Tag Archives: sightseeing

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

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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 >

Spain – River Ebro & Casalarreina

Waking up at Nanclares la Oca we found the overhead planes had now paused but the traffic flow had increased, leaving the humming background noise much the same. With no specific plans for a few days, we were meandering southwards, to be a little closer to our next organised run near to La Rioja’s famous wine region.

We followed the river Zadorra south on a free motorway before suddenly remembering our Wild Swimming Spain book had described a few tempting places in this area. So we quickly looked them up, hopped off at the next junction and were soon parked up on the outskirts of the sleepy village of La Puebla de Arganzón. We walked through the empty stone streets, walls lit in bright sun or hidden in deep shade. We first found a street-level balcony that offered wonderful views over the river and what we assumed was an old mill pond, replete with ducks and egrets. This was the spot. We found another street that led down to the old stone bridge where, courtesy of a weir underneath, the deep pond began.

We had no deep desires to swim today, as despite the occasional bout of bright sun the air had a real sharpness, the chill of winter-coming, and we imagined the water similar. But the setting was beautiful and we enjoyed imagining the thrills of dipping here, in this joyous rural setting, on too-hot summer days.

We drove on, parallel to the motorway on an empty road, only a few easy miles to the next village, Armiñón. We parked on the generous main street and again found the river, hidden away behind grey façades. This was another wonderful looking swim spot, surrounded by tall reeds, overhanging trees and even a concrete platform with a niche to fit a diving board to, it likely stored for winter safe-keeping. There were reddish crayfish exploring the pool shallows and we wondered if they were local, or an invasive species who simply thrived in this region, like us. We watched them squabble a while as they foraged at the edges.

We next planned to stop in Miranda de Ebro, but a police car was blocking the entry road into the aire for unknown reasons, so we decided to keep moving. Chris and Nadine, whom we met at Ulibarri-Gamboa lake, had recommended driving the northern bank of the Ebro, from a nearby dam into the deep mountain gorges, so we now took this advice.

The first few kilometres were industrial lands, all pipework and chimneys, corrugated tin and rusting gates – an inauspicious start. But soon we turned left, off the main road and onto one that closely hugged the river banks. This was a different drive now.

River Ebro Drive - (gorges)

The road snaked like the river, the right side a crumbling cliff face and the left all high gorges, rugged and pitted, their tops hidden in low cloud. The blue-grey river flowed fast beside us, its surface churned confusingly in straight lines, like a boat wake but constantly renewed from below. We passed the dam and continued west, further into the mountainous gorge. We drove 10km more before turning around and retracing our steps along the same stretch, seeing it again from a different but equally engrossing perspective.

Casalarreina - (Aaron at monastery)

The aire was reopened on our return but it was scruffy and rough, so we decided to move on rather than visit Miranda centre. We chose Casalarreina, and we were so pleased we did. The drive there was classic Spain; over steep mountain passes leading to wide open plains. There were grey jagged mountain peaks behind with dusty stubble fields in front, a scattering of occasional tall trees in yellows and reds, masses of dying sunflowers with drooping heads and unending rows of well-tended vines, their leaves beginning to turn orange or red for autumn. This was all so close by yet a world apart from the ugly industrial installations on the outskirts of Miranda de Ebro.

Casalarreina - (Benny in aire)

We easily found the quiet aire in Casalarreina, set behind a walled monastery, each bay overhung by beautiful willow trees. We were the only guests; it was utterly serene. The village had a gentle, calm feel about it, with a small river and tuneful distant church bells. We saw a few locals working on the church walls, some walking dogs and others pushing prams, all seemingly contented. We would be happy to call this our home for a few days.

A&N X

Spain – Bilbao & the EDP Night Marathon

We left the lush, autumnal quiet of our private lakeside parking and headed back towards the north.  A little over an hour of driving brought us to the outskirts of Bilbao.  We were stopping at another aire we had stayed in before, Autocaravaning Kobetamendi, high on the hillside to the southwest of Bilbao centre, with expansive views of the city. €15 per night for all services, water and electric available on each spacious pitch, and for €1.30 the local bus 58, passing every fifteen minutes, will take you directly to the Old Town – ideal.  We were back in town with a purpose – to run in the Bilbao Night Marathon event, although we were only doing the fun 10km rather than the title race.

Bilbao - (stadium cladding)

Bilbao - (route map)

Once settled, we caught the next bus down the hill, jumping off long before the Old Town to instead walk north to the San Mamés stadium on the west side of the centre, where our race would begin the following evening.  The simple act of walking down a typical city street brought on a wave of gratitude and appreciation for our chosen wandering lifestyle.  Yesterday we cycled in the rain by a rural lake surrounded by autumnal beauty, and now, so easily and only hours later, we were exploring the wide avenues of an iconic world city.  We felt privileged to be afforded such opportunities and hoped that this continuous spark of wonder and joy never leaves us.

