Tag Archives: Swimming

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

Advertisements

Spain – San Sebastián, revisited

We slept soundly, weary from our run, despite the pounding rain bouncing noisily off Benny’s roof.  When morning arrived the deluge had dissipated and the sun was out – it was time to move on. We followed the busy coast road west, slow behind unpassable tractors and cyclists on the narrow roads, in the direction of Spain.  We passed through the pretty looking Saint-Jean-de-Luz, spotting a messy aire tightly packed with manoeuvring motorhomes set in a great central position, before dropping down to cross the notional country border at Behobia.

We had driven this road before, a little over two years ago, and we mused on how much we’d seen and done in the time since.  Benny was almost new then, with less than 3000 miles on his clock, in comparison to the near 29000 miles we have driven now.  We stayed off the tolled motorway, preferring the coast road into San Sebastián, knowing we only had a short drive day.  We arrived at the central aire near the university and were surprised to see it so packed, although many spaces were coned off for large buses to use.  We nabbed one of the few remaining spaces, bought a €3.30 overnight ticket and headed to see the bay.

San Sebastian - (first views of the bay)

San Sebastian - (the main beach)

Despite having been here before, we were again stunned by its easy, natural beauty, regal buildings and sparkling sea. The day was clear and bright, and in direct sun it was scorching, skin blistering hot, unseasonably warm even for Spain.  We had slept through the worst of the predicted heavy rains and were beyond the ugly reach of the nasty hurricane currently battering Portugal and southern Spain; it all couldn’t have worked out better for this visit. We walked to the old town and nosed around the busy tapas bars in the tiny streets, loving the colour and variety.  This trip for us had been built around several interesting 10+km runs, a means for us to experience familiar places in a different way. Part of our plan was to be tee-total for the duration, as we’d been hitting the pop with our new neighbours a little too hard. Nowhere was this self-imposed exile from our tasty lubricating friend harder to endure than in these sociable back-streets tucked behind Spain’s most beautiful bay.

San Sebastian - (view of bay)

San Sebastian - (walking on beach)

The only downside of this visit was realising just how obviously rusty and basically useless our Spanish had gotten in our time away – we need to visit more.  We skipped out of the bars before temptation won us over and instead ate takeaway snacks on the beachfront, soaking up the view and the sun. After eating our fill and enjoying a lazy bout of people-watching, we walked back around the combined length of Kontx and Ondarreta beaches, slowly dragging our toes in the cool waters and dreaming of owning the domed paradise of Santa Clara, with its beautiful solitary house set deep in tall trees, a focus point just off-shore out in the curved bay.  We watched several hardy swimmers cross the wide bay and began making plans to mimic them, mañana.

San Sebastian - (on beachfront)

We awoke the next morning to find a grey blanket had descended, and the air a near-frosty 15 degrees; normal weather service had resumed.  We postponed our swim plans until the afternoon and instead grabbed our bikes for a morning’s exploration.  We rolled along the beachfront again, this time continuing to the bay’s third beach, Zurriola.  We paused near a Conference Centre and watched groups of surfers take lessons.  We saw other groups, carrying boards in pairs, walking in lines towards the water, and we were sure they were school classes heading not for maths or history, but for double surf.  Nearby, other school kids noisily played basketball, choosing dunks over tubes.  We were stopped by fencing at the end of the beach, the route blocked to protect against falling rocks.

San Sebastian - (Zurriola beach)

San Sebastian - (walking through park)

We doubled back and hugged the coast behind the Old Town and Mont Urgull, enjoying the raw power of the breakers smashing persistently into the tall protective walls. We reached a dead end high above our onward path and had to take a glass elevator down to the lower level, just squeezing our bikes in alongside a couple of bemused locals. We headed back to Kontx beach, then south through more residential areas, and climbed a steep hill to reach a park we had noted on a city map. At the gate we discovered that riding bikes was not allowed in Parc Aiete, so we instead pushed our steeds up the leafy, shady hairpin track.  Nearing the top we arrived at an interesting small grotto, before carrying our bikes up a final series of steps to reach a grassy, formally-laid out plateau.

