Where were we?
We began the week in Carcassonne, then headed west to the Atlantic coast and the Bay of Arcachon.
Where should we have been?
Tokyo. Actual Tokyo. Still feel a bit (a lot actually) cheated.
And Kyoto, where we should have stayed with Ben’s friend Waka and where Harriet was longing to find out more about (and maybe even wear) a kimono.
What did we actually do?
We had one full day left in Carcassonne. We didn’t exactly have a plan, but some tips from friends and a quick google saw us formulating a very busy last day.
The Canal du Midi runs through Carcassonne and was a short ten minute stroll away from where we were staying. Harriet had visions of a leisurely meander along a wide, plane-shaded towpath and Ben was fondly remembering a family narrowboat holiday some thirty years ago.
Sadly it was not quite to be. The towpath was very narrow and crowded with cyclists and litter-pickers (heartfelt thanks to them) and so there was rather a lot of leaping into the nettles. It was also very hot. The lovely plane trees did a fabulous job of shading the road that runs along the canal but left the towpath itself in full sun. Quite a few of our walking party had been unenthusiastic when we left, and their spirit of adventure deserted them further in the dusty heat. We headed home…
But only briefly as we had decided that although we generally try to cook for ourselves, we fancied a Sunday lunch out. Sophie had identified a nice looking restaurant back in the Cité and so we headed up the hill (for the second time that day for Ben who had heroically been for a run before breakfast) for a slap up meal of duck and ice cream (not together).
We had a quick peek in the Basilica too.
Then off to the Lac de la Cavayère – a man made lake about fifteen minutes from Carcassonne and home to Carcassonne Plage. We staked out a spot on the beach and enjoyed the welcome cool of the water. We even got the Strandbeest to work!
We were in full sight of an array of It’s a Knockout-style inflatable obstacles and so after a good hour of splashing and dunking in the shallows we set off round the lake to have a go too.
It was after 5 and we were the last group allowed in so our paid-for hour ended up being nearly two as we clambered, sprawled, fell and laughed our way up, over and in. It was extraordinarily hard work and brilliant fun. We all had achy shoulders and random bruises the next day, but they were worth it!
Lac de la Cavayère was also home to our beasties of the week though sadly only some of them would consent to be photographed. As we walked through the woods surrounding the lake, the noise of the cicadas was all around. Lucy and Ben spotted one high on a tree. It was surprisingly big and made a ridiculously loud noise for an insect.
At the lake itself, Harriet disturbed a proud mother and her eight babies.
And on the way back, Magnus spotted a bird he’d never seen before. Harriet turned her head just in time to see a flash of orange and a chessboard of black and white. Our first ever hoopoe!
We headed away from the arid hills of Carcassonne on Monday morning, travelling West and North towards the Atlantic coast. The landscape became greener as we travelled, with fields of sunflowers making way to rows of vines.
We crossed the Garonne, wide, oily and green like a lazy python and came into a flat land of bare-trunked pines and big skies. The houses are single-storey and often wood framed, with shallow pitched roofs. It feels an entirely different country from the Chartreuse.
If the Bay of Arcachon is a dolphin leaping in from the Atlantic, we are almost at its nose, in the small town of Audenge. We picked Audenge on the basis it was half-way between Arcachon and Bordeaux and because the house fit all our criteria. It was a lucky find. The village is sleepy and quiet but with two excellent boulangeries, a greengrocer and a useful supermarket. More excitingly, it has oyster-fishers huts in fisherman’s-jersey stripes, and a massive free salt-water swimming pool. Harriet has enjoyed an early-morning swim or two.
We haven’t spotted many interesting wild flowers this week, but the hedgerows are full of both blackberries (mostly disappointingly not quite ripe, although we have been enjoying those that are) and sloes. Harriet is wracking her brains as to how she can a) fit them in the car and b) keep them going for three weeks before we get home. Gin anyone?
We also found the world’s biggest pine cone.
Dune du Pilat
One of the major attractions of the area is the Dune du Pilat: Europe’s largest sand dune – 107 metres high and containing 60,000,000 cubic metres of sand. It is still growing and is moving inland, swallowing up the ancient oak and pine forest behind it.
On Bastille Day, after a quick dip in the salty pool, and forgetting that the entirety of France was on holiday, we headed out to explore it.