Bilbao - (guggenheim museum)

Much of the prep for the following night had begun, with toilets, barriers, route markers and inflatable banners already in place.  Standing in the main square we began to feel excited about taking part. The construction of a large stage was being finalised, for announcements and musical entertainment.  We walked on, to find the nearby registration hall and expo. We joined the crowds in a large hall and smoothly picked up our welcome packs, t-shirts and chipped race numbers.  Beyond the collection point were interactive games, market stalls, many technical shops selling clothing, watches, nutrition and even physios offering pre-race massages.  We slowly wandered through, soaking up the buzz from the crowds and examining the wares.

Bilbao - (town hall)

Bilbao - (outside guggenheim)

Bilbao - (lit up building)

Our primary job complete, we then spent the afternoon revisiting key sights around the city, walking along the river from the stadium, past the Guggenheim to the historic Old Town.  We occasionally spotted people carrying the same race bags we now had, feeling a silent kinship with them, our fellow runners.

We returned for a quiet night and a lazy following day, resting up around the aire.  We were closely watching the weather, hoping the low haze would lift and the subtle threat of rain would dissipate from the clammy air.  Suitably rested, we made our move around 4.30pm, dressed in our race gear and headed off for the bus into town. We shared the bus with one other competitor, looking keen, dressed in a club tracksuit.  We followed him off the bus and made our way again to the stadium.

Bilbao - (start plaza early)

There were over 16000 runners taking part across the three distances, but almost none of them were as yet in the starting area. We were two hours early, but wanted to see the build-up.  We returned to the river and crowd-watched, seeing a steady swell in numbers as runners flowed in from all directions.  Soon we were surrounded by people chatting, warming up, stretching, sharing huge tubs of vaseline and the memory-inducing stench of deep heat.

We stripped off our warm layers, dropped off our bags and slowly made our way back to the start.  It was now a bustling sea of humanity. Thousands were readying themselves for their race. Bands blasting out AC/DC classics whilst fireworks lit up the river and reflected on surrounding buildings.  Triumphant flames shot skywards in fiery blasts set in unison with the music. Everyone was revved up and ready to run.  After an ambling warm-up we joined our starting slot.  The band blasted out a crowd-rocking version of ‘Highway to Hell’, all arms in the air, everyone bouncing, the last mass moshing session before the off.

Bilbao - (Band on stage)

Dusk was slow in descending, and the city lights retained a glow in the warm evening air.  It was sticky hot, close, and we were soon soaked with effort.  The streets were six spectators deep in places, a vibrant mass of flashing smartphones and encouraging yells, a solid wall of light and noise.  The entire city had embraced the event, this moment, and we were buoyed by the overwhelming support.

We had been too honest when signing up, suggesting we should start in the <1hr finish section.  Once finally underway, 4 minutes behind the main start, we walked over the start line in a tight mass, and the crowd of participants barely lessened from then on.  We spent the entire race overtaking masses of people who should never have been in the <50mins or <40mins start.  We were both feeling good, with the energetic start and early evening timing, and wanted to push on hard.  Sheer numbers prevented us from going faster, with weaving, stuttering and mini-sprint bursts required to make any progress through the never-thinning masses. We passed thousands of runners who had been started before us, but there were always thousands more filling up the occasionally narrow streets, forming tight bottlenecks, for as far as we could see in front.  This was the largest running event either of us had been participants in, and progress was difficult.

Bilbao - (post race party)

Bilbao - (finish selfie)

We felt strong and wanted to do the best that we could, but felt a little frustrated, constricted from running our own race.  But we had to keep remembering to look around and enjoy the crowds and the passing city sights.  We high-fived excited kids who yelled with glee each time they received a good slap.

50 mins and 13 seconds after crossing the start line we passed through the finish adjacent to Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, surrounded by with fire and fanfare. Glowing with sweat but a little disappointed not to have finished in under 50 minutes, we collected our goodie bags and race medals.  It was all fantastically organised, very slick and smooth.  We paused to change into dry, warmer clothes and then milled around, watching others come in and enjoying the after-party atmosphere.

A&N x

France Massif Central – La Bourboule & Chambon-sur-Lac

We spent our final morning at Lake Vassivière cleaning and packing, managing to reclaim all our deposit.  We had a long drive back to Limoges airport to return Mummy Finch to her homeward flight.  We had a brief stop in the very pretty town of Eymoutiers for a slow, hot walk around the centre by the river, to break up the two hour drive.   We parked up at the airport and said goodbye to Nicky’s mum, then drove back west again beyond where we had begun.

