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

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, 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 both 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.

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

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.

Penafiel (Castile y Leon), Spain May 2023

I don’t know how it was that Vanya picked out Penafiel as our next point of call but I’m glad she did. We parked at Camping Riberduero on the edge of Penafiel with a view to staying a couple of days and then stayed for four. With the help of the Dutch owners of the campsite (they were a mine of useful information) we were able to maximise our stay in Penafiel and enjoy much of the surrounding area (most especially Pedraza, Sepulveda and the Hoces del Rio Duraton National Park). We’d have stayed even longer except that we were already commited to being in La Rioja by the end of the week.

Penafiel is a fairly small rural town of some 5,000+ inhabitants in the Valladolid Province of Castile y Leon. Although renowned for it’s 10th century limestone castle and extensive winemaking traditions, Penafiel is well off the beaten track and, nowadays at least, not a popular tourist destination. It wasn’t always so (in Medieval times this was a major city with no less than 19 churches) but it’s current smaller size and the absence of tourists suits us down to the ground.

The unusually shaped Castillo de Penafiel dominates the town.

Building of the existing castle (Castillo de Penafiel) commenced in the 10th century on a cigar shaped rock which overlooks Penafiel and the Rivers Duero and Duraton. Since then the castle has been significantly remodelled, mostly during the 14th and 15th centuries, to resemble a white 150+ metre long German Gothic Style Battleship. My first thought was to check out the castle. It’s an easy walk up to and around the outside of the castle with not too much exposure. However, mine is clearly not the customary approach because, after clambering over the outside wall and in, I almost frightened the life out of a couple who were already there having used the road up.

Nowadays, the castle is home to the Provincial Wine Museum which offers castle tours and wine tasting sessions at very reasonable prices but they were not open for business as I arrived. In fact, very few places are open in Penafiel during siesta time which, during the week, stretches between noon and 4pm. This is real Spain.

There are actually two lines of castle walls. I was able to climb the outer wall only.

It was an interesting walk both to and from the castle. The approach to the castle from the campsite leads across the Puenta de la Leona to the Plaza de Espana and it’s church, the Iglesia Santa Maria. It continues past the Torre del Reloj (the Clock Tower), which is all that remains of the old Romanesque Church of San Esteban, and then up the hill to the outer walls of the castle. This town side of the hill is dotted with what appear to be large chimneys. These are actually ventilation shafts for the many underground wine cellars in the area. The town is full of large excavated caves where wine used to be stored (and perhaps still is) because of the constant temperatures they keep throughout the year. If not properly ventilated these caves would fill with the poisonous gases which arise during the fermentation process.

Penafiel is located slap bang in the middle of Spain’s second largest wine producing region, the Ribera del Duero, where the focus is on producing quality red wines using the Tempranillo grape. Tempranillo is a relatively hardy grape which is better able to withstand the more extreme climates of the high altitude vineyards to be found in this area – long cold winters and hot dry summers. The better approved wines here are invariably 100% Tempranillo with Crianza wines requiring a minimum 24 months aging of which one year must be in an oak barrel; Reserva wines requiring a minimum 36 months aging with one year in a barrel and; Gran Reserva wines requiring at least 5 years aging of which two years must be in oak barrels.

Left: That’s the Clock Tower in the background with a ventilation shaft in the foreground. Right: Several more ventilation shafts fill the hillside.

I returned to town using the castle road, pausing for a glass of wine on the way, and then it was back to exploring. My focus during what remained of the day was towards the Dominican Monastery of Saint Paul (Convento San Pablo) and the elusive but wonderful Plaza del Coso.

I came across the Convento San Pablo first. This Dominican Monastery was built as a fortress in the 13th century but converted into a monastery some time during the 14th century. From the outside the monastery is a strange looking and not very attractive building, an unusual mixture of stone and brick. On the inside, it is something else…

Convento San Pablo – a not particularly attractive mixture of stone and brick although, to be fair some of the Mudejar architecture which was added to the original structure is appealing.

A simple enough entance and central nave

… but with a quite stunning Spanish Renaissance chapel built in 1536

Inside the monastery there is an impressive cloister area but otherwise all is rather simple by Roman Catholic standards… until you see the 16th century funerary chapel of the Infante Don Juan Manuel, Lord of Panafiel. Beautiful.

