RV de France
Sarah D. Steever
Our cast starts out with the Beastie, 1981 Bedford CF 250 camper van bought on E-bay in England & fixed up as best we could; two whitewater kayaks, a 125cc motorcycle on the back, Mike, a British software engineer & whitewater fanatic, who'd given himself the handle ‘Immortal (so far)', often referred to as “Nutter” in social circles, and myself: A 29-year-old graphic designer who'd quit a perfectly good job in Seattle to tour Europe, but mostly to enjoy the company of said nutter.
Mike had the advantage of several years' French class, whereas I'd spent about 8 hours with a couple of tapes and a course book, of which I'd retained enough to embarrass myself.
Being American, the EU refused to insure me, so Mike was the only legal driver. I felt like an accessory, but his parents were glad they had me ‘looking after him'.
Getting There is Half the
Dover was jaw-dropping. There's the cliffs we've all heard of, and long ago a group of people with a good sense of aesthetics also put a castle on top of them. Didn't see much from the car, but I hope to get back to check it out.
Paid too much for the evening ferry ticket, the lady at the window didn't even stamp my passport, actually the entire trip I don't think a single French person laid eyes on my passport.
Drove onto this ENORMOUS
Ferry; twice the size of the Seattle ones, roughly the same length. After
all the nightmare stories I'd heard about rough ferry crossings I was a little
disappointed. It wasn't glassy smooth by any means: I
appointed myself the task of walking like a normal human & not staggering
all over the hall as the boat yawed. The Rum & coke helped.
“Use the bathroom NOW” Mike says as soon as we get on. An hour later it was full of people with lower constitutions than myself.
Then it got scary:
Mike was dealing with an English van, American/French side of the road after driving in England for 4 months. Mike only slipped up twice on the whole trip, no one was hurt, though two people in a car on one occasion might've had to change their pants.
It was pitch black & raining. We couldn't make heads or tails of the signs at first: By the time I'd found out what the sign meant in the dictionary, which was only about 50% helpful, I'd have to look up another one. By then whatever hazard or exit that was indicated was long gone. Mike pulled off & put dampeners on the headlights, & we traveled on to the next gas station.
My first attempt at the language… I got into the gas station with an empty thermos & my French for Travelers book. I saw a coffee machine behind the counter, & got out the book. There was no word for thermos (turns out it's thermos), so I looked up the closest equivalent. I approached the guy at the counter, flinched & said what translated to “fill the (gas) tank of coffee?” he laughed & said “white or black?” Aww, yay.
Mike & I sat down at a table in the store to plan our route. After thumbing through the Atlas of Europe we'd brought with us, I told Mike in not so many words (4) it was insufficiently detailed for our proposed agenda; the clerk gave a low whistle. I grabbed a French road atlas off the shelf. What I was confronted with got an “ACK!” out of me at first glance (I'd opened to Paris), I took about five minutes to figure it out, but decided that yes, I could navigate with it, & returned to the counter. The clerk was laughing at us.
Back on the road, The thermos turned out to have the best coffee we had on the whole trip. French coffee is good, but this stuff made me exclaim: “Holy crap this is good coffee!” & to think we got it at a gas station.
Mike says after we're back on the road: “She sure is handling a lot better.” We both immediately looked back to see if the bike was still on. Then it started to RAIN; we're talking South Carolina monsoon.
Come 2AM the monsoon continued, we're looking for Torcy, which advertised a campsite just outside of Paris in the Camping & Caravanning Europe book. We followed the directions, got into Torcy, saw it signposted once & that was it. Visibility due to rain was about 20 yards. Mike was tired, we were both cranky & frustrated & the Beastie needed gas. After 45 minutes of driving around, Mike made the inevitable error & turned into the wrong lane. Being that it was 3am & there was no traffic to speak of, it could've been a lot worse. I insisted loudly over the downpour we park & he get sleep, Gas first! He says. We left Torcy & kept driving until we saw a sign for gas. Turns out the pumps only took French credit cards. Gaah! We parked for the night in a grocery store lot.
I went into the back to discover that we had two leaks: One over each bed. Mind you the van had been rock-solid up until now, it just couldn't handle torrential downpour. I put the bin for the kayak gear under one leak & a saucepan under the other on the table.
I gave Mike the Duvet & a made him more comfortable
spot, as he had to drive. We left the table up, I grabbed a pile of
my clothes, put them under my butt with my head on the seat, my feet on the
opposite seat, & the table leg between mine. Some things don't warm up
no matter where you put them. I dropped into a half-doze listening to
water dripping steadily & noisily into the saucepan & the
* * *
I woke several times shivering, changing position, putting on my fleece, & finally curling up around Mike's head for warmth. Come about 6:15 the rain had let up. We emptied the saucepan, slid the kayaks to the front, took down the table & put up the bed. People started arriving outside to go shopping & were not quiet about it. I kept one metaphorical eye open in case someone took too much interest in us, I heard people talking outside, a couple times I'm sure they were discussing the vehicle & once the bike. Around 11:00 we looked outside to see a full parking lot & the Beastie taking up two spaces, with the back end hogging half a lane. Oops, I hate people like us.
We shuffled into a café, had a couple of croissants left over from the breakfast crowd, two hairy-chest coffees & a cigarette. Mike had a short conversation with the chef, the rest of the employees came to listen in. They quickly figured out we were the people that had parked our behemoth in their lot, & they were still very nice.
We hit the supermarket. The Cheese section was BIGGER than the wine section! When cheese lovers die, I think they go to France.
After another half hour of squeezing the beastie through the outskirts of Paris, we found a gas station that took cash. I was grateful for a feature you don't see in the ‘States much, & scared the heck out of me in England: Roundabouts. They prevent you from having to try a U-turn on crowded streets.
I asked if we were going to take the bike into Paris; Mike decided to forget about Paris (2 words) & head South. I was only slightly disappointed & figured there was always the drive back. Heh.
Very nice people, RUDE DRIVERS! We almost ran a couple over after no one let us in; this continued to be a theme on our travels. We took the Australian road rule to heart, which is “Bigga ca goes first.”
Determined not to have a repeat of the previous night, I picked a reasonably distant campsite, only to find out there are very few exits on the A6. Why? It's a toll road, meaning they have to put pay gates at all the exits. There's Aires all down the highway; I don't think there's an English word for Aire, basically it's a pull-off spot that doesn't go anywhere but back onto the highway. Aires have anything from scary bad toilets to full-on mini towns with restaurants, gas stations & travel agents.
Oh yeah, about those toilets…
One Aire we stopped at had just toilets. I looked in a stall & said “Oh! A Shower!” On closer inspection I realized with dawning horror…not a shower. Two spots to put your feet & a hole to squat over, a little button to push to wash it out & if you aren't careful you get your feet wet. Mind you, MOST toilets in France are pretty standard unless you stop at an Aire, campsite, or public restroom.
You know those people that
carry a wadded up kleenex in their pocket at all time? They're probably hanging
onto it in case they find themselves in France again & have to use roadside
toilets. No TP to be found except at the restaurants.
Having missed our exit to the initial spot I got out the book & found a place outside of Beaune; smack in the middle of wine country (that narrows it down, right?). I thought the ENGLISH had narrow roads! Yike! The only way to the site was through this tiny village: No sidewalks, the street maybe 1 ½ car widths-Barely wide enough for the Beastie. The camping spot was pleasant and grassy, surrounded by vineyards. The management had hours posted on the office window as to when they'd be in-once WAY too early & one at 8:00 at night. It was 8:00 & no one was there. We had a short conversation with some older men in a caravan from Holland, waved at the folks from Germany and went to get settled down.
Our first parking ritual ensued: We took the kayaks out, tidied up, got out the wrenches, made coffee on the gas burner, took the bike off the back, wound down the squeaky, rusty stabilizing legs on the rear with a lug wrench, plugged in the cable-oh, scratch that, we left it behind- & put the tools away.
We grabbed the helmets & started up the bike (this took several tries) to go in search of food. Turns out we were walking distance from a little hotel-restaurant, an old building covered with ivy & big pink plastic letters that said LOUVREE. We reluctantly stopped, as we'd been thoroughly enjoying the bike ride.
The place was dark inside, old-style chandeliers & linen draped everywhere, the coat racks were well used & we could hear conversation inside. We waited next to the inevitable bowl of fake fruit on the counter. The manager came out after a moment, seated us, & returned to his conversation with the employees. There was one other table of folks seated nearby, one puffed on a cigar with a rather distracting odor. I wondered if he'd think the same of our cigarettes.
Mike treated me to my first authentic French meal-one of the best I've ever had. OMG it was good, I didn't even know half of what was in it; the presentation was lovely. Ingredients consisted of rabbit meat (I hope), two kinds of mushrooms (I think) a date (I think) cut into a star shape; it looked like a starfish with all the seeds; a baked apple, a piece of lettuce and a wonderful cream sauce. I savored every bite.
