Monthly Archives: Mar 2017

Our first six months – an activity and financial synopsis

Our first six months – an activity and financial synopsis

Following on from our First six months photographic synopsis, we decided to also create an activity and financial synopsis, to record the details of our life on the road to date:

As motorhoming newbies, going full-time in our very first van was quite a scary proposition at first.  Would we enjoy it?  How would we cope with the driving?  Would our budget be sufficient, or have we made any miscalculations?  How would we get on in such close confinement every day?  The answers would only be supplied by time, patience, prudence and experimentation.

We learned not to see our day-to-day life in our van as a holiday, but as a specific lifestyle choice that brings its own trials, complications and rewards.  We gave up a lot of valued possessions, personal comforts and money to gain the time, freedom and frugality we experience on the open road.  Along the way we’ve had our share of difficulties and headaches, made some mistakes, but these normal hiccups in our new lives have been the insignificant parts of a much larger and complex jigsaw puzzle we have been building slowly and rewardingly together over these past six months.

First Six Months - Route

The above image is a rough sketch of our route, from our initial arrival in Dieppe until we arrived back in Dieppe six months later.  In these first 184 days on the road, we have:

  • Driven 7071 miles, in three countries (not including England), for an average of 38 miles per day.  ( France – 3256 miles; Spain – 2756 miles; Portugal – 1059 miles. )
  • Had our fuel costs and driving efficiency (27.1 mpg) average out to around €0.19 per mile
  • Cycled 1040 kilometres, mostly off-road, with 30 outings on our bikes
  • Walked over 500 kilometres (GPS tracked) and more urban kilometres that weren’t recorded

As mentioned previously in our80 days’ synopsis post, we tracked all money spent on the road, because we wanted to ensure this is a fully sustainable way of life for us.  We created an over-complicated multi-tab excel spreadsheet, a good sign of much too much time on our hands, that we used every day to input distances travelled and costs incurred.  We then compared what we spent our money on from month to month and from country to country, and tracked all our outgoings in specifically defined categories, as detailed below:

FOOD – Food bought from a supermarket / shop. This includes wine and beer, but not eating out
FUEL – Diesel for Benny
LPG – Propane gas for cooking, heating and running the fridge when not on sites
TRANSPORT – Tolls, vignettes, ferries, bridges, public transport & parking when not overnighting
EATING OUT – Eating and drinking out in restaurants and bars (also includes snacks and ice creams)
OVERNIGHT STAYS – Cost of sites, aires or parking overnight, where a cost applied
ENTERTAINMENT – Entry fees for museums, galleries, castles, cathedrals, attractions and other events etc..
Note: This final category also includes personal items such as clothes, shoes, laundry and other misc. items

The current ratio of our spending is as per the image below:

six month finances - including skiing

The final category, the loosely defined ‘Entertainment’, has proved to be the most problematic for us, as it became the place to dump in all costs not otherwise specified.  This category then became massively skewed by the inclusion of a week’s skiing in Serre Chevalier, as this added the equivalent cost of around six weeks of travel into just one week.  If we removed all the main costs associated with our full week of skiing, including purchasing ski chains, lift passes, ski and pole hire and the ski aire camping costs, we would instead have:

six month finances - without skiing

Our ‘by country’ cost averages worked out as:
77 days in France –   €60 / day (inc. skiing)  or €46 / day with skiing trips excluded.
75 days in Spain –     €29 / day
31 days in Portugal -€25 / day

It’s clear that by removing skiing from the equation the general theme remains, as before, that feeding ourselves is the biggest expense, followed by diesel for travel, with every other category of expenses lagging far behind.  But in general, we’re comfortable with our pace, our spending and our level of activity throughout. All is going well and looking fully sustainable going forward.

Our next long trip, beginning in a few weeks at the end of April, is east and north, for a touch of Midnight Sun. We plan to ferry to the Hook of Holland and drive through the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark before crossing to explore Sweden, Norway and Finland.  We definitely will continue to track all costs and miles, writing up posts and recording our experiences as we go, keeping active and living as we originally planned.

