Coffee

Our journey round Europe has been an interesting coffee experience.
Both of us like black coffee, no sugar. But ‘black coffee’ comes in many strains, from an intense Italian espresso to the soup bowls of ‘americano’ you get in Britain.
Our coffee of choice is a cup with ‘diluted’ espresso, preferably letting the water run through the grinds for a bit longer than an espresso or at worst adding a little hot water to the espresso.

Caffè Americano.
In Italy, outside of touristy areas you can get away with asking for Caffè Americano and get a decent coffee. In tourist areas they can assume you want a coffee like the Americans want and serve it large with a lot of water .. or dishwater as the Italians refer to it! Says it all really. In these situations you have to enter into discussions along the lines of  a plumber telling you it’s a tricky job, make a face, suck air through your teeth, say stuff like Americano but with poco acqua calda (bad Italian for little hot water) and hope for the best. If it arrives as decent cup, exclaim perfetto, if not make another face, shrug your shoulders and hope for better next time!

Caffè Lungo.
In Italy, if you don’t want to risk the Americano challenge you could try asking for Caffè Lungo which should get you a long coffee made with espresso.

Café Allongé.
This should get you the desired coffee in France. Just be careful that occasionally you could end up with a filter (drip) coffee. You can try Americano but the two dangers in France is the large cup of watery coffee or the French just shrugging their shoulders and looking at you as if you’re mad and have asked them a complicated theoretical physics question!

Café Largo.
This should do the trick in Spain … remembering to roll that ‘r’ !! But occasionally you may have to enter into the Italian game of a little hot water (con poca agua caliente).

Abatanado.
My bad Portuguese pronounces this as Abba-tan-ah-doh but it generally works with getting an ‘extended’ espresso.
Be warned Americano can sometimes get you instant coffee in Portugal!

 

In our travels across a small part of southern Europe it is hard to disagree that Italy has the best coffee and coffee culture. But using a little local knowledge and language can get you decent coffee no matter where you are.

But the morning coffee is not just about the coffee … what do you have with it. Some small, sweet, pastry type thing surely!!
We have raved on previous blogs about Italian cornetto (a sweet croissant filled with jam, cream, chocolate) and cannoli (crispy pastry roll with creamy ricotta filling and flavourings of lemon, chocolate, pistachio). Perfetto!
In France you can have pain au chocolat, raisin etc. but our current favorite is the Portuguese Pastel de Nata, a small custard tart with crispy pastry.
I’m not sure about Spain … they didn’t seem to have a sweet morning coffee accompaniment. The locals in southern Spain seemed to prefer bread and ham. Very nice ham they have too … but missing the point really 🙂

Ignatius

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Pyrenees

I have put up the route page detailing our journey through the Pyrenees.

From Saint-Girons in France to Ribes de Freser in Spain we covered roughly a 1,000km c-shaped route through the heart of the Pyrenees. We  went over 18 cols (mountain passes), climbed a total of almost 22,000 metres and averaged around 45km/hour. We spent 8 nights free camping in the mountains.

You will need to visit the blog to read the detail. For non-bloggers, click here and then ‘Pyrenees’ for the detail.

Flowers in P

Ignatius

France, Spain, Andorra…

19th August

We woke to thick mist at Lac du Payolle, and it looked like it’d be a pretty dreary day. We debated whether it would be worth going ahead with our planned route driving over the Col du Tourmalet (the most often used col on the Tour de France) or not. But you never know, sometimes the weather’s better higher up… so we set off anyway.  As we progressed the weather varied – sometimes in mist, sometimes reasonably clear but overcast. I had a running commentary from Ignatius about how hot it had been when he cycled it last year.

Up at the Col there was not much of a view, still being in the cloud. We had a coffee, then Ignatius wondered about walking up to the top of the Pic du Midi, where there’s an astronomical observatory. I googled it and discovered it’d be about a 4 hour walk up and back, and we decided to go for it. We made a picnic, packed rucksacks and set off. Once round the back of the mountain suddenly we came out of the mist and had glorious views. The climb got steadily steeper, taking us well above the cloud level. Amazing views all around by the time we reached the summit, so it had been well worth taking the risk!

