Our arrival at the small station in Sens, an hour’s train ride out of Paris, was an exciting moment for us. At last – after all the research, the international phone calls between Australia and France, the many emails and the to-ing and fro-ing of paperwork – we were about to drive away into the sunset.
We hopped into a taxi and in our school student French asked the driver to take us to the small village of Veron where Phil and Hannah Spurge of Euro Camping Cars conduct their camper van sales and rental business.
A few minutes drive and we were there being shown round our shiny new home on wheels.
Phil had organised insurance for us but there were still some the payment to finalise and as the insurance company was “at lunch” he suggested that we walk into the village and do the same. (This was our first experience of French businesses completely closing down for lunch for two hours).
We strolled down to the centre of the tiny village which was composed of some small cottages, an official looking (maybe municipal building?) an ancient Church, a couple of shops (closed for lunch of course) and a very charming little cafe.
The plat du jour was a delicious fish in a beautiful shrimp sauce and a fabulous chocolate mousse served in a jam jar for dessert.
After lunch we had a look round the little Church in the centre of the village before waddling back to finish all the administration for the van.
Eventually we farewelled Phil and Hannah and headed off in the van. We decided to travel just a short way using small roads (rather than crazy busy freeways). The countryside was extremely pretty and before too long we found ourselves in the champagne district where we saw endless rows of vines.
We ended up in the small town of Mareuil-sur-Ay in the Marne Valley and noted (we found out later) for its “powerful Pinot Noir”.
More important for us that night was the “Aire de Service” – in other words a designated overnight parking area for camper vans. These sites are found throughout France and are often completely free. You can usually empty your chemical toilet, fill up with water and empty your used grey water tank for free. At Mareuil-sur-Ay there was a five Euro charge (about eight Australian dollars) for electricity but we didn’t need power so we were happy to take a non-powered site.
It was a glorious place to stop, right by the canal so we had plenty to entertain ourselves with passing barges and the local swan family.
We looked in vain for a small cafe where we could have a bite to eat but everything was closed in the village. It didn’t matter as we had really had quite enough to eat at lunch and fortunately we had brought a kettle, cups, tea and milk and some biscuits.
The next morning the local shop (called Petit Casino – there’s me thinking it was a local gambling den) opened early and we were able to buy baguettes, ham, cheese and tomatoes for our lunch.
We would have loved to stay longer but had to press on back to the Netherlands where all the cutlery, crockery, pots and pans, cleaning things etc were waiting in readiness to fit out the van.
Driving through the champagne district sounds idyllic but our new home was quite a challenge at first as the gearbox (six gears) took a lot of getting used to – first gear was particularly hard to find and the van did not like being made to draw away in third!
Roundabouts were a particularly fraught experience as not only were the cars going round the wrong way but we kept stalling when trying to make a quick getaway. Not only that, but we had a very insistent alarm that was going off randomly at the most inopportune and stressful moments (it was a fault that we drove some nine thousand kilometres with) informing us “Charging system service now”.
One of the hardest things to get used to was the fact that the cab was much narrower than the van section so great care was needed turning and backing as the rear of the van would swing out unexpectedly.
Would we ever get used to driving this monstrous seven metre long three and a half tonne vehicle and how did people with those really huge rigs manage?! These were the questions we were asking ourselves as we swept past the vast rows of vines in the gorgeous French champagne district.