Wet, wet, wet

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July 16th 2012
Published: July 16th 2012
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Monday 9 July – So there we were, parked next to the river at Parthenay (the place with the Games festival going on and the hidden, charming but empty old village down by the river.) Anyway, one of us was awoken by a 6am text from Tom in Kashgar, China – a fuddled brain took 15 mins to text back that we’d planned to Skype/phone him from about 9am....China is 7 hours later than France.

We seemed to have a lot to do this morning, including phoning Tom – who couldn’t talk as he was on a 3 hour drive and also, we had paid for hot, roomy showers at the nearby campsite. By the time we got there the hot water had run out! – it certainly wakes you up – very invigorating. We then tried Tom again at about 12.30 – he was still driving, looking for a campsite – & couldn’t talk. So instead, we went off to spend a ‘wonderful’ hour (NOT) in the local supermarket. We returned to the riverside for a Hymie lunch before moving on.

Our destination was Thouars via St Loup Lamaire, Airvault and Oiron. We stopped at St Loup Lamaire and walked around the small, pretty and deserted village (well it was a Monday – everything stops on a Monday). We came across a magnificent Chateau, then walked down by the river.

From there we drove on to Airvault – an unattractive named for, from what we could see, an unattractive village – we didn’t stop. At Oiron, we parked alongside the enormous and overly ostentatious chateaux...and had a brew up!

Thouars was much bigger than we thought – the very plain outskirts took a while to drive through and as the Aires site we were looking for had no GPS coordinates, we had hoped to see signs....we didn’t. We did drive through part of the ancient quarter – bit hairy with narrow roads and sharp turns – it all looked fairly pleasant but we decided to give it a miss....too much hassle and we’ve been to much better places.

So instead we drove on for about another 12 miles to an Aires site (with GPS co-ords) at Montreuil-Bellay. We are one of about 15 other vans....all French. It’s simply lovely here – a few feet one way to the river and a few yards the other way to the mediaeval town. From where we’re parked, with beautiful gardens, we can just the top of a fairy-tale type, multi-turreted castle. So it’s all looking good – can’t wait to explore tomorrow. In the meantime, it’ll be another quiet night in.

Tuesday 10 July – It was good that yesterday evening we took a stroll along by the river and looked back up at the castle and ramparts. It was a glorious, sunny summer’s evening – cos this morning it was quite cool and overcast.

We entered the village, through the ruins of an ancient monastery and up steep, flower lined old steps....the superb plantings (all pinks/purples & blues) and magnificent trees both along the river and around the castle and town, really add to the charm of this lovely place.

The village at the top of the steps was bigger than we expected and we enjoyed meandering around (on foot), admiring the fabulous castle (could have paid to go in but need to move on), wandering through the market with a roaming elderly trio – accordion, guitar and tambourine....soooo French – and finally, we sat in a cafe next to the castle for refreshments (C pour Er and WW pour Elle).

From there we took a fairly main – straight/boring road to Saumur, where we’d been before. We headed straight for the castle, where we knew there was parking, to sit in the van to have lunch. We remember this amazing castle as being the first really ‘knock-out’ place visited on our 2009 trip. A short walk around then onwards............

Next stop – Bauge. Drove around a bit of the older part and parked by the castle for an afternoon brew before continuing to La Fleche. The Aires site here is pretty good – very central and only 4’ from the river – although maybe a bit noisy as it’s fairly close to the road. Off with the bikes and a jolly good look around. A pleasant enough place, particularly the old buildings by the river but nothing outstanding. Baz had a haircut and after a lot more cycling around (gee it’s good to have the bikes) we sat in a popular bar in the evening sunshine with proper drinks.

We’ve now had to start semi-planning our route back to Dunkirk, a week today. We’re mindful of being somewhere with a bit of buzz for next Saturday-14 July, Bastille Day......there should be something going on (music/fireworks) .......so maybe Amiens. That’s it, tomorrow’s another day.