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Emerging from the mist on Pic du Midi
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View from the top of the world
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Made a friend on the mountain

Drove down the other side and along a gorge up to Gavarnie where we found some parking for the night just outside the village.

20th August

We walked up through the village of Gavarnie and along to the Cirque – a magnificent semi-circle of enormous rock faces. Truly impressive. The tops of the mountains form the border with Spain. Much of the walk was on an easy track up to a hotel where we had coffee, but after that it was rougher and very steep up to the foot of a waterfall (said to be Europe’s highest). I’d love to see this cirque in spring when the waterfalls are swollen by melt-water. There was still some ice over the stream and an ice-cave.

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Awesomeness of the Cirque de Gavarnie

This walk turned out to be a little longer than we’d expected due to going up to the waterfall, but well worth it!

We did a bit of shopping in the village on the way back to the van, had lunch and drove on, through spectacular scenery (isn’t it all in the mountains?) over more Tour de France cols (Soular and Aubisque) and ended up in a small town Eaux-Bonnes for the night.

21st August

From Eaux-Bonnes the route took us south, over another col and into Spain. The border was right at the top. Usually at the top of a col there’s a cafe, a gift shop, a signpost stating the height and a load of exhausted cyclists. At the top of this one, on the French side, that’s exactly what was there, minus the cyclists (it was early). On the Spanish side there were numerous shops, a large supermarket, petrol stations and all sorts of businesses. Yep, Spain is cheaper than France. People from France must drive up here to do their shopping.

We headed on down, and did a bit of a detour to visit a monastery (San Juan de la Pena) near Jaca. Built into the rock face, it’s pretty impressive but was a long old drive to get there.

Headed east again from there, retracing part of our route down and finally spending our first night in Spain at a picnic spot near Sarvise. Park4Night reviews said that often the Guardia Civil come round and move campervans on in the mornings – this part of Spain does not seem to like campervans much. But we took the risk along with a dozen other vans and all was well. Pretty spot to spend the night anyway, and although the day had been hot the night cooled down nicely.

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Pleasant place to camp at Sarvise, possibly not entirely legally

22nd August

Another day with a lot of driving. First stop though was at Ainsa, not too far from where we’d spent the night. This is a pretty little medieval hill town – you’d think we’d seen enough of those in Italy but always nice to see another! There was a small church, a ruined castle and a wonderful little bell tower with the steepest narrowest steps up it that I have ever negotiated. We had lunch in the medieval town square.

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Ainsa medieval town square, from the top of the bell tower

Onwards, heading more or less east, through the Pyrenees. There were no major cols but certainly a lot of up and down, and some very twisty roads, used by articulated lorries. Fun when an artic in front of us met two campers coming the other way, just at the entrance to a narrow tunnel…

Once again we had a bit of trouble finding a suitable place to spend the night. It was all a bit like Switzerland with lots of ‘no campervans’, ‘no overnight parking’ signs everywhere. We’d planned to stop in Viella where we did some food shopping but the parking was in full sun and noisy. Using Park4Night we finally got to Rialp where there was a dedicated campervan aire beside the river. Very hot all evening and all night but peaceful and shady in the morning.

23rd August

More scenic driving, and into the tiny principality of Andorra. There was a bit of a queue at the border though I’m not sure why. And a lot of traffic. There is really only one main road running through this tiny country, along a valley and over a pass at the French border, and our plan was to follow that.

We stopped at Santa Coloma for a visit to a 10th century church, and had a picnic lunch in its shadow. Then on to Andorra La Vella, the capital. This place is a shopper’s paradise, if you are into the big brands. It’s all duty free. We bought a bottle of Baileys, had a wander round the historic parts of town and then left. Got stung for data charges – I hadn’t realised Andorra was not in Vodafone’s roam-free area and our few hours in Andorra racked up a fair bit of usage, downloading detail on Google maps, receiving a few emails etc.  26MB, at a charge of £39. Had I realised I would have turned data off for a few hours. Grrr.

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10th century church in Andorra

Anyway, after leaving the city we headed on towards France, over a high pass (over 2400m). On the Andorran side were loads of shops and petrol stations and nothing on the French side. Another border where obviously the French come to shop! Not the prettiest of passes – the road was too busy, the shops too ugly. We dropped down into the backwaters of France, and turned eastwards again.

