A MONTH IN PROVENCE
James P Binney
What is recorded here is another ‘diary’ of a month’s camping holiday in France that my wife Julia and I went on in the summer of 2012. It is a follow up to the highly successful diary I published on last year’s two and a half month’s camping trip to France, A Month in the Dordogne. This time, however, we went to Provence where we enjoyed a wonderful time in blazing hot sunshine for the most part, exploring some amazing places, and meeting some fascinating people. Once again I have made some use of poetic licence, although all the incidents and characters in this narrative are based on true people and true events. For the most part I have avoided specific names of people, and the name of the actual campsite we stayed on. I hope that you will enjoy the book, and go visit the places mentioned especially Provence, for yourselves!
PERAMBULATION FROM RODDEN TO SAINT RÉMY
In which we get shot of a stow-away; don’t meet Lenny Henry; get more snails than we bargained for; enjoy yet another visit to Taizé; meet a man married to a ‘born again atheist’; get offered a lethal mixture; are taught by Madam Largesse how to shout loudly; and avoid two man-eating Australian women.
Tuesday 29th May: Reggie Doggie and Lenny Henry
Having spent the last few days getting all our stuff sorted for our month in Provence, and actually packing the car, we are now ready to leave Chipps Barton on the first leg of our journey to Folkestone. Reggie Doggie, the family Jack Russell, can’t believe we are actually going off to France and leaving him behind. Of course he will not be left on his own. He really belongs to Julia’s mother, Olivia, who is also staying behind! When I go to open the big gates by our barn so that Julia can drive the car round to the front of the cottage, there is Reggie Doggie sitting in the front seat of the car? I had inadvertently left the car door open when I went back to the house for something or other. He obviously knows we are going somewhere without him. Perhaps he has listened in to our various conversations? Perhaps he understands more words than ‘walk’ and ‘breakfast’ and ‘supper’? Getting in to our car is perhaps a last ditch attempt to ‘stow away’. We remember he tried the same stunt last year when we went to France for the summer. He refuses to get out when ordered. He tried that last year as well! When we finally get him out he goes in to the Snug which has a window overlooking our car parking area. When Julia parks the car there, for us to load our final few belongings, he is looking out of the window at us. He looks so sad as we drive away. He obviously doesn’t want us to go, well not without him anyway?!
We enjoy a pleasant drive to Folkestone where we are stopping the night in a Premier Inn before catching the 8.00 a.m. train through the Tunnel to France. Last year this part of the journey was horrendous because we decided to ignore the advice of Jane, our SatNav, and take the direct route rather than the fastest. The direct route ignored all the major roads and took us a beautiful scenic way that took hours in the pouring rain. This year we take the fast route even if it means going up to the M25 and round it and then down the A20. The weather is beautiful, and we wonder why we are going all the way to the south of France in search of sun? We stop for an excellent picnic lunch, that Julia has prepared for us as part of our economy drive, at the Southampton Services where there is a nice picnic area. We finally get into Folkestone about 6.00 p.m. and find our way easily to the Premier Inn. We are going there because it is convenient for the Tunnel, reasonably priced, and because Lenny Henry (the actor and comedian) recommends it on the TV! And it really is as good as he says – a lovely room, and a good restaurant right next door. When the girl on reception asks us why we have chosen to stay in a Premier Inn we tell her that it was because of Lenny Henry! We ask, tongue in cheek, if he is staying at the hotel at the moment? ‘Who?’ she asks. She obviously hasn’t got a clue who Lenny Henry is? When we get to our room we check under the bed though … just in case?!
Wednesday 30th May: A Surfeit of Snails
We enjoy a good night’s rest at the Premier Inn in Folkestone and are up bright and early to catch our train through the Channel Tunnel to France. We really like the Tunnel. It is so much better than the car ferry even if it is more expensive. It only takes us 35 minutes. We have time for breakfast on the way. Egg and marmalade sandwiches, that Julia prepared before we left Chipps Barton (kept nice and fresh in our electric cool box) and a thermos of coffee! Nobody bothers to ask to see our passports – not the English, nor the French – we just drive straight through. Tonight we are stopping in Beaune in Burgundy, one of our favourite places in France. It is a long drive, about seven hours in all, but the weather is warm and sunny and the scenery delightful. We drive through the great wine growing regions of Champagne and Burgundy but we don’t have time to stop. We want to be in Beaune in time to settle into our hotel, and then get down into town to one of our favourite restaurants, Le Conty, before 7.30 p.m. because we know that it is very popular and we haven’t booked a table.
When we come to France for our summer holidays, we usually take a few days driving down to our main destination, and then we take a few days driving back up to Calais and the UK. This year we are going to a campsite in Saint Rémy de Provence for about three and a half weeks. En route we normally stay in the various hotels belonging to the B & B Hotel chain. We like these. We know that we will get a nice room, with a shower, TV, and free Wi-Fi facilities, all at a reasonable rate. We also know that we will get a nice breakfast, including eggs and bacon, French style maybe but eggs and bacon nevertheless! We arrive at our hotel in good time, register, drop off our travel bags, and then drive into Beaune. We park near the famous Hôtel Dieu with its Gothic facades and glazed roofs which is part of the heritage of the Hospices de Beaune, a charitable institution founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor of the Duke of Burgundy and his wife Guigone Salins. A stay in Burgundy is inconceivable without a visit to the Hôtel Dieu. It is closed for the evening now but we still take the same photos, of Julia standing by the great door of the Hôtel Dieu, that we take every time we come to Beaune.
It is only a short walk to our favourite restaurant,and we reminisce as we walk to it through the still active shopping streets. Julia remembers every necklace, scarf, bracelet, and watch that we have bought here over the years. When we arrive at Le Conty we are fortunate. There are only one or two tables occupied, and they have our favourite table available as well. We notice that the restaurant is filling up fast and we congratulate ourselves on making the effort to get there early. We always have exactly the same meal (more or less) whenever we come to Beaune (usually about every two years). We start with a Kir as an aperitif, and then we have a dozen escargots each, and then (because we are in Burgundy) we have beef bourguignon, followed by cheese, and whatever we fancy from the sweet course, and then coffee and maybe a brandy (for me). The first year we came we plumped for the largest, cheapest bottle of red wine to go with the meal, but nowadays we are far more discerning. A half bottle of a really good French red wine from the area is our choice this time. We enjoy a wonderfully leisurely meal together, that takes up most of the evening. The undoubted highlight, however, is the hilarious scene where the new waiter – obviously on trial – manages to trip himself up on the way to our table and throw a plate of escargots all over Julia! Fortunately most of them miss her, but by good fortune several land on her own plate of escargots, so she ends up with even more than the dozen she has ordered!
After our meal we wander round Beaune taking in all the sites we are so familiar with but haven’t seen for a couple of years, before returning to our hotel. When we get back I open the main gates with our key code so Julia can drive our car in to the car park. I hold the gate open for some of our fellow guests who have also been out for the evening. One of the men thanks me in French and then recognizing me says, ‘You are English, you will want a tip!?’ ‘Yes!’ I reply, ‘but could I have it in Pounds and not Euros please!’ Everyone falls about laughing!
Thursday 31st May: Taizé … and the Toxic Spirit
After a good night’s sleep, and an excellent B & B Hotel breakfast, we set out on the next stage of our journey to Saint Rémy, the much shorter trip to Valance. We have deliberately planned the journey this way so that we can to stop off in Taizé to worship with the Community there once again. The Taizé Community is an ecumenical monastic order in Taizé, Saône-et-Loire, Burgundy. It is composed of about one hundred brothers, from Protestant and Catholic traditions, who originate from about thirty countries across the world. The monastic order has a strong devotion to peace and justice through prayer and meditation. It was founded in 1940 by Brother Roger Schutz, a Protestant. The community has become one of the world’s most important sites of Christian pilgrimage. Over 100,000 young people from around the world make pilgrimages to Taizé each year for prayer, Bible study, sharing, and communal work. Through the community’s ecumenical outlook, they are encouraged to live in the spirit of kindness, simplicity and reconciliation.
It is our fourth visit to Taizé, and it is just as wonderful as ever. During the summer Taizé attracts around 4,000 young people a week, although there are not so many here at the moment. We arrive in time to visit the shop and then attend the 12.30 p.m. Service. The worship at Taizé follows a similar pattern at each of the three daily services (although it varies slightly when the Eucharist is celebrated). The congregation gathers, mostly sitting cross legged on the floor, as the unique sound of the bells of Taizé call people to worship. The brothers enter slowly in dribs and drabs and take their places in the central section of the vast auditorium. When all have gathered the worship begins with one of the, now well-known, songs of Taizé. A number (of one of the famous Taizé songs) appears on various small screens scattered around the auditorium (song books are available at the various entrances), and one or other of the brothers leads us in the singing of these various repetitive, but meaningful, songs. These songs are interspersed with bible readings, prayer (in different languages), and times of silence. The whole service lasts about half an hour and is wonderfully meaningful and moving. It is amazing to see so many young people, not only present but so caught up in the worship. I wish, as I have wished many times before, that our evangelical and charismatic churches back in the UK would send their young people to Taizé for a week now and again, instead of sending them to things like Soul Survivor every year!?
We meet a man called Bryn in the Taizé shop. He is buying some music, we are buying another Communion cup and plate, similar to the ones that they use in the Eucharistic Services at Taizé. We have bought some previously but we donated them to our previous church at Elm Road, Beckenham for use in their Communion Services, especially the Healing Services in the Context of Communion, along with similar Communion Cups and Plates that we bought back from our various travels to Israel and Prague. We hope that Elm Road are still making use of them, and that they are not simply relegated to the back of a cupboard somewhere in the building?! We started the Healing Service in the Context of Communion when we first went to Elm Road in 2004. For seven years we saw numerous people coming forward for prayer at these Services month after month. Some amazing things happened, and there was never a Sunday when there were not people queuing for prayer. We wonder if it is still continuing? We hope so! Bryn’s wife, Winnie, needs healing. He describes her to us as a ‘born again atheist’. They worked together in Africa for several years but she was alienated from the Christian Faith by a Swedish missionary. We do not know what was said or done. Bryn does not elucidate. But we promise to pray for them both … and we do. We wander back to our car through Taizé. We are glad that we are not staying for lunch. We stayed here for a week some years ago, and the food was atrocious. Subsequently friends told us that we should have introduced ourselves to the brothers as ‘clergy’ (both Julia and myself are ordained Baptist Ministers) and then we would have been invited to eat with the brothers where apparently the food is much better?!
We drive away from Taizé still feeling the afterglow of the blessing of being in Taizé once again. There is such a wonderful spirit there – the fruit no doubt of the presence of God the Holy Spirit! We drive the few miles down the road to Cluny. Cluny is the site of a Benedictine Monastery with three churches built in succession from the 10th to the early 12th centuries. It was notable for its strict adherence to the Rule of Saint Benedict and the place where the Benedictine Order was formed, whereby Cluny became acknowledged as the leader of western monasticism. The establishment of the Benedictine order was a keystone to the stability of European society that was achieved in the 11th century. In 1790 during the French Revolution, the abbey was sacked and mostly destroyed. Only a small part of the original remains.In its heyday it was known for the quality of its worship. How fascinating then, to have Taizé spring up just down the road from Cluny. We have been to Cluny before. We have another favourite restaurant here, La Halte de l’Abbeye, where we go for lunch. We order steak and frites and salad and wonder if the steak is horse meat as Cluny is now a large equestrian centre? Whatever it is, it is delicious! The proprietoress remembers us from a previous visit, and we get a complimentary pichet of prune brandy thrown in – either that or she is trying to get rid of this highly toxic spirit that attempts to blow my head off when I drink it!!
After a late lunch, and a wander round Cluny revisiting old sites and some new ones, we drive the few remaining miles to our B & B Hotel in Valence. Having spent so much money on dinner in Beaune, a Communion Set in Taizé, and lunch in Cluny we decide to have a picnic in our hotel room for dinner. And very yumacious it is!
Friday 1st June: Shouting and Sheilas
Descending for breakfast in our B & B Hotel in Valence we finds ourselves having a fascinating conversation with Madam Largesse, a rather large lady and the manager of our hotel. She compliments us on our command of the French language, and when I suggest that we Brits either speak French well, badly or shout loudly, she thinks it very funny. She tells us, however, that we are not as good at shouting loudly as the Germans are. Madam Largesse then proceeds to give us an hilarious impromptu impersonation of Germans shouting loudly in German in the hope that French people will understand them!? We are still laughing as we drive away from Valence on the final stage of our journey to St Rémy-de-Provence.
We have brought with us a set of six CDs of Peter Mayle’s book A Good Year which tells the fictional story of Max Skinner, a man at the heart of London’s financial universe, who quits his job on inheriting an old house in Provence and moves to southern France. We start to listen to this on the journey – we think it will help us acclimatise to three weeks in Provence. It is great fun and we find ourselves laughing out loud at the various events as they unfold. Although the story is fictional, many of the places mentioned are real and we are inspired to go and visit some of them for ourselves.
On the way to our campsite we stop off at Noves for lunch. It is a somewhat rundown place but we are hungry and opt for the best worst café in Noves. We order omelettes and frites, and jolly good they turn out to be. The café may look rundown but the cook is top notch! Sitting at the table next to us are two Aussie women, mother and daughter, Sheila and Sheila?! They do not speak a word of French apparently, which means that they are constantly asking the couple of French guys at the bar, who speak a bit of English, to translate for them. Whether they are really this helpless, or whether this is a ploy, we are not sure? The older Sheila tells us that they are touring Europe looking for men. They came to France via Dubai but didn’t like the men there but do like French men! They are going to Monaco for two days. Her daughter will sit reading her book by the swimming pool, but the elder Sheila is going to the Casino in Monte Carlo to spend all her money! Then they are going on to Florence she tells us. We wonder if even Berlusconi would be safe from these two? Fortunately Brits are not on the radar – either that or they are scared of Julia – or I am too old! We finally manage to escape and resume our journey to our campsite in Saint Rémy. More of the various intrigues involving Max Skinner makes us look forward to our time in Provence.
Before we arrive at Saint Rémy we stop off at the Carrefour Supermarché in Chateau Renaud to get some provisions for the weekend. We can’t get too much because we haven’t got room in the car. There is a wonderful fresh meat counter, however, and our eyes are drawn to some amazing lamb brochettes. We have not brought our ‘bible barbecue’ with us this year because the campsite we are going to does not allow them for feari of starting a fire. There will probably be a communal barbecue on the campsite but we do not know what condition it will be in or how far from our pitch. We wonder if we can grill these wonderful lamb brochettes on our gas cooker. They are not cheap but they look mouth watering. The nice young French man behind the counter joins in our discussion. It all gets very confusing. Julia is asking him how much four brochettes will cost and he is telling her how many she needs to buy, because he thinks I will eat at least three myself judging by the size of me!
I sit in the passenger seat of our car while Julia piles bags full of shopping on top of me and all round me because there is nowhere else to put them in our already full of camping stuff car. Julia drives our now heavy laden car slowly and carefully to our campsite in Saint Rémy. Between them, Julia and Jane, our SatNav, get us there safely and, having registered, find our way to our pitch. The campsite itself could be described as ‘shabby chic’. The ‘chic’ bits are obviously those that appear in the publicity photographs that attracted us to this campsite in January when we booked it. The ‘shabby’ bits are the rest of the campsite. We don’t mind ‘shabby’ however, and we have a good pitch near to a shower/toilet/wash up block and within walking distance of the swimming pool and camp shop. We are given a free bottle of surprisingly good wine as a ‘welcome gift’ by the owners of the campsite, and our Dutch neighbours appear very friendly. The weather is gloriously hot and sunny and we take about three hours to put our tent up and get everything straight to Julia’s satisfaction. Then it is time to grill those wonderful lamb brochettes, and crack open that free bottle of surprisingly good quality wine!
