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Monday, 5 April 2010

France trip 2010 - From Home to Plouhinec

A late start to our Europe trip this year due to health issues and, delivered on Christmas Eve - a summons for jury service! Due to other unavoidable commitments in July, it’s thus going to be a short trip as well.

Consequently also, no Alpine winter touring this time, so we have decided to ring the changes and take the Plymouth to Roscoff ferry, then work our way down the coast of Brittany and perhaps the rest of the west coast of France - not something we have done for a few years.

18th March
After a leisurely two day van-packing session, we left home for supper at the Britannia Inn near St Austell. They are in the Motorhome Stopover scheme and accommodated us for the night well back off the main road in their large car park.
The battered cod and chips was very good, the "Chef's Chicken Madras" not so hot in any respect.
GPS: 50.3458 N, 4.7395 W

19th March
We had booked onto the Brittany Ferries flagship "Pont Aven" and soon after boarding, stuffed ourselves to the gunwales with their superb "all you can eat" 4 course buffet lunch, including a hot dish for a minimal extra £3.

Pot au feu de la mer

A 27 Knot Cruise ferry built in 2004, Pont Aven only does Plymouth-Roscoff on Fridays and Sundays, normally engaged on the Plymouth-Santander-Portsmouth run.
A classy ship, with good VAT free shopping and a friendly, helpful crew.

We disembarked the ship in a murky drizzle and fading light, but immediately discovered a vast new Caravan/motorhome car park shortly after the exit to the ferry terminal. At the moment there are no waste or water facilities, but there does seem to be work in progress.
It would certainly do for the night. There is a view of the ferries, the downside is some noise from the port.
GPS: 48.7192 N, 3.9703 W

NB. The well known aire at Roscoff overlooking the cliff is now closed, blocked off with large boulders, the facilities are also inaccessible.

A huge tidal range means even the Lifeboat needs stilts in Roscoff harbour

20th March
After a wander around Roscoff (some parking still available for motorhomes on the fishing quay), we stopped off for lunch at an aire in Santec, a pleasant private little aire attached to a Creperie (also a France Passion listing).

St Pol de Leon is one of those towns that you tend to miss because you are always tearing past to get to the ferry (or your next destination), but it is in fact a typically pleasant stone built Bretagne town. There is a new Super U supermarket in easy walking distance of the centre.

We then headed west along the D10 to Plouescat, a charming village with a medieval covered market place.

The coast becomes ever more rugged along here and we stopped in a beach car park at Brignogan-plages for a cuppa.
A smiling old gent tapped politely on our window and we shared his joke about us being Grand Bretagne and him being petit Bretagne. Then he produced a bible and it soon became evident that he was a Jehovah’s Witness - charming old chap just the same and we parted very amicably.

Returning to the D10, the small town of Guisseny has had a makeover with new cobbled streets and also some new motorhome parking close to the centre.

L'lle Vierge emerges out of the midday gloom

Turning off at Plouguernou for Lilia and a glimpse of the evocative (for us) L'lle Vierge lighthouse, we were baffled not to find the aire in our new "All the Aires" English guide from Vicarious books.
However we soon identified the carpark from the photo in the guide - and found a local by-law pinned to a post, dated 2008, banning all camping on car parks in the town, including down on the front, where there is a motorhome "interdit" sign.

There is of course, a placard pointing towards the local campsite. (Sorry, but we are on our way out of town!)

Next stop was Lannilis, this time the aire was well out of town and near the main road, but with a free pump n' dump and some public toilets. We shared it with two other French vans.
GPS: 48.5564 N, 4.5055W

21st March
At last the sun broke through the clouds and warmed our backs a little, reminding us to breathe in the sweet fresh air and appreciate again the vast and open countryside of France.

We back tracked a little and picked up the Route Touristique to L’ Aber Wrach. "Aber" is celtic word meaning estuary and the small port of L'Aber Wrach bears the same name as the river.

L' Aber Wrach - as beautiful as ever

For many May bank holiday weekends, Sue and I took part in a sailing yacht pursuit race across the English Channel from Helford to L' Aber Wrach.

L' Aberge du Pont - venue for a seriously good lunch

Depending on our boat’s handicap, we would leave the mouth of the Cornish river at our allotted time, generally mid-afternoon, the idea being that the first boat to L’ Aber Wrach in the morning would be the winner - however humble a yacht it might be.

Nobody slept much during the night passage, but as we approached the French coast before dawn, those left to snooze would tumble out of their bunks to see the spectacle of the I'lle Vierge Light sweeping high across the night sky like a vestige of the Aurora Borealis, before emerging magnificent out of the morning mist, perched on its outcrop of rock with its older, smaller sibling.

