Tag Archives: camping

France – Swimming at Pont D’Arc and our road home

We packed up our comfortable pitch in Camping des Sources, ready to move on.  We were heading home, but we had one more special place to visit.  The day was again stifling, and Carpentras hit newsworthy record temperatures as we passed through.  Skirting south of Orange, we dropped down the valley and crossed the Rhône, before heading north through beautiful pastoral land scattered with yellow gorse and bright flowers.  Arriving in Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, we clambered into Camping Rives d’Arc, picking out a spot with easy access to cooling showers and the obligatory pool. Once settled, we walked to view the stretch of low-flowing river commandeered by the site, dreaming of a dip.

Pont dARC - (welcome shade)

Pont dARC - (hiding underwater)

Even parked in shade, our internal thermometer in Benny was pushed beyond its maximum 40°, and the dash reading said 44°.  Walking became a chore, the smallest effort inducing a flood of sticky sweat.  We had thought the stillness in the air a curse and longed for a breeze, unaware it had become so hot that it would bring no respite.  With the air at 44° it’s like sitting in a sauna, and when the freak North African winds blew it was simply a hairdryer blasting on our skin; a hotter, burning sensation that only increased discomfort.  Shade did little to help; the only place we found to hide was underwater.  We abandoned all plans of exploratory runs or long cycles and instead we sought the cool parts of the campsite and cold swimming pools to hide away in.  Sightseeing would just have to wait.

Pont dARC - (first view of arc)

Pont dARC - (nicky ready to swim)

After the success of our morning run at Gordes, we considered an early run to Pont d’Arc, to avoid the heat and the crowds, but there was no path and the road was not pedestrian friendly.  So instead we caught the first available free navette the 4km to the Pont d’Arc, it already 32° at 9am. A short walk led us to a stony beach, where a large bussed-in group had gathered to snap photos.  We waited a few minutes until they dispersed, then changed, stowed our gear and got into the water.  The river was much warmer than expected, almost too hot, as we swam under the famous arch to the opposite side.  We climbed out on the beach, enjoying our new perspective.  Our original side was in deep shade but this new face was lit brightly by the morning sun, showing off incredible detail on this 59m high and 34m wide natural archway over the Ardèche.

Pont dARC - (walking to water)

Pont dARC - (the underside)

Many tourists were already photographing the arch, all getting the same standard picture.  But standing on the bank was such a limited perspective.  it was so much more interesting from underneath; pitted, scalloped, full of holes and caves and fissures.  Bats hung in darkened corners, birds soared underneath.  The more we looked up and examined, the more interesting it became, the more secrets it revealed.  We noticed that few of the steady stream of kayakers paddling through were taking the time to look up, missing much of what was fascinating about it.  We climbed out at one side and stood a while examining the rock, it all melted and jagged, like splashes of water frozen in time.  Leafy plants hung down defying gravity, adding splashes of dark green to the black and white honeycombed underbelly.

Pont dARC - (swimming under)

We swam a few more lengths under the arch, taking in new features each time.  Now, approaching 10.30am, the site was filling up and being swamped by rowdy kayakers and day-visitors – we were glad to have had some quiet time to explore earlier, and it was time for us to exit.  The bus back didn’t appear as scheduled, but from nowhere we were offered a lift by a guy in a battered red van, an interesting Spanish guy, now living in France, who teaches kayaking in the summer and skiing in the winter.  He knew everybody along the short route, honking and waving as he blasted his rusted old van around the narrow cliff-lined road.  He dropped us off outside the campsite and sped off with a smile and a wave; proper gent.  We did our usual trick and hid underwater or cover for the remainder of the day.

After another night featuring several cold showers and little sleep, we headed off, and soon crossed into the Parc naturel des Cévennes.  We were deeply impressed with its natural beauty on the way south, and nothing had changed to dissuade us.  We took the free motorway to Saint-Flour, then west into the Parc naturel régional des Volcans d’Auvergne.  This was another landscape of calm, understated beauty, reminding us of various parts of England. It later transformed into vast areas of tall rugged pines, packed tightly together, straight and tall and opaque.  A further change brought open countryside with rolling green hills, more lush and green than the yellowed and scorched grasslands further south.  Small square patches of woodland, neat circular coppices and single trees added height to the landscape. Everywhere neatly cut hay was wrapped in coloured circular bales like giant cheeses.

