Welcome to our Blog. We spend a large part of every year travelling in our beloved Rapido 741F motorhome.
We post regular accounts of our adventures as well as the occasional article, and of course, pictures.
Please click on the Archive pointers to see more.
Note. MS Internet Explorer may obscure parts of the viewed page, including the archive, please try Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome

Saturday, 22 May 2010

France trip 2010 - Guerande to St Gilles de Vie

3rd May Guerande.
We wrapped up warm and returned to the old town for Sue to have a second look at a Mexican silver necklace that had taken her fancy. The shop was closed for the morning so we killed some time by walking the city walls.

The moat into which the fisherman used to leap!

I don't know who makes this stuff up, but according to a plaque at the Bizienne Gate, it was the custom (up to the 18th Century) for fishmongers who turned up on Easter Monday without a gallon of wine and a loaf of bread, in lieu of tax to enter the town, to leap naked into the moat! This was known as the le saut des poissonniers or "fishmongers leap"! Yeah…

The ancient streets of Guerande

Lunch at Le Logis Brasserie, in a rather chilly room, was steak and chips for me and pizza for Sue - Euro 12 a head, including a crepe and coffee. (When will I learn not to order a "rare" steak in France - it always comes "blue", i.e. singed on the outside and stone cold raw in the middle!)

Not quite what you expect from the outside!

Le Logis occupies an ancient building, and I suppose it's inevitable that some venerable old buildings like this will get a "modern" makeover, but it seemed a shame to see centuries-old bare beams painted white - and trendy fixtures and furniture, in such a setting.

A walk inside the atmospheric church of Saint Aubin revealed some magnificent stained glass and stonework, definitely worth a look.

Leaving the silver necklace in the shop (!), we drove out to Le Crosic via Batz-sur-Mer, passing a still operating ancient windmill en route. Freshly milled ble noir or black wheat flour is for sale direct to the public.

Get your freshly milled flour here!

You also drive by the Musee de Marais Salants or Museum of the Salt Marshes, which if you've never examined how edible salt is produced in this way, is very interesting.

Getting to the Cote Sauvage from Le Crosic took a bit of back tracking, but we were eventually rewarded with a sea view from an overnight aire on the cliff tops. The allocated spaces are ridiculously small however and access difficult. 5 Euro per night, no services.
GPS: 47.2893 N, 2.5373 W

4th May
We took a trip back up the coast to see the bit we had missed the previous evening. This Cote Sauvage is not quite as wild and rocky as that on Quiberon’s west coast, but it does a fair impersonation.
We came across a squad of local firemen in the sea, wading about in the shallows under the direction of a hard faced gent in a thick red jacket. It was obviously a drill of some sort, but I bet they loved their boss for picking such a bitterly cold windy day!

A chilly start to the day for the local firemen!

On the D45 down towards La Baule is an old wartime gun bunker, Le Grand Blockhaus, now open for visitors and seemingly very popular.

Getting to the seafront at La Baule is tricky from this direction (lots of dead ends) so you are best sticking to the main road.
La Baule’s everlasting crescent of cream coloured sand is magnificent, but the sea front is totally built up, the occasional old traditional villa made to look odd, like rotting teeth, amongst row upon row of square cream and white 60's and 70's apartment blocks.

One of the better looking blocks of apartments in La Baule

Eventually La Baule merges into Pornichet, and as we could see no obvious route to St Marc sur Mer, we got onto the D92 to St Nazaire and then followed the coast road into town.

St Nazaire, if you are of a certain age, might register in your memory as the place where a desperately dangerous, but successful raid was undertaken by Allied Commandos in the last war to disable the massive “Normandie” drydock - the task completed by ramming the HMS Campbeltown, primed with explosives, into the lock gates. An epic operation, worth looking up if you are interested in that kind of thing.

The harbour also included a lock basin where a submarine base had been built. This basin is today still dominated by the base, a massive concrete monolith, 300 metres long and 130 metres wide - as high as a six storey building and built with an incredible 480,000 cubic metres of concrete, reinforced with thousands of tons of steel and granite. The walls are up to 3 metres thick, the roof up to 8.5 metres!

