Montreuil sur Mer (Hauts de France), France March 2022

On this particular tour, we may well have saved the best for last. I don’t know how often our route into and out of of France has taken us along the Opal Coast and straight past the flourishing little town of Montreuil sur Mer (M sur M) but, henceforth, I suspect we will be stopping here again and again. M sur M is a small wholly authentic French town unlike so many others in this particular region of France which all too often resemble home county towns on the other side of the English Channel. Except for the fact it is no longer “sur la mer” (the Canche estuary silted up almost 500 years ago leaving the town some 12 kilometres from the coast) we both loved everything about the place.

We parked up at Camping La Fontaine des Clercs, a comfortable municipal site to the south east of the town just outside the old town ramparts. From there it is an easy 20 minute walk to the town centre although it took me an additional 45 minutes after I chose to walk a part of the ramparts which almost completely enclose the old town. It was a fine walk with pleasing panoramic views over the surrounding countryside. Vanya didn’t come along but, instead, charged me with finding a decent restaurant for the evening.

Later that evening, Vanya did accompany me into the town. We passed through an old brick portal, totally avoiding the ramparts (Vanya simply doesn’t do heights), and up through a series of short cobbled streets and alleys to the town’s principal square, the Place General de Gaulle. One of the streets, Rue Clape en Bas, features a series of workmens cottages which date back to the 16th century but you only have to look at the dates engraved above the front doors elsewhere in the town to realise that almost all of it dates back to anything between 200 and 400 years ago. Vanya was as impressed as I with the place.

Place General de Gaulle is a wide open space mostly given over to car parking except on Saturdays when the local market is held. This space is ringed by bar-restaurants, small arts and craft shops, patisseries, chocolateries and a particularly impressive fromagerie (Fromagerie Caseus) holding an amazing choice of more than 150 different cheeses.

Once a year, on Bastille Day, Place General de Gaulle is wholly given over to a huge Antiques Fair. The square is also home to a statue of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig. There’s not many of those around the world! Posters around the town serve to inform that M sur M was Haig’s GHQ during WW1. The statue was erected in 1931 but had to be completely rebuilt after being used for target practise by occupying German soldiers during WW2.

Not far from the Place General de Gaulle on the Place Gambetta is the Abbey Church of Saint Saulve. Originally a 12th century church but almost completely rebuilt in the 16th century it is a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and the inside is seriously impressive. The church holds one of the finest collections of sacred art across the north of France and, also, the relics of Saint Austreberthe who was famed for her visions and miracles.

There have been many illustrious visitors to Montreuil sur Mer but none more so than Victor Hugo, the famous poet, novelist and dramatist and perhaps the most important of France’s romantic writers. He became a frequent visitor to M sur M after first visiting the town in 1837 with his mistress and the town and some of its inhabitants became the inspiration behind his great historical novel “Les Miserables”. Hugo refers to the town as M sur M in his novel and the town became the home to the books principal hero Jean Valjean. Many characters in the novel were based on people Hugo met when he visited the town. He stayed at the Hotel de France (you can overnight in the same room he used) and the then Innkeeper and a barmaid were real life models for the characters of Monsieur Thenardier (the Innkeeper) and his wife. The characters of Fantine and her daughter Cosette too were based on people he met in the town.

Much of the old town including the Hotel de France look precisely as it did when Hugo used to visit and parts of it, especially on the street of ‘La Cavee Saint Firmin’, featured in the 1925 film version of Les Miserables. Every year at the end of July/early August some 500+ of the town’s 2,100 population put on an outdoor Son et Lumiere (sound and light) show of Les Miserables.

There are a number of fine restaurants in M sur M, the Chateau de Montreuil (with it’s Roux protege Christian Germain) being perhaps the most famous but there are several others listed in one or both of the Michelin Guide and the Gault & Millau French Restaurant Guide. Alexander Gauthier, voted France’s greatest chef just a few years ago, has three restaurants in the town including the two Michelin Star “La Grenouilliere”. La Grenouilliere was closed during our visit but at late notice and with our dogs accompanying us we obtained a table in a sister restaurant – ‘Anecdote’. Anecdote opened in 2015 in what was part of the old Hotel-Dieu hospital and it features the signature recipes of Gauthier’s father, also a Michelin Star chef. Vanya and I will each testify that the food and wine was fantastic (as was the service).

What a find!

