Western seaboard of France

Thursday 11th May 2017, Les Landes, south of Bordeaux
We are not really sure where any division between Gascony and Aquitaine may be but it feels as if we have left the Basque Country, Béarn and Gascony behind. We are now in Aquitaine following the west coast of France northwards.

This morning we woke late. The storms of yesterday had subsided leaving a cool, grey day with the odd flurry of rain. We walked up for a final look at the village of Sauveterre and to take a photo across to the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees. This morning that wasn't possible however as they were blotted out by dark, low-hanging clouds. The church though was open so we took the opportunity to peep inside. The style is transitional between romanesque and early gothic. There are some lovely carved capitals and even some that have been painted. Under the covered entrance porch, immediately above the door is a beautiful, perfectly preserved tympanum. From nearby there is an ancient stone wall with the river flowing below. The castle tower, known as the Montreal tower, stands in an excellent condition with the remains of the 12th century bridge beside it. Down there too are a couple of cottages typical of the Béarn, standing in their pretty gardens on the banks of the river, each with its tall pointed roof covered in ancient tiles. They look so like witches hats.

Church. Exterior. Sauveterre-de-Béarn

Tympanum over the entrance to the church, Sauveterre de Béarn

Looking down to the river from the church, Sauveterre de Béarn

Remains of the 12th century bridge, Sauveterre de Béarn

It has been a lovely and restful time for us here, relaxing, exploring and meeting up with a friend from the past. But it was time to move on. First though we returned to Salies for the morning to stroll around the weekly market and enjoy a morning coffee on the terrace of one of the cafes in the centre. We penetrated into the shady, narrow streets that make up the residential area of this pretty town. Climbing roses in deep crimson and yellow added beauty to the old walls. There is a little museum on the history of the salt industry in Salies and from the salt the therm was developed offering treatments and cures for a range of health problems. Near the therm is the casino, a smart affair with an excellent restaurant. We remembered having lunch there with Ralph and Ruth so for old times sake we ate there today. We were not thrilled with the meal but the atmosphere was smart so I suppose that was what we were really there to enjoy. Finally we wandered back through the little town and we think we identified the house that Ruth and Ralph once owned. It is now up for sale again and appears rather faded from the carefully maintained property it was when our friends lived there.

Centre of Salies de Béarn

Centre of Salies de Béarn

Centre of Salies de Béarn where houses are built on pillars to protect them when the river floods

With regret we returned to the former tiny railway station where we'd managed to park Modestine and bade farewell to Salies de Béarn. We are slowly making our way homewards so headed towards the coast intending to revisit Cap Breton and Hossegor which we last visited in the depths of winter when the streets were deserted and the shops shut tight until the following season. Today it was quite different. The sun had broken through and everywhere was hot and glaring. The streets were crowded with cars and the smart little shops were selling colourful but expensive fashion clothes, regional foodstuffs, prettily packaged chocolates and pastries. Cap Breton is presumably so called because it is reminiscent of Brittany with a nautical theme to the town and a holiday atmosphere. Small houses with wooded gardens, available for holiday rental, and streets lined by coastal pines transformed this otherwise sandy and empty area of les Landes that stretches down the west coast of France, into a seasonal hotspot for holidays. There is a casino of course, a yachting marina and a fishing port.

On the north side of the river estuary lies the second half of the resort, Hossegor, so named, we are told, because the Duke of Wellington had his cavalry troups billeted there at some stage and the name is a corruption of Horseguards! It is much like Cap Breton. Beyond, northwards lie Les Landes with endless stretches of pine forests right up towards Bordeaux. Everywhere looks the same and although there are little towns and villages from time to time it makes for monotonous driving.

Eventually though we reached this pleasant and peaceful campsite, sheltering from the heat under pine trees, surrounded on all sides by the wide expanse of Les Landes.

Friday 12th May 2017, Les Landes, south of Bordeaux
We slept so well that we decided to stay an extra day here, not for the sight seeing but simply to catch up on sleep, restore our energy and shelter beneath the trees from the heat of the day. In fact there has been a pleasant breeze for much of the day which has made it all more comfortable.

