It is just 33 kms from Amboise to St Aignan where we had booked into a small campsite no more than a few minutes walk from the town. We approached from the north and the view as we crossed the River Cher into the town was of the Chateau de St Aignan. It towered over a line of riverfront properties and filled the van’s windscreen. That would be somewhere to visit in the morning.
We’d done very little research into St Aignan. We simply wanted somewhere to stay overnight that took us further south and was not too much of a drive from Amboise and Vanya reported that the local camp site read well. Having said all that and in hindsight, I think Vanya knew the ZooParc de Beauval, Europe’s fifth largest zoo with more than 35,000 animals, is close by and that will have influenced her thinking as she searched for somewhere to park up for the night. Ever felt had?
St Aignan is a small town in the Loir et Cher Department of the Centre-Val de Loire with a population of less than 3,000 and we weren’t expecting great things of the place; well, I wasn’t. The next two days saw us disappointed on two counts and well pleased on one. The disappointments: (a) we couldn’t visit the zoo because we had the dogs with us (and we weren’t going to leave them for the time it would take to properly explore the place) and (b) it was the final weekend of the school holidays in France and the camp site was packed with kids and far too busy for us. The one positive was that the beauty and character of St Aignan, and especially the Chateau, more than compensated for both disappointments. We each enjoyed St Aignan as much as Amboise.
My initial thoughts as we approached the Chateau early the next morning were that it looked a little tired and somewhat average (especially after Chenonceau) but when you get up close it oozes elegance and style and looks and feels so full of history – I was wholly thrilled by the place and I wanted to know everything about it. Unfortunately, this was not to be. The place is owned and lived in by the de la Roche Aymon family and for that reason we were allowed access only to the main courtyard and terraces but, hey, bless them for allowing that. The place blew me away.
I can’t tell you much about the Chateau except that there are three aspects to it. There’s the derelict Hagard Tower which is all that remains of the original 9th century fortress. Then there’s the Renaissance Chateau decorated with scallop shells and the salamander device of Francis I and it is this part of the Chateau which is most visible from the north and which towers over the town. This was home to the Dukes of Beauvilliers. The third aspect, which sits at the end of the stables, is the Octagonal Tower erected around 1830 by the Prince de Chalais.
Alongside the Chateau is an 11th/12th century Romanesque collegiate church dedicated to St Aignan. I am told it has a magnificent crypt containing 10th century murals but I was unable to gain access because the Sunday morning service was in full swing – next time.
Actually, Vanya and I had forgotten it was Sunday. This is a bad mistake to make in France because most cafes and restaurants seem to shut on Sundays and you generally need to book in advance; this is especially true in August. We could sit outside a bar and enjoy a couple of glasses of wine (which we did) but it would have been something like a two hour wait for food. We made do with cheese and biscuits back at the Boomobile.
We both like Amboise. It is a bit touristy and it was quite busy while we were there but it is steeped in history and well worth a few hours of anyone’s time. Because of the Chateau Royal d’Amboise and what remains of the old town it retains, I think, something of a medieval feel.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see as much of the town as we would have liked. I have long wanted to explore the Chateau Royal and what with doing that and then taking lunch at a small bistro alongside the Loire the time just flew.
People have been living on the site that is now Amboise for well over 2,000 years and there has been a fortress of some sort there for most of that time – certainly, there has been one since Roman times. It was in 1498, however, after fighting his wars in Italy and returning with a love of all things Italian, that the French King Charles VIII began to transform the typically dark defensive medieval fortress where he had been raised into a Renaissance masterpiece. This start was continued by others (notably Louis II and Francis I with Francis in particular excelling as he brought in various Renaissance Masters including Leonardo da Vinci to build on the earlier works) until the Chateau became a worthy palace for numerous Vallois and Bourbon kings. It is sad but, magnificent as it still seems, the Chateau is only a shadow of what it once was (because of destruction caused during the French Revolution and then again under German occupation in the Second World War).
Upon entering the Chateau one of the first sights to be seen is the Chapel of Saint Hubert which sits almost directly above the main entrance and has been described as “an absolute jewel” – it is! This is supposedly the final resting place of Leonardo da Vinci who spent the last years of his life and died in Amboise in 1519.
Put me on the walls of a castle and I am normally looking outwards for the best views. Not so in this case. The views along and inside the Chateau walls are truly superb and the restored gardens certainly do the place justice…
Although this is not to say that there aren’t some views outside the castle wall that are not also worth taking in…
I did a quick run around inside the Chateau (and I could talk for ages about some of the rooms which are in fitted and furnished in late Gothic style as well as Renaissance and; of course, I have made no mention yet of Francis II and his time at the Chateau with Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots – Vanya and I are almost obsessed with the Tudors & Stuarts) but I had to drag myself away to rejoin Vanya who was patiently waiting outside with our dogs.
