Back to France and our second French Noël

After an incredible Scandinavian summer, at the beginning of October we arrived back in France. While we had spent 6 months in France previously, we knew that there was much more that we wanted to explore in the motorhome. First, however, we spent a few days in a gite (guest house) at a horseback riding stable where we could relax while Amelia took riding lessons. She was also excited to cook some treats in a bigger kitchen with an oven, including homemade strawberry granola bars for the next stage of our trip. 

Monets_Garden

After our break,  we visited Monet’s house and garden in Giverny. The garden has been planted with an incredible array of seasonal flowers so that it bursts with colour throughout the spring, summer, and autumn. We were lucky to visit on a sunny afternoon in mid-October and we had the Water Lily Pond to ourselves for a few minutes at the end of the day. It was magical in a way that such heavily visited destinations seldom can be. 

Sunset

We then began exploring the coast following a list of suggestions sent to us by our Les Eyzies friend and neighbour Antoine, who is originally from Normandy. Our first stop was the Alabaster Coast where white chalk cliffs stretch from Dieppe to Étretat. We explored the beautiful small town of Veules-les-Roses and wild camped with incredible sunset views. Our next stop was the busy port of Honfleur, where we shared a motorhome aire with 180 motorhomes (Amelia carefully counted them and noted the countries that they had come from), rode the merry-go-round, and had crepes and hot (and very alcoholic!) cider spiked with calvados. Then we visited France’s smallest port, Port Racine, enjoying the beautiful country views on the Cotentin peninsula. Throughout Normandy, we stayed at France Passion sites to stock up on local products: apples, apple cider, apple juice, calvados, and fresh cheese. 

Normandy

As we continued through the countryside, Mont Saint-Michel appeared in distance like fantastic fairy-tale castle floating in the sea. Much like Carcassonne, it is more alluring from a distance (the interior is filled with tourist shops) but we still enjoyed a walk around the ramparts. We then returned in the evening to see it surrounded by water and to catch a glimpse of the city by lamplight. As we returned to our shuttle bus, we were hit by the first bands of rain from a terrific storm. That evening, the motorhome rocked wildly and branches broke in the wind but we escaped without any damage. Our final stops in Normandy were more sombre. We visited the Bayeux Tapestry – woven almost one thousand years ago and showing scenes from the battle of Hastings in life-like detail – and the D-Day beaches along with the Normandy American Cemetery, where white crosses marking the graves stretch as far as you can see.

Rose_granite

It was then time to move on to Brittany. Our first stop was a big campsite with many activities – a treat for Amelia and still very quiet because it was not yet school holidays. Over three days, Amelia spent about 12 hours in the heated indoor pool/waterpark and she rode the ziplines and tried the tree climbing adventure course. This was good practice for a bigger tree climbing course, the Forêt Adrénaline Carnac, which was one of Amelia’s highlights in Brittany. We all also enjoyed the rose granite coast (another screen-saver bucket list item!), the misty and mossy Huelgoat forest, the mystical standing stones around Carnac, and a smaller site where it was possible to walk amongst standing stones without a guide – another magical experience.

Steampunk_Animals

Amelia was keen to celebrate Halloween/trick-or-treat, but because trick-or-treat is not a typical French custom, we decided to visit the Broceliande forest for the Celtic festival of Samhain. This included a witches’ market and a fire show. Finally, we stopped in Nantes to shop in a Mexican market and see the city’s incredible steam-punk machines, such as a carousel of fantastical sea creatures and a 12 m / 39 ft tall animatronic elephant

When we arrived back in France, we had also posted on Worldschooling and French home education Facebook groups so that we could find some playdates for Amelia. Our first visit was with Tracy and her family in Normandy: Amelia had a wonderful time exploring a corn-field jungle and jumping on the trampoline with a welcoming group of English-speaking children. Next, we were happy to be invited to visit the “Traveling Twins” family – Amelia loved meeting their girls and we enjoyed chatting about traveling and worldschooling with Anja and Nick. As we left Brittany, we squeezed in our last visit with Kat, Mark, and kids. Mark cooked up a delicious South African potjie, we chatted and laughed late into the night, and decided to stay an extra day! Our last stop was a France Passion to pick up some cognac and then we arrived back “home” in Les Eyzies in our friends’ little cottage where we have spent so much time. 

Horse_riding

We were very happy to visit with our friends and catch up on their news and we settled in to enjoy our second French Noël (Christmas), this time without a lockdown. We picked holly in the forest and enjoyed having a fire, a Christmas tree decorated with homemade ornaments, and lots of meals involving melted cheese. Amelia was able to take riding lessons (group lessons in French but the owner speaks English) at the beautiful Ferme Des Eymaries and a wonderful art class with a group of English-speaking children, where she was very happy to catch up with her friend Lauren. Independently, Amelia practiced her new passion of gymnastics – learning from videos, our neighbour Agnès, and even an online Outschool class.

Bordeaux

At the beginning of December, we were treated to our first snowfall in Les Eyzies – the snow only lasted a few hours but it transformed our familiar landscapes into a winter wonderland. We visited local markets in Le Bugue and St Cyprien (full of olives, oranges, and seafood) and Christmas markets in Sarlat (Mexican-themed with ice-skating!) and Bordeaux (we saw beautiful Christmas lights and tasted delicious aligot). Near Bordeaux, we also hiked on the Dune du Pilat (the tallest sand dune in Europe). We had a wonderful time feasting, toasting, and celebrating Christmas eve with our neighbours Antoine, Peter, Agnès – and of course their dogs Happy and Topsy. For the new year, we are visiting Cayman, and then we will see what the future brings – perhaps Italy and Greece in the footsteps of our friends The Chouters & Bijou and Frenchy Le Van

An amazing trip to the south-east of France

We had only planned to spend a couple of weeks in France but delays with getting our licence plates and then the late autumn lockdown resulted in us spending far longer in the country. Two upsides are that we’ve made some truly wonderful friends and we’ve come to realise that the country has so much to offer in terms of variety, be it wines (of course!), but also scenery, wildlife, history, etc., etc.

