In many ways the pandemic year of 2020 will be remembered for being quite unlike any other with there being no living memory now of the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’.
We started the year with the collapse of Flybe putting paid to a planned week away in Amsterdam with our German twin town friends, although the instigation of ‘lock down’ would have scuppered it as well. From then on like most of our friends we cancelled or postponed for a year other holiday plans and bookings. Ironically in a fit of ‘do it before we are too old’ we had booked more holidays for 2020 than in any other year this century!
Our remaining planned holiday was to combine going to the International Tandem Rally in Salviac, France with some cycle touring. This was to be at the end of August and early September. Perhaps Covid19 will be contained by then? We were obviously a bit slow in grasping the enormity of this pandemic
We got down to locked down life, but used our permitted one hour per day outdoor exercise time to cycle the recumbent tandem trike around some local lanes so that our cycling legs did not completely atrophy.
The Salviac Rally was cancelled, but we know the area and are friends of Bob and Mary, the rally organisers. We could ride the routes, so we thought we would wait and see, and keep our ferry bookings along with the hotel and B&B bookings we had made. The end of August seemed quite a long time off.
Life with Covid19 continued and friends asked if we were still going to France. We honestly replied that “we don’t know”. Uncertainty continued, but we kept in touch with the people at Correze Cycling where we intended to spend a week before going on to Salviac, with Mary and Bob, our friends in Salviac, and with Patrick and Marc at the B&B there. Under French Covid19 rules Mary and Bob were only allowed to cycle up to 1km and later 5kms from home, and had to complete and carry with them the appropriate form to be shown to the gendarmerie on demand. Certainly short distance cycling.
The weeks went on and as our departure date drew nearer outbreaks of Coronavirus flared up in some British cities and other hotspots in Europe. The British government became increasingly committed to getting the economy going again, even at some increased infection risk and continued to give confused and inconsistent advice. Relaxing movement led to some people rushing off to cause crazy overcrowding on beaches and flocking to Cornwall and some National Parks (including the New Forest) for holidays or uncontrolled ‘days out’. It didn’t look good and any overseas tourism stalled when the Foreign Office issued notices restricting non-essential travel and thousands of panicked holiday makers tried to get home ahead of the commencement of quarantine restrictions for people coming from Spain and then Belgium.
The days in August before our intended departure date were ticking down. We decided to check over the tandem trike, service it and order some new tyres. We re-assembled the trike and took it for a test run to make sure all was well.
One week to go before departure. We had a few heaps of clothes and cycle stuff as a half-hearted start on thinking of packing. Phone calls to and from France continued and we re-assured James at Correze that we still intended to come – If we could.
A few days to departure – time for a ‘family discussion’ on the changing picture of Covid19 across France and our best information on the areas we intended to visit. Friends and John’s sister were still asking us if we were going. We decided, Yes (Unless the Foreign Office stops us).
John put the bicycle carrying floor into the car. This takes some time to do involving lots of bolts to put it together and make it secure and is not something to be done at the last minute. The Times Newspaper ran with the story that quarantine for people returning from France was imminent together with Foreign Office advice to limit all but ‘essential’ travel to France.
Providing we left before any Government declaration was made our travel insurance should be valid. We sought to check this but were aware that in general by now the insurance industry had added Covid19 exclusion clauses to most policies. In an attempt to keep their tourism industry afloat the French Government was underwriting accommodation cancellations made up to 24 hours in advance. We could ‘self insure’ other losses not covered. Our health insurance should be OK if we were already in France before a travel ‘ban’ was declared; and despite the UK’s absurd decision to ‘self-isolate’ Britain from the rest of the European Union, we still have valid EU Health Insurance cards until we all ‘crash out’ in January 2021.
We listened to the news each day expecting some Government announcement, bolted down the parts of the trike inside the car, packed our bags and provisioned the car with food and drink. We were also kitted out with lots of bottles of hand sanitiser, anti virus wipes, disposable gloves and plenty of washable face masks.
Departure day. No Government announcement. We reassured James in Correze that we were still coming. There was an English couple due in Correze a day before us, but some other English people who had being going at the same time as us had cancelled. Similarly a couple of English tandems intending to go to Salviac had cancelled. We turned off our phones and left to drive to Portsmouth for the overnight ferry crossing to St Malo. We had eaten a cooked lunch and took a picnic tea to be eaten in the ferry car park before boarding, plus ingredients for breakfast.
Brittany Ferries were very well organised. We were given colour codes so that when on board we could be taken from our cars in separated groups to avoid congestion on stairs. We were asked to wear face masks, maintain a social distance, make straight to our cabins and to stay there for the duration of the crossing. The ferry was running well below capacity with cars parked three vehicles to four lanes with lots of space in front and behind each car.
In our cabin we had no Wifi or phone signal, so we only discovered the following morning that we actually left the UK one hour and fortyfive minutes before the Government issued a non-essential travel to France and quarantine policy statement. We may or may not have been out of UK territorial waters at the time (not sure) but we had no influence on any decision to turn the boat around or not!
