Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Stage 9 Bourg St Maurice to Beaufort

Stage 9 Bourg St Maurice – Beaufort

The homeward stretches now, and an easy and semi-relaxing day. A short stage for Ian over the Cormet de Roseland, the route of last year’s Tour de France, and at 1960m., not a climb to be underestimated. On to a campsite near Beaufort, Camping des Sources, where we stayed for five nights, so familiar territory.

A narrow pass up to the col, and in some ways more difficult to negotiate than the road up to Iseran, because it’s barely wide enough for two small vehicles, let alone a campervan, but I tucked in behind a lorry climbing the hill, and if anyone was going to have to reverse, it wouldn’t be him!

After setting up the van at the site, and I put in an order for baguette beaufortaine ( a delicious baguette full of beaufort cheese and lardons), croissants and pains au chocolat for the following day. What a great service that is at campsites – fresh bread and breakfast delivered to your van in the morning. Then cycling kit on and off up to the Cormet de Roseland from my side. I passed Ian on the way down,and he was finished by 11.30am. He’d done well and now could rest for the rest of the day. I made it to the top without much stress and was back by 1.30pm, so we both just relaxed and did some reading. Definitely best to get out early am., as it gets windier by the afternoon, and busier, with motor-bikes zipping past trying to bag another col

On the way over we’d both spotted a superb spot, to be investigated another time, near Les Chapieux/ Val des Glaciers. A good spot for campervans, with an auberge and immediate access to the mountains. A great place for getting into the mountains and on the Tour de Mont Blanc walki.

Ian says: A relatively easy day with only 24miles and 3750ft of ascent. Great descent overlooking Roselend valley. Passed several people on the way up. Three of them were under 10yrs old., with their Mum and Dad- they start them young here! Fancy doing a 3000+ ft climb at that age- one of them only looked 7! Marie had seen them labouring up the hill and given them a thumb’s up and the usual “Allez y”!

A great day for Kate! What an achievement. She got a first class honours in her accountancy degree at Leeds. She worked extremely hard and we’re glad it paid off . “I’m so excited, I can hardly breathe!” she said.

Stage 8 Col d'Iseran

Stage 8 Lanslevillard to Bourg St Maurice via Col d’Iseran

Aka Ian’s Big Day (and Tommy’s ultimate challenge!)

The reason why I say Ian’s big day is that he’s cycling over the highest pass in Europe today, at 2760m! And that after all the big cols he’s already climbed, and approx 300 miles covered. Amazing! Not only that, Tommy the Timbervan is about to have a big adventure climbing the exact same route. I set off a little later than Ian, and caught him half-way up the pass, with glorious views either side. Meadows of wild flowers and then alpine flowers as we started to gain height- white pasque flowers, purple aconites, wild thyme everywhere.

I waited for him at the top, with fruit cake and orange juice and fizzy water at the ready. The climb just goes on and on, but wow what views. Photos of Ian taken on the way up and then the obligatory one of him standing with bike, near the Col d’Iseran sign. I was so proud of him, and he looked well and relaxed, even though he said it had been really hard. It’s worth mentioning here that Ian always wears a heart monitor and regularly checks that his heart stays around the 145 bpm mark on a climb. I’d love to have a go at this next year, but need to get more cycling and climbing done before then!

Ten minutes rest and then all the way back down the valley to Bourg St Maurice, following the path of the river Isere, through Val d’Isere (not much to say about that place, big, commercial, purpose-built town with unattractive massive hotels on the exit), through Tignes, with its impressive dam, and through the pretty Ste.Foy-Tarentaise to Seez on the outskirts of Bourg St Maurice. Lovely site –Le Reclus, in amongst the shade of the pine trees, which is as well, as it’s the hottest day since we arrived or is it just that we are now a bit lower down than we have been for some time (about 900m). Off to find a bar, as England are playing today against Germany. Passed a big Heineken tent in Seez full of German tourists. Not sure we really ought to be there, especially as they were “going for it”, when I went through at 12.30pm and the match isn’t until 4pm here!!! Might not have much choice as most of the touristy bars haven’t got going yet until first week in July!

Ian says: I had hardly got out of campsite when I had to get in first gear and climb 200 metres. I hate that – you cannot get warmed up and everything hurts straightaway.

Anyway grind my way to top stopping twice (heart beat definitely more than 145 bpm!). It is a fantastic climb – well above some snow patches – there were people skiing. As I may have said before descent isn’t pleasant as you have to be braking continuously, this for 6700 ft of descent! Your hands kill. I am definitely on home straight now with climb to Cormet de Roseland tomorrow, one we know well from last year.

Stage 7 Col du Galibier to Lanslevillard

Stage 7 Col du Galibier to Lanslevillard

A beautiful clear morning. The early morning alarm of marmots squeaking. Just time to take some photos of a crystal clear mountain scene, and to take in all the hundreds of wild and alpine flowers/ no wonder the sheep couldn’t wait to get up here. We could hear their bells tinkling until late last night, so they were clearly relishing their first night in the high meadows.

I’m following Ian north to Valloire over the Col du Telegraphe, and the north east, following the border with Italy, only 6mls away at the nearest point., along D1006 towards Mont Cenis, with the National Park of the Vanoise to the North, and the Massif du Mont Cenis to the South.

I dropped Ian off where we’d finished a couple of days ago, at the top of Galibier, weaving to avoid marmots, basking in the morning sunshine on the edges of the roads- a bit of a cross between an otter and a beaver!

The descent from Galibier was as beautiful as the ascent, with groups of walkers setting off from Plan-Lachat (store that in the memory banks). I waited for Ian in a bar on the Col du Telegraphe, and ordered a Perrier, so that I could use their loos. Wild camping is the best, but no proper toilet facilities, if you know what I mean, and if you’re lucky enough to find any in these parking areas, you go at your own risk, cos obviously they’re not going to be maintained. Suitably refreshed, I was joined by Ian pretty quickly, but then it was mainly downhill for him. Then the long slog on the main road through Modane,, up to the municipal campsite at Lanslevillard. I found a lovely shady spot near the trees and made the van ready for Ian’s arrival.

