This post is a little longer, just for you Bec!
Cap Blanc Nez provided us with majestic views across the Channel, a lovely reward after a long drive! We’d been awfully lucky with the weather lately and although very windy along the coast it was pleasant.
France is well equipped for motorhomes with short term stopping areas called “aires” and while these are cheaper than an RV Park they generally have no facilities other than a toilet drop and water supply. Generally the aires are within walking distance of the town centres in which they are located and as such the lack of facilities is made up for by location! These areas provide affordable stops for campers and as such motorhomes (or camping cars as they are known in France) are restricted from many other parking areas.
Slowly we headed south finding an aire at Boulogne sur Mer with a lovely view across the channel from our site. Not far into France at this stage, we were still amazed at the differences between European countries given there are no borders! You just cross a line on the map and find not only a different language, but also quite often a completely different way of doing things! It’s a little bazaar really.
We spent 2 nights camped here relaxing and enjoying long walks along the beach. In the morning we realised just how lucky we had been seeing the cliffs of Dover with such clarity the previous day. Now there was nothing but a swelling ocean of white caps and haze making visibility less than poor. That afternoon, the winds really started to pick up and darkness brought with it gale force winds which were unrelenting for the next few days.
We’ve all heard of the quirks that the French are well known for, particularly their dislike of the English! Well, whilst at this camp, we wandered off for a stroll and as we passed an RV we were greeted by a jovial French man looking to converse. When he realised that we spoke English he turned the other way and walked off which we found quite amusing! Upon returning to our camper we heard a knock at the door and our jovial Frenchman was standing there with maps in hand and said “Australie?” It would seem that he had realised we were Aussies whilst we were off walking and that had made all the difference! So the stories are true! I wondered how he’d have felt if I’d pointed out that fact he’d have been German without those folk on the other side of the channel but I let that one go!!
With new locations marked on the map we’d just been given, we were again the recipients of friendly assistance! The drive south provided fantastic scenery but with very heavy buffeting from the wind. Sticking to the back roads, we ambled along at slow speeds and found our way through a myriad of very skinny roads that crisscross the French countryside. The reward was not only a more relaxing journey but a consistent parade of unbelievable scenery.
Continuing south we managed a reasonably protected aire behind a seawall in the town of St Aubin sur Mer. Duck shooting is a very popular pass time and it’s not at all unusual to here shot gun shells being released in the evenings and early mornings. I was a little surprised however to be camped within 50m of a pair of duck shooting hopefuls and within 100m of the local town site, the rules are certainly a little more relaxed than what I’m used to. The coast is subject to quite extreme tidal movements, like being in Western Australia’s Kimberley Region. The beaches, which are more mud than sand, have a very gentle gradient and as such the tide recedes a great distance before returning quite quickly.
The attractiveness of the coast is very different depending on whether it is high or low tide. I think if you were selling a property along the Western coast of France you’d certainly pick your moment for a home open! As we made our way along the coast, we were continually seeing the remains of German coastal fortifications from WWII. It’s hard to believe that the Nazi’s managed to put such regular and well constructed bunkers, known as the Atlantic Wall, along the coast from Norway to the Spanish Border.
The town of Fécamp proved to be a lovely place and we wandered around looking at some of the architecture, particularly the Benedictine Palace! This is the home of Dom Benedictine Liqueur for those of you whom partake! (That’s you Graham) but we didn’t realise this fact until later and may have spent a little more time there had we known. It’s quite hard being on top of the many attractions as you travel. The tourist bureaus are very good but only ever carry information for their immediate area so this means you end up having to visit them consistently and that can become a little tedious! So we do tend to just wing it a little!
We headed inland for a camp in the hope of avoiding some of the blustery winds, as it was becoming a little tedious being buffeted all night. My birthday looming, we were in search of a nice restaurant and with the aid of our Passion France guide we found just what we were looking for! (Passion France is a guide that has locations of overnight stops for self-contained motorhomes at no cost!) We camped at L’Assiette des Mondes, which is home to a family run restaurant! We were more than fortunate for it was a Tuesday and the restaurant is not normally open, however they had a private function in one section and hence were operating.
