La Rochelle 2009

July 24th to August 8th 2009

We drove to La Rochelle on the west coast of France for a two week family holiday, including meeting up with my parents, who flew in from Birmingham.

La Rochelle is a beautiful city on the Bay of Biscay in the Charente-Maritime Department. It’s is located in the second sunniest part of France, which makes it great for summer holidays.

Tour Saint Nicholas

Phare des Baleines

The Aquarium

Château de la Roche Courbon



The Ostrich Farm

Leaving England

The much anticipated trip to France for the Gardners began with a relatively low stress morning of cleaning and checking the car and then loading it up with enough stuff to equip Napoleon’s armies for an entire tour of Russia.

In the meantime, Kas was doing last minute shopping with Ami and finishing some emergency work, Izzy was having a last morning at nursery.

For the first time in ages, we set off at roughly the time we planned and seem to have remembered to bring everything. A quick stop at the Burlaces to drop off some keys and off we go. D’oh! No, we don’t, we’re missing one child. OK, round to Acorns to fetch Izzy, and then off on the road around 12:30. It should be plenty of time to make a 17:50 train through the Channel Tunnel ( ). The M25 on a Friday afternoon. What could possibly go wrong? Our previous experiences have shown that any trip near London on a Friday afternoon is a nightmare with nobs on.

The weather around the M25 could only be described as treacherous, with masses of rain, thunder and lightning. This, combined with the usual Friday afternoon traffic, conspired to slow us down to a snail’s pace. It’s just as well we allowed 5 hours. And as if to prove the point, we then got stuck in 5 miles of queues trying to get over the Dartford QE2 Bridge ( ). The only reason for it seemed to be that there weren’t enough toll booths open. Never mind, we didn’t want to be early anyway.

Eventually we arrived for a much needed stop at Maidstone Services ( ). Some tea for the daughters was also required. Neither of them managed to sleep much on the way, so things were getting a bit crazy in the back. However, I never cease to be amazed by the restorative powers of fish fingers and a bit of a run around. So having suitably fed and watered everyone, we dashed back to the car through the best thunderstorm yet, and completed the remaining 20 miles to the tunnel.

The Channel Tunnel ( ) has obviously invested some pennies in new technology since we last came. At the check-in gate whilst Kev was fumbling around for the booking details under the seat, Kas (driving) was merrily confirming our position and accepting the kind offer of an earlier train. They have character recognition software at the gate, and this determined that the car was indeed related to one of today’s bookings. Nuff said. Cunning use of technology, I thought. So yes please, we’ll have that earlier train. We arrived at check-in at 16:55 and got on a train at 17:20. Can’t be bad.

Izzy’s first trip through the tunnel (the first since she was born, anyway) involved both girls doing their best to scare daddy by running around the front of the car and generally causing havoc. I must say that having two kids to chase makes the 30-minute train journey seem more like 2 minutes, though. By the way, our train was a bit packed, but Eurotunnel don’t like it if you take photos,  apparently, so I can’t show you how packed. I guess it’s not a wonderful thing to encourage people to take photos inside the carriages.

Our first out-of-car experience in France was a quick wee stop at the first garage. This was packed with Brits busily buying warning triangles and everything else they’re supposed to have for driving in France. Has anyone actually got a high visibility jacket in the back? And so off on our way down to Rouen for the night.

The highlight of this stretch of the Pas de Calais, Picardie and Haute-Normandie was the repeated restarts of the DVD player as the bumpy road surfaces played havoc. We listened to the introduction to “Barney the Dinosaur does some irritating stuff and then sings about it…” far more times than anyone could ever want. This was punctuated by an increasingly stressed Ami smacking the restart button in the strange belief that the player would restart more quickly if it was smacked every couple of seconds. I believe it’s called percussive maintenance.

Apart from that, it was fairly uneventful until we reached Rouen, at which point it went a bit Pete Tong. This was something to do with Felicity the satellite navigator speaking from one side of the car whilst Ami the irritated five-year-old was shouting from the other. Ami was louder.

All of which led us to the unwanted equation : Too many signs + too many distractions = a couple of missed turns + where the hell are we?

The last time we came through Rouen we ended up pulling a U-turn on a bridge over the Seine at 3 in the morning. Maybe Rouen is a portal to a different dimension. Felicity eventually got us back on the right road for our hotel, the Etap Rouen Sud. From the centre of town we just followed the Avenue des Canadiens, south past the Stade Robert Diochen, home of FC Rouen ( ). We didn’t see many Canadians there, though.

We’ve never used an Etap ( ) before, but we would probably do so again, purely because it was clean and slightly bigger than we expected. OK, there’s no restaurant and no bar, but then with two young kids such things serve no purpose anyway. What you really need is a comfortable, dark and quiet room with sleeping space for four, which is precisely what we got. The only unfortunate moment was the nappy of mass destruction that Izzy produced just after we arrived. Obviously that nappy wasn’t the fault of the Etap chain, and we apologise for any implication that it might be. Kas did the dirty (quite literally), but there was no way that thing was sleeping in the same room as us, so Ami and Kev decided to brave the turned-up noses and gagging noises from people in the reception area as we carried it out and deposited it in a bin halfway across the car park.

A restless few hours was then spent playing musical beds in a futile attempt to get sufficient sleep for a shed load of driving the following day.

Izzy had the pumper bed. It makes a farty noise every time she rolls over, which in Izzy’s case is once every 2 seconds.

Ami the Bush Kangaroo got spooked by the dark and so spent the night kicking Kev in the double bed while Kas enjoyed the whole farty, kicky, snory cacophony from the relative peace of the top bunk.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention that Ami had a cold and Kev forgot to pack nasal spray in the overnight bag, so the whole thing probably sounded like Darth Vader with a chest infection. Actually, I think the big fella designed the decor in the room. The bedside lamp was an upright flourescent tube screwed to the side of the bed.

I wonder what’ll happen tomorrow.

French Motorways

We emerged fairly early from our cosy little cocoon to begin a long day of driving. First of all we had to struggle through a crowd of guys in Hazmat suits who seemed to be clustered around the bin in the car park. Wonder what that was all about !

Anyway, the first order of business, breakfast. We stopped at the Bosgouet motorway services south of Rouen ( ), just before you head down the new A28 towards Le Mans. It proved to be a bit busy. I guess everyone from England, Belgium and the Netherlands who’s going on holiday in France ends up near Rouen at around 9 am on Saturday morning and decides to stop for breakfast at the same place. Walking through the car park with two small and active children was a bit hair-raising.

And we then got scared even more by something which ended up being a running theme for this holiday.

Isn’t France expensive?

Buying nothing in particular seemed to cost €30. I’m sure we only bought a couple of coffees, a couple of pastries, and a couple of orange juices. There’s no way it can cost that much. You wouldn’t mind so much, but you start thinking about the cost of the food you didn’t eat.

And another thing that is distinctly different from England. The size of the coffees. When you’re used to a large coffee being something that requires a forklift to transport to your car you feel distinctly dischuffed at paying €3 or €4 for something that barely wets your mouth.

And so to the first long stretch of autoroute. Somehow, Kas was driving again. Halfway down France and Kev hasn’t had a go yet. That’ll never last.

Not much happens on French autoroutes. I think the tolls must keep the total numpties away. The A28 is a nice new shiny road running from Rouen to Le Mans ( ). It had more traffic than last time we drove it, mainly because of the time of day (not night). You get to drive at the posted limit of 130km/hr most of the time and there’s really not much grief. The money is worth it. Every penny of it.

This road passes by the town of Sées, which is famous for it’s fanatastic old abbey, and also because it’s twinned with Southwell, where Kev and big brother Phil went to school. We didn’t stop, but we did have a text discussion with Phil. Bizarrely, it turns out that one of his friends was also visiting La Rochelle for a fortnight. We’re sure we’re going to bump in to them at some point.

Lunch was held at the Parcé-sur-Sarthe service station south of Le Mans. We definitely stopped at this one last time too. We filled up with diesel, which seems to be the only thing in France that isn’t more expensive than the UK. It was so cheap here, in fact, that half of the pumps were empty. This service station can be recommended because it has a nice big grassy area, on which we took the opportunity to wear the daughters out with a bit of football and catch the daddy/catch the mummy. We followed this with what turned out to be a very stroppy lunch. Both children picked corn flakes and then wouldn’t eat them.

Then there was the usual monster queue for the ladies toilets. Why don’t they just allocate 5 times the floor space to ladies as to blokes ?

Back on the road with Kev now driving. Lots more boring motorways with Felicity doing her best to keep us informed and to keep us on track. Then it was round Angers ( ) and towards La Roche sur Yon ( ), and then eventually south towards La Rochelle ( ). We passed a bunch of signs telling us that they’re building a new autoroute exit or two which will link the A87 with La Rochelle, but until those are done you use the old N137. Halfway down, some deep seated bad memory came to the surface as we joined the back of a four mile queue to get past a single set of crap traffic lights in the middle of Marans ( ).

20 minutes of crawling later we decided to back-track a bit and go around the outside. After all, we’ve got to dash round Carrefour and unload everything at the gîte before driving back to the airport to fetch Granny and Grandad. The villages of Villedoux and Puilboreau turned out to be lovely (they’re probably suburbs rather than villages, but who cares), and we eventually reached Carrefour about half an hour behind schedule.

We used the big Carrefour on the outskirts of La Rochelle. We remembered the location from the last time we were here. It is a whopping great hypermarket, and although the types of content are different from a British one, it is nevertheless a nightmare to try to get around quickly with two small kids on a Saturday afternoon.

Isn’t France expensive?

And back in the car again to find Le Moulin Boutillon, our home for the next two weeks. The owner’s nephew is on duty today so that the owner can have a holiday. The necessary pleasantries were done and he helped us lug Napoleon’s military stash inside. For this holiday we had the same 2-bedroom gite as last time (on the right side of the picture) and also the studio flat in the middle. This meant we had a fairly generous amount of space for six people in actual beds (2x doubles and 2x singles), plus two shower rooms, two dining areas and two kitchens. We also had wi-fi and a washing machine, plus three perfectly good settees that could be used as extra beds for those suffering insomnia or flatulence. The two apartments also had a set of double doors connecting the two, for which we had the keys, so essentially we’d got a pretty large single apartment with more than sufficient space for people to not get in each other’s way. Couple that with the patio (we sat outside to eat more often than we sat inside) and the massive grassy area, plus a pool and a now-complete games area in the barn, and we were “commes des cochons dans le merde” as they say in France.

There was no time to explain how the pool worked, though, as we’d got to get back to the airport.

La Rochelle – Ile de Re Airport can best be described a “provincial”, but in this case that isn’t a bad thing. It is small but perfectly formed. There’s one building for departures and a few portacabins on the side for arrivals. There are also a few fences where you can stare right though at the planes on the tarmac. Granny and Grandad were running half an hour late (flying half an hour late, I suppose), so there was plenty of time to mooch about and look around the place. We settled on the bit of fence by the arrivals “hall” and waited. There’s a nice view of the planes coming in, including a nice Ryanair ( ) from Dublin and then a little chug-chug turboprop Flybe ( ) from Birmingham, which had Granny and Grandad onboard. We did our best to shout as they walked down the steps off the plane but nothing registered, I think it was just too far for them to hear us. However, it doesn’t take long to get through an airport this small, so we met up soon and returned to Le Moulin Boutillon for some much-needed sleep. We attempted (and failed) to work the swimming pool. Next we attempted successfully to have pizzas and wine. That sorted the kids out for a while, but by this time we mainly just needed some sleep.

Well, we all got here safely. It’s probably a good idea to do as little as possible tomorrow….

Settling In

Once again it proved to be a night of musical beds. Izzy kept falling out of hers, so she ended up sharing with Grandad. We’re not sure if Granny was there as well, but I assume she was. Ami had a moan a couple of times as well, and no one really got to sleep before about 1am.

The morning proved to be bright and sunny, and everyone got up around 8-8:30. The adults had some breakfast but neither child was interested, again.

And then for our first outing to the swimming pool. Oooh! Cold, cold, cold, but then surprisingly not so bad once you get used to it. At least the sun was doing its best to warm everything up for us.