For tonight we are in the tiny Spanish enclave of Llivia. This is a little bit of Catalonia which is entirely surrounded by France. So today we’ve driven from Spain to Andorra to France and back into a bit of Spain. Tomorrow we’ll drive Spain to France and back into Spain, to finish our Pyrenees travels and head south. Gonna need a campsite soon. Thankfully ACSI discounts kick in again at the weekend in some places!

 

 

Across to the Pyrenees

13th August

I wrote the last diary blog parked somewhere up a mountain where we spent a few hours enjoying the sunshine and the 4G coverage. From there we drove on through the Cevennes and into the Gorges du Tarn. Very dramatic gorge, with the road running along the bottom (this is more impressive in many ways than roads on the top looking down as at Verdun). There were endless minibuses towing racks of canoes passing us – seemed like everyone was there to canoe the gorge and be picked up downstream.

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On some sections of the road through the Gorge du Tarn we just had to hope we would not meet anything coming the other way…

We found a lovely free camping spot beside the gorge for the night.

14th August

Finished driving the gorge, and headed across country towards Carcassonne. We stopped to shop etc on the way. Stopped also at Viaduc du Millau, an elegant modern bridge across the Tarn gorge. There’s a huge visitor centre, audio-visual presentation etc, and a cafe where we had a very nice lunch. Drove on, along roads marked as scenic on our road atlas. All very pretty. We ended up not far from Lac des Montagnes, though not actually at the lake as all parking spots were taken. August in France is very busy! We found a layby further up the road which we had to ourselves.

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Le Viaduc de Millau behind us

15th August

Drove the short distance into Carcassonne. This is a town I have always wanted to see. We’d picked out some free parking across the river from the citadel via the Park4Night app and were lucky to find space there. Once organised, we set off into the lower town first for coffee and to visit the tourist information, then across the river and into the citadel. We visited the castle, walked along some of the walls, had lunch and explored some of the narrow streets – but as to be expected, it was absolutely packed with tourists. Like Dubrovnik and Avignon – too many people want to visit and it’s hard to get a feel for it in the middle of the day.

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Walls of Carcassonne

In the evening we went back into the lower town and had a meal out, then spent the night with a magnificent view of the citadel. I loved it when people passed by the spotlights and their shadows were cast on the inner walls – looked like the ghosts of the past patrolling the fortress. A noisy night as is often the case when we stay in towns.

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Our evening view of Carcassonne

16th August

Time to head further west, towards the Pyrenees, especially as the forecast for Carcassonne was very hot today! Once again we picked a route designed to be as scenic as possible, but we never expected the road to actually take us through a cave, once inhabited by mesolithic tribes.

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Driving through the cave – a natural cave not a tunnel!

Sadly we’d missed the English guided tour of the day and you can’t go in to see the cave paintings without being part of a tour. Never mind, we had a picnic just outside, then drove on into the foothills of the Pyrenees.

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Picnic outside the cave – the road emerges just on the right of the cave entrance

Much cooler as we got into the mountains. Spent the night at St Beat, where I had a short walk to explore a ruined castle and church overlooking the town.

17th August

Ignatius had found a ‘best driving route of the Pyrenees’ description online so we decided to follow parts of that. It includes many of the high passes, some of which Ignatius cycled last year and which are used in the Tour de France. So we picked up that route and headed over some spectacular mountain passes. At Lac de Genos-Loudenvieille we parked up, began a walk around the lake and decided it was too hot, then had a picnic by the stream. A very pretty spot but once again, hordes of people here.

Drove on over the Col d’Aspin. At the top I went for a walk (I always want to get a bit higher and see the views into the next valley!). Then headed down to Lac du Payolle which is a very pretty spot among so many very pretty spots. There was a free camperstop here, so we parked up for the night. In this area animals roam free so we had to share the campsite with horses and cattle.  Lovely evening barbecue and it was cool enough to enjoy sitting outside in the sunshine.

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Campsite friend

18th August

Glorious weather this morning so we walked around the little lake, then decided to drive up to a nearby col that Ignatius knew from cycling. As we drove the mist rolled in. Had lunch half way down in weather that made me think of the Lake District. We decided to spend the night again by Lac du Payolle, so this afternoon is all about catching up, relaxing, reading etc.

