Sunday, 11 September 2011

Down to Dordogneshire

In August 2010, while we were in Norway, my (Lesley’s) family had their annual holiday in Eymet in the Dordogne. They had a great time and decided to book the same gite for 2011 and, with the kind permission of the gîte owners, we arranged to park up the van there and spend two weeks enjoying the sunshine, the pool, the food and the wine.

Not being ones to move anywhere very quickly, we decided to take a few days travelling down to the area, rather than do the whole journey in one go like the rest of the family. Besides, with the house packed ready for our imminent move, there seemed little point in just hanging around Leicester, twiddling our thumbs and nervously awaiting exchange of contracts.

Marine Parade, Dover

So on Wednesday 3rd August 2011 we left Narborough at 7 p.m. and headed south down the M1, sharing the driving for a change and reaching Marine Parade, Dover, by 11:30 p.m., where we joined the line of about a dozen motorhomes parked up for the night. We had a very comfortable sleep and woke all too soon to the sound of Rob’s alarm. By 6:45 a.m. we were away and just a few minutes later were being waved onto the next ferry at 7:20 a.m., having produced no tickets or even reference numbers, and with no checking of passports.

Leaving Dover

In the early morning light we could clearly see the French coast. The short journey passed quickly and with no checks on the French side, we were soon driving towards Boulogne.

We were not the only motorhomers on the pretty coastal road, and we saw many Germans, Dutch, Belgians, French and Brits. We passed Cap Blanc Nez, but did not stop as the car park had height restrictions. Cap Gris Nez, luckily, had a section for motorhomes, so we got out and had a short walk along the headland to the viewing platforms.

We continued along the coast road, through Boulogne and down the route national to Abbeville. Here we picked up the non-toll motorway to Rouen, and also picked up heavy rain, which stayed with us for the rest of the day.
Once out of Rouen we decided to head south on lesser roads, with the help of Garmintrude the sat nav. These turned out to be considerably smaller than we had imagined, and took us on a picturesque winding drive through a landscape of rolling wheat fields and woodlands.

Wheat fields in Southern Normandy

At about 5 o’clock we stopped for shopping and a coffee at Le Neubourg, and half an hour later we were back on our way heading south to check out the aire at Rugles. It was set in a very pretty location beside a large park in the centre of the town, but we were put off by several vanloads of gypsies parked on the grass, and decided to drive on. I don’t know if they are always there, and maybe we shouldn’t have been so wimpy, but you know how it is! After another 20 km we arrived at the small village of Chandai, where we finally stopped for the night on a simple, but fine, free aire, parking up in the emerging sunshine to cook our merguez, tripes and cassoulet. By the time we sat to eat, however, the heavens had opened once again, causing us to close the windows and endure the stifling heat until the worst of the storm passed.

On Friday 5th We set off about 10 a.m. and headed south on more small roads, passing by fields of cereal crops. At about the time we realised we had taken no photos of the attractive narrow timber framing on the farmhouses and barns, the architecture quickly changed to stone buildings in soft creamy colours. The landscape gradually became more contoured, with the wheat giving way to maize, sunflowers and then tobacco. As we neared the Loire valley we began to see our first vineyards, and by the time we reached Saumur the roads were lined with wine merchants, though 9 euros for a bottle of cremant was a bit outside what we wished to pay. (In case you’re reading this in future years, the euro stood at this time at around €1.10 to the pound).
We found a great little aire right by the Loire between Gennes and Saumur, though there was little water in sight from our riverbank spot, as the Loire itself was a bit of a trot away across the sandy flood plain.

Chênethuttes aire by the Loire

The aire was another free one, though with a charge for water this time (3 euros), and gradually began to fill up with French vans, some arriving as late as 1 a.m. The evening was lovely and sunny, so I sat out on a chair while Rob cycled off in search of cheaper cremant. We had a nice barbeque and another comfortable sleep.

Pont de Gennes near Saumur

On Saturday we set off in sunshine for our big push to the Dordogne, again heading south on smallish roads, stopping at a massive Super-U at Thouars to shop for our first weekend with the family. A trolley full of wine and beer later, and lighter in the wallet by some 170 euros, we decided to pick up the speed a bit and drove on the N10 from Poitiers to somewhere past Angoulême. I (Lesley) drove for this section, and the heavens opened up so much that I could barely see for the spray.

