Journal

Around Saumur

As a result of more limited mobility on my part we decided to cut out our planned visit around the Limoges area and head straight to Saumur on the western end of the Loire Valley as it allowed us to drive straight from there to the ferry terminal at Caen.

We had visited the area on our first visit to France in the motor home in May-June 2016. Open campgrounds were in limited supply this time so we stayed just west of Saumur in a campground with beautiful views over the Loire. Some of the time was spent sorting out the van ready for storage but we did manage to do some exploring.

Love the autumn colours at this time of year.

The troglodyte villages of Montsoreau and Turquant were worth a detour with many houses built into the limestone cliffs and still occupied.

Fontevraud-l’Abbaye Royal is a huge complex not far south and east of Saumur. The cloisters were particularly beautiful- so full of light – while the cathedral was very plain by contrast with more recent renovations that did not fit the age of the church. The kitchen building was under renovation and we could not enter but the roof is very unusual and a special feature of the abbey.

The kitchen building roof

Our last stay in Biggy in France would not have been complete without searching out a special meal in Saumur.

La Gambetta was certainly one of the best on this trip. Not cheap but worth it.

Quail – divine flavours- followed by Venison like we have never had it before – delicious
Desert – too difficult to describe but yum

And so our time in Biggy is almost finished – just another couple of nights while we clean and pack up in the UK.

We have loved our travels and not having to plan in advance but we have spent about 16 months in Europe in the last 2 1/2 years.

So this is the last blog in Burtons On Tour. Next year we will still travel but in a different style.

The Dordogne

Having visited this area 17 years ago we were keen to explore further. Most of the campgrounds near the river closed at the end of September but we managed to find one near Sarlat which made a convenient base.

Sarlat was just as gorgeous as we remembered. The town is lit at night by gas lamps which makes the old town very atmospheric.

Most of the restaurants in town are apparently not memorable, catering for the mass tourist trade but we managed to find one very good one just out of town.

An exquisite combination of flavours and textures in this dessert
Lobster with fennel and orange – divine!

We decided to revisit Castle Beynac and Castelnaud-la-Chapelle. This view is down the river from Castelnaud-la-Chapelle with Castel Beynac in the background.

Unfortunately our activities in the Dordogne were somewhat curtailed by my leg injury while hiking. Le Roque Gageac where we started our hike is a beautiful village built into the cliff beside the river. We were supposed to explore it further at the end of the walk but it was not to be.

Our walk took us through forests of chestnuts and walnut trees with the nuts littering the ground. It became more of a foraging walk with ripe figs added to the mix. Not to mention geese farms along the way.

We did manage to do a bit of sightseeing around the Dordogne after that fateful day. Loubressac is a beautiful village off the beaten track so no bus loads of tourists.

Rocamadour is also an interesting place to visit with the monastery set into and up a huge cliff. Very difficult to photograph without a good camera as the best viewpoint was so far away and the sun was in our faces.

There are many more castles and chateaux in the Dordogne- some in the most surprising locations, often on the edge of precipitous cliffs presumably because it would have been the most defendable. Many are privately owned and not open to the public.

Montforte beside the Dordogne River

We definitely could go back to this area there is so much to do and see. We had been planning to kayak down the river as the weather was so warm but it was not possible with my leg – now it will have to wait until we manage to visit again.

Next stop – around Saumur.

Bordeaux

Somehow, with all our travels around France we have missed out Bordeaux and it was time to rectify that. We managed to find a campground just north of the centre of Bordeaux and close to a light rail connection to the centre.

Our first trip, though, was to St Emilion, which we had briefly visited with the girls in 2001. It was busy with tourists – surprise, surprise and we left making arrangements for lunch a little late having adjusted to Spanish lunch times of 2 pm onwards! Still we found a little cafe with a delightful owner. The town is very pretty even with all the tourists – like us!

View over St Emilion

We really enjoyed Bordeaux. Beautiful old architecture, lots of pedestrianised streets and a fabulous farmers’ market on Sunday morning.

Escargots for lunch anyone?

The photo of cheeses shows about one quarter of the goat’s cheeses on display at this one stall! So much interesting food – wish our farmers’ markets were as good as this.

Next stop – the Dordogne and Sarlat.

Bilbao

Our next stop was a campground near a beach just north of Bilbao which was convenient for picking up Anna who was flying from Casablanca to stay with us for 4 nights.

