TRAVEL: The Basque Country – another country

South west France and north-east Spain is the Basque Country where they speak an ancient and incomprehensible language, eat different food and have a different attitude to life.



The Basque culture runs right up to Biarritz and Bayonne in France. We had never visited this region so decided to have a look and drove down from Bordeaux.

The Basque Country itself is usually recognised as being an autonomous community in northern Spain. They have a distinct and celebrated cuisine, strong cultural traditions and a different language –  Euskara – that pre-dates the Romance languages.  For many years there was a strong movement for independence from Spain but since 2008 they have had their own government and a high degree of autonomy from Spain.


San Sebastian

There is no border as such between France and Spain and as you drive through the only thing you notice is that the road signs change language, looking for signs to San Sebastian all you see are signs to Donostia, which is the Basque name for San Sebastian, we weren’t aware of that fact for some time!

It’s a great place to visit, and of course they speak French and Spanish as well as their own language but their whole approach to life is very relaxed and definitely not particularly Spanish.  The small towns along the coast have a unique feel and the main centres, San Sebastian and Bilbao are very attractive.


San Sebastian beach

The weather is good, the beaches fantastic and the sea warm despite it being the Atlantic. We stayed at the Mercure Monte Igueldo in San Sebastian. This hotel is stunning, more like a Spanish Parador than a French Mercure. Situated on a hill overlooking the fabulous bay of La Concha, the views are breathtaking; the rooms are great, the service and food are hard to beat.  Plus with the fabulous roof top swimming pool we felt very happy. At €120 per room this hotel is a bargain.

San Sebastian is a city of 183,000 inhabitants and gets over 450,000 visitors every year. We went in June and it wasn’t at all overcrowded, with temperatures around 30 degrees the enormous golden sandy beach was busy but it’s so big there was loads of room for everyone.


Apart from its wonderful location, scenery and beaches they also have many festivals, from jazz to film, to dance and theatre, there always seems to be festival happening. Not surprisingly it’s going to be the European Capital of Culture 2016.

But it was its reputation for food that drew us here, of course with a total of 16 Michelin starred restaurants it’s very easy to eat extremely well, at a price!


The main attraction is, however, the enormous range of pintxos or tapas bars in the old town. Here you can wander from bar to bar and for a few euro eat some of the most ingenious and amazing little plates of delicious food. The range on some of the bar counters must run into 50 or more. They are very proud of this traditional form of dining which has now become highly sophisticated haute cuisine in miniature.  Naturally every little pintxo come with a zurito, a small glass of beer or wine. Txakoli, is the local young white wine, it is served extremely cold and poured from a height to force fizz into the liquid. It’s deliciously acidic. A glass will set you back €1.50. We ate very well, almost too well, for around €25 each including the local wine.


With pintxos, the idea is to eat one or two of what each bar does best.  A favourite was La Cuchara de San Telmo in a side street running off Calle 31 de Agosto– it is said that they produce the most delicious pintxos in town, such as foie gras with apple compote for €3, or cheese-laced risotto cremoso for €2.90.


There are plenty of museums and art galleries, as you would expect, plus some beautiful 16th century architecture in the old town. There are all the major shops and lots of boutiques selling some beautiful and expensive things, none of which you need but very tempting, leave your credit card at the hotel.

The main airport for the region is Bilbao, BA fly from Heathrow and easyJet from Stansted, or easyJet from Gatwick to Biarritz, which is just over the French border. There is a very good train and bus service to San Sebastian.

San Sebastian came as a huge surprise; we had been told that we just had to go but it wasn’t until we got there did we realise quite why.

For more information about San Sebastian, click here:

A large glass of Bordeaux with a slice of Biarritz

Everyone associates Bordeaux with just wine, and yes they do produce some 700 million bottles of red wine a year, which English wine snobs call claret. But what of the actual place, being quite fond of a glass or two we thought it may be worth a visit, it was.

Bordeaux: Place de la Bourse
Bordeaux: Place de la Bourse

Just an hour’s flight from Gatwick takes you to one of the loveliest cities in South West France, situated on the river Garonne.

We booked a BA Fly/Drive trip, surprisingly the same price as our usual orange aircraft but with the benefit of free luggage and free drinks, and booked into the Mercure Cite Mondial. This is a smart modern hotel in the Chartrons area, a very trendy location, almost on the river.  The breakfast on their seventh floor restaurant was one of the best we have had in a long time and has a great view of the river and the city.

Bordeaux: Old Town
Bordeaux: Old Town

The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and much to our surprise the all the city is quite lovely. Just 20 years ago the whole place was rundown; the river was hidden by dingy warehouses, as it was once a major port.  Today it has been totally regenerated with wide open boulevards, the honey coloured 19th century buildings have been cleaned and the riverside opened up.

One of the first areas to be renovated and pedestrianised and still the place to go on a Friday and Saturday evening, is the St Pierre district in the heart of Old Bordeaux. The star of the Bordeaux show is the river which winds round the city in a great arc. They have built a fabulous quay with cafes, restaurants and very trendy bars, it’s where the smart set eat, drink and stroll.

