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A Winter Motorhome Journey 2011 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

A WINTER MOTORHOME JOURNEY

NOVEMBER 2011

Margaret and Barry Williamson
November 2011

Introduction

After returning from a Scandinavian summer in mid-October, we put the Sprinter van + caravan to a well-earned rest in storage. The Flair awaited us in Cheltenham, fully prepared and serviced by Motorhome Medics ready for a winter's journey, complete with new gas heater. We left Briarfields Touring Park on 1st November, aiming for Dover and a ferry, with no further plan except to head South!

Related Links:

Summer in Norway 2011     Images of Travel in Norway

Summer in Sweden 2011     Images of Travel in Sweden

Travel Notes Scandinavia    Return to the UK from Sweden

Motorhome Medics in Cheltenham    Briarfields Campsite in Cheltenham

Ferry Port Car Park, Dunkirk, France     203 miles     Sea level!

Leaving Cheltenham early in the Flair motorhome (8 am is early for us), we joined the M4 at Swindon, then the eastbound M25. A massive hold-up on the M25 near J8, miles and miles of stationary vehicles, was due to a diesel spill from a lorry causing work to resurface the damaged tarmac! Luckily, it was on the westbound carriageway and traffic was flowing smoothly on our side, though we pitied those waiting for hours.

At 183 miles we stopped at the last motorway services before Dover – a huge empty echoing place, many of its retail outlets closed. It claims to be an 'Early Port Arrivals Waiting Area' but has the usual 2-hour limit on free parking! We ate our lunch and browsed the shops, passing time as we were indeed early for our DFDS/Norfolk Line ferry, Dover-Dunkirk, leaving at 6 pm. (Book on-line in advance for lowest fares (which vary with time of day), but be certain of your date. Our 8 metre motorhome + 2 adults cost a bargain £33, though any later amendment to date/time would cost £25 plus any difference in fare, and the ticket is non-refundable in case of cancellation.)

Arriving in Dover, the slow route through town to the ferry at Eastern Docks was well signed. We checked in, 200 miles since breakfast, and waited in line – the only motorhome or caravan among the cars, many of them French returning from a long weekend break, All Saints Day being a French holiday. The 2 hr 15 min crossing was smooth enough to enjoy a meal (Fish & Chips and Lamb Casserole) before arrival at 8.15 pm – or rather 9.15 pm in France.

Dunkirk's ferry port has a large free car park (maximum stay 2 weeks!), ideal for the night before or after crossing, where we slept well.

Bus/Motorhome Aire, Wissant, France     34 miles     Free parking    

Rather than driving east from Loon-Plage towards Dunkirk, we turned west on N1 to Gravelines. Avoiding the centre, we skirted south of the town to Gravelines Marina (8 miles from Dunkirk ferry), where there is space to park freely overlooking the moorings. A footbridge crosses the sluice gates to a Lidl store, which had to be investigated before lunch. Prices were good, especially for anything alcoholic or the week's special offers (chicken breasts and an excellent Quiche tart).

Continuing west through Oye-Plage, the sun broke through after a misty morning. At 17 miles we joined the (toll-free) A16 near Marck at J49 in order to bypass Calais, exiting after 8 miles at J41. We rejoined the D940 coast road 3 miles later at Sangatte, then kept south-west along the Cote d'Opale, climbing to 370 ft near Cap Blanc Nez. We would have stopped to climb the path up to the Cap Blanc Nez monument and look out over the Channel but, annoyingly, the only car park for the footpath had a height barrier and our road was too narrow to stop elsewhere.

The road dropped sharply to 180 ft, then wound through rolling green fields of white Charollais cattle. Just before the little seaside resort of Wissant we spotted a large free car park for motorhomes and buses on the right, and so joined the few French and Belgian camping cars in residence. This Aire had a ground level dump point but no water or bins.

It was a short walk into Wissant, which had several seafood restaurants and traditional hotels (the oldest being next to a Watermill Museum). Above the beach we scrambled up the sand dunes and found concrete evidence of WW2 fortifications – lookouts and gun emplacements. The view up there was superb, with Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Gris Nez prominent on either side of the Baie de Wissant and the faint smudge of our White Cliffs visible across the Channel. This area of Pas-de-Calais is called La Terre des 2 Caps.