POOTLING AROUND SAINT RÉMY DE PROVENCE
During which I am chased by a bull; we meet Papa and Mama Smurf, Morecambe and Wise, the Jolly Geordies, Napoleon and Josephine, and a man with No Name; encounter lots of Americans; fall in love with the Camargue; meet the Patron Saint of European Gypsies; discover various old ruins; enjoy various encounters with Vincent Van Gogh; watch the World Cup on a giant TV screen in the company of a German cheering for England; have protracted adventures with an airbed; cross le Pont d’Avignon to learn about Cardinals and Popes; just manage to avoid another ‘Baldwyn Smit’ incident; meet up with Nostradamus (as he knew we would); come face to face with black bulls and white horses; learn about French rules and regulations; experience several ‘miracles’ all in one day; take ourselves off to Mass; cool off in a lavender museum; meet ‘Mother Teresa’; have a bit of bother with bikes; fall in and out of love with Sweet Georgia Brown; swim in the Med; are driven crazy by a mad woman on a bicycle; and finally meet a really nice, cultured, intelligent American!
Saturday 2nd June: Babel and Bulls
There are lots of different nationalities on our campsite, mostly Dutch and German, but with Italians, Spanish and Belgians as well – and of course some French people and the odd Brit. Everybody is very friendly and greet one another in their own language whenever they meet. Some we recognise – ‘Bonjour’, ‘Guten Morgen’, ‘Goedemorgen’, ‘Buongiorno’, ‘Ola’ – but some we do not. I am reminded of that verse in the Bible about ‘everyone hearing them speak in their own tongues’ (Acts 2:8) although, in reality, our campsite is more like the Tower of Babel than the Day of Pentecost! The elderly Dutch are here in force again. They are very canny the elderly Dutch. They descend on the French campsites as soon as they open in April and stay right through to the end of June, when the campsite prices go up for July and August. They then go back to the Netherlands for the summer and return again in September, when the campsite prices go down again. They usually have really nice caravans and big cars to tow them with, and they all seem to speak good English, which is really helpful for us because our Dutch is non-existent.
In the early evening we wander down to Saint Rémy. We have not been before and wonder if it will be as good as the guide book suggests. The nice young lady at the Accueil tells us that there is a nifty short cut, just across a stone bridge over the stream by the campsite, and through a small housing estate. This will take us right into the town centre in ten minutes. It turns out not to be quite as simple as this but we meet a nice French lady who shows us the way. She wants to know why we are here in France when it is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebration back in the UK this weekend? ‘Are we Republicans?’ she asks, with that underlying sense of regret that France no longer has a monarchy!
When we eventually arrive in the centre of Saint Rémy we discover that it is a special weekend for the town with a number of special events. This evening there is to be ‘bull racing’ followed by a street party incorporating plenty of food, wine, and musical entertainment. We are rather unsure about the ‘bull racing’ but the locals assure us that it is not cruel like ‘bull fighting’. It is perfectly safe as long as we stay behind the metal barriers blocking off the road in Saint Rémy where the races are to be held. It turns out to be really spectacular. The evening begins with a parade of the famous white Camargue horses (the traditional mount of the ‘Gardians’, the Camargue ‘cowboys’ who herd the black Camargue bulls found in southern France) and their riders. The whole event, in many ways, turns out to be a demonstration of what these cowboys do every day, but with an added edge. A bull is released at one end of the street, and charges up to the other end of the street, carefully shepherded by the Gardians on their white horses. A third of the way along the street various teams (all in their different coloured shirts) take turns to try and ‘capture’ the bull by grabbing hold of it and stopping it. The bulls themselves seem to enjoy the challenge, and more often than not prove to be unstoppable. Occasionally a team manages to ‘capture’ a bull, much to the delight of the crowd. Julia stays safely behind the barrier, but I squeeze through the barrier (along with lots of other brave people) so that I can take better photos. This is all fine until one of the bulls turns back the way it has come and heads straight for me. Fortunately I manage to step out of its way in time as it thunders past, complete with team members hanging round its neck. Somehow I manage to get the whole thing on film. I just might have to send it to ‘You’ve Been Framed’?
After the bull racing has ended, and with the street party about to begin, we go for a quick wander round the centre of Saint Rémy as a preview to seeing the historic town later in the week. We stop for a drink at a café near to where the musical entertainment is about to begin. We stay and watch it for a bit. The first act features two girl singers framing about plus some chap on synthesizer. They are a bit like a bad entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. The singing isn’t up to much but the real entertainment is watching one of the girl singers trying to stay in her little black dress. If she is not pulling her top up (to stop it falling down) she is tugging her skirt down (to stop it riding up)! After a couple of songs they give up, and are replaced by two kids entertainers who do an action song with all the children present who, obviously knowing what is coming, come and fill the space in front of the stage. It is just like being in Sunday School?! It is such great fun that a lot of the adults present come and join in as well!
We return to our campsite by attempting to follow the route we took when we came, only in reverse. We were so busy chatting with the nice French lady who showed us the way down, however, that we didn’t make a mental note of the way we took? As a result we get well and truly lost in the housing estate on the journey home. Where is Jane, our SatNav, when you really need her? An hour later a seven-year old French lad on a motor bike shows us the way back to our campsite!
Sunday 3rd June: Smurfs and Showers
We are woken at 6.30 a.m. by Papa Smurf and Mama Smurf banging about! Papa Smurf and Mama Smurf is Julia’s name for the Dutch couple on the pitch next to ours. And they do remind us, in the nicest possible way, of the Smurfs. They are both short and dumpy but nice with it. Papa Smurf is a real ‘Mr Fix It’ and is rarely seen without his box of tools. I have this theory that he repairs things simply for the love of repairing things. He even repairs things that are not broken. I have seen him taking the same gadget apart and re-assembling it more than once. This morning we awake to the clatter of Papa Smurf fixing something on his caravan right next to the sleeping compartment of our tent. We wonder if what he is fixing really needs fixing at such an early hour? Papa Smurf is banging, and Mama Smurf is talking. Mama Smurf loves talking. If she is not talking to her husband, or to the numerous people she seems to know around the campsite, she is talking to her plants. Mama Smurf loves plants and flowers. Although they are only on holiday here like the rest of us, she has managed to turn their pitch into Kew Gardens and the Chelsea Flower Show all rolled into one. There are hanging baskets, pots of plants and shrubs, vases of flowers everywhere – hanging form their caravan awning, on their large dining table, in various plant stands around the pitch. It actually looks great. Julia is inspired. She is determined to buy lots of plants and flowers herself when we go to the market in St Rémy on Wednesday and decorate our pitch too. I am happy that Papa Smurf is here – if I have any problems with the car, or if a mad Belgian driver backs into it on site – I am sure that Papa Smurf will be able to fix it in a jiffy. Where were you Papa Smurf, last year, when we really needed you?
We are hoping to go to church somewhere today, it being Sunday. We recall with affection the time we spent with the small Anglican congregation at Sainte Nathelène in the Dordogne last year, and hope that there is something similar nearby. An internet search proves fruitless, however. I find one English speaking church purportedly in the area, but when I get through to their web page in turns out to be in Hong Kong?! Eventually we give up and decide to simply extend our normal daily bible reading and prayer time. We are following a similar pattern to the one we followed last year by reading a few pages from a Christian book that has taken our fancy, over our early morning cup of tea, and discussing them, and then later on after breakfast basing our prayers around a devotional bible commentary. The two books we have brought with us this year are Rob Bell’s controversial little book, Love Wins, and a volume of the Daily Study Bible on the Psalms by George Knight. We are enjoying them both so far. We hope that we will be able to locate an English speaking church somewhere in Provence by next Sunday.
The weather is pleasantly warm but the weather forecast suggests showers are in the offing. There is a nice German family opposite us, mother, father and two children, a boy and a girl. The girl is just like my granddaughter, Hannah, and so they become known to us as ‘Hannah and Co’. Mother seems to do most of the work – all the cooking, cleaning, organising the children etc. Father is usually nowhere to be seen, although I did see him asleep in their van earlier. Mother saw me notice him asleep, and gave me a knowing grin. The sun is shining and Hannah and Co jump in their VW van and head out somewhere. We are not convinced that it will stay hot and sunny, however, and stay put in camp. The weather suddenly takes a change for the worst and rain starts to fall. We batten down the hatches and retreat into our wonderful watertight tent. The heavens open and it absolutely pours with rain. Fortunately we have brought some DVDs with us for such a night as this. We have a twin jack plug connection for our head phones which means we can watch said films on our laptop without annoying our neighbours. We watch the film version of Kathryn Stockett’s best selling book The Help. We loved the book, and the film is just as good in it’s own way. America, and particularly the American south, perhaps particularly the white fundamentalist Christians of the south, have so much to repent of! We wonder if things have really changed in America since Martin Luther King Jr. To be sure America has a black President, but the conservative evangelical south seems to be staunchly right wing Republican, and very opposed to Obama. Does the fact that he is black, and not just that he is a Democrat with liberal views, have something to do with this?
The rain eases off just in time for Hannah and Co’s return. Their caravan awning has failed to do it’s job properly and their outside living space is flooded. They spend the next hour sponging and sweeping, and fixing the awning. We offer to help, but with typical German efficiency they decline our offer and crack on with getting it all sorted – well mother does anyway!
Monday 4th June: A Whiff of Something or Other?
I wake up this morning to discover that the campsite Wi-Fi is not working and nobody in our section of the campsite has internet access! Papa Smurf and Mama Smurf have been up since 6.30 a.m. trying to Skype their son in America but can’t get through. I have hardly sat down with my early morning cup of tea before they are round to see if I can connect to the internet. At first I haven’t got a clue what they are on about? Is it something about the drains I wonder because they keep on about the ‘Whiffy’! Eventually the penny drops and I realise they are talking about the Wi-Fi?! They have arranged to speak to their son and he will be worried about them. I check my laptop and I can’t connect either. No one on any of the pitches around us has a connection. We wonder if it the result of the storm yesterday. Has water seeped into the box containing the router for our section of the campsite? The router is in a box is on the top of a long pole bolted to the top of the nearby toilet block.
I go down to the Accueil and tell the girl on reception. She unplugs the connection, waits 20 seconds and then connects it again. ‘It will be alright now!’ she says. It is not alright and I go back and tell her. She promises to ‘get a man’ to look at it later. I have read Peter Mayle’s book, A Year in Provence. I know what the French mean when they promise to ‘get a man in’ to fix something. It will be the end of the week if we are lucky! I tell Papa Smurf the good news. He is not impressed. He too knows what the French mean by promising to ‘get a man in’ to fix something?! The loss of Wi-Fi has effected a number of our fellow campers and they start to congregate in our corner of the campsite. We hatch a ‘cunning plan’ amongst us. Every half hour a different person will go down to the Accueil and complain until something gets done about it. Eventually Papa Smurf goes down again and suggests that the owner of the campsite is contacted. Papa Smurf has been coming to this campsite for so many years now that he knows the owner. Indeed he knows everything there is to know about the owner. The owner, apparently, is a pharmacist by profession and owns a couple of pharmacies in Saint Rémy as well as another Campsite a few miles away. He has his finger in a number of pies and is a very wealthy man. He also likes to sometimes come and tour round this campsite so Papa Smurf tells the girl in the office that he plans to have a word with him when he next sees him. This strategy seems to elicit some action – well at least a phone call or two. Julia decides to leave us all to it and goes off to the pool to ‘catch a few rays’ as she puts it!
The swimming pool on our campsite is very nice. It has plenty of big sun umbrellas and lots of sun beds to lie on. So many in fact that even the Germans on the campsite don’t need to reserve any by leaving their towels on them! There is also a fitness centre by the pool with all sorts of equipment in it, plus a hot tub, a sauna, and so much more besides. Earlier in the day we had a good look round the campsite. It has a nice playground area, with outdoor exercise equipment for those who want to use them nearby as well, and great views over Saint Rémy. We have a play on all the outdoor exercise equipment, and when we go to the pool we have a look at it all the exercise equipment here as well. Julia tries out all the equipment but I steer well clear. There is a very fit looking French guy who is in charge of the fitness centre. Every few minutes he breaks off our conversation to do some more press ups!? After he has done this about three times I want to say to him, ‘O.k., we get the message!’ He is like some daft bird going through a set mating routine!? I don’t know if it is to impress Julia … or perhaps me? I hope it is Julia, but I can’t be sure!? I secretly vow never ever to go anywhere near this fitness centre while we are here!
Tuesday 5th June: Roman Ruins and a Rascal of a Russell
Today we are going to Glanum, the ruins of fortified town, founded by a Celto-Ligurian people called the Salyens in the 6th century BC in the foothills of the Alpilles, about a kilometre south of Saint Rémy. It was known for the healing power of its spring. It became a Roman city in Provence until its abandonment in 260 AD. It is particularly known for two well-preserved Roman monuments of the 1st century B.C., known as les Antiques, a mausoleum and a triumphal arch (the oldest in France). We are pleased to be going out for the day today. The Wi-Fi is still not working and there is a lot of ‘chuntering’ going on round the campsite. We think Papa Smurf has ‘had a word’ somewhere or other because the owner of the campsite has been seen around early this morning!
Glanum is truly amazing. I am not really into ‘old ruins’ usually, being far too much of one myself, but I really like Glanum. We park near the mausoleum and the triumphal arch, which are separated from the rest of the site by the road from Saint Rémy. We take lots of photographs and then cross the road to the main site. We pass a lovely picnic area on the way and make a mental note to have a late lunch here after we have toured the main site. The French are so good at creating these lovely picnic areas, whether it is the numerous Aires just off their motorways or these pleasant picnic areas. I suppose that it is to do with the French love of good food. Apparently the French spend as much per annum on food as we in the UK spend on things like cars, TVs, etc. The Aires and picnic sites are always packed around lunchtime in good weather as the French enjoy their daily two hour lunch break. There is a big picnic area actually in Glanum itself, and it is packed with school parties who have come to see this famous historic site. The French are very good at making sure that future generations learn about their history – much like we used to be in the UK before political correctness and suing schools for just about anything ruined it all! Somehow I think that the ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’ (as President Bush II infamously called them) will not slavishly follow the Americans in this as we have done!
We dive in ahead of the school kids and coach parties and enjoy a wonderful tour of the site. There is so much to see. There are at least three phases to Glanum, and each one is fascinating in its own way. When we have exhausted ourselves wandering around this amazing site in the hot sun, we return to our car, collect our picnic, and find a nice shady spot in the first picnic area that we saw. While we are there Julia spots a sign directing us to the Ancien Monastère de Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. Julia wanders off to have a look and comes back really excited because it is the hospital where Vincent Van Gogh admitted himself in 1889 and where he did a number of his paintings. It is too much to do today, and in any case we don’t want to mix our flavours, so we determine to come back another day.
Since it is only early afternoon we decide to take a drive through the Alpilles to Les Baux, a hillside fortified village that we have been told is well worth a visit. We have also been told that the parking there is very difficult, especially in the summer, because the place is so popular. It is only a few kilometres away but when we arrive, there are cars parked all the way to the entrance of the village. We decide to leave Les Baux for another day and eventually find our way to a plateau, overlooking Les Baux, on the other side of the valley. There is good car parking space – it is obviously a key viewing platform – and we stop to take photos and have a cup of tea. We meet a very nice Dutch couple who are highly amused at the British habit of ‘everything stopping for tea’.
We return home during the late afternoon, tired but exhilarated, to find that the Wi-Fi is still not working. We retreat to the safety of the swimming pool, the large sun umbrellas, and our Kindles. But not before Julia finds the time to make friends with Charlie! It is love at first sight for Julia who from now hardly ever manages to pass Charlie’s pitch without stopping for a lick or two? I ought to explain that Charlie is a ten month old, long haired Jack Russell terrier who reminds us of our dog Reggie back home in the UK. Charlie belongs to a nice Belgian couple in a caravan just across the way from our pitch. Charlie is great friends with Jackie, an older Jack Russell who belongs to another Belgian couple in a caravan just up the road. Charlie can see Jackie and barks to him every now and again. Jackie has very poor eyesight and can’t see Charlie but senses that he is just down the road and barks in reply. Charlie is very naughty at times. When he sees Julia he gives her a lick and then, when his Mistress comes to see what is going on, proceeds to literally run rings round her tying her up with his long lead so that she cannot move!
