Feeling cold and beaten by our van woes, we decamped to Mirepoix where we waited with bated breath to hear if we could spend some time under a proper roof. Some family friends have a lovely stone house in the small village of Manses, with wonderful views out to the Pyrenees. We got the keys that evening and had a glorious night’s sleep in a proper bed. Thank you all, Robin and Libby, Lorna and Brett and Debbie for sorting it all out for us!
We were hoping to sort out the van battery issues that left us with no heating and lights but Karmann had grander ideas. I went to a weekly shop the next day and she conked out completely. This time it was the fault of the starter motor. After being towed to a garage 30 kms away (in the snow), we were informed that the repairs would cost over €600. We opted to do a ‘DIY’ job instead and ordered a new starter from the UK for a third of the French price, including delivery! It got waylaid in Toulouse for 4 weeks but eventually arrived and Karmann is back to her happy self. Thank goodness as I struggled with cycling into Mirepoix for groceries every few days, especially when the temperature dropped well below freezing! It would have been an easier cycle if we the backpack full of delicious French food and wine, but some hardships are worth the effort ;- )
Spending a few weeks in the village has been a welcome change to our traveller lifestyle. We were invited to a lunch in the Salle de Fetes (village hall), held by the local hunting club. The menu comprised of wild boar and endless glasses of wine and we got to know some friendly faces. There is a strong English contingent in the area and we have made some great new friends. Thanks guys for making us feel so welcome and Adian, Angie and the gang for all the countless cuppas and glasses of vin. We hope to see you when we are settled in Amsterdam! Odie is lost without his mate Ringo : -)
As Christmas approached the weather became bitterly cold, peaking out at a real feel of -18 C. The hills had a semi permanent layer of frost and the fallen leaves sparkle like crystals in the sunshine. We have caught up on watching rubbish TV, reading, work and planning for the next leg of our trip. It was gut wrenching to leave, although the cold did make it a bit easier! This corner of France has captivated our hearts and we hope to return in the not too distant future.
I had hoped to cycle along the Canal du Midi at some point on our travels. Luckily, we found a lovely spot next to the canal and close to the town of Villneuve Les Beziers. There were two rival duck gangs that frequented this part of the canal and, the ducks proved to be fiercely competitive when we brought out our breadcrumbs. The ducks quacked all day and night (even at 3am) patrolling their territory and trying to source more food from passers by.
We took down the bikes and went for a lovely cycle ride in brilliant sunshine in over 20 degree temperatures in November! The canal is bordered by plane trees and their leaves turn a bright yellow in the autumn. Much of the land next to the canal is covered with vines and farms. Odie discovered to his detriment that farm dogs are not to be greeted uncautiously, even if they are chained up!
We stuck to the coast and reached Sete, a rather seedy looking fishing town with lots of permanent caravans slowly rusting in public car parks. We spent an hour in the local bricolage (DIY shop) trying to sort out some accessories for our new solar panel. When I returned to the van I discovered that our bike cover had been removed and the clips on my bike detached. Clearly someone was checking to see how easily our bikes could be stolen. Luckily our strong locks thwarted the would-be thief.
We camped for the night at Sete beach, a narrow stretch of land bordered by the sea on one side and wetlands on the other. The sea was rough with plenty of white horses and the wind howling like a gale – perfect for a very invigorating walk. We were greeted on our return to Karmann by a battered little white van, driven precariously by a somewhat more-than-tipsy Frenchman. He was in the process of selling boxes of wine to the couple in the neighbouring van and we decided to investigate. This involved David running into the middle of a roundabout to try and flag him down and he practically ran David over before realising that we were potential customers. The wine was delicious (as was the much reduced price) so we departed with a box of half a dozen to keep us “mutsh calmer in zhe shtorm”. Oh boy did I need it … the van rocked back and forth for most of the night in the strong winds and is now decorated with sand from top to bottom.
We have been dying to see flamingos close up. The Carmague region is famous for them and so we decided to trek further south in search of these elusive pink birds. The Carmague is like the last frontier, it is full of wide open plains and stark skies. There are numerous marshes and canals that make it perfect for rice growing and its proximity to the sea allows for the farming of salt. The salt pans vary in colour from white to a pinky purple hue. We visited the towns of St Gilles, Grand du Roi on the Rhone river and Aigues Mortes.
Aigues Mortes, a town as famous as it is picturesque, is fortified and surrounded by canals. We arrived on the last day of their end-of-season bull festival. The French towns in this region often have bull rings, demonstrating the strong link they have to the Catalonians just across the border. In contrast to the Spanish version, the bulls are not killed, instead the bull fighter has to show his skill by plucking a ribbon (or two if he is lucky) off his angry nemesis. The end of festival party included lots of drinking and dancing in the streets. Even a heavy storm did not manage to dampen the locals’ celebrations, but it did send me into a panic as the puddle under our van steadily grew bigger and bigger. I began to think we may be washed along the canal and David had to reassure me that our van could cope with this sudden onset of water. Eventually, the rain dwindled and I managed to get to sleep. The puddle the next morning was still rather large though, and we had to drive out to avoid very wet shoes.
