St Pee sur Nivelle (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France September 2022

On our way back into Spain we stopped overnight in Saint Pee sur Nivelle in the French basque country (Pays de Labourd); just 8 kms from Ascain which place we very much enjoyed last year notwithstanding the restrictions then imposed on us by covid. This area is famous for it’s ossau-iraty cheese, an ivory coloured semi hard cheese made from unpasteurised ewe’s milk and I love it. We’ll be taking some of that back to the UK with us.

Saint Pee is an unusual place in that it is not concentrated around a single town centre. It has a centre of sorts (stretched out along the D918 for the most part) but the town appears to comprise several different communes spread over quite an area. This made for fair a bit of walking when I set out to explore the place; not least because there are a lot of hiking trails in the area and I couldn’t resist checking out one or two of them. There’s a nice walk along by the River Nivelle; another around the Lake of St Pee and; at least two more up and around the Hills of Ibarron. I didn’t do them all.

The ‘centre’ (if it can be called a centre) comprised a few shops, two or three restaurants or cafe bars (one particular cafe bar was selling a selection of locally produced artisan beers – I tried just one and it was good) and some pretty half timbered houses all coloured in the basque style.

The most interesting building however is the Eglise St Pierre. This unusual and imposing church has a pleasing interior – a stone floor made from old tombstones, an impressive church organ, a large intricately carved wooden altarpiece and a wonderful three story wooden gallery so typical of the area. Certainly, the gallery reminded me of the church in Ascain.

… with it’s exquisitly carved altarpiece.

This is another of those areas which suffered horribly from witch-hunts in the early 17th century. Certainly, the basque country both in France and Spain was the focus of the witch-hunts between 1609 and 1614 which saw an estimated 3,000 people put to death. Salazar de Frias, operating out of Logrono, was one of the leading inquisitors in Spain at this time while Pierre de Lancre led the hunts in this part of France.

Ossau Iraty cheese

Currently well behind with this blog. we were in Saint Pee in September. It is now 23 October – apologies

La Teste de Buch (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France September 2022

This is not an area of France that I was ever keen on and, after seeing it, Vanya was surprisingly quick to agree with me. The fact is that after living and working in so many different parts of the Middle East and seeing so many deserts, the Great Dune of Pilat (this area’s most popular feature) was never going to excite us.

We were parked up on the coast at Camping Municipale de Verdalle, somewhere between Le Teste de Buche and Gujan Mestra. Unusually, Vanya joined me on my first exploratory walk eastwards, to and around Gujan Mestra, but she soon regretted it. There is absolutely nothing there of any interest. Even the local ‘Oyster House’ proved to be little more than a ramshackle industrial unit.

My second exploratory trip, on my own this time, took me some distance in the opposite direction to the ‘Porte de la Teste’ but once again the walk did little for me (except that I found a reasonable beach bar, Chez Maman, not far from the campsite which would do for the evening). The whole area is famous for it’s oysters farms but, honestly, it seems to be more of a cottage industry here and the only half decent oyster bar on the way to Porte de la Teste (at Porte de la Hume) was closed. Otherwise, I discovered nothing other than mudflats.

We were both looking forward to moving on to Eauze in Occitaine (Occitanie in French) but at least the beach bar I scouted out earlier in the day did prove a success.

Ciboure (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France Sept 2022

We returned to France primarily to stock up on Cremant for Vanya and Ossau-Iraty (French Basque ewe’s milk cheese) for me but also to avoid the wet weather approaching the north of Spain. Unfortunately, the better weather over the next days is up near Bordeaux which is one of my least favourite parts of France but, when needs must.

We broke the journey to Bordeaux in Ciboure (Ziburu in Basque) just across the border from Spain. Ciboure is a small fishing port just a short walk around the bay from the town of Saint Jean de Luz. It has been a fishing port since the Middle Ages and up until the mid 1960’s was the number one sardine fishing port in France but it is now given over mostly to tourism.

Looking south across the bay towards Ciboure

The most impressive building in the town itself is the 14th century church dedicated to Saint Vincent (it’s another typically Basque Church) but it is an old fort built at the command of Louis XIII in 1627 and subsequently remodelled by Vauban which dominates the harbour area. Unfortunately, the inside of the fort is no longer open to the general public.

We only stayed the one night in Ciboure, taking an evening meal at one of the many fish restaurants on the harbour side. They served the smallest moules mariniere we have ever seen and they weren’t that tasty but the view over the bay with it’s numerous battelekus (colourful Basque fishing boats some 5 to 6 metres long) was spectacular.