After an excellent dinner cooked by Julia we play Scrabble sitting at the large wooden table the campsite have provided for us. Julia thrashes me! I am obviously relaxing far too much on this marvellous holiday.
Wednesday 6th June: Markets and a Man with a Mission
Today is Market Day in Saint Rémy. ‘You have to go to the market on a Wednesday morning!’ everybody tells us, ‘It is something not to be missed!’ We get up early and after a quick breakfast walk into the town centre. We try the ‘quick’ way once more, but take Jane, our SatNav with us just in case we get lost again. We make a careful note of where the various twists and turns in the route come, and realise where we went wrong last time. We were admiring the lovely compact houses on the small housing estate with their beautifully painted windows and doors, and missed our turn completely? We soon reach the town centre, and there is not a stall in sight?! We ask a local shopkeeper and she directs us up the road and round the corner, and there are the stalls. They are mostly full of stuff for the tourists, designer t-shirts and dresses, trinkets and toys, paintings and object d’art. They are all quite expensive and we leave it to the scores of Americans who seem to be everywhere, judging by the loud accents, to buy all that stuff. We do buy a 5€ watch for Julia, something which has become a tradition for us when we come to France, and a sharpening stone for me to sharpen the French clasp knife I bought last year. Eventually we find our way into the centre of the market, past various street performers, and the food stalls. Nothing is cheap here. We think enviously of the small weekly market in Sainte Nathelène in the Dordogne that we visited regularly last year. A market that sold excellent local produce at very cheap prices. This market in Saint Rémy is nothing like that. We buy some ridiculously expensive local cheese, some olives, almonds and a few other bits and pieces. We think we will go to the supermarché on Saturday and get the bulk of our food there – it will be cheaper!
We do buy a tablecloth though – one that will fit our wooden table back at the campsite but one we can use at home on our patio table as well. Julia would like to buy some pot plants to brighten up our pitch, like Mama Smurf has done, but the stuff on the flower and plant stalls is so expensive. We will wait until we visit one of the local lavender growers and get a nice lavender plant there. Julia also loves the various clothes stalls, but keeps on finding the most expensive ones. We find our way into a section of the market that clearly sells really expensive stuff. Julia admires a beautifully crocheted silk scarf, until she sees the price – 187€! She decides to leave it to the Americans to buy. I am taking lots of photographs as we go round the market. Julia decides she wants to take a photograph of me. She takes the camera and is about to take the photo when two French ladies walk past and get in on the act. One in particular grabs hold of me and asks Julia to take a photo. Julia is so shocked that she does just that!? I am reminded of the ‘Ladies that Laugh’ who we met last year on our campsite in the Dordogne. Ladies of a certain age whose main interest in life seems to be men. Once again I am glad that Julia is there to see these particularly ladies off!
We return to our campsite to discover the owner of the campsite, and the Portuguese handyman who seems to do everything of a manual nature around the site – everything from mowing the lawns to repairing the toilets – standing by the toilet block at the back of our pitch discussing the Wi-Fi problem. It is an interesting conversation because the handyman doesn’t speak much French and the owner doesn’t speak Portuguese. The only language they have in common is Russian?! Finally the handyman climbs on to toilet block roof to get to the router. Obviously Papa Smurf’s efforts on our behalf have born fruit. The handyman, armed with a screwdriver and can of the French equivalent of WD40 unscrews the box containing the router … and discovers a wasp’s nest in the said router! I know we shouldn’t laugh but it is really funny watching the handyman fighting off angry wasps by spraying them with WD40. The little red nozzle of the WD40 is everywhere. Finally the wasps are dispersed, the nest is destroyed, and the router sorted! We are all back on line! The handyman descends from the roof to a round of well earned of applause!
Thursday 7th June: Celebrations, Châteaux and Chapelles
I am woken at 7.00 a.m., despite having my excellent French earplugs inserted, by the sound of Papa Smurf and Mamma Smurf skyping their son in America again. For a moment I regret that the Portuguese handyman has managed to repair the Wi-Fi. I wonder if it possible to persuade him to climb back on the shower block roof and put the wasps’ nest back? Seven in the morning must be a convenient time for Papa and Mama Smurf’s son in the USA. To be fair it is not primarily the sound of Mama Smurf talking, but rather the dreadful noise of tinny American country and western music coming over the internet loud and clear. When I finally manage to stagger out of tent to make a cup of tea, Papa and Mama Smurf are already showered and dressed and ready to go out. The Dutch – well all the Dutch people who have been coming here for the last 20 years or so – are having a lunch time party. The Smurfs are off to buy some food for this ‘Dutch do’. We gather that this is a regular occurrence!
Today we are going out for the day to Tarascon. Situated on the banks of the Rhone at the crossroads that lead to Avignon, the Camargue and le Luberon, Tarascon is still today associated with the legend that supposedly took place here in 48 A.D. The legend goes that Martha came from Palestine to Tarascon where there ruled at the time a terrible amphibian monster called Tarasque. With great courage the saint miraculously tamed the monster. Since that time pilgrims come to visit the Collegiate Church of St. Martha, which was built in her honour, not far from the Château du Roi Rene (one of the most beautiful medieval castles in France). As we are leaving our campsite we see the Dutch gathering for their communal lunch on one of the pitches down towards the entrance to our campsite. It already seems a rather jolly occasion with the wine flowing even though it is only around 11.00 a.m. We wonder if they will still be celebrating whatever it is that they are celebrating, when we get back from Tarascon?
Tarascon is a delight, especially the castle. We are desperate for a coffee so firstly we wander into the old town through what was once the Jewish quarter and is now the Muslim quarter. After finding a café and having a coffee – two coffees plus free biscuits for under 3€, what a contrast to Costa (so called because it ‘costa lot’ to buy) in the UK – we go and have a look around the château. It is a great castle and well worth the entrance fee, although once again we are amazed at the French propensity to suddenly insert weird modern art into historic rooms that really need no enhancement. In one room there is a load of electronic equipment making weird noises, and in another room there is a huge goldfish bowl with one solitary goldfish swimming around looking very lonely. In neither case is there any kind of explanation as to the reasoning behind these exhibits? I fight the urge to rip out the electronic equipment and liberate the lonely goldfish! Despite these ‘eyesores’ we really enjoy the château and I even manage to make it up to the roof with its amazing views, even though I make sure that I remain as near to the centre of the roof space as possible.
After our visit to the castle we drive across the Rhône and find a nice picnic spot by the river. I am enjoying our picnic breakfasts and picnic lunches. The nice weather helps of course but so does the wonderful French bread and butter, and cheese and tomatoes, and meats and cold beer, etc., etc. We drive home via the Rhône-Sète canal. We visited the Sète end last year, so it is nice to see this end as well. And then we stop off at the Romanic chapel in Chapelle Saint-Gabriel located south-east of Tarascon, in the western side of Alpilles. This place was once the crossroads of several Roman roads – the Via Domitia, the Via Aurelia, and the Via Agrippa. In the midst of an enchanting landscape of olive trees and cypresses, this chapel is the only remnant of an ancient village named Ernaginum. It was one of the chapels that formed part of the famous Pilgrim Route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Although dating from the 12th century, Saint-Gabriel has an unusually rich and decorated facade, which is surprising for the simple days of Romanic art. It displays many and varied architectural shapes and sculptures representing: Adam and Eve, Daniel in the lions’ den, the Annunciation and Visitation, and around the oculus, the emblems of the four evangelists: an angel for Matthew, the lion for Mark, the ox for Luke and the eagle for John. This chapel is a listed historic site since 1840 and this beautiful site certainly conveys the feeling of nostalgia and mystery that Frederic Mistral suggests in his short poem about it.
We return to our campsite after a most fascinating day of site seeing and exploration. The Dutch party is still in full swing. We are glad that they are obviously having a good time. We are also glad that the party is on a pitch several hundred yards away from ours and not on Papa and Mama Smurf’s pitch next door!
Friday 8th June: Parties and Popes
Papa Smurf is gardening! It is 7.30 a.m. and Papa Smurf is gardening!? Papa Smurf is gardening at the back of his caravan right by the back of our tent! He has his secateurs out and is clipping the hedge behind their caravan. He then sweeps it all up with a garden rake that he has brought with him. I wonder if he has a strimmer tucked away some where, or even a lawn mower, because the grass is getting a bit long? Papa Smurf and Mama Smurf live in an apartment in the Netherlands and do not have a garden of their own. I suspect that this is why they have turned their pitch here on our campsite into one with plants and flowers everywhere … and now a beautifully manicured hedge?! The campsite handyman turns up in his electric buggy to take away Papa Smurf’s hedge clippings. The Portuguese handy man who speaks Russian but doesn’t speak much French. I ask Papa Smurf, who speaks a bit of several languages, what the handyman’s name is? Papa Smurf tells me the handyman’s name is ‘No-No’!? We look at each other and both shrug our shoulders. Is ‘No-No’ really his name? Is he refusing to tells anyone his name? Is he an illegal immigrant?
Hannah and Co have packed up and gone back to southern Germany after their two week break. Julia had a nice conversation with them at the swimming pool yesterday afternoon. Both father and mother speak excellent English, and French and German (of course) and goodness knows how many other languages. They tell Julia that they are here for the Pentecost holidays. Julia tells them that in the UK most people talk about the Whitsun holidays (and it is only a weekend not two weeks) and that the meaning of Pentecost is no longer understood by the majority of Brits. They seem a very nice family and we are sorry that we did not get to know them sooner.
It is 11.0 a.m. and Julia and I are just finishing breakfast – Papa Smurf and Mama Smurf are just cracking the wine open! Well they have both been up from about 6.00 a.m. so perhaps they are on Dutch time? Perhaps 11.00 o’clock (or thereabouts) is wine o’clock in the Netherlands? More of the Dutch people on our campsite are congregating at Papa and Mama Smurf’s caravan. They are all dressed up. Perhaps it is going to be another Dutch party? We will leave them to it. We are going to have our bible reading, say our prayers, and then we are off to the supermarché to stock up with food. We have been here a week today now. No doubt we will get some more bottles of wine in. Perhaps we should bring a few back for Papa and Mama Smurf as well? By the looks of things they will have run out by the time we get back?
We are off to Villeneuve-lez-Avignon today to visit an ancient monastery, and an ancient fort. Villeneuve-lez-Avignon is directly opposite Avignon on the other side of the river Rhône We have been to Avignon before – several years ago now – and perhaps we will go back again this trip, but we have never been to Villeneuve-lez-Avignon. An English family from Newcastle – we have nicknamed them the ‘Jolly Geordies’ because they are Geordies and they are jolly – on our campsite recommended it and they were right to do so. This town was known as the ‘City of Cardinals’ because it was where twelve Cardinals had their summer palaces in the mid 14th century when the Pope was based in Avignon. It offers an amazing view across the Rhône of Avignon – the ‘City of the Popes’ as it was known at the same time because that is where the Pope had his palace. After an excellent Provençal lunch in La Cave Bar a Vins we set off to explore the ancient monastery and the ancient fort. The Chartreuse du Val de Bénédiction was a charter house belonging to the Carthusian Order and dates from the mid 14th century. The charterhouse no longer functions as a monastery – a victim of the French Revolution – but is state owned and provides shelter to aspiring playwrights and artists rent-free for up to a year. It is rather soulless with none of the atmosphere of other monasteries we have visited, but it is interesting nonetheless. We then climb the steep hill to the Fort et Abbey Saint André, only to discover that we can only see round the Fort and not round the Abbey – well unless we pay another 5€ each that is? We decide that we will just go round the Fort. The Fort was built in the late 14th century by John the Good and Charles V of France, ostensibly to protect the Abbey but in reality as a statement that France was intent on expanding it’s territory south of the Rhône. There is not much to see but the climb to the top of the battlements affords an amazing view across the Rhône to Avignon and the Palais des Papes. We drive home tired but exhilarated by a wonderful day out. We arrive back at our campsite at 7.45 p.m. The Dutch party is just coming to an end!
Saturday 9th June: Highs and Lows
Papa Smurf is up early. He has been to the market and returns laden with food, and yet more plants! Their pitch is beginning to look like Harvest Sunday in a rural church – plants and flowers everywhere. He comes over to our pitch and presents Julia with a bunch of cut lavender. He really is a nice man. We cut up a plastic water bottle to make a vase to put the lavender in and stand them on our wooden table. They provide a wonderful fragrance for us to enjoy while we have our breakfast. Papa Smurf tells us that lavender acts like a drug. He and Mama Smurf went to a lavender pressing factory a few days before and came away feeling quite ‘high’ on the fumes. He was glad that the Gendarmes didn’t pull him over on the way back to the campsite.
We have new French neighbours who have moved into the pitch opposite vacated by Hannah and Co. He reminds me of Napoleon so they immediately become known to us as ‘Napoleon and Josephine’. He wishes us ‘Bon appetite’ and asks us if we are eating lunch? We tell him that we are eating breakfast! This causes great merriment amongst both the Dutch and the French who eat breakfast early, even when on holiday. We are tired from our recent tripping about and decide to have a quiet day in camp. We have some clothes washing to do and we need to have a bit of a tidy up as well. When we have finished our chores we decide to spend the rest of the day relaxing, and watching some interesting new people that have arrived on our campsite!?
The ‘Likely Lads’ are a group of young French men, about six or seven of them, staying in one of the chalets at the top of our campsite. Every morning they walk past our tent at about 9.30 a.m. all dressed in suits and white shirts. I wondered if they were Mormons because they were all carrying brief cases … until the other night they all went down to the pool carrying cases of beer and smoking like chimneys. They must be auditors doing a specific job down in Saint Rémy we suspect. They have gone away for the weekend. It will interesting to see if they are back for next week?
They have been replaced by a dozen or so ‘Beefy Boys’, great chunky lads who could eat the ‘Likely Lads’ for breakfast! They are here in Saint Rémy for a football tournament at the local football ground close to the entrance of our campsite. They don’t appear to be doing too well judging by the weary way they trudge back through the campsite to their chalets after each match.
Talking of football there is a lot of excitement in the campsite today. The European Soccer Cup started yesterday and today sees the first matches in the so-called ‘group of death’. The Netherlands are playing Denmark, and later Germany are playing Portugal. Only two teams from the group can go through to the next round so victory for the Netherlands and Germany is essential. Lots of the Dutch campers are wearing orange shirts (the colour the Netherlands play in), and lots of the Germans have painted their faces in the German colours of red and black. A big TV screen has been erected down at the bar and they will all be down watching the various matches this evening. Julia and I will go down ourselves on Monday evening when England play France.
Another British couple have arrived and set up round the corner from us. They are very snobbish and don’t seem to want to have anything to do with any of the rest of us. They literally walk around the site with their noses in the air ignoring everybody. The warm welcomes of the Dutch, Germans and French are ignored, and we are obviously far too common for them to have anything to do with. After all we only have a small Corsa and a tent, and they have a swanky big car and a caravan. We immediately christen them ‘Lord and Lady Snooty’. I am tempted to wander over and try my ‘Ah! Les Anglais!’ line from last year, but feel it would be lost on them.
Judging by the loud groans from the bar area the Netherlands match against Denmark is not going too well. Later on the procession of glum faces trudging past our pitch back to their various caravans tells its own story. The Netherlands have lost 0-1 to Denmark. We commiserate with Papa Smurf and his friends. We hope that they won’t feel too down for too long. We hope the result won’t drive them to drink. Later on we have bad news of our own. Our inflatable airbed appears to have developed a leak and is somewhat deflated. A bit like the Dutch I suppose!?
Sunday 10th June: Deflation and Delight
We wake very early because our inflatable air bed has deflated?! I have spent a very uncomfortable night essentially on the ground. Julia has had a better night, largely because she somehow managed to manoeuvre herself on top of me. I suppose I am the next best thing to an airbed?! We decide that we have to get up and go to the supermarché and buy a new inflatable bed but while Julia is making breakfast I attempt to find the leak. I discuss the situation with Papa Smurf and he suggests I go and float said inflatable airbed in the camp swimming pool so I can see where the air is coming out. I do this, much to the amusement of my fellow campers, but the exercise tells me nothing! We pump up the bed again and leave it to dry out as we head off to the supermarché in Chateau Renaud where Julia says she has seen airbeds in a sale.
