Central Spain at the height of summer is fierce, blinding, whitewashed and arid. Traversing the Pyrenees Mountains, which form a massive natural boundary between Spain into Southern France, we descended into a treasure trove of colour, seeded by picturesque little towns. Towns which would effortlessly grace the covers of travel magazines, towns whose beauty was elementary to comprehend, towns we’d previously never heard of.
The first destination of note that day which I can remember by name was Carcassonne. As we rolled up late-afternoon to Camping de la Cité it was already over-capacity, so they stuck us out in an overflow field. A blessing, as it turns out, since we could spy the famous medieval castle of Carcassonne, with its two-and-half-thousand year history, from our tent flap.
After setting up camp we were able to walk along the Aude River leading directly to the castle and up its ramparts into the fortified city. With its tiny, twisted alleys, it felt like a scene straight out of a Robin Hood movie… which is probably because it was, and therefore is. Yet unlike the movie, the place is packed with tourists and French restaurants, filled to capacity
on summer evenings. I remember we ordered a local dish of cassoulet, made of beans, sausage and duck. The other details are hazy…praise to the wine. But with the castle now floodlit for evening, the walk back will forever live in the memory.
“Ooh la la!”
Next morning we decided to hang out at the campsite and use the facilities until checkout. I offered to take the kids for a swim which was going well until Mandalay announced she needed to go to the toilet. However, when we returned to the pool the lifeguard threw his arm out and prevented me, shaking his head in a very French manner, pointing at my shorts and simply announcing, “Non!”
“Uh?” I said. “Speedo” he said, pointing at my crotch, with me looking down at my black Bermuda shorts.
"Parce que ...." I said in my best possible French accent, which sounded a lot more like the Spanish, “Porque…?
"Parce que ....” He said.
Hmmm…Was he correcting my substandard French by repeating my answer to him ‘correctly’? I frowned and tried again.
"Porce que .... ¿quoi?" I said, (Because… what?) This I emphasized by
shrugging my shoulders all the way to my ears, as is customary in this part of the world.
"Parce que c'est comme ca?" (Because it’s like that!) He said, turning away. End of discussion!
Since I don’t own a pair of Speedos™, swim time was effectively over. But I was genuinely curious as to why committing an act of public indecency by squeezing into a pair of budgie smugglers was preferable to wearing shorts, or just about anything? As we walked back to the tent my mind raced with possible reasons. Did I reveal something whilst performing handstands in the pool?
After checkout we continued east on toll roads…three lanes of fast moving traffic fanning out into a dozen toll booths and then attempting to reconfigure back into three lanes of traffic + holiday weekend = total gridlock. And they make you pay for the experience."Sacré bleu"!
We were heading for Pont Du Gard, the famous Roman aqueduct over the river, and arrived late-afternoon with no place to park. I jumped out at the Tourist Information Office at Remoulins, just before it shut, with Jennifer driving the car and kids around and around the
narrow one-way streets, which were clogged with summer traffic. I’d come to find out about camping opportunities but was told most of them were now full and if we didn’t get a move on we’d probably not find anything at all that day.
With this news we decided to skip Pont Du Gard, even though it was at most a ten-minute walk and set off for the premiere campsite, equipped as it was with pools and waterslides. However, when we arrived they were full. Actually, they scanned our French number plates, waved us in, heard my wonderful English accent and remembered they were full… before pointing us in the direction of another place some miles down the road. “Merci Beaucoup!”
I was more than a little disappointed by this because the kids would have doubtless enjoyed it. As we arrived at Montfrin to avail ourselves of their campsite, it was apparent there was a bullfighting festival taking place in a small wooden bullring. Up until this point I hadn’t known they did bullfighting in France. I’d seen it once in Mexico City, had gotten terribly sunburned, and had no interest in seeing it again.
Not really Jennifer’s cup of tea either, so we drove right on by. “Adieu!”
Joie de vivre
Camping BelleRive’sentrance seemed pretty run-down, and then when we were charged the same 27 Euro price as the super-duper-campsite with all mod cons, back up the road, I felt a little cheated. “Camp anywhere”, they said. ‘Yeah, right,’ I brooded, as we bumped along the sandy gravel path past decrepit wooden huts and a falling-apart-playground. Then as we came to a clearing at the end of the campsite by a beautiful river and a nice patch of grass sheltered by some trees, the universe returned to its original equilibrium. That’ll do it S'il vous plait!
We stripped down to our swimmers (papa wore his contraband shorts), went for a swim in the river and played fetch with a charming local Labrador. After the previous week having strayed into staying at four-star hotels and last night’s holiday campsite endeavour - without even registering this at the time - we were actually camping again. You could hear the sound of the penny dropping that evening whilst eating camping food and drinking wine amidst the sound of the gently tinkling river, under
the stars. “Au Naturel.”
