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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.