as I was about to update the blog it chucked it down so we had to run :- ( . Got back to the site and the wind and rain had collapsed part of our tent and ripped a hole. We are off to the deep south in search of better weather!