Monday 5 September 2022

Most Beautiful Villages of France

Sunday 4 September 2022

Nido's amongst the trees in a park-up in the small village of Aigrefeuille-d'Aunis in the Charente-Maritime region. It's very quiet here.  The parking area was quite full with cars earlier as it's 'le weekend' and opposite two lakes called Lac de Frace. There's a restaurant and lots of picnic sites, many like wooden bandstands. Large family groups were together, with enough food and wine to probably feed the whole village! It's now much quieter, just half a dozen motorhomes, three of which are from the UK.

We left our park-up on the coast yesterday, stopping off on the way out for a baguette (and some patisserie of course!) at a boulangerie, then at a van just off the road selling local sea-salt, next to some salt-pans  The 'lady in the van' was very helpful and we bought a couple of types of rock sea-salt plus a salt cellar to store it in. This local, hand-produced sea salt is excellent, created from solar evaporation as the brine dries out in the sunshine. They skim it off and pile it up with long, wide wooden scrapers.  On the way we stopped for lunch at St Jean de Monts, parking by the beach and having a good walk along the surf line.

I'd plugged in an aire that looked and sounded good in the apps and books, but on arrival it was four pitches in a small village (bon), but facing a huge sportsdrome building (pas bon).  Luckily I had a plan B and we drove on to the village of Vouvant.  I have the 'Most Beautiful Towns and Villages in France' book and if I'd checked it, I'd have realised that Vouvant is one of these villages, in fact the only one in the Vendee.  There's an excellent aire in the village - €10.90 including all services and wifi.  We parked up on the grass next to a tall beech hedge, plugged in the electric and got the kettle on!

A little bit of history about Vouvant (from my friend's Beautiful Villages book - he sent me a screenshot):

Deep in the forest of Vouvant-Mervant, the Mere river winds through a landscape that has inspired both art and mystery. William V - Duke of Aquitaine (969-1030) discovered the site of Vouvant whilst out hunting. Struck by its strategic position, he built a castle, church and monastery here in the 11th century. The castle has retained only its keep, the Mélusine* tower, sections of the ramparts and a 13th century postern gate, which was used by Saint Louis (King Louis IX).  A Romanesque bridge straddles the river Mere, linking the two riverbanks. 
*Legend has it that Mélusine was a fairy who built the tower overnight.

We thought we'd save the exploration of the village for the next morning, so after dinner we had a long and slow walk following the footpath between the ramparts and the river.  There were lots of small potager gardens in this gap between walls and water, but sadly this year's drought meant they weren't looking their best.  But there was plenty of wildlife in, under and above the water.  However, we didn't see a single bat as dusk moved to darkness, which is really unusual for a place such as this.  Which reminds me that over the time we've been in France, we've had no days when the van windscreen was splattered with flies and insects, unlike previous visits.  This, coupled with the vast, desert-like fields and dying sunflower and corn crops, is a stark indicator of climate breakdown - very, very worrying.  On our way back to the van in the dark, we heard plenty of owls though; Salty's not a fan of the owl call - perhaps he thinks he's small enough to be plucked from the ground by sharp talons!  Although dark it was still warm so we sat outside to have a cup of tea and our patisserie; this time a Tartlette Mirabelle (gooseberry tart), which was crisp, light and full of flavour - a well deserved 9/10!

I'd set the alarm for 0700 this morning so after a quick cup of tea, we set off to explore the village, leaving Salty in the van for some 'me time.'  The sun rises at about 0730 so and we walked around in the cool of the morning, exploring the ramparts and small lanes, wandering past lovely stone built homes and secluded gardens.  Early morning is a great time to explore; the shops might not be open (although the boulangerie was - "une tradition s'il vous plait"!) but having the place to yourself to wander before the crowds arrive is the best way to see somewhere as lovely as this.  We met a local French man on our walk. He told us (in French) that he liked to get up and walk around the village when everyone is still asleep (he mimed sleeping and snoring as he spoke which helped!).

Breakfasted, showered, van serviced, we drove for an hour past the dry dusty fields and increasing heat to reach our current park-up. We had a lazy afternoon in the shade of the trees, lunching, reading and snoozing. Later we took a walk around the lakes.  It was still pretty hot so we kept to the shade of the many trees.  It was lovely to see families out enjoying themselves, fishing, picnicing and generally having a relaxing time.  The lakes were about 1 metre below their normal level though.

The alarm's again set for 0700 tomorrow morning - an admin day.  The plan is to drive to a supermarket in Rochefort to make use of the onsite launderette, have breakfast while the machines are running, top up the food and probably also top up the LPG tanks.  We've used about 3/4 of one tank (we have two) but it's worth topping up when the opportunity arises, although it's widely available in France.  After that, we'll probably drive to one of our favourite places - the island of Ile d'Oleron, aiming to get on an aire or campsite with electric hook-up.  I hope to get online tomorrow night for a Mon Search and Rescue Team Training Group meeting on Google Meet; I might be away from home and the team for an extended period, but there's still lots of training planning to be done, ready for our new recruits starting in October.

Pre-lunch walk at St Jean de Monts

Mélusine Tower, Vouvant Medieval Village

Prayer area by the cave

Aigrefeuille-d'Aunis by Lac Frace