France – South West and middle bits

Not sure how or where but we arrived in France! We pulled off the main road and saw road-signs saying France was in 1km but nothing really happened, no border signs, nothing we were just suddenly there. We were on the coast looking back at San Sebastian – seemed very built up so we gave the coast a miss – probably not the best thing to do but we can always come again.

We fancied visiting Lourdes, somewhat surprised to find nearly 5 hours drive (it was only 6 hours from our starting point at Navarre in Spain?). Putting hands in pockets we paid the tolls and €18 and 2 and half hours later arrived in Lourdes. First thing, where were all the people? so quiet we could not believe it. We visited the grotto, literally us and five other people there. Inside the Basilicas it was very much the same, a few people milling around but no crowds anywhere.

Lourdes France (4)We thought we would try our luck and see what the queues were like for the baths. Iain was straight in – no queue for men. I waited 40 minutes which wasn’t too bad. We were both totally unaware of what this was going to entail. Basically, it’s skinny dipping with several other people you have never met, whilst praying, in the coldest water you can imagine.                                                                                    

 (not our photo – pinched from internet

You go into a bath area which looks like a hospital ward, strip off, whilst an assistant stands holding a cloak behind you. As you are called into the actual bath they wrap a wet sheet around you to preserve your modesty as they whip off your cloak. Two assistants walk you to the bath, you step in and walk forward, then as they say prayers they pull you backwards so you are sitting down up to your neck in water than less then 11 degrees i.e.. absolutely freezing.  So much so it took my breathe away, I couldn’t breathe or speak, I honestly thought I was going to be the first person who died in the baths instead of being cured 😦 :(.  The two assistants seemed to notice my inability to breathe or join in with the St Bernadette prayers and whisked me out fairly pronto. Once you are out they hold up a sheet and tell you to get dressed – no towels, only wimps get dried first – just pop on all your clothes whilst you are soaking wet – awesome.

It is an fascinating place to visit, the various churches and basilicas are in the main incredible to see, although the underground St. Pius did, to us, resemble a concrete car-park with seating for 25,000. There are more shops selling religious artifacts than you could ever imagine. Bernadette graces everything from pens to candles to jackets to jewellery, with prices from a few cents to upwards of thousands of Euro.  And to cap it off there is a castle dating from the 11th century right in the centre of town, perched high on a hill it gives wonderful views over the town and the Sanctuary.

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Lourdes – taken from  the castle

Winding our way up through France we happened upon Condom. It would be easy to be immature, I cannot believe there is a Brit who visits who doesn’t have a school-child snigger!! Ok, that aside, its actually a lovely place. It doesn’t seem to have a major claim to fame and therefore is low on the tourist trail rankings. The main street is the usual cobbled affair with shops dedicated to the local specialities of Armagnac and Foie Gras, alongside some tres chic boutiques and cafes. At the lower end of town the Baise river runs out through several miles of parkland, we found a beautiful free aire a few miles along and called that home.

 

The only other main claim to fame for Condom is its connection to D’Artagnan and his Three Musketeers.  He was born in a castle nearby and hence the town has a very large reminder of him placed firmly in the town square.

We were unaware of the number of Bastide towns in the South West of France, again our ignorance meant we thought there were one or two fortified medieval towns, and yet it seems there must be many more (we found out later over 500) as we passed one every few miles. Those we visited, including our favourite Vianne, were very un-touristy, just a few shops and a cafe or two in a small square, considering they date back to between 1200 and 1400 the walls are astonishingly complete.

Traversing the Midi Pyrenees we were aiming to find a decent canal path for a good bike ride. Our best bet looked to be the Canal Garonne, miles of towpath and not a road in sight.  We had a night at the start of the canal but decided to move on to an aire 15 km up the road to cycle from. As we neared the aire, literally 3 km away we hit a diversion. My French is way to poor too understand what it was about other than we were too wide and only 1 cm under the height restriction. Therefore we followed the yellow divertion signs, and followed them and followed them. We stopped at Tonneins for a lunch break and re-stock of the cupboards, then we got on the diversion trail again.

Tonneins

We finally arived, an hour later and over 35 km detoured. At this stage Iain convisgated my Sat Nav for a look.  Lets just say he wasn’t the most pleased he has ever been. The low bridge was about 1 km after the aire we were heading for – so we really didn’t need to take the detour at all! From my view adds to the trip – from his – adds to the fuel 🙂

The canal cycle ride was worth the minor skirmishes, mile after mile – all off road and not another soul to be seen barring our good selves. We planned for a stop for coffee and something cakey at the first cafe, not a great plan as we didn’t see an open cafe in over 40 miles of cycling. 

This region of France is challenging for campsites at this time of year. Open ones do not appear to exist. Sure we have found websites showing campsite, we arrive they aren’t open. It drives me mad. We went to Duras, purely to get a campsite and do some washing. The kindly British owner told us he wasn’t going to open for a few more weeks – then why advertise including a hoarding on the nearest roundabout saying open? On the upside Duras threw up a quick visit to the chateau and the lady on the information offered us a free night parking around the back!

