Category Archives: Our Travel Journal

(During) Home Exchange 3 – West through Cognac region to the Atlantic coast at Royan & Ile d’Olêron

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.

Touvre - (walking tour)

Chateauneuf-Sur-Charante - (Aire de loisirs)

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.

Domaine Peyrot - (distillery tour)

Domaine Peyrot - (picnic cognac sampling)

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.

Domaine Peyrot - (sunset tasting)

Cognac - (shop advert)

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.

Cognac - (main streets)

Cognac - (centrre)

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.

Domaine Tesseron - (field parking)

Domaine Tesseron - (motorbike museum)

Domaine Tesseron - (car museum)

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.

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Saintes - (roman ruins)

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.

Saintes - (shade of pollarded trees)

Saintes - (Gallo-Roman amphitheatre)

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.

View across to Ile d'Oleron

Ile d'Oleron - (ready for race)

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.

Ile d'Oleron - (start line)

Ile d'Oleron - (Aaron nearing finish)

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.

Ile d'Oleron - (cycle to lighthouse)

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.

Mornac-sur-Seudre - (train des mouettes)

Mornac-sur-Seudre - (Benny in aire with passing train)

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.

Mornac-sur-Seudre - (cycling oyster farms)

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.

Mornac-sur-Seudre - (low tide in the estuary)

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.

Coastal drive - Phare de la Coubre

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.

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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.

Coastal waters near Royan

Meschers-sur-Gironde - (fishing huts on coast)

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.

Jonzac - (church)

Jonzac - (mairie)

Garnd Etang de Saint Estephe - (beach swim)

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.

A&N x

(During) Home Exchange 2 – South to Périgueux, Cazeneuve, and some France Passion vineyards

We returned home on time from Lac de St. Mathieu to say goodbye to our first guests, and to begin to prepare our home for the arrival of our second visiting Home Exchange family.  They arrived punctually the next morning and we welcomed them all into our newly-cleaned home.  After a speedy tour and basic overview of how to look after our pool, we left them to settle in and enjoy.  We headed south out of the ‘Shire’ (Haute Vienne to others) to our first planned stop at Périgueux.  We were last here on the day we bought our French house, and were then a little distracted by calls, so it was good to return and see it afresh.  It was a Sunday morning and we thought the town would be closed and quiet, but it was mid-festival and there were many places open, with crowds of people wandering around.  It was as beautiful as previously, although decorated with millions of pieces of coloured plastic.

Perigueux - (bridge approach)

Perigueux - (walking the streets)

We doodled south along the sleepy backroads of Dordogne, to reach Domaine de la Lande, on the outskirts of Monbazillac.  This was a France Passion vineyard where we parked up adjacent to neat lines of vines, were graciously welcomed and invited to a tasting session at 6pm.  After a lazy afternoon we arrived into the quirky tasting room, site of a thousand fun nights.  A memory wall was covered with photos of camping cars arriving there for many years, under all country flags.  Our host was a fantastic character, explaining all about their wines with humour, passion and vigour.  His grandfather was Albert Camus, but not the famous one.  He was the fourth generation of winemakers to run this domaine, his son is now in charge of the main business (he still loves to take the fun-filled dégustations) and his 18yo grand-daughter is in line to be the future proprietor, the sixth generation.

Domaine de la Lande - (relaxing at vineyard)

Domaine de la Lande - (walking through the vines

Monbazillac - sunset in vines

There were four couples from other vans in the same tasting.  Max the dog, visiting along with one camping-car couple, was adopted by us (or us by him) for the evening.  After eight or nine small glasses of varied tasting, trying to keep track of the relentless French chatter and variance in wines was impossible, so I zoned out and just enjoyed the cheery atmosphere.  In the morning we got up early to run a quiet 10km loop of the local vineyards, but a few kilometres in Nicky felt a little light-headed and dizzy, so we gently walked back.  We saw the same beautiful views, breathed the same morning freshness, all just at a slower pace, allowing more time to appreciate it.  Once returned we bought a few bottles from the store and said our goodbyes to our gracious host, glad for the fun experience.

