If you are of the belief that the sun shines on the righteous then we must be as virtuous as they get because we have been treated to almost perfect weather in France. The last 2 days its been 19 degrees (about 69 in Fahrenheit) we expected rain, fog all the bad stuff everyone told us about and yet its been awesome weather for 3 weeks, yes we know it wont continue for ever but whilst it does we are in summer mode.
By Friday we had made it down as far as Surgeres and stopped overnight at a campsite just off the centre of town. Moving out of the Loire and into the Charente-Martime department we are beginning to see differences that make us feel we are finally getting close to the Mediterranean. The style of houses is changing to flat roofs, the earth is becoming more sand coloured and of course we are feeling the increase in temperatures. As seems usual here on campsites, there was no one else staying except us. It suited us fine for a night, we had a wander around the town, a quick visit to the fortified chateau and church and then stocked up with supplies from our new favourite supermarket ‘Super U’ (its a down market Aldi! its cheap its cheerful and we like a bargain so what is not to like).
From Surgeres we set off for La Rochelle, it just sounded like somewhere we would need to visit and I had visions of a little harbour and cafes etc. Arrived and had a quick change of mind, way to much of a big city feel for us with cars queuing to get into the city as far as we could see down the motorway. We consulted Sat Nav for somewhere to park up and re-consider where we were going, it directed us to a carpark, horrendously busy with cars and buses and a sign stating a maximum 24 camping cars could park overnight. If there were less than 60 motorhomes parked I would be amazed, squeezed into every little space except those they were supposed to be in. We pulled over to consider where to next and a kindly French gentleman came over to warn us not to stay where we were as there was surcharge of €35 for parking in the wrong area, we were so never going to be staying for an hour let along overnight, we left pronto.
Looking for somewhere a bit less frantic we headed for the little island of Ile De Re. To get there we had to cross the 3 km bridge, for which we paid the princely sum of €8, a bargain to get back to peace and tranquility. Within minutes of coming off the bridge we knew we had made the right decision, just 19 miles long and 3 miles wide its big enough to get out and explore in a day. The whole island is covered in cycle tracks and campsites, it seems to be purely a holiday island. We found several aires but plumped for the one at St Clement Des Baleines, a few yards back from the beach and pretty well full of French vans whilst a bit remote it seemed as good a place as others we had seen for the night.
By mid afternoon it really was scorchio, so we decided on a walk along the coast. There was a concrete path in places and a gravel track in other leading around the island right by the edge of the Atlantic ocean – impressive does not begin to describe the views. After a few miles we happened upon the Phare Des Baleines (translates to “lighthouse of the beached whales”!). There were actually two lighthouse, ones from 1682 and a newish one from 1854. The 1854 model was not only open to the public you could climb to the top and literally wander around outisde 57 metres above the ground. I absolutely refused to even consider it but to his eternal credit Iain decided to give it a go. Two hundred and fifty seven steps later he made it, and even leaned over the edge to shout down and take some photos of the views. Not only were there the lighthouses and a couple of museums, just outside the gates was a mini town of souveneir shops, cafes and bars. They were mostly closed for the season but a few hardly owners were open.
Reading some of the tourist blurb it says the island has the same number of hours of sunshine as the South of France, hence part of its popularity. The winter population is 22,000 and the summer over 220,000, we are therefore really pleased to be visiting now as its really busy with campervans even this late in November, how on earth you can move amongst them in the summer I cannnot imagine. An absolutely fabulous island that was well worth the slight diversion, so much so we decided our next stop would be Ile D’Oleron, a larger island further down the coast.
On route we did a minor detour to Fouras, for the sole reason that you can see Fort Boyard from the tip on the peninsular. I had never heard of Fort Boyard, it is famous for a tv show that was made their in the 1990’s? There is a boat trip out to the fort but it only goes to 200 metres off the fort, so that all seemed a bit pointless. We made do with spotting it from afar whilst being amazed at the literally hundreds of mussel pickers on the beach at Fouras, there were people with buckets, some with cars, a few with trailers full and even two tractors pulling off sack loads, this must be one of the mussel capitals of the world.
Arriving at ile D’Oleron in the afternoon the first thing was on the plus side that the bridge over is free, on the minus it is much more built up and really doesn’t feel that much like an island. I asked Iain to pull over at a Boulangerie whilst I bought some bread, whilst I was in the shop a lovely French Madame in an Audi drove her car into our van! She happily drove straight off again without stopping. Luckily our van only showed a few marks, we hope (meanly) that her Audi is the worse for the scrape! We drove to the tip of the island at St. Dennis where we found another lighthouse and mini souvenier village for a lunch stop, we like a lighthouse as much as the next person but this whole turning them into a mini theme park is odd even to us. We decided to look for an overnight stop and remembered reading that three of the large campsites on the island had closed down and they had all become aires. Just a few miles from the lighthouse we happened across Aire Du Moulin, which is one of the said former campsites with all the facilities still in use. We pulled in and set up amongst the 30 or so French vans, within 30 minutes they had nearly all gone. Something we said? Possible its just Sunday evening and most are going home, there is now us, a Dutch van and 5 or 6 French vans on a large grass site which holds 170 vans, so plenty of space for the night.
That is week three at an end, how quick our time goes by. On the budget side we are doing brilliantly well against our planned costs, being stuck for 10 days helped massively as we didn’t use any diesel. We are finding overnight stops under half what we budgeted for and food hasn’t really hit the budget as we are still using supplies we brought from home. For now I will bask in my budgeting abilities, for sure it wont be this easy to keep to the plan for the whole trip so I will enjoy it whilst I can. On our vague itinerary we are probably a week behind where we thought we would be, not bad at all considering breakdowns and a sheer lack of knowledge of France in terms of so much to see and do. For the next week we plan to work down the coast past Bordeaux to Biarritz and then cross the border to Spain over the weekend.