An amazing trip to the south-east of France

We had only planned to spend a couple of weeks in France but delays with getting our licence plates and then the late autumn lockdown resulted in us spending far longer in the country. Two upsides are that we’ve made some truly wonderful friends and we’ve come to realise that the country has so much to offer in terms of variety, be it wines (of course!), but also scenery, wildlife, history, etc., etc.

In July, we are hoping to head towards Scandinavia so before the summer heat and crowds arrived in France we decided to head south towards Carcassonne and the Mediterranean coast. Three years ago, we made a whistle stop tour along the French Pyrenees in a campervan and loved the area. The idea of our ‘big trip’ was already forming and we wanted to see if we could live in a campervan; within a couple of days we had decided that a van would be too small.

Château de Quéribus

Before we headed back to the area, fellow motorhomers and new friends, John and Kellie, suggested we visit Quéribus and Peyrepertuse, two Cathar castles in the southwest of France. Catharism was a religious movement between the 12th and 14th centuries; its followers were ultimately annihilated by the Catholic Church after many bloody battles and sieges centred in Pays Cathare (Cathar country). The drive to the parking area at Château de Quéribus was a winding “first gear up/first gear down” road but the views from the top were absolutely stunning. The château is first mentioned in 1020 and was one of the “Five Sons of Carcassonne”: five castles strategically placed to defend the French border against Spain. We were amazed at the effort needed to build a stone castle on the high peak. We also spent a night in the aire in Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse with views of Château de Peyrepertuse. We didn’t visit the castle this time as the access road was too narrow for the motorhome but we would love to go back. While exploring Duilhac, we came across the Fontaine des Amours with a verse from Ronsard (a 16th century poet) inscribed above the fountain. It stated that whoever drinks from the fountain will fall in love – and though we recently celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary we thought it couldn’t hurt to take a sip!

Before the trip, we had also made contact with a couple of home-/world-schooling families and planned a route that would allow Amelia to meet some other English-speaking children for outdoor playdates. She had an amazing time with a new friend in the small town of Caunes-Minervois splashing through a small stream while the parents sipped coffee at an outside café – our first time since September!

Tunnel at Minerve

While in Caunes-Minervois, Michelle and Denis suggested we visit Minerve. Denis showed us a video and we were sold. The walled village is surrounded on 3 sides by a gorge, and inside the gorge the river has carved a tunnel (the ‘Ponts Naturels‘) through the rock. Truly amazing and our photos don’t really do the village, the gorge or the tunnel justice. When we create a list of must-see hidden gems, Minerve will definitely be on it! Minerve had been a Cathar stronghold which was attacked and fell in 1210. The attackers had four trebuchets (catapults), with the largest one known as Malvoisine or “bad neighbour” which was aimed at the village’s well.

Sunset over Lac de Montbel

We had another playdate with Petra and her two daughters at Lac de Montbel, just outside Chalabre. Originally we had planned to leave the lake at 8pm and drive to the aire in Castelnaudary; if all went according to plan we’d arrive minutes before the 9pm curfew. Luckily, we managed to find a parking at Lac de Montbel and we decided that it was a perfect location to stay the night. This allowed us to extend the playdate and watch one of the most beautiful sunsets we had seen; the sky and the lake glowed a golden/orange colour with the snowy Pyrenees in the background. When we arrived at Castelnaudary at 2pm the next day, we took the second-to-last spot. If we had arrived at nine o’clock the previous night, the aire would have been full and we would have had to drive on after curfew. In general, there are a lot more motorhomes on the road and the aires and France Passion sites are often busy; unlike October last year when we were often the only motorhome at our sites.

Petra also suggested that we see flamingos at the coast. Wait, what? But it’s true that wild flamingos are found in France. Peyriac-de-Mer was on our route so we made a detour and there they were!

