My sad return

Sadly, it’s almost time to get the ferry back to England. 🙁

I’ve got some things to do including at work but the main thing is my 5th grandchild is due anytime soon! That’s the main reason I am returning so I’ve come to Autingues to get the dog sorted.

Auntingues
This is next to the car park for the vet in Autingues. Northern France is quite flat and sometimes featureless but that doesn’t stop it being pretty. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to see for miles.

Any time you return from an EU country you must have a registered vet administer a worm tablet. That’s it. And some charge €52 for that one thing! haha They sure know how to fleece tourists. You must wait between 1 and 5 days to return so it’s worth getting it done a couple of days before returning, as generally speaking the further you are away from the ports the less they charge. 

It’s always a bit of a wrench too coming back to the UK. Nothing against the UK I love the country, but it’s just the end of holiday mode. Life feels just so much more relaxed on the continent.

‘Parting is such sweet sorrow…’

I recall many years ago when I had a fairly responsible job I went to Thailand with my then girlfriend and we spent a month there just roaming around and enjoying exploring the place. Neither of us had been before and so everything left us wide eyed. 

When it came time to return home and go back to our jobs I was quite depressed for a while. I decided then and there to make much more of my spare time and my next job would not be full of responsibilities. I wanted a decent work life balance. 

For the rest of the time in that job I spent almost every weekend away and a while after coming back from Thailand we bought our fist camper to maximise our weekends away. We won it at 9 pm in an eBay auction for £1000 and set off at 10 pm to catch a train down to Cornwall to pick it up. We got there about 9 am the next morning absolutely shattered but we spent the next year flogging that old camper all over the UK.

We had a blast and I sold it back on eBay a year later for £1000 and we splurged on a brand new coach built motorhome the following month. That’s the one I still use and I can’t imagine life without it now. 

Oh well, bye Continent, I’ll be back! (Said in my best Arnie voice!)

Caen, France

I came to Caen once before, some years ago and kinda drove straight through it. I was headed to Mont St Michel and sometimes when I get something in my head I am 100% focussed. Well, not so much now but I used to be. So this time I decided to stop in Caen and check out the war memorial.

Caen British Memorial Garden
Separate plaques at the Caen British Memorial Garden commemorate each of the battalions, units and corps that fought during the battle to free France.

I vaguely knew Caen figured heavily in the war and I found the memorial very easily. Luckily there was an aire there too so I had no problem parking for the night. 

The museum is spread over a massive area and has huge fields and woods around it so there was lots of walking for me and Jack. I did of course enter the museum but I was still waiting for my pay to go into the bank and could not afford the €30 odd it was going to cost. I explored the grounds instead. 

The British memorial was only completed in 2004 although it was considered to have been started in 1988 when the then Israeli president planted a single tree there. 

Caen British Memorial Garden
The Caen British Memorial Garden commemorates his Majesty’s forces but also the merchant navy and civilians who contributed.

It’s quite sobering visiting any of the war graves or memorials of which there are many in northern France. The mood is always sombre but that’s the knowledge of what went on that makes you feel that way.

“Lest We Forget…”

One man created the whole war. One man. It’s very frightening to think that so many people can be led by one single maniac to carry out atrocious acts on their fellow humans. 

They say “Lest we forget” but it’s not really a case of forgetting. It’s a case of being drawn in irrespective of the horrific memories of what went on for those years.

Caen British Memorial Garden
This garden was designed and built on behalf of the British Friends of Normandy with the help of the city of Caen.

I sometimes think they glorify war and ennoble the dead in order to encourage more to be prepared to fight when the day comes that those in charge want to take something for their own.

Our leaders have not stopped going to war ever since and probably never will do.

It’s about power, resources and greed and you can’t cure politicians and business leaders of that. 

Mont St Michel, France

I made it down to Mont St Michel. Bit of a hike but I’ve been wanting to return ever since I first visited in 2009. The place is amazing. It’s an island and has an abbey on top, with houses in the middle and at the bottom almost at sea level, accommodation for workers. 

A lot has changed at Mont St Michel since I was last here. For a start the enormous car park has gone completely. I recall dozens upon dozens of motorhomes there the last time, but it’s all been left to go to the sea now.

