Watch out France…here we come….again

During the night in Finesterre we decide to return to Santiago for two nights before heading back to France. We have been generously offered accommodation for a few weeks by a friend who has a restored ‘barn’ in the rural french area of Bantard.

The WiFi in Finesterre is patchy at best and we have been unable to do much research on transport or flight times so in the best andtheywalked.com tradition we decide to play it by ear.

Rain is being whipped onto the western window of our room when we wake in the morning. We have breakfast in the hotel hoping for a pause in the rain for the walk back down the cape road to Fistera.

The rain is falling in isolated squalls by the time we set out and we manage to scuttle/hobble back to Fistera without being soaked.

A few hours later we have arrived in Santiago where the rain is pouring down. Pam is still having trouble getting over pilgrim mode and it takes a lot of persuasion on my part to enable us to catch a cab to the hotel rather than walk for an hour in the rain.

Luckily I can talk faster than I can walk.

The hotel room where we are staying has bright red walls and bathroom fittings which I find very disquieting. It is a room of blood and milk.

At least the WiFi is working. Pam researches the best option for the next stage of our travel and discovers a cheap flight to Paris that is leaving tomorrow. We had made a rough plan to spend two nights in Santiago and then fly to Limoges France and had booked the hotel accordingly. Luckily they were happy to accommodate our shifting needs.

Our last night in Santiago we spend walking the local streets, eating at a groovy tapas bar and buying delicious local chocolates that we devour once back in our disturbing hotel room.

I am rapidly finding out the least fun part of travel is the actual travel process itself.

Our flight to Paris leaves at 11:00 am and is an international flight so we arrive at about 8:30 am. We spend hours hanging around the airport and then suddenly we are taking off, with our beautiful host country for the last two months falling below and behind.

Bye for now Spain…..if Pam has her way (and she probably will) we will be back for the Portuguese leg of the Camino in the new year.

I hadn’t realised how big Charles De Gaulle airport is when we landed in Paris from Australia. Everything went so smoothly and we virtually just walked off our plane and into a taxi.

Charles De Gaulle airport is huge.

Our flight from Santiago lands at terminal one, we know the car we have hired is at terminal three.

The plane lands and we are ferried along the ground for a long distance in the plane before disembarking onto the tarmac and boarding a bus that takes us to terminal one.

The customs process goes smoothly and we are ejected into the hubbub to pick up our backpacks before joining the melee in terminal one. All signage is in French and we have no idea where we are or where to go.

Finally we find an information desk and are told we now have to take the internal airport train to terminal three. The train terminal is at least a 500m walk away and we hitch up our packs and set off.

The train shuttles us a couple of kilometers and we disembark at terminal three, ride the escalators up and inside and decide to eat some food before attempting the next stage of locating the car hire.

After eating we find another information desk where we are informed the car hire companies are located at the far end of the terminal. Off we go again, forging our way through the busy airport where we stand out like two scruffy ner’do-wells in the chic elegant Parisian crowd.

Finally we find the car hire location and are told that our car is still being cleaned and will not be ready for about thirty minutes. Pam sits down to read the car hire contract while I go in search of maps of Paris and France for the drive to come.

On my return I find Pam very concerned. There is a clause in the hire contract stating that if our car is stolen we will be forced to pay a $20000 (that is twenty thousand) Euro excess. There is no way we are prepared to sign such a contract and we spend the next half an hour in heated discussion with the car hire representative about how they justify such punitive conditions.

He insists this excess applies to the ‘class’ of car we are hiring (VW Tiguan) and suggests we go with a class that more suits our appearance.

I check with other hire firms and find the excess they charge for such a vehicle is about 1600 Euro.

Of course the poor guy does not make the rules, he just has to advise us of them. He offers another smaller car type at the same price that is not subject to the ridiculous excess however will not budge on the hire price which should now also be lower.

Pam has had a gut full by now and is insisting we look else where for car hire. We had booked the car online at a very reasonable price and find out when we attempt to book another car at the airport with other firms the cheapest we can find is about three times what we were previously going to pay.

We return fuming to the upstairs airport terminal with no car, no language skills and no idea what to do next.

Thank goodness for the internet.

By now Pam has used up the fifteen minutes of free WiFi provided by Charles de Gaulle airport on both the phone and ipad so we have no alternative other than to pay for more time.

We toss up options of staying in Paris for the night or attempting to hire another car online and settle on the latter option. Finally we find another car hire deal that is almost as cheap as the previous attempt and have read the online fine print forwards and backwards.

The car hire firm is called Firefly and is apparently a Hertz subsidiary so we make our way back to the Hertz terminal where we have already tried to hire a car after scuttling our previous option.

Hertz advise us that Firefly is a separate company and operate out of terminal one.

Urge to kill rising.

