French Haute Alps – St Gervais, Les Houches & our upcoming plans

After leaving the wonderful shores of Annecy we drove into the mountains to the nearby town of Thônes.  We found a space in the town’s free aire, then walked around town and looked in their shops, before getting a bottle open and chilling in the warm evening sun.  It was 36 degs this day, and we were already missing the cooling breeze of the blue lake.  We had a slow riverside walk later, when the sun had finally disappeared below the peaks, offering us respite.

Thone - (church)

Thone - (street temperature)

The next morning was market day, and we awoke to find the allegedly dedicated motorhome aire was over-ran with badly parked cars at all angles, blocking the road and a lot of other vans in.  Thankfully we were able to squeeze out and be on our way, leaving several cars to salivate over the additional space we had freed up for them.  We had read a little on the Cascade de la Belle Inconnue, a short hike to a local waterfall spot with a dipping pool, and decided to investigate.  After a few false starts we found the entirely unmarked path and climbed up the steep forest trail, difficult and awkwardly crossing fallen trees and scrambling up pine-needle coated tracks, only to find the feature pool was clogged with fallen trees and debris, like a wild storm had recently ravaged it.  A lower, smaller pool was clear so we had a very refreshing skinny dip under the chilly waterfall to cool off before returning back to Benny.

Cascade de la Belle Inconnue - walk

Cascade de la Belle Inconnue - pool

Originally we planned to stop at the top of the Col des Aravis, but it was so busy and rammed full with other vans that we kept on moving.  We stopped for a bite of lunch in a glamorous Casino Hypermarket car-park in Megève, but the expected services there were not in service, so we had to move on to search for others.  We arrived in the next main town, Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, where we found the aire, a long thin car-park behind the ice rink, perfect for motorhomes.  We were parked quietly out of the way, surrounded by high trees offering some shade, yet it was an easy walk into the town. We doodled down the road, drained in the heat, where we saw a large wedding party all dressed to kill in the central church square, and visited lots of shops so we could benefit from their cooling air-con.

Les Houches (Lac des Chavants)

Later the France vs Argentina World Cup match was on in a local bar, creating lots of yelling, gnashing of teeth and intrigue as the goals flew in. “Don’t cry 4-3 Argentina”.  We passed another quiet evening, snuggled into the foothills of the mighty Alps.  The next morning we made the short hop up the valley to the town of Les Houches, where we parked up in the free aire by Lac des Chavants, in the shadow of Mont Blanc.  We were deliberately moving slowly, biding our time until the start of our next mini-adventure. We walked into the centre of town and back, pausing only to buy new trekking poles, before spending the rest of the afternoon resting in the shade of the light woodland surrounding the lake. It was incredibly hot, and felt strange to be looking at glaciers and snowy peaks in such heat.

Les Houches (village centre)

After one quiet but sticky hot night, we left the free aire at Les Houches and moved only a few kilometres up the road, to settle into a small campsite set on a grassy slope midway between Les Houches and ChamonixCamping Le Grand Champ.  We had a reservation here for a few nights, and had arranged to be able to store Benny for eleven further days, for a nominal fee, whilst we disappeared into the mountains.  The glacial views walking into the site were incredible, but we picked out a shaded pitch with no mountain view, deciding that staying cool was more important.  We would be seeing quite enough of the jagged, snowy peaks in the coming days, so could forego it for now.  We chatted to the amenable owner and she suggested we didn’t need to move Benny to storage, but could remain on the pitch as it was unlikely to be used.  Perfect for us, and would prove much less hassle on our return.

Chamonix (Nicky and flowers)

Chamonix (central street)

The reason the injury sustained to Nicky’s ankle on Puy de Sancy was so concerning to us was that it happened just over a week before we were due to begin our summer main event – the Tour of Mont Blanc hike, or TMB as it is commonly known. We had spent a good portion of our rainy downtime in Cazeneuve, last winter, pulling the trip together.  It is a 170km circular walk with the Mont Blanc Massif at its centre, passing through France, Italy and Switzerland.  Distance-wise, it is roughly equivalent to walking a full loop of the M25, the concrete ring road around London.  But apart from the addition of magnificent mountain scenery, the difference is that the elevation change over the TMB route, up and down, is more than the height of Mount Everest.  In fact there will be over 10,000m of elevation change over the circuit.  It will likely be a tough, yet satisfying, and hopefully very beautiful, challenge.

Gramp Champ - our shaded site

We have accommodation booked at each stage, generally half-board and mostly private rooms, so we are walking the trail the posh way, and self-guided throughout.  We have one bag being transferred between our hotels or mountain refuges, so we only have to carry essential safety items, clothing, water and cameras in our day-packs.  Everything else is taken care of, leaving us to concentrate on the walking and the views. We opted to begin our hike early in the season’s weather window, and to walk clockwise, whereas most favour an anti-clockwise loop.  We will be against the flow of people, but will have a few glorious hours each day of solitude and quiet aloneness before we meet any crowds head on. The high mountain passes, several over 2500m, are still thick with snow in early July, and there has been talk that we may need crampons and ice axes, or at least spikes and poles, to pass them in safety.

