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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!

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