We trudge back to the distant airport train and finally disembark again where we had started hours ago. There are signs for other car hire firms but absolutely no signage for Firefly. We ask at the airport info desk and they point us to a lift and tell us to go to the blue level.

The lifts are huge and initially only ourselves and one other male french airport employee rise to the next floor. The doors open and we are pushed back by a surge of teenage girls, all of whom are stunningly beautiful and giggling like crazy with one and other.

The french guy rolls his eyes and tells us that some Korean pop star is arriving at the airport and there is a mob of girls building to greet him.

We all get out at the blue level, the giggling girls rush off and Pam and I set off looking for Firefly which is nowhere to be found.

We find yet another info desk and they tell us to go up further to the red level which we do. From here we can see other car firms and we are just about to return in disgust once more when I spy Firefly which is located in a corner and operating out of a shipping container.

‘Dodgy brothers incorporated’ goes through my mind.

The Firefly attendant turns out to be lovely, he has travelled to Australia the previous year and speaks some English as a result. The poor guy has to suffer through us going through each paragraph of the contract in detail with him before we sign.

In the meantime another french man who is also hiring a car joins us and asks where we are going. On hearing we are heading towards Limoges he gives us directions stating we should head for the Paris ring road and then along the A13.

I have previously looked at the maps for Paris and France while Pam has been searching for car alternatives and am fairly sure we need to head for the ring road then the A10 which joins later with the A20.

He seems very sure of his directions and now I am confused, have I misread the maps?

While searching for the car deals Pam and I have discussed options to include GPS with the car. Most of the hire firms charge about 10 Euros a day which we think is outrageous and we have decided we will only pay 30 Euros tops.

We enquire regarding the GPS costs and are told the standard 10 Euro per day fee applies with a maximum of 60 Euro for extended hires. As this exceeds the 30 Euro max Pam and I had agreed on we don’t get the GPS however I am thinking that we should have payed the extra amount regardless.

The hire car arrives, we will be driving a Renault Clio Diesel manual.

Now for the moment of truth.

We had expected to arrive at the airport and be on our way by about 3pm which would have enabled us to drive out of Paris in daylight and avoid peak traffic. After the hire car debacle it is now almost 6:30pm and the sun is setting.

Other than the truck we hired to move our furniture in Brisbane before leaving Australia I have not driven a manual vehicle in over a decade.

My mission, should I chose to accept it (and I have no choice), is to drive a small manual car, with controls on the wrong side of the vehicle, on the opposite side of the road to which I have driven all my life, through one of the busiest cities in the world, in Friday peak hour, at night.

As we go to set off I say to Pam that ‘I wish we had gotten the GPS’.

Her response is completely unprintable.

I realise Pam is even more stressed than I am and decide keeping my trap shut is the wisest option.

I wonder to myself ‘could this get any harder?’

As we leave the terminal it begins to rain…hahahahaha…asked and answered.

I really have no idea where we are going, Pam is navigating (hahahaha) waving maps around and attempting to read them in the cabin light (impossible).

We join the major road and I see a sign for the A10 and one for the A13, against my better instincts I get in the lane for the A13. We follow along in the heavy traffic until Pam tells me to take the next turn off which she thinks will join the correct road.

The turn off takes us back in the direction we had come from, there is no way to get off the highway we are on and soon we pass back by Charles de Gaulle airport and are heading in some completely incorrect direction with no idea how to change course.

By now it is completely dark. The rain intensifies.

Traffic suddenly grinds to a halt, there is an accident up ahead and three lanes are merging into one. We take the opportunity to try and decipher something regarding our location and direction from the maps, taking extreme care not to mention anything relating to GPS systems. We come to the conclusion we are heading in the exact opposite direction we should be and that trying to find our way to Limoges tonight is going to end in disaster.

Pam wisely pulls the pin on any further attempt to escape Paris in the rain and dark and we decide to pull off the road at whatever hotel next presents itself in the direction we are heading.

As mentioned in my very first post on this blog Charles de Gaulle airport has some cropland growing up to its outskirts and by the time we have crawled past this area we spy a blue motel sign ahead and pull off the highway into the suburbs.

Two roundabouts later (it is weird going around roundabouts the wrong way) we are at the hotel and have got directions to a local restaurant.

Pam wants to walk to the restaurant however I insist on driving (I need the practice). The restaurant turns out to be several kilometers away. We end up having a truly delicious meal despite the French only menu and no one speaking any English.

By the time we have made it back to the hotel Pam’s stress level has subsided and we have a conversation regarding our communication strategies for important situations where one of us thinks changing elements lead to a paramount need to counter previous agreements.

Codeword VETO.

That night before we go to sleep we google map (taking screenshots) the entire route (both maps and description) from our hotel to Bantard.

In my dreams I am still marching. Onwards and ever upwards.

