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Autumn Journey 2007 PDF Printable Version E-mail


Autumn Journey 2007

South and East from the UK to Greece

Margaret and Barry Williamson

October/December 2007

For more images of motorhoming and cycling in Normandy, click: Omaha Beach.

For more images of motorhoming and cycling in the Dordogne, click: Dordogne.

For more images of motorhoming and cycling in the Provence, click: Provence.

For more images of motorhoming from Provence to Ancona, click: Provence to Ancona.

For more images of our new-to-us Fleetwood Flair Motorhome, click: Flair.


After 6 months in the UK - our longest stay in the last 12 and more years of travel - we have finally reached a stage where our various problems have eased enough for us to leave the country. It was a case of off with the old; on with the new.

New Touring Bicycles: The two new bicycles built for us by Paul Hewitt in Leyland wHewitt_Tourer_(31).JPGere running beautifully after over a 1,000 miles of Welsh hills, valleys and tracks. Paul's after-sales service found no problems but he gave them a final tune, ready for the roads of Europe.

New-to-Us Motorhome: Motorhome Medics of Cheltenham helped uFlair_(38).JPGs to personalise the Fleetwood Flair motorhome they had brought in from the USA. It replaced our beloved Four Winds motorhome, which had been our home, our transport, our restaurant and our companion throughout 10 of our 13 years of ownership. Darren and Martin worked with their usual tireless vigour and rigour, moving many useful fixed items from the Four Winds into the Flair: the roof-top solar panels (arrays of photo-voltaic cells), the small gas fire, a folding table-cum-bottle storage unit, the bike rack, a full-length curtain for the cab. Other moveable items, such as the worktop cover for the gas hob and the shower screen, were modified to fit their new location.

The Medics successfully completed major surgery in the bedroom: 2 single beds were converted into a double bed fit for a king (-size duvet). Our bedside globe, illuminated from within by a 12-volt 5-watt bulb, came with us to help with pipe dreams, as did Paddington, the well-travelled bear!

New Managing Agent: It was with great relief that we found Marjorie Binns of SLM (Specialist Lettings & Management) in Brighouse (link) to take over the management of our house in Huddersfield, rented out for 13 years. In our absence, the previous agents (Lancasters Property Services) had allowed both the property and the behaviour of the tenants to deteriorate over too long a period. We are now faced with bills for painting, window replacement, remedying damp and mould, outside wall rebuilding, bathroom tiling, garden-rehabilitation and hen-coop removal. Our chickens have come home to roost; the tenants' chickens will come home to roast!

Marjorie has taken a firm grip of the situation and we feel much easier about leaving our major investment in her hands, as we set off in our second-most major investment, the motorhome.

New Website: Rebecca Watts of Cairns (creator and webmaestro for this website),UK_Peter_Frankland.JPG has created another site for a quite different purpose. With good friend and old colleague, Peter Frankland (right), we are working to develop an archive and a tribute for the College at which we both worked: HollyBankCollege.

Founded in 1947 UK_MacLennan.jpgout of post-war reconstruction and socialist idealism, the Huddersfield-based College had Alexander MacLennan (left) as its first and last Director. He retired in 1974 when the local Polytechnic made a take-over bid. Peter and Barry early-retired soon after the Polytechnic became a University.

Thousands of serving further and higher education lecturers passed through the College's doors and courses and its influence spread around the world. Our website, the first and only one devoted entirely to the College, will be a gathering ground for images, articles, memories and people, tutors and students alike, remaking contact.

New Round of Rehabilitation for Margaret's Mum: After being ruUK_Mum.JPGshed into hospital early last May, when we first returned to the UK, Margaret's 92-year-old mother (right) spent months in various stages of rehabilitation before being returned to her suitably-modified flat. Just settled in, with a 'Care Package' of 4 visits a day, she was readmitted to the same hospital but with a different internal dysfunction. Now that she is being well cared for in a second cycle of rehabilitation, we feel free to return to our life on the road.


What do all the above have in common? Houses, people, bicycles and motorhomes wearing out, through having lived a long and good life or, in the case of the house, through lack of adequate care. In all cases, this led to medical intervention, surgery, replacement parts and rehabilitation. There is hope for a full life, thereafter.

How do we summaUK_Kenyon_Family.JPGrise this last summer? Unusually for us, it's been more about people than travel. For the first time in many years, we have been dependent on a number of people with widely different skills:UK_Franklands.JPG mechanics, technicians, engineers, builders, doctors, nurses, social workers, therapists, house agents, car hirers. We have also depended on, and been very happy to receive, hospitality from friends when it mattered most: the KenyUK_Uncle_Harold_4.JPGon family in Bournemouth (left), Peter and Ruth in Huddersfield (right), Angela at the Slate Mine in North Wales, Jeff and Audrey in Sheffield, Christine and Gary in Shepley, Peter and Julie in Poulton-le-Fylde and Margaret's Uncle Harold (left, a veteran of Anzio and the Italian Campaign), who celebrated his 91st birthday in Dukinfield.

We stayed on a number of campsites which gave excellent service and value. The most peaceful was Huw Morris's little campsite near Pontfadog in the Ceiriog Valley. Kneps Farm camping, near Blackpool, very kindly let us leave the motorhome on their land whilst we stayed at Margaret's mother's flat for several weeks,Flair_(27).JPG in return for a contribution to their Lancashire Air Ambulance appeal. We joined both the Caravan Club and the Camping & Caravanning Club for access to the CL network, and the Club sites at Peterborough, Oswestry, Chirk Castle, Cheltenham Racecourse (right) and Salisbury gave of their usual best.

Briarfields Camping (in Cheltenham - phone 01242 235324) is very well equipped, efficiently run and very convenient for both Motorhome Medics and 1Car1 car hire. It is also on a frequent bus route to both Cheltenham and Gloucester. A campsite we CANNOT recommend is Holme Valley near Holmfirth. The facilities  were OK but the attitude of the management was not. Some people are quite simply in the wrong job!

Now at last, after buying a one-way ticket on Brittany Ferries Poole-Cherbourg route, we are back on the road, heading south and east to who knows where, with Margaret assiduously logging our progress as we go.

17 October 181 miles THORNTON-CLEVELEYS to CHELTENHAM, England Caravan Club Site at Cheltenham Racecourse ₤11.20

Underway at last, collecting our bicycles in Leyland en route

Leaving Kneps Farm near Blackpool, we half-filled the petrol tank (hopefully the last at British prices) and made a farewell visit to Margaret's Mum at Thornton House before heading for the M55.

It was a short motorway journey to Leyland, where we always find space on Morrisons car park, a short walk over the railway bridge from Paul Hewitt's cycle shop. We'd left our bicycles there a few days earlier for an after-sales service check, which they passed with flying colours (bright red). Since they were built last May, we've ridden about 1,000 superb miles on them, mostly on steep hills and lanes in North Wales. Once the bikes were safely stowed on the back of the motorhome (to be known as Blue Flair), we were complete again.

Stopping at Charnock Richard Services, we lunched on Morrisons pork pies (a treat we shall miss). The drive down the M6/M5 to Cheltenham was smooth, with fine weather and no delays (not even round Birmingham).

Luckily, we had reserved Flair_(11)[1].jpga place on the Caravan Club site at the Racecourse. With horse racing about to begin (in 2 days' time), the site was fully booked and we had to park in front of the Desert Orchid stand, with a wonderful view of the track. It's an unusual campsite, to say the least, but has all the normal facilities. One advantage is that it's an easy mile's walk (or bus ride) into the centre of Cheltenham; the other was the good humour of the wardens, looking forward to their winter break in France.