Wednesday 11 July – We awoke to the sounds of busyness and bustle – Market Day and wow, what a market – it was huge. Having breakfasted whilst enjoying the terrific view of the river from our panoramic windows, we investigated the market. We jostling with the locals up and down the narrow paths between the zillion stalls but there was nothing out of the ordinary. Meat &Charcuterie; bread & cakes; fruit &veg; clothes & underwear and the odd pot’n’pans, jewellery, flowers and double glazing stall.

Of them all, by far the most popular with a lengthy queue, was the Boucherie Cheval – every cut of horse meat you can imagine and some very strange looking ‘other bits’ as well (I’m sure they were sausages!)

We bought a roast chicken, a large piece of roast pork (+ potatoes) and duck breasts. By this time we’d had enough of being jostled by the crowds - all with either a pull-along shopping trolley or infants in pushchairs; so back to the van and time to move on.

Rural roads to Malicorne-sur-Sarthe – a quick wander around, a so-so castle and mill by the river then on again northwards towards Mamers. This route passed directly through Le Mans. We usually by-pass big cities but we could see the main road followed the river through the city....so we decided to simply drive through and out.

However, the view to the right of the river became increasingly charming and full of character, particularly a large section of city wall dating back to 3rd and 4th century! So we parked easily and walked up a steep cobbled lane into the ‘Cite Plantagenet’. This place is stunning.......as good as any we’ve ever seen. A gigantic cathedral of course but a series of delightful streets with the most ancient of houses. On entering the town we spotted a cafe/bar with an 11 Euro four course meal! Couldn’t resist! Smoked warm duck and bacon salad for him, smoked salmon & asparagus for her; two mains, both chicken tagine with couscous. Followed by cheese of choice and then pud....Creme brulee for him, mini choc muffin/mini waffle/rum ice cream for her – all washed down with ¼ picheur of white. Boy, were we full – so it was then good to walk it off a bit by investigating this beautiful place.

Back on country roads – many of the sunflower fields are now in bloom and providing you’re passing on the sunny side, a zillion yellow heads are facing you. Onwards through Ballon and on to Mamers. The weather has alternated with being overcast and lovely sunny spells – but now 7.45pm, it’s begun to rain.......it seems the nearer we get to the UK, the worse the weather becomes – hey-ho. We’ve paid 5 Euros to stay at a leafy Aires site with electricity, just a short walk from town, which we’ll check-out tomorrow. Think it’ll just be a bowl of fish soup for supper and maybe a DVD.

Thursday 12 July – Married 32 (or, as B says -trays dee-ux) years ago today – good grief! After 3 months in a 6’x4’ space, 24/7, it’s a wonder we haven’t dun-each-other-in!

So yet another dull, cool morning. Furthermore whereas previous dull starts have led to brighter days – this was not on for today, although fairly dry, drizzle came and went. We moved the van to Mamers town centre to have a look before moving on – an ancient covered market, a large church, a public loo for him and that was it.

Onwards for a short way to Belleme, which at first looked to be more of the same. However on further exploration we discovered town walls, and ancient entrance gate and a small collection of pretty buildings. We had intended to have an anniversary drink at the main square bar. A large group of hooray-ya-ya Brits were the only other outdoor customers. Having sat down once, we moved tables when it began to drizzle. Whilst still waiting to be served the Hooray Henrys struck up several choruses of ‘Singing in the Rain’......more than we could bear – so returned to Hymie for our own tipple.

We had lunch in the van before moving on to Verneil-sur-Avre. This is actually a lovely little place and had it not been drizzling, it would have looked splendid with blue skies and sunshine. We stopped for an expensive coffee (6 Euros) – cheaper to drink wine! Then carried on to Conches-en-Ouche. The roads between all these places have been very boring and very straight (bloody Romans) – with same old, same old, fields of cereal crops or woods either side.

By the time we parked up (probably illegally) in Conches-en-Ouche (have yet to find the Ouche), right next to a partially ruined Donjon (sort of castle).......the drizzle had turned to rain. We took a short foray into the town – a few buildings of minor interest in the main street – looking for a possible restaurant for our candle-lit Anniversary Dinner. Nowhere with any outdoor seating or shelter should one happen to want a ciggie – all very pretentious and with the rain now pelting down, unlikely to have any customers/atmosphere. So it looks like a meal Chez Nous with the Citronella candle between us!

