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IF YOU WANT TO GET AHEAD, GET A HAT! (Tour de France 12)

Julia and That Hat

Julia and That Hat

I just love camping … or to be more accurate, I love campsites! And by ‘campsites’ I mean campsites in France in particular. I am not too keen on camping in the UK … it is usually far too cold if you camp in a tent rather than a caravan or campervan with good insulation and a heater. Camping in France, however, and especially the south of France (by which I mean south of Limoges) which more-or-less guarantees having sunshine and warmth, brings with it the joys (and occasional woes) of the French campsite.

We have been camping in France for several years now, often spending several weeks over here. French campsites are normally very good with nice pitches, a good mix of sunshine and shade, good toilet and shower facilities, a small shop where you can buy essentials such as French bread, bar and restaurant facilities, and during July and August … free activities for the children, and nightly ‘entertainment’ for the whole family. I love the mix of nationalities that one gets on a French campsite – Dutch, Belgian, German, Swiss, Italian, Spanish, Brits … and the French of course. From April through to the end of June (and again in September) it is mostly the elderly retired in the campsites, but during July and August there is a complete range of ages from babies to grandparents.

I love the French campsites because they are a constant sources of interest to me. We have met some amazing people over the years, heard great stories, and made wonderful friends. I have learned a lot along the way. Our time spent on these campsites have been a wonderful source of stories for someone like me who is an inveterate ‘people watcher’. When I first started writing ‘blogs’ from our campsite they immediately became very popular and, although I no longer produce a daily blog from whatever campsite we are on, I always have loads of requests prior to going on yet another camping holiday to continue blogging. It seems people love the stories. I am sometimes asked if the various stories are ‘true’ or do I just ‘make them up’? The absolute truth is … that they are always based on true events. I may embellish a story somewhat from time to time, but essentially every story is true. These ‘crazy things’ that seem to always happen to us do actually happen. Truth really is ‘stranger … and often more amusing … than fiction!

For example, whilst we were staying in our last campsite in Lourmarin, Julia I were at the ‘wash up’ area (next to the entrance/exit to the campsite) washing up our breakfast things one morning, when a Dutch caravan was in the process of leaving the site to return home. As it drove out of the site it was followed by a rather large woman running behind it shouting, ‘Stop! Stop!’. ‘Have they forgotten something?’ Julia asked me. ‘No!’ I replied ‘Its his wife!  He has deliberately left her behind!’ A German guy at the next sink to us (who obviously understood English) exploded with laughter! I have already recounted the hilarious events of the ‘cabaret’ the other night here in Campsite Fleur de Camargue. Campsite connoisseurs will be pleased to know that the following evening’s ‘disco’ was much better and great fun to watch … although I chose not to amaze the crowded dance area with my brilliant ‘dad dancing’? Last night we had a film about life in the Camargue … but hardly anybody bothered to turn up to that? Probably it was deliberately designed so that the majority of the camp staff could have a ‘night off’! Keeping us lot in order is a very demanding task!

It is not just being on the campsite itself that is such a source of adventure, interest, learning and humour. The whole ‘camping experience’ contributes to this. Julia and I both love history and one of the things we do whilst on holiday here in France is to visit the various historical sites that France is full of. Oftentimes the historical and the hysterical combine, however. The other day we drove just down the road to the small town of Aigues Morte. We have been here before – about three years ago – and determined then to come back to look around it in more detail. Aigues Mortes is a beautiful little walled town packed with lovely houses, shops and restaurants. It has a fascinating history and we spent a marvellous couple of hours ‘walking the walls’ of Aigues Mortes and learning about its history. A day or so later we are off on another historical quest – this time to visit the amazing Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard.

