Steam trains and silkworms

We are in the Cévennes, a place of  narrow, winding roads, tumbling, rocky rivers, green, craggy gorges and mountains. It’s not considered a number one holiday destination by the French or most other tourists for that matter and yet it’s completely glorious. It’s France as it used to be, with great little restaurants, proper markets, more locals than visitors and a pride in the place and its way of life that’s palpable.

We are staying in the village of Anduze and discover that there’s a steam train, the Train à Vapeur des Cévennes.  The track follows the course of the Gardon river to Saint-Jean-du-Gard, 13.2 kilometres away. How can we resist?   A puff of steam, a toot toot, a train guard’s whistle, slamming of doors and we’re off. It’s like being on the Hogwarts Express. I feel like Hermione Grainger. Except except now days look more like Professor McGonagle…

The route is picturesque in a wild, untamed sort of way, with old stone mills, enormous vistas of the river, glimpses of ancient terracing between the trees. It’s mostly over viaducts, the eleven arches of the Viaduc du Mescalou being the most spectacular with the best photo opportunities of the Gardon bubbling away below.

At St Jean we resist the market and head for the Musée des vallées cévenoles, housed in Maison Rouge, once a large spinning mill used in the production of silk, the principal industry in the Cévennes right up to the second World War. The area produced more silkworm cocoons than the rest of France put together, fed on the leaves of the four million mulberry trees planted in the region between 1554 and 1606. The museum sits in beautifully designed wildflower meadows and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.Wildflower meadows at Maison Rouge

We’ll be on the road again soon, usually something I relish, but this time part of me doesn’t want to leave. The peace, the wildlife, the river, the spirit of this place is very special and I know that one day I’ll be back.

Notes for campers: We stayed in Campsite Castel Rouge in Anduze, on the banks of the river Gardon.  Our pitch was right on the bank of the river and was very peaceful, although this was in May. It accepts the ACSI card.  There’s also a very good Aire de Camping Car in the village.

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Hoe hoe hoe

Last year I wrote a post about getting my garden ready to cope without me while I’m travelling, https://gertiethehymer.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/readying-the-garden-for-travel/. We’re just off on another jaunt, this time to the Camargue region in France (there’s a post about this trip coming soon), so I thought it would be a good time to let those who are interested in such things know how the garden is faring.

Most of the groundcover plants are doing well, although the Pachysandra terminalis, usually a survivor in any situation, isn’t thriving…or to be more precise of the six plants that went in only one survives, and that’s not looking too peachy either. I really have no idea why this is, which is one of the reasons why, perversely, I love gardens and plants.  You can’t make them do anything they don’t want to.

On the bright side, the other ground cover plants, Laminum maculatum, Erigeron karvinskianus, Bergenia ‘Overture’, Campanula portenschlagiana ‘Catharina’ (how could I resist?) and various varieties of Geranium are all doing the job brilliantly.

Having opened the beds out quite a lot, it’s given me the the opportunity to really get in there with the hoe, one of my favourite garden tools.  I know the fashion is for dense planting with as little soil showing as possible, but really there’s nothing quite so effective as hoeing to keep the weeds in check.  Done carefully it doesn’t break up the soil like a fork or rake will do, bringing more weed seeds to the surface. A hoe will disturb the nascent weed seedlings enough to prevent them growing and keep them in check for a few weeks so I’ll have less to deal with when I get home. Result!

Talking of weeds, this shy little beauty is known locally as Hairy Bittercress, or to give it it’s proper name Cardamine hirstuta.  It’s invaded our village over the last few years and is very difficult to eradicate.  If you try to pull it out the seeds will explode over a wide area.  The most effective way to control it is by hoeing.

Two Ports, one lemon

You know when you turn up somewhere and it’s a bit scuzzy and you think ‘Oh well, it’ll do for the night’? That’s how we feel when we arrive in El Puerto de Santa Maria, and yet…

There’s a lot of shabby ribbon development along the approach road, loads of graffiti, the campsite is arranged in closely packed rows that look like battery hen cages for camper vans. But the point is that the more we get to know it the more we like it and end up staying eight days instead of two. It’s not gorgeous and alluring like its neighbour just thirty minutes across the Bay of Cadiz, but it’s interesting and easy and a place where people live and work, not just spend their holidays.

We visit the Osborne Bodega, the headquarters of the famous brandy and sherry company (if you’ve ever been to Spain you’ll know their big black bulls which dominate the skyline up and down the country.) We buy fabulously fresh shellfish from the counter at Romerijo then go to their restaurant next door with our paper cones of langoustine and crab and tip it out to eat at a freshly laid table with china, glassware, bread. We wander the narrow streets of the old town and begin to get to know it. We find a favourite bar with a great waiter. We cycle to the ferry and spend a lovely day in Cadiz. We make friends with the slightly odd Spanish couple camped next door. We are sad when we leave and know we’ll come back one day.

