Category Archives: France

2018 Highlights, 2019 Plans

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver (The Summer Day)

2018; another year of memories gathered, activities enjoyed and goals achieved. In some ways it was more of a transitional year, a soft landing leading from constant travel in Benny to a return to a more rooted existence. House-sits and WorkAways helped reconnect us to the idea of motionless living. We regained the love of sitting still, of being a part of a small community. Of creating use from objects, of honest labour, productive acts, holding local knowledge. The coming year has much to live up to.

TMB Day 8 (Enjoying the downhill)

Annecy - (first view of lake)

Everything in our recent travels had been generalisation. We had spent little time anywhere, passing through and glimpsing only a sliver of the life of each place. One blurred facet of one afternoon, one small portion of a village or town, and yet we reacted and drew conclusions from the visit. We judged, we opined, we decided our mood and experience based on the scantest of evidence, the whims of the weather. Destinations were deemed perfect, poor, terrible or terrific on the strength of that short, solitary instant. We jumped to thin, creative judgements of boastful self-indulgence. Our experiences were unique to us, to that time, and, in all honesty, tell others nothing of true value of the place or the people we encountered. These travel-through screenshots represent a momentary mirage, an insubstantial connection as we rudely, uninvited, threaded our lives into those of locals. Nothing is complete, nothing lasts, no description by any tourist day-tripper can capture a place with dependable emotion and clarity.

Our House - (from the pool)

Now, we were settled. We have a base, a home. We are able to make longer judgement on an area, our area, no longer reliant on tentative and superficial first impressions. We no longer need to be presumptuous. We can creep below the surface and uncover a new layer of reality, a deeper understanding beyond the trivial veneer we normally witness. We are no longer only travellers, but residents, and have the right to both observe and absorb at leisure.

Our days are filled with a different type of experience. Different dreams.

Lake Vassiviere (swim exit)

Key highlights of 2018

Completed several house-sits and WorkAway projects, befriending great new people and learning new skills
Attended and completed our first SwimRun event at Lake Vassivière, France
Hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 180km multi-day trek through three countries (France, Switzerland and Italy)
Crossed the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world near Zermatt, Switzerland
Bought a home in south-west France, to be our new regular base for future travels.
Participated in three 10km races in the wine regions of northern Spain and two more locally in southern France
Spent the days before Christmas soaking up the festive atmosphere in Paris

Paris (eiffel tower lit at night)

Key goals for 2019

To run my first marathon, with a finishing time starting with a 3. A 16-week training schedule is underway and going well so far. The distance and the time are both feeling achievable, barring injury or other catastrophe. We will see.

To write better, focused pieces, deeper dives into the meaning of travel, beginning with a new Medium account. The focus will be on improving the storytelling rather than simple diary posts following our daily travel exploits. I’m also writing a draft of my first novel, to see where the process takes me, even if the final product is unusable and flawed.

Additional time is to be given over to painting, specifically line & wash watercolours. I’m tentatively considering that the novel above could evolve into an illustrated graphic novel, but time, technique and talent may have a say on that outcome. My aim is to produce paintings I would be contented to see hanging on our new French walls.

To complete all the on-going projects around our new French home. Alongside the typical DIY works, I hope to build a few detailed furniture pieces, design and construct several stained glass windows, and plant a fruit tree orchard. All new skills to learn.

To continue to travel around Europe, with shorter trips to north eastern Spain, Cote d’Azur and the Italian Dolomites already planned, and others under consideration. We are also looking at trips further afield, a few flights of fancy to faraway lands.

DAY 11 - Brevents panorama

Brantome - (panorama)

Randa (Bridge Panorama)

Haro - (panorama)

We have nothing but time, yet we never seem to have enough. To paraphrase The Great Gatsby, life may well be much more successful when looked at through a single window, but we don’t want to sign up to the limitations that implies. We don’t want to expend all our energy on the pursuit of only one goal. We want to dabble in everything that interests us, and that includes many subjects. We may not be capable of achieving brilliance at any one activity without focused dedication, but that’s okay. Enjoying a taste of many things won’t bring excellence, but it will bring interest, satisfaction and stave off boredom. We dabble at kayaking, cycling, running, skiing, open water swimming, chess, free-diving, painting, furniture-making, woodworking, quizzing, gardening, cooking, writing, mountain climbing, guitar playing, piano, beer brewing, sketching, poetry, photography, mathematics, astronomy, theatre, scuba-diving, movies, learning languages, and blogging. We read biographies, science journals, logic manuals, graphic novels, contemporary fiction, Arctic exploration histories, travel monologues, legal opinions, and everything in between. And long may our thirst for the new continue.

