Monthly Archives: Feb 2017

Serre Chevalier

Serre Chevalier – Arrival Day

Our base for the week was a private campsite aire in the heart of the village of Villeneuve, the most central of the four key villages that provided direct lift access to the expansive ski area of Serre Chevalier.

Due to overnighting just down the valley in Briançon, we arrived on site much earlier than expected.  With us perhaps a little too eager to get settled in, we phoned the owners of the site and dragged them out to greet us and to agree which plot suited their scheduling plans best.  We got a corner plot near the entrance, only thirty metres or so from the main ski lift, and our short hose reached the service point taps from there, so all was well.  We had some difficulty getting into the pitch as the site was layered with thick snow, compacted in many places to hard ice.  The lady owner graciously helped us get manoeuvred in with the aid of rubber mats under our wheels and we surprisingly plopped into our snowy pitch perfectly level, with no chocks required.  Perfect.

serre-chevalier-campsite-aire

This would be our longest stop on our 160 days of travels to date, seven nights in the same location, and we were excited to be stationary for such a long time.  To make our little nest as comfortable as possible we scraped and shovelled snow and created a nice, level access path around Benny, to make our access and egress as simple as possible.

We had a leisurely afternoon walk around the village, where we bought our six-day lift passes to begin the following day, but had to return to the local hire shop the following morning to hire our skis and boots, before making our way to the slopes.

serre-chevalier-local-village

It was a Saturday, the normal ski transition day when the race to reach the resort from local airports would be clogging up the roads, so we were glad to have already arrived and, even more fantastic, to have the lifts and slopes almost entirely to ourselves.  There were only a handful of other people on the newly groomed pistes, likely locals or perhaps chalet staff that had part of the day off until their new clients arrived.

The sun was bright and the sky a deep, blinding blue, with light wispy clouds the only interruption.  We decided to first explore the most distant stretches of the ski area, heading over towards Briançon, while both the weather was good and the crowds light.  We enjoyed many empty, tree-lined runs back down into the town, and with no queues to delay our return back up we covered a lot of ground, rigorously testing our shaky ski-legs.

serre-chevalier-on-the-piste

serre-chevalier-a-on-slopes

The afternoon brought biting winds that gusted across the mountain tops, moving huge banks of newly-gathered cloud around like someone hurriedly rearranging plush grey cushions.  We ate lunch in a BBQ stop near the top of the valley, with stunning views and the sun on our faces, relaxing into deckchairs in the only place we saw people congregate all day.  After a hard morning and with the thought of five more full days to follow, we thought it best to make a move back home, to ensure we arrived back at Benny for 3.25pm, just in time to watch the Six Nations games on our laptop, with a few refreshing beers.

serre-chevalier-lunch-with-a-view

serre-chevalier-lunch-stop

The next day there were mottled clouds that rumbled across our view like giant icebergs in a rough, grey sea.  We were suddenly very glad we’d had the beautiful Saturday, and we instantly noticed the difference as we queued for fifteen minutes for the first lift up.  Once we reached a position a few lifts up from base the crowds thinned out and the pistes regained their wonderful openness.  The dark clouds parted like giant curtains for short moments, letting the too-bright shafts of orange sunlight fall across us and the valley.  The glowing solar heat on our faces was immediate as it instantly pushed aside the clawing fingers of the icy winds.  We sought out the sunny patches as we skied, both to warm us and to allow us better visual contrast in the snowy white-on-white.

serre-chevalier-panorama

On our third day skiing, we met up with friends from home, Jonathan and Fiona, along with their extended family.  We skied over to meet them in Le Monétier-les-Bains, had a lovely lunch there before hitting the slopes with Jon and his brother-in-law Ben, a local Frenchman and expert skier.  The dull, overcast morning transformed into another bright blue, sunny afternoon as we worked around the local ski area, enjoying the runs and catching up.

serre-chevalier-with-friends

Later in the week we were invited to dinner back at theirs, a traditionally French raclette meal that we enjoyed with a tasty red.  On the way over we viewed a small part of the ‘Serre Che‘ social entertainment programme, in this case an acrobat on a wire performing twists and turn for the skiers as they came off the slopes.

After dusk had won its battle against the bright sunshine and toned down the brilliance of the white snowy slopes to a greyish moon-illuminated glow, from the advantaged position of the piste-facing dormer windows of Ben’s family home, we were all treated to a great view of the colourful, snaking  descente aux flambeaux, night ski with torches, on the nearby slopes, followed by a spectacular firework display to round off the night; chapeau, Che.

serre-chevalier-acrobat-show

serre-chevalier-dinner-with-friends

One glorious morning we chose a long black as our first run of the day, drawn to it as the piste was entirely empty as we passed over on the chairlift up.  The run was beautifully tree-lined but almost bare; what little thin snow powder coating there had been having slid off the very steep face.  It was, at times, like sliding down a wide sheet of ice, and holding enough of an edge to slow down progress on our turns was next to impossible.  Our skis screeched and scraped on the compacted snow, like fingernails down a dusty blackboard. On several portions we had to simply accept our ever-increasing speed, straighten up and go, working our leg muscles very hard to hold our line, and nerve, until the piste levelled out a little. We reached 70km/hour on occasion, more as a practical necessity than a specific desire, but it was so exhilarating to have the run of a steep, smooth piste all to ourselves; an impeccable skiing experience.

