Helpx Number 8….. .

Our lazy days trundling through Brittany came to an end a couple of weeks ago as we were booked in for our 8th Helpx in the Poitou-Charente region of France.  This was a return visit to a Ralph and Sue who have 10-12 acres of land, a horse, two donkeys and two pigs to look after as well as running a small kennels and cattery.  We last visited over two years ago and we were looking forward to going back to a familiar area and getting stuck in to a bit of physical work after an idle couple of weeks.  The pounds had been piling on and we were in need of shifting them. Sue had also booked Tim in to play at two bars during our two week stay which he was also really looking forward to.

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A gig for Tim in a bar at Finioux with an equal mix of French and English customers.

After getting acquainted once again with our hosts and what was expected of us we set to work.  The main areas of work they needed help with were clearing some areas of two of the fields which have become overgrown with bramble and bracken, moving about a thousand roof tiles to another property a few miles away and general tidying up in the garden behind the house. They’d also had a number of trees felled a while ago which needed cutting up into smaller manageable chunks to be used for firewood.  The only problem was that they were all buried under overgrown bracken which needed to be cleared first before we could get to them.

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Clearing an area of one of the fields accompanied by the donkeys Cafe and Chocolat.

We worked our way through the roof tiles in the mornings and cleared a bit of land in the fields for an hour or two in the afternoon.  The weather couldn’t have been better with clear sunny skies and temperatures in the low twenties.

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Unfortunately the little tractor is not man enough for the bracken.

By the fourth day the tiles had all been moved so we made a start on the felled trees.  Things were going reasonably well with Tim and I using the petrol hedge trimmer to cut the bracken and raking it all out of the way of the trees whilst Ralph used the chainsaw to cut up the wood.   So far so good.  But then the pig’s got a bit too close for comfort.

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Nosey pigs.

We met the pigs on our last visit when they were but tiny wee things.  They were bought not to be eaten but to act as eco friendly lawnmowers for the bracken that was getting out of hand on the land.  Their job would be to trample the bracken, eat the young fronds and plough up the land making it difficult for the bracken to flourish.  Unfortunately it seems that the pigs have trampled, rotovated, ploughed and eaten everything else but the bracken so they haven’t really fulfilled their job.

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The pigs on our frst visit over two years ago.

Once they got bigger and outgrew their small enclosure they were given free access to two very large fields.  The two very large fields we happened to be working in.  Oh, they have had a whale of a time making it their own.  Numerous pig pits and dens have appeared where they like to sleep and the ground has been trampled and turned over by their two snouts   They are friendly beasts and being the nosey creatures that they are couldn’t help but stick their snouts into what was going on.

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They’re a bit bigger now.

By the fourth day of us clearing various areas they seemed a bit put out that: a) they’d been woken up early by the buzzing of a chainsaw and a hedge trimmer and b) that people were muscling in on their space.  I mean it’s not like they only have a small area to call their own as they are free to roam across ten acres of land and with all that space you’d think they’d be a bit more charitable with letting us work in a small area for couple of hours or so to cut down some bracken and chop up and clear a few logs but no they were having none of it.  The pig’s said ‘NON’ with a capital ‘N’ and believe me it’s a bit disconcerting when a 200kg mardy pig comes up behind you whilst you’re trying to work with power tools.  It was an accident waiting to happen so in the end the pigs stopped play.  That particular job will have to wait for another day when they are in a more cooperative mood.  Like when they are in the freezer.  Alas, after two and a half years of a charmed life they have now become a liability.  After a recent spate of escapes by them the necessary decision has been made that they have to go and it’s going to be a one way trip.  They are, in the next couple of weeks, destined for the freezer.

P1130659.JPGSo with the field work put on hold until after the pigs have departed we spent a few days instead tackling the overgrown bramble in two areas of the garden at the back of the house.

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Gig number two at a fish and chip night in another village.
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A little taste of home!

Working outside clearing land (hard work though it is) under sunny skies is one of the things we have most enjoyed about our new life but it does come with a caveat.  We wouldn’t want to have the responsibility of owning and caring for any land ourselves.  Looking after land takes a lot of work and it’s not for the faint hearted.  There is always something to do and it just keeps on growing (why not state the obvious Jane).  Returning here after more than a two year gap just reinforced that for us.  Like all these things we like the idea of living something like the ‘Good Life’ but the reality is a different story.

After a couple of weeks of clearing land we are more than happy to down tools and say ‘Au revoir’ to it all.

À tout à l’heure!

Bimbling in Brittany…. .

On the road again………. .  Whenever we have stayed put for more than a couple of weeks we always spend the first few days back on the road singing the first line of that Willie Nelson song ‘On the road again’.  We only sing the first line because that is the only line we know.  No matter, it makes us smile and keeps us happy.  And we are very happy to be back in the saddle as it were haphazardly making our way through Brittany.  In fact, Tim has been grinning inanely for the best part of the last week.  Even more so as the weather has improved day by day.

