A Day in Roman Tarragona

19/11/18 – 20/11/18

Tarragona is not all about ancient Rome, but the industrial port city on the shores of the Meditteranean was the earliest Roman city founded on the Iberian peninsular, so part of the draw for us were the Roman remains (affectionately known as ‘old sh*t’ by Paul) dotted around the city.

Our first Roman site was slightly outside the city, an impressively intact (and impressively free) aqueduct that hides in a park a few kilometres from Tarragona’s centre. We stopped here on the afternoon of our visit to Poblet, taking a stroll amongst the scrubby pines that are so typical of Spain’s coastal areas and wandering across and under the aqueduct. It’s a fine way to spend a couple of hours and if we both had working bikes we could have cycled from here into Tarragona city itself along a pedestrian/cycle track.

The aqueduct spans a dry valley
At either end of the aqueduct you can follow the original channels carved into the rocks before they disappear into the undergrowth or eroded away

We had looked at some reviews of Tarragona’s motorhome parking spots and had dismissed them on the basis of reports of robberies and people being moved on. In hindsight we probably needn’t have worried at this time of year, but feeling a little cautious we decided to stay outside of Tarragona and use public transport.

Our chosen parking spot was in the town of La Selva del Camp where there is a modern parking area with services and free electricity. Oddly it doesn’t have drinking water, but this is being remedied – a tradesman and a local government employee (or so we judge by their sign written transport) were discussing the best possible site for the tap while we were there, we asked in our broken Spanish when drinking water would be available and the answer was ‘when you next visit’. It was the busiest motorhome spot we had been on to date with multiple nationalities parked up and all of the spaces taken by the time the final van turned up that evening (they doubled up with their friends on one of the generous parking spots). We spent the evening wandering the town and sussing out the time it would take to walk to the train station. It was back to Bertie for tea, after we’d visited a couple of local shops for some fresh veg and bread. We still haven’t got to grips with the late dining arrangements in Spain and so if we eat out it’s usually at lunch time.

The following morning we were down at the station with the commuters, I was a bit nervous as we didn’t have anywhere to purchase tickets, but as soon as we were on board it was evident that it was perfectly normal to buy tickets on the train. The conductor spoke Catalan to us and then switched to English which somewhat undermined my attempt to speak Spanish, but I did try. It’s not the speaking that foxes me so much as understanding the responses.

Tarragona is highly industrialised and our train journey took us past the petrochemical factories that sit behind the port, where smoke belched into the sky and a bright flame burned at the top of a chimney. Starlings queued along the wires and fences in their thousands silhouetted against the dull sky. It all looked a bit post apocalyptic.

The train arrived into Tarragona station without any Mad Max style mishaps and we were ready to start our wandering around the sights of the city. We walked up to the amphitheatre first, not much is left of the ancient Roman site, a few arches and terraced seating – some built and some cut into the natural rock embankment. Although you can see most of it from the outside we had decided we would pick up the MHT (Museu d’Historia de Tarragona) ticket that would provide access to Tarragona’s main Roman sites as well as a few other places. It was only €7.40 each which seemed a small price to pay.

View from the Balcony of Europe
The remains of the amphitheatre – the remains of a church is slap bang in the centre of it. You can also see the seats carved into the cliff on the far side.

We wandered around, using a tourist map provided by the amphitheatre to help spot bits of Tarragona’s past dotted around the city, a bit of a wall here, some arches and colonnades there. In fact that was one of the most interesting aspects of the city, the way that you can see how the city built up around and on top of it’s historical buildings, using them for building materials (the amphitheatre) and for refuse and drains (the long vaults of the circus). With the ticket we visited the Muralles – the Roman walls, later developed as defences against cannons – the Praetorium – which was repurposed as Medieval castle and has amazing views over the city – the Circus – where chariot races were held by the Romans and now partially hidden under 18th and 19th century houses. There was an excellent short animation in the vaults of the Circus, showing the location of the Roman buildings and the way the layers of the town had built up over the top.

The Praetorium with it’s later gothic additions
Great views over the city from the top of the Praetorium building
View of one corner of the Roman Circus
Remains of the Roman Forum in one of the town squares
City walls with many layers. The really large stones at the bottom are Early Roman, followed by later Roman, medieval and 17th century additions
The defensive cannons were made in Scotland. They were used as mooring points for ships in the port before being recovered for display.
The long galleries of the Circus are mostly incorporated in and under later buildings. They were used for refuse and drainage before being cleared out by archaeologists (nice job!)

For a bit of something different we visited the free Modern Art museum which had an interesting collection of works by Julio Antonio, of importance to the city because he created a monument to the survivors of the Siege of 1811, a particularly horrific episode in the Peninsular wars. The final sculpture was controversial because of it’s classical nature (ie naked bodies) and it took some time before it was finally installed in the location it was intended for.

As well as the ancient stuff we wandered around the more modern areas where the streets are wide and clean. A statue of a ‘Castell’ stands on one of the main streets. Building human castles is something that Tarragona has taken to such extremes that it has UNESCO recognition. If you visit in the summer you can watch teams practicing in the lead up to the championships in October.

There is obviously a lot of development going on along the seafront to improve the pedestrian access and we wandered out to the Punta del Miracle to take a look at the beaches. This is also where one of the motorhome parking spots is and it looked perfectly safe and pretty busy.

Tarragona was great for a varied day in a small, industrious, city. We were tired but satisfied when we got back on our train to La Selva. The weather had warmed during the afternoon and heavy clouds were building over the hills. By the time we got back to the van it was a muggy moody twilight and before long we started to hear rumbles in the distance. The thunder and lightening storm that followed was pretty impressive, most people in the parking spot were in their vans, but we stood outside, joined by a couple of other Brits and watching the light show. Until the first fat raindrops started to fall and then we all raced inside again. 

 

 

Leaving the Mountains and Poblet Monastery

18/11/18 – 19/11/18

We woke up to a dreary morning at La Pobla de Segur and decided to move on rather than stay and look around the area. As the motorhome area is next to a park we had a quick leg stretcher before we left, joining local dog walkers taking in views over the large lake and across to the hills beyond.  Although we had left the main mountain ranges of the Pyrenees the terrain is still mostly hills and ridges and quite dramatic.

While we had breakfast we triggered the free electricity again to give all of our devices a final charge. There are two electricity points on the service tower and they are free, but they have to be triggered every hour as they are still on the same timer that would normally be triggered by a coin or jeton.

Our drive took us south east, we were heading towards Tarragona, our first touch on the coast. With the weather so dull we thought we might get there in one journey, but I took the opportunity of a long easily navigated drive to do some research and decided we should stop at Poblet monastery on the way. Before we got there though we passed through the Serra del Montsec and were taken aback by the dramatic limestone cliffs and the gorge of the Noguera Palleresa river. We stopped for another leg stretch and a gawp at the rock strata, caves and cliffs. The highest mountain here is 1676m, higher than anything in the UK, and yet I had never heard of it until we got here. Spain has got so many mountains and I feel a little guilty that I only know about the Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada. As a comparison the average height above sea level of Spain is 660m, compared to the UK at 162m so it’s a pretty hilly country. We made a note to come back here some time in the future and do a tour of Spain’s less well known mountain areas.

Dramatic gorge along the Noguera Palleresa
Immense cliffs in the Serra del Montsec

 After our stop we continued following the river towards Lleida, the views were great and it wasn’t a difficult drive. Lleida was a point where we could fill up with fuel and pick up some supermarket goods before we continued to Poblet. It was also the point where we suddenly found ourselves out of the mountains and into agricultural Spain, surrounded by olive groves and almond orchards. 

Poblet monastery has a large car park down some good but not overly wide roads in a very peaceful location amongst vineyards. Peaceful so long as you are immune to the sound of the bells regular chiming. They allow overnighting and we decided to spend the night and visit in the morning. If we had thought it through we would have gone to the ticket office that evening, but we didn’t realise that entry was on a timed basis and ended up having to wait nearly an hour. You have to go in and leave (they lock the gates) with a tour group, although you don’t have to actually follow the tour leader once you are inside. They didn’t have any English tours running while we were there so we payed our 8 euros (it’s 10 euros with a tour guide) and were let in with the Catalan tour. We had a handy booklet in English so that we could work out what we were looking at. Although we didn’t stay with the guide, he was a very proficient English speaker and was quite happy to answer questions when we were let out at the end of our visit.

The monastery itself is a UNESCO world heritage site. A large complex of austere stone buildings around a large church and beautiful cloisters. Alongside the original 12th century buildings and later medieval additions there are a number of modern buildings including a guesthouse. Despite being very obviously modern they blend quite well with the ancient complex. 

The outer courtyard, anyone can get access to these areas

There was a gardener in the cloisters while we were there, creating beautiful herby scents as he weeded and pruned.  

