Tag Archives: river

(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

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

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

Pont dARC - (welcome shade)

Pont dARC - (hiding underwater)

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

Pont dARC - (first view of arc)

Pont dARC - (nicky ready to swim)

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

Pont dARC - (walking to water)

Pont dARC - (the underside)

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

Pont dARC - (swimming under)

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

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

Vic sur cere - (final aire)

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

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

A&N x

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

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

Imbut Trail - (gorge drive)

Imbut Trail - (river verdon)

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

Le Styx - (first view)

Le Styx - (Nicky approaches)

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

Le Styx - (Canyoners arrive)

Verdon river - (Nicky dips)

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

Tirgance - village approach

Point Sublime - viewpoint

Huttopia camping - (treelined pitch)

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

Huttopia camping - (river swim spot)

Huttopia camping - (river dip)

Huttopia camping - (Nicky jumps from rock)

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

Huttopia camping - (Nicky on the rocks)

Huttopia camping - (cool pool)

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

A& N x

France – 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 – Alzon, Uzès and the Pont du Gard

We crawled through the busy centre of Millau continuing south-east, to overnight in the village of Alzon. We easily found the aire and settled in for the night. There was a local pétanque game in progress opposite and we sat with a glass of wine and enjoyed watching in the soft evening sun. After dinner we had a stroll through the village, the four storey buildings flanking the central shady square displayed a tired grandeur. We paused here and enjoyed the peacefulness and the quintessential French feel of this hillside village, allowing the flow of history to wash over us.

Alzon - (shady square)

Alzon - (allotment view)

Our onward road clipped the bottom portion of the Parc national des Cévennes. Grand red poppies lined our route, growing like weeds in unlikely places, but splashing colour and warmth wherever they were. The countryside was becoming more Spanish in our eyes, with wide gorges, limestone bluffs, deep lush greens, and steep stone terraces overflowing with olive trees and pink flowers. The road followed the low-flowing river, snug between high cliffs and a sharp vertical wall dropping to the riverbanks below. We saw nothing but blossoming nature for miles, then suddenly got trapped in a wild swarm of human commerce, hugely busy pockets of life and noise we thought from the map would be only tiny, sleepy villages. Just as suddenly we escaped back to peaceful, empty countryside.

Uzes - tower

On leaving the park the scenery slowly transformed into expanses of olive trees and vines. The route was straighter, flatter, offering a more expansive view across to distant hills. The only animals in the fields were horses, all land was given over to the cultivation of high end products. Tall cypress trees and squat lime-coloured cactuses began transforming the land into a more Mediterranean feel; we were closing in on the coast. We passed hundreds of local domaines offering direct sales and degustation. Each was either a ramshackle collection of rugged stone buildings surrounded by scruffy yards or beautifully finished, immaculate visitor centres dripping with wealth.

Uzes - domaine approach

Our first stop this morning was at one such farm store selling olive oil, wines, honey and jams, in the town of Uzès. Missing a turn, we did a slow loop around the town, enjoying the casual beauty of each street in turn. From our slow-moving vantage point the town was replete with cafés and shiny shops, old stone churches and tiny cobbled streets. (You could say it Uzè’d charm). After a complete circle of the wonderfully vibrant town centre we finally turned off and found the Domaine St Firmin. We had read the place was a popular stopover, and true to word we found it absolutely full, with around twenty vans in rowdy residence. We parked awkwardly in their yard and had a quick degustation of a few summer rosés, purchased a bottle of our favourite, then got back on with our journey.

Pont du Gard - (approach side)

Pont du Gard - (far side)

Another hour of beautiful, empty roads, their verges sprinkled with bright flowers, brought us to the busy outskirts of Remoulins. We found the aire near the bridge (43.938068, 4.558423) and picked out a corner spot between some badly parked cars. We scoffed a quick lunch then packed our swim gear and began, under a strong sun, the 3km walk to the Pont du Gard. We were thankfully shaded most of the route by plane trees and stretches of light woodland. We reached the gates to the park and walked in along the voie verte, immediately facing the famous three-tiered Roman aqueduct. There were de-clothed bodies scattered everywhere we looked, soaking up the sun’s heat. Large groups of visiting American students paddled in the shallows of the river, chatting loudly. We crossed the lower tier of the bridge, taking in the immense scale of the ancient build. The size of the each carved individual stone in the pillar bases was incredible, the organisational undertaking and size of the workforce must have been a sight to see.

Pont du Gard - (nicky swimming)

Pont du Gard - (beach time)

We dropped off the left hand side to reach a pebble beach where we flopped down by the calmly flowing river’s edge. Groups of kayakers idly floated by as we eagerly readied ourselves for a cooling swim. The water was warm and we played and cooled off, swimming across the river and climbing rocks to jump back in, like children. We lazed in the sun, reading and relaxing. Occasionally we would glance up and re-see the aqueduct in all its glory. We would again marvel at the Pont du Gard’s domineering size and the privilege we had in being able to casually swim in its giant shadow. By 4pm we were satisfactorily cooked and took our leave, with the firm intention to return later that evening to witness the colourful June light shows that were projected onto the structure.

Pont du Gard - (in trees underneath)

Pont du Gard - (sunset)

When we arrived back at Benny, the subtle heat of the day had a sudden change of heart and brought forth a storm of sticky humidity and, following that, heavy drops of rain. We soon decided to forgo our return, but after the rains dried up and with the delight of an intensely bright red sunset later, we began to regret not returning to watch the light show illuminate the Pont du Gard as planned. We could still have made it, as the show was not expected to begin until 9.30pm at the earliest. But we were both still feeling tired from all the jobs at home and this trip was about recharging. We need to learn to slow down and accept that rest is a part of life and not every moment needs to be filled with activity. The choice to remain in Benny came with a sigh, but was likely the right call for us.

A&N x

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

<post continued from Paris Part 1 >

Day 3 – South of the River

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

Paris (natural history museum)

Paris (garden bears)

Paris (giant turtle)

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

Paris (student area seating)

Paris (pantheon)

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

Paris (resting in Luxembourg gardens)

Paris (place saint sulpice)

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

Paris (louvre from bridge)

Paris (Wall of peace)

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

Paris (spproaching tour Eiffel)

Paris (eiffel tower panorama)

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

A&N x