Friday, 11 October 2013

Gotta find somewhere else to stay!

Col de la Croix de Fer
All roads lead ultimately to Bourg.  Real bonus because we didn't expect the weather to be this good in September.  Also good throughout France and back at home, but a bit cooler.  Forecast to be mid 20s during the day and down to 7deg at night, that being the biggest difference between here and Provence.  The road over took us in via Valbonnais and over the Col d'Ornon, recently resurfaced and covered in a thick layer of loose gravel, treacherous for cyclists.  At home a week or so later, they sweep the road surface for loose gravel, whereas here, they seemingly wait for the weather to do it for them, eventually!
With great weather forecast for at least the next four days, we planned a couple of favourite routes here and then on to Beaufort to revisit a couple of old favourites there.  Never expected to be able to do this, so it feels like a real bonus!
Auris route alongside valley
Camped at a very quiet Rencontre de Soleil site, with only a handful of others.  Good site, typically expensive for here, 28euros, but Mr and Mrs do like to keep on top of the landscape, mowing and strumming everything to within an inch of its life, usually at between 11am and 6pm, with a short break for lunch!  Not exactly "calme et paisible"!  Got to try somewhere different next time, nearer Allemont, where there is a municipal site, Le Plan.  Planning on entering the Vaujany cycle event next June, which Ian has done before.

Villard Reculas overlooking Romanche Valley
Very cool start, with Moreno layer under cycle vest, cagoule in back pocket, phone and money for a coke, sardine sandwich, banana and snickers bar packed for lunch.  The usual stuff.  Off for a final visit of Croix de Fer, savouring every moment, even the stinky climb up to and out of Le Rivière.  Glorious, so didn't care how long I was likely to be out!  Sat at the top for sandwich and coke, little cafe being surprisingly open, but then it was a lovely weekend. Great views of the peaks from the top and warmer than in June.  52 miles in an average of 11mph.  Saw Ian briefly in passing near the col, as he added another climb up to Vaujany on the return.
The following day we both ascended to Villard Reculas, setting off half an hour apart.  A tough climb up to a balcony route we've done from the other direction.  Then the last six hairpins of the Alpe d'Huez and a coke at the top.  Ian continued on to the top of Col de Sarenne but I'd had enough and descended back to the campsite.  Sarenne could wait until tomorrow.  Take the van to a car park tomorrow am, and then take my time up the Alpe and Sarenne tomorrow, before we leave for Beaufort and hopefully a quieter site!

Tuesday, 24 September 2013


Verdun Gorge and time up Alpe d'Huez

Left Bank Verdun Gorge

Verdun Gorge

View of Mt Blanc from Grand Colombier

Mistral blows us south

Time to move on, heading towards the Grand Canyon du Verdon.  Nearest large place is Aix-en-Provence.  We were here about 34years ago and fairly close at Aups a few years ago.  Found a good site, Le Vieux Colombier, about to close this weekend, at Moustiers, a small town perched high among the rock face, which marks the beginning of the Verdon Gorge. It is built around a cleft in the rock face with a chapelle right at the top.
By the end of our first day, we knew the whole of the Gorges very well!  We cycled out clockwise to La Palud, via the Col D'Ayen, and around the Route des Cretes, with vertiginous views into the Gorge, thousands of feet below, to the icy blue river.  The route is a balcony route for 15 miles which offers the closest views of the gorges.  After that we joined the main route and carried on clockwise to Trigance, a medieval town high on the hillside.  Then ascending the Rive Gauche, to the Balcon de Mescla and a coca cola, to the total height of around 1200m, the highest point of the gorges road.  Cars and the occasional coach passing, stopping and re passing us.  Finally descended into Moustiers Sainte Marie, having cycled 74mls and 8400' ascent!  phew!  Lovely day and great cycle ride.
That night we were too tired to cook so ate at the local brasserie having the  plat du jour of cabaillard. We took it hoping it was fish as neither of us knew! Ian suddenly thought it was eel but thankfully it was hake and really good.  We didn't want a repeat off the "tete de beau" incident!
The day after we cycled a circular route to Tourtour, where there was a small market selling beautiful figs, half a dozen in the back pocket for 65 cents! Would cost more than that each at home!.  Then Aups followed by circuit of the Lac de St Croix. Stopped for colas and coffee so not too stressful but still managed another 64 miles!
Rest tomorrow when we set off for Le Bourg d'Oisans. The weather has been fantastic and is forecast to continue until Saturday so risking going into the high mountains, for another last minute gasp, literally!
24 degrees when we arrive in Bourg!

Ventoux 2

Once more up Ventoux!

The day after our ascent from Bedoin a Mistral wind blew.  Strong and cold from the North, but with blue sky and sunshine. Layers on and confined to the lower climbs to Malaucene, Suzette and then on to the Dentelles again, but this time to villages further in the Dentelles, Roque Alfric, Le Barroux with a big chateau, up and down through hidden valleys and vineyards, dripping with dark purple grapes, ready for harvesting.  The wind was debilitating and we returned after 32 miles.
After porridge and banana, the usual breakfast, I set off at 8.30am, 40 minutes ahead of Ian, up the Gorge de la Nesque on a lovely sunny morning.  I could see clouds covering Ventoux and it was still a little windy, but nothing like yesterday.  Early lunch, ham baguette and coffee in Sault, with Ian, who caught me at the head of the gorge.  I'd averaged 13mph and later 9mph, as it became steeper and felt good weaving in and out of the ravine.
Past the honey sellers and the lavender fields on the lower slopes, and then tucked in close to a young Belgian girl, being paced by her father, on her first ascent of Ventoux.  A steady pace all the way up the much kinder ascent, even managing to pass them and two other cyclists, in my big chain ring for the last 3km before Chalet Reynard, where it levels off and contours gently round.  Time for a quick coca cola and then the last 6km again, up to the top.  Past the young Belgian girl again, now on her own, having dropped Dad at the cafe, past the memorial to Tommy Simpson, with only 700m to go.  Strong winds pushing you back, so that I had to get out of the saddle at the last bit!  But then that amazing feeling of having done it again, and didn't feel as tired as the last time.  It is a much less difficult way up.  Congratulated my new Belgian friend as she appeared shortly after, clearly exhilarated at her achievement.  Really cold, but the clouds starting to blow over and the sun break through.  Put on lots of layers and then the fabulous descent into Malaucene.  Fairly straightforward.  Good road surface, and not too steep, with only a few hairpins.  Really fast descent, getting up to 37mph!
Strip off layers down in Malaucene ready for the ascent up to Col de Madeleine, via that beautiful road over to Bedoin.  Fast descent into Bedoin, still feeling strong and enjoying the ride.  Back at the campsite after 64miles, averaging 11.1mph, and 5hrs 50 on the bike.  What a great day!


Landed on a lovely warm, sunny day, but the forecast for tomorrow was rain, drying up by lunchtime.  So we cycled in the afternoon, setting off in the direction of Malaucene, on the beautiful road which climbs over the Col de Madelene, contouring around vineyards and pine forests, with spectacular views as you climb higher.  Over to the Dentelles, down to Beaume de Venise, climbing up to hilltop villages of St Pierre de Vassols and Crillon Le Brave and back to Bedoin.  Nice intro and a route we've done before, but the other way around.  Unsettled weather and cool.

The forecast was better for Monday.  I set off at 8.30am, 40mins ahead of Ian, which is roughly the difference expected to the top of Ventoux!  The other big difference between Ian and I is unfortunately for him, he has a clear, good memory of how hard these climbs are, whereas I blot out most of it, apart from the feeling of euphoria at the top!  Consequently, it began to come back to me, as I began the interminable climb up through the pines, with a gradient of around 9 and 10% over 10 miles.  Thank God for Chalet Reynard, a couple of minutes to stretch and then the tough last few miles over the "desert" landscape to the top.  The wind was building, occasionally helping, at other times making it tougher.  Ian overtook me with 3k to go, damn him, and I thought I'd done well.  Turns out he was having another good day!
The top is always a wonderful but cold place to be.  2hrs 36mins, eat a snickers bar, and put leggings, cold weather gloves, merino top, winter jacket, and cagoule on, before the descent back to Chalet Reynard and a cup of hot coffee.  Ian had time for a second!  Then off down towards Sault, on a superbly tarmacced road, switching back through pine forests, and eventually on through lavender fields, now empty but still fragrant.  My 6th time up the Geant de Provence.  Always takes me by surprise at how hard it is, but memorable.
Sandwich at our favourite bar in Sault, in a little square, tucked away.  In June it's very busy, but now the neighbouring restaurant is closed, and quite quiet.  Such a short season for these places.  On through lavender fields and climbing up to the head of the Gorge de la Nesque, and then the magnificent 7 or 8 mile descent through the gorge.  Hardly needing to use the brakes, and cycling at an average speed of 18 mph, we contoured around high up the side of the gorge, twisting and turning, with dramatic drops down into the valley.  The best piece of downhill cycling ever.  The weather was unsettled, but it didn't take the shine off.  The kind of cycle you relive in the cold winter months in Derbyshire!
Climb out of the gorge to Ville sur Auzon, on to Flassan and then Bedoin.  56mls, average speed 12.9mph, which shows how fast the return is bearing in mind the first half was ascending Ventoux, averaging 5mph.
Met up with Ian, from Sunderland, here on his own for two weeks on the BikeBus.  Same age as Ian and a keen cyclist, so lots of stories to share over a steak hache and frites!

