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Sunday, 4 July 2010

France trip 2010 - Ile d'Oleron to home

18th June.
In drizzly rain we left the Ile d’Oleron late in the afternoon, driving over the viaduct back to the mainland. After a stock up of fuel, gas and food we carried on to La Tremblade, an oyster and market town on the southern side of the marais to Marennes.
We came to rest on a well signed aire just by the market square and the old railway station. It is actually a vast car park, but with well set up free services. 5 Euro a night, cash payable in the machine.
GPS: 45.7654 N, 1.1393 W

Strolling through the quiet town in the evening we came across a war memorial celebration in front of the Town Hall. Quite a grand occasion it seemed, with many flags and an immaculately restored US Jeep parked outside. Many veterans also, mingling with the younger generations, their jackets straining under the weight of medals and decorations.

A beautifully restored WWII Jeep enhances the celebrations

Back at the station square we managed a couple of beers in the Café de La Gare before it closed at nine o’clock!

19th June
Our breakfast was accompanied by the sound of loud drumming coming from the town. In the early hours the huge market square opposite the Café de La Gare had filled to capacity with stalls and large vans.
In some welcome sunshine, we briefly explored the waterways on the edge of town. There is a long canal filled with flat bottomed oyster boats and private pleasure boats, working sheds and holiday huts, all the way to the sea.

A well preserved traditional boat on La Tremblade's waterways

Then we went to see what all the noise was about. The market had extended from the square, filling up the street all the way to the covered market hall we had seen the night before.

The source of the incessant beat was a Batala drum band giving it their all, clearing the street before them as they marched forward, led by their very committed leader. Walking backwards, he changed their rhythms with complicated hand signals that they followed instantly, creating a hypnotic and exciting sound. Amazingly, they even managed to smile occasionally amidst the ferocious concentration and kept it up until midday - they must have been exhausted, never mind the ringing in the ears!

Enthusiasm personified fills the street with rhythm

The covered market was packed with people and produce. Split into roughly three sections: fish and seafood, fruit and veg, meat and dairy, all seemed to be of the highest quality and abundance. A dozen No 3 oysters were for sale at Euro 5 – beat that for price! The frenetic atmosphere was intoxicating, but we left with no more than some firm, fresh broccoli.

The packed market hall, stalls overflowing with high quality produce

After lunching on some wonderful fresh bread we were preparing to leave when I heard the sound of a steam train, and sure enough an ancient tank engine with a string of red open carriages attached was pulling into a low platform on the edge of the car park. This was actually Le Train des Mouettes or Gull’s train, claimed to be the oldest working steam locomotive in France. It has a regular summer season timetable and travels inland from La Tremblade to the spa town of Saujon, stopping at the villages of Chaillevette and Mornac.

Aviator's goggles up, the driver uncouples amidst the steam

Smell the smoke and the oil!

Ready for the return trip

The following day, Sunday, was scheduled in on the timetable and with a little gentle persuasion on my behalf we elected to stay another night and do the round trip. The rain returned for the rest of the day so we kept our fingers crossed that our return to 19th Century travel the next day would not be a washout.

20th June
It dawned fine and sunny, but by the time we boarded a chill wind was pushing clouds across the sky. Tickets for the two-way trip were 13 Euro each, purchased from a little booth at the entrance to the aire.

Much to my consternation and contrary to the symbols on the timetable, the steam loco had been substituted with a diesel one! Still, what can you do, at least we would enjoy the countryside.
At Chaillevette we stopped and I could smell coal smoke. I stepped off the train and was treated to the spectacle of the decoupling of the diesel loco, then the shunting and connecting of the steam machine.

Shunting to the head of the carriages

As we moved off the power of the little steam engine was amazing, so smooth and effortless as it took up the load of carriages, it could have been an electric monorail - fantastic.

The train’s pace was slow but the countryside a joy. As we passed through many level crossings, people waved from their windows and cars, kids ran to the bottom of their gardens and  even a herd of cows tried to keep up with us till they came to the fence – did they think we were the food train?

Typical marais landscape, enhanced with a steel salt-pan worker

The stop at Mornac was brief, but the guard kept a keen eye for any stragglers. We had a carriage to ourselves and as we rocked and clattered along it was easy to imagine what it would have been like to travel with a cargo of tin ore or coal on some of the old UK West Country routes that have now been turned into cycle trails.

Sue watches another vineyard roll by

At Saujon we found we were faced with a lengthy walk into town to find some lunch. After following the road signs to the town centre and doing it the long way round, we found the only establishment open was a little pizzeria.
After lunch we asked the proprietor for the best route back to the station and cut 15 minutes off our time, arriving at the platform to meet a coach load or two of happy travellers for our return trip. One of them had a dog who barked every time a whiff of smoke blew through the open carriage, the poor animal presumably trying to alert his owner that the train was on fire!

At Mornac a couple boarded who had spent the day there and advised us that the village was well worth a visit. When we finally got off the train we felt distinctly sooty, but it had been an excellent day.