The Verdon Gorge is Europe’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon, and grand it is indeed; a must-see for any visitor to France. We were passing close to it, but having already seen it on a previous holiday, we opted instead to visit the Gorges de L’Ardeche, a long chasm surrounded by green hills. Its most oustanding feature is the Pont d’Arc, a natural stone bridge over the river. We took a leisurely drive along quiet roads (not so in peak season!) stopping here and there to admire the view. While enjoying a tasty picnic overlooking the river we saw a small canoe meander gently down the river and resolved to get one last canoeing adventure in before the weather got too cold.
The following day we hired a canoe in Vallon Pont d’Arc. (Ph: 04 75 37 17 79; http://www.canoe-ardeche.com open: Apr-Nov) We were offered wetsuits by the canoe company, which we dutifully refused as self-respecting weather hardened Zimbabweans acclimatised to cold Britain. Pride, of course, comes before a fall, and having already fallen into the river on our last canoeing trip we ought to have been more sensible.
I had a little map indicating the bigger rapids on the river, one set of which is meant to be scouted out from the bank before engaging them, according to my map. Either my map skills were below par (quite likely) or the river was not flowing normally for we reached this point without first stopping on the side to plan our route and we suddenly found ourselves wedged on a rock on the opposite side of the recommended route, with strong currents beating against boulders on either side of us. It was do-or-die time, our only option was to push off into the fray and wing it. Several strong heaves dislodged us from the rock and, with a long shriek from Chris, we surged through the rapids emerging completely soaked on the other side. Drenched though we were we still felt a sense of victory. No swimming this time round, and just as well as we were the only people on the river.
Another day, another stunning national park. This time the Ubaye Valley in the Hautes Alpes of Provence. We discovered a sparkling blue alpine lake, Lac de Serre-Poncon, bordered by a series of stark peaks. As we rounded a corner we suddenly spotted pillars of sand in the distance. As we got closer we realised that each pillar had a large rock perched on top, rather like an ice cream cone topped with a huge smartie, and we stopped to take a closer look. Erosion wears away the sandy soil on the hillside and mineral deposits from alternating rain and sun harden the pillars until all that is left is a tower of solidified sand holding a very heavy rock.
Over the next few days the weather turned rather cold, (perhaps because we were in the mountains) and we dared not venture outside for too long. We spent most of these days enjoying the views from the van as we traversed one pass after another and kept warm with tasty quiches from the local boulangeries.
One morning we woke to snow-dusted trees and mountains which prompted us to hasten off to the coast in search of more sun and warmth.
Entering France from Italy we were struck by the difference in roads and traffic. The roads in France are well maintained, the traffic behaves itself and there is almost no overtaking on the bends!! We wanted to spend some more time in the mountains away from the coast and discovered an incredible area in the Haute Alpes of Provence. At first the scenery was mediterranean, with tumbling vegetation dropping down into river gorges. Soon it began to turn more mountainous, with great purple lumps of rock towering above us, occasionally dotted with autumnal coloured trees. The alpine blue rivers clash dramatically with the purple rockbeds. We spent the night in a sweet little riverside town, St Saveur-sur-Tinee at the local picnic area.
The next day we drove into the Parc National du Mercantour. Once again dogs are prohibited (even on leads) so Odie was resigned to yapping his head off in the car. The route we chose to Barcelonnette took us through what they claim is Europe’s highest pass, the Col de la Bonette at 1824m. I cannot confirm the accuracy of this (I would have thought Grossglockner was higher) but the beauty of the area is in no such doubt. Snow-sprinkled mountains surrounded us as eagles soared above and the road meandered off into infinity over a series of hair pin bends. We continued down the other side into Barcelonnette, a French skiing area where we stopped for the night amongst fallen oak leaves.
Annency is famed for its crystal clear blue lake. We weren’t disappointed! Even in the pouring rain the lake still retains its magical colour. We dared to brave the downpour by walking in search of some local wine, but ended up rather sodden and had to resort to driving to a nearby supermarket. The next day the sun made an appearance and we could truly appreciate the beautiful landscapes.
The camping ground we stayed in was a municipal site (only 1 star) with extremely basic facilities. Incredibly they had so many wash basins that there was almost one per motorhome, but there was only one toilet for the entire site!
Although Annency is gorgeous it is also heaving with tourists in August. We found it difficult to navigate the hoards of cars, bikes and pedestrians after the relative quiet countryside we have experienced up to now. We decided to head up to the hills, and found an incredible free camping spot close to the border of Switzerland with spectacular views of Mt Blanc. Cows in the field next to us made an absolute racket as their bells clonked at different pitches, but quietened down after sunset when they went to sleep. Well, most of them anyway. One greedy critter stayed up until almost midnight munching and clonking her bell. Perhaps she had a secret stash of grass hidden away …
Needing to recover from a week of socialising (and almost constant drinking) we went in search of some quiet time, north of the Lot region, on our way towards Germany. By chance we ended up in a very picturesque medieval village called Estaing, perched on the side of a hill with a river running through it. The local municipal campsite charges only €8 per night which we happily took advantage of. Moments after setting up camp a thunderstorm came down, forcing us to stay in the van and catch up on some much needed sleep.
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!!!