Athens (Gr)– Patras (GR) – Ancona (It) – Lake Como (It) – Berne (Switz) – Stauffen (Ger) – Saulzais le Portier (Fr)

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind these last few days, but we are currently in Saulzais, geographic centre of France, and feeling pretty knackered.

Yet another supermarket carpark: Ancona

In order to meet our commitment to the company buying our van (for much less than it’s worth, let me add, emotional attachments aside, we needed to race to get a lot of stuff done in a very few days. Leaving Bari, our Italian port of arrival, we headed north, doing some 600km on Italian roads that were good / mediocre and expensive. I’d like to propose that toll roads undergoing major renovations don’t charge you, accepting that the driving experience is less than promised. Surely these guys can’t get you to pay in advance for roads not yet built …?

So it’s been around 500km a day, apart from Monday which we spent closing bank accounts etc followed by a short trip to Niki’s niece, Susi, in Stauffen. I feel we have spent so much time there already that I’m waiting to be greeted by locals wondering why they haven’t seen me for the past few days!

Van – packed to the gills
With Niki doing something useful…

Another long drive brought us down to Saulzais – thanks to Scott, Marthe-Sophie & family for giving us the run of the house while they are still away working. We’ve made real use of the space, designating our household stuff (23 cubic metres, Help!) as ‘New Zealand’, or ‘Angola via New Zealand in December’, or ‘Angola to New Zealand in July’. The ‘throw away’ pile is remarkably small, no doubt the consequence of Niki having the power to veto any of my decisions…


The circular route also allowed us to catch up with some friends in Berne, although not nearly as many as we would have liked. Thanks to Dave, Regi & Maya for dinner. Dave also collected all our post this past year and kept scanning required documents that would reach us a) too late b) at a time we had too much wine or were too relaxed to care c) when we had no printer access, and so didn’t care. None of that takes anything away from the constant effort Dave made – very much appreciated.

Also – if you have to travel in a 22,000km circle, to begin and end in Switzerland is simply amazing. We recognise just how much we loved the country, quirks and all, and driving through some of the world’s most stunning scenery just brought home to us how we will miss the country.


So, one day’s packing behind us, 4 more to go. Our last packers, bless them, were all from South America, and used their three word professional English vocabulary to great effect, labelling everything either ‘Books / Clotes / Kitchen’ so it’s been interesting to find tennis racquets, bike pump and sleeping bags in a box with no clothing at all. It makes each box like a little Christmas present!

Two rooms packed to the rafters with a household of goods …

St Malo … Last Post?

It’s been a very busy couple of days, and that’s a limited excuse for not keeping up with posts, but Life does get in the way.

Baguettes and no toilet seats – must be France

First Up: This will be our last post for the next 4 months as we return to New Zealand. We’ve got the opportunity to return and sort out some family things that are overdue, and which require us to be there. We’ll be flying to Auckland next Thursday, and, with a bit of luck, we’ll be back in Europe and on the road in the first week in March.

St Malo ferry – this guy has no problems parking a car in tight spots!

Second: Niki’s had interviews with two schools and, clever girl, got offers from both. As a result we’ll be off to Angola in the new school year, July. That gives us a fixed window to work with … Morocco is still on the cards! Because of the multiple interview schedule we’ve slowed down this past week in order to have Niki focus on these rather than on navigation. We would not have like the resetting of our GPS to reflect schools rather than campsites.

11th C Chateau & fortifications, Domfronts

Third: We’ve had a great few days on what was essentially a detour round to St Malo while we made travel arrangements etc. What a great detour it’s been. Mont St Michel was great, St Malo was as enjoyable as before, and, as we’ve skipped toll roads, the drive today has taken us along some secondary roads that really allow you to capture the sense of countryside.

We are currently parked on a forestry road on the way to Versailles. While driving, and a bit spur-of-the-moment, we stopped in Domfront (another town I bet Marthe-Sophie has not visited). Delightful, and provided some context for a book I’m currently reading, The Forge of Christendom by Tom Holland. He writes of the terror spread in the 10th C as the power of the Frankish kings diminished and the centre could not hold. The consequence was that anyone bloodthirsty and wealthy enough built, very rapidly, a small fortification (motte or donjon), staffed it with armoured thugs, then raped, pillaged and extorted the countryside. Doing this successfully meant more money, more armoured thugs (cnights, or knights) etc in a cycle of brutality. The conclusion of the process was an overlord class supported by church and legal system, and a pauper, serf class, herded into villages like pork ready for the slaughter. Looking at the fortified buildings of the chateau, and following its construction history, from wooden fortification to stone, to walls capable of withstanding the new gunpowder technology, one should be cognisant of the terror instilled in the local population, whose history will never, unfortunately, be told.



The Chapel of Saint-Julian was completely unexpected. Built in 1924 in Byzantine style, the church works. The church structure is supported by large semi-circular concrete arches and, lacking supporting columns, creates a great sense of space and proportion. Even the mural of Christ in the rounded nave is in keeping with the theme, even though created in 1928 – hmmm, a lesson for some would-be restorers or innovators, such as my mural friend in Denmark.

