Durfort to Espéraza: Life in the Slow Lane
At the end of my last blog post I wrote about our latest electrical problem. We appeared to have a loose battery terminal or some faulty wiring. I managed to start the engine by fiddling around with the battery leads for a minute or two and hoped that I wouldn’t have to turn the engine off again before we reached our destination
We left our aire in Durfort for a forty minute drive south through heavy showers to a municipal campsite on the outskirts of Castelnaudary. We stopped briefly at a filling station to replenish our depleted generator petrol supply. We’re using the generator far more now that we are driving less and can’t rely on the alternator charging our battery bank. The generator is far more fuel efficient for battery charging, so €15 to fill our 20 litre jerry can was money well spent.
Our TomTom has been quite well behaved recently, but every now and then it likes to show us who’s in charge. We drove several miles along a single track farm road between two deep ditches before arriving, thankfully unscathed, at the campsite gates. Sadly, the gates and the site itself were closed for the season.
We had identified an alternative stop for the night, but I wasn’t keen on using it. Our aires guide to southern France said that it was an “uninspiring commercial aire in a noisy location adjacent to the Canal du Midi.”
We were very pleasantly surprised. There was no denying that the aire was a commercial enterprise but, for a town centre location, it was very peaceful. The aire was also a technological marvel, fully automated and easy to use for motorhome owners of all nationalities and abilities.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand the process at all.
Entry required a special card with enough credit for at least a night’s stay. The barrier control kiosk allowed existing cards to be topped up but, as far as we could determine with the help of a nearby French speaking motorhome owner, new cards couldn’t be issued.
We called the Camping Car Park helpline. Our new French motorhome owning friend translated for us. I made payment over the phone for a night’s stay. An entry card, valid for any of the company’s dozens of sites throughout France, would be delivered to us the following day. The barrier was raised for us remotely. We were in!
We came to Castelnaudary for two reasons; Cynthia wanted to visit their Monday morning market, and we both wanted to spend some time walking along the Canal du Midi.
The canal walk was a success. A gravelled towpath stretched for miles along the canal. We walked along it for an hour without seeing a single boat and very few other people. We didn’t mind. The day was warm and dry and we could see for miles over the surrounding countryside. Our drive to Castelnaudary was worthwhile for the canal walk alone, which was just as well because the market was a disappointment.
We raised the bar far too high with the superb market in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. Castelnaudary’s offering was far too similar to a tat-selling English market to me, complete with unappealing fast food which included vast dishes of congealed and gelatinous paella.
Back in the Hymer, we decided to test SAGA’s international breakdown service and try to get our engine starting problems resolved.
Our experience started well enough. SAGA put me through to the AA. The AA UK office transferred me to their French control centre. The French staff spoke perfect English and appeared very efficient. They took my details and promised to call with an update within half an hour.
I was still waiting an hour and a half later.
I called again. I had foolishly forgotten that all of France stops for lunch. The control centre staff weren’t even thinking of phoning a garage until after 2pm when the garages would hopefully reopen for the afternoon.
Another hour passed without an update.
I phoned again. I was told that the French breakdown service doesn’t work quite the same as the English equivalent. I was informed that French mechanics never try to fix vehicles at the roadside, so I would need to be transported to a garage to have the repair done, and therein lay the problem.
Our Hymer weighs 4,500kg. The control centre staff told me that they were having problems finding someone to transport us. They were also having a problem finding a garage interested in taking us. A Fiat dealer in Toulouse would look at the problem, but we would have to make our own way there and wait two days until they could fit us in. I don’t think that they fully understood the concept of a vehicle breakdown.
The operator I spoke to said that they would continue to look for a solution, but they didn’t sound very confident. I emphasised that the problem was probably just a loose wire. I was reminded once again that the French just don’t expect to have their vehicles repaired by the side of the road.
Half an hour after my latest unsuccessful control centre phone call, a French mechanic, complete with a van packed with tools, rolled into our aire car park. Within fifteen minutes he fixed the problem. It was a worn battery terminal. He told me that the fix wouldn’t last forever, but it will keep us going for a while. I am very grateful for the imaginary roadside repair.
