It was with a great deal of excitement that we set off on our autumn trip to France, especially as we had our new (to us) camper van to test out. There were numerous things we wanted to try out in fact everything from performance to living without solar panels. We were also using the Newhaven to Dieppe ferry for the first time as it on paper at least, would save both money and mileage. In the end things didn’t quite turn out as planned – read on.
The journey to Newhaven went without any trouble. The engine pulled well however it quickly became clear that the sixth gear is predominantly an overdrive gear. We arrived at Newhaven in plenty of time for the ferry and arrived in Dieppe on time at around 10:30 pm. Our first potential issue came within 400 yds of the terminal – the first Dieppe Aire was full so we had to move to the other side of the harbour to the second Aire and we were lucky as there was only two places left. We felt sorry for the rest of the ferry travelers as being the first off the ferry we bagged the space whereas many others were left looking around.
The following morning we found the nearest supermarket with the intention of filling up with fuel, getting a few provisions and heading for Chartres for our first stop. After filling up with fuel the camper refused to start. The engine wouldn’t even turn over and gave the impression that the immobilizer had kicked in. I tried all the usual things, loose connections etc. but nothing worked. I even tried calling Van Bitz in case it was the alarm system that had immobilized the engine but they said it couldn’t have been the alarm. Fortunately we were next to a Norauto centre and their electrician came out to take a look. By this time the service station cashier was getting a little hot under the collar as we were blocking the pumps and they were busy. The electrician wiggled a few wires, scratched his head and suggested I try using the fiat master key. Bingo the engine started so I left the engine running after moving off the pumps, settled the bill and off we set for Chartres.
We decided to stop for lunch and the Autoroute service area on the A13. Big mistake. After lunch the engine wouldn’t start again. After an hour of trying in vain to get life into the thing, including jump leads etc. I decided to call the insurance breakdown service – after all we had paid our premiums for over 10 years without any claims. Breakdown services can’t recover vehicles on Autoroutes as they are privately owned and all breakdowns have to go through the police. Another 2 hours went by and out came a recovery truck and winched the camper up on the low loader and took us to a garage. The Fiat computer was plugged in and the mechanic declared flat battery. A new battery was fitted but alas this didn’t fix the problem. The mechanics worked for around 6 hours into the evening trying to find the problem. In the end they said the problem was down to a “corroded wire” however they suggested the battery could have been part of the problem. I wasn’t convinced and less so after discovering the price was €399 just for a replacement battery. (£75 in UK) We finally left the garage around 9 pm and decided to travel to the Aire at St Andre de l’Eure. A very nice spot however the village was closed due to road works so didn’t get chance to explore.
The following morning we set off for Chartres and arrived late morning. We enjoyed a couple of pleasant days at Chartres and in the evening were treated to the son et lumiere light show at the cathedral and all around the city. We can highly recommend a visit to see this as it was well worth the trip. It is a pleasant walk into the city along the river and Chartres old town is very pleasant. We also noticed that there is a new Aire some 300 mtrs down the road and would make a good over night stop especially when the campsite is closed. One downside may be road noisy as the Aire is alongside a fairly busy road.
We had changed our intended itinerary and decided not to visit the Volcania area this time and spend a few days at Rocamadour instead. We left Chartres and headed south spending the night at a well visited Aire at Uzerche, moving on to Rocamadour the following morning. During the journey to Rocamadour yet another problem with the camper – the engine management warning light kept coming on for a few hours, then it would go off – all very disturbing. We had intended to stay at the campsite at Hospitalet however we noticed a new Aire at the back so stayed there along with some 15+ other campers. We have visited Rocamadour on several occasions and never get tired of the place. This time was no exception and we spent time walking into the town centre and tried a new restaurant some 200 mtrs from the site and had an excellent meal.
From here we resumed our original itinerary and headed east towards the Tarn Gorge, first stopping for the night at Rodez. We were pleasantly surprised with Rodez and the old town and deemed it well worth a visit. For a leg stretch we walked from the Aire along the river and up numerous steps to the old town and spent a few hours exploring around. The cathedral was particularly good with unusual stained glass windows.
From Rodez we went over to the start of the Tarn Gorge proper (I mean where the river starts cutting into the rocks) and spent a couple of days at Ispagnac on the local municipal site. The journey there took us over the lower part of the Massive Central with a very long twisty decent before joining the main road along the river Tarn. Ispagnac village was quite pretty but as with many small French villages they always appear deserted during the day and almost abandoned at night. We walked along the river to the old medieval bridge. From here we moved along the Tarn passing through Saitne-Enimie where we stopped for lunch. The carpark here is very well positioned with stunning views of the river and old villages and you cannot get closer to the river as it was a mere 2 foot away. We would have stayed the night there except for the sign that said no overnight parking. Clearly many French camping car owners can’t read as there were several campers that had obviously parked overnight. The lower village was bustling with tourists and the cafe’s and restaurants were doing well. We walked up into the old village which had been restored beautifully and maintained its old world charm – though again devoid of humans. From here the Tarn became more interesting as the gorge narrowed and got deeper.
