Archive for July, 2010
I was spoiled as my closest friends made the trek to France for a week of fun in the (well mostly anyway) sun in the Lot valley. The venue was a fantastic, a modern house conversion with a pool and a huge ice maker for all those bottles of champagne. The nearest town was Cazals, a sleepy place packed with UK emigrants. It had a charming restaurant, the Auberge with fabulous steak frites for only €8. The nearest large town was Cahors, famous for deep, robust red wines and its medieval bridge.
One of the highlights of the week was canoeing along the Dordogne. The river (or at least the stretch we visited) flows slowly in high summer, and magnificent chateaux are visible from every bend . However, it is clearly a popular holiday outing as we dodged and weaved with masses of canoes as if fighting the M25 rush hour. It was smooth sailing (or paddling to be exact) until I decided a water fight would be a good idea. David and I lent over to one side of the canoe, trying desperately to shower each other with our paddles. The next thing we knew there was a big splosh as we toppled into the river, our canoe overturning and dispersing all our stuff into the murky water. I then discovered that the river was flowing a lot faster and was a lot deeper than I thought. I tried to put on a life jacket, but was told by David that they were needed to help keep our now almost submerged canoe afloat. So much for river safety!
At the house we made a makeshift water volleyball court across the swimming pool using a badminton net, and a table tennis table from various household bits. This provided hours of endless fun and much competitive posturing between us all. The sparkling wine and other lubricants helped too!
My birthday dinner arrived and we decided to walk to the restaurant 2km up the road and, also up a rather steep hill. Armed with some wine for the walk it was easy going. I wasn’t quite so easy going when we arrived, only to find that they were closed. So much for my reservation made in ‘French’. We made a plan (true Zimbo style), and went for dinner in the town down the road which was fabulous. Thanks to everyone for coming, I had an amazing time!!!
As my 30th birthday was fast approaching we needed to source a large number of bottles of sparkling wine in order to celebrate the event properly. We had visited Limoux previously and it is well known for producing sparkling wines that rival champagne in taste and quality. A very rapid tour of 5 different caves ensued and we finished our visit armed with 30 shiny new bottles. The rosés are the most delicious (and proved to be the most popular) whilst the Cremant is made with the same grape combination as champagne. The Blanquette de Limoux is made with a particular grape of the same name only grown in the Limoux area.
The town itself is quaint, straddled across a river with a beautiful square and some fantastic restaurants. I tried the local dish, Cassoulet; a bean stew with duck and sausage. Superb for the palette, not so great for the waistline ; )
Carcassonne is a town straight out of a fairy tale. The fortified city stands high over the town and is a tremendous sight when lit up at night. Inside the high walls are shops, restaurants and bars. On a summer evening the atmosphere was fabulous, full of the vie de France. We took a boat trip down the Canal du Midi. There are two options, one going into the city and one going outwards. We chose the latter though with hindsight the city trip would probably have been more interesting.
We have been camping in a municipal camp site, surrounded by thousands of cicadas serenading at full volume. The noise reached a crescendo last night and then stopped abruptly. This morning Chris went to unlock our bikes and let out an unholy shriek. “There’s a creature on my bike, it’s like a praying mantis crossed with a spider!” Close inspection of said beastie showed no more than the empty shell of a cicada. Last night they all morphed into their adult forms, leaving behind a littering of empty skins on the trees, like discarded beer cans after a heavy drinking session. It must have been quite a party!
Once again we cycled into the old town (swerving carefully to avoid the slightly more swollen form of Mr Cane Rat) and attempted to get into the amphitheater. No such luck, another celebrity (this time a name we didn’t recognise) had monopolised the place.
Jeudis (Thursdays) in Nimes is market day and every square is fully kitted out with stall holders and musicians of varying abilities. We watched a few minutes of a crazy saxophone player who seemed more like a man wrestling a python (and failing miserably) than an artist. We tried Vietnamese food for the first time – an unusual choice perhaps given the setting, but an excellent one. Luckily the food was a lot better than our attempt to understand a Vietnamese-French accent.
Nimes, a traffic clogged, ugly city from the outside has amazing Roman architecture at its heart. To get to the old town we cycled along a stinky canal and narrowly avoided colliding with a monster cane rat that could have eaten Odie for breakfast.