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The boules have been broken out after a very long time in hiding.

We’ve had no particular plan other than to head in a more or less southerly direction as we have a couple of weeks of Helpxing booked in to start this weekend near Niort which is south east of Nantes.

It’s been a bit of a reminiscing tour as over twenty five years ago we spent three weeks cycle touring around the coast of Brittany from Roscoff to Concarneau and back taking in the Finistère coast to the west.  All we can really remember about it was after forty eight hours of continual rain in the second week and with everything soaking wet we caved in and hired a caravan for a week’s respite to dry out.  We really aren’t cut out for hardship.  Tootling about in the van this time it’s been a much more sedate and laid back affair.

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Ah, happy days on a cycle tour of Brittany circa 1992.  Do you remember those towels Mum?!  We still used them for drying the dogs off right upuntil 2013!

I have to confess the bikes haven’t seen the light of day for quite some time.  When we were working at the campsite in Cornwall we’d started with good intentions to use the bikes for all our trips out including the weekly shop.  Yeah right, well that lasted for the first two weeks before we succumbed to going shopping in the van.  Unfortunately, an eight mile round trip to Lidl on the bike after a week’s work lost its appeal pretty quickly and we haven’t quite got the cycling mojo back again yet.  So it’s been a week of beach walking.

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Beaches and estuaries galore in Brittany.

I’d forgotten how incredible the beaches are in Brittany.  Long ribbons of fine white sand broken up by estuaries and rocky headlands.  They are perfect for bracing walks when the tide is out.  You are spoilt for choice for aires and campsites along the coast and we have enjoyed parking up behind windswept beaches and being able to roll out of the van in the morning for a brisk walk before breakfast.

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The perfect spot for an overnight stop – the little white dot in the middle above the sand is Ollie, our van.

One place we did remember from our cycling holiday was Concarneau with its 14th Century walled town built on an island in the harbour and accessed by a bridge.  Alas, it’s sold itself out completely to tourism now with the compact interior lined with tourist shops and restaurants.  It’s still pleasant to explore and enjoy the views from the ramparts though.

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The ramparts of Concarneau.

The town is also still a big fishing port with huge fish sorting sheds lining the harbour which we passed when walking in from the aire on the outskirts of the town.

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The walk from the aire into to Concarneau.

Moving further south we pitched up for a night on an aire just north of Quiberon.  This spit of land was once an island and the West side of it is known as the Côte Sauvage although it didn’t look particularly sauvage when we were there as the sun was beaming with just a light breeze ruffling the grass.  It’s a busy stretch of coast line and appears to be very popular.  We walked along the coast into Quiberon itself and spent a very pleasant hour basking in the sun out of the wind sitting on the beach eating our picnic watching the sailing boats ply to and fro.

Lazy days indeed.  Tim can’t believe his luck.  Normally he lives in fear of my plans for him.  I’ve let him off the hook this week and he has been enjoying it to the fullest but deep down he knows it won’t last!

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You know it won’t last Tim!

À la prochaine!

A finale in France…. .

Sitting in the queue waiting for the ferry to dock at Igoumenitsa we were sad to be leaving Greece but equally excited to be moving on to pastures new.  We’d decided that when we got to the other side at Ancona we would head straight across Italy making a beeline for the south of France to finish Season 2 of our European tour.  Italy will have to wait for another time.

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The view arriving at Ancona, Italy.
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The boat reverses in to the port.

It was a wise decision to splash the cash for the tolls on the motorways. The roads in Italy really aren’t great.  No, that’s being kind.  The roads in Italy are diabolical.  I know we have only seen a small part of Italy on our travels which isn’t really enough time to make an informed judgement but going by what we have experienced so far I think it’s a fair assessment.  The road surfaces are just crap.  Travelling at any reasonable speed would be pure folly.  If you wear dentures then it’s probably wise to leave them in their jar for the day.  It’s maybe not so bad in a car but in a motorhome it’s oh so tedious.  Constantly being shaken to bits, avoiding lumps, bumps, potholes and humps is just no fun.  It’s also no fun for the other motorists trailing along behind us as we crawl along at a reduced speed.  Even so, it still seemed like a long drive to get to France and it took us two days.

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Ah, the joys of being back on busy motorways in Italy.

We were, though, extremely happy to be back in France and both punched the air when going over the border despite the gloomy weather and heavy rain.  We exited the motorway just over the border into France and dropped down the steep winding hill to the wonderful, beautiful, picture postcard town of Menton.  Ah, what a marvellous looking place (even in the pouring rain) set at the foot of a steep hill on the French Riviera.  It was such a shame, then, that we never actually got to see it.

