A French Poodle (part 1): A ’roundabout’ way to the Sun !

Rainbow a double

As I left Wales this was in my path: so I just followed it to the end...

“Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue…….”

Gazing out over Languedoc

And its true, they are !

Now I happen to know that the ‘Cat’s Eye’ (the reflecting studs in the middle of the road) was invented by a Frenchman, who, unable to persuade his own country of its worth – a nonsensical idea given that to divide the road into two equal halves is oh so ‘not French’ – brought it here and made a fortune.  I cannot be altogether sure, but I’d wager a euro or two, that the ’roundabout’ was also a French invention.

In a matter of five hours and some 300 miles of driving – and given one does that on the wrong side of the road,  cat’s eyes may have been useful don’t you think ! –  I circumnavigated over 247 roundabouts……

You may wonder why I bothered counting them; partly it was a lack of any good radio station (though I did get some occasional ‘Abba’ through) but in the main it was just fascination.  How and why does a country that is SOOOO big (my Stateside friends will laugh at that notion I know) and has a predilection for ‘Chausee Deformee’ (which essentially means the chassis is deformed – now I’m never quite sure if they mean that is going to be the state of the  chassis of your car after you’ve driven along that particular stretch of road, or it is the ‘chassis’ – the base – of the road that is deformed, which is absolutely the case ) wants to extend everyone’s journey by making you drive around endless roundabouts – someone should investigate the possible links between road designers / builders and the tyre companies !!  Without a doubt, my 1500 plus miles to date could have been shaved by 25% if I didn’t have to negotiate these tight little ‘donuts’.  One of my old ‘Theory of Education’ lecturers used to think any kids that drew too many circles were introverted, what would he make of this !!

However, despite the mind-numbing rock n roll ‘chassee left / chassee right’ at every few hundred metres (the number of rb’s in towns is too ‘X’ rated for reproduction here) there are some clever lessons to be learned from our close neighbours.  For one thing, if you hit them too fast – remembering always that ‘nous n’avez pas la priorite’ (I found I was saying this in my sleep and, apparently, on the beach as I walked along – that surely constitutes a breach of my human rights, it equates to mental torture ) it is inevitable that you will not circumnavigate at all, rather, like sailors before Columbus, you will ‘drop off the edge of a flat world’ and end up in one of the zillion ‘Zone Artizanales’ – to the less educated of you that means ‘an industrial estate’.  Thus one is forced to slow down. A further little quirk that I very much think we need to adopt, and quickly, is that the main thoroughfare – i.e. the ‘straight on’ – is always set at 10 o’clock, that is, it is NOT straight on but another 45 degrees or so, thereby enhancing the need to slow the main flow of traffic.  Now anyone who has tried getting onto some of our rb’s where the through traffic hardly slows and the curve is less than the horizon will understand what I mean.  Small roundabouts, tight curves and offset main thoroughfares gets my vote!  But, Messieurs et Madames, is it really really necessary to build so many of them….

My journey began in Caen, the old Norman city that marks the gateway for many British travellers who enter through the port of Ouistreham.  I took an overnight Brittany Ferries boat which gives a good early landing – 7.00am – and an even earlier ‘wake-up’ call if you don’t know to ignore the ‘En arrive’ announcement that blasts out of the non-switchable-off in-cabin PA.  The much later “Ladies and Gentleman we will shortly be arriving….” gives plenty of time for ablutions, breakfast and starting the car before ever you get the much awaited wave to drive off.   I have noticed that, courtesy of all those terrorists who are just waiting to drive on and off cross channel ferries,  even the French policemen now check your passport – that was a real rarity in earlier times – though it is unlikely he can understand what it says and as I gave him mine upside down and it was instantly returned the same way, it seems cursory is the appropriate word.