021-13 PASSY-74 - RIR TMB - INC6MM 900X710V 925X720T - GABARIT.i

We are both itching to get started, to discuss the minutiae of each days hiking with Andrew and Rafael, our tour organisers at Pygmy Elephant, and learn exactly what we need to do to ensure a safe, fun and happy circumnavigation of the White Mountain.  Tomorrow we meet them in Chamonix to finalise our plans, then we walk, and walk.  And walk.

A&N x

 

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France – Lake Annecy swims and cycles

After leaving the quiet beauty of Serrières we drove over and down the mountain to reach the neat, bustling town of Annecy.  The only central carpark suitable for motorhomes that we knew of was full to bursting and the busy traffic dissuaded us from attempting to stop elsewhere.  We were staying close by and could return easily by bike, a much more convenient way to see the main town.  We had booked ourselves in for four nights at a campsite, Les Rives du Lac on the western lake shore, one with a private beach, taking full advantage of their last days of cheap ACSI rates before peak season began.  We serviced and signed in and were given a prime spot, with shade, only a few spaces from the beach that we soon snuggled into and called home.  Then we were off to survey our domain.

Annecy - (first view of lake)

Annecy - (our private beach)

Annecy - (local wildlife)

We scanned the site and were quietly amazed with the mountainous backdrop behind the shimmering blue lake, and smiled smugly that this was our home for a few days.  After an enjoyable celebratory night chilling, we got up early the next day for the short cycle into Annecy town, as it was their market day.  It was an easy cycle on a well-utilised cycle path, with many joggers, bikers, walkers, rollerblading maniacs and even the odd summer cross-country skier rolling along its smooth tarmac.  We passed a long line of almost static traffic heading into the centre and were glad to be able to roll past it easily under our own steam.  After spinning around the lake frontage and through several busy and beautiful parks, we locked our bikes up next to a quiet portion of canal and walked to the historic centre.

Annecy - (cycle to town)

Annecy - (town canals)

Annecy - (walking the old town)

There was a sudden explosion of noise and colour as we reached the covered markets, along with a huge increase in English being spoken, although mostly with American accents.  We followed the stalls along winding streets, dodging the crowds and taking in the wares.  The centre was as curving, winding and steep as any medieval centre we had walked before, interesting and fresh.  The managed rivers had piercing blue water that defined each scene, lifting each vista to a different level.  We walked up a steep, narrow pathway to reach the Château d’Annecy in the heart of the old town, before dropping back down into the heart of the market stalls. We later passed a complicated fish sculpture exhibit being slowly built over the water near le Palais de L’Île, its very construction drawing in a crowd.

Annecy - (fish sculpture)

Annecy - (market day bridges)

We returned to our bikes and cycled slowly, always aware of the milling crowds around us and giving ourselves time to observe the local sunning rituals. Every small patch of grass in the burning sun was filled with supine, unclothed bronzing bodies soaking up the intense heat.  We passed the casino on the north shore and reached a packed public beach where we joined the party, found a space and began our personal sun worshipping.  We had a few refreshing dips in the shallow lake, so necessary to cool our burning skin. We ate snacks listening to the conversation buzz of locals at lunch.  On our return we were passed on the cycle path by a few road bikers in time-trialling mode, and considered attempting a chase, but thought better of it on our rickety old mountain bikes.  We’ll get ‘em next time.

Annecy - (canals and bridges)
Annecy - (boathouse on route home)

Arriving back at base, we rewarded ourselves with more dips to cool off, reading and relaxing on the beach in proper holiday mode.  The beach led straight into a lake of soft sand.  Its texture was like groping mud, offering a weird gripping sensation on our skin as it enveloped our sinking feet. We could swim 300 or 400m out from the pontoon and still stand up, the whole beach basin was like a wave pool of constant depth of 1.5m, with a soft, sandy bottom.  We later sat in the shade, drinking chilled wine and picking at bruschetta as small birds hopped around on our pitch, searching for discarded crumbs, showing no fear.  It sparked memories of afternoon tea at Grantchester Meadows near Cambridge where greedy birds once ate cake crumbs right from our hands one glorious summer afternoon.

Annecy - (lakeside cycle)

Annecy - (town beach spot)

Annecy - (lake from beach)

Another day we got up earlier than is usual for us, ate a small, quick breakfast and set off down to the pontoon.  We had planned a longer swim in the still morning waters before the wind picked up and lifted the surface waves to a sea-like chop.  We set off for a distant beach we could see across the curving bay, having no idea how far it was away.  We were coolly passed by three ladies on SUPs as we swam, along with happily floating coots and grebes, all with cute young.  Sun-worshippers lay supine on their anchored small leisure boats, incuriously watching us go by.  The beach turned out to be almost a mile from our pontoon, or 1580m as measured on my watch, it attached to the handle on Nicky’s visibility tow float rather than my wrist for a more accurate read.  We exited the water to rest a little.

Annecy - (view from our beach)

Annecy - (n lake swimming)

Annecy - (sunsets at beach)

We paused here for a few minutes, watching a small, vocal group undertake lifeguard training.  A Dutch couple sat near us on the beach with their fun-loving black collie, throwing a ball into the lake. Two floppy ears approached us out of the water and with a very friendly manner proceeded to shake themselves dry all over us, to much hilarity.  We took this as a sign to get ourselves back in the water and dropped in from an old concrete digue to begin our swim back.  The waves had picked up in the time we had sat, so rather than stopping for casual sight-seeing as we did on the way out, we swam straight and true, back to base.  We climbed back out onto our pontoon with a little over 3km swam, in beautifully clear 24deg water, feeling buzzed and happy.  And it was time for second breakfast.

