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Touring France in a motorhome
MMM magazine

Touring France in a motorhome

Posted October 14, 2017   |   654 views   |   Leisure Interest   |   Comments (0) Take to the quiet roads of rural France and explore at your own pace in a motorhome

Motorhomers Joyce and Barry Hopewell cross the Channel and head off an a motorhome adventure in rural France.

Apart from the invitation to visit our French daughter-in-law’s aunt in Normandy, plans for our trip to France included the words Loire and Dordogne, but were otherwise vague. We were promised empty roads, wooded hills, pretty villages and manor houses, typical of the region of Le Perche in southern Normandy, close to where she lives. We weren’t disappointed.

We explored some of the Le Perche regional park. Here we saw a deer amble across the road as we travelled through a sun-dappled green tunnel formed by trees. It regarded us curiously as we drove past; life is quiet here and the pace unhurried. 

At Tillières-sur-Avre we stopped to admire a large privately owned château displaying a historic monument plaque. The owner turned up in his car, opened the gates and invited us to drive through for a closer look at his house. The best views, he said, were from the bridge. 

In Verneuil-sur-Avre, featured in Les Plus Beaux Détours de France, we ambled around the town to see the flamboyant Gothic tower of the St Mary Magdalene church, the fifteenth century turreted mansion housing the library, the Renaissance-style residence next door and the thirteenth century Tour Grise, once a vital part of Verneuil’s defences on the Franco-Norman border. There are many well-restored half-timbered houses in its busy streets and, on a sunny day, it was pleasant to pause and enjoy un grand café in one of the region’s small towns.

Driving on mostly deserted roads, past fields of Charolais cattle and those distinctive spotty Normandy cows, we stopped in La Ferté-Vidame, which boasts the ruin of a large classical château set in parkland. The eerie edifice is reminiscent of a film set and the town itself, originally a military base, has a regimented appearance making it feel at odds with the surrounding softness of Le Perche’s rolling contours.

The tiny village of Moutiers-au-Perche is a gem, set on a hill and was easily our favourite. The winding main street, with characterful cottages, took us up to the ancient church of Notre-Dame du Mont-Harou with its bell tower and large, gurning gargoyles. It’s a peaceful place, both inside and out, and we were rewarded with views of the surrounding countryside and forest. 

One of the first monasteries in Le Perche was created here in the sixth century; the location among the rolling hills makes it easy to see why Moutiers was chosen.

The tiny hamlet of Villeray in Le Perche’s natural park has a sixth century château, now a hotel and spa, a top-notch restaurant and a sprinkling of houses. It is a soothing and picturesque place to wander around and linger awhile by the seculded mill pond to see the race and the water wheel. 

Church and chateau at Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher

We went to Nonancourt, on the edge of Le Perche, and visited its fifteenth century church of Saint-Martin in the main square. Built in basilica style, it has fine stained glass windows, some of them dating from the sixteenth century. 

Outside the church it was market day and, tasting samples on offer, we stocked up on mirabelles, greengages and plump Breton artichokes. The half-timbered houses around the square have a rickety, lopsided appearance. Do take note if you go there – the town’s narrow main street is a definite no-no for ’vans!

En route to Bellême for a final night in Le Perche, we stopped near Sérigny to see the turreted Renaissance château of Courboyer. The grounds and parkland are pleasant if, like us, you want to stretch your legs and see a perfect fairytale castle built of warm cream stone. 

In the estate’s surrounding fields were some of the famous Percherons, heavy draught horses, originally used in farming and as war horses, but now something of a tourist attraction in their own right.

We stayed on the municipal site in Bellême and made the 15-minute walk into town. Be warned – it’s uphill! 

This ancient capital of the region has a turbulent history, but was quiet and sleepy, like many of the small places we visited. Besieged in the thirteenth century by Blanche of Castile, it was taken by the English in the fifteenth century and saw its fair share of battles between Catholics and Protestants in the sixteenth century. 

The ramparts and stone gateway leading to the cobbled streets of the old town offered a taste of its past. What I found most interesting was the uprising, which followed Blanche’s rule, it being unheard of that a woman should be in charge!

A potter around Le Perche is rewarding if you have time to spare and no fixed plans. Folk tend to be friendly and we were often greeted with a nod, a smile and a ‘bonjour’. It’s well off the tourist track and offers an authentic experience of rural France. 

We needed to tap into our rusty French ™? 
more often, but our efforts were always rewarded with warm smiles. Of the few ’vans we saw, most were French. 

The empty roads, rolling countryside and picturesque manors slowed us down and set us up for the next vaguely planned destination, the Loire. 

Nostalgia kicked in here when we decided to head – still using quieter roads – for Amboise, not for the château (although that’s very pleasant to see) but for the Château du Clos Lucé, home of Leonardo da Vinci for the last three years of his life. We’d visited many years ago with children in tow; what would it be like now?