Cloisters and fountain
From the (unrestored) upper cloister you can get closer views of the towers

The church may be best known as the resting place for a number of medieval kings and queens of Spain and the tombs are quite splendid.

Amazing alterpiece
Some of the tombs of the kings and queens of Aragon

Possibly more interesting is it’s history. It was originally founded by Cistercian monks after the Moors were conquered in this part of Spain. It is said, although it was almost certainly propaganda from the supporters of the confiscation of monastic property, that the monastery became highly corrupt, only interested in increasing it’s wealth and luxury. Whatever the truth, after the Spanish dissolution of the monasteries it was abandoned, ransacked, fell into disrepair and plundered for stone by local people. It was only in 1940 that a group of Cistercian monks from Italy returned to Poblet and began the process of restoring the monastery, reversing the decline of the buildings and extending it to provide modern services. The work continues and a small community of monks live here, seen in  occasional glimpses as we took our tour. 

We wandered around the inner areas, taking in the calm beauty of the spaces until the tour group were finished, the gates were unlocked and we were allowed back out.

 

Heading Into Spain: Gothic Bridges and Pyrenean Chamois

29/10/18 – 30/10/18

We weren’t really sure what to expect from the Spanish Pyrenees. The French side of the mountains seems much more talked about in the motorhoming world, but people are generally quiet about the southern side. So we left our campsite on the coast and made our way back towards the snow dusted mountains with very little in the way of expectation. We knew there were mountains, we knew there were walks and we knew there was motorhome parking. But we didn’t have the enthusiastic input of fellow travellers to bring the area to life. 

Our route took us over the Col d’Ares on the border between France and Spain. At first the road followed the valley taking us past farms and vineyards, then it rose gradually up to the pass. The snow that had fallen while we’d been hiding in the campsite made the landscape of the pass almost monochrome. Grey skies, dark trees and white fields stirred a strange excitement in us as we contemplated walking in the snowy mountains.

Our first overnight stop was in the town of Camprodon, liberally decorated with the yellow ribbons supporting Catalan independence. The motorhome parking here was in an oddly circular parking area where the signs, according to google translate, proclaimed that we should park like barrels. The weather had turned a bit grim and grey in the afternoon but we still enjoyed a walk around the town, taking in the ‘Pont Nou’, a gothic arched bridge that delighted me with it’s steep cobbled span over the rushing river Ter.

The Pont Nou, originally built in the 12th century
The town runs alongside the river Ter
Looking across the town from our parking area

The following day the weather was improving and we decided to head up the Camprodon valley as far as possible, we drove past the various villages of the valley with their attractive stone built buildings, some ancient and some modern but all conforming to an attractive standard.

At the head of the valley is the Vallter 2000 ski area, but we were still a few hundred meters short of it’s altitude when the road became impassable (to us anyway) with a layer of icy snow.

Turning spot on the road to Vallter 2000

We turned around slowly and carefully before heading back down the road a short way to a corner where we had spotted an information board and signposts for walking trails. There was enough room for us to park up off the road and point Bertie’s solar panels roughly south. We weren’t going to stay the night but we wanted our batteries to be as charged as possible.

A quick look on the map and wikiloc found that a couple of paths, including the GR11, set off from here and could be joined in a circular walk. Our chances of completing the circular route were pretty small given the amount of snow lying on the ground but we decided to follow it as far as we could manage.

So we set off, initially up the GR11 until we turned left towards the river. We hadn’t realised that we would need to ford the river, expecting either a bridge or a stepping stone crossing, so we were a bit nonplussed when we found a raging torrent that seemed to offer no safe passage. We wandered up and down a few times, looking for the most obvious way across. Eventually we decided on a crossing slightly downstream of what must be the usual point, the river split into a couple of shallower streams which reduced it’s flow and made us much more comfortable with the crossing.

Beautiful icicles adorning the trees over the river
River crossing point, we were glad we had walking poles to aid our balance

After this we followed a path that roughly ran along the bank of the river through trees laden with snow. It wasn’t easy to stay on track, with plenty of snow on the ground covering the obvious signs of the path. Luckily we could use the GPS on our phones along with the wikiloc route to ensure we were heading in the right direction. 

After about 3km the route left the woodland and brought us out on the open mountain where the valley opened out. We sat here and drank our flasks of hot drinks, very welcome in the cool weather. As our eyes roved around the views of the valley we realised that there was a herd of animals on the grass above us. These were Pyrenean Chamois, known as Isards, small deer (well ok, actually they are ‘goat antelopes’) with short backwards curving horns. As we continued our ascent we watched them browsing on the grass, occasionally starting and dashing off for reasons we couldn’t make out.

Isards – not the best picture!

It didn’t take long before we had to turn around. The increasingly strong wind had blown the snow into deep drifts that blocked our way. After slogging through one of these drifts, up to our knees, we decided that it wouldn’t be sensible to continue and so we turned and retraced our steps. The return route was much quicker being downhill but also because we didn’t have any route finding difficulties. When we reached the river it proved embarrassingly easy to ford in this direction.

Snowy drifts
Increasing amounts of snow

That afternoon we moved to a parking spot in Sant Joan de les Abadesses, it took a couple of manoeuvres to make the sharp turn into the car park, but it was worth it for it’s tidy motorhome services and spotlessly clean public toilet. We still had plenty of time left to explore the tiny medieval town which had yet another gothic bridge as well as the remains of medieval walls and the monastery that had given the town it’s name.

The gothic arches of the bridge – this one much more heavily restored.
Doorway from the church of St Pol

Tourist Attractions at Villefranche de Confluent

26/10/18

With aching legs from our previous days drive we decided that this should be a day of sightseeing. We settled on Villefranche de Confluent as our destination as it had a selection of interesting looking tourist attractions, it was also the bottom station for the Train Jaune although we decided that we would save that for a future visit in the summer when we could try to get a seat in one of the open topped carriages.

With that destination in mind we actually drove a little way past the town to visit the Grottes des Grandes Canalettes, a tourist cave complex that appealed as we hadn’t visited any caves since Portugal last year. There was motorhome parking here, as part of the extensive parking for the caves, somewhere we thought about staying but decided against in the end.

We payed our €10 each to get into the caves, rather an expense for us, and proceeded through the tourist tat section of shopping and café into the caves themselves. The entrance way was not very dramatic and we looked at each other as if to say ‘what have we just spent our money on’. The tunnel showed the evidence of drilling by whoever had opened it up for tourists and was just rather drab brown rock. Soon, though, we were into spectacular large chambers with all sorts of formations. Unlike many caves we didn’t have a guided tour but were left to our own devices to explore the caves and read information boards, this was a blessing as it was the French school holidays and children were running around having a great time with the UV torches they had been given. We could let them get ahead of us and then take in the surroundings in peace and quiet. It must have been great for the kids too, not having to be quiet and listen to a tour guide, it definitely reduced the whinge factor.

It took us just over an hour to get our fill of the caves, as you exit there is a bit about the water cycle and the history of the caves, including the sad tale of a cave diver who died during exploration (one of THE most risky hobbies) but unfortunately it’s all in French, unlike the information boards in the caves themselves.

After our visit to the caves we lazily drove down to the walled town, using the paid parking area at the western end of the town. The parking costs weren’t extravagant so we were happy to pay up and wander into the town to take a look around.

Looking into the towns medieval streets

Paul declined a visit to Fort Liberia which perches on the cliffs above the town, he said his legs were aching far too much to tackle the ‘thousand steps’, and I wasn’t willing to pay for the 4×4 to ferry us up there. So we contented ourselves with a walk around the fortifications (4 euros each). These fortifications are one of the reasons that Villefranche de Confluent is a UNESCO world heritage site. Originally built in between the 11th and 13th century they were improved by the famous military engineer Vauban in the 17th century. Although Vauban designed defensive improvements for hundreds of French citadels, it is the 12 in this contested area of Catalonia that make up the UNESCO world heritage listing.

Inside the covered walls

We wandered around the fortifications, taking in the remaining medieval tower, the covered fortifications and occasional views of the rooftops. Because the fortifications are covered, not that high and set in the valley you don’t get far reaching views, I expect those are to be found at the top of those thousand steps. Nevertheless it was an interesting perambulation, helped by the English language information sheet we were provided at the ticket office. 

More views of the citadel
View into the citadel
One of the many fortified towers along the city walls

After getting our fill of the pleasant and very tourist oriented town we returned to Bertie and decided to move on. The weather was due to turn and we decided to wait out the rain and snow down by the coast. That afternoon we did a bit of grocery shopping and then settled into motorhome parking near Ille-sur-Tet. The parking was for another tourist attraction – the gorges of Les Orgues – but by the time we turned up the rain was falling and we didn’t have any desire to get out for a look.

