Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Another early start

Another Early Start

Off early and on the road north. Just got as far as we felt comfortable. The van’s superb to drive, but after lunch, you just feel the need for a siesta! We pulled up 50miles north of Dijon, in the Cremant de Borgogne wine-growing area. Cremant is much like Champagne, but they’re not allowed to call it that. We “installed” the van on the “emplacement”, at Chatillon-sur-Seine. Ian went off on another cycle ride and I chose to prepare some food and catch up with the blog!
Ian’s sort of mentioned in passing, unenthusiastically, that there is some ancient artefact in the museum in town. I later discovered that it sounds spectacular. It turns out that the village of Vix, 6km northwest of Chatillon, is the highest navigable point on the Seine, and they think that the Celtic chiefs who controlled it, were brought gifts, possibly from traders in Cornish tin, shipped South from Britain on the way to the Adriatic. So the treasures are technically ours, I suppose! The museum houses finds from the 6th century BC tomb of a Celtic princess, buried in a four-wheeled chariot. They say that the best piece is a simple gold tiara, and the largest bronze vase of Greek origin known from antiquity. It stands an incredible 1.64m high on tripod legs.
A little insignificant place like this, with nothing much else to say about it, and it houses an amazing relic!
And Ian thought he was going to get away with not visiting it. You’ve got to exercise the brain as well as the body, Ian!!! We can’t wait to see it before heading to the seaside and the Boulogne area! Ferry crossing in three days time!
PS Picture shows us at Le Touquet on an aire - it's not all beautiful mountain scenery!

Catching up with Family

Catching up with Family!

After a seven hour walk up La Tournette, we got straight in the van and headed off for Geneva area, where we were going to meet up with Keith, Deb, Alice and Ed in a couple of days. This country’s so big, and distances are deceptive. We arrived in the Haut Alpes area, near Geneva, at about rush-hour. We’d shut “Sally SatNav” in the glove compartment because she kept sending us to places we didn’t want to go, and then trying to turn us around! We went all the way down the valley to a very busy little place called Samoens, past idyllic, picture-postcard, geranium-strewn chalets. No, they were full, and suggested two other places. One we couldn’t find and the other was up a scarily narrow track. It was nearly 6pm, and things were being said that oughtn’t to have!
We finally found an excellent site in a fairly non-descript place called Taninges. It was cheap and cheerful, and you could walk into town.
We talked about staying only one night and ended up staying three! One day we cycled up onto the higher plateau of Les Gets, where Keith and Deb had hired a chalet for the week. We had a lovely afternoon swimming in the lake with them, and a lovely meal, which Deb cooked for us. Not too late, we set off on the steep ride back to Taninges, 12k with your hands covering the brakes all the way, averaging about 20mph!
The following day, setting off at 8.30 am to avoid the heat and the traffic, we cycled all the way back past Samoens and onto Sixt Cirque du Fer a Cheval, which is a vast semi-circle of rock walls up to 700m high and 4-5 km long, ridged with white water from numerous water-falls. A reasonably flat 32 mile cycle ride there and back. I find the flatter ones even worse that the steep ones, because you can’t help feeling you could be going faster!
It was a particularly hot day and lovely to get back and just doze under the trees near the van, pretending to read!
At about 7pm, Ed and the family arrived to give the van “a once over”. Ed was fascinated with all the switches and cupboards, even down to the workings of the loo plumbing. When it was time to go, he probably knew as much about the van as Ian did!

