France: Toll Free Motorhome Touring from North to South

I’m sitting on our Hymer’s fixed double bed with my MacBook resting on my Lavolta folding bed table straddling my legs. Cold autumn rain is drumming on the thin plastic roof three feet above my head. I can see an open meadow through my bedroom window dipping down to the gently flowing water of the L’Aveyron. A granite cliff cloaked in pine towers high above me.

The view from my window this morning

The view from my window this morning

We’re parked at a free aire in the delightful medieval town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val forty miles northeast of Toulouse on day four of a five day rest stop in the south of France. Slowing down to a pace appropriate for leisurely exploration has taken me a while, but I’m slowly getting there. Cynthia tells me that I’m much more relaxed now, and less likely to blow a fuse at a moment’s notice. I certainly feel much calmer than I did ten days ago when I had to make an overnight trip from Calais to Folkestone to sort out yet another of what felt like an endless row of hurdles ahead of us.

I spent five minutes on the phone to lower my bank balance by £1,143.60 in exchange for a year’s travel insurance for Cynthia and I. Then, eager to escape Folkestone motorway services’ inadequate motorhome parking facility, with space for just four short vans in a layby, I started the engine, glanced instinctively at my TomTom before moving off, and then pulled on the handbrake again.

My TomTom was dead.

I’ve only had the reconditioned device for six months so it’s sudden and unexpected demise came as a bit of a shock. I checked both the lead and the 12v socket. Both were working. I turned the device on and off a few times and performed a soft reset after connecting the TomTom to my MacBook. There was no sign of life at all. Punching the dashboard didn’t help at all.

Thanks to my iPhone I wasn’t without an electronic guide for long, but, once safely under the English Channel at Calais, balancing the phone somewhere on the dashboard so I could see my Google Maps app display, didn’t result in the safest driving conditions over Normandy’s hills and narrow country lanes.

I collected Cynthia and followed Marie-Christine, Cynthia’s Airbnb host, who escorted us to Boulanger, a large electronics store in a retail park on the outskirts of Boulogne. With the help of a non English speaking shop assistant, some basic French and a great deal of ineffective miming, we bought a replacement TomTom.

I’m sure it’s possible to find your way around Europe without satellite navigation, but finding supermarkets, vets, health food stores and campsites would be a real pain. Aires, official motorhome parking areas in France, would be particularly difficult as the location in our Aires guide books is identified only by its GPS co-ordinates.

We used the new TomTom immediately to pinpoint a likely looking aire at Quend Plage fifty miles south of Calais on the Normandy coast. The aire had spacious parking for at least thirty motorhomes on sandy bays next to a pine-clad hillside.

We’ve spent too long in the Netherlands with the terribly well organised and fastidious Dutch and their pancake flat landscape. Normandy came as a bit of a shock with rutted roads and rolling hills. Everything in France seems more careworn, drab and slightly scruffy compared with neat and tidy Netherlands.

Quend Plage reminded me of an out of season English seaside town complete with dozens of unappealing mostly empty cafes selling equally unappealing fast food. The town was tacky, but the endless miles of empty beaches were wonderful.

We spent a tranquil night in our four wheeled home listening to a lone owl high in the towering pines, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast while we planned the day’s agenda, then we decided that we didn’t really want an agenda for the day at all.

A stereotypical Frenchman at play

A stereotypical Frenchman at play

We stayed another day and night on our aire haven doing nothing more strenuous than walking on the beach and dallying on the Avenue Adèodat Vasseur while we watched groups of happy male Pétanque enthusiasts playing with their balls.

Back on the Hymer we tackled our daily utility checklist.

One of the wisest investments we made before leaving the UK was our Honda suitcase generator. Our two days aires stay should have cost us €7 a night plus a further €2 for potable water for five minutes and another €2 for electricity for fifteen minutes.

The machine for our parking ticket was out of order for both of our two days there. With no other way of paying the parking fee, we were quite happy to save ourselves €14. Five minutes or 100 litres for €2 was a reasonable enough cost, but another €8 an hour for an electrical hookup was a little excessive.

Our Honda generator is a really handy bit of kit. In just a couple of minutes I can extract it

Fine dining on the seafront at Quend Plage

Fine dining on the seafront at Quend Plage

from the cramped garage and have it purring quietly next to to our hook up point. We have adapted to using far less power than we did on the boat, but with just two 100ah leisure batteries we have to be very careful.

