Week 5 of the Grand European Tour
Week 5 – Day 32 – Monday 30th October 2017
Quiberon to Vannes via Carnac – 32 miles
Here’s your starter for 10 – who sang this classic song from 1959? Answer at the bottom of the page!
What a difference a day made
Twenty-four little hours
Brought the sun and the flowers
Where there used to be rain
Well maybe not rain, but yesterday was certainly grey, windy and more than a bit fresh. This morning by contrast is calm, bright, sunny and quite warm. We are aiming for Vannes later in the day but first stop is Carnac, a short 15 mile drive back up to the top of the peninsula to get there for 10ish before it gets too busy, as parking a 23ft long, 7’4″ wide van can get to be an issue at a tourist attraction like this. What tourist attraction do I hear you all cry out in unison? Well, Carnac is renowned for the Carnac Stones – one of the most extensive Neolithic menhir collections in the world and one of the must see sights in this part of France.
FROM WIKIPEDIA – “Carnac is famous as the site of more than 10,000 Neolithic standing stones, also known as menhirs. The stones were hewn from local rock and erected by the pre-Celtic people of Brittany. Local tradition claims that the reason they stand in such perfectly straight lines is that they are a Roman legion turned to stone by Pope Cornelius.
The Carnac stones were erected during the Neolithic period which lasted from around 4500 BC until 2000 BC. The precise date of the stones is difficult to ascertain as little dateable material has been found beneath them, but the site’s main phase of activity is commonly attributed to c. 3300 BC. One interpretation of the site is that successive generations visited the site to erect a stone in honour of their ancestors”.
Spot the issue with the local tradition? The stones were mostly in place 3,000 years before the Romans would have arrived in this area, so you can take the local tradition with a pinch of salt, which, as it happens, used to be manufactured in salt beds in Carnac, but I digress. We were here to see the standing stones and arriving right on 10 we managed to park with no problems. At the main car park / museum one of those tourist trains was about to depart so we hopped aboard for a 50 minute tour of Carnac, the beaches, the old salt beds and the adjoining town of Trinity sur Mer, which looked fantastic, but not not motorhome friendly so we did not visit afterwards. After leaving Trinity our ‘train’ headed for the area where the stones are located. They are amazing, not particularly high or imposing, but its the sheer number and symmetry of them that is truly incredible.
Back at the terminus, we decided to walk back a mile or so to get some pictures and get close to the stones. some are randomly placed but most are in discernible rows. Oddly there are a few cottages right in the middle of them, built a long time ago for the shepherds who tended the sheep which were there to keep the vegetation down around the stones.
Wikipedia reliably informs me that – Dolmens are generally considered to have been tombs; however, the acidic soil of Brittany has eroded away the bones. They were constructed with several large stones supporting a capstone, then buried under a mound of earth. In many cases, the mound is no longer present, sometimes due to archaeological excavation, and only the large stones remain, in various states of ruin.
Back to the van for something to eat and a drink, as it was getting pretty warm by lunchtime then on to the Aire at Vannes. As it was Monday and I had power I finished off the Week 4 blog and uploaded it along with a few 123 SECONDS IN… videos to YouTube.
Week 5 – Day 33 – Tuesday 31st October 2017
Vannes – 0 miles
We both have memories of having a meal in a Chinese restaurant in an old medieval walled town in Brittany with Jill when she was about 5 months old, but have no idea which one it is – there are quite a few walled towns in Brittany that could fit the bill. Vannes was a contender, but if we had been to Vannes we surely would have also been to Carnac, 20 miles away, but we hadn’t, so it was, at best, an outside contender. What made this meal so memorable back in 1985 was the fuss the Chinese staff made of Jill because of her blue eyes, shock of dark hair and good behaviour, the dark hair was maybe not so unusual to the Chinese, but the eye colour seemed to be. For the record, and clarity, this was BE, before Emma, who tends to forget there is a 2 year gap between them and invariably kicks off at the mention of anything that happened in the period between February 1985 and April 1987!
It was probably the coldest night yet in the van, caused by the cloudless sky, but the upside was it would lead to one of the warmest days yet. The bus into town runs every half an hour from the Aire for €1.50 each and it takes you into the heart of this lovely old walled town, without doubt one of Brittany’s most attractive sights and a must-visit on any trip to the Gulf of Morbihan. We wandered around the well-preserved medieval streets and admired the upmarket shops and walked along the ramparts of the town.
