Tag Archives: beach

(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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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

France – Plage de Pampelonne and Saint-Tropez

We awoke early, and as we packed up we chatted to our Slovenian neighbour, the late arrival and aire comedian.  After a few morning laughs we were soon retracing the coast road around and through Toulon After several wrong turns and a couple of sudden sharp exits to avoid various tunnels under the city, we crawled our way east.  The coast road was similar to some in Costa Brava, with beautiful, steep rocky cliffs, private coves and sheltered bays, overhung with gnarled trees with thick foliage.  Black-trunked trees twisted out of the dense undergrowth, giving definition and shadow. Wide and tall umbrella trees, casting dark circles of shade, were scattered throughout.  Huge, deep hedges of bougainvillea, glowing magenta in the sun, defined the edges. We spotted many white beaches dotted at short intervals, each lapped by the shimmering azure ocean and busy with people actively doing nothing.

Road to Toulon

Plage de Pampelonne aire

It was a difficult undulating road complicated and slowed by its many cyclists, but slowly-does-it was the best way to experience it.  We were heading for a large commercial aire right on the sea at Pampallone beach, set a short way south of our main destination – Saint-Tropez.   It was a huge aire, one of the biggest we have ever stayed in, with hundreds of vans scattered around different areas of the land.  We settled in to the accompaniment of loud birdsong and cicadas, with a worrying backdrop of bulldozer.  After a walk to examine the extent of the aire, we unloaded our bikes and set off on our cycle to Saint-Tropez.  Our chosen way began with a rough gravel off-road track, before becoming an easy rolling route on the side of the not too busy main road.  We reached the marina in 25 minutes.

Saint-Tropez (yachts in harbour)

Saint-Tropez (yachts and town)

Our first impressions were as expected – Luxury yachts, polished glamour, a timeless old-school feel, dripping with money.  We locked our bikes to a convenient post and walked all around the marina and through the old town streets, enjoying each vista in turn.  We had expected to be disappointed, predicting that reputation would overstate the reality, but instead we found the town, despite its obvious new-found commercialism, utterly charming.  We walked around a circular tower to another small beach and beyond to a jetty where several others were sun-bathing.  Although we had no towels or suits with us, we were unable to resist and we both stripped for a wonderfully cooling swim in the bay, recapturing the memory and spirit of Bardot and Hepburn.  We were a small part of it all, now,

Saint-Tropez (old town streets)

Refreshed, we climbed to the castle to view the town from above, then returned to the marina for a walk full of dreams of buying a yacht.  The Universe clearly thought we’d had too much of a good day and was ready to even it up.  Cycling home, my front wheel slid off a deep drop on the side of the tarmac and, unable to right myself, I was thrown to my left back into the road.  I landed on my side, slid a few painful metres and lost skin from my ankle, calf, knee, thigh, hip, elbow, tricep and shoulder; quite the bloody mess.  At least the car behind me on the road stopped sharply rather than bumping straight over me, so it was not half as bad as it could have been.  After a few choice words I picked myself up and rolled back home, marking my route with thick drips of blood.

Saint-Tropez (marina selfie)

Saint-Tropez (swim off jetty)

Once back, I cleaned up my cuts, sanitising them and removing lumps of stubborn gravel.  Deciding it might be of help we hobbled to the busy sandy beach for a swim.  The salt water stung and itched my wounds, but that probably meant it was doing good.  At least I was staying cool, even if I looked like an extra from ‘The Mummy’ when resting on my towel.  With my hydro-therapy complete we returned to the shade of our awning, re-patched everything and decided I needed special vineyard medicine.  As night fell the site echoed with the incredible croaking from breeding toads, drowning out our attempted conversation and television watching.  We were meant to move on, but decided another day of gentle recuperation wouldn’t go amiss, so we decided to rest up another night.

