The 21st of December arrived very quickly. In the last week we had rejected the idea of going through Albania and ex-Yugoslavia because of complexities with insurance, the state of the roads etc, and decided we’d travel through Italy and then get the ferry to Patras in Greece. There was a nice lunch at noon with my close team and hasta la vista with my colleagues in the afternoon, and then, for once, I left the office on time. The suitcases had been packed already, so once back at the marina it was a matter of loading the car with all the stuff, gifts, a dog and 2 cats . There was some stress, a few arguments, but in the end, everything did fit, the pets could still breath, and we said goodbye to our neighbours before hitting the road.The trip to Newhaven went smoothly. A bit of spray on the motorway and a bit of fog as is usual for the UK at this time of the year, but little traffic given we opted to leave on a Thursday. We were on time for our ferry, check-in didn’t even bother looking at the pets passports so it was quick. On the other hand, waiting to board, especially at the Newhaven ferry port, is amongst the most boring parts of a trip to France; you sit in your car, in a small plot that barely fits 3 rows of vehicles surrounded by wire fence. The terminal building is next to the check-in at the far end of the lot, with facilities that’d send you straight back to the 70s if it wasn’t for the signs showing there’s CCTV. We could only walk poor Jazz between the cars, with no grass spot whatsoever. Anyway, we board the boat, and look for a comfy chair to spend the next few hours trying to sleep. Obviously, we’re keeping a stingy eye on the budget, so didn’t get a cabin for what is only a 5 hour long crossing. To make things a bit trickier, we both came back from our living do in Camden with a small cold. In my case this has gone worst by the day, so here I am with a dry cough and a migraine, trying to get some rest on an uncomfortable armchair with all lights on. That wasn’t exactly what I was wishing for when I said I wanted adventure.
So, at 4am we’re in Dieppe, more tired than when we entered the ferry, and waiting at the queue to cross the border. The Newhaven-Dieppe crossing is one of the cheapest, and amongst the quickest if your destination is in mid to south-west France, but it is probably the worst designed one. While in most ports you drive straight out of the ferry and into the motorway, In Dieppe you get out of the boat, and spend a good hour in the long queue of cars to get through passport control and out of the port. What a joy at 4 in the morning, when both your head and bladder feel like exploding and a cat is irritatingly and unstoppably meowing in the back.Passed the torture session, we drive a bit through the dark, foggy roads of Dieppe and stop at the first spot where there is a place to park and a bit of grass. I rush out of the car to quickly water the first tree I see and then we proceed to cater for the whole menagerie. Spending all these hours in the car wouldn’t be fun for anyone and it’s the first long trip for the cats. Jazz is as usual, he’s used to travel by now; he is trying to pull the lead a bit to explore the wider area, but overall, he behaves, does his job, and gently goes back to his cage. Mini-pouce and Maloya are going mad, they fear being somewhere new, they don’t like being on a leash, their eyes look like they’d taken speed before a party. They are petrified, trying to hide in the wheel arch, the bushes, going flat against the ground in the grass, or trying to climb the trees. After what feels like half an hour, they haven’t done anything, don’t want to drink or eat, so we give up and start rolling again.
Our planned stop is Fougères. We wouldn’t be using a dash in no-mad if we didn’t have our fair share of weird stories. One reason we picked that city as a stop is because a person from Laval I had carpooled with 3 years ago, hastily left London after a break-up a couple of years ago charging us to store some belongings in our garage which we’re supposed to finish returning to him on that occasion! He’s sent his parents instead which makes the whole thing feel even more surreal. We leave the old duvets and expired beauty products with them; there’s a bit more space in our boot and our garage now, and the whole thing is over.
There are obviously better reasons to pick Fougères as a stopover. One is that if you leave Dieppe just after 5am going south, you arrive there a bit before 9am which is perfect timing for breakfast on this new timezone, and not too harsh for my co-traveller to open her eyes. From a previous trip we’ve spotted the La Grange à Pains bakery, which on top of the great choice of baked goods and warm drinks allows us to sit inside with the dog. There’s nothing like freshly baked products to welcome you back in the continent, so it’s a pleasant place to regain some energy for the last lap of that day’s drive.Tn even better reason to stop at this particular city, and our original idea, was that this time we were planning to actually visit Fougères castle, which is one of the most important in Brittany despite not being very well known. Unfortunately, the weather is cold and rainy, my throat feels sore and my head boiling. So, with the cats being clearly unhappy in the boot, we decide yet again to postpone this visit, as we just drive by the impressive Castle to get a quick glimpse at the missed opportunity.