Friday 13 July – Our hunk of roast pork dinner was delicious and rounded off with a game of Scrabble – exciting stuff! We awoke with our amazing castle view and watched a group of men erecting a stage and dance floor in the market square for celebrations tonight, although we had thought that the Bastille festivities were on Saturday, not Friday night.

Anyway, the rain had stopped and our day of driving took us through some lovely countryside, though some roads were obviously shortcuts for a few lorries who, from time to time would round blind bends well on our side of the road!

We drove through Evereux – too big - and on to Les Andelys.....Le Petit Andely and Le Grand Andely. The former was charming with a tow path along the banks of The Seine and a ruined castle high on the hill. The castle, Chateau Gaillard was erected in record time, 1196-1198, by Richard the Lion Heart, King of England and Duke of Normandy. The small inner village has an attractive square, where we refreshed ourselves, admiring the 13th century church and a number of lovely buildings.

Le Grand Andely, half a mile away was much less attractive but did have a large main square with easy parking and a pavement cafe for our lunch. Just one course, Plat du jour....we both had Colin! (white fish fillets with a delicious muscle/seafood sauce). As we left, we had heard English spoken at the next table, so one of us struck up a conversation. It turns out they live in Penland Road, Haywards Heath, for many years they owned an off licence in Lindfield High Street and last week they attended a wedding in the Queen’s hall in Cuckfield High Street!! So to tell them that I went to Warden Park School, had lived in Old Wickham Lane and that Mum lived at Peelers, Church Street, Cuckfield ....was all a bit of a wow – but apparently, we had to move on L. When we’d arrived at Les Andelys, the woman in the tourist office, who had had a personality removal, said there were planned celebrations by the Seine tonight....maybe, but if it rained, maybe not. Was there any music and dancing? Maybe, maybe not! So we drove onwards.

We came across an unexpectedly delightful village called Lyons-le-Foret. The locals were decorating the ancient covered market with bunting and the slightly more friendly tourist office girl said that tonight, there was to be a lantern procession through the town at 10pm, followed by fireworks at 11pm. Since we were keen to find somewhere that had music and dancing, we decided to look around the village and continue. What an amazing place it is....crammed with charming houses, squares, little rivers and lanes - in one of the delightful houses, the composer Ravel often stayed.

So we drove on to Forges-les-Eaux, as our book told us there was an Aires site there (free for the first night). As we drove into the fairly bland town we saw a stage erected in the main square and a sign for the Tourist Office....we followed it twice but couldn’t find it. However we did see the sign to the Aires site, so we followed that.....a jolly good mile out of town.....hay-ho, perhaps we can cycle back in.

So we settled into this reasonably pleasant Aires and decided we’d have hot Hymie showers, supper here then head out at about 9pm to party. However, about 10 mins ago a French couple knocked on the door to ask for a 6Euro fee (no, not free) and we asked them about tonight’s celebrations. Tonight? Ce soir?.....Non, nothing tonight....Demain/Tomorrow.

So here we are, in the middle of nowhere, preparing for another quiet night in. (P.S. If it’s any consolation, it has now begun to rain, so maybe any celebrations would have probably been a wash-out!)

Saturday 14 July – Ummmmm, not the most exciting of days. Still heading northwards, choosing B roads and via places underlined in red (meant to be worthwhile). So our first destination was Neufchatel-en-Bray..........mildly attractive but..... in, through and out. From there, through pouring rain to Blangy-sur-Breste....same story but we, yes we (his suggestion) wanted a lunchtime tipple and peanuts. No point looking for a bar, the ciggies would get soggy. So instead we searched for the Breste by which to have our own refreshments – we found it near a water mill, the only access being round the back of dilapidated sheds. For a brief 20 mins the sun came out for our short sojourn.

