Tales of Woe: From the Sweltering French Mediterranean to the Snow Blanketed Swiss Alps
Have you missed us?
Please accept my apologies for not updating the blog in recent weeks. Thank you, if you are one of the many blog subscribers concerned enough about our wellbeing to email me. I am well. Cynthia is well too. We’re both alive and kicking and having a wonderful time.
We’re in Switzerland now, parked by a sunlit harbour in Saint-Aubin-Sages on the northern shore of forty kilometre long lake Neuchâtel. I should be writing, but I can’t help gazing out of my bedroom window five miles across the lake to the snow capped alps towering over the southern shore.
Switzerland has been a shock to the system. When we left the sun drenched Mediterranean, spring had sprung. Blossom laden trees lined every road, colours were brighter, people happier, and my winter white legs slowly browned under an often hot French sun.
Now, we’re wrapped in winter coats again. We drove north into the French Alps into a world of white. Thin ribbons of gritted Tarmac bisected blankets of deep snow. The few accessible aires along our route had been closed down for the winter. Finding potable water and somewhere to deposit our fetid waste has been a problem. We’ve had to resort to cemeteries and public toilets for fresh water of suspicious colour and dubious quality.
The thermometer plummeted on Friday as we drove from our overnight stop at an out of service aire on the outskirts of Valence, north through Lyon, and then into the French Alps. I felt a little self conscious wearing my summer shorts when we stopped briefly in Lelex. The ski resort’s main street was alive with happy holiday makers swaddled in winter clothes as they walked along a street lined with several feet of dirty snow.
We stopped for the night at an aire close to another ski resort, Mijoux. Overnight rain turned to snow. Because of the Hymer’s poor traction on the driest of days, icy and perilously steep roads, we delayed our departure hoping for a little help from the winter sun. We didn’t know at the time that we would have to ascend another 300m into the snow clouds before we could begin our almost vertical descent to the Swiss border. My heart survived, but I think I pulled a muscle clenching my buttocks as I negotiated hairpin bends bordered by often unprotected drops to the valley hundreds of metres below.
Our life is sometimes tiring, often frightening, but always exciting. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I’ve had plenty to write about over the last month, but I haven’t added any blog posts because of a little problem I have.
I need to earn some money.
Cynthia and I are able to sustain our idyllic lifestyle for many years yet, but I don’t feel as though I am contributing enough to our partnership. Cynthia pays for most of our day to day expenses. She’s happy to do it, but I’m not. I need to contribute more. I’ve given up my boat and the comfortable lifestyle I could afford thanks to the income from my discovery day service. I still enjoy a small income from my Narrowbudget Gold package, but it’s not enough. Much as I enjoyed publishing my weekly blog posts, they took me a long time to write, and an ever longer time to answer the flood of very welcome emails I received after each new post. The time I invested in writing wasn’t earning me an income.
I needed to change that.
I’m writing a book about our adventures in Europe. There’s much more to putting a book together than there is to knocking out weekly blog posts. The process is going to be both lengthy and labour intensive, but I expect to publish my book this autumn.
The good news for you, if you’re interested in our adventures, is that it’s going to be free to you as a site subscriber. All I ask in exchange is a review on Amazon. Kindle authors live or die by their reviews. No reviews often means no sales. I hope to improve my Kindle ranking by giving a batch of books away initially. I hope it will be a win/win situation. You get a hopefully entertaining book free of charge, and I sell more books thanks to your review.
Here’s a finished chapter. If you have time, I would be very grateful for some feedback…
Driving a long and unwieldy motorhome along one of France’s notorious balcony roads probably wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had. Researching the road first might have helped a little, but I doubt it. Having a large injection of common sense would have helped, but I haven’t found anyone willing or able to do it for me yet. I lived in hope.
After three months touring in France, we became a little blasé about new routes. We regularly and safely negotiated large cities filled with car drivers either unfamiliar with rules and regulations or, more likely, unprepared to pay the slightest attention to them. We expected buses and lorries to try to squeeze past us at full speed through impossibly narrow gaps. We anticipated cars that continued to hurtle towards us as we reversed with our hazard lights on. We cringed as dented Citroens raced towards us on narrow country roads, knowing that the owner would keep his foot pressed firmly on the accelerator as he thundered past in a cloud of dust and gravel. We had a few hairy moments, a few near misses, and the occasional brown trouser moment, but, as Cynthia always told me, “There’s always room!”
Less frequented country roads scared us for different reasons. Roads, often little wider than our Hymer, skirted steep and jagged, towering cliffs and unprotected drops into bottomless gorges.
When we first started out, thorough research had preceded every new journey. We examined our detailed Michelin road atlas. We also used Google Street View extensively. I would drop Google Map’s little yellow man onto random roads along our route to check for road width, passing places, roadside barriers, overhanging cliffs, or narrow and low tunnels. The reality was rarely as scary as the research.
But by now, we were confident travelers. Narrow and steep roads no longer terrified us, so we stopped researching possibly precarious mountain routes. This over confident attitude resulted in our downfall. On what we expected to be yet another day of interesting but routine travel, lulled into a misplaced sense of supreme confidence, I punched our destination into the satnav, swapped reading for driving glasses, and set off on what I expected to be just another pleasant day’s driving in rural France.
We generally liked to use rural roads to avoid expensive motorway tolls, so we weren’t surprised when Mr. TomTom directed us off the main road onto a slightly narrower route clinging to the side of a rising cliff. We’d taken similar roads before. A few hundred metres of nervous driving between sheer rock face and low retaining wall before the road widened again was what usually happened. We were more than happy to endure a minute or two of tension in exchange for gorgeous and far reaching mountain views.
