For longer than I care to remember, Joy and I have been taking our holidays at a beachside campsite in the middle of a huge naturist village in Cap d’Agde. It is almost a thousand kilometres from Calais to Agde, down on the French Mediterranean coast not far from the Spanish border, and this annual pilgrimage was probably the main reason why we got the Sick Bay in the first place.
We have always felt that the three day journey was an integral and enjoyable part of the holiday, and as we often stay in free overnight aires, Joy eventually persuaded me that a campervan would give us both a more comfortable night’s sleep than her estate car with the seats pushed back. So now she has a luxurious bed in the Sick Bay and I sleep in a scruffy little tent outside.
Back in the early days we used to find our way with a map. How quaint that sounds now. Every time we stopped for a coffee break we’d pore over the map, pick the next large town to aim at and then rely on the road signs – and in particular the ‘Autres Directions’ signs, to keep us on track.
Then sat navs came out but we never considered getting one until a taxi driver, taking me to Liverpool airport, showed me how it worked. Not only was it dead easy to operate but they don’t necessarily take you into the middle of a field or over a cliff. So we got one and our journeys through France were utterly transformed.
I have to admit that having become dependent on the sat nav, I do miss the intimacy of the route in that we have a lesser grasp of exactly where we are and where we are going. But that has always been a small price to pay for the sheer ease and convenience of letting the sat nav do all the work for you. Like a lot of people, we started to wonder how the hell we managed in the days before the Tom-Tom.
Then, a couple of days ago, on our journey back from this year’s trip to Cap d’Agde, our beloved Tom-Tom started to go haywire. It may have been our fault because we changed our tried and trusted route. Normally we will avoid Paris like the plague and keep well to the west, going through Rouen and then up the coast to Abbeville and on to Calais. This time we thought, what the hell, let’s go straight across Paris and see how we get on. Never mind that it was early August and officially a ‘black’ day – when you get the most traffic on French roads. Never mind that we would get there just in time for the evening rush hour, and never mind that every other time we have driven across the capital it has ended in tears.
So we gave our sat nav its head and allowed ourselves to be washed into the giant plug hole of Paris. At first we made pretty good headway and even started to think that maybe this wasn’t going to be a monumental mistake after all. Then our sat nav lady, the one with the lovely soft Irish voice, took us sharply off the motorway onto a slip road that was suddenly full of fast and furious traffic. The worst of it was that we were heading for one of those curtains they hang over the road to see if you are too high to get under something that is coming up soon. Even without our roof rack with its mound of camping gear we would have been too high and sure enough we thumped into the heavy curtain. Round the corner we saw what it was all about. There was a toll tunnel where you had to get under a two meter iron barrier before you could proceed. I stopped in front of it, got out and saw immediately that it would take off my roof, let alone the rack. The tunnel itself looked more like a drain than a tunnel and I wondered just how they expected the traffic to limbo dance under this thing just seconds after leaving a teeming motorway.
By this time I had collected quite a queue of drivers behind me who were wondering what I was doing and why I was blocking their progress. Parisian drivers are not a very forgiving breed. I put on my hazard lights and tried to inch my way backwards but at a loss what to do next as the only way out seemed to be under the tunnel. There were no officials around to offer assistance. Eventually Joy spotted a closed gate and we made our way towards it. There was a sign saying that it had a sensor and, thank god, it opened as we drew up in front. Once outside we re-set the sat nav telling her not to take us to any toll sections. We would have to cross Paris through the streets, along with the millions of commuters trying to battle through the rush hour. O.K, this was going to take some time but at least we would see the Eiffel Tower and we got a close up of the city as we inched along the banks of the Seine.
About an hour later we had got onto a much faster road but it looked ominously familiar. As we came round a bend we went under the same overhead curtain, which we duly whacked into as we were still well over two metres high. Our sat nav was still trying to get us into that two metre tunnel/drain. This time we pulled over before the toll section and turned off our Irish lady and ended up in the Bois de Boulogne. From here we managed to head north until finally we spotted signs for the A16 which leads to Calais. Next time we’ll go through Rouen.
Apart from the hassles, it was actually very pleasant to drive slowly through Paris because it’s a great city with some beautiful scenery. However, there was one aspect that gave us an unpleasant reminder of how things are these days. Just as we were leaving the affluent Bois de Boulogne we hit upon a long line of shanty dwellings. Barefoot kids were running amongst the garbage tips, women were carrying buckets and men were sat around playing cards. You could have been in a Nairobi slum except for the posh houses which lined the other side of the road. It was a stark reminder of the problems France has and which are normally swept under the carpet where the tourists don’t see them. We felt dispirited and not too optimistic about the future.
We arrived at our favourite aire, at Baie de Somme, later that night and realised that we were a day ahead of schedule. In the morning we could either go home a day early or we could go and visit a town that has captured both our imaginations over the years but which we have never seen. There are towns that grab you for some reason like this – for example one day I want to go to Margate, and to Whitley Bay . . . Biarritz was another until we went there, and loved it. So after breakfast we set the sat nav for Le Touquet, apparently about 60 miles away. After the fiasco in Paris we should have been a bit more aware of where we were heading but it was only when we saw slag heaps that we started to wonder why the local villages all had Flemish sounding names. By the time we got to Lens it dawned on us that something was wrong. We stopped and worked out that we were heading not towards a glamorous French art deco seaside resort but were in a post industrial wasteland near to the Belgian border.
This time we ditched the sat nav completely, got the map out and set off in the opposite direction for Le Touquet. As it was our last night we decided to stay in a nice hotel on the front and as usual, Joy negotiated us a deal. When they said we had to pay an extra 30 euros for the dog, Joy, quick as a flash, said we would do that if they threw in a free breakfast. She has a gift.
And yes, Le Touquet was well worth the detour. It was just like those old French seaside movies with the yachts, rich old ladies and guys with their sweaters draped across their shoulders. All very 1930s, including the beautiful old carousel on the front.
We managed to get back home yesterday the old fashioned way – without the aid of the sat nav. It was really quite nostalgic, having to look at road signs and think for yourself. But will we get a new one in time for our next trip through France? Yes we will; it’s nice to follow a map and you feel that bit closer to your journey but it’s so, so much easier with a sat-nav. Swings and roundabouts, really.