Tag Archives: vineyard

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

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

Touvre - (walking tour)

Chateauneuf-Sur-Charante - (Aire de loisirs)

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

Domaine Peyrot - (distillery tour)

Domaine Peyrot - (picnic cognac sampling)

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

Domaine Peyrot - (sunset tasting)

Cognac - (shop advert)

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

Cognac - (main streets)

Cognac - (centrre)

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

Domaine Tesseron - (field parking)

Domaine Tesseron - (motorbike museum)

Domaine Tesseron - (car museum)

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

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Saintes - (roman ruins)

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

Saintes - (shade of pollarded trees)

Saintes - (Gallo-Roman amphitheatre)

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

View across to Ile d'Oleron

Ile d'Oleron - (ready for race)

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

Ile d'Oleron - (start line)

Ile d'Oleron - (Aaron nearing finish)

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

Ile d'Oleron - (cycle to lighthouse)

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

Mornac-sur-Seudre - (train des mouettes)

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

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

Mornac-sur-Seudre - (cycling oyster farms)

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

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

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

Coastal drive - Phare de la Coubre

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

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

Coastal waters near Royan

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

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

Jonzac - (church)

Jonzac - (mairie)

Garnd Etang de Saint Estephe - (beach swim)

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

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

A&N x

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

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

Perigueux - (bridge approach)

Perigueux - (walking the streets)

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

Domaine de la Lande - (relaxing at vineyard)

Domaine de la Lande - (walking through the vines

Monbazillac - sunset in vines

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

Domaine de la Lande - (passionate owner)

Domaine de la Lande - (wines for sale)

Monbazillac - town centre

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

With Monica & Ken - (relaxing pool time)

With Monica & Ken - (sunset walk)

With Monica & Ken - (cross-country)

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

With Monica & Ken - (windmill)

With Monica & Ken - (at windmill)

With Monica & Ken - (archery)

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

With Monica & Ken - (proper bullseye)

With Monica & Ken - (beers and pool)

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

Blasimon - (chilling by van)

Blasimon - (Benny in the vines)

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

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

A&N x

Spain – The road to Pamplona

We awoke in LaBastida and, after one last wander around to test our legs after our run, we said our goodbyes to the now-empty town.  Heading east, the sky was a sheet of gunmetal, solid and brooding.   Yet even in the dreary rain the deep autumnal colours of the neat vines shone through and lit up the landscape in bursts of yellow and red.

We had a brief stop in the village of Elciego (Eltziego), where a hotel associated with a large wine producer had commissioned a building from Frank Gehry’s practice.  We did a drive-by shooting with our camera, in the spotty rain.  We couldn’t get too close, but it all looked fairly typical of Gehry’s easily recognisable style, with the addition of some brightly coloured panels that offered something different, an interesting variation on an otherwise well-used theme.

From here we skipped past Logroño and headed to the small town of Estella, where we heard rumours of a monastery famous for its wine fountain, distributing a welcome drink for passing pilgrims undertaking the Camino de Santiago.  We parked up and wandered around the grounds, but torrential rain began so we didn’t wander too much further than the celebrated fountain.  The monastery vineyard sets aside 100 litres per day for pilgrims passing through, with polite messages encouraging sparing use so that all can partake who want to.  We helped ourselves to a small bottle-full, enough for a glass each, and toasted their generosity later.

Estella - monastery

Estella - wine fountain

We were told that, if discrete, we could stay over for free in the small car-park at the monastery, but we felt a bit conspicuous and a little in the way and so we drove the kilometre back down to the newly-constructed and barriered aire and graciously paid €4 to the town to park overnight there instead.  Heavy rain continued to fall most of the evening and through the night, but from here we could pick up free WiFi from a nearby café, so we lazed around inside sipping tea and getting ourselves all up to date.  We undertook a quick walk in a brief respite from the downpour where we climbed a small hill behind the aire, looking down on Benny and back across the leafy valley to the monastery.  Then it was back inside to spend the night listening to the constant tapping of raindrops finally lulling us into an uneasy sleep.

Estella - valley view over aire

There was no let-up in the weather come the morning, so we set off through the puddles early, on to Pamplona.  This was to be our last city visit in Spain on this trip.  Views of white peaks in distance, as we were neared the foothills of the Pyrenees, filled up our windscreen.  Through busy traffic we headed to the large central aire, where €10 per 24 hours would supply us with all  services inc. electric.  The rain had paused, although it was bitingly cold, so we wrapped warmly and set off.  The aire was positioned a ten minute stroll along the river from the defensive city walls.   A funicular lift carried us up inside the stone walls and deposited us in a quiet side street in the old historic centre.

