2020-09-24 (Thur). Aachen to Ashford, Kent.

I remembered to fill up the moho before leaving!

We actually left at around 11:15, giving us oodles of time to get to the Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles, near Calais, by the earliest allowable check-in time of 16:50. Our intended destination tonight is the Dog House micropub once again, on the Evegate Business Park just outside of Ashford, with ample overnight parking

It’s a long, and fairly dull drive through the length of Belgium, especially at 50mph (did I mention that we mustn’t arrive too early?). The landscape becomes increasingly flat as you head further West, so there’s little to keep the mind active. There wasn’t even the usual slew of roadworks on the E40 – just a couple of smaller roadworks on the North ring around Brussels. The only thing to keep me alert was the very strong, and very gusty wind, blowing more or less head on. Hmm, glad we were unable to book ferry crossing for this trip – they’ve all drastically reduced their services during the pandemic, leaving only the vastly more expensive, but also more convenient, Le Shuttle crossing.

We stopped at the very unlovely aire at Waremme – West of Brussels – for 40 minutes or so for a bite to eat, then back to the road. Our SatNav was showing our arrival time as being BEFORE 16:50: that just won’t do! So I dropped my speed down to about 45mph on the stretch down through France. I was probably a bit of a hindrance to the other traffic on the 2-lane autoroutes, but they seemed to manage to overtake me ok!

About 10km NE of Coquelles, the police separated out the trucks from all the other traffic, forcing them down one lane of the autoroute, whilst all other traffic used the other lane. Curious. About 6 or 7km further on, an enormous line of trucks was stopped on the motorway, with – what looked like a number of French police at the head.

At the turnoff for the Eurotunnel terminal was another line of trucks, also around 1km long, trying to get into the terminal. What a mess. Presumably Brexit-orientated.

With all these last minute hold-ups, we arrived at the terminal at an easy-going 17:15, well within the limits allowed! Enough time to turn the gas on for a cup of tea.

As we were waiting to board the train, we could see increasing amounts of lightning to the West & North of us. The ominous looking cloud slowly coming closer to us. We could see the lansdcape rapidly disappearing in the advancing rain, reaching us as an enormous downpour just as our queueing lane was called forward. With the wipers on full speed, and us at practically no speed at all, we could barely see anything in front of us! Needless to say, we did make it onto the train; it did set off on time; and we didn’t get blasted off the rails by lightning!

We make it to the Dog House by 19:00. Just as it started to rain. It was also just 10°C and still very windy. When we stayed her overnight 3 weeks ago, the landlord, Duncan, was trying to get set up to allow indoor seating, so we were hoping he’d been successful in this endeavour. Sadly not. We had to sit outside. Under cover, but still cold and windy. We managed a couple of quick pints added to which I had about the best cheeseburger I’ve ever had, and Joy had a huge pile of veggy chilli nachos. Excellent.

Times are really tough for Duncan & his partner: being out of town, he has to rely on people who are very loyal to him and prepared to travel there. Apart from Joy & I, there were only two other brave souls there, although after they’d left, two other regulars arrived. Sadly, it’s not going to be enough trade to keep going. I can’t speak highly enough about this place and Duncan, who really goes out of his way to help you. Normally, the kitchen is closed on Thursdays, but he went out of his way to ensure there was something available for us. Top man. Do drop in if you get a chance. Here’s a link to their website.

Just to finish off – it didn’t get any warmer overnight!

2020-09-04, Friday. Hornbach & France (again)

Time to get the bikes out of the garage. Last year, we attempted to follow the waymarked Pirminiusweg trail that goes from Hornbach, into France and down to the auberge Moulin d’Eschviller where we hoped to get food & drink. The trail then does a largish loop over fields and via a couple couple of small towns before turning back North to Hornbach. It’s about 90% off-road. Nothing technical, but a few steep climbs.

Following the trail within Germany was pretty straightforward, but it was very poorly marked in France so we lost our way a number of times. Plus… the Moulin d’Eschviller wasn’t doing food when we got there and we’d brought none with us.

Running out of energy we figured we’d take a short cut, which actually turned out not to be short at all. Needless to say, we did get back ok, albeit tires & hungry.

