Sunday, 25 November 2007

The final chapter – from Amiens to Wolverhampton

This post covers our last day in France and the final journey home.

Our last day in France! We set off from the campsite then proceeded to drive around Amiens looking for a park for Ace, finally finding one right outside the Jules Verne Museum.

We walked into town to admire Amiens Cathedral, the tallest complete cathedral in France with the largest interior volume. We walked inside this world heritage listed building, admiring the chapels, one of which was dedicated to the Allied soldiers from the UK, USA, Canada and Australia.
Above: Ace at Amiens
Below: Amiens Cathedral - I won 2nd place for this photo in the Guardian Saturday Magazine 2 weeks ago for the theme of space
We stopped off for half an hour in an internet café to update our website (yes, shamefully, we have not updated it again until now, apologies!) and then had a quick bite to eat in a café before heading back to Ace.

It was getting late in the afternoon and we had a good 2 hour drive ahead, but I still managed to drag Sarah into the Jules Verne Museum right next to Ace. The “father of science fiction” lived in this house with his family from 1882 to 1900. It was quite interesting exploring the house, the library, the study, the winter garden, the salon. The 3rd level of the house was devoted to posters and other paraphernalia from his books and from movies based on his books.

Finally we drove off towards a farm campsite near the coast where we had spent our first night in France in June, it seemed fitting we would spend our last night here too! We stopped twice en route, once in Abbeville for fuel and groceries and a second time in the middle of nowhere for me to take some photos of some beautiful black and white cows. I love the cows! And they love me!
Left: Jules Verne Museum

We arrived at La ferme des Aulnes and Sarah stayed in Ace as I went and checked in. Once again I jumped into a golf cart and whizzed past Sarah and off into the well laid out area where the pitches were situated. Unfortunately being so close to Calais, the campsite was full of whinging poms! The 2 or 3 couples we saw were absolutely miserable! We had a quiet night and went to bed early.

The next day we got up and drove off towards Calais on the motorway. The fog was quite incredible but we managed to get to Carrefour for one final spend up. We bought a bottle of champagne, a bottle of whiskey and a couple bottles of wine.

We hot tailed it towards the ferry and waited in the queue. A mixture of emotions overcame us, happiness that, apart from a lot of pregnancy sickness in the final weeks, we’d lasted our trip without any major problems, joy at the prospect of seeing family again, and sadness that our trip around Europe had finally come to an end after 5 months on the road.
Left: I love the cows! And they love me!

The ferry headed off and an hour or so later we could see the white cliffs of Dover! It was amazing to be back in England after 5 months away and incredibly strange to drive on the left hand side again and see signs in miles and yards!

It was quite a long drive back to Wolverhampton, but thankfully the sun was shining and it was a lovely autumn day. We arrived back at Sarah’s aunty Anitas around 5pm. We parked up Ace for a well deserved rest!
Left: Ace in the ferry queue

We did it! 142 nights on the road, 14 countries visited (including whistle stop tours in Monaco and the Vatican!) and 11,000 miles journeyed. Our travels around Europe in a motorhome had come to an end. Thanks to everyone who has read this blog, looked at the photos, made a comment, tried to make a comment (apparently it didn’t work sometimes?) or emailed us while on the road. We really appreciated you keeping in touch!

But this is not the end of the story for Sarah and I (and chicken junior!) - this is only just the beginning!

Above: Happy times on the road - Sarah and I at Mont St Michel in June

From Mulhouse to Amiens

This post covers our journey northwards towards Calais, visiting the medieval towns of Langres and Provins.

On Sunday afternoon we drove 2 and a half hours to our next campsite – Lac de la Liez – situated just outside the medieval walled town of Langres. The campsite was very busy with British and Dutch tourists, all of the pitches anywhere near the facilities blocks were taken. We set up Ace on the first fairly decent place we could find then donned our bathing suits and headed towards the heated indoor pool. We had a quick swim but we’d had enough within a few minutes and headed, dripping wet, in the cold air towards the shower block. As we split up Sarah thought some old bloke was looking at her strangely….

Half way through her shower, the lights went off. Oh no… maybe this strange man had crept into the shower block, turned off the lights and was now waiting to attack her? Or maybe the lights are on a timer and exactly the same thing had happened to me? Yes, I had to run out of the shower in the nude to hit the switch again, luckily there was no one about!
Above, left and below: Langres

Not overly impressed with luke warm showers and lights that switch themselves off, we decided to only stay one night at this campsite. The next morning, Monday 1 October, we packed up and headed into the nearby town of Langres, which sits high up on a hill and is surrounded by a huge town wall. We parked Ace up just outside the wall under some trees whose leaves had just started to turn a golden yellow. Langres was quite a charming little place.

