Tag Archives: trail running

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

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

Touvre - (walking tour)

Chateauneuf-Sur-Charante - (Aire de loisirs)

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

Domaine Peyrot - (distillery tour)

Domaine Peyrot - (picnic cognac sampling)

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

Domaine Peyrot - (sunset tasting)

Cognac - (shop advert)

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

Cognac - (main streets)

Cognac - (centrre)

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

Domaine Tesseron - (field parking)

Domaine Tesseron - (motorbike museum)

Domaine Tesseron - (car museum)

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

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Saintes - (roman ruins)

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

Saintes - (shade of pollarded trees)

Saintes - (Gallo-Roman amphitheatre)

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

View across to Ile d'Oleron

Ile d'Oleron - (ready for race)

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

Ile d'Oleron - (start line)

Ile d'Oleron - (Aaron nearing finish)

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

Ile d'Oleron - (cycle to lighthouse)

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

Mornac-sur-Seudre - (train des mouettes)

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

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

Mornac-sur-Seudre - (cycling oyster farms)

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

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

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

Coastal drive - Phare de la Coubre

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

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

Coastal waters near Royan

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

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

Jonzac - (church)

Jonzac - (mairie)

Garnd Etang de Saint Estephe - (beach swim)

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

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

A&N x

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

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

Le doret - entrance towers

St Paradoux - lake parking

St Paradoux lake

St paradoux beach

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

Vassiviere lak revisit

Vassiviere lake cycle perimeter

Vassiviere lake cycle

Vassiviere lake perimeter cycle

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

Mont Bessou views

Mont Bessou tower

Lake Sechemailie - aire

Field of sunflowers

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

Correze - river view

Meymac - market town

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

Buron de Fages - walk with boys

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

Farm Lanteuil - friendly horse

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

Jardins D’Eyrignac - day view

Jardins D’Eyrignac - sunset

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

Ayen aire - afternoon chill

St Jean de Cole - chateau

St Jean de Cole - square

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

Nontron - town view

Lac de St. Mathieu - view

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

A&N x

France –Sillans-la-Cascade & around Lac de Sainte-Croix

We debated whether to spend another water-focused day at the delightful Camping les Pêcheurs but, lovely as it was, the idea of exploration won out.  As joyous and flowing with colour as our pitch was, draped with pink flowers and overhanging trees, we struggled for ten minutes to get out without destroying the foliage, reversing around low-hanging trees and through a narrow hedge opening that snagged mirrors and tickled Benny’s sides.  We headed north, to Parc naturel régional du Verdon.  Our route naturally took us to Sillans-la-Cascade, an area of cascading waterfalls and milky-green forest pools.  In a small car-park (43.566907, 6.182703), we found a Benny sized spot and paid €4 for 2.5 hours (half-hour free, €0.50/15 minutes).  We decided an exploratory run would be best to find some suitable swim spots.

Sillans-la-Cascade - (main pool)

We began our run in the direction everyone else was walking, following the easy rocky trail mostly downhill.  We arrived at a belvédère of the main pool and waterfall; an impressive and arresting sight that made us want to jump in immediately.  But due to a rockfall a few years ago we found out that access to the water here was now interdit, scuppering our plans.  Undeterred, we ran around several other promising nearby paths before realising that none of the river upstream of the falls was accessible.  We returned back through the car-park and beyond, crossing a bridge into Sillans-la-Cascade village and followed other footpaths on the south bank of the river.  This is where it became interesting, as we soon reached long stretches of beautiful, luminous green pools wrapped in gnarled tree roots.

