Tag Archives: Cycling

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

We returned home from Pageas for only one day, and after explaining the basics of our house and pool to our lovely new Dutch house guests and their very excited children, we set off west, through well-known countryside.  Short of Angoulême, we stopped in a free aire in Touvre, which proved to be a much busier stopover aire than we had expected.  Leaving the constant coming and goings in the tiny aire, we set off for a walk to discover the Font de Lussac, the source of the Touvre river.  We walked around the lake formed by the waterworks, as there were no routes across, but it was a very pleasant stroll full of interesting churches, far-reaching vistas, tiny lanes, quirky island homes and the Chateau de Maumont.  It was all very pleasant; a gentle start to the longest of our trips away.

Touvre - (walking tour)

Chateauneuf-Sur-Charante - (Aire de loisirs)

We visited a small swim lake at the Aire de loisirs du Bain des Dames, near to Châteauneuf-Sur-Charente, where we played table tennis (yes, Nicky smashed me as usual) and had a refreshing swim in the river, just before a wide bank of black clouds drifted over and dumped the heaviest rain we’d seen in months.  We ran and sheltered under the short overhang of a closed restaurant’s roof, waiting out the deluge that we knew would finish in a few wet minutes.  We ate lunch then drove on to Domaine Cognac Peyrot François.  There we were greeted by the owner and given a wonderful tour of all the facilities, him explaining the terroir, the harvesting, and the detail of the distilling processes for their range of flavoured wines, pineaus and cognacs.  It was a tour you would normally expect to be paying for.

Domaine Peyrot - (distillery tour)

Domaine Peyrot - (picnic cognac sampling)

They had a special treat for visiting motorhomers.  We were gifted a range of samples on a tray to take back to Benny and enjoy at our own pace, along with descriptive literature.  We decided to taste the aperitifs before dinner, following a deliberate process where we compared notes.  A quiet evening and dinner in Benny, we took a walk into the heavily-leaden vines where we sat on a blanket and enjoyed the remainder of our samples as the sun set behind us.  In front of us a faint white moon rose in the pale blue evening sky, high above a line of tall wind-rustled trees.  We neither saw nor heard anyone as we sipped and critiqued each flavoured wine, punch and cognac in turn, watching the sky turn ever redder.  It was a fantastic experience, deep in the rows of vines where all the magic happens.

Domaine Peyrot - (sunset tasting)

Cognac - (shop advert)

We visited the store in the morning to purchase a few bottles of our favourites, and to offer our thanks for the wonderful experience and tour.  A short, slow drive to the outskirts of Cognac town, first stopping at Base Plein Air André Mermet, with thoughts of running into the centre.  But Nicky had another bout of her reoccurring dizziness, so we shelved the idea of running, and drove to see if we could snatch a place at a small aire in Cognac.  Amazingly, we crossed the Pont Neuf and turned in to find a slot was available, and quickly parked up.  Within one minute, three other motorhomes had passed us with the same hope, and many more would during the next hours.  Several circled around and passed again and again, hoping for a space to magically open up. We had been very lucky.

Cognac - (main streets)

Cognac - (centrre)

After resting a little, we walked to the river Charente to view the Hennessy distillery, and across the bridge into the centre of Cognac.  We asked the helpful staff in the tourist office to organise a doctor’s appointment for Nicky, to ascertain what could be troubling her.  We had an appointment within an hour at a local clinic, and after a modicum of gentle sightseeing, we arrived in the clinic.  The basic tests and blood pressure were all fine, and we organised for fasting bloods to be taken and tested in the morning, so we would be staying in Cognac for at least another day. There were worse places to be.  We returned for the blood test early the next morning, then met the doctor again to discuss the findings.  All readings led to a diagnosis of a viral infection, with rest and time the only solution.

