Espéraza hills to the Mediterranean Coast: Boats, Motorhomes and Breakdowns
I feel better now, thank you very much.
I received many comments last week about my downbeat, not-your-usual-jolly-self blog post. The comments were quite right. I was a bit of a miserable git. The drastic change to my lifestyle temporarily overwhelmed me. I wasn’t at all happy.
As is often the case though, the fault was all mine. I had two major issues; the acute lack of physical living space, and not enough time for me to practice what I do best… playing Billy-No-Mates on my own.
The solution was as effective as it was simple. All I needed to do was to spend some time on lonesome in the great outdoors, something which is in abundance around us at the moment.
Last week I briefly mentioned that we have now bought a boat. The boat is not something we would buy if we had unlimited funds, but it’s a reasonable compromise given that we will be using it for summer cruising only.
Our new summer home is called Julisa. She’s 9.7m (32’) long, 3.2m (10’6”) wide and has a draught of 0.95m (3’2”). She’s a Super Favorite classic steel cruiser with mahogany fittings and teak flooring. She’s forty one years old and is in absolutely mint condition. The previous owner spent more time maintaining the boat than cruising in her.
She’s far from perfect for living on board full time, but we can improve some aspects of her design and equipment and live with the rest.
Her electrics are woefully inadequate. We’re going to fit an inverter, a battery charger, a new and more robust battery bank, and install solar power.
Her design is beautiful, but access to the cabin isn’t dog friendly, especially when the dogs in question have short legs and a stubborn reluctance to use them. Neither Tasha nor Florence will be able to jump over the side of the boat into the cockpit, so we’re going to have a section of gunwale hinged so that we can swing it out of the way and allow them to plod rather than jump on board.
The boat doesn’t have any form of water heating. The estimate for installing a water heater and tank was €2,000. We’ll save the money and use a kettle instead.
More of a problem is the sea toilet. In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, if you sit for a number two and gaze through a porthole while you’re straining, if you’re very lucky, you can watch a compressed log of yesterday’s dinner pop to the surface and sail on its own merry way downstream.
We weren’t happy with this method of waste disposal. We weren’t even sure whether it is legal. After some research we’ve discovered that, officially, blackwater waste disposal on the inland waterways is against the law. In reality, it’s an accepted part of inland waterways cruising in the Netherlands. You shouldn’t pump your black water into rivers, canals or lakes, but you’ll often be hard pressed to find a marina facility to empty an onboard tank.
We asked our Dutch boat broker, Warner Riezenkamp, about the legality of using sea toilets in the Netherlands. His answer was hilarious. He told us that we could either wait until we found a marina to use, or, if we wanted to do any serious business while afloat, we could invest in a cutting edge marine innovation available at many chandlers. It’s a disposable receptacle for collecting toilet waste.
I’m sorry Warner, but I am NOT going to resort to shitting in a plastic bag.
The simple solution is to have the sea toilet replaced with a cassette. When I had a narrowboat, I wasn’t a fan of cassette toilets. After five years I switched to a composting loo. It’s a decision that I was very happy with. The composting loo was eco friendly and saved me the dubious pleasure of using sanitary stations on England’s inland waterways.
There’s no room for a composting loo on the boat, so we’re back to a cassette toilet again. I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy using a cassette, but it’s a necessary evil for us on this boat.
Another hurdle to overcome is keeping ourselves clean. The boat doesn’t have a shower on board or any room to fit one. We are considering using a Hozelock Porta Shower. We had one on my narrowboat. They’re very effective and use very little water. I would use just three litres during a very thorough shower. Cynthia, if she was washing her hair, used five litres.
All we have to do now is find a way of collecting and disposing of the shower water. Cynthia knows a couple of seagoing boaters who have constructed an outdoor shower. It’s a simple metal ring holding a shower curtain above a large circular plastic basin. The contents of the basin are tipped into the canal.
We hope to collect Julisa towards the end of March. The boat is currently out of the water and undercover for the winter. It’s three miles from the nearest waterway in a cavernous hangar so clean you could eat off the floor. The hangar is home to three other boats and some farm machinery. All are in mint condition.