After lunch we found the port where there was hundreds of yachts tied up and spent some time in the cathedral.
Seeing Vannes Cathedral made me marvel at the building skills and imagination of people hundreds of years ago who could build such an impressive building in homage to God when the general standard of living for ordinary people was very low and their houses very basic.
Although we found 2 Chinese / Vietnamese restaurants, neither rang any bells so we ruled Vannes off the list of contenders for good, that said, it was a beautiful day in a memorable setting, and in homage to the Chinese element to today’s story – we had a kebab for lunch!
Week 5- Day 34 – Wednesday 1st November 2017
Vannes to La Baule – 54 miles
Its about an hour from Vannes to La Baule and it was a very easy drive as there was very little traffic on the roads and I say that given that the French roads seem much quieter than ours anyway. We then started to notice as we drove through some towns and villages that most of the shops and businesses were closed, even the huge supermarkets. As ever, when in doubt, Google is consulted and in fact it was a national holiday when traditionally families visit and place flowers on the graves of loved ones and attend mass. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III dedicated the 1st of November to honour all saints and martyrs – and ‘All Saints Day’ was born. We did manage to find an Aldi open en route and we were the only customers to keep what looked like the only member of staff on duty, busy. Star buy was a bottle of Spanish vin blanc sec for all of €1.29, topped by a proper cork as well, not a screw top as you get on far more expensive wines nowadays. Delicious it is too.
At La Baule we found the Aire then set off for a cycle along the esplanade which stretches for miles around the bay. However as soon as we got to the esplanade there were signs forbidding cycling so we chained the bikes to the racks provided and set off on foot. La Baule joins the list of upmarket seaside resorts like Biarritz, Dauville, Dinard and Le Touquet, where the wealthy come for the summer months, especially from Paris and the larger cities. Like all of the aforementioned resorts, it has a fantastic, wide, clean beach, and because of the holiday was fairly busy, most people though were dressed for a winters day in anoraks, scarves etc where I at least thought it was a scorcher.
My theory is if you live in Argyll and you see a clear blue sky and brilliant sunshine its a summers day, but if you live in France and its not 70+ degrees, then its a winters day and you dress accordingly. The main street that leads off the beach was heaving with people sitting out at cafes and frequenting the designer shops and boutiques.
After our enforced walk we headed back to the bikes and cycled in the direction of the van to find the river we were parked beside entering the sea and another town, Le Pouliguen on the other side of a bridge. This place seemed to be catering for the not so affluent and had a good atmosphere as people strolled about and children had a holiday treat on the carousel.
We cycled up the river bank the short distance back to the van to the most expensive Aire we have been on to date at €15 with services. We have stayed in better Aires that were free – but not in La Baule and thats where the pricing comes in – we are staying in the heart of one of the most desirable resorts in France and goodness knows what we would have been for a hotel room here, so in that context maybe €15 is good value but the jury is out on that one!
Week 5 – Day 35 – Thursday 2nd November 2017
La Baule to Les Sables d’Olonne – 96 miles
The jury did not take long to bring in a verdict and I’m sorry to say they found in favour of it being not such a bargain after all. When we arrived yesterday most of the parking bays were coned off and that only left room for the 3 vans that stayed there overnight. As yesterday was a holiday the Aire was deserted but, this now being a working day, a load of workmen appeared close to us and proceeded to use the noisiest tools in their armoury including a pneumatic drill. Did I mention this was bang on 8am?
In a way they did us a favour as today was one of our longer drives at 96 miles, so it was an enforced early start on the road heading for Les Sables d’Olonne. From La Baule the road skirts around the industrial port city of Saint Nazaire and crosses the Loire in another of France’s epic bridges.
The Saint Nazaire Bridge was commissioned on October 18, 1975 after three years of construction. With its 404-meter central span, the 720-meter metal structure was the longest one ever built in France, and, at the time of its construction, the world record length for a cable-stayed metallic bridge and drivers of a nervous disposition should definitely not look down!