We want to be generalists, not specialists. And we want to continue to explore every avenue we can.

A&N x

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France – Christmas in Paris (mini-break Part 2)

<post continued from Paris Part 1 >

Day 3 – South of the River

Tired from our first two days exploring, we were late waking, having slept nearly 10 hours. We must have been properly exhausted, a body and mind overload. We walked south from the campsite, passing a hippodrome flanked by a closed tarmac road inundated by keen cyclists and runners. We caught the metro from Boulogne – Pont de Saint-Cloud to the end of the line at Gare d’Austerlitz and began the long walk back west. We first reached the Jardins des Plantes, adjacent to the Natural History Museum. The grounds were filled with large, wildly colourful and exuberant animal models that brought instant smiles to our faces. Walking here was such a different experience from other places in Paris, one of simple, childlike joy, a haven from the busy roads and towering architecture.

Paris (natural history museum)

Paris (garden bears)

Paris (giant turtle)

We lingered under the warm morning sky, enjoying each vibrant display. There were large groups of students being corralled into the museum as we passed, likely on a school outing. We passed through the inflated body of a huge shark marking the entrance to the adjacent zoo, it reminding us of silly sentences from learning French on DuoLingo such as “Le loup mange le requin”- when could I ever use that, really? We exited the park by a large brightly-tiled mosque and continued on to reach the impressive monolith of the Panthéon in the nearby Latin Quarter. We ate snacks amongst the chatting students lounging and lunching on elaborate timber benches. I eavesdropped on their loud conversations, catching less than a tenth of the words, making me wonder if I’ll ever get a proper hold on the language.

Paris (student area seating)

Paris (pantheon)

We dropped down a the hill towards Le Jardin du Luxembourg, but found ourselves distracted by a display of large, beautiful photos of polar regions that lined the boundary fencing to the park. We followed this exhibition right around the perimeter, loving the poignant quality of the work and dreaming of a return to the wilds of Greenland. Some day. We finally entered Le Jardin du Luxembourg adjacent to the palace, stopping first to glance at a formal pond and grotto. The sky was back to a glorious blue and it was warm in direct sun, so we sat a while at the edge of the gardens and enjoyed a bout of people-watching. It was a welcome oasis away from the crowded bustling streets, and these restful moments revived us for more exploring. We cut across the sparse gardens, heading north into the fray once more.

Paris (resting in Luxembourg gardens)

Paris (place saint sulpice)

Our route north took us through Place Saint-Sulpice to reach another pocket of colourful Christmas Markets in the plaza outside Saint Germain des Prés church. Here we bought some vin chaud to warm our hands as we lazily browsed the stalls. We returned to the banks of the Seine and walked along, passing the Musie d’Orsay, before reaching Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor, a bridge replete with love locks, conveniently sold by all the local hawkers. There were many thousands of locks, each with a name or message added to symbolise a thought, love or connection. The idea could be seen as either deeply symbolic and profound or as credulously trite, wasteful littering, depending on your given mood or perspective. But it certainly didn’t seem to be lessening in popularity over time.

Paris (louvre from bridge)

Paris (Wall of peace)

From here we crossed to Tuileries gardens and sat for lunch overlooking the manic traffic wildness of the Place de la Concorde. Huge numbers of blue flashing lights roared past, and we wondered if the Gilets Jaunes had begun protesting again nearby. We crossed back south of river, across stalled traffic, to reach Les Invalides and the École Militaire, and then approached the Tour Eiffel from the south. We made our way through the busy crowds to Trocadéro where we enjoyed the raised, expansive view as we awaited dusk falling and the turning on of lights. This was to be our last magnificent view of central Paris from this trip, a fitting memory for our short days here. Tired, we again caught the Metro back to Pont de Neuilly after dark, then undertook our now usual walk back to the campsite.

Paris (spproaching tour Eiffel)

Paris (eiffel tower panorama)

These two posts on Paris read like a Bret Easton Ellis novel, the long lists of places we visited like the detailed musings of Patrick Bateman. It’s difficult to step back and find a way to encapsulate the trip beyond the obvious linear diary approach. When you factor in the constant stimulation of culture, history, architecture, lights, smells and sounds, it takes a long time for the brain to fully process the experience and then recreate some order from the constant movement and delightful chaos. We walked 23km on our third day – it’s a huge city, and we only saw a small portion of it. Even utilising a pack of ten metro tickets (€14.90 for 10), we covered 64 kilometres on foot over the course of our three days. City breaks, at least the way we always seem to do them, are more exhausting than hiking mountains.

