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Published: November 25th 2010
Motorhome News from Europe 43
9th - 23rd September 2010
A trip down Memory Lane
Limousin, La Rochelle, St Nazaire, Carnac, Pont-Aven, Quimper, Chateauneuf-du-Faou, Rose Granite Coast, Le-Mont-St-Michel
The hands of time drift gently by
the morning mist on languid streams
ebony mirrors embrace the sky
And I think of you
I feel the warmth of sunny days
lazy walks on sandy beaches
the crystal breeze on snow-capped mountains
And I think of you
Narrow streets on cobbled hills
timbered houses hand in hand
pastel shutters, red geraniums
And I think of you
I hear the rustle of silvery leaves
on avenues of mighty trees
in frenzied dance on the breath of spring
And I think of you
Aloft the church its needle spire
a silhouette on the village brow
arms in welcome for tomorrow’s child
And I think of you
I see the sunflowers turn their heads
to mourn the warmth of days gone by
another summer fades to autumn
And I think of you
Rolling meadows, chestnut forests
swathes of corn awaiting harvest
joyous freedom on vast horizons
And I think of you
I breathe the coffee perfumed air
beneath a shady parasol
with a seamless blend of food and time
And I think of you
I smell the scent of fresh baguettes
I taste the wine to tease the tongue
I turn the faded traveller’s page
And I think of you, dear France
It’s hard to resist the temptation of France for all of that.
Monday was our bad news day
A couple of days before our anticipated trip for golfing in the Scottish Borders we changed our minds – and instead headed south to Dover and the ferry for Calais! Our pilgrimage to France this year took us by motorhome a few weeks earlier than originally planned, first to see daughter Sonia and her family in their lovely converted barn near Limoges and then out to the west coast at La Rochelle, before working our way back northwards into Brittany to visit old friends Peter and Jan in their home at Chateauneuf-du-Faou.
I think our four-year-old VW Golf 1.9tdi had something to do with our sudden change of plan. The car blew up on us in a great cloud of smoke a day or two before leaving home and the bill for repairs seemed to be mounting by the day as work progressed. As it reached £1,200 we were becoming rather unsettled and agreed to keep in touch with the VW garage to monitor progress whilst travelling.
Our search for yet another new route down the centre of France took us to picturesque Lyons-la-Forêt for our first night of camping, close enough to town for a balmy evening stroll along the cobbled streets past timbered houses and smiling alfresco diners on the market square. We were very taken with this little oasis just a short drive to the east of Rouen, with the feeling of a warm community knitted together like a Fair Isle jumper around a handful of tasteful shops.
The journey to Limoges gets longer each year – perhaps it’s something to do with age, or the fact that we tend to avoid the thunder and stress of motorway driving where possible. But it’s always worth it. Work on the barn continues as time allows and each year it grows in character in one way or another. Grandson Fred is growing too, now 3 ½, that delightful age of irrepressible inquisitive energy and already into his second week of school. He took a major step whilst we were there, off to school on his own, by bus.
Monday was indeed bad news day. Before leaving Limoges, we called the garage back home. ‘Despite our best efforts, you’ll need a new engine,’ the guy said. ‘£6,000, give or take, to include the tow-in and work already done.’
We’ll need a few days to think about that!
In sombre mood we headed out west on the 200 mile trek to the coast on the same route taken back in the spring of 2004, via Fosse Mobile, Fosse Limousin and Grande Fosse (significant, as those who know us well might agree), and Cognac (Hennessey, St Remy and Courvoisier). By late afternoon we were in the old and fascinating fortified port of La Rochelle, our first visit there, its tranquil harbour dominated by twin towers once joined by chains to repel invaders, the sentinels of Tour de la Chaine and Tour St-Nicolas. A bit of sunshine and new territory and we were beginning to feel better. Car decisions would have to wait. We were there to enjoy ourselves.
There’s a convenient campsite for motorhomes in La Rochelle where we stopped overnight. It’s situated on the Park and Ride car park! The 'Camping Car' site cost just 10€ and included the 'Yelo Bus' into town the following morning and all the usual motorhome facilities. La Rochelle enthralled us with street after street of shop-windows to drool over and set the credit card alight and endless stalls in the rather up-market covered market, each bearing the unashamedly ultimate in French art - food: meat, game, poultry, cheese, bread and pastries, fish, fruit and vegetables, in spectacular mouth-watering displays beyond anything we have seen in France before.
