Clara goes to Spain (Part 1) – Le voyage vers le sud

I’m splitting our ‘Clara goes to Spain’ jaunt into three separate blog posts. It was predictably epic. Imagine Lord of the Rings with a sunflowered campervan and you’ll be fairly close…

My usual mantra when writing about our beloved Clara is that I DON’T DO CAR MECHANICS.  I’m still no expert, but this sweeping statement is gradually beginning to fade. I’m learning fast. I think you have to when you hope to maintain such an old vehicle. Thankfully however, and this bit is important, despite one non start (due to excessive heat & long non-use), Clara has worked like a dream since the day we bought her back in February. The old girl did come with a full 12 months MOT, a full year’s service and a safe & well-being check. Clara has been immaculately looked after. We have a bulging folder of paperwork to prove it. We’d also managed to get some breakdown cover from a ‘classic car’ specialist, just in case. You never really know with a 30 year old vehicle 🙄 So we were as ready as we’ll ever be for the off. Some would say that taking a 30 year old campervan on a near 3,000 mile trip across the UK, France, Spain, Misty Mountains & Mordor is a little foolish. Our insurance company would later accuse us of being downright reckless, but we’ll leave all of that for a later blog post. We’ve always liked an adventure. ‘Clara goes to Spain’ promised to be just that.

Wednesday 7th Aug

Clara was packed, and boy was she packed. We’d taken everything, including an awful lot of stuff that we never ever used. We left Derby just after midday and prayed that the motorways would be kind. It’s always a bit of a lottery when you have the M1 & notoriously bad M25 to cope with. We’d clearly chosen our lottery numbers wisely today, someone up there was smiling down on Clara. We eased our way down to Folkstone without a single hitch. We even managed to board our train without too much queueing. This was all very alien to us.

It was getting late in the day when we rolled off the train onto French soil and we still had just under two hours travelling ahead of us. We’d booked a hotel just south of Amiens for our first night, as we’d not been able to find a French camp-site that was guaranteed to be open. Later in the holiday we’d adopt a much more laissez faire attitude to finding an overnight stop, but not tonight. It was our first night, it was late and we wanted to have a confirmed bed to sleep in. A bed with four legs would’ve been nice, but I’m rushing ahead a little… For just over €40 we’d pre-booked a room in the rather quaint looking La Taverne Picarde. We arrived just before 10.00PM, tired, weary and in need of a beer. Our ‘family’ room was interesting… I’ve thought long and hard about how best to describe our ‘family suit’ and if I’m honest I’m still struggling. The words rushed, cobbled, shoddy, bodged & random immediately spring to mind, but that isn’t really painting you a very good picture. Our ‘family suit’ hidden away in a dusty little corner of the hotel consisted of four rooms; one double room with bathroom (without toilet) and one single room with bathroom (with toilet that was broken). Sawyer’s bathroom and our suit in general had a very unfinished feel about it. Skirting boards were left resting somewhere near the wall, tiling & decoration was still far from finished and Sawyer’s bathroom shower cubicle was in the throws of being converted into a wardrobe 😯 We also had a random door in our suit that had simply been bricked up. All a wee bit baffling, but we were tired and didn’t really care too much. I went down to reception and paid for two beers, before we all collapsed exhaustedly onto our beds. Our bed then promptly collapsed 😯 Closer inspection revealed that our bed only had three legs, but the hotel’s expert DIY team had ingeniously propped our large double-bed with two plastic buckets, one of which had just shattered. It beggared believe, but we still didn’t really care that much. We were just too darn tired, so with the bed re-propped we slept, very carefully.

Thursday 8th Aug

The following morning we checked out of the rather eclectic La Taverne Picarde. We were charged way more than our original pre-booking and were charged again for the beers I’d paid for the night before. We cared slightly more about all of this, but still said nothing. We just wanted to get our holiday properly started… Destination today was a pre-booked camp-site at Saint Benoit, just south of Poitiers. Apart from the small matter of Paris our route looked fairly straight forward and we weren’t unduly worried. As long as we stuck to the périphérique, the busy ring-road would take us safely around the French capital and out onto the autoroute towards Poitiers.

Enter Natalia, our errant but fairly new sat-nav. Often she’ll just get bored and suddenly demand a u-turn on a motorway, sometimes she’ll just lose her way completely (just for fun), but by far her most annoying trait is her penchant for ignoring the simplest route in favour of something akin to the Paris Dakar rally 😯 We’re slowly getting wise to Natalia’s errant ways, so often just ignore her (she doesn’t like that!). Skirting around Paris and we really should have known better. Natalia wanted to sight-see and we stupidly followed, right into the throbbing heart of Paris. Natalia is set to find the ‘quickest’ route. We crawled along a Parisian one-way street at one point. Our only saving grace; Paris is strangely quiet on a Thursday morning and the sights (if you’re brave enough to look away from the road) are very impressive. If I’m honest, I think I’d have rather saved our jaunt around Paris for another day. A day not behind the wheel of a big 30 year old campervan. Thanks Natalia!!!

