We left the caravan in France in 2015 so it could be used as a site office and refuge by my s-i-l, who is having a house renovated about 2 hours drive south-east of Paris.
We picked up my elder son and gf setting off at 7am to aim for a Dover-Calais crossing and arrival early evening. It was the fastest, least eventful journey we have ever made to France. No holdups until we got on the ferry whch was 40 mins late leaving. 265 miles later we arrived in the family establishment in 2 villages near Chaource, Champagne-Ardennes.
The car was full to the roof lining with 4 travellers, 4 bikes on the towbar rack and all the caravan stuff that normally lives in the caravan. It was in its element at 130 kph on the autoroute; there was no "unblock diesel filter" nonsense that I see every fortnight at home. We introduced son's gf to her host, my b-i-l, and Mrs H and I whipped off to the next village to see our caravan that had been parked up for 11 months in the tumbledown barn of the being-renovated farmhouse.
The inside welcomed us but the outside was grimy. I thought an intense French rain shower would help in cleaning it at some stage but it never happened. When I was there last, the mains polarity was OK, but since electric has been laid to the farmhouse, polarity is reversed. I remembered the water filter was 11 months old and removed it. The electric earth was as I left it; some ancient twisted wire going to a stake in the dusty barn floor.
Mrs H and I spent the week cycling with son and gf, visiting the rest of the family nearby and going to Troyes to pick up my younger daughter and then my other daughter and her husband. We like Troyes and had lunch a couple of times in the city as we looked around. When we got back we did more cycling and I had a look at the farmhouse's 200m hedge which I tried to tame last year. In between times we went to a local 'vide grenier' which yielded an unfeasibly large wooden chandelier which son's gf had to have. They were returning to England by train so transport would be down to us.
I cut the sides of the hedge but I couldn't get an agreement on the height so said I would leave it for a fortnight. Mrs H and I started planning our trip south.
First stop was Camping de Nevers, 115 miles away. It's terraced with tenters on the river bank and bigger units above. Everyone has a view across the river Loire to the church, which looks magical at night. Mrs H and I got on the bikes and did a few miles on the towpath of the Canal Lateral de la Loire until we got to Gimouille where we stopped for some supplies and a beer.
Next stop was to be a long haul to Millau but we'd hardly got going on the N7 before southbound traffic was at a standstill for over an hour. Eventually we passed a truck which was having orange aerosol paint sprayed on its tyres by some Gendarmes, the aftermath of an incident. We batted on past Clermont-Ferand but I'd had enough driving by the time we got to Issoire and we stopped at Camping Château La Grange Fort. Very posh beautiful old castle with swimming pools and an intriguing history that we could have absorbed if we went on the guided tour the following day. The caravan voltmeter said we were getting a stingy 205 volts which dropped to a pathetic 187 volts the following morning resulting in us tripping the socket when Mrs H put the kettle on. A spanner was needed for a water tap and we left feeling we expected better for 30€ for the night.
Next stop was 120 miles later at Les Deux Rivages, Millau. The road had started getting hilly and I needed to use the gears to deploy the car's 130bhp to its best. Hills made the engine temperature rise to 110°C. Signs advised to use engine braking going downhill. The scenery was big, bold and lovely. The campsite approach was after a roundabout; I joined the line of parked cars and caravans, but the end of our van was left sticking out into the roundabout. This wasn't safe or acceptable in my book so I elected to move to the front of the queue, out of the way. While I was trying to get Mrs H to watch me reverse in to the roundabout, a German BMW parked opposite, shrinking the gap I could pull the van through. We made it, but it was close, and that's inches, not feet to spare. Deux Rivages had everything but peace; riverside pitches, swimming pool, games area, bar, folk-dance entertainment. But we were still listening to the Dutch next door at 1am. We photographed the wondrous Millau viaduct from every angle and went to the visitor centre. I was amazed that they could throw up this concrete and steel icon in only 3 years.
Carcassonne next. 128 miles later found us at Camping la Cité for 3 nights. Lots of space but a 3-night stop meant a motorhome pitch in the relentless sun for the first night; moving to a large corner pitch the following day. We cycled to the gates of the walled city and carried on on foot. The heat was intense so we took refuge in a walled orchard bar for an expensive beer. Carcassonne is on the Canal du Midi, so, following the tourist guide, we tried cycling into the town to join the canal towpath. We realised pretty quickly that the tourist guide must not have been conceived on market day. Every way we turned we were faced with people, stalls and bar tables on the streets. Eventually we found the canal and set off for Trèbes. Cycling in 35° heat gave us a hunger and thirst that could only be satisfied by a quiet lunch on the canal quayside. Mrs H is often reserved about eating out, feeling she could do better than the restaurants I can afford to take her to, but we left the Trattoria Napoli well satisfied. Another day we visited underground caves and saw some truly remarkable stalactite formations in a very welcome teperature of 14°C.
