Rennes-le-Château to Narbonne: Almost Adapting to Life on the Road
I sometimes find this motorhome lifestyle very difficult to adapt to. Driving a large vehicle on narrow roads is often stressful and, after living afloat, I am used to living in a small space, but not nearly as small as the space I have to live in now.
I spent six and a half years living on a narrowboat. Those used to life in a bricks and mortar home would probably find three hundred square feet of living space I had on my 62’ boat a bit of a squeeze, but there’s more space than you might expect.
The front deck was fitted with bench seats and a removable table for al fresco dining, on the one or two days in the English summer when the weather is happy to oblige. The front deck had a cratch cover which provided a considerable amount of dry storage space for items I didn’t particularly want on the boat; a hose reel protected from winter frost, Wellington boots, hiking boots, outdoor shoes, coal and kindling, garden shears for bankside trimming and a bucket, cloths and sponges for keeping the boat clean.
The wind and rain protected area was a very effective porch to use after a muddy towpath walk to shed wet clothes and dry soggy dogs.
Inside the secure fifty feet long cabin was a lounge area complete with a coal burning stove, a fixed dinette which would seat six people, a compact galley with enough equipment to prepare the most elaborate meals, and an even more compact utility area complete with washing machine and drying racks.
My work area was behind the utility room. I had a comfortable office chair, a large desk for my laptop and combination scanner/printer/fax and two spare bunks to accommodate the guests I never invited.
Then there was a bathroom with a decent sized shower cubicle and wonderful composting toilet, plus shelving for towels and toiletries. Our bedroom was at the rear of the boat next to the engine room. The room had a standard small double bed, 6’4” long and 4’ wide. We had a television and DVD player in the bedroom in addition to a television at the front of the boat which picked up 140 channels of garbage if we ever had time to waste.
The enclosed engine room was at the back of the boat with a copious amount of storage space for tools, mooring equipment, outdoor clothing, camera, binoculars, oils, paints and grease and a powerful suitcase generator which I rarely used.
The boat was solidly built. The steel cabin was insulated with polystyrene. Actually, the cabin was insulated with two layers of polystyrene after I overplated the original wooden cabin with steel in November 2011. The polystyrene prevented heat loss and dampened sound.
If you live with a significant other for extended periods, you need some space. Maybe you don’t, but I certainly do. On the boat I could sit on the front deck, in the lounge, the dinette, in my office or in the bedroom. Often, if I wanted a quiet place to work, I would sit on the bed with my superb Lavolta folding bed desk on my lap. Because there were a couple of sturdy ply doors between the bedroom and the rest of the boat, Cynthia could do what she wanted without having to worry about disturbing me.
When we travelled, I would often be on my own for hours at a time. Travel time was me time. I would sit on a padded seat on the cabin roof with the tiller wedged under my left leg, cruising at a very relaxing two miles an hour without a care in the world. I loved it.
Life is very different in a motorhome.
The boat was 62’ long, including fifty feet of internal living space. The covered front deck added another five feet.
Our Hymer B754 is larger than most motorhomes. Many motorhome owners try to stay below twenty feet (six metres) to save on ferry charges and road tolls and to make sure that they stay within the 3.5 tonne limit specified on modern driving licences. Our Hymer is 25’ long, 28’ long including the bike rack, and weighs a little over five tonnes.
The Hymer is a foot wider than the boat, but the living space is 28’ shorter. Finding some space to enjoy some essential time on my own is almost impossible.
I’m only a man, so I can’t multitask. I have to focus very hard on just one thing at a time. If I want to work on the week’s blog entry, or do any work on either the boating or the motorhome web sites, I need peace and quiet. Peace and quiet is difficult in a compact motorhome.
The most effective solution we’ve found so far is for me to sit on our bed with a thin concertina curtain drawn between the bedroom and galley areas. Drawing the curtain provides visual separation, but I can still hear every sound from the rest of our tiny home. Cynthia tries very hard indeed to stay quiet, but her task is almost impossible in such a small space.
I used to enjoy some hermit time on the boat when we cruised. I can’t do that in the motorhome. In fact, moving from place to place is one of the most stressful parts of our new life.
We both crave tranquility. It’s not something we find in towns or cities, so to reach the places we enjoy so much we have to take minor roads. Minor roads in the Pyrenees often require total concentration, a head for heights, a strong grip on the steering wheel, and an even stronger grip on sphincter muscles.
Moving to a new location in the boat was both effortless and pleasant. Narrowboats travel at less than walking pace, and they’re bombproof. You have to try very, very hard to damage one. Collisions with lock entrances, towpaths, bridges and other boats are common. Claims on insurance policies are not. A gentle bump against the bow of another boat usually results in a philosophical shrug and a smile.
As you cruise in a narrowboat, nearly always more slowly than those strolling along the towpath, you can enjoy the scenery around you; a heron standing motionless on the canal bank, a tractor ploughing a canal-side field under a cloud of squabbling gulls, buzzards circling high above or kestrels plummeting towards unsuspecting field mice.
You’re close to nature standing in the open at the mercy of wind and rain and, in the English summer, both glorious days of welcome sunshine.