It was an amazing trip to the south-east of France. We enjoyed our flexible route, with many suggestions from friends, as well as other serendipitous experiences such as showing Amelia how locks work on Canal-du-Midi, France-Passion stops with beautiful views, friendly hosts, and wonderful products (including sparkling pink Crémant and kilograms of cherries!), and stumbling upon the Aude River at Belvédère du Diable (Belvianes-et-Cavirac) where Amelia played for hours.

There were a couple of ‘learning’ experiences too. Like many other things in France, many petrol (gas) stations are fermé (closed) on Sundays; while you can still self-serve petrol this means that there is no GPL (propane) available. We suffered without our morning tea and coffee!

Never cut corners when the turn is between two buildings on an extremely narrow road – we almost got wedged! It didn’t help that the elderly homeowners were trying to tell us in French that we needed to reverse (how?) and that our motorhome was too big and didn’t belong there (too late!). Our wheels were up on the side of the road and our roof was tilting toward the buildings but luckily we had few centimetres to spare and we managed to escape without a scratch.

Beware passing trucks on narrow roads – we stopped on the verge to allow a truck to pass but it still scraped the side of the motorhome. Fortunately, the wheel nuts had plastic caps so we only ended up with the smallest of scratches.

When your GPS sends you down a narrow dirt road that doesn’t feel right, stop and back out while you can (the fox and her two cubs were cute though – and they very looked surprised to see us).

All-in-all it was good to be back in Blue Fern.

Bon voyage!

Gary, Janice and Amelia

WE’RE NOT DOING SO WELL WHEN IT COMES TO SLEEPING IN OUR MOTORHOME

We took delivery of our motorhome six months ago and have only slept in it for 6 weeks or 23% of the time!  We had thought that we would ‘slow travel’ at times but hadn’t planned on starting so soon!  And we have spent 50% of the last year living under lockdowns in Cayman, France and Portugal.   

After spending Christmas in France with our neighbours, we got our second set of Covid tests and crossed into Portugal via Spain. We have spent the last 2½ months in the Algarve and while Portugal locked down a few days after we arrived (and is still in a partial lockdown) the goals of letting Amelia spend time with other children while attending a forest school and finding warmer weather for outside activities have been achieved.  Portugal had one of the coldest and wettest winters in recent times but January and February were still warmer and sunnier than France.

With cafés and restaurants closed and the requirement to stay home unless for essential reasons, we feel like we haven’t got to know Portugal like we experienced France. Our Airbnb hosts are a retired couple from Sweden and, at times, it feels like we have learnt more about Sweden than we have of Portugal.  We have been introduced to Swedish “fika” which is a coffee and cake break with friends; you cannot fika by yourself and it can be a verb, as in “let’s fika”. Fika has become a part of our daily routine, though we must admit to often switching the coffee and cake to Portuguese wine, beer, and cheese. Amelia has made friends with the owners’ dogs and can give all their commands in Swedish as they play their favourite games, like searching for their ball.  

Amelia_at_the_beach

You are allowed to leave your property to exercise so we have taken the opportunity to visit various beaches; either as a family or just the two of us while Amelia was at school.  We’ve enjoyed the rugged coastline of cliffs interspersed by anything from tiny coves to long sandy beaches.  The cliffs are made from soft rocks meaning the erosion is extensive; we’ve lost count of the number of arches and tunnels we’ve seen!  In Portugal the tidal range is about three metres while we are used to less than half a metre in the Caribbean.  We have been surprised how the coastline changes during our visits to the beach; Amelia can play in a tunnel one day and the next time (or even later during the same visit) it is submerged. 

While staying in one place from winter into spring, we have seen almond trees go from bare branches to full of flowers within days (the leaves come later).  Then the trees start buzzing with bees. The bees collect so much pollen you can see the full pollen sacs (or baskets) on their hind legs.  We saw a mongoose cross the road to the property (Egyptian Mongooses are found in Spain and Portugal and might have been introduced by the Romans some 2,000 years ago) and our new trail camera caught a fox trotting down the same road. Even the orange trees (of which there are lots here in the Algarve) surprised us; some trees still have this season’s fruit but are already blossoming or even growing next season’s oranges!  It seems strange to have two seasons’ worth of fruit on the same tree at the same time.