The dawning of a new day brings with it new possibilities, new adventure, new territories to explore…..new ways to get lost.

Despite the previous nights planning we miss an early turn off the highway and have to double back. I then miss the turn to get us back on the highway and we have to double double back.

We are spinning round like a broken compass. Both our stress levels are high.

We pull to the side of the road where I look at the maps again and state to Pam ‘that once we are on the Paris ring road things will get easier’ and ‘that it doesn’t really matter how we get to the ring road we will just follow road signs’.

French road signage is different to Australian road signage however somehow we finally make it back to our route and then to the ring road.

It is Saturday morning and we did not expect the Paris traffic volume to be high.

Wrong bet.

We crawl our way forward on the ring road with scooters zipping down the centre lines beeping their horns and flashing their hazard lights constantly.

Every lane change is a nightmare, following the driving habits of a lifetime I constantly look out into space to my left expecting to see the rear vision mirror.

At least driving a manual is like riding a bike, a physical skill that once learned is always there when you need it.

Pam is jamming her feet down on the fire board reaching for non-existent pedals.

Her trust level seems low.

Horns are beeping, scooters blasting by without warning, five….six lanes of traffic, weird road signs…..merge after merge.

The Renault Clio has a strange slippery uncomfortable vinyl covered steering wheel and my hands are aching from white knuckle fever.

Finally we make the A10 turnoff (the A13 was complete misinformation) and the traffic starts to move without the constant pauses of the drive so far. Soon we are on three lanes that are all heading south.

French freeway driving is very orderly however no one seems to use their indicators. The supposed maximum speed is 130km per hour and trucks are limited to 100km per hour and stay in the far right lane. No one overtakes on the right and I feel like I am getting the hang of it all after about half an hour.

I am still having a lot of trouble with where the rear vision mirror is versus my conditioned imprinting. Otherwise all is good.

Other than my aching hands and forgetting the beauty of the French countryside the rest of the highway drive is unremarkable.

Bantard is a little hamlet that lies about 300km south of Paris and about 70km north of Limoges.

We leave the highway and follow the written directions we had downloaded from google maps taking care to try and not get lost in the labyrinth of narrow country roads.

The countryside is green and beautiful, fields are separated by hedges and lines of trees, orange/brown cattle with hairy coats are the predominant livestock. We pass through a couple of small villages of stone walled orange tiled houses and their companion barns.

Before we know it we are turning right into Bantard which is a grouping of twenty six houses/dwellings lining a narrow country lane. Our destination is turns out to be the last dwelling on the left.

High stone walls with doors, window frames and shutters all painted in a friendly blue colour. We pull into the gravel drive on the far side and alight in the cool country air.

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I unclench my tired hands and take a deep deep breath.

Ahhhh the serenity.

Inside the rustic building lies simplicity and peace, two fireplaces, a huge open living space with bedrooms reached by steep dark hardwood stairs, a simple kitchen, a downstairs bedroom where Pam and I will sleep and rest.

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I have to stoop to walk through any of the doors particularly the one between the kitchen and the open ‘barn’ space which is only a little higher than my shoulders.

Artwork that has been completed by previous tenants adorns the walls and a couple of full bookshelves whisper promises of lazy days reading to come.

We rapidly feel at home in our new beautiful surrounds and after unpacking head off to the largest local village which has a supermarket for supplies.

The village St Benoit de Sault occupies the hillsides in a twist of the Portefeuille river. Population is approximately 700. In 1998 it was named the most beautiful village in France.

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Justifiably so.

When we first take the curve where the village comes into sight Pam draws a quick breath ‘how beautiful is that, we are going walking here’.

We load up with the essentials (mostly booze) at the supermarket and head back to Bantard.

I light the fire in the open space and we toast our remarkable luck and great fortune in being able to stay in such a marvelous place in such a peaceful and beautiful part of the world.

Once again I march on and on in my dreams.

Waking up to darkness and silence compensates for the relentless marching going nowhere.

We have dragged the ordinary weather from Spain to Paris and now to Bantard. Personally I now revel in the rain which precludes me having to force my aching knees into action.

As mentioned there are a couple of well stocked bookshelves along with a DVD library in the ‘barn’ and I spend the next couple of days in a very cosy bed ploughing through novel after novel.

Other than coming out for drinks and stoking up the fire for Pam (who is ploughing through the collection of Australian films) I barely move….it is heaven.

A few days after we arrive the grey weather retreats and the sun pokes its head out. Pam has got a serious case of the restless legs by now and insists we go for a walk around St Benoit de Sault to take in the sights.

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We park in the village and set out on the Circuit Val d’Anglin which Pam believes is a three and a half kilometer walk around the village that takes in most of the older buildings.

