Tuesday 29 August 2023

Charroux and Miremont

Friday 1 September 2023

View from the covered market at Charroux

Nido's parked up in the municipal campsite in the tiny hamlet of Miremont, in a valley in the north of the Auvergne.  We've been here since Wednesday.   It's a very quiet, peaceful spot with little traffic.  These municipal campsites are amazing; there are hundreds of them all over France.  Here, for the sum of €10.50 per night (about £8.90) we have a private grass pitch surrounded by beech hedges.  We have electricity, toilets, unlimited hot showers and a hot-water washing up and clothes washing area.  There are 34 pitches here and only five others are occupied at the moment.  Most of these sites are run by the local commune (parish council); they usually open in April and close at the end of September.  Although basic (ie no swimming pools, bars or restaurants) they are exactly what we like and long may they continue.  

We had a lazy start to Tuesday morning, with a cup of tea and a read, before showers and breakfast.  There were several way marked walking trails running from the village square in Noyant.  We picked a 6km one that took us into the countryside. The signs were easy to follow so the walk was enjoyable without the need to hunt out routes and paths.  We walked down some lovely quiet bridleways, past fields and mature oak trees, even passing a spices wholesaler stood on its own deep in the countryside.

Our next stop over was at an aire - which is really just a large grass field with no facilities - just outside the ancient village of Charroux

There's been a settlement here since Gallo-Roman times. It's a fortified village, with a few large gates to enter the protected citadel.   It's built on a hill with commanding 360' views, just like on the grass aire we were parked on.  Military bases and religious orders camped outside the walls and both the Knights Templars and Hospitaliers had strongholds here, as did Benedictine monks later on.  The narrow streets force them to be pedestrianised, with the majority of people living around the main circular centre.  It's quite touristy now, with a number of bistros and artisanal shops selling jellied and preserved fruits, jams, mustards and candles.

After dinner we left Salty in the van and enjoyed an evening walk around the village.  As we walked into the central citadel the church bells started to peal; a little off-key so we think it was may practice night for the new campanologists! The shops were now closed with only a couple of the bistros open, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves to wander up and down the narrow cobbled streets, taking a nosy at the gardens behind walled enclosures.  A number of plots were derelict and Cathy was planning what she would do with the garden!  We had another quiet night with big skies and views for miles.

The little door on the left is for letters. I guess the big brother door is for parcels!

The little letter box

After breakfast on Wednesday, sat outside the van looking out over the view from our highpoint, we left Charroux.  With a stop off at the Auchan in Gannant, we arrived at the municipal campsite here in Miremont bang on lunch time.  With our pitch set up for the next three days, we took a short walk along the road through the village, which is only about 200m long.  Bearing off to the right and starting to walk up a steep road, we sussed out our walk for the next day, covering a short section of the walk along the river, which Salty enjoyed to the max with much splashing and attempting to drink the river dry - the river won!  The rest of the evening we chilled out before retiring to the van as the light faded to catch up on some YouTube favourites.

Breakfast with a view at Charroux

Miremont municipal campsite

Thursday morning we packed a rucksack and headed out on a walk along the river and them climbing up through ancient deciduous forest heading for the Gorge de Siolet.  We were expecting the typical gorge experience of rocky cliffs with a fast flowing river at the bottom, but the many trees hid this from us.  Climbing out of the forest after about 5km, we sat in a field in warm sunshine to eat our lunch.  The return journey was shorter, mainly along quiet tarmac lanes with big, fat, juicy blackberries in the hedgerow, which we gorged on as we walked back down to emerge by the football pitch next to the campsite.  After a much welcome cup of tea and hot showers, I cooked a vegetable stir fry.  Cathy turned in early and I washed up and put chairs and the awning away, then walked Salty and our rubbish back into the village to the communal recycling bins.  It was another still, peaceful night, with only the cicadas and the occasional owl breaking the silence.

