Week 4 France – Landes, Aquitaine

Yes we are still here, no we haven’t even made it as far as the border yet (more of the border plan later). The problem is the coast in Aquitaine is made for ambling down, as we left somewhere we found another spot on the map less than an hour away that needed visiting. We arrived and parked up, had a walk or a cycle and before we knew it the day was gone. It’s really not as if we had been doing the ‘big tourist’ stuff, we haven’t spent time in any of the major towns and cities and we haven’t visited any major attractions. We do seem to have found a pace that suits 12 months on the road and allows us to stop and see things when and if we want to. We are learning fast that¬†aiming to be somewhere on a specific date is not the best strategy as it never happens.

I really did have a plan to see Bordeaux on Friday, I had read about it, worked out what we should see, all planned out perfectly. But, the sun was glorious (68 degrees) and the thought of negotiating the city ring-road then finding a decent campsite was so not appealing, instead we headed for Mimizan Plage. Yes another beach but this one was slightly different in that its backed by the highest sand dunes in Europe, all 75 ft of them. We parked one side of the dune and climbed over to see mile after mile of Atlantic beach sweeping down from the dunes. When we climbed to top of it was fairly odd to see the amount of buildings on top, I guess the dunes must be stable but seeing houses and bars perched on the top was not what we expected. The dunes here at Mimizan are obviously slightly less protected than those a little further up the coast, having said that they allow ‘dune surfing’even at the highest points of the dunes.

(Photo below is to show the dunes in their glory, no I didn’t take it, it’s not that sunny but we do like to post a blue sky photo for Chris Flush ūüôā ).

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Of¬†course the pre-requisite ocean surfer dudes were out in force, I could spend hours watching them surf, the whole idea of throwing myself into a freezing cold tunnel of water is not one I can comprehend so I am fascinated by others who spend hours doing just that. ¬†After watching for a while and taking several hundred photos, hoping for one cool surfer pic, we headed off for a walk to Mimizan town. After walking for around 2.5 miles there was no sign of any town just houses, so we gave up and walked back. Then we checked where the town actually was, ah being 5 miles away would be the reason we never got there! We made do with the one tourist shop open at the beach and both agreed that we really didn’t need any further retail therapy. Sometime later we discover that Mimizan Plage has its own little town centre, just over the bridge from us! This was the type of thing we were looking for, cafes, surf shacks, tourist shops and more hippy and surf shops than you could shake your beads and boards at a on damp November afternoon.

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According to the sign on the barrier we are staying on the Helicopter Station aire, it’s pretty ace if a little reminiscent of an Aldi car-park. There are 85 parking bays, if someone parks in the one next to us our wing mirrors will be touching and we will be able to tap on their window without leaving the van. It is probably half full, every van other than us is French and every one is a mega top of the range van. The twin axle 8 metre monster next to us lowers all his blinds automatically with a remote control, the other side of us had so much white leather in their 5 Star Pilote our eyes hurt just peeking in their windows:). The French do motorhoming¬†with so much more style than most, not only their incredible vans, the women are wandering around in catwalk outfits with leather trousers and high heeled boots, the tables are set for lunch with little checked tablecloths and bottles of wine – obviously we stand out like a sore thumb, enough said :).

It had to happen sometime and Saturday it did – it rained – it rained hard. From when we got up until early afternoon there were very grey skies and lots of rain. It wasn’t particularly cold or windy, just wet. We spent the morning in the van doing some housework, catching up on emails, writing blogs and researching places to see and stay in the next few weeks. The whole question on the best way to Greece came up again, tying to get a quote on the ferry company websites is nearly impossible, We emailed a few and had a response from one with what seems a good quote within 5 minutes, it may be we are travelling on Endeavour Lines ¬†purely as they bothered to answer us. ¬†Luckily as we were getting fed up with planning the sun was peeking back out and it was dry so we managed a stroll along the beach to blow the cobwebs away from the mornings confinement.

This morning (Sunday) was a total contrast, sun out and warm, so it was time to get the bikes off again. We are on the EV1 cycle path (Norway to Spain via GB) so it would be rude not cycle a little bit of it along to Contis, 15 miles down the coast. The path is fairly new tarmac, all off road and runs a mile or so inland from the coast through the forests. We came across something that has been a minor concern a few times in the last week; people with guns! We have regularly seen people in the various forests we have been to who are out shooting with rifles and dogs, this in itself doesn’t concern us; more that the shooters all wear florescent orange hats which we assume is to prevent them shooting each other by making them more visible. So if they need orange hats to stop them shooting each other are cyclists fair game? We survived the gauntlet of shooters and found Contis to be another tiny surfers village on the beach, all the usual touristy bits but it was a little different in more of a wild west wooden huts feel going on down the main street. Only one cafe open so we stopped for coffee before heading back to Mimizan at a leisurely pace.

