Europe at Last

7th December 2021

Well… at the end of the last blog we were in the throes of putting Ruby into the motorhome dealership in Paignton for the week in order to get the service and some warranty work done. As planned we visited the Big Yellow Storage company in Torquay and stuffed everything from Ruby into a store cupboard in a secure warehouse. This actually worked incredibly well despite having to pile everything onto a trolley, up a lift and into the small lockup. Surprisingly the eight days only cost us about £24… bargain. 

We spent the week in the Premier Inn in Torquay. One of our favourite hotels in our favoured resort. Mind you it is somewhat unsavoury in many areas with several beggars, drunks and yobs around…There are also great views, a lovely beach, harbour, cafés and places to visit. We had our tiny little Fiat Punto courtesy car which was as nippy as you like to get us around the local area and back and forth from Paignton to Torquay. 

So Ruby came out of her spa week all shiny and upgraded and once we had collected all the contents from the Big Yellow we were now BACK ON OUR ROADTRIP.- 12th Nov. 

We had left several extra days in case of delays so we had five days to get to Folkestone for our Eurotunnel ride to Calais. Now this part of the journey has numerous overnight pitches and we do not want to spend this blog just listing places in detail. So in the interest of brevity (unlike me!) we drove along the south coast in small steps, stopping at Bridport, Goodwood, Arundel, Bexhill on Sea and Folkestone (close to the Eurotunnel Terminal).

Goodwood Racecourse next door

Probably the highest excitement was our ‘wild’ camping night at Goodwood.

We were on a large car park immediately alongside the Goodwood racecourse overlooking the valleys and hillsides. There was a busy road nearby but we are pretty good at ignoring those now. However the bit we couldn’t sleep through was the battle going on around us. There were three or four of us camping in the car park and a late arriving VW Campervan parked closer to us than was necessary as the car park is large. No problem though. However at 1am we were aware of a car engine running somewhere behind us and it turns out that some Youth was sitting in his car (watching a movie?) with his engine running to keep warm. Well Mr VW camper got upset with this and eventually could be heard getting out, approaching the car and shouting ‘Well why the f**k do you need to sit there for hours with your engine running at one in the morning? We are trying to sleep‘- This clearly angered said Youth who responded with angry words of his own… started his car, did a large noisy wheel spin on the gravel, yelled his compliments out of the window to Mr VW including calling him a ‘C**t’ and speeding off, up and down the road several times. Our concern was that Youth may not have known which vehicle Mr VW had got out from and that we could now be the target of Youth returning with a gang of knife and gun wielding mates..!  And to make matters worse… Mr & Mrs VW had decided that they were now at risk so they packed up all their stuff and drove off by 2am…. ’Thanks guys-poke the bear and then drive off !’ – Thankfully the gang of knife and gun wielding mates did not turn up but our sleep was in short supply. The excitement of wild camping eh..!

These extra days gave us the chance to do some laundry, sort some admin, and discuss some plans about our trip into Europe. 

17th Nov and we left our quiet little site six miles from the Eurotunnel terminal and got proper excited about the next big step on our travels. We always get holiday fever in these moments. Bit of excitement, bit of anxiety. Lots of big smiles. 

Despite thoughts of being turned back at the Eurotunnel it was dead easy. Check-in, grab a coffee, wait a while, drive through to English passport control, drive forward to French passport control, get checked to make sure our gas bottles were turned off, explosives (bomb) test samples were taken and then after another short wait, drive straight onto the train. Well I say straight on, you have to come in at an angle and then squeeze along  10 or 11 carriages to park up for the 20 minute trip to La Belle France… Just sitting there in Ruby. Nothing to see. Thought it would be an ideal time to take some lunch. So there we were 115 metres below the English Channel making cheese and pickle sandwiches to eat before France. (Perhaps tuna may have been more appropriate!).

Speedy Bording..

