Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Long Journey (prt IV) - Reims to London

Waiting for the ferry in CalaisThe morning of Monday 3rd January we left our hotel as early as possible, again to make full use of the daylight hours. A quick stop for petrol and we were on our way up to our first target for the day, Laon. We arrived there as the sun was just beginning to rise, casting the shadow of the car on the grass banks that line the road to Laon. It was funny peering at our tiny little shadow! Unfortunately we didn't have time to stop in Laon - though it did look nice on the hillside in front of us. We carried on around the bypass on towards Saint-Quentin, then on to Cambrai, the site of battles in both World Wars.

It's strange driving through this countryside that twice in this century has been torn apart by conflict. As you get past Laon the terrain starts to become very hilly again and I found myself imagining what it must have been like to fight here in World War II. It must've been terrifying! The fact is you come over the brow of a hill and the next brow is only 2 miles away. So every time you hit the top of a new hill you must've been dreading what you might see in the valley bottom. And by the time you had poked your heads over the hill top it would be too late. You'd be in a fire-fight whether you liked it or not.

We were making excellent time but we did have one unexpected problem that was specific to this day. Lorries. Thus far we hadn't come across much commercial traffic - we left on a Saturday - but it was now Monday and truckers were everywhere, and if there's one thing a Fiat 500 hates more than hills, it's the draft from lorries! Every big lorry that passes throws us around like we were made of papier mache! All we could do was go slowly when we saw a lorry coming and hang on as the car got tossed around.

And so we forged on ahead to Arras. Here I had another one of my little navigational temper tantrums. I have to say, the streets of Arras are an indecipherable maze. Here we hit the usual issue when a main road takes you in to the centre of a French town. Not a road number or confirmation of your direction to be seen! We scoured Arras for about half an hour looking for signs for Bruay-en-Artois and only found a sign for Bruay-La-Buissiere. Now, given the French habit for naming four or five villages in an area exactly the same except for some trailing descriptor, we naturally assumed that this was the wrong Bruay. It was only later that we discovered that the town on our map, Bruay-en-Artois, had changed its name to Bruay-La-Buissiere. Instead we ended up heading out of Arras in the wrong direction but using a side road to cut through to the road we wanted. This is the point at which there was a mixture of cursing and relief as we realised the Bruay sign we hadn't followed was the one we should've followed. Note to self: must buy better map!

Finally back on track, we headed off for our penultimate French stop, Saint-Omer. We got here for about 2:30pm and decided to stop for lunch since the next destination was the ferry terminal at Calais. Saint-Omer is a nice enough place, but it's full of the English on this UK public holiday. It seems that half of England is taking advantage of the UK public holiday and traversing northern France after a break in Europe for the New Year. And they're all in Saint-Omer having lunch in the same brasserie as us! Still, I had the best omelette EVER - so I didn't mind.

After lunch we headed on to the Calais-Dover ferry port without fuss. In fact we arrived about 5 hours early for our ferry - I'd booked it for 9:30pm just in case. I went to try and transfer our tickets to an earlier crossing, expecting the usual nonsense - admin fee, no spaces, non-transferable, etc. But no! Top marks to P&O Ferries! The lady behind the desk said "no problem", printed us new tickets for the 5pm ferry and sent us to go and check-in. Fantastic. And the French lady at the check-in was really lovely - she couldn't believe we came from Milan and loved the car!

It takes about two hours to cross the channel, so because of the time difference (we gain an hour) we arrived in Dover at about 6pm. Straight through customs and off we went. Avoiding the M20 because it was dark, we chose to take the A20 which is the old road - it follows the M20 most of the way. With the benefit of hindsight, this was a bad choice. Most direct, it is - best road, it isn't! And I had to eat some humble pie when it turned out that Folkestone shared similarities with Arras in terms of road signage!

We got in to the outskirts of London for about 9pm. We were pretty tired and grumpy by this stage, but the car was certainly attracting attention as we headed over Tower Bridge and up to Angel! We got home at about 9:30pm, exhausted and thanking our lucky stars that we weren't just leaving Calais as originally planned! We'd done it. The Fiat 500 was outside our flat in London, in one piece and safely back in the buzz of city traffic.

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