Wednesday, 16 May 2018

The night ferry to Ajaccio

Question - have the past 24hrs been particularly tricky, or simply eventful? We have visited some lovely places but it has not been 'plain sailing'.

So much for the sunny south
It has rained intermittently for days. When we arrived at the campsite in St Remy the pitches were slightly waterlogged. We tried to find the driest one, but as soon as I drove onto it a slight downward slope became apparent, imperceptible to the naked eye. The previous van had double wheels at the back and rear wheel drive. We never had a problem with soft sand or  boggy ground. The new one's payload is 300kg heavier and it has front wheel drive. I immediately began predicting all kinds of difficulties when it was time to leave. Gill dismissed my anxieties as typical of my propensity towards pessimism. Perhaps the spirit of Nostradamus still haunts his hometown, because for once my catastrophic predictions turned out to be true.

So convinced was I that any attempt to move would result in wheel spin that I decided test this by attempting to reposition the van the evening before we were due to depart. The van rolled back off the levelling ramps but as soon as the front wheels hit the soggy ground they simply spun around; slowly we sank into a mud patch of our own making. We cut a cardboard box into long strips in the hope that it might provide additional traction. The spinning wheels propelled these backwards spectacularly as soon as the tyres touched them. We sank deeper into the mud patch.

By now our predicament had become something of a sideshow for our neighbours. A Dutchman offered to help, bringing along four bright yellow heavy duty plastic strips, a Fiamma product designed to assist bogged down mohos. These helped a bit, but as soon as I put on any power these sheets were propelled backwards too. Three other guys rolled up to help. Somehow a combination of waggling the front wheels, and brute force from Gill and four determined Dutchman managed to shift the van about six feet backwards. This created enough space in front for me to swing around. With the wheels at full lock I was able to swish by the hedge in front and drive off the side of the pitch onto the drier grassy track beside it. Now at least we were mobile, however where we had parked blocked-in all four of our neighbours. A short Anglo-Dutch conference ensued. The concluding agreement - we were good to stay put so long as we departed first thing. That suited us, we had a ferry to catch.

Our very own home made mud patch - it does not look much but it stopped us in our tracks.
Our place for the night.

After a shaky start the rest of the day improved - an interesting visit to the Roman remains at Glanum in the morning, a memorable coffee stop at Brignolles in the afternoon. Our port of departure was Toulon, a hundred mile drive. We managed to arrive in the middle of rush hour. About 4kms of tailback meant it took an age to reach the city centre. Once we did, rather than crawling along we were launched into a high speed car chase reminiscent of the opening of a Bond movie. Gill and the sat-nav shouted directions, I clung onto the wheel weaving in and out of fast moving traffic, switching lanes at the last moment as tiny 'le Port' signs popped up at random, attached to lamposts, half rubbed-off, written on the road. All was going fine until we were unexpectedly faced with a low bridge sign. We had a hurried discussion about the the height of the new van, about 2.8m we surmised. The underpass loomed, 3.2m the sign above read, ok for us now, but too close to call in our previous van. We were relieved to arrive at the docks unscathed . 

Survived the low underpass - but I need to turn left - will anyone let me in? (hollow laughter)
"What time do we board?" Gill asked. "Vingt" barked the official curtly. It took a moment or two for us to realise she was in 24 hour mode, loading would commence at 8ish. That gave us 90 minutes of thumb twiddling. We ate the quiche we had bought at the Brignolles boulangerie some hours earlier, hopped in and out of the van taking pictures of the bright yellow Corsica Ferry, then simply people watched. There is always things happening on a dock - the douanes' sniffer dog who seemed more interested in lamposts than lorries, or 'scary-lane-organiser-lady', who despite her diminutive size bossed the biggest trucks and the most bewildered tourists with similar élan, waving her arms and pointing as if conducting a bunch of amateurs attempting a spirited performance of Beethoven's Fifth.
Hooray! sunshine, the docks...things are looking up.

Gill's artsy ferry shot'''
Slowly we edged forward. Loading at Toulon was evidently a more precise process than at Dover. 'Scary-lane-organiser-lady' appeared in front of us with a steel rule and began measuring the length of the vehicles in the small truck and van queue. Progress seemed slow. The reason soon became apparent;, trucks and vans were being loaded onto the second tier up a steep ramp. This did not phase me until I realised that although articulated trucks were being loaded forwards, vans were required to reverse on. This was not something I relished, but what choice did I have? Who would dare to defy scary-lane-organiser-lady'? 

In the white van man queue.

You want me to reverse on....?
In the event, the manoeuvre turned out to be even trickier than it first appeared. Once I had reversed up the ramp I was required to continue backwards down the length of the car deck, squeezing between a line of trucks two feet to the left and a metal wall equally close on the right with a protruding fire hose and an electrical junction box that cleared our wing mirrors by a matter of inches. The deckhands placed at the front and back were more skilled at shouting instructions than I was at following them. Eventually they gestured me to stop, the chap at the front waggled his hand - gesturing 'dodgy'. I assume I was being graded C- 'can do better' for my reversing skills. This prompted gloomy ruminations on my part. Irrationally I tend to take the view that there are only two marks for anything, A+ and fail. The upshot of this is that I am constantly haunted by a sense of never quite making the mark. Sensible me knows that this not true, but like every other human on the planet, I am not always, or even usually sensible.