Eymoutiers (town view from above)

Eymoutiers (girls by the river)

We decided to cut an hour off the route time by taking the motorway, one we had been assured was toll free all the way.  It wasn’t.  From north-east of Brive most of the way to Clermont we were charged €18 for the privilege.  We cut off and drove up winding tracks to a seemingly abandoned ski station and hotel set high on the mountains above the resort town of La Bourboule.  There were some signs of workmen around, but we couldn’t decide if they were attempting to renovate the buildings, or were in the process of stripping them out before demolition.  We walked around a small pond and along a few nearby tree-shaded trails that were marked as mountain bike routes, but it all looked a little unloved and unused, out of season.  We passed a quiet night with birdsong our only companion.

La Bourboule (abandoned ski lift)

La Bourboule (tired buildings)

The next morning we headed off, back down the steeply winding roads to the valley floor, passing through the town centre of La Bourboule and onwards.  We stopped in a large carpark adjacent to a ski lodge hotel, empty except for one other car.  This was the designated start of a 14km walking loop we had planned, taking in the highest point of the Massif Central, Puy de Sancy, at 1886m high.  We started by neat rows of chairs taken from a ski-lift and stored for summer on the grassy meadows.  The path rose quickly, becoming steeper and steeper, and we knew we would absorb most of the height gain in these first three kilometres, before following the ridge around multiple peaks and saddles.  We passed through loose herds of grazing cows, looking lazily around as they gently chewed the new grass.

Puy de Sancy (resting chair lifts)

Puy de Sancy (az on route up)

The gravel path turned to larger stones then to tall boulders that had to be climbed over.  Once on the ridge, we were immediately inundated with thick swarms of black flies, and tourist groups that emerged as if from nowhere.  We walked quickly with heads down and closed mouths, for to do anything other led to the unwanted ingestion of many of the pesky mouches.  Not far from the saddle we could see timber platforms built around the summit, like a crow’s nest on a ship’s mast. Puy de Sancy top was quite a disappointment as it was served by a gondola, the only ski-lift currently in operation, and masses of unsuitably attired people had crammed themselves along the wooden walkways and platforms that lined the peak.  We weren’t sure which invasion was worst – the flies or the tourists.

Puy de Sancy (nicky takes in view)

Puy de Sancy (peaks and paths)

We quickly passed on, down a steep run of stony cut-backs that were still in the process of being constructed.  We watched guys from the Gendarmerie Mountain Rescue rush past us, stacked with rescue kit, to assist a lady with a poorly leg.  Little did we know this would not be our only meeting with these men on the mountain today.  Our route was to take us over Puy de Cacadogne and Roc de Cluzeau, before reaching the Grande Cascade, a large waterfall central to the mountain horseshoe.  But we never made it that far.  On a simple rocky path after a short upwards climb Nicky had an innocuous twist of her ankle.  We got no further, as she could not support her weight.  We sat for five minutes and considered options, and decided it was best to turn around and hobble back by a shorter route.

Puy de Sancy (nicky rescue)

Puy de Sancy (hop into vehicle)

As we slowly hobbled down, with the occasional bout of piggy-backing to speed the descent along, we were caught up by the descending vehicle of the Gendarmerie Mountain Rescue.  They stopped to enquire to our well-being and immediately ousted a man with large kit bag to look after Nicky until the car could deliver its current injured passenger to safety, and then return for us.  A precautionary splint was applied to Nicky’s leg, and around 15 minutes later the vehicle reappeared and we hopped, literally in Nicky’s case, in. The road down was a hugely rutted track, necessitating slow, awkward driving and we scraped loudly as we grounded a couple of times.  It definitely would have been very difficult to walk down and we would have really struggled had they not been passing us.

Puy de Sancy (safely down)

Puy de Sancy (panorama)

After many busy years, decades even, of climbing, hiking, running and skiing in high mountains all over our wonderful planet, this annoying simple twisting tear was the only time either of us were unable to deliver ourselves back to the bottom of the slopes under our own steam.  (I once skied the length of the Three Valleys, from Val Thorens back to our accommodation in La Tania, nursing a broken shoulder).  But our GMR saviours kindly delivered us safely down, right back to Benny’s door.  A very relieved Nicky donated two slices of her very yummy home-made coconut cake to the rescuers for their valiant efforts, since they were likely missing lunch to help us.  Their assistance was so very gratefully received – many thanks for their kindness, expertise and professionalism.

