Category Archives: Travels in the Van

Soria to Segovia (What the Romans did for us)

We’d intended to visit Soria but failed to find a convenient parking place and decided to push on before my grumpyness could get a firm foothold.  Instead, we stopped for lunch in the walled town of El Burgo de Osma, the centre of which has the appearance of being very original and untouched by the past several centuries.  It was a pleasant place for a stroll but we eventually decided that it must have been cleverly but quite heavily rebuilt in recent years – no harm in that but it was a bit like the woodman’s axe (if the shaft and head have both been replaced it tends to detract from the originality.

The well preserved heart of El Burgo de Osma
The (perhaps too) well preserved heart of El Burgo de Osma

Our destination for the day was Segovia.  We’d planned to stay at a campsite on the outskirts of the city but arrived to find that, much to the frustration of the occupants of a couple of other vans that were trying to gain entry, and despite having an active presence on the web, the place was shut up with no sign of being in use.  In fact that did us a favour as the camperstop we ended up in was next to the bullring and only a mile’s walk from the centre of the city.

The one thing you really mustn’t miss if/when you visit Segova is the aqueduct that runs into, and across the centre of the city.  By good luck our walk into town took us along the route followed by this masterpiece of roman engineering.  Built in the second half of the First Century AD it really is a phenominal sight and despite undoubtably having been maintained over the years (a bit like the axe) it richly deserves its World Heritage status.

The roman aquaduct at Segovia
The aquaduct at Segovia – so what did the Romans ever do for us?

Spain (again). Plan, what plan?

It’s a well known, and often quoted, military axiom that no plan survives contact with the enemy.  Bearing that in mind we took particular care to ensure that this trip in the van would go completely smoothly – by not making a plan!  With four weeks in Spain ahead of us, and nowhere in particular that we wanted/needed to visit, we decided to go where the fancy takes us with no itinerary and no deadlines.

Which is all very well in theory, but we couldn’t just get off the ferry in Bilbao, sit on the quayside and ask ourselves ‘where next’?  So as every story has to have a beginning we decided to start this one in Pamplona.  The drive from Bilbao is an easy one; we stuck mainly to the ‘N’ roads which are the equivalent of British ‘A’ roads, the only real differences being that the Spanish roads are virtually empty, and have no potholes.  Pamplona is a nice city with plenty of history; unfortunately our visit didn’t coincide with the ‘running of the bulls’ but I’m not entirely sure we really fancied jogging through the streets hotly pursued by several thousand pounds of lean beef.

Denise on the ramparts on Pamplona
The city walls of Pamplona – not a bull in sight!

After a night on a camperstop we set off for Soria (yes, okay, we do have a sort of plan), enjoying the weather with temperatures in the mid 20s and of course no rain.  Spain has endured several consecutive years of above average temperatures and below average rainfall, with draught as the inevitable outcome.  We saw several wooded areas that had been scorched by fires and the only lake/reservoir we saw was virtually empty, with cattle grazing on the bed that should have been several metres under water.

We stayed the Sunday night at a campsite at  Valdeavellano de Tera just to the north of Soria.  Despite being large and reasonably well appointed it was virtually empty, the only other occupants being a French couple in a motorhome and some Dutch visitors in a 4×4.  We woke the next morning feeling a little chilly and only then realised that we were at 3,000 + feet – a bit like camping on the top of Snowdon!


The End of the Holiday – with a Sting in the Tail

We’d originally planned to return to the UK on June 28th, but thanks to the family’s generosity we had a very good reason to extend our stay by an extra day – with a night in a lovely hotel at Beaugency followed by VIP tickets to see Sting just down the road at Chambord.

Beaugency sits on the north bank of the Loire about 15 miles to the east of Blois.  It’s a pretty and unspoiled little town steeped in  history and an ideal place for a quiet, relaxing evening.  The 10th  century Eglise de Notre Dame de Beaugency was especially interesting as it was here that the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Louis VII  was annuled  in 1152, leaving her free to marry Henry Duke of Normandy – who shortly after became Henry II King of England.  The marriage brought Eleanor’s vast lands in the south west of France under the Plantagenet throne and effectively kick-started three hundred years of war between England and France.
The following day we made our way to Chambord – which must surely be the most impressive and spectacular of the Loire chateaux.   Over the years we seem to have developed a knack of timing our visits to beautiful buildings when they’re covered in scaffolding, and this was no exception.   Despite the chateau looking a bit as though it had been gift-wrapped for the occasion it was nevertheless undeniably beautiful and a perfect backdrop for the evening’s concert.
Sting was quite simply brilliant.  His voice is as good as ever and his ninety minute set, which included many of the songs that we’ve listened to and enjoyed for the past forty years, captivated the audience and provided a wonderful and memorable ending to a great holiday.  Thank you family for treating us to this very special evening.

St Claude de Direy

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?

Confolens and Richelieu

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.

Bordeilles and Brantome

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?

Ares (No, that’s not a typo)

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.

It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (Coulon)

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.

Carnac and Auray

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.