Annecy - (Chateau at Duingt)

Annecy - (boats and sunset)

Another day we decided to try the voie verte in the opposite direction to Annecy, to reach the village of Duignt.  A pleasant ambling along the traffic-free cycleway brought us to the shadow of an impressive château, set on a narrow peninsula, although it was privately owned and inaccessible.  Deciding we had better places to swim, and to not linger due to the busy through-road, we instead detoured through the lovely village centre, replete with colourful hanging baskets.  We meandered through their ancient streets then returned to our campsite, to enjoy chilling for the remainder of the day.  We spent time planning out longer swims to various spots we could see around the lake, but ones we may never find the dedication to undertake.  It was all too easy to slide into doing as little as possible.

Talloires (view of lake)

On our last night, we packed up slowly over the day, then sun-bathed and swam for much of the afternoon.  This wasn’t like us at all, but the sun was too repressive to attempt much more.  Later after dinner we returned and sat at the water to watch the slow red glow light up the faces of the mountain rock opposite.  The next morning we slipped out and got back on the road, but we were not finished with the lake just yet. After discounting stopping at a golf course, we parked on the side of the road and walked back to a set of stone steps leading up through a tall retaining wall to reach a path into the Réserve Naturelle du Roc de Chère.  We followed shady woodland tracks through the park, searching for a way to drop down to the coast of the lake.  We eventually found a route that would serve us.

Talloires (swim spot)

Talloires (nicky on boat pier)

Talloires (marina and mountains)

We followed a steep downhill path with metal bars drilled into the cliff face to assist descent, finding a glorious swim spot. White rocks and clear blue water combined to create a special corner of coastline, perfect for a cooling dip after a hot, hilly walk. Bikinied girls sitting chatting on SUPs glided past, and a bearded guy on a small sail dingy nodded a hello.  After drying off, the path led into Talloires town centre.  This was the posh end of Annecy, with a scattering of high-priced hotels and neat restaurants.  We heard American accents pass us by, them seeing Annecy through a different, more monied lens.  There was a gyrating patchwork of colourful paragliders circling the nearby peaks above us, and new wooden pontoons with sunning bodies lying all over them.  A scene of casual perfection.

A&N x

 

France Massif Central – La Bourboule & Chambon-sur-Lac

We spent our final morning at Lake Vassivière cleaning and packing, managing to reclaim all our deposit.  We had a long drive back to Limoges airport to return Mummy Finch to her homeward flight.  We had a brief stop in the very pretty town of Eymoutiers for a slow, hot walk around the centre by the river, to break up the two hour drive.   We parked up at the airport and said goodbye to Nicky’s mum, then drove back west again beyond where we had begun.

Eymoutiers (town view from above)

Eymoutiers (girls by the river)

We decided to cut an hour off the route time by taking the motorway, one we had been assured was toll free all the way.  It wasn’t.  From north-east of Brive most of the way to Clermont we were charged €18 for the privilege.  We cut off and drove up winding tracks to a seemingly abandoned ski station and hotel set high on the mountains above the resort town of La Bourboule.  There were some signs of workmen around, but we couldn’t decide if they were attempting to renovate the buildings, or were in the process of stripping them out before demolition.  We walked around a small pond and along a few nearby tree-shaded trails that were marked as mountain bike routes, but it all looked a little unloved and unused, out of season.  We passed a quiet night with birdsong our only companion.

La Bourboule (abandoned ski lift)

La Bourboule (tired buildings)

The next morning we headed off, back down the steeply winding roads to the valley floor, passing through the town centre of La Bourboule and onwards.  We stopped in a large carpark adjacent to a ski lodge hotel, empty except for one other car.  This was the designated start of a 14km walking loop we had planned, taking in the highest point of the Massif Central, Puy de Sancy, at 1886m high.  We started by neat rows of chairs taken from a ski-lift and stored for summer on the grassy meadows.  The path rose quickly, becoming steeper and steeper, and we knew we would absorb most of the height gain in these first three kilometres, before following the ridge around multiple peaks and saddles.  We passed through loose herds of grazing cows, looking lazily around as they gently chewed the new grass.

Puy de Sancy (resting chair lifts)

Puy de Sancy (az on route up)

The gravel path turned to larger stones then to tall boulders that had to be climbed over.  Once on the ridge, we were immediately inundated with thick swarms of black flies, and tourist groups that emerged as if from nowhere.  We walked quickly with heads down and closed mouths, for to do anything other led to the unwanted ingestion of many of the pesky mouches.  Not far from the saddle we could see timber platforms built around the summit, like a crow’s nest on a ship’s mast. Puy de Sancy top was quite a disappointment as it was served by a gondola, the only ski-lift currently in operation, and masses of unsuitably attired people had crammed themselves along the wooden walkways and platforms that lined the peak.  We weren’t sure which invasion was worst – the flies or the tourists.

