Saint Pierre En Port (Normandy), France October 2023 (Tour 8)

Saint Pierre en Port was to be our last overnight stop before we took the Shuttle from Calais back to the UK. It is a little further from Calais than I intended (just over 150 miles on mostly slow roads) but we were there for two nights and wanted a comfortable campsite (with a bar and restaurant) close to Fecamp, such that we could get the dogs seen by our usual vet. We settled on the campsite ‘Huttopia Les Falaise’.

We managed to get the dogs seen by the vet on our first day at Saint Pierre en Port (see previous blog on Fecamp), leaving another whole day to chill and/or explore the area. We filled that morning taking the dogs for walks and I spent the afternoon watching England’s final Group D match against Samoa in the Rugby World Cup. 18-17 to England but what a scrappy performance. They may get through the next round but, thereafter, forget it.

Saint Pierre en Port is a tiny village but it has all the basics; a bar restaurant (Le Saint Pierre), a small store, a boulangerie and a chemist. The little beach is a short but steep walk (some 300 metres) down through a gap in the cliffs. I was surprised by the number of locals swimming down there.

The camp site is perched at the top of the cliffs with good views out to sea. It was taken over by the Huttopia chain some time within the last two years and they completely renovated the place. It is spotlessly clean and has excellent facilities including a heated swimming pool. I suspect it would be an expensive place to stay in the high season but ACSI discounts apply early in October and it proved very good value for money. This would be an excellent place to stay were we using the Newhaven – Dieppe ferry.

But that was it. Tour 8 ended the next day with us driving on to Le Shuttle at Calais and making our way back to Brighton. It was a relatively short tour; just 34 days because of Vanya’s appointment with the orthopaedic surgeon but we packed a lot in again. Roll on the spring and Tour 9.

Fecamp (Normandy), France October 2023 (Tour 8)

You know the Tour is approaching it’s end when we reach Fecamp. That’s our ‘go-to’ place for the dogs’ tapeworm treatment (as required by the UK authorities).

Parking up at the usual place on the harbour we made our way up past the Palais Benedictine to the vet. Thereafter, there would be time for a spot of lunch and a quick look around (not necessarily in that order).

The Palais Benedictine, where Benedictin has been produced since 1863, looks as splendid as ever. I don’t think I mentioned previously, it is a myth that the liqueur was concocted by Benedictine monks. Alexander Grand had a chemist help him develop the drink and then used the story about the monks to help promote it. No matter; it’s not a bad liqueur and; it’s produced in a truly impressive building.

Vanya wanted to spend a little time in the Van on her own and so I went off for a short tour of the town. I’d been to Fecamp three times before and not once seen inside the church of Saint Etienne and I was determined to try again. Sod’s law! I made it inside this time but all three of the naves were curtained off while the stained glass windows were being cleaned. Such bad luck.

The local priest must have seen or felt my disappointment because, after explaining why the naves were curtained off, he invited me to join him in an ante-room at the back of the church and gave me a preview of a large olive wood carving of the Nativity. It was stored, ready for the Christmas festivities, and it is a real work of art. To give some idea of scale, each human figure is about 12 inches high.

It was time to eat so I set off to rejoin Vanya and the dogs, taking a circuitous route around the harbour and past the small fish market.

Lunch outside ‘La Progress’ on the Quai Berigny was fantastic. Vanya went for her favourite, the Moules. I opted for the three course Plat du Jour, enjoying oysters as a starter, the biggest bucket of mussels you’ve ever seen as a main (served with the best ever chips) and finished with a very strong calvados sorbet. The service was excellent and I’d use that place again.

Dogs fit and us fed, we moved on to Saint Pierre en Port, just to the east of Fecamp for what remained of the day and the night. The following afternoon would see us head for Calais and the train to Folkestone. Tour 8 was rapidly reaching it’s conclusion.

Les Andelys (Normandy), France October 2023 (Tour 8)

We have to be back in the UK for 8 October.

We arrived early at Chateau de Bouafles campsite in the Eure Department of Normandy. In many respects it is a first class campsite right on the banks of the River Seine (the staff are friendly and we were offered a very large enclosed plot with private bathroom facilities, a built in BBQ and private covered patio area) but, for all that, I’ll not be including it in my list of recommended sites because, on the downside, it doesn’t have a bar and there isn’t one within a three mile radius of the site. Shame, because in all other respects, the place is great.

Of course there was plenty of food and wine in the Van but, you know how it is when you crave a beer? That craving simply has to be satisfied.