The Palais d’Aiete, a large white building sat here all closed up, looking lonely.  We had hoped for views during our climb, but the bay and beaches were hidden by tall townhouses, so a sea of rooftops was our only prize.  At least we had one reward – a long, flowing descent from the hilltop back to where Benny was parked, passing screaming school kids as we whizzed by.  We had a lazy lunch to refuel from our 20km jaunt around town then cycled back to the beach, this time with rucksacks stuffed with wetsuits, goggles and towels. Our patience had delivered; the air had warmed sufficiently, to 22 degrees, and had convinced us to swim.

San Sebastian - (pre-swim selfie)

At Ondarreta beach there were lockers and hot showers available for €1.50, so we locked up the bikes outside, changed and lockered our gear, then headed to the water.  We passed guys skilfully playing footie-volleyball and a few other swimmers now resting wearily on the sand.  The sea was around 18 degs, clear and blue, generally flat but with the occasional bout of high waves that swelled menacingly from nowhere.  We swam east, parallel to the shore, aiming roughly for the centre of Kontx beach.  With each breath our view was filled by Santa Clara island and Mont Urgull, both framed by a moody, greying sky. Changing our plans we didn’t go ashore as the fierce breakers had grown in intensity and we thought we might struggle to get back out.  Instead we turned around and headed back, staying away from the frothing surf in relatively calmer waters. Nearing our start point we cut diagonally back in, covering only 1km but contented to have finally had our long-desired swim in beautiful San Sebastián bay.

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 – Our first house-guest, the Birthday Girl

We invited Nicky’s mum Margaret to visit us, for the week spanning the occasion of her 71st birthday.  Sorry, 51st, she reminded me.  She was to be our first non-neighbouring visitor to see our new home and we were delighted to pause works and play at hosts.

LaJourdanie - (alfresco eating)

This was her fifth visit to see us since we headed off on our travels back in September 2016.  She first joined us in southern Spain to visit the area around Murcia and Cartagena.  We saw Roman amphitheatres and medieval cathedrals as we explored the back streets of the cities, and had long, peaceful coastal walks ending with sea swims.  Next up was a jaunt to the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway, taking in Viking festivals, wind-swept beaches and wild mountain walks.  When we made it back to France, she enjoyed joining us for a wintery Christmas break at La Reole whilst we were house-sitting, for riverside strolls and mulled wine picnics.  Most recently she joined us for a week at Lake Vassivière to watch our first SwimRun event and enjoyed lots of cooling lake dips alongside us.

LaJourdanie - (chilling)

LaJourdanie - (By the pool)

All very different times, places and experiences.  But this time she was to be the first guest in our new French house.  We had endeavoured to complete the redecoration of one spare room in time for her visit.  Her arrival also gave us an excuse to down tools and enjoy a very welcome and much needed rest from our on-going renovation works.  We drove to nearby Limoges airport and collected our visitor, exactly as we had done before our Lake Vassivière week.  We returned home and, once settled, offered the grand tour of the property with glass in hand.  We explained what it was like before, the works we had completed, began or are planning to do, likely boring in our obvious zeal.  We then sat together on our patio, overlooking our glistening pool, and chatted the day away in full catch-up mode.

LaJourdanie - (Birthday cake)

LaJourdanie - (Birthday evening)

We had dips every day in our pool, with ice creams and bubbles or beers as we relaxed and chatted in the afternoon sun.  We had short, local walks and foraged lazily for plums, blackberries and greengages that were later consumed or baked into yummy cakes.  We lazed in hammocks or dipped our feet in the pool, reading and relaxing.  Later, after an alfresco dinner, we sat outside watching the moon rise over our garden as the sun slowly disappeared behind our boundary trees.  Once suitably dark, we presented a surprise, home-baked birthday cake, made with freshly picked blackberries and replete with candles, to mummy Margaret. The candles, once lit, became dancing sparklers that stubbornly refused to be extinguished despite multiple, breathless efforts from the laughing, excited Birthday girl.

