Saturday 14 November 2015

Last days in France

France, 7th – 11th November 2015

We’ve now finished our time passing through France, visiting several places on our way around the western corner of the south coast before going inland to head for Andorra. Picking up from where we left off last time we’d got to Aigues-Mortes, which a very well preserved fortified town that dates back to the 13th century crusades. King Louis IX traded land to get a French port on the Mediterranean shore (which at the time belonged to either the Roman Empire or Spain), eventually turning it from swamplands into a successful trade port.

We arrived at the location of the Aire by the canal in Aigues-Mortes to find it empty with the barrier down, the payment machine off, and debris and weeds around the entrance, looking like it had been closed a while. Luckily on driving back around the edge of the walled town I spotted signs for parking with a motorhome symbol which we followed to the designated parking “P4” (GPS: 43.565674, 4.195906) and parked up with numerous other vans. It is charged for in 15 minute intervals from 15 mins €0.50 to 24 hours €11.30 and was a very short walk to an entrance to the town walls.

We walked down the streets finding it to be very quiet (being on a Saturday) with many of the shops closed and all the restaurants open but with no customers. Further along when we reached the main square it was completely different with lots of people about and many of the tables outside restaurants in use. It seems from here onwards was the main tourist area with the shops being open. We picked up a free town info booklet with map from the tourist info office and followed the walking route from it which highlighted lots of sights along the way, many of which were things such as masonry on walls, or window shutters! We saw two fancy biscuit and sweet shops, one of which Alan who told us about this place had been enthusiastic about. We looked inside one and were given a small sample biscuit from a selection tin whilst we looked around. After a couple of hours looking around we went back to the camper for lunch then used the free service point before leaving.

We travelled further around the coast seeing lots of other motorhomes on the road so the journey involved a lot of waving at fellow camping-car drivers. Passing through the edge of Palavas-les-Flots we saw the Aire to one side, which was huge and looked mostly full, I don’t think we’ve seen as many motorhomes together before, which was surprising for being a week into November now. We aimed to stay at some free beach parking below Sète but found four motorhomes parked outside the entrance across the front of some height barriered car parking spaces because it had been blocked off with a large rock, presumably closed for winter. There was no more space to stay here so we continued on to the Aire at Marseillan Plage (GPS: 43.31861 3.54769, €4 in winter +€2 for water). It was quite busy here too but there were plenty of spaces and we got parked up at the side that backed onto the tourist office. On the way past Jo had noticed a large “WiFi Gratuit” sign, so hoped we could pick it up from here. Using our booster aerial we could pick it up fine and I just managed to get a signal on my tablet on the bed near the window. This was the first time we’ve had WiFi in the van in ages (5.5 weeks!) so we made use of it with Jo working on the blog while I did some other things on my tablet.

Our limitation the next day was our device’s batteries as there was no electric hookup here so we used them until they ran out, which for me involved sitting outside the back of the tourist office to Skype my parents after not having done so for weeks. We had a walk to the seafront to the port then back along the beach. The road leading to the beach is lined down one side with a series of tourist shop and restaurant units which were all closed up for winter, except for a couple of restaurants at the inland end. It was very quiet about but there were a few people on the beach walking or fishing.

The Aires along the next stretch of coast are all chargeable so after some lunch we set off slightly inland to a small free one between Béziers and Narbonne at Ouveillan (GPS: 43.29187 2.97024). Access is up a narrow track with bushes and trees along each side that were neatly trimmed back square so we managed to fit along with just the mirrors catching in places and squeezed into a spot next the service point, one of only six or seven spaces. One van was being lived in with chairs and table set up outside, awning out and a car next to it, and two others looked like they hadn’t moved in a while so were maybe lived in or stored there.

Whilst we had access to a free service point we did all our tanks, and as I was busy writing an email this involved Jo emptying the toilet for the first time! Our main task for the day was to get our laundry done whilst we had access to self-service lavories (laundrettes) outside supermarkets as we planned to be leaving France in the next couple of days. We got this done at Super U in Port la Nouvelle which at €5 was more expensive than Intermarchés (€4) but got the job out of the way. After a few dull grey days the sun was back out it was a lovely 24°C again today.

