Sunday, 10 November 2019

It All Over Red Rover

We bade farewell to Freiburg and drove back across the Rhine into France and our last week here. We headed back to Colmar as its one of the only places with a campground open in November apart from Strasbourg, which will be the last stop before we return the van to Mannheim. Wow we can't believe its almost over. 

Back in Colmar and it was freezing. Winter is encroaching on late Autumn and days are cold and wet. The sun when it shines has little heat in it due to the biting wind. The town is just as beautiful in the cold Autumn as it is in the Spring sunshine. Colmar will really shine in December when the Christmas Markets get into their full swing. We sat in the warmth of Café Dussourd looking out onto Place des Dominicains, which is the main venue for the Christmas Markets. The coffee and pastries here are excellent and welcome on a chilly morning. We wandered around familiar streets sparse of tourists thanks to the weather and time of year. La Terrasse at the distinctive Covered Market was our lunch break. We tried the Flammkuchen. This is a German style pizza made with crème fraîche and topped with onions, lardons and cheese. It was delicious. The market sits alongside the picturesque canals of the Little Venice district. Even in the cold and drizzling rain this place is still eye catching with its colourful houses overlooking swans on the water. We love it here any time of year.

We left on a cold and windy morning and headed for Strasbourg. The journey was short and after parking up we headed into town. The weather had improved. It was no longer raining, there was an insipid sun in barely blue sky and the breeze was bracing. But it still would have been a great day if Margie's purse hadn't been stolen. It was a sobering moment but it didn't end up costing us monetarily only emotionally. We didn't let it spoil our time here as it is another one of our favourite cities in France. We spent four days here and despite the cold, rain and theft we had a great time. It is so easy to get around and reasonably cheap. 

Strasbourg is a city of contrast with two distinct faces. There is the old city rich in history and architecture and full of interesting and beautiful places to explore or just absorb its ancestry. Then there is the new city. The home of the European Parliament just to the north. Separated in distance, time and reality from the old. Its a steel and glass menagerie full of itinerant taxpayer funded freeloaders whose theme song is Tears For Fears 'Everybody Wants To Rule The World'. Fortunately parliament was in recess. Their Christmas Hols will be fraught with visions of what will happen to their lifestyle without British taxpayers footing the bill anymore.

We left cold and sad that this adventure is now over and headed back across the Rhine for the last time. We made our way back to Germany and Mannheim where we spent the last cold night in a beautiful little campground on the local lake resort of WeisenseeWe dropped the van back the next morning and headed for Frankfurt Airport. We were torn by two conflicting emotions homesickness and wanderlust. The former is now satisfied and the latter will be in the not too distant future. 
Until then Au revoir Europe!

Friday, 1 November 2019

A Thousand Kilometers Across the Heart of France

Most people back home don't realise how big France actually is. The long diagonal trip across the centre of France to Mulhouse was over one thousand kilometres. We did it with two long day drives.We crossed the heart of France which is dominated by the Massif Central, a huge geological uplift that dominates the middle of France. Its like a giant patch of barnacles that are actually extinct volcanos weathered away into long chains of mountains and hills. The western lowlands give way to fertile upland pastures, then forested hill and mountains and in places deeply incised gorges. The entire area is the mother of rivers. To name just a few that are born in the Massif are the Lot, Dordogne, Isle, Indre, Cher, Loire, Saône, Seine, Tarn, Ardèche, Allier, Aveyron, Charente, Vienne and the Creuse. The journey was cold and bleak but the scenery, even with an overcast sky, was breathtaking.

Our first night we spent in the former resort town of Vichy. Famed for its thermal baths, the French puppet government of Adolf Hitler, a former hangout of the preening and prancing rich and famous in the 50s & 60s and the namesake of a brand of French cosmetics. It fell into decline after the “beautiful people” found other haunts in the 80s & 90s. It has had a renaissance this century with much of its fading grandeur restored and expanded with the vast pedestrianisation of the city and reinventing itself as a centre of health and wellbeing. Basically it is still trading on people's vanity. We only stayed the night as we spent all our vanity last time we were here. We left humble and in the rain and skulked off on the second leg of out crossing.

Our route was to the northeast. The land slopes down from here across The Morvan region and into the vast lowlands of the Saône-Rhône valley system know as the Rhône Gap. This is a long and wide stretch of territory that lies between the Haut Alps to South and the southern end of the Vosges Mountains to the North. The Vosges are a hundred kilometre stretch of rugged mountains that defines the western extent of Alsace. We traveled along the Doubs river valley that forms most of the Rhône-Rhine Canal, past Charming Chalon sur Saône and Beautiful Besançon to Murky Mulhouse.

Mulhouse is one of those cities you either love or hate. It is the southernmost city of Alsace and has its fair share of photogenic architecture, cultural heritage and a few world class museums but it has never jelled for us. Just like its Swiss doppelgänger Basel which is so close to here it shares an airport. It was on the way back and we decided to give the place a second look – different season different attitude maybe. Nope, it just didn't happen. If you are an automobile or train freak this is your nirvana. But its not for us. We stayed two days and headed across the Rhine and back into Germany to the Black Forest Capital Freiburg.

Freiburg is chocolate box, Christmas market, medieval German Bliss. There is something about a Medieval City with Trams. Can't explain it but it makes me think of all the movies I love. They're in European cities, have great plots and trams. Amsterdam, Prague, Munich, Strasbourg, they all have trams. Yes Mulhouse has trams but the closest you'll get to a movie there is a Peugeot commercial. They're made there. Even on a bitterly cold Autumn day Freiburg is  beautiful. It was eerie, walking around the weekly market that surrounds the Freiburger Münster with the cloud slowly creeping down the hillside behind the church and engulfing the forest. And it was All Hallows Eve. I half expected to see headless horseman riding around and witches come cackling out of the gloom. We had coffee and pastries at the warm and friendly Cafe Schmidt and rugged up with the supplied blankets at the outside tables of the Schwarzer Kater Bar for a beer and wine. We loved it here, even the cold and drizzling rain couldn't dampen out spirits. We would love to come back here for the Christmas Markets.