Race over, and berthed tightly into the marina like sardines, we'd wolf down those wonderful breakfast bacon butties, and later, still high on the overnight pursuit, pack ourselves into the Bar L' Escale with dozens of other sailors, till we could eat and drink no more.

L'Escale - scene of many a merry session

And so, 20 or so years later, L'Aber Wrach Sailing Centre and it's sprinkling of bars and restaurants have special memories enough to bring us back. Amazingly, the waterfront has changed little, and L'Escale still less, we got a smile and a welcome, even the wallpaper in the little upstairs dining room was the same.
After a glass of cider and a crepe beurre sucre, we returned to the van in a happy frame of mind.

Deep into our books we suddenly heard a young child screaming outside and seconds later there was deafening thud as something hit the van.
Sue was first out of the door, to find a mother picking up a 2-3 year old, who had just taken it upon himself to throw a small rock at the front wing!
No explanation was offered and only a grudging apology - as if their kids did this sort of thing all the time!

Sue's feathers were well and truly ruffled, but initially we could find no damage and the family departed after another faltering apology.
Later we found a dent and chip by the headlight - but what can you do?
We thought about moving on, but on balance decided to stay put. In the event we had a very peaceful night and slept well.
GPS: 48.5966 N, 4.5592 W

22nd March
A brief, early morning smattering of sunshine and then it was gone. We followed the coast road west and passed many delightful vistas and surprisingly, many handy little car parks which would also have done for an overnight.
The weather deteriorating further, we settled in one of several beach car parks at Corn ar Gazel. There is a nature reserve here and the inland dunes are currently off limits as migrating birds are breeding.

Shades of the Western Isles

A walk along the beach in drenching fine rain revealed a panorama as entrancing as anything we had witnessed in the Western Isles – the same symphonic shades of translucent green sea and smooth white sand, punctuated by jagged rocks.

23rd March
More rain, we settled down with our books till the afternoon, then drove a few kilometres to Portsall, a pretty little port, now largely used by leisure craft , but well provided with bars and restaurants, a fish monger and bread shop.

The aire here is unusual is that it is in a residential area (albeit mostly holiday homes) and on flat grass, but only ten minutes walk from the waterfront.
GPS: 48.5658 N, 4.6990 W

By the harbour office is displayed the massive ship's anchor from the supertanker Amoco Cadiz, which foundered only 4 kilometres away in March 1978, shedding her cargo of 220,000 tons of crude oil and polluting 320 Km of the Brittany coastline.
20,000 dead birds were recovered and 9000 tons of oyster harvest destroyed because of contamination. At the time it was the worst ever pollution incident in terms of damage to marine life.

The massive anchor from the wrecked Amoco Cadiz

24th March
Continuing our exploration of Brittany's beautiful coast, we drove the D127 between Tremazan and St Gonvel, the sun emerging for a few moments to illuminate this inspiring landscape as huge long waves smashed themselves upon the rocks and reefs.

Then the misty rain descended again as we passed through pretty little villages and around the estuary of Aber Ildut.

At Lampoul-Plouarzel there is a beach-side aire in the dunes, where we picked up some water (coin in the slot instead of the costly card only at Portsall).
Some elderly caravans were pitched up with their hookup cables running into the toilet block, not the usual well equipped itinerants though.
GPS: 48.4473 N, 4.7765 W

After some shopping in the Super U at Plouarzel inland, we headed back out to Trezien where there is another aire and other ample parking near the sea.
GPS: 48.4223 N, 4.7868 W

25th March
Ducking the rain again, we enjoyed a bracing scramble along the disintegrating cliff tops, many paths blocked off or with mauvais direction indicated. Naturally we hopped over a few low fences and ignored a few signs but really the few broken edges were easy to spot and the vistas well worth while.

By an old ruined building on the cliff top is a plaque marking the end of the Channel waters and the beginning of the Atlantic. Also a memorial to sailors from the area of Saint Renan lost at sea.

The English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean meet here

There is a small coast road down to Pointe de Kermovan, but with some very steep gradients so we kept to the D28 before turning off for the headland point. There is another aire here outside a campsite but also many other free parking areas.

On the other side of the estuary, Le Conquet is a small fishing port with many old buildings, but don’t attempt to drive through the old town - very narrow and nowhere to stop until you come full circle. The ferries for the islands of Ouessant and Molene depart from here.

