ROAD TRIP FINALE.NORMANDY, FRANCE
The last leg of the road trip back to Germany saw me joined in France by brother David – partly by way of a thank you for stirling work done on the house and garden in Cornwall and partly just for laughs. We’re fairly tight, as brothers and sisters go but it’s a long time since we holidayed together, so camping? Surely enough to challenge any sibling relationship at any stage of life…..
The night before we departed on the (trés bon) Brittany ferry David could be found ironing his shirts for the trip (“As befits someone of my age and status”). Hmmm. Interesting…… Now I’m a girl who likes to dress for the occasion, but isn’t camping the one occasion where you wear the same pair of knickers for a week and don’t bother washing your hair? Isn’t that why you go with your brother? I was mildly amused to watch him pack but was very happy to observe that he left the white socks and sandals behind in Blighty. In Cornwall we had both over prepared on the food front, taking too much with us, so this time, neither of us went shopping before we left. There was barely a tea bag between us. However, I insisted we took a tin of beans and he insisted we take the ground peppar mill and some cocktail sticks (don’t ask). So I guess that was something.
We sailed from Portsmouth to le Havre. Our camping site at Jumièges was in the Parc Naturel Régional des Boucles and it was a real gem. David had chosen this spot and it was the perfect place to try out my new tent: a superior upgrade on the last one I shared with Beth and Danny (then 7 months) – two years before. You can actually stand up in this tent, a baby could crawl in it, AND it’s waterproof. Marvellous. Jumièges in the Seine Maritime region, was a classic corner of rural Normandy, and we set about exploring the area as soon as we got there. The Seine was within walking distance of the camp site and, in time honoured fashion, repeating patterns long established in our childhood, we found our way down to the river every day– just to look at the boats! At this point of the river, there are a lot of big ships making their way to the channel. The Seine is quite wide and grey but nevertheless, utterly captivating.
The beautiful Abbaye de Jumieges was situated just down the road from our Camp-Site.
It’s an old Benedictine monastery founded in 654. It has a rich history which includes destruction by the Vikings in the 9th century and a rebuild, consecrated in 1067, by William the conquerer (one year after Hastings – clearly a busy fellow!) finally laid to ruin in the French Revolution, it has lost none of its grace or beauty and both David and I were happy to lose ourselves walking around the site, sitting on the grass and dreaming our time away.
Our big treat was a trip to Giverny – the stunning house and gardens of Claude Monet. David had booked the tickets well in advance and we had no difficulty getting in.
Although it was interesting to note just how many people there were, it seemed to me that the crowds and coach parties were well managed.I always think I am going to be disappointed whenever I actually get to see great art in its original skin but I never am! Giverny was no exception. As we walked round the gardens, again and again and again, there was so much to see and inspire, so many beautiful colours and balance of textures, so many lovely smells and sounds of wind rustling.The house is no less inviting although, being more constrained, it did feel a bit claustrophic walking round with so many other people.But the furntiyre,furnishings, textiles, colours and of course, paintings were all so lovely. I am very happy to have finally got to see this place.
Another outing took us to Richard the Lionheart’s hang out at Chateau Gaillard, Les Andelys.This dramatic ruined medieval castle stands formidably above the River Seine, giving it a clear vantage position to spot all enemies! With a rich and interesting history we spent a couple of hours here albeit diversely occupied – whilst David skipped off to play bow and arrows, I spent most of the time sitting on the hill looking out at……the boats on the Seine! (The construction of this castle was begun in 1196. Richard the Lionheart died in 1199. Bit of a bummer when you think about it……). Unfortunately, I only have this photograph which is the view from the castle.However, I have included some shots from other sites on the ‘Useful information’ sheet.
We spent a good day in Rouens which is not as shit as the guide books make it out to be. We really enjoyed the Cathedral and I was very grateful to have David, who is an art teacher, explain the connection between Monet and this building. Monet painted a series of oil paintings of the front of the Cathedral at different times of the day and year. There are about 30 different pictures in all. This idea, to my mind, goes to the heart of what the impresisonists were all about.I bought the postcards! Richard the Lionheart’s heart is in the cathedral at Rouen and brother D insisted we took a photo of it – what an old Romantic he is!
Elsewhere in the town (and in the Cathedral) there are a number of monuments and statues of Joan of Arc. In the centre of the town there is a Modernist church dedicated to her. I like this building although there are many who don’t. The backstreets of Rouens, at least the streets that we were in, was mostly Medieval in character. That is to say ‘Medieval’ re-build post war. We did not have time to go to the Musée des Beau-Arts (Pisarro and Gauguin are two of many other artists who lived and worked here) but, I think it’s always good to have a reason to go back to somewhere where you had a good time! I look forward to returning.
En passant, I wondered aloud why my brother and I are so curiously drawn to all things Medieval. David reckoned it was because we had a lady-bird book about Richard the Lionheart when we were little and he looked really cool on the cover.
When not being tourists, we also did some mega chilling – we managed to pack so much in to this little break. Reading, sleeping till late (on my superior well sprung camp bed + sleeping bag AND duvet) and cooking up lovely meals on our little stove. With the very welcome black peppar. And I was very happy to use the cocktail sticks for olives. That’ll teach me to poke fun at my brother’s little foibles. David did quite a bit of the driving and it was nice to be able to sit back and relax. The weather was mixed but the hottest day found us in the local lake, kayaking and swimming in a deserted spot amongst the stripey perch. It was fun.