We bid farewell to Freiburg and drove back across the Rhine into France and our last week here. We headed back to Colmar as its one of the only place with a campground open in November apart from Strasbourg which will be the last stop before we return the van to Mannheim. Wow we can't believe its almost over.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Biscay to Bordeaux Food for Naught or very close to it.

We left Burgos on a cold wet morning and headed northwest across the high plateau that leads to the north coast of Spain. We crossed the Ebro Valley and through the countless road tunnels that have been delved beneath the Monte Vascos, the Basque Mountains, the western extension of the Pyrenees that eventually becomes the Cantabrian Mountains or Picos de Europe. This unbroken chain of peaks stretches from the Mediterranean all the way to the Atlantic coast. Our destination was San Sebastian on the Bay of Biscay. It is an old fishing village that became a 19thCentury resort town. It was modelled after the French costal city of Biarritz but there the similarity ends. It may have been established first but Biarritz is an imposter in a cheap suit with a bad haircut compared to San Sebastian. An ageing hooker in stilettos dressed in faux Dior and Louis Vuitton enticing you with sensual perfume and cosmetic looks.

San Sebastian is the real deal. A beautiful costal resort on a sweeping curve of golden sand. The architecture is Spanish Colonial with chiselled stone and wrought iron. The streets are tree lined and the boulevards along the seafront are wide and there are plazas with fountains everywhere. Tucked hard against the eastern hillside that protect the city from the north wind is the much older old port and town. The streets here are narrow but regularly laid out in a grid pattern. The buildings are plain, their stone faces weathered by the march of time time and the wrath of a marine climate, yet still well kept by a proud maritime folk. Here, away from the commercial hustle, there are dozens of local bars, cafes and restaurants. The food, wine and beer are outstanding and virtually every one is packed with customers. Just walk in and see what is lined up along the bar. A profusion of delectable bite size tapas sit along its length. Ask for a plato and pick what your stomach desires. Then choose your drink and pay. A half a dozen tapas, beer and wine for less than 20 Euro. Don't like what you see just try next door or down the next street there will be somewhere to entice you with fresh seafood, cured meats, sausages, omelettes, vegetarian, steak, bbq skewers of chicken, pork or beef. The variety and quality is outstanding.

The city is split by the Urumea River. The main town lies to the west and comprises two beachfronts La Concha and Ondarreta separated by high rocky outcrop on which is built the Miramar Palace, a former royal residence. Across the river to the east is Zurriola beach which fronts the newest part of the town. It is a pretty fair surfing beach given that it fronts the Bay of Biscay and there are plenty of local surfers here who rip just as well as any Aussie. This place is truly awesome. I had hoped for less and ended up with way, way more than I could have imagined. A truly stunning town that is a pleasure to be in.

We stay four days then headed back into France to begin the long diagonal route back to the Rhine and Germany. Bordeaux was our next stop. We have been here before twice. Once on our first trip but we didn't stay long and the second time was just an overnight on the way back to London in a desperate hurry for a medical procedure that is the subject of a previous blog post. This time we stayed four days and loved every minute of it. They say Lyon is a gourmet city and it's true it is. But Bordeaux is a close second or even an equal. This is a great city to embrace. Everything about it is outstanding, the wines, the food, the sights, the transport, the shopping, the sport, the buzz of just hanging out in a bar, cafe or intimate restaurant. Whether in the popular well trodden plazas or some hidden away square by an antiquated gothic church under the shade of ancient trees. Or in a tiny restaurant where the tables are squeezed together like Tetris blocks enjoying a splendid glass of white and the most delicious quiche at ridiculously cheap prices. We didn't try the Croque in case it was better than Lyon's finest. Even the patchy weather, couldn't spoil this place's charm. But all good thing come to an end, even the sunny days and as the rain came down we set off on the long journey across the centre of France.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

From Barca to Burgos

We left Barca and headed West across the Aragón basin and along the Ebro Valley to Zaragoza. It lies in the centre of a triangle formed by the Pyrenees to the north and the Sistema Ibérico ranges to the south and east. Along the plain fields that held corn, grain or sunflowers stretch as far as the horizon, the surfaces of which are covered in brown stubble, a reminder of a recent close shave with a combine harvester. Every square centimetre of arable land is utilised. Closer to the mountains there are hillsides of fertile fields fenced and terraced by fate of nature and the hand of man. A haphazard patchwork of offcuts, copper coloured with here and there the green patina of new growth showing through.

Zaragoza like many cities in Spain has had many rulers and cultures shape its destiny. We managed to arrive during one of the most important festivals. We were lucky enough to catch the last two days of the Fiesta del Pilar. The main day is the 12 October which coincides with Columbus Day. There are processions through the street by all the local communities all in traditional clothing. Three generations dressed beautifully, dancing and singing through the centre of town. Castanets clicking, Spanish guitars, Cuban Jazz, Brass Bands, Latin American music it had it all. On Saturday the procession was the Offering of Flowers to the Virgin of Pilar and on Sunday the Offering of Fruits where they offer their typical regional dishes to St. Mary and donate them to charities. The city was packed and everyone had dressed for the occasion. A fabulous weekend.

We headed out on Monday morning for Madrid. The weather had turned, the rain started to fall and the nights were freezing. We were rugged up for our visit but still had a great time here. Madrid is a wonderful city to just get lost and found in. You could spend a month here and still be discovering new hidden corners to explore or just sit and watch the world go by. And if your hungry there is always the San Miguel Market. Just a few Spanish steps away from the impressive Plaza Mayor. Here you will find a veritable cornucopia of delectable fare that would satisfy any hungry traveler. The colours; the flavours; the aromas; the variety; the displays; the hustle; the chatter and the satisfying smiles on the faces of the patrons is heartening. Whether you're a gourmand or just a hungry tourist you'll find a meal to please here. And don't forget the ugly fish at El Señor Martín. Our one disappointment was that Costa has closed its Coffee Shop here.

We left at 8am in the dark and headed North. The sky was threatening but the traffic discarded threats and went straight to unprovoked assault. We were bludgeoned for an hour before it gave up and took its anger out on those left behind us. We had crossed the central mountain range and were heading across the Meseta Central, the massive high plateau of central Spain, before the sky made good it threat. The rain was constant all the way to Burgos.

