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.

tarn gorge
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!

 

Route des Grandes Alpes

The Route des Grandes Alpes is so spectacular it deserves a route page of its’ own!
Over 5 days from Chamonix to Nice, we covered 670km, went over 12 cols (mountain passes), climbed a total of almost 17,000 metres but only averaged around 40km/hour.

You will need to visit the blog to read the detail if you’re interested. For non-bloggers, click here and then Route des Grandes Alpes for the detail.

Ignatius

Up and Down the French Alps

28th July

As we’d got to the Argentiere campsite early yesterday we’d managed to get all the washing done, leaving today free to go walking. We packed some sandwiches and took the bus towards Chamonix then the Flegere cable car up the mountain, after queuing for tickets for far too long. We knew from our previous visit in 2013 that this side of the valley offers stunning views across to the Aiguille du Midi and to Mont Blanc itself.

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Looking down on Chamonix

We walked part of the Mont Blanc circuit path which basically contoured along the mountain, up and down a bit, and eventually arrived at the Plan Praz ski lift which we took down. It wasn’t a long walk -we took it at a leisurely pace with a picnic half way.

This lift takes you down to Chamonix town centre so we wandered around the shops for a while before taking the bus back to the campsite.

29th July

Another trip into Chamonix today – this time by bike. There’s a good network of mountain bike trails in the valley and those along beside the river are relatively flat – or so we thought. Remember we have town bikes that weigh a ton and don’t have many gears! Anyway it was mostly downhill into Chamonix on mostly well-made gravel tracks. Got there to discover it was market day so we had a look round that and then a very enjoyable lunch out.

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If only they had pedalled themselves!

Cycling back was somewhat harder work – some parts were steep and rocky and our bikes weren’t at all suitable.

30th July

I’d have stayed in the campsite longer but Ignatius wanted to move on. Lots more mountains to see, he promised me. So we headed out of the Chamonix valley and picked up the Grande Route des Alpes which runs approximately north-south from Lake Geneva down to Nice. The plan for the next few days is to follow this.

I will leave the details of exactly which passes we drove over and their heights etc to Ignatius in a future blog post.

Today we got as far as Val d’Isere, where we have skied in the past. We’d hoped to stay at a camperstop in the town but didn’t like the look of it so drove on and found a lovely car park at the foot of the Col d’Iseran. No sooner had we parked there than a huge thunderstorm came over, including hailstones. Once it had passed the sun came out and I went for a short evening walk to see what was up the valley…

31st July

…up the valley was a gorge with a path running alongside it to a mountain refuge. This morning Ignatius wanted to see it too, and we ended up walking all the way to the refuge where we were served coffee by a Nepalese man. Lovely place, in a very beautiful spot. On the way back we spotted some marmots – having been on hundreds of ski runs and lifts called Les Marmottes but never actually seen them in the wild in the Alps this was an exciting moment!

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Cute marmots out to play!

After walking back to the van we drove on, up the Col d’Iseran, trying to spot where we’d skied in the past.

Lots of dramatic driving in the afternoon on roads used by the Tour de France, and we ended up at the top of Col du Telegraphique where we parked for the night.

1st August

Over the Col de Galibier which Ignatius declared easier to drive than to cycle over. He’s probably right. We saw lots of cyclists though!

And on via more wonderful passes, gorgeous scenery, fabulous gorges, still following the Grande Route des Alpes. Free-camped again somewhere on the Col d’Izoard.

2nd August

More of the same. Firstly the Col de Vars, where we stopped for a picnic lunch at the top and then went for a walk. Then our route left the roads that are used by the Tour de France. The great thing about roads the TdF uses is that they are wide and well-surfaced, even if they are very twisty. But today the Grande Route des Alpes took us up the Col de Cayolle which hasn’t been used by the Tour since the 70s, and which was very narrow in places. Not quite as bad as the Passo di Gavia in Italy about which I still have nightmares, but still very scary. There seemed to be a lot of traffic coming the opposite way, and every passing was tricky. At the top I was considering running away with a German motorbiker rather than face the drive down.

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One of the many passes

It turned out the road down was (thankfully) better than the road up and we found a nice free-camping spot on the descent.

3rd August

(Today is exactly 4 months since we left home, and exactly 2 months until our wedding anniversary which will be our last night away on this trip. So, exactly 2/3 through!)

All this driving from col to col and free-camping had left us in need of water, fuel, food, and to dump waste so part of what we’ve done today is satisfy those needs. We’ve also had coffee in a gorgeous village, lunch in a pretty spot by a river, and driven along even more dramatic narrow gorges and twisty roads over passes.

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He’s not a bad driver…

We have ended up on the Col de Turini which is only about 1600m. As we’ve gone south the mountains have changed – lower now, more forested – and the weather is substantially warmer. Temperature in Gertie reached 37 degrees while she sat in a supermarket car park. We’re spending the night fairly high so it’s cool.

 

(I wrote last time about problems with the gas fumes from the fridge. This had improved but not completely, so we did more online research. The great thing about the internet is, someone somewhere will have had the same problem and will have written about it in a motorhoming forum or blog or whatever. We began to suspect our problem was dirty LPG- the fume smells began after the last fill-up, which was in a remote Swiss petrol station a couple of days before we left the van at Bergamo airport. We were down to half a gas tank, so we filled up yesterday with (hopefully) cleaner LPG, and indeed the problem is much better now. We’re still getting occasional whiffs but few and far between now.)

