Le dernier article (pour le moment)

Trundling along on our way to the Loire, checked the weather forecast and it showed heavy rain. Not fans of too much driving in the rain so we pulled off at Montmorillon, found the municipal campsite and settled in for 48 hours. As you would then expect we had about 25 minutes of rain! Never mind “tidy Friday” was completed, we had the campsite to ourselves and visited somewhere we had previously never heard of.

Montmorillon is is bi-famous (if that’s a word), firstly for macaroons – there is even a macaroon museum. For the sake of not missing we visited the oldest macaron bakery in town which was established in 1920, Maison Rannou-Métivier. There were some free samples, but not the coloured shinny ones a’la Mary Berry – these were like weird little cakey biscuits. At a price or €15 for 6 tiny cakes – we passed.

Secondly for books, it’s the Wigtown of France. Known as the Citie De L’Ecrit, there are more small bookshops than you could shake a feather quill at, surprisingly even one that specialises in English books.  The town is your typical medieval affair, old cobbled street up the hill at the top of which is an 11th century hospital come monastery.  One claim they don’t make is for giant sized objects, however we found a few including a fairly large pile of books and a massive bike.

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With just over a week left we were planning to spend most of the time around the Loire. We arrived at the white-town of Saumar, a place where everyone seems just a bit too cool and trendy when you have been travelling for 4 months and don’t own an iron! For us it’s the Lake District of France, so many lovely things to see which equals more people than you really want to see doing the same things as you. We did have a quick pit stop for lunch at the chateau, one of the iconic images of the area and worth battling with the crowds to park up outside and brew up.

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Chateau at Saumur

We ended up a few km along the river at Turquant. More our style, a small village set just back off the Loire that contains a great number of troglodyte dwellings, many of which are now part of the arts and crafts village. By early evening the village was filling up fast, the small aire we were on was packed to overflowing with more motorhomes arriving late into the evening. The arty people were opening up for the season so a good few had demonstrations taking place in their gardens, their were bands and food-stalls booked for the main opening day, of course that was going to be the day after we left.

We moved off in the morning deciding that further along the Loire maybe quieter. on route we came across the village of Rochemenier, one of the most complete cave (troglodyte) villages in the Loire.  The museum is two former farms that were inhabited until the 1960’s. Fascinating to walk through the caves and see how people lived – and we loved that as the family grew the parents just carved out another nook in the limestone walls to place an extra bed. There is a constant temperature of 12 degrees in the caves, so no we wont be moving into one anytime soon :).

Les Ponts De Ce

We finally found somewhere that took our fancy just outside Angers, on a small island at the town of Les Ponts de Ce. The site had just opened for the season so we spread out and took advantage of having it to ourselves. From outside the gate more fabulous Voie Vert cycle paths,  on the first day we cycled along the Loire, miles of cycle path and quiet farm lanes, we hardly saw a soul. We stopped for lunch by a bridge and soaked up the sunshine, looks like the tourists don’t arrive in this area just yet as only us at the picnic area sitting watching the river rush by.

The next day we headed in the opposite direction, along the river for a few miles and then intending to head up and around Angers on the long loop back to camp. Just as we arrived outside the city the heavens opened, being prepared as always (never) we didn’t have any wet weather gear with us. Thus we needed to get back to camp and that meant the route straight through the city. There were cycle paths they but to the French they mean nothing in the city. Bendy-buses are going to win any disagreement over who owns the lane, cars nipping in and out of side streets are also not to be messed with. By the time we were back I was not at all worried about being soaked to the skin – more my nerves were in shreds and I needed a strong tipple to steady them after surviving the French road systems best attempts at taking me off my bike.

With just a couple of days left we hopped over to Brittany to catch up on the the attractions we missed in the fog on the way down.  Mont St. Michel has been high on our list to see for a long time, we pulled into the car-park, took the ticket from the barrier machine and were then just a little startled to see the price for parking ping up at €124!!! As we were both climbing back up off the van floor a lovely French mademoiselle came scurrying up on her bicycle to tell us we  had inadvertently entered the coach park and needed to move to the next car-park being the one for motorhomes. Even then it was €17.90 and we were sure we could find cheaper.

