Day 150: Is it summer?

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While Day 50 was celebrated in a cool autumn in Neckargemund and Day 100 in an early winter thunderstorm in Rome, Day 150 brought what felt like the summer back into our lives. It was only January 30th, but the heat coming off those delicious rays from early morning was definitely of the order we two Scots associate most affectionately with school exam time in mid-May or summer holidays in July. There was a warmth that went deep down into our bones and made us even turn our faces away from it from time to time as warm became hot.

They always tell you that you only remember the hot summers from your younger days, making you think that all summers were sizzlers in times gone by. They (whoever they are) are probably right in fact because I recall holidays in Arbroath and St. Andrew’s when I was wee Georgie and those memories are of shorts and sandals, swimming in the sea and midnight bathing, eating ice-cream and Mum putting calamine lotion on our sunburn. They hadn’t invented skin cancer yet.

Later on, I remember the 3 consecutive hot summers of ’74, ’75 and ’76. I spent the first half of summer ’74 in France finishing my job as an assistant teacher at the lycée Hoche in Versailles (astonishingly the exact same school Uncle Gerard did his Assistantship in many years before!). I watched Scotland beat Zaire, draw with Brazil and I think Yugoslavia to become the first team ever to be eliminated from the first stage of the World Cup Finals without losing a game. We watched all the games outside in the school playground with a curtain over the TV on a gigantic extension so we could see the screen despite the blinding sunshine.

The summer of ’75 turned me into a man! That’s because I finished University early as it was my Junior Honours year (therefore no exams to do) and got a job as a labourer on a building site at the bottom of Buttar’s Loan, only two minutes from where we lived on South Road. I think I did fourteen weeks there and I can’t recall a single day of bad weather. I can still picture myself on Saturday mornings standing one floor up, dressed in shorts and steel-toe capped boots, laying out the bricks for the bricklayers to use first thing Monday morning. I had to push a wheelbarrow full of bricks up a sloping batten to reach the first floor among other strenuous duties and my body simply morphed from skinny to muscular over that summer. I still have the shoulders.

The summer of ’76 was the end of University, graduation and getting married for the first time. I have very special memories of my late Mum and Dad sitting on the lawn in the Quadrangle at St. Andrew’s in brilliant sunshine, eating strawberries and cream after my graduation. I recall week after week of warm sunshine in the lead-up to my wedding but ironically I seem to remember that the weather broke the weekend I got married. Hmmm!

As I don’t remember the summers of ’72 or ’77 (or any at all in the ‘80’s) I suppose we really do only recall the good ones. At any rate I suspect we may well remember the summer of ’13, as there is a fair chance it has already started and, what with Australia and all that, may last for about 7 months! Today it was so warm we were able to sit out in T-shirts and sunbathe for a couple of hours. In the evening in the Magic Caravan it didn’t cross our minds to put the heater on, something we have done every evening since Rome probably. We also embraced that very summery thing of drying the towels on the roof and bonnet of the car, letting the sun turn wet into dry in 15 minutes!

We did take a walk up to the commercial park just 300 metres away but I came back after a short while, leaving Mary to wander around the outlet stores and make a few purchases. It’s a wee bit worrying, you know, as Mary isn’t particularly renowned for her domestic flair if you catch my drift. Yet back she comes from the shops, not with a new pair of boots or a nice top, oh no, she comes back with a brand-new …….. doormat! I feel she may be embracing the gypsy way of life more than many of you ever envisaged! I can just picture her clinging to the back of the caravan slowly eating a Cadbury’s Milk Flake as I drive off down the dusty road!

Day 150 was celebrated with a bottle of St. Emilion (none of the local plonk today thank you) and Mary served up a delicious sweet and sour chicken for tea. TV was excellent tonight and after Attenborough’s enthralling “Africa” we tuned in to BBC 4 to watch the next episode of “Bob Servant” and then 2 documentaries, the first on Billy Connoly and the second on Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame.  Did you know he came from Cullercoats?

Hope it’s still summer tomorrow!

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Day 149: Almost There

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Another faultless blue sky and double-figures temperature greeted us this morning when we finally wiped the comforting sleep from our eyes. I was first to the showers after which I made the first brew of the day and scurried down to the reception with the laptop to post the blog and download the e-mails. We shared the next hour with our English neighbours, George and Sue (not Sophie, sorry Sue, I have Eve’s cat on the brain!), then we bid farewell to Colombiers and pointed the Audi towards Spain.