The harbour area

Not a lot else to say about Ciboure except that it was the birthplace of composer Maurice Ravel and that the artist Henri Matisse also lived there.

The next day we drove on to La Teste de Buch.

Coulon (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France August 2021

Today was about going north (we want to get back to the UK to attend Dave’s funeral) and we decided to drive 3 hours or so to a place called Chauvigny. Then, some time well into the journey, it dawned on us that we had stopped overnight at Chauvigny when going south just a few weeks ago. Ordinarily, Chauvigny would be well worth revisiting but it was too fresh in our minds and we therefore sought an alternative. Vanya found a place just west of Niort called Coulon, on the edge of the Poitevin Marsh (National Park), which looked worth a visit. It was a few miles back the way we had come but, she had also found a half decent looking camp site just a couple of miles short of Coulon in the small town of Magne and; to cap it all, she discovered Magne has a supermarket. Back we went, passing through Niort on the way (Niort could be worth a visit next year).

Having established ourselves at Camping Kingfisher (aka Camping Martin Le Pecheur) I went off to explore the area. It didn’t take me too long to walk the length and breadth of Magne and, yes, there is a Super U store (and there is just about every other type of shop you might need) BUT there is only one bar restaurant (the crepery looks to have shut down long ago) and it shuts early on Mondays! Indeed it was shut by the time I got there.

So off I walked to Coulon to seeif it would be worth a drive there in the evening.

This little village of some 2,000 people is situated on the banks of the River Sevre in the Marais Poitevin (Poitevin Marsh) National Park and is designated one of France’s ‘plus beaux villages’. The riverbank is full of boat rentals (canoes and flat bottom boats that can be rowed, paddled or punted) and for such a small village it has a surprising number of souvenir shops, boutiques, restaurants etc. Unfortunately, it also has a tourist train.

The train did it! I took myself away fron the water to the main square (where there is a nice looking church – the Church of Saint Trinity) and found myself a small bar restaurant that was serving half a dozen local oysters and a glass of wine for 10 euros. Costs really have risen in France during the last 3 years.

Then it was time to walk back to Magne. Coulon is not a bad place to visit but the menus I looked at would not impress Vanya.

Blaye (Aquitaine), France August 2021

If Blaye is worth visiting it is for it’s amazingly well preserved citadel and the municipal campsite inside the Citadel. Great find Vanya!

The Citadelle de Blaye is the largest of three fortifications (the Citadel itself, Fort Pate on an island and Fort Medoc on the far bank) protecting the Gironde Estuary and the city of Bordeaux. It was designed by Vauban and built on the site of an already established castle (the Chateau des Rudel ) during the period 1685 and 1689 at the behest of Louis XIV. It has two entrances the Porte Dauphine to the south and the Porte Royale to the east. We drove into the campsite via Porte Royale.

With it being lunchtime and a municipal site we were unable to check in until after 4pm (Vive la France) so; we went for a good wander around the citadel. As mentioned before, the citadel is in excellent condition. The only exception is the 12th century ruin, Chateau des Rudel, which featured in Vauban’s original design and was used as the governor’s residence to start with. It had it’s towers removed much later (in the early 19th century when it was thought they would interfere with artillery fields of fire) and then fell into ruin.

The Duchess of Berry was incarcerated in the citadel for a while. I need to be more precise; Maria Carolina, Duchess of Berry (born in 1798) was held prisoner here; not Louise Elisabeth, Duchess of Berry (born in 1695). Louise Elisabeth’s story is a real tragedy and perhaps of greater interest but for all the wrong reasons. Maria Carolina’s story is of more historical interest. Maria Carolina gave birth to a son, Henri, very shortly after her husband (the fourth son of the then king of France) was assassinated in 1820. Various other deaths followed and Henri should have become King Henri V after Maria Carolina’s’s father (King Charles X of France) was forced to abdicate but; Louis Philippe allowed himself to be crowned king of France instead. The Duchess considered Louis Philippe a usurper and claimed her son was the legitimate heir to the throne. It didn’t happen – she was exiled by Louis Philippe. She returned to France in 1832 to organise a rebellion but was discovered and imprisoned in the Citadel of Blaye. Whilst there she gave birth to another son (fathered by an Italian Count Lucchesi-Palli whom she had secretly married) and her credibility with the “legitimists” was thus destroyed. She was labelled a fallen woman and removed to Sicily, no longer being considered a threat to Louis Philippe.

