Friday 27 September 2002

Villa's In The Charente

Below is a travelogue I sent out to family last September (2002) documenting our last holiday which was to France.


This was the first real holiday we've done since K* was born if you don't count trips to visit family or short breaks in the UK. Our last holiday was to Crete four years ago so we were really looking forward to travelling somewhere we hadn't been before. So we drove down to the Charente region of France. This is roughly the area between Nantes and Bordeaux on the west coast of France.
We booked this last Christmas which is very late for high season travel. We figured it would make a good place for a holiday for a number of reasons. There's lots of good beaches and a zoo for the kids. Being France, there's lots of good food and markets and shopping. There's lots of interesting towns and things to see. Lots of historical stuff.  The place oozes culture. The region is well known for lots of sunshine.  There are hospitals in case K*s swallows a nut. Something for everyone! And we can just stuff the car full of our things and drive there bypassing the horrors of jammed airports, slimy car rental desks and lugging bags.
Well overall, we had a nice time but it was not all bliss. Previously, our style of holidays was all based on the culture vulture/foodie approach. This involves lots of food and sightseeing which was ok when the kids were young and could be dragged anywhere and entertainment consisted of bent straws or utensil puppets. But now R* is older and wants to do the things she likes. The big lesson of our holiday was that our holiday style needs to change. Unhappy kids make for an unhappy holiday and all was not well in the back seat...[stage cue: sound of ominous music]
So lets now run the video...
We left on Aug 15th and made it to the ferry in Portsmouth in good time to my great relief since it was rush-hour and there's always that danger of a traffic jam. We boarded and found the overnight cabin we had reserved deep in the bowels of the ferry. Tiny with no window. The kids were majorly excited and bounced all over the cabin which you could do quite easily in one big step.
I woke up to the announcement that passengers should go to their cars. Arrgghh! Mad rush as we all got up and stepped on each other while we changed, packed and scrambled to the car. That gentle rocking of the ship must have made us all sleep like babies (what a silly phrase .. babies don't sleep that well!!)
It took six hours to barrel down the motorway to the B&B where we were staying for the first week. It was torturous for the kids - they had never been stuck in a car that long. We had a few picnic stops along the way of course where I chased them about. In there car Jenny and I suffered mental death playing "I Spy" and "20 Questions" a billion times. We took a bit of a detour at one point due to a missed turn but eventually made it to Surgeres. Pretty good given that I didn't have a map and had to buy them along the way. Jenny is very tolerant now of my demands for directional information while driving - makes for a good rally driving team. :-)
The B&B was wonderful. You can check out their website here with all the pictures rather than me trying to describe it.
We slept in the "Tilleul" bedroom while the kids had "Belle Epoque". Lovely old manor house tastefully decorated. Unfortunately, R* thought the place looked haunted. Particularly her room. Too much TV I think!
Our hosts were Patrick and Bridgette. Very nice couple who quit the rat race in Paris and decided to run a B&B in the country three years previously. They spoke English quite well. One of the great things about the B&B is that Bridgette provided dinners 5 days a week so we often ate there with the other guests although most of the conversation was in French.
Ahhh! First day of a holiday is always filled with so much promise. It was hot and sunny so we decided to go to a nearby beach that another guest recommended. As I mentioned, this holiday is the first time we've had to go during sardine (peak) season. It was a struggle to find parking near the beach and the beach was packed cheek to jowl. Oh well. Still it was a nice afternoon picnicing and playing on the beach. Jenny crawled into K*s sun tent to hide from the sun and tried to catch some sleep.
After the beach, we drove to the nearby picturesque town called La Rochelle so we could explore it a bit. Big mistake. Kids got tired and grumpy which led to a meltdown as we walked around. This got to be known as ice cream time! We abandoned the walk and went back to the car to discover I had received a hefty parking fine. Arrggghh!
The Charente area is very flat full of fields of corn and sunflowers and other crops I don't recognise. I love the fields of sunflowers. They all face the same direction and look positively happy. We took a bunch of pictures in a field of them.
A little ways north of where we were staying was the "Green Venice" area (Marais Poitevin). It's a forested marshland that's criss-crossed with canals that's popular with tourists for boating. It was high on my agenda to see so off we went.
