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Sunday, 29 June 2014

Through France to the Pyrenees Seven: Hand cream and unisex toilets

The Loire River just before the storm
The search to find Carol’s favourite hand cream took a few thousand miles but we can report has now ended.  As some friends will know, the Olive and Almond cream by Le Petit Marseillais is an essential part of Carol’s beauty routine and we had looked for the distinctive pale green tins in every supermarket we visited.  We thought we had an early success when we found it in one Carrefour but all four tins they had remaining had been opened and tried.  However, Auchan in Le Mans came up trumps and the van is now loaded up with a year’s supply.

Continuing our journey north, we spent a couple of nights at Saumur on the Loire and were able to cycle along the river and return on the opposite bank.  The Loire cycle route is well sign-posted and not as flat as you might expect as it often takes you away from the river and the busier roads.  We had our lunch overlooking a small lake in a wood of tall pine trees set high above the river that only lacked an Osprey to make us feel in Scotland.  It was a splendid day’s cycling and we were lucky to reach one of the few cafes we passed within only a minute or two of a massive thunder storm.  We remained warm and dry with hot chocolate and ice-cream while the rain beat down on the bikes outside and the only downside was the soggy saddles we had for the last few kilometres.

Unisex toilet and shower facilities have been the most common set-up on French camp sites and they make perfect practical sense, making best use of the available facilities.  Reading some of the reviews in the camp site guide, they are clearly not liked by everyone but really if you are not happy sharing with different sexes then camping in France probably isn’t for you.  Gender really didn’t enter in to the equation when Anthony heard someone using the next door cubicle to him one morning; the groans and moans the occupant made were really uncalled for in a shared facility.
The pronunciation of French continues to cause us difficulties, although we do our best and always try and speak some French when we first arrive at a camp site or use a cafe or shop.  While walking and cycling most people greet us with a hearty ‘Bonjour!’  On these encounters we have heard more different ways of pronouncing ‘Bonjour’ than there are varieties of French wine, making  us sure we will never master this language proficiently.  A French phrase that we thought was from the world of ‘Allo ‘Allo only and had nothing to do with real life French was ‘Oo La La!’  However, when France beat Switzerland so resoundingly last weekend, to our delight the French man sitting next to us uttered this wonderful phrase.

An old farmhouse in the Eure valley
Another valley, another Voie Verte; this time north of Chartres in the Eure valley.  We camped at Marcilly sur Eure at a site mostly used as an overnight stop by English vans.  The Voie Verte follows the Eure valley for about 20kms and was surprisingly pleasant cycling in this little frequented area.  The cycle route follows an old railway line and is good tarmac and flat cycling through the Cheshire of France.  The Cafe de la Gare in Ezy-sur-Eure is worthy of special mention in a country of cafes; it was a charming and individual cafe run by Annie and watched over by her vicious Yorkshire Terrier.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Through France to the Pyrenees Six: Cat sculptures and Bastides

A stone cat sculpture in La Romieu
We dragged ourselves away from the mountains and the second-to-very-few showers and started to head reluctantly north.  We made it as far as La Romieu, a perfectly formed village that was too pretty for even the best chocolate box.  La Romieu has a local legend about the woodman’s daughter, Angeline and her cats that saved the village.  Angeline loved her cats; however, in 1342 a terrible famine hit the village for many years and the locals were desperate enough to eat the local moggies with the exception of two that Angeline was allowed to hide in the attic.  When the famine ended and the crops again started to grow, these were quickly eaten by the rat population that had multiplied unchecked with the lack of cats.  Fortunately, Angeline’s two cats had had kittens and these cats were able to chase and kill the rats, thus saving the village from further starvation.  Now stone sculptures of cats can be found on window ledges and walls, charmingly sleeping and creeping around the village.

