France 2016. Two Weeks in the Sun.

France June 2016 

Our first ‘big’ trip in the van has begun and you would have had something to read had it not been for the failure of our Wi-Fi system, which I’m not happy about. It worked fine when I first fired it up at home, but now nothing. There is power to both the router and the Solwise Patriot booster, but now the booster is dead! Oh well, I have 15gb of roaming with 3 to use my ipad, but it’s crap for updating WordPress as the ipad has strange tendencies.

 

Anyway, although you are reading this a little late, we have had a reasonably successful first holiday venture to press.

 

 

Saturday 18th June

 

We set off at about 12 on Saturday 18th June from Leeds heading for the ferry on Sunday morning from Dover. The drive down was more or less uneventful, M1, M62, A1, A14, A11….you get the idea. We arrived in Dover at about 6pm and made our way to Kingsdown near Deal in Kent for a pint and fish and chips right on the pebble beach from the Zetland Arms…nice. We then drove the short distance into Dover to make use of a well known unofficial camper stop on Marine Drive, near the hotels. There were already half a dozen others there waiting for early ferries, so we gave Frank (our Boxer) a walk and settled down.

 

Sunday 19th June

7am saw us up and getting breakfast ready for a 7.30 check in at the DFDS terminal, 5 minutes away. No worries with Frank and his passport completely ignored. Looks like we have a transcontinental dog. I know thousands of people e very year take their dogs with them, but we’re newbies so its all a bit exciting!

 

Another first is travelling on DFDS. Somehow we’ve always gone with others. Well not bad and chosen this time due to price. £62 for a 7m long Motorhome.

 

We’d decided to head for the sun, which is a long way off in the very south of France or Spain. First stop will be somewhere on the coast near Dieppe, just to get our selves sorted and a first try of Aires (camping car sites).

 

I love travel in France. It has a very relaxed pace, with no traffic and great scenery to pass the time. I haven’t brought a satnav this time, intending to rely on my ipad for directions.

Normally I like Apple Maps for directions when in the UK, but its very limited in terms of selecting what types of roads you use, avoiding peage tolls etc. Maps+ is a good mapping app, but as we discovered, despite selecting no highways and no tolls, it uses Google Maps for its directions, which ignores any settings you have selected. This led to a 50km session on the peage, but at least we made progress.

 

The aire we had selected was in the small fishing town of St Valery en Caux, comprising two rows of hard standing right next to the pebble beach under the cliffs. There were only three spaces left, but fine for what we needed.

First things first and a walk on the beach for Frank, who always likes a beach, even if its pebbles.

A word of warning, the approach road to the Aire is narrow and has no guard rail between you and the 10-15m drop to the sea. 0.o

All in all a good first experience of an Aire, very quiet, good disposal facilities.

 

Monday 20thth June

 

Today was forecast to be a complete washout, with heavy rain all day. Our normal mode of travel is by motorbike, but glad we’re in the van with the windows up!

We headed south, but first stop was diesel and shopping for food and those excellent red French sausages.

 

Today saw the first mechanical failure in my workmanship with a water pipe blowing off behind the shower trim. Quick off with the water pump and panel and a visit to a hypermarket for a new clip and some bathroom sealer to repair it. No damage done and sorted quickly.

 

Well the forecast was right with torrential rain all day, seeing us make a bit of distance towards the absent sun.  

Tonight’s Aire is a very different affair, with a small gravel parking area just outside a small village. Very clean and peaceful as we were on our own, but only 3 spaces anyway.

The only snag I’m now finding with the van is privacy for important little jobs. Basically, I just can’t crap in public. (and emptying is not pleasant when jobbies are involved!!) So a little walk in the dark with loo roll in pocket to the village toilets. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, I took Frank with me for the walk, which had I thought about it, was probably not the best plan. No where to tie him up and both me and Frank sat very close looking at each other whilst I cogitated.

A pleasant walk none the less, only to find on my return a toilet next to the Aire with paper, light and everything…..Doh!

 Tuesday 21st June


 

In the morning we had an explore nearby and found a really beautiful bog land park created out of ponds and streams, with a covered wooden community area in the trees. It all looked unused, but beautifully kept. French communities all have their open spaces to enjoy and normal to see them used by locals.

