We’d intended to spend the next two nights at Blois, but when we arrived at the freebee campsite in the heart of the town the gates were chained and it was clear that the site is no longer used. Our fall-back position was a much smaller site at St Claude de Direy, a rural community about four miles from Blois and about a mile from the Loire. In many ways this was a much better outcome as for much of the time we were the only occupants of the site and once again the authorities had been thoughtful enough to provide a bright and shiny, self cleaning, stainless steel, fully automatic loo.
We initially parked the van in the car park of the village Salle de Fetes but later moved a hundred meters or so to the official camp site when we realized that there was a wedding reception taking place in the Salle that evening. As the wedding guests started to arrive we couldn’t help but observe that most were dressed in clothes that the local charity shops had quite clearly rejected as being sub-standard. Whatever happened to French style and chic?
On a more positive note, at some point in time some local official had been thoughtful enough to put up a number of informative signs around St Claude de Diray telling the history of the village – they even had English translations. One particular sign explained that the large wooden barns that are still to be found around the village were originally built for tobacco drying. Well, you could have knocked us over with a couple of feathers! Tobacco growing in western Europe, who’d have thought it? Now, Google is a wonderful thing, but once you start looking into these things you just never know where you’ll end up – for example, did you know that the centre of the 17th Century English tobacco growing industry was ………….. Winchcombe in the Cotswolds. Who knew?
We’re in Confolens – again. We were here in October 2017 and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it hasn’t changed much, though it’s certainly worth a second visit. The town is split in half by the River Vienne and our stroll yesterday evening provided some great views of the historic buildings that line the river’s banks. As we walked we got into another conversation about the dilapidated state of many of the ancient houses that are to be found in thousands, or more likely many tens of thousands, of French towns and villages just like this. It seems that the French simply don’t want to live in them. Whilst they (the houses , not the people) have masses of character and historic interest, many are clearly on the verge of falling down and presumably, just as in Britain, French planning laws require that repairs and maintenance be carried out ‘sympathetically’ and at great expense. Also, at the end of the day, houses built in the 18th or 19th centuries simply don’t provide the facilities and that most younger people want for themselves and their families. The upshot is that a great many houses have been left empty and many that are still lived-in are occupied by the elderly and the poor so the properties will continue to deteriorate and much of France will slowly but surely lose its historic character. Shame.
After a night in Confolens we drove on to the village of Richelieu which was established by the Cardinal in the 1630s when he was at the height of his powers as right-hand-man to Louis XIII. It must be quite something to be able to name an entire community after yourself – there’s a hill in Cumbria called High Ewebank, but somehow that doesn’t sound quite so impressive. Anyway, the grand palace the Cardinal built for himself is long gone but the village, which was perhaps the first such community to be laid out on a grid pattern, is still standing, albeit only partly occupied and very much in danger (see the paragraph above) of falling into disrepair. Something is going to have to be done to preserve these places, or in 50 years or so they’ll be completely lost.
Our last night in Ares was marked by yet another monster thunderstorm that was still making its presence felt as we packed up the van and went through the usual palaver of emptying the toilet and grey waste, strapping the bikes on the back and getting ready for some high speed (80 kph) cruising. The overnight thunder and lightning had been impressive (amplified of course by the fact that we were sleeping in a small plastic and aluminium box) but nothing to what they’d obviously experienced further inland. As we drove through the area to the north of the Dordogne we started to notice some fallen branches and lots of debris on the road, and by the time we reached La Roche Chalais it was clear that a whole swathe of the countryside had taken a real hammering. Just driving through towards Riberac we saw literally thousands of trees snapped, uprooted or with fallen branches, dozens of roofs destroyed, cars with smashed windscreens, entire crops of sunflowers, maize and vines battered to destruction by torrential rain, giant hailstones and typhoon strength winds – quite remarkable and a real disaster for the residents. We had nothing to compare it with other than the typhoon that swept across the south of England in 1987.
