After our visit to Taizé we made a list of possible stopovers for our journey west and then north towards home. Looking at the satnav we realised it was going to take about four hours to get to our destination on the banks of the Cher river. We love the Cher region and particularly their white wine. It’s often overlooked for the more famous Loire wine, which is excellent but slightly different. The first year we had a motorhome, we stopped off in the Cher region after spending a week in Taizé. A week in the community is a bit like a detox or a low budget health farm. The food is so basic and simple that by the end of the week you find yourself craving all the things you’ve gone without like a big chunk of meat and a good cup of coffee. That year we stopped the van in St Aignan and headed for a little restaurant on the riverbank. I swear it was the best meal of the year and the one that introduced us to the local wine.
Anyway I digress. We haven’t been exactly detoxing on this trip so we weren’t looking for a square meal but some of the wine and a walk by the river sounded just the thing.
We were driving merrily along in the sunshine when it occurred to us that we hadn’t had breakfast. We’d just passed a signpost to Digoin, a place with a good Aire de Camping Car right on the banks of the Loire as it flows into Burgundy. “Let’s go and stop there for breakfast!” we said in unison and off we went up the slip road and towards the town. We’d stayed here a couple of years ago so I was confident I could find my way to the Aire without putting the co-ordinates into the Satnav. With hindsight I can say with a good deal of certainty that there was no chance, in fact the only place I found my way to was the centre of town where roads are incredibly narrow, no entry signs glare at you from every angle and the one road that is available to drive down on a quiet Sunday morning is lined with parked cars. It gets worse. I had two more goes at finding the Aire and every time I ended up manoeuvring down that tiny lane. By the third time a small crowd had gathered, so, determined not to do that again, I went down another tiny lane and found that the only way out was via a tight right angled turn that the van had no chance of getting round. The only option available to me was to put the nose of the van up a no entry and then reverse into another no entry so that we were pointing down the right road. We found the Aire but not before Shirley had emitted a number of small pitiful squeaks similar to Beaker in the Muppet Show.
Pulling into a parking space that overlooked the Loire we looked at one another and said, “Let’s just stay here” – so we put the kettle on, got out the table, took the dogs for another walk and had a breakfast of kings looking out over the water. And stay there we did, for twenty-four hours. Sometimes you just have to give up and start again the next day.
Later, sitting relaxing over a coffee our attention was drawn to the van next door. It was quite a sizable van with a garage at the back. If you’re not into motorhomes the ‘garage’ isn’t for carrying a car but people often have their bikes in there, sometimes even a motorbike. It’s a large, tall storage area at the back of the van and there is usually a bed high up over the garage, a bit like an adult double bunk.
We are fascinated by garages and the different ways that people manage them. There are the neat and tidy garage types who have all kinds of fitted storage in there and everything arranged neatly, not quite OCD but getting that way; there are the types who have made a place for everything before they left home and then every few weeks have to give it a big tidy up and finally there are the types whose garage contents look like someone just threw everything in and then stirred it. Our neighbour had both the doors to the garage open and we could see very clearly that its owner fell into the third category. It seemed to contain an incredible selection of objects, some of which were mysterious bundles of cloth and plastic and there were a number of empty coat hangers dangling at crazy angles from a string. After a few minutes a little lady appeared out of the van and came round to the garage and stirred it then went back in. Five minutes later she did it again. By the fifth time we were hooked. We haven’t watched TV for eight weeks so maybe we’re just easily entertained. Maybe she saw us looking but suddenly she walked over and waved through the window for someone to come out. I blame it on my Catholic education but if someone tells me to do something I do it first and then think later. I was out of my seat and through the door before my brain was engaged.
She asked me if I spoke French.
“Un peu.” I replied and then with a belated desire to protect myself from what she might want from me I added, “trés, trés peu.”
She laughed. “English? Deutsch? Nederlander?”
“English” I admitted and waited for her to ask me to help stir her belongings in the garage … but I was wrong. She wanted me to lift her electric bike from the rack on the back of her van, because she had a weak chest and couldn’t do it herself. The rack was high and the bike was heavy and all wrapped up with a tarpaulin so it wasn’t an easy task but with her holding the front wheel and giving instructions in a strange mixture of English and German we managed somehow.
She was a very sweet lady and we had a lovely chat, me in my version of French and her in that strange mixture of English and German. Suddenly it occurred to me that she in fact might be German but no, she was French but she’d been an army wife and had been stationed there so she spoke it better than English. I really wanted her to understand that we would communicate better if she spoke in a mixture of French and English but she seemed stuck in the German bit even when I suggested it. She told me that her husband was … and here she paused while I tried to guess where he was … then she pointed up to the sky and said ‘dead’ in a very sombre voice. Right enough I had wondered why he couldn’t lift the pesky bike off the rack so that was one mystery solved. I really thought she was going to hug me, she was so grateful for getting her bike down, not that we actually saw her riding it. She was one of the several single lady motorhomers we have seen on our travels. I guess it’s a safe and pleasant way to travel alone because the Aires usually having other motorhomers around to help if you’re stuck and can’t get your bike off the rack. It’s comforting having your own things around you – even if they’re only in the garage getting regularly stirred.
The next morning it was obvious that Shirley needed some heavy-duty cough medicine. A previous visit to a pharmacy had gained her some homeopathic syrup that wasn’t cutting the mustard, or the catarrh either. Sorry if that’s too much information. We set about asking Mr Google what you can buy over the counter in France and discovered that with the right pharmacist on your side you can pretty much get anything. I was sceptical and for good reason. Several years ago I was sent off on my bike to a local pharmacy when Shirley had a cold on one of our French trips. (Yes, you’ve noticed – we seem to make a habit of catching French viruses). The pharmacist was exceptionally unwilling to hand over anything stronger than a packet of honey pastilles. She almost made me sign in blood to say that we didn’t have any Paracetamol with us before she would give me a packet of cold remedy pills that can be bought in the UK in Tesco. Mr Google assured us that a French pharmacy will have the strong stuff available over the counter so armed with the French for “I have a chesty cough” (J’ai mal au bronches – you might find that useful some day) and the active ingredient in cough medicine she set off to the local pharmacy. It was closed. Many French shops close on Mondays as well as Sundays. I don’t blame them really, Mondays are such miserable days, why not just extend Sunday for another twenty four hours – but when you’ve got mal au bronches it’s not so helpful and poor Shirl was proper fed up.
We set off on our way west and a few miles later found an open pharmacy and Shirl was rewarded with a bottle of something super powerful. It was only when she got back in the van clutching her prize that she noticed it was banana flavour. Oh yuk.