The monolithic German submarine base

It sheltered the submarines in 14 separate pens or drydocks. Constructed in a little under two years with thousands of conscripted French labourers, it is one of five built to protect the submarine fleet from allied bombing - the others being at Brest, Lorient, La Pallice (La Rochelle) and Bordeaux.
Inside was a self-contained undercover Naval dockyard, with 60 workshops, 20 pumping stations, 2 generating plants and dozens of offices, stores, etc., even an operating theatre!

As the Allied bombing raids became more effective, modifications were made to the roof that would cause the bombs to detonate, but release the exploding gas in explosion chambers underneath, without damaging the main roof. To achieve this 1.8 high metre walls were topped with perpendicular 1.4 metre rounded beams. Trees have now been planted in huge tubs on this section of the roof, the tubs invisible below the concrete beams!

The last form of defence against Allied bombs!

Unable to seriously penetrate the pen’s massive construction, the Allies eventually adopted a policy of laying waste to the surrounding area, thus restricting communications and re-supply. Eighty five percent of St Nazaire was razed to the ground in this effort, only the pens were left standing.

On the other side of the basin a fortified bunker was built over one of the locks to protect submarines on entry and exit. From 1987 this has housed the French submarine Espadon. The Espadon or Swordfish is a post war vessel based on the German U-boat design and so can give you some idea what it must have been like to fight such machines. Sue is not a lover of such vessels, but I longed to have a look and she came along anyhow.

The fortified lock gates from one of the submarine docks

To say that the living and working conditions were claustrophobic is a serious understatement. As a seagoing engineer most of my working life I have worked in some cramped and hot conditions, but how they managed to operate and maintain such a vessel, even in peace time - let alone the inevitable injuries and discomfort from operating in combat, is almost beyond my comprehension, I would have found it an absolute nightmare.

The submarine guide claims that when running, the generator room temperature reached up to 172° Fahrenheit, or 78° Centigrade - bear in mind that at this temperature you will instantly burn your skin if you touch metal!
I have worked a four hour watch in 130° F (54° C) and know that to survive that you have to constantly drink water and swallow salt tablets - but the daily water allowance was just 5 pints per man and that included cooking!

The French submarine Espadon

Some other quotable facts: 65 men shared one toilet and one cold, seawater shower, and the cook had to produce 130 meals a day in a galley about as big as most peoples downstairs toilet! An eye opener for anyone who thinks their working (and living) conditions are tough!

By the 1970's, the area around the submarine base had become an industrial wasteland, but in the 1980's a regeneration plan was developed. Starting in 1995, four of the submarine bays were opened up to the town by removing their 2 metre thick back walls, and the docks refilled with water. The base opened to the public in 2000.
Most of the pens are now empty, vast watery halls, and it takes a little imagination to envisage the hive of activity that would have been.

The echoes of much frenetic activity

Sightseeing cruises can be booked from an office in one hall, and some more of them have been converted into a mock-up of the France and Normandy liners, which can be visited for 10 Euros.
A road on a ramp has been built up to the roof, and the bleak concrete there is under redevelopment with gardens and ponds, no doubt, cafes will follow!
The new post war town centre of St Nazaire has now been linked to the base and the waterfront by a new shopping centre, the Centre Republique.

The base is now integrated into the town

Walking around the basin, my eye could not escape the sight of a new mega-cruiseship nearing completion - the 1000 ft (330 metre) long Norwegian Epic.
Poor Sue, I now decided that a visit to the shipyard where so many famous vessels have been built (included the Queen Mary II) was also on the agenda! A check with the office revealed that a tour was available the next day at ten o’clock.

The mammoth cruise ship "Norwegian Epic" in the "Normandie" dock

We had parked alongside several other motorhomes in a spacious car park directly opposite the pens and adjacent to the Carrefour supermarket. It appeared to be a public car park, and asking an employee leaving one of the offices nearby if we would be Ok to park overnight, he thought it would be, especially as some of the vans had been there a month! This saved us a 10 km or more trip out of town to an aire, plus the early start in the morning.
Battening down the blinds to avoid arousing curiosity we had our evening meal and got an early night.

5th May
Once the traffic had died down we had a quiet night, and we were at the ticket office in good time in the morning. It is possible to book tours not only to see the shipyard but also the nearby Airbus factory and a tour of the port of St Nazaire itself.

