The best laid plans ……

which ours seldom are.

(By the way, due to the difficulties with Internet and the horrible cost of using it for just half an hour, this post is unedited, just whizzed up before I’m cut off. So it probably reads like a jumbled mess, which will be entirely appropriate.)

We would leave on Saturday. But we did not because (a) the connection between the car and the caravan’s indicators failed, for some reason unknown, and despite many helpful suggestions, culminating in a suggestion that we needed a new part. The car had already needed four new tyres, now it needed a horribly expensive component. Happily the supplier had none in stock, so it was time for Mr Fixit-it-somehow to spring into action and work out away round the problem.

The second reason we did not leave on Saturday was because of a last minute arrangement from friends we hadn’t seen for far too long, to come to us for coffee in the morning.

By mid-afternoon one indicator was rigged up by means of a long cable, some insulating tape and various connections snaking through the caravan. But it was too late to fix the other indicator, so we would make an early start on Sunday, leaving as soon as the indicator was working.

But again it didn’t work out like that. I didn’t seem to be able to organise myself, and wandered around vaguely scratching my head, picking things up and putting them down again, and by the time we had all systems go, it was late afternoon by the time we had located the parrot to our kind neighbour, loaded the dogs and their paraphernalia, and set off for the 500 mile drive to our destination on Spain’s Orange Blossom Coast, where we were heading for a highly recommended campsite.

Our logical route should have been from our home in south-west France down to the south-east corner, over the border there into Spain, and down the coast. However, three days earlier the region had been affected by floods that left five people dead, and general devastation, so we decided it would make sense to avoid that route, and head instead due south to San Sebastian, and from there diagonally to our destination.

I am not going to even try to explain why we had three different GPS systems plus a tablet, but I’ll just say that between the four of them we seemed to be going in ever-diminishing circles in sync with the ever-diminishing daylight.

Darkness fell, and we were trundling around in the Landes. We’d been travelling for five hours and failed to find a single campsite, when at last we noticed a sign to a site 15 kilometres off route. So we headed there, and were met by a delightfully friendly and accommodating gentleman who invited us to just put ourselves anywhere we were comfortable, and we’d sort out the formalities in the morning.

We were at last able to let the dogs out, and walk and feed them, after which they were happy to climb back into the car and sleep.

Meantime we were trying to find a way to get comfortable in the caravan with the huge awning bag in the way, plus a large white garden table, numerous plastic bags of food and equipment I’d flung in haphazardly, and TOH’s bicycle which he insisted on bringing with him.

I can’t remember what, if anything, we ate, but we scrambled over the heaps of stuff and grabbed the duvet and pillows and were gone.

By daylight, we saw that the campsite was carpeted in heather and pine needles, quite beautiful. The facilities were a little primitive, but there was a good swimming pool and it was a very pleasant location, Lugos, about 30 kilometres from Biscarosse and Arcachon.

Once we’d fed and walked the dogs and they’d hopped back into the car, we hitched up and set off in good spirits. I imagined we’d be installed in comfort on the Orange Blossom Coast by late afternoon.

Then the car began to play up. We were on a motorway on a very slight incline – the Landes are about as flat a landscape as you could imagine, but the car went slower and slower, we were down to 30 mph, and now instead of the comfort of the Orange Blossom Coast I could visualise breakdown vehicles, horrible expense and no holiday. On we chugged in tense silence, until we came to Dax where I bought a heap of fruit, a box of turron, a large cheese loaf and two cups of steaming coffee. We sat in a car park munching and sipping for a while, and discussing the route. Each of the GPS devices was giving different itineraries, which was hardly surprising as they were variously set for shortest, fastest, most economical and non-toll routes. Naturally, it was somewhat confusing, but refusing to be confused, TOH took first the fastest, changed to the shortest, and then to the easiest route – always avoiding tolls.

Thus we began an enchanting tour of the Pyrenees, which as you may know are one of my favourite regions of France. The landscape is just glorious, gentle mountains, gushing springs, tropical vegetation, mists snagging the mountain tops, lush, green, rich, majestic. I haven’t worked out in kilometres just how much of the Pyrenees we covered, but it was a lot, and lasted for several hours. Miraculously the car was now working well, towing the caravan effortlessly up hill, round narrow bends, and through little stony paths that grew smaller and stonier the further we went, following the GPS “easy route” that we had decided to stick with.

Then we came to a tunnel, which as you may also know is something I loathe, but to give it credit it was well-lit and as far as I could see very well built, and though we were in it for several minutes I didn’t feel the usual panic.

We emerged into Spain. In our planning, one thing we had not planned for was carrying a Spanish map. With four different GPS systems, it seemed somewhat unnecessary. One of the GPS systems kept losing the signal. The other couldn’t find the roads we were on – I think its maps must be out of date. The third one had a rather abrupt tone which we didn’t much care for, and none of them could show a map of Spain larger than 3” x 2”, thus we had no idea where we were going. I had a vague recollection from a previous trip that we should go to Pamplona and from there to Zaragoza, to Barcelona and onto our destination.