A&N x

France – Christmas in Paris (mini-break Part 1)

Day 1 – Arrival, La Défense & Tour Eiffel

After a hectic morning packing session, we left La Jourdanie in good spirits for our drive north.  We followed the A20 for hours, skirting around Châteauroux and Vierzon.  We swapped to the parallel D-road to avoid motorway tolls and later stopped briefly in an aire in Theillay for lunch. We swapped drivers and Nicky faced the first proper traffic as we reached the southern outskirts of Orléans.  We crawled through the centre, paying the price for avoiding tolls, and made our way to the town of Angerville to overnight by their stadium.  We were stopping an hour or so short of Paris so we could arrive early in the morning and have that day for exploring. We slowly walked around Angerville to stretch our legs.  A few late arriving lorries naughtily parked up near us, in a zone clearly marked as max. 3.5t, disrupting our otherwise quiet overnight stay.  We headed off early for the last hour or so into Paris.

Paris - (la defense display)

Paris - (approaching la defense)

We must credit Ju & Jay at OurTour for seeding the idea; we’d read their blog post on visiting Paris and we thought it would work for us to pop up for the Christmas markets.  Under six hours driving for a classic city break – why not?  We arrived in the Le Camping Paris (AKA Indigo Paris) campsite before 10am and had no hassles checking in early.  We arrived under blue skies but facing down a biting wind that whipped heat away from any exposed skin.  The only downside was that the usual navette was not running, so we had to walk directly from the campsite each day.  We headed first to La Défense, crossing a wide bridge to a long island and then on to the opposite side of the Seine.  On the main boulevard in the shadow of the Grande Arche we found a huge Christmas market with a vast array of stalls, incredibly busy with lunching workers.  We browsed the goods, smelled the foods and absorbed the atmosphere.

Paris - (nicky and grand arch)

Paris - (aaron at grand arch)

Paris - (la defense plaza and markets)

Security was tight, with intermittent bag checks and armed soldiers patrolling the perimeter.  It had only been a few days since the deadly attack at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, so the alert level was justifiably high.  Everyone seemed relaxed though, so the atmosphere was unaffected.  We ate lunch on the steps of the Grande Arche, sheltered a little from the wind and overlooking the lively markets, the vista stretching all the way to the distant Arc de Triomphe.  We watched runners threading themselves through the crowds and this seeded another idea for later. We returned through Puteaux, passing a cute kiddy Christmas display, then followed the western bank of the Seine south.  We saw the campsite across the river where we could spot Benny before reaching the next bridge to return.

Paris - (run into the city)

Paris - (riverside run)

With 10km of walking already in our legs, we sipped a cup of warming tea to recuperate.  Then we changed clothes and headed  back out to face the cold, this time for a run.  We headed through long stretches of woodland, crossing busy roads and along bustling city streets to reach the glorious sight of the iconic Eiffel Tower.  We approached along the river from the south, through a fairground and masses of tat-selling hawkers.  Here we were surprised to find new glass security barriers surrounding the perimeter of the tower that were not in place last time we visited (over 8 years ago, for my 35th birthday – time flies!)  A sad but likely necessary installation, reflective of the times we live in. There were long queues to enter the tower or the restaurant, with slow security checks, so we instead continued our run around the bare gardens.  More armed soldiers passed as we stopped to pose for obligatory tourist photographs.

Paris - (run past eiffel tower)

We happily walked a little, to better enjoy the crowds and buzzing atmosphere.  So many touts were selling the same tacky plastic pieces, flashing Eiffel Towers in all colours or gaudy keyrings, 5 for €1.  With our iconic jaunt complete, we returned through busy shopping streets, skipping past distracted shoppers and dodging a multitude of the powered scooters that seemed prevalent in the city.  Above us the skies dulled and clouded over as the sun dropped, sucking all the light from the day.  Light had faded to a low grey as we crossed the woodland to return to Benny.  We had completed a fully enjoyable 13km run, and just in time as the rains started for the night.  After long, wonderfully hot campsite showers, we wrapped up warmly and prepared a tasty dinner, contented with our first day in Paris.

Day 2 – North of the River

Paris - (louis vuitton foundation)

We awoke to the continued pitter-patter of rain on our roof, so indulged ourselves in a lazy breakfast of croissants and jam before leaving around 10.30am when the rains had stopped.  We walked north through the woodland, spotting flocks of bright green parrots in the bare trees, to reach the Louis Vuitton foundation.  This building was another Frank Gehry creation, and there were large crowds queueing at security checks to enter.  We walked around the perimeter, taking in the hypnotically constant flow of cascading waves that dropped down a long, wide staircase to a shallow reflecting pool.  We soon reached the metro station at Les Sablons and travelled 14 stops east to Bastille. The trains bore a strong similarity to London.  During the journey we did some back-of-a-napkin math and realised Nicky had sat on tube trains, from her days working in London, for more than a full month of her life.