We had dinner in the excellent gay run La Cigale restaurant, run by two very friendly, good-looking guys, cosy and very reasonable.  The new hi-tech tram system is very cheap and the best way to see the city.  There are apparently 376 listed historic monuments; we saw a few, all the famous shops are there, lovely squares and parks and being there during the June heat wave certainly added to the overall experience.

Bordeaux: Le Quai des Marques
Bordeaux: Le Quai des Marques

Bordeaux is still being developed, but today it is a well-groomed and good mannered French city which compares itself with Paris, that may be a step too far but it is certainly worth a visit.

From there we drove to Biarritz just two hours down one of the most boring roads in France, and there are plenty of them. The A63 is a long, straight, utterly featureless road but gets you where you’re going quite quickly.


Biarritz, is a 20 century town made fashionable in the 1930’s by frequent visits by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor is now a relatively quiet seaside resort on the Basque coast.  They opened the first casino in 1901 and for some time the town became very popular with the beau monde, film stars and minor European royalty. Today it has a sense of faded gentility. It became known as the Queen of Seaside Resorts, today it’s more the Queen Mother.

To be honest it was a disappointment, yes it has several large lovely surfing beaches, some very grand buildings and hotels and lots of shops but not a lot else.  There is however a lot of great restaurants in the buzzy, trendy Halles district. Being in the Basque country the food is based on the famous pintxos.  Fantastic and great fun.


The receptionist at the very uninspiring Mercure President Hotel we stayed in was disarmingly honest and said we should go to Bayonne, a short drive away, so we did.  Google Biarritz and you will get dozens of references to Bayonne and there’s a good reason.


Bayonne is a truly magnificent medieval city and well worth a visit.  The narrow streets and squares of the perfectly preserved old town are mainly pedestrianised and great to wander around.  The city is famous for cured ham, expensive but delicious we even brought some home. Bayonne is also known as the chocolate capital of France.  It is also the capital of the Pays Basque, the signs are confusing as the Basque language is almost impossible to understand but most are also in French. In Basque welcome becomes ongietorri Baiona or in French Bienvenue à Bayonne, it does get a bit baffling.

Biarritz and Bayonne are just ten minutes and many centuries apart, and quite fascinating in their own ways.


Venice – ‘La Serenissima’

(Or me, my selfie stick and I.) by Roger Wheeler.


MILLIONS of words have been written by some of the world’s most distinguished writers about Venice, undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful and romantic cities, so what can I add? There are hundreds of websites and dozens of tour companies wanting to help you enjoy the place, you don‘t need them.

The British have had a love affair with Venice for well over 500 years, and with over 16 million tourists a year it can get quite busy. Our trip was a surprise present for my husband’s 40th birthday; needless to say he was overwhelmed.


You run out of superlatives when describing Venice and none of the paintings or photos you’ll have seen do the city justice, it is quite simply breathtaking. It must be like living in a picture postcard or a film set for the 270,000 residents.

There are 400 bridges, all with stunning views, which of course have to be photographed. Here you’ll meet some of the hundreds of the ‘selfie stick’ street sellers who wave them at you constantly, they will wave them at you constantly even if you don’t have a smart phone. And of course most of the weeks 500,000 tourists must take selfies, everywhere.

The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal

We flew to Venice with BA, which has four flights a day from Gatwick to the main Marco Polo Airport (the budget airlines fly to Treviso Airport 40km from the city – sometimes economy is not economic).

We were advised to take the Alilaguna water bus from the airport into the city, (€27 return) but the boats are crowded, the windows are so filthy you can’t see much and the drivers not particularly friendly.

There is an excellent Aerobus service (€6), which takes you in comfort right to Piazzale Roma bus terminal in the city near Ferrovia train station. From there you can walk to your hotel or take one of the many water buses which go to every part of the city. Venice isn’t big, you can walk from one side to the other in less than 30 minutes. You will of course get briefly lost, but there are signs on almost every corner directing you to San Marco via the Rialto. Get a decent guidebook with a map, we very quickly got our bearings and found our hotel but still got lost on our third day, but that is all part of its charm.

We stayed at the Ca’ Nigra, a stunning 22 bedroom hotel right opposite the Ferrovia on the Grand Canal itself. A really lovely place, with the friendliest staff, particularly the two attractive young brothers who are in charge of breakfast and morning reception. The hotel is, like all the others on the Grand Canal, a beautifully restored 17th century palace, small rooms but very comfortable all red velvet with a huge Murano glass chandelier and balcony. Tell them it’s a special occasion on arrival and they give you a glass of prosecco in the garden right beside the Grand Canal. A visit to Venice is always a special occasion. The only quibble was the shower, if you weigh more the 90kg you wouldn’t fit in it. We paid €922 – £645 for four nights B&B through; I asked the hotel that if we booked direct would be we get a discount. After much discussion it came to about £18, so went through the agency anyway. This hotel does not have a restaurant, apart from the stylish breakfast room, but you will eat out at some of the little local restaurants. Of course if you want to stay where the Clooney’s got married, at the Aman Canal Grande, you will be paying about €5,000 per night or at the new St Regis where it’s a mere €9,000 per night.

