After we left Moissac, Mary decided that it was time she branched out on her own and did a bit of solo exploring. France is a wonderful country for motorhomers and you are spoiled for choice with numerous places to park up for the night in small towns, villages and near interesting places. We use the Camper Contact App on our phones most of the time when we’re looking for places to stay so, after making sure that she had the app ready for action, her satnav was in a forgiving mood and she was well stocked with plenty of chocolate, we bid Mary farewell and set off through the Dordogne valley. We arranged to meet up in three days in a village called Nieul, just north of Limoges – chosen simply because it was in a good position, had plenty of space for motorhomes and it could be approached from several angles.
Mary decided to stay one more night in Moissac and have a haircut before launching herself out into the great unknown. We, on the other hand, decided we were ready to explore the region and set off straight away. It turned out, as is so often the case, that Mary made a grand success of her three days of solo motorhoming, finding lovely places to stay and thoroughly enjoying herself. Caumont sur Garonne was on the canal side, next to the towpath with beautiful trees and barges on the water. Sorges had a truffle museum, if that’s your thing, and was easy to find and the parking was right next to a park. For Mary the only drawback was that she couldn’t get a phone signal to tell us that she was safe and well. We just assumed that she had found someone interesting to chat to or maybe even elope with – we can always let our imaginations run riot.
We, on the other hand, made a proper dog’s breakfast of our first day, trying three separate places that were no use at all before landing up in the lovely little town of Villefranche du Perigord, a thoroughly delightful Mediaeval town with beautiful motorhome parking beside a lake. Our route took us through tiny towns, along narrow and winding roads and up hill and down dale. We were knackered by the time we stopped and slept like dead things.
The next stop, in Montignac, has already been mentioned as the place where I drenched myself at the service point and pumped gallons of water all over the place before pleading for help from a Frenchman who found it difficult to contain his amusement. We will draw a veil over that and move on.
Finally we stopped at a small town called Lanouaille, where the sat nav suddenly began to mimic our bad language … or so we thought.
The day the satnav got her own back
If truth be told we often swear at the satnav. We tell her to shut up, we ignore her, we laugh at her for her appalling pronunciations of place names, we give her dog’s abuse and sometimes we tell her she’s done well. Her pronunciations have been so appalling on this trip that we’ve often been unable to work out what she was saying. No doubt the idea is that the speaker pronounces foreign place names phonetically but we can’t understand why the word General, which is almost the same in English and French, could feasibly be pronounced with a hard G. Perhaps we were getting a bit irritable with all the narrow, winding roads and perhaps we had begun to believe that she isn’t very efficient but we were completely floored when, on approaching Lanouaille, she said, “Turn right on Avenue Thomas Robert buggered.” We gasped! Did we hear that right? Plenty of time to check it because she repeats herself every hundred yards for about a mile before a turning. We waited. “In 200 yards, turn right on Avenue Thomas Robert buggered.” We were rendered hysterical and had to drive almost blinded by tears of mirth into the aire and park up. Looking at the road name it turns out that the word she was pronouncing so brilliantly wrongly was Bugeaud. It made our day.
The weather takes a downturn and we take a north turn
On Friday afternoon we met up in Nieul. Mary was delighted by her hair cut, her adventures and the fact that her satnav took her faithfully to everywhere she needed to go. Full of new found confidence she is now planning future trips and so we’ve opened a book on whether she will actually return to the UK when we do. We know so well that feeling, just before you leave France, that maybe another few weeks wouldn’t be a bad idea at all.
We’d been discussing the fact that the afternoons were still blisteringly hot and yet we’re waking up to very chilly vans in the mornings and walking the dogs in the fog. Should we have stayed south just a little longer? Then, the day we left Nieul we were shocked to find that the hot afternoons simply disappeared and it stayed cool all day. The gas heating was on every time we stopped, we were driving with the van heat on full blast and the windscreen was fogging up repeatedly. The winter was here in a flash. Other parts of France had snow and with the clock change came the long dark nights. On previous longer trips we would be well south by now, heading for the sun soaked south of Portugal or Spain but this year we are keen to get home. Christmas at home for the first time in three years and a new apartment await us, so for the first time the temptation to stay away is nowhere to be found.
