Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Accident on the M20 meant a mad dash for the ferry

The first of our retrospective blog diary entries after a 2 week Easter holiday break in our Brittany Gite ....

As we've been travelling across to France fairly regularly for the last few years and now know how long it takes to get to the different ferry ports, we've ended up cutting it increasingly tight with our arrival at the port and usually end up arriving just before the gates close and driving straight on board the ferry.

For this holiday we were taking our dog to France for the first time and we were booked onto a fairly late (6pm) Speedferries sailing so we allowed ourselves plenty of time to get to the port from home and (unusually for us) actually left home early. All was going well and we would have arrived at Dover about an hour early until soon after we joined the M20 when the traffic ground to a halt.

And stayed halted.

And then didn't move at all.

Dialling up the traffic news on my mobile we were told "4 miles of stationary traffic on the M20 due to an earlier accident, severe delay, avoid".

Not good advice when you're already in the traffic jam !

So we sat there in the queue and didn't move at all for nearly 2 hours. We watched the air ambulance come and go, read a book and thankfully didn't play "I Spy".

When we finally did get moving and passed the accident (two lorries that had collided with each other) we were still 40 miles away from Dover and it was already 6:10pm so it wasn't looking good. SpeedFerries told me that they were running about an hour late so we might still be able to catch our boat if we "got there as fast as we could", but if we didn't make it then the next crossing with any space on it was on the 9th April (i.e. 10 days later!).

Sped down the motorway at warp factor 4 and arrived at checkin just about 15 minutes before loading started.

As I blogged a week earlier, SpeedFerries have moved into new (dedicated) facilities at the old Dover Hoverport but unfortunately we were in too much of a hurry to stop and really take a good luck at them:

Surprisingly our dog didn't even get a second glance at check-in, they didn't check his 'Dog Passport' nor read his microchip. All that happened is that we were given an orange windscreen tag instead of the normal green one and we had to queue in a different lane with the other doggy cars. We then all had to load the boat last and with our hazard warning lights flashing (presumably to tell the crew that we had animals on board). My wife was very worried (and tearful) about taking the dog over but when we came down to the car on arrival in Boulogne he was curled up asleep in the car boot - obviously not phased by the experience at all.

Getting out of Boulogne port was a real pain though. If you pass through the main Dover ferry facilities all the customs controls are done on the UK side and so we've been used to driving straight off the boat in Boulogne (or Calais on the odd occasions we've taken a P&O boat) and straight out of the port. With SpeedFerries move to separate facilities at Dover Hoverport then this doesn't appear to have been replicated yet. Consequently we all had to drive (slowly) past the French customs man who of course didn't look at our passports at all but nevertheless there was still a considerable queue to get off the boat and through the port.
Can only hope that this is one thing that SpeedFerries look to sort out soon but they'd only swapped over to the Hoverport 2 days before we went through so doubtless this was just teething troubles.

An uneventful drive down the autoroute to the Gite, arriving about 3am in the morning (Zzzz).

PS: I have to admit that the photo of the new SpeedFerries check-in was actually taken on the return journey back home as we'd been in too much of rush to do it on the outbound journey. I was also told off for taking it, apparently it wasn't allowed - not sure why though?

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Free tickets to A Place in the Sun Live - 30th March to 1st April, Excel, London

If you're thinking of buying your own holiday home in the Sun, either in Brittany, France or wherever, I'm sure like me you watched lots of the overseas property programs including of course A Place in The Sun on Channel 4.

For the last couple of years the show's proved so popular that they've run an exhibition at London Excel and this year's show, A Place in The Sun Live runs from 30th March to 1st April. Full details of the show are on the appropriately named A Place in The Sun Live website.

Unfortunately we can't go as we're in France ourselves, but if you feel like popping along you can save the £10 door price by printing out your own complementary tickets - you'll need to print one for each person.

Don't say I don't give you anything !

Enjoy !

