France - Around Avignon & Ardeche

Published: May 19th 2014
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Tuesday 13thMay 2014

Very heavy rain, with a clap of thunder overnight, that fell as snow on the Pyrenees. A very easy drive out of La Seu D’Urgell running along a valley with wooded mountains but as soon as we got to Puigcerda and crossed into France, we were more or less up to the snow line with little snow-covered villages and hill top churches! I think the top of the Pass was around Font-Romeu Odeille-Via and after driving past Mont-Louis Citadelle ( we would have stopped if we had more time!) we drove down the very winding road, following the route of the narrow guage yellow train (built in 1910) , dropping slowly and steadily to Villefranche-de-Conflent.

Decided to stop and have some lunch here, and then had a walk around the walled town before walking the double layer of well-renovated ramparts! Villefranche was at the narrowest point of the Tet Valley and therefore it made an eminently defensible border fortress against Moorish Invasion, and a strategic stronghold fought over by the French and Spanish in the Middle Ages. A very interesting small town.

We also thought about stopping at nearby Elne as this was where Hannibal and his elephants stayed on their way to Rome in 218BC, but time was ticking on, so we headed on towards Perpignan and the coast road to Leucate. Extremely windy, probably gale force, so drove on towards Cap D’Adge and stayed in the centre of the seaside village by Farinette Plage. Had an excellent menu de dia albeit 15.00 euros each instead of the 8.00 euros that we pay in Spain!! (ACSI Camping Club Le Napoleon) 188 miles

Wednesday 14th May 2014

Away by 9.30am and followed the coast road to Sete and then cut into the Camargue via Palavas therefore avoiding Montpellier altogether! Whew!!

Lots of water everywhere, salt lakes, rice paddys, water channels etc with flocks of flamingos feeding happily! Had our lunch at Aigues-Mortes, a spectacular medieval fortification with a round tower built between 1241 and 1250. The Port was commissioned to be built by King Louis IX for the 7th & 8th Crusades to take back Jerusalem and the Holy Lands, who departed from here in 1248 and1279.

Drove on through the Camargue which is really a large wetland on the Rhone Delta, past many of the black bulls and white horses for which the Camargue is famous. Interestingly, the foals are born either tan or black and do not get their white coats until they are at least five years old! Took the small back road towards Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and had to wait for the ½ hr free ferry across the Petit Rhone River, before arriving at about 14.30pm. We had a bit of a problem parking and thought we would park with all the other Campervans in town, but it turned out they were all the modern day gypsies in town for “Our Lady of the Sea” celebrations on 24th May for their Patron Saint Sara!!! (She was a black servant to the two Mary’s!! ) Gypsies from all over Europe come to commemorate this Pilgrimage.

We booked on the 16.10 Camargue Boat Trip and had a wander around the town for an hour or so. Plenty of tourist shops and an old church where we could climb the tower for views over the town! Chris also climbed the roof!!! Back down and into the fortified 12thC Church which has a small crypt inside containing a statue of Saint Sara! The relics of Saints Mary Salome (Mother of St James) and Mary Jacobea (Mother of another St James and St Jude) also lie in the church. These two Mary’s were the very first witness to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday and during the persecution of Christians in AD45 they were exiled from Palestine and sent off to a certain death in a boat, but somehow landed on the Camargue and thus began the evangelisation of Gaul.

The boat trip lasted an hour and a half, and we went along the shoreline and then up the Petit Rhone looking for wildlife. We had a little show where the Gardians drove the bulls and horses down a track and we spotted a heron that had just caught a huge fish! Plenty of black bulls and white horses on the riverside to look at, and overall an enjoyable trip. Walked back along the sea front, past lots of the old traditional Gardians Cabins, with thatched roofs and a concrete ridge at the top.

Had to drive to Arles to the campsite and got there about 19.00hrs (ACSI Camping l’Arlesienne) 111 miles

Thursday 15th May 2014

We wanted to have a look around Arles before driving onto Avignon, so we parked near the Old Town and walked into the Plaza de la Republique. Grand old cathedral and the town hall adorn the square and after a quick peer at both, we walked up to the Roman Theatre! The wind was really beginning to annoy now – still sunny – but oh so windy, and what with hoards of coach parties of cruise passengers and school children thronging the streets made sight-seeing a bit less enjoyable!!

The Roman Theatre was impressive enough but a lot of ruins as it was once a fortress and the stones had been used for other buildings! The remaining two pillars are called the two widows!! But the real Wow factor was the Roman Amphitheatre. We didn’t go in (too many parties of school teenagers !!) but walked around the outside!

Had a wander around the old town (trying to find a phone shop to see if they had a Pay as You Go sim card) – they seem to be completely non-existent? Walked out to the river and a look at the Espace Van Gogh which used to be a hospital where Van Gogh was treated in 1889 after he had cut off his left ear!!

