France Feb 2012

We delayed the start of our annual trip south this year by a couple of weeks as our son was visiting us to pick up his new to him VW Caravelle that we had been storing for him since before Christmas.  Dave was taking the VW back to their home in France so once he was safely on his way we set off the following day.  The weather forecast indicated that there was a belt of heavy snow and freezing weather heading across the UK from north west to south east.  Our hope was that we would be ahead of this front and safely make it south before we got hemmed in.  We made it to Folkstone and on to Eurotunnel via Brentwood to visit our friends in good time with clear skies all the way.  We arrived in France around 8pm and after topping up with fuel in Coquelles we drove on down to the Aire at Baie de Somme for the night.  So far so good.

After a peaceful night we awoke to – a blizzard.  The snow had silently been falling for some hours and had settled around six inches deep with considerable drifting.  We figured that as the forecast was for the snow to continue in a south easterly direction and fizzling out the further it went.  We were travelling due South so it would make sense to try and out distance the snow and into better conditions.

A28 north of Rouen

We set off at 7am on a Sunday morning along the A28 only to find we were the first vehicle to venture out in that particular section of motorway and once on it it was not so easy to get off.  It took a couple of junctions before we were joined by other users..   We had a stressful drive down to Rouen passing several trucks that had jack knifed, cars in the ditch and not a  sign of a snow plough.   It became very tricky at times as if we had stopped it would have been difficult to restart, particularly on hills where most folk had fallen foul.  Also stopping would have made it even more difficult for other vehicles as they would have had to drive on to virgin snow to get around us.

N152 near to Chartres

We continued with these conditions until we reached well south of Orleans.   However by that time more vehicles had arrived and they began forging more tracks in the snow making it less of a problem.  We finally left the snow behind around Vierzon near to Bourges and we hadn’t seen a snow plough all day.  Clearly they don’t work Sundays.

By this time it was late afternoon and we had had enough of driving in snow and pulled in to the Aire in the centre of Vierzon.  This is a new Aire and is located by the river some 200 mtrs from the town centre.  Our camper still retained the snow on top and at the rear however we had built up huge snow packs underneath and behind each wheel.  We were later to discover exactly how much snow we had accumulated.

The Aire at Vierzon

The temperature in Vierzon was around minus 5 when we arrived and dropped overnight to around minus 11 so we decided to keep the heating on low overnight to avoid frozen pipes etc. – and to keep warm.  One really good option we have fitted and is available to many camper vans is a heat exchanger that uses engine cooling water to heat the central heating radiators and keep the whole van warm during travelling.  This not only saves gas but eliminates the cold draught experienced on vans when the dash heater can’t cope with heating the whole body of the van.  It also means that when you stop for a coffee or lunch then the whole van is nice and toasty.

Whenever we have the opportunity we always try to do our chores with waste, WC and top up with fresh water.  The service point at Vierzon was turned off with no fresh water and no water to rinse out the cassette.  Also we have learnt that emptying waste in very freezing conditions can also lead to freezing of the waste water valves as residual water freezes the valve when you have emptied your waste.  Lack of water was to become our most serious concern over the whole holiday period.

The following morning we set off south again with relatively clear roads albeit freezing temperatures and made good progress down through Clermont Ferrand on to the A75 and south towards the Med.  We decided to try a new place to spend the night instead of the usual haunt of Millau, so we came off the motorway and headed towards Campagnac – a small village some twelve kilometres off route.

Campagnac – all closed off

We had no difficulty in finding the Aire but was disappointed to discover that it was all closed off with a pile of snow blocking the entrance and it was clear that there had not been any camper vans for a while.  Ah well not to worry, back to the motorway and Millau didn’t seem too bad after all.   We made it to Millau just as the light was fading and thankfully it wasn’t busy and we could use the one and only pitch where we can easily place our Flair.  Millau is a good spot but for whatever reason the council have marked out all the pitches using telegraph poles bolted on top of steel posts around 500mm high.  

