Thursday, 7 August 2014

France 2014 - Part the first

We were prepared for the weather to be cooler than last year (and lets face it, 32 degrees is much nicer in theory than in practice), but this wasn't the best start:

Fortunately, once we arrived in Fenstanton it was sunny and warm and we were ready for a holiday. So much so that even I was jolly when we left the house at 6 the next morning. And we were all still jolly when we got to the ferry.

The ferry experience was greatly better than last year - no wind and so no swell - although Nathaniel did insist on taking one of the homeopathic seasickness tablets that I had brought for such an occasion. I think last year's SeaCat might have made rather an impression on him. We lunched on bread and cheeses and then the children discovered the soft play area - a tiny space filled with all of 6 crash-mat style cubes - which occupied them for the rest of the journey.

We always knew that the other side was going to be a bit tedious, but we had learned our lesson from last year, and the campsite was only a couple of hours drive, and very close to the autoroute. It turned out to be a gem of a place - in a wood next to a lake just outside Sille de Guillaume, and we were almost sorry that it was intended just to be an overnight stop. Up went the tent and off we went to play in the park and explore the lakeside.

Sille de Guillaume is a rather pretty little place, and the other side of the lake has a beach reachable along a cycle track, so I have a feeling that we'll be back here. The kids were certainly happy scampering about amongst the trees.

But we had the south in mind, so off we went the next morning (everlastingly thankful that the kids find sleeping in the tent preferable to inside, and not at all a novelty, and so sleep like me), to enjoy winding our way through little french villages joined by long, straight, plane tree-lined roads, broken only by ancient-looking churches that have to be circumnavigated.

And then miles and miles of autoroute, albeit interspersed with stops at aires with playgrounds and funky adult gym equipment, until we eventually arrived at..........

France 2014 - Part the Second

.......Ile D'Oleron, which is a big island off the Atlantic coast due west of Rochefort.

After a brief stop at the Marennes Intermarche for supplies, we drove across the bridge to the island in the sun and admired acres and acres of oyster beds.

Our campsite was pretty good, except that our pitch was next to the biggest caravan that we had ever seen. And on the side of that caravan was the biggest, full-width awning that we had ever seen. And on the side of that awning was the biggest full-width canopy that we had ever seen. Strictly, they hadn't impinged on our ground, but they had covered every inch of their ground with caravan-awning-canopy, which left us camping in their front yard! We considered trying to move, but the place was pretty packed, and the only alternative offered to us was on the other side of the trees that separated us from the toilet block, which we didn't fancy. So we put ourselves in a far corner on the flattest section and made ourselves comfortable under a ma-hooooo-sive pine tree which provided ma-hoooo-sive pine cones to play with.

Apart from being a little overcrowded, it was a great little campsite. Very friendly, with nice little touches such as recycling bags given to each tent, and great communal areas - not too big, not too small. There were picnic benches next to the play ground and a quiet bar which sold drinks and ice creams and pizzas so that you could sit and read with a cold drink while the kids played. There were two small swimming pools set into decking, and the kids loved them. We crept in at 7:30 that evening, just before they closed and made the most of the quiet. Thea put on her armbands, and after a few minutes of holding on to me, let go for the first time and floated off on her own. This was a major deal for her - all term she has refused to do this! Of course, after that, we weren't allowed to touch her at all and she just sedately paddled herself round and round in a strange upright position looking rather like a swan - totally motionless above the water, powered some unknown propulsion.

Library picture for our enjoyment!

It was warm and sunny and so the next morning we jumped on our bikes and headed to the beach. But to Nathaniel's delight, rather than cycling the whole way, we rode back into Saint-Trojan-des-Bains to board Le Petit Train. It's a narrow gauge railway that heads west through the forest towards beaches unreachable by car. It was fun!

Thea wasn't entirely sure at first. She assured us that she was happy, but her face wasn't so convincing. We sat right at the front so that we had a good view of the engine, but it was rather loud which may have been a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, the view was distracting. First we travelled through the forest, sounding the horn every time we crossed a pedestrian path. I spent this section yearning after following one of these paths as they snaked up and down dunes into the distance.

Then we emerged at Gatseau Beach, and after a quick stop at the station, carried on along a Dawlish-worthy line along the shore.

