Saturday, 20 August 2016

Adventure 2016 - Part 1

It was a marvellous holiday! After so much deliberation about whether to go or not, we definitely justified our decision to go!

It all started well with a visit to Fenstanton and time to chat to Gran and play with the cousins in the sun, and then a very early start. There is nothing like contributing to the chaos in Dover in the first few weeks of the summer holidays. The chaos of the French border control had somewhat abated, but we still sat for a good hour waiting to get through security, and the jolly P&O man congratulated us on being on time with great surprise, and declared we were the first he'd seen that were on time that morning. Hooray for Ian and his super-early starts!

Another smooth crossing and then onto Beaumont. We managed not to loose Jean-Luc this time and rolled into our favourite stop-over campsite in Beaumont-sur-Sarthe at a most respectable time. The tent went up and Thea tracked down the playground and got stuck in. Nathaniel buried himself back into his current Harry Potter book.

Nathaniel decided to be in charge of supper and cooked up some tinned cassoulet. Not gourmet, but nice and easy!

We were all in bed early, and were up and ready to go in record time the next day. If we hadn't have faffed around taking the kids bikes off so they could cycle around the campsite, and I hadn't forgotten about buying the bread, we'd have been off by 10am! Last year, this was the 4 hour journey that took 7 hours in the beating sun with a car making some very suspicious noises, so we were keen to get going.

But the journey was fine. We obeyed Google's suggestion of a different route, which was a pleasant change, and before we knew it we were, yet again, on the bridge to Isle d'Oleron.

Was it unimaginative going back to the same campsite for the third year running? Maybe. But Thea doesn't really remember the first time, and the kids had expressed an interest in returning somewhere that they already knew. And as there are few campsites that Ian and I can really give a seal of approval to, we figured this one was worth the return if only for the ability to park the car and not use it again until we had to leave!

We had some initial worries about the pitch we had been allocated - rather than being hidden away in the quiet, it was directly behind the Halle de Vie. However, it all worked out rather well. We didn't have to worry about how loud our kids were being, and they stayed up as late as the other kids who were playing table football, so the noise didn't disturb us. And best of all, as we weren't on a path/track to anywhere, we had no through-traffic, just us and one other pitch in our own little shady glade. Very pleasant. I fell asleep that evening listening to the distant roar of the waves and the gentle rustle of the pine trees feeling very content.

As proper English people, we had our eyes on the weather forecast, and knowing that day 2 would be proper, serious rain, got ourselves organised so that we could start promptly on day 1 with a trip to Plage Maumauson. The easiest way to get to this out-of-the-way beach, is by train touristique, so we jumped on our bikes and cycled up to the station of Le Petit Train de Saint Trojan.

We've done this twice before, and I love the journey as the train winds its way through the forests through tunnels of pines and flowering shrubs. Every so often you pass a trail - a sandy path stretching away from the rails, rising up and down and revealing dunes beneath the trees, and I ponder whether I can persuade the kids to go for a walk! And then the trees disappear and the sound of the breakers is upon you.

The tide was out and the beach was enormous! There are so few people here that it is easy to find an acre or two to yourself, even more so when it's so far to the sea.

We jumped over waves and splashed in the shallows (the rip currents are way too strong for swimming here), and then built giant sandcastles - not in height or complexity, but in acreage. We collected beautiful shells and captured and tormented hermit crabs so that we could see them burrow (real animal lovers here....). We drew around ourselves, drew sand art and laid out race tracks for Thea to dash around (she still loves running really fast). Then we dug ditches and built hurdles to add to the fun.

The tide turned, and we had fun predicting which bits of sand would get cut off and which would become channels and built tiny sand castles on as many sand banks as we could. One section of the beach slowly filled to become a sheltered and shallow pool which heated up in the sun to become a bath. Ian found a shoal of fish in it and we followed them around trying to work out whether they were black (they weren't - we were seeing their shadows) or silver. Thea and I pretented to be eels and slithered around the pool, propelling ourselves with our hands and chassing the fish.

And then we air dried our swimming things and travelled back still wearing them, in a carriage with no roof, so that we could watch the forest canopy.