In the motorhome, especially on mountain roads, you’re always inches away from death, damage, disaster and discord, confined to a metal box, separated from the beauty around you.
I’m more relaxed now than I was on the road six months ago, but I can’t claim that driving this beast is ever relaxing. Cynthia is more relaxed than I am, but she has her moments too. A typical mountain journey will go something like this…
Cynthia: “Look at that beautiful ruin over there!”
Me: “I can’t tell where it is if you’re pointing. I’m too busy concentrating on the road to watch your hands!”
Cynthia: “It’s at 3 o’clock, slightly above you”
Me: “I can’t look now. Have you seen how narrow the road is?”
Cynthia: “Of course I know how narrow it is. Your wheels are nearly over the side. Stay to the left!
Me: “If I move any further to the left I’ll hit the lorry trying to squeeze past us!”
Cynthia: Well, if you don’t move to the left, you’ll be in the gorge below us. Move to the left NOW!”
Both Cynthia and I recover quickly from travel tension tantrums, but they occur regularly. I’m nearly always the cause.
I found our lifestyle particularly difficult to deal with earlier this week, even though we spent it at one of our favourite locations to date. Gary Granville, the voice over artist we met last Sunday in Espéraza, told us about a magic mountain a stone’s throw away from our riverside aire.
Mount Bugarach is said to have inspired Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth because of the extensive network of caverns and tunnels running beneath the mountain. Nearby Rennes-le-Château is thought to have inspired Dan Brown to write The Davinci Code. The village was also home to François Bérenger Saunière, a monk who allegedly discovered a vast fortune there which allowed him to live a life of luxury impossible on a monk’s salary.
We stayed at Espéraza on Monday night before setting off on Tuesday morning for a pleasantly brief five mile drive to our new destination.
We managed to reach Rennes-le-Château without damaging either the motorhome or each other. The drive from Espéraza was short, but hard on the engine. The final three miles was completed entirely in second gear.
We researched the area thoroughly before we attempted the climb. Google’s satellite imagery is a very useful tool for motorhome owners. We discovered that motorhomes weren’t allowed in the village itself because of the narrow streets, but there was official motorhome parking several tight hairpins below the village plateau.
The location was stunning. The aire has a dozen gravelled parking bays sloping steeply downhill. None of the bays were quite large enough for the Hymer, and the slope was too steep to correct with our ramps, but we didn’t care.
We were the only vehicle parked on the aire for three days, so we picked the most level spot we could find, drove as high onto our levelling ramps as possible, and happily endured the slight list to port which resulted in Cynthia falling out of bed every night. It was, at least for me, a small price to pay for the heavenly setting.
The weather, typical for December in his part of France, was wonderful. We sat outside on our folding camp chairs for a couple of hours dressed in light trousers and tee shirts lapping up the view sharpened by crystal clear mountain air.
The village, thanks to Dan Brown and François Bérenger Saunière, is a popular tourist destination during the summer. There’s very little going on at this time of the year. All of the villages cafés and restaurants are closed. A single bookshop offers the only opportunity to spend money.
Even though the location was draw droppingly wonderful and we didn’t have the additional stress of high mileage travel days, I still managed to blow my top on day two of our stay. I felt claustrophobic. Not once in all of my fifty six years have I spent so much time with one person, and spent it in such a small space.
We have been together for almost twenty four hours of every day for sixty days. In the past, I’ve been able to enjoy a change of scenery and company at work. I’ve worked for eight or nine hours a day for five or six days a week. I’ve been able to let off steam, enjoying workplace banter with other men who are similarly shallow. I can’t do that now.
On Wednesday, I felt the walls closing in on me. All of our joint possessions from Cynthia’s house and my boat are crammed into a space half the size of the lounge in my old house. Cynthia and I share what little space is left with two large dogs.
Tasha and Florence are wonderful companions. They have easy going temperaments and they rarely bark. A good day out for them is half an hour sniffing driftwood on a beach. They are loyal, loving and extremely likeable, but they are big dogs in a small space.
I couldn’t move without tripping over a dog or turning sideways to slip through a narrow gap between Cynthia and an inanimate object. I could stretch out my arms and touch the walls across the width of the Hymer. Four large steps took me from one end of our home to the other. I felt as though I was living in a coffin.
At that moment I didn’t enjoy our lifestyle at all. I told Cynthia that I wanted to be back on a boat. I hated the stressful driving, constant breakdowns, people stealing what we’d worked hard to buy and, most of all, living in such a tiny space.
I stormed outside. One of the few advantages that our motorhome has over the boat is that it has doors to slam. I slammed the habitation door as hard as I could and then stormed off into the mountains.
Mountains and forests always have a calming effect on me. After half an hour alone on a mountain trail worked wonders. I realised how incredibly lucky we are. Our home may be small, but our garden is limitless. We’ve chosen to stay in France for the winter. We could go further afield, but France alone offers over two hundred thousand square miles of beautiful countryside to explore.
