We spent the first few weeks of April on the Ile de Re off the Atlantic coast from La Rochelle. We have been here the last two years and love the place for its bicycle paths, great seafood and pretty villages. We spent the first two nights in an aire in St Clements waiting for the campsites to open for the season, then it was back to Camping Essi in Ars en Re – we were their first customers for the year! We chose to go back here because our electric bikes needed attention and there is a great bike shop there. Bless the man, he kept at it, adjusting our bikes over several days and rides until all was perfect. We had lots of lovely rides along the bike tracks and really enjoyed having the tracks nearly to ourselves. The views and the quiet were good for the soul.
Once we were happy with the bikes we decided to move to the bottom of the island to explore that end. We stayed at Rivedoux-Plage, just across the bridge from La Rochelle. The weather was inclement and one day Michael had ‘cabin fever’ so caught the bus to La Rochelle. On the other days we did rides to explore the villages we hadn’t previously visited. We happened across the beautiful Cistercian Abbey ruins in Aunis, founded in 1156.
Based on a recommendation from someone we met in Les Mathes, we decided to visit the historical theme park called Puy du Fou. It’s in the Vendee region of France not too far from Cholet. It was a very pretty one-and-a-half-hour drive from La Rochelle through the villages of the Vendee – very green, quite flat and with lots of canals.
Puy du Fou was easy to find and had a huge aire for camping cars where we were lucky to get one of the powered sites for 10 Euro a night.
The park is on 28 hectares and is a huge operation, employing 2000 people most of the year and increasing to 3000 in July and August. It’s a mix of static displays and ‘shows’. The static displays are the villages of various time frames – 1900s, medieval, 2nd century etc. They were fascinating and really well done. The gardens were stunning, with waterfalls, tulips and palms etc. There were lots of animals –pigs, goats, birds, chickens, buffalo and lots more. There must be a huge underground network because you never see any staff wandering around, no cleaners yet everything is pristine and no actors arriving for shows. The restaurants and other facilities are all decorated in the relevant timeframe so the sense of wandering around in history isn’t ever compromised. Brilliant!
There were about 16 ‘shows’ to choose from – most lasting between 30 and 45 minutes. There is no way you could see the park and all the shows in a few days. We were there for two days and saw the park and 7 shows, one inside a theatre and the rest outside. Puy du Fou has a great app that has translations of the shows but they were all very visual with fabulous music and song so we didn’t bother with translations as we thought it would be too distracting.
The first day we were there we walked around getting the general idea and looking at several of the villages of the past. We saw Les Automates Musiciens, a ‘concert’ performed by huge automated puppets that popped out of windows of the 19th Century village. It was fun to be in the middle of the square and try and find the balcony where the musician was performing.
The first show we went to was an inside one – Le dernier panache – which followed the life of a French Naval officer who went to the American War of Independence and then came home and was involved in the French Revolution. The show was ‘in the round’ in a different way because it was the audience who swiveled back and forth 180 degrees. The stage was long and narrow and the production used film as well as actors, horses and boats. Clever!
The Organs of Fire was the night show, starting at 9:15. It was set on a small lake surrounded by a grove of trees. The audience sat in tiers amidst the trees while the performers were all on the lake. The sound system was amazing, you felt totally overwhelmed by the music. The actors arose from underneath the lake and moved around on top of the lake. When the show was over they descended back into the lake – no bubbles. How did they do that? As well as the actors and the amazing music there were water fountains and jets of fire – hence the name of the show. It was completely mesmerizing.
Old people shouldn’t be allowed out late at night! Once the Organs of Fire show ended we followed the crowds, turning left to the Citie de Nuite. We had seen many signs to that near our camping ground so thought we would be taking a short-cut home. Disaster! We ended up out of the Puy du Fou park on the opposite side from where we should be and with no path to get back. We turned tail in the dark and fog with our trusty torch to read the signs and just made it back to a park gate as the gates were being rolled down. We knocked and hollered and were told to stay right there and wait. In minutes a golf cart arrived and drove us through the park and to the camping ground – probably around 6km. The young man was charming but was probably thinking ‘silly old farts’.
The next day we set off with a better plan and understanding of the scope of the park. First on our list was the “ bird show” Le Bal Des Oiseaux Fantomes, of which we had heard rave reviews. There were 200 trained birds, everything from ravens to eagles and owls to a big pelican/egret type of bird. There was great music and a story that centred on two young girls but the birds themselves stole the show. They swooped just over your heads –you couldn’t help ducking – or flew high in the sky and dropped to catch their ‘prey’. There was a blimp high in the sky where many were released and a finale with all 200 birds swooping about. Absolutely spectacular!
Another show we saw was Les Vikings. What great fun to watch a village getting looted and then the Vikings becoming tamed by Christianity. But the scope of the effects they used were amazing –pigs, bulls, wooly mammoth type of beef and horses at various times running right by us. Even a horse ‘on fire’! A man being dragged along behind a horse - that was quite confronting the village catching on fire.