On our last night we went looking for food, having packed most of the cooking equipment up for a quick getaway in the morning. We ambled nonchalantly around the village, glancing into restaurant windows. We came to an attractive looking Auberge and casually scanned the menu. With a good price for the Plat de jour we felt adventurous and asked for ‘chef’s choice’ when we were seated by the – oh so charming – Maitre D’. We had no idea what to expect. There then followed one of those meals that you know you are going to remember for the rest of your life. Seven courses of the most exquisitely crafted, beautifully cooked and immaculately presented French food that tasted like heaven on a plate, were each accompanied by seven different wines, perfectly matched. As aperitif gave way to amuse bouche, gave way to entrée, to fish course, to mains followed by cheese, this phenomenal meal was then completed with dessert, coffee AND petit fours. We simply could not believe our luck. We had only gone and accidentally stumbled on one of the most prestigious restaurants in the district, beautifully disguised as a casual little place in the back of beyond, where hungry campers might pop in in their shorts. Brilliant, classic unpretentious French cool– and all for 65 Euro per head. We toasted and congratulated each other on getting on so well during our camping trip and for ending it so stylishly with our slap up meal….
This was just as well really because, the day of departure saw us nearly killing one another! The rain started in the night. At 6am it was still going strong and at 8 it was even heavier. When, at 08.30 it was clear this wasn’t going to stop we faced a dilemma – with only one coat between us (I had left mine behind in the UK!) who would pack the car and how would we get the tent down? After some debate, it was obvious that David would wear his coat, INSIDE the tent and hand the goods to me outside, stripped down to the bare essentials*. I would then load the car as quickly as possible. And so we began to pack, me running the gauntlet betwixt tent and car, struggling to put large boxes containing heavy things in it, in such a way that it all made sense, and David casually searching around the tent, in his warm coat, for the next thing to pass out whilst urging me to calm down, not to be so German and to think outside the box more! I froze to death in the rain outside waiting. I did my best to be patient. I really did but I could feel bad temper brewing. With everything now in the car except the tent we started to take this down. Naturally we could not fold it up small enough to get it into the bag, or even ‘small’ at all and as we tried to load it in the car, it was clear there were some major problems with the packing – it just would not fit in.
David began, politely, “If I might make a suggestion, perhaps if you had left the smaller bags till last they would squeeze more easily around the larger items and we could re-arrange the tent and table and these bits here-“
“NO YOU CANNOT MAKE A SUGGESTION – WE ARE NOT GOING TO RE- PACK THE CAR” I screamed. “I HAVE DONE IT NOW AND THAT IS HOW IT IS GOING TO STAY” And so it was that the tent was literally squashed in, wet as it was, all over everything, blocking visibility out of the back window, and that I had to sit, soaked through, on my duvet as I drove in nothing but a pair of knickers and a shirt (we could not find the sponge bag and towel to shower/dry off). David sat with his ruck sack on his knee. The final insult came as we drove off and the smug Dutchman in the pitch opposite ours, who had been watching our antics with glee from under his dry caravan awning, waved and smiled good-bye.
With steam pouring out of the car we somehow got to Rouens where I was supposed to drop David off at about 11am to catch his train connection to Paris. However, the river had flooded and there were massive jams blocking the entrance to town so I had to skirt around it. With David saying, “Just put me down here” every 200 metres at spots where it was clearly impossible to put him down, I began to get a bit worried. Would David be coming back to Munich with me? Would this be a repeat of Italy 1986? (we have a bit of history of train connections in Europe going wrong) When finally, I hit the dual carriageway and received my final request to put him down actually on the dual carriageway, I resisted the temptation to do just that and we drove to another town, Beauvais to find another train to Paris.
One day, I’m going to get a caravan…….
Having said goodbye to David and with a bit more room in the car, I put my foot down, destination Strasbourg. That was actually the worst journey of the whole trip – partly because the driving rain did not stop for the entirity and I hate having to contend with lorries in such conditions, and partly because the N 31 to Reims is such a shocking road, full of pot holes and sudden changes in road surface. Generally, I like French roads very much but I have now decided that the exclamation mark on a yellow background could mean anything from ‘clutch the steering wheel tighter because you’re about to bounce up and down several times’ to ‘move to the centre of the road because the surface drops off suddenly to your right and your car will roll into the ditch at any moment’.
Finally, still stinky and dirty from the morning’s activities (but now wearing trousers) I rocked up in Strasbourg at 20.30. Alas, parking was a bit of a problem and I drove around for a while. 30 minutes later, I gave up and just went into the first multi-storey I could find and took a taxi to my (previously booked) hotel. There I had the best hot shower I have ever had in my life. This was a beautiful, warm, ‘white dressing-gowned’ hotel right next to the Cathedral. I changed my original plan and ended up staying 2 nights in this lovely city and it was a wonderful finale to a wonderful road trip.
* The practice of ‘stripping down’ rather than ‘covering up’ in wet weather was taught to us by our Mother, as children, when we stayed at my Grandma’s holiday home at Whitsands, in Cornwall. This fabulous place had no electricity, no flushed toilet and was half way up a cliff between the beach and the road. If we wanted supplies (no refrigerator) these either needed to be brought down the cliff from the car or fetched from the shop which was about a mile along the cliff path. In bad weather, drying wet clothes was a nightmare so maximum effort was made to avoid getting wet. If it was raining/chucking it down/foggy/snowing and provisions were essential, David and I, from about the ages of 8 and 6 could regularly be seen, in our swimming costumes walking along the cliff with rucksacks full of milk, pasties and clotted cream singing our heads off to the transistor radio we carried with us. Back at the bungalow (‘shack’ would be more accurate) all we would then need to do is strip off the swimming costume, dry off and wrap up warmly in snug, dry clothes. Simple. Normally, this is a fail proof method to weather a storm if you don’t have all the mod cons. Quite where I went wrong this time I still need to reflect……..maybe the fact I am no longer 8 may have something to do with it….
August 13th 2014