18 October   12 miles   In CHELTENHAM, England   Caravan Club Site at Cheltenham Racecourse

Final consultation with Motorhome Medics

Drove through 5 miles of morning rush-hour traffic, past GCHQ, to MotoFlair_(25).JPGrhome Medics' yard. Darren and Martin rapidFlair_(29).JPGly took care of a couple of very minor problems with our Fleetwood Flair and declared us 'fit to travel'. The Four Winds motorhome we left with them had already gone to a good home, where we wish her well.

On the way back to the Racecourse we shopped at Aldi, finding 3 big blue cushions to complete the new bedroom furnishing.

In the afternoon we walked into Cheltenham to renew the Road Fund Licence and insurance for the Flair. As we're insured with Bakers of Cheltenham, it was easy to call in the office and confirm that our policy covers 365 days in Europe with full RAC breakdown cover. They also provide a free 'Green Card' for countries such as Turkey, at a premium way below that offered by 2 of their competitors (Comfort and SafeguardFlair_(34).JPG).

After getting an extra set of motorhome keys cut at Stokes (Cheltenham's oldest locksmiths) and buying a kite at Lidl, ready for the beaches of southern Europe, we could think of nothing else we needed!

The TV signal being very weak, our evening viewing was a DVD of 'Alice in Wonderland' (one of the many newspaper freebies which circulate among motorhomers). Not quite how we remembered the story, but it might amuse the children in Bournemouth!

19 October   88 miles   CHELTENHAM to SALISBURY, England   Camping & Caravanning Club Site   ₤9.55

A sunny drive south

All pitches had to be vacated by 10 am, ready for racing this afternoon (given a good tip for the 3.30, about which we did nothing – it's all a mystery to us!)

We had a leisurely morning's drive, climbing to over 1,000 ft as we crossed the Cotswolds, then via Cirencester, Swindon, Marlborough and Amesbury (very near Stonehenge), reaching Hudson's Field in Salisbury just before noon. The campsite there has a lovely view of the grassy Iron Age hill fort of Old Sarum.

The afternoon was taken up with laundry, emailing and phone calls. TV signal good – a pity there is so little worth watching!

20 October   In SALISBURY, England   Camping & Caravanning Club Site

A walk into Salisbury

It was about 1.5 miles' walk, down the field and along the shallow River Avon, into Salisbury. Ducks and swansIMG_0648.JPG paddled in the dappled sunlight below weeping willows and a water-rat ran to its hole along the bank.

The city centre was packed (Saturday is Market Day) and the places to eat were very crowded or very expensive (or both). After a quick look at the outside of the 13thC gothic Cathedral, where England's tallest spire rises from the affluent greenery of its close, we returned home for lunch. (Visit www.salisburycathedral.org.uk for more on Britain's finest medieval cathedral, or look inside for a 'donation' of ₤5 each, or even climb 332 steps to the foot of the spire on a booked Tower Tour.)

The rest of the day was spent writing letters and making final preparations of the sorting and packing kind.

21 October   39 miles   SALISBURY to BOURNEMOUTH, England   Parking at Ian & Nina's

Through the New Forest to the South Coast

Another fine morning's drive, through the western edge of the New Forest, its leaves taking on their autumn colours.

We reached Bournemouth in time for a great Sunday Lunch with our good friends Ian and Nina (not forgetting Louis, Sam and little Rose – aged between 9 and 4). Made as welcome as ever, we enjoyed a family day, ending with us all watching a DVD of 'Ice Age 2', starring a woolly mammoth, a sabre-toothed tiger and a sloth.

We slept well, parked outside the house in the quiet road.

22 October   In BOURNEMOUTH, England   Parking at Ian & Nina's

Arrangements, arrangements!

Nina gave us a lift into Bournemouth, where we shopped for travel books, maps and LP guides for Turkey and Tunisia, our possible winter destinations (?) We'd intended to walk back through the park, but with a heavy rucksack we were tempted by a taxi!

In the afternoon we made more phone calls – confirming tomorrow's ferry and making last-minute calls to Marjorie (our new house agent), the bank, the buildings insurance company, and Margaret's family.

The remains of yesterday's roast lamb were made into a good curry, then we all watched Michael Palin in Eastern Europe, with the usual measure of disappointment. The countries we know so well are portrayed without empathy, with no sense of their history, reduced to the trivia of tourism. They deserve better.

23 October   11 miles   BOURNEMOUTH, England to CHERBOURG, France   Parking at the Harbour   Free

Across the Channel on Brittany Ferries 'Barfleur'

With Louis (it's half-Normandy_(10).JPGterm holiday), we visited the local supermarkets (Lidl and Waitrose) for our very last English food shopping expedition. The usual questions: how many tins of golden syrup/custard powder/gravy mix/baked beans (etc, etc) can we squeeze into the lockers? How much room is left in the freezer for proper cheeses, sausages, bacon, brown bread? 'Quarts into pint pots' is an essential motorhoming skill!

After lunch with the Kenyon family, we left with a mixture of sadness, relief and excitement for the 10-mile drive to the ferry terminal at Poole, home to the largest natural harbour in Europe. We sailed on time at 4 pm for a calm 5-hour crossing to Cherbourg on a surprisingly emNormandy_(11).JPGpty boat, the 'Barfleur', built in Helsinki in the 1990's.

Brittany Ferries was actually founded in 1973 by a group of Breton farmers, keen to establish a ferry link between Roscoff and Plymouth to sell their produce in England. The French onion-sellers on bicycles must have invaded in force!

Arriving at 10 pm (French time), it was already dark and we simply stayed the night (free of charge) on the terminal car park. All was quiet, with just one other motorhome alongside – a retired English couple on their way to winter in Spain.

24 October   65 miles   CHERBOURG to Ste MERE EGLISE, France   Car Park by the Church   €4.00

Round Normandy's Cotentin Peninsula to windswept Utah Beach and Ste Mere Eglise

After collecting our free bottle of bubbly, courtesy of Brittany Ferries, from the Normandie Wine Warehouse in Cherbourg (and of course buying other essentials there), we drove east for about 25 miles to Barfleur, a little fishing port near the north-east corner of the Cotentin Peninsula. We were seeking a campsite base from which to visit the Normandy Beaches before heading south, and Barfleur's Camping Municipal 'La Blanche Nef' is open all year (the majority of French campsites close by early October).

We did find the camping, by the harbour wall, but a fierce wind blew off the sea and the site was unappealing: bleak and empty. The Reception was closed for a 3-hour lunch break, so we made our own lunch before continuing down the historic coast, through Quettehou and Ravenoville, signposted the 'Route du 6 Juin 1944'.

Turning left onto D15 to Ravenoville Plage, we followed the line of UtahNormandy_(46).JPG Beach, pausing first at the Leclerc Monument, marking the General's arrival from Africa in August 1944. A gale howled as we read the inscriptions, so we didn't linger at the Utah Museum at the southern end of the beach, which we've visited before.

The only campsites we passed were closed, so we turned inland to the village of Ste Mère Église, where we knew of camping and parking places. The Camping Municipal, next to the sports ground, was also fermé (whatever it might say on the notice about being open till mid-November!) but it did have a useful motorhome service point outside the gates. Dumping was free, though a fill of water cost a €1 coin, which we didn't yet have.