Burgos is the crossroads of Northern Spain. It was a major waypoint on the Camino de Santiago and the capital city the Crown of Castile. The city was only briefly occupied by the Moors and therefore no real evidence culturally or architecturally can be found here. The old town is a beautifully preserved amalgam of classic medieval buildings and contemporary style store fronts. Because the city was built around the base of a hill overlooking the River Arlanzón its streets are winding and some of its plazas are irregularly shaped. The plaza in front of the cathedral is a bent square but the Plaza Major is quite astonishing in all of Spain, with a long curved side facing three odd angles opposite creating a distorted diamond shape. The riverside of the city is covered both sides with long tree lined promenades, squares, gardens and parks that stretch for over 5 kilometres.This is quite literally one of the most beautiful cities in Spain.

Monday, 14 October 2019

The Other Side of the "C" and Bar-C-lona

We headed around the curve of the Roses Gulf and ended up on the other side of the or L'Escala as we now call it. This is a very ancient settlement that goes back to the Phoenicians. It was afterwards the Greek port city knows as Emporion. After the fall of Hannibal it became a Roman city. It fell into decay in the Middle Ages and was abandoned. Present day L'Escala lies just to the South of the ruins, which are worth the visit as it is one of the few places in Spain where both Greek and Roman remains can be viewed side by side. Modern day L'Ecala developed from the 18thCentury as a fishing port that processed salted anchovies. Nowadays it relies on tourism. The water is clean and clear and there are small sheltered inlets fringed by fragrant pine trees  around the southern end that are outstanding.There is even a large Sunday Market that sprawls along the seafront promenade.

Our next stop was to be a “Three-For”. Camp at Llanfranc, then take the short coastal walk to Calella de Palafrugell and then on to the Gardens overlooking Cape Roig, not to mention lunch at the Sant Sebastià Lighthouse. A vision of quiet seaside promenades overlooked by picturesque whitewashed villas leading to outstanding floral bliss spread across a terraced coastal hillside with spectacular views of crystal clear waters of the Costa Brava. Did I also mention lunch at the lighthouse. The vision Crashed and Burned thanks to all the campgrounds closing on the last day of September. One more reason the come back.

We packed up our disappointment and made our way to Barcelona, not only an awesome place to visit but there are now five Costa Coffee Shops there. Heaven in a Cup! Buy a T-10 ticket at the Metro station and go explore. The integrated transport here is brilliant. Bus, Metro, Trains, Funiculars, Trams, everything for one fare within an hour. We wasted no time re-acquainting ourselves with some of our favourite haunts and discovering some new one. Barca is like that, take a wrong turn and find the pleasant surprise of an undiscovered Plaza or a place to just sit and enjoy Tapas and a chilled glass Vino Blanco Seco.

We caught the train to Montserrat again. Margie love this place. The mountains here are unbelievable. The tall weathered bastions that surround the monastery appear like stone giants standing silent guard duty protecting their sacred treasure. The view from up here of the plains below is spectacular and so is the ride up in either the cog railway or the cable car. But the day we went the cloud was so low we were walking in it. We felt sorry for those who had paid for the funicular ride to the top station where on a clear day you can see the entire monastery complex framed against the mountains and the valley below.
Last time we were here we couldn't get into the church to see the Black Madonna because of the crowd. This time we cheated and sneaked in at the head of the queue. The line to walk past the Madonna though was longer than a Disneyland ride on a holiday weekend and cost about as much. We didn't bother. A great day but a cold day and despite the cloud we weren't disappointed.

We went back to Gaudi's Parc Güell and just walked around the upper gardens. The entrance is now changed and they are only letting in a limited number of people each day to the lower complex and you have to book days in advance. The place is under heavy renovation and repair with scaffolding and construction fencing everywhere. Its good to see they are finally looking after the place. When we were here two years ago it was hugely overcrowded. 

To finish our stay we took the funicular to Montjuïc, the mount overlooking the city. Home of the Olympic Stadium, Botanical Gardens and the Catalan National Art Museum. From the heights of forecourt of the museum you look down onto the distant Plaza Espanya and the old bullring that has been turned into a Shopping Mall. We walked down the hundred stairs past the series of normally cascading curtains of water until we reached the bottom and the stood beside the Magic Fountain. Unfortunately due to water restriction the cascades and magic are canceled until further notice. 
We Apologies for the Inconvenience.

Monday, 7 October 2019

From the Rhône to the 'C' via 'D'

Early Saturday morning we walked to the Avignon Bus Station and caught the bus to Uzès, a small village 40 kms to the west. It is an old Roman Settlement that was the source of water for Roman Nimes and the famous Pont du Gard aqueduct to the east of Uzès was part of the supply infrastructure. This small town has had a long and turbulent history for one so small. Gauls, Romans, Jews, Moors, Goths and Cathars have called it home. Its latter day fame was for the fabric Serge which is still used today for making suits and high quality woman's fashion, though the industry no longer exist in Uzès. Its present day fame is for the Market held there every Saturday. 

Local producers of fruit, veg, wine, liqueurs, confectionary, cheeses, cured meats, poultry, beef, pork, flowers, preserves, herbs/spices and essential oils crowd out the central Place aux Herbes and spill out it the spiderweb of streets that radiate from it. Clothes, shoes, manchester, kitchen and tableware are also well represented. The place is packed with customers and window shoppers and it is virtually impossible to get a car space to park in if you come late. We arrived early and sat at a small cafe in the main square and watched the mayhem before diving in. The clamour, the spiels,  the music, the scents and aromas is a heady mix and a wonderful experience not to be missed if you are nearby on a Saturday.

We set off on Sunday our favourite travel day heading South. The plan was to stay overnight in Narbonne, which was only an hours drive. The Aire we picked to stay at was next to the Cultural Centre and across the road from a huge Carrefour Commercial Centre. It was also just a short walk into an interesting city. When we arrived the Aire was gone replaced by the partially constructed new football stadium. So we headed further South and ended up in Collioure, a small French fishing village just north of the Spanish border.