There was a large Dutch and Australian and English group, being catered for big-time on the same site. They had an ingeniously converted fire-engine, with the sides pulled up, to reveal, not hoses and such, but catering equipment and provisions. The cyclists arrived throughout the afternoon, and set up their tents and belongings sherpaed on by other vans. It turned out they were doing much the same as Ian, 20 cols in 12 days, but slightly longer legs. They’d come off Col d’Iseran, where Ian is going tomorrow. Ian arrived about 1.30pm, and the rest of the afternoon was spent charging stuff up and relaxing.

Really enjoying this itinerant life-style. No stress finding suitable campsites. Ian gets most of his cycling done in the morning, before the afternoon breezes kick in, and then we’ve got the rest of the afternoon in each other’s company. It’s working really well. I’m really enjoying the driving, and have only slipped up once, when I left all the breakfast pots at the campsite, having made a detour to the loo and wiped my memory in the process!!!

Detour - Ascent of Alpe d'Huez

Detour- Ascent of Alpe d’Huez

A lovely sunny day. Woke up early 6.30am, keen to get on with the challenge. 3425’ climbing over 13k with 21 hairpins. Some say that the first bit’s hard and then it’s not too bad. Anthony said it was his annual MOT, and the first bit is hard and the rest is too! His account turned out to be much more accurate! I got into a laboured rhythm, and paused half – way for a few minutes, to allow sensation to return to my toes. Counting down the hairpins- I was now in single figures! Passing through the tiny hamlets, and finally through Huez old village. The altitude and effort were starting to make me feel dizzy, so another couple of minutes to recover, and then on up to the ski-village of Alpe d’Huez , and the finish banner. I was so chuffed to have got to the top in a reasonable time, although a good thirty minutes after Ian!

Pain going up and pain going down! What a strange past-time. You have to squeeze your brakes nearly all the way down, and only then do you understand how steep the ascent was. Had to stop a couple of times to give my hands and arms a rest. Finally back at Bourg d’Oisans, we took a few moments to look back up the mountain, and marvel at the engineering involved in building such a road. All the way down we’d passed cyclists going up, and that happens all day long throughout the Summer.

Then the long drive back through La Grave, up to Col de Lauteret, where we wild-camped for the night- a welcome change, because camp-site fees in this area are very expensive, compared to say the Aups and Burgundy area. A fantastic large car-park at the top, with room for 40 or so campervans. But as with everywhere we’ve been, it was quiet and lots of space. Campsites usually say camp where ever you want, rather than being very full in August.

Lunch overlooking the Grand Galibier and La Meige, in glorious sunshine. A couple of glasses of wine to celebrate today’s cycle and then a siesta. Just slumbering off, when I was aware of heavy duty wagons rolling up alongside, a few feet away, then the sound of hundreds of sheep, many of them wearing bells. Unable to sleep, we decided to investigate the cacophony! It turned out, I kid you not, that we’d had our first siesta disturbed by “transhumance”/ movement of sheep into the alpine meadows, or alpage, which happens once a year. The scene was a melee of campervan tourists, mainly French, chatting to the shepherd, who was enjoying the social occasion, swapping stories and informing. It turned out he was moving 1300 sheep from Briancon. I got talking to a French couple, who told me that the sheepdogs have different jobs to do. The big, golden, Pyreneen dog will stay with the troupeau all day and night, guarding the sheep against the wolf. I had noticed that he moved about amongst the sheep, and they seemed totally at ease with him. He is bred for his “paisible” temperament and is a friend of the sheep. The border collie, who was anxiously watching the sheep and the shepherd’s every move, “rassemble” the herd, rounds them up and moves them on. We stood for some time watching the dogs and the herd. They worked together so well. Once the shepherd had finished chatting everyone, he moved on. The lady explained that it was a special day for him- the first day of his Summer. She could remember, as a young girl, watching the herds being moved up from Briancon, and areas further away in Haute Provence, on foot, up to the alpine slopes. Now it was all done by HGV.

For once we got our timing right, and felt so lucky to have experienced this special occasion. The sheep will stay up here until the end of September.

Stage 6 Briancon to Col du Galibier

Stage 6: Briancon-Col du Galibier

Clear blue sky and warm sunshine. After doing a few “housekeeping jobs”, emptying loo etc, Ian set off cycling at about 9am. With a drag on the main road north west, D1091, towards the Col du Lauteret, an old Roman outpost, where I would meet him before lunch, following the same route. The road through the Serre Chevalier valley with views all the way up to LaMeige(3983m) and the Grand Galibier(3229), is absolutely stunning. The high mountains are covered with snow still, with a recent fall during the bad weather last week.

I’m sitting here writing this blog long-hand, at the Col du Lauteret, suurounded by blue sky and warm sunshine, waiting for Ian to arrive. I’ve passed maybe a hundred cyclists coming up. From a distance what seems to be sprightly cyclist sprinting up the pas turns out to be a 50/60 yr old! Cycling seems to be a popular form of exercise even in advancing years, but then a lot of these guys have had a lot of experience!

Ian arrived at the Col du Lauteret (2050m), amazingly fresh and a quarter of an hour ahead of time! Then re-fuelled by Chatsworth Farm Shop’s fruit cake, orange juice and fizzy water, we both set off up to Col du Galibier. Steep at first, and then 7% and 8% incline all the way. Not too bad, although pushing uphill all the way made my toes go numb! Passed the monument to Henri Desgrange, creator of the Tour de France cycle race, past photographers who ask you to smile, when you’re struggling to breathe, and then push tickets into your back pocket, so that you can re-claim the action photos later. It was great to cycle over painted dedications, on the tarmac, to Tour de France stars, like Kloden and Schleck. Superb scenery, constantly changing with the hair-pins. The last half mile is 11% and an absolute killer, but I was so chuffed to get to the top, without having to get off and push! It was hard and I’d only gone from Lauteret, whereas Ian had come all the way from Briancon.

We drove back down the valley, through La Grave and all the way to Bourg d’Oisan, to stay the night, provisions and petrol. We’re doing a bit of a detour and an extra climb for Ian, with a cycle up Alpe d’Huez, a iconic climb of 13k over and unusual cliff-side ascent with 21 marked hairpins. For Ian, fancy doing Alpe d’Huez on your rest day!