After a good 45 mins or so it was time to wash away the chlorine and other accumulated grime. This takes a long time with four adults and two kids, but we eventually got there and all were cleaned and brushed ready for a bit more playing. It was around this time that it started to become obvious how tired Ami was. She was really grumpy and didn’t want to do anything at all, really.

Lunch was a drawn-out affair, mainly because everyone was exhausted and was trying to get more sleep. To be honest, we spent the whole afternoon up to about 4 pm with one or other of us sleeping. Ami gave in to the urge last of all.

We decided to go down to La Rochelle ( ) for dinner, if only because the supermarkets don’t open Sundays. So we took and interesting tour round the old town trying to find the way to the Vieux Port. It involved a trip through the bus station and a couple of wrong turns, but we got there eventually. Ami was still well grumpy, and still tired, but anyway we limped our way at low speed around the inner docks and then caught the little solar powered shuttle ferry across to the north side. Turns out the boat isn’t actually solar powered. It has panels on the roof, but it also gets plugged in for a top-up every time it docks on the north side. Anyway, the brief journey is enhanced by the trip through the two towers at the harbour entrance, the Tour St Nicholas (see photo) and the Tour de la Chaine.

We went for dinner at one of the many little cafes on the Cours des Dames. We can’t remember the name but the food was good. And at last we discovered the source of Ami’s grumpiness – hunger. Not surprising really as she hadn’t eaten much of anything all day or last night. Several chicken nuggets, a plate of chips and a rocket-shaped lolly later and we seem to have our charming little five-year old back again. Thank God for that.

We came back home by an experimental route, induced by road works on the N11 and a slight wrong turn in Angliers, but never mind, and for once both girls got into bed without whinging or moaning once.

It’s quiet here. You can watch the sun go down behind the trees and listen to the insects, you can hear the church in Vérines, but that’s about it. No cars, no aeroplanes, and, in fact, no street lights either, just peace, quiet, and stars. Unfortunately, another thing there didn’t seem to be was an internet connection. Le Moulin‘s wifi wasn’t playing ball.

Oh, and the moon is here as well. It looks like the same one as at home, but you can’t be too sure.

This page was first written whilst sitting outside and watching first the sun, and then the moon, duck down behind the trees. The glass of wine on the table was starting to look very concerned about my continued attentions. This was to become a bit of a running theme for the evenings. It’s a really good way to finish off a day on holiday – sitting outside with a nice beverage and reflecting on the day’s activities.

The moon looks like it’s had a long couple of days too, so I can’t blame it for wanting an early night. Let’s hope a good night’s sleep sorts everybody out.

The Two Towers

Open the photo gallery >>

Now, the last time we came here it was hot. Not just “a bit warm” or “nice”, but downright hot, all week. So it was a bit of a surprise to wake up to a cloudy sky. Where did that come from? And more to the point, when’s it going to go away?

Grandad woke up first, as usual, and did a fine job of keeping both girls entertained until a sensible time. Izzy had breakfast but Ami decided on a bit of a grump, again. It didn’t last too long though – one jam covered face later and we were back to relative normality. We spent much of the morning mooching about whilst deciding what to do. We eventually plumped for making a picnic out of all the food we had left, and going back to La Rochelle ( ) to visit the towers in the harbour.

We chose to try to park at the Aquarium, but also vowed to try to find some better street maps so that we avoided any repetition of last night’s parking shenanigans.

Overnight we had discovered a useful little map of the town centre, which got us close enough to follow a fairly circuitous route around the southern side of town to the Aquarium. There’s a handy car park beside it which is convenient for the Vieux Port.

Today it proved to be so handy that there weren’t actually any spaces left. We had to wait until someone else left before we could get in, but at least we were fast enough off the line to beat the French bloke at the barrier next to us. In ‘yer face, French bloke….. This allowed the Gardners world famous good parking karma to kick back in as we managed to stalk a punter who was parked only yards from the entrance, and we nicked his now vacant space.

The daughters were, of course, magnetically drawn towards the dancing fountains, but we escaped with relatively little soaking. So we progressed on through the Aquarium entrance hall and over to the Gabut area. We made a brief stop at the Tourist Information Office, where Kev picked up a summer magazine containing some slightly more detailed maps of the town centre and an English translation of one of the general Poitou-Charentes tourist brochures we found in the gîte. We then found a corner shop selling essential lunch items like coke, fruit and crisps. It was midday by then, so we plumped for a proper British picnic, involving all of us clustering round a bench seat that wasn’t quite big enough whilst trying to get the kids to eat something other than crisps and sweets. Failed. The weather was also a bit dodgy. It was windy and quite cold. Not at all what we wanted, so lunch was a hasty affair. Time to warm up by climbing a tower.

The Tour St Nicholas is the bigger one of the two right by the mouth of the old harbour. It is also the best tower for walking up and around. There is more to see. It has some pretty dodgy blockwork on it. Halfway up the masons noticed that the courses of stone weren’t running horizontally, so they quickly straightened it up and added a castle-sized dado rail in the vain hope that no one would notice. In a certain light you don’t, but in others, it is pretty obvious. Anyway, you can climb this tower all the way to the top, and when you get there, you discover there’s a second roof higher up than the first. Izzy walked all the way up with some help from Grandad, which is no mean feat for her, given that some of the steps were up to her chest. Bendy little blighters, these kids.

At the top we had a flurry of rain, which dampened the girls’ enthusiasm a bit. However, if you’re going to go there, go all the way. The views in all directions are great and the holes in the ramparts allow you to barf straight down the side without getting your shoes wet. How do you manage to get lumps of rock to do overhangs like that? I thought rocks had no tensile strength at all…..

Suitably castled-out for the day, we plodded around the Vieux Port and found ourselves on the Cours des Dames again, where we had dinner last night. We stuck just to ice creams this time. Kev didn’t get one, knowing full well that there was a 90% chance Izzy wouldn’t want hers. Her initial enthusiasm at the sight of it turned into total rejection by the time it was within eating range. Never mind, Izzy went off for a grump with Grandad while the rest of us finished up the ice creams.

The little solar-powered boat chugging across the inner harbour has now been renamed “Izzy’s Boat”, by Izzy herself. Amazing powers of recognition, but I’m not sure the “baggsy” method would stand up in a court of law. Never mind, we don’t have a big enough body of water at home to need a boat. As mentioned before, it isn’t quite as solar-powered as it looks. The Cours des Dames end is where they have to charge it up for 10 minutes. They should have put Duracell in it.

I’ve decided that having two children is about five times the work of one. It’s like herding cats. Just when you think one is going where you want, you discover the other one isn’t. And they alternate between shooting off in random directions and walking very slowly right in front of you. It’s a wonder any of them ever make it to adulthood, and it’s a good job there are four adults. This is the minimum number required to successfully marshal two children through busy streets.

This led us to a slight disappointment, which was that the squirty fountains outside the Aquarium had been switched off, probably to avoid soaking the queue of people trying to get in, which was by now resembling an attempt on the world conga record. If you’re going there folks, go early. The queue was sufficiently long that we decided to leave it for another day.

Kas drove us quickly and without incident over to Carrefour for time to stock up on comestibles. When we arrived both kids were having a well-earned nap, so Kas stayed in the car while Kev tried to marshal Granny and Grandad round Carrefour. It is quite a big one, and everything is in French. Grandad isn’t the most patient of shoppers at the best of times, so it was a bit painful because it was busy.

Isn’t France expensive?

Then back to the car to find the girls on the way to the toilets, and having slept for only a short time, apparently. Can’t trust ’em to do anything. At least while we were inside the sun decided to make an appearance.

Then home and time for the highlight of the day – playing chicken with the swimming pool. Howcome it’s possible that the water feels absolutely freezing at first, but then you get used to it and you realise that actually, it’s the windy air that’s cold, and the water is quite nice and cosy, so long as you don’t break the surface with your shoulders. Izzy bloused first, closely followed by Kas. She claims to have gone simply to look after Izzy, but I’m not so sure. Grandad went next, which just left Ami and Kev as the hardcore swimmers. To be fair, Ami puts in more effort than Kev. Eventually Ami bloused as well, and Kev obviously had to give up to make sure Ami got home OK. We had a couple of minutes basking on the steamer chairs first though – just long enough to realise the wind didn’t get warmer just because you were dry. Ouchy! Come on Ami, let’s go and get clean, warm, dry and fed (in that order).

All of which leads us to the end of another day, except to say that the nice chap reset the wi-fi and so now these diaries can be typed live into the website.

The daughters seemed to have recovered from the tiring journey, so we were hoping for a bit less grumping from now onwards. Dream on!

Île de Ré

Open the photo gallery >>

This page is written from Ami’s perspective, as a small way of apologising for some poor parenting on my part. It was a day of general grumpiness for both of us, mainly caused by tiredness.

This morning I fell out of bed. Grandad came to help me before Mummy got there. Grandads are very useful.

We had croissants and pains au chocolate for breakfast. Izzy had Cheerios and toast with jam, again.

Then Mummy and Granny made some sandwiches for lunch while Daddy put suncream all over Izzy. I put suncream on myself.

Mummy took some photos of me and Izzy outside wearing our masks – look. Izzy was still wearing her jim-jams as well.

Daddy said we were all going for a ride in the car to see a big lighthouse and a big bridge, but we also had our swimming things because there might be a beach as well.

We drove all the way over a big bridge to the Île de Ré ( ). Daddy complained about the cost of using the bridge, he said it must be a lot more than they need to keep the bridge open.

It’s a long way to the other end of the island. When we arrived there wasn’t anywhere to park, so we left the car in a field. We walked a long way to get to a great big lighthouse, called the Phare des Baleines.

I climbed all the way to the top on my own without a rest. It was a long way up – look at how many stairs I climbed. Mummy took the photo from the bottom. You can’t see me at the top.

Daddy followed me up and Izzy climbed up with Grandad. When I got to the top, I was tired and told Daddy I wanted to go down again. This made Daddy grumpy. So I took some photos with Mummy’s camera.

Daddy carried Izzy down and Mummy helped me.

We all met Granny at the bottom and played on the grass. I found a big log in the trees. You have to be very strong to lift up a log like this one.

We then bought some drinks to go with our picnic, but we weren’t allowed to sit at the lighthouse, so we walked through the village and found a space between the trees.

Izzy didn’t eat her jam sandwiches. She only had crisps and sweets.

I tried really hard and ate a whole cheese sandwich with my crisps.

Then we climbed through the bushes and found the sea. Daddy took a photo of Grandad and Izzy.

When we came back, Mummy threw away my juice and I got upset. This made Daddy very grumpy again. I don’t know why. I just wanted my juice.

We went back to the car and drove a bit more. Izzy fell asleep really quickly. She’s only little, so she sleeps a lot during the day. She can’t help it.

After a while we found a car park next to a big beach. This was much better than the lighthouse.

Izzy was asleep, so me, Daddy and Mummy put on our swimming things and went for a plodge in the sea. It was much warmer than the sea at Nonny’s house. It was sunnier than Nonny’s as well.

We filled Daddy’s hat with seashells we found on the beach. While Izzy was asleep, the sea went much further away than when we arrived. It was 46 of Daddy’s steps further out.

When Izzy woke up she put her swimming costume on but she didn’t want to go in the water. She just stuck to Mummy.

Later we left the beach and we found a big yellow banana boat near the car. Look, I sat on it.

Then we drove a bit closer to home, where we stopped for ice cream. We didn’t find the one I wanted so I said I would have a red one instead. When Daddy said we’d go to another shop I cried again and Daddy got really grumpy this time. He carried me out of the shop and along the street. I don’t know why, because we didn’t find another shop and I ended up having a red one from the first shop. Silly Daddy. We also got some bread so we can have pain au chocolat for breakfast again tomorrow.

Daddy took some photos of the bridge and then we drove home.

At home we went straight to the swimming pool. I made Mummy and Daddy very proud because I jumped in from the side. I must remember to shut my mouth next time. Then I took my floats off and I swam on my own for the first time ever.