We met Bernard and Amelie at a boat rental place recommended by Bridgette. Bernard had lived in Vancouver for 28 years so we were warmly greeted as wayward Vancouverites. His daughter Amelie took us on on a boat tour of the canals. It's a flat bottomed boat and Amelie stood at the back and used a very long poll to propel us along. She knew very little English having grown up in France but we managed to chat for most of the 3 hrs that it took to glide us along the tunnels of trees and water. Very pretty. Sometimes the canal is completely carpeted by small water plants. Amelie demonstrated that you can stir up enough methane gas bubbles from the canal bottom that you can then light it on fire. Kids loved that. Jenny and I tried taking turns to propel the boat with that pole to absolutely miserable results getting the boat turned and beached numerous times :-)
The day finished well with a drive along the river to a small nearby village and a three-course dinner.
Our friends Karen and Brian with their children Emily and James were also having their holiday at the same time in the same region so we decided to meet up on the Isle de Re. It's an island just off the coast from La Rochelle connected by a bridge. It very popular for its beaches. We met up and decided to rent bicycles and try to ride around the island. It took a while but we were eventually all kitted out. R* and Emily had their own bikes. I had K* on the back of mine. James had a trailer bike connected to Brian.
And off we went! The bike paths are pretty good but I always felt close to having a heart attack when R* had to ride by the road. And no helmets!! The rental shop had run out. By the way, the french are *much* more relaxed about safety issues than UK/US/Canada.
We managed to ride to the next town for lunch at a quaint harbour-side cafe before deciding to ride back before the kids got tired and refused to ride any more. All together it was an 8km ride which was a big expedition for R* and even included hills which R* had refused to tackle before. Major breakthrough.
We then drove to St. Martin to seek out rumoured donkeys that wear trousers and you can ride on them. Sure enough, we found them and the children got a ride. You had to lead the donkey yourself and mine would sometimes stop and refuse to move. Ever tried to move a stubborn donkey? Not easy. Afterward, we found a carousel for ice cream time. We also had a short play on the beach before going to dinner at another harbour restaurant.
A good day.
So now that we had felt that we had actually *done* something, Jenny permitted the troops to relax and have shore leave. Jenny doesn't take well to doing nothing but we managed to stay at home. Well, almost, as we did spend the morning poking around the market in Sugeres. We discovered lollipops made out of natural honey that the kids really liked.
The B&B is situated on 10 acres of land. They have sheep, chickens, two donkeys and a dog. If a place has a dog, R* is happy. Here was two donkeys and a dog so it was heaven! Unfortunately, both K* and R* got their fingers bit by the donkeys while feeding them grass :-)
They also got stung by nettle plants. Trials and tribulations. But they made friends with the french children and ran about. Language isn't a barrier to play!
It was the first day I got to feel that long lost relaxation feeling.
Next day we headed out to Zoorama - a small zoo of European only animals that was about 45 minutes away. It was OK but not great. The children liked it although they were a bit grumpy from the car journey. But there was ice cream and a playground. We took a horse-cart ride around the grounds and then walked through it. The french feed stale loaves of bread to the animals.
For dinner, we went to the a nearby town of Niort. I made the mistake of ordering chacroute. Terrible. As an aside, over the course of the holiday R* tried snails, frogs legs and eel. I partly goaded her to try them by telling her she could then grosse out her friends and other adults by telling them what she ate. That worked and she's been telling everyone. :-)
We were beginning to wise up to the timing constraints we had to deal with in France. Lunch often takes 2hrs and places stop serving lunch at 2pm. K* would get sleepy between 1 and 3 and needed to nap for an hour at least. The mornings are best for the kids really but I'm a slower getter-upper (much to Jenny's frustation). Shops close between 2pm and 4pm.  In the evening, restaurants don't open until 7pm or 7:30 and dinners often take 2hrs. The kids were often up to 10 or 11 at night.
We went back to La Rochelle to see the town that we failed to see last time. Difficult finding parking but I managed to find a spot where I wouldn't get a parking fine.
We had a long lunch in a very good seafood restaurant Jenny had read about called Chez Fred. Poor kids. We really did put them through a lot of long lunches and dinners.
By the time we finished, it was the middle of the afternoon and we were facing a meltdown again and Jenny was getting frustrated. She only managed to poke around a few shops. We tried to go to the acquarium but there was a huge line-up and the time on the parking meter was running out. Again it was ice-cream time and we again abandoned looking around the town.
Not a great day.
Even lunch at a local restaurant took 2hrs. Food is not served or eaten quickly in France!
We went horseback riding that we had arranged the day before. R* was over the moon with excitement. We arrived at the equestrian center at 3pm and the kids were taken away for 3hrs into a sort of children club and eventually they were fitted out and taken on a long walk on some pony's. Meanwhile, Jenny and I arranged to go on a short horse-back ride around the nearby lanes.
