29 August: Puzzling over the mysteries of the Neolithic Carnac alignments…and eating oysters

Author: Mr A

Location: Locmariaquer and Carnac, Brittany, France

I went to a secondary school in England that was run by a headmaster who went on to make a better curator of Oxford museum than, in reflection, he did a headmaster of a boys school. I left school with very little passion ignited for learning. However, he did take us a on dig at a Roman villa near my home town, and that did stir an interest in ancient (rather than modern) history.

So when the opportunity presented itself to go and see the earliest known examples of megalithic architecture in Western Europe, I was excited! If you’re not really into that..I’d skip this post!

I’d spent some time over the last couple of days reading up about what the French call “The Carnac alignments”, a collection of megaliths (large stones that have been used to construct a structure or monument, either alone or with other stones) that’s spread over the ancient Breton landscape. Oh the joys of retirement!

Let me attempt to summarise what’s known and what’s not about these structures. There are over 3,000 of these stone megaliths scattered around north-western Brittany. Before radiocarbon dating was introduced in the mid 1970s. archaeologists thought they were raised by the Celts, but they were around 6,000 years out. We now know the structures were cut and moved into place around 7,000 years ago! This makes them the oldest megaliths in Western Europe. As an aside, the oldest in the world are currently understood to be at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey at 11,000 years old. Not heard of it? You wouldn’t be alone there…and yet the relative youngster of Stonehenge (5,019 years) has such strong brand recognition. Cultural politics in archaeology maybe?

So we paid our few euros of an admission fee and had a wander around one of the main sites at Locmariaquer. It was one of those spine tingling moments when you see something that just defies your understanding of the world.

Drawings showing the reconstructed carvings on the stones, now heavily weathered. All carvings were in relief (ie the stone around the images chipped away, a HUGE amount of work, demonstrating the importance of the stones)
The large grave measures 30 metres long, for just one person…who were they?
The cairn/grave now containing the ‘Table de Marchand’ (Merchant’s table) was reconstructed in the 1990s – prior to this the stones were used as a parking lot and the ancient ‘table’ used for picnics for hundreds of years!
Entering the cairn
Inside the ‘table’ and stone slabs are protected from the elements once again. Carvings can be seen on the back wall and ceiling, dating back 7,000 years

For instance, there sits four large chunks of rock that have been proven from the carvings on each to have once belonged to a single megalith. It weighs over 300 tonnes, and was somehow transported over ten kilometres of rolling hills and across rivers.

Various experiments have been carried out over the years to try and replicate moving large stones to prove it can be done using logs and levers. In one such proof of concept a bunch of students and willing tourists were able to move a 30 tonne stone. But 300 tonnes…not that I can find. Logs just dont work apparently with that weight. And of course there must have been a solution, or it wouldn’t be there. But I think perhaps its as much a mystery as to how a Neolithic society had developed such a complex social structure to engage the huge amount of labour it would have taken, and kept them fed, motivated and organised.

Catherine stands beside the pieces of the toppled rock – estimated to have fallen 6,000 years ago during an earthquake

A piece of research published in February this year has at least shed some light on the spread of megalithic structures in Western Europe. The study analysed over 2,400 radio carbon ratings of megalithic structures across Europe and demonstrated that they spread up and down the then coasts of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, presumably from the initiative of a single seafaring culture.

We have still much to understand about how this “cognitive revolution” (as Yuval Harari calls it in his book “Sapiens”) took place. What prompted such a huge acceleration of social and technical competence in a relative short period of time? Homo Sapiens had been pottering around with basic stone tools for nearly 2 million years, then all of a sudden everything changes dramatically. Why? What was the impetus to this rapid development? Intrigued? Well I am…

Locmariaquer is a pretty seaside village, giving our first sight of the ocean since Croatia
Cobbled streets and blue and white accompany the fresh sea air
We feel Locmariaquer would be a great place to stop a while…but sadly there are no good sounding campsites
The clear waters and sea air is lovely

So we headed off to find a camp for the night and drove along the coast to an oyster farm in the village of Carnac we had seen listed on the France Passion scheme we belong to. Basically you can park up for free in return for tasting their produce.

We call in at the Alignments de Carnac on the way to our France Passion…there are literally thousands of these stones lined up in fields. What do they mean?