Puy de Sancy (nicky takes in view)

Puy de Sancy (peaks and paths)

We quickly passed on, down a steep run of stony cut-backs that were still in the process of being constructed.  We watched guys from the Gendarmerie Mountain Rescue rush past us, stacked with rescue kit, to assist a lady with a poorly leg.  Little did we know this would not be our only meeting with these men on the mountain today.  Our route was to take us over Puy de Cacadogne and Roc de Cluzeau, before reaching the Grande Cascade, a large waterfall central to the mountain horseshoe.  But we never made it that far.  On a simple rocky path after a short upwards climb Nicky had an innocuous twist of her ankle.  We got no further, as she could not support her weight.  We sat for five minutes and considered options, and decided it was best to turn around and hobble back by a shorter route.

Puy de Sancy (nicky rescue)

Puy de Sancy (hop into vehicle)

As we slowly hobbled down, with the occasional bout of piggy-backing to speed the descent along, we were caught up by the descending vehicle of the Gendarmerie Mountain Rescue.  They stopped to enquire to our well-being and immediately ousted a man with large kit bag to look after Nicky until the car could deliver its current injured passenger to safety, and then return for us.  A precautionary splint was applied to Nicky’s leg, and around 15 minutes later the vehicle reappeared and we hopped, literally in Nicky’s case, in. The road down was a hugely rutted track, necessitating slow, awkward driving and we scraped loudly as we grounded a couple of times.  It definitely would have been very difficult to walk down and we would have really struggled had they not been passing us.

Puy de Sancy (safely down)

Puy de Sancy (panorama)

After many busy years, decades even, of climbing, hiking, running and skiing in high mountains all over our wonderful planet, this annoying simple twisting tear was the only time either of us were unable to deliver ourselves back to the bottom of the slopes under our own steam.  (I once skied the length of the Three Valleys, from Val Thorens back to our accommodation in La Tania, nursing a broken shoulder).  But our GMR saviours kindly delivered us safely down, right back to Benny’s door.  A very relieved Nicky donated two slices of her very yummy home-made coconut cake to the rescuers for their valiant efforts, since they were likely missing lunch to help us.  Their assistance was so very gratefully received – many thanks for their kindness, expertise and professionalism.

Chambon-sur-Lac (running loop of lake)

Chambon-sur-Lac (lake shores)

After a spot of restorative downtime, we drove about a half hour to Chambon-sur-Lac and set ourselves up in a comfortable little paid aire, €10 per night including services and electricity, near the banks of the pretty lake.  Here we sat and watched the world pass, with me tending to and ensuring Nicky properly rested her ankle.  On a later short test walk we noted that even with huge, unmissable ‘camping cars interdits’ signs at the entrance, the adjacent car-park was home to some twelve vans overnighting, some even with their awnings out.  Still, we had a sweet spot.  We saw some visitors walking around the lake frontage still dressed in jeans and thick jumpers, some even wearing scarfs; a reminder to us that this sticky heatwave we are struggling with is still considered quite mild by some.

Chambon-sur-Lac (Az with love island)

Chambon-sur-Lac (beach time)

The next day I went for a muggy 6km run around the perimeter of lake, taking in the nearby town of Varennes.  It was stinking hot in the open fields, but the lakeside path had beautiful patches of deep shade from overhanging trees that provided welcome relief. Nicky followed around on her bike to avoid exacerbating her injured foot, enjoying the fresh lake air and mountain views.  The blue lake was home to Île d’Amour, Love Island, a small circular coppice of trees.  Afterwards we sat on the beach and enjoyed the sunshine and a few cooling dips in the lake.  We watched as a guy in a wetsuit persistently combed the lake bottom with a metal detector. The setting, surrounded by mountains with patches of snow still on their steep slopes, felt a little like Scotland, except the 30 degree air and 20 degree water told us a different story.

Virignin marina (water view)

Virignin marina (between the locks)

The following morning, after a minor altercation at the services with a French queue-jumper, we took off for a long drive east, discounting the motorway option for a glimpse of the rural villages of the region.  We drove up and down hills and valleys in glorious sunshine, surrounded by lush meadows, tall firs and wide fields of not yet out sunflowers. The villages wore uniform red clay tiles and light stone walls, and were either nestled into protective bowls at the bottom of valleys or set high on the top of hills, each with a tall central church prominently standing like a famous star in a circle of adoring fans.  We stopped for lunch at the Col des Pradeaux, still a way short of Saint Étienne.  From here the timeless rolling rural landscape reluctantly gave way to built-up urban sprawl as we approached the city, and it never quite relinquished its grip all the way through to Lyon and around.

Conjux beach (chilling and swimming)

Conjux beach (lazy afternoon)

The traffic was busy but flowing, and east of Lyon we rediscovered a more gentle rural experience, reaching the banks of the Rhône.  We were treated to a spiky, snow-topped backdrop as the glorious Alps slowly grew tall on our distant horizon. We passed places and names we began to recognise, from cycling near here on an earlier part of our travels.  We’d previously stayed in Belley, not more than a handful of miles away from our target of Virignin.  This was home to a spacious, free aire, lined with lavender, set at a recently constructed marina with impressive boat locks and a hydro power station taming this stretch of the Rhône.  With a few other vans and day visitors, it had a picnic and party feel much of the day and we were treated to a fireworks show that night to celebrate Midsummers.

