Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Last Days in France

Last Days in France

Monday 4th - Wednesday 6th April 2016

Happy Birthday Jack - Hope you had a lovely day xxx

Well, these last few days have gone by in a bit of a blur - possibly because I haven’t been very well, or possibly because we've travelled quite a few miles - our ferry back to England is booked for the 11th so we knew we needed to crack on and get some distance covered so we wouldn't have a last minute rush to catch it.  

I started to feel poorly on Sunday night, but with the above in mind we left the Ile du Re and set Mrs Snoopy to find an Aire at Le Port du Bec where we planned to stop for the night. However, we hadn't gone far when I started to feel feverish and much worse, so John was forced to pull over into a lay-by so that I could lie down - and then I promptly fell asleep for an hour.  

This  put us a bit behind in our journey, but we still stopped off again at a lovely little Aire at Treherve for lunch - it’s in a beautiful cove with craggy sea views which John enjoyed while he ate his solitary lunch - me, I just slept some more!

Then it was onwards towards our destination for the night which was the Aire at Le Port du Bec, but again when we got there I just flaked out, so even after all that driving poor John was left to cook his own tea and pass the evening with no mate to natter to!    The next morning we were woken quite early by noisy tractors tootling up and down the adjacent road - we were parked beside a working harbour that had lots of wonky jetties set side by side leading onto all manor and sizes of fishing vessels.

After a good nights sleep I was feeling a bit better so we donned our jackets and took ourselves off for a quick walk but the wind was quite bracing and the tide was right out so the bay wasn’t at it’s most attractive.

Tuesday was another long drive, initially we were aiming for Carnac where we had provisionally planned to meet up with Val and John again, and  to see the hundreds of megalithic standing stones that can trace their origins back to between the 5th and 3rd millennia BC. However, following their text to say the Aire wasn’t very good, and because I was still less than 100% we decided to shorten our day and stop off at an Aire at Locmariaquer.  We arrived about 3ish, and luckily we pinched the last available spot, and we didn’t even gloat when dozens more hopefuls arrived after us, only to have to reverse out of the site and continue their search for their nocturnal resting place.    

We had our usual cuppa, and then headed out for a walk along a path that runs just above another very beautiful and bountiful beach, and on the way back, we were quite fascinated by the myriads of shells of all shapes and sizes that were scattered amongst huge piles of seaweed.

We spent a very comfortable and quiet night, and on Wednesday morning we were entertained by the hundreds of people who kept trooping past our windows, clad in wellies and with buckets and rakes in hand.  When we poked our heads above the parapet, there they all were, spread out over the exposed beach collecting  molluscs - a cheap way to get your oysters!

Anyway, we still had further to go to get across to the North coast of France, but before we went we wanted to nip over to Carnac  to see the previously mentioned stones.  And by this time we thought we’d missed Val and John, but as we pulled into the car park, what should we see but their Hymer parked next to an empty space that was waiting for us!

Unfortunately, by now it was raining so we didn’t really do the stones justice - we only nipped across for a quick look - Oh well, there’s always next time!  Instead we all snuggled up in Val and John’s van for a cuppa before parting company and us heading off further north still.  

Le port du Légué.

Once again we set Mrs Snoopy for an Aire, this time at Port Plerin, and from what we’d read about it, it sounded ideal with views over a tidal channel and with boats bobbing on the water. However, our stay there wasn’t to be, and worse than that, we had an extremely frustrating time trying to get there.

As we were approaching the site (we only had about 500 metres to go) there was a ‘route barree’ sign indicating that the road ahead was closed, so we sensibly followed the diversion signs - but we got nowhere fast.  I think between the signs and Mrs Snoopy dinging and donging at us, and the need to traverse narrow cobbled streets that were far from ideal for the T4rdis, we went 'around the houses' several times before we arrived at the entrance to the Aire to face a newly erected height barrier that prevented us from entering! This resulted in a few choice four letter words being uttered, and us whipping out our ‘bible’ and entering the  co-ordinates for a new resting place.  We are now in the town of Erquy on a windy Aire right on the sea front - but we only plan to stop the night, before another long drive that will take us to the Normandy beaches amongst whose dunes we plan to stay for the next few days.

Thursday 7th April 2016.

