Posts Tagged ‘france’

Trip Part II- Annecy!

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

This part of the narrative won’t be broken down so much into days, since I was staying in the same place the whole time.

I’ve always enjoyed arriving at a place I’ve never been before at night. I love forming an idea of it when I can’t really see it, and then seeing it in daylight and trying to work out where everything was the night before.

Annecy is a beautiful place. There’s water everywhere, in rivers, in fountains, in the all consuming lake, and it’s all crystal clear. It was a wonderful place to arrive after a long journey. Zoe took me to her apartment, which is on a hill overlooking Annecy proper, and we talked for a bit. That night, I had my first shower in 4 days, slept on a sofabed under an actual ceiling and did not wake up at 7am with my bedding covered in a mix of dew and condensation. It was awesome.

We had breakfast, again on the balcony, and talked more. Something I’ve found since I began hitching is that it’s allowing me to establish relationships with parts of my family, beyond the “see you next time someone gets married or dies!” kind. None of my extended family lives in Cornwall, so growing up I would see relatives maybe once or twice a year. I figured that, at 26, if I wanted to have a relationship with my relatives, it was up to me, rather than to some other family member to set up some big get together. This was a theme even before Annecy, since as a warm up for this trip I hitched up to Bristol to visit Rhiannon, and Merion, my cousins from the other side of my family; while growing up so far away from everyone wasn’t great, it’s now a huge advantage to have so many floors I can sleep on dotted about the place, and a real pleasure to get to know the rest of my generation on equal terms, rather than the slightly contrived conversation of family gatherings.

The view from Zoe's balcony.

The view from Zoe’s balcony.

Zoe is also self employed, rather more successfully than me, so I left her working and headed out to explore the old town and maybe go for a swim. I’d been given directions, but the old town proved surprisingly hard to find. I asked someone, was pointed back the way I’d come, and was wandering vaguely along when I saw a café Zoe had mentioned. Next to it was an archway, unremarkable in many ways, but on one side was a fairly typical inustrialish French town, and on the other, the breathtaking old town. It was a bit like the entrance to Diagon Alley.

The magical archway. This was taken later, since, not realising its magical effects, I didn't take a picture on the first day.

The magical archway. This was taken later, since, not realising its magical effects, I didn’t take a picture on the first day.

The old town is absolutely beautiful. Very alpine in its architecture, yet interlaced with watercourses. Beautifully crumbly buildings overhanging rivers with mountain views have lead people to call it the Venice of the Alps, or, the Venice of Not Actually That Far North-West of Venice. Zoe has been working on a theory that everywhere is the Venice of somewhere.

Most of Annecy looks more or less like this.

Most of Annecy looks more or less like this.

I made it to the lake and went for a swim, in the shadow of the mountains. The water was the clearest I’ve ever swum in, and was somewhere between 14 and 17 degrees, which was just about perfect for me. I was able to swim for about 20 minutes at a time, then get off and drip dry in the sun without shivering. Anyone who knows about me and wild swimming will know that while I do often swim in cold water, I actually have very little tolerance for the cold, so it was profoundly strange to see a few of the apparently hardier locals swimming in wetsuits, gloves, boots, and neoprene balaclavas. Here is a picture of a swan.


Told you.

At this point, I feel the need to mention my Onya bag. Knowing I’d be stopping along the way, leaving my rucksack, and exploring on foot, I’d thought about bringing a smaller rucksack as well, but I didn’t have the space. I threw my Onya bag in, which packs down to slightly smaller than my fist, then folds out to perfect daysack size. Also, it’s made from recycled bottles.

My wonderful onya bag-

My wonderful onya bag-

I headed back into Annecy to try and find some lunch. My goal with this trip was to spend as little money as possible, so dumpster diving was a key part of the plan. On the face of it, Annecy should have a great dumpster scene, since there are dozens of restaurants and bars around. However, in every alley that, in England, would contain the back exits and dumpsters, there were just.. more restaurants. This happened over and over again. Eventually I managed to find a baguette, but that was about the extent of my dumpster fortune for the whole trip.

On my second day in Annecy, I borrowed Zoe’s bike, and cycled around the lake. It’s about 38km around, which I’d manage pretty easily on my bike, but on a heavy hybrid with flattish tyres, it was challenging. It yielded some amazing views, though.

Zoe's bike on a jetty.

Zoe’s bike on a jetty.

