L’Isle Sur La Sorgue (Provence), France September 2023 (Tour 8)

We were settled in the Hotel Le Blason de Provence in Monteux for the next two nights. It was time to explore the surrounding area and we decided to start with L’Isle Sur La Sorgue which is listed among ‘Les plus beau villages de France’ and only a 20 minute drive south.

Vanya was suffering with her hip and so, having parked the Van at the edge of L’Isle Sur La Sorgue on the Route de Cavaillon, I left her to rest for a while and set off alone to explore the town. Within 10 minutes I had reached the River Sorgue which marks the southern edge of the old town. I need only have crossed the bridge in front of me and followed the Rue Carnot to reach the town centre but I fancied following the river around the town first.

The River Sorgue is for the most part a shallow meandering river which completely encircles the old town and it is this surrounding ring of water, together with it’s canals and tributaries, that have caused L’Isle sur la Sorgue to be called the Venice of Provence. I think that excessive but the many waterways and numerous footbridges do lend the place a priceless charm. The river water is crystal clear and there are a couple of wonderful looking bathing areas towards the edge of the town although you’ll not catch me using them. The water is a constant 55 degrees, being the temperature at which it surges from it’s spring in nearby Fontaine de Vaucluse. That’s a little cold for me!

Passing one of the town’s 60+ waterwheels on the way, I followed the river as it ran parallel with the Avenue de la Liberation towards the Monument Alphonse Benoit. Benoit was a local businessman and philanthropist who lived in the town during the period 1809 – 1872. Cross the river from the Avenue de la Liberation and you’re on the Quai Rouget de L’Isle and this too leads to the Monument Alphonse Benoit.

At the Monument turn left and you’re on the Quai Jean Jaures. This is arguably the prettiest and most photographed part of the town although the far end of this quai (where it meets the Quai Frederic Mistral) runs it a close second. There’s no denying L’Isle Sur La Sorgue attracts a high number of tourists and the Quai Jean Jaures is a tourist hotspot but it is a gem of a place and well worth visiting.

Both the Quai Rouget de l’Isle and Quai Jean Jaures are lined with waterside cafes and restaurants and an array of interesting and unusual shops, many of them antique shops. Indeed, the town is brimming with hundreds of antique shops and/or dealers in second hand goods and, if that isn’t enough, the town holds an ‘International Antiques Fair’ twice a year (Easter and the end of August) which attract more than 500 stalls. It is said that, after Paris, L’Isle de la Sorgue is the largest antique centre in France and I wouldn’t argue that point.

Talking of markets, L’Isle Sur La Sorgue is almost as famous for it’s farmers market as it’s antiques. They’re held every Thursday and Sunday morning and the latter market is enhanced by a brocante (flea market). Once or twice a year, in the summer, a floating market is also held on barges (known as nego-chins) on the River Sorgue but I’d need to check with the local tourist office for the precise dates. There were no markets on as I strolled the town.

Follow the Quai Rouget de L’Isle, the Quai Jean Jaures and the Quai Frederic Mistral and you will have walked the most interesting three sides of the four that surround the old town. Turn left into Rue du Docteur Tallet upon reaching the medieval washhouses on the Quai Frederic Mistral and you’ll soon reach the centre of the old town, Le Place de l’Eglise. Me, I retraced my steps to the Van to collect Vanya and the dogs. Vanya just had to see this place.

In no time I was back in the old town with Vanya and our dogs. The relatively silent narrow winding streets and lanes of the old town, together with their empty cobbled passages and courtyards, proved irresistible after the bustling, congested quays that line the Sorgue. They were shaded and cool and, at least until we reached the town centre and the town’s principal church (the Collegiale Notre Dame Des Anges), we somehow escaped the tourists.

Waterwheels of many different sizes and designs, most dating back to the 18th century, are to be found throughout the town. The majority served to generate power for the spinning and weaving of wool and silk or the production of paper while others were used to crush olives or mill flower; all industries long since replaced by tourism in L’Isle de La Sorgue. A few are still in working order and I could happily stand and watch those wheels turning for ages but, even those that are now still and covered in moss are bewitchingly attractive.

On the central square at the heart of the old town stands the Collegiale Church of Notre Dame des Anges (Our Lady of Angels). The church was first built in 1212 in a Romanesque style although there is little if anything that remains of the Romanesque style now. It was almost totally rebuilt at the end of the 14th century and has since become a blend of Gothic and Baroque styles but, the inside is truly… spectacular? It is filled with grand vaulted ceilings, gilded statues, colourful paintings; it’s a mass of blue and gold. In truth, I was overwhelmed by it and there’s a part of me thinks it is over the top and perhaps a little gaudy but; it has to be seen.

