Monday 30 April 2018

Cabin fever

Monday 30 April 2018 - Day 57

Nido’s parked up at a free aire in the lovely hillside medieval town of Puy L’Eveque.  I say it’s lovely as that’s what the guide book tells me.  I don’t know it’s lovely because we can’t leave the van for long….because it won’t stop raining!  We’re getting very bad cabin fever now, having been stuck in the van pretty much full time since Saturday afternoon.

It started to rain heavily late on Saturday night and continued all through yesterday.  Given this, there wasn’t much point in moving on, so we stayed in Castelsagrat.   The rain stopped for a while around 1600, when we snuck out to blink in the daylight and stretch our legs.  Even on our circuit of the village the rain started again - torrential, cold, sideways rain that soaked us from head to toe.  And for anyone that’s travelled in a campervan, you’ll know the misery of trying to dry clothes in a living space of 4m x 2m.  As we weren’t on electric hook up, after two stationary days and with zero sun to power our leisure battery via the solar panel, we had to conserve energy, so no heating. 

This morning the rain continued as we drove first to upload and unload fluids back in Montjoi, then find a garage to fill up with LPG, before driving to the aire at Castelnau Montratier, adjacent to a line of four old windmills on top of the hill above the village.  We attempted a walk but…you guessed it.  It was pretty remote, the small village road was surprisingly busy and locals kept driving in and out of the aire for some reason, so we moved on.  The Puy L’Eveque aire occupies part of a large open car park.  The Gendarmaire Nationale station is across the way, so we shouldn’t get any problem from the chavs in their ford fiestas that plagued the last stopover.  Cathy cooked a lovely, hot one-pot dinner.  I contributed by walking out (yes, in the rain!) to buy some delicious bread and bottle of Cahors wine - well we are in the Cahors region after all.  So it’s another early night with a good book; we’re starting to run out of things to read.  There’s supposed to be a small market here tomorrow so if the weather gods allow, we hope to pop down to buy some fruit, vegetables and meat and take a look around what appeared (through the rain) to be a beautiful medieval hill-top town.  Did I mention it’s not stopped raining…….?

Saturday 28 April 2018

Wandering around the cloisters

Saturday 28 April 2018 - Day 55

Nido’s parked up at another free aire, this time in the village of Castelsagrat.  We’re only about 4km from last night’s stop in Montjoi and earlier I heard their church bells ringing for evening Mass.  Our first stop this morning was the town of Moissac.  I’m not religious in any way, but I do admire some of the architecture and I have a particular soft spot for cloisters.  I like the symmetric form of the columns with the garden in the middle; I find them a peaceful place to contemplate and think. Walking slowly around and around the garden is very meditative. Usually, they’re too busy with other visitors to fully soak up the atmosphere, but occasionally I come across one early in the day.  The cloister and porch of the Abbey Church of St Pierre is a masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture.  It’s survived numerous wars, including the siege and sack by Simon de Montfort senior in 1212 during the crusade against the Cathars (another time in history that fascinates me).  The cloister adjoining the abbey surrounds the garden shaded by a very large cedar tree and it’s pantile roof is supported by 76 alternating single and double marble columns.  Each column supports a single inverted wedge-shaped block of stone, on which are carved animal and plant motifs, as well as scenes from the bible and the lives of the saints; every one of the 76 columns has an individual carving.  We wandered slowly around before climbing a steep spiral stone staircase to a large space with a vaulted roman ceiling, which overlooked the inside of the abbey.  The abbey itself had walls and ceilings covered in what, at a distance, looked like tiles, but were in fact one huge painted fresco.  