Paris - (hotel de ville)

Paris - (notre dame)

We alighted and soon were walking through wide Parisian streets full of life, glittering Christmas lights and elegant people.  We passed a long line of nursery school kids, walking hand in hand, all adorned in fluorescent yellow bibs that made us think of the Gilets Jaunes and how they were starting their protesting young these days.   We followed side streets with attractive new shops and tiny stores hosting chaotic ancient trades, cobblers and tailors with shop interiors straight out of Harry Potter. We passed large groups of chattering students, looking much too young to be at university – we’re definitely getting old.  We soon arrived at the main Hôtel De Ville for Paris, a towering, decorative Neo-Classical building.  It was mostly inaccessible, surrounded by Christmas trees and tall metal fencing.

Paris - (notre dame and seine)

Paris - (shakesphere bookshop)

We crossed the Seine to Île de la Cité and joined the crowds admiring the façade of Notre Dame cathedral.  We watched over made-up girls take turns photographing each other, posing on tall bollards like catwalk models.  We crossed the river again to the south, to visit Shakespeare and Co. Bookshop, its aged shelves heavy with books.  The layout was all nooks and crannies and soft seating, indulgent and comfortable even when overcrowded with other bibliophiles; a wonderful place to browse.  We ate lunch back on the island, viewing Notre Dame and dodging pigeons, before heading back north then west along the Seine to Pont Neuf.   We slowly browsed the green market stalls that lined the banks selling books, art and tourist trinkets, considering a few sketches to decorate our walls.

Paris - (aaron at louvre)

Paris - (nicky at louvre)

We arrived at the rear elevation of the Louvre and sneaked through a small passage into a grand empty courtyard and then into the main plaza featuring  I.M.Pei’s iconic pyramidal entrance.  With no plans to enter we were simply enjoying the ambiance.  The reflection pools and dancing fountains had been drained for winter and the plaza was definitely worse for the loss.  We turned north to Palais Royal and along the diagonal to Opéra, it dripping with gold and colour.  We reached Place Vendôme, an impressive square bursting with expensive designer stores. All streets were full of top-end brands, with minimalist displays of pricey coveted goods, three staff members to each customer and private security on each door.  The roads were stuffed with chauffeured cars delivering rich patrons into roped off spaces.  We felt out of place in the lavish, almost vulgar, display of riches, so we dipped into a surprise find on the street – a Decathlon store – for quiet reflection.

Paris - (Opera house facade)

After, we sat on the steps of Madeleine church staring at the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde as we planned our next move.  We decided that would be a metro up to Montmartre and a visit to Sacre Coeur.  We soon alighted at Abbesses station and chose to climb the stairs over joining a queue for lifts, and 144 steps later my overused legs were not thanking me for that decision.  Outside we found cute timber market stalls, thick with wonderful Christmas smells, leading on to many more upward steps.  We shunned the funicular and walked up long flights to reach the first main platform, before turning for our reward – a stunning panorama over all of central Paris.  We stood and stared, picking out monuments and spotting buildings we’d visited.  It was a sharp, clear day, a perfect vista of Paris.

Paris - (view from sacre coeur)

After another security check to enter the Sacre Coeur, we sat a moment on hard wooden pews and absorbed the painted ceiling of the church’s domed ceiling in welcome quiet.  Then we continued into the heart of Montmartre, where we bought a small metal tray, just the right size for two cups of tea, that will act as a small daily reminder of our Paris trip.  We browsed the many artists’ varied work in a cobbled square lined with cafés and bars, enjoying the soulful ambience. We then picked out one restaurant from many and feasted on three courses alone in their warm interior, as all other customers felt compelled to shiver their way through their food at the outside tables.

Paris - (Nicky at Sacre coeur)

When we extracted ourselves, night had fallen and everything was lit up.  It began spitting with light rain as a talented busker sang Purple Rain to the crowds. The tat-hawkers were packing up, desperate for last sales. One guy follows me closely and, despite my polite but firm ‘non’ he continues to aggressively push his goods.  He then harshly grabs my wrist and refuses to let go, until I finally protest very loudly in colourful language. The possibility of drawing the attention of one of the nearby security guards leads him to scarper away, but also left me wondering what terrible, indentured slave-like contract he might be locked into to drive such desperation. It must be a miserable, sad life, and I immediately felt guilty for my dismissive impatience, even if his chosen sales technique was threatening and invasive.