For dessert they gave us some serious cheeses, strong cheeses, cheeses that wear combat boots & hide in dark alleys saying “You wanna piece of me, huh!” You hear the rule: ‘Always smell it first'; in the case of French cheese this is ill-advised. Still, I love cheese. One slice of this was like eating an entire block of American sharp cheddar.
Back to the beastie & clear weather. We slept like the dead.
* * *
Late morning the sun peeked in through the curtains & we ate Guylian Belgian chocolates in bed. Life was good. No sign of the ranger save an envelope on our windshield.
Shower! It was one of those push-button ones that spits water for 15 seconds & turns off again. I had to hit the button about 8 times before getting water I could force myself under without going into hypothermia. It was a very short procedure nonetheless, three more button pushes & I was outta there, but at least reasonably cleaner & less aromatiquè.
* * *
Another late start, we were planning to get to Vallon Pont D'arc by that evening. We'd made 2 CDs of MP3s (the MP3 player probably doubled the market value of the van), one I'm tired of, the other is Best of Queen. I was all for listening to the radio, but after an hour of intermittent reception we gave up. We fell back to playing “Name that roadkill” and announcing whether or not the sheep had tails.
We pulled off the motorway towards Privas & Mike announced we needed gas. The sun was just setting. Privas was one of those villages I'd only seen in story books, the town winding up a steep hill, the houses have great views because they're sitting on cliffs. The gas stations were closed.
We kept going to Aubenas, where we found a gas station, but no one was there & again, it only took French credit cards. I said “We either find gas or camp here for the night.” We followed signs to a campsite, drove about ten miles up a mountain on precarious roads, never found it, turned around, headed towards Vallon Pont D'arc, hoping to see a gas station. We saw a small lit village, Vogue Village I believe. I glimpsed a sign saying we were only 24km to our destination, oooh, Mike was MAD when he found that out, we'd have had enough gas to get there if we hadn't been looking for gas stations & campsites. Much MUCH crankiness. Turned in at the village, nothing, just a one-lane bridge over the Ardeche, & I'm thinking “I wouldn't drive a gas tanker over THAT”. We plodded back into Aubenas and camped in another parking lot, slept up top this time, were awoken by rain, achy joints, etc; but better than the 1st night.
We had the usual late start, found the elusive gas station after asking several people & reached our destination no problem. Finally!
Vallon Pont D'arc is a full-on French tourist town with outdoor cafes, outdoor shops selling things we'd never use, dogs everywhere, narrow, cobbled little roads. Getting to a campground was easy, we didn't have to drive through town.
We settled on a place from the book; Mondial Campground. Bordered by the Ardeche River, horse pastures & the D290, ruins decorated the cliff above camp; it had a little store, bar, restaurant, swimming pool, & two sets of bathrooms with showers. Not camping by my standards, but very comfortable. The Manager took Mike's passport as collateral; we didn't like that at all, but figured that was the way of things. He gave us a map of the area & even lent us a power cable. Mike had been asking around for an “Electric rope” as we'd left ours at the folks. We were corrected & told French for what we were looking for was ‘cable'. After this and the thermos incident I'd try to communicate using English words & French pronunciation; this didn't work, either.
We parked up, took the bike into town & had a seat outside at the nearest cafe, the waiter approached & started talking to me enthusiastically, trying to sell me something, I guess. I gave him a wide-eyed, wrinkled forehead look, & he stops, & says “Ah, you don't speak French.”
He sighed, handed us menus & wandered off to let us figure it out for ourselves.
Mike & I settled on pizza, which was brought swimming with oil, even the pepperonis had formed little bowls to hold even more. I managed to eat the greasy thing, making a note to learn the French word for acne cream.
We rode back to the campsite, plugged in the computers & sat back. Finally. We just had to hope for the rain to stop raining so hard & we'd be on the river.
* * *
We awoke to more rain & Mike declared a day of rest. Fine by me. We took the bike into town to find an internet cafe & troll about town in hopes the weather cleared for tomorrow. Eventually we came across a single terminal at the local pub, ordered coffees & took turns. Not wanting to deal with the French keyboards any more than I had to, I'd pre-wrote a bunch pf stuff on disk, we snuck it into the machine, put it online & discreetly put it back in my pocket. This worked well, save for me accidentally hitting the ‘reset' button instead of the eject. Doh. We hid the disk & had the bartender log us back on.
We roamed around, losing ourselves in the tiny streets & alleys of Vallon (watch out for dog poo)! Had a terrific dinner at the little restaurant on the campsite: Steak with …heh…French fries & crème sauce. We stopped at the bar for a drink & watched in the TV in fascination.
Walking back to the van in the dark we heard what we thought was the Beastie's infrared alarm going off. We stalked towards the van ready to maul an intruder. Once we got closer we realized the noise was coming from about 10 yards off. It was LOUD. We followed the source of the noise to a couple of burrows in the ground- crickets. I think. My ears hurt to get close, but I knew they'd keep me up. I buried the burrows & we had peace for the night. It didn't harm the crickets at all, as they were at it again the following night.
* * *
We drove halfway to St. Matin along the Ardeche looking for a takeout spot off of the Treacherous D290. Hair-raising in the Beastie, despite me having the seat farthest from the edge; the longest straight stretch was about twice the length of the camper itself. Hairpin turns, cliffs on either side, beautiful scenery, after the first two miles the river stayed half a mile below us. Great view, but not a take out to be seen. Mike shifted into 2nd down the hills to spare the brakes; the Beastie backfired in protest.
We kept seeing a herd of big brown wild goats. On the way up we had to stop to let them cross the road, hoping no one came careening around the corner & either A: plowed into us or B: Wrecked their car on one of the beasts, consequently either driving off the cliff or A. On e the way back to the Pont D' Arc one brown and white horned monster had lay down in the road, the rest of his herd stood off to one side, grazing. A gold station wagon full of tourists coming the opposite direction was parked, they were standing around the goat, some were trying to get it to move without getting too close, the others were snapping pictures.
It was getting late to embark on a 31KM run, we decided since it was midday & we wanted to be off the river by dark, we found a spot to turn around & settled on a short paddle from our campsite to the Pont D'arc. This was good, as I wanted to get used to my kayak, a Wavesport Y creek boat I'd picked up second-hand in the UK.
The first run took longer to set up than to actually paddle, but was a good start & helped me get used to the Y. The kayak is generally a good boat, the hard edges were a little startling, but the good news is eddy lines don't pull on it like they did my Micro 250 back home, the Y was WAY more stable than any other whitewater kayak I'd paddled. It's also slower than the Micro with the seating adjustments in all the wrong places: The edges of the seat dig into my thighs, the thigh braces are where my knees should be, and there's a divider in the middle that limits leg movement. I wasn't too thrilled about the possibility of doing class IVs in the thing. The seat itself was pretty comfy, but my legs fell asleep as soon as I got into it. There were only a few class III rapids on the entire river, so I was safe for the time being.
After the mini-run we took the bike into town to learn nothing opens until 7:00PM as far as food goes, we were ravenous. We got coffee & wandered Vallon for a bit, finding a place that had snacks, we had two deliciously messy Nutella crepes. I tried the Tiramisu ice cream & we rode back towards camp, stopped by a rock shop on the way & ran into an older couple from New Zealand (I always wondered where Kiwis went on vacation). All of us were saying “Wow, its been a long time since I heard English!” Between the 4 of us, Mike was by far the best at French. He lent a hand in communicating between them & the shopkeeper. Geologists will be happy to know that rocks & minerals tend to have the same names in any language.
After a shower (dang cold push-button ones again) we rode back towards town for dinner. We were stopped by a white duck wandering the middle of the road with no visible legs, just toddling about on big flat feet in front of the bike, I was laughing; Mike didn't want the next car to run it over & it was so entertaining we waited for it to waddle off the road before heading on.
We found a little restaurant built from river rocks & concrete who knows how long ago. Mike ordered duck & I had cordon bleu. Our plates arrived & Mike said “Mmmm! Try this” he forked over a piece of duck. I did, very good. I took a bite of mine: “Mine's better!” Absolutely excellent, I tried not to wolf it down & savor it, not easy, nothing I've had in the States compares to REAL cordon Bleu. For dessert I asked what the ‘plat du jour' was, I didn't understand the explanation, & just said “Oui”. It was best described as an apple quiche, it had, um…apples & a crust & eggs & cinnamon I think; a teeny scoop of ice cream with a leaf on top that was probably mint but tasted like catnip (don't ask me how I know this).
Mike says “er, you're not supposed to eat that.”
“Oh.” I finished my dessert. Why would they put something on my food I wasn't supposed to eat?
As if that wasn't enough we were served more hairy French coffee, she laid us out sugar cubes, hot cream, & a little plate of what looked like enormous chocolate chips. I carried on, adding sugar, cream, & after a bit dropped a chocolate chip in.
Mike: “You're supposed to drink that with the coffee, not in the coffee!”
