August 2020. After four months of lockdown in the UK we are once again on the move. I’ve tried to write during house arrest, but this is after all a travel blog and there’s not been a lot of travelling. I think that I’ve been too introverted since March and what I did write did not impress the Blog Ed. Jo, so it was shelved.
In July we took possession of our new home, a converted black Ford Transit Custom. It’s been converted to our specification, based on a vehicle we rented in Costa Rica in 2017, by a couple of talented lads at Pioneer Campervans in Sussex. Without boring you with all the details, it’s basically a campervan designed for the great outdoors. With the exception of driving and a toilet, the only indoor activities are horizontal. Everything else is accessed from outside the vehicle: fridge, cooker, shower. A few weeks ago we took her for a ‘shakedown’ trip to Herefordshire and Somerset. It rained, the temperature was miserable and the wind howled; conditions that confirmed that it was definitely not a van suited to the cold and wet.
Today, however, I’m writing this blog under the shade of a huge sycamore tree on a hillside outside the charming hilltop village of Flavigny sur Ozerain (the movie Chocolat was filmed here), a few miles north of Dijon in Burgundy. It’s a hot 35 degrees C. soothed by a gentle breeze. There are fine views of the surrounding wooded hills, inhabited by owls, woodpeckers and hen harriers. It’s absolutely wonderful. We’ve stopped overnight here and we’ll stay for another.
We left Sussex on 1st August and parked overnight in the village of St. Margaret’s on the Cliffe, just outside Dover. We have established a number of campervan travelling rules. Rule 1: Don’t pay anything to park overnight. So we ‘free camp’ in France which is probably Europe’s most generous country for free camping. Not so the UK; during our ‘shakedown’ trip in England we were interrogated twice by the police whilst parked in secluded and legitimate places. Once to inquire what we were doing in a forest car park at 3am (are you alone in there?) and once to tell us to move on from the Quantock Hills where there were no prohibition signs. We told ‘em we couldn’t move on as we were well into a bottle of wine and they conceded.
The French are considerably more accommodating. There are ‘aires’ all over the countryside, informal and mostly free parking places for 48 hour stopovers. Many with taps for free water. And with the help of Apps such as ioverlander and park4night (or even without them) we’re able to discover lots of beautiful and remote camping sites. It’s wonderfully hassle free, all helped by low density traffic and very few tourists. France is over twice the size of the UK with about the same population. It’s August which is normally a busy holiday month in France, but it’s quiet where we roam (where do they all go?), and Coronavirus quarantine complexities are deterring visitors. It’s like 1975 again!
It is invigorating to be in France, the empty open roads imparting a fabulous sense of freedom. The van is the perfect escape vehicle. The virus infection rate is on the up all over Europe, in parts of France too, but we are largely isolated and almost exclusively outdoors. It had been our intention to go to Greece, but countries to its north are still having a bad time, so access is tricky. We’ve opted to stay in France – a sensible decision. And neither Jo or I have ever explored France, so this is a journey of discovery. We must be back in England by 26th September for my daughter, Hannah’s wedding to Adam, so we don’t want to get trapped anywhere. At least from France the worst that can happen is a quarantine period when we return.
This is day 6 of hopefully 40 days in France. From Calais we headed east to Dunkirk then south past Lille to the French Ardennes (I never realised there was a French Ardennes region) and into Champagne – which is only three hours from Calais if you put your foot down. The chardonnay vineyards of the big Champagne houses, known as the Maisons, like Pommery and Moet & Chandon are all clearly advertised along the Champagne route, but we are on the lookout for the small champagne makers, known as the Vignerons. They make fabulous champagne that sells at very affordable prices.It’s a Coronavirus Monday in August and most of the Vignerons are closed, but we persevere and eventually swing into the big yard of the Canard Duchene Champagne House near Epernay. You have to wear a face mask but off it comes when the tasting begins. Jo has very clear preferences but after several snifters I’m not particularly discerning. They’re all splendid. We buy a couple of bottles, I ask for a chilled one, which we drink with a picnic of fresh baguette, black grapes, Ardennes pate and a soft brie,on a grassy knoll above the road . Vive la France!
Some more campervan rules which have evolved are: Rule 2: No driving on Toll roads. There are plenty of these in France. They’re great big empty roads but they’re damned expensive and, with the aid of an App, easily avoided. The quality of the non toll roads is excellent and you discover so much more of the countryside. Rule 3: No staying overnight in laybys at the side of the road. We must find beautiful, quiet, secluded places. Rule 4: No driving in the Champagne region without champagne in the fridge. Ditto Chablis. Ditto Burgundy etc etc. Rule 5: Siesta every afternoon. There will be more of these rules as we progress.
We visit medieval Troyes where we park outside the city and unload our Brompton folding bikes for a brief tour of the town centre. The Bromptons were not cheap but worth every pound. We park outside congested city centres and cycle. We cycle alongside canals and on France’s many designated cycle routes. We can even – although this will take some slightly improved fitness – climb mountains.
Into week two of our tour and we’re starting to settle into the rhythm of nomadic life. We’re slowing down, becoming more tolerant, relaxed and patient. All helped by being more organised. Living in such a confined space brings a few challenges, some emotional, some practical – everything has a place and if you don’t put it back where it belongs you’ll have a devil of a time finding it again.