Domfronts: Saint Julian Chapel
Interior of this delightful Byzantine style church

Tomorrow we are off to Versailles, but I’m unsure if I’ll be posting from after today. If not – well, hope to see you back in March. For us, 4 months has flown by and we are nowhere close to feeling like we want this to end …

Hope the wind doesn’t blow too much tonight – leaves landing on the roof sound really loud!!

Arras, Normandy and points West

We’ve had a great couple of days since arriving in Arras, including some gentle walks through town. Unbeknownst to us, Halloween is actually a thing in France and the town was on holiday, complete with themed pubs and restaurants, and hordes of kids holding shops to ransom. Arras itself may be worth a visit, including the two market squares, rebuilt in theme in the 19th C as well as the church, one holding the inevitable Rubens! Still can’t get over the artworks simply hanging in public spaces …

Just another Rubens …
Arras market square

Having really appreciated the opportunity to walk the fields and pass through the museums we have taken the opportunity to travel down to the Normandy beaches. Yesterday we spent the day at Utah Beach, having spent overnight in the town of Sainte-Mare Eglise, the first town liberated in France. You may well remember this from the series Band of Brothers. The town remains heavily associated with D-Day, and houses the Airborne Museum.

What a way to start your war: A paratrooper commemorated for landing on the church spire, Saint-Mer-Eglise
Paratrooper memorial – stained glass window

We had two nights in the town before travelling down the road to Utah Beach and the museum there. The museum is very well resourced and the layout is very engaging. One can’t help but empathise with combatants, on both sides, their experiences associated with those times.

Utah Beach, Normandy
105mm shell damage – from an unexploded shell!!
Crispecq Battery, Saint Marcoef de Isle

We are currently going to overnight in the supermarket carpark not far from Mont St Michel, Thank You Carrefour! We spent the day cycling and walking to the Mont: A truly wow kind of experience. Begun in the 8th C with big extensions in the 11th C to become a Benedictine Monastery. Obviously successful, as it was here that the bastard William (no, truly, that’s how he was known) was blessed before setting off to England, Hastings, and un upgrade to Conqueror. The walk along the causeway gave spectacular views on the Mont. I couldn’t get over the fact that I could not see the sea – even from a very elevated position. Particularly given that it was Spring Tide, the mud flats are as impressive as mud flats could possibly be. With a population of 50 + a mayor, the inhabited area is on steeply pitched walkways or stairs – just lovely. Not so lovely were the prices: €26 for regional vegetable soup!!!

Mont Saint Michel at night
Mont St Michel
Inside the Mont

Tomorrow off to St Malo – we really enjoyed the town when last here in 2015, at the start of a long cycle to Nice, some 1700km down the road, in a summer that was so hot we had tar melted on the bike tires. None of that now, although with temperatures in the early teens it’s been very pleasant. We reflected, cycling past 12 or 14 enormous car parks, what this place must look like in summer – Ouch!


Arras & Vimy Ridge

We are currently next to a park on the outskirts of Arras, having had a good overnight here, and looking for a second. The town itself is quite pretty and worth a visit in its own right, but the reason we are here is to visit some of the 20th C battlefields and memorials.

Canadian War Memorial, Vimy Ridge

We woke up outside Calais, having committed to a more rapid flight south as the rain teemed down, the wing sped up, and we were doing circles in our ‘what’s next’ discussions.

Beachside, north Calais. Really time to head South!

True to form, we had made a plan and then immediately gone and broken it. We were in France, it is November, Armistice Day Centenary commemorations were going to be held, so why not make the most of this, literally, once in a lifetime opportunity? Resorting to google we found Arras, Vimy Ridge and the Canadian Memorial to be fairly close by – well, 160km away in any case.

Vimy Ridge

What a good decision. The memorial centre is tastefully done, focusing on people and the consequences of war rather than on the heroics. Particularly poignant is the photograph of the last Allied soldier, a Canadian, killed in the war, at 10:58am on 11 November 1918. Two minutes …

Landscape showing shell craters
Many craters remain metres deep.
Compare this cultivated area to the landscape that has been preserved from 1918.

The landscape bears the scars of the conflict, twisted and gouged, thrown up in humps and hollowed out in overlapping shell holes. Although much of the area is now peacefully wooded in autumn colours, a 100 hundred years after the last shells, the walk is deeply affective. The sheep? The area remains mostly undisturbed, and sheep are used to graze the grass short, due to unexploded ordinance still being a hazard.

In this particular area the trenches were preserved in the 1920’s, and show how the Canadian and Bavarian lines were, in some cases, only 25 meters apart.

Canadian Memorial, looking from the Cemetery.

The monument is, well, monumental, in the best senses of the term. It is inspiring, thought provoking, evocative, deeply symbolic. The statue of a young Canada grieving is particularly apt, given the losses in this area.

A Young Canada mourns her loss

The cemetery, of course, tells its own story. Out of interest Niki and I counted tombstones which had names, as opposed to the unknown soldiers: 12 named versus 55 unnamed, in one section of a row. Bears testimony to the role played by artillery, the fact that soldiers literally disappeared in the blasts. The Canadian memorial lists the names of almost 12,000 servicemen whose bodies were never recovered or identified. A sobering experience, and one I’m very pleased to have shared with Niki. Having lost friends myself in conflict does add poignancy and reflection to a day like this.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.