So, technically speaking, this post covers two days rather than one, but seeing as the majority of both days was spent sitting in the car on various motorways, it seems a bit pointless doing two separate posts. So this was what we did on Thursday and Friday. In that order.
Thursday began with Kas going out for a run (that’s kind of like saying the day began with it getting light, or with the clock passing midnight, but whatever – it began with Kas going for a run). She was back in time for us to pack up the car and get moving not long after 10am. We were heading for the Channel Tunnel, as we have done on many previous holidays, and in ritual fashion, here’s the photo of the QE2 Bridge that is traditional in my first-day-of-the-holiday posts. Also part of the ritual now is stopping at the garage at the south east corner of Milton Keynes on the way down to the motorway to buy coffee.
We had a 2pm appointment at the tunnel (2pm for checking in) but being as the drive involves bits of the M25 I don’t like to push it with the time, just in case there’s an issue with traffic.
So we arrived at the tunnel terminal at the early end of the 2 hour to 45 minutes period that they ask, hoping that we’d manage to get bumped forward onto an earlier train. We were. Our 2:50 train became a 1:50 train, which gave us enough time to grab a quick lunch in the terminal and turn our bikes around before heading through passport control and onto our train. It was the first time taking the new motor onto the continent, and one of the things I was a bit apprehensive about was getting up a ramp and round a tight corner onto a train. As it happens, we got a bottom-deck berth and the corner was fine. I did manage to park right next to the toilets though, which meant it wasn’t possible to get the door open properly on the passenger side. The girls had to scrabble across the middle to get out.
France was as French as it normally is, and what with the time change and the duration of the tunnel trip our 1:50 train from Folkstone landed us in Calais around 3:30pm local time. After a brief stop at the garage on the way out of the tunnel for a bit more bicycle rotation we were off down the auroroute in the general direction of Rouen. We hadn’t planned to stop at all during this part of the trip, and we managed a nice straight run with no breaks, and found ourselves at our chosen accomodation, the Novotel Rouen Sud, before you could say Jack Robinson. OK, maybe not that quickly, but not far off. It was about 6pm when we arrived, which included a fairly circuitous route that Elizabeth the Sat Nav took us around the outskirts of Rouen.
The hotel room was fairly spacious apart from the girls having to share a sofabed. We’d had a long enough day that we couldn’t be bothered with going out anywhere, so we just ate in the restaurant at the hotel. It was remarkably nice, which is something I’ve found normal in even fairly moderate hotels in France. We ended up with the 2-course meal deal, which meant the price added up to somewhat less than I was expecting.
Friday morning started at about 7:30 with the promise of a hotel breakfast. This was the only hotel on the trip where I’d picked a rate that included breakfast, and we all, in true style, decided to get our money’s worth while we could.
We were in the car by 9am, having rather a lot of French motorways to work our way through over the course of the day. This was the day where I also started the “how many new French departments can we find a geocache in” part of the holiday. We were scheduled to pass through seven new ones on the trip, and I’d layed out a printed sheet listing places to stop for a cache in each one. They were all in service stations or rest areas, and I’d laid it out according to the location on the motorway (which road and which junction) and also according to the sequence we’d pass them. I’d put about 4-6 different stops in each department but had no intention of stopping at all of them unless we were travelling much faster than expected. We weren’t travelling faster than expected, so I was happy just to stop once in each. A few of them were also timed to be at places where we needed a natural food, drink or toilet break.
There’s not much you can say about a shed load of French motorways other than that you have to pay for most of them, but that results in them mainly having a nice road surface and relatively little traffic. Certainly, up until the mid-afternoon we weren’t in traffic at all. To compensate for the general lack of interest, above are snapshots of the French departments we’d geocached in before and after this day. You can pretty much see the route the motorways take. The new departments in which we stopped for a geocache were, in order of appearance, Orne, Sarthe, Indre-et-Loire, Vienne, Deux-Sèvres, Charente-Maritime and Gironde. The last wasn’t strictly necessary, as we could have done it the following day instead, but we kind of drove right past one and it would have been a waste not to stop. We’d made good time anyway and I felt we had enough time free to do one more before proceeding to the night’s accommodation, and the inevitable requests to have a bit of time in the swimming pool.
The hotel in question was the really rather wonderful Château de la Grave, which nestles in the middle of a load of vineyards not far from the Gironde Estuary. They only have four or five suites. The one we had contained a massive four-poster bed and a couple of camp beds for the girls, but it wasn’t cramped, and it had a bathroom that occupied one floor of an attached turret. Wicked with a capital wick.
After all the driving, neither of us was in the mood to try to find a restaurant, so when we enquired (in somewhat broken French) our host offered to provide us with some tapas, and we agreed a time of 8:30 pm. This gave the kids more than enough time to go and get wet in the swimming pool, before getting wet again in the shower.
Our tapas turned out to be an excellent selection of charcuterie with cheeses and pickles, and they were served out on the terrace in the comfy chairs with a generous accompaniment of wine made at the vineyard whose buildings occupied all parts of the site that the hotel didn’t. Our tapas were also accompanied by Damian and Ben from Leipzig, who were in the middle of a hippy-style, drive-round-Europe-until-the-money-runs-out trip in their campervan, which they were allowed to park down in some trees near the vineyards. They’d come up to the “big house” for some snacks and wine. Initially, Damian was looking for some travel tips for Bordeaux, but we weren’t really able to offer any because we hadn’t been there (and still haven’t). So the conversation meandered in all sorts of strange directions, and I think that process was facilitated by the second bottle of wine. It wasn’t strictly necessary, and if Ben and Damian are listening, I can only apologise if we got a bit forthright in our views or if we kept interrupting.
Anyway, it was an absolutely perfect spot to watch the sun go down. It is probably the most French place I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a few.
The four-poster bed was good too.