Driving through France and stopping in Aires de Camping Cars is a big part of the adventure for us. We like to find new and interesting places and take a peek into the lives of ordinary people living in the ordinary towns and villages that often provide these small oases of rest for us. Marboué was just such a place and we went to bed that night imagining that we would stroll around the park in the morning, bid a cheery good morning to the French dog walkers, go to the Artisan Boulangerie first thing and then drive off into the blue skies of France. We woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of unbelievably heavy rain pounding our roof and, after falling back into a fitful sleep, resurfaced in the morning to find that it was still hammering down and bouncing off every available surface. The small road beside us was underwater, the many motorhomes who had arrived after dark were all trying to clear the condensation from their windscreens before setting off and the dogs stood at the door sighing because they knew their only chance of emptying their tanks was to get a thorough soaking. Shirley took them out for as short a time as was decently possible then I rubbed them down with a towel (the dogs not Shirley), put up with Boo’s growling because he’s a grumpy old man and doesn’t like anyone touching his feet and began to get the van ready for take off. In this case it meant going out into the downpour to hitch up to the trailer whilst wondering what on earth made us think it was a good idea to unhitch it the night before. However, we had a problem. Under cover of darkness, an enormous motorhome had parked up right next to the trailer – as in almost touching its side. We couldn’t hitch it up without shifting it slightly to the right because the road in front was too narrow to reverse on to it without falling into the aforementioned ditches. In the meantime the huge motorhome was sitting with its engines running clearly waiting for us to shift the trailer. It was a British motorhome and I could have gone over to speak to him to explain that we were in a Mexican stand off but his windows were so misted up I didn’t think I could attract his attention from outside. The size of his mahoosive motorhome meant that his driver’s window was above the level of my head. In the meantime the rain continued to slash down and two motorhomes sat running their engines and constantly wiping condensation from the windows, only to watch it form again in moments despite the cab heating going full blast. Eventually, Shirley reversed our van a few feet and stopped again and the massive motorhome decided to move so that we could leap out into the rain, turn the trailer 45 degrees so that Shirley could reverse onto the hitch. We’ve got this part of the process off to a fine art so we were hitched up and ready to go in moments. I stood like a drowned telly tubby in my long red cycling cape checking that the lights on the trailer were working and then leapt into the van drenched and shivering.
Using our trusty Camper Contact App on the phone, we chose St Amand de Montrond for our next stop. At this point I must report a small misunderstanding on Shirley’s part that had us both in kinks of laughter. Usually it’s me that uses the app but today Shirley said she would like a shot at finding our next spot. Unknown to her, the app is written in Dutch with the option to have English translations. She was using her big map book alongside the app to get an idea of where the possible options might be. After a few minutes of grumbling and huffing I asked her what the problem was. She said, “I’ve found a nice aire but I can’t find it on the map. There are no French towns called Frankrijk.” I made my reply carefully so as not to hurt her feelings but the truth is harsh. “Frankrijk is Dutch for France Petal. Try looking at the name of the town just before it in the address.” What a good thing we share a sense of humour. For most of the journey one or other of us would say “Frankrijk” and we’d start laughing again.
Several years ago we visited the town of St Amand de Montrond when it had a tiny aire on the banks of the canal right in the centre. We remembered fondly a gorgeous sunny day, a lovely view and a walk round a friendly little town. The app informed us that they have created a new aire on the outskirts near a large leisure lake and beside some handily placed shops. There is a free bus into the town that runs from April until October 31st, which by chance was the very day we arrived. We approached with something resembling optimism, despite the thick cloud cover and the fact that we had the van heating going full blast. The aire is a good one, fabulous for walkers, runners and dog owners, with its access to the country park and the 5km walk around the lake on purpose built, traffic free paths. I reversed the van and trailer into a corner spot where there was enough length for the whole rig, taking it gently and making sure we were well tucked in. If you’ve ever reversed a trailer, you will know that it is far from easy, especially when you have to turn the wheel the opposite way to the way you normally would and then perform a strange wig-wagging motion to stop the damned thing jack-knifing whilst at the same time avoiding running over your nearest and dearest who is innocently trying to guide you into a small space. I was delighted with my efforts until I realised that I’d forgotten what side the habitation door is on and getting in and out involved negotiating a prickly hedge.
