French coasts

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(>Pictures at the bottom!)

North and west coast
After a short ferry crossing we reached Quistreham, the offshore port of Caen. We enjoyed the warming sun on the ship deck until the last moment, as if we had had to wait a long time for this moment.

At the entry to France we were again a bit tense. This “Corona story” restricted our travel activities again and again and we could not always fully comprehend certain measures. We had already thought up all kinds of strategies and answers about “how and what”. But as soon as we showed the passport to the border official, the message was: “Have a good trip and a wonderful stay in Normandy”. No more, no less! Why all this tension?

The north and west coast of France were already on our wish list, which we wanted to explore by touring bike. Our trip around the world turned the whole wish-list upside down and for the time being we went a little further. Only the corona pandemic and all the other stuff brought us back to our old plans and so we landed unplanned on the coast of northern France.

With a touring bike it would be much easier than with four wheels, but this time we enjoyed the independence and the faster locomotion. In this respect France made a huge change and in many places a motorless vehicle would be the better choice.

We followed the coast westwards and were surprised by the clean coastal towns. When stopping in any place, there were often people standing next to our jeep and we were involved in a conversation. After “D-Day” there must have been a lot of original jeeps driving around here and you can still see them everywhere; these simple vehicles, which from that day on were part of the liberation and symbolize something of “indestructibility”.

There must have been many tragedies here 76 years ago. In front of a shopping mall we had a conversation with an 82 year old man who told us briefly his story of that day and he was glad that he never had to experience such a time again. With some reverence we steered further west and soon we had enough of the asphalt tape. A short way to the campsite behind the dune and we were already stomping through the sand towards the refreshing sea. Outside in the sea, with a view to the beach and the countless bunker ruins, we remembered the old man’s words again. How did the soldiers feel on 6 June 1944 when they arrived? Unlike us, many had never reached the shore.

We continued to follow the coast; from one theatre of war to the next museum about World War II it was usually not far, followed by large military cemeteries. Soon we steered away from the coastal roads. Certain events should not be repressed, but we were somehow glad not to be reminded of those dark times.

Via Cherbourg we reached the north-western corner of this headland, which reaches far into the English Channel, and enjoyed the almost endless view over the calm water. It was rather surprising to us that there are two major nuclear reprocessing plants in this idyllic area, but somehow there is a certain logic behind it; does it bang at any time, we suspect, the French conurbations would be far away and the damage would be kept to a minimum. The contaminated cows on the pastures would probably be the least of the evils and many countries could leave their nuclear waste in the contaminated area.

After so much history as well as the modern threat, the view of Mont-Saint-Michel was again somewhat reassuring. Although we skipped visiting the monastery island in the Wadden Sea (we had been there in earlier times), we were able to admire the island with its imposing buildings from almost all directions. The whole complex should also withstand a 14 meter high storm tide and we were amazed what was once placed here on this small island a long time ago. Madness!

Before we went out to the last corner of Brittany, we roamed San Malo and its vast suburbs, where whole villa districts are at their best. The associated beaches were still quite well frequented.

The further we followed the coast, the more deserted the beaches were. Signs near the beach pointed out a plague of algae and before you could read all the instructions, the horrible smell of decay crept up your nose. Only the most important beaches were cleared of algae every day, while the rest of the bays and bathing areas simply had large posters to draw attention to the situation and forbid bathing until further notice. According to various environmental associations, most of this algae growth is said to come from the huge pig farms, which are very conducive to algae growth with their huge amounts of liquid manure. Farmers do not see themselves as responsible, politicians dare not say anything and consumers want the cheapest possible meat on their plates; a vicious circle!

At the far end of Brittany, in the farthest corner of the island, where a small village is said to have opposed Roman imperialism – we did not find Asterix, Obelix or Idefix – we looked out into the surf of the Atlantic Ocean. The sky was covered with clouds and the stormy sea meant that a change in weather could not be ruled out. The next days remained dry, but the cold wind from the northwest was anything but a comfortable companion. At the evening camps we had to put up our hoods again, and the warm blankets were taken very early in the morning.