Wine, in its many French guises, is becoming a bit of a theme during our first two weeks in this beautiful country. We are in the lovely flower decked riverside village of Chablis – home of my favourite crisp white wine. We visit the cellar of the family run vineyard of Thierry Laffay. The daughter of the vineyard owner speaks English well and I learn of the differences between a Petit Chablis, Chablis, a 1er Grand Cru and a Premier Grand Cru with prices ranging from €8 to €30. We’re three bottles the richer as we leave.
We stay overnight next to the canal de Bourgogne in the village of Tanlay. This place isn’t listed anywhere and it’s beautiful. Across the canal is a cafe restaurant, shower block and toilet. We roast pork chops with windfall burgundy apples and yes! Chablis. The following morning it’s another hot sunny day and we cycle a 20km ride along the canal towpath.
The van is working well for us. It is self evident that being a vehicle it promotes forward motion. If you were to fly to a local airport and hire a car you could easily spend two weeks exploring Burgundy alone. One has to consciously slow down or you’d sweep through a district and fail to really appreciate the region’s delights. But we are adjusting and spending multiple nights in the same place. And we’re good at quickly finding great locations (Rule 6: Always drive to the end of the track). In the Parc du Morvan, in the forest, at the end of a challenging down hill track designated for 4x4s (will the van manage to get up it?) by the shore of lake St. Agnon, we swim several times a day in the lake and eat mussels with white Burgundy and light a tremendous fire on the lake shore within a rock enclosed fire pit which seems to have evolved on the sand over many years. Again, French rural hospitalite.
Then a funny thing happens. After dinner and wine, in the starlight of the dark night Jo wades naked into the lake. She stands there and spontaneously emits an ape like howl across the water. It is acknowledged with a similar scream from the dark, then another, and another. The lake is reverberating with a mass ape screaming session with Frenchmen on the distant far shore. That’s a Brighton girl for you I guess.
I do manage to tease the van up that mountain track and we drive for several hours to the Jura – up against the Swiss border. This mountain region is home to lakes and rivers in which it is reasonably safe to swim but water flowing off the Jura mountains is freezing. We swim briefly and painfully in the river Loue. The lakes, even those at altitude are much more agreeable; clear, blue and almost warm.
The Jura has aspects of the Swiss alps about it; cowbells, chalets and sweeping green hills. I’ve never seen so many birds of prey in one area – eagles, buzzards, kites, falcons, harriers, hawks. We regularly stop along the road to observe with binoculars and have lively debates, also known as arguments, about identification. We are now in the Jura lakes, a wilderness compared to the intensively farmed and pesticide infused wine regions.
Just south of Besancon, a principal town of the region, we park on the south bank of the river Doubs. I’m setting up a table for supper when I’m approached by a man walking along the towpath. He is most attractive, not old, maybe in his fifties, with a fine head of thick wavy grey hair and affectionate, engaging blue eyes. His arms are strong and his skin is the ochre colour that only weeks in the open sun can produce. But there is something wrong. He wears a worn T shirt and shorts and he’s carrying two canvas shopping bags, one slung over each shoulder. On his swollen feet he wears cheap plastic sandals. He approaches me, walking slowly, with difficulty. Monsieur, est-il possible d’avoir un bisquit, he asks. I look at Jo and ask her to put some food in a bag for him. He starts to talk in French. I tell him I cannot understand and he switches with ease into English. He has a Spanish accent but what he says is still incomprehensible to me. Jo gives him a bag with bread oranges and a banana. He gently removes the banana and returns it. He’s talking about the Buddha, and the end of the genetic time and the historic time. I tell him I cannot understand and he switches back to French. He uses his hands to emphasise his points but its nonsense. He rambles on for five minutes and I am compelled to stop him. I offer him the namaste gesture and apologise. He looks at me with a moment of clarity and tells me how wonderful it is to meet people like us in this beautiful place – he looks up to the hills. With my hands together I wish him peace. He smiles, turns and with his damaged feet he shuffles slowly along the riverbank. It’s been a brief, strange and somehow moving encounter. As I watch his diminishing figure I’m wondering what has happened in his life to compel him onto his lonely pilgrimage.
We hear on the radio that the UK government is imposing a 14 day quarantine on everyone returning from France. We’re more isolated here than where we live in the UK, but it’s a blanket quarantine, another ill thought through government edict. Germany is only quarantining french arrivals from the coronavirus hotspots. The UK government give people 30 hours notice before the imposition of this quarantine. So there’s the inevitable pandemic panic with thousands of UK tourists, returning from areas in France with ostensibly high infection rates, crowding into packed planes, boats and trains to beat the deadline. It’s ridiculous. And the BBC news talks of France potentially threatening retaliatory action. Threatening? Retaliatory? Who writes this confrontational rubbish. Is it BBC editorial protocol to antagonise or just laziness or ignorance?
The next day we are in a forest of mixed pine and deciduous trees next to lake Bonlieu. We’ve discovered that, in the shade, the solar panel on the roof fails to charge the battery and the fridge is draining it. So we’re closely monitoring the voltmeter – warm champagne would be disastrous.
Tomorrow we drive to the Savoie at the edge of the Alps.