We parked at one of the marinas giving us a view back over the town.  I had a little gander at the parking metre and discovered that you were only allowed to park for a maximum of three and a half hours.  Undeterred we had lunch whilst contemplating our options.  It looked like there was an industrial estate outside the town where we might be able to park up for the night and then come back down to the town in the morning for a look see.  The rain might have stopped by then too.  There was also an Intermarché supermarket there and we needed provisions and diesel.  Tim never tires of cruising the aisles of large supermarkets even though they all seem to sell the same stuff so it would keep him entertained for several hours on a wet day.   Excellent.  Off we went back up the hill in search of a likely place to stay overnight.

We discovered that everything is very compact in Menton, including the Intermarché which has an underground car park with height barriers.  Tim was not to cruise the aisles that day.  The industrial estate was also extremely compact with only on street parking with not a metre of space to be had.  As we were alarmingly low on diesel we swung in to the Intermarché, went down an extremely steep ramp, grounded the tow bar on the tarmac at the bottom, looked at the layout designed for nothing bigger than a Smart car, sat blocking everyone’s way whilst deciding what to do, decided to exit the garage, at the exit changed our minds, swung in to the entrance again, went down the extremely steep ramp, grounded the tow bar on the tarmac once again (rolleyes), and took another go at it.  There wasn’t enough room for us to drive in, fill up, and then follow the one way system around two tight bends to get to the pay booth so I queued up in the rain behind the cars to pay what we owed whilst Tim kept dry in the van.  Obviously, being British I didn’t like to jump the queue.  We then had to reverse back from the pump to get out causing more chaos.

By this time we were a tad fed up with the traffic, the rain and seemingly no options to park up for the night.  We took another attack on the town to see if we could park further along the sea-front but with ‘NO MOTORHOMES’ signs everywhere we gave up, decided to get back onto the motorway, exit at the first services and decide what to do next.  By the time we got to the services we really couldn’t be bothered to move again so stayed the night.  It’s not something we’d normally do, in fact, I don’t think we’ve ever stayed at a motorway services overnight but it’s always nice to do something new for a change!  We slept pretty well considering that lorries were coming and going all night.  This is the reality of living the dream folks 🙂  Those sorts of days are few and far between though and the following morning we awoke to bright sunshine streaming through the skylights, the smell of diesel and lorry engines revving all around us.  I can’t think of a better way to start the day.

On the road again by seven o’clock and having decided that Menton and the French Riviera would be better visited with a car, we headed for the Ardèche Gorge.  The Ardèche is somewhere that we almost visited on a trip to France in 2014 but decided against it as we didn’t fancy spending four days of our two week holiday travelling there and back.  We stopped off on the way at a lovely little free aire complete with picnic benches just outside the village of Chusclan.

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The aire at Chusclan.

This is why we love France so much as so many villages provide facilities for camper vans.  We thanked the village for their hospitality by spending the evening at the local bar swapping stories with Pam and Paul who were in the van next to us and on a six week trip.  We also bought some wine from the Chusclan vineyard next door to the aire.  About a dozen motorhomes had stayed the night and nearly all of them had been over to the vineyard to purchase some of their produce.  It’s a win-win.

The Ardèche Gorge is a summer playground for families who enjoy messing about in boats…..or kayaks and rafts to be precise.  The gorge runs for thirty two kilometres from Vallon-Pont-d’Arc down to Saint-Martin-d’Ardeche.  We stopped at a free aire just outside the beautiful village of Aigèze on the other side of the river from Saint-Martin and spent a couple of days walking in the area above and through the gorge.  The sun was out and life was good.

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The aire at Aigèze.
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A walk up to a viewpoint over the Ardèche gorge.
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Aigèze.
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We had to breathe in going over the bridge in the van.
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A walk along the river.
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A nice spot for some lunch.

Then it got cold…………really cold.  Well, I have get this in perspective.  It was about two or three degrees during the day which isn’t that cold but we’ve been used to balmy temperatures for so long now it was quite the shock to the system.  And there was the wind chill too.  Tim took it all in his stride, switched back to long trousers and layered up.  I just moaned.  And moaned.  And moaned.  I can’t say I’m proud of myself as I didn’t come out of it until the end of the week when the temperatures got back into double figures again.  I was also not a happy bunny when we did the washing at one of those outdoor Intermarché self service machines and it didn’t spin it leaving it soaking wet after the program had finished.  We spent twenty minutes in the supermarket carpark wringing it all out before we could put it into the drier.  Ah, happy days indeed!  Can you tell we’re missing Greece?!

After two days at the aire at Aigèze we drove the D290 which follows the top of the gorge as far as Vallon-Pont-d’Arc.  There were plenty of places to stop and pull over to admire the magnificent views down over the gorge and we had the whole road to ourselves for over an hour.

 

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The river will be chock full of kayakers in the height of the summer.
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We’ll come back one summer and hire a canoe.

It was a bit surreal really as not one vehicle passed us in either direction. Weird.

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No-one else around.