We bought a small inverter which plugs into one of our two 12v sockets on board. We can use that for charging our Bose Soundlink speaker, my electric razor and my electric hair trimmer. We have a 12v charger for my MacBook with two spare USB ports that will take our iPad and iPhone chargers too, so all of our low power equipment can be charged via the batteries, but we need the Honda for the big stuff.

As part of her ongoing homeopathic cancer medication regime, Cynthia has to blend a mix of quark, flax seed oil, frozen fruit and xylitol every day. She uses a marvellously compact 750w Siemens hand blender.

Other than that, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most useful electrical items on board is our Draper 1100w vacuum cleaner. With two bassets on board, one which sheds what appears to be a full coat of hair every day, a vacuum cleaner is essential. Everything is so compact in our tiny living space that a dustpan and brush just can’t manage all the nooks and crannies.

The only other electrical item which needs the suitcase generator is a Vitamix blender. Cynthia used to use this regularly for making soups, but it hasn’t found its way out of the garage in the last three weeks, so I’m beginning to think that this is one more piece of equipment that we don’t need.

We continued south the following day, stopping after a delightful two and a half hour drive on deserted D roads through a stunning landscape of forested hills in their autumn coats of red, orange and gold. Our destination for the day was an aire at La Peupleraie.

The aire was on the bank of the river Somme outside the gates of a dated campsite two days from its end of season closure. The electrical supply didn’t work, but the setting was tranquil so we didn’t have the energy to ask the elderly non English speaking Frenchman on duty for a refund.

Sunday night’s stay was at Camping Les Ilots de Saint-Val. I found the site through Pitchup.com who promised to “make it a doddle to book campsites”. I suppose they were right. Booking the site was a doddle, but it was a shame that our online booking didn’t actually make it to the campsite.

I strode into their cupboard size reception area, said “Bonjour!” – my only French – to all of the owner’s family, most of her cousins and half a dozen of her closest friends who waved at me through the door to the owner’s private lounge, and then confidently held out my iPhone to show her my Pitchup booking confirmation email.

After five minute’s fruitless search through all the office files by most of the family, the owner shrugged, asked me to write my address down on an old baguette bag, picked up her bucket sized glass of wine and waved me away in the general direction of the motorhome parking area.

The French appear to have some strange habits. They aren’t too keen on you using their toilets so they often refuse to provide or forget to replenish their supply of toilet rolls. The owners of this site went a step further. They removed the toilet seats as well.

Other than a 1960’s, seat free toilet block, the site was a pleasure to stay on, apart from the wildlife as far as the dogs were concerned.

We had a pretty good night’s sleep other than being woken several times by chilling squeals and grunts from nearby woodland. In the UK we would have expected the source of those sounds to be from a car with steamed up windows, but in France the sounds of woodland squeals and grunts have every self respecting hunter reaching for his gun.

There are sanglier about!

Sanglier, wild boar to you and I, are the most hunted wild animals in France. Males can grow to  a massive 300kg. They’re not something you would like to see hurtling towards you through darkened woodland but, fortunately for everyone in rural France, they are shy and retiring unless provoked by hunters.  As far as I am concerned, a tusk or two in a middle aged hunter’s sagging behind is a perfectly reasonable response to being shot at.

A herd of sanglier browse for woodland food

A herd of sanglier browse for woodland food

Basset hounds are normally placid creatures, but sometimes the wolf in them emerges. The wolf emerged in Florence, as much as it ever can in such a gentle creature, in response to the blood curdling squeals. Over the course of a few nighttime hours she slowly but very thoroughly chewed her down filled bed into a thousand very small pieces. Sangliers, you have been warned!

Motorhome touring isn't as easy as you think

Motorhome touring isn’t as easy as you think

We continue to refine our systems and routines for getting everything done as quickly and efficiently as possible. One of my most important morning jobs is cleaning the windscreen. The Hymer is an A class motorhome which means that the windscreen is enormous, and because it’s enormous, it is the final resting place for an enormous number of very flat insects.

Our journey is much more pleasant if we can actually see where we are going. Five minutes each morning with a set of folding steps, a squeegee, some soapy water and a cotton tea towel means that we can appreciate all nature has to offer, providing that there’s enough light to see it.

We endured an unnerving final hour drive to our next aires stop at Valencay in the Loire Valley on Tuesday. Our Hymer’s offside headlight failed. It was replaced during the MOT a month ago. Now it’s gone again.

