On Tuesday 23rd May, at three o’clock, on the outskirts of Heathrow Airport, Tony and myself were standing in the reception area of, Budget and Avis, hire cars. The young gentleman representing Budget Hire Cars was filling in the rental forms for a Fiat Ducato 2.3 multijet 150 break horse power van with 13 cubic meters of storage inside. Tony was hiring the van and I was included on the forms as a second driver. The personable young man checked our driving licenses. We both signed the forms and everything was set. However, Tony inquired about adjusting the headlights on the van to be used in France and Spain. They were not adjustable. Tony asked about the EU requirements that every vehicle should carry a high visibility jacket, a spare set of headlight bulbs and have two luminous red warning triangles to be placed in front of and behind the van in the event of a breakdown. None of this was included in the itinerary of the van and the young man was totally unaware of these regulations. Budget and Avis are a reputable car hire company that have years of experience and are meant to be professional. Some muttering from Tony, and a good dose of incredulity from me accompanied our exit from the premises. Tony didn’t push the argument any further. He had all the necessary items in his own car back at home which we transferred to the van before we began our adventure.
AN art installation beside the road in France.
A few weeks ago, Tony Brown, John Lodge, Ivitt Dickinson, Jim Howley and myself met at The White Horse in Dorking for a drink and a lunchtime meal. Tony talked about selling his house in Spain. He wanted to bring back some items of furniture which have been passed down in his family. They are precious family heirlooms. I said that if he needed any help I would give him a hand. Tony gave me a look, paused and said,” if you mean it, yes, come along.” I thought he would need somebody to help lift and carry the items. The deal was set.
We set off for Bognor Regis first. Tony has a caravan at Willows Caravan Park just outside of the village of Westergate, about four and half miles north of Bognor Regis. Tony’s youngest sister Marie and her brother in-law were there to meet us. We loaded some furniture from the caravan on to our van to swap with the furniture Tony wanted to bring back from Spain. We bought some deliciously hot and crisp fish and chips from a local chippie. The fish and chips were devoured and a cup of tea imbibed and we were ready to set off for Newhaven. Our Ferry sailed at 11pm. Once on board we found some couchettes to settle down for the night. They were indescribably uncomfortable. I didn’t sleep. Tony had a doze. I might have dropped off for a few minutes but to put it bluntly the night was bloody torture. Two extremely tired people began the first day’s drive at 4.30am in the morning from Dieppe. We had landed in Dieppe but I didn’t see it. It was dark when we disembarked and the road from the ferry leading to, “Toute Directions,” curved up onto the chalk cliffs and bypassed Dieppe itself. We set forth on our trip through France and Spain intending to swap driving duties every two hours to give each other a rest.
Tony and myself, stopping at Auchan La Couronne for a break.
Driving was a comfortable experience. The van was easy to drive and all the controls were smooth and light to the touch. It was easy to forget the size of the vehicle we were driving. There was very little traffic on the roads and we sped along. By about 9.30am cafes and motorway conveniences were opening so we decided to stop for breakfast. Coffee and croissants, lovely. I was feeling reasonably fresh by this time. As we alternated our driving we could take the opportunity to nap when we were not driving.
The kilometers sped by, Rouen, Evreux, Dreux, Chartres, Poitiers. We did not stop. We drove on. I had made a few notes about some of the more famous places that we passed, to be aware of their history. Rouen was the capital of the Duchy of Normandy and it was where William of Normandy ruled before he conquered England in 1066. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen during the Hundred Years War. In 732 AD there was a battle against the Muslim invaders at Chartres. The spires of Chartres cathedral pierced the sky over the ancient and modern city and could be seen from miles away as we drove on, inexorably. Poitiers is famous of course for the battle between the French and English during the hundred years’ war. In 1356, Edward The Black Prince defeated King John II of France. It was the second of the great English victories against the French during the Hundred Years’ War. The other two were Crecy and Agincourt. The main feature of these battles and the reason the English were able to defeat the French decisively, was the use of the English longbow. Poitier, also had been, in its ancient past, both a Celtic and a Roman center. There is a Roman amphitheater in Poitiers.