New 2007 edition of the Michelin guide to France

Yesterday (28th March) Michelin launched their famous 'red book' English language version of the 2007 Michelin Guide to France, containing details of all the coveted 'Michelin starred' restaurants and hotels across France.

The Guide contains some 4,752 hotels and 3,641 restaurants in all comfort and price categories, from neighbourhood bistros to three-star restaurants, and from small family guest houses to vast luxury hotels. As usual there'll be lots of hoo-ha as to who has got what star rating and doubtless there'll be some French Jamie Oliver's who are ecstatic and some that are furious by what's been written about them.

Putting aside the top-starred establishments I've always found the Guide to be a useful (and crucially reliable) reference as to where to eat and go at more modest budgets and I'm sure this year will be no exception. Each writeup contains details of typical menu's, prices and opening times so you don't trek somewhere to find that it's closed for the day. Usefully also there's street plans for many of the sizeable towns and city centres so if you're without Sat-Nav then you can also use the Guide to find tourist attractions and where to park.

Full press releases for the France 2007 and Paris 2007 guides are on Michelin's website.

France 2007 RRP's at £15.99 but as usual Amazon are selling at a discounted price of £10.55. Alternatively they're selling Paris 2007 for £6.59, or as a bundle of France 2007 with UK and Ireland 2007 for £20.14.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Brittany Photo Gallery - courtesy of Flickr and PictoBrowser

Right from the original concepts for our holiday home website I'd planned to include a Photo Gallery of interesting pictures, of the Gite itself, of things to do and see in and around the surrounding Brittany area, and of local attractions.

With the eventual rush to finish and launch the site this was something that had unfortunately been dropped off and although I've still had in mind to build the album, it's never quite happened.

And then of course there's Flickr.

We've had a Flickr account for our holiday home for some time now but have mainly used it for hosting Blog photos as Blogger doesn't allow you to show Blogger hosted pictures on any other site (and as we distribute the RSS feed of new articles via Feedburner then none of the pictures appear if I host them on Blogger).

Earlier in the month Craig McGinty on This French Life suggested a great solution with PictoBrowser, a free flash-based application that gives you simple easy to use photo gallery of selected Flickr photos.

Along the bottom is a ribbon bar of photo thumbnails; you can scroll along them, pick and view any you want by clicking the thumbnail, and jump to the selected picture on Flickr by clicking "Photo Link".

Unfortunately we are unable to display our Brittany photo gallery in your browser as you do not appear to have the free Adobe Flash player installed.<br>Visit the <a href= target=_blank>Adobe Flash download centre</a> to get the latest version.

Setting up PictoBrowser is simplicity itself. Firstly you need to setup a free Flickr account and upload your own photographs with a short description and any appropriate tags such as Brittany, Josselin, Fishing, etc.

Once you've uploaded your own pictures PictoBrowser can then be used to create your own gallery - click on the 'Info' button in the bottom right hand corner, enter your Flickr username, select which photos you want to display (choosing subsets by tag or photostream - so you could display all pictures tagged with "holiday" say), and you'll then be presented with a short piece of HTML code that you paste into your website.

And that's all there is to it. The photo gallery is dynamically created based on your current Flickr photos so if you upload new pictures they're automatically shown without you having to make any website changes.

I've been uploading some more of the hundreds of photos I'd already taken to Flickr, have tagged the subset I want to show with a new 'PictoBrowser' tag, and then written a new Brittany photo gallery web page to show off my selected pictures.

There's more detailed step by step instructions on how to create your own viewer on PictoBrowser's Flickr home page but it really is very simple to use - if you've your own blog or website then I strong recommend giving it a try.

Update July 08: Rewrote the HTML automatically generated by PictoBrowser to make it W3C standards compliant HTML

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Translating French (or lots of other languages) using Google

Hidden away in the corner of the Google translation page I found a useful link the other day to a set of Google translation buttons.