Domaine Tesseron - (field parking)

Domaine Tesseron - (motorbike museum)

Domaine Tesseron - (car museum)

We left our coveted spot by the river soon after, heading north west through vineyard country, stopping at an aire in Burie to fill up with water.  From there we turned north through Migron, to another France Passion vineyard called Domaine Tesseron.  We expected it to be busy, but we were the only visitors and had an entire lawn, complete with lake, on which to make ourselves at home.  We were feeling tired, so after introductions we delayed a tasting until the following morning.  We visited their extensive museum, learning much about Cognac.  One son, an artist, with deep connections to Cuba, was shown photographed with Castro.  A wing of the museum celebrated the sublime connoisseur-hyped partnership of quality cognac and cigars, another rally cars, motorbikes and vintage tractors.

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Saintes - (roman ruins)

We drove through several small villages to get a feel for the region, then arrived to visit Nicky’s friends Lisa & Tom, deep in rural Charente.  After a tour of their house, long catch-up chats and a cooling swim in their pool, we enjoyed a wonderful barbecue with fresh salads and wine.  We met their daughter Amelie and several of their friends.  A little delicate, we all cycled over to marvel at the gîte complex run by Darren & Zara, where we also met Truffle, their chubby dwarf pig.  Nicky had a go on a self-built zip-line in their garden, racing down from a large pirate ship.  It was great to meet up with everyone and enjoy a good night; it was the first time in nearly 20 years, since swim training days in Northampton Triathlon club, that Nicky had seen Lisa.  Hopefully we’ll not leave it so long next time.

Saintes - (shade of pollarded trees)

Saintes - (Gallo-Roman amphitheatre)

After our goodbyes, we drove to the nearby town of Saintes, for a quick city explore.  We parked centrally in a marked aire (45.740604n, 0.626727w) near a large sports centre, and walked in.  A small park, wonderfully shaded by overlapping pollarded trees, led us to Roman ruins alongside a pedestrian bridge leading over the Charente river.  We casually checked out their cathedral and basilica on our way to see their Gallo-Roman amphitheatre, enjoying the easy stroll under a warm sun.  We circled the amphitheatre and were afforded decent views over the structure, so we decided to avoid the crowds, recently arrived on le petit train, and not enter the site.  Instead, we meandered back through busy shop-lined streets, getting a feel for the town and simply enjoying the ambience of the afternoon.

View across to Ile d'Oleron

Ile d'Oleron - (ready for race)

We parked at an aire by the coast, just short of the bridge to Île d’Oléron, once paid but now free. It was busy, and not much of a beach with the tide out.  We woke and left early to cross the bridge to the island.  Traffic was present but light in our direction, but oncoming was simply an incredible mess for those leaving.  At each roundabout reached we opined sadly for the poor travellers stuck in such a solid line, as multiple smaller routes converged on the single exit road.  Then the same at the next, and the next, and we could do nothing but shake our heads at the barely-moving carnage. It was entirely solid for over 12km, as what seemed like the whole island was attempting to evacuate.  We watched a few motorhomes join the back of the snake mid-island and felt they would be better stopping off for a 3 hour tea-break before trying to proceed.  It’s the worst traffic jam we had ever seen in France.

Ile d'Oleron - (start line)

Ile d'Oleron - (Aaron nearing finish)

But we made good progress north, hoping to settle in and see the area around St Denis d’Oléron before our race.  We had plans to join a 12km run around the northern tip of the island, but with Nicky feeling jaded from her virus, I was to be the sole representation for Team Hill.  We stopped first at Camping Municipal Saint-Denis, nearest to where the race would start, but felt it was scruffy and tatty and filled to bursting with noisy families and lots of dogs, so didn’t fancy paying €18 to stay there.  Instead we decided to relocate a little out of town to the cheaper (€12) and much neater Aire de camping car du Moulin (46.027600n, 1.383156w), from where we could easily cycle into the race the following morning.  After a look around the town, we signed up for the race, paid the €12 entry fee and collected my new race t-shirt, a race buff, number and timing chip.  I was good to go, and looking forward to it.