After leaving Puerto we head for Almuñecar, tricked by reviews on our Camper Contact app that a ‘quirky, easy-going campsite you’ll love’ awaits. It isn’t. We don’t. We move on. The nearest alternative we can find is eight kilometres away at Motril, in our minds an unlovely place at the junction of the busy A44 to Granada and the A7 to Almeria.

We arrive at Puerto de Motril to find a palm tree lined oasis of peace and tranquillity. The campsite is friendly and relaxed and we find a spot with views through the palms to the sea. There’s a buzzing beach bar a short walk away with a Spanish version of Fat Boy Slim where we enjoy spectacular sunsets and giant gin and tonics. It’s lovely. Who knew? The only downside is that the sand is dark grey, not golden, but it acts like sand, feels like sand so…

Notes for campers: At El Puerto de Santa Maria we stayed at Playa las Dunas, an ACSI site. It’s touted as being close to the ferry to Cadiz but people with mobility issues should know that it is in fact a thirty minute walk away. There’s a really nice, friendly restaurant on site.

At Motril we stayed at Playa de Poniente, another ACSI site. The entry says the swimming pool is closed from 30th September but actually it was open, but without a lifeguard. The water was freezing in November!

The site at Almuñecar which we rejected was Camping Tropical. It’s right on a busy dual carriageway, tatty, full of discarded junk and has very small pitches with hardly any room to manoeuvre. Gertie is seven metres long and it was pretty challenging getting in and out. Inexplicably, it gets rave reviews from Camper Contact users.

Chicken pie in El Puerto

The gas feed to our fridge stopped working a couple of weeks ago and we got it fixed in Anglet, near Bayonne (details below of the highly recommended Dometic engineer). The unexpected bonus is that the ignition for the gas oven and grill now works (we used to have to light it with a match and it took ages to catch) and it seems to be more efficient, so I decide to bake a chicken pie.

We camp near the wide, sandy beach of Playa Puntilla on the west side of El Puerto de Santa Maria. It’s 23 degrees with a cloudless blue sky. We do all the things that people on holiday do… have lunch at a beach side bar, sunbathe, swim in the still-warm sea. It’s lovely for a while, but what we’ve found we really really like is the feeling that we’re not so much on holiday as moving our home (Gertie) from place to place with a different view each time we open the door. Eating home-cooked food definitely reinforces this feeling and we cook at least four days out of seven. Gertie is equipped with a gas grill and oven and a three-ring gas hob. We also have a slow cooker and a Cadac barbecue, with griddle, hotplate, wok and pizza stone. In Burgos we bought a good, heavy paella pan for six Euros which fits the Cadac perfectly (Cadac’s own brand paella pan costs £45.75. Ha ha! Smug or what?)

El Puerto de Santa Maria is more interesting than it looks at first sight, by the way. The quirky Museo Municipal has some interesting archaeological exhibits and there are two sherry bodegas which offer guided tours. Plaza de Espana is in the heart of the old town and is dominated by the Iglesia Mayor Prioral. It’s a pleasant place to while away an hour or so, people watching.

So, back to the chicken pie. What with a potentially erratic oven, the use of an empty wine bottle as a rolling pin and the consumption of two large glasses of delicious Tinto de Verano (summer wine, recipe below) it’s something of a miracle that it’s edible. Luckily, we’re both ravenous by the time I get it to the table and although the pastry is a bit burned in places, it’s tasty.  I think the trick is to rotate whatever’s being baked a quarter turn every few minutes, so cakes are off limits.  Should do a good roast though.

Notes for campers:  The fridge was repaired by Save’Me, 4 Rue de L’Industrie, Anglet. We found them on the Dometic website.

We stayed at the Camping Playa las Dunas campsite at Playa Puntilla. They’re in the ASCI guide. We paid €18 per night including electric hook up. It’s a very large, popular site but this is probably because there’s no competition. It suited us for a few days but we wouldn’t have wanted to stay any longer. The restaurant and snack bar are good. Warning: The site is touted as being very convenient for the ferry to Cadiz but you should be aware that it’s a good twenty-five to thirty minute walk to the terminal.  Possibly a problem for those with mobility issues.

Tinto de Verano (Summer wine): One third cheap red wine, two thirds gaseosa or lemonade, a slice of lemon and lots of ice.

Battle of the pavement in Saint Jean-de-Luz

The harbour at St Jean-de-Luz

It’s been some time since I cycled extensively in France, and in the intervening years there’s clearly been a move to get cyclists off busy city streets by creating dual use pavements, pedestrians on one side, cyclists on the other. What a good idea, yes? Well no, apparently.

