Barcelona back to Somerset!

Since we had a baby five months ago, we’ve driven through six countries. When she was a month old, we drove from Somerset to Liverpool, caught the ferry to Belfast, went on to Dublin, sailed to Wales, and then got the car back to Somerset. A few days later, we packed up the trusty little silver Volkswagen full to the brim with baby clothes, bath and reusable nappies (still in their packet five months later) for the journey back to Spain and tootled up the driveway from my boyfriend’s house in Somerset, spouting booties and baby mitts in our wake, to head back to Spain. We motored off to Plymouth to catch the ferry to Santander, then onto our home in Barcelona.

 

 

(in clockwise order: driving through Wales, Granny and M in Belfast, visiting Bristol on way back from Wales, ferry pulling into Santander)

It’s been three months, and we have just tootled up the drive again, with the car in one piece! It was some journey.

I do the motorways and my boyfriend does the cities. This leaves me with the bulk, but I don’t mind as I quite enjoy driving (though I hate narrow city roads and weird European rules). I learned to drive in the chaotic and dusty streets of Nairobi, where traffic lights are considered intersection disco lights and stop signs are melted down for the metal. Yet I find English villages much more challenging.

I first drove in the UK just after my baby was born, I found myself quite suddenly behind the wheel with a car full of passengers and realised I had forgotten to warn them of my unfamiliarity with British road-rules. Having learned in southern Africa to dodge potholes the size of small swimming pools, play chicken with irate minibus drivers in six lane traffic (four of which were marked) and drive through a hailstorm with half a working windscreen wiper, I didn’t think I needed to.

In England, the roads are filled with consistently skilled and reliable drivers. This was very stressful. As a mediocre driver, I was used to being one of the best on the road, now I really had to watch myself! Not only does everyone drive annoyingly well, they also whizz along terrifyingly fast, and signs and warnings shout from every corner.

Within one month, I had three parking tickets, one speeding fine (apparently the yellow boxes aren’t for birds) and one flat tyre.

Thankfully, my boyfriend is a brave and stoic front seat driver, who patiently explained some of the weird road markings to me and silently suffered whiplash as I slammed my foot on the brakes every time the Sat Nav said “Left turn 6 km ahead”.

Now onto the road trip home!

We brought the car to Spain with glorious plans of excursions every weekend, visiting friends in Madrid, finally making it back to Montseny and doing the three-peak challenge…last Friday we went to pick up the car from the underground car park it had sat in for three months. It didn’t seem worthwhile after all, to pay insurance and go through the hassle of registering it in Spain, for trimestral trips, and so we decided to drive it back to England. The cheapest way was to go up to Cherbourg in north-western France, and then get the ferry to Poole. Altogether it would be about 14 hours of driving.

I must confess, I have been dreading this trip for weeks. J was upbeat and excited, and spoke with enthusiasm about our “first family holiday” and “beautiful route”, I smiled along, but was secretly dreading it. 14 hours is really not that bad, if you are an adult who drinks coffee, I think I could have done it in one go. Add in a five-month-old baby, and it goes from road trip to motorway nightmare. The six hours from Santander to Barcelona took us two days with a night in Zaragoza. My trip from Barcelona to a town near Girona that was an hour and a half away, took a gruelling five hours.

I envisaged hours stuck in motorway traffic jams, listening to the screaming of a hot and red-faced baby, and finally pulling into England exhausted and stone deaf.

We have just arrived, and it was one of the best holidays I have ever had!

It was a hectic last week packing up the flat. I had bags and boxes scattered around the flat for a week, and scribbled tasks onto an endless “TO DO” list on the kitchen counter flapping and fussing. J calmly sat in the chaos (and did all his packing in two minutes on the day we left). We had dropped the car into the garage on Friday, and were due to pick it up Wednesday so we could hit the road as soon as I’d finished work. As it was on my way home, I decided to swing by the garage on the way home on Tuesday to check up on the car. Rollerblades are my new commute to work, and so I careened into the RACC garage on wobbly wheels to check the car would be ready for the following morning, only to be informed it would need two new wheels which needed to be ordered in and cost us more money than we collectively had in our bank accounts.

