Jonzac turned out to be a lovely mediaeval market town. From the motorhome aire we could walk into the town, browse the shops and watch the world go by. Our French neighbours were friendly and, when they met us in the town after the gate debacle were genuinely delighted that we’d finally been allowed to come in.
John and Cath, who we’d met at the previous stopover had told us that there were thermal pools with jacuzzis, roman baths, steam rooms and saunas to be enjoyed. I have to admit I was doubtful. The town seemed too small and we could see nothing to advertise these watery delights. ‘Perhaps we’ve come to the wrong Jonzac’ we thought. France is such a huge country and there are often numerous towns in different regions with the same name. Oh we of little faith! On the morning after our arrival, Shirley happened upon the thermal pools in an enormous futuristic building just a 10 minute walk from our parking place. After checking with reception that they would let us in and that there were no more electronic entrances waiting to cause us embarrassment, she shot back to the van with two confused dogs in tow and filled me in on the exciting news. We could go and enjoy all the bubbly delights of the pools and even go to the gym if we wanted for 23€ for a couple and we could stay all day if we wanted. We discounted the gym immediately but were soon packing our swimming stuff and marching over the green area on the other side of the school. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Les Antilles de Jonzac from a distance. It looked like a cross between Center Parcs and an enormous circus tent. Before long we were floating around in warm water, being gently carried along by a current that gave the impression that you were a half decent swimmer. We sat in the bubble pools, steamed in the steam room and even found a relaxation area with waterproof bean bags and gentle music playing. Getting into the Roman Bath was a bit of a surprise as it was as hot as a real bath with ferocious bubbles that caused us some hilarity when the top of Shirley’s swimsuit blew up to about twice its normal proportions. It was only after we’d squeaked and giggled like kids that we saw the sign asking people to remain silent to allow others to relax. There is also an outdoor pool where we swam outside in the sunshine. Floating in the warm waters I struck up a conversation with an English lady who lives in the area and pays a monthly membership to use the facilities. She seemed to be reluctant to have a conversation. It seems that there is a definite social divide between a resident and a tourist, even if they are both British. Either that or she’d caught me giggling in the Roman Bath.
Jonzac is high up on our list of ‘must return one day’ destinations. The aire de camping cars is a little expensive as they charge for services on top of the 8€ a day parking fee but it is well equipped and has a special surface to park on that drains even in heavy rain so you don’t bring mud into the van. Well you won’t bring mud into the van as long as you don’t have a Poppy with you. We call her Pigpen as a term of endearment. The included wifi wasn’t working when we were there but after we experienced the shonky nature of the software at the entrance gate that didn’t surprise us. Incidentally, we saw another three French vans getting stuck at the gate after us so we didn’t feel too bad about it. The problem was that the first thing you see at eye level is a sign that says “Put your payment card in here”. Too late you see a tiny sign at about knee level that says, “Under no circumstances put your card in the slot until you have answered the questions on the screen.” The screen is set at about 6 ft height so we didn’t even see it until one of the friendly Frenchmen came over and pointed it out. He couldn’t reach it either. So full marks to Jonzac for being a beautiful, friendly and interesting place with a superb water park but its grasp of technology left a lot to be desired and they would have been better off with a man in a hut and a flat cap taking your money.
We spent our last morning at the market in Jonzac, looking at fish we couldn’t identify and beautiful locally grown vegetables. Back at the van we braved the service point that also demanded a series of questions. including an 8 digit code before we could empty the toilet and fill up with fresh water and then set off for our next destination – Blaye on the Gironde estuary just north of Bordeaux.
Blaye motorhome aire is a gem. It stands at the foot of a 17th century citadel and overlooks the wide estuary of the Gironde river, the largest estuary in Europe, just before it opens out into the ocean. The site was first used by the Romans in the 6th century as a military base. For the princely sum of 3€ a night you can park up, enjoy the view, walk round the citadel and drink beer in the local cafés. The citadel is a Unesco World Heritage site and has a wonderful atmosphere with ancient polished cobbled streets and tiny houses and shops inside. Local artisans have shops in the citadel and there is also a campsite, a vineyard and a hotel.
