Despite the fact that Maria has worked for most of it, we have still had a great holiday with a couple of visits to the Lido, meeting new friends and some great food. There were a few really good friends that we didn’t get to catch up with as well as a few where we didn’t get as much time as we’d like, but Maria fell in love with Italy all over again so that has to be a good holiday.
After ten days though, it is time to think about packing up the cats and the van to start the journey home. We always allow extra time for the return so that we can spend some time in France in a few areas that we have come to “enjoy”: Champagne, Chablis and Beaujolais. They are very pretty areas and there may be certain other benefits associated with driving to these places and then resting up for the night.
But that is all later and this year we rented a car from Firefly in Brindisi, the first car was awful and the replacement was little better being an automatic Fiat Panda with porn-star red leather interior and a blowing exhaust! We felt right at home in it. Or not. Anyway the first job of the return journey is to take the car back to the airport. The direct route from the house to the airport takes about 30 minutes but includes some tight roads in San Vito di Normanni or San Michele Salentino, so generally we go the longer way via Francavilla where the roads are easier, but this adds thirty minutes to the journey time. With a slightly later departure than usual, thank you cats for giving us the runaround, we have lost an hour very early in the day.
The other feature of our trips back to the UK is we generally hammer through Italy as quickly as we can, so a long day of driving on the first day. We will have ample time to explore Italy when we live there and it is nicer to feel closer to home. This also gives us shorter drive and more rest time in France.
It’s a long, picturesque run up the Adriatic coast and the views seem even better driving North than when you come South. There are no major holdups and we make good progress towards Northern Italy. As you near the end of the Autostrada Adriatica, there is some funky architecture with a futuristic train station and three pretty bridges. You know you are making good progress when you see these, whichever way you are going!
We drive past Milan with its slightly heavier traffic but it isn’t too bad this time and we are onto the Turin road. It has all been motorway driving so far and so Suicide Sam the SatNav has not had the opportunity to play any tricks on us. So far! However, he had obviously been thinking this through and his next trick was especially cunning. In Italy you have the autostrada, which are the toll roads, the SS roads which are generally dual carriageway, then the SP roads which seem to be roughly equivalent to A, sometimes B, roads. So it is without fear, as we come off the autostrada with 30 minutes left to go, that I follow Sam’s advice and take the SP97 to Volpedo, our overnight stop. There is a new junction and the road looks really nice………. for about fifty yards…… before it becomes a single track road. We have had this before and have sometimes been lucky to negotiate the whole road without meeting anything else but not today. Sam has got us really well this time as every man and his dog in their large vehicle is coming the other way. The sides of the road are soft and I am concerned that I am going to get stuck. In this part of Italy the drivers also don’t seem to want to move over and I seem to be more in the field than not most of the time. We do pass through some nice villages, one particular commune looked like an old fort with high stone walls and a huge church, somewhat surprising for a small village. We eventually arrive in Volpedo to be greeted by large public bins on every corner. This may not be something that most people would notice but in the South, where not all homes get a bin collection, there are very few areas for people to dispose of their rubbish. You need to know where the bins are. Alternatively, there is a truck that waits for 2hr 50 mins, should be three hours but he always leaves early, in the middle of a disused industrial estate with no signs. Unfortunately, this means that fly tipping is prevalent in the South which detracts from the beauty. However, Volpedo, City of Bins, is amazing and looks clean. There must be more bins than people! If only we could take some down South 🙂
We find the motorhome stop in Volpedo down by the football pitches and a little out of town. There are no other vans there and we did have to take a second look before agreeing that this was the right place! A perfect spot for the cats. There are also good facilities with a waste disposal area, no surprise there, but this also has power at the back which with our very long extension lead, we are able to reach!
However, the football pitch, which we park up behind, is being watered and the watering system goes a bit further than the pitch. This will mean we will likely get wet within the next hour as the system gets pulled along the pitch adjacent to where we are. So despite the heat we will have the windows closed at the back of the van. Before the water gets to the van, we are sat outside enjoying the traditional post journey can of beer, while Maria is being eaten alive by mossies. The cats are off exploring but always within 50 metres of the van. Actually after the van has had its wash, the mossie problem is reduced although not so much that we eat outside!
The next day we are up early since we have about six hours of driving to get to Beaujolais where we are returning to a vineyard that we enjoyed last year.
