Sunday, 29 November 2009

now with RSS!

by popular demand (well one person!) you can now get blog updates pushed to directly to your crackberry without all this tiresome having to remember to look at the blog... :)
Still in La Rochelle, still fettling, but things now work.... :)

(and La Rochelle is very nice so I am not unhappy)


Thursday, 26 November 2009

Public Appeal Broadcast on behalf of vans and van-dwellers in foreign parts (VI/VI)

This is a public appeal broadcast on behalf of vans and van-dwellers in foreign parts who are lacking in news and gossip and are becoming seriously out of touch with what is happening in the outside world. 

Many of you will have friends or loved ones affected by this terrible news shortage, the consequences of which are becoming more and more severe.  For each day that these van dwellers are without real news, they are forced to imagine what might be happening and as this tide of wild speculation rises and spreads, we can only fear for their sanity as they become increasingly out of touch with reality. 

However, you can play your part in preventing this seemingly inevitable downward spiral into a fantasy world of imagination and conjecture.   You may feel that you don't have time or anything interesting to say but don't worry, by donating just a few minutes of your precious time each week to the provision of news to these gypsies in need, be it general or specific, funny or serious, or even just inane chatter, you can put these poor people back in touch with the world they have temporarily left behind.   

Please send your donations to and please, do give generously. 

This has been a public appeal broadcast on behalf of vans and van-dwellers in foreign parts.

Norma broadcasts shall now be resumed.

Seriously, we have realised we are very out of touch.  Internet use is more limited than we originally anticipated and the precious time is spent uploading blog and pictures - so you know the minutiae of our daily existance! - or looking up chip data sheets or wiring diagrams (yes this is by choice!) rather than news websites and we haven't yet got into the habit of looking for english newspapers (which will probably be ridiculously over priced if the few english paperbacks I have found for sale are anything to go by) so it was only from a passing comment made during a brief phone call home at the weekend that we realised there has been serious weather in England - we hope you are all ok. 

It would be great to hear from you, just what you're up to and what is happening in the world, via emails which we can download when we have internet and then read later at our leisure.  Lots of love to you all x x x

Frustration (V/VI)

Written 25th November

So, we are still in La Rochelle until tomorrw when our new airfilter will arrive in the shop, and having seen the sights, we are getting on with the many van improvement projets currently on the go - well Will is, I am largely watching him, passing things and making sympathetic noises.

Yesterday was characterised by glorious sunshine whilst we were in the van doing things and by breaking things, today has been characterised by success and failure in buying things and by torrential rain whilst out on our bikes doing so... frustrating

We got impatiently kicked off our campsite pitch by some extremely on time french motorhome drivers - there wasn't even time for Will to pair his clean socks up, how is he going to manage??? (I personally believe that life is too short for pairing socks, especially when they are all black, so refuse to do it in principle - I know, I am a terrible wife).  And in the hurry, I managed to smash Will's china campervan mug which had been given to him by our neighbours as a thankyou for taking their elderly dad out for a spin in the midget as a 90th birthday treat (apparently every time he stays there, he gets up specially to watch Will drive to work as he thinks the car is cute :) )  Not the end of the world, although out of the three mugs I was carrying, I obviously had to drop the smashable one :(

Stuff stowed (sort of, stuffed in at least), we set off again in search of free internet and found some accompanied by a nice panini but ran out of battery at the same time as we ran out of sandwich but before we had got near the blog or the pictures.  As the sun was shining, we parked near the marina for Will to get on with installing up his new lamba sensor (by means of stuffing it in the exhaust, clamping it and stuffing the wires through the back door and I caught up with my Ile de Re daisy painting.

All very nice until we came to leave and the battery warning light came on as well as the EGR light - very very bad news as this is an alternator failure indicator.  After some panicked checking of things, the problem fortunately turned out to be a broken wire which Will could temporarily fix by disconnecting the leisure battery - fixed the battery light but not the EGR one - these dashboard lights are a roller coaster ride of emotions!  So we set off to the supermarket and when we got there found that the expensive lamda sensor had worked its way loose, fallen out and smashed on the road - just when it was all starting to look like it might work as well... :( (although inital readings look surprisingly like we are running lean not rich as we first thought (I am using "we" in the loosest sense here of course ;) ) so we need to find out if that is really what is happening...)

hopefully broken things do only come in threes...  oh, I forgot, later on the soldering iron tip disintegrated from over use...  oh, and whilst in the engine bay he found that the coupler for the brakes servo is cracked so he has fixed it with self-amalgamating tape - well as the Volksworld Camper and Bus magazine says 'any self respecting original VW camper has at least one bit of engine held together by tape'...

Taking ourselves back to our favourite car park, Will set about once more duckdiving into the engine bay to fix the wiring and change the fuel injector seals which he didn't get round to doing when the engine was out - not an urgent thing but as we had new ones, why not... and at least he can get into the engine bay without having to be outside! - whilst I cooked delicious bolognese.  (the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall River Cottage recipe from the chanel4 website - v v yummy!)

Whilst down there, and after the fuel injector seals but before the wiring, the throttle "accidentally came off in his hands" and whilst his fibre glass and bike innertube airflow sensor connector was setting, he spent the rest of the evening working out how he can install the citroen saxo 1.4l throttle which he bought in the scrappy in Sandwich, erroneously thinking it might have an airflow sensor in it, and which we have been carrying around ever since (our throttle is apparently leaking air past when it should be off, which is apparently 'not a good thing').

The wiring is still not fixed so the leisure battery won't charge but as we haven't driven anywhere yet, this is not so urgent, and we now have a shopping list of bits which includes solder, a new soldering iron tip, more components, impact adhesive, spade connectors, 2 part epoxy putty, engine sealant and a tealight...

In the morning, with the engine still (by choice) missing vital pieces and deciding that La Rochelle is actually smaller than we first thought, we set off under a lightly cloudy sky on our bikes, back to the components shop.  Initally the plan was good although at the last moment, when in sight of the place on the other side of the motorway ring road, the cycle lane suddenly disappeared so we ended up for one junction probably not strictly legally on a motorway (only 100yrds or so, don't worry...). 

 Unfortunately our experience was not so good this time round, we managed the capacitors, the spade connectors were really expensive (so we left them), we couldn't find a soldering iron tip to fit (although they sell the same brand in the shop) so Will has had to buy an new one (which does at least run off 12v so one more smaller drain on the battery by by-passing the massive inverter) and they didn't know what a stepper motor driver was and wanted a component reference number.  Slightly disheartened, we headed to a halfords type place, where glue and spade connectors were even more expensive and eventually ended up in Carrefour where to our surprise, we found all the connecting/sealing/gluing things we wanted for only small amounts of money - hurrah! - , some bike brake cable which we can use to modify the throttle cable to work with the new throttle (just need something to fix it with) and a nice vanilla scented candle in a glass pot (more on that later - suffice to say, it is part of the plan, not decoration)

Will thought he had a cunning plan to negate the need for a stepper motor driver (the motor is used to adjust the new throttle idle in case you are wondering) so we had a nice petit cafe whilst he plotted circuit diagrams and did complicated maths.  Unfortunately during this time, it started raining and when we went back to the components shop, sure enough, they were shut for their two hour french dejeuner - so we returned to Carrefour to waste an hour and a half with baguette and salami and an apple (which didn't take 1.5h!) - even the mythical Darty was shut for lunch so we still haven't actually been in it - I guess we should be at least grateful that Carrefour staff don't down tills for a three course lunch...