A lot later than planned we rolled into Le Camping Saint Benoit, a municipal site, which implied basic. The camp-site was lovely. Showers, pot-washing, toilets, really nice pitches and pretty cheap too. If this is what bog-standard municipal French camp-sites were like, we’d definitely hunt them out more often. Another relief was discovering the site’s electric hook-ups were not the dreaded ‘reverse polarity’ we’d read up on only days before. Apparently some French camp-sites wire their live & neutral cables the opposite way to the UK (why???). You can probably guess what damage this can cause 😯 We’d hastily bought a polarity tester and had back-up cables just in case. Thankfully we never needed them. Clara was pitched, unpacked, plugged in and roof popped within minutes. Wine followed soon after. We then sat back and witnessed two hugely entertaining extremes of how people camp today.

First to swan into the camp-site were a retired couple (I’m guessing) in a monstrous high-tech campervan that’s probably worth more than our house. It took them two circuits of the small camp-site before they rather reluctantly reversed their beast of a van into their allocated pitch. They were far from happy about something. The guy strode over to reception and minutes later their van was moved to another pitch. Moments later a small hum drifted across the site. All eyes were now fixed on the space-age camper. Slowly a huge satellite-dish emerged from some hidden compartment. The dish then began rotating wildly; either searching for a TV signal or sending messages into outer-space, we weren’t sure. Either way, our new guests were still far from happy. Another stride towards reception, another move of the monstrous van and the whole procedure was repeated. We’d practically pitched Clara, cooked a meal and downed three large glasses of vino in the time it had taken these people to settle down!!!

Next to arrive were a Belgium family; mum, dad & 9 year old boy. They were towing a caravan about the size of a tiny garden shed. Surely they weren’t all sleeping in that? It barely looked big enough for one person to sleep in 😯 While the boy played with Sawyer, mum & dad set about ‘preparing’ their TARDIS caravan. We watched in absolute awe. Dad ducked inside the caravan and began to pass items out to his wife. What came out was truly staggering. We even scribbled down a list, we were so stunned. Our list went something like this:

  • 1 sofa cushion/mattress
  •  A 2nd sofa cushion/mattress
  • 3 bikes (2 adult, 1 child)
  • 1 oven/fridge (we couldn’t really see which)
  • 1 microwave
  • 3 fold-up chairs
  • 1 not hugely fold-up table
  • 1 television
  • 1 television arial
  • 1 tent
  • Pots & pans
  • 1 potted plant

The pièce de résistance was saved until last. With the tiny TARDIS caravan now presumably empty, Dad removed the roof, added four extra panels, replaced the roof and hey presto the tiny caravan was now a whopping four whole inches higher 😯 Was sat back, poured another glass of vino and thanked our lucky stars that Clara wasn’t that complicated!!!

 Thursday 9th Aug

The TARDIS caravan a few pitches along from Clara had simply vanished the next morning. All of that effort for just one night!!! Unless the caravan had been zapped by the high-tech campervan death-ray in the night? We’d overslept, had another journey south ahead of us and were now packing in haste, which is never a wise move with Clara. Our unused levelling chocks/ramps had been stashed on the ground under Clara overnight to save a bit of room. They were still there when I attempted to drive away. Thinking I’d hit a rather stubborn piece of turf I gave Clara a few extra revs… The sturdy levelling chocks did survive, but we do now desperately need to replace the shredded bag they live in 😯

Just north of Bordeaux we stopped for lunch. Clara was readied and lunch was prepared. The beauty of having a campervan. No picnic rugs, no cool-boxes rammed into car-boots, no scramble to find a picnic-bench. Clara had fridge, cool-box, sink, cooker, table & chairs all inside. It was all so easy. Not for the first time Clara was receiving quite a lot of admiring looks as we enjoyed our lunch. We’d noticed it in the UK not long after we’d bought her. Giving her the sunflower face-lift had made her even more noticeable.  Our travels in Clara were usually met with looks, waves & flashes. It was nice… Lunch was a little longer than planned so once more Clara was packed in haste. We returned onto the autoroute south with Clara’s roof-vent wide open. Clara was immediately met with a barrage of frantic waving & flashing. One guy on his motorbike gave us one of the most elaborate waves we’ve ever seen… ‘Ah bless, these French people really like Clara don’t they… Oh and it’s really windy all of a sudden’

We were behind schedule today. Getting up late, a prolonged lunch and driving with a bloody roof-vent open had not helped. Our initial aim had been to get as near to the Spanish border as possible and hopefully find a campsite. Bayonne had been one option, but that was now looking unlikely. We decided to head for Dax instead. We left the autoroute, rounded a traffic island and immediately spotted a sign for a camp-site. It was that simple. We rolled up unannounced and were given a pitch within minutes. Were all French campsites as easy as this? To make life even better our campsite even had a hot food van (we’d failed to stock up Clara’s food supply today) and a bread/croissant van in the morning. Life was good. A little hectic at times yes, but on the whole our final night in France was a relaxing one. What lay ahead in the morning was a winding road through the Misty Mountains and a descent into sunny Epanna…

To be continued…