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Published: January 30th 2010
The enormity of this dramatic fairytale edifice defies belief.
Motorhome News from Europe 38
A Postcard from France
5th - 20th October 2009
Loire, Limousin, the Dordogne, Rocamadour, Cordes, Najac, Albi, Carcassonne, Andorra, the Tarn Gorge, Le Puy en Velay - and a few hiccups on the way.
Despite our many trips to France by car and motorhome over the years there are still just a few areas in need of further exploration. The call of family ties draws us there once again this year, to Limoges, to see daughter Sonia, her partner Sebastien and the newest member of the tribe, Fred, now two and several bits and doubtless getting into all sorts of mischief, before heading further south.
The €euro/£Sterling exchange rate might have deterred many Brits from travelling across the channel this year, but sometimes it’s necessary to bite the bullet and do what you have to do. There are so many good things for us in France. We love it - and one should never really believe the stories of Anglo - French animosity - it’s actually all rather good natured.
With the ferry booked there was little to stop us. Nothing that is, as long as I secured the all
So this is France?
Scene in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne
clear from my Consultant at Papworth Hospital that morning, nine weeks after heart by-pass surgery, en route to the Dover - Calais ferry. In case of unforeseeable delays at Papworth we opted to camp in the shadow of the white chalk cliffs at Folkstone overnight and head for the Sea France terminal at Dover early on Tuesday morning.
This was our first visit to France in our new motorhome, ‘Bertie’, a German, Bürstner Nexxo t660, on a 2.2 litre Ford Transit chassis -140bhp, ticking most of the boxes on our wish list. It’s all a matter of compromise when it comes to motorhomes: living and sleeping space, convenience, colour and furnishing, heating, shower and bathroom, comfort and kitchen facilities, storage and most important of all, overall size, really determined by how it is to be used. We like our wildlife reserves where small is king - and we tend to move on each day, visiting places of interest en route, where small is also king - one often has to park it somewhere! At just 6.79m, Bertie suits that bill rather well.
In an endeavour to find yet another new route down to Limoges, we travelled
Le Crotoy beach
...the birds were out there somewhere, lost in the haze of distant mudflats.
from Calais via swish Le Touquet to Le Crotoy where we walked on the beach for an hour or so looking for birds. The birds were out there somewhere, lost in the haze of distant mudflats at low tide, but we enjoyed a pleasant stroll along the beach and a chat with an English couple living in nearby Rue before seeking out our first campsite, ‘Aire Communale’, at St Valery sur Somme just across the estuary. We watched the sunset from our table at The Terrace Restaurant later that evening: I with my Steak Tartare, (raw steak mince with a raw egg on top - very daring!) and Janice, with her, rather safer, Salad Montanguarde (chewy ham, warm goats’ cheese on bread, gruyere and mixed salad). This was also our first opportunity to fill up with French diesel at €0.985per litre - about £0.91 at today’s exchange rate, a saving of around 16% on British prices. We lost an hour that day. We’ll get it back in a couple of weeks.
Skirting round Rouen on a mild sunny day we made our way past Normandy thatched and timber-framed houses on tiny country lanes, until, around mid-morning, dark clouds threatened
The newest member of the tribe, now two and several bits.
ahead. Torrential rain soon followed - a deluge totally overwhelmed the wipers and eventually brought us to a halt in the middle of the narrow country road as it stripped leaves from the trees and sent branches falling across our path. A few miles along the road we encountered hailstones piled like snow beside the road! Rain of this magnitude had not been experienced since our last visit to Skye in 2005!
The storm eventually passed, allowing us to move on to Le Rosiers and Genes along the delightful south bank of the Loire, lined with pretty stone-built villages famous for their caves and mushrooms. The guide books spoke well of Saumur, our objective for the day and we found it a welcoming town of gentle grandeur, its majestic castle standing proudly high above and 15th Century timbered buildings on St Peter’s Square where we stopped for morning coffee.
By 5pm we were in Chateauneuf-la-Foret to the west of Limoges, booked into our old favourite, 'Cheyenne' campsite, and headed off to see Sonia and Sebastien, check out the new grandson and progress on the barn conversion now some five years into the huge project. The house is
looking great, now nearing completion upstairs at long last and heating ready for installation before winter sets in. Overnight the sky exploded with lightning and thunder, blowing out the electricity on the campsite. That’s no problem of course as we have adequate gas on board to get us through a whole winter and shortly after breakfast we set off for a walk around the lake, collecting windblown sweet chestnuts on the way, before Sonia arrived with Fred for a day out in the countryside.
