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Monday, 27 July 2009

Europe trip 2009 - Montgenevre to Home

25th June.

The morning was crisp, clear and bright, and after slipping €10 into the machine for a ticket to open the barrier, we left the aire at Montgenevre and enjoyed some more spectacular scenery to Briancon.

Where has all the snow gone!

Sue then decided she wanted to have a look at Risoul - what she thought would be a small village ski resort suitable for a possible winter visit.
I love driving the van up mountains (sometimes) so I readily bent my arm behind my back and agreed. As it turned out there was a spectacular view over the valley 1925 metres up, but Risoul resort was a purpose built village of modern apartment blocks, the original settlement long since submerged in development.

The view from Risoul (1925 metres up)

After lunch we came down the hill again and checked out Camping Cariamas, but left under whelmed by its lack of views, proximity to the main road and rough and ready set up – who in their right minds sites the rubbish bins next to the shower block where the flies and smell migrate inside?

Camping Le Roustou on the shore of Lake Serre Poncon was a different ball game. On its own south facing peninsular, it offers a nice swimming pool, a boat jetty and slipway and tennis courts. After a lengthy walk around the site we discovered a pitch on a hillock with 180 degree views of the lake and only one adjacent pitch, backing onto some static homes.
The lake already had a stiff chop on it in the increasing wind, but a dip in the largish swimming pool put us to rights.

GPS: 44.5218 N, 6.4301 E

Another fantastic pitch, Caravan Club eat your heart out!

26th - 27th June
A gentle couple of days spent swimming and relaxing. The site reception has some fast, free wi-fi but you have to sit on tiny wooden stools – good for some high speed downloads, but keeps your browsing to a minimum!

If the lake's too cold, try the pool!

28th June
Reluctantly leaving Le Roustou behind, we picked up the N94 through Gap, Serres, Rosans and down towards Nyons. Uphill and down dale, it’s a scenic transit route popular with motorcaravanners (judging by the regular use of our waving arms) and passes through attractive limestone gorges between Rosans and Nyons.

It was another meltingly hot day and we made the mistake of stopping too early, despite finding a delightful France Passion outside of Mirabel Aux Baronnies. (GPS: 44.3319 N, 5.1113 E)
Parked on gravel, with a view over the fields but no shade, we nearly fried, only the fan dragging a cooling draught in through a small side window saved us from expiring.
Once the sun went down we opened the large side windows, but it was late before we felt like eating.

At last the sun goes down, that was a hot one!

29th June
Visting the “cave” in the morning we bought a litre of AOC olive oil for €20. Perhaps it was the seductively cool cellar and friendly chat from the owner, but the oil tasted superb and magicked the money out of our pockets. Try to remember chewing on the freshest piece of grass you ever tasted (as a kid of course) and imagine that as a liquid in a teaspoon, it didn’t taste oily at all. Applied liberally over fresh salads, meat, fish, pasta or potatoes it really is a treat - though nearly the same price as a drop of malt whisky!

Down to the cellar for a little oil tasting

We drove into the little hillside town of Mirabel Aux Baronnies, a charming, quiet place, with steep cobbled streets and flower baskets everywhere. There is an aire for four or five vans a few minutes walk away from the centre. (GPS: 44.3129 N, 5.1002 E).

Unusually there was a donation box, but also a notice thanking the “Camping-caristes” for their generosity, which according to the notice had paid for a children’s day out and a ceremony for the local fire service.

Deciding we needed a few days by a pool we crossed the Rhone and booked into Le Medieval near St Thome. This is a lovely wooded ACSI site by a river gorge with a very laid back atmosphere. There is a popular restaurant used by the locals, two pools and free wi-fi on the restaurant terrace. It was fairly empty and the ACSI discount still available.
We gratefully settled ourselves on the river bank with plenty of shade and a limestone cliff opposite. Above the cliff we regularly saw birds of prey wheeling about on the thermals, looking for their next meal.

GPS: 44.5057 N, 4.6201 E

Camping Medieval, calm and tranquility - well almost

30th June - 2nd July
The only downside to this near perfect spot was a Dutch couple two pitches away, the man smoked the most disgusting pipe tobacco - amazing that the smell could travel so far in the evening air. Their dog barked endlessly too, perhaps he couldn’t stand it either. Fortunately they left the following day.
The pools however got visited on a regular basis, the smaller one unheated and blissfully more refreshing.

3rd July
Once more reluctant to leave, we headed north and stopped markedly later in the day at a France Passion based on a fruit farm at Chateauneuf Sur L'Isere. (GPS: 45.0162 N, 4.9602 E)
This time we had a pitch (to ourselves) by a bank of trees giving us complete shade, but also a tantalizing glimpse of a swimming pool in the accompanying Gite.

4th July
The farm specialized in fruit, including rare varieties and a cross between a Prune (plum) and an Abricot (apricot), imaginatively called a “Prunotte”. We bought some and they were actually very nice, dark green skin revealing a reddy-orange flesh that was tangy and sweet at the same time. The automated packing shed was in full swing when we left and we picked up some nectarines and apricots and some cherry confiture.

