And now for the final part in my increasingly inaccurate trilogy of five (say, that’s catchy!), the final leg of our fellowship’s journey took us through the mountain staircase of Cirith Ungol, and into Mordor… Nope, hang on, not that one, that was last year. France. We went through France.
Since we’d spent more time than planned in Switzerland, and in any case we’ve all been to France many times before, we ploughed through most of the country at lightning pace. Despite that, the first night in France’s campsite proved to be… a challenge.
Despite multiple phonecalls, the camp site we had decided on just wasn’t responding. We decided to gamble, and make for it anyway, reasoning that in that part of France, there were plenty of campsites around, and it wouldn’t be difficult to find another if it turned out to be full.
We probably shouldn’t have made that gamble.
For various mountain-roads-related reasons, we didn’t end up getting to the camp site until around 9pm. At which point it turned out to be full, at which point we needed to find another camp site. And fast, because it was starting to go dark.
We made for a nearby campsite listed on Google Maps, but when that turned out to be little more than a gravel car park next to a public hole-in-the-ground outhouse, we decided that camping there simply wasn’t viable. The solution? Basically, camp in a truck stop.
See, in France, Italy and a handful of other countries, they have what are known as aires; service stations with basic facilities for campervans to stay for the night. But these sites aren’t really designed for pitching a tent, so we were lucky to find one with a scrap of grass suitably well hidden behind the van. At least these guys had proper toilets, running water and showers – I even managed to plug in my phone for a few hours while I ate a €7 boxed salad.
Back on the road, and thankfully free of the noise of crickets (!), our destination for the day was Château de Fontainebleau, just southeast of Paris. Now, not to demonstrate my ignorance, but I’d never heard of Fontainebleau before we got there. Finding out that it was the palace that Napoleon abdicated in, by reading the plaque in the actual room where he signed the papers, was quite a nice surprise.
As ever, French palaces are so much more elaborate and over the top than any other palace I’ve been in in any other country. There’s something about the absurd amount of riches so gaudily on display that it’s hardly a surprise that the French people decided to snick off the lot of their aristocrats’ heads. Can you imagine being one of the revolutionaries walking through those rooms for the first time? There’s not a single sight in the world more likely to convince you that what you’re doing is just.
And hey, as ever, I’m a sucker for a gift shop full of tat.
From there, we had about an hour to eat before moving on. Unfortunately, cafés and restaurants in France like to close (or at least stop serving food for a few hours) in the late afternoon before re-opening for evening meals. Which just so happened to be when we needed to eat. Cheers, France! That’s a stop at the Carrefour, then!
At least the camp site for the second night in France was quite nice again. Actual toilets, actual showers, actual electricity hookups, and an owner who apparently didn’t notice four of us in the van, so as we later found out only actually charged for two of us. Which was nice.
Tents up, plugs in, showers had, bowels voided, mead drunk. Early bed, early up, and early ferry.
Or, what should have been an early ferry. Thanks to the new border security checks taking forever (despite apparently only checking our passports and nothing else), we ended up waiting over an hour, and missing our ferry as a result. And we were stuck behind this bonkernaut;
It’s worth noting that that level of junk-strapped-to-the-car continued around the sides and the front of the car too. I’m frankly astonished they made it through the border checks without having every inch of the car checked over.
Actually, I’m not entirely sure why the border checks took as long as they did. Admittedly as a van full of four white British people, we’re likely getting through the UK border checks pretty swiftly compared to say, a dark-skinned family from the middle east (not to imply that the current British regime’s immigration and border policies are racist, but, you know, they are). Even so, if this is the kind of ballache the Daily Mail want when anyone attempts to enter or leave the country, they can piss off even harder than they already should.
Eventually the ferry arrived. We grabbed a beer, sat out on the deck, and waited for the floating building to carry us back to Blighty (which, as I discovered, is actually an Indian loanword). Just one brief stop in Oxford to visit a friend, and it’s back to sunny Manchester.
Returning from a journey like this can only ever be mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s back to life as normal, without the thrill of adventure or new places to explore. On the other, it’s a return to home comforts; a soft(ish) bed, hot and cold running water, showers, a full kitchen, friends and family.
I find myself wondering whether, for all that “travel broadens the mind” is true, perhaps the break from everything you know makes you appreciate the things already around you that little bit more.
Still, I can’t wait to do it all over again.