The French Connection

1 – 7 July 2017

Despite the heat we can’t quite believe it’s July already – 3 months has flown past. And the heatwave appears to have broken slightly – still hot but a good 5-6C cooler much to Danny’s relief.

We had another day on the beach before moving on, pursuing the hard work of a golden tan. Although this is now the holiday season for the Spanish and the beach gets busy it is so big you don’t feel crowded and it is not noisy.

The gas saga continued. The package hadn’t arrived from N&B and the local repair shop were now saying they couldn’t do our van for at least a week.  We needed a contingency plan so located a repair workshop not far past Girona who replied to our email saying they would take a look first thing Monday. So on Sunday we had a leisurely drive down to Ventallo arriving at CaravanINN just after 6pm. They were unexpectedly open but fortunately the owner agreed we could park outside in a tree-screened avenue between the road and the yard so we parked up, had a simple dinner and settled in until morning.

We were  ready for inspection at 7.30 prompt – they were very nice to us but the engineer refused to touch our system as they were unfamiliar with it. And they didn’t know anywhere we could get it done. A bit dejected, we sat for a while as we had really thought this was the place our problems would be solved. We now had a spare regulator in case of a repeat so instead of chasing around we decided to head up towards Italy, use the gas, and see what happened.  Enough of planning everything around trying to fix the van – we’ll see if our luck changes.

So we headed off at 0830 and by 0900 we were saying’ “adios” to Spain and “allo, allo” to France. Desperate for breakfast we pulled into the first French services and Danny turned on the gas for the fridge – our hearts sank as there was a strong smell of gas and a hissing sound. We turned it all off again, looked at each other and wondered aloud what else could go wrong? Well, the pain au chocolate were burnt and as Kate went to visit the toilets a coach load of 40 females formed a queue before her. She sat down again and crossed her legs tightly – we really shouldn’t have tempted fate.

We rang Gas-It to ask for advice – they have no support outside the UK but did say the sound of gas was probably just the regulator settling. They also gave advice about the regulator that was the opposite to Travelworld’s. Oh dear. We turned on the gas, gave it 5 minutes and hey presto, no hissing, the fridge ignited and we were running on gas!

We headed north noting all the way the difference in scenery from Spain. The autoroutes were busy and expensive – the morning’s drive had cost us around €60 – and by lunchtime we’d had enough. We came off and drove into Aimargues, a sleepy little town with a SuperU and a lovely looking local restaurant. Danny did a brilliant bit of parallel parking- truly, it was that good – and we headed to the restaurant but our luck was consistent – as we arrived the last table had just gone and we were turned away with  “desolee!” ringing in our ears. Such a shame. Instead we headied to SuperU for groceries and had lunch in the van on the car park.

We re-set the satnav to stay off the toll roads.  Although progress was now  slower it was far more interesting and exactly what we wanted from our danderings. Having realised we wouldn’t get as far as we had thought, we identified a campsite near Istres in the ACSI book – Vallons des Cigales. A nice site above the lake (Etang de Berre) in a wooded valley where we chose a secluded spot, set up and headed up for an hour at the lovely pool.

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Whilst there the ‘act’ for the night were rehearsing and convinced us we should attend the evening’s entertainment – Party Transformiste. Transvestite Monday and Danny didn’t have his frock! Whilst in the bar two men with big biceps and attitude swaggered in, ordered soft drinks and surveyed everything and everyone around them. Clearly cops, which we confirmed with the deeply unimpressed barmaid.

After a BBQ we sauntered back up for the 10pm start. The tranquil oasis was now heaving, transformed by the presence of many LGBTQIAPK (as we are advised is the correct term nowadays – thanks Wally) who had come in from Istres and around. The Act were brilliant, in glittering Shirley Bassey gowns and Dolly Parton wigs – great fun. Danny even got his cheek stroked by the compere in his/her glittering silver dress and 6“nails and high heels.

