We are on our way to Calais (and the Channel Tunnel), Dorset, and home to Chipps Barton, after nearly seven weeks camping in France … the last month or so in blistering hot sunshine with not a single drop of rain! The elderly Belgian, on the next pitch to ours in our campsite at Aigues Mortes, nearly expired a number of times in the intense heat. He was only there because he and his grown up children and grandchildren, plus family friends, all go on a summer holiday together in France every year. He and his wife prefer somewhere cooler such as Brittany, he tells us, but this year everybody else demanded that they all holidayed somewhere in the south of France … somewhere hot! He tells me that it is raining back in Belgium. ‘How wonderful it must be to be in the rain?’ he adds … longingly.
After our escapade during our journey from Aigues Mortes to Clermont Ferrand, and our encounter with the Tour de France, and Peter and the Gendarme, we are on our way to Moulins on the next stage of our four-day saunter through France back to Calais. We plan to go via the small city of Vichy where the infamous pro-Axis government headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain (1940-44) was based during World War II. Whilst nominally the government of France as a whole, Vichy only fully controlled the zone in southern France not occupied by German military forces but in reality it was reduced to a puppet government by Germany. The Vichy Government reversed many liberal policies and began tight supervision of the economy, with central planning a key feature. Labour unions came under tight government control. There were no elections. The independence of women was reversed, with an emphasis put on motherhood. Conservative Catholics became prominent. The media were tightly controlled, and virulent anti-Semitism, and anti-Bolshevism was stressed. Avid history buffs, Julia and I want to see this city for ourselves.
Vichy is beautiful, and we can see immediately why Paris lost its avant-garde status in European art and culture during the wartime period. We wander round the central area, where the famous thermal baths are situated, and where one can still see the beautiful buildings, gardens, and covered promenades (where people would walk in order ‘to be seen’ by others). We visit the thermal baths and are asked by teenage twin sisters (who seem to be running the show) if we would like a drink? ‘Un verre de vin rouge, s’il vous plaît’ I reply. The two girls look at me blankly They meant a glass of the special ‘healthy Vichy water’ of course. A French lady standing behind them (with her glass of healthy Vichy water) thinks my request is very funny … and the girls total lack of comprehension even funnier. She does that ‘twirly motion thing’ with her finger pointing to her head … to indicate that some kids are rather slow on the up-take. After about a minute or so the girls suddenly get it … and dissolve in embarrassing girly laughter. Serves me right for trying to crack jokes in French, I suppose.
It is lunch time, and it is Sunday, so we stop off in a charming café we have spotted, with a lovely shaded garden, for a ‘small lunch’. It is wonderful and we spend a very pleasant couple of hours over lunch before resuming our journey to Moulins. I have won the battle over whether to stay overnight in our small popup tent or in a Hotel B&B. The Hotel B&B in Moulins it is then. We have eaten so well at lunchtime that we settle for a bread and cheese for supper, a bottle of wine, and a game of Scrabble. My day ends on a perfect note … when I actually manage to beat Julia for once … and without the use of any seven letter words as well!
The next day we stop off in Moulins because we want to see another famous triptych that we have read about, which can still be seen in the Cathedral rather than a museum. At the end of the 15th century the French court favoured the Flemish style. At that time the most important painter in France was the Master of Moulins, whose identity has still not been established. He was a court painter in the service of the King and the Duke of Bourbon, and he travelled between the capital and Burgundy. We get a bit lost and just manage to get to the Cathedral by 11.45 a.m. Churches in France seem to close between 12 noon and about 3.30 p.m. and this Cathedral is no exception. The triptych is kept in a separate room … and it has closed early for some reason. The curator is still there, however, and we manage to persuade him to let us have a quick look. The triptych is wonderful. The Virgin and Child are surrounded by a garland of angels, lit from the radiance emanating from the glory against which they are seated, with the most magical effects of light. In the wings, Duke Pierre II of Bourbon, with a rueful countenance, faces his formidable wife (of whom he was said to have been the humble servant rather than the husband). The painter’s gift for characterisation is carried a stage beyond the normal by his habit of repeating the features of his sitters in the faces of their patron saints. His colour is of an astonishing brilliance and his forms of great elegance.
