On our morning walk, our little black pooch, Lani, rolled in a dead fish. It wasn’t the best start to the day!
We were already preoccupied with the thought of driving our 16-tonne Beast back over the small canal bridge. Nevertheless, it was a lovely, if pungent, stroll between the banks of the Briare Canal and the River Loire.
Back at The Beast, a French-Italian man stopped to ask about our prop shaft. Since I had picked up a bit of Italian and learned French nearly half a century ago at school, Mark delegated the mechanical interrogation to me. Monsieur/Signore moved on to quiz me about the number and location of drive wheels, which tested my conversation in both languages, although he seemed quite happy with my answers, delivered in a kind of Fritalian patois.
Later, when we reached Vichy, a quietly spoken Frenchman exposed more gaps in my truck-related vocabulary. He asked bout the history of The Beast; where we were going on our trip; and her fuel economy. I think I muddled through with; “A 1990 Belgian army lorry, bought in Holland, converted ourselves,” followed by; “France, Italie, Albanie. Retour en Angleterre par la Grèce et les Balkans.”
Fuel efficiency presented both a linguistic and mathematical challenge. Miles per gallon; easy. Pounds per mile – child’s play. But who can convert each of those numbers into euros, kilometres and litres in their head, then work out how to express it in the favoured European performance statistic; ‘litres per hundred kilometres’ en Français or in Italiano?
I made a mental note to learn some Beast-related phrases.
The town of Vichy was extremely difficult to navigate with a truck. The satnav seemed blissfully unaware of the weight limits everywhere, not least on the major bridge that entered the city over the River Allier. That entailed a u-turn and a three-sides-of-a-square diversion. We finally parked up on The Esplanade, overlooking the river. It was not quite our intended stop, but we were wary of pushing on towards the centre, lest we encountered further weight restrictions.
Our day ended with another river walk with the dogs and another unpleasant aroma. On this occasion, the odour was supplied by a gas leak, rather than a rancid fishy dog, but the solution still lay with a bottle of Fairy Liquid – and in the case of the gas leak, a spanner to tighten the pipe.
Since we hadn’t yet succeeded in departing before 11 a.m., we set our alarm for the following morning. A farmer friend of ours calls puppies ‘Time Wasters’. Our life with The Fab Four proves this beyond doubt. Never mind the hours we spend watching them play: as I enjoyed my coffee in bed, Kai pushed his bristly little muzzle into my neck, and Ruby and Lani snuggled up around me. All that cuteness and love made it impossible to move!
Just before we left, two Russian ladies out walking their dogs engaged us. When they asked about our plans, our answer horrified them,
“You’re going to Algeria?!”
“No – Albania!” I clarified, although they seemed little happier with that.
“Don’t go to Albania,” they declared. “It is dangerous, and there is the war in Ukraine!”
“We will be hundreds of miles away from the war,” I assured them. “Have you ever been to Albania?”
“Everyone who’s been there says Albania is safe and welcoming. Even the UK Government website agrees, which is very unusual.”
They still didn’t look convinced, and added,
“You must stay in Vichy, because now, snow is forecast across the whole of France.”
I would have liked to stay longer – Vichy had a relaxed and friendly vibe – but we wanted to leave France before the lorry ban came into force. In France, trucks over 7.5 tonnes are banned between 10 p.m. on a Saturday and 10 p.m. on a Sunday or public holiday, with a few extra restrictions in the summer and in certain areas. (Click this link for more information on driving trucks in France and here for information on Italy, and here for a general guide to truck restrictions in Europe.)
When we asked the question on forums, opinions differed as to whether The Beast was legal on a Sunday, since she is not used for ‘hire or reward’. She is registered as a Private HGV, but insured and MOT’d as a Motor Caravan. Neil, an experienced overlanding friend who has helped us immeasurably, advised us when we bought The Beast that changing a truck registration to Motor Caravan was virtually impossible,
“I know people who’ve tried, but no-one who’s succeeded.”
Now he warned,
“The Tax and MOT class are irrelevant. It will depend on the body type shown on line D5 on your V5 log book. If it says HGV, it’s unlikely the French authorities will cut you any slack, despite its non-commercial use – and the fines are hefty.”
We erred on the side of caution.
Besides, I enjoy having an enforced layover once a week. Back in 1994, I didn’t quite understand the ‘Keep Sunday Special’ campaign, who opposed Sunday opening of shops in the UK. Now, Sunday is the same as every other day, and I miss that era before ‘work-life balance’ became a ‘thing’ . It wasn’t before because most people had one.
As a child, I had to endure half-day closing on Wednesdays, too. The world didn’t end. Mum simply made sure we had enough milk to get through the afternoon!
For the first time since we crossed into France, we stopped for lunch at a sensible hour. I said to Mark,
“Aires and service stations are like buses. There are always loads of them – until you need one!”
Every lunchtime so far, I had achieved a serious blood sugar low before we discovered a suitable place to pull over.
At least the effortless beauty of La Belle France distracted me. Our route passed through the Monts de la Madeleine, which I didn’t even know existed. There, bosomy hills bordered wide flat valleys. It was yet another of those stunning in-between places in France that you’ve never heard of! As we passed through the stately riverside town of Vienne, one of France’s cities of Art and History, I giggled to see it was twinned with Neath Port Talbot on the South Wales coastline.
My defining recollection of Port Talbot, gleaned from hurtling past on the M4, is that you smell it before you see it. When it hoves into view, on the edge of Swansea bay, you are confronted by one of the biggest steel works in the world, belching out clouds of sulphurous smoke. In the interest of balance, however, I can vouch for the beauty of the nearby Gower Peninsula and close to Neath, beautiful woodland walks, and the Melincourt waterfall, which you can walk behind!
We hadn’t made a single one of our proposed stops so far, so Mark suggested, “Let’s just see where we are when we feel like stopping.”
I added my ha’penneth.
“I don’t want to go through Grenoble in rush hour.”
We made that mistake a few years ago, towing our caravan. It was second only to the hair-raising Arc de Triomphe experience I mentioned in my last blog. The last two miles of our journey to Sassenages, just short of Grenoble, took forty-five minutes. As we pulled off the autoroute to approach our first ever free Aire du Camping Car, I noticed a sign about air pollution. At last! Our Crit’air sticker had come into use. The Beast has a yellow sticker, (Euro class 5 and 6) and the sign said we were allowed in!
The following day was April Fool’s Day, and we awoke to snow flying horizontally past our windows. When Mark eventually declared,
“I think we should stay put,” it was as welcome to my ears as modern jazz musicians silencing their trumpets. It was really not a day to be on the road.
The pups clamoured to get back in the truck as soon as we let them out for a comfort break. With a city park right next door, plus a grotto and a castle nearby, it was a shame, but in freezing sleet, even our ever-enthusiastic Rosie didn’t fancy a walk.
“We can’t cross the mountains into Italy because of the heavy snow,” Mark said, “The weather’s better on Monday, and the temperature’s above freezing. I suggest we make some headway tomorrow, then sit out the traffic ban at Savines-le-Lac. I’ve found a nice spot, right on the lakeside.”
I agreed. I was looking forward to some shorter driving days and longer walks with the doggies.
Our drive onward through the Vercors was beautiful, but a little more snowy than we would have wished. I was so relieved when Mark bailed out of our initial non-toll hairpin route.
“Mark, a sign back there said that Mens was closed to Poids Lourdes (Heavy Weights) over 7.5 tonnes due to snow.”
We found somewhere to turn around and gave the satnav permission to use toll roads. Although €10 saved us a narrow winding road, it didn’t spare us the snow. At Trièves, I spotted a snack stop that promised frites. It was nearing 2 p.m. and, as usual, I was starving. In the cold and snow, I really fancied a hot plate of freshly cooked chips. I ran to the loo, then joined the queue at the kiosk. I noted it hadn’t moved in my absence. When I realised the boys in front of me were still waiting for a bottle of Coke and a bar of chocolate from the woman hiding in the kiosk, with the serving hatch firmly closed against the cold, I abandoned my frites fantasy, and hopped back into the cab.
Much further on, at the other side of the mountains, the second snack stop was considerably more welcoming and informative. Everyone came out of the shack to wave at The Beast. Once I’d ordered two trays of frites, a retired Interpol detective at a table by the bar greeted me in English and said,
“I worked in London with Scotland Yard!”
His mate came out to marvel at the truck.
“C’est magnifique!” was all he could enunciate for the first ten minutes. Then he asked what marque it was, and I replied in perfect French,
“Volvo N dix!” (N10!)
Even better, Monsieur Le Détective revealed that the mountain pass, Col de Montgenèvre, was not only open, but passable to large vehicles.
The trucker on the ferry who told us Albanians were, “All robbin’ b******!” (although he had never been there), had also shared that all mountain passes between France and Italy had a 3.5 tonne weight limit, and were closed until May.
While our research revealed the Col de Montgenèvre was listed on the website ‘Dangerous Roads’, at least the write up assured us that the road stayed open throughout the winter!
In Chorges, we killed two birds with a couple of Euros when we happened upon an InterMarché supermarket with laundry machines outside.
It enabled us to reach our lakeside park up with grit-free bedding and sufficient food for the weekend. My all-white re-interpretation of the Hoghton Arms’ delicious pork stroganoff tasted okay, even though it looked anything but appetising. We should have taken a leaf out of chef Nicky’s book, and interspersed the basmati with some wild rice, and added a pea shoot garnish for a bit of colour!
The view from bed was our best ever; snow-capped peaks and a sapphire blue lake, whose satin waters were ruffled only by a round islet, topped with a church.
It was a stunning location, but there was trouble in paradise. Our original park up has been blocked off by boulders. That was less of an issue than the pine processionary caterpillar nest I saw there when I went to scope it out. Pine processionary caterpillars are very dangerous to dogs and humans – their spines contain a toxin which can kill a dog. The caterpillars don’t even need to be present; their toxic spines remain in leaf litter beneath the trees that contain their nests.
I was so glad I saw the nest before we walked the dogs! Now we knew they were there, we noticed white gossamer nests in the trees all around. We worried that we might tread the spines on to the carpet from the soles of our shoes, and that puppy paws might even bring them into the bed.
We resigned ourselves to a very special Sunday, confined inside The Beast by the best efforts of nature and the French traffic ban. Safe indoors, we could relax, enjoy the views, and get excited about our impending traverse into our beloved Italy on one of the world’s most dangerous roads.
Next time, join us as we tackle the Col de Montgenèvre!
Follow My Blog To Keep Up With Our Latest Adventures!
Where Are We Now?
It takes lots of time to craft these blog posts, so my blog is always a little behind. I have just started using Polarsteps, where you can track our progress right up to our previous stopover. For security, I don’t post our actual whereabouts publicly!
Catch Up On Our Previous Adventures!
Our previous trips with Big Blue and Caravan Kismet are now immortalised in print! Find my Adventure Caravanning with Dogs series on Amazon.