There was a large market in the town and we wandered about, buying a round loaf of Moroccan bread (deliciously light with a thin, crispy crust) and some cooked prawns from the seafood stall in the adjacent covered market.  We walked back to the van and drove to park alongside the river, enjoying our lunch sat at a wooden picnic table by the water.  Our next stop - here in Castelsagrat - was a return the way we came this morning.  We walked around the village - lots of the usual quiet streets with old, shuttered houses opening onto the road, some of them medieval.  The village square is dominated by covered walkways, under which there were several shops, including the post office, a restaurant, a tabac and a boulangerie - that’s breakfast sorted tomorrow!  We spent the afternoon sat on our chairs on the grass area by the van, enjoying the hot sunshine.  Cathy cooked a delicious ‘sweet and sour’ meatballs and vegetables and we sat out this evening, watching the swifts and swallows and some large dark clouds forming; Meteo France on Twitter are reporting an orange warning of torrential rain in three departments - and we’re smack bang in the middle!  Still, today was supposed to be cloudy but turned into a hot afternoon.  Tomorrow we’re moving out of this immediate area, heading north east towards the area around Cahors, where we hope to spend a few days exploring and maybe getting in some wild swimming if the weather allows. 

Castelsagrat aire

Entrance to the village square

Friday 27 April 2018

Montjoi and a country walk

Friday 27 April 2018 - Day 54

Nido’s parked up at an aire in the ‘Village Fleurie’ of Montjoi. It’s a lovely place, on a hilltop with 360 views across trees and rolling countryside.  We left Saint Antoine and drove to Saint Nicolas de la Grave. The aire was right in the small town and it sounded interesting, as the chateau was once the home of Richard the Lionheart and the town was the birthplace of Mr Cadillac, who went on to form Detroit and kick off the car building industry in that city.  We had a wander around but it didn’t take long to do the circuit.  We needed some diesel and food, so we headed for an Intermarche not far away.  I eventually managed to fill with diesel, using an ultra-sensitive pump that kept thinking the van was full and cutting out - it took about 10 minutes to fill up, during which several other customers came along to also try, swore (in French I guess!), slammed the pump back in its socket and drove off.  The Intermarche was undergoing a major refit so was closed, the Le Clerc was a depot for picking up internet orders, so we ended up in Lidl! 

This brought us to Montjoi.  The aires book didn’t do it justice.  The village is on a hill, with the inevitable church (with a very loud bell) and an arched entrance to the main housing.  There were two small streets, running parallel to each other, with a view narrow alleys bisecting.  The terraced houses I would guess are medieval and the roads between cobbled. There are no shops or bars and the one restaurant - like the few art galleries - was closed until the summer.  We came across the village lavoir; there were lots of newts sat on the bottom of the clear washing pool.  A circular walk of about 8km was advertised from the village, following red signs.  We started off well but the signs soon stopped!  Luckily we’d taken a photo of the route so were able, after several dead-ends, to follow the route through fields, along quiet lanes and by a lake.  It’s easy to forget how lucky we are with Ordnance Survey maps.  

Back at the van, we enjoyed a hot shower and I cooked the dinner Cathy had prepped this morning - vegetable fajitas. When we arrived we were alone but two French A Class vans have since turned up.  Despite that it’s really quiet and peaceful - birdsong and the church bells.  Another lovely stop in a beautiful village in the French countryside.

Lavoir - or dhoby shack!

Montjoi - simply lovely

Thursday 26 April 2018

Sunshine in Saint Antoine

Thursday 26 April 2018 - Day 53

Nido’s parked up at an aire in the tiny village of Saint Antoine, just inside the Languedoc region.  It’s been a hot, sunny afternoon - a day to enjoy.  I walked into town this morning to buy some croissants and a baguette.  The town was just coming to life and the fair was starting to set up in the large car park adjacent to the bull ring, ready for the May Day weekend fete.  It was a typical sight in a typical French town.  Goodies bought, I wandered over the road for a coffee in one of the bars.  We enjoyed those croissants - our first in France this trip.  We said our goodbyes to Sandie, who was planning on staying a few more days to work on her book.  She was suffering from a very painful back she thinks due to a few long drives.  Hopefully she’ll recover quickly and there’s always an outside chance we’ll bump into her and Rosie again!

I made the schoolboy error of not checking the longitude setting on the satnav, so plugged in West rather than East!  I only realised when we started to turn towards the west coast; after pulling over and setting it right, our journey time increased by 2 hours! Lesson learned, particularly when on or close to the Greenwich meridian.  The drive took us through Armagnac country, with many small ‘domaines’ advertising tasting and purchase direct from them.  We passed through a number of small but lovely ‘Village Fleurie’, including a stop off by a lake for a cuppa and leg stretch.  It was hot by then so we changed into shorts.  A couple of other vans were parked there and one had a dog who clearly wasn’t getting enough attention from his owners!  He bought his tennis ball over to me for a game of throw and fetch, until he got too hot and flopped back into the shade of his own van.

We arrived at Saint Antoine and were the only ones on this aire, overlooking countryside.  We went for a wander around the village, which took no time at all as it’s tiny.  It was a staging post (and still is) for the Camino de Santiago de Compostela and the village used to provide shelter and food to the pilgrims.  The books still mentions a cafe, shop and restaurant in the village, but they’re all closed now.  But the history of the village was plain to see, with large gateways, towers and the church.  After walking around we followed the pilgrim path out of the village for a couple of kilometres, towards the next hamlet of Saint Cirice, which was even smaller than this one.  But it was very peaceful, the sun was shining and the birds were singing.

Back at the van Cathy made a lovely tuna salad and we sat outside under the awning to eat, finishing with a charentais melon we bought in Aire sur l’Adour.  It’s not yet the season for charentais (this one was from Morocco) but when the local ones are ready in late summer, they are the best, perfuming the whole van until we eat them over a bowl to catch the juice.  We were able to sit out until way past sunset; although a little chilly the sky was clear and the birds kept us company.  A little later a French van turned up, but there’s still only the two of us on this lovely, quiet aire in the middle of the countryside.  Tomorrow we don’t plan to travel far, as there’s quite a few aires around these parts and it looks like there’s some nice walks to be enjoyed.

Brew stop

Saint Antoine

It's very quiet here

But very pretty

It's on the Camino pilgrim's route

Lovely aire

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Relaxed by the River Adour

Wednesday 25 April 2018 - Day 52

Well, we woke to….you guessed it….rain!  We were chatting to a couple parked next to us last night, who’d been away for just a couple of weeks.  They said the weather in France had been so good that they stayed on Ile de Re for five days and were enjoying the sunshine of Biarritz.  I bet they’re cursing the Jacksons turning up, towing the rain cloud behind them!  We had planned on spending another day on the coast, but instead decided to use the rain as an excuse to get some dhobying done.  I found an outside laundromat at a Carrefour supermarket, but the machines were quite dirty and it didn’t accept either of my cards.  So I found another about 700m away, this time a proper laundromat with a ‘lady that does’ inside, who does the service washes and ironing.  We were able to park right outside, albeit tight against a wall and Cathy went in to load up, while I researched some places to visit and stay on our way up through France.  By now it was close to lunch time and the small Thai takeaway next door was open and seemed to be doing good trade - sorted!  So while Cathy transferred our dhobying to the drier, I ordered us a chicken Panang curry and a pork pad thai.  Ten minutes later with the washing all dried and folded, we were tucking into a delicious Thai lunch, parked in a corner by a laundromat - that’s van life!

With the beach day abandoned, our next stop was a 2.5 hour drive and we eventually arrived at the aire in Aire Sur L’Adour (so good they named it twice!).  Cathy was in bed with a headache and bad back, so she didn’t see me do a double take as I drove in - there was Sandie Dunn’s van!  We met Sandie and her dog Rosie at Mikki’s Place in Portugal.  I wrote about seeing her book advertised on the back of her van, downloading it and laughing out loud - it was a great read.  I think she was as surprised to see me; there are over 3,000 aires in France, sometimes several within just a few square miles, so the chance of meeting up like this again are pretty slim.  We had a quick catch up over a brew before Cathy and I went for a wander along the path by the river Adour.  It’s a wide and fairly fast flowing river and a few fishermen (and women) were out, as well as several frogs (I mean of the waterborne kind!) making a lot of noise in the reeds.  We enjoyed a lovely walk along the river and a path that took us past fields and through a wooded copse.  With the sun shining and birds singing, we started to feel ourselves again.