Long story short we ended up using the spare, finding one cheap wheel in a town outside Barcelona, and the car was finally ready by six pm the next day! So we set off at seven that evening, only four hours later than intended.

Day 1 Narbonne

In my experience, road trips come with sangria in the backseat and 90’s anthems blasting from the speakers. The seats are normally strewn with crushed crisps and smeared with chocolate chips, and we generally have only just enough fuel in the tank to get to our destination and no money for anything to go wrong.

This time around, nothing had changed except we listened to the screaming baby track, sangria was replaced by formula milk, and nappies littered the seats.

Poor bubba, she was blissfully unaware of our intentions as we buckled her into her car seat, but once she realised she had been locked up in her comfy prison and abandoned, she scrunched up her tiny face and did her best to shatter the car windows with her screaming. It’s amazing really, such teeny tiny lungs can produce so much noise! Poor little thing, we pulled over when we could to feed and comfort her, but the second she was back in the seat and locked her eyes onto the backseat it was the same.

Luckily it was only 2 hours and 44 minutes to our first destination, but it seemed three days later when we pulled into our first abode for the night.

Initially, we had planned to camp our way there. We decided to break up the 14-hour drive into five days, to really make a holiday of it, and spend the nights in campsites en route. Eyebrows were raised at the thought of camping with a tiny baby, but we dismissed them. We would prove them all wrong! We would sleep under a blanket of stars, make our own little camp fires, and think how much money we’d save.

In the end, we checked the weather the week before we were due to travel and realised it was going to be 40 degrees plus in the south of France, and we were timing our camping trip with a literally deadly heatwave. Combine this with the thought of changing an explosive nappy in a tiny sealed tent, and the thought of BnBs took on a new shine.

J took it upon himself to book the accommodation, so I had no idea what to expect as we pulled up on the first evening to “Villa Artemia” on the outskirts of the natural park in Sigean, south east France. Had our expectations been sky high, this place would have been Mars. It was the most incredible place. A big country house, but with all the smart city amenities, very flashy modern kitchen and new bathrooms. Decorated with impeccable taste, enormous colourful paintings on the wall and Zimbabweanesque sculptures along the stairs, but in an authentically old setting. Think rustic French farmhouse meets cosmopolitan city apartment. The host was a very sweet guy (literally, his name was Guy!) who made us feel instantly at home, and within minutes I found myself on a cool candlelit terrace with a cold glass of white wine in my hand!

 

He then went out with friends, leaving us keys and responsibility for the entire villa. We assured him we planned to appreciate the culture and cuisine of the area. We stomped around gushing at the décor, before heating up an enormous Tupperware of food J had cooked up with the leftovers while emptying the fridge, which we ate in bed watching Modern Family.

This was the hottest night. Even with air conditioning, and a fan, we all woke up in a pool of sweat at three am, and draped t-shirts soaked in cold water (a trick we’d learned through surviving summer in Barcelona) over our chests. Poor baby M was very unhappy, she woke up every half an hour crying so we were up half the night fanning her to make sure she didn’t overheat.

The next morning, we went down for a lovely continental breakfast on the shady terrace and had an interesting conversation with a fellow guest who had come down to visit the nudist colony in the area and spent his evening naked, drinking champagne and smoking with his husband. Next time!

Despite the rough night, I was very sad to leave Villa Artemia the following morning and left with gushing promises to Guy that we would be back for a week in the winter.

Next stop Bordeaux!

With the exception of the first day, we managed to time all of the driving with M’s naps, so other than the odd ten minutes of screaming here and there, the time in the car was generally silent and peaceful! It was also easy driving as French people drive beautifully slowly (wine and summer sun?) even on the motorways, and the signposts were few and far between.

We managed the 3.5 hours for that day in two trips, and before we knew it we were entering the small village of Uzeste, where our accommodation for the night (Sous la Tonnelle) was easy to spot among the three other buildings. Uzeste was a tiny place, sporting the standard Boulangerie for your morning baguette, Charcuterie with a ceiling dripping in pigs heads and a very depressing grey building with the signpost “Salle de Fetes” (literally, Party Room but probably the Village Hall). Sous la Tonnelle was an idyllic little BnB, with a small courtyard heavy with bougainvillea. The last ten minutes had been accompanied with piercing screaming, and we piled out of the car hot, sweaty and very relieved to be out of a small vehicle for the next twenty-four hours. “There has been a mistake, Madame, Booking.com never confirmed your reservation, we are complet (full)”. Uh oh. It was getting dark, we were in the middle of nowhere, and at peak August everywhere was fully booked and expensive.

Our utter despair at the thought of getting back into the car was clearly so evident that another couple staying at the hotel took pity on us and offered us one of the rooms in their onsite cottage. Hoorah! Their generous offer was probably soon regretted when M opened her lungs to serenade the other guests with her afternoon screeching, but we assured them it would only be one night and asked how long they had for their holiday. “We leave tomorrow”. We quietly asked the manager to give them a bottle of house red from us.

 

Another wonderful evening, such a welcoming and friendly place! We happened to have coincided with the beginning of a famous French Jazz festival, and a lot of the guests were musicians who were there for the warm up rehearsals. Dinner took place around a large round table in the courtyard, and conversation and wine flowed. For just 20 euros, we got a salad, huge leg of duck, sticky rum-soaked pudding which was a speciality of the region, (“Canele de Bordeaux”) and the manager plonked new bottles of wine on the table as soon as they ran out.

One by one fellow guests peeled off and we were the last ones at the table, chatting to the manager about the impending Jazz festival and comparing notes on babies (she had a boy of similar age).

Our accommodation for the evening was in a little cottage nearby, such a cosy place with big wooden beams and a big Aga type stove in the corner. Good night’s sleep!

The following morning we had our croissants from the local boulangerie and to M’s dismay, she was bundled back into the car seat and we headed off toward out next stop: Nantes.

En route we stopped off at a vineyard, recommended by the barman at Sous La Tonnelle (white hair down to his shoulders, eternal goblet of wine in one hand, he seemed to know his stuff), called “Chateaux de Budos”. We only had time to taste some red, then we carried on as Nantes was about four hours away. We stopped off for a quick lunch at a restaurant called “Les Trois Mousketaires” in a town called Podensac. (Although it was so hot we ended up asking for most of the lunch to be put into doggy bags, to the French waiter’s shock. He was also thrown by my request for a ‘café au lait’ at the end of the meal. I suppose it’s the equivalent in France of eating a bowl of cereal after lunch).

Day 3: Nantes

We arrived early evening, this time we checked with no problems to a cheap but very comfy hotel right in the centre. It was our first night in a city, so we skipped the Tupperware and sandwich dinner for some cheap meat and cheese in the centre, where we got chatting to a retired couple who told us about their backpacking adventures around Europe.

Another surprisingly good night’s sleep (M had been having some terrible nights leading up to the journey, waking up and screaming every couple of hours, but being on the road seemed to suit her and she slept much better over the whole trip.

 

Nantes was actually a beautiful city, small very clean (it won some green city award recently apparently, very low carbon emissions, lots of parks) and we visited the famous Cathedral and saw a big medieval Castle (updated with a slide down one side, such a fun idea but it was closed sadly).

The next morning, we left early so that we had time to visit one extra site on the way to our next stop.

Cherbourg

J had done some quick Google research, and found we would be driving near a famous monument called “Mont de St Michel”. I had never heard of it, although it’s the second most visited attraction in France, after the Eiffel Tower.