The car parks were heaving and there were more people at its base than we have seen in one place for many months. There were not many masks in sight but they had installed both the ubiquitous hand gel and a one way system to approach the dune.
You pass through the shady gloom of the woods, sand underfoot, not entirely sure what to expect and then the wood ends suddenly and there is, quite literally, a wall of sand one hundred metres high in front of you, people spread across and toiling up it like desert insects.
We joined them. The landward side is the steep side and the walk up was a short and very sharp shock; the epitome of two steps forward one step back. (There are temporary stairs fixed in high season, but we didn’t fancy them). The sand was bakingly hot underfoot, and entirely pristine to our right where no one had walked.
At the top an entirely unexpected vista. Colour blocks of turquoise blue, palest gold and impenetrable green.
The seaward side is a much gentler slope and although we knew that to go down inevitably meant to come up again, the sight of the Atlantic and Cap Ferret across the bay were too tempting. We ran down. For the sheer joy of it.
A hard hour or so on the beach and a rather harder slog back up the dune were rewarded with an excellent ice cream from one of the many shops at the car park side of the dune. We may have to go back.
Harriet had done her research (of course) and several websites had recommended Château Bardins, in Pessac-Léognan, as having child-friendly tours. The château and vineyards are just south of Bordeaux, so we braved the typically heavy traffic and watched as the pine forests gave way to ranks of well-tended vines.
The château itself is a stunning nineteenth century house, looking very friendly and lived-in. Stella, our host and fifth-generation winemaker, made us feel very relaxed and welcome. Her English was excellent, which meant the children could be more engaged, and she first apologised that her dog – looking on longingly from behind the door, could not join us on the visit, as he had been a naughty boy and got muddy in the river. We then started our visit by feeding a bucket of carrots to some sheep.
The visit continued by visiting a vineyard, where we learnt that grapes can get sunburnt, and how new and old vines differ. After pausing to have a conversation with a chicken, while Stella sold some wine to a wholesaler, we went inside the winery itself.
Up to this point, everything had felt rather timeless, possibly a bit dusty, and organic – indeed the wines are Bio-certified. Inside was much more industrial, with polished metal presses and vats.
The racks of oak barrels brought us back to more organic geniality, then on to the tasting, which included grape juice (hints of apricot, perhaps?) for the children, and a range of increasingly smart wines for us. It would have been rude not to buy a little…
From our wine tasting we went on, by popular demand, into Bordeaux. None of us had ever been here before and we were hugely impressed by how beautiful and stately it was.
A particular treat was the Miroir d’Eau, reflecting both the magnificent buildings of the Place de la Bourse, and, rather less magnificently, us.
It was also the first day of the sales, so Rue Sainte Catherine, the longest pedestrianised shopping street in Europe, was heaving with unconcerned but mostly mask-wearing bargain-hunters. We managed to escape with only 15 minutes in H&M/ the lego shop.
When we were planning our World Tour of France Magnus had one request: could we visit a water park?
So on Thursday we did. It was dull and overcast but that just meant less suncream.
Aqualand Bassin d’Arcachon is a bit shabby but otherwise entirely fitted the bill, with an array of slides, lazy rivers and wave pools to keep everyone happy for a full day.
Magnus was, in his own words, “a bit sad and angry at the end”, but nonetheless he also says he had a good time and a bit of food and some sleep seems to have fixed it for the moment.
Tour du Bassin
The entirety of the Gironde has been blessed with a fantastic network of Cycle Paths, some on old railway routes, some purpose-built meandering through forests, and others separated from the roads they run beside.
In the main they are well-signposted and well-maintained. There is also a well-practised custom of priorité-à-velo with the majority of cars stopping to let (6 increasingly hot and bedraggled) cyclists over a road, where the cycle path crosses. Unlike cycling in Chartreuse, there are no hills.
On Saturday we took advantage of this network, and bit off as much as we could chew by attempting the Tour du Bassin: a complete circuit of Arcachon Bay, including a ferry across the mouth from Arcachon to Cap Ferret.
Having booked ferry tickets for us and our bikes, we hired said bikes the evening before, leaving the car there, so that we could set off earlier, and avoid some of the heat expected on Saturday.