We drive out from Bin City the way we came and Sam tries to direct me via SP97 again….I don’t think so! Sam is unperturbed and suggests the next left….which is a dirt track with grass growing in the middle. Absolutely no chance, not least of all since the Italian sign posts are all suggesting that the way I want to go is straight ahead on this nice wide well tarmacked road! Eventually, Sam relents and agrees with the Italians.
Normally on our drives, we are waving, singing songs and being silly but Maria is working so there is no music and just the sound of tapping and Maria on work calls :(. But at least I can look at the nice landscapes and pretty stone towns!
Our route to Beaujolais is via the Frejus tunnel which is a route we have taken before, eye-wateringly expensive but quick. As we drive towards Turin, we can see the Alps in the distance and this always puts a smile on my face. On this route into the alps you meander through a deep valley which has a large fort protecting the pass. You can imagine how this would have been years ago if you didn’t have permission to go through the pass! The tunnel is also well controlled, despite two way traffic in a single tunnel, there is a lower speed limit and a requirement for a 100M gap between each vehicle, obviously not a gap that is uniformly observed but at least it shows willing.
Maria is due to be working all day, and has her project board meeting in the afternoon so it is important that we arrive before 3pm European time so that she can be settled. We are making reasonable progress but roadworks and the tunnel are taking their toll, please pardon the pun, and our arrival time is creeping ever closer to 3pm….and then beyond it! Maria has to start her call as I am on final approach to the vineyard. It should be ok because the first few minutes of these calls is normally, “is fred/sally/sam on the line?”, “can you hear me?”, “I am going on mute”, “sorry, i was talking but i was on mute so you couldn’t here me”, “yes I am here”, “can everyone go on mute who isn’t talking”. That easily takes up ten minutes! We arrive at the crossroads above the vineyard and Sam tells me to make the impossible turn towards the vineyard. But I have been here before and I know there is a back way round to another junction that is tight but possible. At this moment, I hear Maria say, “right I will get us started with an update on the project……”, and then a stream of expletives as the line drops! There is nothing that I can do except get us to our destination where the reception is better. She is soon back on the call but the meeting has moved on, they will come back to her update. I’m in trouble.
Once again we arrive and there is no-one else around so we are able to take our favourite spot at the bottom of the vines. This is away from the power and water but is also very secluded with just one house opposite and fields all around. The clouds are dark and menacing but seem to pass us by without emptying themselves onto us and the evening cheers up. So does Maria when her board finishes early and without too much drama. The son who runs the vineyard was on his honeymoon last year when we visited but he pops down to ask us if we would like to do some wine tasting. we agree that we will come up in about an hour after Maria has finished up.
We had heard the son’s story last year when we visited. Apparently, he was working in the fields with the temporary staff who help with the harvest when he was hit by a (Polish) thunderbolt. They were married last year and this year we discover that they now have a child. It means that he now speaks French (obviously), Polish and English which provides an interesting basis for our communication as we try any language we can to get our point across! I was also able to explore the full range of my Polish by saying good day, thank you and cheers… a proud day indeed!
We find these vineyards using the France Passion book, which provides a list of vineyards, farms etc that offer overnight stays for motorhomes. Most of these are free although we have noticed that each stay seems to end in us spending money in exchange for wine! One thing we have found by going to these places is that we have met some really friendly people. At Beaujolais, we have a really special place and they are always very generous too, so we have an extra few bottles of wine for dinner and an aperitif! As we settle down for the evening, we discover another cat hiding amongst the vines so our cats are being a bit wary of going anywhere. Maria is starting to relax and only has one more day left of work before she can get some rest for the remainder of the return journey. Onto dinner with tonight’s dinner being a BBQ, with some lovely curly sausage and various meats as well as salads etc. Unfortunately, most of the sausage ends up on the floor after an horrendous meat lifting accident but what we had was nice! A few drinks as the sun goes down and all is relaxed.
The next morning the cats are off exploring. Last year Bonnie had gone into the gardens opposite our parking and we had spoken to a very nice ex-school teacher, who taught English. She remembered us, fondly we hope, as we tried to retrieve Clyde from her garden this year. We were able to spend some time chatting even if not much of it was in French.