After twenty five kilometres we realised why when we came to a Route Barrée sign telling us the road up ahead was closed during the day.  Mmm, maybe the locals were in the know but it was the first we’d seen of the closure.  Fortunately we were able to do a detour around but we didn’t get to see the Pont d’Arc natural arch over the river.  Ah well, maybe next time.

For the last few days we’ve been trundling along following the Ardèche river to its source in the Massif-Central area of France stopping at some of the sleepy villages along the way.

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Balazac village on the Ardeche.
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Vogue.

 

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A pretty section of the Auzon river near Vogue.
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Devils Bridge on the Ardeche at Thuyets.

 

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It was a narrow steep path down to the river from the aire at Thuyets.

It’s time now to head further north.

À bientôt!

Boat-lifts and barges in Belgium…. .

L’Ascenseur furniculaire de Strépy-Thieu, before it was trumped by the Three Gorges Dam in 2016, was the largest boat-lift in the world. We thought it would be interesting to take a look. At just over 100 metres high and 135 metres long it is a monster.

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Strepy-Thieu boat-lift.

By the 1960’s the four existing hydraulic boat lifts, built in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, were no longer sufficient to accommodate the larger barges that were by then plying the canal network. A program of modernisation was needed. Taking twenty years to build the lift was finally unveiled in 2002 and can accommodate barges of up to 1350 tonnes.

The Voies d’Eau du Hainaut website entices you with the words ‘climb up through the core, all the way up to the panoramic viewing point at the top where you can experience the “Land of Genius” interactive tour’. We were not to be enticed. After seeing a barge enter the lift at the bottom we frantically scrambled up the steep bank to see it exit at the top. It’s cheaper that way. Genius!

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Out comes the barge at the top.

Parked right on the edge of the canal at the free aire at Thieu we spent three days cycling and walking the canal.

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The aire on the canal at Thieu.

Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site the four ‘old’ boat lifts were a much more photogenic affair than the new one.

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Boat-lift number 3.

Spaced out over seven kilometres each boat lift hauls its cargo up or down 15-16 metres. They are still in their original working condition.

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Boat-lift number 1 in the foreground and number to beyond.

Tim extolled on the quality of the rivets and the craftsmanship of the build. Not being an engineer myself I can’t really comment but it all looked pretty sturdy to me.

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Odd to see a flock of goats on a housing estate?!

Even though Belgium hasn’t been up there for spectacular landscape it has got some excellent traffic free cycle paths. 15km along the canal took us into Mons.

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Mons.

We didn’t go specifically to see Mons as we were after a bit of peace and quiet really but we had to find somewhere to print off a couple of documents to get posted back to the UK.

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The Bell Tower at Mons.

Job done the round trip took about three hours. It is nice to have the time to take three hours to print and post a letter though.

Twenty kilometres further up the canal we stopped to take a look at the Ronquières super lock completed in 1968. It’s not a lock as such more a kind of boat slide. Stretching 1.4km in length it is quite a sight. The boat motors into a type of lock which is then winched, on rails, up or down the 68m hill.

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Ronquieres super lock/lift/slide.

We arrived expecting to be able to walk along a tow path alongside it but were disappointed that it can only be seen from the bottom, halfway up or at the top. Also there wasn’t a boat to be seen so we didn’t see it in action.

We nipped back over the French border to stop for a few days at Givet as I thought we could cycle to Dinant along the river Meuse from there. We parked up at the ‘unofficial aire’ on the opposite side of the river from the town. The official aire, a ten minute walk away, was full of plant machinery for some refurbishment that was going on.  I don’t think anyone uses it though.

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Givet, France.

I asked at the tourist information whether they had a route map for a cycle to Dinant. Unfortunately, as Dinant is in Belgium it’s not their remit to provide guides for anything across the border but I could have a lovely spiral bound glossy guide to the Voie Verte going south along the river on the French side.  Oh, Ok.  So we went south down the Meuse towards Fumay instead.

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The view from Chooze village on the cycle path.  So picturesque but there is a nuclear power plant on the other side of the village!

Along the way we happened upon a rather large group of youngsters on an outing with just two adults in charge and nary a high viz vest in sight. They’d never get away with it in the UK 😉

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A gaggle of  over forty goslings 🙂

We’d never seen anything like it before counting at least forty two goslings being led by two adult geese. I later googled it and was surprised to learn that goose crèches are fairly common. An article in the Daily Mail does say though that forty is exceptional. It made my day seeing them 🙂

Not being able to find a suitable traffic free route along the Meuse to Dinant we drove instead.  Quite a lot of the route followed the edge of the Meuse and was very picturesque.  We were into the Ardenne region which is full of gently rolling hills, forests and quiet roads.  Quiet roads, that was, until we got to Dinant where every man and his dog seemed to be driving through.  Our guidebook describes Dinant as ‘picture-postcard’ which it kind of is except for all that noisy traffic.