It took me a while to find the Plaza del Coso. There are just two entances to this large rectangle which is almost wholly enclosed by private houses – a single vehicle entrance from the north and a small gated pedestrian access from the south. I could be forgiven for not immediately recognising the pedestrian access because the gate (which looks like nothing other than the entrance to a garage) was closed. No matter, I persevered and eventually found my way on to the Plaza.

The Plaza is special. Except for the two entrances already mentioned, it is entirely surrounded by three or four storey medieval houses almost all of which have beautiful wooden balconies stretching the whole length of the building on every floor above ground level. These balconies are converted during the Fiestas de Nuestra Senora and San Roque (and at any other time when the situation requires it) into boxes from which those with viewing rights can watch the local bullfights… because this Plaza doubles as a bullring.

Talking of viewing rights, I should explain that since Middle Ages to this day the town council in Penafiel has the right to auction off any room with a window or balcony overlooking the bullring to the highest bidders for the period of the bullfights. Amazing but true.

The first photo of the large rectangle which is the Plaza del Coso (taken from up on high) is clearly not mine but the others are. The second photo is of the single road in the town which leads into the Plaza.

This first photo shows the pedestrian access to the Plaza. As I arrived, workers had just finished installing the wooden bullring which is erected as and when the townsfolk require. We learned later in the day that a festival was planned for the weekend which would include bull-running.

That’s how the Plaza looked like as I walked across it. You can tell it was siesta time.

I’m not into bullfighting unless it be limited to the type that is practised in Provence, where the bull is not harmed – see Saint Remy de Provence blog from May 2023. In Provence, brave athletic ‘rasateurs’ compete against each other, using skill and agility, to collect as many ribbons as possible in as short a time as possible from between the bull’s horns (without getting hurt). Having said that, I think I would have enjoyed attending the bull-running in Penafiel which was scheduled for the following Saturday.

Collioure (Occitanie), France May 2023

Collioure is one of France’s best kept secrets. Nestled in a sheltered bay on the Catalan Coast with turquoise coloured waters and a dark green backdrop which are the Alberes Mountains, it’s a picture perfect little fishing town (anchovies) now given over to tourism (although only the French seem to know about it). It’s the smallest and most picturesque of the Cote Vermeille resorts and one of the most adorable coastal towns I have ever visited.

My first trip into Collioure saw me enter the town from the north. I walked the cliff tops from Camping Les Criques de Porteils, down onto the Plage de L’Ouille and then upwards and onwards past the CNEC military base (the Commando Training Centre) and into the town near the large fortress that is the Chateau Royal de Collioure.

The Knights Templar built the Chateau Royal early in the 13th century (1207?) and it was extended during the next 300 years, first by the Kings of Mallorca and then by the Spanish Hapsburgs. It is probably four castles in one now. I didn’t have time to explore the inside of the fortress on this occasion.

The Chateau Royal is on the left, towering over the Ansa de la Baleta Bay.

After gaining my bearings and taking numerous photos of the fortress and the 17th century Notre Dame des Anges church (i.e. the Church of our Lady of the Angels) – none of them very good – I followed a narrow path under the fortress walls and around the bay towards the southern edge of Collioure. I should say here that I didn’t see the church in it’s best light (it was covered in scaffolding, inside and out) but the Baroque interior is worth a look.

Left: The Bell Tower of the Church of our Lady of the Angels with the Saint Vincent Chapel caught behind it. Centre: The Saint Vincent Chapel photographed through a hole in the town walls. Right: The Church again with Lateen boats in the foreground.

This path under the fortress walls took me to another beach, the Plage de Port d’Avall (there are four or five small beaches in Collioure), and then on down the Rue Jean Bart to a terrific little bar with excellent views back across to the main part of the town.

That beach is the Plage de Port d’Avall and up on the hills behind is the 14th century Moulon de Collioure (a grain mill restored in 2001 and which is now used to produce the local olive oil) and yet another Templar Fort (Fort Saint Elme).

That’s the view of the church across the bay from the little bar I paused at and…

that’s a view from Fort Saint Elme (not mine – I gave up because the sun was simply too bright). The views from up on the hill are breathtaking.

Anyway, after refreshing myself with another (smaller) beer back at the bar I set off to explore the town itself.