Startrails

Gary has had time to experiment with his photography again.  In 2010 he bought an intervalometer shutter release which he hadn’t really used.  However, during the last two new moons he used it to take many photos of the night sky which were later stacked to create star trails.  The next challenge is to shoot a star trail with the motorhome in the frame. 

Of course, we have also been playing and homeschooling. Amelia has been making good progress with her studies and has enjoyed some fun online classes from outschool.com. We have also used doyogawithme.com for great online yoga classes – currently offered free for two months due to Covid.

So, we’ve kept ourselves busy.  Just not sitting at the local, street café sipping coffee and eating bifanas or piri piri frango (chicken). We did however discover some online cooking classes, including a Spanish tortilla class and a Portuguese tapas class, and we have had some Portuguese takeaway recommended by Amelia’s teachers.

Now our time in Portugal is coming to an end and we look forward to heading back to France. Hopefully, the next 6 months will bring more motorhome travel and not our fourth lockdown!

Our practical guide to France motorhome travel – before the 2nd lockdown

These are our notes on motorhome travel in France in September and October 2020, before the second national lockdown. Currently, recreational travel is banned – see here for updates.

Where we stayed:

France-Passion: we stayed primarily at France-Passion sites – over 2,000 farms, vineyards, etc. that allow you to park for free in exchange for looking at their products if they have anything for sale – there is no obligation but we never walked away empty handed. We bought red, white and rose wine, champagne, grape and apple juice, goat cheese, pasta, gingerbread, jam, eggs, and vegetables. All the sites we tried were open and welcoming: www.france-passion.com. An annual subscription is €30.

Aires: these are free or paid parking areas provided by the towns and cities. They often include wastewater dumping, blackwater dumping, paid electricity, freshwater, and sometimes bathrooms. We found them through the Park4Night app (can be used offline after subscribing and downloading a regional map). All of the aires we visited were open for parking, but a few had services shut off for the winter, especially high in the French Alps. We did not stay at motorway aires; they are not generally recommended for staying the night but do have services (gasoline/petrol, blackwater dumping, picnic tables, restaurants, etc.).

Wild Camping: wild camping is legal in France (with some conditions and limitations) but with a big motorhome and a small child we didn’t want to risk having to move in the night, so we were cautious in selecting a spot. We found it difficult to be sure that we would feel comfortable with a site based only on online reviews but if we found a site that looked good we used Park4Night to check if there were any reviews for the area (for example, one of our favourite sites was a quiet stretch of road on the banks of the Rhine, where we wild camped for two nights at what was originally planned to be a lunch spot; it looked like it would be OK to stay and we confirmed on Park4Night that other people had stayed without any problems).

Campsites: these range from 1-4 stars depending on the facilities available and can also be found on Park4night. We stayed in a few campsites at the beginning of our trip and then stopped using them when we had figured other solutions for internet, laundry, and dumping waste. Many campsites close for winter.

Water/Electricity/Dumping:

Water and electricity are available on some France-Passion sites (indicated in the guidebook). Otherwise we used Park4Night to find aires – often stopping en route to a France-Passion site rather than staying the night if they had paid parking or were busy.

Driving:

Our most essential navigation tip for motorhomes is to set your GPS for the size of your vehicle – so you are not directed toward low tunnels, weak bridges, or very narrow village roads. Unfortunately, this is not possible in Google Maps. Our inbuilt motorhome GPS has this feature but stopped working during the trip so we switched to the CoPilot app. The app works offline on a cell phone and we have found it mostly reliable though it has directed us toward a few small streets; if something doesn’t look right, we do not follow it. We see fewer problems when we use the ‘easiest route’ rather than ‘fastest route’ setting. We used Google Maps to find bakeries, grocery stores, etc. and downloaded offline maps of each region so we can use it without an internet connection.