If you're using the fab Firefox browser then you can simply click drag a button to the Bookmarks toolbar (ensure View/Toolbars/Bookmarks toolbar is ticked if it's not visible) so that you have an instant translation engine just sitting there whenever you come across a bit of French you don't understand on the internet. Select the website text using the mouse, click the toolbar button, and you're instantly dropped into Google's translation engine with the appropriate text automatically converted. Easy peasy!

Cleverly Google's translation buttons page automatically recognises if you're using Internet Explorer instead of Firefox and gives you the option of creating an IE favourite which works in much the same way.

I also found on Mycroft's Firefox search engine list a set of Google search engine plugins lots of different facets of Google, including (section 12), a set of dictionary plugins. Select the one you want and it'll install in the drop-down search engine box in the top right of the screen.
To use it simply type the sentence you want to convert into the search text box, click the magnifying glass icon and get an instant translation, courtesy of Google.

Although the translation's not perfect they're usually good enough to get the gist of the content. I'm not going to trust Google with converting my Gite website from English to French though, I will have to find someone who writes far better French than I do and see if we can do a deal (hopefully involving multiple bottles of wine!) - any takers?

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Misty morning in Brittany over the Nantes/Brest Canal

I've been starting to make more use of my Flickr account and over the last few weeks have loaded some more pictures of Brittany and France ahead of putting up a PictoBrowser album on my website (more on this later ....).

Here's some beautiful atmospheric pictures I took early one morning at Rohan from the bridge over the Nantes/Brest canal. Rohan's a couple of miles from our Gite.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Speedferries open in Dover Hoverport on Thursday

Received today a press release from SpeedFerries announcing that they're opening up their new facilities in Dover Hoverport on Thursday (29th March).

We're off to France ourselves on the Saturday 31st March so we'll see for ourselves their dedicated check-in. Blogging will be suspended for two weeks over Easter as we're taking a well earned break in our holiday Gite. For the first time we're taking our dog as well so that'll be even more of an adventure with the pet passport.

Here's the full text of the press release:
Dear Customer,

Please allow me to take a few moments of your time to pass on some important SpeedFerries news. I am really proud to announce the opening of our new fast ferry terminal in the Dover Western Docks, known as the Hoverport. From this historic place where the mighty Hovercrafts used to take off we have constructed a facility which I find to be the best possible ferry port. Ideal from our operational perspectives and ideal from all service and convenience perspectives. The first sailing from the Hoverport will take place 6 days from now on 29th of March 2007 at 07:00 a.m. Please remember to go to the Hoverport next time you are travelling on the Dover-Boulogne service.

“none of this would have been possible without the unique support of our customers”

It is no secret that strong forces have done a lot to prevent SpeedFerries from establishing a solid presence in the cross-Channel market. For good reasons, I guess: The prospect of a 50% faster, 50% cheaper ferry concept did not appeal to the competition. Nevertheless, the SpeedFerries operation you will now see operating successfully from our own ports, far away from the traffic and the ships of other ferry companies, is a reality. However, none of this would have been possible without the unique support of our customers. I will never forget and I will remain forever truly grateful to you.

“a final opportunity to top up your stock of SUPER Vouchers before prices increase”

I have been told by several frequent users of the Dover-Boulogne service that we have not done enough to keep our customers updated on the development in relation to the new port facilities. So, this is part of the reason for sending you this communication. Another reason is to give our frequent travellers a final opportunity to top up the stock of SUPER Vouchers before prices increase this Tuesday. SpeedFerries’ ticket prices were raised a few days ago, however, prices on Vouchers remain at the reduced level for another few days. The Vouchers come from £19 per trip (18-trip voucher) but for just £144 you can secure six crossings at a fixed price of £24 per leg including the many SUPER Voucher benefits. Please take advantage of this offer as prices are not likely to be reduced again subsequent to the upcoming increase.

