Fast Albert

An RV Journey through Europe and beyond.
Living in: Paris, France
  • Day25

    Entre Deux Mers - Bordeaux Wine Region I

    October 4, 2018 in France ⋅ ☀️ 18 °C

    I arrived back in Bordeaux as planned and navigated my way to Albert on the public transit system using bus and tram. The system is slick and in the late evening was virtually empty. I was anxious to see if all was well since we'd left the RV in a parking area with several warnings concerning parking there but my worry was for not. All was well and I found everything just as I'd left it.

    I woke the next day and quickly met a couple of the barge dwellers, the first of whom was totally rude to me - obviously not happy with me parking there. The second was initially upset also but when I explained the situation they became very friendly, told me I could stay as long as I wanted and use their barge name in case anyone questioned me! We are finding that a little French goes a LONG way here, and this is one example. Despite the invite though I decided I had better move, so in the afternoon I moved Albert back to the marina parking near the Mcdonalds which was a much better spot, close to Wifi and toilets and with a nice view of the marina.

    With the RV repositioned, my next task was to do some minor improvements including installing some blinds. As I've mentioned our RV didn't come fully equipped, and the privacy of blinds was something we both put as a top priority. Just as with anything in a foreign country, these small projects tend to take more time and effort. It just isn't as easy as heading down to your local Home Depot or Bunnings. After doing some searching online though I found something similar about 8 km away and set out on my bike.

    I purchased the necessary tools and materials, and found the perfect blinds that fit all the windows. As usual though, I needed 3 trips back to the store to get various tools, screws, drill bits and to exchange the blinds for different sizes. On the third trip I decided to take the RV because I'd had enough of the biking by that time! I finally finished the 'blind project' late in the evening, and decided to head to town to 'celebrate' a bit at the local 'craft beer festival'.

    I headed out by bike after reviewing the venues for the festival, and found a quaint bar in the centre of town that was hosting a 'tap takeover'. It was pretty full of lively beer drinkers and I enjoyed a couple of the offerings. But overall such an experience just isn't the same on your own, it is much better enjoyed in the company of friends and family. So I called it an early night and rode back through town to the marina. It was amazing how many people were out and about at midnight in the streets and along the paths. In Bordeaux the riverfront esplanade is a favourite hangout for the locals and that night was no exception - the bank was packed with young people enjoying libations and picnics.

    The next couple days were spent doing minor work on the RV during the day, exploring by bike and prepping for Gin's return. I managed to take in the Natural History and Maritime Museums as well as the "Cite du Vin" which stoked my interest in the wine regions of the area. I plotted out a plan for Gin's return to base and bike and stocked up the cupboards and fridge so we would be ready to go.

    An ongoing challenge in our type of RV living is with topping up the water and emptying the grey water tanks. Living on the boat we learned to conserve water but the RV carries only 1/6th of the water the boat did so it runs out fast! Even by myself after only a few days I was again running low, so this became a priority for us when Gin finally got back.

    Gin had a great time in Canada celebrating a friend's 50th birthday party, and arrived back happy but exhausted and jet-lagged. Due to the location of the Merignac airport on the other side of town, it was better for her to take transit than for me to pick her up, but I welcomed her 'home' with a nice meal of fresh fish and greens. We ate and got caught up on our adventures and plotted our strategy for the wine region biking in the coming days before hitting the bed early.

    Having covered a good part of Bordeaux city we were ready to head out to the wine regions and the following day we finished up our provisioning, got water, dumped the grey water tank and filled up our propane tanks. We finally got all our parts for the BBQ so we needed both tanks to have LPG in them to use that and we were anxious to try it out at our next stop. We have been extremely happy with our 'upgrades' on the RV, none more than the 'dual' LPG tank system and external 'fill' that allows us to refill at service stations rather than doing bottle exchanges. This allows us to easily top up the system and we have adapters for all the countries of Europe so this will work everywhere we go. Without it we would need to discard the bottles in every new country!

    Full of provisions and fluids we negotiated our way through the narrow streets and accross the Garonne river to Creon, a small village in the 'Entre Deux Mers' wine region that was recommended to us by the tourist information centre. We found a good spot right by the bike path and walked into the city to explore. Unfortunately, Creon was a big disappointment - other than a Medieval church and town square there was very little there and what was there was closed for the season. We did find a nice cheese shop and purchased some local delicacies and a bottle of regional wine for our cocktail hour. With nothing really to see around Creon we decided to press on to another location for our wine touring.