Vic sur cere - (final aire)

We could have made it home on our final day, but it would have been a long and tiring drive with a 9pm arrival, so we decided to cut our drive short and fit in one last overnight stop.  After passing through a few ski resorts and around three hours from home we stopped in Vic-sur-Cère.  It was much cooler here, relatively speaking.  After dinner we enjoyed a late evening stroll to watch a busy, animated boules game in a local park and to see the central village.  It was an unassuming place, quiet and pretty, like much of rural France.  We were glad to have stopped, both to see this community and to ensure we arrived back home rested, as was our goal, rather than drained after a long, hot drive.

The morning hours would see us home, back to our normal home life, for a few weeks at least.  We have Home Exchange guests arriving in late July and we will vacate our home for them to enjoy as we head away again to seek out new adventures in Benny.

A&N x

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France –  Valensole, Gordes & Abbaye de Sénanque

We tossed and turned throughout the night, uncomfortably hot in our tin box at the bottom of the hill in Moustier-Sainte-Marie.  We finally found some welcome sleep, until the Gendarme arrived and knocked on our door to confirm our ticket purchase, although it was clearly visible in our window.  It was time to move, and today we were heading into lavender country.  Our first miles took us west and it wasn’t long before we began seeing wide seas of purples replace the greens and yellows of alternative crops.   Our first stop was in the town of Valensole, seen as the heart of lavender production in this area.  We stopped at a small museum with displays explaining the history of growing and harvesting, alongside historic tools. In the attached shop the many uses were very much in evidence.

Valensole - Village profile

Valensole -Nicky in lavander

Back on the road, we soon stopped again in a dusty parking area to have a closer look at the lavender in-situ.  We walked through the rolling purple fields, up and down the neat rows, wilting in the hot, hazy air.  Several other cars had stopped in the same place for that important lavender selfie.  After a short walk we returned to find half the people huddling together in the shade of Benny’s tall side, the only respite from the harsh sun for miles around.  We drove off leaving them scurrying through the lavender rows and visited a farm shop, buying a few small gifts.  We later called into a larger lavender museum in Coustellet where, despite their huge range of products, we couldn’t harness any excitement. We lingered, feigning interest, but our concern lay in the quality of their air-conditioning.

Valensole - lavander rows

Coustellet - Museum of Lavander

We had planned on spending several days in this area, taking our time to explore many of the lavender-related curiosities and historic sites.  But it was just a little too crowded, a bit too samey, over-commercialised, and much too hot.  We were drooping badly, even from minor efforts.  We drove through Roussillon, planning to see the red ochre cliffs, but did not stop as we could not face the midday sun.  It was silly; we were in one of the most beautiful areas of France and had the means to explore it all, but all we could think of was getting to a campsite and getting underwater.  So we abandoned all sight-seeing and headed straight to Camping des Sources, set a little way north of the historic town of Gordes.  At last, we had shade, a decent swimming pool, and some downtime from the heat.

Camping les Sources - (pool at sunset)

Gordes - (central castle)

Unable to sleep, from both the heat and an unusually repetitive bird-call, we decided to rise early and go for a gentle walk/run into the village of Gordes. We left at 6.30am, in cool morning air with the first rays of light breaking through the trees.  A downhill stony path provided an easy trail into the village centre less than 2km away.  It felt good, our first run since our 10km in Aiguines, the breeze of our movement keeping us cool.  Early morning starts will now become an essential to our sight-seeing plans.  We paused to explore the central streets of Gordes, trying to spot where scenes in the movie ‘A Good Year’ were filmed.  We saw viewpoints overlooking the beautiful Provençal countryside, the rolling hills scattered with cypress and olive trees shimmering beautifully in the early morning light.

Gordes - (countryside view)

Gordes - (cafe in square)

We had exhausted the quiet streets of Gordes centre and it was not yet 7.15am, so we decided to visit another nearby landmark – the Abbaye de Sénanque, set in a valley around 4km north-west of Gordes.  We set off up the hill, rising steadily.  The sun was also rising and the air was heating quickly, our cool morning run already becoming hot and sticky, but not yet debilitating.  We walked some steeper portions of the route, not wanting a full-on workout.  Soon  we reached the highest point of the road and dropped quickly down into the shaded valley to our left, entering the gardens of the abbey.  Even without the sun the manicured rows of lavender bushes surrounding the abbey provided a bright splash of colour.  There were several other visitors already setting up photos in the early light.