“it’s now goodbye lorries and goodbye freight ferries”

As the Port of Dover is getting increasingly congested, landside as well as seaside, this move to the Hoverport, closer to the M20 and away from the ever longer queues of lorries, is really good news. So it’s now “goodbye lorries and goodbye freight ferries”. While refurbishing the Hoverport we have also taken the opportunity to upgrade our facilities in Boulogne where you will now also park just in front of the ferry and right next to the Gare Du Terminale.

“a direct connection from motorway to motorway at twice the freight ferry speed”

The easy and convenient access to SpeedFerries’ exclusive port facilities in both Dover and Boulogne connecting the M20 directly to the French A16 motorway will be very efficient. On most of our ticket types you would only need to arrive thirty minutes prior to departure and with a crossing which is now just 50 minutes you will be able to beat even Eurotunnel on the travel time for most of France. SpeedFerries offers a direct connection from motorway to motorway at twice the freight ferry speed.

“new historic café concepts and new land based lounges”

During the coming weeks and months three new historic café concepts and new land based lounges will emerge. The (Hovercraft) Engine Bay Café in the Hoverport, the Jervis Bay Café onboard and the Orient Express Café will open, partly as catering facilities, partly as small museums celebrating the famous past of the historic buildings and the craft we are using for the service. On top of this, new Premier Class lounges will open in both ports in July and the Premier concept onboard will also be upgraded.

“priority check-in and priority lanes for customers using SUPER Vouchers”

In the Dover Hoverport as well as in Boulogne there are now priority check-in and priority lanes for customers using SUPER Vouchers or the previous 10-trip Voucher. Subject to availability this will include priority loading and discharge. SpeedFerries will build on these offers and constantly improve the service to frequent travellers.

“a free Premier Class upgrade is included in Vouchers bought before this Tuesday”

Last, but not least travel on a 12 or 18 trip voucher before 1 July 2007 will include a free upgrade to Premier Class, subject to availability. The free Premier Class upgrade is included in all 12 and 18 trip Vouchers bought before this Tuesday the 27th March. However, as a permanent feature SpeedFerries will, following requests from many customers, introduce a discount for Premier Class upgrades for Voucher holders. This concept is planned to be introduced around the 3-year anniversary of the Dover-Boulogne service in May. Please find all details at

“once again my sincere personal thanks for your support”

I would like to end this information letter by once again extending my sincere personal thanks for your support. I will do my very best to live up to your expectations.

Kind regards,

Curt Stavis

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Blogvertising - Advertising on my Blog

Last year I received an unexpected email that I have to admit I firstly viewed with some suspicion. Basically the email was asking me if I would be prepared to add a small commercial text link advert to this Gite weblog in exchange for an annual payment.

Immediately unsure I checked out the website from the company that had sent me the email and found out that they are a search engine marketing company with a number of well known clients. I then google'd for the company's website address and found numerous references to their site from their client's sites - so it looked genuine.

A few emails back and forth to find out more about what sort of advert they wanted, I was quickly sent payment via paypal, and all of a sudden I've entered the world of corporate advertising ! All in all it wasn't too painful, the payment was nice but I doubt I'll be able to retire just yet.

I thought I was being really clever by inventing the term 'Blogvertising'. Unfortunately it appears I'm not unique enough in my thinking, Google knows of 187,000 other websites that have used the term Blogvertising.

It's interesting to read on Stay Free Daily that some bloggers are proud to announce with the little owl logo that they're ad free. Unfortunately now I don't qualify 8-(


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Cancellation in April mean's we've an extra week free

Liz took a phone call yesterday from one of our future guests that was having to postpone their Gite holiday as they'll be recovering from an operation, and are not sure that they'll be able to travel in time.

Consequently we've now got an additional week available in our holiday Gite - from 28th April to 5th May. We've only got a couple of free weeks in our holiday home for spring/summer 2007, from 21st April to 5th May, from 28th August to 10th September, and then from 21st September onwards. Otherwise we are now completely full for March through into September.