In Roman timesFlair_(41).JPG, Ste Mère Église lay on the road from Rome to Britain. More recently it played a legendary part in the Normandy airborne landings, when an American parachutist, Sergeant Steele, was caught on the church spire. Wounded and left for dead by the Germans, he hung there for 3 hours before being rescued, to survive the war. A model airman still hangs from a tattered parachute on the steeple of the lovely old church, opposite a new museum about the airborne landings.

The village car park, next to the famous church, isFlair_(42).JPG free during the day, with a €4 fee covering the hours 8 pm to 8 am. We joined a short line of French and Dutch motorhomes along the rear hedge and Margaret walked into the village for coins for the parking meter. We've never found the French particularly helpful (despite our fluency in their language), but M was amazed at the refusal to change a €10 note in the Post Office unless she bought something, even though she explained it was for the car park! Instead, she bought postcards and stamps from a souvenir shop (the only other place open).

25 October   27 miles   St MERE EGLISE to TOURNIERES, France   Camping Le Picard   €21.50

A good base camp

Over breakfast our car park began to fill up rapidly and a queue of animal trucks trundled past – yes, it was market day (Thursday)! Along with the other motorhomes, we made a hasty exit to avoid being blocked in, finishing our toast in a layby!

In the CaravanFlair_(43).JPG Club guide we found an English-run year-round campsite in a hamlet between Carentan and Bayeux. A phone call confirmed its existence and we were on our way - down the N13 dual carriageway to Carentan, then a few miles south on N174, turning east on D8/D15 across rolling farmland to Tournieres (consisting of a church, a butcher's, a few houses and the campsite).

Paul (English) and Lucia (Italian) have owned 'Le Picard' for 17 years and it's very popular with English caravans, many of them stored here over the winter. They sell home-baked croissants to order, run a little restaurant/bar and have installed free wi-fi internet. We had found our base camp! There are a few British caravanners here,Flair_(44).JPG out for half-term, but we are promised that next week we'll have the place to ourselves.

We settled in and celebrated with Barry's new DVD about the late and lamented Don Whillans – climber extraordinary with his partner Joe Brown. It was bought from the British Mountaineering Council, which we recently joined (not to take up climbing again, but to benefit from their excellent travel insurance policies – and to read their members' magazine and dream).

26 October-6 November   At TOURNIERES, France   Camping Le Picard

Normandy and Omaha Beach

We took time out on this pleasant rustic site, catching up with reading and writing, emailing and relaxing, as well as various domestic jobs and getting to know the Flair.

As well as updating our own MagbazTravels, we worked on the new Holly Bank College website (link). Among other pieces copied from the College magazine of 1963, there is a piece called 'Highland Interlude' about climbing in the Cuillin Mountains on the Isle of Skye, by a student named B J Williamson!

Somehow, the days seemed much longer than they had in the UK, though the nights are drawing in and the clocks have gone back an hour. French TV is pretty dire (including the 3 digital channels) but we have a good stock of DVD films, courtesy of the Guardian, Telegraph, Daily Mail and kind friends. Highlights so far are Johnny Depp in 'Who's eating Gilbert Grape' and Dustin Hoffman in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman'. From comedy to tragedy, with brilliant acting from 2 very different schools.

We ate well, enjoying the morning treat of buttery croissants, and M made another 6 pounds of blackberry & apple jam, using the Welsh berries picked and frozen in the Ceiriog Valley.

Beyond the campsite, we cycled a few miles east, along quiet narrow lanes and past a Danone yogurt factory, to the nearest shopping centre in the small town of le Molay Littry (market day Thursday). In the bookshop there we actually found a copy of the elusive 'Guide Officiel: Aires de Services Camping Car' for €8, a good saving on buying it in the UK by mail order.

Industrial development followed the discovery of coal at Littry in 1741, intensely worked for 200 years. There is now a Mining Museum to visit and, at the nearby hamlet of Marcy, a 19thC water-driven flour mill: both only open from April to September.

On a perfectly still,Normandy_(14).JPG crisp, sunny autumn day, a 30-mile return cycle ride took us through gently rolling wooded farmland to Omaha Beach. At the little town of Trevieres (7 miles from our campsite and 5 miles before the coast), we were stopped in our tracks at the sight of a dramatic statue above the war memorial, alongside the 12thC church. The bronze figure of Mother France, clad in flowing robes and WW1 helmet, sword in hand, was literally faceless. Her face had been blown off in the fighting to liberate the town during the Battle of Normandy (6-9 June 1944). A poignant poem, written at the time, told how the statue had stood firm despite the direct hit. The war memorial bore 44 soldiers' names from the First World War and 4Normandy_(20).JPG from the Second, plus 2 resistants fusillés (shot), and 20 civil victims, including women. We sat in the little park, eating a picnic supplied by the baker's, and reflected once again on the price of peace in Western Europe.

We reached the D-Day LNormandy_(23).JPGanding coast at St Laurent, where there is a new Omaha Beach Museum. Above the beach is a stone memorial to the First US Infantry Division, who landed and forced their way ashore at dawn (6 June 1944). Their motto: 'No mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great; duty first' says it all. A modern stainless steel sculpture, erected on the sands to mark the 60th anniversary, added nothing.

Continuing 4 miles eaNormandy_(30).JPGstwards we came to the vast American CemeterNormandy_(32).JPGy near Colville, laid out on the cliffs above the German bunkers and gun emplacements which overlook the beaches of Operation Overlord. This is the last resting place of over 9,000 men, their names engraved on the rows of white stone crosses standing in close formation. As bicycles were not allowed to approach beyond the car park, we turned for home. We have paid our respects here before, and visited many of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries around the globe (from the French Somme to Australian Darwin). The statistics of casualties are mind-numbing and we are always moved at the enormity of the loss.

On a 25-mile ride we explored local villages with their square-towered Norman churches, our wheels crunching over fallen cobnuts and acorns. Along a lane we saw 3 otters at a wooded pond, swimming, diving and running on the bank. Calling at the Bar des Sports for deux grands cafés au lait, we found horse-drawn chariot racing was the sport of choice, the clientele glued to the wide-screen TV as our host took bets. Horses are very much part of this area, with a national stud at St Lo.

7 November   117 miles   TOURNIERES to CHANGÉ, Nr LAVAL, France   Aire Communale   Free

Playing Hunt the Petrol

Drove west to Moon-sur-Elle, then south to rejoin N174 at St Lo. We pulled into a large Carrefour supermarket for shopping and lunch but couldn't access their fuel pumps, with a low canopy (3.5 m – our exact height) and awkward entrance. This is a regular problem for motorhomers in France, as non-supermarket fuel stations are very few and far between, as well as being more expensive. The frequent rejection of non-French credit cards at automated pumps adds to the difficulty.

Continuing south towards Vire, it was the same story at the Champion store in Torigni-sur-Vire and at the Intermarché on the Vire bypass (3.1 m headroom). Running low, we had to go into Vire to find petrol at €1.40 per litre: as much as in the UK!

D-roads took us SE via Tinchebray to Flers, where we turned south again, past the fine stone fortress at Domfront. In Mayenne we crossed the Mayenne River but saw no sign for the Aire listed in Guide Officiel. From there the faster N162 led to Laval as dusk fell. Shortly before the city we took the ring road west, for the village of Changé, also claiming an Aire.

There was indeed a good parking area specially for motorhomes, complete with a water/dump point, opposite the sailing club by the Mayenne River. There were even 4 free electric hook-ups, though all were taken. We settled in and enjoyed the poulet rôti from Carrefour for dinner.

