Just another day in Paradise…
After an interesting year so far, it was finally time for a proper break from the office, as we set off on a three week adventure to France and Spain. I’ve split the Blog into several sections reflecting where we were and what we did.
A week with the KombiKrew
This was the first time that the Brazilian Bay Forum had ventured abroad and we were very happy to piggy back our holiday onto the trip. We all met in Morrisons’ Car Park in Portsmouth on Sunday afternoon before driving down to the Ferry Terminal in convoy. We only just made it to Portsmouth on a full tank of fuel but despite some iffy navigating on our way into the town we managed to fill up in time.
We had some difficulty with the check in chap as he told us a German word had popped up on screen and he didn’t understand what it was. The word was Schnauzer! We explained that originally Boris was coming with us but that we’d cancelled his booking but it must still be appearing. With an apology, he let us through.
The site of 10 vans queuing for the ferry was great and attracted a lot of interest. Strangely, we ended up on different car decks but were able to get together later for a few drinks before bed.
Like last year, we were quick to get to the restaurant and grabbed a great table with window seats. The food was brilliant and the wine just what we needed after a tiring day driving down to the south coast.
We were up to see the sunrise and were soon in our vans waiting to disembark.
Everything went fine until we realised that the area where we’d planned to meet up before setting off in convoy was cordoned off. Alison dropped me off and headed Absinthe into a nearby car park whilst I walked back to tell everyone where we were meeting.
It wasn’t easy manouevering the trailer round the car park but Mrs B was ace as usual and eventually we all set off out of St Malo.
We’d picked a stopping point at one of the Aires about halfway to the Vendee and we had two way radios to keep in touch, so the convoy went very smoothly, although it’s very difficult keeping together when some have trailers and the traffic is busy. We were joined by another Forum member (JLS) at the Aire – he’d caught a different Ferry – but we were still one down as Dalesman’s van had broken down in England and Geoff and Dave weren’t able to join us until later in the week.
Two Gendarmes pulled into the rest area whilst we were there and as we left they set off to follow us. I was a bit concerned as I’d heard stories of the French authorities not liking convoys but I needn’t have worried. As they passed us at the rear I could see that one of them was simply filming us on his phone!
It was a lovely run to the site and we were soon busy pitching up and exploring. We stayed at La Foret in St Julien des Landes, inland from St Giles. A great area with plenty to see and do. The site itself had plenty going on with entertainment most nights, an Indian Forest type adventure area, pools, lakes for fishing and even paintball. For children of all ages I’d recommend it.
Alison and I chilled out most days, doing very little although we did manage to fit in a 10 mile bike ride on the Bromptons one day – boy, was it hot?
Quite a few of the others went out in convoy in their vans, to the beach and to various supermarkets, etc, attracting lots of attention wherever they went.
The weather was great until the last two days when we had rain and cloud. At the weekend, Alison and I organised Sat-Hatter-day for everyone. Basically, everyone had to wear a hat and we supplied some fizz and nibbles. The event was made special by Richard and Elspeth who agreed to provide folk dancing. Richard called for us and Elspeth played her fiddle. It was a top laugh and everyone really enjoyed themselves. Another plus was Poppy Tiller playing guitar and singing for us – a real talent and one of the lovely Tiller Girls from the aptly named, Happyhouse family.
We left before the others on the Monday, as we were traveling down to Cognac. Unfortunately, we’d got a puncture on Saturday morning and had to wait at the tyre depot for a new one to be delivered from Cholet so we didn’t get away from Olonne Sur mer until about 4pm. Fortunately, we were able to wander round the shops and have some lunch whilst we were waiting. 134 Euros for a new tyre was a bit excessive but we didn’t have a lot of choice really.
|Breakdown guy dealing with our puncture.|
We arrived in Cognac about 6.15pm but couldn’t immediately find the campsite. The battery had gone on my phone (which we use for GPS) so we were struggling. After a few minutes sitting in the town centre we used our best guess as to the general direction and eventually found the site.
