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A Free Afternoon at the Park: Aquarev, Brittany

By 5 November 2012 France, Travel
Aquarev Loudeac leisure park map sign

Aquarev is a wonderful park just outside the small town of Loudeac in the centre of beautiful Brittany.  This 30 hectare green space is set around a lake and offers so many opportunities for exploring and relaxing while on your Brittany holiday.  My parents live just down the road and we went for a wander on a very grey afternoon in October.  There were approximately 4 other cars in the car park and we didn’t come across many other people in the park.

Aquarev lake and paths

The park is run by the local council and is immaculately maintained.  There’s a fantastic play area for kids and loads of other sports facilities, including archery and fishing.  The play area said it was for kids over 6.  There was no stated upper age limit so we took advantage of the fact that all the kids were are school and had a good play!  The slide was hard work though as the inside of the tower was designed for little ones to climb not me and Marc!

Pyramid tower with metal slides in the kids play area at Aquarev

I bet in the summer Aquarev would be packed.  It’s a lovely place to come while on holiday in Brittany.  It’s totally free to get in and parking is free too.  During the summer they have a tea room and you’ll be able to get ice creams and chill out on the permanent, metal sunbeds.  There wasn’t much call for either of those things during our visit!  We still managed to enjoy ourselves though.

Jeux aquatiques water games at AquarevRachel Lowe the Humble Tourist on the zip line at Aquarev

Aquarev doesn’t just have to be a day out.  It’s home to Loudeac’s municipal campsite.  This 90-pitch site offers camping emplacements for bringing your own tent or caravan and static caravans for those who like a few more creature comforts.  In low season, these holiday homes start at €270 per week, it works out much cheaper to stay for a week than a night or two.   At less than €40 a night it’s cheaper than a budget hotel and you can self-cater.  There are plenty of supermarkets within a 15 minute drive to make your self catering holiday easier.  The campsite is open from the beginning of April until the beginning of November.  If your French isn’t up to much you can also book the “cottages” on Hostelworld.

Aquarev makes for a relaxing afternoon in the fresh air with diversions-a-plenty for kids of all ages! Next time you go to Brittany and are staying near Loudeac you should pay a visit.

By Rachel Birchley

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Medieval Josselin in Autumn

By 29 October 2012 France, Travel

Josselin is a “Petite Cite de Caractere”.  One of 22 towns in Brittany selected for their historical architecture. Josselin boasts a glorious castle and many half-timbered buildings.  In summer this town is packed with tourists and is a mecca for local, British ex-pats.  The streets are lined with charming creperies and restaurants catering for visitors.  On a dreary October afternoon it’s another story.  Most of the eating places are closed and there are few people wandering the damp streets.

Medieval streets of Josselin. Half timbered buildings and cobbled streets.
Where is everyone?

Josselin was founded in the 11th century and there has been castle towering above the river Oust ever since. There is history around every corner.  The church, Notre Dame du Roncier, stands proudly in the centre of the town and for those active people (not me!) it’s possible to climb the 138 steps to the top of the bell tower to admire the view!  I thought about it but it was a bit too dark and cramped for my liking.  According to my Dad and fiance I’m a wimp.

Basilica de Notre Dame du Roncier Josselin's church bell tower and clock
Can you see my other half?  He’s a loooong way up!

We parked down by the river under the imposing castle.  From this angle the castle towers up into the sky.  I don’t envy any past armies attempting invasion!  It’s just a short walk uphill into the old town.  The cobbled streets glistened in the wet and we enjoyed strolling around for a couple of hours.  I couldn’t believe how quiet it was for a Saturday afternoon.  I know it’s a touristy town and we were pretty much the only tourists there but I’d have thought that the locals would have been out and about.  They must have been shopping at the out of town hypermarkets and the bigger towns.  Josselin is very pretty but doesn’t really have any shops.  The best thing about half empty towns is that taking pictures is easier!  There’s no-one to get in the way.  Unfortunately the grey autumn sky is overexposed in every photo I took!

Josselin is in Brittany in the department of Morbihan. It’s pretty easy to get to by car and there’s plenty of free parking.  FYI – if the parking space is outlined in blue it’s not free.  Nowhere in this part of France is particularly accessible by public transport so it’s essential to hire a car if you’re not coming to this area in your own vehicle.  We were lucky in that my parents chauffeured us around for the time we were staying with them.  There are one or two hotels in the vicinity and plenty of gites (aka cottages to rent).  Renting a gite is a great budget option.  You can self cater so don’t have to worry about the cost of eating out and the prices are often cheaper than hotels.  For some accommodation options check out the Josselin tourist information page.