Our first six months – a photographic synopsis

Our first six months – a photographic synopsis

Over the preceding twenty-six weeks, or more accurately 184 days, we have passed through many stunning places, towns and landscapes around Western Europe.  We have cycled, walked and swam in beautiful and varied locations, covering more ground and staying fitter than we would have during the cold, grey winters of home.  We have eaten well, enjoyed the company of many friendly people, revelled in the noise of busy cities and the solitude of high mountains or rural retreats along the way.  It’s been nearly impossible to narrow each of our adventure-packed months down to only a few choice photos, but that’s the task we set ourselves for this post, to create a quick and colourful, impressionistic overview covering many aspects and experiences in our new life to date.

September 2016 – Synopsis
Day one in France took us to Rouen to see the cathedral, then Giverny and Monet’s Garden.  From there we enjoyed cycling to Mont St. Michel and Dinan, before seeing Poitiers and visiting friends in Chateau-Gontier and Moncontour.  We then relished a few days exploring on Île de Ré.  We headed south to first see Dune de Pilat then Biarritz, before crossing into Spain and stopping at San Sebastian.  Next up were Bilbao and Santander, before we reached the Picos de Europa where we walked Fuente De and Cares Gorge.  Then we headed west along Spain’s north coast, stopping in Gijon, Cudillero and finally Navia where we spent a few relaxing days on a clifftop with our own private beach below.

September 2016 – Photographic highlights

Monets garden, GivernyExploring Monet’s Garden, Giverny, France

Avranches park - sketchingSketching in the park in Avranches, France

cycling to Mont st michelEnjoying a long rural cycle to reach Mont St. Michel, Northern France

Ile de Re sunsetBeach walking under an Île de Ré sunset, Western France

A+N Dune du PilatEnjoying the sun and sand at the Dune de Pilat, Western France

Walk 3 - lunch with a viewTrekking the mountains in the Picos de Europa, Northern Spain

Navia - (lunch overlooking bay)Cycling the rugged coast near Navia, Northern Spain

October 2016 – Synopsis
Tapia de Casariego was our next stop, where we cycled and walked portions of the Camino de Santiago, an experience we repeated from Palas del Rei.  We drove the Spanish west coast to Boiro, then on to a rural stop in O Mundil, before crossing into Portugal at Bragança.  We had long, rainy and tough cycles around Meda, Benquerenca and Idanha-a-Nova, before a more religiously influenced route took us through Tomar, Fatima and Batalha.  We reached the Atlantic and west coast of Portugal at Nazare, before following it south to Sintra and Cascais.  We visited Belem and the capital Lisbon and then spent long, lazy days in glorious sunshine at the beaches of Fonte da Telha.

October 2016 – Photographic highlights

Boiro (Az on decking)Chilling on our private decking on the beach at Boiro, Western Spain

O Mundil (skinny dipping)Skinny-dipping in the cold river at O Mundil, Spain

Monsanto (Walk up to castle)Climbing the heights at Monsanto, Eastern Portugal

Batalha (Az at cathedral)Visiting the cathedral of Batalha, Portugal

Sintra Pena Palace from High CrossWalking to Pena Palace from Sintra, Western Portugal

Fonte del Telha - beachfrontLazy days and fantastic sunsets, Fonte da Telha, Portugal

Porto Covo (N playing in the waves)Playing in the wild west coast surf, Porto Covo, Portugal

November 2016- Synopsis
We tore ourselves from Fonte da Telha to visit further beaches at Porto Covo, Lagos and Luz, before turning east to Albufeira.  Skipping the rest of Portugal, we jumped back into Spain and a fantastic city break in Seville. We loved the Via Verde cycling at Puerto Serrano and Olvera before escaping into the high mountains to see Ronda and Casares, where we encountered griffon vultures.  We skipped through the busy Costa Del Sol, preferring to be back into the rural tranquillity of El Torcal, before reaching Granada and the sublime Alhambra. We returned to beach living at Playa La Carolina before reaching Totana and the Sierra Espuna where we climbed beautiful, rugged mountains.

