Ginoles

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This is a town up in the mountains, with around 300 residents in total, it’s pretty quiet. Best described as having sounds but no noise. This is where Anya the two year old Golden Retriever lives with her family. Together they all run another great little B&B. The house is an on-going project with a swimming pool nearing completion, not bad considering prior to the B&B transformation the house was unoccupied for around 20 years.  Most things are made fresh here, with a selection of jams and preserves for sale. This conveniently coincides with Verity’s latest food column topic which is based on Apricot Jam.

To source the ingredients for the Apricot Jam, we were directed to the nearby market of Esperanza, but we we’re also warned of the strange folk that surface on market day. referring to them as “funky people” was an extremely PC way to describe them, I would have personally been less kind. I guess travelling is about meeting people from all different walks of life, but I could probably afford to miss out the strange mix of carny/mountain people who would probably benefit from a wider gene pool. This is no reflection of the area in general, and I would highly recommend a visit as the views are ridiculous. With the haze that often clings to the surrounding mountains, it sometimes looks like it’s a CGI backdrop, maybe it is and we are in fact still in the Matrix, but I’m not ready for that crazy red pill just yet.

How the Van is holding up (Part One)

The pikey Transit is performing better than I could have ever hoped. It’s ideally suited to a camper conversion due to it being big and square. The additional head room from being a medium height is invaluable and it’s definitely more stealthy than the big motorhomes, which enables us to park in more urban environments. I’ve crammed a lot of tech and really useful features into the van so it’s really easy to live in. To list the larger items, it has a fridge, 2 burner gas hob, large stainless sink with tap and water pump, large fresh water container, large grey water container, additional lights, battery charger, diesel heater, 240v inverter, and all served by 2 big AGM batteries that are linked to the van starter battery via a split charge relay. The RIB Altair bed is the only bed to get. When coupled with a 3inch memory foam mattress topper it was better than our bed at home. Go for the RIB design as its footprint in the van is smaller than conventional rock n roll beds and it’s so easy to use. If you’re going to spend the money on anything make it the bed. Just before the trip I added loads more storage, and this is still not enough. Storage is key, make as many shelves, storage boxes and drawers as you can.

I could be accused of being a little OCD, and I like to spend my time rearranging things in the van to make them fit better, and enable them to be stored more efficiently. You need to compromise; the van is a dynamic environment where things move about as it has to adapt to new environments and conditions. I’m seeing this as a good experience for me, as if left to my own devices I would tidy myself into mental breakdown.

Life in the van is mostly comfortable, apart from extremes in temperature and a few learning curves, it’s great. We learnt the hard way that you need to close the doors for an hour at dusk to stop mosquitos taking up residence in all the nooks and crannies, only to come out at dawn and eat you alive. I was Verity’s sacrificial anode, in that I was eaten first to preserve her. I was woken up with a whizzing in my ear and found the van to be swarming with the little buggers, all full after a morning’s feast. I quickly became a mosquito ninja, and had honed my skill so much that I could have squished one mid-flight with chopsticks.

To make our life easier we’re planning on getting a solar shower and a bucket. Baby wipes are great but are no real alternative to a good shower. Occasionally we were able to stop in places of such beauty that we could just go for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea instead of showering, but this has only been the case once, and the temperature can be crazy down here. A shower would be a welcome addition.

The next item is the bucket. I’m finding wild wees a doddle, but Verity not so much. I think a bucket, as gross as it sounds, will take the urgency away from driving and will leave us free to park up in more places. We may have to take our relationship to the next level, but once we cross this boundary, we will be more comfortable in our toilet on wheels.

Overall life in the van is great, I’m really enjoying the outside living, and surviving with less. Taking days one at a time and experiencing new things. Waking up to the sound of flowing rivers and Verity snoring, instead of just Verity snoring, and having more time to enjoy the simple things in life – we’ve started to drink more wine.