The "Buccaneers" bar in Le Conquet

At the very southern tip, Point St Mathieu is an interesting place, with an ancient abbey and church, a lighthouse and a coastguard station all shoulder to shoulder on this spectacular rocky isthmus.

Plenty of history to follow at Pointe St Mathieu

There is also a touching memorial to sailors lost in the 1914 -18 war and an information centre.

Then, moving inland to St Renan, we found a nice quiet aire by a lake.
GPS: 48.4384, N 4.6298 W

26th March
St Renan is a typical French market town, built on a hill and accessible on foot from the aire by a pleasant 20 minute walk around the lake. It has a Lidls and a Super U that sells Autogas (gpl).

Our plan was to drive into Brest and visit the Oceanopolis aquarium at the Moulin Blanc marina.
This attraction has 3 separate halls for Polar, Tropical and Temperate zones. The penguins were adorable of course and there was a short film of the Antarctic in panoramic vision, which was well worth seeing. The shots on the ice breaker’s navigation bridge as it smashed into the pack ice, pitching with each impact, and the breathtaking helicopter shots were particularly good.

The penquins inspect the spectators

If you've been to any other big aquariums, then the tropical zone is not that large or unusual, but the temperate zone which deals with Brittany's underwater flora and fauna as well as global factors and issues, is probably the most interesting, though unfortunately very little of the text is in English.

Feeding time for the little fish.......

And window cleaning time for the man-fish

The bus and motorhome park is right next to the entrance and though we didn't see any signs restricting overnight stays, it was rather noisy and under huge floodlights. So we went a little further south to Plougastal Daoulas where there is a small aire outside a sports centre.
The town is ten minutes walk up the hill and we got an excellent takeaway pizza from Le Vesuvio restaurant.
GPS: 48.3716 N, 4.3647 W

27th March
By the side of the church in Plougastel Daoulas is a monument or Calvaire with 180 scuptured figures illustrating the life of Christ, worth a look if you're nearby.

180 little scuptured figures on the Calvaire at Plougastel Daoulas

An excursion out to Point L'Amourique revealed only a small parking area and a military establishment.

So onto the N165, turning off for Le Faou, where we had a pleasant stop for lunch by the waterfront. Le Faou is certainly worth a look, with some ancient buildings and quaint shops and restaurants.

Onto the D791, we made a quick stop by "L'Ermitage" waterfront restaurant where Sue had a memorable fruit de mer after landing from a yacht 25 years ago. Obviously still in good order but closed until the beginning of April.

A spectacular new bridge is under construction over the River Aulne, of which we had amazing views as we passed over the old one alongside.

We had already had glimpses of the Saint Guenole Abbey along the Faou estuary, and that was our destination as we turned off for Landevennec. When Sue visited the abbey from that yacht in the mid 1980's she attended a service in which the monks still worshipped with a Gregorian chant, an unforgettable experience for her.

The monastery and church were destroyed in the French revolution, but rebuilt in the 1950's, in a stone faced but modern design. The interior of the church is stark but elegant, with rough plastered walls and a plain slatted pine ceiling, modern rectangular stained glass windows high up under the roofline. The overall effect is still impressive, the organ pipes symmetrically arranged against a patterned backdrop of small arched stained glass windows.

The rebuilt Saint Guenole Abbey at Landevennec

The most striking feature is the acoustic - raise your voice above a whisper and your utterance comes rebounding back, seemingly with greater resonance than it left.
Though we ascertained that the Gregorian chanting was no longer regularly practiced, we decided to hang around for the evening service to fully appreciate the acoustic.

The service began with the church in near darkness, just grey light from the high stained glass. The monks, clothed in all white robes, congregated around the altar in the gloom, whilst a monk with a dowager stoop collected a single splint and lighted the candles either side of the central altar. Whilst smoke from the incense rolled lazily upwards in the flickering light they began to sing. The organ had a lovely mellow tone, without the reediness you would expect and blended imperceptibly with their voices. It was spine tingling…. ethereal, yet rhythmical and melodious, wonderful harmonies layered on another.

When they finished, the lights came on and the monks retired to pews behind the altar. Sue gave me a smile, knowing we had both had the hairs on our necks stand on end.

The rest of the service was virtually all this wondrous choral singing and I would have probably drifted off into a reverie if we had not followed the congregation and stood up and sat down at regular intervals.

Feeling refreshed we returned to the van and moved to the waterfront past a couple of closed restaurants and a derelict hotel. The earlier high winds had at last died down and we anticipated a quiet night.