Plage de Pampelonne - busy afternoon

Pampelonne Beach - sunset panorama

Pampelonne - Nicky on rocks

We spent a second day supine on the beach, with only occasional jaunts back to Benny or into the sea disturbing our laziness. We enjoyed a sunset evening walk to a more local beach, where few other people ventured.  This was a curved bay of rounded stones, the shore lined thick with smooth bleached driftwood on one end .  The water was calm and clear, framed with pink skies.  This was to be our final stop on the Mediterranean, on this trip.  In the morning we took the coast road north, passing busy Saint-Tropez and crawling through Saint-Maxime.  We passed busy beaches, none motorhome friendly judging by the barriers, but all very pretty.  We were heading inland, and soon reached an ACSI campsite in Roquebrune-sur-Argens.  We snuggled into a cosy corner plot surrounded with pink flowers.  At our disposal was a 25m lap swimming pool, adjacent Jacuzzi area, sauna and adult-only spa pool.

Benny in leafy campsite

Roquebrune-sur-Argens - (chilling in spa)

We had come to the area to kayak on the Argens river, and were delighted to discover that this campsite offered free kayaking to guests, another welcome bargain.  We happily accepted and were garnished with paddles and life-vests.  Minutes later we were gently floating down the river, full of smiles.  The flow was slow from lack of rain and the surface held a lot of debris, so the river not as beautiful as perhaps it could be.  But this made for more engagement with the living nature rather than the subjective beauty.  There were thousands of tiny blue and yellow dragonflies dancing on the still water surface, stuck together in breeding pairs.  Patches of lime-coloured waterlilies hosted hordes of black-winged butterflies and shy frogs who hopped underwater every time we neared.  The surface was alive with playing, surface-skimming insects and we could clearly see the bottom through the pristine water.

Roquebrune-sur-Argens - (river swim)

Some fishermen were fly-fishing off a sandy bank, casting across most of the width of the river, so we paddled by close to the opposite bank to offer them a wide berth.  Beyond them, we had the river  to ourselves.  Feeling hot, I stripped off for a cooling swim on an empty stretch of river, loving the soft water on skin as I sizzled myself cool.  By slowly breast-stroking I could approach busy insects even closer, increasing my connection to nature.  I did not have the most dignified re-entry back into our canoe but I made it and we floated back slowly as I sun-dried myself, before a rushed redressing when other kayakers were approaching.  We passed our evening reading at their pools, trying their Jacuzzi and spa, quietly enjoying the relative coolness of the evening night air filled with the scent of blossom.

A&N x

France – Les Sablettes and Toulon

We rose early in Sanary-sur-Mer and left with unusual proficiency.  We faced a leisurely drive along the urbanised main road through Six-Fours-les-Plages.  Some stretches proved to be very tight with overhanging trees or badly parked cars.  It took us all of nine built-up miles to reach our next planned stop, a free aire near to Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer, on a jutting peninsula south of Toulon.  On arrival we found the aire was very small, but we fortunately arrived just as one van was leaving, and they gifted us the ideal corner spot we would have chosen in an empty aire.  Perfect.  We had a short jaunt to take in our new temporary home, spent some time making up lunch and then walked the short way to a local terminal where we hoped to board a ferry to the regional capital of Toulon.

Les Sablettes (awaiting water taxi)

Toulon- (boat crossing)

Several local were already seated, waiting patiently.  The ferries, like buses, had a ‘next service’ display, with only 14 minutes to wait for Toulon; or so we thought.  This boat failed to arrive, the timer tripped over to 32 minutes and the intermediate service simply disappeared.  More people arrived, some looking curious as to why so many were waiting.  Groups of fit students, likely gymnasts, competed with each other doing one-handed handstands whilst we waited.  Alongside the tourists and students, elegant women dressed for lunch in designer outfits, their Chanel and Louis Vuitton bags hanging from stiff elbows, chatted loudly.  Finally the ferry cruised into view.  It cost €2 each for a single ticket.  We sat up front enjoying the fresh breeze and welcome spray on our faces for the 25 minute trip.

Toulon - (boat arrival)

Toulon - (church and markets)

Cruising through the waterways of the busy military harbour, we alighted directly into the crowded streets of central Toulon.  We walked along the quayside, a long street of busy cafés and bars, noting the celebrated ‘Genie de la Navigation’ statue.  We then crossed the main through road to enter the colourful market stalls.  We immediately thought of Toulon as having a more north African feel; the quality of light playing on the stone walls and paved streets, the extensive markets, the people, their faces and dress.  And most of all, the smells – curry plants, jasmine, honeysuckle mixed with sweat and diesel.  At other times the streets reminded us of Havana or New Delhi, the colours flickering on a backdrop of tall, narrow façades, the play of light, the sun not penetrating to ground creating patches of deep shade and bright light, the flaking shutters, the cracked render.  There was a real sense of a imposing, crumbling grandeur.