 It’s really easy to cook with a 2-burner hob, and because of this we probably eat too well. We need to be more mindful that we need to budget ourselves as we’re possibly in it for the long haul, and luxury food shouldn’t be the norm. We splash out in the markets and buy fresh fruit and veg for next to nothing and reserve ourselves when we have to make do with a supermarket. Food in France can be amazing, but I need to careful with the pastries as I’m not doing my 6:30am spin classes anymore, and I’m a bit of a dustbin.

I wish more young people would venture out with a camper, as all of our neighbours so far have been late 50s to early 60s with gammy legs. I’m hoping as we get closer to La Rochelle this may change and we will be parked up on the beaches with surfer types, as planned. Saying that my feet have really dried out, wearing in my new flip flops, and have cracked. I’ve been hobbling around trying not to put weight on a sizeable tear in my foot; maybe this is the start of my very own gammy leg.

 

Quillan

On our way over towards the west we contacted a workaway host who had a B&B in Quillan. A little town in the foothills of the Pyrenees boasting lakes, gorges and fast flowing rivers. This sounded great and maybe a little cooler than the south which had a very sun scorched feel to it. The host was in the UK and already had workaways for the up and coming months but we decided to head that way anyway to see what was there.

Be careful with satellite navigation in France, as if you don’t keep your wits about you, you will end up on a twisty road through the mountains, and you will be stuck on it for hours. The sat nav obviously thinks this is the fastest route as the speed limit would be ridiculous even for Louis Hamilton, whereas the actual speed you can safely drive is in the region of 20mph. Always look for a more direct route to override the sat nav’s lunacy. Maybe a good idea to store a Jerry can of spare fuel in case you get caught out. If you had chosen this route yourself, the drive through the mountains is ridiculous, with scenery you couldn’t even imagine when you’re typing away at your desk, but on a scorcher of a day with a fully loaded camper, it’s less than ideal.

Quillan was a great stop, we were fortunate enough to stumble across a free concert provided by the local Orchestre a Cordes – Les Cordes Des 4 Vents. They were a very talented group, but we were mostly amused by the conductor’s almost Saturday Night Fever type strut afterwards around the local church, which provided the venue.

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We drove a little further out of town, following the river and came across a campervan parking area. This was a bit of a god send as the soaring temperatures were starting to bake my noodle. It was a grassy area with loads of tree cover sitting right on the river bank, in addition there was a campervan waste point and fresh water tap. We spent the following day by the river bank, perfect to catch up with ourselves and to recap on the trip so far.

Gruissan

Out on our own again, and not really sure of where to go, we picked a spot on the coast and drove to it. This spot was Gruissan. Driving there we noticed the environment shifted to give more of a Spanish feel. This is to be expected as we were driving closer to the Spanish border. Stone houses we being replaced with concrete apartments to rent and little retirement homes. Still some stunning scenery around with the man-made harbour and snow capped Pyrenees towering over the horizon. We were back in tourist land though and we could feel our disapproval as we drove towards the beach.

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We happened to time our visit to coincide with a windsurf festival, so the beaches were heaving. This wasn’t a bad thing as we camouflaged ourselves in with the other million and one campervans, and took a walk along the beach before settling in for the night. To Verity’s disapproval the thud of bass started from the nearby festival and boomed out into the early hours. She gave a valiant effort at an old woman grumble towards the noise, before I heard snoring coming from her direction, and found her sound asleep. She remained this way right through to around 8am when we were greeted with a scorcher of a day, with temperatures well into the thirties.

We drove down the coast but found every area to be the same as the last, so we didn’t stay in any of them. Time for a new plan.

We want to head over to the west coast of France. Starting off in the south moving northerly into Bordeaux.  La Rochelle being a destination recommended by almost everyone.