So we roll up and park up in front of this fabulous view across the bay, and go and buy ourselves two dozen of the local oysters, for the very good price of under €10. Now they were pretty nice, but I have to say Sydney Rock oysters take some beating! Perhaps we just been trained over the years to appreciate that creamy flavour. These were a little saltier, and went well with a crisp Italian white from Le Marche. We’re feeling particularly fortunate tonight to have this new view out of Truffy’s window.

How’s this for a free camp?
A beautiful little harbour metres in front of us
Wine and oysters…what more does one need?
Sunset is pretty awesome too
This is the definition of serenity….and breathe…..

26-28 August: Across in to north western France

Author: Mrs A

Location: Coulon, Parc regional du Marais Poitevin, and Borgneuf-en-Retz, France

We farewelled the eastern Loire Valley and continued on our way west, heading towards Brittany. We visited the Loire region extensively three years ago, and the memories of the beautiful chateaus and cycleways are still fresh in our memories – we don’t feel the need to renew them quite yet with so many places we have not seen.

After a brief overnight stop to tackle our washing, on Tuesday we arrived in the small town of Coulon, in the Marais Poitevin regional park. The regional park has quite a unique look and feel to it.

An intricate web of streams link up to more major arteries and canals

Looking at Google Maps you can see a web of waterways criss-crossing the countryside. The regional park stretches across 112,000 hectares all the way down to the coast, but we were here to explore the section around Coulon which comprises of two main areas – the dry marsh (which is used for agriculture) and the wet marsh (known as the ‘Green Venice’) which floods during winter. The park is important for migratory birds and rare wildlife such as the European otter and is France’s second largest wetland.

Five hundred years’ of work has gone into creating and managing this area, with the efforts of monks from five abbeys across the region responsible for the initial creating of the waterways in order to create viable land for farming and agriculture.

After setting up in the municipal campground, we jumped on our bikes for an explore. Coulon clearly does see itself as a Green Venice, with barques (a style of punting) and rowboats lining the waterways, but the tourist numbers on this Tuesday afternoon were not quite filling the capacity.

Plenty of boats for hire in Coulon and only a few rented out…this is the last week of the French summer school holidays so things are getting quieter

There is a good network of cycleways around the area, with well marked trails on boardwalks over the marshes and cycle paths off road and along quiet lanes into local villages. We did a short 20km circuit before returning for the night.

View of the canal from the village of La Garette

The following morning we decided it would be the ideal opportunity to inflate our pack rafts and head out for an explore by water. We launched from just in front of our campsite onto La Sevre Niortaise, the main waterway going through Coulon. But instead of heading into the throng of rowboats and tourists we turned right, and went into the quieter waters upstream, hoping to find some unsuspecting wildlife.

And we’re off….excited to be back on the water after a break
Heading off down one of the smaller streams

We found an opening in the river bank and set off down it, hoping we would find our way out of the maze at some point, but excited to see what was beyond.

Paddling quietly, hoping to see some furry otter action
Turn another corner and another watery pathway leads through the trees
Perfectly still reflections

And what a scene awaited us. The waterways are lined with poplars and ash trees, the still waters creating incredible reflections. Moreover, it was only about ten minutes into our paddle that we saw our first otter, swimming along the water’s edge and climbing out to retreat to safety. Our strategy had paid off!

After this magical experience of seeing a rare otter in the wild, we chalked it up as luck, until Mr A cried out again ‘look, is that a cat running along through that field?’. The answer was ‘no’! It was actually another otter bounding along through the grass. Are these things rare or what?

Ash and poplar trees line the waterways, cut back to short stumps to prevent them toppling over during winter storms
Back to the village of La Garotte where we explore back gardens leading to the waterways
There are more waterways than roads in these parts
Back in Coulon before heading off for a late lunch

We saw our third and final otter not long after, swimming across the channel in front of us, head held high. It seems we were very fortunate. We excitedly told a local boat guide what we had seen, and he said he very rarely has seen one, let alone three. I guess otters are not used to the stealth like approach of us on a pack raft compared to the chattering of tourists on rowboats or barques.

Over a late lunch we debated whether to stay another night or move on, and settled on the latter. More adventures await us! We hit the road and continued on our journey west, aiming for Brittany, the region of France closest to the south west of England. After our 8km paddle we had worked up a thirst, and thought a wine tasting and stay on a vineyard as part of our France Passion membership might be in order.

It was around 5pm that we pulled up at Martine and Gérard Padiou’s western Loire Valley vineyard ‘Domaine des Priés’. We entered the cellar, as is typical in France, situated below the main house.