Before we left we went to Les Alyscamps which is a tree lined avenue of broken Romanl tombs and in the Middle Ages was one of the most famous cemeteries in the Western world. However, over the years it had fallen into disrepair and farmers looted the tombstones for drinking troughs for their animals. It has now been tidied up and the old church renovated but still makes a pretty spooky place to wander about – especially with all the wind!!!

Drove to the campsite at Avignon arriving about 14.00hrs and later headed into Avignon – a seven minute walk away!

Quite an impressive skyline of the Palais des Papes as we walked across the bridge into Avignon and wandered around the walled old town before buying a ticket to go onto the Pont Saint Benezet! At this point I have to say that the Tourist Office was one of the worst we have ever come across, they insisted on only speaking French and were generally quite rude ignoring clients!! Anyway, we understood French so not really a problem but annoyingly we arrived too late to buy a ticket for the interior of the Popes Palace!

The Bridge was ok......its kind of over touristized....been renovated......and its something that just has to be done! It was extremely windy still so not that enjoyable! Had a little sing song......Sur le Pont, D’Avignon etc etc!!!

The rest of the evening we just wandered about, admiring the Palace, walking up to the gardens and view points (Very, very windy!!!) and then down into the town again, had a lovely meal and then walked back to the campsite!

I hadn’t realised that the Papal Court was moved from Rome to Avignon from 1309 – 1377 and that seven official popes reigned in Avignon. I suppose that’s why it’s a pretty grand city with a Palace and a lot of impressive buildings and churches! (ACSI Bagatelle, Avignon) 31 miles.

Friday 16th May 2014

Over the last year have been trying to find a convenient time and place to meet up with some friends we met on the Norwegian cruise last year and it seemed ideal that they were travelling to the South of France as we were travelling north! We had made loose arrangements to meet them maybe at Chris’ brothers Auberge at Chassignolles but as they were travelling to Nice it would have been a little bit out of the way! (Especially as they were going to travel to the wrong Chassignolles!!!)

Anyway, we agreed by text that we would meet at the campsite at Tournon so it gave us plenty of time to sight see the Ardeche Gorges.

Left Avignon and cut up through the N580 to Pont-St-Esprit and then followed the road to the Gorges! Instead of driving through the gorge as we expected, we climbed steadily and had viewpoints from the top of the Gorge, seeing how the Ardeche River had cut its way through the rocks! There were about eight viewpoints along the top (as well as a few grottes that we didn’t have time to walk too) before we started dropping down to the riverbed and to Le Pont D’Arc which is where the river has created a tunnel through the rock! Drove out of the Gorge through a series of tunnels and overhanging rocks and then up to a little place called Balazuc.

Balazuc is a 12thC stone village built on a clifftop, overlooking a secluded gorge of the River Ardeche. Its a fascinating place that seems to be stuck in a time warp with narrow old cobbled passageways through connecting arches and tiny squares with steps leading up to more tiny streets! There is also the remains of an old Roman Church and fine views over the gorge and village.

Onwards to Vogue, nestling between the river and a limestone cliff, where we stopped and had a quick wander up to the Chateau de Vogue, once the seat of the Barons of Languedoc before driving on towards Privas! The road didn’t look too bad but seemed to take ages driving as we climbed up over another mountain before dropping down into Privas and we then followed the Rhone up to Tournon getting there later than planned at 18.00hrs.

Chris and Lorraine were there waiting for us and had kindly sorted out a pitch next to them right in front of the Rhone River! A lovely spot! And it was just so good to see them again! Spent the evening wandering around the town, having a meal, a few drinks and a good catch up! (ACSI Camping de Tournon) (138 miles)

Saturday 17th May 2014

We had all decided we were going to catch the ‘chemin du fer’ along the ‘Doux’ valley up to Lamastre. A leisurely get up, and then a mad panic as Lorraine had got a brochure that said the train left in 35mins at 10.00am!! A fantastic little steam train, with open sided carriages, that left from the station about 3miles from Tournon.

An excellent hour and a half journey up through the gorges and past all the farmland of the valley, good size fields (!!!) dotted with trees with white blossom – not sure what they were but could be mountain ash?? Reached Lamastre about 12.00am and had a wander through the local farers market and up to the old town with its church. A peer at the graveyard but nothing too old there apart from a separate section containing the graves of the Sisters of St Josephs.

Lunch from the local bakery and then a quick peer at the river and the 3rd Division Boulles match before watching the ‘Festival de Libre’. Eventually worked out it was a march along with a decorated tractor, about discrimination against gay, lesbions, disabled etc. This kind of tied in with the window of many naked Barbies and Ken dolls with signs on them such as ‘Trop anorexia’ , Trop Amputee’ (Poor doll only had one leg!!)

Back to the train for the very pleasant journey back down the gorge (Ihadn’t realised we had climbed up so far!!) before shopping and then back to the Vans where we had a very pleasant evening eating, drinking and good company, sat outside, overlooking the Rhone! (ACSI Camping de Tournon) (10 miles)

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