Abbaye de Senanque - (view from above)

The sun had not yet penetrated the depth of the valley floor, but blocks of light were moving quickly down a side wall so it would soon arrive. The neat rows of purple-tipped lavender were covered in thick clouds of tiny white butterflies, landing and alighting in a blur.  They would tickle your skin as they flitted by, or gently land on your arms, legs and head as you walked through the flowering rows.  It was an engaging sight of such simple beauty, their soft frolicking ways brought instant smiles to our faces.  We met a cyclist amongst the lavender who had passed us on the road up.  We had known from the timbre of his passing ‘bonjour’ he was an English speaker, and turned out to be from Melbourne.  We had a chat about his travels and quizzed him on places around Melbourne as we have plans to visit his city next year.  As we talked the sun rose to breach the valley and light up the grey abbey facade, adding life and warmth.

Abbaye de Senanque - (us and butterflies)

Abbaye de Senanque - (the sun arrivves)

Camping les Sources - (relaxing in pool)

We found a different path back out of the valley.  A white-stoned path, narrow and overhung by foliage, led up the face in the direction of Gordes.  We arrived back at Benny by 8.30am, feeling good for the exploration and for having avoided the worst of the heat.  But it was coming.  The days have held so sticky and close that sometimes the best part of the day is when a breeze blows through and cleanses your skin.  But that is rare; the air, static and burning, offers little respite. It’s been many years since we experienced such high temperatures.  We couldn’t face any activity and had forgotten just how debilitating it was, how draining.  We showered and headed straight to the pool.  We dipped often as the sun quickly cranked up the air temperature to the mid 40°s, the peak showing  of the heatwave.

A&N x

France – Hiking the Imbut trail to Le Styx and visiting Trigance

With our hilly trail race in Aiguines complete, we headed out of our campsite with two baguettes under our arms to follow a scenic road east.  We stopped frequently to quickly view the gorge from different perspectives; the day was already mid 30s by 9.30am, and everything was an effort.  We parked up near Auberge Cavaliers in a public car-park and, with lunch packed, walked downhill for 30 minutes on a steep path with long patches of welcome shade  to reach the shores of the river Verdon far below.  We were following the Imbut trail, where another 40 minutes took us past beautiful chalky green pools and we struggled to resist the opportunity to dip.  Our legs were still suffering from our recent race, but we had the perfect remedy waiting for us at the end of this hot and sticky forest trail hike.

Imbut Trail - (gorge drive)

Imbut Trail - (river verdon)

That was a channel named Le Styx, a spot we had long coveted from photos in our Wild Swimming France book, and we were delighted to have it all to ourselves this fine morning.  With little delay we changed and dropped carefully into the cool, moving water.  We were cautious of the flow until we were sure it could easily be swam against, but once mastered we proceeded up river, easily fighting the current, through the overhanging rock formations and narrow curved features.  We found rocks just below the surface where we climbed out and spent time enjoying the dancing patterns of light on the water.  We had arrived just before noon, when the sun best penetrates the narrow chasm, and the walls and green water were lit up with a shining luminosity that raised the experience another notch.

Le Styx - (first view)

Le Styx - (Nicky approaches)

We enjoyed a few lengths in this special stretch of river, before climbing out on nearby rocks to overlook the water, watching the light fall in bright patches on the surface.  As we watched, a group of nine wet-suited canyoners, adorned in bright red and yellow helmets and life-jackets, suddenly drifted into view through the souk-like passage, breaking our silence and commandeering our view.  They floated down and climbed out right beside our restful spot and took turns jumping back in from a tall, overhanging rock perched about 6m above the water’s surface.  It was a wild, uncontrollable splash of colour and noise on our tranquil canvas, but within minutes they were off again, sliding down frothing rapids feet first with arms tightly crossed on chests, leaving us again to enjoy the calm serenity.

Le Styx - (Canyoners arrive)

Verdon river - (Nicky dips)

Satisfied, we walked back along the same path and picked out a peaceful shallow pool away from the path where we ate our prepared lunch.  No one else was around so Nicky insisted on having another few cooling dips, this time sans costume.  The climb back was reminiscent of our trail run the previous day, and our legs were sorely in agreement.  We sweated our way back to Benny on the top of the gorge, glad for some shade from the glaring sun. We continued our drive around the gorge-top road, loving the expansive views, before turning off to stop in at the historic village of Trigance.  We nabbed the final available spot in their free aire, opened all our windows and doors and ate ice lollies and drunk pints of water until we felt ourselves again.  We really need to slow down when the sun is so strong.