Mont St Michel and bridge
Over €200 million has been spent de silting the area around Mont St Michel.

Apparently the maintenance was too expensive so they let it go and built a brand new set of car parks slightly north of the old one, with a bridge connecting the island with the mainland. Free buses go from the car park to the island if you want them or you can walk.

Parking for cars starts at €6.30 for 2 hours but longer than that and you must pay the 24 hour rate which is  €12. Everyone of course will pay the €12 because who wants to park for only 2 hours? It takes a half hour to walk there and back anyway.

For campers you can have a look at the car parks for 30 minutes for free. I have no idea what that plan is about, because 30 minutes is only long enough to get to the mount from the car park. I suspect they allow you that time to convince yourself you want to pay the daily fee which is €17.20. That’s a hell of a money making racket isn’t it?

Oddly there is a horse drawn carriage which is a slightly different way of getting from the car parks to the mount and that costs only €5.30 one way, which isn’t bad value at all. 

Dam over the Couesnon river
Erected to control the river and the silting of the area around the Mont. It incorporates seating as it is a perfect viewpoint for Mont St Michel.

Payback?

There’s a dam further up the river which is all part of the de silting plan which apparently cost over €200 million to put into place. Clearly the French Govt want to get that money back very quickly so they fleece tourists to achieve that. 

You must be aware that once on the mount itself it is very expensive. So your entire stay could cost you an arm and a leg. My advice is visit but start very early on the morning and see as much of the mount as you can. Take your own food so you don’t spend a ransom on the restaurants and leave after nightfall when it’s all lit up and looks beautiful. 

I didn’t go on the mount this time, I was there really to take some photos which is what I did and then I left.

As always. here’s a handful of those pictures.

Never rue Rouen

Quai Cavelier de la Salle
A small pleasure boat goes against the tide up the river Seine at Rouen.

On the way down to Mont St Michel I had to stop off in Rouen. Rouen is another city that I love and in 2009 when I had my satellite internet I spent a month here. It’s changed a lot especially the Quai de Sever where I parked, which has been developed now as an urban park space.

For now I parked at the other end of the long quai down at Quai Cavelier de la Salle. There were a couple of other vans here and it was peaceful so it seemed a good place to stop.

I walked along though to the Quai St Sever where I’d spent time in 2009 and was amazed at how nice it was. They’ve put gardens there and large wood recliners. Sports areas and small kids parks. Fitness installations and complicated walkways which are great for dog walkers like me. 

There were tons of people around even in the evening and after dark there were still a few people sitting and chatting on the benches and enjoying the evening by the river. It’s clearly very popular.

It really is a fantastic urban space and a huge change to the immense concrete apron where the circus used to come. 

River view
Over the bridge and beyond the initial buildings Rouen is a quaint and pretty town with an old quarter that vies with any others.

I walked to the end and found an aire that I hadn’t known existed. A formal space designed for motorhomes to park. it’s at the other end of the quai at Quai d’Elbeuf. I noted there was a car parts place newly opened there called simply Pieces d’Auto Rouen which means Rouen auto parts. Handy to know. 

It’s nowhere near as pretty at the aire as you’re on the edge of the industrial area and there’s no view to speak of however it’s free and safe, and less than 10 minutes walk into town across the Pont Pierre Corneille bridge. 

In 2009 I remember the sirens were a particular irritation to the point they distracted me daily. I guessed that fire service vehicles must use a siren even if they are not on an emergency. I don’t know if that’s true or not but it’s the only explanation I can think of for the constant use of them. I noted this visit that the sirens were still a  feature and I’ve not noticed this in any other French city.

They were not as often as before, but still frequent, maybe every half hour. I was on the phone to a friend for a long period and even they remarked as to how often sirens were going as when they went over the bridge above me they were really loud.

I still love Rouen. I think like Amiens every time I come to France I will visit. 

My first attempt at posting a panorama shot…

Quai St Sever and Rouen cathedral
Another view of the huge changes made to Quai St Sever. This was once nothing more than a large concrete apron for about 2 miles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why speak any other language if you have French?