After breakfast, and prayers, we suddenly realise that it is 11.00 a.m. and the supermarché closes as 12 noon. We drive as fast as we can to Chateau Renaud but they have sold out of all the airbeds that Julia saw in the sale – they only have the self-inflating ones, which we don’t want! We jump back in the car and drive all the way back to Saint Rémy to the intermarché there, where I am sure I have seen airbeds like ours, although not in a sale. When we get there we discover that it doesn’t open on a Sunday! We jump back in the car and drive as fast as we can all the way back to the supermarché in Chateau Renaud. We need a bed, any bed, but the only place we can get one is the supermarché in Chateau Renaud, and it will be closing at 12 noon. Jane, our SatNav, promise to get us there safely by 11.58 a.m. She takes us via various weird and wonderful back roads but delvers us on time. Julia jumps out of the car and runs across the car park into the supermarché. The French shoppers, casually strolling backwards and forwards to the supermarché with their trolleys look at her with that, ‘Ah! Les Anglais’ look on their faces. They know the supermarché doesn’t close until 12.30 p.m.
We buy one of the self-inflatable beds that we don’t want and are relieved that we finally have a bed to sleep on. We need a coffee after all our exertions and drive into Chateau Renaud where we find a café bar and catch the tail end of the Sunday market. Julia buys some nice flowers to go with the lavender Papa Smurf gave to her, and we drive back to our campsite in a much more relaxed fashion, enjoying the beautiful hot weather and the beautiful scenery. When we get back to our pitch our old inflatable bed is still inflated and firm?! We come to the conclusion that we didn’t close the valve properly last night. We put the old inflatable bed that we really like back in the sleeping compartment of our tent, and we put the new self-inflatable bed that we didn’t really want back in the boot of the car! We will take it back to the supermarché in the morning and get a refund … or perhaps we will leave it till Tuesday, or perhaps Wednesday!
Monday 11th June: Art and Drawing
After a really good night’s sleep on our resuscitated bed, we wake to glorious sunshine and realise that it is going to be hot today. No sign of the Likely Lads, they must have completed their work last week, and the Beefy Boys are also leaving today. They seem in good spirits despite not winning the regional football tournament over the weekend. They share a joke with Julia on their way past, complete with football kit and cartons of beer!?
They are replaced with new people, including some new Brits in a camper van complete with fish badge, only this fish badge is different. It has four little legs and the name ‘Darwin; written in the middle. I look it up on the internet, even though I am pretty sure what it signifies. Apparently there are a number of re-worked derisory variations of the fish badge that a number of Christians display on their cars produced these days. The mark of the ‘fish’ was supposedly a sign that the early Christians could easily scratch in the dust, in the days of persecution – a sort of secret sign – to indicate that they were Christians. It comes from the Greek word for ‘fish’, icthus, the various letters of which supposedly stand for (in Greek), ‘Jesus Christ, God’s, Son, Saviour’. Darwin appears to have replaced Jesus in the belief system of these two it seems. They become known to us as ‘Mr and Mrs Darwin’. We look forward to getting into conversation with them.
Today we are going to the Ancien Monstère de Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, on the edge of Saint Rémy. This former Augustinian, and later Franciscan, monastery was transformed into a convalescent home, especially for people with mental problems, in the mid-18th century. It preserves the memory of Vincent Van Gogh, who asked to be interned there for a year in 1889-1890. They treated him with great kindness and encouraged him in his art. He had a workroom on the ground floor and a bedroom of the first floor. While there he produced a number of paintings to do with his life at the hospital, nature (Cypress Trees and The Sower), self portraits, and his extraordinary work The Starry Night. Part of the reason for coming to this part of France this year was to visit some of the sites associated with Van Gogh who lived in this part of the world for a time. In 2010 Julia and I visited ‘The Real Van Gogh: the Artist and His Letters’ exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and became fascinated by his story. The Ancien Monstère de Saint-Paul-de-Mausole is itself fascinating, and the way in which they have preserved Van Gogh’s memory is very moving. To actually be in the place where he produced a number of his paintings helps us to understand him so much better, especially seeing the actual places he painted. There is a lovely atmosphere here and we enjoy a wonderful couple of hours just drinking it in. After leaving the Ancien Monstère de Saint-Paul-de-Mausole we drive up into the Alpilles, which really are as weirdly shaped as Van Gogh’s paintings of them, and have a very enjoyable picnic.
The weather is wonderfully hot and sunny and after our picnic we come back to our campsite and spend the rest of the afternoon in the swimming pool. Tonight England are playing France at soccer in the European Cup, so just before 6.00 p.m. Julia and I go down to the bar area to watch the game on the big TV screen. There are quite a few French football fans there but we hold our own. We meet up with the Jolly Geordies the family of Brits – mother and father and their daughter, who all come from Newcastle – who we have got to know. They are great fun and we have a good laugh together. Miss Jolly Geordie has an English flag, and we all have some bottles of beer, and we make more noise than all the French fans put together – especially when England score the first goal! Eventually France equalise but a 1-1 draw is probably o.k. for both countries, and at least it means that the entente cordiale is preserved on the campsite. We all go away happy … at least we both did better than the Dutch!?
Tuesday 12th June: Near Misses and Noisy Americans
Today we are planning to continue the Vincent Van Gogh trail and so we are heading for Arles, about half an hour’s drive away, where he spent some time before he came to Saint Rémy. The weather forecast suggests that it could be showery, even though there is bright sunshine at the moment, so Julia makes sure we pack clothes for every contingency. Guess who will be carrying the bag with everything in it? Before we leave, however, Julia has a go on an electric bike belonging to a Dutch couple across the way from us. They are a very friendly couple and we call them Morecambe and Wise, because he reminds me of Eric Morecambe … and she is very wise?! Wise uses her electric bike for various things, riding down to the camp shop to get her bread of a morning, or riding into town to do some shopping. Julia rides the electric bike up and down the road. I ride it round and round the campsite – and I have to admit that it’s great. Julia hatches a plan for us to go to the Netherlands for a week to buy a couple of second hand bikes because they are cheaper over there. We will see?! Think on balance I would rather have another car, it might be cheaper?!
After breakfast and prayers we drive to Arles in blazing hot sunshine and Jane, our SatNav, finds us a nice place to park in. As we pull into the car park a large 4×4 reverses towards us at speed with the female driver clearly totally unaware that we are behind her because she is not looking in her mirrors. She has her eyes firmly set on a parking space that has just become available and is keen to grab it before anybody else does! ‘Oh! No! Not again!’ we both say out loud together (or words to that effect) as we remember Baldwyn Smit, the Belgian driver, who reversed into us in his Mercedes van while we were in France last year (putting our little Corsa off the road for three weeks and causing us great inconvenience and expense at the same time). But this time the driver is a French woman not a Belgian man, and there is no vicious tow bar to do lots of damage, but the 4×4 is huge and the driver is not looking and she is heading towards us at speed! ‘Hit the horn!’ I yell at Julia. Julia hits the horn with such venom, and keeps her hand on it, that the sound stops all the traffic in Arles! Fortunately it also stops the French female driver, who is so shocked by the sound of our horn that she nearly hits a tree instead! Several men rush across to assist and direct the lady driver, with knowing nods in our direction, away from the tree, away from us, and into the parking space. Julia and I look at each, and despite Jane the SatNav’s protests, we head out of the crowded car park and go to the comparative safety of the multi-story car park instead!
Arles is quite a busy place but it has a very interesting historic centre with a multi-layered history including some very impressive Roman ruins, especially the amphitheatre. We are looking forward to seeing the Roman stuff, but primarily we are here to see the Van Gogh stuff. We stop for a coffee near the Espace Van-Gogh, which was originally a hospital where Van Gogh was treated in 1889. After coffee we look around this picturesque courtyard lined with arcades containing the recreated garden featured in Van Gogh’s painting, Garden of Arle’s Hospital. We look around the town to get a sense of where we are and what we want to see, and then go for lunch at Le Café Van Gogh, purportedly the scene of Van Gogh’s famous painting, Café Terrace at Night. We have a very enjoyable meal and it is fun to think that we are eating possibly in the very café Van Gogh painted!
There are lots of Americans in Provence at the moment, and Arles seems full of them. It is very strange to hear so many American accents. They are very loud, the Americans! They have opinions on everything, especially Van Go (as they pronounce Van Gogh)?! They don’t try and speak French but shout loudly at the shop keepers, market traders, and restaurant staff. Julia and I are in fits of laughter over a conversation we overhear while sitting at our lunch table. A large American sitting at the table next to ours loudly addressing our nice French waitress: ‘Two big cups of coffee!’ Nice French waitress: ‘Vous désirez deux grandes tasses de café?’ Large American (shouting loudly): ‘No, two big cups of coffee like these (pointing to empty coffee cups on the table)! Nice French waitress walks off to get their coffee (looking at us and lifting her eyes to heaven)! It seems that the Americans can shout in ‘French’ even more loudly than the Brits and the Germans!
After a very enjoyable lunch we have a good look around Arles. The Roman ruins are very impressive, especially the amphitheatre, but the Van Gogh museum is closed. Judging by the amount of Van Gogh stuff that is closed there is obviously some major renovation work surrounding his presence down here that is going on. It would seem that the French are realising the pulling power of Van Gogh for tourists and are upgrading all their exhibitions and sites.
Wednesday 13th June: Singing and Scarves, Shouting and Soccer
We are woken at 6.30 a.m. by Papa Smurf. He is sitting in a chair in the sun listening to opera on headphones connected to his iPod. Papa Smurf likes opera! The only problem is that he is obviously enjoying this opera so much that he is unconsciously singing along to it! Papa Smurf is obviously in good spirits. No doubt he is looking forward to the crunch match in the European Soccer Championship tonight between the Netherlands and Germany. Julia and I plan to go down to the bar area to watch a bit of it, just for the buzz really – there are lots of Dutch and Germans on the campsite so it is bound to be something of a scene!
We finally give in trying to sleep through Papa Smurf’s singing and get up. Today is market day again in Saint Rémy and we want to get down there anyway. Julia is keen to buy another new scarf that she has seen on one of the stalls. Not the silk crocheted one that cost 187€. Fortunately this one only costs 10€. We walk down to Saint Rémy thinking that we will go to the market and then see the rest of the sites in the town, such as the Musée Estrine Centre d’Art Présence Van Gogh, where there is an audiovisual display and thematic exhibition to illustrate Van Gogh’s work and the time he spent in Saint Rémy. Julia is looking forward to buying her new scarf so we head straight for the scarf stall. Julia has convinced herself that she needs this particular scarf for when we go to Israel in the autumn. She says she will need to be able to cover her shoulders when we go to some of the sacred sights?! The stall holder remembers us from last Wednesday when Julia spent a long time looking through the various scarves and, spotting a sale, gets her large mirror ready so Julia can admire herself. Julia can’t choose between two particular scarves, so ends up buying both!? As she often says, ‘A girl can’t have too many scarves!’ ‘Or bags, or shoes!?’ I add.
We wander through the market buying various things we need to replenish our dwindling supply of fruit and vegetables and cheese and wine, etc. We go to a wonderful stall where you can buy all kinds of Provençal specialities such as olives and nuts and dried fruit and mild garlic. Last week we were served immediately in a very friendly way but this week we are ignored completely while the stallholders serve everybody and anybody but us? We suddenly realise that we are standing with a group of American tourists who are both helping themselves to stuff off the stall to see what it is like before buying, and shouting in loud voices at the stallholders in the US equivalent of ‘Franglais’ to be served. The stallholders are deliberating ignoring them … and they are deliberately ignoring us as well because they think we are Americans too!? We move away to another section of the stall … and as soon as Julia asks the stallholder politely in French for help, we are served!
Our purchases complete, and after a coffee, we set off to see the sights of Saint Rémy that we have not seen. Julia has her photo taken by the Nostradamus fountain (just as Nostradamus knew she would), and I have my photo taken outside the house that Nostradamus was born in (just as he knew I would). Eventually we find our way to the Musée Estrine Centre d’Art Présence Van Gogh. It is closed until this time next years for renovations (as Nostradamus undoubtedly knew it would be)?! We wander slowly home for a rest for me, and a visit to the swimming pool for Julia.
In the evening we are invited to dinner by Morecambe and Wise. They are a very interesting couple. He is an expert in tax and has advised the Dutch government in the past. She is a retired school teacher and comes from a Hindu background. They have both started to attend church in the last year or so, although neither of them have any kind of personal faith. Seemingly we fascinate them, and they are full of good questions. They tell us that they envy our faith. We do our best to try and answer their questions and promise to pray for them. After dinner, we go down to the bar area for the Netherlands v Germany soccer game. There are lots of Dutch and Germans there and it is a very lively atmosphere. We find a seat on a wall near to the TV screen, next to a very nice German couple, who invite us to share their bottle of wine. They speak interesting English and he tells me proudly that he learned his English in Hastings … so they become known to us immediately as Herr and Frau Von Hastings?! Julia and Frau Von Hastings get on very well together because neither of them actually likes football. They are only at the bar area watching the game for the craic (as the Irish say). They chat together while Herr Von Hastings and myself watch the game. The Netherlands are 0-2 down at half time, but Julia gets excited just after half time when Germany nearly score a third goal! She hasn’t realised that the two sides changed ends at half time and thinks the Netherlands nearly got a goal back!? The Netherlands eventually do score a goal but lose 1-2 (as Nostradamus knew they would). We congratulate our new German friends and make our way back to our pitch. On the pitch next to ours Papa Smurf is very quiet!
Thursday 14th June: Munchies, Mayors, and Mending Things
Today we have to visit the supermarché to stock up on some more food to see us through the next few days. We also have to take the new inflatable bed, that we didn’t like and didn’t want to buy in the first place, back to see if we can get a refund. Today is also designated as ‘wash day’, when we do some clothes washing, and tidy up day, when we give the tent a bit of a brush and clean up. Otherwise it is designated as ‘lying by the swimming pool and soaking up the sun day’!
There have been a number of comings and goings on our campsite today. Mr and Mrs Darwin – the British couple in the camper van with the unusual fish badge with four legs and ‘Darwin’ written in the middle – have gone. We hope we didn’t frighten them away. We walked past their pitch the other day and got into conversation with them. We asked about their unusual fish badge but they weren’t forthcoming. I wanted to ask them what it meant, and was looking forward to explaining to them that not all evangelical Christians are dyed-in-the-wool literal six-day creationists. Julia just jumped straight in and told them that we too had a fish badge on our car but it wasn’t like theirs! They probably thought that we were going to be just as unreasonable and militant as sadly, many six-day creationist Christians are?
We enjoy our drive back to the supermarché at Chateau Renaud. The weather is nicely hot and sunny and the scenery is terrific. Many of the roundabouts and verges are beautifully maintained with plants and flowers and artistic displays and sculptures of one kind and another depicting Provençal interests. This especially includes the verges and roundabout that leads to Eyragues, a small town off the main road to Château Renaud. We return the unwanted self-inflatable air bed that we don’t want, easily enough. They seem pleased to have it back as they have sold all their other inflatable beds, we notice. Must be lots of other Brits in tents on the various campsites in the area who also don’t know how the valves on their inflatable beds work as well as us? We buy the food and wine we need, including a really nice selection of ‘minor munchies’ – the Jolly Geordies are coming for drinks on Saturday night – and some more of those delicious lamb brochettes that we bought when we arrived here nearly two weeks ago now. It is time for a coffee, so we stop off at Eyragues on our way back to our campsite. Eyragues is beautiful. Everything is so wonderfully neat and tidy, the streets are clean, the buildings are well maintained, there are shrubs, and plants and flowers everywhere. ‘They obviously have a good Mayor, here!’ says Julia, and she is right. It is nearly always the Mayors of these small towns and villages who determine how the money is spent and what the towns and villages look like. There is a delightful bakery, and a beautiful flower shop with a very pretty display outside it. There is a nice restaurant packed with locals enjoying the French two hour lunch break, and a very nice café overlooking the town square where we have our coffee. After our coffee we wander round Eyragues and find our way to the church, which has a lovely fragrance because it has just been swept and cleaned and the courtyard washed down. The church is also well maintained, with interesting displays on the notice boards, and gorgeous stained glass windows, which suggests that Eyragues not only has a good Mayor but also a good Priest.
