A bit like Benidorm?

It is sod’s law that we now have an extra 300MB of data (I think; I got the lady in the Tourist Information yesterday morning to listen to my prerecorded call to the phone company as the French was too quick for me – she thinks I have an extra 300MB, but it was all a bit too much for her too, so who knows?) and a perfect Fon wifi via Campernet, but we are likely to be in Italy tomorrow where we will have to start again. We will need: a new Italian SIM; and the Fon network is v sporadic. Oh well.

the rock with u the church on top yesterday morning

the rock with the church on top yesterday morning

We sat there last night listening to Simon Mayo and we Skyped Mary (I know, on camera even without hair) and we were reminded again how good it is to have reliable interent. Via my mate Richard Branson and BT Internet (Fon) it was almost wall-to-wall data in the UK, but over here it’s more of an issue. But with upwards of twelve weeks in Italy next it’s something we will need to sort. I’ll let you know how it goes. And sorry, therefore, to all the people who have commented on the blog and have received monosyllabic replies – I’ve always found myself under pressure to ping off a reply without time to think it through.

Yesterday morning was fabulous. In almost sub-zero temperatures (after a cold, still night with temperatures retained by a heavy mist) I walked through Castelanne to the Tourist Office and, having got there ten minutes before nine, stood outside in perishing weather logged on to a rubbish SFR Fon connection and tried to load the blog. The trials of an e-vagrant. Thankfully, before hyperthermia set in, the office opened and I unceremoniously staggered in and abused their free wifi – which the two ladies were more than happy with.

on the route up

on the route up

After that C and I, dressed up against the cold, clambered the two hundred metre climb to the church on the hill, with C, always over dressed, discarding items of clothing along the way. Thankfully she was wearing underwear. I knew we were racing against the clock as the sun burnt off the mist, but we timed it perfectly and the rocky route was a mixture of cold cloud and piercingly warm sunshine. At the top the views were significant with the mist hanging in the

so much closer to God

so much closer to God

valleys like a wedding dress tossed on top of a pile of combat clothing and the sun welcomed us to the summit like the ascending heroes we were. The church had too much history to bore you with, but it was much visited and we wrote our note in the visitors’ book. We stopped off for a coffee in the town on the way back to Doris and, once home, I retightened the turbo jubilee clips to no particular effect. We decided to drive southeast to Nice and chose the only Aire on the southeast coast (they don’t like us motorhomers here) and drove the quiet beautiful route out of the mountains down to the sea, a drop of over a thousand metres, stopping off for an egg banjo lunch at a viewpoint where C counted over twenty vultures waiting for a farmer to drop dead in his field.

too. Icu history to bore you with

too much history to bore you with

The Aire at Nice was rubbish. Not only was it just a small carpark with no ambience, it was wholly overcrowded and a French couple made the point that where we elected to park was a place where the Municipal Police had moved people on. So, rather than wait to be moved, we gave ourselves a good telling off and headed for Nice seafront where my new App had said parking was tolerated.

a bit like Benidrom?

a bit like Benidrom?

Nice seafront is spectacular (“a bit like Benidorm” was C’s comment; you can’t please everyone, although we did like Benidorm) and although there was the odd van parked up, every space was taken. The promenade was heaving and, whilst the drive down the ‘Route Anglais’ had our name on it, there was no room at the Inn. We stopped, rethunk, and chose the small village of Contes a few kilometres north of Nice which the App said had carparks etc just made for us – the App, populated by people like us, has photos, so you can tell what it’s going to be like. It was right again and Doris is now parked up under another hill with another church looking down on us. There’s a circus just off the carpark, and although there are no roaring lions and tigers, we have seen a llama and a pigmy horse, but the sense of danger and excitement is not quite the same. What exactly goes on in the Big Top is a mystery, but people were paying to watch something.

us again...

us again…

We had a disturbed night (after a great aubergine pasta thing and the last episode of the West Wing – what will we do next?) but this morning the sun looks like it might pop over the horizon at any moment. We’ve dug out the Italian sosta book (sostas are equivalent of French aires) and decided that Italy is definitely next stop. We might climb up to the church this morning before we leave and bag ourselves a cup of coffee at the top. Yippee!