Safely aboard we grabbed our over-night things stashed stylishly in two supermarket 'bags for life'. At the last moment, in recognition of the challenges of the previous half-hour, I opened the fridge and grabbed a couple of beers and a half-full bottle of Rose-de-Provence. Fortification seemed in order. The layout of the ferry was similar to the one we caught last December from Bilbao to Plymouth. The public areas and catering facilities were concentrated on three decks at the bows and stern, the mid-ship section consisting mainly of cabins. The public areas are only connected at one level. It takes a while to work-out the layout. At first we were entirely bewildered as to the whereabouts of our cabin and where to collect the key, all we had was a sticker with a mysterious code handed to us by 'scary-lane-organiser-lady'. Too hard we decided, and headed off to the outside deck to watch the sunset as we sailed off past Toulon's naval dockyard.

Au revoir Toulon, and most of the French Navy.

Selfie time!

After we had finished photographing the departure, even risking a selfie or two, we set off to find reception to ask about our cabins. There was quite a gaggle at the desk, half a dozen customers and three or four staff. A heated argument about something was in full swing. Eventually a member of staff extricated himself from the scrum and turned to us. He explained the mysterious cabin code, the number 6 indicated the deck level. It was located at the opposite end of the ship and the system was that a steward on duty in that area would unlock our cabin. We ascended one flight of stairs, past the perfumery, through the a-la-carte-restaurant, up a further flight of stairs, through the self service restaurant, up another steep staircase (now wobbling a little as the ferry sailed into open water), read the list of cabin numbers - found ours, but no steward. We must have struck our best bemused grey-haired look. A young American woman enquired if we were 'ok'. Explaining our predicament she assured us breezily, "Any guy in a yellow jacket will help you." There were no 'guys' to be found, yellow jacketed or otherwise. Back to reception, retracing our roller coaster route. The minor altercation had been concluded, we explained our problem to the lone receptionist, without comment she mumbled into a radio. A steward in a yellow jacket appeared like a genie.

He turned out to be less than a genial genie. Wordlessly he gestured for us to follow him and set off at pace - up and down stairs, though restaurants and cafeterias we raced, struggling to keep up, beer bottles clanking as we went. In no time at all we arrived at our cabin. As our yellowish helper fiddled with a clutch of master keys we stood by wheezing like a pair of geriatric donkeys. Finally forty minutes or so after the boat departed we sat down on our cabin beds; I reached into my bag, found the bottle opener and knocked the tops off a couple of Leffes.

Given the sort of day we'd had unsurprisingly we fell straight to sleep and did not surface until my phone alarm went off at the ungodly hour of 5.40am. Breakfast was served from 5.45, cabins to be vacated by 6.00, all to ensure everyone is ready to disembark by 7.00am when the ferry docked in Ajaccio. It is 16 years since we were last in Corsica. The previous two times we visited we used the shorter daytime Livorno to Bastia crossing. If  you arrive in sunny weather, the sight of Corsica's characteristically craggy peaks gradually materialising out of the mist across the dark blue Tyrrhenian Sea is unforgettable. However our arrival at Ajaccio was even more spectacular as the mountains are loftier on the west coast than the east, and as luck would have it, the sun broke through a bank of cloud the moment we entered the Golfo Ajaccio. It was truly a majestic sight.

6.30 am. Golfo Ajaccio - fabulous dawn

The Ancient Greeks called Corsica 'Kalliste' - the most beautiful

Hello Ajaccio
Getting off the ferry was much easier than driving on, at least we were going forwards, and because we had been one of the last vehicles loaded we were one of the first off. Yesterday evening we arrived amid Toulon's evening rush hour, now, at around 7.30am our arrival coincided with the Ajaccio's population rushing to work. We had considered staying in the town for a few days, however the reviews of the campsite were universally dreadful. Plan B was to head to a site to the west of Propriano, about 40 kms distant.
First we needed to shop as we had run down our stock of fresh food. We were required to switch off the fridge overnight - gas appliances have to be shut down on ferries. Gill found the coordinates of an Auchun store on the outskirts of Ajaccio. We arrived a little before 8.00am. No problem parking, the extensive, newly built retail sprawl did not open for another 30 minutes; there were literally acres of empty parking spaces to choose from.

After a long anticipated breakfast we were ready to shop, first customers through the doors of the huge hypermarket. An empty mall - long aisles stacked with products arranged artfully as artefacts, a giant LCD display of a skeletal woman in black lingerie, Gareth Bayle, Photoshop honed, remodelled as an escaped replicant adorning the sports shop window - and the unpeopled store, un-nerving like an abandoned city or a theatre after the audience has gone, the uncanny atmosphere emphasised by the background music - Ibiza trance, its hypnotic pulse, a mesmerising echolalia. I am looking back at the notes I made at the time - 'Soundtrack to the afterlife, the oddness of now,' I wrote, then a single word - 'Ballardian'. It was true, the huge empty store oozed unease like the odd mix of the banal and the menacing that you find in Ballard's stories.

First customers of the day in the enormous mall...
Devoid of people - the place was slightly unnerving..

You begin to look at the ads. like you would an installation in an art gallery, considered in that way the images are very odd

Gareth Bake - reinvented as a Greek hero.
A sporting demi-god, not Heracles, that would be Soccerates

and the stuff on sale - all a little strange when you are the only customers in a store the size of Wembley
without people the place felt like a museum of over consumption

Returning to the question at the outset - have the past 24hrs been particularly tricky, or simply eventful? Well both, but also a little strange. What this tells me, I think, is it is time to stop, rest awhile rather than drive from place to place day after day. If everyday confronts you with the unfamiliar, then I think your sense of self becomes dislocated, literally displaced, What I need is to sit by a beach for a while and watch the waves. That's our plan; we need to arrive.

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