Rolling off the ferry in the port town of Dieppe sandwiched between a convoy of commercial lorries made Benny feel much smaller than usual. It was late at night and we were both tired from the long drive south. With less than a kilometre to drive until our first overnight aire, our inaugural experience of driving on the right was welcomingly unchallenging. After a night’s nervous sleep we were excited to wake up in a busy port adjacent to imposing cliffs, albeit in low mist and constant drizzle. A quick reshuffling of priorities due to weather and our first stop now became the historic city of Rouen.
Armed with no information on how best to park ‘le camping-car’ in this (or any other) city, we were at the mercy of French signposts to assist. Ignoring city centre signs, we spotted a long riverside gravelled parking area under a bridge and stopped up, leaving us only a five minute brisk walk to the centre’s sights.
Soaked but happy, we splashed our way first to Rouen’s cathedral, famously painted dozens of times in changing light and weather by Claude Monet. The imposing and yet delicately detailed facade was a striking contrast to the impressively time-twisted medieval timber structures of adjacent buildings. We wandered around the old centre, enjoying the narrow streets, the Grand Horlage clock tower and adjacent cloisters.
Our drive south to Giverny, to avoid motorway tolls, was on winding A-roads through small, pretty stone and timer built villages, with plenty of roundabouts and traffic lights to keep us thinking about driving on the right.
The village must be overrun on fine summer days, but on a rainy, dull September day the vast parking areas were relatively quiet. A large bronze head of a bearded Monet greeted us on arrival and a short walk took us to the entry point of his house and gardens.
The long stone with salmon-colour rendered house with green window shutters was vibrant and alive with exceptionally varied planting externally and paintings internally. Many accurate copies of Monet’s paintings hang just where the originals did many years ago, allowing an insight into his working life. Externally, the waterlily pond was a true highlight, with many still in flower even this late in the season. It was lovely to see the original inspirational source for so many familiar paintings, studied in a distant arty past.
We returned northwards to the small town of Pont de L’Arches to overnight in a quiet riverside aire, luckily bagging the penultimate space despite our late arrival.
Aires in France are basically municipally run specialist ‘camping car’ park spots. They are unmanned and cannot be booked in advance, operating on a first-come first-served basis. Popular Aires are busy and, if full, can end with disappointment so a backup plan is always required.
After a pleasant stroll around the town centre and local church, we had dinner and settled in for the night, buzzing with ideas and possibilities when considering the success of our first day on the road.
Our second day was mostly about relocating further west, so we undertook an ambling four hour journey, avoiding motorway tolls, to Avranches. We passed through many small villages and settlements, all with a distinctive style. Comfortable now with driving on the right, the lack of traffic even on popular french routes is a welcome surprise. We stopped in what was obviously a very popular aire with no true spaces, but double- parked across another van with agreement from the kindly Aussie couple within.
Steeped in WW2 history, Avranches played a key strategic role and hosts a large monument to General Patten, complete with tank. We passed a pleasant day exploring the town and local parks, with Jardin De Plantes a highlight, sculptured and beautifully planted, overlooking the central Notre Dame church. We returned to the park early evening after dinner with sketchbooks and pencils to draw a little and later to watch the sun set over the distant Mont St Michel, tomorrow’s goal.
Early (for us) start for a longish off -road cycle to visit the island fortress of Mont St Michel. Began in 738 CE as a seat of learning, the island grew with the construction of a large Benedictine monastery and the trade brought by being a popular pilgrimage. Today the weather was perfect, maybe even a little too nice – a hot mid 20s with only insubstantial wispy clouds in the deep blue sky. Avranches sits on a steep hill so we knew we’d pay later for the initial exhilarating downhill to the water’s edge. From here, a long distance walking and cycling path hugged the coast all the way around to Mont St. Michel, 30km west.
We had the cycle route mostly to ourselves for the duration and were constantly amazed by the lack of people around, especially on such a lovely day. The crowds suddenly grew larger as we approached the imposing site via the new causeway, as most visitors only walk the last kilometre or so from a huge coach park on the mainland. Horse-drawn carriages and specialist buses run back and forth for those not able or willing to make the walk.
We passed through the narrow entrance archway and along the crammed lower streets, thronged with colourful shops and visitors. This lower area is free to access and many had taken the opportunity to explore and browse. We climbed up many more stone stairs to the monastery entrance and bought tickets to access the main buildings and enjoyed a few hours exploring. The views down and out to sea from the external plazas on each level were exceptional, showing off just how precarioulsy perched the entire structure is.
We returned by the same route, small country roads and riverside bridleway. We chatted to two old local characters sat outside their home, who refilled our water bottles for us. Their French was practically indecipherable to us, but we had a nice conversation regardless.
In total the cycle was just shy of 60km, mostly off-road, but felt longer in the legs as we’re not yet fully bike-fit. Still, a fantastic day of water-side cycling in blazing sun.
We left our comfortable aire in Avranches and drove to St. Malo, with the plan being to explore the historic central area. But on arrival we found thousands of full parking spaces and no clear options for stopping with a motorhome, so reluctantly moved on. What little we did see of the town looked very nice, so will require a visit again, some day. We headed on to our next stop, at Dinan. We passed through the Port de Dinan and parked in an aire by the river Rance under a hugely imposing viaduct.
We walked up a steep gravel path and steps leading to the main town walls, to again find another beautifully preserved medieval town. The main tree-lined square and huge central church boasted a small plaza with views over the river. Timber framed buildings and winding streets with cute artisan shops led through and around the town.
Later we found a steep cobbled path, rue Jerzual, winding back down to the Port de Dinan and enjoyed watching a local running club running intervals up the busy street. Lots of quirky local shops and tiny cafes and bars line this rue, creating a wonderful buzz.
Today’s cycle began in the very pretty Port de Dinan, following the river Rance northwards on the western bank. High cliffs on one side, the river slowly opened out from narrow stream to full marina, housing many dinghies and sailing yachts moored in open water.
We followed a chalky pathway lined, and sometimes enclosed, by tall trees. It passed through several villages en route before it took us most of the way to the town of Dinard. Just two extra minutes along a quiet road we turned left down a steep cobbled path to be faced with a stunning vista of open sands, built-up coastline and many sailing boats, framed by the prominent city walls of St. Malo a few miles behind.
We hugged the water’s edge admiring the view, almost giggling with excitement. Cutting back into town we locked up our bikes and explored the centre on foot, before eating lunch in a quiet, shaded square.
We returned to the first beach, la Plage du Prieure, and relaxed on the expansive sands. Besides a happy, rowdy crowd of students playing volleyball at the eastern end, only a handful of locals shared the beach with us, many of them seemingly on extended lunch breaks and soon disappeared back indoors. We swam lengths parallel to the beach in the cool, calm, surprisingly salty water before relaxing in the hot midday sun slathered in factor 50. It’s a far cry from what our standard Friday lunchtimes consisted of just a few short weeks ago. We passed a delightful hour enjoying the sea and sun before rejoining our bikes and heading back to base by a mostly similar route.
A 60km cycle with a cooling swim at a lovely beach, finished off with a relaxing beer in the shade of an ancient viaduct by a tranquil river; that’ll do. It definitely feels now, after all the stresses and efforts to get away, we’re shedding our work skins piece by piece and slowly relaxing into our new lifestyle; living our dream.