Thursday, 17 September 2009

We Were Lost In France - The Highlights

So, I said I was expecting a plethora of adventures and thrilling undertakings. Maybe magic! romance! I never understood the saying, "Be careful what you wish for", but now I do.

On the early hours of Thursday morning we embarked on the SeaFrance ferry at Dover and crossed over to the French port of Calais. On board the motorhome were Partner, Best Friend, the 2 boys, C and J, myself, 5 bikes and Best Friend's enormous collection of luggage; all that was missing was a hat box, a mink stole and a clutch of Dolly Parton wigs.

After stocking up on provisions at hypermart Carrefour, we set off on the road, full of joie de vivre. Scarcely an hour into our journey on the fast lane of the motorway, we heard an almighty *bang* that shaved several years off our collective lives. I thought maybe a door had flown open and for several seconds we looked at each other in wide-eyed confusion. C ran to the back of the motorhome and looked out the back window. The metal brackets that were fixing the large storage box to the top of the motorhome had sheared off completely and that bang was the sound of a box containing a large barbeque set hitting the road at 60 miles an hour.

It is an absolute bloody miracle that there wasn't another vehicle behind us and that the box hadn't crashed through a windscreen and caused some serious damage. If the universe hadn't been as benevolent that day, we believe Partner would have been charged with a traffic offence at best and causing death by dangerous driving at worst. Of course with the benefit of passing time and a stiff drink or two we can joke about it now; Best Friend and I started generating scenarios where Partner was arrested and how we would have to hitch hike in short shorts and sell our bodies (unwillingly of course!) to fund our way back to London. But I digress...

Amazingly, a highway agency type vehicle was not far behind us and within seconds of the incident, the guys in the van had put up traffic cones to divert traffic and had loaded the box onto the van. In his pigeon Francais (as opposed to Best Friend's and my non-existent Francais), Partner agreed to drive to the next rest stop and meet them there.

At the next aire de repos, or rest stop, the 2 highway agency guys helped us to unload the contents of the box and even agreed to take the offending box away. How impressed were we! Viva Le France, we cried.

the motorhome at Calais

our heroes!

Adventure over, we were quite content for the remainder of the trip to be as sedate and boring as possible. Our first stop was a municipal aire in Mamers. It was a basic space for about 15 motorhomes but immaculately kept and had facilites like tennis courts and a playground. I loved the fact that the French are so accommodating towards holiday travellers. All for the princely sum of 5 euros a night.

our pitch

J climbing down the fence to join 2 French boys

partner in the kitchen

c and a french boy - a friendship forged from a phrasebook

our lunch everyday - freshly baked baguettes, ham, cheese, salad and wine. that bag of crisps was bolognaise flavoured.

At the campsite the most interesting moments were those spent observing the interaction between the boys and the French kids. C and J played ball in a basketball court amongst themselves while 2 other French kids also did the same. I suppose it's awkward when you don't share a common language. But half an hour later, they discovered they did share a common language - kid. Snippet:

J: "Do you speak English?"

French Child: "Non."

J: "I'm not French. Do you speak English?"

French Child: "Non."

But you don't have to speak to play football and the next day, J and his new friend slipped surreptitiously behind a tree and J tied a friendship band on new friend's wrist.

Our first destination was Ars en Re (no laughing at the back of the classroom please), located on the island of Ile de Re, on the west coast of France. What attracted us intially was that, aside from the sandy beaches, it is famously flat and full of bike trails. We stayed at a 2 star campsite La Combe a l'eau, which has basic facilities and backs onto a beach that was devoid of tourists.

Our stay was a short one. Not because of any ill reaction to the place; but we all felt the beach wasn't our thing and it felt a little too much like a resort in Nice or Malaga; those who love the sea will find it a place of immense charm. We decided to head inland towards Cognac and perhaps find a campsite along the Charente river.