28th March
More rain, we frittered away the morning, then made our way to the old fishing village of Le Fret, now a ferry port for day trips to Brest. Half a dozen old fishing boats were laid up in the beach, decommissioned, rotting away, a sad sight. Still we cheered ourselves up with some generous portions of moules frites at the Le Carte Marine. There is a posh Logis Hostelry if you want a slap up lunch, it certainly seemed well patronized on this wintry Sunday.

Ahh.. Les Moules Frites

And so onto Camaret, an old fishing port with a fine waterfront.

Decomissioned fishing boats, on the beach to end their days

There are three aires in this town, the largest 75 van aire at Point de Penhir is relatively new or refurbished and next to a campsite, but a good walk out of town. Of the other two, Rue de la Gare holds 20 vans and is above the Super U closer to the waterfront, the one outside the municipal camping is a service area only. We stayed at Penhir, just across the road from a fascinating stone circle.
GPS: 48.2745 N, 4.6080 W

The huge new Pointe de Penhir aire at Camaret

29th March
Another blustery grey day with almost continuous rain and van-rocking gusts of wind. Unable to motivate ourselves to move we stayed put all day, finishing yet another of our stock of books.

30th March
Woken by the wind and rain lashing the van, we decided to make an early start and visit the three capes of this peninsula, whatever the weather. Amazingly, around 0930 the sky began to break up and the first sun for days broke through.

On the Michelin map, Pointe de Penhir gets three stars, Pointe des Espagnols gets two and Cap de la Chevre only one. I would probably redistribute the stars, putting Cap de la Chevre above Pointe des Espagnols.

Pointe de Penhir is a stones throw out of Cameret and therefore doesn't have the feeling of remoteness that Cap de la Chevre has, it is however spectacular and rugged with some gut wrenching views down to the crashing waves below (if you dare).
I laid on my stomach to take some photos, fearful that the breath-taking wind might whip around and jettison me into the abyss.

Dramatic sights at Pointe de Penhir

Around the back of the dramatic war memorial, laid into to ground so you could easily miss it, is a stone slab with the inscription: "Homme Libre, toujours tu cheriras la mer" - "Free man, you will always cherish the sea". We liked that.

On the road to the point is a small museum (closed when we visited), and a memorial to the sailors lost in the Battle of the Atlantic. A series of anchors sit upright on the ground near the old fortifications, each with a brass plaque engraved with poetry.

Pointe des Espagnols is the northernmost tip of this peninsula and has a generous car park next to an abandoned 19th Century fort, with a good vantage point for the rather uninspiring view of Brest (it would probably look more exciting at night).
While we were parked up a van-tipping, vision-obliterating squall came through, in fact so scarily ferocious, we were taken back to that epic night on the Western Isles.

Seconds later the sun was out again and we were off to Morgat and a pleasant drive along the D255 through the little unspoilt stone village of St Hernot, where there is a Crystal and Mineral centre.

Hang on to your hat at Cap del la Chevre!

Another huge car park at Cap del la Chevre gives an idea how popular this spot must be in the summer. The wild and rugged, heather covered headland is criss-crossed by trails. A walk around the steep cliffs is dominated by the coastguard building (boldly designed to look like the accommodation block of a large ship) and a dramatic and poignant memorial to the perished sailors of the French Naval Air Service. The casualty rate seemed to be very high in peacetime, at least one almost every year since the end of WWII.

The ship-like coastguard building steaming through the heather

Still dodging the showers we returned to the large aire/car park in Morgat, but found the road and pavement flooded as we walked to the waterfront. An exceptionally high tide, presumably exacerbated by the gale force winds had even driven waves onto the seafront road.

Rejuvenated by a couple of very large pastries and a glass of cider we found we had been joined by two more vans, all parked like us, nose or tail into the wind.
GPS: 48.2253 N, 4.5083 W

31st March
Leaving Morgat in bright sunshine (hurrah) we headed east for Chateaulin, seeking out the minor roads near the River Aulne. We found a wonderful spot on the waterfront (too good to mention really) and chilled out for the day, catching up on some household jobs.

Rural idyll down by the Aulne river

1st April
So nice down by the riverside we lingered another day....

2nd April
After a night of torrential rain, we completed our scenic route of the Aulne on the way to Chateaulin in intermittent sunshine.
In our eagerness to get as close to the water as possible we ended up on a farm track and had to do a 5 point turn in a hay barn entrance - much to the old farmer’s (thankfully) amusement! Some lovely traditional houses though.

