Friday, August 31, 2012

Summer holiday 3

We've stayed on the south-western part of île d'Oléron - blessed with many long sandy beaches within reach of cycling.  The huge stretch of beach (all parts not accessible to the public, hence broken up in different beaches) started south of Saint-Trojan (jip, one more saint) at Plage de Gatseau, pass the Pointe de Maumusson, where a tourist train can drop you just north of the point, and continues along the western side of the island until just south of La Cotinière.  One can also walk from Plage de Gatseau to the point where the train drops people at the beach, which is what JL decided we'll do the one day - during the heat wave.  Below: the forest at Plage de Gatseau, our starting point.  All across the island you get the scent of pine trees.
Between low and high tide you have a difference of 6m.  This being an area where 50% of France's oysters are produced, you'll always find people during low tide searching for oysters and other kinds of shells.
While walking through the forest one still have a view on the beach, so I could take a photo of 2 men who had a good harvest of seafood...
Eventually the sand became difficult to walk on and we started to follow the railway line (at least the train warns you when arriving, not that you cannot hear it coming! it is very eco-friendly, being operated on recycled cooking oil)
The beautiful long beach, not too many people, good waves and hot water. On the far end people were playing with char à voile - it has wheels and a sail, with one or two seats in and you can drive it along the beach (we wanted to do it, but the holiday was a bit too short for all!)
I was complaining so much by the time that we've arrived at the beach due to the heat (we had no hats and it was one of those days you needed one when out in the sun!) and the difficulty to walk in the sand, that we bought a train ticket to go back to Plage de Gatseau after spending some time at the beach.  Below is not the train though (I think it is an older version), it is the small take-away shop where you can buy food and drinks, with some wooden table and benches to sit down.  The train stops opposite it and turn around the restaurant to go back.
Arriving at Plage de Gatseau we've decided to go to St Trojan to find lunch and orangina, their popular orange cooldrink, with a bit of a fizz, but not too much, and very refreshing. We've arrived in a ghost town, as the shops all shut down for a looong lunch (that is the town centre, the restaurants around the port are all busy) and found a friendly café in the main street, with its huge Captain Hook in the corner (checking if people pay before they leave?)
Going for a picnic on the beach close to the hotel at sunset
Between the hotel where we've stayed and the beach was a few houses and then a forest. We could pass the houses by a narrow path, taking us directly into the forest from where we could access the beach.  Even though the typical Charente houses are white with colourful shutters, you find some stone houses as well (some old, some new). This was a beautiful house, looking relatively new, and as you can guess, these type of houses are not cheap to build, so no surprise that the car's number plate indicated the owners to be Parisian

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Summer holiday 2

Maybe the order won't make sense to you, but unfortunately I don't have time to group the photo's according to themes!
The dunes are protected all along the coast, so instead of build-up beaches you have beaches with the feeling of wild nature, I love it
Below: some beaches, like this one, you can only access by foot or by bicycle.  We were there early in the morning - if you arrive later the bicycles are piled up along the protective fences and you have to search for a parking spot!
Many of them have schools teaching people to surf/kite-surf/whatever!
Like in other areas along the west coast the ugly bunkers from WWII remind you of the time when this area was occupied by the Nazi's
Below: during our holiday France had a major heatwave. I was just too happy to have summer, hence no complaint! But we've realised some days were too hot to go cycling and explored the villages more north on the island by car. I took some photo's whle driving to give you an idea what it looks like - there are many forests, oyster farms (salty marshes), vineyards, maize and wheat. In short - beaches, cycling, agriculture and aquaculture, that's what you can expect!
I love the old stone walls you see so often in France, this one hiding an old building behind that looked like it could have belonged to a rich lord
Above and below; the garden of the phare de Chassiron (the northern point of the island) is landscaped in the shape of a compass (on an aerial photo it looks like a compass surrounding the lighthouse). We didn't visit the lighthouse or its museum, as we did a lot of cycling earlier in the morning before the worst heat and thought it prudent to save our bums.
Not the sandy beaches you find further south, one can see the reason why they chose this spot for the lighthouse!
From the north we've followed the east coast, first stopping at Saint Denis (no, don't ask me how many towns/villages in France starts with Saint or Sainte - far too many in my opinion!!!!)
It has an important school for yachting, along with other water sport, but we were surprised to see the busy beach!
The colourful beach cabins reminded me of those in Muizenberg
On the water it was just as busy with windsurfers, kayaks, yachts, etc
And below: the little harbour
Along the harbour your have benches where you can sit down in more tranquillity than on the beach
Above: another small harbour just south of Saint Denis - with a fisherman trying to catch his fish of the day
Below: and another long sandy beach, a bit further south at La Brée les Bains (where a freak thunderbolt a few days later landed two ladies in the hospital, fortunately it was reported a few days  later that they were fine)
Above: see what I mean with the 'wild' look along the beaches?
Below: the ghost town of Saint-Georges (the fact that we could find parking quite easily should have been a warning) - there are beautiful buildings, some resembling old châteaux that can tell stories of days in the past when wealthy owners (oyster farmers, salt owners, Huguenots?) lived there, a shady square where you can play pétanque (yes, still a very popular game in France, played by all ages). The one restaurant was fully book,  the other one didn't interest us, so as I was cursing my stinging attackers, we've escaped to Saint-Pierre, the capital of the island
Below: arriving in Saint-Pierre - proof of the heatwave and summer, blue sky at 20.04 and the temp in the shade measured at 29°!