Sunday, 22 September 2013

September ....Skipton v France

September 11 for about 3 weeks

After putting up two lots of Australian rellies and going down to London to Laura and Emma's wedding, we were off again.  Although very short notice compared to most weddings, where the preparations drag on interminably, with only two months to organise, it was the best wedding ever.  Just close family, with night do for friends, everything went off perfectly, and Laura looked more beautiful than we've ever seen.  Didn't know she had it in her!  They looked so happy together, and grandma had a lovely time, spoilt rotten, with lots of champagne!
Now off to North Yorkshire area, or Cornwall, in theory.  But the weather turned autumnal in a weekend, so off to Provence!  Overnighted in Guignicourt, just north of Reims. Expensive campsite but good, with little choice in area.  With a couple of decent days forecast north of Provence, we opted for Culoz, just south of Annecy and lake Geneva and stayed on a municipal site for two nights.  The site is at the foot of the Grand Colombier climb, made famous by the 2012 Tour de France, where Tommy Voekler won the stage.  As the helicopter filmed from overhead, you got the most amazing shots of Wiggins and Froome zigzagging their way on the crest of the hill, looking down over Lake Bourget.
We climbed the first day and found it a lot like the Alpe d'Huez climb but further.  Quite tough, but the views were stunning.  Through the trees on the ascent, you caught glimpses of Mont Blanc, rising above the clouds. We then continued onto the Col de Richemond in the footsteps of letour.
The second Saturday in the month between June and September, the local tourist board and the Confrerie des Cyclistes de Grand Colombier host a closed road event with refreshments at the summit, so we decided to tag along for a second ascent.  About 10 miles and 4000 feet of climbing, with 3kms where the gradient is over 10%.  Event started at 7am, and we were cycling by 8.30.  Very little traffic on the road anyway, but none that day.  Great welcome at the summit and spectacular mountain views.  Our hosts even opened a box of red wine, and it was still only 10.30 am!
Really enjoyable day, but not much to see in Culoz.  One bar but that's about it.  Great campsite and very reasonable.  Glad we decided to call in for a couple of nights, rather than legging it down to Provence.  Finished cycling by 12 noon and set straight off for Bedoin, Provence.

Friday, 28 June 2013

One col too many!

"One Col Too Many"!

Our very last day in the Alps.  Back in the van and driving North. Last chance!  But really too tired to do any more climbing. Especially the Col de Madeleine.
Had a rubbish climb up here last year from further down the valley near Aigueblanche.  Last climb we did and felt really tired and defeated before we started!  Steep first half and a long climb about 19kms with an overall of 8.5%.  And we had ten miles to get to the foot of the climb from La Chambre.  No I'll stay back at the van and do some sewing!  Well, it is the last chance.  Ok I'm coming as well!  Didn't have a bad time, but it seemed like a long way!   Again,it was a very cold day.  Whilst I sheltered in the cafe on the summit, with a coffee and a tarte au myrtille, with a fire heating the room, at the end of June, a cyclist came in and said it had just started snowing!  Just to remind you that you are at 2000m.
A freezing, shivering descent and then a slightly warm cycle back via St Marie de Cuines back to the site.  Glad we'd done it.  Great views but freezing!  And as Ian summed it up, "It was just one col too many!"  Shame really!
Set off the following day to get the bulk of the miles done.  All the way to just north of Reims to Guignicourt.  Long drive and miserable weather.  Dark clouds and drizzle.


And finally- Col du Galibier

It's almost beginning to have its own folklore.  Will Galibier be opened?  A landslide meant that it had to be closed!  It snowed this morning, so it's been closed again!
A lovely morning but quite cool, as we set off up the valley to St Michel de Maurienne into a cool breeze, with winter extra clothing packed into a small rucksack and enough snacks to keep us going for the long day ahead.  About ten miles before we started the climbing up the Col de Telegraphe, which then descends down about six miles into Valloire, before the climb up Galibier.  Reached Col de Telegraphe in 2hrs 15mins from campsite at St Jean, just for future reference, because it's the kind of significant climb you'd do again.  Feeling good up the Telegraphe, but aware that the longest, hardest climb is yet to come. The climb up to Galibier is not horrendously steep but it is long.  Apart from about 20 mins descent into Valloire, it was 4hrs 40mins before I reached the top of Galibier!  It is such a long climb, but amazing.  I caught up with Ian at Le Plan, where there is a cafe/restaurant, and he caught me having a coke, trying to get some sugar before the steepest climb up the "wall", which faces you from Le Plan.  He was absolutely frozen but paused for a coffee, and advised me not to hang around for long on the summit as it was absolutely perishing, with a piercing wind.  He set off back, and I carried on with 5km to go. After the next couple of kms, the road gets a little easier, zigzagging around alpine pastures and crags.  Gorgeous scenery.  Then there is a steep climb up to the restaurant, where cars have to go through a tunnel over the top, and bikes and motorbikes can follow the road over the proper summit.  A couple of exhausting 10% kms, with your back and bottom absolutely killing, and then you're there.  One of the best places on earth, and you did it with just a bike and your own legs.  The best feeling in the world.  360deg of fabulous mountain scenery.  Yes, it's freezing cold, but what a view!  Put all the clothes on that you are carrying in your rucksack.  Stuff left-over pizza, from last night into your mouth.  It looked horrible when I packed it int tin-foil this morning, but tastes fantastic now.  Artichokes and peppers in tomato sauce on cold pizza!
Time for a photo.  Get in the queue as elated cyclists cross over the top and want a photo to prove it!  Chat to fellow cyclists from Rotheram!  And then it's time to go back down to earth, with still a long way to go to get back.  The coldest I've ever been in the Alps.  Couldn't stop shivering on the way down, and struggled to keep my hands warm enough to brake effectively!  Couldn't stop at Le Plan, cos it was too exposed and cold, but waited until I got another 10kms or so back into Valloire.  After a coffee and a breather, I set off over the next section.  A climb, but good-paced one, back over Col de Telegraphe.  Not much of a climb from this angle, and then all the way back to St Michel de Maurienne to the site at St Jean de Maurienne.  The hardest cycle yet, being 6hrs35mins in the saddle, with 64 mls and 8000ft of climbing overall.  What a day!  Really enjoyable. Would definitely do it again.  There's something special about doing it "properly".  I've done it before from shorter distances, from Lauteret, from Valloire, and they were special climbs at the time, because they were all achievements.  But to do it over the full distance, not being dropped off nearer, or being picked up by minibus and taken back down,which so often happens, with people under time constraints, trying to pack in as much climbing as they can into their brief holidays.  A guy from Rotheram summed it up, at the summit.  "You dream and plan this all winter, and it's just the best thing!".  Absolutely spot on.  Knackered but thrilled!

St Jean de Maurienne

St Jean de Maurienne

Revisited the Camping des Grands Cols near the centre of town in the Maurienne Valley.  Loads to do from here, Col de Madeleine, Col du Mollard, Col du Glandon, Col de Croix Fer, Col de Telegraphe and the daddy of them all, Col de Galibier, if it's open!
Where to start! Hopefully the weather will improve, as our journey up here had been extremely windy, showery and cold enough to have us eating inside for the first time since we landed!
Opted for the "slightly easier" circuit of Col du Mollard-Col de la Croix de Fer-Col du Glandon and return to St J de M.  A great circuit and I found it much easier than the other way around, which we did last year.  The climb up through the little villages of the Massif D'Arvan, with cows and chickens grazing right up to the roadside, was a delight.  The ascent to Mollard not too bad.  Tough climb up through St Sorlin ski village and final steady climb up to the Croix de Fer.  Overall time at this point 3hr 37 mins, Ian doing it about half an hour faster than me.  I fell off from an almost standing still position, just after St Sorlin, which I think took more out of me than I'd realised.  Just cuts and grazes this time but my saddle had got twisted round slightly, so had to do the final 5km with it digging into me, or trying to stay off the saddle for short bursts!  Fortunately a kind guy at the top straightened it for me.  Must make sure I take an Allen key with me next time!
A very steep descent off Glandon, into a bitter cold wind.  Fortunately brought extra clothing in a rucksack this time, because of the forecast.  Can't believe I managed to get up here last year!  So steep 11/12% in places!  Long descent through the alpine pastures, hamlets and woods into Etiennes de Cuines and then long stretch back along the main road, with a helping, strong wind all the way to the campsite.  Five hours out and 6800 feet of climbing.  Another good day out, with Galibier tomorrow. All being well we'll get to the summit, but it snowed up there yesterday and a cyclist told be that they'd closed it again this morning because of an avalanche.  Probably only closed near the top, so we'll just have to go and see!

