Tag Archives: river

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 – 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

France – Plage de Pampelonne and Saint-Tropez

We awoke early, and as we packed up we chatted to our Slovenian neighbour, the late arrival and aire comedian.  After a few morning laughs we were soon retracing the coast road around and through Toulon After several wrong turns and a couple of sudden sharp exits to avoid various tunnels under the city, we crawled our way east.  The coast road was similar to some in Costa Brava, with beautiful, steep rocky cliffs, private coves and sheltered bays, overhung with gnarled trees with thick foliage.  Black-trunked trees twisted out of the dense undergrowth, giving definition and shadow. Wide and tall umbrella trees, casting dark circles of shade, were scattered throughout.  Huge, deep hedges of bougainvillea, glowing magenta in the sun, defined the edges. We spotted many white beaches dotted at short intervals, each lapped by the shimmering azure ocean and busy with people actively doing nothing.

Road to Toulon

Plage de Pampelonne aire

It was a difficult undulating road complicated and slowed by its many cyclists, but slowly-does-it was the best way to experience it.  We were heading for a large commercial aire right on the sea at Pampallone beach, set a short way south of our main destination – Saint-Tropez.   It was a huge aire, one of the biggest we have ever stayed in, with hundreds of vans scattered around different areas of the land.  We settled in to the accompaniment of loud birdsong and cicadas, with a worrying backdrop of bulldozer.  After a walk to examine the extent of the aire, we unloaded our bikes and set off on our cycle to Saint-Tropez.  Our chosen way began with a rough gravel off-road track, before becoming an easy rolling route on the side of the not too busy main road.  We reached the marina in 25 minutes.

Saint-Tropez (yachts in harbour)

Saint-Tropez (yachts and town)

Our first impressions were as expected – Luxury yachts, polished glamour, a timeless old-school feel, dripping with money.  We locked our bikes to a convenient post and walked all around the marina and through the old town streets, enjoying each vista in turn.  We had expected to be disappointed, predicting that reputation would overstate the reality, but instead we found the town, despite its obvious new-found commercialism, utterly charming.  We walked around a circular tower to another small beach and beyond to a jetty where several others were sun-bathing.  Although we had no towels or suits with us, we were unable to resist and we both stripped for a wonderfully cooling swim in the bay, recapturing the memory and spirit of Bardot and Hepburn.  We were a small part of it all, now,

Saint-Tropez (old town streets)

Refreshed, we climbed to the castle to view the town from above, then returned to the marina for a walk full of dreams of buying a yacht.  The Universe clearly thought we’d had too much of a good day and was ready to even it up.  Cycling home, my front wheel slid off a deep drop on the side of the tarmac and, unable to right myself, I was thrown to my left back into the road.  I landed on my side, slid a few painful metres and lost skin from my ankle, calf, knee, thigh, hip, elbow, tricep and shoulder; quite the bloody mess.  At least the car behind me on the road stopped sharply rather than bumping straight over me, so it was not half as bad as it could have been.  After a few choice words I picked myself up and rolled back home, marking my route with thick drips of blood.

Saint-Tropez (marina selfie)

Saint-Tropez (swim off jetty)

Once back, I cleaned up my cuts, sanitising them and removing lumps of stubborn gravel.  Deciding it might be of help we hobbled to the busy sandy beach for a swim.  The salt water stung and itched my wounds, but that probably meant it was doing good.  At least I was staying cool, even if I looked like an extra from ‘The Mummy’ when resting on my towel.  With my hydro-therapy complete we returned to the shade of our awning, re-patched everything and decided I needed special vineyard medicine.  As night fell the site echoed with the incredible croaking from breeding toads, drowning out our attempted conversation and television watching.  We were meant to move on, but decided another day of gentle recuperation wouldn’t go amiss, so we decided to rest up another night.