As we left the ferry port in St Malo in the early morning we noticed that there were lots of cars waiting to board and the queue extended from the port onto the road outside. It was only later that we realised that these must have been people who had driven overnight in a desperate rush to get home before the quarantine rule came into force. Did they all managed to get places on a ferry during the day?
Our plan was to make a stop in Vitré, Brittany for a socially distanced coffee with our town twinning friends Guy and Marie-Annick before continuing south for our overnight hotel stop. We were self contained for food and drink on the road all the way to Correze. Our hotel for the night was on the edge of Saint-Jean-de-Thouars, Poitou-Charentes. Compulsory face masks and hand sanitising was in place.
We had used the anti-viral wipes on the ferry and on door handles and keys at this hotel, but soon realised this was pointless because it is impossible to sterilise the environment, and the only practical approach is to ‘decontaminate’ yourself with hand sanitiser after touching door handles, handrails, lift buttons, credit card machines etc. We maintained this for three weeks, remembering that sequence is everything – hand sanitise, take paper bag with pain au raisin (PAR) out of pannier, eat PAR = WRONG. Take paper bag with PAR out of pannier, tear it open, hand sanitise, take out and eat PAR = RIGHT.
We ate dinner outdoors on the terrace with well spaced apart tables. After this all of our lunch picnics and evening meals (except three) were eaten in the fresh air outdoors. One exception was because when we booked a table we forgot to say, in the garden please, and when we arrived all the garden tables were gone. The other two were in Angoulême where we were just indoors beside the open door to the garden and well on our own.
Continuing in our sealed ‘car bubble’ we drove on to Correze. Sam (Samantha) and James were well organised. Strict rules about hand sanitising on coming in and going out, and face masks on at all times unless eating. There were also two rules about not wearing shoes with cycle cleats indoors and not allowing Noodles (the dog) on the sofa. But these were probably not Covid19 precautions. We could eat dinner and be spoilt with cake and afternoon tea on return from cycling outdoors. There was also an exception allowing face masks to be removed in the swimming pool, even when one’s head was above water for breathing purposes. The fact that IT and smart phones are now an everyday exception was demonstrated by the arrangements for breakfast. Sam had it set up so that the evening before you zapped a QR code to bring up a Google form with breakfast options as a tick list to complete. Then in the morning your breakfast was all ready for you at your socially distanced table. Even the breakfast cereal was in a personal portion sized paper bag. She was part of a tourism network that shared ideas on how to manage a hotel or B&B in Covid19 circumstances, exchanging tips and ideas.
Correze is a very empty part of France, so cycling through countryside without other human contact was the norm. And it was easy to picnic or have café coffee stops well socially distanced outdoors.
From Correze we drove to Salviac. Our guesthouse there was less strict about mask wearing, although we continued to wear them except when eating. Breakfasts were generally on our table with a few things collected. We ate dinner at a table on our own in the garden. Shopping at the boulangerie was on a strict one out, one in basis. Salviac had lost its weekly market for a few years and with an active mayor is pleased to have one again. Spread over several parts of the village there was a strict one-way system for moving through the market from stall to stall with people well spaced out.
Cycling in the parts of Lot and the Dordogne near us again meant we were largely on our own outdoors. The only crowded large town we went to was Argentat, but we avoided the busy main street, ate our PARs in a quiet part of the market square (not market day) and moved on. Although places like Domm are popular tourist destinations we easily avoided crowds or busy places and could keep plenty of space around us. one day we cycled with Bob and Mary and another American (living in France) tandem couple, and again it was easy to maintain a good social distance when we stopped.
On a non-cycling (our only rainy day) we went by car to a hypermarket for some shopping. Masks and spacing, but a bit closer at the checkouts was much like it is back home.
The final part of our holiday was a weeks touring. Transferring by car we stopped for a picnic lunch on our own in Brantône, Aquitaine. We had pre-booked accommodation. In Angoulême our hotel was on the edge of town. I should have mentioned tongs before. The plastic tongs industry has had a boom time. Anywhere that you might have to pick something up you were given a personal set of tongs. As well as tongs, dinner was served complete – all courses on a tray, and the main meal was in its own closed pot. The glass jar with sealed lids business must also be doing well. Similarly, at breakfast orange juice, fruit, etc were available in personal containers or bottles.
The only real tourist place we stayed was in Coulon, Poitou-Charentes in the Marais, but this is quite a small town. The town was well organised with strict rules about masks on outdoors and several streets had been temporarily pedestrianised with walk this way on this side of the street markings. On the riverside plenty of paint had been used on the ground to set up one-way spaced systems for the riverside kiosks selling tickets for small boat trips, including painted out areas to prevent passers by getting too close. Unfortunately it was the one place where we saw tourists (of various nationalities) ignoring the rules. Perhaps it was too much for them if they had not been brought up in a 1950s British queuing culture. On the boats it was in the fresh air, masks on and seating arranged so that no-one faced each other.
