Day 21: Back to Blighty
The last day and a 247 mile run from St. Malo back to little old Tewkesbury, via Calais and the Channel Tunnel.
Yesterday was the most expensive day of the trip regarding road tolls, with the drive right across France from Basle to Brittany being largely composed of toll-charged motorways and today, once you leave Brittany (where there are no toll charges) the tolls started again in earnest.
It was an early start, about 6.30am on the Saturday morning and it was almost as though France hadn't woken up yet as the roads were extremely quiet and nothing was moving in the villages. Then again, even at their peak activity there is not a lot moving in French villages anyway so it's hard to tell the difference.
France is a very pretty country with rolling countryside and most towns and villages being extremely picturesque, much more so than at home. The space they have compared to Britain seems to give everything a bit more elbow room look a little less congested. Their new-build houses are often painted cream and set in a decent sized chunk of garden and most industrial estates are very green with large grassy spaces, especially compared to the mess that most industrial estates in the UK quickly descend into. But, despite all that, I still can't get overly enthusiastic about France and it's some of the people, not the country itself.
I mentioned previously in the blog that, with the exception of Albania, every person I met at toll booths, petrol stations, hotels, restaurants and shops as been very welcoming, always said hello and always smiled. I don't speak Croat or Italian or German but they still were courteous and friendly and although I can get by with 'hello' and 'thank you' in Greek that's about my limit and even if they didn't speak any English at all they still smiled. But in France I can go to a toll booth and say hello and thank you and have enough French to get by when buying diesel so I don't automatically just talk in English and do make an effort with their language. But, unlike every other country I've been through, all you get back is a cold blank face and not a word. Not a twitch from their faces which I can only presume have been so heavily botoxed they are incapable of movement. I went up to the toll booths with a cheery 'bonjour' and 'merci', but they just sat there like living corpses, staring fixedly ahead, enduring a miserable little existence and seemingly just waiting to die. Not a smile. Not a twich. Not a word. My vacuum cleaner has more humanity, personality and warmth in it than every single French occupant of those toll booths and petrol stations.
After about four hours I arrived in Calais and to the warm welcoming sign of the 'UK Border Control'. Never has a name for a TV crime series promised so little.
Something I don't think I've mentioned before is the general availability of a good 3G signal pretty much everywhere I've been meaning getting online and updating this blog and uploading photos has been possible almost much everywhere. At home though, nothing. In Tewkesbury, nothing unless the wind is in the right direction and you stand on one leg facing west at sunset. In Cheltenham it just about hangs on to one bar. But up a mountain pass near Sparta - full 3G. Up the Alps in about as remote a place as you can get - full 3G. Even right at the top - 3G. And today, almost the full length of the channel tunnel crossing - a good 3G signal. You can get it up the Alps and in a tunnel under the English Channel but not within sight of the M5 and Cheltenham at home. The only other place with such poor coverage has been Albania so that's great company we're keeping there.
25 minutes on the train then back out onto the M20 and a reminder to myself to drive on the left!
I'm not wanting to make one of those lazy 'everything in Britain is rubbish and everything else abroad is better' comments, but there is no hiding the fact that sometimes we aren't as great as we would like to be. I still think that on a hot summer day there is no place I would rather be than in Britain, but we do seem to err towards the shabby when you emerge blinking from the Channel Tunnel. I stopped at Maidstone Services for the loo and it was packed, with loos that looked as though they were built in the 1970s and smelled like that's about the same time they were last cleaned as well. The service in the shop was rubbish and the car park was a litter-strewn bit of tarmac. This is one of the first stops for any foreign visitor coming into Britain from the Tunnel or off the Dover ferries and it's frankly embarrassing. The most remote of those French 'Aire' picnic site loos puts these motorway services to shame.
And then onto the M25, which is so poorly maintained that it may as well be cobbled. You bounce along over uneven and loud concrete, over poorly made seams, over potholes and cracks, and then joy of joys, a traffic jam pretty much all the way round from the Gatwick area to Heathrow. You couldn't make it up - the last traffic jam I had been sat in was twice on the way out (once on the M4 and once on the M25), then three weeks of several thousand miles including motorways around some of Europe's major cities and nothing, then the next traffic jam I hit was within about 40 minutes of being back in Britain.
I eventually arrived home at about 5pm, with about 5000 miles added to the car, a phone full of photos and a small sense of achievement.
So was the trip worth it - absolutely yes! It sounds odd to say it, but despite it taking Good Lady Wife #1 five hours to get from Heraklion in Crete to our front door while it took me a week either way, the act of driving there makes it all seem a lot smaller and closer together. Rather than each place being a separate entity in its own right, you get a clear sense of how everything is linked and not all that far apart. You can sit in your car and visit the Spa Francorchamps race track in Belgium, places I went on holiday as a child in Austria and Italy, drive from Parga in Greece to Maranello in Italy, see the Alps and Sparta from the same car, and none of them are that far apart individually. I've got a taste for it now so am looking at what's next...
Option 1: Tewkesbury to Hong Kong. Seems do-able via the Eastern Europe countries, then right across Russia via Moscow and Irkutsk, through Mongolia and into China. There seems to be roads marked on the map all the way.
Option 2: A round-trip of the Med. That one needs a bit more investigation as it would mean France, Spain and Italy, but also Egypt, Libya and Syria. A shorter distance than Option 1 but possibly more interesting...?