After more forest and dunes stretching away from us as far as we could see, we reached Plage de Maumusson. we stepped down straight onto the sand and had to stay where we stood for the next 20 minutes so that the turning of the engine and the moving of the points could be properly examined!

And then we walked down onto the beach which was wonderful! In either direction, the yellow sand stretched as far as the eye could see, backed only by lowish dunes. In front of us, big waves pounded the shore (swimming was prohibited due to their strength), and white horses flecked the bright blue sea. The sun shone. There was pretty much no-one around. We were very happy!

After lunch (we had important cheeses to prioritise over playing), we started by digging. Nathaniel was a spy-car (don't ask!), and zoomed backwards and forwards, hurtling onto the sand and spinning it around with his hands. Then he drew his very own Petit Train.

I was really impressed! Then we spent hours and hours jumping over waves, running away from waves and generally playing with water. It was hot, but with a breeze so that it just felt decadently warm - perfect for getting splashed and then drying off while playing.

We quit while everyone was happy and had an ice cream at the wagon bar while we waited for the return train.

Next day, we couldn't see any reason why we shouldn't acquiesce to Nathaniel's request that we go to a beach again. We had cycled into the village the night before and had a brief wander around - enough to establish that it was primarily a resort village, and not worth the effort of extensive children-persuasion to enable us to explore further. So off we went by bike, along forest bike tracks, to Plage Gatseau. It was a very different beach.

It was definitely busier, but not unpleasant. It was sheltered from the wind and the strong currents and the forest reached right down to the sand. All very picturescue. We collected buckets and buckets of cockles, and then giant handfuls of empty cockle shells. Nathaniel spent most of the time building structures for his cockles (mainly spy-cockles), but I built a boat (which didn't last long against the incoming tide);

And a hole, which Thea played in for ages;

And then sat around in the sun!

We were really getting into this holiday thing - not getting in the car, and prioritising family fun over cultural experiences. After all, even going into a supermarket is fun in foreign countries. So rather than trying to see more of Oleron, which seems to be a resort-ish island made up of lots of oyster-related tourist stuff with only a smattering of older villages, we thought we'd continue on a theme and just go to more beaches! We spent the morning at the campsite playing boules and drawing in our sketch books;

And then we headed to beach three - Le Grand Plage. It was slightly further away, again along bike tracks through the forest, but with some serious inclines which gave Nathaniel ample opportunity to practise using his gears. He showed up some of the adults who we met on the way, pushing their bikes up the steep bits!

Of course, the best bit was the level crossing for the Petit Train. At least it was not as I had feared, and we were allowed to continue without waiting for a train!

What can I say? We should have been prepared when we saw the bike park.

This was, of course, in addition to the car park. But I am naive in the way of beaches (Polzeath in the winter is not preparation for France in the summer), and hadn't even considered that a beach might look like this:

Full is an understatement! Coming over the dunes, we were faced with a wall of parasols and had to pick a path between beach mats and then walk through the sea along the beach to find a gap big enough to put our things down. The tide was in, so there was only a narrow strip of beach, and that was, well, covered.

The waves were giant and impressive. The lifeguards were officiously herding people between their flags with a constant shrill of whistles and they had to carry out at least one person. Nathaniel was delighted, as this necessitated the red rescue land rover, complete with blue flashing lights, driving over the dunes and through the sea to carry an embarrassed looking lady to "safety".

We splashed for a bit, but to be honest it wasn't really the place for any of us, so our trip was a short one.

So back to the campsite we went and installed ourselves in the bar/play area which was a decked area with a fancy wooden snack wagon, and had ice creams, beers, a bit of a book (me), french fries (I think Thea ate them all!), and so much pizza that we had to sit there until quite late! Nathaniel and Thea enjoyed learning about playing on playground equipment with kids who speak another language and got quite good at "Attends!" and "Attention!" Thea suffered a little, as big children kept trying to take her under their wing and help her and didn't understand her firm "I don't need help- I'm very big!"

There was much admiration of a couple of children who could monkey bar, and after much faffing, this occured:

He was very pleased with himself. Thea, of course, was keen to imitate, but the bars were rather far apart for her.

It was a very fine last evening on Oleron, which was good because the next day would be less relaxing!