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Le Mont Ventoux again!

Le Mont Ventoux
A bit further from here than ascents we've done in the past, but hopefully fit enough for a long day!  Visible from 100kms away in all directions, it's desert slopes give the appearance of being permanently snow-capped. Dozens of people have died on Ventoux from hypothermia, this far down in Provence.
  There are three ways to climb up Ventoux, from Sault, from Malaucene and from Bedoin.  Setting off by 8.30am, we cycled 15miles to Malaucene, on a lovely quiet road, past Pierrelongue with its chapel perched high on a rock.  Arriving in Malaucene we soon picked up several groups of keen cyclists, realising how much quieter it is in the Drome region.  My rubbish memory manages to filter out all the nasty parts of the long, grinding road up to Ventoux, with three kilometres in succession of 11 and 12%.  Later it flattens off to a more comfortable gradient, but by then your back is killing you and you're too shattered to realise it's getting easier!  2 hrs 37mins of climbing later, you're there on the top of the lunar landscape that is L Mont Ventoux.  I think I prefer the other two routes which take you up via Chalet Reynard, and the iconic last 6kms over the "desert" landscape, with its memorial to Tom Simpson, and its hairpins to the summit.
Straight down to Chalet Reynard for a Nutella crepe and a coffee.  Just about warm enough.  27deg down in the valley and cold up here, but luckily without a strong wind, forecast for the following days. Literally means the windy mountain, and the wind can be a serious consideration in whether to attempt a climb or not. Fantastic sense of achievement, having climbed 1912 m over 22 kms.
The descent through to Sault is superb, twisting gently down into the warmth of the lavender fields, through pineapple-scented groves. Caught Ian in Sault, just as he was about to leave!  Time for a coca cola, sirop de lavende cordial and a ham baguette, before the last fifteen miles or so back through Montbrun and on into the Drome, over the Col de Fontaube and on to Buis les Baronnies.  A total of 68 miles and a good day out.  That night the wind built up and the temperature dropped.  The following morning was extremely windy and cool, with a weather warning for high winds.  As we set off for the busy market in Bedoin, to buy some garlic, there were cyclists queuing up to begin the climb up to Ventoux and I was extremely glad not to be amongst them!  The van was buffeted all the way along the motorway as we started our journey back north up towards the Alps again, to see if Galibier was open yet and too do some more alpine climbs.  But we really enjoyed our time in the Drome, with its more gentle cycling.  Quieter, cheaper and more unspoilt.  Definitely going back again.

Cycling in the Drome

Cycling in the Drome.

You can smell Provence.  Curry smells, pineapple-scented yellow broom, lavender and fragrant herbs.  It's a joy to be here.  Weary from big climbs in the Alps, cycling in the Drome is very flattering.  You can cycle uphill at a good pace and the descents can almost be brake free!  There are several "route remarquable", with stunning scenery of gorges, wooded hills of good height, with villages perched high on top, ruined castles and chapels, and limestone outcrops.  I's a place frequented by rock climbers, mountain-bike riders and cyclists, but not loads of them.  We cycled for 50 miles or so on quiet, scenic roads around Ferrassieres and Montbrun, over a couple of cols, but nothing too exhausting.  Ready for an ascent on Ventoux tomorrow, sorry Le Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence, to give it it's full title!
We skyped the family in USA, who have now been increased by one very well behaved dog, called Melanie.  An Australian-German shepherd dog, she seems to have a lovely nature.  Lizzy explained how when you get a dog from the pound in US, they train them to make them more attractive to owners.  So they have a dog who is about one year old, trained and obedient, neutered and vaccinated.  So they can just enjoy settling her into the family.  Lily's not too impressed by being licked by Melanie, but it must be lovely for her to wake up to Melanie and going to the park with her etc.  Apparently, Melanie is already quite protective towards Lily, when at the park, and gets quite concerned when Lily goes off to play and leaves her!

An evening walk into town for a beer proved more interesting than expected, but then it was Saturday night.  A French chanteuse warbling traditional French ballades, which were clearly beloved by the audience in the restaurant.  We sat in a bar nearby, just far enough away to avoid the full force of her enthusiastic singing!  Strange but charming.  We could have sat there, when we first started coming to France forty years ago, and we would have seen and heard the same sights and sounds, and ordered the same drinks!  The French commitment to tradition can be frustrating when everything shuts down at inconvenient times, but it's also what we love as well.
A group of people were playing boules in the pitches opposite.  It was interesting to see that the average age of player was 20something, although one old fella was allowed to join in.  It's a great game to watch especially when a young guy gets all competitive and tries to knock the winning ball out of the way with a accurately launched drop!
Beer for Ian and a pastis for me, liquid aniseed balls which takes away the desire for sweet stuff afterwards!

The Drome

Grignan, Drome Provencale.

New territory for us.  Tempted to shoot straight across to Bedoin in Provence, but the Drome region is in between and new to us.  Walked into Grignan from the campsite.  The  site is shaded by pine and holm oak trees, overlooking a field of lavender.  Very Provencale.  Grignan was the home of the Duc of Provence and beloved of the duchess, Marie Sevigne who was famous for writing copious letters to her daughter about her beloved home in Grignan, an ancient castle perched high above the town, where the rest of the peasants lived!  Vive la revolution!  A beautiful but empty, slightly sterile village dating back to the 15th century.  Beautifully restored but a bit of a showcase and very unreal.
The following day we cycled to Taulignan, another beautiful walled town with ancient ramparts, and on to Poet Laval, a Donjon dating back to the Chevalier Hospitaliers of the 14th century.  Presumably we got the word "dungeon" from the French, Donjon, a fortified building.  Esteemed as one of the most handsome villages in France.  A superbly restored building.  From there we cycled back on the Drome par Velo route to Grignan, a quiet and scenic route designated for cyclists.  40 odd miles in total, at a brisk pace because the terrain has sweeping rather than steep hills.  A pretty area with Provençal old towns dotted all over the wooded landscape.
We would have had a swim but Ian forgot his budgie smugglers (tight trunks beloved of he French) and was not allowed into the pool. This is true, his  swimming shorts are not "hygienic" and are regarded as casual shorts!
Only the French would consider discreet shorts to be more offensive than middle-aged men wearing something slightly less tight than thongs, with large tummies hanging over the top.  I know which I'd prefer!  Vive la Difference!

After another night in Grignan area, we moved on to Buis les Barronies, about thirty miles southeast.  But first we called in at Nyons, which we had read up on as an interesting place to visit on a rare day out of the saddle.  Nyons is quite a busy town, with lots of places of interest to visit, caves du vin, museums, old and new olive mills and the last remaining "scourtinerie" in France.  We sought this out, well it is a bit of culture, involves a handicraft and is a dying art- right up my street!  We learnt that a "scourtin" is a beret shaped mat made from coarse, thick coconut fibre woven into dense bowl-shaped mats and used in the production of olive oil, though not any more!  The scourtins are filled with olives, once they've been soaked in brine and pricked all over with a roller covered in sharp points. Then they are stacked up on top of each other in a scourtin tower and then crushed by a press, to release the oil.  Now this is done by machines on a far greater scale, and the scourtins are now sold to crazy, curious women like me!  The woman who operated the machines to make the scourtins was a delight, and spoke some English, enough to help me make sense of what she was doing.  She explained that she had been making these for 25years, and that she operated the machines that her great grandfather used, and the machine was dated 1882.  One machine loaded up the two mats in a simple weft, and then the other more intricate machine was loaded with robust needles, which were pushed mechanically to create the warp, and then were ditched into a bucket.  A very simple machine, beautifully designed and engineered, to perform a fairly simple task.  But because of the nature of the materials involved, the rough thick fibres and the densely packed end product, the machines must have taken some of the back-breaking, hand-wrecking work involved.  Even so, the weaver showed us how rough her hands had been made, but it was clearly a skill she loved.  She took great pride in setting up the machines, and the excitement it produced in observers, like me.  Even Ian was interested!  She made placemats, rugs and larger floor coverings, baskets and bowls.  I bought a traditional scourtin, like the one I'd seen her weave for 22euros.  Both of us forgot our cameras, so we'll have to go back another time.  Right at the other end of town, we were told by the tourist info that we could find a museum about olive production, past and present, so we could learn more about the use of the scourtins, so off we went.  The Museum turned out to be a very chic wine and olive producer and shop, which had a room set aside for old olive mill artefacts, olive jars, presses, scourtins, much larger than mine, and pictures off how they were used, as described earlier.  We sat in the cool of the "theatre", listening to a film in French of the current method of olive oil production, full of complimentary, if overblown, language about the special quality of the land and climate, which produces this appellation controlle wine and oil.  To be fair they are quite right to shout about it, because it is a special blend of sun and geography around here!
Culture experienced, we set off for Buis les Baronnies in Drome Provençal.  Campsite ok.  Inexpensive but not very shady.