Mont St. Michel – absolutely worth the return visit

We drove a couple of km down the road to a Camperstop, €10.80 for the night all in – more our range. We took the bikes off and cycled back toward the causeway. We had been told there was a restriction on taking bikes over, but plenty were riding down so we followed suit. Sign of the times I guess, but we were a bit disappointed to see they have built a bridge over the causeway. We cycled over, mixing in with walkers, the local buses and horses and carts, with over 3 million visitors a year time and tide really doesn’t wait for man here – the bridge means its now a constant throng in each direction.

Last few days we have spent along the coast between St. Malo and Cancale, it has been a bit of a culture shock to see so many people. Cancale was packed to the rafters, bars and restaurants all fulled to overflowing with people eating and drinking and not a parking space to be seen. As its known as the oyster capital of France we didn’t feel we were missing out too much on the particular village. From the viewing point above the village we both felt Cancale could easily pass itself off as Tobermory if they used a few pastel paints and moved the church a few hundred yards. From there we drove right around the headland, but with only a couple of days we missed out on so many walks and cycle rides we have decided to go back in the autumn for a few weeks summer holiday.

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Cancale

We left possibly our biggest surprise to the very last – St. Malo. Expecting just another port were were stunned at what a beautiful town it is. We hadn’t left enough time to see anything other than quick cursory glance around from the van – another reason to return. The weather has been amazingly kind to us this trip, we have counted less then 8 days rain in just under 4 months. Iain looks incredibly well for all the sun – I on the other hand am suffering from insisting on wearing sunglasses all the time, I bear more than a passing resemblance to Ronnie Racoon!

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A picture of health 

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And so another trip ends, but one always ends with plans for the next one. So it’s back to work, save some money and 2018 we plan to head for Russia, Finland and some more of the Baltics.

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France – South West and middle bits

Not sure how or where but we arrived in France! We pulled off the main road and saw road-signs saying France was in 1km but nothing really happened, no border signs, nothing we were just suddenly there. We were on the coast looking back at San Sebastian – seemed very built up so we gave the coast a miss – probably not the best thing to do but we can always come again.

We fancied visiting Lourdes, somewhat surprised to find nearly 5 hours drive (it was only 6 hours from our starting point at Navarre in Spain?). Putting hands in pockets we paid the tolls and €18 and 2 and half hours later arrived in Lourdes. First thing, where were all the people? so quiet we could not believe it. We visited the grotto, literally us and five other people there. Inside the Basilicas it was very much the same, a few people milling around but no crowds anywhere.

Lourdes France (4)We thought we would try our luck and see what the queues were like for the baths. Iain was straight in – no queue for men. I waited 40 minutes which wasn’t too bad. We were both totally unaware of what this was going to entail. Basically, it’s skinny dipping with several other people you have never met, whilst praying, in the coldest water you can imagine.                                                                                    

 (not our photo – pinched from internet

You go into a bath area which looks like a hospital ward, strip off, whilst an assistant stands holding a cloak behind you. As you are called into the actual bath they wrap a wet sheet around you to preserve your modesty as they whip off your cloak. Two assistants walk you to the bath, you step in and walk forward, then as they say prayers they pull you backwards so you are sitting down up to your neck in water than less then 11 degrees i.e.. absolutely freezing.  So much so it took my breathe away, I couldn’t breathe or speak, I honestly thought I was going to be the first person who died in the baths instead of being cured 😦 :(.  The two assistants seemed to notice my inability to breathe or join in with the St Bernadette prayers and whisked me out fairly pronto. Once you are out they hold up a sheet and tell you to get dressed – no towels, only wimps get dried first – just pop on all your clothes whilst you are soaking wet – awesome.

It is an fascinating place to visit, the various churches and basilicas are in the main incredible to see, although the underground St. Pius did, to us, resemble a concrete car-park with seating for 25,000. There are more shops selling religious artifacts than you could ever imagine. Bernadette graces everything from pens to candles to jackets to jewellery, with prices from a few cents to upwards of thousands of Euro.  And to cap it off there is a castle dating from the 11th century right in the centre of town, perched high on a hill it gives wonderful views over the town and the Sanctuary.

