Bazas (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France June 2024 (Tour 9)

Worsening weather (I cannot recall France ever being so wet) forced us further south to the small town of Bazas, some 60 kilometres south east of Bordeaux, in the Gironde Department of Nouvelle Aquitaine. The weather forecast was more promising and we decided to stay in Bazas for a couple of days and then move on to Spain. The campsite we chose, Capfun, has a rather impressive Water Park and; it was almost totally empty of people (this being a weekend out of season). We had to give the Water Park a go before moving on but, more of that later.

Bazas and the surrounding area is famous for it’s white wines and Bazadais Cattle (well, the resulting cooked beef anyway). In addition, the town was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1998 because of it’s Cathedral and it’s association with the Saint-Jacques Compostelle pilgrimage route. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the local white wine although being so close to Bordeaux I am inclined more towards red wines. I’ll not comment as to the Bazadais Cattle except to say that I saw plenty of them during our drive south but not yet had any opportunity to taste the beef. I did, however, get into Bazas and the Cathedral is beautiful.

Axtually, I made a couple of trips into the town; an exploratory trip on my own shortly after we arrived and a second with Vanya and the dogs on the following day which also happened to be market day (and our wedding anniversary). The exploratory trip was on foot by a back route from the campsite across the fields. Nala couldn’t follow that route with her wheels and Vanya wouldn’t want to but it suited me that first day because within 15 muddy minutes of leaving Capfun I arrived in the town’s main square, the Place de la Cathedrale.

In Bazas, most things worth seeing are to be found on or near the fair sized arcaded Place de la Cathedrale and that includes the very majestic Saint John the Baptist Cathedral, the Hotel de Ville (this latter building having a most excellent entrance) and a range of 16th, 17th and 18th century mansions.

The ‘Belles Vendanges’ (or, in English, the Beautiful Harvest) is a work by the Parisien sculptor Lucien Pallez. Most of his known works seem to have been created between the 1870’s and the 1890’s but many have disappeared. All I know about this particular work is that it was donated to the town in 1911.

The most striking building in the square is the Cathedrale of Saint Jean Baptiste. Construction of this majestic building was started during the 13th century and it was sufficiently complete in time for Pope Urban II to urge the First Christian Crusade to the Holy Land from there. The structure was improved over the following years with the current finished product dating back to 1635. It is as good an example of Gothic architecture as I have seen.

Unusually, the town’s war memorial to it’s fallen in WWI is inside the cathedral. This monument stopped me in my tracks. To see so many killed from such a small town and, perhaps more tragic still, to see so many with the same family name – eight men with the surname ‘St Marc’ are listed on this memorial. Think too of the others who were physically and/or mentally wounded but get no mention. I’ll not describe their sacrifice as a waste because a great many of those killed or injured, died doing what they felt was right at the time and I would never demean their actions but, I will say that it was unforgiveable they should have been called upon to make such a sacrifice. Sorry. Rant over. Moving on…

I drove Vanya and the dogs into Bazas fairly early on the Saturday morning to ensure we could get the Van parked up before the crowds arrived. It is never easy finding a parking spot on market days. Farmer’s Markets in France are almost an institution and invariably well attended. Bazas does not have a huge market (how large does it need to be to serve a town of less than 5,000 people) but it has the most incredible fish stall we have ever seen – such a selection of fresh fish! I’ll let some of my photos do the talking…

Unbelievable! We had a great morning sitting in the Place de la Cathedrale watching the world go by over coffee and pastries and listening to a fairly accomplished busker – he had a great voice. We must have walked the market two or three times and, towards the end of the morning, bought some fish, fruit, cheese and wine for supper that evening. Probably the quietest start to a wedding anniversary we have ever had but it must rank among the most pleasant and memorable and the shellfish we ate that evening was outstanding.

I mentioned that the campsite had it’s own Water Park. We did try it out. Well, I went into one of the pools while Vanya went in up to her ankles but not all of the slides were working. No surprise there because we were the only people on the admittedly quiet site (we are out of season) interested in using the facilities. If only it had been warmer.

Oh, and we missed out on the Bardelaise Cattle and Steak au Poivre. Next time.

A last two pictures of Bazas. We’re off to Spain.