Just outside, on the same square, is another quite famous institution… the Cafe de France. If ever there was an Art Nouveau Coffee Shop, this is it. It is the oldest coffee shop in the town and the perfect place to enjoy a croque monsieur and people watch while planning your next move. Oh, and the town’s tourist office is also to be found on this square in the event you need help with the planning.

We left the square by the Rue Carnot and before too long were back at our starting point although we would have been a great deal quicker had Vanya not constantly paused to take photos of Beanie for her facebook posts…

L’Isle Sur La Sorgue. Wherever we go next, this place will be a hard act to follow.

Monteux (Provence), France September 2023 (Tour 8)

Vanya had booked us into the Hotel Le Blason de Provence for a couple of nights. How she found this place, I do not know but; it is a delightful boutique hotel just outside of Monteux on the road to Carpentras and it proved the perfect place to chill out after a little over 3 weeks on the road.

I’ll write about Monteux later. Let me start by introducing you to the Hotel Le Blason de Provence. In their website the owners describe the hotel as “a typical Provencal building from the 1930’s”. That may be true from an architectural perspective but otherwise, no; there’s nothing typical about this hotel. Vanya and I are agreed; they have transformed the hotel into something wholly charming inside and out.

It’s a member of the Logis Hotels Group(e). From what I can tell, the Logis Group is a ‘confederation’ (my word, not theirs) of independent hotel and restaurant owners across Europe who are concerned to offer “a warm and personalised welcome, quality accommodation and home-made meals based on local and seasonal produce”. The hotels are generally small (20 bedrooms on average) and, more often than not, are to be found in the countryside.

Le Blason de Provence conforms in all respects with the above. The reception we received upon our arrival and throughout our stay from the two proprietors and their staff was warm, friendly and attentive.

The hotel itself has a tiny reception area and just 18 bedrooms but, so far as we could tell, each room is well furnished, tastefully decorated and spotlessly clean. The dining area really impressed me. It is not particularly large but it’s tables are comfortably spaced and the room has a real chic feel about it (embellished as it is by some unusual artefacts collected by the owners during their travels – I’m thinking in particular of their nod to Japan). However, the part of the hotel we most enjoyed during our stay (and I include our dogs in this) was the shaded terrace area by the front entrance. This pretty garden and patio area with it’s striking mural – more about murals later – proved to be the perfect place to take coffees in the morning; cold beers during the afternoon (the hotel swimming pool borders the patio); glasses of chilled Pouilly Fume in the early evening and; a warming whisky last thing at night. I always keep a bottle of malt whisky in the Van.

We were looking for a charming place to relax and we found it – quiet and comfortable and with the most attentive service.

Surprise, surprise. Within minutes of checking in, we were on the terrace outside the front of the hotel enjoying a very nice bottle of Pouilly Fume

And the food? The continental breakfast was as comprehensive and as fresh as you would expect from a good hotel in France. I need say no more about breakfast.

Dinner in the hotel restaurant? Well, the restaurant is recognised in Gault & Millau’s Guide Jaune (Yellow Guide) as one of the best in this part of France. I was expecting something special and I wasn’t disappointed. There were 7 or 8 main courses on the menu. Vanya went for the ‘Veritable Salade Cesar’ which surprised me by having all the proportions of a main course. I decided in favour of the ‘Poisson du Moment’ which that day was Ling.

The chef, Thomas Longuesserre, is something of a celebrity having featured on national tv. Quite where he ranks as a chef I cannot say but the fish he prepared for me was outstanding. Ling is a deepwater fish that I would normally avoid, because it is often trawled and I’m not sure I approve of deepwater trawling but, I was assured the fish being offered was caught by long line. I think Ling is a member of the cod family (although it looks more like a cod-conger eel cross and can grow up to 7 feet long) but it tastes a little stronger and goes exceptionally well with Pouilly Fume. We enjoyed another two bottles and once again were ‘last men standing’.

There’s not a great deal to the town of Monteux but we were there to relax and, anyway, if we wanted more there was always nearby Carpentras; and of course Avignon is only 20 kilometres away.

Monteux is a long established market town, dating back to Roman times. It reached it’s zenith early in the 14th century, at the time of the ‘Avignon Papacy’, when Pope Clement V chose nearby Avignon instead of Rome for his Papal Palace and took up residency in Monteux’s 11th century castle and for a while nearby Carpentras. It was Pope John XXII who settled definitively in Avignon.

The castle in which Clement V lived was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1415 and the town’s two main gates (the Avignon and Neuve Gates) and the castle dungeon, known as the Clementine Tower, are all that remain of the castle and it’s walls.

A road system circles the old town where it’s castle walls once stood and I entered through what was the Avignon Gate. It is nowhere near as pretty but the town reminds me of Dozza, near Bologna in Italy, in that many of the walls are covered with some quite fascinating murals. The murals here tend to identify the original purpose of the buildings (e.g. basketmaker, cooper, tailor, etc). One of the artists who painted the walls in the old town also painted the mural at the Hotel Blason.

