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In France in the Winter of 2016/17 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

IN FRANCE IN THE WINTER OF 2016/17

 

Margaret Williamson

 

DECEMBER 2016

 

Travelling in our Carado motorhome, we left England at the beginning of December on the Brittany ferry from Portsmouth to Ouistreham, the port for the city of Caen. Our overall aim was to head south to the Pyrenees, spend some time among the Basques and then make a route through the heart of Spain to the Atlantic coast of Portugal.

 

Aire de Camping Cars, Ouistreham, Normandy (Calvados) – 1 mile from Brittany Ferries port

Open all year. €10 for 24 hrs (bank card to open barrier). Water and dump. Just one electric hookup. No WC or WiFi.  N 49.28716  W 0.24968

On the first Sunday of December, a frosty sunny morning with a light wind, we drove down to Portsmouth for the 2.45 pm ferry to Ouistreham (near Caen). Our first e-card had just arrived and the Madness of the Season was rampant on England's roads. Time to escape, pausing only to buy a dozen mince pies from the M&S shop at Chieveley Services. We will make and ice our own cake (the only Christmas tradition we observe)!

The Brittany Ferry was nowhere near full (only one other motorhome, a few cars, mainly trucks) and sailed on time, past the Historic Shipyard with a glimpse of Nelson's 'Victory'.  Among the naval vessels we saw the HMS Illustrious aircraft carrier, neglected and rusty, waiting to be towed away to Turkey for scrap in 3 days' time. It was too cold to go on the ferry deck and wave to the Isle of Wight.

We had an outside en-suite cabin (bargain price on daytime sailings, booked through the Camping & Caravanning Club) and a mediocre meal in the self-service restaurant. The voyage was memorable for a chance meeting with a former colleague of Barry's, on his way to Spain by car with his wife. A man we hadn't met for over 20 years!

Landing at Ouistreham at 9.30 pm (French time), it was a short drive (right, then right again) to the Aire on the Boulevard Maritime, where we joined 3 other motorhomes for the night. The only hookup, at the water/dump point, had a button that disconnected every 2 hours! Nobody else bothered with it, so we had 2 hours of electricity before bed and again next morning. Tuned in to French TV, which was showing the series 'Inspector Vera' and the film 'Inglourious Basterds', both dubbed into French. We wondered how Quentin Tarantino translates!   

Ouistreham to Camping La Pindière, Héric, Pays de la Loire (Loire-Atlantique) - 174 miles

Open all year.  http://www.camping-la-pindiere.com/  ACSI Card rate €15.40 inc tax, 10-amp elec, showers. Free (weak) WiFi at Reception only.  N 47.41329  W 1.67050

A smooth journey via Caen, then A84 to Rennes (a toll-free and surprisingly quiet motorway). Turned off the N137 dual carriageway about 20 km before Nantes, to the small town of Héric. Its Super-U hypermarket provided diesel at €1.159/litre (less than £1 at the time, though the exchange rate is slipping), plenty of parking space and no queues at the checkouts – not to mention a roast chicken, a box of croissants and some irresistible éclairs and pâtisserie. What a contrast with the crowds at any UK supermarket at this time of year.

Less than a mile past the Super-U, the family-run campsite had a nice level pitch, heated facilities, a handful of permanent residents and a couple of tourers. The indoor pool and the restaurant/bar were closed off-season. The daughter, working in Reception, had studied English in a German University. She talked at length with M, who had studied German and French in an English University. Both were keen to practise, resulting in a bilingual conversation! Unusually, she asked for suggestions to attract more winter visitors and M advised better site-wide internet as a priority, and perhaps opening the bar/restaurant for simple eat-in or take-away food such as pizzas, chips etc.

Next day we walked into Héric in the rain to find the Post Office, tucked away behind the church, then wrote a few emails.

Héric to Camping La Grisse, Le Givre, Pays de la Loire (Vendée) – 87 miles

Open all year.  http://www.campinglagrisse.com/   ACSI Card rate €13 (no tax) inc 16-amp elec, chilly showers. Good free WiFi throughout.  N 46.44472  W 1.39832

Better weather, reaching 19°C by noon as we headed south. Avoided tolls by taking the N137, the Nantes Ring Road over the Loire bridge, then D937. A lunch break on the Aldi car park at Genestor, continuing south round La Roche-sur-Yon, then D747 past Le Givre village to the well-signed rural Camping La Grisse.

The site was deserted but a sign in Reception told us to telephone and 'install ourselves' on one of the few pitches squeezed between the holiday cabins and statics. The owner, M Martineau, came by at 6.30 pm for payment as promised and supplied us each with a free WiFi code (valid for 3 months) and a Christmas card! It was a very quiet night, with no other campers.