Toulon - (Theatre)

Toulon - (Liberty Square)

Toulon - (Nicky by fountain)

We followed the colours and smells of the markets as they extended through many streets.  At one stall we paused to buy a few juicy nectarines and ate them as we walked, dripping sticky juice down our hands and chins. We passed many fountains and water features in varies styles and sizes, always pausing to run our hands through the cool water.  We passed tiny squares, empty of people, and large open plazas busy with cafés.  We circled the exuberant Toulon Opera building, the second largest in France (after Palais Garnier in Paris).  Drained in the heat, we stopped to eat our lunch in Liberty Square, near the fountain, in the only small patch of shade we could find.  The heat of the day was already repressive, and not conducive to exploratory city breaks.  We were dreaming of the beach.

Toulon - (Concrete ship)

Toulon - (rugby stadium)

Revived a little from our lunch stop, we wandered a few more streets, looking at places of interest marked on a tourist map we had picked up.  But our fortitude for city streets was waning, so we returned to the terminal and caught the next ferry back. Once back in Les Sablettes, we walked slowly through a shady park to a local beachfront.  We passed by many more crowded market stalls selling crafts and paintings.  Several very competent artists were displaying their works,  luminous oil paintings that piqued our interest but we ultimately declined to purchase.  The beach was full of supine bodies and running kids, loud music and the scent of salt and blossom filled the air.  We chose not to sit, but continued our slow walk further, people watching.  We ate expensive ice creams as a treat.

Les Sablettes (busy evening in aire)

Back in Benny early evening, a late edition to the aire arrives and, after securing permission, double parks across another van right in front of us.  This was their only chance of fitting in and made the aire look more like a storage yard, but it was an impressive piece of manoeuvring nonetheless.  We enjoyed a pre-dinner stroll to another small beach area south of the aire, set beside a thick pine forest.  We found it still busy with sun-worshippers and rowdy families enjoying the shade left behind by the low sun.  We walked a short portion of south coast path before hunger drove us back to Benny.  On our way we surprisingly found a shop open, on a Sunday night, and managed to buy some welcome snacks for later. A great day, and it confirmed the best way to arrive in any city is by water.

A&N x

France – The calanques & beaches of Cassis and Sanary-sur-Mer

We awoke in our corner in Marly Parc to a cacophony of singing birds and revving motorcycles.  We paid up and headed south, away from Marseille towards the south coast.  Our first stop was in the tourist town of Cassis.  We managed to carefully squeeze into a space in the only motorhome-allowed area in town, tight to a weed-strewn rock on one side.  The last space, steep and weedy, was very difficult to access due to lazy car drivers using the aire to go play tennis, rather than walk the 50m from the ample and empty car-parking further down the hill.  From here we walked, stifled in the hot dry air, into town.  We passed several lovely beaches, a thriving market and a busy marina, the centre buzzing with holiday-makers.  We continued on around the coast, the crowds thinning as we left town.

Cassis - market streets

Cassis - marina

We were heading to a more special beach, the third of three celebrated coves.  The first calanque was utilised as a long marina, lined on both sides with large sailboats.  We followed a wide stony pathway thinking it would make a great aire, up and down following the rocky contours of the land.  We reached the second calanque, Port Pin, a white pebbled beach with shining clear, inviting water that was close to seducing us to stop.  Instead, we pushed on, 30 more minutes of sweaty walking through sparse woodland and up steep, dusty screes.  Birds of prey soared and circled overhead. We dropped into what looked like a dead-end canyon, a fully enclosed cauldron surrounded by high cliffs.  We thought it couldn’t access the sea.  But our eyes were deceived; there was a narrow souk on the right side, invisible from above, and this direction change led us between the cliff faces to reach the final calanqueD’En Vau.