So this year, we thought we’d repeat the trail to the auberge, but then double back using a marked short cut. We’d also leave earlier to get to the auberge at lunchtime. It was a very hot day ~ 29°.

All went well until missed the turn off the trail to the auberge and had to back track several kms. The auberge was shut for 5 days vacation. An ancient peanut butter protein bar that was in my Camelback had to suffice.

Needless to say, we got back ok. Maybe we’ll even try again another time.

In various places around the trail, there were loads of apple trees, damson (Zwetschgen) trees, walnut trees, so we filled our boots. Some really ripe damsons. Apples not quite ready yet, but very good nonetheless.

The Stellplatz is completely full this evening. It’s weekend, and it seems like many Germans are staycationing.

Dinner in the moho, followed by a scocially-distanced couple of beers sitting outside the Capito restaurant/Gasthaus. Nice.

2020-09-03, Thursday. Longwy to Hornbach

Cool, damp & miserable this morning as we gladly leave Longwy & head towards Hornbach, in Saarland-Pfalz, near Saarbrücken, to a stellplatz we’ve stayed at before and we know it’s a lovely spot. We drove through Luxembourg, so were able to avail ourselves of a tankful of diesel at a mere €0.946/ litre.

Arrived in Hornbach at 15:00, and cycled round to the supermarket for important things like beer.

The Stellplatz is pretty full. Paid for 2 nights.

There’s a british couple here in a huge Carthago A Class with a Jersey licence plate: he’s a Geordie and hard to understand, but he pinned us down for a good 10 minutes before we could escape his clutches. Wanted to tell us all about his life roaming around Europe, especially Spain & Portugal, where they seem to spend 6 months of each year.

Later, he pinned down two separate pairs of Germans on the Stellplatz and gave them each a good grilling. Goodness knows how they managed to understand him.

2020-09-02, Wednesday. Le Shuttle, France, Belgium & France again

Up at 6am for a short, 20 minute hop to the Eurotunnel terminal. We always go by Dover-Dunkirk ferry. However, sailings are in short supply due to the pandemic and I was unable to book a ferry at that time. Nor at any time for the next several days. I was really surprised to find Le Shuttle so lacking in customers, then. Maybe 15 motorhomes and other tall vehicles and a few cars. I couldn’t see trucks embarking, but maybe the single deck part of the train got filled up with them.

35 minutes later and we were disembarking in Calais for the long haul down to Longwy. In France, but need to cross into Belgium and back out again into France by the Luxembourg border. It’s quite a long haul doing 55-60mph in the motorhome, especially with the number of roadworks and other hold-ups. But we got here around 17.30.

The aire here is not in a stunningly scenic location. In fact, it’s (allegedly) 7 spaces marked out for motorhomes in a car park for the sports centre. It’s not quiet as it’s sandwiched between a high rise housing estate and a large school, with a busy road in between. But there’s a free space or two and it’ll do for the night.

I’d often wondered why Longwy HAS an aire: typically they are found in places where there’s something of touristic interest, which seemed somewhat lacking here. However, we discovered there IS something: the ruins of a Vauban fort that are worth an hour’s exploration
So there you have it.

Mon – Wed, 15th-17th Sept. Rocamadour

Avoiding French motorways is interesting. It’s been our determination to avoid paying French autoroute tolls from the outset and – one incident aside, where we found ourselves on a toll section for a short distance by mistake – we’ve managed to stick to this.

Admittedly, it takes longer to get anywhere – sometimes much longer – but it’s far more interesting and you get to see some amazing areas that you just wouldn’t see when zipping along on an autoroute. Driving up to Rocamadour form Cordes sur Ciel took us 3 hours to cover the (SatNav-determined) 86km. I reckon with all the bends in the road, it must have been nearer to 100km, but still not all that far, really and certainly not far in French distance terms. At least we got a chance to call in at a supermarket, and at a roadside “local fruit and veg” stall. Fuel is much less expensive off the autoroutes (as in the UK), as long as you can find a decent sized town where there’s a bit of competition to bring the price down.

