Tag Archives: river

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

Advertisements

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

Day 1 – Arrival, La Défense & Tour Eiffel

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

Paris - (la defense display)

Paris - (approaching la defense)

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

Paris - (nicky and grand arch)

Paris - (aaron at grand arch)

Paris - (la defense plaza and markets)

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

Paris - (run into the city)

Paris - (riverside run)

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

Paris - (run past eiffel tower)

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

Day 2 – North of the River

Paris - (louis vuitton foundation)

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

Paris - (hotel de ville)

Paris - (notre dame)

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

Paris - (notre dame and seine)

Paris - (shakesphere bookshop)

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

Paris - (aaron at louvre)

Paris - (nicky at louvre)

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

Paris - (Opera house facade)

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

Paris - (view from sacre coeur)

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

Paris - (Nicky at Sacre coeur)

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

Paris - (montmartre artists)

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

A&N x

< Part 2 to follow >

Spain – River Ebro & Casalarreina

Waking up at Nanclares la Oca we found the overhead planes had now paused but the traffic flow had increased, leaving the humming background noise much the same. With no specific plans for a few days, we were meandering southwards, to be a little closer to our next organised run near to La Rioja’s famous wine region.

We followed the river Zadorra south on a free motorway before suddenly remembering our Wild Swimming Spain book had described a few tempting places in this area. So we quickly looked them up, hopped off at the next junction and were soon parked up on the outskirts of the sleepy village of La Puebla de Arganzón. We walked through the empty stone streets, walls lit in bright sun or hidden in deep shade. We first found a street-level balcony that offered wonderful views over the river and what we assumed was an old mill pond, replete with ducks and egrets. This was the spot. We found another street that led down to the old stone bridge where, courtesy of a weir underneath, the deep pond began.

We had no deep desires to swim today, as despite the occasional bout of bright sun the air had a real sharpness, the chill of winter-coming, and we imagined the water similar. But the setting was beautiful and we enjoyed imagining the thrills of dipping here, in this joyous rural setting, on too-hot summer days.

We drove on, parallel to the motorway on an empty road, only a few easy miles to the next village, Armiñón. We parked on the generous main street and again found the river, hidden away behind grey façades. This was another wonderful looking swim spot, surrounded by tall reeds, overhanging trees and even a concrete platform with a niche to fit a diving board to, it likely stored for winter safe-keeping. There were reddish crayfish exploring the pool shallows and we wondered if they were local, or an invasive species who simply thrived in this region, like us. We watched them squabble a while as they foraged at the edges.

We next planned to stop in Miranda de Ebro, but a police car was blocking the entry road into the aire for unknown reasons, so we decided to keep moving. Chris and Nadine, whom we met at Ulibarri-Gamboa lake, had recommended driving the northern bank of the Ebro, from a nearby dam into the deep mountain gorges, so we now took this advice.

The first few kilometres were industrial lands, all pipework and chimneys, corrugated tin and rusting gates – an inauspicious start. But soon we turned left, off the main road and onto one that closely hugged the river banks. This was a different drive now.

River Ebro Drive - (gorges)

The road snaked like the river, the right side a crumbling cliff face and the left all high gorges, rugged and pitted, their tops hidden in low cloud. The blue-grey river flowed fast beside us, its surface churned confusingly in straight lines, like a boat wake but constantly renewed from below. We passed the dam and continued west, further into the mountainous gorge. We drove 10km more before turning around and retracing our steps along the same stretch, seeing it again from a different but equally engrossing perspective.

Casalarreina - (Aaron at monastery)

The aire was reopened on our return but it was scruffy and rough, so we decided to move on rather than visit Miranda centre. We chose Casalarreina, and we were so pleased we did. The drive there was classic Spain; over steep mountain passes leading to wide open plains. There were grey jagged mountain peaks behind with dusty stubble fields in front, a scattering of occasional tall trees in yellows and reds, masses of dying sunflowers with drooping heads and unending rows of well-tended vines, their leaves beginning to turn orange or red for autumn. This was all so close by yet a world apart from the ugly industrial installations on the outskirts of Miranda de Ebro.

Casalarreina - (Benny in aire)

We easily found the quiet aire in Casalarreina, set behind a walled monastery, each bay overhung by beautiful willow trees. We were the only guests; it was utterly serene. The village had a gentle, calm feel about it, with a small river and tuneful distant church bells. We saw a few locals working on the church walls, some walking dogs and others pushing prams, all seemingly contented. We would be happy to call this our home for a few days.