We drive back to our campsite and decide to have lunch before tackling the washing. It is so hot and sunny that we have to make use of our sun umbrella. We have lovely trees shading our table but today is so sunny that the shade of the trees is not enough. More people are arriving at our campsite. Apparently the weather in France elsewhere is not too good. According to our new German friends, Herr and Frau Von Hastings, the weather maps are showing that Provence is the place to be in France if you want the sun. This is why they ‘upped sticks’ from where they were camping in Burgundy, and came here to Saint Rémy. The weather was so bad in Burgundy the Von Hastings told us, that they couldn’t actually camp on their chosen campsite, and had to go into a small hotel instead! The weather is going to remain hot and sunny for the foreseeable future they tell us, which is good news for us, and the reason why so many new people are turning up at our campsite.
With the washing done, and hung out on the line to dry, it is time to relax by the swimming pool. It is too hot for me so I stay in the shade of our awning writing while Julia suns herself by the pool. It is too hot for Papa Smurf as well. He sits at the wooden table near me … mending things!
Friday 15th June: Musée Camarguais and Miracles
Today we are off to the Camargue. In fact Julia has planned at least three trips to the Camargue before we finally leave here. Today we are going to see the famous horses of the Camargue and hopefully get to the Med so Julia can go for a swim in the sea. It is quite a long trip so it is a good thing that England v Sweden in the European Soccer Championship is a late kick off tonight!
The Camargue is the most original and romantic region of Provence, even France, and has been largely preserved in its natural state through its designation in 1927 and 1970 as a botanical and zoological nature reserve. It is home to flamingos, migratory birds and other wildlife as well as the famous black bulls and white horses of the Camargue. It is really these black bulls and white horses running wild that I have come to see. Julia is looking forward to seeing the flamingos. Our initial destination is the Musée Camarguais and we arrive just in time for an early picnic lunch in the grounds before looking round the exhibition and then doing the two hour walk round the section of the Camargue contained within the national park. The exhibition is amazing, and the walk is truly wonderful. We see the rice growing on the flood plain, the wheat growing in the fields, the canals and waterways, the salt plains. The whole area is teeming with wild life and there are wonderful plants and trees, birds and insects of all description … but where are the flamingos, the black bulls and the white horses? Julia thinks she spots a flamingo in the distance? Eventually we catch a view of some black bulls, but they are quite distant from us. And the famous white horses of the Camargue are nowhere to be seen! We thoroughly enjoy the walk, however, nonetheless. The weather is brilliant, hot and sunny but not too hot and there is plenty of shade.
We decide to drive on down to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, which is situated between the Mediterranean and the Launes and Impérial lagoons at the heart of the Camargue. It has a remarkable fortified church and a weird and wonderful history. According to Provençal legend, in 40 AD a boat, carrying Mary the mother of James (the Less) and Mary Salome, together with their back female servant, Sara (and various others who were all fleeing persecution in Palestine), miraculously ‘washed up’ on the shores of the Camargue at Les Saintes Maries despite having been ‘abandoned to the waves … without aid of sail or oar’. The crypt of the church is reputedly where the two Marys lived when they first arrived at Les Saintes Maries and where they were buried when they died. The two Marys are highly venerated by the local population and twice yearly in May and October there are pilgrimages to Les Saintes Maries that draw huge crowds to parade the reliquaries through the streets and down to the sea. It is Sara, however, who is venerated by the Gypsies, who come from all over in their thousands to the May pilgrimage to dress the image of Sara in the church and parade her image through the streets and down to the sea.
On the way to Les Saintes Maries we pass the salt flats and finally get to see numerous black bulls running wild in the fields, the famous white horses of the Camargue running through the water plain, and wonderful pink and red flamingos … lots of them! We also find wonderful sandy beaches and the Mediterranean Sea with hardly anybody on the beaches. Julia goes for a paddle. We are both too tired to go for a swim, and we have to get back for the big soccer match between England and Sweden on TV. We decide to get up really early one day next week, however, to see more sights of the Camargue and get that swim in!
Jane the SatNav takes us back to our campsite the most extraordinary way. Julia is getting a bit worried about her. She has not been the same since I uploaded her new maps. We have to watch her carefully these days. It is just like having a teenage daughter?! The route she brings us by is beautiful though, so we don’t complain too much. And she does get us back in time for a rest and some dinner – those wonderful lamb brochettes – before the match starts. When we get back Papa Smurf is still mending things!? This time it is a caravan sink with a faulty connection. It belongs to another family on the campsite, and I finally realize that Papa Smurf is not endlessly repairing his own stuff – even stuff that isn’t broken – he is mending other people’s stuff for them. He is here for three months of the year and he obviously gets bored with just sitting in the sun so he helps people out by doing what he is good at doing – mending things! We like Papa Smurf!
After an excellent dinner we go down to the bar area with the Jolly Geordies to watch the match. It is great game, the best game so far for end to end excitement. Forget about miraculous landings of boats at Les Saintes Maries, it is a night for miracles for us too. England win 3-2! Theo Walcott scores a goal from distance! A German wearing a French football shirt cheers when England score (and I have a photo to prove it)! And a Scotsman (who is also watching the game sitting next to me) buys me a drink to celebrate!
Saturday 16th June: Seeking and Finding
We wake this morning to smoke drifting across the campsite! We think immediately of all those campsite regulations about not having barbecues because of the danger of fire? It is so hot and sunny and dry here that we can understand the reasons why we are not allowed open fires of any description on our pitches. But not everyone reads the regulations, or obeys them when they do understand them. The French are especially good at this! ‘No clothes lines to be tied between the trees!’ say the regulations, but there are clothes lines everywhere on the campsite. ‘No shorts allowed in the swimming pool!’ say the regulations (us men are supposed to wear those skimpy little swimming trunks that went out of fashion in the 70s) but most of the guys are wearing shorts in the swimming pool. When we query these, and other examples of breaking of rules, we are simply told, ‘The rules only apply in July and August!’ It is an epiphany for me. Now I understand why the French hardly ever obey any of the rules coming out of Brussels for the EU … the rules only apply in July and August … and the French are all on holiday then anyway!
I walk round the campsite trying to find out the source of all the smoke. I hear the sound of chainsaws cutting down trees in the forest on the hills behind the campsite. The foresters are at work, even though it is a Saturday morning, and they are obviously having a fire (in controlled circumstances of course) to burn away the unwanted branches. They are oblivious to the fact that the smoke is drifting across our campsite and breaking the rules of common decency … but then the rules only apply in July and August!
After breakfast we drive to the local intermarché in Saint Rémy. We don’t want to go – we know what the intermarché will be like on a Saturday morning – but the gas cylinder for our cooker ran out last night and we have to replace it. Normally we would carry two gas cylinders, the one we are using and a spare for if the gas runs out at an inconvenient time, but we were trying to keep the weight load down for our little Corsa on its journey from the UK to here. When we arrive at the intermarché it is as crowded as we feared. We can’t find anywhere to park so drive round and round until we suddenly spot a place about to be vacated by another car. Julia jams on the breaks – she is driving more and more like the French do now – and waits for the car to vacate the space. Another car, driven by a very respectable, chic, older lady also sees the same space at almost the same time, and also jams on her breaks. We wave her on, and she thinks we are leaving the space for her. As she moves forwards to create more space so she can reverse into the vacated space, Julia nips into it first! This very respectable, chic looking, older French lady, mouths something obscene in our direction and gives us the finger! We fall about laughing! Well we were there first … and in any case the rules only apply in July and August!
I have an interesting conversation with a French fellow camper this afternoon. He stops me and asks me in French if I am English, which is interesting because we have both been here over two weeks now. I assure him that I am English and he seems surprised?! ‘But your wife’ he says, ‘she is French, no?’ ‘No’ I tell him in reply, ‘she is English as well!’ I ask him why he thought she was French? ‘Because she does all the talking … and all the driving!’ he replies! I have no answer to that!
It is really hot today and this afternoon everybody is seeking out places away from the sun’s glare under awnings, sun umbrellas and trees. Only the brave are venturing as far as the swimming pool. Amongst the brave are a party of twenty attractive young ladies. Either it is a photo shoot or a hen party weekend. We watch them breeze off to the swimming pool all white and delicate in the morning. And we watch them straggle back in the late afternoon all pink and exhausted. At least it means that we will probably have a quiet night instead of the raucous one we were anticipating. The Jolly Geordies come round for drinks and petits manges in the early evening. We have a nice time learning all about them and about various good places to camp in various parts of France for the future. We learn all about them but they ask nothing about us. They invite us back for drinks next week. Julia and I enjoy a lovely meal together and then, disaster of disasters, we discover that we have lost the key to the freezer compartment we have hired. After much frantic searching that gets us nowhere we decide to pray about it, and miraculously the keys turn up in the most unlikely place, hiding under our new table cloth?! And we thought ‘sod’s law’ only applied in July and August!?
Sunday 17th June: Antiques and Americans
Charlie is not the Messiah, he’s a very, very naughty … dog! Charlie is a 10 month old, long haired. Jack Russell to be exact. He belongs, as I said earlier, to a couple of elderly Belgians in a caravan across the way from us! The other day he got hold of Master’s shoe and wouldn’t give it back. He had a wonderful time running round their pitch with it, tossing it up in the air and catching it, and finally hiding it under their caravan!? This morning we were woken by shouts of ‘Charlieeee, Charlieee!’ as Charlie slipped his collar and lead and rushed up the road to see his friend Jackie, the much older and sadly almost blind Jack Russell. Although they are several pitches apart they are within barking distance of each other. Charlie can see Jackie, and Jackie can sense Charlie. They talk to each other every day in doggie language, but don’t get together very often. But today Charlie slipped his lead and was off like a shot to see his friend Jackie, with Charlie’s Master in hot – well vaguely warm pursuit! We love both Charlie and Jackie and often stop for a stroke, and a lick in return!
Today promises to be really warm again. The hot sunny weather continues and the temperature is rising steadily. Today we get up early because we are planning to visit the Luberon region of Provence. We never thought that we would find an area of France that could beat the Dordogne but Provence is matching it. We have loved being here in Saint Rémy but feel that there are at least two other holidays to be had in Provence, and we are thinking of coming to the Luberon next year. Today is an opportunity to have a look at part of the region to see if our feelings are correct. Today we are heading firstly for L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. This small town is famous for its many antique shops and hosts antique markets most Sundays. It has many waterside cafés and restaurants, all within walking distance of each other. Its many attractive water wheels throughout the town are still in working order. Keith Floyd, the British TV chef and bon viveur established a restaurant here during a lengthy sojourn in France. We stop for a picnic breakfast on the way and then find a good place to park on the edge of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. We park next to a Mercedes 4×4, but we decide to risk it nevertheless! We walk the short distance into the town centre, and discover that it is as marvelous as the guide book suggests. Thanks to listening to our CD of Peter Mayle’s book A Good Year we know that the Sunday market has stalls selling ordinary stuff for the tourists, stalls with antiques for the tourists, and shops selling serious antiques. We have a look at the shops selling serious antiques and they are great but way beyond our price range. We eventually find the stalls selling antiques for tourists … but we are not here to buy antiques. Perhaps next year, when God willing we are back in a home of our own, we might buy some stuff from these stalls. They look great but we are just not in the market, if you will excuse the pun!. The normal stalls are great too, having a much greater variety than say, the Wednesday market in Saint Rémy. Julia stops at a bag stall and spots a wonderful leather bag that ‘only costs 39€’!? After wrestling with her conscience Julia reminds me that I haven’t actually bought her anything for her birthday yet (apart from her Kindle that is, and she says her mother bought her that) so she buys said bag … and very nice it is!
In the midst of the vibrant and noisy market is the church! We wonder about the contrast between the two religions manifest here – the secular and the sacred, the market and the church!? We have not been able to go to church since we have been here. There are no English speaking churches in the area, and Protestants seem prominent by their absence, and many of the Catholic Churches seem pretty dead. We decide to join the service, and it is really good! There are lots of people there. The atmosphere is good. The singing is lively! Baptist-Christians attending Mass you say! Well why not! We enjoy the service even if we don’t understand much of what is going on. There are lots of children and young people present, and a number of them join in the service by leading the prayers. After the service we continue to wander round the market and enjoy a thoroughly good morning.
We eventually find our way back to our car and drive deeper into the Luberon heading for the hillside village of Gourdes. It is absolutely beautiful and we decide there and then to return to the Luberon next year to explore this region further. On the way back to Saint Rémy we stop off at the Lavender Museum at Coustellet. It is an excellent museum and we thoroughly enjoy looking round it with the aid of an audio-guide in English. There are lots of Americans there. We start the tour by watching a short 30 minute film about the production of lavender in the area. It is very good and we enjoy it and learn a lot from it. It is on a loop so after half an hour it repeats itself. As we leave after 30 minutes we notice that the Americans are still sitting there!? They have not realized that it is on a loop and are watching the whole thing again?! We wonder if they will still be there when we leave? I know that there are plenty of really nice, intelligent Americans! We have American friends like this! But why are none of them in Provence at this time? When we leave the Lavender Museum the temperature is 44 degrees. We drive back to our campsite and jump into the swimming pool … along with literally everyone else who is on our campsite tonight!
Monday 18th June: Jackieeeee and Jimmieeeeeee
We wake this morning to the sound of rain falling on our tent! Rain? It was hitting 44 degrees yesterday. Blazing hot sunshine! Rain? The weather forecast says hot and sunny for the foreseeable future! Rain? Well it lasts five minutes, and then we are back to the hot sunny weather again. Mr. Jolly Geordie walks past on his way back from the camp shop where he has been to collect his family’s bread for the day. He stops for a chat and we discuss the sudden shower of rain. ‘Oh! it is only Dutchman’s tears!’ he tells us with a smile, referring to last night’s defeat of the Netherlands by Portugal in the European Soccer Cup which means that the Dutch team will be going home now! Our various Dutch neighbours are not amused at Mr Jolly Geordie’s joke at their expense.
The Dutch campers on our site are not going home – they will nearly all be staying until the end of June when the prices go up and the French holidays begin. The Belgians, however, are going home, we think! They had a big farewell party the other day! And then they had another one yesterday! When the Belgian couple across from us went to the first party they left Jackie, their elderly, blind Jack Russell behind because the party was on Charlie’s owners pitch. Jackie barked repeatedly because they were just down the road but he was not there having a party of his own with Charlie (the ten month year old lively Jack Russell). Every now and then, when Jackie got especially noisy. Jackie’s master would shout at him, ‘Jackieeeeee!’ Now we are all going around shouting ‘Jackieeeeee!’ when Jackie starts barking … and even when he is not because it is such fun just doing it! Too much sun, you say, and you may be right!
Today we are planning a quiet day in the campsite but first we have to visit the intermarché to stock up with enough food to see us through the rest of the week before we start the slow journey home next Sunday. We also want to get some nice little bottles of top quality olive oil to take home as presents. The intermarché is not as crowded as Saturday. We park easily, and there is no elegant, chic, elderly French ladies to shout obscenities at us or give us the finger!? I will miss the nice air-conditioned supermarchés. They are always so interesting and have a fascinating selection of stuff, beautifully and artistically arranged. Our UK supermarkets could learn a lot from them. We get everything we need, and then it is back to the campsite for a nice lunch, a rest, and then the rest of the afternoon in the swimming pool!
After a cooling dip in the swimming pool we relax under the large sun umbrellas reading our Kindles. Later on, back on our pitch, around wine o’clock, I am transferring photos from our cameras on to the lap top, and Julia goes to our hired fridge in the sanitary block to get some wine and nibbles. She is gone a long time, and when I look over the hedge she is talking to Morecambe and Wise?! She hasn’t even got to the refrigerator yet?! She has hatched this mad idea about hiring some bikes and cycling right round Saint Rémy and is borrowing Morecambe and Wise’s cycle path map. I wish she was borrowing their electric bikes! After half an hour she is still talking … so I lean over the hedge and shout, ‘Julieeeeeee!’