I tried my hand at French: “Sucre dans le café, crème, dans le café, chocolat dans le café! What was I supposed to do?!”
I was corrected on my pronunciation; Mike gives me a sideways grin “Cigarettes, Avec le café, chocolat, avec le café.”
I almost got said cafe in my nose when I tipped the cup for a drink to see the chocolate chip still in its original form cemented to the bottom of the cup. I stirred it, it didn't dissolve in the coffee like I was expecting & left black streaks all around the cup.
“I can't take you anywhere” says Mike.
* * *
We rode back to camp, parked the bike & took a walk towards the Pont D'arc in the setting sun. We passed a farm populated with goats & horses, a sign on the fence advertised horseback rides. Two men were talking in the driveway, one was getting ready to drive off. We stopped & saw an animal behind them, I pointed at it, a black cat ran past, slightly bigger than the creature. “Me-eh-ah” it said. One of the men picked it up & put it in my arms, it was a tiny black lamb. “Petit Muton!” Awww! Mike & I petted it, it sucked on our fingers, so cute! The visiting man gestured to the lanky farmer, who had curly salt & pepper hair & an enormous moustache, then gestured to the lamb, saying something like “Family resemblance”. I gaped at the visitor, laughing. The farmer gave us a snaggle-toothed smile. The farmer indicated he'd found it wandering without its mother & he'd bottle-fed it. Mike said in French ‘You have a lovely daughter'. After a bit I reluctantly put the lamb down, it trotted off into the twilight with another “Maaa”. We thanked him & continued our walk.
We passed a cave that was gated off, a sign on the fence said CHIEN MECHANT, which as far as Mike knew, translated to “Naughty Dog.” Said naughty dog was a German Shepherd that stood about 10 yards off in the cave entrance & barked at us.
We passed a restaurant & a couple of kayak rental places, all gated up, all had large barky dogs behind their fences. One natural cave had been designated as a parking area, being the only flat spot off the road. Another cave had been turned into a roadside bar, we gazed through the fence to see a dirt floor, a shelf with bottles on precariously sticking out of the limestone. A tunnel lead off past the tables & counter into the dark, tours were advertised at €5.
We walked down to the beach & looked at the Pont D'arc. Holy crap, I couldn't get over how impressive the thing was. I snapped a few pictures & we trod back to camp in the dark.
Our respective alarms went off at 7:00, we slogged out of bed a half hour later; not an easy task for two people who've been getting up at the crack of 11:00 for the last 3 months. Loaded up, took the beastie the not-so-scenic-but-straight route to St. Matin, past vineyards, thickets that stretched for miles, & little farmhouses. We parked by the river & unloaded the bike, put on our wet suits & kayaking gear & rode back on D9-11 with life jackets on.
The second half of the road was just as scenic. I was a bit freaked on the bike, & switched between admiring the gorge on my left, the cliffs on the right, & watching for the next big turn, squeezing mike's hip as though it were a brake. We drove around cliffs, through tunnels riddled with caves, saw the goats on the side of the road again, roadside cafes & the famous cave: Grotte De Huguenots -pronounced grot de hue shay know, but you'll forget that when I tell you I read it as grot day huge nuts & couldn't stop giggling.
We grabbed food & water at the little store by our campsite, parked the bike, loaded our goods into a dry bag, put my road-sore butt into the kayak & started off on a 30km paddle down the famous Ardeche River.
We paddled through small rapids, around a rock the size of a house, caught what exciting bits we could, I paddled through some big waves & there it was. The Pont D'arc , one of the biggest tourist attractions outside of Paris. Mike paddled through a cave in the walls of the Pont D'arc, I sat & floated through it, staring up at the enormous archway, swallows nested above, it was riddled with holes & little caverns carved by the water. No matter how many pictures I'd seen of it, the arch in real life was still astounding.
Then we were in the gorge.
Take the cliffs of Dover, put them on either side of a river, pepper them with THOUSANDS of caves, the tiniest swallow's nest to a couple you could park a B52 in, some had full-size trees in them. Cover any slightly horizontal surfaces with deciduous trees; half a mile up at the top of the cliffs, throw in a couple eagles for effect, paint the narrow sky with cumulous clouds & you might have an idea of what I saw.
I won't say it was beautiful: The Green River Gorge in Washington is beautiful; this was astounding, magnificent, jaw-dropping. The trip had a few little rapids thrown in just so your eyes didn't get tired staring, I think my spray deck got wet about 5 times in 15 miles. After the first half hour of the run I clipped my helmet onto the back of my boat & never regretted it. Someone with a hardy butt & a pair of flippers could tube this river with little trouble. If you did swim, there were tons of places to take out that would be prime on any river. Had it rained at any time we'd have been within spitting distance of a sheltering cave. On close inspection there were thousands of tiny shell fossils in the limestone, with flint nodules scattered about in the rock.
Mike, who'd floated the Ardeche many years ago, said in lower water you could tell where the rocks were by scrapes left on them from tourist boats.
Once in awhile we'd see people on the bank with no boats & wonder how they got into the canyon. We passed other boaters as well, relaxing on a rocky beach or sand bar. One startled me by asking “How ya doin'?” English-speaking peoples!
I didn't bring my camera for fear of it getting wet, but no pictures could do this place justice. Suddenly the word ‘timeless' took on a whole new meaning. The cliffs, the river that had been carving its way slowly through them & continued to do so, the wind that sanded them smooth, it was, & would forever be. You could hear distant rapids, birds singing, the nearby slopping of water in unseen grottos, sometimes a fighter jet going overhead brought us out of our trance.
The river did offer some squirrelly eddy lines, as one would expect with undercuts & caves causing strange hydraulics in places, but I didn't flip in 15 miles. The hardest part of the kayaking was getting two numb legs out of the boat. Undercuts were obvious & easy to avoid. The Ardeche only got one “Mommy” out of me & that was a close call on an eddy. Mike swam, but he was showing off to some boaters on the shore & got munched by a two-foot eddy line on an otherwise flat part of the river.
At one point we put our paddles across each others' boat & had a snooze, swirling down the canyon like a couple of autumn leaves.
Mike showed me the cliff he and a bunch of his buddies had jumped off years ago: He told me everyone who'd jumped off the cliff that day had sustained some sort of minor injury, at that height even a slightly less than perfect landing would leave bruises. Nutters.
We pushed on, wondering what kind of time we had. Hah. A run that was supposed to take 7 hours we did in 4. Damnit. I feel like I missed several opportunities to stop & check out caves & such. The Ardeche gorge was definitely the most scenic place I've ever been.
We arrived into St. Matin exhausted & achy, but still slightly disappointed that it was over so soon. This is where the Beastie turned out to be a behemoth of pure luxury. As a kayaker, I was used to getting off the river, changing as quickly as possible from a wetsuit to street clothes, often in wind, rain or snow, shivering & trying to keep the naughty bits covered so as not to offend the locals. This time we got into the van, undressed, stood around inside naked for 20 minutes (Kayakers are generally not modest people), ate chocolate and dried off before getting dressed …and I took my sweet time about it.
Shuffled to the outdoor bar across the street for coffee. We loaded up the boats & I checked the map. After much discussion we took the high road back to Vallon Pont D'arc; narrower with thickets on either side, but fewer hills, cliffs & goats. Mike complained about the width of the road & I said “Hell, its PAVED! I wasn't expecting that much.” My take on it was that the road was definitely easier on the beastie than the D290.
Laundry. We had an
amusing fight with the French clothes washer, Mike & I were both guessing as
far as what the settings meant; France is much more of an adventure when you
leave the dictionary in the car. Not that any of the terms we saw were in
the (POS) Dictionary; I've got about a 40% success rate with that thing.
Who would've thought that ‘Departe' meant ‘Start'. Arrgh!
Anyway, it got done, & we only lost one token.
Exhausted beyond eloquence, we had yet more coffee at the camp restaurant, Mike explained to a curious chef what we'd been doing all day “Complicated!” one commented on the shuttling.
Showers, dinner, More steak & crème. Yummy. Lots of people at the camp restaurant this time; I looked around to see what the other patrons were eating, most of the kids had chicken nuggets, one guy wolfed down half a roast chicken. Mike & I tried Crème Brulee for dessert. I don't think this was the ‘real stuff', basically a bowl of ice cream that had been burned on the top for crunchiness, not bad, though.
Mike valiantly stayed up & retrieved the washing. I collapsed as soon as we got back from dinner.
The next day sweet Mike served me coffee in bed. I lay around for way too long, then grabbed my pencils & took a walk down to the river to do some sketching. Lots of people walked by to see what I was doing, but no one said anything to me, which I was glad for. I was depressed about leaving, I felt like I hadn't seen near enough of what the gorge had to offer, but I imagine people live there all their lives & feel the same way.
