From Quimper to Vannes in a camper van

Tuesday 18th April 2006, Arradon, Bay of Morbihan, Brittany
This morning we heard our first cuckoo of the year. Spring has at last arrived with the hedgerows tinged a brilliant green or covered in a haze of white hawthorn blossom. In the morning we drove out to the Presqu'île de Quiberon, Formerly an island it is now joined to the mainland by a silted-up stretch of sand providing very pleasant beaches. The road continues through pine forests to the little town of Quiberon on the tip from where boats sail to Belle-Ile, a few miles off shore. Here we parked and spent a couple of hours exploring the little streets of the town and strolling along the seafront lined with countless seafood and pancake restaurants. People sat outside for lunch in the warm sunshine which had risen from a chilly 7 degrees yesterday to 26 degrees in sheltered spots today!

Quiberon beach and harbour with Belle-Ile on the horizon

There is a small fish canning factory near the port, marketing under the name of Belle-Ile. As the fish are caught and brought in to Quiberon, and canned on the spot, we cannot see why it is called Belle-Ile at all. The products, mainly pâtés, soups and sardines, look very attractive displayed in baskets in the window of the shop but experience has shown that they are generally far too salty to be appreciated.

Belle-Ile products on display in Quiberon

Later we walked along the cliffs exploring the rocky outcrops of the Côte Sauvage. Here, as all around the area, were several tall menhirs standing spectacularly on the grassy cliffs amidst the gorse and hawthorn blossom, the rocks and brilliant blue of the sea behind.

Mehirs on the cliff top, Quiberon

La Côte Sauvage, Quiberon

One of the problems we have with Modestine is that whenever we park her, we return to find people peering in at her windows, fascinated that such a tiny camping car can exist. We've tried explaining that she's still growing and one day will be as big as theirs, but we just get odd stares. Perhaps it loses something in the translation. Normally it is very nice to chat to people this way but it can be embarrassing when we are carrying around a bucket load of damp socks and undies which we festoon around in Modestine to air while we go off for walks.

Several years ago we made a brief tour around southern Brittany and stayed somewhere around Carnac in a frighteningly clean and tidy Breton house full of pretty china, lacy chair-backs and even a frilly cover over the box of toilet tissues in the bathroom. During the night we got bitten by mosquitoes. Triumphantly splatting one at 3am it disgorged an enormous spray of blood across the ceiling! Terrified of our landlady discovering it we clambered on chairs balanced on the bed trying to wash the ceiling without disturbing our hosts downstairs.

This time we have not been troubled by mosquitoes and anyway we can reach Modestine's ceiling whilst lying in bed. What this anecdote is really leading up to is that our landlady told us of a tiny picturesque chapel to mariners on the seashore at the nearby village of St. Philibert, proudly informing us that the blue ceiling with its pattern of stars had been renovated by her father. Today we decided to seek out the chapel which is indeed very attractive standing right beside the estuary with little fishing boats bobbing nearby and a holy well to St. Philibert in front of the chapel. The village is completely unspoilt being away from the nearby holiday centre of Trinité-sur-Mer, also very pleasant and a popular yachting and sailing resort.

Chapel and well at St. Philibert

Interior of the Chapel at St. Philibert

Leaving the area around Carnac behind we headed towards Auray where we parked to explore the old quarter, the road down to the river and the old stone bridge across to the picturesque village of St. Goustan with its half-timbered houses and old fishing boats. It is also rather a tourist Mecca. Auray's steep street down to the river reminded us very much of Dinan on the north Breton coast and we even found similarities with Dartmouth in Devon. Finally we continued to Arradon on the outskirts of Vannes and found a campsite for the night.

Harbour at St. Goustan near Auray

St. Goustan near Auray

Wednesday 19th April 2006, La Roche Bernard, Ile et Villaine, Brittany
It was late by the time we reached Arradon so it was not until this morning we had time to discover where we had spent the night. It is a very lovely place on the Golfe de Morbihan. Here the climate seems warm and soft. The bay is crammed with little islands, boats plying between them. It is a sailors' paradise with calm shallow waters, perfect for little boats. Here one could play at Swallows and Amazons all summer long! Apparently the bay was originally formed by the land sinking, allowing the sea to flood in leaving only the higher ground exposed, forming countless little islands. We watched as people rigged their boats and chugged their way off from the shore, the clear water slapping peacefully against the seawall.

Golfe de Morbihan from Arradon

Our next stop was in Vannes, one of the major towns of Brittany. We found it to be a very attractive town with heavy granite walls and towers for defence. Now the marshland outside the city walls has been turned into stunningly beautiful formal gardens in the French style of perfectly symmetrical paths and flower beds.

