Seeking some sunshine

Sunday 17th March 2013, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Those who have travelled with us over the years will recall that we spent several weeks in this area, thanks to the generosity of friends who offered us the use of their house here over the worst of the winter during our first year of travels. We fell in love with the area, as most British visitors do, and since then have returned on several occasions for brief visits. After we were robbed in Spain on our way back from Morocco we were obliged to spend a night camping nearby as we returned home. We determined to ask our friends whether they might indulge us once more and permit us to return when the house was next unoccupied. Thus we now find ourselves back in Ambre once more enjoying this delightful house which remains, as it has always been, a 19th century village house with many of its original features unchanged but with the benefits of such modern conveniences as heating, telephone and, sometimes, even internet access. (Currently Ian is swearing quietly as he tries to discover why the connection keeps dropping him.)

We last wrote from Paris. We returned from there to Normandy where our friend Geneviève met us at Caen station. There followed several invitations for lunch or supper with friends including Bénédicte in Bayeux who is fortunately continuing to recover well from the fall she had a year ago which shattered her ankle and had her hospitalised for weeks and unable to work for many more. She is now back at work with Caen libraries but has to be taken and fetched from the station as she is still unable to drive or walk for any distance. Claire and Bertrand also invited us for supper where we picked up on family news and the different directions in life followed by our son Neil and Claire’s son Marc, who was Neil’s pen-friend when he was eleven and learning French at school. Marc’s sister Katie and her children were also visiting while we were there, a chance to see how Claire’s three grandchildren have grown over the past decade.

Claire’s grandchildren, Alix, Edgar and Agathe, Caen

Claire and Bertrand with Geneviève and Jill, Caen

During the week Ian had a couple of return visits to the archives in Bayeux to gather material for the paper he will be presenting there in November. Meanwhile Geneviève and I spent our time on trips to different parts of Normandy, exploring antique centres, brocantes and garden centres.

The week passed all too quickly and we found ourselves back on the road, living in Modestine at a time when very few campsites were yet open. With temperatures that varied from well below zero at night to plus 27 on a couple of afternoons we have been fortunate that the sites we thought would be operating actually were.

We decided to make our way south down the west coast passing by Rennes and Nantes and camping in the Vendée, surrounded by the tiny waterways that drain the flat landscape where the white cattle of the Charente browse in the fields surrounded by reedy drainage ditches.

As we made our way south it became warmer and ever more sunny. We were in no hurry. We could not occupy the house in Ambre for several days and there were several places along the coast we had never visited. So we headed for the Ile-d'Oléron, just off the coast and linked to the mainland by a viaduct. It lies to the south of the Ile-de-Ré which we visited with our bicycles, Hinge and Bracket, back in the days before Ian’s accident when he managed to break his arms. Since then we have been too nervous to bring the bikes with us.

While the Ile-de-Ré is a holidaymakers paradise, with cycle paths linking the picturesque little villages and tiny harbours with their fishing boats and quayside cafés, the Ile-d’Oléron is considerably larger and has more small scale industry. On first crossing the bridge to the island it is something of a disappointment. However, we continued towards the further end where our map implied we would find some pretty scenery. We were not disappointed.

At the island’s main little town of St. Pierre we searched in vain for the open air market. The neon display screen on the square declared it should be taking place today but all we could see was a group of people standing around with walking sticks. The lady in the local tourist office tried to be helpful, assuring us the market would take place the following day. Why then, we asked, was the display panel saying it was happening today? She asked a colleague and they looked very confused. Suddenly a tiny bulb lit up in our brains – the display panel does not use accents and we were confused between marche and marché (walk and market)!

We left the principal road through the centre of the island and followed minor roads along near the sea through pine forests leading to the dunes. We stopped beside an area of oyster beds where the silence was broken only by the cry of gulls, curlews and marsh birds. There was nobody here to share it with and in the warm sunshine we threaded our way on foot along the low walls of the oyster beds where flat cases of young oysters were laid in the shallow sea water to grow to maturity. Away in the distance lay the open sea but here all was silence and tranquillity.

Marshes and oyster beds, Vendée

Tranquil landscape of oysterbeds and reeds, Vendée

Oysterbeds, Vendée

Later, we followed a track through the pine trees to emerge onto the sandy dunes with their clumps of tough sea grass. We could hear the thunder and roar of the open sea and as we struggled to the top of the dunes the wide Atlantic rolled in with towering waves to crash onto the deserted sandy beach.

Deserted sandy beach, Ile d’Oleron

Atlantic waves, Ile d’Oleron

We sat on tussocks of grass and watched a lone surfer as he struggled out to sea, diving beneath the huge breakers as they surged relentlessly towards the shore. Eventually he managed to crest and ride along a particularly high and wide breaker until he disappeared beneath it. We watched and waited with awe until he reappeared, a small black figure bobbing on the swell of the wide open sea.