During the afternoon we took a walk through the pine forest that lies between here and the sea. We followed winding footpaths and the pine litter and sandy soil deadened our steps. Thus we had the opportunity to observe a wild deer passing silently through the nearby trees. That though has been the high point of our walk. We emerged from the forest onto a vast area of sand with an enormous, endless dune stretching for miles along the coast, blocking the sea from view and fenced off by barbed wire. With no shade we were intent on returning as soon as possible to our peaceful camping area. Deciding it was too risky to return through the forest where we could be lost for hours we followed the tarmac track back from the sea. Almost back at the campsite we found a gate had been locked and there was no way round it. We returned back towards the sea and turned off through the emergency exit to a different campsite intending to exit through their main entrance and find a way back from there. This campsite was quite awful and really huge, and we realised how lucky we'd been stumbling on our small pleasant one last night. We became so lost and disorientated wandering around the site that we seriously wondered about returning and hoping we'd find our way back through the forest. In the campsite shop they gave us directions which we were pretty certain were wrong. Seeing a side track we judged that it might lead in the direction we sensed was ours. I was really tired and cross by this time and told Ian the only reason I'd come on the walk with him was because I'd been afraid of him wandering off into the woods and disappearing forever! Suddenly a couple appeared on bikes. They looked English, as indeed they were and told us we were almost back where we wanted to be! Such relief! The area of Les Landes really is huge and it's nothing but pine forests, scrubland, sand and massive dunes.

Lovely beach view, Les Landes

Reunited with Modestine we poured mugs of tea and relaxed in the shade with our books. This evening we both feel back to normal. The French can keep their sand dunes and their boring seaside resorts down here!

Saturday 13th May 2017, Beau Soleil, Bordeaux
Today has been wet and rainy as we drove northwards for 150 kilometres through the baron wastes that are Les Landes. Endless pine plantations growing from the sandy soil and yellow gorse for mile after mile and hour after hour. at every village through which we passed there were huge and destructive bumps to slow cars down to 30km and Modestine to a snail's walking place or risk serious damage to their suspension, undercarriage and gearbox.

So it was 2pm by the time we reached Bordeaux. This is just a tiny campsite in what was once the large garden of a house on the boundary of the city. We have used it before as the Bordeaux tramway links to the bus route and carries us easily into the centre of Bordeaux for just 1.5euros. Our friends Yves and Catherine are city dwellers with a large old house near the Place de la Victoire so this campsite is perfect for us to visit them tomorrow.

There were not really any vacancies here but when we said we'd stayed here twice before and their, then teenage, daughter had sold us cakes she'd baked to raise funds for a school project they told us she was now married with a baby! Then they said that as Modestine was so small they could squash us in if we didn't mind using half of a pitch where a large campervan had been left for the weekend. So here we are, happily and settled and ready for lunch tomorrow with our friends.

Having settled Modestine we took the bus into the city centre for a stroll through the smart shopping streets where we renewed our aquaintance with some of the large and impressive buildings of this delightful city. After a beer on the Place de la Victoire we set out on a serious hunt to find a small gift for our hostess tomorrow. It was quite fun, but difficult making a choice as we browsed the chocolateries, patisseries and epiceries. Eventually we found a box of chocolates that we hope will be suitable. Ian was longing for a ride on the Bordeaux tramway. It is something exceptional as it rolls through the streets winding its way around the town. Tickets between buses and trams are interchangeable and you can travel for an hour, changing trams as often as you need so long as after an hour you buy another ticket. Fines are 125 euros if you are caught without a ticket or have forgotten to get it clipped when you get on or change tram. Typically the machine refused to accept my ticket which I'd just bought but nobody came round inspecting them so no problem. Perhaps the service isn't quite as high tech as we are lead to believe.

Back here this evening we drank wine while waiting for Remoska to cook us merguez, lentils and couscous and chatted to neighbouring campers. It is a very friendly place.