A fantastic 4 course meal followed and at the end of the evening, feeling absolutely gluttonous we made the 20m dash back to our camper! I say dash, as the weather was deteriorating further. Fatima and her husband Yves, whom own the restaurant, told us that they were expecting a large storm to pass later that evening. After what was a very blustery night, I’d have to say that no further testing of our camper design with regard to wind resistance is required. It turned out we’d just caught the tail end of a hurricane! It was a seriously nasty night, but more for Jen than I. With earplugs in, I counted sheep and was thankful for the extra couple of glasses of red with dinner.
The following day was calm and that was quite a relief. After wandering the lovely streets of nearby Honfleur, we began moving along the Normandy Coast and were quickly made aware of just how strong the winds had been! Large piles of beach sand piled up against houses, earth moving equipment working furiously in an attempt to clear beach access and roads. We were pretty happy that we’d moved away from the coast the previous day!
We planned the next week around the D-day landings and made the pilgrimage along the beautiful coast while being in complete awe of what had taken place all those years ago. Visiting the landing beaches was quite moving, with so many memorials. In places the land has been left as it was after the landings – bomb crater upon bomb crater is a horrible reminder of what took place.
The town of Arromanches is the location of a circular cinema in which they screen a short film giving an overview of WW2. It was very moving and Jen was close to tears! There is a museum and other displays also, all perched above the British landing site of Gold Beach, and is also the location of Winston Churchill Harbour. This was a floating harbor constructed by the Allies and towed across the channel for the landings and ongoing resupply. Some of the harbour remains to this day. It’s worth reading about if you’re interested….
We spent a lot of time along the Normandy coast and departed feeling truly fortunate to be able to enjoy the lifestyle we have today and very grateful to those whom lost their lives to ensure it. The outcome of those dark days was very much on a knife-edge and much more tenuous than I was previously aware.
Our only real dislike along the Normandy Coast was the total commercialisation of the war, taking place at many of the historic sites and all of the towns. Gift shops sell anything from WWII soldier fridge magnets, coasters, aprons, stickers and coffee mugs to replica weapons coupled with any other WWII gimmick they think they can sell! It became quite disheartening to think that so many people lost their lives to now have people profit from their incredible sacrifice with such meaningless junk. Seemed a little disrespectful…
I must point out, however, that practically every house has a mixture of allied nation flags displayed. There is no doubt that a strong feeling of gratitude and respect along this part of France still exists to this day. The monuments and cemeteries are maintained beautifully and receive many thousands of visitors annually.
Ready to move on to Bretagne (Brittany) and lighten the mood, we made for another Passion France destination. The chosen venue was a small volume organic cider distillery. A few tastings inside the 200 year old villa and with a case tucked away in the Patrol we had enjoyed some more lovely French hospitality.
Onward and Mont St Michel came into view. What an amazing site! However the local council knows how to make money with €20 to park your camper van in the official car park, and you’re still 1 km from the site, but there is a free shuttle bus. Alternatively it’s €16 to camp in the RV park with all facilities but it’s 2km away! That was an easy decision! There is also an aire that’s even cheaper!
We opted to walk the 2 km out to the Abbey from the RV Park as the walk is lovely and the bus is €3 each way per person for a1 km journey, which then links you with the free shuttle bus if you wish to join the queue for the last km! So it’s not surprising to find that most people opt for the RV Park or aire coupled with the on-foot option!
An amazing feat of engineering, built on a small island not far off the mainland. Completely surrounded by water at high tide, it really is a remarkable spectacle. I wasn’t sure what to expect once inside the walls of the Abbey, and was a little surprised to find a complete village filling the lower levels. Beautiful stonework adorns the buildings, lovely views provided by walkways all around the site. From any angle the Abbey is magnificent.