While we are having our early evening wine and nibbles, and looking through the recent photos we have taken on the laptop, Wise comes over to see us. We like Wise. The Dutch call her ‘Mother Teresa’ because she talks to everyone and helps everyone if she can. There is a Dutch man here on his own, with a nice caravan and a nice car, but here on his own. We have said ‘Hello’ but he doesn’t appear to speak much English so it is difficult to communicate. Wise has already been to see if he is o.k. and has invited him for a meal. There is another lady who is here on her own as well. She came every year to this site with her husband for the last 20 years, but he died last year. She has still come back again this year, but on her own. Wise has been to see her too. Wise is fascinated by our photos and wants to see photos of our cottage in Rodden. ‘That’s not a cottage’ she says when we show her some photos, ‘that’s a castle!’ and she calls her husband over to see them. ‘Now I know why you English say, “a man’s home is his castle!”’ he tells us.
Later in the evening Julia has gone to bed, but I am still up working much to her disapproval! It is quiet on the campsite. Everyone has either gone to bed or is just sitting around enjoying a late evening drink and chatting quietly. The silence is suddenly broken by a plaintive cry from inside our tent … ‘Jimmieeeeeeee!’
Tuesday 19th June: Fecundity and Falsehood
I wake from a bad nightmare. In my nightmare Julia is making us go on a long bike ride round Saint Rémy! I wake from this horrendous nightmare to remember that it is not a bad dream – we are actually going to hire a couple of bikes and cycle round Saint Rémy, today!
We go down to the camp Accueil where Ingrid the Manager is on duty. We like Ingrid! She is young and full of life and cheers everyone up when she bombs round the campsite on one of the campsite electric buggies shouting ‘Bonjour!’ to us all. Ingrid has amazing fingernails that are always brightly painted. Today they are bright orange. We tell her of our plan and pay the hire charge for two of the camp bikes. They look pretty decrepit but we go for it anyway. As we leave the Accueil the chain on my bike falls off. No-No is there digging up the road – we don’t ask why – our Russian isn’t up to it! He fixes the chain on my bike as his hands are already filthy, and as he does so we notice that the tires on both our bikes are pretty flat!? So we go back to Ingrid and change our bikes for better ones. The terms of the hire agreement say we must get them back to the Accueil by 2.00 p.m. We ask about this since it is already 10.00 a.m. and we still have to make our picnic breakfast, and we don’t know how far we will be going. Ingrid gives us the Gallic shrug and tells us it doesn’t matter when we get back. Anytime today she says … after all the rules only apply in July and August! Silly us, we had forgotten that!
Julia makes us a nice picnic breakfast and we head off towards a cycle path that will take us through the beautiful countryside towards Mas-Blanc-des-Alpilles where we plan to stop for coffee before returning back to our campsite, via one or two chapels and châteaux that Julia wants to see. We have not gone very far when Wise comes steaming up behind us on her electric bike. She is going to the intermarché and says she will show us the way to the special cycle route. I suggest that we swop bikes, and I think she would, if she hadn’t been going shopping. Wise takes us along safe roads until we hit the main road to the supermarché and the cycle route to Mas-Blanc-des-Alpilles. We are a bit hesitant on the main road but for all their crazy driving the French are very good when it comes to cyclists. All the roads have special cycle lanes, and often (as with us today) there are designated ‘cycles only’ paths, away from the main roads, that often run through beautiful country.
We leave Wise at the intermarché and soon find the designated cycle route towards Mas-Blanc-des- Alpilles. It is beautiful. It takes us through a fecundity of olives groves, apple orchards, wheat fields and apricot orchards. The verges of the cycle path are full of amazing wild flowers and bushes, and the weather is just right for cycling. It is still very warm but there is plenty of cloud cover and even I am enjoying this bike ride. We stop for a picnic breakfast in an apricot orchard. We have pots of stewed fruit, hard boiled eggs, and baguettes filled with wonderful French butter and wonderful French jam, all washed down with fruit juice. We help ourselves to some fallen, but undamaged, apricots and then ride on and on thoroughly enjoying the day. Julia has a map which we follow faithfully … until we cycle off the edge of the page of the map! Never mind! The cycle path is still there, and we are heading roughly in the direction of Mas-Blanc-des-Alpilles. We will pick up the road signs eventually we feel sure. And if all else fails, we have brought Jane our SatNav with us! We cycle on happily … and then the cycle path stops! Right in the middle of nowhere the cycle path stops! And there are no road signs whatsoever! But never fear, we have Jane, our SatNav with us! We consult Jane and she informs us that Mas-Blanc-des-Alpilles is just up the road. Turn left she says, and then left again, and before you know it you will be there! We do as she says, even though it means cycling along a very busy main road. The traffic thunders past us and twice I am nearly blown off my bike into the ditch that runs alongside the main road. We ride on and on but there is no sign of Mas-Blanc-des-Alpilles. Eventually we turn off left and head back to rejoin the cycle route. No Mas-Blanc-des-Alpilles, no café, no coffee?! Jane has lied to us again! She is guilty of falsehood. We switch her on a again … and there is no sign of Mas-Blanc-des-Alpilles being anywhere in the vicinity.
We give up on the idea of coffee in Mas-Blanc-des-Alpilles and carry on to Saint Roch where there is an interesting chapel. We arrive just in time to hear the church clock ring the midday chimes … twice … to call the workers in from the fields for their two hour lunch break! And then as a bonus it plays us a pretty little tune! I could swear that it is an old chorus that we used to sing in Sunday School years ago – ‘My Lord knows the way through the wilderness, all I have to do is follow!’ Eventually we find our way back to Saint Rémy and a coffee shop where we sit outside with our coffees. The waiter brings Julia her decaffeinated coffee, and me my normal coffee … and asks me if I want a whisky in it as well! As we are sitting there an American couple, in a hired French car, drive past us into the pedestrian only zone, completely ignoring the prominent ‘No Entry!’ notices. The waiter shouts after them, ‘What the fecundity are you doing?’ or something like that. On reflection, however, we think that the Americans have probably got it right. After all the rules only apply in July and August!
Renewed by coffee we ride slowly back to our campsite. Julia only manages to fall off once when she hits a bump in the road, but she doesn’t hurt herself too badly. We return our bikes to Ingrid and stagger back to our pitch. After a leisurely lunch we collapse on our bed in our tent and fall soundly asleep. We manage to wake up at wine o’clock for drinks and nibbles. The England v Ukraine Soccer Match is on TV tonight, but it is on at the same time as France v Sweden, so we don’t think that they will be showing the England game at the camp bar tonight. The Jolly Geordies and ourselves will be going down nevertheless to see if we can persuade the barkeeper to show the England game. We know that the rules state that if France are playing, the French game must always take priority over any other game being shown at the same time. But, we will remind him, the rules only apply during July and August!
Wednesday 20th June: Jazz Bands and Jolly Japes
We are woken in the early hours of the morning by the sound of thunder and lightening, followed by heavy rain falling on our tent. The weather has been getting hotter and hotter and closer and closer and, like the Dordogne, it was clearly building up to a storm. We lie there as snug as a bug in a rug, in our wonderful watertight tent with our wonderful French wax ear plugs in and our wonderful English padded eye masks on …and are soon asleep again. By the time we get up in the morning the rain has gone and the sun is shining again.
When I get up to make the tea Mama Smurf is chatting to the guys from the Gardiennage who store and set up caravans for those who come down here at least a couple of times every year, and have to travel a good distance (from Holland or Belgium for example) and who leave their caravans down here. Apparently it only costs 450€ a year to store a caravan (including an annual service) and 25€ a time to tow in and set up/take down and tow away again. Papa and Mama Smurf do this because they come down here from the beginning of April until the end of June every year. Mama Smurf has a long conversation with me. She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Dutch. We both speak a bit of pigeon-French but my pigeon-French is not as good as Julia’s who can hold a conversation of sorts with Mama Smurf. All I can discern is that Mama Smurf is telling me something about Wednesdays and Sundays? ‘What was that all about?’ asks Julia when I finally get away and enter our tent. ‘I haven’t got a clue!’ I reply.
The rain may have gone, but the Belgians are all still here? I expect there will be another ‘Farewell Party’ for them sometime today?! It is Market Day in Saint Rémy Belgians will be down there in force buying lots of stuff once again – which guarantees that there will definitely be another party! We too are going the market. We have Morecambe and Wise coming for drinks tonight and we need to buy some more nibbles, and Julia wants us to buy some microwave meals that we can eat in our B & B Hotel rooms on the journey home to save eating out all the time. I am not too enthusiastic as I like eating out, but I concede that she has a point. There are various restaurants near the travel lodge sectors of the towns we are stay in such as the Buffalo Grill, Poivre Rouge, and so on. But as we found last year, they are pretty ordinary, and yet just as expensive as the better French restaurants in the town centres. In any case it will be our last opportunity to go to the market before we leave on Sunday. I will just have to make sure I keep Julia well away from the scarves stall! The big question, however, is what to wear to walk down to the market. The thunder is still rattling around in the distance and the Meteo France weather forecast on the internet (the best one to look at if you are in France by the way) suggests that we are in for more rain today before everything starts to brighten up again for the rest of the week. My usual attire I think – a pair of shorts and an off-the shoulder vest – a somewhat fetching little number!? We will have our lightweight waterproofs with us anyway. Julia is taking a shopping bag full of clothes for every possible contingency, even snow?! Guess who will be expected to carry all those?!
Julia cooked us a wonderful Bouillabaisse last night and we were so full by the time we had eaten it that we retired to bed early. No sooner had we gone to bed, however, than we were woken by the sound of Miss Jolly Geordie returning from the campsite bar area with the news that England had beaten the Ukraine 1-0 whilst France had lost to Sweden 0-2. The French match had been shown on TV in the bar area but the French commentators updated viewers with the England score. We were nicely tucked up in bed at the time and only overheard the news as Miss Jolly Geordie shared it with Papa and Mama Smurf. Papa and Mama Smurf were not too excited – the Dutch Team got knocked out of the competition a couple of days ago. We were excited, if somewhat surprised, to realize that not only had we got through to the quarter finals of the European Soccer Cup but qualified as group leaders. This means we will be playing Italy and not the world cup holders, Spain. We will be in the B & B Hotel on Sunday night so I will be able to watch the match on TV! Suddenly the idea of a microwave meal and a bottle of wine in our hotel room sounds really appealing!
We have breakfast and say our prayers. I pray that we will meet some nice intelligent Americans – not the loud, pushy kind that we have met so far during our stay in Provence – so that my faith in Americans might be restored. And then we set out for the market. In the end we chance it and just take our lightweight rain jackets that fit into miniscule pouches that Julia can carry in her handbag. And we are proved right because after a few reluctant drops of rain the weather suddenly brightens up and we are back to the hot sunshine that we have been experiencing for the last couple of weeks. There are a few less stalls than usual. The possibility of rain has put a few market traders off coming but not too many. The lady who runs the scarf stall sees us coming through the crowds – at 6’ 4” I tower over most of the people down here – and she smiles. We say ‘Bonjour!’ to her but Julia bravely passes on by! We buy the stuff we need for entertaining Morecambe and Wise tonight and stop to listen to a couple of street entertainers playing jazz on an accordion and a double base with just three strings. They are playing ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ and it sounds great. We think how much Julia’s mother would enjoy listening to them with her love of jazz. We think about buying one of their CDs but decide that they are too expensive. We do some more shopping and then come back past our jazz musicians again. They are still playing ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ or perhaps, more likely, they are playing it again!
We feel in need of a coffee so we go to our usual café where we always go for coffee when we are in Saint Rémy. Last time we were here the place was very crowded, and I discovered that there was only one toilet. I had to queue up for 20 minutes, which is not very comfortable when you are ‘a gentleman of a certain age’. The café is crowded today but there is no queue for the only toilet so I get in quick. After our coffee Julia visits the one and only toilet while I go and look at a stall with some nice sandals for sale. My beige sandals have finally gone the way of all flesh and I desperately need some new ones. Julia is gone ages. She finally finds me in the market. She has been queuing behind three American ladies, who when they actually get into the toilet are there for ages … my prayers of earlier in the day were obviously not answered!?
We find a really nice pair of sandals at a reasonable price. The stall is just across from our café and as we are leaving we hear the strains of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’! Our street musicians have arrived having moved pitches. We presume that the stall holders near where we first saw them asked them to move on. They were obviously fed up with hearing ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, and rather than attract the tourists it was probably driving them away! We are coming to the conclusion that, although these musicians are good, they have a very limited repertoire. We are glad we didn’t buy their CD. It probably only had one song on it … ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ played fifteen times!?
Having finished our shopping we wander round Saint Rémy looking for a nice restaurant that we can book for a final meal on Saturday night, the day before we leave here. We eventually find a restaurant on our side of town that we both agree on. It has an excellent Provençal menu and we are already looking forward to it. We arrive back from the market for a late lunch and discover that the official campsite Facebook Page is using a lot of our photos for its publicity. I had suggested it the other day when they posted some of their own pictures that were not that good. We feel honoured and it is nice to be able to help this lovely campsite with their publicity. After lunch we spend the afternoon in the swimming pool. We have a nice chat with Monsieur and Madam Jackieeeeee (as they have become known to us). They are leaving tomorrow, the first of the Belgians to finally go, but they will be back again in September they tell us. ‘Au revoir, Monsieur Jackieeeee!’ I say, ‘have a safe journey home!’ Madam Jackieeeee thinks my jolly jape is very funny. Even Monsieur Jackieeeee laughs at himself! Although they are going I somehow don’t think this will be the last time we hear ‘Jackieeeeeee!’ shouted round the campsite!
Thursday 21st June: A Beautiful Village and a Bountiful Repast
Monsieur and Madam Jackieeeeee are leaving early so we get up to say goodbye to them, and also to see how they are going to get their monster caravan off their pitch. We thought that the Gardienners would come and collect it, since they leave it down here but no, Monsieur Jackieeeee is taking it to the Gardiennage himself!? ‘We are not paying them 25€ a time to take it to the Gardiennage!’ Madam Jackieeee tells me. It turns out that Monsieur Jackieeee has one of those attachments on his huge caravan that enables him to use a remote control to manoeuvre his caravan anywhere he wants to. We exchange handshakes and kisses – a sure sign that we Brits have been accepted as part of the ‘campsite gang’ – before Monsieur and Madam Jackieee drive off.
We are going to Les Baux de Provence today, one of the ‘most beautiful villages in France’. It is a wonderful little village built around an ancient castle set on a rocky outcrop overlooking the surrounding area. We want to get there early so we can find somewhere to park near the village so we don’t have too far to walk. During the height of the tourist season (July and August) the place is packed and when we drove past a couple of weeks ago there were cars parked all down the steep roads leading to Les Baux. Julia packs up another picnic breakfast for us and we set off half an hour after Monsieur and Madame Jackieeee. As we stop off at the camp shop to buy some bread to take with us who do we find sitting in the café area eating breakfast but …. Monsieur and Madam Jackieeee! He dropped her off at the café area and then took his caravan to the Gardiennage before returning to have breakfast with her before their long drive back to Belgium. It seem difficult for them to tear themselves away from this place, and we are beginning to understand why.
We get to Les Baux de Provence at about 9.15 a.m. and find a really good parking spot, right near the entrance to the village, and with great views of the surrounding countryside. We sit on a wall and enjoy our nice breakfast of fruit compote, boiled eggs and fruit juice. Some French people walk past and wonder what meal we are eating? Is it a late breakfast or an early lunch? ‘Ah! Les Anglais!’ we hear them say?! We walk through the village and it is very quiet. The shops are only just beginning to open even though it is 10.00 a.m. The village was granted in 1642 to the Grimaldi family, rulers of Monaco, as a French marquisiate. To this day the title of Marquis des Baux remains with the Grimaldis, although administratively the town is entirely French. The title is traditionally given to the heir to the throne of Monaco. Princess Caroline of Monaco uses the style Marquise des Baux, but, being a French title it can only pass through a male line under Salic law. It lapsed on the death of her grandfather Prince Louis II, the last male in a direct line. There are various displays of pictures of Princess Grace of Monaco in prominent places and we enjoy looking at them. The entire village appears to be given over to the tourist trade and we are glad that we are here in June and not in July or August. We want a coffee but the restaurants are all snobby and don’t want to serve us just coffee because the staff are all eating an early lunch before the coach loads of tourists arrive to pay the ridiculous prices that they are charging for their lunches. Eventually we find a nice little restaurant that is happy for us to just have a coffee, and very good it is too!