21st – 23rd June
Leaving La Tremblade we headed north to the coastal resort of Ronce les Bains and then followed the scenic route through the Foret de la Coubre, thinking we might find a pleasant campsite to hole up for a few days before the trek home. There are plenty to choose from, but most are of the big resort type, not cheap and not our cup of tea.

Driving through the Foret del la Combre

We drove inland, finding Camping les Vignes, near St Augustin, from the Caravan Club guide. Surprisingly, it was not officially open until the 12th July, but they were happy to let us pitch up. The touring van area is relatively small, with shady trees and surrounded by a moat, and they also have a beautiful swimming pool complex a few yards up the hill towards the site office. The site is attached to a vineyard and the owner, who speaks very good English, produces pineau and cognac. St Augustin is 1.5 km away and has only a boulangerie, but it was a very pleasant walk in the warm morning sunshine

A tranquil pitch at Camping les Vignes

A super pool for a small campsite, water slide in the background

Three nights cost us 43.80 Euro or 14.60 a night including electricity and free wi-fi up by the (still closed) snack bar.
GPS: 45.6891 N, 1.1092 W

24th June
Late in the afternoon, reluctantly leaving the rural peace and that lovely pool behind, we found our way back to Mornac sur Seudre - and cute and picturesque it is, awarded the title “One of the most beautiful villages in France”. With a small harbour on the edge of the marais and a string of waterfront restaurants it has all the right ingredients.

Mornac sur Seudre, pretty it is

The weather was still very warm and having stationed ourselves in the corner of a large carpark next to an oyster pool, we wandered around the village peeking at the restaurant menus and enjoying the scent of all the flowers in the sunshine. The tide was in and a group of kids were excitedly swimming in the muddy water off the quay, despite the “No Bathing” signs.

Children cool off as the tide comes in

Thinking we had found a nice pitch for the night we had a chat with the young man in the tourist office. He couldn’t speak for the Police of course, but he personally had no problem with us parking overnight in the car park. That settled it.
We had a lovely ice cream in a handmade cone from a shop on the quay, then returned to the van for a freshen up.

We had already decided where to have our evening meal and we sat outside enjoying a plateful of oysters (of course) followed by breast of duck. Sue had fromage blanc for dessert and it came with a shot of pineau which was handed to her in a test tube! The idea was that she added it herself as required, the fromage blanc did rather turn into a gloop when she did.
With a bottle of vin de pays the bill came to 47 Euros. The oysters, in particular were superb.

A half dozen of the freshest, with lemon, or basilic vinegar and onion

The tide recedes as the sun goes down

25th June
We were joined in the car park by another van overnight and we slept very peacefully, awaking refreshed.

A white egret rests a leg as it warms in the morning sun

The sun was soon hot again and we hit the D733 north towards Rochefort. Though the whole area is flat countryside, we are quite taken with this land of marshes.

Skirting around the outskirts of La Rochelle on the ring road, we picked up the D105 towards Lucon. This is obviously becoming a popular alternative to the larger D137 route through Marans and a major road development is underway, the D10A being extended up to rejoin the D137 east of Lucon.

Our route continued through La Roche sur Yon, Challans, Beauvoir sur Mer, Pornic and over the St Nazaire bridge once more. We had thought we would stay on the free aire at La Roche Bernard, an ancient and picturesque town by the River Villaine. Unfortunately the bureaucrats had got there first and the large car park near the marina is now off limits to motorhomes.

Undeterred, we headed off to return to that excellent aire at St Nolff, east of Vannes. However, leaving the N165 to Vannes, we cut across the countryside and discovered a brand new aire at Berric. So new in fact that the water supply was not yet connected, but it was none the less beautifully located by a trout fishing lake and had 7 dedicated bays, with a brand new toilet block and a covered BBQ area.

The view across to the trout fishing lake

It looks like the village had used their development money to good effect and were determined to make most of it – as we settled down with a drink, people began to arrive and set up a cooking range, a projection screen and a small bar. Before long a large crowd were having an excellent garden party right outside our window! As the sun disappeared an annotated slide show was displayed via a laptop computer, which caused much merriment.
We had long since given up the prospect of a peaceful evening, but with the window shut it wasn’t that bad. By midnight there wasn’t a soul around.
GPS: 47.6323 N, 2.5292 W

26th June
In the morning we were amazed to find not a scrap of evidence of the previous night’s activities. I walked into the village and got some bread and pastries for later.

Back on the N165 we stopped for a brief look at the old walled town of Hennebont and then up the D769 to Gourin and Carhaix-Plouguer. From Carhaix we continued on the scenic D769, now a minor road, to Morlaix, a lovely route through the Parc Naturel d’Amorique.

Entrance to the walled town at Hennebont

There is an aire in Morlaix (GPS: 48.5741N, 3.8314 W) within easy walking distance of the town and we dropped down to pick up a few things, including a large tarte tartin to share with friends.

The only aire available in Roscoff now is the new one overlooking the ferry terminal and it was pretty full of motorhomes and caravans when we arrived, probably a hundred or more. Part of it is still being used as a store for building materials, when that it is cleared away the capacity will be vast.
GPS: 48.7198 N, 3.9713 W

27th June
We boarded the Pont Aven in fine weather, and she gave us a smooth ride back to Plymouth. There were no hassles with customs and we were soon crossing the Tamar Bridge for home.

