I used to be terrified of flying. Any time I was on a plane was absolute torture, even when it was on the ground. I’d spend entire flights with my head screwed round on my neck, scanning the faces of the cabin crew for signs that the plane was in trouble. I was convinced that it was only my vigilance that was keeping the plane in the air, and that the moment I stopped paying attention it would plummet to the ground. Not the most relaxing way to travel.
These days I’m much more chilled about it. Thanks to the great good fortune of having a house in Majorca for the last eleven years, I’ve flown backwards and forwards enough to recognise that the thumps, bumps and lumps are a completely normal part of a plane’s functioning and not an indication that it is about to crash. But given the choice I still prefer to drive.
So this new thing we do, the once a year at the end of the summer taking the ferry and driving to our house in Puerto Pollenca rather than flying thing, is right up my street. In 2015 we took the ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao and then on through Spain (which you can read about in The San Sebastian Crawl and Taking the Long Way Round). This year we decide to be a bit more leisurely about things, to take our time and a couple of friends, and explore France on our way. Should be fun…
But when the alarm goes off at 4.30 in the morning, on a sticky night at the end of August, I’m wondering if this driving to Majorca idea is really such a good thing. We stagger out of bed, dress and get ready in the dark, climb sleepily into the prepacked car, and set off as the sun begins to rise. We call in to pick up the friends who are joining us on our trip, and head for Newhaven. As we drive across the Ashdown Forest the sky is beginning to glimmer with the promise of a stinking hot day to come. But for now it’s cool and clear, and at this hour of the morning the only word for the view across the rolling gorse and heath of the forest is… what is it, stunning, glorious, absolutely blinking sensational? We don’t know it at the time but this is how it’s going to be from here on in, until we get to our house in Puerto Pollenca. Wall to wall sunshine. Just bloomin’ gorgeous.
The sun is properly up by the time we drive into Newhaven. The ferry port at Newhaven is much smaller than Portsmouth; the harbour is smaller, the ferry is smaller; it’s all on a reduced scale compared to last year. Seats on the boat not as comfortable, cafe more basic, food less appetising. But it does what it says on the tin and we’re only on board for four and a half hours. And boy oh boy is the sun shining; the sun is shining as hard as it possibly can. There simply cannot be a better day for setting off across the Channel.
We arrive in Dieppe at 2pm; the ferry driver/captain/steering person performing an amazing feat of reversing and side-shifting a largish vessel into a smallish space in the harbour. By the time we dock the four of us are back in the car and ready for the off. This stage of the journey we’re not going scenic, we’re heading for our first stopover by the quickest route possible. We’ve been up for a long time and it’s H.O.T. Outside it’s 35 degrees. In this heat the only sightseeing we’re doing is from the inside of our air-conditioned car.
We’ve chosen our stopovers en route through France with the help of Alastair Sawday’s guide to French B & B’s. For our first night we’ve booked rooms at the Chateau de St Frambault in Roeze-sur-Sarthe near Le Mans. It’s looking very promising as we turn between wrought iron gates and head up the long drive towards a rather lovely lemon coloured chateau looking down at us across sloping lawns and ancient oak trees. The grounds aren’t grand, there’s little planting to speak of apart from topiary, grass and trees, and the grass isn’t mown to English standards, but the building and its setting have an easy elegance and charm which suggest that we’re in for a treat.
As we pull up at the back of the chateau it’s 6 pm, and the car reading shows the temperature at 37 degrees . It’s like getting out into an oven. We are met by the very delightful Madame de Goulaine who takes us inside to the mercifully cool interior of her very beautiful home. She tells us that they have only been doing bed and breakfast for a few months, but they seem like old hands at the job. The rooms are gorgeous, the bedrooms beautifully and individually furnished with good linen, very comfortable beds and excellent state of the art bathrooms. There is a very stylish salon and a beautiful double aspect dining room with tapestries on the walls. It’s not a big, grand chateau, more a characterful home with a real sense of the people who live there.
Madame offers us a dip in the pool but we’re too hot to go to the effort of changing in and out of swimming things, so we settle into our rooms and then head out for our first dinner on the road. This turns out to be the worst meal we will eat in the whole of our trip, also the most expensive – on the hottest evening we will encounter. But the setting is incredible. We sit on a terrace beside a river whose surface is turned to gold as the sun slides down behind the trees.
We have a bit of a moment on our way back to the Chateau when the satnav seems to lose its head and take us into the middle of nowhere. Which is where the Chateau is located, but a different middle of nowhere to the one we find ourselves in. In the dark one remote french lane looks pretty much like another, and we have a panicky moment where we begin to think we might be spending the night in the car. But it turns out that the satnav isn’t quite as deranged as we think, and we are actually very nearly where we want to be. We turn between the iron gates to the Chateau with profound relief.
It’s a hot night. Our room is on the third floor, up in the eaves. It’s lovely, comfortable, beautifully done. But who can sleep when it feels as if you’re lying in a sauna with the temperature turned to maximum? (Well actually Graham can, but today he’s been doing all the driving and has been awake since 4.30!) Even with the fan going at full pelt I lie in a pool of sweat and try to conjure up icebergs and snow covered mountains. It’s not hugely successful.
But it’s been a great first day. And we’ve got tomorrow to look forward to. And more tomorrows to come. And our journey is only just beginning.