At the far tip of the island stands the lighthouse, the Phare de Chassiron. With over 400 steps to the top we made one of our first ever concessions to age and decided instead to potter around the pleasant formal gardens in which the lighthouse stands. The air was loud with the croaking of invisible green frogs that jumped in their dozens back into the water as we approached. They hide amongst the lily pads, blowing up their yellow chests and showing off to their mates.

Phare de Chassiron, Ile d’Oleron

Wartime blockhouse fallen into the sea, Ile d’Oleron

Green frog croaking in a pool, Ile d’Oleron

From the white limestone cliffs – all of 10 ft high – we could just make out the Ile-de- Ré and the bridge linking it to the mainland near La Rochelle. A narrow track followed the cliff edge through woodland and open fields round the headland. An interesting curiosity of the island is the stone compounds for catching fish on the receding tide. Fish are carried towards the shore with the incoming tide but as it changes the fish are trapped within a stone enclosure where iron grills allow the water to drain away but leave the fish caught within the walls. The construction of these enclosures is a specialist skill allegedly unique in Europe.

Stone constructed trap for catching fish at high tide, Ile d’Oleron

There was a campsite marked as open on the island. Otherwise the nearest was over seventy kilometres ways. I still tire easily so insisted we seek out the island campsite. When we finally found it, across the far side near the viaduct, there was nobody around though the site was obviously open. The barrier prevented us entering so we settled down outside intending to make do without electricity. Just as we settled Ian finally roused somebody who said the Dutch owners had gone off for a holiday!!!! She let us onto the site which turned out to be both expensive and badly appointed with cold water in the showers and no lighting after dark. We did though have security and electricity.

Next morning we explored the final corner of the island with several very pleasant little villages of low, whitewashed cottages with doors and windows painted in pale blues or greens. All together we found the island, and its warm sunshine delightful after the chill of Paris.

Building style on IIle d’Oleron

Oyster fisheries, St-Trojan-les-Bains

Oyster fisheries, St-Trojan-les-Bains

In Gironde we explored more little villages and small tidal river estuaries where fishing and oyster culture were the main activities. In one pretty village, Mornac-sur-Seudre, we parked and walked beside the muddy estuary, past the wooden sheds of the fishermen with their nets and piles of oyster shells. On returning to Modestine we surprised a couple of wooden sea horses curious to see a mechanical donkey.

An everyday event in the Vendée. Mechanical donkey meets wooden sea horses, Mornac-sur-Seudre

Peaceful harbour, Mornac-sur-Seudre

Fishing boats on the estuary, Mornac-sur-Seudre

On an earlier visit with Modestine we had been stuck with nowhere to sleep near Royan and passed the night in a pine forest. Today we decided to look at the town. It seems to have suffered badly during the war and to have been largely rebuilt. It is clean and rather chic but lacks character. The marina is the most important feature of the sea front and on this sunny Sunday the area was crowded with families admiring the yachts moored there as they strolled along the sea front with their children on roller blades or bicycles.

Marina at Royan

As we were watching the ferry arrived from the Medoc, the area north of Bordeaux where much of the very best quality wine is produced. It lies across the estuary, a low line on the horizon. Modestine loves ferries and we’d never used this one. We went to investigate. Discovering it cost nearly as much as our Channel crossing a few weeks back we decided rather quickly that we’d drive along this side of the estuary and maybe cross at Blaye, further up the Gironde.

Ferry arriving from the Medoc across the Gironde, Royan

Leaving Royan we continued beside the Gironde towards Bordeaux. At Talmont-sur-Gironde we parked to explore the restored mediaeval village and the dramatically located church of Ste Radegonde.

Ste Radegonde, Talmont-sur-Gironde

That night we returned to a campsite we’d used before. Marked as “rural” in our camping book it is one of the nicest we have used. Last time there were a couple of goats bleating at us from the top of wine barrels. One of them was still there. He had been joined by three others and the campsite owners have done a great deal to modernise the facilities with a heated shower room and new toilets. We shared the campsite with a Dutch couple and felt really spoilt by the peace and charm of the place with its woodland behind and hectares of vines stretching away in front.

The warm weather we had enjoyed was not to last however. As we continued south into Aquitaine the weather turned decidedly chilly. Next morning saw us at Blaye. There was no ferry that morning and in any case we did not really need to cross the river as we were heading to the north of Bordeaux.