Ian says:

“Today was the continual ascent from Briancon to the Col du Galibier. On all of these trips I take 2X2L bottles of water, one mixed with an energy powder, also Mars Bar, 2 Trail bars, camera, money, credit cards, mobile phone and cagoule for swift, cool descents. Marie did really well today, ascending Galibier in an hour, only 5 mins behind me. I thought it was going to be a lot longer and got hunkered down ready for along rest! Made a change to hear Marie complaining about a numb bum!

Weather superb today, and we sat having a coffee with a guy we’d met, called Anthony. A marine engineer, he works for four moths a year and then travels for the remainder. He enjoyed rock-climbing, walking, cycling, mountain-biking, sub-aqua…..Lived in a tent out of the back of an old Peugeot. What a strange life. Got talking because he liked the van.

Stage 5 Guillestre to Briancon

Stage 5 Guillestre to Briancon and the Footy!

With the need to find somewhere to at least get reception for footy, or at best wide-screen tv, we arranged to overnight somewhere big, so the main town of the national park of Les Ecrins, Briancon fitted the bill.
But it was only a short hop for me, so there was still time to pop into Guillestre, this time complete with camera. Just about coming alive at 10am, I retraced my steps towards the old church, which looked even more splendid in the morning sunshine. On the way back I passed the same madame working hard in her allotment, and asked if she’d mind me taking a photo of her in her garden. She was embarrassed about wearing her working clothes, but I said not to worry. Then we got talking, or rather I listened, interjecting a few words of comfort, as she explained that her husband had died last year, and she was very sad and lonely. She grew the vegetables for her children and herself. She didn’t like courgettes, but they did. She lived next to the bridge of Saint Esprit, in the village, and I would recognise her house by all the roses growing outside. I must go and take a photo. I promised I would and so turned around and walked towards the bridge. Sure enough her house was a pretty one I’d spotted earlier, covered in roses and lots of little bits of vegetables and herbs, growing in sundry containers. I took a photo, memorised her address and though unnamed, I felt sure that a couple of photos and a thankyou message would probably reach her.
Then I packed up and set off for campsite du cinq vallees, about 20mins or less by bike from Briancon. On the way passed a fantastic sculpture dedicated to Edward Whymper, who “gravissait La Barre des Ecrins”, so I guess he did it!
Once Ian had arrived and recuperated, and we’d shared our experiences of the morning, we set off early for a walk around Briancon, before the footy started.
Briancon is a Cite Vauban, in that Vauban (1633-1707) was the engineer behind the fortification and building of over 300 sites along the border with Italy, which is only away. He was commissioned by King Louis XIV to build fortified garrisons and towns to defend the Alpine border. He travelled the whole length and breadth of France, inspecting the borders and engineering fortifications. You can see these garrison towns and villages dotted all over this area of the Ecrins and they’re really imposing strongholds.
After that bit of culture and a descent to the pub through the lovely Schappe park and lake, we ended up rushing to find a pub which showed the England match, as the French were loyally supporting the Algerian match! In the end we found a pub, not too badly taken over by Brits, but there was some dissent from one sulky French man, who was clearly miffed at having his local taken over by the Brits, especially as the French are a bit sore at being knocked out, and still going through the post-match autopsy in the media. So just occasionally he added a little “Vive la France” when Rooney’s efforts were scuppered! Another lovely French guy, to my right, was happy to make conversation, whilst his buddy was on his mobile, “James is not very good. Calamity James!” “Gerrard is going to Real Madrid” “I love Ryan Giggs, he is the best!”
1-0 England. Next stop could be Germany!!!

Ian says:
Another day- another 2000m pass….this time it’s the Col d’Izoard, at 2360m. I wasn’t chased up the mountain by the gentle sex this time, but by a group of hardy, male septuagenarians! Dark brown and sinewy, they looked like they had been sculpted out of bronze, and were indeed not human! They were French also!!
Fortunately their age necessitated a comfort break, giving me the opportunity to sneak ahead! It was unusual terrain, climbing up through forests and arriving at the Casse Desserte- a desert-like landscape.
Just over a third but not quite a half, most of my body’s holding up well, apart from my back-side! At least I’m on a different map tomorrow!!

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Stage 4 Barcelonnette to Guillestre

Stage 4 Barcelonnette – Guillestre

Two different routes again. I could go over Col de Var, but would prefer to retrace the Vallee d’Ubaye area, towards the Lac de Serre-Poncon, to check it out for future visit.  So that’s my route, and Ian’s going the direct route over the Col de Var.  Weather bright and sunny, after yet another very wet evening- it’s like being back in Borneo, with the amount of rain we’ve been having and the heavy mist hanging over hills and villages!
Mountain views all the way to Guillestres, our overnight stop at campsite Saint Jame au Pin.  Ian arrived just as I’d finished setting up the van, and a rare afternoon siiting in the warm sunshine.  After a bbq, we walked into Guillestres, about 2k away, for a pastis and a beer.  Quite a mix of old three/four storey buildings, and new chalet-style ones.  A feature of this area is the numerous heavy winches in the attic, formerly used for lifting grain into the loft-space.  The church dates back to 11th century, with modifications made in 1510, and has two stone lions in front supporting the porch columns, again a feature copied throughout the area, with remains of wall-paintings. 
We walked past a superb allotment, where a local lady was labouring over her veggies and wished her bonsoir and said her vegetables looked superb.  Also loads of roses adorned the narrow roadside edges and smelled fantastic.
Ian says:
A shorter day of 35miles but another high alpine pass- Col de Vars at 2100m  I was labouring up the pass, at about two thirds of the way, when ten German female cyclists shot past me as if I was standing still!!  At the same time, another female by-stander shouted “ Allez, allez monsieur.  Attaquez les filles!!”  I did manage to hang on to their pink lycra shirt-tails, but it nearly finished me!!  Another fast, exciting descent to Guillestres, and an afternoon snooze.  Update on condition of posterior- still causing some painful concern, and a generous application twice daily of Lanacane barrier cream!!!