A view of the Puy de Dôme on our walk

Post-walk reward

This morning it was very misty and a bit cooler, although it was forecasting a hot day and, as the sun appeared over the tops of the trees and into the valley, it soon burned off the mist.  I love watching the Tour de France each year.  I've managed to watch it for real a few times, but otherwise I really enjoy seeing the stages on TV.  This year three of the stages were in the area.  Miremont is just a few kilometres north of the part of the route of Stage, which was on 9 July (the day before my 60th birthday) and finished with a huge hill climb up the Puy de Dôme.  There was no way I was going to cycle up that, but I was looking forward to riding just a short section of the Stage.  I rode out of Miremont, past the Chateau then turning left to take the long climb up above the valley, heading for the town of Pontaumur, which was on the route.  Arriving there, I  turned left and almost immediately started to climb the Category 3 Côte de Pontaumur.  It's not too steep at 5.3%, but it climbs for over 3km.  I took my time on what was quite a busy road, stopping occasionally to take some photos of the Tour road graffiti - and to catch my breath! All the way up I kept an eye on the ditches and grass verges to my right, just in case a stray bidon (water bottle) had been tossed by a Tour rider and missed by souvenir hunters on the day...no such luck.  Cat 3 climb done, I celebrated with a coffee outside a bar in La Goutelle.  Here I turned off the busy D941 and headed north towards Saint-Jacques-d'Ambur. It was a quiet hilly road with plenty of ups and downs and I enjoyed a very long downhill stretch heading down to Chazotte on the southern tip of the Lac des Fades Besserve.  After another steady ascent I dropped back down again to return to the campsite.  A great ride.

A misty start to a very hot day

Tour road graffiti and a typical sculpture to celebrate the day

This was Peter Sagan's final Tour before retiring - one of the greats

The summit finish of the Puy de Dôme with 50km still to ride!

Cathy is very happy when I go out cycling as it gives her some me time to give the van a really good clean and eat her breakfast in peace!  The rest of the afternoon was spent chilling out, staying in the shade to avoid the heat of the day.  The forecast for the next few days is hot - up to 33'C - so we'll need to try and find shade where we can.  Later in the afternoon we walked uphill to the 12th Century Église de Miremont and sat on a bench in the shade, with our backs resting on the church wall, enjoying the peace and solitude and looking out at the view over the rocky cliffs and trees of the gorge. After dinner we sat inside with the door open, catching up on a view YouTube videos.

Tomorrow we'll be heading into the mountains of the Parc naturel régiónal des Volcans d'Auvergne.  We'll be doing some walking and hopefully some eagle spotting.  If it's as hot as forecast, we'll also be seeking some shade and perhaps a swim if we can find somewhere suitable...there are waterfalls in these parts!

Sunday 27 August 2023

BONJOUR Vietnam!

Nido's parked up at a very quiet free aire with views into the distance over fields and hills.  Cows are gathered around the oak trees, ready to settle down for the night.  The most birds we've seen anywhere so far on this trip (hunting season clearly hasn't started here yet) are making a noisy fuss as they settle down to roost in the trees. We're in the small village of Noyant d'Allier in the north of the Auvergne-Rhone Alps department.  We've eaten some delicious Vietnamese 'street' food for supper in this surreal little village... but more about that later.  It's very peaceful and it should be another dark, quiet night.

After a very quiet and relaxing sleep at Cravant, we woke yesterday to a still morning.  A couple of fishermen in their cars had joined us on the patch of grass by the canal.  As I walked Salty I wished them 'bon chance'. They took a look at out our licence plate with the Welsh flag and Cymru sign and I told them we were from Pays de Galle.  "Ah - Rugby" one of them said and gave me the thumbs up - that broke the ice!  I hope they had a great day's fishing - one of my favourite hobbies and something I don't do enough of.  

On our drive south we came across a lovely spot with a river on our right and high limestone cliffs rising above the deciduous forest on our left, so I pulled into the car park.  We were in the tiny hamlet of Merry-sur-Yonne.  Rock climbers were already a good way up the cliff face and some were already on the top.  I could see a zipwire running from one cliff summit to the next; I guess they use this to transit across to the next climb or abseil.  We walked along the river for about 2km, turning round at a lock.  Locks in France always seem to have a cottage by it and most are manned by lock keepers, normally only there during the day.