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Dinant, birthplace of Adolph Sax, inventor of the saxophone.

We didn’t have the relaxing stroll we were hoping for and spent just an hour there.   Adolph Sax, inventor of the saxophone, was born in Dinant so with Tim being a sax player it was a chance to get the obligatory photo outside where the inventor was born.

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Outside the tiny Adolph Sax museum.

There is a free tiny museum to look around but it isn’t much to write about and the interactive commentary was drowned out by the constant traffic rumbling past outside.

We stopped overnight at the free aire behind the fire station at Arlon which is in the Province of Luxembourg but in Belgium and where many residents apparently speak Luxembourgish.  Mmm weird, but then Belgium has a curious mix of languages in different areas with predominantly Flemish (similar to Dutch) spoken in the northern region of Flanders, French spoken in the southern region of Wallonia and a teeny German speaking area in the eastern province of Liege.  Add in the Luxembourgish and all the different dialects and it all gets a little bit complicated!

We went out for a couple of Belgian beers and I ordered them in French.  So far so good.  On the second round I asked the lady ‘Qu-est ce-que vous recommendez?’  She started to reply in French and seeing my blank expression morphed into what sounded like German and then what appeared to be Dutch?  I just said ‘yes’ to what she had suggested to keep things simple.  What came out was not a beer at all but a kind of homemade wine or punch with a bit of orange floating on the top.  And foul it was too!  When I paid she said she thought we were Dutch which explained a lot!

Anyway, next up Luxembourg.

Au revoir.  Auf wiedersehen.  Vaarwel.  Ӓddi!

On the road again…. .

So, after just over three weeks back in the UK seeing family and friends and sorting out various bits and pieces that needed sorting like giving away all our possessions (!) we are back on the road for Season 2 of our tour.   I just want to say a big thank you to all our family and friends for taking the time to meet up with us.  It was lovely to see everyone on our whirlwind of a tour and we’ll look forward to doing it all again next year!

So what’s the plan this year?  This year is going to be a bit different as we are going into new territory now!  Queue drum roll.  Not being ones to make any rash decisions we were pretty cautious when we first set sail for France in May 2016.  For our first extended foray into Europe we just planned to tour through France, Spain and Portugal to get a feel for long term travel in countries well set up for motorhomers.  Even though neither of us had visited Spain before (in our adult lives) we’d already been to France several times (in the van) and Portugal a few times (flying) so we felt we were squarely in our comfort zone.

We’ve had a loose plan for this year in our heads for some time but I have been somewhat lacking on the planning front of pin pointing exactly where we’ll go.  I say me because that’s my job as part of Team Ollie.  I do the planning, Tim does the driving.  We travelled down to Dover from Yorkshire ten days ago to catch an overnight ferry to Dunkirk.  After a quick flit to Aldi to stock up on this year’s tea bag supply I thought it would be a good idea to maybe have a look at the guidebooks and maps to start planning our route for this year.  A bit late maybe but…..what can I say?…….I’ve been busy with other things!  The beauty of travelling in a motorhome though is that, well, you don’t really need a plan as such.

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Tea bag stash 2017!

Driving off the ferry at Dunkirk we could choose to go left, right, or straight on, whatever, it doesn’t really matter.  However, the very loooooose plan is to travel through Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Slovenia and Croatia to eventually end up in Greece for the winter with a few stops for some volunteering via Helpx along the way if it fits in.  That’s as detailed a plan as I have got at the moment though!

I’d been perusing the guide books looking for an interesting route down to at least Germany as a start but was feeling pretty overwhelmed with information overload.  It seems to be taking my little brain forever just to get my head around the lie of the land so to speak.  I did, at one point, throw up my hands and bleat to Tim that maybe he could plan a route for a change.  After pointing out to me, in addition to all the driving, the 101 different van related tasks he undertakes as his part of Team Ollie, including the dreaded toilet emptying, I thought it prudent to wind my neck in and go back to the guide books!

Our first stop, then, was just across the Belgian border at Ypres.  There’s a very good aire a fifteen minute walk from the town centre which costs a very reasonable €8 per night inclusive of electricity.  Before we went rushing off into town, though, it was time to break out a shiny new sticker for our map of Europe on the side of the van.  It’s been a long time coming as the map hasn’t been added to since we crossed the border into Portugal back in September last year.  Yay, Belgium, new country.  We are sooo easily pleased!

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Belgium goes on the map.

On first sighting the town centre of Ypres (or Ieper as it is also known) you’d be fooled into thinking that all the buildings date back hundreds of years.  Not so.  The centre of the town, which served as the Allied communications centre, and within range of German artillery, was completely razed to the ground by shelling in the First World War.  The citizens had to be evacuated in 1915 but returned after the war determined to reconstruct their town.  The reconstruction, which took twenty years, is remarkable.  It really is hard to believe that the Lakenhalle (old cloth hall) and the Cathedral are less than 100 years old.