Plage de Pampelonne - busy afternoon

Pampelonne Beach - sunset panorama

Pampelonne - Nicky on rocks

We spent a second day supine on the beach, with only occasional jaunts back to Benny or into the sea disturbing our laziness. We enjoyed a sunset evening walk to a more local beach, where few other people ventured.  This was a curved bay of rounded stones, the shore lined thick with smooth bleached driftwood on one end .  The water was calm and clear, framed with pink skies.  This was to be our final stop on the Mediterranean, on this trip.  In the morning we took the coast road north, passing busy Saint-Tropez and crawling through Saint-Maxime.  We passed busy beaches, none motorhome friendly judging by the barriers, but all very pretty.  We were heading inland, and soon reached an ACSI campsite in Roquebrune-sur-Argens.  We snuggled into a cosy corner plot surrounded with pink flowers.  At our disposal was a 25m lap swimming pool, adjacent Jacuzzi area, sauna and adult-only spa pool.

Benny in leafy campsite

Roquebrune-sur-Argens - (chilling in spa)

We had come to the area to kayak on the Argens river, and were delighted to discover that this campsite offered free kayaking to guests, another welcome bargain.  We happily accepted and were garnished with paddles and life-vests.  Minutes later we were gently floating down the river, full of smiles.  The flow was slow from lack of rain and the surface held a lot of debris, so the river not as beautiful as perhaps it could be.  But this made for more engagement with the living nature rather than the subjective beauty.  There were thousands of tiny blue and yellow dragonflies dancing on the still water surface, stuck together in breeding pairs.  Patches of lime-coloured waterlilies hosted hordes of black-winged butterflies and shy frogs who hopped underwater every time we neared.  The surface was alive with playing, surface-skimming insects and we could clearly see the bottom through the pristine water.

Roquebrune-sur-Argens - (river swim)

Some fishermen were fly-fishing off a sandy bank, casting across most of the width of the river, so we paddled by close to the opposite bank to offer them a wide berth.  Beyond them, we had the river  to ourselves.  Feeling hot, I stripped off for a cooling swim on an empty stretch of river, loving the soft water on skin as I sizzled myself cool.  By slowly breast-stroking I could approach busy insects even closer, increasing my connection to nature.  I did not have the most dignified re-entry back into our canoe but I made it and we floated back slowly as I sun-dried myself, before a rushed redressing when other kayakers were approaching.  We passed our evening reading at their pools, trying their Jacuzzi and spa, quietly enjoying the relative coolness of the evening night air filled with the scent of blossom.

A&N x

France – Alzon, Uzès and the Pont du Gard

We crawled through the busy centre of Millau continuing south-east, to overnight in the village of Alzon.  We easily found the aire and settled in for the night. There was a local pétanque game in progress opposite and we sat with a  glass of wine and enjoyed watching in the soft evening sun.  After dinner we had a stroll through the village, the four storey buildings flanking the central shady square displayed a tired grandeur.  We paused here and enjoyed the peacefulness and the quintessential French feel of this hillside village, allowing the flow of history to wash over us.

Alzon - (shady square)
Alzon - (allotment view)

Our onward road clipped the bottom portion of the Parc national des Cévennes.  Grand red poppies lined our route, growing like weeds in unlikely places, but splashing colour and warmth wherever they were.  The countryside was becoming more Spanish in our eyes, with wide gorges, limestone bluffs, deep lush greens, and steep stone terraces overflowing with olive trees and pink flowers. The road followed the low-flowing river, snug between high cliffs and a sharp vertical wall dropping to the riverbanks below.  We saw nothing but blossoming nature for miles, then suddenly got trapped in a wild swarm of human commerce, hugely busy pockets of life and noise we thought from the map would be only tiny, sleepy villages.  Just as suddenly we escaped back to peaceful, empty countryside.

Uzes - tower
On leaving the park the scenery slowly transformed into expanses of olive trees and vines. The route was straighter, flatter, offering a more expansive view across to distant hills.  The only animals in the fields were horses, all land was given over to the cultivation of high end products.  Tall cypress trees and squat lime-coloured cactuses began transforming the land into a more Mediterranean feel; we were closing in on the coast. We passed hundreds of local domaines offering direct sales and degustation.  Each was either a ramshackle collection of rugged stone buildings surrounded by scruffy yards or beautifully finished, immaculate visitor centres dripping with wealth.