    The tourist office produces a wine touring map for cyclists that has about 10-15 different wine 'routes' on it. Each one explores different areas, attractions and 'terroirs' which are outlined on the map. Another interesting thing is that many of the wineries allow RV's to stay on their properties, often for free, in order to encourage visitors and sales from their shops. The tourist office publishes a list of these 'Chateaux' and we chose one adjacent to the route that we wanted to stay at near the small town of 'Haux'. After the night at the camping spot in Creon we set off early and arrived at our chosen location just before 10 AM.

    At Chateau Peneau we were met by a friendly lady who directed us to our parking area and offered us a tasting. The 'cost' of the camping was that we were expected to buy a bottle of wine from the shop, which given that the prices ranged from 4.80 Euro to 10 Euro seemed a right bargain to us. Although it seemed a bit early we obliged her with a tasting and purchased a nice bottle to enjoy later. Then we set the RV up adjacent to the vines near the chateaux and readied the bikes for the day's riding.

    We spent the day riding the wine route as published in the map. The weather continued to be perfect and we meandered amongst the villages and terroirs, stopping at the Medieval town of Rion, riding along the Garonne to Cadillac and then back around to our RV at Haux. We've been to many wine regions in the world over the years, but it seems like the tasting experience hasn't really caught on in Bordeaux just yet, at least in this particular area. Most of the wineries have a sign directing bikers and tourists to the shops, but the 'tasting rooms' themselves are usually an afterthought to the main operations. Unlike in places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US that we've experienced where entire buildings have been built to cater to the tasting and sale of wines on site. Regardless, we were always warmly welcomed, particularly by the Richardsons who recently purchased, renovated and took over operations of Chateau Amanieu d'Albret winery near Haux - realizing their lifelong dream. Nearing the end of our tour we pulled in here randomly and enjoyed an amazing personalized tasting and tour of the winery as well as some history of the property where grapes were first planted by the Romans and taken over in 1228 by Sir Amanieu VII. We received a great lesson on Bordeaux wines and in particular the many nuances of bottling and labeling that have confused us for many years. We were taught that 'Bordeaux Superieur' had a particular legal meaning - concerning the density of the vines (a quality indicator), the harvest, production and quality control (at least a year in the bottle before commercialization), and was a good initial indicator for the uninformed. We also learned that 'Mis en bouteille a Chateau' meant that the quality of the wine was deemed sufficient to not be mass produced, mixed and transported for 'table wine' all over Europe - rather, it was bottled on site in smaller quantities and sold at more premium prices. We were surprised to note the pricing was very consistent across all the wineries - with very few offerings above the 15 Euro price point and most between 5 and 10 Euro, which we considered very cheap based on our experiences elsewhere in the world. Also, we were informed that the wineries don't adjust their prices according to the quality of the vintage, only on a cost basis initially, and only after several years of ageing does the value of the wine (and thus the price) go up following further analysis. In this way you might end up with a very good bargain by buying a young wine should its character develop favourably over the years. We also found out that the 'new oak' barrels used are in a particular 'Bordeaux' style - with 6 rings vs. 8 for example in Burgundy - and cost about 800 Euros new. These barrels can be used for 3-4 years for ageing wines and then need to be disposed of as they add no value to the wine after that time. We tasted 'oaked' and 'unoaked' wines and much preferred the former which was more to our palate probably based mainly on our experiences in Australia. We also discovered that many more white wines are produced in Bordeaux than we thought, and the Sauvignon Blancs we tried were much drier than those we were used to in Hawkes Bay, though they were still very good on this hot and dusty day! We finished up our 50km ride with a cheese plate and glass of wine overlooking the vines back at the RV, where we BBQ'd fresh organic salmon for dinner and slept amongst the grapes on a perfect, peaceful evening.

    From Chateau Panneau we moved to another of the bike routes at Domaine du Cheval Blanc. After a slow morning we arrived at 11AM to find the friendly proprietor - the 11th generation at this terroir - tending to his harvesting duties. He showed us around and invited us in for a tasting which we of course obliged. This parking area was even better, with a toilet, (hot water) shower and even free electrical plug in for the RV! The wine was good as well and we bought three bottles after trying everything on offer, and it wasn't until after lunch we finally got on the bikes for 'round two' of Entre Les Deux Mers region exploration.

