At Lac de Pardoux we enjoyed hot walks beside the water and watched French teenagers ignoring all the safety signs around the footbridges over the lake. “Don’t jump in from here!” … of course they did. Great whoops of delight from their friends and gasps of horror from everyone else. There were diving and jumping platforms provided but clearly they weren’t scary enough. Before long we saw people of all ages trying new things.
A big highlight was lunch at the lakeside restaurant. Only open that weekend, this was a delightful place where we could sit outside on the terrace, shaded by big umbrellas. In France, a lot of tourist businesses only open in July and August but clearly this unexpected heatwave made it worth opening up. The beach by the lake was full of families and large groups were having picnics on the grass. It was in that restaurant that I discovered my new favourite thing – goats cheese with honey and walnut pizza. What a find! Goats cheese and honey is a big favourite here and since eating that divine pizza we’ve seen it on menus everywhere. Salad with goats cheese and honey, dressed with walnuts and strawberries. Mon Dieu! It is now on our “simple things to eat in the motorhome” list. Dessert was Café Gourmand, small tastes of different desserts with a coffee that brings you back to life after eating so much. Incidentally, the image below comes from Google – ours was polished off long before we thought of taking a picture.
Our next door neighbours in the motorhome parking seemed to barely notice our existence and responded to our greetings, when our paths met occasionally, with apparent reluctance. It was only when we got stuck trying to get off our pitch did the man in the outfit come over and speak to us. It turned out he was a native English speaker! Clearly they were French residents, given their number plate and their confident use of the language. This is something that we have experienced a few times, expats from the UK living in France seem sometimes reluctant to acknowledge Brits on holiday. We would love to understand why that is – perhaps we’re an embarrassment.
Leaving Lac de Pardoux we rumbled back along the narrow lanes in the direction of a little town called Melle in the Deux-Sevres region of Western France. It was Sunday so traffic was light and we made good time. The only reason for stopping at that particular little town was that there was a Camping Car Park that wasn’t far off our route to the west coast. We enjoy just turning up somewhere we’ve never heard of to see what’s there. These parks often make that possible. Many of them are old Municipal Campsites that the local commune can no longer run economically and with a bit of modernising and electronic gates they become unmanned camping places with all facilities for a small amount of money.
When we arrived in Melle we found only one other van parked up. I have to admit a certain feeling of discomfort. The van was old and there was baying coming from inside it when Poppy sniffed the grass on the edge of the pitch. Soon a huge man walked up and greeted us. He spoke rapidly so we did the usual, asking him to please slow down and we might understand a few words. He immediately responded by speaking slowly and clearly and talking about the weather! We might have been at home in the UK. We relaxed a bit until he opened the door to let two huge dogs out. Poppy, barely a quarter of their height, growled menacingly and we told her to shut up. ‘Don’t anger the beasts!’ To our surprise, the man spoke quietly to the dogs and they stood beside him calmly. He then walked them to heel – no leads necessary – after a while brought them back to get their dinner. It seemed he had complete control of them.We were impressed. Later we saw that he was getting his van ready to leave. We also noticed that he was wearing a shirt marked Security. Very politely he bid us goodnight and set off in his van, presumably to work. How quickly we make assumptions about people! Obviously we were more than safe with him around.
It was here that the intense heat of a week ago became a dim and distant memory. Overnight the weather broke in true French fashion with a huge thunderstorm and an eye-watering drop in temperature. We went to bed feeling too hot to have any covers on and woke up shivering. From 34c one day it went down to 14c. It also rained heavily. Setting off with Poppy for her morning walk felt like going back to winter. We would have settled for something in between, given any say at all.
The motorhome parking at Melle stands next to the Voie Verte so Poppy and I enjoyed a brisk off lead walk under trees still dripping from the night’s storms. Along the way we came across what looked like an ancient wash house. There were no signs with information but good old Mr Google came up with the goods and I’ve since discovered that this was the Lavoir de Loubeau.
We moved on the next morning, a decision we now realise was a bit premature. There was a lot more to see in the town. Perhaps we’ll go back one day.
We were heading west with the intention of revisiting the Vendee coast and maybe on to one of the Islands but we were lacking enthusiasm. The truth was that we were still missing our lovely restful pitch in Millau. Looking back with the wisdom of hindsight we were beginning to sense that we might have stayed longer. Nothing since had given us that feeling of peace we had experienced there, although Poppy had made it clear that the same old path every morning was getting a bit boring.
On a long tour it can be difficult to keep any feeling of purpose going. We always talk about this when our enthusiasm starts to flag. We ask ourselves the difficult questions about purpose and meaning and whether we should think again about our lives and the way we use resources. All a bit serious but it feels important to be honest with ourselves and one another. It can get tiring and boring to keep moving but then again staying in one place for weeks on end seems to defeat the purpose of exploring and learning from new places and different people. Having said that we were getting to a point when we would have settled for a long stay somewhere that felt right for us.
