At the end of my last post, I mentioned the market at Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val and Cynthia’s excitement at the prospect of visiting another authentic, bustling French market. She visited several in Provence during her week long stay earlier in the year. She expected the market in this small mid Pyrenees town to be just as vibrant.
Because I am the embodiment of kindness and consideration, and because I have an all encompassing knowledge of French markets, having seen one once on a 1980’s television travel guide, I warned her not to expect too much. As we walked towards the town square through narrow cobbled streets, I demonstrated my intelligence and perception by pointing out clues that Cynthia probably hadn’t noticed; not a sound marred the early Sunday silence other than the gentle peals of a distant church bell, the streets were empty apart from an occasional dog walker and a solitary lost and perplexed tourist and, tellingly, the town’s main car park, all twenty narrow spaces, was mostly empty.
The town’s good people were clearly enjoying a relaxing Sunday morning at home rather than braving a damp and chilly autumn morning. I laid a comforting hand on Cynthia’s shoulder as she stepped from a narrow alley into the market square, hoping to lend a smidgen of emotional support to help combat her crushing disappointment, and then I stood slack jawed and dribbling at the scene in front of us.
The narrow town centre streets were a hive of bustling activity. Hundreds of stalls piled high with locally grown and prepared produce stretched into the distance. Many specialised in just one or two products. One sold just garlic and green beans, another sold nothing but goat’s cheese and one man, half hidden behind a mountain of free range eggs, packed endless trays for discerning customers.
We spoke at length to an English stall holder selling her own organic wine. Debbie Meehan has lived in France and sold her produce at French markets for the last twenty two years. We told her the market was so much more vibrant than any we see in the UK. “Business is still good,” she told us wistfully, “but there aren’t as many people here as there used to be. Shopping is so much more convenient in the big out of town supermarkets”.
Fortunately for the French, the supermarket chains don’t have the hold over local communities like they do in the UK. Thanks to these frequent and well frequented open markets, buying fresh produce from local farmers and small business owners is as easy as it is pleasant.
We walked the length of the market several times, stopping to buy prunes, garlic, honey, walnut oil, organic wine and beer, raspberries, bread, eggs, olives, cheese, and a horse sized cooked chicken which lasted us four days.
We completed our open air shopping experience with a cream topped cappuccino in the town’s market square bar sitting next to a brace of weathered stallholders enjoying a mid morning pastis to keep the autumn chill at bay.
The following morning, after a relaxing and hugely enjoyable and free four day stay, we continued our wandering. We are slowing down a little now. The reason for our long days, high miles and big fuel bills was to reach Madrid for an appointment with the US Consulate on 15th November to try, for the fifth time, to update Cytnhia’s passport to reflect her new married name. Cynthia has discovered that we now don’t have to rush.
She found a page of information, buried deep on the US Consulate website, indicating that
any change of name updates required within a year of her last passport being issued can be done by post free of charge. As her latest passport was issued less than a month ago (wrongly, without reflecting her recent name change) we can go down the postal route and spare the heartache of having to deal with the consulate staff face to face.
Cynthia’s Consulate appointment was made using the US government’s impossible to understand online booking service. Cancelling a previously made appointment is possible in theory, but it’s beyond either Cynthia or I. Their system asked for four very basic pieces of information, which we provided. There was no record of Cynthia’s appointment, even though we received email verification when we booked it. There is, of course, no way to contact consulate staff to try and resolve the issue.
As there was no charge for the appointment and, between us, we couldn’t find a way of cancelling the appointment, we simply gave up. I imagine that hundreds of other would-be consulate visitors do exactly the same. It’s a good job the US government isn’t required to function efficiently to stay in business, otherwise it would have been processed through its own bankruptcy courts many years ago.
We weren’t in a rush to head anywhere in particular, but we had a busy day scheduled. We needed grain free food for the dogs and a good organic store for food for us. We also desperately needed to top up our gas supply, we needed to find a garage to replace a headlight bulb and, most importantly, we needed to find someone to fix a roof leak.
We’ve had a fair amount of rain recently. I was surprised how wet, and how cold, the south of France really is. I expected this part of Europe to be warm and sunny. It’s not. Nighttime temperatures have dropped to close to freezing recently. We’ll need to travel a fair way yet before we hit warmer weather. The thermometer in Madrid, over 1,100 miles south of my old base near Southam in Warwickshire, and still 460 miles south west of our current location, dropped to 4°c earlier this week.