We somehow missed the turning off the N10 and ended up on tiny roads again. I happily left to Rob to drive the rest of the way to Eymet and we arrived at La Moutique shortly after the rest of the family at about 8:40 p.m. and were soon settled down with glasses of wine and another barbeque.

We both began Sunday with that feeling of having drunk just a bit more than was good for us, but a relaxing morning by the pool, followed by a chilled-out lunch sorted us out.

Eymet town square

In the evening we went into Eymet for their medieval festival, where we had booked tickets for the evening meal and entertainment in the town square. There were lots of stalls on a vaguely medieval theme, as well as displays of birds of prey, sword fighting and wandering troubadours. Many of the visitors were in medieval garb, as well as the stallholders, cooks and entertainers. The meal wasn’t too bad, as these large scale feasts go. Everything was tasty enough, if not particularly hot, and we were kept entertained by more little medieval acts. Audience participation was part of the deal, though the re-enactors failed to get Rob up and took my brother-in-law,Terry, instead, who had to ‘battle’ against a French member of the audience, by holding a great sword straight up in the air. British honour was upheld by Terry, but then my sister, Frances, was hauled up for the women’s version of the event and her performance wasn’t quite as good.

Medieval knights at Eymet’s medieval night

Unfortunately the end of the evening was spoiled slightly by a row over a stupid couple who stood right in front of everyone’s tables blocking the view of the fire dancing finale. Despite being asked to move by a steward, the pair just stood there and when we said ‘excusez-moi’ they just had a go. It’s the first time we’ve been insulted by being called ‘les rosbif’!

Family at medieval night

Eymet is an attractive bastide town, about 25 km south of Bergerac, with an impressive central square surrounded by timber framed houses, and a medieval castle. It caters very well to tourists, probably a bit too well for our liking, if the truth be told, with two weekly markets – a Tuesday evening one and a Thursday day one. Evening markets in France tend to be tourist events, with jewellery, china and clothes, but the Thursday market has produce, although with a definite tourist bent. The medieval evening is a summer one off, but worth going to if it’s on while you’re there. Even better was the oyster and wine day, which is another summer event. Lots to drink and eat, and if you stay to the evening it actually gets quite French with a good old disco on the town square.

Eymet night market – come for the good food on offer

I have to say though, that we have never been to another area outside Britain where  we’ve found quite so many Brits, and we’ve been to southern France many, many times over the last 30 years. We hadn’t bothered to research the area as we were tagging on to the family holiday, but we knew it was likely to be full of ex-pats. Even so, it was a shock to see just how Anglicised the place was, right down to having an interiors shop selling Farrow & Ball paint.

The crêpe stall and the evening disco at the oyster and wine fair in Eymet

We really didn’t do much over the two weeks other than relax by the pool, sample too much good wine and food, and potter about a few nearby villages. We had a good time, but it was a bit too hot for us, and sapped us of the will to get out and about in the van.

A pool is an absolute must in the summer heat

One of the pretty Dordogne villages - Beaumont du Périgord

We began our trip home on Thursday18th August. First stop was a visit to a vet in Périgueux, where we had Charlie dog checked over, Frontlined and wormed with medication we provided, for 35 euros, a much cheaper option than using the vet in Eymet for 65 euros (tip – always ring a few vets). Our appointment was late afternoon, and we only drove some 100 km after that. We spent that night on a delightful aire at the village of Pageas, just before Limoges. It was situated on the edge of the village, and had lovely views over a park and pond. We pondered on how and why such small villages maintain these smashing aires. There were hardly any shops, bars or restaurants for visitors to spend money in, so we couldn’t really see what was in it for the local area.

By Friday I had gone down with a horrible ear infection, which left Rob doing a full day of driving to get us to Calais by late evening. At 450 miles this was by far the longest all-in-one drive we’d made in the van and neither of us can say it’s a way we like to travel. The aire in Calais was full, and we contemplated just parking on the road in front of the main carpark, but it was a bit noisy. Instead, we drove a few minutes west to neighbouring Blériot Plage, and spent a very peaceful night on a carpark by the cemetery there – maybe not everyone’s taste, but at least we woke refreshed for our early morning ferry back to Britain.

After a brief stop to visit family in Surrey, we headed back to Leicester – for our last week of living in the Midlands.