The rest of the drive and the days leading to Christmas are a blur. I spent most of the time in bed, sipping warm cuppas like a granny, my throat so sore that when I was able to speak Darth Vader had competition. That is a pity because La Baule is actually a beautiful little city, full of art nouveau holiday homes under wonderful pine trees, and blessed with a gorgeous bay and sandy beach. Even if winter is not the best season to enjoy the beach, it is still a great place to walk with the dog and enjoy the open horizon and sea breeze.For our time in the area one of the grandmothers had very kindly provided her little flat. This was for us to be able to stay somewhere with the 3 pets, but more importantly because she would be looking after the cats for the remainder of the trip. Indeed, cats are not usually fond of travelling, and finding accommodation while travelling with 3 pets is far from obvious, so we had opted to outsource our 2 little misses for the whole duration of the voyage. The fact that her grand mother loved cats was a clear bonus. So, during the week we stayed in the flat, the cats were getting used to their new lifestyle. No roaming freely in the parks anymore, the only outing was in the balcony, overlooking the pines from the 7th floor. The first couple of days they were clearly not reassured, but then slowly started coming out of the cupboards or other random hides they had discovered and started being playful again.
The whole trip was also designed so we could make the most of our respective families and catch-up with as many acquaintances as possible. Hence, we spent our first week on the go with Roxane’s family and catching up with friends in the area. The festive season is always a good time to get together as people tend to have more free time and there is food aplenty. In La Baule it tends to be particularly posh, with oysters, smoked salmon, foie gras and champagne being served on Christmas dinner as well as leftovers during the following days. We were spoiled.
In order to save as much as possible of my holiday allowance and test ourselves to see if working while being nomads is actually something we can live with, our plan was to work while crossing France. This meant that for the week after Christmas remote work should be business as usual but with the added complexity of travelling during some of the days.The first day of work is at La Baule, on familiar ground to ensure the internet connection is good, and that I can catch-up with any emails from my day-off on Friday and the long weekend that was shorter for some of my clients. The cats are settled, my throat is still an obstacle in articulating more than a few words in a row but I’m good for the rest, and at 6am sharp on the second day of work we say au revoir to the Atlantic seaside, en route to Poissy, near Paris. After a tad less than 4 hours driving, with all my passengers sleeping, we park the car opposite one of Roxane’s friends, and after the brief introduction, we keep the dog away from her cat, get the Wi-Fi key, and at 10am local time I’m all set to start working at what is my normal working time back in the UK. Roxane’s friend is an aesthetician, so they’ll be catching up while doing some work on these eyebrows during the morning. Before we know it, it’s 1pm, noon in the UK, and we’re out for a quick lunch at the nearby Ichiban Sushi, a huge step up from the usual cheap café I used to have my bland lunches back in London.
It’s a busy day, so despite the great company, we have to leave the sushi place and take the road again to the nearby city of Meulan, where we’ll spend the afternoon at another friend’s house. Same story here, Roxane gets to socialise while I try to focus on my emails and work. It’s great that the week between Christmas and the New Year is quiet in terms of work so I can get to chat too here and then. The sun has gone down, and we say our farewells to our friend as our final destination for the day is close to Fontainebleau, a bit more than an hour away with the traffic. We’re just in time for a lovely dinner at my aunt’s. Needless to say, I didn’t struggle to fall asleep that night.The next couple of days we stay at my aunt’s in the commune of Bois-le-Roi. Both my uncle and aunt are working remotely some of this time so it’s perfect to make the most of it. The internet connection is not the best, meaning I struggle a bit to upload a few 100MB of files, but overall work flows smoothly. The garden is huge, it’ a nice area to walk Jazz, and during the lunch break we even manage a short walk on the beautiful banks of the river Seine nearby. Some of the houses in the area are palatial, providing a glimpse of the cliché beauty of upper-class French.
Thus, we reach Friday afternoon and our departure for the next stage, closer to the East border of the country. I have prepared my handover as I won’t be working until we reach Greece now, and given it’s the last working day before the new year I’ve shut my laptop down in the early afternoon like my colleagues back in the office. We have at least a 3 hour drive ahead of us to reach Besançon where we will spend a few days visiting some more of my family, so it’s a good thing to be able to leave a bit earlier. We’re in the car just before the sunset with near freezing temperatures and very humid weather. As we drive away from the rural roads and enter the A6 motorway this leg looks more and more like a challenge. My initial fears for black ice give way to torrential rain, with huge traffic on a motorway that is almost entirely a work in progress. Leaving London on a Thursday before Christmas was a good plan, taking one of the main motorways leading away from Paris on the Friday before NYE was not. The traffic is flowing quickly, but the road looks more like a river, the markings amidst the roadworks are hardly discernible, the water reflects all lights, the visibility is horrendous, and everyone is tailgating. This is amongst the most stressful driving I can recall; I consider it a miracle we didn’t see any accident; we end up stopping for a break somewhere near Beaune. Stepping outside of the car in ankle deep water and coming back drenched feels like it wouldn’t have been worst just staying in the car and wetting myself instead.
We exit the A6 to follow our way through the A36 and things are getting a lot better, no more traffic and the rain is stopping… quickly replaced by light snow. At least visibility is better and the road is clear, so the rest of the trip is plain sailing and we’re happy to reach Besançon for a late dinner in a warm house.