Wobbly Bridges and Historic Paths in the Carança Gorge

24/10/18 – 25/10/18

We left Les Angles behind and continued south and east along the N116. This road is wide and well constructed and makes sickening large swooping turns. The tables were turned from our gorge drive a couple of days ago. Paul was thoroughly enjoying himself on the wide bends whereas I was holding on tight on the turns and unable to do anything but look ahead. The road follows the valley of the river ‘La Têt’ as does the rail line for the well known Train Jaune, a canary yellow tourist train that runs up the valley and has open topped carriages in the warmer months. In the earlier stages the road is high above the river and the rail line can be seen below, further downhill the train crosses on viaducts above the road. 

We had considered a number of places along here to stop. The area is peppered with forts, built during the period when the area was hotly contested borderland. We drove past the citadel at Mont-Louis in two minds whether to stop, but the weather was forecast to be cold and we decided to go a little lower for the opportunity to have a warmer night’s sleep.

We decided that the motorhome parking at Thues-entre-Valls would be our destination, on the map we could see a few options for walking routes and the parking had good reviews. We indicated to turn right and immediately saw a sign for a 3.5 tonne limit on the bridge, so Paul pulled back out before committing to turning and we continued a couple of hundred meters to the parking area on the main road. A discussion ensued, should we stay parked on the side of the road, ignore the weight limit or proceed onwards to another parking spot. In the end we decided to ignore the weight limit, whether we were sensible to do so I don’t know but we had observed a couple of weighty trucks driving across the bridge while we were deliberating.

The drive to the parking was a test of our nerve, across the bridge with the weight limit and then steeply up through the village, following the signs for parking through narrowish streets. We didn’t meet anyone coming in the opposite direction and our short drive finally rewarded us with the entrance to the car park and clear signage for the motorhome parking. The parking here has services and is €9 for the first 24 hours and €5 for each subsequent 24 hours, you take a ticket on entry and then have to pay at the machine (cash only) before leaving. We parked up in the level motorhome area under chestnut trees and breathed a sigh of relief, we’d made it!

Parked in dappled shade under the chestnut trees

By this time it was only early afternoon, but the sunny weather and sheltered position tempted us to relax outside the van rather than do anything energetic. We watched the yellow train go past a couple of times, full of holiday makers enjoying the scenery and waving from the windows. The train stops here (on request) and is another good reason for choosing this parking spot if you aren’t inclined to long walks. When we got bored we collected fat ripe chestnuts and took a wander down to the notice boards and café/kiosk to see what walks we fancied doing. We even got the BBQ out for a change although by tea time it was cooling down rapidly and so we ate inside.

The following morning we set out to walk the Carança gorge. We knew this walk was going to be exciting and exposed because of the many warning signs at the entrance to the gorge. Little did we realise just how exciting it would be and that we were at the start of one of our favourite walks in the French Pyrenees.

Entering the Gorge de Caranca

The entrance to the gorge is through an archway carved through the rock under the railway line and next to the river. The path starts quite gently, a part concrete and part rock path alongside the gorge leading to a concrete bridge where you can cross and walk up the other side of the gorge, up into the hills, or back via a hilly route to the car park. We were not crossing the bridge but continuing onwards, staying on the same side of the river and following the path as it tracked uphill becoming more rocky and exposed and then back downhill again to rejoin the river. Along the way we could see the path along the other side of the gorge, a corniche dug into the rock and realised that we were going to miss out on this spectacular section of the walk. If you are going to do the long loop like we did, I would recommend crossing the river at the first concrete bridge and proceeding along the corniche for maximum excitement, rather than the Roc de Madrieu route.

Rocky pathways along the Roc de la Madrieu side of the gorge
Pathway cut through the rocks
The corniche on the opposite side of the gorge

We reached the next bridge across the gorge about an hour from the start, this was a metal walkway with a single rope hand rail. It wasn’t that exposed but it was a taste of things to come. This is also the point at which we could have done the shorter 8km loop, by crossing this bridge and turning right we would have found the route back along the corniche to the concrete bridge and our start point.

But we weren’t heading back, we were pressing on across the bridge and further into the gorge. The path now followed the river closely, moving from one side to the other and using a selection of suspension bridges, walkways and ladders to navigate the sheer sides of the gorge. At every point there was at least a single rope handrail – the suspension bridges were very wobbly but at least had handrails on each side to help keep your balance. I let my darling husband go first across most of these obstacles as he had a habit of shaking the bridges if I went first! On the map this path was marked as ‘Sentier sur passerelles’ which interpreted as trail on gateways – I suppose the walkways were a bit like gates, laid on their sides and attached to sheer rock faces. At least I will know what this really means if I encounter it again.

Wobbly bridges
Walkways above the river
Climbing ladders

We really enjoyed this unexpected but adrenaline fuelled section of the walk. If you’ve ever done Via Ferrata this was like the very easiest of Via Ferrata without any safety equipment. It’s no surprise that dogs are not allowed on this walk, and I would caution against bringing small children this far unless you are very confident in their ability.

After the passerelles the path resumed it’s rocky course along and above the river gorge. Beautiful in it’s own right but feeling rather tame following the more adventurous section. At one point a small stone bridge and pathway seems incongruously placed in the middle of nowhere, but historically the river was used to transport logs down from the forests to the village sawmills and the stone path would have joined up with wooden walkways where the passerelles are now.

After about 10k and three and a half hours we reached a signpost. Twenty minutes further on would have taken us to the refuge but we were turning right and heading back along the Cami Ramader, a Catalan name meaning Farmer’s Way. This cattle tracked path led back towards our parking spot but much higher up the side of the valley. Along the way we found traces of the original farming communities who bought their livestock up to the high and steep pastures above the river. A small hamlet of ruined dry stone huts remain where once whole families would have migrated in the summer. The steep ground has been terraced by many generations of herders to create flat grassy areas held back by stone walls. It is amazing what humans will do to try to eke out a living in areas that seem inhospitable.

Pathways around the rock pinnacles
Dry stone huts of the high pastures

The path stays high for some time here, winding up and down between stone pinnacles – the ‘Campanilles’ mentioned on the map – and providing fantastic views across to the hills on the other side of the gorge. We started to get apprehensive about the downhill section as we were still so high up, and when we left the deciduous woodlands and entered the pine forests the path started it’s downhill trajectory and we started to feel the strain on our calves. Beside the path were what looked like metal bathtubs – evidence of the charcoal burning that once took place here. 

Looking back down at our original path
Autumn was here – beautiful colours on the hills

This path took us eventually to a junction where we could have turned right onto the corniche, but instead continued downhill along a section of 14 switchbacks to the original concrete bridge. This section of path had been shored up using stone walls again, improved at the same time as the creation of the corniche by the SNCF engineers who built the railway.

It had been a long walk, but an incredibly beautiful and exciting one. We will be coming back at some point to walk the corniche and explore other aspects of this historically interesting area. For now we took our aching legs back to Bertie and decided to stay another night in these beautiful surroundings. 

Walking the Gorge de Carança and Cami Ramader
  • Distance: 21.8 km
  • Total Elevation: 1604 m
  • Time taken: 7hrs 05mins
  • Type of Route: Difficult – long and with significant exposure
  • Further Information: IGN Carte de Randonnees Pyrenees 8

Carcassonne, Following the Floods

21/10/18 – 22/10/18

We nursed a mild hangover on Sunday morning, relaxing in the Lagbruguiere aire until Paul felt fit to drive. We needed to make our way back to the Pyrenees, this time to the  Pyrenees-Orientales, the easiest route would be following the Aude river south, but only a week previously there had been severe flooding along the Aude and we weren’t sure whether the roads were back open again. A bit of online research didn’t help us so we stuck with our original plan, hoping that any diversions would be clearly marked.

One of the things I find difficult to get my head around is the fact that the Aude river flows south to north. For someone who has mostly lived in the south of the UK this feels unnatural. As it drops out of the Pyrenees it carves gorges and gathers tributary mountain streams to contribute to it’s power. Just north of Carcassonne it bends east towards Narbonne, it’s Mediterranean destination.  

So we drove southwards with Carcassonne our destination. We stopped for lunch at Lac des Montagnes, a very attractive spot high in the hills. There was motorhome parking here and we were severely tempted to stop for the rest of the day, but after a walk around the lake we decided to move onwards.

Calm waters at the Lac des Montagnes

It was at Cuxac-Cabardes that we encountered diversion signs, sending us westwards off of the main road and via the very attractive village of Montolieu. Unfortunately I was too busy worrying about the signage to take pictures and enjoy more of this ‘Village of Books’, there were 3.5 tonne limits, one-way systems, narrow roads and bridges that made us slightly stressed as we tried to navigate our way through without ending up in some cobbled back street. We breathed a sigh of relief as we escaped out of the village, having ignored a 3.5 tonne limit in order to stay on the main thoroughfare.