Tirgance - village approach

Point Sublime - viewpoint

Huttopia camping - (treelined pitch)

We walked a short loop of the village of Trigance but beautiful as it was, we had no heart for any of it, and all we could think off was a return to shade and rest.  We slowly dragged our feet through the streets for an acceptable time, before returning and agreeing that the race, and our walk this morning, had taken more out of us than we had first thought.  It was time for respite.  Tomorrow we had planned to walk the Verdon Gorge classic route, Le Sentier Blanc Martel, a difficult 7-hour traverse hike, but we were now reconsidering our plans.  We spent the evening looking at options, and discounted hiking the full trail.  The buses were not yet running so we would need a pre-booked taxi to begin or return from the linear walk, and we felt that we had experienced much of the gorge already.

Huttopia camping - (river swim spot)

Huttopia camping - (river dip)

Huttopia camping - (Nicky jumps from rock)

After a sticky night we gave up all plans of walking the entire route, but thought we’d have a look at part of it, so drove to Point Sublime, near Rougon, one end of the trail.  The car-park was full to bursting with day-trippers, so we parked Benny in the bus lay-by, hoping this would be okay.  We walked to a viewpoint, but found its positioning wanting as the river was barely visible, and decided to drop down the valley for a swim.  But with several false starts down incorrect trails and with lines of sweat already dripping down our backs, we gave up and retreated back to Benny.  With only the tiniest twang of guilt, we rushed off up the road to the nearest campsite with leafy shade and a pool.  This heatwave was not here to play, and we simply could not compete.  We were soon cocooned on a large shaded pitch within 50m of a beautiful stretch of river and a great pool.  It was time to cool off and rest our legs.

Huttopia camping - (Nicky on the rocks)

Huttopia camping - (cool pool)

We wasted no time in getting to the river where we found a deep, cold pool and we swam and played until we finally felt that unfamiliar coldness in our core.  We could have braved the long trek and been sweating up a dusty slope right at this time with hours still to go, but we were now convinced we’d made the very best decision for us.  €19 for our pitch, free wifi, access to the river and the spacious 25m pool (where we lay happily for several hours later in the afternoon) and several icy showers each to regain our cool; what were we thinking trying to walk trails when the thermometer was pushing 40°?  Our guilt made us look for alternative activities and we found the perfect option.  We booked in for a canyoning adventure the following day, in a shady chasm running with chilly water – a perfect way to stay cool.

A& N x

Spain – Olot (part 2), Santa Pau and Banyoles

We slept soundly in our scruffy campsite.  It was a chilly, cloudless morning as we collected our bib numbers and readied ourselves for the off.  Thinking 10km should be an easy jaunt, less than a quarter of the distance I’d completed the Sunday before at Cheverny, I was a little blasé and returned to bed until ten minutes before off.  We were less than 30 seconds from motorhome to start-line, so perfectly placed for the event.  A quick warm-up, then we set off into the town, with no notion of the route.  After many bends, streets, squares and 47 minutes and 23 seconds we arrived back, the wonderfully cool morning and number of participants allowing a fast time (for us).

Olot - race banner

Olot - pre-race warm-up

Our time was enough for Nicky to finish second in her age category, and as sixth lady overall.  We were informed that they had a small trophy for the top three placed in each section, so we waited around for the presentations.  Unfortunately we found out that trophies were only awarded in the half marathon race, not the 10k, so it wasn’t to be.  We had the consolation of having each been gifted two vacuum-packed bags of non-descript meat for finishing the race.  (The half-marathon finishers each received a leg of ham).  We inquired later with some locals and were told it was definitely pork, but ears, noses and tongues were mentioned, along with intestines and blood.  We were to boil our prize for between one and three hours and were promised it would be the tastiest thing ever.  Mmmm.

Santa Pau - free aire

Santa Pau - village

Instead of parading with our tacky plastic trophy, we instead had post-race showers at the campsite, packed up and headed off to stopover at a free aire in nearby Santa Pau ( 42.146914n, 2.568332e )  This was a peaceful, large field close to the centre that we had almost to ourselves.  Later we had a mid-afternoon stroll around the beautiful medieval stone village, seeing the Castell de Santa Pau and the softly rolling hillsides it sat within from many angles.

