In May, we went to France. This was to be one of our camping trips, only in another country. As the only driver amongst us it would also be my first time driving on the Right side of the road and also my longest drive ever, a daunting prospect. On May 3rd we were to head to Portsmouth, take a ferry across during the night to St Malo, and then drive half the length of France to Les Sables d’Olonne. I’ll leave this google maps widget thing here so you can see the journey:
As can be seen, it was quite the journey!
Anyway, even though as a night ferry, we would be leaving the UK about 9pm, we left very early, wanting to leave plenty of time for us to get to Portsmouth. Even though I blundered at Birmingham and drove down the M5 instead of the M6 > M40 (which took us toward Swindon, then down the M4 to meet the A34 btw, if you know what that means (you won’t).
Despite this, after quite some journeying and a couple of rest breaks so Ash can smoke and we can eat, we arrive still quite early in the day. Now, I’d been to France before many times as a kid, but hadn’t been on one in coherent memory, so was not quite sure what to do. I knew we needed to drive into the waiting area and check in, but couldn’t remember boarding procedures or anything like that for the life of me, since it was always Deggsy who dealt with that.
But given the amount of time we had, we parked in a pay and display and decided to walk around the front for a bit. Now, Portsmouth, if you don’t know, is home to the headquarters of the Royal Navy, and also houses the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, where many older ships and exhibits are kept. Unfortunately, going on board any of them is an expensive thing to do, so we couldn’t do that. We could, however, have a nose around the public areas, and pose for images! So we got in front of HMS Victory, Nelson’s ship – and took some photos.
As we walked back we saw a line of black cars with some VIPs in. Mark swore he recognised one of them, but wasn’t sure who. Given that the Navy is pretty big, it could really be anyone, but perhaps it was someone he’d seen on the news.
After looking around the gift shop, which even sold wood from Victory from before it was replaced, we went back to the car, and drove down to the front (the docks being in an estuary). As soon as we parked up, we could see our ferry heading toward us.
I’d been on this specific ferry before as a child. The cabin we had then was an awful thing, in the middle of the ship, and square shaped. Worse was that there was some sort of structural support or pipe in the midle of the small room , and there was no en suite. There was also a strong stench of engine oil or some sort of fuel, and we were pretty far down in the ship. The ship itself was launched in 1989, so was almost as old as I was.
We watched it pass by, then decided we needed to eat. Even though it would be imminently docking, there was still a few hours before we needed to board – they needed to get everyone off and turn it around, and it’s much smaller than a plane!
Lucikly for us, there was a nearby pizza place on the front, Mozarella Joes. We ordered a Pizza and it was made pretty quickly. We were outside, but it is hand made and baked in an oven right inside, not just heated up! We were able to watch the local ships come by, including the hovercraft service to the Isle of Wight right from our table. Pretty nice!
After our Pizza, we headed back to the car, and then moved on to the port itself. When we got there, we were asked for our materials. Unfortunately, we hadn’t recieved them, due to a computer problem at Keycamp. Luckily customer service forwarded us printable versions; so we provided the agent with them, and we were allowed through. There was a small queue of cars, so myself and Ash immediately went to the nearby toilet block. After finishing our business though and coming back out, the queue was starting to move! A quick dash back to the car and moving off didn’t cause too much of an issue!
Unfortunately we were marshalled right into another queue. This one we were in for 40ish minutes. The ferry was in front of us now, with the various boarding ramps attached. Whilst waiting, another came, and vehicles began to pour off. It gave us something to watch, I suppose!
After a while, the queues began to move, one at a time. Filling a ferry is a complex procedure, with heavy lorries and taller vehicles in the bottom, and cars in the upper garage decks. This way nobody scrapes a roof! We entered the ferry as if being eaten by some sort of gigantic beast, but were then marshalled up a ramp and into precise position by many of the crew. An attended then provided us with materials to find the precise stairwell closest to us. Very good customer service from Brittany Ferries.
After turning off the engine, and trying to ensure the alarm is off (I think clicking lock doors once on the fob instead of twice keeps it off, at least), we went to find our cabin. The agent at the initial booth gave us printed materials for the rooms, so no more waiting at reception on the ferry as we did when kids. We went straight to it; it was a standard affair. En suite bathroom and shower, four bunks. We threw our luggage on one, then went up on deck to check out the view. Whilst there, they continued loading. Now, for some reason, I love being on the deck of a ship. I can stay up there for hours, looking at the sea, whilst it’s in motion. This I did, whilst Ash and Mark went back in after some photos in front of the chimney.
I took the time to take some photos of the Navy ships at the docks. We cast off just as some sort of ceremony took place on them all, whereby one man on each ship took down the flag whilst two others looked on. There were plenty of ships in port, including alot of the Navy’s new high tech destroyers, and a visiting ship with Arabic writing on it, as well as HMS Warrior, one of the first iron ships from 1860. After we passed the Navy dockyard, we passed Portsmouth itself. Here, the Spinnaker tower looks over the entrance to the docks and the estuary itself. It is a landmark for the city and is viewable for far out to sea.