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The big news to end the week is we have had a change of itinerary –¬†we are no longer heading for Spain. Our main reason for going was to find some sunshine for three weeks and sit on a beach. We have re-considered this for several reasons;

  • a) its one hell of a drive to get there¬†just to sit on a beach
  • b) we are currently already sitting on a beach here
  • c) sunshine in December isn’t guaranteed here or there
  • d) in the spirit of adventure Spain is not new to us
  • e) we really are a bit hooked on France

Thus we have a new pencil line on the map, it now heads inland above Toulouse, through to Millau ¬†and then its undecided on whether to go to the Mediterranean coast or stay inland and experience winter in Provence on route to Italy. Our trusty atlas is very blank for this new route, in relation to the coloured sticker planning approach we adopt for routes (yellow dots for aires, green dots for campsites, red dots for anything else we should see). We will have to trust Snooper and Camperstop to find us some good places to stay on route as we think its going to be much quieter inland and a quick look in the ACSI book ¬†and a scan on the internet doesn’t seem to show too much open in the way of campsites.¬†The only definite on the route as it stands is one of the meccas for campervans -the Millau bridge, lets hope its a clear day when we get there as its one hell of a drive if we can’t see it for fog!!

After sleeping on the plan last night we both still think the cutting of Spain is a fairly good idea. Without a doubt the weather will change and be glorious down there over the next couple of days but we have made our camper-bed and will lie on it somewhere in Provence instead of the Costas.

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Aquitaine heading the right way

If we stick anywhere close to the itinerary we should be in Spain this week, it currently doesn’t look that likely we will happening. We really could have stayed a few weeks around the islands but as the drizzle set in at D’Oleron we set off South in the general direction of Royan. We took the long route through La Coubre Forest, over 5000 hectares of pine and holly trees, a few resorts along the way, ghost towns on a damp November day, to be honest – just an awful lot of trees for many miles, not really worth the detour. ¬†We headed down the¬†coast a few miles to ¬†Meschers Sur Gironde, and settled ourselves down at the the marina for a couple of days.

So far most villages we have visited have been pretty well deserted but Meschers seemed to have a fair bit of life about, plenty of people around the marina and the town. Town is possibly an overstatement, one main street with several shops and a few cafes. After a quick trip into buy supplies we met our French next-door neighbour, well his van and wife are French – he was very much Scottish. Good to speak to someone in our native tongue after three weeks of just each other to natter between.

We had planned to visit the troglodyte cave houses just around the coast from here, however when we checked out the visiting times we found they had closed for the winter last week, so that will be a good reason to return here. Instead of the caves we went on a hike along the coastal path. All along this estuary there are hundreds  of wooden fishing huts, known as Carrelets, built on stilts with they have an enormous square fishing net at the front, which is  pulley operated. When the tide comes in they lower the nets and raise them again quickly, catching whatever happened to swim past. The walkways appear very precarious but the huts themselves are really well kept, we fancy the idea of one for a weekend holiday home.

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As we had decided to stick to the coast we had a choice of driving 60 odd miles down to Bordeaux ¬†and back out to the coast, or we could take short cut and use the Royan to Le Verdon Sur Mer ferry, We chose the latter, my thoughts were the saving in petrol would pay for the ferry, Iain’s thoughts were excitement on using a ferry! All easy enough, pull into ferry terminal, pop debit card in machine and off to the ferry. Not too bad at ‚ā¨44 for a 5.99 metre camper and 2 people – however its a standard charge for a camping car. If you have an 8.5 metre monster or a 5.5 metre campervan they don’t even look, one charge fits all.

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Twenty minutes later we had crossed the estuary and heading down the coast. For the first time since we arrived in France there were no other motorhomes on the road, to be fair there was very little of anything on the road as it seemed very quiet, This all boded well for a trip down to Hourtin,  a town that seems to have everything, a small area by the sea, the town itself and then another area out at Hourtin Lake, the largest lake in France. We decided this looked a good place to go and set out to find an aire or campsite Рfail, all closed even the aire. Undaunted we drove a further 30 miles down to Lacanau, to find everything closed! Even the aire with 100 spaces at the Heliport was blocked off.  We knew there was a campsite open in Bordeaux from the ACSI book or we could try the next aire at Andernos les Bains, only another 40 miles or so.

Arrived at Andernos, and we were feeling ok with the sight of the harbour and a payment machine for the aire. Tiny problem, the actual aire has been moved. The machine, water etc is still on the harbour but the parking has been moved 1/2 a mile up the road onto a bit of grotty wasteland. By now we didn’t care so we parked up amongst the Pilote mafia and ¬†walked back to pay, best news of the day, le machine broken so we get to keep our money :).

Andernos is on the Bassin D’Arcachon, and was yet another place we really loved. The harbour is still a centre for oyster fishing and is lined with huts where the catches are landed and sold from. ¬†Many of the huts also doubled up as restaurants selling the days catch and ranged from shack type cafes to some very expensive menus. ¬†After a long day in the van we set out for a walk along the bassin on a marked trail, but of course Iain knew a better route then the guy who had marked out this one. Nearly two hours later, in semi darkness we emerged back from the wilderness to the campervan ūüėĮ

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As the forecast was good we wanted to do some cycling and knew that there were excellent networks all over the area. We drove an hour down to Biscarrosse, where everything was quite a bit livelier and open. We found a good spot on the side of the lake and got the bikes down off the van to dust them off.  We feel sure the cycle paths in France have a Dutch influence, all off road and in most cases separate networks that are wide, well surfaced and well signposted.  For sure its been chilly this week, but it was sunny, the smell of pine was everywhere, the trees still had a lot of autumn colour and for us one of the best bike rides we had been on for some time.

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