 

Still heading further south, I had sussed out that if I used Galileo Pro mapping as a scrolling atlas, I could avoid motorways and see rural France. Today we are heading for La Rochelle and the Isle d Re….it looks nice on Google Earth. A bit more shopping for lunch on the way and a couple of stops for Frank to run about, saw us reach the sun…hurrah! The Isle d Re is pretty, but the further north you drive the more run down it seems to get. It’s almost as if tourists cant be bothered to go far enough. Either they have previously been plagued with camper vans or they are just miserable, but warning signs were everywhere with lots of height restriction bars, preventing parking. We made for the Aire at Port de Re, but found the top of the island shrouded in fog, run down and the Aire closed down. No worries, we just headed back to the Aire at St Clements des Baleines. A nice gavel and grass Aire, next to a campsite, which has great facilities if you nip over the fence (so I’m told).

The beach and sea are literally 100m away with a fine sandy beach and clean sea.

 Tonight is sausage night! Out with the Cobb and on with the red French bangers. Nom, nom., washed down with a very pleasant Rosé and strawberries and cream.


 

Wednesday 22nd June

 

An easy start to the day, with a decision to stay for another night. The day started hot and just got hotter with the thermometer showing 41c at one point. Poor Frank was feeling the heat, so we took it easy with walks along the beach, much lounging about and paddling for a very hot dog. He doesn’t understand that the shade is cooler and is clearly a sun worshiper!

The evening cooled a little with a walk into the village and a great meal sat outside in a little French restaurant A L’Ouest.

One of the real successes of the van build were our home made net fly screens. Simply I put Velcro around the opening side windows, side sliding door and back doors and Catherine sewed up some ‘net curtains’ with the opposing Velcro around the edge. I hate midges and mozzies!!!

We slept that night with the back doors wide open and the net firmly velcro’d up to seal out the nasties. With the large Fiamma roof light fan on low and almost silent it created a through draft, which made for a pleasant cool sleep.

 

Security…..well we have Frank, who will make a noise and it’s as secure as a tent, so we’re happy.

 

Thursday 23rd June

 

Time to move further south towards what we had decided as our end southerly direction with only 2 weeks to play with, at Dune du Pilat.

Packing the van is becoming better, with only 50% of the cupboard doors left open each time.

 

As camper newbies we’re discovering that our previous daily mileage on the bike of 150-175miles a day is just too far if we avoid motorways to see the countryside and enjoy the villages. The van takes a gentle right foot to limit damage to contents, fuel consumption (which by the way is excellent at a good 30+ most days). The combination of long deceleration for all the roundabouts the French are so keen on as well as speed bumps and the long steady acceleration thereafter.

We’ll settle in to the rhythm, which is quite different from a powerful adventure motorbike. I’m also used to much longer time to travel, so two weeks is also a challenge.

 

Fortunately the exit from Ile de Re was toll free as 36€ on the way in.

Our target was to pass through Rochefort and onto Royan for the ferry across the estuary mouth to Verdon sur mer and then find an aire somewhere not too far away.

A pleasant drive down with a stop in a forest for lunch saw us arrive at the ferry behind a large group of French Harley riders. Brilliant sunshine made the chrome shine and there was a lot of chrome!! I’m not a Harley fan as motorcycles for riding, but can see the attraction as a style, group, social thing.

48€ lighter and we squeezed on the ferry for the 30 minute crossing. A very nice experience, with bright sun, warm wind and not too long to get bored or spend money. I would recommend despite the price.

On the other side forests are the theme with mile after mile of pine trees broken up with very pretty villages and houses, all well manicured. If, despite Brexit I was to look for a house in France, I could be tempted with this area.

 

Our aire for the night is at Aire de Camping Car Hourtin. A cracker, with individual gravel spaces in amongst trees. Quiet and very pleasant. Close by is the large freshwater Lac d’Hourtin and a very clean, fine white sandy beach. How does that work then, fresh water lake and fine sandy beach?

 

Once again we slept well with the van doors fully open and a fresh breeze blowing through.

 

Friday 24th June

 

Leisurely starts are becoming the norm, with Catherine up early to walk Frank and porridge and tea in bed. Niiiiice!

Right target today – Dune du Pilat.

The drive down there was another forest and pretty village session, with a stop for lunch along another forest track away from any noise. The amount of wildlife is incredible in the shear noise and number of birds, deer and colourful insects is amazing in this area. The beautiful thing about France is due to its geographic and population size, it is very much unspoilt in many areas, so wildlife has a chance.

We arrived at the visitors centre for the Dune early afternoon and took the decision to pay for parking and use their steps to climb the dune. It is huge! The visitors centre area is a bit over commercialized for us, with souvenir, ice cream and trinket shops and as expected large crowds.

