Friday, 9 October 2015

Week 4. Charente Maritime completed!

Thurs 1st Oct ( white rabbits!)

Another sunny day so we decided to cycle to another part of the island. Set off just after noon - our usual travelling time, but to be fair at this time of year the sun only gets going at mid-day and we're not working. 

We decided to have lunch out today to try the local seafood (Graham dusting off his wallet!) - heading off to St Trojan les Bain -  stuated in the south of the island.
En route we saw a typical charentaise fishing building at a place called Port de Salines  - near a salt  eco museum visiting site. This would do just fine- as we approached the place it was evident it was a well known restaurant (Michelin recommended said the sign). We were given the last table outside on the terrace overlooking a little harbour area and marshland - very pretty.

We had the fixed price 3 course menu and a bottle of rosé - very civilised. Lobster bisque, followed by Fish pot de feu (fish stew) or Duck with a chickpea mash, and apple compote with meringue or a chocolate bombe creation containing sponge,cream and banana - we decided to try everything on the menu bar the oysters which unfortunately neither of us like! Not the simple seafood spagetti €9 lunch we had in mind, but it was a delightful surprise which we thoroughly enjoyed!  

As in all such places we enjoyed people watching - as usual most had fleeces, jeans, quilted jackets and the all important scarves, as we sat in out tee shirt and shorts enjoying the sun! Fashionable french men appear to find the need to wear a scarf ornamentally wrapped around their necks whatever they wear! 

View from our table whooo!

The flat bottomed barques are used to harvest the oysters and other fruits de mer. 

Onwards to St Trojan les  Bain - a village that overlooks the bridge to the island and mainland France.
The tide was out so inevitably the coastline was inundated with - yes- cocklepickers!! We talk to one, an old chap and ask him what he is catching.  Ver! (Worms). He says they're for his fish, not for eating ha ha, you idiot, which Graham, thinking of the carp in our (new) garden misunderstands. They're for fishing, bait for for cod and others. Evidently you need to be quick otherwise phut! They descend! He's not as quick as he used to be, he says, but he seems to have been quite successful today.

We cycled along the coast with pine forest to the other side to another sandy beach where we spent a while resting to allow our stomachs to settle post lunch. This beach was covered in cockle shells - a shell gatherers dream!

Then back to the site following our tracks with a little detour when we lost our way - 18 miles in total  today. Extra little photo showing the interior of ile d'Oléron. On first look it's boring swamp land but we think it has a certain charm and definitely recommend a visit.

Friday 2nd Oct.
All good weather must come to an end! - with a forecast predicting rain for several days we left the Ille d'Oleron and headed for the big city - Bordeaux. We have an ulterior motive: there are Ikea and Maison du Monde shops in Bordeaux and it would be useful to try out a budget sofa in case we have to buy online - are they cheaper in France?

Arrived late pm after the usual lunchtime drive, supermarket shop we arrive in rain. Dinner chez Rex - ready meal - Paella- watching the French rugby world cup with the odd glass of wine .. We are really embracing  the french way of life!
A restless and mostly sleepless night for Carol, as it lashed down with rain, thunder and the constant drips and plopping sounds on Rex's roof and sides felt like water torture! - Thank goodness for a backlit kindle! Graham slept on regardless.

Sat 3rd Oct
We cycle to the nearby shopping complex -with Ikea and Maison du Monde. The cycle paths are very impressive here - an easy flat ride took us about 15-20 mins from the campsite direct to the shopping centre.
Spent hours pricing up furniture with the rain beating on Ikea's tin roof, with a break for lunch in the self service restaurant which was good value and surprising tasty! No we did not have the swedish meatballs! Answer: Cheaper, with an exchange rate of 1.35 France is 10% cheaper (excluding delivery which are astronomical and increase the more you spend!?)

A race back through the rain and a Carol freezer hot pot special dinner, then watched England's demise against Australia at rugby. Spent a while also watching a young German couple in a makeshift van putting up an inventive awning comprising of a sheet of plastic, rope and what looked to be a couple of broom handles! Well the male was working and hammering away whilst the female checked her phone. After about 3 attempts the awning was up ,although the female did not look that impressed as they huddled under it ,glancing at us cozy and warm in our heated van drinking wine and eating hot food! Ooh to be young again ....

Sun 4th Oct.
Decided despite the rainy weather we would do Bordeaux. Cycled the 8 kms to the centre along the again impressive cyclepath network. Bordeaux is one of the most cycle friendly cities we have visited - plenty of wide pathways for pedestrians and cyclists and a great tram network. Must be all those wine revenues. 
Cycled along the riverfront to the Place de Bourse - a mirrored pavement installation occasionally poured a stream of misty steam around the people standing upon it.
Now you see him..

Now you don't!

Walked around the centre - Bordeaux does not appear to be a poor place!

There were lots of river cruise boats moored on the river and then we saw this miracle of man's ingenuity- which explains all the American voices round the city. How does it stay upright?

Cycled back and arrived back just before the heavens opened .. Again ..! Could be worse - 17 dead in Cote D'Azur in worst floods for 20 years. 

Tomorrow we will head back up north. We purchased some chocs in a rather nice looking chocolatier today, and aim to drop them off for Ingrid the agent tomorrow as a thanks for all her help. 

Mon 5th October.

Decided to stay over in Aytre just outside of La Rochelle with the aim to visit La Rochelle tomorrow to remind ourselves how nice it is.
Weather not too good - cloudy with showers - still 20 degrees C though. Arrived at the campsite to discover the pool was still open - an enormous indoor one as well as outdoor. Enjoyed a brief swim - indoors- as it started raining as soon as we donned our cossies!

Tues 6th October ( Happy Birthday Philippa!)

Heavy rain overnight - we're both ready to head back home .
However we will not waste our last day! Walked a very long km to the bus stop and caught the bus in to La Rochelle. The harbour and marina looked as lovely as we remembered but after a quick picnic rain arrived, so we meandered around the shopping area - very sophisicated! A few souvenir purchases were made ,but Carol disappointed as we didn't find the usual seasidy decor shops - she had hoped to begin building the decoration section of La Maison Pierre!
No photos here of La Rochelle as we took them for last year's blog.

