Lourdes

Lourdes was a must see on the list – the architecture nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees rather than any religious reason! 

We spent a day at the various churches and monasteries – especially the Catholic Sanctuaires Notre-Dame de Lourdes. We treated ourselves to a lunch out in the town and spent a couple of hours in the company of many Irish folk – Lourdes is awash with them!

Much of the town is not surprisingly given over to religious tourism – empty water bottles for holy water etc. Probably the busiest place we have been in a month. Lots of character but a very hairy to ride the bikes – definitely not a velo friendly town! We also visited the fort which is on a rock pinnacle in the middle of the old town.

On the second day we started with laundry and then cycled out to the Funiculaire du Pic du Jer (https://www.lourdes-infotourisme.com/web/FR/2449-pic-du-jer.php) and a hairy 1000 meter climb and fantastic panoramic view of the whole area. We were just about level with the clouds. And a wonderful meal at the top. There are caves up the top too, but having only been to Betharram a couple of days before we gave the caves a miss this time! There is a black mountain bike run down the hill, but after the ‘Wales incident’, sports like downhill MTB are off the menu at the moment. 

Back to base and planning for the next few days – we are plotting the best course through the Pyrenees.

We’ve been more productive in the last few days because the TV is not working. Well, to be more accurate, the satellite system is not working. It finds the satellite ok, but there are only a few channels working. We think that we’ve come far enough south that the dish needs an adjustment to the ‘skew’ and the blighters back at home are being tardy telling us how to do it.

T has given it ‘a thick coat of thinking about’ and decided that messing about with it before getting the definitive instructions might make it worse. We have a full set of manuals with us for every single item installed and bought with us, but the stupid manual for the satellite dish just says ‘adjust the skew’.

Update: After spending a long evening with the internet becoming satellite TV experts it turns out that the UK broadcasters now try to use special UK only transponders on the latest Astra satellites and the bleed into the rest of Europe is very limited, so that may be our lot for UK TV for a while. Might as well cancel the fecking TV license then! We’ve got a few days behind posting here – we ran out of data – oops!

Where are you going?

We are limiting ourselves to Europe. It is of course possible to travel overland much further and see many more sights and wonders, but there are various difficulties to overcome and the further East you drive, the more complex those issues become.

Harmonization of laws and regulations across Europe means that we can almost think of it as one country and that’s just one less thing to worry about! If we need to we can work without needing to get permits. Our driving licenses and insurance cover us Europe wide and with only a few exceptions, we only have one currency conversion rate to worry about. 

Outside Europe, the security situation gets a little tricky as you travel East. Many countries outside Europe will require a ‘carnet’ which is like a vehicle passport. As an example, if you drive overland into India, you need a Carnet which will cost a few hundred quid, but also you need to put into bond cash equivalent to four times the vehicle value! You get the bond back when you leave with the vehicle, but if the vehicle gets stolen while in India, you lose the cash. This would be bad for a £100K motorhome with a £400K bond. So then you need carnet and bond insurance. It all gets smelly – that’s the point.

So, for now, for this trip it’s Europe only. There is a lifetime of amazing things to see without travelling too far from home! We may still hop across the strait of Gibraltar or stray into Turkey, we’ll see!

We also think it’s a form of poetic justice that we plan to be away from the UK when the brexit actually happens, although brexit may affect the trip – we’ll have to wait and see!

Betharram

The aire for the night was a free spot in a car-park by a gorgeous mountain river. We could not believe we lucked into this place without a lot of research.

We decided to cycle to the caves – The Grottes de Betharram – which was the reason for the visit here. The caves are awesome. We thought it might be a tourist trap, but the tour takes a couple of hours and there is a couple of KM of walking and a few hundred stairs underground. It’s mainly limestone caves where an underground river once carved out a path for itself. (http://www.betharram.com/) The last part of the tour is a short boat ride and about a km of train ride.

