Friday 9th September 2011, Poitiers
After nearly two months in England, here we are back on the road once more. This time we are heading south, hoping to keep pace with the cooler weather as autumn approaches. So far we're not doing too well. Mornings and evenings are delightful but the core of the day is still very warm for walking about exploring new places.
We spent a pleasant few weeks back in Exeter, seeing friends – not as many as we'd hoped but I suppose you are all allowed to go off on your own holidays in the summer! The garden has been given a good tidy, hedges trimmed, lawn cut, trees pruned, weeds annihilated. We've also made a trip up north visiting Neil, Jeev and the grandchildren in their shiny new home in Beverley, near Hull –complete with four loos! I ask you, why does any home need four of them? We are Morocco bound and we don't even have one! (We may regret this but every centimetre of space counts in Modestine, so we jettisoned the toilet.)
We also found the opportunity to visit Peter and Jill in Carlisle and explore part of Hadrian's Wall as well as the Roman fort of Vindolanda. We returned south via the Lake District and the Yorkshire moors, enjoying some of England's most stunning landscapes. Even Leamington Spa, where we called on long standing and long suffering friends Peter and Kate, put on its sunniest smile to welcome us to an amazing lakeside woodland park reclaimed from a landfill site where the methane gas is channelled off to supply energy to local homes.
We even made a brief trip down to Land's End in Cornwall at England's furthest westerly point. We walked parts of the coastal footpath, rode on the open top buses along the cliff road to St, Ives, enjoyed a cream tea with scones and jam by Penzance harbour and ate Cornish pasties on a bench in the centre of the old tin mining town of St. Just.
After a great deal of trouble we have eventually obtained a green card to insure Modestine to visit Morocco, so we are now making our way at a leisurely pace down through France and Spain before deciding when and where we will take the ferry across to Africa. We are rather excited and also a little apprehensive but we have good friends to welcome us once we get south of Fez and it is a wonderful opportunity for us to experience a new continent and yet another, very colourful culture.
We first met Karen and Doug down in the Languedoc during the early days of our travels. Like us they had just retired and wanted something a tad more exciting in their lives before settling down to snowy winters in Montana. So they rented a little house in St. Chinian and our paths crossed. Since then they have adventured for several months each year, exploring both Europe and Asia. They are currently signed up with the American Peace Corps for an exciting couple of years working as volunteers in Morocco. We will expand further on this once we meet up with them.
So, a week ago we left Paul house-sitting for a while longer and crossed the Channel to Caen. Since then we have been staying with Geneviève and catching up with French friends. It has been delightful as always and we have even managed to visit a special exhibition at the Norman castle in the centre of Caen. Normandy was overrun by the Vikings in 911 but so too were parts of Eastern Europe covering modern day Ukraine and parts of Russia. The exhibition concentrated on Novgorod with many finds from the excavations there including fragile medieval letters written on birch bark, similar to the Vindolanda writing tablets we saw at Hadrian's Wall. The decorations were typically Scandinavian with intertwined creatures and it was strange to see them in a Russian context.
On Tuesday we drove to Honfleur, a charming little town with slate-hung houses surrounding the little fishing port. It's not our first visit there but each time we go we find it delightful. It has a fishermen's church built entirely of wood, including the spire. Unfortunately the weather turned wet and we were soon soaked as we stepped warily over the shiny wet cobbles. At the far end of the harbour stands one of Honfleur's most picturesque buildings. Mainly of 15th century construction it is known as the Lieutenance. Later it was adapted by Colbert but today, despite its splendour, appears to serve purely as a tourist attraction and public lavatory. (The one for the ladies is presumably known as the "French Lieutenant's Woman"!)
On Wednesday we moved on from Caen, down to the Loire and the lovely town of Loches with its huge donjon towering above the creamy walls of the old town. Here we spent a couple of nights with some English friends with Exeter connections.
We have already described Loches elsewhere but on this visit we discovered a couple of things we'd previously missed. These included a couple of paintings formerly displayed in one of the churches. They are believed to be by Caravaggio but there are some who, much to the anger of the town council, are not convinced of their authenticity. We found them pretty good which to us is what matters so don't mind too much either way.
We also discovered within the walls of the citadel a free museum of paintings by the 19th century local artist Emmanuel Lansyer. The building had been his home and his paintings, mainly in oils and quite small, graced the walls of every room. They were mainly landscapes and scenes of rural life from right across France, arranged by region. He obviously had a close affinity with Brittany and we found those works particularly enjoyable.
This morning we left Loches and made our way southwards. We still have a couple of friends to visit in France before we reach Spain and need to decide which route to take down to the Mediterranean coast. But for a few days we are back on our own, camping with Modestine. Today we visited Descartes and Châtellerault. The first is a pleasant little town, formerly known as La Haye, famed as the birthplace of the 18th century philosopher Réné Descartes. His birthplace was closed for a two hour lunch break and the rest of the town was sleeping in the heat so we did not wait.
Châtellerault is a much larger town built on both banks of the river Vienne. It must once have been a very wealthy place to judge by the impressive towers guarding the bridge, constructed in the late 16th century. It has a huge town hall and several interesting old buildings but it was too hot to enjoy walking around the streets. The town was though, the birthplace of the last French governor of Bengal and also the place where little Réné Descartes spent his summer holidays as a child in the 16th century Maison des Sibylles.
The countryside of the Poitou region is mainly open fields with areas of woodland and a few small villages. The roads are largely empty. It is a pleasant area but lacks variety. By 4pm we had reached the edge of Poitiers. Discovering a very pleasant campsite with enough shade to make things perfect we've stopped and will explore Poitiers tomorrow. Just up the road is Futuroscope, the famed science theme park. The tourist season though is over. With blazing headlines in every French newspaper and long articles about the psychological traumas they will suffer after two months away from the classroom, French children have returned to school. There are now very few people staying here. It seems such a shame when the weather is better than it has been all summer.
Related links from Maxted Travels: