Wednesday 23rd September.
Almost two weeks at lovely Gruissan and we decided that we really should move on. Another couple we met, Graham and Cath, recommended a spot on the Canal du Midi not too far away and so that was where we headed. We had tried before to find nice places to stay by the canal and found them all closed so we were looking forward to trying this one. Graham and Cath were also intending to move on the same day and thought they might also go to the same place. A couple of hours later, after a stop for supplies in Narbonne, we arrived at Homps, deep in the Minervois wine area, to find the other two already there. It was what is known as a ‘permitted’ parking place rather than a proper aire. There are no facilities like water and waste emptying, just a piece of land beside a small marina where motorhomes are welcome to stop, FOC, for a maximum of 24 hours.
What a lovely spot it was, with a view across the canal to lovely old houses with their rich red tiled roofs and wooden shutters. Boats were coming and going, some mooring for the night and across the very stylish foot bridge was the ancient village with its narrow streets and the remains of a Knights of Saint John Hospice dating from the 13th C.
A pleasant walk along a landscaped path took one to a huge lake with windsurfing and small sandy beaches for children to play on in warm weather. While we were there though the wind blew from the hills keeping the temperatures in check although the sun shone from an almost cloudless sky.
Despite the 24 hours maximum rule it was obvious that some people were staying longer so, as we were in France and rules seem to be intended as guidance rather than strictly enforced, we also stayed an extra day as we liked the place so much.
Friday 25th September.
Less than a week of our holiday left and it was time to think about slowly heading back north. Another of Grahams recommendations was another fortified hill town in the Tarn area which meant a cross country drive towards the north west.
On a glorious sunny morning we left the coastal plain and climbed through the vineyards and high into the Languedoc hills to St Pons and then west towards Castres and Albi. The views were simply stunning as the road twisted and turned, climbed over a hill then dropped down the other side opening up scenery to die for.
Our destination was Cordes-sur-Ciel and its aire de Camping-Car. The aire ( GPS N 44.06447º E 1.95796º) is set among trees below the town and is on three levels, all of them sloping to a greater or lesser degree. We found a fairly level spot between trees after driving around and trying three other places. Despite our first reactions it was quite a pleasant spot and at €5 per night (paid by coin at a machine) including either 100L of water or 3hrs electric hook up was excellent value.
After lunch we went off to explore the old town. The 13th C town was built on a rocky pinnacle, presumably to make it easy to defend. We started out up the main street with a gentle climb which got steeper as we reached a fortified gateway. Through the gate and the cobbled street became even steeper as it twisted and turned up the hill. It seemed the town was more suited to mountain goats rather then people. Whoever lived there must have kept incredibly fit or died of heart failure at an early age. We huffed and puffed slowly (veeeerrry sloooowly) up the streets, through two more defensive gateways, until we reached the top and super views across the surrounding countryside. In that topmost part of the town was a market place, church and several ornate merchants houses, some now converted to hotels.
On our return to a more hospitable altitude a cold beer was an absolute necessity so we sat in a pavement cafe, in the sun, and watched the world go by as our beers slipped down dry throats.
Saturday 26th September.
After a very quiet night on the aire we left to go further north and through the Lot area.
Taking the D922 we drove through Villefranche-de-Rouergue, Figeac and Gramat before crossing the River Dordogne near Martel and joining the A20 motorway in the direction of Limoges.
It was another day of beautiful scenery and lovely villages and towns with their typical mellow sandstone buildings and square towers with steeply pitched tile roofs.
We turned off the A20 and drove a short distance to Meuzac and an aire, new to us, on the edge of a small village and by a pretty lake.
We had the place almost to ourselves as, apart from a few locals out for a walk and some barking dogs in the nearby houses, we were the only ones on the parking area. Later on we were joined by another British van and later still a French camping-car joined us. Meuzac aire (GPS N 45.54812º E 1.43978º) is free and has free services tucked away just round the corner in a side road (GPS N 45.54917º E 1.43969º). As it is so close to the A20 it is an easy and peaceful place to stop when going on a long hop south or north.
Sunday 27th September.
Back to the A20 and north again towards Limoges on a lovely sunny morning. With most of the trucks off the roads on Sundays it is a good time to be driving and the traffic on the motorway was light. We left the motorway at Vierzon, before it became a toll road, keeping going north on the D2020, stopping for fuel at Salbris and arriving at our overnight stop at Lamotte-Beuvron by early afternoon.
After a peaceful night on the aire we were heading north again on the D2020 through Orléans then north east to Chartres and towards Rouen. Keeping south of Rouen on the A13 then D675 we turned north on the D313 and back to La Mailleraye-sur-Seine.
Wednesday 30th September.
After two days watching the ships and barges on the Seine we were now really heading for home with just one more night in France.
We intended to spend the last night at Escalles where we had started but half way there we decided to go a little further north to Gravelines instead. We had stopped by the old town on a previous trip but this time wanted to try the free aire at Grand-Fort-Philippe instead.
Following the sat-nav took us down a main street which became narrower with parked vehicles and indicated a right turn that turned out to be an extremely narrow side street that I ignored. The alternatives were just as narrow but I took a chance and turned down the third street which required an even tighter turn left then right into a street with a parked car right on a bend. Using the pavement and watching out for the mirrors we just squeezed through and made it out onto the main road we should have come along……bloody sat navs!
After that bit of excitement we found what we thought was the aire, a large car park with a great view over the river with its boats and the lighthouse beyond. We had a windswept walk around and realised that the aire was no more. There were signs pointing to a nearby campsite and then we spotted a sign banning camping-cars on the car park. There has obviously been a change of mind by the local commune as the painted signs on the parking bays had also been covered over recently.
Plan B then, so we returned to Gravelines, this time on the main road avoiding the narrow back streets, and the aire beside the old town.
Our Eurotunnel crossing the next day was uneventful with no sign of attempted stowaways around the terminal. As we arrived early we were offered a crossing an hour ahead of the one we had booked and so we got home earlier than expected.
It had been another excellent holiday and the Carthago had performed very well. In a month away we had only used one campsite for that first night and hadn’t used an electric hook-up for the whole trip. The solar panels and batteries had held up very well and for the first time since we started caravanning years ago I didn’t need to worry about low or discharged batteries.
We covered 1813 miles for the whole trip @ 25.7mpg. Celine now had 7265 miles on the clock.