Moving steadily north we stopped at Chateauroux, a place that sounds like it should be resplendent with ancient buildings. In fact we were beside the road, next to a boulodrome (bowling alley) and at first it seemed that we had landed in the most uninteresting aire of the trip. Fortunately we quickly discovered a beautiful park with lakes, streams and acres of tree lined paths. We set off around the park with two happy pups in tow, got lost fairly quickly (yes it was that big) and finally made our way back to the gates where we found a café with outdoor tables and rewarded ourselves with beer. Sometimes just a good walk in the fresh air is all you need to cheer you up and we settled in for an evening of watching TV online. Thank you Vodafone! Shirley has an extraordinarily huge amount of data on her phone and it can be used abroad as a wifi hotspot for no extra charge. Nothing like Saturday evening in front of the TV with rain pounding on the roof to make you feel glad to be indoors.
The next morning, waking up to changed clocks, drizzle and cold we began to admit to one another that it really was time to head home. Touring in this weather is no fun at all. After a lot of discussion we decided to try to cheer ourselves up and head for Azay le Rideau, a beautiful little town in the Loire Valley that has a paid aire with electricity and plenty to see in the town. We’ve been before so we knew that the way into the aire involves driving through the very narrow streets. What we didn’t expect was to find access to the centre of town barred because of a festival that very day. Drenched local police were manfully manning the barriers and despite following a diversion we had no idea how to get to the aire. Eventually we remembered that it was at the other end of town and we circled it and drove in from the north. We might have broken a few rules of the road, ignored some one way signs and frightened a few old ladies but we managed to get into the aire and squelch through the mud after fighting with the impossibly complicated barrier. This is a Pass d’Etapes aire and the first time you use them you buy a plastic card that can be loaded up with money in advance to pay for your stay. Mary had never used one before so Shirley took on the daunting task of understanding the instructions. They are in English but it isn’t English as we know it. After being instructed to edge nearer and nearer the barrier, the machine finally said that it didn’t recognise the card it had just given her. Eventually, with three heads trying to solve the puzzle we found out it had to be reinserted in order to be validated. Finally the barrier opened and Mary could get in and park beside us in the heavy rain. Here I attempted to fill the water tanks and got another drenching – what is it with me and hoses?
The next morning we were amazed to wake up to find that it wasn’t raining – freezing cold but more or less dry – so we decided to walk into town to see what delights were on offer. How could we have forgotten that France closes down on Mondays? Actually it closes down on Sundays, Mondays, feast days and in some places any time outside of June to September. Am I starting to sound peevish? We found a coffee shop where I ordered hot chocolate, causing a stir of confusion to my travelling companions. I never drink drinking chocolate but today I was in the mood for one. When the drinks arrived and they saw the size of their ‘grand cafés’ – tiny – and tasted their strength – lethal – they probably had drink envy but neither of them was going to admit it. I savoured my large, frothy, creamy chocolate and sighed.
The river walk at Azay le Rideau is lovely and the town is gorgeous in sunshine – don’t let me put you off… really. It’s great in summer and the chateau is beautiful, if a little pricey. We were too mean to pay to go in, partly because we couldn’t have enjoyed the grounds in the rain. Another afternoon was spent reading, knitting and cosying down in our respective vans before we got ready to leave the next day.
At the service point in the morning we met a lovely couple just setting off on their adventure in Europe. Jess and Mike, if you’re reading this please do get in touch to let us know how you are doing.
Time to go home
We decided that we would change our tunnel crossing, bringing it forward a week and set about the task of trying to get both vans onto the same train. This proved to be impossible with several calls and on-line chats ending up with Mary paying an extra £35 that she didn’t need to and the woman on the helpline being helpless to help her retrieve it. We were less than happy and I feel one of my blistering complaint letters coming on. It wasn’t that they didn’t do their job properly, just that the bookings are live and therefore the second place was no longer available by the time we tried to book it about a nanosecond later. I won’t bore you with the details, just be aware that travelling in convoy on the tunnel is not easy to book as they won’t take both bookings from the same person.
So, here we are in Neufchatel en Bray where we end every trip with a visit to the vet for the dogs’ passports to be stamped, a stay in the fabulous aire here and the time to write this final post. We love it here. The town is interesting, the Voie Verte is right next door, the aire is classy and the vets are great. We have less than 48 hours left in La Belle France and, despite my grumbles of the last few days, we love this country almost as much as we love Scotland. Perhaps it was a good thing to discover that they get weather that’s just as grim as we do in Scotland. It will help us to remember that in February when we’re wondering why the heck we’re still in the UK when Portugal will be in sunshine – if indeed we haven’t hopped back on the ferry in January.
Thank you for following us so faithfully on our travels and Au Revoir until the next time.