Monday, September 12, 2011


With the heat getting almost unbearable in our little bolt hole of Meilhan-sur-Garonne, the temps on the outside of the boat were reading 52 degrees, 45 in the wheelhouse and 38 in the main saloon and as we had almost worn out the local pool (piscine), we decided it was time to take a break and head to the west coast (Atlantic Ocean) as we had promised ourselves we would do one day.

The same day as we left by car, our new found boating buddies Heather and Geoff on “Lilly Polly” whom we had shared some lovely times with sharing a cool drink etc headed off to Le Mas D’Agenais ready for their winter over before they returned to England. Geoff kept us fully amused with his tales of managing one of the UK rugby league teams on some of its overseas travels including Australia and New Zealand a few years ago accompanied by his good wife Heather. They have travelled the world many times so are full of information and interesting tales on their adventures.

We had decided to drive direct to La Rochelle which held warm memories of an overnight visit many years ago when I was lucky enough to stay there when working with Zodiac. It is world renowned for its sea food and history and is just a delightful, if busy sea port and tourist resort based right on the coast of the Bay of Biscay which is known as the roughest stretch of water in the world fuelled by the worst that the Atlantic Ocean can throw into it but it was as calm as a millpond while we were there and the only rush was the way the tourists moved along the walkways etc. With restaurants galore and tourist trips available on buses, ferries, small boats, trains and walking trails the sights are just great to witness.

This was the last position to be freed from the German strangle hold in France at the end of WW2 and the local people suffered badly at the hands of the Nazi leaders who murdered anybody whom appeared to be a member of the local resistance movement. It was also the site where Hitler decided to have some huge U Boat pens built to protect his Atlantic marauders who sunk so much allied shipping heading to the Med or across the Atlantic. These pens have to be seen to be appreciated as the roofs were over 30 feet thick of reinforced concrete so allied bombs could not pierce them so they remain today as a leftover sight that takes the breath away. After the war it was decided not to blow them up as despite these pens being built approx 5 kms from the city, it was determined that it would require so much explosive material to collapse them that the city would be ruined as well so they still stand today and have been used to make films like Raiders of The Lost Ark inside. It is an amazing sight to see as even as the port has been commercialised for shipping etc these pens still dominate a lot of the skyline of the nearby area etc.

With restaurants announcing that they offer great sea food meals it is hard to stay away from them as they are not cheap but once seated and eating the food is delicious. The ancient three towers which guard the old port were built in 12thC and are real tourist attractions. They look over the internal part of the port which is where overseas yachts come to check in on arrival so flags of many nations can be seen.

Access to these spots and to the many small islands which are nearby can be a simple “hop on” the “Yelo” ferries which are amazing in themselves. They are electric hydraulic driven so no pollution, no noise, no wake and are designed to “catch in” to special dockside fittings to make embarking etc very quick and efficient. They seem to offer a continuous service for at least 15 hours a day so are treated like tramcars by the locals and tourists alike.

Rhonda's Comments: "Ah, that feels better." (Harry)

We visited the Maritime museum but it was quite disappointing as it consisted mainly of 3 small ships moored alongside so we changed tack and went to the Aquarium which is reported to be the largest in Europe but the queues were huge so we bypassed this and went instead to the model museum which was fascinating with it’s multiple displays of cars, buses, motorcycles, planes and trains with many of the exhibits running and amazing us as well. From there we visited a similar museum of animation where every thing from dancing clowns to a reconstructed street of Monmatre in Paris.

Rhonda's Comments: Ok, I can hear you all say "spot the dummy".

I have to say that with the weather being so nice it would be a place we could easily spend a long holiday at as a couple of days barely allowed us to scratch the surface for all the great features to see. Sadly we moved south from there to Rochefort which was a memory calling spot as the main Zodiac factory was established there for many years until technology meant a new factory was built in Toulouse. Having only seen this town as a part of a work scene and not being very impressed with it proved correct when viewing it from a tourist point of view. We spent only a few hours there before heading through towns on a huge tidal estuary established and related to where mussels and oysters are grown in their millions. The fishermen have over the centuries dug wide ditches in the sea marshes so the tide can flow in and out and they grow the young crusteacitons to harvest size and it is amazing to see the various methods and ways they get these creatures up and on to the restaurant tables of Europe. In addition to part of this near tidal coast area which is protected from waves, is used to make saltwater ponds and to allow the ponds to evaporate and dry the salt ready for grading, purifying and packing for the tables and food processing plants of Europe.