After the kids had gone to bed, Ian and I started to pack everything up ready for the rain the next morning. After an hour of poddling around moving things backwards and forwards and pegging the awning in different positions, I took a wander around the campsite and wondered at our strangeness. Everyone else had just gone to bed - there were towels on washing lines, bikes piles in front of tents, tables with tablecloths (the French camp in a bit more style than us!) waiting for breakfast. I started to feel like we were overreacting rather.

But when I woke at 5am and heard the rain, proper coastal, wet rain, hammering on our tent, I felt rather smug. Smugger still, when Ian got up later, and dug little trenches around the awning (with a spoon!) so that the torrents of water didn't even touch our ground. Very helpful when the ground is made of black sandy soil which sticks to everything as soon as it is even a little damp.

Having planned accordingly, we spent the morning going to the supermarket to shop for the week. We had a nice drive the long way around and I found several roads that didn't go quite where the map suggested that they might do, and we saw a deserted fishing village that is known for it touristic appeal. By the time we had returned  and eaten lunch and had some reading time, the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. The kids jumped on their bikes and disappeared off, returning only occasionally to tell us about the friends they had made. We chatted to the parents of one family (targetted by N & D due to the kids' Isla bikes!), and spent a very happy evening sitting in the bar area while the kids invented complicated games using the sand in the play ground and listened to the covers band playing in the Halle de Vie.

The next day we were all ready to reprise the kids' highlight from last year - wires! Or acrobranche as the french call it. Or parcour sur les arbres. There seems to be no english word yet. We had located a new course in the local village and so cycled over to it using our new favourite path - out of the egg gate.

The Egg Gate is a back gate out of the campsite straight into the deep woods. Nathaniel and I explored it at dusk last year and it was pretty creepy, so we didn't get far. When we were coming back in, a french family greeted us as we walked past "C'est fermé?" to which I replied, somewhat distracted by something N had said "Non, c'est oeuf". Which doesn't mean "It's open". It's closer to "It's an egg".

This year, the path was not explored at dusk and once we found how it linked to other paths, became our favourite way of getting places.

The acrobranche of Saint Trojan was very tiny compared to the one we went to last year, and only had three routes, one of which Thea was too short for. But they were similarly chilled out about how long you spent going around and around, so we spent a happy afternoon as the kids climbed and zoomed down zip wires. Nathaniel found his first atelier that freaked him out a little - a very high zip wire, but he managed it, and the second time he positively hurled himself down.

And of course, all good visitor attractions have entirely deserted bouncy castles for Thea to enjoy.

Now that the kids had mastered making friends, we didn't see them much at the campsite. They were very happy bombing around on their bikes and playing long games of Uno where the merits of different house rules were discussed with great seriousness.
Add a playground, a table football table, two ping pong tables and a swimming pool to that, and suddenly we were having the sort of holiday that I hear about in vague rumours - ones where parents lie around in hammock reading their books, strumming their guitars and chatting while drinking tasty red wine and muching on french biscuits!

One afternoon I insisted in an adventure to the citadel of Chateaux D'Oleron - a walled town on a peninsular just around the coast. It was very hot, but I managed to convince everyone into a short walk around some of the bastide walls and we discovered crazy star-shapped battlements and funky under-bridge secret entrances. Not to mention incredible views of the harbour and the fishing boats puttering around.
And one of the best ice creams of the holiday - Thea's excellent mint choc chip from the artisan glace shop. And I must remember to stop ordering lemon meringue ice cream in this situation - its too sweet!

The weather had recovered itself to "hotter than it ever is in York" levels, and we spent much time getting cold in the swimming pool and lying around with books. Nathaniel continued to plough his way through the Chamber of Secrets with great happiness. And everyone was just well and truly chilled out.
The tides that had been so accomodating were not so convenient for a trip to our favourite beach, Plage Gatseau (aslo known as Cockle Beach). This beach faces the mainland and has very tiny, gentle waves and lots and lots of sea creatures. However, because it is basically in a wide bay, when the tide goes out it reveals a broad expanse of sea mud. It makes me think of Breydon Water. But this did not deter us from a nice cycle down on the hottest day. We all enjoy the cycle - all off road, on paths through forests and houses and past inferior campsites!

