Category Archives: In France

(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

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(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

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

France – Hiking the Imbut trail to Le Styx and visiting Trigance

With our hilly trail race in Aiguines complete, we headed out of our campsite with two baguettes under our arms to follow a scenic road east.  We stopped frequently to quickly view the gorge from different perspectives; the day was already mid 30s by 9.30am, and everything was an effort.  We parked up near Auberge Cavaliers in a public car-park and, with lunch packed, walked downhill for 30 minutes on a steep path with long patches of welcome shade  to reach the shores of the river Verdon far below.  We were following the Imbut trail, where another 40 minutes took us past beautiful chalky green pools and we struggled to resist the opportunity to dip.  Our legs were still suffering from our recent race, but we had the perfect remedy waiting for us at the end of this hot and sticky forest trail hike.

Imbut Trail - (gorge drive)

Imbut Trail - (river verdon)

That was a channel named Le Styx, a spot we had long coveted from photos in our Wild Swimming France book, and we were delighted to have it all to ourselves this fine morning.  With little delay we changed and dropped carefully into the cool, moving water.  We were cautious of the flow until we were sure it could easily be swam against, but once mastered we proceeded up river, easily fighting the current, through the overhanging rock formations and narrow curved features.  We found rocks just below the surface where we climbed out and spent time enjoying the dancing patterns of light on the water.  We had arrived just before noon, when the sun best penetrates the narrow chasm, and the walls and green water were lit up with a shining luminosity that raised the experience another notch.

Le Styx - (first view)

Le Styx - (Nicky approaches)

We enjoyed a few lengths in this special stretch of river, before climbing out on nearby rocks to overlook the water, watching the light fall in bright patches on the surface.  As we watched, a group of nine wet-suited canyoners, adorned in bright red and yellow helmets and life-jackets, suddenly drifted into view through the souk-like passage, breaking our silence and commandeering our view.  They floated down and climbed out right beside our restful spot and took turns jumping back in from a tall, overhanging rock perched about 6m above the water’s surface.  It was a wild, uncontrollable splash of colour and noise on our tranquil canvas, but within minutes they were off again, sliding down frothing rapids feet first with arms tightly crossed on chests, leaving us again to enjoy the calm serenity.

Le Styx - (Canyoners arrive)

Verdon river - (Nicky dips)

Satisfied, we walked back along the same path and picked out a peaceful shallow pool away from the path where we ate our prepared lunch.  No one else was around so Nicky insisted on having another few cooling dips, this time sans costume.  The climb back was reminiscent of our trail run the previous day, and our legs were sorely in agreement.  We sweated our way back to Benny on the top of the gorge, glad for some shade from the glaring sun. We continued our drive around the gorge-top road, loving the expansive views, before turning off to stop in at the historic village of Trigance.  We nabbed the final available spot in their free aire, opened all our windows and doors and ate ice lollies and drunk pints of water until we felt ourselves again.  We really need to slow down when the sun is so strong.

Tirgance - village approach

Point Sublime - viewpoint

Huttopia camping - (treelined pitch)

We walked a short loop of the village of Trigance but beautiful as it was, we had no heart for any of it, and all we could think off was a return to shade and rest.  We slowly dragged our feet through the streets for an acceptable time, before returning and agreeing that the race, and our walk this morning, had taken more out of us than we had first thought.  It was time for respite.  Tomorrow we had planned to walk the Verdon Gorge classic route, Le Sentier Blanc Martel, a difficult 7-hour traverse hike, but we were now reconsidering our plans.  We spent the evening looking at options, and discounted hiking the full trail.  The buses were not yet running so we would need a pre-booked taxi to begin or return from the linear walk, and we felt that we had experienced much of the gorge already.

Huttopia camping - (river swim spot)

Huttopia camping - (river dip)

Huttopia camping - (Nicky jumps from rock)

After a sticky night we gave up all plans of walking the entire route, but thought we’d have a look at part of it, so drove to Point Sublime, near Rougon, one end of the trail.  The car-park was full to bursting with day-trippers, so we parked Benny in the bus lay-by, hoping this would be okay.  We walked to a viewpoint, but found its positioning wanting as the river was barely visible, and decided to drop down the valley for a swim.  But with several false starts down incorrect trails and with lines of sweat already dripping down our backs, we gave up and retreated back to Benny.  With only the tiniest twang of guilt, we rushed off up the road to the nearest campsite with leafy shade and a pool.  This heatwave was not here to play, and we simply could not compete.  We were soon cocooned on a large shaded pitch within 50m of a beautiful stretch of river and a great pool.  It was time to cool off and rest our legs.

Huttopia camping - (Nicky on the rocks)

Huttopia camping - (cool pool)

We wasted no time in getting to the river where we found a deep, cold pool and we swam and played until we finally felt that unfamiliar coldness in our core.  We could have braved the long trek and been sweating up a dusty slope right at this time with hours still to go, but we were now convinced we’d made the very best decision for us.  €19 for our pitch, free wifi, access to the river and the spacious 25m pool (where we lay happily for several hours later in the afternoon) and several icy showers each to regain our cool; what were we thinking trying to walk trails when the thermometer was pushing 40°?  Our guilt made us look for alternative activities and we found the perfect option.  We booked in for a canyoning adventure the following day, in a shady chasm running with chilly water – a perfect way to stay cool.

A& N x

France –Sillans-la-Cascade & around Lac de Sainte-Croix

We debated whether to spend another water-focused day at the delightful Camping les Pêcheurs but, lovely as it was, the idea of exploration won out.  As joyous and flowing with colour as our pitch was, draped with pink flowers and overhanging trees, we struggled for ten minutes to get out without destroying the foliage, reversing around low-hanging trees and through a narrow hedge opening that snagged mirrors and tickled Benny’s sides.  We headed north, to Parc naturel régional du Verdon.  Our route naturally took us to Sillans-la-Cascade, an area of cascading waterfalls and milky-green forest pools.  In a small car-park (43.566907, 6.182703), we found a Benny sized spot and paid €4 for 2.5 hours (half-hour free, €0.50/15 minutes).  We decided an exploratory run would be best to find some suitable swim spots.

