We stayed in the motorhome aire at Bergues the night before our Ferry. The aire here has no facilities but is large and popular. It sits just outside the city walls next to a sports complex and amongst allotments where crops and cut flowers are carefully tended. Once we had determined that we could ignore the 3.5tonne limit on the approach road, which applied to the road into the town rather than the road to the aire, it was easy to find.
Bergues was an attractive Flemish town which had been significantly but sympathetically rebuilt after WWII, we had a short wander around but know that we didn’t see many of the sights. I’m sure we’ll find our way back when we are channel hopping at some point.
We booked our return ferry with P&O because it was the cheapest we could find. At £60 for a single crossing it was half the price of the tunnel. A few scare stories had led us to anticipate a disorganised mess of a crossing, but it couldn’t have been further from the truth. Of course we have the luxury of being able to book a mid day crossing, as we aren’t trying to make as much precious time as possible for a short holiday. So after a leisurely start and a quick final supermarket stop we drove to the ferry terminal where we were swiftly ushered into the right queue for our crossing. We had time for a cuppa and a bit of van watching before we needed to board. One of the best bits of being on a campsite or in a queue of motorhomes is seeing what other people have got. We were very impressed with the pristine state of the van next to us which was a good 10 years older than Bertie. It spurred us to talking about washing Bertie, but sadly no further action has taken place on that front.
The ferry was not very busy, probably another reason for the crossing being so easy. Before we knew it we were back in the UK; having to convert back to Miles per Hour, driving on the right and limited motorhome facilities outside campsites. And Traffic! Never have we seen so many vehicles in such a small space.
Nevertheless we are happy to be back in the UK and cant wait to see everyone.
We rumbled along the smaller N and D roads of France towards the coast, passing by many signposts pointing to First and Second World War memorials. It is incredible to think of the events of the two wars that impacted this area of France over such a short period, the devastating history contrasts sharply with the bucolic landscape of the present day.
My knowledge of French Geography was growing daily, here I found out we were travelling through French Flanders on our way to Dunkirk (Dunkerque). Flanders was a medieval state covering this part of modern day France as well as parts of Belgium and the Netherlands. Today there are cultural, linguistic and architectural similarities across the area and many of the buildings in the countryside had a look I would have described as Dutch, but is probably Flemish.
We parked up north of Dunkirk in Bray-Dunes at a Motorhome parking spot behind the tourist information office. It was a popular spot for motorhomes, but very few other people were around and the grey weather and closed up tourist apartments made it look more like October than June. We wanted to go for a walk to find the shipwrecks left behind during the evacuation of Dunkirk. A quick check of the tide tables revealed we would need to wait until the evening, so we did a bit of housework and had an early tea before setting off to explore the dunes and the beach. The long wide sandy beach was almost empty, only a couple of kite surfers in the distance and one lonely walker striding along the edge of the sea. Although the tide was low, we could only just see the wrecks of the paddle steamers used in the WWII evacuation breaking the water. The most visible wreck was a schooner that had run aground in the 1920’s, although it had nothing to do with WWII it made an evocative sight against the silver sea and setting sun.
The following morning we drove into Dunkirk itself and parked opposite the 1940 museum. This museum focussed on Operation Dynamo – the evacuation of British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk – and was worth spending a couple of hours exploring. It’s small but has plenty of exhibits; a short film, photographs and artifacts, some of which were found buried by the sand at Bray-Dunes where much of the British equipment had to be abandoned in favour of saving human lives. It includes exhibits about the ‘Little Ships’; the fishing boats, barges and pleasure steamers who volunteered to support the evacuation of over 300,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers. It’s one of those gutsy war time stories of triumph over adversity that gave rise to the phrase ‘Dunkirk Spirit’. While we were wandering round I couldn’t help thinking of all those soldiers, plucked from the jaws of the German advance, given a heroes welcome and then having to return to fight again, any respite only fleeting.
After our edifying visit to the museum we wandered around Dunkirk, following the harbour through modern apartments and houses with odd shapes vaguely reminiscent of upturned boats. In the harbour were many interesting ships, part of the Port Museum, including the restored paddle steamer Princess Elizabeth (now a café), the Duchesse Anne – a three-masted ship that was part of Germany’s reparations to the French after the war – and the Sandettie. I was very excited to find that the Sandettie was indeed the Light Vessel Automatic of shipping forecast fame. Little things!
Although Dunkirk suffered badly in WWII, there were a number of older buildings amongst the more modern architecture and some interesting display boards with pictures of the town before war broke out. Dunkirk is much more than just a ferry terminal and is a key part of the WWII story.
I’ve mentioned before that my French geography is not great, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I realised that we were on the edge of the Champagne area. After the initial surprise was a short flurry of excitement. I do like a bit of bubbly, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, but I would feel guilty drinking anything else while here.
We did still have to move on though, and although Troyes was a tempting destination it didn’t move us far enough. Instead we targeted Reims, a town that has a famous cathedral as well as being one of the main towns of the Champagne district.
We arrived at the municipal campsite of Val-de-Vesle on the Saturday evening. It is about 20km from Reims along a canal with a well defined cycle path. The campsite was pleasant and was good value at just over €16 although it did have one of those complex pricing structures where you pay a small amount for each component of the stay. The toilet block was spotless, even after I had dyed my hair, and trees provided dappled shade. For the first time in ages we bumped into another English couple, exchanging stories of narrow escapes from even narrower roads (most in the UK). With the campsite came an opportunity to barbeque and sit in our chairs in the sunshine, we decided to stay two nights instead of one to enjoy the opportunity.
I had a quick peek on the internet to find out what was possible on Sunday and we decided to cycle into Reims, do a champagne house tour, see the sights and have some lunch. Possibly not in that order.
Reims on a Sunday was a hushed and peaceful town, families were walking or cycling along the canal, but the town itself seemed solely the preserve of tourists. All shops were shut, so only the tourist attractions and the supporting infrastructure were open. We could easily have driven Bertie in and parked up, but it was good to get some exercise. The route went past the town of Sillery where we paused to gaze at the French cemetery and remind ourselves of the depredations of the First World War.