We walked along the main street, window shopping as we went, and finally ended up in a bakery café eating a warm croissant and drinking a cappuccino. We took the long way back to Ace, exploring more of the town on the way back.

From Langres we continued north towards our next campsite which was about 2 hours away. We stopped twice en route, the first time was for me to take some photos of wildflowers along the road. After 15 minutes or so, Trudy had got out of the van and shouted “hurry up!” so I headed back with a three pretty flowers for her as a peace offering.

Our second stop was for me to pop into a supermarket to get some food. Sarah stayed in the van – until now we’ve omitted some details from the 2nd week of September onwards…. We’d discovered in Spain in late August that Sarah was pregnant! WOOHOO! From about the 6th September however, she had been feeling very ill, all day!

Lying on the bed in Ace she sent me brain waves.. matt buy some fish, matt buy some fish… must’ve worked because even though it wasn’t on the list I came out with some fresh salmon, yum!

We continued north after our shop, eventually turning off the main road and heading a few kilometres deep into the countryside, where the roads were barely wide enough for Ace to fit down. Somehow we ended up driving past the signs to our campsite but we realised our mistake and headed back.
Above: Don't be Trude! Wildflowers
Below: Ace on the farm, sort of...

We arrived at the small farm campsite which was pretty informal. A friendly woman greeted us and told me where everything was. The facilities were pretty basic but the pitches were nice and big and shaded by lots of trees and shrubs. Even though it was in the middle of nowhere, the campsite was quite popular, there were 3 british motorhomes and a dutch motorhome there. We had salmon and chips for dinner and watched more of Heroes Series 1 on DVD.

The next day, we drove slightly out of our way towards the medieval town of Provins, a half an hour drive from the farm. We parked along a residential street on the outskirts and walked into town. The low town was quite a pleasant place with interesting shops and a beautiful old wooden church, but it was the high town with its medieval buildings we had come to see. Sarah struggled up the hill but eventually we made it to the top.

Left: Tour Cesar
Below left: View from Tour Cesar
I decided to climb the 12th century Tour César which gave a great view over the town and surrounding region. At the top there were a few thousand tiny flies, so I don’t think Sarah would’ve enjoyed it anyway! Back on terra firma with Sarah, we walked towards the old town. On the way Sarah threw up into a paper bag, unfortunately some of it leaked onto my fleece!

We searched the old town in vain for a boulangerie where we could grab a croissant, but the only eating places here were posh restaurants. We headed slowly back to Ace and sought out the nearby McDonalds with our GPS. Our baby just loves a nice McDonalds and Mum is never sick after a plain cheeseburger and fries!
Below: Historic building, Provins

Many things that Sarah used to love to eat (plums, porridge, vegetables etc) now are thrown back up. A packet of ginger nuts and a bottle of powerade are now her new companions!

After our Mac attack we set sail for the town of Amiens where we had stayed in early June, a 3 hour drive north. As we got to the campsite, I checked us in as Sarah was vomiting in Ace. I chatted to the friendly receptionist and was chuffed she remarked that my French was very good. I returned the compliment and told her that she spoke English very well. She then looked at me like I was crazy until I explained that I remembered her from when I was there in June speaking English to some Dutch people. The campsite was a lot less busy than the summer, but the weather was no different, a grey blanket of fog and cloud overhead. We set up Ace on a nice pitch and started to make plans for our last full day in France.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Mulhouse – trains, planes and automobiles

This post covers our time spent in Mulhouse, Walsall’s twin town in France.
We drove into France on one of the few free motorways, passing a large Peugeot factory and an airport. On the way out of Switzerland signs pointed toward Basel-Euro Airport. When we entered France the signs suddenly changed to Basel-Mulhouse Airport. Even though this joint airport is technically in France, it seems the Swiss didn’t want to even acknowledge Mulhouse at all on their signs!
Until I started work in Walsall I’d never heard of Mulhouse. I knew the name now because it is the only town brave enough to have become Walsall’s twin town! Mulhouse though was obviously not content with having the jewel of the Midlands as it’s only twin town and has gone to acquire 5 or 6 other twin town buddies as well.