Then it was off to Lourdes and, 165 miles later in the foothills of the Pyrénées, Camping du Loup, a basic shady campsite, home to some of the most vicious biting insects in France. I should explain that my 12-year-old car has its share of problems; one of which is that first gear selection can be a bit uncertain, especially when hot. On our way in to Lourdes, I was a little shocked to be flagged down by a handful of stern-looking Gendarmes with weapons. We pulled over and greeted them with 'bonjours' but they said we were not what they were looking for. Traffic was thick on the road behind us so one Gendarme gestured at me with his arms crossed at the wrists, "I cross the traffic for you!" he called (maybe needing some help with his English) and jumped into the road with his arm held high. The traffic stopped; just when I needed to be slick, I missed first gear, pushed it into 3rd, lurched into the road and stalled. On our way to the campsite I was caught out by a particularly hostile speed bump, which is why the jockey wheel is now shaped like a Pringle. Madame at the campsite said there was a festival taking place and the campsite would be closed but we could stay the one night. I breathed a sigh of relief but Mrs H was determined that we would have the full Lourdes experience in one evening. In theory, we should have been able to walk to the Basilica through a park, but it was closed off and turned into a Gendarme control centre with communications trucks, aerials and dishes, any amount of police vhicles and a helicopter. We couldn't make sense of the tourist map so sought directions from a van full of bored Gendarmes. In my best French I asked where we were and showed them the map. "En France!" came the reply, followed by gales of laughter from inside the van. After the hilarity died down, we were given helpful directions. I had a funny turn in the relentless heat and we had to take refuge in the cool of the Basilica. We queued for Holy Water, we queued to touch the damp rock over the grotto, we processed, we marvelled at the street selling religious stuff, Mrs H nabbed a couple of significant pebbles from the Gave de Pau (the river) and we watched thousands of people mill around holding candles when night fell.
On our way out of Lourdes, two gendarmes were hosting a road-block at a T juntion. The lady gendarme moved a gate aside to let me out, but it was a tight left turn, made tighter by the car on the left edging forward.
We drove past Toulouse nearly to Ussel for a night at Camping Municipal de Ponty 290 miles later. A very satisfactory site for 12€ with water from a hydrant where you had to spin the pump to get anything out. Litter was evident but our pitch was beautifully situated overlooking a lake. I made a mess of the right turn into the site gates; I should have been bold and moved left first to take a wider sweep but I didn't. Mrs H had to jump out and hold up the traffic so I could back up and have another go.
A return visit to Briare le Canal was next. Camping Le Martinet, 210 miles away, is a pleasant, quiet site by the side of a disused canal. It was still blazing hot so we pitched up under a spare tree, putting us a long long way away from the water taps. As soon as we had settled in Mrs H asked when I'd last seen the passports. To cut a long story short, they were in their hiding place in the caravan, so well hidden in fact that neither of us could find them in our heightened state of stress. At 8pm that evening, with the the car emptied out on the grass, I had got to the stage of looking for a Gendarmerie so we could report the loss of 2 British passports but Mrs H had found them. More cycling took us across the famous aqueduct which takes the Canal Lateral across the Loire; then lunch at the café at the east end of the viaduct. Another day and yet more cycling to nearby Rogny-les-sept-ecluses to see the flight of 7 locks built in the 1600's and now disused. Spectacular if you like 17th C civil engineering. We were well fed and watered at a friendly local bar outside normal French lunchtime hours.
And so back to Chaource area for a decision on the hedge. I cut the top off it at the required height. We had a last couple of dinner parties with the family, used the swimming pool of our neighbours and prepared to return to the UK.
Travel to Calais went so well we were put on an earlier ferry to Dover and on up the A2 to Womenswold to stop the night with no electricity. Then, on Friday 27th began the stop-start journey from hell back to Yorkshire. 9 hours from near Dover to near Richmond. The chandelier rested in state on the double bed, bungeed to the bed slats below the cushions.
Now we are at home and Mrs H is on nights after a cracking month away.