Holidays… Part 1

It has been quiet here as we have been away on our holidays for the last 3 weeks – I know, how indulgent is that. We were bound by wanting to catch up with P’s sister and nephews who were visiting grand/parents in Italy, and the first date Wilbur (our newest dog) could return to the UK on his new passport. So we had a week to make it from the UK down to Italy, and what an eventful week it was.

Our first day was spent disembarking the ferry, walking the dogs in Zeebruggebad then onto the motorway to head south. Despite huge queues around Paris where I mused on the musical value of HGV air brakes and the increasing heat, we made it to Beaugency and the campsite we found last year on our way back from Spain but which was already closed as it was the beginning of September. This is the campsite taken from the 14th century bridge that spans the Loire:

This gives an insight into how we travel.

The roof tent on the Landrover is amazingly comfortable – I can’t believe how long I resisted having one and how many extra weeks were spent on bumpy ground in a regular tent. The trailer doesn’t usually come with us but we had all the extra camping gear ready for a family trip later in the holiday – more of that in another post. The old deck chairs came with the allotment and with a 9 person trip on the horizon every bit of portable seating we , with us.

Beaugency dates back to medieval times and the town is an interesting mix of buildings from different periods  up to the modern-day. I do love it when great design is used for everyday things like this sign for the local butchers;

We arrived to a local festival showcasing local produce so went across the bridge had a walk around town and then went to the riverfront and joined in by buying a bottle of wine, sitting at a picnic table and grazing on local foodstuffs being sold. We went french/spanish for desert with some wonderful freshly cooked churros and some juicy local plums.

The next day, having realised that we were travelling at the peak time when french holidays start, I suggested that rather than spend more time on the motorway, we try the smaller roads. I generally favour smaller national routes which are good sized roads but take you through smaller towns, over motorways. However, it backfired on me. Initially we were excited by the number of 2CVs we saw. P’s mum has one and we both have a soft spot for them. However, we took about 2 hours to travel 35km, again in increasing heat as my chosen route took us through Salbris, which it turned out was hosting the 19th World meeting of 2CV friends. So we headed back to the motorway and continued out journey south, but not for long.

P had been suffering an infected cyst for which he had been prescribed antibiotics the day before we left. 4 days later they didn’t seem to be working, the swelling had worsened and P was experiencing pain around his ear, jaw and sinuses. So we decided the next reasonable sized town and we’d stop and look for a hospital to have it checked out. That turned out to be Chateauroux and the main road from the motorway into town was conveniently lined with clinics and specialists offices. A passport, E111, 100 euros and an later P emerged looking like he’d been in a bar room brawl. The doctor has removed the cyst and stitched P up and covered the wound with a huge dressing, but the blood that had run down his neck and over his shirt was still drying. We went to the pharmacy to sort the prescription and among medication and dressings etc. I was looking for something to clean P up with. The pharmacist very generously realised what I was after and gave us a spray can of water, and on a camping stool, on the pavement next to the car I did the best I could with the water and some cotton wool to make P ‘respectable’ enough to go get a coffee. After that we were back on the road and thinking about a campsite for the night.

We chose St Gaultier, a small town with  a great municipal campsite next to the river. The dogs splashed about in the river and I was taken by the amazing mayflies:

We had a short walk and saw one of those scenes that you expect to see on a relocation programme:

P had a sleep and I went into town and got some provisions and had a beer in the town square before heading back to make dinner.

At this stage I must say how wonderful French municipal campsites are. They generally have basic amenities (i.e. no swimming pool or restaurant) but the showers/toilets are always clean and have free hot water. There’s good clothes and crockery washing areas, taps around the sites, power if you want it, and are well located in walking distance of local amenities and have mature planting producing privacy for plots and shade. Often you can order bread/brioche that are delivered in time for breakfast. We’ve always found the staff friendly and helpful and they’re inexpensive – we paid between 6 and 16 euros a night for 2 adults, car/tent, trailer and 2 dogs – you pay for each element separately. All but one site we stayed at this summer was a municipal campsite. However, I’m not sure I quite live up to the image of female campers implied by this (left) toilet sign from the campsite in St Gautier.