Chateau Duras

It was then time for us to sample the delights on the famous Dordogne. We followed the river across and came across beautiful village after beautiful village. It does get a bit confusing though, some villages are “one of the most beautiful” others “one of the plus most” etc. etc. Suffice to say its all a bit over-whelming. Just when we thought we had seen the best of something, another one pops up ahead and its even better than the last.

The Dordogne

We ‘happened’ across Limeuil (wrong turn, not mine), apparently this one comes in the “Plus Beau” category, easy to see why to be fair. A steep walk up to the top of the village where every house would have looked perfect on next years kitchen calendar. We missed the one where  the exit of the latrine falls straight out to the path right below! It is hard to miss that so many of the voices your hear are English, in a small village I heard several people in gardens and around the lanes speaking English, a few German and even a couple of French :).  We have met several Brits living in France, at least half of whom tell us they don’t really speak French as they don’t need to. Must have badges if you live here then as we find most of the French want us to speak in French, although we are pretty sure its just for their own amusement.

Limeuil – Dordogne

After a final night in St. Cyprien we left the chocolate box land and headed into Limousin. Still any number of cutesy villages but it much less touristy.  We did stop off at Brantome, an island village totally surrounded by a river, unlucky for us we arrived on a Monday and nothing at all was open, so we had a quick scoot around and moved on. Driving around we saw more and more empty and derelict buildings, we were told its one of the cheapest areas in France to buy property, obviously we then visited a few estate agents 🙂 yup we can just about afford a shed and that would need some renovation.

 

For us we had two reasons to visit Limousin, first to ride the Voie Vert cycle path at Chalus, yet another old railway line, as it our addiction. Yet more perfect piste for cycling used by no-one other than us. The cyclist here seem to prefer the roads, although quiet they are mainly hills – whereas railway lines are fairly flat so we will stick with them.  Lucky for us the chateau at Chalus was closed, if not then I as an Englishwoman (Iain wouldn’t have felt obligated as a Welshman) would have needed to visit the place where Richard the Lionheart died – and more importantly where his entrails are still held – how yuck is that? (other parts are scattered around France).

The other reason was to visit Oradour Sur Glane, where 642 men, women and children were slaughtered by the SS in June 1944, the town was then pretty much destroyed.  A new town was built after the war but the original town was left as was as a memorial. The entrance is underground and leads through some exhibitions from where you are free to walk through to the memorial village. It really speaks for itself, buildings and cars left as they were after the massacre. Plaques on the remains of many of the houses just show the family name and the profession of the occupants.  At the church where the women and children were killed there are some very simple plaques and prayers, and along the streets are plaques that tell of people being tortured or bodies found in certain places, you cannot fail to be touched by the horrors that took place.

As usual we were lucky with the time of year we are visiting as very few people around. Although we had been told that taking photographs was prohibited at one time there was no restriction as the few people there were wandering around with cameras mainly observing the requests for silence.  We both felt very privileged to have been able to visit Oradour, I think it will stay with us for a long time to come.

Eleven more days for us before its time to head for the high seas. Forecast of storms tomorrow then good weather to see us through to the ferry – here’s hoping 🙂 🙂

 

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Algarve

algarve-motorhome

This year we were ready, our Peage was pre-paid in the UK, no fear of the motorway. Why then as we crossed the border did the lane instructing “foreigners” to pull over and register for tolls strike fear into us?  Piffle, we didn’t follow instructions keeping every limb crossed our pre-pay €40 was in operation (we will know when we get home and find a big fine if we have done it wrong).

Instead of heading straight along the Algarve we went inland and followed the border up to Alcoutim. On a clear Sunday morning we stood in Portugal looking over the Guadiana River to the Spanish village of Sanlucar De Guadiana. As Portugal is an hour behind Spain its fairly interesting when the village clocks chime – each one within shouting distance of each other over the river – the one in Spain chimes one one bell for 1 o’clock whilst in Portugal they ring out the full 12 o’clock. We took a walk down the cobbled streets into the  modest little village square and from there down to the riverfront to look over at the mirror image village and castle in Spain.

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Sanlucar De Guadiana

We stayed at Odeleite on  a camperstop (N 37 19 54 W 7 28 06) good views down to the Barragem, an ace little coffee house in the teeny village of Alcaria – the only negative for us was Portuguese owner man decided we could share electric with the French couple next door, and plugged us into their supply by joining our cables to their on their van!. In theory fine, in practice we had less than 2 amp so just having our fridge on when they boiled a kettle meant we continually tripped out the electric. We gave up and disconnected and saved ourselves €4 which we spent in Alberto’s village cafe on a couple of milky Sidal coffees.

Loving the inland we took the scenic route west through the countryside and then down Moncarapacho. Where the hell did all these motorhomes comes from??? Route 66, last time we visited 3 vans on the site – this time 70+., they offered to find us a pitch, run electric over roads etc. We declined sure we knew of plenty of other sites. Next stop, Caravans-Algarve, uhh sorry full up. A new campsite has opened in the village, takes 60 vans – well it now takes 70+ as its full and they are also parking in the arrival area queuing up to 3 days for a pitch. Plan B, head for the beach Olhao and Fuseta – reliably good for a spaces on massive sites that take over 300 vans, not a one!!!

