Change of course

Wednesday 28/11/12

We have been zig-zagging our way across France enjoying the different landscapes, towns and villages en-route.  We haven’t had a plan just gone pretty much as the mood took us. Our Europe road map is quite small scale and rather unhelpfully has no contours and few heights marked. So when we decided to head south towards Montelimar we didn’t realise we were heading firstly towards quite a high pass and secondly into a big snow storm. As dusk fell and the snow was getting thicker and sticking we decided we had to turn around and head back to a small village we had just driven through.

We ground to a halt in the square in front of the Post Office and Dave wrestled with the snow chains so that we could park up rather than just abandoning it in the centre of the square where we had stopped. Lorries with snow ploughs and tractors fought valiantly to keep clearing the road late into the night. At 5am the nimble tractor drivers were up again clearing the snow so that life could carry on. 

We decided to double back the way we had come the day before and find a lower route on to our final destination. The snow is all around us on the mountains but at least the roads are clear………for now. More snow is expected on Sunday by which time we should be in Les Carroz.

Time stands still

Monday 26/11/12

In the Limousin district we came across Oradour a deserted town preserved in memory of those who lost their lives here in World War II. Its sad history tells of 200 SS Nazi troops entering the town on the afternoon of 10th June 1944 rounding up all the inhabitants killing 642 in total, of which 193 were children.

The town has been preserved sympathetically with no commercial influence. There are a few family shrines and a number of plain signs indicating the type of trade operated from the buildings, of which only the shells remain today,  and the name of the business owner. Walking around it appears to have been a wealthy town with a church, school, doctors surgery, a number of garages, cafĂ©’s, hairdressers, bakeries, pharmacies and a large post office. The thoroughfares are wide and open with a tram network running the length of the main street. It is eerily quiet with few visitors, strangely in the distance you can here children in the school playground of the new town Oradour-sur-Glane, sounding almost like a soundtrack to a bygone day.

After killing the inhabitants the troops set fire to the town and destroyed much of the fabric and contents of the buildings. What remains today in amongst the rubble are a number of large metal objects including pots, scales, tools, sewing machines and cars that survived the fires. As they slowly rust away they remind you that these streets and houses were once alive with people going about their daily business before their lives were so cruelly taken away from them. 

Visiting the town is free and the entrance is through a smart visitor centre which also houses a library and exhibition. On the far side of the large 5km site, near the graveyard, is another building, almost unnoticeable. Here smaller exhibits and belongings are displayed and the names of all who lost their lives are engraved onto plaques on the walls. Everyday objects including spectacles, watches, jewellery, ink pots and coins have been collected from the houses and bodies of those who lost their lives. Poignantly the watches of the men stopped during their final hours. Time really has stood still here. 

Life on the road - 1

Overnight stops

It has been quite a revelation to find out how popular and accepted the motor home is in France. In England and Wales staying overnight anywhere other than official campsites (at a cost of £15 to £30 a night) is generally frowned  upon. In Scotland they are a little more welcoming and accept responsible ‘wild-camping’.

In France however there are in the region of 2000 ‘Aires’ – places where mobile homes are welcome and a range of facilities are provided. They can be found in village centres, on the outskirts of towns, by rivers, on motorways – in fact virtually anywhere. To date we have stayed in the following 4 official Aires – Arromanches, Les Fleur, Royere de Vassiviere and St Flour. On the other 2 evenings we parked in well-lit free car parks.

The best ‘Aires-de-Camping Cars’ provide water, waste water disposal, chemical toilet disposal and electric, some charge a nominal fee of a few euros (normally for electric), but most are free. It’s a brilliant system, you might need to pre-plan if you specifically need to use a particular service as not all Aires provide all the facilities but in general you don’t even need to stay the night, just pull in fill up/empty out and drive on.  There are books, maps and web-sites that list them all but as we’ve just been going where the mood takes without a plan we have just kept our eyes open for the blue signs and haven’t struggled to find a suitable overnight spot yet. 

As we are travelling through in November there are very few other motor homes around – generally there have been 3 or 4 vans including ours at each Aire we’ve stopped at. I’m quite sure it’s a different picture in the height of the summer holidays but for now we are enjoying this very affordable way of journeying through France.