Our next stop was La Malene and again we stayed on the municipal campsite. Like Saite-Enimie the car park was right by the waters edge and again it was free and again it asked very politely not to camp over night and directed campers to the municipal site. While staying here we visited the local Tourist Information Centre trying to get both a feel of the place as well as a list of “things to see and do”. We wanted a walking map so we could walk along the river, visit any view points and see all the recommended places of interest. We elected to take the 9 km circular walk – wow what a climb. I think the locals must be direct descendants of Cornish farmers as their assessment of distance leaves a lot to be desired. The young lady in the office said to allow two to three hours however we were still climbing after 2 hours and clearly not even halfway round. I was using my Fitbit to track the walk (very useful) and when reviewing later we discovered we had climbed over 1400 feet – not bad for a couple of pensioners.
We eventually reached the top, walked along the path to the view point and out of principle decided not to pay the €3 to walk onto the viewing platform as we could see almost as good from where we were. We then had to follow the path down a very steep descent back to river level. Thankfully we didn’t have to come up this way as we would certainly have chickened out and returned. Talk about “jelly legs” – walking down steep narrow paths with loose shale and sheer drops is not my idea of fun however the prospect of climbing back up and finding an alternative way back didn’t appeal either. Finally we reached river level and had a pleasant walk along the river back to La Malene. Total distance was just over 11 kms and four hours.
That evening the campsite manager was explaining to everyone that there was a “amber weather warning” for the next 48 hours and we may need to evacuate the area due to flooding. We took this as our cue to move on the following morning and with no more suitable sites open at this time of year we left the gorge and headed on to the A75, staying the night at La Couvertoirade – this turned out to be a good move as before we arrived it started raining – heavily. Within an hour the thunder and lightening started and continued for over 14 hours solid. We have never experienced such heavy rain. Clearly we did not get any sleep and the pounding of rain, hail and thunder meant even conversation was dificult. Fortunately La Couvertoirade is on a hill so we were safe from flooding. That couldn’t be said for further down the road as we soon found out. After it stopped raining we took a look around the village. Being early on a Sunday morning we were not surprised to find everything closed. La Couvertoirade is an ancient Templar village steeped in history. This is the second time we have visited here only to find everything closed. Hopefully third time lucky.
We left La Couvertoirade around mid morning and headed south to spend a couple of days at an old favourite of ours – Grissan. We quickly joined the A75 but soon ground to a halt as all traffic was being diverted off the motorway and through the town of Lodeve. Unfortunately the town of Lodeve was flooded and we witnessed several cars being washed away down the river that had burst its banks. Even worse there had been a landslide that had blocked the main road and we had to wait for over 2 hours while diggers cleared all the rocks, mud and rubble. We truly felt sorry for the inhabitants of Lodeve as all the streets had been flooded and there was tons of silt, rubble and damaged buildings all over the place. We couldn’t understand why the authorities would divert us off the motorway just to be stuck in a traffic jam and have to weave our way through all this rubble. We discovered the answer as we left the town when over on our left we saw that there was a section of the A75 missing where flood water had washed away the foundations and pillars of a bridge leaving the road with nothing to support it.
Once we re-joined the A75 we traveled through miles of countryside where rivers had burst their banks washing away trees, river banks and debris and flooding hundreds of acres of farmland. It looked particularly bad for the wine growers where the grape harvest was just about to begin. Once back on the A75 its a pleasant run down to Grissan and thankfully the good weather had returned. We spent a couple of days relaxing on the Aire at Grissan before heading off to Carcassonne to start work. We spent the following 3 weeks on the campsite “camping de la Cite” and commuting the 2 miles each way every day to our family’s house in the Bastide area of the city. The weather held for us however we were dogged with a persistent cold wind. Our time in Carcassonne past too quickly and we soon found ourselves heading back north. A couple of days before we were due to leave we were joined by our friends from Lewes so we BBQ’d and drank the evenings away catching up with all the gossip.
When we left our intention was to spend a week slowly wending our way home however a couple of concerns dictated our pace and in the end we didn’t spend as much time as planned, stopping at Rocamadour, Chartres and Dieppe before boarding a ferry to Newhaven. On paper the Newhaven to Dieppe crossing is the cheapest one for folks based in the westcountry however we did find the journey from the South West to Newhaven a bit of a bind with a motorhome so it may be our first and last crossing from there. We arrived home without problems however this leaves me in a quandry The camper purred on without a splutter for the last 1000 miles so it makes it rather difficult when I go to the Fiat dealer to ask them to fix a fault that happened some 1000 miles ago and has been fine ever since.