Minerve/Le Somail

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Minerve is an iconic little medieval town built into a gorge, bit of a tourist trap, but well worth a visit. Stunning houses, shops and restaurants, all with an artisan feel. You can easily spend a couple of hours here, but not an all-day event. We travelled onto the next hotspot of Le Somail on the Canal du Midi. Slightly less to see here, but has a lovely relaxed vibe. Barges line the sides of the canal, and sleepy restaurants house retired cyclists and the nearby towns’ women having a good natter.

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Look out for the bookshop, great to go inside on a hot day as it’s very cool, but unfortunately all the books are in French. That’s a lie, there is a modest English section, where we actually found A Year in Provence.

Bize Minervois

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We decided to move west along the coast to the Languedoc Roussillon. On previous searches, we discovered there were more workaway opportunities and what looked to be a more traditional French region.

We discovered a B&B in Bize Minervois (Bits Min-er-v-was) as one of the Essex guests called it. This was just what we were searching for, and restored our faith in the journey.

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Run by a couple of ex-pats Dennis and Hilary, Maison des Palmiers is one of the nicest Bed and Breakfasts you could ask for. The building itself is stunning, with stone floors and balconies, and a lovely outside area complete with pool and shaded BBQ.

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Bize is lovely; a typical French town with just the bare essentials. A bakery, restaurant, and small shop, and loads of quaint little roads lined with different coloured window shutters. Alternating between a market and a Vide Grenier (car boot sale) the square was put to good use. We were enlisted to help over a particularly busy weekend, also Hilary was recovering from a foot operation and was told to take it easy. There was a wedding in the nearby Chateau, and all four guest bedrooms of the B&B were occupied. The guests were all fantastic, but from very different backgrounds. This made our stay perfect, as we got to know them all over the extended weekend. I also earnt a decent amount of money, providing a taxi service each day, as French weddings traditionally stretch over a few days.

David and his wife Trish, two of the guests, were local to our home town of Wimborne in Dorset being from New Milton just up the road. David, the definition of an English gent, was well up on his wine. Wearing his Ray Bans and a Panama hat he was in his element exploring the regions’ vineyards and caves (Wine Shops). He also left me a cracking bottle of bubbly when he found out it was my birthday on the Monday.

On the evening of my birthday I was spoilt rotten as Hilary and Dennis made a dinner for everyone. Dennis being a former chef, but modestly only mentioning it a few times a day, cooked an amazing feast and topped it off with a carrot cake. Such a perfect birthday treat, and completely unexpected. Maison des Palmiers and its inhabitants will receive nothing but exceptional feedback from us and we hope we can pop in for another stint sometime soon.

Frejus

This is a little town in between Cannes and Sainte-Maxime on the stunning coastal road. This area was great for campervans. There is a carpark on the right, just before the bridge leading to the main part of the town, that is an unofficial campervan spot. On one side is the start of a river, on the other side is a stunning golden beach with turquoise water. Clean toilet pods run along the length of the beach and the bins in the carpark are emptied regularly, by a very well dressed young man with a moustache and swagger not often found with this particular vocation. 

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This was a great find, and we stayed here for two nights. There’s more security when you park next to a small gathering of motorhomes as everyone looks out for their neighbours in the true curtain twitching fashion of back home in old Blighty. One of our new neighbours was a solo German man, whose campervan wardrobe consisted of two pairs of pants. The routine was to wear one pair, then wash and hang out the other pair, and repeat. He was fat and hairy, and didn’t attempt to hide it. He would have struggled to hide it, being that he was only ever wearing just his underpants. Jolly old man though, and had some poodle/terrier mongrel type dog to keep him company.

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There’s not a lot else to do in Frejus other than work on your golden tan and kick back into campervan life, and this was fine as we were still processing the great escape and the van being broken into on the previous day.