From the large municipal site on an island in the Loire, it’s a short walk across the bridge to the centre. The château dominates the skyline and, in contrast to Le Perche, the town was buzzing with tourists eating, shopping and ambling. We carried on up the main street to Clos Lucé and were pleasantly surprised to see how it had improved and moved on. 

Acquired by Charles VIII in 1490, it was the summer residence of the kings of France. In 1516, François I invited Leonardo to live there, appointing this genius of a man as ‘first painter, architect and engineer to the king’. The reception, kitchen and bedrooms – all with original stone fireplaces – are impressive, as is the small fifteenth century chapel. 

I most enjoyed the restoration of Leonardo’s workshops, remembering them from our previous visit as being quite empty and uninteresting. Now they are filled with displays showing where he painted, sculpted and worked on his sketches and designs. It was fascinating to browse shelves and cabinets full of his creations and the artefacts which inspired him. 

In the basement there are models of his inventions: the first parachute, car and helicopter to mention but a few. There are more in the park-like grounds, with life-sized reproductions of engineering projects including swing bridges, a fierce-looking machine gun and a tank, looking just like a space capsule. 

To celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of Leonardo’s occupation of the house, a series of exhibitions runs until 2019. We visited at the right time, seeing the iconic Mona Lisa.

The combined ticket for house, gardens and exhibition is good value. With a restaurant, café, visual displays along the woodland paths and a children’s play area, all ages are catered for. 

Moutiers-au-Perche and surrounding countryside

Returning to the ’van, we saw the first hummingbird hawk moths of the trip feasting on floral displays by the Loire.

Leaving Amboise, we made a detour to the nearby Chanteloup Pagoda, built in 1775 and standing 44m (144ft high). It’s all that remains of the Duke of Choiseul’s château and is a bizarre attraction, offering an out-of-place experience of Chinese architecture. It has seen better days and, while husband Barry climbed to the top, I mooched around wondering why on earth we’d gone there!

We wandered briefly around a rather quiet and unmemorable Montrichard, with its ruined eleventh/twelfth century château, before stopping off in the small town of Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher, with a sixteenth century château. It was a very quiet Sunday afternoon and, although the streets were deserted, the Romanesque church and the crumbly atmospheric crypt with interesting frescoes was open. 

As we admired the carvings on the capitals in the nave, five hefty blokes entered, stood in the crossing and began to sing in perfect harmony. Their amazing performance took us by surprise; the sound and acoustics were simply stunning. They were a singing group from Corsica, and were performing in the church that night. It was one of those serendipitous experiences which make travel by ’van so appealing.

We headed for medieval Bourges next day, nostalgia drawing us to places we’d not seen for a while. From the city’s municipal site it’s a 25-minute walk to the centre. 

We were aiming for the twelfth century Gothic cathedral of Saint-Étienne, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is approached via narrow streets. Its solid towers could be seen soaring above the rooftops. There was a strong “wow” factor for me on reaching the west front. I’d been here before, but this was like seeing it anew. What a huge mass of an amazing building! 

Once inside, the height of the nave draws the eye upwards, whilst the rich blues and reds of the stained glass windows offer long-forgotten bible stories in pictures. ™? Here you can slow down and absorb both architecture and atmosphere. 

Although we’d done it before we took the crypt and tower visit, first descending steps to the sizeable Gothic area and then on to the small windowless Romanesque crypt, which felt far more ancient. We remembered to look for the stonemason’s carving of a bare backside at the top of the steps – and the shocked carved face opposite! Then it was up 396 steps to the top of the north tower for views of Bourges, the surrounding countryside and the adjacent formal gardens.

Still on quiet roads, following the River Cher, we headed for the Cistercian abbey at Noirlac. This beautiful twelfth century site gets five stars from me, but then I’m a sucker for monasteries, cloisters and Cistercian churches. 

The Cistercians, following the Rule of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, opted for a simple uncluttered life, in harmony with nature, as they worked the fields in silent contemplation. On a sunny day we shared the peaceful atmosphere of this site and the abbey’s buildings with a few other visitors, along with some basking lizards, fritillaries, commas and clouded yellow butterflies.

Wondering if our roads-less-travelled trip so far could top that, we moved from the Loire and Cher regions to the higher ground of the Auvergne. We drove through the Volcans d’Auvergne, the largest of France’s regional natural parks, where the Dordogne has its source and the air is crystal clear. 

Staying overnight in Châtel-Guyon, we managed to see a little of this mountainous spa resort with its slightly faded grandeur.

But it was getting dark, the moon was rising and it was time to return to the campervan and turn in for the night before our onward journey next day, following the course of the Dordogne as we travelled south and west. 

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