We had tea sitting outside. I had some brioche with butter and jam. Brioche is like half bread and half cake. It’s yummy. Then I had some chocolate cornflake cakes. They’re also very yummy. Izzy got covered in beans and chocolate and she farted a lot. Smelly Izzy.

After tea I washed the sand off all the shells we collected in Daddy’s hat. Look, one of them tried to bite off my finger. Naughty shell!

After all this, we were so tired that we went to bed. Izzy went first and then I went afterwards.

I don’t know when the others went to bed, because I was asleep. Grandad says I fell out of bed again. I don’t remember it because I was asleep.

Then in the middle of the night there was a giraffe in my room and Mummy had to scare it away. How did that get here?

Chilling Out

And when we say “chilling”, we mean freezing. Not because the weather was cold, but because we spent all day in and out of the swimming pool with our new found water-baby Ami. As a special treat after swimming unaided for the first time yesterday, we promised Ami she could go in and out of the pool as many times as she liked. This proved to be five times. Two in the morning, two in the afternoon and one in the evening. It would have been more, but we had to allow time for eating and the occasional mini-strop.

The morning also provided entertainment in the form of a spot of DIY. Not first choice for a holiday, but then we discovered that Kev’s (failed) efforts the previous night to get one of the washing machines working had resulted in no washing machine and now no dishwasher either. Something to do with the fact that the dishwasher water supply was fed from a tap in the bathroom of the other apartment, and the washing machine in that other apartment had neither a water feed nor a power feed, which nicely compensated for the fact that the drain hose was just lying on the floor instead of being stuffed down the waste pipe. Good job there’s another washing machine in the other bathroom. The reason why the dishwasher wasn’t working, by the way, was that in the process of trying to move the washing machine so that the drain hose wasn’t pressing on the feed hose it got knocked and the feed hose started leaking at the tap, so the tap got turned off. Eventually fixed it, but it’s rather a strange thing to be doing whilst on holiday.

In all this time, Izzy didn’t go in the pool at all, except first thing when she dipped in her toes and then decided she “no like it, water” Grandad also bloused halfway through the morning’s first session leaving Kev to freeze alone. Somehow, Ami didn’t seem to notice the cold, maybe because she was thrashing away like a mad thing, whereas we were getting cold because the first time your child has their floats off you suddenly need to stay very close, and you don’t actually do much swimming yourself.

Izzy dropped off for a good old snooze just around lunchtime, at which point Kev cunningly volunteered to watch her in bed, thereby forcing Kas to get up and spend time in the pool with Ami. Sneaky, I know, but how else was I to escape?

Anyway, Kev took more baby sleep than Izzy by a long chalk and surfaced right around time for feeding the girls.

In the evening, the family split up and experienced several different domestic disasters.

Granny and Grandad stayed at home with the girls and they managed to cause Ami’s bed frame to collapse simply by sitting on it. I think it was going to go anyway – all the fastenings were loose and the screws holding the slats on weren’t anything like long enough. The ones that came loose were rusty and bent as well. Probably never been right, but anyway, net result was that Ami had a switch of bed frames while Izzy merrily snoozed away on her mattress on the floor.

Meanwhile, Kas and Kev took the welcome opportunity for a night out. The food was fine, but every other aspect was dodgy. Firstly, the N11 leading into La Rochelle was being resurfaced, so we got diverted down a previously unseen part of La Rochelle. This threw off our cunning plans and put us, as with the previous trip, in a place we didn’t want to be, namely approaching the town centre from the north. We eventually meandered our way into a car park near the Tour de la Chaine. Next, after we found a restaurant, the first act of the waitress was to drop a bottle of Pepsi off her tray, which flew into Kev’s lap and then bounced onto the floor. Kev therefore spent the rest of the night with an embarrassing damp patch near his crotch. At least he came off better than the guy sitting opposite, who ended up with a big bleeding scratch down his shin where a bit of bouncing glass embedded itself. This was at one of the many cafes alongside the Vieux Port, by the way.

We then discovered that the little camera doesn’t take landscape photos in the dark. The images look OK on the screen, but you then get an image that looks rather different, more like something from The Sky at Night. Oh well, remember next time that nighttime photography requires the proper cameras. However, the flash is sufficient to do portraits, so the photo of the guy with the silver face is one of ours.

Some small entertainment was provided at the Cafe Leffe when Kev asked for the beer menu and was told by the waiter that he was the beer menu, and who then proceeded to give a much-practiced recital of beers of various colours. Thankfully, one of them was Leffe Brune – I’ll have one of those please, ‘Guv.

And then, to the trip home. It was probably the most entertaining trip you could imagine, given that the objective was to drive no more than 10 miles straight out of town down the major road. Firstly our sub-optimal starting point meant that following the “Toutes Directions” signs took us totally the wrong way and all the way back to the Ile de Re bridge. Next, we got to the N11 junction to discover it was shut ( see comments about resurfacing earlier ). The diversion ( I do think the French “deviation” sounds better ) took us one junction down, then round the roundabout and back to the N11 junction from the south side. We were allowed to follow the slip road but not join the main carriageway, so we ended up being diverted straight off again and into the Beaulieu Retail Park, at which point, all diversion signs vanished from view and we were left to fend for ourselves. Not being locals, we had no idea. So Kas opted to follow someone else for a bit, trusting that they a) had seen a sign we hadn’t and b) were following the diversion instead of going home to some other place. Doh! Wrong.

So we got a lovely tour of Puilboreau and St Xandre (see Day 1 article) before eventually spotting a sign for Dompierre sur Mer. This took us south again over the N11 and allowed us at least to join about 5 miles further down and vaguely on the right route. It also had the advantage that we passed the Marche U, thereby locating a recommended shopping location.

Eventually, when we got home, we discovered all were asleep except for a creature in our bedroom which looked like a wasp but was actually the size of a horse. It took several splats and much messing around with light switches before eventually managing to dispose of the thing. I think we recycled it, trapped inside its bog roll coffin. And so eventually to bed after a day which teaches you that you should never have a quiet day in whilst on holiday, because this just exposes all the bad things about your accommodation.

The Aquarium

Open the photo gallery >>

Today began fairly early with the by now normal destruction of several pains au chocolat, croissants and Cheerios. A good hearty breakfast was definitely in order because today the plan was to go and see the famous La Rochelle Aquarium.

This is a good location on any day but suits both young and old on days when the weather falls into one of two categories : too hot or too cold. Today was actually neither. It was sunny, but breezy and quite pleasant. Let’s go there anyway.

Anyway, you’re probably not reading this for the French weather forecast, so back to the plot.

We arrived nice and early at the car park and found we got into a space right by the aquarium – no walking required. We had also, by now, managed to find the direct way into the centre of La Rochelle from the N11. However, I wouldn’t want to take away anyone else’s fun, so I’m not going to tell you what that route is. Go figure it out for yourself…

Back to the car park. After a short discussion with Ami to persuade her not to go into the squirty fountains (yet) we rolled up to the aquarium entrance and discovered a total absence of queue. Not sure you can discover a total absence of something, but you know what I mean.

So Kev wandered up to a likely looking young lady on the desk and practised his best chat up lines. “Quatre adultes et deux enfants, s’il vous plait” All was proceeding nicely in French, including establishing that Ami needed a ticket but Izzy didn’t, until said young lady pulled the old “Great Escape” trick and asked me if I had the requisite small change in English. Most disconcerting until she “fessed up” to being English herself. You mean my French was so bad you thought I wouldn’t understand, huh ? Anyway, if you’re going and you can’t manage any French at all, search out a young woman with long blonde hair called Sarah – she’s the one….

The first impressive (for a five year old) thing is the entrance lift. It fools you into thinking you’ve descended into the murky depths, whereas you actually dropped about two feet – you drop just far enough to be below the glass water vessels visible through the faux windows. Ami liked it anyway…

You then begin to wander through a seemingly endless collection of rooms containing different displays of fish and general sealife. I don’t want “seemingly endless” to sound like a bad thing, in this case it is far from bad. They have attempted to present realistic little micro-environments representing different sealife regions of the world, so there’s some “bottom of the Mediterranean” tanks, and some “Mediterranean foreshore” tanks, and so on. I guess they cluster fish from the same region into one tank so they can all survive at the same temperature/light/salinity. I also thought this would be so that nothing eats each other. Giving this more thought, though, I changed this to think that they put them in local micro-environments so that they know what is going to eat what, and so that the fish in the tanks get a menu in their own language……

Ami’s favourite fish was the Napoleon Fish, now renamed the Grandfather Fish. Izzy didn’t express a preference. There was an initial “no like it, fish”, but this didn’t last long, and by the second room you’d think she’d been born with gills. The sharks put on a decent display this time around and there was a nice old swordfish lying on the roof of the glass tunnel, so bit of a result really.

This was probably the best bit of the holiday so far, but we would offer the guidance that it is quicker and easier if you go early in the morning. The magic underwater lift described above is used to regulate the flow of people entering the building, so if you arrive at a busy time you’re going to spend a long time queuing outside before you get to see any fish. And even at the controlled throughput rate of the lift you can expect to have to queue to get close to some of the more popular display tanks.

At the end of the tour we decided to grab lunch from the cafe/stall right by the door. The prices were typical but the food was actually pretty good for what it was. We had Sandwich Italien and Tartine Jambon/Fromage x3 plus a pain au chocolat (guess who had that). There would have been enough seats for us all except that Ami didn’t want to sit next to the dog, so Kev, Kas and 2x daughters sat on the floor in front of the building. Much to our surprise, we didn’t get moved on. Our savoury lunch was followed by ice cream for Ami and Izzy’s now customary Chupa Chup. Izzy has actually been living off orange juice and Chupa Chups at lunchtime for several days now. They last most of the afternoon, but I think the same is unlikely to apply to her teeth. Ami sat out in the sun to eat her ice cream while the rest of us mooched around the dockside outside the aquarium photographing each other and wondering how much it costs to park a boat there. Probably quite a lot. I wouldn’t want to have to pay to park a boat the size of the Maritime Museum……..

As it happens, when you walk around the back of the aquarium you come out alongside the squirty fountains. And this time, they were in full squirt when we got there. Kas had the brilliant idea that we should take a change of clothes for the girls to cover this eventuality. Both girls therefore took the full opportunity for a good soaking. Izzy took a little convincing, but as usual was persuaded by big sister. She’d follow Ami to the end of the Earth (if it had one), and would then jump off just for a laugh.

We’d already been round most of the Vieux Port and we’d been out for about 3 hours by this time, so we decided this was more than enough for children and grandparents alike. We therefore set off home, with a plan to stop to buy more provisions on the way. Our cunning plan was to use the Marche U in Dompierre sur Mer, however we were scuppered by the fact that they shut between 12:30 and 15:00. Not at all what you expect from a supermarket. Oh well, go home and come back later.

First order of business on our return was, of course, Ami’s insistence that it was time to go swimming. Fair enough, she’s been good all day so we can’t deny her that one. However, Kev’s first order of business was to try to connect to Sky ) to get the cricket score. Just because we’re in France, doesn’t mean we can’t follow the test match. Turned out, though, there’s nothing much doing because it’s raining in Birmingham. Swimming seems the best option all of a sudden.

Today Ami practised swimming without floats again, which of course means that the poor soul accompanying her doesn’t get to keep warm at all. Izzy joined us in the pool this time, having been lured in on the promise of constant attention. She obviously couldn’t go on her own because both armbands had mysteriously developed a puncture. Something to do with Ami using them as slippers to walk over the sharp stones last night. However, she did seem to enjoy spinning around and bobbing up and down, and the water/air combination seemed a bit warmer.

This filled a big chunk of the afternoon up to the point where we realised that a trip to the supermarket was still required. Kev and Kas packed to to go and were joined by a very tired but not stroppy Ami. In fact, she maintained a helpful and happy approach all the way through, even though it was pretty obvious she was running on vapour.

Marche U in Dompierre sur Mer is much bigger and much better than we expected. There is a decent selection of stuff, including the discount wine shelf as recommended by our neighbours for the week Luke and Ros.