Sillans-la-Cascade - (downstream pools)

Sillans-la-Cascade - (nicky swims)

Huge grins broke out on our faces as we took in each pool in turn, any one being worthy of a debut swim.  The cool water trickled down from one to the next, like the Fairy Pools on Skye.  There were deep plunge holes, natural weirs and shallow pools, and all shone as if lit from underneath.  We kept our focus and continued to the end of the path, and were duly rewarded by our arrival at another waterfall pool.  Not quite as large a pool or tall a waterfall as the main cascade seen from the belvedere, but this one was accessible for swimming and there were no overlooking crowds.  We found a place where we could access the water and quickly changed.  The clear green water was biting cold, much more so than any so far on this trip.  But this made it all the more refreshing after our sticky-hot run.

Aiguines - (town rooftop view)

Aiguines - (street view)

We swam near to the waterfall, feeling the chill spray on our faces.  Occasionally we climbed up and stood onto near-surface rocks to let the sun return some heat to our chilled limbs, but were soon back in the water again, floating happily in the deep milky blue-green water.  Tangles of tree root and branches semi-blocked channels within the pool, but we could swim under and around them as we explored.  When we felt our limbs become numb we reluctantly climbed out of the water and sunned ourselves on the rocks, our warmth soon returning.  We ate snacks and sucked in every aspect we could of the wonderful pool, before tracking back the same path.  We stopped again at several other pools and dipped again to delay our leaving.  Our final run back to Benny left us hot and sticky again.

Lac de Sainte-Croix - (walk to beach)

Lac de Sainte-Croix - (lake beach)

Lac de Sainte-Croix - (swim time)

Our swim-lust satisfied, at least for now, we moved on to the free aire (43.777123, 6.214216) near to Les Salles-sur-Verdon on the banks of Lac de Sainte-Croix.  It was spacious, with 12 vans already parked but space for the same again.  We walked to the nearest beach on the banks of the lake and were unable to resist another swim.  We spent  the rest of the day sedentary on the beach, sapped of energy but in a satisfying way.  We were in this area for a hilly 10km trail run and were glad to take it easy for the few days before.  We passed a second day here, with a leisurely walk into Les Salles-sur-Verdon via the lake shore, then finding a shady place on the beach to relax.  It was a windier day, the sea choppier and we watched many kayakers and Suppers struggle valiantly to return upwind on the lake.

Lac de Sainte-Croix - (frisbee action)

Aiguines - (race tents at finish)

Our pre-organised 10km race was on Sunday in nearby Aiguines.  It was a hilly jaunt with 680m of ascent over the distance.  There were others running various distances, the longest a 60km race beginning at 4am that had over 4km of ascent. That sounded like a very refined, exquisite kind of self-torture, and we were glad to have only entered the shorter event.  We arrived at our campsite, Camping de l’Aigle, only nine miles from our free aire.  Set on top of an expansive hill, with a gorgeous terrace overlooking Lac de Sainte-Croix, this was a fantastic place to be situated for a few days.  We knew we should be resting our legs, but we climbed steeply up through the campsite to a table d’orientation to take in a cloudy red sunset above the deep blue waters of the lake.  It was worth the extra walk.

Aiguines - (nicky running)

Aiguines - (arriving at finish)

Our race was the following morning, where we had an easy 10am start.  It was very hot, and we worried about how we’d manage in the heat.  The race proved to be more ‘falling down steep stony slopes’ and ‘walking up steep earthy slopes’, with only short stretches of running in between.  Our legs and lungs burned and our faces dripped hot, blinding sweat as we pushed on, the stubborn kilometres slow to disappear.  It was a tough course, yet we found the legs to sprint the final downhill kilometre into town, feeling fresher than at most other parts of the race.  We still only just broke 1hr 30mins, which beforehand would have seemed laughably slow for a 10k race.  But we were at the front of the field, with Nicky picking up a prize for second lady home.  I finished alongside her, as 18th male finisher.