I have never seen so many restaurants in my life, wall to wall in every nook and cranny along with the obligatory souvenir shops selling anything that China can produce in order to remind you of your visit! I know I’m cynical but it’s a little overdone.
Travelling west along the Bretagne coast with remarkable scenery and lovely little villages possessing that old world charm, it can be difficult to make any distance as we keep getting side tracked with sites that we just can’t drive past.
It’s all but impossible to bush camp around this area. Towns are so close together and aires so frequent and inexpensive (or free) that it’s not even worth trying. Really makes you appreciate the freedom we are able to experience in Australia. I’d kill for a campfire in a bush setting! At one of our overnight camping sites, there was about 300mm between us and the next camper on one side and 500mm on the other, just enough room for the door to open!! 15 places available and they were all taken. We watched a consistent stream of hopeful occupants entering and departing whilst we were there.
We often end up in conversation with other travellers but it’s almost impossible to describe our journey to them when asked. First they are amazed that we are still alive, (we can probably thank media mistruths regarding the world in general for those questions), then they are amazed at the distance we’ve travelled! One thing that really sticks out for me as markedly different is what we might expect from a camping or touring trip in Australia, compared to Europe. The discussion here is always about which towns to visit and where the best aires with toilet drop facilities are! The thought of heading down a remote track and camping by yourself with no facilities, not to mention no access to a patisserie is a completely alien concept to the European motor-homer! Let alone what 4×4 is used for! How can you camp alone – aren’t you frightened of being attacked?
I could go on but you get the idea!!
Continuing our tour of Bretagne, we entered a section known as the Cote de Granit Rose, really magnificent! A rough coastline covered with granite boulders, many larger than a suburban house!
St Jacut de la Mer was the target for the days travel. We found a good aire with plenty of space between sites whilst being located near the beach. It was a nice respite from the close proximity camps that make up most of the locations where you can stop. Wandering through the small village, I’m once again mystified at how the French actually make any money? Most small villages are basically ghost towns for the better part of the day. They open for a couple of hours in the morning followed by a long siesta before coming alive for a few hours in the late afternoon. It obviously works for them but I’m getting the impression they are rather lazy! (I make that comment as I get out of bed at 10am and am unable to find a patisserie that’s still open so that I can start the day with a croissant – very distressing!)
With blue skies and unseasonably high temperatures making T-shirts and shorts once again the clothing of choice, it was a lovely few days. If you persevere you’re generally able to drive right along the coast, avoiding the motorways, but it does necessitate a lot of slow negotiation of small villages along the way. However these villages invariably become the highlight of the drive and more than compensate for the slower pace.
We were approached 3 times by locals during our passage of this section, as they were surprised to see foreign tourists in the area, let alone an Australian vehicle! Apparently it’s not as popular as the southern part of Bretagne and receives very little in the way of international tourism. I was really surprised by that as it turned out to be one of the prettiest areas geographically that we’ve encountered along the French coast.
Again following the coast and winding our way along tiny little sealed roads we were stunned by the amount of chateaus that are encountered! When I say chateaus, I mean massive majestic buildings that are usually hundreds of years old, hidden behind large groves of trees and manicured hedges! It’s autumn here and as such the foliage of the forests is morphing into a splendor of orange and brown, creating luminescent colours as the sun manages to pass through the canopy. It’s really beautiful. The downside on many of the smaller roads is the amount of leaf litter that accumulates and then becomes a soggy trap for rain and mist due to not receiving any sunlight, resulting in some very, very slippery roads!!
Yep I’m speaking from experience.
The Tregastel area and the Plumonac’h Lighthouse are without doubt a must see in this area – the pictures will tell the story!
Whilst camped at the town of St Pol de Leon we were reminded of the fact that we all have different travelling styles.
The RV above, is the holiday home for not 12 people but 2!! Complete with a quad bike in the rear garage! No doubt you’d need an alternate form of transport if travelling in a large RV as the small roads and villages just can’t handle them whilst many of the campsites have entry locations inaccessible to such monolithic motor homes. Having said that however, the fit out in these vehicles is amazing – more rooms than the average house and very comfortable for the European winter. They are a choice that I understand works to a degree in these countries, as going off-road is generally not possible and is not even considered by most.