Along the way we stopped at Fouras, a pretty seaside town. Mark had been there years ago and had fond memories. Not hard to see why; it's got a sandy beach that's not overcrowded, seafood restaurants and oyster stands galore. Top Tip: If you're ever in Fouras, look out for the oyster stand manned by a decidedly unmanly lady who is well and truly bursting all over with the joys of Summer.

Having had a torrid August in London in which Partner and I were exhausted from the rigours of work and general city living, it was glorious to sit on a beach, having a picnic, drinking wine, and just watching a parade of characters enjoying the sun.

is it cindy? linda? naomi?

1 Best Friend + 1 small boy + black mud = Full Scale Shrieking Mud Fight

creatures from the black lagoon

Driving inland into the Cognac region, we saw a sign for a campsite in Bourg-Charent. We decided to nosey around and struck pure holiday gold. Sited by the Charente river, it is a well kept site with basic facilites and the friendliest "landlady".

The environs are almost Monet-esque. A beautiful slow moving river is kissed by vivid green banks on both sides. There is an imposing chateau on a hill and 10 minutes walk away is a stunning Michelin starred restaurant. Tres chic!

What sealed the deal, however, was the cycle trail into the town of Jarnac. The path is a little bumpy but as you cycle along the gorgeous Charente river, you see cattle grazing, pretty locks with little boats waiting to enter, families setting up tables and chairs for a picnic (there was a family of about 16 seated by the banks bonjour-ing passersby; we almost expected them to burst into song ala final scene in Mama Mia), fishermen, and lush cornfield after lush cornfield. Top Tip: Don't even try eating the corn. They're not edible.

The town of Jarnac is ludicrously pretty. Not so much a picture postcard as a realisation of a fantasy of what you think a little French provincial town should look like - white washed walls, hanging baskets full of flowers, fantastic shuttered windows, cobbled streets...I half expected Belle from Beauty and the Beast to start skipping past me, basket in hand.

On the cycle ride to town, the boys and I stopped at a little stream which was flowing to the river. As they waded and explored, shafts of sunlight filtered through the foliage, bouncing light off the water and highlighting the cornfield. I literally had to catch my breath. When you live in the city and get caught up in all its hubris, I think it's easy to forget there is life outside, where nature is most magnificient in her smallest details.

the local patisserie where we got fresh croissants for breakfast

Possibly the most hysterical hour I've experienced this year was provided by Best Friend who not only demonstrated highly proficient synchronised swimming moves that would put a Russian team to shame, he also showed an amazing versatility with water plants. I was incapacitated with laughter:

godzilla? sailor moon?


partner and best friend fishing (unsuccessfully)

chilling out

most nights, we had barbeque for dinner

my triumphant potato salad accompaniment (haha!)

one euro buys a ten minute douche. heaven knows why best friend and i found it hysterical :-)

c fishing with a rod fashioned from a branch. idyllic n'est-ce pas?

The next highlight was a 3 star campsite recommended by a couple of expatriates Partner had bumped into when we were having lunch at a rather desolate aire. Le Port de Limeuil is an all singing and dancing campsite with amenities likes a swimming pool, play area, bar, shop, laundry block, free Wifi etc.

At the edge of the website was the Dordogne river, which simply took our breaths away. Where the Charente is a narrow slow moving river, the Dordogne is wide with a rather strong current in the middle. Surrounded by verdant hills and the obligatory chateau on a hill, it is a stunning location for canoeing, swimming and fishing.

I never thought that I would get an opportunity to swim in such a wide beautiful river, overlooked by gentle hills. Simply stunning. Naturally, Best Friend and I found a way to embellish Nature's beauty by posing ala Charlie's Angels in our speedos. And no, I'm not posting those pics!

Before we set off to our next location Best Friend and I ruminated on the state of the world and had a discussion on the vagaries of the human condition. We came to the startling and profound conclusion that if gay men ruled the world, there would be no war. We'd be too busy going to the gym. We also determined that even if gay men went to war, the outcome would be decided not by weapons of mass destruction, but by a camouflage-off. Like a dance-off. But with uniforms, to see who had the best.

