Tag: Europe

Day 9 – Tour de France

Day 9 – Tour de France

I set off nice and early, convinced that if I got myself on the road, I wouldn’t spend all day in the car and would be able to walk the Normandy beaches that evening and enjoy a nice meal for a change.

Just out of the hotel car park, I had to stop pretty much immediately to take a photo of the beautiful church that I had missed in the dark the previous evening; then I was off!  I tried to avoid the motorways.  If I told you that it was see the beautiful villages and see French life you wouldn’t believe me, so I’ll be honest and admit that I just wanted to avoid paying for the roads.

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I quickly worked out that the French road system is brilliant if you want to head north/south or east/west but if you are driving diagonally across the country then you are in a pickle.  One village blended into another as I drove and drove and drove.  I was a spectator to French village life, which seemed to involve cycling to the bread shop for a baton and then heading home to close your shutters and sit in the house all day.  There seemed to be very little social activity and the streets always seemed to be empty.

With so much time on my hands my mind began to wander and I got a little philosophical.  My journey had become like the journey through life.  At each junction, I could turn any direction that I wanted and I would never know what I had missed out on around the next corner by plotting the route that I had.  I couldn’t go back, time didn’t permit, so I had to make sure that I picked the best route I could to make it as enjoyable as possible and not look back and worry about what I had missed. Just think about what was to come.

After that, for me, deep thought I was happy to come crashing back down to earth as I passed a sign for Camping Du Coq at a place called Au Bourg. Then I passed a huge silver Coq statue and had to stop to take photographs and laugh at my own coq jokes.  Normal service was resumed.

I passed through the lovely town of Autun, cutting over west to east towards the equally lovely Bourges before heading north towards the Normandy coast.  As time ticked on and I became sick of driving the day continued to blur at the edges with so much driving. I was beginning to regret not paying the tolls and no doubt would have arrived by now, as night began to fall.

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Heading towards Caen, inland but on the eastern end of the D-Day beaches (so the area where the English forces were more prevalent), I started to recognise some of the place names on the sign posts and my excitement levels started to pick up again.  I arrived at the beaches at Luc-Sur-Mer, convinced that I would be able to find a campsite but aware that they may be busy.  It must have been around 7pm by the time I arrived in Caen and I spent maybe an hour driving up and down the coast following signs to campsites that all seemed to be closed for the evening. I would guess that I followed signs to 5 different sites and I didn’t speak to a soul at any of them.

Disappointed, I began to look for hotels as it had just started to drizzle and my mood was sour.  Eventually I ended up at Lion Sur Mer, after driving through many little seaside places that looked to have been abandoned, and asked a hotel if they had any vacancies.  I was so relieved when the chap said that they did and handed me the key to my room.  I took up my bags and opened the window and realised that my room looked out over around 100 meters of footpath and then the English Channel.  I would be waking up on the anniversary of D-Day and the first thing that I would see when I woke up would be the very water on which the boats would have been on so many years ago. All of a sudden, the long drive and fuss to find a bed for the night didn’t seem to matter.

DA7DE883-F782-496B-8C32-B57C24760BA7The fact that my room looked like it hadn’t been painted or redecorated since 1944 didn’t matter to me. I was buzzing and decided that at half eight at night I had done maybe 2,000 steps and that wasn’t good enough. I jumped into my running gear and decided to go for a run along the D-Day beaches. I must have got about 20 yards from the hotel when the gentle drizzle that had been hanging in the air progressed into a full on blizzard. I ran just short of 5km wearing a waterproof jacket and by the time I got back in the room there wasn’t a single centimetre of my clothing that wasn’t wringing wet.

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Showered and dried, I wandered down into reception to see if I could get some food. It was about half nine and I was told that there was no food being served and that the bar was shut. I assumed that I wasn’t the only one that was in the area to commemorate D-Day and I was stunned at the lack of foresight. When I asked why the bar wasn’t open they said that they had been very busy serving evening meals and were too tired to stay open.  My mind blown, I went out on the hunt for food.

I knew from the hotel/campsite search in the surrounding villages and town that there were no shops or takeaways open so I knew I had a task on my hands. I did pass one kebab shop that looked open but by the time I had parked and walked back down the road the lights were off and my opportunity was missed. I ended up in Ouistreham and picked up a McDonalds but, as it was closing I had to take it away. It was black dark and still lashing down so I headed back to my hotel to eat in my bed.

By the time I got back my chips were freezing, the burger was like a leather belt and the coke in my ice had melted so I ended up with watered down Coke Zero.  I watched the end of the only English language TV that I could find, the wartime classic ‘A Bridge Too Far’, and drifted off to sleep listening to the sea lap up against the shore.  This was so far from being perfect, yet perfect, all at the same time

 

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Going Dutch –  Wednesday (Day 4)

Going Dutch – Wednesday (Day 4)

I woke up in glorious sunshine and one of the nicest showers I had ever been in; lapping up the mod cons before going back to the stone age!  I had an important job to do today. A good friend of mine had lost her father in Holland in the Second World War.  She has never been over to see his grave and so I thought I would pay a visit to show my respects.  I had researched before I left home and knew that he was buried at a commonwealth war graves cemetery at Mierlo, just outside of Eindhoven.  As I waved goodbye to my friend I set route for Holland.  The problem was I had forgotten to download the maps for Holland!  I will never know if my friend ever spotted me parked up on her driveway stealing her internet, but if she did, I’m glad she didn’t come out to take the piss out of me!