This morning we had a slow get up, showers, lazy breakfast, T4rdis ablutions, and then left out sea front Aire at Erquy on what we knew would be another long drive.  To make up a bit of time we were soon bombing down the motorway, when all of a sudden John spotted a familiar vehicle trundling along in front of us - it was Val and John’s Hymer - heading to Dinan for dinner. They sent a text to invite us to join them but by the time it arrived we were very long gone - so a further reunion didn’t occur.

Which was probably just as well because by the time we got to our planned destination - Utah Beach on the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy, the afternoon was wearing on.  Our plan ‘A’ was to stay on one of the 2  Aires there and do most of our exploring in the morning, but one of them didn’t accept overnight parking and the other had a complicated system that needed a pre paid card which we didn’t have - so plan ‘A’ was scuppered.  

And, as we didn’t really have a plan ‘B’, one needed to be knocked together quickly, however, before we did that  we did vacate the T4rdis to have a quick look at Utah Beach - the westernmost of the five D-Day landing beaches where mostly U.S.  troops landed.  The beach itself was massive, and these days, a good part of it seemed to be given over to mollusc farming!  

However, other uses that we observed while the tide was far out were sand yachting and pony and gig practice.  Apart from that there was a museum which we didn’t have time to visit, and numerous monuments depicting the contributions the US forces made to the invasion.

By now the time was getting on so plan ‘B’ needed to be addressed with some urgency or it was possible that we would be resting our weary heads in some road side lay-by, so without further delay out came our trusty Aires book, and we were quickly able to identify a little farm Aire called Ferme de la Rouge Fosse, and it was only about 40kms further on in the direction that we planned to head in the morning.   

So with fingers crossed that there would be space (they only had 6), we aimed the T4rdis in the Aire’s direction - and hey presto, when we arrived there was only one other van.  Therefore, we were soon parked up overlooking open fields in a very pleasant spot, and with the bonus of electricity being included in the deal - all for 5 euros.  Then, all became quiet and peaceful - except for the cows lowing and maybe John snoring as he caught  40 winks after his very long drive.

Friday 8th April 2016

This morning we set off to see the beaches of the D-Day landings where, on June 6th 1944 the biggest seaborne invasion in history took place. We hadn't gone far when the first photo stop was necessary -  to snap a shot of the World Peace Statue - she was quite magnificent glistening in the morning sunshine.  

Then it was quickly on to Pointe du Hoc where we learnt that US Rangers  scaled the 90 foot high cliffs to seize German Artillery - a mission that was portrayed in graphic detail by a film within the visitors centre.  

The site itself was set out with broad footpaths and information boards that told of the happenings of that day, and additionally the area is still pitted with huge bomb craters and wrecked bunkers that you can explore as you soak in the history.

Next it was Omaha beach where it is said the most brutal fighting took place on the 7km stretch of sand.  It was also here that we found ‘Les Braves’

‘....a tribute to the courage of the Allied Force soldiers who sacrificed their lives, and a reminder to coming generations that those who died did so in defence of our shared values of tolerance and freedom...’
We continued our journey to Arromanches-les-Bains to see the Mulberry Harbours, but in so doing we missed the American Cemetery that contains the graves of 9387 American soldiers, including 33 pairs of brothers, and  that is only 40% of the American dead. Apparently the white grave stones go almost as far as the eye can see.

The Mulberry Harbours at Arromanches were ‘ built’ so that the vast quantities of cargo needed by the invasion forces could be imported on to French soil without the need to ‘take’ a more traditional harbour.  To ‘Build’ them 146 massive cement caissons were towed over from England and sunk to form two semicircular breakwaters into which floating bridges were moored.  We learnt that this facilitated the unloading of 2.5 million men, 4 million tons of equipment and 500,000 vehicles!  One of the harbours was completely destroyed by storms shortly after D.Day, but  parts of the other - Port Winston - can still be seen off Arromanches’s coast line.

We also pottered up to Arromanches 360 degree circular cinema from where we had stunning views of Gold beach to our right and Omaha to our left, and more distantly, the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc,  however, as the day was wearing on we didn’t actually go into the cinema to see the archival footage of the Battle of Normandy.

Our final visit of the day was to Juno beach where we walked along the sands and up by a fast flowing river channel that led us back into the town.  And then finally, we set off to find our nights stop - an Aire in Bayeux - as we planned to spend the next day exploring there.  However, for the third time in a row we had no home to go to - the Aire used to be in what is now a car park where overnight parking is not allowed.  Therefore we retreated out of the town and we soon found a comfortable home in Port en Bessin where we have distant sea views and a number of other motor homes for company.