8 November   134 miles   CHANGÉ, Nr LAVAL to LOUDUN, France   La Maison de Pays du Loudunais   Free

Round Angers, across the Loire at Saumur and via Montreuil-Bellay to Loudun

Returning to the N162, we headed south on the arrow-straight road for Angers, stopping at Leclerc's, directly on the main road in Chateau-Gontier, for fuel (including LPG). With easy access, a 3.6 m roof and a helpful man who accepted our credit card, we marked it on the atlas for next time. A little further down N162, a new Aldi store had room to park (but no fuel, of course).

On past Charollais cattle farms (the blond ones), round Le Lion d'Angers, and so to Angers, a badly signed city at the confluence of the Maine and the Loire. In a confusion of new dual carriageway and busy ring road, we thought we'd missed the exit for D952, which we wanted to follow along the north bank of the Loire to Saumur. Instead, we got onto the N147 for Saumur and tried to access D952 by going south through Brain-sur-l'Authion and La Bohalle. We did reach D952 at the river, only to find there was a 3.5 ton limit due to difficulties with roadworks. The only way to Saumur was to return to the highway, where we lunched in a car park at Mazé.

At Saumur the France_07_(10).JPGN147 turned south, crossing the river with a superb view of the city's castle – the epitome of a Loire Château. We continued to Montreuil-Bellay, where we believed there was an all-year campsite as well as an Aire Communale. Don't believe all you read! Following the sign for Camping Les Nobis, between the castle and the river, we were confronted by an impossibly low and narrow stone arch. Extricating ourselves by reversing back up the lane, we tried in vain to find the nearby Aire. The sign for that led us up another lane which became too narrow - another reversing exercise!

Giving up on Montreuil-Bellay, however quaint the town looked, we drove SE to Loudun, where N147 turned south for Poitiers. Just 6 km after Loudun, before reaching the village of Angliers, we saw a splendid Aire de Repos (not yet listed in the Guide Officiel). It was alongside 'La Maison de Pays du Loudunais', a new local tourist office with shop, phone box and toilets. We bought some postcards, showing a blue horse-drawn caravan, and wondered whether that would be an easier way to travel!

9 November   105 miles   LOUDUN to ORADOUR-sur-GLANE, France   Aire Communale   Free

Round Poitiers and through Bellac to Oradour

Along the straight line of N147, we cut south via Mirabeau to Poitiers, circled the ring road and paused about 15 km later at Fleuré village to post our cards. It was a fine crisp morning, with a smell of fresh baking from the boulangerie.

We bridged the broad Vienne river at Lussac-les-Châteaux, lunched in an Aire at Moulismes, crossed from the Department of Vienne to the Department of Haute Vienne (Limousin Region) and continued to Bellac.

Here we wanted a right turn from N147 onto D675 (signed St Junien) in order to reach Oradour. The new Bellac bypass missed this D-road - and so did we – but eventually we were heading south on D675 for 20 km of rolling countryside before turning left onto D9 for the last 10 km to Oradour-sur-Glane.

The Aire France_07_(19).JPGnext to the Sports Stadium was opened in 2003 and won the annual award from Camping-Car Magazine in 2005. Last time we stayed there (December 2005) the water had been frozen solid and it is certainly a cold spot, at over 1,000 ft above sea level. It has good toilets and a dump/water station, though none of the pitches are level.

We curried the remains of the chicken, enjoyed hot showers and watched a DVD. Free nights on French Aires are not exactly 'wild-camping'. As darkness fell we were joined by 7 other motorhomes, all French.

10 November   54 miles   ORADOUR-sur-GLANE to LANOUILLE, France   Chez Keith & Brenda    Free

A visit to Oradour's 'Centre de la Mémoire' and the Martyr Village before reaching the sanctuary of good friends.

A mile from the France_07_(25).JPGAire at Oradour is a new museum and exhibition, the Centre de la Mémoire, with a large car park. Our previous visit to Oradour had coincided with the museum's winter closing (mid-December to end of January), so we had only walked round the poignant Martyr Village. The ruins of the Village are across the road, to the east of the modern town, and are accessible through the Centre at no cost.

Today we began at the museum in the Centre (admissioFrance_07_(27).JPGn €7, www.oradour.org). The displays and photos are explained in French, English and German, though we could not imagine German visitors wishing to share the experience. We followed the Path of Memory, documenting the rise of Nazism and the Third Reich, French defeat, the Vichy Government and the Resistance, and the Germans' systematic massacre of populations in Eastern Europe.

Having set the pFrance_07_(35).JPGolitical and social context, the exhibition focused on Oradour-sur-Glane, as the German Waffen SS Division headed towards the little town on the 8/9 June 1944. The Germans were in retreat, following the D-Day landings on 6 June, their defeat inevitable. This division had failed to reach Normandy to take on American soldiers, due to 'transport problems'.

A 12-minute film (in French with English sub-titles) sFrance_07_(39).JPGhowed the events of 10 June 1944 in Oradour. Even though we had seen the ruins and knew the history, the intolerable story left us in stunned silence. The German troops included some soldiers from Alsace – whether forced conscripts or volunteers, how could they have taken part in the massacre of their own countrymen? They shot any and every man found in the town, while the women, children and babies were herded into the church, where they were all killed, by repeated use of explosion, gas, shooting and fire. These were not 'martyrs', since martyrs volunteer for their fate. When the Germans had finished their brutal work, the village was littered with the bodies of over 600 defenceless victims of pointless and cowardly murder.

The GermaFrance_07_(32).JPGn soldiers, keeping away from the battle raging in Normandy, returned later to burn and bury the bodies, trying in vain to cover up their mass executions.

We went over to the ruins of the Martyr Village and walked slowly along the tram lines of its main street, past the burnt-out remains of the houses, shops, cafes, garage and school, culminating in the bare roofless doomed church. The rusted skeleton of a pram stood before the broken stone altar. It was a cold grey sunless morning and we were chilled to the heart.

Back in the motorhome we needed coffee before France_07_(40).JPGdriving on, through the frosty landscape of russet trees and matching Limousin cattle. Joining N141 for Limoges, we rounded the ring road and crossed the Vienne before turning onto D704 south for St Yrieix-la-Perche. Once again, we were looking for fuel and stopped at a large Casino Supermarket in St Yrieix. Shopping was possible, petrol was not. The automatic pumps rejected all our payment cards and the kiosk was unstaffed for 2.5 hours over lunch! Luckily, a small Intermarché store on the way out of town had pumps which accepted our 'foreign' credit card and we filled up by backing near enough to reach the fuel alongside the low canopy.

Another 10 milesFrance_07_(41).JPG south on D704, crossing into the Dordogne Department, we reached the village of Lanouille. It has a new Aire with water, waste water dump, free electricity and plenty of parking space, from where we phoned our old friends, KGoodbye_to_the_Durhams.JPGeith and Brenda.

Ten minutes later we were being led to their superbly situated French home, where they have room to park our motorhome (as well as their own Hobby). What a splendid welcome they gave us, with the first of many excellent meals by a blazing log fire and a long evening of good stimulating conversation. A lot has happened to us all since our last meeting, when we spent Christmas 2005 together on a frozen Dordogne campsite – we on our way to Greece and they still house-hunting.

