On Monday morning we tackled a long overdue item on our administrative to do list. We needed an address in France where letters and parcels could be sent to us.
We made an attempt at setting one up last week. We popped into a small post office in Bages four miles from Peyriac-de-Mer where we’ve been staying for the last week. We aren’t very good at communicating what we want in a post office, or anywhere else for that matter, but we’ve successfully overcome the post office first hurdle. We now know how to get in.
Our first few encounters with rural post offices in France were very frustrating, especially, as is often the case, if the opening hours aren’t displayed on the office door or entrance. We would walk up to a frosted glass door, rattle it a couple of times to establish if it was open, shrug in resignation, then walk away.
Eventually we realised that there are three steps to gaining access. First you have to stand in front of a camera and ring a bell. The often solitary postal worker inside then has to stop what he is doing, check the camera monitor, and release the electronic door lock. Only then are you allowed inside.
We haven’t encountered an English speaking postal worker yet. The Bages post office was no exception. Cynthia typed what she wanted to say into Google Translate, then held her iPhone over the counter for him to read.
He smiled and replied at length, in French of course. We couldn’t understand a word of it. He finally made himself understood with a combination of gestures at his computer screen, and written notes on a piece of paper.
He told us that we could use the French Post Restante service for a maximum of three months. The charge would be €26. We then tried and failed to set up the service. We needed to provide proof of identity. Fortunately for us, we didn’t have any identification with us. We were fortunate because we didn’t need to pay a fee at all.
We finally cracked the tough postal address nut on Monday morning in Peyriac-de-Mer. Cynthia used the same Google Translate phrase she used the previous week in Bages. Once more, we received a warm smile and a torrent of rapid fire French. I did what I do best and looked puzzled, then turned to Cynthia. Cynthia scratched her head a little and looked around her for inspiration. She found it in Agnes.
Agnes was an English speaking French teacher living in Peyriac-de-Mer. She kindly acted as a translator. The service we had been offered in Bages was a postal redirect from one French address to another. We didn’t need it. All we needed was a post office address. The post office would receive and hold our post, then charge us a nominal fee for each item. We have yet to establish the exact fee. We’ll find out next week, because the Amazon flood gates have opened again.
I spent a couple of hours trawling Amazon’s second hand DVD sellers to replace our current library. There are only so many times you can watch a 1980’s sitcom and still find it funny. We also needed some Dutch waterway guides for our six month boating adventure later in the year, a mini trampoline for Cynthia to use as part of her cancer exercise regime, an iPhone tripod for me, and a few other odds and sods that we’ve wanted to order for a while.
On Monday afternoon we drove along the beautiful and now very familiar windswept lagoon road from Peyriac-de-Mer through Bages and onwards to Narbonne for our 3pm appointment at Narbonne Accessories.
The company replaced a failed water pump for us two weeks ago. The pump worked reasonably well, but every time we closed a tap, water syphoned back into the fresh water tank. Each morning we had to wait for up to five minutes while the cold tap coughed and spluttered before the air was purged from the system. The hot taps wouldn’t work at all.
Following advice from Oaktree Motorhomes, we asked Narbonne Accessories to fit a non return valve. We are now on first name terms with half a dozen of the staff there. We’re treated like old and cherished friends when we walk through their glass entrance doors. When they see me successfully negotiate the swinging entrance doors, they smile, no doubt remembering the first attempt I made. The wrong translation of pousser and tirer can make a big difference to the state of your forehead. It’s something I’ve learned through painful experience.
The smiling middle aged guy we now like to think of as our personal fitter spent an hour and a half fitting a more powerful water pump and a non return valve. He also discovered that the hot water pipe from the boiler was loose.
We were charged for just an hour’s labour and for the price difference between the original new pump and its more powerful replacement. Given that the hot water failure had nothing to do with the work they had done, both Cynthia and I were happy with the final bill. We would have been happier if we didn’t have to pay anything at all, but that was asking a little too much.
We popped into the Narbonne Casino car park to use their Flot Bleu motorhome service point. When we first arrived in France I thought the French were gambling mad. They may well be, but the large Casino signs we see so regularly belong to a popular supermarket chain.
Many parts of Narbonne are familiar to us now. We know that the Casino car park is a popular meeting place for the city’s homeless drunks. Narbonne is actually a very clean and tidy place, but they appear to have more than their fair share of wobbly men and women. We spotted just three of them on Monday, plus two obligatory skinny dogs. None of them paid us any attention.
With a full water tank and a full set of working taps, we drove back to Peyriac-de-Mer along the beautiful coast road from Bages for our fifth and last night wild camping overlooking the étang de Peyriac-de-Mer. It’s a windy but gorgeous spot with an expansive lagoon in front and high hills of crumbling rock behind.