The next morning, rather than backtrack to Pont Du Gard we decided to drive up along the Rhone, to Vignon. Perhaps it was this reinvigoration by nature from the day before, but we didn’t immediately take to Avignon. But after repeatedly getting lost in its one-way streets, we did manage to find the tourism office where I enquired about a visit to see some lavender fields, which are synonymous with this region. However when we learnt it was too late in the year for that picture-perfect deep purple bloom, oh and by the way, Châteauneuf-du-Pape was just up the road from here, we opted to go there instead. Bon voyage
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is perhaps most famous for its wine. If you’re not into wine you may still find it interesting that the area is famous for its galets roulés, round rocks and pebbles which cover the clay soil here. These rocks, scattered beneath the vines, retain the heat from the sun during the day and slowly release it back into the surrounding environment at night, ripening the grapes faster. Unfortunately for us hungry
travelers, all the restaurants in town were closed when we arrived, so after a walk up to the castle, a few tastings and the purchase of a magnum for a friend, we headed back down towards Avignon. On the way back Mandalay spilled orange juice all over the netbook, which was doubling as a kid’s entertainment machine, as we drove. From that moment forth only about half the keys on the keyboard ever functioned again. C'est la vie
We skipped through Avignon, after eventually finding our way out, towards Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. When we arrived the town was cordoned off to cars due to a festival, so we veered west in search of a campsite. After driving up and down some country roads we found a very rustic site situated in a field. We asked around about places to eat other than Saint-Rémy, and were told to continue to a place called Les Baux-de-Provence.
As we drove up there the road began to wind as it climbed through the forest. Then as we mounted a ridge, there it was in all its glory, across the valley. A place I’d never previously heard
of and as such might never have visited. A stone town, organically set atop a rocky outcrop, crowned with a ruined castle overlooking the plains which stretch out to the Mediterranean Sea.
Our contemporary world of information-overdose lulls us into a perception of knowing. Perhaps this is why nothing exhilarates more than cresting the top of a hill or turning a street corner to be confronted with the beautiful unknown. People travel to the ends of the earth in search of this feeling. More often than not it’s right under their nose.
In France, parking is free in many towns after 6pm, and so we waited in the car for a few minutes for the barriers to swing open and a place in the very tiny car park to come available. At about two-minutes past the hour we were parked and out on foot exploring the steep, narrow walkways, enjoying the rest of the evening dining al fresco, with flavors as delightful as the visual masterpiece of our surroundings.
Our next destination, Eze was somewhere I had most definitely heard about. In fact I was looking forward
to our visit there above all else. Some years back we had taken the train along the coast to Eze sur Mer. The plan then had been to hike 427metres up the Nieztsche trail to Eze Village but we’d run out of time and so spent the day down at the pebbly beach. Since then Eze became one of those destinations that ‘got away’; me vowing to one day return to this “eagle's nest” medieval village overlooking the French Riviera.
From Nice, there are three roads carved into the mountainside which run parallel along the coast to Eze: the Haute Corniche (or Grand Corniche), the Moyenne Corniche and the Basse Corniche (basically high, middle and low roads). The Grand Corniche is the most rustic and dangerous of the three. It is also the one affording the best views out over the Mediterranean, romanticized in Hitchcock’s filming of scenes from "To Catch a Thief" here, and with Princess Grace of Monaco’s death here in a car accident.
As picturesque as all this was, we couldn’t seem to locate our campsite which our guidebook clearly indicated was somewhere along this road. We must have driven it
half a dozen times to and fro, winding back and forth, pestering locals for directions to a place they were all adamant we couldn’t possibly miss.
After we’d driven the road for the umpteenth time, with both little ones deafeningly vocal about their opinions on staying in the car one second longer, one young local lady, who’d patiently and repeatedly given us verbal directions, decided to jump in her little French car and speed down the Corniche, with us driving manically to keep on her tail. She came to an abrupt halt at a seemingly random point on the side of the road and pointed to where the campsite had apparently once been with that Gallic shrug of the shoulders. At least now the riddle was solved…and we didn’t feel like so much like “touristes anglais stupides!”
However, having wasted considerable time and energy on this escapade, we now had nowhere to stay. This being the height of summer in one of the French Rivera’s première destinations our chances of finding any affordable accommodation this late in the day were slim. We decided to head down to the Mayonne Corniche and pop into the
Tourism Office in Eze Village, which was about to close. They phoned around and found a (last spot) at a campsite situated on the other side of the mountains in a town called Peille. The lady there told us we should immediately head over, and proceeded to give me a very long list of directions I attempted to store in my short term memory bank, and off we went. Half-an hour later we were deep in the mountains on roads way more precipitous than the Corniches.
We finally reached a médiéval town called Peille, perched high up in the mountains. There we foolishly decided to enter for further directions, though subsequently escaping meant gingerly reversing back out of its steep, tiny, windy one-way streets. In hindsight, had this been our intended destination we may have marveled at the outstanding beauty of this hidden gem, but at this point we all just wanted the driving to come to an end.
