March is the ‘anniversary month’ of our time in Europe. We arrived in Paris on March 1st 2017 and bought our motorhome, called a ‘camping car’ here in France. Since then we have travelled 30,000km and have had a very thorough look through France, Spain, Portugal and Morocco. We look back at the beginning and are amazed at what we didn’t know and how we managed to fluke our way through those first few months. Even now, after being in the camping car for 2 years, on most days we still learn something about being better at the camping car lifestyle.
At the start of March 2019 we were still heading north through Spain along the Mediterranean coast, making our way back to France.
We returned to Peniscola to meet up with friends we had made there at the same time last year. When we were there in 2018 we were enduring the ‘Beast from the East’, the cold spell that blanketed Europe for weeks. We were huddled in down jackets but met the lovely Waldemar and Moni from near Stuttgart and Sam and Andy from the UK. We had intended to stay a few days but because the company was so much fun, ended up staying for 10 days!! Waldemar and Moni are snowbirds and stay there for 7 months a year, while Sam and Andy are nearly full-timers in their motorhome, returning to the UK every few months to check up on elderly relatives. Everyone we meet has a different situation and it’s fascinating to listen to them all.
This year the weather in Spain in March was much milder, so it was a comfortable temperature to sit outside and share meals and tall tales. The first day we arrived Waldemar and Moni cooked a magnificent meal of fish with potato salad. Delicious! This was followed by rounds of schnapps, just to finish us all off.
The next day Sam and Andy did a wonderful pork roast with crispy roast potatoes, followed by an apple pie – all cooked in their halogen cooker. On the third day we decided to revisit the fantastic restaurant attached to the camping ground. How weird that a campground restaurant would be so high-end and it was just as fabulous as last year. It was lovely to have so much time with people we had met before and get to know them even better – not a superficial travel friendship anymore.
It was also wonderful to be able to ‘pick the brains’ of people who were either locals or regular visitors to Germany, ahead of our visit this summer. We have a pretty good itinerary to play with now.
We are jinxed with Barcelona! This is the third time we’ve driven through and still haven’t got to see it! This time we actually got to the campsite and planned the bus into town before things derailed. We were up early and all organized for a day of sightseeing and then we couldn’t lock our camping car. Nothing we tried would work and Barcelona is definitely not a place to leave anything unlocked! Numerous phone calls later and all we could organize was to drive two hours north across the border into France where we could get repairs done at Perpignan. And that was only because our friend Sebastian called in favours!
While in the campground at Barcelona we had the interesting experience of watching a fashion shoot. It was for a leisure/resort label, hence the camping ground setting. There were about 14 people involved and four models. They even had a catering tent, just like in the movies. The two photographers were women and nowdays, with everything being digital, the photos were selected and edited on the spot. Two of the models were a mother-daughter team and the mother had been modelling for 36 years. She lived in Montpelier in France and worked all over Europe. Grubie – who is also a supermodel, as you know – felt perfectly at home amid the shoot and was happy to pose with the models. Everyone loved her and we think she would have been included in the shoot if we introduced her earlier – we did wait until their work was over before we invaded the set.
Ah! Beautiful France! As we drove past the Pyrenees and into France we both kept exclaiming at the beauty – so green, so clean, so many beautiful little villages each with a church spire, and perhaps an abbey or a chateau.
In France nearly all campgrounds are closed until April, so we needed to use our new knowledge of how to find aires. These are very varied and we only want to use the ones with some security. In Perpignan we stayed overnight in an aire at Sainte-Marie that was basically just a gravel parking lot for 120 camping cars. It had grey, black and fresh water facilities and that was all. It had about 80 camping cars there overnight and had a pin code system for entry and electricity. All worked perfectly. Our stop in Perpignan was successful in that the mechanic showed us how to make the doors lock but couldn’t properly fix them for a few weeks due to parts availability, so we decided to keep on heading to our home base in Charente-Maritime to wait for the repair.
Our next stop was Toulouse, where we stayed in a campground in the dodgiest part of town near a gypsy settlement. However, it did have great security and a fabulous heated sanitary block so we were happy. We met two lovely young men from Bulgaria who lived in France and had a cleaning company employing over 200 people. They were headed to Spain for a short holiday, so we were able to share some tips and gave them our Spain map book and Lonely Planet guide. They gave Michael a bottle of Camus cognac and he persuaded them to drink some of it with him. It amazes us that the conversations we have with people we have just met can be so frank and honest, not superficial at all. These guys were so open about their experiences as gay men and about the struggles and opportunities of doing business in the EU. We love the opportunity to meet so many people and share their stories.