We are told the police are moving on Free Campers off the beaches and therefore the sites are all now much busier, add to that Morocco is not that preferred destination that it was for many of the French and its motorhome chaos in some places. We were surprised just how many new campsites, aires and motorhome parking sites have sprung up, there must be hundreds upon hundred of new pitches – however didn’t help us as the ones within a 30 miles radius of us were rammed full.

Seeing our bottoms with the area we decided to head to Lagos, knowing we would easily get on the site massive 5 star site at Espiche we left the crowded sites behind. Just over an hour later we arrive at Tursicampo Espiche, to be told they have 3 spaces (and the 3 were rubbish). We paid up, booked on, put our shoes on and went to the restaurant for a meal to celebrate Iain’s birthday.

On the upside, Portugal is showing some serious sunshine, change of pitch and lets bake. Factor 15 on and still reddnning gloriously. After a week done the attractions of Luz and Lagos as been to both a few times and nothing new. We needed a site near Albufeira for the arrival of the Bates. I found a reasonably new one and emailed the owner to check if they had space. Knowing things were tight on lots of site I went for the impressive email that is translated into their native language. Bit of Google translate and boom – press send. An hour later a response saying they will find us a space, oh and well done with the email translation – really well done into Spanish – when the site is Portuguese and the owner is Dutch anyway!!

Moving onto said site, all we could say was “wow” Mikki’s Place to Stay is gaining both fame and notoriety in Portugal. Mikki is a ceramic artist and has a studio slap bang in the middle of the site, together with a tres chic little hippy bar and cafe. The man in charge is Arno, who has built one of the best sites ever, a massive swim hole, as someone else put it – an oasis in the middle of the sand and dust of the Algarve.

mikkis-place-to-stay

The Bates arrived and brought even bluer skies with them, plus a stock of Tetley Tea Bags for Iain. Binty kindly cooked paella for us at Chez Posh Knob villa they were staying at, we thinks they were a tad concerned with our jalopy being parked in the complex as some will have thought we were Free Campers using the car-park as a handy overnight!

Over the many, many times we have driven up and down the N125 we have never gone into the village of Alcantarilha, mainly because the road diverts you around the edge but also because the mecca of motorhomes, Aldi, is on said ring road. To make up for missed visits we walked into the village – worth it? totally. Very small, a little run down maybe, not very touristy. The side streets were cobbled, the church was built in 1586, we went in for sit. It was beyond our comprehension this place for 450 years old. At the top of the village another church, for us the pièce de résistance a “bones” church. The ossos was built using the bones and skulls taken from local cemeteries – it’s not our first ossos and probably wont be our last.

ossos

The other place we always intend to call in at is Loule, we should have done so before. It’s fantastic and the Bate / Baxter day trip enjoyed it immensely. The indoor market is half fresh fish market, the remainder holds stalls of local crafts, wines and foods. A slight damper was Loule had the average rainfall of Snowdonia in about 2 hours. Rather than grow webbed feet we moved on to Vilamoura, same amount of rain so we took cover for lunch in the Old Navy on the marina, where Emyr offered (was forced??) to buy lunch for one and all. No matter how long we are away its always a massive treat to see friends and family from home – the Bates cover both.

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villa-1

Back down the coast, again, to Moncarapacho to wait for the next visitors, Alex and Alistair. Much better prepared this time with a few new sites, the first had opened 2 weeks previously and just a couple of Brits on, we were in and on before lunch. We walked down to the village, despite it being Sunday there were a fair few people around but nothing had changed, and that’s all for the good. (N 37.08030 W 7.71031), highlight of any trip to the Algarve for me, the Moncarapacho pottery shop, some of the best ceramics we have found anywhere, made locally and at really good prices.

We will be here for at least 8 days, whilst the campsite was good I felt we were a bit isolated for such a long stop. A quick reccy at Quelfes and we found another new small site, O Sol de Quinta, the gates were open and there scene was a bit devastating , torrential rain over the last 4 hours had brought torrents on water down from the hills, the drains and land couldn’t cope and water has flooded through the owners house and over the campsite. Iain parked us on the higher ground and sorted out our electric etc, I took to my bucket and helped the French campers start clearing up the rubbish. A little later the owner knocked on our door and handed over a bag full of home-made cakes in thanks for the assistance with flood clear up, then the next day a French couple came over with half a gateaux they had left over – seems we look like we need cake deliveries and we accept without question.

ria-formosa

We spent the week trying to outwit that old adversary of ours, the Algarve cycle path. Possibly the most well hidden path in the history of cycling – when you do find it there is nowhere better to ride. Then suddenly it disappears meaning you need to cycle on the main road, or carry your bike over rivers, fords and railway lines. We managed to find a complete route from Olhao to Tavira and a few minor routes off, each time all roads led to Fuseta and a great little beach cafe so we called it a draw between us and the path.

