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Saturday, 1 March 2014

Europe Trip 2014 - Outward to Astigarraga

As ever, our plans were just vague destinations...Spain, Portugal… a simple desire to get away from the endless rain and gloomy news. We thought about the ferry down to Santander in Northern Spain, but decided instead on Plymouth-Roscoff and a run down through France as a relaxing way to ease ourselves back into the motorhoming life. 

Six months without a motorhome trip seems like a long time, but for one reason or another our autumn trip to the north of England and Scotland hadn't been possible and now it was feeling strange to be back in the van – having to re-learn how to live together in a small enclosed space.

We firmed up our decision to revisit Spain and Portugal (after an interval of seven years), this time concentrating on the interior of each country rather than the coastline.

9th to 10th February
As usual our first overnight was at the Britannia Inn at St Austell – far enough from home to feel that we had left, but near enough to return if we had forgotten something vital.

Brittany Ferries' Armorique 2200 sailing to Roscoff was one of the season's first, and for a change we booked a cabin for the overnight. Still time though for a nice French supper of poached salmon and hollandaise sauce, washed down with a bottle of Muscadet.

11 February. Day 3
The sea got a bit lumpy as we approached Roscoff and we disembarked the ferry in pouring rain and high winds, seeking a temporary refuge in a supermarket car park on Rue de Pontigou for some breakfast.

In even heavier wind and rain, we drove via Lorient and Vannes to a France Passion site just south east of Nantes at Maisdon sur Sevre. Basically a vineyard and small farm, it is open to all comers and is free to stay, but they were asking €3 for a pump 'n dump and €4 for electricity. Madame gave us a tour of the "Cave" and we tasted, and then inevitably bought a few bottles of Domaine des Croix, plus some cured ham from their farm shop.

Wine, ham and cheese from Domaine des Croix

Overnight stop and service area, farm shop
GPS: 47.1040 N, 01.3866 W

12 February. Day 4
Woke up to a clear blue sky, but it was a cold night: just 4 degrees. It soon clouded over however and we were buffeted by high wind and rain again. We moved on to a deserted aire just below La Rochelle at Angoulins: a wooded area by a lake, a hundred metres or so from the sea, and accessed over a steel bridge with a 3.5 ton limit. Space was tight amongst the trees, and some areas were under several inches of water or still too soggy to contemplate. On our way in we passed an abandoned campsite, which appeared to have been taken over by travellers. 

Overnight stop and service area
GPS: 46.1125 N, 01.1226 W

13 February. Day 5
A terrible night of torrential lashing rain and wind – rocking the van on its springs. Awake at 0400 and fearful of falling branches and more serious flooding, I got up and dressed to keep a "standby watch". But by 0800 the rain and wind had stopped, the sun came out, and we went gratefully back to sleep for a couple of hours.

On our departure we noticed that the nearby lake had risen and the water level behind the levee was now higher than the ground on which we were parked. If that levee had been breached we would have well up to our axles! 

We headed for the nearest Carrefour hypermarket and stocked up. 

New for us this trip was a Caxtonfx foreign exchange card: basically a debit card which you load up with euros (or dollars) from your own bank account and then all transactions are free of currency conversion or other charges. You obviously have to accept Caxton's currency conversion for the initial top up, but it seems competitive. The neat thing is that you can make top ups instantly with a few simple codes in a text from your mobile phone. You're then able to draw cash or pay at any Visa terminal, and I haven't had it rejected from any ATM or card machine yet – a welcome change from juggling credit cards and phoning my bank to "flag" up my card as being abroad! It also gives you another line of defence when it comes to theft or fraud. (Thanks Andy for the tip!)


Our pitch for the night was down by the river at Rochefort, but it took some finding as the parking area was away up a lane (Rue de la Vielle Forme) from the service points by the Capitanierie. After supper of baked cod we went for a walk by the marina – so tranquil, the hulls and rigging of the boats mirrored in the water. Five minutes later it was raining again!

Overnight stop and service area
GPS: 45.9444 N, 0.9555 W

The tranquil yacht basin at Rochefort

14 February. Day 6
After a quiet night we awoke to more grey skies, but warmer: 10 degrees. I did a quick shop at Lidl’s – uncannily identical to our local branch, but a distinct change of atmosphere with the obvious presence of a security guard, plus I had to open up my rucksack for inspection before they would begin tilling the goods.

We headed south to Saintes, stopping at Saint Agnant for lunch and then cutting across on some rural roads. There was much evidence of flooding in the fields – the seabirds were happy, but the broccoli looked very sad, ruined in fact.

Saintes is the second largest city in Charente-Maritime and was the first Roman city of Aquitaine. We headed for the Abbaye aux Dames and parked in the adjacent car park, although it is off limits to motorhomes, to ask directions for the nearest available pitch. The guy at reception redirected us to a spot by the river, but it wasn’t suitable, and eventually we found the designated motorhome area: a large car park with waste and water services, off the Avenue de Saintonge. 

Overnight stop and service area
GPS: 45.7405 N, 0.6273 W

It was a 10 minute walk back to the abbey. Our 3€ ticket each included access to the bell tower and its fine view of the Cathedrale of St Pierre. 

Abbaye aux Dames

After more of a wander around and in need of refreshment and Wi-Fi we had a couple of bottles of cider (€3.40 each) in the Comptoirs des Latitudes hotel bar. Wi-fi was free, no password required, and we were presented with a gratuit wooden platter of deep-fried cheese, onion rings and potato on our second bottle!