Saturday 9th April 2016

This morning we headed back to Bayeux and quickly found the ‘New Aire’.  It is situated in a quiet residential street and is within a stone’s throw of the sights we want to see today so it’s fairly perfect and  we’ll  stay put overnight  - it should've cost 4 euros, but as the machine was broken, so it was free!

We left the T4rdis and took the short walk to our first port of call - the breathtaking Cathedral Notre Dame that towers over the city. However, on the way we came across numerous information boards that told us lots of Bayeux’s  long gone history concerning the castle and lace making.  Also they told us that, even through Bayeux was in the centre of the fierce fighting in the 2nd World War,  it is the only town in Normandy to have been completely spared from destruction - thus wandering around the ancient streets was like stepping back into a long gone era.

The Cathedral itself was a sight that  was difficult to tear your eyes away from and much  of it dates back to the 13th century, but with additions in the 15th and 19th centuries.  There were also areas that can trace their origins further back to 11th century , and one of these was the crypt.  It was quite dark and spooky down there and when we found an empty coffin  I asked John to ‘pose’ in it, but he declined and this was the best he would do!

During our visit there were many sites to see within the Cathedral, but one of the things that really caught our interest was a frieze presented on boards that depicted various world incidents from the 17th century to the present day.  They included births, deaths, inventors (Einstein), major catastrophes, (911), wars, events (moon landing), famous people (Beatles and Elvis), Popes, Monarchs and much more.  Mind you, John did comment that they’d missed his birth off in 1954! 

Then it was on to see the Bayeux Tapestry which tells the story of  the victory won by William the Conqueror over the English at the battle of Hastings in 1066.

It was embroidered in the 11th century and is 68.30 metres long, but we also learnt that it is a miracle that it has survived at all because of some of the insults it suffered over the years since it’s manufacture.  Apparently, it has remained intact through 2 episodes of fire, and later in 1792, it was used as a tarpaulin to cover a cart loaded with weapons.  Now it is protected and hung behind a glass screen where people can file past while listening to audio information concerning the happenings that are depicted on it’s panels.  We joined the procession, and by the time the story was complete, our memories had been well and truly jogged concerning what we could remember from our school days!   

A beautiful and peaceful place to rest
Finally, we visited the Bayeux War Cemetery, the largest of the 18 Commonwealth military cemeteries in Normandy. Some of the 4848 graves here are of men originally buried on battlefields, and some are those who died in Bayeux’s military hospitals.  340 of them remain unidentified, and besides the soldiers from the UK, there are 500 graves of servicemen of other nationalities. 

Additionally, across the road there is a memorial that lists a further 1807 soldiers whose remains were never found.  As we walked amongst the stones we noted many graves of very young men, fathers, sons, brothers and husbands - it was a very moving and sad experience and an absolute tragic waste of life.

Sunday 10th April 2016

Today we planned to have an easy and restful day as we tootled further up  the coast to Honfleur, before our final push on to Dieppe to catch the ferry back to England  tomorrow evening.
I Think they need a drop of oil on their chains!

Our first stop was at Bernieres-sur-Mer where found a lovely promenade to wander along and also this rather interesting monument that was produced by the Workshop of Plastic Arts of Bernieres sur Mer as a mark of respect for the Liaison Officers from the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division.

Then we continued our journey onto Ranville where we parked, along with about a dozen other Brits in the Pegasus Museum car park while we nipped along the road to have a look at The Pegasus Bridge that crosses over the Canal de Caen a la Mer.  Here, we also found some rather interesting cycle trails which we have promised ourselves we will come back to explore at a later date!

And finally it was on to Honfleur and a commercial Aire where we’ll  stay overnight - it’s massive - about 100 vans in all, and when we arrived it was nearly full, however we did manage to nip into a space that gives us a ring side seat overlooking The Canal de Caen. This Aire is  the most expensive one yet at 11 euros but that should include electric - only problem was our cable wasn’t long enough to reach the sparsely spaced electric outlets, so as usual, we’ll manage without!

Anyway, by now the day was wearing on, so following a quick late lunch we headed out into the town to explore - it was absolutely heaving - apparently there had been some sort of event over the weekend, and in the afternoon sunshine, the streets were still thronged with tourists of many nationalities.  We ambled around the narrow cobbled alleys where the ancient buildings lean in, especially at second storey level, and although in times gone by most would have been homes, the lanes are now crammed with all sorts of quaint eateries and tourist shops - many of which sell some of Normandy’s major products - cider, Armagnac and cheese!