One thing you can say about French wines though, if it is doesn’t specify a region/domain on the label then I wouldn’t buy it at any price. Vin de Table at €1.26 a bottle didn’t even enter into the reckoning. Especially when they have a good range of decent looking local wines in the €2.50 to €4.00 range. So suitably restocked on basics like alcohol, bread and fruits we proceeded to the checkout and discovered that they don’t do bags, and, of course, we failed to bring the bags we acquired at Carrefour two days earlier. Doh! Shopping loose on the floor of the car, then.

Oh, and by the way, isn’t France expensive?

All this effort was enough to work up an appetite, and for the first time on this holiday we managed to get both girls to sit at the table and to eat the thing we gave them. In this case, the winning combination was some very garlicky sausages from Marche U with chips from the freezer, followed by yoghurts. Both girls just sat at the table and ate their food. No moaning, no crying, no tantrums, and lots of eating. We must have done something right today.

So we got the girls to bed at a sensible hour and had our own tea (more garlicky sausages with salads and bread) sitting outside and watching sun and temperature decline at a rapid rate. We also checked the cricket again and discovered Ricky Ponting had elected to bat, much to the surprise of the Sky Sports pundits, and Australia finished the day’s two hours of test match at 126-1.

All in all a good day, then. No tantrums, no injuries, no domestic disasters, and no bad feelings, seemingly. Everyone fed and watered and to bed at a decent time. And the sun shined all day, again. Unless there was a sneaky rainstorm while we were inside the Aquarium.

Roche Courbon

Open the photo gallery >>

On Friday, we decided to get up nice and early and go down to the Château de La Roche-Courbon ( ). This is described in the brochure as the “Sleeping Beauty” castle. You can see why. I think Walt Disney designed his theme parks on this kind of design. Lots of tiled cylindrical spires and things. This one was obviously desgined by a guy who knew he was doing it for show. OK it has big walls, but it also has formal gardens, a pond instead of a moat, and practically no defensive capability. It looks nice on photos though.

The day started with a frenzy of pastries, sandwich making, covering each other in sun cream, getting dressed, and other busy, busy activities. The net result was that we got out of the house only 20 minutes later than we planned. Can’t be bad. Both girls seemed refreshed after a pretty much undisturbed night’s sleep.

And so to the N11 to explore the overnight resurfacing activities. It turned out they’d more or less finished and no junctions were closed, so we got onto the autoroute heading south without bother. Château de La Roche-Courbon is about 40 minutes south of La Rochelle, and the trip down was uneventful.

Last time we were in La Rochelle we also came to Château de La Roche-Courbon. On that day the heat was pretty fierce and our poor little 2 year-old Ami had a bit of a ‘mare. Today was a bit cooler, but by “cooler” I mean 30 Deg C instead of 35. Still hard work for two little ones, as well as for the older ones. All, however, put in a sterling effort and survived the day with no tantrums.

Ami was too young to appreciate the castle tour last time so we thought she’d appreciate a trip round with Granny and Grandad. She apparently behaved impeccably, despite the tour lasting nearly an hour and it being in French, translated (badly) off the crib sheet by Grandad. Meanwhile, Kas, Kev and Izzy toured the grounds, took photos and visited the collection of wooden games in the exhibition room. These included Japanese billiards (no cues, just roll the balls into the scoring holes), elasticated shove ha’penny and checkers/draughts. We don’t know whether the games were genuine antiques but the Japanese billiards certainly took a few years worth of damage from Izzy’s efforts. She was scoring OK with those balls that stayed in the frame but quite a few went across the floor and all of them were thrown using the Barnes Wallis method instead of the traditional rolling technique. Just as well none of the staff were watching.

After the wooden games we decided to beat a retreat to the exterior and wait for the others. At one point, Ami and Grandad shouted out of a window at us. Flaming tourists ! It was peaceful until then. While we were wandering around slightly embarrassed we noticed the world’s most twee little apple trees. Apparently they’re called “jump-overs” or something. Anyway, it was like a bonsai orchard, except the fruits were full sized. The hedges turned out to be apple trees as well, with more varieties than you get down your local specialist greengrocer’s, never mind at Tescos.

All this activity made everyone hungry so it was time to exit the castle grounds for the little cafe jobby by the gate. We were actually trying to get to the picnic area to eat our packed goodies, but once outside the gates the sign says “Privé”, so we gave up and sat on the grass by the cafe. Had we looked around a bit longer we would have noticed the other gate to the picnic area (inside the castle grounds) which lead nicely to the seating area. Never mind. The gate by the cafe was the only one on site which didn’t say “Reserved for ticket holders”, it just said “Private”. The sandwiches were good, Izzy ate nothing again and the nice lady at the cafe bought our two cafés au lait round to the picnic mat for us. All jolly civilised. She also didn’t demand payment on delivery, so we had to remember to go and pay up before we set off again.

Next up, after the mandatory toilet break (clean) was the caves, or “grottes” if you’re French. It was a longer walk than Kas & Kev remembered, although mainly flat and not so rough. The little Maclaren buggy coped well really. The caves were inhabited 50,000 years ago by a tribe of Neanderthal. I hope they had discovered fire, it was a bit dark at the back. There’s about 5 caves of various sizes and with varying types of twiddly and knobbly bits, orifices and stuff. At some point whilst trying to get Izzy to pose through a hole in the rock we discovered the tree, and discovered that Izzy liked that much more. So did Lamby.

On the way back, everyone was getting a bit hot and bothered, and the walking pace slowed off a bit. Ami got carried for part of the way as well. To their credit though, there was no grumping. Maybe it was the promise of ice creams. These were consumed with enthusiasm at the cafe, and they went down very nicely thank you – a round of Magnums, one Mövenpick double scoop in an oversized waffle cone, and the customary Chupa Chup for Izzy. Luvverly-jubbly. The only strange thing was being asked by the attendant to keep the kids quiet because her baby was asleep round the back. Strange because a couple of energetic kids talking and singing wouldn’t be enough to wake our kids. Come to think of it, a front row place at a Motörhead gig wouldn’t be enough to wake ours.

And so to the gardens – the final stage of the proceedings. The gardens look fantastic, even though they are a bit rough-hewn. The bedrock shows through in various places around the edges. There’s an ornate flowery bit, probably a parterre, and a big but somewhat moss filled lake/pond with a big flight of ornate steps at the far side. And over the other side from the parterre there’s the bonsai orchard. All very nice. The girls liked the swans on the pond. And they loved frightening the trolls over the wooden bridges. And for some reason they both took their shoes off before trying to climb the big steps. Ami always starts this game off and Izzy naturally follows. Irritating but slightly funny. What was quite entertaining was a Spanish family who thought it was fun to keep irritating the swans. Swans aren’t that friendly at the best of times and these guys decided it would be fun to pretend to feed them, but then shout and run away in faux fear. Silly Herberts. They didn’t stay long, thankfully.

After this lot, it was time for a nice drive home to allow the older and younger members of the party to get some much-needed sleep. Somehow Ami ended up in the middle row, thereby forcing Granny into the back with Grandad. The drive back was uneventful, including a brief stop at Marche U for more bread.

On returning home Ami, Kev and Grandad had a quick flirt with the swimming pool before all six sitting down outside for a very civilised evening meal of the meats, cheeses, shed loads of bread and beans/sausages/chips for the little ‘uns. The weather was still very hot and the sun still felt like it was burning. Not bad for 7pm.

And then it was time to get the girls to bed (easily) and to neck some much-deserved wine whilst writing the diary and watching the sun go down. The end of another busy and happy day.

Île d’Aix

Open the photo gallery >>

Blimey, it’s the middle Saturday. A week tonight we’ll be back in Blighty. So we’d better make the most of the remaining week.

Saturday started fairly quietly with nobody but Grandad out of bed before 8am. By the time most of us surfaced all of our neighbours of the last week had pretty much gone, so Luke, Ros & Maeve, big family in the big house and family from up North who lived round the corner, we hope you had a good holiday and a safe trip home.

Ami will miss many of you, although probably only until tonight when some new people arrive.

Meanwhile, back at the plot, we’ve got another week of fun packed adventure in prospect.

We spent ages last night trying to decide what to do and eventually decided to try the Île d’Aix. It looks interesting enough for a day’s entertainment, so that seemed good enough. So we followed the N11 and then down the road towards Rochefort ( ) as per yesterday. On the way we took the opportunity to refuel the thirsty old bus at the Carrefour at Angoulins. We spyed on the way past yesterday that they seemed to have very cheap diesel, 5 cents cheaper even that the other Carrefour in La Rochelle, only 10 miles away. As with hypermarkets in the UK in the middle of Saturday morning, the forecourt was heaving. Possibly this was because it’s an unattended pay at pump station. We had to queue behind four other cars to get to the front. The guy in front pulled off with his fuel flap still open. Eventually though, the pump delivered the goods, and it accepted an English credit card too.

So onwards to Fouras ( Rochefort Ocean ) and the Point de la Fumée. There’s a big car park there which is part full of day trippers and part full of people going to Île d’Aix for the week and leaving their cars there. At midday on a Saturday it’s mainly the latter. The ferry over costs a fairly steep €13.20 for adults and €9.10 for kids. Quite a lot for a twenty minute ride, but I guess you’re paying to support the locals as well as run the ferry.

When you arrive at Île d’Aix ( Île d’Aix ) you get trampled by weekly tourists lugging their luggage around in two wheeled hand carts and by multitudes of people throwing flyers at you for various services on the island. It’s not like there’s many places to go, so it seems a bit unnecessary to have to advertise.

We elected to go for a horse drawn carriage ride around the island because it looked to big to walk and rather unlikely we could get Granny and Grandad on bikes. This also seemed a bit steep at €7.50 a pop, but it’s a captive market, I guess. The next ride was in 90 minutes, so we had plenty of time to walk up and down a bit and buy lunch, big sandwiches and a big bag of chips for the kids. Nice, actually.

There was some argy-bargy at the carriage stop when Grandad moved a bench for us to sit on so as to avoid the smell of horse wee, and was then promptly told we couldn’t possibly do that. It had to be moved back. So we stayed put, except now we were on the floor instead of on a bench. The toilets proved to be fun as well. Squatties, with a nice line in “all over” cleaning instead of conventional flush. You walk out and press the red button, at which point the whole cubicle gets sprayed with water and disinfectant. Nice. It means that the floor is constantly wet. Kas has trained Ami that wet toilet floors are generally a bad thing, so Ami wouldn’t go anywhere near the place.

We wandered over to the nearest set of old fortifications (there are plenty on Île d’Aix ), which gave us a great view over towards the Île d’Oléron ( ) and Fort Boyard, as well as one of Aix’s beaches.

The horse carriage was slower than Slow Jack McSlow on a slow day in Slowville, to put it mildly. It would have been faster to walk, but I guess that’s not the point. There were some bursts of moderate speed down the gentle downslopes (it would be an exaggeration to call them hills), but otherwise it was deathly slow. Ami was a bit bored, and Izzy decided it was just too dull for words, and promptly fell asleep. She woke up about 2 minutes from the end. A bit like the Walls sausages advert, she only saw the best two bits – the start and the end. The tour itself was not really interesting for us because the commentary was entirely in French, so we had absolutely no idea what the guide was trying to tell us. We picked up occasional words but nothing enough to follow the story. So really it was a plod around a flat island whilst being overtaken by pedestrians. I’m sure we got burned off by a sloth at one point. It wasn’t that bad really, and I guess there’s only a certain speed you can get out of a big carriage drawn by two horses. The horses themselves were no strangers to a bit of nosebag, if you know what I mean. And the corners were a bit tight in many places.

On return to the main square, Place d’Austerlitz, we dismounted and decided a quick walk around the nearby fort would be good. It provided some interesting outlooks towards Île d’Oléron ( ) and Fort Boyard again but is actually now reserved mainly for campers and some French chain holiday resort thing. All a bit funny, and whilst there aren’t many signs telling you not to enter, you feel a bit weird walking through someone else’s tent flaps, as it were.

At which point we noticed there were 25 minutes to go before the 3:30 ferry. Just enough time for ice creams at the cafe by the ferry station. Magnums, one coffee, and a Rocket lolly for Izzy. The Rocket lolly was later to provide the necessary materials for a wet t-shirt competition for anyone who went within two yards of Izzy.

