Our French Experience..
This story happened on: 02/06/2017
Our French Experience.
After our three week Spanish Adventure last year, this year for a number of reasons, we had less holiday available this year and so decided to explore the delights of France. Our journey from our Derbyshire home began on Friday 2nd June 2017. We were destined to sail that evening from Portsmouth to St Malo. With the overnight ferry leaving at 8:15pm, we left home around midday.
This year we had been fortunate enough to buy a new caravan which was actually a foot wider than our previous caravan, and as we entered roadworks with narrow lanes and concrete barriers for walls, I realised that the extra width made quite a difference as my palms began to sweat. As I concentrated hard to stay in the centre of the lane, the road works went on for mile after mile.
Once free of the road works, we headed for the docks, stopping off for fuel at Sutton Scotney Services on the A34. We had saved this in our favourites in the sat nav from last year. Refuelling is caravan friendly on one particular pump and it offers one of the last obvious refuelling opportunities before getting to the docks. As we pulled into the filling station a car was at the most convenient pump to refuel whilst towing. We pulled up behind it and with no obvious signs of the driver; I assumed they had gone in to pay so patiently waited for their return. As the minutes ticked by I glanced over to my right and saw a man casually talking on his mobile phone smoking a cigarette but thought nothing more about it. As the minutes continued to tick by, my patience began to drain but it drained even quicker when the man I had seen smoking his cigarette calmly returned to his car, the vehicle parked directly in front of us at the pump and drove off without so much as a word. I drew breath and calmly filled up the tank. Feathers slightly ruffled we continued our journey and arrived at the docks in good time. With the wider van, this year we were loaded with the trucks. I was thankful that I didn’t have to attempt the ramp on the ferry as I didn’t find it overly wide with our previous van so wasn’t looking forward to the experience. Once on the ferry, the loading staff took over and repeatedly made us inch and inch parallel to the truck next to us. By the time they had finished we were no more than 6 inches away from the truck next to us. Momentarily I dreaded what I would face next morning to try and move away from it. Once stopped, we grabbed our overnight bags and headed on board for a short but welcome rest.
The next morning we were woken at 6am by the ship's loud speaker to stir the sleeping passengers ready for the 7:15 am disembarkation. After a swift breakfast we headed down to the car. The engines began to start and I knew it was going to my turn. One of the loading crew approached and raised his eyebrows when he saw how close his colleagues had made us park. A simple look told him I agreed. Thankfully, he gently guided us away from the truck and we were free. By 7:30am were leaving the port and heading out onto the French motorways. With 254 miles ahead of the early start was now welcome. It doesn’t take long before you realise once again how completely fabulous the French roads are and how much easier it is to drive there as oppose to the UK. The service stations and rest areas are all caravan friendly making the experience so less stressful. As we neared the end of our journey, we started to ignore our sat nav, instead following the direction provided on the website of our first site, La Roche Posay, which is also known as Hippodrome camping. As we pulled through the gates, we were immediately impressed with the site which seemed to have a lot to offer. With being off season, the site wasn’t busy and there were plenty of large grassy pitches available. After setting up camp, we settled down for another well-earned rest.
The following morning we had a slower start then headed out on the bikes to the local Super U just minutes from the site. With a few essential packed in a back pack, we headed to the local town, La Roche Posay. We were pleasantly surprised by the beauty of this little sleepy town, filled with character buildings next to the meandering river Creuse. We strolled the streets taking in the French character, and were stunned by the beauty of the local historic church, Notre-Dame – Roche-Posay. After taking coffee and Cider in the local square whilst doing a spot of people watching, we glided back on our bikes to our site.
The following day, we exercised around the site and then drove to nearby Chatellerault which is about 20 minutes from site. We had not realised that the day was a public holiday in France for Whit Monday. We found the town almost deserted with only the bars and patisseries open. A coffee and cake later, we returned to our car and headed back to camp. That night, the heavens opened and the rain drummed on the caravan roof. Next morning, we woke to blue skies, but soon the clouds were back and the rain came again. We headed out to nearby Angles-Sur- L’Anglin, just 20 minutes from site, a place listed as one of the most beautiful villages of France. We were not disappointed; a village full of charm greeted us with beautiful houses, peaceful river and the ruins of a medieval castle to explore. After a while sharing the beauty of this place we headed back to site to prepare for our departure to our next destination in the morning.
We awoke Wednesday morning to a cool and overcast day. We had a day of travel ahead and so it was not an issue. Over the 10 years or so of caravanning we have become proficient at moving camp and we were ready to go in no time. As we drove through the gates of La Roche Posay we said goodbye. We had enjoyed the site, large pitches and helpful owners. This site has lots to do for younger families, but after four days on camp, we had exhausted what we could explore outside so were looking forward to the next leg.
