We spent most of August, from the 6th to the 31st, in France. Until we retired, we used to go over to France regularly, but this was our first visit for five years. The trip was in two very different parts: unequal in length, location, accommodation and company! The first week was spent in a gite with our children and grandchildren, and the rest of the month on a camping tour, mainly travelling down the west coast.
The Gite Week
While we were still in Ecuador, we booked a gite (rural holiday home) for 11 of us. There wasn’t much choice, as there aren’t many gites that will sleep 11, and are available at short notice. However, we were lucky, and found one that was ideal. The house was in the little village of Baulne-en-Brie, in the department of Aisne, to the east of Paris. It is the middle of the champagne country and also near some of the major battlefields of the First World War.
On Saturday 6th, three carloads of us crossed by ferry from Dover to Calais and then did the 4-hour drive down to the gite. Miraculously, we all made it and what’s more arrived at nearly the same time. Nine of us settled in initially – Paul and Rosie joined us later by plane from Manchester to Paris. The layout was ideal – four double bedrooms, and a room in the attic where the three grandchildren slept, mostly getting on fine together. The gite also had a large playroom, lots of outdoor space, and a great playground just down the road.
From the gite we made a number of excursions, to local towns and places of interest, including the chateau at Condé-en-Brie, the ruined castle at Chateau-Thierry, the impressive war memorial at Dormans, and the gardens at Viel-Maison. We also did a boat trip on our own along the river Marne, sipping champagne as we sailed through Champagne.
The biggest and most exciting excursion was to Disneyland, just 40 miles from the gite. We arrived at 10 am and left after 11 pm, and the experience was definitely a hit with those children and adults who hadn’t experienced Disney before (as well as those who had). We went on many of the rides, and saw both the daylight Disney Parade and the night-time electric light parade, which was followed by fireworks. Everyone slept in late the next day.
It was good to have all three generations together, something we’ve managed to do every second year since the first time in 2005 (Tuscany), followed by Mallorca (2007) and Gloucestershire (2009). We had a rota for cooking meals, but the highlight of most evenings after the children were in bed was playing the card game ‘Oh, hell!’. We worked out a structure for a league tournament, which meant that two games were played simultaneously, to add to the fun and excitement. Ian emerged as the ultimate winner late on the final night.
The camping trek
After we all left the gite, while the others were heading to Paris or home, we began driving southwest, aiming for the French west coast and parts we had never previously explored. We were looking forward to camping again, for the first time in five years. Some people think we’re mad, but we love the outdoor life, and the freedom of pitching a tent wherever we want to stop. We had to assemble our camping equipment, most of which (including the tent) is quite ancient, although a few things had to be bought new.
On our way to the coast we passed through Sully-sur-Loire (with a very picturesque chateau), and then a little town called St Savin which has amazing 12th century frescoes in the abbey church. We reached the coast at the Ile d’Oleron, where we had been before, and headed south from there. We crossed the mouth of the Gironde by ferry, and were then in new territory – the Atlantic coast, stretching from the Gironde down to Biarritz.
The beaches on this stretch of coast are wide, backed by dunes and pine trees. One of the high spots of the trip was climbing up the Pyla Dune, the highest sand dune in Europe, from our campsite there. It was a real challenge, but the views from the top were well worth it.
After exploring the city of Bayonne, we reached Biarritz, a famous beach destination which is extremely picturesque. The coast from Biarritz down to St Jean de Luz is quite different to that further north: instead of seemingly endless beaches and dunes, there are small bays divided by hills. The area is in Basque country, close to the border with Spain. We were surprised at how prevalent the Basque identity is there, and how hard it is to spot the actual border crossing point. We drove a little way into Spain to visit San Sebastian, a beautiful city. We also took the little cog railway up the mountain called La Rhune, with fantastic views of the Pyrenees and the coast.
There were a few low points on the trip. One night a sudden thunderstorm blew up, with the strongest winds we’ve ever experienced (and we have lived in Wellington!). We dismantled the tent and sat in the car until the storm passed over, and then we had to put the tent up again in the dark. Another low point was when Ian was parking the car and managed to bash the car next door, which meant a lot of complicated form filling in French with the family whose car it was. Another night a rainstorm suddenly came over and by the morning the tent was soaked, so we spent the next two nights in hotels.
Despite the setbacks, we enjoyed our camping trip. Our inflatable mattress was amazingly comfortable, and we loved sitting outside on warm summer evenings, drinking good French wine. The tent really the closest thing we’ve had to a home of our own for quite a while.