I particularly like those murals that have been built around existing features; such as the fountain below.

I’ve already mentioned the castle and the Clementine Tower. The only two other buildings of significance in the old town are the Church of Our Lady of Nazareth and the Hotel de Ville. Unfortunately I cannot relate much about either building. I couldn’t access the church and all I know about the Hotel de Ville is that it was originally a hospital (the Saint Pierre Hospital which opened in 1713) and it became the Town Hall in 1958.

You don’t need more than a few hours to see Monteux and so we spent subsequent days in the area visiting a couple of the local villages – L’Isle sur La Sorgue and Gordes. They are the subject of separate entries in this blog.

I’ll round off this particular entry by addressing other eating options in Monteux. It won’t take long because except for the Hotel Le Blason Restaurant, we were disappointed with the alternatives in and around the town. In hindsight we should have asked the staff at our hotel for their recommendations because having walked through and around the old town the only places that we saw open were fast food outlets. Credit where it is due, one of them serving Vietnamese and Japanese food (Le Palais d’Asie), did have a handful of tables and we enjoyed some of their Vietnamese dishes with a couple of beers. I was actually drinking bottles of Singha (Thai) in preference to bottles of Asahi (Japanese) or cans of Saigon 333 (Vietnam). Then it was back to the hotel for a final bottle of Pouilly Fume.

Guise (Hauts de France), France September 2023 (Tour 8)

And so to Tour 8, which started somewhat inauspiciously with our discovering, the day before departure, that the refrigerator in the Van was faulty. The inside of the fridge was warm; so warm Vanya felt compelled to throw almost all of the food out. That was not good but, worse, was the thought of setting off into a hot summer in Europe with no facility for keeping our wine and beer cold… that thought kept me awake almost all of the Sunday night and resulted in me contacting Lee from Raemoir Caravans at 4.30 on the Monday morning. Bless him, he was round at our house by 06.30 trying to fix the problem. He was unable to say for sure what the fault was and suggested we might need a new fridge. Shock! Horror! The last one cost me 2,000 euros and that was pre-covid when everything was much cheaper. I preferred to think that it could just be an air block in the gas pipe caused by parking the Van on the fairly steep slope that is Balsdean Road (that’s an altogether cheaper thought) and resolved to test that theory by driving through as many large pot holes as I could find on the way to Le Folkestone Shuttle. England’s children are back at school today after the summer holidays or I would have opted for a time trial drive around the local schools with all their speed bumps – sleeping policemen we used to call them.

And so to Tour 8… Some eight hours after setting off; shaken, battered and bruised and with much of the contents of our cupboards now scattered all over the Van floor (there are a great many pot holes between Brighton and Folkestone) we reached Guise in the Hauts de France. We’d find out if we’d dislodged the hoped for air bubble the next morning.

It was late Monday afternoon when we arrived in Guise – just enough time for a brief exploration. I should have remembered that in rural France, lundi is much like another Sunday. Indeed the weekend in such places will often extend across the Monday and Tuesday. The town was very quiet and, certainly, there were no restaurants open. We settled for one of the small Turkish run cafes. We found one without too much difficulty which served a reasonable bottle of wine, a bucket of moules and a large plate of exceptionally good chips. Oh and chews for the dogs, all for 25 euros. The owners were very welcoming and it seemed we were back on track.

I didn’t notice any rail station during my brief tour of the town but there was evidence of one in the graffiti.

Guise is a small town of almost 5,000 inhabitants situated on the L’Oise River towards the south of the Hauts de France. It’s the agricultural centre of the Aisne Department but it doesn’t have a great deal going for it other than the remains of a medieval castle (which was closed when I arrived at it’s gates) and for being the birthplace of Camille Desmoulins – a prominent figure of the French Revolution who along with his close pals, Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton, lost his head to the guillotine. Actually, Camille Desmoulins was executed after complaining about the excesses of the Reign of Terror. His old pal Robespierre thought he’d gone soft and in those days, that was enough to see you denounced as a traitor to the revolution.

I’ll say no more about Desmoulins or Guise except that it served as a useful place to break our journey towards Germany. We planned to start our tour in Germany in the Rhein Palatinate – a place called Saarburg. I’ll leave you with a few photos…

Veules Les Roses (Normandy), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

Two girls we were talking to at a restaurant in Yport recommended Veules Les Roses as a place to visit. Tucked away on the Alabaster Coast just south of Dieppe, it is another of ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’. Dating back to the 4th century, it is also one of the oldest villages on the Normandy coast and quite charming.