This was all quite amazing given that we didn't speak French and they didn't speak English. Jenny did all the arm flailing and worked it out.
It was good fun. I hadn't been on a horse since a rather bad experience when I was about 11. It felt quite awkward at first but eventually I got comfortable with the gait of the horse. Jenny got the largest horse but did very well.
After that, it was - you guessed it - ice cream time! We then took a drive along some narrow backroads along a river and relished the beautiful scenery before heading home for another long dinner at the same place we had lunch.
Great day but now R* is begging for horse-riding lessons in the UK.
Our week at the B&B was up. Time to move to the self-catering cottage we had arranged to rent for the following week. These are known as gites in France.
We had to leave the B&B by 10am but we couldn't occupy the gite until 4pm so we had to find something to do. It would only take 1 hour to get to the gite so we headed to the beach at Fornas.
We had a pleasant picnic there and a lazy afternoon before the beginning of the saga of "the stinking jacket". Not sure how it happened but R* tracked something that stank into the car and it got all over her jacket and the car smelled of dead-crab-or-fish-mixed-with-sewage for the rest of the trip. Arrgghh! Took a while to figure where it came from. Every day we were reminded of it when we got in the car.
K* also started getting the occasional nose bleed. *sigh*. Imagine driving along a motorway when all of a sudden a nose bleed starts in the backseat...  Good thing the car has red leather seats :-}
Our hosts at the gites were Allan and Caroline. Both British and very friendly. They're also accomplished working musicians. Allan plays historical classical instruments and Caroline plays violin. They were building a recording studio at the gites which I had a long chat with Allan about.
The gite was definetely more "down market" than I had hoped especially compared to the B&B we had just stayed in. But we settled in and had a tour of the villa. They had a games room, pond, sand pit, swings and wendy house. It was all very child friendly. And they had a pool. And they had a dog. And they had kittens.
The kids and I quickly got changed and jumped into the pool but despite it being heated, it was bbrrrr COLD. Last time I was getting in!
We spent the day hanging around the villa. I took the kids out rowing on the little pond in a tiny row boat catching frogs and small fish in some nets. Afterwards, the kids soon made friends with other children staying at the villa and were not to be seen. Truly this is the advantage of staying at a place with several self-catered cottages.
That evenings we went to a place called La Cayenne for dinner. The entire Marenne-Oleron region we were now in is renowned for oysters. In fact, 40% of all oyster production in France comes from there. La Cayenne is out in the middle of the oyster bed area so we feasted on seafood. From then on, we often began meals with a dozen oysters.
Rain, rain, go away! Oh well. The good weather didn't manage to hold up.
We stayed inside. The gites had a huge video collection in the games room and every cottage had a video player and TV so Jenny put one on after a huge scrap over what they would watch. I'm trying to get the children to resolve their own conflicts rather than us always stepping in so the idea is that they have to reach a consensus by themselves. Not easy I can tell you but they eventually did.
Later on when the rain had finally subsided, we all bundled into the car and we went to a small village that was supposed to be pretty and full of artisans.
Jenny did manage to do a bunch of shopping but I wasn't overly impressed with the village. Not that pretty. Not many artisans.
We drove into the town of Royan and again tortured the children with a long dinner. But it was the best dinner yet.
Not very sunny but not raining. We decided to go to the zoo in Palymre reputed to be the best in France.
Well it was certainly well stocked - 1600 animals. They had them from A to Z. Whatever you could think of. What's more, you could feed them!! Right as you come into the zoo, you get to feed the giraffes which is a lot of fun as they tower above you and dip down right in front of you to lick popcorn off of peoples hands with enormous quivering tongues. What a terrible thing to let people feed them though!
R* also got to feed monkeys, elephants, zebras and goats. She wound up with a baby goat sleeping on her lap and it took ages to get her away from the place. We also saw a sea lion show which the kids loved. Very funny.
It was a good day but pretty tiring. Jenny made a fab meal at home. I astounded R* by telling her she could have ice cream for breakfast. She doubled checked with me several times while getting ready for bed that she really was allowed.
First thing in the morning, R* was up and helping herself to ice cream for breakfast. I think she wanted to eat it before I could change my mind :-)
Allan and Caroline have a dog named Deliah. As I said, if a place has a dog, R* is happy and she would go with Allan to take Deliah for walks. R* really really really really wants a dog.
