From the Atlantic to the Mediterranean in Search of Winter Sun
Our winter-time wanderings on France’s Atlantic coast continue. We’ve slipped seamlessly back into our cold weather motorhome routine. We drive, we explore, we resupply, I throw a cabin-fever-induced tantrum, we travel some more, we find another new place, we top up again, and then I throw another fit. I’m a creature of habit. We enjoy the nomadic lifestyle, apart from when I’m throwing cabin-fever-induced tantrums, but much of our travelling time is spent searching for potable water and somewhere to empty our waste.
One of the many benefits of French winter motorhome touring is virtually unrestricted and fantastic overnight stops, either out in the wild or in official motorhome service and parking areas or, as the French call them, ‘aires’.
We recently spent a week on the Île de Ré parked close to endless empty beaches. Our tranquillity was only broken by the need to resupply. Aires, often with free or low-cost sanitary stations, have been mostly empty at this less popular motorhome touring time of year. The downside to so much unoccupied space is that these essential facility oases are also often closed during the colder months or have their water supply turned off.
Our last day on the Île de Ré was typical. We found a beautiful place to stay for the night with an outstanding view. Our aire parking spot offered a panoramic view of the island’s eastern coast, and access to miles of golden sand from a narrow path close to the Hymer’s habitation door. An unusual and very welcome bonus at this particular aire was an unmetered supply of free electricity, the first aire that we’ve found offering this generous addition. We couldn’t understand why such a perfect overnight stop had so few motorhomes parked there.
We discovered why the following morning.
Our potable water tank holds one hundred litres. It’s a small supply compared to the three hundred and fifty-litre water supply I had on my narrowboat, or the four hundred litre tank on our Linssen yacht. Even so, we can make our water last us three days if we’re careful. We also have a spare ten-litre food grade water carrier stored in our tiny bathroom. If our primary tank runs out, we know that we have an emergency supply that will last us half a day. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card which we have been very grateful for more times than we can count.
At our idyllic Île de Ré aire, we were down to our last ten emergency litres. We weren’t particularly concerned. The luxurious aire offered grey and black water disposal and potable water as well as free electricity. The bonus for me, the chief water filler, was that the aire had a fresh water tap close enough to the Hymer to use our 30m hose and one with a thread to allow me to fit the hose connector.
The alternative to topping up our water supply with the hose is good old fashioned hard labour, trudging ten times between tap and tank with the ten-litre emergency canister. A hoseless fill is a standard feature of cemetery visits where the water supply in an enclosed area inaccessible to most vehicles, especially larger vans like ours. We often use cemeteries when aire water is turned off.
Cemetary water filling can be a pain, so I was delighted that we were parked at a fully serviced aire, close enough to use our hose without moving. After I unrolled our hose, thankful that we could spend another day or two watching the seascape from the comfort of our little lounge while our battery bank filled with free electricity, I pressed a green button above the aire’s potable water tap. Nothing. I checked to see if we needed to pay to activate the water supply. We didn’t. The water supply had been turned off for the winter. That’s why the aire was almost empty despite free electricity.
We had to change our plans. Murphy’s Law kicked in of course. The closest alternative water supply was in a cemetery on the mainland, accessible via a congested car park next to a ruined abbey. C’est la vie. Onwards and upwards!
The further south we drove, the more homeless men and the occasional women we saw. They seem to be tolerated more in France than they are in the UK. There was a regular crew at the Carrefour supermarket we often used last winter in Narbonne. They gathered under an awning close to the store entrance, drinking strong lager and tripping over their mangy dogs. Sometimes they stood near the supermarket’s car park washing machines. Sometimes, we suspected, the temptation to dispose of any drink-related excess bodily fluids in the spin dryer was a little too much for them. Because of this, and because of their fondness for invading my personal space to breathe stinking fumes over me while we were sorting through our underwear, we didn’t use these otherwise useful machines.
We came across our first gentleman of the streets this winter in Arcachon. We had been wild camping in a deserted pine forest car park next to a glorious beach under the towering Dune du Pilat, Europe’s highest dune. With depleted water and full waste tanks, we reluctantly left our blissful solitude to resupply. The Arcachon aire was, beyond question, the most poorly maintained, inadequately equipped and aesthetically unappealing motorhome service point we have visited in two winter tours of France.