St Mark's Square
St Mark’s Square

Everyone has to see the Piazza San Marco (the most beautiful square in Europe according to Napoleon), St Mark’s Basilica (a truly awe-inspiring building), the Doge’s Palace, the Rialto Bridge, as well as all the well-publicised attractions. Don’t buy anything near these sites, not even a coffee, the entire area is full of tourist shops and selfie stick sellers.

A drink at the famous Harry’s Bar in St Mark’s Square costs £20+ and a coffee £10; on the Grand Canal, just round the corner, a coffee is £6 but just three minutes away it’s down to £2.50.

Like all major cities Venice can be expensive. Dinner at the Hotel Danielli is about £250 without wine, but if you wander into the back streets, where the restaurants are still busy, a good meal with wine can be €100/£70 for two. Avoid any restaurant with an ‘all day’ menu, that’s strictly for tourists. The tiny narrow alleys that give Venice its charm can be just a shoulder-width wide, with the buildings going up to over six storeys.

By far the best value is a Venice Citypass, €30 for a two-day pass from the Tourist Office on the corner of St Mark’s Square. You can use them on every water bus. A single costs €7 per trip and over two days we took about ten trips so it’s a bargain.


Before you go, log onto and get some Skip The Line Passes which let you walk past the queues and straight into the famous places. They cost €2 each but must be bought in advance and only online. We avoided the clichéd gondola ride: €80 for 40 minutes and €100 after 7pm, with an additional €50 for an extra 20 minutes. You can see all of Venice either on foot or on the water buses; the gondolas are the oldest tourist rip-off in the world.

Worth seeing is the Ghetto, the oldest Jewish quarter in the world, very atmospheric, and Arsenale – a beautifully restored military area just off the Grand Canal, the site of the annual Venice Biennale.

Venice is full of museums and beautiful churches all of which charge, including the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. This world-famous gallery, the most visited attraction in Italy is also on the Grand Canal. It houses a collection of modern art regarded as the most important in the western world, with Picasso, Miro, Mondrian etc, if modern art is your thing then it’s a must. If, however like us this sort of art fails to excite or even interest you then save the €15 entrance fee.


Of course you have to visit the islands in the lagoon. Murano, where they have been making glass for over a thousand years is an extremely popular destination and if you must buy a piece of glass then buy it here. My advice is to take the next boat on to Burano, it’s much prettier than Murano and quieter.

Back in Venice itself on the island of Guidecca you have to visit the Hilton Molina Stucky Hotel’s Skyline Bar, it has the best views in the city and its free, unless you have a drink, then its not, two G&T’s cost €56 – £40, but they were large gins and the view is unbelievable.

One of the most interesting things that we noticed was that hardly anyone smokes and if you prefer your men clean-shaven and without any ‘body art’ then Venice is the place for you, Conchita Wurst’s influence hasn’t reached here – yet.

Go in spring, there are fewer tourists; you will leave Venice wanting to return.


TRAVEL: Winchester: In the footsteps of Alfred the Great

Roger Wheeler visits the county town of Hampshire and former capital of the ancient Kingdom of Wessex.


MOST of us learnt about King Alfred at school and the mythical story of him burning the cakes, almost certainly he didn’t burn any cakes, but it takes us to the fascinating history of Alfred and his capital, Winchester.

We had never visited this part of the country and so on an impulse we decided to take a look and were very pleasantly surprised.

Winchester Hotel and Spa
Winchester Hotel and Spa

Once you have navigated the usual impenetrable one way system that most of our old towns now have had inflicted on them, we found the hotel. We stayed at the Winchester Hotel and Spa (they all have a spa these days), a very nice modern hotel about ten minutes walk from the centre. For £135 we got the best room in the hotel, all mirrors, sofa, huge bed, monsoon shower, an excellent dinner and a reasonable breakfast, bargain.  This is very much a business and conference hotel but none the worse for that.

The city itself is quite small, a population of just over 40,000 with 7,000 students at the university and 700 at Winchester College, the oldest public school in the country, the city has quite a young feel.  There has been people living in this area for thousands of years and the Anglo Saxons made it quite a centre. The architecture today is a fascinating mix of Roman, medieval and Tudor buildings many of which the Victorians’ vandalised or ‘remodelled’ as they loved doing.

Winchester Cathedral

The cathedral built in 1079 is world famous and obviously well worth a visit. It has the longest Nave of any cathedral in Europe but when we were there, unfortunately it was closed thanks to the university graduation.

The Great Hall
The Great Hall

The famous Round Table hangs in the impressive Great Hall, the only remaining part of the castle.  The table has nothing to do with the mythical King Arthur and his Knights but it is 13th Century and was painted in its present style by order of Henry VIII in 1522.