By 2pm it was raining even more heavily but success was at least within our grasp as they would surely have these much more simple components (4 part opto isolator and mosfets) unfortunately no, it seems they do not.  or at least, they might, but if you can't tell them the component number, they can't find it IN THEIR OWN SHOP!!!  It took a good while for them to understand what it was that we wanted and once they did, there was a gallic shrug and a helpless indication towards the many little drawers of things and the regret that without knowing the component number they sadly wouldn't have the first idea where to even begin looking.  I asked for a catalogue and was told "but that will only tell you the price" and stupidly I thought that if there was a price, there must be a component number - so close but yet so far - only half the components have pictures, the rest, including the opto couplers and isolators, of which there are about 50 listed, are just listed by component number - many of which start with a different combination of letters - and price, with absolutely no indication of what they actually do and in looking at them Will spotted that there were many things incorrectly listed with the same reference number but a different price. 

Using their till computer and internet connection, we tried looking up the datasheets for different reference numbers at random and eventually found one of the thing we wanted, only to be told that they didn't have that particular one, it would have to be ordered which would take 5 days. At this point they told us that they didn't only have the things that catalogue, there was another catalogue of equivalent things (with different reference numbers) and they also have other things in the shop which are not in either catalogue and which they can find if we give them the reference number.....

So, if they have lots listed, but ony a few in stock, why they couldn't just pull out the drawers of the ones they did have so we could look, I don't know, and WHY THE F**K they have a shop full of small things with reference numbers but no way of finding out what the reference number for the thing you want is I DON'T KNOW.  I mean - IT IS YOUR SHOP - I TELL YOU WHAT I WANT AND YOU TELL YOURSELF REFERENCE NUMBER WHICH YOU REQUIRE OF THE THING I WANT AND THEN I WILL GIVE YOU GOOD MONEY TO BUY IT FROM YOU..... THIS IS HOW SHOPS WORK!!!!   Eventually we bought a €0.70 bipole switch thing, instead of the €many mosfets and bits, which coupled with the one Will inadvertantly bought in Maplin (where at least when the spotty youth looks at you gormlessly you can point at a picture of the thing you want in the nice shiney catalogue of things which have reference numbers and descriptions and he will trot off obediently fetch it for you - I am feeing more well disposed towards Maplin now - it only makes me bored, not irate) should allow him to cobble a manual solution together.   As you can tell, we are bit frustrated.

To make matters worse, it was raining harder when we set out for home and, due to significant lack of cycle route signage and after therefore nearly ending up much more seriously on a motorway, we found ourselves in an unknown area of town with no map, and did I mention it was raining???

We did of course find our way back and made delicious hot chocolate (we have bought new chocolate which is even nicer) to warm ourselves up.  Will is now making his thing to fit the new throttle - new one has a flat face and the bit it fixes to is a cone so he has filled the neck of the old throttle with melted candle wax (after sealing the important inner workings off with loose change and bluetack)

and is using that as a form around which to mould his epoxy putty to make the requisite concave cone which, when set, he will then fit to the flat face of the new throttle with engine sealent - see, obvious really.  He has also hacked together his stepper motor driver and has found that we will be able to adjust the idle very, very, extremely finely indeed (ie slowly) by the alternate switching of the two bipole switches. Needless to state the leisure battery wiring is not yet done but we're not going anywhere until tomorrow...

I have calmed myself down somewhat by spending an hour making a venn diagram of our component buying experience as illustration.

Obviously the "All the components in the entire world" class should be bigger but you get the idea....  and yes, I am quite sad but it is raining out and I don't fancy going for a walk into town just right now and I am quite calm, although that could be down to the scented candle.

 I'm going to reheat the leftover bolognese and drink wine for a bit now and hope that tomorrow is more successful - what was I saying the other day about bags of patience and encouraging yourself to get lost.... ;)

In search of boys toys (IV/VI)

written 23rd November 2009

Finding ourselves back on the mainland early saturday afternoon, we took up once more our quest for headlights and headed to the scrapyard.  They were a bit shocked by us - english tourists not being their usual customer base - and despite my beautifully prepared french, they were too busy exclaiming that they couldn't speak english to bother listening to it....  Fortunately, anticipating such a problem, I had written down what i wanted which pleased them greatly although from their reaction, you would have thought that cars didn't exist in 1978, much less that if such a thing were to have existed, that you might voluntarily choose to drive one... 

Incidentally, we have discovered that the french government has a similar scrappage scheme to ours but instead of taking only perfectly serviceable, MOT'd cars off the road (such a criminal waste IMHO!), the french scheme allows you to trade in any old chicken shed on wheels you have dug out of the depths of a hedge at the back of your garden and as such is is extremely popular...

After much humming and ha'ing a boy was dispatched to hunt out whatever they might have, and the head honcho even emerged from his back office to see what all of the fus was about.  After some headscratching and a look at the van, he determined that he had lights for a 1980's van but nothing as old as ours - it is possible that they are the same lights but they were whisked away as soon as they were brought out so we couldn't check.  We did however manage to convey our need for a lamda sensor (thing which measures the fuel air mix in the exhaust in some way, I am reliably informed, fortunately, lamda sensor is the same in french so didn't require some tortured "thing which does..." explanation on my part) which was a vital and as yet missing part from Will's technical genius project.  It took a while for him to realise that we really didn't mind what car it came from and when he came back with the thing, he gave us a €5 foreigners discount (or dropped voluntarily from his opening price to his close negotiating price as we were clearly not in a position to argue the toss with him...) either way...  He was also able to give us slightly better directions to the industrial zone where the VW specialist apparently lived so we could head there on Monday.

Having already achieved far more than we thought possible in terms of random technical bits buying, Will decided that, despite the many hours spent in Maplin, he still needed more bits.  Quick straw poll of blog readers (who I know are biased towards the technical so this probaby won't be a true result)  How many of you know what Maplin is??  Moreover, how many of you think that the average man on the street (or more specifically girl in a tourist office) would know what Maplin was and what it sold?  Will thinks that everyone will know what Maplin sells but I am not so sure...

