I haven’t written much over the last two weeks because, to be frank, I haven’t had much to write about. Santa has been kind enough to give us a trouble free festive break. Everything is working on the Hymer as well as it’s supposed to, so there are no tales of tragic breakdowns or careless accidents to report. I could almost describe our last couple of weeks as relaxing. I’m only joking Cynthia, of course the last fortnight has been relaxing!
At the beginning of last week we spent a relaxing couple of days on our own on Rennes-le-Chateaux’s facility free aire/car park. A complete lack of facilities and a steep downhill slope which is impossible to fully correct with even the tallest of motorhome ramps are two reasons for the aire’s tranquility.
We almost managed to level the Hymer, but still had to endure a couple of days of very careful walking up and down the cabin and an occasional downhill stagger. Our wardrobe has four sliding drawers in it. Each time the door was opened, all four drawers leaped out and spat their contents at the galley sink. These small problems were a small price to pay for the stunning view and two days of blissful solitude.
Eventually we had to drive to Espéraza for the last time to top up our dwindling water supply. Much as we enjoyed staying in the Espéraza area and mixing with the long established hippy community, we knew we couldn’t stay there without access to facilities.
The town cut off the water supply to their riverside aire the previous weekend in anticipation of winter frosts. We had to resort to topping up at the town cemetery. A few days later Cynthia had an upset stomach which may have been the result of a tank of non-potable cemetery water. A more likely cause is the rare evening meal I cooked her. Given that we either filter or boil all of our drinking water, the cemetery was an unlikely cause, but Cynthia was still reluctant to use it.
Not knowing when we would next have the opportunity to fill the tank, we had to use the water supply usually used for sprucing up wilting grave flowers, then drove east to Gruissan. We wanted to stay somewhere reasonably warm on Christmas Day. According to the Wunderground weather website, the forecast for Gruissan was regularly five or six degrees warmer than our mountainside aire, so the coast won.
We were both very happy with our decision. On Thursday and Friday we spent three or four hours each day sitting on the beach in tee shirts under a cloudless blue sky. We were very lucky. Our aire in named Les Quatre Vents, The Four Winds, for a very good reason. The area is very windy indeed.
We spoke at length to a regular Dutch visitor to the aire while we sat by the water. I mentioned how popular the aire was. I counted fifty motorhomes there. He told me that the popular spot would soon be inundated. As many as two hundred and fifty motorhomes would squeeze into the area by Christmas Day as the French contingent finished work and headed towards some winter sun. He said that many would move after a restless night being buffeted by regular gale force winds.
We didn’t want to join the hordes of last minute Christmas food shoppers so, early on Friday morning, we drove ten miles to Narbonne to their Carrefour mega store. We didn’t want a traditional Christmas dinner. Even if we did, we couldn’t have one. Our shoebox oven would struggle to cook a chicken leg. A complete bird and all the trimmings would certainly be out of the question. We opted for a simple Beef Bourguignon which we could cook in a casserole dish on our three burner stove.
Our Christmas shopping took just twenty minutes. We spent longer at a cafe near the supermarket entrance than preparing for an event that, for many people, is one of the most stressful times of the year. We took less than an hour in total, including a leisurely cappuccino for me and a freshly squeezed orange juice for Cynthia.
Christmas Day was one of the most relaxing I’ve had in years. I cooked the main course on Saturday, so the focus on the big day was relaxation. Cynthia sent me packing in the morning as part of my de-stress-Paul-programme. I’m even more irritable and unpleasant than normal if I spend too much time cooped up in our tiny home. A long walk in the great outdoors works wonders for me, and gives Cynthia a little peace and quiet.
I enjoyed a relaxing 10km walk through around Gruissan’s wind swept lagoon. A flock of flamingos floated in the lagoon’s centre like pink dandruff on a bright blue table cloth. Two cormorants dived for fish close to four egrets patrolling the lagoon’s marshy edge. Bikers and hikers bent double against a strengthening wind as they worked up appetites for their festive lunches.