France 2014 - Part the third

We packed up relatively quickly, but deciding to hit the supermarket before travelling was a bit of an error. The idea was that when we arrived, we would have all the food we needed and therefore not need to do any shopping, but what it actually meant was that we didn't really leave until lunchtime. And then we somehow ended up on the wrong autoroute going north. On a section where the next exit was a good 20 minutes away.

So at 1pm we actually started moving in the right direction, which wasn't ideal. Also not ideal were the alarming notices appearing on the dynamic boards over the autoroute warning of storms in Bordeaux, and then, queues at Bordeaux. We pressed on, but when the traffic slowed to a standstill just outside Bordeaux (and it was 3pm on a Friday), we decided on a new route and took off cross country, to cut off a big autoroute corner. A few pretty towns later (Libourne was rather nice), we were back on the autoroute with some very black clouds behind us. A while further along, the storm caught up with us and we were suitably impressed and peered out of the windows hoping that it would pass over before we arrived at Beaulieu.

As we drove into the town, the clouds cleared a little, and we were less bothered about the rain! I asked the lady who took us to our pitch, and she said that it hadn't rained that day, which was unusual, as they get some rain everyday. And you could really tell - everything was green and lush, which after the sand and scrub of Oleron seemed very luxurious. We had asked for a "nature" pitch which came without electricity and personal water and other such "essentials". And we were very pleased that we had. On our island campsite, the "better" pitches along the river front were jammed in together, but we, a whole 20 steps from a little beach, had acres of room with loads of trees and very few neighbours! Rumbles of thunder could be heard in the distance so we got the tent up as quickly as possible and ate supper under the awning as some gentle rain splashed for a little while.

The next day we set out to explore Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. The campsite entrance was right next to an archway leading to the old (pedestrianized) town, so we just wandered through. It was very pleasant - totally French and mostly deserted!

After a good bimble, we found a promising-looking creperie for lunch. The children practised being French by behaving wonderfully, and biding the time between courses with no toys and no loud noise. We talked and observed and learnt new tunes on the recorder. Without a recorder.

Lunch was tasty! The kids and Ian had a traditional galette avec jambon et fromage and I had an amazing galette of spinach and cheese and potatoes and yumminess.

The kids picked out ice cream flavours for pudding, and I was rather full, but Ian made the effort to have a crepe, and it didn't take much to persuade him into a flaming crepe. The Irlandaise seemed the most likely to appeal to his pallete - flaming whiskey, raisins and coffee ice cream. It was amazing!

After a post-lunch stroll we headed back to the campsite to indulge the children. Last year, the water park at le Col Vert had been a major hit, so when I noticed this campsite in an area that we wanted to visit, I couldn't resist!

The kids had fun!

Unusually for France, fires weren't totally and utterly banned in this campsite (see comments on daily rain!), so we made the most of it and set light to stuff, which, in the sun, was pretty perfect!

Having realised that abandoning the car really was a possibility this year, we had a laid-back second day. Some drawing, some music, a bit of exploring of the island that our campsite was on and the discovery of a park.

Our pitch in sight of the wheelie bins (not as bad as it sounds), paid off as we watched people leave after a weeks' holiday abandoning all the grot that they had bought! A little later we were two swimming noodles (which I had previously declined to buy), and two wooden fishing nets better off. The kids went to catch flies.

And then more swimming! Next door to the pool was a good play area, and in there was Thea's favourite thing - the bouncy giraffe. So after swimming was finished, they bounced. And bounced, and bounced, while Ian and I sat on the nearby picnic tables in the bar area and had tasty French beer and orangina and books! Thea made a friend, and I got frustrated with having to speak to her parents in English (they were Dutch and spoke little French!)

Day three dawned cloudy so I figured that we could venture a little more exploring, and so after walking round the town several times to locate a butcher, we headed over to another old bit of the town by the quay and Nathaniel and I explored narrow lanes. I admired the houses and the view while he explained his invention of shuttle-brakes which are incredibly powerful brakes for stopping incredibly fast vehicles.

We found another playground (I had been for late-night reccies, searching for one with monkey bars!), and Nathaniel attempted to take photos of me doing somersaults over bars.

Our swimming that evening was interrupted by rain. Serious rain that meant that even we were forced into the bar to have drinks and warm up. And that night the storm continued in the distance, keeping me up for a couple of hours watching the almost constant lightening and the loud, ominous thunder. Needless to say, everyone else slept through the lot!