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Then we saw the 2 plain clothes cops stood at the bar next to us.  Danny couldn’t resist and fronted the pair of them in very bad french. The good looking dark-haired latin type (anyone remember Eric Estrada? same sunglasses too) said he was a psychologist and the black guy claimed to be a forklift truck driver. Not even remotely convincing. Once we told them our background they stayed with us all evening until we felt we had to go to let them enjoy the night. But we enjoyed ourselves and the unexpected entertainment from the locals.

Next day we detoured through Marseille to satisfy Danny’s fascination with “The French Connection” and we could see there have been some improvements since then. Driving though the middle of the city it had a good feel with lots of classic old apartment blocks with shutters – Danny describes them as nice tenements – and wide boulevards.

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If you look top left you can just see the sign
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Marseille street

We made slow progress through nice rural areas and stopped at the small town of Auriol where we succumbed to the deli counter, getting our first ever quiche – salmon and vegetable – which was surprisingly good.  And some very pretty little french patisserie for after dinner.

We drove across the mountains through gorgeous scenery where,  during an unexpected detour at Le Muy we encountered our first aggressive driver, a female blonde in a white mini. We won, obviously. Then up and over the Massif de L’Esterel that stood between us and Antibes.  Esterel itself appears to be a beautiful gated community with villas built into the hillside with stunning views, a breeze and a regular bus service! Money speaks volumes.

We descended into Mandelieu just outside Cannes, all 1960’s apartment blocks and a bit of a time warp but everything so immaculate that it had a nice feel. The traffic was now hideous and even taking the A8 to bypass Cannes it took us an hour to do around 6km.

It was with some relief that we got to Cagnes -sur-Mer and drove up a wooded valley to our campsite and a tree-shaded pitch which kept the van nicely cool. The site were really helpful giving us directions and timetables for public transport to Monaco next day.

Having previously arranged a lunch meeting with Greta in Monaco we got a bus from the site into Close de Cagnes where the train departs. With an hour to kill we walked down to the seafront for a leisurely coffee in a cafe. Laid back kind of a place and we happily watched the world go by – some carrying their daily baguette, others cycling or jogging along the front. Jogging! Insane. The steeply shelving pebble beach had its fair share of sun worshippers on their mats and the sea was as blue as we remembered from our last visit to the Cote d’Azure with mum in 2008.

Our first journey on a double-decker train took us into Monaco in around 35 minutes.It was packed and we stood all the way. We headed towards the Cafe de Paris and when we recognised a building realised we were close. But instead of the beautiful park we were expecting to see, a modern monstrosity – domes of faceted, gleaming silver – had been built to accommodate even more designer shops. Just how many Gucci shops are needed in a small area (0.78 square miles) has clearly not yet been established. The capacity of the super-rich to shop is beyond our comprehension. Being early we wandered down past the Hotel de Paris, the opera house and the classy Hermitage hotel until we had a good view of the harbour and its super yachts.

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After that we went back to the Cafe de Paris and met Greta, as petite, elegant and charming as ever. She had booked a table there for lunch which was unexpected. Escargots followed by salmon with sorrel sauce and tagliatelle in butter for Danny and Kate had the best prawn avocado ever and fresh spaghetti with smoked salmon. All of it was excellent. Given that she rarely speaks english now Greta was thankfully still very fluent and we had a really good chat. She told us about local disapproval at the continuing building work in the principality and how it was eating into the green spaces so needed in this densely populated principality. She also told us that there are 2 beaches, which surprised us.

When we were well and truly stuffed, she took us walking past the side of the Casino, through the Japanese garden where she reads her morning paper and down to sea which was obscured by huge boards plastered with photos of the actual coastline  – they are building out into the sea so that they can build more apartments. Set into the pavement here were impressions of the feet of famous footballers (for goalies) some of them surprisingly small.

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Little & large outside Monte Carlo casino

Eventually the hoardings stopped and we could see the small beach- not a patch on many along the coast, and very crowded – and Greta was able to point out her apartment block, in front of the tallest building in Monaco which again had not been built when we last visited. It had been lovely seeing her but it was time to say our goodbyes and hop a bus to the station.

Back in Clos de Cagnes we spent some time on the seafront maximising the breeze before returning to the campsite where the shade of the trees had kept the van at a nice temperature. Our last night in France for a while.