Stars

Many years ago (2001) on a Motorhome holiday in New Zealand we were free camping next to a river just outside Martinborough. It was a very clear night and the stars on display were amazing. All four of us (the boys were 6 & 3 then) lay on a blanket and looked at the night sky for ages.

Last night in the Pyrenees is the first time I’ve had a star gazing experience that comes close. We are free camping at Lac de Payolle (1200m). It was a very clear night again and the only light pollution was the odd camper candle/torch. We are quite close to the Pic du Midi and I can understand why they built the astronomical observatory there.

No camera shots of the stars would do them justice so here’s a pic of our campsite!

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Freecamping amongst the mountains, horses and cows!

Ignatius

From Alps to Pyrenees

I have put up another route page on the blog. This one is the bit between mountains or how we got from the Alps to the Pyrenees.

You will need to visit the blog to read the detail. For non-bloggers, click here and then ‘From Alps to Pyrenees’ for the detail.

Ignatius

Provence and beyond

4th August

Final day of driving Alpine passes, as covered by Ignatius in the last blog. Given the temperatures at lower altitudes with all Europe in a heatwave (apart from the UK), I for one felt pretty reluctant to be leaving the mountains. But, ever onwards, we had a plan of sorts. Our route took us through lots more pretty scenery and finally to the outskirts of Nice. From there we drove along the Var valley and ended up in the gorgeous medieval town of Entrevaux, where there was a free camperstop.

As we drove into Entrevaux a digital display told us it was 42 degrees. So once parked, all we did was find a cafe with tables in deep shade that still caught the bit of breeze, sat there and had several cold drinks. Thankfully we’d parked Gertie in the shade and the breeze continued all evening, so overall it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. We survived anyway!

5th August

Forecast was for another hot day so we got up fairly early and did the Entrevaux sight-seeing. Walked up a steep set of zig-zags to the old citadel and explored that. Fabulous views from the top. Then wandered through the twisting narrow streets of the old Medieval town. Wonderful little place.

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Looking down on Entrevaux from the citadel

As the temperature was rising there was only one thing we could do for the afternoon – head to the nearest lakeside and go swimming. Lac de Castillon is actually a reservoir but who cares, the water was a startling shade of blue, cool and gorgeous. We parked up, went for a swim, had lunch, went for another swim and generally lazed the afternoon away, before driving to Castellane at the end of the lake and to a car park/camperstop there. Ate a meal out in the town in the evening.

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Lazing by the Lac de Castillon

It was a hot night, and the Italians in the car park all decided to have a party, so not the best sleep I’ve had.

6th August

Castellane is one of the jumping-off points for exploring the Verdon Gorge and that’s why we headed over here. Still too hot to do much in the way of walking although we did make it up to a chapel above the village with spectacular views. Then we drove along the northern side of the gorge. It is certainly amazing scenery and more accessible than some of the gorges in the Alps we’ve driven the last few days. We took it slowly, and ended up stopping for the night at Palud-sur-Verdon, a small village on the northern side of the gorge.

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The Verdon Gorge

7th August

Drove to Moustiers Sainte-Marie, a hill town at the western end of the gorge and had a wander around. Very busy, but a pretty place. From there we fancied another lake swim so headed to Lac de Sainte-Croix (another reservoir) to cool off and have lunch, and do a bit more planning as to where next.

We headed west and spent the night at a layby near Vinon-sur-Verdon. Quiet in the night but trucks began going past early in the morning.

8th August

We’d decided to go back to Arles. If you’ve read this blog from the start and paid attention you might remember that we visited Arles at the end of our first week and loved it. The temperature was much cooler today than the last few days. We arrived at the camperstop on the banks of the Rhone at lunchtime and spent the afternoon on admin and catch-up etc. And I finally finished the edits on my novel!

Sunset across the river was beautiful.

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Evening light on the town of Arles and my wine glass

9th August

Got the bikes off and cycled into Arles. First stop the tourist information to find out whether we could catch up with our friend Ann – the tour guide we had for two tours way back in April. We discovered she’d be giving a tour at the Roman amphitheatre in the afternoon so decided to try to catch her there.