The drive home was quick and quiet. We made the usual stop at Marche U to get yet more bread, and then back home.

The weather had been a bit muggy all day and by the time we got home, it was turning. As of around 6:30 pm, it started raining. It rained a lot. It was coming down like stair rods. As I write this at 11 pm the rain has stopped, and we’re looking forward to another fine day tomorrow.

The girls went to bed early again because this plan of getting them into a routine seems to work. We’ve had another strop-free day.

We had a brief visit from our new neighbours in the big house, who were searching for a means of lighting the gas hob. Ours had an “ignite” button, so we can’t exactly lend it to them. However, we found matches in the draw in the “spare” kitchen which Kev duly took around. On arrival, we discovered that the new neighbours also found matches in their kitchen draw, so it wasn’t needed, but hello anyway and more of that on the next day’s diary…..

New Friends

Today we resolved to do nothing in particular during the day, and hope to get the girls to go to sleep nice and early so we could go out for dinner in La Rochelle in the evening. Grandad got up first and in traditional style kept Izzy and then Ami busy until everyone else could be bothered.

Any dreams of a quiet day was quickly gone with the discovery of lots of new friends who arrived last night. In the “big house” we say hello to Katy and Thomas from Cambridgeshire and their parents Matt and Suzi. With them are Beatrice, Jemima and Constance, also from Cambridgeshire, with their parents Alun and Jessica. Round the corner in the duplex we say hello to Edward and Lucy from Yorkshire with their parents Simon and Rachel. And by evening time we also were joined by William and Alex from Northampton with their parents John and Kelly (I think). Anyway, that probably makes a full compliment of 12 adults and 11 kids, the oldest of which is 11 and only three of whom are over 6. It could be a bit loud this week and there’s probably going to be loads of playground incidents.

Most of our day was spent getting in and out of the swimming pool and being joined by various friends at various points. First up in the morning all the kids from the big house and their dads joined us for a very splashy, shrieky and generally enjoyable bonding session. In between visits to the pool Ami spent most of her time in the sandpit with Katy, Thomas and Jemima getting properly acquainted.

The afternoon was also spent with various groups of kids engaged happily in various forms of play, with occasional adult supervision or participation, but nothing outstanding. And so we prepared ourselves for an evening out “on the town” by all having a jolly good shower, listening to Abba and grabbing half an hour’s shut-eye.

The drive to La Rochelle was as uneventful as you could imagine, mainly because we knew the way there now. We parked up round the back of the Arsenal. No, not that Arsenal, you numpty. And we went for a wander.

Being a Sunday evening and being after 7 pm it was as busy as a busy thing. The main street along the Vieux Port was shut off and full of street entertainers, stall holders, and all sorts of strange gubbins. Ami was out looking for something to spend her holiday pennies on and was quickly engaged by the idea of having a hair braid. This was maybe in part due to some encouragement from Kas, who apparently always used to have them when she went on holiday with her folks as a kid. So Ami got a lovely braid in shades of pink, purple, red, white and light blue, which she has spent the remainder of the holiday showing off, playing with and getting irritated by in equal proportions.

For dinner, we picked the Bistro Le Canot, one of many cafes and restaurants alongside the Vieux Port. We picked it partly because of the wide ranging menu including pizzas and pastas, a “formule enfant” and French style set menus as well as French a la carte. We had a debate over whether to wait for an outside table but the better choice seemed to be to sit inside so that we had enough space for the little darlings to stretch their legs in between courses. This proved to be a good thing as late night = twitchy children. The review (follow the link above) basically says it’s not a bad restaurant but for the same money you can eat better elsewhere. Yeah, you can, but if you went elsewhere then you wouldn’t be here, and here is where La Rochelle is at, especially for tourists. Everywhere else is going to be suburban or a backstreet. Of course you pay a premium to sit outside here because it’s right on the Vieux Port.

The food was decent enough although the service was a bit slow towards the end. They were a bit full. The girls got suitably topped up with nuggets, frites and (in Ami’s case) Granny’s chocolate mousse.

On the way back to the car Ami spent further pennies on a necklace from one of the many little stalls along the Cour des Dames and as usual. She’s starting to act like a much older girl than she really is.

The drive home somehow always seems much faster than the drive out. We got two kids in bed quickly, and then two parents in bed quickly, cha-ching, job done. Can’t be bad.


After last night’s excesses we decided on a relatively relaxed day, intending to take the girls for a plodge in the sea in the afternoon.

On our previous trip to La Rochelle we didn’t make any proper trips to beaches, but now there’s two kids now instead of one and beaches provide good entertainment.

We had a fairly relaxed morning with a few bits and bobs going on but nothing much. Grandad did a fine job of looking after the daughters again until everyone else surfaced.

We went swimming in the morning too, or at least Ami and Kev did. All was quiet around the gite. Everyone else must have gone out already.

It was also time for another visit to Marche U to stock up on essentials, so Kev, Izzy, Granny and Grandad headed off in the car while Kas and Ami stayed at home to pack the swimming bags and make the picnic.

Marche U was uneventful. It was full of supermarket stuff. And this time around, we remembered to buy some small plastic bags to put food into.

When we got back, we were pretty much ready to head off for the beach. Lunchtime was approaching so we all piled into the car and off we went. We decided to try the beach at Châtelaillon-Plage ( ). The guys in the “big house” last week told us it was good, so it must be worth a try.

Châtelaillon-Plage is about 10 km south of La Rochelle. It’s on the coast, funnily enough. When you pull off the motorway you get the feeling that something is a bit different. First of all it all looks very new. Secondly, it’s a different colour. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I realised that all the verges have grass on them instead of the normal French buff-coloured gravel-sandy mixture. The houses were all twee looking, with white or pastel painted walls and tiled rooves. Most of the rooves were red ridge tiles except for one place which had shiny bright blue tiles. The whole effect was a bit like Seahaven in the Truman Show. It should also be noted that the roads were all coated in very smooth and very clean black tarmac. The kerbs and paths were all perfectly light grey in colour with no cracks and no moss, grime or chewing gum. Compared to other villages round here it is a bit other-worldly, to say the least.

Châtelaillon-Plage also has its very own TGV ( ) station, presumably so you can get here quickly from other bits of France and be transported to the “other world” directly from your home without having to change trains anywhere unclean. The TGVs that stop here probably don’t stop at La Rochelle as well. By the time the train got going it would have to stop again, especially seeing as TGVs seem to be very, very long. Right next to the station is a pretty confusing roundabout, confusing because on the road in from the motorway the road is split into two lanes (with a central reservation). If you follow the signs for “Toutes Directions” you get directed into a one way system from which it is far too difficult to escape, given that this is quite a small time. The straight on lane actually takes you right to the middle of the main shopping street with immediate access to the good section of the beach, but more of that later. Where we ended up was a roundabout with a left turn for “Plage” and a right turn, also for “Plage”. Quick Kas, flip a coin………

Left (south) was the chosen route and this lead to a shopping street that had the same kind of establishments you would get on the first street back from the sea in a British resort – lots of cafes, boutique shops and amusement places. We assumed there would be parking right by the beach and turned in that direction. The Gardners good parking karma hit in straight away and we pulled straight into a spot on the sea front right next to a paystation and also right next to an entrance through the sea wall onto the beach. As we were pulling up, Kev caught sight of some familiar faces out of the corner of his eye. It turned out to be Simon, Rachel, Edward and Lucy from round the corner. To be honest, it would have been difficult to miss them. Evidently the French don’t take a picnic to eat on the beach, they retire from the sand into a cafe. So there was a massive beach with pretty much no one on it.

We set up our base camp at a polite distance away from anyone else and prepared for some lunch. The beach itself maintains the Seahaven image. Unlike the beach we went to on Ré, this one is covered only in lovely, evenly graded yellow sand. No stones, no rocks, no litter, no seaweed, and definitely no turds. It gives you the impression that this is where Alpine piste-bashers come on holiday. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that some kind of device like this is used on here every night. It seems likely that the beach is not natural at all. It was probably put over the top of what used to be here, or at the very least it has been raised up a bit. The giveaway is the fact that the sea wall looks like it has never been wet. The sand is piled up a long way above the high tide mark. The beach also has a few change huts for rent and some bronzed looking guys sweeping sand off the deck boards outside them.

Lunch consisted of sand sandwiches, sand flavoured crisps and a bottle of diet sand, sorry, diet coke. How does it manage to get in there so quickly ? I’m absolutely sure I didn’t drop my first sandwich into the sand, or even onto the towel, but somehow it was crunchier than it should have been.

After lunch it was time to go check out the sea. This is the one thing that is a let down on this beach. The water picks up a lot of sand off the ground so whilst the water is wonderfully warm it also takes the top layer of skin off. You wouldn’t want to trip up and fall over in there anyway. By this time Edward and Lucy had finished lunch as well, so it was swimming gear on for everyone and off down to the water’s edge. Kev took Ami and Izzy for a while so Kas could have a mini snooze and Granny & Grandad went for a walk in search of a bucket and spade. This was the one item we forgot to pack. I guess we’ll have yet another set in the garage when we get home. It proved to be a much longer walk than they were expecting. They initially headed off down the road right by the sea, which took them away from the town centre down a road containing no shops at all.

While they were away, we entertained ourselves by plodging in the sea (up to around bum height) and generally splashing around with Edward and Lucy. We passed on the rubber dingy though. Not really safe for Ami as her swimming isn’t really strong enough. We had forgotten swim nappies for Izzy as well, which meant if she fell over in the sea her nappy would suck up enough water to compensate for the melting of the polar ice caps. Swimming nappies are just nappies that aren’t very good at absorbing water. They just stop it from escaping round the sides, as it were.

Granny and Grandad’s eventual return several hours later was the prompt for us to begin the great English seaside tradition of building a sandcastle. An Englishman’s home is his castle, and an Englishman’s castle therefore has to be a good one. There’s national pride to think of, you know. Building sandcastles is a serious business and I’m sure if it was an Olympic sport then team GB would win every time. The art of a good sandcastle is obviously in the selection of location to give optimal timing. What you have to do is to pick a spot that is sufficiently high above the incoming tide that you can finish just before the tide arrives, so you complete the engineering work just before the tide starts to wash up into you moat. Too close to the sea and you don’t get to finish. Too far from the sea and the kids get bored waiting for the inevitable. If you go too far up the beach then your castle will survive the tide, which just isn’t the done thing, don’tcha know….

Edward and Lucy seemed to have a different idea. They had long since retired to the back of the beach and had seemingly decided that France was rubbish, so they were going to dig a tunnel through to Australia. It sure was a big hole they were digging. Severe likelihood that the piste basher would be lost forever.

It got close to the time when our parking was due to run out, but someone mentioned the possibility of ice cream, and that was that. Time to find more loose change for parking and walk further up the beach to the yellow and white hut. We emerged with a collection of magnums in differing colours and an ice lolly for Izzy. Most of us managed to eat our ice creams without any sand. Most, but not all. All of this consumption seemed to switch everyone into snoozy mode, so we all went for a lie down on the towels. Except for Ami, that is. Ami decided that Kas would really love to have a tan line on her back that was the shape of a five-year old. Don’t know how could stand having Ami on her back, but both of them seemed pretty happy.

It was a shame to have to leave, but around 5:30 the parking was running out again and both girls were asleep so we decided to jack it in and go home. It was an uneventful journey home. It was also a fairly uneventful evening meal, followed by an uneventful evening with no crying. It probably involved some beer.

A Lot of Not a Lot

Today, we didn’t do much. We didn’t go out much. Kev didn’t even get out of bed until 11am. Kas and Grandad and the girls had done all sorts by that time.

It was a day when we planned to do nothing other than rest and save energy for a final night out with Granny and Grandad, but nevertheless, this day reached a new peak of inactivity. It should probably be a trough of inactivity, I would guess.

To be honest, so little happened on this day that we can’t even remember what we didn’t do. It probably wasn’t anything important.

