Friday 12th February 2010, Salles, les Landes
As you see, we have finally escaped from the snowy campsite at Bayonne. Actually it was a pleasant enough place with a friendly owner but over 36 hours tightly confined in Modestine with sub-zero temperatures outside is quite enough for anyone. It didn't snow further overnight but it never got above minus 3 degrees either so everywhere was still covered in ice this morning.
The birds were queuing up outside for breakfast eagerly devouring slices of our seven cereals bread. Modestine, we have discovered, is a perfect bird hide enabling us to sit in the warm with mugs of tea as we watch chaffinches and blue tits feeding just feet away from us on the snow covered bench.
The icy slope up from the campsite looked lethal and we thought we'd be stuck another day until the owner told us we could pass through his garden instead. Off the site the country road was snow-packed and icy but once on more major roads things improved considerably.
Down at the coast at Capbreton the beaches were covered in snow - unheard of in southern France. Here we were definitely already in les Landes, the large attractive residential houses and holiday homes standing in their own grounds amidst the pine trees and tamarisks. Both Capbreton and neighbouring Hossegor are very attractive little towns, popular as summer tourist resorts, each with its own casino and with a large Port de Plaisance with yachts and sailing craft overwintering. We explored the area in 2005 on our way back to Ambre-les-Espagnolettes after visiting Ralph in Salies-de-Béarn. See towards the end of the entry for 29th November 2005
The roads and pavements were thick with hard-packed ice and snow and it was still bitterly cold. With so little incentive to walk we took the lazy option exploring the towns, the port and the sea front from the comfort of Modestine before parking and going off for a very enjoyable hot lunch. With a large white dome of snow on her roof and long icicles suspended from her luton, hanging down over the windows, Modestine had rather the air of one of the lady barristers in a Kavanagh QC film. We've broken off most of the icicles but this evening she is still jauntily wearing her white wig!
Anyone who followed our early travels may perhaps recall that when we visited this area in 2005 we spent a night camping at a site run by friends of Ralph where we were made particularly welcome. We'd hoped to spend another night with them this evening but driving conditions have been so bad be decided to make the most of daylight and press on northwards as we need to be in Bordeaux shortly. The campsite was managed by Andy and Celia who came from England and back in 2005 we mentioned that when they sold-up and moved to France they brought with them a couple of large stone creatures that Andy salvaged from a skip while working on a building site in Surrey. He speculated that they may possibly be the only remaining original King's beasts, possibly from the long demolished Nonesuch Palace, and there they incongruously stood in his lounge on a campsite in south-west France!
There is now a happy conclusion to the story. Our friend Ralph mentioned the existence of these stone creatures to historians working on a restoration project at Hampton Court. They were sufficiently interested to take the next flight out to Biarritz and turned up hammering on Andy and Celia's door waving their cheque book. They returned to England accompanied by two rescued King's beasts leaving Andy and Celia dancing around their suddenly spacious lounge waving a cheque for an appropriately large sum of money! So you can now take a trip to Hampton Court to see these curious creatures back where they truly belong. They are the ones that turn their heads and smile when you call their names – Andy and Celia of course.
We have said before that les Landes are one of the largest and least interesting areas of France to drive across. The main roads are die-straight and the landscape totally flat. The soil is sandy and planted with huge areas of pine forest which have been grown here since the 19th century. Today we decided to follow the coastal route northwards using minor roads. It turned out to be an excellent plan. This area has avoided the worst of the blizzard over the past couple of days. Soon the snow had almost disappeared and the roads were dry and free from ice. We passed through a number of very attractive villages, clean and well cared for. The architectural style changed. Farms and older domestic buildings were timber-framed frequently neatly infilled with brick. Doors and shutters were in a dark wood that matched the timber frame. We found these spaciously laid out villages delightful.
