Je ne regrette Rouen – the journey part 2
In the belly of the beast
Embarking on a ferry in a vehicle was something entirely new. We had waited in our car for several hours at port following the passport checks. Sitting behind some bikers, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them – out in the chill air at 11pm in what was meant to be Spring but, you know, in that cold kind of way. There was no lounge or side bench or shelter – just a marking on the roadway and an instruction to wait. We had the benefit of our Land Rover to keep us warm and to hide us from embarrassment as we slipped into slumber. The rescue package of pasta and salad was a lifeline, having eaten nothing but peanuts and a serve of fish and chips for the past three days. Jane managed to spill most of hers promptly down her front – so tired that fork-to-mouth was no longer a relationship that had any familiarity. Finally, we were on the move, line by line. The bikers, helmets on and mounted up on their trusty steeds – complete with their saddlebags that held all the possessions they could possibly carry for their on European Odyssey – were the modern day version of cowboys of the Wild West, only without the irritation of having to sort out hay for old faithful. It put us to further shame, thinking that we hadn’t even managed to pack for our adventure into the confines of an entire car and trailer. Hey-ho!
We couldn’t see anything until we had rounded a bend: the boat loomed large and from its giant jaws were a series of ramps. We followed the long ramp into the body of the beast. Up and round, we were shepherded in and parked cheek by jowl with other cars. The sound of the great articulated trucks making their way up a separate entrance ramp in chorus with the warning sirens of the ferry was like being in some kind of giant MRI scan.
The whole boat seemed to be burping, burbling and squealing.
It would have been deeply disconcerting had the ferry staff seemed the slightest bit perturbed. It felt as if any minute now a giant door was going to open and we were all going to be conveyed into an industrial furnace: “Oops. Wrong line. Soz. That one’s for scrap metal.”
The other drivers hot-footed it to somewhere – presumably to the world above. We, on the other hand, needed to retrieve our carry-on bags that had been wedged in between the printer and various boxes of dubious worth. Who knew what was, in fact, in the car, or indeed the trailer, as, once it was clear that at least 40% of the things we had planned to take with would not fit in, the frantic and resulting pack consisted of “I have a spot a foot by a foot – chuck me something that will fit”. Getting above deck was a bit more challenging – crossing a tiny little walkway with a single link chain separating it from a 20 foot drop to the ramp below, and another truck hurtling up it – so close we could reach out and touch it as it lurched up the 45 degree ramp. Suddenly we were inside some strange hotel, complete with a lift and elevator muzak. We plonked our bags down in our tiny cabin, looked at each other, laughed, and then headed for the bar like any other self-respecting midnight escapees.
The Newhaven to Dieppe ferry is mainly a working ferry for people who travel regularly. Once in its embrace, and, with the dark curtain of night precluding any view through the windows, we could have been forgiven for thinking we had entered through a wormhole into a large French canteen in the back of an industrial complex, complete with French staff, signs and weary French truck drivers.
In our ‘we-have-had-far-too-little-sleep-and-way-too-much-moving-drama’ state, we somehow decided that the floating French holiday should of course include drinking quite copiously. After all, we had a sleeping birth and tomorrow was another day, right? Errh, not really! We got to bed at around 12.30am and fell asleep instantly… only to be woken up nearly as instantly by the announcement that we were coming into port. What???
What happened to the lulling of the waves and the tranquillity of sleeping on the high seas? Perhaps if we had had our wits about us we may have noticed the time difference and realised that the trip was a mere couple of hours long. After a frantic struggle with the most compact shower, basin, toilet arrangement known to human kind, mixed with the pleasure of putting on clean clothes, not quite awake, and in some state of semi-shock we opened the cabin door – not really ready for the next phase of the adventure.
Nevertheless, we had arrived at Dieppe!!! How exciting!!