15 February. Day 7
Another grey, wet day. We walked into town and were surprised at the amount of flooding from the river Charentes.

The Cathedral of St Pierre overlooks the flooded Charente

A visit the Church of St Eutropius, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site under the "Routes to Santiago de Compostela", was enhanced by the impressive crypt underneath. 

The crypt of the Church of St Eutropius

The Roman Amphitheatre revealed that it was also flooded which gave it a different aspect. Unfazed, we consoled ourselves with a nice plat du jour at L'Aubarrée restaurant, before visiting the Cathedral of St Pierre – a very atmospheric building with some superb stained glass.

A fine window in the Cathedral of St Pierre

16 February. Day 8
We left Saintes under a bright blue sky, and headed south to Bordeaux, keeping mostly to the D roads. Our pitch for the night was at Morcenx, on a free aire with free services, around the back of an abattoir and next to a railway line – our second night of the trip completely alone. There are some shops and a few bars and pizza outlets on the main square five minutes walk away. 

Overnight stop and service area
GPS: 44.0383 N, 0.9091 W

17 February. Day 9
We headed south to St. Jean de Luz and stopped on the aire by the railway station at Hendaye Plage. This is currently undergoing refurbishment with a new layout and tarmac, plus some landscaping. It was soon nearly full to capacity – obviously a popular transit camp. 

The refurbished aire at Hendaye Plage

Overnight stop and service area
GPS: 43.3702 N, 01.7644 W

The town and waterfront is only 10 minutes walk away, an interesting mix of architecture - Alpine Chalet and Moorish!

Moorish influences on the Hendaye Plage seafront

Alpine Chalet style?

18 February. Day 10
We left the aire (with workman busy completing the installation of the new services and pay barriers) and crossed the border into Spain, parking briefly below the Aizpea  bar in Basque Lezo where we used to drink when my old ship was in port. It was still there but firmly closed – perhaps our friend Gemma was on holiday… hard to believe she would still be running the bar after 10 more years!

Nobody Inn today!

Our Spanish Captain (married to a Basque) had taken us to a Sideria: a traditional cider vat storage establishment where you can get a hearty meal whilst sampling the cider! Originally a marketing exercise for the local cider makers it has grown into a great Basque tradition and anyone can sample the delights of the year’s new cider and enjoy a thumping good meal (and the next day’s hangover) for a very reasonable price. The season starts roughly in early January through to Easter, or when the year’s production ceases.

Sue searched for Sideria on CoPilot POI's and we investigated a couple. Popping my head around the door during the midday session, I had a friendly reception in both of them and decided to go back to the larger one, Alorrenea Sargardotegia, in the evening – parking overnight would be no problem!

Overnight parking at the Alorrenea Sargardotegia Sideria

After a pump ‘n dump on an aire in the nearby National park, we returned and found ourselves a pitch in the car park at Alorrenea, close to the main road but fairly flat. The lady recognised us and took us through, past a huge charcoal grill where great slabs of beef rib were being prepared, to one of many large wooden tables set in rows on a tiled floor and lit by rustic chandeliers hanging from a wood beamed roof. The first few tables already had a good crowd sat at them but we were given a table to ourselves. 

Our steak awaits us!

Alongside the wall were the business ends of four cider barrels, the height of a man in diameter, and in an adjoining similar room, 6 more barrels laid on trestles. Each of the huge barrels was numbered and represented the output of one or other of the cider producers. 

At the call of something sounding like "jotch", (which presumably means something like “come on, tasting time”) the assembled drinkers line up by the next barrel to be sampled, then a small tap or plug in the middle of the barrel is opened by the patron or his assistant resulting in a long arcing stream of cider, which is skillfully caught in the carefully positioned glass of the first in the queue. 

C'mon lads, jump to it!

Hmm... thats not bad!

The etiquette is to take only an inch or two in the glass (it is supposed to be a tasting sample) and move away in choreographed fashion for the next glass, so as to minimize the wasted cider. What spillage there is, drains away into gutters in the floor. If the cider is not to your taste, there is no apparently no shame in dumping the contents into the gutter!

The cider is young and can be quite tart to the tongue (Bulmer’s Woodpecker it is not!), but one soon acquires a taste – and of course you can answer the call to “jotch” as many times as you like!

A whole baguette, knives and forks and two plastic glasses arrived almost the instant we sat down, and seconds later we were in the queue for the first time, holding our glasses below the one being filled so as make the changeover as splash free as possible. 

Hardly having got our first slurps down, a large prawn omelette arrived – a meal in itself really and tasty with it. Everything comes on one plate and is shared between two. Next up: two pieces of beautifully seasoned, pan-fried white fish topped with sautéed green beans. 

This follows the prawn omelette!

Then the main event: a huge slab of prime rib of beef – very rare and fabulously tasty. 
Finally, when we didn’t think we could eat any more: some hard cured cheese and slabs of apple "confitura" (a kind of firm apple jelly) with a bowl of small, sweet walnuts.

Just when you think you can't eat any more!

By now we had attracted some attention from the locals and we chatted in a mixture of French and English, whilst others listened in. Our host explained that when filling your glass you should just put in an inch or so and drink it whilst the bubbles were still fizzing to get the best flavour. 
Amazingly, the bill came to only 31 euros a head (for 4 courses) including all the cider you could drink, and a whole baguette that we took away for breakfast! It was a great and memorable night and one to remember if you are in the Basque country early in the year.

Alorrenea Sargardotegia Sideria
GPS: 43.2872 N, 01.9466 W

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