We were so surprised how easy the process was. The whole Eurotunnel terminal area was very quiet and stress free. We had already completed an online Advanced Passenger Information form and added our NHS Covid vaccination scans so all was good. We were never even checked for dairy or meat products that we were not supposed to carry… Oooops!

And before you know it, there we were, driving on the right and into Europe…at last…

We had no sites booked at all in France but had some ideas from our ever-present ‘SearchforSites’ app. All we knew was that we planned on being at Le Chateau owned by Michelles bro and sis-in-law, close to Toulouse, by Sat 20th Nov. First night then was a perfect, safe start at the Aire Sainte Claire. This was a small site just within the town of Neufchátel en Bray in Normandie and cost just €12 (about £10) for the night. You simply drive up to the barrier, pull out a ticket and squeeze into a pitch along with the other dozen or so motorhomes/camper vans. There are toilets, showers (extra €2), washing machines, electric hookup and a pay machine. The next morning you pay at the machine and drive off. No humans to speak with. We were surprised at the lack of Brits on this site, consisting mainly of French, Belgians and Dutch. It was dead easy, but of course we had to struggle at first so as not to mess up. Parking outside on the road first and walking around the site before eventually taking the plunge. Our first night on foreign soil with Ruby and a great sleep was had plus a nearby supermarket to test our skills. 

We have both lived in Germany for a few years many moons ago and have visited Europe many times so are comfortable with Europe in general. However, with a motorhome, Brexit and Covid, things got a lot more complicated. Can’t even speak any kind of French or Spanish so its all fun and games!

Next day (16th) Michelle took to the wheel and we pressed on heading south as we would do for many days to come.  This time we took the plunge and found a free Aire alongside a lake at a place called Luant. Nothing exciting in itself but the location was safe, quiet and lacking in any boy racers, passing traffic or yobs. The site even provide a tap for drinking water, a drain for ‘grey waste’ and facilities to clean our toilet cassette. Why can’t the Brits look after travellers better.?

Anyway another step in a southerly direction with the added anticipation of having to top up our LPG gas. You may recall (if you have been paying attention!) that we had a new LPG gas system (Gaslow) fitted in Ruby which was easier and cheaper. Well we now had to fill this up using a different adaptor to the one in the UK. This was fun. No idea how the garages worked let alone filling this up. Wisely we decided to pull into a quiet motorway (autoroute) services as the staff would likely be more used to idiot foreigners and we would have more time to mess about. Just as well really. We had to go into the shop, pay ‘an amount’ of our choice (we elected for €5) then return to the pump and using the new adapter fill up the tanks. This almost worked however the adapter wasn’t tight enough and the gas sprayed out the side…. Oooooh. Eventually the top-up was completed and I had to return to the shop to get €1.30 change. Wow. This is sooooooo cheap. 

Oh.. and they don’t call It LPG in France … it is GPL (and later GLP in Spain…!)

Moving on, we later arrived halfway down France at a beautiful site at Collonges la Rouge. This was supposed to cost €10 per night as it sits alongside a big tourist hotspot – the village itself. Built hundreds of years ago in red stone and overlooking a  luscious green valley. Absolutely typical French scene. However, this is the point when we began to appreciate how much of the tourist industry completely shuts down both in France and later in Spain, after November. Not one bar, cafe, shop, museum or building was open in the whole village. Mightily disappointing as the location was so good. However every cloud has a silver lining….. there was no charge for camping in the large car park!. So another quiet, very dark night and a great sleep nestled alongside some woodland (no… not actually lying on the ground-we were sleeping in Ruby alongside some woodland…!)

20th Nov and another 200 miles or so towards Mich’s brothers home. Our research had shown that the French also provide motorhome facilities for free in some autoroute services so we decided to give it a go. It is incredible. A dedicated area providing toilet cleaning facilities, drains and drinking water supply… all for free. Amazing. – Mind you…the drinking water was bloody awful tasting and had to be replaced the next day. But hey. It would not kill you… probably..!