Toiling up La Tournette

Toiling up La Tournette

Ian has an irritating fascination with maps, and is infuriatingly drawn to brown lines on maps! I mean the sort that get very close together, when there are hills and mountains. This knowledge, coupled with the Lonely Planet’s description of the area, drew him to La Tournette. The LP states that “experienced hill-walkers (that’d be us) wanting a stiff (that’d be Ian!) but straightforward (that’d be me!) mountain ascent could tackle La Tournette(2351m)., which dominates the beautiful, turquoise Lac d’Annecy. You could reduce the height to a reasonable 1200m by driving up nearby Col de Forclaz and then walking up to Col de L’Aulp before beginning the rather steep ascent. Now, later in the passage it talks about scrambling using chains and hand-rails, which seemed to somewhat contradict the “straight-forwardness” of the climb. As I’ve got older, I’ve found that I’m getting reasonably fit at climbing. As with cycling, I get into a rhythm and plod on. But coming down is a different matter entirely. Ian’s got some excellent footage of me coming down backwards, in Mittagong, Southern Highlands of NSW, Aus, zooming in on my rear end and making all kinds of sarcastic comments, like “My mum could come down faster!”. The knees have lost their shock absorbers!
However we did it in good time, helped by the usual array of stunning alpine meadow flowers, cornflowers, astrantia, wild geraniums, scabious, and hundreds others. There were herds of cows with their massive jangling bells, grazing under huge rock faces that soared into the bright blue sky. Why wouldn’t you want to risk life and limb on a little scramble!
When we reached the top, WOW!!!!! Mont Blanc in all its white-topped glory, right there in front of us. We sat and ate a boiled egg and cereal bar, savouring every moment, at least I did, as Ian legged it off the summit to a more sheltered spot just below!!!
Coming down was slow. The minute you started to relax, the gravel under foot would suddenly slide and send every tired muscle and tendon spasming and bracing for the inevitable crash onto your back-side. I thought of Grandma coming downstairs backwards, and realised that I wasn’t far behind!!! But it was worth it, even though two days later my thighs were still trying to tell me that I was a 50something year old woman!!!
We’d left the van at the head of the Col de Forclaz and gingerly made our way back down the narrow track to Menthon Saint Bernard, hoping not to meet anybody on the way down! We couldn’t have left the van on the site, because you have to be off before 12noon. Incidentally, we find a really nice site on the edge of Lac Annecy, in Menthon Saint Bernard, where the patron saint of hill-walkers lived. The site was quite full and there were signs that we were heading into a busy touristy area. A lovely place but I’d try it outside August next time.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Back in the Ain via Alpe d'Huez and La Grave

We left Perigeux and went over to Bourg d'oisans so that Ian could have a go at the Alpe d'huez cycle climb - well known in cycling as it rises over 1000m in 13 km with 13 hairpin bends. Did it - but hardest thing he had done - thankfully that should be the end of the heroics for this holiday!We also went to la Grave and ascended the telephrique to La Meije which dominates the area - beautiful. The weather was about to change for the worse, however, so our time there was cut short.
After a long drive we were back in the Ain region- the Bugey, and parked up in our Caveau Bugiste, from where we’d promised ourselves a cycle ride. Peaceful, unspoilt and very untouristy backwater of France. I love backwaters! Caroline had said about their little corner of France that some of her friends just don’t “get it”, and can’t understand their choice. It’s the same with us. There’s something about this area that makes us feel so relaxed and “at home”. Maybe it’s the weather, because on the two occasions we’ve been here, it’s rained both times- the only times in four weeks!!!
We had a superb cycle ride, through several stunning, quiet villages with old timber and stone houses, past a little lake, across the incredibly wide Rhone and up a rather big hill- La Colombiere. It was getting quite late, so (un)fortunately couldn’t get to the top- more unfinished business for next year. Nobody around us when we got back and the caveau was closed for the evening , so were able to have one of our few bbqs- limited by the fire risk and disturbing others nearby. No risk of fire here. There’s a very good reason why it’s green and lush!
The following day we pootled down to Annecy. A bit like the Lake District but warmer. Today was looking drier, but the tops of the amazing cliffs and mountains were obscured by clouds. Our plan to climb La Tournette with its stunning views of Mont Blanc could wait until tomorrow, so we decided to get ourselves settled for one night in Menthon Saint-Bernard, a lovely little camp-site under the Chateau, and within a very short walk of the village. We had one of the few meals we’ve had out here, and the only one that’s been a delight. Menu de jour for 12e 50 and an even cheaper plat du jour, if one course is all you wanted. We’d go back to the “Gout de Jour” again. Ate a Marmite of beef, which was basically casserole, and this time got exactly what we expected, with no weird offal in sight!!
Back for a siesta and a bit of “sorting out”! We’re meeting up with Keith and Deb in a few days time, so working our way over to Morzine area, via the Aravis Mountains, where there’s supposed to be yet more great cycling!