The Crozon Peninsula is one of the furthest points west that you can travel along the coast. Freezing cold winds and seas whipped into confused masses of waves made for a great reminder of mother nature and her power, after a quick walk amongst the elements we made for the Patrol and the heater before beginning our transit east.
We found a nicely protected aire after a short drive and nestled amongst a multitude of motor homes. Many of the RV’s here seemed to be quite settled which isn’t something we’d previously seen. We soon worked out that they were all heading off with buckets at low tide in the pursuit of oysters. Returning with buckets brimming, they would spend the rest of the day cooking and eating them whilst enjoying a couple of drinks – repeating the process day after day!
Unlike those camping trips at home where we might spend a week or so fishing and swimming on a beach somewhere, campfire burning and gazing over the ocean, these guys retire to a bitumen car park surrounded by houses and roads! Very different way of doing things! I guess it’s all about what your used too!!
Next on our agenda was the village of Rochfort en Terre. Jen had heard that it was quite a historical old town and worth a detour. All that I can say about this little place is – Wow!
The beginnings of this town stretch back to somewhere around the tenth century. Cobbled streets and old stone stairways, displaying indents eroded into them from the millions of footsteps that have been laid upon them over the centuries. Loaded with character, I’d have to say this town has made it close to the top of our list of favourites so far.
Although not as stunning as the beautiful scenery that surrounded the Rhine and Mosel Rivers in Germany, Amboise proved itself to be a stopover worth the effort. After arriving late in the afternoon, we were met by a myriad of tiny one-way streets enroute to the local aire, which seems to be commonplace in France. The aire we chose was well located on an island in the middle of the Loire River and we were fortunate to meet John and Mary from the UK there.
Seasoned European travellers with their motorhome, we were once again able to top up with useful tips on things to see – one being the house in which Leonardo Da Vinci lived in during his last years and located close to the edge of the town. Now a dedicated museum to Da Vinci and his life’s work, it contained a collection of models and life size working displays of his myriad of ideas and concepts and was an historic site that I’m glad we didn’t miss.
The region is loaded with chateaus and some of them, such as Chenonceau, are not only amazing architectural structures, but just flat out jaw droppingly stunning. Apparently when in it’s hey day, you could enter on one side of this chateau and be in occupied France before exiting at the other end of the building across the river to find yourself in Free France. It was this passage that enabled many to escape the Nazis during the War.
An overnight stop enroute to Paris and then we were met with the vista of an icon that we all know. Our first view of the Eiffel Tower from the motorway was a fantastic moment. Although we’ve been in France a month or so, all of sudden hit with the majestic silhouette of such an alluring structure it began to sink in – Just how far we have travelled and what a fantastic adventure we’ve had to date.
We made the drive to the Indigo RV park which is sensationally located on the banks of the Seine and only about 4km from the Arc de Triomphe as the crow flies. The thought of Parisian traffic was making me a little nervous, as I’d read that the park was in a great location but required driving near the city centre. Which is known to be a nightmare. As it turned out, it was easily reached on good roads and as such we were more than happy with our choice.
The campsite provides a shuttle bus with a regular timetable into the city centre for a small fee, which made transiting into Paris really easy. Its secondary benefit (or maybe the primary one as far as the RV park is concerned) is that it also ensures that you don’t inadvertently stray into the large park between you and the “Arc” that is home to many ladies of the night!
Paris is just one of those cities, with such amazing sights as the Eiffel Tower, Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral that it really is a must visit. It has a character all of it’s own and strolling around the city is an easy way to make hours seem like minutes. We have visited Paris previously and this really worked in our favour as we only had a few must do things on our list unlike our last visit, which was fairly intense.