La Baule was our first stop in the Pays de la Loire region and it seemed that after crossing the Saint Nazaire bridge and heading for our intended destination of Saint Jean de Monts things started to change. For a start the weather was warmer the scenery different, no more fields of cabbages, leeks, corn on the cob, pumpkins and artichokes that seemed to fill every field in Normandy and Brittany, the terrain was flatter and as we neared Saint Jean de Monts there were salt pans, the houses were whitewashed with orange/terracotta tiles, a sure sign of a warmer climate. Saint Jean was reached at lunchtime but disappointed at first sighting. There may be one, I’m not sure, but if there is a French equivalent to our Sun newspaper they would surely be offering €9.50 holidays here. There were miles and, oops, kilometres of mobile homes, and, although the place looked clean and tidy it didn’t have an esplanade or the feel of a proper resort so we headed for the next destination on our list, Les Sables d’Olonne, another hour down the coast. It was a quiet drive past whitewashed cottages in villages set back from the sea and we only saw the sea in rare glimpses. We could have been in Holland, it was that flat.
After reaching the Aire at Les Sables the plan was to have a lazy afternoon after the 96 mile drive and either walk or cycle into the town the next morning.
Week 5 – Day 36 – Friday 3rd November 2017
Les Sables d’Olonne – 0 miles
Weather-wise the day started well with clear blue skies but as the morning progressed it became overcast and there was a brief shower at lunchtime. I took the opportunity of the electric hook up to edit some videos and upload them to YouTube, and, as there was a good internet connection, I also downloaded some more episodes of Better Call Saul from Netflix, so it was a productive, if inactive morning. To liven things up mid morning however the Municipal Police arrived and parked right in front of our van blocking our exit. Were we about to be detained at Monsieur Macrons pleasure for some misdemeanour, or, as the only foreign nationals on the site out of about 30 vans, were our papers about to be checked to see if we were illegal immigrants?
In fact it was not us there were here to see but the van next to us. A beat up old van came onto the Aire last night as it was getting dark so we did not see the occupant as it was parking next to us. The Police sat and looked at this van for a few minutes until one of them got out and started talking to the driver, a very small man with a very big dog. The man handed over documents to the Police, who we then saw on the radio until, after a while the papers were returned and the man was obviously told to depart forthwith as he started packing up before leaving in a marked manner. What it was all about was anyones guess but it was specifically that van they came to see as they did not look at any other vans, or, ask to see documents or payment receipts from anybody else.
We set off about 2ish to walk into Les Sables d’Olonne, a town of 4 parts, the town centre, the beach, the fishing port and the marina. The town centre has narrow streets and lanes with local shops with no chains, a very different picture from back home and it adds to the character and individuality of these towns and villages we are visiting.
The beach was another fantastic sweep of clean sand right around the bay with youngsters being taught the basics of surfing in the waves. Walking back we had the first Gauffre of this holiday, a sort of big waffle and our choice of topping was strawberry jam mmmmm.
The fishing harbour was crammed with boats, as either it was too stormy out to sea, or it was late Friday afternoon and they had caught enough for the week. This area also had a modern fish market with many stalls selling a huge variety of fish and seafood for Friday supper.
Finally, before returning to the van, we wandered around the huge marina looking at all the fantastic yachts moored up including one huge brand new catamaran, built at at the adjoining luxury boatbuilders, Privilege Marine.
Week 5 – Day 37 – Saturday 4th November 2017
Les Sables d’Olonne to L’Aiguillon sur Mer – 43 miles
We enjoyed our day yesterday wandering about this interesting town but thought that we didn’t need to stay hooked up in an Aire, which, although we really liked, we were all charged up and just needed a parking area rather than an Aire with services. We wanted to stay another night to explore a bit further afield on the bikes, so, after servicing the van we moved a few hundred yards to a free parking area which was part of the Bowling Alley / Cinema car park. There were a few vans there but the area didn’t look to appealing so we got the map out to consider our options. The next place we had planned to stay in was the port town of La Rochelle but I didn’t think there was much point in getting there late on a Saturday afternoon just as everything would be closing down, as not much is open on a Sunday in France. Between the paper map and Google I found a little seaside town not that far short of La Rochelle called L’Aiguillon sur Mer so the satnav was set for there.