Conjux beach (selfie in water)

Conjux beach (reading by the water)

The next morning we reached Lake Bourget, starting with a short visit to Abbaye d’Hautecombe.  We walked through the gardens to the water’s edge in search of a dip, but signs suggested that swimming was forbidden here, and for once we complied as commercial boats were operating and there were lots of customers.  Instead we drove north along the edge of the water, stopping suddenly to spend a day on a spotted beach at Conjux. We managed to park nearby and squeezed ourselves into a corner spot on a strip of grass next to the water.  It was a popular place with the ring of conversation and laughter and the smell of barbecue wafting across the beach.  Lots of kayaks, canoes and SUPs came and went, filled with screaming kids or gallivanting teens, adding colour and noise to the experience.

Serrieres (in the aire)

Serrieres (small swim spot)

From here we climbed upwards to overnight at Serrières, near to another smaller but very popular swim spot.  The free aire was full of day-trippers but we managed to sneak into the only vacant space, perhaps only recently vacated as it was a good one.  If the aire had been empty we would likely have chosen this same space for ourselves, back right-hand corner with our British hab door opening out onto a neat and private grassed area.  We settled in, awning out and later slowly walked round the lake, dodging groups of supine sun-worshippers everywhere.  It was too hot for much activity or thought and there were barely-clothed bodies lying haphazardly all over the grass, as if they had simply fallen over when the heat became too much to bear.  We completely understood; we were on the verge of doing similar.

A&N x

 

France – Lake Vassivière & our SwimRun challenge

We left the garage and our boxed-up belongings as neat and organised as we could, ready for pick-up and delivery at the end of July, when we take ownership of our new French house.  Job done, we had a lovely, slow run into the nearby fields to relax, before opening a celebratory bottle to end our stay.  The next morning we drove, with Nicky’s mum, back to East Midlands for our flight back to France, feeling satisfied with our flying five-day UK stop-over.

Sereilhac - sitting by lake

Lake Vassiviere (lake map)

Only a few hours later we arrived back as scheduled in Limoges, all very simple, with Benny patiently waiting for us in the long-stay parking.  Nicky’s mum was, as organised months ago, flying out the following day from Stansted to join us for a week around Lake Vassivière, so we had no desire to move on too far.  We had overnighted at several other nearby aires during our house-hunting, but never at the small municipal aire in Séreilhac, only 15 minutes from the airport, so that became our plan for this evening.  We were the only van in residence, and settled comfortably into a sunny corner.  We had a cup of tea sat at a grassy picnic table and after enjoyed a short walk around the nearby lake; it was such peaceful place, a little haven, yet so close to the city and the main north-south road through the park.

Lake Vassiviere (bench)

Lake Vassiviere (free aire in Aupelle)

Lake Vassiviere (wine by the shore)

A lazy morning and big food and drink shopping trip followed, before arriving back at the airport early afternoon to collect Nicky’s mum.  From there we doodled around Limoges and then cross-country, always heading east.  We passed through Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat before stopping in Peyrat-le-Château for a brief cup of tea and to pick up the forgotten cash required for our apartment deposit.  Soon after, we hugged the northern coast of the lake to reach Masgrangeas and began the long process of extricating everything we would need for the week from its place in Benny into the small rental apartment.  When all trips were complete we had a local explore, taking a glass with us down to the water’s edge where we sat a while and enjoyed the view.  Blue skies, rolling tree-covered hills and shining, flat water; this will do us very nicely, thank you.

Lake Vassiviere (woodland trails)

Lake Vassiviere (hillside view)

Over the next few days we undertook a few exploratory walks and visited a few islands, some of which we would later be swimming to or running around.  We rarely saw anyone else until the day of our race.  We impatiently had our first swim at a small stretch of sand only a few minutes from our accommodation.  Our thermometer confirmed the water was a balmy 20 degrees, quite perfect for swimming sans wetsuit, as we were.  There were warmer and cooler patches as we moved through the water, sometimes catching us by surprise by their contrast.  The water had a rare silky quality, almost moisturising, feeling rather slimy on our skin when submerged but leaving us soft and smooth after drying off.  The sun warmed our backs and dried us quickly, making each short dip a sensual pleasure.

Lake Vassiviere (lunch spot)

Lake Vassiviere (evening stillness)

Lake Vassiviere (mother and daughter)

Another day we climbed a 777m hill to enjoy a panoramic overview of the lake, before dropping down to visit a small island we had spotted, linked to the mainland by a curving timber walkway.  Verges of tall wavy grass were dense with white michaelmas daisies and buttercups, dotted with spears of bright purple foxgloves.  Behind these, wide strips of curling ferns separated this wildflower verge from the woodland trees.  Everywhere we looked the lake coastline was simply intoxicating.  We stopped for a bite to eat on a snaking timber walkway before deciding that even though we hadn’t planned to swim, we had to strip off and slip into the inviting waters for a post-lunch skinny dip.  Refreshed and invigorated, we walked back along the coastline of the lake remembering our treasured memories of spontaneous swim dips in various Swedish lakes the previous summer.