We primarily wanted to see the amphitheater, but during the summer months the venue is used for concerts. Jamiroquai got to see the inside of the amphitheatre but we didn’t! The other Roman buildings, monuments and park more than made up for it though. If you are going to see the main Roman attractions in Nimes, get hold of a billet de Nimes which will reduce your entry fees.
We have struggled with internet access in France. Today we bought an international wifi roaming passport from BT Openzone only to find that it won’t co-operate with the local wifi suppliers. There is an internet cafe in Nimes with relatively cheap access, but mind you don’t trip over the mess of cables or the tourists snoozing in the corner.
After a frantic and sleepless night following the carbon monoxide incident we thought that a leisurely stroll around the countryside would calm our nerves. Unfortunately the dirt bikers were out in force, smashing up beautiful butterflies in their spokes and converting our walking path into a dust bath. We cut our losses and drove on to Nimes (of denim fame … de nime) and discovered that France shuts down completely on Sundays – in fact supermarkets even take out massive billboards to advertise if they open on Sunday mornings as it is so unusual.
We decided to turn back to the Pont du Gard area and camped in a lovely site next to the Gard river and filled with cicada trees. In a moment of blondness I reversed the van directly into a tree and bent our bike rack and my bike! Thankfully the damage wasn’t too bad and with the assistance of some rocks and thick branches David was able to form some semblance of straightness out of the rack.
The Pont du Gard is an incredible Roman aqueduct. It’s hard to describe the magnificence of this ancient monument so I will let David’s photos do the talking! Huge arches (I counted 35 new blocks in an arch of 200) have been standing since 5 BC. The tourists were out in droves and, combined with a hot day, made for a lot of sweating people dodging. There are plenty of shady paths along the riverside though, and we paddled in the clear, icy currents to cool down.
We drove into Rodes to check out the terrain the day before the Tour de France came through town. A fantastic park along the river and walkway provided a stunning backdrop for our picnic. We explored the area and eventually found a great freecamping spot lakeside along with 35 other motorhomes.
We got up at the crack of dawn for the Tour de France, and spent 6 hours waiting at the roadside for the cyclists, who, when they finally arrived, flew past us in less than a minute. However the floats that preceded the riders were worth the wait and we left loaded with various goodies including some sexy spotty Carrefour caps : )
The rest of day was spent driving eastwards and we free-camped at a wild spot with stunning viewpoint. A windy night meant we closed all the windows for the first time and only left one of our vents open. We were rudely awoken at 2am when our carbon monoxide alarm went off. Although it was loud enough to wake anyone within a ten mile radius I still took it upon myself to shout in David’s ear and shake him vigorously. 🙂
We have deduced that the van doesn’t have enough of an air flow to clear the gas from our fridge and therefore need to leave both vents open. If you are travelling in a motorhome with gas then get an alarm, it is well worth the small cost.
Compeyre is a sleepy riverside village stacked up on a hill close to Millau. The townspeople were friendly, and it gave us a taste of real French life in the countryside. The municipal campsite is gorgeous, perched next to the river with shady spots and endless lawns. I swam in the river and got swept along by the strong currents. Paragliders waft about the surrounding hills, and one of them landed right next to our van. Perhaps he smelled our delicious BBQ from above and thought he could invite himself to dinner.
Our next stop was Micropolis – an educational center devoted to insects, and some rather scary looking spiders. I’d never seen a bumblebee hive, or Amazonian stick insects as long as my forearm, and despite having to jostle with kids to see the attractions we gained a surprising amount of insight and knowledge. I could have done without the massive spiders though! The visit concludes with the insect carnival, a trail depicting bugs in various stages of going off to a dance, like a giant fiberglass version of a Disney movie.
We awoke early for our drive along the Gorges du Tarn. It’s a busy road in summer and we were unsure about how easy it would be to navigate. The drive can be a bit nerve racking in a motorhome, especially when trying to avoid crashing into overhanging cliffs on one side while minibuses , hauling a bouncing trailer stacked with canoes, charge towards you on the other. Luckily, as it was Bastille Day, the roads were relatively quiet, keeping cries of “watch out!” to a minimum. We were hoping to do some canoeing along the river, but were thwarted by a nasty parasite that lurks in the poisonous Tarn River. It is fatal for dogs so, with Odie’s health in mind, we ambled leisurely along the road instead, enjoying the prolific birdlife and views of climbers scaling the heights.