The main attraction of Bilbao was to visit the Guggenheim Museum which was wonderful.

The “Puppy” outside the entrance to the Guggenheim Museum

It was a shame that the second floor was shut off for some reason but the special exhibition on the ground floor made up for that

https://www.guggenheim.org/exhibition/joana-vasconcelos-im-your-mirror

https://joanavasconcelos.guggenheim-bilbao.eus/en/exhibition

It was stunning – especially when you looked closely at the materials that were used to create each artwork. We managed to sneak a couple of photos.

This piece is made entirely of plastic knives, forks and spoons

Bilbao has been reborn in recent decades from a nondescript industrial city to a popular tourist destination. Much of this is due to the Guggenheim but also to a massive investment in public open spaces and attractive streetscapes which have revitalised the city. Large areas especially near the river have been pedestrianised.

Riverside next to the Guggenheim

The only other day trip we did was to a monastery on an islet near Bakio which features on many brochures about the area – a good climb but great views.

We decided to head to Bordeaux, our next stop, a day early and spend the last day with Anna there.

Northern coast of Spain

We found our way to a little place called Pechon with a campsite right on the coast with great views thanks to a recommendation from a young Dutch couple we had met in La Rioja area.

We spent our time exploring further west and east along the coast which is quite dramatic with cliffs and small sandy beaches. While there was the usual ugly Spanish apartment development surrounding the towns the areas in between were more undeveloped.

Our first exploration was to the east to Comillas where there is a summer house designed by Gaudi. Comillas is an attractive town and made a good lunch stop for our first paella of the trip.

Santillana del Mar is quite a touristy small town where the tour buses pour in but for all that it is a beautiful medieval town. Luckily we went there late in the day when it was relatively quiet.

On our travels further west we stopped at Llanes and Ribadesella. We came across these little cuties at Llanes – the little girl was only too happy to pose for a photo! Her brother ?

It was the annual Vespa rally in Llanes when we arrived – 100’s of Vespas of all ages and sizes and modifications were lined up, revving waiting for the start signal. Their riders were equally diverse.

Ribadesella was as far west as we went. It is centred on a large estuary and has a popular surf beach.

We discovered quite by accident that we were staying close to the access road to the largest national park in Spain, but one that is not well known – Picos de Europa. So of course we had to go. The road up was amazing – probably the longest continuous deep gorge we have driven up. On the way we stopped at the town of Potes, in the middle of nowhere but obviously a popular destination judging by all the accommodation and restaurants.

Finally we arrived at Fuentes De, the base of a gondola going up 1500m allowing easy access to higher in the mountains, only to find an hour long queue to go up – it was Saturday after all even though it was late September. After driving so far we had no choice but to wait. The views at the top were magnificent but we elected not to hike all the way down as it was a 5 hour hike and apparently quite steep in parts and it was already 2 pm by the time we got to the top. We opted for a short hike from the station at the top – not nearly as satisfying. It had been impossible to find out information on the hikes on the internet beforehand and the staff at the National Park office we stopped at on the way did not speak a word of English or French and had no information on the hikes! On reflection we would probably have been better to drive to another entry point to the National Park.

Next stop – Bilbao

La Rioja – Spanish wine country

We did not plan to go here but some friends had been a few years ago and we thought why not? Also we could not find anywhere else in the Pyrenees to visit that appealed.Generally we have found the Pyrenees much steeper and more difficult to access even in the little car. We managed to find a campground 15 minutes west of Logrono the main city of the region which was also very close to the Basque wine country on the northern side of the Ebro River.

Logrono was in full harvest festival mode when we were there. The Festival of San Mateo is the biggest festival of the year and combines with the harvest festivals. The fountains are wine coloured in celebration of the importance of wine to the local economy.

Bands from various vineyards cruised the streets making lots of noise – especially the percussion bands.

The old town was crowded out – especially the streets lined with bars or specialising in tapas.

I decided it was time for a trip to the hairdresser while in Logrono. I was recommended one by the person in the tourist office. Lovely people but no English- I was saved by a French speaking client when I tried to book – many laughs all round. It was the first time i have braved a hair salon when not able to communicate at all. We managed with Google translate – until the point where she asked me something I could not understand then used Google translate. It translated as “I knock you out” . I went “what the …..?” It turned out she wanted to know if she had trimmed enough from my hair. End result – I was very happy as they took a lot of care.