We later realised that the reason for the diversion was the badly flooded village of Villegailhenc where sadly people had been killed by the highest floods since 1891. 

We approached Carcassonne intending to use the aire outside the municipal campsite, but I had read a recent review that it had been closed due to the flooding, and as we approached it we could see it was barriered and taped off. It looked unaffected by the flooding but I could understand the caution as it is on level ground near the river. We drove around the southern part of Carcassonne a couple of times looking for an alternative parking spot, but on-street parking doesn’t appeal to us so we ended up driving slightly out of the city to the Lac de Cavayère where there is parking (no services) near the lake and park. We had another little leg stretching walk and then settled down for a blessedly alcohol free evening.

If we both had working bikes we could have cycled a long the cycle track from here back to Carcassonne, but Paul’s bike was still out of action. So the following morning we decided to drive to the bus and motorhome parking on the outskirts of the medieval city of Carcassonne. You can park overnight for free (between 10pm and 8am) but at other times you have to pay, the first half hour is free, but then the price goes up in 30 minute increments. You take a ticket on entry and then pay before you leave at a machine that takes credit cards as well as cash. I can see why they charge for parking as entry to the city is necessarily free, so this is their way to recoup the cost of maintenance of the ancient and heavily visited city.

Walking into Europe’s larges walled city

We walked around the city, first of all taking the route between the two sets of city walls, an area known as ‘le lices’ where medieval knights would have trained. Parts of this area were blocked off, so we moved into the centre of the ‘cité’ where tourism abounds; restaurants, hotels and gift shops make up the majority of the buildings here. I wonder if anyone actually lives in the cité. We popped into the basilica to listen to the beautiful choral music that was being performed (‘you can buy a CD as you leave’) and generally wondered at the many towers and turrets of the citadel. It’s amazing to think that this city was once so derelict that it was recommended to be  demolished. It’s now so perfectly restored that it feels almost sterile and Disney-esque.

Towers and turrets
Art installation on the walls of the city – they were peeling off the yellow while we were there
City streets

However as we wandered around we found evidence that all was not well, the recent massive amount of rainfall had caused the collapse of a couple of small walls inside the cite, and had badly eroded some of the gravel paths through le lices and out to the town below. As we walked around the outside of the city, taking in views of the walls from below, we could see that parts of the mound that supports the city had been washed away. Workmen were busy shoring things up and making good. This is where our parking fees go.

Collapsed wall inside the city

 

Walls and Water Lilies

14/09/18

We had arrived in France at dusk, and made our way to the aire in Montreuil. We don’t normally drive in the dark and the combination of mostly unlit roads with the moving lights of the wind turbines made for a strangely eerie journey. We were glad to get to the busy aire and negotiate into a spot in the overflow parking area.

On waking the following morning everything seemed much more normal. The aire was packed with French vans, their occupants stopping to chat to each other as they made their way into town or to the service point. We exchanged a bonjour or two as we popped out for a stroll around the towns walls before heading into the main square to set ourselves up with some cash. As well as the impressively high town walls (very wide but with no railings to stop you from falling into the allotments below) built after an attack by the Hapsburgs, the town was the British GHQ in the first world war. 

The brick walls of Montreuil were constructed in 1537 – you can walk around the wide tops of the walls

After stretching our legs we returned to the van and moved on. Our destination was Giverny, a small town that now is a busy tourist attraction, being the location of Monet’s house and gardens and a museum of impressionism. Our aim was to get here in early afternoon so that we could visit Monet’s gardens before they closed at 6. We had no desire to battle the Saturday morning crowds, and a tip from Trip Advisor had suggested that a late afternoon visit would be far less crowded than an early start.

The tip seemed to be accurate. When we arrived just before 4 there was only one coach in the car park, when we opened our curtains the following morning there were already half a dozen coaches parked up and more were arriving.

Monet moved to Giverny in 1883 when he was in his 40s. Initially he rented the house and lands. As he started to sell more paintings he amassed enough wealth to buy the house, lands and additional water meadows on the other side of the main road. He spent a lot of time on the gardens, becoming a keen gardener (with help of course). The gardens have an English cottage garden feel with packed borders surrounding grassy lawns. Although they are small they are exuberantly vibrant with colour. Dahlias, arranged according to their colour, were the star of our visit and the long nasturtium tunnel was a stunning focal point even if it had suffered from the hot dry weather. These underrated flowers trailed across the paths and up the arched supports in a riot of fiery tones and green leaf.

The rose and nasturtium arch leads through the centre of the garden to the house

To get to the water meadows, the famous Japanese bridge and the lake of water lilies you have to use a tunnel under the road. This area had a peaceful atmosphere despite being busy. You can see why Monet painted the scene here many times with so many perspectives. The light shines through the leaves of the willows and the tall bamboo creating dappled reflections on the water. Huge carp swim lazily in the lake between white and pink lilies. 

The lake of water lilies is like an ideal of impressionism

Monet’s house has been restored with the help of photographs from the time when Monet lived there. His studio walls are covered with reproductions of his paintings and the other walls of the house hold his large collection of Japanese prints. His bedroom has large windows that provide fantastic views over the garden, a comfortable space that would be difficult to leave. However the two tone yellow dining room, followed by the busily blue kitchen was a bit much for my eyes.

The yellow dining room may have put me off my dinner!

The cost of visiting Monet’s house and gardens is under 10 euros each and two or three hours is enough time to take it all in. It’s a shame that you cant wander all of the paths through the gardens, but with the volume of visitors you can understand why some areas are restricted. For motorhomers the bonus is a large free car park (no services) where a 24 hour stay is permitted.

My own garden would never have been a patch on this – but oh how I miss it! 

Another 40th Birthday

31/07/18 – 07/08/18

We still had a few mundane activities to take care of, a trip to the dentist for both of us (no work required – phew), a trip to the optician for me and a much needed trip to the Chiropractor for Paul who has been suffering with his back and shoulders since our skiing trip (where the majority of the injury was gained by falling over on the way to the shower block). Needless to say these appointments were spread out over a number of days because it was impossible to line them up and get them over and done with. 

Bertie had new wipers, a fuel filter change and a bit of a dig around to find out what was causing the fan to make a strange noise – turns out we had a leaf stuck in the fan, that was a nice easy one.

As a welcome counterpoint to the humdrum, this week’s special occasion was Carrie’s 40th birthday. A fabulous night out was had by all, starting with bowling and ending in a club. How did that happen? – I repeatedly tell people I have no inclination to ever go in a club again. I blame it on the under 40s – you know who you are – in the group who haven’t yet reached the point where hangovers last for 48 hours, we felt rather jaded on the Sunday and almost back to normal on the Monday.

Birthday celebrations

What else happened over this time? We had a lovely evening cycling to Budleigh Salterton beach where I felt very smug because I also went for a run while Paul fished for our supper. (this was obviously before our night out!) He caught enough mackerel to make dinner for us and the Eynon family the following evening too.  

Beautiful Budleigh
Mackerel supper

We also had a BBQ lunch and visit to A la Ronde with Kayleigh. A la Ronde is a national trust property in Exmouth, a 16 sided house built by cousins Mary and Jane Parminter. It’s an interesting house with amazing views and a gallery lined with intricate designs made from shells and other natural materials. It’s so delicate that it can only be viewed from afar or by camera.

A la Ronde and spectacular views across the Exe estuary

 

 

  

A Visit to Cragside and a Long Journey South

29/07/18 -30/07/18

For our final weekend in Northumberland we moved again, this time to a newly opened Temporary Holiday Site in Alnwick. This THS was quite different to the one at Beadnell, it was located at the Alnwick Rugby Club so was quite close to town and was much quieter than the one at Beadnell. I may have put my foot in it by mentioning that we’d come from Beadnell as the warden was quite uppity with us, she muttered that Beadnell THS crammed people far too close together, but we actually ended up closer to our neighbours here. Anyway, despite my faux pas, we liked it here. We had the use of the rugby club changing rooms for showers and toilets, the ladies were spotlessly clean but Paul said that the gents were a little more run down, probably an indication of the proportion of male to female rugby players. It was also possible to get electric hook up if needed.

We had a day out at Cragside, a National Trust property about 10 miles away. The bus to Cragside left from the main road near the rugby club, it doesn’t run very frequently but had services that allowed us to get there at 11 and leave at 4 which was plenty of time. The bus driver asked us what time we were planning to come back so he could look out for us, the staff on duty at the entrance to Cragside told us that the bus had occasionally missed people who were waiting at the stop and one kind gentleman said that if we missed the bus back he could give us a lift to Alnwick, but we didn’t have any issues in the end. The bus was incredibly quiet with only one other passenger on each journey. You can see why services get reduced.