Our next stop was at the aire at Étang de Baye, a large freshwater lake for sailing, fishing and swimming.  We only planned to stop here to eat, but on our post-lunch walk we saw a number of vans parked on a large grass area right on the lake's edge.  On this occasion Park4Night came good, as the reviews on the app showed this was a well used and tolerated wild camping spot.  So rather than move on we returned to the van and, after making use of the free service point, drove to a lovely park-up right next to the lake.  It meant we had the whole afternoon to enjoy the peace and quiet.  Cathy listened to an audio book, sat outside enjoying the sunshine in a fairly brisk breeze.  I had a soft surface (the grass) to lie down under then van and replace the makeshift grey water pipe fix with a permanent solution of a new metal bracket, which has done the job.  This is the fourth thing I've fixed on the van in just over a week.  First the issues with the toilet SOG and flush. Then the water pump kept ticking over even with all the taps closed.  This entailed removing a cover on the front of the pump and adjusting a screw until the tick over stopped.  I'd read this could reduce the water pressure in the taps, but I've not noticed any difference; in fact the water's no longer spluttering from the tap.

Cathy cooked a delicious vegetarian meal while I researched places to visit, walk, cycle and stay in the Auvergne region.  I'd printed off a few circular walks at home and brought my Tour de France stages guide for this year, so I can plan to ride some small sections of some of the Auvergne stages.  The vegetarian diet is going really well.  Neither of us has missed meat in the slightest and we've enjoyed thinking up innovative meat-free meals.  We're feeling better for it and the shopping bill is much less as meat, chicken and charcuterie is so expensive in France - so more money for wine and patisserie!  We'll return to meat at some point, but only in small quantities and less frequently.  And as we'll be eating less we'll buy better quality; we have an excellent butcher in our local town at home.

By 9pm, the sun had set, the wind had dropped and the lake was shimmering in the last of the light.  The silence was almost ear-ringing.  I sat with the door open, listening to the birdlife on the lake.

This morning we carried on south, heading for the town of Moulins, in the northern region of the Auvergne.  Moulins hosted the finish of Stage 11 of this year's Tour de France on 12 July.  There was evidence of this from the many banners still flying from lamp posts and across streets, sadly all them too high for me to grab a souvenir! I'd originally planned for us to spend the night here on the aire, an old municipal campsite next to the river and about a 15 minute walk from the old town.  But it turned out to be be quite a busy and built up place and not really what we like.  So after a quick stop to fill up on food and diesel, we carried on to this stop.

Even stood tippy-toes on Nido's roof, I still couldn't grab one of these!

Noyant d'Allier used to be home to many of the coal miners of the area.  But as this industry waned and finally stopped in 1943 the miners moved away and, like many villages in rural France, it slowly declined over time.  However, this all changed in 1954.  With the fall of Bien Dien Phu in the Indochina war which led to the eventual creation of North Vietnam, over 3,000 Vietnamese refugees moved into the village, to the point that 75% of the village were from Vietnam.  They soon integrated though and after some years the villagers raised enough money to build a pagoda, including statues and both a 7m high gold buddha and a reclining buddha.  This village is a lovely mix of both cultures.

As we walked around, we saw the old terraced homes that used to be occupied by the miners now being turned into fabulous homes and gardens, growing Vietnamese vegetables and herbs.  Many are still in need or renovation but there's evidence much of this is taking place. As I wandered around the pagoda gardens (no dogs allowed), Cathy took Salty for a wander and came across the garden of a lady who also makes homemade Vietnamese food with 24 hours' notice.  She told the lady (in French) she had a lovely garden and they shared a brief moment of gardening harmony and smiles.

Outside one of the restaurants. Cathy would like one..only me pedalling and her sitting!

On the way back we stopped at a small Vietnamese food restaurant with outdoor terrance seating that also has a mobile van selling cooked but chilled savoury snacks.  I bought a few and warmed them up in the Ridge Monkey; they were delicious with a cold beer, sat outside the van looking over the fields and hills in the distance.  This surreal but very peaceful and welcoming village shows just what can be achieved if refugees are given a chance.

Saturday 26 August 2023

In Burgundy

Saturday 26 August 2023

Nido's parked up by a Halte Nautique (boat marina) on the canal du Nivernais in the town of Cravant.  We have a lovely view over the water with vine covered hills in the distance.  However, views can be deceptive, as the nearby road was fairly busy to start with (although it's very quiet now) and there's a railway line a few hundred metres away.  Still it's a lovely wild camping spot and I wish I'd bought my coarse fishing gear!  There are two other vans parked here, so we should have a peaceful night - safety in numbers.