Drop us a line if you're interested in staying, remember we can sleep up to 6 (2 doubles and a twin) and we're flexible about dates so can do longer or shorter stays.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

New Google Maps feature - send destination details to my BMW

Over on Google's Official Blog they've announced new feature to integrate Google Maps to BMW Assist.

On YouTube they've put together a video that shows someone reading looking up an address on Google maps and then emailing that to their BMW and then BMW 'accepting' it as a destination in the car satellite navigation system. How cool is that?

Here's the links to the YouTube video showing this feature, and the German video as well.

Interesting to see how technologies are starting to converge and Google's extending its influence to other areas. Pity my Nissan satnav doesn't do this.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

This Blog's not long for this world

Yesterday when I logged into Blogger I got a message telling me that I had to upgrade to the new Blogger and that I would only be allowed one more time to login to "old blogger".

So far I've been quite happy with the previous blogger software, yes I know there are loads of new Blogger features like templates and comments but I've been quite happy with various GreaseMonkey scripts to improve the old blogger and provide many of the missing features.

The other main reason I've held off is that I'm afraid of the change! Conversion from old Blogger to new is a one-way process and if it goes wrong I'll end up with a screwed up Blog and a screwed up Blog template. Spending time fixing the template is not something I really want to do right now and so I've resisted the change.

If Blogger had offered some form of "test upgrade" with being able to copy my blog into a new one and test the new features before I committed to the conversion then I'd be happy to go, but they don't so I've stuck with working as I am.

Looks like I won't be able to stay standing still though, this may be one of my few remaining posts in old Blogger and my intransigence may be over-ruled by a forced upgrade.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Speedferries announces new simpler fare structure and multi-crossing special offers

As was suggested by SpeedFerries in January they have now announced a radical shake-up of their cross-channel ticket pricing strategy with an simpler 3-tier structure:

  • Basic Ticket
    Basic tickets are available from £15 one-way, but is NOT amendable. These tickets are only valid for the booked travel dates and can NOT subsequently be changed, parked or moved.
  • Flex Ticket
    Flex tickets are available from £20 one-way and are amendable (subject to a booking fee and any possible price difference between the original price paid and the new sailing price). These tickets can also be parked for later use and are valid for 1 year.
  • Super Vouchers
    Available from £19, super vouchers are fixed price, offer flexibility of sailing date with priority checkin and loading and are valid for 2 years.

To launch these new tariffs SpeedFerries are offering 15,000 new tickets and vouchers at special reduced introduction prices that will increase by 21st March or when the tickets sell out.

3 different types of super vouchers are offered for the launch:
  • 6-trip voucher for £144 for a standard car + 5 passengers, working out at £24 per crossing
  • 12-trip voucher at £264 for car + 5 passengers, working out at £22 per crossing for 2 years, and (subject to availability) are upgradeable to SpeedFerries PremierClass at reduced cost
  • 18-trip voucher at £342 for car + 5 passengers, working out at £19 per crossing, again with a reduced cost PremierClass upgrade option
All these super vouchers give priority checkin and loading and are valid for 2 years.

Further details on these offers are on SpeedFerries website.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

New FlyBe routes following acquisition of BA connect

Over on This French Life Craig McGinty's quick off the mark with detailing all of FlyBe's new routes that they launched yesterday.

FlyBe's press release contains further details of the new routes and price cuts on existing routes following their acquisition of BA Connect and makes their claim that they're now Europe's largest regional airport with 152 routes from 56 different airports. RyanAir would of course argue this point differently as they offer 454 routes from 130 different European airports - usual warnings about not trusting anyone's marketing statistics apply here!

In terms of options for getting to North-West France, FlyBe's announcement adds one new route from Edinburgh to Rennes which is about an hour from our french holiday home. Flights start on the 26th May and fares will be from £47.99 one way (including taxes and charges).
Significantly for me this is the first budget airline that flies direct from Scotland to a regional airport in Brittany so hope this will give me some more potential guests.

