Cynthia wanted me to see Lauterbrunnen’s dead-end valley. She adores the valley’s high cliffs rising vertically from the valley floor, and the countless waterfalls tumbling down the mountain’s sheer cliffs. “You’ll love the valley,” she enthused. “It’s one of the most beautiful parts of Switzerland. It’s picture postcard perfect!” I was sure I would enjoy spending a day or two at Lauterbrunnen and, I thought ruefully, I would need a few quiet days in the valley to recover from the drive there. Google Maps showed our route. I didn’t like it one tiny little bit.
We crossed the Swiss border last year without knowing what we were doing. As in France and Spain, there’s a fee in Switzerland to use the motorway network. Unlike French and Spanish charges, Swiss fees are calculated by time rather than by distance. Drivers don’t need to pay Swiss road tax if they avoid major highways. Unfortunately for us, using minor roads often involves negotiating high and narrow passes frequently covered in thick snow during the winter and early spring. Our heavily laden front wheel drive Hymer performs poorly if there’s a little sleet or ice, even on a flat surface. Attempting snow-covered twenty-five percent gradients flanked by unprotected vertical drops into distant river beds would be asking for trouble.
The French Mediterranean coast is renowned for its wind. The coast and I have much in common. After two thoroughly enjoyable winters down here, we’ve become accustomed to the Hymer’s gentle rocking overnight, leaning forward as we walk along exposed beaches, or sudden sideways lurches as we drive cautiously along windswept coastal roads. These experiences have been tender preparation for our spring drive north.
Motorway matrix signs warned us about hazardous driving conditions, our iPhone weather apps told us about potential wind disruption and, as we prepared to leave Bages, we struggled to open our habitation door against the strengthening gale. I knew the day’s journey would be entertaining.
When the Saga recovery lorry left us, I spent twenty exhausting minutes shoehorning the deflated tyre and wheel into its impossibly tight and hard to reach recess. I resorted to crawling into the Hymer’s garage and kicking it with both feet. I wedged it successfully into its proper space knowing that getting it out again was going to be a far more difficult affair. Cynthia suggested doing something sensible like fitting a strap around it so that I can pull it out without straining my back. I pretended not to hear her useful advice and gave the tyre an extra kick to make getting it out even more of a challenge.
We’ve appealed against the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) decision to refuse Cynthia permission to stay long-term in the Netherlands. Completing the appeal paperwork took days of compiling, copying and writing, but that part of the process was simple compared to the trouble we had getting the letter into the French postal system.
We don’t have room for a printer or a copier in our tiny home. We needed to find a business able to print the appeal cover letter stored on a USB memory stick, and copy dozens of bank statements sent by Cynthia’s American bank to our UK mailing address and then forwarded to us in France. An accommodating receptionist at Peyriac-de-Mer’s mairie, the local town hall, was prepared to print our cover letter for us. Our old USB stick had other ideas. It failed when she plugged it into her office computer.
We met Dave and Heather a few weeks ago. They were aspiring motorhome owners searching for advice about motorhomes, their running costs and the logistics of living in one for extended periods. The married couple offers French cookery lessons from their home on the Canal du Midi close to Trebes. They were delighted to discover that we were spending the winter an hour’s drive from their home. They took advantage of a local Pilote dealer’s ‘Try Before You Buy’ long weekend deal and met us on a stony beach at Leucate.
When we aren’t worrying about Cynthia being thrown out of the country for overstaying her welcome, we like to enjoy our time on the road. Driving, even in an area as beautiful as southern France, can be tedious. We’ve become somewhat desensitised to distant views of magnificent snow-capped mountains and endless lagoons filled with exotic birds. We need something else to entertain us. Guessing and counting the number of motorhomes we’ll pass on a journey is one game we like to play. Counting brightly coloured birds is another.
The day wasn’t one of our best. It began well enough. After two nights on a Narbonne aire mains electricity supply, our battery bank managed a night without dropping below 12V, 50% according to my AGM battery voltage chart. We may have shortened the battery bank life already, but to avoid reducing it further we need to stay as far away from 50% discharge as possible. That means either reducing our onboard electrical use or increasing our battery bank capacity.
We haven’t resorted to reading by candlelight just yet. However, I don’t think we can reduce our usage much more. To avoid running the heating system electrical fan, we turn on the heating less frequently. Cynthia doesn’t mind. She appears to be immune to lower living temperatures. A decade of enduring searingly cold Vermont winters has finally paid off. I’m not so robust. I often resort to wearing a fleece hat indoors, sometimes a goose down jacket too.
Spring has sprung here in the south of France. After a few days of intense wind and heavy rain, the thermometer has crept steadily north. Our isolated spot on a rocky beach overlooking Leucate’s shallow lagoon would have been the perfect place to bask in the early spring sun. Which is a shame really, because we had to move.
With an almost empty water tank, we drove two kilometres to Air de Camping Le Goulet, a sizeable terraced motorhome parking area overlooking the lagoon. One of the many benefits of winter tours in France is free parking, even on fully serviced aires. We’ve used this site regularly. The exit barrier has been left open to allow motorhomes to enter without paying the regular €10 per night fee. It’s too close to the main road for us to consider paying to stay, but its free facilities have been useful. At least they were until the aire owners prepared themselves for the new season on 1st March.
Our onboard electrics continue to puzzle us. The current in our leisure bank dropped to 11.7V last night, indicating that our two 90Ah batteries were down to 20%. That was after running the generator for four hours in the morning and then moderate 12V use throughout the day.
Following some excellent advice on Facebook’s 12V boating group, we decided to (A) buy what the group call a Phil meter and (B) spend two days on an electrical hookup to ensure that our battery bank is fully charged. The Phil meter is a combined voltage meter /Ammeter /Power Meter /Multimeter. One of the most useful displays will be the amps going in and coming out of the battery bank. I’ll be able to see whether the problem is with our batteries or with the way we use them.