The farmer will transport Julisa to the nearest waterway where we will have her surveyed. We’ll take her for a spin. My twenty tonne, 62’ narrowboat was powered by a 42hp Mercedes engine. Julisa is 32’ long and a third of the weight. She has 106hp to push her through the water. We’re considering investing in a pair of water skis.
That’s enough about the boat for now. In three months, we’ll be trying to work out how to pack all of the gear currently stored into the Hymer’s abundant cupboards and lockers into a boat which I suspect has far less space. We’ll worry about that in March. Until then we have mountain ranges and rugged coasts to enjoy.
On Sunday afternoon after the Washing Machine War, we drove 3km from Narbonne towards the coast. We didn’t quite make it.
Narbonne used to be a thriving sea port. Access to the port was via a lagoon. The lagoon has been too shallow for all but the smallest of boats for several hundred years, but it’s a wonderful location for windsurfing and wild camping in a motorhome.
As usual, we researched the area thoroughly using a combination of Google Earth and Google Street View. They’re both first class tools for motorhome owners who want to do more than drive from campsite to campsite.
We found a road, little more than a sandy track, running along the lagoon’s northern shore. The track ended at several acres of potholed sandy gravel where half a dozen motorhomes were parked twenty feet from the water.
The parking area had bins for rubbish disposal, but no other facilities. Few cars visited the spot in the two days we were there, other than an occasional windsurfer looking for a place to launch his board.
Tasha and Florence loved their new home. Basset hounds aren’t the world’s greatest walkers, but the rocky and weed covered beach far away from traffic was perfect for aimless nose-to-the-ground wandering.
We moved from the lagoon to the popular boating centre of Gruissan. The aire there is enormous. When we arrived there were forty motorhomes parked. There was room for at least forty more. We found a spot with a sea view just twenty feet from the water. There are a few fairly busy roads nearby but, because of the wind, all we could hear at night was the drone and rattle of wind through the rigging of a hundred yachts moored in the marina next to the aire.
There’s a 7km way marked trail around the lagoon at Gruissan. I enjoyed a quick march around it before Cynthia and I explored the castle ruin on a limestone hill rising from the old town’s centre.
I became far more familiar than I really wanted to on the return from my lagoon circuit. The route took me through the old town. The castle is a convenient landmark. It stands high above the old town’s narrow streets so I made a mental note as I passed on the land side of the castle to keep the ruin to my left. I knew that the sea was beyond the castle so, by keeping the castle to my left, I would be heading in the right direction back to the aire.
That was the theory anyway. As I marched through the town I glanced at some of the sights I passed; a closed down restaurant with three faded blue tables outside and a plaque celebrating a backpacking award in the window, an elderly lady with skin like parchment sitting with her face upturned to the sun, a boulangerie closed for lunch, a pharmacie, also closed for lunch, a cafe, open but empty, steps rising steeply to the castle entrance and a closed down restaurant with three faded blue tables outside and a plaque celebrating a backpacking award in the window. “How odd,” I thought, “to find two almost identical restaurants in the same small town.”
I continued on my mindless way, idly thinking how large this small town centre really was, when I passed the same restaurant for the third time, and then I remembered my morning research. “The streets of the town centre form concentric circles around the castle”. I hope no one noticed.
After two thoroughly pleasant and relaxing days in Gruissan, we left on Thursday morning for Homps. Homps is on the Canal du Midi twenty miles east of Carcassonne. We have toyed with the idea of bringing the boat down to the south of France. We’ll probably explore the Netherlands next year. The Netherlands offers a very gentle introduction to European cruising. The Dutch waterways network extends to over 4,000 kilometres, but has less than 200 locks. We can play with our new floating home in wide open spaces before we tackle the more demanding French waterways.
We both know that we would be happy on the water full time. After all, we have both lived on the water full time before. At some point in the future we may want to swap winter driving for winter cruising.
The Dutch network has tremendous appeal in the summer, but during the winter months the thermometer drops as low as it does in the UK. Our new boat is probably best described as a three season boat. Julisa has an air blown heating system in both fore and aft cabins. The cabins are connected by a spacious cockpit. There’s a vinyl cover to keep the cockpit waterproof, but it won’t retain the heat.
