In rapid succession, we have said goodbye to the Netherlands, to Germany and even to Belgium and the horrible time is upon us that we need to look again upon the septic brexit divided isle and worry about how to fit in to the putrid place that we are ashamed to call home.
In the Netherlands we had trouble finding anyone that did not speak English. In fact, most people spoke English so well that it was nearly impossible to tell that they are Dutch. Awesome. We found out that one reason for this may be that the Dutch don’t overdub any imported movies and TV, but rely on subtitles. This may explain why most English speaking dutch people people seem to have an American accent! 90% of Dutch people claim to have conversation level English.
So if you are considering camper vanning abroad for the first time and find the potential language barrier a bit daunting, try the Netherlands first to ease yourself in! There are some Netherlands downsides – it has been the dearest place for food, drink, diesel, and camping stops, but they also rate pretty high on the world happiness index (6th in the world!)
Belgium is great for languages too – they are laid back enough to not have their own, but use Dutch and French. Many Belgians speak English too.
Contrast with Germany – which made us feel a little better about our lack of languages in blighty. We encountered very few people that spoke anything except German, so you need to get your bitte and danke sorted out!
We arrived at the Unicorn campsite just after lunch and as the weather was due to worsen, we went for a brisk stroll along the beach. Popped into town, visited the commonwealth war graves and back to the van for a chilli con carne van dinner. First impressions of the town – a sad reminder that the French national pass-time is to encourage dogs to shit on the pavements – it’s everywhere! So an afternoon wandering & doing the dogshit dance.
Day 2 and we got the bikes out and had a great time cycling up to the LAAC modern art museum (https://www.dunkirk-tourism.com/What-to-see-do/Contemporary-art/LAAC-Modern-Art-Museum), the sculpture garden and after a massive burger for lunch, spent the afternoon exploring the maritime museum and the ships that they have in the harbour. The museum is mostly models but they also have a temporary exhibition space and for our visit that was dedicated to music and the sea.
Sadly, the Dunkirk 1940 experience museum is closed until June. Maybe on the way home! We also didn’t get to walk around the FRAC contemporary art museum, although the big glass building is impressive from the outside!
What was supposed to be two weeks back at home ended up being a month and we had to kick ourselves into gear to actually get back on the road. Finally it was goodbye to Charlie and next door’s cat, SORN the car (again) and off we go to Calais. We didn’t book in advance and just turned up and rolled right on the RORO. £125 not too bad really.
Our first stop, just 20km east along the coast from Calais was Gravelines (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravelines). It’s one of many walled towns along the coast dating back to the times when the Spanish controlled the area! These days it’s famous for the epic nuclear plant that generates over 7% of Frances electricity and for two of Frances largest data centres.
Our stopover was just €7.50 for 24 hours, although without any services! A wonderful spot overlooking the Fleuve canal. Interesting as the whole marina dries out at low tide leaving everything sitting on mud!
We arrived late so just time to get settled in. A quiet night and then a brief walk of the city walls in the morning and back to mothership and off along the coast!
We are back in France for the third time this trip! It was wonderful to drive up the foothills of the alps to the approach of the Mont Blanc tunnel and it was awesome to be driving the Alps during the winter.
Our first surprise was the price! We had researched it as about 65€, but the Italian cashier cheerfully told us that as we are over 3M tall, it was 165€. Bril. Not much we could do about it – it would have cost us ages to head back down and around.
That was not the only surprise – we left Italy on a very mild winter day and arrived in Francais 12km later to a very cold snowy day! The campsite is about 4km along the main route from Chamonix, so we got to the campsite and hunkered down.
Although we wanted to go into Chamonix proper, the visibility was low so we decided to give it a miss.
Next morning there was a blanket of fresh snow, probably only a couple of cm. Not surprising, the roads were all freshly salted/gritted, so even though it was minus 2, all the roads – even the tiny little road that the campsite is on were all fine. Time for a few photos and then hit the road – time for another country!
The Cote d’Azur does not seem very camper friendly. We are out of season so most of the proper campsites are shut. There are very few camping car aires, so we had to take what we could get. The location we found was out in a national park, close to the Sea. The road was easy but the weather was dreadful – howling winds and pissing down so we elected to sit it out for a further night plus we both felt pretty rough – colds not shook off yet.
Anyway, in the end, the location was great, it was a mere 50M from the sea front and set among bamboo beds.
The next day and we went for a wander along the sea front and up into the national park in the hills above the camping area. We were about 5km around the promontory from St Tropez proper and there was not much here. Apart from the campsites we found a gated community ‘Village de Pecheurs’ saying ‘go away’ in no uncertain terms so we stayed away. Unlikely to actually be any fisherman living in that place we think – it even has it’s own no drone flying zone!
Next it’s a 150km hike along the coast and into Italy!
Marseilles started off very bad! As we normally do, we used Sally to help home in on the site. Sally is a ‘Smart’ motorhome satnav that knows the height, weight, width and length of the Mothership, and she avoids roads that where we either won’t fit or are legally not allowed such as a 3.5 tonne limit.
Ok, with that background in mind, the Marseille stopover was a bloody nightmare to find. We followed the satnav until the time when we were halfway up a mountain and the road narrowed to 2.5 meters. We could not bloody fit. We don’t have the dashcam footage as the power lead had fallen out, but suffice to say that the 300 meters of reversing down a VERY narrow road was a fecking nightmare! Even once we found a route out, we were stuck down a two way road with room only for one. It took half an hour of sweating, swearing and worrying of both navigator and driver to extricate us. PHEW. After that and the easiest thing to do was ignore the 3.5 tonne limit and find out that we had been circling the site and sure enough we arrived just fine in ten minutes.