Our first stab at birding on this Vendee coast proved fruitless. Having driven a mile or more down an un-surfaced road a giant balloon-wheeled dumper appeared in our rear-view mirror and chased us along the dusty track across the marshes shown on our 'Where to watch birds in France' map. When he finally caught us we were instructed to leave, as heavy vehicles were using the road for the construction of new sea defences on the ‘marais’, land reclaimed from the sea.
Our second attempt, a lagoon recommended for birds further along the coast was no better – the lagoon had dried up, leaving dry salt-marsh bereft of birds! There were a few birds on the mud-flats off l'Aiguillon-sur-Mer but nothing sighted was worth writing home about, so we won't! It seems the book might be destined for the bin.
This part of the windy Atlantic coast is famous for its beaches, but first you have to find them, as land reclaimed from the sea has left many of the villages some miles from the shore. It’s all rather flat and uninteresting to be honest, but clearly it is a very popular family resort area. Severely overpriced creamy-white houses and bungalows with pan-tiled roofs and blue shutters cluster around the villages but there is nothing of any architectural merit to be seen along this ‘Lincolnshire-lookalike’ coast.
The weather changed as we returned to the sea at Beauvoir-sur-Mer. The tide was in and the wind had picked up by the time we reached the narrow causeway from Belvue to the Ile de Noirmoutier and we left the motorhome short of the water for a while to scan the mud-flats for shore birds, well wrapped up in our winter togs, before retracing our steps.
The character of the area also changed quite abruptly a little further north, at St Nazaire, where we crossed the bridge over the Loire estuary into Brittany and headed out to the coast beyond La Baule. This area is so much like the Camargue; savagely flat and all-but devoid of trees with vast areas of drab salt-marsh and salt pans peppered with patches of white egrets and black-headed gulls in their winter plumage. North of the Loire, the pan-tiles of the Vendee gave way to steeply pitched dark grey slate roofs and suddenly all road-signs were in two languages, French and Breton.
French motorhomers are somewhat cavalier in their approach to overnight camping, taking advantage of any available flat spot providing it’s free. I guess it’s a game, but it seems they have shot themselves in the foot in this neck of the woods as there are signs everywhere prohibiting ‘camping car’ parking and there are height barriers on all car parks making most beaches now completely inaccessible to motorhomers and their families – including us. We pulled into a lay-by for lunch alongside half a dozen other motorhomes one day and within minutes a police patrol car arrived to move us on, obviously alerted by a local resident. We had just put the kettle on!
Kettle and lunchtime sandwiches stowed, we pressed on to the narrow winding roads of the salt pans at Guérande and sat watching the birds whilst we finished our lunch. Salt vendors tend their roadside stalls all along this stretch and we were tempted to purchase a modest pack of sea salt with herbs to grace the kitchen cupboard back home.
It was not until we reached the harbour and the gate into the old town that we realised we had been to Vannes, a little further north, before. The port and the cafe outside the wall looked remarkably familiar. We were there in our Autotrail motorhome, Smiley, in the spring of 2004, a few months before we left for our three-year motorhoming
adventure around Europe and North America. It’s yet another one of those lovely old French cathedral towns we adore; rich in rustic-stone atmosphere, history, bobbing boats in the harbour, timbered buildings on cobbled streets and delightful gardens- perfect for a leisurely stop for coffee and a spot of people-watching.
With a couple of days to spare on our planned journey, we decided to return once more to Carnac, to stand and stare at the seemingly endless rows of enigmatic standing stones, dreaming of the years of hardship endured by those whose imagination and belief drove them to erect such a masterpiece. Like Le-Mont-St-Michel, one visit in one lifetime is not quite enough. We’ll also be back at Le-Mont-St-Michel again in a few days as we head towards Calais. Meanwhile, we drove out to the sea once again, to the Quiberon Peninsula, where we camped alongside a handful of German and Dutch motorhomers on a bumpy, sandy pitch, with time for a long walk before dinner on the wide beaches either side of the road where windsurfers were enjoying the stiff breeze and the last of the day’s sun.
You might be excused for thinking you were in Cornwall when you reach Pont-Aven. It’s St Ives all over again; grey stone walls, slate roofs, little boats moored in the estuary, art galleries galore, pretty cafés, and flowers – everywhere. On the other hand the numerous Breton biscuiteries and shops selling brightly coloured macaroons might just give the game away. There are many distinctly Cornish town names hereabouts too, reflecting the long string of Celtic settlement across Brittany, Cornwall, Wales and Ireland in days gone by.