So we arrived at the campsite on Mon evening. And we now have an internet WiFi point. Whoopee! And electric hookup: not had that since we were in Chamrousse. And showers! Sheer luxury. Also, it’s not that much more expensive than many aires now that we’re out of season.


A Rocamadour “feature”

A walk into” town” to survey the roof-of-mouth tearing baguette possibilities revealed only source – the small mini-market. And it truly was a very, very hard baguette. The sparrows and finches don’t seem to mind it, though. The other thing the walk into the town revealed was that there is a mediaeval town clinging precariously to the cliff walls of the Alzou valley. Yes, we’ve done it again: completely randomly selected yet another mediaeval town! It must have taken sheer determination and a lot of bloody-mindedness to have built it there. Many of the buildings will just have the rock face as their rear wall and/or roof.

how did they build it there?

In the afternoon, time for a mountain bike ride as the campsite guide (ACSI) says there are several trails right from the campsite. Not so; according to the campsite office. They know nothing of such things. Off to Tourist Info – a brand new, all-glass building that seems to double as a greenhouse for the poor sods who have to work in there. They were equally unable to shed any light on the MTB routes that supposedly exist. What they did provide us with (at a cost of €0.50, mind) was a single-sided sheet of A4 with a 12.5km walk on it which was claimed to be accessible to mountain bikes. So off we set.

The start point was at the bottom of the mediaeval town and the TI had told us we didn’t need to take the main road down: We could cycle down the smaller, pedestrian road. It took us the best part of 1 ½ hours to fins the start point. We found one stupidly steep, hairpin-bended footpath from the chateau that was full of visitors (did I mention the sheer cliffs this place is built on?), and another road further back that was supposedly for residents. We took that. It ended at the convent and sanctuary (both still in use) and the home of the black virgin (a wooden statue). After Joy had visited some of the buildings whilst I guarded the bikes, we declined the possibility of carrying the bikes down the dizzying stairs that might – or might not – have led to the bottom of the town. We headed back up and discovered another path leading down that looked do-able. It was, but there were also a number of flights of steps to negotiate before we could push our bikes along the mediaeval main street to the very bottom of the valley. There, we found the start point!

The trail was not technically difficult, and there were some spectacular views of the valleys. It was also very hot, dry and dusty, and eventually, we came across a very, very steep climb that was a struggle to even push up. Never mind; shortly after this climb we came across a vineyard, so took the opportunity for a bit of light, fruity refreshment (it’s grape harvesting time just about everywhere, as is clear by the number of times we’ve been held up on the roads recently by ancient tractors with barrows full of grapes and by incredibly slow-moving grape harvesting machines) which did us fine until we got back.

Having been away all summer, and having spent almost two weeks in the treeless Camargue, and it now strikes me that the leaves are starting to fall and the nights are drawing in. It’s now dark here soon after 8pm. This morning (Wed 17th), and it’s raining slightly. Not seen that since Chamrousse either (and the van is filthy – could do with some torrential rain to clean it!).

Time to move on today: This is probably the last posting until we’re back home on Sunday as we’ll almost certainly descend into Internet never-never-land again.

Sun/Mon, 14th/15th Sept – Cordes sur Ciel


Arrived here around 5pm. This was just an aire that seemed to be about the right distance to drive from Carcassonne and for us to spend the night before moving-on. It’s a small town, but – according to the various “Aires Guides” we have – hosts an aire big enough for 30 motorhomes. I tend to aim for the bigger ones as there’s more likelihood of being able to find a space than some of the smaller ones – and there are plenty of those that take 3 or 5 camper vans. Retrospectively, I guess the size of the aire might well be proportional to the popularity/”touristicness” of the town, so maybe there’s a clue there?

Anyway, as we drove into town, we couldn’t help notice the ancient walled city high above. The signs pointing to “La Cité” were also a bit of a giveaway. We’d have to investigate in the morning.


It’s a long climb from the aire – right down below the “new” town – up to La Cité. It’s also pretty steep in parts up the cobbled roads: Those mediaeval folk must have been fit.