The snowy Pyrenees.

The snowy Pyrenees.

Getting close.

Getting close.

The trip down the coast to our last site in France was accompanied by brilliant sunshine and mercury rising and, on our safe arrival in the town of Elne near Perpignan, a chemist’s neon sign showed 14.25 and 20 degrees! That accounted for us having to use the air-conditioning in the car for the first time in months. “Le Florida” campsite proved easy to find, we had a wide choice of pitches, the Internet was fast and free and the toilets were fine.

While Mary got to work on setting up, I popped back down the road to an “Intermarché” to get a couple of nights’ teas then I searched around until I found a power-hose car wash. The owner, who was a Londoner, showed me how to programme the machine and use the lance correctly then he stayed chatting with me until the Audi had been well and truly blasted clean and polished to showroom condition. I have to admit that it deserved that spruce-up as I hadn’t given the car a wash since Pompeii!

The spring-clean theme was continued when I got back to the site to find Mary beating the hell out of the rugs (they still wouldn’t talk!) and scrubbing carpets, upholstery and even windows. After a beer outside in the sunshine, I returned to the fray and attacked the inside of the car with a deadly hoover, giving it a thoroughly good suck until scarce a speck of dirt remained.

Next, the satellite had to be aligned, but thankfully Astra 28 was found with ne’er a twitch, ensuring British channels away down here for the next three days. Other than a brief conversation with an elderly German couple who arrived an hour after we did, that was the sum total of our last move before Barcelona. Tea was the usual Spag Bol., a first night tradition we like to keep if we possibly can.

We haven’t committed ourselves to any spectacular visits from here (although a trip to Perpignan is probably in order) as we are gearing up for our move to Catalonia, making arrangements for all our visitors, planning my 60th birthday of course then our 3-week trip to Australia to see Scott.

One thing for sure: life is never dull!

Day 148: Béziers

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Lots of visits were planned for today so breakfast was brief, a picnic was packed and we bought a couple of baguettes in the village before heading down the road to the town of Béziers, the biggest in the area and highly recommended according to the local tourist literature. We parked in a big underground car park – it sometimes feels like Da Vinci own most of the planet – and walked up the hill to the cathedral, stopping on the way to admire a quaint church we chanced upon.

View from the cathedral square

View from the cathedral square

Our first impressions were that the town was slightly run-down, if not actually a bit dirty, and the people all appeared wrapped up in their own problems, sullen-faced and unsmiling. That image grew in force as the day progressed. There was a cracking good view from the cathedral square but the cathedral itself was closed as were all the museums between 12 and 2.30. Back down through the narrow streets we strolled, eventually popping into a brasserie for a cup of coffee.

At last there was a glimmer of something interesting when the town hall’s entrance revealed an inscription to Jean Moulin, the WW2 Resistance leader. We asked if there was anything more substantial to see and were directed (with Gallic indifference) to the Tourist Information Office. The lady there gave us a map on which she marked the route to take to find the memorial statue. As seems to happen all the time in the towns we visit, we found ourselves going through the immigrant quarters on our way to the statue but at least when we got there the area opened out into a nice university campus.

Jean Moulin (you can't resist!)

Jean Moulin (you can’t resist!)

Curiosity satisfied we checked the map and decided on how to get back to the car. All was going well until we managed to pick up a very dodgy stray dog slobbering from the mouth and looking distinctly ill at ease yet determined to make us its new best mates. That is why we found ourselves taking refuge behind the gate of some private apartments and waiting a good ten minutes before daring to stick our heads outside and check the mutt had hooked up with some other mugs. The rest of the walk back to the car was done at an unusually quick pace with many a backward glance lest Rin Tin Tin be once again on our case. Personally I blame Mary’s perfume, but she blamed my ham sandwich!

Thankfully our next port of call proved worth its reputation and we were able to spend half an hour admiring the engineering behind the impressive 9 locks of the Canal du Midi, a system built to allow the boats using the canal to go up or come down the twenty metres difference in the height of the land at Béziers.

Mary under lock and quay!

Mary under lock and quay!