November 2016 – Photographic highlights

Seville (Plaza de Espana reflection)Exploring the beautiful city of Seville, Spain

Olvera (A looks out from church)Cycling and walking the pueblo blanco town of Olvera, Spain

Casares (town from castle)Exploring the town of Casares in the mountains, Spain

Casares (A and n near summit)Climbing Sierra Crestalina and seeing griffon vultures, Spain

Antequera (n in el torcal)Wandering through the amazing rock formations of El Torcal near Antequera, Spain

Granada (view from towers)Exploring the incredible Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Totana (a rest with a view)Climbing peaks in the Sierra Espuna near Totana, Spain

December 2016 – Synopsis
We met up with Nicky’s mum for five days of exploring Murcia, Cartagena and the nearby coastline from our base in Torre Pacheco.  We saw the groovy town of Castell de Gaudalest before arriving in the orange groves of Simat de la Valldigna where we enjoyed many mountain walks. We cycled around Carcaixent before an eye-opening visit to Valencia and a weather-beaten tour of Peniscola.  We briefly visited Morella and hid in the deep quiet wetlands of the Delta L’Ebre for a few days.  We visited Tarragona and  ArtCAVA then had two days in Barcelona in glorious weather, before spending Christmas by the beach in Blanes.  We visited musical Girona and Sant Feliu De Guixols to end our year.

December 2016 – Photographic highlights

Cobaticas (playing in the sea)A fantastic swim and play in the sea near Cobaticas, Spain

Simat monastery (oranges context)Exploring the monastery and orange groves of Simit de la Valldigna, Spain

Valencia (Hemisferic reflected)Walking around the grand city of Valencia, Spain

Peniscola (wild seas)Bracing , wild weather storm in the walled citadel of Pensicola, Spain

ARTCAVA (n tasting with Ramon)Having a wonderful tour and chat with Ramon from ArtCAVA, Spain

Barcelona (sangrada familia) (6)Revisiting Barcelona and the Gaudi masterpiece of the Sagrada Familia, Spain

Blanes (christmas morning on beach)Christmas day on the beach, complete with long swim, Blanes, Spain

January 2017 – Synopsis
Our year began with a beautiful coastal walk from Tamariu to Llfranc, before we headed back into France via Cadaques.  We visited Argeles-sur-Mer, then skied in Los Angles in the Pyrenees.  We saw Cathar castles in Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse, before working north through Quillan and Esperaza to Limoux, to visit friends Jan and Andy.  We saw Carcassonne and the Canal du Midi, before heading west to Lagrasse.  A visit to Narbonne was followed by windy beach walks around Gruisson.  Further city visits to Beziers and Montpellier followed, then a long-awaited reunion of Nicky with her French pen-friend in Saint-Just.  We saw Nimes and Saint-Gilles, then drove south to visit a rainy Camargue, before seeing Arles, beautiful Avignon and finishing deep into wine country at Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

January 2017 – Photographic highlights

Tamariu (forest trail)A wonderful New Year’s Day walk along the Costa Brava coast, Tamariu, Spain

Quillan (a with town behind)Overlooking the rooftops of Quillan, deep in the foothills of the Pyrenees, France

Nîmes (a on top ring of arena)Visiting the bullring and central streets of Nimes, France

Gruissan (view from castle)Braving the harsh winds to enjoy the view in Gruissan, France

Béziers (town and bridge)Climbing the heights of Beziers, southern France

Avignon (pont and river)The beautiful city of Avignon, Southern France

Chateauneuf-du-pape (wine tasting)Enjoying many wine tastings in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape region, France

February 2017 – Synopsis
We continued enjoying dégustations in Provençal villages, and a truffle market in St.Paul-Trois-Chateaux.  From the peaceful aire at Domaine des Lauribert we next went to Gap, Briançon and onwards to meet friends for skiing in Serre Chevalier.  We crossed the Col du Lautaret to Grenoble, staying at Visieu and Belley where we cycled peaceful canal routes. We visited Vongnes, enjoying wine tastings and nature walks.  We cycled around Dôle, visited Besançon and the quiet lake at Vesoul, before an architectural pilgrimage to Ronchamp cathedral.  We had a few restful days in Charmes, then a busy city visit to Nancy before arriving in Mareuil-sur-Ay in the heart of Champagne country.

February 2017 – Photographic highlights

Ronchamp (front)Our architectural pilgrimage to Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, France

Domain de Lauribert (vines)Quiet walks through vineyards in rural wine country, France

Montbrison-sur-Lez (lavander field)Long walks through the lavender fields of Provence, France

Serre Chevalier (with friends)Skiing with friends in Serre Chevalier, France

Voseul - lakesideRestful parking overlooking the lake at sunset in Vesoul, France

Glandieu waterfallCycling to the waterfalls of Glandieu near Belley, France

Vongnes - miradorCycling and walking through the countryside around Vongnes, France

Laon, Thiepval and the Somme


We drove up the winding contours of the steep hill leading to the historic centre of Laon, where we reached comfortable camping-car only parking set adjacent to the medieval walls.  We walked through the walls and into the old town, following the grey stoned cobbled streets to reach the large square that opened out in front of the impressive Notre Dame cathedral.  Built between the years of 1150-1235 CE, this Gothic cathedral was a precursor and inspiration to many more famous local cathedrals, such as those at Chartres and Reims.