Castelanne just before we left it

Castelanne just before we left it

Vultures everywhere…

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Did we see vultures? Did we ever. We left the St Croix having: tightened all the jubilee clips on the hoses coming from the turbo (there’s definitely a mild oil leak there, so I think I’ve found the problem); attempted to add €10 credit onto my French SIM to give me another 300MB to play with. I did this with a young girl who was walking past walking her cat (a v motorhome thing to do) and, then joined by Dad, we phoned a number and pressed some others. Bad news is that Doris is still wheezing and I’ve not had a txt from Bouygues France to say my credit has been accepted. Oh well. At least we’re not trying to buy a house, or pay ransom money to the French mafia.

We drove into the gorge, parked up in a little village called la-Palud-sur-Verdon and got our bikes out. According to most maps there was a circular route with plenty of view points that took you off the main road, but kept you on tarmac. C knocked up a picnic and we set off against a perfect blue sky, but cycling in cold air – we were, after all, getting up at over two thousand feet. Almost skiing height.

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It was, without doubt, a big tick day on the Grand European Tour. The route was fifteen miles, but there were no flat bits. We were either cycling up hill, or coasting down. There were more hairpins than in Enid Sharpels’ bathroom cabinet. Leaving aside the views and the birds it has to be our best cycle ride ever and our legs certainly knew (I know the little men from Panasonic helped in the motor) that we had done some work, work we would never have done on an ordinary set of wheels. Well done the bikes!

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We stopped often, had lunch near the top of the ride looking into the gorge and saw sights we would never have seen if we had been driving, The gorge is extraordinary. At the top if you decided to jump off (it’s almost straight down) you would have to wait a while for your impending death; time maybe to imageeven rethink your decision. It’s seven hundred metres straight down and we saw a couple of folk making the climb, abseiling down and we thought we saw a base-jumper making his way to the edge. Either that or he would have failed the cub-scout badge on how to carry little and pack your rucksack sensibly. The views were to die for and the blue sky, cool air and general lack of tourists enhanced the experience.

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But it was the vultures that took the awards. They were everywhere. Above us, alongside us. Below us. As big as anything we’ve seen in the air and, with articulated necks allowing the heads to scan for hapless, stranded climbers, they looked every inch birds of prey. Magnificent. Doubly so. And they didn’t care that we were there, nor that C was wearing a luminous pink jacket that even scared the twitchers; they were doing their best to make us feel good. It was great.

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Back at Doris we drove the next twenty kilometres following the Verdon and getting v close to it as we reached the town of Castellane. The oblique sun cast huge shadows across the deep grey sandy ravine that we drove down, but when the sun caught it the river was all turquoise and inviting. Castellane is an ancient town sat in a deep valley built round a huge rock with a church on top (so much closer to God). We wandered around through tight, high alleys and made up our minds that it had been a v good day. C popped into a lavarie but neither of us could work out the machines – there’s wasn’t a cost in sight. I phoned the phone company, spoke to an English speaking woman who told me they had not received €10 credit this morning, so I got her to stick €10 more on. Woke this morning and still no text from them. Grrrrr.

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Supper was a salad topped with some meat and we watched English TV for a bit. The new battery is holding up v well. It was a cold night (I wore a hat in bed as surrogate hair) and we’ve woken to mist. My weather app tells me that it’s going to be another sunny day. But probably more ‘mucho pleasanto’ than ‘scorchio’ at this height. Suits us. Did I tell you we’re learning five Italian words a day?

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Till tomorrow.

Eastward bound

last night

last night

We decided to head east away from the coast and into the hills. We were aiming for the Gorge de Verdon, Western Europe’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon, but without the mega-bucket popcorn nor the ‘have a nice day now’ superciliousness. I first had a chat to our new English friends who arrived the night before and had introduced themselves. They’re living n France, a little older than us and travelling in a Hobby van, the same layout as Doris. Turns out he’s ex-Army but now a sailing journalist and they seem to have travelled extensively in a van over many years. We had to go Verdon, they told us, to see the griffin vultures. Well that goes without saying then.