serre-chevalier-n-skis

serre-chevalier-on-a-black

One afternoon we spent a fun hour playing in the Videozone area with the cool kids, where we caught a little air on jumps and had a few near falls, just holding the landing together in the less than elegant style of a flapping Frank Spencer.  Unfortunately, the videos we set to record us, uniquely linked to our lift passes, did not appear on-line as promised, so we were a little disappointed not to be able to relive both the glory and embarrassment.

serre-chevalier-mountaiin-view

serre-chevalier-last-lunch

We skied each day from 9am until around 3.30pm, when our legs gave out and we had to return to rest.  There was perfect powder coating on most higher altitude red runs, but there was some slushy ice with muddy stones coming through the sparse snow on the skinny green runs nearer to village level, especially so at the end of the week.  During the week we ate our lunch in five different points spread out across the mountain range, each with a different but special view, and once with Jonathan, Fiona and all the family in their apartment in Monétier.  We coloured in the full piste map over the course of six days, with only a couple of high glacier blacks not attempted as the wide reds were just too much fun.

serre-chevalier-n-at-lunch

It was a fantastic week’s skiing, and catching up with friends, and despite the gruelling efforts of our leg muscles we felt nicely rested without the usual driving and planning we have to undertake each day in our ‘normal‘ life.   But the road was calling us again.

serre-chevalier-piste-map

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Provençal villages – Part 2

Camping de la Colline, Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux

We left the hailstones of AYME TRUFFE behind, this morning a lot clearer, brighter and drier than the previous afternoon had been.  We first stopped at a well-known local liquor distiller outlet, Domaine Eyguebelle, where we had a quick tour of their museum and facilities and a few indulgent tastings of their wide range of products, although we left without purchasing anything on this occasion.

eyguebelle-liquers

Again, we didn’t move far, as this area of France was rich with options and opportunities and we had a few extra days to enjoy before our skiing date.  We drove only a handful of miles back west, to the village of Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux, where we treated ourselves to a couple of nights in a comfortable, off-season and almost empty campsite, as a little treat and to ensure we had access to Wi-Fi and a TV, as this was the opening weekend of the Six Nations and we’re big rugby fans.

saint-paul-trois-chateaux-private-bar

saint-paul-trois-chateaux-6-nations

We arrived and set up our pitch after greeting the lovely, amiable hosts who generously and selflessly offered us access to their currently closed-for-refurbishment bar area.  Rather than having to rely on watching France 2 on-line over a dodgy Wi-Fi connection, we could now watch the matches in our own private bar space; perfect.  Nicky had a friendly and jolly conversation each time our host passed by, and decided that she should have the coveted title of Nicky’s adopted French mummy; she was so sweet and helpful and lovely and made our stay much more comfortable and enjoyable.

saint-paul-trois-chateaux-truffle-market

On Sunday morning, in a light drizzle, we wandered into the nearby village of Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux.  We discovered some very beautiful streets and squares, one of which had a well-hidden but lively truffle market in full swing.  We joined in and treated ourselves to some warming truffle ravioli and a glass of red, not quite our usual Sunday morning brunch, but it was very tasty and a thoroughly French experience.  We later carried a fresh, warm baguette home under our arm to continue our strict observations of local customs.

saint-paul-trois-chateaux-ravioli-and-wine

Domaine des Lauribert, near Vison

After leaving Camping de la Colline we first headed north and visited the large town of Montélimar.  We parked up in a central aire that usually carries a small charge, but the ticket machine was out of action, so we enjoyed free parking close within a town centre, instead of having to drive our usual frustrating loops in search of a suitable spot.

We walked the short distance to the Tourist Office, then through the rather dead town centre in search of the famous local delicacy – Montélimar nougat.  There were many shops selling the confectionary, and we were offered a few free samples in various stores, but it was certainly not the same product we remembered from our childhood; it had a weird, dry texture, rather unpleasant, like eating nutty cotton wool.

grignan-chateau

We quickly visited a local Feu Vert, a French Halfords equivalent, to purchase snow chains and a shovel in readiness of us ascending to 1500m in a few days’ time.  Although the weather suggested we’d not need them, for the sake of safety and our own peace of mind, and to alleviate the possibility of the local gendarme, who can on occasion check whether vehicles have the correct equipment for the conditions, stipulating that we cannot proceed into the high mountains without them. They will always be a useful carry for future ski trips, or potentially for our upcoming Norway adventure.