A&N X

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

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

Caumont - canal banks

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

Bayonne - (beach by aire)

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

Bayonne - (playing on beach)

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

Bayonne - (beach view)

Bayonne - (sun setting over surkers)

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

Bayonne - (pink sunset glow)

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

Bayonne - (city streets)

Bayonne - (in the streets)

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

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

Bayonne - (cathedral view)

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

Race Day 1 – 13km from Ustaritz to Bayonne

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

Ustaritz - (race banner)

Ustaritz - (warmkng up)

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

Ustaritz - (startline selfie)

Ustaritz - (on the trail)

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

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

A&N x

France – Macon, Moulins & Montluçon

Just two days into her antibiotic schedule, Nicky was feeling much perkier; it was time to move on. We left our rest spot in Abondance and returned back down the mountain.  We had to revisit Thonon hospital for some follow-up blood work, as instructed.  We parked easily in the empty hospital car-park and waited only a few minutes to see the specialist nurse, blood was extracted and we were away.  This visit was more efficient and endurable than the first.

Being so close, we decided it would be unforgivable not to have a dip in the glimmering coolness of Lac Léman.  There were two aires nearby, so we first headed to the nearest, set right on the lake shore.  The road in was very narrow and busy with badly-parked cars and I, squeezing through at around 5mph, clipped wing-mirrors with an abandoned Land Rover.  Stopping to check, their mirror was entirely fine, but ours had popped out and the bottom glass shattered.  What a week we were having!  We continued to the tight motorhome parking, a row of three diagonal spaces between the cars on the road, only slightly wider than the spaces surrounding them.  We sneaked in and assessed the damage, and with super glue and sellotape managed to fix up the mirror enough to get by for now.  We were metres from the water, so to relieve tension and soothe our minds, we changed and jumped straight in.

Lalleyriat (lakeside walk)

Lalleyriat (rainy parking)

After a mind-chilling swim and a spot of downtime, we made our way west once more.  We decided to stop at Lalleyriat, a recently refurbished aire by an almost-completed lake.  There was a kid’s play park and a small sandy beach being enjoyed by a few families, although the weather had turned.  It was now cloudy and grey, and they soon began packing up with disappointed looks.  We walked a slow loop around the small lake then snuggled in for the night as the sudden arrival of heavy rain bombarded our roof.  The skies were back to their usual clear and bright when we awoke, so we moved on.  We passed through Nantua and Bourg-en-Bresse to stop by a private vineyard in the small village of Prissé, on the west side of Macon.  A French Passion site with a wine shop, a perfect base for us.

Prisse (winery shop)

Prisse (free shop aire)

The popular aire, spaciously housing only six vans, was also positioned directly on a voie verte leading into Macon centre, about 9km away.  We passed two pleasant nights, and Nicky managed the casual cycle on the voie verte to Macon.  We saw hilly fields of ripening vines, green and lush, on the way.  Approaching the town we gravitated to the tall church before snaking through the central streets under the shade of brightly coloured umbrellas.  We rolled along the riverfront as far as a municipal swimming pool in a leafy park, then doubled back to cross a stone bridge and view the city frontage from the opposite bank.  Macon centre was a lively mix of old and new buildings, dynamic and discoloured, scruffy yet dignified, with the long promenade following the river bank by far the best feature.

Macon (cycling past vines)

Macon (central streets)

We reluctantly dragged ourselves away from this comfortable, quiet spot and travelled on, with an extra 10 litres of tasty wine on board from the farm shop.  We maintained our westward driving, this time stopping near to Moulins.  We entered a huge barriered aire, with the look of an abandoned campsite, with the devastating cost of €0.10/hour.  The site felt like it may be an occasional flood plain to allow control of the nearby river.  The signs said it was meant for up to 90 vans, but there were 69 vans there the night we arrived (yes, we counted on an evening stroll) and still lots of space for another 60 at least.  We walked to examine the tall bunds around the site, set under a high railway bridge spanning the site and running across the river.  The rest of the day and evening we sat, enjoying the shade.

Moulins (view from campsite)

The next day we walked into Moulins under a blistering sun to see both of the twin-towered cathedrals.  We walked the pretty streets searching out shade, and truly enjoyed the blissful coldness of the cathedral interiors.  Everywhere was alight with vibrant flowering borders and hanging baskets.  We crossed the main square where street cafés served customers crowded under red umbrellas and excited kids played in the shallow fountain waters.  But the efforts of our short walk in such draining heat proved too much for the still-recovering Nicky, so we returned to base and spent a lot of downtime around Benny, sitting and chilling.  The welcome rest in such a spacious, shaded aire was exactly what we needed, and definitely worth the €4.30 it eventually cost us when we rolled out two days later.