The Pont Aven awaits at Roscoff

So ended rather a truncated and rather unadventurous trip for us, but very enjoyable just the same. Motorhoming in France is just a breeze, we could wander around her indefinitely.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

France trip 2010 - Ile de Re to Ile de Oleron

7th June.
We prised ourselves out of the Camp du Soleil. At 25 days, it was the longest time ever we had spent in a campsite - are we getting soft?
Admiral Nelson is credited with saying: "Ships and Men rot in port" and though we didn't feel we were decomposing, and the van had had some TLC during our stay, somehow I know what he meant!

We thought we would revisit the aire at St Clement a few minutes up the island, to ease ourselves back into our usual way of life. This aire is particularly quiet and it was a relief to be away from all the ambient noise of a campsite - the restless dogs and squabbling children, the constant to and fro-ing, the clatter of other peoples washing up. Despite all the benefits of the campsite - the swimming pool, the wi-fi, the constant electricity, it felt good to be independent again.

There is a narrow path over the sand dunes to the beach and we strolled the deserted beach at sundown. Very nice. Probably the best aire on the island.
GPS: 46.2274 N, 1.5469 W

8th June
When we had arrived at the St Clement aire, two technicians were working on the rising bollard that controls the entrance. A few days before, on one of our cycle trips, Sue had inadvertently and repeatedly got the bollard to sink below the tarmac, just by wheeling her bike past it (!) so we were a bit wary of making our exit, in case it suddenly shot up under the van as we passed over.
The van in front of us spent some time deciphering the instructions when it was time to leave (and they were French!) but soon after they had gone it retracted itself and stayed there - back to the drawing board guys!

Discussions in progress on how to get out!

Having visited La Rochelle many times, we gave this beautiful and historic town a miss and passed around the ring road to pick up the D137 to Rochefort, spending the afternoon at a couple of caravan concessionaires at Yves and Vergeroux.

This year it seems, more than ever, the manufacturers think we want to buy vans with "island" or central beds, even on the compact vans. The compromises these entail get ever more ridiculous in our view; circular showers with flimsy doors at the bottom of your bed, a cooker hob inches away from your duvet cover - madness!

Disconsolate rather than excited (as we always seem to be at design innovations these days) we moved on and squeezed ourselves into a crowded but very pleasant aire by the river Charente at Soubise, just below Rochefort.
Electricity is included for 6.50 Euro a night, but according to a number of prominent signs, it is prone to flooding with high tides and high winds!
GPS: 45.9281 N, 1.0059 W

Down by the river at Soubise

9th June
The boat jetty down by the river near the aire is well equipped with fuel, water and waste disposal for yachts. We watched intrigued as one elderly gent lifted up his haul of shrimps he had enticed into his trap overnight.
There is bar and general store a couple of hundred yards into the village, and more shops farther into the centre, altogether a quiet and attractive place.

We thought we'd look at Port des Barque and the tiny Ile Madame. Motorhomes are well regulated here with a large sign illustrating the two available aires and the campsites. Access to the island is by a gravel, single track causeway uncovered at low tide. No overnighting is allowed on the island, but looking at the causeway I didn't fancy taking the van over anyhow.

We stuck to the coast for a while then turned inland to Moeze with its prominent church spire. Pulling into a picnic area just after the Moeze Nature Reserve we were entertained by the bird life - birds of prey wheeling high in the sky, rolling and tumbling on the thermals, then diving to the trees at fantastic speed. Also what we thought were Herons, but turned out later to be Storks.

Lovely countryside, full of wildlife, on the outskirts of Moeze

Walking over a small bridge I saw a disturbance under the river bank and then seconds later a large Coypu swam straight towards me before disappearing under the bridge, diving as soon as it got to the other side!

A wild Coypu keeps a wary eye on me!

Thinking that the reserve was now not to be missed we did the circuit back to St Froult, but unfortunately all the hides, observation areas and the visitor centre were closed for repairs until July. The spring storms had wrought a lot of damage.

Our next stop was the 17th Century fortress town of Brouage. Originally founded around 1550 as a centre for salt trading, it was developed as a military citadel under Richelieu as a base from which to fight off the British. In its heyday, the 400 metres of ramparts provided sanctuary for up to 4000 inhabitants, and it was a key sea port for Louis XIV, whose lost love Marie Mancini retreated there for a while.
Today the sea is several kilometres away, the access canals are largely disappeared and the two hidden boat docks built within the city walls open out onto marshland.

The hole in the wall at Brouage

A sentry's eye view of the marshland

Brouage is a different experience to Guerande, off the beaten track out in the Marais, but it's definitely worth a walk around its walls and a visit to the museum. There is also a building dedicated to the life of Samuel Champlain, the founder of Quebec, who was born in the area in 1570.

Happily, there is a large grass car park outside the Royal gate, where we were joined by several other vans for the night. There is not much open in the town in the way of bars or restaurants in the evening though, certainly out of peak season.

Across the track from the car park is a platform on a pole, like you see all over the Alsace region, intended for Storks to build their nests on. This one had been a success for the local ornithological association, a family with four chicks had taken up residence and provided us with much entertainment.