I've added the new budget airline route to the travel choices section of our website - if I've counted correctly this now means there are 29 budget airlines that fly direct into Brittany or close by.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

LD Lines and TransManche announce new timetables and some special offers

Following my posting about LD Lines taking over Transmanche Ferries just over a week ago, I received an announcement from LD Lines today giving details of the new ferry timetable:

The new timetables are as follows (all arrivals and departures in local time):

Newhaven – Le Havre (daily service)
Newhaven: 12:30 (UK time)Le Havre: 6:30pm (French time)
Le Havre: 8pmNewhaven: midnight
Newhaven – Dieppe (Low season, October to March)
5pm and 11pm (Mon-Fri)
7am and 10pm (Sat)
7am and 7pm (Sun)
4am and 10pm (Mon-Fri)
12pm (Sat)
3am, 12pm and midnight (Sun)
3am, 6pm and midnight (Mon)
6pm and midnight (Tue-Fri)
8am and 8pm (Sat)
8am (Sun)
6am and 9pm (Mon)
3am and 9pm (Tue-Fri)
3am and 11pm (Sat)
11am (Sun)
Newhaven – Dieppe (High season, April to September, daily service)
Newhaven: 1:30am, 7am, 6pmDieppe: 6:30am, 12pm, 11pm
Dieppe: 00:30, 8am and 1:30pmNewhaven: 05:30, 1pm and 5:30pm
Portsmouth - Le Havre
Portsmouth: 11pmLe Havre: 7:30am
Le Havre: 5pmPortsmouth: 9:30pm

There are also a number of special offers available including £69 in France from 30th April to 27th June for up to 5 nights stay. See the LD Lines and TransManche Ferries website for full details.

I also noticed that TransManche Ferries website has now had a makeover and looks very similar to LD Lines' site and uses the same booking engine. Only difference between the two is the colour scheme. Reflecting I guess the continued taking on of TransManche into LD Lines' operations.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Lunar eclipse and spring has sprung

Did you see the lunar eclipse last night ?

It was a beautiful clear night where we were in Bedfordshire and we went out into the garden several times during the evening to take a look as the earth's shadow crossed over the moon. There are some absolutely beautiful photos of the eclipse on the BBC news website, in fact they make the eclipse look more spectacular than when viewed with the naked eye.

I tried taking some photos myself but the end result was just of a white curved blob on a black background. I could probably have achieved the same result by taking pictures of a lightbulb so I don't think I will be adding them to the dozens of other lunar eclipse pics on flickr.

Meanwhile today I think spring has arrived. The daffodils are up in the garden and I had to shoo the first fly I've seen this year out of the kitchen. Where do flies go in the winter?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Finally fully back on the road again

Think I can finally draw to a close the long running saga of getting my car repaired after it was rear-ended in November 2006 and then declared unsafe to drive.

Since then Zurich Insurance (the third party's insurance company) have hired a Vauxhall Zafira from Enterprise rent-a-car but I had lots of problems trying to arrange to take the hire car to France and ended up with a Hertz hire car with cruise control which was great fun.

3 weeks ago I got my car back from the garage again but the repairs were pretty shoddy so after another week of messing around with my insurance company I finally managed to get the car back to the garage again for re-repair.

Last week the car returned back after the second set of repairs. They've done a much better job this time and I'm reasonably happy with the end result.

I've got my no claims bonus back and on Thursday I renewed the tax disc so I'm finally 100% street legal and in my own car at last. The hire car's gone back (after 3 months and 3,500 miles) and it feels really strange to be driving my Primera again after spending so long in the Zafira.

I'm still having physio for my back and according to the doctor I will need another 6 treatments, possibly taking up to 7 months to fully recover. There's a personal accident injury claim (on a no-win no-fee basis) rumbling on as well but I'm glad I'm able to finally draw a line under the car repairs.