When servicing the van at Coucy yesterday the metal bracket holding the grey waste pipe to the chassis sheared, so a quick fix was made with a trusty cable tie!  On the route down we spotted a Bricomarché, so I popped into buy a few metal brackets and some wire to make a more permanent fix. Lunch was taken in the village of Esternay.  The aire was closed as the area around the church was being landscaped, but we found a place to park up and eat not far from there.

Lunch stop

Esternay is typically quiet like most towns and villages

I had a couple of aires in mind to stop over, but neither was suitable - one was closed for refurbishment and the other was overgrown with low hanging tree branches.  We headed for Plan C, but that turned out to be more of a HGV parking area, although it did have a new free service point.  So on to Plan D - it was fourth time lucky.  Sometimes this happens but at least in France there are multiple options, but there does seem to be a dearth of aires in this area, mainly because it's off the usual tourist route.  Having said that, we drove for quite a lot of yesterday along the Champagne Touristic Route, although I expect that's aimed at coach trips and those staying in expensive hotels, not scruffs like us in a little campervan!  So our day was spent ping-ponging from one place to another, but we did get to drive through some lovely little villages.

Our eventual stop was a delightful campsite in Aix-en-Othe, called Aire du Moulin à Tan.  It comprises a number of grass fields and a small hardstanding area.  If you don't need EHU (we didn't) then you can park pretty much anywhere you like.  The site has toilets and showers, a communal outdoor cooking and dining area and full servicing.  It's €10 per night with an extra €4 if you want EHU. The owner - Francois - was great fun and very helpful.  He has developed a beautiful place to stay, with a lovely woodland walk that meanders around various small waterways, each crossed by myriad wooden bridges, all individually named.  It was a shame we didn't come straight here as we didn't arrive until nearly 6pm and by the time we'd set up, had a cup of tea, eaten and walked around the woods and waterways, we were totally pooped.

This morning after breakfast we walked along a grassy footpath into the town centre, about 1km away.  There was a boulangerie with a queue outside (always a good sign) and a covered market selling local fruit and vegetables, as well as cheese and seafood. Guess who forgot to bring his wallet out on the walk!  

The Marie's office in Aix-en-Othe

At the service point the campsite's little black kitten called Belle came along to take a look and disappeared under the van.  I made a mental note to make sure she was safe before we left, but before I could do so I saw the owner's son crawling under the front of the van; Belle had climbed up onto one of the front wheel arches!  Cathy grabbed some dog kibble and joined him at the front of the van.  All she could see where two little white eyes! But eventually she came down to scoff the kibble, was safely rescued and carried away.

After a food replenishment stop at Le Clerc in Tonnerie, we arrived at the medieval village of Noyers-sur-Serein.  It was quieter than I expected so we were able to easily park close to the centre.  The village has retained its fortified gates, towers, ramparts, half-timbered houses, narrow streets and squares.  Artists and sculptors have taken over many of the shops and houses in the village, giving a bohemian feel to the place. The walk up to the old ruined castle was up (and eventually down) almost 300 steps through steep woodland, but it was worth the journey.  They run an apprenticeship school to teach the ancient stonemasonry skills, so that gargoyles and stones can be replaced with new carvings.  It would be amazing to see them in action but there was nobody working over the weekend, although we were able to wander around and admire their work. One of the top 100 most beautiful villages in France, Noyers is worth a visit.

Our final destination for the day was only 30 minutes' drive from Noyers and we were soon settled in with a cup of tea, watching the locals cycle and roller skate along the canal towpath on the opposite bank.  After dinner we enjoyed our first patisserie of this trip.  The delay was due to us forgetting to unpack the chocolate birthday cake we bought for our daughter, which needed eating first....we're terrible parents!

It's been sunny and a bit breezier today and feeling much less humid, which is welcome.  We're settling into van life routine, enjoying a lunchtime break (we don't often each lunch at home), a visit and dog walk somewhere, then driving on somewhere else and making camp for the night.  Once Cathy's in bed reading I'll do some research for places to visit over the next day or two and look at possible places to stay, coming up with a shortlist of options in case the first couple aren't what we like.  And of course research, prepare my photos and write up this blog. I haven't yet fixed the grey waste water pipe.  The cable tie is holding up, but I need to do it soon before this fails.  Maybe á demain...