10th June
The thunderstorm that had been imminent for days fell upon us in the morning, turning the mud in the carpark to a quagmire. By 1100 however, the sun had got some serious heat in it and we went to visit the museum in the old food and munitions store, La Hall aux Vivres.

Wonderful model of the 1670 "Soleil Royal"

The highlight of the historical displays inside is a recreation of a vast model of Brouage made before the original construction and presented to the King of France for his approval. Amazingly, the original model survived until 1924, when some unknown bureaucrat decided he needed the space and binned a priceless piece of 17th Century history!
But, an amateur history buff came to the rescue in the form of hundreds of photographic plates, taken years earlier and preserved down the generations by his family. These photos, together with the original plans and present day measurements, enabled the model to be recreated by local artisans in fantastic and original detail. Worth a look.

By now it was lunchtime, and pausing by a restaurant claiming regional seafood dishes a speciality, we accepted the recommendation of the only couple seated outside and settled ourselves. We ordered half a dozen oysters, followed by scallops with a saffron sauce and rice with leeks. The oysters were fresh and sweet, the six scallops large, firm and cooked perfectly, also sweet to taste.
Remarkably, with a bottle of very good vin de pays, two baskets of bread and two tarte tartin with ice cream, the bill came to exactly 50 Euro, at current exchange rates that works out at £21.60 a head!

Good value seafood at Le Champlain, 32, rue du Quebec.

Having indulged ourselves for lunch, there really didn't seem any point in moving on from such a pleasant spot, an easy decision to make!

11th June
There was another rainstorm in the morning and we watched the bedraggled storks toughing it out in their nest. As soon as the rain ceased they took in turns to shake and air their feathers on the edge. It soon became apparent that one chick at least was near to fledging and we settled back with our binoculars, willing it to take the plunge as it flapped its wings so long and hard it nearly overbalanced over the edge of the nest.

The young Storks contemplate the plunge
Finally we had to drag ourselves away. The aire de service at Hiers, a few minutes drive from Brouage, had unfortunately been vandalised, even to the extent of dumping earth in the waste water gully (!) so we moved on to Marennes, where there is a service point at the Leclerc supermarket. Foiled again though, as a 3 Euro jeton was required and the kiosk for the fuel pumps was closed from 1200-1500.

We took the scenic coastal route from Marennes Plage up to Bourcefranc le Chapus and discovered a new beachside overnight parking area for motorhomes on the way - 5.5 Euro a night but no services apart from rubbish disposal.
GPS: 45.8258 N, 1.1427 W

At Bourcefranc le Chapus, the aire de service point (outside a campsite) was also out of action.

Driving over the bridge to the Ile d'Oleron, we turned left for St Trojan les Bains and the Foret de St Trojan. This a nature reserve with extensive bike and walking trails and there is also a Petit Train or narrow gauge railway (built in 1966) which runs from St Trojan through the forest to La Grande Plage on the west coast.

It was swiftly apparent that any thoughts of free camping in this area could be dispensed with, a surfeit of barricades, barriers and notices. The aire de service at Les Bris had been shut off, with a sign directing us to one at Le Grand Village.
There are however two tarmac car parks in St Trojan which allow overnight stays, but they were cramped, roadside and hence noisy, and nearly full as we passed by.

At Le Grand Village, a lady with a smile behind the desk at the campsite supplied us with a jeton for a substantial 4 Euros to get 100 litres of water.
We decided to drive up island, along the coast, as it felt distinctly "holiday village" and busy at this bottom end.

La Cotiniere is the largest regional fishing port in the Charente Maritime with some 95 registered boats. It has a large car park just before the harbour, but no overnight parking allowed. A nice enough place for a short stop and an ice cream, but tight, narrow streets.

The landscape opens out as you travel north, and there are more campsites than you can shake a stick at, but we decided to head for St Denis d'Oleron where there is a 150 van aire.

As fine an "aire" as you will find - Aire de Moulin

This turned out to be a good one. Set in an old campsite, which might have been an olive grove before that, it is grassed with plenty of shade in a very quiet area next to an old windmill, hence the Aire de Moulin. For eight Euros a night there is electricity (but not on every pitch), showers, sinks and even a launderette.
Altogether a very pleasant place, almost a perfect blueprint in fact for what a large aire should be: a rural atmosphere, a "help yourself" policy for pitches and all the facilities you could want. 4 nights max is the maximum permitted stay - though I don't see anything to stop you driving out the gates and straight back in again.
GPS: 46.0284 N, 1.3854 W

12th June
The bikes came off the rack and we found a cycle path outside the aire taking us up to St Denis. A quiet village, totally unlike Le Grand Village - still space for old men to sit in the bar and watch the world go by.
We picked up some pastries for later and a handy cycle and footpath map for the whole of the Ile d’Oleron from the bookshop, then headed down to the port. Here we got a bit of a surprise, a large modern, well organized marina, a sailing school and Capitanerie, plus a wide gently sloping beach, so gentle in fact, that a sailing catamaran had beached herself between the tides.

