France – Gers

Berta’s first trip abroad!  We love France – the cheese, the wine, the endless beautiful villages, the mountains, the coast – we’ve spent a lot of time exploring by car in the past, be it on meandering drives back up to the northern seaports to catch ferries back to the UK, or just popping over the border (3 hours from us) for a long weekend, or on longer trips to further inland.  Having the French border so close was a big draw for Berta, France is of course incredibly well set up for motorhomes, there is such a culture of acceptance there, and so many villages have their own AC areas – many free.

So for Berta’s first trip we decided to head to a region we’d never been to before, the Gers region.  This was partly as we were going mid-August, so wanted to avoid the coast (and its infamous car park height barriers), and wanted to find somewhere a little less touristy to relax and unwind.  This was also the first real test of not planning where we were heading, and just using the excellent Park4Night mobile app to find somewhere to stay each night – assuming that being a less touristy area we weren’t going to find places particularly full (this assumption was correct thankfully).

Day 1

First stop was admittedly based on a little planning using the app, lunch with a view was what we were after on the most beautifully clear day, so we headed over the border on the A8 in the morning, then A63-A64 east, to the most wonderful spot on top of a hill, easily accessible, just east of the village of Villefranque.  It was boiling, no wind, and the most fabulous first stop – we enjoyed a very cheesy lunch watching the swallowtail butterflies around us, with uninterrupted views of the Pyrenees and the Basque coast.  This was also the first time we’ve missed having an awning too (we’re saving up for the Fiamma F65) – it was very hot in the sunshine!

After lunch we got back on the A64 and had an afternoon stop on the outskirts of Pau.  We’ve been to Pau before, but were heading this time to one of its western villages, Lescar.  Easy parking below the town, we walked up through the town gates to explore its lovely Romanesque church complete with paintings and mosaic floors.  Then a stroll around the ramparts with more Pyrenean views (Pau itself is famous for them) before heading off to our overnight stop.

Our first overnight in France and we decided to brave it and go wild!  We were heading to a lakeside location, the Lac du Balaing below the village of Angos, just northeast of Pau off the D834.  We first parked up at the larger car park, and enjoyed a lovely sunset walk around the lake (with a slight broken flipflop crisis halfway round!), which aside from being a very lovely walk, also allowed us to suss out the parking situation a little more, and we moved ourselves to a more open, waterside area for the night.  We had a very quiet overnight, a good first wild camp!

Day 2 – Our 5th Wedding Anniversary!

Waking up lakeside the sun briefly appeared, before disappearing behind clouds, and encouraging us to move off for the day post-breakfast.  We headed now to the Gers region, first stopping at the town of Riscle for a quick market visit.  Easy shady parking on a square with water and toilets, this could have easily been an overnight – others clearly had.  We just stopped to pick up some cheese bits for lunch, and a quick visit to the church and a drink on the square.  We then headed on through the vineyards and sunflowers of the Gers, to the Tour de Termes d’Armagnac.  This tower is what remains of a medieval castle, towering over the surrounding countryside, and a fun visit (we enjoyed the medieval dressing up box!).  We were very indebted to the lovely woman at reception who, on finding it was our wedding anniversary, worked very hard indeed ringing around to find us a last minute dinner reservation for that evening!  More on that later.  Anyway, the tower also has a lovely church next to it, and we managed to park up on the grass between the two for a nice lunch – although indoors as it was still markedly grey outside.

After lunch, grey turned to actual rain, but we decided that that was not going to be enough to put us off our next stop – a good decision as we discovered.  We headed a little further northeast to something I always feel France does very well, bamboo gardens!  This was the Palmeraie du Sarthou near Bétous, a lovely large private tropical garden.  Umbrellas were provided free of charge, and we had a lot of fun exploring the tropical areas – all the more atmospheric in the odd rain shower, the lovely lotus flowers (Berta now has a lotus seedpod we were gifted), and the rather bizarre fake plane crashes in the woodland walk – two full sized mockups with real light aircraft – as strange as it sounds!

Then we headed off to our anniversary meal – at Le Relais du Bastidou – a little hard to find, but well worth it for some delicious local food in a very lovely old barn setting.  We then overnighted in the nearby village of Beaumarchés at their simple, free AC area – full services in a quiet setting.

Day 3

French breakfasts are the best.  And Beaumarchés delivered with an open bakery!  After devouring our pastries, we were on the road with the aim of getting to the capital of the Gers, Auch, for its morning market – I think our favourite of all French things.  It was a very lovely drive through several villages we’d loved to have stopped in, but made do with driving through (notably Bassoues and Barran) as we were determined to make it to the market.

And make it we did.  We managed to park (somehow) in the main shady car park right in the centre of town (another good area – and easier – would have been down on the river, and walk up to the town in retrospect), and picked up our lunch at the market which was very picturesquely located in front of the cathedral – some lovely fresh pasta and of course some cheese.  We then had an explore of the cathedral itself, with some unique stained glass, and the unexpected and rather wonderful serenading of a practicing (we presume) organist and soloist – on a wind instrument we couldn’t quite define – very atmospheric from the galleries above the main nave.  We then had an equally atmospheric beer on the little square behind the cathedral, before walking down to the river to see the famous d’Artagnan statue, and walking back up the steep narrow streets known as Les Pousterles.

Getting back to Berta, and miraculously out of the very full car park, we had a quick stop at a very expensive organic supermarket on the outskirts, before heading off to find somewhere for a lunch stop.

And we did well.  Again, thanks to the app, we ended up at the little village of Peyrusse-Massas with its lovely little church and views across the sunflowers and a small lake.  Parked in nice parking area under some nice shady trees we felt very smug for finding such a perfect spot and enjoyed our market-bought pasta and a nice siesta.