Chambon-sur-Lac (running loop of lake)

Chambon-sur-Lac (lake shores)

After a spot of restorative downtime, we drove about a half hour to Chambon-sur-Lac and set ourselves up in a comfortable little paid aire, €10 per night including services and electricity, near the banks of the pretty lake.  Here we sat and watched the world pass, with me tending to and ensuring Nicky properly rested her ankle.  On a later short test walk we noted that even with huge, unmissable ‘camping cars interdits’ signs at the entrance, the adjacent car-park was home to some twelve vans overnighting, some even with their awnings out.  Still, we had a sweet spot.  We saw some visitors walking around the lake frontage still dressed in jeans and thick jumpers, some even wearing scarfs; a reminder to us that this sticky heatwave we are struggling with is still considered quite mild by some.

Chambon-sur-Lac (Az with love island)

Chambon-sur-Lac (beach time)

The next day I went for a muggy 6km run around the perimeter of lake, taking in the nearby town of Varennes.  It was stinking hot in the open fields, but the lakeside path had beautiful patches of deep shade from overhanging trees that provided welcome relief. Nicky followed around on her bike to avoid exacerbating her injured foot, enjoying the fresh lake air and mountain views.  The blue lake was home to Île d’Amour, Love Island, a small circular coppice of trees.  Afterwards we sat on the beach and enjoyed the sunshine and a few cooling dips in the lake.  We watched as a guy in a wetsuit persistently combed the lake bottom with a metal detector. The setting, surrounded by mountains with patches of snow still on their steep slopes, felt a little like Scotland, except the 30 degree air and 20 degree water told us a different story.

Virignin marina (water view)

Virignin marina (between the locks)

The following morning, after a minor altercation at the services with a French queue-jumper, we took off for a long drive east, discounting the motorway option for a glimpse of the rural villages of the region.  We drove up and down hills and valleys in glorious sunshine, surrounded by lush meadows, tall firs and wide fields of not yet out sunflowers. The villages wore uniform red clay tiles and light stone walls, and were either nestled into protective bowls at the bottom of valleys or set high on the top of hills, each with a tall central church prominently standing like a famous star in a circle of adoring fans.  We stopped for lunch at the Col des Pradeaux, still a way short of Saint Étienne.  From here the timeless rolling rural landscape reluctantly gave way to built-up urban sprawl as we approached the city, and it never quite relinquished its grip all the way through to Lyon and around.

Conjux beach (chilling and swimming)

Conjux beach (lazy afternoon)

The traffic was busy but flowing, and east of Lyon we rediscovered a more gentle rural experience, reaching the banks of the Rhône.  We were treated to a spiky, snow-topped backdrop as the glorious Alps slowly grew tall on our distant horizon. We passed places and names we began to recognise, from cycling near here on an earlier part of our travels.  We’d previously stayed in Belley, not more than a handful of miles away from our target of Virignin.  This was home to a spacious, free aire, lined with lavender, set at a recently constructed marina with impressive boat locks and a hydro power station taming this stretch of the Rhône.  With a few other vans and day visitors, it had a picnic and party feel much of the day and we were treated to a fireworks show that night to celebrate Midsummers.

Conjux beach (selfie in water)

Conjux beach (reading by the water)

The next morning we reached Lake Bourget, starting with a short visit to Abbaye d’Hautecombe.  We walked through the gardens to the water’s edge in search of a dip, but signs suggested that swimming was forbidden here, and for once we complied as commercial boats were operating and there were lots of customers.  Instead we drove north along the edge of the water, stopping suddenly to spend a day on a spotted beach at Conjux. We managed to park nearby and squeezed ourselves into a corner spot on a strip of grass next to the water.  It was a popular place with the ring of conversation and laughter and the smell of barbecue wafting across the beach.  Lots of kayaks, canoes and SUPs came and went, filled with screaming kids or gallivanting teens, adding colour and noise to the experience.

Serrieres (in the aire)

Serrieres (small swim spot)

From here we climbed upwards to overnight at Serrières, near to another smaller but very popular swim spot.  The free aire was full of day-trippers but we managed to sneak into the only vacant space, perhaps only recently vacated as it was a good one.  If the aire had been empty we would likely have chosen this same space for ourselves, back right-hand corner with our British hab door opening out onto a neat and private grassed area.  We settled in, awning out and later slowly walked round the lake, dodging groups of supine sun-worshippers everywhere.  It was too hot for much activity or thought and there were barely-clothed bodies lying haphazardly all over the grass, as if they had simply fallen over when the heat became too much to bear.  We completely understood; we were on the verge of doing similar.

A&N x