We began August with a quick trip back to Jarnac for a few days, to farewell Thomas Hardy. It was really hot and Michael got the chance to swim in the beautiful, clear Charante River.
Once we left Jarnac we meandered to the Armangnac region, which is so very beautiful with rolling hills, vines and sunflowers. The first night we stayed in a campground next to the most gorgeous lake just outside the town of Barbaton-Les-Thermes. The campground had lots of very serious fisher-people. The young man next to us caught an enormous fish – about 40 kg!! The town itself was very different to most French villages because it has always been a tourist town that built up around a hot springs – not the smelly sort. It had a bit of an Alpine feel about the place. The ‘baths’ were very upmarket and were just like in a novel, with people walking around in dressing gowns having ‘treatments’ and ‘drinking the waters’. Michael called the lake ‘On Golden Pond’.
After a wander around the town we drove only 16k to Eauze (pronounced Azoy). When we got there we found that it was the Festival of Floc, the local aperitif drink, so there were huge markets and all the growers/distillers in the area had stalls in the square near the church. After wandering through the markets and looking at the church we had lunch at a restaurant in the square, where you could watch everything happening and listen to the music. The next day we returned to the town so we could actually see it without the crowds. It is a stunning place and is acknowledged as the capital of Armagnac. We did a comparative armagnac tasting rather than drive the whole region going to all the distillers. It was very informative and the armagnacs varied from 30-80 years old and across the four different grape varieties. They all tasted great and very smooth. Our favourites were one from Pelle Haut (a larger upmarket brand) that was very smoky and one made by an old grandfather who lived on the edge of the Armagnac region.
We stayed outside Eauze at a different lakeside camping ground, near Bretange D’Armangac. It reminded us both of Canada –lake, trees, log cabins and very green, with a natural river pool, fishing and mushrooming of all things. We only stayed here two nights because it was a little too ‘tranquil’ for our tastes.
On leaving Eauze we had one of those bad days. Katy the GPS navigator took us on tiny narrow back roads that felt like goat tracks and then we got lost and she shut up! We eventually recovered our position and got back on track, but it was quite a difficult drive. Then we got to Auch to look at the Cathedral and Escalier Monumental (staircase). It was very impressive when we finally saw it –after our little dingle with a bollard. Luckily not too much damage and nothing that affects us in the short term, but we will have to put in an insurance claim. Dread the paperwork in French!!
To continue with our dreadful day we headed around Toulouse (4th biggest city in France) and towards the Mediterranean on the Autoroute de Deux Mers. We had been warned about the traffic and they were right. Every few kms, for no logical reason the heavy traffic just stopped. After 5 or 10k it just started again - a mystery.
We finally arrived in the medieval town of Carcassonne. What an amazing place! It has a history of 2,500 years that includes the Gallo-Romans, Visigoths, Saracens and Franks. It was besieged during the Crusades and defended the border to Spain until the mid 17th Century. The whole city was restored in the mid 1800s. You can just imagine the Knights Templar, serfs and all the little stores of artisans.
We have got into a bit of a habit now of travelling on Sunday morning and staying for a week to explore the area, usually by bike or public transport. This has helped us cope with the crowds in August.
We first hit the Mediterranean at Serignan, just outside the town of Beziers and managed to get a campsite in a campground very near the beach. It was packed, with a very hectic pool and entertainment every night. It felt a bit like being on a cruise (we think, having never been on one). The area had the advantage of lots of lovely bike tracks and every day we rode off through the vineyards to the Canal Du Midi to ride along the towpath. There were lots of canal boats and restaurants, locks and cute villages with wonderful street art. Our friends from Adelaide, Tom and Marnie Raggatt, joined us for a few days and we both rode to a restaurant on the Canal and had a boules competition. What a very civilized way to spend the day – a ride, a champagne, a lovely lunch and a boules tournament on a shaded little court next to the canal. Beziers was having its summer festival that week, complete with bullfight, but we didn’t want to go to that.
