Calais to Barcelona August, 2016
[Mark and Vicki have been traveling pretty much full time since they retired in 2008 and sold their home in Missoula, Montana. They RVed in Europe starting in 2009 for five years in their US Roadtrek, sold it in 2013, and then bought a European camper in 2015. So far, about 40 months in Europe. Mark blogs frequently with lots of pictures at www.roadeveron.blogspot.com. . Vicki's more practical guide to their travels is at their website www.TheRoadGoesEverOn.com.]
So we crossed the channel at Dover and our first stop at Calais was the large Auchon super marche where we had spent the night in 2013; still a good spot. It is a great place to stock up in France. Since it was early afternoon we headed west to Le Touquet Paris Plage and stayed at the aire at N50 32.153 E01 35.549. It is 15E per 24 hours, but right on the beach of a giant inlet. Great for our granddaughter except when the tide goes out—it goes way, way out along this coast. It is too far to walk to town from the aire but it is a beautiful town will lovely multi-million Euro French mansions tucked among the trees and a lively shopping district and city beach. Even if you don't spend the night, it is worth driving through these lovely neighborhoods where the wealthy of Paris have always come for their weekends and short holidays.
We left after lunch and drove a short way to Pont l'Eveque which is only 6 miles from the coastal twin cities of Trouville/Deauville. We knew the small aire at Deauville would be full unless you arrived by mid morning. The aire in Pont l'Eveche was spacious and right in town at N49 17.180 E0 11.220. Loved this small town though all the stores and even some of the restaurants closed down promptly at 6 pm. On to the Deauville aire the next morning, we found a spot and decided to park there to go to the Tuesday market in Trouville and to the beach as it is free and a very reasonable walk. The market was excellent and Mark stocked up on fresh seafood. Trouville is really one of our favorite spots on the coast. Way more laid back and less upscale than its uber classy Deauville neighbor. It is also one of the few places we have ever seen on the French coast where you can buy your seafood right at the fish market (open every day) and they have tables and chairs so you can enjoy your Plat de Fruits de Mer right there and have exactly the combination you like best. On to the beach with its pony rides, miniature golf, trampolines, etc. but the tide was out and temperatures were only in the upper 60s. Still Penelope loved running in the edge of the sea even when her feet turned blue. Back to the camper for a late lunch, water fill, dump, and now to take the big (but free) road down past Rennes headed for the Pontivy area.
Our daughter and son in law had rented a cottage for a week from a British expat just west of Pontivy. Since we didn't want to get there before they did we spent the night at the aire at Villedieu les Poeles which is only a mile or two off the main road. Very nice. N48 50.205 E0 13.465. So much better than trying to sleep at one of the aires on the highway with all the big trucks coming and going. The cottage was in a very rural area of Brittany about 25 minutes even from a decent size grocery. But it was air conditioned (which we never needed) had 2.5 baths, 2 bedrooms and a pullout coach. There were lots of toys and games for children, a BBQ, trampoline, and even a heated above ground swimming pool. Penelope loved it as there was a five year old British boy staying right next door.
We made three day trips from the house—to Quimper, Vannes, and Josselin. At Vannes we went to the outstanding Saturday morning market and spent the rest of the time shopping, having lunch and ogling the town's ramparts and half timbered houses. It also has a lovely harbor. Quimper again was a lovely town that we have visited before with its crooked cathedral with all of the windows full of intact stained glass done over several centuries. And finally we were really pleased with our excursion to Josselin. We took the English tour of the 15th century chateau with a long and involved history. With its four towers, incredible carving, and position on an outcrop above the river, it is quite the sight. The town too, is full of well preserved squares with half timbered buildings and some interesting craft shops.