We were here two years ago and it is a beautiful place where you can just relax and chill. The town and surrounding hilltop is dominated by medieval fortresses. The town lies within the perimeter of the Chateau Royal Collioure and directly overlooking the town to the North is the Ancient Fort Miradou which is part of a modern military complex where French Army Commandoes are trained. The day we were there we saw them training in Zodiacs boats in the small harbour and hand to hand combat on the training field as we walked by. It was great just wandering through the cool and colourful streets again. Morning coffee by the harbour is not to be missed and the lunch was amazing and cheap.

We left Collioure and headed along the coast road into Spain. I say road but its more like a paved track on the French side. I'm convince 'D' Road in France means Diabolical. It's Stelvio without the width or elevation. Perilous drops, hairpin bends, blind corners, deformed surfaces and Margie freaking out when a bus or truck was coming from the opposite direction. And if that wasn't bad enough trees and buildings overhanging the road in every seaside village we drove through. Going by the damage it doesn't pay to live in a house on a corner here. We crossed into to Spain and suddenly the roads were better. The way was easygoing from there as the road is fairly straight to our next stop Roses on the Spanish Costa Brava.

This is one of our favourite GoTos in Spain. Its tucked into the northern curve of Gulf of Roses which stretches out like the letter facing East. The town is nothing spectacular and the only antique structure of note is the ruins of a Renaissance Citadel that houses the ruins of a Medieval Church and a Ancient Greek settlement. The Romans lived on the other side of the in L'Scala, but that's next week. Roses is a side resort town with a long promenade on a beautiful bay with a vibrant laid-back atmosphere and great shops, bars and restaurants facing the Med. Great food and wine and a pleasant place to relax. But not in July or August.

We took a boat ride to the small fishing village of Cadaqués which has become famous as a haunt of many notable artist who spent time there, notably Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. Whitewash and terracotta dominate the steep landscape and narrow warped cobbled pathways meander through cool shaded alleys to balconies that overlook spectacular views. The surrounding waters of Cap de Crus are a scuba divers paradise. We headed back to our little corner of paradise in Roses and just relaxed until it was time we headed for the other side of the C.

Friday, 27 September 2019

Avignon! Dancing to a Rhythm of Life in the Slow Lane.

Im sitting here in Avignon and just realised I missed everything. 
I missed Angry Greta Dumberg at the UN; I missed Richard D (for Dipshit) Natali's speech; I missed the latest Drum Rant; I missed SCOMO's ticket to Mars; I missed the NYT's latest EPIC FAIL; I missed CNN's ratings drop below Cartoon Network re-runs of Yogi Bear; I missed the Democrats Self Destruct at another Town Hall; I missed Brexit and Nigel being a Nigel; I missed Clueless Jacinda impersonating a World Leader at the UN; I missed The Donald continue to Win Bigly and I missed the World's Lamestream Media go another week burying the Yellow Vest Protest here in France.
Apart from the last one, Totally Worth it.

The weather here is brilliant, hot days cool nights and we're in Provence; 
Life is good

We took the bus to Saint Remi for the day and wandered around one of Vincent's haunts. A beautiful little village that still hold the charm of its former times. Cool narrow streets that wind past cream and ocher coloured walls where modern life hides behind time faded powder blue shutters. Small plazas shaded under ageless trees that filter a dappled light onto intimate Cafe tables where time passes to the the sounds of birdsong and water spilling into weathered fountains. Only the intrusion of distant traffic breaks the spell. A truly wonderful time-warp.

Avignon is a great base to visit the surrounding towns and villages of Provence. It is easy to do day trips by car, bus or train from here at incredibly inexpensive prices. We decided to leave the van at the camping ground and just go by bus or train for the week. 

Our next sojourn was to Nimes by train at the staggering cost of 7.50 each Return. 20 minutes on a fast train and you step back to Roman glory. You are greeted after a shaded walk along a wide tree-lined boulevard with the most complete Roman Arena in Europe. Two Millennia ago Gladiators fought here and less than a half century ago it was being used for Bullfights. Now that's what I call longevity. The rest of the old city is breathtaking with the ancient, medieval and modern in a pleasing melange of culture and commerce. A meal and drinks in vibrant Horloge Plaza is a must. 
A short walk along the Rue de l'Horloge brings you to one of the most outstanding pieces of Roman Architecture still standing, The Maison Carrée. This perfectly preserved temple was dedicated to Gaius and Lucius the grandsons of Augustus Caesar. It has been refurbished to the point where it almost looks brand new. From here we walked beyond the now vanished old city walls and along the Quai de la Fontaine to the Fountain Gardens. The original Augusteum and Roman Baths have long disappeared replaced by the fountains and gardenin the 18th Century. It's a nice respite from the hustle of the city nearby but not as impressive as some of the outstanding gardens along the Loire Valley. We finally made our way back to the Gare and headed back to Avignon.

By the time we leave on Sunday we will have been here over a week. The longest we have stayed anywhere on any trip to Europe. Tomorrow is Saturday and we are off by bus to Uzès a small village West of Avignon that has one of the best Saturday Markets in France. It has got to be good if it is better than the one in Arles that extends up to 2 kilometres every Saturday.

We love this place. Avignon has a magnetic charm that draws us back. We just love being here and wandering the ancient streets, discovering new nooks and surprises every time we return. But its time to move on. Spain is calling and Margie's Mountains are waiting. 