The aire, located on a noisy main road opposite a large car dealership and a busy petrol station, wasn’t exactly what you would call an oasis of tranquillity. Having to tiptoe through an inch of mud to reach the grey water drain was an additional unpleasant and frustrating experience, as was trying to attach a hose to a cold water tap poking drunkenly from a rectangular plastic facilities box held together with a roll of grey duct tape.
Much as we disliked it, the aire appeared popular with a trio of entry-level motorhome owners who had claimed the site as their very own.
Their old vehicles surrounded the only service point, which meant me joining their merry band to attach our hose and to empty two full and very smelly toilet cassettes. The three French lads and two girls didn’t seem to mind the smell. As I poured the stinking brown slurry into a chemical toilet disposal point an arm’s length from the nearest van’s open galley window, they crowded round to question me in loud, rapid-fire French.
“How old is your camper? What does it weigh? Are you Eeenglish? What do you think of France? Where are you going? You are very old. Have you stopped working now?”
They were drunk, mischievous, and utterly charming, which is more than I could say for our next guest.
Our Hymer has a large ‘garage’, a cavernous storage compartment under our fixed double bed at the rear of the vehicle, accessible by lifting the mattress on a sprung hinge inside the cabin, or by opening a top-hinged door outside.
We have many essentials stored in the garage, including two folding bikes and an essential and rather expensive Honda suitcase generator. We also keep a thirty-metre hose and reel in there for water tank filling.
I left the garage door open after removing the hose reel. I shouldn’t have done. The temptation to look inside for something worth stealing was too much for a homeless Arcachon resident.
Cynthia stayed inside the Hymer when I climbed out to tend to my ‘blue’ jobs, the tasks which we’ve both agreed are mine. The steady rain put her off joining me outside, as did the filthy aire, the vocal French youngsters, and a shifty looking middle-aged man who lurched past the back of our Hymer before leaning against a nearby concrete wall to urinate copiously over his own feet.
She spotted an even more dishevelled man skulking behind a row of parked cars, peering through their windows, furtively searching for an open door. Cynthia watched him reach the end of the row, and then stagger through a series of puddles as he headed towards our open garage.
She hammered on the lounge window to warn me, trying to make herself heard over the laughter of my new friends as they searched for appropriate English questions or insults using Google Translate.
By the time I reached our garage, the man, dressed in a filthy and ragged quilted coat, was bent at the waist, stretching into the storage space towards a 20kg bag of dog food. I shouted at him. He ignored me. I pulled his elbow gently. He shrugged me off. I yanked him backwards by the scruff of his neck. He fell into a muddy puddle, climbed unsteadily to his feet, glared at me, and held out a filthy hand, palm upwards in the universal request for money. I shook my head. He held two blackened fingers close to his mouth miming smoking. I shook my head again. He stared at me aggressively, grabbed my arm and once more held out his hand for money. The paragon of virtue that I am, I told him to fuck off and pushed him off his feet.
Happy with a job well done, I climbed back into the Hymer to remind Cynthia how lucky she was to have a man about the house, someone to defend her against the scum of French society.
She was sorting through one of our food cupboards, looking for a few pieces of spare fruit. “Did you see the state of that poor man?” she asked. “Did you see that soaking sleeping bag he carried? Can you imagine what life must be like in weather like this with no home? We should give him something to eat. I feel so sorry for him!” Not half as sorry as she would have felt if she had seen the way I treated him. I decided not to brag about my manliness after all.
We drove south to continue our life of exploration. Another day. Another set of chores ahead of us. Check the water gauge. How much longer can we last without water? Find a water supply, check if it’s working, check if we can get close enough to use it. Check the toilet cassettes. How much longer can we last before emptying them? Check the grey water tank. Where can we drain it? Check the Hymer spreadsheet. How long since we last filled the gas tanks? What’s our average daily consumption at the moment? How much gas do we have left? Where’s the nearest supply if we need it? Check our food supply. More importantly, check Cynthia’s stock of the organic products she needs to stay healthy. Do we need to resupply? Where is the nearest organic store? Check the battery gauge. Do the batteries need topping up? Can we run the generator where we are without upsetting neighbouring motorhome owners/campers/nature lovers/residents or, on occasion, passing motorists? And then the big one; where do we want to move our home for the coming night? The list of things to do is as exhausting as it is tedious.