Our next stop was at Le Pradet, on the coast just out of Toulon. It was very hilly.
The campsite had a wonderful gym instructor so Sue did an aqua-aerobics class every morning. Then we walked to the beach where we found a spot that Grubie could swim and a nice place for lunch. We had a very relaxing week doing not very much! Toulon is a major naval base and they did the aircraft training every afternoon: black jets whizzing across the sky and flying so low! Then flying straight up and spiraling straight down. It was like being at an airshow every day.
We also spent a week in St Raphael. The campsite was huge and classified as 5*****. It had three pools and a separate toddler area, a two-storey sundeck, nightclub, restaurant, 15 boules courts and lots more. It was pretty luxurious and Sue indulged in a facial at the ‘wellness centre’. One day we caught the shuttle bus to Agay, the local ‘red beach’. It was like having the Mediterranean in the middle of the Flinders. In France you can take your dog most places, but not to the beach! We managed to find a little cove and Grubie got to have a paddle before enjoying a wonderful lunch of the best calamari ever, at a restaurant right on the beach.
We also walked into St Raphael one day- a very long, hilly walk of 10 or 12km so then we figured out the bus timetable, quick smart! St Raphael has a lovely beach – long and sandy. It also has some pretty good shopping, especially a wonderful Italian food shop and of course, the Vagabond store! We found a great restaurant/ private beach club on the beach in St Raphael and treated ourselves to a day there. We booked a lounger and Grubie could be on the beach because it’s a private club, plus they had the best giant prawns flambéed in pastis and a cigar cave as well. We love a restaurant that is really superb quality but where you can dine in your bathers!
On another day we caught the bus to St Raphael and then a boat to St Tropez, which was incredibly crowded and just oozed money. The boat ride was beautiful – the blue, blue water, houses covering the hills and all the boats, from little dinghies to millionaires’ multi-level yachts. Grubie is a terrific tourist, being well behaved on buses and in queues. She enjoyed having her own viewing porthole on the boat, so she could bark at the jet-skis. Once we had inspected all the boats in the marina and watched one of the super-yachts berth, we fought our way through the crowds to have a look at the town and then picked a place for lunch on the marina. Moules, sardines and a nice glass of rose and we were all happy.
The last few days of August see us based in a campground near the beach in Villeneuve-Loubet, between Antibes and Nice on the Cote D’Azur. The whole area is very built up – really, its just one constant city from St Tropez to Monaco! There is a bike track along the beach between the towns, so we rode into Antibes to explore. What a vibrant city! There is a lovely ‘old town’ with quaint buildings, the Fort Carre and the ramparts all along the cliffs, a lovely little swimming beach that’s like a grotto and lots of super-yachts. Then there is the modern town and long streets of markets. The food market was wonderful, with fresh figs and stunning berries, as well as all the usual fresh veg. There was also an Absinthe cave that was very interesting.
Sue visited the Musee Picasso, which she clearly remembers from a visit here when she was in her 20s. Picasso lived and worked here in 1946, and had a highly prolific period including tapestry, ceramics, engravings, drawings as well as paintings. What a prolific genius this man was! There was a fantastic exhibit of photos of him from this period. He always played with particular ‘motifs’ and in this time it was the fawn (Sue’s favourite), the bullfight and the seafood on his plate –squid, fish and other crustaceans. Picasso lived to the great age of 91, with 2 wives, 4 children and many affairs- but his focus was always on his art.
The town of Antibes has an amazing public street sculpture collection and there is an art festival on as well.
Great shopping, good restaurants and lovely streetscapes. We have just loved Antibes!
We plan on being in this area for a few weeks, doing research on boarding kennels for Grubie and garaging for the camping car when we come home for three weeks in November. There is also a lot of Provence left to explore, once the beach weather is over. In the meantime we are taking every chance to enjoy the sun and the ambience of The French Riviera.