There are many TV programmes to bore our socks off these days, and it was one of those ‘House in the Country’ or ‘Location, Location, Location’, moments that prompted us to head back down the Dordogne Valley to Argentat, and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, both nicely jaded, extremely French and equally welcoming on a cool misty, autumn day. Golden chestnut leaves and bronzed bracken adorned the roadside verges guiding us through tunnels of dappled light, flanked by the ubiquitous plane trees. There are many second homes for sale in these delightful villages where shops and restaurants abound alongside the river, still at realistically low prices to attract the Brit seeking a bargain despite the depressed rate of exchange.
Maybe they are indeed presently owned by Brits, selling up as the value of their pensions continues to decline abroad.
Somewhat tired after a long day, we camped at a site a few miles before Rocamadour that night, only to discover a free-camp above the town at L'Hospitalet the following morning. The savvy French know about these places of course, but they are rarely in any of our books. Set high on a rocky cliff above the narrow Alzou valley, Rocamadour has been a seat of pilgrimage, steeped in religious history since the discovery, in 1166, of an ancient grave thought to be that of the early Christian hermit St Amadour.
This holy shrine truly sparkles in the morning sunshine, from its narrow cobbled streets along the valley bottom, up the long Grand Stairway where pilgrims climb to the chapels on their knees, to the the tomb of St Amadour and the chapel of Notre-Dame (another statue of the Black Madonna), up the steep zig-zag climb past the Stations of the Cross and beyond the ramparts to the Chateau at the very top. A truly breathtaking sight from afar, a fascinating experience and a most rewarding climb! Unlike that
other tacky shrine, Lourdes, there is rather more of an air of Assisi about Rocamadour.
Terracotta roof-tops appeared as we entered the Languedoc region, guys out shooting anything that moves in their dayglo vests and orange hats, driving alongside dry-stone walls through Figeac on the pretty river Cele and on to Villeneuve and Villefranche-de-Rouergue where we bought bread and the local speciality, 'fougasse', a sweet bread flavoured with almond or strawberry, from the market. En route to Cordes, we stopped off in the ancient village of Najac, a 'little gem' with a wide main street, and wonderful old houses with gorgeous doorways! It was lunchtime, and a group of walkers sat under the bandstand enjoying their picnic as we passed on our way up to the castle looking down on the town from the limestone cliffs above. As we returned, the walkers had packed their rucksacks and stood in a circle joyfully singing in 4 part harmony! What a lovely experience to remember - we'll stick it in the back pocket with all the others.
Now much restored, the hilltop town of Cordes is left to survive on tourism, its weaving and leather heritage long gone
after devastating epidemics of plague in the 14th-century. Beautiful arched gateways, overpriced craft shops and timbered buildings make this attractive town a just reward for the steep climb on its cobbled streets. It was late afternoon by the time we left; the tourists were making their way home and the town was at peace, long shadows rippled on the cobbled streets, a man walked his dog whilst doing his stretching exercises and an elderly woman strolled lazily down the hill with her cat on a lead.
Travelling through this part of France should be savoured and whilst this is a whistle-stop journey for us, there are so many 'must sees' that it would be almost impossible not to linger a while when the fancy grabs you by the tail. En route to Carcassonne we visited the grand town of Albi, with its magnificent red-brick Cathedrale St Cecile dominating the skyline above the river Tarn. We were drawn to Albi to gape at its grand river bridges, the grotesque apocalyptic 'Last Judgement' fresco flanking the altar and trompe l'oile frescoes in the Cathedral, and the Musee Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, where we shared a pleasant hour with groups of diligent art
... the grotesque apocalyptic 'Last Judgement' fresco.
students from around the world, here to wonder, like us, wide-mouthed at the rich collection of his art on display. Albi should certainly not be missed.
Across the lush black hills of the Languedoc-Roussillon Natural Park, roofs turned to terracotta pantiles washed (in summer) by the warmth of a Mediterranean sun, fields turned to burnt-brown and grasses waved white amongst the olive tress and pinon pines, reminding us how far southwards we had already travelled. Once more we crossed the languid Canal du Midi, last visited further along the valley back in 2004, and on into Carcassonne, its enormous Citadel dominating the skyline above the modern city, gleaming before us in a golden haze in the early evening sunshine. The enormity of this dramatic fairytale edifice defies belief. A whole town exists within the double ramparts of this pre-Roman stronghold, 'La Cite', as it is locally known: a Cathedral (Basilica St-Nazaire), the fort itself (Chateau Comtal) dating back to the 12th Century, busy cobbled streets lined with fascinating craft, art and souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants - and of course, magnificent archways everywhere! It is impossible to conceive how, in the 12th Century, they managed to build
this colossal town: cutting, carving and transporting such huge blocks of stone with no knowledge of engines or hydraulics; it is truly of Pyramid proportions. Someone, somewhere, had the vision to believe in the power of man himself (with a little help from the horses). There can be few more spectacular sights - and delights (including the much savoured strawberry and vanilla ices!).