We were a little surprised to have the place to ourselves so often. We found out why the following morning when we were moved on for the first time in France.
The portly village gendarme in his Peyriac community van knocked on our door at 8am. He told me that we were parking in a restricted area and that we needed to move. At least that’s what I think he said. For all I know he could have been telling me that he had just enjoyed a passionate morning romp with his favourite goat.
I wanted to move immediately. Cynthia was more practical. She argued, quite persuasively I thought, that the French love their food and because they love their food, and because the chubby village bobby in particular appeared to love his food, he would fully understand if we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before we left.
So we did.
An hour later we drove south to a spotlessly clean laverie in Leucate to do our bi monthly laundry. Oh, the excitement of life on the road!
We know it’s laundry day when everything we own is trying to crawl out of the laundry cupboard and the clothes we’re wearing crackle when we walk.
There’s no shortage of easy to use washing machines in France for those with an itinerant lifestyle, but they aren’t particularly cheap. Two large loads of washing and then half an hour in a room sized industrial dryer cost us €27 (£23.54). Fifty euros a month is more than I would like to pay to stop my smalls sticking to my unmentionables, but we don’t have an alternative.
With the day’s chores out of the way, we drove half a mile to a wild camping spot overlooking the étang de Leucate where we met a lost and bewildered pilgrim the week before. It’s only a stone’s throw away from a €10 a night aire, but the view is better and it’s free of charge. I was content to stay where we were, but Cynthia wasn’t happy with the location. She thought that we were in a good spot, but suggested that there was a better alternative.
A rough and narrow track continued another half mile to a rocky and secluded headland. I argued that the track was too rough, too narrow and too difficult for the Hymer to negotiate. Cynthia isn’t one for letting obstacles stand in her way.
“How do you know? Have you driven down there?”
“No, but I walked down there last week. There are potholes as deep as swimming pools, swathes of broken glass and dangerously low hanging trees”
“Can we at least try?”
“OK, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Negotiating the perilous track took two or three minutes of undemanding driving to reach the most idyllic spot we’ve had the pleasure to spend a night at so far on our French tour.
I was able to park the Hymer with the front wheels almost on a gravel beach. Through our front window we had an unimpeded view of most of the fifty four square kilometres of the wild and windswept Étang de Leucate.We had the spot to ourselves all night.
Our morning tranquility was shattered with the arrival of two windsurfing French motorhome owners. They knocked on our door to tell us, very politely, that we were blocking windsurfer access to the beach.
We moved a little way, then stopped for long enough to finish our breakfast before driving north to Sigean to do some shopping. It wasn’t one of our most successful days.
Our first stop was a bio store we found online. Through the dusty door glass we saw shelves empty apart from half a dozen bottles of water. The business had stopped trading.
Our next stop was a supermarket filling station which looked like it was heading the same way. Most fuel stations in France have some pay-at-the-pump machines in case the forecourt shop or pay booth is closed. The battered machine we stopped next to appeared to be working, but it spat out the Visa card we usually use for diesel, twice. Fortunately, we have a selection of cards for emergency use.
With no other organic food stores in the area, we had to drive back to Narbonne to a familiar store. We also stopped at the nearby Casino Flot Bleu service point to dump our waste and to take on fresh water. We were serenaded by two of the supermarket’s regular drunks who sat close to the service point sheltered by the supermarket’s bank of three washing machines. The more inventive of the two musicians sang with his head inside the empty tumble dryer. The effort was much appreciated, but they still didn’t get any money out of me.
Next stop was a pharmacy. I need to take regular strong anti inflammatory tablets which are only available over the counter. Easy enough, I thought. I just needed to take an old packet with me and show it to the pharmacist. Unfortunately, the French pharmacy ticketing system scuppered my plans.
I passed a dozen people who appeared to be queueing for something. They weren’t particularly near any of the three available counters, so I walked past the queue to an empty counter where a white coated assistant stood examining her fingers.
I showed her my empty packet. She looked up, pointed a scarlet painted talon at a digital wall display and returned to her nails.
I could see several people in the queue clutching white paper tickets, and another customer at the shop entrance taking a ticket from a wall mounted machine. The machine asked me to choose from one of three options. I didn’t have a clue what any of the other options were, so I stabbed a button at random, collected my ticket, and joined the back of a queue which snaked through the shop’s many aisles.
I reached the same crimson taloned assistant an age later. She took my ticket, sneered, and waved a manicured hand in the general direction of another counter at the back of the shop. After a few minutes confusion, the help of an English speaking customer, and a trip to the shop entrance to make the correct selection from the cursed ticket machine, I was finally heading in the right direction. The right direction in this particular case was to the back of the lengthy queue again.