We had hardly travelled a couple of miles when we saw a massive shopping complex centered around one of the biggest E Leclerc supermarkets I had ever seen. Also to be seen was the distinctive Buffalo Grill restaurant, part of a chain seen all over France, but that we had never been in so we decided to have lunch there as a Saturday treat.
We had seen adverts for a steak main course, desert and a drink for €9.95 so thats what we were going to have. The second change of plan today was forced upon us as it was explained on the menu that the special menu was only for weekdays – but we decided to have the steak anyway. Before that however we were brought a complimentary bowl of salad, then, when our drinks arrived, we were given a complimentary bowl of popcorn which we thought was an odd thing to be offered between a salad and a steak, but when in France…
After a very good lunch we set off again, following the satnavs instructions until it tries to send us up very narrow roads I don’t like the look of, and there were a few of them on this journey, so I just keep going until it re-routes. Only two unusual things on this leg – we saw our first British motorhome, the first since Concarneau and we saw 2 Gendarmes with motor bikes hiding up a lane in a little village, but I saw them in plenty of time to avoid their speed trap. As well as the lack of Brits on the roads and in the Aires, there are no Dutch or German vans in this area which is very odd as they are usually everywhere. Arriving at our destination we found the Aire in the centre of what was a small fishing village, I say fishing but it was exclusively oysters and mussels being sold in the stalls beside the quay. The Aire overlooked a lake and I managed to get a front row position overlooking it to be able to see the activities on the water.
The van next to us contained a very friendly monsieur who informed me, after an unsuccessful search for the parking machine to pay our €5 for the night, that from the 1st of November right over the winter there was no charge. Over the course of the next 2 days there averaged about 20 vans, all, including ourselves, buying from the seafood stalls, baker etc, an enlightened approach our local authorities back home can’t seem to understand.
Week 5 – Day 38 – Sunday 5th November 2017
L’Aiguillon sur Mer – 0 miles
As this is such an interesting little place we’ve decided to stay another day at least and as it is Sunday the day started with a long lie in. After breakfast the bikes came out to explore the area. A few hundred yards from where we are parked is a collection of buildings with stalls selling oysters and mussels and I fancied trying to cook them on the CADAC BBQ so we bought a kilo for €4, not really knowing if a kilo was too much or too little. The Navigator was a bit thrown by having to order by weight as the way its apparently done in Tarbert is for Dougal to put handfulls into a bag until told to stop when she thinks there is enough for two in said bag! The mussels bought, we continued over the bridge to the adjoining town of La Faute sur Mer, where we stumbled upon a little market and bought some parsley to add flavour to the mussels and some tarts for a tea time treat. There were some good stalls there but the busiest by far was the one dispensing drinks, both alcoholic and soft. We had a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and Sangria to combat the chilly northerly breeze, and for all of €2, it did the trick. Further on we discovered the beach, and what a beach, wide and firm, and perfect for the sand yachts tearing up and down the beach aided by the strong breeze. The buildings of La Rochelle could be seen further down the coast illuminated by the bright sunshine.
Although not the prettiest village we had been in, La Faute sur Mer had character and it was sad to see on the way back to the van a plaque commemorating the 29 people who drowned in their homes here in 2010, the effects of Cyclone Xynthia. Back at the van we had to revert to Plan B as the increasing breeze was too strong to cook the mussels outdoors so I was relieved of the cooking duties, and fair play, The Navigator made a good job of cooking the mussels with white wine, onions, garlic and parsley, washed down with a bottle of Lidl’s finest Riesling, followed by cheese and biccies. With all the fresh air this morning, not to mention the wine, I succumbed to an afternoon nap. We had another cycle around the area before returning to the van to settle in to watch the wake/surf boarders whizz past us practising their tricks while being pulled along by a zip-wire contraption thingy.
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The classic 1959 song was sung by Dinah Washington, although many artists have covered it since.
To put this week into context here is a map of our route…
As we visit new towns and villages I am filming a series of short videos entitled “123 SECONDS IN…”, primarily to help us remember where we have been, but also to give viewers a flavour of the places, and hopefully inspire you to travel to them as well.
The videos from previous weeks now reside on this PAGE in the 2017/2018 Tour menu above.
NEXT WEEK – We continue southwards down the west coast of France towards La Rochelle, Royan, Bordeaux and Biarritz.
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