Our morning route to Arcachon and the ferry varied between entirely rural, suburban and occasional town centres, with highlights being lovely pine woods (they smelled fantastic) south of Gujan Mestras, the mansions of Arcachon high society and long straight stretches of former railway tracks down from Audenge to the brilliantly named Biganos.
The ferry was a little uncomfortable – a hot wait on a pier followed by sitting in a mask and not eating the lunch we had just bought and thoroughly deserved. Very little attempt at social distancing too, which is uncharacteristic in such an enclosed space. There were good views of the Dune de Pilat as we crossed.
After a sandwich lunch upon arrival at Cap Ferret, our second half rolled gently through coastal pine forests, accompanied by cicadas, along smooth sinuous paths which kept us away from both roads and any sight of the miles of beaches just over to our left.
We were grateful when we were in the shade, as the heat was intense, and while Ben was delighted with being on a bike, everyone else was getting more uncomfortable in both legs and bottom. (Business idea No. 35856: invent a bike saddle that actually suits a woman)
Having turned the corner to head inland and home, we stopped at the first place we could find in Arès, for cold drinks (and a pot of Assam tea) then rejoined the old railway to pedal the weary last few kilometres home.
We were hugely impressed by all the children. 71.7km is a long, long cycle, and given the heat, a magnificent achievement. The car thermometer was registering 42°C when we got back, and although this seems a little exaggerated (I (Ben) always think that measuring temperature is not a car’s core skill) it was well over 30° from lunchtime on. We all slept well after a barbecue on our return.
How was it?
Magnus: The Carcassone lake was good because of the fact that there were inflatables. Aqualand was AWESOME because: water park, what’s not to like?! Dune de Pilat was literally a desert or a mountain of sand.
Sophie: My favourite memory of this week was the waterpark because there was so much to do that was all fun!! I also really enjoyed when we did the inflatable thing in the water. At the beginning I wasn’t sure about the pools of sea water but after a little bit I really enjoyed playing in them. When I had an oyster was quite exciting! I had good fun when we had pizza and phones for a night. The beginning of the cycle was fun as well.
Lucy: The Carcassonne lake was awesome, I had such a fun time. I enjoyed swimming in the seaside pools. Bordeaux was lovely – I adored the Mirroire d’eau and I actually enjoyed the sales shopping (especially because I got a new jumpsuit). The cycle was lovely at times. Aqualand was fun – so much that I didn’t know what my favourite bit was!
Ben: Uncharacteristically I have enjoyed some of the sandy and open watery activities this week. I even went into the sea, briefly, below the Dune de Pilat.
Lots of lovely memories this week – I loved cycling through the forests on our big ride, tasty bread, oysters, a lovely meal out with Harriet (thank you brother Tim), a great Airbnb house to stay in, but I think my favourite was the city of Bordeaux.
I didn’t have any expectations and I was blown away by its magnificent river front, and then by its beautiful streets and sheer class. I would love to return and explore it more fully (perhaps we should just move permanently). We worked out we could get there by train from Berwick-upon-Tweed in time for supper.
Aurora: The inflatable lake thing was SO fun, the pools by the sea were really cool, Dune de Pilat, Aqualand was THE BESTTT. Late night and pizza was super fun and the cycle was amazingly sore on my bum but fun.
Harriet: There have been lots of good bits this week. I feel safe (as it’s actually been 8 days) in tempting fate by saying that there have been many fewer arguments. We may actually, after 24 weeks/17 years (delete as applicable) be learning to live together.
For me the unexpected highlight of this week has been the pools here in Audenge. I have snuck off several times for a swim on my own and the combination of sun, salt water and yet no pesky waves or, barely, other people, has been bliss. Even better when I get to bring back blackberries to put in my breakfast.
The Dune du Pilat was magical. I have never been anywhere like it. It has veen a very long time since I have run just for the sheer pleasure of running, but going helter skelter down the sand towards the endless blue of the sea was a memory I will guard.
I hugely enjoyed our cycle, at least until my bottom got sore. Pootling along mostly flat ground is my idea of cycling. I loved the cicadas too, especially the pair that were perfectly matching triplets against quavers.
I thought Bordeaux was wonderful. I’m very excited about the possibility of a grown up weekend there in the future. We have worked out we can get there by train in less than 12 hours.
Aurora: Not having Duplo A to talk to!