Santa Pau - Nicky at castle

We drove a little way back the next morning, intent on walking an advertised 10km loop of the local extinct volcanoes.  We avoided a packed car-park charging €8 to enter, instead parking about 400m away in a much nicer free area, almost entirely unused, with wonderfully spacious motorhome spaces.  A perfect base, and we couldn’t fathom why so many were paying in the other car-park, other than to save themselves the little extra walk.

Volcano walk - free parking

We set off through knotty forests trails with twisted roots and cool shade.  Some stretches, nearer to the car-parks, were overrun with parents and their young kids, a reminder this was the beginning of the Easter holidays and most places were likely to be busy.  We first passed the crater of Volcà de Santa Margarida, named for the church built down inside the forested rim.  Later we circled around the Volcà del Croscat, where we passed groups of kids on what looked like their first camping trip, all noise and chat, some carrying packs bigger than themselves.  There were stretches of beautiful forest trails with jumbles of lava rocks and tree roots.  It wasn’t long before we arrived back at our starting point.  It took us 2hrs 30mins to walk around the 12km route at our leisurely pace, although the signboards suggested 4hrs 20mins for the loop.  Perhaps we need to stop off and savour the views a little more.

Volca del Croscat - forest trails

Volca del Croscat - paths

From here we drove a short way on narrow, winding roads, passing loose white horses with young foals on the way.  We arrived at an €19 ASCI campsite in Banyoles ( 42.120655n, 2.747245e ) set on the shores of a luminous blue lake.  It had tight, cramped pitches, marked with stones on open areas with no privacy, and many scruffy and unoccupied permanent sites.  The hook-up was low amp electricity that we tripped twice in the first two minutes before we learned of its secrets.  But once in and settled, we sat still for a few hours and properly relaxed, glad for the restful downtime both mentally and physically.  We both suffered poor sleep due to drunken chatting and dogs barking into the wee hours, not the relaxing quietness that we’d had in each of the free aires we’d stayed at to date.

Banyoles -Nicky on run

Banyoles - Nicky looking over lake

We got ourselves up at 8am and headed out to run a circuit of the nearby lake.  Beautiful in the low morning light, the lake was well used with casual kayakers and serious rowers being drilled by coaches in motorised craft.  Plenty of others are walking or running the shore path.  We ran at a slow pace, stopping frequently to take in all the miradors and enjoy the wonderful freshness of the morning air.  The loop was just shy of 8km, an easy jaunt to waken us up and properly kick-start our day. We rewarded our efforts with an early brunch of butties thick with bacon and HP sauce, both brought all the way from the UK.  Then, with full stomachs and content from our early exercise, it was time to head for the rugged stony coastline, the central focus of our planned Costa Brava trip.

A&N x

France – Lake Vassivière & our SwimRun challenge

We left the garage and our boxed-up belongings as neat and organised as we could, ready for pick-up and delivery at the end of July, when we take ownership of our new French house.  Job done, we had a lovely, slow run into the nearby fields to relax, before opening a celebratory bottle to end our stay.  The next morning we drove, with Nicky’s mum, back to East Midlands for our flight back to France, feeling satisfied with our flying five-day UK stop-over.

Sereilhac - sitting by lake

Lake Vassiviere (lake map)

Only a few hours later we arrived back as scheduled in Limoges, all very simple, with Benny patiently waiting for us in the long-stay parking.  Nicky’s mum was, as organised months ago, flying out the following day from Stansted to join us for a week around Lake Vassivière, so we had no desire to move on too far.  We had overnighted at several other nearby aires during our house-hunting, but never at the small municipal aire in Séreilhac, only 15 minutes from the airport, so that became our plan for this evening.  We were the only van in residence, and settled comfortably into a sunny corner.  We had a cup of tea sat at a grassy picnic table and after enjoyed a short walk around the nearby lake; it was such peaceful place, a little haven, yet so close to the city and the main north-south road through the park.

Lake Vassiviere (bench)

Lake Vassiviere (free aire in Aupelle)

Lake Vassiviere (wine by the shore)

A lazy morning and big food and drink shopping trip followed, before arriving back at the airport early afternoon to collect Nicky’s mum.  From there we doodled around Limoges and then cross-country, always heading east.  We passed through Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat before stopping in Peyrat-le-Château for a brief cup of tea and to pick up the forgotten cash required for our apartment deposit.  Soon after, we hugged the northern coast of the lake to reach Masgrangeas and began the long process of extricating everything we would need for the week from its place in Benny into the small rental apartment.  When all trips were complete we had a local explore, taking a glass with us down to the water’s edge where we sat a while and enjoyed the view.  Blue skies, rolling tree-covered hills and shining, flat water; this will do us very nicely, thank you.