We stopped for lunch at Angouleme, in the south western area of France, in the province of Aquitaine. A name also with English resonances. The countryside was flat and extended in smooth undulating expanses towards the horizon, only broken by clusters of woods interspersed across the landscape. We saw small turreted chateaux along the way often surrounded by sheltering trees to protect and shield them from the prevailing winds.
We drove through Bordeaux. Vineyards stretched far across the landscape to our left and right. The vines were set out as neatly as ribbed corduroy. Sauvignon, Merlot, Verdot, Malbec appeared on large signs here and there. These are the names of types of grape producing wines often with the same names. We drove on, crossing bridges spanning the great rivers, The Loire, Niotase, Canal de Pomere the Dordogne and the Garonne. After driving all day and covering more than 600 miles we reached the foot of the Pyrenees. In the distance we could see the Pyrenees mountain range and we caught glimpses of snow high up on the tallest peaks.
The foothills of The Pyrenees in the distance.
So, what did Tony and I talk about? Everything, as you would expect. Religion, politics, family, thoughts and opinions about this and that. We saw the weather forecast on televisions displayed at various stops along the way and saw Macron meeting Putin and Trump , acting very out of place, at the G7 and we talked about that. We talked about and commented on what we saw along the way, places, scenery, other drivers and how bad they were. A learner driver cut straight across the front of our van on that first day while Tony was driving. I gasped and muttered something unrepeatable and Tony hissed, something unrepeatable. The two of us were together for seven days, in each other’s company all that time. I think we became unselfconscious. I know I can speak impulsively. I remember talking about teaching in junior schools and rambling on about every detail and consideration needed for taking a class on a residential trip. It just poured out. Maybe if Tony reads this he might smile and mutter,” Oh goodness, did he go on and on.” Tony gave me the low down on life in Spain and so on we went, doing a lot of talking.
Pau, at the base of the Pyrenees was a welcome break. Before we reached the town I was becoming very tired. I wasn’t sleepy but my whole body felt exhausted.I said to Tony , “can you take over driving, I have had enough. “I didn’t realise how close we were to the hotel. As we didn’t come across anywhere to stop and change over, I continued until we pulled into the car park. We stayed in a small motel on the outskirts of Pau. I was able to have a hot shower. When we were both refreshed we met together and walked over to the restaurant for dinner. The restaurant served basic dishes, baked fish, chicken goulettes, a ratatouille, a range of cheeses, sour dough bread, water , a choice of wines and French and Belgium beers and good coffee. Well of course French food is never basic. The French are unable to create a substandard meal. It’s in their DNA to cook well, combining herbs and sauces even for the cheapest of cheapest meals. We ate a delicious repast. Before retiring we went for a walk around the vicinity of the motel and came across some sports fields nearby covered in vans and caravans. People seemed to have gathered for a festival of some sort. My room was clean, the bed was comfortable and I went to sleep almost the moment I touched my head on the pillow and slept deeply and soundly all night.
Driving through France.
I woke in the morning refreshed. Tony and I met for breakfast, a hot cup of coffee, some cereal and a croissant and we were on our way. The Pyrenees loomed ahead. Once out of the town of Pau by way of innumerable roundabouts we headed towards the foothills of the Pyrenees. French roundabouts always seem to have a sharp turn right off them. It’s as though they try to slow your progress before you are able to accelerate. We had both got used to driving the Fiat van by now. It had a long wheelbase and taking these angled turns off the numerous roundabouts we encountered had to be done carefully.
The roads in France but especially in Spain are smooth and well surfaced and in many cases new. There is also, apart from around towns and cities, very little traffic. The Fiat van being easy to drive the roads were generally a pleasure to drive along. The one thing we had to be careful about were the speed limits. Tony had installed his SATNAV in the cab of the van. The SATNAV kept us informed about our speed and the limit we should keep to. There are cameras everywhere and the French and Spanish are very strict about keeping to limits. The only drawback about this is that sometimes the speed limits changed drastically. Approaching towns it sometimes showed 50kmph but out on the main motorways it showed 90kmph or 110kmph then in places it went up to 120kmph but suddenly it would drop quickly to 100 or even 50. Approaching one town in France I remember the speed being 110kmph then dropping quickly to 50kmph and within meters shooting up to 100kmph. There seemed no logic to it. But, we had to be careful. We didn’t want a speeding ticket. “Elizabeth,” helped us. Elizabeth being the name we gave to the assuring voice of the SATNAV. “Elizabeth,” was great. A wonderful companion. She kept us informed of temperature, speed, petrol consumption and km to go, to our next scheduled stop. During the whole journey we kept to our driving schedule of driving in two hour intervals. We changed over at suitable stopping points where we could get a coffee and go to the gents.