Saturday, 21 September 2019

South to the Sunshine and Provence

We left Basel Friday morning and headed for Challon sur Saône, we bypassed Besançon and its newly renovated Museum. It's taken over 3 years to complete what is considered the second after the Louvre. It will keep for another trip. The rain followed us most of the way. We reached the Challon junction on the A6 (The Autoroute to the Sun) and decided to bypass it as well, as we had made good time on the road. By the time we reach Dardilly just north of Lyon where we stayed the rain had gone and the sun was shining. Our first stop in Lyon was a coffee in a little Cafe on Place St Jean next to the Vieux Lyon Metro and right in the centre of the old town. We wandered along the ancient cobbled streets through the old town. The smell of freshly brewed coffee and heady aroma of newly baked pastries fill the cool morning air. We left the old town with its pastries and potpourri of specialty shops, cafes and restaurants and stepped out into the bright sunshine along the Saône and across the Pont de la Feuillée that leads to Place des Terreaux and the beautiful Bartoli Fountain. It was being renovated two years ago and it is still not finished. The entire plaza is now being upgraded with new paving (but more of that later). We kept going passed the massive Hotel De Ville to Place de la Comédie, the large plaza in front the Town Hall and the Opera. And guess what? It was cordoned off and under paving construction as well. But wait there's more. We headed down Rue de la Republic, the pedestrian retail street and the entire length of it is, you guessed it, cordoned off for paving works. The Lyon Mayor has found a creative way to stymie the Yellow Vest Protest in the centre of his city and give it a new look at the same time.

After suffering the squeeze of shoppers corralled between the construction fencing and the shop fronts we headed across the Rhône at Pont Lafayette and along the concourse to the Les Halles de Lyon and our favourite lunch stop the Fer à Cheval (the Horseshoe). Croque Monsieurs, beer and wine. Best ham and cheese toasties in the world. We spent the rest of our time here wandering through the massive Parc de la Tête d'Or(Golden Head Park) with its huge lake and Zoo. It is also the location of the Modern Art Museum. After that we headed up via the funicular to the Basilica above the city and around to Lugdunum the ancient Roman Museum and two well preserved open air theatres. After that we collapsed and were ready for the next sojourn.

We left Lyon on Sunday, our favoured travel day. I seems the ban on trucks on Sunday has been extended to France. We headed South down the Autoroute du Soleil and branched off at Montélimar. We climbed steadily out of the RhôneValley and over a ridge of the Central Massifs and down into the Ardèche Valley and on to the Chauvet 2 Cavern. This is an exact reproduction of the original discovered in the late 1990s, very similar to the Lascaux 2 cavern in the Dordogne. The remains and cave art has been dated to 36,000 years ago. The tour is very dim much like the way it was originally found but the illuminated art is outstanding in its technique and accurate reproduction of Palaeolithic Fauna. Truely amazing.

We stayed the night at the nearby village of Vallon Pont d'Arc famed for its large natural arch on the Ardèche River. Turning East the next day we crossed over the A7 and found our way to Vaison la Romaine, a former Roman town and Medieval Bastide. The Roman Ruins are interesting but the true feature of this place is the Old Fortified HillTown overlooking the new village and ancient ruins. It is beautiful if a little care worn. It is mainly the home of artists and artisans and it is pleasing that the usual suspect that festoon places like this with streets busting with souvenirs and overpriced tat have been kept out.

Our next stop was Le Isle sur la Sorgue a picturesque village in Vaucluse. The town is built on an island in the middle of the river Sorgue. Canals surround the town and it is noted for the many water wheels along the canals. It is also famous for antiques especially vintage toys. The road along the main canal has many beautifully presented store fronts.

We left the island town early and set out for Gordes one of the many “Plus Beau Villages” (the most beautiful villages in France). It is another fortified hill town or Bastide. It is quite pretty with spectacular view of the Vaucluse countryside. It is charming but very popular with bus tours and we managed to be leaving as three arrived. Not far away was our next stop The Sénanque Abbey. The road in to this secluded little valley is nerve racking as the downhill section into the abbey car park is one lane with refuge lay-bys. Heart stopping, brake pad smelling, just squeezing by with mirror retracted, terror. Never again in a Motorhome. This is the place you see in virtually every promo of Provence, long lines of flowering lavender stretching out before the Abbey as a backdrop. The lavender had already been harvested but it was still worth the wild ride to get there.

We exited by another way that was much less stressful and made our way to where we are now. Aix en Provence. The home of Paul Cézanne. This is a beautiful city that is laid out like a lopsided spider's web and a rather drunk spider at that. Everything radiates from the Rotunde a huge circular plaza. The main thoroughfare is the wide Cours Mirabeau that was covered in market stalls the day we were there. Most of the streets run off this in a haphazard way but you always seem to find your way back to the Rotunde or Mirabeau. The streets are narrow and cool in the hot Provence sunshine. The more popular ones are lined with shops, bars and restaurants but many others are peaceful and quiet and relaxing to just wander along and admire the “lived in” architecture. This place is truly beautiful. By the time we got back to the van we were totally drained. We crashed for a whole day and just vegged. 
Next Stop Avignon.

Friday, 13 September 2019

You Have to Take The Good With The Bad

We arrived in London to a bleak and wet morning, but after our ritual COSTA coffee at the expansive forecourt of the Virgin Atlantic Terminal and sorting ourselves out in the Hotel at T4 the sky had turned an unfamiliar blue (for London). The whole country here is fixated on Brexit. You can't turn the TV on without watching a gaggle of balking, squawking, talking heads moralising about the effect it will have on everything from paper clip in the public service to rat dropping in the Outer Hebrides.
Whichever way it goes Britain is fucked.

The once bastion of western democracy and common law is now reduced to a Orwellian Nanny State where criminals are treated better than victims. A place were the police dance in the street or entire squads troll the web for thought crimes while victims of real crimes are assaulted or are dying in the streets. A place where the political elite refuse to respect the will of the people. It would qualify as a Banana Republic if not for it latitude.

It is like some twisted reality of the Twilight Zone where the Tories have become 
Green. The Greens are now Fascists, Labour now represents the UrbanElites and the Lib/Dems are neither liberal nor democratic. Farage is the future but history tells me the Brits are too fucking dumb to see it. Thank god we are only here for two days and by the time we get back in November it will be all over. Maybe.

We landed and Frankfurt and picked up the Van in Mannheim. Red is the new Black and it's not your usual bland coloured Motorhome. Enzo would be proud of this shade of Ferrari Red. Our first stop after topping up with food was Heidelberg. We were here 42 years ago but the memory is faded. The day in town was cold and wet and to ruin any chance of quietly exploring ancient memories the place was full of river cruise tourist speaking mangled english (US version) and several other latin and slavic dialects. Not happy (insert name here).
We are heading for one of our favourites next, Colmar in Alsace France, then to Basel in Switzerland.