Leaving the destruction behind, we stopped off at the idyllically pretty village of Bourdeilles which manages to cram the best part of a thousand years of history into a couple of hundred square metres and has managed to do so without turning itself into a tourist trap. No doubt it gets its share of visitors in the main holiday season, but we were thankful to be able to wander through with virtually nobody else in sight. Hopefully the pictures speak for themselves.
Our overnight stopover in Brantome was another treat. We walked from the camperstop up past the Abbey and through the pretty little town, which sits along the banks of the River Dronne, before treating ourselves to a feast of omelette and chips at a local restaurant – who says we don’t know how to live it up?
Leaving Bordeaux we headed for the coast, or to be strictly accurate we headed for the Bassin d’Arcachon which is a large, shallow bay pretty much due west of Bordeaux. On the southern edge of the bay is the renowned Dune of Pilat (which may or may not be the biggest sand dune in the universe) and the town of Arcachon; however, our destination, Ares, is a small community on the bay’s north eastern edge, making its living from visitors and oysters and surrounded by pine forests. We’d booked four nights at the La Cigale campsite, and with the temperature finally reaching 41 degrees for a couple of days we were glad that we’d chosen a site with a swimming pool, even though the pool surround was so hot that you couldn’t actually walk on it and in the absence of sufficient brollies we had to sit with our towels over our legs.
One of the features that drew us to the area is the network of excellent cycle paths that provide access to the shores of the bay and to the wonderful beaches that line that part of the Atlantic coast – so on day three we girded our loins (I charged my battery) for the twenty-mile round trip to the beach. Fortunately, much of the ride was in the shade and the only real danger was of being wiped out by other cycle path users – at one point we were overtaken by a lad on roller blades who must have been doing 20mph. The beach, when we eventually got there, was awesome. I have no idea exactly how big it is, but we could see at least four miles in each direction and it was virtually empty. Surf was up, the sun was shining and not a ‘kiss me quick’ hat in sight. Perfect. Our last two evenings in Ares were marked by seriously impressive thunderstorms, which are presumably a natural consequence of the high daytime temperatures we were experiencing. Aside from sounding like someone was practising their tap-dance routine on the roof of the van, the storms didn’t really impact greatly upon us but, as you’ll learn in the next blog, they caused havoc elsewhere.
The three-hour drive south from Coulon was pleasant and uneventful, though with temperatures continuing to rise (36 degrees) we might have enjoyed it a little more if the van had been fitted with air conditioning. French roads are excellent and by sticking to the ‘D’ and ‘A’ roads we avoid motorway tolls and drive at a speed that’s comfortable for the van. I have to say also that the standard of French driving generally puts us Brits to shame – no hogging the outside lane or attempting to drive up the exhaust of the car in front.
Bordeaux has been on our travel wish-list for some time. We’ve skirted around the place several times on our way down to Biarritz and the south but never managed to summon up much enthusiasm for driving into a large, unknown city centre. This time we were fortunate to locate the Beau Soleil campsite near Gradignan on the city’s outskirts, which sits at the end of a 45-minute bus and tram journey that takes you directly into the city centre.
The following day (Friday) we hopped on the bus, changed to a tram at Peixotto, and eventually found ourselves in the heart of the city. Bordeaux is an attractive city that has somehow managed to avoid the twin scourges of the twentieth century (war and town planners) and as a result still has much of its 18th and 19th century charm – I was particularly taken by the wide boulevards which would have allowed a clear field of fire for the canons when the peasants started revolting (not an uncommon event at the time).
Despite the heat we managed to take in a number of visitor attractions and had an enjoyable wander around the narrow streets of the old city. Along the way we noticed a number of Camino scallop markers set into the roads and pavements – we hadn’t previously realised that one of the pilgrim routes passed through the city. Come lunchtime we walked across the Pont Pierre and managed to find the Jardin Botanique, which was pleasant but in need of a bit of upkeep and therefore perhaps a wasted opportunity for the people of Bordeaux. It did, however, provide a nice venue for lunch, which we enjoyed in the Jardin Café before taking the bus directly back to Beau Soleil. Overall, an enjoyable visit and another tick on the visit wish-list.