We had read about the various vineyards that have been pushing the architectural design boundaries so decided to visit the pretty medieval town of Laguardia to the north of the river and the vineyards nearby.

Laguardia
This vineyard building emulates the hills and mountains behind- it extends an equal distance to the left

We treated ourselves to a special 14 course dégustation lunch at the renowned restaurant at the vineyard below

The building is stunning – totally at odds with the old buildings around but has become famous.

The roof is made of multi coloured titanium sheets and reputedly cost 85 million euros to build. There is a 5 star hotel there too

The Marqués de Riscal vineyard hotel and restaurant building

Our meal was superb – staff were lovely and the food was the best we have had anywhere – perfectly executed.

“Olives” made of soft cheese, anchovy and red pepper glazed with squid ink – delicious

The pigeon was very good – we have had it a few times now

The meal was a great experience. Highly recommended if you are a foodie.

Next stop – the Basque coast west of Baaque

Torla and the Ordesa National Park

After a big drive from Girona we arrived at Torla with Richard feeling a bit shell shocked after the last part of the drive – a narrow windy road without the “security” of a centre line. Mind you, at the end of the trip when we did have a centre line and it wasn’t wide enough to accommodate Biggy on one side. The approach road to the campground, which we had been recommended, really threw us – super steep, narrow with sharp bends. We even debated continuing up the road to another campground which was poorly rated. Once committed there was no turning back- if we met anyone coming the other way they would just have to reverse some distance.

We were glad we had made the effort – the campground Rio Ara was beautiful with great views of the cliffs of the Ordesa Canyon and beautifully kept. The lovely owner didn’t speak any English but luckily she spoke French with a strong Spanish accent! We had some good conversations.

Ordesa National Park is stunning – it has a magnificent gorge with walls up to 1300 metres high. Torla is the pretty village at the entrance to the park, with a medieval feel to it. Apparently it pretty much closes down in winter as there are not any ski fields here.

The cute lean to building (very old) is the entrance to a restaurant

Our first day we drove up a VERY bumpy road to hike part of the GR11 – one of the long distance trails.

Most of our time was spent in the national park. One day we hiked right up the canyon to the cirque.

Stunning scenery all the way – but nearly 5 hours return and 16 km with a 500m vertical climb – the most Richard had attempted since he ruptured his Archilles.

Approaching the cirque.

Another day we opted to take a 4×4 drive trip to the top of the rim- fantastic experience, amazing views.

We could see part of where we had walked the day before.

The cirque where we had walked to the previous day- from the rim of the canyon

We also visited the medieval town of Ainsa before heading up to visit another gorge in the national park.

On the way we kept seeing deserted villages that were partly destroyed and wondered why there were so many.

Then we saw one with access from the road and decided to explore.

It turned out these villages had been destroyed and abandoned because of a dam proposal that was never built in the 1960’s.

People were bullied and intimidated to leave their homes and houses were then blown up with people still nearby.

This was to “encouage” those who refused to leave to do so.

Apparently one day they even dragged a teacher out of her class by her hair and she was scared to return.

The school closed down and the remaining residents were forced to leave. No compensation was ever paid .

The village we visited, Jánovas, is gradually being restored by the families of those who had to leave – so sad.

Girona

We decided to stop for a couple of nights at Girona, south of Figueres, to break up the journey to our next destination. The campground, just to the south, was fairly basic but convenient.

We found Girona a lovely place to wander around – the cathedral was particularly impressive- and the story behind what happened to the sizeable Jewish population in the 13th century was tragic. One thing we noticed was the very evident movement for an independent Catalan. Yellow ribbons adorned every railing and flags and banners were everywhere.

The Cathedral
The cloisters of the cathedral

Lots of narrow alleyways to explore -the old Jewish quarter “The Call”

We came across the largest shop selling watches that we have ever seen – Richard has been grumbling that he hasn’t been able to see the face of his current one since he bought it (too many fancy dials) – so after some agonising over which one to get he finally made a decision and is very happy!

Dinner at a local restaurant near the campground was an interesting experience – we chose the menu del dia (menu of the day)- and the food just kept on coming. We couldn’t even finish the multitude of starters, including a huge platter of snails, soft shell crab and mussels – an interesting but tasty combo. I could hardly face my main course of barbecue baby goat.