Back to Rex and over a cuppa Graham got out the paperwork for our return crossing tomorrow night - yes we are booked on the 8pm crossing on the 6th Oct - WHAT! - that's this evening!! Oops - Graham had entered the wrong date on our calendar... It was 5.30 pm there was no way we could get to the ferry in time.
After several calls to the Caravan Club we managed to rearrange our return - we leave at 4.30 pm tomorrow from Caen ,and as the ferry arrives at 9.15pm in Portsmouth we will stay at a Caravan Club site overnight near Fareham. Not quite the relaxed overnight crossing we had hoped for!
Oh Well ... It could have been a lot worse.
A long drive anticipated tomorrow and we will need to head off by 9am - a difficult concept for us to grasp as we have been managing to awake and breakfast by 11am the last few days! Nothing at all due to the tasting of the tasty cheap wine in the evenings! 

Tues 7th October

Up and at em - and on the road by 9.30am.
A long drive -    miles, just got to Caen at the advised 1 hr before departure. No time to stop for all the
 bargain wine and food purchases or even the cheap diesel ... Boo Hoo. One of our friends is going to miss out on the promised bumper french sausage selection! Thank goodness we managed to buy a few bottles of wine at Leclerk a few days earlier.
A rather bumpy crossing followed which seemed to last much longer than just under 6 hours. Graham had to abandon his dinner just as the cheese course arrived, having suddenly felt a need to lie down. Carol gamely stayed at the dinner table to finish the cheese and remaining wine - always willing to do the polite thing.
Then back to Blighty - as usual all good things come to an end...... With the promise of a very exciting French adventure in 2016!

A bientot! A la prochaine!

Friday, 2 October 2015

Week 3. Time to chill and enjoy the rest of the trip.

Thurs 24th Sept.

A late start to the day - quelle surprise!
After breakfast cycled in to Chef Boutonne to buy a baguette for lunch and a chance to check out C-B. A grey town we thought, full of bagnoles (old cars) and a fair percentage of Brits. 
After lunch took a pleasant walk around the woods overlooking the site and then in to Chef Boutonne.
Visited the grounds of Chateau de Javarzay which is just on the edge of the village. A pretty chateau built in the early 16C - one of the earliest examples of a renaissance chateau in Poitou. 

Tomorrow we will head to Melle. We are really killing time, exploring the interior, waiting for Saturday to meet up with Jackie and Peter, who we met last year as they were in the process of buying a farmhouse and gite as a permanent move. 

The campsite turns up a mesmorising attraction, at least for Graham. A couple of martin pecheurs (kingfishers) patrol the stream behind us. There he sits, french book in one hand, binocs in the other happily watching kingfishers and the kestrels which hunt the cornfield behind.

Rex pitched near the duck topairy!

Fri 25th Sept.
Another leisurely start ( what else) and arrived in Melle as everything closed for lunch as usual.
Picnicked in the park with a shop bought Croque Monsieur - remembered we didn't really like them as we got to the end of consuming them!
Melle - " the gateway to Poitou" appeared a tad scruffy and the promised gems of churches appeared not in walking distance of the centre - so we left.... After doing a reccy of the campsite which looked dire!
On to Celle-sur-Belle a very pretty village with a royal abbey. The gardens were free to wander which we did but we also paid to visit the inside - those monks knew how to live!

We chatted to an English couple who just happened to be sitting where we parked - they have 2 holiday homes locally - 1 just outside of Surgeres - which their son now manages as a holiday let. We exchanged phone numbers as their son had used a local builder to help build a pool. Already building up contacts!
So back to Chef Boutonne for another nights stay, and the kingfishers, for want of any near alternative, tomorrow we visit Jackie and Peter who now run a gite in Les Eglises d'Argenteuil. 

Sat 26th Sept.

Another leisurely start and a drive through the back roads to Aulnay. Shopped at the supermarket on the outskirts in which most voices heard were English! and prepared a picnic lunch. In to the centre to visit the church of Saint-Pierre d'Aulnay - standing in a cemetary - it is a beautiful building remarkable for the sculptures that adorn the portals - apparently classic themes of Romanesque art. 

We ate lunch in a medieval themed garden overlooking the church.

Onwards to Les Eglises - where we met Jaquie and Pete at their charentais house overlooking extensive gardens including an orchard. Also a large enclosed pool area.They have a seperate gite  which Jaquie manages and Pete currently supplements by working in London Mon - Fri and travels back weekends - in time to mount the ride on mower! They have been here for 1 year - we met them on the campsite in St Jean last year just as they were signing for the purchase. A lovely peaceful spot it's easy to fall under it's spell. The gite is called Rue Vincent (google) if anyone fancies a peaceful week away. 

We tear ourselves away and on to Saintes as there is an exhibition of Salon d'Habitat and du jardin  tomorrow where we may get some ideas. A minor panic as we thought we couldn't get a tv signal - it's the England v Wales rugby game tonight! - panic over the signal is found!

Sun 27 th Sept
Visited the exhibition - not the house decor design idea place we anticipated but spoke to several pool companies and log burner/pellet burner salespeople to get some idea of what's out there. As anticipated costs were top top end of the budget! Food for thought!

Set off to head for the Ille D'Oleron but decided as we travelled to stop over in Fouras instead - as nearer to Surgeres. We have an appointment with the bank manager Tues pm and also a stop off to chat with Simon who ownes several gites just outside of Surgeres late am Tues- thanks to Ingrid our intrepid agent! 

Arrived in sunshine in Fouras - checked in with the municipal site and explored the sea front. Walked the penisula to the port where the ferry to Ille D'Aix departs - about 3 kms. Fouras is the place for oysters and other shellfish in the whole of France- hang on haven't we heard that before! The place was buzzing with people lunching and purchasing shellfish at the various stalls.