Sully sur Loire (Loiret), France March 2022

From Chateauroux we allowed ourselves just two more nights in France before catching the eurostar back to the UK on 3 March. The first of these two nights was to be spent parked up in the front garden of a National Dog Trainer just to the north of Chartres in the hamlet of Bercheres Saint Germain (Don’t ask me how Vanya found that one!) but before then there was sufficient time to visit Sully sur Loire.

Sully sur Loire is a small pretty town in the Centre-Loire Valley. It’s most interesting feature is the picturesque Chateau de Sully sur Loire; a medieval castle with battlements, an impressive moat and fairytale conical towers. Now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage site this was a functioning castle in every sense of the word and it is steeped in history. Joan of Arc was briefly detained there after failing to liberate Paris (she escaped only to be captured by Burgundian Lords and was then executed); Anne of Austria and her young son, the future Louis XIV, stayed for a while together with the Cardinal Mazarin (rumoured to be the Queen Regent’s lover) and; last but not least, the 18th century philosopher Voltaire stayed over on at least two occasions.

Built in the 13th century, the first Dukes de Sulley took the castle on during the 14th century and it remained with that family until 1962 when the Loire Department purchased it and made good the damage caused during the French Revolution and a seriously bad 1918 fire. As stated above, it is now a museum and a most impressive building.

We had sufficient time in Sully to both walk the chateau grounds and grab a bite to eat in a local cafe bar but then it was onwards and upwards towards Chartres and the small village of Bercheres Saint Germain and the house of our national dog trainer, the lovely Floriane Moliere.

Chateauroux (Inde), France February 2022

We stopped in Chateauroux on the way south a few weeks ago and enjoyed our stay so much that we decided to return for a couple of days. This would give us the chance to get the dogs seen by a local vet (for tape worm medication as required by the UK authorities) but, perhaps more important, it would enable us to stock up on some of the white Reuilly wine that we so enjoyed during our last stay.

Unfortunuately the return trip didn’t go quite as smoothly as we had hoped. Yes we arrived safely at Camping La Belle Isle in the centre of Chateauroux (and we quickly found the Vet’s surgery just around the corner from where we parked the Van) and, yes, we quickly found the bar at which we discovered the Reuilly but, the bar was closed both on the Sunday that we arrived and on the following day. Indeed most of the town was closed for the Sunday and Monday (and this included the Sports Bar I had used previously).

This misfortune resulted in me having to walk many miles to obtain the Reuilly. I ended up walking a wine triangle (a) 3 kms from our campsite on La Belle Isle to the E Leclerc Hypermarket followed by (b) a second 3km leg to the Carrefour Supermarket and then (c) a third 3km walk back to the Van. The good news was that the Reuilly selection at Leclerc was sufficient to justify driving the Van there and stocking up as we left Chateauroux.

I really didn’t mind the walk around Chateauroux. It allowed me to see more of the place. Amongst other things I took time to look inside both the Eglise Notre Dame de Chateauroux and the Eglise St Christophe on Rue des Fontaines…

…and justified my stopping at La Ginguiette (bar) on La Belle Isle to enjoy a couple of glasses of Reuilly while the sun went down.

Rochefoucauld (Charente), France February 2022

Our next proper stop was to be in Chateauroux (such that we could both obtain the necessary paperwork to take the dogs back into England and stock up on some of the Reuilly wine that we so enjoyed on our way down through France) but just an hour or so down the road we paused at Rochefoucauld.

A small town of just 3,000 people, Rochefoucauld is best known for it’s Chateau overlooking the Tardoire River but there are a couple of other fairly interesting historic buildings in the town (including the Carmelite Convent and the Notre Dame de l’Assomption Collegiate Church) and it has a very pretty centre.

We left the Van on a small parking lot by the river, between the chateau and the town centre and went for a brief wander.

We started with the Chateau, some parts of which date back to the 10th century although; the place was considerably enlarged at different times between the 15th and 18th centuries. Throughout, it has been owned by the Rochfoucauld family and some of the family still live there. The chateau was open to visitors as we arrived but at 10 euros per person entrance fee and with only an hour to go before our lunch reservation we restricted ourselves to the gardens.

The small town of Rochefoucauld is a joy.

It was a bright sunny Sunday and at around midday there were plenty of locals sitting outside the various cafes and bars, engaging in conversation, sharing glasses of wine, watching the world go by and generally letting things happen.