Veules Les Roses can also boast of straddling the smallest river in France with the River Veules running less than 0.75 of a mile through the village from it’s source to the English Channel. The river is also one of the cleanest as may be demonstrated by the number of water cress farms surrounding the source of the river (water cress has been farmed here since the 14th century) and, most particularly, with Brown Trout returning from the sea every year to spawn.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there is a shorter river in France but it will not be running into the sea.

Until recently this was a flourishing fishing and agricultural area but, for the most part, these industries have given way to tourism and; the many mills which once dominated this district have closed one after the other as the number of tea rooms has increased. There are now 2 dozen tea rooms in the village.

I wasn’t particularly impressed with the beach area but…

For all that, one water mill continues to grind grain, the water cress farms are thriving and the local oysters which are farmed offshore (the veulaise oyster) remain popular. More than that, the real beauty in the village is not so much to be found on the beach in the tea rooms and restaurants where the tourists congregate but in following the track of the little river (which track is known as the Champs Elysee) as it winds it’s way around a wonderful mix of houses – the tall stone houses of flint and brick so typical of Normandy; medieval pastel coloured half timbered houses and delightful thatched cottages.

… following the river…

… and seeing so many delightful houses made the visit well worthwhile.

Veules Les Roses was to be the last explore of this, our brief seventh, tour. Yes we returned to the vet (Veto Coeur de Caux) in Fecamp so that the dogs could get the tapeworm tablets necessary for them to return to the UK and we spent our last night at the municipal campsite in Montreuil sur Mer (to facilitate a short journey to the Eurotunnel on our last day) but we didn’t stay long in either place. I’m certain we will return to both at some time in the future (for the same purposes) but on this occasion there was no need for an explore. Until next time… au revoir.

Yport (Normandy), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

One of my favourite small towns in Normandy. I first visited Yport in 2018 (Tour 2) and it hasn’t changed a bit since then.

Nestled in between steep chalk cliffs on the Alabaster Coast, Yport was a tiny fishing village until beach holidays became fashionable in Europe in the late 19th century. It has since become a little a gem of a beach resort with a couple of very good restaurants and it’s own casino (casinos are rare in France). The village is one of the smaller resorts in the region and contains a mix of tiny fishing houses and larger 19th century properties built at the time Yport was becoming established as a seaside resort and it’s a fine place to while away a day or two while we wait for the vet in Fecamp to open after the bank holiday.

The view east along the coast towards Fecamp.

One thing about Yport which stirs me every time I walk into the town is that almost breathtaking moment when, as you turn on to the beach from Rue Emmanuel Foy, you get hit by a rush of fresh salty sea air being channeled through the town by the chalk cliffs. Refreshing is an understatement; it’s almost energising.

The view west and east from Yport’s pebble beach

Yport’s church, L’Eglise Saint Martin dates back to 1838. Apparently, it was erected in just 6 months by the town’s inhabitants who themselves gathered much of the flint and pebbles that was used in it’s construction from the local beach. The last time I visited Yport the church was closed. This time I was more fortunate.

L’Eglise Saint Martin

The inside of the church is fascinating, not least because of the numerous votive offerings on display which reflect the village’s earlier association with fishing.

We used Yport as a base on this occasion to visit both Fecamp (I mentioned already that we were taking the dogs to the vet there) and the small village of Veules Les Roses (which was recommended as a place to visit by two local girls we got talking to and I will write a separate blog on Veules Les Roses) but we invariably took our meals in Yport. The mussels here are the best I’ve ever tasted and Vanya was keen to try them. Previously, I had eaten at the Hotel Normand and one of the open air restaurants on the beach. This time we tried Le Cabestan et sa Plume and, best of all, Le Nautique.

The food (and the ambience and the welcome) at La Nautique was such that I would return again and again. The place was packed but they found a table for us (and the dogs) in the outside seating area at the back of the restaurant. Their oysters were great; the Moules Normande were truly exceptional and; their apple tart (if that is what it was) was delicious. All washed down with the local cider and a bottle of Muscadet.

… and there’s always time to take in a lovely sunset. These next two photos were taken from just outside Le Cabestan et sa Plume.

Le Bec-Hellouin (Normandy), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

Vanya suggested Le Bec-Hellouin as a place to stop at for lunch on our way north from Alencon to Yport. Le Bec-Hellouin was recently voted a “plus beau village de France” (and is fully deserving of the title) but, otherwise, it is most famous for it’s large abbey complex.

The Bec-Hellouin Abbey was founded in 1034 by a former Norman knight by the name of Herluin who had renounced violence and become a Benedictine monk. Sometimes referred to as Saint Herluin (despite not being canonised) Herluin was a fascinating character who inspired various distinguished ecclesiastics (including two early Archbishops of Canterbury; Lanfranc de Pavia and Anselm d’Aostein) and created one of the most influential abbeys in the Christian World. Herluin died in 1078 and his remains can be seen in the new Abbey Church.