And now on to Abbeville (we’d decided Amiens may be too big for us), in search of culture, an overnight stop but above all, some LIFE! some jollity and socialising (albeit for her). On arrival we parked up by the River Somme for our lunch. A snooze and coffee later, we drove a bit further into town to the Tourist Office. A very sweet girl supplied us with a good amount of info, including the fact that the fireworks had been last night! She did however say that there was to be a Fireman’s Ball in the Salle-des-Fetes(hall).

So armed with a Plan-de-Ville and with the rain at bay, we set forth on a walking tour of Abbeville. Since it was virtually flattened in 1940, there wasn’t much left to see! The two highlights are the church, with a magnificently stone carved frontage – Collagiale Saint Vulfran, where we listened to a lovely choir rehearsing for a 6pm concert, and the Jardin d’Emonville – lovely gardens and house with a lake. By the time we’d done our tour, one of us returned to Hymie and the other went to listen to the 6pm concert – beautiful male voices and harmonies, from young boys with unbroken voices to adult males.

We then moved the van down to the banks of the Somme and are contemplating whether it’s worthwhile to walk the half mile back into town to boogy-on-down at the Fireman’s ball ....or have a quiet night in and a game of Scrabble. Ummmm, think I know the answer!

Sunday 15 July – I did however cycle back into town last night, just to make quite sure there was nothing going on – and check-out the Fireman’s Ball............streets deserted, main square empty and a few spotty and or tarty teenagers hanging around the grim dance hall..........furthermore, got drenched on the way back.

Today grey, cloudy, cold and drizzly. On the recommendation of the Tourist Office girl, we headed for St Rigeur and then Crecy-en-Ponthieu via a scenic route....well it would have been if the rain had not been so torrential and the wipers going double speed. We therefore passed through both, although St Rigeur in particular looked really good.

Onwards to Hesdin (another goody that it was too wet and miserable to explore), where we pulled up for a brew and Pain-au-Chocolat . Off again to St Omer, passing Azincourt, site of the famous battle of Agincourt in 1415. We finally arrived in St Omer (still raining) starving hungry. We’d briefly stopped here before, so this time we had a bigger look around, after hoeing into two steak & chips. It is a nice enough place but fairly ordinary. Luckily as we ate the sky cleared and our stroll was quite sunny.

Finally we did the last leg of our intended journey today to Hondschoote. It’s interesting how the scenery and architecture change as we go further north. We stopped at Esquelbecq where the largest concrete bunker was built by the Germans’ prisoners of war in 1943/44. It was designed to launch V2 rockets against London. We contemplated paying to enter and do the tour by it takes over 1½ hrs and we needed to push on. It would have been good to stop at Bergues, which from driving past looks terrific – the mediaeval walls that enclose the town seem to be wholly intact.

Our last 15-20 miles were in very flat Flemish/type countryside with the road running alongside a pretty canal. So here we are at our Aires site in Hondschoote (about 5 miles from Belgium border) with 4 other vans and next to an old windmill. If it wasn’t for a yapping French chein (chee – en), it would be quite peaceful!

We’ll make our way to Tobacco Alley in Belgium tomorrow to stock up (not a moment too soon – there is a danger we’ll run out of backy tonight! HELP!) . Then tomorrow night we’ll stay at an Aires in Dunkirk for our Tuesday morning crossing.

Monday 16 July – Greetings from MacDonalds, downtown Dunkirk.......just time to do another blog, with a final one to come. So ‘til then...................

Since Parthenay: St Loup Lamaire; Airvault; Oiron; Thouars; Montreuil-Bellay; Saumur; Bauge; La Fleche; Malicorne sur Sarthe; Le Mans; Ballon; Mamers; Belleme; Verneuil-sur-Avre; Conches-en-Ouche; Evreux; Les Andelys; Lyons-le-Foret; Forges-les-Eaux; Neufchatel-sur-Bray; Blangy-sue-Breste; Abbeville; St Riguier; Crecy-en-Ponthieu; Hesdin; Azincourt; Fruges, St Omer; Esquelbecq; ; Bergues; Hondschoote; Dunkirk

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