Aire at Millau

That makes it difficult for us to move around the Aire with our 8.5 mtrs camper and this becomes impossible when it is full as other campers protrude beyond their pitch making it even more difficult to manouvre.  That night the temperature dropped to minus 15 and naturally the water at the service point was turned off.  In winter Millau is always regarded as our gateway to warmer weather as shortly afterwards the A75 falls from around 3000  ft down to sea level and you are on the Mediterranean coast so spirits usually rise.  Driving down the motorway we began to notice that the wind was picking up and it soon became clear that the Mistral or Tramontane was blowing.  This was confirmed by the overhead road gantry informing us of “Vent Violent” and sadly this was to become the norm for the next three weeks.  The drive from Millau to the coast is not that long and to Gruissan it is just over one hundred miles so we arrived at Gruissan in time for lunch and from inside the van it looked beautiful with clear blue skies and a bright sunshine.  After parking it quickly became obvious that we were parked at right angles to the wind direction as the camper rocked with each gust so we had to turn into wind to minimize the motion.  Experience has taught us that the rear stabilizer jacks have little effect with our camper unless you are parked on solid tarmac or concrete or use large wooden blocks and of course they are stabilisers not jacks so cannot take the weight as caravan jacks do.  Then of course you have to remember the jacks are down so in practice we simply turn into wind and leave the jacks retracted.

The Med at Gruissan

At Gruissan, one of our favourite spots, we experienced a series of “firsts” – the sea water all around Gruissan was frozen – yes the Med was frozen. Next we discovered the Etang at the landward side of Gruissan which is open to the sea was also frozen.  The flocks of Pink Flamingos that inhabit the lake were walking around looking sorry for themselves.

Frozen Lake at Gruissan

The main worry though was the wind with 55+mph winds forecast to continue for several days.  Combine this with temperatures of minus 12 you have a wind chill in excess of minus 20.  Needless to say the water had been turned off and checking around through the tourist info office we established that all the campsites in the area that were open also had their water turned off.  While not desperate we were getting short of water as we also had to use internal water to flush out and wash the cassette.  Showers were cut to a minimum and washing in the mornings relied on face wipes.  

Bitterly cold weather at Gruissan

The camper van next to us had his diesel turn to wax – can you believe that?  I haven’t heard of freezing diesel in the past 25 years or more.  He had to arrange for his camper to be towed away and placed inside a building to “thaw out”.  The owner put it down to summer diesel he bought in Spain.

It was pointless trying to get around at Gruissan as the wind and wind chill made it difficult to walk around.  There were some 30+ camper vans at Gruissan and we rarely saw anyone walking out and about – they even sent their dogs out alone.  The main activity appeared to be changing over their gas bottles and it seemed to us that a 13kg gas bottle only lasted 2 days.  We were feeling smug as we had two underslung LPG tanks with a 150ltrs to work at however we were stunned to discover that after 4 or 5 days our largest tank was empty and had to switch to the second tank.  Most of the vans at Gruissan were suffering from either frozen water tanks in the case of single floor models to frozen waste valves on most vans.

Ice forming in the Marina

It was a couple of days later when refilling our tanks that we discovered the real problem.  The larger tank has its own regulator and that is not protected against frost whereas the other smaller tank has a heated regulator fitted to it.  When refilling our  100 ltr tank we were surprised to find it would only take 25 ltrs and then the penny dropped.  Our regulator had frozen.  After three days the water shortage was becoming critical with camper van owners turning to the Fire Brigade for help.  Disappointingly the only place where we could have gotten water was Gruissan Marina, using their inside shower block.   Sadly the port authorities wouldn’t allow even a watering can of water to be used by camper vans.  With no sign of the wind abating we were forced to move east towards the cote d’Azur.  We went via Carro but again no water and even worse winds.  It was at Carro that we realised the amount of snow we had been carrying for the past 8 days.  While all tucked up inside the camper there was a loud crash  that quite frightened us.  I ventured outside to find 4 very large piles of snow that had fallen from underneath the camper.  We estimated there must have been several wheel barrow loads weighing tens of kilos.  After spending our worst night in a long time while during which I was certain at one point the camper rocked so much that the wheels must have lifted off the ground, we finally set off to take refuge at Le Lavandou where the only service point in the area was fully operational.

By now it was the weekend and a very special one for us as it was our youngest grand daughters first birthday.

Felice at one years old
The previous day our family joined us for the day and we had our first BBQ of the season on the Aire at Lavandou.  Our eldest granddaughter asked if she could sleep over and that was great.    We enjoyed taking her for coffee (hot chocolate) and to the play area before heading off to Les Arc to meet up with our son who was to take us to their home to celebrate our youngest grand daughters first birthday.  

Wild Boar – very tasty!!

This presented another first for us as our son had “procured” a few pieces of wild boar from the local hunter and we BBQ’d them as a starter.  Lucie, our daughter-in-law had prepared a lovely meal for all of us and a special birthday cake for Felice as she is allergic to most dairy foods.