A tidal pitch for this catamaran

On the quayside, a collection of new clapboard covered “warehouses” had been fitted out as restaurants, with perhaps a flavour of New England or Nova Scotia, they drew us in and we couldn’t resist another bowl of moules.

To moule or not to moule?

Behind the marina is a large campsite, but also a nicely laid out car park in which half a dozen motorhomes had settled. Despite the familiar sign banning parking between the hours of 2300 and 0700, we got the feeling that some had done exactly that. We had a chat with one French camper and he confirmed that several vans, including a German one had stayed overnight and reported no problems – you takes your chances…

We picked up the coast path behind the campsite and worked our way along the stony coastline towards the Phare de Chassiron. As the coast path ended, we were forced back onto the road and here we found a flot bleu and waste water station. However the large car park adjacent had height barriers, which rather limited its use for motorhomers.

The 46 metre high lighthouse at Pointe de Chassiron is set up a bit like the Phare des Baleines on the Ile de Re, with a large car park, a hotel/restaurant and other amenities. It is possible to climb the stairs to the top and visit an additional museum.

A coastal path from the Phare de Chassiron

From the lighthouse, down the coast, there is a pedestrian path (which it is possible to cycle) and a purpose built cycle path inland of the road. This later veers back into farmland and returns to St Denis. A really pleasant afternoon out.

13th June
The weather closed in and we had a day with books and the laptops.

14th June
More rain in the morning, though it cleared up in the afternoon. As we had pitched up against the fence with views over farmland we had no road noise at all, the only daily disturbance being the melodic horn of the bread van at 0900.

The icing on the cake would have been wi-fi - which we have come across on some German Stellplatz - though we did have a strong 3G phone signal, so out came the Vodafone dongle and we surveyed and booked our ferry home.
Vodafone have recently changed their charging policy for roaming and these dongles are a lot less economic. The "fair usage" policy has been ditched and we now get charged another £5 the instant we go over the 50 Mb allowance. The continuous 24 hr period has also gone, the meter is now reset at midnight, so spreading the usage over two days is no longer possible. What with anti-virus updates taking a sizeable chunk of that 50 Mb allowance, we shall be using wi-fi more than we have done!

15th June
In more dull, wet and windy weather, we worked our way south along the coast to La Bree les Bains, Les Boulassiers and Port du Douet, a little harbour which boasted not one, but two "nightclubs". It was however, uncannily quiet for the middle of June, no doubt the weather was partially responsible.

Port du Douet

At Bree les Bains there is a small free aire with a borne de service, a 4.50 Euro jeton required for water.
GPS: 46.0080 N, 1.3572 W

St Georges d'Oleron is an attractive village with many flower tubs and baskets and an old open market hall. Free parking too, but it was raining again so we didn’t linger.

St Pierre d'Oleron is the capital of the island, and we were jettisoned from sleepy village to busy town in the blink of an eye. There is a vast Leclerc Hypermarket in the centre, with dedicated bays for camping cars with authorisation to stay overnight should you wish.
We preferred somewhere quieter and so drove a little out of town to the only France Passion site on the island - Les Chateliers, a vineyard producing vin de pays, Pineau, Cognac and liqueurs.

Amongst the vines at Les Chateliers

We parked up in the end of the vinegroves with eventually six other vans. They have a large roadside shop selling their produce, but we didn’t need anything and when Sue went to thank them for the stay they waved us off cheerily.
GPS: 45.9332 N, 1.3279 W

16th June
As we were just a short drive away from La Cotiniere, we went for a longer look at the port, passing by a small wooded aire attached to a campsite just north of it. This was also next to the road so would’ve been noisy. Euro 8.50 a night or 4 Euro for services.
GPS: 45.9237 N, 1.3427 W

Waiting for the tide at La Cotiniere

The large car park facing the harbour at La Cotiniere is free from 1300 -1530, so if you want lunch at one of the several harbour side restaurants, that's a bonus! Unless you like looking at fishing boats coming and going (we do!) there is not much else to see apart from a modern catholic church by the beach. Inside, all the local men and boys lost at sea are touchingly remembered with individual small wooden crosses engraved with the name of their boats.

Memorials to local sailors lost

Now we crossed the island again to Boyardville, passing through the now very familiar marais landscape, many outlets selling oysters and mussels, even crab and lobster.
Turning left by the bridge into Boyardville, one of the first things we noticed were hand painted signs protesting about 150 houses that were about to be demolished - for what, we have no idea.

Down to the sea - Boyardville

Our English aires guide shows a waterfront aire here that we thought would do nicely for the night, with perhaps a wander into town for a beer and a pizza. When we eventually found it however (after a sign-posted goose chase to the municipal campsite in the forest) it was blocked off with a height barrier, they had even gone to the bother of putting a padlock and chain around the borne de service! What purpose that served I have no idea, except than as a visual message. Another one to strike off the list.

Yup, I think we get the message!