So we headed towards Pamplona, and then we headed to Zaragoza, and the hours went past and it seemed we were forever driving through bleak and barren mountains, and each time I checked the distance left it was over 300 miles and 8 hours. We kept seeing the same signs pointing to places we had already driven through. Once again we were in mountains. Didn’t they have any plains in Spain?

We’d been driving since 9.30, it was now almost 5 pm and the distance finally began to shorten, and our time of arrival was estimated at 9.32. With 200 kilometres left to run, the system calculated it would take nearly five hours. We laughed – 5 hours to drive 160 miles! At the rate we were going, we’d make it in 3, easily.

Then we hit the next mountain range. I crushed a small spark of anger and frustration as the road wound up and up and back on itself, and up and up some more.

“What altitude are we?” enquired TOH.

“820 metres,” I replied, thinking angrily that if we’d come by the original route not only would we have been at sea level the whole way, but we’d have arrived and had a leisurely meal by now, instead of climbing these awful roads. Night began to fall. We climbed ever higher. Surely there must be an end to mountains; they couldn’t just keep on going for ever. But they seemed to. As soon as we crested one, another one popped up ahead. We reached 1200 metres before the final descent, and we were now only 90 kilometres from our destination. We’d be there well before 9.30.

Then GPS-man told us to turn left, which we did, and astonishingly, we were in mountains AGAIN! I was so angry inside that I began thinking of painful ways to kill whoever programmed the “easy” route into the GPS.

By 10.15 pm we had reached the town, with only 3 kilometres left to the campsite. We followed the signs round the outskirts of town and onto a rough road. Which deteriorated into a rocky pathway strewn with boulders and holes and gulches formed by storms. If I hadn’t read a warning in the guide before we left, I wouldn’t have believed this track was navigable. On and on it went, every metre causing the suspension to groan and the crockery and cutlery in the caravan to shake and rattle. Something fell out of a cupboard and landed with a crash.

Just when I was about to burst into tears, we saw the entrance to the campsite, and gave a triumphant little laugh. We’d finally made it!

The campsite was locked by a sturdy wrought iron gate two metres high. There was nobody to be seen. But I found a bell which I rang, and a man appeared on the balcony above us. One minute, he said.

Down he came, and although we had plainly got him out of bed, because he was wearing pyjamas, he was as civil and helpful as one could expect under the circumstances. He guided us to a pitch, and said we could sort out the formalities in the morning. Off he went, back to bed.

It took a long time to reverse the caravan onto the pitch, in the dark, and tempers were short and language impolite, but eventually it was parked, the dogs were attended to, and once they were settled, we decided to go for a calming walk beneath the stars.

We walked around the back of the campsite, which is set in a natural park, about 50 metres from the Mediterranean, but the path was uneven and we had no torch, so after listening to the sea for a few minutes, we went back to the caravan.

Except the gate was locked again and we were on the wrong side of it.

Once again I rang the bell, once again the pyjamaed man came down and let us in, giving us a targeta – a card that operated the gate and asking, with a touch of sarcasm, whether we would be needing anything again tonight.

We assured him that he’d not hear a squeak from us ever again, and tiptoed back to the caravan, falling asleep instantly.

Next morning – Tuesday – started very, very hot and sunny. We walked the dogs down to the sea. On the way through the campsite an indignant English voice shouted: “Excuse me – your dog has defecated on our pitch.” Sure enough he was right. Tommy, in his hurry to go for a walk, had not stopped but gone on the run, so to speak, leaving a trail behind him. TOH cleaned it up in the plastic bags carried for the purpose, and we had a wonderful walk through the pine forest down to the shingle beach, where we met some friendly Swiss people with their two Leonbergers.

Now it was time to set up the awning. It was incredibly hot, the dogs were panting, I was dripping, and the skies over the mountains behind us were darkening from blue to grey to purple and black. I could hear distant cracks of thunder.

“We need to get the awning up quickly” I said, “before the rain comes.”

We tried. We really, really tried, but nothing seemed to fit where it should, the poles kept collapsing, bits went missing, and the storm broke.

The rain hammered down, lightning lit up the hills and the thunder cracked. Tally went into panic mode, rushing into the caravan and trying to dig his way into my handbag, panting and gasping. As the poles fell down the for sixth time, I was fully occupied with trying to calm Tally, leaving TOH to assemble the framework and fit the awning over it. When he’d almost finished, I tried zipping in one of the side panels, stood back triumphantly and then saw it was a front piece, not a side piece and had to come off. The zip stuck.

We were drenched by the time the thing was finally up, and Tally was a quivering, shaking, trembling, panting wreck. So was I. We went to the office to complete the formalities. The computer was down. The Internet was down. The girl laughed and asked if we were enjoying the Spanish weather.

Do you often have such huge storms, I asked?

