Friday, August 13, 2004

Most in France

Fantastic trip to France - flew to Nantes from Gatwick on BA and picked up Citroen C2 rental car - spent the first night in Ibis hotel at La Roche sur Yonne. Visited the Musee Automobile at Talmont-St Hilaire in the Vendee next morning, with picnic lunch, and then to La Rochelle where we spotted a Chiasson bicycle shop - tracing the Mrs's name and the Acadian connection became a theme of the trip. Hot and bothered in the traffic at La Rochelle so continued south to Chatelaillon for two nights. Took the bus into La Rochelle (1 euro, 20 each) which took half an hour and freed us from parking tickets and breathalyser tyranny. Visited the Musee de Nouveau Monde, near the Place Verdun, which was more of an art gallery but yielded more Chiasson discoveries and a recommendation to visit Brouage later in the tour. Visited the market area and had a good lunch at the Teatro Bettini-Accademia in the Rue Thiers, pasta with vin de maison, beginning to get in the holiday mood. A stroll round the Vieux Port, where musicians were going through the sound check for an evening concert, and caught the bus back at the magnificent railway station. Stopped off in Chatelaillon Plage to do some shopping, pleasant sitting on the boulevard under the trees sipping a drink and watching the motorhomes arriving from points north. Next morning we backtracked to photograph the Chiasson bicycle store and then set off south for Brouage, a mediaeval walled city in the salt marshes and home port of Samuel Champlain. There was an outdoor Acadian Exhibition which consisted of large waterproof photos, with captions, displayed on the ramparts - surprisingly effective. We'd already booked into a hotel at nearby Marennes so after an al fresco lunch and a walk around the city walls we headed for the Isle d'Oloron and Saint-Trojan-les-Bains. Here I couldn't resist the train touristique, a narrow-gauge diesel train which took you through the pine forest and down to the sea. Parts of the forest had been destroyed in a great storm in 1999 - the train driver explained that what the wind didn't get the salt finished off. We photographed stands of dead pine trees - the good news is the forest is regenerating - as it will.
Marennes felt closed on our return and we just managed to get a sandwich in a bar while the patron brought the tables in from outside. There were pictures of Johnny Hallyday all round the walls. I had to re-open the bar when we got back to the Hotel Le Commerce - faintly scandalised the barman by demanding beer after nine o'clock when the dining room was still in full flow. Sat in the foyer gargling before turning in. This hotel turned out to be the bargain of the trip at less than 45 euro for bed and breakfast for two. Next morning we diverted into the marshes where we saw storks, herons, stilts and egrets - we were heading for La Tremblade and the Train des Mouettes (the seagull line), a steam train that follows the Seudre estuary. It seemed fairly newly-opened as none of the stations had name boards and there were no souvenir shops. Signboards boasted of state and EU money - a sort of dirigiste tour paid for by Brussels, a state-directed jolly. Doubtless they are wasting their money on worse projects than this - anyway if there is a subsidy going might as well have the benefit. Turns out the train is operated by Connex - I shudder - which explains the lack of commercial nous. Nonetheless we had an open carriage to ourselves in both directions - the ride took a bit over an hour one way - and we had a delightful view of the estuary and the backs of the houses with their large veggie gardens. The French countryside seemed blessed with fields of sunflowers blowing in the breeze. All for 12 euro each.
In the afternoon we drove on to Saintes where we visited the Roman Amphitheatre - a snip at one euro per head - and made an overnight stop. What did the Romans do for us anyway? Next day through the vineyards to Cognac - we stopped off in a small village at the bibliotheque where we checked our email. No charge. We diverted down by the Charente where I helped a rather clueless family with their hireboat through the lock. From there to Angouleme for two nights at the Hotel de France, part of the Mercure chain, where I had stayed some years before. Right in the centre of town on the hill with underground parking and views of the surrounding countryside this marked the southern point of our tour. We splurged 103 Euro per night but breakfasted round the corner for about one third the