Rather than be coerced into a campsite, we voted with our wheels as usual and headed down to Dolus d’Oleron, where the tourist guide we had picked up showed an aire de stationnement. Eventually we tracked it down by the sports ground, after a squeeze through the town’s narrow streets. Only commissioned this month, there is new a borne and further along towards the sports field, a large open area of tarmac and grass.
The borne requires jetons from the tourist office (which is a hefty walk away) or the use of a credit/debit card. Euro 5 for the overnight stop, payable to an official in the morning.
GPS: 45.9133 N, 1.2533 W

17th June
A man in a van came at 8 o’clock to collect the five Euros. With so many aires using car park type ticket machines or Horradateurs, you’d think they would have gone down that route and saved the poor guy having to knock everyone up first thing in the morning (as long as they were displaying their ticket that is). More evidence of their woolly thinking was the drive over grate, a flimsy plastic affair supplied by Euro Relais, the makers of the borne, which was already smashed after a few days use.

Mussel and oyster country

We headed up to Les Allards, then onto La Baudissiere. This is real mussel and oyster country, cultivation and production on a more intensive scale that we have seen elsewhere, even on the Ile de Re. The Marennes–Oleron oyster is apparently the most highly regarded in France, though no doubt other tourist guides would beg to differ!
Driving slowly down the coast to Le Chateau d’Oleron we were held up several times by tripper coaches full of either children or pensioners, coming to see how it was done. Many guided visits and tours are available.

Ramparts that escaped the bombing at Chateau d'Oleron

The citadel at Chateau d’Oleron is another Richelieu/Vauban production like Brouage, started in the 17th Century by Richelieu in the reign of Louis XIII and completed by Vauban 120 years later. Splendid as it was, it was unfortunately bombed in the closing stages of the Second World War, destroying 95% of the buildings and fortifications. Still, enough remains to appreciate its scale, and there is a pleasant walk along the ramparts, down to the old port and then back into town. Plaques recall the emigration of local inhabitants to Canada and the New World in the hard times.

More colourful sheds near the harbour at Chateau d'Oleron

The harbour is very much a working one, full of oyster boats, which have taken over from the cargo and passenger vessels which worked out of the port before the mainland bridge was built in 1966. The dockside huts and buildings have the same coloured clapboard style that was echoed in the new restaurants up at St Denis marina, though the area near the road has now had a cosmetic makeover.

After lunch the rain came down with a vengeance again and we decided to retreat to an aire we had looked at on the way down the coast. Just a couple of minutes drive from Le Chateau, it is another redevelopment of an old, tired campsite, the third or fourth we have now come across this trip. With an electronic barrier accepting only your credit card to gain entrance, once you are in the amenities include electricity on every pitch, a free borne de service and a washroom with showers and a launderette.
This would appear to be the way things are going, this aire is a redevelopment of an old municipal site in the Le Chateau commune. 8 Euros to park up in a secure, pleasant site with all the facilities you need, and no bureaucracy, is not a bad deal.

On the other hand, the municipal aire in the Dolus commune (next to a sports ground) which we had stayed on the previous night would have cost us 9 Euros if we had taken water, with no electricity or other facilities - and a knock on the door early in the morning! We were the only takers that night despite several vans driving in, I wonder why?
Interestingly, the private campsite on the edge of Le Chateau had a placard up offering an “all in” deal to motorhomes for the same 8 Euros!

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

France trip 2010 - St Gilles de Ville to Ile de Re

12th May.
Hoping to use the free wi-fi in the local PMU café, we made the ten minute walk back to the waterfront, but having ordered our coffees we found that the wi-fi “ne marche pas” again! This time France Telecom got the blame.
Still, we got some jetons for the aire service point from the tourist office and had a browse around the shops. Having established that the following day was going to be a Bank Holiday, we did a stock up of fuel, gas and food and moved on to Bretignolles sur Mer.
To our surprise, after following the well developed coast road out of this town we came across a large open car park with access to the beach and a boating/swimming lake over the road. No restrictions were apparent and eight vans had already settled themselves. It seemed too good a spot to pass up, so we joined them.
GPS: 46.6166 N, 1.8595 W

A walk along the beach at Bretignolles sur Mer

13th May
It seemed a while since we’d had a warm sunny morning and we gratefully stretched our legs on the coast path. A friendly French couple in the van next door commented that we were a long way from home – feels like our second home to us!

Down the D38 some more, then we turned off onto the D80 alongside the Foret d’Olonne, a very pleasant area with many attractive picnic spots, none with height barriers designed to decapitate motorhomes!
Trying to find our way through Les Sables d’Olonne to the corniche road we found ourselves wedged up a very narrow one way street. Oops! After a few sweaty moments and bewildered looks from passers-by we made it to the sea front, but no chance to pull up for a breather!

Roadworks demanded a detour away from the coast road for a while, but we soon returned and stopped off at Bourgenay Querry Pigeon. Here we found a new aire not in any of our guides, a quiet shady area with spacious pitches. 5 Euro a night plus another 3 for water.
GPS: 46.4409 N, 1.6633 W

Thereafter, marshlands dictated a return to the main road at Talmont St Hilaire, before we hit the coast again at Jard sur Mer. This is all holiday home country but there was an aire with beach access provided and plenty of campsites. St Vincent sur Jard was similar and again provided a reasonable aire, 5 Euro a night seems to be the going rate around here.