Back in the motorhome, we cooked a pizza and pored over the French road atlas. Sadly, we could no longer tune in to BBC Radio 4 (an addiction whilst in England) – only Radio 5 Live, which is no substitute!

Camping Chateau des Tilleuls (= Linden Trees), Port le Grand, Abbeville, Picardie, France     67 miles     €11 (with ACSI Card discount)     Free WiFi in TV Room     Open 1/3 - 30/12     www.chateaudestilleuls.com      

A rainy morning as we continued south along the coast on D940, past a too-narrow turning for Cap Gris Nez after 6 miles. There was a WW2 Museum in Audinghen, another at Ambleteuse. At Wimereux we turned east to join the A16 at 12 miles, to bypass Boulogne, exiting 4 miles later at J29 (beyond which motorway tolls apply). We had a good view of the port as we dropped from 490 ft to sea level, before continuing south on D940 towards Le Touquet.

At 32 miles, just before Etaples, we parked in front of its huge Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery on the Canche estuary, not far from the Somme battlefields. On a sobering walk round France's largest CWGC site, we learnt that around12,000 young meen are buried here - 11,500 of them casualties (what a weasel word) of the First World War, the remainder from WW2. The rows of neat white headstones include those of staff and patients (some of the latter German) from the large WW1 field hospital at nearby Etaples. Nurses from Scotland and Canada lie alongside a YMCA Vicar; the dead are of all faiths – Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh – and from every corner of the British Empire.

Etaples was also the site of a First World War British army training camp (dubbed 'Eat Apples' by the inmates) and so a target for German bombardment. The sea, and beyond a distant glimpse of the white edge of England, lie tantalisingly near yet always too far for these souls. But now they are at peace, commemorated by Lutyens' overpowering sense of reverence translated into stone, the shattering sound of the guns, bombs and mines replaced by the sweet song of birds. We left the site in tears – and with thoughts of Sebastian Faulkes' book 'Birdsong', set in the Great War trenches of France.

We didn't turn off the D940 for Le Touquet but continued south down the Cote d'Opale past Berck. At 49 miles we crossed the border into the next Region: Picardie, Department of the Somme. We wanted to explore the Somme estuary – the Marquenterre, with its nature reserves and bird sanctuary – but the weather had turned dismal so we turned inland at 62 miles on the D40 towards Abbeville. Five miles along at Port le Grand (a small port on the Somme Canal) there is a vast campsite on the left, on a steep wooded hillside.

The site is being restored by its welcoming young owners, who have been there for 3 years. Each pitch now has its own tap, grey water drain and 10 amp hook-up, and there is a communal TV room with free WiFi next to Reception. The downside is the long steep hill to be climbed between Reception, the (as yet unreformed) ablutions and the actual pitches. It was very peaceful, though, set among ancient woodland - except when the bulldozers were working to clear more space for cabins.

We stayed here for 3 days, hoping for the weather to improve and lure us out to cycle along the canal into Abbeville or back to the coast, or to move the motorhome to the Aire at St Valery sur Somme to explore the Marquenterre. See www.baiedesomme.fr. Sadly, it grew colder and damper and we postponed these ideas for a better time of year. We did catch up with emails, carrying the laptop down to the TV room, and we also used the laundry.

Watching TV, the news was bad (though good French practice). The final(?) act of the Greek Tragedy was being played out, with Papandreou accepting terms from the EU, then procrastinating by demanding a referendum, then resigning so that a new coalition government could take over. Did he look exhausted. The French reporting showed President Sarkozy (Sarko to his friends) single-handedly trying to save the Euro! Well, it certainly wasn't David Cameron, but Frau Merkel might have something to do with it.

The French weather reports were equally alarming, with torrential rain, floods and a tornado in south-east France. Messages from our motorhoming mate, Dan, described sitting out the same storms on the Italian coast near Genoa, where he will take ship to Sicily once the Mediterranean's anger abates. Perhaps we shouldn't complain about a few wet days here in Picardy!

Camping Municipal du Mail, Soissons, Picardie, France     103 miles     €13          Free WiFi     Open all year     www.ville-soissons.fr 

Continuing along D40 from Port le Grand, we shopped at a large Dia supermarket (excellent buttery croissants) and got a fill of petrol at €1.47, the cheapest we were to see in France. After 8 miles we were through Abbeville, taking the N1 (or D1001 with the French renumbering) southeast along the valley of the Somme, rather than the toll motorway A1. By noon it was 12ΊC, misty and still.