Cannes/Antibes/Sainte-Maxime/Saint-Tropez

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Stunningly beautiful coastline that stretches on forever. Harley Davidsons parade up and down quite literally all day long. The motorcycle equivalent to the British MAMIL, (Middle Aged Men in Leather), the louder the bike the more important, but I am a little jealous, being a biker myself; this is one of the best roads you could ask for to cruise on a motorcycle. I even started to come around to the Harley “Bobber” style, and may have added one to my bike wish list.

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Early morning before the bikers had awoken and the sun wasn’t quite at full strength, the cyclists were out in their hundreds. Either the locals on their daily routine or tourists enjoying their pilgrimage to this amazing stretch of road, they all looked the part. If you can avoid the crazy driving you will be rewarded with one of the most stunning rides you will likely ever take.

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This area is expensive! Try and buy your average grocery shop and multiply the cost by three. We found we couldn’t survive in this area for long on our budget, but decide to stay for a few days due to the picturesque views and the fact we are not likely to return.

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We parked just outside Antibes along the beach front and wandered into town to search for Wi-Fi and a palatable coffee. We found the Wi-Fi!

On our return, we had found the van side window to have been forced open and Verity’s handbag taken. Fortunately, we never left anything of value in the van, and what seemed to be quite an annoying ritual, carrying all the laptops and documents in a ruc-sac everywhere, paid off.

Nothing of any monetary value was taken, but both pairs of Verity’s glasses, a book she was half-way through, her watch case, and a notepad. No use to anyone except her, and I’m sure was likely to have been discarded further down the road, although we couldn’t find any of it on searching.

Further to this they had broken the catch to the window, now leaving the van less secure. The little side window is really useful when cooking, or sitting in the back, to offer a little breeze, but I’m starting to think I should have gone for the solid glass instead, for security. This would mean you would have to break one of the windows, and you would really have to want to get in, rather than inviting your opportune thieves to have a quick go at the side window. You live and learn, and this affirmed to us that, despite the stunning views, we didn’t really like this area. It wasn’t the traditional France that we were looking for, with shops selling watches for 76,000 Euros it was an area of indulgence and plenty.

Cabris (first workaway assignment)

Cabris (pronouncing the “s”) is up in the hills. After wearing away half of my clutch to get up there, we found it to be exactly what we were running away from in England. A very rich area, where people live in their boxes and don’t know their neighbours. Everyone drives luxury 4x4s and needs to seem awfully important. Unfortunately we didn’t pick very well for our first workaway hosts.

The house was a building site and the people (two parents with four screaming kids) were very messy. Everything was in different stages of being broken. Some of the more longstanding and useful items, such as the toilet seats, were fully broken, and some of the newer additions were well on their way.

The food situation was dire. A family of part time vegetarians who will lecture you from up high about how healthy they are because of their strict almost vegan diet, and yet the vegans all ate cheese because they’re young and need the protein, and we all had a BBQ on the Friday lunch where everyone indulged in very meaty sausages.

We had very strict duties: we needed to be on duty at 7am, to serve the kids’ breakfast. This was a family that bought into the idea of not disciplining their kids, so throwing things and screaming was to be encouraged. We managed to discover an ancient pack of Weetabix in the back of the cupboard to offer as an alternative to a burnt rice porridge concoction, reheated from the previous day. The kids all revelled in the luxurious Weetabix and we poured their healthy (full of sugar) spelt milk alternative over their breakfasts. Quickly scurrying away into the kitchen, as any servant would, we began to dream of the typical French breakfast where you pop down to your local bakery every morning to pick up fresh bread and croissants.

After breakfast, there was a long list of duties to attend to, in what seemed an impossibly short amount of time (the 2-hour morning shift, 7-9am). To set a good example on our first day we thoroughly cleaned their kitchen and went way over our set hours, primarily to meet our own (very reasonable) hygiene standards but we thought this may also be acknowledged by our masters.

Skip forward to our evening shift (4-hour, 4-8pm) I had the luxury of doing manual labour outside while Verity had to do laundry, cook for eight people, entertain four kids, serve and clean up dinner and dance around someone constantly showing her how to do things properly.

