Our epic slow travel continues across France, in the Grand Est from Champagne to Lorraine. More countryside, more nature and more mountains but just as much cheese and wine. Join us for this week’s feast of French spirit!
Saying ‘yes’ is great. It can get you all sorts of places you wouldn’t have got otherwise. Do you ever think to yourself, “You know what. Sometimes I should say no to things more?” This week’s two-night stop at Camp D’Attila taught us that is definitely the case. After all, we’re not having some kind of holiday here. We’ve got publishing deadlines to meet. Self-imposed admittedly. But hey, that’s what self-employment is all about. Self-motivation!
Those of you who subscribe to our weekly email, (and if you don’t then please do so forthwith!) will know myself and my wife Lou are easily seduced by the allure of booze, especially when it’s offered for free. On reflection, our decision to stay two nights at the otherwise mediocre Aire at Camp D’Attila was the root of our ills. It must have been some kind of cosmic karma. Like all Aires, it has what is known as a service point. At a minimum, these offer a place to pour your chemical toilet. (Or in our case, wee potty). More on that later. Anyhow, this particular service point had an electricity outlet that operated for free. It was mean’t to be 2 Euros, but it just worked. Infinitely. It reminded me of the time I was on a ferry to Bilbao. Back in the days when it was just an ugly port town and not the artistic powerhouse it is today. As a kid I was obsessed with pressing buttons on stuff. Like most young boys probably. So on the ferry to Bilbao I pressed the buttons on one of those Klix vending machines, or maybe it was a different brand but you know, the ones that dispense hot drinks in while-you-wait tire fitters. And I got a hot beefy drink, for free! God that was the best day of my life at the time. So, this Aire had free electricity. This is great because it means we can pump out more awesome content for you, or at least practice making it better.
Camp D’Attila itself is basically a giant sandcastle – A quick Wikipedia will tell you it was used by the Romans and there’s no actual evidence of the the Hun himself – Mr Attila, having used the site at all. Make no mistake. We weren’t there to get the historical lowdown. It was just a convenient stopping point between wherever we were before that, (you’ll have to sign up for the weekly email to get that kind of detail), and the next place. At the time we didn’t even know where the next place was going to be. Such is the vague spontaneity of our travels. So, it happened to be a Friday and it also happened to be the last weekend of July and August is the month when all French people go on holiday. One thing that seems programmed in to the average working person, wherever you go in the world, even when you’re on extended breaks from work… Friday is always a big night.
The opening weeks of our adventure were an isolated affair but now we’re in holiday season, our little campervan is engulfed by massive white boxes on wheels. Lou and I feel like the youngest people on earth. The youngest people over four feet tall that is. Strangely, given our capacity to sleep in and turn up late to places, most people turn up later to Aires than us. We figure this is because they can afford to drive more than twenty miles a day and therefore can tend to go big distances driving all day long.
So Friday afternoon came, and a particularly large recreational vehicle, (nothing to be confused with recreational drugs we hasten to add), pulled up alongside our little Heidi. If nothing else, at least it afforded us some shade. Having walked around the mound of earth that is Camp D’Attila – Probably as useful for keeping invaders out as putting a skate ramp outside your front door – We returned to our tiny home on wheels to have some chamomile and nettle tea and document Lou’s latest recipe, which you can get here! It must have been after five when Jean-Claude from the giant RV next door gestured that we should join him and his wife for an… aperatif!
This is the point we should have said no. This was no aperatif. If we were looking at a work of art it would have been a collage of glassblown artefacts representative of the word, ‘headache’. Ouzo, Pastis (Pernod / Ricard, except this was the budget stuff) and something called Picon de Biere. Apparently you add it to beer. It tastes of orange and it’s about 20% alcohol, which is an improvement on your average lager really. Internally, we both new this couple who could barely speak English and desperately wanted someone to rant at other than themselves, were going to get us smashed. They proceeded to roll out the suspicious pork products and some rather tasty honeydew melon while Jean Claude regaled us with his tales of travelling the world, using only five words or less. Primarily the words, ‘big’, ‘tax’ and ‘problem’. At least we felt in no way bad about pausing to use Google translate. Jean Claude is also the oldest person we’ve ever seen use the Ali-G finger slap on a consistent basis.
Bizarrely Jean Claude offers us both a shower in his behemouth RV, having told us he had been somewhere else and allowed seven people to have a shower in there. Presumably we smell. Or, as Lou and I conjectured later, they have a secret camera rigged to film strangers having a shower in their RV. Either way we both took them up on the offer. So, if you see any videos of us floating round the internet please accept our apologies.
