Monday, 26 October 2020

Five, four, three, two, one...HIBERNATION!

I've been thinking about how things will be when we get home. We will have to self isolate for a fortnight, but with the virus spreading again across Europe, why merely quarantine? Hibernation might be a better strategy. Get home, lock the door, and simply not come out until the whole thing goes away.

I have the Tesco's app on my phone, we won't starve, there is work to do in the garden - constructing the new decking and creating a 'pop-up' kitchen garden ready for next spring. Paul, our builder, ordered most of the materials for our extension by standing in our garden shouting incomprehensible lists of things into his mobile - "10 3x5 ouija boards, two dozen crongles (yes fully galvanized), are you still short of masticated cement? What can you do me three pallets of rusticated womble bricks for?" and so on. I am sure I could get the hang of it.

Anyway during last spring's lockdown I managed to improve my fitness without even going outside or resorting to the assistance of some well honed You Tube god or goddess.. We dusted off our venerable Wii Fit, Gill did some of the exercise routines, I took to running on the spot around Wii Fit island. 

As the weeks went by I became very fond of the place. It has a lovely coastline, chalk downs it seemed, like West Sussex. Its main town manages to seem historic and modern simultaneously, part Milton Keynes on Sea, but with an Italianate touch, reminiscent of those Mussolini era public housing projects you get on the outskirts of Rome whose cement faced modernist severity is softened with nods towards the neo-classical or the vernacular.

Anyway, I became very attached to my virtual 3k daily run. I managed to work through Steely Dan's entire back catalogue in chronological order while doing it, before moving on to the dreamy psychedelia of Kurangbin before finally immersing myself in a Trip hop fest. Right now a return to lockdown seems quite alluring.

First we need to get from here (Lombardy) to there (Derbyshire) via Covid central (France). We have a plan, of course we do, admittedly it's scribbled on two post-it-notes stuck to the journey planner pages of our Phillips European Road Atlas, and not, as you might expect, recorded carefully on an Excel Spreadsheet. My laptop seems to have become terminally ill, maybe it's caught a virus.

Anyway, our plan is to get from Lake Garda to Buxton in five days, each stop designed to minimise human contact, using motorways mainly, but risking a couple of big French hypermarket retail fests on the basis that so far as wine and beer goes this is our last opportunity to exercise our rights as EU citizens. Sad, but true.

Hibernation minus 5 - Peschiera di Garda to Cugnasco.  

The route along the Venice to Milan motorway then north past Como and through the San Gottardo tunnel is a familiar one, we must have done more than a dozen times I guess. It involves dealing with the tagentiale Milano. The first time I tackled it I had to pull off into a service area half way around in order to calm my nerves. It's less scary now, partly through familiarity, but also I am convinced over the past decade or so driving in Italy has become less hazardous, people are a little less bat shit crazy behind the wheel and stick within the speed limits in the main. 

I suppose the same could be said of me. On our long haul road trips with the kids we had to travel within school holidays.  A Southern European fix at Easter required getting there then back in three days in order to have a ten day holiday south of the Alps. Whereas then we would do around 350 miles a day, now we average about 150. In order to gobble up the miles our trusty old Ford Galaxy would happily sit in the fast lane at 90 mph; now, I set the cruise control a notch below 90kph, and trundle along with the convoy of HGVs who have done exactly the same. Unexciting driving, that's what I like these days.

What this means is that whereas once we would drive straight through Switzerland from Lake Garda to Mulhouse in Alsace in one go, now we  break the journey somewhere in Ticino, the country's Italian speaking Canton. It's fair to say that our Swiss stopovers have been a mixed bag. When we headed off to Greece in 2015 we stayed a couple of nights the Lugern valley. A kilometre or two up a rough track from the campsite, across Alpine pastures dotted with flower decked chalets you get a stupendous view of the Jungfrau. Somewhat romantically I wrote, 'Is this our earthly paradise?' I don't think I was being hyperbolic, it genuinely felt like that at the time. However, most of Switzerland's alpine valleys are far from paradisical, their narrow floor a sprawl af factories or ribbon-like towns full of ugly concrete flats and malls, the motorway and railway vying for the flattest ground by a lake or stony, emerald river. More often than not the mountains are hidden in cloud. It feels claustrophobic.