Felice’s Birthday cake with Greta and Lucie

After a lovely day with the family,  Dave drove us back to Les Arc where we spent the night before heading off to Antibes.  We couldn’t top up with water at Les Arc as that too was turned off.  In Antibes we faired much better as the sun continued to shine and the temperature rose to plus 15 and most pleasant of all there a significant drop in wind  strength.

The Aire at Marineland

Antibes is a favourite of ours and has fond memories going back several years during our caravanning days so we know our way around and we had decided to try out a new Aire that was actually closer to the old town than the all year campsites we have used in the past.   While it was a pleasant stay we have to say it was expensive for what it was, a car park, at €24 per day and €1 for every hour over that.  After one day we decided to move to our spot on the edge of Cap D’Antibes.

Parking spot and cafe Cap D’Antibes

Here is a simply gorgeous spot complete with its beach side cafe/restaurant and at the start of the footpath walk around the cap itself.  We stayed a couple of days here as the weather was good, reducing wind with clear skies.  It gave us the chance to walk around the harbour, around the old town and to walk around the cap again.  

The walk around the Cap D’Antibes

The restaurant/cafe is open all year and so on Valentines day we had lunch there sitting in the sun watching the world go by.  We noticed that the council have done a great deal of work on the footpath since our last visit and it now sports a proper concrete and stone slab path with stainless steel guard rails around most of the way.

From Cap D’Antibes we made our way back to Les Arc where we stayed a couple of nights to visit our family using Peggy our MP3 scooter.  Peggy has been a great success for us over the past two years and given us a greater degree of flexibility to visit an area without moving the camper.  The large boot space allows us to do our shopping and laundry although it can be cold in winter.

The Aire at Les Arc

The Aire at Les Arc is located in the grounds of a wine cooperative and the wine sold there is good value for money and we always try and buy a case or so, not just as a form of payment, but because we like it.  From here we moved a short distance to another old favourite the private Aire at St Tropez – Le Chemin de Motte.  Over the years we have seen this place grow to such an extent that it looked like becoming a liability.  The size has increased from around 20 camper vans to well over 70 with no increase in facilities.   For us the main problem was access – we had a very tight and difficult right turn to get in the Aire with a wall at one side and a dyke at the other.  The dyke had a crumbling edge that got more dangerous each visit we made.    We were very pleased and relieved to discover that there is now a new bridge immediately opposite the entrance that means we can come straight in from the main road – marvellous.  The other niggle was that two years ago the owner engaged a “jobsworth” to manage the running of the Aire and my oh my what a pain and officious man he was.  The owner told us that the “jobsworth” had gone as he had caused too many complaints.

Wilfrid, Felice and Greta in the pull down bed

We stayed here three nights and were pleased the family could join us for the weekend -more BBQ’s, more wine and more of the grand children – Bliss.  Sunday evening the family left and we stocked up with water ready to move on with the intention of spending a day at Arles on the Monday however on arrival the wind had increased again and we were back with freezing temperatures so we decided to move to Aigues-Mortes in the Camargue.  

The Aire at Aigues-Mortes

In the past we have stayed at the Aire to the west of the old town with its magnificent views of the old city walls.  Fortunately we couldn’t get the barrier to work so decided to move to the number 4 car park.  It turned out to be a good move as there is a dedicated camper van area with a full service point.  Although the wind was still blowing and the temperature had risen it still felt bitterly cold and I came down with a chest infection.  

Main square at Aigues-Morte

Had it not been for the fact that we were meeting the family in Carcassonne for 5 days we certainly would have headed north taking our time and finishing the holiday early as with both of us in the wars with Annette’s back not getting any better and my chest infection and cold windy weather with the devils own job getting fresh water it didn’t feel like a fun holiday.

We decided to make our way to Carcassonne the scenic route, visiting one or two new villages on the Canal du Midi to try and find a replacement for the now closed Aire at Trebes.  Our first stop was at the small village of Le Somail and what a find.  This most certainly is the new “Trebes” although not as busy in winter.

The Picturesque Aire at Le Somail

 

The Aire is alongside the canal with a cave (wine shop) and hire centre at one end, a 800 year old bridge and bar at the other with a floating restaurant in the middle, all surrounded by boats for hire.  The only flaw was that again the water was turned off.   We only stayed here one night but vowed to return as we needed to move nearer Carcassonne and a visit to the Doctors.