At 30 miles we took the free motorway loop for 8 miles round Amiens, to exit 34, then D934 southeast. Along the arrow-straight road we passed 'Bouchoir New', a small CWG cemetery from WW1 – just a few of the millions killed, but each one somebody's loved one. At 61 miles D934 circled clockwise to avoid the centre of Roye, then continued southeast past the Roye WW1 cemetery, its rows of white headstones shining in the drizzle, with a backdrop of dark muddy fields.

Noyon, at 76 miles, is a busy cathedral city of traffic and museums. Skirting  it, we crossed the Canal du Nord at Pont d'Eveque, keeping to the (now narrower) D934. After squeezing through Blerancourt, 10 miles later, the road became D6 for Soissons.

The excellent municipal campsite is on the south side of the Aisne River, next to the sports centre and swimming baths, just a mile west of the centre of Soissons. It's well signed – but don't try to drive over the nearby footbridge, as our TomTom SatNav advised us to do! Although we arrived at the camp during siesta (noon - 3 pm), the helpful gardeners opened the barrier, indicated the pitches reserved for motorhomes and supplied the entry code for the heated Sanitaires. Later the Warden gave us a password for free (and reliable) WiFi, and the timetable for free swimming sessions at the adjacent baths.

What more can one ask?

At Soissons, Camping Municipal

We lingered at Soissons waiting for post from England, which took exactly one week to arrive (air mail!) Still, it was a good place to be, if only the weather had been kinder. Making full use of the internet and Voipwise, we gathered quotes for motorhome insurance (eventually renewing with Safeguard), sent emails and kept up to date with the news via BBC Radio 4.

It was a level 2-km walk or cycle ride along the Avenue du Mail (or on the parallel riverside path) into town. A large travelling funfair sprawled along the way, the showmen's vans parked by the river bank, their ponies tethered under the trees. The fair came to life in the afternoons and evenings, with some amazing rides. Watching the screaming teenagers high in the sky was quite enough for us. We did learn that Barbe ΰ Papa (Father's Beard) is Candy Floss – in a variety of garish colours!

On Wednesday and Saturday mornings the central square, Place Fernand Marquigny,  was thronged with market stalls offering everything from live chickens to shoe laces, along with every type of fruit and veg (excellent produce, though not cheap). Fresh meat (including horse), wines and cheeses were sold in the indoor market hall, which hosted cookery demonstrations during a Salon Culinaire event on the Saturday we visited – though we managed to miss all the free samples!

The local delicacy of dried white beans, supposedly the best in France, is celebrated in song with the chorus:

Ah! qu'ils sont bons, qu'ils sont bons,   (Oh! How good they are, how good they are,)
Tout  le monde les aime!                       (Everyone loves them! )          
Ah! qu'ils sont bons, qu'ils sont bons,  (Oh! How good they are, how good they are,)
Les Haricots de Soissons.                     (The Haricots of Soissons.)

One story goes that during the Hundred Years War (actually 1337-1453) a terrible plague ravaged the countryside. The people of Soissons who survived the epidemic fled, carrying their harvest but dropping some seeds as they went. On their return, they found a field of excellent beans, thanks to the humidity of the canal slopes, and the bumper crop fed the whole population. Another version attributes the enormous local beans to an 18th century gardener at the Abbaye St-Leger in Soissons. Whatever their history, the beans are sold here in pretty bags like sweets, and the Tourist Office by Place Fernand Marquigny has a free booklet with some recipes. You can also get a good free city map, as well as leaflets with a 2-hour walking tour and information about the local museums.

Fernand Marquigny, Mayor of Soissons from 1919 to 1942, inherited a medieval city that had been 80% destroyed in the First World War. He organised the reconstruction of the centre, with an eponymous new square in the shadow of the massive Gothic Cathedral to the west. The north and south sides of the square are lined with Art Deco buildings (1920-30). On the eastern side, behind St Pierre church (a remnant of the 7thC convent of Notre Dame de Soissons), stands the British Monument erected in 1923 and restored last year by the CWGC. The French War Memorial, crafted by a famous local sculptor, at the centre of the square was completed in 1926.