Skipping forward a few hours and a whole flotilla of white boxes have turned up. Happily some of them are German. This is good because they at least speak reasonable English, which opens up whole new avenues of conversation for me and Lou. Unfortunately one of them had brought along a bottle of some weird, red. Italian spirit, (Does no one drink wine around here?!) and is dishing it out shot after shot. OK we admit. The shot glasses were provided by ourselves. Along with the music from our portable speaker. We had no alcohol to offer, having drunk it all in Champagne. However, we think all the members of this soiree, (party would be too strong a word), could count themselves lucky to have met us – The only travellers in France carrying a stock of glowsticks.
As the only British people present. We felt it was our duty be the last man and woman standing. Which we duly were. Having drunk everyone else under the table. We went to bed in need of some water. No problem we thought. A quick 2 Euro coin in the Service Point and Bob’s yer mother’s Grandad, or however the lineage thing works. So having sucked up free ‘leccy for the last 36 hours we were rudely bitten on the arse by finding out there was no running water. It wasn’t working! We should probably add that this particular Aire had a toilet of the ‘squat’ variety. Make of that what you will.
The karma of free electricity had come back to haunt us. With no available drinking water, we lay passed out on our folding van bed absorbing the sugar content of all that vile booze, raging with thirst. I literally dreamt of gushing fountains and waterfalls. The next morning Lou was still unconscious having been sick into our portable toilet just before we went to bed. Very unlike her. Those of you who know her will understand the gravity of the situation.
The portable toilet is like our chemical toilet except we don’t use chemicals. We just wee in it. Number 2’s are done in a plastic bag. Ideally we’d shit in a hedge. After all what’s better? A biodegradable poo in a hedge? Or a poo in a plastic bag that won’t degrade for a million years. Society, in it’s infinite wisdom. has decreed the latter. We fall in line. Mostly.
Waking up first, I sensed emergency. We had to get water and we had to get it now. We already felt like death. Let’s not turn feelings into reality now. Almost literally rolling out of bed, thorough our sliding door and into the open doorway of the motorhome opposite, I begged the nice German man for water. He was of course, happy to oblige. Probably having a tank with ten million litres underneath his bed. I awoke Lou with the sustenance and we suckled from the teat of life inducing “Eau-de-vie” until it was all gone and we slept for several more hours. When we regained consciousness a few hours later, probably around 10am , everyone had left. We found a handwritten note slipped into a sandal we’d carelessly left lying on the ground outside our van. One of the Germans, admittedly we couldn’t put the face to the name, thanked us for everything we had brought to the party. Proof, if proof was needed, Germans know, that like David Hasslehoff… glow sticks are still cool.
An increasingly common occurrence for us in our navigation through France is that we end up somewhere completely different to where we expected when we set out. This week has exemplified the scenario on multiple occasions. First up, having having exhausted the ‘pity water’ from our German friend and driven our dishevelled carcasses to a nearby supermarket to stock up, we aimed for a France Passion site in the town of Verdun that sold what the French call ‘Dragees’. These are those sugared almond favours you get at weddings. The sweety kind. The place looked massive and it seemed a bit out of the ordinary compared to the average France Passion farm or vineyard, so a little bit interesting, but when we turned up it the shop was closed and the parking was a giant area of tarmac, walled with concrete slabs. We’ve become used to more beautiful settings and sweating our hangovers off in a bland, grey car park didn’t really appeal. Onward!
Unusually we had pre-programmed the co-ordinates of our next two potential parking spots as a point on Google maps. The first being approximately half way to the second point. My phone said it was 36 minutes to the next place, another France Passion stop next to a fishing lake, Lachaussee. However, my phone decided it wouldn’t connect to our MiFi device that we use to get the internet so we switched to Louise’s phone, which stated the journey would take just over an hour. We didn’t think much of it figuring it was a Saturday and there must be holiday traffic. The scenery rolled by and it seemed like we’d travelled an awfully long way. As we pulled up to the marina at Pont-a-Mousson on the banks of the river Moselle, it began to dawn on us that we’d accidentally navigated to the the second point on the map rather than the first. Hence the extra journey time. The down side of this was that the parking at Pont-a-Mousson was a paying Aire. Additionally we were once again on tarmac albeit with a more pleasant riverside setting but now surrounded by a glut of beige lunchboxes-on-wheels. We had planned to come here but were trying to avoid Saturday as we knew it would be rammed. Our little Heidi was dwarfed!
The upside was that at least the 10 Euro fee included included water electricity, showers and more importantly, washing machines. This is actually good value as a big wash at a campsite will cost seven or eight euros alone. There was also WiFi. Obviously, being France it only worked for about five minutes in every hour. As we had smashed or mileage budget for the week, in one day of driving, (the furthest single trip of our journey so far), we resolved to spend two nights at here. Which was lucky as that’s how long it took to dry the vast amount of laundry we’d accumulated.