So we did. We had a reasonably flat middle part of the day. The sun was out and the scenery v south of France, but Doris has developed a turbo whine, a sort of high-pitched, almost imperceptible but definitely there, hiss that rises and falls with the effort she’s putting in. It’s been going on for about a week now as far as I can tell. I’ve done some internet research and the diagnosis seems to be a split in one of her turbo pipes, or a jubilee clip that needs tightening up. Anyhow I popped into a Ford garage where, as you’d expect, nobody spoke English and even if they did French is the language of choice in this country and so, with improving French every day (ACJW – you’d be impressed) the mechanic, without looking at Doris, said it was probably a split in a pipe somewhere.

So with Doris wheezing ever so gently we headed off into the hills with a determination to at least replace the air filter which didn’t seem to fit that well. Neither of us are good when something is hanging over us and Doris, as I recounted before, is so central to what we do we can’t have her with even the slightest ailment. I found a French equivalent of Halfords and tried to get a replacement filter. Non. Pas ici. However, the chap phoned a friend who had one. And thus we were dispatched to another shop. Here, some a couple of clicks away, we got an air filter although, in the most modern of shops, I had to order, collect and then walk my bill to another counter where une madame took my money. I’m sure they could probably manage without her….

The new filter made a little difference, but not much. The next forty clicks went into the hills and Doris behaved admirably, so there’s nothing tangibly wrong with her. She’s just squeaking a little. C reckons its her Chitty Chitty Bang Bang moment and who can blame her? I’ve just calculated that we’ve travelled over five thousand miles so far; she’s probably just reminding us of that. And it’s a happy squeak.

St Croix

St Croix

Our destination was the Lac-de-St-Croix which the major gorge runs into. We picked an aire almost lakeside and arrived with just two other vans parked up. It was a lovely spot with lake views and the small hilltop village of St Croix de Verdon off to our right. By the time we turned in the aire was full of vans, so its a popular spot. We walked down to the lake, a deep blue with turquoise edges – it could have been anywhere on the Cote D’Azure. And then imagetraipsed back up the fairly big hill into the village. St Croix is, not surprisingly, one big holiday home. Typically hilltop with steep windy rock stairs, narrow sandstone alleyways, pastel and wood shutters and terracotta roofs, it had been clinically restored and looked fabulous. C pointed out one letter box: “Herr Strudle”. And another “Familie Hinterberg”. So we know who owns this place then.

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Back at Doris C made supper of chicken in a sauce, potatoes and veg and we watched, as a precursor to our olive picking, ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’. It was a romcom without the com and the rom was pretty unexceptional. But it kept us entertained and got us excited for cypress trees and hilltop villas. Oh, that reminds me. On the way here we travelled through acres and acres of lavender fields, laid out with geometric precision. The lavender had already been cut (in the hands of wartey old women walking the restaurants of Covent Garden making a few bob) so no wafting smells nor purpley vista, but interesting though.

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Today we are mostly travelling into the gorge and, hopefully, cycling round a bit looking for vultures.

Have a good Wednesday.

Arles

last night’s slot

“He’ll look like a bald weirdo.” That’s Annie W’s view of my latest haircut. There’s also been quite a tirade of comment on Facebook as Jen posted a photo of me and C making the link to a shaved-headed teacher living in a campervan and some US TV programme; the only difference is that I’m not yet making crystal meths in Doris. I think it’s called Breaking Bad. C’s sister thinks my next move will be into a sarong.

Oh well if it amuses a number of you… I have had to wear a hat a number of times today. This is not for vanity’s sake, more protection from the cold. I’m surprised how what little hair I did have contributed to my overall sense of warmth.

We left Palavas making best use of the free van-sized pressure wash to give Doris a once over and made our way to Arles. Arles sits at the top of the Camargue, the highest vertices of a gently flattened triangle with its three sides the Grand and Petit Rhone (the former a blooming mighty river) and a base of the Mediterranean. We had been to Arles before and wanted to revisit Van Gogh’s canal bridge and, if we had time, look round the city and peek at the Roman colosseum.

