On the road again

Welcome to the 15th blog of The Olivia Rose Diaries. It feels like ages since my last blog in late June – how I have missed writing it and receiving all your replies in turn.

It has occurred to me that I shouldn’t be calling this The Olivia Rose Diaries whilst we are taking a break from the boat. However, I am very attached to that name and don’t want to change it. Luckily Michael has come up with an ingenious suggestion to justify keeping it. Many boats have a small dinghy that they use to ferry them to the shore if they are anchoring off. These are called ‘tenders’. So the van is now going to be our ‘tender to Olivia’ as it ferries us around the mainland – and the name can stay!

And while we’re talking about Olivia I know I said there would be no more boat pictures for a while but I have to include this one. It was our penultimate night cruising on June 29th and we moored up in Metz. It’s a stunning city and provided the perfect backdrop to Olivia. Happy days.

I should introduce you to our campervan, or our ‘tender. It’s a Toyota Hiace and it was, and may well be again in the future, our work van which we have converted ourselves to dual use. So it has a bench seat which becomes a rock-and-roll bed, and a custom-built area at the back which provides a storage space for the gas bottle, cooker, camping fridge and, most vital of all, the porta-potti. We have three sturdy boxes which take food, cooking utensils and clothing respectively and which drive me mad on a daily basis as whatever I am looking for will always be at the bottom of the box, forcing me to take everything out to find it. We try to spend a reasonable amount of time wild camping and have a house battery to power the lights. Showers wait until we go to a campsite.

As I write this we have travelled over a thousand miles in the last ten days. We covered a similar distance on Olivia last year and it took us five months. What a difference of pace. We’ve crossed the country from the north-east diagonally over to the south-west, with a brief stop to visit family in the Lot on the way, and are now at our chosen destination, touring the Pyrennées.

It has been ten days of dramatically different experiences. Our date of departure, Saturday 4th July, coincided with the beginning of the school holidays. We were warned by our fellow French boaters that the roads would be dreadful and we should delay until Sunday, but this year has been so full of delay for us that we couldn’t bear the thought of another one, even for 24 hours, and so decided that we would brave the traffic.

Nothing about this year has been normal though and that trend continued once we began our journey. The roads were not exactly empty, but neither were they teeming with French holiday makers. There were no delays at all. We did notice that the French cars were easily matched in number by visitors from Belgian and the Netherlands who obviously had no qualms about getting out on the road again. There were less than a handful of British cars. For our first night we shared our campsite with a lone cyclist in a tent, and our second night with just one family. We drove through towns and villages where pavement tables were empty, cafés were closed and we were the only people on a wine tasting visit in a local wineshop in Madiran.

On the one hand we were relieved because it made it very easy to keep ourselves to ourselves. But our hearts went out to all those people whose livelihoods are in tatters. The French people we spoke to about the situation shrugged with mournful resignation and said it was all terrible.

We arrived in the Pyrennées shortly before the beginning of another major French holiday land-mark, Tuesday 14th July, which is an extended weekend holiday and everything changed. The French were flocking to the mountains in droves and suddenly we were over-run.

We began to notice the difference as we drove up the winding pass to the Cirque de Gavarnie. This towering, natural amphitheatre is a major tourist attraction and we knew it would be busy, but even so we were unprepared for the crowds. It was the same at the Lac d’Estaing and the Lac d’Oô, the latter of which had to be visited just because it had such a charming name. For four days it felt like Pen-y-Fan on a Bank Holiday Monday, a long trail of families merrily traipsing their way up the tracks, and we began to despair but today is Wednesday and the roads are markedly quieter. We are at a campsite tonight – there comes a point when we both agree we need a shower without ever needing to actually say it – and we are alone, much to our surprise and delight.

It has been a while since I have been in ‘proper’ mountains and the sheer scale of the Pyrenées takes my breath away. A picture is worth a thousand words so instead of waffling on about the grandeur of it all, I will let the following pictures do the talking. Suffice to say that we climbed so high at times it felt as if we could touch the sky, that we fell asleep to the sound of silence, woke to the sound of cow bells and the sight of vultures rising on early morning thermals and walked through high mountain flower meadows with the deep purple-blue of wild iris dotted amongst pinks, yellows and whites of flowers that I can’t begin to know all the names of. We had thunderstorms, dense mists coming down so suddenly we couldn’t see more than 25m ahead, and deep blue skies with cotton-wool clouds tumbling down over the high peaks. Big country, big weather – pure magic.

Wild camping with a view of Cirque de Gavarnie
Mist bubbling up from the valley
Shot from valley floor
Cirque de Gavarnie
Cirque de Gavarnie a few moments later disappearing in cloud
Looking down on Lac d’Oo
Company whilst camping

It soon became clear that after three months of enforced inactivity under lock-down, and then a month on Olivia going round in circles, that we are incredibly unfit. And that these mountains are not the easiest way to get that fitness back again! We’re either going steeply up or we’re going precipitately down, with one set of leg muscles complaining as we go up and the other screaming as we come down. What I and my poor wobbly muscles wouldn’t give for a long hot soak in a bath tub tonight!

My final thought before I head for the shower is to let you know that Maddie is a different dog now she is back on land. She spent a fair amount of time on Olivia with her head on her paws looking completely bored and miserable. Now she is back in her element and a very happy dog indeed.

We’ve got a couple more days here in the mountains and then will head down into the foothills, somewhere yet to be decided.

Hope you are all managing to enjoy the summer in your respective countries. Commiserations to our own family in Kazakhstan who have just gone back in to lock-down. I can’t begin to imagine how hard that would be. Here’s hoping the rest of us don’t follow suit later this year. Time to stock up on some good memories while we can.

Take care.


3 thoughts on “On the road again

  1. Hi Mary-Jane. This brings back fond memories of wild camping on both the French and Spanish sides of the Pyrenees. Then, four years ago in September, Richard cycled across from east to west, taking in all those crazy cols, with me in the van, finding those narrow, windy, precipitous roads very scary and wondering how on earth he could do it a velo. Then there was the added worry of our mobiles not working very well and missing each other on more than one occasion! Breathtaking scenery, I agree. I’ve also spent a lot of time in the French foothills, as I’ve a French friend with a house there, in a tiny village called Bizous, near Montrejeau and Llanemezan – a beautiful area. Sorry, should have put this in an email!
    Love to you both,


  2. Another great read, and a good catch up – and that accolade does not include the wonderful photographs. We have done the Pyrenees in the West and in the East, but never the centre section. I think we missed out. What will be the next stage of your ventures? I hope the canal systems will allow you room for navigate between weed, lack of water and closed locks!!


  3. Nice to have you back! The Pyrenees are a great favorite of mine and I hope you enjoyed the rich red wines of Madiran. They are reputed to be very good for the heart so every glass can be a comfort to you. Well it sounds good anyway! I am a friend of David (in the Lot) – another beautiful area. Enjoy your travels and stay safe. I look forward to the next chapter. Best wishes, Sylvia


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