The next day started with another walk along the river and then setting off for a long day driving. We wanted to make up some distance as we were behind schedule and would have further delay in having to find another hospital in a couple of days to get P checked out and his dressing changed. So we headed towards the Pyrenees and reached Albiers.

Next day we headed back to the local hospital where P was checked over and all was well. Whilst P speaks good french he wasn’t confident in explaining the circumstances behind his visit and we were incredibly grateful for the receptionist who spoke great English and was incredibly helpful. Between them  all was sorted out very efficiently and we were back on the road again.

Part of the idea of the week had been to explore a part of France neither of us had been to before with a view to future trips. However, given the circumstances it was only really now that we were able to really head off the main roads and explore a bit. This included driving over the Col de Pailheres which reaches 2001m and is used as part of the Tour de France. At the highest point we encountered some horses which reminded me of  the New Forest, and lots of family days out when I was a child.

This picture was taken from a lay by whilst we waited for the horses ahead to move and let us through.

The views of the mountains in the distance were pretty amazing:

And I was quite taken by something much closer – I love this combination of colours which has got me thinking about a future knitting project:

Coming down into the valley I noticed a woman sat in her garden knitting and thought what a fabulous view to knit to.

That night we made it to St Paul de Fenouillet. We took the dogs for a walk and seeing the town in the near distance I was struck how diverse France is. My mental image of France is shaped by school trips in Normandy and Brittany, a short trip across the Chanel from Dorset and apart from the language difference, remarkable familiar. This part of France is just so different:

This difference is reflected in the flowers and trees which thrive in the area. As allotment holders we’re always interested in gardens and plots and what people grown on them. St Paul was a thrill for the fruit trees, persimmons, medlars and almonds. I have a soft spot for almond trees which have the most stunning blossom which gives ways to velvet seed cases in which the nuts grow.

 The nuts on this tree were ripening nicely and bursting from their seed cases.

I was also intrigued by an oak tree, the like of which I had never seen before. the leaves were like holly leaves and the acorns in spiky caps. This is the Kermes oak which is native to this area:

The following day we headed towards the sea. We’re not really beach people; I’m not great in the sun and get twitchy if I have to sit still too long. But I do love swimming in the sea. I’ve never swum in the Mediterranean though, and we thought we’d put that right and set off for Le Cap-d’Agde. We passed Narbonne and were struck by how the Cathedral towers over the town and certainly looks worth a future visit. We hadn’t done our research on Le Cap-d’Agde, just picked it from the map. As we got close P suggested we were heading to a French Blackpool, ironic given I’m in Blackpool most weeks. However, it seemed like half of France had the same idea and after two hours in a traffic jam we turned away and headed along the coast to the Camargue. As the next couple of days were heading along the coat – the swim could wait…

That night we stayed in Fontvieille near Arles in a gorgeous campsite and next day stopped off to look at the ruins of the roman aqueduct before heading towards the border along the coast.

The Coastline of the South of France is littered with iconic places. Initially I had wanted to visit Marseille, the images of the harbour in the French Connection, a history dating back to roman times, and the links to North Africa all pique my interest. However, the practicalities of negotiating an unknown city with small medieval streets in a Landrover and trailer meant we decided to leave this until another trip. instead our route took us from Aix-en-Provence to Cannes and on to Nice.

We decided to head right down to the coast and the Promenade de Anglaise along the seafront in Nice. However, I managed to navigate P, driving for the first time since his op, into the airport. At that point we decided he’d be better with the map and I’d drive. We found our way via various diversions due to roadworks onto the promenade and I was struck by how narrow the strip of sand that comprised the beach was, and every inch was covered by bodies.

Nice again has a long history as a significant trading port has and played a major role in the development of what we recognise as modern Europe, especially France and Italy due to its early links to Savoy. As I was driving along a busy promenade I only got chance to briefly look around at some amazing buildings. To get from the promenade to a road that would take us back to the mountains took some dodgy manoeuvres with trailer following along behind but again I  think worth a visit with more time, although I think given my preference for the beach in winter, that would be the perfect time for a return visit.

Another night camping in the mountains and then off to Italy the next morning. Our exploratory trip along the south of France had taken us to a few places we hadn’t expected, meant we missed a couple we had, but whetted our appetite for longer return visits in the future. We had also decompressed and were definitely in holiday mood and looking forward to seeing family in Italy.

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