Strange and Familiar

We are winging our way down a well-driven, well-known to us route towards south west France and some very familiar places as well as some yet unexplored. This return visit comes soon after our spring Brittany trip, so I’m back into the routine of packing the van [although I’m more efficient with a few days notice] and tackling van life.

The weather on this long, bank holiday and UK Jubilee weekend is what weatherpeople like to term ‘unsettled’, which usually means wet. I’m a little sad to miss our street’s Jubilee party- not because I harbour patriotic thoughts about our monarchy but because I’d have been delighted to mingle with all our lovely neighbours.

As timing would have it, it’s a double bank holiday for France, too, with Monday and Tuesday closing for just about everything- except perhaps the bakeries and restaurants.

On leaving Cherbourg Port we go on a wild goose chase on this last Saturday before the close down, to find an ‘Orange’ outlet and get a sim card, locating it after a time-wasting search and then having to wait 30 minutes for a member of staff who is able to deal with me, the awkward, old bat who wants a new data card for mobile wifi. But the guy is charming and well chosen, managing everything with a smile.

Then we adjust the night stop plan for a more manageable one, opting to pootle down the Cherbourg peninsula coast a bit and park up in an aire, of which there are a few. The aire at Gouville-sur-Mer is busy with French motorhomes but there is space for us and it’s a stunning view of the huge beach, a sky full of glowering storm clouds hovering above. The tide is out and horse-drawn trailer rides make the view more picturesque than ever.

Then it’s on southwards, planning to stop at Nantes for a night but it’s fully booked on this Bank Holiday so we press on and to a town called Parthenay and a site in out ACSI book. It’s nice enough, by a park and a river, for a couple of nights, althought he weather is unsettled and we wake to rain. When it clears up we walk by the river to the centre of the town, which has some medieval parts and a 13th century citadel. We can see the citadel in the distance on our way in, looking impressive, perched on the top of this hilltop town, although finding the entrance is more difficult than Alice finding her way into the garden [in ‘Looking Glass’].

The streets leading into the centre are lined with closed down and dilapidated shops as well as poor condition homes, even the historic, half-timbered ones falling to pieces. But the town’s central square is filled with loud music, stalls and revellers for the Fete of the Pentecote, so it’s not all bad! We have a wander round the stalls and into an enormous marquee which houses, amongst other sellers, a furniture outlet, a stairlift supplier and a purveyor of nougat…

The stalls continue along the streets- churros, gallettes, ice creams, rifle ranges and burgers all in abundance. The road surfaces are deep in confetti- presumably part of the previous day’s [Sunday] religious parades.

A choice of a random street leads us at last to the citadel gate, with no indication of its presence whatsoever; but it’s impressive, if casually presented, squeezed between buildings , the interior a car park.

There are, however great views over the terracotta roofs and down the valley, the gardens lush with flowers and vegetables. We walk back down to our site, past wonderful old medieval walls dotted with wildflowers. Parthenay, like so many places, is in urgent need of an economic leg up and some investment into its historic features.

Next morning we’re off again, heading south- and the weather is hotting up…

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

How we Roll-

P1060057

These days we cross the English Channel [our most trodden travel path] by taking the line of least resistance-and since we live a few miles from Poole that line is Brittany Ferries to Cherbourg, a four-hour crossing leaving at 8.30am.
Despite the proximity we know better than to hang about and we are sure to leave home by 7.00am. Once, inspired by Husband’s ‘It’s only half an hour away-we’ve got oodles of time-we don’t need to be there until five minutes before’, we arrived at the barrier just as the ferry was about to leave and winged it up the ramp with minutes to spare.
The ferry, the ‘Barfleur’ [named after a Normandy coastal town] is comfortable and familiar by now. We know that once on board there will be good coffee and fresh, buttery croissants as well as comfortable reclining couchettes in a quiet salon in the bowels of the ship. We know that we can mooch around the small boutique and peruse the eclectic array of merchandise both useful and otherwise. There will be WiFi and television news.
Mostly, these days the ship is peopled with retirees or young couples with pre-school children because since retirement we have the choice of avoiding school holidays. This time, however by setting off a little earlier we are beset by knots of excited, shrieking children who still have time for a quick taste of France before knuckling down to learning their tables. They gallop about the ship, throng around the games room, chase each other from the bar to the restaurant, use loud devices and shout to each other. I surprise myself by enjoying their excitement, which reminds me how I felt on early trips abroad when every experience was new.
A sulky boy wearing a onesie in a bear design makes several circuits past our table with his lecturing mother, prompting me to wonder what he has done and if his excitement got the better of him. A tiny, table-height toddler staggers about, chased by his doting father and shielded from protruding table corners by the various diners he is entertaining.
In the quiet zone I open my Kindle and continue reading Alan Bennett’s ‘Keep On Keeping On’, which is part diary/part memoir/part lecture in itself and a treasury of informative and amusing anecdotes. A couple of rows behind us two men slumber whilst between them a young boy plays on and with a mobile phone, the sound of which is just a little distracting-loud enough to hear but not enough to decipher. Husband, whose own hearing has been compromised during the last few years is immune to such irritations and dozes off easily.
We arrive to Cherbourg, disembark and set off-not tearing southwards as usual but this time meandering across the Cherbourg peninsula to the coastal town of Barfleur itself, where we have lunch and a wander around the curving harbour followed by drinking coffee. Then we continue a few miles on to St Vaast, another harbour town with a convenient aire for us to park up in.

P1060046  P1060055  P1060053

St Vaast is a delectable place; full of seafood cafes, narrow alleys lined with pretty seaside homes and beautiful gardens, boulangeries packed with luscious pastries, breads and tarts, a crowded marina and a working fishing harbour where sturdy mussel boats are tied up.

There are many, many West coast ports like this, with harbourside brasseries serving the freshest shellfish you can get. We take advantage and I am able to enjoy my favourite treat-a plate of fat oysters nestling on a bed of ice and tasting of the sea.

We stay 2 days despite the drizzly intervals and walk the coastal sea wall to see ‘La Hougue’, part of some anti-British defences of 1664. Then it’s time to move on.