The helpful tourist office is next to the Guildhall in the High Street, it’s an unremarkable Victorian building; there are hundreds like it throughout the UK.The High Street, itself which is likewise the same as many others, is full of the usual coffee shops and chain stores, but you need to look up to see some of the wonderful buildings that house WH Smith, Starbucks etc., Raymond Blanc does have one of his restaurants there though, in one of the many Tudor buildings that escaped the Victorians.


It’s off the main street that you find the most interesting and picturesque places, there are many little quiet corners with small green spaces with flowing streams, Winchester  lies on the River Itchen which the Romans diverted through several channels through the City, one of them so close to the cathedral that it causes problems with the foundations.

There is a lot to see here and to fully appreciate the city you really need a guide, the tourist office recommended the wonderful Steve Heath. He is an ex military man an extremely knowledgeable expert and very witty guide. The city has a strong military connection, the famous Peninsular Barracks, once the home of the Green Jackets are now very desirable apartments. Property prices here rival some parts of London which is not surprising as its less than an hour from Waterloo.

Winchester is ideal for a trip through the ancient kingdom of Wessex; it was the capital and for some time the most important city in the country. Only a few miles from Stonehenge, it is on the edge of the South Downs National Park so given good weather it’s a great place to visit. But even in the rain it has bags of charm as we discovered!


They told us that they have the best Christmas market in Europe and in late October when we visited they were starting to get ready for it. It attracts 350,000 visitors a year and runs from November 20 to December 21, from the list of attractions and events it looks worth a visit.

We really liked Winchester, it really is a very beautiful city. It’s the thinking man’s Lewes!

Добро пожаловать в Марбелье or Welcome to Marbella

Roger Wheeler visits the Costa del Sol to sample the wine, the food and check out those burly Russian men.

Marbella Beach
Marbella Beach

I have been visiting the Costa del Sol for many years and over that time nothing much has changed apart from the language spoken by a large number of new residents. Today most of Europe is slowly recovering from recession so there isn’t much money around. Of course, the Brits and Germans still visit in their hoards on their cheap package deals, stay two weeks, eat only their national food, get sunburnt, occasionally drunk and then fly home.

However, you would be blind not to notice the very large number of quite heavy set men with their, usually young female companions sitting in the best bars and restaurants. These are the Russians who along with their neighbours from Bulgaria now represent a substantial number of local residents.

Of course they are all over the Mediterranean and have been for some years but it is on the Costa del Sol that they have become very visible. They are apparently buying all the decent real estate, leaving the many thousands of empty houses and flats in the safe hands of the banks that financed over the years but now can’t sell them.

We were strongly advised by a British ex-pat that it would be wise not to engage with any of these gentlemen or “you could be sent home in a box”, I don’t think that he was joking. So, we spent just one night in Marbella, still a very pretty seaside resort and surprisingly very Spanish despite their new neighbours.

Our new friend also advised us to avoid Peurto Banus, once the playground of the Hollywood A listers with their large floating gin palaces and designer boutiques, as, we were told that it had become quite tacky. How, exactly, he didn’t expand on but we moved on anyway. Suffice it to say that the local police in Marbella have opened a special department to deal with the crimes that the Russian and eastern Europeans are held responsible for.


We drove west to our favourite Peublo Blanco, Gaucin, (or Gaycin as it has become known). We have visited many times and never tire of its peaceful charm. Just 24km up from the coast near Estepona it has some of the most atmospheric charisma you will find in any of the many similar pueblos scattered like snowflakes over the Serrania de Ronda, it is an area of stunning natural beauty, with a striking range of mountains, the views are simply beautiful.

 La Fructuosa: Roof Terrace
La Fructuosa: Roof Terrace

Gaucin has at least one gay owned and run hotel – La Fructuosa – with about seven lovely rooms and a great restaurant. There are several excellent tapas bars and a couple of quite expensive restaurants. While we were there none other than Gordon Ramsay and film crew were in residence filming one of his famous programmes on a new restaurant, La Granada Divino. Pricey but very good we were told although how they will manage during the long winter months when the tourists leave will be interesting, as the locals rarely visit.

We drove on to Cadiz, just 120 miles along one of the finest stretches of coastline in Spain which has become the windsurfing capital of the country. There are miles of unbroken sandy beaches with spectacular Atlantic rollers; there are many surfing resorts which are extremely popular.

Cadiz at sunset
Cadiz at sunset

Cadiz, the oldest city in Western Europe, is one of the most beautiful places we have ever visited. Its tiny narrow streets with five storey buildings almost seeming to touch at the top, hundreds of tapas bars and restaurants with lovely little squares around every corner.

Roger & Mike in Cadiz
Roger & Mike in Cadiz

Of course there is a stunning cathedral, worth a visit even if, like us, you have no religious persuasion. Cadiz has a character and atmosphere that is hard to define; you just have to be there. We stayed at the brand new Parador – Hotel Atlantico. Just two years old this hotel is a fantastic building, with very comfortable rooms with balconies with sea views.. We were just unlucky to arrive when they seemed to be training new staff and we had to wait two hours for our room to be ready, unacceptable in one of the four star Paradors. Then dinner that night was just awful, service slow and quite unfriendly and the food, after it had been sent back once, arrived burnt. You may imagine our conversation with the hapless duty manager the next day.


