SUD S’IL VOUS PLAÎT


So, where does one begin when doing something as random as hitch-hiking? I suppose a good a place as any is how I found myself in that position in the first place. If you’re not familiar with what hitch-hiking is, it’s basically the principle of standing at the side of a road, sticking your thumb out and relying on the good nature of a random person driving past to stop and pick you up. To the non-adventurous or safety conscious individual this probably sounds like a terrible idea and they are probably right.

But let’s rewind back to late 2008. I’m a young, impressionable student studying at the University of Nottingham. Myself and a few friends noticed a poster advertising a charity organised hitch-hike to Morocco displayed on the walls of our halls. We all jokingly said we should do it. Now, I’ve always wanted to get out and see a bit of the world, but I must admit this was not how I had envisioned it happening. Christmas rolled around and we all departed for home for a few weeks and little more was said.

Upon returning in the new year, and all jokes aside, after a few discussions, five of us, actually split into two groups and decided to do it and as the saying goes, the rest is history. So when the easter break from university began, I found myself on a ferry crossing the English Channel to Europe and beyond. From there, what would happen was anyone’s guess. All we knew was that we were heading south. “Sud s’il vous plaît”.

Tuesday 24th March 2009 – Le Harve to Le Mans

After a pretty rocky night sleeping on the canteen floor of an ever so “comfortable” ferry, myself and my fellow hitchers dragged ourselves out of our sleeping bags to watch the sunrise over the English Channel. Not that we saw much, the sea was shrouded in fog. It was a most excellent sunrise. After disembarking the ferry, the reality of what we were doing began to set in as we stood by the side of the road and stuck out our thumbs.

Smiling politely and trying to look as presentable as possible we managed to secure a lift pretty quickly and before we knew it we were hurtling off towards Africa. Just another 2,000 km or so to cover. Our first hitch was from a young chap in a white van, with a cracked windscreen that only had three seats including the drivers. So I volunteered to rattle around in the back with the tools and bags. It was a short hitch as he dropped us off near the Honfleur bridge a few miles down the road.

We were in high spirits we had just got our first hitch we were heading south, the nice lady at the bridge gave us coffee and some croissants and then the heavens opened and the rains came forth. More coffee was had while we sheltered and after the rain cleared a fella heading to Alençon via Caen with a horse box picked us up. This was the first time on the trip we would meet someone who would go out of their way to help us. He gave us a little tour of his favourite local vineyards, whiskey distilleries and cheese factories.

The wine/whiskey/cheese lover dropped us off near a retail park, and even kindly drove back after I had left my coat in the back of his car (for those of you who don’t know me, forgetting things is my speciality). It was good that he did come back as again the rains returned and didn’t let up for a few hours. We took shelter in a supermarket and purchased some provisions and enjoyed a lunch of baguette, cheese and ham while we attempted to secure our next lift.

After a few hours in the rain, we met Marie. She took us south to Le Mans where we camped for the night. By the time she had dropped us off we had already covered about 300 km of our journey and the sky was darkening and even darker rain clouds overhead threatened to dump yet another deluge onto us. It was decided that we would set up camp for the night behind McDonald’s in a ditch wedged between the motorway and a poor excuse for a stream.

It goes without saying that due to the unpredictability of hitch-hiking there is very little control over where you might end up at the end of the day. This can be a good or a bad thing depending on your perspective. I wouldn’t recommend hitching through the night so it’s important to have camping gear with you and to be prepared to set up camp wherever you can. Often, you’ll camp in very peculiar places. Ours included the side of a motorway, several petrol station forecourts and several questionable ditches.

Wednesday 25th March 2009 – Le Mans to the Generic Motorway

The next morning after a wash in the McDonald’s restrooms (“oh so classy!”) we set off for day two of our trip. I won’t lie this was a slow day. Only two hitches were achieved. The first got us as far as south Le Mans from our starting position in north Le Mans. Here we waited, waited some more and after a gander around Decathlon and a supermarket we waited some more. Met three lads from the university of Nottingham who swiftly departed to find a better hitching spot. Hitch-hiking is a competitive business.

It started to rain and then thankfully the second ride of the day arrived. This car was to say the least decrepit. It looked like it was about to spontaneously give up the ghost and burst into flames. A cracked windscreen, rattling carburettor and the constant threat of the entire chassis giving way made for an interesting journey. However, the chap was very friendly and pointed out all the places that the Grand Prix is held while he drove us further south. He dropped us at a non-descript motorway roundabout and there we stood.

We stood some more, and in the few hours we were there about three cars had gone past. We decided that perhaps we should set up camp. We commandeered the toilet facilities at the nearby toll both and settled down for the night. I got very excited by the sunset through the tent. We all excited in haste to see it and realised it was just a street light. It was a most excellent sunset.

Thursday 26th March 2009 – Generic Motorway to Bayonne

After several hours in the morning of making very little headway we decided our best bet was counter-intuitively to head north. As such we managed to get to the quaint little town of Château-Du-Loir, a quintessentially French town. More provisions were purchased and a decent lunch had sat on a bandstand in the centre of town. Given that a grand total of no cars drove past in that time, the likelihood of getting stuck here was becoming higher. So, we may have have cheated a little bit.

We “hitched” a train by purchasing a ticket and stepping on. For good measure I did stick my thumb out and smiled at the driver as the train pulled into the station. The train took us south to Poitiers via Tours. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking. It defeats the point of hitch hiking. But at the time we all agreed that Poitiers would be a better option for getting a lift then Château-Du-Loir. Turns out we were right. After a quick stop in Tours for lunch in the park, we boarded our train to Poitiers.

Trying to get a lift out of a major town is very unlikely to be successful, so we strapped our bags to our backs and began the slow walk to the edge of town. As fate would have it, we would walk past a petrol station as Christophe was filling up. He saw us and called us over. He recognised the green charity shirts we were wearing. He had already given a lift to some other hitchers and insisted that he would take us south to Bordeaux but needed to stop by his in-laws first.

This sounded like a decent deal to us, so we hopped into his car. A short drive later and we were meeting the family. Our relationship with Christophe was moving at lightning speed. They plied us with food and drink and we had a good old chin wag as best as was possible between the broken French from us and the broken English from our hosts. Eventually though, Christophe rounded us up and we bid farewell to his family and headed south for Bordeaux.

Christophe did not need to go to Bordeaux but he drove us there anyway and after dropping us off at a large motorway services outside the city, he wished us well, did an about turn and headed back to his in-laws. Here we bumped into three lasses from Sussex University also doing the hitch who had set up their tent. The day was getting late but we still had some time left so spoke to a couple who agreed to take us south. As we walked out of the station, in walked the other two from university. A very unexpected reunion!

Jo and Jeza (who were the other two that along with the three musketeers (Helen, Max and myself)) made up the five of us from university who decided to undertake the hitch. They had only left the UK that morning. So pretty good going to be fair. The lovely couple who had agreed to take us to Bayonne offered to take all five of us. It was a cosy fit with all of us in the car but we managed and enjoyed a night time drive to a service station skirting the edges of Bayonne.

This service station had a nice grassy forecourt near the truckers parking spaces and weirdly a very friendly dog that just appeared for some love and attention and then just as mysteriously vanished into the night. It was a pretty decent nights sleep all round. The weather the next day though? Not so decent. The three musketeers managed to secure a lift south to the border. So we bid au revioir to our comrades and headed off into the mist and rain.

Beinvenida a España

The French leg of the trip had come to an end. We had covered nearly 900 km in three days. However, this journey was only just getting started. We still needed to traverse Spain before crossing the Alboran Sea into Morocco. So check out my post for Spain, where we unintentionally broke into a Spanish police station, got a lift from two Spanish nuns and I accidentally created a drug scare with the charity.