We’ll have the bulb replaced shortly but, even with two working headlights, I don’t want to drive a motorhome at night on French D roads again. I spent an hour gripping the steering wheel white knuckled trying to see past the blinding glare from oncoming cars, while I guessed where the Tarmac ended and the steep roadside ditches began on one side and how many inches separated us from cars whizzing by at 70mph on the other.

It wasn’t pleasant.

We arrived at Valencay in the dark so we weren’t able to see the imposing entrance to the Chateau de Valencay a stone’s throw away from our aire. We wandered around as much of the chateau as we could the following morning without having to fork out €12 each to get in, then headed south again.

Chateau de Valencay in the morning mist

Chateau de Valencay in the morning mist

The TomTom is set to avoid motorways, but I haven’t found a way to tell it to avoid ridiculously narrow roads. As we were directed around the rear of the chateau, Cynthia had to guide me through this width restriction. Fortunately, so far, restrictions like this have been few and far between.

Cynthia guides the Hymer through a narrow gap

Cynthia guides the Hymer through a narrow gap

We enjoyed a glorious three hour drive through endless forests in their autumn finery. The narrow roads were fringed with ferns of red and gold. Every mile was a delight.

Much as I am enjoying most of our time on the road, we are spending far too much time and money driving at the moment. Our Hymer is averaging just over 20mpg which, at current diesel prices, equates to 26p per mile. We’ve covered 2,163 miles in the last twenty three days at a cost of £562.38 or a projected £733 a month. We can’t afford this monthly outgoing, and we don’t want to spend so many hours each day travelling.

I have to do all the driving and, quite frankly, at this pace, I find it exhausting. We’re sticking to France’s D roads because they are toll free, avoid heavy traffic, and pass through stunning scenery and quaint French villages. The downside is that the roads are often very narrow. Some of the village roads snake past stone buildings which elbow their way into the path of oncoming traffic. Negotiating a rural village centre needs constant vigilance, as do most of the roads we’re taking now, especially the increasing number of them with unprotected borders to steep drops.

After another free night’s stay at Oradour-sur-Glane Aire we drove a hundred and seventy miles on Wednesday over five thrilling hours. The scenery changed considerably as we drew ever closer to the Pyrenees. Steeper hills, longer drops, and craggy rock covered by a never ending, colourful blanket of autumn trees.

The roads have remained very narrow, but there has been so little traffic on these minor roads that passing oncoming traffic hasn’t really been a problem. I suspect that we have some scary mountain moments ahead of us, but driving through this wonderful landscape so far has been a joy.

Since I collected Cynthia from Calais, she has been looking forward to having a break at an area high on her to do list, the medieval town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. It’s known for having the oldest civil building in France, is a popular destination for river kayakers, and is the setting for a wonderful film starring Helen Mirren, “The Hundred Foot Journey.”

A hundred feet is about the distance both Cynthia and I have covered since we’ve been here. I suppose we’ve walked a little further, but not much.

We squeezed our way through the impossibly narrow cobbled streets, joined locals on street corner cafes under a pale winter sun, and enjoyed a meal at a restaurant where the staff (all three of them) outnumbered their lunchtime customers (just Cynthia and I).

The aire is about as basic as they come, but it’s free. The toilet disposal point is accessed by lifting a heavy steel plate over a sewer pipe and there are two water pipes, one for toilet rinsing, and the other for drinking. There is no electricity.

A narrow cobbled street in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val

A narrow cobbled street in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val

I haven’t managed to equip myself with hose connectors for all eventualities yet, so I wasn’t surprised yesterday when my Hozelock fittings wouldn’t fit the tap. While I started filling our tank using a 20 litre collapsible plastic box, Cynthia took the sensible approach and walked across the street to the local hardware store.

She returned a few minutes later with a plastic tap connector which fitted the freshwater pipe, but which didn’t fit our hose reel’s female Hozelock connector. She walked back to the hardware shop to see what else she could find.

By the time Cynthia returned, I had filled our water tank by jamming our hose’s female connector over the male, without getting myself too wet, replaced our bulky hose reel in the Hymer’s garage and driven back to our meadowside parking spot on the edge of the aire.

Cynthia wasn’t alone. She brought seventy eight year old shop assistant Philippe Dubois with her to show him exactly what we needed. Philippe examined the hose reel from every angle, poked it a few times and then studied the hose connector intently.

To make sure he understood what we wanted, I pulled the hose reel out of the Hymer’s garage, carried it to the aire water point, fixed our new tap connector to it, and demonstrated to Philippe that the tap connector wouldn’t stay on the hose connection.