From there, home via Gibraltar, which contrary to popular belief, is not an island but a British Overseas Territory, part of the Iberian Peninsula. Gib is a fascinating place; it really is Britain in the sun, with fish and chip shops, M&S and a large Morrison’s.

Caleta Hotel
Caleta Hotel

As usual we stayed at the Caleta Hotel, this is one place that the Parador could learn something from, they have got customer service to a fine art. On arrival you are made to feel like a long lost friend, the rooms are excellent and the restaurant very good indeed. The prices are very reasonable; there are always deals to be had. The hotel is being redeveloped this year into Gibraltar’s first five star and that will certainly be worth a visit.

The Spanish Government is continuing to harass the Gibraltarians by insisting on full searches of every car wanting to arrive or leave the Rock, this can result in three or four hour queues, extremely annoying and frustrating. We were very lucky as we picked up our hire car just across the frontier and were able to simply walk through. On our return we left the car in the same place and walked back through the border without any problem. It all depends on the time of day and the mood of the frontier guards.

The Costa del Sol is still a great place to visit, the beaches, the weather, the food, it is one of the best value for money holidays you can have.




A pocket full of Rye!

Roger Wheeler visits one of the real treasures of Sussex


The ancient town of Rye is undoubtedly one of the historic gems of Sussex, just 55 miles from Brighton and 76 from London and on the main Brighton – Ashford International railway line it’s really quite accessible.

Never having been there to take a serious look, as a birthday treat we booked into one of the two four star hotels – The George in Rye, as they call it – with a deal from at £100 for a luxury room with breakfast.

Rye is a beautiful place, with just 4,000 inhabitants, all living in what look like listed houses and with a history dating back over 1,000 years.  Rye is a must see on any tourist trail and survives on tourism. During the day the town is packed with visitors from all over the world, even some from the UK, although most it seems come from the US and Europe.


During our initial stroll we overheard someone on her phone saying “we’ve been here just over half an hour, I think we’ve seen it all now”. That comment pretty well sums the place up, once you have walked around and admired the many stunning houses, the obligatory church with a great view from the tower and looked at the many ‘gift’ shops packed with interesting souvenirs and art, all that’s left is to have lunch and head off.

Of course purist historians would strongly disagree as there is a lot of fascinating history. Rye was one of the original Cinque Ports, and was a very important sea port, although the river and harbour silted up and the sea is now over two miles away.

During the threat of Napoleonic invasion in 1803 it was thought to be one of the main places the French would aim for. Rye Harbour was recently upgraded and is still quite a busy fishing port although most of the fish is now sold in Boulogne.

There is of course an excellent Heritage Centre by the river which has a superb model of the town and a popular sound and light presentation. The little Tourist Information centre seemed to be staffed by only one, very helpful, but very busy lady.

It seems that although the town’s official population is just over 4,000 about 50% are there just for weekends or have holiday homes, so a more accurate number would be fewer than 2,000.


Rye’s only real problem is that apart from endless art galleries, an Arts Festival in September and souvenir shops there is only one food shop and that is quite small. The residents have to travel the 12 miles to Hastings or 11 miles to Tenterden to shop. Someone wryly smiled and said that there had been talk of a Sainsbury store some years ago but it would detract from the quaint atmosphere of the town and so was abandoned.

Rye has featured in several famous books not the least being EF Benson’s Mapp & Lucia series, in which the town is renamed as Tilling. The television series was shown in 1986 and the BBC are about to film another adaptation in 2014. Paul McCartney has a farm in nearby Peasmarch, in fact lots of quite famous actors, writers and celebs choose to live close to Rye, and they probably don’t mind driving 12 miles to do their shopping.

Rye today is well worth a visit, without doubt it has all the charm you could wish for, but after the last tourist heads home the town drifts off to sleep. The cobbled streets are virtually deserted; you can wander around and have the place to yourself.


There are a several decent pubs and restaurants but what life there is can be found in the hotels. There are several very good hotels and guest houses, the Mermaid Inn is possibly the oldest built in 1420 and it looks amazing.

We stayed in The George a newly renovated hotel dating from 1545; it is very pleasant, full of interesting character and some equally interesting characters. If you’re thinking of booking avoid rooms at the rear of the hotel as the kitchen extractor fans run all night and are quite noisy. But our room, one up from the basic, was fine with a fabulous four poster bed, great bathroom, TV and WiFi of course. In fact all the usual amenities you would expect from a four star establishment. The restaurant was very good, service, food, wine all excellent and the breakfast was first-class. Our total bill was just over £200, which considering the overall quality was very good value.

