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  • Day8

    Underway - Sens to La Rochelle

    September 17, 2018 in France ⋅ ☀️ 23 °C

    We spent our last night in Sens parked in the town square where there is free parking. This is one of the beauties of RV living, the ability to install yourself just about anywhere by putting a little thought into it. By that I mean figuring out that where you’re parking is legal, quiet/private, safe/secure and that you have some ability to stay ‘self-contained’. For instance, in the two square there were public toilets available nearby, free parking with video surveillance and the nearby roads were little used at night. It was also walking distance to the main town square and we had free WiFi available. So it ticked all the boxes for us.

    We had a lazy morning getting coffee, catching up on the news and then completing our walking tour. Although the tour was difficult to follow it took us around to the major sites and pointed out many things that we would not have otherwise noticed. Sens, like many towns in Europe, has a rich history dating back to the Middle Ages. Napoleon stayed in the city on a number of occasions and got word of the fall of Paris in this location. and it was a base for the French resistance during the Second World War.

    We finally got packed up and on our way, and we merrily followed our GPS to get out of the town center. We quickly realized another limitation of life in Albi when we rounded a corner onto a narrow street with an underpass and saw the sign indicating ‘3.0 m’. That being about 20 cm shy of allowing us to pass through without making our home into a permanent convertible. The problem wasn’t so much that we couldn’t get through it was that we were now on a narrow street, stopped in front of the underpass with a line of cars waiting to get through behind us. Ginette sprung into action and directed traffic while I maneuvered us to the side to let the other pass. It isn’t easy to do a U turn in a 25 foot RV when the road is only 50 feet wide let me tell you! But alas we got it done - but now what? With no maps to speak of we had to rely on intuition to find our way to the highway without using an underpass less than 3.2 m. After much animated discussion we eventually found the way out, but it was another lesson learned and added 15 minutes to a pretty long journey to La Rochelle.

    French highways have to be some of the best in the world, and now we know why. The roads are perfectly smooth, clean, wide and well signed. In short they are a dream to drive on. We picked up our toll card and drove some 200 km through the country to our exit point from the toll highway. Ginette was driving and she put the toll card in to make payment - we both almost fainted when the toll read ‘78 Euro’. Doing the conversion, which we are trying to get away from - told us we were paying well over $100 for our 200 km drive! Ginette was having none of it, so she called the attendant on the phone to plead for leniency! The attendant assured us that the toll was correct - and the only way were able to continue would be to pay it - so of course we did. As we carried on I worked my way through the GPS index to find the ‘avoid tolls’ setting for future use.

    As we arrived in La Rochelle, a picturesque Medieval town on the coast, we were initially unimpressed with the industrial landscape. But as we got closer to the coast an amazing transformation took place - the industrial zone gave way to a fortified old town center with fortress walls, rotundas and maritime gates adjacent to what has to be the biggest marina in the world. I have no idea but I’m estimating there must be 5000 sailboats amongst a few thousand power boats in the marina here - it surely must be the center of the French summer boating scene. We were immediately smitten.

    We are using a number of tools at present to find places to stay. We have a European camping app called ACSI which shows all of the formal camping areas plus what the French call ‘Aires’ - or rest areas - which have the essentials but are designed for stays of 24-48 hours and are typically free. The camping costs between 15 and 75 Euro per night depending on the services offered - which as you can imagine vary from a rocky parking lot to 4-5 star resort style (I would hope so for 75 Euro!). Thus far, we have not stayed in any formal campsites but I’m certain we will in the coming months especially when the need to leave Albi for an extended period presents itself. We are also using ‘Park4nite’ which is a very good app that shows parking spots, generally set up for RV parking, around any city that you put into the search box. Each spot is verified and rated by users and gives you the basics about safety etc. as outlined above. Importantly, the locations also include width, length and height restrictions which help us avoid our previous troubles with the underpass! We have also found ‘Parkopedia’ which if you’ve never used it before is a great wiki sight to help find parking almost anywhere. But our most successful way thus far has just been driving around to places we think we might want to stay, and in this case, we knew we wanted to be near the marina which is walkable to the old town gates, the tourist office and all the amenities of the city.

    We arrived on Sunday evening to a hopping marina full of bars and open air restaurants buzzing with the happy vibe of summer vacation and sunny skies. We started poking around the marina parking lots and found that they were setting up huge tents and other event apparatuses for an upcoming floating boat show. So much of the parking space was occupied. However, as we were exiting the last likely lot by some miracle two cars had pulled out of the parallel parking along the coastline, and I was able to squeeze us in with the cabin door to the sea wall. The spot was JUST wide enough that we didn’t block traffic and just far enough away from the marina bustle to be quiet and private. Outside our door we had a fortified sea wall that acted as our balcony and up the street were public washrooms that even included outdoor showers! This was huge for us because using our toilet means chemicals and a cartridge that needs emptying - unpleasant at best - and using our shower means using up valuable water and having to drain the grey water tank when it fills up. We only carry 130l of water, which at 15-20l a day gets used up pretty quick, and finding potable water for refills isn’t always easy or convenient. In short, we found the perfect parking spot - and after asking the locals to interpret the ‘no parking’ information scribbled in by the boat show organizers (the locals had no idea what they were trying to say either!!) we settled in for the night. Cocktail hour on our cement ‘balcony’ overlooking the sailboats returning from the day’s sail and the kids fishing could not have been more divine!