Summer holiday 1

I feel like the new year started this week, not in January next year.  This is due to the long holidays that the French have during July & Aug and that the schools & universities start in Sept with their new year - and as a result the diaries start in Sept too!
We didn't have a long holiday, only 2 weeks, but it was super! I've realised it will take me too much time to write it all down, so I'll post a lot of photo's during the next few days to give you an idea of an island holiday.  I'm starting with some French classes next week and still need to update the blog on the visits during May/June!
Background: we chose île d'Oléron - the biggest island in France after Corsica, situated on the west coast, between La Rochelle and Bordeaux.  It's not far from Fouras, where JL's family lives, and it has numerous cycling roads and we were in desperate need of exercise!
Our diet did not include any meat, except for chicken during two picnics on the beach.  JL ate a pile of oysters and me mussels, and with it various types of fresh fish - wonderful! (oh, I almost forgot to add, it also included some terrible wine produced on the island, although one or two did surprise us)
La Cotinière: one of the many villages on the island and the main port. Above: the buildings behind host a huge market where you can buy fish and seafood. Below: the port

Below: you can see the bicycles are a popular way of getting around on the island. We went to La Cotinière sometimes by car and sometimes by bicycle, depending on the time of the day and the energy levels (it was about 7 km from the hotel)
You find delicious soft toffees - caramels à la fleur de sel - all over île d'Oléron and île de Ré (another island I've already blogged about).  On both islands salt of a very good quality is harvested.

Dinner time: there are numerous restaurants but in some you won't find place unless you have booked before

All along the area bordering the port you'll find benches and people occupying them, admiring the beautiful view

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Chikungunya or fruit flies?

Back in 2008 my mom and I travelled to France armed against mosquitoes, as my French teacher came from Bordeaux and always talked about the numerous mosquitoes.  We had no problem and since living in France I also had no problem with mosquitoes.  When going into the forest, we always go armed with our citronella oil, enough to chase mosquitoes away in a km distance. Hence the last thing that was on my mind when packing for holiday was mosquitoes.
My agony started the evening of the birthday celebrations in Fouras.  Whether they prefer foreign blood rather than French blood I don't know, but I was the one in the crowd to be eaten. 
In île d'Oléron slowly but surely I got more decorations on my skin - some being small spots, but others swelling like dove eggs. While working in St Georges I felt my bum burning, the bastards bit through my clothes, two bites next to each other, resulting in a 3x1.5cm bulb. And more to follow. By Saturday morning we stopped in St Trojan on our way to the beach, JL went searching for a pharmacy to find something that will keep all these horrible stinging things away from me while I sat down at a café waiting for him.  I was not so impressed when I heard that the pharmacist told him he is so lucky that all these stinging insects prefer his wife and not him!
The insect repellant indicated it works against Chikungunya, reminding me of this mosquito from Asia that arrived earlier this year in France.  I remembered vaguely a story about a woman from Bordeaux ending up in hospital. Fortunately I couldn't remember the detail and decided I'll rather not try to dig in my memory.  The cortisone cream was suppose to help against the damage that already occurred.  I do not like cortisone, but by then I was so desperate with swollen arms, itching, I could have bathed in cortisone if that would have helped.  Alas, the cortisone gave some relieve, but not completely.  And the insects were already immune to the insect repellant. 
When I ran out of my one petite marseillaise shower gel, I've realised it was the flavour 'peach and nectarine'.  Thinking, perhaps these insects thought I'm a soft juicy peach, they'll like the new flavour of raspberry mixed with flowers less.  Alas, not much improvement and they continued to feast on me.  With JL starting to think I'm dreaming of being bitten, it is impossible to be eaten like that and he's not bitten. Since then he had a few bites - and I had many more.  In fact, while writing this, I got two new bites, itching and I'll finish that I can turn to my cortisone cream. Summertime in the Charente is not for sissies!
Below: during our visit to the salt museum JL teased me while standing next to this huge mosquito in the section on the region's biodiversity, pretending he is also a big mosquito bzzz-ing