 Catherine climbed the steps, whilst I braved it out on the sand with Frank. 1 step forward, 1 step back most of the time, but eventually we made the top. Definitely worth a visit, just to stand and stare at the sheer size of this ever growing mound of sand. It is slowly swallowing the forest behind with the wind blowing sand over the virtually sheer 300+ feet drop to the trees.


The seaward side is more gentle, but gives spectacular views across the bay, the nearby island and sand bars. At the southern end large numbers of Paragliders were enjoying the thermals.

 

We spent a couple of hours at the dune, before heading off to find tonights aire.

 

 

It was by now 4pm so somewhere fairly close was called for. We headed for the Aire at Sanguinet, at the side of another very large fresh water lake. The Aire is a wooded area with separate large hedged enclosures. Very nice, but something made me a little uncomfortable as we were the only van there, which made me a little unsure.

I can’t explain why, but two more vans then arrived and started to pitch, so that decided that. It turned out to be a very nice peaceful place to spend the night, with free water and toilets .

 

Saturday 25th June

 

We decided last night our homeward journey would take in the La Malene, Gorge du Tarn, a firm favourite of ours for a great pizza, before heading north.

 

We chose an aire approximately half way to cut the journey, so headed in the general direction of Cahors and the Lot Valley, which looked worth a visit.

Our daily chores out of the way, including a stop at the first supermarket along the way to stock up for lunch, but mainly for Sunday closing.

I also bought a new hose for filling the van. I had bought one of a reel which was flat to keep it tidy in the boot and take up less space. It was so slow in filling, we could never get to the full 160 litres. I bought a soft, material covered expanding hose, which is great. Sorted, we can now fill the tank reasonably quickly.

 

As we mover eastwards the landscape became hillier and the roads twisting up and down valley’s giving the Sprinter a workout. It took it all in its stride, only dropping its mpg to 28 on the hardest section of the route.

 

Tonight’s aire is on the bank of the River Lot, with warning signs everywhere to be ready to evacuate if it looks like rain…….ooer!

The aire next to a campsite has showers, toilets and a pleasant sandy beach down to the river. It consisted of just a large sandy open area, with quite a lot of vans there, so we just slotted in. Not really what we wanted, but fine for night.

 

The Lot river is popular with pleasure boats, many of them large hire cruisers. We went for a walk down the river, watching the comings and goings at the lock.

 Another BBQ for tea and a bottle of wine and it was time for bed.


 

Sunday 26th June

 

Another warm sunny day and a walk along the river again, but this time, we climbed the path to the village of Saint cirq Lapopie. What a treat, Lapopie is just like a scene out of Harry Potter. Really steep, narrow streets with beautiful higgledy houses, cottages and Chateaus all heaped on top of each other. One of the prettiest villages we’ve been too. Just as we reached the top of the village a coach load of visitors started to enter the village from the car park at the top, so it was time to walk back.

 The route was now becoming very hilly and twisty, with great views across towards Clement Ferrand and the gorges towards Mende. I planned our route to bring us into the Gorge du Tarn down a series of hairpin bends on a narrow road. What a drive. The Sprinter was great, although long wheelbase, its tight turning circle made it a doddle to swing round each hairpin.


 

We arrived into La Malene and the campsite which is clean, next to the river with good showers and toilets all for 10€ a night.

Our plan was a short walk along the river to give Frank a run and then a shower before a pizza in the local restaurant we had been to before. All good, except as we arrived, she closed!

Back to the van and sausages and burgers for tea. Not quite what I had fancied, but not bad.

 

Monday 27th June

 

A fairly long walk down the Tarn River to start the day and then a leisurely pack and departure.

We are heading north now and looking to arrive for our ferry on Saturday morning, so we had to be in Dunkirk on Friday night.

 I love the roads north of the Gorge du Tarn, particularly towards Mende and the surroundings. The landscape, rolls after the initial climb out of the valley and the roads wide, well surfaced with sweeping bends. What’s not to like.


 

A great drive north with an eventual stop early afternoon at an aire for the night by the lake at Saint Remy sur Durolle. The aire is up a dead end road away from the lake, which is a sports and leisure facility with boating and swimming. It was fairly new and well kept, but did have the feeling of underuse. The aire was clean, but the advertised toilet was a 15minute walk away and the water taps were broken and unusable. We were the only van and I agree with the Aires Book that it did feel a little isolated. Although there was no obvious damage or graffiti the was an unused building and maks where the locals had been power sliding cars.