Le Givre to Camping Municipal du Cadoret, Fouras, Poitou-Charentes (Charente-Maritime) – 62 miles

Open all year.  www.campings-fouras.com/camping-le-cadoret-fouras.php  €18.40 inc tax, 10-amp elec, chilly showers. Free WiFi throughout (log in every 60 mins!) Good restaurant.  N 45.99264  W 1.08680

Another fine morning of sunshine and blue sky, driving east on D949 to Luçon. Shopped at Netto on the Luçon ring road, finding such exotic items as tinned Brussels sprouts, a chocolate log cake and jars of pâté – and the store was empty of people! Turned south on D137 across the Marais (a flat marshy area criss-crossed by dykes) to Marans where, as expected, the excellent Camping Municipal was closed until April. We were able to park at the Super-U just beyond it to eat lunch.

Continued south to the N11 dual carriageway, then west, past La Rochelle and south on D137/E602. Turn off about 20 km before Rochefort onto D937, leading west to the small port of Fouras, famed for its oysters and mussels.

On the Fouras_(10).JPGwell-signed municipal campsite it was difficult to find a pitch that was neither soft and muddy nor on a steep slope. There was only one grim unisex block of basic unheated facilities open, and Reception is closed at weekends. However the free WiFi worked well provided you log in every hour, there was a washing machine and a drier in the Sanitaires (€5 + €3), and we know from a previous visit that it's a pleasant walk to the interesting town.

At Camping Municipal du Cadoret, Fouras

Day 1: Fouras lies at the start of a 3-km peninsula bordered by oyster beds, harvested from Fouras_(19).JPGshort piers with nets and winches. Next day we walked across the shore of fine sand and white shells, past the yacht club marina, as far as the Eguille Redoubt – the fenced and private remains of one of the sea-dashed fortifications on this finger of land.

There was a wonderfulFouras_(13).JPG light for photography, with views over the wide bay across to Fort Boyard on its tiny offshore island. From the tip of the peninsula a ferry crosses regularly to the nearby Ile d'Aix, from where Napoleon was taken into exile on St Helena in 1815. As the tide came in, we returned along the seafront promenade, past the shuttered houses of the 1890-1910 Fin de Siècle, the heyday of Fouras as a bathing resort. All in all, a good 90-minute stroll.

Day 2: The following morning, colder though still dry, we walked through the town centre Fouras_(39).JPGwith its two splendid market halls - one selling cheeses, meats, fruit & veg; the other for fish and shellfish - both open every day. Along the main pedestrian street of shops and cafes we found an ATM to raid, then continued to the Vauban Fort. There is a Pay & Display parking for 'Camping Cars' near the fort (€8.20 per night, no facilities) which was empty. Other car parks around the town have height barriers.

The substantial 17thCFouras_(26).JPG Fort Vauban is one of a chain of forts that protected the Charente estuary, particularly La Rochelle, against attack by the Normans, the Dutch and then (in this case) the English. It houses a local history museum, which was closed, but the courtyard and ramparts were freely accessible, giving us another splendid view out to sea.

Back at the campsite the little restaurant was open, tempting us in with a 3-course set lunch menu for €12.90, including water and coffee. The starter, local fish pâté with salad and bread, was delicious. Next came a piece of grilled beef in a creamy onion & mushroom sauce with chips, then a slice of Gâteau Basque (an almond flavoured custard tart) with cream. All nicely served by the barman, who almost forfeited his tip when he put a Johny Hallyday video on the widescreen to entertain us.

Well fed, we worked on the website for the afternoon, still writing up the October end of our summer in Scandinavia. November in England had been too full of all the 'arrangements' that we are glad to leave behind.

See more pictures at: www.magbazpictures.com/fouras.htm

Fouras to Aire de Camping Cars, Site du Lac, Parentis-en-Born, Aquitaine (Landes) – 158 miles

Open all year. €8.50 for 24 hrs (bank card to open barrier). Water, dump and electric hook-ups included. No WC or WiFi.  N 44.34443  W 1.09845

On a misty morning we returned east to the D137, then south to join the A137 toll motorway near Rochefort. This is the Autoroute des Oiseaux, its emblem a Hoopoe, though we saw no birds at all! We crossed the River Charente, joined the A10 (Autoroute Aquitaine) near Saintes and continued ever-south through forests and vineyards. Lunch break after 72 miles on the Saugon services. Before crossing the Dordogne 12 miles later we paid a toll of €22.10, then joined the free Rocade (Bordeaux Ring Road) clockwise and over the River Garonne.

From exit 15, A63 ran southwest through the flat sandy pine forests of the Parc Naturel Regional des Landes et de Gascogne. Another toll (€5.30) before taking exit 17 at 144 miles and turning west along D43 to Parentis-en-Born. The campsites here are all seasonal but there is a good Aire 2 miles beyond the town, near the lake. Using a bank card, M finally persuaded the entry bollards to sink while B drove swiftly in, to join 3 French vans and 3 pleading stray cats. There were numerous electricity bollards and a water/dump point.

The information board claimed that beneath the large man-made lake, known as the Etang de Biscarrosse et de Parentis, lie the remains of the Roman road which ran down this Atlantic coast and an early Christian church from the 5th century.