There was some lunch involved at some point, and it’s almost certain that Ami went swimming at some point. Can’t remember who with, or who else was there.

To be honest, I think we all decided it would be good to have a day of doing nothing whatsoever. Recharging the batteries, as it were, after a hard nine days of doing not very much.

The highlight of the day was therefore undoubtedly going down to La Rochelle in the evening for a final night get together for Granny and Grandad. On the way from the car to the restaurant there was a street entertainer dressed as a WW1 soldier, only spray painted silver. He might be the same guy that later in the evening turns into the White Man, but it’s difficult to remember the detail of a silver-painted face. How many guys can there be in this town who paint their faces silver every night, anyway ?

We went back to the restaurant we used on Sunday night, the Bistro Le Canot on the Cour des Dames. This time we sat outside. There was much pasta, chicken nuggets, chips and similar items consumed between us, and both girls were little sweeties, both being well behaved if a little wriggly.

When we finished we had a very leisurely stroll back through all the market stalls and street entertainers which the girls absolutely loved.

Kas got a hair braid which matches Ami’s exactly. While she was having it done, we sat on the kerb in and watched the White Man doing his stuff. Eventually both girls softened up to the guy and were brave enough to go drop a few coins in his bucket and were duly thanked with a little handshake and a smile. In Izzy’s case, she missed the bucket and she missed the smile because she just wanted to nuzzle into Kev.

Izzy spent her holiday money on a flower-shaped balloon and lighty-uppy fibreglass thingy which looks nice when you waggle it in the dark. Ami bought herself a pink clog keyring with a small Littlest Pet Shop pig attached. Ami was jealous, obviously, because Izzy got two presents and she only got one, but that’s what kids are like. Even reminding Ami of what she spent her money on wasn’t enough.

The trip home was uneventful and the kids went to bed nicely. A good evening to end Granny and Grandad’s time with us.

The Big Barbeque

Today promised to be a bit sad, because today Granny and Grandad were going home. They were both out of bed fairly early then, to ensure they managed to get properly packed up and sorted before their trip home. Getting up fairly early is a rare thing for Granny.

The girls got up fairly early too, and so required their parents to be awake too so that they could be kept occupied and kept from being under Granny’s feet. Ami, as usual, was easy to keep occupied. It just required the slightest mention of the swimming pool, with the vaguest hint that some of the other kids would be there too. So Kev dived round there. And whadda ‘ya know, Kas found Kev’s swimming goggles in the beige nappy-change bag. Been wondering where they got to ever since we arrived. There’s my answer. The swimming was also made more fun by the presence of a big yellow hot and shiny thing in the sky, which promised to turn the day very rapidly into another scorcher.

The fun was cut short at 11am by Grandad telling us it was time to get out and get dressed to go to the airport. A couple quick showers and some more sun cream later and we were off to the lovely little La Rochelle – Île de Ré Airport ( ) again. It really doesn’t seem like 10 days since we fetched Granny and Grandad, but 10 days it is, and therefore it’s time for them to go home. We’ll miss having them around for the last couple of days.

The airport is, as we may have mentioned before, very small. Departures has all of five check-in desks and one bar. Granny and Grandad got in a queue behind one other couple and got their bags checked in before you could say “Bob est ton oncle” We havered around the bar for a bit and then retired outside for one final meal together – a hearty affair involving two jambon-fromage sandwiches, some chips, some crisps, and a pile of cold drinks. It really was quite warm outside. We clustered around half a bench in the only shaded area.

When we were halfway through our food there was an announcement about their flight. Apparently, despite the tiny airside departure lounge and despite the fact that their plane was still 30 minutes from landing, Granny and Grandad were required to walk though to their gate. Seems a bit bizarre, but in a way no bad thing because it made the decision for us over whether to wait and see them leave or whether to leave as soon as. There was no way the girls were going to survive outside in that heat for another hour so we all said our goodbyes and Granny and Grandad wandered through. It’s sad to see them leave, but then not too bad, especially for Ami, because she knows she’s got another week’s holiday at their house before going back to school.

We had packed a shed load of swimming gear again and so we headed off down to Châtelaillon-Plage ( ) again for a couple of hours. It took only 15 minutes to drive down there, so we were actually in plenty of time to park and walk on to the beach in time to see what was probably Granny and Grandad’s flight leaving over the Pont de Ré away to the north off us. Nothing but a tiny speck, but it was at the right time, and therefore probably the right one. On later discussion with Grandad, we found out that they actually took of thirty minutes late, so it wasn’t them in the plane we saw, and it further justifies our decision not to wait at the airport.

We spent a happy couple of hours on the beach building two fantastic sandcastles and watching them get trashed by the incoming tide. The first one was a very hurried job which got washed away before it really even got started. The second was an altogether grander affair, including a well engineered moat and four jolly impressive bucket turrets on the seaward side for added defence. This one probably took half an hour to build, but of course took no longer to destroy than the first effort. It did, however, draw a couple of compliments from the locals.

By this time everyone was looking and feeling a bit the worse for wear with the heat, so we jacked it in and went for an ice cream. It proved to be a long journey. We parked a bit further down the beach than the last trip, so the walk to the yellow and white hut was out of the question. So we drove out along the main street and were disappointed to discover no ice cream parlours. Is this a seaside resort or not ? So we progressed on our merry way and decided to follow the scenic route home by driving through the little villages instead of trolling round the motorway. This proved fun. We had promised Ami an ice cream and vowed to stop at the first place we saw. We also needed more bread and milk for the following day, so a supermarket of some variety was needed. Intermarche in La Jarrie satisfied the supermarket requirements but didn’t have the right kinds of ice cream. The village of Sainte-Soulle was very nice but didn’t seem to have a single shop that sold ice cream. The Coop didn’t have them, the tabac was just a tabac and the bar was just a bar (connected to the tabac). No inviting ice cream based signage at any point along the route. Bottom, bum, and other mild expletives. Just as well we’d got a little bit left in the freezer at home.

A bit of swimming with Edward and Lucy and family and then back indoors for cleaning up, team snooze and getting ready for the barbeque. Kas got all clean first with Izzy and then Kev discovered the soporific qualities of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine album. Neither girls really wanted a sleep, but the music was enough to do the trick, despite various “getting ready” noises from Kas in the bathroom. It worked so well that Kas had to wake Kev up at 6:40 with now only 20 minutes before the barbeque. Ami stayed on the bed fast asleep until 6:55 but somehow still managed to shower and get out just after 7. The get up and go soundtrack was provided once again by Abba. Seems to be good at getting Ami up and about. She got showered and dressed before the end of the “Take a Chance on Me”. Not bad at all.

The barbeque was one of our normal “bring your own drinks and dead animals” affair with everyone having an invite. Everyone attended.

Paul and Edwige, our hosts, supplied us with a bucket load of sangria and a pile of nuts, crisps, chorizo, tomatoes, corn on the cob (home grown), and other bits. The kids did a fine job of raiding the nearby field for some unripe cobs of corn. They were duly chucked on the barby, but I’m not sure anyone ate any of them. So we all spent a fairly pleasant evening of getting quietly drunk whilst allowing the kids to do whatever they felt like. Most of this was good stuff. Most visited each other’s apartments. Ami decided she wants loads of dolls like Lucy’s. Edward seemed to adopt Izzy like a big brother. All the adults learned a bit more about each other and pretty much anything having an alcohol content was dispatched with enthusiasm and speed, mainly by Kev, it has to be said.

There was some argy bargy towards the end. No, not the leading lights of the UK Oi! / Street Punk movement, fronted by the legendary Watford Jon and with Cock Sparrer’s Daryl Smith on guitar. Not that kind of argy bargy. The kind of argy bargy involving one of the kids breaking into the service area in the barn, which resulted in Paul having an unpleaseant kind of conversation with the relevant parents. And then there was a bit of back-chat around the subject between various parties, but it’s probably not fair to mention who was the guilty party, so I won’t. I didn’t really see the incident or understand what had happened, I just overheard a few snippets of less than friendly discussion.

So a bit of a sad end to an otherwise excellent night, in which most of the children surprised their parents by staying up late without any major tantrums (or should that be tantra).

St Martin de Ré

Open the photo gallery >>

Today involved no plans whatsoever. And when we did eventually make a plan, we changed it straight away. So what? We’re on holiday.

We had a bit of a rough night with the Izzy-monster again. The heat of the last couple of days was making her skin very itchy and there’s not much we could do for the poor little mite. However, after last night’s festivities both girls thankfully held out until a reasonable time, Izzy around 7:30 and Ami a bit longer. All very welcome, given that Grandad had gone home.

Kas had as much of a lie in as she could manage while Kev failed to feed either daughter properly and also failed to engage them in mindless TV watching. Just couldn’t get that satellite box to send a signal to the TV.

When Kas did get up, and did feed the kids, and once the kids had done the normal amount of playing outside while everyone else was still in their jim-jams, we decided to go look for the Eco-Museum of the Salt Marshes on . However, at the very moment we decided this, someone outside muttered something about going in the swimming pool, and it rapidly turned into a flood of children getting costumes on and heading off round through the barn, so we ended up spending a busy hour or so with Kev, Ami, Edward, Lucy, Simon, Rachel, Katy, Thomas, Matt, Jemima, Beatrice, Andy, Constance, Suzi and Jessica all dipping in and out of the pool and playing various splashy games, like you do. It isn’t that big a pool really, and all the little ones cluster around the shallow end, so it ends up being a bit like the “people game” on the Wii, with loads of people moving in the water in random directions and banging into each other. Excellent stuff. The weather anyway was nice and sunny, but with a prediction of thunderstorms in the afternoon. We’d better make good use of the sunshine while it’s here.

After much wetness Kas and Izzy eventually arrived, having had a girlie hour in the gite. This coincided with the realisation for most that it was a) lunchtime and b) time to get a shift on if we’re going to do anything but stop at home. Ami was out last and only then on the promise that we’d play with Lucy again later when we get back, if she’s here. Ami has taken a bit of a liking to Lucy. Izzy seems to like Edward too, which is a bit bizarre given the age and gender difference. Ho-tee-hum. More free child care now Granny and Grandad have gone home.

So we set off somewhat later than planned for a brief trip to the lovely little town of St Martin de Ré, capital of the island of , and hence involving a trip over the bridge again. Subsequent research uncovered that the bridge owners do, in fact, add a supplement of €7.50 a trip during the French summer holidays in July and August.

St Martin de Ré was built as a fortified port and in the middle there’s quite a bizarre arrangement of a near circular (except for one walkway) harbour with a little island in the middle. The tide flows up and around the boats parked at their no doubt very expensive moorings.

The centre of town is all pedestrianised apart from service vehicles and residents, but sadly there seem to be quite a few of those. To be honest, they might as well not have bothered. Anyway, Ami was fascinated by the little red & white stripey bollards that go up and down in the road to allow authorised traffic in.

Once around the water’s edge, two things became obvious fairly quickly. Firstly, the sun was out, so no sign of the thunderstorms yet, but because we all came out with no sun cream on, the sensation of burning skin arrived pretty quickly. Second, Ami was having a grump because she was tired/hungry/bored (take your pick). We think it was most likely just tiredness, but a five year old will never admit to that. So it took some effort but we eventually got her back to a direct course and reasonable speed with the promise of a chocolate crêpe. We stopped at a creperie called the Phare – on the harbour “island” right near the walkway. Nice, except Izzy ate nothing and Ami didn’t eat much. Guess she really was more tired than hungry.

Post-crêpe we had a quick walk around the island and then up onto the sea front in the general direction of home. There’s lots of great big thick walls built as part of the fortifications. These have occasional peep holes. There’s also a little lighthouse which Izzy enjoyed walking around, much to the amusement of the French people she turfed off because they were sitting in her way. Some poor dad never did get that arty shot of his son at the foot of the lighthouse, at least not a shot of him on his own. He might have got one that included our mucky little munchkin’s back as well.

We noticed that the clock had somehow crept round to nearly 4pm, and decided to call it a day, albeit not a very long one.