Uzes - domaine approach
Our first stop this morning was at one such farm store selling olive oil, wines, honey and jams, in the town of Uzès. Missing a turn, we did a slow loop around the town, enjoying the casual beauty of each street in turn.  From our slow-moving vantage point the town was replete with cafés and shiny shops, old stone churches and tiny cobbled streets.  (You could say it Uzè’d charm).  After a complete circle of the wonderfully vibrant town centre we finally turned off and found the Domaine St Firmin.  We had read the place was a popular stopover, and true to word we found it absolutely full, with around twenty vans in rowdy residence.  We parked awkwardly in their yard and had a quick degustation of a few summer rosés, purchased a bottle of our favourite, then got back on with our journey.

Pont du Gard - (approach side)
Pont du Gard - (far side)

Aother hour of beautiful, empty roads, their verges sprinkled with bright flowers, brought us to the busy outskirts of Remoulins.  We found the aire near the bridge (43.938068, 4.558423) and picked out a corner spot between some badly parked cars.  We scoffed a quick lunch then packed our swim gear and began, under a strong sun, the 3km walk to the Pont du Gard.  We were thankfully shaded most of the route by plane trees and stretches of light woodland.  We reached the gates to the park and walked in along the voie verte, immediately facing the famous three-tiered Roman aqueduct.  There were de-clothed bodies scattered everywhere we looked, soaking up the sun’s heat.  Large groups of visiting American students paddled in the shallows of the river, chatting loudly.  We crossed the lower tier of the bridge, taking in the immense scale of the ancient build.  The size of the each carved individual stone in the pillar bases was incredible, the organisational undertaking and size of the workforce must have been a sight to see.

Pont du Gard - (nicky swimming)

Pont du Gard - (beach time)

We dropped off the left hand side to reach a pebble beach where we flopped down by the calmly flowing river’s edge.  Groups of kayakers idly floated by as we eagerly readied ourselves for a cooling swim.  The water was warm and we played and cooled off, swimming across the river and climbing rocks to jump back in, like children.  We lazed in the sun, reading and relaxing.  Occasionally we would glance up and re-see the aqueduct in all its glory.  We would again marvel at the Pont du Gard’s domineering size and the privilege we had in being able to casually swim in its giant shadow.  By 4pm we were satisfactorily cooked and took our leave, with the firm intention to return later that evening to witness the colourful June light shows that were projected onto the structure.

Pont du Gard - (in trees underneath)
Pont du Gard - (sunset)

When we arrived back at Benny, the subtle heat of the day had a sudden change of heart and brought forth a storm of sticky humidity and, following that, heavy drops of rain.  We soon decided to forgo our return, but after the rains dried up and with the delight of an intensely bright red sunset later, we began to regret not returning to watch the light show illuminate the Pont du Gard as planned.  We could still have made it, as the show was not expected to begin until 9.30pm at the earliest.  But we were both still feeling tired from all the jobs at home and this trip was about recharging.  We need to learn to slow down and accept that rest is a part of life and not every moment needs to be filled with activity.  The choice to remain in Benny came with a sigh, but was likely the right call for us.

A&N x

France – Christmas in Paris (mini-break Part 2)

<post continued from Paris Part 1 >

Day 3 – South of the River

Tired from our first two days exploring, we were late waking, having slept nearly 10 hours. We must have been properly exhausted, a body and mind overload. We walked south from the campsite, passing a hippodrome flanked by a closed tarmac road inundated by keen cyclists and runners. We caught the metro from Boulogne – Pont de Saint-Cloud to the end of the line at Gare d’Austerlitz and began the long walk back west. We first reached the Jardins des Plantes, adjacent to the Natural History Museum. The grounds were filled with large, wildly colourful and exuberant animal models that brought instant smiles to our faces. Walking here was such a different experience from other places in Paris, one of simple, childlike joy, a haven from the busy roads and towering architecture.

Paris (natural history museum)

Paris (garden bears)

Paris (giant turtle)

We lingered under the warm morning sky, enjoying each vibrant display. There were large groups of students being corralled into the museum as we passed, likely on a school outing. We passed through the inflated body of a huge shark marking the entrance to the adjacent zoo, it reminding us of silly sentences from learning French on DuoLingo such as “Le loup mange le requin”- when could I ever use that, really? We exited the park by a large brightly-tiled mosque and continued on to reach the impressive monolith of the Panthéon in the nearby Latin Quarter. We ate snacks amongst the chatting students lounging and lunching on elaborate timber benches. I eavesdropped on their loud conversations, catching less than a tenth of the words, making me wonder if I’ll ever get a proper hold on the language.