And so it was that after a long lunch and a few glasses of a tolerable red wine I set off towards the nearest town, Les Andelys, 3 miles further down the Seine. Les Andelys is a delightful little town which sits on a long sweeping curve of the river and it is worth every one of the 9 miles I ultimately walked that afternoon. It is called Les Andelys because the town is divided into two distinct parts, Little Andely on the banks of the Seine and Large Andely just behind it

The ruins of a once impressive medieval castle dominate the town. These are the ruins of the famous Chateau Gaillard. This castle was designed and built by no less a personage than Richard I (Richard the Lionheart, King of England and Duke of Normandy) and it’s construction, started in 1196, was completed within 12 months. By any standards, that’s an incredible feat of engineering and construction.

So pleased was he with the finished product that Chateau Gaillard became Richard’s preferred place of residence until his death in 1199. The castle’s history didn’t end there, with it changing hands more than once during the 100 Years War, and; in 1314, Margaret of Burgundy, the 25 year old wife of the French King Louis X, was imprisoned in the castle’s lower dungeons after being convicted of adultery. Margaret was supposedly strangled to death with her own hair in 1315. Later still, in 1334, David II of Scotland was forced into exile by Edward III of England and lived almost 8 years in the castle (not in the dungeons).

When built, the castle was amongst the most advanced of it’s time but; over the years, construction methods became more sophisticated and Castle Gaillard was allowed to fall into ruin. Eventually it was deemed unsafe and large parts were dismantled by order of Henry IV of France for new construction projects.

There are two major churches in Les Andelys; the 12th century Collegiate Church of Notre Dame in Large Andeley and the 13th century Eglise de Saint Sauveur in Little Andely. I spent most of my time in Little Andely and visited just the Eglise de Saint Sauveur.

Les Andelys is a pretty place (with a great castle and a magnificent bridge) but the prettiest part by far is the Promenade de Pres (a lovely walk alongside the Seine) and the best part of my visit was having that beer I craved outside a small bar on the promenade.

I made it back to Chateau des Bouafles just as the sun was setting over the Seine…

Chateauneuf sur Loire (Centre Val du Loire), France October 2023 (Tour 8)

Continuing north towards Calais and the UK, we paused for brunch at Jargeau in the Loiret Department of the Centre Val du Loire. Jargeau is where, in 1429, Joan of Arc won her first offensive battle against the English on behalf of the French King, Charles VII. It wasn’t a major battle but it proved costly to the English. Approximately 1,200 French troops laid siege to Jargeau which was defended by some 700 English troops. Inspired by Joan of Arc the French troops breached the town’s defences and the English surrendered after suffering some 300 casualties. The English might as well have carried on fighting because all of those who surrendered, together with several hundred townsfolk, were summarily executed. That’s all I know about Jargeau.

We took a leisurely lunch in Jargeau and then made our way to a campsite in nearby Chateauneuf sur Loire (not to be confused with Chateauneuf du Pape in Provence), entering the town via it’s imposing suspension bridge over the Loire.

There’s little to see or do in Chateauneuf sur Loire but the chateau and it’s grounds are worth visiting, as is the Saint Martial Church.

The original 17th century chateau was seized and sold at the time of the French Revolution (we can only speculate as to what happened to the original owner) but the new owner Benoit Lebrun demolished much of the original chateau leaving just the existing living accommodation, the large stable block, the orangery and extensive gardens. In 1926 the chateau was acquired by local government and became the town hall. It has to be one of the most beautiful town halls in France. The stables are now a museum and the gardens serve as the town park. They are still considering options for the Orangery. I visited the museum during our short stay but wasn’t too impressed. It’s focus is directed almost entirely towards boats and trade on the River Loire and, I regret that subject does nothing for me.

Also impressive and well worth a visit is the Saint Martial church on Rue Migneron. This church dates back to the 12th century but little if anything remains of the original building. It was significantly altered during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and if that wasn’t enough it was hit by German bombers during WWII. Indeed, the bombing in June 1940 took out almost the whole of the original nave which is now a porch at the new entrance to the church. I particularly like the modern stained glass windows in the current building but another interesting feature of the church is the marble mausoleum erected for the Marquis Louis de Phelypeaux Vrilliere by his son in 1686. The mausoleum survived the bombing.

Well, that entry is short and sweet. We drive further north in the morning, to Normandy, where we will be staying on a campsite in the grounds of Chateau Bouafles and I hope to see something of nearby Les Andelys.