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 Fuseta coffee stop

The end of the week and Baxters Number 1 and 2 arrived. We forgot to order sunshine so it was cardigans and hoodies on and some exploring at the Ria Formosa national parque and salt pans, Alex testing our his telescopic snake hook (kid you not), and some trying out the possibles for ham and cheese at various cafes. We made a second trip to Loule, this time in blazing sunshine, everyone was getting ready for carnival, the streets were being decorated and they had ordered proper sunshine, a relief for us as we were feeling slightly guilty that the good weather might not show.

loule

The finale of the visit – dinner at Antonio’s in Moncarapacho, food was incredible, wine as I like it, Spanish and tasting of grapes and the fig grappa was something that you could possibly run a tractor on. Suddenly 2 days had disappeared and time for flights home for some – and time to explore the hinterlands of Portugal for us.

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Dinner at Antonio’s

The Great War fields of Verdun

After two nights in Charmes we had to move on, my nerves were in shreds – a huge flock of roosting crows came into the trees around the canal at dusk. The noise was actually quite frightening, like being in the ‘Birds’, there must have been over 300-400 of them. This was nothing though compared to the encore that took place from around midnight for 2-3 hours something must disturb them as it just gets louder and louder

To the North of Nancy we found the small town of Pont-a-Mousson, with a lovely aire on the harbour. The town had a bit more life about it than Charmes, with what we call a very French town square : plenty of pavement cafes with men smoking disgustingly smelly gauloise cigarettes and drinking wine, women looking super chic clattering around the cobbles in high heels and all the teenagers loitering around looking achingly cool as they wander around with music bouncing out from iplayers.

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Pont-a-Mousson

No matter how many lovely towns and villages there are and what tourist attractions are promoted, it is impossible not to be drawn to the history of the area, the echoes of WWI are everywhere. We drove through the Lorraine National Park along lanes not much more than forest tracks, in the midst of pretty much nowhere we came across the Calonne Trenches. A short walk from the road we found trenches together with tunnels used for supplies, medical purposes and communications bases.

Along the same pathway we came across the pit where the body of the famous French author Alain Fournier ( writer of the French classic ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’)  and 20 of his comrades were discovered in 1994,  they died in 1914 fighting in the trenches and their bodies lie undiscovered in a shallow trench for 80 years.

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Tunnels at Calonne trenches

We couldn’t help but be drawn to the Ossuary at Douaumont, which contains the remains of 130,000 unknown German and French soldiers, the skeletal remains can be seen through small windows at the lower edges of the monument. In front of the monument stands one of the National cemeteries of France, where the bodies of a further 16,142 soldiers are buried.  Iain climbed the tower and took some incredible photos of the graves whch are situated where once many of the battles took place.

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The Ossuary Douaumont

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View from the Ossuary tower of some of the graves

Despite the incredible beauty of, and the stories behind, the memorials the place that probably touched both our hearts most was Fleury Devant Douaumont. There is a road sign for the start and end of the town – but no town. After being captured and recaptured during 16 battles it was totally destroyed. Nothing at all remains except the narrow roadways and where homes, businesses and civic building once stood now just a simple stone marker with an inscription as to the type of building once there.

It is one of eight towns that are officially designated as “villages that died for France”. Fleury still has a mayor and is listed as a town but the damage to the land meant a decision was made it will never be rebuilt.

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Once a thriving town

Aside from the Ossuary the other great structure of memorial is that of the Mountfaucon American Monument. It can be seen from miles and miles around, nearby stands the US cemetery with thousands more graves. The monument is just over 196 ft high we climbed to the top, up 234 spiral steps, for the views over the fields that were once the scene of the many battles of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive during World WWI. The monument faces the front line of the US army at the start of the offensive on September 26th  1918, the biggest battle in American history up to that time involving over 1.2 million US soldiers.

monument american de montfaucon

Mountfaucon Monument

verdun fields

The site of the Meuse-Argonne offensive

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Whilst touring in the area we have seen literally hundreds of monuments from the smallest inscription on a bridge, to statues and obelisks, to the enormous Ossaury at Douaumont and the American Monument of Montfaucon -what every single one has in common is it seems to be treated with respect. There are no gates or walls surrounding any of the memorials and many of the graveyards. In most cases roads pass alongside the monument be it large or small so access is possible 24 hours a day. Yet, there is no damage, no graffiti, no vandalism. It’s hard to imagine some of these things being in the UK and not needing to be locked up with high security to prevent someone stealing the crosses or the lead guttering, or spray painting some inane message on a monument.

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 Trenches Des Baionnettes

Our week ended at Dun Sur Meuse, another small town with a  camperstop on the side of the river where we parked up with the locals. Early evening a tres jolly lady came around and collected our €6, a couple of the other French vanners got out the fishing roads and we all settled down to a stunning sunset.

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Our spell of good weather came to an end this morning, its lasted way longer than we thought so no complaints here. Probably quite a scenic drive through the Ardennes, we didn’t see much due to drizzle, fog and total concentration on looking out for a garage. Yes indeed, we pulled that old school boy trick of letting the diesel run to just on the red then looking for a garage in France on a Sunday! After a good few miles on clenched bottoms we spotted an open garage – diesel gauge now showing an attractive looking half full, rained stopped, sun peeking out and the Belgium border in front of us – all good with our world again :).