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Lourdes – taken from  the castle

Winding our way up through France we happened upon Condom. It would be easy to be immature, I cannot believe there is a Brit who visits who doesn’t have a school-child snigger!! Ok, that aside, its actually a lovely place. It doesn’t seem to have a major claim to fame and therefore is low on the tourist trail rankings. The main street is the usual cobbled affair with shops dedicated to the local specialities of Armagnac and Foie Gras, alongside some tres chic boutiques and cafes. At the lower end of town the Baise river runs out through several miles of parkland, we found a beautiful free aire a few miles along and called that home.

 

The only other main claim to fame for Condom is its connection to D’Artagnan and his Three Musketeers.  He was born in a castle nearby and hence the town has a very large reminder of him placed firmly in the town square.

We were unaware of the number of Bastide towns in the South West of France, again our ignorance meant we thought there were one or two fortified medieval towns, and yet it seems there must be many more (we found out later over 500) as we passed one every few miles. Those we visited, including our favourite Vianne, were very un-touristy, just a few shops and a cafe or two in a small square, considering they date back to between 1200 and 1400 the walls are astonishingly complete.

Traversing the Midi Pyrenees we were aiming to find a decent canal path for a good bike ride. Our best bet looked to be the Canal Garonne, miles of towpath and not a road in sight.  We had a night at the start of the canal but decided to move on to an aire 15 km up the road to cycle from. As we neared the aire, literally 3 km away we hit a diversion. My French is way to poor too understand what it was about other than we were too wide and only 1 cm under the height restriction. Therefore we followed the yellow divertion signs, and followed them and followed them. We stopped at Tonneins for a lunch break and re-stock of the cupboards, then we got on the diversion trail again.

Tonneins

We finally arived, an hour later and over 35 km detoured. At this stage Iain convisgated my Sat Nav for a look.  Lets just say he wasn’t the most pleased he has ever been. The low bridge was about 1 km after the aire we were heading for – so we really didn’t need to take the detour at all! From my view adds to the trip – from his – adds to the fuel 🙂

The canal cycle ride was worth the minor skirmishes, mile after mile – all off road and not another soul to be seen barring our good selves. We planned for a stop for coffee and something cakey at the first cafe, not a great plan as we didn’t see an open cafe in over 40 miles of cycling. 

This region of France is challenging for campsites at this time of year. Open ones do not appear to exist. Sure we have found websites showing campsite, we arrive they aren’t open. It drives me mad. We went to Duras, purely to get a campsite and do some washing. The kindly British owner told us he wasn’t going to open for a few more weeks – then why advertise including a hoarding on the nearest roundabout saying open? On the upside Duras threw up a quick visit to the chateau and the lady on the information offered us a free night parking around the back!

Chateau Duras

It was then time for us to sample the delights on the famous Dordogne. We followed the river across and came across beautiful village after beautiful village. It does get a bit confusing though, some villages are “one of the most beautiful” others “one of the plus most” etc. etc. Suffice to say its all a bit over-whelming. Just when we thought we had seen the best of something, another one pops up ahead and its even better than the last.

The Dordogne

We ‘happened’ across Limeuil (wrong turn, not mine), apparently this one comes in the “Plus Beau” category, easy to see why to be fair. A steep walk up to the top of the village where every house would have looked perfect on next years kitchen calendar. We missed the one where  the exit of the latrine falls straight out to the path right below! It is hard to miss that so many of the voices your hear are English, in a small village I heard several people in gardens and around the lanes speaking English, a few German and even a couple of French :).  We have met several Brits living in France, at least half of whom tell us they don’t really speak French as they don’t need to. Must have badges if you live here then as we find most of the French want us to speak in French, although we are pretty sure its just for their own amusement.

Limeuil – Dordogne

After a final night in St. Cyprien we left the chocolate box land and headed into Limousin. Still any number of cutesy villages but it much less touristy.  We did stop off at Brantome, an island village totally surrounded by a river, unlucky for us we arrived on a Monday and nothing at all was open, so we had a quick scoot around and moved on. Driving around we saw more and more empty and derelict buildings, we were told its one of the cheapest areas in France to buy property, obviously we then visited a few estate agents 🙂 yup we can just about afford a shed and that would need some renovation.