The amount of Christmas Day activity at Gruissan surprised me. Christmas Day in England is often a dismal affair. Most businesses are closed. An occasional pub opens for a few lunchtime hours, but that’s it. Main roads and motorways are quiet, side streets deserted, pavements pedestrian free.
Gruissan couldn’t have been more different. Many shops were open. I passed three patisseries, several cafes and bars, a laundrette, a petrol station, a flower shop and a hair salon, all vying for Christmas Day trade.
I returned to an aire much quieter than both Cynthia and I expected. The forecast surge of festive motorhome owners didn’t materialise. I counted sixty four. This was the busiest aire we had stayed on to date, but it didn’t feel crowded. With space for a hundred motorhomes and no defined parking places, there was more than enough space for the wide variety of vehicles and owners.
Many had clearly settled in for the winter. Some had brought vehicles with them. Trailers with cars on them were common. Cars pulled behind motorhomes are often referred to as toads, because they’re towed behind the motorhome. These motorhome owners are a clever bunch, aren’t they?
Other motorhome owners had motorbikes or scooters with them. Two had road legal quad bikes. I had to admit to a twinge of jealously watching a helmeted husband and wife weaving through the town traffic on one.
We rather hoped for a calm and sunny Christmas Day and my first ever al fresco Christmas dinner. The howling gale ensured that all of our festive eating was done indoors, and very enjoyable it was too. Beef bourguignon and mashed potato might not be the most elaborate of Christmas meals, but I can’t imagine that many are more tasty. A kilogram of beef simmered for three hours in a whole bottle of pinot noir and a generous splash of french brandy takes a lot of beating. It was a delicious and relatively cheap Christmas meal.
One of the many advantages of living an itinerant life on the road is that we don’t spend much. We don’t have an address, so we can’t use Amazon at the moment. I suspect that Amazon might be struggling a little now that we’ve left the UK. We used to spend a fortune on stuff we wanted but didn’t need.
We’ve actually spent less this month than we have in any other month this year. Cynthia and I decided not to splash out on extravagant presents for each other. We don’t have the space to store anything, and there’s very little we either need or want. We think that splashing out on a boat for summer cruising is more than enough spending for the year. The thought of returning to the water for half of each year is far more exciting than a new pair of socks or a book token.
After a very relaxing five days at Gruissan we headed south, stopping briefly in Narbonne to brave the crowds in the city’s huge Carrefour store. As hoards of shoppers staggered through the full car park bandy legged under the weight of Christmas bargains, Cynthia and I sauntered back to the Hymer with a roll of cling film and a bottle of dishwashing detergent.
We drove forty miles south to Leucate at the northern end of yet another of the area’s many coastal lagoons. There are two aires listed for Leucate in our guide to aires in southern France. The first, Le Goulet, looked pleasant enough with a series of level terraces dropping down the hillside towards a lagoon, but the aire was a little close to the main road for us. We drove four miles to a huge aire on the beach with space for two hundred motorhomes. Because of the location and the balmy weather in this region, I expected it to be packed. I suppose if motorhomes had been able to pass the closed barriers, it would have been. The aire was shut for the season.
We decided to return to Le Goulet and make the most of the disappointing location. The location turned out to be not in the least disappointing. We loved it.
Thanks to the continuing gale force wind on Boxing Day night we didn’t hear a sound from the nearby road. We felt plenty though. We still haven’t used the Hymer’s “steadies”. A steady in motorhome terms is a retractable leg which, believe it or not, steadies the vehicle. The Hymer has two either side of the vehicle’s rear. When the steadies are raised, as they have been continually since we purchased the Hymer in March, the overhang bounces with the slightest of movements. A weighty basset jumping down from its nest on the comfy couch at the front of the vehicle is likely to catapult Cynthia and I out of bed at the rear.
Laying in bed feeling the vehicle being rocked by a lively breeze reminds both of us of being lulled to sleep by a boat’s gentle rocking. That evening, the wind gusted to over 40mph. We spent the night feeling more airborne than afloat.
