Lille to Champagne, France
From the Dover-Calais ferry we headed straight for Lille, about an hour away. We thought our sat nav was the best invention ever, taking us straight to Lille while avoiding the toll charges, but we had a bit of a surprise when we asked it to find the nearest caravan park and it gave us UK locations. So that plan went out the window. Next we tried to use wi-fi on our phones in McDonald's to find accommodation, but the wi-fi didn't recognise our non-French SIM cards. Instead we drove around Lille for two frustrating hours trying to find some hint of a campsite or other campervans. We came up empty. Exasperated, at about 10 p.m., we settled on a busy car park in the middle of a residential area and stayed there the night. We didn't feel entirely safe and this stayed in our minds all night.
With accommodation sorted (sort of), our next priorities were warmth and dinner. Danny tried to get the gas going to fire up our gas heater and the stove, but for some reason neither would start for us (we probably should have tested this before leaving England). So on our first night in the campervan we had no gas, no electricity and no water (another issue we should have resolved earlier). Dinner, at 10:30 p.m., was a cold Cornish pasty, the only thing we did think of before setting out on our travels.
We walked around the beautiful town of Lille in the hopes of finding a toilet, but with no luck. So far my French extends to 'Bonjour, parlez-vous Anglais?' and anything beyond that was unachievable. In the end I resorted to squatting behind some bushes, with the potential of being spotted highly likely but I finished my business without being noticed.
We set up our bed for the night by folding down the table and chairs and laying out the bedding. It was surprisingly comfortable. On the downside a few milk tubes I had pinched from the ferry had burst in the van and gave off the worst smell. So night one in our new home: not great.
Despite all the traffic around us the next morning we managed a decent sleep in, which we desperately needed after our tiring adventures the day before. We dressed, packed up the bed and immediately hit the road. Our first stop was a service station to use the toilet, but of course it was out of order. Not having much luck with toilets. They also didn't have a gas bottle in our size (our theory to the lack of gas was that our bottle must be empty). We looked at several stores for gas bottles but all of them appeared to be too big. McDonald's eventually came to our rescue with toilets.
We bought a map for the Champagne region but there were absolutely no campsites listed. Great. We stopped and ate breakfast at 12:30 p.m. (Weetbix with UHT milk) before driving on to Reims. Once in town we excitedly saw signs for a campsite, but after driving around in circles for far too long we gave up and headed for the Information Centre. Thankfully they spoke English and pointed out a campsite where we could park overnight. Excited by the prospect of toilets, showers and electricity, we went off in search of this elusive campervan parking spot.
Somehow we managed to miss the campsite on our first drive past. We found the driveway on our second time around but it then took us about 20 minutes to find the office to give us a code for the boom gate. The "campsite", a.k.a. parking lot, was quite bare. All they offered was water. No toilets, electricity, shop – nothing. It was free though, so we really couldn't complain. We were pretty happy about the water and the first thing we did was fill up our water tanks. We still couldn't get the gas going, so we had no hot water and it was another day without a shower. Although there was no mains electricity we did have a leisure battery to power our lights and the water pump, which meant we at least had a toilet for the night.
We went for a drive to try to find a supermarket (for food) or service station (for gas) but found neither. Traffic was crazy in Reims and it seemed to take forever to get anywhere. We gave up, parked the van back at our "campsite" and from there we walked around town. We hit our first French bakery, where we bought lunch – fruit bread (at 5:30 p.m.). We attempted to visit a Champagne cellar but it was closed for a tour. Instead we wandered through the city, saw the famous stained glass windows at Cathedrale Notre-Dame, grabbed some dinner (Chinese - it was the cheapest), found a supermarket (where they sell wine for as little as €2!) then headed back to the van.
Apparently it reached zero degrees overnight – luckily we possess a super warm blanket and didn't notice. In the morning we drove into the middle of Reims where we discovered colourful trams, which surprised us - it was the first time I had seen a tram outside of Melbourne. We braved the cold and walked past a few Champagne cellars (most of the big ones – Verve, Taittinger, Mumm) but they were only open for tours for a hefty fee. Our daily budget didn't allow us to fork out up to €30 per person for each cellar. So we just took some photos and headed off towards Epernay.
On the way we passed several vineyards but in the middle of winter they didn't look so good. We stopped in a small town, Hautvillers, so Danny could get his daily boulangerie (bakery) fix, this time a croissant and a baguette. The town used every spare piece of land for grapevines, right up to the road and in between the houses. I guess when you're on a winner like Champagne, you take advantage of it. We found a public toilet and I rushed over to use it, only to discover that it was a squat toilet. That's right, a squat toilet in the middle of France. I thought we left them in Asia, but apparently not. Despite being experts, we didn't use it.
We arrived in Epernay and made a beeline to the Information Centre but it was closed on Sundays. The next best thing? McDonald's. I know we visit McDonald's a lot but we never eat there, we just use them for their toilets, Danny's daily coffee fix (it's one French phrase he knows by heart), a little warmth and their wi-fi (on our laptop). Using this last service we found a couple of Champagne cellars open (most were closed for the winter) so thought we would go and enjoy a tasting.
The first Champagne house, Andre Bergere, gave us three tastings each and we ended up buying a cheapish bottle of one Danny particularly enjoyed. The next one, Mercier, would only let us taste wine after we had paid for a tour of the place, which we declined. We thought about going to Moet Chandon but they wanted to charge a ridiculous amount for a tour and only give you one tasting at the end, so we passed up that too. It was then that we (and our wallets) decided that most French Champagne probably tasted similar to us and we didn't really need to try any more (especially as it is readily available back in Australia).
We found the one and only campsite in town, and it was closed in February. We were beginning to realise that most campsites were closed until April (except in big cities) so we might have to spend a few nights parked on the street. With not much to do we wasted more of our afternoon at Maccas before driving into the middle of town for a quiet drink. The bar we found handed out huge bowls of peanuts for free. The nuts were so good that even Danny, who would not put a single peanut near his lips back home, ate them AND enjoyed them. The nuts filled us up so much that we only needed a simple €5 doner kebab for dinner, before locating a quiet residential street to set up for the night.