Update: after my experiences in Belgium I decided to get some new bolts for the injectors, a new collar for the EGR valve and some screw extractors. I set off to find them and the very handy Pieces D’Auto Rouen that I mentioned was first on my list. Sadly they had nothing I needed apart from some brake cleaner, which is excellent for cleaning EGR valves and anything else sooty and oily.

Interestingly as I was using my poor French on yet another non-English speaker the manager of the store came in and spoke very good English. We chatted and I mentioned how my lack of decent French was hampering my search for parts and I was learning as I went. He laughed and commented that in France they had this thing called ‘chauvin’. (Related to chauvinistic?) It meant basically if you have French you do not need another language!

I remembered a couple of years ago a big survey undertaken by holiday companies such as hotels airlines etc and they looked for which nationality was the best and worst for trying the languages of the countries they visit. Britons were among the top people for trying believe it or not, and French were the very worst by far! 

A quick google found a Peugeot dealer in town so I went over and lo and behold they had everything. At home you can’t get a bloody screw without them saying come back in 3 days. In fact when I bought a new dew sensor for my fuel filter from a dealer in Barrow it was weeks before it finally came in.

Anyway, the chap in the parts dept  of SCA Normandie (who could speak no English at all) was excellent and got me some new injector clamp bolts, new injector seals, new injector protectors and new collars for the EGR valve. All very reasonably priced too. I had to have 4 of everything and the final bill was about €60 which is ace considering the dam collars are about €15 euros each.

Next step, find some screw extractors. I literally drove all round Rouen for a whole day looking for some. Each place I went to I was trying my French out and I learned new words as I went. Each place sent me somewhere else and I had to understand what they were saying which was not easy. 

However eventually I found Demay Lesieur which sold me a set for €21. A lot to pay but excellent piece of mind that if the same thing happened again I had the tools and parts to fix it quickly. Interestingly, when I got back to the UK I was in a market and found an almost identical set of extractors for £2.50. I bought some as they had slightly different sizes and for that price you may as well. 

The whole experience of breaking down, being recovered, going to the garage, and finding spare parts and tools made me determined to learn more French, and most nights now the last thing I do before bed is use the Duolingo app on my phone and do a little practice. 

Here’s a few shots although I didn’t take many this time. Click on a photo to enlarge it, click on any one to go back to normal.

Amiens, France

Ahh Amiens I’ve missed you! I haven’t been here since 2009 and I do love the place. This was where I saw my first Lumiere when my friend was visiting. 

Amiens cathedral.
As part of their Lumiere season the Cathedral of Our Lady in Amiens was treated to a spectacular light show which included lighting the cathedral’s gothic facade with the original colours it was painted in when first built.

Some people say it’s nice to come home but I don’t feel that way about where I was born or brought up, I feel that way about places I have a connection to. I definitely have a connection to Amiens. As I said I saw my first Lumiere here. The cathedral in Amiens when originally built was painted in bright colours. The Lumiere was intended simply to recreate those colours and show how the façade would have looked when originally built.

They made a show of it of course with some music as well and it was an amazing spectacle. It was all the more exciting as we had not expected it. We were simply sitting in the public square enjoying the balmy night and were in fact ready to go back to the van when the Lumiere started.

There’s an excellent Saturday market in Amiens too and I recall standing in front of a stall packed with lettuces of all different varieties. Of course I love salad so this was a treat for me and I was eyeing them all up and I asked what one variety was called and he replied “Salade.” I pointed to another and he said again “Salade.” So I pointed to an odd looking one and said “Salade?” and he nodded lol

A woman was standing by me and she turned out to be British as she explained that you simply point to which ones you want, even the French don’t learn the names of all the varieties. I felt a little foolish but laughed anyway. Later, the one I picked went into a salad and it was the most delicious lettuce. Mmmm.

Parklife

Parc St Pierre, Amiens
The main park in Amiens. It’s got a lake, running track, sports areas, wildlife and of course lots of well tended grass.

Jack of course loves the park next to the city, the Parc St Pierre. I recall trying to teach him to swim here when he was young but he wasn’t having it. He’d rather spend his time chasing ducks and anything else he thinks he can kill. 

It’s a huge sprawling park and even late at night I feel safe walking through it despite the odd lurkers here and there.