LaJourdanie - (bubbles arrive)

LaJourdanie - (girls in pool)

LaJourdanie - (time for snails)

For lunch one day, as a mini-treat and a new experience, we offered a serving of the very French dish of roasted snails.  The plate served up was not the treat Nicky remembered from her previous work visits to Paris.   These snails were not as tender, instead were more like garlic-flavoured chewing gum.  We chewed them valiantly, but the gastronomic results were definitely not worth the jaw-straining exertion; they would not be remembered as one of our finer kitchen moments.  We spent the afternoon in the pool, staying cool and being silly. We have an inflatable wallaby, called Wally, a legacy from the trip to Australia where we initially caught the campervan bug.  This naughty wallaby liked to hitch a ride on Margaret’s head as she swam along.  We’re not too sure what she thought of it all.

LaJourdanie - (pool play)

LaJourdanie - (Wheres Wally)

One cloudless day we planned a Brantôme trip, an historic town about 40 minutes away.  This was a repeat stop for us, as we had visited prior to returning home a few months before.  The central aire, solely for motorhomes, was the best option for the busy town and charged only €1 for five hours, perfect for a day visit.  Even out of peak season the aire was busy, more than half its eighty spaces filled with visitors.  We walked through the park and into the central canals, pausing to watch enthusiastic kayakers balance then slide over nearly-dry weirs with difficulty.  We explored the tiny medieval streets and busy shops, the artist studios, farmers’ market stalls and troglodyte caves, before returning along the river to the peaceful surroundings of the aire enjoying our picnic lunch with a lovely cup of tea.

Brantome - (by the abbey)

 

Brantome - (lazy lunch)

We had planned two special dinners, with two groups of neighbours, for during Margaret’s visit.  The first was a fully French occasion, with Lionel and Isobel and their three year-old son, Laundrie.  Margaret had previously lived in France for several years and could chat and tell her stories to our guests, making the evening fully inclusive.  We cooked roast duck and all the trimmings whilst Laundrie happily scoffed, between bouts on his mini-tractor, all the honey-roast carrots and ice cream we had.  The second event was more cosmopolitan, featuring English, Welsh and German neighbours.  This time we served lamb with copious amounts of veg and wine, and everything was a louder, more raucous affair.  Both nights were deemed a success, although the stress of hosting and cooking certainly took its toll.

Espace Hermeline - swim lake

 

LaJourdanie - (patio drinks)

One quiet morning we had a visit to Bussière-Galant to check out the swim lake at Espace Hermeline.  We parked up as one of only three visitors, to find the building all shut up and the usual ‘Baignade Interdite’ signs in place.  We walked a loop of the lake on easy forest trails, passing one lonely fisherman, taking in the tree-top activity courses and the long zip-line scooting out over the water.  On returning to Benny we decided to ignore the signs and have ourselves a swim dip.  The water was about 23 degrees, comfortable and clear, and we all enjoyed swimming a few lengths parallel to the beach.  Heading home, we stopped at a large brocante store for a browse, marvelling at the worthless junk that others pay fortunes for, before buying some French novels that were priced by the kilogram.

LaJourdanie - (evening dinner)

LaJourdanie - (pool time)

It was a wonderful week of light adventure, walks and socialising.  We swam and walked, explored and foraged, turning local wild fruits into cakes to share with the neighbours.  We cooked huge slabs of duck and lamb for the first time and enjoyed serving them to the neighbours who had welcomed us to the hamlet.  We visited historic towns and local swim spots and tried snails for the first, and likely last, time.  We bought books by weight, chatted to curious cows in bright meadows, sat on the edge and cooled our feet in the pool as we enjoyed a drink.  All were varied aspects of an easy, fulfilling life of casual leisure; time well-spent, company well met, simple pleasures well earned.

A&N x

France – Lake Annecy swims and cycles

After leaving the quiet beauty of Serrières we drove over and down the mountain to reach the neat, bustling town of Annecy.  The only central carpark suitable for motorhomes that we knew of was full to bursting and the busy traffic dissuaded us from attempting to stop elsewhere.  We were staying close by and could return easily by bike, a much more convenient way to see the main town.  We had booked ourselves in for four nights at a campsite, Les Rives du Lac on the western lake shore, one with a private beach, taking full advantage of their last days of cheap ACSI rates before peak season began.  We serviced and signed in and were given a prime spot, with shade, only a few spaces from the beach that we soon snuggled into and called home.  Then we were off to survey our domain.