It was at this point that my plans changed a bit. Initially, my plan had been to spend two nights in Annecy and get back on the road, but I realised this was all wrong. When I set out from Calais, I thought, right. Next stop Annecy! But it just doesn’t work like that. It’s a horrible cliché, but it really is more about the journey than the destination; having come so far to Annecy, it would be foolish to just leave again immediately. In addition, the trip down had been so hard, and I was very much enjoying not having to worry about where I would sleep at nights. I decided at this point that I wouldn’t go to Vienna. This was a tough decision to make, since it meant I’d miss out on seeing Beverley, and since the trip had originally been conceived as Saltash to Vienna, but on reflection, it was the right decision. This seems like a good time to briefly introduce the Harlequin Theory of There Are No Wrong Decisions In Hitching, which is basically my realisation that because you don’t know about the rides you miss, however you get there is the right way to get there. I’ll revisit this in the next post.

This was, truthfully, a difficult part of the trip for me. Each time I stayed in a place, I got very anxious about leaving it, and particularly at this point, since the journey down hadn’t been the smoothest, and Annecy was so lovely. I’m prone to this kind of anxiety anyway- every time I travel to London I get nervous the day before, even though I’ve done it over 50 times and never once had anything approaching a problem. Here it was especially difficult since I wasn’t sure where I’d go after Munich, and it seemed like it would be just a long trip back to the UK from there. I was in a slightly delicate state, and slightly overwhelmed, and in situations like that I can’t put it out of my mind and come back to it later; I’m completely useless for anything until I’ve worked it out in my own mind. It was then Zoe suggested that I contact Alex and Dineke, my cousin (Zoe’s brother) and his wife, in Amsterdam. I sent Dineke a message, apologising for being vague, since I had less than no idea when I’d get there, and she said I was welcome any time. I had a new destination!

Sophie, my Bavarian friend with whom I would be staying in Munich, was away until Sunday evening, which meant I realistically couldn’t leave Annecy until Saturday, and, the outline of my plan made, that suited me fine. That evening, Zoe and I had sushi on a jetty on the Lake, and I was very glad to be staying in Annecy a little longer.

Zoe eating sushi on the jetty.

Zoe eating sushi on the jetty.

The next day, day 7 overall, I climbed an alp, or at least a part of one, and saw the Basilica that overlooks the town. Unfortunately, the only viewpoints on the hill looked out over the industrial parts of the area, rather than the pretty bits, but here’s a photo just in case you like that sort of thing. I could also see Zoe’s apartment from up there.

I don't know why you did this, France.

I don’t know why you did this, France.

I’d decided on the trip down that I needed a small bag of some kind, in addition to my rucksack, for keeping things that I wanted quick access to in- my diary, marker pens, mp3 player (amazingly important when I’m feeling run down), so for a few days I’d been looking around for something appropriate. I found a bag, known henceforth as my hippy bag, in a hippy shop. I asked about bags and completed the transaction entirely in French (and some Spanish, because I’m horrible at differentiating between foreign languages), which I was quite proud about. My French had gone from basically zero to almost useful in the four days of hitching through a country which really doesn’t speak any English.

15a- hippy bag

My hippy bag.

That evening, it rained, proper European rain. It might rain often in the UK, but it’s never that hard. The French don’t mess about when it comes to rain. I decided to go for a swim, and walking through Annecy, with the river levels up and all the gutters spraying water into them from the rooftops was quite a sight. The beach, predictably, was deserted, but the water was no colder, and I swam for a good while, finally managing to get out of my depth in the surprisingly shallow lake. After that, I walked home, and then Zoe and I went to meet some of her friends at a winebar; it was nice to meet them (and I suppose they might end up reading this, so hello!), and I also managed to table dive a bunch of bread and smoked salmon, which was a consolation after the dumpster disappointment.

On the morning of my last day in Annecy, the weather was fine again, the hottest it had been, and we went out to the lake, since Zoe had some work to do that didn’t require a computer.

I tried to work standing in a lake once, but the fabric got wet.

I tried to work standing in a lake once, but the fabric got wet.

I swam a lot, to some buoys about 300m offshore. The water was warmer on this side of the lake, the opposite side to where I’d swum before, and the view even more spectacular.

Yeah.. not much I can say in a caption to this image, really.

Yeah.. not much I can say in a caption to this image, really.

I had a wonderful time in Annecy, and I’m super grateful to Zoe for putting me up and putting up with me. Here is a quote from her which I wrote down in my diary at the end of my stay, the context of which I only vaguely remember :

“We’re no better than lemmings really, when it comes to jellybeans”

Small Update, Big Trip

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

I’ve not written anything here for a long time, and that’s partly because the website is in the process of being updated. Once it’s sorted, things will be a little different around here.What follows is the first blogpost in a series documenting my recent adventures hitchhiking around Europe.