For this we had in return the right to sit at the table (backs straight of course) and awkwardly smile and try not to look too embarrassed during the evening’s argument.

The only positive aspect of this assignment was a little rabbit called Floppy or Flopsy. He was the only friendly person to greet us on arrival, after two full days of driving, he met us on the drive and followed us as we entered the chaos. He was allowed free reign of the house and surrounding area, more like the traits of a dog, he seemed to enjoy our calming influence. Whilst being a little confused and persistently trying to hump your leg, he was a lovely little rabbit and we really miss him.

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Foolishly signing up for two months, we could only stand three days, and had to come up with our escape. Listening to great advice that will stand anyone in good stead “there’s no point arguing with idiots” we decided to just leave. This was not why we came on our European road trip, we wanted to integrate into the family and area we were staying in, not to just serve and obey. We had our campervan and could survive quite comfortably on our own. Workaway was a luxury, a chance to meet awesome people and to make our trip more sustainable as a long-term experience, not to live in a stressful and awkward environment.

The morning of the Great Escape: we waited until everyone was out. This was a Tuesday when the cleaner was in. The family didn’t like the cleaner “She’s a grumpy Italian old bag” who turned out to be really nice. She quickly cottoned on to our escape, so Verity (having conversational French) had to make sure that she wasn’t going to phone it in to the wardens. She was well and truly on our side, she even told us that the previous couple had done the very same thing after three days. This dispelled any misgivings and galvanised our escape.

Verity is a crap accomplice! She forgot to start the washing machine, so we had to sit with the van loaded up for an additional thirty minutes while we waited for the washing machine to finish its cycle. We made it out alive without having to dig a single tunnel, we gave Floppy/Flopsy a hug and “did one”.

We have achieved our first negative feedback. We worked really hard whilst there, but due to us leaving they felt this deserved negative feedback. We will have to take this on the chin, and ensure we learn from every bad experience.

Cherbourg to Cannes (Cabris)

Drive off the ferry and there’s no faffing around, you’re free to enter France. Quickly figure out how to drive on the wrong side of the road and off you go. The first thing I found was occasionally you find a junction in the road where sanity would suggest you have the right of way, but I’ve had Frenchies pulling out with conviction, so be careful I think there are junctions where people, joining what I see as the main road, have priority.

There’s a strange mixture of good and extremely bad driving habits in northern France. Motorway etiquette is how it should be. Cars are very strict in pulling into the slower lanes to keep the fast lane clear, and if you don’t you’re almost forced off the road, so you learn quickly. In contrast tail-gating seems to be a national sport, with a goal to stop anyone trying to enter the motorway via a slip road you gain bonus points if you can force them to stop instead of simply moving lanes yourself.

The further south you go the more relaxed the driving styles, but this also comes free with being far too relaxed to potential dangers. We encountered someone flying over a humped bridge that was also narrower than a typical road. With just enough room to pass two vehicles side by side at a crawling speed, if we had arrived 10 seconds earlier that would have been it, game over. I’m not shy to a bit of friendly rivalry between the brits and the frogs, but they are truly bad drivers.

Toll after toll after toll, we powered straight through to the south. Using around one and a half tanks of fuel, and paying at least 100 Euros in tolls. There were lovely Aires (service stations) and places to rest, or even camp for the night, but I’m not convinced they justify the price tag. As a hint, always aim for the toll booth with the green arrow, these lanes accept every form of payment. Always have cash as a backup, as 95% of the toll gates accept Visa debit, but they do like to catch you out with the one rebellious gate that is struggling to conform to modern forms of payment. For these situations, you can always press the assistance button. This is where you can speak to someone with bad English about having difficulties with the inconsistent methods of payment. At one particular gate, every second word was an extremely high pitched “what!” eventually just opening the barrier and seeing us on our way while explaining to her colleague that the damn British never pay.