France, on the Way to Spain

As an Hispanophile I have recently considered France as a ‘necessary evil’ between England and Spain, should one be forced to use the roads rather than the sea or air. I have been there on multiple holidays, including one where Amanda and I used the motorways to drive down to Perpignan, but it never really appealed over Spain. But twenty hours of sitting high up behind the wheel of Hercules, avoiding the tolls, and with no-ones company but my own, has somewhat changed my opinion.

I had decided that for the solo journey home I would avoid as many toll roads as I could, so I was condemned to lots of single carriageway roads with the occasional roundabout. The main menace were the hundreds of speed cameras which seemed to be located in even more stupid places than they are in England, and the resulting build-up in traffic, as I tried to avoid getting points to my name in yet another European country.

One of Amanda’s friends, the lovely Jenny and long-suffering husband Tony had agreed to put me up for the night in Clergoux (in the central massif) and had promised me a good meal, a glass of wine (or three), and a comfy bed.

After discovering that it is only possible to buy ‘Cheese & Ham’ sandwiches from French service stations, which isn’t great for a vegetarian,  the thought of a hot meal, and some decent conversation, was well worth the 175km (1 ½ hour) detour. After getting lost just once under my own steam, I followed Tony’s instructions to the letter, and thirteen hours after leaving the barn I was stood in Jenny’s kitchen, clutching a nice cup of tea and comparing French/Spanish diesel prices.

Revitalised after a great nights sleep, I set off around nine-thirty leaving my benevolent hosts to their day, and set the satnav to avoid all toll roads (quickly forgetting that Tony had told me that I must take a short seventy cent toll across to the A20).

The satnav obeyed without question and within ten minutes it exposed the folly of my plan.

I always ridicule the many tales of people who follow their satnav systems onto railway lines or into canals, but now I found myself at the entrance to a small hump-backed stone bridge wondering whether Hercules would fit, or worse, whether he’d become beached on the summit. After a minutes consideration I decided to persevere, as navigating the last three kilometres in reverse seemed like the greater of the two evils.

After negotiating the bridge the ‘trial by small spaces’ wasn’t over.

I was then in the smallest of villages (Gimel-les-Cascades), in the largest of vehicles, with a very tight left turn to make between two houses. I accelerated gently and waited for the crunch which would signify that a nice eighteenth century French cottage was gaining twenty-first century red stripe. But mercifully it never came.

The first chance I got I stopped and re-programmed the navigation.

The rest of the journey was without incident. Downtown Orleans was downtrodden and a bit grim with boarded up businesses and empty office blocks, but apart from that the French countryside was delightful. Small, beautiful, well-kept villages. Small, pretty, towns to by-pass, and mile after mile after mile of rolling fields and tree lined avenues.

franceMuch of Northern France had been driven in the dark on our trip out to Spain but I saw it in its full glory on the way home and there was much to like. The good, or possibly bad, news was that the awful rotten cabbage stench which had plagued us for the first four hours on our outward trip was nowhere to be smelled. This inclines me to believe it might have had more to do with my co-pilot than he was letting on.

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Natures Hamper Overflows

Despite cutting it extremely fine, on Tuesday I managed to get Chris on his plane back from Asturias Airport to Stansted. Left to my own devices I had just over a week to ‘potter’, do jobs, put up shelves, clean, find homes for possessions, and visit the neighbours for coffee and cake.

One of things I did manage to do, was take a wander around the finca and have a good look at what was growing. Being mid-August, and with Carlos having removed his horses due to ‘hierba mala’ (bad grass -  a slightly different connotation to what most inner city youth would imagine), mother nature had taken over and was exercising full rampant control.

I don’t think that I’ve ever been at the house at early harvest time before and it was enlightening to see what fruits and vegetables were battling drought and neglect and persevering to ripeness.

Despite being uninhabited for around forty years the land has been managed by Carlos (we bought it from his sister) and when we’ve made trips out in September the boughs and branches have been stripped bare into wooden boxes, which I assume have been nicely stacked away in Carlos’ larder for the long winter.

Plums?Peaches?GrapesBlackberriesApplesMore Apples

I’m not sure about the top two photos but suspect plums and peaches (any help appreciated), although the latter are as hard as bullets at the moment. The rest are fairly easy to identify.

We’ve also got; Potato, wild garlic, mint (at least two types), cherries, possibly a couple of pear trees, and a fig tree (without fruit this year as it has put all its effort into growth after we demolished it with a digger last winter).

I suspect that by the time we get out there in mid-October everything will have vanished, either by Carlos or by nature. But we now know what we can bank on for next years harvest, albeit depriving Carlos of his usual free bounty.

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Thirty two hours to Paradise

If you say thirty-two hours fast then it seems like nothing, but when you are munching the miles in 3.5 tonnes of  Mercedes Sprinter and avoiding the expensive French toll roads, then believe me, it feels like forever.

I left Huddersfield at 13:00 on Saturday, picked my co-pilot Chris up at Stansted airport at 17:00, and we got to Dover just after 19:00 for a 21:00 sailing to Calais.

We’d decided to take two hour shifts (approximately) and Chris suggests that I took the first on the continent. As it turned out all of my stints behind the wheel were on free-flowing roads and motorways with reasonable weather, but Chris had all the congested, urban and road works stretches when the weather occasionally verged on the apocalyptic. It wasn’t deliberate though!

Coffee, biscuits, croissants, chocolate, crisps, and water were our staple diet, normal fare for Chris, but unusual for me to not have anything green or fruity for thirty hours.

vanAt 21:15 on Sunday night we finally made it to the barn, about thirty minutes before dusk, and after thirty-two hours of travelling. The van hadn’t missed a beat or given a single grumble. We’d been relentless and ‘Hercules’ seemed to revel in the challenges that we threw at him.