    Although we both enjoyed our time in Sens, La Rochelle proved to be another level of ‘our kinda town’. When we lived in Germany in the past we did not spend a lot of time in France other than doing the obligatory battlefield tours and visiting Paris and the Champagne region just south of where we lived. Coming here has made me regret that somewhat, because we are just loving everything on offer in France so far and we are both really enjoying speaking French again. We have been treated exceptionally well by the locals who seem to enjoy our quirky semi-Québécois accents, misplaced vocabulary and occasional English interjects in their language! The French have ‘gastronomy’ down to a fine science, and I seem to not be able to stop taking pictures of the markets, restaurants and even grocery and specialty food stores that we pass by - all beautifully organized and presented. And then of course the wine, and even the beer is fantastic - always chilled fresh and poured perfectly. Combine all that with incredible architecture, rich history, safe/secure travels, perfect weather and now being back at the seaside and you’ve got the makings of somewhere pretty special.

    We spent two nights in total in La Rochelle at our seaside ‘resort’. We figured a third night would be pushing it with the boat show setup going on so we decided to move to a proper Aire de Camping on the other side of town for the third night. Our first day was spent getting ourselves organized and oriented in the morning and doing our walking tour in the afternoon. Strolling around the marina, chandlers and dry-docked boats brought back many memories of our time aboard Small Cat Fun, mostly of all the repair work we had to do! But there was a sense of nostalgia and wonder about it, seeing the boats heading in and out of the marina in a steady stream all day long, wondering where they were off to, what the weather might hold and how each of them might handle under the conditions. Even reaching back to try and remember how to sail properly brought back many pleasant and some not-so-pleasant memories for us both.

    Our walking tour took us all around the old town center and out into the adjacent districts. La Rochelle is one of the oldest ports in France with a trading history going back a thousand years. The architecture of the old town is uniquely appointed with ‘arcades’, covered areas built fronting the businesses that protected the trader’s goods from the elements. These features are prevalent throughout the town and provided us with welcome shade in the 35 degree heat. What I’m finding incredible is how well many of the buildings have been preserved and restored over the years. Modern technology and construction practices seem to blend seamlessly and perfectly with structures built hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years ago. It sort of makes me chuckle when I think of houses in Canada and New Zealand whose ‘shelf life’ might be 35-50 years! We particularly enjoyed finding a Templar cross marking a former headquarters area from the famous Knights and reading about the trials and tribulations of attacking and defending this strategically important port city over many centuries.

    Walking on cobblestone streets all day takes it’s toll on your legs and feet, so after 3 hours of touring we were both exhausted. After our obligatory gelato stop in the afternoon (sadly, I dropped my salted caramel on the ground and never got to enjoy it :() we made our way back to Albert to find all in good order. The parking area, almost empty in the morning when we left, had again filled up with day-trippers, tourists and boat captains enjoying the marina atmosphere or heading out to sea for the day. We picked up a bottle of rose on our way back and few vegetables for dinner at the local market. We set up our patio and once again enjoyed our cocktail hour and dinner on the patio watching the sun fall on the western horizon. It seemed a long way from New Zealand but still had a certain recognizable feel to being on our deck in Napier with a glass of chilled wine in our hands.

    The following morning we broke camp early to avoid the daytime congestion that would make our departure from the lot difficult. We had decided to take a day trip over to the Island of Re just off the coast and we drove to the east end of the bridge and parked there to unload our bikes. We had done a bit of reading about the offshore islands and figured we should not visit the area without seeing them. Were we ever glad we did. We offloaded the bikes, avoiding the 20 euro bridge toll by electing to bike from the east end over the 3.5 km bridge to the island. Another perfect weather day greeted us and the cooler temperatures (around 17 degrees at the start) made the conditions perfect for a long day on the bikes. The island of Re was another area of strategic importance during various wars and revolutions, and contains a massive Citadel and fortified wall with well preserved ramparts, bastions and defensive fortifications to prove it. It was also a vital source of salt prior to the age of refrigeration, and the island is covered with channels and ponds once used to collect and evaporate salt water - some of which still produce for a cottage industry today. The island is also covered with bike trails that lead from village to village and port to port. The whole island is about 40km long and maybe 2-3 km wide, and we covered about 60% of it on our bikes. The markets and marinas were filled with amazing things and the paths were full of summer vacationers from all over the world. We spent an amazing day amongst them taking it all in, picnicking on the seaside fortifications, bartering with the fish mongers for Mullaway (yes Aussies, the same fish!) fillets and sampling cheeses and olive oils from the region. We each picked up a few things for dinner that night and some salts for gifts for some friends overseas.