We joined the people of Soissons in their remembrance service in the square on the dry crisp morning of 11 November (Armistice Day – a national holiday in France). Interestingly, there was no religious element to the formal proceedings. The present Mayor lit the flame of remembrance at the French Memorial (with an escort from the Fire Brigade!), local dignitaries laid flowers, the Anciens Combattants  stood to attention with their flags while a message from President Sarkozy was read, and the assembled school children sang the Marseillaise, accompanied by a Police band - a chance for all to join in.

Then, to our surprise, we were all marched round to the British Monument for a more emotional ceremony. A senior schoolgirl read a French translation of John McCrae's poem 'In Flanders Field'. An official from the CWGC presented a medal to the city and the Mayor thanked him for the Commission's work. A lone British Army Warrant Officer spoke the traditional words 'They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we shall remember them' as he laid his wreath of poppies, with a smart salute. Finally, the mixed infants (led by their English teacher) waved Union Jacks and made a brave attempt at 'God Save the Queen' in English! We were actually moved!

Coincidentally, we were standing next to the English teacher's 82-year-old French mother, who told us her first husband had been a British soldier. Most of the assembly then followed the band to the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) for a champagne reception, while we returned to camp to thaw out over Oxtail Soup.

The city has a long history. Its Roman theatre (1st/2nd C AD) was among the largest in Roman Gaul. The 8th century Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, named his sister as Abbess at Notre Dame, where his daughter became a Nun. A plaque records that Joan of Arc stayed in the town in 1430. The neo-classical Hotel de Ville and its gardens were once the18thC residence of the King's representative, on the site of the castle of the Counts of Soissons. The monastic cloisters of the medieval Abbey of St Leger now house a museum and library, while the Romanesque Abbey of St Jean des Vignes, founded in 1076, is an archaeology centre.

Too much for one tour, but we did visit the central Gothic Cathedral of St Gervais and St Protais (dating from 1175). We were impressed by the huge scale of its interior, the fact that no 'donation' was demanded, and by its art treasures, including a Rubens (the Shepherds Adoration). Our favourite site in the city was a simple cafe in the lanes behind the Cathedral, which served mugs of coffee with cakes from 2-6 pm at the bargain price of €2.50 per person.

Margaret also enjoyed the enormous swimming pool (warm water, friendly staff, hot showers, free admission for campers), right next to the campsite.

When our mail finally arrived we were almost sorry to leave Soissons and will certainly return at a warmer time of year, to explore and cycle the area. 

Camping La Noue des Rois, St Hilaire sous Romilly, Romilly sur Seine, Champagne-Ardenne, France     84 miles     230 ft asl     €13 (with ACSI Card discount)     Open all year     www.lanouedesrois.com

After finding our way round the centre of Soissons (a confusion of roundabouts, 3.5 ton limits and low bridges – no thanks to the TomTom), we drove south on D1 for 30 miles to Chateau-Thierry on the River Marne. There were signs for both American and German military cemeteries from WW2. Taking the outer ring road to the west of the town, we parked at 34 miles at a large shopping mall with Lidl and other supermarkets, etc, for lunch. A mile later our road D1 continued south.
At 45 miles we turned east on D933 for 4 miles to Montmirail, then D373 southeast to meet N4 at 62 miles near Sezanne.

D951 took us down to Barbonne-Fayel at 70 miles, from where D50 headed south, crossing the River Seine 7 miles later at Marcilly sur Seine. Continuing to the larger town of Romilly sur Seine, we then turned west (direction Paris) on N19 (or D619), watching for the signed right turn at 82 miles for our camping.

Narrow lanes threaded between small lakes for an unlikely 2 miles to a large campsite tucked away in the forest by a fishing lake. Mostly permanent mobile homes, with a few touring pitches, it has extensive sports facilities and a pool (all closed in winter). We were disappointed that there was no TV signal (too many trees) and no internet (probably next year, for an extra charge).

Next day we used the laundry and wrapped up for a brisk walk around the lake, which was busy with geese and ducks. Mistletoe, thick with berries, hung from the trees. At least the cosy bar/restaurant (Creperie) was open weekends and we finished the day with surprisingly good Galettes (thick savoury pancakes) by a blazing log fire.