Domaine de la Lande - (passionate owner)

Domaine de la Lande - (wines for sale)

Monbazillac - town centre

We kept on moving south, passing vines and sunflowers and stubble fields recently cut for hay, until we moved into the region of plum trees and walnuts.  We soon reached familiar territory, as we were back in Allez-et-Cazeneuve, to visit now old friends Monica & Ken.  We hadn’t seen them since their visit to ours last September, and several other visits had been cancelled due to complications or weather, so it was great to be able to make it work this time.  Soon after our arrival we set out for a gentle countryside walk around some well-worn paths, taking in the views and the reddening sky as we caught up on news.  We cooled off in their pool with a glass of Ken’s wonderful home-brewed beer, ate beautifully roasted home-grown vegetables with succulent fish and had a fun evening of catch-up chat.

With Monica & Ken - (relaxing pool time)

With Monica & Ken - (sunset walk)

With Monica & Ken - (cross-country)

The morning took us out for a 32km cycle around the local countryside, mostly on off-road trails we never found ourselves, even during the two months we house-sat for K&M back in the winter of 2018.  We were not feeling very bike fit, having ignored them for months in favour of running, but were happy to see we could keep up and really enjoyed the route.  We ventured around the perimeter of a huge corn field and found ourselves being showered in river water under the gaze of a giant irrigation frame.  We visited a windmill on a hill in Montpezat before returning through Dolmayrac to finish our loop.  After lunch we had archery.  Ken managed to place an arrow right in the centre of the bullseye, from over 80m away.  He might claim it as skill, but it was a glorious fluke, and with 40 arrows fired between us we only managed to hit the target four times in total.  But this one shot was worth remembering.

With Monica & Ken - (windmill)

With Monica & Ken - (at windmill)

With Monica & Ken - (archery)

We all had a cultured hour’s downtime, us listening to Ken’s classical guitar playing, Monica playing piano in another room, me sketching (practising faces and features) and Nicky undertaking another self-led lesson in Italian.  Rested and contented after our creative pause, it wasn’t long before we were all back at the poolside for a continuation of cooling swims accompanied by trays of tasty beers.  More fabulous food and a little too much wine followed, the chat increasing in volume and timbre with each new glass filled.  It rained heavily overnight, but was dry and bright again by morning.  Nicky & I had a morning run with Ken, a hilly 8km, where the trees dripped on us like showers as we passed under them, with muddy ground underfoot and long grasses tickling our legs.  It was good to shake off that hint of hangover from the previous evening’s excess, and it always feels good to have your prescribed exercise for the day completed before breakfast.  Ken and Monica had their own Home Exchange visitors arriving later that afternoon, so we headed off to give them time to prepare, with fresh aubergines and home-made chilli sauce in hand, and the knowledge it will be late spring 2020 before we have opportunity to meet up again.

With Monica & Ken - (proper bullseye)

With Monica & Ken - (beers and pool)

After a supermarket shop and more beautiful country lanes, we arrived at a France Passion vineyard near Blasimon that afternoon, to be greeted by a huge Great Pyrenees mastiff, the same breed as on the farm at Buron de Fages.  After meeting the owner who would be out later for a marché nocturne, we arranged a time for a tasting.  He was clearly busy and a little stressed, but still had time to gift us a handful of plump, ripe tomatoes from his garden, unprompted, which we could roast with Ken’s aubergine.  At 5pm sharp we had a few quick tasters, bought ourselves a bottle of rosé and a dry white in exchange for our night’s stay, before leaving him to his evening plans.  We settled in for a gentle read and relax in the warm summer evening air.  Late,  as we sipped tea and thought about sleep, we watched a young deer walk through the fully-laden vines very near to our van; a calm, serene view.

