Biarritz, Bayonne and the Basque countryside…. .

Well, the continuous run of good weather we’ve been having for the last month finally broke last night.  We were lashed by continuous rain throughout the night which looks like it is set for the day so it’s time for a duvet day and a catch up on the blog.  We are more than happy to have a lazy day after a week or so of sightseeing and walking.  It’s a shame it’s the weekend though as a duvet day is just that little bit more enjoyable on a weekday. Especially a Monday.  But hey ho you can’t time the weather.

So leaving our final stop at Capbreton on the Côte d’Argent we continued south into the La Côte Basque heading for an aire at Anglet at the mouth of the river Adour from where we would be able to walk to Biarritz and Bayonne.  The aire was in an ideal location set below the road at the edge of the river away from the large seafront carpark.  It would have made for a perfectly relaxing couple of nights had we been able to actually get in to it.  Ah, the joys of over engineered machines.  After fifteen minutes of faffing, jabbing, prodding and poking the machine the barrier still wouldn’t budge.  By this time I’d paid twice and been harangued by two French couples simultaneously jabbering away at me in rapid fire French offering me the benefits of their wisdom on the workings of the machine.  I did thank them as they were only trying to help but I couldn’t concentrate on anything with them all talking at once.  The upshot was that the machine was supposed to print out three different tickets but only spat out two (well, four because I’d paid twice) which wasn’t the magic formula for opening the barrier.  Fed up by this point we reversed away from the barrier and decamped to the sea front car park.  Meh.

Ce n’est pas grave as the French would say as we still had an excellent couple of days soaking up the ambience of Biarritz and around for a spot of people watching.  Surfers were out enjoying the waves, families and dog walkers were out strolling in the sunshine and we were out observing it all.  We walked the four or five miles along the sea front to Biarritz which took quite a while as we were waylaid stopping to watch the surfers one side of the path and the golfers on the other.   Before going into decline in the 1950’s, Biarritz was the Monte Carlo of the Atlantic coast and a playground for monarchs and important shiny people but the rise of the Côte d’Azur in the 1960’s put paid to that.  Rediscovered in the early 1990’s by affluent Parisians and a new international surfing set it is now firmly back on the map.

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Grande Plage, Biarritz with the restored 1930’s Casino behind the beach to the right.

Boasting six lovely sandy beaches it’s a great place to lose a few hours sitting at a beachfront cafe eyeballing the surfers.  It definitely has a glamorous but laid back feel to it although every inch of space on the promenade, beach and water is, I suspect, fiercely fought for in the height of the summer.

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Soaking up the surfing vibe with a glass of vino on Grande Plage seafront. 

Bayonne, by contrast, the following day was all but deserted although it was Sunday.  Three miles inland from the coast Bayonne is small by city standards and the narrow streets of the old town are a pleasure to stroll around.  Attractive, tall half timbered buildings abound with the added attraction of the fourteenth century castle and the twin towers of the Cathedral.  The three mile walk along the river from Anglet was pretty unremarkable and a bit noisy and grim though so we made the return journey on the bus.

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Bayonne.

St-Jean-De –Luz, purported to be the most attractive resort on the Basque coast, was our next stop.  We got to the small aire situated just outside the old town and shoe horned ourselves into a space.  Happy campers we were not.  Even though it’s less than a five minute walk to the centre of the town, harbour and beach it has nothing else going for it.  It’s tight for space and sandwiched between four lanes of traffic to the front and a busy railway line to the back.  If we were going to enjoy St-Jean then it was time to spend out on a campsite.  And we are soo glad we did.  For €18 with our ACSI card we had a sea view at Bord de la Mer campsite and it was a lovely two kilometre walk along the coast into town.

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The view from the window at Camping Bord de la Mer, St-Jean-De-Luz.

With its safe, sandy beach, pretty plaza and upmarket boutique shopping it’s a popular spot for holiday makers but also being the only natural harbour between Arcachon and Spain St Jean is still a busy fishing port landing mainly anchovies and tuna.

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St-Jean-De-Luz.