As the night closed in, I took a few shots and then went back indoors. I found Ash and Mark in the lounge with a pint each. They’d been here since they left me. Mark regaled me of Ash’s first encounter with a moving ship, as when the engines fired up to reverse us out, everything had shaken, and he had displayed such a look of panic it was apparently hilarious! I was sad to have missed it. We watchd a magic show put on by a pair of women from Portsmouth, and then went to get some food from the restaurant. They had a very nice steak on offer, so we all went for steak and chips, but as usual Ash wasn’t impressed with anybody else’s attempt at cooking.
At this point I was worried about getting GB sticker for the car. In the EU, you need to display which country you’re from on the number plate on your car. Most countries are fine, and have mandated mandatory blue bars on the plate with the country code on. But not Britain, oh no; here it’s optional, and my car didn’t have one. After looking in the ships main duty free shop, I couldn’t find one either, so now was worried about flouting the law in France and getting arrested. Fortunately, there was a separate Travel shop on board which sold them. I bought two, since they were magnetic, and one was a spare.
We retired to the cabin, and after assigning bunks, went to sleep.
Luckily they won’t let you sleep in on Brittany Ferries, as an alarm goes off 60 minutes before arrival. This gives you plenty of time to get on deck and get some approach photos. Sure enough when getting out on deck, we could see France approach. It wasn’t that far away either; and the weather seemed okay, even though there were now plenty of clouds around. During the night, we’d headed West, then around the Cotentin peninsula, and down between the two channel islands, Jersey and Guernsey. It was still quite early, around 6:45am; the ferry could make a much faster crossing, but they slow it down as to let everyone sleep.
As we headed into the Port, we stayed on deck and watched the ship dock. They call people to the garage depending on where you are, so we knew when to leave. Foot passengers leave separately. After watching us dock and the men far below tie the lines to the quayside, the tannoy announced our section should report to our vehicles. We were able to do so without any issues; however we were on the upper garage deck, and the lower decks had to go first, before we could be lowered. By this point I was pretty nervous about driving on the right side of the road; I’d never done it before, and so understandably was a little anxious.
Anyway, the ramp went down and off the ferry we drove. Exiting the port was fine, despite the French soldiers (border police?) with machine guns around the security booths.
After leaving the port though, that was problematic. I’d turned roaming off on my phine to not get charged ridiculous costs, and the iPhone using just GPS couldn’t get a signal for the TomTom app. So we were officially lost. Now I’m panicking and Mark’s trying to get directions. I keep driving down the road since it seems like it led out of town, but then Ash sees a McDonalds and starts wittering on about McDonalds for some reason. Not what the situation needed; I shout at the guy to shut it just as we get to our first roundabout – I get beeped at since I looked the wrong way. Ash then says I shouldn’t speak to him like that but by now I’d seen red and just told him to shut it again. Then we were able to pull over in a layby to get the TomTom working.
After this brief spat, the TomTom got us on our way. We were already heading the right way apparently, and so got onto the AutoRoute (French Motorway) and headed South East to Rennes. From there it was a straight drive to Nantes, and then to Les Sables D’Olonne. Just before Rennes, Ash and me made up with a handshake; and we pulled into a McDonalds. The place was empty, and it would be our first attempt speaking in French. Mark went first, ordering in French, but the guy responded in English anyway! Myself and Ash ordered in English.
After many more hours, we arrived at Les Sables D’Olonne. We drove down the front and then to the site itself. We were taken to our caravan (which Mark insists on calling a Chalet, despite it being a mobile home and not having any Chalet characteristics, though apparently it’s what Butlins accomodation was called in the 60’s so perhaps thats where it comes from?). The site itself is quite nice. I had been to it three times as a child, once in a canvas Cabanon tent and the other times in caravans, so I sort of remembered the area.
Once settled, our first business was to get some sort of food. Not to mention, Ash had not smoked since the previous night’s Ferry journey – he was out of cigarettes and needed his fix!
So we ventured to the nearby supermarkets. We first arrived at Super U in the nearby Talmont-Saint-Hilaire. Here, we found foods were different – quite different in fact. Bacon was different, bread was different, and so were many other things.
Luckily we still completed a shop, and most importantly got ourselves lots of beers. Mark had also brought his own cider, so wouldn’t be put out by the lack of choice, if any. What did cause a concern is that there was no cigarettes. Nowhere. We tried some other shops, but found nothing. Ash was really anxious by now. After returning and unloading the food, we found that in France, only licensed Tobacconists can sell cigarettes, and supermarkets cannot be licensed. So we had to find a tobacconist (Tabac). Luckly, Talmont-Saint-Hilaire provided one, and Ash was able to get some by ordering “the blue one”. Or as he reportedly said, “BLEURGH”.