Monday 15th May 2017, Soulac-sur-Mer, Médoc
Yesterday we spent a delightful day with Yves and Catherine in Bordeaux. We were invited for lunch and for a visit to places they didn't think we would have seen in Bordeaux. We arrived at midday having taken the bus and tramway from Beau Soleil. Immediately it was as though the years since we were last together had never been. Soon various grandchildren began passing through on their way to their student accommodation upstairs, at the end of the garden and next door. Our friends own two ajoining houses and apart from providing a roof for their grandaughters whilst they are studying at the University of Bordeaux, they also accommodate several additional students. It must be very nice student accommodation, right in the heart of the city with a covered swimming pool in the back garden. We were particularly delighted to discover Adele is one of their brood of students. When she was thirteen our friends came to visit us in Exeter and brought two of their many grandchildren with them. Adele was one of them and returned to France with a large jar of marmite as a present for her family. They all thought it was chocolate spread and shudder about it even now! Adèle is now twenty, charming and lovely. She is studying commerce and plans a career in the Bordeaux wine industry.

After a lovely lunch accompanied by a special rose wine that Yves recommended we made our way to the tramway and took the tram around the city down to the quayside which is steadily being developed into a tourist attraction with superb shops, riverside gardens, a new bridge that was being constructed on our last visit, and, opened during the past year, the Cité du Vin, a museum that brings the world of wine to visitors through an interactive link to panels around the building transmitted in a number of different languages. Actually we found it a bit too technical and sometimes the links did not function as intended. It is though a very impressive undertaking in a huge, purpose built centre overlooking the Garrone. It told us much about the importance of the soil and its drainage, the history of wine production, harvesting, fermenting. bottling etc. It also explained about recognising the bouquet of a wine, its aroma, and what certain cepages are best consumed with. There was far too much to absorb in a single visit. Yves and Catherine have an annual pass and make frequent, shorter visits. I was surprised to find very little about the philoxera epidemic that decimated the wine trade in the 19th century and nowhere did I see any reference to the work of Louis Pasteur in bringing the disease under control, thus saving the future of the French wine trade. Part of the visit included a free wine tasting on the top floor with a 360 degree view over the quays and the city while you drank. We did tease our friends as to whether their annual pass included a free tasting at each visit. Thank you so much for yet another lovely day spent with you both in your impressive and beautiful city.

Cité du Vin.Bordeaux

Cité du Vin.Bordeaux

New bridge over the Garonne seen from the Cité du Vin, Bordeaux

Winetasting with friends, Cité du Vin, Bordeaux

Ian, Catherine and Yves, Cité du Vin, Bordeaux

Yves then suggested that rather than simply taking the tramway back to the centre, we take the ferry boat upriver. This is part of the integrated transport system mentioned above. Incidentally, all these developments in the city are driven by the city's mayor, the dynamic politician Alain Juppé who seems to have been mayor of Bordeaux for very many years and was recently a contender in the first round of the French Presidential elections.

The ferry reminded me of Venice. It really is like a river taxi, calling in at places along the riverbank stopping only for a few seconds to drop off and pick up passengers.

Waiting for the water bus, Bordeaux

Water bus near the Cité du Vin, Bordeaux

Then we walked under the trees up to the Fontaine des Girondans and the Town Hall. Here we all squashed into the overful trams and swung our way through the streets of the city centre. Yves and Catherine alighted near their home. The tram was too full to say our goodbyes properly. All we could do was reach across the crowded gangway to grasp hands, blow kisses and wave as the tram swept past them carrying us across the city towards our campsite. It has been a superb day. Merci infiniment!

Today has been less enjoyable. It has turned really hot and it is close and airless. We decided we would skirt Bordeaux to the west and drive up through yet more Lande to the Médoc wine growing area. Usually we then cross the Gironde from Blaye to Lamarque. Today we decided instead to drive right to the top of the Médoc area to take the ferry across to Royan. This would enable us to potter our way through the vineyards of the major Bordeaux châteaux. This is what we have done but there is no shade anywhere as we drive through the hectares of vineyards surrounding some very impressive châteaux. There is little comparison, it has to be said, between a crumbling chai down in the Languedoc and the black slate turrets of a white stone château with stunning roses climbing its walls, standing shining amidst the green vinyards of the Haut Médoc.