Day 1

The trip started out slow. My regular spot for leaving Saltash had only ever provided me with 15 minute waits, but today it took me 2.5 hours to get a ride, and then it was only to the other side of Plymouth. From there, though, I waited less than ten minutes for a ride to Gordano Services, near Bristol, in a van which had the heaters stuck on full. At Gordano, I got my water bottle refilled in Starbucks, and then waited about 25 minutes for a ride towards London. A continuing theme of this trip was having in depth discussions with people without ever actually learning each others’ names, and this was the first example. This was a guy who’d been driving from Cornwall, and had seen me that morning, but not been able to stop, since I was on the sliproad rather than the main road. He’d lived and worked in Singapore and now lived in Looe. We talked about generational differences and how no one hitches anymore, at least in the UK.

I was keen to get to the M20, so asked him to drop me just before the junction with the M25, but this turned out to be a bad idea. Fortunately, I was only waiting 2 minutes before I got a ride to Heathrow, with a really kind Indian guy who took me right to the terminal I needed for the underground.

I got a tube from there into London, and another out to Mottingham, on the A20 heading for the M20, apparently the best spot for hitching out of London towards Dover. After a 25 minute wait, Richard, an Irish tree surgeon who lives in St Austell, Cornwall, picked me up. He wasn’t going my way, but had had a good day and wanted to pay it forward. We stopped and he bought me a sandwich and a beer, then dropped me at the junction with the M25.

I waited about an hour there, right in front of a bunch of Highways Agency guys. It wasn’t a great spot, and when Rachel stopped to say she was going the wrong way, I asked her for a ride back to Mottingham. From there, I tried to hitch onto the M20 again for about 30 minutes, before calling Bryony and Phil, some wonderful friends of mine from South London, and staying the night with them. They gave me suncream, which turned out to be utterly invaluable, and then gave me breakfast the next day. After that, I headed back to Mottingham.

Approx. total distance: 400km

Approx. total wait time: 5 hours

Day 2

I waited for about an hour before another hitcher, Stephanie, showed up. She was much more experienced at this and shared some valuable wisdom. I started asking drivers at the pumps if they were heading down the M20, and was able to find us both a ride to Maidstone services. At Maidstone, we asked around the petrol station again, and got a ride after about 30 minutes with Peter and Charlie, and Hennessee, a small dog, in a 4 seater convertible. This was a squeeze, to say the least. They took us through the tunnel, with Stephanie finding a ride to Calais en route. After that, they were heading south, so I headed south with them, and they left me at Baie de la Somme services, a service station south of Calais. I waited for about 3 hours before giving up and deciding to spend the night there. At this point I felt pretty down and lonely. No one seemed to be going my way, and Annecy seemed a very long way off. It was, at least, a safe and comfortable place to spend the night, with free WiFi.

The lake at the back of Baie de Somme Services. The French do not mess about when it comes to service stations.

The lake at the back of Baie de Somme Services. The French do not mess about when it comes to service stations.

Where I spent my first night in France. It smelled of blossom, and minimal light pollution meant a beautiful starry sky.

Where I spent my first night in France. It smelled of blossom, and minimal light pollution meant a beautiful starry sky.

Distance: 250km

Wait: 5 hours

Day 3

I woke up after a fairly comfortable night in the grounds of the service station, dried the condensation off my stuff in the already hot sun, and headed back to the front of the service station. Asking everyone who came past, I waited for another 3 hours, and started to feel quite low. Sometimes when hitching you’re in a bad spot, but you don’t always have the option to get to a better one. Later on, I came up with a better method for hitching from service stations, but at this point I was still a relative novice. Finally a truck driver told me he’d go inside and pay, and then take me to a truckstop, near a peage, the far side of Amiens, about 100km away. We listened to AC/DC most of the way. It’s funny, all the insecurities and worry that build up while you’re waiting evaporate in the first 10 minutes of a good ride.

At the peage was another hitchhiker, from Germany. He didn’t speak much english, and my german is awful, but it turned out he was heading to Spain, with two dogs. He was waiting just before the tollbooths, so I went and waited after them, and he got picked up after about 20 minutes. I forget how long I waited- perhaps two hours or so, before Bea picked me up. She was going to Troyes to meet a friend, which it turned out was the exact direction I wanted to head. This turned out to be my favourite ride of the trip so far, a ride of about 250 km. Her English was pretty good, and I had my french dictionary too, and the conversation flowed pretty well. We’re friends on Facebook now, so she’s probably reading this. Hi, Bea!

The french do not mess about when it comes to fields.

The french do not mess about when it comes to fields.

We stopped part way, and she bought me a can of coke and a mars bar, which was super kind. She took me to Troyes, which, on the map, is almost exactly halfway between Calais and Annecy. She dropped me in the centre, and I waited at a bus stop for 10 minutes for a ride to the peage heading towards Dijon, with Francoise, who lived by the bus station and saw me waiting, so very kindly took me out. She’d been a german teacher, and while she didn’t speak English so much, she understood a lot of it, which was about where I was getting with French.