Blasimon - (chilling by van)

Blasimon - (Benny in the vines)

Our next stop was at the Grand Etang de Jermaye, a lake we know well from our time in our house-sit near to Riberac.  Within moments of our arrival we decanted to the beach and spent our morning reading and relaxing, interspersed with some longer swims.  Each time we see Monica & Ken we are reminded that we should be swimming more, as they are both passionate and talented long distance swimmers, and they inspire us to push ourselves.  Well toasted, we moved on to Saint-Front-de-Riviere, solely because the aire looked nice in the Camper-Contact app, and we found it to be so.  We had a short walk and found an accessible stretch of trickling river.  It was inevitable; to cool off from the sticky drive, we both stripped and sat down in the shallow flowing water, like in a cold bath.  It was so refreshing and invigorating, and immediately restorative.  We drip-dried and dressed, returning to the aire with cheeky grins, feeling satisfyingly naughty.

There was a lot of noisy palaver later, when many more vans arrived and spent hours wrangling ways to connect themselves to one of the two free electricity points provided.  We stayed well away from it all, and pondered over some motorhomers mini-obsessions with having power, especially free power, at all costs.  After a lazy morning and another chilly river dip, we returned north to Lac de St. Mathieu, originally planning to overnight there.  After an afternoon on the beach, swimming and toasting ourselves, we decided to move on.  There was a weekend event on and looked like being a noisy spot, and as it never hurts to be closer to home, we moved on to overnight at Pageas, our local aire, only 4km from our home.  Only the thumping rattle of falling acorns occasionally landing on our metal roof disturbed our rest, and we were up and ready to say goodbye to our second Home Exchange family.

A&N x

(During) Home Exchange 1 – a 10-day circular loop around Limousin

After our meet & greet with our first home exchange family we headed north, as we had not yet visited the two nearby towns of Bellac and Le Dorat.  We stopped in each in turn and walked the historic centres.  Both had their beauty and charms but the day was already mid 30s and our appetite for historic sights was sadly lacking.  We needed water to hide under, so we quickly scooted east to Saint Pardoux lake, a place we know well.  A lazy day of swimming and relaxing on the beach followed, and we overnighted in the extensive car-park, empty once the day-trippers had fled.  Next morning, to avoid the worst of the days’ heat, we rose at 7.30am for a run around the lake shore paths along beautiful woodland trails.  We had run parts of this before on previous trips, so should have known the way, but still took a wrong turn and missed off part of our route, cutting the morning run to only 9km.

Le doret - entrance towers

St Paradoux - lake parking

St Paradoux lake

St paradoux beach

We moved on east to Lake Vassiviere, one year on since our first SwimRun there last July.  Rather than search for a hidden place to wild camp, we entered the paid aire (€5 per night) in Auphelle so we could have some shade.  Our day was mostly swimming, reading and lying supine in the shade, like most others.  It was a little cooler the next morning, so we undertook the 30km cycle around the perimeter of the lake.  It was on bumpy, root-tangled tracks, great fun downhill but more work than expected uphill. To keep cool we stopped often and punctuated the ride with three long swims in the refreshing lake.  It was a great reminder of both the scale and easy accessibility of the lake, a wonderful facility for all to enjoy.  Outside of the beach in Auphelle, and one at Pierrefitte, there were only tiny pockets of people scattered around the perimeter, it never feeling busy even in the busiest period of  high summer.

Vassiviere lak revisit

Vassiviere lake cycle perimeter

Vassiviere lake cycle

Vassiviere lake perimeter cycle

From here we drove south, stopping on a partial whim to climb to a tower on Mont Bessou, offering panoramic views of the Corrèze countryside.  We climbed the steps of the metal tower to enjoy the view, before following the informative route des champignons back through the forest to Benny. Soon after we arrived in Meymac, stopping at Lake Séchemailie to visit the beach and enjoy many swims to escape the heat of the day.  We watched an English school group competing in water based games and races involving kayaks, SUPs and canoes. We were in this area as we had eyed up a 12km trail race near here, in Liginiac, but we were feeling lethargic and fatigued, so decided to forgo it.  Preparing our house for Home Exchange guests had taken more time and effort than expected. Back at Benny, we rigged up blankets and tarpaulins to our awning in an attempt to create shade, still overheating in the canicule.