domain-de-lauribert-lavander-fields

We left Montélimar and headed eastwards to begin our push back towards the Alps.  We ended up back in prime vineyard territory, and after several false stops and changed minds, we settled on a large, well set up aire at the Domaine des Lauribert, with space for perhaps thirty motorhomes but with no other current visitors.  The freezing cold Mistral winds were blowing a chill through the site, but it was a beautiful sight as the sun dropped its pink light over the bare vines in the vineyards right by our private, quiet spot.

domain-de-lauribert-vines

We had a late wine tasting with the owner Robert, whose name was responsible for the  -bert of the Domaine’s brand name.  We tried six or seven different varieties of their wines, from rosé to white to fruity reds, to the deep oak aged reds that were so strong and almost overpowering.  Robert also insisted we try a few other available products from their produits de terroir, such as local honey with lavender.  We purchased a couple of bottles, a fresh, clean white and a fruity mid-red we both enjoyed.  Nicky was also kindly given the already opened but still almost full bottle of white used for our dégustation for further private tastings ‘pour la nuit’.  This gift earned a big merci and three neat kisses on cheeks.

domain-de-lauribert-tasting

domain-de-lauribert-snow-chain-practice

The following morning we were out of basic provisions, namely bread and tea bags, so as the weather was dry and bright and the wind had died down, I decided to run to the nearest shop whilst Nicky played with her camera in amongst the vines.  It was a beautiful 4km run through rolling vineyards and farmland to the outskirts of the nearest town where I found a suitable shop and bought the necessary items, although I had to work a little harder returning uphill to the Domaine.  We later had a long walk out into the countryside, to enjoy the air and views.  We then practiced putting on our snow chains, to be prepared should we need to jump into action on the steep climbs up to Serre Chevalier, although we were hopeful our efforts would be entirely wasted and unnecessary.

la-roche-des-arnauds

briancon-old-town

The next morning we continued our drive up the valley in the direction of Gap, stopping at a scruffy car-park and walking around the village of La Roche-Des-Arnauds.  From here we continued up the valley, the roads thankfully clear of snow and cars, to reach the bottom of the Serre Chevalier valley, at the large town of Briançon.  We parked in another free aire overnight, a shared car-park really, and had a very steep walk up to and around the old town streets.  The following morning we had only a short trip of seven miles to our base for the week, a private aire in the central village of Villeneuve.  It was here we were meeting friends from the UK for a week’s skiing.  We settled in and readied ourselves for a very active ski week.

Provençal villages – Part 1

Beaumes-de-Venise

After completing our cycle around the villages near Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we drove a short distance to the large village of Beaumes-de-Venise, where we parked up at a free aire at a small winery.  The Domaine Bouletin was currently being run by the fifth generation of the founding family, a real multi-generational affair with wine-making.  We were all alone in the aire, fully supplied with free electricity and all necessary services, and we were able to pick up our usually elusive Orange wifi from inside Benny; all quite luxurious for us. It’s usually the simple, little things that make the experience so nice and restful, and with all our needs catered for we settled in for a few days.

beaumes-de-venise-church

beaumes-de-venise-domaine

We went for a short exploratory walk around the nearby village, locating the useful local shops, main square and church, before walking up and around the hilly historic centre.  The route led past an historic fountain, then up to a terrace and an outdoor theatre seemingly built into the rock.  The views from the top let us see right over the town and all the way down the valley and beyond.  We later had a lovely wine tasting with the current owner, a little old lady who let us taste five or six different wines whilst chatting away to us in French.  We bought a five litre box of our favourite red, and were advised that the wine would last for three months once opened; we very much doubted it.

beaumes-de-venise-view-to-mt-ventoux

The following morning was cold and windy, but we still had to cycle the tempting countryside.  We first popped into town again to pick up a few provisions, before heading out on a long loop we had planned the night before.  We headed out of the village on steep but empty roads, with a view over to Mont Ventoux, snowcapped and extremely dominant in the flatlands, standing tall on our left.  We then dropped off the hill we were crossing to reach a canal, where we continued off-road along the canal tow-path.  The canal was empty of water, overgrown and scruffy, so not quite as pretty as was hoped.  The path was cut up and occasionally wet with mud, the outside bank lined with tall grasses that rustled in the wind as we passed.  We visited several local villages, the highlight being the large medieval centre of Carpentras, and passed through many bare vineyards, with the occasional field of apple and persimmon trees breaking up the pattern; a lovely cycle.

beaumes-de-venise-canal-cycle

La Baume-de-Transit

Leaving our cosy and comfortably private spot in Beaumes-de-Venise we drove first to the beautiful village of Gigondas for a quick look, before proceeding to the nearby village of La Baume-de-Transit, where we parked up in the midst of a grove of olive trees, in the heart of the grounds of another winery.  Again, we were the only visitors, and had a few hours of relaxing in the confines of the gardens, with a donkey and several sheep quiet in a pen behind us, before we approached the main farmhouse for our dégustation.

gigondas-main-street

la-baume-de-transit-tasting

We were met by the son of the current owner, who unfortunately had an injured eye from a recent farming accident.  We had a thorough tasting of many wines, before being offered a quick tour of the facilities and bottling plant.  It was a small operation, with many of the repetitive tasks associated with bottling still being undertaken manually, which made it all the more personal and interesting.  In our varied discussions, we mentioned not having tried truffles much before, so were gifted with two small truffles to try, and oddly also a free breathalyser kit for our future travels.  It was another lovely visit, tour and a great overnight spot, so we happily purchased another five litre box of a fruity, spicy red we both enjoyed to see us through the coming weeks.