Brantome on the river Drome
The countryside around La Romieu is undulating and dotted with large farmhouses and rural villas but is mostly fields of cereals and fruit trees and woodland.  We followed one of the local way-marked walks and after meeting a couple of groups of pilgrims on their way to Santiago Compostela near to La Romieu we didn’t meet anyone else for over 10kms.  The Collegiate Church in La Romieu is on the pilgrim route and is a World Heritage Site.

Heading even further north we crossed the rivers we had met in the Massif Central; we crossed the Garonne in Agen, the Lot in the pretty market town of Villeneuve-sur-Lot and the Dordogne in wine soaked Bergerac.  We crossed Bastide country; these fortified towns generally from around the 13th Century all originally followed a similar design with a fortified rampart and a central square surrounded by arcades.  Some of these Bastides have survived more complete than others.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Through France to the Pyrenees Five: Posh Showers and Pilgrims

We tore ourselves away from the lentils and volcanoes and made it to the Pyrenees.  OsmAnd told us our altitude as we drove past Lourdes and climbed up the mountain road to Gavarnie.  The air was cooler at around 1,300m above sea level and in the evening it was soon long-trousers and jumpers weather; items of clothing we had banished to the back of the wardrobe since leaving England.

Anthony looking over to the Cirque de Gavarnie
During the daytime it was back in to shorts in the sunshine and we have to say that the Cirque de Gavarnie is the most spectacular natural World Heritage Site we have seen yet.  We walked up to 1700m to an alpine meadow viewpoint above the Cirque de Gavarnie on a less travelled route that we had to ourselves.  We enjoyed our picnic with a ring-side seat over the valley, entertained by the Alpine Choughs and the Griffon Vultures above our heads and then we crossed fast flowing glacial streams and walked through woodland down to the bowl of the Cirque itself.  Here there is a hotel and a terrace that has a spectacular view of the Cirque and is just the place to enjoy a beer (€8 for two being as you ask).  We took the easy route back down to the village with the other pilgrims and resisted the temptation to buy a fluffy whistling marmot in the gift shops.

We retreated back down to the valley for some cycling, as the Col du Tourmalet is still not open.  We chose an ACSI camp site in Argeles-Gazost next to the Voie Verte that follows the Gave de Pau valley.  We were surprised to find the camp site very busy so early in the season and we are not sure if the attraction is the proximity to Lourdes, the entertaining rabbits on the site or the plush shower rooms that wouldn’t look out of place in a four star hotel.  Each shower room is individually designed and the poshest has a sink set in a boulder.  The site also has a series of swimming pools, including a circular rapids section and swimming against the current was hard work.  The camp site bar is showing the football every evening and we watched France resoundingly beat Switzerland 5-2.

The river Gave and cycling on the Voie Verte
The Voie Verte cycle route we had come for follows an old railway line through the valley and small villages to the edge of Lourdes and most of the other cyclists we met were lycra-clad boy racers.  We stopped in the village of Geu to see the Lavoir that was prettily set by a stream at the top of a hill and spotted a pair of Egyptian Vultures.  Lourdes and the number of people there is beyond our comprehension and all we can say is that we enjoyed some good ice-cream and Anthony got a puncture in his back tyre.

We took the van out to high up in the Vallee du Marcadau and walked up the river Gave, walking past gushing waterfalls, through an abundance of flowering Azalea bushes and in to green mountain pastures.  We spotted a Dipper in the fast flowing stream, such a small bird holding its own in such energetic water and certainly doing some White-water dipping.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Through France to the Pyrenees Four: Brocante and relaxation

Entraygues-sur-Truyere across the river Lot
We stumbled upon a lovely camp site in Entraygues-sur-Truyere thanks to the Rough Guide and ACSI.  With a lack of churches in the area, the Rough Guide was forced to mention other activities and included a passing reference to lovely cycling along the Lot valley from Entraygues.  When we found there was an ACSI site there for €12 it seemed worth a look.