Parentis-en-Born to Camping Hiriberria, Itxassou, Aquitaine (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) – 92 miles

Open all year.  http://www.hiriberria.com/  ACSI Card rate €18.10 inc tax, 10-amp elec, heated showers. Good free WiFi throughout.  N 43.33863  W 1.40129  (Discount for long-stay)

Back into Parentis to refuel and shop (choice of Intermarché or Super-U), then south and west to Mimizan on long straight D-roads through the pine forests of Les Landes, planted to stabilise the sandy terrain.

On through St-Julien-en-Born and Lit-et-Mixe: intriguingly named small towns with lovely old churches and plenty of campsites (all closed). Some of the roads have parallel cycle paths, which we've ridden at warmer times of year. Parked for lunch by the Etang de Léon lake near Vieille St Girons after 41 miles, then continued south. The road was now signed 'Compostella' with pilgrim emblems: one of the many routes to Santiago in northwest Spain (of which much more later).

After more roundabouts than we could possibly count (a feature of driving in France and a constant challenge for the SatNav), we turned east at Capbreton to join the A63 motorway (toll €2.80 on entering) south to Bayonne. There was another toll of €1.30 as we left the Bayonne Ring Road at exit 5, then took D982 along the Nive Valley to Cambo-les-Bains. Continuing south on D918, we soon passed Camping Hiriberria on the left at Itxassou (pronounced Itsasu). It's an awkward turn in: best to continue to the next roundabout and return, to take a right along the short lane to the camp entrance.

This is Basque country, with signs in two languages, and the very friendly campsite owner complimented M on her French, saying there was almost no trace of an English accent'. This is a first – probably explained by the fact that she herself speaks French as a second language, very clearly and slowly. We had found the same thing in Corsica!

We Itxassou_Camping_(34).JPGimmediately felt at home on this quiet wooded site, with good heated facilities, free WiFi and views of the Pyrenean foothills, yet only 10 minutes' walk from Itxassou village. The pizzeria and indoor pool were closed but Madame's free-range hens were open for business. The handwritten sign said: Oeufs des poules qui sont sous les chênes, 'Elevées en liberté', à vendre: €2 les 6 oeufs.  (Eggs from the hens that are under the oak trees, 'Raised in Freedom', for sale.)

How could we refuse!

Quite by chance, we had found our ideal Christmas/New Year retreat.

See more pictures at: www.magbazpictures.com/itxassou-camping.html

At Camping Hiriberria, Itxassou

Itxassou Village: Over the next week we explore our surroundings on foot. The village is set among green wooded hills, grazed by sheep. Also some small vineyards, and fields planted with rows of the red peppers that are a feature of Basque cuisine. We are told it never snows here, an area with its own micro-climate, which explains the palm trees in some of the gardens.

Basque villages are a collection of tiny hamlets called quartiers. From the campsite, crossItxassou_(12).JPG the main road for a short walk to the first quartier called La Place. There is a baker and a butcher (both closed for lunch until 3.45 pm) and an ironmonger's, then a pharmacy. Further along, by the playground and park, are the post office (mornings only), a small bar/grocery shop, a Mairie (complete with Christmas tree) and a library, occasionally open for Seniors to sit playing cards over a glass or two. A nice little community.

Higher Itxassou_(10).JPGup, next to the Pelota court, we find a hotel, a couple of restaurants and the cultural centre. This houses a free art exhibition and a café promoting the local products: cherries and cherry jam, pimento preserves, ewes' milk cheeses and Gâteau Basque (a traditional cake like an almond-flavoured custard tart). About a mile each way from camp to this point.


See more pictures at
www.magbazpictures.com/itxassou-village.html

Itxassou Church of St Fructueux: It's a worthwhile walk beyond La Place to the older quartier around the church, cemetery and school: about 3 miles return from camp, including 2 short steep hills with a valley between. Alternatively, the church can be reached by walking a short distance south on the main road, past the North African memorial to those Morts pour la Patrie in 1956-66, then turning right at the sign. Returning via La Place makes a round walk of 4 miles. On the way we pass 17th century farmhouses, many of them restored. The modern houses copy the traditional Basque style, with low red-tiled roof, decorative wooden balcony and white walls.  

Either way, follow the signs for the Eglise (Eliza in Basque) and prepare for a surprise!Itxassou_Church_(48).JPG The Rough Guide describes St Fructueux as a 'little church': the author has obviously never visited! The huge and solidly built 17th century Roman Catholic church, freely open and unattended, is dark inside until we drop €2 into a slot labelled Son et Lumière by the massive oak door. Behold, there is music and light, illuminating the sumptuous altar and magnificent pulpit.

Three tItxassou_Church_(36).JPGiers of wooden galleries run round three walls, the full length of the church, giving a splendid view of the lovely wood-panelled ceiling as well as the nave below. We have never seen anything like this, but will discover similar triple galleries in other local churches, apparently added later as village populations expanded. The women and children stayed below while theItxassou_Church_(37).JPGmen went up into the balconies, with seats for local worthies in the first level facing the altar.