Herisson (Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes), France October 2023 (Tour 8)

Some 200 miles north of Millau, in the Allier Department of the Auvergne, is the tiny village of Herisson; 600 inhabitants, a handful of shops, no hotels and only one bar-restaurant. We stumbled on the place while looking for somewhere to stay and it very quickly blew me away. It’s a picturesque medieval village in a most delightful setting on the River Aumance and it is brimming with history and character.

We parked the Van in the municipal campsite and made our way through the Parc Louis Bignon towards the centre of the village. In case you’re interested, Louis Bignon was born in Herisson some time in the 19th century and rose to become one of France’s most famous chefs and the owner of ‘Cafe Riche’ which at the time was Paris’s most fashionable and expensive restaurant.

From the park, there is a footbridge across the River Aumance which leads to La Porte de L’Enfer, one of two surviving medieval entrances into the village. The views from the footbridge, both up and down the Aumance, are splendid and some of the charming stone houses on the river bank are more than 500 years old.

The most obvious feature of the village and the one I was intent on visiting first is the castle. It is in ruins now but was constructed in the 14th century by the Dukes of Bourbon (on the site of earlier castles) and is steeped in history having been besieged by the English at least twice during the ‘100 Years War’ and again by Protestants in the French ‘Wars of Religion’. It was a small civil war between members of the Bourbon family which finally resulted in it being dismantled in the late 17th century by order of a certain Cardinal Mazarin. It’s walls were then used in the construction of many of the village’s existing houses but what remains of the castle is now protected.

For a village of just 600 souls, Herisson is very well provided with churches. There are four in total; five if you count the 12th century church of Saint Pierre de Chateloy which is just outside the village. My favourite is the 19th century Church of Notre Dame with it’s wonderful staircase at the entrance and some beautiful stained glass windows.

Others to be seen are the Eglise de Saint Sauveur in the village centre (most of the church is 17th century but the belfry dates back to the 12th century), the 16th century church of Saint Etienne and the 17th century Chapelle du Calvaire. This latter building sits on a small hill on the edge of the visit and offers a great view over the village towards the castle.

Originally there were three medieval gates into Herisson. Two still stand, the 14th century Porte L’Enfer (also known as the Porte de Varenne) and the Porte de Gateuil…

As mentioned previously, there is just the one bar-restaurant currently open in Herisson; that is the ‘Auberge’ and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the place. The service was friendly and attentive (despite the fact we were the only diners interested in eating at one of the outside tables), the wine was local and the food was fine given we were staying over for just the one night.

Although the last to finish our drinks at the restaurant, we weren’t too late. We had a fairly long drive the next day and there was still one more place to visit before we could leave in the morning. Herisson is the French word for hedgehog (see photo below of house with hedgehog tiles) and there’s a small distillery in the village (the Monsieur Balthazar Distillery) which produces a whisky called ‘Hedgehog’. Now that’s got to be worth a try.

post script: Hedgehog is actually bourbon with a high corn content, barley and rye – As Charlie Endell would say “That’s nae a whisky. That’s a dirty glass”.

Millau (Occitanie), France October 2023 (Tour 8)

We have crossed the magnificent Millau Viaduct, designed by our very own Norman Foster, on a couple of occasions but not once stopped to visit the historical town of Millau. That had to change and, while heading north on the A75 Autoroute in readiness for our return to the UK, we dropped down into the Tarn Valley. We chose to stay at the Camping 2 Rivieres on Avenue de L’Aigoual, just over the River Tarn from Millau old town.

Situated at the confluence of the Rivers Tarn and Doubie, Millau’s historical centre is a ‘must see’ destination in it’s own right and the starting point for numerous interesting outings across the Aveyron Department of Occitaine. We were staying just 24 hours and didn’t therefore have the time to explore anything other than Millau and, after parking the Van, I set off to explore the old town with a view to showing Vanya it’s highlights later in the day.

I really like Millau’s old town. It’s a warren of crooked cobbled lanes and tiny courtyards. Many of the lanes are arched and lead to sleepy little squares tucked away all over the town. They are gorgeous.

Except for when I crossed the Tarn to look at the the Millau Plage, using what looked like pedestrian pontoon bridge near the Pont du Larzac, I kept to the old town. Sadly, this meant missing out on a couple of Millau’s more interesting tourist sights, notably the Roquefort Caves and the Museum and Roman archaeological site of La Graufesenque (all that is left of a whole town of potters whose huge kilns were capable of producing 40,000 high quality pots per batch and whose wares have been discovered as far away as India). No matter, we’ll be returning and meanwhile I saw enough in the old town to keep me content.