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The Lakenhalle (cloth hall) at Ypres.
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Tucking in to a tasting tray.  Well we are in Belgium after all!

You can’t come to this area of Belgium and not be moved by the reminders of the Great War.  World War I cemeteries, monuments and memorials pepper the towns and surrounding countryside.  The Menin Gate war memorial has engraved upon it the names of fifty thousand British and Commonwealth troops who died in the Ypres Salient but who have no grave.

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The Menin Gate War memorial.

The Last Post is sounded every evening at 8pm under the memorial.  We joined another 2000 or so people that evening to pay our respects.

Consulting our Camper Connect App we found Lesaffre Escargot, a France Passion site, just back over the border in France, where we would be able to take the bus into Lille.  Even though we’re not members of France Passion the site accepts non members at €5 per night and €3 for electricity.  We got a warm welcome from the owner and it was a chance to use that rusty French that I have let slip over recent months.  Oh dear!  I have forgotten so much of it that I am making a conscious effort again to relearn what has drained away.  Goldfish must be a part of my DNA I think.

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Lesaffre Escargot France Passion site.

The little campsite is really nicely laid out, set in quiet countryside and is a 15 minute walk to the bus stop so a perfect base for a few days.  The owners raise their snails in poly tunnels and sell various snail related produce in their little farm shop.  We had a peek into a couple of the poly tunnels to see the snail nursery with the inmates, looking exactly like the snails you’d find in your garden at home, fattening themselves up over a period of 5-6 months for their eventual fate.  Snails being ugly and slimy aren’t really our thing so we weren’t tempted into buying any of the produce.  Our dogs, who were real scavengers and would eat anything, even drew the line at snails and wouldn’t touch them!

Lille was easily reached by the bus which took about 45 minutes and only set us back €3.60 return each.   So much easier and less stressful that driving.  Lille, unfortunately, didn’t really capture our hearts though.

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Lille.

Oh it was nice enough in the old town but lacked something I couldn’t quite put my finger on and sitting here now, writing this, I still can’t!  It just didn’t have the wow factor that we’d seen in Seville, Granada and Valencia I suppose.  Lots of the old town is made up of chic boutiques and as we don’t do either chic or boutique it didn’t really do it for us.

We ended up wandering around aimlessly not really having any direction so called it a day after a couple of hours and returned to the campsite to make the most of the afternoon sunshine.

To counter our disappointment of Lille we had a day of biking to get out into the fresh air. We picked up a cycleway in the pretty town of Comines which follows the canal towards Lille. We whiled away some time watching the huge barges trundling past.

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Barges in Belgium are just slightly bigger than our Narrow boats!

Went past a bijou little campsite.

 

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Glamping site next to the canal.

And were chased off by these geese!

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These geese wanted us off their patch!

Right, I’m going to quit now whilst I’m ahead as we’ve had little or no free wifi since we left England and it has taken an age getting these photos uploaded and my battery is almost flat!  Such is the life of a vagabond!

A bientôt!

An extended pitstop in the Pyrénées.. .

Since my last update we visited our last bastide town before we made a beeline for the Pyrénées.  Cordes sur Ciel is purported to be the first bastide ever to be built in 1222.

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Gothic buildings on Cordes-sur-Ciel

It clings to the Mordagne peak standing 100 metres above the surrounding river valleys.

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The steep, narrow main street to the top of Cordes-sur-Ciel.

It is now a major centre for artists and the Cordes Academy holds many exhibitions drawing in visitors from far and wide.

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One of the fortified entry’s into the main town.

We arrived on Monday 5th September 2016 in the late afternoon.  We knew by the number of motorhomes at the aire below the town that it would be worth the visit but thought it best to explore the town on Tuesday morning when it would be cooler.

P1070935.JPGThe temperatures have remained in the low to mid thirties for several days now and the afternoons are really too hot for trekking up and down steep hills.

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The main narrow road up from the bottom of the town to the top is very steep and a feast for the eyes: cobbled streets, fortified walls, gothic archways, gothic and medieval houses decorated with flowers, kittens peering down from shuttered windows, the list goes on.

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Lower down the main street.
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A kitten surveying life below.

We explored all round the alleyways in the lower and upper town for a couple of hours just marvelling at the sheer scope of it all before hitting the road to make our way to the foothills of the Pyrénées. It was an easy drive skirting round Toulouse on the motorway with the Pyrénées in full view on the horizon.  We arrived at the little village of Siex after the two hour drive with not a cloud in the sky and temperatures in the low 30’s. 