During our wanderings we visited one of Honfleur’s most famous buildings - The Eglise Ste Catherine - a wooden church built by local shipwrights during  the late 15th century, and initially intended as a temporary structure.  Wood was used to save money, but it has stood the test of time because it’s still a very handsome building today.  

The focal point of the town seemed to be the harbour where, along with the numerous pleasure boats and fishing vessels we found the  Marche au  Poisson (fish market) - selling all manner of fish, crabs and other creatures with shells - I was a little tempted but the T4rdis was fully stocked, and the fridge would need to be switched off for our journey across the water, so I resisted temptation!

Soon, we were tired of fighting our way through the crowds, and as the skies were darkening with threatened rain,  we made our way back home to cook Sunday dinner - duck tonight!  

Monday 11th April 2016.

Well, last nights threatened rain well and truly landed - with a clatter on the top of the T4rdis for a good part of the night, and this morning, although the rain had stopped, the skies still look overcast and grey.  

Today’s journey started with us heading towards The Pont de Normandie, a futuristic toll bridge that opened in 1995 and that stretches in a soaring 2km arch over the River Seine between Honfleur and Le Havre.  Crossing cost 6.30 euros but it was worth it for the magnificent  far reaching views of the river from the top! And as a bonus, while we were up there we spotted more cycle tracks in both directions - another good reason to come back soon.

Then we headed onwards towards Fecamp - a  little coastal fishing town from where dramatic cliffs and rock formations can be seen - we thought the white cliffs looked as if they had just snapped off from the ones in Dover!  

We walked around the huge harbour that houses both fishing and pleasure crafts, and pottered out on the ancient wooden jetties to the harbour mouth from where we could hear the sea literally roaring as the waves back-washed down the shingle beach tumbling the stones as it went.  

And it was here that we also came across a story about a famous painting - apparently Berthe Morisot painted this in 1874 - but maybe I'm a philistine, because I thought our Grandson’s Jack or Thomas could have done better!

One of Fecamp’s other major claims to fame is The Benedictine Palace which was built in the 19th century, and not only has it got stunning architectural masonry, it also has a fantasticly ornate roof.  

Today the building houses a museum concerning the production and history of the liqueur ‘Benedictine’ - one of my particular favourite tipples - but sadly the shop was closed so temptation to buy was taken out of my way!  However, we did learn that the story of this wonderful drink started in 1510 at Fecamp Abbey where a Benedictine monk, who also happened to be an alchemist, created a secret drink composed of 27 different plants.  Later, in 1863, a wine merchant rediscovered the recipe, and after many attempts to reconstitute it he managed to reproduce the drink.  He built the Benedictine Palace in honour of it, and the liqueur ‘Benedictine’  is still produced there today!  I’ll have to add it to my lists of places to be sure to visit next time we’re in this area.

Finally, we set off for Dieppe to catch our ferry home. It's supposed to depart at 7pm and arrive back in England at 11.15 pm, so with a bit of luck we'll kip on the port side at Newhaven tonight, and then wend our way back to Ripley tomorrow - maybe with one or two stops at Motorhome dealers on the way - we are thinking of swapping our T4rdis for a slightly bigger model!

Tuesday 12th April 2016

Well, by 11.30 pm last night we were back in England and we thought our only problems may be getting used to using the  funny money that has been absent from our pockets for the last 5 and a half months, and also maybe driving on the “wrong side” of the road…..? However, we needed to think again when our plan to sleep on the quay side didn't quite work out - there was no room at the Inn! So, in the dark and the pelting rain we were cast out into the streets to look for somewhere to pull over and rest our weary heads. All the laybys etc. seemed to be occupied by articulated lorries, and when half an hour had passed without us finding anywhere we were starting to become quite worried! However, we did eventually spy a spot amongst the lorries, where we were required to park on a serious wonk, but by now we had little choice but to pull over and make the most of it. We didn't sleep much, and we were back on the road just after 6, but for one night we managed - although we have devised a plan in case similar circumstances ever arise again.

Anyway, as I'm typing this we're bombing up the M1 towards our old home and we have a comfortable spot booked on a campsite for the next few days, so fingers crossed, we'll sleep well tonight!

Click here to see our French camping spots