La Rochelle! The city that I have always wanted to visit since my school French class, when every character in the text book either lived in La Rochelle, worked in La Rochelle, or went on holiday in La Rochelle. A bright blue kingfisher darts through the park and the streets are calm and quiet.
We set up camp, perched on a sand dune next to the Atlantic ocean on a freezing, icy night.
Hitchhiking in France is, of course, easy, and once again, female drivers stop regularly for us. I think it’s the only country I have been to where the drivers don’t say, “You’re hitchhiking? It’s dangerous!” Each driver has a different life and a different story. One woman is pregnant and moving house; one driver, Abdel, offers us a job in his vineyard; Brenda has a brain tumour and is on her way to the hospital for a scan.
So far, Nicol’s been a perfect travel companion, but now she faces the ultimate test: a few days of walking in the French nature in the pouring rain with a heavy rucksack on her back, sleeping in a leaky tent in the middle of winter! We walk the GR64 hiking route to the Dordogne river and the rain lashes down on us. Nothing phases Nicol, and we laugh hysterically as we walk through a farm and sink into a mixture of cow shit and mud and the poo seeps into our socks.
After a couple of days of being cold to the bone, we arrive in Cahors, literally covered in shit. A woman asks me if I’m ok and offers to buy me a sandwich from the bakery.
We have persuaded my friend Albin that he really wants to take us on a roadtrip in his van named Coco, and he picks us up in Cahors. We travel just 15km and Coco breaks down.
After a few hours, the van is fixed and we travel along the river Lot in the Causses du Quercy region. Albin looks out of the window as he drives and constantly waves his arm in the air, gesturing for us to look at the view. “My garden!” he says with a big grin, proud of the country that he’s from.
We follow the vallée du Célé and travel through the gorges de la Cère and gorges de la Luzège. The scenery is magical – sometimes it feels like we’re in a fairytale.
Our few days on the road together are spent with a lot of laughter and also a lot of (mostly lighthearted) bickering, as the three of us learn to share Albin’s tiny house on wheels. “ORGANISATION!” Albin exclaims to us at every opportunity. For Albin, organisation means switching his bags of belongings to the driver’s seat when he wants to sleep, and back to the main part of the van when he wants to drive.
“I want to teach you the life in a van,” Albin says to us. Life in the van proves to be complicated, and the simple act of opening the van’s door is problematic, as it involves a special technique. “You pull, you pull, and you push!” Albin demonstrates again and again. I finally get the hang of it on our last day together.
Despite some bickering, our days are mostly filled with giggling and singing, and we laze in the sunshine in the daytime and explore the incredible nature. Albin teaches me the guitar and Nicol the diablo, and as he’s a juggler, we spend many hours juggling. I discover that I have a natural talent for balancing a ball on my head!
On our final evening, we stop in a tiny village in the darkness, and Albin knocks on the door of a house to ask for water. A man called Dominique answers the door and invites us in for dinner. We are humbled by his kindness and we spend an interesting couple of hours cooking dinner and talking about each other’s lives, and Dominique tells me how he used to hitchhike many years ago. We chat about Jack Kerouac and both agree that the book On The Road is actually a bit shit.
Finally, it’s time to say goodbye to Albin and his van, Coco, and I have tears in my eyes when they drive out of sight. I feel so lucky to be alive, and to have been travelling with both Nicol and Albin – both very beautiful souls. Nicol and I continue onwards alone, hitchhiking towards Ardèche, through mountains of snow. We arrive at Françoise and Denis’s house in the mountains. As Françoise and Denis tell Nicol about their travels, I marvel at how inspirational my friends are: Françoise, who walked from France to China, Denis who studied Mandarin in China; and Albin, who gave up a conventional engineering job to become a juggler.
Like Albin, Françoise thinks that France is the most beautiful country ever, and we laugh as she plays us Jean Ferrat’s Ma France (My France). And after these last couple of weeks on the road, I’m inclined to agree with them that France is one of the most beautiful places in the world.