In search of the quiche

When we were leaving Alsace on route to Lorraine all we needed to do was re-trace our steps then take a left instead of a right over the Alsage – simples then. Oh no, Iain had seen a tunnel on the map, over 5 miles of tunnel so as tunnels appeal to him we needed to take that route.  Mile after mile of dead straight road under a mountain, no other vehicles in either direction – uh how much is this costing? Iain guessed at around €4, I was sure nearer €6. Oh how well we were fooled € 17.20 to drive through a dark hole! Iain is no longer allowed to choose routes.

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More of this – less of tunnels

We are in no rush at all  as we have covered pretty much all we want to (Luxembourg is yet to come but on route). We know we can be in the channel ports in a day at a push so we intend to meander around and take longer breaks for the next few weeks. In the spirit of being on a holiday from travelling we found a small campsite  on the edge of the small village of Raon L’Etape to sit in the sunshine for a few days.

It probably isn’t  visited by too many tourists, all the more mundane shops essential to daily life, just the one cafe and a rather plush outdoor swimming pool. One thing they have got a monopoly on is fountains – we counted at least six, elaborate Victorian type structures in the town centre. We stopped off at a small local shop to stock up with fruit, not sure how well our French translated as we seem to have bought shares in the shop rather than just pay for a bag of fruit!

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Raon L’Etape

Driving through the region it’s nearly impossible to go more than a few miles without reaching a war memorial or a military cemetery.  Every village or town has it’s own battle story, in most they have two – one for each war. At Raon L’Etape there was a simple plaque dedicated to the memory of 1500 soldiers of the US 100th Infantry who died, were injured or captured during a 14 day battle for the town in 1944, then in the cemetery on the way out of town were the graves of hundreds of French soldiers who died in in WWI.

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Literally a few miles up the road we came across Chipotte memorial and cemetery. The site marks the place where a WWI battle took place over 15 days, the cemetery has 1,006 individual graves and two ossuaries holding the remains of 1,899 soldiers whose remains could not be identified. Whether it be in military cemeteries or those included in town and village graveyards the crosses are all similar in that they show just a name, date of death and the words “Mort pour La France”.

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Col De La Chipotte

We have have an interest in recent history so visiting these places is always an honour, whilst it’s without a doubt often a very bleak and sad experience it seems wrong not to visit where so many have died to enable us to do what we do, travel freely around Europe.

Therefore having read about the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp being close by we both agreed to take a slight detour to visit. It is the only concentration camp that was established on French soil, mainly housing political prisoners and members of the Resistance, together with lesser numbers of Jews, gypsies etc. The camp held over 8000 at its fullest and also had 70 sub camps in the immediate region holding a further 19,000 prisoners.

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The stories remain as unbelievable as those of any other camp including medical experiments, tortures and gas chambers.  As with other camps the prisoners knew the Allies were approaching in 1944 and believed liberation and freedom was imminent. In a matter of days before the Allies arrived at the camp that hope was sadly crushed as the German’s decided to evacuate the camp and march over 7000 prisoners with them to Dachau concentration camp where most were subsequently murdered – as the memorial there says “Freedom – so near and yet so far”.

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 Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration camp

From Natzweiler we took a scenic route through Lorraine towards the Moselle River and the town of Charmes. Very few other vehicles on the roads so a peaceful afternoon to appreciate the beautiful scenery, whilst none of the villages we passed would be classed as a tourist must see they all had their own charm. In lots of ways its the older houses with plaster falling off, paint fading on the shutters and geraniums hiding much of the building that, for us, are the spirit of France (no cyclist with onions round his neck and a black and white t.shirt yet but we live in hope).

Charmes is a small village, pretty well destroyed in WWI, rebuilt and then it suffered the same fate again in WWII. On the positive side the Moselle River and the Canal De L’Est ru through the centre, and on an even better note the aire is next to the canal so we pitched up with a pretty perfect view for a few nights. Seemingly a popular stop with the French moho’s, a good number parked up with picnic tables out and a couple of petanqe tournaments taking place on the roadway.

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Canal-side home for a couple of nights

Nothing much we enjoy more than the bikes off for a cycle on a good flat canal tow-path, it is perfect cycling country here. We rode over 25 miles on tarmac paths and saw three other cyclists – not sure the French appreciate how good their velo network is.  The canal is decidedly quiet, we passed one quarry that had a few barges filling up but other than that no boats, not even a holiday barge cruising. There are plenty of locks but it seems all are now automated, there are signs for the boats to use some sort of remote key card, as they do the locks are automatically filled / emptied and the gates opened and closed, clever but not as good to watch as the old fashioned way.