Later in the day we went to Rochefort. I needed a new windscreen wiper for the car and then we went into the old part of town called the "Arsenal". The whole town was constructed starting in 1666 as the center for building the ships of the French navy. Interesting place to walk around.
For dinner, Jenny ordered a steak and this whopping huge steak showed up covering almost her whole plate. Huge laugh. Jenny barely made a dent in it. Deliah had a very nice steak dinner the next day!
It was market day in Saintes and Jenny was itching to go. So we went. Quite a small market unfortunately. But any market is better than no market for Jenny. Before leaving the market, we chatted with a vendor with a huge tub of tiny crabs and he gave one to R*. Great. So how do you convince your kid that a crab is not a pet you can take home? We then had to drive to the river to let it go.
Taking pity on Jenny's lack of shopping opportunities, we wandered around the town and she managed to poke through some shops after a leisurely lunch. But as I said before, most shops close between 2 and 4 so pickings were slim.
On the way home, we stopped at Chateau La Roche Courbon which has been nicknamed "Sleeping Beauty's Castle". Very nice but I stayed in the car while K* napped and R* and Jenny went on a tour.
I woke up not feeling well. Felt like mild fever. Maybe it was oh-no-the-holiday-is-almost-over sickness. Some pain killers got me through it and we spent a lazy day at home.
K* had the cheek to unravel an entire roll of toilet paper just so he could get the roll in the middle of it.
Since it was the last day, all the families staying there (all British) got together for a BBQ. Jenny impressed everyone with her splendid cooking as usual - prawn salad and tuna steaks.
Discovered that Caroline was the author of a series of childrens music books called "MusicLand". R* got an autographed copy along with advice that she should learn to play the cello.
By 11am we were packed and on the road speeding all the way back to Brittany heading for a B&B in Pouer. Took us 5 hours to get there and only two stops. K* slept most of the way.
The B&B was not very child friendly and quite formal. Run by a British/Scottish couple.
Went to a beautiful medieval town called Dinan for dinner. Jenny even found a pottery shop that was just about to close but the fellow let her in and she got a good poke around. The kids proceeded to interview the potter looking over his portfolio and asking how he did it.
You can imagine after a long day in the car and a long dinner, the kids were full of bounce. Took a while to bounce it out of them playing on the bed and hoping we weren't disturbing too many neighbours around us.
My main goal of staying an extra day in Brittany was to take a side-trip and visit Mont Saint Michel - one of the most famous tourist attractions in France. It's an abbey built high on a huge rock jutting out into a bay surrounded by a small town. Breath-taking.
Here's some pictures of it:
We got there relatively early to try and beat the hordes that come in buses from Paris. Parking was easy and we gradually climbed our way to the abbey at the top. We even got to listen to a church service. What makes the abbey unique is that part of it is romanesque while the other part is gothic. It's reputed to be the location where St. Michael defeated Lucifer.
On the way out we ran into what I considered a fantastic music installation by Denys Vinzant. Hard to explain it though. He's an experimental music composer. There was a large chamber in which maybe 60 glass panels were hung. Most of the panels had small piezo-electric speakers that could make the glass ring. The whole room was a 3D acoustic space filled with beautiful tinkling bell like melodies. I found the CD in the shop on the way out. I've never heard anything like it before.
After the abbey, we had a rip-off expensive tourist lunch and left taking the scenic coastal drive to St Malo and then home before going for our last leisurely dinner in Dinan.
We rushed to catch our 10:45 ferry sailing. Had to check in by 10:00 but at 9:45 I took the wrong turn! Arrgghh! We made it ok after a small panic. It was an 8 hour ferry ride back to the UK but it was easy to bide our time. There's lots to do on the ferry; much better than being stuck in an airplane. We signed up R* for a childrens mini-club where she got to visit the bridge, meet the captain and steer the boat!
So its good to be home. I had a nice time in many ways but it certainly wasn't relaxing! Jenny and I have agreed that we need to change how we travel next year. Need to focus more on activities than sightseeing. And we need to have shorter meals :-)
The number 1 thing we did on the whole holiday was search for toilets. We were forever searching for a toilet! R* seems to need to go all the time but never at the same time as K*. By the way, the french have squat toilets like in Asia. At least we got to teach R* how to ask for the toilets in French!
One of my hopes in travelling France was to motivate R* a bit for learning another language by showing how useful and relevant it could be. Not sure whether it worked but she did learn several words and both kids would scream "Au Revoir" when we left places. We sometimes would listen to a french language CD in the car. Maybe it worked. Maybe it didn't.
And I never did pay that parking fine.