Thursday, 20 June 2013


Alpe d'Huez twice!

Alpe d'Huez
Another steaming hot day as I set off up the Alpe d'Huez, with its 21 hairpins!  I've been "looking forward" to this all winter.  Lost half a stone in weight, and now on my new, though slightly heavier bike, long story, I was looking forward to posting a better time than last year.  Whether it was the heat, or having done such a lot of climbing and just being tired, I ended up taking four minutes more, so was pretty fed up.  1hr 36 mins.  Ah well, good days and not so good days!  It's fantastic having such a rubbish memory, and only remembering the feeling of euphoria at the top.  I'd forgotten how tough it is, and to finish at the top of Alpe d'Huez as they do in the Marmotte and the Tour de France, after a number of big climbs over the Galibier, Telegraphe, Croix de Fer etc is just mind-blowing!  You can't take it steadily, because you have no option but to keep pedalling, with gradients of 10% and 9% at times, but always over 8% for 14kms!  It's nasty!
A nicer way off rather than gripping your brakes all the way back the same way, is to climb a little up to Villard Reculas, along a lovely balcony route, high above the valley floor with beautiful views, and then five mile descent to the Allemont road again, and then the same flat run into Bourg as yesterday.  26 miles a shorter but steep climbing day today, but back early enough to be able to have lunch together and rest in the afternoon.  Ian had been on a different route climbing above Alpe d'Huez to the Col de Sarenne from Mizoens.  Came back saying it was hard but enjoyable.  Spent the afternoon tinkering with his brakes and fitting new brake blocks!
Determined to achieve my winter-made target of getting up Alpe d'Huez inside 1hr 30, I decided to do the climb again the day after tomorrow.  Ian was going up to La Berarde, quite a lot of climbing and further than what I wanted to do.  So I opted for Col d'Ornon just down the valley towards Allemont.  Another very hot day ahead, so set off before 9am.  The climb up the Ornon valley is one of the kindest so far, averaging about 6.5%.  What a delight!  No traffic, no motor cyclists, just peace and quiet!  Climbing up comfortably at a good pace, in the cool of the steep-sided valley, passing the little hamlets of Villard-Raymond, Oulles, and cycling through Ornon, I reached the top in good time and with energy to spare. Kept with some guys over the last kilometre to the top, who were from Sheffield and were doing the route we've done from here, all the way around to the Grand Serre and back up the long, busy main road through Sechiliennes to Bourg.  After a chat, I descended back down, passing dozens of cyclists coming up.  Back at the van after only about two hours cycling, to have plenty of rest before tomorrow.  Ian had had a good ride up to La Berarde, but had forgotten how much climbing there is in that circuit, but great views of the mountains all around.  Very hot afternoon, 34deg
The following day was forecast to be hot, but cloudy with rain forecast for lunchtime onwards.  Decided to move on to the Drome area, a few hours drive south, after we'd climbed Alpe d'Huez!  Couldn't sleep, and rather than waste the best, coolest part of the day for doing a tough climb, I got up at 6.30am and after a bowl of muesli was off up the climb by 7.15am!  Breathing heavily over the first few steepest sections, I was worried that this was going to be a waste of time.  If I didn't start to come better, I may as well turn around.  Unless I could improve on 4.5mph, which was my average when I did this two days ago for 1.36, then there was no chance of getting inside 1.30.  Starting to feel a bit less stressed, as the gradient steadies to a consistent 9%, and by using the hairpins, not as a place for a rest, but as a place to speed up a bit and push into the next rise in the road, I could see my speed averaging at 5.2 mph.  In with a chance!  With four hairpins to go, I changed my speedometer to register overall time, rather than average speed and was encouraged to see it reading 1:12.  Saw Ian on his way back down and he was surprised to see me so near to the top, so that spurred me on.  Had to really keep focused for the last few hairpins, but put a spurt on at the top.  1:29:36!  At last, inside 1:30.  The cooler morning conditions had helped to reduce my time by 7minutes, and I was pleased to achieve something I'd been aiming for all winter.  Maybe I'd got my new legs, after all the Cols we'd done.  The rest of my body must still be in the post, as I'm feeling like a discharging battery, a weird mixture of stronger but more tired!  I guess that's the problem.  At our age, we don't recover as quickly as you do when you're younger.
My second aim of a good time up Galibier would have to wait.  It's still closed, though might be open later this week!
Back down the hill, past thirty to forty riders toiling up it.  Going so early had been so quiet,  with only seeing two other cyclists.
Off to the supermarket to provision up and then on the road towards Valence, and the area known as the Drome Provencale, about 50 miles south.  Not been here before so looking forward to pastures new.

Col de la Croix de Fer (again)

A good day out on my favourite Col, Col de la Croix de Fer
Another hot day as we set off up the road to Allemont.  Temperature rose to 34deg.  So we set off early.  A long, steep climb up to La Rivière, and drop down into the valley, with another stinker of a climb up to the barrage reservoir.  A steady stream of Dutch and English cyclists toiling up to the alpine meadows, with the first of two photographers wait to take your photos and shove a ticket into your sweaty palm as you churn past!  There is a steady gradual climb and then descent into the meadows of Les Sybelles, from where you can see the Hotel du Glandon, nestled under the Col du Glandon, and the road up to the Croix de Fer sweeps round the hill, climbing at a lovely gradient all the way up to the summit.  Apart from the annoying presence of motor cyclists zipping past at regular intervals, sometimes crossing onto your side of the road, the prospect of the next five or six miles fills you with excitement, rather than the weariness you sometimes feel after more than three hours on the bike.  Approaching the top, you get wonderful glimpses of the two pics des Arves in the distance, shooting straight up into the blue sky.
At the cafe at the top, time for a coke and a chat with a lovely father and son from Bolton, who had been with me most of the way.  They had just come from a week in the Pyrenees, and had been to most of the peaks we'd been to.  They too arrived yesterday in very hot weather, and a distinct feeling of anti-climax as you make your way up the road to Bourg en Oisans, past the quarries and hydroelectric power stations of the Romanche valley, but were much happier once they arrived!  Chatted with a large group from USA, to a guy from Texas, who comes here every year.  They seemed to have a guide with them, and their company set up a picnic table in the snow!
After even more time gazing at the mountains of Les Arves, I finally set off on the descent by the same road.  I'd met up with Ian just before the final three kilometres, so he was doing his own thing, and me mine, which suits us both!  The descent is delightful, with views up to the Chaine de Belladonne mountains, on approaching La Riviere.  Top up the water bottle at the village fountain and then a speedy but long descent through Allemont and along the road to Bourg.  Just over five hours and fifty two miles.  A long day but very enjoyable.  Ian had also climbed up to Villard Reculas on the way back, but found it very hard.  Should have taken his time a bit more, like I did.  It was much more fun!
Back to an oppressively hot afternoon, so cooled off in the pool.  Went out for a meal at La Romanche restaurant in town, but had to set off early to walk slowly because it was so hot!

Last day in Pyrenees

Last day in Pyrenees for a while

We left Luz after a chat with our very attractive proprietaire of the site, Cathay.  She speaks more English than she did two years ago, and is just as beautiful, tanned and slim.  She appears now and again, but you never see her doing chores around the site, and the facilities are haphazard to say the least, and no hot water apart from the showers and no loo roll.  But she is adorable, friendly and impossible to fall out with.  She has just undergone surgery on her back, and desperate to get well again. She asked where we'd been, and said that the next we come, we will go up the Tourmalet together, as she cycles as well.  We made it a date, she gave us a good deal on the site fees, and then we left for an Aire in Pierrefitte, just down the road to Lourdes.  Ian chose to do the Hautecam, and I set off up the Cauterets valley to the Pont d'Espagne.  The Hautecam is well-known for being steep with an average of 8% over 14km and a max of 11%.  Not for me.  The gradual climb up to Cauterets was a joy, with views up to the mountains dividing Spain and France.  The last five kms were tough, with max of 11%, but not too far to the Pont d'Espagne, which is stunning.  A small stone bridge, with a gushing waterfall powering down towards it.  A cable car then takes you up into the mountains.  Beautiful.  Then the descent following the turbulent river back down the valley to the Aire, and the waiting crepe van, which I'd visited a couple of days earlier.  Yes, two more Nutella crepes to take away, please! Feeling tired after five consecutive days of 3000' + climbs, so time for a rest.  Well, not really.  A three hour drive took us to our overnight stay to a site not far from Toulouse, at Nailloux,near a lake, with bull frogs serenading all evening, but at least no thundering waterfalls!  Then off early the following heading for the Alps, arriving at 3.30pm ish.
The further we got from the Pyrenees, the weather improved, and the roads became much busier!  The site, A La Rencontre du Soleil, is very well cared for, but 35euros per night.  You have to pay for it being in the hub of the big alpine climbs.  Never mind, hot water to wash up in and toilet paper too, wow what luxury!