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The Canal De L’Est

Not quite Amy Williams

We left our little campsite on Thursday morning, a few delays whilst we worked out with the young receptionist how to explain we wanted to pay and leave,  the sight of my debit card eventually did the trick.  First stop was walk along to the dam at the Michelbach Barrage, built in 1979 on the edge of the village it is classed as one of the most important conservation lakes in the region.

michelbach barrage

Lac  De Michaelbach

The Vosges mountains dominate the area, not being too much for climbing we avoided hiking up the highest, the Grand Ballon, and instead took the mountain road pass to the Col du Ballon. At the top of the pass there are several car parks, we parked up and walked the last bit to the peak at 3842 ft.  Despite some clouds it was worth the effort, views for miles and miles. It doesn’t feel at all like being on a mountain, plenty of people drive up for lunch in the restaurants or just for a walk around. In 1905 the road was the first official mountain climb on the Tour De France, although the race had run two years previously they discounted the slightly lower nearby – by 65 ft – passes as not been true mountain climbs.

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View from the Col Du Ballon

There are loads of different monuments strewn around the summit, statues of the Virgin Mary, memorials to the wars, Tour De France plaques,  Joan of Arc in various guises and on it goes.  The one that grabbed our attention most was that  of the ‘Hurt Locker’ which commemorates the sacrifice of 500 French plus hundreds of Italians, poles and Germans who died or were maimed detecting the thousands of mines placed on the mountain by the Germans in WWII.

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Hurt locker memorial

Plenty of ski resorts and ski areas in the Vosges, the majority seems to cater to more to day skiers as there aren’t too many hotels but the car parks are massive. We stopped off for a night at La Bresse, a small village seemingly based around the winter tourist. We found a small campsite a few miles out of town and in the morning walked back in to town for a browse around the shops – after just over an hours walk we were in town for 1150am – which is wonderful as the French shops shut from 12-2pm for lunch! We made do with a quick coffee and trudged back up the hill for an hour and a half (it’s slower going uphill) to the van again.

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La Bresse – cute but shut

As shopping was out we packed the van up and went in search of something else to do. At the top of the Col De La Schlucht, where we were thrilled to see the chair lifts running, not only that but the summer luge run from the top of the chair lift was open all the way back down ( I was so not thrilled but am getting bored of being a wimp). No queues (no one else stupid enough) we were on the ski lift before I could think about it. At the top the attendant gave us a luge each, said pull the handle to slow – push to go fast and that was it!  Just over 350 ft of descent, no helmets, no crash barriers and no knee pads – just a little too much of the French indifference for me but it was the luge or the ski lift down, lesser of the two evils then :(.

The luge I used may need its brakes replacing as I had them jammed on pretty much the whole time. Everytime I did let the brakes  off the bloody things started climbing up the walls on the corners. There were two runs and Iain and I started together, however Iain is a bit of a speed freak and took the run down as fast as he could – he was at the bottom, off the luge and taking photos by the time I got down.

I was ‘slightly’ faster than it looks 🙂

Needing an overnight stop we weren’t too worried where and pulled into a large aire at the edge of the first major town we came to.  At least 50 motorhomes there and we couldn’t see the attraction at first, so after parking up we took a stroll around the corner and found we were in the charming medieval town of Kayserberg.  Stacked full of half timbered Renaissance houses, colourful shops, flowers everywhere – it really is like something out of a fairytale – for us how a romantic French village should look.

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Too beautiful to be true

Absolutely it is a tourist mecca but why not, the tourist thing is done well, quality shops, cafes and even an accordion player in the street (she only knew the first 4-5 lines of any song). Iain treated himself to a pastry, not cheap at €4 but everything seemed to be priced for the coach trips (it was nearly an even more expensive pastry as I threw out the carrier bag it was in thinking it was rubbish! – luckily it was wrapped and in a box within the bag so it was retrieved and saved as was my life).

Postcard pretty Kayserberg

Last thing we wanted to see in the Alsace was a chateau, and the Haut-Koenisgbourg looked a good choice.  Emperor Wilhelm II had it rebuilt early in the 20th century so it is fairly modern, apparently the French tend to sneer at it slightly due to its relative newness and the fact it was re-built by a German. That attitude doesn’t seem to stop the visitors though, its one of the most visited chateau in France.

At the top of a high hill over 3000 ft up, the road snakes around until you are suddenly below the outer walls. One of those places you need a helicopter to take a photograph of as everything just keeps growing above you and standing back isn’t an option.  Several parts were closed for renovation so we made do with a wander around the outside and the gardens – we are still living on the budget and saving entrance fees for somewhere that’s totally open.

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If we had a helicopter this would be ‘our’ photo…..

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but as we haven’t this is the best we managed

Week 5 France – Provence

Thursday morning we woke up to minus 3 degrees and a very thick frost, so thick that our waste water had frozen, a clear indication it was time to head South. As we were already on the A75 (and more importantly it was toll free) we took advantage and followed it down towards Montpellier. Our goal for the day was the Pont Du Gard and this meant we needed to circumnavigate Montpellier. We went around, through, into, you name it and Sat Nav seemed to find it worth a look. If anywhere needs a toll then its Montpellier – we would happily have paid to avoid the tour around the centre  if we could.  Despite driving around most of the city we didn’t see anything that made us want to stop, the more we see the cities the more we agree to avoid them. Our next choice was whether to  take one of our usual amble along routes or go mad and pay a toll. We took the later, ok so it is against our general rule but rules are there for breaking and we needed to experience a trip on a paid toll road (our excuse and we will stick to it).

