Monday 4 January 2016

Another Christmas in South-West France, Why Not?

France, 22nd - 29th December 2015

We’re back on the continent once more, having come to the end of our UK visit and caught a ferry out again with a fresh MOT in hand – no longer any obligation to return in April!  We’d been expecting to have not had much to report until we’d travelled down to southern Portugal, but the beauty of driving your accommodation around with you is that plans are always adaptable, so instead we’ve been retracing the roads from our journey south last year.

Our morning alarm greeted us in Dover at 5am.  We were running on the assumption that after our last stormy crossing, we’d seen the worst that the English Channel had to offer and that this ferry journey would be a doddle; oh, how wrong we were.  We arrived at the check-in booth and were told our ferry was delayed for at least an hour due to the stormy conditions – “Lucky you”.  Lucky us replied that we were on our way back after crossing in the previous storm a couple of weeks ago, but as far as the check-in guy was concerned, there was no other storm as the channel had been in one continuous storm for the past two weeks.

We got in the ferry queue and proceeded with our usual stormy crossing protocol, aka getting breakfast on the go.  Matt nipped online to pay the Dartford crossing charge whilst we remembered (if our Dartford track record is anything to go by, we would have otherwise forgotten to pay on time), and I had a lay down having not slept in the wind the night before.  After finally boarding the rocking boat we got set up at a table near a window at the front so as to keep an eye on the horizon, and Matt went to check on the location of the nearest toilet, which thankfully wasn’t needed this time around!

After waiting for a previous ferry to get assisted into the harbour by two tug boats, we finally got on our way in gale force 10 winds.  There were numerous nail biting instances where the bow of the ship raised up out of the water and crashed back down again into the dip between waves, sending vibrations rocking through the ship and plumes of water cascading onto our deck 7 windows.  I don’t consider myself the kind of person who gets seasick, but it was a sweet relief to see land on the horizon and even more so when we finally got off the ship two hours later than planned.


. .
Fuel prices had dropped once more in France (averaging between €0.94 and €0.99/L), making our expenditure book sigh with relief over the many miles planned ahead.  Our original plan back when we were in the UK was to hightail it down to Portugal in time for Christmas day.  This seemed perfectly plausible when our plans were to leave a few days earlier, but when we rocked up on the French mainland in our delayed & sleep deprived (& in my case ill with a cold) state, the idea of tackling a 1500-odd mile journey over three days strongly lost its allure to say the least.  Instead, we opted for a still long but certainly less strenuous drive down past Bordeaux to the Bassin d’Arcachon, much like we’d done at the same time last year.  We had overnight stops at two Aires on the way down, the first at Nonancourt (GPS: 48.77228 1.19239, Free, Services off over winter), and the second at Vivonne, where we previously stayed on the way back to the UK.

It seems at least one house in France was getting into the Christmas spirit!
On Christmas Eve we arrived at Sanguinet, a town about 20km from the coast with two Aires that would have been €9 but are free out of season (which we were pleasantly surprised to see still had the water turned on in winter; a shame we’d already spent €2 at a supermarket service point as a precaution, but useful to know for the future).  We parked up in one of them (GPS: 44.48374 -1.09145) and settled in for Christmas with a lakeside view.

It seems our neighbour was in it for the long haul - We saw smoke from a woodburner going at night and spotted him off on his bike with tools to cut more wood to add to his pile (between the van and trailer)
Christmas away from family is always going to feel a little strange, but I think after our second year in we’re certainly getting a setup that works for us.  After both getting to spend time with our family in the UK we didn’t really feel homesick, and after two weeks of lovely home cooking from both sets of parents we were already Christmas dinnered out.  Our actual Christmas day dinner consisted of burgers a la Jo, Patatas a lo Pobre (Poor Man’s Potatoes) and salad a la…. salad.  Of course, this was supplemented  with our goodies from both UK and French supermarkets, so we were feasting on croissants, Yule log and mulled wine, and even cracked out one of the bottles from our Italian bubbly stock to mark the occasion—just a single Spumante and Prosecco left now!  There was, however, one low point that I feel I should warn you about; when in France, do not buy the tinned cassoulet.  It might seem like an interesting experimental meal when you purchase it, but I’m still trying to get over the emotional anguish of having it come into contact with my tastebuds.

Sanguinet was a great place to get some peace and quiet over the holidays; the sun was shining, the surroundings were quiet, and it’s a bit hard to find fault with a place where you can get free lakeside views.  We went for a walk on Christmas morning and a cycle ride on Boxing Day (the lake and surrounding area is great for cycle paths and routes).  We did make one trip away from the lake on Christmas day, and this was to visit the Dune du Pilat.

Dune du Pilat

The Dune du Pilat, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, is basically a massive pile of sand.  At a height of 110m and a volume 60 million cubic metres, it’s the tallest sand dune in Europe.  To the local trees and buildings it’s a force to be reckoned with that’s moving inland by a few metres each year, but to us and to the hundreds of locals who also ventured there on Christmas day, it’s one huge, sandy playground.  Once you finish the tiring climb to the top of the dune you have panoramic views all around, with ocean to the west, trees to the east and the Arcachon basin to the north.  At its steepest the dune has a 29 degree incline, making it possible to get some seasonal sledging in without the need for snow.  We spent some time running or sliding down the slope and in general just behaving like big kids before returning to Sanguinet for the night.

(More Dune du Pilat pictures at the end)

After three nights at Sanguinet we moved on a little further down the coast to Contis Plage, where the Aire (GPS: 44.09369 -1.32047) was still about half-full in winter.  The reason soon became apparent; despite the Aire being non-paying over the winter the electric supply hadn’t been shut off, and everyone had congregated here en mass to take advantage of the free electric.  After a walk around the resort (which was mostly houses closed up for the winter season) and some lunch we spotted a vacant hookup point so moved the van over and gave our devices a free top-up.  It was the last day before our internet allowance refreshed and we’d hardly used our monthly gigabyte thanks to a combination of being at home and using our Three SIM in Spain, so we spent the evening getting as many internet jobs out of the way as possible – namely sorting finances out and downloading/uploading files.

The resort of Contis-Plage - Spot the motorhomes!

We saw our first trail of pine processionary caterpillars in Contis-Plage.  They nest in pine trees and travel in long trails when looking for food or new nesting sites.  They can cause rashes & allergic reactions if handled and can kill dogs so take care in high risk areas (such as around pine forests)

In the morning, we looked out to discover that most of our neighbours had left the Aire with just a few vans dotted about remaining.  Was it the smell of us in our unshowered state?  No, the electric had turned off overnight and it seems as a result everyone had lost interest in sticking around.  Our plan for the day (post showers) was to start making progress south, stopping at a supermarket to get stocked up before spending the night at another motorhome parking place in Messanges.  The first supermarket we passed seemed to be closed up when a thought occurred to us: do the French get the Monday off after the Christmas weekend?  Rather than waste time going off-route to a potentially closed supermarket, we instead just headed straight for Messanges (GPS: 43.81654 -1.40064, No services), which is a non-barriered section of parking behind dunes that lead onto a large undeveloped beach.  We used up some bread from the freezer for lunch before going for a wander on the beach - it’s a hard life, but someone’s got to do it!

We could have spent a while longer in this area of France exploring, but we’d set ourselves a new, more attainable deadline: Portugal by New Years Eve.  And so, with some vital pre-travel checks dealt with (by which I mean making sure the French croissant stock had been topped up), it was back on the road once more.  See you on the other side.

- Jo

Dune du Pilat:

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