First was the Eiffel Tower and another excursion to the top of this amazing structure. Requiring some patience, as you won’t be alone in this aspiration, large queues of eager visitors are part and parcel of travel to such destinations. But what visit to Paris would be complete without such an ascent, the majestic views across the Parisian landscape from the 300m+ structure are just breathtaking.
We just wandered along the River Seine and around the grounds of the Louvre, slowly making our way back toward the campground via the Arc de Triomphe. As we approached this amazing monument, we found our timing was impeccable. The following day would be the 11th of the 11th and Armistice Day would require the transformation of this majestic monument for the purpose of remembrance. A huge French flag was suspended from the arch and with a light breeze keeping it partially unfurled; it was a truly grand sight. With military bands rehearsing, we were once again reminded of wartime history and the cost of freedom.
We departed Paris on the 11th and made north toward the Somme River. We attempted a detour through Paris with the aim of driving to the Basilica de Sacre Coeur, but ended up bailing on that idea. Nissan Patrols and central Paris don’t really mix all that well, and I was beginning to find the drive, well, a little stressful! You can only dodge so many little Renaults and Fiats before you’ve had enough, and I’d had enough!
Heading north we stuck to our usual game plan of remaining off the motorways where convenient and adopted the principles of “pin the tale on the donkey” to choose a destination. The town of Conty was our target, once within a few kms of this little precinct we began noticing cars parked all along the road verge! The quantity of cars increased as we closed in on the town until it was literally, wall to wall with not a space to be found anywhere. It turned out that the Conty Community Fair day was in full swing (the 11th of the 11th is a public holiday)
We continued following our GPS, which was navigating us to an aire in the centre of town and right amongst the festivities. Feeling rather doubtful that we’d be able to make it all the way to the waypoint, let alone have parking present itself. Undeterred and with a steady stream of French eyeballs upon us we continued to our destination, upon seeing the motorhome parking sign we pulled in and were surprised to find an acre on which we could park. It would seem that the locals had left the parking area relatively free for its intended use. A 50m walk and we spent a couple of hours digging amongst the numerous French stalls, selling anything from escargot to antiques. Jen was in heaven!
After a relaxing day and having the good fortune of stumbling upon this quaint little town brimming with atmosphere, we found ourselves nestled back inside our camper in the darkness of the campsite preparing dinner.
That’s when we heard the familiar rumble of an arriving motorhome. Now to put you in the picture, there is one other RV parked up and it’s some 30m away (it was parked up when we arrived!), there is a grass area to park on easily 100m long. With predictability as solid as that which tells us the sun will rise tomorrow, our new arrival camped no more than 10feet from us! They are so conditioned to camping on top of each other that even when they have an acre to choose from they will gravitate to any other camper like a fly in your coffee floats to the edge!
Next we headed for Villers-Bretonneux – rather central to the area in which the Battle of the Somme was fought. It’s one the areas in which Australian troops fought and died in large numbers during WW1. I won’t go on about the battles; the pictures below show many of the sights if you wish to take a look.
With only a few days left before my 3 months in the EU was due to expire; we made for Calais and the Channel crossing. A rainy afternoon was spent in transit, culminating in our arrival at the port of Calais where we set up camp adjacent to the ferry departure point. With tickets booked we spent the next day cleaning and preparing before wandering around Calais and enjoying our last afternoon on European soil.
Arriving at the port the following day, we made our way through French customs and proceeded to UK customs where a little bit of extra time was spent. I had to convince customs that I was not going to overstay my maximum 6 months in the UK. I’m glad that I had observed the Schengen zone rules for I was now under a little scrutiny! Because we were entering with our own vehicle and no onward tickets of any kind I wasn’t surprised at having to explain the situation! A short time later and we were back in the vehicle queue and on our way.
31000km since landing in Vladivostok and just over 7 months later, the Patrol once again found itself at sea. The old cliché applies here – time really has flown!
Back soon with tales from the motherland..
Cya – Justin.
PS: We are now happily camped in Ramsgate just north of Dover, clocks again adjusted and it’s completely dark by 4:30pm! What the..?..?