Philippe took the hose connection apart, took the tap connector apart, tried to jam the component parts together in every combination he could think of, muttered “Il est difficile!” over and over to himself, threw in the occasional “Merde!” for good measure then, after a moment of inspiration, suggested that we jam the hose’s female connector over the male. He left us with a big grin and a cheery wave. Another difficult problem solved.

We had another problem to solve this morning. We ran out of electricity. Other than one 50m jaunt to top up our water supply yesterday, this is our fourth full day without moving the Hymer. I’ve run the Honda generator briefly so that Cynthia could use her hand blender but, apart from the the occasional watt from solar panels pointing at a cloud filled sky, we’ve not charged our two leisure batteries at all.

Choosing a restaurant in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val

Choosing a restaurant in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val

First the heating system cut out followed shortly by the fridge and the lights. After a two hour session with the Honda, all seems well with our batteries. I must ensure that I don’t let them deep cycle too often or we’ll be digging deep in our pockets for another pair.

Today is a big day. Cynthia has high expectations of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val’s Sunday market. I’m not so sure. There hasn’t been much activity around the town over the last four days, so I don’t really expect today to be any different.

We’ll be off on our travels again tomorrow. We need to stop in Toulouse. We’re out of grain free food for the dogs, any kind of food at all for us, our gas is running low, and Cynthia needs to somewhere which provides passport photo’s and somewhere else to print a form for us. It’s going to be a very busy day.

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Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 20 comments
Tom McGowran - November 6, 2016

Hi, glad to see you are enjoying the aires in France. We have used them for the last 25 years and never visited a campsite in that time. Sorry you did not visit Oradour-sur-Glane . It is the most interesting place where over 600 inhabitants were murdered by the SS. Around half of them women burned to death in the church. The village is kept as it was and is a memorial to all who died.
Power is always a problem in a camper. The only power hungry 240 volt machine we use now is a hairdryer which we use on an inventor . Otherwise you can find every electrical gadget runs on 12 volt or 5volts. However you need to have solar panels and a back up generator if you need to stop for more than a couple of nights.
One point when tackling roads in the Alps or Pyrenees. Read any notice regarding whether you can use the road at the time you wish to use it. You may find it closed in one direction for an hour or so and the open to allow traffic in the other direction. If you ignore it you do so at your peril. I did once and had to reverse 1km on a balcony road. If you don’t know what that is Google it. You won’t make that mistake again.
Have a great time and enjoy the sunshine in the south.
Kind regards

    Paul Smith - November 8, 2016

    Hi Tom,

    All I can say is that you must have a pair of testicles the size of basket balls. I’ve just had a look at some photo’s and a video of French balcony roads. I think I’m going to have to lay down for a while. What size motorhome did you have when you tackled the balcony roads. Judging by the photo’s I’ve just looked at, I don’t think the Hymer would fit through some of the balcony road tunnels.

      Tom McGowran - November 13, 2016

      That’s exactly the problem. We are lucky we have a Chausson Alegro 94 which is a low profile 7m and just under 3m high. So we can get through a number of these roads. The overhangs and tunnels are very tricky. Often with a bend to contend with at the same time no crash barrier. Sometimes we have had to get out and do a walk through and a lot of hand signals… sometimes it is just not possible at all. If you see on the map (not a TomTom) that the road is marked with small red dots on it – do NOT attempt with anything bigger than a small powerful car.

        Paul Smith - November 15, 2016

        Thank you Tom. You have ensured that I will NEVER attempt one of these roads in the Hymer, at least not intentionally. Who knows where the TomTom and our own navigation skills will lead us?

Kit Dean - November 6, 2016

Well done guys, very interesting!
What’s an ‘aire’ when it’s at home?

    Paul Smith - November 8, 2016

    An aire is an official motorhome overnight stopping place. It has a varying number of facilities, usually a fresh water supply and disposal for grey and black water, and is often free. They are a marvellous alternative to campsites.

richard paines - November 6, 2016

Hi and thanks for the blog. I shall be travelling through France in February. All info much appreciated. Is your fridge only electric or can it also run on gas? I just replaced mine for a slightly eye watering £790. Good idea about the genny I shall look into that.
Safe travels, Richard

    Paul Smith - November 8, 2016

    Hi Richard,

    Ours is a three way fridge which means that, in theory, it should run off the mains when on an electric hookup, it should run off gas when the vehicle is stationary and it should run off the HYmer’s 12v system when we’re moving. We’re having a bit of a problem at the moment with the last bit. The fridge isn’t working at all when we’re moving. I’m not sure whether it every has. As long as we stick to fairly short sessions on the road, we shouldn’t have a problem, but it’s an issue that we will try to resolve when we get to facility which specialises in motorhomes.