    Day two proved much more difficult on the bikes but no less enjoyable. The reason was it was much hillier than day one and we were constantly going up and down, so our 40KM ride seemed much more difficult than 50KM had been the day before. Nonetheless we found some great hidden gems, picnic lunched in the Medieval town of Saint-Macare and took in the sweeping views from the elevated town of Semens above the Garonne river. Our tasting was done at Chateau Garbes-Cabanieu near Monprimblanc before returning to Cheval Blanc for another stay in the vines for the night. We had planned a third day but after some more research we decided to carry on and spend an extra day in the more renown 'Medoc' region further north, where red wines are more prevalent and there is much to see and explore. Conscious of my looming return to work and the cooling weather thought it better to hit the Arcachon region before too much time had passed.

    We set out early and took the back roads out to the coast, where the basin of Arcachon awaited us. The back roads brought us through the small towns and villages which was enjoyable enough but the driving is quite stressful because the roads are narrow so there is very little room to maneuver when the big trucks pass in the opposite direction. We came across many hunting parties along the fields, where the hunters released their dogs and waited by the road for the inevitable results. We were surprised that they were able to shoot shotguns so close to the road!

    We eventually found our way to the basin and the quaint fishing town of Arcachon. Established by Napoleon in 1875 this 'new' city was established as a fishing village and blossomed when steam overtook sail and rowing - because the fishing boats could get across and back from the open Atlantic much more easily and safely over the large sand bar that fronts the entrance to the basin. The entire basin is a mariners and fisherman's paradise, and we marvelled at the boats returning from fishing with many fish on the deck, the sailing club racing and the myriad of shops and chandlers all supporting the thriving boating and fishing scene. After hitting the TI we parked near the center and walking up and down the waterfront searching for a good place to park for the night. We've found there is really no advantage at all the paying for parking at an Aire or official camping spot, since particularly now in the shoulder season there are great places to park for free that keep us away from the sterile and unfriendly 'RV scene' we've encountered in the RV parks. We enjoyed an ice cream and walk along the shopping street, out to the pier and around the marina, where we found a perfect place to park for the night right on the beach with free wifi and public toilets nearby.

    The weather turned against us and has been raining and cool the last couple days, so we have been less active outdoors. We ate our dinner at 'The Pitt', which consisted of fresh oysters, cockles and prawns - accompanied by canned pig lard, bread and jarred sauces. When Gin enquired about fries or salad she was told 'no' only seafood! This restaurant was an example of the power of social media. It came highly recommended with 5 star ratings, but these obviously came from the friends of the 8 'co-proprietors' because although the oysters and cockles were fresh, there was nothing we had that could not be purchased at the fish market and grocery store on our own - nothing was prepared and nothing was cooked! We paid 11 Euro for a can of sardines that literally came on the plate with the can overturned on top of it! Again reinforcing for us that we are generally better to cook ourselves and not always trust 'reviews' even on generally trusted sites like Tripadvisor, particularly when those reviews are in English!

    We passed a stormy night on the point at the marina, with the RV swaying back and forth and the wind and rain lashing us all night. The rain continued in the morning and we decided to check into visiting a spa. We found out there was an 'open house' that day and got 50% off the entry so we took advantage of that. The spa was not well done overall but the salt water pool, steam sauna and a hot water massage bath were very welcome after the chilly night in the storm! Plus we both had an unlimited hot water shower so were feeling pretty good by the end of that!

    We capped the day off with a visit to the largest sand dune in Europe - the 115m tall Dune de Piyat. At first we didn't think much of this site but when we arrived we were truly impressed with the scope of this thing. It is more than 3km long and is gradually eating away the pine forest as it grows eastward pushed by the relentless Atlantic wind. We hiked up the dune for a spectacular view, with the stormy conditions making for a blustery end to our day and making our hot showers seem far away.

    We are now making our way around the Arcachon basin, up the coast and back inland toward the Garonne where we will stop in the Medoc wine region for a couple more days of biking and tasting (weather permitting!) before heading back south to Bordeaux and down towards San Sebastien in Spain where I will head off to work. Gin will carry on to Bilbao and then fly to the west to complete some of the Camino de Santiago trail before we meet up again in San Sebastien in a few weeks' time.

    Until then.

    Derek and Ginette
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  • Day9

    La Rochelle to Bordeaux

    September 18, 2018 in France ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    We really couldn’t wait to get out of the ‘Aire de Camping’ in La Rochelle, but we stopped to top up the water and dump the grey water tank before we left. The highway to Bordeaux was excellent and we found our way there no problem, but we had to investigate parking options for leaving Albi so spent a lot of time poking around the industrial areas around the Merignac airport before making our way ‘downtown’.