Anyway, we set off to the tourist office in the hope that they could help.  To be fair to me, I did preface my request (in my very best french) by saying that it wasn't a usual question, at which the tourist office lady smiled confidently and intimated that really, there was no tourist question she couldn't answer.  Pulling out Will's pot of resistors and bits, I then said that we were looking for a shop which would sell these types of electrical bits.  This was not a question which pleased her and throwing her hands in the air with a very gallic shrug, she advised us that 'bof! there wouldn't be anywhere in the centre of town that would sell such things'  Well I could probably have told her that!  Unfortunately, if anything that isn't in the centre of town, it clearly didn't exist for her so we headed on out.  Being back on that side of town, we thought we'd try the computer shop which had so successfully sold us the power adaptor - surely, as boys who deal with computers they would at least know what a resistor was which the tourist office lady clearly didn't.  Unfortunately, the shop was closed, as was the helpful chandlery who had pointed us to the computer shop in the first place, and we were about to give up for the day when we realised tha we were passing the University and more specifically the faculty of science and technology - surely they would have geek engineers who wanted to play with small bits of electronics.  In a random search for not quite sure what or who, we turned down some side streets and found another computer shop which was actually open, and after initial surprise, the boy behind the counter was able to confirm that there was such an emporium, behind the Conformama and next to the Darty after sales service shop on a nearby commercial centre and was even able to point to the right ring road exit on our tattered tourist map - we have definitely got our €0.20 out of this fine publication! - and tell us it was only a mere 10 mins away.  As you may remember, this is not the first time we have been sent on a quest to find the so far mythical Darty on a commercial park which is only minutes away, but with nothing better to do, we set off once more.  We found the actual retail park quite easily - like Thurrock, you follow the endless snaking queue of saturday shopping traffic off the motorway - and fortunately the slow moving queues allowed plenty of time to look at the shop signs.

After one circuit in the wrong direction, we saw finally saw the fabled Darty and decided to abandon Jules in a momentarily free space next to a shoe shop and set out on foot when there it was, across a carpark, behind a hedge, E17 - the french equivalent of Maplin! I must have done something bad in a former life (or this one) to keep ending up in such places....

E17 is more than Maplin, which IMHO, is mix of garish flashy light gimmicks and spotty youths behind componants catalogues, it is a proper boys toys shop with everything from lighting rigs to sounds desks, to airfix models, to proper flightworthy radio controlled model aeroplanes - there was a whole aisle of 2ft propellers!  It is also not a soul sucking as Maplin :)  After a wander round and the discovery that, obviously now he could see such things were available, he needed more than just a couple of componants... we headed for the counter where a very patient man deciphered our requirements through a combination of pointing, pictionary, bad french "I am looking for a thing which transfers 15v to 5v" (a 5 volt regulator) and the fact that a DSUB9 connector and IEC connectors are luckily the same in french as in English :)  Flushed with our second unexpected success of the day, we headed back to Jules and set of towards Carrefour in search of food.  At this point, the EGR (Exhaust Gas Recirculation unit - something which is fitted to US federal spec buses (only) as part of their emmissions laws) warning light started to come on, on the dashboard.  Consultation of the manual revealed only that this should happen when the bus reached the required service mileage interval but, as Jules has neither an EGR (we took it off when we first bought it) nor is the warning light connected to the odometer in anyway, this seemed unlikely, and as the last time this light came on, albeit in conjunction with the battery warning light, it was an indication of serious alternator issues, this is a bit worrying.  We made it to Carrefour (where we found that in celebration of the 39th birthday of the retail park they were giving away coffee cake - bargain!), and after a quick trip in with me to debate the relative merits of battery chargers (so when we stay in places with electric hook up we can charge the leisure battery as well as run the laptop and the fridge), Will left me in charge of food, whilst he undertook to root cause the problem.

Now, on a timepressed lunchbreak or evening after work when I am tired and want to go home, I am not a massive fan of supermarket shopping, but when left at leisure in a massive foreign food shopping palace, I can happily wander the aisles for hours in search of the new and unusual.  We hadn't decided what we wanted for dinner so the choice was down to me and in such circumstances, it doesn't do to rush these things.  We were planning on campsite for the following (sunday) evening so could hopefully bbq, first in ages, so a choice of Saucisse de Toulouse and Steak Hache (burgers) was the eventual, somewhat obvious decision, which just left that night and something which could be cooked on the hob in a
public carpark.

After toying with the idea of pork chops or some sort of lamb, my eyes lighted on a hitherto untried french delicacy - horse! Well it had to be done! so, decison made, the rest of the shopping was quickly done and by the time I was finished, Will had worked out that, whatever the cause of the warning light, it wasn't serious at this point and he was geting all the expected voltages from all the expected places.  Austin, any ideas???

Now I know there will be those of you crying out "how could you, the poor cute ickle pony-woney!!!" (in fact Leah, you might want to skip on a paragraph to Sunday) but pan fried for two minutes on each side and pink in the middle (as per packet instructions) with boiled potatoes (yes, we are still working our way through a big, cheap bag bought some days ago!) and steamed broccoli and washed down with €0.85 table wine, it was delicious.  The texture is finer than beef, almost liver like and it is a bit tougher but it tastes wonderful.  Horse will feature on the menu again at some point!

Back in our free carpark home, although in a normal space this time as all the camping-car spaces were full, we settled in, all snug out of the rain and wind battering down outside, to some more programming/mag reading to RFM's 80's hour - yes, there was chair dancing and hand jiving, especially to it's raining men, but Will stopped and looked busy and serious whenerver the camera came out - spoil sport :)

The next morning, the sun was shining when we woke up and we found that we were parked right in front of another british campervan, the first we have seen so far, a ford autosleeper something or other.  Deciding it would be both rude and anti-social not to say hello, we wandered over and thus it was that we met Bilbo and the Bear, on their way back from a two month wander as far as venice and back and a happy couple of hours was passed swapping stories and drinking tea - proper english tetly tea with milk! not that I am missing it or anything... - whilst outside it bucketed it down again.  Will even fixed the wireless dongle - well if you're reading this Bill, I hope it is still working! - he is a useful boy!  With many campervan adventures under his belt, Bill was happily able to pass on some tips for our route south and we will no doubt be seeking further advice via as and when we have internet - I hope you and Bear enjoyed your elephant ride!

When all the tea was drunk and stories told, and with a nod and a wink towards free wifi at the McDonalds over by the marina, we bid farewell to fellow travellers and set off into town in the sunshine in search of lunch bread and then onwards for internet.  The quest for the mythical McDonalds was nearly as frustrating as the previous search for Darty - well we hadn't really asked for directions, I mean, McDonalds are everywhere and if there isn't one right exactly where you happen to be, there is usually a sign telling you exactly how far away the nearest one is, just in case you are beginning to fret - but this proved not to be the case and I couldn't bring myself, in this land of gourmet food delights, to ask someone for an american hamburger joint.  We did eventually find it and were able to park almost close enough in the car park, but it was very busy and the network clearly saturated with other users so after some trying, we gave up and headed for the marina carpark for a bit before heading back to our more sheltered town centre carpark for the night and a meal of Tolouse sausage and bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar - keeping it simple is sometimes the best way - and settled in to watch some telly - Weeds, it's brilliant, ta muchly Dave and Emily!

This morning, we left our little parking spot, and set off to find the VW specialist.  We found the right exit, as indicated by the scappy but on getting to the top of the slip road, found that there is both a north and south industrial zone with the same name so we picked one at random and stopped by the entrance board.  Nothing looked promising so we decided on a quick drive round before heading to the other part of the park, when, outside the very first unit, we saw three campervans -this had to be the place!

With a combination of bugs, buses and dune buggies, a proper boy racer shop it was too!  I so want that accelerator pedal...