Laon (parking at city walls)

Laon (cathedral frontage)

We continued our walking tour through the city, busy with commerce and traffic, to the Abbey church of Saint Martin.  From a raised promenade near here we could enjoy views out across the local countryside. The hillside city, known by the Gauls as Lugdunum, was set on a large mound in the centre of the wide valley, providing the opportunity for great views and leaving it prominently visible for many miles around.  The towers of the Notre Dame cathedral dominated the skyline, but the green forests at the base of the walls, locally called the ‘lungs of Laon’ provided the natural, softening backdrop.

Laon (cathedral interior)

Laon (city model)

We moved on, deeper into the quiet northern flatlands, where we stayed overnight in a French Passion aire in the small village of Sancourt. Les Canards de la Germaine, a farm selling produce such as duck, fois gras and cider, were our friendly hosts.  We bought some eggs and a bottle of demi-sec cider to see us through the night, before retiring to Benny to listen to the howling winds and bleating sheep. The following morning we continued into the Somme.

Sancourt - cider bottle

Thiepval and the Somme

Driving on tiny roads barely the width of Benny and with no passing places, we fretted on the possibility of meeting another vehicle and having to reverse for several miles, but thankfully none appeared. The fields either side were farmed right to the road verge, and with the overnight rain, we would have no chance of getting out without heavy assistance if we had slipped off into the sodden mud.  We passed numerous memorials and cemeteries, many dedicated to specific regiments or countries that fought with the Allies, such as South Africa, Australia and Canada.

Thiepval (museum building)

Thiepval (museum visit)

Thiepval (joe sacco artwork)

We visited the Thiepval Memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens to commemorate and remember the fallen in the Great War. The site was completed in 1932 and has been continuously updated to reflect the names of those whose remains have since been identified.  We walked around the museum in silence, reading the displays and soaking up all that we could.  We walked out to the memorial, and for a short window we were the only visitors. From a distance the large stone and brick arches dominated the form, but up close the volume of names carved into the walls of stone made the monument deeply personal, a connection to all the individual lives, with so much youth, vigour and potential, lost unnecessarily to the futility of war.  The grey skies and slow, persistent dripping of the light rain that followed us seemed apt for our visit, adding a damp, reflective poignancy that blue skies and sunshine could never deliver.

” The unreturning army that was youth;
The Legions who have suffered and are dust. “

Prelude:  The Troops, Siegfried Sassoon

Thiepval (monument and cemetery)

Thiepval (monument tomb)

Thiepval (monumnet names in stone)

We overnighted in Doullens, north of Amiens, before cutting west through thin countryside back-roads in thick, plodding rain.  The deep, splashing puddles slowed our progress, but we were in no hurry even if we now felt a little impatient for home comforts.  Our sightseeing and exploring was mostly over; it was mainly about practical necessity now.

We reached the northern coast and the chilly waters of La Manche on the edge of a small village of Criel-sur-Mer, where we had planned to stop overnight but the aire here was closed as the large sea defences were being either rebuilt or reinforced.  The water looked green with minerals, and we could see only a short way off shore in the close, wet air.

Criel-sur-mer - reaching the channel

We took a satisfying moment to stand on the stony beach and look out towards home, thinking of our journey to date and how we were, after six months, about to close our first full loop.  We then relocated, in more heavy rain, to the village of Saint-Nicolas-D’Aliermont to overnight, before heading to Dieppe in the very early morning to catch the 5.30am crossing back to Blighty, our first foreign adventure in Benny at a close.


Reims and Champagne

Reims and Champagne

From our mini-city break in Nancy we moved a few more miles, to an overnight stop on the grassy banks of a lake in the small town of Contrisson.  We saw no one bar one hardy dogwalker as we suffered a harsh, windy night complete with driving rain that fell in fat, loud drops.  Our van was shaken and rocked relentlessly all night, whilst also being bombarded by twigs and branches torn off nearby trees.  In the morning all was calm and entirely still, like it had all been a bad weather dream.


