Saumur – I never knew there was so much in it!

(This post is a little late – approximately 17 days late!)

We just love Lacanau and Le Tedey. It would have been easy to stay there until the last possible moment and then make a mad dash for Calais on Saturday morning. However the hearts and minds of the joint Chairs of the Planning and Strategic Oversight Committee are made of stronger stuff and we decided to use the last week to meander up through France and discover new places on the way. Perhaps it was the use of the word meander that led us to explore the Loire Valley? The Loire is France’s longest river, rising in X and flowing 600 miles to the sea at St Brevin des Pins just downstream from Nantes and the St Nazaire Bridge that I passed by on La Velodyssee. That is about all we knew of it – oh and it is one of France’s premier wine regions, famous for its chateaux.

From the map it seemed that the town of Saumur was pretty much at the centre of the vineyard action and Geoff was fond of a bottle of Saumur plonk said Wendy. [By the way apparently the word ‘plonk’ derives from the First World War. It is a corruption of ‘blanc’ that soldiers would use to order wine in French bars and cafes.]

 

We headed for the Ile d’Offard campsite we had chosen from the ACSI handbook as it was on an island in the middle of the Loire, only 15 minutes from the town centre. For the first time on this tour we had to join a queue to get in. By the time we had completed all the formalities (including having to show Alf’s passport for the first time) there were even more campers and caravans lined up behind us. When we took Alf for a walk later there was a ‘campsite complet’ sign at the entrance.

As you can see from our photos the whole of our dog walk and Saumur as well is dominated by the chateau. It is a very pretty town and is supposed to have one of the most attractive and photogenic skylines in Europe (have they never seen Derby’s INTU Centre at sunset?).

Later that evening we had a mooch around the town centre so that Wendy could have some pudding and I tried to capture the wonderful sunset. I think Wendy was more successful.

Our campsite was the busiest we had stayed at. It was clearly very popular. It was an ex municipal site which had been sub-contracted or sold to a campsite chain; in this case Flower Camping. This seems to be a growing trend across France and is certainly pushing up the prices. This one could have done with a few more toilets and washing up sinks available. There was something about this site that I wasn’t happy with. I don’t know what. It had a great position, a reasonable dog walk, decent facilities (including a pool) but it just didn’t feel comfortable. Wendy reckons it was because the campsite was so full and the pitches were quite close together.

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The next morning we popped in to see the lovely people at the Tourist Information Office. We were expecting good things as they were in the top 5 places to visit in Saumur on Trip Advisor and they lived up to their billing. Not only did they offer us a selection of good things to see and do (too many for us to visit in one day) but they also offered to sell us entry tickets for them at a reduced price. We went and sat on the enormous leather sofas and helped ourselves to the free coffee and chocolates whilst we chose what we were going to do. (Some of that last sentence might not be strictly true!)

Tickets bought, we cycled west, out of town towards St Hilaire-St Florent on the right or south bank of the Loire. The south bank of the river at Saumur is a limestone cliff, mostly the soft tufa limestone. This has been quarried for centuries for use in the local buildings, from the chateau, bridges and churches to sailors’ cottages. (In the UK, tufa rock was used by the owners of stately homes to create grottos in their gardens because it is so soft it was easily worked.) The quarries are more like mines though which have produced caverns of all shapes and sizes. Some have been used as homes and the people who live in them are called Troglodytes, those a little further up the social scale built houses out the front and were known as semi-troglodytes. The big caverns were taken over in the 19th Century by wine makers as they provided the ideal conditions for making sparkling wine and then from the beginning of the 20th Century mushroom growers moved in to produce the new Paris or button mushroom in sufficient quantity to meet the demand that exploded after its accidental creation.

Our first stop was a mushroom farm and museum – think Blue John mine with added mushrooms. There was more stuff in there than even I needed to know about mushrooms, but it was interesting and surprisingly 85% of all the mushrooms sold in France are grown in and around Saumur.

We then pedalled 300m on to the neighbouring cave to see ‘Pierre et Lumieré’. This was truly magnificent. A local sculptor had carved a selection of the region’s most striking buildings and villages sometimes out of stand-alone blocks and sometimes into the walls of the caves, in one instance using the cave’s natural water level to recreate the Loire in a townscape of Saumur. All of these were carefully lit to create stunning tableaux at every turn.

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The road out of Saumur had been lined with different wine Chateaux such as Ackerman and Bouvet Ladubay. On the way back we stopped at Langlois Chateau, which had been recommended. We asked about a tour to find that we needed to book and tomorrow would now be the earliest they could fit us in. disappointed, we got back on our bikes and were about to head back when a girl dashed out to say that she could give us a shortened version if we wished. It turned out that all we missed was some of the lecture room based part of the usual tour but she more than made up for that as we explored every part of the cave based process with her – our own bespoke tour. As they do, the tour finished with a tasting. She gave us so many examples to try we had to cry stop; pleading that we had to cycle home.

