If you’ve got a campervan and you travel a lot in France you will probably be as enthusiastic as we are about their aires. In complete contrast to the British attitude to overnight motorway camping, the French actively encourage travellers to take a break when they get tired. If you sleep the night in an English service station you will probably get fined. In France they provide attractive camping areas, toilets, restaurants and give you a warm welcome. They’d rather you fell asleep in your camper or tent than at the wheel.
Joy and I have had some great nights in aires, and so has Leo as there are often nice places to walk a dog. People are at ease and we’ve met loads of fellow campers who just stroll up to ask about the Sick Bay and stop for a glass of red.
Last Saturday night was not like this at all, in fact it was a bit of a nightmare.
We had left Avignon during the afternoon heading up the Rhone valley so that we could be at the huge flea market in Lyon early on Sunday morning. The plan was to find an aire just south of the city so that we would be early birds and grab a bargain at the market. As they say, it’s the early bird that gets the worm – but it’s the second mouse who gets the cheese!
As we pulled into the aire it was getting dark, raining hard and we knew immediately that it was not one of the good aires. We should have known better as most aires near a big city suffer from a lack of space. This means that you have less room for camping, the place is more congested and, worst of all, you get hemmed in with the big trucks. You don’t get a good night’s kip if you are anywhere near trucks; they are noisy and some even keep a generator running all night.
In common with most European countries, large trucks are banned on Sundays in France. This means that from 10pm on Saturdays they have to pull into aires before they can set off again 24 hours later. Obviously most motorists are very glad of these restrictions as the roads are so much less congested at times that would otherwise be very busy. Unfortunately for us, our little aire soon filled up with these monsters and just as I was dropping off a couple of them turned on their generators. I had pitched my tent on the only available patch of grass, alongside the lorry park, and it was like sleeping on an airport runway. The restaurant was just a little snack bar, there was nowhere to walk a dog and to cap it off, it rained all night. No sitting under the stars with a bottle of red that night.
We were both tired and grumpy as we set off for Les Puces du Canal in Lyon but we cheered up as soon as we arrived. It was exactly as Joy had hoped – huge, chaotic and, (compared with the Avignon market), a lot more rough and ready. The traders were open to offers and seemed keener to make a sale than they had been in Avignon. Joy was in her element. By lunch time she had bagged two ancient mirrors, a garden bench and had narrowly missed out on an antique library chair. Which was just as well as we would have struggled to get it into Sick Bay. But we’ll probably go back for it next year.
We piled our booty into the back of the van and set off for our overnight crossing from Rotterdam to Hull on Wednesday. After our horrible night we made sure we found one of the nice aires to stay in and then we had to turn our thoughts to getting Leo checked over by a vet for his return to the UK. We normally just pull into any vet and find that they are pleased to fit us in as the whole process is money for old rope if you’re a French vet.
Once we’d got the dog sorted our time was our own and we had a free Tuesday before having to get to Rotterdam on Wednesday. The sun was shining again and we were in a really pretty part of France just south of Luxembourg, on the banks of the Moselle. So we thought we’d pick a nice sounding town to spend the day. We pulled into Pompey but it turned out to be little more than a science park, there wasn’t even an Intermarche. So we continued north until we got to Pont a Mousson, (can’t be bad if it’s got a bridge!) It was lovely and just by the bridge there was a marina and campervan park. For €9-80 you got electrical hook up, fabulous shower block and a superb view over the river. And the dog was free. Our neighbours were all in big motor homes and one couple were Dutch – heading for Morocco. They planned to return after eight months. We were discussing why there were so many more motor-homes in France while caravans seem to have disappeared and he explained that the French now have to pass an annual competency test to tow a caravan if they are 65 or older. Doesn’t apply to motor-homes so a regulation designed to improve road safety has resulted in far greater numbers of motor-homes – a good example of the law of unintended consequences.
That night we found a restaurant called Chez Lulu, quite expensive but it was our last night so we pushed the boat out. I asked the young guy who was the ‘Lulu’ and he said it was him. Short for Ludovic. He had just started the restaurant and he produced a truly brilliant meal. We had a lot of wine and Lulu kept producing drinks on the house. I don’t remember walking back but in the morning I found that I had omitted to peg out my tent. It rained cats and dogs in the night and I got pretty wet. Still, it was a great night, great meal and a great campsite. I hope Chez Lulu is a success and is still there when we go back next year.
We enjoy the Rotterdam crossing, you get a nice meal and a good night’s kip. The only thing is, I feel sorry for Leo as he goes into a cage at about 7pm and doesn’t get out until we dock about 12 hours later. He won’t have a pee at all on the ship, even in the exercise section, (like most of the other dogs) and although we stop at the very first patch of grass I think it must be very uncomfortable for him. I certainly couldn’t do it.
We had an encounter with a weirdo coming back on the M62 in Yorkshire, (where else!) He pulled up in front of us during a traffic slow-down and then reversed his BMW at speed. He was gesticulating wildly. He did this strange and dangerous stunt twice before we twigged that it was because Joy was on her mobile and he thought she was the driver. The Sick Bay is left hand drive and Joy went to some lengths to indicate this to the silly sod. Once he realised, he gave us a two fingered salute and drove off. Just sorry I didn’t manage to get a pic for my blog.