Argens-Minervois

Our next stop was at Argens-Minervois a camper van friendly parking spot again on the Canal du Midi.  Very pleasant if a little too quiet in winter but with a marina opposite we could see that in summer this would be a real hot spot.  

The new Aire at Carcassonne

With the wind still blowing we entered Carcassonne and found the new Aire open and most importantly the services were turned on.  We filled up and waited for the family to arrive later that evening.

Carcassonne was the start of a 5 day break for our family and we were joined by our daughter-in-laws sister Eleanor.

We spent the first day routing around Carcassonne but with the wind still blowing decided that it was more sheltered at Le Somail so we headed off back in convoy.  Dave and Lucie needed to conduct a little business in Carcassonne so we looked after Greta and Felice for the morning cycling along the tow path and looking at the aqueduct, feeding the ducks and creeping up to look at the coypu nest – big rats to most of us but Greta enjoyed it.

Greta feeding the Coypu

From Le Somail we headed out to Gruissan to let the children have a play on the beach and the adults have a bit of R & R before the family headed back to Les Mayons.   It was great to see the family relaxing and as we live some 1100 miles away we don’t get the chance to see them very often.  You can’t visit Gruissan without including a visit to the Oyster farm and so Dave, Wilfrid, Greta and I drove up the farm and settled down to a feast of Oysters and whelks.  We offered first an Oyster and then a whelk to each of the children never expecting them to like them.  Unfortunately both took to sea food like ducks take to water.  Big mistake as that left less for the adults and a bleak future.

Dave and Lucie relaxing at Gruissan

Once the family left we had decided to make a slow journey home and got ready to set off the following morning however surprisingly the wind dropped and the temperature rose quite quickly so we decided to stay another day and soak up the sun.  We got out our bicycles and pedalled to Narbonne Plage and found the Narbonne Plage Aire.  

Aire at Narbonne Plage

The weather forecast at the Tourist Information Office indicated that the weather was to remain settled for the remainder of the week with temperatures rising to around plus 20 centigrade with no wind.  So after a little thought we decided to stay another few days as we thought we deserved it having suffered the best part of 4 weeks of cold and strong winds.

Bishops Palace – Narbonne

The following day we went to Narbonne old town on Peggy and had a good look around.  It was market day and very busy.  Another plus point for Peggy is that being a scooter is it very easy to park and takes up little room.

The next day we took a cycle ride around the Etangs and Oyster beds to the west of Gruissan.    The Etangs are still used to make salt although not to the same extent as years ago.  There appeared to be two “grades” – one was the more refined fine sea salt that is sold for kitchens, restaurants etc. and less refined salt for use on roads.

Cycle route around Salt pans and Oyster beds


 We have often looked across the seaward E’tangs but never visited the area and as we were both up for a 12 miles cycle ride we followed cycle path number one from the Tourist Office.  It was a very pleasant ride, not too many ups and a lot of flats.   We spent another 4 days after the family had left – it was a real shame that the wind dropped and temperatures rose as soon as the family had left.  It would have been great to have had good weather during their visit.  After another cycle ride we finally left Gruissan to start our trip back home.

The Village of Roquefort

We didn’t get far the first day and stopped at the cheese town of Roquefort.  There is a nice Aire in the village by the side of the Tourist Information Office that provided us with a good guide as to what to see etc.

The special bread is stored for 40 days

There are several cheese producing companies that provide both free viewings and conducted  tours around the caves where the cheese is left to mature.  There were explanations of how the cheese is made and we were surprised how it was done – mouldy bread and ewes milk.  The secret (according to the locals) is the storage areas that are caves hewn out of the hillside that have natural fault shafts where fresh air is constantly circulated giving a steady predictable year round temperature.  It has all been fully protected by legislation and European Law.

Mouldy Bread

The bread is first baked at a very high temperature so the crust becomes brown while the inside dough is still uncooked.  It is stored in the caves for up to 30 days then the crust is removed and the inner bread is left another 10 days after which the mould (Penicilium) is then sieved to remove all the unwanted mould then the Penicilium is injected into the cheese and then left a minimum of 90 days to a maximum of 360 days to allow the cheese to mature.  Through a series of international legislation the Roquefort cheese area is only 2kms long and 300 mrs wide so the whole town is taken over by cheese making thus in our opinion has left the village empty of social life with no village square, no cafes and precious few shops.