Roses at the entrance to Château Langoa, Haut Médoc

Vines, Chateau Langoa Léoville Barton, Haut Médoc

Well if you are visiting a quality producer you might as well go for the best, so we turned down a side road that lead across the estate of Baron Rothchilde to the chateau famed for the production of Chateau Lafitte and parked Modestine in the courtyard labelled Acueille. Here came our first disappointment. Not only was the Baron not available to personally give us a guided tour and a tasting, there is actually a policy of no callers without a prior appointment. Waiting in the hot sunshine was a contingent of oriental businessmen in smart black suits. They obviously had an appointment and, despite the heat, looked more than ready to sign fat cheques for several thousand bottles of Chateau Lafitte to ship back to Shanghai. Against such an attraction Modestine stood little chance of captivating Baron Rothchilde and diverting his attention into offering us a free wine tasting without an appointment!

At Pauillac we found some dappled shade on the banks of the Girond where we set up our picnic table for lunch and coffee. As we ate, a huge ship passed up river carrying a couple of massive components for the next Airbus towards the centre of Bordeaux and beyond. The components are produced in various countries and assembled here. Presumably they are then flown out! Last time we were here we saw a nosecone being taken upstream, waiting to pass under the bridge in the centre of the city when the tide was low enough for it to clear the bridge. How many Airbuses are produced annually we wonder. Surely such a trip is not a daily occurence? And what will happen post Brexit? We are part of the co-operative project, and cargoes of retractable undercarriages and cistern ballcocks are probably regularly transferred across the Channel as our contribution to European harmony. Would you want to travel in an Airbus without an undercarriage or missing a few ballcocks just two years from now?

Component for a new Airbus 360 making its way up the Gironde, Paulliac, Haut Médoc

We tried a walk around the town but the streets were devoid of any shade and we quickly returned down to the river and the shade of the trees. It was still far too hot when we moved on around 3pm. I vaguely remembered camping in a vineyard near the banks of the Gironde some years ago and thought I remembered the name. If I did we found nothing recognisable there and decided to move on nearer to the ferry. This seemed to take for ever and when we arrived here we didn't like it. It is an area of campsites not yet open for the season, filled with horrid chalets and plastic bungalows. We have no choice but to pay and stay. We are alone on the site, the management have entirely disappeared and the wifi does not work. We are surrounded by pine forests and sandy soil, far too reminiscent of Les Landes for our liking. A mosquito has managed to get through our defensive screens and Ian is leaping around in here with a fly swat. It should be quite a night!

Thursday 18th May 2017, Surgeres, Charente-Maritime
Despite all the above we slept deeply and next morning things seemed less bleak. We continued to Le Verdon-sur-mer from where the ferry crosses every few hours to Royan. It was due to leave in ten minutes so we drove straight to the port and purchased a ticket. To our horror it cost 42.30 euros! We could have driven 400 miles for that! The crossing was no further than the international one we made across the estuary of the Minho when we crossed recently from Spain to Portugal for the price of 6.50 euros! Today's crossing was lovely but only took around 20-30 minutes. Looking back through earlier blogs I now see we decided on an earlier trip that we would not use that ferry because of the cost and chose instead to cross between Blaye and Lamarque which is shorter, more casual and definitely lots cheaper. Still, it was an experience and we will be more careful to check in future.

Pointe de Grave. Ferry at Verdon-sur-Mer, Haut Médoc

Pointe de Grave. Crossing the Gironde to Royan

Arriving in Royan

In Royan we parked, intending to take a stroll and find some lunch. The streets were like a furnace and there was no shade along the front so we quickly returned to Modestine and continued northwards. Here we encountered the usual problem of being unable to use the carparks because of a height restriction barrier. This is now pretty well universal around the coasts of France and is a desperate measure to curb the advance of camping cars which block the seafronts for days on end rather than using campsites. It has proved successful as a deterent and special areas are provided for campervans, sometimes charged for but where they can stay for up to three days. Modestine is just an inch too tall for the ordinary car parks and we really don't like being squashed in surrounded by camper vans, who resent us there when we just want to stop for an hour or so. So we are forced on until we can find a layby without a barrier. The pleasure of travelling in Europe has definitely declined over the last few years and I am doubtful of continuing for much longer.