Anyway, it’s not the cold which concerns us. The Hymer’s air blow gas heating system is coping with that very well. It’s the leak we need to fix. Water has been steadily dripping through the skylight surround over the fixed double bed at the back of the Hymer. The resulting wet patch was responsible for some very suspicious looks in my direction from Cynthia, until a particularly large and cold drip landed on her head.
We drove for an hour from Saint Antonin Noble Val to Toulouse through some of the most enjoyable and dramatic scenery of the trip so far. We climbed, and we climbed and we climbed, rarely out of third gear and rarely without me clenching my buttocks so hard that I thought I was going to pull a muscle.
I’m not normally a nervous person, but a combination of our maiden voyage up and down Devon and Cornwall’s steep hills, and the tales I’ve heard about French balcony roads (There’s a list of the more popular/scary roads here) have made me more than a little apprehensive at the thought of the mountain roads to come. As with most worries, I’m sure that the anticipation is worse than the actual event, but I’ll be glad when I have a few of these roads under my belt.
The scenery is improving in many ways. There is more of a mediterranean feel to the landscape; endless vineyards and properties with orange tiled roofs, and plentiful high cliffs and low gorges. The drive on our usual almost empty D roads was spectacular. Toulouse was not.
We probably spent an hour in total driving through Toulouse, mainly along congested roads and often close to dilapidated graffiti covered buildings. We made a couple of passes over the Canal-du-Midi. The canal stretches for 241km. I hope that it is more picturesque elsewhere than it is in grimy Toulouse.
The city was a marked contrast to the people we met who lived there. Most spoke at least some English. All were very, very helpful. The most helpful was a Mercedes van driver, who responded to my blocking him into a tiny parking space with the Hymer so that I could reach the LPG pump, by leaping out of his van to enthusiastically offer his assistance when he saw me trying to top up my shoes with freezing liquid gas. Because of his van, I had to park at an angle to the pump so the gas dispensing nozzle didn’t seal against my French LPG adaptor. Oh boy, is that stuff cold!
We had a few more problems with the LPG pump but Mercedes van man helped sort them out for us then, with a wave of his lunchtime baguette, roared off into the nose-to-tail Toulouse traffic.
We made another couple of stops for dog food and people food, then drove south west to our next aire home. Actually, thanks to the TomTom which decided all on its own that we needed a break from scenic rural D roads, we drove 10km out of our way, most of it directly into blinding late afternoon sun, despite the occasional sage advice from copilot Cynthia detailing a much shorter and more scenic route.
Our destination was the pretty little town of Samatan. The aire had enough space for 15-20 motorhomes, but we shared the space with just one other vehicle for most of our stay. Our intention was to spend a night there before moving on, but we’re thankfully slowing down now considerably. The single night became two and then, because of pressing electrical repair, two more nights.
As I mentioned earlier, the headlight bulb that I had changed during the Hymer’s MOT a month ago failed again. I think it may have failed as much as two weeks earlier, so its replacement was long overdue.
On Tuesday we looked for a garage in Samatan. The only option was a Renault repair garage on the outskirts of town. Thanks to Cynthia’s French and a certain amount of miming, the fault was easy enough to communicate.
The owner selected one of his half dozen busy mechanics for the job. A friendly and capable looking young cove who, with a cheery smile and a confident set to his shoulders, asked me to pop the bonnet. With screwdriver in hand, he ducked his head into the engine bay’s dark recesses to effect a quick and effective bulb change.
As the afternoon dragged on towards evening, we met most of the business’s mechanics, most of their friends and a few of their relatives.
The five minute fix lengthened to ten, then twenty, then half an hour. The cheery smile was replaced by scowls and curses. The lone mechanic was joined by another whose lack of success prompted the owner to interrupt his constant stream of telephone calls to lend a helping hand. He eventually tired of this new and particularly troublesome challenge, so retired to the safety of his office.
As afternoon turned to dusk, our original mechanic, tired of crawling around the Hymer exposed to a biting wind, directed us into their cavernous workshop so that he could continue to scratch his head in relative comfort.
We were joined briefly by a fourth mechanic who quickly decided that discretion was the better part of valour, then by a fifth armed with a determined scowl and a multimeter.