Moving on, that evening, we found ourselves a table at one of the restaurants inside the Citadel. We believe it was the old officer’s mess where we actually ate and it was quite surreal sitting eating a good galette and drinking wine in a room where more than 200 years before there would have been Napoleonic soldiers standing at the fireplace doing exactly the same. The galette wasn’t the best we have ever had but the wine, Le Bastion (made using the Citadel’s own grapes) was fine.

I took the dogs for another brief walk around the fortress before retiring for the night (as much to take some more photos as anything). What an unusual place!

And the town of Blaye? Not really worth the time I spent walking round. It is very plain and very tired…

Ascain (Aquitaine), France August 2021

Ascain is a very pretty small town (or is it a large village?) besides the River Nivelle on the French side of the Pyrenees. It sits under the 905m Pyrenean summit of Rhune, just a few kilometres from the Atlantic coast, in the former Basque Region of Labourd, now referred to as the Pyrenees Atlantique Department of Nouveau Aquitaine. I prefer Labourd.

If you are so inclined, there’s an easy walk up to the summit of the Rhune or there is a 35 minute train ride up. I’m told that at the top you can sit outside a cafe and take in splendid views over Bayonne and Hendaye. Anyone who knows me will also know that I wasn’t going to waste my time with such a trip. I don’t care how good the views are; I cannot stand trains and cafes on hills. It is probably the one thing I hate more than bloody wind farms.

No, I spent the afternoon at something approaching sea level exploring the wonderfully picturesque ‘village’ and checking if my newly acquired Covid Sanitaire QR Code Pass would be accepted in the local bars. Dealing with those points in reverse order, two bars were quite happy to serve me alcohol after checking my pass. As for the village, it is lovely. Almost all of the houses are typical low roofed, half timbered properties with stone lintels and almost all are painted in the Basque colours of white, red and green. They are very proud of their Basque heritage here.

In villages such as this the main square is more often than not dominated by the local church but in Ascain the honours are shared between the church and a Basque Pelota Court. More about Pelota later. The Church of our Lady of Assumption doesn’t look particularly impressive from the outside but inside it is a wholly different matter and the place has some history. Parts of it date back to the Middle ages (and in 1609 the local priest was degraded and burned as a sorcerer by order of the infamous Pierre Lancre who despised anything Basque) but, the church received significant makeovers during the 16th and 17th centuries and was inaugurated in 1626 by no less a personage than Louis XIII. Leaving all that aside, I like to see wooden galleries in a church (they are quite common in this part of the world) and this particular church has three levels of galleries. It is beautiful inside.

Another place I visited in between testing my Covid Sanitaire Pass was the Roman Bridge. It’s not really a Roman bridge although there may well have been one on this site back in Roman times. No, the so called Roman Bridge was erected in the 15th century in the Roman style and then totally rebuilt (in the same Roman style) in the 1990’s after being destroyed by a flood. I think the bridge needs renaming.

What really excited me about this bridge (the 15th century one) is that it was of strategic importance during the French retreat from Spain during the Peninsula War. I’ve long been interested in Napoleonic history and the Battle of Nivelle took place here on 10 November 1813 with the Duke of Wellington decisively beating Marshall Soult. Ascain was, at the start of the battle, the centre of the French defensive line and Taupin’s Division held the village until the British Light Division routed them. You wouldn’t believe it to look at the place now. It is so quiet and peaceful.

Covid Sanitaire Pass working and with me having gained a good lay of the land, it was time to collect Vanya and the dogs and find somewhere to eat.

We timed our arrival back into the town centre perfectly. Indeed, we arrived as the village youth started dancing to traditional basque music in the town square. There was a real carnival atmosphere about the place which continued on into the next day with the annual Pelota Tournament also taking place on the town square.

For the uninitiated (and I had to look this up) Basque Pelota involves players hitting a heavy tennis sized ball against a wall, the frontis, with an open hand (although I understand the game can also be played over a net using different types of rackets) such that his opponent is unable to return the ball. It is the forefather of most racket sports and is played fast and hard. Some aspects of the game are like squash but Basque Pelota is played on a court which is 30 metres long and 10 metres wide and with the winner being the first player or team to score 22 points. I watched the final of the seniors doubles (they were playing first to 30 points) and it looked to be great fun but physically demanding.

So what else is there to say about Ascain. We love the place. So too did Winston Churchill who came here to paint.