Post-siesta we headed over to nearby Lavardens, famous for its huge chateau, which we got to just in time to have a quick visit.  A rather uninspiring and at times rather odd temporary sculpture exhibition inside, but the highlight are the mosaic floors of this restored chateau – and we rather liked that the top floor hasn’t been restored yet, so you get a bit of ruin in there too – as well as some great views from the top.  We then had a wander around the pretty village, with a beer on the shady terrace of the creperie, before deciding that we might just stay in the car park below the chateau overnight, as a few other ACs were clearly setting up to do, with the sun about to set in just the right place, we enjoyed some local wine bought in the chateau shop and cheese by candlelight and had a very quiet and calm night.

Day 4

The next morning we decided to up and move before breakfast, as we had none!  We had a quick stop at the pleasant town of Castéra-Verduzan to pick up some supplies and breakfast at its morning market, followed by another quick stop to change waters at the convenient roadside AC area in Valence-sur-Baïse.  We then headed on to the Abbaye de Flaran – which had a nice flat shady car park for a quiet late breakfast.  We made a quick visit to the abbey, which was nice, but nothing overly spectacular, before heading northeast again.  We were tempted to make a quick stop and stroll in the lovely village of Terraube en route to our destination of La Romieu.  La Romieu is a very picturesque town and has several things to see, plus some great AC parking overlooking the church and park.  We headed first to the Jardins de Coursiana, a private garden overlooking the town and its church in the distance, with a stunning array of flowers and trees and just a very peaceful and pretty place to spend a morning.  We decided to make us of their shady picnic area and had a lovely lunch here, before heading into the town and visiting the church itself with its cloister, stained glass and lovely painted chapter house. Great views from the top of the tower, and we had a nice ice cream on the square before heading back to Berta.

That night, we decided to actually pay to stay!  We wanted to try out a Camping a la Ferme, and headed to a little place just south of Condom, Danto Dominique.  We were mainly attracted by the fact it had a pool, and the lovely hostess let us have a very flat spot right between the pool and the showers.  We managed to get there just in time to enjoy the last of the sunshine poolside, before making use of said showers, and having a very nice evening meal outside.

Day 5

Today we started out by heading for the village of Larressingle, a completely walled tiny little village – a village in a castle essentially.  Very picturesque, although it doesn’t take long to see!  A nice ice cream though and a curious stop.  We then had a quick look in at another interesting village, Fourcès, famous for its completely round central square – which indeed it is.  Very picturesque again, and a nice stroll along the adjacent river too.

We had no fixed plans that afternoon – so decided to find a nice spot for lunch.  This time no app, we just decided to drive and see.  And we found a beauty!  Somewhere approaching Montreal-du-Gers we stopped on the side of the utterly deserted road under a nice shady looking tree amongst the vineyards with unexpected views to the Pyrenees once again – they pop up everywhere!  We set up our table and chairs in the shade, and had a lovely lunch – but not uninterrupted in the end.  We roused the interest of some passing vineyard workers, who passed several times down the adjacent track, jovially asking us something in French, which I later realised was whether we were members of ETA!!  Sadly, as it took me until after they’d gone to work out what they were actually asking us, we didn’t get the chance to confirm that no, we were not!

We rounded off the day with a bit of a drive south to see if we could find a swim!  And we had great success at the little leisure lake at Lupiac (incidentally D’Artagnan’s birthplace – the town not the lake!).  It was like a little paradise on such a hot day, and a lovely place for an evening swim and sunbathe in the last of the sun.

We then drove south for our overnight – heading back homeward.  Here we had our only fail of the trip, getting to the AC area in Saint-Lon-les-Mines rather late, only to find it had been taken over by the local fiesta!  Rather tired from driving, we decided to head further south and try the area outside the monastery at Sorde-l’Abbaye east of Peyrehorade (thanks to the app).  This turned out to be a great idea, nice quiet flat overnight at the foot of the Romanesque church.

Day 6 – Heading Home

After a quick visit to the Romanesque church next to the abbey, we were disappointed to find no open bakery in town, so headed to Peyrehorade which came up with the goods, we had a quick breakfast in its AC area there admiring some huge ACs.  We then made a quick stop in Hasparren which had a rather meager market, but enough to get some supplies.

Our last stop was a bit of a biggie for us.  Somewhere which has been on my bucket list for a long time, but the weather has never been perfect enough to warrant it – the Train de la Rhune.  This cog railway climbs up the Rhune mountain in the foothills of the Pyrenees, overlooking the Basque coast and the Pyrenees too of course.  It turns out to be absolute tourist hell.  A total honeyspot.  We managed some rather interesting and inclined van parking along the road somehow and got in line – we had pre-booked tickets for this the day before, which was just as well.  The ride up was as spectacular as hoped, great views, great train, lots of fun.  And the views from the top equally spectacular.  Not a lot to actually DO at the top except look, and as it’s on the border between France and Spain, we had a drink in the Spanish-Basque restaurant at the top, which was a bit bizarre.  Then came the fun bit, the 1 hour plus wait in the queue to get back down again!  In the blazing sunshine.  I’d read this was the case so wasn’t surprised, but it did feel eternal anyway.  But worth it, ticked off my list, and a nice way to end the trip on a high.

 

So to sum up, a really great first foreign trip for us, the Gers held lots of surprises and was the perfect balance of peace and uncrowdedness we were looking for.  Great provisions everywhere for campers, and lots of things to see and do, at least in summer.  We were pleasantly surprised and would highly recommend the area!