We don’t know at what temperature the boat will feel uncomfortable, but we are sure that Dutch sub zero winter days and nights would be unpleasant. The Canal du Midi is as far south we could cruise towards warmer weather in Julisa. This week we planned to stop along the Canal du Midi to chat with live aboard boaters. Thanks to Google’s satellite imagery, we identified a likely looking accumulation of boats at Homps. Sadly, seeing Google Earth’s images is about as close as we came to them.
We parked next to the canal at yet another deserted aire, wrapped up against a biting wind, climbed a bridge over the canal, stood under the awning of a closed restaurant to shelter from sudden and unexpected heavy rain, then returned to the Hymer to wait for the storm to pass.
Cynthia filled the kettle to make us a hot drink and uttered a mouse-like squeak as water spurted from the tap base. Everything in a motorhome needs to be as light as possible. Our plastic taps are no exception. Nine thousand miles of often uneven roads since March had caused yet another problem. The tap had shaken itself apart.
After a frantic call to Oaktree motorhomes, I discovered that it’s not possible to turn the water supply off on the Hymer, which is a shame when water from a broken tap trickles steadily onto the electrics under the sink. If one of the micro switches is opened to a tap in the galley, the bathroom or the cassette toilet rinse water, the tank’s pump is activated and there’s pressure to all the taps.
Fortunately, once we closed the galley tap and the leaking water cascading beneath the sink reduced the water pressure, the leak stopped. We weren’t in any danger of frying the electrical supply, but we couldn’t use either of the taps or flush the toilet until the problem was resolved.
We have an RAC three year “Gold” warranty. The breakdown would be covered IF we were in the UK. A Gold warranty allows for two months abroad. The RAC also offer a platinum warranty for those wishing to stay for as long as three months away from the UK. Neither is of any use to us when we plan to be on the continent indefinitely.
I phoned the RAC a month ago when we had an issue with our starter battery in Saillagouse. In hindsight maybe, when the customer services lady told me that we weren’t covered, I shouldn’t have told her that their policy as about as much use as a chocolate fireguard. Apparently they keep extensive notes on file. If they’re feeling particularly vindictive, they like to read them back to policyholders. I was reminded, none too gently, that as I was still abroad, I still wasn’t covered.
We had to bit the bullet and have the repair work done ourselves. Obviously we needed to have the work done quickly.
At 4.30pm we drove back towards Narbonne to a dealer we’d spotted on a retail park earlier in the week. A quick check on the internet had confirmed that they had a workshop. We hit Narbonne’s outskirts during the evening rush hour. As we drove through the town, we thanked our lucky stars that we weren’t stuck in the long queue of traffic trying to leave the city.
Ten minutes later, after discovering that the closest the motorhome dealer had to repair facilities was a roll of duct tape on his Portakabin desk, we joined the traffic jam on our way to the workshop the dealer used on the outskirts of town, a workshop which we had passed half an hour earlier.
We arrived forty five minutes before Narbonne Accessories closed for the day. They found an English speaking member of staff for us who quickly investigated the problem. He told us that the tap needed replacing and booked us in for the following day.
We needed to find somewhere in or close to Narbonne to stay for the night. We spotted a number of motorhomes in a supermarket car park nearby. We could use the supermarket or we could return to the city centre aire we used a few nights earlier. The supermarket car park was as appealing as you would expect a dozen acres of Tarmac to be, and the official aire would have cost us money. We decided to return to Gruissan and a nighttime view of the sea.
The Gruissan aire is very popular. At least fifty motorhomes were parked when we arrived just after dusk, but we found a decent space between two large vehicles with German plates. One of the German owners was cast in the same mold as Mr. Grumpy Pants from the Netherlands who threw his toys far from his pram when we started our generator in Fanjeaux a month ago.
From the comfort of the leather recliner in his command centre, he leaned from a window high above us to indicate with much arm waving that we were spoiling his view. Our Hymer was at least ten feet from him. This aire doesn’t have any bay markings, but the ones that do often require vehicles to park within three or four feet of each other. There was plenty of space between our two vehicles. Because Cynthia isn’t confrontational, and because she keeps me on a short leash, we resolved the problem by drawing the curtains.