Once Ash was drugged up with his tabac, we returned to the site. After a short while, we decided to walk down to the sea; I remembered it was a rocky place, not stony, but rock formations, the beach being long eroded away by the relentless Atlantic ocean. Once there, I went out to the largest rock and climbed up on it. I remembered climbing it as a child; something me and my brother had Christened “Crab Heaven”, because of the sheer number of crabs hiding in the cracks there.
After this, we returned to the site again, just a short walk up the hill. We got changed and went to the bar, but did not stay for long; it had been, after all, a really long day.
The next morning, our plan was to head into Les Sables d’Olonne, and visit the beach. So off we went. The town itself is only a ten minute drive from the site, so we headed down the road and entered the place. Unfortunately a rather weird one way system is in place, and we ended up looking for a car park for ages. Eventually we found one run by Vinci, and I was able to buy a ticket on the debit card.
Our main issue though, was that we had dressed like tourists. I mean shorts, flip flops and brightly coloured clothes. However; everyone else was in a normal shirt and jeans with shoes. So we stuck out like sore thumbs. I myself have never really been a “beach” person; I find them boring and full of sand. The swimming’s fun but you can do that in a swimming pool.
We found ourselves quite a distance from the front, so had a bit of a walk ahead of us to even get to the beach. Eventually, we did though, and I thought to myself “this won’t be so bad, I’ll lie down, get a tan and a bit of relaxation, maybe even catch up on some sleep”. Wrong. After just two minutes – thats 120 seconds, Ash and Mark decide food is on the agenda instead. So the beach was over already. We climbed the stairs, crossed the road and started looking for restaurants.
However, having no French skills, they don’t know any of the French menus. I know some of it from when I was a kid; moules = mussels, avec = and, frites = chips. Everyone was nonplussed by the mussels suggestion, not that I would try them myself. Steak haché = beef steak? We were up for this, so we entered a restaurant and ordered up.
Ash was still up for trying to order in French, but the waitress clearly wasn’t impressed and used to English tourists so took an order for three steak and chips instead.
After eating, we decided to go back to the caravan, so we did. On the way back though we found a shortcut, so didn’t even need to walk so far in the first place, and we’d been carrying towels around like a bunch of muppets the whole time. Oh my lord.
After that, we headed back to the site. We spent the next few days lazing around, travelling to the supermarket, having coastal walks, eating barbeques, and then in the evenings retiring to the pub. The bars in france are dangerous – there were no pints, just 33CL glasses. On the other hand, Desperados was on draught. On the other other hand, 33CL of draught Despers cost more than a pint would in the UK. It wasn’t cheap at all!
On one of the later days, we were anxious to hear if the local club, Wrexham FC, would make it back into the league, with their playoff at Wembley. I had planned to go to Wembley earlier in the year, but intense snowfall stopped that plan.
On another day, the other two decided it would be a good idea to go to the pool. However, the manager strictly enforced the “no-bermudas” rule, meaning it was Speedos or nothing. So off they went to the shop to get some. Ash, thinking that the tight material would be “too small” went for a larger size. This was an awful mistake as he realised later, when the too large by far swimsuit tried to leave him naked in the pool surrounded by children. That would have been an interesting trip to bail him out at the local police station! Luckily he realised and they both returned within an hour. It definitely seems that both beaches and swimming pools just don’t work!
One night at the pub, Ash brokered international relations with France by having a game against a French tourist. He won two, and “let” the Frenchman win one as well.
On the last full day, we went for a stroll down the coast and found a cave, which Ash promptly decided to explore. However, after a short foray inside, he found it full of spiders; absolutely loads of them. “Oh no!”, we cried to him, “the French biting spider!”. At this, Ash egressed from the cave as fast as humanly possible. I’ve never seen somebody move backwards and hunched so fast.
The next day, we left early. We drove northward, this time avoiding the toll system. We got to Caen about an hour before the ferry was due. The port for Caen was miles away from the city itself, and actually in a place called Ouistreham. The ferry arrived on time and we were able to board. Ash decided to tease Mark, saying it “looked rough”. When the deckhand put chocks under the wheels of the car after we loaded, he said “oh it must be rough, they’ve put the chocks down!”. However, upon boarding, things seemed fine. We set off, and despite a strong gust, we went on deck to get some photos of France leaving us behind.
After we went inside, things did get rough. But myself and Mark did not care. It was Ash who was suffering. He went pale, felt totally ill. He nearly collapsed twice. Upon going to reception, they had to get the ships doctor involved, and he prescribed some anti sea-sickness drugs! Then he purchased a cabin (so much cheaper in day trips) and went for a lie down.
Five hours later, we arrived in a dark and gloomy Portsmouth. I spent most of the time on the deck: I just like observing the sea. I was freezing as a result though.
After getting through customs (and the agent said I had a baby face, gee thanks), the drive back was surprisingly short. Maybe it was because we were driving back.
I dropped the guys off, and another holiday had come to an end.