Aiguines - (podium moment)

Aiguines - (well earned jacuzzi)

Aiguines - (wild boar visit)

We sat around, recovering and eating back all the burned calories, and more.  We were informed prize-giving would be at 3pm, so we retreated to our campsite for lunch and showers, and returned around 2.30pm for the awards.  In the time we were away, due to the late finishers in several other race distances, the 10km presentations had been rearranged.  It had already passed, and with it Nicky’s opportunity to stand on the podium – disappointing.  A later solo presentation was of little compensation.  After a few hours back at camp, we walked back into town for celebratory pizza.  It was 7pm and there were some runners still finishing the brutal 60k race, 14 hours later. As we ate our pizza we were visited by a thirsty, curious boar and a beautiful smudged red-sunset. Later we slipped into a satisfied sleep.

A&N x

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

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

Sausset-les-pins - (beach front cycle)

Sausset-les-pins - (beach spot)

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

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

Sausset-les-pins - (raceday selfie)

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

Sausset-les-pins - (passing the marina)

Sausset-les-pins - (nicky with rose)

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

Calanque cycle - initial view

calanque cycle - (at the calanque)

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

calanque cycle - (costal path)

calanque cycle - (main beach view)

Marly Parc - relaxing with beers

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

A&N x

Spain – Olot (part 2), Santa Pau and Banyoles

We slept soundly in our scruffy campsite.  It was a chilly, cloudless morning as we collected our bib numbers and readied ourselves for the off.  Thinking 10km should be an easy jaunt, less than a quarter of the distance I’d completed the Sunday before at Cheverny, I was a little blasé and returned to bed until ten minutes before off.  We were less than 30 seconds from motorhome to start-line, so perfectly placed for the event.  A quick warm-up, then we set off into the town, with no notion of the route.  After many bends, streets, squares and 47 minutes and 23 seconds we arrived back, the wonderfully cool morning and number of participants allowing a fast time (for us).

Olot - race banner

Olot - pre-race warm-up

Our time was enough for Nicky to finish second in her age category, and as sixth lady overall.  We were informed that they had a small trophy for the top three placed in each section, so we waited around for the presentations.  Unfortunately we found out that trophies were only awarded in the half marathon race, not the 10k, so it wasn’t to be.  We had the consolation of having each been gifted two vacuum-packed bags of non-descript meat for finishing the race.  (The half-marathon finishers each received a leg of ham).  We inquired later with some locals and were told it was definitely pork, but ears, noses and tongues were mentioned, along with intestines and blood.  We were to boil our prize for between one and three hours and were promised it would be the tastiest thing ever.  Mmmm.

Santa Pau - free aire

Santa Pau - village

Instead of parading with our tacky plastic trophy, we instead had post-race showers at the campsite, packed up and headed off to stopover at a free aire in nearby Santa Pau ( 42.146914n, 2.568332e )  This was a peaceful, large field close to the centre that we had almost to ourselves.  Later we had a mid-afternoon stroll around the beautiful medieval stone village, seeing the Castell de Santa Pau and the softly rolling hillsides it sat within from many angles.

Santa Pau - Nicky at castle

We drove a little way back the next morning, intent on walking an advertised 10km loop of the local extinct volcanoes.  We avoided a packed car-park charging €8 to enter, instead parking about 400m away in a much nicer free area, almost entirely unused, with wonderfully spacious motorhome spaces.  A perfect base, and we couldn’t fathom why so many were paying in the other car-park, other than to save themselves the little extra walk.

Volcano walk - free parking

We set off through knotty forests trails with twisted roots and cool shade.  Some stretches, nearer to the car-parks, were overrun with parents and their young kids, a reminder this was the beginning of the Easter holidays and most places were likely to be busy.  We first passed the crater of Volcà de Santa Margarida, named for the church built down inside the forested rim.  Later we circled around the Volcà del Croscat, where we passed groups of kids on what looked like their first camping trip, all noise and chat, some carrying packs bigger than themselves.  There were stretches of beautiful forest trails with jumbles of lava rocks and tree roots.  It wasn’t long before we arrived back at our starting point.  It took us 2hrs 30mins to walk around the 12km route at our leisurely pace, although the signboards suggested 4hrs 20mins for the loop.  Perhaps we need to stop off and savour the views a little more.