A-M just before we were moved on...

A-M just before we were moved on…

First we stopped off at Aiges-Mortes, a superbly intact walled and turreted town a few kilometres from Palavas and the gateway to the Camargue. It is film-settingly beautiful. You could imagine Spielberg wandering around and saying “I need a walled town in order to do a remake of Ben Hur. Don’t mess

inside A-M

inside A-M

about, build it like it was meant to be there and make it full size. And stick it out in the open so we can get some good camera shots without surrounding distractions.” The set manufacturers would have struggled to come up with anything quite so significant. We parked outside the town wall, but got moved on. Just round the corner was an Aire and in the lea of the opposite wall – for the price of a cup of coffee – we parked up.

A-M is just as pretty inside as out. It’s v American in design, gridded streets and none of the buildings built higher than the encompassing walls (why would you?). After a short stroll we were in the main square, sat in the dappled sun slurping decent French coffee. It was only ten thirty. A French school party were having their photos taken on the square’s statue and one little rascal had scaled to the top. I, and his teacher, watched him get down v tentatively – it was quite a climb. But not a strong word was said, just smiles. When did we allow the H&S lunatics to stop us from climbing trees?

Van Gogh waz ere...

Van Gogh waz ere…

Arles next. We had visited Van Gogh’s bridge over the canal twenty odd years ago with the girls and found it whilst rsearching hard, by mistake. It is pretty much as he painted it, but without the women washing their clothes, nor the horse and cart clip-clopperting over it. There was no car park and no visitors. Just the four of us. Yesterday we found it immediately, even though it was pretty much unsignposted. There was no car park and no visitors. Just us, our picnic, a small display board and one of the most iconic bridges in the world. Is it, perhaps, because he’s Dutch and not French? I don’t know but we were grateful for the lack of attention.

Unsure of what to do next used my new and v exciting app “park4night” (John W – you should download this, it’s fab) and closed in on an Aire on the banks of the Rhone a two minute walk from the city centre. Ok, so it’s just predesignated campervan parking, but it’s free and with a view to die for. We parked up, trundled round the city taking in the sights and stopping for a look over the colosseum. There’s Roman bits everywhere and with the draw of the imageRhone it’s a must visit place. Back at Doris and in no order we both went for a run, drank tea, read our books, watched some TV and generally felt v pleased with ourselves. We Skyped Bex, who with Steven were down to have Skype interviews for teaching jobs in Singapore for next year later that evening. I just about got onto the Fon network via Campernet after an email exchange with the genius that is JP. Unfortunately once on, data passed between me and the people at SFR at a rate that would have been quicker if I had walked it there. – but we are making progress.

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Decisions, decisions today. I’m glad to say the sun is out again. Marseilles? Or head northish into the Southern Alps?

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I’ll let you all know tomorrow. Have a good Tuesday.

Call me shawn

It’s a busy place Palavas. Saturday morning arrived with an accompanying flea market in the car park next door. A bit like our car boot sales but the stuff is much older and, frankly, less attractive. Lots and lots of hardback books. And lots and lots of other nicknacks which we don’t have house room for. Yesterday the town came alive with the arrival of upward of a thousand runners and teams taking part in a fun run with accompanying assault courses. Because our aire is part of a carpark complex, by the time we got up there were cars, minibuses and coaches all over the place and they kept coming. Most of the folk were in fancy dress and nearly all in teams. The centre of the town had an area sectioned off containing a pretty interesting assault course and by the time we sat down on the front for a cup of coffee the first runners came bounding down the pavement. They were soaking.

nobody with a H&S clipboard spotted here

nobody with a H&S clipboard spotted here

We packed up a lunch, got on our bikes and decided to cycle down the canal eastwards, hit the coast and then cycle back along the coast road. A simple plan. What we hadn’t bargained for was the race was set up to dispatch groups of people throughout the day and we got caught up in a bunch of teams singing and laughing their way to the muddiest canal ditch which, girls and boys, jumped into and then clawed their way out of. It was a scream – not competitive as it probably would be in the UK, just filthy fun.

just before lunch

just before lunch

Our cycle ride was a steady affair in fabulous sunshine, but against a cool wind. We stopped for lunch at the next town along looking over the marina and, without the wind, started to cover ourselves up – the sun was enjoying its opportunity to shine and had turned the rheostat up a tadge. It was relentless but welcome.