So we are fated to have more disappointing experiences in Swiss camp sites than positive ones,  most remaining memorable for all the wrong reasons - the place near Stams where the sanitary block was partitioned off from the rest of the cowshed by flimsy plywood, and as you stood in the shower you sensed the presence of something big and bovine mooching about less than a metre away; a prettily positioned place on the shore of Lake Lugano but right next to the motorway to Milan and the main railway connecting Italy to the north of Europe 

Then last night, we slept in a weird place near Cugnasco, down a track more suited to a scooter than a motorhome, with ramshackle facilities and shack embellished statics on pitches which attempted to out-kitch the Walloons in terms of strange figurines and ghastly ornaments. Germany here we come..

Hibernation minus 4 - Cugnasco to Bad Bellingen.

Crossing the Alps is a 'thing' no matter how many times you do it. Of course what you hope for are cloudless skies and white snowy peaks glinting in sunlight. I don't think we have ever seen the Alps that way, today it was grey peaks in cloud, better than the torrential rain last year. 

Lucerne means road works and traffic jams, it always has. When we first started travelling south at Easter they were constructing deep underpasses and tunnels that run under the city. 

There is always a hold-up. We stopped using this route for about fifteen years. Then, when we began our motorhome travels in 2014 there were still roadworks Lucerne, as there was today. I don't think there actually has been two decades of construction, we've just been a tad unlucky, our earlier trips coinciding with the the construction of the tunnels, the more recent ones with their repair. In between the good citizens of Lucerne in all likelihood swept imperiously around their urban freeways marvelling at the wonders of Swiss civil engineering. I feel victimised.

A few kilometres north of the city we stopped for lunch at a service area. The clouds lifted a little and the chain of mountains appeared like a white wall to the south.

Glimpsed through the yellowing trees it was a fine sight, a sad one as well, there is something doubly melancholic about driving north in autumn, as if you are so eager for winter that you hurry home to meet it.

We were heading for a stellplatz just over the Swiss border. Because it was in Germany the sat-nav took us off our usual route and onto an A road towards Lörrach. This avoids having to deal with Basel's tricky urban motorways. We might use this route in future, we speculated. We also wondered if there would be checks at the border. There were gaggles of police standing about at both the Swiss and German controls, but they simply waved us through. 

All went well until we neared stellplatz Gutenau on the outskirts of  Efringen-Kirchen. We suffered what Gill calls a 'sat-nav special' directing us down country lanes, more suited as a cycleway than a road. 

We got to the village, found the stellplatz situated at the back of a motorhome dealer who appeared to specialise in doing-up clapped-out rusting VW campers. Reviews mentioned that access was tight for vans over 7m. Impossible I decided. We parked in a patch of mud at the end of a no through road and consulted Campercontact, there was another place in Bad Bellingem, about ten kilometres away, so we headed there.

Luck was on our side. The stellplatz is run by a municipal spa complex, has well designed facilities and good sized bays on hard standing. Expensive at €18 euros per night, but less so if you used the ticket which gives you free use of public transport throughout the southern Black Forest  region, from Freiburg to Basel. It keeps mohos out of the cities' low emission zones while promoting tourism - a great idea.

We were parked next to a Rewe supermarket. Germany is a country we have passed through more than explored. Consequently we have tended to shop at Lidl or Aldi because they are convenient and tend to have pull-through parking spaces big enough for the van. They are cheap and cheerful, ok for everyday essentials. 

The Rewe supermarket was in a different league. Apart from anything else it had the biggest selection of beer and wine I have ever seen. The fresh produce was top quality too and you could have written the definitive encyclopedia of the German sausage based solely on the choice on offer. Up there with Mercadona we declared, which in our book puts it near the pinnacle of food retail gloriousness.