We spent most of the Sunday writing up our blog post on Champagne and doing said laundry so it wasn’t until about 8 o’clock that we finally made it in to town. We weren’t hopeful of finding any action given our experiences so far. Bars have tended to shut early and everything is closed on a Sunday. We were in luck! We had our first, ‘enjoying a beer in the town square’ moment. It was a balmy evening and there were a mix of British tourists and locals who’d come out to play. Quite a change compared to the sleepy villages we’d come across so far. Then again this is a town of of 15,000 people. Something we hadn’t realised until we arrived. Apparently Pont-a-Mousson’s riverside location meant it was of strategic importance during World War I and where else would you expect this to be explained than an episode of Charly Brown…
We were aiming for Tarquimpol but once again, the Gods decreed we wouldn’t be staying there. The parking spot, found through our favourite travelling app, Park4Night had been turned into a building site. Doubling back on ourselves slightly we weaved our way through the forest greenery to a car park on the other side of the Lake Lindre – a place called Lindre-Basse. Normally we avoid car parks for obvious reasons. No. Not dogging. They don’t have dogging in France. Or if they do no one’s invited us. Actually this car park one has toilet cleanliness that George Michael would have been proud of.
Yes! Quiche! But what’s the other thing Lorraine is famous for? That bird that delivers babies. No. Not the midwife. Just the Stork. This place is a sanctuary for Storks, during the warmer months before they jet back to Africa for winter. Very sensible. They are difficult animals to photograph so what you see here will have to do. Need to invest in a zoom lens. There are special towers built for them to nest on and walking through the forest leads to a bird watching lookout which is quite cool if you’ve got the patience. And a nice zoom lens. Which we don’t. Yet. What we learnt was that Storks sound like a cross between a pterodactyl and velociraptor. You’ll know what we mean if you’ve seen Jurassic Park.
We’re really enjoying France’s complete lack of regulation on where you can park, outside of towns and cities. Wild camping has several major benefits over other parking methods on our budget. You can get away from people entirely; There’s nowhere to spend any money; You’re in the thick of it, nature-wise. Again this was another place we found on park4night and we spent two nights here because it was so beautiful. Of course we only came here because our intended stop in nature was being occupied by a gang of fishermen who presumably weren’t prepared to have riff-raff like us scaring off the fish with our jauntily coloured van.
Happily, our next selection from the park4night app turned out out to be a gem. We were parked overlooking a canal, approximately 20 metres below us, on top of a tunnel, lined on either side with almost impenetrable forest that seemed to be developing autumnal colours already. We say almost impenetrable because of course, we did penetrate it. On our way we found some fly-agaric mushroom, (gets you high but you might die).
Lou is always on the look out for craft related things and her eagle-eye spotted some old looking kiln’s in the village West of our parking spot. Turns out Niderviller ‘faience’ (glazed pottery) is the most famous in France and they’ve been producing these ornaments for Granny’s mantelpiece since 1735. Lou loves ceramics but turned her nose up at the rather pink frilly designs revealed by a quick Google images search.
Notice how German these place names are getting? This is because we’re heading for the border and more specifically Strasbourg and the beginning of our next wine route! We only arrived via a painful detour to Sarrebourg, a town with many industrial estates where we hoped to get a replacement camping chair for our cheapo Argos jobbie which broke under the wight of my burgeoning cheese belly. We ended up in Decathlon and spent 30 Euros on something more akin to a wheel-chair without wheels, in the hope it wouldn’t be another case of, ‘you by cheap you buy twice’.
Now the scenery is becoming more mountainous as we reach the Vosges foothills. The Etang de Walscheid provides a simple Aire, (free water but no electricity) next to the thing Lou has been dying to get to for ages: A lake you can actually swim in! This one has a fake sandy beach and we’re totally surrounded by pine forested hills. Even the houses round here are look like something out of Swiss Family Robinson. The cows are even Highland cows. Which we suppose makes sense what with these lands being higher than the other bits of Eastern France we’ve been to so far! At the time of writing we’re about to go to the grotto of St Leon. Hopefully, this won’t involve sitting on the lap of an assassin…
This has definitely been the longest distance we’ve covered in a single week. We’ve increased the pace of our slow travel mainly because we want to spend as long as possible in the Alsace region before we reach Burgundy where we have work starting at the beginning of September… the grape harvest!
Thanks for reading ‘A week in the Grand Est from Champagne to Lorraine’ We hope you enjoyed it. We would love to hear from you so please feel free to email us on antlou [at] vanutopia.com and don’t forget you can stay right up to date with all of our antics by following us on social media: Facebook; Instagram; Twitter and subscribing to our YouTube channel.
Ant & Lou