Annecy - (first view of lake)

Annecy - (our private beach)

Annecy - (local wildlife)

We scanned the site and were quietly amazed with the mountainous backdrop behind the shimmering blue lake, and smiled smugly that this was our home for a few days.  After an enjoyable celebratory night chilling, we got up early the next day for the short cycle into Annecy town, as it was their market day.  It was an easy cycle on a well-utilised cycle path, with many joggers, bikers, walkers, rollerblading maniacs and even the odd summer cross-country skier rolling along its smooth tarmac.  We passed a long line of almost static traffic heading into the centre and were glad to be able to roll past it easily under our own steam.  After spinning around the lake frontage and through several busy and beautiful parks, we locked our bikes up next to a quiet portion of canal and walked to the historic centre.

Annecy - (cycle to town)

Annecy - (town canals)

Annecy - (walking the old town)

There was a sudden explosion of noise and colour as we reached the covered markets, along with a huge increase in English being spoken, although mostly with American accents.  We followed the stalls along winding streets, dodging the crowds and taking in the wares.  The centre was as curving, winding and steep as any medieval centre we had walked before, interesting and fresh.  The managed rivers had piercing blue water that defined each scene, lifting each vista to a different level.  We walked up a steep, narrow pathway to reach the Château d’Annecy in the heart of the old town, before dropping back down into the heart of the market stalls. We later passed a complicated fish sculpture exhibit being slowly built over the water near le Palais de L’Île, its very construction drawing in a crowd.

Annecy - (fish sculpture)

Annecy - (market day bridges)

We returned to our bikes and cycled slowly, always aware of the milling crowds around us and giving ourselves time to observe the local sunning rituals. Every small patch of grass in the burning sun was filled with supine, unclothed bronzing bodies soaking up the intense heat.  We passed the casino on the north shore and reached a packed public beach where we joined the party, found a space and began our personal sun worshipping.  We had a few refreshing dips in the shallow lake, so necessary to cool our burning skin. We ate snacks listening to the conversation buzz of locals at lunch.  On our return we were passed on the cycle path by a few road bikers in time-trialling mode, and considered attempting a chase, but thought better of it on our rickety old mountain bikes.  We’ll get ‘em next time.

Annecy - (canals and bridges)
Annecy - (boathouse on route home)

Arriving back at base, we rewarded ourselves with more dips to cool off, reading and relaxing on the beach in proper holiday mode.  The beach led straight into a lake of soft sand.  Its texture was like groping mud, offering a weird gripping sensation on our skin as it enveloped our sinking feet. We could swim 300 or 400m out from the pontoon and still stand up, the whole beach basin was like a wave pool of constant depth of 1.5m, with a soft, sandy bottom.  We later sat in the shade, drinking chilled wine and picking at bruschetta as small birds hopped around on our pitch, searching for discarded crumbs, showing no fear.  It sparked memories of afternoon tea at Grantchester Meadows near Cambridge where greedy birds once ate cake crumbs right from our hands one glorious summer afternoon.

Annecy - (lakeside cycle)

Annecy - (town beach spot)

Annecy - (lake from beach)

Another day we got up earlier than is usual for us, ate a small, quick breakfast and set off down to the pontoon.  We had planned a longer swim in the still morning waters before the wind picked up and lifted the surface waves to a sea-like chop.  We set off for a distant beach we could see across the curving bay, having no idea how far it was away.  We were coolly passed by three ladies on SUPs as we swam, along with happily floating coots and grebes, all with cute young.  Sun-worshippers lay supine on their anchored small leisure boats, incuriously watching us go by.  The beach turned out to be almost a mile from our pontoon, or 1580m as measured on my watch, it attached to the handle on Nicky’s visibility tow float rather than my wrist for a more accurate read.  We exited the water to rest a little.