I walked away with enough tablets to last me for the rest of our stay in France. I can’t cope with another pharmacy queue.
After a tedious day, we were finally able to relax by the sea again. One of the advantages of living in a motorhome is that you don’t have to drive home. You’re there already. All you need to do is to find a decent garden to sit your home on. Our garden for the night was on a rough sand and gravel car parking area overlooking the Anse la Galère.
This was probably our wildest night yet. Parking on or very close to a beach affords us a wonderful view from our lounge window, and often assures us an interesting night if, as is often the case in this area, a strong wind is blowing.
We endured a mainly sleepless night thanks to the Hymer rocking wildly on its suspension and the canvas bike cover flapping in the howling gale. Still, we would much rather be next to the sea with a view and the wind than in a crowded but sheltered motorhome aire without either.
Thursday was a joy. Ours is a life of highs and lows. I was thoroughly disenchanted with life in general the previous day. Everything required too much hard work. We needed food. We had to drive 20km to find a decent shop. We needed diesel. The automated pump wouldn’t accept Cynthia’s English card. We needed to empty our waste. The poorly designed Flot Bleu sewage point requires the user to stand in a cupboard half the size of a small wardrobe to empty twenty litres of liquid poo. I needed anti inflammatory tablets. The unfamiliar pharmacy ticketing system turned a five minute stop into a half hour ordeal.
All of these problems are trifling and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but sometimes they just get me down. I realise what a good life I have when the worst thing I have to worry about is being splashed by liquid feces.
Anyway, back to being positive, Thursday was a delight. The overnight storm resulted in a beautiful sunrise. The photo below is of a motorhome parked fifty metres from us.
Cynthia liked the photo so much, she wanted to show it to the motorhome’s owners. She knocked on their door, she was invited inside, and then she spent twenty minutes extracting as much information as she could from the French couple. Chloé and Romain Dubois live in their motorhome full time. They spend their winters along this relatively mild stretch of French coast, so know it very well indeed.
We are always searching for new places to visit, especially if they offer a decent place to stay for the night. Romain identified a number of possibilities for us, including a little visited but fully operational aire, close to a usually deserted beach at Cabanes de Fleury. After a brief “fleury” of activity, we were on our way there.
The clouds were spectacular all day. There were only four motorhomes on the expansive aire, but they outnumbered the people we saw on the beach. Mile after mile of creamy sand all to ourselves. Lovely.
Tasha and Florence enjoyed a run, Cynthia enjoyed a run, I enjoyed a run. We all had fun on a run in the sun and then, when our short legged dogs collapsed from exhaustion, I went for a walk on my own.
My route was around a completely deserted lagoon close to the beach. A narrow sandy path snaked through waist high clumps of coarse grass. Fishing nets bobbed under bright orange balloons strung in a line across the lagoon’s crystal clear water. I walked for an hour and a half and didn’t see another soul. France is a BIG country with plenty of space for those looking for a little peace and quiet.
The next day we were back in the real world. Jobs needed doing, and things needed fixing.
We have a 12v charger for my MacBook. It has two spare USB ports which we use for charging our iPhones and Cynthia’s iPad. There’s the usual 12v cigarette lighter socket on the Hymer’s dashboard and there’s another underneath the dining table which also doubles as my desk. We use our electronic devices regularly throughout the day. The 12v socket is very important. We found out just how important when it stopped working.
I made my usual half hearted attempt at DIY. I plugged another 12v charger into the faulty socket. It didn’t work. I plugged my MacBook charger into the dashboard cigarette lighter socket. It worked, but I couldn’t use it without the ignition turned on and the starter battery draining to a point when we would be unable to start the engine. I stuck my head into a cupboard beneath our dining table to check the back of the faulty socket. It wasn’t loose.
There was nothing more that I could do without taking things apart. I don’t like taking things apart. There’s usually a piece or two left over. The broken equipment normally ends up more broken than when I started.
Cynthia called Narbonne Accessories to book yet another appointment with our pet fitter. They managed to squeeze us in for an hour early next week. In the meantime, we had to find a way of charging our devices.
Fortunately I was able to find my MacBook 230v charger, so at least we could charge my MacBook from that, and our phones and Kindles through the MacBook’s two USB ports. The slight problem was that we couldn’t use the charger unless we had 230v power, which meant either finding a campsite with an electric hookup, or using our Honda suitcase generator.
We haven’t seen any campsites open at this time of the year. We wouldn’t want to pay their fees even if we could find one. That left the generator as our only option.