This road was different. Five hundred metres, a kilometre, then two kilometres, all along a single track road barely wide enough for the Hymer, and not a single passing place to allow oncoming traffic to slip by. The road slowly steepened until we crawled along, constantly in second gear, occasionally dropping down to first for impossibly tight hairpin bends.
We met our first car on one of these bends. Typically French, the driver raced down the hill without a care in the world, passing us on the bend with a screech of tires and a handful of thrown gravel. Our Hymer doesn’t like steep hill starts. As the oncoming traffic increased, we had to frequently pull over until the Hymer’s tyres almost touched the cliff face to stop and allow cars and small vans to thunder past. Setting off again produced clouds of smoke and acrid fumes from our burning clutch.
As the road’s gradient increased, so did the engine temperature. After half an hour’s relentless start/stop climbing in low gear, the temperature gauge needle crept slowly into the red.
“Can’t we stop to let the engine cool down?” asked Cynthia.
“There isn’t anywhere to stop. There’s a growing queue of cars behind us. Have you seen anywhere to pull over?”
No, I haven’t, but you need to stop. You’re going to burn out the clutch and overheat the engine!”
“OK. I’ll just stop in the middle of the road. I’m sure the cars behind us won’t mind waiting for half an hour!”
As I was trying to deal with the dirty look Cynthia threw at me, we saw our first balcony road tunnel.
‘Snug’ would be a succinct way of describing it. ‘Ridiculously, scarily small and tight, the kind of tunnel worms would think twice before entering’ would have been far more accurate. Two red and white circular signs on a cliff face fifty metres before the short tunnel indicated the height and width restrictions.
Cynthia is far calmer in stressful situations than I am. “OK. Let’s work this out. The maximum width is 2.4 metres. How wide are we?”
“We’re exactly 2.4 metres, but I’m sure the authorities have allowed a margin for error”
“OK, we might get through on the width. What about the height?”
“That shouldn’t be a problem. The sign says 3.6 metres. We’re only three metres high.”
We inched towards the tunnel in first gear, noticing the tunnel’s jagged roof and walls, and hoped that the sign makers and installers had measured accurately. We scraped through with centimetres to spare on either side. We couldn’t see the roof. Nothing fell off, so we assumed that everything above us was still intact.
That tunnel was the first of a terrifying series of ragged passages through sheer cliff faces, each with slightly different dimensions, each on a road slightly steeper than the last, and each with a growing line of frustrated motorists behind us.
The temperature gauge was now firmly in the red. We could smell the engine heat. We could feel it too. In an attempt to divert some heat from the engine, I had the cab heater on full blast. Not something we really wanted to do on a balmy spring afternoon.
Yet another tunnel appeared around a steep hairpin bend ahead of us. Again, the maximum width was 2.4 metres. Most had been 2.4 metres, but some had been more 2.4 metres than others. The width didn’t worry us, but the height did.
“This one’s only three metres high!” exclaimed Cynthia. “We can’t go through it. We’ll get stuck!”
“We have to go through it. There are at least twenty cars behind us and there haven’t been any passing places for the last two kilometres. Anyway, the height should be OK. Don’t forget, I measured the Hymer’s height myself. Three metres exactly. We’ll go through slowly, but I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
“OK. If you’re certain about our height, we’ll give it a go.”
We crawled forward an inch at a time. The tunnel appeared narrower than the others we’d successfully negotiated. So much so that we needed to fold in the wing mirrors to stop them scraping against the limestone walls. With no wing mirrors, I couldn’t see how much clearance we had between us and the uneven roof. Not that I needed the wing mirrors to check the clearance after we heard and felt scraping and grinding a few feet behind our heads. I stopped quickly when a sharp CRACK was followed by a thud as something struck the cabin above us.
We were jammed immovably against the rocky roof. Moving forwards or backwards resulted in scraping, tearing and a terrible vibration from above us. We wanted to get out to assess the damage and to work out how we were going to free ourselves. We couldn’t. There are two ways out of the Hymer; a single door next to the driver’s seat, and another on the opposite side of the motorhome in the middle of the accommodation. Both were centimetres away from an unyielding rock wall.
“I thought you said that we are only three metres high?” asked Cynthia.
“That’s right. I measured the distance with your tape measure. From the ground to the roof is three metres.”
“So, how did you measure the height of the satellite dish on top of the roof?”
“Well… I guess I must have forgotten about that!”
“I suppose you forgot about the wing mirrors as well when you measured the width?”
“Ah… yes, I suppose I did.”
“At least things can only get better from here!” sighed ever positive Cynthia.
For once I agreed.
I agreed until I saw flickering flames and thick black smoke billowing from beneath a bonnet we could no longer reach.
I’m quite happy with that chapter, but I’m more interested in what you think. Is this a story you would happily pay a few pounds to read? Do you like the content and the style? How do you think it could be improved?
Can I ask you another favour? I’ve already had the book cover designed. The working title is Life in a Box. The design is on the left. Click it to see the illustration in all its detailed glory. The two characters in the Hymer’s front seats have been modelled on Cynthia and I. Apart from my new Afro-Carribean tint, I think the illustration is excellent . I don’t like the way the title is laid out, but there’s plenty of time to change that. What do you think? Is the cover eye catching enough? Would you click on the tiny Amazon icon to find out more and possibly buy a copy?
I really value your opinion. I’ve created a short and anonymous survey here. There are three simple questions to answer. Please help me out by spending a minute or two to answer them. Thank you in advance for your time.
If you want to contact me for any other reason, you can email me by clicking this link.