Col de Tourmalet

Rain and thunderstorms forecast for this afternoon, as we awoke to a misty morning.  We set off just before 9am to climb the Tourmalet, the highest road pass in the Pyrenees.  We already knew that it would be closed near the summit, and heard in the local bar, from Belgian cyclists that it would be two weeks before it would be open.  One of two ascents begins straight out of Luz St Sauveur.  Not long before I was passed by our Belgian friends!  But Ian managed to overtake the three who were in the bar, but couldn't catch their friends, who they described as pros, who watched what they ate and drank, and weren't in the bar!  I suspect there's a connection there!  An overall gradient of 7.4%, with a couple of kms of 8 and 9%. Ideal!  We quickly came out of the mist into glorious sunshine and spectacular views up to the snow-capped peaks.  We both enjoyed the ride, and felt quite strong but tired.  After nearly a couple of hours I reached the barrier across the road, saying risk of avalanche.  Followed Ian and the Belgians on up the road nearer to the summit, but with another 4 kms to go and another 600' to go, we all had to admit defeat and turn around, as a snow plough was busy trying to chip away at the snow.
Just time for a silly photo of me in front of a statue to Octave Lapize, in honour of the first rider to reach the summit in 1910, having walked much of the way, so they say.
The descent to Luz was lovely, not too steep to enjoy, and we could see the mist in the valley deepening to a dense fog and creeping closer.  At Barreges, we were in the fog and felt a sudden drop in temperature, by at least 10 deg C, so the last part into Luz was cold, such a shock from sweating up the climb an hour or so earlier!
Back early today and time for a rest in the afternoon, for a change.  Only 21 miles and 4000' ascent, and starting to feel less tired and sore, but still four more cols to go before the magic ten, when we get a new pair of legs and lungs!!!

Cirque de Gavarnie

Cirque de Gavarnie and another blocked route!
A beautiful day ahead and we opted for the road up the valley to the Cirque de Gavarnie and hopefully on to Col de Boucharo, which we'd not climbed before.  The 10 mile or so continual climb up to Gavarnie gave us a chance to warm up stiff legs.  The Cirque is a geologists dream, a six kilometre semi-circular wall of 3000m peaks, formed by glacial erosion, and home to France's tallest waterfall, the 423m Grande Cascade de Gavarnie.  With gradients of 8 and 9% and up to 11%, the climb up the Vallee des Especieres was more tiring than we expected, in the hottest day so far, about 25deg.  With 5km to go from the ski station, the route was well and truly "barree", with a wall of snow across the road.  Sheep were the only creatures getting through!  So a lovely cycle all the way back down to Luz, into a warm wind.  32miles and 4000' of ascent.
Now all the cycling books tell you that the main climbs should all be open from May.  The locals have all told us that they have, like UK, experienced a long, cold winter and not much of a rise in temperature in Spring.  So it shouldn't have surprised us that the Cols are closed.  It'll be interesting to see whether the Alpine summits are blocked.  The Pyrenean ascents aren't as popular and maybe there isn't quite the same need to clear the summits.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Photos in Pyrenees

Spot the difference
Tormalet Pyrenees
Thats not the top - come up here!
Cirque de Gavarnie

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Santiago in the rain and then sun in the Pyrenees

Santiago de Compostela in the rain
Santiago boasts that it has some of the worst weather in Spain, and actually sells itself on the fact that the ancient cathedral and tiny narrow streets look better dripping with rain, with the water-spouting gargoyles glistening in the rain and the rain-soaked moss and lichen adding to the sparkling atmosphere.  Well that's all very well if you come from the red hot centre of Spain, or other places like La Mancha and Extremadura, but when you come from rain-soaked UK, and are not a religious pilgrim, or an enthusiastic long distance walker, it loses its attraction.  So we did what we usually do, us heathens!  We found a lively lunchtime bar with a delicious array of tapas laid out in front of us and sat there and were waited on, like eager puppies!  Navajas, or razor clams, well why not, vieiras or scallops, well definitely, seeing as how the emblem of the pilgrims is the scallop shell. But no percebes, or barnacles, which we've heard so much about how they are a particular delicacy.  It's a bit like the conch in Florida, it's a delicacy but you'll have a devil of a job finding it!
A wander around Santiago, which is a very atmospheric place, especially when you've eaten and had a few beers.  Full of people finishing their epic walk and loved ones taking photos.  There was also a cycle event finishing or starting, we couldn't work out which, but the commentator was very enthusiastic, and the cyclists looked so fit and young and tiny!

The following day we tried to give the area another shot and set off for a cycle around the headland of Santa Cruz towards Pontedueme, but rain stopped play and after about 20 miles we gave it up as a bad job.  Soon onto busy main roads, with the attractive coastline becoming more inaccessible!
The following day we decided, madly to leave Galicia and head back towards Santander, some 300+ miles.  It was raining so what do you do but try and get away!  Now our friend,Checho, from our favourite place in the world, Can Punyetes, in Alcudia, is from Pontedeume, so we thought we'd call in seeing as we were in the area.  It was good to visit a proper lived in town in Galicia, with an old bridge across the wide Eume river. It was market day and a buzz about the place.  Even the long- awaited percebes were for sale, but I didn't have a clue what to do with them.  The stall-holder kept saying "Mariscos", yes and I still don't know what to do with them.  It was safer to buy some honey!  Could have bought a shirt for Ian for 3euros!
Back on the journey to Santander. We decided to see what the weather was like nearer the coast, and called in at a quaint, old fishing village, Cudillero, nestled in the cliffs, like Mousehole in Cornwall.  In fact the coastline reminded us of Cornwall, with its impressive, rocky coastline.  It was cold and rain was forecast, so we decided not to stay, but to continue on to Luz Saint Sauveur in the Pyrenees.  But we felt that we'd definitely come back here again, maybe when there was a remote chance of sunshine!  It wasn't that we didn't want to stay, but after five days of minimal cycling, we wanted to get back on the bikes again.
  By 3pm we were camped up at Les Cascades in Luz, where we stayed two years ago, when Ian did his long trip in the Pyrenees.  Desperate to get out cycling, we opted for the stiff climb up Luz Ardiden, only 18miles return, but a toughie, with 1000m climbing.  Average gradient 7.5% it's a bit of a shocker, at the beginning of a trip, but the only way to practise is to do it.  A local pizza cafe owner told me that they say it takes 10 cols before you start to feel stronger, so only 8 more to go!  Because of all the bad weather, and fresh snowfall in the mountains, we were amazed to see that the Col d'Aubisque and the Tourmalet were both closed- two of the reasons why we came here!  The friendly pizza chef recommended an alternative route, although he added it was quite tough, up to Col des Spandelles and Col de Soulor.  We checked the map and it did look an interesting circuit.  So the following day, nice downhill start 10miles to Argeles-Gazost, up to Gez and through the vallee des Salles, climbing to Col des Spandelles, 1350m.  A tricky steep descent to Ferrieres and then the same amount of climbing again to Col de Soulor.  Well worth it with views across the mountains to the road up the Aubisque. Ian saw a golden eagle soaring alongside him overlooking the ravine.  I could see that we had done all the hard work, with only a few hundred feet to go to the summit of Aubisque, and a gentle gradient to finish on, but the barrier was across and the summit was "ferme"!  So that was that!
Time for a coke and a chat at the top of Soulor, with a couple from Halifax, who'd recently visited Trough of Bowland, as they had a friend in Clitheroe!  Then the long, long descent, but easy gradient, over 12 miles back to Argeles-Gazost, and then the 10mile climb back up the adjacent valley to Luz, assisted by a Nutella crepe and coke from a roadside van.  Fantastic, a double strength sugar injection!  I love crepes!
  Set off at 10am and back at 5pm.  A long day out!  62 miles and 7800ft climbing.  At least the rain stayed off, with cloud and some sunshine.
Another six more cols before the legs are meant to respond!  I wonder if that goes for middle-aged women as well!  By the middle of next week, we should be like wot sit off a shovel!