Sillans-la-Cascade - (main pool)

We began our run in the direction everyone else was walking, following the easy rocky trail mostly downhill.  We arrived at a belvédère of the main pool and waterfall; an impressive and arresting sight that made us want to jump in immediately.  But due to a rockfall a few years ago we found out that access to the water here was now interdit, scuppering our plans.  Undeterred, we ran around several other promising nearby paths before realising that none of the river upstream of the falls was accessible.  We returned back through the car-park and beyond, crossing a bridge into Sillans-la-Cascade village and followed other footpaths on the south bank of the river.  This is where it became interesting, as we soon reached long stretches of beautiful, luminous green pools wrapped in gnarled tree roots.

Sillans-la-Cascade - (downstream pools)

Sillans-la-Cascade - (nicky swims)

Huge grins broke out on our faces as we took in each pool in turn, any one being worthy of a debut swim.  The cool water trickled down from one to the next, like the Fairy Pools on Skye.  There were deep plunge holes, natural weirs and shallow pools, and all shone as if lit from underneath.  We kept our focus and continued to the end of the path, and were duly rewarded by our arrival at another waterfall pool.  Not quite as large a pool or tall a waterfall as the main cascade seen from the belvedere, but this one was accessible for swimming and there were no overlooking crowds.  We found a place where we could access the water and quickly changed.  The clear green water was biting cold, much more so than any so far on this trip.  But this made it all the more refreshing after our sticky-hot run.

Aiguines - (town rooftop view)

Aiguines - (street view)

We swam near to the waterfall, feeling the chill spray on our faces.  Occasionally we climbed up and stood onto near-surface rocks to let the sun return some heat to our chilled limbs, but were soon back in the water again, floating happily in the deep milky blue-green water.  Tangles of tree root and branches semi-blocked channels within the pool, but we could swim under and around them as we explored.  When we felt our limbs become numb we reluctantly climbed out of the water and sunned ourselves on the rocks, our warmth soon returning.  We ate snacks and sucked in every aspect we could of the wonderful pool, before tracking back the same path.  We stopped again at several other pools and dipped again to delay our leaving.  Our final run back to Benny left us hot and sticky again.

Lac de Sainte-Croix - (walk to beach)

Lac de Sainte-Croix - (lake beach)

Lac de Sainte-Croix - (swim time)

Our swim-lust satisfied, at least for now, we moved on to the free aire (43.777123, 6.214216) near to Les Salles-sur-Verdon on the banks of Lac de Sainte-Croix.  It was spacious, with 12 vans already parked but space for the same again.  We walked to the nearest beach on the banks of the lake and were unable to resist another swim.  We spent  the rest of the day sedentary on the beach, sapped of energy but in a satisfying way.  We were in this area for a hilly 10km trail run and were glad to take it easy for the few days before.  We passed a second day here, with a leisurely walk into Les Salles-sur-Verdon via the lake shore, then finding a shady place on the beach to relax.  It was a windier day, the sea choppier and we watched many kayakers and Suppers struggle valiantly to return upwind on the lake.

Lac de Sainte-Croix - (frisbee action)

Aiguines - (race tents at finish)

Our pre-organised 10km race was on Sunday in nearby Aiguines.  It was a hilly jaunt with 680m of ascent over the distance.  There were others running various distances, the longest a 60km race beginning at 4am that had over 4km of ascent. That sounded like a very refined, exquisite kind of self-torture, and we were glad to have only entered the shorter event.  We arrived at our campsite, Camping de l’Aigle, only nine miles from our free aire.  Set on top of an expansive hill, with a gorgeous terrace overlooking Lac de Sainte-Croix, this was a fantastic place to be situated for a few days.  We knew we should be resting our legs, but we climbed steeply up through the campsite to a table d’orientation to take in a cloudy red sunset above the deep blue waters of the lake.  It was worth the extra walk.

Aiguines - (nicky running)

Aiguines - (arriving at finish)

Our race was the following morning, where we had an easy 10am start.  It was very hot, and we worried about how we’d manage in the heat.  The race proved to be more ‘falling down steep stony slopes’ and ‘walking up steep earthy slopes’, with only short stretches of running in between.  Our legs and lungs burned and our faces dripped hot, blinding sweat as we pushed on, the stubborn kilometres slow to disappear.  It was a tough course, yet we found the legs to sprint the final downhill kilometre into town, feeling fresher than at most other parts of the race.  We still only just broke 1hr 30mins, which beforehand would have seemed laughably slow for a 10k race.  But we were at the front of the field, with Nicky picking up a prize for second lady home.  I finished alongside her, as 18th male finisher.

Aiguines - (podium moment)

Aiguines - (well earned jacuzzi)

Aiguines - (wild boar visit)

We sat around, recovering and eating back all the burned calories, and more.  We were informed prize-giving would be at 3pm, so we retreated to our campsite for lunch and showers, and returned around 2.30pm for the awards.  In the time we were away, due to the late finishers in several other race distances, the 10km presentations had been rearranged.  It had already passed, and with it Nicky’s opportunity to stand on the podium – disappointing.  A later solo presentation was of little compensation.  After a few hours back at camp, we walked back into town for celebratory pizza.  It was 7pm and there were some runners still finishing the brutal 60k race, 14 hours later. As we ate our pizza we were visited by a thirsty, curious boar and a beautiful smudged red-sunset. Later we slipped into a satisfied sleep.

A&N x