Windy but sunny - we decided to plan to visit the Ille D'Aix tomorrow.
Walked by several windsurfers and kite surfers doing their stuff in the sea off the promenade back to the site - they were very impressive picking up what looked to be great speed across the bay.

Mon 28th Sept.
Service wash this am - clean towels, bedding , clothing and undies today - luxury!
Prepared a picnic and then headed off to cycle to the ferry to Ille D'Aix. Passed lots of people on bikes clutching buckets of clams and mussels - the tide was out and amateur and professional shellfish harvesters were out in force! 
Windy but sunny the crossing proved easy and uneventful. Arrived on the Island which is 4 kms by 2.5 kms aprox and was basically a fort in Napoleonic times to protect the entry to Rochefort and La Charente river. Now it is a tourist destination and today the ferry was still busy with holidaymakers. It is a car free island other than service vehicles and easily walked or cycled around.
Had a picnic on the windier north side and then practically circumnavigated it! We soaked up the sun at a completetly secluded beach on the east side. 
Many of the beaches consisted of what looked to be millions of shells - mainly oyster and clam - bleached white by the sun.

Egrets are in abundance all over these islands - presumably, like us, they don't eat oysters. 

We would definitely return. It is well worth a visit and we guess it will be mobbed in summer! Had a fabulous day trip. 
Tomorrow back to Surgeres - again!

Tues 29 th Sept.

Late start again - we have an appointment to call in to see Simon, a Brit who owns a 5 gite farm house complex just outside of Surgères and has kindly offered us a cuppa and chat about life in this part of France.
Although late we decided to detour to Muron where a road sign promised a biscuiterie - rather be a few minutes more late with a gift than arrive late with nothing we thought. The biscuiterie was a small unit making traditional charentais cakes not biscuits as we thought - bought one for Simon and a couple for us as the owner tried to press us to buy a selection of all cakes he made!
Simon appeared a man resigned to submitting to the french system to enjoy the french life,who despite his rather gruff first impression supplied us with lots of useful information and advice. He has lived here for 12 years - his eldest (of 4)child was 10 years old when they arrived and now firmly integrated in to the french way of life. He says he came to France to embrace all things french and so deliberately does not mix with any expats. He is happy for us to contact him once we're in Surgères should we need any further info. 
So on in to Surgères and having a couple of hours to spare until our interrogation had lunch in the Cafe de Paris near the Marché and opposite the bank. Had a lovely Plat de Jour - think this will be a regular spot once here. Graham thinks we should frequent several local restaurants regularly once we're holiday residents to get known in the community, and who is Carol to argue - she'll force down the food and wine for the cause!
Just over an hour this time with Geraldine the bank manager to arrange home and contents insurance cover - evidence of this is required by the Notaire BEFORE the final signing for the property.

Then off to  the Ille d'Oleron - a larger island with bridge access. Promising some of the best oysters in France - again,and vineyards, forts ,forests, beaches and white painted villages. We pitched up at our selected site and had a pre dinner drink as the sun set. We hope to explore by bike tomorrow.

Table setting chez Rex - we don't like standards to slip!

Weds 30th Sept.

A cloudy start with a sprinkle of rain but by midday the weather appeared to be changing.
So we packed a picnic and cycled off to explore the island.

First port of call Le Chateau d'Oleron and a visit to the Citadel. Another fort built by one of the Roi Louis's - which unfortunately was bombed by the allies in the 2nd World War - it appears work is being done to renovate some of it, but in it's present state other than views across the Charente, it was not a very exciting sight. The tide was out and scores of cockle pickers were out scouring the mud, yuck!

We did wander round an art expo sited there but all a bit too modern and difficult to appreciate with our uncultured eyes!

Then on towards La Grand Plage - after a while battling along the main roads we found the designated cycle paths - much easier and prettier- we picnicked in a forest at a picnic table. Then on to the beach- and what a beach!- not the choppy muddy Charente but the blue Atlantic with dunes and miles of golden sand. We walked along the sea observing the surfers,the sand kites, the wind surfers and .... cockle pickers!

Apologies, our fly has returned inside the camera. 

On our return we passed by a pond area with ducks, geese and a beaver rat looking thing, Coypu? - am sure those avid nature watchers reading will put us right! Have to say they gave us a bit of a surprise.

Back at the site  sheltered from the wind and in full sun the temp in Rex was 32 degrees C ! Not bad for the last day in Sept!

Tomorrow we will decide to stay a little longer if the weather holds as there are many more places to explore. Or head inland. Life is hard for the retiree van owner!

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Week 2. Search for the perfect holiday home continues

Thurs 17th Sept.
Further torrential rain in the night! 
Spent the am doing a service wash! After lunch walked in to the centre of Rochefort. 
Visited the Corderiere Royal - a massive rope museum on the site of the workshop built by Louis X1V to support the massive ship building yard nearby. In it's day it provided rope for the sails etc for warships built in the dockyard, the centre of naval shipbuilding in France in the X1V C. It was an interesting museum with demonstrations of how the rope was made and also had a section with how the sea is depicted in comic books and animated film in France. 

Moored nearby was the l'Hermione, a replica of the 14c warship La Fayette. L'Hermione has taken 17 years to build by 73 artisans and only just recently launched and crossed the Atlantic to celebrate the original's involvement in a famous battle.  The original La Fayette took 6 months to build by about 600 people. During the recreated voyage just about 20 crew were professionals the other 50 or so were volunteers. The crew in the 14c La Fayette numbered in the hundreds. Both voyages took  about 35 days.

Rochefort is an interesting town on the estuary of the River Charente. Would recommend a visit.

Friday 18th Sept.