Already aware that the tour commentary would only be in French, I was disappointed but unsurprised at the total and very firm ban on any photography - inevitable when high tech and military ships are under construction. Nevertheless we understood some of the commentary and had a look inside a construction hall and the massive drydock where a naval vessel was being assembled block by block. The most interesting items that we were allowed to see were some mega motorised trolleys, that could be driven by remote control under a whole section of ship, then pick it up and deliver it elsewhere – all operated by one man with a little black box!

After a visit to the shopping centre, it was time to move on. The St Nazaire Bridge was opened in 1975, in a style since used elsewhere, but it is still quite an experience driving over it.

The magnificent St Nazaire Bridge

We had planned to stay at an aire just on the other side of the bridge at Brevins les Pins, but there was barely room for two vans and as the high winds were threatening to bring stuff off the trees, we gave it a miss.

The large aire at the Base Nautique has now been height-barriered off, so we eventually found a refuge at St Michel Chef Chef (that’s right - two Chefs!). A combined car park/aire, 5 Euro.
GPS: 47.1820 N, 2.1467 W

6th May
We headed out to the coast again, ending up on an aire just above Pointe de St Gildas. We didn't intend to stay, but a shaded gently sloping gravel aire two minutes walk from the coast path was seductive at just 3 Euros a night. At the point, there are café-bars, a restaurant and a sailing centre. The town of Prefailles is also within walking distance.
A friendly girl with excellent English came to collect the fee around 5 o'clock and handed us a map and a brochure of Prefailles.
GPS: 47.1370 N, 2.2384 W

Pointe de St Gildas

7th May
Not one, but two bread vans arrived and tooted their horns at eight in the morning. Not quite together enough at that time, we didn't buy any, but we decided to stay for the day. There are numerous coastal walks and cycle routes available from the tourist office, including one around an old coastal defence station from WWII.

8th May
We have pleasant memories of Pornic as it was our stopover point when returning from camping holidays on the Ile de Re. However, it's not a place to be approached in a motorhome and we eventually had to skirt around the town centre and park up.

La Berniere en Retz is a small coastal town just south of Pornic and has a rather cramped but pleasant aire near the centre. A French family had set up camp on the aire: awning, BBQ, picnic table, the works - strictly against French law of course, but nobody seemed to object.
GPS: 47.0784 N, 2.0341 W

9th May
We both wanted to revisit Noirmoutier, an island distinguished by its access - the D948 or Passage du Gois is a tidal causeway. Nowadays, it is something of a tourist attraction and highly regulated, and there were dozens of cars and vans parked up waiting for the tide to fall and reveal the road.

Carefully regulated - but the road is submerged by the rising tide!

Nevertheless, we have done it before in a car and didn't want to waste half a day, so we about-turned back to the main road and took the bridge.

The Ile de Noirmoutier, though having a lot to offer, is a poor relation of the Ile de Re. It has the same terracotta roofed, white-washed-walled, shuttered-windowed holiday homes and villages. It has marais or salt marshes, oyster beds, vineyards and potato production. It has fine beaches, a network of cycling paths and walking trails. What is doesn't have is as many historic villages or charm of the same quality.
And, like the Ile de Re, these days, you really have to check into a campsite and get on your bikes if you are going to enjoy it.

As we discovered, the seafront aire at L'Epine (listed in both our 2010 guides) is now defunct, access to the waterfront is through a barrier, Usagers du Port only! Thinking we had the wrong access we drove up a sandy road lined with boulders, only to find a 2 metre height barrier a hundred metres further on. There was nowhere to turn around and we had to reverse back up the narrow track with incoming cars trying to get past us. Not fun at all. Whilst we were there two other French vans arrived looking for the same aire and we stopped them making the same mistake.
A few signs saying “aire now closed” would have saved a lot of irritation and confusion to everybody.

Not to worry though, there is a brand new aire just off the roundabout as you turn into L'Epine. Complete with lifting entry barrier and road traffic noise - it was, unsurprisingly, empty. These kind of aires are a pain - you cannot park up even for lunch, and you have to pay the full 7 Euro (with your credit card) just to get water. A double bind, when parking for motorhomes almost everywhere else is prohibited!