What was really weird for us was to be in Brittany for a week and not stop to see a single dolmen, menhir or alignment. But when traveling with family on their vacation—well, I'm sure you know what I mean. On our way to our next stop we spent several hours in Dinan. Truly a lovely town, it is a shopper's paradise with lots of unique stores and artisanal shops. Since our daughter is still at the acquisitive stage of life and with a granddaughter to buy for, we made the round of shops and patisseries. Do not miss the street of artisanal shops leading from the port to the city on the cliff above. Best parking for campers is in aire at the (river) port
Next stop for six nights was a French family camp at Les Domanines au Ormes just south of St. Milo. Our granddaughter has been in a French immersion school for nursery and pre-K for the past two years, so our daughter thought a week at a French camp would be fun and educational. France (and Spain) have dozens of these resort camps that cater to families with free child care included during the week. In France they are not inexpensive—running almost $70 a night for 3 in highest season. If you want to plan a family get together in Europe, these would be a good choice. At this one probably 85% of the sites were Tiki huts, tree houses, mobile homes or pre pitched multi room tents. Motorhomes were few and far between and, in fact, the site we were assigned was so uphill that we couldn't get level enough to run our refrigerator. Since the camp was full, our only choice was to park by the soccer field and playground. Level, but very noisy until quiet hours took effect at 11 pm (and some nights not even then). We were not very happy with the site but the activities available were amazing. The child care to age 12, fishing lake and choice of 5 pools/water parks (including two heated) were free. The following were paid—horseback and pony riding/lessons, golf, mini golf, climbing wall, ropes courses of various difficulties starting at age 3, adult and child zip lines, Segway course, wake board, paddle boats, etc. Most of these activities were age 7 and older and cost about 10 E. There was also a fairly extensive grocery with in-store bakery, pizza parlor, restaurants, and bars. They staged a joust and circus (extra) and free fireworks. Penelope had a ball. Besides our lousy site, the only other problem was that at least half the families were from Great Britain or Ireland so she had no incentive to practice her French. All of the staff were bilingual. When we were checking out, I complained again about the site, this time to an older woman. She said we should never have been assigned that site, went back and conferred with her manager, and refunded us 90E. So that was a pleasant surprise.
After three nights at camp, we drove our daughter to Rennes to catch the train to Paris for four child- free nights. On the way back to camp, we stopped in the lovely town of Combourg to see at least the outside of the exquisite lakeside chateau. It was Sunday and most shops were closed but what a pretty place. Looked like there were also spots that shorter campers could park in overnight. Just one mile past the campground we took time to finally visit a megalithic site in Brittany, its tallest menhir at 30 ft—Menhir du Champ Dolent. Penelope was also impressed.
With our six days at camp over, we headed to Paris to stay at Camp Indigo in the Bois de Bologne. Expensive but nicely renovated. You also need to add the cost of the campground bus a 2E each way that takes you to the metro. We noticed very nearby the campground, several campers parked at N48 51.844 E 02 14.107. A public bus stop was right there. This might be an option. It all depends on your comfort for leaving your camper unattended in a big city. There is also a public parking lot on the south side of Paris that has no facilities but is secured and close to metro. The web site is paringsdeparis.com, but we have not visited it.
We only had three days in Paris and loved it as always. We visited the newly reopened Picasso Museum which was featuring his sculpture this season, and also Saint Chapelle. After many, many years, the windows at St. Chapelle are clean and free from scaffolding. It was glorious. Lots of just walking around and browsing through the amazing department stores, where we especially like the cooking and housewares and bricolage departments. Everything you could ever imagine and more, with European flair and ingenuity. We also went to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Nicholas Flamel. It is ocated in the oldest house in Paris just a few blocks from the Pompidou. Set price for 3 course dinner is 35E and includes 3 bonus mini courses. We have never had anything but superb food there and they now have an English menu.
