the skinflint philosopher

Attempting to thrift our way to a better life, with a toddler in tow!


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Europe on a shoestring?

It has become glaringly clear that the cheapest way to get to Bulgaria is not overland. We know the delightfully named Wizz Air and the like hop across with flights from London to Sofia at less than £100, but not only would that have severely restricted Tiddler’s books, toys and random paraphernalia that we could have brought, but would have meant we  would have gone straight from living with one set of grandparents (lovely as they are) slap bang into the welcoming arms of the others. We needed a little bit of a time out, as well as the opportunity to explore and experience a road trip.

Financially speaking then, let’s cut to the chase. Campsites with the discount ACSI card average around €17 per night. However it is a definite lottery as to what you finally end up paying as the French in particular have made the system so unfathomable (even with handy billboard size tables of rates on the walls for the brave or foolhardy to try and tot up for themselves). Here is the easy bit; rates vary according to high or low season. Then factor in number of people, extra people, children above a certain age, children below a certain age, dogs, tents for dogs, electric hook up or not, caravan, campervan, campervan above a certain length, motorhome, motorcycle trailer, other trailer, extra car, standard pitch size, large pitch size, grass pitch, hard standing and the list goes on ad infinitum. Then don’t forget to add on the tax on top for the final figure owed. We gave up trying to understand the system, and clearly some exasperated campsite owners had done the same and declared to us a flat fee on arrival, ignoring both Tiddler’s presence and tax in one fell swoop. Tres bon for the thrifty minded camper.

Digger’s French is not up to much, so he has taken to wearing a t-shirt that – provided he puts on a quizzical look and points to himself – mean we should end up with somewhere to kip at the end of the day.

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Sites vary immensely in terms of facilities, with heated or indoor pools in some and free wifi, right down to no toilet paper (not that it hadn’t been restocked, there simply wasn’t dispensers for the paper in the stalls in the first place) in others. Bizarrely, quite a number of the french toilet blocks had piped musak or local radio constantly on the go. I wondered if this was some sort of french intellectual cultural tradition, to ponder world politics while carrying out your morning ablutions, or perhaps a matter of french delicacy to mask those slightly embarrassing bodily sounds. Either way, a little bit of toilet paper would surely have not gone amiss.

We chose to hand wash our clothes as the weather was perfect for drying them even overnight, but some sites also had washing machines and tumble driers for a few euros a pop. Others organised pre-ordered deliveries of croissants and baguettes just in time for breakfast every day- again slightly more expensive a purchase but a welcome treat. The best savings to be made on food and drink were local markets in village squares for fresh produce, and Super U, Lidl and Carrefour for one euro cartons of wine. Digger and I make no claims at appreciating fine wines, and are more than happy with a cut price glassful, which we were consistently pleasantly surprised by.

Our main expenditure therefore was (aside from the sites themselves, which many motorhomers avoid by using lay-bys and service stations) the diesel for Leo (pricey given the mileage) and a few toll payments on the motorways (when Digger got fed up of traffic through the more built up areas). Tourists genuinely getting out and about and seeing attractions would also end up paying out for entrance fees and honeypot-priced food and drink, whereas with Tiddler’s attention span we spent more time pottering about making our own entertainment, and unofficially eating packed lunches where we probably shouldn’t. However Tiddler once spent a solid hour and a half making her own version of a jigsaw puzzle by matching acorns to their original acorn cups. This epic task was not for the faint hearted, and no doubt far better for her at this age than anything a museum or free wifi could provide.

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Low -cost things therefore we are so glad we brought with us: the paddling pool, the ACSI card, Tiddler’s bug shoes (in and out and in and out of the van, and then in and out again), the old scooter, sarongs instead of towels for speedy drying, a stove top kettle, sleep masks to block out the early morning light… though of course we also brought lots of things we probably won’t use at all until we get to Bulgaria, and in the meantime clutter up Leo.

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“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view”

“Better to sleep in an uncomfortable bed free, than sleep in a comfortable bed unfree.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

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Warriors and wilderness : France #4

Next for our viewing pleasure, we travel uphill for what seems like the first time since entering the country. The landscape of Normany, Brittany and the Atlantic coastline had been incredibly flat, ideally suited to the agricultural production that seems to dominate – apples, sunflowers and the like- we even knew when we were passing fields of onions or leeks as the warm humidity filled Leo with an aromatic fuzz. The Dordogne made way to gently undulating hills, sporting vineyards like regiments of soldiers in perfectly straight lines, evidence of meticulous mathematical planning. Woe betide the vine that dares to grow a little bit scraggily.

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Now though we are climbing into the national park area of upper Langedoc. Here the roads twist and coil their way through serious craggy country, and wild olives and the stripped bark of cork and eucalyptus take centre stage. We wait for beret wearing old men to drive herds of sheep across the red dusty roads.

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The campsites are deserted or boarded up. We thought the coastal areas were quiet out of season, but this place has shut down, all except the racing circuit at Castellet, and the roads that surround it. At every corner (and there are many on this winding trail across the Black mountains) we observe wilted bouquets, and cairns, and epitaths to the dead. The modern love for speed jars with the slow, traditional beauty of the landscape they must pass by in a blur. We stay in Montelieu, and visit the fairy tale-esque Cite at Carcasonne. A mish mash of Gaul, Roman, Moor and Cathar fortifications, with a healthy dollop of tinkering by the 19th architect Viollet-le-Duc it is easy to see why this has been used for many film sets, and why tourists flock from all over to buy plastic helmets and swords for their children, and blow their ciggarette smoke out against the ramparts over their coffee and galettes.

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Tiddler of course is more interested in the warrior living statue making a few euros in the carpark, and the Italian brothers offering hand machine stiched merchandise. They sew her name on a piece of card for her, quicker than I could write it. It reminds me of roadside tailors in India, with such skill and dexterity that their labour appears as chorographed as a piano recital, should one have the time to marvel at it.

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From there we continue eastwards, visiting Arles, Varjas and Mandelieu. This is all fairly indistinguishable. The growth of seaside resorts along the Meditteranean has led to a conglomeration of urban conurbations, with apartment blocks springing up, We enjoy beatiful days on the beach, swim in the sea and enjoy the glorious warmth of the sun in October, but the environment is as claustrophobic as the many tunnels we whizz through to avoid Marseilles, and Cannes, and Nice, and Monaco. We are clearly not of the same ilk as the thousands who flock there.

We take a short detour to Saint Tropez, unexpectedly coinciding with a Porsche rally. We see plenty of low sleek cars, and wide sleek yachts, and low slung sleek golden glowed folk-about-town, but we spend the walk around constantly lifting Tiddler up to avoid the dog mess that carpets the hallowed streets of Saint Tropez. Dick Wittingdon this certainly isn’t. We journey on.

Next posts: how is our budget actually doing, and Au revoir France and Buon giorno Italia!