We’ve stopped overnight in thirty six different locations in the last two months, mostly in France. Most have offered wonderful walks, sights and smells. The few we haven’t enjoyed, we’ve moved away from. If we don’t like our neighbours, we move. If we don’t like the view from our lounge window, we change it. If the weather isn’t what we want, we move to another location where it is better.
With my minor complaints well and truly in perspective I returned to the Hymer to do some apologising. With Cynthia, that’s easy. She never bears a grudge.
After a mostly harmonious three days on the mountain, we had to return to civilization. The aire had no facilities other than a single wheelie bin for general waste. As we only use eco cleaning products, were quite happy to let our grey water drain onto the gravel beneath us, but we had nowhere to empty our black waste, and no way of refilling our fresh water tank.
We returned to nearby Espéraza for the night, then drove to Narbonne on Thursday afternoon. Our TomTom suggested an easy to negotiate motorway route. Cynthia had other ideas.
We drove east along the D613 through the mountains for two hours. The journey was probably the most enjoyable leg of the 4,500 miles we’ve driven since I left Warwickshire two months ago. The narrow road twisted and turned through countless hairpin bends with knee high stone walls offering expansive views of steep ravines and high cliffs.
We spent two days in Narbonne. Both were delightful. We walked a mile and a half from our aire to the Place du Forum for the weekly organic market. The tree lined square was large enough for just two dozen market stalls. The market was small, but very busy.
We bought fresh pasta, fruit and vegetables, a steak or two, aromatic spices and, thanks for some crafty marketing, three bottles of local wine. Many of the stallholders offered samples. It’s a wonderful way to capture passing trade. A local wine producer offered me a glass which he filled with at least half a pint of merlot from a bucket sized jug. The sample was larger than a standard wine glass in the UK. As I struggled to cope with a heavy red wine at 10am, he poured me another. Leaving without buying a bottle would have been rude, so we bought three.
We left Narbonne yesterday, but we didn’t move far. We stopped at a Casino supermarket in Narbonne to do some laundry. Many of the larger supermarkets in France have washers and dryers in their car parks. We’ve used them before, but never on a Sunday. We won’t make the same mistake again.
Sunday is washing day for the machineless population of Narbonne. We competed for the two washing machines with several others. A young couple in an elderly Renault waited with a boot stuffed full of bedding. A shaven headed construction worker in his high viz jacket lurked nearby clutching a bag of dirty underwear. Cynthia waited, quivering in anticipation, with her hands clutching the orange handles of our Sainsbury’s dirty washing bag. All of us watched the digital timers on the spinning washing machines counting slowly down to zero. All of us ignored the sleeping drunk on a concrete kerb behind a nearby shopping trolley shelter.
Cynthia moved with the speed of a racing greyhound and the authority of one born to command. She left a trail of weeping Narbonnites far behind her in the dash for the dryer. You don’t want to stand in the way of this woman and her washing.
We didn’t drive far. Narbonne was a bustling port in Roman times. Now it is 15km from the Mediterranean coast, but only 4km from the étang of Bages-Sigean. The former site of the port Is now a shallow lagoon.
We used Google’s satellite imagery and their Street View to check the lay of the land. I warned Cynthia not to get too excited. I was confident that the beauty spot would be filled with weekenders enjoying Sunday by the sea. As usual, I was wrong.
A large sandy car parking area was deserted apart from half a dozen motorhomes and a similar number of cars. By dusk all of the cars and most of the motorhomes had left. We parked twenty feet from the wind ruffled water.
A 40kph gale blew all night. The Beaufort scale describes it as a Fresh Breeze. Cynthia described it a little differently when the door was almost ripped from its hinges when she stepped outside this morning.
We’re going to spend the rest of the day here. We will return to Narbonne tomorrow to do a little more shopping. Cynthia damaged a hip a few years ago when she fell from a horse. Mountain walking now causes her some pain. The pain is very much reduced if she uses hiking poles. She has one already. We will buy another tomorrow, then make our way slowly inland along the Canal du Midi. We’ve identified several towns with accumulations of moored boats, thanks once more to the wonderful people at Google. We’ve now purchased a boat for summer cruising. It’s moored close to Amsterdam. We’re exploring the possibility of bringing it to the south of France next year.
From what I’ve written this week, and maybe in a few previous posts, you may have the impression that I’m not particularly enjoying myself. We’ve certainly had a few challenges over the last two months. One or two site visitors have suggested changing our lifestyle and returning to the tranquility of life in England’s inland waterways. We won’t be doing that.
Every change in life requires a little hurdle jumping. Our changes have been significant. Cynthia lived alone for twenty years. Now she lives with me. That’s enough of a challenge all on its own, but there’s far more. She’s left a wide circle of close and supportive friends behind. She’s moved continents, and moved from house to Hymer.
I’ve left a job which I loved, a business which was doing very well and the company of a group of guys I could depend on to offer help when I wanted it and advice when I didn’t.
Lots of changes for both of us, but changes for the better. Every day is filled with adventure, many highs and just a few miserable lows. I’m very much looking forward to more of the same over the coming years. Right now, I’m looking forward to a long walk on a sunlit and rather windy deserted beach.
Bye for now.
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