Getting out of the car park proved the most challenging part of the trip. First, Kev went the wrong way and discovered there wasn’t a loop round at the top, so it was lucky there was an empty space to reverse into. Second, when we did get to the exit we discovered it was also a very narrow and high traffic entry point, so multiple streams of traffic trying to go both ways through a tiny gap. The car park, by the way, is basically a huge graveled area with no markings at all, and it’s much wider at one end than at the other, which means space for parking four or five rows deep at one end narrows in irregular fashion to only two rows at the top end. When it’s busy, it’s chaos. The chaos was made worse by a guy who reversed out of a space right next to us and then despite being positioned behind us decided he absolutely, definitely deserved a place in front of us. So he caused much reshuffling of cars with his persistent attempts to nudge past, regardless of who was coming the other way and what they were trying to do. We tried to position so that he couldn’t possibly shove past, but the pillock did so anyway. Not really surprising that his Megane Scenic had a ‘kin great dent in one of the side doors. It was probably caused by the last person he tried to pass like this. Numpty ! Never mind. No damage done.

Neither of the girls slept on the way home. We were in fact interrupted by a number of loudly voiced requests for food, drinks, music, less music, or recovery of the Ninky-Nonk from the floor. Most of the things requested could not be delivered in a moving car. We must teach them the basics of automotive transportation some time soon.

When we got home, all was fairly quiet. Everyone else seemed to be out. We had a quiet tea indoors ( because the thunderstorms were trying to arrive ). We have begun an attempt on the summit of the European “Terrine de Campagne” mountain, which had been building up quietly over the week. There were also some sausages from last night and a salad including a massive cucumber grown in the owner’s garden and given to us a couple of days ago.

Shortly afterwards Edward and Lucy arrived home from an afternoon in La Rochelle ( ) and they played with us out front for a little while before they went for their tea. This was interrupted a one point by a nappy of mass destruction and the consequent requirement to empty the rubbish bins. Another one of Izzy’s finest that wasn’t ever going to be allowed to sleep in the house.

Alex wandered over a little after Edward and Lucy left too. He and Ami played nicely in the sandpit for a while, with both acting like typical kids of their age, i.e. making up games with rules that neither understand and then getting upset about it, and attempting to occupy exactly the same small piece of sandpit despite the vast acreage of available space, or fighting over the same bucket when they had four to choose from. I will never understand this aspect of small children’s play, but that’s how it goes, apparently.

We found a moth on a wall which Alex decided needed to be sandblasted, a crime which resulted in the mandatory minimum sentence of a trip back to his bedroom. Izzy was being a pickle throughout and ended up in the naughty corner (in fact, just sitting on the grass looking away from us all) a total of three times. If she was in California she’d be on death row by now. After Alex left, William came over to display some fine gymnastics on the swing and the asymmetric bars (which hold the swing together), but by this time it was past 7:30 and therefore plainly time to get the little darlings off into snoozy land. Apparently, the asymmetric bars have been officially renamed the Uneven Bars by the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique.

This day could have been much worse given the late night yesterday, but neither child was particularly stroppy for an extended period. Maybe between them they’ve realised it isn’t going to get them anywhere. Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt……

Bags, Birds and Beers

Open the photo gallery >>

This was supposed to be a day of general slumming around the gîte and packing bags while the kids kept themselves entertained. Both got up fairly late again giving Kas & Kev the opportunity to sleep reasonably well. Good stuff.

The weather looked decidedly suspicious in the morning. It was grey and a bit windy, much like a typical summer’s day back home. Probably the first bad morning of the holiday though, so we can’t really complain, I suppose. Well actually, we’re British, so we can complain about anything, even if it’s something we like.

Anyway, we tried to munch our way through as much as possible for breakfast. There were still far too many pains au chocolat and brioches around the place. So we did as good a job as we could manage.

We also spent a few minutes round at the big house taking photos of each other. After all, it may well be the last time the kids see each other.

Following this, it was time to attempt a bit of packing and clearing up to minimise the effort required on Saturday morning. Kev and Ami packed up the many, many empty wine bottles and made a trip up to the bottle bank in Angliers. Strange recycling system here. You put all your cans, paper and plastic into a yellow bag, which the bin men fetch. However, they don’t fetch glass, so you have to make a special trip out to dump it in a collection bin somewhere nearby. Strange really, given that more things are supplied in bottles in France than they are in England. The dump in Angliers is at the back of the car park by the church. We think the church must have been having cable TV fitted at the time, because there was a big digger and a bloke with a very big compactor doing their best to shift rubble around and flatten it out over a couple of trenches. Much sport for Ami.

When we got back, Kas and Izzy had apparently got as far as you can go with the packing until the final rounds of showering and tooth brushing are completed. Toys packed, books packed, kitchen stuff packed, dirty clothes packed, clean clothes packed except for enough to last today and tomorrow. Swimming costumes and towels still accessible, obviously, in case the weather clears up a bit. And it was about 11 am. There’s no way we’re going to make the packing last all day, so we had a few minutes of cogitation with the objective of finding a short afternoon filler.

Kev suggested an ostrich farm over on the coast at Marsilly, which looked like it might be good for a couple of hours, so off we set, planning to find convenient local cafe in a village to have some lunch beforehand. What a mistake that proved to be. We drove the scenic route via Longèves, Villedoux and eventually to Marsilly but didn’t find anything in any of those. The road down to the seafront at Marsilly looked unpromising and we didn’t find the entrance to the ostrich farm either. So we had a bit of a “moment” and decided to do another circuit of the old centre just in case. We did one loop around the fortified church and back to the road we came in on, and whilst we still didn’t find a cafe, we (Kas) did spot a very small sign on the side of a house with a picture of an ostrich. Guess it’s down there, then.

So now we knew where the farm was but not the nearest source of nutrition. Neuil-sur-Mer looked like a possibility, and after a couple of kilometres of new housing estate there is actually a nice little village centre, with a small town square mainly converted to car park and dedicated to President Mitterand. I’m sure a small town square in a village in the middle of nowhere is a fitting tribute. It did have a small cafe advertising Tex-Mex food, but what looked quite promising from the outside proved a bit less so from the inside. There wasn’t much sign of a menu anywhere and the inside was definitely a bar, not a restaurant. If we didn’t have the kids we’d probably have gone for it, but with the kids it didn’t look suitable. So we took a quick walk around the corner to prove there was nothing else (there wasn’t) and we decided that by now we were so close to the middle of that we might as well go and slum it at McDonalds. There’s one by the side of the motorway quite close to the airport.

I don’t know whether it’s just that all the villages were really La Rochelle suburbs, or whether there’s no call in small villages for restaurants or cafes, or just that the French don’t go out so much, but the village experience round here is less than satisfying. Around lunchtime most are deserted – nowhere to eat, shops all shut for lunch. Where is everyone? Probably at work somewhere.

Anyway, McDonald’s was easy to find but tricky to get to due to the complex arrangement of back streets and car parks. Once at said establishment, it was time to play a game of spot the difference between UK and French attempts at the franchise.

Difference number one was that they had a gnatty pre-ordering system which more or less removes the need to actually speak to the staff. You choose whether to order in English or French, and then you’re guided through a list of menu options on a touch-sensitive screen and eventually you confirm, shove your credit card in the slot and get a little ticket with an order number on it. The language option seems unnecessary because a photo of a Big Mac looks the same in any language, and unless you’re in Greece, Russia, China or Japan, it’s also called a Big Mac in every language. I suppose a Happy Meal is probably a “Formule Joyeaux” in French, but it can’t be that hard. What was hard was that the auto-machine wouldn’t take any one of our puny English credit cards, so we had to cancel the payment transaction and walk up to the desk, fully expecting to have to do the whole thing again. When we got there, however, one of the guys was right in the middle of saying “numero trente neuf” and some other garbled stuff (I think he was probably speaking French). Trente neuf? That’s me please. So in my best broken French I went for “Je suis Anglais. Il n’accept pas mes cartes bancaire.” “OK!”, said the supervisor, “stickez-vous le carte ici et pressez-vous les buttons, Monsieur.” The one on the desk worked fine except we thought they’d missed something off the order. €21 for two adult meals and two “formule joyeux” is by far the cheapest we’ve fed all four of us in a fortnight, including light breakfasts. We were so embarrassed that we felt obliged to buy some ice creams and coffee as well. And McDonalds’ coffee also comes in cup sizes that are more reasonable than the average French size. That’s another difference, by the way. No McDonalds milkshakes. What are they thinking?

Another thing that you always have to check at McDonalds is whether the toilets meet the brand image standard for cleanliness. They did, with nobs on. It was more like a posh wine bar. The seats were different too (not the toilet seats, the restaurant seats). They were comfortable modern leather bench seats. The tables weren’t screwed to the floor either, not at all like the UK standard all-in-one undersized moulded plastic table and four-seat combo. The UK ones look like they were designed mainly to be easy to clean (with a hose). The French one also had a posh cafe style breakfast bar jobby and a lower bar at a kids height containing some playthings. There was an outdoor play area as well, which was covered from the sun and rain and had padded rubber floors that were actually clean enough that you didn’t mind the kids taking their shoes off. Ami was her usual self, bossing around five-year-old French kids in a loud English voice. I think she’s practising for a career as a travel rep. If in doubt, speak English very loudly and very slowly. Izzy was regarded as being very cute by the assembled population.

Getting out of McDonalds in the car proved easier than getting in. However, we ended up in another suburb which looked like Seahaven in The Truman Show. All very polished, new and with infeasibly green grassy verges.

When we did find the main road again it was trivial to get back to Marsilly for the ostrich farm. It was open. It took a little while to distract the assistant from clearing up lunch for long enough to take money from us. They do lunch? Bum, we could have come straight here. Anyway, she didn’t speak English and apparently neither does Isabelle, the woman doing the guided tours outside. Guess we’re going around unaccompanied, then. The signs were all in French as well. All of which meant that there wasn’t a lot of interest for the kids or for us, because they aren’t patient enough to wait while daddy attempts to translate the signs. So we wandered around a bunch of enclosures containing ostriches, rheas, emus, and various smaller avians, mainly edible ones. Some of them weren’t even birds – there were baby goats, cattle and donkeys as well. The kids were going a bit mad though (our kids, not the baby goats), so we hurried around as fast as you can with a two-year-old, and ended up back at the entrance, where there was a large walk-on dice rolling game which was a cross between snakes & ladders and Monopoly, only in French, and with animals on the squares. The kids found it much more interesting than the ostriches, anyway.

The big dice game also proved to be the start point for Ami’s song of the afternoon, the bizarrely titled “Are we tatoes ?” as in, “are we a bunch of tuberous carbohydrate-rich vegetables of South American derivation, much favoured by the Irish during the Victorian era before they got the blight and everyone went to New York to be in that film with Daniel Day Lewis.” The song only had one lyric line – the same as the title, remarkably enough. The gist of the song is that you repeat the one lyric line over and over in a variety of different keys and at different tempos, presumably in the hope that eventually the audience will ask you to stop. We didn’t. It was quite cute, in a slightly surreal way, and it was far better than a boredom induced strop. The song lasted most of the way home via the small villages of Saint-Xandre and Dompierre-sur-Mer. There was a brief respite when we discussed the renaming of the latter to “Donkey Hair sur Mer”, but otherwise it was “Are we tatoes ?” all the way home.

At home, now at around 4:30 pm, it was time to make the only two remaining decisions of the holiday, those being “who’s taking Ami swimming this afternoon ?” and “are we going out for dinner tonight ?” The answers were “Kas” and “Yes” in that order, although the swimming activity had to be completed before the latter decision was made. Izzy decided she didn’t fancy the pool, but she didn’t seem to fancy much else either. She sort of collapsed half on, half off, her bed. She seemed happy so Kev left to check the cricket score (Doh ! England were bowled out for 102). Some minutes later, Izzy wandered into the studio bedroom and lay down on the carpet under Kev’s feet, where she promptly fell asleep.