We had timed our drive from Toulouse through Bordeaux to Jarnac for a Sunday because it makes so much difference not having trucks on the roads – they aren’t allowed to drive on Sundays. So even though it was raining and a little windy it was still a relaxing drive and we arrived in Jarnac in time for lunch at La Comedie. We were greeted warmly and Fred is a great cook so we had a lovely seafood cassoulet gratin.
Coming back to Jarnac felt like coming home. We know where things are in the region, how things work and who to ask for help. Because the campground is still closed, we again free-camped down by the river and had a conversation with the old lady whose house we park in front of - she likes us to park so we don’t block her view of the river. Jarnac really is a beautiful village and it was good to see friends we had met before.
We had several things to achieve while in France: insurance renewal, bank account (still!), banking the insurance payout we received in 2017, car maintenance, bike maintenance and renewing our residency permit. It will take at least 6 weeks to achieve it all but the first three are under control. Insurance was a real win as we discovered that we had roadside assist as part of our package – wish we knew that in Barcelona!
Fred, the owner of La Comedie restaurant invited us to his home for dinner with his family. This is a really big honor in France, as most entertaining at home is for family. He lives in Foussilac about 7km from Jarnac, so we set off along the narrow winding back-roads in our camping car, assured by him that we would be able to park near the church and find him easily. We missed the church car park; found his street but couldn’t see any numbers. We pulled into a large area in front of a private residence and knocked on the door to see if they knew where Fred lived. “Yes, three doors down and leave you camping car here and stay the night.” How friendly and kind! We don’t know why the French have a reputation for being nasty; we’ve never been met with anything but kindness. The village of Foussilac was beautiful – a church, the Marie (town hall), a shop and maybe 60 houses. Fred’s house was fantastic. Looked like not much from the outside but was stunning inside. It used to be a cow byre and he’s spent 10 years renovating it to this point. We had a lovely meal with he, his wife Stephanie who works in finance and their two children. The kids put themselves to bed and our night didn’t finish until 1:30pm. Just as well we were staying close by!! We all felt a little seedy next day.
We left Jarnac and went to Fouras, a lovely town on the coast near Rochefort and 90km from Jarnac. It has a terrific camping ground open all year with heated bathrooms and great Internet. We always stay here when we’re doing our car stuff in Rochefort, only 4km away. We did part 1 of our camping car maintenance – the annual damp/leak check and then organized for the repair of all the other things, many of which are covered under warranty so it will take up to 4 weeks to organize the parts. Frustrating, but we’re used to it now and have learned to go with the flow.
Fouras, like Jarnac, also has a wonderful covered market open every day. Our favourite fishmonger sources huge raw prawns, which we marinate and cook on the BBQ. A delicious once-a-year treat!
Since we had a few days up our sleeve we decided to catch the ferry to Ile de Aix, the third island in the group and one we’d not visited before. It is 7km long and doesn’t have cars so it’s billed as a hiker and biker paradise. We all enjoyed the ferry trip and cycling around the island. It is very pretty but in our view not a patch on Ile de Re or Ile D’Oleron.
It was terrific to revisit Les Mathes, near Royan. The campsite was officially closed but we contacted the owners Regis and Annie and spoke to Jasper, the unofficial ‘mayor’ of the campsite and they said, “Come in”. We caught up with all the news of Jasper, Pauline and Didi while we enjoyed oysters, boufe bourginon and pear flan cooked by Laurent. We will be returning there for a week in April.
We have enjoyed visiting La Rochelle several times; it’s an intriguing place with a great mix of maritime vibe, history and modern life. On our visits before at this time of year we tried ‘free-camping’ at the port but got moved on. Now we are more aire-savvy and tucked ourselves in to the Pont Neuf Aire for 12 EU a night including electricity and all water facilities – grey, black and fresh. It was a 2.5km walk into the centre of town and we were all happy that Michael’s ankle held up so well.
Little did we know that it was Carnivale in La Rochelle that Saturday! After a very successful shopping expedition in the old town shopping precinct and a nice lunch of moules a la crème, sitting in the sun on the wharf we inadvertently got caught up in the Carnivale. Poor Grubie! Cannons blasting glitter, lots of loud drumming and crowds where we could hardly move. She tucked her tail between her legs, kept very close and couldn’t wait to get out of it, poor thing. But it was a wonderful spectacle, very energetic and with everyone dressed up – like the Adelaide Christmas Pageant on crack!
April 1st is the magic date of the very start of the summer season and when camping grounds open. We are heading to the Ile de Re to ride around the bike tracks and indulge in seafood while we wait for part 2 of our bureaucracy tasks in France.