Bonjour a Harvey Paul Fort

Christine is a Grandma!

Text message from my sister-in-law, Christine, to say that her son, Lucas and Liana have had a baby boy named Harvey Paul Fort, and she was clearly delighted. It was my mum’s birthday today, so she is now a great-grandma too! I’m looking forward to visiting them all when we return in about ten days.

Yours will be the Tete de Veau

So Yours will be the Tete de Veau, Monsieur!

How we ended up at Perigueux, capital of Perigord, when we were looking for somewhere quieter, I don’t know. But believe it or not, it was actually quieter than the Dordogne-sud and a helluva sight more “real”!!!
We saw a few campervans down by the river on a car park, and having paid for two nights at great expense, we decided to make it a free night tonight! Parked up on the car park, right next to the river, with a delightful view of some graffiti covered flats opposite. But the river was lovely, and we looked up at Perigueux cathedral, and could walk into town. As everywhere, the car park was free, and even had water and tank-drainage facilities, where you just drive over a dip and dump; your waste water and even toilet waste! France really does cater for camping cars, everywhere.
We decided to spoil ourselves, seeing as we were in the city, and found what looked like a pleasant, inexpensive cafĂ©/restaurant, which got a reasonable write-up in the L.P. Guide. I ordered the Pommes Sarladaise (from Sarlat, nearby), which was basically a shed-load of potatoes cooked with lardons and onions, and was really tasty. Ian bravely ordered from the menu, ordering a grillard of cold cooked meatloaf, which looked distinctly like the kind of stuff I’d throw away. Then the crazy guy followed it with tete de veau, even though there was duck etc in the offing. When it arrived it was a gelatinous wobbly mound topped with mashed up yellow pate, on top of a salad. Ian looked shocked, especially when I explained that he ordered head of veal! There were things that looked like lips and cheeks, and the yellow pate might well have been brain matter. Gross! The waitress looked surprised when she cleared away a half full plate, and asked if I could translate for the menu, as she has clearly had shocked reactions from UK visitors in the past!!! My rather dull goats cheese on toast with more salad seemed wonderful, by comparison! Pudding to wipe away the taste of the previous course, and we were out of pocket by 70euros. Not a good night, but an experience. We went back to the van and sat outside, with our Spanish neighbours, who were just about to tuck into roast chicken, which they’d cooked in the van, and it smelt delicious!
As I stood chatting to a local elderly lady, I saw a kingfisher land only a few feet away with a few fish in its mouth! The lady was promenading because, she said, there was nothing on the TV. She enjoyed passing the time with all the different nationalities who parked up. I got the feeling she was lonely. She said she hadn’t seen anybody all day, apart from a workman, who came to fix the windows. We chatted for about half an hour, about her knowledge of UK, Sudampton, and the Isle of Wait. She tried to speak a little English and was a very jolly lady. She told me that she had climbed up the dome of the cathedral, when she was in her thirties, but now thanks to Health and Safety, that avenue of pleasure was closed years ago. Aussi en Angleterre!

Dawdling down the Dordogne

Dawdling down the Dordogne!

