All that worry about pet passports, bacon, and a bottle of milk lurking in the back of our fridge was unnecessary.
At the ferry port in Newhaven, The Fab Four’s French passports were given a rudimentary check, and customs waved us through. I guess anyone running a post-Brexit meat and dairy smuggling operation might consider using a less conspicuous vehicle than a 10-metre long NATO-green lorry-camper.
As we queued to board, a chap called Lou spotted us and came over for a chat. He had a peek inside our home.
“My girlfriend’s flat in Verbier is smaller than this, and it cost €600,000! I’m trying to persuade her to sell it and go nomad.”
We agreed heartily with his point,
“We could live just as comfortably in something like your truck for a fraction of the price.”
A seasoned trucker came over to marvel at The Beast. When we told him our plans, he gave us the benefit of his travel advice on Albania,
“They’re all robbin’ b******,” he said.
“Have you ever been there?” we asked.
“Everything we’ve read says that the Albanian people are very kind and welcoming. The UK Government website travel advice usually errs on the side of caution, but even that says that Albanians are very hospitable to visitors.”
Suddenly, we realised that boarding had started, so I didn’t get chance to ask whether his sweeping stereotype of an entire nation included Mother Theresa. She was Albanian.
I doubt it would have made any difference though. My sweeping stereotype is that truth and logic won’t change the mind of a bigot.
Throughout the ferryboat experience, we were forced to play catchup with a traffic queue behind us. Our 32-year-old Beast is a slow starter. She’s not one of these brand new whippersnapper trucks that can shoot off the starting blocks like Usain Bolt with a firework up his backside. She needs time! Time for her engine pre-heat to complete, and time to build up sufficient air pressure for her brakes to be effective. Thankfully, Lou was directly behind us, and had the grace not to hoot.
The Fab Four stayed inside the truck while we were aboard the ferry. Newhaven to Dieppe is a short crossing of only four-hours, and we were granted visiting rights at the mid-point. We were the only puppy parents who chose to go and see their pooches. The French crewman who took us down to the car deck shot us a ‘bonkers English pet owners’ look, but since coronavirus scuppered our skiing plans, our darling doggies have not been left on their own for almost two years.
Mark and I wondered whether it was best to leave them alone once they’d settled, but it was a warm day, and I wanted to make sure they were okay. I have heard terrible stories about dogs dying from the heat on ferries. We were relieved that the truck, with our precious canine cargo, was on the cool side of the boat.
The pups were hysterical when we left after our visit, and so excited when we returned that we were late getting off the ferry! Disembarkation all happened so quickly that our fur babies hadn’t calmed down sufficiently for us to carry them into the cab before our line moved. Once again, we were grateful to have Lou behind us, as The Beast galvanised herself to shift her sixteen-tonne bulk.
With no time to program the satnav before the ferry wanted us to roll off, we stopped in the car park at the port to sort out our destination. Among other tools, Mark uses Google Earth to research stopovers. It allows him to drive ‘virtually’ down highways, check for height and weight limits, and sometimes, it even shows sufficient detail for him to read the rules and regulations around overnight stays on the signs in a car park. However, it is not infallible.
Our planned stop was next to a river in Évreux, around 78 miles (125 km) from Dieppe. As we arrived at the final junction, we saw the last few hundred yards of our route had a 3.5 tonne limit. We pulled on to the verge to decide what to do, as huge wagons hurtled past our driver’s door at alarming speeds.
When Mark said, “I’ll walk down the road and check it out,” I urged him to be careful. There was a slight selfishness in my entreaty. Of course, I didn’t want my beloved to be flattened by a truck. But due to coronavirus cancellations, I am not yet licenced to drive The Beast, so I was keen to avoid the additional trauma of being a widow trapped for eternity on a French roadside with four dogs.
When he returned, he confirmed, “The weight limit is for a bridge slightly beyond the camping stop, but the area is fairly residential.”
How might the esteemed residents of Évreux feel about a huge green army truck camped on their doorstep?
We both agreed we’d better not push our off-grid luck on our first night in a foreign country. My spirits took a nose dive at the thought of more driving to – who knew where? It had been a long and emotional day, with an early start, and the worry of leaving the dogs on the boat. The Beast is tiring, even as a passenger. And I was desperate for a cup of tea.
I fired up our trusty Park4Night app and checked for alternatives. We were wary of using our mobile data abroad. Another joyful consequence of Brexit is that Brits are once again subject to potentially ruinous roaming charges. Outside the UK, we only had access to 12GB of our unlimited data policy – pre-Brexit, it was 20GB – and we had no idea how long it would last.
The app promised a woodland park up in a 400-hectare bio-reserve, but as the satnav directed us through an endless wasteland of industrial units, populated by very shifty looking people, even Mark’s natural optimism began to falter. We passed two very dodgy looking traveller encampments,
“Stop there and you’d be lucky not to have the vehicle dismantled around you during the night!” I said. Was this Park4Night French style?
In the middle of a rough industrial estate, the satnav’s electronic voice announced, “You have reached your destination!” The angel of hope deserted us both.