There was just time left for us to take a short stroll around the pedestrian old town (well worth visiting with plenty of fine old houses and lovely cafes) and stop for lunch in a small bistro along the banks of the River Loire (which in case you don’t know officially separates the north and south of France and also marks the furthest point north reached by the Moors as they pushed up from Morocco into Europe) before we set off for our next port of call – Saint Aignan.
Drove south today, passing through Tours, to the small town of Montrichard sur Cher in the Centre-Val de Loire. We weren’t aiming for Montrichard; it was just that Vanya found a reasonable looking stopover in “Camping Couleurs du Monde” (next to a fair sized Carrefours, which provided an opportunity to stock up on a few luxury items such as basic foodstuffs and essentials such as Vanya’s newly found Cremont wine) and we elected to settle there for a couple of days and “just chill'”. What a great find!
I went exploring that first afternoon in Montrichard and two of the first places I stumbled upon were wineries, Domaine Merleau and Domaine Monmousseau. Time for some wine tasting but which to choose? Because it was 10 metres closer I did what any thirsty Englishman would do and chose the Domaine Merleau and… I did okay. Vanya would get her turn the next day.
That first evening in Montrichard was lazy. I ambled back to the Van – sorry the Boomobile – where Vanya had produced just the right meal to follow white wine tasting – a prawn starter with a chicken salad to follow. Then we sat and drank wine and put the world back into perspective.
The following morning was about properly checking out Montrichard and, especially, the local market which was in full swing that day. It isn’t a big market but you can get just about anything you want up to and including a double bed. The charcuterie stall was particularly appealing – loads of pork and boar! We took the dogs with us (the French seem to love dogs; witness the Michelin experience back in Normandy) and this time even Beanie was sufficiently well behaved that we were able to sit and enjoy coffee at the edge of the market and just watch the world go by.
One thing worth mentioning – As we sat down to enjoy the morning coffee in the market place, I ordered a cafe au lait while Vanya (forgetting that she is in France and not Italy) ordered a Latte and yet; when the waitress returns with our drinks, Vanya swears blind that the cafe au lait is hers and that it was me who ordered La The! To make matters worse La The was Earl Grey and I cannot stand the stuff!!
Vanya went for a short sleep that afternoon and I took the time to walk to and from the Chateau de Chenonceau (that’s about a 20 kilometre round trip) but because we had more wine tasting scheduled for that evening I didn’t have time to enter the Chateau itself.
The wine tasting was fun (we went back to the same place I visited the previous afternoon ) and we came away with another couple of cases of white wine. Then it was off to find a restaurant in the centre of the town for dinner. Sod’s law, the wine served with our dinner that evening was a Monmousseau and Vanya hasn’t yet stopped telling me how much more she prefers it than the stuff I made her try earlier in the day at the Domaine Merleau. No matter, we had a great time sitting outside on a warm summer’s evening, eating huge buckets of Moules and listening to old music covers by a local combo (and, yes, drinking the finest wine I have experienced on the tour so far including the Pouilly Fume).
Having successfully survived my first week in the Boomobile without any tears or tantrums (at least not from me but you should see Dave when he loses at Scrabble) I am actually looking forward to the next part of our journey. Dave has been quite chilled so far. I am sure that anybody who knows him will find this hard to believe.
The auspicious start stumbling upon and dining in a Michelin listed restaurant (despite being with the dogs and wearing t-shirts and shorts) went a long way to easing my initial fears – nothing to do with the Pouilly Fume of course.
On our second night Dave asked me to find a campsite north of Caen which I happily did. According to Dave it was so far north I could almost have waved at Ro in Portsmouth. He has since been more specific with his requests.
Next we started travelling further south to find some sun and escape storm Ellen which was battering Britain and we found a lovely place called Montrichard. A small medieval town on the River Cher with a couple of wineries. The one I wanted to visit, Monmousseau, Dave assured me was the inferior cellar and we should head to the one where he had already sampled some wines the previous day. Indeed the wine was pleasant but the fizzy bottle of Monmousseau we imbibed with our dinner that night was superior to any we had tried. In fact Dave had the lions share….. Speaking of wine, I have found the French equivalent of Spain’s Cava and Italy’s Prosecco which is called Cremant. It is produced by the same method as champagne and if it wasn’t for the Euro 4.99 price tag from Lidl then I would have thought it was indeed champagne. There are 8 regions that produce it and I am speedily working my way through each of them to find my favourite. So far it is Cremant de Limoux and I may have to make a slight detour to that winery – I have been put in charge of the satnav after all 🙂
We then headed to a campsite at a place called St Aignan stopping for a few hours on the way at Amboise. The Chateau Royal d’Amboise hosted Mary, Queen of Scots as a girl and it is somewhere I would have liked to explore (following my new found “lockdown” obsession of Tudor history) but unfortunately the dogs weren’t allowed in. St Aignan is a lovely medieval town, all cobbled streets and a slightly dilapidated but nonetheless beautiful chateau, which is still inhabited by descendants of the family that built it. We enjoyed a leisurely wander through the grounds and had a couple of glasses of wine in a nearby bar to watch the world go by. A perfect Sunday! There is a famous zoo nearby that I was keen to visit but again dogs weren’t allowed entry – next time.