Martine welcomed us and offered a degustation from the wide range of wines grown and produced on their property, including the grape typical of the Loire Valley region, grolleau. The name grolleau is derived from the French word for crow, and is said to describe the deep black hue of the grapes.

A wide selection of wines available for tasting
We bought a bottle of the Grolleau Gris which was dry and fruity, not acidic…it will be nice with a seafood entree one evening!

We purchased a couple of bottles of wine, both very reasonable (the Grolleau Gris at €3.80 and the Abouriou Grolleau at €3.40) and headed off to the vineyard for the night.

Catherine and Martine, working our way through the French language!

There we found ourselves a level parking spot between the rows of grapes and settled down for the night to listen to owls hooting and hunting among the vines.

Cosy in the vines for the night
Grapes are looking plump and almost ready for harvest
A fine conclusion to a fabulous day

24-25 August: The Loire Valley… and a break from Truffy

Author: Mr A

Location: Sancerre, Loire Valley, France

Saturday: We headed down from the Bourgogne region, dropping several hundred metres to the River Loire Valley, and watched the thermometer rise 16 degrees centigrade to the early 30s. The next few days forecast are even hotter. I suggested we look for some alternative accomodation to our hot tin box with no air conditioning. Given its high season and the Loire valley…we will need some luck.

Meanwhile we have some lovely wines from Sancerre to taste. Catherine had spotted this winery advertising on the France Passion scheme that we belong to where French producers (of wine or cheese, or honey..or pretty much anything!) will let a self contained motorhome park on their property for the night if they sample the goods. Not a bad deal. We arrived at the Eric Louis winery and were parked up with free power and water…sorted…how good is that?

Parked up by the tasting room

Next it was a quick 30 kilometre bike ride along the Canal Lateral a la Loire, which was built to provide an alternative route for navigation to the unreliable waters of the Loire river.

Oh how embarrassing. It isn’t until mid afternoon that we realise we are in team colours!

Then it was a visit to the hilltop village of Sancerre with its multitude of restaurants and wine shops. We soon worked up a thirst for a wine tasting!

An old railway viaduct now serves as a cycleway access up to the medieval hilltop village of Sancerre
A beautiful panorama from the top of the village
Many medieval buildings remain in the village adding much character to the winding streets
Mrs A heads down another quiet cobbled street
Every building has its own story to tell
Sancerre is surrounded by Sancerre grapes – commonly known as Sauvignon Blanc
The flinty soils add to they flavour of the grapes
Our route back to Truffy took us winding through the vines
Rows of grapevines are in all directions

This is, for us, one of the delights of travelling in France – to taste the local wines and try to better understand how the varying terroir impacts the flavour (counting both aroma and taste here). In this area, a mix of limestone and flint soils gave us a real long spectrum of flavours to juggle with. We prefer the flintier, more mineral characteristics, but it was good to do a taste check as the Sancerre sav blancs here are top class.

Caroline takes us through a good selection of wines

We were made to feel so welcome by Caroline, who thankfully spoke good English, which allowed us to get into a more in depth discussion than our halting French allows. I mentioned to her we were looking for somewhere to stay out of the motorhome and she said the winemaker was just opening up a place for accomodation not far away and called him for us. So we will check it out tomorrow! How’s that for friendly French service?

Sunday: Another glorious day dawned so it was off to explore the other direction down the Loire river.

The first part of our ride was along the towpath of the canal
Not all of the towpath was gravel…but the bikes still made it along the grassy banks
A nice cup of tea at the halfway mark

It was a fabulous cycleway, and we soon had 30km under our belt and arrived at the small town of La Charité-sur-Loire.

Crossing the Loire River onto one of the islands
The ever changing river, new islands appear and disappear with each flood

We had a quick poke about, admiring a 900 year old UNESCO listed church, but more importantly settled on a lunch venue with a view of the river.

Benedictine monastery, founded in 1059
Literally hundreds of years of history has passed these walls by
A mishmash of buildings over the centuries makes this corner look slightly awkward
Inside the Priory Church of Notre-Dame, a combination of 11th and 12th century architecture
Magnificent ceilings and walls built to last

Pizza “sans fromage” (no cheese) for madam and something super cheesy for me, a kind of a creamy penne pasta with a baked top. Apparently called a gratin. Well we did still have to ride back in 36 degrees centigrade in the sun…phew…needed those calories.