From the canal locks we drove back to Colombiers then back up the hill to visit the roman encampment near the Tunnel de Malpas. Guess what, as it was Monday, the site was closed! After the disappointment of Béziers, this was more than we could bear, so we gave up and just sat down in the sunshine and took some rays. It was probably the warmest day we have had since Capri which was a while back.

Even better picture of L'Etang

Even better picture of L’Etang

After some shopping we treated ourselves to a McDonald’s tea and that was pretty much the end of our visiting of the region of Hérault. The village we were in, Colombiers, is really nice and there is plenty of local stuff to see, especially the remarkable spider’s web of the Etang de Montady (Hope you’ve checked it out on close-up Google Maps) but the town of Béziers is way overhyped and does not come over as welcoming or keen for you to visit. Even the old town did not have the quaint attractiveness of so many of the other place we have visited. I’d probably give it a miss.

Tomorrow we drive to our last site in France, a place near Perpignan. Tonight we’ve got out the Spanish text books and started to brush up on our language and vocabulary.

Hasta mañana!

How stressed do I look?

How stressed do I look?

Day 147: Tunnel Vision

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The entire morning was taken up with watching Andy Murray in the final of the Australian Open. We were of course disappointed that he didn’t win but, to be fair, the best man won today. Djokovic was quite stunning and thoroughly deserved his third Oz title on the trot. Anyway, both Mary and I were well satisfied that Murray had played such a brilliant game against Federer when Scott was there watching. That’s something he’ll never forget (Scott not Andy).

Such lethargy prompted us to get the walking gear on after lunch and go in search of the dry pond we failed to find yesterday. It was quite a bit warmer than the past couple of days and, even though the sun only put in the odd appearance, there was little sign of rain, so I carried the waterproofs in my backpack instead of us wearing them. I also had a word with George and Sophia on the adjacent pitch who gave me detailed directions, saving me from having to fire up the laptop and go on Google.

Where's Maurice?

Where’s Maurice?

A brisk walk for about a kilometre along the Canal du Midi took us to the Tunnel de Malpas where the canal passes under a rather interesting tunnel. We went down for a closer look, saw the walkway inside and simply couldn’t resist going in and walking right through to the other end. That was great fun although quite scary in the middle where it was very dark.

A Troglodyte

A Troglodyte

Atmospheric!

Atmospheric!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

L'Etang de Montady

L’Etang de Montady

Safely back into the light of day, we climbed the hill for a bird’s eye view of the “Etang de Montady” and its strange diagram on the surface of the earth, then we walked back down and strode at pace through the area for another couple of miles. This took us back to the town where we went in search of an open café but found none, today being a Sunday. To cheer us up, Mary marched me down to the village cemetery for a look at the old graves. Tell you what, we discovered the Mercedes Benz of sepulchres and tombs in that wee graveyard, along with the Rolls-Royce and the Daimler. Maybe marble’s cheap round here.

The Gods were clearly on my side when we got back to the caravan because, as I flicked through the channels, I found 3 separate live football matches and that kept me well-amused for the next 3 hours or so. Well done to St. Mirren and Oldham Athletic by the way! Great cup shocks! Any thoughts of an evening stroll were dispelled by heavy rain coming out of nowhere to wash away our good intentions, not that my feet were terribly keen to climb back into the new trainers.

A spooky coincidence happened again this evening when we received a comment from Brian & Pat advising us to go and see the very things we went and saw a few hours earlier. Thanks all the same, guys. Later we went to the empty bar for a good Internet signal which allowed us to catch up with Mary’s Mum and Gavin & Eve on Skype.

Béziers tomorrow. Or maybe not!

Day 146: Spider’s Web

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Since most of you will have been enduring tons of snow and very low temperatures, you’ll be consoled to learn that it was freezing in the Magic Caravan during the night and first thing this morning. It was a question of sneaking out from below the downy and putting on the halogen heater then cosying back up inside until the caravan was warm enough to move around in. Luckily the sun came out and helped with the matter after we’d pulled back the curtains to let its warming rays in.

I showered and shaved then Mary did likewise (well, one of them) and on the way back from the toilet block I met our next door neighbours, Sophie and George, an English couple who had chucked GB 4 years ago and gone to live in Greece before deciding on a grand tour of Europe which had brought them here to Colombiers. We spent a while exchanging notes on campsites, caravan life and travelling in general before they went off for the day, but not before recommending an interesting old drainage system established by Cistercian monks ages ago.