The man was quick to confirm that he did indeed have the requisite lights (for some exorbitant price, but we hey, we need them) and a peruse of the shelves lead Will to thinking he needed a performance air filter for his plan of cunning technical genius.  The part was not in stock but is on order so we are here until at least wednesday, which should also give Will time to either fry or lose some of his components (well it does happen, I'm not just being mean for a cheap laugh!) whilst we are still somewhere where he can replace them.  We have spent the rest of the day in the municipal campsite (it's the time of the month for a shower again), hooked up to some lovely electricity so we are not fighting over limited laptop battery time, and have also done some dull, practical things like washing and cooked delicious special fried rice with onion, sweetcorn and left over sausage. 

Will is at the stage of duck diving into the engine bay to take bits and pieces out and is happily modifiying them with ally mesh, fibre glass and old bike inner tube - the plan is to fit a new airflow sensor (bought from the scrappy in Cornwall) inline with the old one, by means of a purpose formed fibreglass connector, so that his newly wired up arm chip can take voltage readings off both the old airflow sensor and the new airflow sensor and compare them so we can re-map the requisite bit of ECU and replace the old airflow sensor (which we think has dead bits which are causing a nasty judder at low speed/low revs) completely with the nice new one which can be more easiy tweaked for better fuel efficiency, and some other side project involving metro temperature sensors fixed to the cylinder heads - see I am listening...  Iasked him what he was going to do once he has finished his project of technical genius and his reassuring(?) response was "well I'll be spending all my spare time trying to find out why it isn't working..." tomorrow we will head back to our nice free carpark and hopefuly find some internet on the way.

tootle pip for now - it's bed time!

Inspiration (III/VI)

written 22nd November 2009

Just a note about the "1000 places to see before you die" book.  As I said, this was given to us by Mary - sadly no longer with us - who, had she not suddenly left Arm at just the wrong moment, would have been overseeing Will's secondments to both China and Austin and a much richer experience I believe they would have been for him.  As an Austin native though she was still very welcoming to us when we were there.  She definately believed that you should take life's opportunities, and impressed with our expeditions and our willingness to embrace the adventure that is Texas and beyond, gave us the book as a leaving present.  It has sat on a shelf at home since then and is only really with us as an addition to the travel books, in case, as with Ile de Re, it suggests something interesting nearby, which is not mentioned by Lonely Planet.

The cover blurb promises "At last, a book that tells you what's beautiful, what's fun and what's just unforgettable - everywhere on earth".  And the author promises to

We are not using it as a must-do checklist - some of the things in it are expensive hotels, restaurants and golf courses, included by the author, not because they are all things which appeal to her particularly (although she is a self confessed hotel buff) but because the concept of these things will most certainly appear on some people's dream lists - just an extra source of information, and on further reading, I find that I have already been to 18 of the 41 things listed for England (in case you're interested; Windsor Castle, Lands End, St Ives, Lynmouth/Lynton, Royal Pavillion Brighton, the Costwolds, Winchester Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral, Leeds Castle, the Lake District, London, Chelsea Flower Show, Hadrian's Wall, Cambridge University (she also mentions Oxford pah!), Bath, Stratford Upon Avon, Stonehenge, York Minster which indicates the types of things included) and some of those in other places as well.

As a seasoned traveller and travel writer, her advice is as follows:  "Any trip can be fraught with disappointment: Expectations are always high and anything can go wrong... More important than packing a bag full of money, pack a bag full of patience and curiosity; allow yourself - encourage yourself - to be sidetracked and to get lost.  There's no such thing as a bad trip, just good travel stories to tell back home.  Always travel with a smile and remember that you are the one with stange customs visiting someone else's country."

And in the words of Mark Twain, also quoted

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than the ones you did.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from safe harbour. Catch the trades winds in your sails.  Explore. Dream. Discover."

I know that most of you are not, for many and various reasons, in a position to do what we have done and are doing, to the extent that we are doing it - and believe me, we do appreciate every single day how lucky we are (with the possible exception of last sunday *grin*) - or don't necessarily have the desire to do quite what we are doing - it is a particularly special way of living :) but I hope you enjoy the ride along with us and are inspired in some small way to take some time to get out and do something different or go somewhere new, on a whim, just because it is there.  That's how I feel today.  Your destiny is in your own hands!

One down, nine hundred and ninety nine to go (II/VI)

Written 21st November 2009

For those who don't know of it - which I suspect will be most of you - Ile de Re is an island off the west coast of france, connected to the mainland by a 3km bridge to La Rochelle.  It is only 30km long and and a maximum of 5km and at one point less than 80m wide.  It is the holiday spot of choice for Parisiens who don't want to go all the way to the campsites and beaches of the south of france and other than tourism and hundreds of artisans, its principal reason for being is the production of salt (dubbed white gold since the 1600's when such riches and it's location made it a key player in the previously mentioned tug of war between Louis XIII, Richlieu and the accursed english), wine and oysters.

It is also the first place we have so far come across in our book of "1000 places to see before you die" - which was given to us by someone with whom Will worked at Arm when he was in Austin four years ago- which promises a "genteel, old-fashioned, slow-paced and surprisingly friendly corner of france... characterised by blissful, low key do-nothing-ness" - despite the €9 toll for crossing the brige (as with wales, it costs money to get there but is free to leave!) it sounded good to us!

The land area of the island is split in approximately equal measure between:
* urban areas, there are 10 towns in total of various sizes, where camping-cars are not allowed to park between 11pm-7am,
* wild life areas, which are protected, where camping-cars are not allowed to park between 11pm-7am,
* vineyards, where camping-cars can't park at any time,
* salt farms (is that what you call them?  big man made puddles where they evaporate the salt out of the water) where, for obvious reasons!, camping-cars can't park at anytime and
* campsites where camping-cars can park but only if they arrive when the campsite reception is open - there is no friendly notice saying 'if you are late and reception is closed, please call us and we will be more than happy to help you" - and there are only three campsites open out of season anyway. 
Oh and four little tiny corners of places where camping-cars are allowed, but only if you can find them. And to be fair, I can understand why they don't want the place filling up with motorhomes parking here, there and everywhere in busy season.

Arriving much later than originally anticipated due to our roadside "rest", the first campsite we tried was definately shut for the night (and had shut at 5pm so we would have been too late even if we hadn't broken down.  So we decided to try and find one of these four little corners of motorhome heaven.  The first we found eventually in St Martin de Re where there were conflicting signs in french and english, which said 3 days maximum stay and three days minimum stay respectively and both of which said it was €10 per night,payable in advance at the automated machine.  Not willing to risk my bank card in the machine when I didn't know if it was going to charge me €10 or €30 and anyway, objecting to paying that much to park without any sign of any facilities, we carried on. 