Maybe things were different in France. Maybe the ease with which the app had found beautiful rural park ups in England simply didn’t translate to the Continental side of the Channel. Was this how the months ahead were going to play out? As we toured the UK, we’d laughed and joked when people asked us our plans. Often, we answered,
“We don’t even know where we’ll be staying tonight!”
I sacrificed a few more precious megabytes to use Park4Night live on the phone. The blue dot that indicated our position was flashing a short distance from the designated park up. Mark was stabbing away at the satnav with his index finger. Through a barrier of fatigue and stress, I struggled to convey to him that the address on the app was incorrect. Plus, the fact we were surrounded by grey industrial units made my promise of an arboreal retreat within two-hundred yards appear unrealistic. As tempers started to fray, I gave up trying to reason with him,
“Please, just go right and right again. Trust me!”
We were too exhausted to walk far, but we took the mutts for a lovely leg stretch in a woodland carpeted with white anemones. When we returned, we were less excited to observe an envoy from the local Gendarmerie parked next to the truck. I walked over to the squad car wearing my largest, friendliest smile, and waving around a bulging poo bag to reassure them we were responsible campers.
“C’est bon à rester ici?” – It’s okay to stay here? I asked as politely and Frenchly as I could.
“No problem,” one gendarme replied in English.
Relieved, I told Mark, “I think they’ve just come to gawp at The Beast.”
The following day, we programmed the satnav to ‘Avoid Toll Routes’. When your top speed is 45-mph, paying a premium for swift passage is pointless. This is particularly true in France, where the roads are mostly traffic-free, and many A-roads follow the toll routes in any case. Besides, we’re not in a hurry, and would rather meander along and enjoy the countryside.
We successfully avoided the event horizon that is the outskirts of Paris, even though the satnav completely ignored our instructions about toll roads. The Machiavellian machine worked hard to create an opportunity for the French capital to suck us into the very centre of its inescapable singularity.
We’ve been lost in a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the city before – and if you ever get drawn into the Parisian underworld, remember, there is no satellite signal to help you find your way out! Another time, in the happy mappy days that preceded satellite-induced navigational cock ups, I told Mark,
“We need to avoid the Arc de Triomphe at all costs”.
Naturally, within moments, we were embroiled in the mosh pit of a motorised martial arts contest beneath L’Arc de Triomph de l’Étoile, to give it its full title.
We all know L’Arc’s constructor, Napoleon, had delusions of grandeur. All roads don’t lead to the Arc, but like the spokes of a wheel, or the radiating arms of a star (étoile), twelve rues do. Being the confluence of a dozen major boulevards, including the famous avenue des Champs-Élysées, perhaps explains the enhanced gravitational pull of the world’s largest triumphal arch. And, as if that were not enough, to keep things lively around L’Arc, its priorities are reversed. This means cars entering the roundabout have the right of way over those already on it, which we didn’t know. Add Parisian driving, erratic at the best of times, and you can imagine why, when Mark asked me, “Which is our exit?” I covered my face with the map and said,
“Just choose any one, and I’ll sort out where we’re going from there.”
Despite the satnav’s best efforts at scheming sabotage, we bypassed Paris, and approached the beautiful Plateau de Orgerus along a wonderful valley. The villages we passed were all very pretty and very French; their main streets lined with stately avenues of plane trees. Pom-poms of mistletoe hid among branches of trees that hadn’t yet come into leaf, while creamy-white apple blossom spilled over the dun or ochre balustrades that surrounded the walled medieval farms. Alabaster Charolais cattle studded the countryside, along with what seemed like a similar number of gothic-turreted chateaux.
As we passed through a village called Cheval Mort, I said,
“Estate agents here would be flogging a dead horse!”
Mark shot me a withering glance. But even I couldn’t think up a pun when the town of Dead Horse advertised its own Poney Club.
Perhaps that was where they trained steeds for the horsemen of the Apocalypse? Or Binky, Death’s white mount in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.
Briare threw up more parking difficulties. The road that accessed our planned stopover was closed. Ever more adept at emergency deployment of Park4Night, I enabled our mobile data, tapped away, and found an alternative tucked enticingly between the River Loire and the Briare Canal.
As we got near, Mark and I hopped out of the cab to inspect the small canal bridge that separated us from our stroll along the river, relaxed dinner, and peaceful night’s sleep.
“There’s no weight limit marked on it.” I noted.
“It’s a short span, and looks well-constructed,” Mark observed, as he rubbed his chin.
“And it’s an arch, which is strong under load,” I remarked, “but we do have to come back over it again tomorrow morning…”
“If we take a run at it,” Mark concluded, “It should be okay…”
Even so, the expletives I enunciated as we raced sixteen tonnes across the bridge rivalled the first few minutes of single-word dialogue that opened the film Four Weddings And A Funeral. My outpourings paraphrased Gordon Ramsay on full power in a post-watershed broadcast of The ‘F’ Word.
It’s a shame we don’t do YouTube. I reckon that’s a clip that might have gone viral!
Join us next time as we discover there are No Frites at Trièves
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