We rode our bikes a couple of km out of town alongside a canal, to a bridge that was painted by Vincent van Gogh, then went to the archeology museum. Most interesting thing there was a complete Roman barge dredged up from the river.

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Arles canal bridge

Had a late lunch – it wouldn’t have been late only the service was soooo slow – then went to catch Ann before her tour and say hello, remember us? She did, and was delighted we’d stopped by again.

Final bit of sight-seeing in Arles was the Roman necropolis, then back to Gertie for a second night by the Rhone.

10th August

Drove to Avignon, which is a place we have long wanted to see. The car park recommended in our Camperstop book, and also on the Park4Night app, turned out to have  a height restriction barrier so instead we found a track beside the river, where about 10 other campers were parked. Used our bikes to get from there into the town.

We went around the Palais des Papes. Avignon was the centre of the Catholic church for a while in the 14th century, and several popes lived here and built a huge palace. The building is impressive but sadly I found the visit very frustrating. They’ve put some hideous modern art in many of the rooms, and the information boards telling the story of the popes and the palace were not laid out in any logical sequence. Could have been a great visit but was pretty disappointing on the whole.

We then went to the bridge – the main thing Avignon is famous for, the one in the song. It’s only half a bridge – the rest fell down bit by bit as it was built on shifting banks of pebbles in the river. There were thousands of people around so no room to dance on it!

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Sur le pont, d’Avignon…

Our campervan was parked on a large island in the Rhone and before returning to it we cycled some pleasant rural lanes around the island – away from all the crowds in the city.

Back at Gertie we were just beginning to decide what to cook for dinner when there was a knocking on the side of the van, and it was the police. Apparently you’re not allowed to camp here and there was a sign (they said) to say so (we never saw it). All vans were being asked to move, and those unoccupied had notices put under their windscreens.

So we moved on – first time we have been asked to move on in over 4 months travel. Our next planned stop was just up the road in Chateauneuf-du-Pape so we headed there, to the chateau car park on a hill above the village. Glorious views from there all the way over to Mt Ventoux, so we felt we”d landed on our feet. We had a pleasant meal out in the village.

Unfortunately around 4.30 in the morning a few young blokes decided to have a party in their car in the car park – loud French techno music, shouting, etc. About two hours of that before they finally left us in peace again. The perils of free-camping – it’s always a bit of a lottery! Mind you, campsites can be noisy too.

11th August

After a lie-in we drove down to a wine museum at a vineyard just outside Chateauneuf-du-Pape which I’d found on Google maps and which turned out to be very interesting. Also did some wine-tasting which inevitably led to wine-purchasing.

Then drove up the road to Orange. This town was given to the Dutch in lieu of support in some conflict or other so was then a Dutch enclave in Provence for some time, and is where William of Orange’s title came from. The main sight here is a well-preserved Roman theatre, one of only 3 in the world where the huge stage wall is intact. Very impressive. We’ve seen several ruins of theatres so to see one almost complete was very interesting.

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Inside the Roman theatre at Orange. They use it regularly for operatic performances.

Left there to drive to a camperstop at Remoulins which is near Pont du Gard.

12th August

Visited Pont du Gard  – a three tier Roman bridge. It was part of an aqueduct carrying water many miles from its source at Uzes to the town of Nimes. Very impressive structure. At some point in the 18th century a road bridge was added at the lowest level so you can walk across. Interesting museum all about Roman water engineering. It was well laid out but a bit dimly lit in places. Had to use my phone torch to be able to read all the info boards (must be getting old).

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Pont du Gard

We then headed towards the Cevennes national park, stopping in Ales to get LPG and also get a map from the tourist information. On our way into the Cevennes we called at a campsite to check its pricing and then decided to stay the night there (it was cheap and had a washing machine – our two main requirements!) Did two lots of washing and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing. I’d meant to finish this blog (started on 11th) but there was no internet coverage – our third main requirement of a campsite.

13th August

We’ve driven part of the Corniche de Cevennes route this morning, and are currently parked at a picnic spot high in the hills with a view through the trees. Very pretty spot, with 4G coverage, so I can get this blog finished and published!