As the ferry drew in through the port, all the old movies I had ever watched of sailing ships and steamers and people travelling with trunks began whirring through my mind. What a romantic way to travel! Even in the twenty first century some things never change. Shouted commands could be heard from shore, and the ferry’s horn blasted its intentions. The crew looked lively and there was an expectant bustle amongst the passengers.
Even the language of boats seems romantic: fore and aft, cabin and birth, port and starboard, embarking and disembarking. At least that was above-deck – some dystopian sci-fi feature would one day feature the humble below-decks experience of the car ferry, I feel sure of it. Once out of the great maw we headed off into the night on the wrong side of the road and with little sleep and possibly a little too much alcohol sloshing about in our bloodstreams. Not ideal! It was 5.30am and pitch black. We had not programmed the newly purchased SatNav and a destination of the tiny village of Cherval to find – some six and half hours away. An urgent solution needed to be found. With some on-the-hop Googling we managed to work out which direction we needed to be heading. Perhaps simple common sense could have assisted but that had fled along with our capacity for normal speech some hours earlier.
The nearest auto-stop would have to do for a rest break. The trouble was that none appeared. And still none. Nope, not that either. No. Still nada. After an hour’s drive, we decided there was nothing for it, and headed off the motorway for the nearest urban area we could find – it turned out to be the northern city of Rouen. Surely to God, there would be somewhere where we could pull over in town! By this time the dawn light was breaking and we could make out roughly that we were coming into the city along a broad river. Driving on the right, with a trailer on the back, when you know that you can’t reverse because the trailer is too dinky to actually obey the laws of reversing, is just a little hairy to say the least.
A few turns later and it looked like we had found the perfect spot: a road which gave way to a large dirt area on the banks of the river, with an overpass overhead. There was not a soul around – no cars, no people, no dogs – perfect. We pulled up, parallel to the river – turned the engine off and promptly fell into a deep sleep.
Time ticked by: the occasional snort or crick in the neck roused each of us just enough to raise a single eyelid before sleep overtook us once more. It was perhaps on one of these occasions that I became aware of a car that had driven up and parked quite close behind us – perhaps with only a couple of feet to spare. “Odd”, I thought and then headed back to the land of nod. Some time later – and I couldn’t say how long, because, you know, freaken tired, I peered out from under the other eyelid to see a similar manoeuvre occurring at the front of the vehicle. This was interesting.
My tired brain managed to work through the basic implications: “parked in, unless we are very quick to move on”. And “actually: pretty fucking embarrassing!” Two numpties from the newly minted UK: Brexit-loving-yes-EU-we-totes-fucked-you-up-and-we-know-it-land, sound asleep in something that resembles a push-me-pull-you of a vehicle with UK licence plates to boot, in the middle of the central business district in Rouen. Excellent work!
I nervously nudged Jane. “Jane! Jane!!”
“Wha??’ What?!!” She said irritably.
“Erhh. We need to move…NOW!”
Jane opened her eyes and the full horror was revealed. The well-dressed man who had just parked in front of us, eyed us with what could only be considered a look of total evil. One look at our licence plates and we were toast! Plus we had probably parked across his favourite spot. Swivelling away from his cinder hot stare, we watched as cars drove up at high speed and handbrake-turned into car parking spots all along the river and on the opposite side of the dirt road. Doors opened and slammed closed as important business people stepped out and made their way to work. Stern, disapproving looks were cast our way. Something had to give…and it was not the city workers of Rouen!
Both of us must now have resembled something that the director had forgotten about in his B-rated horror. Hair standing on end, puffy-eyed, but with a rictus look of surprise mingled with horror and shame – we should have been enough to scare off even the bravest locals. But hey, maybe zombies were a thing round here and we didn’t even cut the mustard. As we had been parked in, I had to do the walk of shame and get out of the vehicle to stand awkwardly at the back of the trailer trying to direct Jane out of the spot – using a not-reversing manoeuvre, knowing that the trailer would simply jack-knife. Which, of course, it did.
After much annoyance and shouting between us: “What???”
“I can’t HEAR you!! NOW I can’t SEE you!!”