With poor weather forecast for the next few days and chances of cycling diminished, we decided to use the time to explore as far west as we could, into Galicia and specifically Santiago de Compostela.  There are various pilgrimages but the main one is from Leon in Castilla, further south.  An ancient holy town visited by modern day pilgrims and long distance walkers.
First stop, A Coruna, the capital of Galicia.  Road signs with O, instead of El and A instead of La, and lots of xs, gallego language is more akin to Portuguese, with Praia instead of playa (beach), and igrexa, instead of iglesia (church).  Most road signs which describe the town in Castillian have been corrected by spray paint or damaged to rub out the el or la and replace with gallego term.
The motorway over from Asturias, which hugs the coast for most of the way, the Autovia de Cantabrica, is an amazing piece of infrastructure, probably EU funded.  Hardly a mile goes by for 300 miles, which is not a viaduct or tunnel.  The landscape is stunning, with steep wooded hillsides off inland, and rivers, ravines and estuaries nearer the coast.  As the rain and mist came down, it still looked atmospheric and beautiful.
Arrived at A Coruna in the rain, and a campsite a couple of miles outside the city, set in landscaped gardens.  Expensive and still no hot water to wash up in.  A very nice restaurant on site, frequented by the locals, so maybe not encouraged to make your own.  A short taxi ride into town, took us to the" parte vieja".  Didn't really live up to its name, as not much old Coruna to see.  Proper industrial port and industrial architecture.  It's impossible to get bad food in Spain.  Even little back street cafe/bars like the one we called at did fantastic chipirones, the bar being named El Chipiron, which were big enough to be small sepia, or cuttlefish, and we had pulpo a la gallega as well- octopus thinly sliced and cooked smothered in a pint of olive oil and lashings of paprika- delicious!
The weather deteriorated and we decided that we might as well walk around nearby Santiago de Compostela, as hang around in A Coruna, so off we went.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013


Lago Enol Covadonga

Santuario de Covadonga


Ascent to El Manzuco

Farming in valley Cortines


Visit to Llanes, on the coast

We decided to visit the coast of Asturias, and read that Llanes was a pleasant place to visit.  A 38 mile round trip but a bit more demanding than expected. Two good climbs from the campsite at Avin to Llanes took us over the Col at El Mazuco.  A beautiful ride through meadows and hamlets, Cortines and Mere, with sections of road sweeping around ravines with views up imposing hillsides.  Occasionally kicking up to an average gradient of 9% over a couple of miles, you felt like you'd done a testing ride.  Descending steeply to Llanes, with views of a bright blue sea and green hillsides right up to the coast.  Hardly any traffic and even fewer cyclists.  A couple of local guys obviously on a well-used training route, shouting" Vamo, Vamos "for encouragement.  Everybody is so friendly and talkative around here and assumes you are Spanish, plunging at speed into some commentary about how hard the climb is, and it's much easier in a car!
  Llanes was a lovely place to stop, with a little harbour and glimpses of green-edged bays further along to Andrin and Cue.  Had a pintxo and cider.  Pintxo and cafe mediana was 2 euros!  We've been surprised at how cheap it is here, with 3 course menu del Dias and a bottle of wine for 10 euros.  I think they have to compete.  Lots of bars and restaurants open with very little custom at this time of year, put off by poorer weather than the costas.
  Pintxos are a larger version of tapas, fried chicken, lomo/pork loin, or ham, in a chunk of baguette.  The sidra was poured from a height, to aerate it.  Otherwise it is naturally flat, but delicious.  At 6% a little strong, but a coffee and dulces, in this case a chocolate filled pastry, helped to fortify for the two big climbs on the return.  Returning the same way was just a beautiful as before, with views down the valley, and views up to the Picos on the second climb.  An unexpectedly pleasant journey, and a bit hillier than expected, 4500' of ascent.  There's no preparation you can do at home for these climbs.  We just don't have anything with sustained climbing like this.  Nearest is climbing in Mallorca!  But it is surprising how quickly you start to feel on top of the climbing, the more you do it!  All good training!!!

Asturias June 2013

Campervan Trip, June 2013

Overnight ferry from Plymouth to Santander.  Expensive but a joy, with good food and great night's sleep and arriving in Spain by lunchtime.  A few hours drive took us to our first campsite at Avin on the road to Cangas de Onis, in the Picos de Europa National Park, in Asturias.  The northern coast is known as the "Green Spain", and is usually wet.  The limestone mountains of the Picos, covered with snow rise above green hills and valleys, covered with the sound of tinkling cow bells.  This area is famous for its Cabrales cheese, made from cow's, goat's and ewe's milk, and stored in cold, dark caves, and fabada, a stew made from large white beans in a sauce, with black pudding, belly pork and sausage.  Also famous for sidra, cider, aerated by pouring from a height. Just a gentle orientation cycle of 20 odd miles to get a fix on the state of the roads and consideration of Spanish local traffic.  No need to worry about either.  Ian cycled to the head of the valley at Poncebos, to the start of the walks up the mountain peak of the Naranjo de Bulnes.  There is a funicular to take you part of the way up.  The main walking route across the Picos takes you into the Cares valley. No roads, just walking route.  The Picos are pretty inaccessible, unlike the Alps, unless you are on foot.  The area seems quite affluent, with houses and granjas recently restored.  Customary to paint walls a vivid blue, red or green.  Very attractive.
The following morning, we set off to Los Lagos de Covadonga, a climb featured regularly in the Vuelta de Espana.  At 1135m over 14.2km, the average gradient is described in "Europe's Greatest Cycle Climbs" as 6.8%, with a max of 15%, but there are 2km of 11% and above, which made this feel tough.  Relieved it wasn't just me, Ian said that was tougher than he expected, with not many places to grab a drink for fear of not being able to get going again on the ascent!
The views up to the Picos are wonderful.  Looking across the Lago de Enol and then further on to the Lago de Ercina up to the snow covered mountains makes the ascent worthwhile.  During the descent, time to pause, stretch a sore back and braking hands and gaze at the magnificent Santuario de Covadonga, a basilica perched high on a hill above the road.
Note to self:  a menu del Dia of fabada and fried hake/merluza, is not a good idea half way through a testing cycle.  Fabada, in typical bean fashion gives you shocking wind and makes you feel uncomfortably full for the rest of the day!  Stick to light, sweet snack!

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Off Camping

Back to the family and off camping

On the way back to Lizzy and Lily, we called in at Bodega Bay, to the north.  It was misty and quite chilly, so after looking at the fishing boats in the marina at Spud Bay, we called at the Spud Bay Crab Co. for "the best clam chowder" in town.  Hot and fully of fishy and potato goodness, it was just what you needed to warm the cockles.
Next, we called at Sugarloaf Ridge National Park in the Sonoma valley and walked the 3mile vista trail, with beautiful views over the Sonoma countryside.  Saw several large wild turkeys, very large birds.  Called in at VJB vineyard, where we've been before, for lunch and glass of chardonnay in the sunshine in their courtyard.
Back at Andrew and Lizzy's for Thursday night, and they made us home-made deep dish and thin, crispy pizza on their gas oven/BBQ. Really yummy!
On Friday morning, I went with Lizzy and Lily to Pioneer Park, whilst Ian went cycling up Mt Burdell.  It was great to see all the other young mums and children in the park.  Lizzy says it's a great meeting place.  The mums can unwind and chat, and the children get the chance to mix together.  We came here last November with Lily, and it was great to see the difference in what she can do in the park now, climbing, sliding, swinging, watching what the other kids are getting up to.  Later, while Lily had a nap, Ian and I called for a coffee and blackberry "scruffins" at Dr Insomnia's coffee house, our regular!  Andrew and Lizzy went out on their own, for once, to an Italian restaurant in Novato and we looked after Lily.  All went well, and she was happy to be left with us, so we had a Shaun the Sheep and Pingu marathon session!  One of her favourite things is to make Pingu sounds, that and playing "Bubbles" game on the IPad.  In fact, every time she sees grandad she asks for bubbles, so I've nicknamed him "grandad bubbles"!