Reims cathedral was our first port of call; the ‘royal cathedral’ has been the place of coronation for all but seven of France’s monarchs. Ok, the first few monarchs, starting with Henry I in 1027, were crowned in an earlier cathedral which was destroyed by fire. But work soon started on the current gothic cathedral and since then it has remained standing, despite the Hundred Years War, the French Revolution and the First World War. Of course it has been updated over time; the First World War significantly damaged the building and there are beautiful modern stained glass windows which were installed in the 20th century to replace the windows blown out by German bombardment. Apart from the stained glass the cathedral has many statues and carvings on the tall, narrow facades and arguably the outside is more attractive than the fairly stark interior. Look out for the statues of Joan of Arc, one inside and one outside, who liberated the city and cathedral from the English.
After the cathedral we took a wander round the city centre, following a walking map provided by the tourist information centre. We visited the Saint Remi Basilica, a Gothic style building of more pleasing dimensions than the cathedral which we found exaggeratedly tall and narrow. In the city the first world war devastation provided opportunity for redevelopment and the city has quite a number of art deco buildings, including the market and the Carnegie Library. We found our attention was not captured for long though because most places were shut and the atmosphere was almost too quiet. This was a bit of a shock for two people who don’t really like busy cities, we now know that we don’t like empty cities either!
We stopped for lunch before moving onto the Taittinger champagne house for a tour. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between the champagne house tours, so we picked Taittinger because it was open on a Sunday and had a very clear online booking system. The tour was quite interesting, a short film about the history of Taittinger, followed by a tour of the cellars. The building you can see above ground is quite modern and uninspiring, but underground in the cellars you are in a network that was started in Roman times as chalk quarries. The upside down funnels of the chalk excavations were then extended by Benedictine monks who were digging the crypts and cellars for their abbey. The wine and champagne houses appropriated the caves and extended them to house thousands upon thousands of bottles of champagne, all stacked neatly and nursed to maturity by patient and knowledgeable staff. The soft chalk provided many opportunities for people to leave their mark through the years and faces and names have been etched into the rock, including marks left by locals who sheltered down here in the Second World War.
After the tour of the cellars it was back up to the bar to sample some champagne, being a cheapskate I had booked the lowest cost tour with one glass of champagne each. As Paul doesn’t like champagne I was looking forward to drinking two glasses, but in no time Paul had finished his glass, only to tell me that he still didn’t like it. What a waste!
Lake Annecy is a justifiably popular tourist destination, a beautiful glacial lake surrounded by mountains and cliffs in the Haute-Savoie region of France. I have to admit to being very hazy about French geography as it is somewhere we have passed through rather than visiting in it’s own right so I cant tell you much about the area apart from the fact that it is extremely attractive and made a sensible stop on our journey back to the UK.
We stayed on a small free parking spot here with a couple of other motorhomes, it had a 24 hour maximum stay and no services but was peaceful enough and shaded under the trees. It was next to the paragliding centre where a steady stream of paragliders were landing after taking off from the high ground on the other side of the lake. We watched their swift descents with our hearts in our mouths as they swung round and round to lose height. Then they would pack their equipment into a large rucksack and catch the bus to go up and start all over again. Although the descent looks stomach churning, the graceful soaring flight over the lake looked like an amazing experience.
While here we cycled around the lake making use of the cycle path that ran just next to our parking spot. This route of just under 40km is not very strenuous. We decided that we would tackle the only hill as soon as possible, so made our way around the south of the lake following small roads through Verthier to get to the eastern side of the lake where we picked up the roadside cycle path. We followed the edge of the lake closely until Talloires where the hill started, a short sharp ascent of around 100m that took us around a nature reserve before we descended back down to cycle through lanes past some rather nice properties who hogged the lakeside views.
As we approached Annecy it got busier and busier, the town itself was attractive with a pretty lakeside park and some nice pedestrianised streets, but we were only passing through. The cycle path was partly on busy roads through Annecy which made route finding and manoeuvring a bit awkward, but we were soon back on the cycle path that led down the western side of the lake.
We stopped for lunch at one of the green spaces where a group of English tourists were swimming in water they described as freezing. Given that the lake is fed by mountain streams I’m not surprised, it must take quite a lot of sun to warm it up.
We couldn’t hang around here as we needed to make our way back for the ferry, so that evening we moved on, but I have no doubt we’ll be back.
It was time to leave Italy. We had spent the night at the sosta in La Thuile where heavy showers stopped us from getting out and exploring the area. The sosta manager turned up late in the evening to find out whether we were planning an early escape, but left us in peace when we said we were leaving at about 10. The following morning we had to ring him to come and let us out. He charged us a random price of €12 which he seemed to make up on the spot – but as it was cheaper than both of the quoted prices at the entrance (€15 in low season and €25 for the ski season) we weren’t complaining, we’d had electricity and used the services.
Our reason for being in La Thuile was based on avoidance of the Mont Blanc Tunnel – it’s an expensive option – instead we were going to drive across the Piccolo San Bernardo (or Petit Sant Bernard once you get to the French side) pass. The pass had only been open for a week, it’s usually open in May but the amount of late season snow in the alps had kept it closed a few weeks longer.
We had already completed a lot of the ascent, driving up to La Thuile on good roads (ski buses come up here – although that doesn’t necessarily mean a thing) up multiple hairpins which were helpfully numbered on the road signs. As we set out from La Thuile we wondered what the rest of the road would be like. In the winter the roads are not cleared and the whole area is part of the La Thuile/La Rosiere ski resort so there isn’t the incentive to maintain them. However the Italian side continued to be a pleasure to drive, wide, flat and with barriers pretty much all the way. The same could not be said for the French side which was rougher, narrower and had very few barriers, the Tour de France is coming here this year and I wonder if the French will do anything to prepare the surface.
There were a few vehicles driving across the pass, as usual they were mostly leisure vehicles; motorhomes, motorbikes and pushbikes enjoying the views. The cyclists who were descending towards us looked very cold, wrapped up with scarves around their faces and heavy gloves, they might be on the easiest part of the ride, but wouldn’t have the effort of the ascent to keep them warm.