We managed to get the charabanc that contained all of our future life’s possessions on the road and out of the hair of the raging Rouenians.
A very swift programming of the SatNav took us on the quickest route out of town. Back along the banks of the Seine, it was, on one level, a delightful drive. Rouen looks like a lovely city. The Seine is as wide and as flowing there as it is in Paris – and it is a city which seems to have been built around its banks. Delicate bridges span it periodically, and its grand watery avenue affords many a view of the city on both sides of the river. When I say, it should have been a lovely drive, it WOULD have been a lovely drive had it not been for the crazy morning peak hour traffic, combined with nervous right hand side drivers (us) and even crazier tunnels that appeared and disappeared out of nowhere. I can now confidently say that at least half of the Parisian car chase scenes must have been filmed in Rouen because they have the scariest tunnels God ever put breath into.
In following the SatNav (which of course sounds so calm and anodyne: “cut your own throat when it is safe to do so”), we took a route that drove us into tunnel after tunnel, all of them, on a parallel route to the river. We were being followed like the bride and groom by a host of cars beeping and tail-gating – furious at our slow pace and our indecisive nature on their peak hour roads.
The first tunnel entrance approached and we did that thing that you do when you take a sharp intake of breath – then thinking “how silly!” as the roof of the car slipped in under the tunnel ceiling.
The first tunnel was followed by a second and a third, all in quick succession. Each one getting smaller and smaller in aperture. In our Land Rover we started to sweat…at the second entrance both of us muttered obscenities under our breath. But the final tunnel was the kicker: we had to slow down to make sure we could make it through! We literally ducked. Meanwhile the honkers were on full beam behind us. Had there been a way to get off the Harry Potter Highway of Hell, we would have most certainly availed ourselves of the off-ramp. Having finally got out of the hellish tunnels, we breathed an enormous sigh of relief, only to then find ourselves locked into an eternal 360 around a central plantation. Several rotations later, we found the exit to hell and hightailed it out of there. Rouen, you have Rouen-ed my hopes for a romantic road trip to your fair land, but I won’t hold it against you!
Back on the motorway we were swept with that sense of elation that Thelma and Louise must have had when they headed down the highway – the law and all the arseholes in the land at their backs. But I guess, unlike T&L, we still looked like two penn’th of God-help-us, plus, we were ‘reals’ and well, T&L, they were sadly, an ‘alternative fact’. So, despite our rebels without a cause internal dialogue, our outward appearance probably accounted for the odd looks we got at all the service stations for the rest of the morning.
As this is a travelling blog, and blogs are sometimes useful to others, I feel compelled to give a word of advice about leaving Dieppe: there are no, I repeat, no petrol stations. ANYWHERE!!! At least, not the kind that you can find in the middle of the night.
It must have been a further 100 kilometres before we finally found a road stop with a petrol station and somewhere to eat and get a much needed coffee.
After filling up, we went to park up. A sign depicting a car and trailer with an arrow pointed to a particular route and round we followed it. It seemed to take us straight to the truck parking section, but no car and trailer sign was to be found. Round we went again, circumnavigating the entire complex, only to find that the actual space reserved for cars and trailers was being occupied by a fresh supplies truck. Oh well, these things happen, don’t they? So we parked in the very first bay of the truck area – right at the front of the bay. Off we toddled to the restaurant over the fly-over – excited at the prospect of coffee and food.
Lost in translation
After all, we still had a three day deficit of nutrients, and it was going to be some time before we felt like we were sharing the reality of the people around us. We arrived, peeking into its darkened door windows, hoping against hope that it was open and able to serve an omelette aux frites. But, alas, it was closed. Never mind – there was a Paul’s next door, so we lined up, slightly under the suspicious gaze of others in the shop, and duly received a delicious orange juice and double espresso as well as a couple of macarons.