Driving through the Pyrenees.
There are 129 peeks in the Pyrenees that are over 3000 meters. Signs showed us that sometimes we were climbing to 2000 meters or more. The Pyrenees reminded me, with their steep slopes and racing mountain streams and lakes of the Lake District. It had a feel of The Cumbrian Lakes but on a much larger scale. We saw boulders loosened from the mountain tops resting on valley sides or near streams bigger than houses. They were very impressive in size and scale. Buzzards circled overhead at times. We passed through tunnels cut through mountainsides and drove through villages constructed from the local stone. One particular rugged stone built tower, Tony informed me, was called, The Riflemen’s Tower. Indeed, the holes through which rifles could be fired were visible as we drove past it high on the rocks above. It was obviously a strategic military position defending the valley. As we passed into Spain some blue uniformed police officers stopped us and asked us what our business was. They were courteous and didn’t detain us long. I wondered if, since the random ISIS attacks in Britain and Europe, the boarders would be difficult to cross. I got the feeling these police were being careful but not in a too obstructive manner.
The road onwards.
Geologically, the Pyrenees must be a geologists’ paradise. Every type of rock, formation and process can be found in the Pyrenees. The range is 430 kilometers long. It divides Spain, France and Andora. Its width, north to south varies from 65 kilometers to 150 kilometers. It began to be formed in the Precambrian period from the early formation of the Earth 4.6 billion years ago to 590 million years ago when fossils began to appear. Every type of rock can be found in the Pyrenees, conglomerates which are gravels and sandstones, breccia a form of cemented gravels, sandstones, shales, siltstones, keuper deposits, limestones, schists, marls, greywackes, salts and red deposits which are sandstones that contain iron oxides. One particular road cutting we drove through, high up in the mountains, showed sides that were a deep red colour.
We came across sandstone cliffs that changed colour, like a rainbow across its surface and reminded me of the sandstone cliffs at Alum Bay on the south coast of the Isle of Wight. The Alum Bay sands are made from quartz, feldspar and mica and the colours are created by other minerals seeping into and staining the layers. Something similar must have happened to the sandstones in the Pyrenees. It also suggests that these Pyrenean sandstones were formed under the sea at one time. The mountain folds were caused as the Iberian Peninsula plate collided with the European plate. There are examples of volcanic activity. There are metamorphic rocks and sedimentary rocks. This rich and varied geology creates the most dramatic and beautiful landscape.
Emerging from the Somport Tunnel.
We drove through the Somport Pass and the relatively new Somport Tunnel , a long modern well-lit sweeping insertion through part of the mountains. Once through the Pyrenees we drove on and into Spain. The landscape seemed flat and barren, sun scorched, although Tony assured me that Spain was looking greener than he expected for this time of the year. Yes, I could see the greenery but it was pretty thinly spread and the yellow and orange and red ochre earth beneath showed through. As we neared towns and villages sometimes castles were situated on high rock outcrops commanding views over the surrounding terrain. We drove on. The signs for Jaca and Huesca passed us by. Huesca is one of the many towns that originate from Roman times and is the capital of the Province of Huesca in the area called Aragon. Thoughts of Tudor English history came to mind. English history doesn’t just have its reach throughout France but through Spain too. Zaragoza came up next. I was interested to learn that the name, Zaragoza, is a bastardisation of the name ,”Caesar Augustus.” It is obvious therefore the origins of Zaragoza. It is the capital of the province of Zaragoza but also the capital of the wider area of Aragon. Zaragoza has a multi domed cathedral, the Nuestra Senora del Pilar basilica. It is shrine to the Virgin Mary. It combines baroque and Islamic styles in its construction, standing out from its surrounding buildings. It is a center for pilgrimage. And on we drove in this increasingly arid landscape, Teruel, Sagunto. Font de la Figuera, Elche and eventually our destination, Torrevieja on the Costa Blanca. Some smaller mountain ranges reach the sea just here and although not high, because they stick out of the flat, surrounding landscape sharp edged and rugged they are a dramatic sight.
