Stuck in Lagrasse!

Well, we are stuck again – another Zil fault – or my fault for not acting sooner.

The front tires on the Zil have prematurely lost their tread. I noticed this happening as way back as Austria but thought perhaps its normal. By Italy the wear was getting too serious to disregard but I thought they may hold till we get to Morocco where Ican get them checked over on the cheap. By France the issue can not be ignored any more. Driving in the rain the other day I swear I could feel a loss of resistance on the water washed roads. Add to that the illegality of driving with these tires.

I have been hoping that the tires could be re-cut but worse is that the damage is beyond re-cutting and they need to be replaced.

So we have decided to holdup in Lagrasse. Strategically this makes sense as we are parked in a good spot, with toilet and water. Will and Estelle live in the village and they are supporting us with internet, showers and washing facilities. They also know the local garages and ofcourse speak French.

This is a good opportunity to take a break, unwind from the travels (yes it can get stressful), spend some time working on my novel (yes I am writing a story!). It is also good to be in the company of friends again – Will and Estelle were old friends form London and we have some catching up to do. Being on the road sometimes feels a bit lonely when its just the family. Sure we can pop into local bars but we do not know anyone. The only issue for me is that it is so damn cold!

So I now need to figure out what the cause of the tire damage is then replace the tires. The first part I am relying on the wonderful Zil forum as well as the plan to visit a local garage end of the week. The second part of the problem requires emailing garages, suppliers and army surplus stores. New tires sell for around e1000 each top quality and around e300 each not so top quality. I paid £100 each for mine brand new through the UK Zil community (ex MOD stock) which is the kind of price I like! So some searching must commence…

From Marseillan Plage to Lagrasse

Marseillan Plage is the start of 14km of beach buffeted between the Mediterranean and the bay. The town itself is a wind swept ghost out of season. The buildings are unattractive concrete apartments, plastic shutters pulled, little sign of occupation. Everywhere there are for sale signs, as if the inhabitants decided to collectively abandon the settlement. We parked firstly in a carpark beside a large holiday summer camp. The campsite was closed for the winter. Its pool drained of water, the mini golf course covered with autumn leaves. Shortly after parking up we were warned by a helpful Brit that the Police would spot fine us if caught there. Taking his advise we moved on to a less attractive car park where several other motorhomes were camped. The Brit was here with his motorboat which he had brought over from Oxford, across the channel and along the many French canals until reaching the Med. He comes here every year – though he confided that he is getting priced out of Mediterranean marinas. He was very helpful to us, driving on to scout a carpark for us then returning to let us know where we could move to.

The beach itself is quite fantastic, a long stretch of dunes and sea. We all went for a swim. In the summer it gets quite busy judging by the investment in bike paths, car parks and attractions. There is a creepy fair ground complex closed up for the winter. A small waterpark. A marina at the mouth of the UNESCO heritage canal. The area is full of small yards each housing several static caravans with gates and dogs – are they travelers, trailer people, holiday makers? We never found out. People seem to live in them full time. The car park was good enough for us. We made friends with a lovely guy called Ahmed who was sleeping in his car. When we arrived he was making his prayers on a mat towards the sea. He moved to France from Algeria, forty years ago, when he was eight. He has always lived near this stretch of sea. He describes his relationship to the water like a son to his mother. When life gets hard he can spend hours sitting watching the surf. Ahmed shared coffee with us made in a tin over a small fire. We shared a meal with him, and invited another resident of a car, a young guy named Pedro, who was giving his girlfriend some space after a rocky patch. Actually, he had to clear out all his possessions and pile them into his white ford transit. Talking with Ahmed I discovered the meaning behind an insignia I have seen on boats, car window stickers and as flags outside houses. It is a red background with a yellow cross outline. It is the Occitan Cross, the Cross of Toulouse. An ancient kingdom, of Occitania, whose borders and people have been lost in time but once stretched from the edges of Italy to Spain’s Aran valley including this entire coast. They spoke a language somewhere between Spanish and Italian. Marseillian still uses the language on information plaques, beside the French. These small towns we have passed were all founded by ancient Greek and Phonecian mariners as trade posts linking Gallic kingdoms to the growing markets of the Greco-Mediterranean. The A road we are using is the ancient Roman road that served as an artery from Rome through to Iberia. We chatted into the night about French politics, Imperialism and the current social upheavals of Europe. Like many Moroccans I have met, Ahmed has a love for history with its tales of injustice. I received some fresh intel on what is happening in the Sahel. The war there is imminent. Mauritania has mobilized its army. Algeria is sending supplies of food and materials south. The Mali government is preparing for a campaign in the north with EU support to re-take lost ground with the objective of ending the century old struggle for freedom by Tuareg that is the cause of a recent growth in Islamic extremist organizations and ad hoc militias. I discovered that France imports 90% of its uranium from Niger hence is talking a keen interest in the outcome of the conflict. There have not been any recent kidnappings of foreigners travelling through Mali and we intend to miss Mali altogether. Nevertheless we shall have to continue monitoring the situation as we move in that direction. The rains swept in and ended our night time chat. In the morning Pedro was gone, perhaps he had mended his relationship with his girlfriend. Ahmed came out to bid us farewell. We shared another coffee and he made us a present of a fold-up kitchen knife. I do not think he realised how useful this is as we had lost our knife in the Alps Maritimes! Just as we were leaving the Brit drove up to make sure we were ok. Pretty decent of him.

