Verteuil sur Charente (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

On the way to our next port of call, Montrichard, we paused at the pretty little village of Verteuil sur Charente. In hindsight, we shouldn’t have stopped at Archiac the previous night but, instead, continued to Verteuil. There’s a half decent aire where we could have overnighted and we counted no less than three restaurants in the village, all of which appeared to have been open the previous evening. Great thing, hindsight.

Three restaurants may seem a lot in a village of less than 700 inhabitants but this is a tourist spot (it’s a Plus Beau Village de France); it’s church, the Eglise Saint Medard, is on the Tours to Santiago de Compostela Camino and; if that’s not enough, one of my favourite chefs (James Martin) visited Verteuil as part of his French Adventure TV series. Now, he could inspire anyone to open a restaurant.

We parked up on a decent sized village car park, underneath the Eglise Saint Medard, on the banks of the River Charente. There were some fine views in both directions along the river but especially up towards the chateau.

The village is dominated by the Chateau de Verteuil which was built by the Rochefoucauld family in the 15th century on the site of an older 12th century castle. Unfortunately, we were unable to access the castle, perhaps because the castle was recently sold. One hopes it’s closure is temporary but, meanwhile, it’s a pretty enough building on the outside with it’s imposing conical towers and slate roofs.

Verteuil (pronounce Ver-toy) is a small village totally deserving of it’s inclusion in the list of Plus Beaux de Villages de France. It’s simply full of biscuit tin photo opportunities and nowhere more so than from the town bridge.

That’s the view looking south from the town bridge…

… and that’s the view looking north from the town bridge.

To the north of the bridge is the Chateau de Verteuil and, just in front of the castle, an old flour mill now a cafe/restaurant, Le Moulin de Verteuil. This cafe/restaurant has two delightful terraces overlooking the castle and a weir. These terraces make for some of the best photo opportunities in the village and in hindsight I wish we had stopped there for something to eat. I’ve since read that the mill still produces sufficient flour for the restaurant to make their own bread and cakes.

That’s Le Moulin de Verteuil. At the time we passed I didn’t realise this is a cafe and restaurant. I thought they were just offering dinners or we would have stayed for something to eat.

Beautiful little streets and lanes…

… and a favourite view of the church with a river washhouse in the foreground.

That last photograph prompted me to head off up to the village’s 12th century Romanesque church, the Eglise Saint Medard. The church, whilst impressive on the outside, is relatively plain inside except there is a chapel holding a real work of art, the Mise au Timbeau, by the French Renaissance sculptor Germain Pilon.

A couple of photos of L’Eglise Saint Medard

… and inside, the Mise au Tombeau by Germain Pilon

The Mise au Timbeau is a life sized representation of the entombment of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion, with seven terracotta figures laying the body of Christ to rest. Pilon was the favourite sculptor of Catherine de Medici and some of his work is held in Le Louvre.

The only other thing I learned about L’Eglise Saint Medard is that Saint Medard (sometimes Medardus) was a Bishop of Noyon who became the patron saint for weather, vineyards, captives, prisoners and peasants. Don’t ask me why or how.

And so to Montrichard.

Archiac (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

This entry is long overdue. We stopped in Archiac for the best part of 24 hours while on our way back to the UK. That was last May and it is now 4 July 2023. Sorry for the delay.

This blog is also going to be very brief because of all the gorgeous towns and villages we could have stopped at in the Charente Department of Nouvelle Aquitaine, I really cannot say why it was we paused at Archiac. At best the village can only be described as “closed” during the period we were there.

It has a church, Eglise Saint Pierre, which looks quite impressive from the outside, especially for such a small town. However, on the inside it is very basic with little for me to comment on. Lollards would be impressed.

Eglise Saint Pierre.

It has a rugby team but the ground was deserted and there was no indication as to when the next game might be. It has a winery, Vins du Maine au Bois, but it was closed. It has a restaurant (situated alongside an antiques shop) but that too was closed.

The local rugby ground.

Other than the above there was a small supermarket a bakers and a garage. Sorry Archiac but, we’ll not be back. It’s a shame because this is a pretty part of France.

Beanie liked it here.

We’re off to Montrichard now but will pause at Verteuil sur Charente for lunch. We should have continued to Verteuil yesterday. At least they have a couple of restaurants that would have been open. My fault; no one elses.