The highlight of the journey was the pair of us singing along to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ at full pelt at three o’clock in the morning. All the right notes were in there, but just not in the right order.

Chris’s stay was all too short but he had obligations back home. We visited Rinlo for tapas, the supermarket so I could stock up on provisions for my stay (and for Chris to buy pasta, wine and oil for me to bring him back), and we had a great meal at Hotel Taramundi on Monday night so that Chris could try the Fabas.

All too quickly he was on the plane home but vowed to return to a green Spain which was a long way removed from his expectation of sun, sea and sangria.

Now down to the hard work trying to find a home for our possessions and to leave the place looking tidy as next time Amanda will be with me.

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The ‘Old Firm’ is Back Together for its Swansong

Since purchasing the big red van I’ve been on a quest to find the perfect co-driver for my trip to Galicia, to ensure the safe passage of all our valuable possessions (and Amanda’s shoes and handbags).  The choice of an ideal accomplice was far from simple.

I needed someone that is; dependable, mature, safe behind the wheel, fluent in French and with enough charm to talk us out of the clutches of the gendarmerie or guardia civil, should the occasion arise.

In the end, and in absolute desperation, I plumped for the only person who was allowed by their Wife/Mum/Work/Probation Officer/Doctor to join me in my quest, and at least he’s got one of my desired co-pilot qualities, he’s mature! With the other desirable qualities…we’ll just have to take our chances.

bbbmwChris and I have history. He was my colleague and co-director for close on twenty years and this won’t be the first time that we’ve driven to Spain together, although this time will be somewhat different to the first.

Back in 2009 we took part in Barcelona Bangers, a charity ‘race’ from Calais to Barcelona in a car that had to have cost less than £200.

We managed to acquire a clapped out four cylinder BMW for the princely sum of £195, spend a few hundred pounds making it roadworthy, and then covered it in paper maps and sponsors logos on the way to making over £4,500 for our chosen charity, MapAction.

The car made it to Barcelona with just the smallest of glitches and then decided to ‘turn up its toes’ in an underground car park at our hotel. Had I not been able to convince a bell-boy, in very poor Spanish, that we were prepared to give him the car in exchange for his signature in the ‘Permanent Export’ box on the V5 certificate, we’d have missed our flight home.

It was a terrific adventure as we travelled in convoy with a Jeep dressed as a bull, a Fiat Pope-Mobile covered in condom advertising which drew hatred from the populous of the deeply Catholic heartlands of western France, and sixty or so other garishly decorated old bangers.

Chris has made some sacrifices to join me, and I’d specifically like to thank his long-suffering wife and daughters for giving their blessing for him to come on my Galician odyssey.

Our 2,060 kilometre (1,290 miles) journey starts on Saturday lunchtime and we hope to be at the Barn in Galicia sometime on Sunday evening having travelled all weekend and avoided the majority of the road tolls, traffic jams, road works and the various traffic enforcement authorities.

Tomorrow is all about packing, weighing, and then unpacking enough things to make the journey at a legal weight. Fortunately my brother Ian is coming to lend his muscles for the afternoon.

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A Big Red Addition to the Family

I don’t know whether statistics exist that inform on the average number of cars that someone owns within their lives. I suspect that if they do, there is a chance that I’m slightly above average with twenty-five vehicles in twenty-seven years of driving.

I’ve been fairly brand loyal with half of those being BMW’s. But the adventurous side in me has led to some experimentation with two each of SAAB, Mercedes, Ford and Mazda and a solitary Renault, Fiat, and Morris. Lastly, who can forget my trusty Land Rover which accompanied me on my Galician adventures in 2011…certainly not the locals who still talk fondly of the blue goddess and her breakdown exploits, whenever I visit.

Tomorrow heralds the arrival of a new chariot, and he’s already got a name, I’ve decided to call him Hercules.

When I was a young teenager there were three vehicles that I always wanted. While I’m sure that normal teenagers had posters of Ferrari, Porsche or the hottest of hatchbacks on their bedroom walls, you’ve probably already guessed from four years of blogging, I’m not particularly normal.

My teenage dreams were of climbing behind the wheel either a BMW or two totally utilitarian vehicles; a Land Rover, and a Ford Transit. Peer through my executive saloon facade and you’ll soon find that a frustrated hippy is lurking inside, just waiting to get out.

Previous blogs have detailed my, not entirely successful, Land Rover escapades, but my van itch was still to be scratched…until now.

HerculesAfter investigating a multitude of options for getting our chattels and treasures to northern Spain I came to the conclusion that the most practical and exciting was to buy a van. I’d then make a couple of road-trips through France and northern Spain before finally bringing the vehicle back to the UK to re-sell it later in the year.

The advantages, in my mind at least, were many; we get to leisurely transfer our stuff to Spain; clear the house in the UK of junk so that I can decorate it before we put it on the market; have the use of a van for the first couple of months in Galicia; and above all…to have a couple of brilliant adventures. As I’ve said since the start of the Galician project, it is ‘all about the journey, not the destination’.

Extensive internet research convinced me that I was going to have to sacrifice my Ford Transit dreams and seek out a Mercedes Sprinter with a diesel engine and a long wheel base. With some excitement, tomorrow I collect a 2004, deep red, LWB Sprinter from a dealer in Bury with just two weeks to spare before the first planned excursion.

He, for a van must surely be masculine, has been given the name Hercules due to being 3.5 tonnes with a load capacity of around 1,200 kg. I’m now trying to work out how much we can get on the first trip without being over laden when we inevitably get pulled over by the police, gendarmerie, or guardia civil (or possibly all three).

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