Welcome to the 16th blog of The Olivia Rose Diaries on July 30th 2020. We are still out on the road, in our campervan-come-tender-to Olivia, touring in the south western corner of France.
We’ve never been people who like crowds. Long before this new Covid-world, we avoided the cities, the festival circuits, museums and crowded bars – public places in general. It’s not that we’re completely anti-social, but we enjoy peace and quiet in the natural environment above all else. Our idea of a good campsite is a corner of a field with a standpipe for a water supply, a drain cover for emptying the porta-potti and no-one else in it but us. Hmm – perhaps we are a bit anti-social after all!
As we moved away from the Pyrennés and into the Lot area of France we did our best to find either quiet campsites or wild camping spots but it wasn’t always that easy. A routine established itself at the end of the day as we began to look for an out-of-the-way-place to stay.
‘How about down there? Right by the river.’ I would say. We would wend our way down a promising-looking lane to find it was indeed right by the river – and also right outside someone’s house. Another attempt would prove to be full of campers already as we soon found out we weren’t the only people avoiding the big sites, and another might turn out to feel not quite right – never under-estimate the importance of listening to what your intuition tells you when wild camping. At the end of a long day, and with temperatures over 30 degrees, driving around endlessly trying to find a site became tedious.
But the times when we struck lucky made it worthwhile. One night we found a small grassy area surrounded by woods, hidden away down a track through fields of corn, with the river right in front of it. We drove up, bracing ourselves for a line of campervans and motorhomes hiding round the corner but it was empty. We had it all to ourselves.
What joy! We were in the river almost before we’d turned off the engine. When it’s this hot I don’t bother with changing into a swimming costume. It’s straight in with shorts and t-shirt. A couple of hours later we had the bbq smoking nicely and a bottle of wine disappearing fast. Maddie would head back to the river for a swim by herself every now and then until the aroma of bbq chicken would prove irresistible and she’d re-appear, spraying us with river water as she gave herself a good shake, and then stretching out in line-of-site of the bbq, pointedly staring at the chicken.
Then the first camper van appeared, a beaten-up, smoking old VW with a lanky French hippy complete with dreadlocks and a thin Collie with one blue eye and one brown. He pulled a paddle board out of the van and grinned cheerily at us as he hoisted his dog onto the board and pushed it into the river.
‘Lovely peaceful spot, isn’t it? Until I appeared!’
We couldn’t help but smile back at him. Besides, there was plenty of room for two of us.
A few minutes later the first of the cars appeared. This time it was the locals, coming out for an evening swim in what was evidently a favoured spot. Strangely, they didn’t all come at once, but would appear one car at a time in an orderly fashion, have their swim, wish us ‘Bon appetit’, drive off and ten minutes later another one would appear. The paddleboarder returned with his dog, his girl friend turned up in her car and they started cooking dinner. Then the next campervan arrived, the inhabitants throwing themselves gleefully in the river before stringing up a hammock in the trees and getting their evening meal on the go.
A couple more vans appeared, but they must have seen the way we all glared at them, and thankfully decided to try elsewhere. Peace descended, with just the quiet murmur of conversation drifting between the vans. We weren’t alone but we were with like-minded people and all was well.
After a couple of nights camping in various lakes and river-side spots and numerous dunkings in the river we were beginning to smell a bit like a stagnant pond. We’re used to this with Maddie, but it’s not so good when you realise it’s you who is responsible for the smell. More importantly our leisure battery was almost flat. This meant our small camping fridge didn’t work which in turn meant warm beer. It was time to brave a proper campsite.
Things had moved on a pace over the last few days. The French government had decreed that masks must now be worn in all indoor spaces and that included the shower block, although the campsite manager did apologetically make sure that we understood that we could take the mask off once we were in the shower cubicle so that it didn’t get wet. There were hand sanitising dispensers at entry and exit points and we were directed to go in by one entrance and out of another, with arrows on the floor. There was a limit on the number of people allowed in the building at any one time. This was difficult to adhere to as it was impossible to see how many people were behind closed doors. It didn’t feel at all comfortable.
As we toured on through the area, trying to do the things you would normally do on holiday, our levels of discomfort grew stronger. We forgot to take our masks with us one time and couldn’t go in to look at a church or the tourist office. A day later we paused at a local food market, where normally we would have happily wandered amongst the stalls. This time we took one look at the crowds of people, and drove past with glum faces. We visited a couple of beaux villages, at Conques and Saint-Cirq-la-Popie,but by late morning the narrow streets started to fill with people. By lunchtime we could see it would be packed, jostling shoulder to shoulder, and so we left.
Everywhere we went the presence of Covid was unmistakeable, feeling like we had an un-invited guest at a party, sitting morose and worryingly unpredictable in a corner, with all the party-goers watching him out of the corner of their eyes while they laughed and talked as if everything was fine, privately hoping that he wouldn’t suddenly erupt and spoil everything.
Perhaps we were being over-cautious and everything was fine but all the signs pointed to the opposite. Local outbreaks were growing throughout Europe, there were calls for masks to be mandatory outside as well as indoors in popular tourist areas such as La Rochelle and localised shut downs were beginning to appear. France was growing uneasy about developments in Spain and the UK government took it a step further by introducing an abrupt 14-day quarantine on anybody coming back in to the country from Spain, which was a stark reminder of how quickly freedom of movement can be limited or stopped.
We decided that it was time to go back to Olivia. We had been away for three weeks, and we knew we were lucky to have had that time, but enough was enough.
As we drove back along the motorway on July 27th it was noticeable that there was more holiday traffic heading south than when we left, a steady stream of motorhomes, caravans and also cars with roofboxes and bikes strapped to the back bumper. The human race was on the move again, and in large numbers.
To alleviate the boredom of the motorway as we headed north I got out a pen and notebook and counted up the different nationalities of the cars that passed us. In the space of an hour I counted 62 French vehicles, 64 from Belgium, 52 from the Netherlands, 42 from Germany, 11 from Luxembourg and 6 ‘other’ which included Poland and GB. Out of a total of 237 cars on the road, only 62 were French. I had always known that France was inundated with British visitors, but had not fully realised the extent to which their immediate neighbours all piled in for the summer as well. They must feel quite overwhelmed at times, but I guess the income it brings in counterbalances any sense they may have of being invaded.
We arrived back at Olivia to find that once again we were almost the only people living aboard their boats. With many of the waterways still shut, most people had given up on the boating season for this year. The adjoining campsite had a mere 7 vans in it and the cycle lanes along the river were deserted compared to how they had been in Spring. It seemed that the locals had also headed south. I sat out on deck as the evening grew dark and the night folded itself gently around me and could feel the tension of the last few days slip away. It’s ironic that here on Olivia we can almost pretend there is no Coronavirus, but out on the road it was inescapable.
To finish on a positive note it has now been four months since I launched my book Just Passing Through, a travel memoir of our first two years on the water,and to my complete amazement sales have gone very well. I had no idea what to expect, but it seems that the net has spread far and wide. The majority of sales are in the UK, but I also have a readership in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, India, the States, Canada and Australia. I think perhaps it has reached the point where it is starting to generate its own sales now, but I know many of you bought it when it first launched, giving it a much needed strong start, so thank you for that. For any new blog readers who missed the launch back in April, the book is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paper back format. (Apologies – unashamed plug!) I can’t wait to get started on my next book – but I guess that will have to wait a while.
That’s it for now. You are up-to-date! I hope you are all still keeping well and enjoying the summer as much as possible. I’m not sure what happens with us over the next few weeks. It might be a bit quiet but I’ll be back as soon as something exciting happens! See you soon.