Rye remains in a time warp, its like stepping through a portal to a bygone age where nothing has changed for hundreds of years, which is its attraction. Visitors flock to the town in their thousands, admire the medieval architecture, buy a few souvenirs and leave.


The green grass of Venice?

Roger Wheeler pays a visit to South West France and finds a little paradise.

River Sevres
River Sevres

Venise Verte or green venice is the phrase used to describe one of the most beautiful parts of France that I have ever visited.  Down in the south west in the department of Deux Sevres lays this stunning area of water meadows and canals that hardly anyone ever visits.


It is basically a large area of marshland called Marais Poitevin with its centre in the lovely little town of Coulon.  We knew about the area but found it almost by accident.

The EU has awarded it its European Destination of ExcelleNce – yes that’s crazy EU spelling for you but it gives the acronym EDEN to the Marais Poitevin. It’s quite close to La Rochelle but the nearest large town is Niort.

This labyrinth of waterways, lined with tall and dense vegetation, is worth exploring as it is the largest wooded marshland on the Atlantic coast (49,000 hectares) and has one of the richest natural habitats in France. The long winding paths can be explored on foot, or by bike. When we arrived it was living up to its name of green as it was raining, heavily. But even the awful weather could not distract from the sheer beauty of the place.

We stayed at the Hotel au Marias, right on the riverside, parking was free, the staff exceptionally friendly and the price was very reasonable at 80€ per room. From Coulon you can hire one of the little traditional barques either by yourself or have a young man take you round the many canals and little rivers, it really is very beautiful.

Citadel at Parthenay
Citadel at Parthenay

This area of France is not on the traditional tourist routes and is really very quiet but there are several very interesting places to see. Not least is the little 13th century walled town of Parthenay.  One of its main claims to fame is that it lies on one of the many medieval pilgrimage routes ‘El Camino de Santiago’ to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.  Even today people have been known to walk for weeks along this route.  The old centre of Parthenay is very atmospheric but nowadays the town is surrounded by a major by-pass which has just about every major shop that you can ask for. The comparison between the 13th and 21st centuries could not be more stark.

Wandering around this region is fascinating; we just drove wherever the roads took us, much to my navigator’s alarm.  We ended up near a little town called Vasles (pronounced Val), with one shop, one bar and one church and as it was getting late we realised that we had nowhere to stay.

Les Tranchees Gite
Les Tranchees Gite exterior

This region is full of great surprises and we literally stumbled, across a tiny hamlet called Les Tranchees.  Some years ago we stayed in a gîte in Brittany and weren’t very impressed so when we were told that there was a gîte right here that was available we were cautious.

Les Tranchees Gite interior
Les Tranchees Gite interior

We quickly discovered that there was no need for caution as this gîte – called Les Tranchees – is quite fantastic.  Run by an ex-pat English couple, Suzanne and Keith, we were welcomed like long lost friends. The accommodation is part of an old farmhouse, they weren’t too certain quite how old, but they have modernised it to a very high standard of comfort with modern facilities.  We had a huge sitting room with TV, fully equipped kitchen and great bathroom.  The bedroom on a mezzanine overlooking the sitting room was spacious and very accommodating. Our hosts were exceptionally friendly but we had complete privacy. There were large gardens at the front and rear with sun loungers which we were welcome to use.  A small outdoor pool is planned for next year.

We were there in June when the weekly rate of 395€ was exceptional value for money.  This proved to be a great location to explore the local region and enjoy the local hospitality, which was very agreeable.

There is a local drink Pineau des Charentes which they seem to drink quite a lot of and so did we.  It is a kind of sherry and very drinkable and you can now get it in the UK.  The area does have quite a number of ex-pat Brits so although we were in the middle of truly rural France an English accent was not unusual.

Not to visit Deux Sevres would be to miss one of the most fascinating parts of France, there is a lot to see and enjoy.

For information, view:



Wisley – A great day out!

Roger Wheeler visits one of Englands finest horticultural attractions.


It’s a new year, no one has any money and its mid-winter, but we still need an occasional break.  Some years ago we got an allotment, there’s a lot to discover about growing veg so, hoping to learn something we joined The Royal Horticultural Society.  Included in the membership is free entry to lots of gardens and estates throughout the country.  I had heard of their main site at Wisley in Surrey but had never been. I thought that it was just a glorified garden centre, I was so wrong.

This beautiful 240 acre garden is worth a visit at any time, even if you don’t particularly like gardens. It was founded in 1878 and after Kew Gardens it is the most visited garden in the country. It attracts nearly one million visitors a year and even if the huge car park appears to be full you can wander around the grounds without seeing any crowds.


The garden lies between Cobham and Ripley in Surrey, off the main London to Portsmouth road (A3) south of Junction 10 of the M25. Follow the brown tourist flower signs on the A3 and M25 to RHS Garden. Car parking is free.  They charge £10.75 to non members, which may seem steep but once you’re in you quickly realise that its good value, you can easily spend a day there.   There are several restaurants from fine dining to a very simple ‘Honest Sausage’ cafe and cute little coffee shops serving great sandwiches and cakes.  We were there in late September and expected not to see much, wrong again, the gardens were full of flowers and fascinating plants and an amazing collection of apple trees in full fruit, we tried a few.  There are lakes and a huge glass house, the whole place is just a big surprise.