Lake Vassiviere (woodland trails)

Lake Vassiviere (hillside view)

Over the next few days we undertook a few exploratory walks and visited a few islands, some of which we would later be swimming to or running around.  We rarely saw anyone else until the day of our race.  We impatiently had our first swim at a small stretch of sand only a few minutes from our accommodation.  Our thermometer confirmed the water was a balmy 20 degrees, quite perfect for swimming sans wetsuit, as we were.  There were warmer and cooler patches as we moved through the water, sometimes catching us by surprise by their contrast.  The water had a rare silky quality, almost moisturising, feeling rather slimy on our skin when submerged but leaving us soft and smooth after drying off.  The sun warmed our backs and dried us quickly, making each short dip a sensual pleasure.

Lake Vassiviere (lunch spot)

Lake Vassiviere (evening stillness)

Lake Vassiviere (mother and daughter)

Another day we climbed a 777m hill to enjoy a panoramic overview of the lake, before dropping down to visit a small island we had spotted, linked to the mainland by a curving timber walkway.  Verges of tall wavy grass were dense with white michaelmas daisies and buttercups, dotted with spears of bright purple foxgloves.  Behind these, wide strips of curling ferns separated this wildflower verge from the woodland trees.  Everywhere we looked the lake coastline was simply intoxicating.  We stopped for a bite to eat on a snaking timber walkway before deciding that even though we hadn’t planned to swim, we had to strip off and slip into the inviting waters for a post-lunch skinny dip.  Refreshed and invigorated, we walked back along the coastline of the lake remembering our treasured memories of spontaneous swim dips in various Swedish lakes the previous summer.

Lake Vassiviere (swimrun start)

Lake Vassiviere (fun swim)

Lake Vassiviere (hillside walk)

One of many 2018 challenges we set for ourselves was to undertake a SwimRun.  This is now a recognised formal discipline originally borne from competitive Swedish guys challenging each other to race, via many islands, across an archipelago.  It has evolved into a team event with pairs who race the course never more than 10 metres away from each other.  As this was our first foray into Swim Run we decided to keep it simple. We chose the Short Course event, to keep the distance within our comfort zone.  We had about 10km to go, roughly 8.5k running and 1.5k lake swimming.  This meant no stress for us, meaning we could relax and enjoy both the event and the wonderful scenery, and that spectating for Nicky’s mum would not be a long day.  It also gives us a base platform to later build on, so we could step up and improve and push our performance should we wish to continue entering future races.

Lake Vassiviere (on the move)

Lake Vassiviere (in the water)

On the day of the race we parked easily at Auphelle, before transferring to the start by bus. There were a few competitors lining up looking very hot in full wetsuits, but also others wearing only speedos, trainers and the compulsory race bibs.  Many had customised leg-floats and large swim-paddles at the ready.  A few ingenious runners had small floats laced securely into the tops of their shoes, for additional buoyancy.  We had decided we didn’t require floats, but Nicky had chosen to use swim-paddles to better match our swimming paces for our chosen combination of clothing.  We wore 2mm thick neoprene shorts with rash vests under our bibs, enough to offer adequate warmth and some additional buoyancy but nothing that would inhibit us or make us overheat on the run sections.

Lake Vassiviere (swim exit)

Lake Vassiviere (Swimrun finish line)

We had done some decent training over recent months, including more recently at our Ribérac housesit, where at nearby Jemaye Lake we were able to experiment with transitioning between swimming and running and try various clothing options, so we felt like we were suitably prepared.  There was a great friendly atmosphere throughout the day, collaborative and supportive, not at all combative, even at the elite level.  People chatted and offered tips and were ready with a helping hand if required.  With a mass start, we ran 2k first, before entering the beautifully clear, warm waters, fully supported by kayaks and small power boats.  Our swim routes were marked by easily-spotted red buoys, our runs on wooded trails with a cushioning pine needle floor.  We soon found ourselves surrounded by similar-paced teams and experienced an ebb and flow as we passed them on the runs and they passed us on swims.

