After our month-and-a-bit-long journey from central France to southern France, with a minor detour via Copenhagen, we’re ready to be static for a while. I’ve spent many long hours trawling through databases of French campsites, trying to find one in Provence that’s (a) not obscenely expensive, and (b) open. There aren’t very many that fall under those categories at this time of year — in fact, my research turned up two. So, we’ve arrived at the most promising-looking one, just outside the town of Istres, relatively close to the port city of Marseille.
The drive in is quite nice, meandering through fields of grass and finally winding along the rocky and pine-treed edge of a lagoon, with views over to towns on the other side, all gleaming white and orange.
The caravan park itself is ‘okay’, festooned with mobile homes, but grassy at the back, which is where we set up. I’m caught a little off-guard when asked to pay a month in advance, but given that that was our plan anyway, I pay up, and we settle in.
Pretty quickly, we start to realise it’s not quite the idyllic wintering spot we’d dreamed of — while the caravan park’s not too bad, the town itself is a bit underwhelming. It’s okay, I guess, but not the kind of spot we’d normally spend a great deal of time. What’s worse — and I’ve got no one and nothing to blame but myself — something about the mediterranean-ness and the slight ‘ick-factor’ of the town starts making me think of our relatively unpleasant three months in Tunisia! I try to keep it to myself, but can’t keep it in any longer and mention it to Katherine, who’s been getting the same impression as well. Oh, dear!
Anyway, we don’t feel particularly inspired to go out and explore (you can tell by our complete lack of photography!), and we keep our grocery-supplies trips to a minimum, so we spend pretty much the whole time working away in Nettle. I’m working on an exciting new project for iOS and I’m in laser-like-focus mode, so it’s fine.
Katherine’s Australian driving license is expiring, and she needs to renew the photo, which requires an official somebody to witness it, basically. A signature on the back of the photo, and one on the official form. A member of the local police force is sufficient, so armed with a hard-won printout of the form, plus a Google-translated copy, we march into the local police station and explain our situation to the woman in reception (in French, of course). Expecting a fairly straightforward in-and-out procedure, we’re surprised when the inevitable complications arise, and we’re informed…Well, we don’t really know, but it’s something complicated, and she has “no” face, which is really all the information we need to know it’s going to get ugly. Anyway, a ridiculously long and boring story follows of the typical trying-to-get-anything-bureaucratic-done-in-a-foreign-country ilk, but it ended up being quite a lovely experience, when the woman at reception ended up sweeping us up under her wing, escorting us to the local municipal office thingy, and helping to explain our situation, then escorting us over to the national guard building. It was all to no effect — apparently this was all a little too unusual for the local powers that be, a fact that our benefactor acknowledged with a wry grin — but she was just lovely, so we didn’t really mind, in the end. We found ourselves — as usual — wishing our French was better so that we could actually interact more meaningfully.
We have a pleasant surprise when some new friends from the UK, Dave and Mel, get in touch with us and come to stay beside us in their motorhome for a few days. Dave’s a software developer, and Mel’s a sculptor, so we have a lot in common, and it’s fantastic to have some other people to socialise with — even more so than we’d expected, after being in a country with only the bare essentials of the language! We get on really well, and spend a fair amount of time hanging out and talking. I find myself quite jealous of what sounds like a really lovely village life that Dave and Mel have back in Exmoor, where everybody seems to know everybody else!
Mel’s involved with a local exhibition back home in Exmoor, and invites Katherine to come along and be involved in 2013 — it’s an exciting prospect to get some exhibition experience, so we resolve to be in the area then!
We find ourselves quite sad to see them go, when it’s time for them to move on to more Spanish lands just before Christmas!
In what’s becoming a rather unfortunate pattern for us, we have yet another little health scare, when Katherine develops something that Dr. Internet thinks is a kidney infection, which can become quite serious if not treated properly. We ask the site owner if he knows of any doctors nearby who speak English, but he has no idea, and instead directs us to the hospital emergency department, where he’s pretty sure someone will speak English.
We drive Nettle there, find the tiny little waiting room that is the emergency department, and join a host of other locals sitting on the uncomfortable plastic seats, watching a French-dubbed version of the ubiquitous earthquake-disaster-telemovie “10.5” and wondering what we’re supposed to do next, as there’s no-one at reception. Neither of us have had the misfortune of visiting an emergency room before (even in Australia), so we’re not really familiar with the procedures, which makes things even more interesting in a foreign language we don’t really speak. We decide we’ll give it 30 minutes or so before giving up and forming a Plan B.
20 minutes later, there’s movement at reception, and a helpful fellow emergency room-ee indicates that we should go and register. I’m pretty sure that, as foreigners, a passport or something might be a good thing to have, but Katherine’s left hers back at Nettle, and heads off to pick it up while I stand around waiting for reception.
Finally, I’m invited into the separate reception area, and prepare to offer Katherine’s name and details for the waiting list, but — uh-oh — no one speaks English. I’m not at all prepared to handle this in French, and stutter my way though an ‘unbuffered’ explanation that my wife has a kidney infection and is just grabbing her passport, aided somewhat eventually by a doctor who appears and speaks a couple of words in English. God knows how much of the original meaning was actually received at the other end, but they indicate that we should come back when she’s returned.
Anyway, eventually, we manage to get in, and Katherine’s questioned by the nurse — again, no one speaks any English, and we’re not at all familiar with all the new words being thrown at us. I’m there for the whole exercise in the hopes that with two of us there, at least one will catch enough meaning to be able to fill in the blanks for the other, but we both struggle. With much miming, and an awful lot of straining to pick up meaning, some of which is successful, some not, we have a confirmed diagnosis, and we stumble out, steam escaping out our ears from our overloaded language-centres, clutching a prescription for antibiotics and a firm advisement to drink a whole lot of water.
Christmas and the New Year come and go — we’ve decided to move on in early January once our month is up, and Katherine’s found some Christmassy stuff that goes well into January, which we decide to see then on our way out. Finally, it’s time to move on — I’ve found a ridiculously-promising looking alternative spot to the west, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and we’re excited to go see some new territory.
We head east first, across dry scrubland dotted with olive groves, bare vineyards and limestone crags, to Aix en Provence, where Katherine’s found a (post-) Christmas market which sounds appealing. To our dismay, our Lonely Planet guide is totally wrong, and the market finished at the end of December. Even the lights, which apparently transform the town into a fairytale-esque wonderland at night, have been switched off. We spend a disappointing evening wandering around the now relatively ordinary-looking town, and spend a night in a car park outside the centre.
We have more success the next day, when we decide to go have some croissants and coffee at a café in town, and have another wander around. Of course, they’ve run out of croissants, but our post-breakfast amble around town is rather pleasant, and we discover a pretty little food market in one of the town squares, where we stock up on some supplies.
We start our journey westwards, fighting the whole way on the first day against the Mistral wind, howling across the planes from the north and buffeting us relentlessly. The countryside becomes ever-prettier, the villages lovelier. We spend a windy night parked on startlingly red soil beside a lake east of Montpellier, after nearly bottoming out Nettle over a ditch on the way in.
Finally, we pass by the immense mass of the Château Comtal in Carcassone (we’ll be back for you, later!), and drive south into the foothills of the Pyrenees. It’s simply beautiful, and we exclaim in delight as we realise we’re in our new neighbourhood — pretty, towering mountains, a river valley with the lovely turquoise Aude river, tumbling in picturesque rapids over numerous rocky sections, and finally, our new village home, Alet-les-Bains, an achingly beautiful mediaeval affair, all half-timber houses, narrow winding streets of cobbles, and sycamore trees, with the towering crumbling remains of a 12th century abbey.