Rising to only 19m above sea level, and presumably wishing not to be completely gridlocked for 6 months of the year, the island prides itself of being a haven for cyclists with a network of well maintained cycle paths criss crossing the island and linking the towns.  Unfortunately, such is the strength of their conviction that everyone should cycle everywhere, the tourist maps are worse than useless if you are trying to find anywhere by car in the dark as the cycle routes are marked in nice dark blue whilst the actual roads are in very very pale grey, virtually indistinguishable from the map background by interior van light.  At one point, I really thought this was going to be another Sables d'Olonne experience but with a waste of €9 toll as well as the petrol!  Fortunately, on an island this small, no where is really very far from anywhere else, and if you just keep going, you will eventually find what you are looking by chance if not by actual navigational ability and we found the camping-car spot at St-Clement-des-Baleins.  It was still €7 Euros per night with no facilites but it was within earshot of the beach rather than in the town - have you ever noticed how the endless crashing of waves on a beach actually sounds like motorway noise?? we also found this in a campsite on the west coast of ireland, it has made me listen to actual motorway noise in a completely different way now - try it sometime... - but we were so relieved to have found anywhere where we were allowed to stop so we just went with it.  Fortunately we did find some open public toilets a mere 5 minute walk away 5mins is further than you think when you are actually walking it and yes, this is the furthest we have ever camped from a toilet - it just takes a bit more forward thinking...) through the deserted, sodium light bathed streets of the village - there are supposedly 716 permanent inhabitents of St Clements but we saw no-one and it was only 8:30pm.  Satisified that there were at least facilities of sorts, we returned home for our delicious steak dinner and settled in for the night, feeling much more well-disposed towards the island.

The next morning the sun shone brightly and all was well with the world.

After a quick walk into town to find the tourist office, some breakfast/lunch bread, and an (enforced) stop at the cheese stall in the market - cow cheese, goat cheese (well I had to have both just to do a compare and contrast!) and some soft brie like cheese - we returned back to the van and as the weather was so good, and having got dreadfully behind on the daisy painting project due to the damp weather so far, I decided to set about some paint work whilst Will did a bit more of his programming and thus engaged, a happy couple of sunny hours was passed by both of us, accompanied by background music from the radio.

A side note about french radio, I had been a little bit worried abou leaving behind my comfort blanket of Chris Moyles, Fearne and Greg in the mornings and PM, news, comedy and the Archers in the evenings - to the point where I was considering trying to find the BBC world service as soon as we left the ferry and we have packed our entire music collection on mp3 cd - but french radio is actually a pretty good accompaniment to our trip so far.  We are tuned to RFM for "the best of the music" and if your idea of the best of the music is a mix of Robbie Williams, Dido, James Blunt, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins and Sting, interspersed with the legally required amount of fench music which is by turn melancholy, angsty or plinkety plonk goodwill to the world and isn't love wonderful (oh and one song which inexplicably seems to be about Mrs Thatcher WTF???) and some odd, and above all law abiding, musical collaborations which start off as say, Lily Allen, 22 and halfway through, some french guy picks up the tune and sings half of it in french.  We have also heard Angels and Love Supreme completely in french with no trace of Mr Williams.  They also have significantly different ideas about censorship - has the new Lily Allen song come out in the UK, you know the one about the racist bigot where the chorus is "F*ck you, f*ck you very, very much" - what is it censored to on Radio 1????, someone please tell me!

By the end, one whole side of Jules was a beautiful blue and we were up to date with daisies as far as La Rochelle - for those who haven't worked it out or haven't been told, the plan is for there to be a daisy for every place we stop - the varying sizes indicating in some measure either how long we stayed somewhere and/or how much we enjoyed it - the exact proportional relationship to these factors is a fluid thing and Aire de Service daisies will, over time, become smaller as space becomes more constrained :).  The whole journey is mapped out along the daisy chain with significant places we visit being marked by leaves - there is method in the madness :)  From a distance, the blue looks great, from closer up, the finish is decidedly patchy and brushmarky and although I could spend hours smoothing it down with the 1500 wet/dry paper brought along for the purpose I have decided that that way madness lies, so patchy it will stay - it is, by any measure, infinitely better than what we started with and most of all, mine and I love it flaws and all.   (and by painting it in this way, I hope to make the van unsaleable so no one can make me sell it - not that I think Will would try, he has his baby midgey after all)

Crisis - we have also unexpectely run out of English tea bags!  I had thought we had another box somewhere but it seems that this was the other box.  After a one final cuppa with the last lonely bag which we had to share (and in doing so, realised that actually, we should have been doing this all along) there was no more :(  so we are now down to our chinese green tea.

This is actual chinese green leaf tea bought in actual china when Will was out in Shanghai for three months, 4 years ago. I went to visit for a week near the end of his stay and, discovering that I quite liked chinese tea, we bought some from a little man in a shop in some market district.  This particular variety comes as small balls about 3mm in diametre which, when covered in hot water open out in to strands, pond weed like, in your mug - as an indication, in Shanghai, you see traffic cops in the middle of junctions with a maxwell house coffee jar full of leaves (although much bigger leaves, like those you clear out of your gutters) which apparently they just keep topping up with new water all day.  You need about three balls per mug and even then, once you have inished the first cup, you just fill it up again with hot water.  It is very nice.  Again, as a warning to the unwary, there is a lot, a lot a lot, of tea in 500g - the little man must have thought all his christmases had come at once when we naively pitched up in his shop!  We also bought some of the more expensive stuff which opens out as a little flower which floats on the surface of your glass.  We had drunk it a bit when we came home but then got distracted by going to America and like the chocolate, it had languished in the back of the cupboard until it was chucked in the van "just in case".  The small 10x10x10cm tupperware pot of it we have will probably last us to John O'Groats!

Not wanting to be caught out like the previous night and by this time, seriously in need of a shower, we set off to find a campsite and found there was one much closer than we thought and, properly french, very nice it was too for only €10, if a little regimented into roads of pitches and chalets in the pine forest.

The only slight oddity, apart from the sign declining any responsibility for falling pinecones!, was the facilities, where there was an entire room full of just wash basins which were spearated in to male and female areas (with some basins even being in their own cubical within the female area), whereas the showers were just cubicals in a different room for all to use.  There was another room with washing up sinks and two sinks outside which were firmly marked as "for washing shellfish only, no dish washing".  The toilets were in a completely separate building some yards away and had an al fresco peeing area for the boys - I presume this is a liberating experience...   This was our first experience with proper french squat toilets (rather than, as Will pointed out, toilets you felt you really ought to squat over!)  I personally don't mind squat toilets - I mean, you're never going to settle in and read the paper but maybe that's the point! - and they were at least clean.

Lodging sorted, we turned our thoughts to dinner and set off on our bikes to Ars-en-Re (it's pronounced Arz, stop being so childish!).  It is a pretty town, nestling in the curve of the island near where it is at it's narrowest and stretches from the sheltered harbour on the east coast to the wild, beach lined, west coast.  It was once the main port for the salt trade being the closest to the salt fields which strech east towards Loix.  After a cycle round and a look up at the famous (apparently) back and white bell tower, we headed for the supermarket. 

It is clearly a supermarket aimed at tourists as well as locals as there is a whole shelf of things which various foreigners from various places might be in desperate, homesick need of.  The british were represented by Quaker Oats-so-Simple, Bisto instant gravy, Birds custard powder, mint sauce, wholeberry cranberry sauce and a solitary jar of coleman's mustard - I'm not sure quite what that says about us as a nation....  There were also some spanish and portuguese looking things.  There was also a small tea section next to the acres of coffee but as there was none of the expxected Lipton yellow lable (although you could buy lipton caramel flavoured tea - caramel??  I ask you???)  or very poshly packaged Tetly English Breakfast for €1.80 for 20 teabags (more expensive than the equivalent quantity of twinings but not by much!) I am going to stick to my free chinese leaves for the time being.