Lake Vassiviere (swimrun completed)

Lake Vassiviere (elite teams pass)

We were 66th team home, in 1hr 33 minutes, satisfyingly faster than our pre-race estimates. We enjoyed the vocal support and a friendly atmosphere throughout.  It was well marshalled and we were impressed to be handed beers and lots of great snacks at the end.  We really enjoyed the challenge and now want to do more, especially in areas with similarly impressive scenery.  The following day, after a long lie-in, we decided to visit a small peninsula opposite where we were staying, to spectate and offer support to competitors in the long course event.  We parked at a large, flat motorhome area and walked to where the passing runners would pause to re-enter the water.  We set up camping chairs and cheered the lead teams as they passed, appreciating their efforts.  Later we walked up a steep hill to take in a higher vista of the lake, spotting islands, paths and beaches where we had swam or ran previously.

Lake Vassiviere (playing in water)

Lake Vassiviere (longer island swim start)

Each night the stillness of the lake drew us back to its shores, the evening light quality providing an enchanting scene of exceptional tranquillity and beauty.  The surrounding hills were sometimes lit with patches of vibrant lime-greens where the setting sun caught them just right, their bright reflections mirrored on the glassy surface of the lake.  We greedily soaked up the sights and sounds, revelling in the humble, accessible pleasures of such an unspoilt facility, simply perfect for swimming, running, hiking, kayaking, fishing or sailing, over and above the intoxicating natural beauty.  And best of all, it sits only ninety minutes or so from our new house – ensuring that we’ll definitely be back.

A&N x

Denmark – Sjælland’s countryside & castles

Denmark – Arriving on Sjælland via the Öresund bridge and exploring the island’s rural regions, beaches and castles.

We left our deserted beach-front aire in Kalgshamn, near Malmö, first for a Lidl shop on the outskirts of the city and then straight across the 18km long Öresund bridge into Denmark.  On the Danish side, the bridge suddenly ducked down from high above the ocean into a tunnel running underneath, like a rollercoaster ride in a theme park, before popping out just south of Copenhagen.  We were not after a city visit as we’d visited Copenhagen recently, before our Greenland kayaking trip, so we passed by smoothly and easily, although the ring roads were the busiest we’d experienced for months.  We quickly returned to empty roads just a few miles on, surrounded by rolling countryside with stubble fields, corn and trees beginning to turn in the early autumn that could easily have been middle England.

Oresund bridge - to denmark

Herslev Brygus - brewery shop

We headed west, across the middle of Sjælland island, bypassing Roskilde but turning off soon after to reach the tiny hamlet of Herslev, where we had read reports of a popular local brewery.  We had furtively hoped for a somewhat grander experience, the availability of a brewery tour or a tasting session, but they were by appointment only.  Herslev Brygus consisted mainly of a small café and a colourful farm shop selling their many wares.  We chatted to the owner for a while and, after much deliberation as they had over thirty differently-flavoured or imaginatively-brewed organic craft beers to choose from, we selected a small range for us to sample over the coming days.

Ugerlose (farm aire)

Ugerlose (our private aire)

After our wonderful time at Långasjönäs Camping in Sweden, we had a loose plan to spend another similar week relaxing at another ASCI campsite, and had chosen Holbæk Camping.  But on arrival it was surprisingly packed to overflowing with cars, families and noisy kids, not at all the relaxing nature experience we were hoping for.  So we headed off instead to rest in a small farm aire near to Ugerløse, where we were the only visitors.  We parked up in the end bay, where we would have exclusive use of a covered picnic table.  The aire was beautifully serene, the neat parking in individual hedge-lined bays, water and Wi-Fi included, and free use of services after staying two days.

Ugerlose (beer tasting)

Ugerlose (sunset beers)

We stayed here all weekend, mulling the idea of returning to a campsite on Monday when the weekend crowds had returned to work and school. There were a few local walks from the site into the nearby forest, and we walked a lazy 5km loop through the forest under mellow skies, seeing only two others on the walk.  On our return we lazed around in the afternoon sun and slowly enjoyed our hand-crafted beers sitting at our private picnic table, researching the days ahead.  The next morning we serviced and left with a changed plan, now doubling back on ourselves towards Copenhagen and then heading north to see the fairy-tale castles of the area known as the Royal Sjælland coast.

Fredensborg (changing of the guard)

Fredensborg (palace front)

We first visited Fredensborg Slotpark, an impressive Royal residence still in constant use.  It was a lovely autumn day, the yellowing leaves of the trees lightly murmuring against a deep blue sky.  We arrived just in time to catch a small parade, a changing of the guard outside the palace.  The guards wore tall bearskin hats, similar to those of the Grenadiers at Buckingham Palace, but with the dark and sky blue crisp uniforms of the Danish Royal Life Guards.  They marched sharply down the central cobbles to a nearby yard where they lined up and continued to step in time, sweating profusely under their heavy hats.  We left them in peace and approached the front of the palace, enjoying the view into the courtyard, but we could progress no further in this direction, so we doubled back to the gardens.