First Calanque - marina

Second calanque - Port Pin

calanque D'En Vau - beach view

 

We had arrived at an utterly stunning stony beach, framed by tall cliffs, blue waters and thronged with people.  Given the number of supine sun-worshipping bodies, the beach was very quiet – no children, no music playing, no loud chatting.  Everyone here was of one mind – to relax in serene nature.  We plopped down in a rare space on the white stones and spent the rest of the day sunbathing, swimming and people-watching.  Some visitors had a more sedate arrival by kayak or canoe around the headland from Cassis, swelling the ranks on the beach.  Others climbed the imposing  cliffs and chose precarious perches on flatter rocks on which to rest, or jump into the calanque.  The waters glowed with turquoise luminosity in the bright sunlight, inviting us often into their soft, majestic coolness.

calanque D'En Vau - N on beach

calanque D'En Vau -from water

Having cooked ourselves sufficiently, we made the difficult decision to tear ourselves away from this little slice of paradise. We made our way slowly back, following the same route, passing the other calanques that no longer impressed us the same after seeing ours.  Once we returned to Cassis we spent some time around the marina and in the quiet town streets, browsing in colourful stores.  When we returned up the hill to where Benny awaited we found most of the cars had gone, enabling us to move to a more suitable and flatter parking space to overnight. The street was quiet, a no-through road, and only two other vans joined us.  We enjoyed  an exploratory walk around the tennis club site and buildings after dinner as the sun was setting, a simple restful stroll in the cool night air.

A on path to calanques

Cassis - second town beach

After a quiet night’s sleep we headed off again, following the coast road east.  We made a point of avoiding the tiny streets of Cassis.  Our plan was to follow the Route des Crêtes, a twisting, climbing coast road hugging the edge of the azure Mediterranean far below.  There were lots of spacious pull-off spots where a short walk led to a grand vista over the sea, and we took advantage of many as we snaked along.  The road cut back inland when nearing the next town, La Ciotat. We tried to stop for a look but could find nowhere amenable to motorhomes, so had to keep moving.  We drove the sea front of Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, the most obvious resort town we passed, then along the busy roads and full beaches of Bandol to reach our destination, an ASCI campsite on the outskirts of Sanary-sur-Mer.

Route des Cretes- coastal view

Route des Cretes- sea view

 

As we flopped onto our pitch, the heat of the day, now reaching low 30s, sucked away our desire to move or explore.  After a competitive game of table tennis under a shady tent (not too competitive, Nicky trounced me), we lounged by their lovely pool, reading, dipping and dozing.  This was more like it.  The next morning was a different beast – a strong, wild wind blasted across the site.  It was blustery, demented at times, shaking every tree and blowing up dust clouds from the dry dirt; not a day for resting by the pool.  Instead, we chose a bracing exploratory coastal walk, back through Sanary-sur-Mer and on to a pointed headland called Pointe de la Cride.  There was a fort marked on maps, but it had the secretive feel of a government installation so we didn’t linger.  That evening we locked down the hatches, snuggled into Benny and watched TV, hoping a tree wouldn’t fall on our heads.

Sanary-sur-Mer - markets

Sanary-sur-Mer marian

Sanary-sur-Mer nicky at marina

The morning brought calmness and sun, a long way from the aberration of the previous day.  We ran an easy 2km downhill to the Plage de Portissol in the morning, relaxing and swimming often to cool off in the sticky heat.  Huge banks of seagrass were stacked up on one side of the beach, but clearly not enough, as we still had to wade through five soupy metres of it to get to clear open water.  We took turns having longer swims out to the extent of the buoys in the bay, it feeling good to use our arms rather than legs. After an afternoon back at camp we returned to the marina early evening.  There were market stalls, talented painters selling canvases, a harnessed rigging climb for kids, and some competitive water-based jousting.  The weather was too good for a restaurant, so we ate takeaway pizza and watched the various spectacles, enjoying a slice per bench as we moved around the crowded marina.

A&N x

France – Sausset-les-Pins and the calanques of Marseille

We left Remoulins late morning, and after an hour and a half of easy dual carriageway we arrived in Sausset-les-Pins, the location of our first organised 10km (well, 11.2km) race of this trip.  Here we got our first true glimpse of the Mediterranean.  We wanted to arrive early to ensure a space in the free aire (43.338412, 5.108487) , but found only two others in a spacious car-park that easily could accommodate twenty.  We settled in, ate lunch then cycled the two kilometres down to the beach and picked out a space to flop into.  We had occasional dips in the shallow bay, clambering over rocks carpeted with soft algae to reach the clear, cool water.  But mostly we lay still, slowly roasting under the heat of the afternoon sun.  We turned ourselves like burgers on a grill to ensure an even cooking, dripping hot sweat like fat on the white stones.