We join the queue to pay for a look round the castle. As we are standing there, patiently waiting our turn, an American lady with a small dog tucked under her arm (how on earth did an American manage to bring a dog into France from the USA) pushes her way to the front of the queue shouting, ‘EXCUSE ME! EXCUSE ME!’ in a vary loud voice. Everybody is so shocked at her rudeness that we all let her through. After a minute or two there is the sound of two dogs barking, fighting, coming from the other side of the entrance to the castle. Everybody smiles knowingly at one another. A French dog has obviously taken it upon himself to put our loud American friend in her place!
The castle is absolutely amazing. A definite ‘must see’ if you are in this part of Provence. We spend a couple of hours wandering around the site with the aid of an excellent audio-guide. The heat is sweltering but we don’t care – history and a sun tan all at the same time – what could be better! We negotiate steps where we would not be allowed to go in the UK for ‘health and safety reasons’ and climb towers that provide us with amazing views of the olive groves and vineyards in the valley below. When we have explored virtually every nook and cranny we wander back down into the village and stop for a late lunch at a small café that seems to specialize in catering for ordinary people. We drive over to the heights on the other side of the valley from Les Baux where we first spotted this marvelous little village and castle. We stop for a cup of tea and … immediately a bus load of the American tourists that flooded Les Baux when we were there arrive and they all rush out to take photos of Les Baux . Fortunately they are not there long and we are left to enjoy the peace and quiet and wonderful views. We are still praying that we will meet a really nice, intelligent, interesting American before the time comes to leave Provence.
We return home exhausted but exhilarated in time to go for drinks with the Jolly Geordies. Julia usually puts on a good spread when people come to us for drinks but this what the Jolly Geordies have laid on is just amazing. By the time we leave about and hour and a half later we are so full up we don’t need any dinner! Well that’s a first – for me anyway!
Friday 22nd June: Sun Umbrellas , Super Heroes and Sea Swims
Today we are going to the Camargue once again. We so enjoyed the uniqueness of the Camargue a few days ago that we just have to go back again to see more. Julia has an itinerary of ‘must see’ places, coupled with a determination to finally get that swim in at the beach in Les Saintes Maries . We get up early and Julia packs up another of her wonderful picnic breakfasts. Being married to a multi-talented woman who just happens to be a marvellous cook is a plus, I think!
While I am drinking my first cup of tea of the day, and waiting for Julia to return from the shower block, I notice that Charlie Doggie’s master is working on the pole to his sun umbrella once again. We have been here for three weeks and every day he has been cutting, taping, hammering at this sun umbrella pole. His entire holiday here in Saint Rémy seems to circulate around mending this wretched pole. In fact they never seem to go out anywhere – obviously because he is so busy everyday mending this pole?! We watch him for a while and then, after our prayers, we set out for the Camargue.
We stop off at a spot in the Alpilles that we passed a couple of weeks ago for our picnic breakfast. Van Gogh painted various pictures of the Alpilles and, for many people, these paintings confirmed his madness because they were so quirky. The reality is that they actually really do look as quirky as Van Gogh painted them?! After breakfast we follow Julia’s itinerary and eventually find ourselves in a queue of cars waiting to cross the River Rhône by ferry. Julia had not recognized that we would have to do this, and we had switched off Jane, our SatNav’s ferry warning service?! There are two lines of cars waiting to board the ferry – the locals who use it all the time – and the rest of us. We wait in the queue for 20 minutes with nothing happening. Normally there are two ferries in operation but one is ‘out of action’ and there has been an ‘incident’ on the other ferry and the Gendarmes have been called in. The people in the car in front of us look at our car and make a comment about ‘Les Anglais’. ‘Oui, nous sommes Anglais!’ I respond and we launch into a conversation in French. I use all my well rehearsed French conversation phrases, and just as I am running dry, the French lady breaks into fluent English and tells me how good my French is, and what a pleasure it is to hear an English person speaking French. Fortunately we continue the conversation in English and I tell her that Julia is much more conversant in French than I am. The traffic starts to move and we all jump back in our cars. The locals in the other lane are given the priority, and they all board the next ferry, even those who have only just arrived in the queue, whilst us ‘also rans’ are left standing yet again! We all get out of our cars again and the French woman babbles on to Julia in very fast French – after all I have just told her that Julia speaks better French than me. Julia listens to this French lady for five minutes and then says, ‘Do what?’ Eventually we get on the ferry and get across the Rhône. We stop for a coffee and the toilet at the first available café – both are desperately needed!
Our first ‘port of call’ is a Camargue ‘ranch’ called ‘Domaine de Méjanes. Although this is somewhat commercial we have been told that it is well worth a visit because it offers something different to the Musée Camarguais where we went last time. It seems pretty deserted when we arrive but it is lunch time. We make enquiries and are told that the little train that takes you round this section of the Camargue will leave as soon as there are eight people who want to make the trip … and that there will also be a ‘show’ for a party of young school children who are here at around 2.00 p.m. that we can pay to watch as well. We are a bit worried that the train ride will take too long and we will miss the start of the show, but the train driver tells us not to worry. Yes, there will be an overlap but the chappie who introduces the show goes on and on for ages before the show starts so we won’t miss anything important. We decide to risk it, and the little train takes us on a delightful circuit of this bit of the Camargue. We see the inland sea, wildlife galore, great views, and return in time to join the schoolchildren for their show. The train driver was right! The chappie introducing the show goes on endlessly!? He obviously loves the sound of his own voice. The heat is absolutely sweltering. Why is this man going on and on and on with all these young school children sitting here in the blazing sun!? He is finally shut up by a small child who remarks in a very loud voice, ‘Oh! for goodness sake, when are we going to see the bulls!’
The show is fascinating. We see, and learn all about, the Gardians – the ‘cowboys’ of the Camargue who herd the famous black bulls of the Camargue mounted on their famous white horses of the Camargue. We see amazing feats of horsemanship, Gardians dodging bulls in the arena, and finally the teachers are invited to have a turn at dodging the bulls. The teachers have no choice. Egged on by their pupils they take to the arena. I want to have a go as well, but Julia will not let me! When all the teachers are in the arena, a bull is loosed! It is about the size of a calf, but all the teachers are afraid and jump out of the ring! The male teachers, for all their boasting beforehand, are more ‘girlie’ than the girlie teachers!? I am really sorry that I didn’t have the chance to have a go. I am sure that if the ‘bull’ had got anywhere near me it would probably have licked me instead of butting me?! We meet another Jack Russell on the way out – the French seem to love them – and it is more scary than the bull! We find a nice shady spot for a late lunch. As we are sitting there along comes one of the male teachers who was particularly vociferous about how he was not afraid to get into the ring and face the bulls. He turned out to be the most ‘girlie’ of them all. He looks at us, and smiles sheepishly, remembering his boastful words! I put my hand on my heart and mutter ‘Mon brave!’ and start to hum the Marseilles!
We drive down to Les Saintes Maries and crash out on the beach for a while. Julia finally gets her swim in the Med, while I settle for a paddle. We return home via the walled town of Aigues-Mortes, that is a little out of our way, but which we want to see for future reference because we think that there is another holiday to be had in this particular part of Provence. The prominent Tour de Constance housed a number of prisoners over the years including Abraham Mazel, a Calvinist who escaped down a rope of knotted bedclothes in 1705, and Marie Durand who was imprisoned there from 1730-68. It is a beautiful little town and we definitely want to return here in the next couple of years.
We eventually arrive back at our campsite after a tiring but exhilarating day to find that Charlie Doggie’s master has finally mended the pole to his sun umbrella and has erected it on his pitch. The logo on the sun umbrella, appropriately enough, says ‘REDDY’?! He is sitting there with his wife, and Charlie, enjoying the shade from the sweltering heat. What a shame they are going home tomorrow!
Saturday 23rd June: Packing Up, Posh Togs, and a Charming Intelligent American
Tomorrow we will be leaving our campsite. A campsite that we thought was a bit scruffy when we arrived but which we have grown to love, not least because of the lovely people we have met since being here. We have been surrounded by great neighbours – Morecambe and Wise, the Jolly Geordies, Papa and Mama Smurf, and scores of others. We will miss them all. Mama Smurf has not been too well for a number of years so she doesn’t try and rush around too much. She likes markets, and the occasional meal out, so she and Papa Smurf get in their nice car every other day and pop out somewhere or another. He is very caring of her and does a lot around their caravan. People are always dropping in on them at their pitch. Mama Smurf is obviously very popular amongst the Dutch and Belgians and strikes us as the sort of cheery person who, despite her own illness, always has encouraging things to say to others.
Today we start to pack away our stuff into our little Corsa. It has served us well again this year. It has managed to avoid mad Belgian drivers so far. But we know we will really need a bigger car to come camping again next year. Hopefully we will be able to keep the Corsa as a nice little run around for Julia, especially if she returns to the Baptist Ministry in the next 12 months, and get a bigger car for me, if I get involved in wider ministry of one kind or another, a bigger car we can use on our camping holidays. We clean, clear and pack away as much as we can. The objective is to just leave the tent itself, our bed, and our clothes bags, but to have everything else packed in the Corsa by the end of the day. A Dutch lady arrives on her bicycle and starts wandering round our pitch?! We ask her politely what she is doing, and she tells us that she and her husband will be moving on to our pitch tomorrow from another part of the site, and she wants to make sure a) that it is suitable for them, and b) that we will be leaving in good time tomorrow!? Julia tells her politely that it is, a) a very good pitch, and b) we will be away by 12 noon on Sunday! We hope to be away sooner, but a) we are entitled to be here until 12 noon on Sunday, and b) this lady has got right up our noses! Papa Smurf comes over for a chat … he will sort her out no doubt!
Papa Smurf asks us if we will be coming back in September. I tell him that we usually come to France for the summer but go to other places in the Spring and the Autumn. He wants to know where we have been? I mention a few places – Istanbul, Marrakesh, Prague, Cyprus. He knows some of these places. I tell him we are going to Israel for a month in October. He is very interested in this. ‘You have to believe in order to get the best out of being there!’ he tells me. It turns out that Papa and Mama Smurf are Roman Catholics. We talk about Taizé, and find that we have more in common than we thought.
When we have done as much packing as we can it is well into the afternoon. It is still baking hot so we put our swim things on and jump into the swimming pool for a final dip. When we have cooled off we lie in the sun under the huge poolside sun umbrellas and top up our sun tans as we read our Kindles. We are both reading Peter Mayle’s book, A Year in Provence and very funny it is, especially as we know some of the places and recognise some of the hilarious scenarios he describes. About wine o’clock we come back and get changed into our posh togs. We have booked a table at a nice restaurant in Saint Rémy. Having looked at the various menus on offer at just about every restaurant in the town we have both agreed that this is the place. We have a pre-dinner drink before leaving for the short walk into Saint Rémy. As we are about to leave Mama Smurf sees me all ‘poshed up’ and tells me that I ‘look beautiful’!? I appreciate what she means but wish she had used the word ‘handsome’ or ‘distinguished’ instead? When Julia emerges from our tent she looks stunning. Mama Smurf has to rush and get her camera to take a picture of us both!
We have a great table outside the restaurant. The staff are warm and welcoming, nothing is too much trouble, and although we choose a set menu we are able to mix and match from other menus. I am able to order escargots once again for my starter. The meal is excellent and half way through a man stops by our table to read the menu. I presume he is French and tell him that the food here is excellent. He thanks me for my recommendation and sits at the vacant table next to ours. It turns out that he is actually an American – a multi-lingual, highly intelligent, charming, interesting, cultured American. At long last our prayers have been answered, and our faith in Americans is restored! We have a very enjoyable evening eating and drinking and chatting with our new American friend. A party of about twenty people also pause by our table to read the menu. By now I am on a roll, and I tell them that the food here is excellent and that they should all eat here. They take my advice and all troop into the restaurant. Our new American friend, Michael, tells the restaurant staff that I am a real asset to them and that they should at least let me have a brandy and coffee for free!
After our meal we say goodbye to Michael and wander off into Saint Rémy. There is some kind of festival taking place involving bonfires and fancy dress parades. We watch it all for a while and then suddenly realize that it is nearly 11.00 p.m. and the gates to our campsite shut at 11.00 p.m. and we have left our key behind in our tent. We scurry back to the campsite as quickly as possibly and arrive at 11.05 p.m. The gates are shut! We do not have a key! What shall we do? But then a nice Dutch man with a key who has been out walking his dog arrives, and we are able to get back in after a truly wonderful evening!
Sunday 24th June: Problem Packing and Problem People
We get up early to complete our packing and to take down our tent. The weather is still hot and sunny and we are pleased that we will be able to take down our tent in the dry. Quite how we are going to fit everything into our little Corsa is anyone’s guess. We got everything in on the way down, but we seem to have gained various things since we have been down here in Provence – not least various plants! We have some breakfast and start to pack everything we can in the car and the roof box. About 9.00 a.m. the Dutch lady on her bike who is going to move on to our pitch when we have vacated it cycles slowly by to see if we have gone yet! We glare at her!
Having got most things into the car we start to dismantle our tent. It is hot and tiring work. The ground is hard, the tent pegs are in deep, the tent is dirty and needs washing down. We work away at it and eventually get the tent down and start to wash it down. It is 10.00 a.m. and the Dutch lady on her bicycle who is going to move on to our pitch as soon as we have vacated it cycles by to see if we have gone yet?! We glare at her again! We have decided to repack the car so there are piles of stuff everywhere and we are trying to fold the various bits of the tent up tight so we can get it all back in its bag. We have a mathematical problem – too much stuff, too small a car! Next year we need a Berlingo or a Picasso or a Range Rover … o.k. rule out the last one!
At 11.00 a.m. the Dutch lady on the bicycle who is going to move on to our pitch once we have vacated it, cycles past to see if we have gone yet! We smile at her, and wave, and point to the piles of stuff all round our car! With a super-human effort we eventually manage to get everything into our car. We shut the roof box and lock it – not to be opened again until we are back home – we hope it doesn’t explode on route! We shut the boot with difficulty! We shut the rear doors with difficulty! We go and say goodbye to Papa and Mama Smurf. They tell us that they hope we will meet again some day. It is 11.55 a.m. and the husband of the Dutch lady on the bicycle who is moving on to our pitch as soon as we have vacated, it cycles by. We roar laughing! We obviously frightened his wife away by smiling at her and waving to her earlier! We wave to him as well because a) the pitch is clean and tidy and empty, and b) it is only 11.55 a.m. and we are leaving!
We stop off at the Accueil to say our last goodbyes to the staff and thank them for a wonderful holiday! We say goodbye to NoNo – and discover that his name is actually Nuno – which of course makes a lot of sense, although I think we shall always refer to him as ‘NoNo!’ We drive away in need of a coffee, so we stop off at the café in Noves where we stopped on the way in to Saint Rémy three plus weeks ago. The café is full of very relaxed looking men, sitting at tables, reading newspapers, smoking foul smelling French cigarettes, drinking Pastis or coffee, discussing football. We know immediately why they are so relaxed … there is no sign of our man-eating Australian friends, mother and daughter combo, Sheila and Sheila!
PERSPICACITY ABOUT PARIS ON A PERIPATETIC JOURNEY HOME
During which we encounter trouble in a tunnel; are faced with a two hour queue to get into the Palace of Versailles; manage to lose our car; meet a bevy of beautiful ladies; enjoy a brief flirtation with Venus de Milo; work our way through a Fruits de Mer; recall a time when we nearly missed our ferry; re-assure a party of French people going on holiday to Leeds; enjoy a ‘full English’ breakfast; and finally are re-united with a dodgy dog!