Another sunny, uplifting morning in the French countryside

Now we hit the N7 for Lyons in search of some goodies for the van at various motorhome concessionaires.
One item purchased was a new set of Thule (Omnistor) leveling ramps. They are 1 cm higher than our Fiamma equivalent and stronger with two spines instead of one. Usefully (for free campers), they are less conspicuous in black rather than yellow and come with a tidy carry case - for only €3 more - no contest.
Another essential item was some new insulating screens, but we struggled to find the French make we like for our 2002 Ducato. Eventually at the fourth try we lucked out, the screens being on a promotion and only €50!

With some time to spare we looked at some new Esterel motorhomes (Rapido groups premium brand), and were shocked at what we saw. The exterior bodywork was as beautifully finished as ever, but inside we found a toilet compartment without a hand basin to wash your hands in, a shower room with sticky-back vinyl lined walls (the exposed edge of the vinyl already peeling off!), awkward cupboards with stiff doors and cheap exposed hinges, a tiny kitchen work surface with a water tap folded down in the sink (WV camper style), and all in a van costing over €100.000!
The trend to huge walk around beds just seems a pose too far, especially when the space taken up means you are reduced to ridiculous compromises elsewhere - what are they thinking of?

On other "high quality" vans, Bavaria and Autostar we found locker doors with no positive locking, only spring loaded catches - useless to prevent stuff flying out on bumpy roads. Also the hatches to the double floor storage were just loose plywood lids, ready to fly through the air in the event of a collision, or even hard braking!
Our accident in 2006 showed how vital these features are, the only spring loaded catch in the whole van allowed the bathroom locker to discharge its contents, causing considerable damage to the shower and bathroom door as heavy toilet chemical bottles smashed around.
At the same time, inside the other lockers and drawers (which held fast as we teetered on the edge of rolling over onto our side), the contents re-arranged themselves in an unbelievable fashion, top to bottom and side to side. If the lockers had burst open the chaos and damage would have probably finished the van off, and us - maybe.

We tackled the salesman on the design and cost of the Esterel, but surprisingly he said the factory could not produce enough to meet demand, reckoning they could sell twice the quantity they could lay their hands on.
He also went on about costs of homolgation, the approval of design process that will hit the British manufacturers in a few years time. You tend to wonder where their designs started from (before homolgation), if they are getting away with some of the features we’ve seen.
One other interesting comment he made on the recession: the high end was still selling well, but they were piling up stocks of second hand vans – hang on for prices to free fall!

After we were thrown out of the Rapido dealership (closing time), we looked for the nearest aire from our part of Lyons and back tracked a bit to St George d' Esperanche, a largish village south east of the city centre.

The aire at St George d' Esperanche

The aire is by a roundabout on the outskirts of the village, with a tarmac area assigned for motorhomes, but a couple of French vans had already parked themselves on the grass, so we joined them. (GPS: 45.5559 N, 5.0745 E)

Later we walked around the town, finding only one restaurant open, and had a rather expensive and mediocre pizza. A bottle of the house Chianti, two pizzas and two blobs of ice cream came to €36.

5th July
Strolling into town in the sunshine for a few groceries, I found a long queue outside the bread shop but some rather fabulous pastries inside - some real works of art and selling like hot .…. pastries. A young and rather exhausted looking boulanger was attentively watching his night’s labour fly off the counters.

Back down to the aire, the French campers had their awnings out in the morning sun, one even had a BBQ going - free camping!
However, there was some dark menace in the sky and we packed up. An hour later we pulled over in Vienne as a mighty downpour flooded the roads.

Our satnav once more showed abject confusion over the renumbering of the French roads and we reverted solely to the map book to avoid any more wrong turns.
A France Passion at Demigny gave us a quiet refuge for the night. (GPS 46.9215 N, 4.8350 E)

6th July
The vineyard owner seemed too busy to be bothered with us and we departed with just a friendly wave.

We're missing it already

A visit to the medieval town of Beaune was on the agenda and we found the local aire, within easy walking distance of the centre. (GPS:47.0175 N, 4.83668E)

You won't catch a Frenchman at a table without a tablecloth!

The famous multicoloured tiled roofs of Les Hospices drew our attention but the €6 entrance ticket just to get a decent look at them didn’t seem worth it in the time we had allowed ourselves.

Our final France Passion was at Humbécourt near St Dizier (GPS: 48.5831 N, 4.9042 E). The charming owner, a retailer for local produce, opened up his barn doors for us to drive through to his paddock at the back “to get away from the road noise”. He seemed keen for his wife and teenage age children to practice their English on us, but they all shyly declined to be drawn into conversation.
We collected another pot of jam on the premise that it was something that his wife had made, and therefore all the value of the sale would go directly to them, but to be fair he didn’t seem the slightest bit bothered whether we bought anything or not.

7th July
Leaving early, the vast Caravan and Motorhome centre at St Dizier was still closed so we pressed on up the N4, through Chalons-en-Champagne, picking up the D966 out of Reims, a lovely clear straight road through unspoilt rural scenery.