Sausset-les-pins - (beach front cycle)

Sausset-les-pins - (beach spot)

We had to rest up – we had plans for the next morning.  A 7am alarm, a quick breakfast and an easy cycle back to the seafront.  Before we left home we had signed up for an 11.2 km local run, and today was that day.  We locked up the bikes and warmed up, readying ourselves for the off. Over 1000 runners were taking part, a larger event than we anticipated, but there was a welcome, friendly buzz.  The morning was hot muggy grey, with flashes of distant lightning and growls of thunder and we had two short downpours to dodge.  Each left the air cooler, but thicker and sticky; difficult running conditions.  We set off exactly at 9am, following the coastline before cutting inland up a few dusty hills.  Our tops were instantly soaked through with sweat, the humidity making a sodden mess of us. Fifty-eight hot minutes of crowded countryside trails later we arrived back at the start, drained and gasping in the heavy air.

Sausset-les-pins - (a on race day)

Sausset-les-pins - (raceday selfie)

We helped ourselves to drinks, fruit and cake, picked up our finishing gift (a neat rucksack rather than a T-shirt) and our free beer and retired to the beach for a cooling-off swim.  There are few pleasures better than the joyful relaxing after a hard run, and we revelled in the restful simplicity of our sweat-removing dips.  Revitalised and fresh, we left the beachfront in Sausset-les-Pins and, after navigating our way through the markets, returned to Benny to eat lunch and pack up.  We were moving on, down through the centre of Marseille to reach Marly Parc, a paid aire south of the city and, from an overnighting perspective, the only game in town. Our drive took us through the central streets of the city and the thriving heart of the Old Port, and even from within our van we could feel the historic grandeur.

Sausset-les-pins - (passing the marina)

Sausset-les-pins - (nicky with rose)

We arrived in Marly Parc (43.338412, 5.108487), via a series of long straight avenues, and slotted into our designated corner plot which looked very tight but was surprisingly spacious once we were in.  This was to be our base to explore the rugged coastlines within the Parc National des Calanques. A quiet night of gentle planning led to preparing our bikes and we packing enough snacks and water to see us through a lazy afternoon.  We set off, under hot, clear skies, thinking the 6km ride to the beach would be a simple, casual affair, an easy jaunt.  But we had vastly underestimated the terrain we had to cross over to reach it, and joined others heading our way in pushing our bikes up most of the extremely steep 4km long hill.  Once over the top we swooped down the last 2km on the opposite side to the sea, all the time aware that we would have to repeat the effort back up.  We rolled into the Calanque de Sormiou, locked our bikes to a tree and walked to the water, joining hundreds of others who shared our plans today.

Calanque cycle - initial view

calanque cycle - (at the calanque)

The popularity of the main beach fuelled our decision to skirt around the back of the bay and explore wider.  A dusty path led to a couple of small beautiful-looking beaches in hidden coves.  Descending to the first and removing our shoes meant we could paddle and scramble over a rocky outcrop to reach the less accessible second beach.  At this time of day it was in partial shade, so had only attracted a few others.  Reclining on our towels we marvelled at the beautiful clear blue waters lapping a few short steps from us.  We had refreshing dips in the calm waters as small boats and larger yachts edged into the calanque, providing us with a murmur of friendly noise and pleasant people-watching opportunities.  An afternoon of intermittent swimming, sunscreen application, lunch nibbling, book reading, careful hydration and general relaxing kept us fully occupied for several slow and pleasant hours.

calanque cycle - (costal path)

calanque cycle - (main beach view)

Marly Parc - relaxing with beers

The return journey saw us slowly grinding the gears and pedalling away from the coast.  In contrast to our fast downhill approach, our speed on the return was slow enough to truly take in the beautifully craggy limestone valley that had been our host for the day.  With a few brief breathers on picturesque corners  and one bout of pushing our bikes, their handlebars higher than our heads, we soon made the summit of the pass.  From there, a quick provision stop at a nearby supermarket and a couple of simple kilometres led us back to Benny.  We remained at Marly Parc that night, quietly enjoying a couple of chilled beers tucked away in the shady warmth of our private little corner.

A&N x