Thursday 31 March 2016

Spring has truly sprung in the Perigord

We have moved northwards again and are now at the
beautiful Camping Le Bois du Coderc which is at Antonne et Trigonant in the Perigord. The site itself is green and wooded - as you might expect from its name - and, after the practically flat camping pitches, slopes down to the river L'Isle. Despite being in the ACSI book so well publicised to off-season travellers, it is very peaceful here, perhaps because it's not on the main migration routes. Yesterday we were disturbed by fighter planes looping overhead for half an hour or so, but the soundscape is mostly birdsong and nothing else! We heard our first cuckoo of the year as well as a woodpecker, and skylarks high in the perfectly blue sky.

French prices are still shockingly above long-stay Spanish prices so our €16.50 a night seems steep, but that does include free and good quality wifi across the site. The shower block is pretty good too. I love that there are hand stencilled bluebells and ivy fronds painted onto the walls. The showers have plenty of warm water, but they could be hotter! There are several bookcases in Reception which I am looking forward to browsing through. I've got Sophie's World to swap and am waiting for Dave to finish The Herring Seller's Apprentice. The restaurant-bar is closed up (and the ping pong tables folded away) even though several of the static caravans here seem to be occupied on a long-term basis. That is one thing we have noticed about French campsites in the low season - the ones that stay open throughout the year all seem to have more long-stay residents going off to work every day than they do leisure tourers like us.

Reception lent us a photocopied map of the local area from
River L'Isle past the campsite 
which we managed a two hour walk on our first evening here. Having only intended a half hour stroll, we hadn't bothered with water, hiking poles or proper boots so got our trainers a bit muddy along the riverside path, ourselves a bit thirsty climbing uphill through forest, and Dave a bit of backache after an hour. However we saw loads of yellow cowslips, some pale mauve violets and our first bluebells. There were wide fields of rapeseed flowers already in full bloom with that distinctive sweet scent. The villages seem more of strung out communities than clusters, and several of the smaller houses looked more like holiday homes. The older big stone-built houses are probably farms, or ex-farms. One was 'a vendre' and we loved its sky-blue shutters. It had five bedrooms and was somewhat out of budget though (we looked it up!). Another disappointment was arriving just one day to late to sign up for the local hunting society's steak and chips night - the posters made it look good.

We hope to visit the nearby town of Perigueux tomorrow for a spot of history and culture, and will stay on here a full week before moving on again. Hopefully we can get more walking and maybe even a bike ride.

Saturday 26 March 2016

We set a new Longest Cycle Ride Ever record!

It's been the most glorious day here in the Haute-Garonne
A canal lock is called an ecluse in French 
and we made the most of it by spending several hours cycling along the beautiful Canal Du Midi. By the time we got back to Camping Violettes we had completed our Longest Cycle Ride Ever! We cycled 45 kilometres which is about 28 miles and just snuck above our previous 26.6 miles from Cullera last Spring! In tree terms, that's going from plane tree number 35721 to plane tree number 33428 And back again. I love how all the plane trees along this part of the canal are numbered. I have no idea why though. (Informative answers in the Comments?)

Interesting sights along the way included frolicking water
Water voles in the Canal du Midi 
voles and a heron, none of which I managed to photograph though Dave got some good shots of the voles. He spotted the first one and also saw two herons.

We appreciated a rest stop at Gardouch which has picnic tables, toilets and a drinking water tap. We sat to eat lunch at one of the tables and I was flattered by another cyclist admiring my 'jolie velo'! The cycle route has benches regularly spaced all along it and people were sitting in the sunshine at the locks and on the grassy banks too. I do think it lacks food and drink facilities though. We saw one Salon du The barge, but it hasn't opened for the season yet. Otherwise there seems only to be a bistro at Mongiscard on the other side of the water. Perhaps there are more temporary cafes open in the summer months? We thought, as it is a sunny Easter weekend, everything would be open and we could get tea and cake en route! Perhaps we should have booked ourselves on the 'gourmand' boat pictured below. It looked like they were having a birthday party.