Stage 3 St Andre to Barcelonnette

Stage 3- St Andre to Barcelonnette

Woke up to beautiful blue sky and sunshine. Great overnight at the municipal campsite- great facilities and only 15euros. Situated amongst pine trees, and large supermarket at entrance. At 900m, cold last night, so stayed in van, got up to date with blogs, did some washing, checked tomorrow overnight stay and watched a couple of episodes of “Outnumbered”- I just love Karen, she reminds me of Kate, at that age, with fluffy blonde hair, without the attitude!
No chance of meeting up with Ian today, as he’s going a van-unfriendly way- D955 to Colmars, over Col d’Allos (2247m) and down to Barcelonnette, whereas I’m driving an easier route, aiming for Digne-les-Bains, on D900, through Seyne, and on to Destination. Campsite at Camping le Plan, 10mins walk from centre. Digne-les-Bains a bit indifferent, but from then on stunning drive through meadows of wild flowers- had to stop, turn around and take photo of fields red with poppies, and saw someone else do the same a few minutes later! Fields of rows of purple lavender, the scenery was so colourful and gorgeous. I passed through a lovely little place called La Javie, and then on to Lac Serre-Poncon, in the valley- would like to go there again. Stunning views of the Hautes-Alpes and easy driving into Barcelonnette. Ian arrived more or less at the same time, after problems relaying messages to each other, and having to ring ultimately, because Worldsim service was so slow. In fact he didn’t get come of my messages until 3hours later!!!
Ian says:
Today was lovely weather and start of serious alpine passes. 45 mile ascent of the Col d’Allos (summit 2250m). On the way up passed through the lovely village of Colmars, which we must return to together. The last 6K of the climb were very hard and had to stop twice to take a breather, food and drink. The views at the top were superb and the 20K descent to Barcelonnette was exhilarating. Situation in the posterior deteriorating further!

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Plan - She Said...Day 3

Plan B – She Said….

The campsite lady asked if Ian was cycling today and warned that there was snow on the tops and made zigzag movements with her hands to say that the van wouls be sliding around.  Don’t worry.  Ian’s been awake half the night, whilst I was snoring away, thinking of a plan B!
Right, so we can’t get over Cime de la Bonette, the highest pass in Europe, so we’ll have to head west.  I dropped him off at St Jean de la Riviere and we both headed for Puget-Thenier, and then on to St Andre des Alpes.  I arranged to meet Ian to make sure he was fuelled up at about half way.  I had a great drive along the gorges, following the course of the Var and the Verdon rivers, swollen with all the recent rain.  There was a long plod of a stretch but then the road became more interesting and started to climb significantly, as I approached the Hautes-Alpes.  Spurred on by a decent lunch and mountainous scenery,  Ian arrived about an hour earlier than expected.  I parked the van on a much easier municipal site with tons of space, and swiftly changed and got my bike off and began cycling, only to meet Ian about 10minutes away from the site!  I had a short cycle in the rain, around to a lovely little hamlet called Angle, which I’d spotted during my drive over.  There was supposed to be an impressive Geological phenomenon just up the valley near Angle, but as I cycled up there, with an enthusiastic frame of mind, even I struggled to be impressed with the “thingy”!  Maybe I had to get off my bike and walk!  But it was a lovely quiet valley and the route took me alongside a pea-green lake.  I passed a guy who was bent double picking something out of the scrub, which I assumed must be mushrooms, but I didn’t like to ask, because I hear that French people can be very possessive with their “knowledge”, so I left him to it!
Forgot to say that the Aups area is famous for its truffles and wild boar, but we’ll have to come back in November-March to experience these little black gems!

Ian Says Stage 2 St Martin to St Andre des Alpes  “Apart from the last ten miles, it was a pretty tedious slog.  Covered 55mls, 3500’ascent.  But now in the big hills.  Feel OK, apart from the nether regions, due to tight shorts and  being permanently wet!  You get the rather unpleasant picture!!

Ian's Cycle Begins!

The Start just outside Nice
Ian’s Cycle begins! (and my epic van journey!)

Nice to Geneva over the Grande Traverse des Alpes in stages.
Stage 1: Nice to St Martin de Vesubie – not technically on the route, but we’re reminiscing from 1976, when we were last there with Colin and Morty!!
“Now this is how you switch the fridge off and change it to gas…This is how you secure the bikes…This is how you send a message to my phone, please don’t ring, or it’ll be bothering me all through the cycle….” The preparations begin!!!
Sally SatNav is chirping away as I climb up to St Clare and Levens. I don’t need her cos there’s only one way up, but it’s reassuring to hear another voice in the van, as I’m hairpinning around the overhanging rocks!! Vertigenous drops slow me right down, but for gran and those of a nervous disposition, don’t worry- I take no risks. I pull in regularly to let the fuming speedies go past!
From Levens I’m on a better road and on up to St Martin de Vesubie, at 900m. Could we find the place where we ate 34yrs ago! Can I find the campsite? Can I park the van?? Poor Ian . The road rises steeply to St Martin- a tight little village perched on the hill-side, with beautiful scenery dropping steeply into the Gorge de Vesubie.
St Martin Vesubie
I arrive at the campsite, la Ferme de St Josep, well actually, I go past the site and then ther’s a nervous few minutes trying to find somewhere to turn around, with Sally SatNav calmly but authoritatively telling me to “turn around where possible”. I am trying to, you stupid woman!
There’s a very tight entrance to one of the smallest sites we’ve been on with the van! Then a 3-point turn to park it, with a very nice French lady “helping” me to park in French. I expected the reception to be open. Still not used to the French way. It transpires that the office is open for an hour in the morning and a whole hour and a half in the afternoon. Fortunately the owner’s mum is there to receive me!
Right, switch gas on, fridge on, put deck chairs away cos it’s just started raining again, and get the kettle on. Message Ian to say arrived safe and sound. Feeling quite proud of myself that I’ve managed to successfully navigate my first alpine pass, find the site and park up, all without the slightest incident.
Only one big problem- little petrol – 55mls left! French mum says there is a garage at the end of town and when Ian arrives we fill up! Whilst out we book a meal in a pizzeria. It’s not where we ate 34 yrs ago, but I can’t keep going into various restaurants, muttering in poor French about having been here a long time ago and could I please have a look at the view from the soaking wet veranda- no – it’s not that one!! Ah well this one looks fine, it’ll do! We’ll have to leave our memories intact and as wonderful as they were!
St Martin
The weather became absolutely dreadful again, with pounding rain . Ian arrived soaked and pleased to have a hot shower. We waited for the rain to stop, long enough to climb up to the restaurant, me with plastic shoes on and better sandals in a plastic bag! The food was great and the pizza oven kept us lovely and warm. The place was very busy with increasingly sodden requests for a table being denied! Heavy downpours all night, falling as snow and sleet on the big passes. Might have to do a re-think as in two days Ian’s supposed to be climbing the biggest pass in Europe, and even more worrying, SO AM I!!

Ian Says “Not the best of starts. Have to go South to North because of the weather. Having decided to go from Nice, made a big error by getting lost on the crease of the map, and ended up climbing the wrong valley, resulting in an extra 800’ climbing on an already tough day. Didn’t take enough food, so was glad to see St Martin 39mls and 5000’ ascent. This is hard!

Last Evening in Aups

Last evening in Aups

 A wander around the old town of Aups with its 14 fountains and washing places, currently used to hang around and chat when the weather allows, which is fortunately this evening  These clean water vessels were built in response to terrible plagues and La Peste.  Consequently water, water everywhere!  Because of this abundance, Aups formerly boasted six tanneries, five potteries, sawmills, silk worm producers, a lavender distillery, turpentine factory, hat and knife manufacturers. Historically not dependent on tourism, and it still has a thriving community which is open to tourism but not totally taken over by it, as I understand some towns are.
Typically French, the recommended restaurant was closed and didn’t open until later in June, so we opted for the Grand Hotel, which far from being “Grand” was informal, friendly and served great food.  Three different menus ranging from 15-25 euros, and although a bit nervous after the tete de veau incident last year, we needn’t have worried.  But what is “brouillard” , a “jarret du porc”, a “pastilla” of lapin. We were no wiser when the pleasant waitress explained!  But the octopus casserole (daube de poulpet), brouillard aux asperges (asparagus scrambled eggs), followed by rabbit with plum jam in filo parcel ( pastille de lapin au confit de pruneaux) and Jarret du porc (pork “shank”) were superb, and the apple pie was “impeccable”!  Never eaten rabbit before, but I’ll be having it again!
We sat under the oldest plane tree I’ve ever seen, 400yrs old and there are 69 plane trees in total, giving shade to the quaint little “place”.
The following day began bright and sunny for a change. I walked into town for milk, baguette and paper.  Beginning to feel at home here, and the campsite’s superbly situated close to the town.   There’s an imposing Poids Publique for weighing harvests.   Definitely coming back here again.
Back to van and off to what will be the first stage of Ian’s cycle from Nice to Geneva.
We make our way towards Nice through the devastated Draguignan.  No, we’re not gawping, but the arterial route runs right through the town, and has to be shepherded by  a myriad of police and aid staff.  We slowly pick our way through piled up cars, remains of trees, piles of mud and silt, and take care around sections of road and bridges washed away by the flood waters.  It really is a mess and it’ll take months to sort out. 
The Var-Matin paper confirms that 25 are dead and another 14 disappeared.  A couple in the 80s in Draguignan were reportedly seen stranded in their allotment, and they held hands and plunged into the river together, when they realised that there was no way out, with powerless neighbours looking on!  How terrible!
 We make our way to the suburb in Nice called Cagne-sur-Mer, to a campsite called La Riviere.  In spite of its more remote location, the campsite is very friendly and helpful, and even more importantly it has a big TV to watch England play Algeria!0-0

Thursday, 17 June 2010

“Let’s head South for better weather!”

Leaving settled good weather back in the UK, we crossed the Channel in eager anticipation of four weeks of adventures in France. The forecast wasn’t great for the coming days, and we overnighted on an aire in Beaune and made the decision to do the opposite of what we’d planned. We’d head straight for the sunny south, Provence, and give the weather chance to settle down before heading up to Switzerland for six days walking. Also I’d just completed the Baslow Boot Bash, all 27 and a half miles, and my knees were shouting that they needed some time off, and some anti-inflammatories!!!
So away early, and another day’s travelling in the rain to Provence. Ian had come across an interesting area, the Var region, and we made our way to the Camping International site, at Aups Aups is a quaint little village at 500m, a historic palce, famous for its numerous foutains and washing areas, a couple dating back to 600 AD.

More driving rain. Proprietor, Pierre, not in a good mood. Site looked good even in miserable weather. The rest of the day and night spent huddled indoors, listening to the rain beating down!! This made the Hebridean weather seem acceptable!
The following morning was a little brighter, as we picked our way to the town, through soaked paths and standing water on the road-side. The bread hadn’t arrived from Draguignan because of the floods. Now that was the understatement of the century! Once you got past the irony of having come to the only region in France, this massive country, to be hit by flash floods of the century, you were hit by the disaster. 20 people dead in the area, 2 people missing, average rainfall 35mm, present rainfall 277mm! Draguignan closed and devastated, whole community blighted by the flood. Draguignan is about 25k down the road, most at risk because of a river flowing through, running down to the south.
Blissfully unaware of the extent of the damage, we decided to try and dodge some of the downpours and head north up to Aiguines and the entrance to the Verdon Gorge. Lots of climbing right from the beginning, but stunning scenery once there. There looks to be a great circuit of the gorge, which we promised/threatened ourselves with next time. At 3500’climbing it was enough for the first day.
The following day was equally unsettled and this time we headed south out of Aups. Today was going to be a day for sight-seeing, and cafĂ© visiting. First stop the strangely-named Fox-Amphoux. The language in this area is Provencal, with its own local dialect and town names written in the local and the French. After this lovely, quiet and unspoilt village, with its stunning panoramic views from a small building at the top of a stairwell, we cycled on to Sillans- la- Cascade. Amazing waterfalls, swollen with so much rain, and a jus d’orange at the epicier du chateau. On to Cotignac, a busy little village, where we had a baguette/cake and coffee, and then swiftly on to Entrecasteaux, with its impressive chateau and gardens, another quiet little gem. Then Salernes, Villecroze and without stopping on to Toutour. What a stinky little climb that was, but well worth it to arrive at yet another very quiet, historic village, with its award as one of the most beautifully villages in France. We’d definitely come back here again. Then a fabulous cycle back to Aups, 9km away, contouring around the hill-side, past olive groves with extensive views over the surroundings. I just love these last bits on the way home! All the hard work’s been done and you can just soak up the smells of the herbes de Provence and rain on warm tarmac! Actually we managed to avoid most of the downpours by staying south. Exactly 40mls and 3000’ climbing today. Enough!!!

