The Big Trip, Day 13: On the road again, to Millau

Distance covered today: 250 miles

Total distance covered: 1301 miles

Leaving Barcelona is very hard.

Partly because I’m leaving Tom of course, though arguably until my head is more sorted out, a bit of distance between us is best. But it’s also that, after a week, I’ve really started to feel at home here. I know my way about, my Spanish has improved from non-existent to basic, and it’s warm. While  I’m still on an adventure, it lowers my spirits to know that I’m back driving north. Into winter.

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I’m hoping I can come back of course, equipped with a teaching qualification and able to start a new life. For now though, we slob around in the van for the morning, then I drive Tom into the town centre and drop him off at his new home. There’s nowhere to actually park up in the centre of Barcelona, so it’s a lot of heartfelt hugging then I’m off on my way again.

Alone. I’d been getting good at being on my own for the first leg of this trip, but Tom’s been with me for most of the last week and I’m not used to it again. As I head out of the city and towards the edge of the Pyrenees, I feel lonely.

I tell myself to get used to it. After all, I need to learn to enjoy my own company again, not just on this trip but in life in general. But it’s so, so hard after seventeen years of constant companionship. That’s the void I was unfairly trying to slot Tom into.

I take some pleasure in my surroundings at least. Whatever my woes, I’ve driven across most of Europe, and now I’m driving back. Skirting across the edge of the Pyrenees, I can see the mountains on one side of me and the Mediterranean on the other. It’s stunningly beautiful, though as ever I can’t take any pictures because I’m driving. Signs inform me that I’m passing through the Costa del Sol, but unfortunately I don’t have time to stop and enjoy any of the legendary beaches. I’ve got two and a half days to get back to Calais and the Eurotunnel, so I have to get a shift on.

I hadn’t really planned the return leg of the trip at all, so I’ve just tried to take a fairly direct route with a couple of easy breaks to split the journey into thirds. The first stop will be Millau – a French town that my motorhome guru Gary recommended visiting, primarily for its amazing viaduct, the tallest bridge in the world with a height of 343 metres.

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Of course I have to get there first. I resolve to not have a break at least until I’ve made it back into France, and that takes a little over two hours – about half of today’s leg. There’s surprisingly little indication when you cross the border; a sign says Franca 500m, and that’s about it. I stop at the nearest Aire, at Village Catalan Est, and suddenly everyone’s speaking French again.

I’d gotten used to using basic French for a week, then when I got to Barcelona it took a few days to stop mixing it up with Spanish (“una cerveza, s’il vous plait” etc).  Now I have to do it again, the other way round. Fortunately they’re probably used to it this near to the border, so my use of the affirmative “si” when I buy a bottle of water produces not so much as a raised eyebrow.

The French border may have seemed oddly frictionless, but I find out why as I pass the tollbooths intersecting the A9 and A75. That’s where customs might pull you over. Particularly if you’re driving a large van.

A very stern looking lady and gentleman wave me over to the side of the road, where many other officers garbed in Douane uniforms wait with what turns out to be a rather sweet-natured sniffer dog, a black labrador. Nobody speaks much English, and even my basic French seems to have deserted me in the stress of the situation. But we manage. No, I’ve only got half a pack of cigarettes. No, I haven’t got any weapons. No, I don’t smoke cannabis (not entirely true, but I certainly haven’t got any with me).

They take about twenty minutes looking in every nook and cranny inside the van – I even have to help them pull out the mattress so they can look under the bed. What with the breakin in Barcelona and now this, I’m getting oddly resigned to having strangers poke about in what’s basically my home. At least this lot are unlikely to nick anything.

Eventually they’re satisfied that I’m not smuggling anything, and I get the nod to carry on, without any kind of a smile or anything. They don’t seem to be the smiling types. I contemplate asking if I can take a picture for the blog, then decide it’s probably wisest not to.

I’m surprised at their thoroughness, given the EU’s open internal borders, but I shouldn’t have been. I’d noticed how much cheaper cigarettes and alcohol are in Spain; I should think plenty of French people try and smuggle them over in quantity without paying duty.

Still, at least that’s over, and I carry on towards Millau, up some steep mountain roads with amazing views. Every so often, a marker by the roadside tells you the altitude you’ve reached. 500m. 700m. The road goes up and down, but the highest altitude I encounter is 825m. That’s a fair way above sea level.

I’m just approaching the turn off for Millau when I hear the whoop of a siren to my left, and a grey Skoda passes me with a stern faced official indicating they’d like a word. As the car passes, a dot matrix sign in the rear window flashes, in English, CUSTOMS. FOLLOW. ME.

I sigh. Again? Oh well, there’s not much I can do about it, so I take them at their dotty words and follow the Skoda to a nearby layby, which looks like the sort of place grasses get whacked in crime dramas. Two large vans full of Douaniers await, with the usual sniffer dog, and I resign myself to going through the rigmarole again.

It turns out this lot speak much better English than the last, and as they begin the same questions I answered an hour ago, I manage to interrupt and tell them I was searched a few miles back. Where, they ask? Tollbooths between A9 and A75, I tell them. There’s a bit of conflabbing, and I get the nod to move on with no search this time. My guess is that they checked my registration with their colleagues at the booths and confirmed my story.

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Well, I can’t say French customs aren’t thorough anyway. Sadly I’ve lost a fair bit of time, so that means it’s getting dark by the time I actually see Millau from the mountains. Nonetheless, I take the time to pull into a layby advertised as Vue Panoramique, and take a few snaps of the town nestling in between the mountains, the giant viaduct visible in the distance.

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Park4Night has found me an actual paying campervan park for this one, my first on the trip. This is because I urgently need to empty the toilet cassette, and refill the water tank after all the water we used for cooking and showering in Barcelona. It’s full dark when I get there though, so that’s going to have to wait till the morning.

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It’s still fairly early, so I decide to take a wander into Millau itself, and see what it has to offer. The answer, sadly, is not much. Maybe more stuff is closed than usual becuase it’s All Saints’ Day; or maybe there’s not much to be open anyway. It’s a pretty small town, with a population of only 22,000.

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It’s pretty though, another rabbit warren of medieval streets winding hither and yon in unfathomable directions up and down hills. I’m reminded of the dimensionally impossible city in MC Escher-inspired Doctor Who story Castrovalva. I round a corner, and see a street sign that makes me smile wryly. Rue du Barry. Barry is my ex, and if it wasn’t for my rueful state after our breakup I probably wouldn’t be here.

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There’s nothing going on though. A couple of people in the streets, one tiny bar that appears full, and that’s it. After the bustling vibrancy of Barcelona, I feel lonely again. Oh well, it’s back to the van where I can finally catch up on those Walking Dead episodes I downloaded in Barcelona. I find myself falling asleep by about 9:30 – looks like an early night isn’t a bad idea. Barcelona might have been a week long, occasionally stressful party, but oh well, there has to be a morning after.

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