What I have enjoyed so much about the van is the flexibility of just going where we want when we want. I was concerned that I would find it too claustrophobic but, unlike the UK, the weather has been consistently pleasant and we have sat outside every evening (I have won the last 4 games of Scrabble this week by the way). The campsites have all been very clean with good facilities although last Saturday there were rather a lot of children on our site. Next Saturday I will try and find us an adults only place, but not a naturist one despite Dave’s specific requirements.
We are currently moving further south (edging ever closer to the Limoux vineyard) en route to Andorra and I am actually looking forward to this next week (but don’t tell Dave!)
Today was about making up some lost ground caused by Vanya wanting to get as close to our daughter in Portsmouth as possible without our actually leaving France (see previous blog) and so; we headed back down the Cherbourg Peninsula through St Mere Eglise and Carentan (both scenes of bloody fighting during WWII and of absolutely no interest to Vanya) to first Chahaignes in the Pays de la Loire region of north-west France and second Ternay in the Vienne.
Our reason for travelling to Chahaignes was to take advantage of something we joined before leaving the UK – France Passion. This is a service scheme whereby some 2,000+ farmers, winegrowers and craftsmen/women across France have agreed to provide free 24 hour stopovers on their properties to motor-homers. It is wonderful. For the 30 Euros a year it costs to join France Passion, the motor-homer gets a free spot to park for the night (sometimes well off the beaten track) with an opportunity to meet the locals and try their produce. There’s no obligation to buy but why not use some of the money that might otherwise have spent on camp site fees on really fresh produce that you like?
Perhaps not surprisingly, the place we chose to visit first was a winery and so it was that we arrived at the “Domaine de la Raderie” in Chahaignes…
Although the parking was fine, we elected not to stay the night at the Domaine de la Raderie (too many wasps) but it was not a wasted journey. We left with 6 bottles of a rather nice Chenin Blanc, 3 bottles of Bulles de Raderie (not bad at at all) and a 5 litre box of something else that Vanya liked.
An hour or so later and just before it got dark we arrived in the small town of Ternay and parked up for the night in a free Aire which had seen much better days. No matter, we were the only ones there and it was peaceful. Moreover, we were well poised to try more wine tasting down in the Centre-Val de Loire. Montrichard here we come.
This second day saw us move west through wonderful Honfleur and then up the Cherbourg Peninsula through Carentan and St Mere Eglise to the pretty harbour town of Saint Vaast La Hogue. Saint Vaast La Hogue is at the northernmost tip of the Cherbourg Peninsula and in totally the opposite direction to our intended route but it seems our arrival there was entirely my fault – As Vanya pointed out after our arrival, I had requested she find us a camp site to the north of Caen and she took that to mean anywhere north of Caen. That we ended up 70 miles further north looking across the Channel to Portsmouth was my bad. I should have been more precise.
Still, we have now been to Saint Vaast La Hogue and sat outside a cafe with a beer or two watching the world go by. And most enjoyable it was too.
And so begins a third tour in the Van, which I am advised by Vanya is now renamed the “Boomobile”. Having had enough of our lives being put on hold by the lock- down we decided last week to simply collect the Van Boomobile from storage and head for Europe. Not sure how long we will go for but, it won’t be for more than two months this time as Vanya wants to be back in the UK for her next birthday.
So it was was that early on Monday 17 August 2020 we (Vanya, myself and the two dogs) geared up and made our way to Folkestone to take the 35 minute shuttle under The English Channel to Calais. Thereafter, a 172 mile drive from Calais saw us in a small campsite at St Jouin Bruneval, Normandy.
I didn’t realise it until after we had arrived but this is where Operation Biting took place during WWII when British Paras under Major John D Frost concluded a successful raid on a German radar station – The Bruneval Raid. At that time, February 1942, there was not much of a village here; it seems to have sprung up since around the small chateau (yes, it is still there) which figures in just about every old photo I have seen of Bruneval in the early 1940’s…
Back to the present. After checking in to the campsite, we decided to take the dogs for a walk along the cliff tops and then; talk about a stroke of luck; in the middle of nowhere overlooking the English Channel we stumbled on a Michelin Listed Restaurant (Le Belvedere) run by Jerome Geulin. We weren’t dressed for the occasion (shorts & t-shirts) and we had the dogs in tow but he very kindly gave us his last table and served us some great mussels and an excellent duck together with a fine Pouilly-Fume.