And with those stunning insights still stunning our consciousness, we arrived at the medieval village of Beynac which spreads along the northern bank of the Dordogne, and winds up the steep hill to the castle above. The castle itself appears to have been carved out of the hillside, and on the walk up, we passed various artists' studios and quaint picture-postcard residences. The castle is an impressive structure, having been inhabited by amongst others, Richard the Lionheart. The vista across the miles of countryside is breathtaking.

The castle was used as location for the movie The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, whilst the village was used as a location for the movie Chocolat. Between Milla Jovovich burning for her beliefs, and Johnny Depp burning for Juliette Binoche's bon bons, I know which movie I'd rather be in!

The last highlight of the trip turned out to be another fluke in the vein of Bourg-Charente. Eschewing a heavily advertised campsite which turned out to be just a narrow stretch of sand overlooked by a cliff, we trundled into a 2 star site (Le Rocher de la Cave) which looked extremely unpromising. There was a smattering of tents and motorhomes and not much else. But when we walked to the river, the view just hit us between the eyes.

A large cliff with caves on the opposite bank overlooks the wide river with lush greenery on either side. Another day, another ridiculously imposing chateau on a hill. The only discordant note was the neighbouring motorhome which was occupied by a lady who looked like a cross between Su Pollard (kooky British actress) and Mrs McClusky from Desperate Housewives. She gave the creepiest stares.

The next day was heaven on earth. We met a young Dutch couple, Mark and Ot who were hitchhiking their way through Spain and France with nothing but their backpacks and an inflatable mattress. Mark turned out to be a big kid and the boys regarded him like the cool big brother he undoubtably was in their eyes. He and Ot took the boys wall climbing and even pulled the boys on a rubber ring across the river to explore the caves on the opposite bank.

Best Friend settled himself under a tree and indulged his love of painting.

Partner indulged his love of fishing.

I gave myself to the river gods and alternated between catching up on my reading and swimming in that most serene of rivers.

In that environment of natural simplicity, it appeared everyone found their moment to savour, reboot, zone out.

It was a proud, proud day for partner; he secured a bounty of 3 carp which we were all very excited about barbequeing that night. Top Tip: Carp respond very well to Gouda cheese.

We invited Mark and Ot to join us for dinner that night, which they gratefully accepted. The poor creatures hadn't had a proper meal for days. The day before was a Sunday and with the shops closed, they had cooked some leftover rice in a Coke can over a fire to accompany the stray tomates they had foraged.

The boys had found some bamboo which they fashioned into fishing poles. Best Friend and I used the leaves to decorate our pitch. And with a burst of the Wonder Woman theme and a flourish ala To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything (RIP Mr Swayze), we transformed our primitive site into a Tropical-Hawaiian-Malaysian-Thai-Spa-Retreat-Oasis-Thingie. OK, we strung the leaves on a fishing line...

Dinner. We BBQed pork, chicken, aubergine; I made potato salad and Partner whipped up a roasted vegetable risotto. We also barbequed the carp. Top Tip: Do not eat carp; they are boney in excelsius.

The night was magical. I think the bottle after bottle of Rose may have contributed in no small part. We laughed like hyenas through the night. The memories are agreeably hazy but I remember jokes about the belly of our motorhome being home to 2 old women from the third world and that they would be doing the washing up; and that in between their chores they would be sewing Nike shoes (Best Friend at this point threw some garlic bread into the storage area, shouting, "Dinner! Eat Up!"). Hmm, I think you had to be there...

At about 11pm, Mrs Su McClusky flashed her outdoor lights, presumably because our decible levels were now scaring the local wildlife. Naturally the only thing left to do was to fashion a voodoo figure from some bamboo and a split tomato. Mark and Best Friend left it near Mrs McC's motorhome. I have no idea if she found it the following day.

And those were the highlights of our voyage. We had a blast; and even now, 2 weeks later, I am still infused with the goodwill and good feelings I experienced there. With no pressure to "do Paris" in 3 days or fulfill an agenda, it was a real tonic for the soul to have that freedom and flexibility to explore where our whimsy took us. It truly was magic.


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