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The first portion leads down a steep cobblestone street that has my knees immediately singing, we cross the little stone bridge and head off uphill on the other side of the river. Unfortunately we have forgotten to take the phone with us so the sight of the beautiful village in the sun is retained only in our minds eye.

At the top of the hill the Circuit Val d’Anglin heads away from the village where we have parked and makes its way through the surrounding countryside. About half an hour passes and I ask Pam if she is sure she knows where we are going.

She replies ‘it is a circuit so it must come back to the beginning again’

She does not seem to think the fact that we have already walked far more than three kilometers to be strange and tells me to ‘just enjoy the beautiful countryside in the sun’

The sun sinks lower and lower in the sky.

Far to our right I see the church tower of the small village that lies between Bantard and the road leading to St Benoit de Sault and suggest we take the road heading back or soon we will be walking in the dark.

Pam is not amused when I start singing the theme song from Gilligan’s Island ‘for a three hour tour, a three hour tour’……’the Minnow would be lost’.

We continue following along the ‘circuit’ passing farm after farm, stepping off the road into the nettles as tractors pass by.

We have been walking for several hours now, I estimate there is another hour of daylight left at the outside. We come to a little village where all the shops are shut, we have no phone, there are no public phones and no taxis or buses.

Pam is still wanting to follow the circuit and repeatedly states that ‘sooner or later we will return to St Benoit de Sault’. She greets my response that ‘a circle’s circumference is determined by the size of it’s radius and that this ‘circuit’ could be fifty kilometers long for all we know’ with disdain however is forced to admit that ‘yes I can see the sun is sinking’.

We have also set out without any water and by now both of us are very thirsty. Almost every village we passed through on the Camino had fountains where a pilgrim could drink and replenish their water bottle however this is France and no such fountains are in evidence.

Beside the village church there is a little van with an internal stove that is selling pizzas however he turns out not to sell any liquids.

‘Who would sell pizzas with no drinks?’ asks my frustrated wife.

We ask a perplexed local how far it is to St Benoit de Sault and he replies maybe 7-8 kilometers. Harsh experience has taught me this usually means 10-12km.

While we dither the sun is sinking lower and lower. By the time I persuade Pam our best option is to retrace our steps the sun is almost touching the horizon.

I have left our ‘barn’ prepared for a short walk in the sunny afternoon and am wearing shorts and a T-Shirt. By now it is getting chilly and each breath out blows steam.

By now Pam and I are only speaking in short sentences to each other with monosyllabic replies.

Soon it is dark and we are not even a third of the way back. We stand in the nettles in the dark as cars and tractors pass by on the narrow road. Pam has got a tiny dim torch in her bag that cuts out intermittently.

On and on we walk under the Northern Night Sky. The night is clear and the stars are bright and beautiful.

Constellations unfamiliar fill the sky.

Pam gets us lost and I find our way back, we each play important roles. Finally the lights of St Benoit de Sault appear in front of us and we limp (well I limped) back into the village.

On ‘The Journey of the Minnow’ we have walked about 20 kilometers with the last seven in darkness, no water and poorly dressed for the conditions. At least we weren’t carrying heavy backpacks.

By the time we have quenched our thirst with wine and beer in front of the crackling fire it is all smiles again.

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Later we find out the Circuit d’Anglin is sixty six kilometers long and meant for bicycle tours.

‘A Three Hour Tour’

There is no way I am walking again the following day, we make plans to drive Limoges to shop for winter weather clothes and a WiFi toggle.

The weather closes in again for most of the remainder of our time in Bantard.

We sightsee mostly via the car, driving to most of the surrounding villages, occasionally having dinner or lunch in local restaurants.

One afternoon while driving back from the supermarket we finally sight some of the prancing deer we have been constantly warned about via roadsigns. A pair of small does are nervously grazing at the back of one of the fields.

We go to sleep early and rise late, spending days reading or watching DVDs in front of the fire, listening to the rain on the skylights.

Towards the end of our time in Bantard we walk the village area on a relatively fine day and take photos of the beautiful little town.

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All too soon twenty days have passed and our time at Bantard draws to an end. We prepare for our return to the rushing modern world leaving the following message in the guest book.

We arrived in Bantard after completing the Route Francois Camino Santiago with sore feet, tired legs and joy in our hearts. In the three weeks we have been privileged to stay the air has cooled, compacted. The orange cattle in the area have grown fuzzy coats as trees carpet their roots with rusty fallen leaves.

Readying for the coming winter.

Peace is a warm fire within thick silent stone walls. Comfort is a warm bed and a good book.

Thanks for providing us with an abundance of peace and comfort in such a tranquil beautiful part of the world. We leave Bantard renewed in body and mind, ready for adventures to come.

The joy we came with, we take redoubled. For we have been infused with the vibrations from this happy ‘barn’. Hopefully we have added to the mix.

Thanks for letting us stay

Pam and Mick

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