Picture the scene. Perfect blue sky, wild, surf-strewn sea, totally beautiful Saint Jean de Luz a mile or so away around the bay, a very wide pavement with clear dual-use markings and signage. It’s France, right? France is the cyclists’ friend. Cars understand the need to take care around us. Everyone rides a bike here. Cycling is easy in France.  Unless, apparently, you have to share a space with pedestrians.

On they come on the cycle side. Babies in pushchairs, joggers, lovers snogging, toddlers, women chatting, hoodies looming. I ring my bell. I smile. I politely say ‘excusez-moi’. They either ignore me completely or reluctantly move at the very last moment. What to do? In the end I give up and weave backwards and forwards through the lovers etc, across the whole width of the pavement and guess what? No-one cares or even seems to notice. No-one tuts or shakes their fist at me. Of course. I’d forgotten. I’m in France.

Bittersweet symphony

Lily

On Thursday 12th October, John retired and our beloved Border Collie Lily died.  We’ve waited so long for this time, the beginning of the rest of our lives, but we are now on our first long trip in Gertie with just two of us instead of three.

Our first stop in France probably shouldn’t have been St Valery sur Somme. So many memories of places she loved to run, restaurants she was welcomed in: ‘Yours is the best-behaved dog we have ever had in here’…and she was.  She gave us 15 years and 9 months of love and fun and we were so very proud of her.  But she has gone and life continues.  We’re on the road for the next seven weeks so here’s an update of the first bit.

After St Valery we head first for a place called Durtal in the Pays de la Loire, where a huge 17th century chateau dominates this little town, perched on the Loir, a tributary of the Sarthe.  Next day we head for Saintes, on  the banks of the Charente.  The town is amazing, stuffed full of stunning architecture. There is an incredibly well-preserved Gallo-Roman amphitheatre built in the time of the Emperor Claudius and a Unesco World Heritage site, the 11th century basilica of St Eutrope, including the crypt where he is supposedly buried, an important piece of Romanesque architecture.

Now, four days after leaving England we are in St -Jean-de-Luz, near the Spanish border.  In our imagination, this part of the journey was gong to be bathed in southern sunshine. Instead we are lashed by the tail end of Storm Brian. Better weather is promised for tomorrow.

Notes for campers:  The aire de camping car in Durtal is between the post office and a school.  It’s full around school drop off and pick up times but otherwise fairly empty.  The Raclet aire de service is not currently working.

The aire de camping car at Saintes is very popular so if you’re intending to visit it’s best to arrive early.  Some road noise.

 

 

Westward Ho

Kimmeridge BayWell not that far west, more west-ish, in Dorset. The weather is glorious and Kimmeridge Bay is laid out in all its Jurassic glory. Today we cycle (well, I cycle and John walks as years of neglect have taken their toll on his bike) to the pretty thatched village of Kimmeridge to have lunch and visit the Etches Collection, a ‘multimillion pound’ museum of fossils.

Luckily, lunch is excellent. Luckily because Clavell’s Cafe is the only place to eat for miles around. We don’t visit the museum, entry £8 each. We’re not mean or anything, but £16 to look at some old fossils seems a bit steep. Instead, we spend the £16 on coffee and sticky toffee pudding back at Clavell’s. Oh stop it. We’re on holiday.

Clavell's CafeWe are staying at a site on the Smedmore Estate and it’s incredibly peaceful here. Pheasants poke about in the grass like chickens and the only sounds are natural ones; wind, sea, birdsong, oh and the odd crack of a shotgun which usually signals the disappearance of one of the pheasants. There’s no shower block, no loos, just a fresh water supply and somewhere to put nasty, smelly stuff. And very efficient recycling bins. Simple, quiet and surrounded by beautiful rolling countryside.

The corollary of all this peace and quiet is that as well as Clavell’s being the only place to eat, the nearest place to buy food supplies is a Spar in Corfe, an exhausting six mile slog by bike up and down a hilly, narrow lane,  or all the upheaval of going in Gertie. So we do what all wild campers do. We order a delivery from Sainsbury’s. We don’t need much so to get the order over £40 we are forced to buy a bottle of gin. And tonic. And limes. And lemons. Goodness wild camping is tough (that’s a joke, by the way.)

Clavell's Tower and Kimmeridge BayNotes for campers: We stayed at Smedmore Caravan Site, a Caravan Club affiliated site. Seven nights with electric hook up was £105. Don’t follow a satnav for the last few miles as it may lead you down a very narrow lane with no passing places, with a 1:5 hill with steep drops to the side. Ask for directions from the site office when you book. It really is a  bit remote so it might be a good idea to bring adequate supplies of food and drink with you, or you too may find yourself compelled to buy gin…