I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a hot weather person. In the searing, white-hot incandescence of an English Summer with the thermometer sometimes creeping as high as 24 degrees, I’ve been the one to cry ‘bring it on, I can stand any amount of this!”. So, when my trusty BBC Weather app told me that the temperature in Coulon was likely to reach 35 degrees I was definitely up for it. But, as the old saying goes – be careful what you wish for.
Coulon nestles on the edge of the Marais Poitevin, an area of drained marshland just to the West of Niort. We’d visited before, probably around 18 years ago, and although I had a vague memory of the place, in reality I couldn’t remember much more than the fact of our visit, that the area is criss-crossed by canals and drainage ditches and that it’s yet another stunning part of France.
We stayed for four nights on a site that was a bit of mix between a camperstop and a municipal campsite. For 10 euros a night we got our pitch, electricity and toilets – but no showers. Now, I don’t know how you’d fare living for four days in a small white box in 34 degree heat and no showers, but let me tell you it isn’t an enticing prospect – even when you’ve lived with the same partner for 44 years. Fortunately, we suddenly remembered that, although we’d never previously used it, the van has a shower! No matter that you need the contorting skills of a Japanese origami master to use it – in these conditions we were prepared to try anything. And it works! Well, it works after a fashion and that was good enough for us. Luxury.
The Marais is extremely pretty – and flat – so cycling is an excellent way of getting around and doing a bit of exploring. Especially if you happen to have an e-bike. We managed a couple of forays and would probably have done more if the weather had been just a little cooler. On the 14th, which just happens to be her majesty’s official (and unofficial) birthday, we were joined for lunch by Jennie and Nathan, which helped to make the day rather special.
Our next stop is Bordeaux where we’re promised highs of 39 degrees. Oh goody.
Saturday arrived and our week with the family at Saint Cast all too quickly came to an end. Richard and family high-tailed it home via the Channel Tunnel in order to get Gretel back into school and resume normal life, Jennie and Nathan moved on to the Isle de Re for a few days of chilling, exploring and oyster eating whilst Tom Emily and Rory headed back into Normandy for some quiet family time prior to their return home.
Knowing that we probably wouldn’t get away from the house until around midday we decided that we wouldn’t travel very far on the Saturday and opted to drive the hundred or so miles down to Carnac to take a look at what the French so ambiguously call ‘The Alignments’. In a way I suppose they’re right, because if you really don’t know what something is its rather difficult to give it a meaningful name. Quite what the neolithic occupants of the region were thinking when they decided to place some thousands of massive boulders in more or less straight lines for up to 4km is anybody’s guess. Personally, I rather like the idea of a monumental game of Tetris but other ideas such as ‘landing lights for alien spacecraft’ probably have just as much merit (though it would have made for a bumpy landing). Whatever the reason, it must have taken ages – though as they hadn’t actually invented clocks or calendars in 5,000 B.C. they presumably didn’t give much thought to the European Working Time Directive.
After a night on a freebee camperstop and another brief morning look at the ‘alignments’ we started our journey down to Coulon, stopping after a very few miles to take in the small and very picturesque riverside port of Auray. As it happens the day marked the start of some wonderful weather (more of which anon) and if you’re going to do some sightseeing in small, picturesque ports you really couldn’t have chosen a better day. After running through all the usual superlatives we happily settled for ‘lovely’ – and it was.
During our two day stay at the nearby Pen-Guen campsite we’d taken the opportunity to recce the house in nearby St Cast, so we had a good idea of what to expect when we were handed the keys on the Saturday morning. We did a monster ‘Super-U’ shop that morning so all that remained to do was to sit and await the arrival of the family, and by that evening they had all arrived safely and we were firmly ensconced for the week ahead.
La Garde was perfect for a relaxing family holiday and definitely lived up to our expectations: comfortable house with plenty of room, heated pool, large (not particularly well-kept) garden for the children to run around in and a ten-minute walk to the world’s best beach – what more could we have asked for?
Our seven days at La Garde went all too quickly. Frequent trips to the beach, walks into St Cast to collect the morning croissants, lovely meals, a high-pressure game of golf for Richard, Tom and Jennie (well done Jen) and a lot of general lazing around and relaxing. It would be nice to think that we might be able to do the same thing again next year – we’ll see.