    Unfortunately, it was rush hour and our GPS took us straight through the town, so we ended up in endless lineups and lights, and our 430PM arrival time ended up being more like 7 PM. Luckily for us, the place we found on ‘Park4nite’ turned out to be really good - right next to a marina and a McDonald’s so we got WiFi, a view and a ready toilet open most hours of the day.

    We got ourselves set up and Gin cooked us a great meal that we enjoyed overlooking the marina. There were they very big fish, that looked like maybe catfish, swimming around below us and grabbing the bits of food we tossed in to them. The weather was again perfect and although our plans to get to the tourist information Centre to plan our stay fell through, we spent the evening plotting out the plan for the next day. The place was quite industrial but there were several other RV’s about - some looking like they’d been there for a very long time. One even had several ‘outbuildings’ set up where I think his pets slept at night. We crossed path with some of these people in the McDonald’s in the morning getting coffee and using the toilets.

    The next morning we were searching for a few bits and pieces for the RV so we popped into the local boat chandler. It looked like a good place to possible park long-term so we talked the them about paying something to leave the RV. After exploring several options nothing panned out unfortunately but we did find some of the electrical bits we needed and got some ideas for other things. Albi has been a bit neglected with preventative maintenance so there are a few electrical connections and metal brackets that have rusted out so I wanted to replace those and get the connections redone before anything failed. We also bought some covering for the salon seats because they are cream colored and are very quickly going to get dirty and worn badly.

    Having that sorted we jumped on our bikes and headed into town, which was about a 5KM ride. At the tourist information we picked up a walking tour/map and a bunch of information on the wine regions and the coastal area and the national park nearby. The whole Bordeaux wine area is set up for biking and there are many maps. There are also at least 100 different Terroir/Chateaux that permit RV’s to stay out the property - many for free, so we got the contact information for those in order to plan out our stay in the area.

    We locked up the bikes and began the longer version of the walking tour of the city. It proved to be a good tour of the main sites and gave us a good orientation of the city with some background history and architecture. Bordeaux is nicknamed the ‘Moon Port’ because of the curve in the Gordonne river that looks like a sliver of a moon. We walked through the crowded cobblestone pedestrian shopping areas, along the river and in and out of the many town gates that formerly protected the city’s center. Bordeaux has been described as one of France’s most beautiful cities and we certainly enjoyed the architecture and shopping along the way.

    With the walking tour complete we made our way back to our marina front camping spot for dinner and a nice glass of wine. We found Albi safe and sound but with two new ‘neighbours’ on each side of us. A very large bus RV with a family inside and a smaller one behind us with a couple from France and their scooter. The French couple was parked just a foot or two off our rear bumper which we were none too pleased about, but since we were leaving the following day we let it stand without a fuss. We did wonder with all the space available why they had to be so close - perhaps they felt it was more secure to be close to the other campers.

    The following day we decided to try and find some parking for the week of our absence and spent some time on our bikes around the area. Just over a small bridge I found another RV parked behind a locked gate and after driving around a bit I found the access point. Although it is posted as ‘Keep Out’ and ‘Defense d’entrer’ when we went in we discovered that is essentially an area of house boats built from barges and the RV parked there belonged to one of the owners of the barges (from a sign in the window). This gave us an idea. We decided to move Albi in there and make a sign of our own. We had overheard a couple talking about being in an Air BnB on the barges, so we made a sign for Albi that said (in French) ‘we are staying on the adjacent boats for a few days, if there are any problems please calll...’ and our number. The area is fenced in and secure, and we figured that the sign would at least defer any issues until our return. With the van secured we jumped on our bikes for ‘day 2’ in Bordeaux.

    The second day we returned to town and completed the ‘hidden sights’ walking tour, which somewhat overlapped our first day but took us slightly further afield. We found some hidden and quiet squares, cathedrals and markets and of course stopped for our daily gelato. ;) The tour told the story of a successful trading town that thrives today as the center of the wine industry and a bustling tourist hub. Back on our bikes and back to the RV so that Ginette could get the tram out to the airport for her flight to Canada in the afternoon.