I started by heading for one of the town’s highest points, the Belfry or ‘Beffroi de Millau’, not least because it is adjacent to the local tourist office and I figured they were best qualified to help me maximise my short time in the town. The tourist office informed me that visitors could ascend the tower except it was currently closed for renovation. They provided some background information on the town, starting with the Belfry (which is all that remains of a 12th century palace built by the Kings of Aragon) and then directed me towards some of the town’s more impressive monuments; churches mostly and various other historical points of interest. I’ll leave the photos to do the talking…

I visited a number of the larger churches but would comment on just two. The first of these was the Eglise du Sacre Coeur. Built in a Neo-Roman Byzantine style in the late 19th century and having two bell towers, it’s outside is more impressive than the inside. It’s one of the newer churches in Millau.

The Eglise Notre Dame de l’Espinasse is definitely the most interesting of all the churches I saw in Millau. It has history and some wonderful frescoes inside. The existing church was built in the 17th century although there has been an Eglise Notre Dame de L’Espinasse on this site (now the Place Marechal Foch) since the 11th century. The original church and contents (including a thorn supposedly taken from the crown worn by Jesus at his crucifixion and from which the church got it’s name) were completely destroyed during the Wars of Religion in the second half of the 16th century.

In contrast to the Millau Sacre Coeur, it is the inside of the Eglise Notre Dame which is the more impressive, not least because of Jean Bernard’s paintings which cover the apse ceiling.

Other historical points of interest in the town include the Lavoir de L’Ayrolle (a washhouse built during the 1740’s on the orders of Louis XV); the Fontaine du Moyen Age (known now as the Fontaine Basse, this has been a source of clear water for the town since at least the 14th century) and; Les Halles Millau (built near the Sacre Coeur church in the 19th century, during La Belle Epoque, this bustling covered food market is open every day except Mondays).

It is perhaps appropriate to mention here that there is a Farmers Market in the Old Town every Wednesday and at weekends in the area of the Eglise Notre Dame. Regional delicacies in the Aveyrone that are always available in the market include the local Roquefort blue cheese (aged in the nearby limestone caves), aligot (a creamy mixture of mashed potato and cheese), fouace (a sweet bread often enjoyed at breakfast) and echaude (an aniseed flavoured biscuit).

One last historical point of interest in Millau is it’s old grain mill (Moulin Vieux) on the town’s old bridge (Pont Vieux). There’s been a working mill on the Vieux Pont since the 12th century, even after most of the bridge was washed away by floods. The mill finally ceased working when the owners were declared bankrupt in 1937. I’m not sure what purpose the building serves now. I was unable to gain entry.

After dinner and a further wander around the old town with Vanya and the dogs we simply sat outside the Cafe Tout Va Bien on Boulevard de Bonald and watched the world go by over a couple of drinks. It was as chill a moment as you can get.

We’ll have to return for a few days when next in France. There’s plenty more to experience in Millau and the surrounding area. I’m thinking in particular of the two of Aveyron’s ten ‘plus beaux villages de France’ which are close by (Montpellier le Vieux and Peyre) and I missed out this time on Roquefort sur Soulzon (for it’s cheese). There’s also the Maison des Vautours Visitor Centre (to observe local vultures) and the Via Ferrata du Boffi (a rather interesting looking cliff-side walkway). Most important are some of the other local foodstuffs which I have yet to sample. I’m thinking of Veyreau Honey, Paulhe Cherries and Truffles at the Maison de la Truffe in Compregnac.

Roses (Catalonia), Spain October 2023 (Tour 8)

We decided to drive to Spain for the day from Banyuls sur Mer, taking the D914 coast road to the Franco-Spanish border. From there, well… we were intent on having a pintxos lunch so, almost any town or village in Spain would do. We’d follow the N260 in Spain and make our mind up as to the final destination en route. This trip was as much about the coast road as the pintxos.

The coast road to the border was everything it promised to be. It is a slow route because of it’s many curves and hairpin bends but, except for a handful of motorbikes, it was surprisingly quiet and offered exceptional views along the Catalan coast. The route took us through Cerbere and then up through a series of interesting rock formations to the Belitres Pass and into Spain.

The border is marked on the French side of the Pass by a long abandoned customs post which is now almost completely covered in graffiti and; on the Spanish side of the Pass by the Retirada Memorial, erected in 2009.