The Abbey complex is now wholly owned by the French State and the Abbey is better known these days for the pottery it produces but a community of Benedictine monks do still practise monasticism there.

Left: The primary entrance into the abbey complex from Place de L’Abbe Herluin and Right: The 15th century Bell Tower of St Nicolas.

The 15th century Tour St Nicolas (the Bell Tower of St Nicholas) is the oldest part of the abbey still standing. Some considerable damage was caused to the original Abbey throughout the 100 years war between the English and the French (the village of Bec-Hellouin changed hands many times during that period) and again during both the French Religious Wars and the French Revolution.

In 1948 the surviving buildings were occupied by a community of Olivetan Benedictine monks who with government money have since restored them. In 1959, the remains of Herluin were reburied in the new Abbey Church.

Much of the existing complex was rebuilt in a Regency style. The old refectory (the wing on the left of the photo) is now home to the Abbey Church.

The inside of the abbey church, best described as ‘simply beautiful’, holds Heluin’s relics.

The village of Bec-Hellouin is tiny (just 402 inhabitants) but, it comprises a number of very pretty rows of pastel coloured half timbered houses, all in fine condition. For the most part these houses are gathered around two main squares, the Place de L’Abbe Herluin and the Place Mathilde where the village Church of Saint Andrew (Eglise Saint Andre) is located. The Place Mathilde is so named because William the Conqueror’s wife, Mathilde, was initially buried in the grounds of this particular St Andrew’s (until moved to the Abbey in Caen).

It didn’t take long to wander the village and we soon found a table outside ‘La Crepe dans Le Bec’ where we each enjoyed a buckwheat galette and I was able to sup an ice cold glass of the local cider. There’s nothing like a local cider on a warm sunny day in Normandy.

Awaiting galettes outside a creperie on the Place de l’Abbe Herluin.

Just one piece of interesting news I learned while in Le Bec Hellouin. The London suburb of Tooting Bec (where Del & Rodney Trotter lived before they became millionaires) was so named because the Abbey owned all the land on which the original village of Tooting stood. Now, not many people know that.

On to Yport.

Alencon (Normandy), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

Alencon, in the south of Normandy, was simply a staging post on our way back to the UK. Our timetable required that we head for Yport on the Normandy coast and we had 36 hours to get there. This allowed sufficient time for us to overnight at Alencon and take a short wander around the town centre (and perhaps even take lunch the following day at yet another of Normandy’s ‘plus beau villages’) and; if I could also find a decent restaurant for the evening… well, that would be a bonus.

I knew very little about Alencon and decided to head first to the local tourist office for their advice. The tourist office is housed in an impressive 15th century turreted mansion, known as the Maison d’Oze, which was built for the town’s alderman but some time during the 16th century became home to Charles de Valois (Duke of Alencon). More about him later. It will suffice to say here that visitors can tour the mansion for free.

First impressions as I made my way to the tourist office was that Alencon is neither the prettiest nor the most interesting of Normandy’s towns but, on the plus side, it is not plagued with lots of tourist tack. The tourist office staff were keen to help, producing a decent map and taking time to point out the town’s principal points of interest but when a google search of the best things to see and do in Alencon recommended a visit to an Escape Room… well, my interest in the town began to pale. Honestly, an escape room. Give me strength.

That’s the Maison d’Oze in the centre of the photo with, slightly behind it and to the left, the town’s principal place of worship – the Basilique Notre Dame d’Alencon.

Anyway, armed with the tourist office map I set off to explore the town, starting with the Basilique de Notre Dame d’Alencon which almost adjoins the Maison d’Oze.

The first stone of the Basilica Notre Dame was laid in 1356 but most of the current building dates from between the 15th and 17th centuries and, actually, the building wasn’t elevated to Basilica status until 2009. There’s an imposing main door and it is light and airy inside the Basilica but, best of all, are the splendid stained glass windows in the nave which date from 1530. Odd, isn’t it? We’ve completed almost seven tours over the last few years and it wasn’t until the start of this particular tour that I took any real interest in stained glass windows. It was the trip to Troyes earlier in May that did it. Now that was stained glass.

Inside the Basilica.

The Basilica Notre Dame is famous for being the place where Saint Therese de Lisieux was baptised. Not being a Catholic I know next to nothing about Saint Therese but she is sometimes referred to as “The Little Flower of Jesus” and is revered by many (including Pope Pius X) as the greatest saint of modern times. She was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1925. That is no small feat given she died from tuberculosis in 1897 aged just 24 years. She was born in Alencon and it is possible to visit the house where she was born (Maison de la Famille Martin on Rue Saint Blaise) which has become something of a shrine to the Saint but, I chose to give that a miss.

The tourist office map took me next, past the memorial to the French General Philippe Leclerc (his forces liberated Alencon from the Germans during WWII), to the 15th century Chateau des Ducs.

