The sea in the distance and blue sky, France (2014-08)

Walking Home, week 21: Because, la mer


Day 141 – to Aubeterre-sur-Dronne

Another night in which I have hardly slept. The damp cold has spread throughout my body. From up the river drums and bass could be heard all night. A metal club I presume.
Paul, who shares a tent with his father two pitches down, hands me a wonderfully hot tea and bread with dark chocolate, while I watch my tent dry on the football field across the road.
I am tired and a sore in my right hip more and more frequently joins the one in my left shoulder. The pain comes suddenly and runs down to the knee. Today, every step is hard-earned. Therefore, I welcome the deflection which comes from a cyclist slowly riding next to me in the afternoon, all the while asking questions.
Jean-Marcel tells me that he himself also likes to go on multiday trips by bike or on foot. He gives me useful tips on where to search for cheap accommodation online. Finally, he invites me to his parents’ house.
I drink a delicious plum wine, eat flavourful local cheeses and spill a cup of coffee on my pants, while Jean-Marcel finds me the best route to Royan and on to La Rochelle. I think I’ll take the boat to La Rochelle.
I politely reject his mother’s invitation to pitch my tent in the garden. I want to walk more than 25 kilometers today. But I’m happy to take the cheese she offers with me.
Two hours later I pitch my tent in one of the most beautiful villages in France. This at least promises the sign at the entrance of Aubeterre-sur-Dronne.

Day 142 – to Chez Baron, Oriolles

In the morning I use the opportunity to have a closer look at Aubeterre, as my path up the mountain passes through the village. It’s really cute. At the ¨Hotel de France¨ on the main square I treat myself to a grand café au lait . The owner of the hotel is, like many people here, English. She serves me a cappuccino in an ordinary cappuccino cup. This only upsets me after she has asked to be paid € 3. Even for France standards this is quite a lot. For a grand café au lait .
The quaint little way towards Chalais distracts me from the grumbling about the overpriced coffee.
In Chalais market day is just over. Traders are blocking the roads up to the sideways with their vans and scold me when I, trying to maneuver my trolley through the throng of people, equipment and vehicles, time after time have to move a car door or a box. At a fountain on a square in the city center I eat my usual lunch: half a baguette with paté .
At four pm I reach Brossac. I do not feel like continuing and therefore the big sign advertising a campsite on a lake seems to come just at the right time.
5 km down the road I am, however, disappointed: The lake is indeed still a holiday and leisure paradise, but the campground does no longer exist. The young woman behind the counter knows that Beignes still has a camping site – that’s another 16 km, as I learn from a sign outside the holiday and leisure paradise.
I look at her in shock. I’m walking!
She understands and heads towards the bar to asks her colleagues. Finally, she writes the names of two other places with campsites on a piece of paper: Oriolles and Brossac.
I decide to try my luck in Oriolles, 8 km down the road. At least the lady refills my bottle with fresh and cold water.
Seemingly endless two hours later I find the camping à la ferme 1 km behind Oriolles. The farmers are nowhere to be seen. Only a Dutch couple has made themselves comfortable in front of their mobile home. The man announces: ¨At some point during the evening you will have to tell us what exactly you are doing.¨
I set up my tent and join them at their table when Inge asks: ¨Are you hungry?¨
I (almost) always am.
She serves me rice and curry from the previous day. Nick gets a plate of pasta with meat sausage in tomato sauce.
A young couple from Germany in a turquoise VW Bully turns to us looking for the reception. Nick reassures her: ¨Find a place you like, get settled in and at some point someone from the campsite will show up.¨
We are already having tea, biscuits and chocolate, when the owner drops by to collect the money. € 8 for me compared to € 12 for Inge, Nick and their mobile home seems a bit unfair to me. But why should I protest?
After I have withdrawn to my tent in anticipation of another cold night, Inge knocks and hands me a pair of thick socks. ¨Take them! They’re really warm.¨

Day 143 – to Bourdenne, Clion

No, the night was once again cold. Even with the new socks. Above the small pond hangs thick fog. But at least no rain. The hot shower are a treat for my ice block feet.
The two Germans invite me for a coffee to the VW bus. I admire the elaborate interiors. My own caravan, that would be something …
After the Germans have left, Nick and Inge wake up. They invite me for tea and crispbread into their motor home. Again, I admire the efficient use of space. The large bed is lowered hydraulically from above the driver / co-driver seats. My own caravan, that would be something …
The two take me to the main road, from where they turn left and I continue straight towards Beignes. I cross the border to Charente-Maritime and imagine that I can feel the sea already. Two more days to Royan.
And suddenly, in the midst of the vineyards, I hear a loud “Crack!”
I had expected it. I had feared it. But in the end I had hoped it would never happen.
Polly, the Trolley, is kaputt. The connection between the plastic handle and the aluminium frame is broken.
I use Polly to transport about two-thirds of my stuff, especially all the things I need for camping. So there is no way I can leave her behind.
I remember the blue tape that Lionel had given me after my first night in the tent. The cherry pits in his garden had pinched a hole into the tent floor. That remained the only time I had to use the tape.
I find the tape in my tent bag and bandage the fracture. It takes me until the evening to figure out that I should use the handle of the backpack trolley on Polly to connect Polly to the backpack on my back. Wow, disaster averted.