We moved on from the beach to Lagrasse. This means missing Narbonne which I am told is a fabulous city. It is time to catch up with old friends, Will, Estelle and Henry who live in Lagrasse. The weather has been quite poor. There is a cold wind coming in from the sea carrying heavy rain clouds. Ahmed said this is a blessing as there has been no significant rain for five months, the driest spell in twenty years. For us it means damp clothes, a damp truck, damp creaking bones in the morning. I really need a sauna! Its hard to believe one day ago we were swimming in the ocean. The country inland has been dry but passing up the wide valley in which is settled Lagrasse the vegetation is still green and the river quite large though reduced to a quarter of its spring time size. This region is Cathar land, steeped in history, mystery, legend. Here the towns are ancient, many going back to Roman times, with legends of buried gold, holy grail and UFO’s. We shall do some exploring in the coming week…

Moving towards Marseillan

After two nights we set off again. Montpellier, the historic and apparently quite gorgeous city is only 10km away but we decide to skirt around it as we have recently been to Aix-de-Provence, which I presume is not unlike Montpellier, only a little smaller. Cities get expensive. My list of Montpellier activities I had gleaned from the net included an aqua park, planetarium, dinosaur park and museums – all no doubt terribly expensive. Fortunately we passed a municipal swimming pool which was lucky as I had promised Anika a swim in a pool, a promise she was going to make me keep! So fortune smiled on us and I turned into the pool car park for Anika, accompanied by Mara to have a couple of hours swim. She came back exhausted but elated, having practised her turtle strokes.
Our next objective was to find some internet. This we decided to tackle in the next town of Meze. This is an unusual town. We found wifi at a music studio. It was expensive and the guy behind the counter was dis-interested in my attempts at conversation. He did not even blink when Anika started jumping along the row of cushioned sofas onto his coffee tables. Meze is a strange town. It seems to lack a heart. The town centre has moved three times, first the main square overlooked by the church, now a dead zone with a bar and laundrette. Then it was the boulevard, built in a time of investment, now just a credit bank and hairdresser are left, then the town’s heart moved back to the historic old port but this has proved a deception as the old port is really intended as a tourist honey pot rather than affordable social space for local towns people. The old port is attractive, it has a neat stone wharf around which line seafood restaurants and hotels. There are a good many pleasure boats moored up. Protected by a rocky buffer. Fishermen still work out of the harbour but they moor up outside of the wharf. The waters around this town are dominated by shell fishing. Muscle, Oyster and Whelk farms stretch out like fields, marked by scores of wooden posts and buoys. This is an ancient industry in these waters where shell fish are prolific.

We parked up outside the town and moved on in the morning to the beach of Marseillan plage.