The only concession to Advent is a crib (or crèche) erected to the side of the altar, and notice of a midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Outside the graveyard is lovingly tended, rich in flowers and memorial plaques. The older headstones (and some new ones) are in the traditional Basque keyhole shape.

See more pictures atwww.magbazpictures.com/itxassou-church.html

The Dog Walk in the Woods: A path from the campsite, signed for dogs, makes a pleasant 45-minute walk through 1-Itxassou_Camping_(41).JPGwoods of oak and sweet chestnut, past a disused quarry (Danger: Keep Out) and down towards the inaccessible River Nive. The only dog we see on several circuits is on guard at the lone house on the way back! There is plenty of bird life, with Red Kites soaring above us in a clear blue sky, easily recognised by their forked tales. In mid-December we carry our jackets, the warmth of the sun still palpable during the day, giving way to cold clear nights under a bright moon. On the campsite there are robins, blackbirds, a wren – and scarcely any campers, just an occasional French van passing through.

Dining Out in Itxassou: The restaurant of Hôtel du Chêne next to St Fructueux church has a Menu du Jour costing €33 per person. In La Place the Logis de France next to the Pelota court is charging €32 each. The humbler Auberge opposite advertises a €12 lunch menu but is closed for the winter. Finally we find a small modern bar/restaurant in the centre with a good menu at €13.50 (weekdays). It is busy with local ladies and workers from the nearby building site but we squeeze into a corner to enjoy a lunch of thick leek & potato soup with a slice of Bayonne ham, followed by ultra-tender beef stew with tagliatelle, then home-made crème caramel. A bottle of water and a basket of bread are included! Sadly, when we return after Christmas for another meal we find it closed for the holidays – until April!!

Christmas Treats: We do appreciate the fact that the festive season is so low-key in France. No queues, traffic jams, decorations, shopping frenzy or piped music in the supermarkets and plenty of space in the car parks (even for a motorhome). The rich fruit cake that Margaret made was duly clad in marzipan and royal icing; we bought an indulgent chocolate log (Bûche aux 3 chocolats) from the Super-U in nearby Ustaritz; and Madame kindly supplied a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

Car Hire: We decide to hire a car for a week (20-27 December) to explore further afield,14-Espelette_(56).JPG including 2 nights away in the Spanish Pyrenees. The nearest hire companies are at Bayonne/Biarritz airport, 15 miles away, the best deal being with Europcar. Madame books the Itxassou taxi to take us there and her friend, the female driver, tells us how she was brought up in Itxassou by Basque-speaking farmers, her brother now living in the house that was owned by their parents and grandparents. She didn't learn French until she went to school, where it was taught as a second language, and the same still applies to her own small daughters! At the small airport we are given a free upgrade to a Nissan 'Juke', a mini-SUV, which Barry finds too bulky, complicated and pretentious compared with the Renault Clio we ordered.

The Pas du Roland: Returning to Itxassou in the 'Juke', we take a short drive to a popular trout-fishing/picnic spot on the River Nive, the Pas du Roland. It's only 1.5 km past Itxassou church, along a very narrow twisting road (2.2 m width limit, 5 m length limit – not recommended in anything bigger than a Renault Clio!) We go for a walk along the river bank and are happy to return unscathed to the campsite.

St-Jean-Pied-de-Port: Next day we embark on a longer day out in the Juke, in glorious sunshine. First stop is at Lidl in Uhart-Cize, then another couple of miles into St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (20 miles from our campsite) for a picnic lunch in the free car park before walking round the old capital of Basse Navarre. The walled town lies at the foot of the pass into Spain (hence its name) and has only been part of France since the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659.

Several of the medieval pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela (including one from Paris) converge here in St Jean, to continue along the Camino: the GR65 which follows the old Roman road over a pass to Roncesvalles in Spanish Navarra, continuing via Pamplona to Santiago (=St James=St Jacques). The touristy town has plenty of accommodation - mostly closed at this time of year - from hotels and Chambres d'Hôtes to hostels with rooms and dormitories. Just look for the cockle shell sign.

In the old quarter we walk along the cobbled main street, Rue de la Citadelle, which links the Porte St-Jacques (by which pilgrims entered the town) with the Porte Notre Dame by the bridge over the Nive. There are some lovely old balconied houses reflected in the water but we don't have the camera. A climb up to the ruins of the Citadel above the Porte St-Jacques rewards us with a good overview, including the motorhome Aire by the stadium below (€5.50 per night, including electricity if there are any hook-ups vacant).

Larrau: Driving northeast from St Jean we pass St Palais, then turn southeast along the Gave d'Oloron river valley, circling back to St Jean via Tardets and Mauléon. Before Tardets we make a side trip up to the mountain village of Larrau at about 680 m/2,250 ft. From its terraced campsite (closed in winter) we once cycled over the two passes - the Col d'Errroymendi at 1362 m/4,495 ft and the Port de Larrau on the Spanish border at 1579 m/5,210 ft – then freewheeled down for a night in Ochagavia before cycling back to Larrau. Happy Days! At present the passes are of course closed by snow.