It was much the same at other places we stayed except that in La Rochelle, Vanessa, our host, and her children had all had Coronavirus and she did not insist on a mask wearing regime except when serving yourself with food.
We had modified our itinerary so that we cut out sightseeing in La Rochelle and did not have to go into the town, other than to cycle through on our way out. And we had also cut out an intended day on the Île de Ré, because we thought these might be busier, more crowded tourist spots (a bit like Cornwall). Otherwise we were out in the countryside alone.
What about Masks
Mask wearing was generally the norm including outdoors, but we saw the full range you might also meet in Britain:
Properly covering nose and mouth.
Properly covering nose and mouth, but pulled down to speak face to face to someone – Well intentioned but just a complete non-understanding of the purpose of wearing a mask.
Covering mouth but just tucked up to nose – could be a misunderstanding of where one’s nose really begins, or ‘I don’t like it, can’t breathe’, or ‘My specs keep fogging up’.
Over mouth and no attempt at nose – ‘I’ve got it on, don’t complain’.
Over the chin – OK I’ve got a mask I’ll pull it up if I have to and it keeps my beard warm’ (note: this one is a male thing).
Hanging over one ear – ‘It is at the ready and I can flick it on if the gendarmes appear and this way I don’t set fire to it when smoking’.
In the pocket with one ear loop hanging out – ‘I remembered to take it out, I’ll wear it in the shop but not out here’.
On the arm held by the ear loops – this one was favoured by cyclists who did not want to wear a mask while pedalling, while also to avoid dropping it.
We only saw one blatant transgression (there is always one). This was a slightly too fat (they always are this shape) man (it is always a man) with no sign of a mask anywhere and wearing a black T shirt with a white letters slogan – “I Dare To Breathe”. He did not have the complementary slogan on the back of his shirt saying “and I don’t care how many die through my social irresponsibility”.
Women were generally better than men at mask wearing. Occasionally one would see a couple walking along together, one with a mask and one without. It was always the ‘macho man’ who was without.
And finally a lovely cameo we saw in Coulon.
A young couple came out of a restaurant side by side wearing masks.
They turned to each other.
One with left hand and one with right they removed their masks to one ear.
They reversed the take off move to put their masks back on.
They turned side by side.
They walked on.
What made you wish you had turned on the camera video was that this sequence was carried out with the precision and faultless timing of a military parade ground. Did they practise at home first?
Just like in Britain and probably everywhere except Switzerland, there were some discarded masks lying around as litter.
We filled in our compulsory on-line Foreign Office Covid19 forms that had to be submitted before leaving France, but not more than 48 hours before. Sent them in and then saved the acknowledgement with a unique QR code that we had to show when we disembarked. Lots of personal questions and detail required including name of ship we were on, arrival time (and if it had been a plane, number of your seat). I suppose that without a smart phone you get taken away to fill up forms on arrival or to be interrogated?
We returned home on a daytime sailing by Brittany Ferries from Ouistreham. We intended to come this way, but the St Malo crossing had closed down for lack of passengers. There were plenty of large trucks with freight including some with medical supplies from Spain, but few cars. We sat in the reclining seat lounge at the front of the boat, with about 10 other people, spaced about 20 or more seats from each other (extra, extra social distancing). It was quite weird walking down a corridor to the toilets and seeing no one. Neither crew nor passengers.
We we were not too closely scrutinised at customs. They seemed to be on a one in five car stopping system. At immigration we lowered our masks to allow our faces to be compared with passport photos and offered our QR code forms on the phone. The immigration official had no interest in seeing these, but I suppose all the stuff we had submitted was on the screen in front of him.
We got home (very late) and metaphorically “took our masks off”
Sheila with great perseverance had managed to book a Tesco food delivery order while we were away. This was delivered at 10.00 am the next day. And kind friends also have offered to shop for essential food if we need them to do this.
Conclusion – we are glad we went.
Because we had been very isolated, only leaving home for exercise and shopping, staying in hotels and eating out was an increased risk. But no more so in France than if we had taken a similar holiday in Britain. Behaviour in France was no worse than that which we see here and probably there was more care and compliance with rules for social distancing and mask wearing than there is in Britain. Of course we avoided cities and potential hot spots. We also modified our holiday behaviour by cutting out ‘indoors’ – no visits to exhibitions, museums, tourist information centres or similar places. Communication or confusion was interesting. If one is not a fully fluent French speaker or has a poor accent it is usually possible to get by. Add the muffling effect of talking through a mask and there were times of complete incomprehension! It was a different holiday just as everything about 2020 is different.
We are in QUARANTINE. Other times of isolation have included being in Covid19 ‘lock down’ at home, a prison, a church, a hospital, a mountain hut, kept off school with measles and isolated on a remote island in the Atlantic, but this is a first for official compulsory quarantine.