I recall once coming back through at about 1 am with all my photo gear and there was a large group of youngsters sitting on the steps chatting and laughing as youngsters do. As I approached they made a way for me through the middle of them and two of them said ‘Bon nuit Monsieur’, which I thought was pretty dam charming. 

I spent a few days here and in that short time I felt utterly relaxed and recharged. Sometimes being in a favourite place for a short time is all you need to recentre yourself. 

There’s a surprising amount to see in Amiens but it’s also a lovely city to relax in and even in the centre of the city prices aren’t inflated as they are some places. I highly recommend a visit and here’s some more photos to whet your appetite. 

Bruges, Belgium

The Belfry
The Belfry is so tall it’s difficult to be anywhere in the city and not see it. It’s great though that the majority of buildings are in keeping with the style.

I first visited Bruges in 2004 after meeting a Belgian in Austria who recommended we visit. We were glad we took his advice because it’s a beautiful city like many in Belgium. I love the old traditional cities which have not succumbed to mind numbingly boring modern developers and retain some charm and interest and character. 

This time I arrived on the night of 9th of March and decided that although it was after 10pm I’d walk into town before bed. Jack needed some exercise anyway. We found there was some kind of festival going on as everyone was in fancy dress, some throwing fireworks and all of the pubs were loud and busy. 

The mood was boisterous but fun and friendly and walking Jack through the city centre was as safe as playing with him on the beach. he loved it as he got loads of attention from admiring passers by and of course that’s what Jack lives for. Well…that and killing things *sigh*

You can only have the menu!

After an hour of enjoying the mood and the city I decided to break with my normal diet and get kebab meat and chips, known most everywhere as meat ‘n chips. I spotted a kebab shop not far away so tied Jack up and went in. 

Bruges is Flemish Belgium, so I asked for “Viande et frites s’il vous plait.” He looked at me and pointed to the six photos above the griddle which showed the delicious kebabs they sold. I waved to suggest dismissal and repeated, “Non, seulement viande et frites s’il vous plait.” He again gesticulated at the photos so I asked if he spoke English and he shrugged as if to say either “No.” or “I can’t be bothered to.”

Man walking
I loved this scene because you have the old and traditional kind of building which directly abuts a modern building which has no character. The modern building looks incongruous.

We went on like this for five minutes with me thinking of various ways I could get through to him but it was increasingly apparent that he simply did not want to and was not going to veer from the 6 menus he had on the display. So finally I chose one that was a simple donner kebab: meat, salad and pitta. 

I pointed to it and said “Menu cinq s’il vous plait.” He appeared really pleased and pointed to it and burbled something unintelligible. I said “Oui, mais pas de salade et pas de pitta mais avec frites…s’il vous plait?” which of course effectively got me meat n chips lol

He looked quite angry and waved at me shouting something that kind of looked like no but felt more like piss off! I wondered if it was my poor French but it has worked before…

I was a bit confused because if you sell something and have to take a part of it off and bin it but it has been paid for, what’s the problem? Anyway I decided it was time to leave so I went back to the van and made myself some savoury rice from scratch which was just as tasty as meat n chips and way healthier. Baise tu! Mr Kebab man. 

Socialisation 

So I spent the next day in Bruges and right from early morning the sun was shining brightly. As I got into town I noticed how clean the streets were especially after last nights shenanigans. It reminded me of Italy when we spent New Year in the Piazza del Popolo. There was about 50,000 people out celebrating and fireworks abounded. 

When midnight struck apparently it was customary to share a bottle of cheap champagne with the person next to you, then throw the empty bottle into the square. The mess was amazing and we were careful when we left as there was very little path without glass on. However the council were coming in with cleaning crews even as we left for the tube and the next day the square was clean as a whistle. 

Market square
When there is no market on this square is full of tourist groups, horse carriages plying for fares and noisy lorries which are allowed to drive through the square.

Bruges also was clean although in the main squares there were still council vehicles and staff finishing off the clean up. 

In the market square is a tall war memorial. I’d noticed some young boys trying to throw water bottles up to the top level of it. They weren’t intent on harm and I didn’t feel they were deliberately disrespectful, it felt like they were simply messing around without thinking what they were doing. However I decided if they had not stopped by the time I finished my coffee I would speak to them.

