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 #23618  by ColinW
 Sun May 01, 2011 5:16 pm
I was a bit later than usual starting off after tasting the wines, so with the GPS still set on shortest distance carried on through the rural parts of Aquitane and Bordeaux, missing out the city. At one point near the river Gironde I drove over a canal so found a park and went for a bike ride. I soon came across a group of Scottish cyclists who were doing the 200km of the canal from the Atlantic to Toulouse. Canal paths are very popular with cyclists as there are no hills. At the town of Castlesarrasin I saw an Aire by the canal so I doubled back, drove there and parked-up – it had a sump for emptying the toilet cassette and a fresh water hose – two things I needed. I got the bike down again and set off further east. It was mainly agricultural land growing vines, maize and grain crops, interspersed with random industrial complexes, some quite large. This canal, the Canal Lateral a la Gironde, runs parallel to the river in many places and is much nicer to cycle than the Midi, which is lined with trees both sides so you are always in the shade and its water is very polluted.

When I got back to the Aire it was full of vans and some were spilling outside the designated area. There were some gendarmes giving a chap in a house-bus a hard time – he had already been there the maximum of two nights and they forced him to move on. The French, like the British are very wary of gypsies who can set up camp where they are not wanted. I walked to the town square about a km away but all the shops were shut – I had a nice coffee and roll at a crowded café. As I found with most metropolitan Aires, it was quite noisy at night – it was a no exit road, but kids on trail-bikes were going up and down the canal path all night.

After Castelsarrasin I was back into less populated hillier country with the cattle Limousin is renown for. I kept avoiding the main roads and had to put-up with GPS continually saying “recalculating”. About mid-day I got to Oradour-sur-Glane, but it was not the old town I was looking for. I went to an “I” kiosk and got directed to the scene of one of WW11’s greatest atrocities. A German SS officer had been captured by the French Resistance in Oradour-sur-Vrayes, about 25km away. The SS high-command sent troops to negotiate for his return, but they went to the wrong place and when they couldn’t find their man, they systematically slaughtered all 642 people in the town – then they raised the town to hide the evidence. After the war only a handful of the offenders were punished – most had been killed defending Normandy or had changed their identity. The old town has been preserved as a memorial, complete with burnt-out and rusting Citroens. A new town was eventually built and recently a good information centre. It was a spine chilling experience to go there and I’m indebted to the old man at the vineyard for telling me about it. See
Oradour as the German SS left it
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 #23623  by ColinW
 Sun May 01, 2011 8:02 pm
I spent the night in the Oradour car-park, despite a Frenchman pointing in protest to a sign I couldn’t understand. I wasn’t the only van there. In the morning I set off for the Atlantic coast, first to Rochfort where there is the internationally recognised Musée National de la Marine. Rochfort (not the one the cheese comes from) is an old port about 10 km up the windy, muddy River Charente from the Atlantic. It is based by the Royal Rope Works – a magnificent stone building about 500 m long and built on a timber raft in the swampy ground. They still have one of the original rope making machines which twists the fibres into strands and then twists the strands into rope.
An old rope making machine c1700
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One section of the museum was dedicated to early maps and nautical charts, and some very old navigational equipment. Another section had a magnificent selection of paintings and models spread over two floors of an old naval barracks. There was also a collection of figureheads.

For me, the highlight of the visit was l’Hermione. This is a 1700s design three-mast frigate under construction from the original plans, using traditional materials but with modern tools. The original Hermione was built by over 100 craftsmen in less than a year in 1778. She was the ship La Fayette used in support of the Americans in their War of Independence. Construction of the new Hermione started in 1997 by a small team and still has a long way to go. They have used 2000 oak trees for her construction. The whole ship is in a huge tent covering an original dry dock. Nearby are workshops where they are making the long-boats, fittings and the cannons.
Building a new 1700s frigate
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 #23649  by ColinW
 Mon May 02, 2011 12:03 pm
From Rochfort it was only about 30 km to La Rochelle, another old port, right on the Atlantic. It is very much a tourist destination and in the mid-afternoon, finding a car-park was a problem. I saw a road-sign pointing to an Aire, so followed that. It was part of a municipal car-park and had a free bus to the port, but cost 10 euro for the night. The old port is quite famous – it was built in medieval times and has two towers guarding the narrow entrance. From the top of the towers you can get a good view of the city. In old times they used to hang a chain across the harbour entrance at night to keep out raiders and pirates. The towers have been used as prisons and there is graffiti in English scratched into the limestone blocks. There is a third tower that was a very early lighthouse.
La Rochelle harbour entrance guarded by two towers
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After the towers I wandered through the square - it is a real tourist trap. Besides the usual cafes and icecream stalls there were all kinds of jugglers, acrobats and mime artists.
I took a electric powered ferry across the harbour - the batteries were charged by solar panels.
See what they call a life-jacket in France
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I went to the Maritime Museum where there is a good selection of well preserved 20th century vessels. From there it was a couple of km to the modern marina with over 2000 yachts and power boats. By then things were closing down so I walked back to the old town with its narrow streets. At one point I saw people going into the Protestant church and seeing a sign for a free concert decided to join them. It was a local soprano accompanied by various musicians and all very good. From what I could figure this Protestant church was one of the few that survived the Wars of Religion.