A leisurely drive down to Saintes. 
Did a big shop at an enormous Hyper U supermarket and then lunch chez Rex waiting in the car park of the municipal campsite until 3pm to be allowed on to a pitch, - such excitement!
Cycled in to Saintes for a reccy - will return tomorrow for a sightseeing day.
Dinner chez Rex and watched the TV - Rugby World Cup - England v Fiji. The french TV people were going nutty with extensive pre match coverage - goodness knows what it will be like tomorrow for France's first game!!
Further rain in the night! This is NOT what it is supposed to be in this land of milk and honey!

Sat 19th Sept.

Walked in to Saintes . First port of call the Roman Amphitheatre. This weekend in Charente Maritime all museums are free - result! 
The Amphitheatre is probably the best of it's kind in Europe. Very impressive. The english speaking audioguide was excellent in informing how life would have been in the 1st C AD.

Walked back in to Saintes centre to the Archeological Museum for a further Roman fix - gratuit  merci.

Arrived at a nice bistro just as they stopped serving food so carried on looking for somewhere open and ended up in a cafe near the tourist info with great views of the ginormous L'arc de Germanicus (roman) and ate a nondescript cheese on toast thing.

Then on to the L'abbaye aux Dames  an old Cistercian abbey also free to visit today!
There was a marriage service just starting as we arrived and the sound of singing from within the abbey church was lovely. However as it was a Catholic service ( presume lengthy) didn't hang around to see the happy couple emerge from within.

Bought a couple of books from a street bookstall as we walked back to the site - hardback pictorial guides to Charente Martime - as a start to the info corner of La Maison Pierre - yes getting a little ahead of ourselves here!

Returned to the campsite - it has not rained so far today - hurrah!
Will dine Chez Rex and watch the Rugby in solidarity with our French amis!

Tomorrow there is a Brocante in Saintes (a street market with bric a brac and possibly antiquities) - so will call in there before heading off to Pons.On Monday  we will keep an appointment to view a property there to compare with La Maison Pierre. (just in case it is our very perfect house)

We have an appointment on Tues with the Notaire in Surgeres to start the official house buying process and will then have 10 days cooling off period before reaching the point of no return!

Here's a couple of internal shots of La Maison Pierre:

Rear half of the lounge overlooking the garden.

From dining room open to hall to lounge. Other pic of lounge was of the back, to the right.

Sun 20th Sept.
Called by the vide grenier/brocante before leaving Saintes. Unfortunately it was all Graham expected with mostly tat, old clothing, shoes and toys and not the undiscovered art deco gems that Carol hoped for!
Headed west towards Pons.
Stopped for lunch at the pretty riverside town of Jarnac- the celebrated birthplace of Francois Mitterand, and had a picnic in a park overlooking the river, canal locks and the Corvoisier cognac centre. Very peaceful and picturesque.
Weather sunny and all well with our world!
Then on to Pons via Bourge Charente, a picturesque riverside village with a Michelin starred rather swanky looking restaurant. There are properties for sale here but despite its beauty there appeared nothing to occupy yourself for a period of time - probably not the best place to achieve integration with the locals (probably all second homers!)
And then on to Pons ready for a viewing tomorrow. Settled on to the municipal site then walked in to town to check it out before dinner chez Rex. The area around the Donjon with it's Cafes and square is lovely but the town does not feel as nice as Surgeres - the house tomorrow needs to be pretty special!

Mon 21st Sept.
Met John the estate agent who will be showing us houses this am. We only booked to view 1 but apparently we will view another 2! 
The first propery was a lovely detached traditional house in Archiac, a large village near Jonzac. It faced a tabac and pharmacy with a glancing view of the church. It is the holiday home of a notaire who has retired to an appartment in Bordeaux. Very grand inside but the usual pokey kitchen. Upstairs 5 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms - 1 shower room, 1 bathroom neither with WC and 1 WC all along the same corridor - weird! The house had further rooms unused and also access to another attached small house needing renovation. A rather grand pool and enclosed walled garden outside. Again probably more suited to someone with a larger budget and more imagination than us. So we were "out".

The next house was a strong contender - walking distance from Pons centre. However, disappointment loomed over us again - another overpriced home needing almost total renovation. Again lovely outside space but inside - oh dear! Again all bathrooms had no WC - with only 1 seperate WC for the whole house of 4 beds. Again an air of slight decorative neglect. Sorry John we're "out"
The final property was in a suburb of Pons definitely not within easy walking or even hiking distance from the action! It has been empty 2 years since the owner returned back to the UK following the death of his wife. A large modern spanish style property - not to our taste - which had a rather sad air of abandonment. Again a lovely outdoor space with pool and summer kitchen. However - location,location,location - we were "out". It was well overpriced too!
After the resigned John dropped us back to pick up Rex we motored on to a lovely picturesque village on the Gironde estuary called Montagny sur Gironde. Had a picnic lunch overlooking the small marina.

Ducks have priority over cars in Mortagne.

Here also was an Aire for motorhomes - where you can park overnight for 8€, and outside for free. But you have to be quick or lucky - there is limited room. We were lucky. As we picnicked a stream of hopefuls having missed the boat as all pitches were already taken at 2 pm circled and drove on by.

We continued to drive up the coast admiring the views and enjoying warm sunshine. We overnighted in Marrennes - the oyster capital of France . However the weather did not hold so the splash in the pool at the site did not materialise. We also heard from Ingrid the agent - our appointment to sign the contract is now to be Weds am.

Tues 22nd Sept.
Another rainy day so headed to Rochefort for a day killing time of supermarket and furniture store mooching.
Unfortunately what we thought was a furniture store was the french equivalent of BM homestores or a cheaper Dunhelm mill! No design ideas to be had!
We decided not to stay in Surgères again, but headed onto Courçon on the edge of the Marais Poitevin - however rain stopped play so had a supermarket ready meal chez Rex and an early night ready for the big day tomorrow.

Weds 23rd Sept - the possible day of no return!

Met Ingrid at her office,then off to Rochefort to sign the contract. As she drove us Ingrid informed us 2 other buyers were wanting the property since we signed the pre contract- we are now so glad we turned back and signed so quickly and feel much better about offering the asking price- for once it appears luck was on our side! Ingrid says there is a lack of quality housing in Surgères.