    After sorting the bikes I walked back to the Bacalan district ‘Eataly’ area - a market area and restaurant warehouse at the termination of the tram where the locals and tourists congregated for drinks and dinner in the evening. On Wed and Thurs night they offer $1 oysters on the half shell so I had a great oyster meal and a couple ‘blanche’ beers. I met up with a US couple and their new baby having some problems finding accommodation so I helped them out with French booking into a BnB and we chatted about the town, the state of Canada/US affairs and each other’s lives. Soon enough they were off and I was back at the RV making sure all was ready for my own departure to Amsterdam the following day to visit some old cruising friends from our sailing days.

    The following day it was cold and raining and my plans to bike to town fell apart pretty quickly. Instead I walked the 15 minutes to the recently opened wine region museum and spent the day there. This was a really cool experience that explores the worldwide wine industry and gives some insight into the Bordeaux region’s suitability as a successful participant for so many years. There are many interactive displays including one dedicated to wine tasting which allows you to experience the many fragrances and tastes of wines. There are many historical dioramas and displays that discuss how wine evolved over the years, its history and place in human culture and the state of the industry today. I discovered that France is the largest producer of wine followed closely by Italy and Spain. The New Zealand wine industry has nearly quadrupled it’s output in the last 10 years! I also paid the extra to have a tour of the spectacular building which was completed in 2016 and cost nearly 300 million euros. It is designed to look like wine swirling in the glass and is very unique both inside and out. Too quickly it was time to go and after securing Albi and the bikes in the rain I boarded the tram. For 1.70 I was at the airport in 45 minutes as opposed to a 45 Euro quote from a taxi or 35 Euro Uber!

    I finally arrived in Amsterdam many hours later after flight delays and an overcrowded Schipol airport. It was strange to be in Schipol again as we had used it many times when we were in Germany for our travels. I even remembered where the Starbucks was! I am now hanging out in a small town north of Amsterdam on our friend Monique and Janbart’s boat ‘Cocoon’. Unfortunately we cannot sail because the boat is in maintenance but we are having a nice relaxing time exploring and catching up. I am hoping that Albi is OK back in Bordeaux, and am assuming since nobody has called me all is well. When I return we will leave the city and head for the wine regions and the coast around Bordeaux. We will have about 10 days after Ginette gets back to explore this before I leave for work again. Ginette will head west into Spain and take on a few legs of the Camino de Santiago, and we will meet up again in early November to work our way south for warmer weather. It is chilly in Holland, and the 30’s we’ve had in the last few weeks I’m afraid are gone until next summer. I’ve bought some warmer clothes here to prepare, and hopefully we can eke out a few more weeks of warmth before I need to pull them out.

    Until next time.

    Derek and Ginette
    Fast Albert
    Bordeaux, France
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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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  • Day6

    Fit out

    September 15, 2018 in France ⋅ ☀️ 18 °C

    Fit out and break-in

    We have finally made it to France and met up with our new home in Sens, which is just south of Paris. On the way back from Vari we stopped in Crete and had a 7 hour layover in Heraklion. It seemed like a good idea at that time to head downtown, do a bit of shopping and stroll around so we did so. It was a neat little shopping/tourist town and we enjoyed a coffee and some of the sites including a local gallery, but I was carrying about 30 KG of carry-on baggage and it was 35 degrees outside so after about 2.5 hours it was time to head back to the airport. Ginette took a detour through the Venetian port and met up with me just prior to flight time. While it was worth it to have a quick look we both vowed to get back to Crete for a more relaxed and comprehensive stay in the future.

    One of the big problems with the RV being in Sens is that there is no easy way to reach it from Paris airport. Trains require big detours and many transfers, plus are very expensive. There is no public transport and cabs are just too costly. So we decided to use Uber. Unfortunately, we have no data on our phones at this point and therefore although we could summon an Uber with the airport WiFi, meeting up became a real problem. As soon as I stepped outside the doors I would lose connectivity, and although I had the name/license of our driver the location was confusing and chaotic and it proved very difficult to meet up. Finally, after half an hour of going in and out of Gate 8 Departure level we were able to meet up with our driver who took us all the way to our RV in Sens. We arrived exhausted and relieved to find Albert right where Ginette left him in a short-term camping park with a barrier-style gate under a tree. I was impressed that Ginette was able to pick him up, drive him around, fill up with gas, partly provision and get him to this spot all by herself. I’m never surprised at what she’s capable of, just more ‘in awe’ of it.Total Uber cost - about 200 Euro, which was 40 Euro less than the train would have cost, took 1.5 hours (train was 5.5 or more plus transfers) and we rode in style in lovely Peugeot 508 wagon.