 

For us we had two reasons to visit Limousin, first to ride the Voie Vert cycle path at Chalus, yet another old railway line, as it our addiction. Yet more perfect piste for cycling used by no-one other than us. The cyclist here seem to prefer the roads, although quiet they are mainly hills – whereas railway lines are fairly flat so we will stick with them.  Lucky for us the chateau at Chalus was closed, if not then I as an Englishwoman (Iain wouldn’t have felt obligated as a Welshman) would have needed to visit the place where Richard the Lionheart died – and more importantly where his entrails are still held – how yuck is that? (other parts are scattered around France).

The other reason was to visit Oradour Sur Glane, where 642 men, women and children were slaughtered by the SS in June 1944, the town was then pretty much destroyed.  A new town was built after the war but the original town was left as was as a memorial. The entrance is underground and leads through some exhibitions from where you are free to walk through to the memorial village. It really speaks for itself, buildings and cars left as they were after the massacre. Plaques on the remains of many of the houses just show the family name and the profession of the occupants.  At the church where the women and children were killed there are some very simple plaques and prayers, and along the streets are plaques that tell of people being tortured or bodies found in certain places, you cannot fail to be touched by the horrors that took place.

As usual we were lucky with the time of year we are visiting as very few people around. Although we had been told that taking photographs was prohibited at one time there was no restriction as the few people there were wandering around with cameras mainly observing the requests for silence.  We both felt very privileged to have been able to visit Oradour, I think it will stay with us for a long time to come.

Eleven more days for us before its time to head for the high seas. Forecast of storms tomorrow then good weather to see us through to the ferry – here’s hoping 🙂 🙂

 

France 2017

After a long stint back in the Salt Mines we are back out on the road for four months. Destination sunshine, but instead of the usual Santander crossing we took the Poole – Cherbourg route this time. Horrendous journey down to Poole, accidents galore and way too much traffic on the roads, 8 hours later we arrived at Poole where they kindly allow you to park up overnight on the dock for the princely sum of £5.

Next morning we were loaded on the Brittany ferry pronto and off, blue skies, calm seas and a fabulous breakfast saw us through the 4 hours and arrival at Cherbourg.

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We headed off to the coast for a free stop at the Plage Sciotot  (N 49 30 2.1  W 1 50 50.4) A few hardy souls around but as night fell everyone left except us and a few surfer vans.  We congratulated ourselves on choosing to drive down through France, smug as bugs we were thinking of pottering around in a bit of winter sun for the next couple of weeks.

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Typical Baxter plan, lasted all of 24 hours, then we hit fog. Really thick fog that was freezing, down to minus 5 in the daytime. We took cover at the aire at St. Nazaire (N 47 14 13  W 2 18 01 ) For aire, read small parking area no view, just fog and an eerie feel to the place. there were two motorhomes already there, after an hour we realised they weren’t inhabited – just kind of dumped.  We knew this was a blip and fully expected the sun to be back next day – nope!! Next morning it was worse, frost so deep it looked like a good layer of snow and for so dense we could see 50 metres from the van tops.

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Ooooh fab – winter sun in France 

We rapidly agreed that France in fog and frost wasn’t going to so much fun. Digging deep in the budget we hit the toll roads and try and find clearer weather. By the time we reached Bordeaux the fog had cleared, still freezing though so we headed for the campsite on the ring road, Camping Beausoleil (N44 45 20 W 0 37 39 ) mainly as the tram / bus to the city runs from a few hundred metres outside the campsite. I went to book us in, met with a rather stern lady on reception so I decided to lighten the mode by giving her the benefit of my O’level standard spoken French – she remained stern looked askance and immediately re-started the conversation in English :).

New Years Day, wrapped up against the element we took the bus to meet the tram – (€3 each bargain). We love trams, our favourite mode of transport, maybe not so much after a whole city has been out celebrating until a few hours previously. Eau-de-puke and spilled beer was very prevalent, as were some puddle type areas on the floor we avoided as best we could! I would like to write a very detailed description of Bordeaux, suffice to say we loved the recently restored neoclassical architecture, the city appears to full of things to see and do – but quite honestly it was too cold for us do much more than wander around at a fairly rapid pace to prevent frostbite.

The biggest disappointment wasn’t the weather, it was the “Miroir d’Eau”, water wasn’t on so it was just a case of standing on a concrete slab remembering how it looked on Google pictures.

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Back on tolls, still in fog and we crossed the border at Irun into Spain – 10 minutes later fog lifted, sun shone – hurray for Spain. We crossed in seconds, the traffic coming in from Spain was queuing back over 4 miles in two lanes. Lots of French checks going on with police and transport, think we will avoid that route going home, but that’s too far away to worry about for now it’s all going to be about Spain :).