Food shopping is preying on our mind right now as somehow we have to arrive home with enough provisions to see us through the first ten days of our two week quarantine, until our Tesco delivery arrives in early November. Not that the visit to Rewe made inroads into this problem, but it has ensured we will not be short of an interesting selection of German beer with distinctly gothic looking labels.

Hibernation minus 3 -  Bad Bellingen to Port-a-Musson.

Ten minutes from Bad Bellingen and you are across the Rhine and into France. Skirting Mulhouse, past the enormous Peugeot Citroen works, onto the N66, over the Vosges, onwards towards Epinal and Nancy, it's our preferred route when heading home from Italy.

The Vosges are impressive forested mountains, though the landscape is magnificent, the settlements look plain and a bit downbeat. In fact the whole area feels depressing, a bit like mid-Wales. 
However, so far as  scenery was concerned it certainly was more cheerful than when we have been here in early spring. The autumn colour was magnificent.

The second half of our  journey followed the valley of the Moselle which begins as a trickle on the western side of the Vosges, has grown to a respectable sized river by Epinal and become fully navigable by the time we reached our destination at Port-á-Musson. We know this because the place where we spent the night was an Aire run by the captainerie at the halte fluviale. 

There was a small queue at the office when we booked-in, everybody correctly socially distanced and wearing masks, which was not always the case in Germany and Switzerland. The man in front of us was booking a berth for his boat. He was Swedish. We wondered if he had crossed the Baltic at its narrowest point and navigated all the way to central France by inland waterway. I am sure it would be possible.

The weather became stormy in the evening. A pity, because the town looked interesting. The motorhome aires in captaineries across North East France are great places to stay, especially like this one when they connect to cycleways. The one here connects to Nancy one way and Luxembourg the other. 

It was too wet and windy to do anything except make a quick dash to the boulangerie across the road. 

We bought a couple of croissants, and because we were in Lorraine - you've guessed it - a quiche. It had a good flavour but the pastry was quite heavy. 

Gill filled me in on a dispute concerning the correct outer casing for a quiche. There are two schools of thought apparently, one pro pastry, the other recommending a dough similar to a pizza base. Proponents of each vehemently assert their recipe is the traditional one. Being an a long standing follower of Felicity Cloake, Gill is now familiar with all sorts of culinary controversies. Of course if you are Italian it is much easier than being French where there is respect for culinary orthodoxy and respect for le chef, in Italy traditional also holds sway but is more negotiable,  the correct way to cook anything is the method your Nonna used.

I posted some pictures of Pont-à-Musson on Facebook. Jackie, my sister-in-law, replied with an interesting bit of trivia about the place. Apparently its name is familiar throughout northern France because its foundries produced drain covers emblazoned with the name. Like Kettering in England, she said. It shows how regional these things are, as our local drain covers come from Dudley. It is an odd thing to have in common, an interest in drain cover provenance, even more niche than trainspotting!

We had plans to visit Jackie and Edmond on the way home, but it's too risky. Over the past six weeks we have mingled with different nationalities in many a shower block, and in recent days travelled through four countries where the virus once more is spreading exponentially. The pair of us could be bio-hazards without knowing it. Because of this we have to self-isolate for two weeks when we get home, really we should not be popping in to to visit relatives in France on the way to Calais. 

Hibernation minus 2 -  Port-á-Musson to Cucy-le-Chateau

High winds and driving rain put the kibosh on exploring the charms of Port-á-Musson yesterday. The squalls continued all night; as well as the rain, the southerly blast made the van stuffy, opening the skylights was not on option in a downpour. Neither of us slept well and were in no mood to hurry. It was almost midday before we headed off.

However, we did manage to explore Port-á-Musson's 'centre ville'. Major roadworks closed the main road north, we were sent on a series of slightly hairy 'deviations', across the main square, down a tangle of side streets, some little more than narrow lanes. We made slow progress, the upside of which was we managed to visit Pont-à-Musson by default. It's got a certain Gallic grandeur, not just some old industrial relic. The well appointed aire and local cycleways might bring us back here someday.