We moved off quickly, entering into Champagne country proper.  We were surprised to note the lack of grape vines in the fields, compared to other wine regions, with most fields we passed having been ploughed, turned, or recently planted with low level crops.  We first reached the large town of Châlons-en-Champagne, but the percussion of raindrops had not ceased, so we had only a quick jaunt around.  We were almost the only people silly enough to be outside when we reached the main square, to see the Hôtel de Ville and a giant champagne bottle shaped serving bar.  The square was in the midst of having the flower beds replaced or replanted, and the workers seemed to have abandoned their posts to avoid the deluge, leaving sodden soil and dead plants strewn everywhere.

Chalons-en-Champagne (town hall)

Chalons-en-Champagne (church)

We stepped into the nearby cathedral to avoid a little of the rain, and to compare its majesty to the many others we had seen along the way.  We lingered in the central nave and examined the clean, exposed stone structure with little colour or decoration inside except for the rainbow glow of the stained glass windows.

We headed straight back to Benny to shelter, then drove on to our next destination.  We overnighted in the small town of Mareuil-sur-Ay, in nice, individually laid-out bays right on prime river frontage shared with moored pleasure boats. We walked along the canal, between two bridges and under the threat of further rain, before snuggling in for a quiet restful night in the shadow of our first Champagne vineyards.

Mareuil-sur-Ay (river frontage)


The next morning we moved on only a handful of miles to the large town of Epernay.  We parked in a central aire with lots of available room, with only one other camper in residence who had decided, despite a wealth of free spaces, to park in the one designated ‘bus only’ space; must have been French.  Still, a perfect spot for visitor day-parking.

Epernay (moet and chandon)

We walked to the town centre, to explore what is the main centre for Champagne production, with all the big name producers based here.  We passed the grand offices of Moët & Chandon, set on the Avenue de Champagne.  Unfortunately, nothing seemed to be open and there were certainly no options for dégustations available, outside of pre-arranged and very expensive organised tours.  The entire industry carried a very different feel, aloof, distant and exclusive, in comparison to the wine areas of Chateauneuf-du-Pape where everything was friendly, open and inclusive.  We left rather disappointed.

Epernay (shopfront)


We moved on north from Epernay, through the leafy natural park and passed hilly mounds of bare vineyards to see the celebrated cathedral in Reims and to search for a little more life in the off-season Champagne region.  We approached a known aire, but the entry was barriered off and we first thought it had possibly changed and was no longer available.  But we looped around the tight city roads and tried once more, this time calling a posted telephone number, where we gained entry from a friendly Kiwi who gave us the gate code.

Reims (approaching cathedral)

Reims (entrance detail)

It only took a few minutes to walk into the centre.  We approached the cathedral along a busy road, wide and tree-lined, to reach the front square.  The impressive, ornate façade was decorated with detailed stonework with more than 2000 figures, including uniquely sculpted angel statues with open rather than folded wings.  Reims was the cathedral used for the coronations of the French Kings and carried that regal grandeur with aplomb.

We had our usual chat in the local tourist office, where we spotted Champagne cork stools, complete with wire cage muselet and plastic cap; a colourful reminder of where we were.

Reims (cork stools)

We walked a loop of the cathedral externally before entering to enjoy the highly decorative and sculpture heavy interior.  There were stained glass installations ranging from the 13th to the 20th century, each a different stylistic interpretation of a specific religious narrative.  The unadorned fluted stone pillars contrasted with the highly ornate walls.  One alcove housed a detailed scale model of the cathedral, lit from below so it glowed from within, surrounded by a kaleidoscopic backdrop of modern stained glass patterns.

Reims (interior)

Afterwards, we walked further around the city centre, seeing many grand squares and neat streets. We reached the Hôtel de ville before turning around, to retrace our steps through the city streets, enjoying simply being outside on the dry, warm day.  We saw little evidence of Champagne sales or dégustations in the regional capital, but we instead enjoyed the architecture and weather.  Reims was the definitely highlight of our trip around the Champagne region, a beautiful, small and accessible city to visit.