Our original plan at Cognac was to leave most of the gear in the trailer as we were only staying for two nights but it had been so wet when we packed the Event Shelter way we had to put it up to dry it out. Fortunately, the weather was good and everything dried very quickly. The guy in the tent next to us was from Chorley originally but now lived in Rochdale. He spent every summer on the site, spoke French fluently and knew everyone! He did tell us over a beer that he’d been given a tip by another ex-pat on the site to rummage through the bins at the weekend when people had left as you could find half used boxes of biscuits, wine, etc. He’d even found a pair of sandals on one occasion. Hmm, very odd, and didn’t enamour Alison to the site I’m afraid.
On Tuesday we cycled into Cognac along the river. It was extremely hot and we decided to give the Brandy tours a miss. We’ve both done them before so opted for a bit of shopping and a long lunch. Before that, though, we needed a photo to use as a postcard to send back home.
We found a perfect spot but I needed to take it with my phone to use the Bypost App. We found a passing stranger (who just happened to be English) and he took one for us. It was only afterwards that I realised that I’d passed my phone case with all my money and credit cards to a total stranger who could have jumped his car and taken them all.
After lunch of gallettes and crepes, washed down with a nice bottle of cider, we cycled back to the site for a beer and a chinwag with our neighbour before packing up ready to leave the next day. The weather stayed dry so no worries about putting stuff away wet.
Beynac et Cazenac
Our next stop was in the Dordogne, by the banks of the river in Beynac. This is new territory for us and we were quite excited, although it was quite a long drive. We arrived in late afternoon and we both knew immediately that we were going to love it here. We got a perfect pitch near the river with views of Beynac village and chateau. Spectacular, both by day and by night.
The site had a bar with seating outside and on some evenings local eateries sold their products from a mobile kitchen. There was Thai one night and sausages and frites another. There was (intermittent) WiFi in the bar too so I could send the postcards via ByPost at last.
On Wednesday we’d booked for a canoe trip down the River Dordogne. A minibus picked us up from the site and took us 10km up stream so we could paddle back. It was very peaceful on the river and Mrs B saw her first kingfisher. Paddling was fairly straightforward even for me (I once took my girls rowing on Windermere but much to their embarrassment, I sat the wrong way round to set off from the boat hirers) and it was possible to stop at the villages we passed on the way.
There was a market in La Rocque so we pulled the canoe out and went for a coffee and a snack. It was all very relaxing and a great way to spend a few hours. We were back near the campsite by mid afternoon and simply handed the canoe over and walked back to our pitch.
|Some Dutch people had brought their own darts equipment in their massive motorhome|
The day before we’d walked into Beynac and up the medieval streets to the Chateau. Apparently, some of the film of Joanne Harris’s novel, Chocolat, was filmed here and you can see why they chose it. It’s a stiff climb up to the top but the views are worth it – you could see right down the river and even Absinthe on the pitch way below.
We had 5 days in Beynac but unfortunately, the weather changed towards the end and the Sunday was wet and grey. We set off in Absinthe along the valley of the Dordogne to Le Buisson and then up to La Bugue. It was raining quite heavily when we got there but there was an antiques market (Brocante) on in the village centre so we got out and wandered around. The stall holders didn’t look happy in the rain and no one seemed to be buying very much.
We tried to get a meal but they’d stopped serving food so we grabbed a few pastries from a boulangerie and headed back to Absinthe and a cup of tea. It was exactly 2 years since we’d picked her up from Danbury so it seemed quite appropriate that we were sat drinking tea from Brazilian mugs whilst the French rain beat down outside.
Fortunately, the weather cleared later and we were able to get all our gear stowed away in the dry for once.
Our next stop was in the foothills of the Pyrenees so we were away quite early on Monday to drive the 220 miles to Espelette.
