So…it was Friday 27th July, I’d finished work for a week, and I was driving down to Portsmouth with my little sister at my side. We were on our way to Brittany!
We’d booked a few nights at a couple of campsites and we had a loose plan for the next few days…
- Depart Portsmouth on Friday night (hopefully getting a good night’s sleep in our lovely cabin)
- Arrive in Ouistreham on Saturday morning, eat a continental breakfast then get our asses to the wedding campsite at Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier
- Enjoy wedding!
- Drive to the campsite in Versailles on Sunday and do some exploring
- Drive to the campsite in Maisons-Laffitte on Monday and explore Paris!
- Spend Tuesday morning in Paris
- Drive up to Calais on Tuesday afternoon to catch midnight (ish) ferry
- Land in Dover at midnight (ish) and get home for 5am
In the end, our plans went completely awry (a growing trend in my trips out in Red!) but it didn’t matter because we got to spend time with people we love and we had an awful lot of fun at the same time!
We arrived at Portsmouth with plenty of time and so we had to sit waiting in queues for about two hours. We did a lot of people watching, danced around the van to some rather banging tunes (I have no idea what station we had found on the radio, but it was EPIC), sorted out our documents and I got to smoke a few calming cigarettes. It also gave me time to apply my headlight deflectors (you can’t have them on whilst driving in Britain, and you can’t drive in France without them – no matter what time of day. Subsequently, the ferry queues are an ideal place to fix these on), which caused me no end of confusion. You get a little key to figure out how to apply them to your particular headlights, but I didn’t find it very easy to use and I was really worried that I was cutting too much off.
As we sat there we realised we were missing the London 2012 opening ceremony, which I saw as a minor achievement. Steph disagreed. But before long we were boarding the ferry where we could watch (or not watch, as I elected to do) millions of flags wandering around the flatscreen TVs in the lounges, whilst listening to the commentary. In French.
Getting onboard and in-lane was far easier than I was expecting, and the staff were really helpful. Lucky really, seeing as I left one of the interior lights on. They called us over the PA system and took us back down to the garage to turn it off.
The ferry (The Mont St. Michel) was awesome! We checked out our little cabin (including en suite with a shower!), and tried to figure out how the beds worked and where the ladder was hiding (behind the door), then we went to stand on deck and wave goodbye to England.
Unfortunately, we found the snack bar (and some rather tasty pizza) before we found the restaurant so we managed to do ourselves out of some really nice food. Then it was time to explore the amenities.
The shop was fabulous and really well stocked with loads of reasonably priced alcohol (my main interest) and lots and lots of perfume that didn’t seem to be any cheaper than back home. I was utterly spoilt for choice and ended up not buying anything, thinking that I’d buy lots of delicious wine once I actually got to France itself…shopping mistake #1.
Before long we decided to retire back to our little cabin to try and get a few hours sleep. I expected to be really seasick and unable to sleep, but the beds were amazingly comfy and I found it incredibly hard to get up the next morning. I did a brilliant job of ignoring Steph as she showered and dressed and shook me, but when the PA announced that we should be leaving our cabin I decided to get up and have the world’s quickest shower.
We tried (and failed) to grab a quick bite to eat on the boat, and were shepherded down to the van just as we were pouring cups of tea. The ferry emptied surprisingly quickly and before we knew it we were driving (on the wrong side of the road) on the tiny, confusing streets of Ouistreham,..
We parked up, explored the few cafes that were open and had a wonderful breakfast of bread and coffee.
We arrived in Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier after a lovely drive down into Brittany and began the monumental task of meeting our cousins and actually finding the campsite. The wedding reception was being held at the site of the Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier (on the anniversary of the battle) and the plan was to camp over at the reception site (allowing us to properly sample the ample quantities of wine that flowed endlessly all day and night). When we saw the rocky ground I was reminded of the benefits of having a van. It may have been more expensive than a car on the ferry, but it sure beats having to pitch a tent on ground that’s littered with granite! Needless to say, once I was drunk I threw myself into helping everybody else put up their tents…camping is all about helping each other out afterall!