The Retirada (the Memorial del Exilio del Paso de Belitres to use it’s correct name) is a pictorial representation by Columbian artist Manuel Moros of the suffering of hundreds of thousands of republican refugees fleeing Spain for France as General Franco’s armies descended on Barcelona towards the end of the Spanish Civil War. And it didn’t end there; a year later, in 1940, this same Pass was used by refugees crossing the other way, from France to Spain, while fleeing from Nazi Germany. I suspect a fair few of those who left Spain in 1939 were amongst those who were compelled to return in 1940. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place. Whatever, the photographs on the memorial capture the anguish and despair of the refugees. It’s a sobering memorial.

Once across the border and into Spain the road became the N260. This led us down through Portbou and then two other little fishing villages, Colera and Llanca.

Don’t ask me how it happened but, we soon found ourselves parked up in a place called Empuriabrava. Don’t go there! Reclaimed from swampland by some German entrepreneurs during the late 1960’s, Empuriabrava is a purpose built tourist resort of some 8,000 people (rising to an incredible 80,000 in the summer months). It is built around what I am advised is Europe’s largest residential marina, with some 40 kilometres of canals and more than 5,000 boat moorings. “Naff” is possibly the word that best describes the place. There is nothing about it that is remotely Spanish, let alone Catalonian, and from what little we saw (we couldn’t get out of there quick enough) it appeared to be populated largely by Russians. Vanya likened the place to an ill thought out and awful imitation of Port Grimaud. I thought she was being kind.

And so it was that we arrived in Roses. In a facebook entry on the day we arrived, I described Roses as being to Spanish beach resorts what Waitrose is to supermarkets (i.e tasty) but, looking back, any Spanish beach resort with any authenticity about it would prove tasty compared to Empuriabrava … but that shouldn’t detract from Roses.

In common with most towns and villages on the Costa Brava, Roses was a fishing town. It still has the largest fishing fleet on the Costa Brava but is now unashamedly a tourist town and probably one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Costa Brava. What sets it apart from so many other places on the Costas and what I like about the place is that it is not in the least tacky. The words fashionable and chic spring to mind (but, we are out of season). Moreover, it sits on the northern tip of Roses Gulf and is the only beach resort on the Costa Brava that faces west (which, if nothing else, will make for some great sunsets).

We parked the Van in the south of the town on a wide boulevard in the modern residential area of Santa Margarida and then, with the wide sandy beach and calm turquoise sea to our right, we strolled along the promenade towards the town centre.

Hotels, restaurants, cafe-bars and sculptures line the promenade all the way to the old fishing port. At it’s centre there is little left of the original village; just more hotels and restaurants, large apartment blocks, shops and boutiques and the odd monument and; on Sunday mornings a farmers market with 200+ stalls. There’s no doubt about it; Roses’s focus is towards it’s high quality blue star beaches and there are plenty of them.

Those nearest the town centre (the Platja Nova, the Rastrell and the Salatar) are wide family friendly beaches with fine sand and clear shallow waters and they are very popular during the high season; as is the beach just to the north of the harbour (Platja La Punta). Beyond that and accessible by car and local transport are the smaller, quieter but no less welcoming beaches of Platja Palangres, the Canyelles Petites and the Canyelles Grosses (also known as Platja Almadrava). They too offer golden sands and shallow waters and they tend to be frequented by local families in the summer. Further north, some 7 kilometres from Roses and on the edge of Cap de Creus National Park, is Montjoi Creek (where the world famous triple Michelin Star restaurant ‘El Bulli’ used to be located), Joncols Creek and Cala del Canadel. The sand on these particular beaches is darker and mixed with flat stones but the water is clearer still. Finally, there are numerous other small secluded beaches deeper inside the National Park (Cala Calitjas Creek and Cala Rostella being two of the larger better known ones) but these are stony and rocky and not so accessible and the water at Cala Rostella is considerably deeper. To reach them they require a bit of walking (unless you access them from the sea) and they tend to be the preserve of divers and nudists (or so I’m told).

Beach holidays don’t hold the same allure to Vanya and I as they used to (we can’t take the heat) but, going forward, I could be tempted to use Roses as a base from which to visit some of the surrounding countryside and especially the coastline although, it would have to be out of season. September and/or October would be as good a time as any. I think too that I could be tempted to charter a boat to better explore the coastline. Now there’s a thought.

After a short wander around the town, we set off back along the promenade to the Van, stopping at a beachfront restaurant on the way for pinxtos and a beer.

Oh. I mentioned the restaurant, El Bulli. It was owned by the Barcelona chef Ferran Adria and, until it’s closure in 2011, was one of the most famous restaurants in the world, holding 3 Michelin Stars from 1997 and being voted ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ 5 times in a row by Restaurant Magazine. Not once did El Bulli make a profit in the 27 years Adria was Head Chef but this is perhaps not surprising given they employed 40 chefs and had just 50 covers. It seems Adria’s focus was (is?) primarily towards avant-garde cooking; pushing boundaries and; creating new dishes with the whole menu being completely changed every year. Now that would have been a restaurant to visit.