Neris-les-Bains (shared book box)

Neris-les-Bains (traditional dancing)

We moved on to Neris-Les-Bains, an €8/night aire with electricity, Wi-Fi, WC, shower and all services, a row of six spaces set just outside the gates to a large campsite.  There was nothing available inside the triple-priced campsite that we didn’t have outside, except a three night limit, but we planned to stay only two.  It was a short walk into a town that prided itself on keeping busy; a large poster listed all upcoming events – it had five or six listings per day throughout July; art classes, markets, dances, fairs.  We helped ourselves to a French book from a sharing library box in a small flower garden before watching a display of music and dancing by elderly locals dressed in traditional costume.  We passed the baths that feature in the town’s name, still a strong business interest, drawing in crowds.

Montlucon (voie verte bridges)

Montlucon (church garden)

The following morning we cycled to Montluçon along another easy voie verte, gently downhill all the way.  We crossed high bridges spanning deep, lush valleys and rolled through occasional patches of deep shade from tightly-knitted overhanging trees.  We were soon deposited into the busy centre’s roads at a small park and slowly cycled a loop of the medieval heart, stopping in each small square to look around.  We found a modern golden hall beside an old stone church with a beautifully planted walled-garden behind.  The streets were neat and clean, with several restaurants making their first efforts to open in expectation of lunchtime crowds.  After visiting all the main streets, our eyes turned upwards to take in the domineering central château, its high defensive walls a prominent feature.

Montlucon (view from chateau)

A short, steep ascent led us up to the stone and timber château, the main focal point above the town.  It had a decorative clock tower and was hung with well-tended baskets of red flowers.  We left our bikes against a tree and walked the perimeter walls, overlooking the entire town.  Montluçon looked messy from above; the rear façades of the older central buildings were dirty and grey, their grimy shabbiness contrasting with their immaculately presented fronts.  Outside the medieval centre, the town had expanded in too much of a hurry and in all the wrong ways, with dingy industrial units peppered throughout the landscape and garishly-coloured ugly tower blocks blighting the distant horizon.  We passed the Hôtel de Ville as we left, enjoying their playful fountains in the empty stone square.

Montlucon (chateau facade)

Montlucon (hotel de ville)

The next morning we serviced and left Neris-Les-Bains, for another short hop towards our new home.  We were now near to Limoges, but still had a long weekend to wait out, and where better to sit out this achingly hot summer weather than at a large swim lake?  Shady trees and cooling dips were calling us, and we could not ignore their cries.

A&N x

France – Brantôme, and a flying visit home

We had, mostly, readied ourselves and the house we were tasked with looking after for our imminent departure.  Our host Eric telephoned to say he would be home a day earlier than originally expected, so we cut short our final hours of sun-worshipping to complete the last tidy-up tasks, made a cup of tea and awaited his return.  We spent the evening catching up and chatting with Eric, then on to bed.  The rain returned the next morning as we removed the final traces of our presence, we said our goodbyes and, for the first time in six weeks, we were back on the road.

Brantome - (river view)

Brantome - (bridge and weir)

We didn’t venture  too far.  We had been harbouring plans to visit the town of Brantôme for months, and the time had now arrived.  We scorned a few free aires nearby for a centrally located ACSI campsite, as a gradual stepping-stone transition from a large, comfortable house to life back in a 6m box.  Set on the banks of the river Dronne, Campsite Brantôme Peyrelevade was a very tidy, peaceful haven, complete with a lovely swimming pool and set an easy five minutes away from the heart of the historic centre.  The heavy rain had followed us here, but soon lessened to a trickle and we decided, after an obligatory cup of tea, that it was time to go explore.  By the time we left the grounds of the campsite the sky was clearing, the rain had stopped and there was a threat that the sun might break through.

Brantome - (abbey from bridge)

Brantome - (abbey gardens)

A gravel track led us easily to a large canoe centre where we could cross a small tributary of the river to enter the central streets.  Brantôme central is a circular island, surrounded by a natural moat formed by a split in the flow of the river Dronne.  Five bridges, like extended spokes on a wheel, connect the island to the surrounding mainland.  Its foremost attraction, although not itself positioned on the island, is the 8th century Benedictine Abbey, founded by Charlemagne.  The original cloister and church were joined by an 11th century Romanesque bell tower and further monastic accommodations.  But life was lived out here long before the abbey was built; there were residents in the extensive cliff caves behind, and many relics from these original troglodytes are now displayed within the church.