When we eventually arrived at the campsite it was closed. Fortunately we managed to find the owner who asked us rather irately what had taken us so long. I told them we had gotten there
as quickly as possible, and an inquiry into our route led to the conclusion that the Tourism Office had sent us on the scenic route. I suppose that was to be expected; we are tourists after all. Amidst our desperate and time-guzzling search for a campsite, we’d had zero time to shop for the night’s supper and were physically repulsed at the thought of setting our still flattened backsides into the car for even one more minute. In the end we were saved by a mobile wood-fired pizza wagon that had parked down by the river, bringing a redeeming end to the day when sunset’s salmon hue was cast back up the hill onto the clustered houses and church steeples of Peille.
With just one full day left, we debated whether we should choose Nice over Monaco. Monaco won over in the end because it seemed to offer more concentrated kid-friendly activities which could be explored on foot. (The previous days’ driving nightmares had left us feeling indubitably in need of opportunities to restore our children’s good graces.) And, of course, it had the added enticement of calling itself a country, which neither of us had been
to before… and so with that conundrum in the bag we could finish our Mediterranean adventure with that long anticipated trip to Èze!
Viewing Èze from any of the approach routes it is obvious that it was designed not for charm but from fear of attack; a trait it shares with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Les Baux-de-Provence, Carcassone, Peille and any number of the places we’d visited over the last few weeks. Down through the ages this part of the world has suffered successive invasions from marauding pirates and colonial forces shaping the architecture, the landscape, culture and food. Whilst we in little old England sat safely for millennia in our quaint little houses, behind our rickety picket fences drinking ale in safe boring little southern towns like Aldershot, Bognor Regis, Crawley and Dorking… (In the interest of ennui I’ll skip towns E through Z).
We arrived to Eze in the late-afternoon when the summer heat and tourist traffic had begun to lose its luster. The kids enjoyed exploring the narrow streets and multitudes of souvenir shops, though the highlight was undoubtedly the Jardin botanique d'Èze, perched literally atop Eze village. Known primarily for its collection of
cacti and succulents, most people I would imagine, pay the entrance fee to enjoy the breathtaking panoramic views. And, voilà! the money shot; the pièce de résistance, the image of Eze I had had in my mind for all these years. The circle had been completed and my expectations finally met.
That last night on the French Riviera, back at the campsite with the kids in bed, we sat out on the car’s hood feasting on a selection of exquisite French cheeses and breads whilst sharing a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape drunk from plastic cups. France had been much more than we’d hoped for: even the people down south had managed to shed that long-held stereotype of the arrogant Parisian I had first experienced in travels during my teens. In fact if I had a few million Euros in the bank I might like to move down here and learn a little more about this part of the world.
Coup de grâce
The next morning the wine had worn off, and we had a flight to catch. Much of our camping gear was now surplus to requirements so we ditched it, along with all its
accompanying paraphernalia of plates, knives, beakers, sleeping bags etc…
We drove through Nice towards the airport to the north of the city a lot lighter, looking for a gas station to fill the rental car up before we handed it back. But a gas station we could not find and our attempts at communicating this problem to locals in our terrible French only led to confusion (apparently “gasolina” doesn’t mean gasoline in France?) We eventually found one several kilometers out past the airport, but now we would struggle to make our flight since we still had to drop the hire-car off. Fortunately it was one of those mass drive-thru types. Yet, when we pulled up the person who worked for our specific company wasn’t around and so we convinced an employee from another to sign us off. At this point I saw Jennifer awkwardly positioning herself near the front wing of the car. When she moved I noticed a slight dent (she later admitted this defeat in a minor battle with a parking garage had been conceded weeks ago back in Portugal!), and though fully insured for such an eventuality, at this juncture there was not even
one moment of airport queuing time to spare for paperwork.
We arrived in just over an hour on a Lufthansa flight to our next destination: Berlin, Germany. And as the airport bus ferried us from the airplane to the terminal building Mandalay began singing a cheerful little song. She was standing, as we all were, because as is common with these buses, they fill to capacity for these short-hops and there aren’t many seats to go round. A middle-aged couple stood directly over her, the lady smiling at her, the man demonstrating considerable nervousness and apparent annoyance at this small creature in his midst. As the bus reached the terminal building it came to an abrupt halt Mandalay stumbled onto his leg. The man literally exploded: A full-scale tirade (in French!). After he’d vented, I replied (in English), “I’m sure everything you said was extremely interesting, but unfortunately I didn’t understand a word of it!” He stared back at me in disgust, blurting in English “You ‘ave no éducation!” I will refrain from documenting my riposte (you wouldn't believe it anyway!)
Moral of this blog: Get an education, learn some French, go to France,
and pack your Speedos!
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