Sadly, being entirely gluten-free due to severe health reactions there was no way we could go anywhere near the croissants or filled pastries on offer, despite their obvious benefits at this stage of the game. Back over the flyover, we decided to give the shop a crack – you never know what you will find. Plus, we needed some basic supplies like water and a map of France. Amazingly, we found a section in the shop that appeared to be ‘free-from’. There were biscuits and cookies and all sorts of odds and sods. Lookie Loo!
“Do I spy some caramel waffles that are actually gluten free?? Hurrah!!”
We picked up a pre-packed salad too and then off to the car to eat. Half way to the car, Jane says, “you know, I am not sure these are actually gluten-free”.
I had just been waxing lyrical about how the free-from section seems to be colour-coordinated and blaadee blaa blaa. “Really?”
Now, bearing in mind that of the two of us I am the only one who actually has any discernible French language skills and they are extremely rusty at the best of times – we both stare at the tiny writing on the packet and I wrack my brains for the word for wheat – which of course I cannot remember for the life of me.
In the midst of this printed word fracas, we look up to find that our car and trailer have been made an example of: despite being quite big when compared to an average sized car, they are dwarfed by the ENORMOUS truck that has pulled in directly behind us, in the bay – like RIGHT behind us. To make matters worse, the driver of the truck is still in the cabin, looking extremely grumpy and unhappy about the temerity of a UK interloper in truck territory.
Waving awkwardly ”Hi! English!” pointing at us, as if to say, ”Stupid! We don’t have signs like yours – that French car and trailer sign – how do you pronounce that? So hard to understand! Oh, it’s in pictures. Yes well, now you mention it, the picture of a car and trailer needs no translation. Yes indeed, you are in fact correct: we have chosen to review the pictogram on offer, and decided to ignore it – French or otherwise, it’s still a fecken car! Yes – absolutely – it would make sense to park where there is a sign for that particular combination, and not, as you say, in the bit with the sign for the great big fuck off truck. Which you have so ably pointed out, belongs right where we have parked. Indeed. Yes. Ever so sorry!”
We hope that the driver has in fact seen Monty Python and knows what complete numpties he is dealing with, and will therefore not immediately start his engine and snow plough us out into the road. I hop into the car, making a low profile so as not to draw any further attention, while Jane goes back to the shop to exchange the biscuits which we are now convinced are in no way ‘free-from’.
After all, the universal sign-language for ‘gluten-free’ is so easy, right?
Some considerable time later, she returns, red-faced and huffing. Sheepishly, I ask her how it went, only now realising what a terrible position I have put her in, given that it is I who can say some basic sentences, and she who will have had to resort to charades in order to make herself clear.
As she recounts her story, I sink deeper into the seat: the lines of people huffing and puffing and ‘tsking’ behind her as she points at the packet and says variations of the word ‘exchange’ and ‘gluten’ with different endings – exchanger, glutinez, etc. Finally, the manager appeared, and took one look at Jane, grabbed the receipt from her now shaking hand, opened the till with a thud and plonked down some coins on the counter. And everyone in the shop took a breath because the world could continue without some form of spontaneous combustion occurring.
Vive le sausage
One could write copiously and extensively about roadside pit-stops because they are at once, so deeply banal, but also so immediately recognisable as the nadir of any culture they aim to serve. How many people decide that life is not worth living after a late-night stop in a dismal motorway dustbowl? It would be impossible to tell but certainly there must be some. However, as they perform this valuable marker of cultural minima it was exciting to find that on our next stop, where we found an even bigger restaurant affair, there was the kind of food on offer that would rival any high-street café in the UK.
We sat down to a late lunch of Toulouse sausage with garlic mash and wonderful creamed silverbeet; and for Jane, honeyed ham from the bone with roasted potatoes, bernaise sauce and a selection of steamed vegetables. Great value, great flavour, healthy food and also fantastic coffee!! If we were lucky, our roadside experiences would be well eclipsed by the aptly named La Lunaire and its restaurant A Table, later on that evening, in a tiny hamlet called La Guide …