The Vendee was one of our big favourites when we were working and could only get away for a maximum of three weeks at a time. The relaxed lifestyle, the cycle routes and having the kind of income that supported going out for dinner several times a week to nice restaurants made it feel very special. So it was with fond memories that we pulled up at the Camping Car Park in La Faute-sur-Mer. I think we’d been there about an hour when we realised that it wasn’t the place for us. Motorhomes were parked close together in a square of land behind the Tourist Office. The parking spots were flat and all the services were provided but we couldn’t rid ourselves of the feeling that we were in a car park. We were in excellent proximity to all things seaside, shops with buckets and spades, bars and take away food shops. All of them were quintessentially French and quite smart but it did nothing for us. It was also noticeably cooler than inland and we shivered as we walked Poppy to the Grand Plage.
We sat down together, back in the van with the windows closed to keep the warmth in and a cup of tea to discuss what we were looking for. Here was the list: We want: space to spread out; being close to a small town or village where real people live; we would like to go out for lunch to a local eatery; we definitely don’t want to be in tourist heaven.
The next morning we decided on two things. One was to move on and the other was to do a bit of shopping. We have been in the EU since March 31st and we have bought only food and a few bits of essential practical things. Shirley wanted some new trainers and I wanted a local SIM card as our UK ones were making threatening noises about using too many GBs. We had been advised that the best place for the latter was a big LeClerc where you can buy one of their very own SIM cards and get a lot of GBs for your E. If none of that makes any sense to you be grateful that you’ve never had to negotiate using mobile data away from the UK and forget all about it. If you are wondering about touring in Europe and finding the most efficient and cheapest method of using mobile data then a REGLO data sim card from leClerc is an excellent option. Cheap, efficient and just pay until you don’t need it any more. 15 euros for 120 GB is an excellent price. Enough of the boring stuff.
Next stage was planning a route that took in both a large LeClerc and a Decathlon before going on to our pitch for a couple of days. We decided to drive to La Roche sur Yon for the two shops in question and then on to a neat little CCP in Mouilleron-Saint-Germain. To be honest we only chose the latter because it was a reasonable distance from La Roche and it looked like it had good pitches and was peaceful. The route looked splendidly simple on Google maps so we set off with confidence. Nothing prepared us for the madness of the ring road around La Roche. We’ve been here once before but the mists of time had made it seem like an easy drive. Shirley was driving and she somehow kept her cool when we were sent around numerous roundabouts whilst avoiding crazed drivers obviously in so much of a hurry that they were prepared to try to overtake our huge bus on one lane. Diversions took us into housing estates with hundreds of other vehicles and we got lost trying to get into Decathlon’s car park. In LeClerc’s Culturel section (how very upmarket that sounds – it’s in effect a section of the store that sells electronics) the staff were immensely helpful and showed me how to go about buying a Sim card. You have to have your passport (or identity card if you are French) and then pay for the card at one till where your address is noted down. Then you take your new packet with card inside and proof of purchase to another desk who will set it going for you. Back at the van it went into our Mifi and we were all set up with oodles of data that we can use anywhere. It will link to up to ten devices but that’s overkill for us. We run six (2 x phones, 2 x iPads and 2 x laptops). Decathlon provided us both with new trainers (I wasn’t going to be left out) and some new socks then we were ready to fight our way out onto the ring road and off to our stop for the night. What we hadn’t reckoned on was the closure of several roads in the vicinity of the town making the journey more stressful than it might have been but we got there in one piece and without a single four letter word being uttered. Are we getting soft? Has age mellowed us? Answers not necessary.
Mailleron-Saint-Germain, pictured at the top of the page, is a lovely little town in the middle of the Vendee countryside. The Camping Car Park there is the old Municipal Campsite and we got tucked into a lovely hard standing pitch with its own bit of garden.
Wandering up to the town we found a small supermarket, a boulangerie, a second hand shop and many pictorial information boards about the lives of the town’s most famous residents. Georges Clemenceau, once the Prime Minister of France and Jean de Lattre a WW11 French chief of staff. Although we have no knowledge of French history we found the huge photographs with short pieces of information quite interesting, especially when we had to work hard to translate them fully. The sun was shining, the village was quiet and we felt completely comfortable.
The next day we met a lady with no teeth in the street who stopped to make a fuss of Poppy. You might think that we have an obsession with people’s teeth having commented on something similar previously but this is honestly not the case. It was just that understanding her was particularly challenging. She was also speaking very rapidly so I interrupted and told her, in French, that we were English speakers and please could she talk more slowly. She stopped abruptly, did a little double take, and then responded slowly and carefully in simple words. She was such a friendly lady and so willing to chat to us and listen to our faltering responses that we parted feeling really happy. We think that the conversation had included how her dog had found her husband dead in his bed which was awkward because not being completely certain that we had understood her correctly made us hesitant to look too downcast on her behalf. First of all she referred to him as Le Patron (The Boss) which might be the French term for one’s male spouse but on the other hand might not. Secondly the dog definitely went upstairs and came down sad but was that connected? This is the problem with trying to learn another language – those common expressions that aren’t included in Higher French. Afterwards, on comparing notes, we agreed that we had both heard something like that and agreed that for certain someone had died – we just weren’t certain where the dog came into it. It wasn’t the most cheerful of encounters but we were still delighted to have met her and she left obviously uplifted by meeting us – to be honest it didn’t look like there were many people in residence and she had told us she was lonely with only her dog for company. All in all, a poignant moment and it confirmed what we always knew – meeting people makes the journey.