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.

Weekend en suisse

So, last weekend spent in Switzerland in the company of stellar people from the Archers newsgroup. Fab time had by all: started off in Geneva with a lovely soiree on a balcony on a warm summer’s night. Excellent food, plenty of time for discussion and getting-to-know-you. I think I share elements of the same sense of humour with Gumrat which lead to some hilarity.

BearSaturday we all got in the car and headed right across Switzerland to Basel taking in some sights of lakes and mountains and fountains and so on. We stopped in Bern for lunch (I had authentic roesti, and failed utterly to understand Swiss German being spoken to me, although the waiter seemed to understand me. Also usual problem of knowing enough for a chat, and yet knowing very little about words for food on menus.)

Before leaving Bern we drove around it taking in some sights of old Bern, the Swiss Parliament (outside thereof) and a bear pit. Photos of bears here. Many of them came out like photos you see of abused animals in street stalls, but these bears looked quite happy, if a little hot under all that fur. There was plenty of space in the pit, and vegetation, and water. About four bears in total, I think, three of which just wanted to sleep and a fourth was prepared to play tricks for the people above who were dropping vegetables straight into the hungry bear’s mouth.

On to Basel, where we met up with further umrats including one who lives in Basel, and a group who’d flown in specially. Basel was celebrating something, not quite sure what, but included football team having won something. Small groups of about 30 men in various different mediaeval costumes were marching around with familiar but different tunes on pipes and drums that others identitified as the tunes for Scotland the Brave and British Grenadiers that probably have different words in Swiss German (like the French kids in Reims who seemed to be singing My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean). Some over excited naked drunk men were playing in a fountain and our host felt she vaguely recognised one of them.

At a pre-ordained time, we went to wave banners at a webcam for our newsgroup-reading friends stuck at home: two pics to show what we looked like on the ground and what the webcam saw…

(us in huddle in bottom left hand corner.)

After webcam, home to supper, and a good six hours of drinking, before crashing at a friend of a friend’s lavishly decorated Mackensie-style duplex apartment minutes away from the Rhone (or possibly the Rhine, I get confused). Walking home via this statue of Helvetica waiting for a boat to pic her up for her hols (Note suitcase, and spear and shield relaxed). Apparently, she has rugby socks on in season.

swiss chalet in mountains The following day we headed off en masse to Ballenberg, a museum of rustic Swiss life where they have dismantled houses from old Switzerland and put them in in a large rural park. There were fantastic pics to be had from all over, just Swiss chalets, snow covered alps, livestock with cowbells, a lake with huge leeches in it. A park full of postcard views waiting to be taken. And they also had fire pits and free bits of wood — for a barbecue, all you had to provide the meat and matches.

After the barbecue we wandered around the park a bit taking in the sites, before it was eventually time to go our separate ways, half back to Basel, half back to Geneva.

The following day, I bid fond farewell to my generous hosts, took a tram in to see bits of Geneva (an overcast day, so not great pics) then headed off in the Alps.

We all know what Frogs say

Apparently,

We all know that Frogs go la-di-da-di-dah
We all know that Frogs go la-di-da-di-dah
We all know that Frogs go la-di-da-di-dah
They don’t go glompf glompf glompf.

… which seems slightly counter-intuitive to me.

However, we also know that Frogs say ‘Non’ to the European Constitution, which wasn’t a huge surprise given how many ‘Non’ posters there are all over the place. It was still a pretty close-run thing.

I missed the vote in France, having been having a lovely time in Switzerland instead. In the Canton of Geneva, next weekend they’re having a cantonal referendum to check what the citizens think about Schengen and also a gay marriage bill.

Where I’ve been

So far, Boulogne, Hardelot, le Touquet (Paris-plage) then on to Arras, Cambrai, then down the motorway to Reims (a visit round Taittinger), then Epernay, then Troyes (gorgeous). More on that later, when I’ve uploaded the photos.