Saint Jean de Cole (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France May 2024

Vanya wanted to stay at Camping Le Lieu a second night despite it raining so heavily that the Van required towing out of the quagmire which our pitch had become. No problem, the extra day would allow us to visit a nearby ‘plus beau village de France’ and, in any event we wanted to check out the hardware store in Thiviers (in the hope we could buy a spare buckle/clip for Nala’s wheels – the existing clip is set to split) but; henceforth, I’ll be parking the Van with at least one front wheel on hardcore (at least until we find the hot weather).

We arrived at Saint Jean de Cole in time for a light lunch. There’s a pleasant cafe-bar in the village centre on the Place de Saint Jean and the weather held fine while we enjoyed a roasted cheese, bacon and honey lunch, all washed down with a local red wine. Well, I drank a red wine.

Saint Jean de Cole proved a delight and is fully deserving of it’s plus beau village status. We stayed long enough to walk most of the village (we missed out on just the riverbank walk to the old railway station) and it didn’t rain!

It’s a very pretty and well preserved medieval village with most of the buildings having been made of a washed ochre coloured stone and a great many are half timbered.

The two most prominent buildings in the village are both on the Place Saint Jean. These are the 12th century Chateau de la Marthonie, razed to the ground during the 100 years war but rebuilt (it is open to visitors in the high season) and; most unusual for this part of Europe, a round shaped church (the Eglise Saint Jean Baptiste) which was also built in the late 12th century although the square tower was a 17th century addition. The church, which was closed during our visit, was originally crowned by a dome but the dome kept collapsing and was replaced during the 19th century by a tiled roof. The chateau and the church are both classified historical monuments.

Another 12th century feature of the village is the pretty stone bridge over the River Cole. On the far side of that bridge is a path which follows the route of the old railway line to the villages disused train station. Unless you have the good fortune to visit Saint Jean on the one day of the year that the priory is open to the public, this path also provides the best view of the village’s 15th century priory together with it’s original cloisters (which adjoins the Chateau). We had to make do with that view.

Without a doubt, Saint Jean de Cole is a charming little village and well worth visiting (I don’t think I mentioned that it has just 300 inhabitants?) and it has a highly recommended and charming restaurant, Les Temps des Mets, which we missed out on this time but will visit during our next visit to the Dordogne.

Oh, and Thiviers, the self proclaimed capital of foix gras just 12 kilometres to the west? We soon found our hardware store but they couldn’t supply the clip we required. We found one later at a Deichmann store in Perigueux.

Saint Jory de Chalais (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France May 2024 (Tour 9)

I cannot tell you much about the village of Saint Jory de Chalais in the Dordogne Department of Nouvelle Aquitaine. It is tiny and the River Cole flows through it and it is kept very, very tidy by it’s 600+ inhabitants but; that’s about it, except for the fact it is on our route to Perigueux (south of which is, supposedly, better weather) and it has a campsite that Vanya wanted us to overnight at.

Camping Le Lieu is a small campsite at the edge of Saint Jory de Chalais which until recently was known as Camping Maisonneuve. The campsite is run now by a most welcoming and friendly couple (Charline and Julien) and if the village doesn’t have enough about it to warrant a longer stay, the campsite does. We stayed two nights despite the continuing poor weather simply because we were made to feel so welcome.

There’s a barn adjoining the owner’s residence which has been transformed into a very sociable cafe/bar where most if not all of those staying at the site congregated in the evenings together with a few villagers. Food is currently limited to snacks and pizzas but the pizzas were fresh and tasty and the bar had no fixed closing time; which is always a plus when the company is good and the local red wine so pleasant.

The campsite has a swimming pool and a fishing lake but with the weather deteriorating so markedly, they were of no particular interest to us. On a warm, sunny day it would be different.

And the village of Saint Jory de Chalais…

As has been mentioned, there is not a great deal to the village. There is a shop and an inn, the Auberge St George’s, but both seemed to operate very limited opening hours. Had we been staying longer, we’d have made enquiries in that regard but; this is the Dordogne and there are plenty of other busier towns and villages in the area to visit, if that is what you want. We needed to visit a hardware store in Thiviers and Charline had recommended we visit the nearby ‘plus beau village de France’ of Saint Jean de Cole. There was all the reason we needed to stay on the second night.

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.

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.

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.

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.