Trying to find somewhere new, peaceful and scenic is a game. It’s a game I enjoy playing, but one that we play too often. Only five of the last nineteen days have been static. We need to increase the number of zero mileage days and decrease expensive and sometimes stressful travel days. Until we learn to slow down, we’ll continue with our usual new-home finding routine.
A decent internet connection makes research much more straightforward than driving blindly along streets looking for somewhere suitable. Google Maps is our saviour, apart from in Germany where Google Street View doesn’t cover most of the countryside outside the major cities. That’s not a problem at the moment. We’re in France and, unless Cynthia has plans she hasn’t mentioned to me, we’re staying here for the winter.
We search the nearby area on Google Maps, looking for somewhere free to park. The location needs to be away from main roads. Dead end roads terminating at beach car parks are the locations we like most. Google’s satellite view is perfect for discovering a promising location. We can sometimes see car parks with motorhomes already parked in them. It’s an indication that they’re worth checking out. A car park at the end of a quiet road is perfect, providing that the surface is suitable for our heavy vehicle and our big-pawed, low bodied dogs. A provincial car park covered in muddy potholes is not ideal. Nor is a car park with a height barrier. We check car park surface and barrier obstructions with Google Street view.
Our last Atlantic overnight stop was to the south of the 4,000-year-old twenty-one square mile north Biscarrosse lake. Despite heavy rain over the previous week, the fifty-space motorhome parking area was pretty dry. At least, the aire was as dry as we could hope for given the conditions. We were getting more than a little fed up with the weather.
Much as we enjoyed the Atlantic coast with its wide open spaces, coastal pine forests and quiet beaches, constant grey skies, heavy rain and muddy paths began to depress us. The straw which broke the camel’s back was a particularly unpleasant day parked in Navarrosse next to a beautiful lake mostly obscured by squalls.
The heavy rain eased off, then stopped. We quickly climbed into waterproof coats, hats, scarves and gloves. Tasha and Abbie wagged excitedly. We reached for their leads. The heavens opened again. We reluctantly removed our wet weather gear and tried to calm two over-excited dogs. Then we waited for the rain to stop again. And we waited. Then we waited some more. After thirty-six hours listening to the steady patter of constant rain, our tiny Hymer home felt like a prison.
Our original plan was to take our time driving south along the Atlantic shore, thoroughly exploring the west coast before turning south-east through the Pyrenees to reach the Mediterranean. They were OUR plans, so we didn’t need to stick to them. Rather than adhere to the route, and endure another unpleasant month of miserable weather, we plotted the quickest course to Peyriac-de-Mer on the Mediterranean.
We stayed in our around Peyriac for six weeks last year. The sun frequently shone from a cloudless sky, the air was warm, the landscape divine and, because of the weather, I was able to escape our little box for daily rambles in the sun-drenched hills.
The problem with reaching a destination quickly in France is that the journey is usually expensive. We always try to travel on National ‘N’ or Departmental ‘D’ roads. They’re free to use, are quiet, and usually, pass through beguiling towns and villages.
According to Google Maps, reaching Peyriac-de-Mer on Departmental roads would take six and a half hours to cover two hundred and sixty-one miles. An estimated six and a half hours of driving in heavy rain and strong wind on often single-track mountain roads with unprotected muddy verges bordering steep drops. We decided to invest a few euros in our mental health and use autoroute ‘A’ roads instead.
The three hundred mile drive took us most of the day, cost £80 in diesel and £45 in toll charges, but it was worth every minute, every mile, and every last penny.
We arrived here two days ago. The journey’s climax was an adrenalin-fueled dash along a short section of exposed coast road battered by gale force winds. After all, this part of the Mediterranean coast is the windiest part of France. We don’t mind. It’s also one of the sunniest.
