My wife and I had been wanting to go back to Europe ever since out last trip to the Cotswolds in 2005. Earlier this year we came across some trans-Atlantic airfares that were simply too good to pass up (more on that at the end of this report), and along with cheap fares within Europe provided by Ryan Air and easyJet, there seemed no good reason not to go. So we decided to take a slightly extended trip (three weeks) and see both the south of England and the Dordogne region of France. I grabbed cheap flights and low cost car-rentals as they came up, my wife set about her usual thorough job of finding us nice cottages, gîtes, and housing rentals in the areas we wanted to visit, and we both drew up lists of places we'd like to see. In other words, all the preparations that we generally encourage people to make so that their trips are actually about doing things rather than trying to make arrangements or find accommodations when they should be having fun.
Day 1: We started out by flying early in the morning to Los Angeles. Since we had several hours to kill before our trans-Atlantic fight, we rented a car and visited the California Science Center on the USC campus. Highlights of current exhibits were the Dead Sea Scrolls (advanced tickets required, so no to that one), the shuttle Endeavor (tickets available for a fee, but I had visited the Atlantis fueled and floodlit on the pad at Cape Canaveral the night before a pre-dawn launch, so again no), and its permanent exhibits on ecology and some early spacecraft which we both found interesting. We then took some time to just drive around L.A. and Beverly Hills, actually inadvertently stumbling onto Pickfair Drive, the site of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks old mansion, and then went back to the airport rested, relaxed, and ready for our flight.
Day 2: We landed at Gatwick Airport south of London, cleared immigration and customs with no delay, picked up our rental car and drove off. For anyone contemplating a flight to the UK, I heartily recommend Gatwick as your point of entry. It is simply much easier, and far faster, to negotiate than Heathrow. We drove to the first of what would be four 'homes' on this trip, a cottage outside the town of Crowborough. The cottage sat on several acres behind a stone wall and so we were shielded from the traffic just outside. We went into town to get provisions and then just turned in early to try to make up for lost sleep and to start to get over our jet lag.
Day 3: Our first day of real travel saw us drive up to Hever Castle which was the home of the Bullen/Boleyn family. Lots of history, of course, since this is where Henry VIII pursued Mary and then her younger sister Anne. Oddly, one of the pieces of furniture on display is the bed upon which Henry VIII was said to have been conceived.
After touring the home and grounds, we headed for a recommended pub in a nearby town for a late lunch, stopped at the bank to get some local currency, and then drove over to Chartwell which was Winston Churchill's home for most of his life. Here we found out, somewhat to our dismay that, since this was a school holiday week in England, many families and groups were also touring. They were already sold out of tickets for the day and tickets could not be purchased in advance for the next day. The best they could tell us was that if we came early the next morning we might get a ticket for an hour later (the office opens an hour before the house itself) but that the later in the day we came, the longer we would have to wait until there simply were no more tickets for that day.
The other thing we discovered today was the nature of the roads in East and West Sussex, the areas of England that we'll be visiting. Just because they're on the map and are part of the national road numbering system does not mean that they're highways by any stretch of the imagination. Many if not most of the roads we had planned to travel turned out to be barely one car wide with no shoulders or center dividing line, and berms and hedges pressing in on both sides. To add to our consternation (let alone having to drive from the right-hand seat on the left side of the road) the national speed limit is 60 mph unless otherwise posted, and none of these roads are otherwise posted. Delivery trucks in particular were always in a hurry and ready take a bit more than their fair share of the road.
Day 4: We were now getting a bit more used to the narrow roads and short distances we could cover. We started the day by going to nearby Knole, a country home and current residence of the Lord Sackville. We redeemed our voucher for the National Trust Touring Pass which would get us into all their properties for the next seven days, including our next stop - Emmetts Garden. As I have noted in a previous Road Report, my wife is an avid gardener and visiting them is one of her great joys whenever we get to England, or for that matter anywhere cooler and wetter than our Sonoran Desert home.
