Bay of Biscay : Finisterre

As we left Morbihan and headed west toward Finisterre damp and chilly weather was forecast for the next week and at this time of year campsites are becoming scarce as they close for the winter. We decided to to head for our one last stop on our trip around the bay and to indulge ourselves with the luxury of a cabin for a few nights. Treboul – Douarnenez is 20km past Quimper on the south west corner of the Bai de Douarnenez. Douarnenez is famous historically for the sardine fishing industry and incidentally it is from here that the French Resistance sailed to and from Great Britain in WWII. On 18th June 1940 men from Douarnenez were among the first to sail to Great Britain to join General De Gaul become the Free French army.

I should explain that for several years we had a house in Treboul so the town is like our home in Brittany. We know it and the surrounding areas very well so even though we had not been here for a few years once we were on the road to Quimper it was all very familiar. We pitched up on a nice site which us just 500 metres from the Port du Plaisance of Treboul so an easy walk to the local shops and restaurants and of course our favourite Leclerc supper market. I had to smile while we were shopping in Leclerc when I bumped into my freind Olivier Youinou and promised to see him for coffee in a few days.

We spent Friday pottering around starting with a trip into the beautiful city of Quimper. It has a very classy, for which also read expensive, shopping district an a fabulous cathedral which for once did not have any hoardings or scaffold around it. It was a bright morning but very chilly so eventually after a cup of coffee in the sun we headed to the stores on the edge of town. My first stop was to Brico Depot, the absolute dogs whatsits when it comes to DIY and where we spent a lot of money when we were renovating our house, to find a tap fitting that I can’t get at home that I need to do a mod to the sink tap in the van. Next up we went into the huge Leclerc Hypermarket to look for a couple of warm pullovers – yes it was getting that cold.

And then to Saturday and the final part of our trip around the Bay of Biscay which took close to 1500 miles and 4 weeks. This end of Brittany was called Finis Terre by the Romans, Latin for End of the World, just like they named Cabo Finisterre in Spain and hence the Departement du Finisterre ( 29 ) in France. It is about 20km from Treboul to the absolute tip, the Point du Raz, that sts amongs an area designated as a national park. The point itself is a huge heather and gorse covered area sitting atop rocky cliffs looking out ove the Athlantic Ocean toward North America. On top of the point is a large coastal look out station and on the various rocks below are a number of lighthouses. Situated a 8km offshore is the low rocky island of the Ile de Sein just 1800m x 500m it is entirely one village.

 

The sea around the the Point du Raz is often a frothy mess where the currents swirl around the point and giant waves crash over the lighthouses. Even on nice days it is rarely quiet. On the headland and from the cliffs you watch all manor of bird life that changes over the year with the seasons. Often you can see dolphins swimming below presumably compete Inn with the fishermen for what sardines remain in these waters today. This weekend however the weather was flat calm so much so that you would have been safe swimming in the clear blue water around the point. The tide was along way out so that all the rocks were well exposed. The air was so clear that for the first time we can remember we could make out big ships on the horizon and see Brest clearly to the north.

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So here we accomplished what we set out to do, drive around the Bay of Biscay, it just took a bit longer than driving around Normans Bay at home.

Bay of Biscay : Carnac Megaliths

Getting close to our end point we stopped near Carnac to walk amongst the megalithic alignments and sites that always impress.

A morning of cold grey drizzle on the motorway north through Nantes behind us we arrived in Locmariaquer to the west of the Golfe Du Morbihan in clearing weather. Planning ahead had become more difficult now because so many sites were shutting up for the winter and those that were open had limited facilities and often decidedly worn pitches. We still managed to find a comfortable spot for a few days from which to explore the Neolithic sites.

The coast and beaches around Morbihan are nice but more often suited to Oyster farming. Locmariaquer is on the western spit where the entrance to the gulf is reduced to just a couple of hundred metres. The effect of this on the tide is dramatic and it surges in and out of the gulf. The village itself is almost the ususal small Bretagne seaside village except for its important Megalith and Cairn.

Carnac Allignments

We have visited the Carnac Alignments several times before but never when it was possible to walk among the stones. These neolithic alignments are in several ranges spread over a few kilometres. The stones were first raised Between 4000BC and 5000BC. Today there are approximately 1200 of the possible 3000 that were originally erected but have since been robbed out or vandalised. Even some of the present stones have been replaced or raised from a recumbent position as it is only in the last 150 years that the government has managed to take control of them. There really is nothing that can compare to these ancient symbols. Stonehenge is spectacular for the size of its stones and the distance they came from and there are many other interesting prehistoric sites. However when you gaze upon the shear scale of what was done at Carnac by plain old brute force and for what who knows?