Entraygues-sur-Truyere is on the confluence of the rivers Truyere and Lot and is an attractive village with a few touristy shops and restaurants, some wonderful medieval buildings, a chateau and a charming camp site.  The site has everything you might need, including plugs in the sinks, good sized pitches with hedges and helpful staff.  The wi-fi is free and easily available from all pitches too.   The weather has been enjoyably hot and we are resorting to cooling down the red wine in an evening before we drink it!

The Flea Market
After browsing around a large and varied Sunday flea market in the village, exclaiming at some of the prices for the stuff on sale and pondering on the possible use of other items we set off to try out the cycling.   The Rough Guide was spot on; we found very pleasant cycling with only light traffic along the D107.  The route is mostly flat as it follows the river and we enjoyed an easy 30kms route to the small village of Vieillevie and back, which left us with plenty of energy to explore the old streets of Entraygues in the evening.

The Tourist Information Office in Entraygues is a pleasure for those of us who like things well organised.  The excellent selection of walk leaflets are displayed so that you can easily choose from a range of walks between 6kms to 13.5kms in length, with leaflets available in either French or English for €0.50 each.  We chose the 13.5kms length walk which took us up the hills behind the camp site and had a lovely day out.  We enjoyed seeing so many butterflies and walking through a variety of woodland and upland meadows with views across the Lot valley and back to the Puy-de-Dome.

Walking above the Lot valley
We have relaxed in to our holiday very quickly and in response have been pottering through France quite slowly; we are both clearly born to meander through life.  However, a bit of planning one evening revealed that if we are going to reach the chilly heights of the Pyrenees on this holiday we need to get a bit of a move on before it is time to return home, so we will be hitting the road again but not before we have celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Through France to the Pyrenees Three: Volcanoes and lentils

The title of the blog is no reflection on a vegetarian diet it relates to the part of the Auvergne we have found ourselves in, where the extinct volcanoes are called Puys and the Puy green lentils come from too.  We spent a few days in this area and would certainly recommend it.  We climbed Puy de Dome in the evening sunshine, getting to the top when most of the day visitors had already left with only a few stragglers waiting for the last train down.  We were accompanied up and down by mad runners who sweated past us on the way up and hurtled uncontrollably back on the steep descent.  The view looking down on the chain of distinctive hills in the evening sunshine was beautiful.

The Roche Tuilieres and Roche Saradoire walk
On our way south to the Puy de Sancy area we walked around two precipitous crags, Roche Tuilieres and Roche Saradoire admiring the regular hexagonal patterns in the basalt as we scrambled around the rocks.  We were delighted to see the same pattern beautifully replicated in the tiles from local stone on the roof of an old barn.

We stayed on a campsite with a view over the faded spa town of La Bourboule and climbed up  La Banne D’Ordance; not called a puy but it is another extinct volcano.  This mostly grassy mountain has a craggy top and we sat in the sunshine above the cliffs having our lunch and watching the thunder clouds rolling towards us, paying for our relaxed attitude by getting wet on the way back to the van.  However, we were also rewarded by the site of a deer in the woodland that let us watch for a minute or two before catching our scent and bounding silently in to the woods.
From the top of Banne D'Ordance

Le-Puy-en-Velay is a town built as a cure for depression; we laughed so much as we arrived and saw the three ludicrous tall volcanic rocks adorned with statues and a church that erupt from the houses of this town.  We climbed up to the enchanting Chapelle St-Michael d’Aigulhe in the evening to see the lay-out of the town from a good height.  The next morning we mingled with the crowds in the large and lively Saturday market.

Not surprising with so much volcanic activity in this area, there are also hot springs and we stopped at Chaudes-Aigues to see the hottest spring in Europe.  The water comes out of the ground here at 82oC (yes, nearly boiling) and even on a hot day steam was rising from the spring.  The village Lavoir is still in use; who needs a washing machine when there is an endless supply of free hot water.

Through France to the Pyrenees Two: French Presidents and Health and Safety

Narrow streets in Lormes
The Morvan National Park was where President Mitterand learnt his political trade as a local Mayor.  This is a rural area that has struggled with depopulation and little economic opportunities and when he became President provision of employment and support for the area was high on Mitterand’s to-do-list to show his gratitude.