Before we went off camping on the Saturday, we caught up with Laura and Emma, and met her sister Zoe, and then called Kate to find out how her trip to Madrid, to visit Michael had gone.  Then we set about packing overnight camping gear into manageable rucksacks and bags, before setting off on the 3/4 hour drive to Bear Valley National Park, near Point Reyes Peninsular.  We obtained our parking and tent permits from the park office, parked up near the start of the Sky Trail and then set off on our 1 1/2 mile walk.  Now that doesn't sound like much but with heavy packs, it was far enough, as we climbed steadily to reach the Sky Camp near the summit of the hill.  A great place to camp, feeling really remote.  Lizzy booked the pitch some time ago, as it's booked up at the weekends for some time now.  About a dozen pitches, some in the clearings, some deep in the woods, all private and well spread out in your own little bays, so that you're not overlooked by anyone.  Our pitch overlooked Limantour bay and the ocean.  It was very hot as we pitched the tents, so we went on another walk into the cool of the trees.  Lily enjoyed looking for "baby trees", and as we sat for a rest, we saw a coyote hunting small prey in the long grass.  Also saw a snake about 4' long, with yellow stripes along its body.   Lily enjoyed playing in the dust and the dirt, back at the tents, occasionally taking her shoes off and then transferring dusty footprints into mum and dad's tent and bedding!  She was having a great time. As Lizzy started to make hot dogs for tea, we drank red wine and watched the dense, cooling sea mist roll in off the ocean and climb up the hill- a regular feature of this coastal area.  By 5 pm, all the pitches were full and the mist had swallowed up the view and the heat, which was quite welcome!  As we went on an evening stroll, we walked into the mist, with the sunshine only a short distance above us. A bobcat walked across our path, and deer stared at us in the mist.  Andrew said he expected it to clear later in the night, and it did, so that a starry night sky could be enjoyed.  Surprising how cold it gets at night, considering it was about 28' c during the day.  As we settled down for the night, after Lily finally settled off to sleep, we could hear the howl of a coyote fairly close by.  All was silent, apart from the occasional wave breaking on the shore about 3 miles away but so clear.
Slept as well as you do when you sleep on a thin mattress, on stony floor, but better than Andrew, who sacrificed his sleeping bag to Lily.  He was up at dawn, just as a group of coyotes had finished howling loudly.  Ian thought that it was some fellow campers acting daft!  Andrew was taking photos of a beautiful sunrise and sea mist, which he's edited and put on Facebook.  Some great pics.  Muffins and tea for breakfast, and then walked back down the trail on a beautiful morning, back to the car, the apartment and a shower!  All pink-cheeked and grimy!
Ian and I went for a cycle, whilst we waited for our turns in the shower.  It's a lovely place to cycle from, and very popular.  Andrew spent time editing and downloading photos, video and music for us to bring back with us.  Thanks Andrew.  Rib eye steaks on the BBQ for tea and relaxed together on our last evening.  We're going to miss them all, but it's been a great visit, and the camping trip was a highlight.  In fact, we've left our mattresses and sleeping bags there, in the hope that we'll do it again on another visit.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Merced and on north to Sonoma wine country

On the way back from Kings Canyon, we stopped off at Merced for two nights, before driving north to Sonoma.  It's a great place to visit the parks from, being much less expensive than staying nearer, and with great food.  Went to Applebee's for good, inexpensive food, and sat at the bar, as it's a great place to hear the craich, and chat to the locals, who are always very friendly and chatty.  Found a great place for a cheap lunch, a Mexican supermarket, a block away, which served an amazing chicken soup, quesadilla and bottled water for $13.  Weather has been really hot and sunny, not seen a cloud for several days, and 29deg C.  Guys at the bar said that it would normally be more showery and unsettled at this time, so unusually hot.  Snow and heavy rain in the Mid West and 90'F in Fresno, near Merced!

North to Windsor, in Sonoma county.  We're not visiting the vineyards and tasting the wine, because last time we came, we found that they are extremely expensive to taste and buy, compared with supermarket.  We are going to make an exception with one vineyard on the way back, later in the week!  But this is a lovely area to cycle around and not far from the family.  We hired bikes from Healdsburg.  Trouble is hiring bikes around here is so expensive, but worth it for a day's cycle into the wine growing valleys - Dry Creek and Alexander.  We did this last November, after the harvest, so it was wonderful to cycle along shady roads, lined with fragrant rambling roses, with vines, some low, some standard, covered in bright, new green foliage. Vines as far as the eye could see.  Cycling in the shade became important as temperatures reached over 30' in the afternoon.  We arrived back in Healdsburg, after a 52ml circuit, in time for a beer at the micro- brewery, Black Bear Brewery, where we sat and chatted to an group of American women from New York, who, spotting my Ventoux top, told us that she had done the climb and other passes in the Alps. One of her favourite places to visit in US- Bolder and Breckinridge, Colorado.  Always a great place to chat and sample local brews, although you had to be careful of the %, some 8%!

That evening the temperature dropped dramatically.  We explored Old Windsor, and found a great Himalayan restaurant and then walked briskly back, shivering.  It's weird the weather the temperature changes around here, particularly as you get closer to the coast.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013


Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon
Really enjoyed our overnight stay at Wilderness Lodge, Hetch Hetchy, and would definitely go again, especially as it's the nearest point in Yosemite to the family.  Had elk carpaccio last night for starter, and it tasted really nice- not a strong as beef.

The journey from Hetch Hetchy to Kings Canyon took us all the way back to Yosemite and on to Tenaya Lodge, AGAIN!  Then a four hour drive to Grant Grove Village.  At least it was on fast roads, and the 160 mls passed quickly, with a hot drive in 25deg in the valley floor, cooling to 13deg as we started to climb to 6500'.  All the way ahead you could see the snow covered hills of the Sierra Nevada, and our destination.  Grant Grove Village is a Post Office, Store, Restaurant, Visitor Centre and that's it!  The John Muir Lodge where we were staying for two nights is a short walk away.  Fantastic, it's got the longed-for bath!  The area is even quieter and more closed down than Yosemite, but then it is at a higher elevation.  Most trails and roads are closed until the end of April, so we're a bit too early to do the scenic drive to Cedar Grove.  Trouble is it gets much busier later, but another month would have given us more options.  Best time to come for gushing waterfalls.

Grant Grove is named after General Ulysses Grant, who later became President, and was famous for his exploits in the Civil War.  John Muir Lodge is named after a Scotsman, John Muir, one of the first conservationists, who worked to protect the sequoias of Yosemite and Kings Canyon from logging.  He was instrumental in their creation as National Parks.  The John Muir Trail, like the Pacific Crest Trail, near where Andrew used to live, is a long distance footpath.

Early morning, we drove up to Panoramic Point before breakfast.  Vast views over the Canyon and on to the Sierra Nevada in the distance with peaks of 14000', covered in snow.  The silence was wonderful.  Back down for breakfast at the same place where we had dinner the night before.  Good value and great choice.  Would definitely recommend it and will return here.  Laid-back and unfussy, unlike Tenaya, where they were working hard for tips with a rigid service system.  Great accommodation and surrounded by stunning scenery.  After breakfast, we drove a mile down to General Grant Tree and Trail, a third mile trail through some of the tallest and broadest sequoias in the world, and right on the doorstep.  Gen Grant Tree has the greatest base diameter at 40.3' and is the world's third largest tree.  It is estimated to be about 2000 years old, and is as tall as a 27 storey building.  They say that you could build 40 average sized 5- room houses from its wood.  Along the trail is the Gamlin Cabin built by the Gamlin brothers in 1872, who had previously lived in the Fallen Monarch, also on the trail.  Now this really is something- a sequoia hollowed out by fire before it fell and then it became the home of the brothers, while they built their cabin.  Later it served as living quarters for a team of workers, and then stabled 32 horses for the US Cavalry, responsible for guarding the Park and the forests in the early days of conservation.  Amazing!
Sequoias only naturally grow between 5000 and 7000 ' on west facing slopes in the Sierra Nevada, and Giant Redwood, taller but not as thick set, are native to the thin western strip of coastline north of San Francisco.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Reunited with family and Yosemite

Reunited with the family and then off to Yosemite

Overnight stop in Chicago, great city to gather your senses. A few beers in a proper pub, The Public House, which also seemed to offer great food, although we went to PFChangs and a disappointing meal. Longer taxi ride in than we remembered, but still great to break the journey here. Have to be aware of the potential hazards of landing here in Winter.

It was great to see all the family again.  Lizzy and Andrew and Lily have moved into a larger townhouse in the same apartments.  Much more spacious with an upstairs for the bedrooms.  Not been in long but already settled in, with herbs growing on the balcony, Andrew's photos of seascapes and Lily on the wall etc.
A bit chilly but bright and sunny, and wonderful to see blue sky again.  Lily is a little poppet, with masses of golden curls and blue eyes.  Full of beans but noticeably concentrates on activities for longer periods of time.  Very talkative with babbling sounds, but clearly counts to three, says mummy, daddy, bubbles, flowers, balloons, and labels parts of her face.  She can tell you sounds that animals make.  With butterflies, she flickers her eyelashes!  She very quickly got used to us being around, and loves grandad's iPad !
On Saturday, we all went down to the sea, but it was too cold to play on the beach, so we watched Andrew take photos and kick a ball around, whilst we sheltered in a sand-dune!  Had a lovely lunch in Point Reyes Station, at one of Lizzy and Andrew's favourite food-stops.  Andrew and his mates have set up a website with details of walks and great cafes and they get together on a walk every two weeks.