11-   November   Near LANOUILLE, France   Chez Keith & Brenda

The Joys of Walking, Cycling and just Being with Friends

During the next IMG_0844.JPGweek and more we were privileged to share Keith and Brenda's home, which lies at over 1,000 ft high in the area known as the Perigord Vert. (Perigord is the ancient name for the region which Napoleon named Dordogne). The weather was mostly keen and bright, clear skies, temperatures below freezing at night, with a few warmer wetter days. Autumn rapidly turned into early winter as theIMG_0840.JPG leaves fell thickly in the surrounding woods.

We shopped at the nearest town, Excideuil (http://excideuil.hautperigord.com/), which has a lively street market on Thursday mornings with a good selection of local food and wine. It's a historic place with a splendid medieval castle, which was unsuccessfully besieged by Richard the Lionheart in 1182.

On an excursionFrance_07_(44).JPG from Excideuil, the four of us followed the Karst Discovery Walk – a 5 mile circuit of the Enchanted Rocks and Bear's Paw Caves. Limestone caves created by underground water circulation are a feature of the Perigord, the most famous being the Lascaux Caves. Our small caves did not have any prehistoric paintings but flint stone weapons and the France_07_(46).JPGbones, skulls and teeth of bears had been found there and put in a Paris museum. Caves at nearby Sarconnat had stalactites and stalagmites, as well as fossilised bear bones, but are not open to the public. A notice explained the karst topography, indicating calcareous springs where water comes to the surface. The rock walls, popular with local climbers, are decorated with Bear's Paw Knockers, designed by a French artist and made at a local foundry.

Locally, we all took the Dordogne_2_(24).JPGPromenade des 3 P's, which circled from the house for 3.5 miles along lanes and through woods around the tiny hamlets of Plagne, Paulhiac and Pontajambert. In the forest was a Palombiere (Palombe = wood pigeon) – a fiendish collection of hides, pulleys and strings. These contraptions are somehow used to trap wood pigeons, lured to the spot by the call of tame pigeons brought along for the purpose on hunting days!

Margaret came across another PalombieDordogne_2_(10).JPGre deep in the forest during a 6-mile walk with Brenda and the local rambling group on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Meeting at the church in the village of St Raphael, we enjoyed two hours of French conversation practice as we explored the lanes, bridleways and woods, ending with hot drinks and biscuits back at the starting point. New words added to our vocabulary included bocage (landscape of fields and hedges), épouvantail (scarecrow) and gaspillage (waste), the latter during a long discourse about recycling.

We also had France_07_(47).JPGa splendid cycle ride with Keith: only 18 miles but over 1,400 ft of climbing. We dropped down to cross the Auvezerre on a lovely old bridge, climbed steeply to the village of St Mesmin and paused by the fountain in Savignac-Ledrier before droppinFrance_07_(59).JPGg to the river again at the Savignac Forge. Unusually, the war memorials in St Mesmin and Savignac-Ledrier both referred to those fallen in 1962 (in Algeria). We walked round the site of the charcoal-fired iron forge, which had worked for 500 years, closing as recently as 1975. There are plenty of industrial remains, including the workers' canteen near the weir. Riding back through the rolling countryside past beautiful old farmhouses and fields of red cattle, we observed that even the hens looked French.

We had muIMG_0843.JPGch to discuss, not having met for 2 years. We have kept in touch by email and Keith has contributed his Broadsides (radical and discursive thought, comment, ideas and reading) to this website. However, now face to face and after a good meal in front of a log fire, the subjects flowed freely. Among politics, history, social science, psychology, travel and personal anecdote, we gave much consideration to France and the role and place of the expatriate. This is the firsDordogne_2_(29).JPGt time that we feel we have actually lived in this great country. We have travelled across France by bicycle and motorhome many times, exploring its every corner, but never before have we stopped and just lived for a while with 2 wise and reflective inhabitants.

In the day, we took advantage ofDordogne_2_(28).JPG an excellent internet connection (with WiFi around the house). Margaret, who likes cooking and baking, extended her repertoire of vegetarian dishes and enjoyed having a cat to stroke again! Brenda, a talented artist, gave us a delightful watercolour which now hangs in our motorhome. She also made us some bedroom curtains, a welcome supplement to the American-Venetian blinds and, overall, we cannot thank her and Keith enough for their hospitality and kindness.

25 November    3 miles    LANOUAILLE, France    Aire Communale

Back on the Road – Just

After a lazy morning's packing and a farewell lunch, we set off on a misty drizzly Sunday afternoon. Stopping at the Aire in the nearby village to empty our black and grey water tanks and refill our colourless water tank, we were tempted into staying there (with free electric hook-up) for a last night in Lanouaille. All was quiet until the siren sounded at the adjacent fire station and the volunteer Sapeurs Pompiers arrived, impressively quickly, to man the fire engine!

26 November   165 miles   LANOUAILLE to ST SEVERAC-LE-CHATEAU, France   'Aire de l'Aveyron' Motorway Services

South-East to Brive and along the Lot to Rodez and Aveyron

Dry and clear, this was a better day for driving. After 20 miles south on D704, we turned east on N89, the Perigord changing colour from Vert to Noir. Across the Vezere in Terrasson (at 300 ft) we stopped at Lidl for supplies - which turned out to include a Bifinett electric breadmaker (an offer we couldn't refuse) and packets of bread mix with which to experiment.

On the western outskirts of Brive-la-Gaillarde, we turned south on a free section of the A20 motorway (J51 to J53), then continued SE on D840. The road climbed again to 960 ft, into the Department of the Lot in the Midi-Pyrenees region, then south-east on N140 towards the city of Rodez. Our route passed through Martel-en-Quercy (the medieval town of 7 towers) and crossed the Dordogne on the Pont des Gluges (with a good Aire de Repos by the river). Climbing to over 1,000 ft, we were now in the National Park of Causses de Quercy – a landscape of sheep, woodland and farms. This is Foie Gras country and we pitied the picturesque flocks of geese. We passed a turn for Rocamadour, just 4 km to our west, famed for the Black Madonna which draws pilgrims and tourists to its church. Hills, rivers, oak forests – the epitome of rural France.

We skirted Figeac, down at 660 ft, and 4 miles later passed below the fortified citadel of Capdenac le Haut, crossing the river Lot into Capdenac-Port. The road followed the valley of the broad brown river eastwards for 10 miles, crossing the river at La Roque Bouillac before Decazeville. Heading south-east again, through St-Christophe-Vallon, delightfully lit in the low winter sun (10 deg C at 3 pm), we climbed to 1,870 ft after Nuces, with a first view of the snowy hills of the Massif CentraProvence1_(10).JPGl to the north. The ring road bypasses Rodez (capital of the Dept of Aveyron) to the north of the city; then we joined N88, staying at over 1,800 ft, to head east to St SéveProvence1_(11).JPGrac-le-Château.

Here, beautifully situated below the castle, the N88 became a free motorway and almost at once there was a splendid service area at the junction with the A75 motorway. We stayed overnight on the large parking area for caravans and motorhomes. Initially empty, it filled up with lorries as dusk fell. It was a cold night, up at 2,400 ft, but LPG (or GPL in its French manifestation) was available and we turned the heating up.

27 November   117 miles   ST SEVERAC-LE-CHATEAU to AIMARGUES, France   Camping Bellevue €12.00

Over the Tarn on the world's highest road-bridge, the Viaduc de Millau, and into the Languedoc

We headed south after joining A75, the Autoroute Méridienne, which links Clermont- Ferrand with Béziers - free of tolls except between junctions 45 and 47, where the magnificent Millau Viaduct spans the gorge of the River Tarn. It's well worth paying to cross the bridge, not least to avoid the difficult route of the N9 through Millau.