Lake Vassiviere (swimrun start)

Lake Vassiviere (fun swim)

Lake Vassiviere (hillside walk)

One of many 2018 challenges we set for ourselves was to undertake a SwimRun.  This is now a recognised formal discipline originally borne from competitive Swedish guys challenging each other to race, via many islands, across an archipelago.  It has evolved into a team event with pairs who race the course never more than 10 metres away from each other.  As this was our first foray into Swim Run we decided to keep it simple. We chose the Short Course event, to keep the distance within our comfort zone.  We had about 10km to go, roughly 8.5k running and 1.5k lake swimming.  This meant no stress for us, meaning we could relax and enjoy both the event and the wonderful scenery, and that spectating for Nicky’s mum would not be a long day.  It also gives us a base platform to later build on, so we could step up and improve and push our performance should we wish to continue entering future races.

Lake Vassiviere (on the move)

Lake Vassiviere (in the water)

On the day of the race we parked easily at Auphelle, before transferring to the start by bus. There were a few competitors lining up looking very hot in full wetsuits, but also others wearing only speedos, trainers and the compulsory race bibs.  Many had customised leg-floats and large swim-paddles at the ready.  A few ingenious runners had small floats laced securely into the tops of their shoes, for additional buoyancy.  We had decided we didn’t require floats, but Nicky had chosen to use swim-paddles to better match our swimming paces for our chosen combination of clothing.  We wore 2mm thick neoprene shorts with rash vests under our bibs, enough to offer adequate warmth and some additional buoyancy but nothing that would inhibit us or make us overheat on the run sections.

Lake Vassiviere (swim exit)

Lake Vassiviere (Swimrun finish line)

We had done some decent training over recent months, including more recently at our Ribérac housesit, where at nearby Jemaye Lake we were able to experiment with transitioning between swimming and running and try various clothing options, so we felt like we were suitably prepared.  There was a great friendly atmosphere throughout the day, collaborative and supportive, not at all combative, even at the elite level.  People chatted and offered tips and were ready with a helping hand if required.  With a mass start, we ran 2k first, before entering the beautifully clear, warm waters, fully supported by kayaks and small power boats.  Our swim routes were marked by easily-spotted red buoys, our runs on wooded trails with a cushioning pine needle floor.  We soon found ourselves surrounded by similar-paced teams and experienced an ebb and flow as we passed them on the runs and they passed us on swims.

Lake Vassiviere (swimrun completed)

Lake Vassiviere (elite teams pass)

We were 66th team home, in 1hr 33 minutes, satisfyingly faster than our pre-race estimates. We enjoyed the vocal support and a friendly atmosphere throughout.  It was well marshalled and we were impressed to be handed beers and lots of great snacks at the end.  We really enjoyed the challenge and now want to do more, especially in areas with similarly impressive scenery.  The following day, after a long lie-in, we decided to visit a small peninsula opposite where we were staying, to spectate and offer support to competitors in the long course event.  We parked at a large, flat motorhome area and walked to where the passing runners would pause to re-enter the water.  We set up camping chairs and cheered the lead teams as they passed, appreciating their efforts.  Later we walked up a steep hill to take in a higher vista of the lake, spotting islands, paths and beaches where we had swam or ran previously.

Lake Vassiviere (playing in water)

Lake Vassiviere (longer island swim start)

Each night the stillness of the lake drew us back to its shores, the evening light quality providing an enchanting scene of exceptional tranquillity and beauty.  The surrounding hills were sometimes lit with patches of vibrant lime-greens where the setting sun caught them just right, their bright reflections mirrored on the glassy surface of the lake.  We greedily soaked up the sights and sounds, revelling in the humble, accessible pleasures of such an unspoilt facility, simply perfect for swimming, running, hiking, kayaking, fishing or sailing, over and above the intoxicating natural beauty.  And best of all, it sits only ninety minutes or so from our new house – ensuring that we’ll definitely be back.

A&N x

France – Brantôme, and a flying visit home

We had, mostly, readied ourselves and the house we were tasked with looking after for our imminent departure.  Our host Eric telephoned to say he would be home a day earlier than originally expected, so we cut short our final hours of sun-worshipping to complete the last tidy-up tasks, made a cup of tea and awaited his return.  We spent the evening catching up and chatting with Eric, then on to bed.  The rain returned the next morning as we removed the final traces of our presence, we said our goodbyes and, for the first time in six weeks, we were back on the road.

Brantome - (river view)

Brantome - (bridge and weir)

We didn’t venture  too far.  We had been harbouring plans to visit the town of Brantôme for months, and the time had now arrived.  We scorned a few free aires nearby for a centrally located ACSI campsite, as a gradual stepping-stone transition from a large, comfortable house to life back in a 6m box.  Set on the banks of the river Dronne, Campsite Brantôme Peyrelevade was a very tidy, peaceful haven, complete with a lovely swimming pool and set an easy five minutes away from the heart of the historic centre.  The heavy rain had followed us here, but soon lessened to a trickle and we decided, after an obligatory cup of tea, that it was time to go explore.  By the time we left the grounds of the campsite the sky was clearing, the rain had stopped and there was a threat that the sun might break through.