Later in the afternoon we crossed the long, arched bridge onto the Ile d'Oléron. This is the larger of the two main islands just off the west coast near Rochefort and la Rochelle. Here life is generally lived at a slower pace and once on the island and away from the main road up to the lighthouse at the far tip, it was peaceful, sunny and beautiful as we followed the winding roads and along beside the mudflats and the sea where oysterbeds and the fishing industry predominate.

Port-des-Salines. Grand-Village, Ile D'Oléron

Port-des-Salines. Salt pans. Grand-Village, Ile D'Oléron

The bright green fields are filled with wheat, vegetables and freshly sprouting vines and the light reflected off the surrounding water. The island is very flat and very silent with just the sound of the seabirds. Oleron is a lot larger than its neighbour, the Ile de Ré, and there is more industry here but it is still a charming place to visit. Bicycles are a very popular way of getting around.

We re-explored much of the island and found parts we had forgotten. So agreeable was our afternoon that we decided to spend the night on the island. The site we selected was inland and well away from the camper vans which are obliged to use campsites or specified areas where they are charged by the authority. (Yeh! so they should be.) They always prefer to be beside the sea. So our site was rural, green, shaded and very peaceful. We were loath to leave next morning.

From the Ile d'Oléron we returned next day to the mainland and followed a minor route out across the saltmarshes to investigate an interesting and isolated fort that we'd noticed on our map.

Walled cité of Brouage

Inside the city walls, Brouage

Plan. Brouage


Ice houseBrouage

Powder store. Brouage

Powder store. Brouage

Brouage turned out to be even more intriguing than we'd imagined. Founded in 1555,Brouage was originally intended primarily as a centre of commerce, particularly salt, and called Jacapolis. Richlieu became governor and undertook important works with the fortifications between 1630 and 1640. During the wars of religion the town had been taken and retaken and the fortifications were intended to ensure it as a Catholic stronghold. The fortifications were modified at a later date by Vauban.

The port there eventually silted up and nearby Rochefort was preferred by Louis XIV and Colbert who then developed Rochefort into a major ship building town.

Brouage continued as a religious centre and was strongly Catholic while nearby La Rochelle was Protestant. Later, being well fortified, during the French Revolution a large number of suspects were detained there.

Brouage was also the birthplace of Samuel de Champlain, born around 1570. He was an explorer and cartographer. He left on a voyage of discovery for Nouvelle France in 1603 and undertook 21 voyages overall. He founded the town of Quebec in 1608 and died there in 1635. A considerable number of residents from the town emigrated to set up French colonies in what later became French Canada.

Bust of Cardinal Richeliu, Brouage

Today there are 650 inhabitants in Brouage but during the time of Richelieu there were around 4,000!

We were already way out in the marshland and referring to our map we thought we might venture even further out into this isolated area to investigate the Ile Madame, much smaller than her sisters Oléron and Ré to either side. This area really felt cut off and we were loath to rejoin the bustling world of motorways and traffic congestion. Our route wound out through fields of cereals and a few small vineyards, passing through hamlets of cottages along narrow roads. Eventually we came to a final hamlet but still the road continued along beside the sea. Suddenly we simply ran out of road! Across the mudflats lay the Ile Madame and the only way to reach it was at low tide by driving across the sands. We parked to check tide times and investigate the sand to be sure it would carry Modestine's weight, before setting off. The hardest bit was the beginning but her tyres gripped the pebbly sand and soon she was rattling cross the causeway. After about a mile she scrambled up onto a tiny single-track tarmacked road and she was happily on the island!