We cycled back along the beach road, stopped for half an hour of photosynthesis and a quick dip (the water was bearable) and got back to Doris for a cup of tea. It was earlier than we expected and with the noise of the event still echoing around the town we walked back into the packed centre and watched teams struggling with the curved wooden wall. What was great was the complete lack of concern for health and safety and the fun the competitors were having. It’s clearly a big, well known event and we were lucky to catch a glimpse of it.

I really wanted to do this

I really wanted to do this

Back at the van we decided that I should have a crew cut and so, without any ceremony whatsoever, C cut all my hair off save a couple of millimetres. I now look like every other French bloke wandering round town today, but without the associated torso. They do look after themselves these French blokes. Having hair is now, in my book, highly overrated. (You’ll excuse no photo but I really don’t want to scare any small children who might be reading this.). I think we might try and get a clipper setting a little longer than, well, nothing. I now know what Sinead O’Conner felt like.

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 a couple of photos from town

a couple of photos from town

But it was a good day. Another hot one with the town bursting its banks with people, not just the runners, but plenty of people of holiday. We met an English couple who live in France and come here often, they told us that French have a two week half term, so this must be part of that. However we didn’t see that many children. This wasn’t a beach resort full of kids doing kids stuff on the beaches. It was much more grown up; lots of promenading and eating out. So I have no idea what’s happening here.

I told you he got a car in there...

I told you he got a car in there…

Moving east today towards the Camargue (Rhone delta, marshy/sandy affair renown for its white horses). We’ll probably stop at Aigues-Mortes, an intact walled town we’ve been to before. And then who knows?

Have a great week.

Not so bad at all

Ok, so not really Clacton

Ok, so not really Clacton

Ok, so I might have been a little disingenuous about poor old Palavas yesterday. I think I compared to Clacton. All seaside and no depth. And, caught between staying another day and leaving for the Carmargue, I might have damned it to junk status along with the French economy if, with the sun announcing its arrival with a ‘look at me’, we hadn’t decided to stay another day, shop on our bikes, do some admin and potter. We had, after all, been moving every day since Calais and resting for a while seemed like a plan.

Just before coffee

Just before coffee

It was. A very good one. We cycled to the beach (doesn’t that have a nice ring to it?) stopped off at a small cafe, ordered coffee and enjoyed the mid-morning sun. Using new info from Annie I managed to get onto the Fon network via SFR (double yippee – thanks Annie) and all of a sudden we were transported to a previous life in Cyprus down on Cessac beach where we sipped coffee and stared towards Egypt across a v flat Mediterranean. It was magical.

Next a cycle ride to the local Carrefour supermarket, following canals which, for some unexplained reason, are set within the etangs – a canal through a lake? Doesn’t make a lot of sense. We foraged for stuff we needed, came out of air conditioned comfort to mid-20s heat and cycled back to Doris. Lunch outside (we’re never in at the moment) some cleaning and a run seemed to take up most of the afternoon. Ok I did have a small nap whilst C read her book. Then, for the hell of it, we cycled to the beach (that phrase again) and I swam about a bit as the sun set behind the etangs. Perfect?

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Well we think it was. It was a relaxed a day as we have had in Stage 3. No pressure, no timetable; just a day of pottering and photosynthesising. It was a the perfect foil to the rather flat arrival on the Med the previous evening where we realised what we were doing was what everyone else was doing (although with only one elderly Brit couple).