Birthday boat on the Canal du Midi 

My favourite sight, just back from the canal, was a line of
A car in a field! 
buildings that appeared to be some sort of commune. We first noticed the white car unended in a neighbouring field next to a blue windmill tower. Then we saw that the garden fence was actually a line of reclaimed bicycles and wheelchairs. Waste not, want not. Elsewhere, the back end of a blue minibus gave the impression that it had been driven into the wall. Dave commented that the only thing missing from the arty-boho vibe was a vegetable patch. That was on our outward journey. A couple of hours later as we cycled back, two men were digging away! Maybe they heard us?!

Recycled fencing 
Our ride was about four hours including stops for lunch,
I'd like to try a bicycle carriage ride 
gawping at wildlife, and just because we wanted to enjoy the ambience. It was great to be two of so many cyclists and walkers. We saw all combinations of people from solo men haring past like they were in time trials, to families with small children all pedalling away, and even two guys who looked to be well into their eighties pottering along on battered bikes that couldn't have been much younger! One bike rental place looked to be doing good business and we also saw a Camping a la Ferme site which had bicycle carriage thingies to hire. One was in use on the path and they look great fun - tandem cycling but with less of a falling off hazard!

Friday 25 March 2016

Dragons and a Japanese garden in Toulouse

It's almost exactly a year to the day since we last visited
Toulouse and I was glad that we got a fairly warm sunny day yesterday in contrast to the previous year's grey damp! We got the train from nearby Escalquens station. The journey is only about twenty minutes on comfortable seats at a grand total of €11.60 for return tickets for us both. There's free car parking at the station too, and a friendly cheerful man staffing the ticket office. Off peak return tickets would have been a euro each cheaper, but we would have been limited to early afternoon trains or those after seven pm. As our train in wasn't until half past ten, we chose the open return instead and actually caught the quarter past five. Six hours of walking around Toulouse was plenty and we were both pretty shattered by then!

There didn't seem to be the same wealth of public
69 Allees Jean Jaures, Toulouse 
sculpture and street art in Toulouse as I had appreciated in Spain, however we did discover the above pictured Antonio Saura fountain sculpture, created in 1987, and I liked this architecture at number 69, Allees Jean Jaures. (I haven't been able to find the artist responsible by Googling so if you recognise the work, please comment.)

The pedestrianised old town centre starts fairly close to Gare Matabiau and we spent a while taking in the sights and atmosphere. There's a good selection of independent shops and boutiques to browse and the streets didn't feel as enclosed as in many historic parts of towns. Perhaps this area doesn't retain as much of its medieval plan as is the case elsewhere. Escaping shopping opportunities for waterside tranquility, we walked along the Canal Du Midi until Dave was suddenly surprised to realise we were exactly retracing our cycle ride from last year along the Canals du Midi and de Brienne to the River Garonne.

Our dragon sighting was in the park Jardin Compans
Tholus by Tom Petrusson 
Caffarelli where this fabulous sculpture by Tom Petrusson is sited in the centre of a pool. It is entitled Tholus and was created in 1993 from pieces of scrap metal.

We sat in the sun outside a little kiosk cafe for an excellent hot chocolate before taking a stroll around the Japanese garden that we had seen marked on our town map. The Japanese garden only covers a small space in the Jardin Compans Caffarelli so it would be easy to miss if you didn't already know it was there. Part is neatly raked grey gravel studded with largish boulders, then a pathway leads around an open sided wooden building to a traditional space with green trees, huge koi carp in a pond, and a red painted bridge overhung by a blossoming cherry tree. The Japanese garden, and indeed the whole park, was quite busy so we didn't experience any Zen serenity, but it was beautiful to visit.

Japanese garden, Toulouse 
A cute detail in the Japanese garden was this miniature
natural artwork that someone had laid out on a flat tree stump by a path. It would have been easily overlooked but for the eyecatching trio of red berries.

