With an upcoming sabbatical, I thought of warm weather, the smell of freshly baked French pastries and driving away into the sunset. Instead, we were in a Halford’s garage with a failed MOT and an upcoming hospital appointment. “That’ll be £700 to replace the wheel bearings Sir”. He saw our desperation to get away on time. This along with a squash ball to the face resulting in a torn retina meant that we had another week in the U.K.
Collectively Alex and I had never had a full week off work without plans before. We called it ‘productive pottering’. From Tina and Hamilton the Musical, to birthday parties and mystery brunches, the luxury of having so many hours in the day only made us want to leave more. We were well and truly ready for an adventure!
Day 1 – 22nd May 2019 – Ferry to France!
Boarding the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe we watched the magnificent seven sisters curve away from us like a chalky white ribbon. The propellers created a distinctive wash through the English Channel. The sunset cast a golden light like a cracked egg yolk, it was within this moment, that the gravity of what we’d committed to hit me. “Could we
survive on 30 euros per day, for 4 months, with no plans and a camper van?”
Arriving into Dieppe at 10pm our first goal was to park up somewhere to sleep. We opened up an App called ‘park4night‘, a brilliant platform run by users that recommends free and paid places to park up vans for the night. We emerged 7km out of Dieppe with a sweeping view of the sea and the local town lit up like flickering candlelight. Parking next to a father, daughter and pet dog trio we settle in to sleep for our first evening in France. We felt a little uneasy. The sound of boy-racers, loud beating music and a car horn that felt aimed in our direction kept me on edge for the evening. Alex reassured me that the doors were locked, as we tried to shake off the feeling of vulnerability with sleeping in a vehicle.
Day 2 – 23rd May 2019 – Rambling through Rouen
We wake up to the sound of the sea and the warm rays of the sun streaming into our van. Following the road down to Hautot-Sur-Mer, it’s short drive to the coast. We pick up a freshly baked croissant and pain-au-chocolat for breakfast and a walk on the beach. Both pastries were crisp and melt in the mouth, it was our first introduction to the wonderful world of Boulangerie’s – local bakeries that are the beating heart of every French town.
With itchy feet on our 2nd day, we drove inland towards the city of Rouen; a quaint, riverside city characterised by a cobbled streets and towering Gothic Churches. After a disastrous drive into the city centre (where we nearly got stuck in a tunnel) we proceeded to park our van outside the city and took a 6 minute train ride into town.
Famously depicted by Monet in his painting of the Cathedrale Notre Dame, we wandered amongst cobbled streets and chocolate shops, eventually delving into a church that housed a surprise Wrought iron museum. There were monuments dedicated to Joan of Arc throughout the city and independent bakeries on every corner. Purchasing a baguette to take back for dinner, we were delighted it was warm and crisp to the touch. The scent of freshly baked bread combined with a growing hunger for dinner, meant that the baguette did not make it back to our van.
Day 3 – 24th May 2019 – Speedos
After 2 nights ‘wild parking’, Alex and I decided to continue south and stay at a “proper” campsite, as we had run out of water. We checked into Camping Sandaya la Cote de Nacre. There were international flags, wooden chalets and 3 large turquoise swimming pools with numerous water-slides. Camping pitches were numbered and the walkways blended with the roads, created a labyrinth that felt like entrapment in a mini Disneyland. It’s partly why Alex and I loved park4night, it gave us the freedom to travel without conforming to paid campsites.
We don our swimming gear and take the chance to go for a swim. Upon entering the pool we heard a sharp blow of a whistle and a lifeguard ran towards us. There is an accusatory point at Alex’s swimming shorts. She reinforced an age old law in France – that men are only permitted to wear skin-tight budgie-smugglers. I glanced at Alex’s swimming shorts: bright blue and rising mid-way up the thigh. Modest, appropriate and great for swimming I’d say. “Not clean!” she stated.
Alex insisted I go for a swim. Whilst in the pool, I partake in my usual retrospective thought trail after any confrontation. “Well how about the kids that pee everyday in the pool?” “The women wearing one pieces like me? Is that unhygienic if such a rule is enforced across both genders? “Since when did a family camp want men walking around with bulging sausages in tiny speedos on full display?”
I felt uncomfortable with Alex sitting with a drooping head on a sun lounger whilst I’m in the pool. We left the pool after a couple of minutes and decided on a long beach front stroll into Saint Aubin Ser Mer. On 6th June 1944, D-Day (Operation Overlord) made history as the largest seabourne invasion in the world. 5 Beachheads were taken control of and 8 countries allied together to defeat German occupation in this sleepy sea-front village. Colourful flags line the sea-front to commemorate the fallen troops and I could only begin to imagine the scale of 24,000 soldiers and nearly 7,000 vessels on this quiet stretch of beach. Our visit marks the 75th year of the Normandy landings, with many soldiers whom fought in the war still alive today.