It took us nearly 5 hours to get to the Basque region in the foothills of the Pyrenees and the scenery gradually changed as we drove. From warm sandstone buildings in the Dordogne to white alpine-style red roofed chalets in the Pyrenees.
I’d admitted my misgivings about the site to Alison earlier in the week. Originally, we were booked into a site in Bidart near Biaritz but all the to-ing and fro-ing with Boris meant we switched (or rather I switched) to Biper Gorri (Red Chilli in Basque). As we arrived at Espelette signs for the campsite pointed us right through the village which was full of tourists so we thought we’d be close to the centre and able to walk in. Unfortunately, the route took us through the other side and up and down hill until we found the site about 2 miles away.
The office was just opening as we got there and the girl on reception couldn’t have been more helpful. She was really pleased to use her English as they don’t get many visitors from the UK.We drove to our pitch and were immediately greeted by a chubby French boy of about 8 or 9 with a barrage of questions in French. Almost every response from me was greeted with “Pourquoi?”, from him. I’d soon used up all my French and he wandered off only to return with his mates as regular intervals to stare!
The site seemed a bit run down and there was no grass left on our pitch which also had a huge rut in it from where I assume a caravan had been parked. We soon had the event shelter up though and decided to drive back into Espelette for a look around.
The village’s claim to fame centres around the red chillies which are grown in the region and are used in the local cuisine. They are dried and put into all sorts of things. You can see them hanging from the buildings to dry. Espelette peppers gained domain protection in 2002 and the region is very proud of them.
The other prominent feature in the region is the game of Pelota. Every village has a Fronton which is a wall against which the game is played. It’s a bit like squash I suppose, although there seem to be lots of different versions featuring a variety of rackets.
This is a beautiful and varied part of France (and Spain too, I guess as we popped over the border a few times whilst we were out and about). We had planned to go to Le petit train de la Rhune, a small train that takes you to the top of a mountain nearby, but when I talked to another helpful lady in the office she advised against it as there was cloud on the top and she said the views wouldn’t be very good. Instead, she recommended St Jean de Luz, a seaside resort nearby with a Corniche close by if we had time.
Parking wasn’t easy in town but we eventually manged to get a spot near the sea and walked into town. It was just what we needed. Shops for Alison and a lovely warm sunny day.
We pottered around for a while, bought some gifts and then had lunch in an Italian restaurant.
After lunch we drove along the coast to Hendaye taking in the Corniche as we went. The coastline is spectacular although there are no places where you can park and chill with a view of the sea. Shame.
|The Corniche between St Jean de Luz and Hendaye|
We headed inland from Hendaye, over the Spanish border and into the Pyrenees, ending up back in France, at a village called Sare. The village is classed as one of France’s most beautiful and you can see why. It wasn’t too busy either although there was a surly attendant in charge of the car park (as usual close by the Fronton) who wasn’t taking any prisoners!
|Absinthe in front of the Fronton|
Next day we went to St Jean Pied de Port, a little higher in the hills and an important stop on the Camino de Santiago, a long Pilgrims walk, which ends in Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
We had a picnic at the Citadel above the town with fantastic views before driving back into town for a wander around.
Despite an illogical fear of heights, I love high places. Whether it’s the Picos de Europe, the Alps, the Pyrenees or the Pennines, I love the views and the way that communities have developed in the only places they can in the uplands. They cling to hillsides or valleys for defensive or communication reasons and have real identities of there own. We’ll definitely be back to this region again.
For this year though, there was a long drive ahead into Spain to Asturias.
La Paz, Vidiago
It was 210 miles to La Paz from Espelette, nearly all of it on Motorways or dual carriageways so it should have been an easy journey. As usual Alison drove and I navigated although there wasn’t too much for me to do once we got to the motorway (apart from pay the Tolls of course!)