Much work has been carried out clearing up after the storms that destroyed so much of the woodland last year. When we passed this way in March the pine trees were lying in their thousands, tumbled like giant matchsticks. There are still huge swathes of land waiting to be replanted but the timber has been cut and stacked in countless huge log piles. Other areas have already been replanted with young saplings but it will be years before the area recovers. And there is just too much timber now without a market. Down at the dock in Bayonne we saw huge containers filled with tree trunks waiting on the quayside for shipment. The rest is stacked here on les Landes, awaiting a buyer. We passed slogans painted up claiming the government has let down French foresters. Instead of timber being cut as markets are found, foresters have worked flat out to salvage and stack the fallen timber and are frantically replanting. They feel they are not getting the government support they need and timber prices are currently rock bottom.
At the appropriately named village of Gastes (pronounced Gassed) we turned off to explore the huge lake known as the Etang de Biscarrosse et de Parentis. Here pockets of natural gas and oil have been discovered. There were a number of rigs out in the lake harvesting the gas which was piped ashore and processed in a lakeside refinery, complete with flares burning off the accompanying methane. Surprisingly from this description, it is a very peaceful and pretty area and the lake is a popular venue for holiday-makers. It really is enormous and the far side is a military zone, inaccessible to the public and stretching some ten kilometres to the coast.
By the time we arrived at this campsite daylight was fading. Our outdated campsite guide indicated it should be open but we were greatly relieved to find a few camping cars here when we arrived – all English. Open campsites are very thin on the ground at this time of year and it would be really difficult to spend the night without heating if we couldn't find a site open. The next one from here is right up in Bordeaux.
Saturday 13th February 2010, Bordeaux, Gironde
It has been a really enjoyable day but so cold our bones have been numbed. Fortunately there has been no snow and it has been perfectly dry but tonight we were just so glad to return to the campsite on the city outskirts where we had left Modestine, turn on the heating and thaw out after spending most of the day exploring Bordeaux.
We last visited the city some six years ago at the invitation of Yves and Catherine whom we met in Sri Lanka at Neil and Jeev's wedding in 2003. It is to see them again that we have now returned here, having been invited to spend a couple of days with them. Reaching the city earlier than we expected and knowing our friends are not around until tomorrow, we decided to use this campsite for a night and spend the day exploring the heart of the city.
We left last night's campsite at Salles immediately after breakfast and an hour later we reached this site at the furthest limit of the bus and tram service into the centre of Bordeaux. The young man of around seventeen who booked us in was delightful. He and his sister were running the office for their parents who'd obviously gone off somewhere for the weekend. After sorting us out on a convenient pitch he explained exactly how to get into the city centre using public transport and gave us various maps and timetables, which naturally made him Ian's friend for life.
Within thirty minutes we were standing in Place de la Victoire, the southern entrance to the old city. Even today, in the cold, it was busy with shoppers, a group of North American Indians playing flutes and some crusties and their dogs propping up the monument to Bordeaux wine in the centre of the square. Unfortunately, as we never expected to find ourselves here on this trip we had no guide books so what we saw today has no real point of reference. This means you are spared too much economic and historical detail. We do know however that the population of the conurbation of Bordeaux is around 750,000 making it one of the largest cities in France and a major regional centre.
The tramway has only recently been re-introduced to the city and it is a marvel. Clean, modern, snaking through the city every few minutes they have brought fresh life and character to Bordeaux and reduced traffic congestion in the centre. Last time we came the city was in chaos as the tracks were being laid but today people move quickly, cheaply and silently around the city, each €1.40 ticket valid for one hour's travel anywhere on the bus and tram network, changing as frequently as you wish.
The centre is almost completely pedestrianised with hundreds of smart fashion shops and sandwich bars. Despite the cold people sat out at tables on the icy streets as if it were high summer! The city is clean, easy to stroll through and enjoy and very, very chic.