The next morning we checked out of Mondial Campground, stopped to snap some more pics of the Pont D'Arc & plotted a course for the Tarn Valley. We followed the Ardeche until it was small enough to jump across, straight up into the mountains. The scenery was incredible. Awesome, amazing. Many ruins on the highest points of the hills, I was astounded that anyone would want to haul water, rocks, mortar & whatever else one needed to build & live up there.
We had our fingers crossed for the beastie as it chugged up the gorge, half the trip up the gorge we did in 2nd gear, but she made it without overheating. Upon reaching the top we were first hailed on, & then snow. It's the 7th of May in South France & we're getting snowed on.
The other side of the mountains looked a lot like Eastern Washington State: Wheat fields, Poplar trees acted as windbreaks, small lakes, & had some great vistas.
We made a Slow descent into the Tarn Valley. We found a campsite in Millau (for half our stay we thought it was pronounced meow, disappointed to find it was Me oh) on the Tarn river. We still didn't have a cable, so we were without power. It was raining off & on & COLD. We turned on our laptops for heat.
* * *
Millau has everything.
We Found The Precious! For months we've searched for a plastic coffee filter holder, basically a fancy funnel you put a filter & coffee grounds into, put it on top of a container, & pour hot water into, simple & makes a heckuva lot more coffee than our stovetop espresso pot. It costs about €2, good luck finding one in England, we'd searched high & low for one of these & finally came across one in a Millau supermarket. Upon finally discovering the tool we needed to make DECENT coffee, we were hi-fiving each other in the store, dacing around with this thing in our hands. The French were staring at us like we'd gone mad. Power or no, we have COFFEE. Life is good.
* * *
A good part of the day was spent in town, we got groceries & FINALLY found a cable for the camper, at the last site we'd borrowed one. POWER! We were annoyed to find all but the big supermarkets closed because of some holiday, the second of three we'd encounter on our trip, Sundays aside.
We saw a bunch of teenagers standing around our bike when we got out of the store, one kid said with no perceptible accent: "You speak English?"
"Oh yeah! Howdy!" The crowd stepped back a pace.
"Jenecomprenpas" He mumbled. Mike had to clarify.
"What are you doing?" Another asked
"Looking for a power cable for our camper."
"Va cash E own" said Mike.
So much for thinking using British terms was going to help.
Millau is a pretty modern town, not the crumbling brick buildings we'd been seeing in Vallon or the drive through central France. Still nice people for the most part, some guy flirted with me at the bar, which I suppose would have been obnoxious had I been alone, but was flattering, anyway.
Every time we asked a question as to when the damn stores were open we were directed to Geant, up on the hill. Again, one of the only places open & the French version of Wal-Mart, from what I'd seen. The French keep very specific hours. Most stores are open from…er…before we get up, close at noon until 2:00 or 3:00, whereas most restaurants stop serving by 2:00. The shops close around 4:00 & the restaurants open at 7:00. Mind you, most stores, especially in the smaller towns, don't post their hours anyway. In conclusion, we found plenty of places that were open 24 hours…A WEEK.
If you want food between 2 & 7, you're on your own. We found all this out the hard way, seeing an open restaurant, did some shopping & came back to find it & all other eateries closed. I was mad with hunger, as I'd been peckish when we left the camp, by the time we headed back I was ready to eat my coat.
We saw a bar that was open, & after encountering all the restaurants closed decided to give it one last try. We walked in to see a buffet half-full of food in the middle of the room with a plastic covering on. Mike asked if we could get something to eat & the guy said they only had sandwiches. I almost said 'give me a _ing plate & charge me later'. No food, I was staring at this buffet, with noodles & pasta salad & slices of salami-type stuff & going more & more insane by the second.
Mike said something to the effect of, 'I know it's not your usual hours, but my cranky menstrual friend here is less understanding.' I don't think the garcon heard him.
"Fromage, Jambon…" he listed off some other stuff.
"Tout" I said, meaning 'all'
They looked at me as if I HAD just eaten my coat.
"Ham AND cheese?"
Mike translated for me & we were served just that in a monstrous hat-sized slice of very chewy bread. Ahhhh, two types of cheese, the ham looked raw, but it was good. I put half the bread in my pocket for our neighbors, the mallard couple at the campsite.
We got back & I went to the little bar by our campsite to see if they had smokes, nope. I ordered a rum & coke; the bartender didn't bat an eyelash, but one of the girls nearby was slightly aghast, confirming my order with the bartender.
"Es Bizarre?" I asked.
"Oui. You come in last night?"
"Yes" Goody, someone else who spoke English. I asked her about Victorie parc, which I'd seen signs posted there was something going on, what I read as "Big artificial fire" she said she wasn't going, but it was like 4th of July. Oookay.
I talked sweet Mike into taking me there in the rain & cold, we spent half an hour looking for the place, stopped for dinner at a bar, where I learned that steak hache is hamburger without the bread served with fries. In England, they have the most beautiful & amazing horses, big, furry-footed
beauties; in France, they're on the menu. As adventurous & curious a consumer as I am, I couldn't bring myself to order it; maybe if it had said Shetland pony (short man syndrome in a 500 pound hoofed mammal) I could've, but the menu wasn't very specific.
We also learned that "Medium" in France is "show it to the grill & put it on the plate" maybe medium well next time.
Your answer to the age-old question: What do the French call French fries?
Frites. No joke.
Mike, though he was shivering, got us back on the bike & he spotted the park. What we came upon is I hope the most American thing I will see for awhile: One of those tacky carnivals, SO American I don't think there was anything I didn't understand about it, they even had Churros…which I thought was some modern Mexican food. Cotton candy, bumper cars, whirl & puke rides, the works.
I found one thing I hadn't seen before & that was chicis, so I ordered one with Nutella. Yeek. Some kind of doughnut bread rolled in sugar. I found an out-of-the-way corner & tried not to get too much on me.
We got bored & overwhelmed by the crowd pretty quickly & rode back to camp. As I sat at my laptop I could just spot fireworks going off through the trees out the camper's window. Ah, big artificial fire, indeed.
We had two sets of neighbors, an older British couple with their caravan, & the mallard couple, who seem to materialize expecting food every time I walk outside for more than five minutes. Its still cold, & once we run out of gaz we'll need an adapter, so for now we're still using our laptops for heat: Feet on the transformers, hands by the fans.
* * *
Late start, even by our standards; we came down with a serious case of the cuddles. By the time we were up the weather was fantastic. We stopped at the bar down the road where about 100 seniors were dancing in the back room to waltz & polka. We sipped down coffees & Mike asked the bartender where was a good place to paddle. He recommended the Dourbie Gorge.
We hopped on the bike for a heart-pounding ride up the canyon, through tiny towns & over bridges. We got passed by a group of bikers, Mike had me scared stiff, balancing the bike just on the edge of the road, where it dropped off into the river so people could pass. Once that was over I motioned for him to pull off so I could thump him a couple times. He expressed himself with a grin & the signature “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaat.” Meaning he knew he'd been naughty, but why did anyone see anything wrong with it?
“Give them a little LESS space to pass, will you?”
Mike, of course, was totally confident we were not going to 'go splat'
Another coffee stop, & we rode on up into the gorge, where the river had left 40' standing stones on the hillside like giant guardians. A bunch of crazy humans had built a village on the top of the cliffs. The river looked like a good run, with a few spots that will either be hella fun or I'll swim, plus
one weir to portage.
We rode back to Millau where I calmed my nerves & rested my aching derriere with a rum & coke, & we wandered around the tiny streets (watch out for dog poo!) waiting for the restaurants to open. The bike is incredibly convenient, as you can park on the sidewalk & don't have to concern yourself about finding a parking spot, half the population of Millau had similar ideas; dirt bikes, scooters, crotch rockets... The other half has dogs: Yorkies, labs, shepherds, they're even allowed in the restaurants.
We found a restaurant called La Mangeoire with a fire off to one side they used for cooking & old stone walls with a rounded ceiling. We both ordered the plat du jour, consisting of enormous chunks of salmon, kebab-style with green peppers & onions, served with a tomato with some kind of meat in, potato chunks & some kind of green paste(spinach?) in hockey-puck form. The stuffed tomato was the best.
Mike had a good laugh when I tried the mustard provided next to the salt & pepper; I spread it a little too generously on a chunk of bread. I took a bite & my nose immediately caught fire, my eyes started watering & Mike said I turned bright red. I flapped my hand ineffectively, trying to extinguish my nostrils, wiped my eyes & took a drink of wine. Hoo.
Dessert was chocolate soufflé, basically chocolate cake with liquid chocolate napalm in the middle with a wee scoop of ice cream on top. Mike had crème brulee, which I think tastes too much like tapioca to be very good, but it's miles better than the English stuff. The coffee was excellent.
Back to camp to see paragliders drifting off the cliffs above town. The mallard couple was begging off some people a few pitches away who were enjoying a meal outside their caravan.
* * *
We rode into town, found an internet café to get a long overdue fix, after collecting several sets of directions. Scouted the camp for necessities, like water & a place to empty the chemical toilet. We bought a bunch of food at the local supermarket, came back to the van & chowed down.