Back at the van, we met up with Sandie again for a longer chat, sat outside the van.  We provided the coffee and she provided the Sambuca to splash into it.  We’ve been off the booze for a while, so this was a rare treat.  We caught up on where we’d been since we left Mikki’s Place and future plans.  Like us, she’s a Francophile but, unlike us, speaks fluent French - I’m going to improve mine.  Rosie enjoyed one of the dog treats we keep in the van for special visitors, gently taking it from my hand.  Rosie’s deaf and her sight isn’t good either, so she’s a bit wary when arriving somewhere knew, so hopefully this put her at ease.  Once we lost the sun Sandie and Rosie returned to their van. Sandie’s working on her second book - she’s up to 39,000 words so far and works on it every day.  We’ll look forward to reading it.  If you want to read her very good and funny first book, you can find it on Amazon hereWe sat inside the van with a brew, reading and watching the sky change colour as the sun set.  The forecast for the next few days isn’t great, but we have some lovely areas to visit and great aires to stay on, including a couple of recommendations from Sandie.  So we’re feeling much more relaxed and looking forward to our month in France.

Parked next to Sandie's van

River Adour

Peaceful evening

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Biarritz or Bust!

Tuesday 24 April 2018 - Day 51

Nido’s in an aire on the outskirts of Biarritz.  Why the long haul from Spain to here?  Well, when we woke up in Cabarceno this morning it was 11’C and cloudy.  When we arrived in Biarritz it was 23’C and sunny - that’s why!

I had originally plugged in an aire in Spain for one more night, but it was in the corner of a car park, with tall high-rises on one side.  Plus the weather still wasn’t great, so we decided to make a run for France.  It’s quite busy here but only a few minutes walk from a lovely beach, which was packed - I wonder if it’s holiday time in France?  We’re about 4km from the centre of Biarritz, so it’s not too busy.  It’s been lovely to take a walk in warm sunshine (with no gale force winds!), cook, eat and wash up with the doors open.

As it was an unplanned ‘run for the sun’ and we didn’t arrive here until about 1630, we’ve taken it easy this evening.  Cathy did some wild swimming searching and planning in France while I cooked (bought meatballs with a homemade tomato sauce and boiled rice).  So the loose plan is to make our way slowly north east, heading for the Lot region for some wild swimming, around Cahors and onwards to the Dordogne.  That’ll put us close to the house sit, which starts in mid-May for a week.  Anyway, that’s the loose plan.  We’re hoping to slow down in France, a country we’ve always loved as a place to relax and enjoy the countryside and beaches.

So only a short post today.

Monday 23 April 2018

Quiet day in Cabarceno

Monday 23 April 2018 - Day 50

We decided to have a quiet day after the excitement of yesterday.  It’s a bit drizzly and misty. We needed some food and diesel so I plugged in the co-ordinates for a Carrefour hypermarket nearby, but they had a height barrier on the entrance, so Carrefour lost out to Mercadona. Shopping done, we drove just half an hour to our current stop in Cabarceno.  We’re parked up with a few vans, overlooking a small lake.  I think this aire is a first or last stop for those using the Santander ferry, which is only about 20 minutes away - there’s lots of UK vans here.  The aire’s on the edge of the Cabarceno Nature Park and by walking down the track at the end of the aire, we had a great view of the elephants in their large enclosure.  If you follow the track around, you'll get a unobstructed view, as the first part has a large wire fence. It’s quiet here and we’ve enjoyed listening to the birdsong.  Today’s been a chilling out day - reading, snoozing, blogging and planning where to head to next.  I suspect we may only have a couple of days left in Spain before we cross over back into France.  I had an email from the owners of the French water mill we’ll be house sitting in May, providing directions.  It’ll be a welcome break from the van for a week.  

I've got to drive up there!?