Mont Bessou views

Mont Bessou tower

Lake Sechemailie - aire

Field of sunflowers

We kept heading south, the roads becoming smaller and smaller, but only very rarely did we see another vehicle.  We had one quick stop to take in a classic view, seen often on the tourist literature for the Corrèze region.  High above the Dordogne river stood steep-sided rounded mounds blanketed thick with lush trees, the dark Dordogne river snaking serenely between multiple interlocking fat fingers of jutting hillside.  Soon after we stopped at a scruffy farm French Passion producer, called Buron de Fages.  They were a producer of fine cheeses, and we bought a few tasty morsels after a quick sampling.  As soon as we arrived back into Benny we had the first rain of this trip, a noisy downpour.  The air was definitely cooler and less close afterwards, a welcome change from the oppressive heat.

Correze - river view

Meymac - market town

We walked a loop of local country lanes later with two of the farm boys, a 13 yo and 6 yo, and three of their many dogs.  Their dogs were all massive Great Pyrenees mastiffs, with long white coats covering thickly muscular bodies, but incredibly docile and passive.  The 6 yo was mercilessly bullied by his older brother (who likely had the same from his older siblings) but he took it well with a resigned smile, even when de-trousered, thrown deep into the hedge and bombarded with leaves.  Neither spoke any English and had no desire to learn, as they only know this life and want to continue to work on the farm their whole lives, as they do now.  Later in the evening we watched the older brother carry a very young donkey foal around on his shoulders, we could only imagine that he was showing off to his younger brother that he could.  It’s a very different world in the deeply rural places of France.

Buron de Fages - walk with boys

Woken early by the normal machinations of a busy farm, we were soon away. The rains had returned overnight and brought grey, smudgy clouds with them.  Under this dull grey, but dry, blanket we passed through Argentat to reach Farm Lanteuil, A France Passion producer, where the rains began again with vigour.  We parked in a grassy field with a friendly white horse as constant company outside our window.  After a quick chat to the proprietor, we arranged a time to enjoy tastings of their various jams, tarts and fruit juices.  Another camping-car had appeared and that gentleman, travelling alone, joined in with our tasting session.  With his chat and questions the conversations soon became fast and complicated, making it a struggle to keep up with everything.  French listening is still beyond me when it involves several people talking, especially if they are animated and excited – Improvement is slow in coming.

Farm Lanteuil - friendly horse

We left in search of services, and as it was near our chosen route, we decided it would be simple to stop off in the quiet village of Gignac, a place we had stayed recently on our way to Provence.  But to our great surprise this sleepy village had been transformed, and we were almost consumed by it.   There were hundreds of cars and thousands of tents in fields just outside the centre, as we arrived into the mass of humanity that was a music concert.  We crawled through the crowds of pedestrians towards the aire, hoping we could still, possibly, quickly service and go.  A friendly volunteer said that would be fine, a barrier was tweaked across and we rushed in before his mind changed.  But the aire had been taken over for the private use of the performers, and we should never have been allowed in.  Nicky stopped and I jumped out immediately to empty our loo.  I was oblivious as she was surrounded by screaming staff telling us we can’t be in here and need to get out, now!  Whilst Nicky deflected them I managed to empty our WC canister successfully, but as we tried to make a rushed exit, our way was blocked by the arrival of a huge touring bus.  It was UB40, and we were in their place.  A quick manoeuvre sideways, their giant multi-storey bus cruised past and we made our daring escape, back through the crowds and away.  A rather unexpected and stressful palaver for all.

Jardins D’Eyrignac - day view

Jardins D’Eyrignac - sunset

Relieved, as at least we had a usable toilet, we made it to the Jardins D’Eyrignac, where we overnighted in their beautiful, peaceful car-park and enjoyed the open part of their gardens.  We could pick up their free wifi and this, coupled with a VPN, allowed us to catch up on the Tour de France highlights on ITV 4.  We felt a little guilty for this as we never entered the gardens proper (it was €11 each).  The morning took us to Lac du Causse, where we stopped briefly to do a reccy for future stops, then on to Ayen.  We had looked at the aire in Ayen once before in passing, but never stayed there.  We knew it was nice and suspected it may be busy, but there were no other vans and no signs of any during our quiet evening.  We sun-bathed and read for a few blissful hours and later, after dinner, enjoyed a slow walk around the village and nearby country lanes, passing a few beautiful homes and chateaux on our way.