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  Viva L’Espania

The Great War fields of Verdun

After two nights in Charmes we had to move on, my nerves were in shreds – a huge flock of roosting crows came into the trees around the canal at dusk. The noise was actually quite frightening, like being in the ‘Birds’, there must have been over 300-400 of them. This was nothing though compared to the encore that took place from around midnight for 2-3 hours something must disturb them as it just gets louder and louder

To the North of Nancy we found the small town of Pont-a-Mousson, with a lovely aire on the harbour. The town had a bit more life about it than Charmes, with what we call a very French town square : plenty of pavement cafes with men smoking disgustingly smelly gauloise cigarettes and drinking wine, women looking super chic clattering around the cobbles in high heels and all the teenagers loitering around looking achingly cool as they wander around with music bouncing out from iplayers.

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Pont-a-Mousson

No matter how many lovely towns and villages there are and what tourist attractions are promoted, it is impossible not to be drawn to the history of the area, the echoes of WWI are everywhere. We drove through the Lorraine National Park along lanes not much more than forest tracks, in the midst of pretty much nowhere we came across the Calonne Trenches. A short walk from the road we found trenches together with tunnels used for supplies, medical purposes and communications bases.

Along the same pathway we came across the pit where the body of the famous French author Alain Fournier ( writer of the French classic ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’)  and 20 of his comrades were discovered in 1994,  they died in 1914 fighting in the trenches and their bodies lie undiscovered in a shallow trench for 80 years.

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Tunnels at Calonne trenches

We couldn’t help but be drawn to the Ossuary at Douaumont, which contains the remains of 130,000 unknown German and French soldiers, the skeletal remains can be seen through small windows at the lower edges of the monument. In front of the monument stands one of the National cemeteries of France, where the bodies of a further 16,142 soldiers are buried.  Iain climbed the tower and took some incredible photos of the graves whch are situated where once many of the battles took place.

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The Ossuary Douaumont

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View from the Ossuary tower of some of the graves

Despite the incredible beauty of, and the stories behind, the memorials the place that probably touched both our hearts most was Fleury Devant Douaumont. There is a road sign for the start and end of the town – but no town. After being captured and recaptured during 16 battles it was totally destroyed. Nothing at all remains except the narrow roadways and where homes, businesses and civic building once stood now just a simple stone marker with an inscription as to the type of building once there.

It is one of eight towns that are officially designated as “villages that died for France”. Fleury still has a mayor and is listed as a town but the damage to the land meant a decision was made it will never be rebuilt.

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Once a thriving town

Aside from the Ossuary the other great structure of memorial is that of the Mountfaucon American Monument. It can be seen from miles and miles around, nearby stands the US cemetery with thousands more graves. The monument is just over 196 ft high we climbed to the top, up 234 spiral steps, for the views over the fields that were once the scene of the many battles of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive during World WWI. The monument faces the front line of the US army at the start of the offensive on September 26th  1918, the biggest battle in American history up to that time involving over 1.2 million US soldiers.

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Mountfaucon Monument

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The site of the Meuse-Argonne offensive

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Whilst touring in the area we have seen literally hundreds of monuments from the smallest inscription on a bridge, to statues and obelisks, to the enormous Ossaury at Douaumont and the American Monument of Montfaucon -what every single one has in common is it seems to be treated with respect. There are no gates or walls surrounding any of the memorials and many of the graveyards. In most cases roads pass alongside the monument be it large or small so access is possible 24 hours a day. Yet, there is no damage, no graffiti, no vandalism. It’s hard to imagine some of these things being in the UK and not needing to be locked up with high security to prevent someone stealing the crosses or the lead guttering, or spray painting some inane message on a monument.

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 Trenches Des Baionnettes

Our week ended at Dun Sur Meuse, another small town with a  camperstop on the side of the river where we parked up with the locals. Early evening a tres jolly lady came around and collected our €6, a couple of the other French vanners got out the fishing roads and we all settled down to a stunning sunset.