We carefully selected ourselves a patch of beach away from everyone else and pretended we were on a desert island.
We dug and Nathaniel and I took a very ousey walk down muddy channels to the sea and saw more shells that we could comfortaly imagine. It was properly, mind numbingly hot again and we got quite a lot of pleasure in letting our feet sink into the cool mud, even if they did come up black!

And now for something completely different. In the middle of the night, I was disturbed by a bear. Yep, it was definitely a bear. I heard it snuffling around in the bushes next to us looking for grubs. I tried to look out of the window, but it was so dark (another good thing about our out-of-the-way pitch - no efforts to provide lighting for people to find their way around), I couldn't see a thing. So I went back to sleep, marvelling that it sounded like it was so close to my head. We debated what it could be. Not a badger or other burrowing animal - the sand isn't good for big burrows. Unlikely to be a bird - it was there for so long and didn't seem to fly off at all. So it must have been a bear. Of course.

Then, when we took the tent down, right next to where my head had been, at the very edge of the ground sheet, we saw what looked like a big fat root protruding out of the sand. Closer inspection showed it to be an absolutely massive toad buried down into a dip in the sand. My bear! He dragged himself away, but I managed to get a photo of him under a bush. Very bear-like.

Adventure 2016 - Part 2

And so, onto Pujo. Which proceeded in a standard way (this year was characterised by a great deal of swimming under water and collecting of pool weights):

And continued with being sociable:

The next day was forecast for rain, and indeed it did. But not deterred, we drove up towards Lourdes with two plans, to be decided once we saw what the weather was up to. We settled on the funicular up the Pic de Jer, a hill on the outskirts of the town known for its mountain biking trails, and a walk down.

We enjoyed the ride up, especially all the little details such as the "crate" for mountain bikes at the back. And then we enjoyed the view.

Then we climbed higher and enoyed some slightly bigger views.

There were an amazing number of massive birds, revealed to us by a passer by as black kites and griffin vultures. The black kites were gathering in groups of 20 or so and then riding the thermals to get them enough height to get over the mountains on their way south.

Then we had a merry skip down 580m of hill, following a fine picture guide and zigzagging through the mountain bike trails. We had fun checking up each trail that we weren't about to get flattened, but probably due to the weather, there weren't many bikers, and we mainly saw them crawling slowly along the crossing points rather than hurtling down the steep bits.

Another day, we indulged my obsession with the mountains with a circular drive across the Col de Tourmalet and a walk to see the Pic du Midi. The weather was sunny and warm in Pujo, but predicted an air temperature of 6 deg at the Col, and probably cloud cover. But it turned out rather well. The car told us it was 13 degrees as we squeezed out in the narrowest parking space by the side of the road, on a bend, next to a ravine. But the walk up through woods, alongside a stream was lovely.

Then the path widened out into a beautiful valley, and then up between two hills where we engaged in a "just over that hill" conversation. I always fancy just getting round the next corner, and not everyone wants to do that endlessly. But in this case, I did have an aim in mind that wouldn't count as a "long walk", but should still give us a good view. And in this case, the path led us to some fun things as well as the view; interesting insects and a herd of cows complete with cow bells.

And my aim, a bridge - Le Pont des Vasques (the bridges of cows!), was well worth getting to. It would have had a brilliant view of the Pic du Midi had it not been engulfed with cloud, but was still pretty good.

And then we took the long route home, across the Col du Tourmalet, down the most alarming hills and through the most incredible gorges.

Adventure 2016 - Part 3

We so excited to be going back to Donostia after enjoying it so much last year. And the kids were just as excited to be returning to the wonderful flat with shutters! It took them about a minute and a half to start playing with them! And then we tucked into a supper made up of all the tastiest things left in the fridge.

We had many plans, most of which were dependent on the weather. I had considered all sorts of things to do when the infamous Basque rain kicked in, but as we left Pujo, our only concern was how we were going to survive the heat! Days of sun and temperatures over 35 degrees were forecast! Also important was not to be totally swamped by the millions of tourists who had overwhelmed the town for the double whammy of both the annual Semana Grande and San Sebastian being the 2016 European Capital of Culture.