What had we done wrong? Well, the important thing to consider is that the weight limits apply to specific roads. Off those routes *shrug* anything goes. So what happened was that we were directed off wide easy roads that happen to have 3.5 tone limits to ever narrower roads that eventually became impassable – but which in the satnav don’t have any legal limits applied. Our only fix was to turn off the weight limits and to use Google maps alongside the satnav to guide us home.
The frustrating thing is that when we arrived we noted that many heavy vehicles were travelling down the restricted road, so from now on, more research needed for city locations! And for the second time on this tour, we learn the lesson that 3.5 tonne limits should be considered advisory 😉
Next day and it was a bus into town then the metro for the historical centre. We had a wonderful afternoon exploring the town surrounding the old port and the fort plus a great steak dinner overlooking the marina.
The schedule prevents us spending another day here otherwise, there is a lot more to see and do.
The drive up the coast from Girona was ‘interesting’. As per normal, we have the satnav set to avoid toll roads. The coast road that the satnav chose instead of the main road was very windy and very steep. It was wide enough for us so no real issues. A quick stop for photos at the border to France.
The weather was also starting to get rough and the wind picked up. The wind picked up to about 50kmh and our progress was slow, so we decided to stop for the night rather than push on. We already had a nice camper stop lined for this eventuality, but it was an automated machine and the touchscreen was not working properly. Selina spent twenty minutes running through the same stops over and over but to no avail – we could not get in.
So we gave up and about 10km down the road was a free stopover that had water and sewerage, so it was win win.
It was a bad night – the winds really buffeted the van so neither of us got a lot of sleep. As it was we parked at an odd angle in the parking area to try and get our nose into the wind – to little avail.
But next morning it was sunny and we had a good view of the lake and the aigrette population. And then the final push to Montpellier.
Just wow, really. The 5 ton(ish) mothership struggled up some >10% inclines, but we got up to the ski resort of La Mongie deep in the Pyrenees.
Being out of season is a little eerie – everything is shut up tight like a drum and there are just us and the few other tourists here for the same reason as us.
And the reason for this trip through the mountains at this particular crossing point – aside from the wonderful views – was the famous ‘Pic Du Midi’, which is an observatory at 10,000 feet and accessible from cable car (two cable cars actually!) from La Mongie.
This was our most expensive day out at 40€ each, but blimey, the views from 3000 meters were amazing. We came back down to La Mongie at a mere 5000 feet to find that the clouds had closed in around us and cows and llamas were walking around the resort in considerably greater numbers than people.
We waited for about an hour and it lifted about fifty feet. Sounds like a little, but it meant that we could see down the mountain and safely drive the 30km to our overnight stop at Campan with the clouds *just* above us.
We descended a couple of thousand feet and the mothership brakes smelled pretty warm, even with engine braking and hill descent mode!
Payolle near Campan was a free overnight stop with fresh water and waste disposal. It’s rural and is nestled among the mountains in a pine forest with warnings about bears! A brisk walk around the lake making plenty of noise and retire.
Lourdes was a must see on the list – the architecture nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees rather than any religious reason!
We spent a day at the various churches and monasteries – especially the Catholic Sanctuaires Notre-Dame de Lourdes. We treated ourselves to a lunch out in the town and spent a couple of hours in the company of many Irish folk – Lourdes is awash with them!
Much of the town is not surprisingly given over to religious tourism – empty water bottles for holy water etc. Probably the busiest place we have been in a month. Lots of character but a very hairy to ride the bikes – definitely not a velo friendly town! We also visited the fort which is on a rock pinnacle in the middle of the old town.
On the second day we started with laundry and then cycled out to the Funiculaire du Pic du Jer (https://www.lourdes-infotourisme.com/web/FR/2449-pic-du-jer.php) and a hairy 1000 meter climb and fantastic panoramic view of the whole area. We were just about level with the clouds. And a wonderful meal at the top. There are caves up the top too, but having only been to Betharram a couple of days before we gave the caves a miss this time! There is a black mountain bike run down the hill, but after the ‘Wales incident’, sports like downhill MTB are off the menu at the moment.
Back to base and planning for the next few days – we are plotting the best course through the Pyrenees.
We’ve been more productive in the last few days because the TV is not working. Well, to be more accurate, the satellite system is not working. It finds the satellite ok, but there are only a few channels working. We think that we’ve come far enough south that the dish needs an adjustment to the ‘skew’ and the blighters back at home are being tardy telling us how to do it.
T has given it ‘a thick coat of thinking about’ and decided that messing about with it before getting the definitive instructions might make it worse. We have a full set of manuals with us for every single item installed and bought with us, but the stupid manual for the satellite dish just says ‘adjust the skew’.
Update: After spending a long evening with the internet becoming satellite TV experts it turns out that the UK broadcasters now try to use special UK only transponders on the latest Astra satellites and the bleed into the rest of Europe is very limited, so that may be our lot for UK TV for a while. Might as well cancel the fecking TV license then! We’ve got a few days behind posting here – we ran out of data – oops!
The aire for the night was a free spot in a car-park by a gorgeous mountain river. We could not believe we lucked into this place without a lot of research.
We decided to cycle to the caves – The Grottes de Betharram – which was the reason for the visit here. The caves are awesome. We thought it might be a tourist trap, but the tour takes a couple of hours and there is a couple of KM of walking and a few hundred stairs underground. It’s mainly limestone caves where an underground river once carved out a path for itself. (http://www.betharram.com/) The last part of the tour is a short boat ride and about a km of train ride.
We also explored the Monastery in Betharram and climbed to the top of a hill lined with small churches, built by the monks.