We had a few hours until the ceremony, so we left Red baking on the granite and headed back to Lesley’s house with our cousins, Rhiannon, Francesca and Genevieve, to help with the last of the preparations.
Lesley has the most amazing farmhouse on a beautiful secluded little road. It’s such a peaceful place, I can totally see why she chose to move out there (I felt a little draw to the place myself), but I dread to think about how many spiders must come into the house in the autumn…
Eventually, after I’d gotten dressed, helped lace Lesley into her dress, and helped placate my little cousin, Eloise, while Ches (her Mom) finished getting ready, we were all ready to go and we jumped in the cars to race (late) to the ceremony in the Mairie in Tremblay. It seemed like the whole village had come along as well as all the family and friends that had been invited. The room was packed with people and cameras were going off all over the place..it was brilliant!
The civil ceremony was performed in English, French and Breton which made for a few laughs. By the time the Breton interpreter got round to saying his bit he seemed perfectly bored, The vows are more like instructions for how the married couple should handle their finances, problems and children, but the whole thing was very sweet and (it’s very cheesy to say, but) you could tell that there was a lot of love in the room.
When the vows were said and the rings were exchanged, we walked round the village to a little open barn that had been set up with trestle tables…and lots and lots of champagne and canapés. I was exceedingly glad that I wasn’t driving!
We spent a lovely hour or so in the sun, sipping champagne and eating mystery things off the massive platters of nibbles. We got to try ‘surprise cake’ too, which was an experience to say the least. It had a nice moist texture and looked like it was going to taste amazing, but unfortunately, the ‘surprise’ was that it had either meat or fish in it. They weren’t bad but there was something altogether wrong about eating a meat flavoured cake.
When we arrived back at the campsite, we got to explore the site properly whilst drinking copious amounts of wine and punch. The natural granite slabs that ‘grew’ on the land have been used to create a beautiful stone circle, a fire pit, and several MASSIVE tables and benches, It wasn’t long before we were drunk enough to not mind putting tents up (but still sober enough to realise that we wouldn’t want to do it after we’d eaten and drunk more) …and three tents later, we were sitting down to eat the most amazing meal of cold salads (rice, potato, egg, beetroot, tuna, roe, beans, mushrooms in tomato sauce), rotisserie meat (duck, chicken and pork), roast potatoes, and delicious garlicky vegetables.
We ate, drank, I spoke an extraordinary amount of French (and made myself semi-understood), we danced, we had the most amazing fun, and I saw three shooting stars as I wandered back to the van at 2am. It was a fabulous wedding.
The next day I felt a little reluctant to drive (possibly owing to the three bottles of wine I’d consumed the day before), Lesley was keen for us to stay, and we were just having too nice a time to leave. We decided to forego the campsite at Versailles and stay one more night. Lesley had a spare bed going in her enormous house, so Steph took that and I elected to sleep in the van. It might be silly, but I still hadn’t slept out in him on my own and I was quite keen for the bit of solitude it offered.
We spent Sunday exploring the Carrefour, eating left over wedding food and drinking yet more wine (there was an extraordinary amount left over from the wedding…Lesley and Paskal must have bought enough wine to fill Windemere…). For some reason I felt that I still had tonnes of time and opportunity to go wine shopping, and I neglected to buy alcohol yet again…shopping mistake #2. We had a lovely family meal and drank more wine and had a fabulous time until it was time to retire to bed.
On Monday, we again decided that campsites were over-rated when you had good company and beautiful surroundings already. We had a relaxed morning drinking coffee and eating pastries in the sunshine, before a typical lunch of croque monsieur. Seeing as we were staying put til the next day, Rhi and Gen took us out to Fougères to see the castle and have a crepe (tee hee hee). We spent the sunny afternoon exploring the towers and climbing the battlements, and then we went back to the ‘ranch’ for another big meal, this time joined by friends and family, and enjoyed by candle light in Lesley and Paskal’s field-sized back garden.
As Tuesday dawned, we knew we had to leave to make the midnight ferry, and so after a lot of stalling, photographs and teary goodbyes, we set off on our 500km journey to Calais.