Paris (student area seating)

Paris (pantheon)

We dropped down a the hill towards Le Jardin du Luxembourg, but found ourselves distracted by a display of large, beautiful photos of polar regions that lined the boundary fencing to the park. We followed this exhibition right around the perimeter, loving the poignant quality of the work and dreaming of a return to the wilds of Greenland. Some day. We finally entered Le Jardin du Luxembourg adjacent to the palace, stopping first to glance at a formal pond and grotto. The sky was back to a glorious blue and it was warm in direct sun, so we sat a while at the edge of the gardens and enjoyed a bout of people-watching. It was a welcome oasis away from the crowded bustling streets, and these restful moments revived us for more exploring. We cut across the sparse gardens, heading north into the fray once more.

Paris (resting in Luxembourg gardens)

Paris (place saint sulpice)

Our route north took us through Place Saint-Sulpice to reach another pocket of colourful Christmas Markets in the plaza outside Saint Germain des Prés church. Here we bought some vin chaud to warm our hands as we lazily browsed the stalls. We returned to the banks of the Seine and walked along, passing the Musie d’Orsay, before reaching Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor, a bridge replete with love locks, conveniently sold by all the local hawkers. There were many thousands of locks, each with a name or message added to symbolise a thought, love or connection. The idea could be seen as either deeply symbolic and profound or as credulously trite, wasteful littering, depending on your given mood or perspective. But it certainly didn’t seem to be lessening in popularity over time.

Paris (louvre from bridge)

Paris (Wall of peace)

From here we crossed to Tuileries gardens and sat for lunch overlooking the manic traffic wildness of the Place de la Concorde. Huge numbers of blue flashing lights roared past, and we wondered if the Gilets Jaunes had begun protesting again nearby. We crossed back south of river, across stalled traffic, to reach Les Invalides and the École Militaire, and then approached the Tour Eiffel from the south. We made our way through the busy crowds to Trocadéro where we enjoyed the raised, expansive view as we awaited dusk falling and the turning on of lights. This was to be our last magnificent view of central Paris from this trip, a fitting memory for our short days here. Tired, we again caught the Metro back to Pont de Neuilly after dark, then undertook our now usual walk back to the campsite.

Paris (spproaching tour Eiffel)

Paris (eiffel tower panorama)

These two posts on Paris read like a Bret Easton Ellis novel, the long lists of places we visited like the detailed musings of Patrick Bateman. It’s difficult to step back and find a way to encapsulate the trip beyond the obvious linear diary approach. When you factor in the constant stimulation of culture, history, architecture, lights, smells and sounds, it takes a long time for the brain to fully process the experience and then recreate some order from the constant movement and delightful chaos. We walked 23km on our third day – it’s a huge city, and we only saw a small portion of it. Even utilising a pack of ten metro tickets (€14.90 for 10), we covered 64 kilometres on foot over the course of our three days. City breaks, at least the way we always seem to do them, are more exhausting than hiking mountains.

A&N x

France – Christmas in Paris (mini-break Part 1)

Day 1 – Arrival, La Défense & Tour Eiffel

After a hectic morning packing session, we left La Jourdanie in good spirits for our drive north.  We followed the A20 for hours, skirting around Châteauroux and Vierzon.  We swapped to the parallel D-road to avoid motorway tolls and later stopped briefly in an aire in Theillay for lunch. We swapped drivers and Nicky faced the first proper traffic as we reached the southern outskirts of Orléans.  We crawled through the centre, paying the price for avoiding tolls, and made our way to the town of Angerville to overnight by their stadium.  We were stopping an hour or so short of Paris so we could arrive early in the morning and have that day for exploring. We slowly walked around Angerville to stretch our legs.  A few late arriving lorries naughtily parked up near us, in a zone clearly marked as max. 3.5t, disrupting our otherwise quiet overnight stay.  We headed off early for the last hour or so into Paris.

