Sunday 22 September 2019

Clutched by Cambrai: the joy of travel

Sitting in my campervan looking out at a rain-pitted puddle near the entrance to the first campsite we had used thus far on our journey to Austria and onwards, I had little to do but reflect on our journey so far. We had left Oxford just one week before, where, after a great struggle was ended only with help from a removal man, I managed to manhandle a double mattress onto the top of the van (don’t ask) and strap it down for the thousands of miles to come.

Dover was dowdy and seems to be going downhill fast: closed shops, dirty streets, crumbling buildings, dubious characters. But as usual there was a bright side. I found a decent brew-pub with good ale and a cheery crowd and we ate a good English meal in our regular pub – Blakes.
After a calm channel crossing we were soon on our way eastwards across France leaving the toll road at Cambrai then taking normal roads towards Luxemburg. We did not make it. Whilst approaching the village of Le Catou, my clutch failed spectacularly and definitely. I just managed to pull onto a verge before onward progress halted entirely. We spent one night on the forecourt of a rip-off garage that could do nothing for us and the next in the wreck-strewn yard of a real garage (next to the remains of a red double-decker bus) on the outskirts of Cambrai, a city that became our headquarters for some time. On the first evening we walked into the place and found it decent enough with some impressive buildings and a few good bars. On the second day, while the van was under repair, we visited a number of excellent churches and chapels, the ‘port’ where Cambrai’s canals meet and the excellent central park full of teenagers doing the things that teenagers tend to do (still). By three we had exhausted Cambrai and ourselves, we then just hung about before beginning the three kilometer walk back to the garage. I went ahead and was delighted to see my van nosing its way out of the garage – it could go again and was out under test. I paid the heavy bill and smilingly shook everyone’s hand before resuming our journey.

We got a little further this time. About two hours out of Cambrai it became clear that we had to return! The clutch was OK but the gears were not and red lights were flashing on the dashboard.  By then the garage had closed so we slept at Hirson and met a few local bar-room characters there who told us that Hirson produced a special cheese which smelled strongly. One of the men tried to abduct Margaret on the strength of that cheese.

Next morning we struggled all the way back to the garage at Cambrai and kicked our heels whilst adjustments were made to the van, then on again at last. But would Cambrai let us go? Not quite. I had more red light flashings so had to pull in to a rest area where I pushed a few things around beneath the van with advice of a helpful fellow Brit, but found nothing amiss – yet, fortunately, that problem did not re-occur.  And so we were really on our way, finally leaving France on the sixth day after our departure from Oxford. Hey, ho.

We finally reached our home in La Fresneda after some two and half weeks in all, having visited some wonderful places and driven through stunning landscapes in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Southern France. I think my top spot was Bad Gerstein in Austria. I knew something of the place through my research for the Hedy Lamarr book. It is a resort in southern Austria that is characterised by its unique position snuggling amongst mountains at the end of a long flat valley; by the incredibly white and noisy waterfall that crashes right though it; by the plethora of tall majestic buildings which were frequented by Sisi, the wife of the Austrian Emperor in the “good” old days; and finally by the eerie realization that it was virtually deserted – a ghostly watering hole.

Our Spanish village was a complete contrast to Bad Gastein. Racing was on at the nearby track so the village was full of black sheathed figures on their shining motorcycles. Our very special plaza was noisy and lively, the  crowds centering around the two bars. We were greeted in our favourite watering hole – Bar La Plaza – by people who had, for once, noticed our absence (nearly a year since our last visit). We answered the usual questions: how are you, when did you arrive, and when are you going? Then, our Spanish having been exhausted by these three questions, we were left to enjoy the comings and goings in the plaza over beer and tapas. 

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