Paris - (montmartre artists)

We fell downhill through more crowded markets and brightly lit shops to reach a large boulevard.  We followed this to Pigalle metro, where, before descending, we could see the lights of the Moulin Rouge beyond.  We caught the metro to Pont de Neuilly and walked the long road back to our campsite on low lit, very busy, urban roads, passing a large tent complex where Circus du Soliel were performing.   Even with liberal use of the metro we had walked over 18km around the Parisian streets  – an exhausting day.

A&N x

< Part 2 to follow >

France – Mums, Markets & Mulled Wine – Early Christmas fun with our mums

Leaving the elegant, damp streets of a rainy-day Pau, we drove further into France, homeward bound.  We overnighted in Villeneuve de Marsan at a free aire that offered two free electricity points but there were three other vans already plugged in and we had no splitter, so had to go without.  We walked into the centre of town, it looking scruffy and unloved, but was in the midst of new works to the streets.  It might be very nice when it’s finished.

The next day we cut diagonally to the north east, through beautiful rolling countryside, to return to Pugols, near to Villeneuve-sur-Lot.  This was an area we had grown to know well, having enjoyed a six-week house-sit there at the start of the year.  With fond memories we revisited the local swimming pool and spa for a relaxing morning treat.

That afternoon we called in to visit friends Dave & Kate, near Bergerac, with whom we had previously spent a week completing a rewarding WorkAway.  We had a lovely dinner and catch-up, picking their brains on quirks of life in France and pocketing great tips for the upcoming restoration works we are planning around our French home.

Pageas Christmas - (nicky and mums)

From then we arrived home and settled again into the pattern of decorating and pottering around our house.  The weather was entirely different now, wet and cold, so our focus was back on internal spaces.  Over the course of a few weeks we decorated our living room, kitchen and the second spare bedroom in preparation of two guests of honour arriving – both our mums were visiting for an early Christmas.  We arrived at the airport to collect them where we were greeted with a loud, improvised chorus of “We are the Mother-in-Laws”, repeatedly sung to an obviously practised tune, to the bemusement of local crowds.  We feared that Christmas spirits had already been liberally imbibed and this now how our next days would go.  We got back home quickly so we could begin to catch up.

Pageas Christmas - (Limoges river)

It was almost dark on our arrival home, so after a quick tour and room allocation we closed the shutters, turned on suitable music and settled in for an evening of drinks, food and chat.  The weather was grey and wet, but we sat cosy inside by the fire, catching up.  We had prepared quite a few different dishes, from wheaten bread with smoked salmon, French onion and potato & leek soups, pesto & lentil lasagne, chocolate cookies and lemon sponge.  All these and more were to be tasted over the course of the evening and the next few days.  In the morning we enjoyed a short visit to Châlus to wander around their festive market, along with a visit to the supermarket to stock up on essentials and treats; this short stay was all to be about indulgence, with some token light exercise to justify it all.

Pageas Christmas - (cathedral grounds)

Pageas Christmas - (cathedral plaza)

One morning we headed into the centre of Limoges, the first time we had returned to the historic city centre since our initial visit over a year ago now.  We walked along the riverbank and the mass of grey clouds parted for a few moments to display a wonderful blue sky, lighting up the vista and even warming our faces.  This morning break in the rain allowed us the opportunity to explore the historic quarter, climbing up through the old city walls to the formal gardens and the cathedral.  We later wandered through the under-attended Christmas markets, although it was a mid-week morning so most locals were still at work.  The rain returned briefly for one short burst, but we mostly stayed dry as we explored the shopping quarter, ice rink and all other quirky pockets of Christmas stalls.

Pageas Christmas - (nicky and tree)

Pageas Christmas - (woodland trail)

Pageas Christmas - (woodland walks)

We took the mums for a short walk around the local woodland trails that we know well from our run training.  The autumn colours still dominated the paths and everything looked rich and beautiful, despite the monotone greyness and constant threat of further rain.  We then warmed up again with a bout of present opening, replete with giggles and silliness and new Christmas hats all round.  We enjoyed a good approximation of a traditional Christmas dinner, with turkey, ham and all the yummy trimmings except for Brussels sprouts as they had been surprisingly elusive in France to date.  Stuffed and squiffy, we retired to the lounge to watch ‘A Good Year’, for a small taste of French life, as we polished off more food and drinks.  This was like the ideal Christmas days we remembered –  lazy and boozy.