Volca del Croscat - forest trails

Volca del Croscat - paths

From here we drove a short way on narrow, winding roads, passing loose white horses with young foals on the way.  We arrived at an €19 ASCI campsite in Banyoles ( 42.120655n, 2.747245e ) set on the shores of a luminous blue lake.  It had tight, cramped pitches, marked with stones on open areas with no privacy, and many scruffy and unoccupied permanent sites.  The hook-up was low amp electricity that we tripped twice in the first two minutes before we learned of its secrets.  But once in and settled, we sat still for a few hours and properly relaxed, glad for the restful downtime both mentally and physically.  We both suffered poor sleep due to drunken chatting and dogs barking into the wee hours, not the relaxing quietness that we’d had in each of the free aires we’d stayed at to date.

Banyoles -Nicky on run

Banyoles - Nicky looking over lake

We got ourselves up at 8am and headed out to run a circuit of the nearby lake.  Beautiful in the low morning light, the lake was well used with casual kayakers and serious rowers being drilled by coaches in motorised craft.  Plenty of others are walking or running the shore path.  We ran at a slow pace, stopping frequently to take in all the miradors and enjoy the wonderful freshness of the morning air.  The loop was just shy of 8km, an easy jaunt to waken us up and properly kick-start our day. We rewarded our efforts with an early brunch of butties thick with bacon and HP sauce, both brought all the way from the UK.  Then, with full stomachs and content from our early exercise, it was time to head for the rugged stony coastline, the central focus of our planned Costa Brava trip.

A&N x

France/Spain – Andorra, Camprodon & Olot (part 1)

We finished strimming the garden, reclaiming our pool from winter algae and tiling our cottage bathroom.  With cut hands and tired bodies we threw together some clothes and provisions, locked our shutters and drove south.  We needed a break, and the blue seas of the Costa Brava were calling to us.  Stopping only for a quick lunch at a farm aire whose shop was closed during our short stay, we inched our way along the map on straight roads.  We collided with rush hour traffic around Toulouse, snarled and static, causing us to reach our chosen destination after 6pm.

Auterive - free aire

We parked in the free aire at Auterive, ( 43.351670n, 1.476547e ) on the banks of the Ariège. The aire was pleasant enough, but the town itself, despite its grand historic undertones, looked scruffy and unloved.  A Netto was the sole remaining shop open, and buying milk and potatoes we watched as a disappointed chap had his card declined.  With no other means of payment, he sadly handed back his large basket full of vodka, wine and beers.  That moment of stolen promise, the disappointment, no easy out tonight, summed up the town for us.

After a night where we began re-watching Game of Thrones from Season 6 in preparation of the final instalments, we left early with the intention of lunching in the principality of Andorra.  We were crossing the Pyrenees into Spain and visiting there, especially when it was only 6km out of our way, was the least we could do.  The day began grey and monotone, not the warming blues we had hoped for when heading south.  We followed slow hairpins and narrow roads up into the mountains, climbing steadily through stone villages towards bluer skies and snowy peaks. The occasional car coming down the mountain was layered deep with snow, fresh from a recent dumping.

We turned off towards El Pas de la Casa and soon reached a customs border checkpoint that wasn’t manned and drove straight through.  We parked simply in a huge car-park to the side of a long row of buses and walked up into town.  I had been here once before, on a skiing trip more than twenty years ago.  My memory was hazy yet little seemed to have changed, but I certainly had.  I remembered being impressed then, but soon reached different conclusions this day.  It was full of shops selling tobacco, booze and perfumes, like an open-air departure lounge.  Some shops even had giant Toblerone that I thought only existed in airports.  We walked the grey sludgy streets, avoiding the copious drips from melting snow and smiling wryly at the fact we had planned a trip to sunny climes and sandy beaches and now found ourselves in a seedy ski resort.  But despite our reaction to the resort we availed ourselves of the tax-free shopping, snapping up 4 litres of choice spirits and a litre of port all for less than €25.