Josselin is a lovely little town.  Check out some of my pictures below:

Red and white half timbered and stone clad traditional Breton house in Josselin Brittany
Traditional Breton half-timbered house
Little old half timbered house squeezed in between two bigger houses
Check out this little fella tucked in between two bigger houses 
Maison 1538.  Oldest house in Josselin built in 1538. Traditional style.
This is the oldest house in Josselin.  It dates back to 1538.

Josselin castle. Chateau de Rohan
The castle.  It’s only open to the public in the summer months as it’s still a private home to the descendants of the Duke of Rohan who built it.
Autumn colours on tree. River/canal de Nantes a Brest. Watermill overlooks.
The river 
Impressive Josselin castle from the river
The imposing castle from the river

By Rachel Birchley

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How to Fill Up on Homely French Food on the Cheap.

By 25 October 2012 Eating Out, Food, France, Travel

In rural France there are bars in most villages.  Usually the domain of men drinking, at lunchtime many bars offer a fixed menu to cater for workers.  It is common place in France for employers to provide lunch vouchers for their employees, this is particularly the case with manual workers and drivers.  Bars offer a low cost but huge lunch for these workers to enjoy.  However, these menus are not solely for workers, anyone can walk in off the street and pig out on the cheap.  As long as you’re not scared of a few curious looks you too can enjoy a 4 or 5 course meal for about €12 – sometimes this even includes drinks!  This is perfect for when you’re on a budget.

Auberge du Lie, bar restaurant in La Cheze, Brittany, France

The first place we ate was the Auberge du Lie in La Cheze.  This is a small village in central Brittany close to where my parents live.  It’s a pretty town with a lake and a couple of little shops.  It’s normal in France for lunch only to be served between 12 and 2pm.  As their lunches tend to be on the longer side these bars fill up pretty quickly so you need to be seated shortly after 12.  When we got to this auberge there were only about 2 other tables in use at the restaurant, about 1 o’clock nearly every table was full.  The menus don’t offer much choice but that is how the owners are able to offer the food so cheaply.  Think of it as posh (and yummy!) school dinners.

Fresh vegetable salad as a starter in restaurant in Brittany, France

At the Auberge du Lie we could have either crudities or duck pate to start.  I chose crudities because I’m not a pate fan.  What I got was a plate of lovely fresh salad: definitely a good choice.  Next up was a slice of hot quiche lorraine before our main course of sautéed veal and pasta.  The meat was a little fatty but very tender.  The sauce was delicious.  Before desert we were given a plate of cheese to help ourselves to.  Of course, all of this food is accompanied by a big basket of fresh bread!

Veal casserole with macaroni pasta cheap main meal in Breton bar
Veal and macaroni

During our stay we ate out twice more.  The second time was at a big place just outside of Pontivy, which is one of the bigger towns in the area.  The restaurant was called “Le 1703” and was the French version of a greasy spoon cafe.  There was a big car park with work vans, trucks and lorries.  The menu here included drinks and was 4 courses.  There was a buffet for the starter with all sorts of salad and cold cuts.  We then had meat and chips, followed by cheese, desert and then coffee.  My parents drank a carafe of red wine and our bread basket was replenished twice!  This massive and very filling lunch was just €11 each and in these establishments you’re not expected to tip so it really is cheap.  We went to McDonald’s and it cost us nearly €8 each for just an extra value meal.

Busy restaurant in France at lunchtime.
One packed restaurant! Photo taken using the  self-portrait mode on my phone!

Our final lunch out was in a tiny little village called L’Hermitage Lorge at “Chez Marylene”.  Once again and unassuming bar with a restaurant out back.  This place was packed and many tables were reserved so we were sat on a little table next to the loo unfortunately.  This was another 4 course jobby again with drinks included.  There was a bottle of water and red wine on the table and soft drinks to help yourself to.  It was a bit random just picking up a 1.5l bottle of Fanta and taking it back to the table but I was told by the waitress to do so!  The tarte aux pommes was so yummy here.    

Lamb and chips for lunch in France
Lamb and chips. Nom nom nom!

While the food available on these budget menus may not be haute cuisine it is fresh and tasty.  Just like home cooking.  It’s also a little scary going in to these places that are busy with mostly male workers and the staff generally don’t speak any English.  I’m not sure I would have done it on my own but with my parents who have been to these places before it was ok!  My fiancé wasn’t sure about the food because he’s a bit of a burger man but generally it was good.  If you’re in France and on a budget why not try these places?  You won’t need any dinner so that will save you even more money!

Read about driving in France in my previous post.

By Rachel Birchley

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Driving from Kent to Brittany – on a Budget and on the Wrong Side of the Road!

By 19 October 2012 France, Life, Lifestyle, Travel

So I’m finally leaving the country, since what feels like an age.  My fiancé finally got his passport after all the rigmarole so we’re able to visit my parents at their home in Brittany.  The cheapest way to get from the south east of England to their house in central Brittany is by road.  The ferry from Dover to Calais takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes and the port is just 20 minutes from our house in Kent so pretty handy really.