Mechanic five unearthed the fuse box beneath the Hymer’s bonnet then conducted a long, monosyllabic and ultimately fruitless conversation with mechanic number one…
“Merde! Je déteste ce fiat fils de pute!”
There was much, much more to this effect, but I won’t bore you or offend your delicate sensibilities. Let me just say that the parenthood of the Hymer’s designers were questioned extensively and at great volume for the next half hour.
Fortunately we were allowed to stay in the Hymer while this was going on. Cynthia knitted a jumper, I read War and Peace and the dogs had several litters of adorable floppy eared puppies.
Shortly before my beard reached my waist, multimeter wielding mechanic number five uttered a jubilant “Bon!” as he pulled a frayed length of wiring from his new home under the dashboard. Mechanic one, two, three or four had managed to change the headlight bulb, but the new bulb didn’t work either. The faulty wiring was the culprit.
The final bill was much smaller than we expected. We were charged for just one hour’s labour and a new bulb which came to €62. We both agreed that this was a very reasonable price for a new headlight bulb and an afternoon’s entertainment.
We happily made our way back to our aire with two bright headlights. I wasn’t quite so pleased that after the repair, when I indicated left or put the hazard lights on, the nearside side light also flashed. I suspected that this was a surprise bonus courtesy of multi meter man.
I was able to thank him for his gift when we visited him again the following day when both headlights failed.
The garage couldn’t have been more helpful. In fact, once the garage owner sanctioned a thorough and immediate investigation, multimeter man was so focused on getting the Hymer through the open front doors to start the work, that he forgot that high sided vehicles were usually brought inside via the higher back entrance. He made it with at least an inch to spare, so everyone was happy.
Within half an hour he identified and fixed the fault. Four days later, both lights are still working. Hopefully we can draw a line under that particular problem and focus on the next issue, which I’ll tell you about in a moment.
We planned to leave as soon as the headlights had been fixed, but ten days after our last campsite stay and access to a washing machine, we were reduced to our clothing dregs. Cynthia looked very fetching in a flimsy summer dress, knee length woollen socks and a balaclava, but for some reason she didn’t think it was suitable attire for lunch in a Samatan restaurant.
Two large loads of washing and half an hour in a room sized dryer in the town’s high tech and spotless laundrette cost us €16. The cost was slightly more than we paid at our last campsite, but by staying on aires we’ve saved a fortune on campsite fees.
We haven’t stayed on a campsite now for ten days, nor have we wild camped anywhere in France. The opportunities for wild camping are few and far between compared with the Netherlands, but we don’t feel as though we are missing out, thanks to the number of free or low cost aires in France. They are a very welcome resource for motorhome owners. Parking, potable water, water for cassette cleaning, and grey and black water disposal is often free. Electricity is sometimes free too, but it’s not something we look for because we have our Honda generator on board.
Because the aires are often so pleasant to stay on, we’re staying multi days in one spot and saving a fortune on diesel. In the last ten days we’ve driven just 194 miles at a cost of £50 compared with the ten days before that when we spent £257 driving 980 miles. Our mileage is now within budget, and we have plenty of time to explore a truly beautiful part of France.
We left Samatan on Friday before our daily aires money collector felt obliged to take us home to meet his family. A memorable drive over hilltop ridges brought us to our current home at Durfort. The aires, part of a deserted village car park, empty apart from two other distant motorhomes, nestles between two steeply wooded hills. It’s one of the most peaceful aires we’ve had the pleasure to stay on so far, and it’s completely free of charge.
The tranquil setting makes me feel slightly better about our latest electrical problem.
We had a battery problem in April during our maiden voyage down to Devon and Cornwall. An RAC engineer visited us at a car park above Port Isaac to diagnose a dead alternator and then decide that we just had a loose battery lead. Another RAC engineer diagnosed a cracked battery terminal a few days later. The following month we spent a day at Oaktree motorhomes to have some other minor issues remedied. They changed the battery lead for us and all was well.
We now appear to have the same issue again.
I’ve extended myself mechanically by poking the loose lead with a finger. That’s worked twice so far to push it back on the battery post far enough to allow us to start the engine. Remembering the problem both RAC engineers had finding enough space to squeeze a spanner wielding hand anywhere near the offending battery, I’m loath to unwrap my shiny set of unused spanners. I’ll give it a go though, and then I’ll probably sob uncontrollably while I talk to a SAGA breakdown cover telephonist and try to explain where we are. At least I’ll have something interesting to write about next week.