Hello and welcome to the latest blog on May 29th 2021. Apologies for it being a day late, but we have been away and also had trouble, yet again, with getting a good signal in order to be able to upload the blog.
A further sign of how strange life has become, if it were needed, is that so many things that I used to take for granted now have a much larger significance. A perfect example of this is that I found myself dancing round the cabin earlier this week singing ‘we’re going camping! we’re going camping!’ as I started to pack our black and red storage boxes with plastic plates, camping kettle, matches and loo rolls. It felt like a major event, our first nights spent away from Le Shack in the eight months that we have been here. Given the nomadic nature of our lives prior to Covid, I guess it’s not surprising that it felt such a big deal.
It was a toss-up as to whether we headed for the mountains or the sea for our first trip and the sea won. We were heading north and west, in the direction of Arcachon, just south of Bordeaux, and on the way we hoped to paddle in the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic coastline, explore the Étang de Biscarrosse et de Parentis, and finish with a trek up the Dune de Pilat, which at a height of around 100 metres is Europe’s largest sand dune.
The first hour or so of our journey was spent winding through the country lanes, rural and quiet with hardly another car on the road, which gave me plenty of time to indulge myself in one of my favourite ways of passing the time on car journeys in this country. I have a bit of a thing about shutters and nobody does shutters as well as the French. I like to admire the different colours, designs and various states of dilapidation. I wish we could have them at Le Shack but we don’t have any windows where they would fit.
The landscape began to change as the roads skirted round the edges of some larger towns, becoming more modern and less pleasing to the eye. Not just the landscape but also the colours. The lush, soft greens of the fields and woodlands were replaced by dull grey concrete and the harsh glare of glass windows in out-of-town shopping centres and endless car showrooms. The roses are at their finest at this time of year, a rainbow of reds and oranges, whites, yellows and pinks climbing up walls and brightening up gardens, but in the bigger towns the colours came from billboard advertising or garish signs on buildings. Over the three days we were away, as we dipped in and out of towns en-route, it felt like an alien world and we became acutely aware of how very different our lives were from those people who lived and worked in cities and towns. We have always known that this difference was there, but after eight months of such isolation in our little cabin, the gap between their lives and ours seemed to have grown ever wider.
After a couple of hours driving we arrived at a town called Mimizan, and our first sight of the sea. Now the colour palette changed again, endless shades of blue from sky and sea, broken up into aqua-marine and white as the breakers frothed and foamed and ran up onto the beach, a vast, golden carpet of warm sand.
It was a beautiful day but the breeze was cool, nowhere near warm enough for sunbathing but even so there were more people in the water than on the beach, surfers making the most of the waves, lycra-clad with brightly coloured surf boards.
Off came the walking boots, up came the trouser legs, rolled as far as they would go and, in time-honoured tradition of any trip to the sea, it was time for a paddle. I’d expected the water to be freezing but it was just the right temperature, exhilarating without turning the toes blue!
A brief wander back through the streets of the town with its cafés, many of the menus in English as well as French, expensive clothing boutiques, and shops selling surfing gear, gave us a flavour of what this place would be like in high summer, but at this time of year it was pleasant enough. It felt good to see people in shorts and on bikes, obvious holiday-makers, proof that life was returning to normal and that we weren’t the only people breathing in that salty tang in the air with a greater degree of appreciation than in previous years.
From the sea to the lakes, and our stopping place for the night was Ste-Eulalie-en-Born on the shores of Étang de Biscarrosse.
The nearby campsite had a small bar and restaurant serving simple food, their tables and chairs spread outside on the grass with a view of the lake through the trees. All bars and restaurants in France have been shut since October of last year. They have just opened up, for outside seating only, and so this simple act of having a drink felt like another big step. The first cold beer tasted so good that we had to have another one, accompanied by a simple platter of bread, cheeses and meats, before heading back to the van and cooking our supper. After dinner and the washing-up, which always feels less onerous when done outside, we wandered around the little marina as the sun set. And so to bed.
Our destination the next morning was the Dune de Pilat. As it was mid-week and outside of holiday season, we had hoped there wouldn’t be too many people here.
‘It’s very busy,’ I said, watching the number of cars increase exponentially the close we got.
‘We could have a look at the car park and then make our mind up,’ said Michael, with a lack of enthusiasm that mirrored my own.
I nodded. A good plan but not one that was going to work this time as all traffic was funnelled into lanes with an automatic barrier and ticket dispenser at the entrance.
‘We can’t turn round,’ I said, looking at the size of the car park, completely full already, and trying to quell a sense of panic.
And so in we went. As did hundreds of other people. Signs everywhere informed us that masks were compulsory, not easy as it was a steep climb, but many people weren’t taking any notice. However, as we would have to pay for our parking whether we stayed or not, it seemed daft not to go up and see if the view was worth it.
It was worth it. A stunning view of the bay of Arcachon, with sailing clubs dotted around the edges; exclusive, expensive and a major tourist hot-spot. I was reminded of another camping trip we had taken some years ago to the west coast of Scotland. Ferry-hopping across from the mainland to the tiny island of Kerrera, we had climbed to the highest point, where we had a jaw-dropping 360 degrees view of Mull and the surrounding islands. There were two marked differences from our trip today: the first was that in Scotland, whilst a sunny day, it was freezing and the second was that we had it all to ourselves. We stayed up there for over an hour, hugging our coats close in a bid to keep the warmth in, mesmerised by the view. In contrast, we stayed up on the dune for ten minutes. We’re just no good with crowds of people, and we’ve always been that way, even without a pandemic and a mask-wearing culture to contend with.
We had intended to visit Arcachon itself, but decided it was too busy, too touristy and instead scuttled off back into the quieter countryside and a small campsite on the banks of River Adour for the night. At 5.30pm the campsite owner decided to start cutting the grass around us on a large ride-on lawn mower.
‘Is he mad?’ I glared at him but he was intent on his work. ‘Everybody is just coming in for the evening, for some quiet camping, and now he decides to cut the lawns. I can’t hear myself think!’
An hour later he was still going and I was trying to decide whether to politely go and explain to him that this wasn’t a good idea for a campsite offering a ‘peaceful visit’ or whether to just knock him off his machine and throw the keys in the river. Luckily, ten minutes later he stopped and a confrontation was avoided.
We arrived back home the following evening and began the process of emptying the van.
‘Look at this,’ Michael whispered and beckoned me over to the window. He pointed up to the top of the field, where I could see a deer browsing.
‘Very nice. But what’s so special about that?’
‘Look behind it.’
Almost invisible in the long grass stood a small fawn no more than a few days old, its coat a dull beige against the orange-brown colour of its mother, who lifted her head from grazing and stared across the field right at us. For a few breathless seconds we stood like statues as two sets of huge eyes watched us warily, but then she decided enough was enough and bounded gracefully into the nearby woods, followed delicately by her baby, already fleet of foot and learning the essential skills of caution and flight.
We said nothing, just smiled at each other. It had been great to be away. And it was great to be back.
That’s it for this week folks. Hope all is well with you, wherever you are.