Camping de l'Arquebuse, Auxonne, Burgundy, France     144 miles     625 ft asl     €17 (ACSI Card discount not applicable in winter!)     WiFi €6 for 24 hrs     Open all year     www.campingarquebuse.com

Driving east on N19, we stopped after 5 miles at Aldi (there was also a Lidl further on, after passing Romilly sur Seine). It was cold and misty as we continued to Troyes, skirting west of the city centre. At 35 miles we took N71/D671 for Dijon, rather than the A5 toll motorway.

Our route followed the valley of the Seine, southeast: the Route Champagne with vineyards clothing the slopes on the east bank. In Bar sur Seine at 48 miles we spotted our first Santa Claus hanging from a balcony on a rope ladder – as traditionally sold in Leclerc's! The road frequently crossed the narrow and winding Seine, rising gradually from 230 ft to 680 ft at Chatillon sur Seine, where we paused for lunch after 68 miles in a rest area before the town.

Crossing the river once more, keeping south on N71, we climbed to 1,500 ft/454 m at Courceau, near the source of the Seine. At 101 miles (and 1,660 ft/503 m) a lane on our right was signed to the Source, only 2 km away but too narrow to risk. Four miles later we reached 1,800 ft/545 m at the watershed before descending to Ste Seine l'Abbaye.

Approaching Dijon at 121 miles, we kept north of the centre before taking motorway A39 southeast - free as far as exit 3 at 130 miles. Staying on the toll road a further 10 miles to exit 5 for Auxonne cost just €3.80 and avoided the town of Genlis.

After 3 miles, just before the bridge across the Saone at the entrance to Auxonne, a left turn is signed for the campsite on the west bank of the river. We arrived at 5 pm, just as darkness fell and Reception was closed, though a man emerged from the site bar to check us in and supply the WiFi code (€2 for 2 hrs, €4 for 8 hrs, €6 for 24 hrs – with facility to log on and off at will).

By the time we saw the appalling facilities, the warden had disappeared. The ACSI Card price of €13 only applied from 1/5-15/6 and 13/9-30/9 but the extra charge in winter certainly wasn't for heating (or cleaning or hot water) in the Sanitaires. The Ladies WC/shower was closed and the Gents (which women were expected to share) had 2 disgusting toilets (one of them a 'squatter'), a row of unscreened urinals and an open trough-sink. The showers were tepid and stank of tobacco and bad drains. The outdoor washing up area had no water, the disposal point was closed and the whole thing extremely sordid. And this on an Alan Rogers listed site!! Small wonder that we were the only campers – one night would be enough.

However, the motorhome was less keen to go! Next morning, due to auto-electrical problems, we were grounded. After phoning AA Breakdown in Paris (to no avail) and our old friends Motorhome Medics in Cheltenham (for advice and sympathy), Barry managed a temporary repair, by which time it was too late to hit the road.

Complaints about the state of the campsite were ignored in Reception, despite Margaret shouting in her best French. All we could do was send our comments to ACSI – and never return. This is our worst French campsite experience in many years, in terms of facilities and staff, despite being on a large level plot conveniently near river and town. We suspect it was formerly a municipal site, now in uncaring and greedy hands.

Later we took a walk over the bridge and around Auxonne, capital of the Dukes of Burgundy, in the Saone Valley's Cote d'Or (neither coastal nor golden?) We didn't like the town, though our view may have been coloured by the campsite, the motorhome problem and the bitter cold of late afternoon!

Auxonne has a long military history, fortified in the 17th century by Vauban, with forbidding remains of the fortress, arsenal and barracks in what was a walled frontier town. Napoleon studied at the Artillery School from 1788-91and his statue stands outside Notre-Dame church in the Place d'Armes. The Gothic church dates back to the 13th C but was under restoration and hidden behind scaffolding. The Bonaparte Museum, in a tower of the fort, is only open from May to the end of September. There was little else to detain us – not even an inviting cafe.

DECEMBER 2011

TO GERMANY

Camping Lug ins Land, Bamlach, Bad Bellingen, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany     147 miles     1,000 ft asl     €15 (with ACSI Card discount) + €1.25 pp local tax     4 kWh electricity per day included, then €0.60 per kWh     WiFi €3 per day or €10 per week     Open all year     www.camping-luginsland.de

Returning 4 miles from Auxonne to the A39 toll motorway at Soirons, we drove southeast for 8 miles to its junction with A36. The weather was better, sunny and bright, and the motorhome was running well, once started. However, it needed professional attention and we decided to head for Germany, where Vorsprung durch Technik would be preferable to laissez faire (translated in Australia as She'll be right, mate, no worries). So we turned northeast on A36 (another Pιage) to avoid the interruption of roundabouts, traffic lights and cities on the alternative N73. It was strange to be going north!

