Monday, 9 June 2014

Week One. Cherbourg to The Vendee


June 2nd, Day 1.  Cherbourg to Blain. Aprox 300km.

We have to mention and score every campsite for those who follow, so here goes. Dibles campsite in Warsash  is the cleanest we've ever seen (score 9/10) but do allow at least 45 mins to get to the ferry in the rush hour. Carol left her new Rayban sunglasses in the Rising Sun pub so after a quick call it looks like a return visit to collect them in a month's time.

An uneventful - (If you call surfing at 42knots uneventful - It's like a jet-ski throwing mountains of water up in the air, awesome. Ed.) voyage on the Normandie Express saw us being the 1st off the ferry on arrival in France , -which compensated for Graham's whinging on embarkation due to the alledged unfairness of the speed of our check in line and being 2nd to last on!  In the queue were original jeeps and even some sort of caterpillar driven army vehicle - imagine that doing 15mph on the M27.

On the ferry there were four D-Day veterans and their families who were announced by the ferry staff over the tannoy - it looks like there are to be many commemorative celebrations in Normandy to celebrate 70 years since the landings on 6th June. 

We hoped to drive to the coast without an overnight stop but the miles (kilometres - Ed) and the time got the better of us and so we stayed over at Blain - on the St Nazaire road. It was a lovely leafy site - lots of greenery and hedges separating the pitches at aprox 13 euros for the night. 8/10.

The only thing I like about communal washing up is the characters you meet. On the campsite we saw a few cyclists with minimal tent and backpacks -  I do wonder what they eat for breakfast and dinner. Luckily I washed up next to a Dutch lady who had cycled from Amsterdam. In 14 days of cycling (you reading this Roger?) she'd had 2 days of sun. I asked her how she coped with her evening meal with so little equipment and she explained they found a shop or supermarket and bought food each night, sometimes eating it in the shop. A dishevelled frenchman then came and asked if it OK to leave his horse here for an hour, at least I think that's what he said, and there was a cheval on a pitch the behind the sinks.

Tomorrow we will divert to see the submarine museum in St Nazaire - which has a 1950's sub you can climb all over and in! Our loss is Graham's gain! And then on to Noirmoutier en Isle. 

June 3d, Day 2.  Blain to La Barre-de-Monts.  Aprox 100km.

As promised, we head off to St Nazaire - home of the Sous Marin- Espadon (1950's submarine called Espadon (Swordfish). St Nazaire has a feel of a re-generated Scottish new town about it, but (much) more friendly.  The submarine is located across a basin housing WW2 submarine pens built in 1942 as a German submarine naval base. Walking through the massive concrete structure we felt the rather spooky atmosphere and could imagine germanic voices barking orders.

The sub had a crew of 65 wih bunks provided for 2/3 of these (the others would have been on duty), with just 2 toilets for the whole crew!  How must it have been to live on board for months on end without touching dry land. The sub could stay under water for 15 days, after which it had to recharge the batteries which drove the electric motors, for which the diesel generators needed fresh air.
One thing that struck me was there was two of everything, every machine had a back-up. Also there were hundreds of pipes and even more shut-off valves, none of which were labelled.

Hope I'm not giving any secrets away publishing these.

The corridor is in the middle of the boat.

Torpedo launches, left bank removed to leave room for touristes.

Im in plumbing heaven

Two of everything.

After the visit we climbed on to the roof of the dock to look down on the adjacent former Forme-Ecluse Joubert lock which was attacked by Allied commandos in 1942 by ramming it with a British destroyer stuffed with explosives, so denying the German Navy access to precious repair facilities for the rest of the war. Ha!

After our submarine experience we headed off to La Barre de Monts to our campsite in the Foret Domaniale des Pays de Monts -Camping de la Grand Cote. The campsite is a forested area underneath the start of the bridge to Noirmoutier en Isle. Tomorrow we hope to cycle across this to do a cycle tour of this small island.

June 4th Day 3  Le Barr de Monts - L'Houmeau ( La Rochelle) 150 kms aprox.

Last night it p****ed down heavily all night and with high winds in the wrong direction amplyfiying the road noise from the bridge -it led to a rather disturbed night. Wind still strong this morning so we made an executive decision to move on. Campsite rating 7/10. Lovely setting but dreadful road noise from traffic crossing the bridge day and night!