At the top of the pass the snow was thick, forming banks at the side of the road, at one point a bank of snow had slumped onto the road, but was easily avoided. A gift shop sold Saint Bernard soft toys and the café was open. A couple of statues and a small chapel to Saint Bernard could be seen above the snow, but the Iron Age stone circle, which is bisected by the road, was still covered in snow. The parking areas were also snow bound but there was enough room for a few vehicles to park and their occupants to get out for a leg stretch. The top of the pass is at the heady height of 2188m, it is lower than the pass to Livigno which we crossed during the ski season, which goes to show how much work it must be to keep the Foscagno pass open all winter.
We said our sad farewell to Italy and descended into France, through the ski resort of La Rosiere and down to the busy little town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice. Along the way we watched cows being milked on the side of the mountain; the mobile milking parlours, taking two cows at a time, were ingenious and I wish I had managed to get a decent picture. We parked up by the funicular railway station, which was undergoing maintenance, and popped into town for some proper French bread and patisserie. After the Italian chewy bready the French stuff seemed light as a feather, although our first loaf was disappointingly doughy and we had to go back out and buy a better one.
We had considered stopping here for the night but when we mapped out our journey back we decided to push on and get a few more miles under our belts. Lake Annecy would be our next stop.
From the Verdon Gorge we had decided that our route to Italy would be along the coast rather than through the mountains. This might have been the wrong decision. As we dropped down towards the French Riviera we came across traffic, other vehicles in abundance. We haven’t encountered much heavy traffic in any of the non UK countries we have visited and we don’t like it.
The traffic was orderly and polite. In the filter lanes each vehicle was being scrupulous about making a gap to let one, and only one, car in. In the UK there would have been passive aggressive avoidance of eye contact as people either didn’t let any cars in or tried to sneak into a gap that had been created for the person in front. It didn’t matter how orderly it was though, if we had to do this all the way to Italy it was going to drive us bonkers. By avoiding toll roads we would end up driving through multiple busy built up areas, so would we be happy to spend the money on toll routes? The clincher was when the sat nav told us that a three hour journey by toll road would be 7 hours by alternative routes. That was it, we were paying the money and getting out of here.
So we made our decision. We had overnighted in Carros, a fortunate find inland from Nice where there was a large carpark for the rather smart village where everyone dressed impeccably. From here we drove via the Norauto store (similar to Halfords) where we picked up snow chains and a spare bulb for our headlights, to the autoroute. And then we drove.
At one point Paul claimed it was boring. I paid little attention as for once I didn’t need to be studying the sat nav to ensure that we took the right exit off a roundabout or kept right at exactly the correct junction. Boring was good. We passed Monaco, and through the border to Italy. The autostrada took us above the small towns with houses painted in sunset colours of gold, ochre and dark pink that occupied the steep sided valleys of the Italian Riviera. When we had to leave the toll road we had relaxed enough to be ready for supposed mad Italian driving. We didn’t see any extraordinary driving antics or even hear the toot of a horn, but the parking habits were interesting as cars fitted themselves into any possible space in any possible orientation.
The smaller roads took us up through towns and villages towards our parking spot. The roads were being resurfaced and their glistening smooth blackness was very welcome. Unfortunately the carpark was also being resurfaced which meant no parking! What a shame, we had really wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon walking down to the coast from here.
A bit of a rethink and search on various apps led us a few km away to an alternative parking spot. This wasn’t so well placed, and walking from here wouldn’t have taken us anywhere particularly scenic. We searched for other spots but couldn’t find anything close enough and suitable so we ended up sticking where we were. A bit of a disappointment. To add to our misery the carpark, which had no prices displayed, charged us € 16 for the privilege of staying overnight with no services. And then the weather took a turn for the worse.
In a bit of a gloomy mood we decided that we would head a bit further south to escape the rain. Portofino, the Cinque Terre and other delights of this area would have to wait. We were setting our sights for Tuscany.
We had spent a few days discussing a possible visit to the Verdon Gorge. Would we go? It was ‘sort of’ en-route, but ideally we would want to spend a week in the area, not just a day. Would it spoil it for us if we went for such a short time? Sometimes I think we just drag these decisions out in order to have something to talk about, after all it was never really in doubt. Unless the weather was atrocious we were going.
And the weather was going to be perfect. The forecast was for sun and very little wind. We had a slight hiccough when we arrived at our overnight parking in Trigance. The forecast of light winds seemed like a mickey take as strong gusts rocked Bertie and trees bowed down to scrape the roof with their branches. We checked the forecast, it was still saying light winds, but now there was a warning of strong gusts until 11pm. We crossed our fingers and fortunately the gusts really did stop as forecast leaving us in an eerie but welcome silence.
So with good conditions we had to decide how to make the most of the day. I really fancied the Sentier Martel, but it’s a walk that takes 7 hours one way and the buses that run in the summer to shuttle people back to their cars were not in service on a mid week day in January. Having looked at various options, and agreeing that we had to do something energetic that included views of the gorge, we eventually decided that we would cycle the Route des Crêtes. This is a 23km round trip on the D23 road, offering good views of the gorge and a nice climb and descent all on tarmac. It’s a popular route with drivers, bikers and cyclists, so we weren’t breaking new ground, but we hoped it would be quiet on this winter midweek day.
We tackled the route in the conventional way, clockwise, from La Palud-sur-Verdon. From our overnight parking spot at Trigance we drove to Palud, where we easily found parking in the small car park at the eastern end of the village. Not something that would happen in high season, but there are various parking spots along the road and a big campsite by the start of the D23.
Setting off we had a nice stretch of downhill as we cruised down the D952 towards the junction with the D23. We turned off here and before the climb started we came to a big red sign saying FERME. We chose to believe that this only applied to cars, and as there was no chance of snow or ice on the route we felt confident about our safety. The ascent started, it was energetic but not too much so. As we pushed uphill we met another cyclist who was coming downhill on his road bike, apart from that cyclist and one car we had no other human company, what a joy.