The lanes behind the Plage de Port d’Avall are largely residential and the houses are invariably painted varying shades of red, orange and/or yellow and

… the buildings in the centre of Collioure, whether residential or commercial, tend to carry more vibrant colours and, by order of the town council, none may be painted black or white.

Some of the streets are truly striking. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this particular area of the town is known locally as ‘La Petite Montmartre’.

Around 1904/1905 the artists Henri Matisse and Andre Derain were inspired by the light and colours of Collioure to create what subsequently became known as the fauvist style of painting – they used strong colours and fierce brushwork and sometimes even applied colour directly from the paint tube. These painters were considered wild beasts of the art world by certain critics and with ‘fauve’ being French for the ‘wildcat’, so the Fauvists were formed.

Examples of the Fauvism. On the left a painting of Collioure by Matisse (Les toits de Collioure) and on the right one by Derain (Charing X Bridge, London).

Unfortunately, Vanya was troubled with a sore hip during our stay in Collioure and couldn’t handle the walk into town. We therefore missed out on seeing the place at night but it has given us a reason to return – As if we needed one!

Of course, Collioure is in the former administrative region of Languedoc Roussillon (now part of Occitanie) and any visit to such an area has to include a trip to a local winery whether it be to the likes of Picpoul for a nice dry white or Banyuls, just to the south of Collioure, for it’s famous sweet wines. We broke with convention and sought out Les Vignerons des Alberes.

Waiting for our wine in Les Vignerons des Alberes, just outside Collioure. We bought almost 10 litres each of their red and white wines. Their more expensive red is sold in 3 litre boxes and is superb. We will be buying considerably more upon our return.

Yep. Collioure really did it for me and we will definitely return. The only thing I would do differently next time is (a) to take a meal in one of the three Michelin recommended restaurants on the seafront (La Balette has a Michelin Star but Le 5eme Peche and Mamma Les Roches Brunes look equally appealing) and (b) to continue the journey into Spain using the D86 road to Cerbere rather than the motorway. I suspect the coast road will provide some great photo opportunities.

And so onto Spain but, I’ll leave you with one more photo of this lovely town…

Saint-Remy de Provence (Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur), France May 2023

So we finally made it to Saint Remy de Provence. This beautiful little town in the Alpilles hills towards the western edge of Provence sits among a mix of rolling golden wheatfields, lush green vineyards and gnarled old silvery green olive groves and has been on my “Must Visit” list for years. It proved a far prettier and more interesting place than I could ever have imagined.

Okay, this view of the Alpilles doesn’t feature wheatfields nor vineyards but they are around; believe me.

We were heading for Collioure in the south west of France and then across the border into Spain but with Saint Remy just 20 kms south of Avignon, we simply had to visit the place, not least because we wanted to stock up on some of the Alpilles wine we had previously enjoyed in Avignon. We parked up on the edge of the town alongside a small independent wine cave and, as luck would have it, there it was – the Alpilles Chardonnay produced by Domaine Valdition that we enjoyed so much in Avignon. There was no holding Vanya back.

Saint Remy de Provence is not a large town. It’s oldest and prettiest parts are concentrated inside what I can only describe as an inner ring road formed by three tree lined avenues – the Boulevard Marceau, Boulevard Victor Hugo and Boulevard Mirabeau. This compact centre, just 500 metres across, is entirely pedestrianised and oozes small town tranquility. It is a gem of narrow winding streets edged with honey hued stone townhouses and shops and numerous small shaded squares with fountains and terraced bars, cafes and restaurants. Pretty as they are (and some are striking), it is not so much the streets and the squares which catch the eye here; it is individual buildings, particularly shops such as Fiston and Le Cheval a Bascule. They are so full of character.

These are just two of many colourful and interesting shops to be found near the Hotel de Ville on Place Jules Pelissier.

One cobbled stone square, Place Favier, soon became a favourite of ours. It’s a quiet little square on Rue Carnot, filled with plane trees and a fair sized fountain but with room too for the tables and chairs of two small cafe bars; one of them being ‘Creperie Lou Planet’. We stopped at the creperie for a galette (mine was filled with Mushrooms, Roquefort Cheese and Sour Cream and was absolutely delicious) and then Vanya had one of her best ideas of the trip so far, suggesting we stay on in Saint Remy for a few days. I needed no persuading and ordered a second beer while she googled a place to stay in the area.

