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.
Well it’s time to say goodbye to Italy. We’ve decided to make our way to France as quickly as possible, which will mean some long drives through the night.
What we’ll miss about Italy:
- delicious food, especially pizza and gelati
- friendly people
- going for the passegiata (evening stroll)
- amazing art works and architecture
What we won’t miss:
- the high prices of things, especially fuel
- ridiculous drivers, the worst we have yet encountered
- third-world quality roads
- litter everywhere, especially at scenic viewpoints
- huge numbers of tourists at every destination
In all we’re not sad to be leaving. Italy has some positive aspects but on the whole we weren’t nearly as enamoured with it as we thought we’d be. Of all the places we’ve visited it’s the first that I felt that I might not bother visiting again.
Cinque Terre is a series of small villages that hug the coastline of Liguria in Northern Italy. What makes them unique is that there is almost no traffic as most of the locals use their feet to get around. We left from Levatano, a 5 minute train journey from the first of the villages, Monterosso. The camper stop is right next door to the train station and a short walk into town where you can buy a combination train and walking pass for a mere €8.50. Odie was allowed to come along but we were told he needed a muzzle, which we never used.
We boarded the train later than expected (10am), having treated ourselves to a lie; all due to the cloudy weather of course 😉 The train was rammed full of tourists and school kids; I dread to think how busy it gets in summertime. Just five minutes after boarding we hopped off and started along the blue trail.
The walkers come in waves as the train only stops every hour and, after leaving the station, we were followed by a stream of people dressed in hiking boots and armed with walking poles and happy-snap cameras. After about half an hour of steep climbing the traffic began to thin out a bit. We enjoyed spectacular views down to the stunning coastline and wandered amongst farms of lemons, olives, grapes and tomatoes.
The five villages are very busy when you reach them, especially at lunch time. Tourists gorge themselves on pizza for their onward journeys, though it’s hard to imagine why some need so much pizza to fuel them to the nearby train station. Part of the blue route was shut for maintenance so we opted to climb up the mountain pass. This added some extra exercise to our day with relentlessly steep ascents tormenting us at every corner, but we were rewarded with a spectacular view at the summit where the path meandered through hillside vinyards.
We had only appreciated the view for a few minutes when we realised that we were far from the next village, from which our train would soon be leaving. Admiration of the surroundings quickly turned to much cursing of the steep paths as we rushed downhill to get to the station on time. We needn’t have bothered as, in true Italian fashion, the train turned up half an hour late.
In all it was a fantastic day out and an experience we would highly recommend!
We had decided to put Italy behind us as quickly as possible and, with this in mind, set our minds to driving through the night back into France. On route however I spotted signs for Pisa and, having read stories and looked at pictures of the leaning tower as a child, couldn’t resist a diversion into the famous town to take in the sights.
Having spent all day on the lurking in the back of the van Odie was dying for a walk so we decided to take him around the block. It turned out that our motorhome stop was practically in view of the leaning tower. A glimpse of the rooftop stirred in me such desire to see the famous monument that I rushed back to the van, fetched my camera and tripod, and dragged Chris and Odie at a fast pace into the walls of the old town.
Although I’d seen drawings and photographs of the tower in books, the actual building took me quite by surprise. It is incredible – beautiful and delicate in a way that no picture can possibly capture. I could have spent hours photographing it from different angles but, with a cold wind biting like an annoying insect, and a shivering and complaining wife, I had to make do with just a few quick snaps.
The next morning we decided to visit the same sights in the light of day. What had been a tranquil and moving view by night was quite a different experience in the sun. Hoards of tourists arrived by the busload, and within a couple of hours we were elbowing and cursing our way through noisy crowds. As always though, the masses were only interested in the main attractions. A short walk took us way from the throngs of happy-snappers into the heart of the town where many beautiful sights could be seen without hundreds of people posing in front of them.
Pisa’s tower is famous for leaning, but many other attractions of less repute follow suite. Walking along the river you can see buildings from houses to banks tipping over, as their foundations slowly sink into soft soil below them. You could really call it the leaning town of Pisa.
We’ve come to accept the incredibly commercial aspect of any tourist site in Italy (little wonder as it’s the fifth most visited country in the world) and were unsurprised to find stalls selling various spirits in leaning bottles and leaning tower shaped pasta. As you can see from the photo though leaning towers don’t always have to be buildings … 😀