Saint Jean de Luz (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

As I mentioned before, it was time to head home. We had to get back to Brighton for a friend’s wedding and, anyway, it looked like the north of Spain was in for a week or two of wet weather.

It surprised me how quickly we were able to make the journey from Logrono in La Rioja to Saint Jean de Luz in France, given that we had to pause first at Haro (Bodegas ARVS to buy some Rioja) and then Vitoria (a hypermarket on the edge of the city so Vanya could stock up on Cava). It took us a little over three hours in total and a chunk of that was spent inside the Bodegas ARVS.

Once in France, we settled at Camping L’International Erromardie which is right on the beach and just a few kilometres north of Saint Jean de Luz. The campsite proved okay although I suspect it is expensive in high season. It has all the usual facilities including an on site restaurant, L’Oceanic, and because Vanya was continuing to suffer with her hip I reserved a table for us before setting off along the coast to take a look at La Colline Sainte-Barbe.

It took 40 minutes or so to walk to La Colline Sainte-Barbe (the Hill of Saint Barbara) which is the most northernmost point of the Bay de Saint Jean de Luz and which overlooks the town of Saint Jean de Luz or, to use it’s Basque name, ‘Donibane Lohizune’.

There’s a nice view of Saint Jean de Luz from La Colline Sainte Barbe.

The hill offers fine views of Saint Jean de Luz and of two places we visited last year: Socoa (at the southernmost tip of the bay) and the small town of Ciboure (which sits between Socoa and St Jean de Luz at the point where the River Nivelle empties into the bay).

I read about a path which follows the entire length of the Basque Coast and an orientation table on the hill revealed that it actually passes through La Colline Sainte-Barbe.

The view south from La Colline Sainte-Barbe towards Socoa at the southern edge of the Bay de Saint Jean de Luz. That’s Spain towards the back of the photo and it looks as if the meteorologists got it right regarding the impending wet weather. The small building in the top left hand corner of the photo is the tiny chapel of Sainte-Barbe.

Another photo of the Chapel on La Colline Sainte-Barbe with the town of Ciboure in the background. I understand Sainte-Barbe is the patron saint of Artillerymen, Firefighters and Miners. Really? Who thinks these things up?

The path back towards our campsite on Erromardie Beach. There are worse views.

Although I didn’t expect to see so many WWII bunkers along this stretch of coast.

It takes less than 15 minutes to walk down into Saint Jean de Luz from the Hill and that left me with just enough time to check out the town’s main church, the restored 13th century Church of Saint John the Baptist. Although they seldom look noteworthy from the outside, the interiors of Basque churches have always impressed me and this church promised much.

The outside of the Church of St John the Baptist is as ordinary as you might expect of a Basque church.

The inside of this Church of St John the Baptist is said to be the largest and finest of all of the churches in the (French) Pays de Basque. It’s gold plated wooden altarpiece (Baroque, I think) is particularly splendid and it was in front of this very altar that Louis XIV and the Infanta Maria Teresa, daughter of King Philip IV of Spain, were married on 9 June in 1660. I read on the Lonely Planet website that “After exchanging rings, (Louis XIV and Maria Teresa) walked down the aisle and out of the south door, which was then sealed to commemorate peace between (France & Spain) after 24 years of hostilities”. Now that’s theatrical.

The impressive altarpiece inside the Church of St John the Baptist.

Not as impressive as the altar but still magnificent are the tiered wooden balconies so often found in Basque churches. Historically, men would sit in the balconies while women sat below in the body of the church.

Three tiers of oak balconies inside the Church of St John the Baptist.

Saint Jean de Luz is an interesting town with it’s narrow winding streets, it’s architectural heritage and it’s history (to say nothing of it’s colours and essence). Certainly, I am keen to see Louis XIV Square, the Maison Louis XIV, the Maison de L’Infante and the picturesque harbour/port area that was at different times home to French pirates (Corsairs), Basque whalers and, more recently, tuna fishermen but, all this will have to wait until our next visit. I had to get back to the Van in time for our dinner reservation at L’Oceanic…

The route back took me along this beautiful coastline

… and past this little beach bar where, yes, I paused for a quick beer.

St Pee sur Nivelle (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France September 2022 (Tour 6)

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 (Tour 6)

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 (Tour 6)

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 (Tour 4)

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 (Tour 4)

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 (Tour 4)

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 (Tour 4)

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…