The French writer Stendhal stated Bordeaux to be the most beautiful and pleasant city in France. Our vote for that still goes to Nancy but we have to admit Bordeaux is not far behind. All the buildings are magnificent. They are beautifully constructed and maintained, dating mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries, built with taste and elegance. There are wide squares overlooked by such buildings as the stunning theatre, or the Bourse down on the Garonne river, or by the flamboyant statue honouring the Girondins, the more moderate wing of the supporters of the French Revolution who suffered during the reign of terror. All along the water front there are impressive facades of commercial and trade buildings harking back to the development of Bordeaux as a major port. It still is today, and not simply for its wine industry. Nowadays the quays are also involved in the petrol and chemical industries.
Apparently the bronze sculpture forming the fountain at the base of the monument was hidden away during the war for fear the occupying forces would melt it down for weapons. It was so well hidden that later nobody could recall where it had been placed and it didn't turn up again until the end of the 1950s.
The Cathedral is mainly gothic but the nave started out as Romanesque. In particular it has a couple of very elaborate round windows, best seen from outside. Beside it stands the restored bell tower topped by a shining gold figure.
The permanent collections in the Art Gallery were free and included works by Bruegel, Titian, Rubens and Tischbein as well as a large collection of Dutch masters. It was remarkable to see from the captions how lavishly the city had spent over the past two centuries to acquire this collection.
The river Garonne rises in the Pyrenees and just beyond Bordeaux it joins with the Dordogne to become the Gironde flowing into the Bay of Biscay. It is through this waterway that the Atlantic is linked to the Mediterranean via the Canal du Midi.
Throughout the day we had to pop into shops, restaurants and public buildings simply to get temporary relief from the cold. Around 5pm we could take it no longer and returned to Modestine. The young man from the campsite office came eagerly knocking at our door to tell us that he and his sister had spent the afternoon cooking. She'd made crème brûlée and he'd made brioche. As we spoke French he'd come to ask us whether we'd care to buy some for supper or breakfast. Quite impossible to refuse such a charming suggestion and indeed the crème brûlée was quite delicious. We had to admire their entrepreneurial skills and wonder whether their parents realise what they are up to while they are away! Other English people on the site, seeing him at our door, came to investigate so we think he managed to sell most of what they'd cooked. It is so nice to meet young people with such a charming, confident and cheerfully positive outlook on life.
Tuesday 16th February 2010, Rochefort, Charente Maritime
We are now camping in the rain beside the sea near the interesting 17th century naval town of Rochefort, an established favourite of ours. We will explore it further tomorrow.
We have spent the last couple of days staying in the very heart of Bordeaux with our friends Yves and Catherine who have given up their time to show us around the city and provided us with home comforts, good company and several lovely meals – not to mention the local wines. Yves, an expert in making his own, very professional travel films, has given Ian lessons in editing video clips, so in the future we may be able to include such things in our blogs.
We last spent time with Yves and Catherine in somewhat warmer weather at Catherine's family home at Villeneuve-sur-Lot in the Quercy region. That still counts as one of the most surreal and delightful interludes in our travels. Our report was even picked up by a local online journal for the English living in the area and an edited version appeared in their monthly magazine. Our experience of life in an 18th century French château can be seen on Wednesday 3rd October 2007
The weather has continued to be bitterly cold over the past few days but after Sunday lunch we braved the sub-zero temperatures to take the tram down to the Garonne river and stroll along the quays, a popular weekend activity with Bordelaise families, cyclists, skate boarders, roller-bladers, scooters and dog walkers.
Back from the river we explored the older parts of the city while our friends pointed out things we had missed the previous day, such as the clock tower and city walls.
They also explained something of the city's history. Its obvious wealth is partly founded on the slave trade. Like Bristol, with which it is twinned, slaves passed through Bordeaux from Africa on their way to America. Ships returning also stopped at Bordeaux with cargoes of sugar and tobacco before continuing to Africa for a fresh consignment of slaves.
Nobody uses a car in Bordeaux if it can be avoided, particularly in the city centre where there is no such thing as an unoccupied parking space. There are tailbacks of vehicles blocking side streets while a double parked vehicle will hold everyone up for a pizza delivery. We had been worried about where and how to park Modestine, but fortunately she just passed beneath an archway beneath houses in the side road, so that we could leave her at the bottom of Yves garden, hidden safely away from the chaos on the streets outside.