One final fling down in La Rochelle centre was planned (well, it had about 10 minutes of planning, anyway), and so we got the best posh frocks out for the kids and headed off down the N11 for one more time. As we were planning to leave early in the morning we decided to pop round to see Simon, Rachel, Edward and Lucy to say goodbye, which took a little while. Ami immediately shot over to the swing with Lucy and it took a while to separate them. It was mentioned that Edward and Izzy have the same age difference as Kev and Kas. It doesn’t seem an issue between adults, but it highlights that many years ago there was an 11-year-old Kev and a two-year-old Kas running around, albeit that they’d never met.

We went to yet another restaurant on the Cour des Dames, this time Le Winch. It was good. And by local standards, it wasn’t that expensive. Kas had a steak, cooked medium in the middle and blue at both ends like they only had a really tiny grill and it was hanging over the side at both ends. The daughters had nuggets and chips for the second time today. Kev had an assiette de crudités and paella. The paella required the use of the fingers to extract the shellfish flesh from the shells, but it was really nice. The girls got ice lollies for pudding and Kev and Kas waited slightly too long for their crêpes. “Slightly too long” means “long enough that Ami got bored with ‘Are we tatoes?’ and the two of them were starting to get rowdy.” So we paid the relatively modest bill and did a runner. It was quite late and for the first time on the holiday we couldn’t really be bothered to spend much time with the street entertainers. We had a quick look at the White Man again and set off home.

Neither of the girls fell asleep on the way home, but both went to bed fairly quickly and easily (still in their clothes) when we did get back. On the way by, Alun from next door asked us to leave them an email address so we could get some of their photos. Kev returned with some of Kas’s business cards and one of the last two remaining beers from the fridge. Kas appeared a bit later with the other beer and we sat for a while having our first actual adult to adult to discussion with them. Although, by adult to adult, it should be mentioned that this really means drunk to drunk. Alun and Matt were most of the way down a €2 special red wine from the supermarket and by the end of it, Matt couldn’t really be understood. Not that it mattered. They very kindly gave us more beers, so we were able to while away a couple of hours chatting about nothing in particular. Thanks guys, it was a nice end to the holiday, although it was the source of the opening paragraph on the “Day 16” diary entry. It was 1 am when we got to bed, with the alarm set for 7. Good preparation for a full day of driving…….

Driving Home

One thing you should always bear in mind is that you should never put off until tomorrow something that you could do today. Or in our case, don’t go out for dinner yesterday and then sit up drinking a few beers with the neighbours instead of packing your stuff in the car. Why not ? Well, Friday night was warm and dry. Fit for sitting outside while eating dinner and drinking beer with the neighbours, in fact. Saturday morning was heaving it down. Not just drizzle or rain, but full-on heaving it down. Coming down like stair rods, as they say. “Il pleut des chats et des chiens” as they say in France. Which meant, of course, that the materials sufficient to provision Napoleon’s invasion of Russia had to be loaded into the back of the trusty 807 in the pouring rain. It’s not too much of a problem while you’re standing underneath the boot lid, but it is a problem when you’ve got about 15 trips of 50 yards each way to get there.

Kev got a bit soaked, and all those suitcases with wheels had to be carried to avoid dragging them through either soaking long grass or muddy French-style buff gravel/stones soaked with a couple of hours downpour. And of course, the buggy had to come out of the car and sit in said gooey gravel/dust while the rest of it got loaded up. One good thing though, somehow the decision to not dismount the back row seat from the rails and to shove a suitcase behind it meant that everything fitted in much better than on the way down. Either that, or we’re taking home less than we took down. To the best of my knowledge, the only things not going back with us are a box of Bran Flakes, a pack of nappies and box of non-bio washing tablets. That’s not enough to make the difference between seeing out of the back window and not seeing out of it.

The kids were woken relatively easily after last night’s excesses and we shot off around 8:30 am with an apparently generous 10 hours and 20 minutes to cover the 480 miles to Calais. No problem, we thought. The only possible source of disaster was that we were unable to find the car power cable for the portable DVD, thereby raising the possibility of a whole day of driving with the adult passenger having to navigate (Felicity the sat-nav is a bit suspect) and entertain the little ‘uns at the same time. How do you plan a journey like that then? Simple really. You resolve that you’ll make the kids tired by keeping them up most of the night before, and then whenever they get a bit stroppy you’ll pull into the next services for half an hour of kicking seven shades out of the walls until they calm down. Cunning plan brilliantly executed, don’t you think?

So in the immortal words of the Blues Brothers, it’s 480 miles to Calais, we’ve got half a tank of diesel and a full pack of Pringles, it’s raining and we can’t get the DVD player working….

We went off-road through Longèves to get to the dodgy N137 up through Marans and then didn’t really find any traffic all the way up apart from at the toll stations. No problem, easy to get to Calais in this amount of time, surely. In fact, lets start planning what we’re going to do with all that spare time at the tunnel while we’re waiting for our train.

The rain stopped about 10 seconds after we got in the car, by the way.

We hadn’t had breakfast so our first stop was about 90 minutes in at the Les Herbiers station on the road from La Roche sur Yon to Angers. And here starts the running theme for the day. We stopped here on the way home three years previously. Kev remembered the yellow fuel pumps. Anyway, we topped up the diesel and as luck would have it, we didn’t try to pay with a Romanian Truckers Union discount fuel card. If we had done, they wouldn’t have accepted it (there was a temporary problem, apparently. Sufficiently temporary that there was a permanent looking sticker on each pump advising of the problem). What the hell gets transported by road from Romania to western France anyway ?

We had a relatively cheap breakfast of pastries, coffee and juice. Izzy discovered a liking for sweetened yoghurt, cherry flavour. And Kev checked the DVD player and bought a car charger. It didn’t fit. We toyed with the idea of the “laptop” model, but this was €22, so thought this was too much to pay just to keep the kids quiet.

And so to the toilets. Being a motorway service station on a Saturday it was a bit busy. It got very busy by the time we finished breakfast, and the queue for the ladies was out of the door and halfway round the car park. It was so busy that the cubicles in the gents had a healthy queue of women queuing, actually in the gents room, with apparently no sense of guilt or embarrassment. I guess needs must. So when it was time to take Ami, we ditched the holiday’s protocol of assuming 5 is the age at which she should only go in the ladies. No way we’re waiting that long thank you. So Ami and Kev were all done while Kas stood in the queue with Izzy, and then Izzy came into the gents, so Kas got some peace.

Back on the road with Kev driving again for another tranche of autoroute boredom. This time we passed Angers, Le Mans and halfway up the A28 to the Haras service station. We tried to stop at the previous one, Dentelle d’Alencon, and had a quick déjà vu moment. We definitely pulled off at this one last time as well. However, unlike last time, Dentelle d’Alencon was heaving. It’s one of those where both directions of motorway traffic cross to the same station. And this was around 1pm on a Saturday in August. “A bit busy” would be an understatement. We cruised into the car park wondering why there were people parked on the grass by the exit. We queued to get around the outside of the scrum for the fuel pumps, round the back, and then decided not to stay. So we looped right round the back and saw the guy directing people into the overflow carpark, aka the field, and then back out onto the motorway.

Haras was busy as well, and we still had to queue to get around the scrum for the fuel pumps, but at least there were a few parking spaces round the back. We joined a substantial number of British cars obviously doing the same as us. Large fries, charcuterie and custard tarte, I think. And Kev found out the French for fork by asking for a knife (in French) and then saying to the lady “No, not that, the one on the left. What’s that called in French ?” A forchette, apparently. Obvious, really.

Kas picked up the driving for the next stint and got us all the way through Rouen and up to the Aire de Baie de Somme between Le Touquet and Boulogne. Last time we came home we missed a crucial turn south of Rouen and ended up going through the middle of town. Rouen is the one flaw in the French autoroute network in that there is no route skirting around the city. There’s a few going straight into the centre, but not all the way through. So if you go to Rouen, you go through Rouen. Felicity did a fine job, though she was being closely watched throughout. Her only slip up was failing to notify us of a couple of underpasses, which meant we queued for a couple of roundabouts that weren’t strictly necessary. However, she had us on the right road all the time and we got straight through to the A28 on the other side with no grief whatsoever. That’s a first for us in Rouen.

Beyond Rouen Ami and Kev played a few rounds of I-spy, with the interesting variation of using phonetic sounds and sometimes doing words “ending in” instead of “beginning with”. Five year olds are great.

Aire de Baie de Somme seems to be simultaneously on top of a hill and in the middle of a seaside marsh. Maybe it was built with loads of water and marsh grasses to produce an effect. It’s quite an effective effect, whatever it is. There’s a little observation tower we didn’t have time to climb. We didn’t have time to climb it because we had only two hours for this stop and then a further 80 km of driving before last check-in time. Stops typically take minimum of 45 minutes for us, and so did this one. The girls had been in the car for two hours again and we wanted a stop before heading for the tunnel so that we didn’t need to stop at the tunnel. Ami immediately spotted the mini playground and so the rest of the stop was focussed around trying to get the girls away from here to do the things we needed to do, like wee and buy drinks. I guess playing was something they needed to do as well, to be fair.

Kev wanted to drive the tunnel, so we swapped drivers again. There was a near disaster shortly after when we arrived right up the tail of a little queue caused by a man in a yellow jacket clearing somebody else’s luggage off the carriageway. Don’t know where it came from. It was definitely clothing articles and what looked like bits of broken car, but no sign of the broken car or the bag from which the clothes escaped. Weird ! But not for long.

We arrived at the tunnel itself a mere 20 minutes before our train closed, 18:30. We were impressed by the number plate recognition device again and then onto a nice British passport guy that Izzy thought looked like Grandad. She had a point, although he actually looked more like Grandad’s brother Bill. He commented on the very low odds of having two kids three years apart with the same birthday. Yeah, we know.

There was a bit of a delay getting on the train (or so it seemed to us), but we did get away on time. We got the rear carriage downstairs again. On the French side, the 1.85m height checkers look lower than on the English, but the bus squeezed under again. By this stage the girls were getting a bit edgy, so we were glad to get parked up and let them have a wander around for a bit. The car in front had another man who looked like Grandad (or actually like Bill, again). The guard on the train was quite friendly towards the girls. He lent Izzy his radio, which she promptly dropped on the floor. He politely declined a chocolate finger, thereby leaving another for Ami. Kev spent most of the train journey washing muck off Izzy. First it was chocolate, second it was grime out of the air vents.

And then we were back in Blighty. Time for a bit of a stop to allow the girls a final run around. And to be doubly annoying, just as we were packing Felicity back into the bag we dug to the bottom and pulled out the power cable for the DVD. Oh well, at least we can have DVDs for the final bit through England.

We trolled up to the Maidstone Services for more toilet and food breaks. Kev and Kas couldn’t resist the pull of a curry. Two weeks without a curry is far too long for anyone to survive. Things were getting desperate. Even a motorway Chicken Tikka Masala would suffice at this point. The girls had fish fingers and chips.

Kas drove the final leg with the gentle sound of the Fimbles keeping the kids happy. It was uneventful except that getting across the Thames was slow again. This time around one of the two tunnels at Dartford was shut, so everyone had to filter into two lanes. It happened to be the two lanes on the opposite side from the “exact change” toll booth Kas had taken us through. So on the other side of the gate, we had to do the proverbial soft-shoe shuffle to get across about 10 lines of traffic into the two lanes actually going through the tunnel.

The M25 and M1 were both busy compared to the French motorways. Not slow, but given that there are 3-4 lines of traffic and it was after 9 pm on a Saturday, there’s a lot of cars going around London compared to the number in rural France.

And so to home. It was still there. Jools had been round and shifted the piles of mail into the kitchen. There was some two-week old fruit in the fridge which moved unaided to the bin as soon as the door was opened. Ami’s sunflowers were out, and we have strawberries on the little plant we potted up about 6 weeks ago. We unpacked the valuable bags and children and left most of the rest of it for Sunday morning, after all, it was after 10 pm and we’ve been up for 15 hours and travelling for nearly 14. Don’t want to have to unload all of the stuff too. You know how it goes – once the hall is full of bags you feel duty-bound to unpack a few of them, and before you know it you’ve spent two hours unpacking.

The girls were a dream all the way back. Neither slept much, just about an hour each, but neither got stroppy really and both quietened down whenever asked. The lack of DVD player through France didn’t seem to hurt much.