Creperie Lou Planet on Place Favier. Points of Interest: Planet is a Provencal word meaning ‘tiny square’ and this little square used to be known as Place aux Herbes.

We were soon parked in a campsite close to the town centre (Camping Pegomas) and, leaving Vanya to rest in the Van, I went off on an extended ‘explore’ in and around the town. We’d already seen various plaques around the town commemorating Vincent van Gogh’s time in Saint Remy and I was keen to learn more about this. I discovered that after cutting off his left ear (following an altercation with his friend Gaugin, while they were working in nearby Arles) Van Gogh admitted himself to the Saint Paul de Mausole lunatic asylum on the outskirts of Saint Remy. He tarried in the asylum for just over a year and whilst there produced well over 120 paintings (including some of his finest works). The town operates what they call the Promenade dans L’Univers de Vincent Van Gogh – a two kilometre tourist trail around Saint Remy and then out to the former monastery/asylum where the great artist stayed between 1889 and 1890. You simply follow a series of bronze studs in the road from one of twenty one information points to another, learning much about Vincent Van Gogh and his works during his time in Saint Remy, on the way.

Those are the bronze studs and that is a photo (not one of mine) of the monastery which is now a museum.

These are just two of the many plaques at the 21 information points along the route. Most serve to introduce the works he completed in Saint Remy.

I reproduce below three of the 120+ paintings Van Gogh painted during his stay in the asylum:- “Wheatfield with a Reaper” (One of Van Gogh’s first paintings after his admission into the asylum, it was painted through the window of his hospital room) and; “The Starry Night” (Regarded as one of his most beautiful works, this is another piece of work painted from a window in the asylum. The village is a figment of his imagination and bears no resemblance to Saint Remy) and; “Irises” (Painted in the asylum gardens, this is my favourite of all those he produced whilst in Saint Remy).

Wheatfield with a Reaper” is currently in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. “Starry Night” is held in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Irises” is currently held in the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Just over the road from the Saint Paul de Mausole is another interesting but much older site which is well worth visiting. This is the archaeological site of Glanum. After being overrun by Barbarians in AD260 Glanum became a source of stone and other building materials for the developing Saint Remy before it’s ruins were gradually buried by deposits washed down from the Alpilles. The town was lost until 1921 when it was discovered and unearthed. Much remains to be seen but two monuments in particular (known as Les Antiques) are in excellent condition.

Les Antiques: On the left is the Triumphal Arch of Glanum which was built towards the end of Augustus Caesar’s reign and on the right is the Mausoleum of the Julii which dates to BC40.

There’s a small museum devoted to Glanum next to the Hotel de Sade on Place Favier (the museum may even be part of the Hotel) and, before you ask, yes the Hotel de Sade was previously a home to relatives of the notorious Marquis de Sade although he never lived there.

Numerous artists, writers and musicians have lived in Saint Remy over the years but the most famous person to have been born in the town is perhaps the 16th century astronomer, apothecary and seer(?) – Nostradamus. He was born there in 1503 and it is possible to visit the house he was brought up in.

Left: The house where Nostradamus was born. Right: A fountain on the corner of Rue Carnot and Rue Nosto-Damo (Nostradamus) which was built in his honour. Surprisingly, this little fountain was full of fish.

We stayed in Saint Remy for a couple more days, more often than not using the place as a base from which to visit some pretty villages over near the Luberon Massif (notably Lourmarin and Bonnieux) but always returning for dinner.

Eating and drinking in Saint Remy is easy…

… and it’s a nice peaceful walk back to the campsite… and still very, very pretty.

One of the reasons we stayed on so long was because we wanted to enjoy the Farmers Market which is held every Wednesday morning. It is held on the Place de la Republique and across much of the old town including Place Jules Pelissier and, of course, our favourite Place Favier. Large, lively and colourful is an understatement. It is recognised as one of the best farmers market in Provence.

We ended up buying two large chunks of the local nougat from that guy on the left.