Climbing gradually along the southern edge of the Vosges, we passed Besancon at 43 miles, reaching 1,500 ft/455 m at Baume-les-Dames 20 miles later. At 80 miles the first toll cost €26.10 (credit card or cash), followed by a free section of the A36 past Montbeliard, then another toll of €6.10 after Belfort at 106 miles (1,200 ft/364 m).

Entering Alsace at 109 miles and 1,280 ft/388 m, we realised we had crossed the watershed of rivers bound for either the North Sea or the Mediterranean – and wondered which way we would be flowing! The A36 was toll-free for the final 16 miles to the German border, past many exits for Mulhouse: Citι du Train, Centre Historique, Zoo.

Crossing the Rhine, we entered toll-free Germany at 134 miles and turned south on A5 (direction Basel), bound for a good campsite from which to research repair garages. There is also a free French motorway A35, from Mulhouse directly to Basle.

After 8 German miles, past Bad Bellingen services, we took exit 67 and turned north along the Badische Weinstrasse. Do not take the first right turn for Bamlach (under a low railway bridge!) but wait for the turn indicated for camping (under a loftier bridge) and follow the signs through Bamlach village to the large 'Camping Park and Spa' of Lug ins Land. The name translates as 'Gaze on the Land' and there is certainly a good view over the Rhine, 200 ft below.

This region of the Upper Rhine enjoys Germany's driest, mildest and sunniest climate (and its best wines), thanks to southwesterly winds. Though hardly warm at the beginning of December, we were assured that snow is rare. The area is also known as the Dreilδndereck or 'Three Countries Corner' – Germany, France and Switzerland.

The campsite spreads up a terraced hillside, with separate sections for statics and tourers. It has modern indoor heated facilities, with good laundry and kitchen. The cafe, shop, hairdresser and pool were closed off-season, though the restaurant was open, as was the on-site Health and Spa Center. The only negative was metered electricity, though it only cost us an extra €1 per day (after the free allowance), as we used LPG for heating.

An internet search had found an American RV specialist (ICF US Motorhomes) in Emmendingen, north of Freiburg, which looked promising – until we rang and spoke to a man who could not have been less helpful, claiming they were 'fully booked' for the next month. After phoning a few more garages we discovered Bosch Auto-electric Specialists, Lais & Stefi, 10 miles away in Mόllheim, who were exactly the opposite and agreed to see what could be done as soon as we drove round.

Next morning we had the full attention of Stefi himself, as he did a thoroughly professional job and restored our confidence in the Flair. We celebrated on the way back, stocking up with Christmas goodies at a 'Penny Markt' supermarket (much better than stores of that name in Hungary) and dining at McDonalds (much better burgers than their usual). German quality is to be admired (or else!)

Back at the campsite we pored over the maps and the internet, trying to decide our onward route, since we had now strayed from a possible course through France and Italy towards Sicily. Investigating ferries, we came across an 'All Inclusive Camping' deal on Minoan Lines Ancona-Patras crossing. The fates or Sirens were luring us back to Greece (hopefully not onto the rocks!) and we duly succumbed.

The ticket was booked (by phone to the Ancona office – note that this Camper Special is not advertised or available on-line at www.minoan.gr during the winter months). The deal entitles motorhomers or caravanners to a free 2-berth inside en-suite cabin, one free meal voucher per person, and garage space for the camper/caravan with electric hook-up for the fridge - all for the normal price of the vehicle (according to length) plus a deck ticket for each passenger! Minoan Lines are now part of the Italian Grimaldi Group and this offer seriously undercuts the merged Superfast/ANEK line (the only alternative Ancona/Patras ferry). The deal is not available on Minoan Lines Venice-Patras boats, which offer Camping on Board (in your vehicle) from 1 April to 31 October only.

TO SWITZERLAND

Coldrerio Services, Chiasso, Switzerland     184 miles     1,045 ft asl     Free parking

Descending for 5 miles to the A5, we headed south alongside the Rhine for a further 7 miles to the Swiss frontier. Vehicles up to 3.5 tons need an annual Vignette for Swiss motorways (cost 40 Swiss Francs = approx €32), bought from German motorway services or at the border. If towing a caravan, 2 Vignettes are required!