[I mentioned in an earlier post how the 2nd World War was an ever present factor in my childhood and family, what I did not mention is that it is one of my principle study areas.  Why that is so I’m not altogether sure, the best I can discover about this elemental aspect of my psyche is that, firstly it was such a factor, secondly it was so terrible and near to home, near to my lifetime, to all our lifetimes in fact, but, and this  again is as best as I can articulate, it plays heavy on my mind. And what in particular plays heavy on my mind is how you spend days in a boat on your way to an unknown probable death, suffer sea sickness and all manner of deprivation and then, with abject terror coursing through your veins,  step off that boat into the sea, heavily weighed down with equipment, with explosion and bullets zipping all around and walk up the sand.  That has always and will always haunt me.  I’m not pondering ‘what would I have done’ as many writers do, no, I, like all those ordinary ‘civilians’,  would have probably done the same  thing but that journey across the sea to the Cote de Nacre, now and for ever-after known as the D Day beaches, brings such thoughts to the fore.  The night ferry approaches the French coast at dawn, just as those invasion landing craft did, the port of Ouistreham was the eastern end of the area of the ‘debarquement’, in fact it was where Lord Lovat’s commando’s came ashore (they were assigned an impossible task of reaching the beleagured British glider troops who had, the night before captured the canal and river crossing -now known as Pegasus Bridge – and were holding out against sustained enemy action) and marched onto the sands behind Bill Millen and Lovat himself, Millen playing bag pipes and the tune which drifted across the morning mist was ‘Blue Bonnett’.  I met Millen several times in the area at various commemorations and a more unassuming man n’ere played the pipes. French commandoes under Feiffer were charged with capturing the town and they suffered heavy losses.  As one drives off the ferry and through the sleepy streets of Ouistreham it is hard, for me anyway,  not to think of those men and the crazy, insane bravery that they brought to this small part of France.  I will mention other places in relation to the battle of  Normandy and the French occupation by the Boch, always it will be in these square brackets so if you don’t want to read, pass by on the other side…]

Now I’m not intending to give you a ‘travel-writers’ view of my hols, even though many of you would just love that I know… but I will give the exact route at the end of the story just in case any of you really want a trip to remember !

As with all invasion plans, adjustments, on-the-hoof changes in direction, suprise attacks etc. etc. all came to bear.  Mainly the target for the first leg of the journey, Capestang, near Bezier – a mere 680 miles south- kept being brought forward.  This was out of my control and influence, it was the result of my host at the other end having to leave ever earlier to return to Wales.  That host was my cousin ‘L’ (see “Misty watered coloured memories”) and her French hubby ‘JC’.  The reason for going that far south was to stay a while with them, that quickly became with him (as she had to return two days after my planned arrival to deal with some building issues back in Wales) and then he too decided to return with her.  The date of their departure changed daily until it actually became due before I was arriving !  That meant I had to ‘fly’, well, in terms of mileage per day, and I had to drive over 450 miles that first day to get down far enough to give me a chance of getting to them by mid morning the following day.

Driving in France can be undertaken in three ways;  firstly, and what most Brits and indeed French people would do, is to get on to the ‘Peage’ – a pay-by-mile motorway sytem – that allows you to traverse the country at around 70+ mph.  These arterial routes join all the main cities and criss-cross the country to allow almost anywhere to be got to quickly.  For example, ten hours would see you swimming in the Mediterranean.  The second method of travel is to use the super ‘RN’ roads, the ‘Routes National’ which are, in most places, dual carriageway or fast open straight main roads.  Unfortunately they too join up big cities which themselves are encirlced by miles and miles of confusingly signed ‘ring roads’.  Worse still, they are the roads on which run the many thousands of French trucks, therefore, in my mind, a must to avoid.  The third option is to plot a route that goes majorly in the direction you want to go but using ‘D’ roads.  These tend to join smaller towns and, for the most part, still take you into and through beautiful villages and old, medieval, French towns.  The speed limit varies from 70kph to 90kph – slower through the built up areas of course – and hence the journey is slower and more time consuming.  But hey, its a ‘holiday’, and touring is the grand tradition of British motoring is it not.  Its what ‘GT’ meant, albeit motor manufacturers hijacked the suffix to append to suped-up saloons in the 1960s/70s and 80s.  I well remember my ambition to own a Ford Cortina 1600 GT !!

So, south I headed, at a steady 56 mph, mile after mile, of wonderful, sunny, imperceptibly changing landscape.  That first day I went down a direct main route to Alencon, Le Mans – where a diversion saw me actually driving a section of track used in the 24 hr race! –  to Tours, Chateauroux and into the hills.  The route was that which, strangely enough,  I had taken 8 years ago to visit the same cousin and her friends who had rented a Chateau for the summer – all of them being employed in Kuwait at that time, a country which is apparently a bit touchy about  extended families calling to spend the summer – into the valley of the Dordogne.

Suspension Bridge over the Dordogne river.

'Target for tonight' - getting across the Dordogne in the Ardeche region of mid France.

Now the Ardeche and the Dordogne is a main target area for holidays by French people but, sadly in many respects, British families flock there too – oh yes and other Europeans who shall remain unmentioned here !  Never-the-less it is a stunning region and the gorges and roads are definitely an ‘off-piste’ experience, but boys boys, it do slow you down some.  I crossed the river at around 6pm, a reasonably good run but a little later than I had hoped.  With a good 200 miles still to go I needed to push on until around 8.0pm to give myself a chance the following morning of getting to Carpestang by 10.30 ish.