We did visit Noirmoutier (by accident, got on the wrong road but decided to continue anyway) before we headed off but in the comfort from within Rex. It appeared a pleasant seaside resort but perhaps a little commercial for our tastes.

Onwards to La Rochelle - we arrived late pm at Le Petit Port campsite in L'Houmeau 5km north of La Rochelle. It appears a relatively quiet site with plenty of trees and hedges separating the pitches.
We settled down to have a cup of tea in the sun and were interrupted by an English voice from behind us  "Excuse me but do you know these electric connections have reversed polarity? I have a gadget and I've checked them."
As novices in the art of camping electricity we shrugged and said we'd switched on the electric kettle and radio and nothing went bang so we assumed all well . 
"The Irishman near me said it should be ok as long as you don't put your finger in the bulb" he said,"but I don't think I'll risk it - I'm only here for one night".

We hope we survive our dice with reverse electric polarity.

Tomorrow we hope to cycle to La Rochelle -weather permitting- we know you've heard this all before!

June 5th, Day 4 . La Rochelle

We survived our 1st night of polarisation! Hurrah!

Despite a cloudy start, Graham's daily interpretation of the meteo promised 24ºC this afternoon ,so we cycled to La Rochelle, or La Belle Rochelle as they should call it. Loads of cycle paths, affluent, green, sophisticated, clean, gentile, just.... right. 

We had a picnic lunch overlooking the harbour, walked along the entrance to the harbour with great views of the 3 medieval towers of La Rochelle. There is long entrance to the harbour (watery in case you were wondering) with the usual pleasure boats and then came this racing catamaran motoring out to the Atlantic.
We wandered around the lovely narrow shopping streets and had a fab icecream ( that's not the 70's ice lolly but Edward le Glacier's locally made posh stuff!)

At the end of a hot, lazy day we cycled back via the start of the bridge to the Ille de Re - following many diversion signs - Carol reckons the mileage cycled was 18 miles in total for the round trip - Graham thinks likely to be kms - but Carol's decidedly numb bum beggers to differ!
Today was our 1st sunny day - 24 degrees - long may it last! - have booked a longer stay!

Tripadvisor mention for L'Avocette restaurant and Nicola in l'Houmeau for a great evening meal and the heads up on the forthcoming Bank Holiday. "The restaurant is booked full but it's murder: they take a day to get here, stay for two days and then take a day to get back. It's like a swarm of locusts"

June 6th, Day 5  Ille de Re

Weather forecast says "scorchio!". Forecast 28 degees. Instead of a lazy day we decide to get ahead of the swarm coming tomorrow and see Ile de Re while we can get on it, even though personally I can't believe it's going to be that bad.

We head off by cycle to cross the bridge to Ille de Re - supposedly one of France's most chi chi of islands where the rich and famous choose to go. After Noirmoutier, ever sceptical Graham was prepared to be underwhelmed!

In dispute re the correct reading on Carol's mileometer - Carol tested it from the beginning of the cycle path from the start of the bridge til the end -it was supposed to be 2 miles and the mileage shown was 2.18 miles - Carol feels vindicated ( Oh no she doesn't says Graham "that shows it 10% out!)

After a short confused divertion to the west side of the island where the best beaches are supposed to be found we sampled a nice beach but then found ourselves fighting with lorries. "This can't be right!" A quick diversion to the east and we found cycling heaven again. Top tip - Ditch whatever the guidebook says, keep right and the East side for the best part of the island.

We fueled Carol's Moules and Frites habit lunching in a restaurant overlooking the picturesque harbour of La Flotte - think Padstow but with more space to actually sit down, and restaurants instead of pasty shops. Graham struggling to maintain his scepicism when soaking up the very sophisticated and beautiful atmosphere. After a carafe of rose wine we wobbled off to see more of the island. I know it doesn't look it, but this is 30ºC heat.

It looks empty now but we have been warned: this weekend is a bank holiday and the Parisians are coming in their hordes.