Fighting food coma, we got back on the bike & rode up the Tarn river valley. The French build towns in the weirdest places, we saw many of these on the tops of cliffs, a building or two inside a cave, There were sharp, blind corners through the villages, usually with buildings on either side; we came around one of these & Mike slams on the brakes, my helmet knocked against his & I gave the customary "ack!" A chicken sprinted out from in front of the bike across the road. "Le poulet traverse la route!" Mike hollered. I couldn't stop laughing.
I think the town was owned by
livestock, as I saw no people but the streets were spotted with dried
manure. We crossed the river & headed back, I called a halt halfway
there: "Mon Derriere es muerte!" I staggered off the bike, rubbed
my sore buns, said hi to a nearby horse, & read the second Chien
Mechant sign we'd seen. We're trying to find one for his parents &
evil, but beloved Jack Russel, Titch. I snapped a photo of the town &
climbed back on the bike.
Mike dropped me off at the campsite & went on into town in search of a power cable.
I had a rum & coke at the bar & spoke with one of the new employees, from Holland. His English was very good, & I asked him about local rivers & we spoke of Amsterdam, drugs, & travels. He asked if Americans were taught other languages in School, I told him we were taught other languages in US schools, but Spanish was more practical to know on the West Coast than French. He berated the French for not knowing English.
I never thought that knowing Spanish would be a hindrance, but it sure interferes with my French pronunciation, especially since many words are spelled the same & pronounced completely different, sometimes the opposite is true, not only that, if I don't know the French word for something I'll reach into the foreign language bin, pull out something Spanish & no one knows what the hell I'm saying, its really frustrating.
Mike showed back up, we had coffees & retreated back to the van, where I subjected Mike to my cooking. Not bad, considering it was some canned British meal, add French ham & Swiss cheese & you've got real food & probably gas later.
* * *
Slept through the alarm, did some upkeep on the van, like emptying the chemical toilet, filling the water tank & emptying the gray water, which, due to the fact the connections to the tank leak, there was very little. We'd left a hot trail of toothpaste & dishwater. Oops.
We watched paragliders on the cliffs across the road, Mike says "Do you wanna try that?"
We looked into it a little too late, dark clouds loomed overhead & people were landing by the handful. Drat. Next time.
Took a drive down the Tarn Gorge, Not as active a river as the Dourbie, a few splashy bits, not as many cliffs, more water. Ancient signs of habitation were much more interesting than the river; just down the road people had built half a town into the side of the cliffs a few centuries prior.
A brief rainstorm found us in the van messing about on the computers & listening to Chris DeBurgh.
Twice the bike has gone horizontal today: One a close call on a turnoff with a steep decline, where I helped Mike right it, we were stopped, but I think that's what caused the problem. The second we parked it right on top of a gopher den & the kickstand sunk into the ground.
Neighbors= Mallards & an Italian couple. Down the street are two folks from the Netherlands. I never thought these campsites were such a basket of diversity.
Rode into town for dinner at La Crevasse I had Margaret du Canard, er..which is duck; tomatoes, a potato, & apricot tart for dessert. I think Mike has completely spoiled me.
Mike came out of the
bathroom & whispered “You gotta see the toilets!” They had real
toilets there, with a little toilet seat cover conveyor thing, you push a button
On the way home we had a helluva time getting cigarettes, as by 9:00 all the stores were closed, & the gas stations don't carry them. We finally found a bar that had them, settled down for two coffees & watched the Truman show on the TV, dubbed over in French.
We still were up later
than intended, but loaded up the bike & headed for Roque St. Marie.
Dropped the kayaks off, drove to the takeout in Millau, rode the bike back to
the kayaks, & got on the river.
Our second long run, my boat wasn't as bad as I'd thought, & a swim-free run made me realize I still loved paddling. The river was mostly a II with a couple IIIs thrown in for excitement, one a 4 foot wave that had me blind for a moment trying to get water out of my nose, but I made it. The second toughie started, as with most of the rapids on the Dourbie, with a horizon line that revealed nothing until I was right on top of it. I saw Mike drop twice before he disappeared briefly & came out down river. It turned out to be a weir of rocks that had me frantically dodging holes, but the Y is exceptionally stable, & again, I made it out.
Mike said: "That looked fun."
Most of the river was flat, giving me a chance to check out the scenery & cliffs, though the canyon walls were better viewed from the road, the river banks had some exceptionally beautiful spots. We paddled along just to keep moving. The Y still reduced my legs to two useless numb clubs on the end of my torso, I stretched out as best I could, leaned on the back of my boat, & enjoyed getting spun around by eddies. Haha, no flipping!
We took out to get yelled at by some construction guy who didn't want us walking on the grass, so dragged the kayaks another 30 yards. Took the beastie upriver & retrieved the motorcycle, then looked for a place that sold smokes. We parked the beastie after our first attempt failed, went back to the campsite, got out the bike, & tried two other places.
Dangit! It's easier to get hard liquor than cigarettes in this country! You non-smokers might be like: Aw, tough crap, but no. No one's dad has ever beaten the tar out of them because the father came home after a few too many Camels. I never got in a knock-down drag-out with one of my friends after a couple of cigarettes, I've never smacked the butt of a complete stranger after a smoke, or stripped half-naked & made out with members of my gender because I've had three cigarettes in the last hour...OK, maybe that's not so bad, but you get the idea.
Once we'd secured some smokes we hit the grocery store, bought a bunch of junk food & some croissants & headed back to the Beastie. I threw some ham slices into a pan, cooked ‘em until I figured they were safe to eat, threw some cheap Swiss cheese (in France this isn't so bad) onto the croissants & we had a couple of awesome sandwiches. Mike put the laundry on, which took way longer than he'd thought, so 10:00 rolled around & we hadn't gone to dinner like we were planning, woops. We have clean clothes instead.
Ran into a big Malamute outside the showers & gave him a good scratch, one of my favorite breeds of dog if you have to go for purebreds; the boy was shedding so bad after we parted ways there was enough fur on the ground to make two Shi-Tzu's & a Pomeranian.
I enjoyed a hot shower at the camp restrooms, shaved for the first time in too long. Now I'm sure the guys are wondering if the stories about hairy European women are true: I haven't really looked, or noticed. If they don't shave, you can't tell at a distance, anyway.
The showers are the push-button ones that don't let you determine temperature, you have to keep pressing them, but at least here these were generous with the hot water. Happy, clean.
A great paddle, I'm glad we did it.
would have it the earliest we're up is the night we didn't get any sleep.
Mike had allergy issues & kept waking me up as well, though the poor guy
definitely got less sleep than I did. Tragedy struck when the Precious
full of coffee attempted suicide all over the camper, though the precious is all
right we had quite a mess to deal with, & worst of all NO COFFEE. Much
We hit a nearby café, had a cup there & debated on where to go. Once Mike got a look at the map, he decided that we couldn't possibly be this close to the South Coast & not go there. Within two hours we were sitting in a campsite near Agda, 200 yards from the beach.
The drive out of Millau provided one of the greatest views I've ever witnessed, & after hitting the plateau drove by some very strange rock pinnacles, past one of the most involved feats of engineering I've seen, that being the construction of a motorway that includes a bridge spanning the whole of the Tarn gorge. I found out later it's now the World's tallest suspension bridge.
What can I say about Agda? Er...it's not Millau or Vallon Pont D'arc. I think all seaside towns are beginning to look the same: Rows & rows of merchants carrying various beach clothing & tacky souvenirs, little side shops, the restaurants here stand out as many have Mexican-not Spanish-Mexican themes with cactuses & coyotes & such. Mike referred to the area as a ‘refugee camp for tourists'. Upon arriving we encountered several 60ish Germans in bikinis. The pool was full of overweight, middle-aged tourists. I was rather relieved, actually, myself being one of them, though possibly the youngest person there besides the kids in the paddling pool.
We had a couple turns on the water slide, Mike got cold & laid out in the sun for a bit while I took a swim. So much for the beaches of the Mediterranean being covered with dark, sexy women, hooray. I'm beginning to get the idea that men here like large women, as I've certainly been getting more attention than I'm used to, aside from sci-fi conventions, despite Mike's nearly constant presence. Admittedly, most of them are probably in their mid-40s.
I bought a shirt in one of these little stores, yeah, I know, I shouldn't encourage them, but I wanted a shirt, I hate clothes shopping & the lady was very nice, & she agreed that my French was terrible. We stopped for ice cream & after I said to Mike: "Ya know that shirt I just bought? You would look stunning in a white one of those."
So we turned around & he actually tried one on & it took all I had not to throw him to the floor & ravage him in the shop.
So he bought it & though I think he usually does, he looks really sexy in that shirt.
I have yet to see an American flag since I've been here, but the arcade games are all in English, made in Japan, ones you'd see in the states, most of the souvenirs are made in Taiwan, just with the token Plage de Marseilles picture on it, indistinguishable from something you might see in Maine.
