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.

Smoked Paprika Pork Fillet

Looking for varieties of meats to cook is always a challenge when we’re not sure of the cuts or quality and prepackaged in Spain is aimed at large families.  We found some very nice pork fillet and this is a very simple but tasty way of cooking it on the Cobb. The added bonus was that the campsite at Laredo in Spain has several lime trees with limes ready for picking! This recipe makes enough for 2 hungry people.

In a bowl mix together I heaped tsp paprika, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 2tbsp olive oil, zest and juice of one lime and a few grinds of black pepper.  Pork fillet about 400g, trimmed of all sinew and cut into 2 pieces. Make diagonal slits in each piece, do not cut through completely, marinade in the paprika mix for hours.

Heat the Cobb, use the frypan or plate, sear the pork on all sides, cover with lid and cook to taste, rest the pork a few minutes then slice and serve.

Paella in Spain

Before we left the UK we agreed that we should eat at least one paella while we’re in Spain but heading out to a restaurant with a Fred in tow would not be a good idea so I set about organising the key ingredients of rice and spices before we left.

I found sachets of dried paella spice mixes in Tesco and as there’s only the two of us one sachet would give me the opportunity to make it twice and I bagged up ready weighed paella rice.

Spanish supermarkets sell frozen bags of mixed paella fish, ideal as it would save a lot of time and mess. The bag contained a good mix of white fish and shellfish but if you’re clever and have the time use fresh seafood of choice. Also needed are a small fresh red pepper sliced, some chorizo, onion, garlic and a couple of fresh tomatoes, all chopped, fish stock or water.

Sauté onion and garlic in olive oil until soft then add the chorizo, fry gently to release flavour and oil then add the rice and the spice mix, stir until it’s all coated with oil, add red pepper and tomatoes plus enough stock or water for the quantity of rice used. Cover and simmer until the rice is cooked and stock absorbed, this is difficult on a diesel hob as you can’t reduce the heat so you will need to keep checking that it’s not sticking to the bottom to much and add a little more stock/water if needed. Gently stir in the seafood and allow to cook for a few minutes. Serve with fresh crusty bread and a nice chilled glass of white Rioja.

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.

Pizza on the Cobb

Preparation is the key to success with a pizza and it’s best to choose to make one when you’re on a stop over for a couple of days and the weather is at least dry and preferably warm. For this I use 2 new gadgets, a fry pan plate for the Cob and a small manual grinder from Lakeland. Around midday I prepare the pizza dough, my recipe is still being tried and tested but I pack ready weighed flour mixes with me and add the yeast and water when ready to make up. Leave the dough somewhere warm to rise for the afternoon. I whizz up a fresh tomato sauce using my manual grinder (clever little gadget!), slice red pepper, onion, a little chopped chilli, grate cheese of choice and put them all in the fridge along with some black olives and chorizo slices. These really are our favourite toppings but we’re planning to experiment next time.

When ready for dinner we light the cob and let the coals get really hot then place the fry pan on it to warm.

Divide the pizza dough into two pieces and shape one to fit the size of the fry pan. Line up the tomato sauce, peppers chilli and onions, grated cheese, olives and chorizo slices.

When the fry pan is hot lift it off the Cobb and spray with a little oil, place the pizza base inside and add the toppings in which ever order you prefer. The key here is not to overload the pizza. Put the frypan back on the Cobb, cover with the lid and cook for 10-15 mins until the base is crisp and the toppings are cooked. Remove from pan and keep warm while preparing the second pizza, cook this one while you enjoy the first.

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In our world there’s nothing better than sitting outside of an evening with a glass of wine and slices of fresh pizza.

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.