By 8.00pm I hit a little hilltop town called Montsalvy and found one of those superb little ‘Camping Municipale’ sites – a local authority campsite – just on the edge of town.

If you want to camp en-route in France, go for these every time.  OK they still have the ‘hole in the floor’ option but the facilities are invariably impeccable, clean and plentiful.  the individual plots are spacious and usually bordered by small garden type hedges and lots of bushes and plants.  They are cheap, around 6/8 euros per person per night and are mostly on the edge of a small town or village where food of excellent, non-tourist priced, local produce can be had.  Believe me, ‘Camping Municipale’ is the way to journey.

One of the best meals of the whole trip was had in Montsalvy at a dimly lit, well attended hotel restaurant.  A sweet little waitress who had spent a work placement in Princetown on Dartmoor of all places, was anxious to show off her language ability, mainly I suspect to impress her boss and her colleagues, and was insistent that she knew that the ‘frirth’ had to be wiped from the beer (not only friends from Cardigan and Scotland like to be sure they are getting the full pint then !).  The fish was utterly superb, the wine naturally so, the desert -‘fromage’ in my case outlandishly good and plentiful. All for a price of 21 euros.

Another river crossing, this time it is the Tarn.

Before dawn I was back on the road and as the sun began to lighten the sky I found myself running through yet another of the stunning gorges that abound in those parts.  This time it was the river Tarn, unfortunately photography was difficult given the poor light and the fact that to dwell a nano-second too long looking at the gorge is guaranteed to introduce one to it intimately !  Onwards and upwards, the road reaches nearly 800 metres as the plateau of the Massive Central is broached and the town of Rodez beckons.

Now the evening before as I ended the meal in Montsalvy I thought I would just phone L to let her know I was on schedule to be with her by mid morning, as indicated in our last talks the night before I set off.  Guess what, yep, another change.  By now JC had decided mid morning was too late to allow him to achieve his target for that night, Amiens, a ten hour bash up the motorway.  So he, translated via ‘L’, suggested that I go to the place where people in Millau (the town after Rodez) go to look at the bridge.  We needed to RV there by 8.30, hence my pre-dawn departure.  No problem thought I, just do as JC suggests and follow the signs for the viewing site.

Millau suspension bridge

The first sight of the suspension bridge, some 20 miles out, is astounding. It is without doubt a 'Wonder of the World'.

This I duly did.  On arrival at the well signed ‘Panorama de Viaduct’, I also got a signal on the old Nokia I had as my emergency contact phone and, sure enough, three missed calls from those I was due to meet.  ‘Where are you’?, I’m where you said to be but you’re not ! “Oh yes we are, we are at the viewing site just off the motorway”… Well, I’m underneath you then!

Under the bridge at Millau

It's high, is it ever high, but surely he could just drop the keys over the parapet ?

Of course, JC had assumed, and why wouldn’t he, that I, like himself and most other long distant drivers, would have been coming down the motorway (although how he thought I could get onto that particular motorway given where I stayed the night before is odd…).  Hence when he said “where people in Millau go to look at the bridge”, he meant, people driving on the motorway and not those folks in the town through which I had just passed who have their very own viewing plaza directly below (yes, a very strange way to view a suspension bridge I agree).

Another problem then appeared, the map I was using was slightly old – well actually it was an original Michelin map which I love to use – and did not in fact show any motorways.  Hence I didn’t actually know where they were; oh sure, they knew, they were at junction 45 and that was on the Clermont Ferrand side of the bridge, my problem was, looking up at this frighteningly impressive edifice, was that I didn’t know if that meant to my left or right.  Neither did they.  “Go back into town and follow the signs for the motorway” suggested JC, and they would watch for me on the roundabout – even here I’m plagued by the darn things !  Off I go, I duly follow the said signs, but it was a long way, 10 kms.  When I eventually get to the motorway junction there is no sign of them.  But then, I was at junction 47 not 45 where they were.  More phone calls, and a decision that I should stay put and they would drive to me, a distance of some 15kms.  All in all it meant they crossed the Millau suspension bridge three times that morning – they wouldn’t tell me how much it cost to cross !  But in the usual ‘san farian’ laid back manner of JC it was ‘not a problem’.  Keys – which was the whole point of the RV, to collect the keys to their house in Carpestang – duly handed over, goodbyes said, off we went.

I decided that this time, not least because this particular motorway is a freeby, to just stay on it and get on down to Bezier and the little village that was my destination for this part of the trip.  Follow me in Part 2.

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