Our final stop of the day was in Chiddington where all we did was walk around town and enjoy the feel of a place completely different from anything in the States. It's just a couple of blocks of aged half-timbered buildings and a lovely old church.
Day 5: We had actually been having very good weather up to this point, cool but sunny. Today though boded dark and wet so after getting up and checking the forecast we just decided to sleep in a bit, watch a movie, and then when the weather broke later in the day we headed just up the road a bit to walk through Ashdown Forest. One of the things I love about England is that everywhere seems to be steeped in history or art in one way or another and our local woods proved no different. Ashdown Forest was the inspiration for A. A. Milne and his stories of Christopher Robin and his pals Winnie, Piglet, Eeyore, and the rest.
Day 6: This is our first 'moving day', taking us from East Sussex to West Sussex for the next few days. In the process of moving we will pass very close to the home of another RoadTrip America contributor, Southwest Dave, so we had made arrangements to meet him for lunch at a stream-side pub in Arundel.
The pub, The Black Rabbit, provided a scenic setting, views of the towns castle, and a chance to observe the local passenger trains which seem to run every 15 minutes or so. After a very pleasant lunch and great conversation with Dave we continued on to our next home, a working farm in the tiny hamlet of West Marden.
Day 7: We spend this day with an old high school friend of my wife's who now lives with her husband outside London. They come to Arizona annually and it is a pleasure to be able to make a return visit on their turf. We meet up at Petworth House, another of the many sites we get as part of our Heritage Pass. This was, in its day, the premier party place in all of England.
Today it is staffed by numerous docents and interpreters in period costumes that help bring alive the 'downstairs' life at the house. We even get a chance to churn our own butter. We find a cafe, the aptly named Hungry Guest, just a few blocks from the entrance to Petworth, enjoy a very good lunch with great company and head off to our other stop of the day, Oakhurst Cottage. In stark contrast to Petworth, Oakhurst is an older and decidedly downscale worker's cottage. It's cramped and has few furnishings, not because they can't find or afford items to fill it, but because that's the way the people would have lived there.
Day 8: One of the true benefits (besides usually saving money) of renting houses for periods ranging from a few days to a week rather than staying in a different hotel room every couple of nights is that you can occasionally simply take a day off and attend to domestic chores. The weather is threatening again today and we've been on the road for a week, so we decide to stay in, do laundry, explore our local surroundings and just catch up on our rest a bit. Unfortunately, the washing machine in our rental decided not to co-operate and after just spun its wheels for several hours and, while it was clearly washing the clothes, was not showing any signs of getting to the end. I did use the time to take a nice long hike (one of the reasons I let it run so long), using of the extensive local system of Public Footpaths common throughout the British Isles.
Day 9: This would be our last day in England, except for a brief stopover on our return, and so was a day just to get ourselves organized, repacked, and back to Gatwick for the flight the next morning over to France. With not much else to do, we just looked for some decent cross-country roads, had lunch in Petworth again, and simply enjoyed a relaxing day on the road. We had a bit of trouble finding our B&B for the night, but eventually settled in, had dinner at the local pub, and with the help of our hosts, returned our rental car so that we wouldn't have to deal with it before out early morning flight the next day.
Day 10: Today turned out to be one of the two heaviest days of driving on this RoadTrip. After catching an early flight down to Toulouse in France, we had a modestly long drive up to the Dordogne Region, specifically La Roque Gageac.
This is a small town, barely one block wide, between a set of limestone cliffs and the river. We can already appreciate the better roads in France, motorway for most of the trip, but then scenic, well-maintained intercity roads that were much more relaxing than their British counterparts. Even the unexpected detour around some major construction turned out to be not so bad. It actually took us through a fairly sizeable town, Souillac, where we happened to notice the French bank that our American bank has an agreement with, so we made a quick stop at their ATM machine to get some Euros, and continued on to our first place in France, a lovely old stone home just across the road from the river with great views, a secluded yard, and a wonderful hostess.
Day 11: Our first full day in France was spent in a most traditional pursuit in a most traditional location, market day in the bastide town of Domme. Bastide towns are walled medieval fortress towns and market days are when farmers and craftsmen from the surrounding area bring their wares to the town square for sale.