We drove South all morning from Heidelberg in rain. Mostly light but heavy in patches. Sunday is a great day to travel here as everything is closed. Businesses and Retail don't work Sunday all over Europe and Trucks are banned from the Highways in Germany too. BLOODY BRILLIANT! It should be the rule everywhere back home.

We always seem to return to Colmar, we love It. Alsace has many beautiful towns and cities from the historic Strasbourg with its wonderful cathedral and marriage of old and new, to the quaint and picturesque Riquewhir and Eguisheim that dominate postcard space at every souvenir shop. Colmar is our happy medium. We would love to come back for the Christmas Markets sometime in the future and spend the Christmas/New Year in Alsace.

Our first trip back to Switzerland in 4 decades was less than expected. We had never been to Basel before and had high hopes given its reputation. But we were a little underwhelmed. We stayed in a little campground right on the Rhine in Huningue on the French side of the River. It is right next to the 3Pays/3Lands Bridge. You walk across the bridge to Weil am Rhein in Germany and from there you get the tram to Basel in Switzerland. 3 Countries in a day.

Basel is a beautiful city but for us just didn't have the charm or charisma of other places like this we have been. It's a bit bland to be blunt. It also doesn't help when the premier site, Marktplatz is dug up for roadworks, over a dozen red Mechano cranes tower over the city and street art on the many construction site hoardings is by the well know collagist William Posters (he hasn't been prosecuted here yet). It is also incredibly expensive.

That's not to say it doesn't have its high points. There are tree shaded river walkways, spectacular river views from the Basel Munster balcony and many quiet tree covered nooks and parks to sit and just reflect. And it does have a pretty awesome Christmas market in the massive square in front of the Munster cathedral. So don't be put off it just wasn't for us. We head for Lyon and the South of France next.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Rest and Recuperation

After being discharged from Hospital we spent the R & R time around England. Dal and Renata had vacation time so we packed up the family and headed for the Lakes District in Cumbria near the Scotland border. We camped at Lake Windermere and spent time exploring the surrounding countryside. We visited Grasmere, a picturesque little village where William Wordsworth is buried. The place is tiny but has a magnetic charm. It was a cold Spring day and we warmed ourselves with lunch in a splendid little cafe overlooking the River Rothay. 
We visited the Beatrix Potter Museum at Browness then took the ferry across Lake Windermere to Lakeside where we took the vintage steam train of the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway to the old Haverthwaite Station. It is a five kilometre journey along the River Leven Valley through the rural Cumbrian countryside. The trip back across the lake to Browness was under a brooding sky with a freezing wind. 

The next day dawned bright if a little cold and we set off North to Haltwistle in Northumbria for a visit to Hadrian's Wall. This was the northern reach of the Roman Empire. Though much of the infrastructure that Rome built along its 73 mile length is gone there is still quite a bit of the wall intact. We parked at Steel Rigg and walked along the wall path to Sycamore Gap made famous by the Keven Costner movie Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. The path is also part of the Pennine Way, a national trail created in 1965 and sometimes call the backbone of England. We followed the path to Housesteads Roman Fort. Only the bare bones of the fort's foundation still exist but you can see from the barracks ruin and adjoining support buildings that this was a major strategic outpost. The view of the surrounding landscape is spectacular and far reaching. We finished trip with lunch in the warm and cosy Twice Brewed Inn. 
After six weeks of recovery and a trip back to the hospital for a final stress test it was time to continue our Europe adventure. We decided on a shortened trip to just France. 

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Best and Worst of Times

We had every intention of carrying on to the hilltop town of Rocamador. It's one of those amazing places that you see from the air coverage of the Tour de France. Sweeping valley vistas that take your breath away and there perched high on an escarpment a gravity defying Medieval City stands out in cream and pink overlooking the dark winding riband of some ancient river. The battlements could still be peopled with soldiers in chainmail awaiting the next attack. That's Rocamador, though the only invaders now are regular tourists and the odd motorhomer.

Unfortunately the weather closed in and it started raining heavily. We decided it would be much better to return here and continue our travels along the Lot on our way back from Spain. Little did we know that was never going to happen. We headed South and our first stop was Toulouse.

This is now the techno hub of France with the Airbus Factory just north of town. It also houses a division of the European Space Centre. But there are much older things to marvel at. The Jacobins Church has the most amazing interior. All the columns appear to be palm trees. They meet the ceiling where the supporting domes are styled like palm fronds. The old city is also quite beautiful with a huge central square and lots of narrow streets that are now mainly pedestrian areas. But many were being dug up to replace the old drainage and the place was noisy, barricaded and the repair job consisted of using bitumen to replace the beautiful cobble stones they had torn up, Very UnFrench. Maybe they are going to fix it later, but the norm here is to carefully remove the old stones, store them somewhere, do a great job then replace the original stone so there is virtually no evidence the street was repaired. Although the European economy the way it is I guess cheep and cheerful just has to do.

The next stop was Lourdes, a rather unimposing town that lives off the Miracle of Bernadette. This is Assisi on steroids. Every Street and alleyway that leads to the Grotto is awash with shops festooned with the gaudiest souvenirs and cheep religious trinkets you can imagine. Fortunately the trash ends at the park the Grotto and Church is located in. The park is manicured and paved and brand new as most of this was washed away in the floods two years ago when we were in Andorra. Here you only have to pay for the candles – small, medium and telegraph poles. Its like the Medieval Pilgrim Trail never ended. The entire economy of Lourdes revolves around the Grotto. No wonder the local council pulled out all stops to repair the flood damage. Maybe Toulouse could suddenly find some Saint's bones among the street repairs.