Visitors can wander freely through its streets and almost imagine the bustle of life there when it was a fortified town. Along the perimeter walls there are cannons, waiting to fire on intruders attempting to get up the river to Bordeaux – although I think they stopped doing that a while ago. River cruisers call into the town and groups of visitors of all nationalities can be seen taking organised tours around the walls and through the town. On the first night, a Johnny Depp look alike knocked on our door and after Boo threatened to take him on, he told us that there would be a market the next day and he would be there selling his family wines. “Come along and see me and taste some if you like,” he invited in that charming way that is so uniquely French. We promised we would and indeed we did.
The market turned out to be enormous and we wandered around open mouthed to see the fabulous local products on display. French ladies were buying meat, fish and stacks of vegetables, placing them carefully in their lethal but useful shopping trolleys. We realised, as we looked around, that French food markets are not a place to look for bargains, they are places to buy superb local produce. We considered buying some radishes to add to the salad we had waiting in the fridge for tea but as they were selling it in enormous bunches, we realised that we couldn’t possibly do them justice and the after effects of so many radishes could be unpleasant. Instead we bought a rotisserie chicken, fresh from the farm and 5 litres of Johnny Depp’s wine in a box. “I think you will like this one,” he whispered in his sexy French voice, “It is more fruity and less tannic.” He was right. It’s gorgeous.
We stayed two nights in Blaye and would have stayed longer if it only had a service point. There was some evidence that they might be putting one in to cater for the dozens of motorhomes that were coming and going the whole time we were there. That evening we were sitting enjoying our view of the water when the sun went in very suddenly. Then we saw that the sun was still here. We were being overshadowed by an enormous motorhome, the size of a double decker bus that had pulled in beside us and blocked our view entirely. Not only did he cast a massive shadow but he got out, went into his massive garage and put his generator on. I admit to a bit of garage envy and irritation too. Generators are noisy and generally considered to be anti social when parked up close to another motorhome. On the up-side, his van created a very welcome windbreak, when the wind blew mightily through the night. Just as well we were leaving the next morning.
As we drove out of the town we agreed that Blaye was joining Jonzac as a place we will visit again.
Onwards and eastwards we went, this time heading in the direction of the Dordogne. In the book ‘All the Aires for Motorhomes’ we saw a nice aire in Branne on the banks of the Dordogne with a service point. After our two days at Blaye we needed to empty the loo and get some fresh water on board so it sounded like a plan. it wasn’t. The service point was out of order and there were no visible signs of motorhome parking so we moved on. Next we saw a vineyard advertised with parking for motorhomes and wine tasting. The cost was 5€ but you could get a refund if you bought some wine. We were in the St Emilion area so we thought it unlikely we could afford the wine but we were happy to shell out 5€ and enjoy being in a vineyard for an overnight stay. On arrival we were met by a man on a bike who said immediately. “I can speak English”. “Great,” I replied then was left openmouthed when he said, “I don’t want your 5€ but you can only stay here if you want to buy wine. If not, go away.” I don’t usually name and shame but if you are considering visiting Chateau Gerbaud at St Pey D’Armens near Libourne, I suggest you give it a swerve. The normal procedure is that you taste the wine and buy it if you like it. Many vineyard owners allow motorhomers to stay on their land and offer tastings but it isn’t acceptable to demand that you promise to buy wine before you’ve even tasted it. Camper Contact lists the same place and others report the same attitude from the owner. We left.
Our third and thankfully successful attempt at an overnight stop was in Port St Foye et Ponchapt on the river Dordogne in the direction of Bergerac. Here we found sloped but ample parking, right on the riverside, free services and fabulous walks along the river. It’s a big town with lots going on and we slept well, if a bit tilted backwards, in the shadow of a church and under the big trees that shelter the river bank. It’s a great spot and we recommend it – just don’t do what we did and think you don’t need your levelling blocks. By the time we were in bed and the blood was rushing to our heads we were too lazy to get up and put them under the back wheels. The blocks not our heads you understand.
Our only regret about this lovely place and the thing that had us moving on the next morning, was the masses of sticky bushes on the riverside that filled Poppy’s coat with sharp seed pods that turned her ears inside out and stuck them to the back of her head. This is unlikely to be a problem to anyone else as the path is perfectly wide enough for any normal creatures to walk without ending up looking like a hairy beast that has had a fight with a wild cat. We set off again with the awful realisation that we were going to have to bath her again later. In the meantime we put her in her harness and set about her ears with scissors before she got stuck to Boo.
We’ve been in France for almost three weeks. We’re having a blast wandering semi-aimlessly from place to place and hoping for some more sunshine before we give in and head to Spain and Portugal. Thanks for travelling with us folks!