    Alas, all was not ideal. We got Albert sorted and put our bags on board. Then we maneuvered to the gate to ‘exit’ the facility - which is like an automatic parking garage where you put in the ticket and the gate opens after you pay. Unfortunately, we paid the fee and put in the code but the gate wouldn’t open. So after several back-and-forths to the machine and some cursing, I climbed out to see what could be done. I found that if I pushed up on the barrier it would come open high enough to duck under even being 3.2m tall, so I got Ginette to hold the barrier and I booted through. All to the great consternation of a couple other campers in the site who made some angry gestures as we peeled out of there!

    We made our way to a mall parking area for our first night. We decided that we ought to be close to some provisioning so when we woke up we could get ourselves sorted pretty quick. We arrived at the mall at 830 PM and to our great delight the main grocery store was still open until 9. On the way there though we noticed quite a smell coming from the back and when Ginette opened the fridge we found out why. For whatever reason the fridge had not continued to work while Ginette was away and all the fresh food, vegetables, yogurt, milk etc. had gone rancid. So two issues - one, trying to clean everything up with no real effective means to do so and second how to provision without a fridge. We decided to just grab a few essentials and hatched a plan to make our way back to the point-of-purchase to find out why the fridge had failed.

    We both spent a restless night suffering from jet-lag and anxiety, but got up to a nice breakfast and coffee enjoying the lingering smell of rancid food. We made our way back to meet our salesman at the propane refill to get sorted on how to fill up, and he troubleshot the fridge pretty quick (corroded connection - just like on the boat!). So with propane full and our fridge functioning on 12V while driving we were on our way finally to equip Albert for long-term living.

    Similar to buying a ‘charter’ boat vs. one that is privately owned, buying a motorhome from a rental dealer has its advantages and disadvantages. We got what seemed like a pretty good deal on the machine, but she was really not well ‘set up’ for long term living. For instance, there was nowhere to hang anything, no clock, no curtains, poorly arranged storage, no hooks and hangars, badly wasted spaces and the list goes on. Plus, the company had cleaned out all the towels, dishes, bedding etc. etc. so the unit was totally empty and not liveable. So you can imagine that our first few days were spent firstly figuring what the heck was going on in the unit and then how we could get it sorted for our long-term enjoyment.

    What was amazing was how much our experience sailing helped us to figure out what needed to be done and how. We had a really good idea about what the essentials of life were and how they should be organized. We split up our ‘to purchase’ list and attacked the stores. Luckily, we both have a decent command of the French language and generally speaking we were able to communicate our needs and find alternatives when those were not available.

    One big ticket item that is not on board Albert is an oven. This meant we needed a BBQ with a lid that we could hook up to our on-board propane system. This proved to be a lot more difficult than we thought it would. For one we are very space-limited and for two most of the BBQ’s are meant to work with a stand-alone propane bottle. We have two 15KG on-board bottles and we just didn’t want to be bothered to carry another one. Moreover, we needed something that was compact but had a lid so that we could at least bake things when needed. In the end, we found a good little BBQ but are still searching for all the connections and adapters to make it work with our on-board propane system.

    A couple of the big-ticket items we got were two bikes and a Honda scooter. When we lived in Europe before we found bikes to be by far the best way to get around in most cities. You can see a lot in a day, you get exercise while you’re at it and most European city’s are much more ‘bike-friendly’ than almost all the rest of the world. That said, we didn’t want to blow the wad on bikes, because these bikes are going to be used and abused, neglected and left relatively unsecured for long periods of time. At Decathlon - which is a European outdoor/sport/camping store - we found the perfect model - the Riverside 500 - which has 9 speeds, disk brakes and hybrid wheels. It is not ‘high spec’ and cost less than 300 Euro all-in, but is light, comfortable and looks robust enough to last for some time.