The glasshouse has desert, tropical and temperate climates, they even have model gardens, each the size of a standard back garden, demonstrating what you can do even with a small patch. They have a vegetable garden, a rock garden and alpine meadow, a wild garden, a walled garden, there is a canal with water lilies and an arboretum.  The various areas are all quite interesting and on a decent day many people take picnics.

We have been to Kew Gardens and Wakehust Place – they are also great for days out and we even went to the Chelsea Flower Show for the first time this year.  Now that really is just a huge garden centre and if it rains as it did when we were there it really isn’t a lot of fun.

South East England is packed with country houses with glorious gardens and if that’s your thing then you can spend many a happy day just looking.  At Wisley though you can actually learn something about your garden and the plants in it, they have a lot of gardeners who are very happy to chat and offer advice.  Of course there is a big shop and plant centre to relieve you of any spare cash you have and in fact they are both really quite reasonable and certainly worth a look.

Wisley is said to be one of the great gardens of the world, not having been to that many I wouldn’t like to comment but it is certainly a great day out.

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Île de Ré – French beaches at their best

Il de Re
Il de Re

Many years ago I heard about an exclusive French island resort called Île de Ré, which I had assumed was way outside of my price bracket. But I had always wanted to go, so this year, after our major road trip to south west France, we ended up in La Rochelle and realising that this famous island was only 15 miles away we had to take a look.

For hundreds of years Île de Ré was the playground of rich Parisians and then in 1988 they built a bridge which brought this idyll to an end. The bridge opened up the island to everyone and they came in their thousands and still do, mainly to stay in the many camp sites that litter the place. The winter population of 20,000 grows to over 220,000 during the summer and most of them seem to be riding bikes. There are just ten very small villages which are now surrounded by large camp sites. There is still some open country, which is quite flat and not particularly interesting, but the main attractions are the huge sandy beaches.

St Martin, Il de Re
St Martin, Il de Re

The main and really the only village worth visiting is St Martin, a beautiful little port with two small harbours; today full of floating gin palaces but nonetheless it has terrific charm. There are lots of lovely little bars and restaurants which, in high summer are packed. The food, mainly from the sea, is terrific and surprisingly not very expensive. St Martin still maintains its exclusive feel; you have to dodge the Ferraris’ and Bentleys that cruise around the narrow streets thronged with the very beautiful people. The many thousands of ordinary tourists that decorate the rest of the island didn’t seem much in evidence in St Martin.

L’Hôtel de Toiras in St Martin
L’Hôtel de Toiras in St Martin

As it was a special occasion we booked a couple of days in one of the two five star hotels on the island, L’Hôtel de Toiras in St Martin. This was the real deal, with just 20 stunning rooms, a beautiful courtyard garden and amazing restaurant. It wasn’t cheap; this is not a hotel for the budget traveller. Set in prime position on the quayside, the hotel is a beautifully restored 17th century merchant’s house. Each bedroom is different and the suites are enormous; views are of the little courtyard garden or the harbour. Decorated in formal townhouse style, it’s a romantic place, more suited to couples than families, all archive wallpapers and antiques. The service is excellent, and double deluxe rooms start from £172. The general manager was the exceptionally personable 34 year-old Pierre Gaillot, who must be the youngest manager of a hotel like this anywhere. The chef, Thierry Bouhier, is certainly deserving of any awards they care to give him, as he produced all the food single-handedly without any staff, and it was fabulous.

The island is quite small, only 30km long and just 5km wide, and despite the thousands of happy campers it still maintains its popularity with the rich and famous. Brad and Angelina and Johnny Depp have been known to hire one of the several secluded villas that are hidden in the woods. The other nine villages left us a little underwhelmed, as they all cater for the mass tourist trade which is, after all, just about the only real industry. After tourism, wine growing is the next most important industry and where there aren’t camp sites there are grape vines. The locals have been producing Fleur de Sel, which is their own sea salt for centuries, and it was salt like we had never tasted.

La Flotte

After our luxurious stay at Hotel Toiras, we moved on to the next little port, La Flotte, where we stayed in the lovely two star hotel, La Galiote, which in many ways was just as nice as the five star luxury just up the road and quite a bit cheaper at €120 (£100). La Flotte is a bit of a one-trick pony; it has a small not particularly attractive harbour, a few quite good restaurants and a pleasant sea front. There is a large apartment/self catering hotel and the island’s other five star hotel is just along the promenade, two extremes about 2km from each other. The food market is perhaps the best on the island; each stall more fascinating than the next, with tarts, fruit, cheese & pâté, plus bread from the excellent bakery.