    Returning back across the bridge after 50km on the bikes against the wind was a challenge but we made it back and got to our ‘Aire de Camping’ without too much trouble. It took some doing to figure out how to get in the automatic gate and how to pay, but we made it in, dumped our grey water and filled up with much-needed fresh water (we were on ‘E’ - our hot water had shut down due to being empty!), and found a decent spot (which looked good at the time, but ended up backing right onto the highway - not ideal for sleeping!). The lot was pretty full - there were 130 spots in total and about 100 or so were occupied. There was a laundry next door and we too advantage of that to get some clothes washed. Overall we did not like the ‘feel’ of being parked on a gravel lot with nothing really to look at and packed in amongst a hundred other RVs. Compared to our oceanfront stop the previous two nights we both couldn’t wait to get out of there the next day and find our next ‘freedom’ camping spot. Since we were heading to Bordeaux we knew there was a Terroir or a Chateaux in our future! But the stop was a necessary evil as it allowed us to charge up our batteries on the grid, get water and try out our awning and new outdoor chairs and table. One strange thing we noticed about the place though - no toilets? Probably the ONE thing I would think would be essential for a place like that would be toilets and showers - but none to be found. How strange considering that ‘Aires’ every 80-100 km along the highway had full toilet facilities - but I guess that’s what you’re paying your 50 Eurocents per km for!

    A restless sleep listening to the highway noise preceded another travel day. But before heading out, I biked downtown to the the ‘Bunker Museum’ which we had passed by during the walking tour. This place was an old Nazi submarine base built in 1940-41 by the Germans after occupying the town. It has been captured intact by the Allies in 1945, changed hands several times but never destroyed, and eventually turned into a museum full of authentic WW II paraphernalia, pictures, weapons and period-correct furniture to show how the base functioned during the war. It was amazing to see how the submariners lived, to read about their 2-3 month deployments at sea and see the battle honors that the Wolf Pack received for sinking allied supply and warships. The average life-expectancy of a submariner was 3 weeks during the war! In one year after perfecting their weaponry and anti-submarine warfare techniques, plus decoding the Enigma, the allies sunk some 43 U-Boats. That is a staggering number and essentially ended the U-Boat threat’s significance to the outcome of the war. What was interesting too was how the bunker was fortified - with 5m of concrete on the roof that was able to withstand 5 direct hits with 5000 lbs bombs dropped on target during air raids. Sitting in the wardroom it wasn’t hard to imagine how stressful life must have been for these guys - both at sea and onshore - never feeling safe. No wonder the bar was by far the nicest room in the house and was packed with wine from Bordeaux nearby and spirits from across the former Reich. This place was truly a piece of living history and highly recommended if you happen to be down this way. At a cost of only 7.50 it was worth every penny.

    Back to the Aire, laundry complete and hitting the road again we were lucky to come across a ‘Narbonne’ on our way to Bordeaux - the RV supply store that we purchased the BBQ at. I went inside (after admiring some of the beautiful new RV’s for sale in the lot out front) and after explaining to the proprietor our issue with the BBQ connection, was pleasantly surprised when he gave me the adapter for the oversized hose at no charge! Wow, talk about unexpected. We are no finally set to enjoy BBQ’ing outdoors, here’s hoping the weather continues to surprise us with an extended summer so we can enjoy it!

    Another 25 Euro in tolls (no choice here as the ‘no toll’ route was an extra 70 minutes of driving!) and we have arrived in Bordeaux. Strange but perhaps purposefully Bordeaux has no real ‘camping’ facilities nearby the city itself (many options further out in the wine district though - can’t wait!) so we were again at the whim of self-determination. Coupled with this we had to scope out somewhere to leave Albert unattended for a week since we are both flying out to various points afar - Gin to Canada and me to visit our friends in Amsterdam. After checking out some options that proved fruitless (height restrictions, no longer exist, too expensive) we gave up and went looking for a place for the night. Using ‘Park4nite’ we found another hidden gem location ironically across from the old Nazi submarine base now converted into a marina in the industrial district just east of the city along the river. It is a bit of a dodgy looking area but the parking could not be better. Up above the marina on a flat cobbled road, away from traffic, dark and quiet and a McDonalds within walking distance for toilets, coffee and most importantly free WiFi! Just a short tram ride or bike to town and another treasure chest of things waiting to be discovered.

    I am now in Amsterdam and will finish the Bordeaux story in my next post. I look forward to visiting some long lost cruising friends who we shared many adventures with during our time in SE Asia. I think they will put me to work on their new boat too, which I am looking forward to very much, but mostly to the sundowner that will come after. :)

    Cheers for now,

    Derek and Ginette
    Fast Albert
    Bordeaux, France
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