Le Mans to the D-Day Beaches.

June and time for what has almost become a regular sojourn to the north west corner of France. The key thing this year was to really try out the van, its facilities and usability, particularly with Aire/Stellpatz style stopovers, wild camping and being off-grid. Some of those who follow our travels will already know we have an affinity for this area. We have visited Brittany many times since I first holidayed in Mousterlin as a kid in 1967. We visited several times with friends and camping by motor bike and then staying in various Gites until in 2006 when we bought our hose in Treboul. We loved the house and the place that we enjoyed until 2012 when we sadly had to sell. We have been back again over the past few years camping in the viallage and usually celebrating Sue’s birthdays.

We had booked a late afternoon ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe so even though it was Le Mans week it was very quiet as it didn’t land until 22:30. Fred was as comfortable ever in his new van and slept all the way. It was an incredibly calm crossing and we enjoyed a picnic and a beer in the rear saloon as watching a fabulous sun set. Sadly as we got close to Dieppe we could see that the weather was grim with Acuweather telling us there were thunderstorms in the area. Our plan was to drive to La Mailleraye on Seine near Rouen. Here there is a vet and a good Aire so we could make an appointment for Fred’s worming on the return trip. The drive was mostly dry and we arrived at midnight to find the Aire was full and we couldn’t find another spot in the village so wild camping it was in a car park by the Pont de Brotonne. Actually we had a very quite night after we moved away from a pond full of noisy toads.

We drove back to La Mailleraye, took Fred for a walk along the river bank where huge ships were hiding in the fog on their way upstream to Rouen. We bought croissants and had breakfast while we waited for the vet to open and booked Fred an appointment for two weeks time.

Our next port of call was to be Le Mans for the 24 Hour Race, see my blog from there. We used the peace and not used to our larger van got a shock when the toll came to 48 euro – that is going to be a bit of a game changer.Before we went into the circuit we needed a big shop up at Auchean to fill the fridge and wine rack for the weekend. We stayed at the circuit from Wednesday until Monday morning before we headed west to Finistère.

The journey to Treboul took us longer than we have been used to, again the bigger van thing. I am quite happy though that we are getting over 30mpg on what is afterall a tight new motor. It was mid afternoon before we got to E’Leclecrc to do another shop. Stocked and refuelled we headed to Camping Trezulien for two nights. It is a nice quiet little site on a hill side surrounded by woods and 10 minutes walk into the village (port du plaisance and shops).

Tuesday was Sue’s birthday so first thing I marched Fred down to the boulangerie fro fresh croissants and pan aux chocolat. A morning walk around past our old house, a peek at the garden that has become so well established after we remodel it, and then down to Sables Blanc and around the headland into the port for lunch at La Griella. Now driving all that way for pizza may seem odd but they aren’t any old pizza, they are a paper thin base with wonderful toppings. We had our usual with our litre of house red and even our usual deserts. We have been going there since it first opened and the lady who owns and runs it remembers us from quiet winters evenings huddling in the warm around the same pizzas and a litre of house red.

We set out from Treboul not sure of where we would be pitching up and headed through low cloud on Mendez Homme to Morlaix and then the coast road to St Brieuc and Dinard. Frankly I expect a more sonic road along the Cote d’Amour but we hardly saw any of it. There does seem to be a lack of aires in Brittany but we eventually found a nice spot at St-Jacut-de-la-Mer, an interesting little village if we had been minded to stop and explore.

We were planning to a bit more of the D-Day beaches so we headed past St Malo, Mont St Michelle, Avranche and St LO before we got to the museum at Utah Beach. Incidentally we have been to St LO twice before, once in the ’80s when we stopped at the Hotel de l’Universe and again in the ’90s when we spent the day in A&E having been knocked of our bike. We took a look at the Aire at Utah beach which looked decidedly scruffy and they wanted paying. A couple we met there commented that it was the worst they had seen so we decided against staying and headed for Arromanches, Gold beach on D-Day, and the municipal camp site in the town centre. We were there at the same time last year but strangely the town was quieter despite it being just 2 weeks after the 75th anniversary events.

The following morning we took a short drive to the gun battery at Longues. Four 150mm guns atop the cliff would have done a lot of damage and were seemingly taken care of quite quickly. Three are still fairly intact but the fourth must have taken a direct hit that penetrated the bunker. The resultant explosion within was catastrophic.

Our next stop was the British cemetery at Bayeaux, the beautifully kept resting place of some 4000 souls who gave their lives for a better Europe. We wanted to pay respect, to say thank you and finally to apologise for the unforgivable emayhem that is Brexit. Walking around the cemetery pondering the waste of youth was quite sobering. It is so sad the number of graves whose occupant is unknown and the memorial to the many hundreds who don’t have marked graves. Interesting to see the other nationalities, not just commonwealth but also Russians, Americans and many Poles. The cemetery is just one of several British but also of the large USA cemeteries, Canadians, French and of course Germans.