In order to see more art, we spent a couple of afternoon hours at Toulouse's modern art gallery. It is located in the former slaughterhouse and is appropriately called Les Abbatoirs. Fortified by our favourite coffee-and-cake lunch at a cafe called Baker's Lounge (I had croque monsieur and flan nature, Dave went with Brioche Suisse and pain aux raisins), we almost completely failed to understand the main exhibition of work by Antoni Tapies. We saw one of his large works in Ceret's Modern Art Museum and I didn't 'get' that either. Seeing dozens of pieces collated from across his lifetime should perhaps have been easier to comprehend but wasn't! I was a little envious of a small school group who were being taken around by a enthusiastic guide. She sat them in front of several works, discussing and explaining, and the children were knowledgeably joining in. I understood some of the French language discussion - but still not the art!

Upstairs, Les Abbatoirs had rooms with work by other
Picasso stage curtain, Les Abbatoirs, Toulouse 
artists including items from the Daniel Cordier collection. Some of the were interesting to see, but I think Les Abbatoirs is the first modern and contemporary art museum I have visited where there wasn't a single work to really wow me. A possible exception was a huge eight by thirteen metre stage curtain painted by Picasso in 1936 and now housed in the basement. It is best viewed from half way up the stairs and the mythical figures tower over visitors standing at ground level. Interestingly, it looks 3D in my photograph here, but didn't in reality.

Tuesday 22 March 2016

From a Nailloux campsite car park to Le Canal Du Midi

After one chilly electric-free night back at Camping Les
Deer at Camping du Lac de la Thesauque 
Casteillets (using our heater on the gas is like trying to sleep over an aeroplane - as it takes off!), we were hoping to pitch up until after Easter at Camping du Lac de la Thesauque in Nailloux. Unfortunately on arrival we learned that the pitches there were still so soggy that the site itself isn't open to touring caravans yet. Instead we were invited to use the €6 a night motorhome area which is basically the car park! However the tarmac was level, it was peaceful with just one other occupant, and our €6 included an electric hookup. We will definitely remember Thesauque as an overnight stopping point for future years as the car park option is available throughout the winter months. There is a coin operated paybox to raise the entrance barrier and the electric hookup is in the garage! 2 euro coins are also needed to operate the motorhome water and waste point. Reception opens for three hours in the afternoon and we also got to 'meet' two deer who were dozing in a paddock above the crazy golf.

Our car park campsite - the bar is closed too 

Thesauque's receptionist helpfully recommended us to
Greenery at Camping Les Violettes 
Camping Les Violettes which is only about a twenty minute drive away in Deyme. It too has grass pitches, but is much less soggy - perhaps not being right by a lake is the key? We are sharing the site with maybe half a dozen other tourers, all French, and it is considerably more expensive than Nailloux at €19.50 per night. However, for that we do get a whole large pitch instead of just a bay! The shower rooms are excellent and there are all the other usual facilities as well as table tennis and a little shop in the reception. Wifi is €10 for a week, down from €15 as it's low season. It's very green here too which is a relief for the eyes after so much dry Spanish dustiness!

The bus stop outside will get us into Toulouse centre in
about an hour or we might get the train instead. There's a station nearby and that journey would be twenty minutes. Best of all, we are less than 1km from the Canal Du Midi and after the first 100 metres it is quiet back roads until we get to the canal. Yesterday we walked along the wide cycle path / footpath for about three hours. We thought it was busy because it was a Sunday, but today we jumped on our bikes and cycled for a couple of hours along the canal in the other direction and it was just as busy! We got to a large park and admired lots of houseboats were moored up at the Toulouse outskirts. There wasn't any sign of the temporary shelters we saw on the Canal de Garonne about this time last year. In theory we could cycle into Toulouse for our days out in the city, but we don't fancy walking around all day and then still having over an hour's cycling to get home afterwards!

Bridge over the Canal du Midi 

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Where to find Repsol Propano (propane) gas in Cambrils

We love Spanish Repsol gas cylinders because they are so
Repsol propano 
much cheaper that their British Calor gas counterparts! Our original cylinder was obtained from another camper at Mojacar two years ago. They, and we, prefer propane as it is still usable at much low temperatures than butane (so perfect for an English summer!), however we have had problems finding propane exchanges in Spain. Repsol garages practically all stock lots of butane, but frequently don't have propane. Here it is just too warm to need it!