Having hugged the coast for the best part of two hundred kilometres it was time to head into the Basque hinterland for a few days before coming back to the coast to cross the border into Spain.  We based ourselves at an aire at the delightful knoll-top village of Sare as it looked like a good base for walking and we weren’t disappointed.  We took a footpath up the steep hill out of the village which gave us glorious views over the surrounding countryside.

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View towards La Rhune from Sare village.

We weren’t heading anywhere in particular but just climbing up………..and up.

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Climbing up one of the footpaths from the village.

We didn’t realise, until the path cut across the railway track, that a rack and pinion train built between 1912 and 1924 climbs the steep gradient up to the top of La Rhune, the last mountain top at 905 metres before the Pyrenees fall away down to the Atlantic.  We’d passed the station on our way to Sare but thought it was more a funicular thing with the train just going a short way up the mountain to clear the trees to give a nice view.  We were fortunate to arrive a few minutes before a train trundled along on its way down the mountain and we watched and waved as it passed.

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Le petit train.

The train takes thirty five minutes to get to the summit at a sedate nine kilometres an hour.

The following morning we went to the station intending to go on the train but a sign up said that the summit was hidden under a blanket of cloud so we decided we didn’t want to pay €19 each not to be able to see our hands in front of our faces at the top.  Instead we went back to the aire at Sare and I decided to walk up to the top on the off chance that the cloud would clear while Tim pottered about in the van doing various jobs and sorting out some music ready for his next gig………whenever that might be.

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One of the many Pottok ponies, a breed of rural pony living mainly in the Western part of the Basque Country, were freely roaming the hillsides.

Oh I’m so glad I made the effort to walk up as by the time I got to the top the cloud had lifted and I sat eating my lunch in glorious sunshine with a panoramic view.  Merveilleux!

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View on the summit from my lunch spot.

I must have enjoyed it as I walked up again with Tim the next day.

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Three trains on the track below (there is a passing place on the flat section of the track).

It was touch and go whether we’d see anything at the top but we surfaced into the sunshine above the cloud hanging over the summit and had our lunch under warm sunny skies.  Parfait!

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On the top above the clouds.

A quick flit to the pretty village of Ainhoa, lined with seventeenth century houses, ten kilometres away ended our tour of the French side of the Pays Basque and our time in France before we pointed ourselves in the direction of the coast again heading for San Sebastián or Donastia to give it its Basque name.

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The pretty village of Ainhoa where these houses have a ringside view of the Pelota court.

Hasta luego!

La Côte D’Argent…. . 

After leaving our last Helpx near Niort in the Poitou Charente region we headed south beyond Bordeaux bound for the sea on La Côte D’Argent – the Silver Coast.  The big draw for us to this area was the endless sandy beaches.  We do like a nice good, long sandy beach.  The Côte D’Argent covering more than 200km from Pointe de Grave in the north and Bayonne in the south, is, according to our Rough Guide to France, the longest, straightest, sandiest stretch of coastline in Europe which boasts La Dune de Pilat, the largest dune in Europe as well as Les Landes, the largest forest in Western Europe.  There was also the promise of some nice, flat, easy cycling along traffic free cycleways through the forest.

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Le Teich wetland area.

For our first couple of nights we parked up at a free aire at Le Teich, east of Arcachon.  Being one of the most important wetland areas left in France it was a perfect stop off for a couple of days of rest and relaxation to do a spot of birdwatching.  The Parc Ornitholigique du Teich is a bird sanctuary and protected area and we enjoyed the peace and quiet of two different walks.  The wetland area seems a world away from the approach to it as it seemed as if everyone was escaping to the coast from Bordeaux for the weekend.

 

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.  The Parc Ornitholigique du Teich.

