Our Long Drive North - From the French Pyrenees to the Dunes of Holland

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Friday 20 March 2015

Our Long Drive North - From the French Pyrenees to the Dunes of Holland

This past 5 days has bought a stark change to our environment, moving from the snow-topped mountains of the Pyrenees to the flat rolling dunes and open skies of the Netherlands coast. Since our departure from Louvie-Juzon last Thursday morning to our arrival with Esther's family in Den Haag on Monday evening we drove almost 1400km, amounting to 20% of the total distance we have covered this year. It was a strange experience for us, having spent the past 9 months sticking with our mantra of "driving less and seeing more", suddenly our days blurred into a seemingly never ending stream of traffic, roundabout, junctions and fleeting scenery as we powered our way north. Exhausting in many ways, but exciting as well in that we had a chance to experience a different side of motorhome touring and see a vast amount of France as well.

Our new friend Jazzy was sad to see us go
Having taken more than a fortnight to reach the French Pyrenees since leaving Cabo de Gata in the south east corner of Spain, pausing to enjoy both the Vall de Laguar and the Albufera Nature Reserve en route, the prospect of 4 continuous days of driving felt a daunting one. Our original plan had been to spend more than a week peacefully pottering our way north through France, however, the fantastic Pyrenean scenery coupled with sunshine had lured us to stay in the mountains for as long as we could. Our reward had been 3 magnificent cycles and a beautiful hike which neither of us had expected as part of our return journey.

Our stay in the mountains left us with a long way to drive and 4 days to do it in, so the question was, which way should we go?  To toll or not to toll?

Empty toll road from Pau to Bordeaux
There is much debate in motorhome forums on the question of toll roads vs. non-toll roads and for 9 months we have set firmly on the side of non-toll roads. The common justification of "why spend the money when you're not in a hurry" matched perfectly with our travelling style of numerous short journeys every few days from valley to valley, with just a handful of infrequent long journeys every now and then.

But, while meandering through small villages is a pleasant experience when you are in no hurry and can often lead to marvelous surprises and interesting stops, we began to feel that since this particular journey had a specific purpose and deadline, that perhaps we ought to consider the toll roads just this once.

Return to Holland!
In the past we have found the continuous acceleration/deceleration, roundabouts and traffic lights encountered on the non-toll road options of France to be very exhausting on a 4-5 hour drive compared to one or two long carriageways over the same distance. While this has never bothered us in the past since such long drives were one-offs, with 4 driving days back to back opted this time to use some tolls roads after all and make this longer drive more swift and manageable. However, rather than just using tolls the whole way we planned our own hybrid combination, weighing up each stretch of toll with the exact cost, distance and ease of use of the alternative. It took some time but using the French Highways Agency website, we finally settled on a route we liked.

Vast vineyards around Bordeaux
The next 4 days passed by in a blur of gear changes, being overtaken and flashing countryside. We passed by the vineyards of Bordeaux, the forests of Angouleme, Poitiers, Orleans and swished through the farmlands south of Paris. We slept outside a restaurant when the motorhome aire had closed for winter, slept at another aire being visited by a travelling circus with the sound of the big top singing us off to sleep and even spent a night just outside a former home of Vincent Van Gogh (now a museum which when open apparently allowed overnight motorhome stops). We encountered Parisian ring road traffic sighting the Eiffel Tower, bounced along the motorways of Belgium and finally cruised into the Hague after long and tiring days.

Making time for some fresh air
But it wasn't all driving either. We marvelled at the stunning countryside we passed by, from fields to forests, from rivers to ravines. We tried to remember to take frequent rest stops to prepare tasty food (or even a juice) en route. In addition, our route passed by no less than half a dozen organic supermarkets so we took a couple of quick pit stops to sniff around the shelves and stock up our rolling larder with healthy, tasty whole foods for the weeks ahead. Perhaps most fun of all, we sang and laughed and talked and read as the kilometres ticked by, called off by a Garmin travelling companion.

On 3 days we made time to stop for a short run (or make use of park benches for some body weight exercises) to get some fresh air and re-energise ourselves from the long periods sitting down.  We made sure to wrap up, starting our acclimatisation to the chilly spring air of Northern France.

We also got to spend a wonderful 24 hours with friends and their family in Brussels which I will write about in a separate post.

As we arrived in the Hague to enjoy an emotional reunion with Esther's family, we felt relieved to have made it, to have arrived and be able to rest once more. However, the drive had not been the nightmare journey we had expected it to be. It hadn't been the sad farewell to our adventurer we had sometimes worried it might become. Instead, by taking time to appreciate the trip, using some tolls roads and trying not to drive too late into the evenings (well not every day at least!) it had actually felt manageable and had become part of the adventure, rather than the end of the journey after all.

Short run along a Belgium canal to get some much needed fresh air!

Quick pit stop at our last Biocoop in France

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