Once I got to the Peage, I tried hitching for a while, slightly confused about which way the road was heading. I also went and tried the nearby french equivalent of a B-road, which saw three people stop in 20 minutes, though none of them were going very far. While waiting here, a cyclist came past on a touring bike, with a trailer, obviously on a pretty long journey. We nodded and smiled at each other, and it kind of felt like a “Yeah, we’re travelling differently. We understand each other.” Maybe it was wholly imagined, but it was a nice moment.

In this image, the artist hopes it doesn't count as a selfie if he uses a tripod.

In this image, the artist hopes it doesn’t count as a selfie if he uses a tripod.

I decided to try the peage again, but a policeman told me I couldn’t hitch there, and asked to see my passport. It was about 8pm by this point, so I decided to find a place to sleep. Once I’d worked out where I would sleep, I returned to the peage and sat down, collecting my thoughts in my diary. At this point, I felt good, like I was over the worst of it, the difficult starting point of any journey, and it was all going to be fine from here. I was wrong, but not super wrong. I slept pretty close to the peage, but down a bank behind a thick hedge, hoping I wouldn’t get seen. I didn’t, fortunately, since the police station was about 200m away.

Distance: 260km

Wait: Roughly 6 hours, including 2 before giving up and going to sleep.

Day 4

I woke pretty early, and had to dry my stuff out in the sun again. It was already hot at 7.30, and once I started hitching from the peage (today, a different police officer stopped and chatted for a bit, while I was sat in the exact place I’d been moved from the day before), I realised that it was time to break the umbrella out as a parasol.

Everyone loved the fact that I had a full sized umbrella strapped to my rucksack.

Everyone loved the fact that I had a full sized umbrella strapped to my rucksack.

NOTHING happens in France on a Sunday. I waited for about 4.5 hours here before changing my sign from Lyon to “Aire de Service”, just to get onto the right road. Finally, I got a ten minute ride to the nearby service station.

This was probably the lowest point of the trip. I kept asking people and kept getting rejected. I went inside, bought an adaptor to charge my phone, connected to the WiFi, and whined at anyone I could on Facebook (sorry guys). I found out that it was about 340km from Calais to where I was, and over 350km just to Lyon, and this really depressed me. At this rate, I wasn’t going to make Annecy until Tuesday or something. Talking helped, though, and once my phone was charged, I decided to give up asking for rides, set my sign and bag up outside, and start juggling. If people wanted to help, I reasoned, they would help.

Desperate times call for increasingly adventurous self portraiture.

Desperate times call for increasingly adventurous self portraiture.

A nice guy came up and started talking to me. He wasn’t going my way, unfortunately, but he talked to me about travelling in Scotland and his own experiences hitching. Meetings like this were to become a theme of the trip, people who’d hitched when they were young and now picked people up whenever they could, or just stopped to apologise if they weren’t going the right way.

After a while of this, I decided to go and try at the petrol station. I did that for about an hour, and then elected to just go and sit at the exit with my sign. It was about 7.30 at this point, and even though I’d only travelled 5km that day, I felt ok now- the petrol station had a free shower, and there were plenty of trees around so I could have slept there. At least I was on the right road now- I’d realised the reason this had been so hard so far was that I’d come south out of Calais, eager to stick with my ride as long as I could, when I should have come south-east.

I’d been sitting there for about 5 minutes, having been at the service station for about 4.5 hours at that point, the 5th car pulled up. He wasn’t going to Lyon, he said, but maybe he could take me part of the way? I broke out the map to try and work it out, and when I leaned in through the window to show him, I glanced at his SatNav. He was going to Annecy.

Utterly unable to believe my luck, I jumped in, and off we set, to cover the 450km to Annecy. His English was at about the same level as my French, but goodwill and humour are fine things. I broke out my dictionary to look up words, and took the wheel so he could do the same. We listened to music, and shared a bag of nuts and raisins I’d brought. He gave me his phone to call Zoe, my cousin in Annecy, who explained the whole situation to him. We drove on into the sunset, hitting the alps just after dark. One important note: If you’re going to hitch in France, either learn French, or learn to love electro, dance, house, and any other electronic genre you can. You’ll need it.

As we approached Annecy, he gave me his phone to call Zoe again. She said she’d meet me by the town hall. Great, I thought, and hung up. Then rang her back to ask how to say town hall in French. We arrived at about 11.30, and met Zoe. I was more or less delirious at this point, unable to believe my luck.

That is not a "smile for the camera" smile. It's pure delerious non-believing joy.

That is not a “smile for the camera” smile. It’s pure delerious non-believing joy.

Distance: 460km

Wait: 9 hours or something ridiculous like that

Total distance from Saltash to Annecy: 1370km

Total wait time from Saltash to Annecy: 25 hours

Stay tuned for: Annecy!