The schedule for the next 3 days is tight. We pick-up my grand father and drive to Vesoul, to meet a few cousins and all together pay a visit to my grandmother at the nursing home. Her memory has gone from bad to worse for months now, so she barely remembers any of us. She looks very happy having all this unexpected company though and all excited to hear about our crazy trip, while my grandfather seems in heaven while holding her hand. It’s sweet and heart-breaking at the same time, and I’m really glad I get to see her once more. The rest of the day is just visits: aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews some of which were not even born last time we were around.On the 31st we go for a stroll in Besançon with my cousin and his family. The weather is sunny and freezing, while we wander near the riverbank and into the beautiful old town centre. Besançon is a historic city overlooked by the impressive Citadel on one side while the rest is surrounded by a tight meander of the Doubs river, providing natural fortification. Impressive additional manmade fortifications were designed, like the citadel itself, by Vauban, one of the most acclaimed military engineers. The historic centre presents a remarkable ensemble of classic stone buildings, some dating back to the Middle Ages and others to the Spanish Renaissance. Some roofs are covered with coloured tiles, like in Dijon, adding some more charm to the city.
We do test the Bagelstein for lunch, it’s a fancy newish place specialised in bagels; it looks quite fashionable and we’re having a good time, though in strict terms, as is usual with fancy chains there’s less substance than meets the eye in terms of food. On our way back, we grab a cone of churros from a street merchant that instantly puts London to shame in terms of value for money. We cross fingers that we’ll still have space left for the dinner.
And here comes the first scar of the trip! After some last minute shopping in the supermarket, I turn a bit sharply while driving-off the parking space, forgetting there is a low lying cement block I can’t see, on the ground, next to my car… the whole car jumps, the bang from inside is impressive, so I reverse and we come out to have a looks at the door panel and sill that now have a huge mark. My face must be red like a poppy. Oh well! once the initial horror is put aside, we realise the door still opens and closes, the car drives fine without any shaking at speed, so it looks like there’s no structural damage; we’ll have to live with it, and on the bright side, we definitely won’t look like posh tourists when travelling through mugging prone Italy.
We spend a few minutes fine-tuning our itinerary for the next day which is planned to lead us less than a day from Genoa. The Chambéry tunnel is closed, so we have to forget about spending the night in Lyon as we were hoping. Instead we book a hotel in Annemasse for the night, on the way to the Mont-Blanc tunnel which is the quickest route.New Year’s Eve is warm and heartfelt this year without being overtly extravagant, as we’re a small family gathering. Some fancy cooking, some local alcohol but we keep fairly quiet to ensure the baby upstairs doesn’t get disturbed in its sleep. The cake from the Baud patisserie that completes the occasion didn’t come cheap, but gosh, did it worth every single penny spent on it! We’re stuffed, happy, and off to bed just after midnight.
It’s our last full day in France, therefore we’re loading again. With most of the gifts gone, and 2 cats and their paraphernalia back in the west coast, there is a bit more space in the boot now. We are re-arranging so we can lift the back sits back up and pull the cargo area cover to hide what’s in it. Jazz’s cage goes on the back sit now, a lot closer to help him feel less isolated on long stretches, so we pray he doesn’t start farting. It’s goodbye time again, kisses on both cheeks à la française, a 2-year-old waving at a startled dog who wonders what’s next.
We’re heading for our last family visit in the countryside somewhere between Dole and Lons-le-Saunier. The strikes in France during the holiday period had impacted fuel supplies, add to this the parking incident the previous day and we hadn’t managed refuelling since somewhere around Paris. It’s the 1st of January, and things haven’t improved; on the contrary every single station seems closed on the rural roads when the low fuel light starts blinking. Luckily, we find some super-market fuel station in some random village that has a 24/7 pump we can use with a credit card so we’re able to continue with less stress.
We’re welcomed with open arms by a group of people that barely had a couple of hours sleep. It appears they are all members of my wider family; the champagne flows, leftovers of foie gras are served alongside some Romanian specialties and I start worrying if I’ll fit in my clothes by the time we reach Greece. Our hotel was booked, and we can’t cancel it anymore, so despite the kind offer to stay for the night, we leave after dinner for a couple hours of night driving towards the Alps.It’s almost midnight by the time we reach our destination in Annemasse. We chose the most budget option for this stopover, and the Hotel Première Classe we booked looks every bit the opposite of what its name suggests. It’s literary a bland prefabricated block in the industrial zone, that couldn’t look more like a punitive establishment if they had tried, surrounded by a wire fenced parking on all sides. Despite its austere looks and a feeling of travelling back to the 90s, the room is clean and warm, and there’s plenty of space for our suitcases and the dog’s bed. The WC cubicle is typical of French budget hotels, plasticky and a tad noisy, but everything works as it should and there are no leaks. We go for a round of the parking lot with Jazz, and exhausted by our hectic schedule so far, we’re fast asleep in anticipation of the new ground we’ll start breaking tomorrow.