This was yet another Cathar stronghold and dates back to 1222. On a smaller scale than Carcassonne, and having less strategic purpose, it nevertheless has 5 walls built around it – though the 5th, outermost wall no longer exists. The problem with the walls was that – no sooner had a new, outer wall been built, than people would start building houses and places of work up against them, on the outside. This in turn reduced the effectiveness of the walls as a means of defence, and allowed the population to grow, meaning a new wall would need to be built further out. And the process would just repeat itself.

Most of the 13th century gates into the town still exist, though features like drawbridges, moats and ditches have been removed over the years.

Porte de l’horologe (clock gate)

Part of the 3rd wall

Port de vainquers (conqueror’s gate)

What we thought would only take us an hour or two to view, actually took up the best part of four hours so it was a little later than anticipated before we set off to our next destination: a couple of nights of luxury (hopefully) at a campsite in another out of the way place called Rocamadour, in the National parc de Quercy, in the department of Lot.

Sat/Sun, 13th/14th Sept. Carcassonne

Sat: We managed to “escape” from Saintes Maries: it was quite a wrench knowing we’d be heading North and into cooler climes.

That said, after rounding Montpellier and Beziers, I noticed a temperature display showing 31°C, so maybe not so cool after all? In fact, we’ve not headed N at all: we’ve actually managed to go slightly further South, and a lot further West, to Carcassonne.

Carcassonne hadn’t really been on my radar, but Joy wanted to visit the mediaeval old town (la Cité), dating back to early Roman times. We arrived there about 5pm and were immediately mystified by the charging arrangements for the aire. No matter, we can deal with it tomorrow.

We took a quick stroll into la Cité in the evening: it was all lit up (the days are getting shorter now, and it’s dark by 8:30pm), and made plans for a proper revisit in the morning.

The Narbonne gate at night


If you’re ever in the South West of France, make sure you pay a visit to Carcassonne; it really is well worth it. It’s free to enter the old town itself, though you have to pay to get into the inner castle. At €8.50 a head, it seemed a bit steep, but the informative and well thought-out route round the castle and the ramparts was value for money. The city is perched high up on a promontory above the plains, giving excellent views to the Black Mountains in the North, and the Pyrenees to the South West.

Although some earlier Roman mosaics have been discovered, and there were certain to have been earlier settlements here, very little remains from those periods. The major part of the town is 13th century, with most of the early building work being from around 1220.

Part of the ramparts and just 4 of the 20-odd towers

The city itself was one of the Cathar settlements – the order of semi-Christianity that wanted nothing to do with a pope in Rome. Consequently, they were the subject of a 13th century crusade and the Inquisition. The city – despite it many levels of defence – eventually fell to Simon de Montfort, wherupon the “heretics” were disposed of and the catholicism was re-established.

Eventually, the city lost its strategic military importance and fell into disuse as the “new town” on the plains below and across the river flourished as a commercial centre. In 1822, an eminent architect was appointed to restore parts of the city to prevent further dereliction. Over the next 50 years, work was done to restore the city to the architect’s vision of how it might have been in the 13th century. This is pretty much how the city appears today.

The inner castle

We also took a look inside the Saint Nazaire church within the city walls: It was a cathedral until 1803, and houses what are reputed to be the best stained glass windows in the South of France. It also has one of the oldest organs in existence; traceable back to 1522.

L’arbre de vie (Tree of life) stained windows. Adam & Eve at the root.

We’d found out some time ago that Tourist Information offices in France all seem to offer free WiFi. Whilst in Saintes Maries, it was the only way to connect without spending a fortune with T-Mobile. Unfortunately, it was also a 3km bike ride each way and the connection there was sporadic at best. In Carcassonne, there is a TI office just inside the city walls – only about 10 mins walk from where we’re parked. But it’s also the first one we’ve come across that doesn’t have WiFi. So not sure when I’m going to be able to post this!

By 3pm, we were done and back in the van. Figuring out the payment machine took a little while, and we finally started the long journey North.

I’d picked out an aire in a remote town off the beaten highway – Cordes sur Ciel – as our stopover for the night. We rolled-up here about 6pm. Guess what? It has its own medieval Cité that we’ll have to visit in the morning. And it seems to be firmly on the tourist/history/culture trails judging by the number of camper vans in the aire!