The route has the advantage of many belvederes (view points), but our solitude meant we could stop at any opportunity for views of the gorge in front of us or the valley behind, taking all the sting out of the uphill. The viewpoints give opportunities to get a bit closer to the edge on foot, and we peered over the railings with awe to see the sheer sided cliffs and the thread of green river below. Griffon Vultures, re-introduced in the 90’s, flew so close we could hear their wings beat. Attempts to capture this on camera were thwarted by our desire to watch them.
As we approached the highest point we watched a car drive past us and around the ‘road closed’ barrier. We stopped just after the highest point for our lunch and to watch the vultures again. The car was parked just ahead of us, the driver standing and staring at the sight above him. The reintroduction program must have been a great success as there are at least 20 birds wheeling overhead and more gliding through the gorge.
After lunch we let ourselves freewheel downhill, around the hairpin bends and through the short tunnels. It almost seemed a waste to take it so fast but at the same time it was exhilarating. Our only caution was for the fist sized rocks that had fallen from the cliffs, otherwise we had plenty of room to swing around the turns. At the bottom we were full of high spirits. The adrenaline powered us up the slight incline of the next section as we turned right and entered a lesser gorge, wooded and attractive but without the spectacle of the main gorge. It felt too soon to be getting back to the beginning, but as we rounded a bend we could see the village in front of us.
A brief visit to the gorge, but one well spent. We look forward to returning, we want to kayak on the lakes, hike the Sentier Martel and take other walks around the mountains. That’s at least a couple of weeks enjoying all the area has to offer. But right now we’re on a deadline and cant hang around.
Out thoughts on driving the route in a motorhome.
Firstly, yes we would do it, once you have driven to La Palud you have driven along mountain roads anyway. There is nothing worse ahead. Having said that, Bertie is over 3.5 tonnes (see below) and actually we think this is much more enjoyable under pedal power.
We have no idea what this is like in summer, visions of conveyer belts and nose to tail vehicles come to mind. I think I would avoid July and August if possible.
Take the opportunity to stop wherever possible, the belvederes just before and after the top were our favourite spots. You are here for the spectacle and, if possible, that means getting out of the van and wandering off the road and down the steps to see the gorge at it’s finest.
The route is one-way for the downhill section and so should be tackled in a clockwise direction.
There are two short tunnels on the downhill section. The lowest of these is over 4m in the centre and 3.6 meters at the sides. They are wide enough for large vehicles with room to spare (no width is given but I would estimate just over 3.5m).
The road width is generous for single track, there are no points where you would need to be really close to the edge even in a motorhome. We’ve been on similar sized mountain roads where traffic has flowed in both directions. If you’re comfortable with mountain roads and hairpin bends then this will be a straight forward drive.
The road is closed each year between Nov and April, exact dates vary but can be found on the tourist office website here. The closed section is along the downhill stretch from the highest point, down to the Chalet de la Maline. You can still access the uphill section of the route in motorised vehicles which gives access to good viewpoints over the gorge, and there is a reasonable sized turning spot at the top. The barrier is pretty half hearted (just a low barrier across one side of the road) and while we were cycling the route one car drove past us.
There are signs limiting the route to vehicles 3.5 tonnes or under. I know people have done it in heavier vehicles. It feels as though this limitation is very cautious rather than being driven by the structural capacity of the road. But I don’t know that, and, well…insurance companies and breakdown recovery…I wouldn’t risk it.
And the Routes des Cretes is not the only road that gives great views of the gorge, you can do a circuit around the north and south side of the gorge, these roads have traffic in both directions but are a bit wider. The D71 gives good views, as does the D952 where it runs along the edge of the gorge with fantastic overhanging rocks providing a bit of atmosphere. The Point Sublime is a good spot to stop and take pictures. It is also at one end of the Sentier Martel if you fancy a walk.
Normally our travel schedule is built around things that we want to see or do, but after Chateau Peyrepertuse we didn’t really know what to do next. Our alternative strategy is to look parking locations and see if any reviews spark our interest.
In this way we had found Sommières, which was in the right direction of travel. We had spent the Saturday night here and our sleep had been rather fitful, the Saturday evening revelry had woken us up every now and again and the morning was noisy with the sound of fit people doing energetic Sunday morning things.
One reason for deciding on this parking spot was a review comment about a cycle track down the river towards Nimes, but in our bleary eyed state it wasn’t going to be particularly pleasant. Instead we wandered the streets of Sommières, finding a charming town of medieval cobbled alleys, arcades and archways. We wandered up to the castle, which was shut but offered good views, and down to the bridge, famous for having buildings built on it’s outermost arches; now it’s impossible to tell where the bridge ends and the streets begin. There were shuttered windows and stone tenement buildings. Cafes were open and bakeries and patisseries offered artful displays of pastry and bread. Joggers and lycra clad cyclists were doing a much better job than us of being energetic, but most people were just wandering like us. As we wandered around we found a memorial to Lawrence Durrell who had owned a villa and died here, a claim to fame we had been unaware of.
In the early afternoon we moved on to another parking spot chosen in the same way. It was only mid afternoon and we weren’t going far. This time we ended up in Saint-Chamas, another pleasant small town where shuttered houses with pastel shutters are set out in a neat grid formation. Here we parked on the shores of the Étang de Berre where the wind was whipping up white horses. We walked a short distance along the lakeside but found our way blocked so headed towards town instead. The town is divided by a long cliff, and we could see caves carved out of the cliff looking out towards the lagoon. At one point a gap in the cliff is spanned by an aqueduct so we just had to climb to the top to see the view.
The parking at Saint-Chamas is supposedly charged, and we were expecting the police to drop by at some point and collect some money, but they drove past and neglected to charge us. We weren’t complaining and felt quite smug compared to the French van that had arrived late and set off early. The following morning I popped into the tourist office to pick up a jeton so we could fill up with water and we had a leisurely start to our day.