We walked among the Menac and Kemario alignments before delving up a muddy track through the forest to take a look at a part we had not seen before. The Geant du Manio and Qudrilatere du Menhir. The Geant is is a huge lone menhir that stands 6.5 metres high.

We meandered back to Locmariaquer around the coast and stopped for lunch with a gorgeaous view over the water to La Trinité and across to Quiberon before strolling around the marina at La Trinité to admire the enormous ocean racing trimarans that are seemingly sculpted fro carbon fibre.

img_1420That evening Sue very bravely embarked upon pizza but this time with somehwat unknown bread flour from Intermarche. Good though they were we can’t recommend that flour although the variation in temperature may not have helped in proving the dough.

The following day we took a look at the tide surge at the mouth of the gulf and then around the beach. Fred really is quite amusing sometimes, we walked quite a way along the beach but would not let him go in the water because it was a bit weedy and scummy and to be frank he already smells enough when he gets wet, however once we got a clear bit he was straight in just for a few minutes and was happy as if he had just scratched that itch.

That afternoon we paid a visit to the local neolithic site including the Menhir de Brise that would have stood 20 metres high when it was erected along with a line of smaller stones around 4700BC. This giant stone weighing in at 330 tonnes is of a type of rock that occurs at least 10km away and would have been dragged to this site. The menhir fell and broke, probably due to earth tremors, around 4000BC and smaller stones are long got robbed for other structures on this site and elsewhere. Also on the site are 2 seperate grave monuments. The first is the Table des Marchands a dolmen that has been partly reconstructed. It was originally constructed with pieces of stone with decorative carvings that show they came from the adjacent broken and missing menhirs. Then there is the Er-Grah tumulus that started life as a cairn before 4000BC and was extended to a 140 metre long tumulus that was completed around 3300BC. Here the remains of the grave goods here were found to contain axe heads and precious stones of a rock found in Northern Spain. Obviously the grave of an important person.

Our 2 day cultural trip to visit the stones left us in awe yet again of what these people achieved so long ago. Something to ponder as we headed further west to our “home” in Finistere.

Bay of Biscay : Vendee

As we left Gujan-Mestras the first and most important thing was a visit to the local Leclerc to stock up for a few days. We have learned that decamping, walking Fred and then visiting a supermarket takes the best part of a morning. Making sure we avoided motorways we headed north up the western side of the Medoc region. Years ago we did the eastern side from Bordeaux to the northern tip that takes you through the vineyards but just a few kilometres west and we were traveling through forests and agriculture. Surprisingly we passed a whole area of giant circular fields, circular because of the computer controlled irrigation rigs that swivel around a central point. We presumed that some of these were on their second crop of the year, something that was confirmed when we came across Rape flowering at the end of September. There were also freshly ploughed fields several of which looked like they were planted with potatoes or carrots. Somewhere during the day we also came across a huge glass house complex that was there to grow tomatoes. The road passed through some attractive towns and villages, some influenced by tourism at the coast just a short distance away. These places always look nice when the sun is shining and there are few tourists.

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We made it time for the mid afternoon ferry across the mouth of the Gironde to Royan. Quite important because the next one would we have run us into the evening.  We drove through Royan and its environs to Saint Palais sur Met all of which are stacked with classy resort properties. We found a compfortable campsite whose population included a number of British campers who seemed to have formed a community, definitely something to avoid. The following day we skirted the popular resorts of La Rochelle and the Isle de Re and headed for Les Sables d’Olonne, a resort with a classy seafront and famous in sailing for the Vendée Globe race.

Last time we visited the town was on a on a wet day in June. The only difference this time was that it was September and we stayed two nights so we could have a look around. The only camp site that as open was in in the dunes on the edge of town. It was a large holiday park with a handful of touring places and nice facilities. The beach was what by now was the usual miles of sand and surf backed by dunes and forest that made for nice walks. We spent Sunday morning walking the promenades and had our picnic lunch overlooking the marina and where the Vendée Globe establishment sets up every 4 years.

The 1st of October was here and we had been on the road for just over 4 weeks. You will have gathered by now that the weather was starting to cool down and worse still was turning autumnal. It was very grey and drizzly when we headed north from Les Sables d’Olonne so we decided to head for Morbihan, the start of Brittany.

Bay of Biscay : Biarritz and Landes

Friday and half way though our journey we are back in France and looking for somewhere to stay between St Jean de Lutz and Biarritz. It’s almost a relief to have road signage and that we can see and it means something. First things first though off the peage at the first junction and into Leclerc for some essentials, bread and a T shirt.

This strip of coast is chockablock with camp sites of varying quality and car parks full of surfers in VW vans. The reviews in the guides are very mixed so we opt to start with a municiple site that had reasonable reviews. It wasn’t very exciting and it was full. We drove past several others before arriving at Tamaris Plage. This site had mixed reviews but it was a revelation. It had been revamped for this season with a luxury pool and facilitiesso it became home for 3 nights. The temperatures were up to 23C in the shade so felt more like 30C in the afternoon and it was great to be able to sit out of an evening and enjoy a glass or two and another of Sue’s excellent pizzas.