      Tom McGowran - November 13, 2016

      Our last camper which was a CI had a similar problem almost from new. I could never find out why it would not switch to 12v. In the end I left it on gas even when driving. Not strictly legal but if the gas blew out it did switch the gas off so no likelihood of explosion. I used these freezer blocks and put a couple in the fridge compartment whilst driving. It seemed to do the job if the gas did go off.
      The latest fridge freezers do allow you to drive whilst they are on and switch off the gas for around 15minutes when you turn the ignition off. Just in case you are in a petrol station.

        Paul Smith - November 15, 2016

        We’ve decided that we’re not bothered about the fridge working while we’re travelling. Our new, more relaxed touring style means that we’re rarely on the move for more than an hour or two at a time. Our food should stay chilled/frozen until we stop the engine and the gas kicks in again.

martin - November 6, 2016

Paul, I feel your pain about fuel costs and euro troll roads. I reckon towing the caravan to Spain and back this winter will cost me £1k. I bite the bullet and pay the trolls, which is nearly double with a caravan, on the grounds that its less fuel and wear & tear to keep to a steady 55mph and shorter time at the wheel. Via Michelin web site is however good for sensible non troll routes and there are some useful routes at http://about-france.com/tourism/no-tolls-routes.htm

    Paul Smith - November 8, 2016

    Hi Martin,

    Google Maps says that the return journey from my old base in Southam, Warwickshire to Malaga and back would be 2,968 miles. My current fuel consumption is 25p per mile so the trip would cost me £742. It’s a lot of money, but it’s also a lot of fun driving through France and Spain.

ian - November 7, 2016

Hi paul, fun reading your exploits as i lay almost naked on the sofa in bali, in nice new small house at £125/ month. Trouble is its too flipping hot here, most days a high humid 32C. I ride a small hired scooter, largest outgoing is 1 aircon and two fans costing about £12/ month in electricity. Going back to life on the canals, i,d budget my fuel expenditure per month and spend more time static to meet the budget, balancing distance against cost. It seems you,re pushing yourself to cover distance in a hurry. Travelling on the small roads may be increasing your consumption too. What about just travelling far enough on decent A roads to charge your batteries, is that about 4 hours max, then 3 days rest.? Not criticsm, only intended to help. Following with interest. Take care. Cheers ian of alchemy.

    Paul Smith - November 8, 2016

    Hi Ian,

    It’s as much about the journey as the destination. On the motorways we feel divorced from the country we’ve come to see. Taking the D roads may increase our fuel consumption, but we feel much closer to the country and the people in it. We certainly need to slow down, and I think we’re getting there. We’re going to try to only move on every two or three days. We have to balance our inactivity with the need to keep our batteries charged though.

Jasper - November 7, 2016

Hi Paul. Really enjoy your newsletters.
After reading the latest newsletter I have a thought for you to consider
Just a sugggestion. Might be worth buying a set of spare bulbs for all the exterior lights on the motor home. Also get at least two breathalysers, and a couple of hi viz waistcoats.
All small cheap items, and will save a long, and possibly expensive chat with the French police should they decide to talk to you.
The French motoring laws are somewhat different to the UK. It is up to the motorist to be prepared for small problems like headlight bulbs etc.
Please could you also include in a newsletter some idea of the layout of your vehicle ?

    Paul Smith - November 8, 2016

    Hi Jasper,

    I have a kit with all the bits I need to satisfy the driving requirements in France. I have spare headlight bulbs but, as the guy who did my last MOT pointed out, changing the bulbs on our Hymer with its Fiat Ducato chassis and cab requires two people with arms like orangutans.

    Good idea about the layout. I’ll add that to a post soon.

Miles Davenport - November 7, 2016

I do like reading your travel diary.

    Paul Smith - November 8, 2016

    Thank you Miles, but I bet you don’t enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy living it!

James Leck - November 7, 2016

Another first class read from you both. I may be a bit ancient to actually revert to the travelling life but your tales bring back all sorts of memories. Thanks

Jean Moir - November 7, 2016

Great fun – I remember it well. When we used aires they were all free and you only had to pay for the occasional fresh water. Grey water could be emptied down drains found outside cemeteries as could non drinking water. Lifting of heavy metal covers into drains was quite normal then too for the loo. Things have obviously changed. Glad you are beginning to enjoy the leisurely life now. Jeannie


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