We also explored the Monastery in Betharram and climbed to the top of a hill lined with small churches, built by the monks.

Gan

Our first view of the Pyrenees in the distance as we approached the town of Gan. The Aire was in the corner of a car-park and next to a quiet stream and free.

Just over the Road was the Cave De Gan Jurançon (https://www.cavedejurancon.com). The tour was free and included tasting of their wonderful produce. It was a very quiet afternoon and our tour guide gave us a personal service!

They specialise in sweet wines and they told us are almost unknown outside France although they sell over four million bottles a year. Very interesting is that the grapes largely press themselves – 85% of the juice is extracted just by putting the grapes in huge 3 story tall vats – this is the equivalent of a 15 ton press.

The wine was wonderful and we bought two bottles for the ‘cellar’ including one that is aged in oak barrels. They use new oak – guess what happens to the oak afterwards – yep – whisky barrels!

We did a cycle tour of the town but it didn’t take too long! Dinner by the river and surrounded by ducks.

Working with the Euro

Sticking to a mainly European tour means that there is only one key currency to work with plus a few principalities, but there are still issues for brits trying to spend the good old GBP in Europe.

When holidaying for three weeks in the summer and three weeks in the winter, it’s easy to just suffer the poor exchange rates and the currency conversion fees that the major banks and credit cards all charge, but for a whole year away we need a more cost effective way to convert £ to €. Obviously we don’t want to take lots of cash in the van.

Europe have legislation aimed at stopping the banks fleecing their customers in Europe when moving currency from country to country, but those slippery banks have special tricks to make sure that the SEPA regulations don’t apply to their operations in the UK and £25 fees are pretty standard. 

Long story short, it’s hard to get GBP into Euros without stinging fees. Selina has found a deal with Barclaycard that should cover us for two years without transfer fees (but we don’t know the exchange rate) and Toby has a Monzo card that expressly notes that there is no currency conversion fee and no inflated exchange rate.

The trip has already get more expensive than we thought – the pound has taken a bit of a bashing recently – wonder why?

So we’ll experiment with Monzo and Barclaycard and see where that gets us!

Biscarrosse Lac

10 km from plage, and a different world. There are two large inland lakes and it’s back to a similar climate to La Rochelle and the Ile de Re. A 10 km cycle ride to do a grocery shop and that’s it for the day!

Next morning and it’s a walk around the town, and in the afternoon a visit to the Musee Hydravation – the seaplane museum. We whiled away a couple of hours there.

We have let the planning get away from us a bit so we spent the evening planning out our next week and doing housekeeping and maintenance chores. Obligatory church visit fitted in too.

Dunes of Pyla and Biscarrosse Plage

We intended to visit the famous dunes of Pyla and stop overnight, but discovered that the Aire de camping car has been closed (never mind missing the meter like Fouras) and all roads nearby had signs specifically barring overnight parking in camping cars.

So a flying trip up and down the dunes (and a ripoff 8€ parking for two hours) and then on our way. If you use the official car park, there are dedicated areas for camping cars, but they are tight squeeze between the trees, very tight!

The dunes are amazing, over 100M tall and overlooking a sandy bay on one side and thousands of hectares of green pine forests inland. T had intended to do a drone photo here, but the overnight stop put paid to that. Actually, it turns out that the dunes are within a French drone exclusion area, so it was a no-go on the drone anyway!

On then to Biscarrosse, 20km down the coast from the dunes and finally to the Atlantic proper. The aire de camping car is 5 minutes over the sand dunes to the sea and there is no protected inlet or harbour here, just the Atlantic washing against the coast.

Sea spray caused a sea mist and gave a moody atmosphere to an 8km walk along the beach. At night Sporadic rain, but a beautiful bright morning.

A wander into the town and it was obvious that we were in tourist central. So instead we cycled to the outskirts of the inland Lake and it was beautiful and had its own aire, so we hightailed it back to Mothership and set off for Biscarrosse Lac.