There is a great deal more I could write about Saint Remy but I’ve already written far too much by this blog’s standards. So, just three quick points about events we missed out on during this trip but will want to enjoy next time:

Firstly, just a few miles from Saint Remy is the small village of Baux de Provence where an indoor quarry has been turned into a light and sound show (Carrieres de Lumieres) where hundreds of images of great artist’s works (including Van Gogh) are projected onto quarry walls and floors in an immersive art experience that has been described as “currently, the world’s best light and sound experience”. That’s a must see for Vanya and I.

Secondly, there’s the ‘Course Camarguaise’ which is run in a number of Provence towns at various times between Spring and Autumn. It is a kind of bullfight but the bulls are unharmed. They have ribbons attached between their horns and brave, athletic men known as rasateurs compete against each other, using skill and agility, to collect as many ribbons as possible in as short a time as possible (without getting harmed).

Thirdly, Saint Remy is famous for it’s festivals. One festival which is held towards the end of May and which, I am advised, would be worth seeing is the ‘Transhumance’. It celebrates the time when sheep are taken to higher pastures for the summer and thousands of them are herded along the town’s ring road.

Next, a little bit about our trip out to Lourmarin.

Avignon (Provence-Alpes-Cotes d’Azur), France May 2023

It’s not often we return to a place we have previously visited. There has to be a good reason and, more often than not, the place has to have been special for us. I visited Avignon for a couple of days early in 2018 (during Tour 1) and hadn’t felt any particular desire to return but Vanya was keen to see the city for the first time. Moreover, some friends (Matt’s parents) had berthed their sailboat at nearby Port Napoleon on the Rhone Estuary (and we thought to drop in on them) and, also, we were keen to visit one of France’s most beautiful villages just south of Avignon in the Alpilles – Saint Remy de Provence. So, all things considered it seemed an appropriate place to operate out of for a couple of days.

We parked the Van on the Ile de la Barthelasse at Camping du Pont d’Avignon and on a bright sunny afternoon I took the free ferry service from near the entrance to the campsite across the River Rhone to the Papal Palaces for a little explore. You know, I really enjoyed this second visit to Avignon. Previously, I visited during a dank cold February and the town was very quiet with few bars and restaurants open and I missed out on one of this city’s most attractive features – its cafe culture. On that occasion I had taken time to visit the city’s principal tourist sites (walking for miles inside and around the beautifully preserved city walls; focusing on the Papal Palaces and the Rocher des Doms Gardens, the Cathedrale Notre Dame, Les Halles Market, the Rue des Teinturiers and of course the Pont Saint-Benezet) and I wrote about those in the 2018 Avignon blog but I didn’t take time to properly enjoy the city. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again and one of the best moments in Avignon this trip was simply sitting outside a cafe on the Place de l’Horloge over a couple of beers listening to a wonderful violinist entertain the square with an eclectic choice of music which included a pleasing instrumental version of Leonard Cohen’s 1984 ‘Hallelujah’. Brilliant!

Left: Catching the ferry across the Rhone. Centre: Les Escaliers from Le Boulevard de la Ligne. Right: Inside the Rocher des Doms Gardens

Some almost obligatory photos taken within the Papal Palace area.

In the early evening I collected Vanya and together with the dogs took the ferry over the Rhone for dinner in the city. The fact is, French restaurants are very accommodating so far as dogs are concerned. I don’t think we have ever been refused entry into a restaurant in France because of them. The choice of restaurants around the Place de l’Horloge isn’t particularly good (touristy places all offering much the same menu) and the food itself proved even more disappointing but we were introduced to a very pleasant local white wine – a Chardonnay from Domaine de Valdition which goes by the name of Alpilles (named after the area down near Saint Remy de Provence where it is produced). We made a note to try more of the Alpilles wines over the next days.

I took this photo as Vanya and I walked back to the Van after dinner. It’s a shame the Pont Saint-Benezet was lit up so brightly with that ghastly fluorescent blue light. It would have made a great photo.

The next day was about getting up early and experiencing a small street market in the old town. The ferry wasn’t operating this early in the day and so I walked into the city via the Pont Edouard Daladier and sat outside a small cafe nursing a coffee and croissant for almost an hour while the Avignon equivalent of the Albert Square Market in Eastenders went on about me. You don’t have to be fluent in French to understand much of the banter being used. It is probably the same in farmer’s markets all over the world. After my light and lazy breakfast, I walked more of old Avignon’s streets and lanes while the city gradually came to life. It really was pleasant just soaking in the mood of Avignon and not worrying about chasing photo opportunities of monuments.