Annecy - (view from our beach)

Annecy - (n lake swimming)

Annecy - (sunsets at beach)

We paused here for a few minutes, watching a small, vocal group undertake lifeguard training.  A Dutch couple sat near us on the beach with their fun-loving black collie, throwing a ball into the lake. Two floppy ears approached us out of the water and with a very friendly manner proceeded to shake themselves dry all over us, to much hilarity.  We took this as a sign to get ourselves back in the water and dropped in from an old concrete digue to begin our swim back.  The waves had picked up in the time we had sat, so rather than stopping for casual sight-seeing as we did on the way out, we swam straight and true, back to base.  We climbed back out onto our pontoon with a little over 3km swam, in beautifully clear 24deg water, feeling buzzed and happy.  And it was time for second breakfast.

Annecy - (Chateau at Duingt)

Annecy - (boats and sunset)

Another day we decided to try the voie verte in the opposite direction to Annecy, to reach the village of Duignt.  A pleasant ambling along the traffic-free cycleway brought us to the shadow of an impressive château, set on a narrow peninsula, although it was privately owned and inaccessible.  Deciding we had better places to swim, and to not linger due to the busy through-road, we instead detoured through the lovely village centre, replete with colourful hanging baskets.  We meandered through their ancient streets then returned to our campsite, to enjoy chilling for the remainder of the day.  We spent time planning out longer swims to various spots we could see around the lake, but ones we may never find the dedication to undertake.  It was all too easy to slide into doing as little as possible.

Talloires (view of lake)

On our last night, we packed up slowly over the day, then sun-bathed and swam for much of the afternoon.  This wasn’t like us at all, but the sun was too repressive to attempt much more.  Later after dinner we returned and sat at the water to watch the slow red glow light up the faces of the mountain rock opposite.  The next morning we slipped out and got back on the road, but we were not finished with the lake just yet. After discounting stopping at a golf course, we parked on the side of the road and walked back to a set of stone steps leading up through a tall retaining wall to reach a path into the Réserve Naturelle du Roc de Chère.  We followed shady woodland tracks through the park, searching for a way to drop down to the coast of the lake.  We eventually found a route that would serve us.

Talloires (swim spot)

Talloires (nicky on boat pier)

Talloires (marina and mountains)

We followed a steep downhill path with metal bars drilled into the cliff face to assist descent, finding a glorious swim spot. White rocks and clear blue water combined to create a special corner of coastline, perfect for a cooling dip after a hot, hilly walk. Bikinied girls sitting chatting on SUPs glided past, and a bearded guy on a small sail dingy nodded a hello.  After drying off, the path led into Talloires town centre.  This was the posh end of Annecy, with a scattering of high-priced hotels and neat restaurants.  We heard American accents pass us by, them seeing Annecy through a different, more monied lens.  There was a gyrating patchwork of colourful paragliders circling the nearby peaks above us, and new wooden pontoons with sunning bodies lying all over them.  A scene of casual perfection.

A&N x

 

France Massif Central – La Bourboule & Chambon-sur-Lac

We spent our final morning at Lake Vassivière cleaning and packing, managing to reclaim all our deposit.  We had a long drive back to Limoges airport to return Mummy Finch to her homeward flight.  We had a brief stop in the very pretty town of Eymoutiers for a slow, hot walk around the centre by the river, to break up the two hour drive.   We parked up at the airport and said goodbye to Nicky’s mum, then drove back west again beyond where we had begun.

Eymoutiers (town view from above)

Eymoutiers (girls by the river)

We decided to cut an hour off the route time by taking the motorway, one we had been assured was toll free all the way.  It wasn’t.  From north-east of Brive most of the way to Clermont we were charged €18 for the privilege.  We cut off and drove up winding tracks to a seemingly abandoned ski station and hotel set high on the mountains above the resort town of La Bourboule.  There were some signs of workmen around, but we couldn’t decide if they were attempting to renovate the buildings, or were in the process of stripping them out before demolition.  We walked around a small pond and along a few nearby tree-shaded trails that were marked as mountain bike routes, but it all looked a little unloved and unused, out of season.  We passed a quiet night with birdsong our only companion.