However, we had a peaceful night after a couple of the local mped riders arrived and left straightaway. I suspect it’s a local meeting point, but not tonight.

We walked around the lake before bed.

 

Tuesday 28th June

 

Another walk around the lake and we found some more motorhomes parked next to the lake where it said no motorhomes?!? I must admit their spot was better than ours.

 

Breakfast done and we’re way north still working out a daily mileage required to get us to Dunkirk for Friday evening.

 

Our drive today was very much across the flat lands of middle France heading towards Champagne. Tonights stop is in Autun, famous for its roman ruins and Roman Theatre, which is pretty much all there to see and walk on. No entrance charges, just well kept and open access.


This is just across the road from our stop tonight at the edge of yet another lake (reservoir) which has had full use made out of it for the residents, with parks, boating and sports facilities. Very impressive.

Finally we got our Pizza we missed out on in the Gorge du Tarn at a small restaurant further round the lake and very nice it was too.

 

Wednesday 29th June

 

First thing today is a visit to the local vets for Franks worming tablets and his passport stamping so he can return to the UK. In the centre of Autun we chose one of the two vets who made the process very simple and was a real dog lover.

 

Frank is now legit, so onward….

 

Today we entered the Champagne region which is spectacular in its industrialization of grape growing if nothing else. Passing a few of the famous names, with Moet and Chandon scoring 10/10 for their posh champagne factory, all glass and stainless steel.

We were going to look tomorrow for a champagne house we could buy a couple of bottles for Crimbo, but first an aire is needed. The only snag being the dozens of strange vine harvesters trundling along every road. This really is industrialization of harvesting.

 Our aire tonight is described as a beautiful one in the Aire book, but I have to admit to being a little underwhelmed as I sit parked next to the large bins at the back of the supermarket, being eaten alive by aggressive mozzies from the canal. Net curtains up tonight!


So bad were the mozzies, we battened down the hatches and cooked roast chicken dinner in the oven and opened a cheeky local wine.

 

Thursday 30th June

 

A quick update on the van….. well everything is working as well if not better than expected. The solar panels are generating enough electricity, combined with the alternator to keep us well stocked up on power and the large water tank is brilliant as we only need to fill every 4-5 days, even with two decent showers each a day.

The only negatives are the wifi booster, which hasn’t worked from the beginning, despite testing OK at home (will be a setting). No big issue though as my 15g of 3G on my ipad is inclusive in Europe.

The only other thing that will be changed are the aluminum beds, which are just too difficult to use for what we want. We want to split the storage underneath, so it is accessible without lifting the top each time, with three separate drawers under each bed, which pull out, so watch ebay!

 

Todays journey is simply a main road slog to get us north and to give us a short day tomorrow. The weather has turned cooler, still warmish though and a bit cloudy, so a day in the van making headway is the idea.

Not much to tell really, except we achieved what we set out to do….lots of miles.

Tonight’s Aire is a a pleasant, but quite one tucked away near the village of Vimy in the heart of the first world war battlefields. And relax after a long, but enjoyable day in the driving seat. Food, wine and some unhealthy goodies to sit and relax with. The temperature is still down a bit, so relaxation is in the van.

 

Friday 1st July

 

A short 50 mile hop to Dunkirk for tomorrows ferry. We’d planned to get the ferry first thing, but the thought of ‘can we get a ferry tonight and slog it back to Leeds to have a full two days at home to recover’ entered the conversation.

Rights straight to the ferry port and lets crack a deal with DFDS thinks I…..not any of it! “That will be an additional £90 on top of the £90 you have already paid sir.”

Let’s find an Aire, cheeky buggers.

So we find ourselves on the edge of the estuary in the town of Gravelines on a bit of a blowy, rainy evening.

After parking amongst the many other vans on the quayside, we went for a rather long, damp walk with Frank to the beach and along to the Nuclear PowerStation. Actually, it is quite nice at Gravelines.


We took a walk into the old town, which is an old garrison town and fortress, with a lovely centre and some restaurants. Tripadvisor saw us at a lovely little bistro in town ‘La Citadel’

A wobbly walk back to van and bed.

 

Saturday 2nd July

 

A very short run to the ferry and we’re on, no messing about. A smooth crossing before a steady 70mph run up to home in Leeds. I won’t bore you with the McDonalds and diesel stop.

 

All in all, a great 2 weeks away. The van performed brilliantly, returning 30mph overall and apart from the odd teething problems it did just what it was designed to do.

 

 

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