March 2020

The drive from A Coruna to Gijon was absolutely hair-raising! We probably left A Coruna a day too early – we should have paid more attention to the weather reports. But we were just sick of the wind and rain buffeting us about, so we decided to move on. What a windy drive through a quite mountainous terrain. On two long viaducts we nearly got blown sideways! We were really concerned we would be tipped over. Just as well it was only a few hour’s drive as we were totally exhausted when we got there!

We stayed at Camping Deva on the outskirts of the town, a lovely rural campsite with a beautiful view of the town. We caught a taxi to and from the town, so Grubie could come too. Taxis are very reasonably priced in Spain. Gijon is a large coastal town with a small old fisherman’s quartier called the Cimadevilla. It also has a few streets packed with bodegas, wine bars and siderias. It has a lovely 16th century clock tower and a few charming squares as well as miles of pedestrian shopping streets.

After a few days exploring the town, we headed south to Leon on a Sunday, driving through the snow-covered mountains. We had been watching the weather very carefully, timing our drive for a day without wind and snow.

We stayed at a free aire right near the centre of town, on the edge of the river. We went for a wander around the town, looking at the beautiful churches and cathedral, especially the Casa Botines designed by Guadi and the 16th century Convent de San Marcos. We were still following the Camino de Santiago pilgrim route and Leon was an important stopping point, hence all the religious buildings. We then left Grubie in the van and went looking for a restaurant for a late lunch – 3pm in Spain. Who would have thought we’d have such a brilliant Japanese meal in a small Spanish town?

 

The next morning we were up bright and early to visit the fridge repairer because our fridge door wasn’t shutting properly. It took 30 minutes to fix and cost 30 Euros. This time it was fixed with the spring from a retractable biro, rather than a rubber band!

We continued on to Burgos, staying in a campsite a few kms out of town and again catching a taxi in and out of town. Turns out we had stayed at this campsite overnight once before, when we first headed through Spain toward Portugal. However, on that visit we didn’t take the time to stop and explore. We’re so glad we did this time - what a beautiful small city! The main portal to the town, the Arco de Santa Maria, was spectacular with beautiful symmetrical dimensions and carvings. There were avenues of linden trees (lime trees) trained to provide a canopy. It would have been beautiful in summer. The town is famous for its intact medieval architecture and we had a wonderful time wandering around the streets.

 

The famous Cathedral of St Mary was stunning, in the French Gothic style. Inside is the tomb of the famous El Cid, the 11th century military commander as well as many, many artistic masterpieces of painting and sculpture.

We like to just wander around the streets of towns we visit and walking the streets of Burgos, we were stuck by how many interesting sculptures there were throughout the town. One day we went in without Grubie and so could go inside to the fabulous little tapas bars for a ‘grazing lunch’. Yummy!

By this time, after more than a month of full-on ‘touristing’ we were both getting a little tired of cathedrals and ‘old rocks’ so we moved on to the famous wine district of La Rioja, heading for its wine capital of Haro and then planning a stop in Logrono and Pamplona. Having drunk many of the wines, we had been looking forward to visiting Haro and this region for the last two years, but had never managed to get there before. This time we planned at least a week of enjoying the area.

Alas, it was not to be! We stayed in a really lovely campground that had only one other camper there and set up ‘properly’ with mats and our comfortable chairs and tables rather than the picnic set. Then we did a walk into town for reconnaissance and to visit the tourist office to get the low-down on booking winery visits. We were surprised that everything seemed to be shut. We put it down to siesta time and the low season, but then things didn’t re-open. We finally broke the language barrier and found out that the town was in lockdown due to the Covid-19! It turns out that the area is an important hub for traditional gypsies and that a revered elder had died recently. The funeral was held the previous week, with gypsy folk travelling from as far as Italy and France to pay their respects, bringing the virus with them.

As we walked out of town we saw paramedics and police in masks delivering boxes of supplies to those in isolation.

With the wineries all shut and no tastings to be had, plus our concern about contracting the virus, we decided to make a run for it back to France. It was such a shame! Haro looked like a really vibrant town, with lots of wonderful street art. We met an English couple with an apartment in the town and they said it was full of events and visitors from April to October. We are determined to return one day!

We timed our leaving of Spain very well, just avoiding all the shut downs and being locked in, which was our fear. By this time (Thursday March 12th) France was starting to make noises of concern about the Corona Virus outbreak and decided to shut schools and was asking people to work from home.  The situation seemed to be changing on a day-by-day basis, as the virus got a hold in Europe.

So, on Friday 13th we headed for Fouras and our favourite all-year campground, driving 500km and through busy Bordeaux. Fortunately the trucks weren’t too bad – sometimes its two lanes of semi-trailers all overtaking each other and is just a nightmare drive. By Friday night we were very happily settled in the campsite in Fouras, in a spot with a view of the beach, with great facilities, nice walks and a fabulous market. We were congratulating ourselves on being happily settled to wait out the coronavirus storm.

 

Then on Saturday night (14th) France closed all bars, restaurants and places of public gathering. Fine, we thought, we’ll eat at home. 