And on to the Au Moulin restaurant. It was empty as we arrived but within minutes of our settling down and placing our order the place was packed… and small wonder; the food, the house wine and the service was excellent. The wine was a Bordeaux Blanc Sec, Chateau du Grand Plantier and it was for pennies!

Of course, something had to go wrong and it did. I’ll not go into too much detail as to what happened but, Vanya took the dogs back to the Van while I went to get the bill and all three of my debit/credit cards were declined. Talk about embarrassed! I had to run after Vanya and get one of her cards. It seems one of my cards was relatively new and had not been activated and I had used the wrong pin numbers for the others – three times on each card!! It was a very good wine but I didn’t think I had drunk that much.

Montguyon (Aquitaine), France February 2022

And so by 26 February the journey home was well and truly under way.

We were booked to travel through the tunnel to England on 3 March and that gave us a generous 5 days to get through France to Calais although, we intended stopping in Chateauroux for a couple of days to get the dogs cleared for travel back into the UK and to stock up on some of that lovely Reuilly wine we had sampled on the way down through France.

Leaving Zarautz we crossed the border and drove some 200 miles into France. We stopped for the night a little way past Montguyon at a small, quiet site in Le Fouilloux.

There is little of interest around Le Fouilloux but the campsite was pleasant enough and it is within an hours drive of one of the prettier small towns in the area, La Rochefoucauld, where we intended taking brunch the next morning.

And so it was…

Zaurutz (Basque Country), Spain February 2022

It was Friday 25 February when we arrived at Zaurutz just 17 miles due west of San Sebastian in the Basque Country. It is 27 March as I write this blog.

It is ironic that we were heading back to England from Spain in such a hurry only because Vanya had a Spanish lesson in Brighton on Thursday 3 March (and we had a place booked on the chunnel train). Crazy or what?!?

We stumbled on Gran Camping Zarautz but what a find! We could spend just the one night there but will certainly return. It’s a beautifully located campsite on Mount Talaimendi, overlooking the Bay of Zarautz, and within striking distance of the Spanish ports of Bilbao and Santander and, better still, the French border.

After a quick look around the campsite (which is one of the best we have stayed at in Spain) I reserved a table in the bar restaurant for that evening and then set off on the path down to the town. They site has a proper restaurant above the bar but we wanted the dogs with us and, anyway, all the food is prepared in the same kitchen.

Zarautz was quiet but it is February and neither the town nor the beach with all its facilities will be fully open until Easter. There was however enough to keep me busy for some three hours. If the truth be known, I could have sat and watched the waves for all that time.

I got back to the Van in good time to try the local, seriously strong, txakoli wine and some cider and then call Vanya for dinner.

The food was excellent. Vanya and I shared a whole Monkfish caught earlier that day and I consider it to be the best food of any of our tours to date. I suspect I enjoyed it most because I ate more than my fair share of the monkfish cheeks. Why on earth restaurants tend to serve Monkfish tails and no head is wholly beyond me. I suspect it is to do with cost. The cheeks taste fabulous.

The next day we crossed the border back into France.

Burgos (Castilla y Leon), Spain February 2022

It is 27 March as I write this entry. We arrived in Burgos on 24 February and so I still have a fair amount of catching up to do with the blog. Sorry, not least because this tardiness makes for very much abridged blogs.

Some places are always worth returning to and Burgos is just such a place. We stopped here for a couple of days during July last year, while the 800th anniversary of the building of the Santa Maria Cathedral was being celebrated, and we had a fantastic time. Moreover, we saw a great deal of the city.

The 2022 visit was always going to be a much shorter affair; just the one night. We parked up at the Municipal Camp Site and in the early evening set off along the banks of the Arlanzon towards the city.

The path by the river makes for an easy and interesting four kilometre walk into the city, passing as it does a significant number of landmarks (including the Museum of Human Evolution, the Puenta de San Pablo, the statue of El Cid, the Paseo del Espolon, the Arco de Santa Maria, etc) but I talked about those and other places of interest in the July 2021 blog. This time we were simply out for a pleasant evening walk to a decent cafe-bar. We were satisfied on both counts.

And after, just the 4 kilometre walk back to the Van and an early start towards the coast (Zarautz) in the Basque Country.

Caceres (Extremadura), Spain February 2022

Still more than a month behind with the blog. We arrived in Caceres on 22 February and as I type this blog it is 27 March.