Now I had a suspicion I knew where this was, having seen a very strange pattern on the land next to the campsite on a close-up view on Google Maps. If you go to Colombiers near Béziers on Google then zoom in, you will see a weird sort of spider’s web formation near the town. That’s it. So today’s exercise (and a first outing for my new trainers) was a few kilometres around the local town and marshes.

Whitey's back!

Whitey’s back!

The Canal du Midi

The Canal du Midi

 

Firstly we chose to go and wander around the Canal du Midi which we fell in love with three years ago when we were in Carcassonne. The whole length of this canal, which links the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, is lined on both sides with what I think are plane trees, you know, those sturdy two-toned mottled trees you see all over France, especially either side of their long, straight national roads. The waterway is a very busy and popular canal for tourists and holidaymakers because you can hire a boat and cruise its length without a license. It is also home to huge colonies of noisy, laughing ducks!

After that, we explored the small town, finding the shops and the local church where we noted a mass tonight at 6 p.m. We then picked up the pace and headed out into the countryside in search of the aforementioned spider’s web. In order we found the railway station, a warehouse, two villas complete with attack dogs behind sturdy fences (thankfully!) several vineyards, one or two olive groves and a series of quaint, tiny level crossings. But no monks’ drainage system. Mary then dictated which paths we should follow and we found ourselves back at the campsite arriving from the opposite direction. Well done, my dear!

My kind of street!

My kind of street!

Could this sign be quite old?

Could this sign be quite old?

Mary is right on track!

Mary is right on track!

A bowl of soup, a quick Skype to the boys and a snooze for both of us took us to five o’clock, so we got in the car and went to the local shop to buy our tea and some bread which we then took to mass. It was a nice mass but the church was bitterly cold and we couldn’t wait to get outside again and warm up. Back at the Magic Caravan, we enjoyed a hearty chicken curry before settling down to watch TV for the evening, a combination of “Meet the Parents” and a video of the series “The In-Betweeners”. Those two certainly raised a chuckle.

To round off a good day, I snuggled up in bed to watch MOTD and …………. It wasn’t on!! Denied!

Day 145: Colombiers

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The alarm woke us in plenty time to get organized for viewing the tennis semi-final between Murray and Federer from Melbourne. For once however Murray was not the centre of attention for Mary and me. Oh no, because on this morning (or evening if you were in Oz) our very own Scotty Burton would be among the thousands of spectators in the stadium. He had even told us to listen for him shouting “C’mon Murray!” just before the beginning of the second set; we were to miss it, alas, due to the inane prattling of a BBC “expert”.

We hurried to get the Magic Caravan ready for departure while breakfasting, showering and realigning the satellite for a perfect reception. Andy duly obliged by taking the first set but then spoiled our schedule by not putting away an easy smash and allowing the Swiss to roll back the years and pass his way to the second. That settled it for us as we knew there was no more time left before we would have to hit the road. Off went the telly, unplugged was the electricity and dismantled was the satellite. Mary did the rest, I paid the bill and we were off.

Off we go!

Off we go!

Further on

Further on

Later

Later

As coincidently has almost always been the case, our moving day was accompanied by unbroken sunshine which was to keep us lovely and warm throughout our 300 kilometres journey round the Camargue to the wee town of Colombiers near Béziers. Whilst the warm sunshine was a definite plus en route, we were soon to be confronted by a most negative of influences in the shape of a fierce and at times violent wind howling out of the higher ground to the north of the autoroute and making serious repeated attempts to blow the Magic Caravan over on its side. I could feel tug after tug on the Audi as lateral gusts swept across the carriageway and, added to the amount of heavy trucks heading for Spain, I decided prudence was called for and so dropped to just on 50 mph for most of the journey.

Keep your sock on!

Keep your sock on!

The slower speed meant of course it was taking longer than expected to complete the journey so we opted for a stop in a small “aire de repos” where we climbed back into the caravan and had ourselves a brilliant lunch of whatever was still in the fridge. That was great fun and we wondered why we haven’t done that more often on our travels. A text from Mary’s Mum gave us the great news that Andy Murray had overcome Federer in 5 classic sets. We were so delighted for Scott! Eventually of course we reached Colombiers and found the campsite quite easily in fact. It is perfectly comfortable, the pitches are big, the toilets warm and clean, there are other people here (including a Brit! – the first we’ve met since Pompeii) and we have Internet although it’s not brilliant.