As I sat there a council worked drove round with his motorised street cleaner and stopped next to the large group who were very likely some sort of school group tour. He clearly had some quiet words with them and they behaved straight away. The whole thing was even tempered and over with quickly but I was astonished. In the UK no council worker would dream of doing the same thing, and if they had it’s likely that some irate parent would react angrily and aggressively because their little darling had been spoken to. 

There is a process called socialisation where the young are taught how to grow and develop but that seems to be disappearing in some places. It was very pleasing and gratifying to see such a simple but positive interaction between adult and children in public. 

I had an amazing day in Bruges and I am sure that won’t be the last visit I have. In fact I may go back next spring! As always here’s some photos from my visit. Click on any image to enlarge it and click on any image to exit the image browser.

Belgian Breakdown

Image of damaged engineSo, this happened. 

Diesel injectors are complicated things that squirt fuel into your cylinders. They are under immense pressure and so are held in place by a large, solid metal clamp which is bolted onto the engine block. When you change an injector, or take it out to clean it as I did you must take off the large bolt and clamp and then pull the injector from it’s seat. The bolts that hold the clamp down must be in very tightly due to the pressures involved, otherwise the injector would simply shoot out of the hole and punch right through the bonnet.

They can be responsible for poor fuel consumption and as I am plagued by that I have been refurbishing an old set of injectors. So I was parked in a layby in Belgium swapping the injectors for the replacement set but when I was taking this one off, the bolt head snapped clean off. Oops. You can see the threaded part of the bolt still in place arrowed in the picture.

With no way of holding the injector in place the engine simply won’t work. To get the bolt out I need a screw / bolt extractor and I haven’t got any. I could try drilling the bolt and hammering a small flat screwdriver into the hole, but if it doesn’t work I could damage the engine irreparably. 

Luckily I have breakdown cover for Europe so I rang them and after establishing where I was they said they’d send someone. I was on the computer and kept looking out of the rear window for the breakdown truck and the guy in the car behind kept smiling. I think he thought I was looking at him. I glanced around and it was obvious that this was like some layby’s in the UK, a place for men to meet other men. I tried glancing without him noticing that I was but he did anyway and he probably thought I was simply being coy!

Anyway the truck arrived and the although the guy spoke barely no English this is Flemish Belgium so everyone speaks French so we managed to get by, resorting to using Google translate on our smart phones when we got stuck. The guy from the car behind came out and started stroking Jack as the recovery man was getting my camper onto his truck. He tried to speak to me a couple of times and it was slightly embarrassing because his intent was obvious and yet given the circumstances he was not prepared to give up.

If I was a woman and had to put up with that shit daily I’d buy a bloody big baseball bat…

Anyway we finally got on our way and Mr Breakdown texted almost the entire 40 minute journey grr. I tutted a couple of times as he was veering toward the side of the road but he seemed totally unperturbed. I had to grit my teeth and bear it.

We finally arrived safely at a garage and he handed me over to the mechanic who spoke even less English. I am not sure if he was putting it on cos he seemed not to even understand “OK!” However with sign language and my little French we got the van parked in a bay on the street outside the garage, as of course I’d be sleeping in it that night. I felt more settled as the AA had rung me twice to check progress and when I mentioned his lack of English and my poor French they said if I got stuck they’d liaise with the mechanic for me. 

Parked outside the garage in BelgiumSo, here I am outside the garage after a good nights sleep. Notice anything? Yeah…my van is 10 and a half feet tall and the garage doors are about 7 feet tall. So there’s no way he can fit me inside, and it’s raining outside, so…

And yes I was right, it was 2 days before he finally got round to repairing the van. I phoned the AA again to let them know what was happening and he had told them they did not know where I was. They did however know I was sleeping in the van so I think they were simply avoiding doing the work in the rain outside.

He came out anyway and I had googled the words I needed and explained what I wanted doing. Pointing at the bolt I said “Percer” to mean drill it. Then “Extrait” for extract, then “Remplacer” for replace. He nodded and went off (presumably to get a new bolt) and was back and had the job completed within an hour! Merde! I was secretly chuffed cos although it took them ages to attend to me, the job was done quickly and the bill was high for what they did, but within reason.