So on Monday morning we all walked to the street market in the St. Michel district of the city where many of the Turkish immigrants live. It was a bright sunny day with the market stalls clustered around the church. Turkish people love gold so everything on the stalls glittered, whether it was shiny gold dress fabric or gold rimmed drinking glasses. There was much glittering jewellery and stalls selling heavily fragranced perfumes. The costumes of the local residents were as colourful and exotic as the stalls with little groups of wizened old men in bright robes drinking strong dark coffee at tables on the edge of the market. There were kebab stalls and general stores selling foodstuffs, smoking hookas, leather stools and Turkish slippers. Butchers provided specially killed halal meats.
Having explored the stalls and investigated inside the church we returned home for a long, enjoyable lunch of coquilles St. Jacques cooked with leeks and mushrooms in a cream sauce flavoured with orange. We lingered so long over the wines and coffees, with so much to discuss, that it was nearly 4pm by the time we finished.
Yves then braved the traffic to drive us all through the city centre and out into the Medoc region, deep into the Bordeaux wine producing area. Here we visited his brother's home in the pleasant village of Castelnau. His sister–in-law is a potter, teaching and making raku. Here we spent a delightful evening exploring her studio and admiring her work while she explained the techniques of firing and glazing. In her garden they have built a spacious holiday gite, ideal for exploring the local wine growing area, in easy reach of the sea and of course of Bordeaux. She specially wanted us to mention it, so if you are seeking a holiday let in the area, we can pass on the address.
It was already late when we returned home to enjoy an intriguing and delicious seafood pasta. We were still at table chatting at midnight.
Today we left with the usual sense of regret we have parting from friends we see all too rarely and never know when we will all be together again. Thank you both for such a happy couple of days.
Once we'd negotiated our way out of the city we were soon on our way to Cognac which turned out to be a very pleasant town on the banks of the river Charente. The area is famed not just for French brandy, but also for the sweet white wine popular as an aperitif, Pineau Charente. There are several brandy distilleries in the town, though not open for guided visits at this time of year.
The old town is full of narrow, winding streets of well restored stone or half-timbered houses which wind their way down to the river through the impressive town gates. The castle here is known as the Chateau de François I. He was born in Cognac in 1494; his symbol, the salamader, appears on several of the major buildings around the town while there is a flamboyant statue of him in the central square near the Cognacotheque.
And so we continued to this open campsite with its cold water and chilly toilets. Still, we have electricity and once we've closed the curtains for the night it matters little to us what it's like outside. As we cooked supper Neil phoned and we listened with delight as our granddaughter Deyvi sang Frère Jacques down the phone to us, having picked it up at nursery. She has developed so much while we have been away on our travels. It's always a joy to see her again when we return but now that she is mastering language we realise how quickly she is changing. She of course, doesn't yet differentiate between English, Sri Lankan or even French. Amazingly she had all the words there even if she's not a clue what it all means.
Wednesday 17th February 2010, Fouras, Charente Maritime
Today has been really good. So good in fact that we are still in the same area, just a little further along the coast. We've not even reached La Rochelle yet – our intended destination for the day.
It was a little warmer this morning. This came as a relief as last night's campsite was at the tip of the estuary of the river Charente so we were almost completely surrounded by water. The shower block was a fantasy of somebody's imagination being designed from the outside to resemble a boat while from the inside it was more like an igloo - cold, white and basic with no heating and water too cold for showering.
Recently in Hendaye, just across the river from Spain, we visited the house in which the French writer Pierre Loti died. Today we visited his birthplace here in Rochefort. It was quite an experience with guided visits in French only. Fortunately we arrived well before the tour with time to read a guidebook in English beforehand. Otherwise we would have been quite out of our depth. Our guide must surely have trained in the Comédie Française. His presentation was amusing, expressive and very rapid.