Day 144 – to Mortagne-sur-Gironde

On the camping à la ferme , where I have just spent the night the owner approaches me in the morning about whether I would be willing to give the local newspaper an interview. Although I’m not sure how that could work given my shaky French, I say ¨Yes!¨ anyway.
Jacky, the reporter, shows up twenty minutes later and pulls out his note pad. He seems to have the story already in mind, only asks for a few more details. With some pride I show him my map. Meanwhile, I can clearly see the word ¨home¨ on it, following the distance traveled.
The interview lasts fifteen minutes, a few quick pictures with the compact camera and Jacky drives off again.
The campsite owner / farmer hands me a bag of tomatoes and a small melon and shakes her head when I pull out my wallet to pay for my stay.
Since I’m going to need two days for the little over 50 km to Royan anyways, I decide to take the little longer, more scenic route along the Gironde.
A few kilometers from Mortagne-sur-Gironde I meet Jacky again. He leaves his mother briefly behind in the car on the roadside and takes a few more photos.
In Mortagne-sur-Gironde I’m lucky and catch one of the last spots on the community-owned campground on a cliff above the harbor.
I’m by the sea!
My pitch is across from reception. So I hear Joëlle, the manager, trying to explain to a German where to find the nearest supermarket. Full of self-confidence, I offer to translate. Eva thanks me and rejects my help: After all she was here to improve her French.
Later in the evening, after she has finished her shopping, we have more time to talk. The woman, I estimate her to be in her late fifties, is the first female solo traveler with a caravans I have met. She recalls her bad experience with the campsites around Royan: too expensive, too many tourists, too many egoists. We agree that we prefer the camping municipal with their low prices and family atmosphere.

Day 145 – to Royan

I follow the D145 along the banks of the Gironde to Royan. Just in time for lunch I reach Talmont. Another one of those ¨most beautiful villages in France¨ the small town on a peninsula, with its narrow streets, small stone houses and flowery gardens and the church dedicated to the Holy Radogonde seems to be from another time. Were it not for the countless restaurants and souvenir shops that have taken over most of the houses.
I would like to come back here in the fall or winter, when there are hardly any tourists here.
The last few miles to Royan are characterized by campsites, holiday villages, beaches,… In other words: very, very many tourists. Most are French and English. I’m looking for the tourist information to find out more about the ferry connection to La Rochelle. I will have to take a bus from Royan to the coast, to La Tramblade. From La Tramblade a little boat goes to Saint Trojan on the Ile d’Oléron. And further north, from Boyardville from, I will find the connection back to the mainland to La Rochelle.
I put the schedules side by side and see three scenarios:
– Take the bus to La Tramblade tonight, hop on the first boat to the island tomorrow, walk from there to Boyardville and continue in the afternoon to La Rochelle. But since I cannot see where I could stay in La Tramblade, I decide against this option.
– Take the early morning bus to La Tramblade tomorrow in order to still be on the first boat to the island, walk from Saint Trojan to Boyardville and continue to La Rochelle in the afternoon or
– Have a sleep-in tomorrow, maybe spend another day in Royan, take the midday bus to La Tramblade, the next boat to the island, spend one night on a camping municipal , walk to Boyardville and hop on the boat to La Rochelle.
I figure that camping on the coast is always more expensive (the tourist information cannot help me to find out what exactly the price is) and finally decide that my need for a few days relaxation speaks for option No. 3.
Before searching a campsite a bit more inland, I visit the local cathedral. This, too, is now a tradition.
The concrete colossus was built within two years after the Allies had bombed the city center, including the old Cathedral, in the aftermath of World War II, to get the last German troops to surrender. The new cathedral is not pretty at all. But special.
At the first campsite, the loud music and inflatables greeting me at the entrance should have been a warning sign, there is no space for me. I try to convince the manager to let me – like other campground operators before him – camp on a small piece of turf anywhere on the premises. But he is relentless and sends me a few hundred meters further on to ¨Le Royan¨.
There, the young woman at the reception does have a pitch for me. The catch: It costs € 32.45. Disbelief, anger, disappointment, exhaustion, fear for my budget and the opportunity to travel further discharge into tears when I hand her the money over the counter. Where else should I go?