Ayen aire - afternoon chill

St Jean de Cole - chateau

St Jean de Cole - square

The morning sun lead us to Saint Jean-de-Côle, a short way west of Thiviers.  We viewed their beautiful chateau and market square, flanked by an 11th century bridge.  That afternoon we enjoyed copious free tastings in a beautiful distillery shop and came away with a bottle.  We hadn’t planned to stay here, but found we had no will to move on, so settled in for a long, lazy evening.  Next morning we had a visit to Nontron, where a Knife Festival was in full flow.  The town has a long history of knife production, and one square had demonstrations of traditional blacksmithing techniques, and a central museum had rooms filled with hundreds of knives of various types, lengths and uses.

Nontron - town view

Lac de St. Mathieu - view

From here we parked up at the Lac de St. Mathieu, in time for lunch.  We spent a few hours on the beach, dipping in the water and reading, then walked the easy 2.5km loop of the lake to stretch our legs.  Later we had the urge to run the same perimeter lap, to see what time we could do for a short sprint run, just managing to dip under 10 minutes.  Even over such a short distance I was still averaging a much slower pace than top marathon runners do for the whole race.  We were only 20 minutes from home now, and we had arranged to see off our first Home Exchange guests at 10am the following morning, so we were perfectly suited to return in time.  Only the arrival of another camping car at midnight, followed by chatting until 1am, broke the tranquillity of our peaceful last night.

A&N x

What, exactly, is Home Exchange…?

We previously mentioned that we would be welcoming Home Exchange visitors to our French home this July and August.  But what exactly is Home Exchange?  There are several main sites that cater for those who wish to swap their home, but we will concentrate on the one we are signed up to – homeexchange.com.

For the uninitiated, here is a quick overview of how it works.

In the same vein as House-sitting or Workaway projects, Home Exchange is a centralised web-based hub bringing together like-minded travellers and holiday-makers who hope to, well, exchange their homes for short stays.  The concept began as a simple reciprocal swap, stating that you visit my house and I’ll visit yours.  This was a good start, allowing members to search, find and contact others who may be interested to swap their home for a fixed holiday period, allowing both families to experience a different place, an alternative culture.  Through its success, this then grew into non-reciprocal exchanges, sometimes between hemispheres, where each participant would take it in turn to visit the other in the optimum month for their visit.  The flexibility and ease of finding an exchange was growing.

But this still proved limiting; what if I, based in France, wanted to visit Norway, but the Norwegians wanted to visit Scotland?  And the people in the Scotland wanted to visit Japan.  And the Japanese family wanted to visit France?  This was where Home Exchange truly became a global enterprise, opening up a wealth of opportunities for members.  After experimenting with fixed price ‘balloons’, tokens from a received exchange that could later be ‘spent’ on a future exchange of your choice, the Exchange system became value-driven and fully flexible.  Each home, once described in detail by the owner, is given a value rating by the Home Exchange algorithm, listed in ‘Guest Points’.  This depends on location, facilities, square meterage, number of bedrooms, desirability of region etc.. This is tweakable by the owner, within defined parameters, but generally derives a fair figure for the home.  Then other members can search the worldwide database and find a property of their liking, then request an exchange.

In setting up your account and building your profile, you are gifted starting guest points to allow you to participate fully in the community.  From then on, guest points can predominantly be gained by hosting exchanges in your home, or from introducing new members.  Your accumulated points can be spent by finding exchanges that suit your travel plans, contacting the owners to see if they are amenable to the exchange, and finalising through the website.  For full members, the exchange offers advice, insurance and other services that can arbitrate any issues that arise, ensuring exchanges go smoothly once agreed. The value-rating has been a little controversial, but is helpful for us as we are offering a three-bed family home with a pool, but searching for one-bed apartments or small terrace houses that are perfectly sufficient for us, meaning we can often afford two nights away for every one night we host visitors.