It wasn’t a big market although it stretched across two or three streets but I very much enjoyed the people watching and then exploring some of the quieter streets.

And Vanya? Well, Vanya considers Avignon a pretty place and she certainly enjoyed the Alpilles wine but she isn’t really into large towns (especially when they are so full of tourists) and she thought it rather commercial. Also, she didn’t cope that well with the walks up and down the Escalier. In fact she stayed at the campsite for much of our second day in Avignon – something about a coronation had attracted her attention.

No. That is not our Van bedecked with the coronation bunting of Charles III a. There were a couple of other English people in the campsite and this belonged to them.

The next couple of days at Port Napoleon and Saint Remy de Provence should suit her better.

Montreuil sur Mer (Hauts de France), France April 2023

We began what will be an all too brief tour of just one month (because we have to be back in the UK for a friend’s wedding early in June) by revisiting an old favourite of ours, Montreuil sur Mer. This place wasn’t without incident last time we were here (this was our last stop of Tour 5 before we returned to the UK) with us both enjoying an outstanding meal at the Michelin Star Restaurant, Anecdote, and; then, back at the campsite, locking ourselves outside of the Van (with the dogs on the inside) and my having to break into the Van and causing some £600 of damage. It could have been a lot worse.

Once again we stayed at ‘la fontaine des clercs’ campsite just outside the city walls. There were a great many more people in the town this time, no doubt due to it being a bank holiday weekend (May Day tomorrow), but while many places were closed for the holidays, we were able to get a reasonable meal and wine at Brasserie Le Caveau on the Place de General de Gaulle. There were a couple of other restaurants we wanted to try out; one situated on the town walls which specialises in light local produce (Le Pot du Clape) and the other a creperie (Creperie le Clan des Elfes) but both were closed. Next time.

It didn’t take long for Vanya and I to reacquaint ourselves with the town (Vanya even joined me for a brief stroll along part of the town ramparts – she’s getting better with heights) and soon enough we were sitting on the main square under the watchful eye of Field Marshall Douglas Haig drinking a glass of Chardonnay.

Check out the measure of Chardonnay in each glass

The last time we were here (February 2022), on the way back from dinner, we passed an old and somewhat derelict looking hotel/restaurant which was up for sale – Le Relais du Roy. We passed it again and it appears to have been sold and reopened as a restaurant without so much as a lick of paint…

The hotel as was one year ago (left); the hotel as is now (centre); and a look inside one of the windows now (right).

Whatever else may be said about “Le Relais du Roy”, it certainly isn’t lacking in character.

I’ll not repeat everything I said about Montreuil sur Mer in my last blog on the place and there’s little point me posting photos of the same sights as before (Le Relais du Roy excepted). Instead, I will leave you with a couple of photos of the area we had hoped to eat in. That’s the Pot du Clape in the first photo below…

… HOWEVER, Montreuil sur Mer really is a great little town and one we would heartily recommend especially if you are into good food and of course Les Miserables. If you want more information on the town, take a read of the previous blog I wrote on this place but, better still, visit the place yourself.

Well, that’s Day 1 of Tour 7 over. Tomorrow, we head south to Champagne. Vanya wants a drink.

Zarautz (Basque Country), Spain September 2022

We were at Gran Camping Zarautz earlier this year (February 2022) and enjoyed our stay. It’s a very comfortable campsite and there’s nothing wrong with the small town of Zarautz but we returned primarily because of the campsite’s close proximity to Bilbao. We were booked on the Bilbao to Portsmouth ferry for travel on 28 September and needed somewhere to while away the last hours of this 2022 tour.

Zarautz beach – as pretty as ever and the perfect place to finish this particular tour

To the east of Zarautz, just 20 minutes drive away, is San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque) which, amongst other things, is supposedly Spain’s culinary capital and where the Spanish monarchy used to spend their summer holidays. We had it in mind to visit San Sebastian but the one day we had left is insufficient to do the place justice and this particular tour (Tour 6) must end now. We’ll do it next year…

So ends Tour 6.

Zumaia (Basque Country), Spain September 2022

For the last two days of this tour we are booked into Gran Camping Zarautz (a favourite site during our earlier tour this year but one which is also within easy reach of Bilbao where we are to catch the ferry to Portsmouth). This left us sufficient time to visit both Zumaia and Getaria before our journey home. We started with Zumaia.