We did a little shopping, filled up the tanks, took a short walk and settled in for the night, once more ending the day with optimistic thoughts of a sunny day ahead waiting to greet us when we woke up. Sadly reality brought the sound of more rain on the roof and we reluctantly decided to move on, thinking that south surely means better weather.
Before long we were on the road in the direction of Clermont Ferrand, rain still hammering down when it came to our reluctant notice that we were running low on diesel. Using the satnav to find a service station just north of Orleans, we got another soaking filling up, got entangled with dozens of truckers on a huge roundabout that appeared to have trucks turning full circles just for the hell of it and finally shot out onto the motorway heading south. Surely we would drive out of the rain soon?
Our plan was to head south on the Clermont Ferrand to Montpelier motorway that takes you over the Millau bridge. This route is spectacular, the motorway is free once you pass Clermont until you get to the bridge and you can stop just north of it to see it in all its magnificent glory. There is a toll for the bridge but it’s worth it just for the experience. Thankfully we’ve done it before because it wasn’t happening this time.
We stopped in the town of Issoire in the Puy de Dome region. The Aire de Camping Cars is purpose built on the edge of the town. It’s right next door to a small supermarket and there is an outside laundromat for good measure. Stay and services are free and the short walk into town gives you plenty to interest you if you like small independent shops, old churches and good café bars. We opted for the latter and had beer (Shirley) and Viennese hot chocolate (guess who?) before doing our laundry and having a pleasant political discussion with a friendly Dutch woman who was heading home after spending several weeks in Spain. The sight of her suntan gave us hope that there is warm weather to be found somewhere.
We planned to stay two nights until we looked at the weather forecast. Really bad weather was heading our way and massive gusts of wind made the route over the Millau Bridge clearly impractical. The rain we thought we had left behind was intent on following us and we were feeling throughly fed up. So far in France we have been cold, muddy and drenched. In the meantime the Scottish Borders are bathed in sunshine. Jings! (translation from the Scots “I don’t bxxxxy believe it”)
Driving off the aire in Issoire we noticed that the fuel gauge was reading zero and the warning light was flashing. There were only two possible explanations for this. Either the gauge was faulty or somehow someone had managed to syphon off the diesel during the night. The latter seemed unlikely as it’s a locked cap but sense told us that we had no choice other than find yet another fuel station to fill it up, just in case. Driving into the petrol station we found a queue of French cars waiting patiently behind a lady who appeared to have OCD and was checking and double checking everything before putting her debit card into the machine. This delay meant that our trailer was half way out into the road and we caused a traffic holdup that may well have trailed back as far as Paris for all the time she took. Slightly sheepishly we eventually got onto the pumps and watched dozens of vehicles snake their way past us with barely concealed irritation. On filling up we discovered that it was the gauge that was faulty as it took less than half a tank so as we pulled away we agreed that we would fill up every two hundred miles or so, to be on the safe side. Half a mile later I looked down to find the petrol gauge was back in action, registering full and smirking apologetically. When you get to the age that our van is, a few off-days are inevitable. Let’s hope they’re not too frequent.
For anyone who likes maps, here is a link to our route as far as Issoire.
Plan B was to head east through the mountains of the Puy region to a stop in Pradelles where the local Charcuterie has a rather splendid motorhome aire complete with electricity for the grand total of 2€ a night. Without electric it is free to stay but frankly, given the cold nights up in the mountains, it would be madness to refuse it. On the way we stopped in a picnic area to take some photos, mostly because the sun had come out for the first time since we came over from the UK. It was gorgeous up there, spectacular views, bright sunshine and absolute quiet.
Our spirits lifted as we motored the last few miles to our stop for the night and we parked up, bought some sausages, wine and paté from the shop and paid our 2€ for a night of luxury … charging everything, heating the van with electricity and having all the lights on.
This morning we woke up to howling gales, thunder and lightning, hailstones and freezing temperatures. Boo is scared of loud noises (he’s well named eh?) and so far he’s been too frightened to stay outside long enough to do a poo. He’ll have to give in eventually but at the moment he’s staying put. His eyes are crossed but otherwise he seems ok.