Our first plan was to make use of the relative cool and climb though the woods to the top of Mount Urgull. This hill stands behind the old town and marks one end of the fantastic bay. Its topped by a 20ft tall statue of Jesus, so you can't really miss it. We scampered to the top along a maze of twisting paths and steps and terraces, and enjoyed the amazing view.

We explored the Castillo de la Mota at the top with all sorts of tiny stone staircases and battlements and look out points. And lots of canon from different eras. Fortunately Patrick O'Brien has been teaching Ian all about firing canon and the various merits of different designs, so he was able to satisfy the curiosity of the children in a relatively knowledgeable manner.

Another day we cycled along La Concha, the main town beach, to the other end of the bay at Mount Igueldo. This time we didn't mess around with walking and got the funicular up to the top! The views from here were no less fantastic.

At the top is a sort of retro theme park - old fashioned rides and slides and things. We had a good wander about, decided against very sedate-looking bumper boats and a hair-raising "rollercoaster" perched on old concrete viaducts, and took to the dodgems. Each session was really long, and the cars went really fast, and the view was still terrific! It was quite an experience.

Then the kids decided on the Rio Mysterio - a boat ride along a channel perched on the side of the mountain, all powered by a giant water wheel. Thea spent about 10 minutes just scampering along the footpath, following the boats around until they disappeared mysteriously into a cave. Then we all got into a boat and went ourselves. It was great!

It wouldn't be San Sebastian with some trips to the beach, and this year, the kids' favourite was Zurriola, the big waves beach. We managed to play there on two days running, albeit around lots of cycling and eating ice creams. The greatest hit was when we decided to take a body board with us. The tide wasn't really in our favour, but the kids still managed to have a good go at body boarding with Ian helping them onto some pretty big waves.

Thea was a little light for the board (we sillily didn't carefully inspect the boards and realise that there were two different ones to chose from in the garage), and so had a couple of extremely fast rides where she was a bit worried about going head first over the top. Nathaniel had his first washing-machine experience and came out of the water with more sand and shell than hair on his head!

Thea being able to cycle ludicrous distances at a reasonable rate enabled us to see much more of the town than we had last year, which was great, but meant that we didn't get around to exploring the park next to the apartment until the last minute. But is it so beautiful! Its known as one of the most interesting urban parks and has the most incredible number of weird and wonderful plants and some peacocks. We cycle through the very edge of it almost every time we leave the apartment, so it was nice to explore the enticing paths that go up and down the hill.

Nathaniel took great pleasure in cycling around - with so many properly off-road cycle tracks, it's easy to explore the city without constantly being told to watch the road! His favourite stretch was alongside the Mile of Peace (a strech of exhibition space alongside the river). Here the cycle path weaved in and out through tall flowerbeds and sculptural light fixtures in the underground bus station below, and was complete with zebra crossings for unwitting pedestrians.

Ian and I enjoyed the fireworks. During the Semana Grande, there is a fireworks competition with a daily display at 10:45. Despite having some very late nights, the kids weren't really in a state to go out to watch at that time, and our view was blocked by an inconvenient apartment block. One evening I walked down to the river to watch them over the park, but the next evening we discovered that they were being broadcast live of two Donostia's three local TV channels. The delay in the (extremely loud) sound reaching us was the same in the delay on the TV signal, so we enjoyed them in "real time" with the booms and flashes coming in the window. And of course, the excellent commentary in basque, not one syllable of which we were able to comprehend! And now I can definitely say that fireworks are not just fireworks and there is definitely an art to it!

I don't think I'm ever going to be a proper hot-weather-holiday person - there is too much sun cream involved and it makes me sleepy - but I do really love being in the warmnes of Donostia. I love having breakfast on the terrace and it already feeling warm as you step outside in your pyjamas. I love coming back to the cool apartment. I love sitting on the front terrace in the evening when it almost feels chilly inside, but outside it is a pleasant and warm and feels toasty to sit with a book in shorts and t-shirt in the dark.