In a zigzag course we followed the west coast southwards, always looking for lonely country roads that led away from the coast and roamed such wide landscapes where the farmers cultivated their flat fields with huge machines. It was also a journey through intensively used cultivated land, followed by vast areas left to nature. We had almost the same impression when we roamed the coastal villages: sometimes wonderful settlements where the heart can gladly find its peace, followed by huge holiday resorts, which awakened an urban feeling of mass tourism in us.

As a technical freak, I absolutely had to visit the floating ferry, which is located a little south of Rochefort. Translating this type of ferry from one river bank to another has not been done in many places, and that of Rochefort is said to be one of the last still operational in the summer months, carrying tourists across “La Charente”. Whether this floating ferry was a masterstroke of engineering at that time is beyond question; I was, in any case, very enthusiastic about this construction; technology to see and feel.

Up to Royan we experienced again a lot of nature and wide forests. Although the trees were all planted and if there was enough timber volume for the timber industry, it was possible to build many beautiful resorts in these forests and give the guest the feeling of endless beauty.

In Royan we took the ferry to Le-Verdon-sur-Mer and with the stormy crossing the announced rain started. We followed the most westerly route, which we were allowed to take southwards and were often surprised how many prohibition signs were everywhere. At many possible places to stay overnight there were prohibitions that could be seen from far away. Some of them are official, others are homemade and, we suspect, are hung up by the hunters. And while we are on the hunt: In the pine forests the stage was “red”: the dogs were barking through the undergrowth and everywhere you could see them – the hunters! For wild camping globetrotters maybe not exactly the right time to get lost somewhere in a lonely clearing.

West of Bordeaux we definitely changed our itinerary. Instead of driving towards the Massif Central, we went further south along the coast. Apart from the bad weather prospects we simply had the feeling to enter Spain as soon as possible. The daily number of cases was again very high and, “Corona conditioned”, borders are quickly impassable for tourists. In the meantime we also knew that a continuation of the journey to Morocco, our desired winter quarters, would no longer be possible. So we have to set up our winter quarters somewhere in the south of Spain or Portugal, where the temperatures will be tolerable even in January in an unheated camper. An alternative to Morocco would be the Canary Islands. But for us a shipment is in the upper limit of the possible and, what should we do there. Chantal can’t do big hikes, with the jeep we would have driven around an island in about one or two days and, they are islands that you can’t just leave.

So we followed the coast, behind sand dunes and wide pine forests, our way towards Spain. The rainfall was also heavy, alternating with sunshine and lots of wind. So we were always looking for ways to get to the coast, where the elements water and wind gave impressive spectacles. The waves were so heavy that only in very few places a few steadfast surfers ventured out into the roaring water.

We were also surprised that in rainy weather conditions one often makes faster progress than in sunshine, where stops are made again and again for explorations and sightseeing. Soon we were standing in the traffic jam of Biarritz, where the heavy rainfall turned some streets into little streams and the stormy sea invited us to visit. The centre was also very impressive despite the constant rain and the majestic buildings bear witness to a great past.

We circumnavigated the border town of Irun through the mountains, so that we could hardly get lost in the big city traffic. Spontaneous health checks were also announced by the Spanish authorities, which will probably only be carried out at major crossings. Therefore we looked for a modest border crossing in the mountains, where maybe everything will be a bit more quiet.

When we left the coastal area, the landscape changed dramatically; after the wild sea and the stormy weather, we roamed through a wonderful hilly landscape. It could have been somewhere in Tyrol and even the construction of the houses reminded us of the local pre-alpine landscape. Quickly we roamed this area and climbed slightly up towards the main ridge of the Pyrenees. Somewhere up there is the border to Spain.

And then the surprise; we were suddenly in Spain! No border controls, nor any other checks or any official who could have asked us about our intentions. Simply in Spain – Olé; the journey continues!

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