In January last year we struggled to find propane near Mojacar and eventually succeeded by my interrogating other campers at El Quinto. This year we have driven to three Repsol garages in the vicinity of Cambrils, none of whom had any and where staff at only one of which were vaguely helpful. The cashier there suggested 'behind the Esclat hypermarket'. Esclat has a petrol station at the back so we drove there optimistically. Nope! Having driven round the nearby industrial units, none of which looked hopeful, we returned to Esclat so I could ask at the Customer Service desk in my bestest Spanish.

Tiene Propano? No.
Donde comprar aqui?

I finally met someone who knew what they were talking about so big thanks to the Esclat staff, especially as we haven't even shopped there! What we needed to do was drive to the back of Esclat, turn right down a tiny lane, ford a small stream, turn left across the motorway bridge, turn right again at a rough metal Repsol arrow sign (towards the horse riding centre), and following a further two Repsol arrows until we arrived at the Repsol gas distribution centre. This is basically one man in a small prefab in a fenced yard that contains dozens and dozens of lovely full gas bottles. We paid in cash and an 11kg propane bottle was €13.10. That's even cheaper than last year!

Just in case my directions aren't completely clear, I've put a marker on this Google Map and the blue line is from Camping La Llosa to the Repsol yard. Hopefully this post will save someone else the runaround - or indeed us next time when we've forgotten where we went!


Tuesday 15 March 2016

L'Aleixar to Vilaplana - our last Spanish walk of the season

We're planning to leave our Cambrils campsite, Camping
La Llosa, towards the end of this week and head back into France. The weather here has turned distinctly English - it's raining! - so our last good walk around here will have been the 13km circular route we took on Saturday beginning and ending just outside L'Aleixar and looping past Vilaplana. The walk is number 13 from the Baix Camp Senderisme map (available at Cambrils Tourist Office). It was tricky to find the start, but once we were underway most of the route was clearly marked and signposted.

Just outside L'Aleixar the Ermita de Sant Blai is signposted
up a white track on the right side of the road. There is a little car parking by the Ermita, but we had already taken advantage of a patch of rough ground by the small playground off to the left of the main road. From here we walked up to the Sant Blai Ermita and all around it, disturbing a couple of radio hams and completely failing to find the start of our path. We eventually discovered that we needed to face the Ermita then take the path on our right which heads towards town through allotments. Once at the large dry riverbed we saw the first of our green footpath signs. Slightly confusingly, another route crosses through here and we spotted points 19 and 20 of the Ruta Mir Manent - a touristic walk taking in locations important to the local painter Joachim Mir and the poet Maria Manent. The waterfall in this painting has now been replaced by a large ugly grey pipe. (If you're here and want to do our walk, head away from the river and then take the right fork away from the Ermita.)

Much of the early route is on wide camis through
agricultural areas that include hazelnut and olive orchards. Most of the nut trees were beginning to sprout leaves and others more distant which looked like cherry trees were in full blossom. Dave spotted this little bird's nest in a budding tree. We headed steadily uphill for at least the first hour of this four hour walk. None of the gradients were particularly steep but the incline was pretty relentless and the track was often quite rough having been washed away by rainfall in previous years. There were superb views out across the countryside from the heights.

Once up this high, the tracks narrowed into single file sandy footpaths which wound through pine woods and past yellow flowering gorse bushes. We saw several butterflies including the bright yellow and orange ones that are our favourites here. The silence up on the hills was incredible. Sometimes we could hear birdsong, but mostly there seemed to be no sound except for our boots and the occasional rustle of a rapidly departing lizard.

We ate our picnic lunch perched on a low stone wall not
far from the Vilaplana sign pictured above. Setting out again after half an apple and a sandwich, we found ourselves again passing agricultural land. Several fields had stone shelters in them and we were amazed to discover that one particularly smart one was actually an Ermita. The Ermita Santa Maria De Mascabrers was set at the edge of a field of olive trees just below the path. A bright yellow sign told us that "La porta resta oberta per la pregaria i la oracio" so we took that to mean curious hikers could visit too! Inside was beautifully simple - whitewashed walls with an elegant peach painted border, six basic chairs pushed against each side wall and the altar at the front. It was refreshingly cool inside and felt serene.

