France – Charente-Maritime

With a long weekend ahead of us we decided to put into action a plan we’d had for a while, but kept having to put off because of bad weather – a trip up to the area between Bordeaux and La Rochelle.  In fact not taking in either of these lovely cities, but instead focusing on the coast and area in between.  And we were also able to convince some friends from Nantes to come down and join us for a couple of days, so ended up having their AirBnB rental, near Puyrolland, as a base too.  It was of course the May day weekend, so we set off on Thursday to avoid the traffic.

First Night

Well firstly, heading east from us, we needed to fill up with water and petrol, so decided to stop off at a new garage which advertised itself as having an AC services area.  It’s off the A8, exit 214 Argomilla/La Penilla.  And yes, there is a very new little service area, with hoses and everything, so easy filling.  The petrol is on the cheap side (although there are cheaper in Cantabria), so we were happy to fill up, and it was nice to chat to the friendly staff who were keen to know what we thought of the area and any suggestions we had.  We did in fact stop here on the way back too to empty, and they told us they’re planning a restaurants and possible overnight area for ACs too.

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Heresa Service Area

So, on we headed, but we wanted to stay on the Spanish side of the border for the first night, so decided to head for a Park4Night spot just southeast of San Sebastian.  It’s an evidently popular picnic area in the Aiako Harria Natural Park, with barbecues, loads of picnic benches, what looked to be a bar and toilets in summer, children’s play park, and marked walks.  And an AC service area!  Although we didn’t use it, full water services, and 2 dedicated AC parking spaces (on the road, not by the services area).  Off season it’s clear that AC overnight parking is tolerated in the main car parking area.  It’s a beautiful spot, well shaded beneath the trees, birds chirping and a very very peaceful overnight in the company of 5 or 6 other vans and ACs.

Day 1

We woke up to the birds chirping and a few people exercising their dogs outside – it was a lovely spot for breakfast.  And then we got ourselves together and hit the road.

We had a clear objective for that night – Blaye, on the Girone/Dordogne estuary.  And we had another objective – to avoid the Friday afternoon Bordeaux rush hour!  One of these we managed, the other we didn’t…

So, we headed off back to the motorway and over the border, no problems.  After much toll-paying as always heading into France, we needed a mid-morning leg stretch.  At this point we were heading up the A63, and there is not much around in our experience…pinewoods…but we decided to head for a lake to see what it offered.  We headed for the Arjuzanx (how many points for that in Scrabble?!) Nature Reserve, and parked up in the car park before heading to the visitor’s centre.  Highly recommendable visitor’s centre, beautiful building, free clean toilets, very stylish shop (I could have bought everything), and we learnt a lot about the site from the models.  Turns out it was an old mine site, now lake with beach, swimming area, picnic area and prehistoric swamps.

We decided as the rain looked to be holding off we’d have a go at the flat walk around the lake – it was a good day!  It was a nice stroll, although we did have a short rain shower half way round.  The boardwalked swamp area on the far side (which you can drive to – and to which there is a boat in summer from the beach) was especially lovely, and lots of picturesque benches for a rest!  We also felt very secure leaving Berta in the car park as there was lots of coming and going from school parties, joggers, swimmers etc.

After that, we were in rather a pickle for lunch time-wise, so rather uneventfully stopped at a supermarket and then at a motorway aire once back on the A63 and gobbled some bread, cheese and foie for lunch.

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Were we going to make it before the rush hour?  Well no, we didn’t.  And we made the interesting choice to follow the GPS through the suburbs of Bordeaux in an effort to avoid the traffic…not sure this was any quicker – more roundabouts than one could count.  All the same, after finally getting out the other side we headed off the motorway towards Blaye, surrounded by vineyards…and sunshine!

Blaye was a bit of a bucket lister for me.  We’ve driven “past” on the A10 many times on journeys north to the channel ferries, but never got to stop (usually ending up at lovely Saintes instead).  It is of course famous for its UNESCO citadel – and on researching, I’d discovered it had a great AC parking area just below the walls on the river estuary, and a Saturday morning market.

We got to the AC parking area just in time…it was essentially full, but being little, we managed to squeeze in between a couple of French ACs.  3€ for 24 hours didn’t seem bad to us, and a nice multilingual parking machine.