From St Séverac at 2,400 ft we climbed steadily for 6 miles, reaching over 2,900 ft (888 m) at the Col d'Engayresques before dropping steeply. Our motorhome reached a record 70 mph on the empty 4-lane motorway as we descended! We crossed the Gorge du Jante on the short Viaduc de Verrieres at 1,950 ft andProvence1_(13).JPG then the Viaduc de la Garrigue, over the Gorges de la Dourbie at 2,180 ft. All extremely dramatic, just below the snow line, with clear views.

After passing exit 45, we paid a toll of €19.40 to cross the Millau Viaduct. We had driven 17 miles, were now at 2,150 ft and still had no sighting of the bridge. It was a cold and windy morning, with road signs warning: Rafalles de Vent - Soyez Prudent. Then, 3 miles later at 1,890 ft, we turned off into a large parking area, the Aire du Viaduc –Provence1_(17).JPG new since our last visit. After a short strenuous climb on foot to the Vue Panoramique Viaduc, we were rewarded with an excellent view and clear photographs of the new multi-span cable-stayed suspension bridge, which is often shrouded in rain or mist.

The 4 lane bridge soaring above the Tarn rests on 7 slim pillars, which are often in cloud. It's an exceptional piece of civil engineering, designed by an English architect, Norman Foster, and opened by President Chirac in December 2004. Statistics - 2.5 km long (over 1.5 miles); 270 m (890 ft) above the River Tarn or 343 m (1,130 ft) from the top of tProvence1_(19).JPGhe pylons; 36,000 tons of steel and 205,000 tons of concrete; 500 workers; cost €320 million!

We drove across, marvelling at the view below and the flock of eagles circling above. Our GPS read 2,270 ft above sea level. The next exit (46) leads to Roquefort, home to the caves where the famous blue cheese matures, but we stayed on the motorway, climbing to the Aire du Larzac, 12 miles after the bridge at 2,660 ft.

Turning into these services for a break, we were immediately faced with a band of armed men dressed completely in black, including dark balaclavas, directing us into a separate parking area, away from the buildings. This looked seriously serious. Our anxiety subsided when we saw the word Douanes (Customs) emblazoned on their backs, but it was a nasty moment! Following the written instructions handed to us, we left our vehicle whilst a giant X-ray scanner passed overhead, as we waited to be interviewed. The officials asked whether we were travelling from/to Spain and were particularly interested in our LPG tank, which had shown up on the X-ray like a bomb! Reassured by a personal inspection, they let us go. Oddly, when we last spent a night at St Séverac services we had been visited by four armed Customs officials, who came inside to check up on us. Technology has moved on, and so did we.

Continuing south on the free motorway, it was 8 miles to the border of Provence1_(21).JPGLanguedoc-Roussillon region and into the Parc du Haut Languedoc. There was a splendid descent from Le Caylar down the Pas de l'Escalette, the shelves of a beautiful valley, dropping from 2,500 ft to a mere 650 ft at Lodeve. The free motorway passed through the 725-m long Tunnel du Pas de l'Escalette, then zigzagged down with a dramatic gorge to our right and the picturesque village of Pegairolles-de-l'Escalette below us, the hillsides studded with the vineyards of the Languedoc reds.

Past the exit for Lodeve, 11 miles after the border, and through another short tunnel, we turned east on N109 towards Montpellier, leaving the A75 to find its way south to Beziers. We crossed yet another river, the Herault, at Pont de Gignac, then skirted Montpellier, following the well-signed route to the A9 Autoroute Languedocienne east towards Nimes. Joining it at J31, we drove north-east and exited at J28 (after which there is a toll).

Continuing east on Provence1_(22).JPGN113 across flat land, we were only a few miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea, heading for the Camargue, the extensive delta of the Rhone. After about 10 miles the town of Lunel offered a choice of supermarkets for fuel and shopping. A few miles later we took N572 (towards Vauvert and Arles), soon turning off at Aimargues. Almost at sea level, we had reached the western edge of the Natural Region of the Camargue.

Our new Guide Officiel of Aires de Service Camping-Car listed a year-round campsite in Aimargues, and so there was! The 'Bellevue' had mostly static residents but it was open to tourers and there was even WiFi internet available at €4 per day. We shared the site with one French motorhome and the friendly guardian, who was busy decorating the Reception building. See www.bellevue-en-camargue.com.

28 November   142 miles   AIMARGUES to AUPS, France   Chez Martin & Clare

Through the Camargue to the Mediterranean and into Provence

It was a fine suProvence1_(23).JPGnny morning as we headed east on N572, across the flat watery landscape of the Camargue. We crossed the Canal du Rhône at St-Gilles, then the Petit Rhône river, finally bridging the width of the mighty Grand Rhône on the N113, leaving the Languedoc Region and entering Provence. This free section of Autoroute A54 skirted south of the city of Arles, before we turned onto N568, which parallels the Rhône SE towards its estuary.

Our first glimpse of the Mediterranean coast was at Fos-sur-Mer, an industrial port that is far from glamorous, though we did spot a few flamingos on the lagoon there. After Port-de-Bouc, we joined the Autoroute A55, which was toll-free as far as Aix-en-Provence (or beyond Marseille if we'd turned south rather than north).

From Aix weProvence1_(24).JPG drove east to St-Maximin-la-Ste-Baume, with a choice of the slow N7 or the Autoroute A8. We paid a small toll (€4.80) to save time on the motorway, with a lunch break at the busy service station, surrounded by trucks of all nationalities. From St-Maximin, the winding D560 took us north-east via Barjols to Sillans-la-Cascade (where, as you might expect, there is a waterfall). The flat Camargue landscape had given way to the hills and colours of Provence, with the lovely light that inspired Impressionist artists like Cézanne.

After a final 6 miles north on D22, we reached Aups – VilProvence1_(25).JPGlage de Caractère – and home to two other fine characters, Martin and Clare. By 4 pm we had negotiated the lanes to the cabinot where our old friends are spending their fourth winter.

A warm welcome awaited us in the cosy little stone cottage with mugs of tea by a wood-burning stove, while our motorhome rested in their small olive grove, among the scented thyme and rosemary. An excellent hotpot simmered ready for supper and we had plenty to talk about, having last met 2 years ago.

29 November-5 December   Near AUPS, France   Chez Martin & Clare

A Week of Good Company and Fine Fare

The weatherProv_(16).JPG throughout was clear and dry, with sunny days and frosty nights – we were in the South of France but at about 1,700 ft.

The small medieval town of Aups lay about 2 miles away, an easy cycle ride or a pleasant walk through the woods. A free leaflet 'Stroll through History' is available from the TouProv_(25).JPGrist Office for exploring the town centre.

Cycling in to post some letters, we learnt that the building used as the post office since 1912 was actually a prison at the time of the French Revolution. Later it became a Presbytery, until the priest was evicted in 1907 for refusing to pay the rent! The haberdashery shop over the road is in the former courthouse, opposite the prison. The 500-year-old chuProv_(30).JPGrch is solidly built in the Gothic-Provencal style, with the Republican motto Liberté Egalité Fraternité added above the entrance in 1905, on the occasion of the separation of Church and State in France.