The Mock Tudor exterior of Cragside

Cragside was a great day out, a really interesting house and grounds. The house was built by Victorian engineer and industrialist William Armstrong, who was later given the title of Baron Armstrong. It was the first home to be lit by hydro electricity and William Armstrong was a true ‘early adopter’ installing an hydraulic lift, dumb waiter, dishwasher and other electrically operated gizmos as well as the famed lighting. Around the grounds you can see the way in which he harnessed the water to power the house and later added steam engines to supplement the power. I thought the house externally was a rather ugly Victorian mock Tudor manse, but inside there was a wealth of over the top Victorian details, massive marble inglenook fireplaces and substantial amounts of arts and crafts wood panelling, tiling and stained glass. It was all rather ostentatious, but this was offset by the interesting ‘downstairs’ rooms and the engineering details. I loved it.

The Iron Bridge over the stream at Cragside
Waterwheel
Truly enormous inglenook fireplace – the internal dimensions of the ‘nook’ are not much smaller than our van!

We spent plenty of time with Aaron and Katie over the weekend, including a visit to RAF Boulmer for Family Day. This gave us the opportunity to see how they live on base; it’s very like student accommodation with a room each, shared bathrooms but no kitchen to speak of (the expectation is that they eat in the mess). They cant wait to get into a house and I cant blame them. Sadly we had to say goodbye on the Sunday evening, but we’ll be seeing them soon when they come down for Nans 90th birthday celebrations.

We managed to drive back down to Taunton in one hit on the Monday, it was a long day but we took it easy with plenty of stops and eight hours later we were back. 

A Midsummer’s Night and Day

21/06/18

Our drive from Dover to Somerset was not a particularly long one, but by the time we got to Reading we were already shattered, mostly because of the large amount of traffic on the roads and also due to the concentration required to ensure we drove on the right (that’s left) side of the road.

While we stopped for fuel and food in Slough (it having the nearest supermarket fuel station) I had a little scout around on Searchforsites for a parking spot that wasn’t too far away. We haven’t used Searchforsites much in France or Italy, but because it’s a British website it tends to be the best for British parking spots.

I decided that we should head to a parking spot on the Ridgeway – a long distance path over the North Wessex Downs that is badged as ‘Britain’s oldest road’. The parking spot on Hackpen Hill was not very big, but after a couple of cars had left we managed to squeeze ourselves (as much as a seven meter motorhome can be squeezed) into the corner so that we didn’t feel too selfish. We also had a bit of a tidy up, something we have started to do wherever we are. We like to leave a parking spot clean because all too often motorhomes and campervans will be blamed for any rubbish that has been left behind. And of course it’s also a good thing to do.

As we wandered around the area we noticed that there were quite a lot of campervans driving around looking for parking. Paul muttered something about hippies and then we both looked at each other. Of course! It was the summer solstice and we were only a stone’s throw from Avebury.

We were parked next to the Hackpen White Horse. This is not an ancient monument, it was created in celebration of Queen Victoria’s coronation.

Only a couple of vans chose to park near us, that stone’s throw was just a bit too far from the main gathering. As we settled down for the night an older man with long grey hair knocked on our window, trying to find his way back to the gathering. As I gave him directions I looked at the unlit narrow roads and asked whether he had a torch. His laid back attitude was that he didn’t need one, but I wasn’t quite so relaxed. While I went back inside and rummaged for a spare torch (I knew we had one knocking about somewhere) he absconded. I just hope he found his way back ok.

Shortly before sunrise – an event neither of us had a particular interest in being awake for – several cars pulled up into the parking area. I listened in to the conversation as the occupants gathered. They were off for a solstice run down the ridgeway to Avebury. Very nice for them, but that meant they would probably be back in an hour or so and we’d have the sound of car doors slamming again. Such are the risks of sleeping in a parking spot, so I cant complain. I wondered if I should pull on my running shoes and join them, but it was just one of those idle thoughts and I drifted back off to sleep as the sound of their footsteps pattered away.

When we finally got out of bed we decided that we would cycle down the ridgeway to Silbury Hill and then across to Avebury, then we could make it a circular ride back to our parking spot. Along the ridgeway we cycled, through dry deep ruts that didn’t ever seem quite wide enough for our pedals. The ridgeway leads directly to The Sanctuary, an ancient wood and stone circle complex that was destroyed by farmers in the 18th century and now has the site of the sarsens and posts marked out by concrete blocks. Down at this end of the ridgeway were many campers in tents, vans, motorhomes and one horse drawn caravan. They had all obviously had a good night celebrating the solstice; some probably very serious about the rituals associated with dawning of the longest day, others more interested in the party that accompanies it. 

Silbury Hill

We took in The Sanctuary, West Kennet Longbarrow, Silbury Hill and Avebury circle and avenues. There were still some robed figures conducting rituals around the stones and a few people just chilling out in the sunshine, but the area is large and despite the date it didn’t seem at all crowded. It is an amazing and thought provoking area of ancient monuments that feels quite rural and wild despite it’s location just off the M4. There was a police presence, and private security at each of the sites, but by now this seemed to be more directed at ensuring the traffic was flowing smoothly than anything else.

Avebury Stone Circle

That afternoon we made our way to Taunton. We were going home. 

Back to the UK

20/06/18

We stayed in the motorhome aire at Bergues the night before our Ferry. The aire here has no facilities but is large and popular. It sits just outside the city walls next to a sports complex and amongst allotments where crops and cut flowers are carefully tended. Once we had determined that we could ignore the 3.5tonne limit on the approach road, which applied to the road into the town rather than the road to the aire, it was easy to find.

Bergues was an attractive Flemish town which had been significantly but sympathetically rebuilt after WWII, we had a short wander around but know that we didn’t see many of the sights. I’m sure we’ll find our way back when we are channel hopping at some point. 

Bergues walls
The Marble Gate with the remains of Saint Winoc abbey behind

We booked our return ferry with P&O because it was the cheapest we could find. At £60 for a single crossing it was half the price of the tunnel. A few scare stories had led us to anticipate a disorganised mess of a crossing, but it couldn’t have been further from the truth. Of course we have the luxury of being able to book a mid day crossing, as we aren’t trying to make as much precious time as possible for a short holiday. So after a leisurely start and a quick final supermarket stop we drove to the ferry terminal where we were swiftly ushered into the right queue for our crossing. We had time for a cuppa and a bit of van watching before we needed to board. One of the best bits of being on a campsite or in a queue of motorhomes is seeing what other people have got. We were very impressed with the pristine state of the van next to us which was a good 10 years older than Bertie. It spurred us to talking about washing Bertie, but sadly no further action has taken place on that front.

The ferry was not very busy, probably another reason for the crossing being so easy. Before we knew it we were back in the UK; having to convert back to Miles per Hour, driving on the right and limited motorhome facilities outside campsites. And Traffic! Never have we seen so many vehicles in such a small space.

Nevertheless we are happy to be back in the UK and cant wait to see everyone.  

Getting on the ferry
Views of Calais
Approaching the White Cliffs of Dover

 

 

    

Operation Dynamo

18/06/18 – 19/06/18

We rumbled along the smaller N and D roads of France towards the coast, passing by many signposts pointing to First and Second World War memorials. It is incredible to think of the events of the two wars that impacted this area of France over such a short period, the devastating history contrasts sharply with the bucolic landscape of the present day.

My knowledge of French Geography was growing daily, here I found out we were travelling through French Flanders on our way to Dunkirk (Dunkerque). Flanders was a medieval state covering this part of modern day France as well as parts of Belgium and the Netherlands. Today there are cultural, linguistic and architectural similarities across the area and many of the buildings in the countryside had a look I would have described as Dutch, but is probably Flemish.

We parked up north of Dunkirk in Bray-Dunes at a Motorhome parking spot behind the tourist information office. It was a popular spot for motorhomes, but very few other people were around and the grey weather and closed up tourist apartments made it look more like October than June. We wanted to go for a walk to find the shipwrecks left behind during the evacuation of Dunkirk. A quick check of the tide tables revealed we would need to wait until the evening, so we did a bit of housework and had an early tea before setting off to explore the dunes and the beach. The long wide sandy beach was almost empty, only a couple of kite surfers in the distance and one lonely walker striding along the edge of the sea. Although the tide was low, we could only just see the wrecks of the paddle steamers used in the WWII evacuation breaking the water. The most visible wreck was a schooner that had run aground in the 1920’s, although it had nothing to do with WWII it made an evocative sight against the silver sea and setting sun. 

The following morning we drove into Dunkirk itself and parked opposite the 1940 museum. This museum focussed on Operation Dynamo – the evacuation of British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk – and was worth spending a couple of hours exploring. It’s small but has plenty of exhibits; a short film, photographs and artifacts, some of which were found buried by the sand at Bray-Dunes where much of the British equipment had to be abandoned in favour of saving human lives. It includes exhibits about the ‘Little Ships’; the fishing boats, barges and pleasure steamers who volunteered to support the evacuation of over 300,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers. It’s one of those gutsy war time stories of triumph over adversity that gave rise to the phrase ‘Dunkirk Spirit’. While we were wandering round I couldn’t help thinking of all those soldiers, plucked from the jaws of the German advance, given a heroes welcome and then having to return to fight again, any respite only fleeting.