As anyone who’s been to France knows, it’s hard to get food outside of meal times.  This means that we needed to organise our journey so that we got to a lunch stop at about lunch time.  Having studied the map I chose Honfleur as our lunch time destination.  It’s just off the motorway and a very pretty little town.  Unfortunately this meant getting to France about 9am, so the 6.45am ferry it had to be!  Luckily as we live so close to Dover we only had to set the alarm for 4.45am.   Hmm.. only!

Car deck on My Ferry Link car ferry on the Dover to Calais route

It was dark as we drove to Dover and checked in for our crossing.  Sitting in our lane waiting to board we wondered when the other passengers would arrive.  By 6am, and boarding time, no more vehicles had arrived.  There were more staff on board the ferry than passengers!  There were just 3 other cars and 2 lorries on the whole boat!  It was a bit strange wandering around the boat, essentially with it all to ourselves. We had our breakfast while the sky got lighter and lighter outside.  That was pretty expensive and had we thought about it we should have gone to the supermarket the day before and picked up something to eat.  The worst thing was that it cost us over £2 for a 500ml bottle of Evian!  What a rip off!

Panorama of empty bar on cross channel ferry

We spent some time out on deck enjoying the fresh air and views.  It was a bit chilly but better than being cooped up inside, which we would be for most of the day.

Sunrise on the English Channel view from ferry

The next part of the journey would be the fun bit since neither my fiancé nor I had ever driven on the right hand side of the road before!  Coming off the ferry the road is in pristine condition, a marked difference from in the UK.  We continued on the main road so had no worries about being on the wrong side of the road because we were clearly segregated from the traffic in the opposite direction, not that there was any traffic.  The roads were quiet and we managed to get to our lunch stop at the planned time, even though we made a couple of comfort stops along the way.

Driving a Fiat Grande Punto in France
Pont de Normandie bridge over the mouth of the river Seine in France

Honfleur is just over the impressive Pont de Normandie, which spans the mouth of the Seine river in the region of Normandy.  That’s the river that flows through Paris.  Its an industrial area but Honfleur itself is very picturesque and geared toward tourists and pleasure sailors.  The marina is full of the most beautiful yachts.  One day I would absolutely love to learn to sail and own my own yacht.  The restaurants along the water were busy with elegant French people in their expensive coats eating moules frites.  The cheapest menus seemed to be at least €15 per person, which wasn’t really in budget for us. We managed to find a juice bar that offered a sandwich and juice for around €5 each.  Still not cheap but much more like it.

Old buildings, now restaurants, in Honfleur, Normandy France
Boats in the marina at Honfleur, Normandy, France

We left Honfleur about 2pm and headed off west towards Brittany and our destination.  It’s here that I took over the driving.  I was terrified!  The first time going the opposite way round a roundabout was particularly nail biting.  Once on the motorway it was fine.  I just stayed in the slow lane and took it easy.  We still had about 4 hours to go before getting to my parents’ house, however we didn’t get there until nearly 5 hours later as our sat nav is useless and when we asked it to take us to the nearest petrol station it decided that we wanted to go to a random industrial estate instead!  It then took us about 20 minutes driving around in rush hour traffic in the busiest city in the region to find a petrol station.  The car was flashing at me, warning that the fuel level was low and the atmosphere in the car got a little bit heated!

Driving on the motorway(autoroute) in France

Once we got off the motorway we still had a little way to go but the roads were good and it wasn’t too scary.  This is lucky really as we have to drive back again!  Seeing the signs for the little village of Saint-Barnabé, where my parents live was so exciting.  I hadn’t seen them since May.  We finally pulled up on their driveway about 7pm.  As France is 1 hour ahead of the UK, it was a long day but we did it.  The overall cost of the journey was less than £100.  The ferry journey was with My Ferry Link and cost £45 each way.  It could have been cheaper if we’d been able to book further in advance but I didn’t dare purchase the tickets before my fiancé’s passport arrived.  It took us just over a tank of petrol to get most of the way.  We ran out of fuel with about 1.5 hours to go.  We also purchased breakdown cover for just over £25 and had to get headlight adaptors, breathalyser kits, etc. to comply with French motoring law but should we have flown it would have cost us at least £150 each way and the airport is over an hour from my parents’ house and we would have to rely on them to collect us.

Saint-Barnabe village sign

I’ve been looking forward to this trip for ages and I will fill you in in the coming posts.  Brittany is a beautiful part of the world, even though we won’t have the best weather.  A visit to France is easy to do on a budget.