By the time we had shopped for lunch at the Intermarché on the outskirts we were definitely behind schedule. Our plan had been to head towards St. Quentin on a mixture of motorways and route nationale to save on tolls, in the pouring rain and with a late start this began to look silly. 

Instead we decided to stick with the motorway and stay at an aire we knew at Cucy-le-Chateau. Tomorrow we could pick up the motorway towards Abbeville and the Channel coast.

Cucy-le-Chateau is just over the border from Lorraine in Picardy. From the motorway the landscape looks like an endless plain.

However the sat-nav directed us off the motorway and across country following the valley of the Allier which was steep -almost a ravine in places. Tricky to negotiate, but the wooded slopes were very beautiful, all yellows and oranges, leaves blowing about in the gusty breeze. 

Moments like this remind you that getting off the beaten track is not straightforward with a motorhome. Ideally these areas are perfect for cycle touring; we had a few long distance trips through hidden France on our trusty Claud Butlers in our twenties. Work and child rearing put paid to that, but we remember those times fondly.

The sun was setting by the time we reached our destination. We took a couple of photos of the castle, then set about sorting out the van, promising ourselves a walk later, it's the fourth day in a row of driving, we needed some exercise and fresh air. 

By the time we set out quarter of an hour later the sunset had disappeared behind a big grey cloud, but least we stretched our legs.

We entertained ourselves after dinner by filling-in UK Border Force's on line 'Uk passenger locator form' which must be completed before presenting yourself at UK passport control - or risk a £100 fine. A bit tricky to fill-in all the required information, really the thing is designed for air travellers and cruise ship victims, that people arrive back by road seems a secondary concern.

Hibernation minus 1 - Cucy-le-Chateau to Wissant.

A simple plan for today, stick to the autoroute for speed, get to Boulogne Auchun mid afternoon, do a big shop, head to the Aire at Wissant, a short drive from there to the Eurotunnel Terminal when we catch the 13.15 crossing tomorrow.

Driving day after day does strange things to your sense of time. Somehow it failed to register that the hypermarket would be packed with weekend shoppers. There was a traffic jam at the intersection, the car parks were almost full and the store itself so busy social distancing was impossible. 

Even though everyone was wearing masks the place did not feel safe at all, partly due to a French habit of positioning the thing so their noses protrude. If we do catch the virus in all likelihood it will be here. 

Still, we managed to stock up on coffee, wine and beer as well as making a stab at buying enough provisions for the next ten days until our on-line order from Tesco's is delivered.

This will be the last time we can do this, Brexit, deal or no deal, will bring an end to the end of trip retail fest. Gill posed for a final 'goodbye to all this, thank you EU photo, taken appropriately in the wine aisle. 

Afterwards I posted the picture on Facebook with the following reflections:
Sadly one way or another this trip will be last one where we have enjoyed any of the advantages is being EU citizens. Next time we will need a visa, two different types of international driving licenses, a green card issued by our motor insurers, and additional health insurance due to the demise of Ehic cards. Our trips will need to be planned on a annual basis in order to stay within the 180/90 day limit. We will return to measly duty free limits at Channel ports, something not seen for thirty years or more. So, for the last time, we hit the aisles of Boulogne Auchun in search of sustenance to see us through the dark days of a Pennine winter.
A few on-line pals commented. I reflected that whereas for us Brexit is an inconvenient annoyance for people like Jackie, Chat and Yvonne who have settled in the EU with family ties and businesses in Europe, then the implications are more challenging. They had no say in the decision and their situation has been ignored. 

I mentioned that technically, because I had an Irish grandparent, I could seek citizenship there. I mused it was unlikely I'd go for it because Gill would not benefit. Kathy chipped in to point me in the direction of the 2004/38/EC directive. It seems I am mistaken, the benefits of EU membership can extend to close family members of people with passports from member countries. It would cost a few hundred pounds for me to do it. It's not purely a financial matter, questions of identity come into it too. I am tempted, perhaps next May when I get a bit of a windfall as my state pension kicks in...