Wed 10th September. Saintes Marie de la Mer

The battery sago:

The van started this morning, so we’ll go with our plan of hoping it will get us home and buying a new battery there. If we’re really careful not to use any engine battery power when the engine’s not running (would you believe charging our phones could be what caused the flat battery?), and running the vehicle every day (we’re going to be setting off back home via a circuitous route in the next day or two anyway), then we should be ok. Fingers firmly crossed.

We cycled into town today (we do most days, actually). There were barriers erected across roads, the local gendarmerie were out, and people were lining the streets. Probably not to see us, as we cycled nonchalantly along the erstwhile closed road. We joined the throngs of sightseers, wondering what spectacle we were about to behold. Lo, half a dozen riders on Camargue white horses came galloping down the road (must be hard for the horses to gallop on the street?). And that was it. We thought perhaps there may be some bulls about to be set to run the streets, but not a bit of it. We still don’t know what it was about.

Not galloping down the streets, but far easier on their hooves, I would think.

Today, there was wind. Not masses of it, but more than forecast, and – just possibly – enough to get my windsurfing kit planing. In a frenzy of rigging activity, I was out on the water and ready to go. The wind wasn’t having any of it, though. Another wasted effort? Well, I suppose I did manage to get planing for about 30 secs. In total, not all in one go. At least there was enough wind to waterstart (but only just), so no long swims back with gear today!

Tue 9th September – the van strikes back

We’re STILL in Saintes Maries de la Mer, leading the simple life. And today, it looked like we might be stuck here for a while longer.

This morning, we needed to drive the 2km or so back to the entrance of the aire to empty the holding tank & the loo and take on fresh water. The van wouldn’t start. Ignition, foot on brake, turn key, wimpy cough from starter motor and… nothing. Bugger.

Had a chat with our Belgian neighbours who did have a set of jump leads with them, but for them to move their van round to face ours would have been a massive undertaking (they’ve been here for  4 weeks and have 2 weeks to go). I flagged down a couple of young German windsurfers we’d become well-acquainted with, just as they were leaving in their VW Touran. They were quite happy to oblige as a charging point so we connected the jump leads from their car to our van and – with their engine running… absolutely nothing. Our engine still refused to turn over. So we left it for ten minutes with their engine still running to (hopefully) put some charge into our battery.

During this time, the German guys asked if I could help them separate the two halves of each of their two masts which had become completely jammed together – presumably with sand. This is the bane of a windsurfer’s life, meaning that – instead of having two, 2,2m lengths of easily car-toppable and transportable sections of mast, there’s just one long (4.3m’ish) length sticking out at both ends of the car, picking up the odd pedestrian along the way (anyone remember Eric Sykes’ silent film: “The Plank”?). Unfortunately, although we did managed to get one of the masts apart, we managed to split the top section in the process; always a possible outcome of stuck masts. Bye, bye £170.

By now, there must be enough charge in our battery to start the van, right? Wrong. Not a peep. With our Belgian neighbours, the German guys and another Frenchman all firing useful suggestions – all of which were tried – we had to admit defeat. It doesn’t help that the engine’s battery is fitted underneath the driver’s seat – which has to be removed to gain access to the battery. And I mean ANY kind of access. You can’t even see the battery with the seat in place. You need a decent set of open-ended spanners to be able to remove the seat, in addition to a Torx driver to remove the seatbelt fixing point. Oddly enough, I completely failed to bring such tools with me.

The really worrying thing is that this set of symptoms was an exact copy of the problems that occurred at the dealers when I went to collect the van from them: they couldn’t get it started despite having it on charge from another vehicle’s running engine for an hour or so. They kept the van for a further 3 days (ok, it was over a weekend), eventually announcing they’d fixed it by  “removing a piece of silver foil from around one of the battery terminals”. Whilst it is unconventional to have silver foil on a battery terminal post, it’s a fairly routine means of ensuring a tight fit of the cables to the terminal posts. I told them then that the problem wasn’t fixed and would return. It took it almost 3 months, but it certainly returned.