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Spot Berta

As the sun was out and we’d arrived in good time despite the traffic, we decided to make the most of the good weather and go and explore the citadel.  It is literally just next to the parking area and is very impressive.  It actually has a village inside it, naturally dedicated almost completely to restaurants and gift shops, but very picturesque.  There’s also a campsite in summer!  And a picnic area – it’s all very green and inviting.  We enjoyed a walk around the village and ramparts before stopping for a drink on one of the terraces overlooking the estuary.

Having seen it from our rampart walk, we chose the terrace of the Logis hotel, out the back by the swimming pool and with beautiful views over the estuary, its islands and to the other side.  And why not, we had some very nice cocktails whilst watching the sun going down in front of us – bliss!

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Evening cocktails

Day 2

The next morning we were glad to have explored the previous day as we woke to rain on the roof.  After a yummy French breakfast, it actually stopped as we headed off to the market for an explore.  It was a very decent sized market along the little river, mainly food and local produce, and a good place to stock up.  Asparagus was the product of the moment!

All stocked, we headed off up the estuary through the vineyards again to the village of Talmont-sur-Gironde.  We’d heard this was one of the the Most Beautiful Villages In France, sticking out on a promontory into the estuary, and on arrival, before even glimpsing the village itself, it clearly was.  Parking was organised to say the least!  The only option is to pay the 2€ at the barrier, and then park in the designated AC parking area – on grass but thankfully not muddy.  Cars are equally as controlled it has to be said.

On reaching the village, it was clearly also very controlled!  Picture perfect, flowers everywhere, houses all with colourful shutters, every building a high class gift or artisan shop, or ice cream parlour – it felt a little like Disneyland!  But obviously very pretty, and the church and its location impressive, and it’s also surrounded by traditional fishing huts.  Definitely worth a visit, and some very nice souvenirs to be had.

We then continued up the estuary, around Royan, to the mouth at La Coubre lighthouse.  Arriving here was our first experience of height barriers!  Oh yes, the dreaded 2m10 limit on what appears to be almost all French beach car parks…year round.  Luckily, and for no apparent reason, there is a little car park/turning space just before the lighthouse which has no barrier, and we were able to park up happily.  Sadly, we were too late to actually find it open and get to climb it, but we did have a nice blustery beach walk and check out the salt marshes on the inside of the spit.

We then got the water change out of the way, as there had been no facilities at Blaye, with a quick stop at Saint-Thomas-de-Conac, which had a great little free AC area – easy and fully working water services and, if the need had arisen, 6 AC spaces in what looked like would have been a quiet and free overnight spot – good on the Mairie!

There were various tempting options for an overnight – we had nothing planned, and nothing planned for the next day either.  So, we decided to head for Île d’Oléron a bit further up the coast.  We had a nice drive through the pine woods and then over the impressive bridge onto the island.  We turned right, and headed for what seemed to be a largeish town (with a market the following morning) – Le Château-d’Oléron.

Just driving up and through the town in search of the AC area, we could already tell we’d made a good decision.  The actual process of finding somewhere to stay was an interesting one though!  There was what looked to be an excellent municipal campsite, right outside the town walls…however we (and about 4 other ACs at the same time) discovered you have to get there before 6pm to get in – take note!  So frustratingly, we headed on 1km up the coast to the other AC area.  Here there’s barrier entrance, and it’s a large area, we reckoned about 100+ vans, but it was almost completely full – we were lucky to get one of the last real spaces (and assume the 2 or 3 ACs which followed us just parked up on the grass somewhere).  11€ for 24 hours, ok, there didn’t appear to be much option.  (For the record, the municipal site was 13.50€ I think, but worth the extra for being closer to town)  So we parked up, the electricity was all included, but the points all full up, we couldn’t be bothered to fight for one, and can live without it generally.  I had hoped to be able to plug my hairdryer in in the toilet block, but couldn’t actually find any such block open the next morning.