La Rochelle airport is just 20 minutes by taxi from St Martin, and Ryanair, Flybe, easyJet and Jet2 all fly there from Britain. A cheaper, though longer option is the bus transfer from the airport to the island, which involves a change in La Rochelle. Buses also run between island villages. The 3km bridge that connects Île de Ré to the mainland charges a toll, which was €8 before it doubled in price for the rest of the summer. They only charge one way, so you leave for free.

The main reasons for visiting Île de Ré are for the fantastic beaches, surfing, the Hotel Toiras and dinner in St Martin. The very top of the island is heavily wooded and has some spectacular beaches with very high sand dunes, which are ideal for sun-bathing ‘au naturel’.

After three days we seemed to have driven the few main roads about ten times and were quite happy to say au revoir to Île de Ré.

La Belle France!

The British have been crossing the channel for hundreds of years; in the past it was to fight the French, today it is to live amongst them. Over the past twenty or so years we have been descending in our hundreds on many parts of France, from Normandy to Provence but no area has been quite as popular as Poitou-Charentes in the south west, around La Rochelle, Bordeaux  and Angouleme.  We discovered that some long lost relatives had recently moved there and they invited us to visit. Their house being only 300 miles from Dieppe, this was an invitation that no one would refuse. Let’s go and see what hundreds of our fellow countrymen had found quite so fabulous about this particular area.

The drive was indeed very easy; the French motorways are very efficient, if a little expensive and we were soon crossing the big bridges spanning the Loire valley near the famous city of Tours and then on towards Poitiers and La Rochelle.  The scenery, after the rolling hills of Normandy, becomes quite flat and very agricultural but on the motorway you really don’t see much of the country, although you do pass a lot of large signs advertising beautiful nearby chateaux. No time to stop we were ‘en route’.  One of these signs is advertising Futuroscope the famous multi-media theme park.  Since it opened 25 years ago it has attracted over 40 million visitors, we decided not to add to that impressive figure.

Poitiers: Place de Gaull
Poitiers: Place de Gaull

Just 10km further and you arrive in the ancient city of Poitiers, the regional capital. with a population  of 92,000, The RAF bombed it heavily in 1944 and today, thanks to a massive amount of renovation and reconstruction it has a very modern feel.  It’s an easy place to wander around, mainly for the designer shopping. The centre is being completely re-designed; again, how this new look will sit alongside its 80 historic monuments is too early to tell.

The tourist office right by the beautiful 12 century cathedral is housed in an incredibly ugly building and was probably the most unhelpful and unfriendly I have ever visited, they were possibly just having a bad day. Poitiers didn’t exactly excite us, if you live in the area then its fine, a big modern town with all the shops and supermarkets that you could want, but from a tourist point of view it seemed to lack any sort of ‘vibe’ that we could identify.  You can fly to Poitiers with Ryanair from Stanstead.

La Rochelle, France
La Rochelle, France

Things pick up quite a lot when you head the 87 miles to La Rochelle, one of the most  glamorous resorts on the Atlantic coast of south west France.  With a population of 80,000 it is one of the most visited towns in France, with 75,000 of its annual three million visitors coming from the UK.  This exceptionally beautiful city is built around a wide bay and has no less than four ports and marinas, one of which, Port des Minimes, is the biggest marina in Europe.

The historic port is beautifully preserved with a quayside that bustles with boats small and large, the seafront is packed full of lively cafes, bars and restaurants

Tourist attractions are everywhere. Walk through the striking Gothic gateway, Porte de la Grosse Horloge and you enter a maze of pedestrianised streets, flanked by seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings.  These are now boutique shops selling everything from high fashion, books, antiques and of course lots of patisseries selling those wonderful calorific pastries that the French love. There are plenty of excellent places to eat, there is a street, that is known locally as ‘Restaurant Street, rue Saint-Jean-du-Pérot, which is full of restaurants and cafes, some can be pricey and the cuisine is mainly seafood, but all looked pretty good to us.

La Rochelle, France
La Rochelle, France

La Rochelle is not a beach resort, the man made beach is not up to much, there is an enormous selection of great beaches along the coast and on the several islands that dot the bay, Ile de Re, Ile d’Oleron and Ile d’Aix.  There are plenty of hotels to suit all budgets, we stayed, at the Mercure, right on the old port., small rooms but clean and comfortable and free parking.  You would expect a city like this to be quite gay, but in fact there are only a few cafes and bars and one sauna listed as being gay, but the place is so cosmopolitan the boys and girls are everywhere.

La Rochelle is served from April until September by easyJet from Gatwick and it’s on the TGV line, three hours from Paris.

Just 14 miles from La Rochelle over a spectacular bridge is the famous Ile de Re, attracting visitors such as Brad, Angelina and Johnny Depp to name a few, but that’s another story altogether.

Why are there so many Brits here?, the weather is usually very good, the countryside is lovely; the coast and beaches are great; the French know how to enjoy life, the wine is cheap, the food is good and the ambiance is very seductive.  Most importantly though is the price of property, it’s about 30% of UK prices.  And my cousin’s house was great, so we will be going again.  Vive la France!

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La Rochelle, France