But what a great way to see the area, and so quiet outside les grandes vacances! One of the best things about this area is that it’s quite un-touristy, without the usual myriad of gift shops, and the German cyclists don’t seem to have made it their own, as they have in Mallorca. Villages are almost always 8-9km apart so frequent coffee stops, as long as you get your timings right with the siesta! Coming back for :
The circuit of the Verdon Gorge
A cycle to and a more leisurely stay in Tourtour
Would recommend this campsite- great hot showers, and generous pitches amongst the olive trees

Really pleased for you lot in the UK that the weather continues fair. Especially Kate and Michael for their visit to Ascot and for a great weekend with Laura at Gordon Ramsays food fair in Regents Park, but please can we have some of your good weather too!!

Monday, 7 June 2010

Armadale - Mallaig - Killin - Home

Armadale- Mallaig- Killin

Having climbed upto Old Man of Storr ( pictured left), we took a lovely little ferry journey to mainland, and then superb drive from Mallaig, by-passing the coast road and Ardnamurchan peninsula.  Something else to add to the “shopping list” for next time!  Glencoe, Fort William, Crianlarich, Killin.  Spotted something else for the list- there’s a great, wee train that steams along, chugging and belching smoke all the way from Fort Will to Mallaig.  Traffic pulls in , people climb from their cars and run up hill-sides with cameras, to get a shot of this great little train chugging past.  Must do that.  Also a little ferry from Corran to Ardnamurchan.  Both of us agree that the ferry journeys have been little gems in their own right.
Already thinking and planning next trip to Bonnie Scotland and the Isles!  Bike ride in the etape in Pitlochry in May 2011, then onto Oban, ferry to Mull, Tobermory, ferry to Kilchoan, Moidart, Mallaig, ferry to Corran………
Arrived at caravan club site at Killin, near the village, with its rushing waterfalls.  Lovely site with well-spaced out pitches.  Just in time for a “leisurely” cycle along the south side of Loch Tay.  Up and down and really tiring.  Body’s saying “Submit”!
Only cycled about 8miles down to a rather nice small hotel.  Even though they are situated on a cycle path, which is clearly marked, I think someone needs to tell them that cyclists don’t normally wear tweed, or designer gear, or carry Prada luggage.  The staff seemed at a loss to know what to do with us, in our bright yellow and blue lycra!  We dutifully placed ourselves out of sight and quietly asked for a cup of coffee!  The maitre d’ stared at us throughout the whole interaction, and having made up his mind about us, closed the hotel door, which led to the outside patio where we were sitting!  Charming!  And then he continued to glare at us through the glazed door.  Clearly our faces, dayglo outfits, and padded pants didn’t suit him!  I can’t think why!  £7 for two cups of coffee!!!!  Another 8 miles back.  Kna…..ered but at least it was a lovely evening and we managed a bbq on our last night.
6am start and drove all the way back, arriving home at about 2pm!

Our last day in the Hebrides

Our Last Day in the Hebrides

We are now in Skye. We’d both planned our little “epics”. I’m going to do a walk we did last year, up the divide between the Red Cuillins and the Black Cuillins of Skye, to the top of Sgurr na Stri to look into the Cuillin Cauldron, and down onto Loch Coruisk. Ian planned to do an unfettered cycle ride. So up early and off. Mobile phone packed, plenty of food and water for about 8 hours walking, compass and map, although even I couldn’t get lost with one way in and one way out!!
It takes a good 3 hours to get anywhere near Sgurr na Stri but with plenty of daylight and good weather, for a change, who’s rushing?! Two visits to Skye and pretty good weather both times. The day is becoming brighter and the views are breath-taking- huge, sweeping smooth sides of the Red Cuillins to my left, and the jagged peaks of Sgurr Alasdair, and nan Gilean to my right. Lots of stops to take photos and video with our pocket-size camera, practising for when Col and I do the Coast to Coast in Sept. Saw no-one for 3 hours, and as it turned out only two small groups in 8 hours!
Runrig, Sigur Ros and Jose Gonzalez kept me company on the i-pod!
The last 2 miles to the top rises sharply uphill and contouring around over rough ground soaks up the time!!
After 4 hours, I reach the top, and am ready for some food! I overlook superb views, yachts anchored up in the bay below. I remember why I love this walk so much. It’s a long walk with lots of time to become absorbed in the magnificent glen, and when you reach the top of this underwhelming hill, you have 360deg views of sea, mainland, other small islands, the Cuillin cauldron, and down into the glen. The mist swirls around the tops of the Cuillin ridge, and it really does look like a boiling cauldron. On returning home later, we discover that Stan Bradshaw, the father of Clayton-le-Moors Harriers Fell Running Club, has died at 97yrs, and it is recorded that he walked the Cuillin Ridge when he was 71. Amazing fella and such a nice chap. I remember when I did my first fell-race, and he popped in to see how I’d done. Most importantly, he wanted to know if I had enjoyed it.
Right, I really will have to get a shake on!! No more photo stops, a bit of downhill jogging and snacking on the move! Eventually arrive back, sore knees, ankles, feet, after about seven and a half hours, about the same as last time to do about 18miles.
I rang Ian to let him know I’m nearby and he’s not long been back. Oh dear, I think someone may have over-done it!!!
Turns out he’s been about 85miles in 6 hours!! Thank God they’ve got lovely hot showers on this otherwise basic camp-site. What am I on about “basic”- it’s got hot showers, stands in a stunning landscape, and best of all it’s right next to the Sligachan Hotel, beloved by mountaineers and climbers through the centuries, as the old photos of gentlemen in tweed, no doubt soaked and weighing a ton, show. In’t goretex BRILLIANT!!!
Off to the pub for a hearty fish and chips, great beer and a shot of whisky!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

And the weatherman says it will be another sweltering day....