Now tracing the edges of the Foret de Longeville we turned off for a sign announcing an aire de stationnement. This turned out to be a grassy pitch cut out of the forest, over the road from a large car park. The smell of pine and proximity of the forest was almost enough to make us call a halt for the day, but we had more or less decided to get to close to the Ile de Re by the day’s end. Next time perhaps!
GPS: 46.4032 N, 1.5054 W. No services.

Colourful blossom in the fields alongside the Foret de Longeville

Next up we had a look at La Tranche sur Mer, very similar holiday country again with an aire provided next to a sports hall. L’Aiguillion sur Mer was our last visit before heading inland. The aire was not very appetizing, a large tarmac area next to the sailing school and a noisy skateboard park. Time to move on and head for one of our favourite destinations – the Ile de Re!

At this time of year the toll for the bridge to the island is only 9 Euro. Still being in the 2nd April to 16th May holiday period there was plenty of traffic and as we entered a campsite we have used several times before - Camp du Soleil. We thought we might struggle to get a good pitch, but no worries, our favourite pitch was vacant and free for the next couple of weeks – yippee, time to chillout!

Snug, well planted pitches at Camp du Soleil

The pool awaits!

We love Camp du Soleil because it’s small and informal with a rural feel, a nice swimming pool, free wi-fi and only a few minutes walk from the beach and the village of Ars en Re.
GPS: 46.2036 N, 1.5205 W

14th May - 7th June
Much has been written about the Ile de Re, so I will only echo some of its features - such as the luminous Atlantic light, the cleansing air with its scent of the sea and wild flowers, the beaches and dunes, forests, vineyards, oyster beds, salt marshes and a glorious nature reserve. The ten main villages, all with their own communes, history and character.

Early morning light on the Ile de Re
We have been coming here for over twenty years, Sue first discovering the island from a yacht, sailing under the magnificent 3km bridge linking it to La Rochelle, before berthing in the capital St Martin.
Since then it has gone from being an impoverished rural backwater and summer holiday destination known only to a few French, to earning the Sunday Times travel writer’s epithet “Island playground of the stars” - property prices climbing in the process from the interesting to the astronomical, snapped up by the likes of Johnny Depp!

Cafe culture, Ars en Re

Somebody's pride and joy in Ars lock basin

Inevitably some of the peace and tranquillity has been shattered in that period, some of the freedoms and access lost - but while it can now be hard to find a shabby old dwelling in need of restoration, such has been the building control that there is little to jar the eye, much to appeal, and the tenacious cycle rider can pedal the entire coastline, or criss-cross between the villages, largely on purpose built paths.

Even new properties follow the Re tradtion of flowers along the walls

In the summer season however, it is bedlam, and Re residents who can afford it put up the shutters and head for the hills - though at an a elevation of 19 metres at its highest point above sea level, hills are one thing Re doesn't have. So come off season, bring your bikes, pick a campsite roughly in the middle of the island - and Re can be your own oyster, all of it accessible by pedal power without any great effort or cost.

Dedicated cycle paths through the best bits

To catch the Ile de Re at its best you really have to be an early bird, but it's worth it.
If the sun is out, the light is fantastic, so bright, so clear - the atmosphere so fresh. The streets are free of all the limos and oversize 4x4's; the poissionneries, boulangeries and market stalls are piled high with unbelievable produce, and the Re residents are about their business - the streets have a buzz, not just a crush of cycling holiday makers. Best of all, if you can get to any of the natural areas, the wild life will be about its business too.

Not your average fish monger, more a seafood deli!

More produce than you can see in one go!

There is virtually no free camping for motoromes anymore on the Ile de Re, a total ban from the hours of 2300 to 0700 exists within the communes and all of the natural areas. The only places we know of now are a rough old roadside car park by the sea wall at Le Martray, and a dirt carpark just before the Phare des Baleines - you take your chances with the authorities here or anywhere else you can find. There is a new official motorhome parking bay at La Patache at the top of the island, this has a free water tap and toilet disposal, but was packed with vans when we visited – on a non public holiday weekday!
Beware of car parks which have no obvious motorhome ban but still have signed height and width restrictions - we heard of a Belgian van which was fined by police on one such car park in St Martin during the day!

There are however Aires at Rivedoux, St Martin, St Clements and Les Porte, but expect to pay around 7-10 Euro, most are limited to 48 hours and the one at St Martin is very small and rarely has a space.
Other campsites offer overnights for camping cars but again, expect to pay 7-10 Euro.

That blinding Ile de Re light at full power!

Note temporary repairs to huge holes in the sea walls

From Ars, you are a moderate and scenic off-road cycle ride away from some of the best parts of the island - the most peaceful and charming villages of Les Portes en Re and Loix, and the Lilleau des Niges National Nature Reserve, through which you can cycle and visit the Maison du Fier, a natural history museum housed in an old salt warehouse. The reserve is a lovely ride through the salt marshes on any day, but the amount of wild life that can be seen from your bike is amazing.

Colourful harmonies in the Lilleau des Niges Nature Reserve

Avocets feeding in front of your eyes

Black Winged Stilts come too!