Day 146 – to Île d’Oléron

The night is as bad as I had expected from a campsite which demands € 32 per night in your own tent without electricity: the well over one hundred pitches are small and close. Even at eleven pm screaming children ride up and down the roads with their scooters and bikes. The music by the pool remains on full volume until midnight. Traffic runs the whole night on the main road next door. That in the evening I did not manage to hammer the pegs into the ground hard as concrete to stabilize my tent, or that this 3-star camping has no toilet paper in the toilets becomes almost irrelevant at this point.
I try to leave the negative sentiments behind me with the exit of the campground. A bottle of cocoa helps a little. And the sea water channel in La Tramblade.
But I am really only in a good mood after I leave the barn of an oyster fisher. His is the first in a long line of oyster fisher barns and restaurants along the sea water channel towards the port of La Tramblade. I step closer and ask whether I could buy an oyster to right away. The oyster fisher replies: ¨Of course! But then you should take this quality. This is the best. Do you eat oysters often?¨
¨No,¨ I reply. ¨The is my first time.¨
With ease and without the protective glove he opens the shell, and hands it to me.
¨And now?¨ I ask.
He explains that I only have to loosen the muscle from the shell, then sip it.
I tried both frog and snail and found them boring.
I did sample a bit of foie gras and, apart from the questionable production of fatty liver, found it boring.
But I love love love the oyster, that is gently sliding into my mouth.
The oyster fisher is very happy to see my enthusiasm. ¨The is the best quality. Directly from the sea *. I give it to you.¨
Elated I walk on.
When I am wealthy, I will come back and eat a lot of oysters.
At the port I wait two hours for the boat and am even more lucky: A look at the schedule pinned to the door to the bridge informs me that the next boat and all boats tomorrow are fully booked.
On this boat, however, we are just four passengers – myself, a woman of retirement age and a mother-daughter team. Just the right number for entertaining conversations among strangers. The topic is, as so often these days, my journey. Not that I do not like talking about it – quite the contrary – but much rather I want to know about the Island of Oleron and the oyster fisheries. I will find out about that. But only a few hours later. Because Sophie is curious about my adventure. Moreover, she seems to want to negate the bad impression Royan has left me with. She and daughter Marie invite me to stay with them.
Sophie shares a large plot with her brother. Her part includes the fishing cabin and the clarifier where grandfather and father have once produced oysters. In addition, the land surrounding the 4-star campsite which brother took over from his father.
Yet another strange coincidence on this trip: After the worst camping experience in 146 days I am found by a hostess, whose family runs a campground.
And Sophie is the best hostess that I could have hoped for on Oléron. She was born and raised here but has traveled enough to care for the tourist attractions on her island and – great luck for me – is open to strange wanderers.
From the port in Saint Trojan we go to Marie, a friend of Marie, to put on our swimsuits. We move on to the beach for a walk. The water is cold. In wind gusty. But the sea is the sea. And I love the sea.
On the way to Sophie’s house we discover at a roundabout a food truck selling fish and chips.
¨Fish & Chips on an oyster island?¨ I point out with a humorous undertone.
But Sophie and Marie protest: The fish they served was caught today. The best fish and chips for miles around.
It is thus clear what we are having for dinner.
Full and satisfied I sink into my bed.

* NB: Of course an oyster is not served directly from the sea to the table. That would be too salty. Instead, she spends the last days or weeks of her life in so-called fresh water pools. If the oyster fisher knows his trade, the oyster gets served with just the right saltiness.

Day 147 – Ile d’Oléron

When I get up at nine, Sophie has left me her phone number on a small table. After a long shower I reach her picking blackberries. She invites me to join.
Back in the house Sophie quickly makes three tarts: one with tomatoes from father’s garden and two with the delicious blackberries we have just picked. The basic recipe is simple: 300 g flour + 150 g butter + 2 tbsp milk + 1 pinch of salt, mix with your hands, so that a few knobs of butter remain, pinch with a fork, fill and bake at about 180 to 200 degrees Celsius for half an hour.
The tomato tart we try before early in the afternoon and together with Marie we go back to Saint Trojan. Le paddle is on the agenda.
For a while I had struggled with me, whether I should really invest € 15 in a pure fun activity, or whether I should leave as planned and take the boat to La Rochelle.
Le paddle and the prospect of a second night with this warm family win.
We meet the other Marie and a friend of the two Maries by the sea, slip into wetsuits and life jackets, receive a brief introduction and dive into the water. Although, this is what I will be trying to avoid for the next hour: plunge into the water. I am doing good on my knees, paddling the surfboard and after a few can also make it work standing up. Like a Tahitian woman I glide through the water. Or at least this is how I feel.
At the end of the hour I still jump – thanks to the wetsuit protected from the cold – into the waves. I love the sea.
The remaining afternoon we spend having a tarte feast, in which we devour the two blackberry tarts and a mirabelle tart, made by the mother of the other Marie, and playing French Trivial Pursuit, in which I actually am the winner.
For dinner, Sophie and I feat on the remaining tomato tart.
For dessert we head to Dolus for some ice cream: I pick a scoop of salt water caramel and a scoop of Grand Marnier.

Do you have anything to add? Thoughts? Opinions? Let me know!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.