Dinner brought - no bbq's on Ile de Re because of the fire risk posed by careless tourists so smoked yellow haddock and some veg - we set off in search of the sea, not actually having seen it yet although being on a vey small island.

As the sun was setting, we headed to the western beach to see the sun suspended like a golden disc of fire in a pink/purple sky.

We pushed our bikes along the beach for a bit, playing chicken with the incoming waves (just about successfully) before heading inland again in search of home where, after a shower, we settled in for an experimental dinner of steamed, smoked haddock flakes in rice with onions, leeks, sweetcorn mixed with egg - sort of kedgeree cross egg fried rice.  Again, in no way photogenic but delicious and enough for two days! 

The next morning, we got our €3's worth of facilities with another shower - 2 showers in 18h, so clean now we won't need to wash again for at least a week... ;) and set of to explore.  The weather wasn't so good as we headed northwards to Portes-en-Re at the far tip of the island.  It was as describd, a peaceful, mainly residential village with a nice bakery and at the far end, we even found the final camping car spot in a carpark clearly used by tourists and oyster fishermen alike.  This one was free and even had toilets, such luxury!  (although they were definately ones to squat over and not look to closely at...).

After some delicious cheese and bread, we went for a walk on the flat, windswept expanse of beach out towards the oyster farm, and saw one lonely man furtively peche a pied (fishing on foot ie digging up shell fish) I think it wasn't strictly allowed this close to the oyster farm so he kept looking over at us worriedly.   it is clearly the thing to do on Ile de Re with whole beaches given over to it and helpful signs showing what to might find and which ones you should throw back.  The suggested limit is 5kg per person, which would seem to more than justify the €9 toll to come over, but as we wouldn't really know what were were looking for or what to do with it if we found it, we decided not on this occasion.  After nearly losing our shoes in the sinking sand, we decided to head inland again and go to the light house at St Clement.  We had seen it in operation on our first night - the beam is unmissable - and it was the only tourist attraction open as far as we could see, on the whole island.

There are three light houses dubbed Les Phares des Baleines (incidentally, the word for light house is the same as the one for headlights - I know this!).  The original one was built in 1600 something, as part of a grand plan by Vauban (the Cardinal who succeeded evil Richelieu) to put lighthouse warning markers for sailors all along the french coast and thus make it less treacherous.  It is the most complete light house of its type and age in france and was classed a national monument at the same time as the palace of versailles.  The second, much taller light house was built to replace it in 1800 something (1854 from memory) and at 59m, is the second tallest light house in France, the tallest being a few miles further down the coast.  A further smaller one was built out in the sea off the point at the same time.  We decided to skip the museum in the old lighthouse keepers school at the bottom of the old tower (where Jamy the cartoon sailor will, through the miracle of video, convince children that "La Phare - c'est pas le sorcerie!" "Lighthouse - it's not rocket science!" which we already know!) The lighthouse is today automated and uses two 650W light bulbs in a clear glass lantern (in comparison, the ones we saw in Southwold light house - where red mac'ed lighthouse bear came from - are about 50W and use lots of fancy optics) which can be seen from 70 miles away on a clear night.  Fortunately, just as we started our ascent, the coach load of american school kids who had been up at the top came down and left - including the girl who we had seen in the gift shop proudly boasting to her friend that she had no intention of climbing the tower but had bought a ticket before she realised what it was for so ran up and down a few steps just for some exercise.  

The light house apparently has 257 steps to the top, I didn't count them, I was too busy trying to remember how to breathe whilst Will bounded up like some kind of spritely mountain goat - it is safe to say that the inevitable-ness of my eventual increase in fitness is probably being hampered by delicious baguette et fromage...

It is well worth the climb though, even on a fairly cloudy day, so the american girl - whom we later saw in the gift shop talking and singing to her toy seal....  I can say no more - missed out. 

You can also see the big fish-lock which is an area of the coast encircled by a low stone wall - apparently built originally without concrete so pretty impressive to withstand the tides - from which people pick off the fishies who are left stranded in the pools when the sea retreats back over the wall - seems a bit cheating to me!  Apparently there used to be 100s of them all round the island but there are only about 40 left now, mainly in the south.  On the way out at the bottom, there is also a great collection of old postcards from the 19th and early 20th century showing the light house (Dear Marie, today we have been fishing but we dodn't catch anything so we are going to try again tomorrow after high tide...) and some plaques with the history of the island - fought over a lot by the french and english and thus heavily fortified in 1600-something - and some more recent history concerning the plans to link the island to the mainland.  There have apparently been plans to do this since the 1930s, which ranged from the hairbrained; cables cars (well, the proponant argued, if they can build a cable car up chamonix...) to the relatively easy if probably of limited use;  submersible road like that at Mont-St-Michel, to the more obvious; tunnels (well if they can put the metro under the Seine) and the new fangled; (in 1970's anyway) hovercraft.  Controversy reigned and the final bridge plan was proposed and accepted in the 70's and not finally completed and opened until the 80's at which point there were still un-quashed objections from locals....

Having done all there was to do at the Lighthouse, but having definately got our €5's worth of education and entertainment, we headed off again and passed a couple of hours pottering around other shuttered up villages.  It was all fairly pleasant but I suspect that the villages are indeed best visited by bike as the mere triumph of having arrived somewhere will probably make them more exciting.  With no better plan, no where else to visit even if we wanted to (the only other place which would have been interesting really anyway would have been the salt museum, sadly closed until february) and no need to shop as we had delicious fishy left overs in the fridge (this has been our cheapest day yet at only €6!) and we headed back to the free carpark in Portes-en-Re and settled in to watch Little Miss Sunshine on DVD - only the second time we have resorted to TV since we left Cambridge and the only campervan movie in our collection.  It was brilliantly, cringemakingly funny - if you haven't seen it yet, you should.  We still have about 400h of tv and films to watch so plently to keep us going!

In the morning, deciding that we had had enough of doing nothing on an out of season island, we paid a quick visit to St-Martin-de-Re, the island's capital, which was fortified by Richelieu with the intention of, if necessary, being able to defend the island's entire population within the massive walls

and a quick visit to La Flotte, apparently considered to be one of the prettiest towns in france, and where we bought a delicious sticky brioche - mmmm almond bready-cakey yumminess - and then set off back over the bridge to the mainland.

Although mostly closed, Ile de Re was very pleasant for a potter and I suspect that it is only truly lovely for about four days a year, right at the beginning of the season when the sun is shining, everything is open but no one has arrived yet, and right at the end of the season when the sun is shining, everything is open and everyone has left.  I am glad we went though and maybe another time and another trip....

A tale of three towers (I/VI)

Written 19th November

It didn't really stop raining on Monday so, leaving Jules in the unexpectedly free car parking spot we had stumbled upon right near the old harbour, we took up our umbrellas and, tourist leaflet in hand, set off on the recommended 3h 'see everything worth seeing in la Rochelle' walking tour.  And it was good - damp - but good.

La Rochelle has an interesting history from way back when it was the only protestant town in france and its privileged and sheltered natural harbour position meant that it was the only place who could and would trade with both the french and the english.  The town itself was protected from land by a massive defensive wall and moat (and by being a long way from anywhere else and surrounded by marsh land!) and the harbour was protected by three towers;

St Nicolas Tower where the harbour captain lived  (apparently once sworn in, he took a vow not to leave the tower duing his year long stint although it was unlear if leave meant 'abandon his post', 'go on a nice 2-week holiday to the south of France with the wife and kids' or 'pop out for a pint with the lads'!)