La Bourboule (abandoned ski lift)

La Bourboule (tired buildings)

The next morning we headed off, back down the steeply winding roads to the valley floor, passing through the town centre of La Bourboule and onwards.  We stopped in a large carpark adjacent to a ski lodge hotel, empty except for one other car.  This was the designated start of a 14km walking loop we had planned, taking in the highest point of the Massif Central, Puy de Sancy, at 1886m high.  We started by neat rows of chairs taken from a ski-lift and stored for summer on the grassy meadows.  The path rose quickly, becoming steeper and steeper, and we knew we would absorb most of the height gain in these first three kilometres, before following the ridge around multiple peaks and saddles.  We passed through loose herds of grazing cows, looking lazily around as they gently chewed the new grass.

Puy de Sancy (resting chair lifts)

Puy de Sancy (az on route up)

The gravel path turned to larger stones then to tall boulders that had to be climbed over.  Once on the ridge, we were immediately inundated with thick swarms of black flies, and tourist groups that emerged as if from nowhere.  We walked quickly with heads down and closed mouths, for to do anything other led to the unwanted ingestion of many of the pesky mouches.  Not far from the saddle we could see timber platforms built around the summit, like a crow’s nest on a ship’s mast. Puy de Sancy top was quite a disappointment as it was served by a gondola, the only ski-lift currently in operation, and masses of unsuitably attired people had crammed themselves along the wooden walkways and platforms that lined the peak.  We weren’t sure which invasion was worst – the flies or the tourists.

Puy de Sancy (nicky takes in view)

Puy de Sancy (peaks and paths)

We quickly passed on, down a steep run of stony cut-backs that were still in the process of being constructed.  We watched guys from the Gendarmerie Mountain Rescue rush past us, stacked with rescue kit, to assist a lady with a poorly leg.  Little did we know this would not be our only meeting with these men on the mountain today.  Our route was to take us over Puy de Cacadogne and Roc de Cluzeau, before reaching the Grande Cascade, a large waterfall central to the mountain horseshoe.  But we never made it that far.  On a simple rocky path after a short upwards climb Nicky had an innocuous twist of her ankle.  We got no further, as she could not support her weight.  We sat for five minutes and considered options, and decided it was best to turn around and hobble back by a shorter route.

Puy de Sancy (nicky rescue)

Puy de Sancy (hop into vehicle)

As we slowly hobbled down, with the occasional bout of piggy-backing to speed the descent along, we were caught up by the descending vehicle of the Gendarmerie Mountain Rescue.  They stopped to enquire to our well-being and immediately ousted a man with large kit bag to look after Nicky until the car could deliver its current injured passenger to safety, and then return for us.  A precautionary splint was applied to Nicky’s leg, and around 15 minutes later the vehicle reappeared and we hopped, literally in Nicky’s case, in. The road down was a hugely rutted track, necessitating slow, awkward driving and we scraped loudly as we grounded a couple of times.  It definitely would have been very difficult to walk down and we would have really struggled had they not been passing us.

Puy de Sancy (safely down)

Puy de Sancy (panorama)

After many busy years, decades even, of climbing, hiking, running and skiing in high mountains all over our wonderful planet, this annoying simple twisting tear was the only time either of us were unable to deliver ourselves back to the bottom of the slopes under our own steam.  (I once skied the length of the Three Valleys, from Val Thorens back to our accommodation in La Tania, nursing a broken shoulder).  But our GMR saviours kindly delivered us safely down, right back to Benny’s door.  A very relieved Nicky donated two slices of her very yummy home-made coconut cake to the rescuers for their valiant efforts, since they were likely missing lunch to help us.  Their assistance was so very gratefully received – many thanks for their kindness, expertise and professionalism.

Chambon-sur-Lac (running loop of lake)

Chambon-sur-Lac (lake shores)

After a spot of restorative downtime, we drove about a half hour to Chambon-sur-Lac and set ourselves up in a comfortable little paid aire, €10 per night including services and electricity, near the banks of the pretty lake.  Here we sat and watched the world pass, with me tending to and ensuring Nicky properly rested her ankle.  On a later short test walk we noted that even with huge, unmissable ‘camping cars interdits’ signs at the entrance, the adjacent car-park was home to some twelve vans overnighting, some even with their awnings out.  Still, we had a sweet spot.  We saw some visitors walking around the lake frontage still dressed in jeans and thick jumpers, some even wearing scarfs; a reminder to us that this sticky heatwave we are struggling with is still considered quite mild by some.