After four nights with the family, and a morning walk up Mt Burdell with great views of the city, we set off on the long five hour drive, about 200 miles east to Yosemite, to the Tenaya Lodge.  About an hour away from main Yosemite area in Fish Camp. We managed a short walk to the base of Yosemite Falls, before checking in.  A 2400' drop waterfall, or group of three waterfalls was awesome.  But the weather was deteriorating as we drove up the valley, past El Capitan, a near vertical granite rock, which towers over the valley floor.  On past Cathedrals, and the Bridalveil Falls to Tunnel Vista.  From there we watched the rain steadily move up the valley.  Really beautiful and atmospheric.  As we approached Tenaya Lodge, we were told by a Park Warden that because a campervan had come off the road because of snow and ice, in a twenty car pile-up, they were checking that motorists had snow-chains or 4WD.  With only a short distance to go, we said we had, but then later found out that the Hyundai we had rented wasn't 4WD after all.  A little more alarmed when we overheard the receptionist tell a worried guest that it was a legal requirement to have snow chains in the car, or face a $500 fine.  We crossed our fingers that the weather would improve tomorrow.

After a freezing night, the roads were fine but icy in places, as we set off to the Happy Isles  Trailhead, to the start of the Mist Trail, leading to the John Muir Trail.  Recommended as one of the most stunning walks.  The Mist Trail rose quickly to a thunderous waterfall, with snow covering the walls, where the water had settled either side of the fall.  A very cold start, especially when walking under the gigantic sequoias.  As we climbed up, the path became treacherous and icy, and people were turning back, as did we.  We doubled back on ourselves and picked up the recommended winter route of the John Muir trail.  Three hours later we were out of the trees, on a sunny ledge, looking up at Half Dome, and Nevada Falls, in brilliant sunshine.  An unforgettable view.  They closed the Mist Trail because of ice, and the walk around the back of the falls was also closed.  Many of the higher level routes are closed until the end of May, including the ascent up to Glacier Point.  However, we still managed to clock up a decent five hour walk, with great views, before the long drive out of the Park to Tenaya Lodge for our second night.
The following day was below freezing in the morning but soon got up to a comfortable 14 deg by the afternoon.  We opted for a walk up through the woods to Upper Yosemite Fall, a climb of 2400'.  A lovely gradient all the way up, pausing at Columbia Rock to get close to the cascading water, with ice and snow where the spray had soaked the freezing rock.  The descent, the same route down, was tough, but views up the nearby sheer granite faces, and over to Half Dome and snow-capped mountains in the distance were superb.  Five hours later, approx 9 miles and we were back, with another long, tortuous drive out of the Park to our next destination.  That's the only down side- there is an unavoidable amount of driving to do, unless you stay in the Park.  We spent the night in a wooden lodge, in the Wilderness Lodges, at Hetch Hetchy.  It's taken Ian a month to finally say it correctly!  Hetchy Ketchy, Ketchy Hetchy etc !  Beautiful lodges set in the trees, in the middle of nowhere.  A bit expensive, but food and drink very reasonable, and a good general store.  Would come back again.  Shame we're only staying one night.
Breakfast at 7am and off on a drive to Hetch Hetchy reservoir and dam.  They call it the Little Yosemite, because of the stunning rock formations and waterfalls, which John Muir fought hard to preserve, but lost the battle when they built the dam which created the reservoir which, along with two others nearby, supplies water and energy to San Francisco and the surrounding area.  Water is distributed by gravity, without the need for pumps, which incredible when you consider the distances involved.  We returned to the Park entrance of Hetch Hetchy, and followed the trail to the Lookout, just a two mile walk but so quiet and scenic.

Friday, 22 February 2013

First time in the Algarve

Los Piedades
After five days in Lagos, Portugal, it's about time I started the first blog of the year!  Our friends' offer to let us stay in their apartment couldn't be missed.  We've been saying that we'll visit for years, and never got around to it!
  Very central to Lagos, and in a converted tile factory, or Fabrica.  Never been to Portugal before and Jools and Stu took us to their favourite haunts and to see the sights, beaches, rocky cliffs and Piedades, rocky outcrops littering the beach close to Lagos.
After a few days, our hosts left us in charge of their beautiful apartment.  They are good friends!  First impressions, in spite of the cooler weather, were very good.  Great food, especially the fish, simply cooked and inexpensive, especially if you seek out the local workmen's cafe.  Fish cooked over a wood burning BBQ.  Lots of good cafes and restaurants all around the marina, which is directly opposite the apartment. Happy hour, beer and large glass of vinho verde for 3euros!  Unbelievable!
Hired two bikes from a guy living in Torre on the way back to Almaceo do Pera. A bit basic.  Ian's was a bit small for him, and mine came with an unforgiving saddle.  But not much choice and not many hirers.  So beggars can't be choosers.  Very different to our experience in Mallorca.
Cav at the top of Foia
Our first ride was a reccy up into the foothills below the Serra do Monchique.  Following day, with poorer weather forecast for the coming two days, we decided to go for it and ascend the highest hill, Foia at 3000ish feet.  It was also the second day of the Tour of the Algarve, over four days, and the cyclists would be climbing the same course, so it was an opportunity not to be missed.  We reached a junction close to Marmalete, and watched them ascend, at speed, the ascent we'd just laboured up for the last hour.  In the peloton, we caught sight of Cav and Tiernan Locke.  We then continued up to the top of Foia.  Found it hard for this early in the season, but you've got to put up with it, to get better as the season progresses!  Pleasant on top, sitting in the sunshine, but like all these weather station summits, not to be attempted in worsening weather.  Picked up the proper riders descending at breakneck speed, and on to the finish back at Lagoa.  We continued back to Lagos, via Odiexcere, after 52 miles and about 4100' climbing.  Enough for now!

In between cycle rides, we explored Cabo Sao Vicens, or the "end of the world", as it was formerly known.  Then on to Aljezur.  Countryside not as expected, very green and soft.  Eucalyptus trees everywhere, giving it a very Australian appearance.  Introduced to meet the growing needs of the paper industry and building trade, because it's fast growing, they've now spread all over the landscape.  There are environmental concerns about their effects upon the water table and being more prone to fire risk.  Acacia trees with their beautiful yellow balls, oak trees with their barks stripped for cork.  Monchique is the second biggest source for cork in the Algarve.  Rolling hills, sometimes quite steep, into numerous valleys, steep sided terraced farmland, with the occasional painted one-storey farm building, and large dog.
Beach near Burgau
Sometimes reminds us of areas of the New Forest, sometimes Provence.  So very quiet and unspoilt.  Hardly saw any cars all the time we were cycling over 3-4hours.  Apart from enthusiasts watching the Tour, we didn't see any other cyclists.  Local people greeted with a smile and Bom Dia.  Groups of men, particular old men enjoyed staring at our lycra.  It gave them something else to comment on as they sat and watched the world go by, in the bars and bus-stops.  The weather has been a bit disappointing, but still much warmer than at home!
A second time in the Serra do Monchique, and we called in at a bar in Marmelete, for coffee and piri piri chicken and chips.  Chicken piri piri is the traditional food of the Monchique.  A great little food station before climbing up or down.

All the development is on the coast, but minutes away from the main N125, and the unused toll motorway, and you're into quiet rolling countryside, with reasonably good roads, and dirt tracks.  Few direction signs and even fewer giving distances!  Signs saying monte, vale and Ribera, describing the features.  A couple we met in a little bar near Moinho da Rocha, out in the countryside, said that they frequently saw wild boar, and that there was talk about reintroducing lynx.  Hunting is still common here on Thursdays and Sundays.  She was from Wales and they'd been living here for a couple of years, but couldn't speak the language.  Away from the coast, where English is commonly spoken, you are reduced to sign language and Anglo -Spanish.  They seem reluctant to speak Spanish, preferring English and German.  Although written Portuguese is similar to Spanish, and you can understand it reasonably well, spoken Portuguese is completely different, sounding more like Russian!  It's impossible to understand a word!

Cafe in Alte
Only ever seen storks in Kaysersburg, France.  But here they are numerous, building large nests on the spires and chimneys.  The apartment was directly next to a nest, and when a resident complained about excessive excrement on his patio, the nest was moved to a specially-constructed metal pole nearby!  So strong is the folklore about the loss of fortune to the town, if the storks ever left their nest.

We're also reccying from a point of view of bringing the van down one winter.  Portugal seems, for now, to have a generous and relaxed attitude towards Motorhomes, until owners take advantage and take over beauty spots en masse, staying for long periods, as they do.  There are service areas near Lagos and Silves and a spot further up the coast overlooking the sea, and a number of camping sites, so staying in the van seems straight-forward.
On our last day with the bikes we went over to eastern Algarve and Loule. Did a 40 mile circuit which took in Alte, a pretty village surrounded by hills. It was a hard day with many undulating roads and reminded us more of Spanish landscape.