Ile d'Oleron - (cycle to lighthouse)

We had an easy night resting in the van, where we watched the romantic comedy ‘Man Up’ with Simon Pegg.  An early alarm, a rarity for us, dragged us from a deep sleep to ready ourselves.  Next was breakfast, bikes out and a quick doodle into town to warm-up and await the start.  There is something rather special about arriving into a large group of like-minded people all preparing for the same event; running, chatting, stretching, smiling.  We locked up our bikes and wandered through the crowds, glad for the cooler morning, cloud cover and tiny bouts of light rain – perfect running conditions.  Soon we were off through vineyards and along coastal trails, rounding the Phare de Chassiron just after halfway, then back on the eastern coast.  The last kilometre held a final sting –a stretch of deep sandy beach to finish.  I completed the race sub one hour as I had hoped for, just, with a finish time of 59 mins.

Mornac-sur-Seudre - (train des mouettes)

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

After showers and lunch, we had a slow cycle around the same race course, to let Nicky see the coast and the Phare de Chassiron.  Unlike during the race, it was now surrounded by tourists like a dropped lollypop with ants, and we had to dismount and push our bikes to pass through the crowds.  It was nice to revisit the route so soon afterwards, as I found I had missed so many parts of it, being distracted by other runners or concentrating on my own race.  We had planned to move on, but decided instead to spend a second night in the same aire, and cycle more of the island. The next morning, under brighter skies, we visited La Brée-les-Bains, Saint-Georges, Cheray and Chaucre, giving us a decent feel for the villages and terrain of the northern portion of the island.  There were many cyclists everywhere.  Unsurprisingly, the island had a similar feel to Île de Ré, quite touristy and catering for families enjoying short stays.

Mornac-sur-Seudre - (cycling oyster farms)

We ate an early lunch and headed off, hoping that planning our escape at 1pm would mean little traffic, and so it proved.  We cruised easily to the bridge and beyond, escaping Île d’Oléron without delay.  After a brief Intermarché stop to provision, Mornac-sur-Seudre, a member of the beaux village scheme, welcomed us to their free aire.  We raced the picturesque Train des Mouettes on the way, through several level-crossings where they had a clear advantage.  We walked through the village, interesting for its many artisan shops and tidal estuary oyster-farming.  We have long been looking for a seascape painting for our house that we both liked, but here we found a different, but similarly beguiling item;  a cut-metal, colourfully painted turtle that we gifted to ourselves for a wall at home.

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

We decided to pause here another day, to have an exploratory cycle.  Picking up a map, we chose to start with Route 2, towards La Tremblade.  There were so many cycle signs everywhere that it proved difficult to follow, so we made up our own way.  We headed into the oyster farms, small rectangles of dark water overlooked by colourfully painted huts.  The tide was far out in the estuary, and any remaining fishing boats slumped low on thick mud, far below the decking platforms built to access them.  On our return route, via Arvert, we passed huge swathes of gloomy-looking sunflowers, their darkening heads drooping like a congregation at prayer.  We passed fields lined with neat rows of vines hung thick with bulging grapes, ripe for harvesting.  A few locals were picking wild berries, filling large tubs.

Coastal drive - Phare de la Coubre

We had cycled 36km through villages and varied countryside, but had not yet reached the coast; further exploration in Benny would be needed.  We soon packed up and drove off to do a loop around the coast road.  There were so many cars, parking in the mass of allocated spaces or in long lines on the grass verge.  We passed huge crowds enjoying the coast everywhere, the beach wrapping around the coast for many continuous miles.  We parked on the verge and walked through a forest busy with cyclists to enjoy our first sight of the coast and beach. The beach was a bit scrappy with muddy areas, forest creeping in to one side and the shallow sea a long way out.  We later stopped at a lighthouse, Phare de la Coubre, where we found crowds milling all over, a neater beach hidden behind sand dunes.