Caceres has much going for it and is now listed among my favourite Spanish towns. We stopped just outside the town at Camping Caceres near the old football ground, Estadio Principe Felipe. At first glance Camping Caceres appears a fairly basic site in a somewhat remote location but, no, it offers everything we require (most especially a popular bar restaurant) and; each plot has it’s own bathroom/toilet and; while the city is a fair walk away, it’s a pleasant walk through and around a series of olive groves.

Vanya elected to stay with the Van and catch up on some Spanish homework which was set by Varndean College before we left England. I left her to it. I exercised the dogs and then set off on a further 10 mile walk to from and around Caceres.

Caceres is a sizeable town by any standards. It is a university town with some 90,000+ inhabitants and split into two very distinct parts, the new town and the old town. Except for Plaza Mayor, which is filled with lively bars and restaurants (and perfect for people watching), the new town does little for me but the old town is special.

I sat for a while outside a bar on Plaza Mayor with a glass of the local wine and planned my route around the old town. Also known as Monument City, Caceres is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in Spain and in 1986 was the first city in Spain to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It comprises a mix of early Middle Ages and Renaissance buildings all enclosed within ancient Roman and/or Moorish stone walls and it is full of character and very pretty.

Entering La Ciudad Monumental from Plaza Mayor through the Arco de la Estrella is like being transported back in time. As you walk the narrow cobbled lanes between the palaces, mansions and churches there is no sign of anything modern in the old town. Little wonder that the place has featured in countless historical dramas (and, more recently, in Game of Thrones although I’m thinking that almost everywhere worth visiting has featured in Game of Thrones).

My earlier route planning went to pot the moment I entered the old town. It’s a captivating tangle of cobbled streets, small squares and palatial buildings. You go where the fancy takes you and all the better if you end up retracing your steps. You’ll see things you missed the first time around.

This particular blog would stretch into pages if I were to wax lyrical about all of the buildings I visited during my time in Caceres so, I’ll focus on just two of the more interesting places namely, the Santa Maria Cathedral and the Palace de los Golfines de Abajo.

Built as a church fortress, the outside of the Santa Maria looks a very modest 15th century gothic cathedral (with just a small statue of San Pedro de Alcantata outside to set it apart from countless other large medieval buildings in the city) but inside, it is something else. It has three naves each of which hold some wonderful pieces of romanesque art (including a crucifix with a black Christ) but the most remarkable is the central nave with it’s 16th century cedar altarpiece sculpted by Roque Balduque. It is breathtakingly beautiful. The cathedral has many other interesting features, including flagstones depicting the coats of arms of the region’s most influential families and a small museum of religious artifacts both of which I paused to admire but, it was my visit (up the spiral staircase) to the bell tower and it’s amazing panoramic views over the old town that really caught my attention.

The Palace de los Golfines de Abajo is the largest and most impressive of the city’s palaces. It was built piecemeal between the 14th and 20th centuries and has long been home to the Golfin family. I visited Caceres out of season and so couldn’t join one the theatrical guided tours which are supposedly quite enthralling but it was still worth going inside. The palace is crammed with historical treasures.

One place I missed during our visit to Caceres is the Cave of Maltravieso which can be found at the edge of the town. Caceres was developed by the Romans at much the same time as they built Merida in 25BC but, there is evidence of ‘human’ life in the area some 350,000 years before then. The Cave holds many ancient painting/stencils dating back to Neanderthal times.

Merida (Extremadura), Spain February 2022

Apologies, once again. It is 21 March now and it is just over a month ago that we visited Merida. I’m well behind with this blog.

With some 40,000 inhabitants the city of Merida is the capital of Extremadura but, putting it politely, I thought it a rather underwhelming little city UNTIL we stumbled across some of it’s Roman monuments. Wow! They are everywhere. The city hosts an extensive and seriously impressive collection of Roman ruins (some of them in remarkable condition). This is without a doubt one of Spain’s largest archaeological sites and the perfect destination for anyone interested in Roman history. It came as no surprise to learn it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Founded in 25 BC as Augusta Emirita the city grew to become capital of the Roman Province of Lusitania and, with some 90,000 inhabitants, the largest Roman town across the Iberian Peninsula. After the decline of the Romans came the Visigoths (although there is little in the city to mark their presence) and then the Moors who occupied the place for more than 500 years and themselves left a small legacy.