The Leclerc Memorial and the imposing entrance to the Chateau des Ducs

There’s not much left of the original Chateau des Ducs, although part of it was still in use as a prison until as recently as 2010, but at one time the castle was the primary abode of the aforementioned Francois de Valois, Duke of Anjou. Francois de Valois was perhaps the only serious foreign contender for the hand of Elizabeth I of England. He was 22 years younger than Elizabeth but they exchanged many affectionate letters over a four year period before Elizabeth finally sent him a ‘Dear John’ in 1581. Vanya maintains that she was stringing him along as part of a strategy to make Robert Dudley jealous and who am I to argue with her about the Tudors?

Chateau des Ducs

The rest of the afternoon saw me visit most of the remaining sights listed on my tourist office map – the Merchant’s House known as La Maison a L’Etal, the Eglise Saint Leonard and Le Parc des Promenades. I gave the Corn Exchange a miss.

La Maison a L’Etal and a portrait of Francois de Valois.Is it me or is there a slight resemblance to Rowan Atkinson appearing as Lord Edmund Blackadder?

Given the similarities in appearance of Francois de Valois and Rowan Atkinson (when he appeared as Lord Edmund Blackadder in the 2nd Series of Blackadder) and having regard to the correspondence between Francois de Valois and Queen Elizabeth I, it seems appropriate to quote a love poem created by Queenie (Elizabeth I) which featured in a Series 2 episode of Blackadder:-

When the night is dark and the dogs go ‘bark’; When the clouds go black and the ducks go ‘quack’; When the sky goes blue and the cows go ‘moo’; Think of lovely Queenie, she’ll be thinking of you.

That’s it settled. We’ll be stopping at Le Bec-Hellouin tomorrow on our way to the coast.

Fresnay Sur Sarthe (Pays de la Loire), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

Fresnay sur Sarthe is a charming little town of some 3,000 inhabitants which straddles the River Sarthe in an area known as the Mancelles Alpes (which, despite the grandiose name, are little more than a series of pretty green grassy valleys). We were heading north to Alencon and, just after Le Mans, we decided to stop for a spot of lunch and to stretch our legs. Fresnay sur Sarthe looked like the perfect spot.

Having parked the Van, we ambled across the bridge over the River Sarthe and up to the medieval centre of the town. It sits on a rocky outcrop above the river alongside the ruins of a small 14th century castle.

The Fresnay sur Sarthe town bridge with what remains of the old castle walls.

There is little left of the old castle but it’s grounds have been transformed into a very pretty public garden which offers pleasant views over the lower part of the town.

Since at least the time of William the Conqueror the castle has been the scene of many battles and, certainly, the castle (and the town) changed hands between the English and the French numerous times during both the 100 Years War and the 30 Years War but, it was during France’s Religious Wars in 1562, that it was almost totally destroyed by the Huegenots.

The River Sarthe from the castle walls.

A small square adjacent to the castle, the Place de Bassum with it’s traditional stone market hall and an unusual fountain featuring a lion and an ash tree with three crowns, is the accepted centre of the town. We ate a light brunch outside one of the cafe bars in the centre and then simply soaked up the sun for a while over a couple of glasses of coffee.

Left: The approach to the medieval centre of Fresnay from the lower town. Centre: Place de Bassum with it’s unusual fountain. Right: A closer view of the fountain.

The castle entrance and the view down towards the bridge from the castle walls.

Whilst wandering Place de Bessum, we couldn’t help but notice various motor racing paraphernalia, particularly black and white chequered flags, displayed in almost every shop window. Moreover, there was an open air art exhibition in the castle grounds which again featured motor racing – some rather good paintings. And then, most impressive of all, nearly all of the streets fanning out from Place de Bessum were bedecked with literally hundreds of black and white umbrellas. Curioser and curioser! With a little help from Google we discovered that the town was one of many in the immediate area which, on 10 and 11 June, would be celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Le Mans 24 Hour Sports Car Endurance Race – Just two weeks hence. Now that would be something to witness but… we have a wedding to attend in the UK.

Almost every street surrounding Place de Bessum looked like these (and it was nothing to do with Newcastle United qualifying for the European Champions League for the first time in their history).

It was almost time to get back on the road. We’d missed the weekly farmers market up on the square near the Church of Notre Dame but there was still time to wander that remaining part of the town. I’ll leave you with just a few more photos…

Two rather poor photos of the 12th century Notre Dame (the narrow lanes and alleys precluded any decent photos) and a photo of a very nervous Beanie who has never before seen such a large amount of strange smelling ice. This ice was dumped by the fishmonger at the farmers weekly market.

… and back down to the lower town and the River Sarthe.