The Grumpy German was at it again the following morning, still in his leather chair where he could pick fault with the world in general and with us in particular.
Cynthia took the dogs out while I prepared for departure. We have to make sure that everything inside the Hymer is stowed securely, check to make sure that all windows, skylights, cupboards and lockers, both inside and out, are closed and fastened securely, and we have to clean about an acre of condensation covered glass in the bus sized windscreen.
Five minutes before setting off I turned the engine and the heater fan on full blast while I wiped the windscreen. Grumpy Günter leaned from his window again. Cynthia, with her usual sunny smile, wished him a good morning. “What is wrong with your camper?” he fumed. Cynthia was confused. ‘There’s nothing wrong with it,” she told him politely. “Then why is it filling my vehicle with fumes? He demanded. Cynthia told him we were getting ready to leave within a few minutes and to get over it. Well done Cynthia!
We drove away minutes later. We both gave our neighbour a cheery wave. His response was to slam his window closed and no doubt wait expectantly for his next problem neighbour.
The service at Narbonne Accessories was first class. Our slot was for 11am. They began work at 11.05am. They told us the work would be done by 11.45am. They finished at 11.44am. We weren’t particularly happy paying €65 for a new mixer tap and €75 for an hour’s labour, but the service was first class.
We abandoned our canal exploration after a little more research using Google Maps. I followed most of the Canal du Midi’s route from Carcassonne to the coast, looking for groups of moored boats. One of the largest was at Homps were we stopped the previous day. Very few of the boats appeared to have anyone on board, so we decided, on our second attempt, to look elsewhere.
Trèbes looked interesting, but we didn’t particularly like the town as we drove through it. The only boats we could find were a dozen hire craft moored next to a busy main road. We stopped in a supermarket car park so I could research Carcassonne. We couldn’t find any moored boats using Google, nor could we find an aire within an hour or two of the Canal du Midi. We decided to return to Espéraza.
As we skirted Carcassonne’s northern suburbs we admired the city’s fairy tale towers. We’ll explore the city before we leave for the Netherlands when we have a little more time to spare. We have nothing to do all day, but we never have enough time to do it.
On our way south from Carcassonne we stopped very briefly to explore an aire in Limoux. It had all the charm of a run down car park on a down-at-heel trading estate, so we pressed on to our friendly, comfortable and fully serviced aire in Espéraza.
The weather has taken a turn for the worse. Many days are still warm enough to strip down to a tee shirt for an hour or two, but the evenings are decidedly chilly. We haven’t had to endure a frost yet, but the heating is on more and more each day, increasing our daily gas consumption and requiring more frequent stops to top up our gas. We tried to fill our cylinders in Espéraza. As usual, the French connections caused us problems. I managed to force ten litres into the tanks before I was enveloped in freezing liquid gas. I knew that we would have enough for another four or five days, so we weren’t overly concerned.
Saturday’s weather was wonderful. We walked into the hills above Espéraza for a couple of hours. There’s unlimited first class hill walking around here. Within minutes of leaving any town or village you can walk for miles on rough gravel roads unused by vehicles or people.
We returned to the Hymer at dusk weary from our walk. We looked forward to a relaxing evening doing little other than reading and eating, but life on the road isn’t always as relaxing as we would like.
I knew that our water was low. A full tank will last us for three days at a push, two days if we use the shower. Filling the tank usually takes ten minutes. The one simple task took an hour and a half on Saturday.
We drove fifty metres to the water point, reversed onto the grey water outlet, opened the tap to release a torrent of fetid shower and dishwashing water, then attached a hose from the potable water tap to the Hymer’s tank. As with many aire water taps, the tap at Espéraza is a bit of a pain.
It’s similar to the taps you see in public toilets. You depress the tap knob, then try and wet your hands before the knob rises, usually within seconds, to cut off the supply. This isn’t too much of an inconvenience when you want a pint or two to wash your dirty digits, but it’s very frustrating when you have a hundred plus litre tank to fill.