We both fully admit we didn’t know the Pont Du Gard was anywhere near to our route and are now eternally grateful for the tip off. “That’s some gutter” was Iain’s description, possibly ‘magnificent‘ paints a truer picture. In two days we have visited two bridges built 2000 years apart and they have both been breathtaking, I now worry we are becoming bridge anoraks! The Pont Du Gard has three tiers of arches, standing 160 ft high,  the bridge descends by a mere 0.98 inches, a gradient of only 1 in 3,000. It was built between 40 and 60 AD, that in itself is unbelievable when you are walking across, how can something built nearly 2000 years ago still be standing. We benefited again from visiting in winter, a few hardy souls wandering around but no crowds. We were able to walk to the viewpoint to look over the whole viaduct, luckily (height phobia) we weren’t able to walk across the top as you need to pre-book.  It cost €18 for us to visit, the price is for a vehicle and up to 5 people,  for just us two a little steep but you can also spend a good part of a day in the 15 acres of parkland which is designed to show the history of Mediterranean agriculture. Not sure why but I had in my mind that a 2000 year old Roman aqueduct would be something you were able to view from a reasonable distance. That we were able to walk freely on it and if we had been brave enough to we could have walked across the top is amazing.

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Our next planned stop was the campsite at Avignon that had kindly been recommended. As we neared the city we were of the same mind that it looked way too busy and maybe we would head on to Vaucluse via the ring-road. As we agreed we saw the sign for Toutes Directions passing by and missed the turn, yet again finding ourselves city centre bound. For people that do not like cities in any way we seem to manage to drive into them with alarming regularity. Luckily our negative turned into a positive as we drove alongside the ramparts with a clear view of the Palais  De Papes and the cathedral. We thought about changing our plans again and stopping but we have agreed we cannot visit everything so Avignon will have to make do with a passing glance this trip.  We are becoming aware that to get even half way around Europe we will have to pick and choose our stops carefully or we wont even make Greece at this rate.

Instead of Avignon we were on the way to Fontaine De Vaucluse, as our first proper stop in Provence. The village is at the bottom of a 750 ft cliff and has the biggest spring in France (fifth largest in the world). We found an aire just 2 minutes walk from the village centre, no one there but us and a ton of mist and rain.  This place is obviously a tourist mecca, the village centre was a mass of cafes, hotels and restaurants. The spring  water thunders through the village, it is actually hard to hear yourself speak with the noise. The walk out to the spring source is about a mile and lined all the way by kiosks, souvenir shops and snacks bars. At the end of the path there is a slight climb over to see the cave entrance to the spring. We didn’t attempt it, way too slippy and both of us in trainers, common sense won out for a change.  Above the village stands the ruined château from the 14 th century, skinny little passageways run up the hill to the castle with houses perched on the side of the hill, at one point the houses are literally slipping off the hill and held up with a mass of scaffolding. One of those places you can imagine not being able to move in on a good day but worth visiting whether its busy or quiet.

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Provence is proving to be everything I had hoped and more.  The villages are picture perfect, as are the houses and farms, mile after mile of vineyards, olive groves and lavender farms and views we could only have imagined over to the snow-covered Alps. We made a stop at Greoux Le Bains as it seemed to be pretty much the centre of region.  We found the municipal aire in the centre of the village, we couldn’t work out how to get in, you seriously need a degree in barrier management in some of these places. Eventually a lovely French man popped out of his monster van in slippers – despite the rain. He proceeded to walk us around the whole process of getting in and out, with tickets, payments etc explaining it all in very slow and loud French and lots of arm waving.  He gave a good demonstration as 5 minutes later we were in and parked up and heading down to thermal spa. The troglodytic hot spring water comes out of the ground at 42 degrees. It is a massive building with what seemed like hundred of treatment rooms and spa pools.  We wandered around for a bit but decided against the special offer of 6 treatments for €160, slightly over budget for this weeks spending :).

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Instead we headed into the village where yet another Knights Templar castle sits atop the hill with alleys running down to small streets than fan out over the hill. This was probably one of the most lively places we have come across. The town PA system was pelting out Christmas songs, the shops were all open and their were plenty of people out shopping or sat outside the cafes with their coffee. Every town we visit we do the “we could live here” and “this is our favourite so far” conversations.  We are being spoiled with the number of amazing places we have managed to see in the last 5 weeks but Greoux really is somewhere quite special.

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The week was nearly endeth so it was a timely that the rain came as we were about to commence the big  camper clean. We decided to head for the only campsite we could find open in Provence at Taradeau,  which turned out to be a good site just a  couple of miles outside of town.  The van has been emptied, swept, cleaned, polished and sprayed and is now fragrant and inviting. We had accumulated more washing than the average housing estate so thought it would be a good idea to make use of campsite washers and driers as they were cheaper than the launderette and we now have clean clothes a plenty. We were also both overly excited at the thought of decent showers, well that bubble has been well and truly burst with tepid showers and the hated no loo seat facilities :(.