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We continued our drive along the coast road, through the busy towns of Saint-Palais-sur-Mer and Royan.  It was definitely August holidays.  We had planned to stop at the aire in Royan, but had a falling out with the payment system, so left instead for nearby Saint-Georges-de-Didonne.  It was much more agreeable and comfortable there, and we settled in nicely under the welcome shade of  a tree.  It was a short walk to the beach, and to another lighthouse, Phare de Vallières.  There was a photographic display in the grounds around the lighthouse, called the Rêves des Gosses, childhood dreams.  The artist captured portraits of subjects in their current workplace, but dressed as they might have looked if their dream jobs had come to fruition.  The juxtaposition was certainly compelling; an astronaut in a tax office, a prancing rock star in a supermarket, a priest in a discount bathroom store.

Coastal waters near Royan

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

We walked to the central beach in Royan the next morning, along a rugged stony coast let down by gritty grey water and occasional mud.  Geographically it looked a little like southern Portugal, but without the sparkling waters.  We lay on the beach for the morning, reading, people-watching, and dozing.  The beach was so flat that a swim required a long walk and wade before a depth higher than our thighs could be reached.  Rested, we moved on to another aire 10km south, at the town of Meschers-sur-Gironde.  There were two aires very close to each other, and we chose the one away from the marina as it had more space and felt nicer.  We enjoyed an early evening coastal walk, looking at fishing huts on stilts and trying to ascertain the history of their design and use.  We faced a night with a loud party roaring in the adjacent campsite, but a choice bottle of wine from a visited domaine helped us to sleep.

Jonzac - (church)

Jonzac - (mairie)

Garnd Etang de Saint Estephe - (beach swim)

It was time to return home.  We drove east, avoiding any main roads in favour of a direct route, and found some of the smallest and quietest roads we’ve seen.  Re-entering the Parc naturel régional Périgord-Limousin , we stopped at the Grand Étang de Saint Estèphe, our final day away before reclaiming our home and settling back in for the end of summer.  We had an hour at the beach, surrounded by English-speaking kids running wild and building huge castles.  The next morning before breakfast I went for a short run around the lake, lost the path and ended up running many kilometres further than expected through several villages, but it was such a tranquil, fresh morning I didn’t want it to end.

But all things do, as now had our three home exchanges.  We had met three great families, each having enjoyed a fun summer holiday at our home.  We had had three varied, interesting trips away and simultaneously accumulated enough points to secure all the accommodation required for our winter trip to the Australian sun.  Job’s a good ‘un.

A&N x

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

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

Perigueux - (bridge approach)

Perigueux - (walking the streets)

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

Domaine de la Lande - (relaxing at vineyard)

Domaine de la Lande - (walking through the vines

Monbazillac - sunset in vines

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

Domaine de la Lande - (passionate owner)

Domaine de la Lande - (wines for sale)

Monbazillac - town centre

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

With Monica & Ken - (relaxing pool time)

With Monica & Ken - (sunset walk)

With Monica & Ken - (cross-country)

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

With Monica & Ken - (windmill)

With Monica & Ken - (at windmill)

With Monica & Ken - (archery)

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

With Monica & Ken - (proper bullseye)

With Monica & Ken - (beers and pool)

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

Blasimon - (chilling by van)

Blasimon - (Benny in the vines)

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

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

A&N x

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

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

Le doret - entrance towers

St Paradoux - lake parking

St Paradoux lake

St paradoux beach

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

Vassiviere lak revisit

Vassiviere lake cycle perimeter

Vassiviere lake cycle

Vassiviere lake perimeter cycle

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

Mont Bessou views

Mont Bessou tower

Lake Sechemailie - aire

Field of sunflowers

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

Correze - river view

Meymac - market town

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

Buron de Fages - walk with boys

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

Farm Lanteuil - friendly horse

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

Jardins D’Eyrignac - day view

Jardins D’Eyrignac - sunset

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

Ayen aire - afternoon chill

St Jean de Cole - chateau

St Jean de Cole - square

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

Nontron - town view

Lac de St. Mathieu - view

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

A&N x

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 – 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