On the way to the Dordogne, we called in at the little town of Lauzerte, about an hour away from Caroline’s, and packed with Roman and medieval architecture. France is so old! In the garden area, there are a number of little “Tapis” or rugs made out of various beautifully coloured ceramics, the work of Jacques Buchholtz. .Stunning views over the rolling hills beyond.
On increasingly busy roads to the southern Dordogne. I could feel the relaxation of the last few days starting to unravel. We camped on a very large, busy site complete with swimming pool and hefty tariff! We set off on a cycle ride, passing beautiful chateaux and running alongside the languid river Dordogne, but unfortunately competing with a lot of traffic. The busiest place we’ve been so far! But we decided to book a canoe trip for early the following morning, which would take us past the awesome La Roque -Gageac.
We set off early before the river became very busy and pootled down the Dordogne in the canoe. We’d booked it for half a day, at 27euros. Good value we thought afterwards, because it’s the only stress-free way to see this area in Summer, when the roads are thronged with tourists. La Roque-Gageac, visually stunning, with its ochre-coloured houses sheltering under dramatically overhanging cliffs. It’s described in the Lonely Planet as “almost too perfect”, and I agree totally. It’s almost too neat and scrubbed up for the tourists, and is a regular winner of France’s prettiest village contest. We dawdled down, watching the river flowing gently, and the water birds dipping and diving. Superb way to gaze slowly at the chateaux. In fact, there’s little need to paddle, just letting the river do the job. You canoe downstream and then catch a minibus back. Fantastic!!
Got back to our miserable pitch in the dirt, and even though we’d paid we left rapidly and decided to head back to a quieter area!

From Compact Living to the Best B&B

From Compact Living to the best “B&B” in France!

“Where’s the loo roll?” “In the oven!” Compact living is amazing! You find space in the most unlikely places- Space for round things. Space for long, narrow things. Space for squidgy things. It’s incredible what you can fit into a 6m van and also what you can do without for four weeks! We’ve not really missed anything yet and the facilities in French camp-sites really are first rate, so that washing-up and showering is not done in the confines of the van, but in the ample facilities of the sites.
However, it’s been our plan for some time to visit our neighbours from a couple of years ago, who have moved to France for six months or more, to see how it feels. We were looking forward to catching up with them for a couple of days, and began our trek into unknown territory. We’d never been to the Gers region of France before, which is roughly south of the Dordogne and within sight of the Pyrenees.
After several hours trekking west, through Mende (capital of Lozere), over the spectacular Millau bridge (architect, Norman Foster, who also designed the “Gherkin”/Cornichon in London), on to Albi and finally to Montauban. About 300miles brought us to a little, provincial village called Gaudonville. We passed through fields and fields of sunflowers, and roadsides decorated with exquisite wildflowers- poppies, daisies and cornflowers. This area seemed to have adopted a more natural approach to becoming “fleuried”, rather than the more colourful, garden annuals chosen elsewhere. The village is very pretty and the area totally uncommercialised. Not a pottery shop, or tea-towel stall in sight. Very agricultural and unspoilt. The house which Glyn and Caroline were renting was stunning. In need of some work and money spending on it but exciting and delicate, none the less. Massive barn attached with timber frame, although rotten in places. We sat in the garden and drank Cremant sparkling wine and the second night enjoyed a great barbecue under the stars, sitting under a mulberry tree. Glyn and Caroline have created their own “potager”/veg plot and in the brief time that they’ve been there have kept themselves supplied with courgettes, tomatoes and beans, as well as enjoying kilos of plums from the fruit trees in the garden.
We visited nearby villages like Fleurance and Lectoure, with its Roman and medieval architecture, which sits comfortably alongside upvc windows and concrete. Authentic but still lived-in! All the trip I’d been bursting to visit a local market and so to Fleurance, a very pretty village. Fruit and vegetables in abundance and much cheaper than in the shops. There are markets at most villages on specific days of the week, and no shortage of fresh produce. So different from UK with our weekly and sparse markets.
As always when we stay with Glyn and Caroline, we ate fantastically well, emptied their fridge of beers, and slept well. Only disturbance were the church bells which rang out enthusiastically at 7am, and were accompanied by the local dog who tried to sing along! On the subject of loud noises, whilst we were in Fleurance, at twelve noon, there was an almighty racket as a siren, which sounded like the sirens at the quarries in Stoney Middleton, prior to blasting, went off at full volume. The busking singer stopped playing and crooning, and waited for the row to pass. Caroline explained that, in the absence of church bells, the siren told everyone that it was time to stop what they were doing and have lunch- 12 noon!!!
They both looked really healthy and happy in their French pastoral home, and feeling very relaxed ourselves, we set off for the Dordogne area.
A very big thankyou to them both.