We spent a couple of nights in Lormes, a small town with an excellent Dutch-run camp site by the Etang Du Goulot, a popular swimming spot.  There are walking routes from the town, including through the Gorges de Navau.  The town was celebrating Pentecost with a fun fair and fireworks and we walked up to the church at 23.00 on the Monday to see these.  We joined a small selection of town dwellers sitting on the cemetery wall to watch the firework spectacular; the pyrotechnic experts were behind their red and white tape organising the show.  It was soon apparent that small pieces of burning firework were landing on to the crowd; some of us became alarmed at this and moved further in to the cemetery.  At the end everyone clapped and we left crunching over glowing pieces of fireworks.

Walking near Lormes

We drove further south in to the Auvergne Region and the amazing landscape around Clermont-Ferrand and the Parc des Volcans d’Auvergne, dotted with puys, the steep-sided hills that are extinct volcanoes.  We drove through Orcival, a small village south of Clermont-Ferrand which we were surprised to find featured in our Rough Guide or Guide to churches as we like to call it.  Before giving the detail of the Romanesque church, the Rough Guide did tell us that Orcival was the birthplace of President Valery Giscard D’Estaing.  Two Presidential connections in a couple of days has got us wondering how many French Presidents there have been.

Through France to the Pyrenees One: Drug smuggling and finding our way

Carol fell while in Orkney, ten days before we set off for France, and while taking part in the extreme sport of self-timer photography.  The resulting pain at the bottom of her rib cage had not eased by the day before we left and so Salford Royal’s Emergency Department was consulted.  Damage to her Costal Cartilage was diagnosed, painkillers prescribed and rest was recommended for three or four weeks to allow it to mend.  Carol came away from Salford Royal with a month’s supply of Codeine and unsure how rest fitted in with a walking and cycling holiday.

A perfect lunch stop
The Codeine seemed a bit of an over-kill so we packed it and decided to stock up on Paracetamol and Ibuprofen and try taking these combined three times a day and carry on regardless; for three and a half weeks we needed over 75 of each.  Supermarkets limit the number of Paracetamol to 32 in one purchase but self-checkout allows anyone to get around this.  Buying enough 400mg Ibuprofen needed the two of us to separately buy a pack of 48 to get past the Pharmacist regulations.

Having managed to purchase such large quantities of pain killers we reached Hull and here the customs officials picked out our van to search.  While one official checked the engine compartment with Anthony, Carol had a body search and then had to show the contents of the cupboards in the van.  We wondered if the supermarket had tipped them off but apparently they were only looking for people and we managed to smuggle all the drugs in to Belgium without being caught.

From Zeebrugge our first stop was Sezanne in the Champagne Region.  The weather was already hot and sunny; we were enjoying eating outside and only needing shorts and t-shirts.  A new toy for 2014 was another sort of tablet, a Google Nexus, on to which we had loaded the OsmAnd maps of Belgium and France for driving, walking and cycling navigation.  We had tried various free open-source maps before coming on holiday and we had found that OsmAnd suited our needs best.  It quickly showed its usefulness when we found a lovely spot by a ruined abbey for our lunch break on our first day.

Auxerre river front

Excited by the possibilities of the new toy we changed some of the settings including asking it to navigate the shortest route, rather than the fastest.   We left Sezanne on a pretty country lane that got narrower and narrower until we reached a gate beyond which access in to the forest was prohibited.  We back-tracked, sneaking past the camp site and put the diversion down to a learning experience.

OsmAnd knows the speed limits of the roads and gives a warning if they are exceeded, calculates our time of arrival, uses GPS to tell us where we are, locates the shops and parking for us and gives us confidence to drive in to towns and cities without getting lost or hopelessly confused.  On our second day we used OSMand to drive in to Auxerre, find the parking by the river and enjoy a few hours exploring this beautiful town.