Priorité à droite: The French highway code states that a when two drivers approach an intersection from different roads, the driver on the left is required to yield, unless directed otherwise by signage. This means that a driver pulling onto a road from the right could have right-of-way. In practice, there seem to be signs overruling priorité à droite almost everywhere  – but we have seen some villages where it is in place. This article from The Local explains it quite well.

Tolls (Péage): it has always been possible for us to pay tolls by credit card however it can be expensive – one 7km tunnel cost us 17 euros! (based on the size of the vehicle). We mostly set our GPS to avoid toll roads and we have seen some beautiful country and villages (and also some terrifying narrow village streets and one-lane roads).

General:

Laundry: we have some heavy clothes like jeans and for much of our trip it was too rainy for air drying. We struggled to find places with washers and dryers other than campsites until we noticed the washers and dryers which are available in the parking lots of many grocery stores. These can be found on this website (search “a proximite” – nearby – and be sure to find a “laverie” – not a photobooth).

Shopping: large chain grocery stores tend to be located on the outskirts of towns and cities and have parking lots large enough for our motorhome. We have found most of the staples we need (sometimes only after googling “what is X called in France” or “where can I buy X in France” (e.g. baking powder is called levure chimique or levure alsacienne, peanut butter is usually in the organic (bio) aisle). The stores often have a petrol station.

The best food we bought came from France-Passion sites, speciality stores (e.g. bread – boulangerie, pastries – patisserie, cheese – fromagerie, goat cheese – chèvrerie, etc.) and local markets. Market days can be searched for on this site (select “chercher un marché” (search for a market) “autour de moi” (around me).

Grocery stores have some housewares and we also visited Ikea when stocking our motorhome.

Money: we make all of our payments using a Revolut card. Revolt is an online bank and will do currency conversions at the Interbank rate.  You get a virtual card (that you can link to Google Pay out your Apple Wallet) for free and can pay for a physical card. You can fund your Revolt account by charging your current credit or debit card.

LPG: our heater and stove run on LPG gas (called GPL in France). We also used gas designated as GPLc with no problems. Sites supplying LPG can be found on:  www.mylpg.eu Update (January 2021): We filled our LPG tank in October when France uses a ‘summer mix’ (with a higher percentage of butane). Once the lockdown in France ended and we started using the motorhome again the heater would register a ‘low gas’ error even though the tank was almost full. Only once we got to the Algarve and the temperature was warmer did the heater work again. I subsequently learnt that France switches to a ‘winter mix’ on 1 November which contains a much higher percentage of propane. So beware, you can’t use butane when the temperature falls! Details of the different mixes found in the various countries can be found here.

Internet: We purchased a sim card from a provider called Free and use it in a mifi device (which provides wifi for our motorhome). For €13 per month, the Free sim gives us 80 GB per month in France (and 10 GB per month while roaming). We purchased the sim from a kiosk (bourne) inside a tobacconist shop. You will need to put an address in France. From what we understand, there is no contract but we have not yet cancelled.  

Translations: we use Google Translate and downloaded the French dictionary so we can use it offline. The camera mode (point it at text to translate) has also been very helpful.  If you are connected to the internet, Google Translate can perform a real-time voice/dictation translation. Update May 2021: DeepL – is much better at high quality translations

Covid: We used https://reopen.europa.eu/ for information on requirements for crossing borders and this site to search for places offering covid tests in France (in case we needed to get tested before crossing a border). We use The Local for French news in English.

Attractions:  we explored Burgundy, the French Alps, Alsace, and many areas in between. We visited many farms and vineyards via France-Passion and we also enjoyed visiting some of the villages designated as the most beautiful villages in France (“Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”). They might be crowded in a normal year, but this year, and during the off-season they have been perfect. We have also – by chance – found ourselves following some driving routes such as the “Route du Grande Alpes” – there are many of these routes promoted by local tourist offices. Information on walking/hiking paths can be found on www.sentiers-en-france.eu.

