There were a few places we really wanted to show Mary on our tour around France and one of them was Chusclan. This was one of the first Aires we ever tried and the generosity of the local wine co-operative amazed us. Since then we have visited many times and enjoyed their hospitality and some of their wine. We wanted to show Mary how special the place is and how a few days in the sunshine in rural France with very little to do, when all the essentials are provided, can be a real gift. The distance from the lovely vineyard near Lyon seemed a bit too much for us on our deliberately slow meander south, so we stopped half way at a little town called Claveyson. The only reason for choosing this place was its geographical position and even that turned out to be an error of judgment. The village is near the main roads south but getting to it was slow and hard work and involved a road block in the middle of a busy village. We had seen the diversion signs but had no way of knowing that they applied to us until it was too late. We ended up avoiding the village and driving along narrow tracks through corn fields before landing suddenly back on the road, having prayed fervently that we didn’t meet a tractor or a combine harvester on the way. Eventually we arrived in Claveyson and found a hot, sun soaked village square with water and waste for motorhomes and very little else.
There was a boy hiding in the shade on a park bench waiting until the school bus brought the other kids back – we recognised the signs of skipping school as he attached himself to the others and strolled up the road as though nothing had happened. After getting ourselves settled, we set off into the village to attempt to spend a little money, as the etiquette of free stopovers for motorhomes suggests. There was literally nothing open, in fact it looked like the only surviving shops were a Tabac and a hairdresser. The Tabac was closed and we didn’t need a haircut so we just went for a walk. Even this didn’t offer much as the village was small and led to miles of country lanes with no safe place to walk. The only sign of life, once the school kids had disappeared, was a pair of massive German Shepherd dogs bringing the place down from an upstairs balcony every time they caught sight of us. They had a rather neat synchronised bark going on where they took it in turns, presumably to save their voices.
In fact there were so few people apparently alive there that they might have been shouting for help. Having said that, we are grateful for the generosity of the town that welcomes strangers to sleep peacefully in their town square and fill and empty their water tanks for no charge at all.
The next day we headed for Chusclan, continuing on our, ‘let’s try the route without going on the toll roads’ approach. About half way there, we passed through the town of Tourettes, which was quite timely as Shirley had lost patience with all the roundabouts and was liberally spraying the air a delicate shade of blue. After meandering our way into the wide open space of the Chusclan Aire de Camping Cars we finally agreed that saving money by not using toll roads is probably a fool’s game. We had been driving for almost an hour longer that we would have done if we’d used the motorway and given that diesel is now liquid gold in France, costing a horrifying amount of money per litre, our plan to save money this way was clearly not working.
We spent three lovely restful nights beside the Cave at Chusclan, buying some of our favourite ‘Enfant Terrible’ variety and a box of rosé to enjoy during the trip. We’ve never been big rosé wine fans but, according to Jean-Jacques the Vigneron at Domaine Paire, the French are drinking more and more of it, inspiring good wine producers to make different and better varieties. Both the Domaine Paire and the Chusclan rosé is excellent – just in case you get a chance to try some. After we had done our civic duty and repaid the Cave for it’s hospitality we set about doing the important stuff – not very much. It was very hot in Chusclan and we managed to park our vans in such a way that we had a sheltered space between us to get out of the sun. On the first evening we were sitting eating dinner in our little cool space when a local lady came by selling goats cheese that she had made herself and fresh eggs. Shirley squealed with delight and bought two small circles of the cheese. I went inside to find a sealed container – that stuff smells dreadful but Shirley tells me it is wonderful. I’ll take her word for it.
The next day we strolled into the village, had a coffee in the only café bar and bought some fruit and vegetables from the stall that is set up every day in the small village square. We then meandered down to the river bank and let the dogs splash around in the sparkling water before returning to the vans and our original positions of feet up reading a book.
As the day wore on the wind picked up until we were forced to stow every moveable object away. Looking at the weather forecast we saw to our dismay that the Mediterranean coast of France was going to be hit by gusts of wind up to 75km an hour for the next few days. Knowing how unpleasant it is to drive along that coast in high winds we decided to move only a short distance to the town of Sommieres where the motorhome aire was described as sheltered and close to the centre of the mediaeval town. Here we could wait until the storm blew itself out and we could revert to our previous plans. The absolute best bit of this kind of touring is that you can change your mind on a whim, changing direction or even country without anything more than a look at a map and the weather forecast. We’re in no hurry and we’re loving the simple pleasures of just being.
The drive into the Sommieres aire was a real challenge. All the roads in the town are very narrow and the authorities have made a one way system that makes no sense to visitors. Neither of our satnavs were up to date enough to know the new one way system and we found ourselves driving painstakingly slowly through tiny streets and eventually along the side of the river and up a steep slope into the motorhome parking. This clearly wasn’t the right way but we could see the other motorhomes and we were desperate. The slope was so steep and uneven that we bottomed our rear steadies and made a terrific screeching noise all the way up it. Passers by stood with their mouths open as we scratched our way to the top and we just kept going – nothing else for it. So the first task on arrival, after parking up and tucking into our Sunday Bunday treats, was to walk the streets and find the way out. It only took us three days and a visit to the tourist office but by the time we left we knew how to get out without going through the same miserable process again.
We spent three peaceful nights on the parking at Sommieres. We ate good ice cream, went out for a fabulous pizza dinner, found Lidl (Hurray!) and wandered the streets of the beautiful mediaeval town. To get into the old town you walk through an archway and find yourself in winding cobbled streets.
There are old shops, several chocolatiers, restaurants and café bars where you can have a beer and watch the world go by. At the other end of the old town you can walk through another ancient archway and find yourself on the banks of the river where a bridge takes you to the more modern area. It’s a real gem and an unexpectedly pleasant find. There is also an ancient chateau up a steep hill in the town It’s closed in October but you can walk around its walls and look out over the pantile roof tops and out over the surrounding area.
If you can cope with the fact that the motorhome parking is right next to a school where the sound of excited children wakes you at 8 a.m. then Sommieres has much to recommend it.
By Wednesday the high winds in the region had settled down and we planned our escape. Choosing our moment carefully we drove out of the packed motorhome area, took two sharp left turns, drove through a car park and we were on the road, next stop somewhere near Carcassone.
Here the tale becomes a little bit bizarre. On tour, I often do research into places to stop and then we all discuss the pros and cons of the different options. Visiting Carcassone was a one of our huffties (translation: We hufftie go there) Mary had never been and we knew she would love it. We looked at the options for motorhome aires and didn’t like the idea of the new one in Carcassone itself. According to the description it was expensive, a longish walk from the citadel and for the princely sum of 16€ a night you only got one 10 minute use of the services. Value for money it was not so we decided to try an aire within a reasonable drive of the city. We hit upon a place called Lagrasse that looked to be not far from the road and had good reviews. When we finally – and painfully after many winding turns and bumpy roads – limped into Lagrasse it was dry and dusty, expensive and full of flies. We left again, turning back to a little town called St. Laurent where the local cave allows motorhomes to stay. We arrived there, pulled up and bought a bottle of wine.
The age old wisdom that there is no point having regrets after the fact did not come to my aid. I had done the maths in my head and worked out that we had used expensive diesel in two vehicles in order to save ourselves a few Euros in the Carcassone aire and we would still have to pay to park when we got there. I felt a bit silly but my lovely travelling companions reassured me that this is all about the journey and then they fed me wine and chocolate. How lucky am I?
More on the long and winding roads the next time …
By the way, it’s very hot here. I mean really hot … 30 degrees inside the van hot.
Apologies to those of you feeling the cold at home. Au revoir mes amis!