I’ve just spent two days at the Camping du Lac at Dijon without actually visiting either the lake or Dijon (I got bogged down in a series of good books and barely left the campsite except occasionally to get utterly, utterly lost in Dijon’s syteme sens-unique. Including spending some time facing in the wrong direction on a one way street being honked at by French drivers waiting patiently for me to sort myself out and get out of their way.)

Now I’m in Switzerland planning to do Alp-y things for the next few days before heading down slowly to the Med. Then I’ll come back up via the Prynees and Brittany before picking P up at Dinard and heading over to Normandy and Paris.

I’m not really talking to many people, spending a lot of time alone in my tent or my car in silence. Which is OK. I’m wondering if it might have been better to do the big trip by rail and hostel rather than tent and car, because that way I’d have met more people to talk to. The campings are mostly full of elderly Germans who show no sign of wanting to talk. I expect if I’d chosen to do that, I’d be moaning about the lack of personal space and being squashed all the time. And this is a road trip after all! (Flickr keyword vadrouille)

Where I've been

So far, Boulogne, Hardelot, le Touquet (Paris-plage) then on to Arras, Cambrai, then down the motorway to Reims (a visit round Taittinger), then Epernay, then Troyes (gorgeous). More on that later, when I’ve uploaded the photos.

I’ve just spent two days at the Camping du Lac at Dijon without actually visiting either the lake or Dijon (I got bogged down in a series of good books and barely left the campsite except occasionally to get utterly, utterly lost in Dijon’s syteme sens-unique. Including spending some time facing in the wrong direction on a one way street being honked at by French drivers waiting patiently for me to sort myself out and get out of their way.)

Now I’m in Switzerland planning to do Alp-y things for the next few days before heading down slowly to the Med. Then I’ll come back up via the Prynees and Brittany before picking P up at Dinard and heading over to Normandy and Paris.

I’m not really talking to many people, spending a lot of time alone in my tent or my car in silence. Which is OK. I’m wondering if it might have been better to do the big trip by rail and hostel rather than tent and car, because that way I’d have met more people to talk to. The campings are mostly full of elderly Germans who show no sign of wanting to talk. I expect if I’d chosen to do that, I’d be moaning about the lack of personal space and being squashed all the time. And this is a road trip after all! (Flickr keyword vadrouille)

Speed limits

Here is my understanding of French speed limits

  • 50 km/h is basic urban speed limit, in force from when you see a town’s nameplate.
  • 30km/h applies in front of schools and in really twisty streets.
  • 70km/h is for country roads, up to 90km/h unless roundabouts, steep bends, etc approach.
  • Dual carriageways get to 110km/h and on the autoroute, if you’re in a car, have been driving more than a year, it’s not raining and you’re not not towing anything, you can get up to 130km/h (about 82mph).

Now, if I’ve got this right, why are the French always overtaking me? Driving aggressively behind me and flashing? I thought I was a bit of a speed demon, but I’m glad to see that obviously I’m not!

Switzerland

Have arrived en Suisse for the UMRA bbq in Switzerland — I’m the guest of Gumrat Anne who is apologetic about slight piles of things in her house. If she only knew what my house looked like…

The road here was amazing — the “White Motorway” that takes you round and over and under the Jura mountains, before it eventually takes you on to Alps, although I’m not sure I’ve actually seen an Alp yet.

Sudden lakes, and huge viaducts are all par for the course, and it’s been tricky concentrating on the road when there’s such amazing scenery around.

Whistlestop tour of Switzerland planned for the weekend, through Geneva, Bern and Basel, and we’re having our barbecue at Ballenberg. At some point, massed ranks of umrats (people who read the Archers newsgroup) will be waving at the Basel webcams.

And I’ll upload new photos soon!

Reims

Reims is very nice. A cracking gothic cathedral, lots of champagne, some beautiful streets and squares and some interesting public art.