We set off, choosing to follow the shore of the Étang for a while before breaking off east past Marseille. Just outside town we spotted another Saint-Chamas landmark, the roman bridge ‘Pont Flavien’ standing in a field and looking rather out of place now that it is no longer the main crossing point of the Touloubre river. Bertie had difficulty sticking to his lane due to Paul’s fixation with the sea planes that were taking off and landing near Marseilles, flying low over the road (which was quiet, fortunately). We drove through limestone hills, past vineyards and Provencal country houses enjoying the landscape on our way to our next destination. It was going to be a long drive, so we stopped at an Intermarche to get some groceries and have our lunch. The self service laundry facilities were too good an opportunity to miss so we laundered our clothes as we ate lunch. Exciting times!
Our trip through France was just going to be a fleeting one, a few days to see us from Spain to Italy. Still, we wanted to make the most of it by seeing some sights rather than just driving.
We had spent a quiet night in the village of Duilhac on a free aire which had the usual facilities, even the tap was on which is unusual for a French aire in winter. The following morning we decided to walk up to Peyrepertuse Castle. We could have driven up to the car park, but we fancied stretching our legs with a walk up to the top of the limestone ridge where the caste perched.
We followed the road and then the footpath up and up, it was a strenuous and steep ascent, but only took us just over half an hour to get to the ticket office, by which time we were down to t-shirts and sweating profusely. The castle was built into the pale grey limestone of the ridge with local stone, at a distance it was difficult to tell what was castle and what was wall, but the size of the fortification was slowly revealed as we got closer.
At the ticket office I used my awful French (interspersed with some Spanish words because my brain couldn’t cope with changing languages) to ask for two tickets. The woman who was on duty responded in perfect English and congratulated us for being the first visitors of the day, in fact we only saw two other visitors as we were leaving. We picked up the audio guide to help us find our way around the site and made our way even further up to the gates of the castle.
The route to the entrance took us further uphill and round to the other side of the ridge where we finally found the castle gates for the lower keep. On the way we were accompanied by the deep voice of Le Capitaine Alban, complete with very French guttural ‘thinking noises’. This was a great audio guide, the Capitane is taking an inventory of the castles defences and so it is acted rather than being a dry commentary. In addition it has a glossary of terms which Paul found fascinating. Here we learned that the square holes for holding beams are Putlock Holes, and that the man powered ‘hamster wheel’ mechanism for raising and lowering building materials is actually called a Squirrel Cage.
The castle is often called one of the Cathar Castles, although very little of the Cathar era structure remains, most of it being the lower walls and foundations. The majority of the building, especially the higher keep and dungeon, was built at the order of Saint Louis shortly after the crusade against the Cathar ‘heresy’ was called to a halt in the 13th century. At this point the border between Spain and France was still being disputed and the castle formed part of a network of border defences. By 1659 and the Treaty of the Pyrenees the castle was no longer on the border with Spain and so was decommissioned.
We spent a couple of hours wandering around the castle taking in the views, marvelling at it’s defensive position high above the valley and wondering at the efforts of construction in such a difficult location. Eventually the wind started to swirl around us and raindrops started to fall from the lowering clouds. It was time to leave and head back to Bertie, this time wearing a couple more layers.
In the village we searched for the local shop, but they couldn’t sell us any bread – have you ever heard of such a thing happening in France? So for our late lunch we fell back on our emergency cream cracker supply.
We moved on that afternoon, taking a long drive through the hills to Montpellier, where our avoidance of tolls took us through the city outskirts. It was dark by the time we arrived in Sommieres and the town was bustling with pedestrians enjoying their Saturday evening. The approach to our parking spot was through some of the narrow medieval streets of the town. We held our breath hoping that the sat nav was taking us in the right way. Luckily we found the signs for the municipal camping (our parking would be just outside the closed campsite) and we followed them through right angle turns and narrow streets to join a few other motorhomes in the large car park.
We stayed at Portbou harbour for our last night in Spain. We hadn’t intended to stay there but had been frightened off our intended parking spot – Platja de Garbet – by signs indicating that motorhomes weren’t welcome and threatening tow trucks. We would have happily stayed the night, but we wanted somewhere we could leave Bertie while we went for a bike ride and Garbet wasn’t going to be it. A shame as the beach was lovely and empty apart from a few walkers who were taking the coast path at the bottom of the cliffs. We had a quick nosey at the path which looked interestingly rocky and close to the sea, but only wandered as far as the Port de Joan before turning back.
Portbou harbour had it’s attractions, yes it was €10 so more than we had hoped to pay, but it had facilities, was close to town and we knew that we could head up into the hills on our bikes from here. We wondered if we were going the right way, the route to the harbour goes into the town, through a small parking spot and then around a concrete road that skirts the bottom of the cliffs. You cant see the harbour till the last minute.
We arrived to find another British van parked up, but (in typical British style) as it was dark we kept ourselves to ourselves until the following morning. When we had a chat the following morning they informed us that the parking had only been opened up when they arrived, the approach road to the harbour is prone to flooding when it’s windy. With high winds forecast for the following few days it looked like we had arrived at a sweet spot. It was no surprise that by the time we had got back from our bike ride the sign was back up saying that the motorhome parking was closed.
One of Portbou’s features is the huge railway station. This border station is where French trains have to change gauge to proceed into Spain, there is an equivalent border station in France which does the same job for Spanish trains going on into France. As we cycled into the hills we could see the buildings and tracks crammed into a rare section of flat land before disappearing into tunnels.
Our bike ride took us up the switchbacks of the N260a above the harbour until we left the asphalt to follow a track inland from the Coll de Frare. This track continued upwards inland, just below the ridgeline, and eventually led to the border with France. There was nothing here save for a water tank and we poked a toe over the border before continuing up to the end of the track at the Font de Tarabaus (I assume this feeds the water tank below). From here we could see spectacular views of the Pyrenees with their snowy tops as well as the equally beautiful coast of the Costa Brava. I think this is another place we will be coming back to explore in more detail.
We started back down the way we had come, turning left onto a reasonable looking track (there had been some quite steep paths we briefly considered descending before deciding that it would be foolish) which took us down into the valley where we made a speedy return to Portbou, past farms and small holdings that nestled into the steep valley. This took us into Portbou via a tunnel under the railway before we got back to the harbour.
Once back it was time to get Bertie sorted and cross the border to France ‘properly’. We had to ask in the harbour office to get the facilities unlocked so we could empty our waste and fill up with water. I feel a bit shy emptying our toilet in front of strangers, but the chap who had unlocked everything for us politely wandered off so he didn’t have to look at the gunk that is ejected from our toilet cassette. I don’t blame him, it’s not pretty, we don’t use the blue stuff that turns effluent into something a smurf would produce so instead it’s a sludgy green/brown colour. Anyway, that’s enough – I hope no one’s eating while they read this.
The roads from here to the border were incredibly wriggly and hilly so Bertie was put through his paces, even when we left the coast there was no respite as we were heading inland to the hills of the Corbiéres region.
Our guidebook to France had recommended the coastal path from Hendaye to Bidart as being a not-to-be-missed walking route in southwest France. We looked for somewhere to park south of Biarritz, but this part of France is atypically lacking in motorhome facilities and most of the parking clearly signposted as being not for motorhomes (apparently this can be ignored in low season but we weren’t keen on having that discussion with local police). The only aire was in St-Jean-de-Luz which wasn’t recommended and in any case was at the mid point of the walk so pretty impractical – we did see the aire on our walk and were glad we hadn’t decided to go for it as it was on the side of a main road and very tight, at the point we went past there was a motorhome trying to reverse into a space and seemingly wedged in a position where it was impossible to move in any direction, surrounded by ‘helpers’.
In the end we decided on a campsite and picked one of the very few that were still open; Camping Le Tamaris is just south of Bidart and right on the coast. The campsite had small pitches but made up for this with excellent facilities. A very nice unheated swimming pool, sauna, steam room and hot tub plus lovely hot showers. The only downside, no toilet seats, why? Not only is it uncomfortable but toilets look naked without them.
As we drove south past Bayonne and Biarritz the scenery changed from the flat pine forests that had dominated the silver coast to a more undulating landscape with the added glamour of the Pyrenees in the background. It lifted our spirits to see something different and this made up for the roads becoming more congested as we entered this ‘well developed’ section of coast.
The morning after we arrived at the campsite we set out on this much touted walk. South from the campsite the ‘Sentier Littoral’ was mostly signposted with yellow daubed steel markers although in St Jean de Luz these were replaced by circular markers embedded in the pavements. The coast nearest to the campsite was a string of small coves characterized by cliffs of friable folded schist rocks. Sometimes the route was along narrow paths skirting these beaches, with slippery wooden steps climbing and descending between shore and cliff. At other times we shared the cycle route. Although it was attractive it didn’t have the same glorious wildness as our favourite British coast path routes and we were very conscious that we were just a few yards away from significant conurbations.
It didn’t seem like any time at all before we reached the outskirts of St Jean de Luz and joined the path around the large bay. From the small park on the Pointe de Sainte Barbe with it’s chapel and signs warning people to stay away from the cliffs we took steps down to the long promenade. This took us all the way along the seafront to the large harbor.
From the south side of the harbor we followed the coast road around to the Fort de Socoa past old quays and fortifications which were slowly slipping into the sea. By the time we reached the fort (unfortunately boarded up) we had done just over six miles and it was time to check the bus timetable to see if we would carry on to Hendaye or turn around and walk back. With the bus timings likely to give us a long wait we decided that turning around would be the best choice.
To try and provide a bit of variety we took a different route through the back streets of town to the Pointe de Saint Barbe before rejoining the coast path and stopping off for a bit of rock pooling when we reached the beach closest to the campsite.
As a walk it wasn’t the not-to-be-missed route that had been hyped, but it was a pleasant and easy day out. Perhaps the section to Hendaye would have provided some additional excitement but we hadn’t got our timing right. We were slightly disappointed but pleasantly tired when we got back to the campsite. I put a load of laundry on and while I waited for it to finish I took advantage of the facilities with a quick swim before relaxing in the steam room. Paul was going to join me but the pool area was quite busy and he only had swimming shorts and not the obligatory pair of budgie smugglers.
Further south, still enveloped by the pine forests of the Landes region of France, is a purpose built resort with the rather long name of Vieux-Boucau-Les-Bains. Part of it’s attraction is an artificially created lagoon which lets in sea water at high tide and has sluice gates to control the exit of water; this gives people the option of the surf beaches of the Atlantic or the calmer waters of the lagoon. Even though we had set off early we still found it incredibly busy when we arrived, it was Saturday and very sunny after all. The two aires were near to capacity and there was a constant flow of people arriving, we queued up behind a couple of other vans to get in and I went to look for possible parking spots while Paul helped them to get through the airlock style barriers (the trick was to get close to the ticket machine as the front barrier wouldn’t lift unless your van was close enough to the sensor). We wedged ourselves into a spot in the sun on the southern side of the lagoon and hooked up to the electricity, at €7 a night for a pitch plus electricity within a stone’s throw of the lagoon, it didn’t seem like bad value.
We had a quick stroll around the end of the lagoon watching the fisherman who were lined along the outflow from the lagoon. We decided that the calm waters were too good an opportunity to miss and we should get the Kayak out and enjoy a spot of paddling and fishing. It was easy to launch the kayak from the shore close to the aire and we started with a gentle paddle around the lagoon gliding over long strands of green weed waving in the gentle currents of the lagoon. We could see fish jumping as we approached, darting out from their shelter in the weed, but despite best endeavours weed was all we caught.
We circled the lagoon again, closer to the island in it’s centre this time, and pulled up a couple of times to explore it’s beaches. Here we paddled in the shallower waters looking at all of the life, hordes of hermit crabs in their stolen shells crawled across the sands, starfish nestled in the weed and small fish were well camouflaged against the sand. The waters of the lagoon were too weedy, and the bottom too muddy to tempt us in for a proper swim. We gathered a few clams from under the sand to make ourselves a starter for dinner, but they were too gritty even after a few hours being purged and the juices in the pan were grey with silt. Luckily we had cooked up some pork and roasted veg for a main course which kept hunger at bay.