Pageas Christmas - (pre-dinner drinks)

Pageas Christmas - (mum cheers)

On our final morning we attended a small local Christmas market in the nearby village of Les Cars, filled with stalls of hand-made crafts and local food and drinks.  It was nice to be a small part of a local event, but it seemed under-attended and rather empty, which was a shame for those who had worked hard on their wares.  A few trinkets were bought more from politeness than want, and then we retreated back home, out of the rain, to allow the mums to finalise their packing.  We dropped them off and said our goodbyes, knowing our house was going to be quieter, emptier and less joyful in the coming days.

But at least we have a new distraction to regather our attention – an upcoming trip to Paris to squeeze in before Christmas – the city of lights awaits.

A&N x

 

Spain / France – Crossing the Pyrénees to Pau

The building traffic noise in awakening Pamolona arrived swiftly, shaking us early from our slumber.  The rain had died down to a soft drizzle and a murky grey smudge of sky filled our view.  We serviced quickly and, after a brief hiccup attempting to exit the aire, we became just another slowly rolling box in the wet morning rush through the city.

Pyrenees - (viewing the road ahead)

It didn’t take long to escape and reach roads of quiet isolation, rising higher into the mountains.  Suddenly we were in an area of deep forest on high hills, exposed rock faces set in an otherwise carpet of green, looking like the Lost World.  We were the only vehicle for miles on an empty sliver of grey twisting itself upwards through the rocky autumnal landscape.  Rich explosions of yellow, like fireworks, created a fleeting, speckled beauty as we drove past. It was a sublime drive.  We had chosen to follow the shortest route back into France, first east from Pamplona then north east via the Puerto de Larrau pass, dropping directly into France and on to Pau.  Or so we thought, at least.

Pyrenees - (beautiful autumn colours)

Patches of snow between the trees and ferns became more numerous as we rose higher.   Later, light snow, almost horizontal in the wind, fell across our path as we cautiously approached the col.  Right at the top, the country border, we discovered that the French had not cleared their side and that thick drifts had already obscured the road ahead. The steep drop-off sides of the narrow road were indistinguishable from the surface, the layer of snow uniforming everything.  No way we were chancing driving down that, even if only for a few kilometres, so we had to delicately turn and retrace our way back down the Spanish side and follow a lower road east, to Isaba.  This was the crossroads point for another mountain col we could attempt, so we stopped for lunch to consider our options.

Pyrenees - (snow lining the road)

Pyrenees - (nearing the col)

Rather than return over the mountain on another narrow pass that may also be shut or uncleared, we decided to turn south, deeper into Spain.  We tracked back to the main road, a trip a few hours longer but much easier and safer driving.  As a reward for our prudence, the road back was lined with even more impressive, colourful trees, a glimmering fire-burst of yellows, reds and oranges.  Over four hours after leaving Pamplona we rejoined the main road only 40km east of the city, a lengthy but beautiful detour behind us.  From here it was all decent motorway back up into the mountains, through a long tunnel rather than a col into France, then a drop down to the city of Pau.

Pau - (tour de france installation)

We headed first to a large car-park with free parking for up to seven days.  From here we crossed to a leafy park, heading for a signed funicular to carry us to the raised city streets, but found it closed.  On the way we discovered a bright Tour de France spiral installation, with illuminated information tableaux celebrating each year’s winner.  We learned that Pau has hosted the Tour seventy times in the last eighty-one editions of the race – acting as a key entry point to the challenging Pyrénees stages.  We stood in the rain and read a few select years, noting the black tableaux for uncontested (war) years and that all of Lance Armstrong ‘wins’ were still included in the display; all very interesting.

Pau - (place royale)

Pau - (hotel de ville)

We climbed up the hill to reach a paved boulevard that looked more like an elegant sea-front.  It offered incredible views out to the valley below and the mountains behind.  We wandered to the Place Royale, with its avenue of squared trees, that led to the Hôtel de Ville.  The town was quiet, everything closed, and it was only now that we remembered it was a bank holiday.  The quiet emptiness added a grandeur as the architecture of the buildings, rather than the commerce they normally housed, became our main focus.  Pau had grand Parisian-like streets, wide and elegant, with lively touches of Art Deco curves.

Pau - (city streets)

Pau - (chateau de Pau entrance)

We walked through and around the Castle gardens, taking in the view over the western portion of the city.  There were very few other visitors braving the rain and we enjoyed the calming peace of our directionless stroll.  We doubled back through more grand streets to see the tall spires of Relais Saint Jacques and the adjacent courthouse set in a large square hosting several statues.  From here we reached a large shopping plaza, glitzy and new, contrasting with the surrounding architecture, but definitely working as a modern public meeting space.  Even in the dull rains Pau continued to impress us.