The tap knob sticks out at right angles to a vertical wall. My solution is to lean against tap and wall to keep the water supply open while I watch clouds and planes for ten minutes until the tank is filled.
After five minutes of sky watching I climbed into the Hymer to check the water gauge. It was still stuck on empty. I checked water supply. It wasn’t working.
We now had a bit of a problem. Neither the potable water tap or the tap used to rinse toilette cassettes was working. We checked our aire guide. Fortunately, there was another five miles away in Quillan.
Fifteen minutes later we were on the Quillan aire. We couldn’t use it. We needed to buy a jeton, a token, from the town hall or the tourist office, both of which were closed. We drove to the Gendarmerie to see if we could buy a token there.
The officers on duty told Cynthia that they didn’t supply tokens, not that having a token would do us any good. The water supply at the aires in both Quillan and Espéraza had been turned off for the winter.
Cynthia is brilliant at problem solving. She attacks the issue from every angle until she finds a solution. Supermarkets sometimes have motorhome service points. We stopped at a Carrefour on the way back to Espéraza, but we were out of luck. She thought of another possible solution so we drove through Espéraza’s narrow streets to get as close as possible to the town square.
Town squares often have a potable water fountain. Espéraza has one in a tree shaded square, shared by light festooned Christmas trees and, on Saturday night, a brace of town drunks.
The water fountain was still working after a fashion. A ten litre jerry can took ten minutes to fill. I filled five, so I had the pleasure of talking to two very wobbly Frenchmen for nearly an hour.
Both tried to help. One told me, with a bout of arm waving which resulted in him falling over the water fountain twice, that I didn’t need to use the town fountain. He told me, in great detail and at even greater length, about the first class facilities, offered by the town free of charge to visiting motorhome owners, on the far side of town. He told me that the town welcomed motorhome owners and the much needed money they injected into local businesses. He complimented me on my impressive mobile home and hoped that I enjoyed many adventures in it. At least that what I think he said, although his incomprehensible slurring sounded suspiciously like, “Stupid fucking English. What is the fucking POINT!”
Yesterday was market day, the day when all the nutters come out to play in Espéraza. As this was the last market for three weeks, they were out in force, including our two friends from the previous night.
At 9am, the market square cafe was a hive of activity. Our two merry mates, still as wobbly as the night before, sat in the sun reviving themselves with half pint tumblers of Ricard. Another local stood at the cafe bar proudly modelling a purple checked kilt and a sporran filled with rolling tobacco and king size cigarette papers. Waist length dreadlocks were the rule rather than the exception. A dozen dogs dragged ownerless leads through the market crowd begging scraps from stallholders.
We joined voice over artist Gary Granville for an afternoon walk. Sorry about the porn star reference last week Gary! He told us that being with a voice slightly deeper and more resonant than his peers has enabled him to work no more than ten hours a month for the last twenty years. I can understand now why he looks so relaxed and happy.
He told us about a mid week festival in a nearby hill town. We’ll drive over there tomorrow to look for somewhere to park. I’ve found an aire listed for the village, but we don’t know whether we’ll be able to use it yet.
We returned to the town square this morning to top up our water tank again. This time we weren’t so lucky. The town has now turned off the water supply there as well as at the aire. Cynthia asked how long the water supply will be off at the gendarmerie. It’s off for the winter. They gave her directions to the town cemetery which still has an operating water supply.
We filled our tank there this morning, but I don’t know how long the supply will be available. It’s fed by an unlagged pipe running through trees high above a road. The pipe will freeze easily, so we expect the water supply to be turned off soon.
Drinking water isn’t the only problem we have. The black water disposal point for our toilet contents is still open on the aire, but there isn’t any water to clean up after ourselves. Without going into too much detail, emptying the cassette involves making a bit of an unpleasant mess. A good supply of water is necessary to clean up stuff that the general population just doesn’t want to see. Without water, we can’t clean up.
We suspect that aires in mountainous areas subject to sub zero temperatures might have their facilities shut down between now and the spring. We might have to move towards the coast or further south.
Time will tell. In the meantime, we’re back in the mountains on our sloping car park beneath Rennes-le-Château. Here’s a photo I’ve just taken through our lounge window. There are definitely worse places to be.