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Reliving the 80's in Saint Trojan

We've arrived on Tuesday in île d'Oléron - after Corsica the largest French island.  Starting to search for a holiday place during August two weeks before your departure is quite problematic! Fortunately we've managed to find a lovely place, which is not requiring you to rob a bank to be able to stay there and offering parking for free (which can cost you 18-20€/day in other places).  We've arrived in grey rainy weather and took the car from Le Vert Bois where we stay to Saint Trojan, another village on the south of the island.  Fortunately we've decided to ask for a map at the tourist office and got the week's programme of the village too.  Most of the villages have a busy entertainment programme during July and August to keep the many tourists happy. 
To my surprise JL decided the sunset train, a little tourist train taking you from Saint Trojan to one of the beaches, combined with a concert with some 80's music seems like good entertainment.  Unfortunately for us we've mixed up the days and realised the Wednesday that the concert was the previous evening and that the other concert which interested us will take place that evening. A free concert in Saint Trojan with the Ronnie Caryl band - the programme indicated he was a guitarist of Phil Collins, to be followed by fireworks, synonym with France and summer. The concert was to start at 9.
As it was raining again in the morning, we could only start cycling the afternoon when the weather cleared up and the cycling ended with a cool down session in the hotel's pool.  Our good intentions of arriving early in Saint Trojan to be able to find parking and a restaurant with no pain did not materialise, we've arrived at about 8.30, after having to park along the main road towards Saint Trojan.  We've walked along the cycle road to avoid the cars driving along the road, as the pavement was taken up by vehicles.  And arriving in the village, started searching an available restaurant....finding only queues in front of the many restaurants lined along the little port below (the stage was set up at the barrier in the front of the photo). 

Finally we've managed to find a restaurant that could offer us a table and I told JL it is good timing, we'll be able to sit down in the restaurant during the concert and be in time for the fireworks starting at 10.30.  The food of the restaurant was nothing to write home about, but the timing was good, by 10.15 we were out of there. By then people were packed along the port, sitting down along the walls and people in the restaurants were also singing along and cheering.
Ronnie Caryl, even though unknown to us before the concert, turned out to be very talented and not only an excellent guitarist, but also a good singer, entertaining us on songs from the 80's and also some from the 60's.  And we were relieved that he continued his concert after the magnificent fireworks, as it helped to spread the departing traffic.  The French city fathers definitely have experience of organising these summer festivals!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Birthday celebrations in Fouras

After Brigitte and Christian left, I had to put my head down to study seriously for a French test I had to do in Paris on JL's last day before a two week holiday. All about the studies etc in another post, but for now I can just say that both of us needed a holiday and were happy to leave very early on the Sunday morning. Direction Fouras, where most of his family are, those who do not live there come for holiday during August.
The Monday morning we were busy buying ingredients at the market in Fouras - it was Nina's birthday and we would celebrate it that evening together with her cousin Marie, the eldest grandchild, whose birthday was the following day.  Nina had two friends from Paris who joined her in Fouras, Damien and Caroll, who used to work with her.  Good for her (and for us) as they have provided extra hands in the preparation for this family fête (while we could watch).  I was thinking back to the first family apéritif I had in Fouras, how intimidating it was - even though they are very kind and friendly, it is still a bit overwhelming when exposed to such a group of strangers, many with French names you're not used to, and you try your best to remember who is who and who belongs to who.  Relieved that now I can just join in and know who is who and who belongs to who (even though the numbers peaked at 18 and another one arriving later after two have left), and happy to see all the familiar faces, as they feel like my family too.
Top: Marie & Damien working hard preparing for the fête
Bottom: while the more seniors are watching (and the rest of the youngsters are slaving away in the kitchen)

Half of the guests and half of the food...:
Time to open the gifts:
Maman Yvonne with the two birthday girls, proud of her grandchildren:

And once again, as it is the habit in France, the birthday cakes (in this case it was birthday tarts) are decorated with candles - normally with the figures of the age displayed, but in this case they had to improvise for the 2 birthdays: