We returned home from Pageas for only one day, and after explaining the basics of our house and pool to our lovely new Dutch house guests and their very excited children, we set off west, through well-known countryside. Short of Angoulême, we stopped in a free aire in Touvre, which proved to be a much busier stopover aire than we had expected. Leaving the constant coming and goings in the tiny aire, we set off for a walk to discover the Font de Lussac, the source of the Touvre river. We walked around the lake formed by the waterworks, as there were no routes across, but it was a very pleasant stroll full of interesting churches, far-reaching vistas, tiny lanes, quirky island homes and the Chateau de Maumont. It was all very pleasant; a gentle start to the longest of our trips away.
We visited a small swim lake at the Aire de loisirs du Bain des Dames, near to Châteauneuf-Sur-Charente, where we played table tennis (yes, Nicky smashed me as usual) and had a refreshing swim in the river, just before a wide bank of black clouds drifted over and dumped the heaviest rain we’d seen in months. We ran and sheltered under the short overhang of a closed restaurant’s roof, waiting out the deluge that we knew would finish in a few wet minutes. We ate lunch then drove on to Domaine Cognac Peyrot François. There we were greeted by the owner and given a wonderful tour of all the facilities, him explaining the terroir, the harvesting, and the detail of the distilling processes for their range of flavoured wines, pineaus and cognacs. It was a tour you would normally expect to be paying for.
They had a special treat for visiting motorhomers. We were gifted a range of samples on a tray to take back to Benny and enjoy at our own pace, along with descriptive literature. We decided to taste the aperitifs before dinner, following a deliberate process where we compared notes. A quiet evening and dinner in Benny, we took a walk into the heavily-leaden vines where we sat on a blanket and enjoyed the remainder of our samples as the sun set behind us. In front of us a faint white moon rose in the pale blue evening sky, high above a line of tall wind-rustled trees. We neither saw nor heard anyone as we sipped and critiqued each flavoured wine, punch and cognac in turn, watching the sky turn ever redder. It was a fantastic experience, deep in the rows of vines where all the magic happens.
We visited the store in the morning to purchase a few bottles of our favourites, and to offer our thanks for the wonderful experience and tour. A short, slow drive to the outskirts of Cognac town, first stopping at Base Plein Air André Mermet, with thoughts of running into the centre. But Nicky had another bout of her reoccurring dizziness, so we shelved the idea of running, and drove to see if we could snatch a place at a small aire in Cognac. Amazingly, we crossed the Pont Neuf and turned in to find a slot was available, and quickly parked up. Within one minute, three other motorhomes had passed us with the same hope, and many more would during the next hours. Several circled around and passed again and again, hoping for a space to magically open up. We had been very lucky.
After resting a little, we walked to the river Charente to view the Hennessy distillery, and across the bridge into the centre of Cognac. We asked the helpful staff in the tourist office to organise a doctor’s appointment for Nicky, to ascertain what could be troubling her. We had an appointment within an hour at a local clinic, and after a modicum of gentle sightseeing, we arrived in the clinic. The basic tests and blood pressure were all fine, and we organised for fasting bloods to be taken and tested in the morning, so we would be staying in Cognac for at least another day. There were worse places to be. We returned for the blood test early the next morning, then met the doctor again to discuss the findings. All readings led to a diagnosis of a viral infection, with rest and time the only solution.
We left our coveted spot by the river soon after, heading north west through vineyard country, stopping at an aire in Burie to fill up with water. From there we turned north through Migron, to another France Passion vineyard called Domaine Tesseron. We expected it to be busy, but we were the only visitors and had an entire lawn, complete with lake, on which to make ourselves at home. We were feeling tired, so after introductions we delayed a tasting until the following morning. We visited their extensive museum, learning much about Cognac. One son, an artist, with deep connections to Cuba, was shown photographed with Castro. A wing of the museum celebrated the sublime connoisseur-hyped partnership of quality cognac and cigars, another rally cars, motorbikes and vintage tractors.
We drove through several small villages to get a feel for the region, then arrived to visit Nicky’s friends Lisa & Tom, deep in rural Charente. After a tour of their house, long catch-up chats and a cooling swim in their pool, we enjoyed a wonderful barbecue with fresh salads and wine. We met their daughter Amelie and several of their friends. A little delicate, we all cycled over to marvel at the gîte complex run by Darren & Zara, where we also met Truffle, their chubby dwarf pig. Nicky had a go on a self-built zip-line in their garden, racing down from a large pirate ship. It was great to meet up with everyone and enjoy a good night; it was the first time in nearly 20 years, since swim training days in Northampton Triathlon club, that Nicky had seen Lisa. Hopefully we’ll not leave it so long next time.
After our goodbyes, we drove to the nearby town of Saintes, for a quick city explore. We parked centrally in a marked aire (45.740604n, 0.626727w) near a large sports centre, and walked in. A small park, wonderfully shaded by overlapping pollarded trees, led us to Roman ruins alongside a pedestrian bridge leading over the Charente river. We casually checked out their cathedral and basilica on our way to see their Gallo-Roman amphitheatre, enjoying the easy stroll under a warm sun. We circled the amphitheatre and were afforded decent views over the structure, so we decided to avoid the crowds, recently arrived on le petit train, and not enter the site. Instead, we meandered back through busy shop-lined streets, getting a feel for the town and simply enjoying the ambience of the afternoon.
We parked at an aire by the coast, just short of the bridge to Île d’Oléron, once paid but now free. It was busy, and not much of a beach with the tide out. We woke and left early to cross the bridge to the island. Traffic was present but light in our direction, but oncoming was simply an incredible mess for those leaving. At each roundabout reached we opined sadly for the poor travellers stuck in such a solid line, as multiple smaller routes converged on the single exit road. Then the same at the next, and the next, and we could do nothing but shake our heads at the barely-moving carnage. It was entirely solid for over 12km, as what seemed like the whole island was attempting to evacuate. We watched a few motorhomes join the back of the snake mid-island and felt they would be better stopping off for a 3 hour tea-break before trying to proceed. It’s the worst traffic jam we had ever seen in France.
But we made good progress north, hoping to settle in and see the area around St Denis d’Oléron before our race. We had plans to join a 12km run around the northern tip of the island, but with Nicky feeling jaded from her virus, I was to be the sole representation for Team Hill. We stopped first at Camping Municipal Saint-Denis, nearest to where the race would start, but felt it was scruffy and tatty and filled to bursting with noisy families and lots of dogs, so didn’t fancy paying €18 to stay there. Instead we decided to relocate a little out of town to the cheaper (€12) and much neater Aire de camping car du Moulin (46.027600n, 1.383156w), from where we could easily cycle into the race the following morning. After a look around the town, we signed up for the race, paid the €12 entry fee and collected my new race t-shirt, a race buff, number and timing chip. I was good to go, and looking forward to it.
We had an easy night resting in the van, where we watched the romantic comedy ‘Man Up’ with Simon Pegg. An early alarm, a rarity for us, dragged us from a deep sleep to ready ourselves. Next was breakfast, bikes out and a quick doodle into town to warm-up and await the start. There is something rather special about arriving into a large group of like-minded people all preparing for the same event; running, chatting, stretching, smiling. We locked up our bikes and wandered through the crowds, glad for the cooler morning, cloud cover and tiny bouts of light rain – perfect running conditions. Soon we were off through vineyards and along coastal trails, rounding the Phare de Chassiron just after halfway, then back on the eastern coast. The last kilometre held a final sting –a stretch of deep sandy beach to finish. I completed the race sub one hour as I had hoped for, just, with a finish time of 59 mins.
After showers and lunch, we had a slow cycle around the same race course, to let Nicky see the coast and the Phare de Chassiron. Unlike during the race, it was now surrounded by tourists like a dropped lollypop with ants, and we had to dismount and push our bikes to pass through the crowds. It was nice to revisit the route so soon afterwards, as I found I had missed so many parts of it, being distracted by other runners or concentrating on my own race. We had planned to move on, but decided instead to spend a second night in the same aire, and cycle more of the island. The next morning, under brighter skies, we visited La Brée-les-Bains, Saint-Georges, Cheray and Chaucre, giving us a decent feel for the villages and terrain of the northern portion of the island. There were many cyclists everywhere. Unsurprisingly, the island had a similar feel to Île de Ré, quite touristy and catering for families enjoying short stays.
We ate an early lunch and headed off, hoping that planning our escape at 1pm would mean little traffic, and so it proved. We cruised easily to the bridge and beyond, escaping Île d’Oléron without delay. After a brief Intermarché stop to provision, Mornac-sur-Seudre, a member of the beaux village scheme, welcomed us to their free aire. We raced the picturesque Train des Mouettes on the way, through several level-crossings where they had a clear advantage. We walked through the village, interesting for its many artisan shops and tidal estuary oyster-farming. We have long been looking for a seascape painting for our house that we both liked, but here we found a different, but similarly beguiling item; a cut-metal, colourfully painted turtle that we gifted to ourselves for a wall at home.
We decided to pause here another day, to have an exploratory cycle. Picking up a map, we chose to start with Route 2, towards La Tremblade. There were so many cycle signs everywhere that it proved difficult to follow, so we made up our own way. We headed into the oyster farms, small rectangles of dark water overlooked by colourfully painted huts. The tide was far out in the estuary, and any remaining fishing boats slumped low on thick mud, far below the decking platforms built to access them. On our return route, via Arvert, we passed huge swathes of gloomy-looking sunflowers, their darkening heads drooping like a congregation at prayer. We passed fields lined with neat rows of vines hung thick with bulging grapes, ripe for harvesting. A few locals were picking wild berries, filling large tubs.
We had cycled 36km through villages and varied countryside, but had not yet reached the coast; further exploration in Benny would be needed. We soon packed up and drove off to do a loop around the coast road. There were so many cars, parking in the mass of allocated spaces or in long lines on the grass verge. We passed huge crowds enjoying the coast everywhere, the beach wrapping around the coast for many continuous miles. We parked on the verge and walked through a forest busy with cyclists to enjoy our first sight of the coast and beach. The beach was a bit scrappy with muddy areas, forest creeping in to one side and the shallow sea a long way out. We later stopped at a lighthouse, Phare de la Coubre, where we found crowds milling all over, a neater beach hidden behind sand dunes.
We continued our drive along the coast road, through the busy towns of Saint-Palais-sur-Mer and Royan. It was definitely August holidays. We had planned to stop at the aire in Royan, but had a falling out with the payment system, so left instead for nearby Saint-Georges-de-Didonne. It was much more agreeable and comfortable there, and we settled in nicely under the welcome shade of a tree. It was a short walk to the beach, and to another lighthouse, Phare de Vallières. There was a photographic display in the grounds around the lighthouse, called the Rêves des Gosses, childhood dreams. The artist captured portraits of subjects in their current workplace, but dressed as they might have looked if their dream jobs had come to fruition. The juxtaposition was certainly compelling; an astronaut in a tax office, a prancing rock star in a supermarket, a priest in a discount bathroom store.
We walked to the central beach in Royan the next morning, along a rugged stony coast let down by gritty grey water and occasional mud. Geographically it looked a little like southern Portugal, but without the sparkling waters. We lay on the beach for the morning, reading, people-watching, and dozing. The beach was so flat that a swim required a long walk and wade before a depth higher than our thighs could be reached. Rested, we moved on to another aire 10km south, at the town of Meschers-sur-Gironde. There were two aires very close to each other, and we chose the one away from the marina as it had more space and felt nicer. We enjoyed an early evening coastal walk, looking at fishing huts on stilts and trying to ascertain the history of their design and use. We faced a night with a loud party roaring in the adjacent campsite, but a choice bottle of wine from a visited domaine helped us to sleep.
It was time to return home. We drove east, avoiding any main roads in favour of a direct route, and found some of the smallest and quietest roads we’ve seen. Re-entering the Parc naturel régional Périgord-Limousin , we stopped at the Grand Étang de Saint Estèphe, our final day away before reclaiming our home and settling back in for the end of summer. We had an hour at the beach, surrounded by English-speaking kids running wild and building huge castles. The next morning before breakfast I went for a short run around the lake, lost the path and ended up running many kilometres further than expected through several villages, but it was such a tranquil, fresh morning I didn’t want it to end.
But all things do, as now had our three home exchanges. We had met three great families, each having enjoyed a fun summer holiday at our home. We had had three varied, interesting trips away and simultaneously accumulated enough points to secure all the accommodation required for our winter trip to the Australian sun. Job’s a good ‘un.