Paris - (la defense display)

Paris - (approaching la defense)

We must credit Ju & Jay at OurTour for seeding the idea; we’d read their blog post on visiting Paris and we thought it would work for us to pop up for the Christmas markets.  Under six hours driving for a classic city break – why not?  We arrived in the Le Camping Paris (AKA Indigo Paris) campsite before 10am and had no hassles checking in early.  We arrived under blue skies but facing down a biting wind that whipped heat away from any exposed skin.  The only downside was that the usual navette was not running, so we had to walk directly from the campsite each day.  We headed first to La Défense, crossing a wide bridge to a long island and then on to the opposite side of the Seine.  On the main boulevard in the shadow of the Grande Arche we found a huge Christmas market with a vast array of stalls, incredibly busy with lunching workers.  We browsed the goods, smelled the foods and absorbed the atmosphere.

Paris - (nicky and grand arch)

Paris - (aaron at grand arch)

Paris - (la defense plaza and markets)

Security was tight, with intermittent bag checks and armed soldiers patrolling the perimeter.  It had only been a few days since the deadly attack at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, so the alert level was justifiably high.  Everyone seemed relaxed though, so the atmosphere was unaffected.  We ate lunch on the steps of the Grande Arche, sheltered a little from the wind and overlooking the lively markets, the vista stretching all the way to the distant Arc de Triomphe.  We watched runners threading themselves through the crowds and this seeded another idea for later. We returned through Puteaux, passing a cute kiddy Christmas display, then followed the western bank of the Seine south.  We saw the campsite across the river where we could spot Benny before reaching the next bridge to return.

Paris - (run into the city)

Paris - (riverside run)

With 10km of walking already in our legs, we sipped a cup of warming tea to recuperate.  Then we changed clothes and headed  back out to face the cold, this time for a run.  We headed through long stretches of woodland, crossing busy roads and along bustling city streets to reach the glorious sight of the iconic Eiffel Tower.  We approached along the river from the south, through a fairground and masses of tat-selling hawkers.  Here we were surprised to find new glass security barriers surrounding the perimeter of the tower that were not in place last time we visited (over 8 years ago, for my 35th birthday – time flies!)  A sad but likely necessary installation, reflective of the times we live in. There were long queues to enter the tower or the restaurant, with slow security checks, so we instead continued our run around the bare gardens.  More armed soldiers passed as we stopped to pose for obligatory tourist photographs.

Paris - (run past eiffel tower)

We happily walked a little, to better enjoy the crowds and buzzing atmosphere.  So many touts were selling the same tacky plastic pieces, flashing Eiffel Towers in all colours or gaudy keyrings, 5 for €1.  With our iconic jaunt complete, we returned through busy shopping streets, skipping past distracted shoppers and dodging a multitude of the powered scooters that seemed prevalent in the city.  Above us the skies dulled and clouded over as the sun dropped, sucking all the light from the day.  Light had faded to a low grey as we crossed the woodland to return to Benny.  We had completed a fully enjoyable 13km run, and just in time as the rains started for the night.  After long, wonderfully hot campsite showers, we wrapped up warmly and prepared a tasty dinner, contented with our first day in Paris.

Day 2 – North of the River

Paris - (louis vuitton foundation)

We awoke to the continued pitter-patter of rain on our roof, so indulged ourselves in a lazy breakfast of croissants and jam before leaving around 10.30am when the rains had stopped.  We walked north through the woodland, spotting flocks of bright green parrots in the bare trees, to reach the Louis Vuitton foundation.  This building was another Frank Gehry creation, and there were large crowds queueing at security checks to enter.  We walked around the perimeter, taking in the hypnotically constant flow of cascading waves that dropped down a long, wide staircase to a shallow reflecting pool.  We soon reached the metro station at Les Sablons and travelled 14 stops east to Bastille. The trains bore a strong similarity to London.  During the journey we did some back-of-a-napkin math and realised Nicky had sat on tube trains, from her days working in London, for more than a full month of her life.

Paris - (hotel de ville)

Paris - (notre dame)

We alighted and soon were walking through wide Parisian streets full of life, glittering Christmas lights and elegant people.  We passed a long line of nursery school kids, walking hand in hand, all adorned in fluorescent yellow bibs that made us think of the Gilets Jaunes and how they were starting their protesting young these days.   We followed side streets with attractive new shops and tiny stores hosting chaotic ancient trades, cobblers and tailors with shop interiors straight out of Harry Potter. We passed large groups of chattering students, looking much too young to be at university – we’re definitely getting old.  We soon arrived at the main Hôtel De Ville for Paris, a towering, decorative Neo-Classical building.  It was mostly inaccessible, surrounded by Christmas trees and tall metal fencing.