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Our spell of good weather came to an end this morning, its lasted way longer than we thought so no complaints here. Probably quite a scenic drive through the Ardennes, we didn’t see much due to drizzle, fog and total concentration on looking out for a garage. Yes indeed, we pulled that old school boy trick of letting the diesel run to just on the red then looking for a garage in France on a Sunday! After a good few miles on clenched bottoms we spotted an open garage – diesel gauge now showing an attractive looking half full, rained stopped, sun peeking out and the Belgium border in front of us – all good with our world again :).

In search of the quiche

When we were leaving Alsace on route to Lorraine all we needed to do was re-trace our steps then take a left instead of a right over the Alsage – simples then. Oh no, Iain had seen a tunnel on the map, over 5 miles of tunnel so as tunnels appeal to him we needed to take that route.  Mile after mile of dead straight road under a mountain, no other vehicles in either direction – uh how much is this costing? Iain guessed at around €4, I was sure nearer €6. Oh how well we were fooled € 17.20 to drive through a dark hole! Iain is no longer allowed to choose routes.

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More of this – less of tunnels

We are in no rush at all  as we have covered pretty much all we want to (Luxembourg is yet to come but on route). We know we can be in the channel ports in a day at a push so we intend to meander around and take longer breaks for the next few weeks. In the spirit of being on a holiday from travelling we found a small campsite  on the edge of the small village of Raon L’Etape to sit in the sunshine for a few days.

It probably isn’t  visited by too many tourists, all the more mundane shops essential to daily life, just the one cafe and a rather plush outdoor swimming pool. One thing they have got a monopoly on is fountains – we counted at least six, elaborate Victorian type structures in the town centre. We stopped off at a small local shop to stock up with fruit, not sure how well our French translated as we seem to have bought shares in the shop rather than just pay for a bag of fruit!

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Raon L’Etape

Driving through the region it’s nearly impossible to go more than a few miles without reaching a war memorial or a military cemetery.  Every village or town has it’s own battle story, in most they have two – one for each war. At Raon L’Etape there was a simple plaque dedicated to the memory of 1500 soldiers of the US 100th Infantry who died, were injured or captured during a 14 day battle for the town in 1944, then in the cemetery on the way out of town were the graves of hundreds of French soldiers who died in in WWI.

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Literally a few miles up the road we came across Chipotte memorial and cemetery. The site marks the place where a WWI battle took place over 15 days, the cemetery has 1,006 individual graves and two ossuaries holding the remains of 1,899 soldiers whose remains could not be identified. Whether it be in military cemeteries or those included in town and village graveyards the crosses are all similar in that they show just a name, date of death and the words “Mort pour La France”.

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Col De La Chipotte

We have have an interest in recent history so visiting these places is always an honour, whilst it’s without a doubt often a very bleak and sad experience it seems wrong not to visit where so many have died to enable us to do what we do, travel freely around Europe.

Therefore having read about the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp being close by we both agreed to take a slight detour to visit. It is the only concentration camp that was established on French soil, mainly housing political prisoners and members of the Resistance, together with lesser numbers of Jews, gypsies etc. The camp held over 8000 at its fullest and also had 70 sub camps in the immediate region holding a further 19,000 prisoners.

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The stories remain as unbelievable as those of any other camp including medical experiments, tortures and gas chambers.  As with other camps the prisoners knew the Allies were approaching in 1944 and believed liberation and freedom was imminent. In a matter of days before the Allies arrived at the camp that hope was sadly crushed as the German’s decided to evacuate the camp and march over 7000 prisoners with them to Dachau concentration camp where most were subsequently murdered – as the memorial there says “Freedom – so near and yet so far”.

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 Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration camp

From Natzweiler we took a scenic route through Lorraine towards the Moselle River and the town of Charmes. Very few other vehicles on the roads so a peaceful afternoon to appreciate the beautiful scenery, whilst none of the villages we passed would be classed as a tourist must see they all had their own charm. In lots of ways its the older houses with plaster falling off, paint fading on the shutters and geraniums hiding much of the building that, for us, are the spirit of France (no cyclist with onions round his neck and a black and white t.shirt yet but we live in hope).

Charmes is a small village, pretty well destroyed in WWI, rebuilt and then it suffered the same fate again in WWII. On the positive side the Moselle River and the Canal De L’Est ru through the centre, and on an even better note the aire is next to the canal so we pitched up with a pretty perfect view for a few nights. Seemingly a popular stop with the French moho’s, a good number parked up with picnic tables out and a couple of petanqe tournaments taking place on the roadway.