Pamplona - (city hall daytime)

The only prior knowledge either of us had of the city was related to the Running of the Bulls, but beyond that it was a blank slate.  We wandered happily with no plan in mind, ducking down side streets and finding small, empty squares before popping out again into busy  thoroughfares alive with people.  We passed communal vegetable gardens, impressive bandstands in wide plazas and numerous churches in varied architectural styles.  On one tree-lined street there was a temporary exhibition on the making and history of Guernica, Picasso’s seminal painting capturing the horror of the bombings.

Pamplona - (inner city gardening)

Pamplona - (Picassos Guernica discription)

Mount Ezkaba, a fort used as a prison during the Spanish Civil War, provided us with a wonderful panoramic view over the outskirts of Pamplona and the mountains beyond.  Some dedicated runners were beasting themselves up steep inclines to the viewing platforms, then walking down only to return again, making us feel like couch potatoes.  We continued to see the Bull ring, said to be the third largest in the world behind Mexico City and Madrid.  A bulky Hemingway statue, mostly torso, stood outside the entrance to the Bull Ring, a memento of his connection to Spain and the manly world of blood sports.   We visited a dedicated Wine shop and bought a few bottles of local wine as gifts.

Pamplona - (valley and mountains)

Pamplona - (wine shop display)

On a busy pedestrian street we found a large, complex statue capturing a deadly looking scene from The Running of the Bulls, a key event in the week-long San Fermin festival.  The statue vividly captured the motion, excitement, confusion and fear the event must hold for those involved.  We circled it twice, taking in all the details and expressions.  From here we returned to Gazteluko Plaza and sat a while, eating snacks and people-watching.  We then returned to the back streets where we wandered by a shop and bought postcards for home, just like proper tourists, before returning to Benny to chill.

Pamplona - (walking the streets)

Later in the evening we ventured out again, forgoing the funicular lift for a steep walk up into the Jardines de la Taconera, where we admired the walls and wildlife.  Originally a 17th century bastion to defend the citadel, the fortress walls were now decoratively laid out with landscaped ponds that were home to many ducks and geese.  We passed through the Portal de San Nicolas and enjoyed a leisurely stroll that led us back into the old quarter.  The wet night streets glimmering with orange light, the air somehow warmer in the soft evening glow. We revisited many of the buildings and places we’d passed through earlier in the day, seeing them in a very different, more vibrant mode.

Pamplona - (park and gardens)

Pamplona - (city hall nighttime)

We had a beautiful dusk walk, hand-in-hand through the well-used and interesting streets.  When we returned to Benny a second time, the ever-present possibility of rain finally occurred and we were glad to be safely inside.  The aire was surprisingly quiet considering its location on a traffic junction and we settled in to eat a late dinner and to give structure and form to our memories of this short stop in intriguing Pamplona.

A&N x

Spain – La Bastida & the Rioja Alavesa Wine Run

We awoke under the gently swaying willow trees in tranquil Casalarreina, had a leisurely breakfast, serviced and quietly disappeared.

We first returned to Haro, parked at their centrally positioned but rather noisy aire and walked into the town to find a launderette.  We decided we couldn’t last the full trip without doing a wash – too many muddy, sweaty runs and cycles and we were both nearly out of clean gear. Whilst our clothes were swimming and spinning we walked around Haro centre again, seeing the Basilica we had previously missed and ending up back in the main wine-centred plaza for a last look.

LaBastida - (main church)

LaBastida - (church plaza)

We collected our laundry, returned to Benny and hopped the short distance back into the Basque Country, through beautiful rows of vines, to the village of La Bastida.  This was the venue for our upcoming run; our next, and last 10km event on this trip. The Rioja Alavesa Wine Run, a hilly jaunt through steep vineyards and dusty barrel-filled cellars, had caught our attention a while back with its wine fair and quirky inside/outside route.

We had arrived a couple of days early, to allow us to explore the town and to ensure we got parked okay, as the town’s usual aire was to be closed to accommodate the wine festival stalls. We parked instead in a large gravel courtyard behind the primary school, right in the heart of the town, with a clear vista to the view-dominating Church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.  The weather was bright and clear when we arrived, although it was never warm. The air had a chill and was set to get much worse we were told; dropping to 1 deg overnight and there was talk of heavy rain or even the possibility of snow on race day.  Zut alors!  That was not what we’d hoped for.