Rhonda's Comments: Oh dear, which one did I leave my towel in?

Royan which is on the seaside seems to be purely a tourist resort and for those who have visited the Gold Coast in Australia and marvelled at the number of apartments built there, for about 5 kms along this beautiful French beach front, it is solid apartment blocks only about 5 stories high however, but at the road level every spare inch seems to have been taken up with restaurants. No sign of mini markets or general stores, just restaurants. We couldn’t believe there could be so many and they all seemed to be well patronised for the lunch 2 hours and from 7.30 pm each evening. The beach is lovely, reminded us of Orewa, up on Auckland’s North Shore so vendors of shade tents, lazy chairs, beachmats, etc do very well indeed. When the sea front runs out of apartment blocks one can view some truly magnificent homes which reflect the wealth of the area in the past and present times. We enjoyed a swim in the ocean, devoid of any surf conditions however, but beautiful and refreshing for sure.

During the late evening we experienced a very large thunder storm which sent Harry into a s*** and a shiver for a few hours but thanks to Rhonda’s snoring he quietened down and we slept through until it was breakfast time. Again it is an area which well deserves the label of The Holiday Beach and we hope to be able to go back one day to spend more time there.

The final stopover for us was the great city of Bordeaux. To see this well rated city which is really an inland port situated up the mighty Garonne River and which has a huge marine history about which I couldn’t hope to cover here for you. The city was listed for many years as France’s second largest city before being overtaken by Lyon. The style, the architecture and the fact that it straddles the great river reminds one of how similar it is to Paris. With almost new mooring facilities in place which have water and electricity on site plus very good access ways to the main plaza this site right in the middle of the city which makes tying up here very pleasant I would think for any visiting yachties who make the trip up river off the Atlantic ocean or travel down the Garonne from where we left “Somewhere” and it is all free for 36 hours.

We also learned that most of the horror stories we had heard about of coming down the Garonne from the canal system and locks was well exaggerated and in fact we could easily have bought “Somewhere” down as you are directed by the marine authorities when to leave the last lock and this is as the tide is just starting to run out so an easy 4 hours ride with the river and tide takes you right into central Bordeaux. The reverse applies when you wish to return up stream to rejoin the canal system.

The shopping as one would expect in a big French city is amazing and so varied. All the name shops are well designed and display a huge range of products but the prices are as high as Paris too so in our case it was, look but don’t buy. One thing we did find was an Irish pub which was televising the All Blacks –v- Wallabies rugby test match so off we went to get a table for the midday kick off. Surrounded by Aussies and the odd Kiwi supporter we had to endure the deserved drubbing the team got but the “fish-n-chips’ were great as was the beer so life can’t be all negative. Harry enjoyed the attention but then as we were leaving my smart ass mate, Grahame Smith rang from Sydney just to rub salt into the wound about the result. Oh well maybe our day will come in the World Rugby Cup in a few weeks. Fingers and legs crossed.

A final note about Bordeaux is the wonderful people moving system they have in place ranging from silent buses and cars to almost silent trams offering great regular services throughout the city plus seemingly endless bicycle lanes giving easy access to all areas. Cyclists in Europe don’t realise I am sure as to how well provided that are for great cycle ways and walking tracks. I think at times, more money and attention is given to these pathways than is given to the roads. Perhaps this is the answer to overcrowded road systems. I know these things can only be built according to the population numbers but when they are in place they sure make a city seem so much more user friendly. Talking about friendly, we have to point out that while we acknowledge these areas we have visited this past week have all been centres of tourism we have noticed that almost every person involved in the service industry from bus drivers to shop assistants to restaurant and bar staff all speak pretty good English and what a difference it makes. I know we should speak French while in France but here it is so easy to find out where or what and people expect to speak English to you.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that the name Bordeaux is known world-wide as a huge wine making area but it is not until one drives through this territory that a very realisation becomes clear as to the hugeness of this area and productivity comes a little clearer. We thought we had seen lots of vineyards as we had travelled through France offering every type of wine from to Champagne to Moselle but all of that shrinks in comparison to what the Bordeaux territory has to offer with its millions of grape vines growing on almost every spare block of land. From Champagne copies (Cremant) to Cognac to Almanac to great whites and reds this land is surely the greatest volume producer in Europe and is a joy to visit.
Rhonda's Comments: Home Sweet Home