 

 

 

A brief visit to Switzerland

When I wrote the last Diary blog we had booked in to get new tyres and were spending what we thought would be a quiet afternoon catching up and relaxing, at the Stezzano camperstop. Sadly there was a party in the afternoon and early evening in the park behind us, and boy were those people noisy when they were returning to their cars – spending hours chatting at the tops of their voices!

Anyway at last they all left and we had a peaceful if hot night.

24th July

There was not much to do until the appointment at the garage at 4pm, so we were resigned to most of the day waiting around. In the morning it rained heavily – I mean REALLY heavily so we just stayed in the van. When it eased off we drove to the little coffee shop (didn’t want to walk in case it poured again!). Forgot to buy bread so I went out later to buy some, and fell victim to the crazy Italian opening hours. Every shop was closed.

Finally it was time to go to the garage. We played cards while they fitted the new tyres. They were done by around 6pm and we then drove off towards Lake Maggiore, via the motorways. Reached a camperstop at Mergozzo (tiny town at the end of a tiny lake just off Maggiore) around 8pm, and went for a meal at a pleasant lakeside restaurant. That rain had left the air fresh and cool.

However we were not destined for a good night’s sleep – quite a lot of traffic noise, a rooster, and worse – a smell of gas fumes in the van that has been there since the van was left at the airport and was getting worse. Before you worry too much we do have a carbon monoxide detector in the van. But I spent a sleepless night worrying about it and thinking that just as one problem was solved another one rears its ugly head…

25th July

We spent some time this morning investigating those gas fumes. Eventually after some online research and sniff testing around the van, we realised it came from the fridge flue. The fridge has been running on gas except when we are driving a lot lately as we have not been on campsites to use electric. At the back there’s a flue running up behind the fridge and venting outside via a grill. Above the fridge is a cupboard and the fumes smelt strongest there, so we figured that a seal is broken somewhere letting the fumes in via that cupboard.

There is only one answer to problems like this – duck tape. We taped up all joins between that outside vent and the inside cupboard. It seemed to help.

Drove north, into Switzerland, taking our time through gorgeous Alpine passes. We reached Saas Fee, in the next valley along from Zermatt. Here there is a camperstop – well, a car park where you are allowed to stay overnight. There is some confusion about whether free-camping is allowed in Switzerland at all. It was the most complicated system ever – had to go to tourist information office to get day passes, then to the car park office to get a key so we could open the box and plug in our electric cable (wanted a fume free night!) Both offices were a five minute walk in opposite directions to the car park. Finally we got ourselves settled. It was cold up here at 1800m – Google was telling me 2 degrees but I don’t believe it. Definitely under 10 outside though. Shame I’d left my fleece in Bergamo airport arrivals.

At some point on the drive up here a cupboard had swung open and broke off its hinges. So that was yet another running repair needed – this time Ignatius fixed it using a cook’s match and some superglue to fill the holes and allow the hinges to be reattached. Sigh. One thing after another!

26th July

We made good use of our day passes today – they covered all the cable cars and gondolas in the valley. Went up one to a glacier and had a walk around, at about 3000m. It was a bit cloudy – we were under the cloud but could not see the summits.

Kath walking

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Lunch stop 2

Then we went back down to the village and up another gondola to 2300m, and walked to a peak at 2700m (approx). Lovely walk, loads of Alpine flowers, and the weather improved as the day went on. Very enjoyable. However at 25 CHF a night we did not want to stay another night, so we left around 5.30 and headed to the Zermatt valley.

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Summit view

Here’s where things went wrong. We knew you cannot drive private vehicles to Zermatt and have to park at Tasch and take a train or taxi. But we’d assumed we’d be able to park overnight at Tasch. You can – but you may not sleep in your vehicle overnight. We checked out the two small campsites in the area – both were very full and very expensive. We aren’t prepared to pay 43 CHF when we don’t actually want to use any of the campsite facilities – just need somewhere to park overnight. Eventually after checking out all the limited options we concluded campervans simply aren’t welcome in the Zermatt valley. We headed back out, looking for laybys that did not have a ‘no camping’ sign. Found one a long way back, and stayed there for the night, feeling very cross.

Before switching the fridge to gas, we had another go at duck-taping up all the seals. This time it worked and we had no gas fume smells overnight – hurray. We will obviously have to get this properly sealed and a full gas service done, but hopefully this fix will last until we’re back home.

And we re-planned. Switzerland, although beautiful, is not particularly campervan-friendly. France, on the other hand, is. We found ourselves longing for the French aires, free-camping laybys, cheap campsites. I had wanted to see the Matterhorn hence our attempts to get to Zermatt, but on checking the weather forecast I realised we would not see it tomorrow anyway -the cloud would be too low.

27th July

So this morning we cut our losses and set off, along the Rhone valley to Martigny then over the pass into France, down to Argentiere near Chamonix. There’s a campsite here we stayed at and loved in 2013, along with the boys, in a large tent. Thankfully they had space for us, and so here we are for a few days. The washing’s drying around me as I type, there are loads of walks we can do, the campsite costs about 20 euro a night and is lovely, and we have free travel on local buses and trains in the valley.

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Settled at Camping Glacier d’Argentiere. That snowy mountain in the background is part of Mont Blanc

We’ve had a few good days in Switzerland – the little trip to Davos and then Saas Fee. We’ll come back some other time and do more of it.