A visit to Millau is not complete without seeing the bridge; a thin gossamer thread across a deep valley. It is a beautiful sight and we chose to enjoy it from the road at the nearby Aire which has a view point. It costs €11.80 to cross and includes a display on how it was built.
Millau is a bustling place and we arrived just in time for the fireworks and celebrations for Bastille Day, although an hour of rain threatened to ruin any celebrations. Once the downpour had settled to gentle dripping we took a walk into into town to enjoy the festivities. It didn’t take many bangs or bass noises to send Odie into a panic so Christine took him back to the campsite, leaving me behind to take photos. What happened next turned out to our worst travel experience so far.
Some enterprising pick pocket made off with my mobile phone and wallet. As if that wasn’t bad enough I missed one of the river crossings on the walk back and got hopelessly lost in the dark. It took several hours for me to find my way to the campsite, and when I eventually got there my heart sank. The van was gone. In its place was a note under a rock. “Dave, have gone to police station and hospital to look for you, reception can help”. So, off I went to reception to try and contact Chris. The campsite owner was anything but helpful, refusing to let me use their phone. I even offered to pay her twenty euros to send Chris an SMS, but that was turned down. “It’s not my problem”, she said, “you’ll have to walk to the hospital, maybe she’s still there. I’ll draw you a map”.
After a considerable amount of begging she eventually relented and arranged for Chris to be told to come and fetch me. We were both incredibly relieved to see each other again. As bad as the experience was it had a positive side – we learnt some valuable lessons, the most important being to appreciate every moment we have together!
We got going early, I think mostly due to lack of sleep, and drove up along the coast through Collioure. Even at 8am there were throngs of people and after being unable to find an appropriate van parking we decided to give up on our leisurely stroll through the town and had to miss views that inspired Matisse. We ploughed on through to Ceret for a trip to the Muse d’Art Moderne. After many brown rectangles and random collages we got to see several works by Picasso and the earlier period of modern art which I enjoy. All modern art is subjective, of course, but I prefer to see things that I couldn’t have done myself, armed with no more than some brown paint and a rolling pin. One of the brown rectangles was imaginatively titled “Door” – where do they get their inspiration?
We zipped up north on the motorways and managed to make a late tour of the Grotto Rose in Darglian. This limestone cavern with rose tinges is fascinating, with the largest limestone wall formation in the world. Some tulips and a statue of a fox were put under the dripping limestone water and are slowly turning into shapely stalagmites. The tour in French helped accelerate my command of the language.
As it was late we decided to free camp nearby amongst strange, swirly grasses with the only the sound of the pine forest to keep us company. Or so I thought. After dinner, we heard a growling noise from the undergrowth. I panicked and ran to shut the fly screen so that this unknown creature could not attack us, but that just gave Odie an opportunity to escape and act like a brave guard dog. I gave chase and my plaintive wailing brought him scarpering back to me. No attempt by David would persuade me (or Odie, looking considerably less brave) to leave the safety of the van until the next morning. It was probably only a wild boar but better safe than sorry I always say …
At last, we have returned to France. Our first stop, quite close to the border, was to do a bit of snorkelling. We’d read about a snorkel safari in a protected marine park and were keen to try it out. We ended up on the wrong beach, however, and this turned out to be a stroke of luck. The snorkelling was fantastic, with huge shoals of fish surrounding us like something out of a BBC documentary. On the way out we saw the official snorkel safari beach which was littered with people, and probably far fewer fish than we had the fortune to see.
Our final stop was Port Vendres – a pretty town, especially at night when its lights reflect across the bay, and little fishing boats return late at night with their catch. Four lighthouses (two are really just lightbulbs on a long stick) mark the entrance to the bay.
With no internet connection available we headed to the local cafes in search of free WiFi. I spent three hours working on a fault giving poor Christine plenty of time to reacquaint herself with speaking French. “Il travail encore” (he’s still working) was repeated many times, with an accompanying sigh and roll of the eyes. No single customer in the history of the cafe has ever ordered so many glasses of water; they must have thought we had a dolphin hidden under the table.
We spent the night in the local Aire (hurrah for free camping again) and baked ourselves silly. It was the hottest night of our trip so far and, with no electric hookup (and therefore no fan), we lay awake half the night in a puddle of sweat and bristly dog hair, listening to the distant sound of booming bass drums and a hooter which shrieked for hours until the car battery ran out.