Needless to say, with the constrained confines, narrow streets, and crowds, our first hurdle was just finding a place to park, The parking areas set up at the market look to have been full for some time when we arrive, but after about 20 minutes roaming the streets and alleyways, we manage to finally find a place where we can leave the car and start walking through the streets and along the wall overlooking the river below. I'm a little surprised at how far my smattering of French could go in getting info on the various items for sale. I had practiced up before leaving home and could usually make myself understood, but I did have a good bit of trouble understanding the flood of rapid-fire fluent French that came back at me. Still, I'd get better during our journey, and it was quickly clear in any event that we were never going to make it on English alone in the French countryside.
Day 12: This was a lesson in both modern technology and ancient art. The objective was to indulge a curiosity of mine, the history of ancient peoples and archaeology. So we set out for the Lascaux II cave. This is an accurate reproduction of an ancient cave system decorated in very old paintings of various animals. It is no longer possible to go into any of the actual caves decorated with prehistoric art with one exception. That one cave requires an early morning arrival, a long wait, a hike up a hillside, and the cramped quarters of the cave as well as the knowledge of the harm you are doing to the paintings through the deleterious effects of tourist visits, mainly the introduction of moisture, carbon dioxide, and bacteria from our breath and bodies. The other 'problem' with today was with our GPS. Signage to some attractions is less than ideal and so we relied perhaps more than we should have on our European chip which we bought for this trip.
In any event, the tour of the reproduction was quite intriguing (and in English!), leaving me with a greater appreciation for the intelligence, artistry, and spirituality of our far distant ancestors. later that evening, we take the last boat ride of the day down the Dordogne, to take advantage of the thinned-out crowds and low sun angle for a very relaxed tour of our surroundings from the vantage point of the water. Although the narrated tour is in French, they do have pre-recorded audio cassettes in English. A lovely, romantic end to our last day in our home right on the river.
Day 13: Today we drove to what would be our final multi-night accommodation. On the way we visited a classic French chateau. In fact this particular chateau, Château des Milandes, was the home of jazz singer/dancer Josephine Baker.
While we enjoyed the grounds, buildings and furnishings, what really made this stop special was the chance to learn a bit more about the very interesting history of Josephine. I knew a bit about her life in entertainment, but nothing about her wartime activities (She was a decorated member of the Resistance) or her later philanthropy (She adopted numerous children and died destitute after giving her all to them). Our ultimate destination for the day, though, was the town of St. Pompon. Our week's rental was a bit more rustic than any of the other places we have stayed on this trip. Still it's very comfy and has a patio where we can sit out of an evening, enjoy the birds chirping and the cattle lowing, and look out across the softly lit hills and valleys of the region. And the fact that our hosts are a bi-lingual couple (French and Irish) is a big plus.
Day 14: We took it pretty easy today, walking through two local towns, Daglan and Saint Pompon. The lovely Cafe in Daglan is owned and operated by two British ex-pats. That proved handy, but actually I had worked quite a bit on my French prior to this trip and it is proving, if not fluent, at least up to the task of getting directions and food, as well as engaging in at least rudimentary conversations with local residents. Even though we're in an area of France frequented by British visitors, our travel style is one that has us spending most of out time in the countryside and at lesser-known attractions. And the old advice is true: If you make a sincere effort to speak the local language and not just assume that "Everyone speaks English", your efforts will be well rewarded.
Day 15: On tap for today were a couple of stops that catered to our main purposes in visiting this area of France, seeing some medieval towns and exploring some of the earliest (pre-)history of man in Europe. First up was a self-guided walking tour through the old bastide (fortified) city of Belvès. This was home to the Pope for a short period as attested to by the papal coat of arms carved into one of the house façades.