Pierrre Loti was a rather bizarre character, adored by his literary followers. He lived from 1850 to 1923. He travelled widely, particularly in the Middle and Far East and developed a lasting attachment to Turkey and its people. As a naval officer he visited China and Tahiti, returning to his home town of Rochefort with many mementos of his travels. Over the years he incorporated these into his home which he enlarged to accommodate them. They became a completely integral part of his house which stands in a perfectly ordinary street of terraced houses, no different from the rest of the town, but inside floors have been removed and neighbouring properties purchased to accommodate a gothic baronial hall with a musicians' gallery while upstairs is a Turkish mosque complete with minaret, Turkish tiled walls, carpets, cushions and a fountain.
He would hold receptions in the house where he insisted his guests dress in Chinese robes provided for them as he endeavoured to recreate back home his experiences of travel. Those experiences also shaped his novels which were written in his study in his house in Rochefort. They are frequently a colourful reflection of his own life and travels, so well written that he became an idol of his time and found himself elected to the Académie Française.
Rochefort is a pleasant town of wide streets laid out in a grid pattern. It was built and developed all at the same time to accommodate a naval shipyard established by Colbert in the 1660s. The buildings are all in similar white stone with elegant, substantial façades. Beside the river there are the remains of the original dry docks used for boat construction and the long, beautiful building used for rope making. Further back into the town is the original building for the iron foundry where cannons and guns for the ships were produced.
Also in the town we discovered the free museum with its art gallery, ethnic artifacts from Tahiti and Africa and galleries on the history of the town including an excellent scale model showing it as it would have been in the early 19th century.
Each time we have come we have discovered new things about Rochefort. There are just so many things of interest to explore in a setting that has us standing on every street corner gazing around at the architectural symmetry of the buildings with their ornate windows and entrances. There are parks and open spaces down near the river and a pleasant, modern shopping centre as well.
This is today's impression and we have tried to avoid repeating our earlier description of Friday 5th October 2007 Please see that account where there are also more photos of Rochefort.
By the time we rejoined Modestine it was too late to continue to La Rochelle and in any case we wanted to explore an interesting area we'd noted nearby on our map where a narrow spit of land juts out into the sea beyond the village of Fouras. There would just be time to drive there before dusk.
It was a very pleasant drive. The countryside is extremely flat and covered with grassland and pine forests. From the tip of the peninsula we looked across at the Ile d'Aix. In this bay we have already visited the islands of Oléron and Ré but know nothing of Aix. We have read somewhere that it was on Aix that Napoleon was captured by the English and taken to Plymouth on board the Bellerophon. As we watched, the ferry, named Pierre Loti, chugged its way across the bay from the island, landing at the quayside to disgorge some twenty passengers and three vans. It all looked so exciting we will just have to return one day and visit the island.
It was very cold on the water's edge this evening and we were delighted to discover an open campsite on the edge of the village, thus avoiding the need to return to last night's chilly site in Rochefort. This place even has heated showers!
Thursday 18th February 2010, Luçon, Vendée
Another very enjoyable day accompanied until this evening by bright, warm sunshine.
Leaving last night's campsite we parked in the village for a stroll along the clean sandy beach. Little fishing boats lay in shallow water with a jetty forming a sheltered bay. Behind us were pleasant villas and seaside homes, each in their own grounds surrounded by maritime pines tossing in the sea breeze.
Fouras is particularly noted for oysters, mussels and crustacea and there is a daily fish market in the town. With its strategic position at the mouth of the Charente river it has always held an important defensive role for the port of La Rochelle and has a 16th century fort, with its donjon remarkably well intact, which was modernised under the command of Vauban (again) in the 17th century.
The sea laps the town on both sides, just a few minutes' walk apart. Everywhere is so very flat that islands in the bay are indistinguishable at ground level but from the walls of the fort it is easy to make out the Ile d'Aix, the Ile Madame and the larger Ile d'Oléron while further round the bay the buildings of La Rochelle show clear and white 20 Km to the north.