We’ll return to Roses but for now, it’s back to Banyuls sur Mer and then north to the UK although; we still have a few days before having to catch our train back to Folkestone. It’s booked for Sunday 8 October.

Banyuls Sur Mer (Occitaine), France October 2023 (Tour 8)

And so to tiny Banyuls sur Mer in the foothills of the Pyrenees on the beautiful Vermillion Coast.

The Vermillion Coast (La Cote Vermeille in French) is a jagged shoreline, crammed with rocky coves and small stony beaches stretching some 50 miles from Argeles sur Mer through Collioure, Port Vendres, Banyuls and Cerbere (on the French side of the Pyrenees) to Port-Bou and then on almost to Cadaques (on the Spanish side). During an earlier tour we stayed at Collioure (one of my favourite places in France) and resolved at that time to return to the area and perhaps drive the narrow coast road across into Spain. That’s how it is that we came to be in Banyuls sur Mer.

Banyuls is a tiny picturesque town situated on the edge of a small bay, L’Anse du Fontaule, in the Gulf of Lion. It was a fishing port. It is now a tourist resort albeit, a fairly quiet one (especially out of season). A palm lined promenade, dotted with diverse sculptures (more about those later), curls south around the edge of the bay towards a small harbour. The beach is not one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s a mix of rough almost gritty sand and stone, so typical of beaches in mountainous areas, but it is clean and the water is almost crystal clear

George Orwell is said to have described Banyuls sur Mer as “a bore and a disappointment” but that was a long time ago when he was on his way back from the Spanish Civil War. The fact is, Banyuls doesn’t attract the large crowds that either Collioure or Argeles sur Mer does. It’s a little off the beaten track and doesn’t have the distractions of it’s larger neighbours but that is not to say it is boring and/or a disappointment. This is particularly true if you are into either the local wine (there are countless vineyards and wines to experience) or hiking (Banyuls marks the end of the GR10, an exhilarating 850 kilometre trek along the length of the Pyrenees). In fact, lovers of wine and walking can enjoy both at the same time in Banyuls by walking the ‘Cote Vermeille Wine Route’. That would be neither a bore nor a disappointment to me. I think ‘intoxicating’ is a more appropriate description.

Banyul’s doesn’t have the grand villas that so many French coastal towns are graced with and neither does it have such an abundance of colourful, flower bedecked fishermen’s cottages that certainly Collioure has but; it has plenty of sea front bars and restaurants from which to sit and watch the world go by and; there are even more on the Rue Saint Pierre which runs parallel with what I will call the Corniche (since I don’t know the name of the sea front road).

I’ve mentioned already that this is a famous wine producing area. It’s most renowned product is an unusual red fortified dessert wine known simply as ‘Banyuls’. Banyuls is made with a mix of grapes, never less than 50% Black Grenache (75% for the Grand Cru), which are left on the vine until they shrivel, like raisins. This helps to concentrate and intensify the deep fruit flavours. A particularly interesting feature used in the production of certain Banyuls (e.g. Banyuls Grand Cru Doux Paille) are the glass barrels known as “Dame Jeanne” or even “Bonbonnes”. They serve to ensure the wine is exposed to direct sunlight. When ready for consumption, Banyuls pairs exceptionally well with chocolate, be it a cake, a sauce or simply a strong bar of plain chocolate. The proof is in the pudding (Sorry, I couldn’t stop myself).

Of course, I had to try the local wines and in this regard I called in on one of the more prominent wineries (Cave L’Etoile), visiting first their beach hut bar (where better to sample wines?) and then their production centre and shop on Avenue De Puig Del Mas. And, yes, of course I bought a bottle or two.

I also mentioned previously that the promenade in Banyuls Sur Mer contains a number of sculptures. Three of them are the work of Aristide Maillol, sculptor and painter who was born, lived and died in the town (1861 to 1944). He was a friend of Matisse and Derrain (whom I wrote about in my blog on Collioure) but also Picasso, Dali and, not forgetting, Dina Vierny (muse, model, avid art collector, museum director and member of the French resistance during WW2). Amongst other things, Dina Vierny was instrument in establishing the Maillol Museum in Banyuls.

