Well, it’s been nearly a week and there’s a lot to catch up on, so brace yourselves. Grab a coffee and a cake and fasten your seatbelts …
Setting the satnav for Rocamadour whilst still in the town of Sarlat presented a challenge that we were unwilling to face. The tight turns and tiny roads filled with hundreds of holidaymakers, children with no road sense and badly parked cars caused a level of bum squeaking that we couldn’t cope with so we chose the widest road at a junction and went that way, expecting the satnav to come up with a better way. It didn’t. The damned thing kept trying to get us to turn around and go back into the fiery flames of motorhome unfriendly Sarlat centre. At one point it suggested we turn around at a roundabout that was so tiny you would have been hard-pressed to turn a mini round on it. So we just kept driving, waiting for the satnav, that had now been given a selection of insulting and filthy names, to realise that we wanted to go a different way and avoid the town. The map told us that we were heading north where Rocamadour was south but we ploughed on, imagining that by some miracle a reasonably sized road going south-east would appear. It did, but not for another forty miles made up of twisting, turning country lanes. The air in Holly was a shade of blue. One moment of relief came when we happened upon a tiny country town with an Intermarché supermarket and a Laverie (outdoor laundrette), so we stopped, put the washing in and had brunch and strong coffee. That helped – although I have to report that I still don’t have my much dreamed of coffeepot, so it was the instant kind. Our planned move to Rocamadour was getting more distant as we drove and we felt a bit silly but as there was no-one to put in a complaint, except the dogs who didn’t give a toss as long as they got a bit of a walk while we waited for the washing to finish, we decided that it really didn’t matter that we’d wasted a few litres of diesel going in the wrong direction.
Having both done our share of driving on tiny roads, meeting massive farm traffic and white delivery vans driving like they do, we decided to stop at another aire on the road to Rocamadour. We’d looked at the map and realised that after a few miles on a motorway we were going to be back to tiny twisting roads again and we just didn’t have the stomach for it and to be honest, our relationship might have suffered as much as our nerves if we kept going. We stopped at a lovely little town called Martel. Here we had one of those happy moments when we realised that we’d stopped somewhere lovely quite by accident. Martel is a delightful ancient town with interesting shops, a beautiful old market square, lots of cobbled streets to wander through and a steam railway taking tourists along the Dordogne river. To be strictly accurate it went along a railway track beside the Dordogne. We missed the daily train trip and the next one wasn’t until late afternoon the next day so we didn’t manage to partake of this interesting tourist delight but we put it on the list of ‘we’ll come back here one day’.
Sitting beside the van with our feet up in the heat of the late afternoon, drinking cold beer and eating local paté and olives we honestly felt like we’d landed in heaven. The fact that it was a large free parking area for motorhomes didn’t bother us one jot, we could look out over the fields, feel the warmth of the sun and relax. There is nothing like it.
The next morning, having visited the motorhome service point which is free, although strangely placed at the other end of the town, we set off for the much anticipated Rocamadour.
Taking advantage of yet another free overnight parking space in a pleasant corner of the coach park, we set off to explore this amazing place. The town is set into very steep rock sides, so steep that a funicular railway is provided for those of us who would find the hundreds of steep steps too challenging. Halfway down there is an ancient pilgrimage church with a shrine to the Black Madonna that seems to cause a bit of excitement to the faithful. Slightly irreverently, I was reminded of Allo’ Allo’ and the Madonna with the one …. you get my drift. And to be really honest, I found the place rather spooky and was relieved to go to the bottom of the incline and walk through the tourist tat shops, eat an outrageous crepe with Nutella and whipped cream, drink strong coffee. We also bought some local goat’s cheese and a cheap rainbow design shoulder bag that in theory, I can’t lose. In a couple of weeks I might want to do just that, but right then it seemed like a good idea.
We woke the next morning to dense fog, freezing cold conditions and gratitude for the blown air gas heating that thawed us all out. We set off carefully, realising that the next part of our journey involved some more twisting roads and a steep descent. Fortunately, the fog soon cleared and we bowled along in the sunshine towards our next destination – Vers, a town at the confluence of the Lot and the Dordogne river.
Vers had been recommended to us by the Yorkshire folk we met on the boat trip earlier in the week. We were told that we should definitely have a meal at La Truite Dorée (Golden Trout) so we decided to push the boat out and have a proper French dinner. The aire there is an absolute peach, close to river bank walks, and all kinds of options for places to park, including grassy spots with picnic benches provided. Shirley strolled up to the restaurant and booked us a table for the evening and we showered and got out some clothes that weren’t quite as scruffy as our usual motorhoming gear, even spraying on a little perfume to mark the occasion. Off we trotted to the restaurant, feeling that slightly nervous excitement about doing something a bit different and with our stomachs rumbling. Wow! What a fabulous place! The front was all lit up with sparkling fairy lights, the inside warm and welcoming and the food wonderful. We shared a bottle of local wine, enjoyed the congenial atmosphere as the place filled with local families, out for a pleasant evening together and the residents of the hotel. The place was completely full by 8.00 p.m. and the service remained unfailingly kind, polite and charming. We had a wonderful evening and rolled home just before ten with the happy thought that we had a long sleep to look forward to, in our chosen quiet and level spot. Wrong! The bells of the two local churches rang every hour, every quarter and every half hour all night long! We were incredulous, especially as they were set about two minutes apart so you got a double dose each time. We woke up cold and frazzled but once again the heating, a hot drink and a walk along the river bank with the dogs, put us to rights and we agreed that without doubt, this was one of our best experiences of eating out in France. Sitting in the warm, considering our next option, we were surprised and delighted to get a text from friends, Mo and Ken, we had met last year to tell us that they were heading to Gastes. This aire has been on our list as a ‘must visit’ since we met a couple on the ferry who sang its praises. Looking at the map we realised that with the wind behind us we could get there in a day and join them.