Our adventure has started!

We have hit the road in our own motorhome and, two weeks later, are starting to find our rhythm. Let the fun begin!

A de-cluttered and clean apartment

Earlier in the year, we had started clearing our closets and had believed that we whittled down our belongings to a manageable level.  Boy, were we wrong!  When it came to the last week and time to move out of the apartment, we discovered we still had so much stuff.  A final round of ruthless ‘culling’ and we ended up with a manageable pile of clothes, educational material and Amelia’s toys to pack.  In the end we consolidated our lives into five checked bags!  We need to thank Jim and Sammy for helping ready the apartment, Janice’s family for letting us stay with them and for looking after Amelia while we were busy tidying the apartment and to our friends who helped in numerous ways!

What would an adventure be without challenges?  The first ‘incident’ happened after we had checked-in for our flight to London and were about to meet friends and family for farewells at George Town Yacht Club (a restaurant 3 minutes from the airport).  We were told that as this was a repatriation flight (it wasn’t) we could not leave the airport.  Amelia burst into tears.  Thanks to Janice’s perseverance (and Amelia’s distress) the duty manager made an exception and we were able to say our goodbyes!

The flights (to Heathrow and to Paris) were uneventful; it was just a long day of travelling.  Needless to say, we slept well that first night in France.  

We based ourselves in Sens (approximately 1 ½ hours south of Paris) as we had a day to spare before collecting the motorhome.  Sens is well-known for its gothic cathedral which we managed to miss in December even though we had walked within 100 metres of the cathedral (I’m putting it down to jet-lag, being tired and the cold weather)!  This time we didn’t miss the cathedral!  When Amelia saw the square in front of the cathedral, complete with pigeons, she commented that this city must have been based on the cities in Guatemala as they are made the same way!

And then the big day arrived, Monday, 22 September 2020!  She looked (and is!) a lot bigger than expected (the upside is that there is that we haven’t used all the storage space … yet).  We had planned an ‘easy’ day (collect the motorhome, drive back to the hotel and unpack) and it worked out well.  If we had tried to do more, we would have run out of time and most probably had more than our two incidents.  Prior to our departure, it had been confirmed that all the vehicle registration paperwork was complete but something felt amiss as I had not been asked to pay the insurance premium.  It turns out, due to a backlog with the French authorities, the motorhome has not been registered in our names.  We are driving on temporary licence plates.  The downside is that sometime in the next month when the registration is complete, we need to return to the dealership to get our licence plates fitted.  Luckily, we have time to bimble around France!  And the other incident was when we were driving back to the hotel, I got too close to a bush and hit the passenger-side mirror.  The impact cracked the plastic casing of the mirror (luckily not the mirror itself)!  My first drive and look what I did!  A little epoxy repaired the damage.

The first brand new vehicle any of us have owned

It took about two days to unpack everything and buy the essentials which at the time seemed like a long time (I mean we have a country to explore). But, in hindsight, two days to set up a completely new, albeit small, house is quite reasonable.

There have been a few pleasant surprises.  The GPS has a function that allows you to set the size of the motorhome so no more going around a corner and finding a bridge that is too low for us to go under (yes, it happened).  And, I can control the air heater from my phone; very useful in the mornings especially after the three days of gorgeous weather ended.

One of the many picturesque towns along our route

We are generally heading south and have been enjoying the open fields interspersed with quaint, picturesque old villages.  The motorhome is living up to expectations as were we able to spend 3 nights without any hookups before the fresh water tank runs low and the grey & black tanks become full. We have been making use of our France-Passion membership; farmers, artisans, etc. who give you a place to park and in return you are expected to say Bonjour and consider buying something they produce.  Highlights are that we’ve camped next to a field of ostriches and bought some farm-fresh vegetables but now that we are in wine country it might start getting expensive!

Until next time, au revoir!