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We decided on an evening walk into the town, which was about 20 minutes along the beach, and then we continued around the ramparts.  It’s fully fortified, with full ramparts, and the sea to one side, and a large citadel at the far end.  Fun to explore and walk around!  Just past the citadel is another curiosity, loads of multicoloured huts, now turned into an artisan village, and presumably originally oyster huts – there’s still a lot of oyster activity to be seen around the area.  We saved some pennies as they were all closed by the time we got there, but fun to walk around nonetheless.  We also confirmed the site of the market the following day, and spotted a day parking area for ACs too.

Day 3

After a very sound night’s sleep, we had breakfast with a view…of other ACs!  Not our preferred choice of view, but the site was functional at least.

 

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Breakfast with a view

The previous evening we’d spotted a designated AC parking area in the town, and noticed prohibition signs everywhere else, so decided to try our luck.  And we were in luck!  There are 8 spaces in all, day parking only, and there were 4 free on arrival just before 10am.  This was clearly the time to come to market though, as soon after various cars took it upon themselves to park in the remaining AC spaces…grrrrr….

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AC day parking area

We had a nice wander around the market, more like a Spanish mercadillo with clothes stalls outnumbering food stalls, although there were of course the local specialty of oysters.  We really liked the town as a whole, lots to see and do, with mini golf, skate park, and more shops in the citadel itself.  It must be heaving in summer, but was very nice at this time of year.

We then headed over to the south side of the island in the hopeful search of some surf.  Here, once again, the height barriers were a problem, but we were lucky, the beach access at Vert Bois had them open as there was a lifeguard course going on (with their vans).  No surf unfortunately, but we had another nice, brief and again blustery beach walk.

Our next stop was another fortified village, a little one this time, the village of Brouage just back on the mainland.  Easy parking outside the walls, we had a nice wander around the poppy filled ramparts with views over the salt marshes, a quick look in the church, and then back down the wide main street.

We then stopped at a picnic area just down the road next to the cemetery, also overlooking the salt marshes, for lunch.  A curious spot, as the sign told us it was camper parking ONLY overnight!  However, there seemed to be no problem with us parking up for lunch, along with a couple of other vans – we even managed to eat outside!

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Lunch spot

After lunch, we wanted to make one more stop before heading over to meet our friends at their rental pad.  En route, we stopped off quickly to change waters at the AC Area in Pont-l’Abbé-d’Arnoult, which Gonzalo declared as the worst place he’d ever changed waters, only one tap working, and a tiny pipe for WC waste.

We then continued to the Chateau de la Roche Courbon near Saint-Porchaire.  Easy, signed AC parking on the grass.  And wow!  What a chateau.  We didn’t have a whole lot of time before it closed, so we opted just for the garden ticket.  And pretty much as soon as we bought it, and left the ticket office, the thunder started!  And then came the torrential rain and hail.  Not stopping us though!  We grabbed our umbrella and walking boots, and defiantly went off in search of the prehistoric caves within the chateau grounds.  It’s a lovely walk down tree-lined alleys down to the caves (which were nice and dry!), which are great fun to explore, we had our torch with us much to the delight of a young French boy who was able to explore a bit deeper in the cave with us!  Lovely setting by a little river, and very atmospheric in the rain it has to be said.

 

Back up at the chateau itself, we had a quick stroll around the extensive gardens, focused around the a large lake – which actually turned out to be a river, flowing very under control through the grounds.  Walking up to the far side steps to a huge tree lined avenue, with spectacular views back across the grounds to the chateau really was something.  Quite breathtaking I thought.  There were several possibilities for little walks around the grounds here, but unfortunately we didn’t have time.  We stuck our heads into the ancient games room (fun for kids) before heading back to the van, and then over to meet our friends near Puyrolland.

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Chateau de la Roche Courbon

Day 4

After a lovely evening of cheese and wine with our friends at their AirBnB rental the previous night, we headed off in the morning with them and their two young girls to find some entertainment on what was another rather grey day.  The previous day they had been over to a lake complex, Bernouet, at Saint-Jean-d’Angléy, which they’d spotted had an AC area, so we all headed over there for a morning stroll and play in the park.  It was 7€ for 24 hours in the area, which we decided we’d be happy to pay, as we would probably head back there later that day to change waters and visit the town itself after leaving our friends.  The lake was great for the kids, a really cool play park with stuff for all ages, mini golf, restaurant and ice creams, and lots of ducks and their ducklings to feed.