We parked up near the town centre and made our way through some of Merida’s narrower streets (almost all of which are lined with orange trees) towards the town’s main square, the Plaza de Espana. Almost immediately we were passing some quite fantastic Roman monuments. Vanya doesn’t have the same interest as I do in such things and, after a short wander around the main square (pausing only buy a new handbag) she returned to the Van with the dogs leaving me to explore some of the city’s more interesting sights (or should I say sites?).

For my part, the most spectacular of all the surviving monuments is the Roman Theatre constructed between 16 BC and 15BC by order of the Consul (and great friend of Emperor Augustus) Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. This is one of the best preserved Roman theatres in the world. Built to accommodate 6,000 people, the theatre is the pride of Merida and regularly hosts dramatic and musical events, including the annual International Classical Theatre Festival.

Behind the theatre is the city’s amphitheatre (arena) which could accommodate up to 15,000 people and the Casa del Anfiteatro with it’s colourful mosaic floors and murals.

Merida is a trove of Roman buildings and monuments. I didn’t have time to visit all of them but the Los Milagros Aqueduct (one of three aqueducts built to ensure a regular supply of water but which is now home to countless roosting storks), the recently pedestrianised Puento Romano Bridge across the Guadiana River, the Temple of Diana and the House of Mitreo (one of the largest Roman houses to be found anywhere in Europe) all deserved a visit.

There is also a Hippodrome or Circus to be seen and there’s the Roman Forum and various Roman Dams (just outside the city) but, they must all wait until a next visit as does the Moorish Castle of Alcazaba and the 13th century Basilica of Santa Eulalia. The list goes on but we were bound for Caceres next.

Gibraltar February 2022

Visited Gibraltar on 21 February but only now (21 March) able to post this short blog.

We wanted to visit Gibraltar last year but the very hot August weather in 2021 forced us back to the cooler north of Spain.

With the temperature approaching 20 degrees centigrade and the sun shining, February is a much better time to visit Gibraltar. We parked the Van up at one of the two large car parks in La Linea de la Concepcion on the Spanish side of the border and, after getting our passports stamped, walked across the border (and the airport runway) into Gibraltar.

We stayed for lunch and a brief wander and were pleasantly surprised. Covering an area of just 4 square kilometres, Gibraltar isn’t very big but there’s plenty there to keep one busy for a couple of days. So much so that, we intend returning later in the year for a long weekend. An Easyjet fly from Gatwick should do the trick.

Linked to Spain by a narrow isthmus, Gibraltar (the Rock) has a population of more than 30,000 and has been a British Overseas Territory since 1713. The town lies on the west side of the peninsula within a stones throw of Spain and; while there are pubs selling English beer, a Marks & Spencer store, 1960’s style red pillar post boxes and telephone booths (and the shops accept sterling as readily as Euros and their own Gibraltar Pounds); it is not as anglicised as some would have you believe – not during winter, anyway. It has a character all of it’s own.

We started off on Main Street with it’s ‘tax free’ shopping and then wandered the length of Gibraltar to Europa Point before returning via Irish Town and a couple of small but pretty marinas and a beach or two on the west side of the Rock. We paused at Grand Casements Square for lunch and to soak up some of the midday sun.

We missed out on visiting the top of the rock (426 metres high) because Vanya wasn’t keen on walking up there and it is not possible to take large dogs up on the cable car (not that Vanya would ever get in a cable car anyway). A taxi driver offered to drive us to and from some of the more interesting sites and look after our dogs while we properly explored them but we weren’t too comfortable with this idea. We’d have worried about the dogs and rushed through everything. So next time no dogs and, no doubt, we’ll experience some fine views from the top of The Rock and the Windsor Suspension Bridge and the famous ‘Skywalk’. We’ll get a chance too to walk the Mediterranean Steps and some of the Great Siege Tunnels (more than 30 miles of caves and tunnels have been dug into the rock over the years) and visit Saint Michael’s Cave (which is used as a theatre now but was set up as a hospital during WWII). Then there’s the Upper Rock Nature Reserve and the famous bad tempered Barbary Apes, the Alameda Botanical Gardens, the Moorish Castle … Oh yes, there’s plenty to fill at least a long weekend.

And if you need more, there’s much to see in Spain (just a short walk away) or; a day trip to Tangier from nearby Tarifa (with Morocco just 15 miles away across the Gibraltar Straits).

Gibraltar is alright by me!