I could see why, it was an unbelievably beautiful medieval monastery, that seemed to rise out of the sea as it was built on an island connected by a tidal causeway. Sharing the view with about a million tourists did dull the attraction somewhat, but it was worth the visit. It was spectacular even when crawling with tourists wielding selfie sticks, so I imagine it was truly something out of this world when it was a peaceful sanctuary for monks. It was a pity it has been so prostituted out to tourism though, every square inch is an overpriced restaurant or tacky souvenir store, it must rival some casinos for the amount of money that passes through it each day. We had a bet on just this, and in my attempt to settle the question I found out some fun facts about St. Michel. Apparently, there was a real scandal with a previous mayor of the neighbouring town, who ran the shuttle bus there and had it stop at a small distance from the monastery, depositing thousands of hungry and thirsty sightseers at a random location where he happened to own a few expensive restaurants. He was taken to court and given a huge fine. Now he is making his money through fake weddings for Japanese tourists, who, having already been married in Japan, pay a huge sum to have a mock Western style wedding and photoshoot eating cake in front of Mont St. Michel. It’s one of the main reasons Japanese tourists visit France, according to the article I read.

We didn’t stop for long though, as we had another two-hour drive to get to our destination for the night, a small village called Isigny-sur-Mer just south of Cherbourg. Another quaint French town, this time festooned with bunting and flags as we had coincided with some big fair, mostly odd second-hand things. We had a nice long walk by the river, wandered around the town and I tried unsuccessfully to show J the Ab Fab episode where Eddy and Patsy go to France, before all three of us passed out in a deep coma.

Ferry

Last day! We turned down the hotel breakfast the following morning (9 euros for some croissants and coffee!) and ate a huge amount for half the price at a nearby café, before getting on the road early. Our ferry wasn’t until six thirty that evening, and as we were in Normandy we decided to do some sight-seeing and visit the Normandy beaches where the D Day landings took place in World War II.

En route, we noticed we would be passing through a town called “Bayeux”. This was indeed where the famous Bayeux tapestry was housed so we made a quick detour! It cost 8 euros each to go in, but that came with an audio guide which gave a really in-depth account of the history of the tapestry, which you listened to as you shuffled around in a line with other visitors. Fascinating stuff, all about the war between Kings William, Edward and Harold and culminating in the Norman conquest of England. Strange cartoonlike figures over a seventy-foot-long (a long and narrow strip, not the huge carpet type thing I was expecting) tapestry from the 11th century.

Bayeux Tapestry

Our next stop was a very tiny town called Arromanches, with a population of about five people, famous for its location next to Gold Beach where the British allied forces arrived during the D Day landings in June 1944. All the towns along the famous stretch of beaches are museums to the war, with re-enactments, exhibitions, guided walks etc. War history aside, it was also a stunning beach and had some upmarket restaurants serving oysters and mussels (I had time just to check the prices and peel an orange before we made a quick exit to eat our picnic on the beach!). Along the beach, and quite far out at sea, were scattered chunks of concrete which really confused us. Confetti from an alien wedding? Dinosaur teeth? It turned out they were the remnants of the artificial harbour “Mulberry” which was built during WWII, just after the landings, to bring in military supplies by sea.

Arromanches, Gold Beach, Normandy

Back on the road, and we stopped at a small garage to fill up the car one last time. I got paid on the day we left and I now had 20 euros in my bank account, and it was only the 5th of August! I had a sudden wistful pang for camping. We realised with some panic that we had no money between us, and only just enough diesel to get home! But I fished out J’s credit card from the bottom of a wallet and we got an emergency tank full and headed on. Definitely time to end the holiday!

Now It really was time for the ferry, as our port was still nearly two hours away. We got there in good time, joined the wrong queue and nearly shot up the ramp to the enormous ferry, in front of a thousand queuing cars, but luckily realised our mistake in time.

A mere four-hour crossing, a doddle hour and a half on the other side, and we were back in Kilkenny!