We arrive back at Itxassou just after 6 pm as darkness falls, realising that today is the Winter Solstice. It's 11°C in the motorhome: on with the heating and the kettle, then a chicken curry supper and all is well. Now the days will grow longer.

16-Espelette_(39).JPGEspelette and Ainhoa: A round trip by car to two nearby Basque villages, each with a glorious church. Espelette (or Ezpeleta), a few miles west of Cambo-les-Bains, is the Chilli Pepper Capital of the region, celebrating the harvest with a Chilli Festival at the end of October. We stroll from the market square, past shops and quaint old houses. The Maison du Fromage lures us in with a pungent selection of local cheeses and products, while dark red peppers are strung up on the outside walls of the hotels and houses to dry. 15-Espelette_(17).JPGThe castle (Château des Barons d'Ezpeleta), dating from 1000 AD, now houses the library etc. A mighty oak staircase leads up to the Tourist Office on the first floor, where there is an exhibition about chilli peppers among much else. The 17thC church of St Etienne is freely open and well lit inside. It's another beautiful example, with a bell tower, three floors of wooden galleries and a lovely altarpiece. Again, the graveyard has the key-shaped headstones typical of the region – and a nice little car park where we eat our packed lunch.

Just 5 17-Ainhoa_(17).JPGmiles southwest of Espelette, over the Col de Pinodieta (176 m/500 ft), lies another gem of a Basque village, Ainhoa, less than 2 miles from the Spanish border. We park in the square by the Pelota court, bordering the graveyard of the 17thC church of Maria. The bulky tower, in a different stone, was a later addition. Inside we find two tiers of the familiar wooden galleries, a magnificent oak-panelled ceili

18-Ainhoa_(26).JPG

ng and a gilded Baroque altarpiece with Corinthian columns. The immensely solid thick walls with arrow slits suggest that the building was defensive as well as religious. As at Itxassou and Espelette, the massive church seems out of proportion to the size of the village. The single main street is lined with half-timbered houses of the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the shops specialises in gingerbread-men; another sells beauty products made from local asses' milk!

See more pictures at
www.magbazpictures.com/espelette.html

See more pictures atwww.magbazpictures.com/ainhoa.html

We drive on 3 km to the border village of Dancharia but don't cross into Spain as there is a busy checkpoint with a queue, the road blocked by police cars. Circling back to Cambo, we take the road from Sare to Ascain over the Col de St-Ignace (189 m/625 ft). In the tourist season, a cog railway climbs for 35 minutes from the Col to the summit of La Rhune, the westernmost peak of the Pyrenees, straddling the border with Spain at 905 m/2,985 ft. Keen walkers can return on foot in 2.5 hours. We pass another Basque galleried church in Ascain, then call at the Intermarché in St Pée-sur-Nivelle for a fill of petrol and pâtisserie. Tomorrow we leave for a couple of nights in Spain.

INTO SPAIN (By Car)

Itxassou, France to Hotel La Rambla, Biescas, Aragon (Pirineo Aragones) – 162 miles

Open all year.  http://www.hotellarambla.com/  Double en-suite €70 inc breakfast buffet. Good free WiFi throughout. Free parking outside.  N 42.626964  W 0.320114   Elevation 875 m/2,885 ft   

Leaving the motorhome at Camping Hiriberria (where Madame made no charge for the nights away, even though we left the electricity on for the fridge), we take the surprisingly quiet D918 to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. At Lidl we notice plenty of space in the car park and imagine the crowds in England this morning on 23 December – Frantic Friday! We also had no problem booking 2 nights through Trip Advisor at a little hotel in Biescas, near Spain's biggest ski resort! Christmas is certainly a low-key event in these parts.

From St Jean the01_Ibaneta_1.JPG even quieter D933 runs south up the valley of the Petite Nive to the imperceptible Spanish border 5 miles later. The road signs change from French to Spanish & Basque and fuel is a little cheaper. We see regular signs for the Camino to Santiago de Compostela and warnings of pedestrians crossing, though there are no pilgrims on their way today.

The road follows the line of the French frontier for a01_Ibaneta_2.JPG few miles before starting to climb more steeply, snaking up to the Puerto de Ibaneta at 1067 m/3,520 ft (34 miles from Itxassou). The pass is marked by a hostel (closed), a modern chapel (locked) and a simple mound with a wooden cross and a pair of boots marking one pilgrim's last resting place. Climbing a short path to a monument, as mist swirls past, we talk at some length to a lone campervanner from the Netherlands, also taking photographs. He is a thoughtful retired teacher, travelling with his bicycle and motorbike stowed in the van. 'I am not rich but not poor. I have all I need and I'm happy'. His life's work has been teaching Dutch to immigrants of all colours and (of course) he speaks excellent English. An interesting man.