The local beaches along the coast here aren’t so great. The sand is very gritty and when the tide goes out there is a lot of rock. Worse still they insist on “No Dogs” signs which fortunately a lot of people, us included, ignore the same way they ignore the “No Motorhome” signs. Fred can smell the sea so we had to take him to the beach the first day as soon as we arrived. He went in but I don’t think he liked the undertow from the waves. The second day I took him on my own and he wasnt having any of it. We found a pleasant walk to the village of Guethary along the cliff path past some rather lovely properties, a small harbour where on Saturday they were preparing for an al fresco lunch party and a wonderful Art Deco hotel and casino built on the cliff face in 1926 – very in keeping with the rise of Biarritz popularity. The centre of the village was mainly a handful of chic bars, resteraurants and hotels with a few small shops. We made our way there twice, the second time for morning coffee. Walking to and from Guethary we could see the coast from Spain to Biarritz and just off each small bay there was what at first glance looked like rafts of ducks that turned out to be surfers waiting for that special wave. There were so many of them in fact that one wondered if there would be enough room when that wave happened and just how often they got hurt crashing into one another.

Another significant destination on this trip was to visit Biarritz which for whatever reason has always held an attraction for us. As you may have gathered we don’t really do towns so we planned a quick visit on our way north. We had always imagined it as not dissimilar to say Bornmouth except with a bit of French class. The compact centre has some wonderful period architecture and is full of smart shops and plenty of bars, restaurants and hotels. You can just imagine the well to do of the ‘20s and ‘30s partying the summer away in Biarritz. We wandered amongst the shops many, especially the surf shops having end of season sales, and I couldn’t resist a half price pair of BilaBong flip flops. The promenades had their share of surfers parked up and waiting who were into the sea and trying to catch a wave just as soon as an opportunity arose. I guess parking there would have been impossible in the height of summer.

To give ourselves time to do Biarritz we had opted to stay not too far up the coast at Moliets et Maa. Here, just like the resorts on the rest of this coast, there are several enormous camp sites just behind the dunes. We pitched up and took the few paces walk across the dunes on to the beach. The beach pretty much stretches a couple of  hundred kilometres from Biarritz to the tip of the Gironde with a few inlets and the Bai d’Arcachon on the way – it is simply stunning. You can see the height of the huge Atlantic breakers and the spray from them for miles in either direction and one imagines even at the height of the season it is nigh impossible for the beach to be busy. Of course we let Fred off who immediately made a bee line for the surf at the waters edge. He was so excited and even more so when we took him back the following morning before we left because then he got to chase a flock of Sanderlings around the beach.

Our next destination was the municiple site at Gujan-Mestres near Arcachon. We had never heard of it but it was recommended by a couple we had met a few days earlier mainly because the local very small Spar has a brilliant fish mongers as part of it. To get there we followed a long and at times very straight road up through Landes. Here forestry is a big industry with huge managed pine forests. The older plantations of traditional Landes Pine all lean noticeably to the east presumably because of the prevailing weather off the Atlantic. Sue had been looking forward to doing a bit of experimenting with cooking different fish at the van and we enjoyed 3 excellent fish dinners, Sardines, Hake and Tuna. Arcachon bay is known for oysters and there is plenty of evidence of commercial farming all along the edge of the bay here. We found a lovely forest walk up the Landes Canal (a drainage canal) that had become a managed park with all of the tree species labled. I have never seen the ground so littered with acorns that literally rained on you as walked.

We have been away for 4 weeks now and travelling is seems like the new norm. The weather was being unseasonably kind to us even for this part of the world with the temperatures in the low 20Cs but with solid blue keys, hot sun and beautiful sunsets and sunrises. Next we he’d further north past Bordeaux and on to the Loire and Brittany. Perhaps we had better brace for things to get cooler.

Bay of Biscay : Laredo and Basque Country

Laredo, and not the Texas Rangers TV variety but a tourist resort between Santander and Bilboa, is strange town. It is on a long sand spit with an ocean beach to the east and an estuary beach to the west. It looks like it was laid out in a grid pattern in the ’60s  and consists largely of high rise apartment blocks with a few new and more exclusive low rise developments. It is strange because for all the thousands of properties the town was almost deserted in mid September and there is no centre like a high street.

After the Picos de Europa we were looking for somwhere dry with a sunny forecast and good facilities for a few days domestic stopover. Playa de Regaton campsite got terrific review in ACSI especially for its facilities so that is where we headed and in that respect we weren’t disappointed. Even though we thought a couple of previous sites were good, and they were, this site has to have the best facilities end of. There were also several lime trees with wonderful fruit conveniently placed by the door. One reviewer commented that dog owners are relegated to a small corner and yes we were but there is nothing wrong with it and it has the best view out over the water. The beach nearby however is less than the best and at the time had a lot of unpleasant waste along the high water line.