Thank you to all the family for helping to celebrate the advent of my eighth decade on planet Earth. I love you all very much.
Starting our holiday in France, and with a couple of days to kill before the arrival of the family to spend a week with us in the villa we’ve booked at Saint-Cast le Guildo, we thought that we’d begin our trip on familiar territory by revisiting the Normandy town of Mortain that happens to be twinned with Blandford Forum and to which we paid a flying visit back in 2004 when I was Regimental Colonel. To be honest I think that the only reason we were invited back then was because of my association with the Corps Band who’d been invited to perform at the town’s annual twinning celebrations. Whatever the reason for the invitation, one of the few things I remember about that trip was that we were very well looked after by our hosts – even to extent of being accommodated at the home of Monsieur le Maire. Why is it that our memories of some of these trips are so patchy? Is it amnesia, dementia, or simply that we didn’t pay much attention at the time?
Anyway, for this visit I think that we expected to find the same lively and well-kept little French town- albeit without the bunting and jolly music. Oh dear! How things can change in just a few years. Sadly, the Mortain of 2022 is just like so many of the small, provincial French towns we’ve seen in recent years – dead, or well on the way towards an early death. Empty shop fronts, ‘A Vendre’ signs on far too many residential properties and every indication of an imminent demise short of tumbleweed rolling down the main street. The curse of the ‘out of town’ shopping centre has done for Mortain what the Romans did for Carthage. Tant Pis!
On a rather more positive note, one thing that Mortain does have going for it is an excellent ‘camperstop’ site that allows visiting ‘vans’ to park overnight on the Place de la Chateau for free with the added amenity of a fully-automated, stainless steel public convenience which does just about everything for its clientele short of wiping their bottoms. All very French.
After a leisurely start to Day Two, and having purchased and then consumed our first croissants of this trip, we drove the 30 or so miles to the pretty, bustling, and almost unspoilt town of Dinan which can boast some of the most original medieval streets and buildings to be found in this part of France. Although the two towns are very different both in size and nature the contrast with Mortain couldn’t be more stark. A further hour’s drive brought us to Saint Cast le Guildo, or at least as far as the rather dog-eared Pen Guin campsite on the edge of the town where we’re spending a couple of nights before occupying the villa. In my official role as ‘campsite connoisseur’ I had little hesitation in awarding this one ‘null points’, partly because there isn’t a level pitch to be found anywhere on the site, but mainly because I was in a grump when we arrived!
Arriving in Mull we suddenly realised that we had a problem. Not a physical problem you understand, more of a memory thing. We know that we holidayed on the island with the children back in 1993, but neither of us could remember how we got here, most of what we did when we were here, or more that a few isolated fragments of what should have been a memorable holiday. We remembered a bit about our accommodation, we remembered that Jennifer spent much of her time trying to befriend a family of feral cats under the building and we remembered that Richard was less than well when we went out fishing for mackerel – but the rest of the trip remains a mystery. Hopefully our memories of this this trip will last a little longer.
Scallastle Farm, Diane and Nigel’s lovely new home which they share with a herd of Luing cattle (the farm, not the house), is just a few minutes drive from the ferry terminal at Craignure. They (Di and Nigel that is, not the cattle) were perfect and generous hosts for our short stay, driving us hither and thither around the island and sharing their love and enthusiasm for their wonderful island home.
When you visit this part of the world at this time of year you have to cross your fingers and hope for decent weather – and for the first four days of our stay we had it. Clear blue skies and bright Spring sunshine more than compensated for a slightly chill breeze and did justice to the stunning Mull scenery – and not a midge in sight. Perfect!
As I’m writing this we’re sitting in the van on Day Five with the rain hammering down, doing its best to compensate for the unseasonable sunshine that we’ve enjoyed since our arrival. No matter, it gives me a chance to reflect on some of the highlights of our stay.
….holiday blogs, motoring obsessions and an occasional account of goings-on in the Ewbank household