The Chain tower on the other side of the actual harbour entrance got its name from the big chain which used to be strung across between it and the St Nicholas tower and which was pulled up across the entrance at night or if it looked like enemies might attack. 

It is a suprisingly slender chain but I can only assume it did the job.

Lantern Tower (Four Sergeants) a bit further round the wall which was at various times a look out, lighthouse and a prison.

Eventually in 16-something, one of the Louis' (I forget which one, it was at least XIII) and Cardinal Richelieu (yes the evil baddy in Dogtanian and the three muskahounds!!) decided enough was enough and set about besieging the heathens who dared trade with the english enemies.  As well as surounding them on land, they also built a big wall across the entrance to the harbour - a pretty impressive feat when you look out over the channel and are told it was out where the big red bouy is now!  It is slightly more believeable at low tide when you see how shallow it is and actually that only the daily slog of the dredger keeps the harbour open at all but impressive nonetheless.

Eventually, after about a year!, the town gave in and was forced to become Catholic (or at least not openly protestant) and all its defenses were torn down except the three towers although you can still see where bits of rampart and city gates were and the moat on the north side is now a small river with a nice park and joggers path. 

Deciding to leave the towers for another day, we carried on into town and wended our way round various churches, palaces and ancient stone arch-covered pedestrian streets until we found the town hall.  One side of it is fairly dull in a narrow street - although it had a useful internet weather report printed out which confimed it was raining...  to be fair it also said it would be sunny by wednesday which in french is described as "no weather phenomenon predicted"  In England, sunshine would be the most phenomenon-y thing anyone wanted to be predicted or talked about!!   I love France!

The other side, in the square, is a fairytale castle of walls, turrets and statues of kings in lookout towers.  It also has four statues of women apparently depicting the virtues; Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance although as Temperance is pouring wine from a big jug and Prudence has her tits out, I'm not exactly sure that the French subscribe to the same virtue system as we do... ;)

As dusk was falling, we found our way back to the tourist office and deciding that we needed a more efficient way of charging the laptop - we are currently going from 12v to 240v thru the transformer then back to 20v thru the lap top power supply which, as neither the laptop battery nor the leisure battery are in particulaly good shape, is not very efficient.  The french lady in the tourist office was a bit nonplussed by our request for 'a shop which sells things for computers' but eventually pointed us in the direction of Darty (PC world equivalent) at the centre commercial at Angoulins 'only 5 minutes away'.  We are discovering that the french have a different concept of time and distance than we do and evetually some 30mins later we found ourselves at the right place, or so we thought. 

After 20 minutes of fruitless searching and trying to navigate our way round the maze of roads and carparks in the dark - fortunately we only ended up down a one way road going the wrong way once! - we stopped to ask someone who was trying to sell double glazing outside a Leader Price (Aldi equivalent supermarket).  He had no idea but was willing to look it up on his iphone and confirmed that there wasn't a Darty closer than Bordeaux - it turns out he was wrong and there is one at the other La Rochelle commercial centre that has a big Carrefour but that is another tale... - so frustrated in our power supply search, we turned our attention to the other thing we really ought to have by now, new headlamps for Jules as we are still driving with our UK ones. 

Rather than just stick tape on them, which cuts out a lot of light (and the roads and signs are ill-lit enough as it is without making navigating in the dark any more complicated than it already is by losing half the light!) and as we are going to be driving on the right for a whole year, we had planned to get whole new replacement units once we crossed the channel. I mean how hard can it be, VW's are a german bus and Germany is in Europe right?  isn't it all the same these days??? 

We haven't actually seen any VW garages en route so far, or for that matter many VWs.   We ended up in FeuVert, another Halfords like place which also has a Kwikfit like garage section, where we met a very helpful, if a bit technically clueless boy, whose ability in English about matched my french.  After working out that yes, we really did want to buy new lights, and yes, we know it will be more expensive than sticking tape on them(!), and finding out from his technician that no, you can't just make some sort of adjustment with a screwdriver to re-angle the lights, he tried looking them up in his book to see if he could order them.  That proving not to be possible, he did go as far as looking up VW garages and scrap yards in the yellow pages, and all 5 mins before closing time - he really was a nice boy.  He also helped us find grease for the battery terminals, to stop them getting damp as the rain is getting in the air vents [we had initially tried to find vaseline which does the same thing and had tried several pharmacies, looking something which I could only think to describe as lip salve in pots, one shop tred to sell me some v v expensive fancy perfumed stuff and the other only had chapsticks and looked at us very oddly when we said we needed it in a pot as we needed lots - goodness only knows what they thought we were looking for it for... :) it just goes to show that when in foreign you should look for what you actually need, not what you would buy in the UK...]

We then headed to the Carrefour (think massive Tesco Extra plus plus some) for some bits and found that they have a whole car section where we could have got the grease anyway - oh well he really was a nice boy :)

The very helpful tourist leaflet had indicated that "Camping-Cars" were very welcome in la Rochelle and that there were even 3 car parks in the town where there were places where you could stop for free for up to 48 hours so we set off back in to town in the rain to see what we could find and lo and behold, spaces there were, completely free (except €0.30 to use the public toilet) brilliant! 

Tucked in between some much bigger motorhomes, we settled in for the night and cooked our delicious dinner of pan fried tournedos of beef and haricots verts with red wine gravy (at €0.85 the cheapest table wine we have yet had, proving that I am as classy now as I was then - it was very nice!) and boiled new potatoes - yummy!  (I'm sorry if you're bored of the illustrated tale of "what I had for my dinner"  but we need to reassure anxious mothers that we are eating proper food - green veg and everything! - and I think we are doing rather well on 2 gas hobs and the occasional bbq!) 

The next morning it was still raining when we woke up and peered out of the curtain so we snuggled back under the duvet until it stopped at about lunchtime.  [I have to thank Laura for the conversation we had about travelling, sleeping bags and duvets, without which I would have just packed the sleeping bags as usual - there is just something about a duvet, you know when you are just the right temperature and you can't tell when you end and the duvet begins... bliss :)] 

Eventually we decided that we really should get up and go and investigate the towers but not before we had our breakfast of yesterday's bread dipped in hot chocolate - well this is what my first year feench textbook said that real french people have - I have no way of verifiying this but who are we to argue!  The chocolate was made with some actual belgian chocolate drops melted in the mug by hot milk  - you know the sort that you get in christmas present packs with a fancy mug and stuff (probably just where this came from) - which we had found, unused in the back of the cupboard at home when we were clearing out and chucked in the van just in case - they were only 6 months out of date but hey, chocolate doesn't actually go off...  BTW it was delicious, I am never making hot chocolate any other way again!

Thus fortified,  and leaving Jules with its new friends, we set off and found that the towers were of course closed, this being france and it being lunchtime. 