Estate Agents can draw up the initial contract and this was Ingrid's 1st time with a house purchase. There was another estate agent colleague, a translator who worked for the same agency who was a  fluent french speaking english woman. Monsieur the vendor and ourselves. There followed over an hour of paper signing extraordinaire and talk of termite inspections, electricity inspections, asbestos and house eating mushroom inspections - all mandatory and funded by the vendor, then the job was done!  The translator informed us of some jobs needing to be done identified in various surveys - apparently there is woodworm in the loft and garden shed - " quite normal in old french houses", a possible problem with the electric trip-" an electrician will just fix it" and hopefully that's it! Eeek!

We shook hands all round and Ingrid treated us to lunch with a glass of wine at a brasserie, where we sat and ate al fresco in warm sunshine- how civilised! 
We then went back to Surgeres where Ingrid accompanied us to the Mairie to enquire how to commence the planning process for a swimming pool, and also to the Tourist Information Office to obtain their list of holiday rental properties available in Surgeres (to suss out the opposition and possible friends. One English couple appear to have a several gites in a hamlet just outside of Surgeres - may be worth contacting them for info re pool companies and other tips?
Went to the bank to pick up our new bank card and cheque book and on enquiring re home insurance got booked in to see Geraldine the manager for an interview in a few days time, - no handing over of info leaflet here - oh no a thorough interrogation will be required!

Decided to move further inland for a few days and so headed for Chef Boutonne - to La Moulin campsite - which has a restaurant in a former mill. Greeted in english by the caretaker and on talking to a fellow camper discovered this was an English owned site in an enclave of English expats! We had passed a white van with a catering box attached parked in a car park as we had approached the campsite. We were intrigued as it had lettering on it stating a Chatsworth address. Apparently this was the mobile fish and chips van!

Had dinner in the restaurant served by the owner - weird ordering french food in english - at least the chef was french! Stuart the owner advised us re pool buying almost trying to put us off - but we will not be deterred!

As we chatted to Denise and Ray at the table next to us - we ordered some wine - chosing a bottle rather than the cheaper carafe from a wine box. Ray had ordered this when they had dined here previously and asked Stuart what is was and where to get some. Stuart had described it as Chateau Plastique, and so on visiting the local cave a day or two later Ray asked for a bottle of Chateau Plastique, only realising he had been the receipt of a Stuart witticism when the shop owner handed him a wine box! Doh! Oh how we laughed -poor Ray!

After a typical  french very tasty 3 course meal at the cost of €17.50 pp (£13), and a couple of celebratory bottles of wine (keeping up with Denise and Ray just to be polite), we staggered back to Rex to watch the 2nd half of the french game in the rugby world cup. The champagne will have to wait until tomorrow!

Friday, 11 September 2015

In search of a holiday home in Charente Maritime. Sept-Oct 2015

Weds Sept 9th. 
After a 273 mile journey from Beverley we caught the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo, Brittany. We arrived in loads of time and took our place behind two suspect dudes in a clapped out van, watching as everyone else was called onto the ship. Last but 2 we were. By the time we boarded the restaurant was full and we had to eat in the buffet - to be fair, it did us a favour. The buffet was excellent and saved us a few quid. Disembarking the two dudes were pulled over by the gendarmerie and held us up again, but only for a minute. Their van consisted of compartments of surf boards, skateboards,wetsuits and almost nothing else.

Thurs Sept 10th. 
Arrived just after 8.30am and drove the 220 miles to our first port of call -  Surgères.
Selected a pitch at the local campsite and eyed up the pool. 27degrees C and sunny. Unfortunately Graham forgot his swimming trunks! He cycled off off in search of a suitable shop whilst Carol chilled some beer and enjoyed the sun.
Will have an early night after a van prepared dinner as we have an appointment with the bank manager to open a french bank account tomorrow am. ooo errr! 

Fri Sept 11th
Just managed to get up and out for our 10am appointment at the bank.
Geraldine our advisor welcomed us into her office and so began a hour and a half of banking french style. Graham was sure that she would be able to speak English but alas not and he valiantly managed to converse well enough for us to open an account - after agreeing the terms and conditions and multiple signing of several pieces of paper. In France you pay a nominal sum per month for the privilege of having a carte bancaire and an annual fee for insurance - obligatoire. Bienvenue à France! So yes, the banking is free but the mandatory insurance for loss and theft is not. However we did get a complimentary Michelin guide to Charente Maritime- in french of course!

After lunch we visit estate agents. Apparently of course what we want is rare indeed!
We did visit a lovely town house with Cristelle a local agent - however it had no parking, only 1 shower room for 5 bedrooms, no pool (but room to build), and on a busy through road so some traffic noise (and we know what Graham thinks about that!) On the plus side it had been beautifully restored with exposed stone walls and marble flooring downstairs - very chic!
Tomorrow we visit a modern house with a pool in the morning and the front runner so far "La Belle Cachette" in the afternoon (interestingly one of the estate agents let us know it has been for sale for a long time and is in his opinion overpriced - good information to know!)

Sat 12th Sept
Met Ingrid the estate agent 10 am start again which is early for us! Apparently the modern hous we were to view has been sold! 
So we viewed a large town house(too large) with 6 bedrooms - characterful - large garden with large trees, nice terrace and plenty room for a pool but would need a far more extensive budget than ours to refurbish.
We then viewed a stone house on a relatively quiet road just a few minutes pleasant walk from the town centre via the Chateau. Unassuming on the outside but surprisingly lovely inside, with a manageable garden with just room for a pool. A well loved home full of quirky features, 4 bedrooms all good sizes - 1 downstairs with a walk in wardrobe and ensuite. A small kitchen with room to knock through to make a good sized kitchen /diner. Also under the top end of our budget so affordable to build pool and rebuild kitchen. A definate contender! Hurrah! 