Way out to the west, lies Pointe de Penmarch, a small maritime town sporting not one, but two lighthouses set beside a broad beach of fine white sand the texture of salt and rock pools of abrasive granite where wheatear, pied wagtails, curlew, turnstone and egret dabbled on the water's edge. A good spot for a light lunch and a leisurely stroll.
Early on Saturday morning we walked into Quimper (once the capital of Corouaille), alongside the River Odet brimming with huge fish, following the ebony reflection of the towering spires of the cathedral into town. The Saturday street
market held our attention, as French markets always do, along with a rather too brief visit to the cathedral and the fascinating (free today!) Musee Departmental Breton, Art Nouveau exhibition, before a light lunch of delicious Breton crèpes. By mid afternoon we were enjoying the company of long-lost friends Peter and Jan in Chateauneuf-du-Faou, eating them out of house and home and learning the ancient art of croquet on their lawn beside the canal!
Peter and Jan hail from Norfolk in the UK, but they have been living in Chateauneuf-du-Faou in Brittany for several years now, immersed in their passion for challenge – the sympathetic renovation of a lovely riverside cottage. It’s on the market right now if you’re interested in the peace and idyllic tranquillity of rural France. With retirement time on their hands and boundless energy on their side they’re now planning to move further south near Bordeaux when their present cottage is sold. Thank you, Peter and Jan for your overwhelming hospitality. It would be all too easy to stay on forever!
But time moves on and our ferry awaits in just three days - time for us to head for the coast once more to Camaret-sur-Mer, with its abandoned fishing boats and pretty seafarers’ chapel. We’re a long way from Carnac here, but there are standing stones here too, not far from the shore – and a wonderful sunset (perfect partners for the camera) greeted us that evening.
There are many reminders of WWII along the rocky, wind-hewn peninsulas on this north-west coast of Brittany: concrete bunkers and gun emplacements now hide behind stunted gorse and heather, the first real signs of the wild and rugged landscape of Brittany we remember from the past. We stopped for a while at Pont de Espanol on the spit
across from the port of Brest where much of the French Naval fleet was standing at rest. Way back in 1597 the Spanish built a fort here which was obviously rather naughty of them, and Henry IV joined forces with the French to see them off! Janice was convinced we had been on that spot once before though my memory totally failed to recall any aspect of the vista. Typically, in our haste to leave home we forgot to bring many things with us on this journey: Janice's diary of our last visit to Brittany in 2004 which might have confirmed whether we had been there before, the Michelin Guide to Brittany, tomato sauce.... and summer clothes - we were fully prepared for the rain and cold winds we had left at home - but we were fortunate to be blessed with sunshine for most of our stay!
One area we both remembered was that little patch of Finnistère where there are numerous magnificent carved granite calvaries and we took time out to revisit just three Parish closes; Lampaul-Guimiliau, Guimiliau and St Thégonnec where we camped overnight on the same town aire we had used on our last visit. The churches are fascinating both inside and out. We followed the Rose Granite Coast under cloudless blue skies, out beyond Morlaix and Lannion, past seaweed gatherers bent-backed on the shore, rose coloured rocks and sandy beaches, Trébeurden, delightful Trégastel, lovely Ploumanach and Port Blanc before lunch on the pebbled beach at Pointe de l’Arcouest.
Le-Mont-St-Michel is the ‘most visited’ tourist attraction in the whole of France we’re told and it’s easy to understand the urge to engage with this iconic image, its towering abbey erupting from the sea on the horizon at the end of a long straight causeway. We didn’t leave it till last on purpose. It’s hard to resist even a second visit, (despite the crowds and often rather tacky souvenir shops) for the vibrant atmosphere of smiling tourists from all corners of the world jostling up and down the narrow sinews of cobbled streets and the sheer scale of this magical isle. They have moved the motorhome ‘aire’ across the causeway since our last visit and we shared both sunset and dawn skies with a hundred or so others on the sandy shore absorbing the spectacle.
This then, is our final image of France for this year, le Mont-St-Michel stacked in the memory bank to draw us back for more culinary delights, a fair slice of peace and tranquillity, family and friends, vast beaches and medieval towns - and whatever that special ingredient it is that makes France so uniquely French.
The car? Sadly all but a write off at just four years old and only 48,000miles; the result of a leaking fuel injector seal it seems. Hardly a good advertisement for the VW Golf 1.9tdi.
David and Janice
Tot: 1.516s; Tpl: 0.088s; cc: 12; qc: 87; dbt: 0.0767s; 1; m:saturn w:www (22.214.171.124); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.4mb