Cycling along the coastline was just lovely! Pretty whitewashed cottages, wildflowers and hollyhocks, little egrits wading in the sea. Approaching the main town of St Martin de Re we passed by the citadel fort which had a sign stating that members of the resistance and polititians were held prisoner there during World War 2- there appeared a narrow entrance into the harbour feeding the citadel and on seeing the stone steps leading up from the beach we imagined the prisoners being brought over by boat to begin their incarceration.

St Martin de Re was a deightful busy place with a large harbour and lots of shops and restaurants.
Graham submitted to defeat of of opinion agreeing this was indeed a very special  island! We can see why the rich and famous flock here.

We cycled back over the bridge with Carol surprising a group of teenagers as she sped past them hell for leather- she used her electric battery to full capacity! It also meant she could rest her rather numb derrière waiting for Graham at the other side!

OK. Quiz time: How many vehicles passed en route to the Ile during the 3km, 15 minute bike ride back over the bridge at 6pm paying €9.60 a pop?

Speedo says 28 miles on return to the campsite! (give or take room for error!). Tomorrow Carol refuses to go near a bike!

Answer to quiz: 311. Quiz for  tomorrow: How many of them had an English numberplate?

June 7th , Day 6. L'Houmeau

Quiz answer: There was not one single English numberplate!

Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks. The sliding door on the van has broken... again! The achilles heel of the Fiat Ducato. The door won't shut properly so now we have to find  a Fiat dealer for a repair. Anyone know the french for "the nylon runner has come off the spindle on my sliding door"? Last time this happened there was a week's wait in Hull and the garage wanted it for the whole day - I am cross. What's more, the parasol broke on its first outing. Grrrr!
Today we stayed on site.
Carol resting her derriere did some art homework.
Graham did some french study, interpersed with futile attempts at door repair

We ventured into the village to buy something for dinner from the small Boucherie. Of course, being France, it is shut until 4pm so we spend time wandering through the local park and some of the residential streets. This is a lovely quiet, clean, sophisticated and expensive suburb village of La Rochelle. Tonight we eat ready meals French style: Cuisses du lapin et beignets des courgette. (Rabbit legs and fried courgette balls).

Today the temp reached 32 degrees- we had a thunderstorm through the night and another is expected tonight. Just arriving and pitching up next to us was the Dutch lady who cycled from Amsterdam and who we met in Blain. She and her husband therefore took 5 days to cycle the 230-odd kms. 

Tomorrow we head off to Arcais, a small village in the Marais Poitevin. I hope there is space in the local campsite given the public holiday this weekend. Fingers crossed! (croisons les doigts!)

Musings on camping a la Francais with a camping car - we are completely under resourced. It appears we need a carpeted awning with a large table covered with a tablecloth, preferably on which is arranged a large vase of flowers and chairs of armchair proportion. Also a satellite booster dish the size of Jodrell Bank to enable the viewing of the TV at maximum volume. We observed one couple sitting in their awning facing an opened window opposite the tv which enabled them to watch from outside the caravan. Some people have also  installed electric heating in their awnings. To be fair, this is mostly the tuggers who stay for longer. 

We attempted to put up a parasol but failed miserably, as on firmly hammering the base into the ground with our newly purchased rubber mallet the pointed end imploded! So at present we huddle under the hedge surrounding our pitch for a little shade looking longingly at our camping savvy neighbours!

Score for Au Petit Port de L'Houmeau - 9/10. Friendly staff, clean facilities, hedged pitches, a snack bar and bar and laundry facilities. With a pool it would be 10/10.

On departure Victor at reception complimented Graham on his french pronounciation and Graham complemented Victor on his excellent english. They then had a bear hug in solidarity! It was a beautiful sight to witness.

And so on to Arcais.

June 8th, Day 7. Arcais. 60 km.

A short drive inland led us to Arcais - one of the villages in the Marais Poitevin where there are places to hire flat bottomed boats and canoes to explore the kms of waterways.
Arcais appears a pretty village, obviously touristy and today mobbed by french long weekenders.
We found a pitch on the Municipal campsite, lunched and then spent a while walking along the side of a canal.

A lazy day - we found a pitch with a natural awning!

Tomorrow we hope to cycle alongside the canals and picnic away from the masses.

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