We’d have liked to stay on. The town appeared full of character and there were at least two nice looking restaurants. A half decent looking municipal campsite too.

obiter dicta: I’ve mentioned already that I am well behind with this blog. It is now 11 July and we visited Fresnay sur Sarthe on 27 May. Sorry about that but there is so much going on at the moment back in the UK. I will soon catch up but, meanwhile, in case you are interested, Ferrari won the 2023 Le Mans race for the first time since 1964 and with a British driver at the wheel – James Calado. The favourites, Toyota, were a close second.

Blois (Centre-Val de Loire), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

There are a multitude of magnificent castles in the Central Loire Valley. During Tour Three we visited two of them, the Chateau d’Amboise and the Chateau Chenonceau, but that still left Chateau Royal de Blois, Chateau Chambord, Chateau de Chaumont, Chateau Cheverney and Chateau de Fougeres sur Bievre , to name but a few. This time it was to be the Chateau Royal de Blois and it was down to Vanya’s current interest in all things Tudor.

We‘ve already visited Chateau d’Amboise (left) and Chateau Chenonceau (right)

The Chateau Royal de Blois is not the prettiest of the Loire Valley castles but there’s enough about it to interest most anyone. It’s a prestigious ‘must see’ castle which was home to no less than 7 French Kings and 10 Queens, as well as being where Joan of Arc was blessed by the Archbishop of Rheims on her way to fight the English at Orleans. More important, from Vanya’s perspective, it was the place where in 1515 Anne Boleyn (later Henry VIII’s second wife) came to be Lady in Waiting to Queen Claude (wife of Francois I) and so shared her time for the next seven years between Blois and Amboise.

Although there was a fortress on the site as long ago as the 9th century, the existing chateau started to take shape in the 13th century under the aegis of the Count of Blois. Louis XII added a Gothic wing between 1498 and 1500 and Francis I added a Renaissance wing, including the majestic spiral staircase, between 1515 and 1518. Gaston of Orleans added a Classical wing between 1635 and 1638.

The main entrance into the chateau is via the Gothic wing added by Louis XII and is from the Place du Chateau.

The main entrance is surmounted by an intricate statue of Louis XII and (lower and to the right of his statue) a carving of a porcupine, the emblem of the Royal Order of the Porcupine inherited from his grandfather.

The Renaissance wing added by Francis I between 1515 and 1518.

Closer views of the spiral staircase.

Leaving Vanya to her history for a couple of hours, I strolled off behind the chateau with our dogs, Nala and Beanie, to get some breakfast. The stroll took me through Place Victor Hugo, to the north of the chateau, and past the very elaborate facade of the Eglise Saint Vincent de Paul. The church was locked but, for once, I couldn’t have cared less. I’d seen a poster advertising a small cafe on the Rue Porte Cote and I was ready for a cup of coffee and a Croque Monsieur (a posh name for a cheese and ham toastie).

The Baroque style Eglise Saint Vincent de Paul was a 17th century Jesuit College but it was renamed and transformed into a church some time during the 19th century.

Breakfast over, it was time to wander Blois. Rue Porte Cote led me on to Rue Denis Papin and then up the Escalier Denis Papin. This impressive 120 step staircase, with it’s statue of Denis Papin (inventor of a prototype pressure cooker), has long been a pedestrian link between the upper and lower town of Blois. It served to get me to the city’s cathedral (Cathedrale Saint-Louise) and offered a fine view back down over the city.

Escalier Denis Papin led me to the cathedral and, even if the views over the city weren’t of the standard I expected, there was a pretty good view towards the south.

Every summer, the risers on the staircase are covered and transformed into an optical illusion by the French photographer, Nicolas Wietrich. Left: The 2017 illusion. Right: The 2019 illusion.

And on to the cathedral (Cathedrale Saint-Louis) with it’s tall Renaissance style tower. This church was elevated to cathedral status in 1697 and is the seat of the Bishop of Blois. It was built on the site of a 10th century church and what is left of the original church can be seen in the cathedral’s crypt. This cathedral isn’t particularly striking (inside or outside) when compared with many of those I have seen in the past but, hey, it is still an impressive structure (aren’t all cathedrals?!?) and this one is certainly worth the walk up the Escalier Denis Papin.

From the cathedral, I made my way down into the main medieval part of city with it’s stone and half timbered houses and cobbled streets. I never tire of such places. There are a number of scenic walks through this part of the town each identified by different bronze dials embedded in the pavement (the Porcupine Route, the Fleur de Lys, Saint Nicolas Steeples and the Sailing Boat – full details of which can be obtained from the local tourist office, I expect) but I had just enough time to find my way back to the Place du Chateau for a quiet beer before Vanya finished her tour of the Chateau Royal.

I took a great many more photos of the old town but these are fairly representative.