The weather matched our mood, dark and stormy, so we turned back to La Gueriniere, where we stopped on another municipal aire adjacent to a campsite. This at least allows you to park up for a while without coughing up 7 Euros, and has a sensible Flot Bleu machine taking 2 Euro coins. Access to the magnificent beach is not obvious, but possible, walking through one of the holiday villages nearby.
GPS: 46.9657 N, 2.2149 W

The new, spacious aire at La Gueriniere

It continued to rain so we stayed put.

10th May
The weather had improved somewhat and we did a quick tour of what we hadn't seen the day before.
There is a huge tarmac aire on the outskirts of Noirmoutier en L'ille that you have to share with buses and cars, except that motorhomes have to pay 7 Euro to park overnight, plus a further 2 Euro for water. The only saving grace is the launderette opposite.
GPS: 47.0010 N, 2.2530 W

The massive car park/aire/bus park at Noirmoutier en L'ille

Heading to L'Herbaudiere at the top of the island, we weren't surprised to find access restricted to the busy little port. There is an aire here within walking distance of the port and a height-barriered car park's distance from the sea. It was already full with about 20 vans - same deal - 7 Euro to stay, 2 Euro for water.
GPS: 47.0201 N, 2.3006 W

Heading south off the island, the coastal D38 is denied glimpses of the sea by the Foret des Pays de Monts, pine trees on sand dunes all the way to Sion sur l’Ocean.

We pulled off at Notre Dame de Monts, where we found an aire on a lovely site - literally on the edge of the forest, the beach perhaps half a kilometre through the forest, by a myriad of sandy trails. A short walk along the beach brings you to the well laid out promenade and a beach cafe. There is a sailing school right on the beach with Hobie Cats and land yachts.
The only downside to the aire is the poor service point - taps that are impossible to attach a hose to, and no evident toilet dump.
GPS: 46.8349 N, 2.1423 W

Beach cafe plonked on the sand at Notre Dame de Monts

Coming back from our glass of cider on the beach, we lost our way on the forest trails without any difficulty whatsoever. Nothing to do with the cider of course, but in the end it was Sue who had the right instincts to get us back to the van!

Sue knows her way through the forest!

11th May
A very peaceful night - tranquil by some recent standards, and we lay in bed late, listening to the bird life in the trees.
Later we headed down the D38 to St Jean de Monts where we found a large aire in a wooded setting near the tennis courts. Unfortunately the Flot Bleu required jettons and as it was now lunch time, not available.

Back along the waterfront at St Jean de Monts, the bitterly cold day seemed to have virtually closed the resort, several French motorhomes were parked up on the seafront car parks, admiring the view in disregard of the motorhome prohibition signs.

Further south, Sion sur l’Ocean, Croix de Vie and St Gilles Croix de Vie virtually merge into one another, but we took the heavily built up corniche road as far as we could before settling on a car park type aire in St Gilles Croix de Vie.
GPS: 46.7031 N, 1.9470 W

We had another reason to stay, as we had seen posters advertising a Vendee-Saint Petersbourg multihull yacht race, departing on 16th May from St Gilles – hopefully we could get to see the yachts in preparation.

The Multi50 trimarans prepare to race at St Gilles Croix de Vie

As it turned out, we struck lucky and we were able to walk along the pontoons and study these amazing trimarans and their crew’s preparations close up, as well as visit the Race Village that had been set up on the quayside.

Live commentary at the Race Village

Have a go piloting a speed machine, inside on the simulator

The Vendee-Saint Petersbourg is a first time event, a there and back race for a 3 man crew, set up to provide some interesting and exciting sailing away from the big ocean events, which would be different for those taking part and more accessible for spectators.

The latest of the class, Whaou! 3

The helmsmans chair - note the foot rest, long white tiller on the left and carbon fibre steering rods at the bottom of the picture

The Multihull 50 are a new breed of boat as well, heavily restricted by class rules to keep the costs down, but at the same time provide high speed ocean and offshore racing. The Vendee-Saint Petersbourg has been specifically created for these Multi50’s as their reference event. The website has an English translation and you can follow all the action of the crews and boats.

1 comment:

neilmac said...

Hi Ian and Sue,

Sounds like you're having a great trip, enjoying your blog and the photos are great!