Brantome - (nicky at abbey)

Brantome - (abbey from bridge)

Patches of blue sky appeared overhead as we wandered through the historic streets.  We had fully expected our walk to come complete with dreary grey views and a proper drenching, but with the ever-brightening day came a similar rise in our mood and expectation, and everything felt like a welcome bonus.  We walked slowly through parks and gardens, relaxed and happy.  The city streets were busy with tourists, the restaurants spilling out into small squares.   We heard lots of English voices, more than we’d experienced in France before, but it is certainly the season for it; the summer madness was ready to explode into action.  We watched people kayaking around the river, made complicated by weirs blocking routes, and passed a wonderful rusty curved cello sculpture set up on a bridge.

Brantome - (river view of abbey)

Brantome - (nicky plays cello)

We returned to the campsite by the same path, happy to have enjoyed a break in the weather for our town visit.  Huge swathes of grey clouds began gathering again on the horizon and we expected the rain to return soon.  Before that happened, we decided to have a quick dip in the pool.  We swam a bunch of lengths in the too-hot water, showered and dressed, making it back into Benny with only seconds to spare before the deluge returned.  The rest of the night was spent with the sound of rain for company, along with never-ending tea and multiple back-to-back episodes of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.  The morning was, thankfully, dry.  We had a quick exploratory walk around the campsite and its riverbanks before heading off north; we had organised a quick visit to (almost) our new house.

Flavignac (local lake)

Flavignac (playing at lake)

We parked at the nearby village of Gorre, in a huge empty carpark adjacent to the church.  After lunch, we got out our much under-used bikes and cycled a hilly 19km around beautiful local lanes, all soon to be forming the starting point for longer cycle trips from our new house.  We met up with Julia again and measured up a few rooms and took a few other dimensions to help us ascertain which items of furniture we should bring with us, or what new pieces we may need to consider.  After a tour of the flowering garden we said our goodbyes and cycled back to Benny to relax.  We decanted back to nearby Châlus to overnight, feeling like regulars there.  We had a brief visit over to Flavignac the following day  to check out a possible swim lake, but an outbreak of blue-green algae has closed it for now – shame.

Solignac (playing fields workout)

Solignac (riverside run)

After a quick supermarket shop and a lazy brunch, we popped into Decathlon for a few items, before stopping to overnight at a free aire in Solignac.  Here the sun reappeared and dominated our restful afternoon, lazing by a football pitch, watching the groundsman cut the grass with exacting precision and dedication.  A few guys turned up to train equally lazily on the neat football pitches.  The next morning, Thursday, we dragged ourselves out for a jaunty 7km run through the village and back along the muddy riverbank, before making our way to Limoges airport; we had work to do.  We parked Benny in Long Stay and that afternoon we caught a flight home to go through all our stuff currently stored in Nicky’s mum’s garage and decide what was going to come back with us to France.

Limoges - Airport

We deliberately organised a small removals van of 15 cubic metres, so we have to be selective with our needs.  We’ve proved we could easily live with just what little we have in Benny, but houses are different animals and demand to be filled with stuff.  We needed, as always, to be disciplined and sensible.  After 18+ months of travelling light in Benny, we had pared down our lives to a simplified palette of what was really necessary.  And even then, we have found ourselves not using or wearing many items that we brought with us, after what, at the time, was thought an extreme and difficult cut in personal possessions. We were never hoarders before, and never had a real desire for things, at least relatively compared to others we know.  But even what little we had collated over the passing years now seemed, when viewed through the hindsight of our recent existence, like an embarrassing abundance.

Packing - our worldly possessions

We had box after box of clothes, books, ornaments, crockery, kitchen utensils and stationery items, alongside rows of wardrobes stuffed with even more clothes, linen, blankets, tablecloths and towels.  We had gardening tools, bike tools, DIY tools, buckets, planters, ladders, cables, strimmers and clippers.  We had rows of bookshelves groaning with books, DVDs and magazines.  We have no idea what to do with it all, as after three days of opening, checking and repacking every box, we are taking less than a quarter of it back to our house in France.  We discarded some items, gave away a few boxes of others, but the rest, deemed too good to throw away, is simply being left behind for now.

A&N x