We stopped in Caen for the obligatory royale with cheese (I have mine ‘sans fromage’, which confused the cashier a little), but I didn’t have a beer because I was driving.
There were a few supermarché near the MacDonalds, but I thought it was best to get back on the road and do our shopping when we were closer to Calais… shopping mistake #3…
…And we were back on the road!
I’d initially said that I wasn’t going to use the sat nav, having romantic ideas that I would plan routes on maps and stumble across beautiful little villages on hidden back roads. The reality was a very limited time frame and a huge pre-occupation with the fact that we could be driving the wrong way down the dual-carriageway. In the end I turned to my HTC’s navigation software and discovered that we were running hideously behind schedule. It was about that time that I decided to abandon our pledge to avoid the toll roads, and I headed for the nearest Route Nationale. Allez! To Calais!
We hit several tolls on the way. Some had people in, some were automated, and others were a confusing mix of the two. The first one we met had a man in a booth who we paid a few euros to…simple. The next one we came to dispensed a ticket…out of an impossibly high ticket slot. Steph had to clamber out of the window to reach it. It was only once we’d pulled away that my brain registered the lower ticket dispenser and the little silver button that had been at window height. Apparently, those dispensers give you a ticket (and a fee) based on your vehicle height. This fee was almost double the fee for camper vans, which was nice when we pulled up to a booth manned by a human, as we got our fee reduced. It wasn’t so nice when I got confused the first time round and pulled into the lane with a little card symbol over it. In my naivety, I thought it was the lane for people with tickets, when it was actually the lane to pay a machine with your card…so in that instance we ended up paying the toll for a much bigger van.
Several hundred kilometres, a few aires and a small sibling squabble later (tolls and map reading are stressful) we arrived in Calais to find that all the supermarché were closed, and all my hopes for a few boxes of French wine were pinned on the ferry. I muttered my disapproval at myself, drove further into Calais to park up, and we went to find something to eat.
I don’t like to say mean things, but I utterly hated Calais. We were lucky to find a charming restaurant that served MASSIVE portions of excellent food (at quite reasonable prices considering it must be a huge tourist trap), and that redeemed the place a little, but on the most part it reminded me of Blackpool. That – and my disappointment over my bad wine choices – meant that I, at least, ended our time in France on a very sour note.
I’d booked a flexi-ticket for our return journey, so we could arrive up to four hours early or late and be put on the next available ferry. We thought we’d made it in time to catch an earlier departure but were told at the gate there was no room left for us. No matter, we quite like queuing! So we set off to try and find our lane.
Calais is a lot bigger than Portsmouth, and it’s not as easy to find where you’re supposed to be. In other words, we got very VERY lost and ended up being waved onto a boat by a rather forceful port attendant. I told him we were supposed to wait for the next ferry but he insisted we get on and that there would be room for us at the back with the HGVs. Gulp.
I was holding out a lot of hope that the ferry home would cheer me up a bit, but aside from a nice cup of coffee from a very pleasant barrista at Costa coffee, the boat was pretty miserable. It was like getting on a scuzzy old national express coach. The shop was full of British brands (with 10% off) and typical petrol station wines like Blossom Hill. I wandered the shop for almost the entire 60 minute journey, trying to decide which terrible thing I would buy to make myself feel better. In the end I went for tequila. Lots of tequila. If anything promised to numb the disappointment, it was that!
We landed in Dover and I tried to get used to driving on the left again while I searched for a garage to buy more oil and check my fluid levels. We had 200 miles and about four hours of driving ahead of us, so I put on Radio 4 as we got back on the motorway, and Steph promptly fell asleep.
I’d decided to drive straight home without stopping, and by the time I pulled into my road the oil light was flickering on as soon as I lifted my foot off the accelerator. It was the furthest I’d driven without stopping, cooling down and topping up, so I have to assume that the oil had dropped to its lowest (in my experience) at that point.
But we were home! We’d done it! We’d driven just over eight hundred miles, we drunk gallons of wine between us and eaten an extraordinary amount of food, We’d had a lot of laughs and a lot of fun and we were home in one piece and nothing had gone (too badly) wrong.
…and I can’t wait to do it again!!!
COMING SOON: Fougères…