Spain – Haro & La Rioja pueblos cycle

The weather was an uninviting grey, cold and windy, at first light.  In no hurry, we waited a few hours until the rising sun worked its magic on the thin clouds and removed the morning chill. On bikes we tried to leave Casalarreina on a marked, signed route, but as is often the case, the hardest part of any new trail is finding the start.  There were many signs in many directions, but none seemingly pointing the way of the correct route we wanted to follow.

Haro - (nicky cycles past vines)

Haro - (countryside cycle)

With a photo of the route map we ignored the finger posts and backed ourselves instead, and soon we were on empty gravel tracks, enclosed by red-green vines and feeling fully immersed in an ancient Spanish countryside. Dusty hillsides stood tall wrapped with patches of deep green foliage and below them wide fields varying from green to yellow to brown, depending on current use.  Neat rows of box vines, aflame with oranges and reds, lit up the flat, monotone landscape. Church bell towers stood tall, distinctive silhouettes on distant hillsides, helpfully marking each coming village on our chosen wine route cycle.

We passed through each small settlement in turn, circling their proud churches and making the local dogs bark manically. Zarratón, then Rodezno, then Ollauri to Gimileo.  Each village was strategically positioned on a natural, curved mound set above the flat plain, and each brought a warming, breath-stealing hill-climb up followed by a fun, sweeping descent back down the opposite side.

Haro - (tasting the grapes)

Haro - (vines and cut bunches)

Tiny black grapes hung in huge bunches from vines, them smaller than blueberries.  Most grapes had already been harvested, but some remained, whether left or missed.  We tasted a few, and they were sweeter than expected, tiny bursts of juice but with pips that were a quarter of the grape.  The route ahead was cut up in deep ridges and very steep in places, a portent for our upcoming run in similar terrain.

After 15km or so, we were approaching the main town of Haro.  Dating from 1040 CE, historic Haro is the capital of the La Rioja region.  It was scruffy on first approach, sprawling and flat with constant lines of single-storey commercial premises, and from the viewpoint of our bikes it was unclear where the historic centre of town was.  We re-joined the road and eventually found signs directing us to the Centro that led us to the main church and then into the beautiful Plaza de la Paz. The town hall, all flags and wine barrels, defined one corner of this impressive, imposing square that featured an ornate bandstand in the centre.

Haro - (nicky in bandstand)

Haro - (Town hall and wine barrels)

There were a series of bronze statues representing, even glorifying, ordinary local jobs, from shoe-shiner to goat-milker to grape-crusher to wine-bottler.  Roundabouts were decorated with giant barrels and bunches of grapes, the motifs of wine-making always in plain sight, leaving no doubt as to the town’s primary occupation. It reminded us a little of Chateauneuf-de-Pape, in its single-minded approach to promoting its famous wares.

We cycled to the other side of the river where many of the regional producers had visitor centres huddled together. One vineyard’s posh tasting room had been designed by the office of the late Zaha Hadid, so we had to check that out in passing.  We stayed on this side of the river and followed a small irrigation canal back west, through more expansive rows of colourful grapevines. This route led us through Anguciana then into Cihuri, with its old abandoned bridge, once maintained for passing pilgrims by the local monastery.

Nicky suffered another puncture on our return to the outskirts of Casalarreina. Unfixable, we walked back, thankful we weren’t far from Benny.  This likely spelled the end of our cycling on this trip, at least until we reach a larger town with a shop where we can buy a repair kit or spare tubes; we checked the local supermarket to no avail. Kids were playing football in the sports centre adjacent to the aire, but took their frantic, energetic noise back home at dinner time, leaving us again to pass a quiet night in the drooping shade of the tall willow trees.

A&N x