Paris - (notre dame and seine)

Paris - (shakesphere bookshop)

We crossed the Seine to Île de la Cité and joined the crowds admiring the façade of Notre Dame cathedral.  We watched over made-up girls take turns photographing each other, posing on tall bollards like catwalk models.  We crossed the river again to the south, to visit Shakespeare and Co. Bookshop, its aged shelves heavy with books.  The layout was all nooks and crannies and soft seating, indulgent and comfortable even when overcrowded with other bibliophiles; a wonderful place to browse.  We ate lunch back on the island, viewing Notre Dame and dodging pigeons, before heading back north then west along the Seine to Pont Neuf.   We slowly browsed the green market stalls that lined the banks selling books, art and tourist trinkets, considering a few sketches to decorate our walls.

Paris - (aaron at louvre)

Paris - (nicky at louvre)

We arrived at the rear elevation of the Louvre and sneaked through a small passage into a grand empty courtyard and then into the main plaza featuring  I.M.Pei’s iconic pyramidal entrance.  With no plans to enter we were simply enjoying the ambiance.  The reflection pools and dancing fountains had been drained for winter and the plaza was definitely worse for the loss.  We turned north to Palais Royal and along the diagonal to Opéra, it dripping with gold and colour.  We reached Place Vendôme, an impressive square bursting with expensive designer stores. All streets were full of top-end brands, with minimalist displays of pricey coveted goods, three staff members to each customer and private security on each door.  The roads were stuffed with chauffeured cars delivering rich patrons into roped off spaces.  We felt out of place in the lavish, almost vulgar, display of riches, so we dipped into a surprise find on the street – a Decathlon store – for quiet reflection.

Paris - (Opera house facade)

After, we sat on the steps of Madeleine church staring at the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde as we planned our next move.  We decided that would be a metro up to Montmartre and a visit to Sacre Coeur.  We soon alighted at Abbesses station and chose to climb the stairs over joining a queue for lifts, and 144 steps later my overused legs were not thanking me for that decision.  Outside we found cute timber market stalls, thick with wonderful Christmas smells, leading on to many more upward steps.  We shunned the funicular and walked up long flights to reach the first main platform, before turning for our reward – a stunning panorama over all of central Paris.  We stood and stared, picking out monuments and spotting buildings we’d visited.  It was a sharp, clear day, a perfect vista of Paris.

Paris - (view from sacre coeur)

After another security check to enter the Sacre Coeur, we sat a moment on hard wooden pews and absorbed the painted ceiling of the church’s domed ceiling in welcome quiet.  Then we continued into the heart of Montmartre, where we bought a small metal tray, just the right size for two cups of tea, that will act as a small daily reminder of our Paris trip.  We browsed the many artists’ varied work in a cobbled square lined with cafés and bars, enjoying the soulful ambience. We then picked out one restaurant from many and feasted on three courses alone in their warm interior, as all other customers felt compelled to shiver their way through their food at the outside tables.

Paris - (Nicky at Sacre coeur)

When we extracted ourselves, night had fallen and everything was lit up.  It began spitting with light rain as a talented busker sang Purple Rain to the crowds. The tat-hawkers were packing up, desperate for last sales. One guy follows me closely and, despite my polite but firm ‘non’ he continues to aggressively push his goods.  He then harshly grabs my wrist and refuses to let go, until I finally protest very loudly in colourful language. The possibility of drawing the attention of one of the nearby security guards leads him to scarper away, but also left me wondering what terrible, indentured slave-like contract he might be locked into to drive such desperation. It must be a miserable, sad life, and I immediately felt guilty for my dismissive impatience, even if his chosen sales technique was threatening and invasive.

Paris - (montmartre artists)

We fell downhill through more crowded markets and brightly lit shops to reach a large boulevard.  We followed this to Pigalle metro, where, before descending, we could see the lights of the Moulin Rouge beyond.  We caught the metro to Pont de Neuilly and walked the long road back to our campsite on low lit, very busy, urban roads, passing a large tent complex where Circus du Soliel were performing.   Even with liberal use of the metro we had walked over 18km around the Parisian streets  – an exhausting day.

A&N x

< Part 2 to follow >