Ah, but there's the beach; the
seashells found here are fantastic & plentiful, the water is chilly, its
windy, I find it pleasant, though Mike is freezing his fat-free butt off.
I walked to the beach, snapped a few photos, knowing full well that almost all beaches look the same. Stopped at the bar, had a rum & coke & watched a lady teaching little girls how to dance to American techno (Man after midnight).
The chirping of frogs has replaced the crickets, the curvy tourists have gone to sleep, & there is no way we're staying here another night.
Finding The Loire
Mike suggested we travel to the
Loire valley-which includes roughly half of France. I figured the best paddling
would be at it's source. Upon examining the map, found the source of the
Loire to be in Le Puy, a town we'd seen signs to on our harrowing drive to
I chose a different route, which wasn't necessarily better, but only slightly less scenic. We hit the Motorway & headed up through Montpellier, the beastie rocked about in the wind, & Mike's back hurt. We stopped twice for coffee & gas, took a detour through Avignon hoping to get a glimpse of the famous bridge that decorates the 5 Euro note.
That we didn't: What we DID see was a ton of bad traffic, narrow streets & the outside of a big walled city. Mike was getting really cranky, so we gave up sightseeing & went North on the A7. The wind was fierce, signs along the motorway say Vent Violent, Soyez prudence.
We hit Valence about 6:30, Mike wanted to press on, so I insisted we get gas, as I didn't know what kind of road we were dealing with… turns out I did. The first stretch of road to Le Puy was up windy canyons, half of which we took in 2nd gear, not a lot of people formidable enough to want to drive on that road, so only a few times did we get frustrated motorists on our tail.
For about an hour we had the ‘Groundhog Day' of roads, it went like this: Deciduous forest, Cliff to the left, drop to the right, hard right turn, straight for 20 yards, white posts, hard left turn, rock wall, 20 yard straight stretch, hard right turn... Repeat ad nauseum. It was like the fairy circle of bad roads; I'm pretty sure we went through the same town twice.
We drove through Mars.
There was no sign of life, though it might have been inhabited at one time.
About sunset the road completely straightened out, phew. Over rolling hills & crumbling stone buildings, forests, cow pastures, meadows, ahh. The canyon was really neat, but being in a swaying behemoth detracts from that somewhat. We pulled into Le Puy about 9:30, drove through town for awhile & finally found the campsite, in the dead center of town, overlooked by a damn great pinnacle of rock with a church on top, that, we found out come 8AM, has a bell that goes off every half hour.
The manager came out & instructed us to park off to the side near the drainage area & undid the chain for us. No power, just a parking spot, though with a little grass, a quarter mile & a fence stood between us & the toilets. We unloaded the kayaks, leaving the wee legs up as we wanted out of this little cesspool of religion as soon as possible. Le Puy does have its merits, though: The first time I've seen free parking in the center of town, an acre of parking lot IMAGINE THAT! Hmmf. (In retrospect we could've parked THERE). I ordered Mike to lay down & rest his aching back wile I cooked up the last of the food.
Me, the camp cook, heh. Pasta with Swiss cheese, baked beans, canned hot dogs & coffee.
Morning we were awaken by the church bells (on Saturday!), slowly got up & tried to figure out where I went wrong in Navigation, as I got a healthy dose of cranky from Mike, he says: "This is NOT where we want to be. Find a place in the book with a lot of campsites."
He thumbs through the book, "What about __" I looked it up on the map.
"Its on the coast."
"Ok, what about___"
"On the coast"
"There's ___ Oh, that's on the coast, too."
At this point I wanted to either cry or hit him, so I went outside for a smoke. "Talk to me, dude, what do you want in the Loire Valley?"
"I just want a site by the river where we can go kayaking"
Yarr! That's not in the book he had so religiously been adhering to. I glanced back at the map; "OK, there's a good spot, it's got an aquatic park, it says, but its not in the book."
We took our chances on a little D road, which turned out to be just as bad as the ones marked as larger, drove through some lovely canyons, tried to check out a humongous château, but it was closed.
35 Km from Le Puy, we found it.
Vorey. Not in the
book, a teeny spot on the map, a stream burbles not 30 feet from the van, it
feeds into the Loire 100 yards downriver, its peaceful, the managers are very
nice, we have power, there's showers, & it's walking distance from the
center of the village (and cafe au laits). Perfect.
We went to do a load of laundry, I think it was the manager's personal washer, she put the clothes in, & asked for 3 Euros. I went to tidy up the van, Mike came back later & said, "I'm glad I asked about the drying facilities"
He held up a length of rope.
In the ‘be careful what you ask for' department:
I made one of my demands after a rather unpleasant culinary experience in Agda, & said: "We are not eating a bunch of crappy sandwiches, I want REAL food tonight."
At 6:40PM the following day I was still hesitant to eat anything.
We trod along the road through town, I stopped to sniff the lilacs & watch dogs chase each other around, Mike says "I swear I saw an actual restaurant around here somewhere."
There were several restaurant/hotel/bar combos, but I think he'd had a specific one in mind. After a half-mile I just up & walked into one, called 'The Marmotte' , it looked pretty dark, but I was hungry & I thought the name was funny. A family sat at a table, the mother & a little boy hunched over a coloring book, the father got up & handed us menus, I felt kinda guilty for interrupting his family time. We'd both decided on the couscous, but he pointed out that he needed 4 hours warning for couscous, & pointed out an alternative 4-course meal with a few choices each course. All right then.
Our evening entertainment was the little boy running about the restaurant the entire time, sometimes in his plastic car, usually with various things in his hand, he'd wave them at us & go get something else.
Mike ordered snails, I had
something else involving apple cheese, sweet bread, hazelnuts, lettuce, &
mustard dressing. I tried one of the snails & yes, they tasted exactly like
I expected: Slightly overcooked clams. I think they were more of an excuse
to eat garlic butter. Proof that anything's good if you cook it
That would've hit the spot, but le chef was far from finished. He brought me a steak with potatoes & a pat of what I thought was cheese but quickly learned was a very large chunk of garlic butter. OW, I was full. Mike & I slouched back in our chairs & moaned.
The chef asked what kind of cheese we wanted. Urgh. I didn't know the difference, so we asked for one each. I got 4 slices of different cheeses & mike got a bowl of what tasted like sour cream. I finished off two of the slices, tasted the other two, wrapped them in my napkin, & put them in my pocket. One was bleu, one was creamy, the two I purloined were what I'm calling combat boot cheeses.
Enough! Mike told the chef we'd just have two coffees & be on our way.
”No dessert?” The chef asked. Mike enquired as to what dessert was, & the chef threw up his arms & said "Es Surprise!"
He had us. “Oh all right” says Mike.
I'm hurting from too much food, & I'm presented with a beautiful plate with a slice of apple tart, a slice of some sort of sponge cake & a scoop of frozen squashed black currants (I think) with chocolate drizzled on. I slowly ate it, oh, so good, but oh, the pain.
Mike & I waddled back to the campsite, moaning the whole way & for quite awhile afterwards. "I'm glad you got to experience a proper French meal" says Mike.
”How do they eat all that?” I didn't need to hear anything else about ‘big American portions' Gah! We lounged for a bit, I put the stolen cheese in the fridge & set up the bed.
* * *
It must've been the cheese.
After I got to sleep I had
a lot of very weird, real dreams (ever heard someone say 'I had this really
normal dream last night?), in one I was with a group of people in a shipyard
& one of them turned on me & started punching me, & wanted me to
fight him, Okaaaay, so I swung at the guy & was awakened by "Ow! What'd I
Poor, dear sweet Mike; Oh, gawd, I feel bad. I don't think I did any permanent damage, but getting hit in the jaw was enough to wake both of us up for an hour. I've yet to hear end of it.
* * *
The church bells were going off for an hour the next morning. We eventually got up & suffered another coffee disaster. We guessed that whoever designed the camper were also coffee drinkers, as the carpet is dark brown, so less noticeable of a disaster than it could've been.
The day before Mike had bought a Dustbuster, which we had to plug in outside...duh, forgot about the stupid adaptor/plug/voltage situation. It worked for about ten minutes & ran out of juice, we sent it back to charging. It was one of the new ones, so the intake is pretty small, not unlike cleaning the floor with a toothbrush. Mike turned to making the coffee with the filter & thermos in the sink.
We took a bike ride to the next town, checking out the Loire for runnability; meh, pretty flat, even by my standards. Found a huge car boot sale going on (basically a yard sale); people bring their junk into a specified part of town, mostly antiques & such. We wandered about, gazing in stupefication at all the useless stuff, though there were some interesting old books, & sat down for coffees at a crowded little outside bar.
The waitress was very nice & seemed intent on wanting to talk to me. I didn't understand a word of what she was saying, Mike translated a little. Frustrating. My reading comprehension isn't as bad, but pronunciation & understanding of what is being said can only improve.
