St Jean de Luz and the Sentier Littoral

29/10/17-30/10/17

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.

Sinuous rock formations on Centiz beach

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.

Seafront properties with their front doorsteps stretching out to the promenade

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.

Fort de Socoa

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.

Watching paragliders above the beaches north of St Jean de Luz

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.

 

Calm Waters

28/10/17

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.

Looking over the Vieux-Boucau-des-Bains lagoon

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.

Looking down the channel that leads from the lagoon to the sea

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.

    

Lakes and the Silver Coast

26/10/17-27/10/17

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.

Bertie’s parking spot at Gastes

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.

I was impressed with this wheelchair accessible fishing spot on the lake

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. 

Nodding Donkey pumping oil – incongruous next to the beach and park

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.    

Finding Summer in Arcachon

24/10/17-25/10/17

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.

Bertie’s parking spot in Arcachon

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.

Ice creams on the beach in Arcachon

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.

Paul waits by the bottom of the steps leading to the crest of the Dune de Pilat

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.

Looking along the crest of the Dune de Pilat
Looking out to the Atlantic from the Dune de Pilat

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.    

Oysters on the Ile d’Oléron?

23/10/17

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.

Busy site at Château d’Oleron

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!  

Making Tracks through France

20/10/17-22/10/17

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.

Our parking spot are Angoulins

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.

Rocks covered with seed oysters at Angoulins beach

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.

Carralets at low tide

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.      

Carralets in operation at high tide

 

Bertie’s on a Train

19/10/17

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.

Looking down the ramp to the train

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.

Driving down the inside of the train

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.