That night we decided that two nights were enough on this campsite and we would move on in the morning. Next time we are here we will visit the National Tank Museum, Musée Blindés, the Chateau and the famous Cadre Noir, the home of the French cavalry school.

Thinking of the Cadre Noir, it was a sombre thought that where we had camped was the scene of the last battle of the French army or the first act of resistance in the Second World War, depending how you look at it. In June 1940 as the German Army swept through France, Colonel Michon, the officer in command of the cavalry school, led his 200 teenage recruits in a two day battle against the might of the German war machine. There is some dispute as to whether he knew that Marshal Pétain had surrendered, and certainly General de Gaulle called it the first act of the French Resistance. One of the bridges to the island is dedicated to the memory of the students who died in the action.

We woke on Wednesday to an already hot and sunny morning. We had plenty to do this morning; dog walk, collect the bread, have breakfast and then a brisk 30-minute walk to the vets. Alf was booked in for his pre-return to the UK check up and worming. (Suddenly this made our return to Britain seem very close. The vet was very friendly and efficient. He had not a word of English, which made us feel almost fluent with our French. As usual he left it to Wendy to force the tablet down Alfie’s throat. It was noticeably warmer on our more leisurely return to the campsite to collect the van and say goodbye to Fleurie Camping. We had to drive back to Langlois Chateau to collect the wine we had bought yesterday but couldn’t carry in my panniers (yes it was that much!) and had to be there before they shut at 1230. A bit of a wait at the vet’s made this a little more challenging than we had planned but we got there with minutes to spare.

With the wine safely stowed we wound our way upstream to the village of Montsoreau, one of the many historic river ports on the Loire. It is a tiny village, its population has halved in the last 100 years. It is surprising that the Loire was really the only means of transport through this part of France up until the coming of the railway at the end of the 19th Century. All goods were carried up and down the Loire. Geography helped. The river flows from east to west and the prevailing winds are westerly, coming in from the Atlantic. As a result boats could travel downstream on the current of the river and then the boatmen would hoist the sails so that they could use the wind to be blown back up-river. Because of many shallows on the river, the boats were fairly small and flat-bottomed to keep the draught as small as possible. The rudders are a peculiar shape, they are very long and do not protrude below the bottom of the hull, again to avoid grounding.

 

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We followed a walking trail around the village and it’s neighbouring village of Candes-St Martin that explained their maritime history. By now the heat was blistering and the three of us were trying to keep to the shadows as much as possible. It was so hot that as we climbed up above Candes, Wendy got a little bit grumpy! It was only the promise of a drink when we got back to Montsoreau that prevented a mutiny.

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Not only did Wendy get her drink, but the café also served some great sorbets so our spirits were well and truly restored by the time we got back to the motorhome. With the air conditioning turned up to eleven we continued our drive up the river. The Loire is a beautiful river, of a scale that we don’t get in Britain and it was a pleasure to follow it all the way to the cathedral city of Blois and our next campsite right on the river bank.

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Blois campsite is about 3km outside the town next to a big water sports centre. The chap in Reception told us we could only stop for one night as the whole campsite was booked out for the weekend for a big children’s camp celebrating the end of the academic year. The campsite was really just a huge field with a few other motorhomes and caravans clustered around the toilet block that was open. We parked in the very welcome shade of an enormous cypress tree, as it was still blisteringly hot at six o’clock in the evening.

As we were preparing tea an old classic VW camper with Italian plates arrived and parked not far from us. The couple in it had a big dog who came over to introduce herself to Alf closely followed by her owners. Neither of them had any English and our Italian only consists of ‘ciao’. But through a bit of sign language and the medium of modern dance we had a bit of a chat and they asked if it would be alright if they parked a little closer to us so that they could enjoy the shade of the tree too. It turned out that he wanted a Hymer like ours and was chuffed when Wendy offered him the chance to look inside.

While washing up we met an English couple who had a welsh terrier. The woman was very surprised that we recognised the breed and before you knew it she and Wendy were deep in conversation. It turned out that they were from Kidderminster and had a very similar back-story to us even down to owning one of the very first RS200s and spending their summers with their children sailing on Lac Biscarosse. By now the sun had set and it was a little cooler so the four of us went on a dog walk around the site before saying good bye and wishing them all the best as they were just at the start of their holiday.

The next morning I walked Alf along the path by the river. By the gate to the riverbank there were three or four tents with canoes by their sides and their occupants were busy packing their kit into dry bags and tubs. They were canoeing down the river all the way to St Brevin on the coast. Now there is an idea!

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Who needs a bike?

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