Thursday, 4 May 2017
Chatel-de-Neuvre to Millau, 186 miles; Millau to Loupian, 78 miles.
Seven days travelling without a break, I think it's the longest journey we have done without pausing for a day or two. I don't really like driving day after day, but the weather has been chilly and showery and we never really found anywhere that tempted us to linger.
Our progress yesterday was slowed by a quest to find somewhere to fill-up with LPG. It almost became a saga like the white water yesterday. Because of safety concerns LPG pumps tend not to be credit card operated. This means that quite often they are turned off between 12.00 and 2.00pm when the cashier has lunch. Our LPG app identified that Intermarché in Gannat had LPG. The petrol station had been sold to another operator, but it did sell LPG. Sadly, we arrived at 12.07pm, the caisse was shuttered, so onwards we went.
Fortunately most of the service areas on the A75 south of Clermont-Ferrand also sell LPG. The first one we stopped at was designed so the only side you could refuel from was the right. Our LPG filler is on the left. The next pump allowed you to park on either side, so we drew up so the filler point was next to the nozzle. After five minutes of faff and no gas, I realised that this side of the pump was dysfunctional. Luckily the other side worked and the hose long enough to reach the van. Success! But at a price, 90 cents per litre is a bit steep - motorway prices - but at least we have now enough LPG for the rest of the trip.
After hundreds of miles on N roads with roundabouts every few kilometers constantly changing speed limits I was glad to be on the free autoroute south of Clermont-Ferrand. It's a spectacular drive through the mountains of the Auvergne and Cantal. The high slopes of the Puy were still covered in snow and the threat of thundery weather created spectacular towering cloudscapes above the mountains.
We stopped for a coffee at an aire off the A75. There is no equivalent to these roadside picnic areas in the UK, not only do they have toilets and a pleasant area to have a picnic, quite often the local authority have developed them to showcase the delights of the region. This one, in Cantal, was all about rocks and trees. It claimed it featured an arboretum, but all the fir trees in the plantation looked identical to me - back at home I think we would call this 'feature' a clump.
However, the information about the local geology was inspired. In a small abandoned quarry examples the underlying rocks of the region had been gathered together in a big semi-circle, each large boulder labelled with its type and place within geological time. At one end, the older igneous rocks, then various sedimentary sandstones and limestone, ending with more recent (only nine million years old) volcanic basalts and conglomerates.
The nearby information board put all of this in a broader context. A spiral diagram with the big bang at one end and the 'ascent of mankind' at the other placed geological time in relation to other parallel developments - single cell creatures, first forests, dinosaurs, ending with humans. I learned a lot in my ten minute mooch.
I was also reminded this was a uniquely French take on the history of 'life, the universe and everything'. The graphic of human evolution began with the usual picture of a stooped ape-like creature, but opted to represent the apogee of human development with what appeared to be the silhouette of a youthful Brigitte Bardot somewhat 'dépouillé.' Vive la difference! as they say hereabouts.
We reached Millau in the late afternoon. We ignored Muriel's instructions to turn left down a narrow lane but then became embroiled in a new 'shared space' experiment which involved manoeuvring Maisy across a brick pavoir square through a cluster of café tables. It was unclear where the pavement ended and the road began, but such is the nature of shared spaces. I am pleased to report that we reach Camping Deux Rivieres without mishap and not one native perusing 'La Monde' over a relaxing 'demi' suffered an untimely demise beneath the wheels of 3.5 tons of gleaming white Ford Transit. It was a close run thing.
We took a stroll into town. It's our nephew, Stefan's birthday soon. We needed a stamp. The local tabacchi obliged. While we were wandering about our youngest phoned complaining of an enflamed ear due to having yet another piercing. Gill's outpouring of parental sympathy was fairly convincing I thought, skillfully avoiding commonsense advice, which is always guaranteed to your irritate a twenty-something off-spring.
The site had fairly good free WiFi. So I fiddled about with the blog all evening while Gill followed the BBC live feed of the French Presidential candidates' debate on her mobile. She reported on the key points of Macron v Le Pen at the same time as playing some fiendishly tricky variant of Candy Crush on her tablet. Gill's capacity to multitask is really quite awesome.
Next morning we woke to sunshine. The site is lovely, positioned among trees next to the Tarn but within easy walking distance into town. The facilities are modern, including a heated shower block. With the ACSI discount - only €13 per night, less than what we paid to stay in someone's back garden in Cambridgeshire, without any facilities at all apart from a cold water tap. In comparison facilities for motorhomes in the UK are overpriced and pathetic.
After five consecutive days of travel we were tempted to stay another night, but high wind is forecast. The A75 south of here snakes across the Cevennes at an altitude of almost 1000m. It's a bare, windswept garrigue at the best of times. With gusts of 60kph expected it would be no fun in a motorhome, so we decided to head for Meze and the Mediterranean coast straightaway. While we were packing up we struck up a conversation with the Dutch chap in the adjacent pitch. He was travelling alone. After his wife died four years ago he swapped their motorhome for a converted small hatchback. Removing all but the drivers seat, through a truly ingenious bit of minimalist design, he had squeezed in a single bed with storage below, a slide-out kitchen at the back. The rear hatchback fitted snugly onto an adapted 'gazebo' style awning which provided shelter when cooking and a small dining area. To get about locally he towed a scooter on a small trailer. Amazing!
It was late morning by the time we departed. The long slow climb out of the steep sided Tarn valley gave us plenty of time to admire the Millau viaduct. In some ways the view of it from a distance is as impressive as when you are close to. It is not in anyway dwarfed by the panoramic landscape that surrounds it. Like the 'Angel of the North' it appears monumental even from far away. I think this is because of its transformative effect on the landscape, it reminded me of Wallace Stevens 'Anecdote of the Jar'. Gill managed to get a good shot of it from the cab, and a beautiful portrait of a mid twentieth century French concrete crash barrier. Soon, maybe these commonplace things will become object of devotion as we pine for the simplicities of the previous millennium, assailed as we are by the dystopian leanings of our own.
Two hours later we were pulling into Loupian's Camping Municipal. It's taken a week to travel 1000 miles south at a sedate Maisy speed. The plan is to experiment with staying about a week at a time in fewer places rather than rushing about as if there is no tomorrow. Of course, there is no guarantee there will be a tomorrow, but even if there wasn't, would it make sense to rush towards a future that might not exist?