Fredensborg (palace rear view)

Fredensborg (autumn pathways)

Fredensborg (tree-lined avenue)

There are over 9km of avenues throughout the palace gardens, many lined with neat rows of lime trees or horse chestnuts.  Golden leaves crinkled underfoot as we walked along these formal avenues, through tunnels formed of bending trees.  We passed several statues and decorative fountains as we walked, seeing the rear of the palace from afar.  We walked on until we reached the shores of the nearby Lake Esrum, before following the water around the quiet, wilder edges of the gardens.  The palace has 300 acres of gardens, with most of them open free to the public.  A small portion of the formal gardens are kept private for the royal family to enjoy, but even that area is open to visitors for a few weeks in the summer months.

Fredensborg (rear palace elevation)

Fredensborg (Norsemen statues)

Fredensborg (valley of the Norsemen)

We next visited the Nordmandsdalen, the Valley of the Norsemen, a formal, tiered, circular display.  There were 68 sandstone statues depicting 18th century local merchants, farmers and fishermen.  Commoners such as them had never previously been depicted in formal Royal garden statuary, that having before been the exclusive domain of ancient Gods or celebrated Royal ancestors.  It was a daring social statement by the then King Frederick V, made seemingly in solidarity with the Social Realism movement of Fine Art that chose to dismiss the Romanticism of exaggerated heroism in favour of the honest realities and messy complications of everyday life.  The statues were an interesting insight into the lives, fashions and characteristics of those citizens living in those very different times.

Fredensborg (kings boarthouse)

Fredensborg (boat access to river)

We reached the King’s Barge house, built tall to allow his sailing boats to float directly from the lake into shelter.  There was an adjoining tea house, but this looked closed for the season.  We passed the side of the private area of the gardens, seeing the recently-added Orangery and a small hill with a spiral hedge called the Snail Mound.  After a picnic lunch on the grass overlooking the lake, we returned past the front of the palace and headed off east to see a second even more famous castle, Kronborg Slot, near the centre of Helsingør.  This was a proper fairy-tale castle, and a UNESCO World Heritage site, renowned as the dramatic setting for the family intrigue of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Kronborg Slot - bridge entrance

Kronborg Slot (approach view)

We parked for free on the marina front, a few hundred metres beyond the huge pay-and-display car-park.  The weather was changing now we were on the coast.  The familiar Danish wind really picked up late afternoon, taking away our sunny day and chilling it down, blowing all the heat out of the air like a giant mouth cooling a cup of tea.  We wrapped up warm as we walked towards the castle, first reaching a large bronze model of the entire site that graced the entrance bridge and helped explain the extent of the fortifications.  We crossed and entered the castle’s perimeter walls, passing lots of craft shops snuggled into old stone buildings set securely within the protected grounds.

Kronborg Slot (seaward view)

Kronborg Slot (against the sun)

The fortress was built in a Renaissance style with delicate copper spires, richly decorated. It grew wealthy from the collection of taxes from ships passing by in the sound. After a devastating fire in 1629, the opulent palace was only considered useful as a barracks for the Danish army, until it was fully restored and able to continue its previous calling, the collection of dues, this time from passing tourists rather than merchant ships.  We passed the rows of menacing cannons set on the high ramparts, built in brick rather than stone.  From the grassy banks of the castle’s rear fortifications we watched many ferries, heading for the now-visible coast of Sweden, leave the busy port.  We didn’t enter the castle proper, but enjoyed our blustery circular walk in the shadow of the high walls.  A small stretch of stony beach sat behind and outside the walls, where many locals walked their dogs, leaning into bracing gusts.

Gilleleje - farm aire

We could have stayed overnight at the harbour for free, but decided to move on as it was quite busy and would likely be noisy even in the small hours. Instead we drove a few more miles north and stopped in another farmhouse aire, where it was 50DK to stay in their very pretty garden.  It came complete with raspberry bushes, a tidy pond and both electricity and Wi-Fi included.  It was a very quiet spot to pass a lazy evening, with no other visitors arriving to interrupt our tranquility.  ( We’ll not mention the rooster. )