In Chateaulin we stocked up at the Leclerc hypermarket and got ourselves a 2010 copy of, in our opinion, the best French aires guide there is: the "white" book by Le Monde du Camping Car, now with 2500 French aires, 900 more than the English "All the Aires" guide.

The last time we visited Chateaulin, in the early 1990’s, it was a tranquil early Sunday morning graced by that warm mellow sun that seems so characteristic of France, the water flowing glassily under the low stone bridge, the reflection of the arches barely disturbed by a couple ducks taking off. We walked across the bridge for a coffee and pain chocolat as the town woke up.
How different it felt on this busy Good Friday, in a freezing gusty wind under a leaden sky.

Thereafter we took the D7 down to Locronan, a quaint medieval town with rough cobbled streets, now a well preserved tourist attraction full of art and craft shops, including a glass blower and a model boat maker. A fine 15th Century church dedicated to St Ronan dominates the central square.

Wonderful stained glass in St Ronan's church, Locronan

There is a small aire at the upper end of town with parking under the trees, but the service point was hors service - I wonder if that is anything to do with the campsite at the other end now offering the same facilities?
GPS: 48.0984 N, 4.2122 W

By bedtime we were surrounded by twelve or thirteen more (French) camping cars. About 0300 we were woken sharply by thunderous noise of hailstones on the roof and sides, the wind roaring scarily in the tree tops – when will this weather end?

3rd April
Hard to motivate ourselves again after a poor night, but we needed gas and water so headed for Douarnenez, which has the only Autogas station around these parts at the Leclerc hypermarket. After a look at the waterfront and that of linked Treboul, we hit the D7 west again. There are good views of Morgat and Cap de la Chevre from Pointe du Millier.
This peninsular from Douarnenez westwards is known as Ouest Cornouaille (West Cornwall) for good reason, and the entire perimeter can be walked by coast path. There are also innumerable other marked walking and mountain bike trails in the western tip, north east and south east areas.

The village of Cleden cap Sizun has an aire in a surprisingly large car park opposite the cemetery. In the village centre is a very old and interesting church, a knick-knack shop and a Tabac, nothing else. We indulged ourselves in a bottled cider in the Tabac whilst the locals watched the football on the tiny television – no wide screens here. Nevertheless we were given a welcome, on old guy clearing his table to allow us to sit by the window. Touching to observe everyone who came in shake hands with or kiss all the other customers as they entered. The village is a family.

Unusual church at Cleden cap Sizun

Tiny as the village is, it amazingly boasts a newly and beautifully restored Marie and post office (complete with registry office) – and a huge two story building dedicated as a village hall. There are also public toilets and a sports field – how do the French do it?
Aire GPS: 48.0481N, 4.6502 W

4th April
Finally our weather station gizmo was predicting unbroken sunshine, and, by and large it got it right!

Pointe du Van is almost the western-most tip of this peninsula and there is a large car park there, of which one bay is without a height barrier. Half a dozen vans were already there as we arrived and one camping-cariste was mug-in-hand cleaning her teeth, so I guess a few spent the night. No overnight parking restrictions that we could see, but as we had been severely buffeted about in Cleden cap Sizun, it must have been a rough one for those that did.

One of many spectacular vistas from Point du Van

The walk around the headland is splendid, as spectacular as others we had seen but subtly different again, and with the added bonus of the lovely restored chapel of St They perched on a cliff top.

Pointe du Raz is a few minutes drive distant and on the way is a fine beach with allocated daytime parking for motorhomes, a hotel/restauarant and a beach bistro.
However, the point itself is a different animal, with heavily controlled parking (lifting barriers and attendants - 5 Euro for a motorhome). A totally different atmosphere, not to our taste so we got a gratis exit ticket and left.

Anse du Loch is a magnificent sandy beach, just before Primelin, and spotting ‘Le Loch Creperie Bar’, we pulled up for an alfresco lunch. My crepe was disappointingly more crisp than crepe and the service glacial, but the local Kerne Brut cider was excellent.

Waiting for a crepe - or was it a crisp?

Now heading east again down the south coast we had a look at Audierne, a waterfront town with large leisure boat marina and fishing boat quay. There is an aire here within easy reach of the waterfront.

On the D784 we turned off at Plouhinec towards the coast and found a sandy beach front car park with fabulous views. A French camper was just putting his van onto leveling blocks and asked if it was ok to stay for the night, he puffed out his cheeks and lifted his shoulders in true Gallic fashion - if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for us.
Unbelievably, the sun was still shining - the promise of a beautiful evening and a night sleeping with the sound of the breaking waves.

A free pitch by the waterfront - can you beat it?

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