Monday was a sad day for me. I ran out of wine. I haven’t been terribly impressed with the French wine I’ve bought so far. The supermarkets have a vast selection of wines, some of it at eye watering prices. There is a wide selection in the €20 a bottle range. That’s far too much for me to justify, so I’ve been choosing from the poor neglected bottles on the bottom shelf for under €6. I don’t know if there are any reasonable wines in this price range, but I haven’t found them.
I fancied an evening glass of something stimulating so I routed around the Hymer’s cavernous garage until I found a half empty bottle of Portuguese fortified wine. I suppose it was a case of “any port in a storm”. See what I did there?
Tuesday was also a sad day for me when I realised that, even though the battery terminal problem was resolved, we weren’t completely out of the woods.
I record our mileage every day. The record helps me assess our fuel consumption and whether we’re on track with our diesel budget. We moved from our commercial aire in Castelnaudary to a charming hilltop aire on the outskirts of medieval Fanjeaux. I think we drove fifteen miles, but I’ll never know for sure.
Just before I turned the engine off for the day, I made a note of the odometer’s digital reading, then recorded it on my motorhome mileage spreadsheet. The spreadsheet informed me that I had clocked up a rather surprising 750 miles during our half hour drive.
I had obviously made a mistake, so I turned the ignition on again to check the reading. The figure was 11 miles higher than when I checked a minute earlier. I checked again. The odometer, even with the ignition turned off, was clocking up distance at the rate of thirteen miles every minute or 780 miles every hour.
I knew beyond question that we hadn’t broken the 768mph sound barrier because neither Cynthia nor I had heard a sonic boom, not since Cynthia disappeared into our tiny bathroom for her evening constitutional anyway.
We drove back to Castelnaudary on Wednesday to see if the garage responsible for our battery terminal repair could get to the bottom of our latest problem. His answer was short and to the point. “Non! Fiat Carcassone!”
I phoned the Fiat dealer. The staff didn’t speak English. I called the AA’s European breakdown centre again, told them about our latest problem and asked the multilingual staff to call the dealer for us to book us in and get an idea of the repair cost.
They discovered that an odometer repair or replacement would mean having the Hymer in their workshop for at least a week. We would need to find alternative accommodation until the vehicle was returned to us. The AA would cover us for £45 per person per night, but we would have to use a hotel and the AA staff couldn’t guarantee to find a hotel which would take two dogs.
Feeling very frustrated with yet another electrical issue, we decided to return to our previous night’s aire to consider the best course of action. Before that we needed to top up with both diesel and LPG. Our first stop for diesel revealed yet another problem when I tried to force 60 litres of fuel into a tank which only had space for fifteen. Our fuel gauge is now also faulty.
After paying for our fuel, most of which was soaked into my jeans rather than in the tank, we drove to the far side of town to top up with LPG. The ten minute transaction took twenty minutes thanks to a missing gasket on my French LPG adaptor. I added substantially to my trouser flammable fuel mix before leaving the filling station.
Back at our hilltop aire we gave up problem solving for the day and enjoyed an afternoon wander through Fanjeaux’s narrow medieval streets and an hour sitting in the sun with a view of distant snow capped Pyrenees mountains.
On Thursday I had a conversation with someone other than Cynthia for the first time since we spoke briefly to an English couple at an aire on the river Somme three weeks ago.
Nottingham couple Ellie and Colin joined us in their Hymer motorhome on the aire at Fanjeaux. They’ve been on the road since July after they left their jobs, emptied their bank accounts and headed south for as long as the money lasts them. They’ve explored Croatia and Italy and now, like many other motorhome owners we’ve met so far, are heading for Spain for the winter.
Our plan was to move further south on Thursday, but after a couple of hours chatting in the sun, we decided to spend another night at this idyllic location. As dusk approached, the distant cloud lifted to reveal a stunning landscape of snow capped Pyrenees mountains. On our way back to the Hymer we stopped at the village patisserie to buy an evening baguette and a couple of bottles of their excellent local merlot. The day was the perfect antidote for our recent breakdown woes, which was just as well because I was highly stressed again the following morning when I fell out with a fellow motorhome owner.