I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Banyuls sur Mer. We stayed two or three nights and in keeping with the promise we made when last visiting the Cote Vermeille we used one of the days to travel the coast road down into Spain (visiting the pretty little town of Roses). The journey was everything I hoped it would be but that’s the subject of the next blog. I cannot finish this entry without writing something about the food.

We tried a couple of restaurants on the seafront but the one we enjoyed the most was La Table de Jordi. The service was first class, the wine was good (from Collioure) and, for the most part the fish was very good. My only disappointment was with the oysters (skinny, flat ones) but the rest of the food… the sea bass, monkfish, mussels and langoustines were superb.

Roses next.

Marseillan (Occitaine), France September 2023 (Tour 8)

We were on our way to Banyuls Sur Mer down near the Spanish border but, after just a couple of hours driving, we thought to stop at Marseillan Plage for what remained of the day and the night. It was a warm sunny day and the idea of spending some time by the sea appealed to both of us and; besides, we were in the former administrative region of Languedoc Roussillon where one of our favourite white wines is produced – Picpoul de Pinet.

Marseillan Plage is Marseillan’s beach resort area on the Mediterranean coast. We found a suitable campsite right on the beach. What I didn’t realise until we were parked up and I was already walking towards the town is just how far the beach is from the town. Marseillan Plage sits on the south side of a long thin strip of land which separates the Mediterranean Sea from the Etang Thau saltwater lagoon and the town of Marseillan sits on the opposite bank of the Etang Thau near the eastern end of the Canal du Midi. They are more than 5 miles apart which meant I was in for a 10 plus mile hike even without allowing for a wander of the town. Oh well, best get on with it.

It was an arduous walk, made worse by the 32 degree heat but it was worth it. The first part of the walk took me across and along the very southern (eastern) end of the Canal du Midi. This canal connects the River Garonne (which flows into the Atlantic Ocean) to the Etang Thau (opens on to the Mediterranean Sea). That’s an incredible 240 kilometres. The canal has featured in this website before; so, I’ll not risk repeating myself here. It will suffice to say that by any standards it is a fantastic feat of engineering and, even more so, when you take into account it first opened in 1681; that’s during the reign of Louis XIV.

One interesting fact I will share with you about this part of the world (and which pleased me as I returned to the Van later that evening) is that, the local authorities have eliminated all mosquitoes in the area and residents are required by law to report any return of the bloodsuckers. That’s another amazing feat given how marshy this area is.

Upon entering Marseillan I made directly for the harbour area. It’s not a large harbour and the trading and fishing industries which once dominated have for the most part given way to tourism but, having said that, the place is not overly commercialised. Fishing remains big business – the area is justifiably famous for it’s oyster and mussel farms and the lagoon still teams with sea bass, bream, mullet and eels. Trading along the Canal du Midi is not what it was (improved roads and heavy goods vehicles have seen to that) but there’s still a fair amount of river traffic (leisure boats mostly) which use the canal and take advantage of the facilities that Marseillan still offers. It’s that river traffic which continues to ensure the little town’s quays are lined with sufficient cafe-bars and restaurants.

The centre of the old town hasn’t changed much at all in the last 200 years. Some of the old wine warehouses down by the lagoon have been converted into apartment blocks (holiday-lets for the most part, I suspect) and what little remained of the old fort and it’s walls have long gone but, the 13th century covered market, the 17th century church of St John The Baptist and the old merchant’s houses and smaller fishermen’s cottages are all much as was.

We arrived out of season and there was little sign of tourism. A number of the cafe-restaurants down by the quay were open but it would have been easy getting a table. Indeed, the whole area was quiet and peaceful; very relaxing.

One of the most prominent buildings down by the port is La Maison Noilly Prat where the famous vermouth is produced. Using a mix of the local Picpoul de Pinet and Clairette grapes, Noilly Prat produces 4 different vermouths (Original Dry, Extra Dry, Rouge and Ambre). In case you are unaware, vermouth is a type of aromatised wine macerated with spices which can be drunk on it’s own (and is not unlike a dry Madeira to taste) or it can be mixed with gin or vodka to make Martini. It is the Original Dry Vermouth which is used to mix Martini.

It goes without saying that I bought a bottle of the Traditional Dry but, I also bought a bottle of Grey Goose Vodka – anyone for a Vodka Martini? I didn’t know until visiting the distillery that Noilly Prat, together with Grey Goose, Bombay Sapphire Gin, Dewars Whisky and Patron Tequila (to name but a few) are part of the Bacardi Group.