So we headed off for a wander down the harbour wall towards the big new marina and on the off-chance, decided to try one for the many sailing shops to see if they might have our charger.  There we met yet another extremely helpful young man who was amazed that we had come all the way from england by camping car - presumably if we had sailed he would have thought it was nothing out of the ordinary...  He didn't have the thing and expressed concern that it was very specialised but suggected we try the computer shop on the corner.  This time, two minutes was acually two minutes, and after a considerably longer wait behind people wanting to debate the relative merits of all sorts of different print cartridge and the non-stop phone calls, we asked the man for 'something to plug our computer into our car which transformed 12v to 20v" and he came straight back with the very thing - hurrah!  Bouyed by our success and feeling generally well disposed towards french men in shops, we headed back to the first tower on our list - The St Nicholas Tower. 

It is €6 to go in one tower and only €8 to go in all three and the recommended time to visit all three, including walking between them, is 2.5 hours.  We spent at least 1.5h in each (over two days) and they were excellent so money definately well spent.

The st Nicolas Tower was, as promised, a labyrinth of rooms, and corridors and staircases within the 6m thick walls and tells the history of La Rochelle up to the siege in 1600-something.  And the sun came out by the time we got to the battlements for a view over the town - lovely.

Having run out of time for more tower that day and feeling in need of a celebratory cake to mark our success at buying a laptop charger - it's the little things these days ;) - we set of in search of such a thing and after dismissing several ordinary fruit tartlets in inferieur boulangeries, we came across Patisserie Jolly and a mouthwatering array of deliciousness and soon a strawberry and rhubarb mousse surrounded by mini macaroons was his and a dark chocolate shell filled with dark chocolate and rasperry mousse topped with white chocolate wings and more rapsberries were ours, they even came hand wrapped in a little box with ribbon and everything. 

With hindsight, such fine and expensive delicacies are probably supposed to be appreciated and savoured leisurely, with cutlery, after a nice meal, and before thoughts turn to coffee, perhaps even by candlelight, rather than scoffed down with your fingers sat on the steps of a catherdral at dusk but they were truly gorgeous :)

Stopping only in Monoprix for dinner (casserole of chicken legs with slices of potato and sweetcorn in tinned tomatoes cooked slowly for about 2 hours until the meat was just falling off the bone  - not very photogenic but mmmmmmm) we settled back down in our little carpark spot for the night.

The next day dawned bright and sunny - so really, no weather to speak of(!) and, reflected off the white stone, La Rochelle's light did indeed shine soft and dazzling, as promised by the guide leaflet so we headed back into town to the Chain Tower.  This tower tells the story of La Rochelle after the siege when it was the main port from which french people set out to colonise 'New-France', what is now Quebec, Montreal and New Orleans.  Thousands of people went out, some voluntarily seeking a better life and others, like the orphan girls who were sent under the protection of the church with the sole goal of populating the new world, who didn't have a choice.  Again, the exhibition was very interesting (although all in french which took a bit of translating) and the sun was once again shining for our view over the town and harbour. 

We also learnt that, before the siege, there was a plan to connect the two towers by a massive arch acros the harbour entrance.  Unfortunately it was never more than a plan once the defences were ordered destroyed by Cardinal Richelieu (and as during the contruction of St Nicholas tower, it started leaning on it's foundations and had tbe be propped up with some clever underpinning) but it was an ambitious idea, let alone reality.

We didn't have time before lunch to go to the last tower, so after a bargain lunch of baguette and sticky bun sat on the harbour wall in the sun, and with important internet correspondance to attend to, we found oursleves in a bar just off the harbour.  It is debatable whether it was better to consider the internet as being free in the bar or to cost €4/h with free drinks but three hours later and after three coffees (him) and one coffee and two beers (me) we stumbled, blinking into the sun, wired (him) and giddy (me), to climb our last tower. 

The Lantern Tower (also called the Four Sergeants) has the least in the way of exhibition but as it was used as a prision in the 16th and 17th century (mainly for English and Dutch sailors caputured at sea) it is covered in scratched graffiti, some simply names and date scratches and some extremely detailed - boats complete with rigging, sails and ladders all in relief and a later steam train showing all the wheel linkages -

there is even a block on one floor where tourists can have a go - it soft stone but making any actual picture is harder than it looks! 

It is also the highest tower and just keeps going up and up via a spiral staircase - the tower is so narrow by that point that the staircase is housed in a totally separate spire - until you emerge at the top onto a seemingly fragile balcony with a low wall. 

 I don't usually have a problem with high up wobbly places but I have to confess to clinging to the wall a bit :)  but the view of the sun setting over the harbour was fantastic.

We left just as the tower was closing and, having seen all there is to see in La Rochelle - well those things which are either free or interested us, there are many other no doubt excellent museums and touristy things for those with the inclination and deeper pockets - we set off towards our next destination,  Ile de Re.

It was at this point that disaster struck as after some hesitation at a couple of junctions, Jules spluttered to a stop, fortunately just off a major road and on a slip road.  Mindfull of the law for such eventualities, we dutifully dug out the warning triangle and donned florescent jackets and set about removing the bikes and bike rack - the only downside of such a sturdy and secure contraption is there is no quick releaase option for emergency engine bay access - so that Will could see what what was what.  The inital fears were serious as, by mistake I had last filled up at Carrefour with some wierd shit french petrol which "to facilitate more environmentally friendly driving" is cut with 10% ethanol and we hadn't really driven very far since.  Will had heard of it from the internet as being used in the US and had a vague recollection of classic car drivers complaining that it rotted rubber bits in the engine but no idea how quickly such bad things happened or what bits of engine were rubber - fuel injectors and fuel pump were the worry, both of which would be diffcult to source and/or expensive if damaged.  I had thought something didn't look at the time and had asked Will to check but he said if it was unleaded 95 to carry on - we will not ignore my gut instinct in this regard again!.  There was also an ominious hissing noice from the engine bay which Will couldn't find and we therefore feared could be important bits of engine disolving before our very eyes (well, ears as we couldn't see where it was coming from)....

After some digging about with a torch, and the discovery of a loose but important earth wire, we were at the stage where the engine would start but not keep ticking over and Will had broken out his multimeter and timing light when, like an angel of mercy, a little yellow flat bed vw appeared from out of no where.  We have seen few VWs of any age and absolutely no classics of any type yet lo and behold, one appears, and beter still stops!, when we are in trouble.  Unfortuantely we could explain what the problem was, partly because my french business degree inexplicably didn't cover the inner workings of VW engines but mainly because we still didn't know what the problem was.  The guy spoke a very little english and at the sight of our unfamiliar engine and Will's already advanced tools expressed an inability to contribute much but he was at least willing and confirmed that the wierd shit petrol shouldn't be a problem - apparently, if anything, when using it, vans just don't stop rather than refusing to go!  Just at that moment, Will spotted a vacuum hose which had come loose, reconnected it and bingo, we were back in business!  (Keen blog readers will remember that it was a similar incident which caused my first breakdown - different hose this time but one could argue that, in temporarily heading north again, we were once again vaguely approaching the Cambridge/Essex border....)  The guy asked where we were going and on learning that we were going to Ile de Re via a food shop offered to escort us the the closest Leclerc and, obviously fearing for our future good fortune and general sanity, told us where a VW specialist could be found in a nearby industriel zone - I love classic VW drivers!

Crisis averted, we stocked up on steak and wine and headed isle-wards over the bridge.