Reims (mairie)

Charmes and Nancy


We arrived next in the town of Charmes, having made the decision to stay in a paid commercial aire with WiFi, so that we could watch the next instalment of the 6 Nations rugby from the comfort of Benny.  Our first impressions were not too favourable; at this time of year it was a scruffy aire with the best canal-side grass pitches barriered off and all water points turned off, bar one free-standing hand pump in the services.  The toilet block and showers were locked and unusable, so we felt there was no real value for money in the overnight fee that was, unjustifiably, the same as the peak season summer rate.  But we found all that out after we’d entered through the pay barrier, so we parked up with our intent on watching rugby, opened a few beers, settled in and forgot about the cost.


After our initial concerns, we came to enjoy the easy, lazy existence in the aire, so we ended up staying two nights, to watch the Sunday match, to allow us to visit the town and to complete some essential overdue jobs.  We charged batteries, sorted clothes, filled and emptied Benny then washed him to a shine.  We were feeling lazy and tired, in real need of a few days off to relax and recharge, so this break from travel came at a good time for us. We had a short walk along the canal and the town centre but otherwise simply spent our time in the pursuit of nothing at all.


We headed off mid-morning to visit the nearby city of Nancy.  Previous city visits had made us wary about our approach and parking, it being our usual nemesis in large towns and cities, but on this occasion it all worked out nicely.  We deliberately stayed east of centre, near to the river and we found a large supermarket with a half empty parking lot, so we stopped quietly out of the way of regular traffic flow in an unused corner.  From here we walked about 15 minutes, less than a mile, to reach the heart of the centre.



The streets on the approach were seemingly familiar, with glimpses of memories being stirred at each turn, built from fragments of places visited previously.  A similar architecture, or stone colour, or feel perhaps, to other places we had recently visited, although we couldn’t quite grasp the detail of the nagging memory.  We passed the University of Nancy where many students lingered in the grounds.  We spotted many fast food outlets strategically positioned within a few steps of the lecture rooms and halls.


Within a few minutes we reached the opulent main square of Place Stanislas, the true heart and centre of Nancy.  Built by Emmanuel Héré between 1752 and 1760, the square hosts many detailed features, including the Hotel de Ville, a solid neo-Classical building with decorative Juliet balconies and balustrades.  The Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Opéra Théâtre buildings both form part of the solid perimeter of the wide square, with wrought iron gates, railings and lampposts completing the corners, all gilded with bright gold.  One corner of the square hosts a large fountain featuring Neptune and Amphitrite set in and around the brightly coloured and ornate gates.



Leaving the square we walked under the Arc de Triomphe, built in honour of King Louis XV, to reach Place de la Carrière, a wonderful tree-lined street lined with distinguished, regal buildings that now serve as government offices.  From here we wandered into the Parc de la Pépinière, a large city park set out in a formal, English style.  There were a few joggers and dog walkers, but very little else to see, with only bare trees and wet grass, although we were sure it would be stunning in the Rose Garden in late spring or summer.  The cafes and ice cream stalls were all shut up and quiet, the nearby boardwalks empty of milling crowds, the air not filled with the riot of playing children, but it was still obvious what a beautiful park and surroundings this would be, and again we lamented our winter tour.



We walked through the park and around to the Vielle Ville, the old town, first passing the city’s 19th century Gothic revival church, Basilique Saint-Epvre, with its soaring 87 metre high tower.  We followed the now noticeably smaller and quainter medieval passages to reach the 14th century Porte de la Craffe, a fortified town gate with huge conical-roofed circular towers that had served as a prison until the French Revolution.  We saw the Palais Ducal and Musée Lorrain, constructed in a flamboyant style with copper towers and a tall decorative ridge, looking quite similar to buildings we had visited in Copenhagen.  From here we headed south, where we passed the Lycée Poincaré then cut diagonally across the Place Charles III before zigzagging our way back along busy shopping streets to Benny.


We had spent only a few hours in Nancy, at likely the most out-of-season time of the year, and it still impressed us greatly.  Like most places we’d been, it deserved more time and consideration than we offered on this visit, but we certainly hold hope that we will return and experience the city at its beautiful best, some glorious summer’s day.




Besançon, Vesoul and Ronchamp


We left the huge, sprawling car-park on the central canal in Dôle, following the water to the east to visit the city that, by Royal decree, took over Dôle’s duties as regional capital; Besançon.  We parked in a central commercial aire that charged by the hour, so we paid for up to two hours, enough to explore around a little, then proceeded with our city visit walk. There was a slight spitting rain as we walked, and the air was chilly around us, giving the city a slightly ethereal feel, accentuated by the faint ghostly colours of the local stone.



The buildings and pavements were constructed with a light coloured stone, pitted and striped with faint runs of colour, like a pastel grey marble.  Some cut stones were run with a prominent blue tint, leading to a decorative checkerboard effect on some facades.  The centre was much more grand and elegant than we had initially expected, but then we knew  very little about the city on our arrival.


We reached the Place de la Revolution where a large open-air market was in full flow, selling all manner of produce.  The noise was a huge contrast over the previously quiet streets leading to the open square.   We passed through the Musée du Temps courtyard to a leafy square, soaking up the views and atmosphere.  Besançon Cathedral had a 70­-dial astronomical clock that indicated sunrise, sunset, eclipses and tides, an apparently unique item that showcases their intricate horologist heritage.  We missed the Citadelle on the hill behind for lack of time, or perhaps willing, but we always like to leave something to return for another day. The city was definitely worth more time that we offered it on our visit.



We drove on to a quiet stop near the town of Vesoul, on the shores of a large lake called the Lac de Vesoul-Vaivre, in the area of Vaivre-et-Montoille.  First we looked at a larger, busier aire in a shared gravel car-park, but we didn’t quite like the scruffy quality and lack of a water view here.  So we continued around to another possible stopping point on the other side of the lake, near the boat house.  We parked up here, alone, with our nose facing the water and watched the slow sunset fall over the waving yellow reeds and the still lake.


I went for a run early morning, a fast paced, warming 6-7km loop of the leisure lake, where I passed highland cattle, cranes, egrets, a few dog walkers and, encouragingly, two other joggers.  Although we had walked and cycled a lot, I hadn’t run much at all on our trip, and perhaps the break was beneficial as I was feeling strong.  A white, moody mist was rising off the water as the day warmed up, and the kilometres disappeared easily, and I was back in Benny drinking tea within half an hour of leaving.  The run had nicely shaken off the slight hangover from last night’s wine and had me feeling fully awake and alive for the day ahead.  Revived, we headed off east to visit Notre-Dame du Hait.



We parked on the side of the road near the centre of Ronchamp town and made the decision to walk the twenty minutes uphill to the Notre-Dame du Hait site, to feel like we earned the privilege to visit.  This was a long-awaited and overdue architectural pilgrimage to a previously well-studied building, albeit last discussed in any detail over twenty years ago back in a distant student past.


We climbed steadily, through tall, spindly trees that were casting long, narrow shadows across the road like twisted fingers.  The morning sun was burning off the low mist and transforming everything into an early spring day, warm and clear.  The only sound as we climbed was our own breathing and the low chattering of birds overhead.


The original church on the site was damaged by fire in 1913 then rebuilt in 1920 before being severely damaged by bombing in 1944 during the Second World War.  The decision to rebuild again was taken, plans drawn up and in the spring of 1954 the design by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, began.  Renzo Piano, of Pompidou Centre and Shard fame, later sympathetically added to Notre-Dame du Hait with a new concrete visitor centre and monastic accommodation for the community of Poor Clares from Bescançon, who requested the opportunity to live on the hill close to the chapel.



We first walked around the exterior, taking in the building’s form from all angles.  A bus full of loud, Italian students suddenly appeared on site, and soon they covered every corner.  Like ants, they climbed the Pyramide de la Paix for their selfies with the chapel.  A series of external bells, added by Jean Pouvré, sat solemnly behind the chapel.  It was smaller and much darker than expected inside, difficult to see any detail as only a few candles were lit.  We sat a while and allowed time for our eyes to adjust to the deep contrast from the bright sun outside, so we could take in the details; deep openings with stained glass, thin concrete stairs, a sloping stone floor and curved floating concrete roof, the play of light and shadows through tiny openings above the alter.



Within the visitor centre we saw a display of some of the original drawings produced by Le Corbusier to facilitate construction of the various details around the chapel.  The drawings looked somewhat vague and rather simplistic, in comparison to those we have to produce for contractors to build from today, but were clearly sufficient to create the vision he wished for. “I wanted to create a place of silence, prayer, peace, inner joy” Le Corbusier said on the Chapel’s inauguration day.  I think he succeeded.