Aups has regular markets on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, as well as a Thursday morning truffle market at this time of year. We all went to the Saturday produce market (especially the cheese stall). The local speciality, apart from sanglier Prov_(42).JPG(wild boar) and truffles, is fougasse – a sweet lemony bread, sampled from the bakery.

On the Sunday we heard a boar hunt underway in the forest as the four of us walked in for a special Marché de Noel (Christmas Market). Coffee and hot wine brought a glow to our cheeks, along with chocolates wrapped like little Christmas Crackers, complete with a snap and a printed joke (if you share the French sense of humour). There were clowns and a Bouncy Château for the kids, with plenty of handicrafts and food forProv_(52).JPG sale.

Lac St Croix and the Verdon Gorge (Europe's Grand Canyon) are only about 12 miles north of Aups and we had a gProv_(66).JPGood circular cycle ride to the lake, covering 30 miles (48 km) and climbing about 2,000 ft in all (min 1,575 and max 2,595 ft). We paused at Bauduen on the lakeside – a summer resort which was firmly closed – and returned via Baudinard-sur-Verdon, where a welcome café provided coffee and cakes with a view. Wonderfully quiet rural lanes led through a landscape of oak and pine forest, fields of dormant lavender and thyme, sheep and goat pasture. After the quaint village of Moissac-Bellevue, the last few miles were along the busier D9 leading back to Aups – and Clare's delicious curry for supper.

We fouProv_(20).JPGnd our friends were experienced bread-bakers. Unpacking our new machine, their advice complemented the French instructions and we were soon making delicious fresh brown loaves. Finding locker space in our motorhome for the breadmaker and flour supplies proProv_(12).JPGved more problematic!

And so the week went by, enjoying meals together and talking by the fire over fruits, cheeses, coffees, chocolates … We learnt about the recent olive harvest and caught up on past news and future plans for world-wide travel. Once again, we owe Martin and Clare many thanks for sharing their winter home, their WiFi internet and their time so generously.

6 December   33 miles   AUPS to LA MOTTE, France   Aire Communale

Via Draguignan to La Motte – and an Aire with WiFi!

After what we thought was a final farewell to Martin and Clare, we edged our way through Aups, then south on D31 for 7 miles to Salernes, down at 900 ft. In the Lidl supermarket we were suddenly surprised to see our friends, who had followed with an electric lead we'd forgotten (essential for uniquely French mains sockets). We were touched by their kindness – and glad we'd taken their advice to stop and shop there.

East on D557 for 16 miles to the large town of Draguignan at 550 ft, where the Intermarché supermarket on the main road had accessible petrol and LPG pumps (large motorhomes are often excluded by a narrow entrance or low parapet.) There was also a much needed Flot Bleu camping-car service point, predictably out-of-order (saving €2).

Heading south-Prov_Anc_07_(13).JPGeast on N555 towards the Riviera, we turned left after about 7 miles to detour to La Motte, where Martin had recommended an Aire Communale. It's easy to miss the entrance, on the left before a bridge and the centre of the village. It offered free water, dump and 4 overnight parking places. David and Marlis, in a British motorhome, were about to leave, continuing their journey back from Italy to the UK. They stayed long enough to tell us that they had picked up a free WiFi signal on their laptop whilst having lunch.

We took a stroll round the village and stayed the night, joined later by a French Pilote.

7 December   253 miles   LA MOTTE, France to PONTREMOLI, Italy   Grondola Services, A15 Motorway

Along the Autoroute and over the Border into Italy: What's happened to our gas?

After sending a few emails using the WiFi, we drove south-east to Le Muy. Here we met the N7 and followed it eastwards, parallel with Autoroute A8 (la Provencale).

We joined this motorway at J37 and continued north-east towards Prov_Anc_07_(22).JPGCannes, Nice and Monte Carlo. There were regular tolls to be paid (5 in all to the Italian border, total about €16) but the alternative road N98, hugging the coast round the rocky Riviera Corniche, is a long slow alternative with few places to park. We made the mistake of taking that route 2 years ago, and today we wanted to make easier progress into Italy.

25 miles from LaProv_Anc_07_(23).JPG Motte we entered the Department of Alpes Maritimes, with a good view of the Riviera coast near Cannes. A coffee break at the Breguieres services was followed by our first view of snow on the Alps, as we approached Nice. From here the motorway climbs inland again through a series of short tunnels to emerge at 650 ft above the sea. Continuing across bridges and through more tunnels, the magnificent Autoroute runs high above the tortuous coast road, with Monaco below and serious snow-capped mountains to the north.

Reaching the last service station before the Italian border, the Aire de BeauProv_Anc_07_(27).JPGsoleil, about 60 miles from La Motte, we had lunch with a magnificent view over Monte Carlo and the Mediterranean, 1,600 ft below us. It was our last chance to make calls with a French phone card. The weather was cloudy but fine.

We continued through more tunnels, past the final French exit on theProv_Anc_07_(32).JPG A10 (for Menton) and into Italy (7 miles from Beausoleil), up at 570 ft. The first Italian toll booth appeared 4 miles later, by the exit for Ventimiglia, and we collected a ticket. (The toll was paid 2 days later, on leaving the motorway system at Ancona – Visa card accepted.) In Italy the charges are less than in France and (in our opinion) good value if you want to make smooth progress!

The impressive A10 Autostrada kept high (reaching over 800 ft) on bridgesProv_Anc_07_(34).JPG or through many a tunnel. We had regular glimpses of the coast below the greenhouse-covered hillsides on our right, with olive groves to our left. The glasshouses eventually gave way to terraces of vines. Noticing that all vehicles had their headlights on, we quickly complied with the recently introduced Italian law (for motorways and dual carriageways).

Many Italian service stations, like Rio Conioli 23 miles after the border, have motorhome dump points, though the overcrowded lorry parking often makes access difficult. Diesel is now about the same price as in France, but you can save a couple of cents by using the self-service pumps (choose the one labelled 'Self', rather than 'Servizio'). LPG is also widely available. Paying with a British credit card is no problem (unlike France). Even the parking layby, 10 miles on, had a dump and tap.

63 miles from the border, we passed the exit for the large port of Savona (for 'Corsican Ferries' boats). The sky blackened, the light too dark to take photographs, and by 2.30 pm it was raining heavily. After another 33 miles we passed the even larger port of Genoa, 70 ft below, where we once arrived on a 'Moby Lines' ferry from Corsica. Guida con Prudenza (drive with care) warned the signs, as the motorway junction got complicated. Here, at the end of the A10, we joined the A12 heading east towards Livorno (and not the A7 north for Milan). We had gone through so many tunnels that our GPS mileage was lagging 18 miles behind the motorhome speedometer (no satellite signals in the tunnels).

We continued eastwards for 44 miles, via a switchback of viaducts and tunnels, to La Spezia. Here we left the coast to climb north on the A15 motorway, which crosses Italy's mountainous spine. The first service station proved too small and crowded to park. The second, Grondola, 45 miles along, was also small but unusually empty of trucks (perhaps because there was no restaurant, just a simple snack bar?)

We parked as dusk fell, put the kettle on and tried to light the gas – nothing! The tank was nearly full of LPG, the tap was open, but no gas came through! It was now dark, rainy and cold (up at 1,714 ft). Resigned to a chilly night, M went to buy coffees while B rang our mentors, Motorhome Medics in Cheltenham – would they still be working late on a Friday afternoon? Not only working, but able to solve the problem at once! They asked if the floor level gas detector was on. The answer was 'No!' (we found we had accidentally knocked the switch). Martin explained that turning the detector off automatically cuts the gas supply. The detector also turns the gas supply off and sounds a siren if it detects a leak. So simple – but new to us in our recently acquired Flair motorhome. Thanks once again to Darren and Martin, we were soon warm and fed!