By the way, La Maison Noilly Prat suggest the perfect Vodka Martini should be made using 60ml vodka, one tablespoon of Original Dry Vermouth and an olive or lemon peel to garnish. The process, they advise, is firstly, to stir the vodka with the vermouth and; secondly, the alcoholic mix should be combined with ice in a cocktail mixer and; thirdly, the resulting liquid should be strained into a chilled martini glass and; finally, the liquid should be served with the preferred garnish. Sounds easy in theory, doesn’t it?

Of course, it would be inappropriate to write about Marseillan and not mention a little more about the seafood.

If the truth be told, I goofed up during my visit by not finding time to visit Coqui Thau which is just up the road from Marseillan. Unfortunately, I heard about the company only after my return to the UK. The fact is, the calm salty water of the Etang Thau is ideal for farming oysters and mussels and that, primarily, is what Coqui Thau do. Moreover, they offer tours and tasting sessions. I’ve eaten and enjoyed countless oysters from all around the world but I know absolutely nothing about farming them. That will have to be put right when I’m next down in Marseillan.

So, I spent most of the day in Marseillan and then Vanya and I spent the evening and night in Marseillan Plage. Marseillan Plage does little for us but we did find an inexpensive bar in which to spend the evening where the Picpoul was good and the locals were very welcoming. Moreover, we were well placed to let the dogs enjoy a swim the next day before headed off to Banyuls Sur Mer.

Saint Remy de Provence (Provence), France September 2023 (Tour 8)

Vanya and I were eager to return to Saint Remy de Provence, capital of the Alpilles. We had each enjoyed our first visit to the town earlier in the year (Tour 7) and were more than happy to be going back. The small town ranks amongst our favourite in France and if ever I were to move from England, it would in all likelihood be to Saint Remy. Once again, because of it’s close proximity to the old town, we opted to stay at Camping Pegomas.

I wrote a fairly comprehensive blog about Saint Remy earlier this year and will endeavour not to repeat here everything that I wrote about the town previously. Certainly, I will steer clear of things ‘to see and do’. You can find out about such things by reading my first blog (use the search engine on this site to find the earlier entry on Saint Remy and… hey, presto). No, we were here this time not to explore but to simply immerse ourselves in the beauty and lifestyle that is Saint Remy. On this occasion we weren’t even inclined to visit ‘must see’ places in the area that we had previously promised to return to. They would have to wait until our next visit. This was going to be about ‘chill time’.

And so it proved. It was enough to simply walk the wholly pedestrianised old town streets and sit outside in the sunshine with a bottle of Alpilles wine and watch the world go by. There follows, a few photos that capture the essence of this visit, starting with the wonderful street scenes…

Of course, Vanya being Vanya, there is always time to mooch around some of the shops…

Strolling through Place Favier we noticed the ‘Lou Planet’ (a creperie we had eaten at previously) was closed but, just seeing the place again awakened taste buds that screamed for a galette. I’m pleased to say there’s no shortage of creperies in Saint Remy de Provence and we very soon found another where we each ordered a galette holding the freshest of scallops.

That was it. Sitting outside in the warm sunshine with a galette and a bottle of chilled wine (a dry white Mas Sainte Berthe produced in the Alpilles) and we were at peace with the world. We sat for quite a while. Well, Vanya insisted upon a cream and chocolate filled crepe for dessert and I was prepared to make do with a little more wine while she finished her repast. Life was and is good.

During our previous visit I was unable to get inside the local church, the Collegiate Church of Saint Martin. The original church built in 1122 was extended and embellished when Pope Jean XXII (that one I mentioned in the Monteux post earlier in this tour) transformed the original place of worship into a collegiate church (I believe a collegiate church is a cathedral without any bishop) although, there’s not a lot left of even that church. Much of it collapsed and had to be rebuilt in the 19th century; hence it’s current largely neo-classical style.

I made it inside the church this time. There’s a particularly impressive organ inside and I understand that organ recitals take place quite often during the summer months at no cost to the public. There was no recital during my visit and I didn’t therefore stay very long. One unusual feature of the church is the altar in a small side chapel which is surrounded by a large block of the local Alpilles rock.

This visit this time was short and sweet and about ‘chilling’. I didn’t therefore revisit the Roman town of Glanum and neither did I resume the Van Gogh trail which I started during Tour 7 but, I leave you with a couple of photos that I took during our last visit. The first is of the Triumphal Arch and the Mausoleum of the Julii (from Glanum) and the second is a reproduction of my favourite Van Gogh painting (Irises) which he painted while in Saint Remy.

I suspect that we will be back in Saint Remy next year but, in the meantime, we are heading further west. We want to buy some wine from down near Collioure before we return to England.