Many motorhome owners I have either spoken to or read about on several motorhome forums seem to be able to spend most of their time while touring using very little electrical power. Some have a single 110ah leisure battery which is only charged by the motorhome’s engine. Some have a small solar panel to help keep the battery charged. I don’t honestly know how they do it.
I do actually. One battery is fine because they don’t have much or even any electronic gear on board, and they travel enough to keep the battery topped up. Cynthia and I have decided that very slow progress suits us best. A couple of hours driving every two or three days is enough for us, but not enough for our electronic toys.
I have a MacBook. Cynthia has an iPad. We both have iPhones and Kindles. We use them all a great deal. We’ve learned that checking mountain roads using Google Street View is an important part of pre trip planning. There are some very narrow roads in the Pyrenees, far too narrow for both heart and Hymer.
We use our electronic devices for planning where we want to visit and which roads we want to use to take us there. And when we’ve finished planning, we use those same devices to entertain ourselves.
We have a DVD library on board. Our DVD library is a fancy name for the plastic box we keep a collection of comedy classic box sets. We watch them on the MacBook linked via Bluetooth to a Bose Mini Soundlink speaker. The sound is phenomenal. When we aren’t watching DVDs in the evening or reading books on our Kindles, we catch up on emails to friends. At least Cynthia does. I don’t have many friends.
I had one less after Friday morning.
All of our electronic devices need power. Our two leisure batteries need more power than our single solar panel can produce this time of the year. The engine doesn’t produce enough either because of our touring style. We need more power, so we have a Honda EU20i suitcase generator.
I need to run the generator for two hours a day if we haven’t moved locations. I need it to charge the batteries, and Cynthia needs it to prepare her homeopathic cancer medication, and she needs it if she wants to use her Vitamix blender for food preparation. Most motorhome owners don’t bother with equipment like this, but we are living on the road full time and want to stay healthy. Cooking is also one of Cynthia’s hobbies. Eating the end result is one of mine, so who am I to deprive her?
On Thursday night, an elderly and careworn camper with Dutch plates pulled on to our aire into a spot between two pines fifty or sixty feet away from us. All was quiet and peaceful until the following morning.
I’m new to the motorhome lifestyle, but I’ve lived on the UK’s inland waterways in my narrowboat for over half a decade. Living afloat and living in a motorhome are similar in many ways.
You’re constantly on the move, seeing new sights and meeting new people. There’s an etiquette to observe if you want to live in harmony with those around you. Excess noise has the potential to upset the equilibrium. Loud voices, loud music, engines and generators, they can all lead to disagreement.
On the waterways, the etiquette is that you don’t run your boat engine or your generator too early or too late. There aren’t any rules, but before 8am or after 8pm is considered antisocial. I tried not to upset my neighbours so I waited until 9am to run the Honda. Hondas are better than many other suitcase generators for a variety of reasons; they’re ultra reliable, they’re relatively light, they’re reasonably compact and they are fairly quiet.
Not quiet enough apparently.
Our Dutch neighbour approached me as I returned from a leisurely stroll to the aire wheelie bins to dispose of our normal hundredweight collection of nighttime basset poo. Both Cynthia and I love the Dutch for many reasons. Their unfailing polite and friendly nature is high on the list, as is the realistic expectation that they will speak very good English. I looked forward to a chat while we compared notes on motorhoming in general and the Netherlands in particular.
“What’s the matter with you?” he snarled at me through clenched teeth. “Don’t you have any consideration for anyone else? If you’ve got to run that bloody thing, make sure you pick a place where there aren’t any other people. Turn that thing off now!”
Unfortunately, I’m not the world’s most diplomatic person, so I didn’t rush to do as I was told. I’m not the most intelligent of people either, so I made the mistake of telling gentle and diplomatic Cynthia about the lunatic Dutchman that she had been so keen to meet.