After our edifying visit to the museum we wandered around Dunkirk, following the harbour through modern apartments and houses with odd shapes vaguely reminiscent of upturned boats. In the harbour were many interesting ships, part of the Port Museum, including the restored paddle steamer Princess Elizabeth (now a café), the Duchesse Anne – a three-masted ship that was part of Germany’s reparations to the French after the war – and the Sandettie. I was very excited to find that the Sandettie was indeed the Light Vessel Automatic of shipping forecast fame. Little things!

Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic
The Princess Elizabeth, one of the Small Boats that supported the evacuation

Although Dunkirk suffered badly in WWII, there were a number of older buildings amongst the more modern architecture and some interesting display boards with pictures of the town before war broke out. Dunkirk is much more than just a ferry terminal and is a key part of the WWII story.

 

 

Champagne For Everyone

17/06/18

I’ve mentioned before that my French geography is not great, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I realised that we were on the edge of the Champagne area. After the initial surprise was a short flurry of excitement. I do like a bit of bubbly, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, but I would feel guilty drinking anything else while here.

We did still have to move on though, and although Troyes was a tempting destination it didn’t move us far enough. Instead we targeted Reims, a town that has a famous cathedral as well as being one of the main towns of the Champagne district.

We arrived at the municipal campsite of Val-de-Vesle on the Saturday evening. It is about 20km from Reims along a canal with a well defined cycle path. The campsite was pleasant and was good value at just over €16 although it did have one of those complex pricing structures where you pay a small amount for each component of the stay. The toilet block was spotless, even after I had dyed my hair, and trees provided dappled shade. For the first time in ages we bumped into another English couple, exchanging stories of narrow escapes from even narrower roads (most in the UK). With the campsite came an opportunity to barbeque and sit in our chairs in the sunshine, we decided to stay two nights instead of one to enjoy the opportunity.

I had a quick peek on the internet to find out what was possible on Sunday and we decided to cycle into Reims, do a champagne house tour, see the sights and have some lunch. Possibly not in that order.

Reims on a Sunday was a hushed and peaceful town, families were walking or cycling along the canal, but the town itself seemed solely the preserve of tourists. All shops were shut, so only the tourist attractions and the supporting infrastructure were open. We could easily have driven Bertie in and parked up, but it was good to get some exercise. The route went past the town of Sillery where we paused to gaze at the French cemetery and remind ourselves of the depredations of the First World War.

Sillery Cemetery

Reims cathedral was our first port of call; the ‘royal cathedral’ has been the place of coronation for all but seven of France’s monarchs. Ok, the first few monarchs, starting with Henry I in 1027, were crowned in an earlier cathedral which was destroyed by fire. But work soon started on the current gothic cathedral and since then it has remained standing, despite the Hundred Years War, the French Revolution and the First World War. Of course it has been updated over time; the First World War significantly damaged the building and there are beautiful modern stained glass windows which were installed in the 20th century to replace the windows blown out by German bombardment. Apart from the stained glass the cathedral has many statues and carvings on the tall, narrow facades and arguably the outside is more attractive than the fairly stark interior. Look out for the statues of Joan of Arc, one inside and one outside, who liberated the city and cathedral from the English.

Tall and narrow nave of Reims cathederal
Side portals with many carvings

After the cathedral we took a wander round the city centre, following a walking map provided by the tourist information centre. We visited the Saint Remi Basilica, a Gothic style building of more pleasing dimensions than the cathedral which we found exaggeratedly tall and narrow. In the city the first world war devastation provided opportunity for redevelopment and the city has quite a number of art deco buildings, including the market and the Carnegie Library. We found our attention was not captured for long though because most places were shut and the atmosphere was almost too quiet. This was a bit of a shock for two people who don’t really like busy cities, we now know that we don’t like empty cities either!

Clean Art Deco lines of the Carnegie Library
Tiles in the San Remi Basilica

We stopped for lunch before moving onto the Taittinger champagne house for a tour. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between the champagne house tours, so we picked Taittinger because it was open on a Sunday and had a very clear online booking system. The tour was quite interesting, a short film about the history of Taittinger, followed by a tour of the cellars. The building you can see above ground is quite modern and uninspiring, but underground in the cellars you are in a network that was started in Roman times as chalk quarries. The upside down funnels of the chalk excavations were then extended by Benedictine monks who were digging the crypts and cellars for their abbey. The wine and champagne houses appropriated the caves and extended them to house thousands upon thousands of bottles of champagne, all stacked neatly and nursed to maturity by patient and knowledgeable staff. The soft chalk provided many opportunities for people to leave their mark through the years and faces and names have been etched into the rock, including marks left by locals who sheltered down here in the Second World War.

A few of the champagne bottles in the caverns
Stairs to the now non-existent abbey
Graffiti on the walls

After the tour of the cellars it was back up to the bar to sample some champagne, being a cheapskate I had booked the lowest cost tour with one glass of champagne each. As Paul doesn’t like champagne I was looking forward to drinking two glasses, but in no time Paul had finished his glass, only to tell me that he still didn’t like it. What a waste! 

 

  

The Great Glass Elevator to the Alps

27/05/18

We left the large sosta in Celle Ligure on the Sunday morning, along with many other Italian vans who had been weekending there. Before we departed Paul did his good deed for the day, we had noticed that the rather old van next to us had a plastic bag and elastic band in place of a fuel filler cap. We had finally managed to replace our temporary fuel cap with a proper one (well it says water on it, but it does the job), and so Paul gave the Italian driver our temporary universal fuel cap, we got a bag of bready snacks in return. The services at Celle Ligure were both awkward and busy (if you back into the service area you end up blocking the road), so we just took the toilet cassette to be emptied and left the water for another time. We always make a point of emptying the toilet when we can. If we run out of water it’s pretty easy to find a water fountain or even buy the stuff (we have only been reduced to this in the UK), but if we cant empty the toilet it becomes an emergency.

From here we drove a pretty long way (for us) to Hône. This was our entry point to the Alps, officially taking us into the Aosta Valley where we were planning to spend a couple of weeks. At Hône there is a small and neat paid sosta next to the river. Our sat nav tried to take us through the village, but a quick reverse back across the bridge and we were back on the main road that swings under the A5. It delivered us to another bridge just down the road from the sosta. It’s a pain in the backside having to second guess the sat nav but thank goodness for our phones. It was a sosta with yet another awkward emptying area – this time there were water taps between the pitches, so taking on water was fine, but grey water and toilet waste had to be dumped in a manhole just down the road.

As we approached Hône we could see the bulk of Bard fortress above us, this 19th century fort was built on a defensive position that had been previously occupied by a medieval castle. It’s an impressive sight with ramps leading up to the three levels of the fort. At it’s base is the tiny medieval village, barely more than a street and pretty enough although we’ve seen so many medieval villages now it wouldn’t rank in the top ten. We looked at the website for the fort and found that general access to the restored fort is free, this includes use of the glass elevators that take people up the various levels. Once in the fort there are a number of exhibitions and museums that have to be paid for, but just a ride in the lifts sounded like fun.

Bard Fortress – welcome to the rock

We were tempted to leave it to the next day, but the fort is closed on Mondays so we heaved ourselves out of Bertie and followed the path to the fort – it’s only ten minutes or so to get to the entrance where we stood in a small queue waiting for the first elevator to arrive. We were crammed into this one, but there were no queues for the subsequent two elevators which allowed us to enjoy the views of the mountains without the back of other people’s heads.

The lifts to the Forte di Bard

When we got to the top we decided that the Museum of the Alps might be worth seeing. There are ticket sales points on each level of the fort so we found the one nearest the entrance to the museum and entered a world of complete sensory overload.

The museum was really interesting, and after visiting we agreed that it had been worth the money, but the first part of the exhibition is a series of video and sound installations in darkly lit rooms that are pretty surreal. I would recommend spending a few minutes reading the first couple of pages of the leaflet that is handed out before going into the museum as it helps to set the context for the sounds and images and it is too dark in the rooms to read it as you go.

Once out of this zone the museum became more standard. It had exhibits covering all sorts of aspects of the alps. Traditions, geography, nature, mountaineering, food, transport. We enjoyed the video of mounatineers using traditional clothes and methods to cross glacial terrain (rather them than me). There was a good display of images and videos showing the folk traditions of spring, including some quite disconcerting masks. And of course there was a mock up of a ‘Dahu’ the mythical animal which has two legs longer than the others to facilitate walking around mountains (it took me a few minutes to even work out what was so odd about it).

