European Tour - The First Bit

I really can't believe that the first half of this break is already over or that until now I've not found time to blog. I guess that tells you that we have been having an excellent time. Today is day 22 of our 42 day adventure and we planned to have a quiet and relaxing day. We're staying on a lovely campsite in the grounds of a hotel overlooking Lake Trasimeno in Italy. It really could't be a better spot to stop and sit back for a day. 

We left the UK on Sunday 26th August and once again took advantage of Tesco's club card points to pay in full for the channel tunnel, why anyone would spend their vouchers in a Tesco store is beyond me. To plan we drove until mid afternoon before we stopped in a small town called Durtal at a campsite bordering the Loire. Our pitch was all of 10 yards from the water and really was spot on. From there we moved on to our first proper stop, the Ile de Ré, a small island right next to La Rochelle. 


The Loire

We'd picked a campsite between the two towns of La Flotte and St-Martin de Ré. Other than some road noise it was perfect. Ile de Ré is super flat, even more so than Cambridge, and is therefore perfect for cycling. The island has been crisscrossed with cycle paths and really quiet roads and so everyone cycles. On our first evening we popped to both La Flotte and St-Martin de Ré by bike and took in a fabulous cafe culture around both villages ports. All 10 villages on the island are steeped in history and full of character. Stupidly we'd not taken our bike locks as it really was just a quick trip to see what was going on, so we couldn't stop for drinks. 


The following day we took to the bikes to explore the island. Our plan was to head north and just see what was going on. The flat paths soon took us through vineyards and away from any busy roads. As we headed north, the scenery changed to open out to the salt ponds that the island is famous for. Salt making is a craft and there are many stalls, shops and small producers from whom you can buy. We were both feeling in good shape so we pressed on to, Phare de Baleines, the lighthouse at the tip of the island. A stop on the way back in Ars en Ré allowed us to have a quick lunch in another beautiful square. By the time we were back we'd covered 30 miles. 


Phare de Baleines

If you've never been to Ile de Ré than put it on your list of places to visit. We'll definitely be going back. The only drawback is the bridge to the island has a €16 toll (return) so once you're on the island you might not want to leave for too many day trips. The island is lovely though and has everything you will need so why leave?

Our next stop was Mimizan on the Atlantic coast of France, somewhere we've also never been on that coast. Our friends Mel, Gwyn and the boys were holidaying there so we'd agreed a visit;  we were just a few days earlier than expected as our planned stop in Lacanau was skipped as the campsite was full. As we drove into town we followed a car that I though could have been Gwyn's. It turned out when we met them for drinks that evening they'd spotted a camper van just like Vern following them into town earlier. How funny! We spent the next four days either cycling, sitting on the beach or visiting Mel, Gwyn and the boys at their campsite next to the lake. It was all very civilised and great fun. We also got to surf one day and I got to go fishing but only caught a tiddler.


Helena and Dylan, Nic and Evan - Mimizan, France

After 4 days we packed up and headed off early for a blast across France and into Spain but this time on the Mediterranean coast. We'd picked a campsite on the edge of a town called l'Escala. We drove through France choosing to avoid the motorways and not pay tolls but also to see a little more of France. We were treated to some really stunning towns and villages and then the Pyrenees mountains, which all made the drive fly by. So far this region of France has been the most beautiful place on our trip and I include Italy on that. France beats Italy hands down in my opinion.

Once we'd reached Perpignan we chose to do the last 100km or so on the toll roads. We reached l'Escala and our campsite around 5pm. We buy an ACSI membership each year that entitles us to cheap camping at thousands of campsites across Europe out of peak season. Once again the research using their books meant we'd found a cracking site. We were spoilt with a choice of two beaches, two swimming pools and great big pitches. The views over the bay from the larger swimming pool were stunning and the snorkelling on both beaches was great. Having seen all the fish at the sandy beach we went down one evening to try our luck at fishing. Second cast and I reeled in a sea bream big enough to eat. We failed miserably to actually leave the campsite and surrounding village but we will be back, it's a cracking place for a holiday. 


L'Escala, Spain

Friday of week 2 of our holiday and we headed north, back into France and off to see the family I have spent many a summer with. I last got to visit them on my career break two years ago but without Helena, so it was great to be going back and for Helena the first return since Sylvie's wedding, 16 years ago we think. 

I first met Sylvie on the French exchange with school when I was 14. She wasn't my exchange partner but the girl next door (well across the road), who also had exchanged with an english girl called Justine. Anyway I've been going back to see Sylvie and her family since and along the way taken many friends to see them. Caroline, Rachael, Greg, Nicola nothing has changed with family Lopez. 

We had a lovely first night dinner with some of the family allowing Helena and I to get out ears in with their fast paced French spoken with a midi accent. 

On Saturda,y Helena and I took off for a tour of four places Cyril, Sylvie's husband, had recommended. The tour started slowly in a small town, Ganges, famed for its market. We'd turned up the one weekend they had a fete on celebrating 1900 (the year). People were in costume but it hadn't really got going. In our usual sight seeing style we completed the town in about 30 minutes before we moved on to some spectacular waterfalls at Saint Laurent le Minier. 


After the falls we climbed and climbed on what can only be said were very narrow roads. It's a good job Vern is only a small camper van, any motorhome would probably have had issues. Our next stop was Cirque de Navacelle. The great thing about this tour was we had no idea what we were going  to find at each stop. At this stop we found a carpark, recently cut into the landscape, but with no real clue why we were here. We followed the signs from the carpark and found a visitors centre. It has a map of a route we were to walk, we followed the route. After 5 mins we were rewarded with a spectacular view across a high canyon cut by a river that we could hear thundering over falls below us. What was really odd was that we had to share something as stunning as this with just 5 to 10 other people. The road up and down the canyon either side looked awesome, a cyclists' mecca if it was in the UK.


After lunch in the car park care of Vern's fridge and cake store, we set off for the last stop. Amazingly the route took us down into the canyon and back up the other side. I'd love to cycle it. Out of the far side we drove into fog, thick fog. As we descended we emerged from the clouds. It must be a spectacular view all the way to the coast. 

We were headed for Saint Guilhem le Desert but couldn't park as they don't let motorhomes park in their car parks. Is Vern really a motorhome? In the UK he's classed and taxed as a car unlike most other motorhomes. Instead we parked and went to see the Pont de Diable, the Devil's Bridge. Stunning it was too. Below it was a beach on the river and we walked down. There was a guy fishing in his budgie smugglers, enough to put the fish off. Amazingly though we watched as every 45 seconds he caught another little fish. Time to test my spoken French and find out what he was catching and what he was going to do with them. He was going to cook the little ones and release the slightly larger ones as they tasted of sand. It was amazing to watch. So much so we both decided we wanted to come back armed with our own fishing rods the following day, Decathlon was on our route home to buy our fishing gear. 


Pont de Diable

So how did we do at fishing? Read it in the next blog.

© Nic Williams 2014