    Our second big purchase was the scooter. We had originally decided to wait on the scooter but when we pit-stopped at a bike store I wandered over to the scooter/motorbike store next door to have a look and happened upon the perfect scooter for us. It is a 2015 Honda CVX 125CC that is a beautiful ruby reed color and just so happened to fit EXACTLY and I mean EXACTLY in our inside storage compartment in Albi. When we bought Albi we installed an electric/motorize scooter loading system and securing platform (cost 2000 Euro - not cheap!) Though it is tight, we figured that given we’d be staying on the outskirts of town there would be many occasions where we would need to provision, explore further afield or even deal with emergencies where the scooter could come in handy. So I test drove this one and it just seemed too good to pass up. Although executing the registration, licenses and insurance was a huge challenge in French we managed to get it done and now ‘Ruby’ is loaded in the back as we set out on our first ‘leg’ towards La Rochelle, Rochefort and ultimately Bordeaux. (See pics)

    In addition to the big ticket items, we had to buy a lot of other things to get Albert going. This included some curtains to cover some windows, many hooks and hangars, a clock/weather station, bins/totes and Tupperware to hold all our belongings and provisions, bike parts and many tools, spares and creature comforts. After 3-4 days of buying, returning and installing we finally have everything set up to the point we are both satisfied that we can enjoy living in this small space with everything we need. Unfortunately, the ‘spending spree’ has been pretty taxing on the bank accounts and credit cards - and although we are now fitted out we are departing literally broke and with our credit cards completely maxed out. Luckily, our gas tank is full and Albert is incredibly efficient on diesel it seems - so we will make the first 500-600 km at least before we have to figure out how to pay for the first tank of diesel!

    One of the more complex things about this adventure has been dealing with foreign exchange and bank accounts. Almost by chance we stumbled on ‘N26’ bank which is essentially a virtual, multi-currency bank based in Germany. N26 only requires a European address and thanks to starting our French corporation to buy the RV and scooter we have that so we were off to the races. The great thing about this bank is that it is multi-currency, allowing us to easily switch between US, Canadian, Euro and NZ dollars at close to the posted exchange rates. Anyone who has spent any time abroad will tell you that if you’re not smart about exchange you’re getting ripped off by the banks and credit agencies. If you are transferring money around or going on extended vacation and you don’t have a FOREX account of some kind - get one! Anyway, suffice to say that N26 has proven a great tool for us during this transition and allowed us to pay in Euros and save many hidden costs. Unfortunately we’re now ‘out’ of Euros in that account and had to start reaching out to our accounts in Canada to pay off our initial fit-out. No matter, it is now done and in the end it’s only money right? The last challenge will be figuring out how to get my pay deposited into the N26 account - the admin staff is working on that and hopefully we can find a way.

    So for the next couple days we are in Sens. We did a day-trip down to Villeneuve-Sur-Yonne, a beautiful little village about 20 min south of here and spent two nights on the river and exploring the town. We broke in the bikes with a 50 km ride back to Sens to finish some provisioning and enjoyed the ride along the river back to the RV, seeing the fisherman, boaters and families enjoying the last of the summer weather. The weather has been unreal for us so far - sunny and 25-35 degrees every day, which has made our initial time absolutely amazing. The evenings are getting cooler though and it is only a matter of time before the weather turns and the rains come. Hopefully by that time we have moved further south into Spain and can prolong our summer just a bit more. Our itinerary has changed slightly now we are bypassing Le Mans and heading straight to the coast to La Rochelle, Rochefort and ultimately Bordeaux. After researching Le Mans we did not find much to attract us and we need to make up some time now since Ginette has some travel plans coming up (can’t reveal what they are as it is a surprise for someone). So we will press to the coast. Ginette will be gone for about 2 weeks so I am contemplating heading up to the Netherlands to meet up with some cruising friends and help them do some work on their boat. I will also take some time on my own in Bordeaux and wait for Ginette to come back. From there, we will head to the north and west of Spain where Ginette hopes to complete at least some of the Camino de Santiago which she has aspired to for some time. In mid October I return to work for a 3 week stint, likely I will fly out of Madrid for that.

    Sens has been great to us - a real hidden gem. Last night we enjoyed the lights show in the town square and today we will complete a short walking tour and visit the crypt below the massive Cathedral here. Then, finally, we are off to the coast and points south.

    That is all for now. Thanks for riding along with us. We are still figuring out many of the systems on this RV which differ greatly from our boat, but have a familiar feel. So far all is functioning great and we are happy with our choice and excited about our plans. We are looking forward to the adventures ahead, catching up with some friends and family here and experiencing again the best of what Europe has to offer in the coming months. In the meantime, we hope you are all well and look forward to your thoughts, comments and communications to keep us connected to our loved ones - which helps us greatly to stave off the loneliness of this nomadic life.

    With best wishes,

    Derek and Ginette
    Fast Albert
    Sens, France
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