See pictures of the Puerto at
www.magbazpictures.com/puerto-de-ibaneta.html

Then it's a short (2 km) downhill to Roncesvalles (French Roncevaux), signed '15 minutes' for Camino walkers, at 942 m/3,110 ft. Here is a huge hospice/monastery and a pilgrim hostel (only another 790 km to Santiago de Compostela). We are more interested in the restaurant, Casa Sabina, where it is lunchtime. The €13 three-course Menu del Dia proves excellent, with plenty of choices translated by the helpful waitress and her smartphone. The price includes a whole bottle of wine, as well as bread and water.  

Outside, in a biting mountain wind, there is a monument to the Battle of Roncesvalles, 778 AD. Here a force of Basques ambushed the Frankish rear-guard of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne's army, which was returning to France after attempting to defeat the Moors and restore Christendom in the Iberian peninsula. As retaliation for the destruction of the city walls of Pamplona, the Basques killed Roland and all his men. The battle (the Holy Roman Emperor's only defeat) is recounted in the 11thC 'Song of Roland', the earliest surviving work of French literature. Nearby is the 14thC Iglesia de Santiago and the even older (12thC) Chapel of the Holy Spirit, standing over a crypt for the bones of pilgrims who died at the medieval hospice. Legend says that it is on the spot where Charlemagne (Carlomagno) had a tomb built for the defeated Roland and the bodies of all those slain in the battle.

After Roncesvalles we turn west on N135, over two lower passes (Aurizberri at 922m/3,040 ft and Erro at 801 m/2,645 ft). There are regular blue & yellow Camino signs, as footpaths cross our road and disappear into the woods. Then we meet the busier Pamplona Ring, before taking the empty A21 toll-free motorway south and east, past Puente la Reina and through Jaca. Just before Sabinanigo we turn north on A136 for the final 8 miles to the small mountain town of Biescas.

The Hotel La Rambla is on a quiet side street with (we are assured) safe parking outside, under our window. Best of all, the en-suite has a bath!                    

Christmas Eve at Biescas and out to the French border at the Col du Pourtalet – 61 miles driven

After breakfast02_Biescas_1.JPG (a buffet of cereals, juice, yogurts, fruit, cheese, ham, salami, jam, toast little sponge cakes and coffee) we wrap up for a walk round Biescas. Thick frost covers the car windscreen and the grass, though the roads are clear. The Gallego River divides the town, with a church on each side, and most of the shops, the open market and a large parking area lie over the bridge. The butcher's window is hung with large gift-wrapped hams and the Tourist Office has a wealth of free leaflets on Biescas ('Capital of the Tena Valley'), Huesca Province and Aragon. We ask if the Col du Pourtalet is open to traffic. 'Yes, it's fine on our side', says the young lady, 'but it will be icy over the border in France!' We decide to see for ourselves.


See more pictures at: www.magbazpictures.com/biescas.html

Driving north from Biescas on A136 to the head of the dammed Embalse de Bubal lake03_Panticosa_1.JPG (very low water level), we turn off on a minor road past Panticosa (at 1200 m/3,960 ft), where a chair-lift and artificial ski-run have tempted a few people to descend the green hillside. Continuing, the road ends after a series of hairpins up to Balneario de Panticosa, at 1670 m/5,510 ft. Parked by the frozen lake, we walk round the derelict mountain spa below snow-flecked peaks. There are ski trails marked with coloured arrows, the intervening trees padded in bright orange jackets, but only a trace of snow and the few visitors are just taking a stroll. We lunch on cakes and fruit from breakfast with a flask of coffee, then climb up to a little mountain-stream-fountain under a pagoda. The air and water are crystal-clear.


See more pictures atwww.magbazpictures.com/balneario.html

Back at the A136 04_Col_du_Portalet_1.JPG(10 km down from Balneario de Panticosa), we continue north through a short tunnel and past a smaller dammed lake, Embalse de Lanuza. Suddenly the empty landscape gives way to modern buildings, vast car parks and several chair-lifts. This is El Formigal (Spain's largest Pyrenean ski resort) at 1530 m/5,050 ft, less than 5 miles before the French border. We pause to watch a few skiers flying down the slopes, while families are sledging below 04_Col_du_Portalet_2.JPGthem.

And so to the frontier on the Col du Pourtalet (1794 m/5,920 ft), where we look down on the narrower twisty and misty route into France. Snow is piled at the verges but the road is clear. Before turning back we take a look in the two supermarkets that are open on the Spanish side. They sell all kinds of food, clothes and household goods, presumably cheaper than in France.

See more pictures atwww.magbazpictures.com/col-du-pourtalet.html

On th05_Embalse_1.JPGe return drive to Biescas, we turn off to circuit the Embalse de Lanuza and take a walk around a silent cluster of new stone houses in Lanuza village. The older dwellings are in ruins or submerged.

The hotel restaurant is closed and we find that the only alternative open is packed out with a noisy party. So, for Christmas Eve we dine in our room on instant soup, yesterday's uneaten sandwiches and chocolates.