Brantome - (abbey from bridge)

Brantome - (abbey gardens)

A gravel track led us easily to a large canoe centre where we could cross a small tributary of the river to enter the central streets.  Brantôme central is a circular island, surrounded by a natural moat formed by a split in the flow of the river Dronne.  Five bridges, like extended spokes on a wheel, connect the island to the surrounding mainland.  Its foremost attraction, although not itself positioned on the island, is the 8th century Benedictine Abbey, founded by Charlemagne.  The original cloister and church were joined by an 11th century Romanesque bell tower and further monastic accommodations.  But life was lived out here long before the abbey was built; there were residents in the extensive cliff caves behind, and many relics from these original troglodytes are now displayed within the church.

Brantome - (nicky at abbey)

Brantome - (abbey from bridge)

Patches of blue sky appeared overhead as we wandered through the historic streets.  We had fully expected our walk to come complete with dreary grey views and a proper drenching, but with the ever-brightening day came a similar rise in our mood and expectation, and everything felt like a welcome bonus.  We walked slowly through parks and gardens, relaxed and happy.  The city streets were busy with tourists, the restaurants spilling out into small squares.   We heard lots of English voices, more than we’d experienced in France before, but it is certainly the season for it; the summer madness was ready to explode into action.  We watched people kayaking around the river, made complicated by weirs blocking routes, and passed a wonderful rusty curved cello sculpture set up on a bridge.

Brantome - (river view of abbey)

Brantome - (nicky plays cello)

We returned to the campsite by the same path, happy to have enjoyed a break in the weather for our town visit.  Huge swathes of grey clouds began gathering again on the horizon and we expected the rain to return soon.  Before that happened, we decided to have a quick dip in the pool.  We swam a bunch of lengths in the too-hot water, showered and dressed, making it back into Benny with only seconds to spare before the deluge returned.  The rest of the night was spent with the sound of rain for company, along with never-ending tea and multiple back-to-back episodes of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.  The morning was, thankfully, dry.  We had a quick exploratory walk around the campsite and its riverbanks before heading off north; we had organised a quick visit to (almost) our new house.

Flavignac (local lake)

Flavignac (playing at lake)

We parked at the nearby village of Gorre, in a huge empty carpark adjacent to the church.  After lunch, we got out our much under-used bikes and cycled a hilly 19km around beautiful local lanes, all soon to be forming the starting point for longer cycle trips from our new house.  We met up with Julia again and measured up a few rooms and took a few other dimensions to help us ascertain which items of furniture we should bring with us, or what new pieces we may need to consider.  After a tour of the flowering garden we said our goodbyes and cycled back to Benny to relax.  We decanted back to nearby Châlus to overnight, feeling like regulars there.  We had a brief visit over to Flavignac the following day  to check out a possible swim lake, but an outbreak of blue-green algae has closed it for now – shame.

Solignac (playing fields workout)

Solignac (riverside run)

After a quick supermarket shop and a lazy brunch, we popped into Decathlon for a few items, before stopping to overnight at a free aire in Solignac.  Here the sun reappeared and dominated our restful afternoon, lazing by a football pitch, watching the groundsman cut the grass with exacting precision and dedication.  A few guys turned up to train equally lazily on the neat football pitches.  The next morning, Thursday, we dragged ourselves out for a jaunty 7km run through the village and back along the muddy riverbank, before making our way to Limoges airport; we had work to do.  We parked Benny in Long Stay and that afternoon we caught a flight home to go through all our stuff currently stored in Nicky’s mum’s garage and decide what was going to come back with us to France.

Limoges - Airport

We deliberately organised a small removals van of 15 cubic metres, so we have to be selective with our needs.  We’ve proved we could easily live with just what little we have in Benny, but houses are different animals and demand to be filled with stuff.  We needed, as always, to be disciplined and sensible.  After 18+ months of travelling light in Benny, we had pared down our lives to a simplified palette of what was really necessary.  And even then, we have found ourselves not using or wearing many items that we brought with us, after what, at the time, was thought an extreme and difficult cut in personal possessions. We were never hoarders before, and never had a real desire for things, at least relatively compared to others we know.  But even what little we had collated over the passing years now seemed, when viewed through the hindsight of our recent existence, like an embarrassing abundance.

Packing - our worldly possessions

We had box after box of clothes, books, ornaments, crockery, kitchen utensils and stationery items, alongside rows of wardrobes stuffed with even more clothes, linen, blankets, tablecloths and towels.  We had gardening tools, bike tools, DIY tools, buckets, planters, ladders, cables, strimmers and clippers.  We had rows of bookshelves groaning with books, DVDs and magazines.  We have no idea what to do with it all, as after three days of opening, checking and repacking every box, we are taking less than a quarter of it back to our house in France.  We discarded some items, gave away a few boxes of others, but the rest, deemed too good to throw away, is simply being left behind for now.

A&N x

France House-sit – Vanxains, near Riberac (Part 3)

Visits to Lacapelle-Biron and Cazeneuve

The long sun-drenched days in Vanxains simply glided by, our hours filled with nothing substantial but brimmed with relaxation and rest.  We rewarded every two hours of strenuous physical effort, either running, walking, swimming or cycling, with double that of lazy sitting or lying in the garden, reading and watching the burning sun slowly drift across the sky.  It’s a great balance for us, the daily exercise and the deliberate rest, and this easy luxury of filling our time exactly as we wish has a wonderfully cathartic effect.  The hours and days of the week have constricted in their use to hold little meaning to us, as we now live solely on the timescales of the rising and setting of the sun, and of the changing seasons.

