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.

Lourdes France (5)

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 🙂 🙂