After our visit to the Cathedral we stop at a nearby café for a coffee. It is lunchtime but there are one or two tables left vacant for those, like us, who just want a coffee. Whilst we are there two German couples arrive and ask for a table for four. One of the girls wants to sit in the shade but somehow or other every table they sit at means she is sitting in the sun. They move table four times in all before they find the right table. The poor waitress is forever running around after them with their menus and a bottle of water. It is really very funny … and in fairness the girl who wants to sit in the shade sees the funny side of it. When they finally settle at a table, she looks across to us and gives us the ‘thumbs up’! After our coffee we leave Moulins and head for our next overnight stop at Troyes. We stop off on the way to see another famous site, the Pont-Canal de Briare. It is very impressive. An aqueduct that carries a canal over the River Loire on its journey to the River Seine. It replaced a river-level crossing from the canal to meet the Briare Canal that was hazardous in times of flood. Between 1896 and 2003 it was the longest navigable aqueduct in the World until the opening of the Magdeburg Water Bridge. We sit by the canal and have a picnic lunch, whilst watching the boats crossing the Pont-Canal, before resuming our journey to Troyes.
The next day we make the long drive from Troyes to Calais. We are stopping at the central Hotel B&B so that we can easily walk into the centre of Calais and enjoy a final dinner at a nice French restaurant before returning to the UK. We find a delightful restaurant called La Boissonniere (recommended by Trip Advisor) that provides an excellent meal for around 19€ each (plus wine). It is both old-world and elegant and has a brilliant chef. The restaurant is owned and run by a mother and daughter … and we enjoy a delightful evening. We determine to come back to Calais just for the day sometime … if only to dine at this wonderful restaurant.
After breakfast the next day we leave early to get to the Channel Tunnel. We have a return ticket but there was trouble at the terminal yesterday with another burning tyre thrown on to the road leading to the terminal. Our reasoning is that if we get there early we might get an earlier shuttle than the 11.20 a.m. we are booked on, and thus avoid any delay. We get to the terminal o.k. although we see a number of migrants attempting to board lorries heading for the UK in the lorry lane to our right, and a number of Ferry workers and Gendarmes engaging in a ‘face-off’ at the approach road to our left. When we get to the check in we are offered (and take) an earlier shuttle that is due to leave at 10.20 a.m. When we get to the boarding lanes, however, we discover than everything is ‘on hold’. We are boarding group ‘D’ and boarding group ‘B’ has not left yet? We are about to leave our car and go and get a coffee … when suddenly there is an announcement telling boarding group ‘D’ to board immediately. We jump back in our car and drive straight through and on to the shuttle.
There is a Belgian car immediately in front of us … with a perfectly ‘horrid’ child leaning out of the back window flying his toy aeroplane? He is clearly a cross between ‘Just William’ and Dennis the Menace’. His parents are obviously having trouble with him because they are driving very erratically as they attempt to negotiate their way through to the train and keep their troublesome son in order at one and the same time. He spots us looking at him and starts to pull rude faces at us. He looks at me … and decides he is going to ‘stare me out’. Big mistake! I win hands down! As we drive on to the train the sudden thought hits us that we will be trapped in the same compartment as him … nightmare! There are usually about four cars to each compartment. Thankfully the attendant manages to squeeze the Belgian car into the compartment ahead of us and we sigh with relief when the steel shutters come down separating us from Dennis the Menace for the whole journey to the UK.
The nice attendant, who has just rescued us from Dennis the Menace, comes to talk to us. She has had a horrendous day. The trains have had trouble all morning with stuff not functioning properly … but now it has suddenly and inexplicably, all started working again. The train leaves ten minutes early and we discover that, in fact, that we are not on the 10.20 a.m. but the 9.20 a.m. that is leaving late? Julia explains to the nice attendant that I have this reputation for just looking at things and they start working? The attendant wants me to stay on the shuttle for the rest of the day!
We arrive back in the UK after a trouble free journey, disembark, remember to drive on the correct side of the road, and drive up the M20 on our way home. The other side of the road is packed with lorries, all at a standstill. There are portable toilets every 100 yards or so. About 15 miles up the M20 we stop for coffee … and by the time we rejoin the motorway, the other side has been closed off by the police completely. Obviously things have suddenly all broken down again. Perhaps I should have stayed on the train all day?
We continue our journey but have to go across country in the end because our side of the motorway is jammed as a result of the police closing the route to the Channel Tunnel nearer London. We make the detour easily enough and even manage to stop for a ‘Full English’ on the way for lunch … my first ‘all day breakfast’ for seven weeks!
We arrive home to discover that the phones are playing up and the internet is not working. We unpack the car and pack all our camping stuff away in our barn. We unpack all our clothes … heaps of them all over our bedroom. Julia starts to wash them … load after load going into the washing machine … whilst I start to try and fix the phones and the internet. Two days later … and the washing is almost done, and the internet is finally working again. What is more … it is raining! In fact it is pouring with rain … the first rain we have seen for five weeks. I go out on to the patio in the pouring rain … I start to dance and sing … after all these weeks of blazing hot sun, the rain is wonderful. It is even more invigorating than ‘Vichy water’. So ‘I’m dancin’ and singin’ in the rain.’ Gene Kelly, eat your heart out!