Via Valréas to Domaine de Lumian

From La Baume-de-Transit we moved on to the town of Valréas, were we parked on the side of the road near the tourist office and walked around the centre of town.  It was a very busy town, with a huge amount of traffic and poorly parked cars littering every wide, tree-lined street.  We walked around the rather scruffy medieval centre, where we found the obligatory church and small square, but little else of note.  We passed large groups of school kids recently released from class, making quite the raucous escape.  From here we moved on, stopping and leaving several possible dégustation domaines due to them either not being open or us not liking the initial impression of their available aire.

domaine-de-lumian-aire

We finally drove to another large winery, again being the only visitor, where we felt a nice vibe and were happy to relax.  We were again treated with all services and free electricity hook-up and a private picnic table.  We were parked up near to several large wine storage vats that were either being replaced or had been moved outside for intensive cleaning.  In their aire, we rustled up a fresh truffle omelette for lunch, to try out the local ingredients given to us the previous day.  We enjoyed the fluffy eggs on our private picnic spot, feeling quite French and rather smug.

domaine-de-lumian-tasting

Later we had multiple tastings and an informative tour of their cave facilities.  Definitely a larger scale operation from previous stops, there were many large stainless steel wine vats, all with very large diameter hose connections for moving wine around, complete with automated bottling and labelling machines.  We found out that some of the top end wines are stored, aged and finished in flavour-intensifying oak barrels from the US.  We passed through the bottling plant in a fog, as a misty air was obscuring the complex machinery due to it being spray-cleaned at the time.  There was one guy hand fixing ‘wine gold award’ stickers on unfilled five litre boxes of wine, an accolade evidently earned after the boxes were manufactured.  The Domaine used to have up to 2000 motorhomes over the annual season visiting their cave, but the numbers have dwindled in recent years as there are now so many more producers offering the same service to attract potential customers in.  It was the original and still one of the very best.

Montbrison-sur-Lez

Only a short drive away we parked up, again supplied with welcome free electricity, in a municipal parking aire near to the Mairie in the, well, not really a village, more the meagre crossroads, of Montbrison-sur-Lez.

montbrison-sur-lez-country-walk

We cancelled our initial plans to cycle due to blustery high winds, so instead we found a local walk through the vineyards and lavender fields with assistance from the helpful staff at the Mairie.  The entire landscape was in muted pastel colours, looking like it had recently been lime-washed.  The regimented rows of off-season lavender bushes were painted in a light sepia tone, quite different than their bright late spring appearance.  The path was unmarked and proved difficult to follow with the poor map we had been given, so we kept getting lost and having to retrace our steps.  We even had to cross fences on occasion to remove ourselves from fields where we shouldn’t have been, even if the map suggested we were on the correct route.

montbrison-sur-lez-lavander-field

We reached a small chapel and, after a brief look around, lost the mapped path again.  We decided to cut our losses and head back on a gravel path at the back of the chapel not shown on the map.  This proved to be a very easy, neat and direct way, on a much more walkable stone path that many previous, and it led us perfectly back to where we parked up.

AYME TRUFFE, near Grignan

Early in the morning we move on, only another five miles south east, to a private business called AYME TRUFFE, a specialist truffle farm near the town of Grignan.  We spoke briefly to the owner and received a printed truffle recipe sheet that could prove useful.  Although they are not officially open this time of year except by appointment, they are still happy for us to stay in their grounds, and today we are the only visitors.

grillon-main-square

After a short look around we decided to go for a long cycle to explore the local villages, so got organised and headed out.  We crossed a dried-up river bed as a shortcut and soon arrived at the medieval village of Grillon, where we looked around main square and impressive walls.  We cycled up to the top of the impressive stone walls fortifying the village and enjoyed a wonderful view out across the valley floor.  From here we continued into the rolling countryside, through vineyards and latent fields with soil recently turned and awaiting their next crop.  There were many more lavender fields, set out in very neat rows, looking soft and grey under the dull, winter sky.

richerenches-main-street

The next place we reached was the village of Richerenches, a truffle orientated village that had a lovely museum featuring Truffles and Wine accessed from within the Tourist Office.  We read and learnt quite a lot about the horticulture of and specialist cuisine associated with truffles; a very interesting and informative stop.  We bought some baguettes in a local shop, as it was nearing lunchtime and we didn’t want to be without any until the shops open again after 4pm.  Outside, the sky suddenly had a portentous look, the wispy clouds hanging low with a dull, murky shine that suggested they were pregnant with snow.