Free at Autoroute

We then arrived for a four night stay with bro and sis-in-law giving us the chance to catch up after too many years apart. We were hosted extremely well but we still elected to sleep in Ruby outside in the driveway. After all, our bedding, clothing and all our needs were in there. It was however brilliant to be able to use a real toilet and shower for a few days and for Michelle to do another load or two of laundry. (Always a challenge whilst on the road). One exciting point during this stop over… we had the use of the household electric supply running 50 metres and more from the house into Ruby. We fashioned an adaptor to convert the UK plug into the French socket. Trouble is….. this was an indoor adaptor and we were outdoors. In addition the weather took a downward turn and the weather plummeted to -2 º. The hot electric cable and cold damp air clashed somewhat and the adaptor melted and started to burn….. right next to the side of Ruby. Really lucky not to have a burnt out wreck me thinks. ! Lesson learned and rectified two days later. 

The highpoint of the visit (apart from spending family time of course) was the discovery of a 5 litre box of reasonable supermarket red wine for just €10…. When I say ‘decent’, I mean that it didn’t make your teeth turn black..!

So after a few relaxing days, and before the forecast heavy rain arrived, we set off south once again towards the Spanish border. Our plans at this stage were solely based on the weather forecast. Spain looked much the better option compared to southern France or Northern Italy. So it was simply a case of popping around the mountains of the Pyrenees and heading towards the sun. Simples.

Family Chateau in Sales

Well the trip that day was horrendous as we failed to outrun the serious heavy rain all day but thankfully the quiet roads helped us survive. We had been aware that the roads in France were much quieter (away from the big cities) than the UK and this proved to be the case all the way. We tested the options of paid toll roads (Peage) versus the main road ‘free’ routes which was quite interesting. The tolls are not massively expensive, and the ‘free’ routes are not massively slower however, so far we feel that paying the tolls generally makes sense over long distances. It is not only the speedier journey but the added benefit of less gear changes, less tyre, brake wear and cheaper mpg costs that balance this out. (Other opinions are available..!). It is nice to occasionally drop along onto the small French tree lined avenues and quaint villages to see the wonderful countryside however. 

We ended up on the night of 24th Nov pulling up into a free Aire alongside an Olive Farm with shop. There is an expectation that one makes a purchase in the shop however it was a pretty poor shop. And furthermore the promised toilet and shower block was awful. The kind of thing you would expect in a third world country really. But it was free… so we did the right thing and bought a small packet of croutons in the shop at about €2. This was little more than an overnight stopover so we started up to drive the few miles into Spain- The rain having completely stopped. Exciting. Well the excitement was immediate. As we set off along the driveway out of the Olive Farm we looked right and saw what we thought were big clouds in the distance. This was a real ‘double-take’ moment as we looked again to note that this was in fact the snow capped peaks of the Pyrenees just 50 miles or so away. Awesome. Absolutely breathtaking against the clear blue sky. Had to stop for photos and to suck up the view.

Pyrenees from afar. Wow..

Thankfully we did not have to drive up on those mountains and could just tiptoe past on the eastern side of the Pyrenees on the scenic D914 below Perpignan. A twisting turning, scenic journey with a straight forward drive across the unmanned border point. Spain. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode…

Did you know? The Channel Tunnel (also referred to as the Chunnel) is a 50km (35 mile) railway tunnel that connects Folkestone in Kent with Calais beneath the English Channel at the Strait of Dover. Construction began in 1988 and it opened in 1994. At its lowest point, it is 75 metres (250 ft) deep below the sea bed and 115 metres (380 ft) below sea level. At 38 kilometres (23.5 mile), the tunnel has the longest underwater section of any tunnel in the world, and is the third longest railway tunnel in the world. The speed limit for trains through the tunnel is 160 kph (100 mph). The Channel Tunnel is owned and operated by the company Getlink. The tunnel carries high-speed Eurostar passenger trains, the Eurotunnel Shuttle for road vehicles and international freight trains.