RETURN TO FRANCE (By Car)

Biescas (Spain) to Camping Hiriberria, Itxassou, Aquitaine (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) – 140 miles

Open all year.  http://www.hiriberria.com/  ACSI Card rate €18.10 inc tax, 10-amp elec, heated showers. Good free WiFi throughout.  N 43.33863  W 1.40129  (Discount for long-stay)

02_Biescas_2.JPGChristmas morning, the hotel is empty, the restaurant still closed! The friendly caretaker serves us breakfast, alone in the bar, and practises his English. Returning to France, we enjoy incredibly empty roads the whole way, with nary a soul about on a beautiful blue-sky day.

From Sabinanigo we take the A23 motorway west to Jaca, then north on a good road N330 to Canfranc - and a choice of tunnelling under the Pyrenees or climbing over the Col du Somport into France. The 9-km long, toll-free, well-lit and modern Somport Tunnel wins easily!

On the French side the much narrower N134 winds its way down a gorge, through the Vallée d'Aspe. About 10 miles after the border we make the mistake of turning off for a very steep serpentine 4-mile climb to the hamlet of Lescun (blame the Rough Guide). The bar/café is closed and there is no chance of parking to admire the view of the Cirque. It's a relief just to be able to turn round and regain the valley before eating a few snacks from breakfast.

Next stop is the city of Oloron-Ste-Marie, where it is so quiet that we easily park by the Romanesque Cathedral. Ste Marie's is freely open, lit and unguarded. Inside are some Roman sarcophagi from the nearby early Christian cemetery. The first church here was built by the Count de Béarn on his return from the Crusades in 1102 - he is the gallant knight on horseback among the sculptures in the portal! A fundamental church on the Camino pilgrim route, it was rebuilt after fires in the 13th and 14th centuries, and enlarged in its present form in the 18thC.

On the way back 06_St_Blaise_1.JPGto Itxassou, via Mauléon and St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, we visit the delightful Eglise de l'Hôpital-Saint-Blaise in a tiny village of the same name. This splendid little UNESCO World Heritage 12th century chapel is all that remains of the vanished medieval pilgrim hospice. The two nearby hotels are both closed but the church is open – as we find throughout this French/Basque area (unlike Spain, where all churches are kept locked). For €3 in the slot we are treated to an 8-minute Son et Lumière with music and a commentary in a choice of languages. The star-shaped vaulting in the dome and the tracery of the arches and windows show Moorish influence in this exceptional little church: http://www.hopital-saint-blaise.fr/. A short walk along the Camino path by the river to an old watermill completes our quiet and private Christmas day.


See more pictures
atwww.magbazpictures.com/hopital-st-blaise.html

Back at Itxassou, the motorhome is soon warmed through when we put the oven on to cook a steak & kidney pie, followed by mince pies and Xmas cake. We are blissfully unaware that on the road from St Jean a fiendish speed camera had clocked the frisky Nissan Juke doing 96 km per hr in a 90 km limit on a totally empty road, resulting in a fine. The French certainly know how to make tourists feel welcome at Christmas!

Cambo-les-Bains, La Bastide Clairence, Bidache and Sauveterre-de-Béarn: On Boxing Day, the Feast of Stephen, we pack a picnic for a last day out in the hired car. At nearby Cambo, a fashionable spa resort and TB sanatorium in the 19th century, there is little to detain us – the spa is closed up and the tender plants in the gardens shrouded in fleece.

We continue northeast to La Bastide Clairence. Clairence is a typical example of a Bastide07_Clairance_1.JPG - the fortified towns of the 13/14th centuries, found in southwest France's disputed frontier regions, governed by the local lord. Usually square or rectangular, with a grid pattern of streets focused round an arcaded market square, the church is relegated to one side. Walking round, we find an overgrown 'Israelite Cemetery' next to, but separate from, the immaculate church graveyard. There was a Jewish quarter here dating from the 15th century expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal but they eventually died out. In the large Roman Catholic church we put €2 in the slot to switch on the lights and music. Better value than €1 for a single candle!


See more pictures atwww.magbazpictures.com/la-bastide-clairence.html

At Bidache, a few miles further, we stop in surprise opposite the gaunt ruins of a castle, the Château de Gramont, its roof long gone, apparently destroyed during the French Revolution. I am reminded of Jane Eyre's return to Thornfield Hall.

See pictures atwww.magbazpictures.com/bidache-chateau.html

Finally on to08_Sauveterre_1.JPG Sauveterre-de-Béarn, perched high above the Gave d'Oloron river and the old Pont de la Légende bridge below the remaining walls of a fort. We look in the huge 13thC church of St André and admire the beautiful Christmas crib. In the square outside there is another unusual crib, with the figures made entirely of corn cobs and husks.


See pictures atwww.magbazpictures.com/sauvettere.html

Back via St Jean to Itxassou after a circular drive of about 75 miles. Here we empty and clean the car, ready for its return to Europcar at Bayonne/Biarritz airport tomorrow.

A Final Week at Itxassou

The Nissan Juke is returned to the airport, where we get a taxi back to Itxassou. The car has been good for exploring the Basque country but Barry is not sorry to hand it over. Of the cars we've hired from Enterprise in Bradford, he much prefers the Toyota Yaris or Renault Clio.