All the villages have distinctive, different and beautiful church spires, the church of St Clement des Baleines was used in the filming of The Longest Day.

The church of St Clement des Baleines

At the top of the island, past St Clement, is the Phare des Baleines, a working 57 metre high lighthouse, within which you can climb the giddying 257 steps to admire the view, for a
modest Euro 2.50. There is also a lighthouse museum (Euro 3.50) and a street of tourist shops and restaurants.

The Phare des Baleines rises above the dunes

East of the lighthouse is a beautiful 3 km cycle path through the Foret dominale du Lizay to Les Portes. The vast Plage del la Conche which lies adjacent has sadly been scoured of a lot of its sand in the winter storms, but as a bonus the exposed rock is now a home for shellfish.

Cycle through the Foret dominale du Lizay

East of Les Portes, there are a string of beautiful beaches including the famous Trousse-Chemise. It is possible to park up here during the day in a motorhome, though most other beach carparks have height barriers.

Heading down the island from Ars there is a wonderful coastal cycle path to Loix, however this year we found it totally barred off as major repairs were still going on to the sea wall. Likewise, the path through the marshes to Pointe du Grouin was also closed off. Finding our way to Pointe du Grouin by the main road we were stunned to see the damage the winter storms had wrought – worse than anything we had seen in many years of visiting the Ile de Re. An entire section of sea wall had been dislodged on the north side, trees ripped up and broken, and over the road, a field of private caravan pitches had just been devastated - nothing left except gravel thrown up off the beach.
Around the point, by the beach where we used to wild camp, a small but obviously cared for yacht was high and dry on the dunes, a hole smashed in its side.

Sad evidence of the winter storm's wrath

A longer cycle trip from Ars can take you to visit the island’s capital and port of St Martin, and the smaller port of La Flotte. The inland route takes you by the pretty village of La Couarde sur Mer with its distinctive and poignant war memorial, and the slightly less attractive Le Bois Plage en Re. Both have access to great beaches, but not for motorhomes anymore!

La Couarde sur Mer

On the inland cycle route - just outside Le Bois Plage and next to a windmill - is probably the best, certainly the best reasonably priced restaurant on the island: La Bouvette.

Out in the sticks a bit, it has to succeed on its reputation and it wins awards year after year, but the meal we ate there was one of our best ever, certainly for seafood. The Eclade de Moules sur un lit d'Aiguilles de Pin, or mussels cooked on a bed of smoking pine needles, was just sensational.

Pots of pine needles ready to add amazing flavour to plump, juicy Mussels


St Martin is probably just too touristy for us now, but it’s worth a visit on a quieter day.
La Flotte is our favourite - smaller with its simple square harbour surrounded by accessible quaysides, plus a long waterfront promenade, together with its historic and atmospheric market place, interesting side streets and a cosmopolitan air. We never fail to have a pizza at La Fiance du Pirate or moules frites, at the imaginatively named Bistrot de la Flotte. Amazingly the quality is there, year after year, some of the best we’ve had ever.

La Flotte - have some moules frites, kid yourself you belong here!

From La Flotte it is possible to cycle along the coast all the way to St Martin. The narrow path has prohibition signs for cycles, but they are totally ignored by everybody, natives and holiday makers alike. There was more evidence of heavy storm damage and much rebuilding of the sea walls.
From St Martin to up to the sailing school at La Couarde there is a dedicated cycle way - always a pleasant run, past oyster farms and salt water marshes.

If you really want a good day’s bike ride from Ars you can take the western route from Le Bois Plage down to Sainte Marie de Re and Rivedoux Plage, but it’s a much more boring ride after Le Bois Plage, largely alongside the main road.
Sainte Marie is a quiet village where you can sit and eat your sandwiches under shady trees by the church, but Rivedoux is a different kettle of fish altogether being the first stop over the bridge and blessed with yet another wide sandy beach, albeit looking across to the docks and La Rochelle. If you want to join the young disco set this is the place to hang out.

There are many other bike trails on the island, some unofficial, that we have used to explore the island, but the above are the main routes which we enjoy the most and have done time and time again.

Poppies alongside the vineyard path

There is plenty else to visit too, many outlets selling products from the vineyards, salt marshes and oyster beds, many stunning markets – some operating everyday in the season. It’s possible to take guided tours of the salt marshes to see how the salt is produced, visit an oyster farm and see how the foreshore is fished - both in the island’s past (within hand built stone locks) and today, by individuals with the simplest of equipment.

Remmants of the old fishing locks

Perhaps the reason we love the Ile de Re so much is that it is, and feels like, a world apart. If you can sample it when the weather is at its brilliant best, but the crowds are not swamping it, there is no place to compare. Fantastic beaches, marshlands full of bird life and wild flowers, pine forests, cute and peaceful villages, endless flat cycle trails, superb produce to buy and eat, as well as great restaurants…..
Find a good campsite - there are plenty and most have mobile homes for rent if you want to come with friends. Visit off season, and don’t forget your bike!

Evening sun lights an old windmill behind the campsite

The Ars bell tower, utterly distinctive, day or night

It was hard to tear ourselves away this time, a planned week turned into two, into three - you could say we spoiled ourselves!