First escargot of the trip- did not realise it was a Spanish dish!

Next stop – Torla and the Ordesa National Park in the Spanish Pyrenees

Near the Spanish border – Callioure

From Mas d’Azil we headed east to the Mediterranean coast near the Spanish border.

Rather than retrace our steps and go north to pick up the main west-east autoroute which then branches to go south towards Perpignan and Spain we decided to go via the D117 which was portrayed on the map as a major connecting road. Big mistake! It was a beautiful route but by the time you go slowly through every single village etc and then end up in a stunning gorge and get the wing mirror taken out by one of the dreaded white panel vans cutting the corner on a narrow windy part, you start to think it was a mistake.

We managed to stop some distance further on and put the wing mirror back together enough so that it functioned and eventually arrived at our destination – a campground right on the coast just a few minutes north of the town of Callioure. the campground has its own private coves for swimming which I make good use of. There is also a coastal walkway to Callioure and to the village and resort areas further north as well. We discovered that the area to the north, around Argeles-sur-Mer is not particularly attractive being a low lying expansive beach with almost non-stop coastal holiday development.

Callioure, by contrast, is a very pretty town with a chateau right on the harbour which is much more low key than those on the Côte d’Azur but has its share of good restaurants.

Collioure is full of pastel painted houses of many hues

We visited Cadaques in Spain via the very windy coast road in Twiggy. It is a beautiful coastal town – quite different in character from just over the border in France with terracotta roofs and white painted buildings.

After an excellent lunch at Talla Restaurant we headed off to Figueres to visit the Salvador Dali theatre museum – built in an old theatre with many of the artworks created by Dali especially for the spaces in the old building.

This painting is nearly 3 stories high

Many of his works are quite confronting or bizarre.

Next blog – Girona, Spain

L’Ariege Pyrenees- foothills of the Pyrenees

We headed south from Toulouse to a campground close to a place called Le Mas d’Azil, which has an interesting cave system inhabited about 14,000 years ago by Magdalena Man. We were able to tour through the caves. You enter from a huge cave which passes right through the mountain ridge and which forms the main north-south road route through the area. You could see why it was favoured by prehistoric man during the Ice Age occurring at the time.

We realised we might have been better staying further south close to the main highway south to Andorra for the amount of driving we did on day trips. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but we didn’t realise we would have a minimum of 25 minutes drive to get to the main highway so we ended up doing long day trips several times. We spent one night staying with a friend from my French class in their little village further west in the Midi-Pyrenees. We visited some of their favourite haunts including St Bertrand de Comminges which has a cathedral with some beautiful paintings and wood carvings.

Given Richard’s love of caves we also did the boat trip along the underground river at Labouiche, an interesting experience as the guide pulls the boat along using cables fixed to the walls of the cave. it is the longest navigable underground river in Europe. It was a good thing to do on a hot day as the caves were nice and cool.

Another day trip was to La Grotte de Niaux where we walked in 800m over uneven sometimes slippery ground with just a torch to view the only original cave drawings now accessible to the public in Western Europe. We had to be careful not to touch the walls anywhere and were not allowed any bags or walking sticks as they are very wary of the risk of spreading mould etc from the outside. This happened at Lascaux in the Dordogne where we took the girls 18 years ago and they used a mini electric train to transport people – sadly it is now closed to the public. No photos were allowed but it was an amazing experience to see first hand the complexity of the art including lots of bison and ibex. These paintings are from about 12-14,000 years ago.

We had thought the area we stayed in would have lots of good hiking, and while there was hiking (the Santiago de Compostela Pilgrim’ trail passes through the area), and we did do on short one, it is mainly low level hill walks or along minor roads. We found an amazing sounding walk about 1 hour 30 drive south to Le Pic Tarbesou, which reaches 2400m altitude. Luckily there was a windy road up to the pass which meant we only had about 400m to climb, the most by far that Richard had attempted since rupturing his Archilles at the beginning of the year. It proved to be a fabulous walk of 3 1/2 hours with a steady climb to the top and amazing 360 degree views once we got there.

Horses grazing with bells attached
We came across lots of horses grazing, some with bells – we have seen sheep, cows and goats with bells before but never horses.

We suspect they may go on to become la cheval on the local restaurant menus!

After a week at Le Mas d’Azil it was time to move on – to near the French border with Spain.