We found a little aire tucked away behind the village where another four vans were parked.  I said ‘bonjour’ to the lady in the next van and she asked if we were staying for a few days.  I said ‘oui’ as we wanted to do some cycling in the area.  She then became very animated telling me her husband was a keen cyclist and he could tell me about some of the routes he had done.  It turned out that the four vans were all together and whilst the men went out every day on the bikes the wives stayed behind presumably enjoying the sunshine and chewing the fat.  Her husband showed me the map of some of the rides they had done and invited us to join them the following day.  I politely declined as, even though they all looked to be in their 60’s, they also looked like Tour de France retirees judging by their muscly legs. They were doing rides of 60-70km on road bikes.  We would have been left behind on the flat let alone the hills.  Also Tim would have killed me if I’d happened to drop in to the conversation that we were partaking in an Anglo-French bike ride the next day.  Therefore, on Wednesday we headed off on a 40km bike ride which took us on a gentle incline through the Garbut river valley to the village of Aulus-les-Bains. 

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Aulus-les-Bains.

Even though it was really hot it was a superb ride as the densely forested hillsides provided some much needed shade. 

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Tiny church at the roadside to Aulus-les-Bains.

The water in the river tumbling down the valley is so clear it takes on an almost duck egg blue colour over the rocks.

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Heading up the valley towards Aulus-les-Bains.

From Aulus-les-Bains we just had to negotiate the Col de Latrappe, a 1111m pass taking us into the next valley and down into Ousto.  The climb is 5km long with an average gradient of 7.4%, the steepest sections being at 10%.  It was first used in the Tour de France in 1956 and has been featured another seven times, the last time being in 2011.  Only one thing for it really – get the bike into granny gear and grin and bear it.  I have to say Tim set off like a rat up a drainpipe and didn’t stop until we got to the summit some 45 minutes later!  I expect the ‘Tour’ guys do it in ten minutes but, no matter, we’d conquered our first ‘Col’!  The ride back down the other side was exhilarating, with the sun on our backs, whizzing past the poor blighters huffing and puffing up the hill. 

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Lunch stop.

We had a beautiful stop for lunch and then cruised down the valley back to Siex feeling very satisfied with ourselves. 

Whilst we were in Aulus-les-Bains we spotted another aire which would be ideal to do a couple of walks from and that is where we have been for the last four nights.  We have a lovely view of the hills and a field of sheep with clanking bells around their necks behind us. 

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The aire at Aulus-les-Bains.

Aulus-les-Bains  is best known for its thermal springs and spa complex.

We’ve done a few walks in the last three days twice climbing up and beyond the Cascade D’ars. The waterfall is 246m high and has three levels. 

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Cascade d’Ars.

At the moment there isn’t a massive amount of water coming down but I expect it’s spectacular after several days of rain. 

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It was a steep climb for 90 mins through the wooded hillside before reaching the waterfalls.

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Just below the top of the falls.
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Lunch stop at 1500m above the Cascade d’Ars.
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Looking back down the valley towards Aulus-les-Bains.

P1080014.JPGOn Friday were woken up by the sound of a saxophone coming from somewhere in the village.  Tim went to investigate and returned to the van to collect his clarinet saying there was an old boy playing a soprano sax in the park and he was off to join him.  I went down to have a look myself and there they both were sitting on a bench in the park banging out some French tunes. 

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An impromptu gig in the park.

I sat on the bench opposite with the chaps wife and she explained that they were staying in the village at the thermal spa for three weeks as it helps with their ailments.  

I’m currently updating the blog sitting on a bench enjoying the free internet access from the ‘office de tourisme’ whilst watching a cycle race coming down through the village.  We want to head over the Pyrénées into Spain in the next couple of weeks but also want to linger a bit longer in the hills to get some more hiking trails under our belts whilst the weather holds.  Tomorrow we have a very glamorous day planned with a back log of washing to do and a grocery shop on the agenda so we’ll be heading back down the valley to civilisation before making a further foray into the hills.

Bon  Journée!

 

Heading further South…. .

The Dordogne has been our friend now for the last 10 days.  With the temperatures in the mid thirties every day we haven’t strayed far from it.  It really is the most beautiful river with crystal clear water and a combination of limestone and pebbles on the bottom.  The natural beaches along much of it’s length are accessible and ideal for paddling and swimming.

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The Dordogne.

We have cooled off in the river at some point everyday and I’ve been able to walk upriver and float back down gently with the current.  Parfait!

We left the aire near Beynac-et-Cazanac on Monday 29th August 2016 and headed a little further East with no particular plan in mind.  We drove through the little village of Carsac-Aillac which had a pretty area with some shade and picnic benches and decided to stop for some lunch.  It turned out that the area was a designated aire and was so lovely we ended up staying for three nights.

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Aire at Carsac-Aille.

A disused railway line, now a cycle path, runs straight through the village running east to Souillac and North to Sarlat-la-Canéda.  We followed it cycling east until Peyrillac-et-Millac  and then crossed over the river to come back a different way.

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A ride along the disused railway.