Ile de Ré

A great big bridge (8€ toll) takes you from the mainland just north of La Rochelle onto the 35km Island of the Ile de Ré. It is a cycling heaven! The cycle paths are mostly tarmac and are separate from the highway. We thought Coulon was great for cycling but the Ile de Ré takes the prize.

We stayed for two nights at the northern end of the island and cycled between the main tourist attractions such as the Phare des Baleines lighthous and larger towns. 50km cycled in all. Much of the island is very low lying and is given to salt production, oyster beds and mussel farms. It was wonderful to cycle amongst it all!

A heavy downpour on the second night and that has been pretty much the first rain we’ve seen since leaving home! T got to play with the drone over the sea and some WWII emplacements.

We had a chuckle with a British couple in the aire – they asked how long we were travelling and when Selina said that we are planning on a year away they told us that they managed ten weeks once just after they retired and had nearly killed each other. We’ll have to watch out for the ten week itch!

 

Fouras

We moved down the coast a little to Fouras, where we discovered that someone had taken away the parking meter for the aire de camping car, so we get a night for free! We walked 5 km along the coast and checked out the town. It turned out that Fouras holds an annual windsurfing race around fort Boyard and it was the following day, so that’s us sorted then!

The other thing that Fouras is known for is it’s shallow sandy bay. This means that there are oyster beds all over than place that are tended to at low tide and also a walkway to fort Enet 2km in the bay that is also only exposed at low tide. 

T checked the tide table and determined that we needed to depart at 10AM the next day so it was wine and pasta for dins and a movie. At the anointed time the next day we cycled around the bay and set out with the oyster-men for the fort. Late September so the tourist population was thin. All the time we were walking to the fort and our main concern was making sure that there was someone further out to sea than us as we were not sure how long we would have to beat the tide. But we had them about spot on and we got to the fort and wandered around and looked across to Fort Boyard (yes, that fort Boyard)

There are various boat trips out to Boyard from Fouras and also from La Rochelle and other seaside towns in the area. But the boat trips are expensive at 30€ plus each and you can’t even get off and see the fort, so we could not quite justify it. Instead, from fort Enet, you can just about see the fort in the photos. It’s in private ownership, so there are no tours anyway. 

And then a brisk walk back to the mainland and around the bay to Fouras beach and watched the preparations for the Fort Boyard Challenge. We didn’t get to see the main event but the warm-ups were pretty cool.

La Rochelle

A few wonderful days in La Rochelle. We stayed in the Port Neuf area, which is to the west of the town. We found a cracking site for about 10€ a day including electrical hookup. We got set up and got the bikes out. The first evening was punctuated by the sounds of rugby – the stadium was nearby and there was a big game on!

Day one we mooched around, we did a circuit of the harbour – no mean feat, it’s about 20 km in all. Looking across the harbour, there is a massive sea of masts, there must be a thousand boats at least. Day two we we visited the Maritime museum, the famous towers, the aquarium and a few other things too. It was clear that two days does not allow enough time to do justice to the wonderful town so it became a four day mini adventure in all. 

The maritime museum has a meteorological research ship, a trawler and a tugboat to look around plus a whole bunch of land based artefacts celebrating La Rochelle and her most famous maritime sons and daughters.

We expected the aquarium to be a bit of a tourist trap but ended up spending a few hours looking a various denizens of the deep. They have a couple of grey sharks and one highlight was walking on a rope bridge over a tank of piranha.

Over the few days we also fitted in the F1 Grand Prix. We worked our way around a french launderette (losing 4€ in the process) and we even had a meal in a restaurant: Moules frites for T and a burger for S. When we planned the big adventure we agreed that restaurant meals are a treat and not the norm!

One trip that T dad recommended was a boat trip to Ile de Ré. The boat will take bikes, but the timings in late September didn’t really work for us and it was pretty expensive, so that’s our next stop – rather than visiting by boat we’ll visit via mothership!