Looking back at La Charité-sur-Loire from our lunch spot on the island

We arrived back at Truffy a little hot and bothered but soon packed him up and pottered up to our accomodation for the night, a room in a newly restored house out in the sticks. We were warmly greeted by the host and settled in. We discovered we were sharing the house with other guests, and so had to close our door, and the AC was only in the shared area, so we were stifling. We opened the windows and there were no fly screens so the mossies attacked in force. At one stage during the night we seriously considered moving back into Truff, who was a little miffed I think we had abandoned him at the first sign of another heatwave.

Anyway…all a bit of miscommunication with no ill intent. So a not so good night’s sleep, but a decision made to use the next day as a driving day as it was going to be a another blaster. We just decided…lets go to Brittany!

21 August: Château de Sully

Author: Mr A

Location: Sully, Bourgogne, France

A short drive today heading west through the rolling hills of Burgundy and we arrived at Château de Sully, a castle built in the late 1500s we had seen on the France Passion website that apparently allowed motorhomes to stay for free overnight in their adjacent car park.

Truffy likes his view this morning

We signed up for a tour of the chateau and were pleasantly surprised by the quality content of the English language materials that were offered to support the guide, who delivered in French. The materials were all written in the first person, and as we worked through them realised the author was the current Duchess of Magenta, who owned and still lives in the house with her husband and family. It really brought the whole expedience alive for us. Sometimes these tours can come across as so impersonal. Even I, the Philistine, was engaged.

Call that a front door? Oh ok….entering via a bridge over the moat
The inner courtyard…as a private home, this was the extent of our photography within the gates, none allowed inside

The chateau had had many notable owners over the years, but what struck me from the Duchess’ account of its history was how love and lust so shapes the story…. Would it be culturally stereotyping to say…’especially in France’? For instance, the chateau was owned for many years by an Irish family, and when the current marquis had dug into how that came to pass she discovered one of the previous Dukes had taken a wife a lot younger than him (say 70 years) and had then required the services of a local doctor (Irish!) to try and keep him…going. Anyway the Duke passed away and the doctor married his young wife! There is a lesson in there somewhere for me…

Mrs A checking out the moat
A magnificent building – needs some work, but fabulous all the same
The moat was reintroduced during the 1800s after being filled in
We toured the ground floor but the first floor rooms remained private
Windows open to the breeze on this warm summer’s day

The current owners of the chateau now have have a financial interest in the quite famous Montrachet winery, and they were offering a tasting of some of their lower end wines. We wren’t impressed enough to buy them, but did splash out on a Chassagne-Montrachet 2014 Grand Cru that had won some prizes. Look forward to sharing that one back in the UK! Put your bids in…

We had spotted a rail trail on our way though the village so as the weather was delivering an unusually sunny day we headed out on the bikes. Such a peaceful ride. There’s something about pottering around in rural France that just slows the heart rate down, and makes you want to sigh with languid contentment. Ahhhhhh…

Peaceful until a high speed intercity train from Paris comes past!
Beautiful woodland cycleway
Topped off with a cup of herbal tea of course

So this is our third consecutive free night of camping – bless France – we might get our budget back on track after all from Austria and Switzerland! There are of course no facilities – other than sometimes a facility to empty your toilet waste – but a small price to pay (well none in fact) to park up for the night and spend the money we’ve “saved” on wine instead 🙂

Sante! Is it sacrilege to drink an Italian wine at a French castle? Ah no, we think not….
A lovely sunset to finish off the day
One of our more scenic campsites

19-20 August: On retourne en France!

Author: Mrs A

Location: Hirtzbach, Alsace, and Pommard, Côte-d’Or, France

Monday morning was cool, grey and drizzling as we departed from Zurich and continued our journey west…or ‘drizzerable’ as Mr A described it. There was again no sign of the magnificent alpine scenery Switzerland is so famous for.

Before long we were back into France and aiming for a little village in Alsace where we were to roughly plan our next couple weeks as we work our way over to Dieppe to catch a ferry across to the UK. First though, we called in at a supermarket for some shopping. I’m ashamed to say it was the absolute highlight of our day!

This was the best supermarket we have seen this whole trip! Not only did they stock all the Asian food ingredients I had on my list (very rare for France!), but Mr A was delighted by the extensive deli offering fresh quiche, pâté, a wide selection of meats and cheeses. We took our time!

And so on to Hirtzbach. When selecting this location we did so because it is on a rail-trail cycle route, and the village sounded picturesque and pretty, winning prizes for its flowers, historical buildings and fruit growing. Sadly in the wet weather it didn’t look as lovely as it could have done and we didnt get the bikes out.

Our site for the night…in its favour, it was absolutely free of charge

We did have a stroll around the village though.

Many houses had dates carved into the wood, 1570, 1580 and so on…
Definitely a unique look to these homes
Plenty of flowers as expected, and nice bright colours
A village of gardeners it seems
Fruit trees on every corner – ripening apples, limes, lemons, tubs of tomatoes and other herbs and vegetables

Along with many colourful houses dating back to the mid-late 1500s, there was a park in which sat one of the last remaining ice-houses in Alsace.

Used prior to the invention of the refrigerator, ice houses used to store ice for preserving food

We decided some wine tasting might be in order as we make our way through France, and so made our way across to the Burgundy region come Tuesday morning.

Our night in Hirtzbach was not as peaceful as we would have liked, with the village church bells peeling every hour, and every fifteen minute increment – including all through the night. It was a little bit like sleep torture as you drifted off after the quarter-to bells, only to find yourself waking enough to count the chimes on the hour “Oh, only four o’clock…I can still sleep a bit longer…”. Ugh! If we were residents we would definitely be requesting they stop between 10pm and 7am!

We chose to visit the village of Pommard, not far from Beaune, the ‘capital’ of Burgundy wine country. There we had another free night on the private driveway of a vineyard and tasting room in the middle of the village. This is part of the France Passion scheme we belong to.

Truffy’s cosy courtyard surrounded by 16th century farmhouse
(Photo from the following morning, sunshine!) – spot Truffy hiding!

We first joined France Passion when we hired a motorhome and travelled through France three years ago, and were so impressed with the scheme, we decided to do it again this year. Once signed up (about AU$50/£27) there are no further costs. The scheme is made up of a range of farms, vineyards, olive groves, castles, mansions and other businesses with some space for self contained motorhomes and a desire to share their wares or services with visitors. For us, its a great opportunity to get off the beaten track and see some areas we would probably neither find nor hear about on our own.

What we especially liked about this location was that there was space for only two motorhomes, making it very private. We were first to arrive, and not long after we had set up a Dutch couple turned up too, and together we went into the tasting room to sample some wine.

‘Our’ vineyard was run by Patrick Virely-Rougeot with wines produced in the Burgundy tradition on just 9 hectares of vineyard. The quality was excellent though, sharing with us samples of Burgundy (Pinot Noir), Pommard, Pommard premier cru and Meursault. We purchased one bottle of premier cru to take back to the UK and share with friends.

We decided to explore the village, with many tempting signs pointing towards tasting rooms leading to firmly locked and closed doors. We were nearly back at Truffy when I spotted the sign I had been looking for: ‘Cave ouvert – degustation’.

Very ‘rustic’ looking streets, a little scruffy and run down…and yet making it feel more authentic and not too touristy
Why is nobody open?
Burgundy gates contrast with thick ivy…
Beautiful roses

We wandered into the courtyard and spotted some cellar doors opening to a dark stairwell leading under the 17th century house. Out popped the head of the sommelier, who grinned and said he’d be back with some glasses, indicating for us to head down the stairs.

Heading down into the cellar (cave)
Wines for tasting lined up on the stairs, our sommelier easily moving from French to English in his presentation

The cellars were full of old musty barrels, and about 8 other people – a range of Dutch (speaking English) and French visitors, already ahead of us on the tasting front.

Looking down into the cellar
A great location for some tasting

We tried samples of seven wines, starting with white and moving on to red, but I have to say none impressed us any more than the delicious wine where we are staying. We didn’t end up buying any there.

The well in the courtyard of our wine tasting – completed in 1641

Our final stop for the afternoon was the ‘famous’ winery of Pommard, Chateau Pommard. We popped our head into the very swish reception, all glass and chrome (in stark contrast to the musty rustic cellars) to be told we couldn’t do a tasting until tomorrow morning, and it would be €35 a head (that’s AU$114/ £64 for the two of us!)…we laughed and said we’d be back…with no intention of course. We’d rather spend that money on wine thank you very much!

The grand entranceway to Chateau Pommard
Beautiful lilies in the pond at Chateau Pommard

We finished off our evening cooking up a Thai prawn Panang curry, accompanied by one of our Italian reds, making space in Truffy’s wine cellar for some more French tipples in our future!