We needed to find a laundry on Wednesday so opted to use the cycleway to find one in Sarlat.  It was only about 8km, flat (big thumbs up from Tim!) and lovely to be away from the traffic.  Unfortunately, the cycleway ends abruptly 2km outside Sarlat.  It’s a shame it hasn’t been extended to go right into Sarlat as the last 2km isn’t a particularly pleasant ride with several roundabouts to negotiate into the town.  Sarlat redeemed itself on Wednesday though after our experience on Saturday with the market.

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Sarlat.

Even though Wednesday is a market day it was much smaller and much less busy with mainly local fruit and veg stalls, cheeses, foie gras and the like being pedalled.

P1070769.JPGWe found a laverie at the top of the town and spent the 45 minutes whilst the washing was doing it’s thing wandering around the old town.  Sarlat, now we could see it, is impressive!  We arrived before the lunchtime rush and had time to wander the narrow streets, soaking up the fifteenth and sixteenth century buildings and restaurants with their tables spilling out onto the footpaths, ready for diners.

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Sarlat’s back streets.

I’m not sure how you would choose where to eat for lunch as there were so many gorgeous places on offer.  Lucky for us we had fresh French stick and cheese waiting for us back at the van so didn’t have that dilemma!  So, washing done and a quick flit to Lidl we got back to the cycle path and free wheeled nearly the whole way back to Carsac-Aillac.  We hadn’t really noticed but it had been a slight incline all the way to Sarlat. The afternoon was spent lazing by the river marvelling at how much we are enjoying the Dordogne area and how lucky we are to be doing this.

After three nights at Carsac-Aillac we felt the need to move on to Martel, another medieval town which made it’s name during the 13th and 14th centuries when the viscounts established a court of appeal here.

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That’s what I call a door in Martel.

The aire just outside the town looked newly laid and in reality was no more than a large carpark but it was free and we picked up a really strong signal from one of the hotels wifi.  We spent the evening, therefore, in silence binging on the internet!

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Martel.

Tim was as happy as larry doing some research for a new camera as I think we are in need of one. Ours has now got some black dots coming out on the middle of the photos.  (Keeping it stuffed down the side of my cycling shorts hasn’t seemed to agree with it!)

We cycled to Carennac, another Beaux Village de France, on Friday.  We’d parked up 6km away on the north side of the Dordogne as the village is very narrow and motorhomes aren’t allowed to go through it.  Having now seen it I can see why.

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Carrenac.

The bridge across the Dordogne was also equally narrow and just wide enough for cars or small vans.

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Too narrow for ‘Ollie’,.

The village is very compact and well preserved and is best known for its Quercy architecture.

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Carrenac.

With the bikes back on the van we made our way to Rocamadour and parked up at the free aire at the chateau above the old town.  Now we are into September we hoped it would be less busy even though it was a weekend.  The aire was very quiet with about half a dozen vans staying so it looked promising.  We had an early evening stroll down to the old town and to take some photos in the evening sunshine.

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Jaw dropping Rocamadour.

Rocamadour really does defy gravity with no less than seven churches built into the steep hillside.

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In medieval times pilgrims flocked here lured in by the supposed miraculous ability of Rocamadours Black Madonna.  Tim remarked, after looking at everyone hobbling up and down the many steps and steep slopes that, miracles or not, you can’t stop getting old!  Mmm, another reminder why we are doing this trip now before we aren’t able to support our own body weight up and down all these places.

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Lots of steps!

We felt in need of a good walk on Saturday from Rocamadour down through the valley.  We tried to find a place mentioned in the Wild Swim, France book of a blue pool nestled in amongst the woods at the bottom of the valley.

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Following the GR6 long distance path.

Unfortunately, all we found was a stretch of stagnant water, emerging from the hillside, which neither of us fancied getting into.  We noticed some diving equipment drying in the sun and spoke to the couple with it who told us the water is some 30 metres deep running underground and re-surfacing again a further 800m up the valley.  Rather them than me, diving doesn’t really appeal.

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The hillsides in this area are starting to turn to reds and browns.

It was disappointing not to find the pool we were looking for but the walk alone was worth it.  The trees on the valley sides seemed to be turning russet brown and red before our eyes in preparation for autumn although it seems a bit early, especially with the temperature in the thirties.

The last couple of days we have been heading further south visiting several Bastide towns along the way.

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Figeac, another Bastide town.
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Najac, hillside Bastide town.

We are parked up for the night at Cordes-sur-Ciel ready to explore it tomorrow before heading further south west and closer to the Pyrénées to see if we can do some walking and cycling.  We are feeling that we have a bit of Bastide Burnout now and crave a bit of open countryside and mountains.  Or as Tim said ‘I’ve seen enough of these Bastar Bastide towns now!

We’d better get a move on as we have to be in Faro in Portugal for the 14th November 2016 as I have booked a flight back to the UK to see my parents.  I haven’t told them yet so I hope they’ll be there otherwise I’ll have to prostrate myself onto other unsuspecting family.  It’ll be a test to see if they read the blog anyway!

A la prochaine!