Dogs everywhere. Bon jour, congratulations on starting your business in France, here is your dog. I finally broke down & started a ‘dogs of France photo collection'. This began with a sheepdog that was barking at us on the way back to the bike, & in the last few hours, without even trying I have four more for my collection.
The next night we found a well-located restaurant on the river, I actually remembered to bring the dictionary with me & we tried frog legs. Does not taste like chicken, more like fish without the fishy flavor. I had to completely squelch any knowledge I had of anatomy as it was...er... a bit graphic. It was all right, though I think the preparation involved would've better served some other animal (like a fish). For those that have never experienced frog, no one will ever sneak it to you. You can look at your plate & know exactly what you're eating. Fortunately for most frogs, the average consumer will find this rather disturbing.
Sometimes you just take things for granted:
Mike & I decided to
stock up on food, we hit the Vorey Supermarket & picked up a bunch of canned
goods. One of these, titled 'Couscous Royale' consisted of two cans stuck
together; the top one contained (surprise) Couscous & the bottom one
contains, judging from the picture on the label, meat. I pulled this can out a
day or two later, because I was ravenous, only to discover the 5 paragraphs of
directions on the side were unreadable to both of us. We settled on
I decided in the future home cooking will consist of cans with only 1 French paragraph that works just as well if interpreted as "heat & serve."
I picked up a load of brochures at the campsite in search of good kayak runs, found the Allier river, which had rapids anywhere between class II & V. Hmm. We decided to check it out the next day & reluctantly checked out of Vorey.
I wish we'd stayed.
The Beastie developed this horrendous rattle on the way out of Vorey. It sounded like something was loose in the gearbox, & the noise was prevalent in all but 3rd. Instead of turning back, we drove 35KM to Le Puy in 3rd.
We stopped at the nearest garage, of course it wasn't open until 3:00, so we waited.
When the place opened we were faced with a garage/store manager who probably didn't know a head gasket from an oil filter, who took stood in front of the van & shook his head, then told us it would be two weeks before they could even look at it.
I think this was a lie,
its just we had a 23-year-old English vehicle, & parts for it were 1000
miles away. Not only that, it wouldn't fit in the garage very well.
It didn't help that a 25 KM drive in 3rd had her running hot &
the radiator took a wee all over the parking lot. Thank goodness the
radiator wasn't leaking, it had a pressure uh…thingie that would release if it
got too hot in there.
We went around Le Puy mechanics & continue to get the runaround, & the standard "can't fit it in until next week", including two garages & an Opel dealer. We were thoroughly frustrated, & parked in at the campground, we were in at a more reasonable hour, so got a spot with power & less than a hike to the showers. The manager raised an eyebrow upon hearing the beastie start up. Heh.
We developed a disdain for garage managers, as the actual mechanics expressed an interest in helping us out, but the management wouldn't let them touch the thing. And LE PUY! Out of all the places I've been on this trip, I think I like this one the least. Yeah, its a big town, plenty of resources, but the traffic is terrible and the rivers don't offer much.
”____ ‘em, dude, we'll do it ourselves” I said to Mike. He disagreed.
I wondered would the fates make it such that we have the ONE type of Vauxhall gearbox that you can take the bottom cover off of, without removing the whole stupid thing then not provide me the opportunity to complete the (seemingly) simple task of removing it & fixing the problem or was it a cruel joke?
Mike was insistent we just have the thing towed back to the UK & give up. We were literally 1000 miles from Calais. It was probably the worst argument we'd ever had. After both of us going around about it, I re-stated my opinion & went & sat outside on the grass. I thought if we could get whatever was rattling out of there & there wasn't too much damage, we could continue to the Allier.
To my disappointment, Mike said we were calling it quits, gearbox or no, as he had to be on a plane come the 2nd,, anyway.
He came outside after ten minutes, gave me a hug & agreed to let me give it a try. Turns out in the end it was a useless argument, as we didn't have much of an alternative. Even if we'd been just starting out, there was no way AA would touch the thing if it wasn't in the UK.
Just a little history for
those of you wondering about the guy leaving me with all the work: Mike is
a software engineer, not to mention the money that got us this far. He'd
worked on motorcycles 15 years ago, & mechanics wasn't beyond him at all;
but I felt like I should be pulling my weight during the trip. I had under
my belt a few years of being too poor to pay for anything but parts & a
Haynes Manual. Rocker arm gaskets, starters, serpentine belts, oil
changes, thermostats, spark plugs, switches, alarms… I was fairly confident that
a gearbox cover wouldn't be too big a deal. I'll admit that removing the
entire box would be daunting, but that wasn't on the agenda.
But hey, the weather was fantastic, the people are gorgeous, & the best scenery & company I could ask for was sitting right beside me.
There's the church mentioned earlier, built high on the top of this pinnacle of rock next to our campsite, which is scenic & fine, but I fantasized stuffing a sheep into the bell, it went off every half hour & sometimes for a half hour straight for no discernable reason. Argh. To top it off, there's yet ANOTHER church half a mile away & its clock is 3 minutes ahead of the one over our campsite.
I had work to do. First order of business was to find an easy way to get oil into a 4 speed Manual Vauxhall gearbox without involving large amounts of surgical tubing & a funnel.
* * *
Frustrating. We're out & about around noon, stop at the internet café, the sky is complaining like its about to open up, we've got two thunderclouds on either side of town, neither of which appear to be moving. Mike drops me off at the campsite where I attempt to get the gearbox cover off. Mike heads back into town for more tools. I messed around under the van for a while; got dirty, got the bolts out, but the cover didn't want to budge. Thunder rumbled constantly overhead, mocking me.
empty-handed; “Its Ascension” he says to my legs, which were now being rained
I tried not to hit my head on the undercarriage “B___ H___, how many ___ing Holidays do these people NEED?” Which in mechanic speak is “How inconvenient.” So far there's been 3 holidays in May, not counting Sundays. I never want to hear anything derogatory about the American work ethic again. Even the Brits got 5 weeks vacation compared to our two (if you're lucky). No fair!
I washed up & then walked up the street in search of a restaurant. All but two we see are closed. We hit the first one: Restaurant Escalade. Climb the stairs to see a place with tiny halogen lights & little airbrushed stars all over the ceiling. The Scorpions' Wind of Change is playing. There's a jukebox & no one inside but the two guys running the place, one a 6' stocky dark-haired manager-looking guy, the other a 6' 5” salt & pepper straight-out curly haired chef. “Bon Soir Misseur-Dame!” (woo-hoo, I getta be Dam) The Manager says, hurries to the door, opens it, takes both our coats. The coat-taking thing makes me nervous, my passport is in there, & no one usually dares touch it, but I didn't want to be rude & tell him no. He promptly hung them on the coat rack by the door.
We stared blankly at the menu, which is on a chalkboard leaning against the window. Manager guy comes up & puts a chair facing us & places another chalkboard on the chair; I recognized two words: Lentils & Flambeau. There were quite a few more than that on the menu. “Plat Du Jour? Es…” He made the oh-so-French kissing motion with his hand.
“We, duhr plat do zhoower” Says Mike. Ooookay, we just signed up for another three-course meal.
One: Thank goodness, salad & a yummy pastry.
Two: A giant sausage, lentils with little bacon strips in on one side & scalloped potatoes on the other, sautéed in garlic butter. Really tasty, even for lentils.
Three: Manager brings a rolling cart with out two slices of yellowish…er…Pie? and a cup of something. He dons a metal fireman's helmet then sets the cup on fire. Aw Cool! He walks off with the cup still burning; a lovely Granny Smith apple smell is coming from it. He comes back & dumps the flaming liquid all over the slices, lets it sit for three seconds & waves the whole thing out. Fire! Cool! We clap, he bows.
The slices were like…er, spongy custard; the burning stuff still had quite a kick to it, but went well with the dessert.
We're full, Mike orders two coffees, we're about to leave, & the chef brings out an unlabeled bottle of clear slightly greenish liquid & two sherry glasses. He puts the bottle to my nose, I smell apples & rubbing alcohol. Aw boy. He fills the glasses. I thank him. Mike looks daunted. The Chef wanders off.
Mike, who doesn't drink very often, takes a sip & looks at me, pleading: “Um, could you finish mine, please?”
I slam mine, which sets my intestines on fire, I'm trying to be discreet, my eyes are watering, I make a fist & thump it softly on the table. Mike is laughing at me. I exchange my empty glass for his. The chef comes back & motions for me to finish it (whats wrong with me, anyway?). I slam it, slap my chest & twitch, my stomach is burning, but by somehow retaining the liquid. He tells us its made here & isn't any of that manufactured junk. Yeeeah, I don't think you could make it legally.
“The local hooch” Mike says.
I wipe my eyes, we thank him. Manager guy shakes our hands & gets our coats. Moment of amusement when he can't figure out who's is who's, then holds my Outback jacket up to help me put it on. Aww. He moves my braid out from under it, even. The Chef shakes our hands & we head out, waddling up the street for a look at the cathedral on top of the hill, I contemplate possible methods of silencing the bell, & we head back to the camp, my stomach keeping me warm all the way.