Sad thing is, early the next day we learned one of our best mates has died. RIP Dave. Missed but never forgotten. 27 August 2021

Chauvigny (Nouvelle-Aquitaine), France June 2021

Chauvigny is a small town of some 7,000+ people in the Vienne department of Nouvelle-Aquitaine just 70 miles or so south of Saumur. There has been a distinct improvement in the weather over the last couple of days (although we are still experiencing the occasional heavy shower) but our plan remains to keep heading south until we hit warm weather without showers. We would have driven further south than Chauvigny but England play Germany this evening for a spot in the last 16 of the European Championships and we want to be settled in good time to watch the match.

Jump forward and we have watched the football and England won 2-0 (Yaaay!!) with Raheem Sterling playing a blinder. Well done England (although others in the team are going to have to start pulling their weight if we are to progress further). By the way, well done Vanya for fixing it such that we could stream the match live xx

We didn’t stay long in Chauvigny (just the one night) but the place is worth mentioning on a few counts. Firstly, Camping De La Fontaine, which sits by a lovely little park just under Chauvigny’s old town, deserves special recognition. For a two star campsite it was excellent. Welcoming, well organised, clean, tidy and quiet are just a few of the adjectives which I would use to describe the site. Add that the shower block, toilets and washing areas were spotlessly clean and that the overnight price was the lowest we have experienced in France this year and, no two ways about it, Vanya found a gem.

As for Chauvigny, we were not overly impressed with the newer lower parts of the town (it didn’t help that we couldn’t find a bar there showing the England match) but we loved the upper (medieval) town (Cite Medievale).

The ridge on which the old town sits is short and narrow and comprises five main buildings in various states of repair. Four of the five can be clearly identified in the above photo and all are open to the public to some degree or another. Left to right in the photo are the ruins of the Chateau Baronnial often known as the Chateau des Eveques de Poitiers, the Chateau de Harcourt, the Romanesque Church of Saint Pierre and the Donjon de Gouzon a Chauvigny. It is the ruins of the Chateau de Montleon that are not clearly visible.

Next stop Rocamador…

Hendaye (Pyrenees Atlantique), France – September 2020

Vanya made it clear that she would like us to head for the coast and she had set her mind on Hendaye – a sprawling town of more than 15,000 people located at the most southwestern tip of France on the border with Spain. She wanted to rest up on the coast and swim and who was I to argue? Hendaye is only 50 miles away from Saint Jean Pied de Port and with Labastide-Marnac not proving to be the chill event we had hoped for, it made sense.

Everywhere we have travelled in France has taken almost twice as long as the predicted Google Map journey time. This is more a reflection as to the amount of time we spend in the Leclerc, Lidl and Carrefour stores than my driving speeds but, the journey to Hendaye was no different. No matter, we arrived early afternoon and there was still enough time left in the day to walk down into the town, along the beach and back – an 8 kms round trip.

Hendaye is really about it’s beach and water sports. It’s a stunning long sandy beach; 3 kms between the River Bidassoa at one end and Les Deux Jumeaux (Two Twins) at the other. Sheltered from the wind and big swells (the waves are on average half the size of the more exposed spots just to the north) the area has become a training area for surfing so much so that swimmers are precluded from certain parts of the beach. So what, the beach is big enough for all. Having checked out the town centre we were content for the most part to sit at a beach cafe and just chill. There’d be time later for further exploration.

In this area it is the River Bidassoa that forms the border between France and Spain. Hendaye in France and Hondarribia in Spain sit opposite each other on the river. The two towns are quite different. Hondarribia has an old quarter which reflects its quaint medieval Basque heritage while Hendaye, having been completely destroyed by the Spanish way back in 1793,has been totally rebuilt and is comparatively modern. They actually complement each other quite well inasmuch that Hendaye has the beach, water sports and nightlife while Hondarribia has a sleepier feel and all the historical interest you could want. We stayed in the area for the best part of 3 days and took time to explore both towns.

One place well worth visiting in Hendaye is the Chateau d’Abbadia. It is set in extensive grounds on a promontory to the north of the town and it has fine views all around. It was built in the 1870’s at the behest of Antoine d’Abbadie, a Dublin born eccentric scholar, linguist, astrologer, anthropologist, explorer and cartographer (he was the first to map Ethiopia) who travelled the world with his wife Virginie.

Chateau d’Abbadia
The Chateau’s very impressive entrance

The Chateau, with its novel and extravagant architecture very much reflects the extraordinary personality of it’s owner. Instead of the usual gargoyles that tend to adorn such structures there is a menagerie – crocodiles, snakes, snails, frogs and elephants to name but a few…

The inside of the building is as unpredictable as the outside…

Given the remarkable personality of Antoine d’Abbadie it comes as no surprise to learn that upon his death he left the chateau to the Academie des Sciences and it became and still remains an astronomy observatory.