While we were a bit saddened to leave the west coast and head back to Meilhan-sur-Garonne, the travel only took us a couple of hours and we were soon reunited with our beautiful floating home “Somewhere” and found all to be fine so joined the other boaters for a cool beer in the sunset of yet another fabulous adventure.

Rhonda’s Comments:-
I went shopping for a birthday present to send home to New Zealand. Friday afternoon – I went up to shops at 15.00 (3.00pm) to find that the Tabac does not open until 16.00 (4.00pm) so think that’s ok I will go and do some business at the La Poste and Credit Agricole (the Bank). La Poste is open but so busy the line is out the door so decide to go over the road to the Bank to find it closed Friday afternoons. I then go back to La Poste to check whether it will be open tomorrow being Saturday and it is so busy I reconsidered and changed my idea to making my shopping trip the next morning being a Saturday.
Saturday Morning – it is 10.00 am and I went to the Tabac and bought a lovely little present to post to New Zealand. I then proceeded to the bank to withdraw some money from our Visa Account and also to bank some money into our French account. When I withdrew the money from the “hole in the wall” it only gives me €50 notes. I wanted to bank €40.00 into our French Account so went to the counter to ask for change for my €50 note to be told “No, you have to go to the Tabac”!!!! – what the heck is going on I ask? I am in a bank aren’t I, and they wouldn’t give me change? So I decided to bank the €50 note after all. I was then asked for my passport so that they could have a copy to be enclosed with the deposit (lucky enough I had this asked of me before so I had taken copies – feeling quite smug) I handed this document to him, then he asks for a “RIB” ( proof that I have a French bank account). I asked him which one, Adam’s (I don’t have one of these) – my patience has worn thin by now and he said I couldn’t bank it into my account until I have a copy of your “RIB”. I have the cheque book, all the other deposits I have made into this account so I suggested, quite nicely of course, “what do you want, my first born?” – he took the deposit at last.
I then went over to La Poste and think this is ok, for a change there were no lines waiting outside but low and behold, there is a notice on the door “Fermature Exceptionnelle – no electricity”. I’m sorry Claude you might get your Birthday Present by your next birthday if you are lucky.
There must be a moral to this story somewhere but at the moment I can’t seem to think of one.

I am glad it was Rhonda who experienced this sort of mad officialdom rather than me for a change. I have to say that this type of thing is not uncommon but it is the French way.
A few other French oddities we hope will tickle your fancy are as follows:-

Anyone thinking of retiring to the Pyrenees/Atlantique region may well think on about choosing the town of Sarpourenx where in 2008, the mayor of the village in answer to a problem being that there was no room left at the local cemetery, passed an ordinance that it would be illegal to die within the parish and threatened “severe punishment” for any offenders. The mind boggles for sure.

Despite France being much smaller than its neighbours and so many other countries, it is the world’s most popular tourist destination attracting more visitors than the USA and China. 79 million visitors in 2010 sure makes interesting numbers. Just a pity so many French businesses fail to learn how to look after the tourists and miss out on so many opportunities to make money.
Did you know it is illegal in France to name your pig, Napoleon? I can’t see any resemblance really.

The Eiffel Tower was to be built for Barcelona for the 1888 Universal Exposition in Barcelona and not for France.

The croissant is not French at all. It was originally from Austria and it was not until 1839 that an Austrian Artillery Officer bought the idea to France and the rest is history as the saying goes.

Finally, Bastille Day has nothing to do with the storming of the Bastille which is what we have all been brought up to accept as the true history. This day actually celebrates the Fete de la Federation, a feast that took place in Paris one year after the storming of the Bastille.

We never stop learning ….I hope.
Ken, Rhonda and Harry

Kms so far: 2773
Locks so far: 587