I eventually found the bus-stop back to the Aire and went back to the van. There were about 30 vans parked-up. As usual, it was noisy – there is a railway track near-by and not too far away a open-air rock concert went on till mid-night,
 #23798  by ColinW
 Thu May 05, 2011 12:19 pm
I was running out of time – just one night left so I needed an early start – that wasn’t hard as the first trains rumbled by at daybreak. I took the ring-road around La Rochelle and headed with the GPS set to ‘fastest time’ for Tours in the Loire Valley as I wanted to see some of the chateaux in the ‘valley of kings’. As I approached Tours I saw a sign to Chateau Azay-le-Rideau so turned off. I missed the sign to the car-park and had to carry on up a hill through the town’s narrow streets before I found a round-about to turn and come back. It was just on their opening time so plenty of parking was available. This was one of the earliest of the renaissance style chateau and was built in the early 1500s. It is well preserved, has the typical steep roofs, turrets and towers and is approached down an avenue then a bridge over the river. Inside is a veritable treasure house of art and antiques.
Chateau Azay-le-Rideau
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From there it wasn’t far to a chateau I’d picked from a guide book – Chateau Villandry. This is famous for the renaissance style gardens, which are maintained by 18 full-time gardeners. The chateau has an interesting history – it had been confiscated from the original aristocratic family of owners in the French revolution, Napoleon’s brother had lived there and in the early 20th century the gardens had been restored by a couple – he was a French doctor and she was English – heiress to the Coleman’s mustard estate – their descendants still live in one wing.
Chateau Villandry and part of the renaissance gardens
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It was about 100 km to my next destination and as I drove there I saw numerous signs to other chateaux so drove in to have a look at some of them – some I couldn’t see, but some were in dominant positions with views over the valley. My next stop was Chateau de Chambord, one of France’s most famous. It had been built by King Francois I as a hunting lodge and my thoughts when I first saw it were that it was no wonder that the French had a revolution. It is surrounded by 50 square km of deer forest inside a 32 km long wall. Francois chose the site because it was close to his mistress, who was the wife of a nobleman. A village was destroyed to make way for the chateau, which may have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci as it contains a double spiral staircase attributed to him. The staircase serves as a light-well and on the roof is an ornate skylight. The whole place is huge and extraordinary ornate. Apart from apartments in the four corners it is very open-plan having been built for summer hunting. The king’s father-in-law, who was the exiled king of somewhere in eastern Europe was given residence there but caught pneumonia in his first winter there and died. In WW2 it was used by arrangement with the Germans as a repository for art from the Louvre and other Paris galleries.

I stayed at Chambord till closing time then headed north to a Aire on a motorway near le Mans where I spent a relatively quiet night in the company of a couple of German camper-vans.
Last edited by ColinW on Fri May 06, 2011 9:04 am, edited 2 times in total.
 #23804  by ColinW
 Thu May 05, 2011 3:48 pm
Chateau Chambord in the Loire Valley
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The day of my departure was a Sunday, and in my excitement to see as many chateaux as possible I’d forgotten to fuel-up. From le Mans I followed the motorway and there was no sign of any service stations being open. I searched the GPS for food shops and there was a le Clerke supermarket not far away so went there - I was relieved to find that although the supermarket was shut, the self-serve fuel was working. The system was different to other self-serves but I eventually figured out how to use it.
I pushed on towards the ferry at Caen when I saw a sign to Chateau Guillaume le Conquerante (William the Conqueror’s Castle), so having plenty of time to spare I went for a look. On the field near the car-park was a mock medieval camp where guys were dressed in old garb and engaging in medieval sports. The castle itself was most impressive. It had been occupied by the Germans during WW2 and was largely destroyed by the allies after the Normandy landings. It is now fully restored, and the interior has modern décor. Some of the panels in the castle referred to William’s Norse ancestry, so on the way out I asked a group of guides if they regarded him as French or Norse. Their first response was that that didn’t call him William the Conqueror, but called him William the Bastard. His father was Norse and had come to Normandy for a bit of rape and pillage – William was the result.
William the Conqueror's Castle
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I’d checked with Condor Ferries and their ferry was repaired so I was in Caen in good time to catch it. Near the port there were some big liquor wholesalers so I pulled into one and bought some more duty-frees to take back to the UK. The ferry crossing was quite smooth and when I got to Portsmouth I was one of the first off the ferry. The woman at the immigration desk spent a long time checking my passport and then asked me to pull over to be checked. I was worried about the excess of duty-free grog I had but they weren’t concerned about that. They gave me a grilling on why I was in the UK, how much money I had, and generally a hard time. In the meantime I could see hoardes of Germans and other europeans pouring in. Thankfully they let me in.