Tony cleaning dead insects off the windscreen at one coffee break in Spain.
Torrevieja is a seaside resort with many new buildings and narrow streets huddled up against a busy harbour crammed with sailing yachts and launches. Salt lagoons, Las Salinas, are on the edge of the city. Salt production is its main industry apart from tourism and the presence of a large British and foreign ex pat community. Some old buildings remain such as Iglesia Arciprestal de la Inmaculado Concepcion which was built in 1789 and rebuilt in 1844. I walked into this church just after people emerged after hearing mass. It was dimly lit with candles. I walked past some of the small chapels inset along each side. Spanish churches and cathedrals create biblical and religious scenes with life size and lifelike statues in poses of veneration, adoration or suffering. Combined with the candle lit atmosphere these scenes become almost alive and can be very moving and affecting.
The statues were almost lifelike in the candlelit interior.
I walked around Torrevieja while Tony had a meeting with his solicitor about arranging the transfer of the ownership of his house to his friend. There is a pier which leads from the harbour and stretches for one kilometer, parallel with the coastline. I walked along this to the end. Many people were jogging and walking along it for the fresh sea breeze. I was able to look back and get a broad view of the city, the harbour and ships transporting salt from the conical mounds of salt positioned along the industrial wharves.
Ships loading salt in Torrevieja.
While we were in Torrevieja I met some of Tony’s friends and we went out for a meal with one couple and visited another couple in their home. The expat lifestyle is comfortable. Houses and the cost of living is cheaper than in Britain. Tony’s friends I met lived in beautiful villas with Spanish style roofs, doors and windows and the interiors were just as classically designed. They told me that they love living in Spain not only because of the cost of living but because of the climate. Even in the winter months the climate of Torrevieja does not go below 17 degrees celcius and can reach 20 degrees in the winter.The English who live in Spain are a gregarious lot. They support each other and form clubs. Tony told me how he and Mumtaz had started a caravan club and organized tours to various parts of Spain. Tony had also lead a walking group which went for walks together in the hills and mountains around Torrevieja. It is common throughout Spain that communities help organize the development of the areas they live in. If a communal swimming pool is required for the area, or the employment of a road sweeper and gardener for the roadside verges is needed, the local people have a committee which oversees these developments. People pay fees to their central committee each year to help finance these ventures.Tony, and some of his friends I met, are leaders in their own community.
The harbour in Torrevieja.
Torrevieja is south of Alicante in the Provence of Valencia. Valencia has some rugged mountain ranges, the ancient Iberian range extending from the north west to the south east, and the younger Betica formation from the south to Cap de la Nao. This young limestone has given rise to high rocks like the Penon de Ifach crag. Where these mountain ranges reach the sea they give rise to dramatic cliffs. As we drove towards Torrevieja, on our downwrads journey, we could see these mountain formations all around us. It is easy to see the attraction for hill and mountain walking in Spain. The scenery looked spectacular.
Mick, a retired Irish policeman friend of Tony’s, who lived nearby Tony in Torrevieja, helped us load the back of the van with Tony’s furniture, the items he wanted to bring back to England. An ornate bed head, sofas, washing machine, various family heirlooms, including a, “bog oak,” cupboard and a grandfather clock case, and some bedside cupboards, were all hoisted onboard with ample heaving, huffing and puffing. “This way!” “That way!” “Up a bit, no, lower, lower,” and so forth. After some maneuvering we got it all loaded and tied and strapped down.
Tony's old back yard with a barbecue.
The journey back through Spain took us past Sax and Villena, both with impressive castles standing out in the landscape. We drove on past Calamocha, Muel, Nueno and Anguis, the Pyrenees looming up once more in the distance. We drove into Zaragoza because I took the wrong branch on the A23 but it proved quiet on a Sunday and the roads were virtually empty. It was interesting to see all the modern factories and high rise estates on the outskirts of Zaragoza and we were soon back on the E07 which again joined up with the A23 taking us north. Zaragoza, has a famous history. Apart from its Roman origins it was besieged during the Napoleonic Wars. This trip, if it did nothing else, gave me a whole list of places, that we merely drove past and through this time but which one day I want to go back and visit properly.