I really didn’t enjoy the ride – I like popping through villages and towns not thrumming along at 65mph with the trailer on for mile after mile. I think I’m getting worse as a passenger too because, despite the fact that Mrs B is a brilliant, confident driver, I still get nervous at certain points. Hey ho, it has to be done and we eventually found the exit to the campsite.
We had to go down a steep hill then suddenly chaos ensued. There was a caravan ahead of us and a motorhome trying to get out as well. Fortunately, the site staff were calm and collected (not at all like Spaniards then) and helped us all manouevre into a small car park so that everyone got to where they wanted to be. I had to unhook the trailer to allow us to get into the car park and had words with a motor cyclist who tried to get through a narrow gap and hit the trailer with his footrest.
The road to the pitches is so steep that the site owners took our trailer up with their Landrover with us following on behind. They showed us to a pitch but said that if we wanted a view of the sea they’d move a caravan for us and give us that pitch. I’m really pleased we took that option as the views were brilliant.
La Paz is an amazing campsite with small terraces using every available bit of space. The site is huge but doesn’t appear so because of the way it’s laid out.
It has its own beach (no dogs allowed so a good job we didn’t take Boris) and life guards for added safety.
|The old man of the sea…|
The first thing to say is that Alison loved it! The sun was shining, the sea and sky were blue and she was chilled after really not liking the Espelette site. Phew! We were only there for two nights which was a great shame – we could easily have spent a week here and one day I’m sure we will.
We didn’t leave the site whilst we were there and getting in and out would be a bit tiresome but worth it because this is a great part of Spain. The people are very friendly and the local cider is er, different! We (Absinthe, actually) attracted lots of attention and we were invited to Portugal by a lovely couple who came over for a chat. She was an English teacher in Oporto and she told us that the VW Kombi is known colloquially as a “loaf” in Portugal because of the similarity between its shape and a loaf of bread.
|Jewel, their caravan.|
They have two beautiful daughters and were charming people. One day we might just take them up on their offer.
Just before we left on the Saturday a group approached the van and, it turns out, invited us for cider later in the bar. I eventually found one of them who could speak English and they were part of a Campervan club from Bilbao. They loved Absinthe and stayed for quite a while to chat. They told us that the site was taken over in March 13 (before it officially opened) by 100 campervans and that they were hoping for 200 in 2014. They invited us to join them next year and we’ll see if we can persuade some of our BraziBay friends to come with us.
We were very sad to leave La Paz – the highlight of the last day for me was using the showers! I’ll explain – another VW owner tipped me off to try the alternative shower block facing away from the sea to the mountain. The showers faced a massive valley with Eucalyptus tress and a wall that was open from waist height to the elements. The showers themselves were the rain shower type and it was just like having a shower in a rain forest or in the African bush. Inspirational!
All that was left was to drive to Santander for the evening 24 hour Ferry to Portsmouth. We deliberately arrived early so that Alison could go shopping in the centre of the town but, unfortunately, all the shops shut at lunchtime and weren’t due to open again. We spent our time in the van with cups of tea whilst Mrs B sat in her chair outside in the car park, reading and grabbing the last rays of Spanish sun before heading back to grey Lancashire.
|Waiting for the Ferry – suddenly we seem quite small.|
The Ferry back was uneventful and a little boring and was followed by a long drive back home, arriving about 2am.
So, the end of another adventure.
Things we’ve learned:
- It would be better to only have one night stopovers after a long drive, then set off again for the next destination. No need to get everything out only to pack it back up again.
- We’ll never want to come home from 3 weeks away.
- The Forum people are great fun.
- GPS/SatNav is fine but nothing beats a good map.
- Absinthe attracts some really nice people – and some who overstay their welcome (in the Dordogne, one chap kept coming back time and again to chat)
- Campsites vary enormously – the size of a pitch doesn’t necessarily equate to the quality of the site.
- WiFi makes such a difference to me on holiday and varies in price significantly from site to site.
- No matter what I fish for, nor where I fish, I’ll never catch anything.
There’s a full set of pics here: Flickr