By Rachel Birchley

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A Cheap Trip to Paris is Possible

By 1 July 2012 France, Travel

I really like Paris but then I do have a thing for museums and architecture. A lot of people consider Paris to be a romantic destination; however, the city of love can also be a fun and interesting destination for single travellers and families. There is so much on offer and all budgets are catered for.

Getting there

By far the quickest and most hassle-free way to get to Paris from the UK is by Eurostar. Unless of course you live hours from London, in which case flying would probably be the best option. My journey from St Pancras to Gare du Nord took under 2 ½ hours. Seeing the countryside whizzing past is much more enjoyable than looking at clouds from the air. St Pancras is a pleasant terminal, not that you need to spend too much time there since it is possible to check in just 30 minutes before your train. The Eurostar deposits you neatly at Gare du Nord with little fuss. It’s easy to navigate your way on to the Metro and towards your accommodation.

Getting around

The Parisian Metro is fun to use, especially working out how to open the doors! The trick is to watch the locals before you make your attempt. A quick flick of the wrist lifts the lever and opens the doors allowing you to hop from the train as it stops. The lines are coloured and numbered making navigation a breeze. Each metro station is different and there are some great places to visit just for the station! For example, Arts et Metiers gives you the feeling of being inside a giant steam engine and is reminiscent of a Jules Verne creation. The Metro gets you where you want to be but Paris is also a great walking city. You see so much more from street level. I walked from my accommodation in the 19th arrondissement towards the centre of Paris and stumbled upon a market and a very yummy crepe complet. On foot you can really get a feel for a place and you can take the time to look around. Due to the fact that I chose a hostel outside the centre of town I bought a Paris Visite ticket that gave me unlimited public transport within zones 1 to 3. This covers all the areas you need. The ticket is available to purchase at any station. It currently costs €9.75 for 1 day, €15.85 for 2, €21.60 for 3 and €31.15 for 5 days. The child fare is half price.

Some places to visit in Paris

Musee d’Orsay

General admission is €9 however it’s free for under 18s and 18-25 year olds who are EU citizens. On the first Sunday of every month admission is free for everyone. This museum used to be a railway station and the main hall is a vast space with a carved and glass curved ceiling. The museum’s collection is vast and contains many great works. I spent a good half day exploring. It was a rainy weekday in March so I didn’t need to push through any crowds.

The Eiffel Tower

You can’t go to Paris without going up the Eiffel Tower. The tower is synonymous with the city and a genuine travel icon. I walked to the 2nd level and have to say I was absolutely knackered once I got there! There’s a discount for children and 12-24 year olds. As I was 23 at the time of my trip I made the trek to the 2nd floor for a meagre €3.50. Adults pay €5 for stair access. The lift actually only costs €8 so it really depends on how fit you’re feeling. You can always get the lift up and walk down! I wish I had gone to the summit though. I’ve been to the Eiffel Tower twice now and never seen the view from the top. The lift ticket to the top costs €14 for adults aged 25 and over. Even from the 2nd floor the views are fabulous and there’s plenty to see up there to allow you time to catch your breath.

Le Sacre Coeur

Towering over the artists’ quarter of Montmartre is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris. This beautiful place of worship commands an enviable position on the hill overlooking Paris. Less than €6 gives you access to climb the winding stairs to the dome. I highly recommend this for a bird’s eye view of the city. I didn’t enjoy visiting on my own as I found the staircases to be quite lonely and a little eerie! I can be a bit daft though and am easily scared. Next time I’ll take someone with me! Just a note of warning, on the bottom of the steps leading up to Sacre Coeur there are some hawkers selling items such as friendship bracelets. Unless you want to buy one at an extortionate price please don’t let them give you the bracelet! A man asked me to hold some thread and before I knew it he’d made the bracelet, tied it round my wrist and tried to charge me €10 for the privilege. I can assure you I didn’t pay him anywhere near that but it was still too much for something I didn’t want. I always seem to learn these lessons the hard way.

What to eat

There is no getting away from the fact that Paris is expensive. I ate simply and cheaply by visiting boulangeries and munching on fresh croissants. These served as breakfast and lunch for me. I ate one for breakfast, one mid-morning and one at midday! The boulangerie nearest to my hostel had a special offer for buying 3. Mid-afternoon I picked up a crepe or some other street food. For drinks I popped in to little supermarkets. Unfortunately, my hostel didn’t offer self-catering facilities, which is something I would look for on my next trip. Most restaurants offer a reasonably priced Menu du Jour that is available at lunchtime so it is much more cost effective to eat out for lunch rather than dinner. Also check out the value restaurant chain Flunch. They offer proper food, as opposed to fast food, for a very reasonable price. One day I splashed out and enjoyed a lovely lunch near Montmartre. The French really do know how to make good food. The best advice I can offer is to find eating places away from the main tourist areas with their inflated prices.

By Rachel Birchley

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