The Honda is relatively cheap to run, so the cost wasn’t an issue. We’ve had one or two complaints from fellow motorhome owners in the past about the noise, so that could have been a problem. It wasn’t because our aire was almost empty and we were parked on our own far away from our nearest neighbour.
We had to stay fairly close to Narbonne until our socket was repaired so we decided to stay at the Fleury aire. After all, it was fully operational, or so we thought.
With an almost full toilet cassette, I wandered over to the service point to check whether the water was free or charged for. It was neither. The water at the aire, like the water at so many aires along this section of the coast, had been turned off for the winter.
There were two more aires along the coast near Narbonne which we hadn’t yet tried, Narbonne Plage and Gruissan Plage. We drove towards Narbonne Plage stopping first at Fleury cemetery. The good news was that they had a working water supply. The bad news was that we couldn’t park close enough to use it.
We stopped at Narbonne Plage. The aire was open but the water supply was off. We didn’t discount the aire completely because it backed onto a beautiful stretch of deserted beach. If we found water nearby, Narbonne Plage would be a delightful and free place to stay.
We drove another 10km to Gruissan Plage. The aire barriers were locked in place, so no joy there either. Our get out of jail free card was the crowded aire at nearby Gruissan Port where we stayed at Christmas. We knew it was open and had water.
We resupplied at Gruissan Port as quickly as we could. We recognised a dozen motorhomes which were obviously there for the winter. Groups of predominantly French motorhome owners stood together watching life unfold in their little world on the harbour’s edge. Horses for courses, but it’s not a lifestyle which appeals to either Cynthia or me. We had a much better alternative in mind.
We drove the short distance back to the empty aire at Narbonne Plage. The water was turned off, but, with a full tank, we didn’t need any for two or three days. We would have a spacious aire next to a glorious beach largely to ourselves and, best of all, it wouldn’t cost us a penny.
We shared the aire that night with just four other motorhomes. Two of them left at the crack of dawn. We found out why an hour later when a large Frenchman knocked on our door.
We discovered that, although the water had been turned off, the aire was still being charged for, so we had to pay €10 to stay at an aire with no facilities. I was initially outraged, but I had a plan to make the cost more bearable.
We stayed another day and night, enjoying the view and a very brief walk on the beach into the teeth of a howling gale, set an alarm for 7am, and left the aire half an hour later. Ten euros for a two night stay was almost bearable.
We stopped at a supermarket close to Gruissan to buy some groceries, forgetting that many supermarkets in France are closed on Sundays. The French are much better at relaxing than the English with their two hour lunch breaks and work free Sundays.
We returned to Gruissan Port aire to resupply, left as quickly as we could, then parked less than a hundred metres away on an access road with hundreds of boats moored either side of us. This was a much more scenic option than a claustrophobic motorhome parking area.
We settled down to a relaxing day of doing very little, but fate had other ideas.
In the battle to keep all of our devices charged, I plugged my MacBook 12v charger into the Hymer’s dedicated dashboard 12v equipment socket. It worked for a while, then died.
Because I was distracted, and possibly a little challenged intellectually, I didn’t think the demise of two 12v sockets shortly after plugging the charger into them were connected. So I plugged the charger into the dashboard’s cigarette lighter socket. Unsurprisingly, you might think, that socket also died after a few short minutes. Within the space of a few hours I managed to kill all the 12v sockets on board.
Cynthia, who is always positive about absolutely everything, just smiled and suggested that we check the fuses. I, on the other hand, appear to have become a first degree miserable old git in recent years. The conversation went something like this.
“I’m sure it’s nothing major. Why don’t we check the fuses?” Guess who that was. Yep, that’s right. The ever positive Cynthia.
“I don’t want to check anything right now. I’ve ruined three sockets. They’ll cost a fortune to fix. I am NOT touching anything else!” Right again. That was me of course.
“Why don’t we just check the fuses first? That won’t do any harm.”
“I don’t know where the fuses are.”
“Do you think that could be the fuse box behind the panel in front of you marked ‘FUSES’?”
“I suppose so. I can’t open it though. I don’t have a screwdriver.
“I can’t see what I’m doing. There’s no light down here.”
“Here’s a torch, and here’s a replacement dummy for the one you’ve just spat out!”
Replacing the fuse cured the problem with the cigarette lighter socket. I’m sure we’ll cure the problem with the equipment socket too once we’ve changed its fuse. The fuse is in another box, somewhere else deep in the Hymer. And the fuse for the socket under the dining table is in a third fuse box. There are four different fuse boxes in total in the Hymer. Cynthia is looking forward to helping me hone my DIY skills by exploring all of them. If I haven’t electrocuted myself, or set the Hymer on fire, I’ll let you know how I fared next week.