Rear view of what we have nicknamed "The Garden House"

Also good to compare with our next viewing (house name removed) and top favourite on paper.
Met with the caretakers who invited us to explore the property. Downstairs was lovely with characterful rooms full of light. Upstairs a disappointment - no landing to speak of - 3 rather sparse double rooms. A lovely outside sitting area overlooking the pool. However the place felt rather tatty and in need of a good redecoration and refurbishment. The reportedly newly fitted bathrooms appeared tired and the electric wall heaters decidedly ancient! At almost €50,000 more than "the Garden House" we felt we would have opportunity to create just as nice an outdoor space at "The Garden House" and stamp our own mark on that property. Ummm - food for thought...

So 2 properties to compare and contrast - spent time over dinner chez Rex discussing pros and cons - at the moment we to our surprise are leaning towards " The Garden House". And so to bed.

Craaack! What was that? Attempted to get out of the passenger door but blocked - as we scrambled out of the drivers door into the darkness of night we were met with concerned voices and saw the remnents of large branches of a tree completly covering Rex! The campsite owner was called and the Sapeurs Pompiers (Fire brigade). A crowd of interested on lookers had now developed and a lovely couple opposite us made coffee for us as we looked on to the scene. A few minutes later 2 young muscular pompiers were cutting branches and clearing the way for us to move Rex to a safer plot!
Une echappé belle - lucky escape - and could have been much worse! Apparently it had been extremely dry the last few months and the extremely heavy rain through last night must have contributed to the Tree's demise -- Ha Ha! We will inspect for any damage tomorrow but it appears we may have survived with minor scratches to Rex and possibly damage to the TV ariel.

Tomorrow we head off to St Jean D'Angely and a viewing booked for Monday at 9am-What? This means getting up at 7h!!

Sun 13th Sept.
A leisurely drive through possible contender villages - all appeared to have little commerce so crossed off the list. Arrived in St Jean D'Angely in sunshine but soon changed to rain and the usual heaviest and noisiest showers occured aprox 4 am! 

Mon 14th Sept. 
Up early to walk in to the town centre to meet Marc the estate agent in St Jean at 9am.
He showed us a very grand pavillon in the centre with a fantastic pool. Very grand, old school with a prestigious feel. However it was above budget which we prepared to stretch to if if was perfect. It wasn't. It needed a lot of work to update and repair. The elderly owner had just gone to a retirement home. The decor was very grand and floral but probably not changed since the 60s! There was a enormous underground garage with a lounge off it - an enormous man cave! And also a shower/wc and twin bedroom at the back of the garage as well as numerous workrooms - like a bunker. We'd already decided No when Marc dealt the killer blow: the terrace was leaking into the basement and needed repairing - that wasn't in the brochure! En parfait état it said. Someone with a much larger budget than ours will create a beautiful home we're sure - but as in Dragon's Den we had to tell Marc we were "out".

We arranged to view 2 more smaller and cheaper properties on Wednesday and then went on to our next estate agency to meet Carolyn, an English expat working as an agent. She showed us round a beautiful large modernised townhouse with a lovely large garden. It had a sluice in the basement with a canal of swiftly flowing water running through the basement (right through the middle of the house) and into a canal alongside the garden! Apparently this was the remnants of an old mill. You altered the level of the sluice dependent on how high the river was opposite. Although the house was lovely and just on budget we felt it was perhaps too large a garden and we would have to put in a pool. The thought of fast flowing water running through the basement in the winter months when it was not occupied was also a concern - so again we were " out".

Carolyn gave us some good advice re life in the area for expats . She agreed with us that the unamed house was currently overpriced by the owners and was to feedback to them - not sure if the owner would agree to sell it if not priced more sensibly. She also gave us her home telephone number if we should need any further help which was very kind.

We were by this point exhausted and couldn't face another round of estate agent visiting so wandered back to the campsite for a very late lunch. During the evening we pondered on "The Garden House". We prefer Surgères to St. Jean, it's in a good location, it's the right size and price, it has an ensuite (quite rare in France), and an opportunity for us to add value by improvements. What were we doing messing about searching out others? We decide that, as it's due to keep raining for the next few days, why not go back for a second look and then holiday when it's sunny. So that's what we plan. Graham will phone Marc tomorrow and cancel the two viewings and then ring Ingrid, the agent in Surgères to request another viewing.

Tues 15th Sept.
Had a lie in. Graham rings Marc and achieves a small milestone: a conversation on the phone tout en francais - albeit a small one, a personal first. We travel the long way back to Surgères, through Saint Prochaire and Pont L'Abbe d'Arnoult - larger villages with shops and restaurants with shortlisted properties situated within, and have a good walk round. However we are underwhelmed and feel that Surgères town is still our preferred location. Graham rings Ingrid to arrange another viewing of "the Garden House" as this appears to tick all the boxes for us.
So back to Surgères - requesting a tree free pitch at the campsite! We will re-view the house tomorrow am- we hope it will still feel as nice on a second viewing.

Weds 16th Sept.
Just managed to get to our appointment with Ingrid the estate agent at 10.30am!
The weather is horrid - torrential rain!
We revisited the house now named La Maison Pierre (the stone house - not quite, but near enough -ed.). It was even better than we first thought! We met the owners M and Mme Drapeau who were delightful. Spent lots of time measuring and taking photos, asking about insulation, electrics, etc., then back to the office to make an offer. Ingid advised us to make a lower offer than we thought we should. So we left Ingrid to negotiate on our behalf - and left to have a lovely lunch in a local Italian restaurant.
On not hearing from Ingrid we decided to visit the nearest seaside resort Chataleillon Plage - however as it was raining heavily we decided to move inland to Rochefort. As we arrived at the municipal campsite Ingrid rang - another couple viewed the house 2 weeks before with another agency and are seeking finance. The only way to definitely secure the sale is to offer the asking price and sign the sale document today! Be the first! If you offer the asking price in France the vendor HAS to accept and he is it bound by it. No gazumping - good system!