Soon we are ready for an even shorter drive to Chablis. We have decided to take the back roads and avoid the tolls. The first couple of hours of the drive to Chablis are uneventful, we are going down lots of country roads, some are so straight that they must have been Roman in origin. Sam then points out that there is a way to get to our destination in 90 minutes less time than currently expected, before putting me on one of the toll roads that I had specifically requested we avoid! We decide to continue on this route and get to Chablis earlier so we can relax.
We arrive at the vineyard and meet Vincent Michelet again and he remembers us. Two crazy cat people in an English motorhome, what a memory he must have! We go to the cave, where we can do the tasting and Vincent brings us examples of each of his wines. We try some very nice Petit Chablis, Chablis and Chablis Premier Cru. As always the wines are gorgeous and choosing between them is difficult. We select a few bottles and then Vincent offers us the remains of the bottle of premier cru with the engraved glasses we were drinking from to have with our meal. Maria remembered that there is a large vegetable patch where we stay and Vincent also suggests that she can pick anything she likes from there. Maria dives in with enthusiasm but even after picking a fair bit, the family continue to come over and offer us additional items from the vegetable patch. Soon enough our free haul almost matches what we have bought!
Last year, we discovered that the cats had no respect for mosquito nets in the van. They found it quite easy to barge through these and jump out of the van, in the middle of the night, while we slept. We would only discover this when Bonnie cried at the door to come back in because unfortunately it isn’t as easy to get back in as it was to get out. So this year, we have been using the sun blinds, which appear to be cat proof, to stop the little tikes escaping. So far this year, we have been successful in keeping animals in the van overnight when we have used this technique. However, Clyde used to enjoy a little game we played a few years ago called “Where’s Clydie” where he would try to hide himself in undergrowth for me to take a picture for our friends on facebook to find him! It gave us all some amusement for a few weeks. He clearly enjoyed that game so much that he decided he wanted to play it again.
In true stealth mode, during the night, it appears that he has put his weight on the sun blind covering one of the windows so that it lowers a bit and leaves enough mosquito net for him to jump through. We assume it is him but, to be fair, Bonnie also did a runner at the same time! We become aware of this at about 4:30am, when we hear the familiar gentle cry of Bonnie…outside. She comes running in when I open the door and immediately jumps on the bed to defuse any anger and to demonstrate how much she loves us! Clyde doesn’t come in but he is probably just sat under the van so I leave the door open and slide the non-cat proof mosquito net across the door, he’ll come in when he is ready. We decide to stay in bed and doze for a few more hours, it hadn’t been an early night and we don’t want to get up early. We don’t have that long a drive to our last stop in Boulogne so we won’t rush. We don’t get up until about 9:30am, Clyde has not come in yet. I go outside and he is not under the van. That’s unusual but he won’t be far so I call out for him. An hour later and we still have no sign of Clyde. We have found with both cats that they won’t wander far, they always come back when called and actually they will always come back regularly to see us anyway. So this is very unusual behaviour. Maria and I are starting to get a bit worried, so I do a quick circuit of the area (which is mostly grass, vines and some woods). I am calling his name quite loud and I’m sure he will hear it and come back. Another hour and we still have nothing. While I am away, Maria breaks her self-imposed exile from Facebook to put out a message, hoping that it will get to people in France who may be able to help. The response is overwhelming with a number of people upset that he has gone and offering support and help. The messages are being shared so that they can be seen by as many people as possible. Maria has also changed the Eurotunnel booking to the end of Sunday and we recognise that we will no longer be going to Boulogne or the Auchan with their wonderful duck :(.
The search is continuing and I since Vincent is not around, I ask one of the workers if he can check that Clyde hasn’t got himself locked into their buildings (although I have checked most of them myself already!). Still nothing. Maria and I are now both circling the area in wider and wider circles calling for Clyde, Bonnie is also joining in, running around and calling (just not too loud!). I am also stopping people that I see and explaining: “cherchez le chat blanc”, “le chien”, “non, chat”, followed by a gallic shrug and a promise to keep a look out for him. By the end of the day, I will have done 36,000 steps, shouted myself hoarse and covered a distance of 16 miles looking for the cat, Maria has also walked miles – and did I mention that it was sunny and hot at 30 degrees, with no sun cream! We are now deep into the afternoon and there is still no sign of the cat. Vincent returns and asks us if everything is ok. He then spends the next two hours walking around the neighbours with an increasingly pink Adam and a rapidly browning Maria. We have spoken to everyone in the area and there is still no sign of Clyde.
