Tuyeau d'echappement

Let me relate two paragraphs and see if you can see where I’m going.

In Epernay, I got talking to a very nice young man who skateboarded over to talk to me whilst I was cooking because of the GB plates on my car. Turned out he was a 100% anglophile who likes to spend his holidays climbing in the Peak District (to the chagrin of his girlfriend who would rather have gone to the south of France.) We had a great, wide-ranging conversation, he promised to e-mail when he got online and left me his phone number. One of the topics of conversation went something like, going from Nottingham to Geneva? In a 10 year old Skoda? Are you totally mad? I’ve now done 1,200 miles in France…

The second bit of information is about the campsite I was at. They were having repairs done which meant that the water was turned off at 9am sharp. They did warn me, and I duly set an alarm, but simply couldn’t find the energy to get up early enough to shower that morning. So, I put on smelly old clothes, put my hair in a pony tail through the back of a cap, and wore shorts, all with the intention of driving straight to the next campsite (destination: Lyon) and getting in a shower there before attempting any further interaction with other members of the human race.

Can you see where I’m going?

50km out from Lyon, I make a stop for petrol and food, and walking back to my car, I notice that the exhaust pipe is not at the angle it should be at. Kicking it slightly (the limit of my car expertise in many fields) and it doesn’t actually fall off, so I get back in the car and carry on for Lyon, thinking through my options, and working out the French phrases I’ll need.

I can go straight to campsite, pitch tent and emergency tent, unload car into emergency tent and try and find a garage on campsite staff recommendation. I can go straight to a garage and see whether I actually need to unload the two tonnes of sundry camping equipment, or whether they can just fix the exhaust on there and then. I can keep going and see what happens with the exhaust.

As it happens, as soon as I hit Lyon I can hear the exhaust scraping the road whenever I go uphill, or there’s a minor bump in the road. I head for somewhere populated and end up parking in the Place de Paris opposite the Gare de Vaise, and I can see a garage from where I end up, so I walk in and ask if they can help. Ah, non m’sieur, we don’t repair cars. (building labelled Controle Technique Voiture, which I suspect must be an MOT centre.) They point me at another garage, who said they only repaired Renaults, and then, only with an appointment. Finally, they sent me to a third garage, still within easy walking of where I’d happened to end up in Lyon quite by chance, and I’m finally in with a chance here. Yes we repair all sorts of cars. Yes we can fit you in, but we can’t do it before Friday at the earliest.

This actually fits with my plans, because believe it or not, I was planning to find secure parking in Lyon and take a TGV out of town for the weekend. I tell them I don’t want the car til Tuesday, will that suit? They tell me drive it round here and they’ll see what they can do.

Back to the car. As I start to reverse out of the parking space the pipe gets seriously caught in the ground, and a young guy across the street runs across and bangs on my window and asks me if I realise what’s up. By this point, I’m stuck in a manoevre and there are angy cars around me, so he holds hands up to the other cars and directs me off the street.

“I’m a mechanic,” he says. “I can fix that for you,” and he’s on his knees asking for a plastic bag so that he can slide under the car and have a look. He pretty soon comes to the conclusion that the exhaust is knackered beyond mere soldering and tells me to hold on whilst he phones the scrapyard to see if he can get a new part. Either that he says, shrugging, or you could fix it with some fil de fer (iron wire?!). “That’s what I did to mine and it got me all the way to Morocco!”

I’m getting a bit nervous at this point. It’s very kind of this completely unknown guy to offer help and even serious repair work, despite the fact he doesn’t know me at all (I never even asked him his name!) I’m seriously torn. I could do him and me a favour, get him to do the work (I was assuming by now he’s one of France’s many unemployed, but maybe I’m being unfair?) and save money. But you don’t get any sort of guarantee that way. And if I’m honest, I’ve been conned in the past by people who seem kind in the street.

In the end, I thank him very much for his offer, and decide to go back to the mechanic with the workshop around the corner. He fixes the pipe up with string so that I can get around the corner, and we part company.

The mechanic is happy to take the car with all its contents, so I just liberate what I need for the weekend, and set off. It’ll have to be a hotel stop, because I can’t camp without the car. I warn the guy there’s a gas bottle in the boot in case he does decide to do some soldering, and I hand over the key. After some scrabbling, we find documents in the glove-compartment that include the year of registration and the serial number. I leave him with my mobile phone number and instructions about international dialling, and I get a card off him so that I can find him again on Tuesday.

And I just walk away to find a hotel. Will the car and all my kit still be there next week? If I manage to drive away this time, will something else fall off before I get to Paris at the end of June? Tune in next week…

Two days in the Alps

amazing views from mont blancSomething mountainous was definitely on the cards for the trip, and after discussions with various Swiss residents about where might be best, I headed for Chamonix Mont-Blanc back in France on some more rather exiciting motorway — the Autoroute Blanche, which takes you through more tunnels and viaducts. One night of heavy rain sent me scurrying to an hotel instead of braving it outdoors, and the following day, I took the cablecars of the Aiguille Du Midi, a mountain pointing to the south of France. The cablecar up to the top is one of the steepest in the world, climing to over 3,000 metres in just 20 minutes, in two ear-popping stages. It is not cheap, but the views from the top were amazing, and I spent hours snapping happily away.

alpine viewOnce you get to the top there are further excursions possible: they try and sell you elevator tickets to the top of the mountain for example.

But more interestingly, after the huge, 80-person cable car that hauls you to the top of the mountain, there’s the chance to take a 5km expedition in tiny cable cars that take you all the way to Italy across the Alpine border. The cable cars drop you off at Hebronner, where the staff in the mountaintop restaurant speak Italian. I spluttered ‘un’espresso doppio per favore’ and got what I wanted but fell far short of ‘cor, that sandwich looks great, I’ll have one of those’ and certainly didn’t understand it when the lady behind the counter told me how much it cost. It was startlingly cheap compared to the caff on the French side of the mountain, and they were actually slicing ham there and then. Got hopelessly confused about whether I wanted my sandwich caldo or fredo: caldo sounds like cold, but means hot.

Me on mountainIn addition to walking around the platforms and terraces intended for the grand-publique, there are doors in the mountain which lead directly onto the slopes of the Alps. There were various thin, outdoorsy-types up there with crampons and skis taking their lives into their hands and roaming the high alpine plains. The cablecars swept me past a mountaineer climbing a bare rock face who waved (hopefully not waving for help–he was much higher by the time I returned). On the Italian side of things, the warnings on posters were still as severe (“Taking life into own hands, very dangerous, no safe paths, not beginners’ slopes”) but whole families with small children were sauntering out into the snowy wilds. Scary.

Paul would not have liked steps like these!Somewhat overawed by the staggering scenery, I was uploading photos of it direct from my cameraphone to Flickr — no idea how much that technological gimmick will end up costing me. I was also carrying out text conversations with Paul and my brother, and even fielding a security phone call from my bank who had noticed odd spending patterns on my visa card (motorway tolls). Bro was warning me that climbing quickly to high altitudes and staying up was likely to be very bad for my health, so after 5 hours wandering around at the sub-zero temperatures of the mountain top, I took the cable-car back down to the sweltering heat of the valley floor and went to find a pitch for the tent that night. Stayed at a very nice 3* campsite called La Mer de Glace — the Ice Lake.