All our exchanges to date have been families with children, either four or five visitors on each occasion.  We have enjoyed welcoming them to our home, briefly explaining where things are and how they work, then driving off in Benny hoping they enjoy their stay.  As everyone involved is making the same commitment and offering the same trust to those invited into their home, the community is quite tight-knit and made up of similar-minded folks.  It can be quite a leap of trust to allow strangers to live within your walls, to trust them with your personal items, your private spaces.  You must always remember that the same trust is being offered to you on your visit to another home, and mutual respect for person, property and privacy is paramount throughout.  It is a mindful leap of faith.

The advantages greatly outweigh the potential negatives, as we have already secured six house exchanges for the coming winter, using points gained from our July/August hostings, all in Australia.  We are taking an extended trip to avoid the cold winter months, a slow travel or perhaps more accurately described as an extended residence of a month in each of three cities; Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne.  We hope to secure a couple more house exchanges to complete our plans, ensuring all our accommodation needs are met during the entire period away.  Several of our future hosts have been friendly and open, in constant touch, and we feel already that we have made friends down under.  We are looking forward to getting under the glossy tourist veneer of each city in turn and, with more time than normal, gaining a deeper understanding of each.

Home exchange is the vehicle that has made such a trip possible for us.

A&N x

[PS – If anybody is considering joining homeexchange.com please let us know so that we can formally refer you, as both yourselves and us would receive extra guest points when joining. Many thanks…)

France – Swimming at Pont D’Arc and our road home

We packed up our comfortable pitch in Camping des Sources, ready to move on.  We were heading home, but we had one more special place to visit.  The day was again stifling, and Carpentras hit newsworthy record temperatures as we passed through.  Skirting south of Orange, we dropped down the valley and crossed the Rhône, before heading north through beautiful pastoral land scattered with yellow gorse and bright flowers.  Arriving in Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, we clambered into Camping Rives d’Arc, picking out a spot with easy access to cooling showers and the obligatory pool. Once settled, we walked to view the stretch of low-flowing river commandeered by the site, dreaming of a dip.

Pont dARC - (welcome shade)

Pont dARC - (hiding underwater)

Even parked in shade, our internal thermometer in Benny was pushed beyond its maximum 40°, and the dash reading said 44°.  Walking became a chore, the smallest effort inducing a flood of sticky sweat.  We had thought the stillness in the air a curse and longed for a breeze, unaware it had become so hot that it would bring no respite.  With the air at 44° it’s like sitting in a sauna, and when the freak North African winds blew it was simply a hairdryer blasting on our skin; a hotter, burning sensation that only increased discomfort.  Shade did little to help; the only place we found to hide was underwater.  We abandoned all plans of exploratory runs or long cycles and instead we sought the cool parts of the campsite and cold swimming pools to hide away in.  Sightseeing would just have to wait.

Pont dARC - (first view of arc)

Pont dARC - (nicky ready to swim)

After the success of our morning run at Gordes, we considered an early run to Pont d’Arc, to avoid the heat and the crowds, but there was no path and the road was not pedestrian friendly.  So instead we caught the first available free navette the 4km to the Pont d’Arc, it already 32° at 9am. A short walk led us to a stony beach, where a large bussed-in group had gathered to snap photos.  We waited a few minutes until they dispersed, then changed, stowed our gear and got into the water.  The river was much warmer than expected, almost too hot, as we swam under the famous arch to the opposite side.  We climbed out on the beach, enjoying our new perspective.  Our original side was in deep shade but this new face was lit brightly by the morning sun, showing off incredible detail on this 59m high and 34m wide natural archway over the Ardèche.