Not like this, she said. Not for a very long time had they seen such a ferocious storm. It was very rare. Sometimes there was a lot of wind, but this storm was very unusual. It had also managed to knock out the electronic gate, too.

It had been a traumatic 48 hours, so we’d go into town and have a drink and meal at a restaurant we knew and liked. Tally settled immediately, he knew how to behave, but Tommy got over-excited and began knocking over chairs and tables, so back he went into the car, where he settled happily. He loves the car and jumps in at every opportunity.

Back in the restaurant, a woman came towards us and bent to stroke Tally. Then she asked if she could sit at our table. We thought she meant for a few minutes, and by the time we realised that she was digging in for the duration, it was too late to do anything about it.

She lived locally, she told us in her very fractured English, interspersed with her native German.

How did she like living here, we asked.

Well, she explained, not too much really.

First of all, everybody she knew had cancer, and the wife of one of them was also suffering from depression and kept correcting her English, which made her very angry, because it wasn’t how well you spoke a language, but how you communicated with people. As far as I could understand the depressed person was her best friend, but she didn’t like her. There was also a problem with her house, because it was on an estate that was independent of the Spanish government, but the residents had been very foolish and now it was part of Spain, and the electricity was very expensive and she had to collect her post from town, as it was no longer delivered to the house. And with all these people getting cancer, she worried her husband would be next. (He was away in Germany buying German sausages, she said.)

What about the weather. That was quite a storm today.

It was like that all the time, she said. Always storms.

We were getting a little hungry and tired of listening, but as she showed no signs of leaving and we wanted a drink, we offered her one too.

Then she started talking about food, and specifically meat. The kind of food Germans like, Sausages of all kinds. TOH said that we were vegetarian and didn’t eat meat, and she said that was OK, but she liked meat very much. We said that was OK, but could we talk about something else because we didn’t like talking about meat. But she did, she exclaimed, and began to describe the kind of meat she liked, mainly beef and chicken, definitely not pork.

TOH was now becoming visibly angry, and asked her if she could talk about something apart from food. But, she said, she liked talking about food.

TOH finally snapped.

“How do you feel about Hitler and the war?” he asked.

That brought her to a temporary halt, and she blinked. She wasn’t born until long after the war, she said, and German schools didn’t teach anything about it. What about her father, TOH pushed on remorselessly.

He was just a child, she said.

What about your grandfathers, asked her inquisitor.

She didn’t know what they did.

I had gone past exasperation at her intrusion and accepted she was going to stay put, so decided to get along with her, and we had an interesting conversation about war in general, bravery on both sides, mistakes made, regrets ………

By now we had ordered our meal, and thought that maybe she would take her leave, but no, she ordered for herself, and before long the topic had returned to food once again, specifically meat, and TOH’s jaw was getting set. I sensed that it was time to go. We ate quickly, then I pushed back my chair. We needed to leave, Tommy was in the car.

We said goodnight to her, and left her sitting with a bowl of mussels.

As we left, the restaurant owner came over to chat.

He mentioned the storm. In seventeen years, he said, he’d never seen anything like it. Lightning had hit the TV satellite three buildings down, and blown the dish across the street.

So these storms weren’t that common, then.

No, he answered. Very rare.

Perhaps if you’re lonely, you hate your best friend and everybody around you is dying of cancer, and you’re pining for the food of your homeland, it just seems as if the weather is always stormy.


16 thoughts on “The best laid plans ……

  1. Unbelievable. Seriously! Sorry I can’t think of a more coherent comment. You do know Spain is the most mountainous country in Europe after Switzerland don’t you?

    Our dogs, always must look after our dogs. Current two not too bad with storms. We had heavy rain today but I didn’t notice tormentas.

    Hope you enjoy your Spanish hol though.

    • It’s a nice thought, Cathy, and would certainly have been easier navigating the mountains, but with two large active dogs I think a 3-week holiday might have been a little uncomfortable. 😀

  2. Nerves of steel that’s what Susie’s made of. Brought back memories of storm in France when you were backpacking
    across France ( Best Foot Forward ) and the dogs broke down the door to get in the house.
    Have a wonderful holiday.
    Looking forward to your next book !

  3. Thank you so much for brightening my day. Nightmare it may have been for you both (and four legged followers) but like the dreaded slip on a banana I could only laugh all the way through.
    Could we be reading the first draft of the next edition?
    I do hope so.

  4. Definitely a Susie story, no one else could have so many disasters in a row! The basis of your next book perhaps?
    Seriously though, didn’t you try a short local weekend away with the caravan to get the teething problems ironed out? We had a couple of short breaks (Monmouth & Bewdley) before we sold the house and came to France househunting in the caravan – minor inconveniences but nothing insurmountable, caravanning seemed somehow unreal and luxurious after a lifetime of tenting holidays.
    Looking forward to your next installment….

  5. You must have wondered if you’d ever make it! And then to be locked out when you went for a walk….
    We arrived in the aftermath of a storm which knocked out the electricity in the entire area……perhaps your German woman lives down this way…

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