Tempted as ever by Mediterranean sunshine we ventured further south, 'just to fill in the remaining gaps in our previous journey'. We followed the Aude Valley to Limoux, gradually climbing through autumn-tinged birches and oaks on wooded hillsides, ascending the mountains beyond Quillan through gentle alpine pastures and banks of autumn crocus as we entered the Pyrenees with Andorra in our sights. We passed further to the south of here in January 2005, aware that this Tax-free haven is also a ski resort of some note, and doubtless deep in snow at that time of the year - and best avoided with a motorhome! This, then, was our chance to see what we had missed.
We had missed some of the most spectacular pastoral scenery, the steep, hair-pin, earpopping bends and the heaving traffic heading
from France to the tax-free hypermarkets cramming the outskirts of the town in all directions! It's really quite hard for us to think of many good reasons to visit Andorra-la-Vella, the capital, but there are one or two. The skiing is doubtless first class in winter and the duty-free bit is rather attractive (we availed ourselves of copious quantities of our favourite tipple(s) before finally leaving the following day). Diesel was also cheap at €0.815 per litre and we left the following day with a tank filled to the brim! There are shops galore in the centre of town, busy, rather smart and cosmopolitain, and men dressed in suits and ties and smart ladies in leather jackets. Set between narrow valley walls, the town is seemingly dingy amongst a vast, commercial sprawl.
That night we camped a short way out of the town centre behind the football stadium, overlooked by blocks of flats perched on the valley wall opposite, at 'Camping Valira', a short walk into town. A couple of young English lads from Dorset arrived on the site shortly after us and set about erecting their tent as it started to rain and, in our usual patriotic manner,
we made them a cup of tea. That little gesture was to be repaid in full very shortly.
Having decided, in a frugal moment, to forgo our usual electric hook-up, we plugged the inverter into the 12v socket to charge the camera batteries. Big mistake, Huge! We lost all the lights and had no idea where to find the fuse-box! The manual was no help: a circuit diagram is fine but if you don't know where to look it's of little use. The obvious place to look for fuses is under the bonnet, right? Wrong! Intriqued by two bottoms sticking out from the front of the motorhome, our two adopted lads came over to investigate. By chance - and with a little help no doubt from our old friend lady luck, they were both motor mechanics, with all the tools - and fuses stashed in the boot of their car! Two minutes later we were up and running with a new fuse in the fusebox, under the front passenger seat - of course, silly me. A timely reminder to check the labels and fuse ratings in future. A 5A fuse in a 12v circuit will not run an inverter!
Our new found friends were rewarded with extra large slices of Janice's home made fruit cake!
Andorran Customs cast a cursory glance around the motorhome on our way out of town, looking for 'over the limit' purchases. They opened two cupboards, poked their heads in, nodded politely and left. Spanish customs, a short way down the stereet, waved us through with a smile and we headed out along the pretty Segne River valley, past red-geranium bedecked stone houses, rolling green fields and mighty poplars dancing in their fresh autumn garb.
Our affair with Spain was somewhat short-lived and we were soon back in France, heading for Villefranch-le-Confluent, another Vauban fortified town we would have been sorry to miss - and nearly did! Massive ramparts guard the entrance to this fascinating little gem, once totally walled, and above, ever present, Fort Liberia looks down from high atop the gorge. Pink stone houses and touristy shops line either side of the cobbled main street, wrought iron signs adorn the facades and there are witches everywhere! It seems the witch has some special significance in the region and small effigies in various garb were on sale in the shops, or perhaps
it was a timely reminder that Halloween was just around the corner. And a rather special book-shop at the bottom end of town held our attention for longer than we intended! A little yellow train, 'Le Petit Train Jaune', leaves from the town on narrow gauge tracks throughout the summer months, taking tourists up into the mountains.
Being that close to the Med tempted us to 'take a peek' at Canet-Plage, a few miles beyond Perpignan, and it came as somewhat of a surprise to round a corner and suddenly come face-to-face with a roaring sea of white horses blasted by gale-force winds. Despite the bright sunshine it was dreadfully cold, but we braved the elements and briefly hunted across the marshes for the resident flamingoes. If they were resident, they were invisible - and who could blame them? I'd be down in Spain, wouldn't you?