hotel price. We needed to regroup by now so it was off to the launderette - which turned out to be a comedy of errors as the soap-dispenser kept jamming and more and more disgruntled punters arrived to find they could not do their washing. We explored the town more thoroughly than in the past - there are lots of good restaurants within a short distance - and saved the best till last with coffee at Les Halles, the beautifully restored market opposite the hotel, on the morning of our departure. We headed north via the Val de Vienne, lunching at the racing circuit at Le Vigeant and stopping at Chauvigny where they have the intriguing Velo-Rail - a sort of pedalo that goes along an old railway line - unfortunately it was raining so the line was hors-de-combat.
We called in at the old Acadian settlement at Archigny to discover that no Chiassons were here and continued on to the Acadian Museum in the Pays Loudunais - our gushing guide was so eager to tell us everything about the district I thought we'd never get away - she certainly was a credit to her calling - I was getting twitchy as we needed to find somewhere to stay and get fed. We arrived at Loudun about seven o'clock and headed straight to the Hotel Renaudot - another snip at 48 euro for bed and breakfast for two. A sign in the lift directed us to a pizza restaurant round the corner so our bacon was saved.
To Guecelard via the Loire valley and four nights under canvas - our friends run a campsite here chiefly for the Le Mans 24 hours but open at other times. They have kindly set up a tent for us so we are all set. The chef goes out of his way to make sure the Mrs is supplied with veggie meals. We pal up with Malcolm Cambridge who is a motor-racing nut on tour from New Zealand.
The Le Mans Classic is a retrospective race meeting for old Le Mans race cars - it is pleasantly laid back compared with the 24 hours. You can watch from Arnage and Mulsanne without buying a ticket - but we get the full set at 30 euro each as we wish to meet friends in the paddock. We promptly bump into Angelo Barretto, driving a Porsche 906, from Manila - an old chum from the Macau Grand Prix. I also succeed in tracking down Mauro Bianchi, 1966 Macau GP winner, and Anil Thadani driving a Ferrari 275 GTB out of Singapore.
One morning we sneak off to La Suze-sur-Sarthe - town square, bibliotheque, hotel, small super, a couple of bars with the river nearby, easy free parking and mouth-watering real estate at affordable prices. What's not to like?
After leaving the campsite we explore down the Sarthe and stop off at Malicorne, famous for its earthenware. There is an old station with the rusty tracks still there - trains haven't run here for years - I am already opening a tourist railroad in my head. We follow the tracks to Mazeray where the old station is now a private house. Out into Brittany and we are running into British tourists, not encountered further south. We stop off at Chateaubriant at the three-star Le Chateaubriant hotel, comfortable with secure parking at 86 euro for b&b. We head for a Vietnamese Restaurant, always a treat in France, where the Brits at the next table are demanding chicken and chips. I try out what is left of my limited Vietnamese which is well received and a complementary rice wine comes up at the end of the meal - big face all round.
Next morning to Loheac which has a car museum - this is a cracker, much better than anticipated, something of a hidden gem. There is almost too much to take in in one go but the Alpines and Panhards catch our eye. We try for a late lunch at the local restaurant where they say they have no omelettes but I look downcast and they relent. Menu fatigue is setting in.
We reach Nantes in the late afternoon and head smartly for tourist information to track down the Rue des Acadiens which has murals of the departure (and arrival) of the deported Acadians as they set off for New Orleans. We stop at the ubiquitous Ibis, 57.50 euro including parking and dine in the Rue Jean Jaures at a Pizzeria for 34.35 euro. Driving in Nantes is a nightmare - you are better off on the tram which we caught back to the hotel. Up early next morning to see the murals and have breakfast at a street cafe - buy your own croissants at the patisserie across the street. Sort the car out and head out of town to Ste-Luce-sur-Loire where we have delicious galettes to round off the tour. Time to gas the car, hand it back and check-in at the airport. All good things must come to an end.

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