The site is on the west side of the sand spit overlooking a huge tidal estuary / bay  that only accesses the sea by a narrow channel at the tip of the spit. The beach is vey shallow so the tide exposes a huge area of sand that turns to mud flat and marsh at the southern end. The whole is just part of a large Nature Reseve and hosts many species of wading birds in particular so as the tide rises and pushes them up the beach you get to see Wimbrel, Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Green Shank, Egrets, Terns and many more I am sure.

We had already planned to stay here for a few days and do laundry. Our first day was damp but the following couple of days were dry and sunny so we made the most of the opportunity. One benefit of our pitch and the weather was the spectacular sunsets we could watch after dinner. Indeed most of the campsite and a lot of locals came to enjoy them too.

We set off after a last visit to the local branch of our favourite supmarket chain, Mercadaro. Spanish supermarkets seem to suffer from limited choice but at least this chain offered quality. One of the best surprises shopping in Spain was just how cheap local wines were so of course we stocked up to last a couple of weeks. We also paid a visit to the car wash and gave the van a treat, not only is it more pleasant travelling in a clean van but it also saves us getting dirty if we rub against it when we are parked up.

After yet more scenic Spanish motorway we skirted round, through, across Bilbao and its environs, most of it looked like yet another grubby industrial city, and back toward the scenic Basque hills and coast line. The domestic architecture of the region is a pleasant mix of Alpine and Spanish. From where we sat too the region appears a little more affluent than some other parapets of the north coast but maybe that was just the Bilbao influence. That night we made the mistake of taking the ACSI guide for granted and what had been reviewed by others as a nice site turned out to be a bit of a dump. Suffice to say it is the first night we have decided against showering on the expectation of coming out dirtier than when we went in. I see subsequently that the site has been dropped from the guide.

We left the following morning heading to the French border along a spectacular coast road with lots of small holiday or retirement towns as far as Zarautz after which it became less attractive. One thing that has surprised us all the way along the north coast is how industry suddenly appears in picturesque seemingly out of the way places. When we reached Donestela – San Sebastián we had fully intended a look at the town but yet again confusing Spanish road layouts and awful signage defeated us and we hopped on to the peage to France.

Bay of Biscay : Picos de Europa

We drove the motorway from Playas de Barreiros to Avin at the west end of the Picos scenic route. The E70 motorway is another spectacular piece of Spanish road building winding around the coastal ranges and over long and high viaducts but always offering glimpses of the coast and the ocean. Another thing it has in common with other Spanish motorways is a serious lack of rest stops!

By mid afternoon we arrived at the Picos de Europa Camp that was spoken well of in the ACSI guide. The weather had been very wet so we found a pitch on a high terrace that seemed to be quite firm and set up camp. We took a short walk to the nearby village to stretch our legs and peer at the old regional properties and steal a fig or two off their trees. That evening it rained a lot and rather than drain down the hill our pitch just got soggier. In order to dispel our gloom Sue embarked upon yet another culinary masterpiece – paella. That night it just stayed soggy and got very cold so in the morning we decided to move on. As is often the way with these things that turned out to be a fortuitous decision.

We set out East along the road to Panes and were soon rewarded with spectacular views of the mountains. The Picos seem to us to rise more rapidly than other ranges that tended give them a pointier appearance with high obviously rocky peaks. They also seem greener and more lush than other ranges which is hardly surprising given the amount of rain the north coast of Spain gets.

After our drive through the Picos we headed back to the coast motorway and past Santander to Larado. A seaside resort where hopefully the weather might be kinder and the pitch drier.

Bay of Biscay : Playas de Barreiros

It was misty and damp again when we left Muros. Fred had a last run on the beach there and we got a pleasant surprise at the check out – only 17€ a day! There was no point in driving round the coast, we had already done some of it the day before visiting Cabo Finisterre, so we decided to head to Ferrol just north of La Caruna and then do the windy and coast road from there to our next campsite destination, Giavota on the beautiful Playas de Barreiros east of Foz.

There is not much here except 3 km of clean white sandy beach and some big waves. It has to be said that Camping Giavota is one of the nicest we have stayed on ample with very clean facilities and at this time of the year very quiet.

Fred of course loved the beach and dragged us up and down it several times. We stopped for 3 nights and got one glorious sunny day and one that was supposed to be a showery read a book day but turned out nice in the end. However the real highlight of the stay was Sue’s excellent campervan Pizzas cooked on the Cob.

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Had it been forecast to be sunny we might have stayed longer but decided to move on to the Picos de Europa.