In July, we are hoping to head towards Scandinavia so before the summer heat and crowds arrived in France we decided to head south towards Carcassonne and the Mediterranean coast. Three years ago, we made a whistle stop tour along the French Pyrenees in a campervan and loved the area. The idea of our ‘big trip’ was already forming and we wanted to see if we could live in a campervan; within a couple of days we had decided that a van would be too small.

Château de Quéribus

Before we headed back to the area, fellow motorhomers and new friends, John and Kellie, suggested we visit Quéribus and Peyrepertuse, two Cathar castles in the southwest of France. Catharism was a religious movement between the 12th and 14th centuries; its followers were ultimately annihilated by the Catholic Church after many bloody battles and sieges centred in Pays Cathare (Cathar country). The drive to the parking area at Château de Quéribus was a winding “first gear up/first gear down” road but the views from the top were absolutely stunning. The château is first mentioned in 1020 and was one of the “Five Sons of Carcassonne”: five castles strategically placed to defend the French border against Spain. We were amazed at the effort needed to build a stone castle on the high peak. We also spent a night in the aire in Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse with views of Château de Peyrepertuse. We didn’t visit the castle this time as the access road was too narrow for the motorhome but we would love to go back. While exploring Duilhac, we came across the Fontaine des Amours with a verse from Ronsard (a 16th century poet) inscribed above the fountain. It stated that whoever drinks from the fountain will fall in love – and though we recently celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary we thought it couldn’t hurt to take a sip!

Before the trip, we had also made contact with a couple of home-/world-schooling families and planned a route that would allow Amelia to meet some other English-speaking children for outdoor playdates. She had an amazing time with a new friend in the small town of Caunes-Minervois splashing through a small stream while the parents sipped coffee at an outside café – our first time since September!

Tunnel at Minerve

While in Caunes-Minervois, Michelle and Denis suggested we visit Minerve. Denis showed us a video and we were sold. The walled village is surrounded on 3 sides by a gorge, and inside the gorge the river has carved a tunnel (the ‘Ponts Naturels‘) through the rock. Truly amazing and our photos don’t really do the village, the gorge or the tunnel justice. When we create a list of must-see hidden gems, Minerve will definitely be on it! Minerve had been a Cathar stronghold which was attacked and fell in 1210. The attackers had four trebuchets (catapults), with the largest one known as Malvoisine or “bad neighbour” which was aimed at the village’s well.

Sunset over Lac de Montbel

We had another playdate with Petra and her two daughters at Lac de Montbel, just outside Chalabre. Originally we had planned to leave the lake at 8pm and drive to the aire in Castelnaudary; if all went according to plan we’d arrive minutes before the 9pm curfew. Luckily, we managed to find a parking at Lac de Montbel and we decided that it was a perfect location to stay the night. This allowed us to extend the playdate and watch one of the most beautiful sunsets we had seen; the sky and the lake glowed a golden/orange colour with the snowy Pyrenees in the background. When we arrived at Castelnaudary at 2pm the next day, we took the second-to-last spot. If we had arrived at nine o’clock the previous night, the aire would have been full and we would have had to drive on after curfew. In general, there are a lot more motorhomes on the road and the aires and France Passion sites are often busy; unlike October last year when we were often the only motorhome at our sites.

Petra also suggested that we see flamingos at the coast. Wait, what? But it’s true that wild flamingos are found in France. Peyriac-de-Mer was on our route so we made a detour and there they were!

It was an amazing trip to the south-east of France. We enjoyed our flexible route, with many suggestions from friends, as well as other serendipitous experiences such as showing Amelia how locks work on Canal-du-Midi, France-Passion stops with beautiful views, friendly hosts, and wonderful products (including sparkling pink Crémant and kilograms of cherries!), and stumbling upon the Aude River at Belvédère du Diable (Belvianes-et-Cavirac) where Amelia played for hours.

There were a couple of ‘learning’ experiences too. Like many other things in France, many petrol (gas) stations are fermé (closed) on Sundays; while you can still self-serve petrol this means that there is no GPL (propane) available. We suffered without our morning tea and coffee!

Never cut corners when the turn is between two buildings on an extremely narrow road – we almost got wedged! It didn’t help that the elderly homeowners were trying to tell us in French that we needed to reverse (how?) and that our motorhome was too big and didn’t belong there (too late!). Our wheels were up on the side of the road and our roof was tilting toward the buildings but luckily we had few centimetres to spare and we managed to escape without a scratch.

Beware passing trucks on narrow roads – we stopped on the verge to allow a truck to pass but it still scraped the side of the motorhome. Fortunately, the wheel nuts had plastic caps so we only ended up with the smallest of scratches.

When your GPS sends you down a narrow dirt road that doesn’t feel right, stop and back out while you can (the fox and her two cubs were cute though – and they very looked surprised to see us).

All-in-all it was good to be back in Blue Fern.

Bon voyage!

Gary, Janice and Amelia