We leave early for the visit to Pont du Gard and stop for a picnic breakfast on the way. As we are sitting in an Aire eating our breakfast we are approached by a man whose car has broken down. He and his wife and child stopped overnight in the Aire and unfortunately left their cool box running and their car battery is drained. He asks us if we are German and we tell him that we are English. He tells us that he is not French (although we are speaking French) but Russo-Chechen (or something like that)? ‘You are Russian!’ Julia says (trying to make sense of what he is saying). ‘No! No!’ the man replies ‘Chechen! Chechen!’ … and makes the sign of a man holding an automatic rifle!. It turns out that he was one of the rebels who had to flee Chechen during the troubles with Russia and is now in France? We use our battery leads to get his car going again and he and his family are very grateful!

They say that ‘one good turn deserves another’ but it doesn’t always work out that way. We arrive at a small town just down the river from Pont du Gard to discover sign posts directing us to two alternative car parks on either side of the river? We are confused … so we stop for a coffee. The coffee is not very good … and when we ask to pay we are charged 5€ plus? The lady behind the counter tries to tell us that we have had double shots of coffee … whereas we wonder if the coffee actually had any coffee in it at all! Anyway Julia sorts her out and we get our coffee for less. We decide on the left-hand bank car park for the Pont du Gard and drive the mile or so there. It is a huge world-heritage site and the only access is via the automated car park. It costs 18€ for the two of us plus our car – cheaper than we expected – so we drive in, only to discover that we on the wrong side of the river (it is a long walk to the aqueduct) and (what is far worse) Julia has left her favourite hat in the ‘costa-lot-of-dosh’ café! Disaster all round!

We negotiate a deal with the really nice French staff at the Information Point. We can pay here on the left hand side of the river, and then transfer to the right hand side of the river … at no additional cost. They will phone across the river and sort it for us! This has two benefits for us. Firstly, we won’t have the long walk to the aqueduct, and secondly, we can stop off at the ‘costa-lot-of-dosh’ café on the way and hopefully retrieve Julia’s favourite hat! I am feeling rather tired – the day has already been far too adventurous for me – so Julia gives me the choice of remaining in the car, or coming with her back into the café to try and retrieve her hat? We walk into the café … where the same lady Julia had the argument with is standing behind the counter … wearing Julia’s hat! ‘Did I leave my hat here, earlier?’ Julia asks her. Madam looks Julia straight in the face and replies, ‘No!’ … ‘By the way, do you like my new hat!’

I wake from yet another ‘Walter Mitty moment’ to find Julia getting back into our car. She has her favourite hat with her. The now ‘nice’ lady in the café had found it after we left and had kept it in the hope that Julia would realise that she had left it behind and return for it!

The aqueduct at Pont du Gard is terrific. It is a marvellous feat of engineering and quite remarkable that it still stands today. Built by the Romans in the 1st century (to carry fresh water to Nimes), and despite being 2,000 years old, the aqueduct remains in remarkably good condition. We spend three or four hours exploring the whole site and taking lots and lots of photographs. The whole site is tremendous and there is a huge museum attached which tells the whole story of the building of the aqueduct and so much more besides. There are lots of tourists including hundreds of Japanese. They are either wearing a wonderful collection of head gear to shield their heads from the sun – including a unique type of ‘Victorian bonnet’ with a hole in the top (worn by both women and men) – or sheltering from the blazing sun under umbrellas. I pass a young Japanese couple taking a photo of themselves, against the background of the aqueduct, using a selfie-stick. There is an old French man watching them, waiting for them to move on so he can take a photo of the bridge with his really old non-digital camera. I see the look of total disbelief and dismissal on his face. He seemingly has no comprehension (or sympathy) for modern inventions such as digital cameras and selfie-sticks.

On the way out of the site we pass another huge group of people on their way in! There must be at least 80 in the party. I think they are Americans by the look of it. Pont du Gard is most certainly on the ‘American Tourist Trail’. It looks like a group of contestants in a ‘silly hats’ competitions. There is the strangest collection of hats I think I have ever seen in one place! They have even managed to outdo the Japanese. I suggest that Julia goes and joins them … her favourite hat would win hands down!

Jim Binney



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