In the end, I had to call on our European breakdown insurance (delivered by AA-Europe). They took all the details including – seemingly – my inside leg measurement, during a very long international mobile phone call. Fair play to them, their customer service is great. They called back within 15 mins to say that a breakdown truck would reach us by 2pm; two hours hence.

2 ½ hours later, I got a call from the breakdown team. My French is not great, and their English was non-existent. Fair enough. The gist of it, via a very uneasy conversation, was that they couldn’t find us. I tried giving them directions using the Tourist Info map we have of the town, and explaining that we were 2km down the beach from the aire. They couldn’t find the aire. They couldn’t find the road the aire was on. In fact, they were over 100 miles away at Saint Marie Plage by Perpignan. I suspect they were probably hacked-off too at being given a duff call out.

AA called me back about 5 mins after this to ask if the breakdown crew had arrived and that everything was now fixed. Ah yes, they’d called out the dépannage (breakdown service) in the wrong Département of France. Oops! Ten minutes later they called back to say that a different dépannage would be with us within 45 minutes. And it was. They arrived with a huge truck big enough to get our 7.3m long van onto the back of. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that!

The very pleasant young man diagnosed a dead/weak battery within about 3 minutes of arriving; got out his “PowerBoost” battery pack, and got us started first time. Just to be certain, he checked the alternator was working fine (it was). Interesting that his battery pack got us going where the jump leads/borrowed running engine didn’t. Possibly the jump leads weren’t man enough for the task, but they would normally just melt if that were the case.

He advised replacement of the battery and gave us the location of another dépannage on the road towards Auiges-Mortes – about 12km away. It was now getting late in the afternoon, and we had to call in at the service point to do the water/loo stuff first.

We got there just before 5pm. It was closed. There was a bloke sitting on a tractor just outside the gates who turned-out to be the proprietor. He’d decided to have an early day and I should come back at 08:30 the next morning, when he’d look at it with furrowed brows, take a note of the physical size, capacity and the terminal post arrangement, and – possibly – order up a replacement that might or might not arrive within a few days at which point we’d discover it’s probably the wrong type anyway.

Back at the aire, we hatched-up a different plan: Having been given a good run for an hour or so, there was a good chance that a decent charge had been put back into the battery. So… in the morning (now Wed. morning), we would try to start it. If it starts, we’ll let it run for 15 mins for the poor thing to overcome the shock of having started the engine. We’d then leave it until we get home and either have a winge at the dealer’s (it’s still under warranty), or just give up and buy a new battery myself, where I can dismantle the driver’s seat, remove the battery, stick it in the car and drive down to the car parts place in Patchway, and get a replacement from there. It would also mean I’d have a useful warranty on the new battery, rather than one that would require me to return the battery to the South of France in case of a problem.

Let’s hope the plan works…

In the meantime, we watched a fabulous full moon rising at about 8:20pm. Beautiful.

Full moon rising.

Sat 6th Sept – Still in Saintes Maries de la Mer

Good news; the made-up replacement cable is working just fine. In fact, I took the opportunity today to rewire the solar panel we have on the roof: It’s always bugged me that it wasn’t installed properly in the first place. When I say “not installed properly”, I mean that the installers didn’t take account of our battery monitoring device and simply connected the solar panel straight to the battery. This means I wasn’t able to see what current/charge the solar panel was putting into the battery. All now working ok!

In another first; I actually got my windsurf board wet today. There was a guy out there kite-surfing and going well. In truth, he had a really unusual board with hydrofoil fins.  He looked pretty weird when he got going as his board was a good 2 feet above the water; planing on the hydrofoils just below the surface.

Foil kite

To be honest, I shouldn’t have bothered as it was only blowing Force 3-4, cross-onshore (so a safe direction). The biggest board and sail combination I’ve brought with me are 95 litres and 6.25sq metres respectively. Really, much more wind is needed to get this lot going with my lardy bulk on top of it. The inevitable happened – about 200m offshore I fell in. Without enough wind to waterstart, I had to swim the whole lot back in. Good exercise for 20 minutes, but I could think of better things to do! Definitely time to pack it all away again.

Very little wind forecast for the foreseeable future.