Castles in Spain.
“Elizabeth,”was becoming a problem on the way back. She was forever trying to get us to take turnings, drive in directions and along routes we didn’t want to drive. Nearing the Pyrenees once again we eventually gave into her. We thought. “Lets see where she takes us.” In many ways it was the right thing to do. Instead of taking us the main route through the Pyrenees which we had followed on the way south, the N134 via Urdos and Bource, we took “Elizabeth’s,” route the D934, which at times we discovered, became a narrow country road. The D934 took us past, dams, waterfalls, hydroelectric plants and under overhanging rocks. At one stage while driving, the rocky cliff on my right overhung the road but Tony assured me we had at least a meter clearance. He was right because we got past without any scrapes. My hardest bit of driving was coming down steep mountain roads that,” hair pinned,” continuously for kilometers. The drop to one side was always precipitous. Fast moving mountain streams raced beneath us. There were many more boulders strewn about than we had encountered on the way south. Many were so big, one landing on us would have crushed us flat in an instant. The scenery was breathtaking. It was amazing to see the snow high up on the mountains around us. Our route took us once again, between 2000 and 3000 feet but the temperature didn’t drop below 20 degrees. We passed ski lifts and ski lodges this time which we had not encountered before. The ski slopes were devoid of snow at this time of the year.
Boulders loosened from the mountain higher up, bigger than houses.
We eventually reached Pau again and stayed the night in the same motel we had stayed in on our way south to Spain. The receptionist and our waitress for the evening spoke to us in French and Tony used his language skills with expertise and panache. As we sat eating our evening meal, the French elections were on the television. Macron had won and although Marine le Pen had lost the presidential election she had got close. She demonstrated strongly the rise of nationalism and the hard right that is resurgent in Europe at the moment. We watched the weather forecast for France, thirty degrees or more all along the route north we were to take. As we left the restaurant for our rooms I spoke to the receptionist and was surprised to find her answering me in perfect English, with an English accent. I was taken aback. She was English. I asked her how long she had lived in Pau. She replied for at least twelve years. She was young. She must have lived there since she was a child. I didn’t pursue our conversation any further and just smiled and said goodnight. We made sure we had plenty of water before setting off in the morning.
Driving back through France.
We drove back up through France, crossing the great rivers once again, The Garonne, The Dordogne, The Charente, The Loire , The Seine and The Somme, back towards Dieppe. Just south of Chartres at Barjouville, we stopped at a new,” Leclerk ,”supermarket complex and had lunch.
Tony and I messing about with mirrors in the Leclerk supermarket south of Chartres.
From here we drove on across the flat countryside reaching to the horizon and saw once again, but from the south this time, the great slender spires of Notre Dame de Chartres, built between 1194 and 1220, pointing to the clear blue sky above it. It looked magnificent in the distance as it got steadily closer. I can imagine all those generations of workers in the fields, the farmers, their wives and their children from the 13th century onwards looking up from their work and seeing this gothic magnificence in the distance and they would have regarded it with awe and reverence and wonder. We had time, this time, to drive into Chartres. We didn’t stop but drove around the old town with its quaint buildings, avenues of trees and small parks. We drove close to the cathedral to get a passing look and then we were out of the city and on our way to Dieppe.
Dieppe in the evening for a beer in a bar.
We arrived in Dieppe early so we drove down the steep hill into the town and had a drink in a bar overlooking the harbour full of yachts and fishing boats. We recalled the Dieppe Raid of August 1940 which was a disaster for the allies. The lessons from Dieppe were applied to the D Day landings in June 1944.The ferry crossing back to England was better than the crossing over. We both managed to get a little sleep this time using the couchettes. In the morning we drove back to Willows Caravan Park and with some scheming, heaving and adjusting we got the furniture from the van into the caravan. Later we drove back to the AVIS car hire company at Heathrow and Tony signed what he needed to sign and handed over the keys. Tony drove me home to West Barnes Lane and our adventure was over.