Central and Northern France, May, 2013
Mark and Vicki shipped their Roadtrek to Europe in May, 2009 and are now in their 26th month of European RVing. They plan to sell or ship their camper back to the US in November. More of their practical write-ups are at their website www.TheRoadGoesEverOn.com, where there is also a link to their blog.
Ah, France. Yes, we spent a wonderful 32 days in Spain, but gosh we love France. Since we spent much of August, 2012, and fall, 2010, in southeastern France, we headed first for Cahors. It is a lovely small city on the bend of the river. The camperstop is listed as only 3 places (free) but there is actually a huge overflow area—just not directly on the river. It was May 1st, a Labor Day holiday in both Spain and France so all the stores were closed, but the market was still held. We stayed two days just walking and relaxing seeing the grand medieval bridge and an amazing Romanesque Cathedral with the largest church domes outside of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. But most fun were all the sculpted heads with inane expressions and the door frieze of naked men being chased and stabbed with knives in their butts! Honestly, what Bible story is that from?
Sarlat is a quick drive from Cahors and the center of the heavily touristed area of the Dordogne. We had last visited the area in 1989 but only to see the caves at Lascoux and Pech Merle. Sarlat's camperstop holds about 20 (not 50, as our book said) and is 7E for 24 hours. We arrived around noon and it was half full. However, the pavement is not flat so many spots weren't very appealing. There were also campers parked nearby in the bus lot, which might be an option if you arrive late. This area is completely crazy in July and August—even in 1989 all the campgrounds were full and finally someone took pity on us and let us camp by the outdoor pissoir. The roads are twisty, narrow, and hilly and our TomTom routed us some crazy ways. We seldom have a country atlas but we do for France and it was helpful to avoid at least some of his choices. The Sarlat market is on Wednesdays and Saturdays and famous in the area as it spread out all over the old town. We bought some wonderful foie gras, walnuts, white asparagus and the local wine. I wouldn't say it was the best market we have ever been to, but it was certainly a very good one. We also had an excellent dinner at The Auburge le Mirandole. Mark's goose was superb and I had the best cream brulee I have ever eaten—and I have eaten many—3 courses for 15.5E (plus 2 for the goose.) The restaurant even has its own grotto. It is easy to find, right next to the Virgin Mary spring.
We headed for La Rogue Gageac, a village crammed between limestone cliffs and the river. The camperstop is also the only place for daytime parking which is 2-3E and an additional 7E to spend the night. This is a huge area for canoeing but with Mark's shoulder acting up we opted for the 9E each boat ride that took us by several chateaus but unfortunately not Beynat. I would recommend that you take the boat from Beynat instead, as the chateaus are better near it. La Rogue was pretty but really not worth a stop, just drive through. Just a few miles away is the larger village of Beynat which has a spectacular castle and a free aire which was not listed in our book. The sign said 2.5 k to walk to the castle from the camper parking but it was really about half that. Don't bother to try to drive up as campers are forbidden on the last part of the road. We didn't tour the castle but walked on to the town view which was splendid and then back past the castle and down into the village. Neither of us could believe the angle of the tiny roads the cars maneuvered—definitely the steepest and craziest so far in Europe.
That afternoon we went north for Les Eyres de Tayac and the Grotto de Gaume. Be warned that the SuperMarches have driven just about all the independent gas stations out of business, so gas is difficult to find. We had to backtrack about 10 miles and then there was no cashier and even our chip card wouldn't work. Mark used his best French sign language to persuade a motorcyclist to buy us 50E of diesel on his card. Les Eyes has a very nice aire with lots of shade right on the river for 5E per night. It is a short walk to the National Museum of Prehistory which was free because it was the first Sunday of the month. All of the exhibits are only in French, but there are some very interesting videos showing how hand axes, arrows, goddesses, etc. are made the really old fashioned way. And on the third floor are wonderful copies that have been made of many of the cave paintings and etchings in the area. The museum is built partly into the cliffs where the original chateau was built. Before going to the museum we had stopped at the Grotto de Gaume to try to get tickets for one of the English tours but they were sold out. We were told to be there by 8:30 am to get in line. They sell none in advance and the cave is very popular with only 200 visitors allowed per day to protect the paintings. It is one of the last polychrome caves where visitors are still allowed in the original instead of a replica. It was definitely worth the wait. We noticed that a couple of campers had spent the night in their smallish parking lot.
One more cave awaited a short drive away—though far off the main roads—Grotto de Rouffignac. Many more visitors were allowed here because the caves are much bigger—so big that you ride back to see the drawings on electric trains. The tour is only in French but they give you a lighted Ipod so you can read about what you are seeing. At one point you leave the train to see an amazing ceiling with dozens of mammoths, bison, etc. No color was used in this cave but the drawings are superb. You look at these things on postcards and in books and think what's the big deal—but being there is completely different. The parking for the cave is very angular with only 1 or 2 spots where you could conceivably spend the night. There are at least half a dozen more caves in the area but even we had now reached the saturation point and headed off to Poitiers.
We stopped short of Poitiers to stay in a free aire in the village of Lespoir Nieuil. We thought to take the bus in to the city and avoid parking hassles. Unfortunately, it was May 8th—Victory in Europe Day and a national holiday and the midday buses weren't running. Since it was raining, we just stayed home and enjoyed a day off. We were also able to use our plug-in antenna to pick up the free Wifi provided by the Mairie. Having the booster antenna has been a life saver as even in campgrounds the signal is usually too weak to pick up with just a computer. The antenna will usually allow us to avoid sitting in the reception area.
Poitiers is built on a hill and definitely don't try to park in the old city. There are several lots on the ring road and we stayed at N46.58753 E0.33839 which was free because it was May 9th—Assumption Day and another holiday. That was fine with us as it made finding parking so much easier. Poiters was all about churches—another great cathedral and even better was the Romanesque church—St. Hilaire with its striking interior flying buttresses. We missed seeing the inside of the 5th Century Baptismal as we arrive just as it was closing for lunch. No matter how long we are in Europe every week or so the lunch closing catches us by surprise.
We spent two nights in the lovely free aire in Angers. It is right on the river a couple of blocks from the chateau. There is not much to see at the chateau but the walls are impressive. What you go to see is the Apocalypse Tapestry from the 1300s. Originally somewhat longer it is still over 300 feet and recounts the Book of Revelation. We had been here before and read up quite a bit about it but unless you really know your Revelations an audio guide would be worth the extra money. Across the river, next to the aire, is the 12th century Hospital St. Jean. We didn't care to see the modern tapestry displayed there, but you can go into the inside to see the architecture which is marvelous. We also went around the block to the rear to see part of the old city wall and the amazing wooden beam storehouse for the hospital. In the old town is a worthwhile cathedral with the strange vaulting from this area of France. Be sure to walk around the cathedral to see the intriguing burgher house, Maison d'Adam. Alone it would be one of the most impressive upper middle class homes from the 1500s in Europe, but the carving is hysterical—especially the man proudly lifting the back of his shirt to bare his prodigal private parts. In the US I'm sure you would be arrested if you dared such house decoration.
Heading east we entered the valley of the Loire. We drove the old road on the north bank which sits on the levy and gives you a nice view of several of the more modest chateaus on the south side. We crossed the river just before Langeais on a very narrow bridge with a sign that said “Over 2 meters difficile”. We are 2.4. Luckily we only met one small car, but it would have been a long way to back up. The are many chateau to choose from in the valley and we had visited several in the past. They are all so famous that I won't go into any detail. We visited Langeais to see the medieval furniture and enjoyed it as you can get really close to the tapestries and other details and it had excellent write ups in English in every room. Vicki went back to Chenonceau alone for her third visit. Super crowded with tours even on a weekday in May. Our best advice is to definitely get the audio/video guide and go from 4pm to 7pm. While in the area we stayed at the free aire in Azay-le-Rideau, but it is small so get there early. A fairly inexpensive municipal campground is next door for backup. We also stayed at the parking lot at Chenonceau but for overnight you have to be in the area for caravan parking right next to the train tracks. Since this may fill up in high season it would be wise to arrive early and park there from the start because they will ask you to move from the regular camper car parking area when they close.
So far the weather has been colder than normal and now the forecast was for rain nearly everyday. We decided not to linger with the chateaus and headed for Bourges to see its famous cathedral. If you like stained glass you will love Bourges. It has the second best collection after Chartres but what is really wonderful is that it is down low and since the cathedral doesn't have all those locked off side chapels you can really enjoy the glass at very close range. Of course, the cathedral is marvelous too—so different without a transept and the outside so elegant with all the flying buttresses and the lovely park setting. We didn't spend the night there but did park in the free aire which is very large and less than 1k to the cathedral.
Mark and I have been watching the DVD course from The Teaching Company on Cathedrals and couldn't wait until we arrived at the Holy Grail—Chartres. We have visited four times before and have taken Malcolm Miller's tours each time and enjoyed them immensely. But after 24 lectures—3 of them just on Chartres, we felt prepared to go it alone. We also had a book with an explanation of each window and sculpture. We spent several hours over two days and loved every minute. All of the lower windows have been cleaned and two of the three portals. They have also started cleaning the interior and have finished the crossing area and the choir. The difference is startling. Hopefully we will live long enough to see it finished. We had a nice lunch at the tiny le Pichot recommended by Steve's and Rough Guide. My beef bourginoune was absolutely melt in your mouth, but Mark's onion soup was hardly a step up from Lipton's. We also enjoyed walking through the very upscale shopping district and then down by the river for the medieval houses. The church of St. Pierre with its bell tower and medieval glass would be a show stopper anywhere else but here sits neglected. We also spent quite a bit of time in the remarkable stained glass shop right next to the cathedral where they sell both modern and antique pieces at fairly astronomical prices. There is no aire in Chartres so we stayed at the municipal campground with our discount card for 14E though it is not much more without it. We stayed here first 34 years ago when it had newly opened. However, then we were tenting and drove into town. There is no bus and the walk into town is a pleasant 1.9 miles each way, but it is a walk. We did notice a couple of campers parked in a parking area just before you get to the campground. Overnight parking seemed to be tolerated but it isn't high season yet.
Our daughter had visited the Caen Memorial Peace Museum and urged us to stop there. We tried to stop in Evereux to see the cathedral on the way but parking was impossible. Perhaps something was going on because even if we were in a car there would have been nothing. The first night in Caen we stayed at the camperstop at an RV sales center, driving on to the museum the next morning. It turns out the museum has a nice parking lot for campers and no limit on overnight stays. The museum itself is very expensive 16.5E for over 60 for a 24 hr. ticket. We entered about 10:30 am and really couldn't see any of the exhibits for all the field trips of school students. The information desk said most of the groups would be gone by 4. So we came back and stayed till closing at 7. They have free Wifi but it was also overloaded most of the day. The next morning we finished up in an hour or so. We enjoyed it but frankly since we had already been to World War II museums in London, Berlin, and elsewhere for us it was pretty repetitive. We had planned to see the Caen Cathedral and visit the tombs of William the Conqueror and Matilda but just weren't in the mood.
We made a brief stop in Deauville on the coast but the free aire with free electric was full even at noon. Next stop was Honfleur which is a beautiful but very touristy seaport town. We arrived just as the Saturday market was closing and were sorry to miss it as it looked very good. The aire is right in town but even with 120 places we were lucky to find a spot by the dump. 10E with electric but no hook ups near us. By nightfall the RVs were double parked throughout—never have we seen such an overflow before. Apparently, in some areas of France May 20th in a holiday, so another long weekend and Honflerur is a favorite destination. If you can, avoid going there on weekends, but don't miss the unusual church and bell tower.
On Sunday rain closed in and we left crossing the Pont de Normandy (6E) headed for the coastal town of Etretat with its famous sea arches. France has been below average in temperature all month but the flowers at least are on time with fields of yellow rape seed and orchards of apples in bloom. Even though this is our fourth year RVing in Europe, this is our first spring in the north and it has been exciting to see everything blooming and greening up. The aire in Etretat is 8E with a 24 hr limit but the municipal campground is next door and allowed us to pay for a second night. We were also able to use their very strong and free Wifi to catch up with the blog and other business affairs. The aire is just at the edge of town and the sea. We decided to splurge on a lunch out and found a fairly reasonable mussels place right on the water, but, oh no, after taking our order they hurried back to say the moules were finis! No place else really appealed so it was back to the camper for ham and cheese.
Our next few days were spent on the Gothic trail visiting cathedrals in Beauvais (cathedral plus St. Ettienne Church), Senlis, Noyon, and Amiens. Our camperstop book had no aires listed for this area but we found ones in every town mostly through signs. In Beauvais it is at N49.43160 E2.07048 and has a huge shopping complex across the street and a laundramat where washing and drying was only 5.5E a load. In Senlis N49.20883 E2.58722. In Noyon N 49 degrees, 34',37” and E 2 degrees, 58', 47”--actually only a dump with water but there was some additional parking nearby. In Amiens we used our ACSI camping discount card to stay at the new campground for 16E, but Wifi was an additional 3E for 2 hours. Later on from the TI we learned that campers can stay for free for 48 hrs. in the parking lot at Boulevard Garibaldi and the Rue de Cdt Defontaine. All of these aires are a mile or less from the city center.
Our path out of France to Belgium took us through the battlefields of the Somme and cemeteries and memorials lined the highway for miles, a depressing and sobering sight. We made a quick stop in Albert to see the 250 Art Deco buildings and were sadly disappointed as the TI was closed and after walking many, many blocks could only find one building with much Art Deco style. We did, however, find a bread vending machine—either 5 small baguettes or 5 Viennoiserie (croissants and pain chocolate) for 2E. Wow, wow, wow. We love France!
Our last night in France was spent at the aire (camperstop) in Arras. It was actually closed with a temporary fence around it and 6 trailers and cars parked inside. The sign in French said something about private parking for the Expo. So we don't know if this was permanent or temporary. We parked near it at the end of the street with a German rig. Next morning we stopped near the town of Vimy at the Memorial Canadian. It would have made a better place to spend the night. We visited the Verdun area in 1998 but were very glad we stopped here. The Canadians played a significant role in World War I and they left this area of the front as it was at the end of the war. They have an excellent information center staffed by bilingual Canadian students. We joined the tail end of a guided tour through both the Allied and German trenches and the guide really explained what was going on. We didn't get to go in the underground 250 meter (of 10k originally) tunnel since we missed the first part. There was also an excellent film. We highly recommend this site though you can't wander off the paths. As recently as 1998 they found live mines right by the visitor center!
On the road near Lens we saw the sign for Louvre-Lens and decided to stop to check it out. We ended up not going (maybe on the way back to Italy in September.) The parking for campers (if you are more than 6m) is very far from the museum in an aire near the McDonald's. We had tried to get to the closer parking because the height bars were up but the spaces were all very short. Even in the further away parking area the were bars down at every entrance and exit but one. I haven't given any GPS because of the bars—just try to follow the signs.
In 25 nights in France, we spent 3 in campgrounds, 6 in paid camperstops, and 16 in free camperstops for a total cost of $119 or about $5 a night. Wow, wow, wow. We love France!