In Blaye we explored the citadel despite the cold. We climbed up beyond the tiny hamlet of cottages sheltering within the walls of the citadel to the summit beyond. From here we had draughty views up and down the immense waterway of the Gironde with its several islands around which the ferry has to manoeuvre to carry cars across to the Medoc on the far bank. The citadel was revamped by, who else but Monsieur Vauban, during the reign of Louis XIV who wanted it strengthened to ensure it was well protected from the English, who, particularly in Aquitaine might be a real threat to the French. The citadel at Blaye does not so obviously wear the Vauban trademark as many we have seen. I actually found it rather charming and certainly impressively situated. Military strategist as he undoubtedly was, he used every possible means of deterring attempts to storm the castle walls!

Citadel, Blaye

Vauban’s strategy for safeguarding the citadel from the English, Blaye

Near Blaye we parked beside the Gironde for a picnic lunch in Modestine. From here we could see the strange little fishing huts on stilts all along the riverbank. At high tide large square nets are lowered into the river and raised again once the tide has receded. It is a fishing technique we have only ever seen in this area. The wind became violent and rain streamed down the windscreen as we continued, following right beside the river’s edge through tiny rural hamlets. We stopped on a promontory to see the point where the rivers Garonne and Dordogne flow together to form the Gironde. Neither of us was prepared to get out from Modestine’s heated interior to face the gale to take a photo so I did my best through the widow.

Dordogne and Garonne meet to form the Gironde

At Bourg-sur-Dordogne I refused to join Ian for a look around the town in a howling gale to gather yet more pictures of mediaeval French towns. They all have their charm but are all very similar and are generally neglected by their residents. They do not look comfortable as 21st century dwelling places.

Town gate, Bourg-sur-Dordogne

Port gate, Bourg-sur-Dordogne

Ramparts, Burg-sur-Dordogne

Finding the campsite out near the airport to the north of Bordeaux was horrible. The motorway channelled us straight on to the rocade around the city going in the wrong direction. By the time we realised and took the next exit off we were completely lost. All things resolve eventually however and somehow we found our way through to the Lac de Bordeaux where we found the campsite beside the exhibition centre. Here there were campervans a plenty but none remotely as tiny as Modestine. Seeing her surrounded by so many huge creatures always surprises us. She looks so very tiny. Soon we were connected to the electricity and beginning to warm up.

On the off chance that our friends Yves and Catherine might be available for a coffee in town the following day we rang them to say we unexpectedly found ourselves passing through Bordeaux. They take such things in their stride. They would not be around tomorrow as they had to visit a sick relative in Tours but why not come for supper tonight instead?

The campsite rang the bus company who sent a bus out to collect us and take us to the tramway. Actually I think it is supposed to come anyway but doesn’t usually bother as campers rarely use it. It took us nearly two hours to reach our friends’ home. The Bordeaux tramway is clean, efficient and very cheap but as luck would have it the line was closing down early for repairs. Yves said he was happy to drive us back. We spent a very happy evening with our friends and Yves cooked an impressive supper of pork stuffed with prunes accompanied by crunchy mixed vegetables with garlic while Catherine chatted with us. After supper Yves showed us the videos he has made of their trip to India and also of their visit to us in Exeter a while back. He is really professional with his hobby and his films are so well put together they would be considered excellent if shown as television documentaries. It was an unexpected delight seeing our friends and we were so grateful for the lift back to Modestine on a cold wet night. Merci beaucoup Yves et Catherine pour l’accueil si chaleureux.

Next day we again faced the journey by public transport into Bordeaux. Things are never so complicated second time around and an hour later we were shivering as we tried to warm up with coffee and croissants at one of the many agreeable bars in the pedestrianised area of the city. It was freezing cold all day but nevertheless we spent an enjoyable time around this very pleasant city. While the centre of the city is clean, bright and open with some stunning buildings, sadly there are residential roads just off from the centre that are dark and gloomy, the narrow streets littered with rubbish and dejections canines smeared around in abundance.

Bordeaux has a huge immigrant population of those seeking a better life and employment. They come from North Africa and from Eastern Europe, particularly Romania and Bulgaria.

We made our way to the smart waterfront area and spent an interesting couple of hours exploring the customs museum. Bordeaux has always been one of France’s major ports. Here we learned about smuggling and discovered that two thirds of the tobacco smoked in France during the 18th century was contraband. We also discovered that Britain had a huge budget deficit even back in 1789. No change there then! Salt was heavily taxed and kept in a special salt box. On display was one designed for the lady of the house to sit upon so that it was hidden beneath her skirt in case of a raid by customs officials.

Box for storing salt, Custom’s museum, Bordeaux

Back in the cold with the wind blowing across the river we felt both chilly and very hungry. Chancing on a small crowded and pretty restaurant we decided that with so many customers it must be good and so it proved to be. Crudités followed by roast guinea fowl with vegetables and a glass of Bordeaux wine. To finish we were served fruit tart and coffee.