Settled back at the campsite, we make good use of the laundry and of the free WiFi09_Itxassou_1.JPG to write emails, work on the website and listen to BBC Radio 4. There is an interesting interview with Glenda Jackson, returning to acting at the age of 80 to play King Lear at the Old Vic, and a series of short stories by Alexander McCall-Smith.  Preparing to move on, we clean the motorhome, tidy and sweep out its 'garage' and plan our route.

The weather here remains glorious, with frosty nights but fine sunny days. On our woodland walks below the campsite we photograph the flora and fauna: a thick litter of leaves and chestnuts carpets the ground; ivy, creepers, mosses and ferns cover any dead trees or rotting stumps; Red Kites soar above on the thermals. We meet Madame with her husband and a black dog, out hunting Taupes. As she describes the animal we realise it means Moles, giving its name to a colour in English. I wonder if they are eaten in France, but no, they are just a pest.

09_Itxassou_2.JPGThe first new-born lambs are already in the fields. And we have a new friend, a pretty little tortoiseshell cat that follows me round the camp until I weaken and go into the village to buy a pack of cat bix for her, on condition that she doesn't chase the Robin which we also feed.

In Itxassou village the school is on holiday and the children are playing tennis in the park – warm enough for shorts. Looking up for Red Kites, we notice one or two gliders from the nearby airfield, also taking advantage of the thermals – but unlike the birds they need a tow to get started.

On New Year's Eve we drive to the Super-U at Ustaritz, 6 miles away - a small supermarket with a separate bakery and fuel pumps - to buy chicken, croissants, fruit & veg and a Basque Pizza (topped with local ham & goat's cheese). The store is not busy, with plenty of room to park the motorhome, and we again think of the throngs who will be shopping in England. It's a very clear starry night with the sliver of a brand new moon. We hear fireworks in the distance but don't venture out: we have a good film to watch ('The Best Offer' with Geoffrey Rush and Donald Sutherland) and my friend the author Joe McNally has sent me two e-books in his Eddie Malloy series. I even make some mulled wine.

JANUARY 2017

Next morning, New Year's Day, we find a large box of Lindt chocolates under09_Itxassou_3.JPG the tree in the Sanitaires! I go to thank Madame, who explains it is from the French couple in the caravan: an apology for plunging the campsite into darkness for a couple of hours when they tripped the electric system two nights ago. As there is only one other van on-site (Dutch), we get a good share of the apology! We celebrate the arrival of 2017 with a walk in the oak woods, then a meal of pan-fried chicken breasts stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon, sprouts and mashed root veg, followed by Xmas cake and mulled wine. Another film ('The Great Gatsby' with Di Caprio) rounds off the evening.

An 09_Itxassou_4.JPGemail from ukcampsite.co.uk tells me I have won a small tent in their Advent Calendar draw! Just what we need (we already have two) but I write to thank them and arrange delivery to a friend's house in Huddersfield.

We have a last walk to the lovely Itxassou church of St Fructueux, and watch more films as the weather turns colder and misty. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent playing Alan Turing in 'The Imitation Game', though his Sherlock Holmes is way over the top. We much prefer our Holmes in its original Victorian setting played by Basil Rathbone

See more pictures at: www.magbazpictures.com/itxassou-camping.html

SPAIN

Itxassou (France) to Camping Ezcaba, Oricain, Pamplona (Navarra) - 63 miles

Open all year.  http://www.campingezcaba.com/  ACSI Card rate €19 (no tax) inc 10-amp elec, chilly showers. 7th night free. WiFi expensive: €1 for 1 hr, €5 for one day.  N 42.86776  W 1.62250

On 6 January (Epiphany: a public holiday in Spain but not in France) we are sorry to say
Adieu to Camping Hiriberria. Madame presents me with a dozen free-range eggs - a thank you for the Review I put on the ACSI website – and she is generous with a long-stay discount. This is the first French campsite on which we have ever felt so welcome.

We motorhome down to St-Jean-Pied-de –Port, calling at Lidl in Uhart-Cize on the way. Then we follow the ancient route over the Pyrenees to Pamplona that we took in the hire car two weeks earlier. It's a fine sunny day, 10°C outside with no ice or snow.

From St Jean the quiet D933 runs south up the valley of the Petite Nive to the imperceptible Spanish border 5 miles later. The road signs change from French to Spanish & Basque and fuel is a little cheaper. There are regular signs for the Camino to Santiago de Compostela and warnings of pilgrims crossing. We even see a lone walker, with backpack and sticks, making his way along. Not a young man, but he doesn't want a lift.

The road follows the line of the French frontier for a few miles before starting to climb more steeply, snaking up to the Puerto de Ibaneta at 1067 m/3,520 ft (34 miles from Itxassou). The pass is marked by a hostel (closed), a modern chapel (locked) and a simple mound with a wooden cross and a pair of boots marking one pilgrim's last resting place. We had climbed the short path to a monument and taken photos on our earlier crossing, so we don't linger here today.

(continued at: In Spain in the Winter of 2017)