Since last July I’ve had time to reflect on this trip. Two years previously, not long after my wife died, I’d had a stroke and lost a lot of confidence – this trip got me going again. I’m glad I did it, even though it was expensive and not easy at times. I had the first week in a campsite with friends, but in the other three weeks I was in France I did 4000 miles and I only saw a fraction of the place. It is BIG, but driving is easy once you’ve mastered driving on the right. There are some funny rules to obey – each vehicle has to have a spare set of light bulbs (but not the tools to change them), a fluro vest, a safety triangle, and RHD vehicles must have a set of headlight deflectors. One thing I was very conscious of was being by myself – I saw lots of great views and unusual sights, but there was nobody to say “see that” to. Another thing is that it made me very conscious that there is a lot of history not taught in NZ schools and we have so little history here.
The French are an arrogant lot and don’t like the English (one Frenchman told me that they had a lot in common with the English, like the Battle of Hastings, the Hundred Years War and the Battle of Waterloo), but once they realise you’re a Kiwi, things immediately change for the better. I was planning to go back this year but I’m having a new house built and have to stick around to keep an eye on that – perhaps I’ll make it next year. In the meantime my camper-van is parked-up in a barn near Edinburgh.
Thanks to those of you who sent me messages about these posts.
Last edited by ColinW on Fri May 06, 2011 9:11 am, edited 4 times in total.
 #23806  by Rocky
 Thu May 05, 2011 4:56 pm
Have enjoyed your stories. Maybe a book is next.
Thanks for the insight.....Les
 #23807  by willinda
 Thu May 05, 2011 5:04 pm
I have enjoyed the recount of your travels in France.Thank you Colin.
 #80914  by ColinW
 Sat Sep 13, 2014 10:03 pm
I'm just back from another trip around France. Not solo anymore! A couple of years ago I met a lovely widow lady who lives near me in Mapua and for the last two winters we have enjoyed travelling in the French summer together.
This year we set off from the UK on the P&O ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge in Belgium. Had two days each in Brugge and Ghent. In Brugge we paid 20euro a night to stay in a cramped aire, but it was worth it. The old city was only a 15 min walk away - very scenic with old buildings interlaced with canals. Discovered cherry flavoured beer - very nice. In Ghent we stayed at the municipal camp, a short bus ride to the old town. The weather wasn't the best and we spent hours sitting under cafe umbrellas watching the crowds deal with frequent downpours.
That was all we had time for in Belgium So drove south through Lorraine and Champange to Burgandy. Followed the wine trail to the Loire Valley to meet up with French friends. Then to the Atlantic Coast and the historic city of La Rochelle - a good free aire near town - good daily market and good galleries and museums.
We slowly made our way back through Brittany which I find a very good place to tour - no toll roads is an advantage. Followed the two major canals that cross the region - spent a few days at Redon which is where they cross. Then back to familiar territory in Normandy, and Le Havre where we revisited the Muma gallery before taking the ferry to Portsmouth. Then a round of visiting friends in the South of England before heading off to Scotland and parking the van in a relatives barn.

Now we are home we are thinking that being past 70 we may sell the van and limit our future travels.

If anybody is interested in buying a good camper in the UK please contact me. It is a year 2000 Autosleeper Pollensa - if you Google that you will find photos from dealers. It is on a Peugeot Boxer chassis with a 2.8 litre diesel (beware of British vans with 2.2, or 1.9 engines). Mileage is about 55,000. Two new tires a couple of years ago and new house battery and rooflight this year. Has solar panel, bike rack and two bikes. It is fully equipped with bedding, pots and pans etc - just bring your clothes, fill the water tank and go. Has MOT and tax to June 2015. Insurance is organised - they will need letter to prove your no claims status to get best rate. Overs over GBP12,000, or NZ$ equivalent.


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