Generally, the weather is wonderful on the coast here. Our original plan was to stay in southern Spain, primarily for the weather. After one of our poorly secured bikes was stolen in Malaga, we raced back to France. We didn’t really give Spain a chance, but the areas we flew through weren’t very appealing. The weather was perfect, but we didn’t enjoy endless stretches of high rise holiday accommodation along the coast, countless acres of unsightly fields covered in plastic to protect crops, graffiti on every one of hundreds of abandoned buildings along the motorway, and a limited choice of aires, all of which charged a fee.
We thought that returning to France would mean enduring a cooler than anticipated winter. The temperature here isn’t that much higher than it is in the UK. The big difference is that there is very, very little cloud. Nine hours of sixty degree sun every day is very pleasant indeed.
We sat in the sun for several hours each day, then walked aimlessly along an empty beach with two very happy bassets. Bassets aren’t much fun to take on a walk if you need to keep them on a lead. They are hounds. Hounds have an incredibly acute sense of smell so they like to stop to sniff every couple of feet. Walking a basset is wonderful if you want to test your patience, but hopeless if you actually want to get anywhere. Fortunately we weren’t in a rush so the dogs’ pace suited us just fine.
We needed to resupply on Wednesday. Leucate town wasn’t an option. It closes for the winter. When we visited the closed beach aire a few days earlier, we drove through street after street of houses with shuttered windows and locked doors.
We drove twenty five miles to Perpignan. We needed gas for central and water heating and for cooking, petrol for the generator, food for people and food for dogs. This little shopping spree took four hours and fifty four miles, but it’s a small price to spending a few nights next to a tranquil lagoon far away from commerce and industry.
We returned to Leucate, but not to the same aire. Paying to stay on an aire for two consecutive nights was quite enough, thank you very much.
After an hour walking along the lagoon shore on my own the previous day, I reached an idyllic cove deserted apart from a handful of fishing boats bobbing lazily on crystal clear water. A rough stone track lead from the water towards the distant main road. A small and empty almost level parking area bordered the stony beach. It was the perfect spot to wild camp if we could find our way to it.
Google Maps showed us several routes. The track was deeply rutted in parts, but passable with care. I copied the GPS coordinates from Google Maps into our TomTom and let the clever little device lead us towards tranquility.
There are times when I suspect that our TomTom is programmed for bike riders. It directed us into Leucate old town through a series of ever narrowing streets, and then down a one in four gradient hill with a hairpin bend at the bottom that I would struggle to negotiate in my hiking boots.
The only possible route out for us was to return the way we had come, which meant reversing into a side street up the same one-in-four hill we had just driven down. There is a little less of our clutch now than there should be. I apologise unreservedly to the owner of the clothes line festooned with snow white laundry. I hope that the clouds of acrid black clutch smoke didn’t spoil your day or your washing.
We found another route off the main road to the lagoon, turned off the engine with a sigh of relief, and looked forward to a day or two on our own.
And then our guest arrived.
We knew he was both French and very confused, but we couldn’t establish his name. He spoke more English than we spoke French, but that didn’t help much. He was riding a dilapidated bike piled high with all his worldly possessions, including a small tent and a solar panel he used to charge the batteries of a radio he played constantly over the following twenty four hours.
He told us he was a Parisian writer on a pilgrimage. He was following the famous Camino de Santiago trail and was looking forward to visiting Madrid along the way. Neither Cynthia nor I are pilgrims, but we do know a little about the route.
We came to the conclusion that he was hopelessly lost. The route begins on the French side of the Pyrenees close to France’s west coast. We were 430 km away on the east coast. Madrid is 200 km south of the trail’s closest point. He told us that he had endured an exhausting 25 km ride the previous day, cooked himself a bowl of pasta, then climbed into his sleeping bag where he stayed for fourteen hours.
