Updated On: February 15, 2006
Current Location: Tours, FR - View Route Distance Since Last Update: 1,115 miles
Total Distance: 1,143 miles
Current Weather: Rain, Windy, Mid 50's
Local Fare : Crepes, pain au chocolate, loads of baghettes, cheese, and wine
Recent Activities: Exploring Loire Valley Chateaux, repairing broken starter on truck, paying off locals for Betty's aggression

 
  Rouen, France - February 7-8, 2006
It was 6:15pm and having just been kicked out of the internet cafe (which closed at 6:00), we found ourselves standing in a cold, drizzling rain with an open laptop in hand. We’d launched our website shortly before the café closed and then, just as we were being booted out, realized there were a few bugs that needed to be fixed. Links that went to the wrong pages. Photos not displaying correctly. It was maddening. Now we found ourselves crouched on the wet ground trying to pick up the wi-fi signal outside the internet café while shielding the laptop from the rain. As we worked to fix the bugs a man stumbled out of a nearby pub and staggered in our direction. As he approached he starts yelling at us to “close that damn laptop or I’ll smash it into a thousand bits.” With the rain still coming down and the first element of a soon to be inexplicably angry mob massing we closed the screen and crammed into a nearby phone both where we continued to pursue a fix. A short time later we had it….. or at least we thought we did. We quickly ran through the various pages and functions of the site testing as much of the site as we could. With everything more or less working, we shutdown the laptop, crammed it into a backpack and headed for the truck. We were already late for our 10:15pm ferry and there was no time to spare. Not the relaxing departure we had hoped for, but none-the-less we were off and headed for France.

It was well past dark as we settled in for the 4-hour drive to Dover. Frazzled by the pace of the past few days it was difficult to relax and rationalize that we were now underway. As we motored along the M1 towards the English Channel we slipped in a freshly burned CD and decompressed to a mix of Ethiopian, Indian, and American tunes selected specifically for the trip.

The drive proved uneventful and we reached the French passport checkpoint shortly before 11pm. Having missed our scheduled departure we coughed up the additional 15 Euros and joined the long line of lorries being loaded onto the 11:45pm departure.. Once onboard the crossing to Calais was uneventful and we landed at 1:15am. We off-loaded into a driving rain and promptly made the short drive to the Bonsai Hotel – our resting-place for the night. Exhausted, we were asleep before our heads hit the pillow.

The next morning we met up with Sharikay and Eric who had arrived a few hours before us the previous night. After a brief reunion, we set out to find a place to eat and map out a plan for the coming days. A short search led us to Tonerre de Brest, a delightful little creperie a short walk from the hotel. The next couple of hours were spent soaking up the atmosphere, gorging on crepes, and pouring over guide books and maps. There were so many options, however ultimately we mapped out a route south along the Normandy coast to Mount St. Michel. From there Sharikay and Eric would split off for a few days in Paris while we continued south through the Loire Valley before meeting back up just north of the Andorra boarder.

With a plan in hand we fired up the massive diesel engines and headed out in convoy. Rumbling through the small villages dotting the coast seemed to cause quite a stir and drew stares from everyone within ear-shot. Around 4pm we arrived in Le Cap Gris-Nez a picturesque stretch of cliff lined coast. The weather was excellent – mid 40’s and sunny – and the late afternoon sun bathed the rocky beach in warm light. From Le Cap Gris-Nez we continued south through rolling coastal hills. Along the way we enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the English Channel.

Around 8pm we arrived in Rouen where we decided to stay for the night. The narrow streets of Rouen proved a driving and parking nightmare, which climaxed shortly before 10pm when we located two small spaces along a residential street. The catch… both spots were hemmed in by other cars requiring us to parallel park our overland giants in spaces that were perhaps only 2-6 centimeters larger than the trucks. It was a painful exercise which required a few gentle nudges with the bull bar to the tiny euro hatchback in front of us and our spare wheel carrier hanging over the top of silver Volvo wagon behind us in order to stuff all 6,600 lbs into such small holes. In the process of finessing our vehicles into position we managed to rouse the attention of several local residents who had collected inside their windows to watch the action – and no doubt watch over their helpless little vehicles which were inches away from being crushed.

With our trucks snuggly tucked away, we ventured into the city center for a relaxing dinner at Delhi, a local Indian restaurant. It was a wonderful meal characterized by good company, an excellent bottle of French wine and some well-prepared food. We finished dinner around midnight and returned with much dreaded anticipation to our vehicles which we were sure would need to be excavated from there parking spaces with the help of an elaborate winch and snatch block setup. Fortunately we returned to find the other vehicles gone and we pulled out with ease.