From Roquefort we headed north stopping off at Le Cheix for a look around and then finally stopping for the night at Saint Porcain sur Sioule.  We had to stay on the carpark as the campsite/Aire was undergoing renovation.  The next morning we set off and headed for Gurgy.  We hadn’t visited here for some three years and found it hadn’t changed a bit. Out came the bikes and we rode into Auxerre to have a look around.   Any fellow travellers that wish to do the same cycle trip just remember when leaving Gurgy cross the river at the first bridge (painted blue) as the path on the northern side fades out resulting in a detour.   The Tourist Office provided a Touristique Carte at €1.50 that took us around the town by following brass markers in the road.  In the end this became too detailed for our simple minds and we bottled out at information point 40 – where the local shopkeeper placed his fish n chips sign in 1846…….

Auxerre Town Square

The guide did explain a little about each place we stopped at and many of them were very interesting however it was the latter ones that became tedious and we got the impression that they had run out of ideas. We had lunch at a cafe in the town square before cycling back to Gurgy.  As it was turning colder and now we had rain to contend with (the first rain of the whole trip) we decided to drive a few miles further north to Provins, a hill town to the east of Paris.  Provins was very interesting with its city walls, underground caves, Tythe Barn and lookout tower.

Provins Lookout Tower 

The old square was very attractive so we decided to have our evening dinner there at the restaurant Le Dome.   On leaving the restaurant it had started to rain heavily and even a dash back to the camper left us well and truly soaked.

At the end of October 2011 our awning had broken and I had not had an opportunity to have a proper look at it to see what the problem was.  After consulting the UK dealers over the telephone it looked like being an expensive job to get it repaired. They needed to spend time assessing the awning, decide what parts were required and come up with a time to fix it.   The problem is that with a 6 mtr awning that extends 2.75 mtrs fitted to the top of a 3.5 mtrs high camper – you begin to see the problem.   Four years ago just after the awning had been fitted the material split and at the time we were passing close by the Omnistor factory so had called in the see what they thought.  Without a question the whole awning was replaced under warranty.  We decided that the best place to get an opinion on our awning this time was to call in the factory and ask if they would have a look.  It would not be too much of a detour so off we went to Menen.    We fully expected to have to pay for any repairs but thought that at least the manufacturers would be the best people to fix it without spending too much time “investigating”.    We arrived around 3.45 pm and were delighted to find that they would have a look there and then.  (eat your heart out UK manufacturers)  They quickly discovered the problem but by now it was 4pm they all finished work at 4:30.   However if we were prepared to come back in the morning we were told they would fix it free of charge.

They offered to let us stay in their compound overnight but warned us that it would be locked up and we would not be able to leave until the next day.  Given that the weather at Menen  was very cold with around 2 to 3 inches of snow and ice we took them up on their offer and stayed overnight and at 8am the following morning we were directed inside the factory building where they promptly replaced the whole awning and we were on our way inside 90 minutes.  Unbelievable – they changed the whole thing even though it was over 4 years old – for free.

From Menen it was a short drive to Gravelines where we spent a windy and very rainy day getting soaked again after taking a short walk in between the lulls to locate and inspect the new service point some 500 mtrs away.  We spent a peaceful night overlooking the marina before heading off the the Eurotunnel station for our trip home.

Major Route while in the South of France with some (in yellow pins) of the places we stopped at.

Overall the holiday was a success despite the weather – the most successful part was meeting up with our family.  We had plenty of sun and clear blue skies but the whole period was marred by strong winds and freezing temperatures.  Worst of all was the shortage of water for the most of the time we were away.   This trip also served as a tribute to our N+B Flair as we didn’t suffer any of the problems most of our fellow camper van owners .  We witnessed many vans freezing up with waste water tanks frozen, water valves frozen and even diesel tanks turning to wax..  Our only problem (which was self inflicted) was that our screen washers froze.  The rubber tubes froze because someone (me) forgot to fit the washer bottle cap back and allowed all the snow/rain etc to enter the bottle and dilute the washer fluid.

Another winter trip of 5+ weeks away without the need to use the generator at all and no use of EHU – I believe we have truly become self sufficient electricity wise.

Trip Statistics:

Time Away 39 days Distance travelled     2803  miles
Cost of Ferry £141.10 Cost of Fuel £816.62
Cost of LPG £50.41 Cost of Tolls £56.41
Cost of Aires £67.29 Fuel for Peggy £5.80
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