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Canal-side home for a couple of nights

Nothing much we enjoy more than the bikes off for a cycle on a good flat canal tow-path, it is perfect cycling country here. We rode over 25 miles on tarmac paths and saw three other cyclists – not sure the French appreciate how good their velo network is.  The canal is decidedly quiet, we passed one quarry that had a few barges filling up but other than that no boats, not even a holiday barge cruising. There are plenty of locks but it seems all are now automated, there are signs for the boats to use some sort of remote key card, as they do the locks are automatically filled / emptied and the gates opened and closed, clever but not as good to watch as the old fashioned way.

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The Canal De L’Est

Not quite Amy Williams

We left our little campsite on Thursday morning, a few delays whilst we worked out with the young receptionist how to explain we wanted to pay and leave,  the sight of my debit card eventually did the trick.  First stop was walk along to the dam at the Michelbach Barrage, built in 1979 on the edge of the village it is classed as one of the most important conservation lakes in the region.

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Lac  De Michaelbach

The Vosges mountains dominate the area, not being too much for climbing we avoided hiking up the highest, the Grand Ballon, and instead took the mountain road pass to the Col du Ballon. At the top of the pass there are several car parks, we parked up and walked the last bit to the peak at 3842 ft.  Despite some clouds it was worth the effort, views for miles and miles. It doesn’t feel at all like being on a mountain, plenty of people drive up for lunch in the restaurants or just for a walk around. In 1905 the road was the first official mountain climb on the Tour De France, although the race had run two years previously they discounted the slightly lower nearby – by 65 ft – passes as not been true mountain climbs.

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View from the Col Du Ballon

There are loads of different monuments strewn around the summit, statues of the Virgin Mary, memorials to the wars, Tour De France plaques,  Joan of Arc in various guises and on it goes.  The one that grabbed our attention most was that  of the ‘Hurt Locker’ which commemorates the sacrifice of 500 French plus hundreds of Italians, poles and Germans who died or were maimed detecting the thousands of mines placed on the mountain by the Germans in WWII.

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Hurt locker memorial

Plenty of ski resorts and ski areas in the Vosges, the majority seems to cater to more to day skiers as there aren’t too many hotels but the car parks are massive. We stopped off for a night at La Bresse, a small village seemingly based around the winter tourist. We found a small campsite a few miles out of town and in the morning walked back in to town for a browse around the shops – after just over an hours walk we were in town for 1150am – which is wonderful as the French shops shut from 12-2pm for lunch! We made do with a quick coffee and trudged back up the hill for an hour and a half (it’s slower going uphill) to the van again.

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La Bresse – cute but shut

As shopping was out we packed the van up and went in search of something else to do. At the top of the Col De La Schlucht, where we were thrilled to see the chair lifts running, not only that but the summer luge run from the top of the chair lift was open all the way back down ( I was so not thrilled but am getting bored of being a wimp). No queues (no one else stupid enough) we were on the ski lift before I could think about it. At the top the attendant gave us a luge each, said pull the handle to slow – push to go fast and that was it!  Just over 350 ft of descent, no helmets, no crash barriers and no knee pads – just a little too much of the French indifference for me but it was the luge or the ski lift down, lesser of the two evils then :(.

The luge I used may need its brakes replacing as I had them jammed on pretty much the whole time. Everytime I did let the brakes  off the bloody things started climbing up the walls on the corners. There were two runs and Iain and I started together, however Iain is a bit of a speed freak and took the run down as fast as he could – he was at the bottom, off the luge and taking photos by the time I got down.

I was ‘slightly’ faster than it looks 🙂

Needing an overnight stop we weren’t too worried where and pulled into a large aire at the edge of the first major town we came to.  At least 50 motorhomes there and we couldn’t see the attraction at first, so after parking up we took a stroll around the corner and found we were in the charming medieval town of Kayserberg.  Stacked full of half timbered Renaissance houses, colourful shops, flowers everywhere – it really is like something out of a fairytale – for us how a romantic French village should look.

