94 Which is best – Village Etape or an Aire? Sat Nav or a Map?

Driving home from the French Alps, just about to negotiate my way across Grenoble, I heard a loud rat a tat tat which I assumed were the hailstones bouncing on the tin roof of the Sick Bay. Sounded a bit like fire crackers on bonfire night. As the storm slowly receded the noise, oddly, only got louder and I slowly came to the conclusion that I’d better check it out. When I pulled the sat nav cable from the cigarette lighter the noise finally stopped.

I didn’t know what the problem was but I decided to play safe and try to find my way to Dunkirk without a sat nav. After all Joy and I have driven across France many times, invariably on toll free roads, so it can’t be that difficult. Just a couple of kilometres on, however, the road signs were giving me a choice of Chambery or Lyon and I was stumped. My total dependence on a sat nav for the last few years has eroded any gut feel for the geography of France.

Which way now? Getting used to life without a Sat Nav

Given that I was driving with only one windscreen wiper in truly awful weather I almost thought what the hell, just take the A6 autoroute signs and pay tolls all the way up. It was the easy way out but then I decided to stop being a wimp and dig out our old Michelin map. Eventually I found it, worked out a route, and headed for Chambery.

Following a map through France was a pleasant surprise. Firstly it was quite nostalgic to choose your own route rather than blindly following the instructions to take the ‘second exit from the roundabout’ etc and secondly you get a much greater feel for where you are, and so you feel a closer connection with the region you are in. I wouldn’t say that we’re going to ditch the sat nav in future but using a map made it a more  interesting and rewarding journey, easier than I’d thought, and of course it was great to renew my acquaintance with our old friend ‘Toutes Directions’.

Much as I love trundling through France in the Sick Bay, I really don’t like driving when it’s dark. Which is fine in the summer but leads to a bit of a problem during the short days of winter. If you pull into an aire for the night at 4 o’clock what do you do until bedtime at 10? On this occasion I decided to keep going, maybe even get into Luxembourg before making camp. I knew that the motorways north of Epinal were all toll free so I thought I’d get up there and  find a nice aire for the night. Then it got dark, the wind started howling and finally came the snow, lots of it. My one windscreen wiper had been doing a decent job but in blizzard conditions my visibility was getting pretty restricted.

Still well short of the free motorways I spotted a sign, ‘ Plombieres les Bains, Village Etape’. Joy and I have been tempted by village etapes in the past but have never had a good experience with them. An etape, or stage, is a village close to major toll free roads where they offer everything you would expect to find at a motorway aire, such as free camping, petrol, restaurants, etc. Applying for etape status is a good way for remote villages to bring in a few passing tourists and so give the local economy a little boost. Joy and I went to one before we had the Sick Bay and found a local hotel where everyone went quiet as we walked in. It was creepy, League of Gentlemen stuff and we decided to keep driving. Other times we have left the main road and followed the etape signs for miles and then got lost. So I was a bit apprehensive about following the Plombieres signs but as I was getting low on petrol, and as the blizzard was getting worse, I decided to give it a try.

Just as I’d feared, I was on a little, unlit country lane that soon filled up with snow and worst of all, it was a long, long way from the main road. The biggest problem about etapes is that the signs give no indication of how far they are from your route. So I crawled along this dark little track for at least 10 kilometres before I found a completely deserted village. No lights were on and nothing looked open. There was an attractive little parking area on the way in and I was happy, and relieved, just to pull in and switch off the engine.

Watching the snow come down I noticed that I was close to a small playground. To my amazement there was a lad on a swing, probably 15 or 16 years old, just swinging to and fro in the Arctic conditions. I boiled a kettle, made my cuppa soup and filled my hot water bottle. The lad was still there, on his swing. An hour later I was getting ready for bed and he was on his bicycle, just staring at the Sick Bay. OK he was intrigued by an old VW but he stayed there for at least 10 minutes. In decent weather I may have opened the door to have a chat, practise my French a bit. But it was dark and the blizzard was brutal. He made me feel uncomfortable and I wished he would just go away. Eventually I turned out the light and went to sleep.

In the morning it was cold, slushy and wet. And very closed.

In the morning I woke up very early, hardly surprising as I’d turned in at about 8pm the previous night, and the snow had turned into a mixture of ice and slush. I wanted to go find a cafe, get some breakfast and study my map in a good light. In the van it is difficult to read a map as the light is poor. I walked the icy streets and got soaked by a passing snow plough. It was an attractive little spa town but  all the cafes, in fact everything, was very shut. I even managed to walk past the petrol station which was very small and very closed. I was cold and wet and didn’t fancy hanging around until the cafes opened. I texted Joy and told her about the snow. She replied saying at least I could ask the lad on the swing to give me a push. (Quite a good one for Joy, that). Anyway, I did see a sign for Epinal, my next destination, and so at least I didn’t need to retrace my steps to the main road. I would just follow the road to Epinal.

The petrol station in Plombieres was so small I hardly noticed it. Anyway it was emphatically closed, like everything else.

Big mistake. The road out of the village took me upwards, ominously upwards. As I climbed higher into the Vosges mountains the weather got worse, my wheels started spinning and my petrol gauge was close to empty. When I eventually was able to study my map I saw that the road was the mountain pass to Epinal. I made a mental note – in future when you see an etape sign just keep on the major road until you get to an aire. At least you know what to expect at an aire.

As I descended into Epinal the weather improved and by the time I got onto the motorway it was only raining and I was able to relax. I spent the next night in a traditional motorway aire, just south of Dunkirk. It was so uneventful that I can remember hardly anything about it except that I had a really good night’s kip.

Dropping down into Epinal the snow turned to torrential rain – a great improvement!
A nice quiet night at a nice quiet aire. About 50 miles from Dunkirk
Finally made it onto the ferry. Now all I’ve got to worry about is getting round the M25 and then I’m home.

Next job is to get the sat nav cable fixed, sort out the wonky windscreen wiper and then it’s off to Dub Freeze on 17th Feb. Still too cold for Joy so I’ll be on my tod again, apart from Leo, but hoping to meet up with a load of the TLB bunch. It’s always a cold event, the clue is in the name, but a campfire, a hot water bottle and plentiful alcohol normally does the trick.



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