We had intended to have a gander around Arcachon but decided against it after seeing the queues of traffic to get there.  Instead we peeled off to the south to the Dune du Pilat.  We caught a glimpse through the trees of a crowd of people on the dune not long before we got to the parking area.  Tim said ‘oh look at all those people on that dune there must be some sort of event going on’.    I said ‘Tim, the dune is the event’.  Tim’s general modus operandi is to just punch in the co-ordinates to the satnav that I give him without asking where or what it is we are headed for.  He is more than happy to wait for everything to unfold before him all in its own time.  I think it must be a nice way to be but I’m too much of a control freak to be able to be like that as I need to know where we are going and why way before we have even started the engine.  It’s fair to say we were both really impressed by the scale of the dune.  We’d parked half a mile away from the main parking area which proved to be a wise decision as a footpath through the forest led to the bottom of the dune where we could make our ascent by ourselves without any company at all.

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Tim almost on his hands and knees climbing to the top of the Dune du Pilat.

At over one hundred metres high, three kilometres long and five hundred metres wide it really was an impressive sight especially as we had the perfect weather for it.

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It’s vast.

P1130698.JPGA very gregarious French chap in the car park called us over just as we were locking up the van and advised us to scramble to the top, walk the length of the ridge, slide down to the beach, then walk back along the beach and to return to the car park via another footpath.  It was good advice as it made for an excellent two hour round trip.

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Coming down the dune towards the beach.
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The beach below.

Numerous sea side resorts which are popular with surfers dot this stretch of coastline whilst inland a string of lakes draw in fishermen, boaters and families as they offer watersports facilities and safe swimming.  We enjoyed a lunch time stop at Cazaux-Sanguinet lake on our way to our overnight stop at Gastes.  It must get absolutely packed in July and August but we were able to enjoy a stroll along the lakeside with just a few other families.

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A lunch stop at Cazaux-Sanguinet lake .

I was absolutely chuffed to bits to watch three young otters feeding in between the moorings at the side of the lake opposite the aire in Gastes the following morning. Oh if only I’d had my camera with me but I was just returning from the early morning walk to the boulangerie with a baguette safely tucked under my arm so hadn’t even thought about taking the camera with me.  C’est la vie!

We were fortunate with the weather for the ten days we spent on the Côte D’Argent as we could imagine the area could be a bit desolate out of season in inclement weather.  Some of the resorts were completely closed up for the season whilst others just had a few cafes open even though we were still basking in sunshine in the low twenties.

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That’s the first time my wetsuit has seen the light of day for over a year…..and I think it’s shrunk as it took me forever to get on!

Fortunately we were spoilt for choice with aires, which ranged from between 6 and 10 euros a night, spending a couple of nights at a time in one place giving us time to get out on the bikes to explore.

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The aire at Contis Plage.

There isn’t a coastal road as such but there is a cycleway that winds its way through the forest and forms part of La Velo Odyssee, a 1200 kilometre cycle route linking Roscoff in northern France to Hendaye on the Spanish border.

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Part of the cycleway through Les Landes.

Traffic free, smooth and pretty much flat we happily tootled along through the pine trees stopping in at a resort or two to have lunch and to watch the few surfers that were out.

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Excellent lunch stop at Saint Girons Plage.

The Landes forest is totally vast and totally manmade.  Until a century ago the constantly shifting dunes made any attempt to settle or cultivate the land impossible.  Pines and grasses were planted to anchor the dunes and they now extend to over 10 000 square kilometres and were declared a parc naturel régional in 1970.  It’s an under-populated area but wealthy thanks to its pinewood and pine derivatives.

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Tim entertaining customers at a bar at Contis Plage.  Without the aid of a safety net he’d asked the barman if they wanted a bit of music and he said ‘Oui, porquoi pas’ or words to that effect!  He was a happy as larry playing into the setting sun with a few complementary beers to keep him going.

Our last port of call along this coast before we moved into the Pays Basque region was Capbreton.  There is a large aire behind the beach which is really just a car park but convenient for getting out onto the beach and soaking up the atmosphere.  It’s a popular area and much more lively with hundreds of surfers out.

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Capbreton.
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World War II bunkers on the beach at Capbreton.

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A perfect evening for a bit of body surfing before the setting sun.

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Next up, the Pays Basque.

Bonne Soirée!

 

 

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!