During the afternoon we explored the familiar streets with their magnificent buildings until driven by the cold into the Musée d’Aquitaine. This was excellent and covered all aspects of the region – farming, commerce and business as well as sculptures, tapestries, paintings, furnishings and jewellery.

We left Bordeaux the following day and made our way towards Bergerac. Our destination though was a small village in the depths of the countryside near Duras. This area has always been a stronghold of the English, as it still is today, and many of the little towns were heavily fortified for protection, built around a central square with the church an imposing feature, strongly fortified and a last refuge in case of attack. The countryside is wide and open around this area and the main product is wine, though unlike the Languedoc, general agriculture is also of importance.

We stopped to explore the typical local town of Sauveterre where the barman in the PMU welcomed us in to warm up. We joined him and several customers to watch the Trotting on the overhead screen as we drank our coffee until we felt warm enough to explore the draughty, arcaded streets of the little town with its powerfully defended church.

Fortified church seen from the square, Sauveterre-de-Guyenne

In 2011 we were invited to visit an Exeter friend, Jessica, on our way down to Morocco. This time the invitation was made again as we travelled south to the Languedoc. Last time it had been a balmy September afternoon when we arrived and in the evening we drank wine by candlelight in her garden overlooking the vineyards. This time it was biting cold and the vines stood bare and dark, tiny crucified figures strung out along the wires, not yet resurrected by the coming spring. The welcome we received was just as warm however and we experienced Jessica’s home in a different mood with home cooked cuisses de canard for supper followed by wine around the log fire in the lounge with its wooden rafters and stone floor. The shutters kept the cold outside leaving us snug and sociable within. That night we slept in a real bed, upstairs in what was once the loft above the cattle shed – which now acts as a garage sheltering the mobilette Jessica uses to pop around the countryside to do her shopping in the nearest little town. Thank you so much for your hospitality. It is such a delight to meet up with friends as we travel.

Fireside warmth, a book, a glass of wine. Jessica’s lounge, Gironde

Jessica’s kitchen, Gironde

Next morning before we left Ian earned his overnight stay by helping fix a collapsed kitchen chair while I was sent to buy the bread from the only commerce in the village. When I arrived the baker was wearing shorts as he mixed the dough in a huge vat, explaining that he was mixing enough for 100 baguettes and various vienoisseries. He was sociable enough to take me into the kitchens to see the long ovens for baking the traditional French bread. I returned with not only the bread but warm pains chocolat to accompany our coffee before we left.

We were then sent off for a quick stroll around the village. Thus we discovered that just nearby stand the remains of a chateau fort with a ditch, moat and ruined walls. Nowadays the moat is home to goats and a small shaggy pony but back in mediaeval times this little village must have been a seigneural stronghold of some importance.

Hectares of vines, Jessica’s village

Remains of the chateaux fort, Jessica’s village

The sky was grey and the wind buffeted Modestine’s sides as we drove on through the countryside to Agens. Here we decided on an impulse to ring Stephan, the elder son of my late friend Danielle from Brittany to see whether by any fluke the family was around. Stephane is with the French army and he and his wife Catherine have been recently transferred with their children Gladwys and Donatien to Agens where Stephan works as an army instructor. We were in luck. It was half term and the children were at home while Stephan had returned just the previous day from running a training course out in Qatar.

We lingered longer than intended, it was just so lovely to see them all again. Thus there was no
way we could reach the Languedoc by nightfall. We drove on until it became dark. There were no campsites anywhere open so early in the year. In the end we pulled up on the edge of a small town near Castres and gave ourselves up to the welcome warmth of a Macdonalds! (It was the only place open.) Here we ate big macs and chips with our fingers before returning to Modestine where we piled all our blankets on top of us and went to sleep as comfortably and peacefully as we would in our own home. We were both exhausted.

Next morning the sun woke us beaming through a chink in the curtains. We were alone on the edge of an industrial estate and Modestine was completely enveloped in ice! We scraped away that from the windscreen – inside and out – and drove on, reaching Ambre around 9.30am in time for breakfast.

Related Links Not the titles of the blogs, rather what they include.
Ile de Ré
Bordeaux and La Rochelle
Blaye and the Medoc
Aquitaine, Bordeaux and Jessica’s Village

Postscript I checked up on the expression Dejections canines (Dog poo) and was amazed to discover there seems to be a flourishing trade in it! I quote ...

• Déjection Canine - Trouvez le prix le plus bas parmi les sites

• Déjections Canines - offre Déjections Canines: Découvrez ici. Comparez les prix sur !www.dé

There's gold on the streets of French towns!