As we drove south of Archachon the landscape became an unending monotony of pine forests on sandy soil. This huge forest was man made, turning sandy heath into serried ranks of resin producing pine trees, added to this the roads are very straight, almost hypnotic. In search of a little relief from trees we headed towards the three lakes near Biscarrosse, once coastal inlets but now separated from the sea they are now hubs for tourism and we found ourselves on a large and pleasant aire in Gastes, close to the shore of the middle lake with a large number of other motorhomes of various nationalities.
It was still really rather warm and once we were parked up we felt pretty comfortable doing nothing much, we copied everyone else and wound out the awning, erected the table and settled in our chairs. This camping behaviour might be frowned on in the height of summer, but in the off season when there are wide spaces between motorhomes it seems to be the norm. Lunch was baguette, ham and cheese, eaten outside along with a sneaky lunchtime beer. A couple of hours lounging was enough though and so Paul spent a couple of hours installing the additional locks to Bertie’s garage and habitation doors and adding a blind spot mirror on the passenger side. With nothing much to do I took myself off for a wander, finding the local shops, café, campsite (closed), beach and park and watching a sea plane landing on the water.
It clouded over that evening as we took another walk before dinner walking around the small harbour eyeing up fishing boats and finding the oil pipeline that takes the oil from the rigs in the middle of the lake and transports it who-knows-where. At some point on this walk I was attached by a vampiric insect that decided to bite me multiple times on the neck, that’s the downside of warm weather and fresh water.
The following morning we needed to do something more energetic so we cycled to Mimizan Plage along one of the many cycle paths that cover the area. The forest smelled of autumn with strong wafts of pine and dying bracken and we crunched fat acorns under our tyres. The view may have been repetitive but it was restful rather than tiresome and we settled into a cycling reverie eating up the miles quickly on the largely flat terrain. The weather was still cloudy and the wind had strengthened by the time we got to the beach so I wasn’t tempted to swim, instead we watched the surfers catching the waves as we ate our lunch. This is the Cote d’Argent and is well known for it’s Atlantic surf. By the time we got back to Bertie the sun was back out again so we put our chairs in Bertie’s wind shadow and soaked up a couple of hours of sun before dinner.
We still hadn’t got used to the size of France and this was in evidence when we moved on from Ile d’Oléron; Arcachon was the target for our next stop, but at slightly over 100 miles away it was a lot further than we’d envisaged when we looked at the map. The route included a massive inland detour to navigate past the Gironde estuary – the largest estuary in western Europe – and Bordeaux – a city that’s on our to-do list for another time.
We arrived in Arcachon in mid afternoon and navigated through villa lined roads and over the golf course to find our parking spot on the road between the main town and the suburb of Le Moulleau. Both sides of the road were backed by pine trees and our view from the front of the van included glimpses of sea and sand between their trunks. The sun was shining fiercely in the sky and we were experiencing temperatures we hadn’t felt since we were in Wales in June, it felt as though we had finally found summer.
Any major exertion was off the cards due to the long drive and the sunny weather but we got the bikes out for a short cycle into Arcachon resort. There were plenty of people promenading along the long seafront and around the harbour, we relaxed in the holiday atmosphere – slightly less frenetic than at the height of summer – and treated ourselves to an ice-cream before cycling back to Bertie.
The following morning we cycled south to visit the main tourist attraction in the area. The Dune du Pilat (or Pila, or Pyla) is the tallest sand dune in Europe at over 100 meters (it’s height varies) and nearly 3km long. It’s obviously a major draw with large car and coach parks and an avenue of tat stalls and fast food booths to snare the tourist. There is even a set of steps that can be used to climb to the top of the dune if you find slogging through the sand too much effort. In fact Paul took one look at the dune and decided it was too much effort to even start the walk and sat at the bottom while I made my way up (not using the stairs), feeling like I was on the ski slopes with the sand shifting and sliding underfoot.
From the top the views were incredible, out to sea was the Banc d’Arguin nature reserve and beyond it the Atlantic surf made bright sliver lines across the horizon, along the ridge of the dune there was a string of tourists, thinning out at the furthest extent of the ridge, to the north you could see the sheltered Bassin d’Arcachon with the peninsular of Cap Ferret protecting the bay. I spent a little time taking in the views and walking across the wind-firmed sand on the crest of the dune before cutting back down the side of the dune where the sand was softer.
By the time I was back with Paul my trainers were full of sand and I felt a good inch taller. Apparently the sand dune is moving inland and swallowing up trees and infrastructure as it goes – it must be a slow process but it cant be helped by hundreds of people emptying sand from their shoes in the car park.
From the Dune we cycled further south along well marked cycle paths and past closed camp sites until we reached the first spot where it seemed possible to access the beach without climbing over the massive sand dune. At Le Petit Nice there was a large forestry parking area with picnic benches and other closed facilities. Large areas of dune were fenced off to protect the fragile habitat leaving a causeway for access to the beach. Down on the beach the water was calm as were still sheltered by the Banc d’Arguin off-shore but we could see and hear the pounding surf on the other side of the sand bank. I took advantage of the calm waters to have a swim while Paul paddled and we watched large groups of small children being herded by barely older supervisors obviously on a day out with their school holiday club.
Once we’d had enough of lounging on the beach we returned to our bikes and cycled back to Bertie. We’d noticed on our bike ride that we seemed to be bridging a gap between two main types of cyclists in France – we’re not the lycra clad, tour-de-france emulating ‘serious’ cyclists, but neither are we the basket wielding, upright sitting ‘everyday’ cyclists wearing their smart clothes and using their bikes to get from A to B. Compared to the first group we felt heavy and slow, compared the the second we were scruffy and sweaty. Oh well – we had enjoyed a lovely summers day out and were ready for a shower, a couple of drinks and a lazy dinner in Bertie watching the sun go down through the trees.
I am going to apologise now for my lackadaisical approach to accents, acute, grave or circumflex. I will try to remember them, but I couldn’t honestly say that I will try my best.