By this stage, we are starting to resign ourselves to the notion that we have seen the last of Clyde. He could have been picked up by someone, but there are hardly any cars at 8am on a Saturday morning here, that is why we picked this spot. He could have been attacked by a fox. I have already checked every roadside ditch for half a mile around our position in case he had been hit by a car. It seems the last thing we can do is to put up some posters around the village of Lignorelle and hope that someone sees him, phones Vincent and then we can work out how to get him back. Vincent takes me to his office and we put together a lost cat poster. These are printed off and I go to put them up at strategic places around the village. even at this stage, the friendly villagers are trying to help. Pointing me at a place where a lady who loves cats lives in case he had gone there or taking a photo of the poster to put on Instagram. It was really heartwarming to have so many people helping and caring, at the end of the day he is only a cat, but our pets are important to us.
I return having put the posters up and Maria has had another visit from Vincent with some more wine and more vegetables. Vincent also says that he is phoning the owner of the warehouse nearest to us in case they were working the previous night and Clyde snuck in. Maria has prepared a pasta dish which is excellent but we are not really in the mood. Anyway, we go to bed with heavy hearts, leave the door open with the mosquito net across and go to sleep hearing Bonnie outside constantly crying out for her brother.
We are awoken at 2am by a cat clawing at the mat in front of the water bowl, this is a Clyde habit. I switch the light on to find Clyde idly drinking from his water, looking at me as if he is saying “what?”. I grab the little beggar and he gets a huge cuddle from his cat-mum. He is not only uninjured but has no grass or seed pods in his fur. Since he gets these when he looks at a field, where has he been! He has been away for almost exactly 24 hours. The funny thing is that after all her pining for him, now he has returned Bonnie blanks Clyde. She is almost stood there arms crossed with a rolling pin in hand saying “what time do you call this”.
We quickly provide updates on facebook and our friends that had been in touch and again the responses were amazing. We had complete strangers that said they couldn’t sleep or had woken and their first thought was the location of the cat! When I go outside, the warehouse lights are on, somewhat unusual at 3am.
Next morning, I am up at 7am when I had expected to resume the search but I have to go back into town and retrieve the posters I had put up the night before. As I start the stroll down to the village there are a few rain drops but it is going to take a little more than that to dampen my spirits! Rule number one, never dare the rain gods! Within ten minutes it is hammering down and I am walking back to the van drenched clutching my set of posters but still happy! As I collect the last one, I see Vincent and I am able to tell him that we found the cat. He mentions that he has left a couple of croissants outside of the van for us, cue a quick call to Maria to retrieve these before they get too damp!
It now seems a shame that we have changed our return trip but as we both said, it was going to be very difficult to drive away from the vineyard without Clyde. Thankfully we didn’t have to try and do that. Of course he is now asleep in the van without a care in the world and with no idea of the stress he has caused Maria, I and Bonnie, not to mention the hundreds of people on Facebook who were willing him to return!
We depart late morning on Sunday for the trip back to England. Sam is given strict instructions not to take us via the Champs Elysee again and we head off to skirt Paris to the east and head back. Although the Auchan at Boulogne is closed on Sundays, there may be an alternative on our route back. Maria finds one that is close to Eurodisney. and we programme that in. So we did get to buy our cheap Duck breast (3 large for €12) 🙂
We arrive at the Eurotunnel early to find more delays. It seems unbelievable that on every journey through the tunnel, we are delayed by at least an hour. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it is Christmas, inside or outside of school holidays, we are always delayed. At least this time, they are not punishing the owners of high vehicles by making their delays even worse! We get on the train and are greeted by Katie the conductor, who had spoken to us on the trip out before being abused by a German motorhome owner who’s ticketing hadn’t been processed correctly. We are able to get the gossip on what happened after we left on the trip out, and after we had seen him get out and demand to speak to a manager because he wanted her sacked. We had already offered our details to explain what we had seen which was a member of staff being abused by someone clearly frustrated at another long delay. Anyway, Katie seemed fine and was pleased to see us and the cats.
Through the tunnel, off the train and it is two hours home to Ipswich which at 8:30pm on a Sunday night is pretty uneventful. Unfortunately, I have also been told that the boat is not ready to go into the water and so we will be staying in the motorhome and won’t be able to get onto Mariadz until Wednesday but that is another story.