Our final task for the day was to find a place to stay. This time of year almost all the campsites in France are closed which meant our only option was a hotel. Our search turned up several no-go’s before finally getting the last two rooms at the Hotel Solferino, an old hotel in the heart the city with a charming exterior and tired, warn out interior. It worked and we were set for the night.

 
 
     
 
 

Bayeux, France - February 9, 2006
Up early, we packed up and checked out of the Hotel Solferino. Our destination for the day – the beaches of Normandy. Before setting out however, we took some time to explore the old center of Rouen. An area well known for it’s massive gothic Cathedral Notra Dame and characterized by medieval half-timbered houses (some leaning so far over they look like they’re about to collapse) and towering church spires which define the skyline. It’s also the place where Jeanne D’ Arc was burned at the stake and an area that was heavily bombed during WWII. We spent the morning wandering the streets and winding our way through narrow back alleyways.

With enough medieval history to hold us over for the balance of the day we fired up the trucks and set off for the coast. We arrived at Arromanches at 1pm. Following the D-Day invasion in 1944, Allied forces quickly established a fully operational port in Arromanches that served as the primary supply line for the Allied war effort in Europe. Today, the beach is still littered with remnants of the port including sections of the pier and large concrete wave breaks that jut out from the surf.

From Arromanches we headed north to Juno Beach – the site where Canadian forces stormed the beach on June 6, 1944 and overtook German positions dug into the surrounding dunes. Standing on Juno beach, on a perfect sunny day, with wind surfers shredding the nearby waves and only a lone German bunker still standing to mark the site, it was hard to imagine the blood shed that took place that June day.

It was now getting late and the sun was setting so we made our way to the nearby town of Bayeux in search of accommodations for the night. Along the way we stopped for a brief visit to Longues-sur-Mer a major German artillery battery where several heavily fortified bunkers and guns still line the coastal cliffs. Just after sunset, we arrived in Bayeaux. Our first stop was a local hostel. It seemed perfect. It was in the center of town. Was reasonably priced. Was a beautiful old building with tons of charm – a court yard and warm, inviting, dining room with a huge stone fireplace and long wooden tables. Dinner was even being prepared and it smelled wonderful! We were greeted by a friendly woman who offered us a key to check out our accommodations for the night. It seemed perfect but there’s no harm in checking out a room. Right? We checked out the first room. It confirmed what we already knew. Great. Then it was on to the next room. It looked good as well. As we were leaving the room however, we heard a squashing sound and Sheri said…. “oh no, what did I just step in???” As she picked up her foot and the four of us simultaniously peered down at the floor there was a collective “GROSS. What is that?” It was clearly poo but who’s? It was far too large, and dare I say smelly to be your run of the mill French house pet. And it was planted directly in front of the door. A great dane? Or perhaps, a disgruntled guest. One can only speculate. In the end we decided poo wasn’t in the cards and stepped back out into the cold to continue our search.

Along the way we stopped at an excellent Italian restaurant where we enjoyed bountiful pasta dishes and a wonderful bottle of French red wine. It was delightful and if it wasn’t for the poo still lingering on Sheri’s shoe it would have erased any memory of our visit to the hostel.

Following dinner we found a charming hotel that looked much like a French chateau. We rang up the owner who came out in her nightgown and said she had two rooms left. The price was right and she said she had parking for our vehicles (which I must admit seemed to terrify her with their very presence).
After moving her car and shuffling around some items in the yard, she eventually signaled with a swat of the hand to move the trucks into a small space carved amongst her flower garden. Didn’t seem like the best idea to me but we obliged. With several more swats of her hand she signaled us closer and closer until Betty was wedged tightly between the womans flower garden and a large fountain. Once the vehicles were parked, we shuttled our gear inside and retired to our room were Sharikay and Eric joined us for an overdue Champaign toast to officially kick off our journey. A fitting end to a wonderful day!

 
 
     
 
 

Mont St-Michel, France - February 10, 2006
Up early, the agenda for the day…. visit the Bayeaux Tapestry before making our way to the American Military Cemetery, Omaha Beach, and Point de Hoc. After visiting Point de Hoc we planned to continue along the coast to Mount St Michel where we would to stay for the night. It was a beautiful day, which provided us with plenty of time to explore the Normandy coast. The highlight of the day was Point de Hoc a heavily fortified German defense position located on point some 100 feet above the surrounding beaches. Visiting the site provides the most graphic image of the D-Day invasion as it's largely unchanged from the war. It’s hard to describe the site. There are massive bomb craters everywhere – created by the huge 16” guns fired from battle ships in the channel. Some bunkers are still in tact while others were destroyed by heaving bombing and only a mangled mass of metal and concrete remain. A closer investigation of the surviving bunkers reveals charred wooden beams on the ceilings – evidence of the US flame-throwers used during the assault. Our stay was a fitting end to our visit to Normandy – an interesting and sobering reminder of sacrifices made to win the war.

We left Point de Hoc at around 5pm and arrived at Mount St Michel at 8:00. Approaching MSM at night is an experience I will always remember. The massive abbey is dramatically lit at night and visible from miles away. It’s stunning.

Perhaps equally stunning was that we found a campsite open less than 1.5 miles down the road. It was a cold night but we were excited to break out our tents. Before doing so however we headed to MSM to have a quick look around and grab dinner. Dinner was enjoyable. We found a cozy table beside the fire and enjoyed a bottle of wine and nice meal.

After dinner we returned to our campsite and quickly setup our tents. It was 27 degrees and we couldn’t get into our sleeping bags fast enough. Once inside our bags, we found warmth!

 
 
     
 
 

Mout St-Michel , France - February 11, 2006
We woke up at 7:45am to find the tent covered in frost. The sky was mostly clear and it looked like it was going to be a beautiful winter day. After breaking down the tents, we grabbed some pastries and hot chocolate at a local restaurant and then made the quick trip over to Mt St-Michel. As we crossed the causeway, we could see that it was low tide and the surrounding bay looked like someone had pulled a giant plug and drained it dry. With the sandy bottom of the bay stretching for miles in every direction, Mt St- Michel looked like a giant sand castle. After parking the trucks we spent the next couple of hours exploring the narrow streets that snake upward to the abbey 240 feet above sea level. Built over a thousand years ago, MSM has all the cool stuff every kid dreams of seeing – medievel stone ramparts, a moat, drawbridge, and watchtowers. It looks to be an impenetrable fortress and in fact was under seige during the 100 Years War but never taken.

After thoroughly exploring everything behind the fortress walls, we ventured onto the muddy sand of the surrounding bay. The initial plan was to circumnavigate MSM. One thing led to another however and after Sheri told us that high tide wasn’t scheduled until 5pm, Eric and I decided to head straight out into the bay in the direction of a small island some miles away. In some places the sand was soft and muddy. In others it was fairly firm and in many places there were standing streams. We forged ahead, further and further until we got it in our heads that we could make it all the way to the island, climb to its summit, and make it back to dry land before the tide comes rushing back and fills the bay. As we slogged on, I couldn’t help but think that this reminded me of one of those Dateline stories where a hiker goes out of an afternoon walk in the woods and ends up sawing off is own arm with a dull pocket knife. After all, if the tide tables were wrong or, if Sheri had misunderstood the times (after all it is in French), we’d be in some really deep water.

In the end, it worked out. We made it all the way to the island a few miles off shore. Climbed to the top. Were rewarded with some well earned views of Mt St-Michel, and found our way back well in advance of the rising tide. It was a blast – the highlight of the day.

Upon our return, Sharikay and Eric departed for Paris and Sheri and I spent a couple more hours watching the tide come in and enjoying a spectacular sunset. An excellent end to and excellent day.


 
     
 

Tours, France - February 12, 2006
With Eric and Sharikay in Paris, we packed our bags and set off for Tours. Our base of exploration for the Loire Valley. The day started off well enough. Slept in. Grabbed some pastries at a local patisserie. Had a comfortable drive to Tours – stopping along the way to visit a couple of Chateaux and check out the medieval cities of Candes-sur-Martin and Montsoreau. A relaxing Sunday in France.

Unfortunately, Betty chose to pitch a minor fit. It began with her starter, which decided it had seen enough of Europe, packed up and went home. After stopping at a Chateau in Samaur we were lucky to get her started again. As if the truck didn’t attract enough attention already, try cranking it with a bad starter in a crowded parking lot. The scream of the dying starter drew so many stares that we felt like parents who’s kid decided to have a temper tantrum in the checkout line at the super market. If that wasn’t enough, when we arrived at the hotel, Betty was backing into a parking space (mind you I had nothing to do with this) and decided to attack a tiny hatchback parked in a nearby spot. All I heard was a loud crunch. When I got out the unlucky hatchback parked in the “empty” space behind us had its trunk crushed in. The damage happened to be in the exact shape of our rear wheel carrier. Not ideal! The problem was exasperated by the fact that I had no idea how to gracefully explain in French that my ill tempered monster truck took issue with your pride and joy and attacked it. After debating our options, we decided a note placed on the windshield would be the best solution. we wrote the note in English and posted it on the damaged car. I’m ashamed to admit but the thought ran though my head that the owner would find the note, wouldn’t speak a word of English, would trash it, and life would go on. Well, about 20 minutes later there was a knock on the door when I opened it I was greeted in perfect English by a woman wanting to know what happened. Turns out, she was on holiday from he UK. Ugh! 2 hours of paperwork and 600 Euros later the matter was resolved. Now we just have to address the starter and, more importantly, Betty’s anger management issues.


 
     
 

Tours, France - February 13-15, 2006
With our starter on the fritz, our plans changed and we decided it would be best to get it fixed before traveling further. The good news. We’re in France and every town has a Toyota dealership ready to lend a helping hand. The bad news. We’re in France and the Toyota dealer we selected didn’t speak a word of English (probably Karma’s way of getting back at me for wishing that the owner of the vehicle we damaged didn’t speak English). It was actually somewhat comical. In very bad French, I explained the situation and the service manager stared at me like I had two heads. Clearly nothing I said made any sense. Next, using my extensive travel experience and keen ability to relate to others, I added in some visual and verbal cues. While trying to explain again – this time louder and slower (kidding) I clearly demonstrated with an outstretched hand the act of turning the ignition while simultaneously making a buzzing sound that vaguely resembled (at least to me) a bad starter. To top off the act, I gave the international symbol for dead (i.e. cutting my own throat with my finger). At once, he nodded and rushed into action like a man possessed. He ran around spouting orders to his coworkers and looking over the truck. It seemed promising however I couldn’t be sure if he understood the problem or he was now afraid I was going to slit his throat. In any case, a few minutes later he returned and started talking to me as if I spoke perfect French. The queer look on my face reminded him I didn’t. After some hand drawn maps and images, sign language, bad French and a lot nodding and smiling (the international signal for “yes, that’s right, I have no idea what you are talking about but will act like I do) I got the gist. Basically we had an appointment at 2pm at another Toyota dealership to have the starter fixed.

We arrived at 2pm and they promptly drove our truck into the service bay without further discussion. Two hours later, the service manager comes to the waiting room, gives a frown and shakes his head slowly back and forth as if he just lost a patient on the operation table. He then explained the situation (we had no clue what he was saying) and asked us to come with him to his computer. There he showed us a series of graphic photos of our starter now strewn in a thousand pieces all over the shop floor. It looked terrible and he kept frowning and shaking his head. All I knew was that we wanted the starter replaced not dismantled and photographed. After going back and forth he typed 229 Euros into his calculator and said it would be fixed for that price including tax and it would be ready by 6pm. I agreed and he disappeared again while we went back to the waiting room.

Two more boring hours later and he returned again. It was 6pm. Again, he was shaking his head and frowning. I didn’t need to be fluent in French to know that my truck wasn’t ready. This time he cut straight to the chase and took us back to his desk. When we arrived he frowned, shook his head, handed me a ziplock bag full of dirt (which apparently had been excavated from our starter), said it wasn’t ready and asked us to pay 300 Euros for his time. Well, I don’t have the time or ink to even begin explaining the dialog that followed. All I’ll say is that it was quite an ordeal and we called a friend in Paris to serve as our translator. The highline is this…. Instead of replacing the starter like we wanted they took it apart. Scattered it in a million pieces. Photographed it. Collected the dirt in a ziplock bag and presented it to us as a souvenir. None of it fixed the problem. For that we needed to pay an additional 520 Euros and come back on Wednesday. We paid the 300 Euros. Thanked the service manager for the lovely photos and bag of dirt and left. We’ve since elected to order a new starter from England and will install it when it arrives.

While waiting for the new starter to arrive from England, we passed the time by venturing into the Loire Valley to visit some of the Chateaux and cave wine cellars. The starter held up and we were able to visit some fascinating castles (our favorite – Chateau Chinon) and see some of the thousands of caves that house wine, mushrooms, cars, people and pretty much everything else. In spite of some inclement weather and the streak of bad luck it’s been a nice stay and we look forward to returning for another visit sometime in the future.

It’s now Wednesday evening and Sharikay and Eric met back up with us a few hours ago. We had a wonderful dinner in Tours at Au Lapin qui Fume. Tomorrow we head south for Andorra and a bit of snow sports before we enter Spain.