After 15 miles or so were back on the A10 heading south. We had 173 miles ahead and hunkered down to eat them up. Mile after mile we counted down as we headed towards our next destination, Camping St Emilion located via junction 39A. After we left our final toll for the day, 38 Euros shorter for the experience, we entered the final 20 mile leg of our journey. I think most of us will know the feeling when you have just about ‘had enough’ need to get to site and out of the car. It is always when the worst bits happen in my experience. After roundabout and roundabout, we entered Libourne, a built up area where the road had been significantly narrowed, for traffic calming or what I do not know, but calm me it did not. I inched through and looking in my mirrors at the gap I had, I just stopped. There were cars behind but I didn’t really care. This was the tightest position I had ever found myself in and I just couldn’t see how we were going to get through without some damage. My wife got out and moved to the front of the car. She signalled to me to move over to my side which put the edge of the caravan over the kerb on the drivers side. Normally not a problem, other than this kerb was not flat, it was steadily rising to a point, well higher than the bottom of the caravan. I inched forward, centimetres either side of us and we were through. The relief was immense until I realised I had to exactly the same three times. By now, the patience of the locals was wearing thin and I could understand that, but so was mine. Feeling relieved the experience was behind us, we stormed on, watching the sat nav as it counted down the minutes to arrival. A couple of years ago, we have saved to buy an upgraded sat nav in which you could enter the width and length of the outfit, thinking that it would solve the problem of our previous sat nav continually trying to turn us down inappropriate roads. We have been nothing but disappointed with it since as it continues to try and turn us down farm tracks, despite knowing that we are simply not going to fit. Today would be no different. Time after time, ‘turn left’, no we both cried and on we went. Finally, we entered a small village with local garage. We asked for directions, and yes, it was the turn we had just missed. Options, reverse or attempt a three point turn, the latter was the only real option. I reversed onto the forecourt of the garage, watching the undulating concrete rising beneath the van. Satisfied I could make the turn, I pulled forward. A sickening scraping sound was heard from the rear of the van. I could see nothing as, now at an angle in the car, my mirrors were useless. I had no choice but to continue and survey the damage later. My wife jumped back in the cab and we managed the left turn. Nerves frazzled, we had both frankly had enough now and then finally, the campsite came into view. We had arrived and not a moment too soon. I jumped out of the cab and went to inspect the damage, thankfully, just minor scrapes to the undercarriage that would never be seen again. We found our pitch and opened a beer.
The following morning, we awoke to beautiful blue skies. Refreshed from our day of travel, we had booked the free shuttle bus from reception into St Emilion. It was whilst travelling that tales were exchanged between fellow campers and I discovered that I had not been the only one to suffer on the traffic calmed streets of Libourne. At least four couples had been through the same experience. After 10 minutes or so, we were safely delivered in St Emilion for a four hour period before we were to return. St Emilion is a wonderful town; we were greeted by manicured grounds, winding streets café bars and architecture to take your breath away. Many of the shops were focused on the local wines from the region, others with fine art on display. We sat in the square taking coffee and wine and the wandered a little more, taking in the views from the ramparts across the Dordogne valley. After four hours in the heat, we welcomed our return shuttle bus and returned to camp. After a brief visit for supplies to the Carrefour just 10 minutes away in Libourne, we settled down on site for the rest of the day. As night fell the storm clouds gathered before the heavens opened and lightening sliced through the darkness. Repeated bangs of the ‘hail cannon’ boomed through the night as the local community attempted to protect their vines from the weather.
The following day, we visited a local Chateau, ‘Chateau La Rose Monturon’ and were fascinated by the complex process to be able to bring wine to our table. The time at St Emilion slipped like sand through our fingers and all too soon, our stay had come to an end. Although sad to leave the site, we were also ready for the next leg of our journey. We would travel next 149 miles to an old yet favourite haunt of ours, Pavillion Royal near Biarritz in the bay of Biscay. We have incorporated this site into our travels over many years and never tired of the fantastic sunsets and crashing waves onto the private beach. This year would be even more special as a pitch overlooking the beach had been secured.
We awoke next morning for our day of travel. The sun already high in the sky we quickly broke camp and headed out onto the road once again. Within minutes we were heading for the A63 towards Bordeaux. The journey was effortless with little traffic, the smoothness of the journey only interrupted by the repeated tolls. With 50 miles to go, we stopped at a service area for lunch. Over the years we have taking to eating our lunch using the front two wings of our Land Rover Defender as a table. Today would be no different. A quick sandwich and coffee later we headed out onto the road again. Suddenly a clatter was heard and as I looked at my wife, we both knew what the clatter was. It was her coffee cup which had been left on the wing and was now rolling down the A63 never to be seen again.
We arrived at Pavillion Royal without further incident and headed to our pitch overlooking the sea. This was a first for us at this site as we had never previously had a mover on the van but we now had the ability to go nose in. The crashing waves and wind blowing off the sea brought back familiar comforting feelings. We were home. With camp built in no time, we settled down in our chairs to gaze into the distance of the ocean.
The following day, we rested on site, exercising in the excellent fitness room and taking in the sea air. On Tuesday we decided to sample the delights of Biarritz. I had hoped to eat at Bar Jean after our excellent experience there last year. However, unfortunately they were closed and so we took lunch at the nearby Miremont café bar which was steeped in history being founded in 1872. After an experience to be recommended, we strolled along the sea front, feasting on the ocean views.
All too soon, our time at Pavillion Royal came to an end once again. We awoke on our day of travel to heavy mist and drizzle. We broke camp and headed out onto the road again for our 91 mile journey to Bilbao ferry port. Our holiday was slowly coming to an end.
Our crossing to Portsmouth on Cap Finistere was pleasant experience although our thoughts are with the passenger who became unwell and had to be air lifted off. We wish them well.
After our experience of the M1 North on a Friday afternoon last year, we had decided to stay over at Rooksberry Park caravan club site, just 20 minutes away from Portsmouth docks and travel home in our own time on Saturday.
We had enjoyed our time in France but for us, two weeks away is no longer enough. Next year it will be three..or maybe more. Who knows?