The area around the Chateau is beautiful cliff walking country and after my visit I did just that. The views were spectacular…

One final thing before we visit Hondarribia. Hendaye also has some historical significance. It was at Hendaye’s Railway Station that Hitler and Franco met on 23 October 1940 discuss Spain joining the war against what remained of the British Empire…Not many people know that.

Saint Jean Pied-de-Port (Pyreness-Atlantique), France – September 2020

Good to be back on the move again and it showed in the mileage we completed today. From Labastide-Marnac we made our way south west to Ascarat just outside of Saint Jean Pied-de-Port; a journey of some 254 miles. SJPP has long been on my wish-list of places to visit and I couldn’t wait to get into the town.

We arrived in Ascarat late afternoon and after walking the dogs, Vanya elected to stay with the dogs and chill while I immediately set off on the 30 minute walk into Saint Jean Pied-de-Port or Donibane Garazi as the Basques refer to the town. We are well into French Basque territory here.

As well as being one of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”, SJPP is a popular waypoint for pilgrims and/or adventurers on the pilgrim trails to Santiago de Compostella and it came as no surprise to see the place so busy during the late afternoon and early evening. It is both the finishing point for Le Puy Camino (which begins in Le Puy en Velay and is sometimes known as the Via Podiensis) and the starting point for the Camino Frances (which finishes in Santiago de Compostella and is often referred to as the Camino Way). It has long been my intention to complete these two walks which together total about 1,000 miles. Maybe next year.

Via Podiensis
Camino de Santiago (The French way)

Enough about the pilgrim trails. All things being equal you will hear more about them next year.

St Jean Pied de Port is a small, walled town on the banks of the River Nive. It was founded in the 12th century after Richard the Lionheart destroyed the nearby town of Saint Jean le Vieux (1177). There is really only one street to the town, La Rue de Citadelle, and it leads from the Porte St Jacques down into the centre of the town to the Church of Notre Dame du Bout de Pont, across the bridge and then up to the Mendiguren Citadel which is now a school.

A church service was underway as I passed the Eglise Notre Dame du Bout du Pont and the singing was so good it drew me in. It is a very impressive church with an equally impressive congregation.

I listened to some of the service and then continued up the hill to the Citadelle de Mendiguren passing the Prison des Eveques (Bishop’s Prison) on the way. The museum was closed at the time but I would be returning to the town in the morning with Vanya.

The Citadelle itself is closed to the public (it is now a school) but it was enough to walk the grounds and take in the views.

We like St Jean Pied de Port so much so we spent almost two full days here and failed to take in other villages in the area that also deserve a visit (e.g. Espelette the home of red hot chillies and Sare and Ainhoa both plus beaux villages de France) but there’s always next year or the year after that. They’ve been here a long time. Vanya wants to get to the coast.

Only downside to SJPP – the awful tourist train and the number of shops selling fridge magnets – Ugh!

Pujols (Lot et Garonne), France – August 2020

Because of impending poor weather in the west (according to the met but they’ve hardly been right since we set off) we are heading back east to an AirB&B in Labastide-Marnhac for a couple of days. This will give us a chance to catch up on some chores (i.e. Vanya’s hair and my website, both of which have been neglected of late – only joking Van).

On the way to Labastide-Marnhac we decided to overnight at a small camp site within walking distance of both Pujols and Villeneuve-sur-Lot, thus giving us a chance to visit both places – Pujols for lunch and Villeneuve-sur-Lot in the evening.

Pujols was a small fortified town perched on a 180 metre hill overlooking the valleys of the Lot and the Mail. It is smaller now, after being destroyed during the Crusade against the Cathars (1209 – 1229) and then rebuilt a few years later but what it lacks in size it more than makes up with charm and it comes as no surprise that it is now ranked as one of France’s most beautiful villages. It is a truly charming little village with narrow flower bedecked streets all enclosed within old castle walls that afford lovely views across the surrounding countryside. I’ll let the photos do the talking:-

As for Villeneuve-sur-Lot, even allowing for the fact that it was Sunday (and Sundays are generally quiet across France), it was awful. We walked some 3 kms into the place with the dogs, hoping to find somewhere to eat. A further 2 kms walking around the place persuaded us to settle for cheese and biscuits back at the Boomobile. Awful, truly awful.