The rain was coming and we were going, over the mountains and into Spain. Well under the mountains to be more precise, 13 kilometres under the Pyrenees through the Somport Tunnel. It's a great way to get from France to Spain, except for the bit where you wind your way up the valley of the Gave d'Aspe. I don't think I've seen so many “Beware of Falling Rock” signs in one place in my life. I lost count of the bits of road that had been realigned because the old bits were somewhere down there. There is a train line here as well, that is no longer in use. Can you guess why? A train derailed and destroyed one of the bridges. You were going to say rock slide weren't you. It use to be the mainline into Spain but was closed down in the 70s.  The French decided it was uneconomical and left it to deteriorate to the point where now most of it is overgrow or sections removed to accommodate the realignment of the road. Although we saw section being worked on. The old tracks and sleepers had been removed and it looked like they were turning it into a Voie Vert or Green Track. These walking/bicycling trails are all over France now. Usually they are tow paths along the many canals that snake along the inland river systems but in some place old disused railway lines.

On the Spanish side is the Canfranc station. This is an outstanding piece of architecture that was built in the early part of last century. It was the main terminus and border post into Spain and in its heyday was a thriving hub for travellers of every kind. It housed the border post, hotels, restaurants, cafes, rail company officials as well as a rail yard for trains heading for inland Spanish cities. It had deteriorated badly during the decades after the line was closed but now there are plans to renovate it and turn it into a hotel and resort although it may take some time given the state of the Spanish economy.

The other side of the mountains was greener but no drier. Pissing down barely covers it. The roads were much better though for a while we even had motorway and then it just stopped. There were beautiful wide lanes, astonishing viaduct over deep valleys, huge cuttings through hillsides then nothing, zip nada. The Road just stopped abruptly and we diverted onto the old road, emphasis on the old It reminded me of the poor Spanish roads of the 70s. Another sign of the Eurodream hitting the hard wall of reality. Unfortunately Spain seems to be one of the Crash Test Dummies of the EU's Brave New (Gan)Grene World.

We reached Pamplona in the gloom and stayed in an Aire by the local Sports Centre, just out of town. The rain didn't let up and the next morning we decided to give city of San Fermin the miss. The Taurian descendants will just have to do it without me. We headed south skirting the Navarre Mountains and the scenery in another century or even another decade would have been breathtaking but is now marred by grotesque giant pinwheels standing tall and white along every ridge and mountaintop like candle offerings the new Church of United Rent Seeking Ecozelots or C.U.R.S.E, which is exactly what they are on the land. This area is called the Badlands, seems a perfect description.

Under sunny skies we arrived a Zaragoza and stayed just two nights with a day wandering around the city. Its an ancient city but one that lacks the flair of Barcelona or the charm of Seville. It does however have some of the most beautiful modern suburbs I have seen anywhere in Europe or the rest of the world for that matter. The streets are wide and tree lined with parks and play areas. The houses are beautifully proportioned and even the townhouses and low rise apartments blend into the overall design. This is a lesson in medium density housing that many cities could copy.

We found our way to the mountain top village of Albarracin, pronounced al-bar-athin. The Al at the beginning is the giveaway, this being a Moorish fortress town that was later Christianised. The town occupies the side of mountain with the river running around most of it. The streets zig-zag up to a small main plaza and from there narrow laneways radiate out in all directions. We sat and enjoyed cafe con leche and tapas in the Plaza then wandered the sloping streets and steep interconnecting stairways. The next day we climbed beyond the city to the fortress walls. High above on the battlements you can see the city below and off in the distance the valley stretches out green and verdant to a distant point where forest and sky blend into one.

The weather had now changed for the better and we decided to head for the coast. We passed by Valencia and found the uncrowded little resort town of Cullera. Our first day there we wandered almost deserted streets and most of the bars and shops along the beach promenade were closed. So were most of the apartments. We found a welcoming cafe that served great coffee and even better pizza. We lapped it up. The next day was the complete opposite. We had arrived on the Thursday before a long weekend holiday and the place was packed. Everything that had been closed was open and going crazy. The beach was packed, the bars were overflowing and the restaurants and cafes were full. The place was crazy for the whole weekend. We enjoyed every minute. The music and partying went on until the early hours. There might be a recession here but the Spanish really know how to enjoy a long weekend.

We were so happy here and looking forward to heading down the coast to Alicante when disaster struck. I had been exhausted after we climbed to the battlements at Albarracin and on Monday morning I started to have chest pains. A very familiar pain that I hadn't had for nearly 10 years. This was serious. My wrists were stinging and knew that I was in real trouble. We decided to head back to London straight away.

We drove all the way from Cullera to Bordeaux in France that day and while there used the internet to book a crossing via the Eurotunnel late the next day. We drove from there to Calais and got onto an earlier train but still didn't get to the Canterbury Park and Ride Aire before the barriers locked at 9:30pm. We headed for London and arrived at Dal's place just before midnight. We had rung him from Spain the day before and told him our plans. I didn't make it through the night before the pain got worse. By 5am I was in an Ambulance under blue light and on my way to the Accident & Emergency at Northwick Park Hospital.

On the Saturday morning they performed an angiogram and place a stent into one of my coronary arteries. I can't praise the staff of the NHS hospital system enough. From the Ambulance Paramedics, the A&E, the HSU, the Drayton Ward Staff to the Coronary Care Staff of St Marks I thank you all. Thank you to Will, Jose, Voltaire, Charmaine, Nikki, Sandra, Raj, Pablo, Sinead, Carol, Dr Spiro, Dr, Shaw and all the others who were just as important but whose names I have sadly forgotten. Without their care, dedication and professionalism I probably wouldn't be writing this blog post right now.

Rivers Of Time

We left the Loire and headed across the heart of France.
The rolling plains gave way to the forested uplands of the Limousine. The fields gave way to the forests and we started to climb into the river systems of the Central Massif and the area know as The Perigord. It was a long day's drive and we finally arrived at the small village of Montignac on the banks if the Vezére.

This place would have remained obscure and forgotten but for the misadventures of a dog named Rocket. His owner Marcel rescued him from a sinkhole, which are common in the area. On closer inspection he and three of his mates discovered the now famous prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux. That was back in 1940 and since then more caves and caverns have been discovered in the area. This is the Dordogne Valley and the entire area is littered with sites that stretch back in time some 25,000 years.