Janice, quite rightly, had questioned the practicality of travelling this far before we left home and, to be honest, the prospect appeared a little daunting. Now, having done it, we are amazed that so much can be achieved in just two weeks. OK, we were in the South of France and not
too many days before we were due back at the ferry! Time though, to venture northwards; lunching by the Canal du Midi at Colombiers and then on to Moureze, where Janice, the geographer, was tempted by the renowned 'Cirque'. We arrived late-afternoon and ventured forth on the 'easy walk'. But walking on our chosen route was quite challenging, the footpaths around the limestone pinnacles were poorly marked and once or twice we were unsure of the direction back as the sun fell below the horizon! Yet another adventurous day packed with promise.
Still not totally satisfied, we were seeking more adventure. Whilst that far south we scoured the map for previously unvisited areas of France we might get to on our way north - and the Tarn Gorges took our eye. In particular, the ridge road called the 'Corniche des Cevennes' seemed tempting and we headed off towards Florac at its eastern end. Typically French, we discovered on our arrival that the first half of the road was closed for repairs just north at Moline, demanding an arduous 40km detour across the limestone plateau to the north, across the Causse de Sauveterre and south again on a
tortuous winding road through remote farmland to join the Gorge once again at Ste Enimie. French road diversions will be the death of us!
Yes, we missed half of the Tarn Gorge, but all was not totally lost. The half we saw was spectacular to say the least; the road almost deserted that day, winding, cutting through tunnels and clinging to overhangs, hugely spectacular, with high limestone and red dolomite cliffs, the rippling river always below....and villages cut into the hillside across the river reachable only by boat or cable. This, believe me, is no Cheddar. The gorge extends more than 25km along the river, flanked by rocky bluffs more than 400m high! Late that night we camped at le Rozier, on a site by the river hosted by an enthusiastic Swiss couple. They prepared a large portion of chips for us at their 'snackbar', a welcome accompaniment to our evening omlette and salad! A glass of wine or two later we set about planning our route back to Calais. It seemed to make sense to head up over the Massif Central taking the route up the Col Engayresque and we set off next morning via the A75, rising
steadily to 4,000ft, before descending through verdant farmland and hilltop villages into the Lot Valley.
By the time we reached Mende it had started to drizzle and we quickly realised that winter was on its way. As we wound our way up to the bleak Massif Central moorland, the drizzle turned to rushing flurries of snow and the wind howled around the cab! We took refuge in a small village bakery to buy our daily baguette, nodding friendly greetings to the coat and scarf clad locals, shaking their hats and stamping their feet as they entered. Early that afternoon we finally arrived at Le Puy en Velay, the source of the River Loire and a City already etched on my mind from a postcard, sent to me I believe, by a family member, sister Ann perhaps, many years ago. Neither of us had visited Le Puy before, but I could recall the pictue of three volcanic pillars topped by churches and the red Statue of Notre Dame, made from 213 cannons captured at Sebastopol in the Crimean War. The scene was indeed as fascinating as I had imagined, a city of dramatic peaks enveloped in a bowl-like basin surrounded
by high rocky cliffs. The medieval Holy City hosts a hectic maze of streets and the magnificent Romanesque and Moorish Cathedrale de Notre Dame (a World Heritage site) with its very own Black Madonna. It seems the famed Puy lentils are a tourist 'must buy', and sprucely packaged they are somewhat expensive in many of the shops, but with a little poking around, we discovered a tiny greengrocer - with the ones the locals buy, in a brown paper bag! This huge land mass they call France never ceases to amaze and intrigue us; we have travelled its roads so many times and still revel in its little surprises.
Our ever changing plan left us just one final day of sightseeing before catching the ferry and scrutiny of the map tempted us in the direction of the Mont-Dore and the scenic route through the Parc des Volcans d'Auvergne.
The temperature guage in the motorhome was reading 1C, and we were driving through freezing fog in the hills by mid morning. At Issoire we stopped once more to buy bread and fell for the temptation to sit in the warmth of the adjoining cafe drinking coffee for a while,
admiring the mouth-watering array of neatly boxed cakes and dreaming of sunshine and sandy beaches. It was a Sunday, but there was no shortage of customers. This is France - and bread is king, whatever day it is.