Villereal - (Covered market)

Villereal - (Church)

Nicky has an old university friend with a holiday home in Lacapelle-Biron, near to Monpazier, and we organised a visit for when they were in-country.  After a brief stop in Bergerac on the way, we enjoyed a flying visit to the bastide town of Villeréal, where we walked the historic streets, taking in the elaborate timber marketplace and tall stone church.  Not long after, we arrived at Mandy and Simon’s villa, where we were soon splashing in their pool, sipping beers and swapping stories, all generously accompanied by birdsong and afternoon rays.  We later retired to their patio for dinner and wine, eating and chatting long into the night, punctuated with earnest discussions on what music to play next.  The following morning we ate a tasty late breakfast outside under the shade of a wisteria-covered pergola.  We were, surprisingly and gladly, experiencing only the dull hint of the fully-expected hangover.

Lacapelle - (Mandy & Nicky)

Lacapelle - (Mandy & Simon)

We said our goodbyes as we had another lunch date with Ken & Monica in Cazeneuve, which was spent relaxing by their pool, complete with much more chatting and eating.  It was fascinating for us to see Cazeneuve blossoming into summer, such a different appearance from before.  Every vista was now green, lush and fruitful, more opaque with dense foliage than the skinny, dormant mud-browns of the winter months we had recently spent there; it was transformed.  Monica & Ken were expecting the arrival of an Australian couple later that afternoon, their guests under Home Exchange, a scheme that we hope to utilise in future years with our new French home, opening up more travel options further afield.  We thanked them for lunch and left them to prepare for their far-flung visitors.

Cazeneuve - Poolside dining

Cazeneuve - Poolside lunch

One damp Monday morning, we decided to drive to the nearby market town of Chalais.  We had been informed it was one of the most worthwhile local markets to visit, but on a dull, grey day under the constant threat of rain it seemed rather small and basic.  Perhaps this was because the scattering of stalls were widely spaced out along many streets, rather than clustered together in a central location, and the day’s meagre crowds didn’t stretch wide enough to offer a hearty noise or an interesting buzz.  Or perhaps we had so recently been spoiled by the large markets in Issigeac and Ribérac that we were anticipating more, our personal expectations raised and dashed through no fault of Chalais.  We walked up a steep hill to look at the local château before disappearing back through the wet streets.

Chalais Market (town streets)

Vanxains - flood defenses

Another day we visited the village of Saint-Aulaye, where we squeezed through a tight timber gate to access the ample parking before undertaking a self-guided walking tour of the village’s Roman highlights.  We kept up our schedule of long countryside runs and quiet evening walks, punctuated with lots of down-time, disguised in our minds as ‘recovery’.  We enjoyed several more swims and runs around Jemaye lake, further training sessions for our upcoming SwimRun event.   On several occasions we experienced serious thunderstorms and minor flooding at the house, interspersed with momentary losses of electricity.  Once these storms broke, we were usually treated to wide-reaching and spectacularly deep sunsets across the expansive valley, all visible from the bottom of the garden.

Vanxains - Lazy cats

Vanxains - (Garden sunsets)

On our last Friday we cycled a beautiful cross-country route vaguely northwards, on chalky paths and tiny roads, their grassy centre-line a testament to the lack of use.  We struck out a winding route into the west of Ribérac, dropping down into the edge of town via a fantastic descent through wheat fields on a stony path.  We weaved through the neat suburbs before we again joined the crowds at the weekly market.  The conversational buzz and bright colours of the busy centre were striking in contrast to just moments before, where only the muted colours and tweeting noises of the countryside existed.  We parked up and walked a loop, enjoying the contrast with the green silence. After exhausting the market stalls, we had a quick stop at the Hôtel de Ville before cycling out of town.

Riberac - busy market

Riberac - hotel de ville

We returned home by a new route, finding a quiet stretch of road alongside a small trickle of a river, it passing through woodland filled with the bending trunks of tall, graceful trees.  The route was a continuous ribbon of green rolling hills, each crest offering far-reaching views of the surrounding lands, made up of expansive hectares of manicured fields with only a light scattering of stone houses and outbuildings visible.  The fields were planted with barley, sweetcorn and sunflowers, still small and green, but ensuring the vista would evolve yet again, to be resplendent with brilliant yellows in the months to come.  Legs tingling from our efforts, we settled back into our lazy garden life, soaking up the sun in the close company of cats, again feeling like the ones who got the crème.

Vanxains - Last night sunset

Vanxains - Last night reflections

We spent a large part of the day readying for leaving – we packed up all non-essentials, tidied up the house and, under a scorching sun, completed a last cut of the fast-growing garden.  With everything in good shape, we decided to make a little micro-adventure for ourselves after dinner.  We took our camping chairs and a bottle of single malt with us and walked up a local grassy chemin to a nearby hillside, where we took up temporary residence on a gravel plateau to enjoy the setting of the sun over the lush valley.  We settled in, each poured ourselves a glass and sipped in silence as the sun slowly disappeared behind the horizon, just like the fun-filled days and weeks we’ve spent here have now vanished into the past.  Here was the end of another, very different but equally wonderful, house-sit, and we felt so fortunate to have been offered the opportunity to spend such quality time in these peaceful surroundings.

A&N x