We left Watten Aire in the sunshine after talking to a man who had been there for four weeks. He had driven over from the UK in his big twin axle A class motorhome and settled down 25 miles from the English Channel for his holiday. He loved it there. He knew all the staff in the café-bars, the aire was beautifully positioned on the canal side, there was everything he needed nearby and he’d made some friends. The sun was shining and he was happy. He was doing the motorhoming thing his way. Most aires state a maximum stay of 48 hours but no-one seemed to object to him moving in for a long stay. This is probably because the main season is over and everywhere is quieter and more relaxed. There was also the possibility that single handedly he was keeping the profits up in the local bars, judging by his intimate knowledge of them. The town would be happy and so was he.
We headed south with the idea of staying on an aire at St Quentin. Driving in convoy is very different to travelling alone. You really have to decide in advance on your stop for the night and agree to meet there if your travelling companions have any chance of seeing you again. Mary was still learning the ropes on the French roads and was following close behind, which turned out to be a good thing when we noticed a motorhome sign and followed it, making sure we had alerted her by flashing lights and indicating in good time. Our first thought was that this should be a good place to stop for brunch as we could be certain of long parking places. What we found was something a lot more interesting than a food stop. We had happened upon the Riqueval Bridge, a famous bridge over an amazing underground tunnel connecting the canal with the Seine river. It is famous for a WW1 battle in 1918 when the Germans had taken over the tunnel as a barracks with troops living in barges. The allies recaptured the tunnel, making this one of the most significant battles of the war. There is no ventilation in the tunnel so, not being able to use their engines, the only way for barges to get through is by being towed by toueurs – barges on winches that pull them through to the other side. The canal was silent, nestling in a deep ravine well below road level and we wandered along the bank feeling the eerie atmosphere of a place once full of the sounds of a life and death struggle.
It was almost like we had stepped back in time, the silence was profound and the ancient toueurs lay quietly in the water awaiting a new coat of paint. After a couple of miles we climbed up to road level, saw a bar and went in for a beer. The place was also ancient, a little ramshackle and typical of a French bar in bygone days. We were greeted warmly and quickly served with cool beer at old tables surrounded by posters from the 1960s. We could easily be convinced that our time travelling had only brought us part of the way back to 2018, except that the prices were unmistakably present day. We returned to the vans and settled in for the evening, watching a combine harvester trundling through the fields in front of us while we tucked into a vegetable casserole that had been cooking away in our Wonderbag as we travelled along. This is motorhoming in France at its best: unexpectedly coming across an interesting place where you are welcome to stay the night, walking in the afternoon sunshine, a cool French beer and returning to simple and wholesome food.
The next day we planned to go to Sézanne. We can no longer remember why we thought this was a good idea and it turns out that it wasn’t. First of all it was the first time that Mary decided to set off on her own, trusting her satnav to get her to the destination rather than following us. Different satnavs always suggest slightly different routes and she wanted to be sure that hers was actually doing what it was supposed to. It turned out that the drive was long and difficult involving, amongst other things, a drive through the centre of Epernay, a wrong turning for us in the middle of the town and a series of obscure instructions that made us unsure which of a number of exits we should take at several junctions. In the end we followed the lorries because we knew for sure that where they were going would always be suitable for our van. After driving for hours and not seeing Mary we decided to call her, hoping that she was standing still and could take our call. Just as well we did because to our surprise she was a) ahead of us and b) lost. By then we had found the Aire at Sézanne and discovered that it was a) full to bursting and b) sloping. The appeal of Sézanne was clear. There was free electricity and several vans were hitched up to a spaghetti tangle of wires and adapters trying to get the most of the free energy. A few texts later and we had agreed on another aire just up the road at Esternay, exchanged the co-ordinates and driven to the quiet town square to meet Mary, who was by then a bit overwhelmed and frazzled. I put my Mental Health First Aid into practice and went to buy us all a Magnum ice cream and we all relaxed. You heard it here first folks – if you’re stressed and anxious, sit down with good friends and eat ice cream and chocolate. The good friends are essential – the chocolate and ice cream an additional treat. Esternay is an attractive little town with a very dusty town square that welcomes motorhomes. The square is also used for Boules matches and we were entertained by several groups playing the game in the dust. Poppy and Boo returned from their walk covered in the stuff, making Boo the black poodle grey.
The next morning we set off for Chaource, famous for its cheese. Here we found yet another excellent Aire de Camping Cars, free to stay and a jeton for services. Chaource is a beautiful rural village with a handful of bars, restaurants, a fromagerie and a small Atac supermarket. Everything you could possibly want on warm autumn days in France is here. We went to the fromagerie immediately and bought some of the local cheese. It is creamy and tasty with a slightly salty flavour. It seems you can buy it in Waitrose in the UK. Not being a Waitrose kind of girl myself I wouldn’t know but Mr Google has kept me informed. The mystery of how to pronounce the place and indeed the cheese can be solved by Youtube. Remind me what we used to do before we had the Internet? We stayed for two nights, rested in the sun, ate in a local restaurant L’Auberge sans Nom (Inn without a name) and completely relaxed. Mary did some sketching and blew us away with her skill as always.
To be honest I think we could easily have stayed there in the sunshine, wandering the streets of the village and relaxing for many more days but this is a taster tour of French motorhoming for Mary and there was still a long way to go.
Chilled and definitely browner we set off for a night in Beaune to have an entirely different experience. Beaune Aire is in the city and consists of a huge bus and carpark where motorhomes are welcome to stay. Getting into a space is a challenge, especially for bigger vans but we’re always willing to offer free entertainment, which we did for four Danish motorhomers who stood with their coffee watching us do a twenty three point shuffle. We did get a muted round of applause … muted I think because they clearly weren’t certain what our mood was like and some of the words coming out of the cab are internationally understood. Mary’s van is shorter and she got in to hers without any problem at all. I should also mention that neither of our satnavs gave us sensible advice on how to get into the aire and we did three circuits of the town before we saw the signpost. This was especially galling as we had been here before and we had bragged to Mary that she only needed to follow us.
Beaune is beautiful, fascinating and well worth a visit. We were here two years ago on exactly the same date, the day before Shirley’s Birthday and we did the full tourist thing then. This time we walked through the town in the rain, began the birthday celebrations with outrageous cakes and coffees in an expensive patisserie and ended up in a wonderful art gallery and wine shop where the price of a bottle made our eyes water but the free display of art works by two local artists made us happier than a bottle of wine ever could. Back at the van we all shared huge omelettes and salad, drank our own considerably cheaper wine and retired to bed early in anticipation of Shirley’s Birthday.