When we got out of the museum we spent a little while wandering around the fort before descending via the road. On the way back to the sosta we found a café where we could pay for our night’s stay and get our ticket. We returned to the sosta to find another British van, they had just come through the Mont Blanc tunnel and were due to leave straight away the following morning on their way to the lakes. It seems a shame to miss out the Aosta valley, but everyone has different priorities, we haven’t been to the lakes, but were looking forward to spending more time here.

The village of Bard – it pays to have a small car

That night there was a massive thunderstorm and we opened our bedroom blinds to watch the flashes of lightning. What a fantastic display. We could see that the other van had opened their curtains too, it was almost impossible to sleep through…not completely impossible though as I dropped off after half an hour.

 

 

  

A Whistle Stop Tour of Florence

23/05/18

Florence is on many people’s ‘must do’ lists for Italy. It hadn’t made it to the top of our list on the way south, when we visited Pisa and Lucca, but when we were looking for somewhere to stop on the way to the Apuan Alps we decided it was worth a look.

The reason that Florence hadn’t made it to the top of the list for us is that we aren’t great art lovers. Don’t get me wrong, a beautiful painting, a magnificent fresco, or an evocative sculpture is a joy to behold, but we’re not very good at appreciating art in bulk when the exhibits start to blend into one another.

So, as you can imagine, we weren’t desperate to visit the Uffizi. I really fancied climbing to the top of the duomo’s cupola, but you have to pre-book a time slot and when I looked the night before there were no spaces left. In the end we decided to plan a leisurely walking tour around the sights, including some ice-cream and lunch of course.

Our overnight parking in Florence was in the Scandicci district, a sosta that crammed motorhomes in as tightly as possible. Our sat nav took us on an odd route in ever decreasing circles through one-way systems to get there and we overshot the narrow entrance once. Once we were in it was well organised and plenty of information was available from the office (caravan) in the corner. For a suburb of a city the parking was remarkably quiet, the site is backed by farms so there is very little traffic noise, you might hear a whinny from the horses in the fields. One word of caution though – we arrived in late afternoon and the gates were open. The following morning we headed off at about 10 and the gates were locked – so if you are thinking of arriving in the AM be prepared. Someone will probably let you in.

We walked in from the sosta, it is a good 45 minutes into Florence’s centre. The bus runs very regularly and is easy to catch from a stop up the road – save money by buying your tickets from the tobacconist rather than on the bus. We wandered along the side of the very muddy Arno river up to the medieval Ponte Vecchio, the bridge is lined with jewellery shops on both sides so that in places you’d be hard put to recognise you were on a bridge – there is a lot of gold bling in once place. We marvelled at the highly decorated cathedral – one of the most impressive I have ever seen. We also marvelled at the queues stretching around the cathedral. It is free to enter the main building, but we decided not to wait in the queue. The Mercato Centrale was a good place to indulge our food loving selves, the ground floor was full of market traders selling meat, fish and vegetables as well as more exotic produce (I found some fish sauce which is a bonus for stir fries and thai food) and tourist merchandise. The upper floor had a selection of cafes and bars selling a wide range of drinks, meals and snacks. We admired a copy of Michelangelo’s David (there are two copies of the sculpture in the city as well as the original in one of the museums). For lunch we crossed the river and ate in a piazza in the Oltramo quarter which had a bit of a student/hipster vibe. We did, of course, eat gelato.

It would be true to say that I enjoyed myself more than Paul, who was suffering in the heat. Florence was the busiest place we have been to since Rome and the sheer volume of tourists can be off-putting, but there are plenty of official staff on hand at the main tourist sights and strangely few touts. Our preference is definitely for somewhere a bit less overwhelming and we decided we had preferred the previous day’s trip to Arezzo

 

 

 

 

 

Back in Tuscany

22/05/18

After the Monte Sibillini we were planning to head for the Apuan Alps, a small offshoot of the Apennines that sits behind the coast of northern Tuscany. It was going to be quite a drive and we wanted to break it up. Our first stop, the night we had Bertie’s brakes fixed, was a small sosta at Torrita di Siena. We sneaked into the remaining space (there were only half a dozen) alongside various nationalities and reminded ourselves of the beauty of the Tuscan countryside. Tuscany had seemed so crinkled and hilly when we first drove through on our way south, but we had become used to the drama of mountain views and now it seemed like the green hills folded themselves gently around the golden stone of the local buildings.

The sosta is on a walking and mountain biking (and horse riding if you happen to have bought your horse along) trail – the Sentiero di Vin Santo, so on the following morning we took our bikes out on the trail. Suddenly we were reminded that the pleasant folds of the countryside hid steep sided valleys. Our legs pumped as we ascended along the trail that should have ended at Montefollonico, a town on a hill, but as we got closer to the town we realised that we would have to navigate some very overgrown single track and then have an incredibly steep uphill final slog to Montefollonico. We looked at each other and decided without words that it was too hot to bother. We turned around and made a very swift return to Bertie.

It was only mid morning, so we had a look at the map to see where we could go next. Somewhere we could wander round without too much exertion in the heat. Arezzo was the perfect spot, a tourist town, but not too big. I sold it to Paul; ‘look, there are even escalators to get from the parking to the town’.

We drove to Arezzo and easily found the very large motorhome parking area. There were no services here, but still some of the spaces seemed to be permanently occupied. We lunched in Bertie before setting off for the town, a very easy and gentle uphill walk. I have seen other places that are far more in need of an escalator than Arezzo. It was such a gentle walk that we decided we would look foolish using any assistance.

The old town, within the city walls, was one of those Italian towns that was a pleasure to wander around, with narrow medieval streets and unexpected piazzas. 

The focal area is the Piazza Grande, rather unusually it slopes steeply from one side to the other, supposedly to allow the rain water to run off, although I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason for such an unusual design (but what do I know). We mooched around the shaded side of the streets and then paid a few euros each to visit the Palazzo di Fraternita dei Laici. There is an art collection here which was worth a quick look, but really we had paid our money to climb to the top of the bell tower and see the views. The tower has an interesting clock mechanism which you can watch as it strikes each quarter hour. We waited on top of the tower as thunder clouds started to gather and occasional fat spots of rain landed on us. The chiming of the bell was a bit of an anti-climax especially because it was the hour and so only one bell was in action.

Arezzo is a place that you could take some time to explore, it is just the right side of touristy, meaning that there were plenty of cafes and shops open and a bustling atmosphere, but it was not mobbed with tourists. Unlike Florence which was to be our next stop, more about that in our next blog post. 

An Unexpected Stop in Civitella del Tronto

16/05/18

North of the Gran Sasso mountains is the Monti della Laga area. The two mountainous areas form one national park but are very different in nature. The sharp limestone peaks of the Gran Sasso contrast with the more rounded sandstone peaks of the Monti dell Laga.

We were aiming for the village of Ripe where we hoped to walk the Gole del Salinello. After a supermarket stock up we headed north, taking a scenic route towards Ripe. Our route was thwarted though with 3.5T limits. The limits excluded buses so we could only conclude that there was no physical reason why larger vehicles couldn’t use the roads, but that the village didn’t want to get clogged up with trucks and big old motorhomes like Bertie. We didn’t want to cause any problems so we drove on and found somewhere to pull over so that we could revisit our options.

Our guidebook had lots of walks, but they would either mean turning back to go Ceppo, where there was a campsite, or finding our way up small roads and tracks to find their start points. Trying to work out possibilities was making our head hurt, so we looked at motorhome parking spots closer to Ripe. Maybe we could get a bus?

We ended up in Civitella del Tronto, parked on a mixed car park underneath the medieval borgo and a huge fortress. The fortress was originally commissioned in the sixteenth century by the Spanish king to guard the border between the Spanish controlled ‘Sicilian’ states of Italy and the Papal states. We enjoyed walking around the narrow streets of the town and then visiting the Fortezza itself, which is impressively situated and worth visiting for the views alone. As well as enjoying the commanding views of the surrounding mountains and plains you can explore the buildings of the fort, barracks, chapel and cisterns, large parade grounds and various passageways. At the western end of the fortress you can walk around the walls that were rebuilt after lightning struck the powder magazine that was housed at it’s far end. Our walk was accompanied by the sound of a brass band practising in the church below us.

View of the Monte della Laga
The Bell to the Fallen, presented to the town in 1970
Paul making use of the barracks facilities
Ruined buildings on the fort
The Church of St James

In the town we found many buildings had been subject to earthquake damage, but it was still a lively little place and had lots of visitors. Later that evening we were in Bertie when we heard music and fireworks from above. We would have gone to see what was going on….but it was raining quite heavily and being dry took priority.

Town square, quiet when we arrived during lunch, but busy in the early evening
Church of San Francesco
The town was built on clearly defined terraces to the south of the fort
Earthquake damage to this lovely building – note the reinforcement to the upper storey and the construction to stop any parts of the façade from falling on people.