Our next stop on our route south was a short drive away on the Ile d’Oléron, a large island well known for it’s oysters and other seafood. We drove across the long bridge that connects the island to the mainland and turned right, heading for the aire at Le Chateau d’Oléron. This isn’t really an aire, it was once a campsite and really still is a campsite, just one that is limited to motorhomes. It costs €11 for 24 hours including all services, toilets, showers and electricity. It was very busy, we estimated over 100 motorhomes scattered over the large site.
There were no sat nav issues this time, we found the site easily enough and got settled in, waiting our turn to fill up with water and having the usual struggle to decide on a parking spot when there is too much choice.
Once settled in we pootled off on our bikes to see what the area had to offer. Whether we just started from the wrong location or chose the wrong way to go I don’t know but we were feeling uninspired. Despite the busy campsite everything felt closed down and the landscape was devoted to oyster farming, which was interesting to a certain degree but not captivating. The rectangular lagoons for seed oysters covered the flat landscape creating mazes of pathways and roads to navigate. Small huts for artisans and cafes lined the streets but were empty and lifeless.
The following morning we decided against staying and exploring other parts of the island in favour of moving elsewhere. We haven’t done justice to the area but couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to stay. I didn’t even get any oysters!
We had discussed our plans for the next few days, feeling torn; should we pootle down through France or should we get to Spain as quickly as possible? We didn’t want to do really long driving days but we did want to get some good weather. We couldn’t really decide and so we ended up doing an odd zig zag down the north west side of France initially before we settled on an aim. The weather forecast indicated a short heat wave mid-week and so we would continue travelling longer distances until the weather improved and then slow down and enjoy our normal style of travelling as the weather improved. We opted to avoid toll roads completely, which the Sat Nav managed for us despite it’s other shortcomings.
We drove along roads through extensive fields and farm lands, round many roundabouts as we navigated Normandy villages with their timber framed buildings and up and down long hills, taking in three overnight stops as we made our way south; a large parking spot in the village of Bosc-Geffroy, also the bus stop and an obvious meeting place for lift sharing in the morning, a motorhome aire at the Jardin de Broceliande and a supermarket aire at the Super U in Marans, not our planned stop but the best we could do following some road closures and remarkably peaceful considering. On the way we refuelled, stocked up with fresh groceries and re-filled the gas canisters.
The weather, pretty good anyway, was improving as we headed for Angoulins so time to slow down and start enjoying ourselves. We had picked this spot by the sea to allow us to stretch our legs and get back into the swing of things. The sat nav really didn’t want to play ball though. The first indication that something was wrong was when we hit a sign saying nothing over 3.5T, the sat nav wanted us to carry on and we followed it blindly into a one way system. We saw the size of the roads and hastily escaped back towards the main road. Again we tried, picking a slightly different way in, but again we were directed down tiny roads, leading us to one very small gap between a scaffolded building and parked cars. It took all of Paul’s driving skills to navigate through with a couple of inches to spare as I walked in front, tucking car wing mirrors out of the way and providing direction as we squeezed through. Finally out of this predicament we were still no closer to getting through the one way system and I was all for giving up and going somewhere else, anywhere else! But Paul wouldn’t be thwarted now he’d started – we’d seen pictures of large motorhomes parked near the beach so there must be a way! On the last attempt we had seem some signs diverting vehicles that were over 3.5t, so on the final attempt we followed these. Like many road signs they were elusive, but with the help of the signs, bus stops (if a bus can get through so can we) and google maps we made our way to the parking spot, outwitting the sat nav and the one way system.
We parked in one of the remaining spaces and had a quick cuppa before heading out to walk towards the headland. The tide was a long way out and we could see people gathering shellfish on the tidal flats, the rocks of the fore-shore were covered with small oysters and we imagined they were probably bigger further out to sea, but we couldn’t get very far due to sticky mud – definitely a need for wellies or waders.
As we walked to the far end of the beach we came to fishing huts on stilts above the water, these carrelets looked high and dry at low tide as we walked around their feet to inspect the mechanism used to lower and raise the large square nets.
We didn’t get much further before the heavens opened, this part of France was picking up the edge of storm Brian and between brief sunny spells dark rain clouds were dropping heavy rain. We went back to the van for some lunch while the rain showers continued and didn’t head back out again until later that afternoon when we managed a circular walk around the headland and back through the village, seeing the beach a high tide this time with some of the carrelets now in operation and wind and kite surfers enjoying the strong winds. It was amazing how even a couple of short walks left us feeling refreshed after our three days of driving.
I’m sure that, to some people, the journey through the Channel Tunnel is a boring everyday activity, but for us there was some excitement as we prepared to do something we’ve never done before.
Bertie’s trip on the tunnel was free courtesy of the Tesco Clubcard vouchers we had exchanged. It would have been £118 otherwise, which would make it more expensive than the Dover-Calais ferry.
Because this was a new experience for us we arrived a couple of hours before departure, although now we’ve done it once it would be easy enough to leave it till the last minute if we chose to do it again. The directions from the M20 were easy to follow, and we drove down the designated passenger lanes to the automated entry booths which recognise your number plate and spit out a windscreen hanger which also acts as your ticket. Passing through British and French passport control we were then ‘inspected’ to ensure our gas canisters were closed off. This consisted of being asked whether we’d turned them off – no inspection necessary as we obviously look honest and trustworthy (and of course we were). Finally we could park by the terminal building which offered the usual airport style facilities.
The windscreen hanger gives you a letter for your ‘crossing’ and we sat in the car park watching the large screens which told us when to make our way to the trains. We couldn’t miss the large arrows saying France which directed us to the departure area where we were directed into the lanes for large vehicles (the train has some carriages which are single storey and some that are double decker). At the top of the gangway the train entrance looked pretty small – how were we going to drive Bertie in there? – but as we got closer the scale became clearer and it was easy to get on board.
Driving down the inside of the train was quite bizarre, but very easy and staff directed us where to stop so that they could ensure they could lower the barriers between carriages.
As we set off we got that slightly unsettling feeling of moving, yet not moving, that sometimes happens on trains. Through the small window we could see a limited view of the outside world, and then darkness as we went underground. A short 30 minutes later we could see daylight again. As we were being unloaded from the train we set the sat nav for our destination – Bosc Geffroy – a scant 300 km away and started driving.