Being over the weight limit, our Flair needs a Heavy Goods Permit, valid for 12 months and available only at the border, the minimum being for 10 days at a price of 32.50 Sw Fr. This is something of a bargain, as motorways include the St Gotthard Tunnel through the Alps. Also, as we still had a Permit bought when returning from Greece last April, with only 2 days marked out of 16 possible, we did not have to buy another and went straight through Customs with a wave of the chitty.

The familiar A2 motorway took us through busy underpasses in Basel and on towards Luzern. We climbed to 2,000 ft/600 m on entering the Belchen tunnel at 34 miles, then passed Luzern via a series of tunnels and road works before the 9.5 km/6 mile- long Seelisberg Tunnel at 65 miles. We were impressed that the new TomTom SatNav named all the tunnels and galleries.

At 82 miles we passed the exit for Altdorf village (William Tell's birthplace, with a small all-year campsite) and continued south on A2, climbing steadily now up the Alpine cleft towards the St Gotthard Tunnel (the road over the Pass being long closed by snow). The morning was bright and sunny, with much less snow than expected on our first glimpse of the peaks. This being Sunday, with no trucks allowed on Swiss roads, it was our quietest transit ever.

About 100 miles since the German border, we entered the longest road tunnel through the Alps (17 km, or over 10 miles, exceeding the Frejus or Mont Blanc Tunnels) at a height of 3,720 ft/1127 m, leaving it at 3,325 ft/1008 m. There were no delays or hold-ups, though it's always a relief to see daylight at the end of the narrow 2-lane tunnel. The weather was very different on the Italian-speaking side of the mountains, dull and drizzling, with light snow on the fields. We stopped for lunch at the next services, San Gotthardo Sud, before continuing down A2 and past Bellinzona.

It was 3 pm by the time we reached Coldrerio, the last service station before the Italian border, where it was warmer (17ΊC) and sunny, down near Lake Como. We filled with petrol (costing less than in Germany or Italy, at €1.50/litre - though diesel is more) and parked overnight in a quiet corner of the spacious parking area, quite separate from the truckstop. There is still no charge here, though some Swiss motorway services now apply a fee of up to €15 for staying between 7 pm and 5 am – a practice we had thought unique to Britain – so check before settling down!

The shop at the services is largely devoted to selling Swiss souvenirs and chocolate at inflated prices to tourists, passing through by the coach-load. It also has a currency exchange booth (which the border post does not).

TO ITALY

Castel San Pietro Terme Services, Italy     184 miles     Free parking

Just 3 miles to the Italian border at Chiasso and straight onto motorway A9, south past Como. We noticed that it is now compulsory to use dipped headlights on Italian motorways during the day (as in several European countries, though not yet France, Germany or Switzerland).

Autostrada tolls are less expensive than in France and well worth paying, to avoid the chaos around the average Italian town. Our first toll, 6 miles after the border, cost €2. The next, 17 miles later on joining the A50 Milan ring road, was €2.70. After a further 18 miles we turned southeast on A1 for Bologna, taking a toll ticket which lasted all the way to Ancona the following day, where we paid €26.20 at the exit.

Taking a break at 52 miles in the Shell service station near Lodi, a height barrier blocked access to any fuel (except the truckstop diesel). We managed to reverse from the exit to the LPG pump, intending to top up the domestic gas tank, until Signore Lugubrio marched over to forbid it, chanting the mantra 'Camper No' until we gave up the futile argument. Perhaps this is a Shell policy, as happens in Spain.

Continuing along A1 Autostrada del Sole we tried the next services, Esso, 18 miles later. Here the height barrier was more generous (4 metres) and the attendant willingly helped us top up the LPG. After another 7 miles we crossed the wide River Po near Piacenza, as the sun broke through the morning mist.

We stopped for lunch at Modena Nord, though the services on this side were smaller, more crowded and lacking a Burger King, compared with those on the northbound side (where we've sometimes spent the night). 

At 159 miles we took the Bologna Ring onto A14, the Autostrada Adriatica for Ancona. If the Milan Tangenziale had seemed quieter than usual for a Monday morning, the Bologna Ring was almost empty. We remembered previous circuits of these ring roads, at crawling pace in traffic jams! The price of fuel and/or the severe recession is certainly having an effect here.