The Sunflowers have had their fill, but the rain is coming

At Vervins, we took the N2, then at La Capelle the D1043 to Catillon sur Sambre.

The aire at Catillon sur Sambre is a familiar refuge for us, we spent several days there last year waiting for some spare parts to arrive for the van’s front suspension. It’s on a nice spot by the canal and has the added benefit of free electricity, though the noise from the lifting bridge as the road traffic thunders over it can be intrusive. There is additional parking on waste ground on the other side of the canal if the clanging of the bridge disturbs you, but without electricity. (GPS: 50.0760 N, 3.6465 E)

Mid afternoon, a mobile grocer turned up and opened up his counter just for us. Feeling compelled to buy something I chose a large bunch of brilliant red tomatoes.
Then two more British vans turned up, one a six wheel Hymer containing Michelle and Eddy, who were off on an extended tour over some of the same ground as us, and hopefully well into next year. We enjoyed a cuppa and a lengthy chat with them before opening a beer and continuing. I think they were still on English time and later were a little surprised to find it was 9 o’clock and no supper!

8th July
Said cheerio to Michelle and Eddy, slightly jealous that they were on their way out and us the opposite.
Our steadfastly non-peage route then took us through Cambrai to Arras and the D937 to Bethune, then the D943 past St Omer and to Calais.
After stocking up on fuel and groceries we parked in the compound at Calais to await the Sea France ferry at 2300. Sue tried to get an earlier ferry but they wanted £26.50 to upgrade our cheap ticket to the 1730 one.

Off to the ferry we were pulled over for a search by the English customs officials and were relieved to find they were only interested in where we could hide an illegal immigrant! A glance in the bathroom and under the bed and we were on our way.

9th July
Coming off the ferry in light rain we parked in our usual spot on the seafront in Dover - free parking for van’s between 2100 and 0600.
After a couple of hours kip we rose at 0330 to hit M25 before the rush hour, though it was still busy.
The new Solstice business park across from Stonehenge was the venue for a proper breakfast, though it would be nice if they provided some open parking instead of having to use KFC’s litter strewn car park.

We stopped for a power nap at Cartgate picnic site (GPS: 50.9695 N 2.7395 E) - there are signs up for no overnight parking, but we’d give it a go another time.
Our race to get home to deal with a domestic problem produced its only casualty as I burnt my arm loading Autogas. The first time I’d done that, the awkward British spigot catching me out. Advice to deal with a freeze burn is the same as a hot one – stick it under cold water, it relieves the pain and reduces the burn.

A welcome pint and fish and chips for lunch (we did that last year!) calmed the frayed nerves, but by the time we had unpacked the van and returned it to its campsite storage it was late and we were utterly knackered.

Still, we were safely home (just) after 5 ½ months and 5 ½ thousand miles through 7 countries, in ice and snow and baking heat, up and down mountains, precipitous coastal roads and an amazing 12 ferry trips.
We saw some sights that will stay with us for ever, had some laughs and some anxious moments, made many new friends and visited (and re-visited) old friends - it’s the only way to travel, autonomous and free to go almost where we please.
Where next? Turkey? Sicily - Sardinia - Corsica? Morocco? Scandinavia? The Baltics?

A few figures just to finish off.
We were away for 168 nights, of which we spent 116 in campsites at a cost of £1802, or an average cost of £15 per night. Not the ratio or expenditure that we normally have, but it’s difficult to avoid staying in campsites on Croatia’s islands and coasts and though of high quality they don’t come cheap. None the less, the ACSI card saved us a bundle and also helped to choose a site. Be sure to get yours early next year as this year’s quota has long since sold out in the UK.

5562 miles burnt up £995 of fuel, which works out at 5.6 miles per pound or 18p per mile. We don’t travel light and all that mountain climbing takes its toll on consumption and brake pads.

We also spent £568 on ferries and boat trips (including cross channel). The ferry from Dubrovnik to Rijeka was £152 plus £55 for a cabin, which saved a return journey of over 400 miles, and for us, another ferry trip to avoid the 10 km dash through the Bosnian coastal enclave. Using the coast road, we would probably have taken 3-4 days over it and would have added the cost of campsites, so for us it was a no-brainer, we had an enjoyable time and saved a day or three retracing our steps for the same money as the ferry fare (minus the cabin).

Incidentally, we spent £134 on Autogas, £75 on campsite laundry machines and nothing on toilet chemical thanks to the SOG! A worthy fitment for long term motorhomers.

Another worthy fitment was the fabulous Fantastic-vent, it not only gave us a quick and efficient way of clearing the air when our new Carbon Monoxide alarm showed us we had insufficient ventilation for cooking, and safely kept the inside of the van cool when we were out - thanks to its automatic rain sensor, but above all gave us a wonderful cooling draft when the temperatures soared into the 30’s and upwards. When the air was still and stiflingly hot outside we found we could actually be cooler inside the van than out!
As our wise friend Brian said: “look at one of these before you consider air conditioning”, it’s certainly a cheaper, lighter, less power and space hungry option than either conventional or evaporative systems.


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