Hang on – we’re on our way!
Quick as quick things we had the van in travelling mode, the wastewater emptied and the dogs in their harnesses and we were off. We bypassed Cahors, even though it is still on our ‘must go back’ list and headed west. The clocks had changed the night before and as we drove, the effects of the hell’s bells from the night before, along with the strange sensation that it was a lot later than the clock told us, caused us to realise that we were too tired to do the whole trip in a day. We needed to find an overnight stop. This proved more difficult than we hoped and included getting lost, finding a place that was full and, on turning round, being offered a place to stay by a shifty looking character with a posh car and a very visible gold tooth. Eventually, we decided on Marmande where we were promised plenty of space, electric hook up and full services. What we didn’t expect was the satnav guiding us gently through tiny one-way streets, past open-mouthed people who couldn’t believe our stupidity, instead of the direct route that we found later. Not to worry, we were soon parked up on a flat pitch in a lovely country park with all the electric and water we could possibly need. Yes, it costs 9€ a night but it’s worth it. If you’re considering visiting you should know that it closes on November 1st for the winter – we just slipped in under the wire on the 30th October.
The sun was shining as we rolled into the aire at Gastes and we were met by the smiling faces of Mo and Ken, their kettle was on, chairs out in the sunshine and we instantly relaxed. Gastes is close to Biscarosse south of Bordeaux and it has probably the best aire we have ever visited. Our front windows overlooked the marina and the lake with leisure boats moored right in front of us. There is plenty of space to spread out, an efficient service point, miles of off-road walking and cycling beside the lake with beaches dotted en route to stop and gaze over the blue water. This idyllic spot is all yours for 4.50€ per night out of season and 8€ in high season. It comes out top on our list of best places to stay in France in a motorhome for absolute certain although I believe it gets pretty full in high season and so isn’t as pleasant.
Of course, meeting up with Mo and Ken added extra shine to our four nights in this little piece of paradise. Each night we met up in one of the vans for games of cards and a lot of laughter. They taught us some new games including one using dominos called Chicken Foot that involved making noises like chickens laying eggs and other such foolishness. We’ve missed spending time with friends so this four-night break was a real blessing. One evening we had a barbecue and lit our little folding fire pit to sit around while we ate. it was pitch dark and we couldn’t see for the life of us what we were eating but it didn’t matter one jot. The flames from the fire were magical and the company was good – what more could we possibly want?
The next morning we did, in fact, think of something else we really needed – a haircut. Shirley trotted around the corner to a small group of shops and found a hairdresser. I had an agreement with her that she could make an appointment for me if she hadn’t come out looking like a coconut. She returned looking both shorn and tres chic and told me that it was my turn at 3.30. The hairdresser spoke no English and Shirley was rightly proud of the fact that she had managed quite a bit of small talk with her.
Shirley’s comment: “I was proud of the fact that I spoke enough French to make small talk but what I didn’t realise at the time was that I seemed to have asked for a Hermann Munster fringe. My fellow travellers didn’t laugh so it can’t be that bad – I hope”
I turned up for my appointment to find that, unlike Shirley’s experience, the salon was now very busy, two stylists were working on three people and I had to wait. The hairdresser kept offering me a magazine but I don’t read Ok magazine in English so I’m not going to suffer it in French. I didn’t say that of course – just smiled and declined her offer. I might have reacted differently if I’d realised that the wait was going to be forty minutes. I spent the time trying to understand the rapid-fire chat that was being shouted over the sound of dryers and local radio but I failed most of the time. The only person I could understand was a four-year-old girl – this, presumably, is a good indicator of my level of French except I know more swear words than the average four-year-old. There was no gentle chat for me, I was shorn in concentrated silence with the stylist leaving me every two minutes to poke at a lady who was having highlights done. I kept praying that she was being careful not to bring the dye on her fingers back to my hair as it seemed to be bright orange but I was safe enough. I watched most of my hair fall to the floor and then winced when the shaving clippers came out – did I give the wrong instructions? Am I getting a number two all over? Once one side was cut to the bone I couldn’t do anything but go with it. I’m glad to report that although I have never had such a short haircut in my life I love it … and it will last for weeks. Result!