Pau - (church and courts)

Pau - (palais beaumont)

We returned to the raised boulevard walkway that spanned the length of the centre and again took in the wonderful views south, then we walked east to the far edge of the centre.  A welcome blue sky made a brief appearance as we approached the Palais Beaumont, before the familiar grey descended once more.  We walked around Parc Beaumont, passing empty play areas and lakes, before the returning rain decided for us that our walking tour should come to an end.  We carefully headed down several flights of steep, slippy, leaf-strewn steps to return to Benny for our last miles north.

A&N x

France – Bayonne & the ’13km de la Nive’ race

We left La Jourdanie late, the packing for a three week trip taking longer than anticipated.  We had thought we were nearly ready, but the final essential items to add still ate up our morning – so much for an early start in Benny.  We were finally away by 11am, heading south, pausing only to empty our recycling tubs as we passed through Châlus.  Now-familiar roads carried us to Thiviers and around the west of Périgueux, where we called into a Benimar dealer to see about a few niggling items, forgetting that all but one were actually Fiat issues.  Large plops of rain dulled the day as we passed Bergerac vines with the first hints of autumn colours, set in fields lined with golden red ferns fluffed up like bright plumage.  We passed more familiar villages, places with aires we’d once stayed at, others we’d cycled to or visited on walks.  Many looked different, lessened in the muggy rain, not matching the perfect memory of the clear blue skies filled with warming sunshine our memories dredged up, or had perhaps created.

Caumont - canal banks

We crossed the calm flow of the rivers Isle, Dordogne and the Garonne.  We reached our first overnight stop, Caumont, a small free aire on the banks of a canal flowing parallel to the Garonne, the same stretch of canal where we spent much of our time running and cycling during our La Reole house-sit.  We parked up under tall plane trees laden with yellow leaves and reflected on the simple serenity, the instant hit of peace that can be found in some well-positioned aires.  Inevitably the church bells began and we started to reconsider, but even their incessant ringing was tuneful enough to soothe us rather than annoy.  We enjoyed a short walk along the canal banks, watching the drifting yellow leaves drown in the milky green water, before pizza, darkness and bed.

Bayonne - (beach by aire)

The next morning brought a longish drive, on ruler-straight roads through scrub and wild woodland.  We were back in the true south-west, empty and sparse, with only the brief oasis of small villages breaking up the monotony. We had vague notions to visit the only large town on our route, Mont-de-Marsan, but on arrival it was solid with parked cars for miles in all directions and we saw nowhere easy to stop.  Rather than loop around and spend time hunting out a place to park, we kept on, back on the long straight road to the bottom corner of France.  We stopped a little to the north west of Bayonne at a paid aire (€6 / night) in Anglet, on the coast.  It was two minutes from Biarritz’s north beach, where we spent most of the afternoon watching the wild, powerful waves break hard on the sand.

Bayonne - (playing on beach)

We returned for dinner then headed back to the coast to be bombarded by an incredible sunset on a busy beachfront boulevard.  Walkers, runners, skateboarders, surfers floating in the pinkish water framed by a backdrop of wild red sky, families walking dogs, drinkers, eaters and selfie-takers.  Active and vibrant, thoughtful and serene, the only negative were the occasional swarms of roaming sandflies. Many water-babies, tanned and tattooed, were standing wrapped in fleece towels, shivering gently after a full day of attempting to surf that perfect wave.  There was a wonderful vibe, chilled and easy, a proper community feel for the entire length of the shore.  Very different groups were mingling peacefully to enjoy the warm autumn evening and the exploding sunset. We felt privileged to be here at this moment, the fall of the dice aligning perfectly for us.  We have to remember to keep appreciating it all, this glorious freedom we have.

Bayonne - (beach view)

Bayonne - (sun setting over surkers)

The crashing thuds of the waves kept us awake, seemingly creeping closer and closer in the dark, unknown stillness of the night.  We finally slept and awoke late, a welcome benefit of our fluid lifestyle.  We readied our bikes and cycled off, towards Bayonne; we had a race to complete our registration for and a city to discover.  We zagged across empty roads, passing hugely impressive houses, both ancient and brand new, hidden behind high walls and tall trees.  We reached an off-road area with a network of criss-crossing parkland trails, pine needles and ferns draped over a deep sandy base.  We climbed up small, steep hills, dunes really, with our back wheels spinning out in deep sand, making the rises that much harder to summit than we’d expected, or hoped for.