This had been an unexpected stop, but had made up for our disappointment of not getting to Ripe. 

A City under Reconstruction

08/05/18

Between the Majella national park and our next stop in the Gran Sasso national park we decided to stop in L’Aquila.

Guidebooks have little to say about L’Aquila at the moment because it is still recovering from the earthquake of 2009. But it felt a little unfair to take it off the tourist map completely; it is the major city for the area and has a number of historic buildings. We wanted to check it out.

It also has two free sostas, we chose the one near the Porta di Napoli where the pitches are in the gaps between trees that are just wide enough apart. Although the pitches are long enough for a large van, reversing in or out with anything over 8m might be tricky. When we looked at the route we wondered if we would fit through the 17th century entrance to the city, but we got through with room to spare.

We turned up in the evening and once I’d convinced Paul that we really did need to park between the trees (he had to look on google street view to convince himself) we settled in for a quiet evening while I researched a route around the tourist sights and possible restaurants for lunch.

So far we had seen no evidence of the earthquake, but we knew that the Porta di Napoli had been one of the first attractions restored. The following morning we set off up to the Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio where restoration has been recently finished. It’s not the first time this church has been restored after an earthquake. The most attractive part of this church is it’s façade which has a distinctive chequered effect. Inside it is calm and austere with the floor echoing the red and cream of the exterior, large columns, frescos and the tombstones of various bishops. There were boards explaining the process of restoration after the earthquake when the side chapels became parted from the nave and parts of the floor had dropped by over a meter. You wouldn’t believe the extent of the damage when you look at it now.

As we walked up into the centre of town we started to see more of the impact, the main tourist sights have been restored, but the rest of the centro storico is a building site. Cranes are the dominant feature and you feel like you should be wearing a hard hat and hi-vis jacket just to walk around. Whole streets are wrapped in scaffold and strapping to hold the buildings together. Looking inside windows and doorways it is evident that major work is still required. The amount of building work that is going on is incredible; they are essentially rebuilding a whole town. I know that there are a lot of opinions about the time it has taken to restore L’Aquila; lawsuits brought against the seismologists, money misappropriated, allegations of poor building quality. Whatever has happened, ignoring the place and taking it off the tourist itineraries isn’t going to help anyone. It is worth visiting for the attractions that are restored, and we found the insight into the physical process of putting a city back together after a major earthquake fascinating.

We visited the Basilica di San Bernardino which was in complete contrast to the Collemaggio, it’s style much more baroque and the interior gilded and ornate. Lined up along the nave were the various palanquins from the Easter procession that made an interesting display. I bet the procession was quite spectacular with all of the exhibits lit up.

The Spanish Fort was still being restored, so we wandered around the outside before walking back through the town, taking in more sights, looking for the tourist information office and somewhere to have lunch. We didn’t find tourist info, but managed to find a café in the park which was open for lunch. We thought we’d seen everything we were planning to see by this point, but it was only the next day as we were driving away that I realised we hadn’t been to see the Fountain of 99 Spouts. Damn it!   

  

Bones and Birds in Otranto

23/04/18

We left our lovely campsite to head a very short distance to Otranto, We had one of those starts where we just couldn’t settle. There is a lot of parking in Otranto, but we couldn’t find a spot that we felt happy with. After visiting several of them we parked along the side of the road while we went for a look around. That evening we finally decided on a car park. It said we had to pay, but all the parking machines were turned off so we figured we would be ok overnight.

The morning was spent wandering around this touristy town. We were parked near the harbour so we walked along looking at the boats and the fish swimming lazily in the sea. Our entry into the centro storico was via a gate in the medieval fortress, we walked through the busy streets roughly in the direction of the cathedral, there were lots of tourist shops but there wasn’t any hard sell.

Looking across the harbour at the medieval fortress walls
The monument to the Otranto Martyrs

The cathedral is the main event in Otranto, we wandered into the cool calm crypt first with it’s many marble pillars and frescos. We had obviously done this the wrong way round as we weren’t allowed to ascend the stairs to the cathedral and had to walk around the outside to get in. Once in the cathedral proper we could see the  12th century mosaic spread across the floor of the nave and adjacent areas. It is crude when compared to Roman mosaics, but it’s depictions of beasts, demons and angels were compelling; we spent some time trying to decipher the Latin and make sense of what we were seeing. Above the mosaic is a fabulously ornate gilded coffered ceiling added in the 17th century.

Also in the cathedral are the relics of the Martyrs of Otranto, killed in 1480 by Turkish invaders. The town of Otranto had put up considerable resistance to the invading Ottoman army, when the Ottomans finally gained the town they killed or enslaved the majority of the population. A group of able bodied men were told to convert to Islam or die. They chose death and were executed. The following year the Ottomans were ousted and the relics of the martyrs were exhumed. Now you can see many of their bones in glass fronted cabinets on the walls of the chapel although some of the relics have been shared amongst other churches in the Salento region and even further afield. This was one of our favourite religious buildings, maybe we’re a bit ghoulish! 

The relics of the martyrs lined the walls of the chapel – slightly surreal

Our wander around Otranto had only taken the morning so we popped back to Bertie for a spot of lunch and then decided to do some walking along the coast south of the town. We were aiming for Punta Palascia, but it was a hot day so we didn’t make it that far. We had passed a nice looking beach at Cala Casotto, so we decided to turn round there after a swim. It was a bit of a scramble down the cliffs to the beach, but it was worth it to cool down in the clear water.

Our little beach spot – perfect for a dip

This was one of our favourite coastal walks. For most of the walk the cliffs were quite high and rocky with deep water offshore. Lots of fishermen had found their favourite spots and settled in for the day. Sea birds wheeled around off shore, including mediterranean gulls with their distinctive red beaks and feet. We spotted hen harriers – mostly brown with a white strip across the base of their tail – being mobbed by swallows and other small birds. On the heathland were crested larks singing loudly from the ground, possibly distracting us from their nests. There were many spring flowers dotting the grass. The whole area was full of life.

The interest wasn’t limited to natural wonders, on the headland near the Torre Dell’Orte there were many underground buildings and bunkers built into the rocks which we explored as much as we dared (our fear mostly being of finding human waste – our motto being ‘if you see tissues turn around’). A ruined lighthouse stood sentinel on the hill, it’s rear half collapsed.

It had been a very full day, Otranto was somewhere we could have stayed for longer. If only we could make up our mind where to park!   

Golden Stone and a Long History

18/04/18

Lecce is a golden city, famed for it’s soft Lecce stone that has allowed master crafters to create ornate baroque masterpieces on all it’s glowing buildings. The stone is easily eroded and frequently replaced and restored, giving many buildings a patchwork feel with new crisp stone adjacent to worn rounded carvings. We spent a few hours here wandering around the streets, exploring alleys and dead ends, finding piazzas and palazzi. Terraced frontages hid complex buildings, the occasional open gate providing glimpses into courtyards and the buildings beyond. Dotted amongst the predominantly 17th century facades was the evidence of an older history, part of a Roman amphitheatre, Norman walls, Etruscan and Messapian tombs. Lecce is also surprisingly flat, we have become so used to towns that are on top of hills and their steep winding streets that it felt odd to be walking on the level. 

We parked in a small motorhome parking area, seemingly little known. It is on the other side of the road from the large parking area of Piazza Carmelo Bene and must be noisy at night, luckily we weren’t intending to stay. A few permanent vans were in situ, some looking like they haven’t been started for years. Residents looked at us quizzically as we parked up and inspected the grimy facilities. It was in working order but we trod gingerly around the suspicious brown lumps near the waste disposal area.

Our wanderings took us to the MUST museum where we watched some 3D films of the history of Lecce (ok, but too focussed on the ancient history) and looked at the art exhibits. I asked where the history section was, ‘closed for refurbishment’ was the answer – I wish they had told us before we paid our entry fee. Rather grumpily we moved onto the Basilica de Santa Croce, supposedly the most ornate of the buildings in Lecce it was covered in scaffold; at least they had a print of the church façade over the scaffold so we could see what we were missing.

We did find one treasure though, the Museo Faggiano shows what happens when you start renovating a house in Lecce’s historic centre. Signore Faggiano bought the building so that his family could open a Trattoria on the ground floor and live in the upper floors. Building work to track down issues with the drains led to archaeological finds covering 2500 years.  From basement to terrace they uncovered little gems of historical interest, symbols of the Knights Templar, rooms used to prepare bodies for burial, ancient grain stores…We were handed several pages of notes and left to wander around this fascinating building. We may have started our visit to Lecce with a note of frustration, but we ended it satisfied. I can see why people rave about it.

While we were eating our lunch in the sunshine we decided that we would see if we could find a campsite to spend the next few days. That night we drove to a free parking spot on the coast near San Cataldo where we spent a little while googling the best place to stay.