The original cave has been closed since the 1963 after the growth of mould on the paintings was found to be caused by the people visiting the site. The French government deemed the site so significant that they spent ten years to build an exact replica of the two most significant halls in the original cave. Lascaux II is not far away from the original and is breathtaking in its vivid depiction of fauna that existed 18 millennia ago. Figures outlined in black and coloured with red and ochre prance across the walls. The images are startling in their accuracy and the uncanny perception of motion. The tour of the cave is short and sweet and unfortunately you can't take photos, but you are down there long enough to take it all in and be awed at its presence.

We left Montignac and headed down the Vezére. We stopped at Le Thot, a sort of annex to Lescaux II where they have a small zoo of animals that are related to those on the walls. There are bison, horses and reindeer wandering in paddocks - it's mainly for school-kids, but the exhibit inside the small museum is enlightening. Life size dioramas depict life and the processes used by prehistoric man to create the tools, mediums and techniques to create the cave art. But the most outstanding feature of this museum are two sections of the walls of Lascaux that have been reproduced and with the aide of UV light the entire scope of the gallery can be revealed. Underneath the dominant bovine images there are previous drawings that cannot be seem. A herd of horses prance, and rear and gallop its way across the rock face. Beneath another reindeer graze. Even more enigmatic is that none of these animals were found anywhere near this area.

We continued downstream until we reached Le Roque St Christophe. The limestone cliffs skirt the river here and high up within the face of the cliff is a natural recess, like some ancient giant took a stick and gouged out a gash hundreds of metres long. Neolithic cave dwellers made their homes here high above the river and in later times a fortified Medieval town occupied every nook and cranny of the cliff. The entire length of Le Roque faces south and is bathed in sunshine all day. From this rocky vantage point the view across the valley is spectacular.

We stayed the night in the quaint little village of Le Bugue right by the Vezére. We walked into town along the river bank until we reach the paved quayside and stairs beside the bridge that led to the centre of the bustling little town. After wandering around we sat in the sun and had a cool drink in a bar by the bridge. We left the next morning and finally reached the confluence of the Vezére and the Dordogne at the beautiful town of Limeuil. This was once an important port town before the advent of more modern transport. Boats have been shipping cargo along this river since the Neolithic and Limeuil has been an important port since then. This is no tourist trap with gaudy souvenirs festooning every doorway despite it being listed as one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France. Working folk still live here and there is a pride in self, work and village that exudes not just from Limeuil but every village and town we visit in France. It's on display with every friendly Bonjour, every display of produce in every village and town market and the neatness and cleanliness of every village and town, not just the 'Plus Beau Villages'.

Limeuil is beautiful and the jewel in the crown are the panoramic gardens at the heights of the town overlooking the confluence of two ancient rivers. It's not a large garden or one that is organised geometrically. It just meanders across the top of the ancient limestone outcrop. It's covered in lawn interspersed with tall trees so you walk through sunny gardens that are linked by shady nook and avenues. The predominant feature is that of flora that has been and still are used by man. There are culinary herbs, spices and vegetables, medicinal herbs and flowers, flowers and plants used for dies, flowers and plants used for perfume and incense and medicinal herbs and plants. It's a wonderful walk through a fragrant garden all the way up to an open space at the highest point that overlooks the two rivers below. The final stretch back to the Chateau and exit is via a long tree covered avenue along the cliff face, from here you can look out over the lush Vezére Valley.

Our next stop was the small village of Vézac. It lies between two rival towns. A short walk from our campground was the imposing visage of Chateau de Beynac et Cazenac, which along with the town clings to the almost sheer cliff with a thin strip of land between the lower town and the river's edge.
The village and Chateau is typical of the fortified towns along this stretch of the Dordogne, the town built hard against the limestone cliffs with barely enough land by the river banks for a road. Here they build up the face of the cliff with the fortified Chateau on the highest point. The streets wind and zig-zag up to the heights with every building clinging precariously to almost sheer walls. The most important feature of all the towns along the river is the quay by the river. Boats have been the primary form of transport here since the Neolithic and maybe even earlier.

Beynac's rival is just a little down river on the opposite bank. Castelnaud la Chapelle in some way is more impressive. It sits at the confluence of the Céau and the Dordogne and there is much more land for the town to spread out by the riverside. The Chateau is very imposing and has been turned into a Medieval War Museum. We drove to the upper carpark which is also an Aire with dedicated parking for Motorhomes along with toilet and fresh water. The walk up from the village below is a killer. The upper town, as well as the lower, is beautifully preserved in its original state and the Chateau is outstanding. The exhibits and audio visuals are well set out as you wind your way up to the keep and battlements then back down to the kitchen and servants quarters. Every window is the frame of a real life landscape of outstanding beauty, painted with fifty shades of green. The dark thread of an ancient river weaves its way past lichen stained cliffs that tower over the valley and on strategic points villages protected by fortified castles of cream and salmon seem carved from the prehistoric stone.

We continued on past La Roque-Gageac a single line of houses that are trapped between the rock and the river, it's another 'Plus Beau Village' that was one of the major port of the Upper Dordogne. We crossed the river and headed up to the Bastide town of Domme. Bastides are French Medieval Fortified Towns, usually built with a square plan. Domme differs slightly in that it has a trapezoid shape due to the ridge top terrain. It is another 'Plus Beau Village' that is virtually intact. It is a beautiful town but its claim to fame is that the Knights Templar were imprisoned here during their trial. It has had a turbulent history, alternatively being held by French, English then French again, then being Catholic, Protestant then Catholic again. All this - 'Its' Mine, No Its' Mine, No It's' Not Its' Mine' - ended in the 17th century and the place declined, which has ensured it survived pretty much intact in its Medieval form until now.

Our last stop along the Dordogne was the regional centre Sarlat-la-Canéda. This is not a 'Plus Beau Village' but it probably should be. History has totally bypassed this 14th century town and it is a pleasure wandering around the largely traffic free streets. This is the centre for Fois Gras and Dordogne wines. The narrow streets seem to have 'cave à vin' and 'degustation' signs hanging outside every other shop front. We bought some of the local fare as a present for Dal and Renata from a little shop run by an Aussie. His mum is French and he has dual citizenship. It was nice to hear a familiar voice.

The weather was turning fowl and we decided to head south and find some sunshine.