Anyway I was just chuffed to be fixed so I paid the €112 bill (Daylight robbery!) and took off. 

So, I’m driving down the motorway after leaving the garage and after spotting sign for a rest area I decide to pull in for a cuppa. Guess what? Yeah, the exact same one I’d been taken from a few nights ago by the breakdown truck. Given that you join the highway about a mile before it, and leave the highway about 3 miles after it to get to the garage, how come it took 40 minutes to get there last night? Well I did a bit of Sherlock thinking and came up with this:

I was a foreigner and stuck. He was an independent breakdown operator. He texted almost throughout the journey. He brought me to a garage that could not fit me in. It took 2 days to get round to fixing my van. For what was actually done to my van the price was steep.

I think he was texting the whole journey because he was trying to ‘sell’ my breakdown to a garage. He must have been driving around the streets waiting for a good price before settling on the one he took me to. Conspiracy theory? Or truth? Who knows. Anyway, I’m off to France now to find some screw extractors and some new parts cos if this ever happens again I can do the job easily myself.

Oh and no…the guy in the car behind me wasn’t there when I returned! lol

The Louvre annexe at Lens, France

The Louvre
The main courtyard, Cour Napoleon is where the glass pyramid designed by I.M. Pei serves as entrance to the largest museum in the world. It was originally built as a castle, then as a royal palace but the museum has slowly taken over most of the old palace now.

Most people know that each time I go to France I must also visit the Louvre. The biggest museum in the world is also the one for me that is full of stuff I like. Each time I go I try to spend the entire day, which is very easy if I’m on my own. It’s one of my top destinations in the world. 

They have art from all around the world and most tends to be traditional art, some of it ancient. There’s not many unmade beds with dirty sheets here. 

The place is grand, and humbling, and beautiful, and stacked with the most amazing and beautiful objects. One of my favourite pieces of art ever is there and it’s a sculpture by Italian sculptor Canova. It’s called Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss. 

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss
This statue of Cupid reviving the woman he loves is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

The story goes, Cupid’s (or Eros as some call him) mother Venus had asked Psyche to bring back a flask from the Underworld. She made Psyche promise not to open the flask. However Psyche could not contain her curiosity and eventually opened the flask and after smelling the awful fumes fell into a death like sleep. 
Cupid saw her lying there motionless and approached, touching her with the tip of an arrow to check if she was still alive. 

Cupid feel deeply in love with the most beautiful Psyche on first glance and took her into his arms to kiss…and thus revive her. The council of the Gods later granted permission for Cupid to marry Psyche and this made her immortal, and created her the God of the Soul. 

There’s much more to the story than this and several versions but this one seems to be the most popular. I’ve got literally dozens of photos of this one piece and I think it’s the most expressive sculpture I’ve ever seen. 

Anyhow, the Louvre opened an annexe at Lens in 2013 and I kept saying next time I get back there I wish to visit. So this is my first port of call! 

Louvre annexe at Lens, France
Louvre annexe at Lens, France

It’s nothing like I imagined. It has pieces which all come exclusively from the period know as antiquity. I didn’t know antiquity was a period, I thought it was anything that was ancient!

When you first enter the place is bright and airy with lots of room to move around. A member of staff approached me and quickly shifted to perfect English to welcome me and ask if he could help. The entrance was free but I paid €3 for an audio guide which did in fact enhance my enjoyment of the visit. 

There’s not just artefacts but displays, videos playing and occasionally presentations on a variety of themes and topics. There’s an awful lot going on. 

However when you reach the main hall it seems as if there is not very much to see. The spacing between pieces is very large and clearly they’ve done that to ensure people can get to see pieces and walk around them without it being a crush. 

This photo gives a good idea of the sense of space there and it also felt to me like the exhibits were placed so as to make you feel they were much more accessible

Plenty of space at the Louvre
Plenty of space at the Louvre

than otherwise. You could walk around things and view them from every angle and touch them if you dared…!

Kidding, no touching. 

The sense of space and the lightness made me feel at first there was not much to see but despite this I spent an entire morning there and could easily have spent the whole day if my interests were wider. 

A definite thumbs up from me for the Louvre at Lens and no doubt I shall be visiting again. Here’s a few more pictures from there, all taken on my phone.