This morning the sunshine was back with the blue skies, as the van-work was all done we walked into Vidauban, expecting nothing much as its Sunday. Wrong as usual, another town PA system in use, this time though it’s euro-trash pop music blaring out, all the shops are open, a good market running around the alleys and the town square is in full swing with some sort of cycling event. We thought Provence may be a bit overly touristy but to be fair we have found the opposite in a lot of places. Vidauban doesn’t appear to have anything purely for tourists in the way of attractions or souvenir and gift shops and its none the worse for it, but no its not somewhere I want to live – I still want to live in Greoux! :).

Tomorrow morning we intend to finally leave France behind and head into Italy. Over the last five weeks France has exceeded all our expectations, we were thinking of it as somewhere we needed to transit but now fully understand why for so many its a destination. Without a doubt we will be coming back in the future, there is so much we still want to see and do. For now its onwards to Italy, as usual our plans are flexible, which translates to ‘we have no idea where we are going’!

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Week 5 France – Midi Pyrenees

Following our epic decision to cut a whole country we left first thing Monday in a South Easterly direction towards Toulouse. After a fairly long day driving we gave up 30 minutes from the city and headed for Samatan, a small market town a few miles down from the main road. We found an aire outside a hotel just off the town centre, only us there and we couldn’t work out how to pay, we need not have worried, later in the evening a jolly little French Monsieur with his petty cash tin knocked on the door and looked enormously relieved that we had the money ready and he didn’t need to translate that we had to pay him.

We kept on with the budget reduction strategy of keeping off the toll roads until Toulouse when we splashed out €2 to use the ring road instead of having to drive through the city centre. Absolutely worth it for the lack of stress and the lack of driver / navigator altercations about lane changes and directions. At Albi we popped into a Carrefour supermarket to fill up with supplies. It seemed quiet, the lights started flashing, there was a tannoy of something in French. Iain jokingly said bet they are closing, then we realised they were indeed shutting for lunch and all the staff from the store were waiting for us to pay and leave before they could go. Seriously that is like Tesco closing for lunch, we know smaller shops do but we didn’t think it happened in the large supermarkets. Onto Albi where we were faced with three choices on route – Sat Nav, road signs or mine – ‘we’ chose Sat Nav, an epic fail. The most minor of minor roads across the mountains, made even worse by fog which was so dense our visibility was less than 50 yards in places. We stopped off for lunch in the town that France forgot, Requista, we are sure its lovely but we parked in the town square and made lunch and didn’t see one person for the hour we were there.

By the time we had arrived at Millau we decided to head into the town and find the aire, get the kettle on and chill. We found the aire but couldn’t actually get in. The computer said no, and no matter what we or our new friend the French campervanner did over the next 20 minutes we were not getting in. All the while we were very aware that the aire was right outside a Resto Coeur, where large numbers of French homeless were receiving food and clothing, and then settling down to watch the dumb British try and open a barrier, with the machine piping up in English every 30 seconds with “do you wish to enter the area” as loud as it could. In the end we gave up and rang the aire company, Camping Car-Park, and within seconds they had opened the barrier and we were in. We had bought the Etape Card but you need to ring and activate it before the barrier works, now it all makes sense but would have been easier if the machine also knew that.

Millau Viaduct, is absolutely breathtaking. It is the highest road bridge in the world, and just over 2490 metres across; the scale is just too immense to describe. We drove down to the bottom of the valley to look up at the pillars, up and over to the various viewing points, walked to the closest spot possible for photos and then coughed up the toll to drive across (although everything showed we would pay €25 the auto machine charged us €10.90, result). As ever photos do not do this structure justice. The central pillar is higher than the famous French icon, the Eiffel Tower, and even the smallest pillars dwarf the Statue of Liberty and Big Ben. To be honest, it was bloody freezing, 37 degrees and snow in the distant hills. There are only so many ways and vantage points you can look at a bridge from  – so by lunchtime we had enough and decided to clear off and find warmth.

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P1070206Now he have Camping Car-Park etape card validated we decided to use their next aire just down the A75 at La Cavalerie. This would have been a better stop off for the viaduct as its just off the A75 and a few miles down rather than the long haul into Millau, we still live and learn. Anyway, this time we were in and kettle on in seconds, its so easy when you know how! After a warm up we crossed over the road 200 metres into the village and just wow! A few streets of oldish French houses and then right in the centre the village founded in the 12 th century by the Knights Templar and fortfied in the 15th century. The most incredible houses, tiny streets and archways through the walls. The strangest thing was we were literally the only people within the fortified walls. There were a few people outside the walls, but inside the shutters were closed and people must have been keeping warm. One of the benefits of touring at this time of year? we have these unbelievable sites all to ourselves.

Tomorrow its moving on time and we have taken up a tip of the Pont Du Gard on route into Provence. Fingers crossed its going to be a fairly quick run down as far as Montpellier as we are on a toll free motorway, then an amble over towards Avignon. Once we hit Provence we are going to find a campsite, we need a full clean out of the van and we have a mountain of washing so a couple of days somewhere we have ample hot water and cleaning and washing possibilities is high on the list, if there is any such place open!

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