And the Weatherman says it will be another sweltering day……

Everywhere except in the far north of Scotland, specifically Stornoway! It’s Sunday. A day of rest. A day for putting your best suit on and going to the “Wee Free” church. They still do that in rural Harris. Everything is closed- garages, shops (Ian can’t even get his Sunday paper, no ferries, no football matches…Weather again not so good today, so we decided to explore part of Lewis.
There are a number of archeological sites on Lewis so we made for two which are quite close together- the Callanish Stones and the Carloway Broch on Lewis’ west coast. There’s lots more to see but with so little time left, we had to select.
The Callanish Stones I, II, III are three groups which you can walk between, but the tallest and most impressive are group I. Set on raised land above remains of “lazybeds”, a form of strip planting peculiar to the Hebrides, where peat was dug and lifted to one side, creating furrows, for growing potatoes. Approx 30 standing stones of Lewissian gneiss, some extremely thin are placed in the shape of a cross. Approx 5000 years old, they are considerably older than Stonehenge and almost as grand. In the central burial chamber household objects and jewellery were excavated, which presumably helped in the dating of the site.
About 6 miles on from there at Carloway is one of the best preserved examples of an Iron-age Broch. This was a home for tribal elders, which was well-defended because of it’s shape, a bit like a walnut whip. It dates back to 2000 years, to the Pictsand the Celts, who the Romans tried and failed to subjugate. They gave up when they got to the far north, because they found the terrain and the people so hostile! Probably missed the fine wine and cultured company of their homeland!
The walls of the broch are 3metres thick, with an inner and outer wall, a bit like cavity-wall insulation, but with the gap between wide enough to build a stair-case to the two upper floors. Ingenious! There’s even enough remaining to walk up to what would have been the second floor, in their footsteps. The doorway is quite short, so you have to crouch down to get inside. It must have been quite snug, dark and warm, but smelly! The ground floor was for sheltering animals, the first floor was the main living space and then the second floor was likely used for smoking herrings over the peat fire. Looking out from the broch we could see high piles of peat drying at the rear of the houses nearby, ready for burning. On the road over the moors, we’d seen numerous channels of freshly dug peat “bricks” waiting to be collected. Peat is still a major source of renewable fuel here. Most of Lewis is founded on peat, which makes for very boggy walking, unless you decide to climb it’s biggest hill Clisham/An Cliseam at about 800m. Maybe next time we come!
Then on to Stornoway on the east coast, and the largest town and port on the island. Michael, Kate’s boyfriend still has an uncle living on Lewis. Some of the family left and went to Australia and some to US, but he still has family crafting in a little coastal town called Tolsta on the east coast. It gets a great write-up in the guide as having some of the finest beaches on the isles, near the picturesque Bay of Geiraha. Make a note to go and see next time. Historically Michael’s family descend from the Macivers, who along with the Macleods, the Morisons, Macauleys and Macraes of Uig, were some of the most troublesome clans on Lewis. It seems that there was a lot of inter-clan fighting on Lewis, whereas Harris was a much more peaceful land. It’s not hard to see on a day like today why they were so bad-tempered. Life must have been extremely hard back then- weather, potato famine, the Clearances to simplify just a few hazards!
You drive off massive open moors with a couple of little- populated areas, the closest to total isolation, and then you drop down to Stornoway and its port. Nothing happening because it’s Sunday, but a couple of pubs open, defying religious convention. Actually we haven’t seen any pubs on the islands. I presume bars are attached to hotels, because it’s perceived as being less lewd, drinking with food in a hotel, rather the swilling back pints in a pub! The thick mist and hill fog lifts temporarily and we get a view of this quiet sea port. We turn around and head back to Tarbart, where we plan to rough camp on the car park by the ferry to catch the 7.15am sailing. On the way cack we get glimpses of An Cliseam towering over the Lochs area, which is said to be worth a visit, but we haven’t time today.
Although there’s a cold wind we decide to get togged up and leave the van at Tarbert and cycle over the hills to the bridge across to the island of Scalpay. The wind’s behind us to start, but there’s some really testing hill climbs and neck-breaking descents before we cross to Scalpay. Another small island, school, church, community centre and small village. It’s nice to visit, but you’d have to be mentally quite resilient to live in such an isolated spot. Or you’d have to take up the Good Book! There are fantastic views over the surrounding islands across The Minch, and we even managed to see them. A lung-bursting, hill cycle ride back to the warmth of the van. A night spent waking and dozing listening to the wind outside and the cuckoo saying it was time to wake up.
We arrived in Uig, on Skye at 9am, and drove onto Portree for some supplies. Then on to a walk we missed last year. It’s only about 3mls, but quite steep, up to and around the Old Man of Storr and other dramatic rock formations and buttress walls, created by glacial erosion. Awesome stuff and it’s clearing up, with brief glimpses of sunshine. Laura’s ringing us about buying furniture and telling us it’s boiling in London! Kate was playing golf in the hot sun of Leeds yesterday, and we’re togged up in waterproofs, warm gilets, gaiters etc.. Our time will come.
Parked up and paid for two nights at the Sligachan campsite, where we came last year. Stunning views all round of the Cuillins, and the nearby pub.