Across the sands to Ile Madame, Charente Maritime

Fishing platforms, Ile Madame, Charente Maritime

Cliffs, Ile Madame, Charente Maritime

Causeway, Ile Madame, Charente Maritime

Here we encountered several vehicles and at the furthest tip a small car park, and - would you believe it - a height barrier preventing Modestine from entering! I was convinced real campervans would never venture across but I suppose they must have done! There should have been a sign back on the mainland warning larger vehicles not to cross though. There was nowhere on this tiny islet we could park without a risk to the circulation of the very few residents farming vehicles, so reluctantly we returned to the mainland leaving a tiny, nearly empty carpark behind. It would have made a lovely round walk with the sea visible from every point but at least Modestine can be proud she made it across and back okay. Unlike her visit last year aross the causeway to Lindisfarne, this causeway was not tarmacked but just a bed of pebbly sand. Lindisfarne makes a lot of money from tourists and parking charges. France tends not to charge anywhere for parking - but that is slowly changing.

Incidentally, slightly further from the mainland than the Ile Madame, lies the Ile d'Aix. Just offshore from Ile d' Aix is where Napoleon was handed over to the English fleet in 1815 after his defeat at Waterloo. From here he was brought to Plymouth and moored in the Sound until arrangements could be made to transfer him to his exile on St. Helena. (From Aix-île to ex-ile!)

The mainland was also beautiful with very few vehicles and we found somewhere for a picnic lunch and coffee before deciding we didn't really fancy another drive along the coast feeling excluded because Modestine is an inch above standard height. Inland the situation is not a problem. So we headed for a campsite at Surgeres, a place neither of us ever recalled visiting. When we arrived they told us we'd stayed here before! They didn't know when but we are in their database! We can find no evidence in any of our blogs and we are both pretty sure we've never been here so it is a mystery.

Just as we arrived the rain began and it has been falling steadily all night. There is no point in moving on in the rain this morning and now we are here we may as well explore this little town on the river Geres, so we have spent the morning catching up on correspondence and will probably stay another night, hoping the rain ceases later today.

Walls, Surgères, Charente Maritime

Surgères, Charente Maritime

Drawbridge, Surgères, Charente Maritime

Friday 19th May 2017, Ile Noirmoutier, Vendée
Well the rain continued for a full 24 hours. Around 4pm we ventured out to buy food for supper and Ian spent ages taking photos of the town walls and ancient gateways. When we returned the campsite reception had worked out when we last stayed there. Apparently we were there in March 2013. Back in Modestine we went through our digital photo collection and, sure enough, there were our photos of Sugères! The walls have been there for some six hundred years and have not changed greatly since 2013. Ian can probably ditch the ones he struggled with in the rain yesterday! Regretfully I can find no mention of Sugères in our blog. I guess I was too tired after driving all day to be bothered with blogging that evening. We were on our way down to the Mediterranean at the time, seeking some warmer weather.

Overnight the rain finally eased and although today has been rather chilly and showery it has been infinitely better than yesterday. The cooler weather is very welcome.

Today we have driven along quiet roads exploring the tiny villages, salt meadows, canals and ditches of the Charente. The area is completely flat with a network of narrow ditches draining water into canals so the area can be used for growing crops and cereals. To us the most amazing and beautiful thing about the area was the silence and the wide, pale blue skies piled high with gleaming white clouds! We made our way down to a tiny fishing harbour where three or four men were fishing from a jetty and several beautiful yachts with deep keels were drawn up out of the water.

Port du Pavé. Charron, Charente Maritime

Port du Pavé. Charron, Sea and sky, Charente Maritime

Port du Pavé. Charron, Boats and clouds, Charente Maritime

There were bits of machinery and rusting bollards, wooden shacks, a jetty out into the wide estuary and the sound of seabirds. The rest was silence. Leaving Modestine feeling perfectly comfortable beside a couple of small yachts (she was after all designed and built by boat builders on the Isle of Wight) we wandered along the shore a short distance. Here a cafe in a tent was opening up for the morning, preparing seafood for the lunch menu. We sat beside the estuary in the morning sunshine with a couple of coffees watching the birds, the cloud formations and the fishermen, feeling we could stay all day.

Port du Pavé. Charron, Charente Maritime

Bistrot La Ponetère, Charron, Charente Maritime

Canal-side flowers. Sainte-Radegonde-des-Noyers

Later we drove back inland along beside a deep drainage channel, making our way towards Luçon. At a crossroads we were stopped by the police. An accident had happened, nothing serious but a very dented vehicle. When we were waved on the policeman called to us "Comme elle est sympa!" Modestine was showing off again!