Hot weather had now truly caught up with us with high 80s and low 90s everyday. Our little three way fridge really can't cope well with those temps nor can our bodies with no AC! We had just one stop picked out heading south to Bourges in Yevre le Chatel to see the chateau—in this case not a fancy chateau but the restored remains of a 12th century castle that guarded the road from Orleans. It was a pretty little village and the market was on—in this case meaning a single multi product market truck was in town for a couple of hours. As we visited the really small villages, we saw this type of single market truck several times. In one village he blew his horn on the way through to let everyone know he was ready to set up. So how did we find this tiny town? France has a scheme of what they call the Beau Villages Association (160 or so beautiful villages.) I had purchased the Michelin map of France with all these villages marked from the Beau Villages international website after we visited a couple of them that we came across by accident last year. Now we could be sure of not missing any that were on our way. The map also has all the recommended and highly recommended sights form the Green Guide series clearly marked. The Green Guides are our favorite for planning and detailed information, and we bought all 15 of the France ones before we came over last year. This year I forgot to buy the ones for Ireland and Great Britain and regretted it immensely.
Heading south we spent the night at the free aire in Bourges . Unfortunately, though a nice aire, there was a night time confrontation between several young men right outside our camper including fist fights and one fellow threatening others with an ax. It all broke up with no blood shed but we decided in the future when in an aire to park next to folks with license plates from whatever country we were in. We could have dialed 112 but without being able to speak French that wouldn't have done much good.
Bourges Cathedral has stupendous stained glass and we were still impressed even on our fourth visit. The town too is full of medieval half timbered and stone buildings and lovely just to wander through. It is a must see place. We will definitely be back for a fifth visit our next time in the vicinity.
The heat continued so we spent a long day driving south headed for the volcano country near Clermont-Ferrand. We had never been to the Central Massif part of France and Rick and Kathy Howe had highly recommended it. It did not disappoint. Though not cool, our stay at the free aire N45 46.176 E002 59.081 in the parking lot of the train for Puy le Dome was at least 5 degrees less than the valley. We decided to hike to the top and found the trail crowded but well maintained. It was shaded about 60% of the way but the steepness near the top persuaded us to take the train back down (10 E one way, 13 RT) I am not a fan of steep downhill treks with my knee replacement. You can take a 6 meter camper further up the road than the train parking lots and start higher up. But the train doesn't stop there on the way down and that parking lot was full by 10:30 am in August. At the top there is the usual restaurant, snack bar and gift shop, but also an excellent exposition building detailing the excavated and partially restored Roman Temple of Mercury--lots of audio visual material and most with English subtitles. Allow yourself two hours at the top. We spent three nights—stock up on food before arriving at the aire, water and dump are free but only expensive sandwiches, etc. are available at train depot.
Just south of Clermont-Ferrand we stopped at the “beau village” of Montperoux. Lovely town and church.
Brioude was marked as a recommended sight in Michelin but really we stopped for the free aire. However, the town proved very interesting and the Romanesque Cathedral was a gem. Much of the original painting of pillars and walls was intact, grotesque heads circled the outside of the apse, capitals sported instrument playing donkeys, and the unique upstairs chapel had a magnificent 13th century fresco of the Apocalypse. We also were able to walk to a laundromat. Who could ask for more?
Another “beau village” that had been recommended to us was Lavaudieu, a few miles south. It would be a lovely place to spend the night as the parking is right on the river. Again a small, quiet medieval village that time forgot, with a church left from the Benedictine monastery days. Among many other attractive features is a fresco of the only depiction of Death as a woman in the world. Is that good or bad? But be forewarned that the 3 mile road to it is single lane and a bit intimidating. Your GPS may also suggest some unpaved lanes as shortcuts—but ignore it as there is a paved road.
Le Puy en Velay is one of the several official starting points of the pilgrimage to Saint James de Compostele in Spain. The terrain of the valley is unique with tall pillars of volcanic rock rising above. Many topped with castles, churches or statues. The old upper town looks like Nice without the crowds and dozens of sculpted houses line the medieval, pedestrianized streets. The Cathedral itself sits high upon a cliff at the end of a steep street and a quadruple staircase. We actually thought some of the smaller churches we had seen in the last few days were better, but this was worth the effort and their were great views over the town and valley. We stayed at the newly renovated aire at the train station. Pricey at 13E per night and since it was part of a new aire “chain” we had to buy a 4E card too to gain admittance. However, electric, water and dump were included and even picnic tables! We had thought to go to the Saturday market the next day but a terrific rainstorm kept us inside all morning.