Pont dARC - (walking to water)

Pont dARC - (the underside)

Many tourists were already photographing the arch, all getting the same standard picture.  But standing on the bank was such a limited perspective.  it was so much more interesting from underneath; pitted, scalloped, full of holes and caves and fissures.  Bats hung in darkened corners, birds soared underneath.  The more we looked up and examined, the more interesting it became, the more secrets it revealed.  We noticed that few of the steady stream of kayakers paddling through were taking the time to look up, missing much of what was fascinating about it.  We climbed out at one side and stood a while examining the rock, it all melted and jagged, like splashes of water frozen in time.  Leafy plants hung down defying gravity, adding splashes of dark green to the black and white honeycombed underbelly.

Pont dARC - (swimming under)

We swam a few more lengths under the arch, taking in new features each time.  Now, approaching 10.30am, the site was filling up and being swamped by rowdy kayakers and day-visitors – we were glad to have had some quiet time to explore earlier, and it was time for us to exit.  The bus back didn’t appear as scheduled, but from nowhere we were offered a lift by a guy in a battered red van, an interesting Spanish guy, now living in France, who teaches kayaking in the summer and skiing in the winter.  He knew everybody along the short route, honking and waving as he blasted his rusted old van around the narrow cliff-lined road.  He dropped us off outside the campsite and sped off with a smile and a wave; proper gent.  We did our usual trick and hid underwater or cover for the remainder of the day.

After another night featuring several cold showers and little sleep, we headed off, and soon crossed into the Parc naturel des Cévennes.  We were deeply impressed with its natural beauty on the way south, and nothing had changed to dissuade us.  We took the free motorway to Saint-Flour, then west into the Parc naturel régional des Volcans d’Auvergne.  This was another landscape of calm, understated beauty, reminding us of various parts of England. It later transformed into vast areas of tall rugged pines, packed tightly together, straight and tall and opaque.  A further change brought open countryside with rolling green hills, more lush and green than the yellowed and scorched grasslands further south.  Small square patches of woodland, neat circular coppices and single trees added height to the landscape. Everywhere neatly cut hay was wrapped in coloured circular bales like giant cheeses.

Vic sur cere - (final aire)

We could have made it home on our final day, but it would have been a long and tiring drive with a 9pm arrival, so we decided to cut our drive short and fit in one last overnight stop.  After passing through a few ski resorts and around three hours from home we stopped in Vic-sur-Cère.  It was much cooler here, relatively speaking.  After dinner we enjoyed a late evening stroll to watch a busy, animated boules game in a local park and to see the central village.  It was an unassuming place, quiet and pretty, like much of rural France.  We were glad to have stopped, both to see this community and to ensure we arrived back home rested, as was our goal, rather than drained after a long, hot drive.

The morning hours would see us home, back to our normal home life, for a few weeks at least.  We have Home Exchange guests arriving in late July and we will vacate our home for them to enjoy as we head away again to seek out new adventures in Benny.

A&N x

France –  Valensole, Gordes & Abbaye de Sénanque

We tossed and turned throughout the night, uncomfortably hot in our tin box at the bottom of the hill in Moustier-Sainte-Marie.  We finally found some welcome sleep, until the Gendarme arrived and knocked on our door to confirm our ticket purchase, although it was clearly visible in our window.  It was time to move, and today we were heading into lavender country.  Our first miles took us west and it wasn’t long before we began seeing wide seas of purples replace the greens and yellows of alternative crops.   Our first stop was in the town of Valensole, seen as the heart of lavender production in this area.  We stopped at a small museum with displays explaining the history of growing and harvesting, alongside historic tools. In the attached shop the many uses were very much in evidence.

Valensole - Village profile

Valensole -Nicky in lavander

Back on the road, we soon stopped again in a dusty parking area to have a closer look at the lavender in-situ.  We walked through the rolling purple fields, up and down the neat rows, wilting in the hot, hazy air.  Several other cars had stopped in the same place for that important lavender selfie.  After a short walk we returned to find half the people huddling together in the shade of Benny’s tall side, the only respite from the harsh sun for miles around.  We drove off leaving them scurrying through the lavender rows and visited a farm shop, buying a few small gifts.  We later called into a larger lavender museum in Coustellet where, despite their huge range of products, we couldn’t harness any excitement. We lingered, feigning interest, but our concern lay in the quality of their air-conditioning.