The service station at Castel San Pietro Terme is huge, with plenty of free parking space. The usual Autogrill shop/cafe was desperate to sell gift packs of pasta, oil, rice, wine, Xmas chocs, etc at half price (though still too much!) We spent a quiet evening here, dining at home (Fray Bentos steak pie, carrots and cauliflower, followed by rice pudding), then watching an excellent DVD film 'Enemy at the Gate', set at the siege of Stalingrad with Bob Hoskins playing Kruschev.

Minoan Lines 'Cruise Olympia' Ferry, Ancona     119 miles     'Camper Special' Cabin

Continuing along A14 to Ancona, the morning was colder, misty and still. Traffic remained noticeably lighter than on previous Italian journeys - mainly trucks and commercial vehicles with not a single motorhome or caravan to be seen (not even parked on the services for the last 2 nights).

Before reaching Rimini, road works reduced the motorway to 2 lanes in each direction (and sometimes only one), with no overtaking for lorries. This continued, with no indication of how long it would last, for miles and miles and, in fact, as far as (and beyond) our exit for Ancona. The first sign we saw promised completion by January 2014, the next notice amending it to February 2014! The lanes were narrow, the trucks impatient, turning a straightforward run into a test of skill. We shall be avoiding this route for at least the next 2 years.

After a lunch break at 107 miles in the Ancona services, we left A14 (toll of €26.20 paid by credit card) and descended from 370 ft/110 m to sea level, following signs for the Porto and then the ferry ticket offices. The 'All Inclusive Camping' tickets awaited collection (and payment by card) at the Minoan Lines counter and we were instructed to drive round to check in by 5 pm, for the 6.30 pm departure of the good ship 'Cruise Olympia' – a splendid new ferry built in Naples in 2009 – which actually left at 7.30 pm!

We were the only campers on board, among a very few private cars and many trucks. A hook-up was organised for the motorhome, to keep the fridge running, and our free inside cabin was fine, with bathroom and 2 low level beds. The meal voucher for the self-service restaurant entitled us each to a choice of main course, a salad, roll & butter and a pear (drinks and other desserts not included). No complaints (except the price of coffee) and a smooth crossing.

TO GREECE

Kourouta Beach, Amaliada, Peloponnese, Greece     50 miles (from Patras)

Awaking at sea, the Adriatic so calm and warm that we took a walk round the decks, then put our watches on one hour and spent some time (and money) over breakfast. One choice was 2 eggs, bacon and sausage, cooked Greek style (ie served cold). The lounges were almost empty and we had a pleasant morning there, reading with panoramic sea view.

Midday saw us out on deck, watching for Saranda and the bay hiding Ancient Butrint along the coast of Albania, before docking in Igoumenitsa, where a long line of trucks disembarked to head for the new motorway to Ioanina and beyond. The December sunshine was remarkable – as was the apparent absence of refugees etc around the orderly port.

After a snack lunch in our cabin we returned to the lounge, enjoying the voyage among the Ionian Islands and on to Patras. Darkness was falling as we arrived at 6 pm, surprised by the lack of snow on the peaks behind the city,

Since we left Patras last April, the ferry port has moved a few miles south (now opposite the Praktiker DIY store, for those who know the waterfront). The new port appeared better organised, though lacking in signs (turn right at the exit to escape Patras) and we were soon heading along the waterfront to join the New National Road southbound. There was absolutely no sign of the hordes of would-be migrants who had plagued the old port for many years. We'd heard that the inhabitants of Patras had formed vigilante groups and taken other actions to improve the situation, which the police had long failed to do.

We drove for 47 familiar miles to the Amaliada traffic lights, then turned right to Kourouta Beach. There is a large and well lit car park on the sea front, empty in winter, between the (closed) Municipal Camping and an equally closed restaurant. An ideal spot for a walk along the promenade on this exceptionally mild evening and a peaceful night's rest. Welcome to crisis-torn Greece.

Tomorrow we'll drive back into Amaliada to shop, assuming Lidl, Carrefour or Dia are still in business, and consider our onward route. (Note: we found the Dia supermarket abandoned and empty, its windows broken, though the Germans and French were still supplying their stores.)

(to be continued)