Friday, 6 June 2014

France 2014 trip camp sites used

Campsite name
Number of nights
Sezanne Municipal Camp Site
Sloping grassy site on the edge of a small town by sports facilities, facilities clean and good, wash up outside
Camping de L'Etang du Goulot, Lormes
ACSI By a lake, marked grassy pitches, facilities clean and modern, good showers, cafe, mini golf and on edge of village
Les Domes, Nebouzat, near Clermont-Ferrand
ACSI Facilities dated but clean, showers warm push button, grassy site, some road noise, friendly staff
La Panoramique, La Bourboule
ACSI Lovely views across the valley, good size pitches and maked, grassy, clean facilities, washing up and laundry indoors, showers good flow, could be hotter
Camping Bouthezard, Le Puy en Velay
ACSI 10 minutes walk in to town, small site, friendly owner, somewhat unkempt site, good showers, need cleaning, no toilet paper, grassy with trees, grass long
Camping Le Val Saures, Entraygues sur Truyere
ACSI No toilet seats, toilet paper, clean facilities, large site by the river Lot, peaceful, good size marked grassy pitches, good showers, plugs at sinks and proper taps, 5 minutes from town and shops 
Le Moulin, Martres-Tolosane
ACSI Large pitches were €3 extra, 10amps was €2 extra, marked shady pitches, good clean facilities, pool & bar, quiet spot
Le Pain de Sucre, Gavarnie
3kms from village and uphill walk, well kept site with good clean facilities & hot showers, bread & lovely views
Le Trois Vallees, Argeles-Gazost
ACSI Noisy building work, some pitches by the road, pitches not very generous, flat & grassy, showers like a designer bathroom but no toilet paper & by a Voie Verte
Le Camp de Florence, La Romieu
ACSI Large site, next to a very pretty village, pitches marked & shaded, facilities very clean, toilet paper, pleasant bar
Camping Brantome Peyrelevade
ACSI Large site with grassy marked pitches, some very shaded, facilities clean, showers not very warm, near touristy town, pool
Camping Ile D'Offard, Saumur
ACSI Large site on an island in the Loire, 20 mins walk from Saumur, facilities clean, showers roomy, pitches marked & grassy with some shade
Domaine de Marcilly, Marcilly sur Eure
ACSI Grassy site in wood, with marked hedged pitches, 2kms from village, fresh bread, facilities clean with toilet paper but showers cool
Camping La Paille Haute, Boiry Notre Dame
Grassy site with sloping pitches, unmarked and narrow, unisex facilities OK


Monday, 2 June 2014

We are back!

Delamere Forest Camping & Caravan Club site

It is quite a few months since we last posted on the Blog (if you are counting it is almost nine months!)  The time has flown and although we have done some lovely things during the last nine-months the lack of posts is a lot to do with a couple of incidents that happened in 2013 that disrupted our lives somewhat.

Firstly, Anthony was run down by a car while walking to work; this required a hospital stay and surgery to his left-hand which is now much better, although he will never get full use back.  He wasn't able to drive for about four weeks.  We had no sooner started to recover from this and Anthony's Dad died; this sad event meant that we were pre-occupied with sorting out his estate (nothing grander than a semi-detached house).  Add in to this mix Carol changing jobs and you will not be surprised that the Blog has not been a priority.

Cycling near Formby
However, we have managed to get away during the last few months and we have continued to enjoy using the van.

We have had some lovely weekends away with friends in Delamere Forest and the Peak District and we met up with the Devon Owners Group at Harbury again in May; this was a great weekend meeting new and old friends and seeing how everyone has made their van their own.

As a couple we had a long weekend around Northumberland, which included a beautiful sunny day at Cragside; the weather was so good we never even went to the National Trust tea shop.  We cycled some of the excellent cycle routes around Southport and spent some time in Scotland at Easter which included staying at the camp site in Ullapool which we had last camped at in 1981!

Our next European tour is only a few days away now and we can't wait, so watch this space, the next post will be from France.