Bayonne - (pink sunset glow)

We headed first to the Stade La Floride, where we would catch a bus early Sunday to take us to the start of the race, only to find this was not the actual location of the registration.  We doubled back into town and after a few more false stops we located the correct place on Rue de Basque just moments before it shut for a two-hour lunch.  We happily collected our T-shirts and race numbers, safely tucked them away and were then ready to explore the city.  First impressions – Bayonne was a delight.  The day had reached 28 degrees before lunchtime, unexpected by us in mid-October. A produce market filled a long, thin plaza set along a stretch of the river Nive, and narrow streets brimming with boutique shops and busy cafés led off in every direction.

Bayonne - (city streets)

Bayonne - (in the streets)

Five or six storey townhouses lined these streets, their colourful shutters closed against the sun, some timber-framed, many with stone-arched passageways at ground level utilised as commercial premises. The domineering twin peaks of Bayonne cathedral, the Gothic Cathédrale de Sante-Marie, were always visible above the rooftops. A wonderfully colourful and fragrant permanent covered market selling a wealth of tempting delicacies teased our senses. They were serving tapas and wine at makeshift bars, and in several places we heard more Spanish than French being spoken.  We had no prior knowledge or any real expectations of Bayonne, so were utterly contented to have time in this gem of a city.

We had dismissed it two years ago as we passed, eager to reach Spain and the Picos de Europa, and we’re now sorry to have done so.  We sat on the cathedral steps and watched a wedding photoshoot where the bride, not to be outdone by her groom’s orange waistcoat, donned dark sunglasses and a blue denim jacket over her flowing silk dress. We wandered through the nearby Botanic gardens to reach the Monument aux Morts, the grand memorial to the war dead from Bayonne.  We continued our stroll to the Hôtel de Ville and adjoining Opéra house, buying our mothers local postcards in a small tabac off the Place de la Liberté.

Bayonne - (cathedral view)

We wandered a while longer, lingering on busy streets to soak up the sights, smells and sounds, before returning to our bikes, abandoned on rails beside the cathedral.  We cycled back on the easier but slight longer coast-hugging cycle path, through the more practical, robust, industrial northern harbours. The rest of our day was spent back on the beach, our skins gently bronzing, watching an unending conveyor belt of waves crash into 3m diameter tubes of white foam and froth.  It was a delight to lazily watch nature’s wild sea, but it conflicted with our desire to swim.

Race Day 1 – 13km from Ustaritz to Bayonne

The next morning was race day.  After a self-imposed alarm and a quick pack up, we no doubt annoyed our neighbours with our Sunday 7.15am exit, the day still wrapped in moody darkness.  We parked up at the Stade La Floride, ate breakfast and dressed for action. The first buses left from here for the town of Ustaritz at 8am, where we would run the 13km back to Bayonne, along the banks of the river Nive.  We caught a bus and it smoothly deposited us by the village church to await the 10am race start.  There were no facilities here, and no water available (they had coffee though) and we wished we’d waited for a later bus.  We mused about, pretending at a thorough warm-up, but fooling no one.  More stripy buses periodically arrived, carrying the 350 or so race entrants to the over-crowded start area. The trees and bushes of the church grounds were soon overrun with lycra-clad hooligans peeing everywhere, trying and failing to be discrete.

Ustaritz - (race banner)

Ustaritz - (warmkng up)

Eventually we were called to the start and the race began, first through the town streets on temporarily closed roads before cutting onto a wider than expected path following the banks of the river.  Small pockets of spectators clapped us on, with a few small kids delighting in high-fiving passing runners.  Avoiding the scramble, we’d started near the back of the field so had the guilty pleasure of slowly picking off the slower runners, one or two at a time, as we made our way towards the finish, a bright string of colourful vests stretching out into a long line in front of us.  The river was hidden from view for long stretches and the snatched views of it proved not as picturesque as we’d hoped, although we did see single skullers gracefully skimming past on the still waters.

Ustaritz - (startline selfie)

Ustaritz - (on the trail)

The route was paved and flat the entire way, all easy running, or at least it would be for those runners who’d trained sufficiently.  After 10km the lack of recent distance in our legs began to tell as our pace slowed rather than increased as we’d hoped.  The last 3km were a slog, but we were buoyed by larger crowds and our arrival at the stadium.  Sadistically, they then made us complete a lap of the running track before allowing us to cross the finish line in relief.  We gorged on cake, chocolate, apricots, bananas and oranges at the finish, then luxuriated in long, steaming hot showers in the changing facilities of the sports centre.  Glowing from our run, we paused to watch a high quality rugby match, before driving Benny back to the same aire to relax for the afternoon.

No sooner had we slotted back into the same spot (such creatures of habit) the heavens opened in violent torrents, but contented and weary we rested up snugly in Benny – let the weather do its worst.

A&N x