Almost every time we have visited France in the last few years we have been travelling out of season in late autumn or early spring, spending the colder days of winter as far south as we could get in Europe. When we had endless time to spend this was practical and undeniably pleasant. One of the effects of limiting our trip to 90 days has been to make us think more carefully about the weather and the distance travelled. The cost of diesel and our desire to relax while we’re in Europe has persuaded us to spend more time exploring France in Spring and for the most part this has proved a big success. We are loving the long sunny days, the beautiful food, the freshest of fresh air and the extra time spent walking and cycling with no concerns about getting drenched.
We did have a bit of a hiccup a couple of weeks ago when we seemed to run out of enthusiasm and spent a few nights seriously playing with the idea of going home early. We knew what the problem was – we were missing people. We had met only a few people to talk to, other than the perfunctory “Bonjour” in the street and we were feeling isolated. Both of us love to meet people making new friends and joining up with old ones so we were a bit downcast and looking for something to perk us up.
Sitting with our maps and the various online resources for choosing places to stay we began to talk about Brittany. This is an area we have barely touched upon in the past as we have bypassed it on our way south. Shirley was reminiscing about Pornichet where her parents had owned a static caravan forty five years ago and she had spent holidays there when she was a student nurse. On a whim we looked up the campsite Le Bugeau and found to our surprise that it was still there and, even better given our joint love of a bargain, it was on the ACSI scheme. Turning up at the gates Shirley went inside the reception. I sat in the van expecting the gates to open at any moment and for us to be ushered in. Time passed and Shirley appeared in the doorway and mimed “not sure”. I took this to mean it wasn’t what she expected – what I wasn’t expecting was to find out a while later that this was yet another holiday weekend in France and there was only one pitch available. Eventually we were invited in to view it but we were told it probably wasn’t big enough for our enormous bus. We looked at the pitch and decided we would manage somehow and in we drove. Whilst in the office, Shirley had explained the reason for our visit and it turned out that the beautiful young woman on reception was the granddaughter of the people Shirley knew as the owners all those years ago. She and her husband had bought the place from her mother. It felt poignant, especially for Shirley as she looked around and saw many familiar sights including the house that held the reception and the snack bar. Other things had been transformed into a modern and well equipped campsite including beautiful state of the art showers and toilets and a swimming pool.
We did get Heidi the huge onto that pitch, although we had to do so at an angle. This wasn’t all bad news as it gave us two triangular grassy areas with sun on one side and shade on the other at different times during the day. Poppy pronounced it ideal as she could lie and sleep in the shade all day long. Everyone on the site was friendly and we soon found our way around the town, changed beyond recognition and about twice the size since Shirley’s last visit.
There were cycle lanes everywhere and it was a decent walk to the beach for Poppy in the mornings. Somehow six nights passed while we were floating around Pornichet, buying food, cooking it then buying some more. One highlight was the market in the town square. It was enormous and full of a massive variety of stalls. We wandered around taking in the smells and the sights but we were shocked to see the prices of fresh food – roasted farm chicken sold at 19 Euros per kilo. A small melon for 7 Euros – we declined all these offers, agreed for the umpteenth time that we would eat more simply and more plant based and then spoiled it all by falling head first into enormous ice creams and then coffee for the price we would normally expect to pay for a full meal.
There comes a time on every trip when we reflect on what we’ve learned and what we’ve been reminded of along the way. These moments often provide us with lessons for life.
So here goes:
- We’ve learned that spending a few extra Euros on paying for overnight stays with some services included can be very pleasant. Since leaving Spain on our way back through France we have paid for every overnight stop. Doing this has meant that we can legally pull out our table, chairs, awning and sometimes the utility tent. We have relaxed outside, enjoyed the sunshine and made some kind of contact with fellow travellers. For us this has turned out to be excellent value for money as well as a reason to slow down and maybe stay a little longer than planned. On previous trips we have prided ourselves on travelling hundreds of miles and seeing lots of interesting places without paying anything for accommodation. Amongst the motorhoming community this can become a kind of competition, it can also be a necessity for those who are travelling on a very frugal budget. This Yorkshire/Scottish outfit can be as thrilled as the next person when we get something for nothing but we’ve learned that there are hidden costs. Driving out of your way to find a free aire, using more gas because you’re never on electric hookup, risking being moved on if you get your chairs out and sit outside – these are just a few. So, lesson one, we’re getting older, we can change our preferences at will, we like our comfort and reasonably priced places to stay with services are popping up everywhere, Who knows, next time it might be different but for now we’re loving it.