So we drove back to Surgères as quickly as Rex allowed and signed the document.
We returned to Rochefort and on arrival at the site recieved a call from Ingrid to say the owners have signed agreeing our purchase and it is ours! They are happy, we are happy. They will be leaving all the beds upstairs and some other items of furniture as they are downsizing to an apartment by the sea. We think they felt sorry for us paying the top price! Nothing wrong with emotional blackmail! And part of us felt we should pay a premium as we are foreigners, and the other interested party are local. A bit like a second home tax but it cuts out the middleman and goes straight to the owner.

No Champagne available so we celebrated with a strong beer! Let the adventure begin! Soit commencer l'aventure!

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Cote de Rhone - Zeebrugge

Day  22. May 28th.  St Jean de Muzols. 

A lazy late start with breakfast al fresco in sun and a cloudless sky.
We decided to cycle in to Tournon - sur- Rhone the next town from St Jean. It is linked by some dramatic bridges to Tain l'Hermitage. One of the bridges is for pedestrians or cyclists so we took that!

Both these places are departure and stop off places for river cruises.

In Tain l'Hermitage is La Cité du Chocolat - Valrhona - a name Carol recognises from the posh chocolate shelves in Waitrose. There is a paying tour which takes you through the various processes and tastings but we arrived and entered the boutique - we guess the shop at the end of the tour.
This was a chocolate lovers dream! There were so many different chocolates to try - and all for for free!

They had this great chocolate dispenser, you didn't even have to ask, just put your hand in to collect all that lovely chocolate. The dispensers are at the bottom. If you look closely you can see the descriptions are in French and American.  When one is empty it just gets filled up again. Milky chocolate on the right, darker chocolate to the left. 

The place was full of a party from a Vikings river cruise - Americans mostly, Australians, British etc. they were filling their boots just as we were - like labradors in a sausage factory! 

We bought several future gifts of said posh chocolate and were given loads of free samples in our bag also - as though we hadn't already eaten enough free samples.  We left feeling we'd consumed the equivalent of a 3 course meal - of chocolate- which we probably had!
Gift bag containing bought gifts and beaucoup d'échantillon.

Cycled by the boat SS Catherine which was where the Viking River Cruise people had come from. It is a brand new boat -an American we had spoke with in the shop said it was a lovely cruise - food, wine, tours all had been good. They had travelled from Avignon and were en route to Beaune tomorrow. Looks a great way to travel. (Have always wanted to know what those Viking River Cruises from the telly looked like - C)

Back to Tournon- sur- Rhone and a visit to the shop of Paul Jaboulet Aine - a wine producer. It also had a restaurant attached - very civilised. After a tasting of - yes - the cheaper wines - we purchased a couple of bottles of white, a rose and a red just to keep us going. 
Then peddled quickly back to the site before our luxury chocolate melted in the hot sunshine.

Back to the pool - too full of chocs for lunch - there followed a late lunch ( 3.30pm) enjoyed with a glass of the purchased rose - this is the life! (see Graham south is best! - C )

There followed another period of dossing as Graham would say. Tomorrow the weather forecast is more of the same - this is definately more like it!

Day 23. May 29th.   St Jean de Muzols.

Another lazy day starting with a leisurely breakfast al fresco.
Cycled back to Tournon - sur - Rhone - think it's about a 10 km round trip. This time found a way through side streets so avoiding the one car every two minutes main road. We did a walking tour through Tournon which was larger than we had thought and then walked across the road bridge to Tain l'Hermitage. 

We came out just a few minutes away from the chocolate place ,Carol was tempted briefly to have a go at another lunch of chocolate but decided against it. She was disappointed she had not forward planned - what if we'd filled our pockets with sandwich bags and filled them with all the yummy samples?! We could have made gift bags for free!

Walked along the river side and back over the pedestrian bridge to Touron sur Rhône. A lovely way to spend a couple of hours.

Back for another al fresco lunch and a chiiled glass of rosé or two (purchased yesterday.) followed another afternoon by the pool. Tomorrow we will move on back north - not sure where we will spend tomorrow night, we will decide on the weather when we get there, but we need to start heading north.

Will be sad to leave this sunny laid back site. Temperatures have been between 23-28 degrees - very pleasant.

Score for Camping le Castelet - 9.8/10 - would have been a 10 but that is impossible. It is a family run site and our hosts are lovely - the happiest couple we've ever met, nothing is too much trouble for them. This is the best site this year. 

Day 24. May 30th St Jean de Muzols - Chagny 162 miles.

A day on the road as we slowly move up north. Back to Burgundy and the hope of more wine tasting tomorrow! Mostly time spent on the péage motorway.

Arrived at our Campsite mid afternoon and after settling on our pitch decided to walk in to Chagny centre. It was so quiet! It's Saturday for goodness sake! The only thing we noticed was there were an amazing number of Patisseries - obvious a town of sweet tooths. 
Also the town has a 3 michelin starred restuarant - cheapest table d'hote meal €135 and cheapest wine €50. Noticed another place round the corner - table d 'hote €31 (now that's more like it - G)
Dinner chez Rex and an early night. Another nothing day today.

Day 25 May 31st. ( Mother's day in France) Chagny - Savaney cycled 17 kms.

Walked in to Chagny centre this AM - it was heaving! Market day. The biggest market we've ever seen!
We recognised a few stall holders from when we went to Beaune.

Lots of people buying floral gifts as it is Mothers Day. Massive queues for the cooked chicken stalls - which were cooking potatoes and veg in the dripped chicken fat below the rotisseries. Decided to join them and bought a chicken to have for lunch chez Rex. You could either have the chicken as it was, or with another bag ful off juice and vegetables - ready made Sunday lunch, yum yum.

Not only cooked chickens were for sale but very much alive ones of varying breeds and geese and chicks! Choose your chicken, put him in a box and carry him home. €11.00. We've heard they are good for keeping snakes at bay, maybe that's why they're so popular.