8 December   225 miles   PONTREMOLI to ANCONA, Italy   Ancona Nord Services, A14 Motorway

Motorways All the Way, via Modena and Bologna to the Adriatic Coast

Leaving at 9 am, we were soon climbing into the mist on the mountainous A15 motorway. At 2,000 ft another tunnel avoided the Pass of Righedo above (at 973 m or 3,210 ft). The 100-km-long A15 follows the Taro River Valley through the Apennines, reaching a maximum height of 2,400 ft, and we were sorry that fog obscured the view.

After about 40 miles we met the much busier Milan-Rome A1 Autostrada and turned towards Parma. The straight road ran south-east at an average height of about 160 ft, through a flat landscape of fruit orchards and vines, trained on tall trellises.

At Modena Nord (a large services good for overnight parking) we found a 3.3 m height barrier blocked our access to the petrol - and only diesel was available at the lorry pumps! A problem new to us, as our previous motorhome used diesel. Continuing to Bologna, we left the A1 for the A14, which skirts the north side of the city and heads for the Adriatic coast.

At Prov_Anc_07_(40).JPGthe next service station, we again found a 3.3 m high barrier between us and the petrol supply. We were running low and action was needed! Once we managed to make the attendant aware of our difficulty, he willingly moved some bollards which gave 'emergency access' to the pumps. Relieved, we bought enough fuel to reach Ancona, then joined the lengthy traffic jam (or Coda) on the A14 Bologna Ring Road.

We had lunch before Imola, on the services at Castel S Pietro Terme: another good place for an overnight, with plenty of space and free showers. Before setting off again, a phone call to the Greek ferry offices in Ancona confirmed that none of the companies (Superfast, Minoan or ANEK) offer 'camping on board' in the winter months. Superfast have relaxed their total ban, so that all 3 lines now allow it from the beginning of April to the end of October. Attempting to establish the current fares and cabin prices, we were advised to ask at the port ticket offices, as special offers might be on offer and there was no need to book ahead.

The A14 continued arrow-straight, parallel with the Via Emilia road and the railway, past Faenza and across the Rubicon River to Rimini on the Adriatic. There is a good car park with a small overnight charge in the resort but it was cold and rainy, soProv_Anc_07_(43).JPG we decided to continue to Ancona. We had explored Rimini (and its interesting Roman remains) on previous visits.

Still on A14, going south down the coast, the motorway runs a couple of miles inland, paralleled by the SS16 Via Adriatica, whose access to the shore is limited by a coastal railway line. We had good views of the sea – which looked rough – and it was already dark by 5 pm. The service station 3 miles before the exit for Ancona North was our shelter from a stormy wet night. We wondered whether we should delay the plan to sail for Greece tomorrow?

9 December   16 miles   ANCONA, Italy towards PATRAS, Greece   On board the Ferry 'Superfast XII'

A Fine Day and a Fine Ferry

We were relieved Prov_Anc_07_(46).JPGto wake to a fine calm morning after the night's storm. Leaving the A14 at Ancona Nord, after 3 miles, we finally paid our Italian motorway dues. The automated machine regretted that it could not read our ticket (perhaps because it was dated 7 December?) and we pressed the button for assistance. A voice spoke Italian – we did not! Eventually a real person appeared and accepted payment of €43.50 by credit card. This covered 424 miles (680 km) of motorway (with 2 free overnights), which seemed reasonable. British motorways might be free of tolls but there is a heavy price for parking more than 2 hours on the service stations – the only European country to charge for this privilege!

The port of Ancona is 13 slowProv_Anc_07_(45).JPG miles from the motorway exit. Follow the signs down to Falconara Marittima, south along the coast and round to the headland, keeping a sharp lookout for the word Porto or a picture of a ship! The guards at the entrance checked our passports and let us pass, to find a place among the trucks - an improvement on a previous visit when we were not allowed in without a ticket and had to park on waste ground about a mile away, then walk in to buy one!

M went into the Maritime Station while B made coffee and conversed with the neighbouring lorry driver, from the former Soviet State of Georgia. This character wanted to know if there were any business opportunities in England and, looking at our card, he wondered if he might buy and sell lorries in Bournemouth?!

The ferry departures from Ancona today (Sunday), overnight to Igoumenitsa/Patras, were listed as: 1.30 pm Superfast / 4 pm ANEK / 5 pm Minoan Line. ANEK offered us the cheapest single fare but unfortunately it was 'delayed' and not due into Ancona until 11 pm tonight, meaning it would reach Patras in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Customers were being tempted with a 'car goes free' offer, but this did not apply to larger vehicles.

The best return fare for us was Superfast's 'Winter Camper Return' of €479 (inc taxes and fuel surcharge) for any size of motorhome/caravan and up to 4 passengers, with a 4-berth cabin. Visit www.superfast.com for details. (Last year Minoan Lines did a similar deal but were not repeating it.) The Superfast offer (valid till the end of March) cost little more than a one-way ticket with any line, so we booked, guessing at a return date which could later be changed by telephone.

After filling a thermos and packing an overnight bag, we manoeuvred into line at noon. Boarding the ferry, Superfast (or ∑OU∏EPФA∑T) XII, we were directed to the lorry deck. This meant no electric hook-up, as there were only the larger sockets for refrigerated trucks, though a helpful Greek crewman tried his best to find us one. (When 'Camping on Board' in the summer months, suitable connections are available on the camping deck.) Luckily, our well stocked fridge/freezer survived the 24-hour turn-off, the use of gas being banned for safety reasons.

Travelling on SuGreece1_07_(13).JPGperfast with a cabin was a new experience. Previously we had camped on board, avoiding the winter dates or sailing from Bari or Brindisi where there are no hard and fast rules! ∑OU∏EPФA∑T XII (what did the Greeks make of Roman numerals?) is a splendid ship, built in 2002 in the German shipyard of Lübeck, and we had a comfortable en-suite 4-berth cabin to ourselves. The boat was far from full, with no other motorhomes or caravans on board – mainly lorries, plus a few Italian and Greek cars.

We stood at the stern, watching Prov_Anc_07_(49).JPGAncona recede in a steady drizzle (the best view of the town!). The crisp blue and white flag of Greece was raised and we went inside for lunch at the self-service Green Pepper cafe.

It was a calm peaceful crossing, spent reading and eating our own packed supper in the cabin, with Christmas carols and songs being piped quietly into our consciousness. We liked the wonderful Greek compromise on the smoking issue – the cabin had a nice new glass ashtray with a No Smoking emblem painted on it!

We worked out some distances.

Since leaving England (Poole) on 23 October we had driven:

926 miles from Cherbourg to Aups, via Normandy and Lanouaille

103 miles from Aups to the Italian border, a total of 1,029 miles in France.

424 miles from Italian border to Ancona

Total 1,453 miles – and how we love living in and driving the Flair!

For more images of motorhoming and cycling in Normandy, click: Omaha Beach.

For more images of motorhoming and cycling in the Dordogne, click: Dordogne.

For more images of motorhoming and cycling in the Provence, click: Provence.

For more images of motorhoming from Provence to Ancona, click: Provence to Ancona.

For more images of our new-to-us Fleetwood Flair Motorhome, click: Flair.