On Monday morning (16th) the man from the campground knocked on our door to say that the government had closed all camping grounds, hotels and BnBs in an effort to curb movement and we needed to leave. Great! Where were we to go?

We decided to head back to our home base in Jarnac, because we knew people there who could help us if need be. A very wise decision, as it turns out. We rang our friend and host in Jarnac (Thomas Hardy) who lives in Australia and asked if we could stay in his house. “Of course,” he said. Then we rang Willie and Marcia, our Scottish friends and asked if we could park our camping car in their large yard because Thomas lives on a small island in the Charente and doesn’t have anywhere to park. “Of course,” they said. When we got to Thomas’s house we were dismayed to find the outside covered in slimy, slippery mud right to the doors because The Charente had flooded; the insurance company hadn’t fixed all the mold from last year’s roof leak; and it was freezing cold and damp after being closed up all winter. It didn’t help that it had rained the whole day we were trying to find a new home! Poor Thomas, we feel for his frustration in dealing with insurance companies from the other side of the world, who just don’t do the work. He’s going to be very busy when he arrives back in France and better get a lot of stern French phrases ready!

So we packed everything up again and free-camped next to the Charente in our cosy camping car, while we considered what to do. We had contacted our friends Regis and Annie at Les Mathes and they weren’t opening their camping area at all, even to friends and in fact weren’t going there themselves – so that was out.

On Tuesday morning (17th) France declared a ‘lock-down’ for 15 days, which has since been extended for another 15 days. We were starting to get a bit freaked out, imagining being locked into our camping car without amenities for a month. Then our friend Steve rang to say he’d found an apartment we could rent in Jarnac. Brilliant! The apartment is so clean, cosy, cute and comfortable. Its not far from where we stayed above the bar a couple of years ago and its one of a long series of row houses/terraces. It’s called a ‘one-up-one down’ but its actually two small rooms and a bathroom upstairs and an open-plan lounge/kitchen/dining downstairs. There is a tiny laneway in front with your own garden opposite. In the old days that would have held the chickens, the outhouse and the subsistence garden, we suppose. Luckily this time it has flowers, grass, trees and an area to dry your washing. It’s very pretty.

Our van is parked at the end of the street in a square in front of our friends Liam and Stephanie’s house and is very safe because everyone is at home in their 2 story houses looking over at it! We check it 3 times a day when we walk Grubie to do her business.

We soon settled into our new digs and felt very comfortable and at home. The sun came out and shone for the next 12 days, so we sat in the garden looking at the blue sky, soaking up the sunshine and counting our blessings. Michael couldn’t help himself, cleaning out the sheds and doing some gardening, including pruning all the roses. Grubie got busy clearing the place of cats and Sue was trying to learn to cook like a European apartment dweller, with only a microwave and a fry pan - no cook-top or oven at all!!  She was spending an awful lot of time reading instruction manuals. Michael found a charcoal bbq in one of the sheds, so we enjoyed some fine steaks and duck breasts.

France has its own unique way of doing everything, always very social and bureaucratic. They have coped OK with stopping the kissing but have found the ‘social distancing’ difficult, from our observations. They have a form (of course!) that you have to download and fill in every time you leave the house – even to go out to the shops or to walk your dog. But as usual, the French people we meet are also welcoming and helpful. Sue spent hours trying to figure out if there was an online version of the form because we don’t have a printer (there isn’t), when the old man next door handed Michael 2 forms, one for each of us, because he knew we wouldn’t be able to print. He also gave Michael a very nice bottle of red wine to console him for the lockdown or welcome him to the neighbourhood –we’re not quite sure which, as he speaks very fast. How kind was that?

Another example of kindness was Liam and Stephanie (the cartoonist and his artist partner). Sue emailed Stephanie to try and identify a cooking machine she found in a cupboard. She replied that it was a raclette cooker and sent Liam over to drop off raclette cheese, potatoes and mushrooms and instructions how to make it!

We’ve also had to get out our temporary residency permit and carry it with us at all times - just like people had to during the war!!

We are lucky in a few ways with this lockdown. We have noticed on FB that people are talking about the difficulty of being locked in with their partner and children and the stress that puts on families. We’ve been with each other 24/7 in our camping car for three years now; so we don’t really notice the difference. We’re also lucky that Grubie is such an adaptable dog, settling into new abodes without difficulty. Although, of all of us, Grubie has had the most difficulty adapting to the lock-in. She gets restless, wanting to go ‘touristing’ and out for lunch!

As the month of March drew to a close France, with its population of 68 million, has closed its borders and is in lockdown but still has 45,000 recorded cases, as best they can count and has had 3025 deaths hospital deaths, not counting those in nursing homes. So many families impacted by this scourge! We know that the real numbers are much higher than this because testing is minimal. It’s weird to see Jarnac so totally empty, with the gendarmes patrolling the streets.

Friends from Australia have asked us if we’re coming home, as Scott Morrison advised but we think we’re much safer here and run less risk of contagion than we would risk in air travel. We consider ourselves very lucky to be safely settled in this beautiful corner of rural France. There is a supermarket and a covered market, a boulangerie, charcuterie etc. all within walking distance - although we try to shop as infrequently as possible.

We have lovely food and wine and a beautiful garden in which to wait out the storm.