It is a wonderfully peaceful and attractive little town, particularly on such a sparkling day out of season when tourists are few and the people on the streets are local residents. Having explored the town and the market we joined some of them in the only bar, near the fish market. It was crowded with customers, most of whom knew each other and spent much time kissing and shaking hands as people came and went. The young lady behind the bar was kept on her toes refilling wine glasses and the only money that seemed to change hands was ours.
Just a few doors up the street was a wine merchant where we bought a bottle of vieux Pineau Charente which we were assured is fourteen years old and should be drunk with foie gras. It is to take back with us to Caen to celebrate us being together with Geneviève in the "new" old house again.
We had such a happy morning exploring this delightful little town in its lovely maritime setting that time quite ran away with us and it was nearly 2pm before we were ready to continue to La Rochelle.
On the edge of the city we left Modestine in the Park and Ride and took a tiny electric navette across the bridge and into the heart of the old port. It was all so much simpler than trying to park in the centre and far cheaper too.
La Rochelle is a naval port with a long maritime history. It has defensive walls on the seaward side with three impressive towers, one, the Tour de la Laterne being the only remaining mediaeval lighthouse anywhere along the Atlantic coast. A chain was hung across between the other two towers to block the entrance to the harbour in times of war. The harbour is filled with yachts and there is the perpetual sound of spinnakers clanking against masts and wind flapping at the rigging.
The streets are laid out in a grid pattern. They are mostly arcaded, providing protection from both rain and sun. Many of the buildings have carvings or mouldings, some very weathered, some dating back to mediaeval times while ancient gargoyles overhang the streets to disperse rainwater from the steep slated roofs. As well as the stone buildings there are a number of half timbered ones, their timbers normally protected by lines of slates.
It is also a very smart shopping area with all the main brand names, and the pedestriansised areas were busy with visitors as this is half-term week for the local schools.
We wandered the streets, peered into handsome courtyards of civic buildings and hôtels particulières, strolled through public gardens and discovered the town hall and the law courts in their impressive buildings. We also discovered the very handsome facade of the property known as the house of Henri II, In fact it had nothing to do with Henry II and was really just a sham as nothing lay behind the stunning façade!
La Rochelle is a very pleasant and attractive place to spend an afternoon and there is plenty to see and enjoy, but we had to move on, so we caught the navette back to the car park to rejoin Modestine.
There is an all year campsite in the town but we decided there was still time before dark to drive north towards Luçon where our campsite book assured us there was an all year camp site set out in the very heart of the marshlands of the Vendèe. The drive was interesting with water from flooded waterways washing beside the road. Everywhere is so flat and waterlogged it would take very little to flood. As we drove through this empty countryside we passed a couple of ragondins near the village of St. Radégond (or was it the other way around?) There were also herons, sea birds and lapwings along the edges of the waterways.
It was 6pm as the tower of the church in the village came into sight some six kilometres away along a die straight road through the marshes. Would there really be somebody in the campsite office watching us approach and stoking up the boiler in the shower block to welcome us? No of course not. We arrived to find the gates chained up, nobody around and enough dead leaves piled up everywhere to imply it had been closed all winter. So much for trusting our camping guide. Furthermore there was nowhere else listed as open before Nantes. It would be dark long before we could hope to arrive and it wasn't in the right direction anyway. Sunny as it has been today, the nights are far too cold to consider sleeping in Modestine without electricity for heating. Our only hope was finding a hotel in Luçon once we'd driven all the way back across the marshes.
Just outside the town we passed a sign for an aire de camping cars and turned off to investigate. It stands on the edge of a lake and has electricity! There are a couple of real camping cars here but nobody around to ask about payment so we have simply hooked up to the electricity and will worry about that tomorrow. The toilets are locked and the water turned off. We are down to our last bottle which we will need for tea tomorrow so we are just grateful we had hot showers this morning. Time now to "look upon the hedge"and go to bed. Is this really a civilised way for pensioners to behave?