Sunday 22  April 2018 - Day 49

A bit of an unusual day, with six hours of mountain road driving. We left Entragu, stopping off briefly at the next village to empty the loo.  Our plan was to drive to a lovely looking aire in the mountain village of Posada de Valdeon, deep in the Picos de Europa national park.  The road soon started to rise, but it was a wide, smooth road….until we came to the landslide.  It looked like half the mountain had come down on the road and into the river, very scary indeed if you’d been near it.  There was a restaurant just either side of the slip; they were very lucky.  A security guard pulled us over and indicated we had to wait to take a diversion road that had been built across and alongside the river.  I was in two minds whether to turn around, but he didn’t seem phased by the size of our van and after about 10 minutes, when traffic coming the other way had passed through, we were waved on.  The diversion dropped steeply to cross a makeshift bridge over the river, then we followed a rough track for about 200 metres before again crossing the river.  The track then turned into a very steep, hard-left hairpin bend and I knew I wouldn’t make it in one go - the turning circle on the van isn’t great.  So I had to stop, reverse slightly (there were no barriers between this makeshift road and the ravine) and hill-start to get around.  The van’s rear heavy and front-wheel drive so the traction wasn’t great, but eventually we gripped and managed to make it out!  On the reverse we heard a bang and thought we’d hit something, so once at the top, we found a pull-over to check - luckily no damage was seen; I think I may have just flicked up a small rock.

After this the roads became much narrower and started to climb steeply up the mountainside, with lots of hairpins.  We were soon into and above the snow line, with large drifts along the road.  I was starting to get a little concerned as we continued to climb.  In many places the barriers were small or non-existent, with nothing between the edge of the road and an almost vertical drop many hundreds of metres down to the torrential river.  I’m not great with heights, so the combination of narrow roads and no barriers was not good for my blood pressure!  Luckily the traffic was light so I was able to drive further into the middle of the road for much of the drive.  We eventually topped out at Puerto de Tarna, 1490 metres above sea level.  We stopped for a breather - and for me to attempt to lower my heart rate!  The journey down the other side was just as ‘interesting’, with a large number of hairpins, but at least it was downhill which was easier.  We finally made it to the aire at Posada de Valdeon and parked up.  I plugged in electric and we enjoyed a welcome brew.  It’s in a lovely spot, surrounded by rocky mountain peaks and high pasture.  They had the usual rules about not putting out chairs, which was a real shame, considering each pitch was separated by wooden fences.  We had a walk around the village with the intention of eating out but, for some reason, we didn’t have a nice feeling about the place.  It’s a lovely, well-kept village but it just didn’t feel welcoming.  You know that bit in the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang film, where they walk into the courtyard of the Baron’s castle - nobody’s to be seen but they know they’re being watched, with shutters and doors closing.  If felt like that!  So, despite the long journey and great views, we both decided to move on.  

The journey out was similar in parts to the one in, but the last 30km were along a narrow road at the bottom of the ravine, with rocks overhanging the road in some areas.  Despite the winding narrow roads and lack of forward visibility, many cars still overtook us on blind bends, causing us and the traffic on the opposite side to brake sharply.  If only I’d been able to fit those missile launchers to Nido’s roof!  Our stop for the night was at a parking area just outside the town of Santillana del Mer.  We parked up, changed and walked down the hill into the village.  Declared a national monument in 1899, Santillana has preserved its lovely ancient stone buildings and cobbled streets so well, it looks artificial.  It has embraced the tourist trade, so is overflowing with grockle shops selling tourist tat and local produce.  We popped into one restaurant intending to eat and ordered a bottle of the local cider, which is placed in a contraption you have to pump, which then pours the cider from height  through a thin spout into the glass in order to add oxygen - it’s a messy job!  The menu wasn’t great though, so we drank up and moved on.  We found another place across the way and ate in there instead.  On the way back to the van it started to rain, so we dropped into bed, tired but no longer hungry.  What a day!

Now *that's* a landslide!

Diversion across a bridge with no sides - and a hairpin I can't make in one go

Top of the world

Posada de Valdeon aire - beautiful spot but something strange about the village

The drive out - cars were about to overtake at speed!

Saturday 21 April 2018

Mountain walk

Saturday 21 April 2018 - Day 48

We’re still at Entragu.  It filled up with quite a few smaller campervans last night, many of whom were up this morning ready to go cycling, climbing or walking.  The mountain bike hire place next to us was doing a busy trade too.  Despite the increase in numbers and the Spanish habit of staying up late (unlike us, tucked up in bed with a good book by 2130!) it was very quiet last night.  When I walked down to the panaderia this morning though, there were few people about.  The door was closed but the lady baker was about to open and I was the first customer.  The bread was a bit heavy (maybe yesterdays?) but the empanada was excellent. She showed me a choice of chorizo, tuna and tomato and dulce (sweet) - I bought the chorizo.  You can see the size of it from the photo below, with my phone alongside it!  We took half on our walk and will enjoy the remainder for breakfast tomorrow.  Switching on my phone, I had a text and email for a Mon SAR (Anglesey Search & Rescue) team call out ‘heads-up’, with the possibility of helping Coastguard Search and Rescue to find a missing person.  I responded as unavailable and had a message around midday that they’d been stood down.  I’m looking forward to getting back and continuing my training to become a qualified Search Technician for this excellent voluntary organisation.