And as with most bastide towns, Belvès is built on a hilltop with magnificent views of the surrounding valley and has an ambience that is different than anything we can get at home. From there we drove to Les Eyzies de Tayac Sireuil to visit a small museum covering the first modern humans in Europe, the Cro-Magnons. (Cro Magnon literally means the pit of the Magnon family.) A burial site with the bodies of 5 Cro-Magnons was found here when the railroad was built through the local valley and the museum, while small, is very well done and at the end you can walk out to the rock overhang under which the burial site was found and where a small Cro Magnon encampment has been recreated. Very interesting stuff.
Day 16: We set out to see some gardens (my wife's passion) in a fairly remote spot. On the way we passed through quaint village after quaint village and found a pull-out with incredible views of the (river?) and Chateau Montfort. It is, in fact, becoming clear that it is going to be pretty nigh impossible to travel far in this area of France without stumbling upon any number of picturesque villages and scenic byways. The gardens, however, posed a problem. When we got there it turned out that they didn't take credit cards and the entry cost would have used up all of our remaining cash. So we decided to instead go in search of a bank (BNP has a reciprocal agreement with our US bank that lets us use their ATMs without paying exchange fees). It turned out that the nearest ATM was in Sarlat, another medieval walled city, so that's where we headed.
Sarlat turned out to be another great walking town and we had a great time just walking the narrow back streets of the old city and doing a little shopping.
Day 17: It started out raining today, so we didn't go out and about. Instead, we just stayed put in our cottage, took walks around the local French countryside during breaks in the weather, caught up on some vacation reading, and did some final laundry in preparation for our return travels to get home.
Day 18: Now we are really starting to wind down and look forward to heading back. We had planned on a three week trip to make the most of the time, effort and cost of flying to Europe, but three weeks is also about our limit for being away from the comforts and routines of home. Our main activity today was a short drive to Beynac-et-Cazenac and a tour of the castle along with the now usual great views of the adjacent river valley.
We also stopped at an 'archaeological park' that was supposedly a recreation of a Stone Age village but the sign on the gate indicated that it didn't open until the first of July so all we saw was the wooden palisade enclosure, so we simply walked the streets of the town and watched a momma duck and her hatchlings swim in the river.
Days 19-22: Although we technically have four days left on this vacation it has, for all practical purposes, come to an end now. We'll need to spend a day getting organized and repacked (along with just savoring our last quiet day in the French countryside), a day to drive to Toulouse and fly back to Gatwick, another day to fly to L.A., and a final day to get from L.A. back to Tucson. I suppose we could have tried to squeeze all that activity into one or two days' less time, but we have learned from multiple previous trips that the stress of rushing through travels and trying to make tight connections simply isn't worth it.
Just a few observations about our various flights and other travel arrangements. Our major booking, L.A. to Gatwick and back was on Norwegian Air. This is a relatively new low-cost airline. Indeed our round-trip tickets were only a little over $900 each including baggage, meals, and seat selection, all of which cost extra. We managed to get bulkhead seats with extra leg room, but they were a bit on the narrow side. Still it was all relatively comfortable and the fact that each seat had its own entertainment screen with multiple options helped pass the time. A word on service is in order, though. Unlike on most airlines, the cabin crew does not walk the aisles taking orders or even collecting trash. Unless you have pre-ordered meals (those will be brought to you at the appropriate time) you place your orders through your entertainment screen and they will be brought to you shortly. Otherwise you're on your own meaning that you should bring your own water and snacks (we did) or be prepared to wait and pay for them. Still, all in all, it was as good a coach flight experience as can be had on a trans-Atlantic flight these days, and the cost was certainly a plus.
Our other flights, Southwest between Tucson and L.A. and easyJet between Gatwick and Toulouse were also good values and pleasant enough. We did stand in a long line checking in for our flight back from Toulouse to Gatwick, but that turned out to be our own fault. There is more of a class system in Europe than we're used to and in fact the tickets that we had purchased, with baggage and seat assignments, entitled us to use the premier class (very short) lines. One line we gladly skipped was US customs and immigration on the way home. We got to bypass this because we had taken the time, effort and expense to sign up for the Global Online Enrollment System that lets you go to a self-service kiosk rather than wait in line for an agent. It also gives you access to TSA Pre-Check on domestic flights.