Continuing south we stopped at the “beau village” of Pradelles and could find nothing beau about it except lots of traffic. Perhaps it is its position on the edge of the high plains and then the sudden views of the Rhone Alps and the long 7 mile descent to gorge country. We were headed for Vallon Pont d'Arc which is the town at the start of the famous gorge of the Ardeche. Concerned that the aire there might be full, we decided to stop at the free aire at Thueyts N44 40.350 E004 13.137. Thueyts only rates a paragraph in the Michelin Auvergne book but what a pretty little place. The main highway is lined with centuries old lime trees and the belvedere by the aire had a ferrata course—a cabled climb down on side of the gorge, a Tyrollean traverse of the river, and a cabled climb up to end at the other end of town. Not something we would ever do but still.... And off the highway was a lovely small chateau by the river and many twisting streets with their centuries old stone homes. Ah France, it is so easy to be in love with it all.
Our main reason for taking this route to Barcelona was to stop at the replica Chauvet Cave near Vallon Pont d'Arc. The cave itself was not discovered until 1994 and is one of the most important finds in paleolithic art. Previously, people were astounded by caves such as Lascoux which dates to 18,000 BC. Cauvet has been dated at 36,000 BC and the art is astounding, not just good and rather than just isolated or groups of animals some of the massive walls portray a narrative. The replica and English tour were exceptionally well done and the museum alone deserves an hour or more. From Chauvet we drove the 2-3 hour drive along the Ardeche River Gorge. Very popular, lots of kayakers on the river at the start but those thinned out after the classic stone arch. The drive is very scenic, the road a full two lanes but no guardrails. There were at least half a dozen belvederes to park at the enjoy the views. We were so happy to have come this way. Unfortunately, time was growing short so we couldn't stop to see the many other villages of character like Thueyts. We spent the night at the aire in Bagnoles sur Cez, warned by the aire book it would be noisy. Which it was.
We had been growing concerned about the front tires and so stopped at a couple of different tire places but no one had the tires in stock. We decided to take the toll road from Arles south to Figureres so that we would have extra time to get new tires and an oil change before storage (we were flying out of Barcelona). As we expected, the 300 kilometers cost 38 E—the reason we don't travel on toll roads in Europe. We had planned to look at two different storage possibilities near Figures recommended by other WWT folks. However, only the Caravan Center had covered space tall enough for our camping car, so after visiting with the nice German lady owner and seeing where we could park, we decided not to bother with the other storage. She gave us a recommendation for a tire place, called them, and they ordered the tires to be there the next day. Also she recommended a garage for the oil change and a campground for the three nights we would need. We could have stayed at the storage for one night but we wanted facilities and room to pack and clean.
Camping Laguna is right on the beach and being the next to highest part of the season ran a stiff 45E a night with electric automatically included. It is a huge family oriented park populated mostly by Germans with a lovely beach and even some shade. With temperatures hitting 90 that was very welcome. We got our tires—Michelins, 2 installed for 330 E and the synthetic oil change at 90E. We probably overpaid some but that is often a fact of life on the road.
We were more irritated that we couldn't get our 20E all Europe Orange Sim card to work. Getting and keeping cell phone and wifi service is a pain. No, I wouldn't want to go back to just using McDonald's but on this 4.5 month trip we have been in six countries and bought SIMs from 7 different companies and 3 never really worked at all after the first day or two. Very, very frustrating. In Paris we waited in line at the Orange store behind some folks who had bought their Orange card at the airport—turned out it was an expired SIM. Of course, Orange wouldn't do anything, there are just lots of scams like that. Whenever we wanted to reload our Orange SIM we had to go to a shop as loading on line required a French credit or debit card—so frustrating.
So enough of the frustrations, over all we have had a wonderful 19 weeks in Europe and Great Britain. We plan to be back over about the first of April.