There was high cloud today so the sunshine was hazy, but it was still warm.  This was ideal as we had a walk planned.  There are some well-marked trails and today we were following one up to Cueva Huerta, which would take us up the mountain to not far off the fast-receding snow line.  We packed half the empanada, two oranges and a couple of water bottles.  I also carried a small first aid kit, an orange survival bag (old habits die hard) and a walking pole to wave at any grumpy dogs.  The first part of the walk took us to the village of San Martin, bigger than Entragu and buzzier - plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants.  We carried on and were soon walking along a dedicated path, about the size of a single track road, passing through old forest and pastures with cattle, sheep and goats, lulled by the lovely sound of cow bells.  On the way up, Cathy was ‘plopped’ on by a bird - when I stopped laughing I kindly wiped it off!  We walked through the village of Las Vegas (much quieter and smaller than its American cousin!) and reached the beautiful hamlet of Riellu.  We walked past very old wooden houses with the customary covered balcony, some of it open to sit out in summer, some enclosed with long narrow windows for the cold, snowy winters.  A few old chaps were out gardening in wooden clogs and it really did feel like we’d stepped back in time.  After this the path started to climb.  The last 2km were quite tough, up a steep, narrow path, occasionally blocked by fallen trees.  But we carried on and eventually topped out on a wider, more level path, with the snow line above us and some lovely old shepherd’s huts in the pasture.  The path dropped a little and we passed through a tunnel in the mountain to reach some picnic tables at Cuervo Huerta.  There are a large number of accessible caves in this area and tickets were available, but we were content to sit at one of the tables and eat our welcome empanada and orange lunch.  We decided to follow the winding road back down to avoid the steep descent and rejoined the path back in Riellu.  It was then just a matter of retracing our route back through San Martin (where I jealously watched people enjoying a beer sat outside the bars!) to Entragu and the van.  We walked just under 18km, about 13 miles, much of it steeply uphill, so we’re quite chuffed with that.

A cup of tea went down very quickly and I prepared and cooked some chicken on our gas BBQ, while Cathy boiled some new potatoes and made a salad.  The silence as we ate was testament to our hunger and, after washing up, the shower was very welcome.  We sat outside in the warm until 1900, when we had a phone call from the owners of a house sit we’d applied for in France.  We had a quick chat with her, so we now have a house sit to look forward to next month - about a week in a converted water mill near Limousin, looking after 2 ponies, 2 cats, 2 chickens, a dog called Freddie and a cockerel called Dave!  It’s in an area surrounded by lakes so some wild swimming may be on the cards, plus we’ll help out by doing some gardening for them.  We hope their large swimming pool will be available too!  It’ll give us a welcome break from the van and then allow us about a week to slowly make our way back up to Calais at the end of May.

It’s still quite busy here on the car park, with lots of small campervans, mainly young families with small children.  It’s lovely to see them all go off cycling or hill walking, with even the little ones wearing their own rucksacks - start ‘em young!  We’re just about re-hydrated after a few cups of tea and I suspect we’ll sleep well tonight after the walk.  We’re moving on tomorrow, probably staying inland to another mountain area deep in the Picos de Europa region.  The weather’s looking a bit changeable - showers and possible thunderstorms - but it’s the same at the coast, so we’ll go with our plan.

They like their empanadas large around here!

A doer-upper.  Beautiful wooden balconies



Outside dhoby shack

Old houses in Riellu

Horreo - traditional grain stores, off the ground to keep vermin at bay

The last 2km were steep

Topping out near the snow line - lovely old shepherd's hut

Lunch with a view

Riellu from the road

Eaten in silence - we were hungry!