Camprodon - roman bridge

We arrived in Camprodon around 4pm, after a winding and tiring drive.  The aire ( 42.312331n, 2.362839e ) was empty of other motorhomes, with only a few other cars as company for Benny.  We headed out immediately for an evening hike/run up to Sant Antoni, a chapel on top of a local hill.  It was only meant to be a six kilometre loop, but we had failed to notice the 425m of height gain it contained, so the way up was more a slow walk through steep forest trails over gnarled roots.  At least we were rewarded with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside from the abandoned chapel grounds before a really enjoyable 4km downhill run back to town, a great leg-loosener.

Camprodon - hilltop view

That night we were awakened around 1am by a huge crashing sound.  Just behind us a boy-racer recklessly driving loops of the circular aire had ripped the entire front grille and right-hand wing off another parked motorhome.  We felt so sorry for them, the fright of the collision must have been incredible.  The assailant made a speedy getaway in the darkness and they were left to deal with the wreckage, the police and the ensuing insurance issues.  Nightmare.

Olot - defensive towers

After a lie-in in Camprodon, we arrived in nearby Olot under an empty blue sky, bright and clear.  We were here to visit the Garroxta Volcanic region and enjoy some day hiking.  We found easy parking just south of the centre, adjacent to the river ( 42.180199n, 2.493597e ) and walked in town from there.  We were hot and sticky in shorts and shirts, yet many locals were still wrapped in duvet jackets or thick woollen jumpers. A quick stop in the tourist office gained us a map of a 2-hour walk of all the sights, including the extinct volcanoes we had come to see.  We set off through the town, finding the base of the nearest caldera, it set in a sea of black volcanic ash, like Tenerife.

Olot - Nicky and Scarlet

The path spiralled around the hillside as it rose, opening up different vistas over Olot and its surrounding countryside. We passed several defensive towers, built in 1845 to protect the town against a repeat of a year-long occupation it suffered after the Third Carlist War.  The 120m diameter Montsacopa crater is unique in the area for having retained its circular form rather than having being eroded by later eruptions or disruptive lava flows.  The rim was once home to three separate chapels, of which only one, Capilla de Sant Francesc, now remains.  It is mostly a ruin, its walled courtyard home to a very modern, sharply detailed cafe that contrasts deeply with the wasting chapel stonework.

Olot - view from volcano rim
Olot - Parroquia Sant Pere Martir

We dropped back into the town and crossed to the next volcanic lump, rising up many steps to pass the monolithic 1950s church Parroquia Sant Pere Mártir.  The path then led around the edge of Volcá Montolivet through shady forest before opening out to a wide vista over the south-west portion of Olot. Here we passed a group of local artists searching for the ideal spot to set up their easels. As we returned along the river, we noticed rows of tents ahead and discovered it was an open air, one day only craft beer festival.  Yes, it would have been rude not to.  There were a dozen or so producers displaying, each with four to eight beers each on offer.  We blagged a few tasters in our new glasses before committing to spend each of our four pre-paid beer tokens.

The sun was blasting, everyone was relaxing and chatting.  The noise of rapid-fire Spanish was almost overwhelming, but a welcome contrast to the tranquil reflection of our walk.  With plans turned upside down, we sat sipping beer and munching chips in the glorious sun, enjoying the cheer. These impromptu moments, unplanned and spontaneous, are what make life on the road special.  Thirsts quenched and keenly aware we had a 10km race in the morning, we tore ourselves away and slowly returned to Benny.  We later moved to a campsite close to the start of our race, Font de les Tries ( 42.189736n, 2.509779e ), a rather scruffy and noisy spot not really set up for short touring stopovers, but we soon made our small corner of it into a cosy nest and enjoyed some afternoon downtime.

A&N x