Over the next ten minutes, the unhappy Dutchman and his sour faced wife wandered around the aire so that they could shake their fists at us through different windows. I responded by suggesting to Cynthia that I should go and have a chat with him to discuss his grievances. I probably didn’t use those terms, which is why I then fell out with Cynthia too.
As all this was going on, I decided to move the Hymer fifty feet across the aire to empty our overflowing grey water tank. I turned the engine on and noticed that something else had gone wrong with our electrics. We have three wipers on the windscreen. Two of them moved in a graceful arc across the glass. One of them, like me, sulked and refused to move. More fuel to the fire which raged within me.
Cynthia insisted that we move to escape a volatile situation. I insisted that we stayed because we were there first. I may well have stamped my feet and thrown my dummy out of the pram at the same time. I can’t remember now.
While we were arguing, the Dutch couple drove off to harass someone else. In hindsight, I think that our generator might have been the final straw. A large and very vocal cockerel had been crowing since before dawn in a garden just ten feet from the Dutch motorhome. The early morning racket from the birds certainly wouldn’t have helped.
With peace restored and apologies made, we walked into the village for lunch. I had their lunchtime menu a l’ardoise. Google translate tells me that this means “menu with slate”. All I can say is that their set lunchtime menu tasted much better than it sounds.
Cynthia had a warm goat’s cheese salad piled high on a dustbin sized plate. I had a pate salad of similar proportions. The difference was that this was Cynthia’s only course, but it was just a starter for me. My main course was a large bowl of cassoulet, a rich stew of cubed salt pork, garlic sausage, chicken and cannellini beans served with a basket full of fresh bread chunks to mop up the liquid. It’s was wonderful, as were the two scoops of homemade vanilla ice cream for dessert.
Cynthia had to roll me back up the hill where I wanted to settle down for an afternoon siesta. Unfortunately for my poor abused body, we had to move on to our next nighttime stop.
We chose a hilltop village in the Pyrenees. Our TomTom chose the route. I should have checked the roads for Hymer suitability. I didn’t. Fortunately, Cynthia has a good set of Michelin maps and the ability to use them. After Mr. TomTom directed us away from the main route through the mountains along an increasingly narrow road with a drop to one side steep enough to scare a mountain goat, Cynthia warned me that our next turn would take us onto a Michelin “white” road, a scenic route suitable for cars only. We pulled over to check Google Maps’ Street View. One glance was enough. A single track road, no passing places, very long drops to one side and a bulging rock wall on the other.
We found somewhere wide enough for a fifteen point turn, sent a shower of shale tumbling down the cliff face beneath our rear wheels, breathed a sigh of relief and searched for somewhere closer to stay for the night. We found a perfect spot a handful of miles away. We’re still there now.
Esperaza is in the Pyrenees northern foothills twenty miles south of Carcassonne. It’s a scruffy little town, but the Sunday market more than makes up for it, as does the town’s riverside aire.
We’re parked so close to the river Aude, we can almost wash in it without leaving the Hymer. Here’s the view from our front window where I sit to read in the evening.
The market is the best we’ve been to so far. The climate here is very mild. The town square cafe was packed this morning. Dozens of locals sat outside enjoying a warm November sun, a beer or two and the occasional suspicious smelling cigarette. The town reminds me of Stroud in Gloucestershire where many of the residents are hopelessly lost in the sixties. Sixty plus with dreadlocks is common, as is bright and quirky clothing. A lone busker looking very much like Bob Dylan rocked happily to the music of his one man concert.
We’ve stocked up on local cheeses, olives, bread, fruit and vegetables, a bottle of wine or two and a cooked chicken. All of it is organic. Cynthia’s just returned to the market to pick up a pizza for lunch. We’ll enjoy a slice or two while we watch the river flow past our front door, and then we’ll set off again, deeper into the Pyrenees. This time we’ve checked our route, so there are no narrow roads or steep drops awaiting us. Our destination is Vernet-Les-Bains, home of hot springs, mountain walking and exotic trees.