There was little to detain us in Luçon, other than roadworks which currently interrupt the traffic through the town but will eventually give the place a major face lift and improve traffic flow as it has done elsewhere. France is improving all its roads. From being very poor, French roads are now smooth and fast! They completely put us to shame. Whereas we in Britain have slashed public services and allowed our roads to go to ruin in an attempt to reduce our national debt, France, which is in an even more precarious financial position than Britain, is spending its way out of debt, improving services, resurfacing roads and generally cleaning up the country. Yet when we started travelling twelve years ago, France was scruffy, broken and battered. Everything has modernised and furthermore it has generally been done tastefully. Litter no longer exists along the roadsides as we now find in Britain. The road surfaces are smooth, drainage gutters cleaned and houses are being tastefully restored with good quality materials. Toilets are almost universally clean and very modern. We see more dog mess in Britain and hanging around in plastic bags along the hedgerows of Devon than we have seen alltogether in France during this visit. We should feel very ashamed that we have allowed this public decay. When did it all happen? Quite suddenly, instead of me moaning about the horrors of French sanitation and hygiene the tables have turned and I find myself ashamed of the state into which we have allowed Britain to decline.

Much of today has been spent driving. Late afternoon we reached Noirmoutier, another little island off the west coast of France. A place of single-story, white-washed cottages sheltering behind the dune. they are picture postcard pretty with blue shutters and doors with roses and hollyhocks in the garden. Their occupiers make their living from tourisms, fishing, agriculture and salt production. Tonight we are camping in the dunes at the top of the island a couple of miles from the little town of Noirmoutier which we will discover tomorrow.

There are, by the way, two routes onto the island. We decided to use the safe one across the bridge. After her adventure across the beach to reach Ile Madame yesterday Modestine was willing to attempt the Passage du Gois, a route only accessible for a couple of hours or so twice a day when the tide is right. It is some four kilometres long and the tide rolls in quickly.it Even when it is passable it is slippery with wet seaweed. Having watched a video on U-Tube last night, with the tide lapping the wheels of the car and the driver shouting "we're not going to make it!" over and over, I decided there was only so much excitement I was willing to face in the interest of keeping blog readers entertained and I overruled Ian and Modestine.

Saturday 20th May 2017, Bois de Cene, Vendée
It seems, when we have to suffer a few privations, that we are not really hard campers! Last night's site was just a bit too much "back to nature" for us and today we moved on. Around midnight last night, when we'd finished sorting photos and writing notes for the blog we held hands as we guided each other in the near total darkness across thistle strewn sand dunes in search of the washing facilities! It had looked simple enough in daylight but there were tree stumps, roots, prickly bushes and rabbit burrows waiting to trip us up. The facilities were partly in "plein air" and the toilets, though clean, were either Turkish (lacking a loo) or standard but without seats or loo paper. The water was cold and the picture window in the shower room would leave little for fellow campers to imagine. There is only one sanitaire block so both sexes share together. None of these things matter too much if you are using a large camping car with on board facilities but minimalist travellers like us rely on clean facilities with adequate privacy and a few comforts such as toilet paper, a mirror and possibly a hair dryer on the campsites we use when we are travelling for weeks or months at a time.

So this morning we left. We have spent the day in the little town of Noirmoutier at the northern tip of the island. The scattering of villages we have seen around the island are all very similar and very pretty. All the cottages are white rendered with doors and shutters in a choice of several different colours. Mainly light blue seems to be preferred but pale green, navy blue, dark grey and brown are also popular. The fronts often have deep red climbing roses across the front and often too,tall hollyhocks to the side of the front door. The winding roads around the villages are narrow, and frequently one way only. Apart from the fishing industry, the rest of the island is given over to producing wheat and potatoes. Salt is sold everywhere and we saw the paloudiers out on the marshes turning and spreading the evaporating salt solution in the special, shallow beds that have been created for the evaporation process.In Noiremoutiers there are some very nice little shops selling artisan products and here the salt is sold in neat little bags mixed with herbs. How the grit is removed we haven't worked out. Everything seems to be served with salt in the restaurants, even cakes. Crème caramel and crème brullé are very popular deserts particularly when flavoured with sel de Noirmoutier.