Formal gardens and ramparts at Vannes

Wash houses in front of the ramparts and Cathedral at Vannes

We visited the cathedral which has a chapel to the town's very own St. Vincent Ferrier. His skull is displayed in a reliquary and there are paintings and tapestries depicting some of his miracles. Nearby we discovered an obscure statue to another saint, born in the town, St. Emillion - of wine fame.

Old houses and Cathedral at Vannes

Cloister and chapel of St. Vincent Ferrier, Vannes

We spent several hours exploring the very attractive streets of old timbered houses and even enjoyed a free visit to the town's art gallery with its displays of mainly 19th century works by Breton artists. Many impressed particularly because of the delicate use of light in the seascapes.

Two local characters, Vannes

Around the old streets of the town we discovered the house where St. Vincent Ferrier died in 1419. Just opposite two young men were busking, Breton style. The noise was enough to waken the dead! We eyed the upstairs window of the house apprehensively, half expecting the good saint to make an appearance!

House where St. Vincent Ferrier died, Vannes

When the Saint comes marching out? Vannes

We returned to Modestine parked down near the port, stopping on the way to visit an exhibition devoted to the aftermaths of the recent natural disasters of both the tsunami and hurricane Katrina with dramatic images of the anguish of the victims in Asia and New Orleans.

Remembering that several years ago someone mentioned a really nice campsite at La Roche Bernard in the direction of Nantes, we turned off here and found the site, down by the river, way below the road bridge that delicately spans the river Vilaine. Unfortunately we cannot remember who it was told us about this site but if it's one of our blog followers, thanks for the tip. It is indeed a very nice, clean and pleasant site where ducks waddle around Modestine, just a few feet from the river's edge with the masts of dozens of little sailing boats tied up alongside the jetty. We have yet to explore the town in the morning.

Thursday 20th April 2006, Parnay-sur-Loire (between Saumur and Chinon
This morning was spent very happily exploring the little town of La Roche Bernard. Delightful at any time, today we had the added attraction of the weekly street market. These are such an essential part of the way of life in rural France where every week without fail the world of commerce comes to the small towns and villages, providing them with everything they could ever need. Without the markets these little towns would be dead. There is virtually nothing in the way of public transport between villages and towns and many elderly people would be isolated and housebound without the regular toddle down to the market to stock up on the weekly vegetables, cheeses, meat and fish as well as the occasional purchase of shoes, clothes, table linen, garden hoes, step ladders, live chickens, crabs and seafood. Nowadays too, there are stalls selling paella and Chinese foods, the latter having recently become very popular in France. Such visits also offer the local people a chance to meet up with friends, exchange kisses and gossip over an aperitif in the local bar or in the invariable queue at the boulangerie. We were surprised to hear so many people speaking English in the streets and in the local bar when we called in for a coffee. The lady behind the counter told us the town had become very popular with the English. She seemed pleased when we told her it was because the English recognised a good thing when they saw it and the town was quite delightful. Down near the camp site there is a large marina, full of expensive yachts. Judging by the appearance of many of the retired English we saw around the town, they appear to be reasonable affluent boating people.

The houses in the centre of La Roche Bernard are mainly 16 century onwards. There is also an attractive artisans' quarter where we enjoyed a chat with a local sculptor working in various media including papier-mâché, stone and terra cotta. The good thing about travelling in Modestine is that there is no way we can be tempted to buy any of the lovely things we see. We just do not have the space.

La Roche Bernard

Artisans quartier,La Roche Bernard

Down at the marina on the River Vilaine we found the site where the first high-sided French battleship, la Couronne, was built in around 1629 under the direction of Cardinal Richelieu. It did not appear to have seen much in the way of active service and was soon decommissioned. Generally it seems to have been just about as successful as Alan Sugar's electric car!

Point where la Couronne was constructed with reproduction mast, La Roche Bernard

The river Vilaine, La Roche Bernard

The river at this point is crossed by a very high suspension bridge. We climbed and scrambled our way up to get some stunning views down onto the river and the hundreds of tall rattling masts of the boats anchored at the marina.

The suspension bridge, La Roche Bernard

The marina from the bridge, La Roche Bernard

Down at the campsite we made the manager's day by telling him we'd been travelling for eight months around Europe and this was definitely one of the best sites we'd used. He eagerly asked us to write it into his visitors' book, even offering to dictate for us! He was really delighted with Ian's comments, telling us the mayor would be really pleased with him when he showed him our entry and he might even get a pay rise!