richerenches-truffle-museum

Our next stop was Visan, another town built into the hillside with a church at the highest point.  We cycled to the top through very narrow openings between buildings, where we had our snack lunch on a wooden bench before descending back to road level.  A large bank of dark grey and menacing cloud was closing in fast, so instead of continuing our proposed longer loop, we searched out a shortcut and headed home fast, due north.

visan-church

We raced along and made it home a lot quicker than when heading out, with a quick 36km completed, before we packed away our bikes in Benny’s garage.  Less than a minute after closing the door behind us and setting our kettle to boil, the expected rains begin, slowly spitting at first, as we congratulate ourselves on avoiding a soaking.  Then on the horizon we see another huge cloud bank, spotted black and approaching fast, fill up our windscreen.  Within a few seconds we experience a massive drop of heavy, sharp hailstones, accompanied with almost simultaneous thunder and lightning.  An opaque layer about an inch thick covered our skylights almost instantly, the angry roar of the thunder and the constant percussion of the hail made any conversation impossible inside our suddenly very vulnerable tin-can home.

ayme-truffe-hailstones

We watched with awe and concern for about an hour as the clouds dumped their cargo on us.   After the storm passed, we watched a truffle farm worker resume his work on a cultivated patch of land outside Benny.  He selected small trees and planted them out, with them several years later to be transferred to their permanent place on the farm.  Truffles are a fungus, similar to mushrooms, that grow in specific conditions under complex tree root systems.  It can take 8-12 years for trees to reach a maturity that allows the truffles to fully develop their mycorrhizal networks within the root systems. The process of setting up a business to artificially farm and supply truffles, known in France as trufficulture, is currently given a tax exempt period of 15 years as an incentive.  We were fascinated to watch the beginning of a new phase in a long, and financially very risky, process that will hopefully provide the residents of this region of France with fresh new, tasty truffles in future years.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Châteauneuf-du-Pape

We left behind us the beautiful city of Avignon to head just a little way further north, following the Route du Vin into the Rhône Valley region, with our first stopover in the celebrated town of Châteauneuf –Du-Pape.

We parked up in the empty car-park at the original Chateau, high on the hill overlooking the town, in what was classed as the official aire for motorhomers visiting the town.  The views were spectacular, but the open gravel parking was fully exposed to the harsh winds and we were battered and rocked wildly for the short time we were there.  Fearing we would be unable to sleep with the weather as it was, we went in search of an alternative option.

chateauneuf-du-pape-near-the-chateau

chateauneuf-du-pape-church

We first walked down the hill into the wine-dominated town, passed stone-built restaurants and many winery merchants offering dégustation gatuit, free wine tastings that we would definitely partake in later.  We saw the neat stone church as we descended through the town’s cobbled streets.  We reached the main street and spoke to helpful locals in the central tourist office who suggested we could stay in the local car park at some nearby playing fields, if we preferred.  Due to the high winds and open isolation of the official aire, we most definitely did prefer.  We later returned to Benny and relocated to the sheltered car-park spot that was also conveniently positioned nearer the town centre.

chateauneuf-du-pape-main-street

Only a few minutes away, on the other side of the street, was another ‘dégustation and vende’ wine producer’s showroom, so we walked over to investigate.  We undertook a self-guided wine tour around their small museum, with a complimentary audio guide that taught us more than we had ever wished to know about viticulture, soil types, production history, harvesting and bottling techniques and many other technical aspects of the wine industry. Afterwards, we met with their sommelier and had free tastings of several of their wines, learning a little about the subtleties of various flavours and how the type of soil affects the output.

chateauneuf-du-pape-tasting-and-museum

We had a second free tasting later that afternoon in a different cave, feeling a little fraudulent as we sampled some quite expensive Châteauneuf –Du-Pape reds that we never had any intention of buying.  But it was a lovely experience for us to sit with the sellers and learn a little more about the region and its wines; very enjoyable indeed.

chateauneuf-du-pape-wine-tasting

Day 2 – Around Châteauneuf-du-Pape

The following morning when we awoke in the town, the strong, cold mistral winds were still blowing hard, so we decided a walk was a more suitable activity than a cycle to explore and help clear cobwebs.  After a warming breakfast we headed off, first around the town again and then out into the open countryside south and west.  There were vineyards galore, all with their vines in various stages of being pruned back to encourage next year’s growth.  We passed a neat little whitewashed chapel nestled into the junction of two roads.  We passed many more Domaines advertising their wares, each step taking us further away into the many hectares of vines that blanketed the countryside.

chateauneuf-du-pape-chateau-from-vineyard

We continued along a river with a side canal, walking through rough scrub countryside where we lost the path, before we passed some private houses that were really run-down.  They looked more like squats, poorly maintained properties with old, broken junk littering their overgrown gardens.  Only the multitude of barking dogs and old cars parked up outside betrayed that they were currently inhabited.  After discovering our wrong turning, we retraced our steps away from the ramshackle houses and back along the canal banks, through more overgrown forest trails.

chateauneuf-du-pape-hers-tower

We finally arrived at the Chateau de L’Hers, an ancient castle that now gives its name to a celebrated local winery.  It is in private ownership, so we couldn’t visit, but it was an impressive construction.  The site, strategically important on the river concourse throughout history, had been occupied since antiquity.  Although many buildings have occupied the site, the existing stone keep was built in 1077, with additional improvements being added in 1316 by the then Pope John XXII, the former Bishop of nearby Avignon.  The chateau sits in ruins now, but still provides historical interest and a strong physical presence.

chateauneuf-du-pape-poster

We later played a little frisbee in empty car-park whilst we still had some light, as an introduction to the inaugural opening of ‘Games Night’, our new weekly night of cards, dominos and board games, all served up with laughter and wine.  We have to find some way to keep ourselves occupied after our daily explorations.

Day 3 –

The morning was another cold, sharp, but thankfully quite still day.  After saying our goodbyes to the lovely town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we drove a short distance to the nearby village of Bennarides, to use as an intermediate base from which to cycle.  We found the small but spacious aire in the village, with only one other visitor parked up, in a huge off-road truck with wheels nearly as tall as Nicky.  It looked the sort of extreme vehicle meant for crossing the Sahara or the Gobi desert on a serious expedition, not one to be casually exploring the cultured wineries and small villages of Provence.

chateauneuf-du-pape-a-cycling-vineyards

chateauneuf-du-pape-amongst-the-vines

We had a planned cycle route through the vineyards, a large circular loop that would take us back into Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the nearby regions.  We unpacked our bikes and set off, first around Bennarides and then out into the vineyards on small, empty roads.  It was a cold day, but bright and clear.  It was proving easy now for us to distinguish the different shapes of vines, and the soils they were planted in as we passed.  Four main soil types dominated the region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with large volcanic pebbles called galets roulés being the most common.  Our route took us back through the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape , our recent home.

chateauneuf-du-pape-returning-to-town

chateauneuf-du-pape-pausing-at-bridge

chateauneuf-du-pape-n-by-the-river

We reached a locally famous bridge, Le Pont de Armeniers, that formed a beautiful reflection on the still water below.   The bridge construction began in 1925 as the result of much hard work by the combined local population.

We finally returned to the aire in Bennarides, after a relaxing 30km loop,  where we packed away our bikes and readied ourselves to move on, slowly with tiny steps as we explored the region closely, to our next stop at another winery with dégustation at our favourite price.

Avignon

Avignon

Waking up in Puy-Sainte-Réparade, we were still undecided as to where today would take us, if indeed anywhere.  The weather was dictating our progress and, to some extent, our general mood, as we hoped to escape the dull, repetitive, activity-supressing rain.  We had a slow breakfast and a bit of map-reading as we searched for options, before deciding it was time to stop procrastinating or awaiting a weather window to allow us to cycle, and instead continue northwards.  We had a skiing date in the mountains arranged before we left home that was drawing close, and we had to commit to a route – from our current position we could approach Serre Chevalier from Italy via Turin, over the mountains from Nice in the direction of Barcelonnette, by motorway through Gap, or from Grenoble by first heading north along the wine route from Avignon to Orange and Valance.  We finally chose the latter, both for the ability to stay as low as possible for as long as possible before entering the Haute Alps and for the opportunities to visit and enjoy tasting tours at many vineyards bordering the Rhône.  So, decision made, we headed off with our first stop to be at the historic city of Avignon.

avignon-pont-and-river

We stopped off en route for a quick shop and a bite of lunch, before reaching what we thought would be our stopping point for the night, an aire in the village of Barbentane.  On arrival it looked sad and neglected, overgrown and pitted with so many deep puddles that we chose not to stop, but with limited options we instead preferred to treat ourselves to a night in a busy campsite right in the centre of Avignon.  Situated less than five minutes from the walled enclosure of the historic centre, the views across the river and the Pont D’Avignon from the site were quite spectacular.

avignon-riverbank-view

avignon-square

The rain had followed us for most of the day, but had neatly relented just as we readied ourselves to visit the city.  Our easy walk across a nearby bridge afforded a fantastic high vista over the city, and our timing in the mid afternoon light, as the rain clouds retreated, lit up the water and stone with a hazy, subtle glow.  The four remaining arches of the Pont D’Avignon, extending halfway into the shimmering Rhône, became a counterweight to the huge Palais des Papes that dominated the Avignon skyline.

avignon-palace-from-square

We entered the city through a wide archway in the huge stone city walls, into a bright and beautiful square with the obligatory plane trees providing wide cover and shade.  We fell in love with Avignon almost instantly; the colour of the stone, the neatness of the squares and the easy class they exuded, the elegant demeanour of the city streets, obvious even in the dull, grey rainy air.  We walked slowly and observed the details, a carved timber doorway here or an ornate lamppost there.

avignon-town-hall

We walked through, across and around the centre streets, constantly looking around, ticking off churches and key sights in a casual way, as we absorbed the city more by osmosis than by intellectual study.  We watched the light change on the stonework as we passed, loving just walking through the busy streets, until the clouds and rain came back and coated the city with a dull, damp sheen and an ever-darkening greyness.  We decided to head back to our campsite to dry off, relax and revisit the city early the next morning.

avignon-pont-from-gardens

The next morning we walked first along the river bank to view the city from a different perspective, low and dark in the morning mist.  We passed by the broken end of the Pont D’Avignon, allowing us to see it set differently against the city behind.  The banks were lined with tall, yellow reeds that contrasted with the stone arches reflected in the dark grey waters. The bridge, officially called Le Pont Saint Bénezet, was first built in 1177 across the Rhône, but was damaged by floods on many occasions.  It was repeatedly repaired and rebuilt over the centuries and up until the end of the 17th century, when the repairs ended.  Only four of the original twenty-two arches are still intact today.

avignon-pont-with-reeds

We had hoped the free navette boats would take us over to the gardens opposite, but we found they were out of service until mid-February.  So we retraced our steps along the bank and returned to the city by the same bridge, crossing the river in a very different, much greyer morning light.  This time, to avoid the persistent dampness of the day, we visited the Palais des Papes.

avignon-city-roofscape

avignon-palace-maiin-facade

During the Western Schism (1378-1417) the Roman Catholic Church was split between two allegiances, with one Pope reigning in Rome, another in Avignon.  The Palais des Papes was the grand resident of the Avignon Pope during this time, built as part comfortable palace, part defensible castle, with aspects of each jostling for dominance.  The second Avignon Pope, Benedict XIII was confined to the palace, where he withstood two bloody sieges before finally fleeing the palace in 1403.  After years of constant wandering, he would later find refuge with the King of Aragon.  The Papacy was finally reunited under one banner in 1417 with the election of Martin V at the Council of Constance.

avignon-palace-of-the-popes

avignon-to-gardens

The rooms were spatially very grand, but cold, stark and often lacking light, occasionally looking more like a solid prison than a fine residence.  We saw into treasury rooms with secret floors under which the main coin of the Papal wealth was stored.  Some private bedrooms still had the original painted wall decorations, of a style that would not aid sleeping.  The larger halls felt more like Gothic churches, with tall decorative windows and vaulted ceilings.  The roof edge ramparts were the most interesting part, allowing both views over the internal courtyards and the empty plainness of the elevations there, and also views out over the entire city roofscape.  We could see out over the nearby gardens, the Rocher des Doms, and the main square in front of the palace.

avignon-palace-tombs

avignon-palace-halls

We left the Palace and headed up into the gardens, to enjoy the views back down to the river, to the Pont D’Avignon and beyond.  We then buried ourselves back into the tightknit streets, wandered at will and greedily took it all in.  We briefly visited La Maison Jean Vilar, dedicated to theatre and the Performing Arts, before continuing our morning walk through the pretty squares of Avignon.

avignon-palace-plaza

avignon-palace-rooftops

We had to return and leave our campsite by 1pm, so we reluctantly tore ourselves away from the city.  We returned by the same bridge, had one last look over the river and the city skyline before we made our way back.  We had only been in or around Avignon for around 20 hours, such a short time, but we felt an immediate connection to its beauty and history, much stronger and more defined than in other French cities we’d recently visited; la destination idéale pour une escapade provençale.

Arles, Salin de Giraud and Puy-Sainte-Réparade

Arles, Salin de Giraud and Puy-Sainte-Réparade

Moving on from the canal banks in Saint-Gilles, we headed next to Arles, another nearby historic Roman town also the proud owner of its own bullring arena.  Unknown to us as we drove in, it was market day in Arles and most of the centre streets were given up to stalls and associated vehicles, so we got snarled up in complicated one-way traffic and constant re-routing as we threaded through.  We finally made our way around to a very spacious aire on the river, specific for motorhomes and reasonably near the centre, from where we could easily walk to see the town.

arles-river-bank-walls

arles-river

It was a Saturday and a large market was in full swing, taking over most of the centre streets and almost all the commerce.  We walked through the busy stalls, noting the varied produce and trying hard to follow the intensive chatter between buyers and sellers. We had a quick post office visit to buy a stamp and post a birthday card to Nicky’s sister, before escaping the market and walking through a local park.  Here we saw more Roman ruins and a formal statue in a fountain, alongside planted beds that lacked all colour at this time of year.

arles-arena

arles-bullring-arches

This led on to the main event; the Arles Roman bullring, in many ways similar to that of Nîmes that we had recently visited.  We circled around the impressive structure, looking into the oval where possible through the many arches, but we choose not to enter the arena on this occasion.  The temperature in the town varied from too hot to very cold as we walked around, depending on whether our position was sheltered or shady, in direct sun or battered by the chilled northern winds.   We left soon after with a very positive impression of the town, it being especially good to have seen it in the throes of such a hectic, market morning, perhaps the busiest and liveliest time of the week.

arles-square

arles-town-hall

From here we drove deep into the Camargue region, down to the coast at a small town called Salid-de-Giraud.  This was perhaps not the most obvious base, but it seemed a lot quieter and had free aires to stay in, rather than us paying for campsites in the more popular places.  The town itself was laid out on a grid pattern, with wide streets made specifically for cars and parking, more in an American style than typically European.  It certainly suggested that space out here was not at a premium, that land was cheap and room to spread out was the norm.  This spatial openness contrasted with the tightly-knit medieval towns recently visited in a very stark and obvious manner.

arles-church

arles-gardens

We had hatched grand plans to cycle along the beach frontage to the main town of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, where most visitors to the Camargue choose to congregate.  This would have allowed us to visit the local harbours, the coastal lighthouses and to see a lot of varied terrain within the Camargue region, from marshlands and wetlands to sand dunes and grassy meadows, not to mention possibilities to spot the extensive local wildlife in-situ.  Unfortunately, what followed our arrival was two full days of heavy, persistent, driving rain and high winds that spoiled our plans to cycle.  We could have persisted despite the deluge, but visibility was low and the views of the coastline would have been spoiled, lost in the folds of the dull grey overcoat worn by the local weather, so we chose not to expend ourselves to such a lost cause.

We used the time to catch up on other lagging projects, from updating blog posts and sending emails to sorting out clothes and photos, all from the comfort of Benny.  We had the occasional dart out to pick up fresh bread at the local boulangerie, even driving the 500 metres there on one occasion to avoid the inevitable drenching.  Lazy down days can be a great healer, restorative and useful, but after the second day we began to feel a little cooped up and trapped, so we made a move onwards rather than wait out the storm.  The cycle route we hoped to ride across the Camargue would have to wait until a future visit.

After our two nights of waiting out the terrible weather, we reluctantly retraced our steps back to Arles, reusing the available aire services as we passed by the town, before heading on towards Salon-de-Provence.  We stopped just beyond in the small town of Pélissanne, where we parked up in the second-last space in the surprisingly full aire near the centre of town.  Signage warned us that the aire would be closed in two days’ time, in anticipation of the circus coming to town, but we would surely be gone by then.  The weather had cleared up with our journey north and east, so we had a quiet, slow walk around the pretty provincial town, seeing the usual town hall, church and neatly presented central streets.  We then returned to Benny, cooked dinner and made plans for the coming days.

Puy-Sainte-Réparade

On leaving Pélissanne, we tried to visit the large town of Aix-en-Provence but were denied entry, despite our best endeavours.  After much fruitless searching for anywhere to park within a walkable three miles of the town, we finally admitted defeat and retreated instead back to the soothing, easy countryside, with the quiet vow to skip any further towns unless we can reach them easily by public transport or bike.  Still, another place we now have to return to the region to visit, but not by motorhome.

The whole region of Provence still seemed to be stuck in autumn, the dying, yellowed leaves remaining stubbornly adorned to the tiny branches of the prolific plane trees.  Combined with an excess of ivy, mistletoe and other evergreen climbing plants, the forested hills looked positively green and alive, compared to the stark winter nakedness of previous areas we had passed through.

puy-s-r-main-street

Our retreat from Aix-en-Provence took us to a nearby aire in the village of Puy-Sainte-Réparade, which could accommodate at least ten camping-cars, but where we were the only visitors.  We parked up in the comfortable and spacious plot set adjacent to new sports pitches and a wide, fast flowing canal.  We decided to walk west along the canal, to the village of Saint-Estève-Janson, around 5km away, to replace our usual town walk and to check out the local scenery.  It was very cold but clear and bright, a lovely winter walking experience.  We were passed by several joggers in both directions, the route an obviously popular exercise trail following the water course.

puy-s-r-n-on-canal-path

Saint-Estève-Janson was a typically pretty, neat and impeccably presented Provençal village, almost too nice, like what Provence might be like when envisaged by Disney.  We enjoyed a few loops walking, ensuring we saw the Maire and the main square.  We returned by mostly the same route, only cutting inland near the end to pass by the local Chateau D’Arnajon, a name on the map which turned out to be a private home, for values of ‘home’ relative to a slightly scaled down version of Chatsworth House.

puy-s-r-a-at-canal

puy-s-r-canal-banks

The next morning we pottered around the village doing trivial jobs, until during a haircut session we noticed a screwhead tightly driven into the tread of one tyre.  The tyre was still fully inflated, so the screw had not yet caused a flat, but could do at any moment.  We called in to Camper Assist, our Europe wide breakdown cover, who organised a local guy to attend.  He arrived less than an hour later and efficiently swapped the tyre for our spare, informed us the current cold weather spell was entirely ‘special’ and totally unprecedented, whilst also complimenting Nicky on her excellent French.  We had planned to move on after one day, but we liked the aire and the sleepy village so stayed another night.  We had a late afternoon walk around Puy-Sainte-Réparade centre, bought some fresh provisions and settled in to enjoy the glowing pink sunset over the tree-lined canal.