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Too beautiful to be true

Absolutely it is a tourist mecca but why not, the tourist thing is done well, quality shops, cafes and even an accordion player in the street (she only knew the first 4-5 lines of any song). Iain treated himself to a pastry, not cheap at €4 but everything seemed to be priced for the coach trips (it was nearly an even more expensive pastry as I threw out the carrier bag it was in thinking it was rubbish! – luckily it was wrapped and in a box within the bag so it was retrieved and saved as was my life).

Postcard pretty Kayserberg

Last thing we wanted to see in the Alsace was a chateau, and the Haut-Koenisgbourg looked a good choice.  Emperor Wilhelm II had it rebuilt early in the 20th century so it is fairly modern, apparently the French tend to sneer at it slightly due to its relative newness and the fact it was re-built by a German. That attitude doesn’t seem to stop the visitors though, its one of the most visited chateau in France.

At the top of a high hill over 3000 ft up, the road snakes around until you are suddenly below the outer walls. One of those places you need a helicopter to take a photograph of as everything just keeps growing above you and standing back isn’t an option.  Several parts were closed for renovation so we made do with a wander around the outside and the gardens – we are still living on the budget and saving entrance fees for somewhere that’s totally open.

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If we had a helicopter this would be ‘our’ photo…..

chateau haut koenigsbourg

but as we haven’t this is the best we managed

nous retournés à la France

Only four weeks to go, so time to take stock and put a bit of a plan together. We have always said Switzerland was out as expensive and not enough time, so Sunday night we agreed to go to Interlaken! Monday morning sanity was restored and we turned right instead of left and arrived back in France.

A moment of panic when we realised we were on a motorway with has tolls, we took the first exit before we reached the toll booth. As we have plenty of time we intend to keep off the toll roads and amble North on the back roads.

With a mile or two we had remembered why we were so taken with France 11 months ago – quiet roads, quaint villages (still bereft of people) and as with Germany an easy life for a motorhome with specific parking and signs for ‘Camping Cars’ at every town and village.

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With no real plan of what to do in France we followed the road until we reached the Regional Park of  Ballons des Vosges – when in doubt head for the green bits on the map seems to work well for us. From a first glance it doesn’t appear to be the most touristy of areas, that is a plus for us as we are looking for a quiet week seeing a little bit of somewhere that to be honest we had never heard of until we arrived here!

First stop, Guewenheim, two chevaux village with a butchers a bakers possibly a candle stick maker but nothing much else. Strangely enough the French here speak French with a German accent, probably because they have alternated being under the control of the French and the German several times over the last couple of hundred years. We popped into the bakers and stocked up with some very good looking breads and pastries and then followed the signs to a campsite a few hundred yards out of the village.

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Guewenheim – picture pretty but no people

The campsite was about to close for the year, all the pitches were empty except a few seasonals still packing up.  Madame La Campsite owner was more than happy to have stay and offered us a price as cheap as chips so we parked up for a few days.  With the weather being a bit overcast we have set about a big clean out in the van, done a ton of washing and packed away anything we are unlikely to use in the next month.

The weather improved today so we cycled up to the next village, Masevaux for a coffee and cake break. The Alsace has over 10,000 km of marked walking and cycling trails,  the one we took followed the route of an old railway line, a slight incline all the way but we prefer that as we know going home is going to be easy peasy.

Masevaux is famous for it’s annual organ festival, sadly we will be missing that as its not on until next month. Despite it being so close to the border it does feel very French, even such a small village has a boulangerie, bouchers, charcuterie and of course a couple of patisserie – the only thing missing was a few French guys playing boules.  As we wandered around the little pedestrian High Street we noticed the piped music playing, nowhere else have we come across this other than France, The Village People, Brotherhood of Man,  – all the songs that make you proud they are in English 🙂

The village was as we find with most French villages- a bit deserted to us, the shops were open but not many people around.  We sat outside at a pavement cafe with our coffee, and Iain’s enormous croissant, and saw just a handful of people pass by.

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The French certainly take the ‘in bloom’ thing a bit seriously, the villages here are marked with stars on how well they did. Guewenheim has only two stars and a few window boxes, whereas Masevaux has four stars and some fairly amazing floral displays. the best of which was a full wooden building with flowers spilling out around wooden figurines, stunning.

We want to go up to the highest peaks in the park so have been waiting out the grey weather – from tomorrow its forecast wall to wall sunshine so time to get out and explore the park and maybe find a chateau or two.