Boats arriving through the mist or arising from the waters.
There was so much going on all the time and then WHAM! Something inexplicable happened like the priest who disappeared in a puff of smoke – and that was when we were watching him closely! It was an amazing show and apparently the only one at Puy du Fou that hasn’t been modified since its inception.
Another highlight was Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde (Knights of the Round Table) with lots of incredible effects to do with water – even a real horse that came out of the water!
After looking at a few more static displays such as La Renaissance Chateau we called it a day and headed back to check on Grubie.
Grubie is a shocking scavenger, often finding things to eat when we’re out walking. Disgusting things. You have to concentrate and be really quick to stop her. Obviously we weren’t quick enough on the Ile de Re because she got sick on the day we left to drive to Puy du Fou and she got progressively worse while we were there, eventually even refusing food. We left Puy du Fou early on Friday morning to drive to Rochefort and headed straight to the vet. An injection and three different types of medication was the outcome and we were told to come back on Monday for an X-ray and operation if she wasn’t better. Luckily the medication took effect and she got well again. We did buy a muzzle for her when we went to Morocco to stop this scavenging but have been reluctant to use it. She hates it and it makes her look like a fluffy pit-bull!
The upside is that we’ve used the opportunity to re-train her (make that us) away from bad restaurant habits. Now she doesn’t embarrass us by asking for human food and we are getting her to sit under the table rather than in the walkways.
We returned to Jarnac on April 17th to meet up with our friend Rick Allen from Adelaide and his friend Prue. They were in France for a couple of weeks and drove from Bordeaux to check out the vibe in Jarnac. Like all our other guests they were amazed by the beauty of the region and the little village of Jarnac. We started with champagne by the river then drove to the pretty nearby village of Bourg-Charenete and the Michelin-starred restaurant La Ribaudiere. Fabulous food and service as usual. We enjoyed We enjoyed our last bottle of Chris Greening’s Yalumba Signature 2014 which went exceptionally well with our lamb main course. The next event was a private tasting and tour at the Braastard cognac house, which is one of the more important cognac houses of the region. The tour was taken by Mr. Richard Braastard himself, which was a great honour.
The evening light on the Charente was beautiful and we sat on the banks until it was too chilly to continue, when we moved inside for a light repast of chicken a la greque and salad, followed by cheese and cognac. Somehow it got to be 1:30am before anyone looked at a watch!!
We spent Easter at les Mathes, on the coast about 80km from Jarnac. We like this campsite because it’s small and has some great people and a lovely indoor/outdoor pool. We were lucky and had a few warm days so even got to go swimming. It was fun to catch up with Jasper, Pauline, Didi, Laurent and the owners of the camping ground - Regis and Annie. We had some fun conversations over aperitifs, a nice meal of Paella cooked by Regis and some highly competitive games of boules.
April 25 was D-Day for us, when we had to front up to the Prefecture in Angouleme to apply for the next year of our Carte de Sejour (residency permit). This is very stressful because you must have all the appropriate documentation in the appropriate format and order, yet you can no longer find the list on their website – it even took the young woman serving us a long time to find it in her instruction book. We only missed providing a copy of one thing and there was a copier there, so we made a quick recovery and kept going. Thomas Hardy was wonderful to spend his first morning in France visiting the Treserorie and the bank to get us updated documentation. We’re legal until November on the temporary papers but will need to come back to Angouleme in around three months to collect our actual card, which will last until next April. It’s the same every year and such a pain. This time we’ll be somewhere in Germany so will need to drive 1200km to get back. But still, it’s better than having to do the 3 months in and out of the Schengen zone option.
This year was our third Anzac Day in Jarnac spent at Thomas Hardy’s Maison de L’ecluse (Lock Keeper’s cottage) in the middle of the Charente River. Every year it has rained so this time we decided to do a roast lamb instead of a bbq. As usual the food, wine and company were great. There were 9 people for lunch and we’d only met one of them before, so it was a great way to make new friends in Jarnac. It did clear up in the afternoon so we were able to have the cheese course outside. Thomas made a lovely toast to the fallen soldiers including those in our families – Lest We Forget.
The following day our friend Marc le Grand drove up from Bordeaux to see us. We met him at La Comedie, our favourite ‘cheap and cheerful’ restaurant in Jarnac. It was so wonderful to catch up with all his news, even though he’s been struggling with his health. He was taking a few days by himself to plan the next steps forward for his health and business. He certainly hasn’t lost his sense of humor and the conversation was funny and far-reaching, everything from Notre Dame to French and Australian politics and the world of art and architecture. Of course there was also lots of reminiscing about the 8 years they did business together. Great fun!
Jarnac is certainly a beautiful place and we’ve been enjoying long walks along the river. Grubie has enjoyed ‘lizarding’ so much that we think her tail will fall off from wagging so hard!
We think we’ll probably be here in Jarnac another week or so before we head to Brittany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany over the summer.