Once we were set up and the satellite was delivering a strong signal on BBC Scotland, I took a walk into the local town about a kilometre away to buy some bread. What a lovely wee place I found, with the beautiful Canal du Midi slicing the town in two. There were multiple canal boats moored up for the night near a lock and I could see the occupants watching TV or making their dinner. The sign at the chemist’s said it was 3 degrees at seven o’clock, the stars were out, the moon was full and the whole scene was quite enchanting.

Tea and TV followed, we toasted our arrival in Hérault region and we knew from the signs we had passed en route that we were only 260 kms from Barcelona. The excitement is mounting!

 

Day 144: A View from a Hill

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With the rain thankfully moved away to the east, we woke to a sunny morning encouraging us to get out of bed and go somewhere. So we did. Breakfast was followed by doing the dishes and then we were off, heading for the Fort of Six-Fours atop the hill around which the town is built. Three false starts trying to find the access road forced me to swallow my pride and ask Victoria to do her stuff, but she avoided a smug tone as she steered us unfailingly through a warren of streets and then up a winding road to the top of the hill.

What a view!

What a view!

Now, I know you are going to be thinking “Oh no, not again!” but what awaited us at the top was a view so utterly stunning that Mary immediately stamped it “The best so far”. Despite the fact that the majority of the summit was taken up by a military establishment which we weren’t even allowed to photograph, the 270 degrees panorama took us from the Med in the direction of Marseille over the peninsula and into the bay of Toulon, the ports, the city, and then round to Mount Faron which reputedly shelters the city from the worst excesses of the Mistral.

You know, Mary may just be right in her estimation of that view. We were lucky enough to be seeing it on a day when the sky was mostly blue with a touch of wispy clouds giving it the look of a painting rather than a real life vista, and the sun was reflected beautifully on the waters which held the peninsula on its three sides. To my utter chagrin, my camera ran out of battery ten seconds after I turned it on to snap these idyllic scenes but Mary came to the rescue with her phone camera and even shot a bit of video which I hope to include at the end.

Having seen Mount Faron from the fort, we decided to drive over and take the cable-car to the top, a trip recommended by a local we met at the top of the hill, sitting on his car bonnet eating half a baguette of very smelly pâté! It only took 10 minutes to drive over but we were gutted to find that the whole system was closed for the winter and, as there is no road to the top, we were forced to return to the campsite. On the way down the narrow road I tried swopping rear-view mirrors with some Frenchman in a Citroen but neither of us bothered to stop and check for damage. The Audi was OK so I hope his car wasn’t!

We took advantage of our unexpected return to a) use the loo and b) have lunch in comfort. I recharged the camera for half an hour then we were off again, this time to visit a famous church situated at the end of the worst road in France! Of course we didn’t know it was the worst road in France until we had actually driven most of its narrow, wet, bumpy and tortuous path. But get this, there was a campsite near the end of it! I just could not imagine someone towing a big caravan getting anywhere near the front gate of that site: the access would be absolutely ridiculous.

The wee church was indeed well worth the visit and its claim to fame was it was the oldest Christian church in Europe. I’ve included a photo for anyone interested. After the church we returned to the port area of Sanary and took a stroll along the sea front a bit further before wandering around the shops as the sun began to set. We both agreed this was definitely a place to come back to and we recommend it to any of you thinking of a holiday in the South of France. Superb!

With all this walking, I not only have the legs of a marathon runner but the trainers of Alf Tupper, the tough of the track! Like Alf, mine have seen better pavements and now sport their own unsubtle ventilation holes adding even more to my bohemian image. But I have a wife who judges my appearance as a dubious itinerant to be undesirable and that is why I found myself in a sports shop trying on several new trainers until I stopped screaming and wriggling and bought a pair. For 50 Euro I would have expected a track suit and a set of skis as well but Mary shoved me out the door before I could remonstrate in any form. To put a tin lid on the deal, she made me put my old ones in the bin as soon as we got back and I didn’t even get to keep the holes!

We leave for Béziers tomorrow, but not before we’ve watched Murray v Federer from Melbourne at 08.30 live on BBC2. And of course we’ll be watching the crowd closely to try and spot Scotty!!

(Sorry, I can’t get the video to load.)

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