Autumn-tinted forests blanketed the ubiquitous volcanic cones as we followed the tortuous D36 towards Le Mont-Dore, drawing us to stand and stare awhile, listening to the rustle of wind in the trees and the distant toll of cow bells, our eyes drawn to snow on the surrounding peaks, the snow-poles beside the winding road and marked ski runs in the distance. There can be few such rewarding scenes on this earth - though the chill wind which accompanied it was less than welcome! Snow flurries greeted us as we ascended the challenging Col de la Croix St Robert (1451m) and we could see numerous serious hikers along the ridges, carrying heavy back-packs, their heads down into the searing wind. Three hikers stood beside the road thumbing a lift, quite clearly exhausted, and our soft hearts bled for them. I guess we've been there - more than once! The beaming trio tossed their rucksacks up the step, climbed aboard and sank into
Puy en Velay
The scene was indeed as fascinating as I had imagined; a city of dramatic peaks enveloped in a bowl-like basin surrounded by high rocky cliffs.
the welcoming warmth of our comfortable dinette. They had been two nights in the mountains, aiming to reach the summit of the Puy de Sancy, but, despite their seemingly adequate gear, they had opted to call it a day, beaten it seems by the bitter cold and snow. They were heading for the ski resort of Le Mont-Dore just a few miles distant and we crept slowly down the precipitous icy road in low gear into the valley below where we dropped them off. There was little need for them to express their gratitude in words; their faces told the tale in fine detail. Needless to say, we were also somewhat drained after that hairy drive and sought out some simple reward for our effort - pastries, and local saucisson and cheese!
Late that evening we stopped alongside other motorhomes overlooking the lake in the little town of St Eloy-les-Mines where free camping is provided, an Aire-de-Camping-Cars, on a large tarmac car-park. Whilst we slept the outside temperature dropped and we were able to test our 'frost prevention' device for the first time. The Burstner, as with some other motorhomes, has a temperature control valve which opens at around
Col de Guery
....midst the volcanoes
4C and releases ALL of the fresh water in the system - to avoid it freezing and causing damage. Yes, you guessed it; we woke to find we had no water - and a stream of black ice wandering twenty yards and more across the car-park. Janice's diary notes that, 'Bertie wet himself that night!'. Our well remembered Boy Scout motto, 'Be Prepared', kicked in about there and we boiled the kettle for tea and a wash from our emergency supply that morning. The shower would have to wait; we had a long journey ahead, hoping to be beyond Paris by early evening and on our way home. A leisurely drive took us to a campsite at Chantilly, just a few hours short of Calais, ample time to catch our ferry, all things being equal. But one should never assume, we're told.
As we headed out of Chantilly towards the motorway next morning the engine lost power and a warning sign appeared on the dash: 'Engine Malfunction!' Now, that's not a thing to be taken lightly when there's a ferry to catch and a couple of hundred miles of motorway to navigate. We pulled into the roadside to consider
our options and concluded a detour to find a garage to be the best option. The ferry would have to wait; or more likely we would catch a later one - if we could get there! An hour on we found a village Renault dealer and the engineer shrugged his shoulders when we discolosed our plight - and wrote down the name of a Ford Dealer a further ten miles down the road! I guess he was trying to be helpful - or just extrememly busy perhaps. We smiled, as one does when one's a Brit, shook hands in gratitude, climbed back in the cab and started the engine. Lo and behold - it worked; the warning sign had disappeared and the engine was back to its old self, powerful and full of life. Our hearts in our mouths, we journeyed on and after a while took to the motorway once again, living in hope that Bertie would look after us.
Bertie, Janice and I, arrived safely home once again via Calais to Dover and a diagnostic check found no obvious fault with the engine, so we'll wait and see. It is hard to believe we achieved so much on this two week journey through wonderland. We have travelled many a mile and experienced so much of France yet again, with perhaps just a few bits left to savour another time.
France has once again proved particularly motorhome-friendly beyond its duty and there is ‘space’ in France, that thing of the past in Britain; empty roads (outside of busy towns and cities), huge National Parks, wide open fields, vast mountains and sumptuous forests.
The French have embraced the motorhome and taken it into their lives. Nearly every village has its 'Aire de Services', with spaces marked out specifically for motorhomes, attracting travellers to stay overnight, often completely free, to visit local attractions and spend money in their shops, bars and restaurants. Yes, and then there’s the food; eating, a national pastime. Nestling amongst the rolling countryside, hilltop villages of mellow stone now hang precariously on to their roots with slowly diminishing populations. Youngsters are moving on to the turmoil of the next century as their family farming communities in fertile valleys decline at the hands of agricultural efficiency. And that decline now hosts a gentle rustic decay, a passive image of a land that time forgot, at peace with itself, in the mist of slumber, awaiting the coming of another day of sunshine.
David and Janice
The Grey haired nomads.
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