We expected him to continue on his pilgrimage soon after he woke. The region’s rural roads are narrow and poorly lit, and the French aren’t renowned for slow and considerate driving. His bike was black and poorly lit and his clothes were dark. Travelling at night would be dangerous.
He sat on a drystone wall gazing thoughtfully over the placid lagoon making occasional pencilled notes in a lined blue exercise book. Over the course of the afternoon he slowly repacked his panniers, then unpacked them again when he remembered that he needed to cook more pasta.
At dusk he waved goodbye and peddled his unlit bike unsteadily into the darkening night heading, hopefully, towards the start of the Camino de Santiago trail. I hope he makes it. I suspect he won’t.
We stayed another night next to the lagoon before driving to Narbonne to resupply. We drove along the coast through the pretty little towns of Peyriac-de-Mer and Bages looking for a convenient spot to wild camp later in the day. We found a low cost aire minutes from the étang de Bages-Sigean where pods of pelicans fished.
The lagoon is a magnet for European birds of the feathered variety, although there were a few two legged birds swilling ricard in the town’s bars too. Almost half of Europe’s nine hundred species have been spotted on this or neighbouring lagoons. We saw a pod of pelicans, a flamboyance of flamingoes, an aerie of eagles, and a fussiness of Frenchmen. Not bad for a five minute drive along the shore.
We topped up our dwindling food supply, then used a supermarket Flot Bleu service point to empty waste and fill our water tank. While I was emptying 20 litres of fetid cassette slurry, a local gentleman of the road came to entertain me. He threw a selection of empty sardine tins and cans of industrial strength lager into an overflowing bin next to me, ripped the tab off another can of lager, leaned against the Hymer for support, then tried to focus on me long enough to ask for all of my spare change.
He took rejection very well, then lurched across the car park to join half a dozen equally unsteady friends for another day of partying in the sun. I wish I could afford the lifestyle.
We returned to Peyriac-de-Mer’s excellent five euro a night aire then, on New Year’s Eve, Cynthia saved her fellow motorhome owners from being trampled to death by a herd of stampeding wild horses.
I may have exaggerated slightly for dramatic effect. Three small and docile ponies escaped from their field through a broken section of fence and wandered through our aire. Cynthia, armed with a bag of carrots and Tasha’s leather slip lead, captured the lead pony and guided them back to their field. She noticed that their drinking trough was dry so we topped it up from the aire water supply, then we walked into town to celebrate a job well done.
We sidestepped a jolly group obviously several hours into their New Year drinking, then popped into the Cafe de Pays for a coffee.
Cynthia is unfamiliar with the game of Rugby. She is used to men wearing a ridiculous amount of body armour playing a game with incomprehensible rules during televised games with more adverts than action. We watched a French rugby match. I don’t know why, but half an hour watching men full of muscle doing manly things to each other left her strangely short of breath and misty eyed. I dragged her away from the cafe and the match before her health suffered any more.
Our New Year celebration was very tame; a bottle of bubbly and a tot or two of excellent brandy while watching Youtube sitcom reruns was celebration enough for us. Consequently, we woke on New Year’s day full of energy and raring to go.
Peyriac-de-Mer is a walker’s paradise. A network of trails run around the lagoons, sometimes over the lagoons, and over the surrounding hills. We took a picnic with us on a very pleasant three hour hike through the hills. We sat in the sun at a hilltop viewpoint for lunch before returning to the lagoon and another attempt to photograph the ever plentiful but frustratingly distant birds. Here’s the best I could do. Sorry.
So here we are at the beginning of another year, and what an exciting year it’s going to be for us. We will begin our slow journey north mid February, just six weeks from now. We’ll travel via Provence into Switzerland where Cynthia wants to show me the sights. She spent many years flying regularly to Switzerland so the country is a second home to her.
After Switzerland, we’ll drive through Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium to the Netherlands and a new adventure on the Dutch inland waterways. We’ll enjoy seven or eight months afloat before swapping boat for bus and heading south again for the winter. It’s not a bad life!