Google Maps has totally changed the world hasn’t it?  Before it was around, when you looked at a map you saw where you were going but had no idea what it would be like when you got there.  Due to Google Maps Street View, I knew exactly where the cemetery was and what it looked like in the area around it.  I knew where to park and knew what sort of area it was.  The adventure, somewhat diminished, was about to begin.

I wanted to place some flowers on the grave and so drove into the centre of Mierlo to find a shop, a toilet and a pastry.  As with all Dutch towns and villages, the thing that hits you the most is the number of bicycles.  All the way from Dunkirk, the largest hills that I had seen were mole hills.  You could see mums and dads coming home from schools with loads of kids behind them on bikes, like a family of ducks.  The perfect terrain mixed with great infrastructure such as bike lanes and cycle paths made it so much more attractive compared to taking the car.

I stopped in the busy shopping street and picked up a cup of coffee and a slice of apple pie.  The kind and happy old gent behind the counter seemed to know every one of his customers and often seemed to anticipate their orders before they even got into the shop. It was a lovely, clean and friendly place and I sat in the window and watched the world go by with the sun on my face and wonderful feeling that this trip was turning out to be everything that I hoped it would.

I tidied up my cup and my plate and said my farewells. I was on the hunt for flowers and had spotted a supermarket just next door. I picked up a bunch of orange roses, representing the national colour of the Dutch people, and headed for the little car park opposite the cemetery that I felt that I knew so well from Google Maps.

As I walked across the busy road heading from Mierlo to Geldrop from the car park, it was immediately apparent what a superb job the commonwealth war graves commission does day in and day out. The whole cemetery looked like it was a football pitch ready for a cup final with perfectly cut lawns and razor sharp edges. It was spotless. Perfectly tended and, I don’t mind admitting it, brought a tear to my eye.

I signed into the visitor’s book and checked the location of the grave.  As soon as I spotted the name right there in print it all became very real. As I walked over to the grave stone all I could hear was the gentle chirping of the birds sitting in the trees that were slowly swaying in the gentle breeze. It was perfect. I placed the flowers on the grave stone and just took a moment to take in all the emotion, peace and tranquillity of the moment.

I called my friend back in England to tell her where I was and what I had done and reassure her that her father was in a beautiful place and beautifully cared for.  I took some photos to share with her when I got home and as I walked back to my car I thought to myself that if the rest of the trip was a nightmare of rain, bad campsites and car breakdowns, today had made the trip worthwhile no matter.

I made my way south from Eindhoven, heading towards Genk.  In all honesty, I wasn’t sure where I was heading for the rest of the trip.  I was thinking Bavaria but possibly Italy, so just headed South/South East until I could make up my mind.  I didn’t follow the motorway; I stuck to local roads and found a lovely little spot to stop at the Lozen Waterway.

I just parked up and watched barges, and the rest of the world, passing by.  No-one was in a hurry, life was calm, the going easy and the sun belted down on the flat land and calm canal. The only noise was the light traffic and the occasional bicycle rattling past.

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By the time I arrived at Genk I had decided that I was going to aim to get to Bastogne for my first night in a tent.  The towns that were signposted such as Malmedy, Aachen and St Vith were steeped in history, especially for those that show an interest in the Second World War. I wanted to visit Bastogne as it was such a famous battle zone, even more so after it was highlighted in the TV series Band Of Brothers.

I slowly meandered through the beautiful green Ardennes region and got to Bastogne just before tea time.  With a little help from Titchy back home, I found a campsite and got the tent pitched in no time at all.  I had hardly moved all day and so went for a quick run into town to stretch the legs. I went to bed that night excited at the prospect of the following day, where I would be walking through history.

PS I know it’s immature, but I also passed through a village called Bra.  🙂

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Back on the road again

It must have been around 3 years ago now that I, Itchy Feet, started my first blog and the first post that I made on there I wrote down my bucket list.  The reason that I started the blog was so that I could have that bucket list written down and be held to account if I didn’t get off my arse and do any of them.  I don’t recall all of the items, but 2-3 of them I recall with absolute clarity.

1) To drive through the alps and go on a camping tour.
2) To visit Colditz castle
3) To visit Green Lake in Tragoess, Austria (http://uk.businessinsider.com/austrian-green-lake-grner-see-is-a-lake-only-half-the-year-2015-7)
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After too many months of making excuses and finding reasons why I couldn’t go I got on with it and, yesterday, I booked the ferry and the road trip is on!

I will have an overnight stop just south of London and then head over on the DFDS ferry from Dover to Dunkirk for 10 nights of camping and following the front of my car, whichever way I choose to point it.  I bought a tent, I have a converter in my car so that I can charge up my camera, I have downloaded offline maps to my iPhone and I will pack my running and hiking kit.  The rest, well that’s just an adventure waiting to be written.

I chatted with a friend of mine that loves his motorcycles and I half remembered him telling me he had undertaken European adventures in his youth.  He suggested that rather than setting a route before I go and following it religiously, that I should head to a campsite, chat with the folks there, and then follow their lead to where I should go next and see where it takes me.

I can’t wait.

If anyone has any suggestions of what I just can’t miss, then I would love to hear for you!