- If you get the chance to chat to someone, take it. We can be shy about approaching strangers, especially if we fear that we won’t make ourselves understood. With hindsight we are sure we’ve missed some opportunities for a few pleasant moments of connection along the way. We had been reminded that travel without some warm human contact – other than one another of course – is not so life affirming and had left us feeling saddened. Energy comes from the spark of relationship with people, nature and even our little curly companion. Lesson two – accept every opportunity gratefully. You can always run away if it doesn’t work out and laugh about it at the end of the day.
- Tidy up the work surface before you start cooking. This is a practical one. Heidi is big on bed space and living space but short on kitchen space. The kitchen sink has a cover that makes a working surface. When we try to prepare food without the cover over the sink all kinds of chaos ensues. So our immediate answer is to try to be more organised and get everything washed and out of the way before we start. Then we use the bathroom sink for water needs – no problem there, it’s just behind you when you stand at the kitchen surface and the water comes out of the same tank. Later we’re looking at two other solutions: a) Find a way to add more surface and b) Buy a portable induction hob and cook outside more.
- Eat simply and well. To be fair this is something we keep having a go at but in our small kitchen area it becomes more pressing. We’ve been collecting ideas and recipes for simple meals whilst trying to eat more sustainably. Apart from the size of the kitchen we are shocked to find that food prices in the shops here are high and we are carefully watching our budget as we’re spending more of it on accommodation (see point 1). Like many people we are gradually shifting towards more plant based foods. It’s a challenge but we’re trying and we’re learning.
- There is a lot to like about bedtime stories. Ours come in two forms. One is our nightly shared audio book that is also our companion as we drive from one destination to the next. Thank you to the public libraries at home that provide these for free. Second is our nightly habit of talking about the day, our trip, our concerns and our gratitudes before turning in for the night. We find it soothing, helpful and draws us closer to one another and – here forgive me if this sounds a bit too ‘out there’ – the Universe.
Okay, enough deep thought. Back to the trip. We left Pornichet and drove about 40 miles up the road to the town of La-Roche-Bernard. This was in response to one of our readers who recommended it as a lovely place to visit. Thank you Helen you were so right. We are currently parked up in the Municipal Campsite on the banks of the Vilaine river and we’re having a grand time. This is a lovely ancient town with a delightful atmosphere and wonderful views on just about every corner. The campsite is the old fashioned type with big pitches, ample if elderly sanitary facilities and a great mixture of clientele. Clearly a very popular place we have been entertained by some grand companions in this short stop. Standing out to us are the lovely B&B (identities are kept confidential to protect the innocent). Sitting outside one fine evening we were bemoaning the lack of contact with like minded peeps when B&B turned up in their van and greeted us warmly and in the case of one of the Bs rather cheekily. Within minutes we had persuaded them to pull up their chairs and join us – something that is not so easy to do when there is no alcohol on board to lure people in. We enjoyed meeting them tremendously and particularly the merry chat, the laughter and the odd foray into UK politics. It bears repeating – these moments of connection are the energy that drives us and keeps us running smoothly. That and diesel of course but that’s another story.
Here in La Roche Bernard we celebrated the 16th anniversary since our civil partnership. We were only the second same gender couple in our home town to publicly commit in a civil ceremony. It felt huge at the time but now, sixteen years on, it no longer creates any ripples. Thank goodness for the passage of time and the opening of minds.
Before we left on this trip I kept fretting about things like the rising price of diesel and food and the strong possibility that we wouldn’t be able to do the trip on our retirement income. We do have a bit of capital cushion but the ongoing rise in the cost of living was making me worried about the future. Shirley with her heart and head in exactly the right place as always answered my worries by saying, “We’ve had a hell of a couple of years and you’ve just had a milestone birthday. This is to be the year of ‘Why not?’” I write this because of a strange but appealing coincidence (if such a thing exists) – when discussing where to eat out to celebrate our anniversary we came upon a local restaurant called “Pourquoi pas? (Tr. why not?). No further searching required – we booked our table and celebrated in style there with a beautiful meal, great service and a lovely view of the river. It was an anniversary to remember and all because Shirley first said “Yes!” and then sixteen years later, “Why not?”.
As I sign off I hear that the rest of France has been hit by huge hailstorms and dangerously high winds. It seems we have been well protected here in this corner of western France If you’re out there travelling, keep safe!