Valensole - lavander rows

Coustellet - Museum of Lavander

We had planned on spending several days in this area, taking our time to explore many of the lavender-related curiosities and historic sites.  But it was just a little too crowded, a bit too samey, over-commercialised, and much too hot.  We were drooping badly, even from minor efforts.  We drove through Roussillon, planning to see the red ochre cliffs, but did not stop as we could not face the midday sun.  It was silly; we were in one of the most beautiful areas of France and had the means to explore it all, but all we could think of was getting to a campsite and getting underwater.  So we abandoned all sight-seeing and headed straight to Camping des Sources, set a little way north of the historic town of Gordes.  At last, we had shade, a decent swimming pool, and some downtime from the heat.

Camping les Sources - (pool at sunset)

Gordes - (central castle)

Unable to sleep, from both the heat and an unusually repetitive bird-call, we decided to rise early and go for a gentle walk/run into the village of Gordes. We left at 6.30am, in cool morning air with the first rays of light breaking through the trees.  A downhill stony path provided an easy trail into the village centre less than 2km away.  It felt good, our first run since our 10km in Aiguines, the breeze of our movement keeping us cool.  Early morning starts will now become an essential to our sight-seeing plans.  We paused to explore the central streets of Gordes, trying to spot where scenes in the movie ‘A Good Year’ were filmed.  We saw viewpoints overlooking the beautiful Provençal countryside, the rolling hills scattered with cypress and olive trees shimmering beautifully in the early morning light.

Gordes - (countryside view)

Gordes - (cafe in square)

We had exhausted the quiet streets of Gordes centre and it was not yet 7.15am, so we decided to visit another nearby landmark – the Abbaye de Sénanque, set in a valley around 4km north-west of Gordes.  We set off up the hill, rising steadily.  The sun was also rising and the air was heating quickly, our cool morning run already becoming hot and sticky, but not yet debilitating.  We walked some steeper portions of the route, not wanting a full-on workout.  Soon  we reached the highest point of the road and dropped quickly down into the shaded valley to our left, entering the gardens of the abbey.  Even without the sun the manicured rows of lavender bushes surrounding the abbey provided a bright splash of colour.  There were several other visitors already setting up photos in the early light.

Abbaye de Senanque - (view from above)

The sun had not yet penetrated the depth of the valley floor, but blocks of light were moving quickly down a side wall so it would soon arrive. The neat rows of purple-tipped lavender were covered in thick clouds of tiny white butterflies, landing and alighting in a blur.  They would tickle your skin as they flitted by, or gently land on your arms, legs and head as you walked through the flowering rows.  It was an engaging sight of such simple beauty, their soft frolicking ways brought instant smiles to our faces.  We met a cyclist amongst the lavender who had passed us on the road up.  We had known from the timbre of his passing ‘bonjour’ he was an English speaker, and turned out to be from Melbourne.  We had a chat about his travels and quizzed him on places around Melbourne as we have plans to visit his city next year.  As we talked the sun rose to breach the valley and light up the grey abbey facade, adding life and warmth.

Abbaye de Senanque - (us and butterflies)

Abbaye de Senanque - (the sun arrivves)

Camping les Sources - (relaxing in pool)

We found a different path back out of the valley.  A white-stoned path, narrow and overhung by foliage, led up the face in the direction of Gordes.  We arrived back at Benny by 8.30am, feeling good for the exploration and for having avoided the worst of the heat.  But it was coming.  The days have held so sticky and close that sometimes the best part of the day is when a breeze blows through and cleanses your skin.  But that is rare; the air, static and burning, offers little respite. It’s been many years since we experienced such high temperatures.  We couldn’t face any activity and had forgotten just how debilitating it was, how draining.  We showered and headed straight to the pool.  We dipped often as the sun quickly cranked up the air temperature to the mid 40°s, the peak showing  of the heatwave.

A&N x