L'Épine,Ile Noirmoutier, Vendée

This morning, finding that even here Modestine cannot pass under the barrier to most parking areas we drove to the area for camping cars. It is free and there were already several dozen vehicles parked up. The barrier refused to rise to let us in. Soon we had an interested crowd of observers wondering why we were blocking the entrance. Eventually, after further attempts proved futile we moved away. All the arriving vehicles drove straight in with the barrier rising to welcome them! There are cameras above the barrier and it would seem that unless a vehicle is a certain height and width it will not open! So we cannot park with the cars and we cannot park with the camper vans! Funny though, there was one parking area where we were permitted to enter - the only one that levied a charge!!! All the others were free. Get your act together Noirmoutier!

Once we'd managed to sort Modestine we spent a happy morning exploring the main street of attractive shops including two poissoneries with live crabs, lobsters, prawns and shrimps as well as wonderful fresh fish and ready prepared dishes.

We found the heavy Norman style castle and in the church children were preparing for their first communion with a couple of priests.

Castle, Ile Noirmoutier, Vendée

Salt marshes, Ile Noirmoutier, Vendée

On the wall here we found a plaque honouring the Chouen - the royalists of the Vendée area who were supporters of the king at the time of the revolution around 1794. During the reign of terror they were captured and held prisoner within the church. From there hundreds of them were taken in groups out onto the marshes and shot without any trial or inquiry. Some 1500 died and they were buried amidst the sand dunes.

Plaque in memory of the murdered Chouen, 1794, Ile Noirmoutier, Vendée

Down by the harbour in the old town we found a tiny chapel built in the 1950s to remember them. It is recent but touching and rather pretty with its flowers in the sunshine.

Notre-Dame de Pitié, Memorial chapel to the Chouen, 1794, Ile Noirmoutier, Vendée

Looking towards the town from the marina, Ile Noirmoutier, Vendée

Salt beds, Ile Noirmoutier, Vendée

Salt beds, Ile Noirmoutier, Vendée

Peaceful harbour scene, Ile Noirmoutier, Vendée

Port, Noirmoutier, Vendée

Wrecks. Noirmoutier. Vendée

We returned into the town for lunch - freshly caught sardines with Noirmoutier potatoes served with butter, herbs and lemon. During the afternoon we collected Modestine and drove across the tip of the island to La Vieill, the oldest part of the town facing on to the sandy beach. Ian went for a walk while I searched for shells, pebbles, starfish and colourful crabs amongst the rock pools and paddled in the sea. When Ian returned we strolled along the beach to where the woodland stretched along the island's west coast.

Street in Noirmoutier, Vendée

Beach. Le Vieil, Noirmoutier, Vendée

Jill beachcombing. Le Vieil, Ile Noirmoutier, Vendée

The warm sunshine made us feel sleepy - our midnight ramble amidst the dunes last night probably contributed to our weariness. We decided not to spend time searching for another campsite on the island but to move on towards Nantes. Around 4pm we set off to drive down the island, turning off at the Passage de Gois to see just what the crossing point to the mainland was like. There was still a good hour until the route would be open to cross but already a queue was forming. It was a lot further than our ferry crossing from the Médoc recently and passing oncoming vehicles would be tight. I have no regrets about turning Modestine around and heading for the conventionl crossing over the high bridge. From the mainland side of this a ferry leaves for the Ile d'Yeu. There is also a heliport.

A hour later we found ourselves on this very pleasant site out on the salt meadows. The roads around are both totally flat and totally straight. They run across the landscape for mile after mile. To either side of the road there are deep and wide drainage channels and the fields are criss-crossed with smalled ditches, all helping to drain the water from the land and return it to useful farmland. Near to us there is a tall pole where a platform has been constructed. On this a stalk or cigogne has built its large and woody nest. This seems an infinitely more comfortable site than last night, though that was an experience.

Stork on its nest, Vendée