We headed back to our friends’ rental for lunch, before saying goodbye and heading back to the lake again that afternoon – our previous ticket gave us reentry, no problem, so we parked up, changed waters, and headed into the town for an explore.  We’d seen from a distance on approaching the town some promising double church towers, and it turned out to be a ruined abbey, which was interesting to explore, if brief.  The town itself was rather shut being a Monday, but had promise.  We had a wander around, before heading back to Berta.

We then set off homeward bound.  We’d hoped to get south of Bordeaux that evening to avoid any traffic the following day (1 May), but to be honest we couldn’t find anywhere on Park4Night that took our fancy without detouring to the coast and paying a fortune.  We ended up opting for a free AC area in the vineyard-surrounded village of Saint-Romain-la-Virvée just off the Liborne motorway exit.  It was, however, full on arrival!  But once again, we managed to squeeze in around the edge.  A quick walk around the village with a nice church, confirmed that there was no boulangerie for breakfast, which was a bit disappointing though.

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Saint-Romain-la-Virvée church

Day 5

After a quiet night, we got ourselves together quickly and followed Google to a boulangerie just down the road at a roundabout – we were not going to miss our chausson aux pommes, pain au chocolat  and croissant breakfast on our last morning in France!  We then took our bounty and headed for a little spot we’d seen on Park4Night nearby, down on the edge of the Dordogne river.  It was a little gem!  Some Germans had already found it and clearly overnighted there, but must have been woken early by the troupe of fishermen who were very much installed for the day.  Friendly they were too as after our breakfast with river view, they insisted on showing me the fish (singular) they’d caught and that I photographed it!

It was then driving time – but we still intended to break up our drive home, especially as the further south we headed, the better the weather got!

We started off by making a detour to see if there was one last chance of a surf – to Mimizan-Plage on the west coast.  It was apparent as soon as we got there that there was no surfing to be had that day, but fortunately there was a bric-a-brac market going on in the town, so we at least had a wander around that.

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We also solved a little mystery!  We’d noticed that morning all along the back roads, people selling some kind of flower.  We assumed it was something to do with the 1 May, and it turned out to be muguet (lily of the valley), which apparently symbolizes that summer and light has arrived and therefore happiness.  So we bought a little bunch of course!  Berta was indeed very happy 🙂

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Muguet

We also established that every French seaside town, on the west coast at least, looks the same.  We were in Mimizan, but we could easily have been Vieux Boucau, or in Hossegor, or one of the other coastal towns we’d driven through over the last few days.

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Mimizan-Plage…or Hossegor?

It was lunch time, so after a bit of height-barrier research, we established there was actually a beach location nearby which we would be able to park at – a miracle!  We headed a little further south into the pine forests of the Plage de L’Espécier, where there is a beautifully managed section of forest behind the dunes, with dedicated AC parking (day only) and loads of picnic benches.  It was a little bit of heaven! We were able to cook up lunch and sit outside on the benches, with only a few other ACs (and people to be honest) around.

We finished off with a wander down to the beach, which was the typical endless pristine sandy beach of the Landes coast.

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Endless beach

We were also a bit disappointed we still hadn’t got ourselves organised with bikes, as there was a brilliant bike path along the coast through the pine woods – definitely something to come back to.

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Bike Path

We then did another chunk of the drive back south, before deciding we needed an ice cream.  We had spotted another lake, just north of Bayonne which looked promising, the Marais d’Orx.  With a good, safe-feeling car park, it turned out to have its visitor’s centre (and potential ice cream location) closed unfortunately, but we thought we might as well have a leg stretch anyway.  And we were glad we did!  We walked along the boardwalked marshes around the edge of the lake to the first bird hide and back.  And it was quite eventful, we first saw a large green lizard basking in the sunshine, then had a little bird spot from the hide (and cursed ourselves for leaving the binoculars in the van), and then on the way back spent a good while watching a Coypu feasting itself on water weeds, utterly unconcerned by our presence (turns out they eat 25% of their own body weight each day, and are very much an invasive species).

And after all that excitement, we decided we’d better actually head home!