* * *
The next morning Mike went into town for a hammer, having decided it had worked before & was the tool we needed to separate the cover from the gearbox, & probably the ONE tool we didn't have.
I got back under the van & silently declared war on it. I beat it, pulled on it, pried at it, swore at it, & exhausted, began feeling around for ideas. Above me, it rained. My fingers came across a recessed plug, it wasn't of any particular use except as a handhold. I grabbed the pliers & yanked. Oil drooled out as the gasket departed from the gearbox. I moved the oil pan under it & tried not to get oil in my hair as I yanked it open the rest of the way.
There was about a pint of oil in a 1.4 liter gearbox. Not surprising.
“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEHAW!” I hollered.
I heard the word “cowboy” from one of the neighboring camps.
I wiped the last of the oil from the cover & didn't see anything loose that could be banging around. Hmm. I reached my hand up & prodded around in the gears to see if I could find what was making the noise.
Mike returned, “Well, I couldn't find any plastic tubing, so I found a syringe in the veterinary section.” I wondered briefly what made him think of Animal husbandry as an alternative. He also had a hammer & some liquid gasket. He grumbled about paying 16 Euros for a hammer we now had no intention of using, it was raining & he wasn't about to go out on the bike again to return it. He got under the van with me, we prodded around the gears some more & the problem remained a mystery. So did the fact the Mike & I can spend an equal amount of time under the van, he comes out with oily fingertips & I'm so dirty I look like the Swamp Thing.
“We'll have to start it up & see what it is, you stay under & I'll start the van”
I pictured whatever was rattling around in there would dislodge itself at Mach 5 and imbed itself in my eye. “Dear, sweet, brave, Immortal adrenaline junkie; you have glasses…”
Mike didn't think twice about it. I started the van, after a second the grinding started up, though it sounded a lot different than before.
“STOP!” He yelled from beneath me. I turned off the key.
“Did you see what it was?” I climbed under the van with him
“This thing” he pointed to a small, toothed ring nestled among the gears around the main shaft
(consult Haynes Manual) 3rd gear synchromesh cone.
We discussed the next course of action. Mike decided synchromesh or no, we were outta there tomorrow. Mike went into town yet again to get an Allen wrench for the filler hole, after I grabbed a piece of clay & made an impression of the plug to take with him so he didn't have to get an entire set.
I pushed the synchromesh ring up next to the other gears, hoping it would stay in its appropriate spot & got on with putting the gasket & cover back on, scraping the heck out of my hands in the process.
Mike returned with three wrenches, a set of two & the separate one in between, crouched by the van, filled the syringe, passed it to me, I'd squirt it in the filler hole & pass it back. We did this 30 or so times until the gearbox was full. I put the plug back in.
I had Mike hand me showering gear so I didn't get oil all over the van & split to go wash up. I used dish soap to get the oil off. Worked great.
We hiked back up the narrow street to Restaurant Escalade for a second round of royal treatment & the local hooch. The Manager shook our hands & took our coats, we had a round of Steak & crème sauce with frites, Cher played on the Jukebox, I sang along quietly, the Chef stood by & watched, I tried to sing the words in French, but didn't know that many, Mike corrected my pronunciation. The Chef brought us two more doses of the greenish stuff, this time I made sure he was watching & slammed it, thumping my chest afterwards as my eyes watered up again. I looked at Mike “Your turn.” Mike doesn't usually drink, so this was quite a trial for him, but he did it. I applauded.
The Manager came by & tried the secret handshake…I failed that one. We got our coats & I got a hug goodbye. After dealing with rude garage managers these guys restored my faith in humanity.
We packed up, stowed everything & went to leave to discover the battery was flat. At this point all I could do was laugh. “Lessee if anyone has jumper cables?”
Mike went to the campsite manager, turns out he had a battery charger! Yay! The campsite manager was an amazing guy; he spoke damn good English, & knew at least German as well.
We started up, it was quiet for a couple minutes, then resumed its unholy rattle. We got about 10 Kilometers out of Le Puy, the noise set my teeth on edge, the tension you could cut with a knife. We had to stop for gas. We crossed our fingers starting her back up, no problem. Whew. The noise came back for a second, & then was gone. Mike was determined not to stop for any reason, he just wanted to get the Beastie back to England & AA territory.
We didn't talk about the gearbox for two hours, there was a tense silence, there was the unspoken superstition it would hear us & act up again. We headed towards Clermont-Ferrand, me wistfully gazing at rivers we could've run.
We got into central France & the land flattened out; fast fields with little patches of woodland, windmill power stations, & the horizon. Growing up in Washington State, I found flat areas made me nervous. I studied the map, picking our route & how we were going to get around Paris.
We stopped for gas, & after calculating just how long it was going to take us to get all the way up the coast, pleaded with Mike to stop somewhere for the night. “No, cars don't start more than they don't go, We're going to get back to England tonight.”
10 hours after starting out, we made it to Paris. Getting off the Motorway cost us 43 Euros. Ack! As we came into the suburbs, I told him “Quit following signs to Paris, head for Versailles.” Not seeing any signs for Versailles, Mike kept driving while I consulted the map, desperately tried to figure out where we were. I looked up to see a road sign: “Peripherique! Stay on this road!” I went back to looking at the map.
“We don't want to be here.” Mike says hotly.
I look up & we're headed towards a very crowded 5-way intersection with traffic lights. PARIS!
“Why did you leave the road?!”
“You said follow signs to Paris!”
“Four hours ago! Did you want to go into Paris?”
I took a deep breath, somehow we'd managed to live in very close quarters without killing each other for a month, it wasn't going to start now. “OK, go right, follow signs to the Freeway.”
France has very rude drivers, especially compared to England, people kept pulling in front of us & we ended up in the wrong lane, mainly to avoid running over people. We ended up driving straight through Paris at 8:00 PM, I'm randomly guessing as to which way we go when the roads ran out. At one point we drove down the taxi/bus lane, which was nice except for the fact we weren't supposed to be in it & who knows where the Gendarmerie were hiding out.
“She's getting hot.”
I gritted my teeth, “Not a lot we can do about that right now, you wanna find a place to park?”
As scary as I found roundabouts at first, Paris sure could've used a few. We followed a meat truck through some narrow streets, then back North. I had the compass out. We crossed the Seine, I'm navigating & taking in the scenery as best I can.
Finally: “Dude! Peripherique! Go that way!”
“There's people in that lane”
“F*k ‘em! Australian rule of the road!” I yelled. I was done with rude Freakin' drivers keeping us from going where we needed to go. Mike steered the Behemoth into the turn lane, chasing a scooter to the roadside; it beeped impotently.
“WOOHOO! Peripherique!” I grabbed the map again. “OK, do NOT get off this road.”
After a moment, “Good news, we're on the highway, bad news: We're going South.” We followed signs towards the airport, & after a 30KM detour, ended up on the road to Calais. Whew. The sun was just setting, the gearbox was still quiet.
We arrived in Calais to catch the 4 AM Ferry with 2 hours to spare, they checked passports, searched the van for stowaways, & we got in line. I'd been insisting for miles that Mike get some sleep, so now was our chance. We set the alarm & climbed into the upper bed for two hours of rest before getting on the ferry.
I didn't really sleep; it dock was noisy & people walking around, when the alarm went off I immediately hopped down into the driver's area to see the line of cars next to us moving. I pounded on the ceiling “Mike! Wake up! We're moving!” I frantically looked for the keys, thinking I might have to drive the thing. Mike sleepily clambered down & went to put his shoes on, he had time for one before we had to move. So it was we left France half-awake, Mike had one Shoe in his lap.
As the ferry lumbered into the sunrise I pouted for a moment, sad. It wasn't the Kayaking expedition we'd been planning, but it had certainly been an adventure.
In France we found lots of stores that were open 24 hours...A WEEK.
You WILL spend a majority of your money on food-and not regret a dime of it.
When you DO go out to eat, at least memorize the words for stuff you WON'T eat, so you know not to order them. Otherwise, heck ANYTHING is good if you cook it right.
You may end up putting things in your mouth when you don't know what they are, this is OK. Deal with it, its probably good.
If you do end up with Frog legs, there will be NO QUESTION as to what they are.
Snails taste exactly like you would expect them to
If I ate tripe I didn't know it.
When driving at night off the toll roads, GET GAS EARLY. Gas pumps don't accept foreign credit cards, & the cashiers go home early.
Forget Traveller's checks,
I have NO idea where or how you'd cash one of those. Use your Check or
credit card; if its got a Visa logo on it, you can use any ATM.
You will not know THE POWER OF CHEESE until you get there. Many french cheeses have their own personalities, many of them are tempermental & self-important, some are soft & nurturing, some are both. All are pretty good with bread.
Always save your receipts: You never know when you'll run out of toilet paper.