We left Cormatin in Burgundy on Monday morning to set off across the centre of France towards the Loire. The Camper Contact app on the phone told us about a great Aire de Camping Car in the town of Moulins. Apparently it was once a municipal camping site and has since been made into a big Aire with space for forty motorhomes. What a great place for a stopover it turned out to be! They charge 10c per hour to park there – making a 24 hour stop just 2.40€. The site is on the banks of the river L’Allier and a brisk walk over a bridge takes you right into the centre of the town.
Electric hookups are available at a cost but we rarely need to hook up, given our solar panel, two big batteries and Gaslow, refillable gas system. The only thing we carry with us that can’t be charged by the 12v system is our electric toothbrushes. Oddly enough, trying to charge them on an inverter causes the charger to turn up its toes and die. Other than that we are pretty self sufficient so we were free to park up away from the main group of motorhomes in a quiet spot right at the end of the site. There was only one small drawback – the service points were of the modern complicated variety. We were going to have to work out how to use them but it could wait until the next morning.
It was a lovely sunny afternoon when we arrived so we turned round the front seats, opened some windows, put the dogs leads on and went off to explore the town. Moulins is a mixture of ancient historic buildings, including two twin towered churches and a modern, pedestrianised shopping area with loads of cafés and restaurants. At least we thought it was pedestrianised until Shirley found herself strolling along with a BMW dangerously close to her bahookie. Back at the van we set our chairs on the huge patch of grass beside the motorhome, read our books, drank beer and agreed that this Aire is up there with our favourites. It didn’t take long to decide to stay a second night and enjoy the great mixture of relaxation and an interesting town to explore.
Using the service point the next morning was less complicated than we feared but it was still a challenge. First of all you had to go to a machine outside the gates and use your credit card to buy jetons (tokens). One token (2€) opens the side of the service point and gives you access to toilet emptying and rinsing and also fresh water for the tank. Your token works for 20 minutes, which seemed at the start to be a ridiculously long time just to clean out the chemical toilet cassette and put 100 litres of water in your tank. It was only when we discovered the incredibly low water pressure that we understood why it was set for such a long time. The first hurdle was to get the door open – the jeton was in but the door stayed firmly closed. Then we noticed a button with the word ‘porte’ next to it. We pushed the button and open sesame – we were in. To be frank we don’t like this style of service point. Ok there are two obviously different hoses, one above the loo drop to rinse the cassette and one higher up in a plastic holder for fresh water – what we didn’t like was that the fresh water hose has been sharing the same air space as the guff from the toilet contents. Call us fussy if you like but we made an instant decision to use bottled water to drink and clean our teeth until we’ve had chance to put water cleaning stuff through the system. All systems filled and available for use, we put the van back on our quiet little corner, walked the dogs for a second time and then left them to sleep while we set off back into town.
We were on a mission. A mission that was the result of a major packing error. We didn’t bring enough clothes with us… really, I’m telling the truth. Unlike every other trip in our lives, we under packed. When we were getting ready we were worried about the weight of the van. We were pretty close to our maximum laden weight and – I might as well be honest – we wanted to bring some wine back with us. With hindsight, this was a bit daft. A few items of clothing don’t weigh very much – not when the total weight of the van and contents can be 3,900 kgs. After a couple of weeks it became obvious that we’d underestimated and that we were spending too much time wondering where we could do our washing. So, we went off into town to buy a couple of T shirts and a hat for Shirley. How could we have forgotten her cap with a skip? She was bereft without it. Obviously there will have to be other shopping trips, as two T shirts and a hat aren’t going to fix the problem, but we thought we’d start small. No point overdoing things is there? We got exactly what we wanted without any difficulty, even though we had to speak French to get them. The only thing that was a bit of a puzzle was being asked by the assistant if we would like a ‘petit sac’ to carry the t shirts in, saying ‘oui merci’ because we’d left our large collection of shopping bags securely packed in a locker in the van and being given the T shirts tightly bundled into a tiny paper carrier bag that would more usefully have held a pair of socks. Next time I’ll ask for a ‘grand sac’. Flush with success at managing to speak French and make ourselves understood, we headed for the boulangerie and bought an indecent amount of food, took it back to the van to have lunch al fresco looking out over the river.
So, it’s a big plus for the Aire at Moulins. We can recommend it thoroughly. We’ll be back – as the big bloke said.