Back to Arromanches we parked on on the overnight cliff top Aire with a view out to sea. From there it was possible to put into perspective the extent and sheer genius of the mulberry harbour that for a few weeks landed many of the troops and a large proportion of the vehicles, equipment and supplies. It was clear from its position and topography why the location was chosen and the the Germans would have least been expecting it there. On the cliff top is a small memorial garden created for the anniversary. It is in 2 halves and represents Bill Pendell who landed as a solider and as an elderly D-Day veteran. The ghostly figures emerging from the surf have been very cleverly executed. The sunset lasted sometime and was quite spectaular as was the sunrise the following morning. As we were leaving we could not help but admire the absolutely mint and drop dead gorgeous Aston Martin DB4 Superleggera in the car park and nice to see it being used.

We headed next for Pegasus Bridge at Ouisterham stopping to look at the Canadian museum at Juno beach. We passed by the museum at Pegasus Bridge last year but decided to actually go in this year. It was the only one we had paid to go in and it was interesting enough to make it worthwhile. A short drive away took us the Melville Battery that was the farthest east of the D-Day landings. The gun batteries had been heavily targeted beforehand but the invaders, largely commandos and free Belgians, were surprised to find only old WW1 Yugoslavian field guns.

Our next task was to find somewhere for the night. We had mistakenly imagined that there would be plenty of Aires along the coast. There weren’t, and to make matters worse it was a very hot and busy Sunday so those few that there were (an they only had a handful of spaces each) were rammed. As a result we carried on all afternoon until we reached the large Aire at Honfleur. It too was rammed but a very kind Belgian camper offered to move over and make space for us. The next morning as people moved on we were pretty quick to grab a space on the waters edge. Although very touristique Honfleur has a certain “je ne said quoi” that we could never tire of. It was Saturday and very busy so we kept away and the following day Sunday we made do with a short amongst the throngs around town. Monday was much quieter but still oppressively hot as we took a walk into town for dinner. I think it was probably the same restaurant on the quayside that we ate in last year and the food was excellent helped by the atmospheric location.

From our pitch with a view across the river we were able to watch the otter and his family and the bird life in the roadbeds opposite. It was hot and sultry when we went to bed than night so we left the roof vents open. In the small hours a terrific electric storm blew up and deposited huge quantities of rain. I was vaguely aware of the storm until that is I started feeling rain inside the van. So great was the deluge that it had bounced up off the rood and back into the roof light. So here we were at X o’clock in the morning dancing around with towels and bowl trying to mop up while Fred eyed us sleepily from our bed where he had been since the first flash of lightning and rumble of thunder.

On the home stretch now we had to return to La Maileraye sur Seine for Fred’s passport appointment with the vet. We arrived at the Aire on the river bank in time for lunch and got a nice pitch with a view. It was another hot afternoon watching the odd ship and a few barges plying to and from Rouen before we took a stroll and Fred for his appointment. Now Fred doesn’t like vets but he entered willingly, probably because it was cool. However as sun as the vet pulled his top on Fred made for and sat by the door. He redeemed himself when told to get on the scales which he made straight for and sat down, that impressed the vet and his assistant. Next into the surgery without an argument but once on the table the image of the thermometer and the needle must have entered his head so he struggled until we put him back on the floor. And then the worming tablet, ooh a treat and that went straight down. Job done! Followed by a pleasant evening by the river, a bottle of wine and make up lost sleep the night before.

Finally returning to Dieppe we made the Aire on the sea front in time for lunch. There was an event, the end of a major sailing event, taking place on the quayside. We recalled the first times we had used Dieppe 25 years ago when the ferry went right into the old harbour to the liner terminal that used to be on this quayside before it was all redeveloped and the pavement restaurants and cafes prolifilated. It was a very windy evening kicking up dust and ozone that made it quite difficult. Nonetheless we ventured along the quay for our last meal out and of course it had to be Moules Frites, and very nice it was too.

So here we are, up early, tanks emptied and on the ferry home. Have we enjoyed ourselves – but of course – we can but hope circumstances continue ton allow us these trips. One way or another they will be that much more of an adventure after we relocate to Scotland. That in itself makes this trip more poignant as I have, we both have, enjoyed Le Mans, Brittany and Normandie, to the point of having a home in Brittany for several years, for the best part of 30 years. Living in Scotland might well mean that any trips across Europe we make will be farther and longer rather than just popping across to the nearest bit.

And how did the van perform? It was brilliant. Easy to drive and travel in and very comfortable to live in. Easy driving gave us a good 30+mpg and we had no problem getting in and out of places or parking despite its size. Apple CarPlay navigation was excellent and only managed to catch me out twice. The facilities we have installed; the kitchen, equipment, toilet / bathroom, bed and power systems all worked excellently. Even so there are a few things that aren’t quite right or quite simply failed but we wont worry about them until the summer is done and we can spend some thought and time to rectify or redo them.

And a foot note; Over the years we have done the 600km blast from Dieppe to the west of Brittany and Douarnenez many times. Firstly on bikes then in our C Coupe and 250CLK Mercs and finally in our V6 Vito and our T5 and T6 Transporters. Certainly by bike and car we paid scant attention to speed limits. I had 200mkph out of my FJ1200 and 250kph out of my 350CLK. WE have been flashed by many speed cameras and in particular one near Lorient and always joked that all they had was a picture ion Sue in the passenger seat. However with the VWs I have always intended, if not succeeded, to be good and now with the Crafter it really isn’t possible to be or much point in being anything else. The first night off the ferry as midnight approached I was get a little impatient to get to a stopping place for the night and finally I been caught for doing 87kph in an 80 limit.

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