Campervan track day?

Saturday 24/11/12
Le Mans

Another day....another car museum. Being the only female in the family I am a long standing sufferer of having to visit every manner of transport museum wherever we are in the world. So we couldn't drive past Le Mans without visiting the 24 hour circuit museum could we! 

On arrival we missed the signs for the museum and drove straight up to the track entry barrier - visions of us doing a few laps of the circuit flashed in and quickly out of my head as I shouted to Dave to reverse before we were committed to go through the barrier. Has a campervan ever been round the track - other than on Top Gear - I wonder?

The museum houses a range of new and old vehicles - poor Dave, he needs Owen with him to have someone who really appreciates all the finer details of leaf spring suspensions, two speed belt drives and steam powered motorbikes.

Trip route to date

Normandy beaches

Friday 23/11/12
Pont–Audemer to Arromanches

As dusk fell on Thursday we found a riverside parking spot in the pretty town of Pont-Audemer. History boards tell of its industry, wealth and regional importance. Sea water meets fresh water at this point in the river but it is no longer navigable and a large hydro generator buzzes away constantly. The town is criss-crossed by little canals and waterways – like a mini Venice. At 6pm the town is lively and full of people, by 9pm it’s deserted. Cue an early night.....
Dave's suggestion that we have early starts didn’t last long and by the time we get ourselves up and out of the van the town is in full swing again with market stalls lining the main street selling all kinds of colourful food and plants. After buying some fresh bread and croissants for breakfast we set off for Honfleur, a very picturesque harbour town. 

Following the road north west we head for the Normandy D-Day landing beaches. Arromanches is famous for the British built Mulberry harbour - an artificial prefabricated port the size of Dover which was towed in sections across the English Channel.  The town hosts a museum dedicated to the history of the area with military craft dotted around the town. Today little remains the harbour wall but enough is visible out at sea to appreciate the massive scale of the operation involved in the 1944 D-Day landings. Bi-lingual plaques detail some of the history including one which says that the floating harbours were inspired by Winston Churchill (although others also lay claim to the idea) and he also realised that an anchoring system was needed to secure them and commissioned Beckett to devise one. Two harbours were built, one at Omaha and one at Arromanches but following a massive storm in June 1944 the poorly secured American harbour at Omaha broke up, was irreparable and construction ceased. The British harbour was designed to last 3 months but saw heavy use for over 8 months.

Arromanches & remains of the harbour wall sections

The brakes work.....

Wednesday 22/11/12
Shrewsbury to Newhaven

I am sure Dave had visions of me packing everything except the kitchen sink (thankfully not required as the van already has one!) as he kept going on about the weight of the van fully laden and the extra diesel it would need to shift it from A – B.

OK I understand that ……but when a girl has to have clothes to cover all seasons that takes packing a capsule wardrobe to another level.  Add in the other essentials, marmalade, Marmite, tea bags, toiletries, etc etc and all storage spaces were soon full. But between us we had managed to pack the van well – it looks like an IKEA room set (you know the one’s where they squeeze everything into 6 cubic feet) on wheels – plastic boxes and all.

All stowed securely
En-route to Brighton Dave had to do an emergency stop as a car pulled out in front of us from a side junction and the driver just froze in the middle of the road. Bringing 3.5 tons of campervan quite fully laden to a halt is no mean feat but we stopped within about of foot of the drivers door. The only ‘casualty’ on our part was a low flying cutlery drawer which came out of its runner and landed in the lounge area. Everything else was securely lashed down or wedged in and didn’t budge. No-one was hurt and no damage done – brakes well and truly tested, we're ready for the European drivers now!

Brighton's Royal Pavilion

Brighton Pier

We’d never been to Brighton before – it’s brash and bold but has some beautiful buildings and iconic landmarks. We had a ‘final supper’ of Fish & Chips eaten on our laps in the van washed down with a couple of pints of Real Ale in a nice pub in Seaford. We ‘wild camped’ on the seafront road, sleeping to the sound of waves crashing on the beach and woke up to a fleet of lorries travelling up and down the beach in a vain attempt to redistribute the pebbles. Dave’s in digger heaven!