Friday 11 March 2016

Beautiful Reus, home of Gaudi and Vermut

We learned a lot about Art Nouveau architecture on
Wednesday when we visited the nearby city of Reus. It is the capital of the Baix Camp region and there is ongoing debate as to its origins. The name may have either Roman or Celtic roots. The earliest history we saw mentioned was inscribed on a metal plaque in the pavement: the granting of a weekly market, on Mondays, by King Jaume II in 1310. Nowadays Reus seems to be most famous for its manufacture of Vermut, a drink for which we are both developing a taste, and for one of its sons, the architect Antoni Gaudi. Perversely, although Gaudi was born in Reus, the city doesn't include any buildings of his design so the gorgeous architecture everywhere is by other men.

Reus does acknowledge Gaudi's childhood home which we
Gaudi's childhood home 
walked to. It is still a private house so cannot be visited, but there is a large metal installation outside. We did visit the Gaudi Centre instead. This excellent museum bills itself as an interactive experience and is good value for its €9 entrance fee (€5 for seniors!). As well as details of Gaudi's life and work, it also offers information about what was known as Catalan Modernisme, an art and architectural movement in the early twentieth century which has left its mark all across Reus. Personally, I thought that the interactive angle was the least successful part of the Centre. The audiotour headsets start automatically as sensors are passed, but some sensor ranges overlap and cancel each other out. And when I returned to look at a display or model again, the commentary would restart itself. I find it difficult to concentrate with someone jabbering away all the time so I soon gave up on the audiotour! Several short films are very informative, especially those demonstrating Gaudi's innovative techniques, and I loved the Parc Guell model which illustrated how rainwater is gathered for irrigation purposes. We visited Parc Guell (in Barcelona) a few years ago and I would never have realised all that was going on under our feet! Also fascinating is a photographic display which places architectural Gaudi features next to images of the natural phenomena that inspired him.

I took numerous photographs of beautiful buildings and
the following are some of my favourites and the ones which came out best. Most are examples of designs by either Lluis Domenech i Montaner or Pere Caselles. These flowers are street art in Placa de la Farinerva for which I could not find the artist's name. This Placa has at least a half dozen blue floor tile features too, each one illustrated with a tool used in the grain-milling process, and boasts a superbly decorated bar that still incorporates many of the original features of its former life as a ferreteria (a hardware store).

Casa Gasull by Lluis Domenech i Montaner (1911-1912) 
Unknown architect but I loved the dragon designs 
Estacio Enologica by Pere Caselles (1906-1910) 
Unknown building ornately dated 1915 at the top 


Wednesday 9 March 2016

Cinema trip to celebrate our 18 months in a caravan

Yesterday, the 8th of March, was not just International
Barbara Lennie by Marta Nolla 
Women's Day, but also marked our eighteen month anniversary of caravan living. It certainly doesn't seem six months since I was blogging our one year CaravAnniversary posts. How time flies when you're not paying attention! We had a great sunny cycle ride in the afternoon and then treated ourselves to a film at a little cinema in Cambrils after dinner.

Rambla de l'Art is the cinema and cultural centre for Cambrils and is situated on Rambla Jaume I, just about where it crosses with Carrer Roger De Flor. It is only a twenty minute walk from Camping La Llosa. They show a good range of Spanish films as well as global releases dubbed into Spanish and in original language with Spanish subtitles. For us, the key word to look for is VOSE. This indicates an original language screening so then we just have to make sure that the original language is English! Rambla de l'Art has a light and airy foyer with lots of DVDs for sale and, at the moment, a truly eyecatching display of artworks by Cambrils artist Marta Nolla. I don't know if this is a permanent exhibition and I didn't have a camera with me so have 'borrowed' a couple of images from Nolla's website to give you an idea of her work. Barbara Lennie is a Spanish actress and I loved the Fosse vibe of her portrait. I've also included the Robert Redford and Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid painting below because it is one of my favourite films.