Harriet: Now that we are travelling again I am realising that I am very bad at doing nothing. I need, most of the time, to be doing something (Although I get a bit cross when I feel as though I am being expected to do everything). At home, or in St Pierre, there was, and is, always something that needs to be done. Now that we are travelling again, if we are just in our accommodation, the children, and to a lesser extent Ben, are very happy just disappearing into the Internet. I, on the other hand, get antsy. I could read my book (and I do sometimes) but I start to feel as though I should be doing something constructive, making, or tidying, or, given we are travelling, going out and seeing. I think it is worse because this is not what we planned. I feel we really have to make the absolute most and best of this time in order to justify what we have lost. And some of the time (a lot of the time) a vocal majority of my family don’t agree…
It is an odd thing but four weeks travelling round France, which in any other lifetime would feel like an extraordinary and endless opportunity, doesn’t feel long enough at all.
The return home is also looming and is, if I’m honest, a big dark cloud on the horizon. I’m not entirely sure why I am dreading it so much, but I am. This week people tried to organise a lovely catch-up for shortly after we get back and I went into a flat panic. I can’t cope with the idea of having things that we will be “obliged” to do, even if we are only obliged because we have accepted kind invitations from people we love. I am very frightened that the weight of expectation (mostly in my head) will descend as soon as we return – the need to do everything right and keep everyone happy, and I will end up failing at all of it.
It may be that being aware of the risk will lessen the likelihood but at the moment all thinking about it is doing is ruining my pleasure in the moments we have left. Four weeks has never felt so short.
On a much more trivial note, the traffic around both Bordeaux and Arcachon is awful. We’re not used to that any more.
Sophie: I didn’t like the traffic on the way to Aqualand. My bum being really painful and also my neck.
Lucy: I got a sore bottom towards the end of the bike ride and the traffic jam was rather boring.
Ben: Apart from some traffic delays, any disappointments this week have generally been when I look at what we’re doing from an external and relative perspective.
Now I’m going to whinge about having 4 weeks holiday in France, which feels very inappropriate, but it’s not the adventure it was meant to be. In itself it is lovely, but I can’t help thinking about how I will feel on my return, and there is a lot of regret at not making it to Tokyo, particularly this week.
Brexit has been making me really angry this week too, because of all the conveniences we have been enjoying, which will be gone next year, for not a single benefit. No phone roaming charges, subsidised health care, freedom of movement, and a collective sense of belonging, all disappearing. Most things will be possible, but with greater costs. I am ashamed of the mendacious politicians, and their agents, who have, either by dishonesty or incompetence, brought us here.
Magnus: I didn’t like the cycle because my butt is still sore.
What did we eat?
Oysters! Audenge and the Bassin d’Arcachon are a big oyster-producing area and fresh oysters and other shellfish are sold out of the very picturesque stripey shacks down by the harbour.
Despite reservations from some of us, we headed off for a slap-up lunch. The children were told they didn’t have to eat anything they didn’t want to, and so Magnus may have had an entirely bread-based meal.
Lucy, however, managed a prawn and some aïoli and Aurora and Sophie hugely impressed us by eating an oyster each.
Ben and Harriet had no problem at all in polishing off the leftovers.
We continued our tour of Europe in baked goods by testing Bordeaux’s delicacy, the canelé, a sort of syrup-soaked sponge. It is rather less nice than it sounds.
In the local delicatessen Harriet also spotted some intriguing blackened cakes. They are, she was told, tourteaux, a cheese-based sweet treat. It was too good an opportunity to turn down.
At the till, she wondered if they were local: “Oh yes, from Poitiers!”. Poitiers is, in fact, about 200 miles away. It is also where we are going next so we’re calling the cake early research – it was delicious: very fluffy and light inside and not bitter at all on top, despite appearances.
More mundanely we had to get creative with our easy supper after our afternoon at the lake. We have yet to find an AirBnB with egg cups.
It was a memorable journey from Carcassonne as Ben ate the very last of the sweets we had gathered in Cologne, all those months and hopes ago.
We leave Audenge on Monday and head North, probably up the left (west) Bank of the Garonne, partly to avoid the motorway traffic, partly to get a kick out of passing all sorts of expensive wine appellations and partly for the fun of the ferry across the mouth of the river.
We have then got two nights in Poitiers, where we may eat more Torteau and we will certainly (by popular request) go to Futuroscope.