Left: Mulhouse
Below: Train Museum

When we were driving though the town centre the first thing we noticed was the shiny new tram system. Like many French cities such as Caen, Bordeaux and Clermont-Ferrand, the French have turned to the tram to solve their public transport problems. We got a bit lost heading to the campsite (our GPS tried to usher us under a low bridge that would’ve decapitated poor Ace) but eventually we arrived at the Camping Municipal. Run by the council, they charge the bargain price of €12 a night plus only €1 for 2 hours of WiFi connectivity, bargain! The toilets and showers were old but okay, although there was something wrong with hot water while we were there.
The next morning we got up early and bought a joint ticket to the train and car museums at the campsite reception. We started off with the Cité du Train, when we arrived just before 10am, two bus loads of pensioners had just arrived and were milling about in front of the brightly coloured façade of the museum. Some of them seemed rather fascinated at these young(ish) anglais in their right-hand drive camping-car.

We entered the first part of the museum, a huge hall filled with engines and carriages. The first lot of oldies had moved on from the first display so Sarah and I stayed back listening to the translation on our audio guide. A woman in her 30s with a video camera came over to us mumbling under her breath. Eventually she repeated in French “I can’t film the trains with you two in the way” motioning to us that we should move on from the first display. How bloody rude! I told her we’d bought tickets like everyone else and she could get stuffed!

We spent two hours in all at the train museum. There are huge 2 halls full of locomotives which tell the history of the railways. Some of the exhibits include the President of France’s train (until rail travel was discontinued in the early 70s), a snow plough train, early locomotives designed by British engineers for use in France, and a video showing the TGV breaking the world record speed of 574 km / hour.
Below: Automobile Museum, looks cool in black and white hey?

After lunch we headed to the French National Automobile Museum – the Schlumpf Collection. Once again the museum is quite spectacular – housed in a former woolen mill, there are over 400 cars on display. The former owner of the woollen mill, Fritz Schlumpf, amassed a huge private collection with the profits of his textile ventures. From the 1960s onwards he had a full time workshop of several dozen employees restoring cars for him. In the early 1970s the price of textiles dropped and Schlumpf fled for Switzerland. The government took over his collection and opened the museum in the 1980s.

Cars here range from very early models at the turn of the century right up until the early 1970s. Bugattis were a clear favourite of Fritz with dozens of them in the collection. We took a guided 20 minute tour of the museum which pointed out the highlights. I’m not particularly a car lover, but even I was in awe of the sheer number and variety of vehicles on display. The gem of the museum is a priceless Bugatti Royal – only 6 of which are in existence.

After the car museum we had a look around Mulhouse town centre. Most of it was fairly quiet being a Sunday, but in the main square in front of the cathedral, Place de la Reunion, there was a textile fair taking place and it was quite lively. After a wander round we jumped back in Ace around 4pm, we had a campsite to get to before sundown!

Left: Someone had to pose in the fur coat and hat and it wasn't going to be Sarah!
Below left: 1920s Bugattis

Below: Watch out, Sarah's behind the wheel! / Formula 1 cars

North by Northwest

This post covers our 4 day drive from Rome through the St Gothard Tunnel in Switzerland to France - without a crop duster or Cary Grant in sight.

On Wednesday afternoon we drove north from Rome along the SS1 towards Bibbona. We enjoyed our last stay at the campsite there and it was only €14 a night. It was pretty hot as the sun was beating down, I could just imagine lying beside the pool in a couple of hours! We arrived at the campsite and set up Ace just as a few clouds were passing overhead. No problem, we could go to the pool in 10 minutes or so… wrong! First of all the rain started, then the thunder and lightning, then later on into the night, hail! We bought 2 pizzas from the restaurant at the campsite then headed back to Ace to devour them.

Above and below: Railway cars, Switzerland

The next morning (Thursday) it was still raining as we drove northwards. We stopped in the industrial city of Livorno to get some groceries and then continued north-east towards Parma. We stayed at a campsite in the middle of nowhere which was recommended in one of our guides. We don’t know why they recommended it though as it was horrible. The pitches were uneven and muddy and the facilities were very badly looked after.

On Friday we drove north-west towards Milan, driving through town after town. These 3 days of driving were pretty boring – the weather wasn’t the best and neither was the scenery. Near Milan we decided to play our new game of “count the roadside hoes”. I guessed there would be 5 prostitutes plying their trade along the way and Sarah guessed 3. There were 9!

We drove on past the airport and up to a campsite on the shores of Lago Maggiore. This campsite only had a few touring pitches, the rest were permanent caravans belonging to families for their holidays. Only a handful of them were occupied this time of year. The rest were locked up for the winter - many with covered boats, garden gnomes, bicycles, tables and chairs. I thought I had discovered a bargain – the washing machines and dryers had a sign on saying “Price 1.00”. I quickly discovered though this meant 1 token (available at reception for €4) and not €1! Oh well, our washing will have to wait until we get home!

On Saturday morning we set off at 9.30am for our drive through Switzerland. There was a bit of a queue at the border crossing as the guards were scrutinising the cars and occasionally pulling some over. They took one look at our GB number plate and waved us through. The scenery in this Italian speaking part of Italy was very pretty - green hills dotted with towns, cities hugging the shore of large lakes, emerald green rivers flowing alongside the motorway. The weather still hadn’t improved, the rain was coming down and clouds loomed overhead.

There was a large queue to get into the St Gothard Tunnel. The motorway leading up to the tunnel is a dual carriageway but the tunnel is a single carriageway so you have to merge lanes then there are a set of traffic lights which only allow in 10 or so vehicles at a time. The tunnel was about 17km long in total with several other tunnels following the main one. As soon as we came out the other side into German-speaking Switzerland the weather improved instlantly – blue skies and sun!

We stopped for lunch at a motorway services where I took the opportunity to take some photos of some brightly coloured railway carriages on display while Sarah lay on the bed uttering “you’re such a nerd” under her breath. (By the way, Sarah contests the fact she ever said this…) We continued north past beautiful Lake Lucerne and once again admired the beautiful lakeside towns and villages as we whizzed past at 120 km / hour. With so many kilometres to go to Calais there was no stopping this time unfortunately. We eventually got to Basel where we then took the autoroute west – a big smile came across my face as we drove past the France signs, I looked over to my companion but she was fast asleep.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Rome - it wasn't built in a day you know...

This post covers our time in the Eternal City. Friends, Romans, blog lovers, lend me your ears!

On Wednesday we tried to leave our campsite at Marina di Bibbona at 1pm but they had just closed and locked the gates and we were told we couldn’t leave until 3pm! Eventually we left just after 3pm and drove south for an hour and pitched up camp at a crappy campsite 150 metres from the beach. The place was pretty quiet and not being high season, the facilities weren’t being looked after very well.

On Thursday we drove 3 hours south to Rome, it was a slow drive at at one point we had to go back on ourselves 10km and take a toll road as flames and smoke were billowing across the free road! We don’t know what was on fire but the traffic was turning around and heading back. We needed Sarah’s Dad Tony!

Above: Colleseum
Below: What is this, a stripes convention? Mum, Dad and I in Rome

At 4pm we got to Rome and left Ace at a motorhome storage place about 20 minutes away from the city centre. We packed up our bags and got the metro into town, I don’t know how we managed with as many bags as we did! We got out of the metro at the Colleseum and walked around the corner to the street where Mum and Dad had their appartment. We walked up and down trying to find the name of the apartment but we couldn’t find it. After 45 minutes I finally found a phone and on the 4th attempt got through to Dad’s mobile. Phew!

The apartment was on the 3rd floor and accessed by either the stairs or a very skinny old lift! As they are early risers, Mum and Dad kindly gave us their room and they took the sofa bed in the kitchen / lounge area. We went out for dinner that night at a local restaurant and had some great bruschetta and pizza, not to mention a few beers!

Left: Fiat 500 and a scooter, how Italian!

We did the open top tour bus of Rome on Friday which took a couple of hours and then chilled the rest of the day. Mum and Dad went for a walk and on their travels Dad bought some ridiculous looking white hat for the bargain price of €3. We had an early dinner that night as we were off to Pompeii at 6.45am the next morning. That didn’t discourage Dad and Steve from sneaking out for a late night beer at the Irish pub across the road, Dad wore his new hat… oh the shame!

Left: Dad and Steve - a late night beer isn't a late night beer unless you're wearing a dodgy looking hat...

At 6.45am we were picked up for our tour to Pompeii and Naples. Dad and Steve were a little bit quiet… I wonder why! At 7am we arrived at the drop off point and waited for an hour before the coach finally arrived. After an hour we stopped at a restaurant for a 20 minute break which we all thought was a bit unnecessary. It was obviously a racket all the tour buses were playing along with. A rather small coffee was €2.50, twice the usual rate. We arrived at Naples a couple hours later and were shown a few places before we headed to Pompeii.

First up we had a look around the cameo jewellery showroom followed by lunch in a restaurant. First course was soup or pasta, second course was fish or pork and dessert was choc-chip ice cream. One of the waiters thought it was hilarious to pile my plate with twice as much pasta as everyone else! He must’ve thought I needed a good feed?

Next up was a 2 hour walking tour around Pompeii with Salvatore. He pointed out sights of interest around the town which had been buried in pumice stone and volcanic ash when Mt Vesuvius erupted. Some of the highlights included frescoes, mosaics, drinking fountains, a bakery, and a Roman-style fast food place.

Above: Colleseum by night
Below: Plaster cast at Pompeii

He also explained that an archaeologist excavating Pompeii in the 19th century had devised an ingenious technique of finding out how people had spent their final moments before death. When they found a hole in the ruins of stone and ash they would pour plaster into it. The hole would exist because after the citizens of Pompeii had been buried their bodies would decompose and only their bones would remain, leaving hollow sections in the layers of debris. When the plaster was dry they would remove it to reveal what position their body was in at the time of death. Plaster casts on display show people crouching and even a pregnant woman lying face down trying to shield her unborn baby.

Before setting off home people broke off to the various souvenir and jewellery stores to spend some euros. I hit the gelato stand! Mmm coffee ice cream! After 3 hours and another unnecessary stop at another restaurant, we arrived back in Rome at 8pm.

On Sunday Sarah and I had a sleep in and then stayed in the apartment until after lunch.
After Mum and Dad got back after their morning rambling, all four of us headed out. We walked to a metro station then took the train to Spagna to see the Spanish Steps. There were hundreds of tourists there so we kept on walking to the Trevi Fountain where, you guessed it, there were thousands of tourists! We wandered around then got the metro back to the Colleseum. On Sunday night we had dinner in the apartment followed by an Italian quiz I found on the internet. It was a close finish but the winner was none other than the lil chicken! I was very proud of Sarah!

Above: Pantheon
Below: After the fall of the Roman Empire even Caesar has to do his own grocery shopping...
On Monday Mum, Dad, Sarah and I headed out for a walk. We had a quick look in the huge discount clothes store Dad had bought his funky new hat from and Sarah bought a new pair of shoes. We then took the metro to the Vatican City to have a close up look at St Peters. The crowds here were incredible, September is certainly high season for Rome! Dad enquired about a horse and cart ride and the price quoted was €150! This was quickly reduced to €100 but we weren’t interested!

Dad kindly shouted us to a coffee at an outdoor café, unfortunately though it was probably the worst coffee in Rome, maybe even in the whole of Italy! Dad said his latte was like a glass of warm milk and my cappuccino was a disgrace! We got the bus half way home then jumped off to look around. We bought coffee at McCafe which was fantastic, hot, cheap and straight from an espresso machine! We wandered towards the Panthenon and had a look inside before wandering back to the apartment. Once again I was quiz master that evening, this time the subject was Paris. Once again the winner was Sarah! I kept telling her to start getting some questions wrong otherwise it would look like a fix!
Below: Dad, Mum, Jenny, Steve - Palantine Hill

On Tuesday morning we all got up early and headed to the Colliseum for the opening time of 8.30am. We wandered around listening to the audioguide commentary which was enjoyable as it was reasonably quiet. The Colliseum was plundered by Romans over the centuries for its stone and marble so you need some imagination when you step inside it. Sarah and I both thought the amphitheatre we saw in Nimes last year was better - it is still used for concerts and bullfights today and it had a great commentary about the different types of gladiators.

As we left the crowds were starting to pour in, so were the guys dressed up as gladiators or emperors charging tourists €5 a photo! Apparently these Russell Crowe wannabes are strictly regulated by the council! We wandered around the Palantine Hill then Mum, Dad, Sarah and I headed back to the apartment while Steve and Jenny continued their sight seeing. After lunch Sarah and I headed back to the clothes store where she bought yet another pair of shoes!

That evening we jumped on a small electric powered bus and got off about a kilometre from the apartment. Dad had chosen a restaurant for dinner which was great. We sat out on the pavement and enjoyed pizza, pasta and bruschetta. We then wandered home, via the gelateria of course!
Above left: Me and Sarah
Left: The gang at dinner

The next morning Dad paid for a taxi for us to get our stuff back to Ace, even with 4 people it would’ve been a struggle on the metro! We gave them a tour of Ace and then said our goodbyes until next month when we see them in Wolverhampton. Sarah and I took the SS1 north bound, after 6 nights away, it was strange to be back in Ace!