Last night we were lucky to catch a VOSE screening of
Carol which we had hoped to see weeks ago in Perpignan, but didn't get around to it. I wasn't really sure what to expect and can imagine that Carol is quite a Marmite film (love it or hate it!) It is absolutely beautiful throughout and the 1950s fashions, cars and interior decor are wonderful. The deceptively simple storyline is from a Patricia Highsmith novel originally entitled The Price Of Salt, and tells of the meeting and romantic attraction of two women. To be honest, not much really happens and there are lots of lingering looks, wistful and moody cinematography, and thoughtful pauses. It's the sort of film where you lose yourself in its artistry and in the subtlety of understated performances. I thought Cate Blanchett was superb as Carol and I also really liked Sarah Paulson as Carol's longtime friend, Abby. I wasn't so blown away by Rooney Mara as Therese, but her naivete was a real contrast to Carol's confidence and worldliness. If you like slow-burning arthouse cinema, I would highly recommend seeing Carol.

Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid by Marta Nolla 

Wednesday 2 March 2016

Walking from Pratdip into the Serra de Llaberia

Pratdip nestled in its valley 
Our friends Chris and Marta, currently still pitched up next door, had raved about their walk from the relatively close village of Pratdip. Isn't that just a fabulous name? It's predominantly an agricultural settlement growing hazelnuts and almonds and dates back to at least 1154 when Pratdip was named in papal bulls of Pope Anastasius IV. As we looked back over Pratdip from the hills above, we could see its ruined castle, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Pratdip is about a twenty-five minute drive from Cambrils,
Civil War memorial 
the latter stages of which are along a winding mountain road that loops around the village. We parked in Carrer de la Creu, the creu (cross) in this case being a memorial to the people lost during the Civil War. For a town of less than seven hundred people now, there were a surprising number of names inscribed around its four sides.

From the cross we could easily spot the first of our distinctive green walking route signs. Pratdip, it seems, is quite the hub for walkers and we were pleased to find ourselves on clearly marked paths almost all the time and, if we were more serious walkers, could have taken at least a dozen different circuits or joined up with national long-distance paths. We started out towards the Ermita Santa Marina. Part of this walk included the GR 92 (Gran Recorrido 92) which I later learned makes up part of the E10, a European long-distance path that runs between Finland and Spain. Now there's a challenge!

We covered a variety of terrains including agricultural
tracks, forest paths and brief spells on the mountain road too. There was a gentle ascent for most of the first third, enough to know we were going uphill but not enough to get out of breath. The Ermita Santa Marina is a vivid yellow building which shares its facade with Carlos' restaurant. Judging by the size of the picnic area, there must be dozens of visitors at a time on holy days. Yesterday there were just three other people there, all filling numerous plastic water bottles from the public spring. We weren't sure if the water had any religious significance or if it was just particularly good to drink.

Our second cross of the day was by the path leading up to
the sanctuary. I am not sure exactly what the plaque says, but think it is something about the village of Pratdip protecting the sanctuary from all evils at all times.

"El poble de Pratdip us vetlla els forasters us recorden guardej-nos Santa Marina de tot mal a tota hora"

Once past the sanctuary, we found ourselves heading more steeply uphill and were soon on stony tracks leading past some beautiful isolated houses. We were delighted to end up high on a ridge with superb views out to the mountains and over Miami Platja out to sea. There have been strong winds here over the past few days and we thought we had picked the calmest day for our walk. However it was still very breezy so high up and the sound of the wind vibrating the pylon wires was eerie.

We did have to guess one turning high up on the hills.
There was a detailed sign post, but whoever installed it must have thought Pratdip's direction was obvious as they only included arrows to places much further afield! A steep stony downhill later (yay, my favourite!) and we re-emerged from an overgrown ravine to head back up to our car. Our whole walk was about two and a half hours and I am certainly tempted to go back and try out one or more of the other routes. A signboard at the sanctuary gave rough maps for ten 'Tombs' as these circular walks are enticingly called locally! It would certainly be worth it to get another chance to enjoy the spectacular views. I might even remember to take our decent camera.