Finally can I add that I am now addicted to Strictly (middle-class porn). I have throughout the recent years picked up the odd show and, leaving aside Brucey who was moderately bearable but consistently so, had its ups and downs. There’s no denying the female professionals were fabulous to look at and C often had to tell me to put my tongue away, but the show was more pantomime than dance-off. Until now. Last night the first chap on (an Eastender?) was fabulous. That’s not fabulous in comparison to myself, where Anne Widdicombe would be fabulous, that’s proper fabulous. The remaining acts were nearly all a joy to watch. Dear old Pixie Lott at the end was stupendous. How do these people learn to dance so well in such a short space of time? I am an adequate guitar player and after ten weeks of intensive training I could probably fool you lot that I was quite good (not Pixie good, though…..but I don’t think I’d get thrown off at the end of week one). But I’ve been playing the guitar since I was a kid. Are all the current Strictly contestants closet dancers? How are they doing it? And bravo to them. It is a joy.

Late afternoon looking over the etang

Late afternoon looking over the etang

Staying here again today with a cycle round the etangs. The sun is already a bright orange ball of fun and looks set at banishing any other contenders.

Remember to put your clocks back…

Wintering on an industrial scale

Montpellier's highlight

Montpellier’s highlight

I think we had been waiting for this moment. Huge anticipation. The day when our dream of arriving on the Med free of responsibility and joining the crowd of retirees, sabbatical takers and young surf dudes would come together. We would be part of the wintering down in the south crowd. Us and fellow motorhome and camper owners grouped together in packets of vans, walking the promenades, eating the ‘menu du jour’ and cycling the by-roads. We’d sip Sangria with our hors d’oeuvres and drink cheap red wine with our pasta.

After Montpellier (more of that in a second), we headed the very short hop to the spit of land running northeast/southwest which must be the French equivalent of Clacton. Palavas-les-Flots is an un-noteworthy small town squashing high-rises, restaurants and tourist trappings onto a piece of land about six hundred meters deep. I say un-noteworthy, that’s not fair. The etangs (shallow seaside lakes) between it and the mainland are decorated with flamingoes, it has a huge marina which is overflowing with sailboats, not gin palaces and it is, let’s be clear, beside the Med. The Med, not the any other one. And it was in the mid-20s, clear blue sky with a perceptible but helpful cool north wind. Prefect weather for the Ladleys.

But it was also packed. It may be because it was a Friday, or it just may be that the weather is unseasonably warm, but it was teeming. And I haven’t got started on the motorhome owners. There are three aires in Palavas. The first, by a pretty canal, was gated, regulated and packed like eggs in a carton with

wintering on an industrial scale

wintering on an industrial scale

near a hundred vans. The other two, a couple of hundred meters away (and where we’re staying) had room for another hundred or so vans including a brand new multi-storey where the bottom floor is unnaturally tall and set out for more motorhome parking with electric points et al. It wasn’t quite so full, still holding fifty or sixty vans. But the scale was huge. This was wintering on an industrial scale. And I suppose if this many motorhome folk are coming your way, it’s probably best to make an effort to look after them otherwise they’ll be parked in every nook and cranny and getting right up your nose.

a car goes in the garage

a car goes in the garage

But it wasn’t exactly how we both saw our dream materialising. It was more functional than adventurous; more inclusive than exclusive. But we had picked the most obvious spot to come to and we know that there are plenty of spots further south where vans are few and far between in the summer, so about now we should be on our own. And I’ve only counted one Brit here, as a nation we are so far behind the rest of Europe when it comes to this sort of thing.

Oh, and what did we do yesterday? We stopped at Montpellier because it’s where our first ever camper, packed with all four of us, broke down on an autumn break. We stayed in the new quarter whilst the AA sorted out our lives. Yesterday we rediscovered the balance of new and old; it was interesting but nothing exceptional except the Roman aqueduct which is worth a visit. I’ll let some photos fill in the gaps.

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Palavas is Clacton but a bit warmer and we cycled around it late yesterday afternoon. It was great to be able to be out by the sea in the warmth, to feel squidgy sand beneath our feet and ride to the end of a huge breakwater and watch the sun reticently drop towards the horizon. We found UK TV on our sat-dish, had another simple supper of smoked mackerel, home-made chips and salad and finished the day with nothing in our minds at all.

Clacton?

Clacton?

Sun’s out – shorts on! Jen had an issue with Zorro (her cat) last night and that kept us awake for a bit. We’re in two minds as to what to do next, other than head east. Any ideas?

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Have a great weekend.