Monday 25th June: Top Boxes and Tunnels
After a couple of hours drive yesterday afternoon we arrived at our B & B Hotel in Lyon and, after a good rest from the exertions of the day, enjoyed our first microwave meal in our hotel room, and very good it was too. We talked over the events of the last couple of days. Julia had an interesting conversation with Miss Jolly Geordie at the poolside. Amongst other things she told Julia that her father, despite being ‘retired civil servant’, was also a drummer in a band!? She also told Julia that her parents were coming down to Dorset in September for a couple of weeks and had meant to ask us what good places there were to visit while they were in our neck of the woods. Julia compiled a list of places and went round to see them. They too were leaving early on Sunday morning. She gave them the list of places … and our business cards. ‘We didn’t know you were clergy?’ they responded, looking at our cards! ‘We didn’t know you were a drummer in a band?’ Julia replied, looking at Mr Jolly Geordie! We met them again in Saint Rémy on Saturday evening. They strolled past our table and we exchanged final farewells. They promised to e-mail us and we hope we can get together again in September.
Today we are driving to Paris. We have booked ourselves into a B & B Hotel by the River Seine in the outskirts of the city not too far from Chateau Versailles, which we have also booked tickets to see on Tuesday. It is quite a long drive, but we share the driving, stopping for coffee and a picnic lunch on the way. When we get into Paris the traffic becomes somewhat ‘hairy’ to say the least! Nobody seems to obey the rules of the road. Drivers overtake us on the inside and on the outside. They turn left from the inside lane at roundabouts cutting across us. Nobody signals. I suggest to Julia that nobody obeys the rules of the road because it is still not July and August?! She tells me that this is how French drivers in Paris drive all the time! Jane, our SatNav steers us through Paris … and suddenly we are in a tunnel under the city!
The tunnel has a clearance of only 2 metres! We may have a small car … but we have a roof box on top! Our clearance level is 1.9 metres … we think! It might be 1.95 metres?! Jane doesn’t know we have the roof box on the car?! The roof of the tunnel seems very low! There are various objects hanging from the roof of the tunnel! The tunnel seems to go on for ever! A sign tells us that the tunnel is 4 miles long! We are panicking, and ducking in our seats! It makes no difference! We were worried that the roof box was so full it might explode, now we are worried that it will get ripped off in a French underpass! There are cars all around us driving at speed! They are weaving in and out all around us! The journey through the tunnel seems never ending! Eventually we see daylight and emerge unscathed from the tunnel! We swear never, ever to come back to Paris with a car with a roof box on! We swear to buy a bigger car before next year that we can get everything in without needing a roof box! We eventually arrive at our hotel! We take all our cases to our room, and pour ourselves a stiff drink or two, before collapsing in a state of complete exhaustion!
Tuesday 26th June: Palaces, Parking and Persuasion
Today we are going to Versailles. Julia booked our tickets on line weeks ago and we are really looking forward to visiting this amazing palace that we have heard so much about. After breakfast we put the coordinates for Versailles into Jane, our SatNav, and hope that there aren’t any low tunnels between our hotel and Versailles. We are prevented from going the route Jane wants to take us because there is council lorry blocking a roundabout!? We are directed by council workmen up a narrow side street, where a lorry in front of us gets stuck because the road is narrow and there are several cars parked where they shouldn’t be!? We finally get moving again and are stopped by the Gendarmes because a French film company is filming a scene for a French TV detective series in the road we are driving on?! Finally we really do get going again and Jane, the SatNav confidently sends us down various streets, all of which seem to be going in the opposite direction to Versailles. Poor Jane – perhaps yesterday was too much for her, as well as us!? Eventually Jane tells us triumphantly that we have arrived at the Palace of Versailles! The only trouble is it looks suspiciously like a hospital!
We abandon Jane and eventually find our own way to Versailles … and it is the beginning of an absolute nightmare that threatens to undermine all the benefits of our time in Provence! If being in Provence presented us with everything that is good about France, being in Versailles presents us with everything that is bad about France! Perhaps Jane knew best in taking us to a hospital first?! You need to be on drugs to cope with a visit to Versailles!?
Even though it is not the height of the tourist season, and even though it is drizzling with rain, Versailles is packed. There is nowhere to park our car. There are plenty of places for tourist coaches – the coach park is very large – but the car park is very small and cars are queuing all round it waiting for other cars to leave. Nobody is leaving, so the queue is deadlocked! Apparently, so we are told later, the French local authority that runs Versailles doesn’t like people turning up in their cars, so they simply don’t provide any significant car parking! Nothing on their website about this of course! We drive round and round and finally find a car parking space in a side street. The meter offers us six hours parking for 8€. The price is a bit steep but we want to see this wonderful palace, and we have already paid 30€ for our tickets to get in. The meter refuses our 8€! Apparently the promised six hours parking is only for residents?! We drive round and round for another half an hour and eventually find an underground car park about 20 minutes walk from the palace. We drive in! This proves to be a big mistake! The roof of the car park is 1.9 metres high, and although we only have a small car we have a roof box on top. We manage to stop in time, and then have to explain our predicament to the cars that have followed us into the underground car park, and persuade them to all reverse out so we can get out ourselves!? We drive round for another half an hour and eventually find another car park, with sky above it. It is packed, but as we drive in another car is pulling out! We grab the space with relief! We go to the meter to buy a ticket. We meet another English couple who tell us that they looked this car park up on the internet and it gives six hours parking for 8€ to everyone, including non-residents! We put our money in the meter, and it is rejected! A sign flashes up in English telling us that the six hours is only for season ticket holders! I am sure that if we had waited long enough the same sign would have flashed up a picture of a French official thumbing his nose at us Brits!? The maximum time we can get is one and a half hours, and we have a whole palace and gardens to see! Julia has a bright idea. It is 12 noon and on these meters you can park free between 12.30 p.m. and 2.00 p.m. So if we pay for the maximum one and half hours parking this will take us to 3.00 p.m. Problem solved! We have three hours parking. It will be a bit of a rush but we can forgo lunch, and even a major look round the gardens, but we can get to see inside the palace!
We race from the car park to the palace. The queues are horrendous. They snake backwards and forwards round the large courtyard. But we have our pre-booked tickets! We will be able to walk straight in! This is why we bought them on line ages ago! Walk straight in? Fat chance! A very officious French official tells us that even though we have pre-booked tickets that only means that we don’t have to join another huge queue to buy tickets. The huge snakelike queue is made up of people who have purchased tickets and who are waiting to get in to the palace!? ‘How long will we have to queue to get in to the palace?’ we ask. ‘Two hours!’ he tells us! The fact that we have pre-booked tickets makes absolutely no difference! Two hours queuing to get in … and we only have three hours parking time … and 20 minutes of that has already gone!
Dragging Julia with me I manoeuvre past all the people queuing to buy tickets just to join the two hour queue to actually get in. There is an Information Desk and I want to get our money back! Somehow the conversation goes down a different tack!? Julia explains that she has ME/CFS and simply cannot stand in a queue for two hours. Julia sounds very persuasive. For some reason instead of saying that we want our money back because of the car parking situation and lack of time, due to a flash of inspiration, Julia gives the reason as health problems. In response to this, instead of giving us our money back, the lady behind the counter sends us over to the disabled entrance. We explain to the official on the door that the lady on the information desk has sent us over. He asks if Julia has a disabled card. She tells him that she hasn’t … and he says that that is o.k. and lets us in!? He lets us in! Without having to queue for two hours! For no obvious reason he lets us! Somehow we are in the palace. For once we are glad that the rules only apply in July and August!
The palace is amazing, especially the hall of mirrors which we have especially come to see! But many of these amazing rooms have awful modern art exhibits in them – a helicopter covered in pink fluffy feathers, giant knitted shapes hanging from the ceiling, and so on! Even the famous Hall of Mirrors has a giant pair of sparkly slippers?! Why? Why? This is the Palace of Versailles for goodness sake! It doesn’t need any of this! We wander round for a couple of hours at least, and then try and find somewhere for a coffee. There is nowhere – only expensive restaurants or a crowded café! We give up the idea of coffee and go to visit the gardens. There are more queues to buy tickets for the gardens. We go to the man on the gate and explain that we have pre-booked tickets and that a nice man has scribbled illegibly on them to show that she can have access without queuing, But no! Our expensive tickets do not give us access to the gardens – well they do tomorrow if we would like to come back again! Not a chance mate! We are never, ever coming back to Versailles ever, ever again! And we will warn everyone we can about going to Versailles!
The weather is pretty miserable, we have seen what we came to see anyway, so we decide to go back to our car and go and get some lunch somewhere else! But where is our car? We were in such a rush to get to the palace that neither of us can remember where the car park we left our car in is!? Julia is certain that it is up this road. It isn’t?! I am certain that it is in this direction! It isn’t! Eventually Julia says that she thinks it was near a MacDonalds restaurant. We have Jane, our SatNav with us, and she redeems herself by showing us where the MacDonalds is! And there is the car park! And there is our car! And we have two minutes to go before our ticket runs out. We drive away just as the Gendarmes arrive!? We are too exhausted to find a restaurant for lunch. We go back to the hotel, and have the last of our microwave meals for lunch, the one we were going to have tonight, and collapse on our bed. We are sufficiently recovered by the evening, however, to walk down the road and have dinner in a local restaurant. Well you know us – any old excuse to go out to dinner!
Wednesday 27th June: A Freaky Reporter and a Fruits de Mer
We love staying at the various B & B Hotels in France on our journeys to and from our campsite. The B & B Hotel we have been staying in for the last two nights on the outskirts of Paris is particularly nice. Situated on the banks of the River Seine it has great rooms and is well managed. Yesterday we were joined at breakfast by a bevy of beautiful girls from many different nations. There is an international squash tournament two minutes from our hotel and all these young ladies are professional squash players who are also staying at our hotel! Accompanying them – well with them, because none of them seemed prepared to keen to talk to him – is a rather freaky reporter who apparently spends his life following these young female professional squash players around the world reporting on their matches?! We have a chat with him as we are packing our car for the final leg of our journey back to the UK – an overnight stop in Boulogne before catching our train through the Tunnel tomorrow morning. Although he describes himself as a ‘squash fanatic’ he gives the impression of being more interested in ogling these young ladies as they play?!
We take our leave of the suburbs of Paris and take a delightful drive through Saint German and out into the country. Once again Jane, our SatNav, takes us on an interesting route rather than the obvious one, but don’t complain because the countryside is beautiful and the sun is shining and we enjoy the drive. We stop for coffee at a rather ordinary looking café and Julia visits the toilet, only to return almost immediately for her camera in order to take a photograph of it? When she shows me the photo I understand why. It is well ‘over the top’ even for the French with a full size Venus de Milo (with arms) taking pride of place?!
We enjoy a very pleasant drive through the French countryside, stopping for another delightful picnic lunch, and eventually arrive in Boulogne. We find our hotel, and after a rest, prepare to go out for a final dinner together. I am very keen to try a Fruits de Mer because I have never ever had one, but at first it looks as though this might prove to be difficult. Everywhere in Boulogne seems to be shut. We know the weather has been bad in this part of France but it is the end of June and the holiday season starts in earnest from the beginning of July. Eventually we spot a restaurant advertising ‘Fruits de Mer’ as one of their specialties, so we dive into a nearby car park. The car parked in front of us is displaying a ‘fish badge’ and the driver is just getting out. Recalling my month in France in my teens working with Operation Mobilisation I remember a phrase we often used to stimulate conversation about Christian things. ‘Avez-vous le secret du bonheur?’ I ask him. He hasn’t got a clue what I am on about! I point to the badge on his car and tell him ‘Jésus-Christ est le secret du bonheur!’ Now he understands the point of my question. Julia asks him if he is a Christian … or just someone who likes fishing? He doesn’t understand her sense of humour at all! He tells us that he is a Christian but seems to get his teaching from the God channels on TV rather than worshipping anywhere. Julia encourages him to find a church to worship with, we have a good conversation, and part wishing each other God’s blessing!
The restaurant does indeed have Fruits de Mer as a specialty but it is rather expensive. The waiter suggests that we share one because he has never ever seen anybody manage to finish one on their own. This seems a good idea and we do just that. And we are glad that we do because there is so much in it – oysters, shrimp, crab, prawns, langoustine, mussels, whelks, and so much more – that we just about manage to get through it together. We thoroughly enjoy this rather special final meal of our wonderful holiday together. It is yumacious, even if we do seem to get as much food down us, as in us, in the process of eating it! After our meal we go for a romantic walk along the front at Boulogne. Apart from a bunch of kids swigging wine from various bottles, it is deserted. Everything is shut – the cafés, the restaurants, the entertainment venues? It is the middle of summer in a seaside resort, and everything is shut? We return to our hotel for a coffee and a brandy, and a good night’s sleep before returning to the UK tomorrow. Can’t see Weymouth ‘shutting up shop’ at this time of the year just because it’s a bit wet and cold!
Thursday 28th June: Barriers and Breakfasts
We are up bright and early for the short drive to the Tunnel which is only about an hour away. We plan to drive straight there and not stop on the way after an ‘adventure’ a couple of years ago on the same route. We thought we had plenty of time so we decided to stop of at a small town on the way for coffee and a to the market to purchase a few late presents for people. We parked in a very convenient car park and enjoyed whiling away the spare hour or so we had before driving on to Calais to catch our ferry. Unfortunately for us, when the time came to leave, we discovered that the barrier to the car park had jammed shut and no-one could get out of the car park. It was chaotic with everyone losing their tempers – lots of hooting car hooters, shouting and swearing, attempts to force the barrier open – I am speaking here of the French of course. Julia and I sat sedately in our car waiting for someone in authority, hopefully with a key or a bag of tools, to come and sort the problem with the barrier out. No such luck, however. We were in France – the problem might be solved today, or perhaps tomorrow, or even next week?! Eventually the Gendarmes arrived and managed to sort it all out – don’t ask me how – they probably shot the lock away like in the Westerns?! I have never seen Julia drive so fast. I am sure that she broke all the speed regulations. Fortunately there were no Gendarmes around – they were back in the town shooting locks off all the car park barriers, no doubt? Anyway, cutting a long story short we managed to just catch our ferry by the skin of our teeth.
Today after a final B&B Hotel breakfast we pack our overnight bags in the car and drive to the Tunnel in plenty of time. We make it in such good time that we are first in the queue. Because we have a roof box on our car we have to go into the compartments for big cars and coaches. Right behind us in the train is a large coach containing a party of French people going to the UK for a few days coach tour. We get into conversation with them while we are travelling under the Channel. Most of them haven’t been through the Tunnel before and we have to reassure them that everything will be o.k. The Tunnel doesn’t leak, we won’t all be drowned, there are toilets on the train?! It is just like travelling on the Metro and the journey only takes 35 minutes. They all gather round Julia plying her with questions. Her French conversation is pretty good now and she manages to answer all their questions, with me chipping in only occasionally. We ask them where they are going during their four day coach tour in the UK. They tell us they are going to Canterbury, Stratford, London … and Leeds? ‘Leeds?’ we both cry out at once in astonishment? ‘Why on earth would you want to go to Leeds?’ It turns out that they mean ‘LeedsCastle’ in Kent! We tell them that it is really nice there and they will enjoy it.
Eventually we arrive back in the UK. It is lovely and sunny. We say goodbye to our new French friends and wish them a safe journey and a good holiday. They are very excited to be visiting the UK. We are very sorry to be leaving France. It is good to be back, however, in lots of ways. We have the Olympics to look forward to, and lots of tales to tell. We remember to drive on the right side of the road which is the left side of the road of course, and to go round roundabouts the right way not the wrong way. We decide to stop for something to eat on the long journey back to Rodden and I spot a Little Chef on the way where we stop for lunch and I order the largest Full English Breakfast on the menu! We love French food but there are some things you can only properly get in the UK!
We arrive back in Rodden in the early evening. As we pull up outside the side door there is Reggie Doggie in the window where we left him a month ago. He is so excited to see us. Julia’s mother tells us that he knew we were coming as soon as we turned in to Rodden Lane half a mile away?! For once he follows us around everywhere, rather than Julia’s mother. He wants to make sure that we are staying and not going away again! We are not going away to France again, we re-assure him … well not until next year anyway!