Zumaia is just a few miles west of Zarautz at the mouth of the River Urola. It was originally a fishing town but the harbour is now filled with leisure craft and is more of a tourist resort. The area is famous for it’s flysch. These are successive layers of rock which are in effect a 60 million year old record of the planet Earth. I know very little about geology but it seems these enormous layers of sediment stretch more than 13 kilometres along the coast and attract geologists from all over the world. They form the UNESCO recognised ‘Basque Coast Geopark’. I had to see it for myself and after parking the Van up I took off on a quick exploration.

My route took me down and across the River Urola to Zumaia’s old town; past the 13th Century Basque style Gothic Church of Saint Peter the Aposle and; up onto the cliffs. I’d take a closer look at the town on my way back. A narrow track on the cliff leads to a viewing point which provides wonderful views of the flysch (and along the coast in both directions). There’s a series of panels along the route providing rudimentary information about the flysch.

The cliffs are stunning
The flysch is everywhere

Zumaia is not a large town and can easily be seen in half a day. It’s most prominent feature is the 13th century Iglesia de San Pedro (Church of Saint Peter the Apostle) which is an austere gothic church in the Basque style and more reminiscent of a fortress than a church. It has an impressive altarpiece which has been declared a national monument.

There are two good beaches in the immediate vicinity of the town, the Itzurun and the Santiago. The Itzurun is on the west bank of the River Urola and the Santiago is on the east bank near the marina. Playa de Itzurun was being used by a group of surfers as I arrived. Part of it featured in the seventh series of Game of Thrones – John Snow is seen landing here when visiting Daenerys. Part of the flysch forms a backdrop to Playa de Itzurun and it is very pretty. On the cliff top overlooking Itzurun is a chapel dedicated to St Elmo the Patron Saint of sailors.

There is a third beach further to the west of Zumaia, the Algorri (or the Aitzgorri in Basque). It is a rocky beach and submerged each time the tide comes in. With the tide out it is considered to be the most beautiful beach in the area and the best place to view a thin black line in the flysch which dates back some 65 million years and reflects when a huge meteorite hit what is now the Gulf of Mexico and wiped out the dinosaurs.

Apologies. We stopped overnight in Zumaia at Camping Zumaia (a new site in this part of the country and just 10 minutes walk from the town) during the last week of September 2022 and it is now 1 November. Talk about being behind with this blog.

Supper in Camping Zumaia

Colindres (Cantabria), Spain September 2022

With just a few days to go before we were to board our ferry for the trip home (Bilbao to Portsmouth) we headed north to the Bay of Biscay and the small town of Colindres. Vanya had found a nice campsite on the outskirts of Colindres (Camping Playa del Regaton) which is situated on the edge of a National Park and would serve us well for a couple of days. We had things to do. Firstly and most importantly we needed to get the dogs seen by a vet (UK rules require that the dogs must have tapeworm tablets administered by a Vet shortly before their return to the UK) and a vet in Colindres had agreed to do the necessary for just 20 euros. Secondly, there was a fiesta on in nearby Laredo for much of the week and we were not going to miss out on that although it would have to be special to top the one we experienced in Puebla de Sanabria. Thirdly, there’s a hike in nearby Santona (just a short bus ride from Colindres) that I was keen to do.

The drive back to the coast through La Rioja was beautiful….

The drive back to the coast took a little over two hours because I kept stopping to take photos…

Colindres is not a pretty town and there is little of interest there but the walk from the campsite along the Rio Tetro estuary was enjoyable enough and the town is well placed from which to visit a fair few beautiful and/or interesting places. Several UNESCO World Heritage Sites are to be found in this part of Cantabria. There’s also a wetlands bird sanctuary (now a National Park); a number of stunning beaches, including Laredo’s La Salve and Santona’s Berria Beach (sometimes referred to as Playa de San Martin) and; the nearby towns of Laredo, Santona and Liendo are all worth visiting.

There is little to see in the town of Colindres…

During this tour, I was able to visit Laredo (a couple of times) and Santona. To get to Santona I took a bus from Colindres but next time I would be inclined to try the Laredo – Santona ferry.