We’re delighted with our new aire home. Sleeping last night was an exciting experience. Wind gusts reached 70mph. We learned from experience and parked bow into the wind. The owner of the motorhome next to us made a schoolboy error and parked broadside to the gale. He lasted until 1:00 am before driving to a more sheltered spot behind a nearby building. He looked quite tired during this morning’s dog walk.
We’re delighted that we decided to leave the Atlantic coast. I often find motorhome driving stressful, but the ability to quickly move our home away from lousy weather makes occasional unpleasant driving worthwhile. Our new plan is to stay on the Mediterranean in the sun until spring. That’s the plan for now anyway.
Cynthia Says–“The Executive Decision”
As a lot of you know, we departed the cold and dreary Netherlands a month ago today and headed back to France with a Christmas stopover in beautiful Vendome to spend the holiday with a friend.
We then headed further west to the beautiful Ile de Re (island) near La Rochelle. We loved it there–gorgeous beaches with thundering waves and breathtaking seascapes. I was in awe over the windsurfers and other such water worshippers risking their well being in the unforgiving surf.
After a few days there, we headed further south and found verdant forests that stopped where the dunes took over. It was a beautiful combination of wood and beach. We were captivated. We were lucky enough to find several areas where we could wild camp with the beach right at our doorstep.
At Andernos Les Bains, we found the perfect spot at the beach where it was quiet and allowed us to step out right onto the beach and take the dogs for a walk. The location also provided us with beautiful sunrises and sunsets and views of the lights of Arcachon in the distant foreground across the bay. And the fact that the Bio shop was just a stone’s throw away didn’t hurt!
Being the wanderers that we are, we decided to head the Hymer into the wind and go further south close to the Spanish border. Again we were greeted by breathtaking sea and landscapes and the famous Dune du Pilat at Le Petit Nice. We happened upon a campsite that, except for the beach day-trippers and a small assortment of motorhomes, we had to ourselves. The ocean views there were some of the most spectacular we have encountered. We ended up spending several days and nights here.
Heading further south we encountered the delightful village of Biscarrosse. Paul found a pleasant aire there that was nestled close to a forest and beside a small yacht basin and a lovely beach on the second largest lake in France. On the 19th we were blessed with a day of partial sunshine, and we took advantage of it. However, as all good things must come to an end, the next day we awakened to unrelenting rain, rain and more rain. We took a glance at the weather app and just after finishing breakfast, Paul made his executive decision–to head back to Peyriac de Mer and the Narbonne region, and SUN.
So nearly 300 miles later and a LOT of rain and wind (especially as we got close to Peyriac) we made it!
Those of you who were reading the newsletters last winter might remember how much we loved this spot. A take-your-breath-away gorgeous medieval village flanked by the salt basins–the etangs that are full of flamingoes and other birds–a real sanctuary for them.
Yesterday we awoke to the rays of the sun beating down upon the Hymer, and we were overjoyed. The wind was still kicking up, but it was calm enough to sit outside for awhile and enjoy the warming rays of sunshine. Pure heaven for me!
When we looked at the weather map for France yesterday, the area we were in was the only place in France that wasn’t drenched with rain–are we lucky or what??!!
The day was a bit of a bittersweet one, as it would have been the 6th birthday of our beloved Basset Florence.
After lunch, braving the fierce wind, we headed off to take the same path around the lake that we had exactly a year ago on her 5th birthday.
As we had her cremated back in the Netherlands, we had the ashes with us, and I decided this would be the perfect place to scatter some of them as she loved her walks here so much. I shed a few tears as I thought about her and how much she meant to us, and at the same time, I felt profoundly grateful that we had the great fortune to have her half-sister, dear sweet Abbie in our lives, and of course the indomitable Tasha who is just about to turn twelve.
We will head back to this region this autumn to get our dose of milder weather and warming sun. It IS a better balance for us, so I believe we will continue this pattern until or unless something better shows up for us.
Thank you SO much, Paul, for making this executive decision–one of the best you have made so far this year!