Hibernation day -  Wissant to Buxton.

We decided to change our plans. We were going to catch the shuttle at 13.15, then drive to New Dover Road parking in Canterbury, sleep there and head home the next day. However, having stated on the passenger locator form' we were arriving on the 25th. Sleeping over in Canterbury is not really sticking to the rules. Instead we decided to head to the terminal two hours earlier hoping to catch an a late morning crossing, then driving straight home. It does mean bending the rules the following day when we have to put the van back into storage. Since it's located on a hill farm it's only a couple of dozen sheep that are actually at risk, this is hardly in the same league as a clandestine trip to Barnard Castle.

We did manage to catch the earlier shuttle and figured with luck we would get home before dark, even though we had lost two hours of daylight because the clocks had changed adding to the usual time difference between the UK and the near continent. Sadly it was not our lucky day, the 11.50 departure suffered a technical hitch and we sat stock still, parked in the carriage at Calais for three-quarters of an hour while they fixed the problem. 

We had plenty of time to discuss whether we should revert to plan A, Canterbury stopover, or carry on with plan B, drive home. Whichever, we were beginning to suspect the whole passenger locator form' business was meaningless, the affable chap in the British passport kiosk asked if we had completed them, but had no interest at all in seeing the evidence. At the Folkestone terminal it was business as usual, off the train and onto the M20. We decided to head straight home 

A 280 mile trip up the motorway does not endear you to England. We struggled to find a parking place in any service area - we needed a lunch stop. HGV vehicles took up all the spaces, in the lorry park, caravan and the coach area - trucks parked all over the place. Finally at Thurrock we managed to squeeze in. It was grim, a group of teenagers messed about, being loud and stupid, perhaps they were drunk or drugged up next to a row of trucks from Eastern Europe, one with rear doors flung open sheltering a group of men from the rain. They were crouched around a gas stove cooking a meal. Were they drivers or migrants? All of this felt a bit odd, not threatening or sinister, but a tad unseemly. We had seen nothing quite so tawdry on our trip. It's difficult to escape the sense that in all kinds of areas within the public realm we are falling behind our European neighbours and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Despite ignoring my usual habit of trundling along with the trucks in the slow lane instead a hurried up, having fun pretending I was driving a giant four ton SUV.

Still it became clear somewhere in South Leicestershire that we were not going to make it home before nightfall. I don't particularly like driving the moho in the dark on the A515 between Ashbourne and Buxton, the route is narrow, bendy and full of hidden dips. 

When we reached the A50 south of Derby there was a spectacular sunset over the Trent valley. It silhouetted the line of pylons that marched across the flat landscape. The cooling towers of the Burton-upon-Trent power station acquired a momentary grandeur. It all felt very English, I was pleased to be nearing home.

The A5I5 was busy, lots of cars pouring out of the Peak District as we headed into it. I made a conscious effort to stay alert, the dry stone walls which line the narrow road give no room for error and after six days of driving, almost 300 miles today, I was a bit jaded; that's when you make mistakes. We got home without incident, cleared some essentials out of the van, leaving the bulk of unpacking until the morning. Great to sit on a sofa with a beer, and marvel at all the space - and the TV, and the bathroom with a self emptying toilet - such luxury!

We knew that any trip in these peculiar times was not going to feel normal, it has been interesting rather than enjoyable. Perhaps we made an error in deciding to head for Elba rather than Sardinia. We did not figure on the Tuscan coast being so crowded. Sardinia is a bigger island and if we had headed towards the far southwest corner maybe we would have escaped the stormy weather and picked up some late summer warmth. 

Covid cases are rising across the continent, more lockdowns loom. I cannot see us travelling again until next spring. Hibernation is going to be a challenge, at least when you are on the road you don't have to make an effort to occupy yourself. Two weeks of self isolation...then what?