I spent a few hours hidden in a cinema watching the latest Star Wars in a gorgeous old building which boasted of a screen of 14m, and must have had a ceiling height of 20m, topped off in an old style wreaths-and-angels type carvings. The huge room had about 20 of us in there for the 17h30 showing, and boy, was the film terrible.

After that, I wandered a bit trying to find the big champagne houses to save myself time in the morning, took a few snaps, and then settled on Les 3 Brasseurs for some dinner. They had a special menu of 2 flammekueches (one savoury and one sweet) and I tried to drink my way through as many of their home brewed beers as possible.

I’d settled on a table just inside the brasserie because it was getting a bit cold to spend the night on the terrace, and I hadn’t been there an hour when the skies opened and it tipped it down. I had a very amusing half an hour watching totally unprepared thin young pretty French people run around and duck for cover, then a bit later watched the staff go outside to recover the wreckage from the tables. It really did rain pretty damn hard: ashtrays were full to brimming and even pint glasses were half full.

Condette / Hardelot

Drive from Nottingham to Dover took just over four hours with only a few wrong turns on the way. Arrive finally at the docks to find an enormous great Czech lorry has rear-ended a tiny little car, and in the process almost totally blocked off vehicular access to the ferry port. I’m still in the first hour of the long possible check-in time, so there’s no problem.

Queueing on the tarmac waiting for the ferry gives me the opportunity to fix my headlights. The ferry itself, SpeedFerries One is tiny. Driving on is a bit of an endeavour: it’s like a multistory carpark only tighter than the Nottingham Arndale! And not only that, but the staff want me to reverse into a spot. Happily, they’re used to helping useless manoeuverers into tight spots and give detailed instructions on how to do. Full lock right, mate, no, not that much full lock. Don’t worry about the noise, it’s just your ariel scraping on the roof.

The crossing is quick and uneventful, and before you know it, you’re disembarked onto the roads of Boulogne. French border police have an office in Dover, so there’s no need to stop again. There’s barely a minute between leaving the ferry and and hitting the centre-ville.

A few fraught minutes later and I’m more or less used to the new rules of the road. Erm, but actually, still haven’t made any plans about where to overnight. So I pull off into the carpark of a supermarket and choose Camping le Chateau d’Hardelot as not being too far away. Whilst I’m at the supermarket, I stock up on provisions: reduced BBQ stuff and a lettuce. There’s a hardware shop next door, Bricomarche, so I go round to try and find some bbq charcoal and a rubber mallet (camping on sand at Shell Island, you can stamp on tent pegs to get them into the ground, but on baked soil strewn with stones, you need a real mallet).

In my mind, I’m trying to sort out a translation of mallet, so that if I have to, I can ask the staff where to find one, and dredging my memory for vocabulary I come up with ‘marteau en cuir’. Happily I found what I was looking for almost immediately, labelled ‘un maillet en caoutchouc pour les piquets de camping.’ It wasn’t til I was leaving the shop that I remembered my initial stab at it made ‘leather hammer’ when I was aiming for ‘rubber hammer’…

Vive la difference

Even cheap French barbecue charcoal tells you what wood it was initially made from (oak, in this case) and the instructions tell you not only how to set it on fire, but include useful tips like “Don’t forget the bay leaf and thyme when grilling fish.’ The picture includes a jolly chap grilling away, and in the background there’s a bikini-clad beauty reclining on a sun-lounger just waiting for her portion of sausage.

After grilling up my turkey kebabs with various different coloured turkey sausage (un pack mini-grill de M. Coq) I went for a wander around Condette. The campsite details included a suggested walk taking in the village high street, the mediaeval castle and the Mirrored Lake. All very pretty. In amongst the suburbs, I was a bit taken aback suddenly to find a cow poking its head out of a grill. And it’s interesting to see that nearly everyone had large stocks of wood around their houses. You can certainly smell the wood burning.

NB, French words etc in posts have to be stripped of accents, because Blogger doesn’t like them.