Berneray to Harris

7.15 Ferry from Berneray to Harris

Nb in the ferry building there was a flyer for nature trail from Lochmaddy, which we said we might do but didn’t have time this time, a trail where sea eagles and golden eagles are “regularly seen”.  Put that on the “unfinished business” list!
Back to the ferry journey.  One of the highlights of the trip.  A gem of a sail.  About a hour long of picking our way between tight cardinal buoys, marking hazards to the north and south-  uninhabited islands and little rocky outcrops.  Turquoise sea, which on a brighter day would have looked brilliant, today reflecting the grey of the sky.  Again a misty, dull day, so now is the time to apologise, in advance of Ian seeing the video, for about 20mins of grey, misty views across grey, rocky coastline.  In spite of all that it was a wonderful little trip and one I’d love to make again. About a hundred uninhabited islands some with grey seals, which I think I could hear wailing in the distance at dusk, walking on the shore at Berneray.
Arrived Levensburgh, on Harris, formerly An t’Ob, but renamed after Lord Levershulme of Unilever, who tried to build this town up into a thriving leisure fishing destination,but died before it was completed and his dream was abandoned.  First impressions of Harris- what I imagine a North Atlantic Nova-Scotian fishing port would be like- big grey hills rising up and towering over a few little hamlets.
We drove around the sweeping sandy bays, beautiful and pristine, with not a soul on them- some of the most beautiful beaches we seen.  At 9am we were in the Tourist Info Office, with Runrig playing in the background.  It seems that the band come from N Uist, and many of their songs are about fishing trips into the mighty Atlantic.  I’ll enjoy listening to them all over again, and we’ve booked to see them for about the fifth time at Sheffield City Hall in December.  They visit before Xmas biennially, and it’s always a great night, with everyone getting on their feet with the opening bars of their first song!
Before we drove on to the camp site, I called at the Harris Tweed wholesalers by the port.  There is a good shop, which sells ready-made jackets, hats etc and opposite a big warehouse with literally hundreds and thousands of different tweeds.  An extremely lovely lady, who I’ve nicknamed Katie Morag’s mum, and I think the tourist info guide called her Kate, sold me several metres of beautiful Harris tweed, to make a skirt or a jacket or who knows! 60” wide at £25 per metre and narrower at £12.50 p.m. and a generous bag of patchwork pieces for £10. Her daughter weaves the tweed at Plocropol, and I promised myself a visit.
We parked up at the ambitiously named Minch View Touring Park.  There’s actually only room for 6 vans at a push and the facilities are a bit basic, but that said, the owner was extremely friendly.  We’ve found this on all the islands.  Everyone passing you on the road, pedestrian and driver alike, waves to you.  This Hebridean Islands are known as the place of “Mille Ceud Failte” /of a thousand welcomes, and they live up to this claim.
Later that day we cycled on the “Golden Road” between Tarbert and Grosebay, actually from Drimnishader, where we were camped onto Grosebay.  Ian cycled much further around the whole of South Harris, about 40mls, climbing steadily up the impressive hills behind Tarbert.  I visited Katie Morag at Plocropol, and pretty little bay.  She has a delightful view from her weaving shed window.  She lives in the house next door.  I glimpsed spools of yarns, but Katie Morag apologised for being closed today, and it goes without saying, tomorrow, Sunday.  Later that evening we met Katie Morag’s two black Labradors, whilst on a walk between Drimnishader and Plocropol.  She was taking them for a swim in the lochan opposite, but when they caught sight of us some way up the road, one of them came dashing towards us up the single track road, wagging her tail and lying on her back to have her tummy tickled.  Not a bit frightened of being on the road, or of us as strangers.
On my cycle route I also called in at Grosebay tweed shop.  Slightly more upmarket than the one at the port, and ,as I suspected, this may have been reflected in the prices. Beautifully tailored jackets at about £265.  It would have to be a very special occasion!  Maybe I should start saving now ready for when we come back again!
Our campsite is one of only two on Harris, with wild camping possible at Hushnish on the coast.  Lovely views of the Minch, with the occasional Caledonian Macbrayne ferry plowing in and out. From the last ferry of the day, I could hear bagpipes playing in the distance. Very romantic.
No phone reception. Real feeling of peace and isolation.  Fjord-like inlets and lochans.  But still no sun since Oban!

Rain, rain and more rain

Rain, Lochans, Sea birds and OTTERS!!

Yep these forecasts are pretty damned accurate! It poured with rain all day! I’m lovely and dry in the van, with G/T being prepared, but the loo/sink area is full of wet cagoules, gaiters, over-trousers, and hats!! I’ll deal with them later. But as our friend Col says, there’s something very satisfying about going out in foul weather in good gear. As long as it doesn’t happen again tomorrow!
Never mind, at least we’re not cycling up thru the Hebrides in this, like several people we’ve met on the ferry and roads. We enjoyed our cycle on Barra and would do it again, but the romantic vision of cycling these islands is just that – a vision. Reality is a bit bleak on days like this, being passed by traffic on single-track roads, even though it is light. I suppose it might look different if the sun were shining, but there seem to be little in the way of refreshments and long, stark sections.
We decided to get geared up and do some twitching at Balranald RSPB reserve on Benbecula. Having heard what I thought might be a corncrake, a few nights ago, on Barra, I was feeling hopeful. It made a grating call, like a ratchetting screw-driver, or a toad with a sore throat. We hid in the shelter of the info building, and then braced ourselves. It was driving rain! 23deg back home!
We walked for 2 hours in the rain, but it was well worth it. Corn-buntings in the fields, then on well-marked footpaths out onto the promontory past nesting oyster-catchers, occasionally flying right at you to move you on, little dunlins and other sea-birds too numerous for me to identify. Back along the coast overlooking beautiful sandy bays, past nesting arctic terns, and sea-thrift between the rocks. Back through the fields, covered in little yellow violas and tiny, pink geraniums, past lapwings with their small babies, and strip off in the warm, dry van. What a great day out!
We drove on over the causeway to Bernaray Island, where we were to catch the early morning ferry to Leverburgh on Harris, again about an hour’s sail away.. We’d tried to get on the ferry today but they were fully booked. It’s only a small ferry with room for about 4 campervans and ten cars!
Berneray, HRH’s favourite island, was connected to N Uist in 1999 by a causeway. Walking out onto the jetty, I saw an otter making its way purposely through the water just ahead of me, occasionally slinking like a little sea-serpent. I called Ian over, who arrived just in time to miss it, and he blamed my eyesight for the case of mistaken identity! After an hour or two, at dusk, nearly 10pm, I spotted another one, from the van, turning over onto its back at the water’s edge within 100m of the van. This time Ian saw it too, and agreed that there was no doubt it was an otter!

Eriskay to Benbecula

Eriskay-South Uist-Benbecula

Straight through on single track roads all the way to Benbecula, which is joined to the Uists by causeways, part-funded by the EU, which makes you realise they’d been separated until very recently.  It was raining and misty, but we took a short detour in South Uist to Druidibeg Nature Reserve.  Would like to explore here but not today! With its big hills around hundreds of lochans, it is the home of the golden eagle, greylag geese, and the shy, almost rare corncrake, with its distinctive “crake, crake” call, especially in the evening. The corncrake is about the size of a small chicken, and the Hebrides are the only places in the British Isles where they can be found.  Benbecula is reputedly one of its favourite spots, and crofting methods have reflected the need to protect the habitat of these ground-nesting birds.
We were making our way early evening to the only camp-site in this whole stretch, Shell Bay.  Though a reasonable site, with plenty of hot water, and beggars can’t be choosers, but it did look like an old army barracks site!  And the grey, bleak surroundings did make me think of geese- yes, that’s it- Goose Green!!!
TV on, and the forecast says the hottest day of the year expected tomorrow, everywhere in UK….  apart from the far north of Scotland, where it’s going to lob it down all day!  Well, they don’t always get it right!