Day 4 – 25th May 2019 – Mont-Saint-Michel UNESCO World Heritage Site
We drive towards the Breton Coast today, famous for pink granite boulders above turquoise seas and coastal walking trails. We spot signs for Mont Saint Michel on our drive there and decided upon a spontaneous stop off.
“Alex, it’s 17 Euros to park there, that’s half our bread money!”. With a daily budget of 30 euros per day, Alex and I watched the island of Mont Saint Michel glisten in the distance. We reached a barrier and proceeded to perform a 180 degree turn away from it. Lets walk a couple of miles and save the insane car park cost as food money! We strolled across sheep pastures and adjacent to the trail for the Mont Saint Michel Marathon, a running event that coincided with the day of our visit. The runners, jubilant atmosphere and support from the audience took me back to when Alex ran the London Marathon the month prior.
Visiting Mont Saint Michel felt like a time warp. A fairy-tale like abbey topped the deserted island with a labyrinth of staircases, towers and stone walkways leading up to it. We explored narrow alleyways and cobble stoned shopping areas until our onward drive to Dinard in the evening.
Day 5 – 26th May 2019 – Exploring St Malo
Parking near the affluent city centre of Dinard, Alex and I had a disturbed nights sleep. A dog howled for hours on end. We heard a local resident scream from the window in frustration, setting off even more dogs into a chorus made intent on keeping us awake. Nevertheless in the morning we set off on a 40 minute walk to the ferry port, taking a short boat journey across to the walled city of St Malo. The fortifications of Saint-Malo today include eight gates, three posterns and three bastions.
We have our first lunch outing today, sampling a Breton galette (pancake made with buckwheat flour). Served in a square folded pancake, a delicate pastry is cooked with hot salted butter, a fried egg, ham and cheese. The dish embodied what we thought of food in France: simple, delicious and great quality.
Day 6 – 27th May 2019 – 17km walk on the Brittany Coast
Alex and I take a short drive to Sables d’or les Pins, parking alongside the seafront at the end of a coastal road. We downloaded route notes from work (Headwater) for Brittany’s Emerald Coast Walk and followed the directions through marshland, then climbing up to a spectacular coastal footpath around the cliff. The 17km walk was home to some of the most stunning beaches I’d ever seen in France with soft, white sand beaches, turquoise waters and and crumbling cliffs. I had a slightly twinging knee by the end of the walk and reaching our camper van started feeling like home away from home.
Day 7 – 28th May 2019 – Tandem for two
After 3 nights of ‘wild parking’ we decided to make up some mileage today and proceeded 200km south towards Domaine Leveno, a campsite situated in Briere National Park, France’s second largest area of marshland. At the campsite, our curiosity for trying out a tandem bike got the better of us.
Weighing in at over 25kg for the bike itself, we watched as a staff member untangled the beast away from other bikes. The chain had rusted to the colour of an old 1p. We cycled to Kerhinet Historic Village, a restored hamlet in France with climbing rose vines, thatched cottages and the scent of orange blossom all over the village. There was a lot of cursing during the tandem bike ride. “It’s like I am dragging a swinging pendulum behind me!” “You feel like a dead sheep being towed” “I can’t see! Move your shoulders!”.
Proceeding further to the wetlands of Breca then the town of Saint-Lyphard, we got soaked in a rain-storm whilst cycling a tandem bicycle that felt wrong and clunky compared to the freedom of individual bikes. We covered just 20km and after a couple of laughs, it was enough for us to say never again.
Our first week – how did it go?
- MOT: Following our surprise MOT failure, we took our van away from Halfords and got the work done the same day at Ken’s Autos for £250 + VAT. Alex rung a couple of garages urgently whilst I was getting my eye checked at Kingston Hospital. The MOT passed the 2nd time.
- Parking: The app we are using, park4night, has been incredible for sourcing quiet lay bys, beach fronts and fields used by camper vans. We normally have a ratio of 3/4 nights ‘wild parking’ for free and 1 night at a paid campsite. We are using a discount card called ACSI that allows us to park for less then 20 EUR each time (including electricity, showers, water etc).
- Cooking: With just a stove top in the van, we’ve rustled up some quick but delicious meal ideas such as omelettes, gnocchi, pastas, stir frys, Mama noodles and veggies. Smash mash potato goes a long way too. Lidl is our best friend as groceries in France aren’t particularly cheap.
- Budget: Our total spend so far (in 12 days) has been EUR 287pp. 24 EUR per day. Travelling works out cheaper then just London rent itself! We are using a shared Revolut card and we top up £300 each time where needed.
- Plans? We’re currently on a 4 day trip canoeing the Dordogne and plan to cycle between 250km Santander and Gijon when we get to the north of Spain, watch this space!
- Thank you! – This blog post was very long and I know I shouldn’t be writing it as a day by day diary. Highlights or singular blog posts about the highlights of our European road trip will follow. No more day by day monologues!
- If you have any questions about how to go about arranging a European road trip, please feel free to comment here or email me.