LaBastida - (balcony view)

LaBastida - (town view)

LaBastida - (panorama)

The cold wind shook Benny all evening as we hid away inside, and we awoke several times in the night to the familiar pattering of persistent, plopping rain.  We had finally fallen out of favour with the weather gods on this trip – this was going to be a wet, stormy event.  We popped out a few times in brief breaks in the deluge to quickly look around the centre, visiting the tourist office and café, the mairie and church.  We climbed a small hill behind the church that, in a fortunate twenty minute window, afforded us an expansive view across the landscape framed with otherwise elusive blue skies.

LaBastida - (town and countryside)

On the morning of the race we awoke, bleary eyed, to early alarms.   The sullen sky was a lighter grey, and the constantly tiddling overnight rain had stopped, for now.  We ate breakfast then wrapped up warmly for an exploratory walk around the start.  Vehicles were now piling into the huge gravel carpark, and our once empty aire was now home to fifteen other motorhomes or campers and perhaps a hundred cars.  Everywhere there were people chatting, stretching, warming up, readying themselves for the off.  There were three events today – 10km & 20km runs and a 10km walk, allowing all ages and fitness levels to participate and feel a key part of the proceedings.

LaBastida - (event logo)

We returned to Benny, shed warm layers and, nearing the time, returned to the start.  Nicky wrapped herself in a bin bag for warmth.  It was still only 3 degs, with a chilling wind that stripped the heat from you, so we wanted to stay warm until the race began.  We bounced about and ran a few warm-up lengths, never really feeling warm.

LaBastida - (nicky at start)

LaBastida - (before the start)

LaBastida - (on the start line)

Then it began; we gathered at the line and were off on time.  The first kilometre rose up through the town, first up to the church plaza and then very steeply up a narrow cobbled path.  Here Nicky & I parted company and I pushed on, passing lots of slower runners on the uphill section.  The first 4.5km, through beautiful vineyards and rolling countryside, but on torturous gravelled inclines, was a true leg-burning lung-buster.  But knowing that from then on the route was mostly downhill was great motivation to keep working.

Surviving the rises, I then dropped down fast, concentrating on balance and letting gravity do the heavy lifting.  The views were stunning, but the real threat of a deluge never lifted and I was glad to see the rear of the church grounds appear again on the return journey to town.  A few more short but very steep ups and downs on the slippy stones of the hillside streets and a quirky detour through a wine storage facility stacked with thousands of wooden barrels made up the final stretch.  Relying on the distance shown on my watch, I was beginning to wind up a sprint finish with an eye to picking off a few runners in front when suddenly the finish line appeared.  I surprised myself by finishing in 46 mins, but the route was, according to my watch, only 9.2km so I felt a little disappointed to end with gas in the tank and potentially a few places further back.

LaBastida - (finish line)

LaBastida - (nicky after finishing)

The rain began just as I finished, and 2.5 minutes later Nicky arrived so together we ducked under the shelter of the wine festival tent and chatted about our race.  We were rewarded with lovely WineRun wine glasses at the finish, along with drinks, cake and fruit.  We showered and dressed warmly, then returned to soak up the party atmosphere of the wine fair. Our new glasses could be used to try wines from various suppliers with tents lining the square, and vouchers for one free glass and one free tapas were included in our finisher goodie-bag.  This was our first alcohol in eighteen days, and in motorhoming life dry days are like dog years.  We sampled all the providers over the course of the afternoon, as prices dropped from €2 a glass to €1.50 to €1 during the course of the afternoon.  The guitar band played familiar popular songs and we danced in the crowd as pockets of walkers returned in small, jubilant groups.

LaBastida - (enjoying wine tasting)

We hid from the drizzle under the main tent, sipping wine and enjoyed the musicality of the band.  The Awards ceremony for all the race winners, featuring lots of wine as prizes, briefly interrupted the music, then the dancing and celebrations continued for a few more hours.  Cars began slowly filtering out of town again and as night fell we were once again alone in our quiet, expansive gravel courtyard with a prime view of the beautifully lit-up church tower.

A&N x

Spain – Haro & La Rioja pueblos cycle

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

Haro - (nicky cycles past vines)

Haro - (countryside cycle)

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

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

Haro - (tasting the grapes)

Haro - (vines and cut bunches)

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

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

Haro - (nicky in bandstand)

Haro - (Town hall and wine barrels)

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

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

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

A&N x

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