All human life is here
Wednesday we were up and ready for the off in good time and somehow found our way round the peculiar road system to get out of Moulins and head west. We stopped at a Lidl for some groceries then at Leclerc petrol station for LPG – actually it’s called GPL in France – and then off towards Bourges for a night in the Aire there which is advertised as a ‘tree lined avenue close to the city centre’. ‘How lovely’, we thought as we bowled through the flat rural centre of France. How wrong we turned out to be. Yes the road set aside for motorhome parking is indeed tree lined but most of the trees have a white band painted on them with the word condemned painted across it. There were loads of people parked there but they weren’t just motorhomes. There were caravans, tents, anonymous looking white vans, loads of dogs and kids and men apparently servicing cars on the side of the road. Bedding was spread around along with some unpleasant looking heaps of something we couldn’t identify. We gave the dogs a quick pee stop, ate some bread and cheese and were back on the road before you could say ‘traveller’s site’. Maybe it’s an unfair judgment to think that sharing our night halt with some travellers is a bad idea but we didn’t feel comfortable, which is good enough reason to move on.
Thirty miles up the road is an Aire we’ve stayed on before, in the little medieval town of Mennetou sur Cher. It’s a cute little place, with both the Cher river and a canal running through it and the motorhome parking is between the two.
It was hot when we arrived and we were a bit travel weary so we strolled down to the river bank with the dogs to cool off. Poppy took that literally and threw herself into the water, paddling and drinking all at the same time in a delighted frenzy. Boo just stood at the side and watched her with his supercilious face on. When he looks like that we call him Norbert. It was cool and shady by the water so I suggested that I pop back to the van, collect our folding chairs and books so that we could relax for a while.
When I got back to the van I became aware that an elderly lady was standing in her doorway in her nightgown about 20 yards away calling out in French. I had no idea what to do – for one thing she was calling Monsieur so I thought she had seen someone she knew but it was obvious that she was distressed and I couldn’t see anyone else around. I was in a dilemma. Ok I could possibly manage to speak some French to her but I was pretty sure that whatever was bothering her was beyond my ability to understand. It’s a horrible feeling, realising that someone needs your help and feeling unable to do anything useful. Eventually I realised there was a pharmacy nearby and was just about to run over there to get someone to come and help when a stream of people turned up from the houses around to help her. There was a lady in an overall, a man in a cap with a fag stuck to his bottom lip, a boy with a fishing rod and another extremely smart and elegant lady in high heels all huddled together trying to work out what the problem was. I left, feeling relieved, and went down to the river with the chairs, a bottle of water, books, a dog bowl and a bag of savoury snacks. Always better to be prepared don’t you think?
Two hours later we were back to find that some sort of major crisis had obviously taken place. The little old lady was gone, there were council vans, some big burly men and eventually a young woman arrived in a car. Just before she walked over to the house, she was asked by the person who brought her whether she was afraid. She replied that she wasn’t and disappeared into the house where she started opening windows. Is that not the most frustrating thing? We haven’t a clue what happened and we’ll never find out. We definitely need more French lessons. French Institute in Edinburgh – we’re coming back for sure.
After all the excitement we decided to go out to eat. We wandered into the little medieval town with its narrow roads and higgledy piggledy shops and houses and found a small auberge that was serving a three course Menu du Jour.
We could choose between a table in the lovely quaint courtyard or one in the bar. We chose the bar and were given a table next to two men and a woman, all of mature years – to put it politely. Once we’d settled in we realised that they were British and extremely plummy. So plummy in fact that I did a double take to make sure we weren’t dining next to Prince Charles. The two men had comb overs coming from somewhere south of their ear lobes and the woman had hair dyed to the shade orange you would normally associate with a struck match. We had a lovely meal, enjoying attempting to speak French with the waitress and the lovely traditional French food. Half way through the meal three young women came in with three boys aged about ten to twelve. They were a happy bunch, obviously enjoying the treat of a meal out together. At the end of the meal, just after we had asked for the bill we suddenly overheard the British trio discussing the fact that there were three women, three children and no men around. “They’re probably the Nannies”, pronounced Struck Match, “Or lesbians,” loudly declared Comb Over Number One. If they had looked up they would have seen our jaws drop. Jings, sometimes it’s embarrassing to be British.
Waking up this morning to another sunny day, Shirley set off with the dogs along the canal while I was in the shower. She came back breathless with the news. They are filming in the town! Film crews, clapper boards, costume tent – it’s all happening here. We can’t help but wonder whether any of our dining companions from the night before are part of the action. Who would have thought that a night in a small town in the Cher region could be so exciting?
We’re moving on to Vouvray today for some peace and quiet. A bientot mes amis.