Port-la-Nouvelle Aire
At Leucate we knew of an Aire next to the lagoon/lake which is popular for windsurfing and another at Leucate Plage next to the beach (with some of the bays having great beach views) which our information implied might be free from November so decided to have a look. It turned out that both had gone up in price this year and were €10.20 so we didn’t stay. There was a decent wind blowing so it was tempting to stay at the lake to have a windsurf, but being around 3pm there wasn’t really enough daylight left to get setup and go out. We parked up on the seafront road for a late lunch where it was technically no motorhomes allowed but there was another one there and a large Airstream just leaving, and was very quiet here. Looking at options for the night we decided to go back to Port la Nouvelle to the Aire that may have been free or €4, then would go back to Leucate the next day if the wind forecast was any good. The Aire (GPS: 43.01328 3.04130) turned out to be €4 (plus €2 for water), including access to showers at the municipal camping just along the road. We picked up a free town map from the reception hut and used it to walk into the town and to the port. There didn’t look to be much here, it appeared a working port town. The next day when we drove along the seafront road before leaving we found there’s a nicer beach area with restaurants and shops like a typical seaside tourist town.

Narbonne Aire
In the morning we thought we’d make use of our shower access pass so walked around to the campsite that was closed for the season but we found the shower block that was left open. As the wind forecast was none existent it wasn’t worth going to Leucate. Speaking to my Dad the other day he said Béziers and Narbonne were meant to be nice although he’d not had chance to visit, so we thought we’d have a look at Narbonne. At €9, the Aire (GPS: 43.18059 3.02271) was more expensive that we’d usually want to pay but came with the bonus of free bus travel into the town centre which would usually be €1 per single trip, so this made it worthwhile. When we got into the Aire we realised there was free electric hookup too, so got connected after 40 days off grid! Not bad considering we don’t have a solar panel, and we could’ve easily lasted longer, but was handy to get everything charged up and have some free power for the fridge.

Above: Town Hall Square
Below: Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur cathedral
Narbonne was on the path of the Via Domitia, a road that joined Italy to Spain twenty-one centuries ago. A small section of it was uncovered in 1997 and made into a feature in the Town Hall Square in the town centre. We took the bus into Narbonne and were not sure where to get off at for the centre, until at one stop the driver got out of her seat and spoke to us in French saying something along the lines of that we should’ve got off at the previous stop for the centre. We got off and had a wander around the streets. There is a historic old town in the centre, most of which is pedestrianised, with tall terraced buildings stylised with window shutters and intricate metal balcony railings. A canal runs through the centre and features the UNESCO listed Merchants Bridge that has buildings along both sides of it. When walking across it it appears like a normal street, so much so that I didn’t realise we’d gone across the bridge until later.  It’s an attractive centre that’s compact so didn’t take a long time to walk around using a combination of a signposted walking route and a map from the tourist office. Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur cathedral is an impressive structure but didn’t go inside as it was closed with a service going on. After calling at a back street boulangerie to treat ourselves to some nice bread to go with dinner we hopped on a bus back to the Aire for the evening. While Jo wrote the last blog post I cooked dinner for a change; Cally Chicken from The Campervan Cookbook.

Jo having a sit down, Archbishops Garden terrace
Via Domitia in Town Hall Square

The next day we decided we’d make progress towards Andorra so visited a couple of supermarkets for a few things we wanted before leaving France, including spices as the selection was much better than any other countries we’d been in. In L’Eclerc we made an exciting discovery; they sold budget spices in plastic jars! We’d been wanting plastic spice jars since before leaving the UK (for lighter weight, no rattling, less fragile) but had only found quite expensive ones. These though were mostly €0.40-0.55 each so we put multiple cumin and paprika in our basket to be decanted and re-labelled for other spices at some point.

Driving west from Narbonne we stopped off at a pleasant picnic spot for lunch, sitting outside at one of the picnic benches as it was warm and sunny again. We continued west along the D6113 and D119 via Carcassonne and Mirepoix, before taking the N20 south past Foix. The roads were good, generally quite straight with views of vineyards at the sides. We could tell we were getting nearer our destination when the view of rolling hills was replaced by a faint outline of the Pyrénées mountain ranges in the distance. We started to travel through valleys with the road often following the path of a river, and came into Ax-les-Thermes where we’d intended staying overnight. However the old free Aire had been replaced with long-term parking spaces with a barrier across each one (all of which were empty!) and a new €8 Aire set up near the train station instead so we kept going.  At L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre we were successful with the free Aire (GPS: 42.58904 1.79984, €2 water, €6 12h electric) so got settled here for the night, only 12km from the border.

From here this morning it was into Andorra to have a look, then onwards into Northern Spain, which we’ll cover next time.

- Matt

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