I found a small cafe bar on the Place du Chateau and sat outside in the sunshine with a small beer (and the two dogs). The square was surprisingly quiet; May is off season in France. To my left was La Maison de la Magie which appeared a fairly ordinary looking museum dedicated to the 19th century conjuror, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin and to my right was the main entrance to the Chateau. I’d have no problem seeing Vanya the moment she emerged from the Chateau. Indeed, she would probably see me first.

And then the place erupted! The shuttered windows to that ‘fairly ordinary looking museum’ sprung open and very loud (horrible) music issued forth and; then, a number of roaring (more like screeching) automated mechanical dragons appeared one after the other to hang outside of the windows. The two dogs, which until then had been stretched out peacefully in the shade under the slatted wooden table upon which my beer rested, charged out (knocking both the table and my beer flying) and started barking furiously (Nala) and/or whining hysterically (Beanie) at the lurid monsters which continued groaning and screeching and rolling their necks in the windows for the longest ever 10 minutes. Ordinarily I’d have immediately dragged the dogs away but my beer glass had shattered on the cobblestones and I couldn’t just leave broken glass scattered all over the place. That was one of the longest 10 minutes of my life.

Also on Place du Chateau, opposite the Chateau Royal is Maison de la Magie. I think nine of those dragon heads appeared before the thing finished.

Not long after that, Vanya arrived. I left my replacement beer and we quickly exited the square. I really didn’t want to be there with the dogs any longer than absolutely necessary. What if it started up again? Moreover, Vanya was tired after walking almost every inch of the Chateau Royal and she fancied, would you believe it, a Croque Monsieur.

The bridge across the Loire with the many spires of the Eglise Saint Nicolas in the background.

Croque Messieurs later, we crossed the Loire to where our Van was parked and made our way back to our temporary base at Montrichard. Except for a certain 10 minute spell I enjoyed what little I saw of Blois.

Montrichard (Centre-Val de Loire), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

We love this little market town which sits within easy reach of some of the most beautiful castles in France. We used it once before as a base from which I could visit both the Chateau de Chenonceau and the Chateau Amboise and Vanya wanted to use it this time as a base to visit the Chateau Royal de Blois. Leaving the castles aside for a moment, we would have returned to Montrichard anyway because it is such a friendly, lazy little town which simply begs you to sit outside a cafe with a glass of wine and watch the world go by. We intended staying a couple of days at least.

We checked in to Camping Couleurs du Monde, which we had used before and knew to be good. Situated adjacent to a decent sized Carrefour and within easy walking distance of Montrichard, it has fair sized pitches, a half decent bar and a heated swimming pool. It would prove a perfect base from which to visit Blois and perhaps even Fresnay sur Sarthe. We’d made good time across the south of France; we’d arranged to get the dogs seen by a vet in Fecamp early the following week and the weather forecast for the next days was excellent. In these circumstances we could afford to relax for a few days.

That’s the town bridge over the River Cher. The original medieval bridge was built by the English but was demolished in the 19th century. The current bridge is a replica.

Staying over in Montrichard for two or three days meant we could once again attend the weekly farmers market. It’s a great little market.

I love these photos both of which I took during our last visit and couldn’t improve upon this trip. The photo on the left is of the Town Hall (taken at night it looks like something out of a Disney movie). The photo on the right is of a small restaurant owned and operated by some expat English. We took dinner there one evening.

Looking west along the Cher from the town bridge.

I took time during this our second stay in Montrichard to revisit the town’s church, L’Eglise de Sainte-Croix (the Church of the Holy Cross). I hadn’t been able to get inside during our first visit.

It’s a pretty little church which is believed to date back to the 11th century although, it’s finest moment came in 1476 when a 12 year old Princess Joan of France was married to her 14 year old cousin, Louis Duc d’Orleans (later to become King Louis XII of France). The marriage had been arranged almost 12 years earlier and was anything but a success.

L’Eglise de Sainte-Croix. Outside, Inside and Window Detail.

On their wedding day, Louis Duc d’Orleans said he would rather die than marry Joan but he was compelled by his father to go through with the ceremony. Louis later had the marriage annulled (so that he could marry the much richer Anne of Brittany) on the grounds that Joan was sterile and hunchbacked. He further claimed he had been forced to marry against his will and never consummated the marriage although Joan took issue with this latter point. Joan subsequently found solace in religion but when she died, Louis did not even attend her funeral.

The Chateau de Montrichard in the centre of the town is very much a ruin (and has been since it was invested in 1188 by the then King of France who wanted the English occupants gone) but, it was good to see during this visit that the local authorities are endeavouring to restore parts of it or at least make it safe for visitors. Watch this space.

From Montrichard we were able to visit Blois and Fresnay sur Sarthe (and we enjoyed both those places – see below) but, we thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Montrichard and, the nice thing is, we’re both keen to return yet again.

I said we’d find time to relax in Montrichard and we did. The weather remained kind enough for us to enjoy the both campsite’s swimming pool and a picnic.