Chambon-sur-Lac (Az with love island)

Chambon-sur-Lac (beach time)

The next day I went for a muggy 6km run around the perimeter of lake, taking in the nearby town of Varennes.  It was stinking hot in the open fields, but the lakeside path had beautiful patches of deep shade from overhanging trees that provided welcome relief. Nicky followed around on her bike to avoid exacerbating her injured foot, enjoying the fresh lake air and mountain views.  The blue lake was home to Île d’Amour, Love Island, a small circular coppice of trees.  Afterwards we sat on the beach and enjoyed the sunshine and a few cooling dips in the lake.  We watched as a guy in a wetsuit persistently combed the lake bottom with a metal detector. The setting, surrounded by mountains with patches of snow still on their steep slopes, felt a little like Scotland, except the 30 degree air and 20 degree water told us a different story.

Virignin marina (water view)

Virignin marina (between the locks)

The following morning, after a minor altercation at the services with a French queue-jumper, we took off for a long drive east, discounting the motorway option for a glimpse of the rural villages of the region.  We drove up and down hills and valleys in glorious sunshine, surrounded by lush meadows, tall firs and wide fields of not yet out sunflowers. The villages wore uniform red clay tiles and light stone walls, and were either nestled into protective bowls at the bottom of valleys or set high on the top of hills, each with a tall central church prominently standing like a famous star in a circle of adoring fans.  We stopped for lunch at the Col des Pradeaux, still a way short of Saint Étienne.  From here the timeless rolling rural landscape reluctantly gave way to built-up urban sprawl as we approached the city, and it never quite relinquished its grip all the way through to Lyon and around.

Conjux beach (chilling and swimming)

Conjux beach (lazy afternoon)

The traffic was busy but flowing, and east of Lyon we rediscovered a more gentle rural experience, reaching the banks of the Rhône.  We were treated to a spiky, snow-topped backdrop as the glorious Alps slowly grew tall on our distant horizon. We passed places and names we began to recognise, from cycling near here on an earlier part of our travels.  We’d previously stayed in Belley, not more than a handful of miles away from our target of Virignin.  This was home to a spacious, free aire, lined with lavender, set at a recently constructed marina with impressive boat locks and a hydro power station taming this stretch of the Rhône.  With a few other vans and day visitors, it had a picnic and party feel much of the day and we were treated to a fireworks show that night to celebrate Midsummers.

Conjux beach (selfie in water)

Conjux beach (reading by the water)

The next morning we reached Lake Bourget, starting with a short visit to Abbaye d’Hautecombe.  We walked through the gardens to the water’s edge in search of a dip, but signs suggested that swimming was forbidden here, and for once we complied as commercial boats were operating and there were lots of customers.  Instead we drove north along the edge of the water, stopping suddenly to spend a day on a spotted beach at Conjux. We managed to park nearby and squeezed ourselves into a corner spot on a strip of grass next to the water.  It was a popular place with the ring of conversation and laughter and the smell of barbecue wafting across the beach.  Lots of kayaks, canoes and SUPs came and went, filled with screaming kids or gallivanting teens, adding colour and noise to the experience.

Serrieres (in the aire)

Serrieres (small swim spot)

From here we climbed upwards to overnight at Serrières, near to another smaller but very popular swim spot.  The free aire was full of day-trippers but we managed to sneak into the only vacant space, perhaps only recently vacated as it was a good one.  If the aire had been empty we would likely have chosen this same space for ourselves, back right-hand corner with our British hab door opening out onto a neat and private grassed area.  We settled in, awning out and later slowly walked round the lake, dodging groups of supine sun-worshippers everywhere.  It was too hot for much activity or thought and there were barely-clothed bodies lying haphazardly all over the grass, as if they had simply fallen over when the heat became too much to bear.  We completely understood; we were on the verge of doing similar.

A&N x