Back at the campsite Graham decided to check out the pool - it didn't exist. Conned again. The pool was municipal around the corner so he went to investigate. The lady told him it was €1 all day and heated to 28^C. Duly paid a euro and had the pool to himself, along with the ticket lady, the clothes lady, and two lifeguards. The pool was 25m x 15m x 1.8m at one end rising to 3.5m at the other. How much would that cost to heat every morning?

After lunch we cycled in to Santernay for more wine tasting along a lovely canalside path through picturesque countryside. Santernay is another beau village similar to Mersault.

The first cave presented wines that even we did not like!  But further up the hill the grand Chateau de Santenay did. 

Pushed the boat out and bought a couple of magnums of white for a certain person's special birthday bash. (Dinner to now be pizza from the site pizzeria rather than posher fare in town - but C happy to sacrifice this for her friends!)

Back via the canal.
Tomorrow we head for Champagne - another long drive but we're not too concerned as a rainy day is predicted - better to travel then!

Day 26. Chagny - Epernay  212 miles.

Up and at them for 10.30am ready to go - reception shut at 10am. Arggh! They have our ACSI card so can't leave without it!
Decided to go to Challons-sur-Saone about 10 kms away to do last big shop and fill up with petrol (85p a litre ha ha!). Passed the time visiting an enormous Carrefour and then on to - gasp- McDonalds for lunch! Carol much impressed that Heineken lager is included in a meal deal. At least one of us was happy.

Back to the site and Graham managed to persuade the reception to open and let him pay at 2.30 pm.
A dash down the péage motorway over some of the most boring countryside to Epernay (200 miles thereabouts) followed. €37 later - they classed us as a class 2 vehicle! We know we've enjoyed our food but how did they know! (Any more wine in our van and we'll be a class 3 - Ed.)

So, 85p/litre at 30mpg for 200 miles + €37 tolls @ 1.39£/€ vs £1.35/litre no tolls. Who's the winner? No tolls hands down. Diesel would have to be almost free to draw even with tolled roads.

A warm welcome at the municipal site in Epernay. When we asked the nice man at reception if Champagne Ayala was far he replied no, and would we like him to ring for us to arrange a tasting? Seeing as his french was a lot better than Graham's we said YES PLEASE! A certain birthday boy needs a Magnum of something special next month. 

Day 27 Epernay

Good news! We are booked in to Ayala at 4pm for a degustation. We walk round Epernay peering through locked gilded gates and wonder where everyone is. Last time we came to Reims and Epernay we remember buses with hourdes of tourists queueing up at all the major houses for tours but now there is nothing. All the major houses either charge for tasting and don't offer tours, or do not open to the public at all. Only Mercier continues to publicly open it's doors for visits.

The garden at Möet undergoing refurb.

Möet is shut for refurbishment, Pol Roger is a no no, likewise Perrier Jouet, most gates are locked. We look up Ayala. Ayala is on the up, at 300,00 bottles it is now a boutique arm of Bollinger and does tasting by appointment only and definitely no tours. Ooer, we are turning up all sweaty on bikes again and worry if we've bitten off more than we can chew.

We arrive early, and kick around Ay for a few minutes until just decently early. One of us manages to stay awake.

We mull over why we were visiting Ayala. Graham being under the delusion that we bought Ayala for his 40th birthday when we had a weekend trip to Champagne. The building that we approached today bore no resemblance to the shed in the vineyards that we remember - perhaps we'd visited a lesser marque - a producer for the local co operative perhaps?!

Anyway, Emily at Ayala was extremely welcoming, spoke perfect English, and gave us a very unhurried private tasting of four cuvées. Brut Majure, Rosé, Nature (no second dosage - that is no extra sugar for the non connoisseur!), and the vintage, La Perle. Each bottle opened just for us. Then we asked for the price list...

It's a steal, given the current exchange rate, so we buy more than we planned, and as much as we can carry. 

Day 28 - Epernay to Brugge 220 miles

Dull day today so liesurely drive to Brugge so we have a short hop to the ferry the day after.

We arrive at the campsite about 3:30 and walked into the centre. A rather long 40 mins walk.

Passed by all the usual sites - the picturesque canals,

And the beautiful buildings

and peered in the innumerous beer and chocolate shops (unfortunately got carried away in Valrhona so can't justify more purchases!)

Had dinner outside facing the main square - a very touristy place but very pleasant and reasonably priced. The sound of the bells from the Belfry tolling every 15 minutes was a little distracting - not just a mere ding dong but full on tunes like - "it's a long way toTipperary" ! 

Graham enjoyed a local beer

During dinner there was a series of trumpet calls - apparently some local beauracrats were attending a civil meeting - the trumpeters looked snazzy though! Carol managed to dash to the steps from her restuarant seat like the paparazzi to get a good shot.

A lovely evening and our last night of our tour... Tomorrow evening we get the ferry back from Zeebrugge.

Day 29. Brugge - Zeebrugge and overnight to Hull 26 miles

We have a day to kill so had a lazy start and breakfast al fresco follwed by a visit to the local Carrefour for last minute wine and beer purchases.

We decide to find a coastal place to take lunch in and chill before the evening ferry crossing.

Carol has been struck down by la grippe - man flu or a severe cold virus, so after a sleepless night opted to stay in Rex for lunch and a lie down whilst Graham explored the beach at Wennduine with a picnic, almost on his own.

A little nearer to Zeebrugge we had a wander round Brandeburge, a large seaside resort with a 1,000 boat marina (oh how Graham likes a marina!) The place appeared to be a sophisicated Cleethorpes but had nothing Cleethorpes had: tattoo shops, amusement arcades, and a couple of things Cleethorpes doesn't have: sun, beach bars. Oh yes, and did we mention the marina?

We were a little early for the ferry and after a minor hiccup when we tried to drive on to a ferry to Finland not Hull much to the crew's amusement! - we boarded and so began our homeward journey..... A la prochaine!
A photo of map of our route - just readable if you squint enough!!