Tag Archives: travel

Spain/France – Jonquera, Trouillas & the road to Limousin             

We sneaked away from the watery paradise of Empuriabrava back inland, with the idea of heading back to France. Our road leading out of Spain, the N11 north from Figueres, was lined with what appeared to be prostitutes, glamour girls in high heels and very little else, waving and bending over provocatively for the passing traffic.  There was one woman every 100 metres or so, each taking ownership of a junction or a scruffy parking lay-by.  Initially, we couldn’t decide if they were actually working this stretch of road, or if it was some sort of protest statement / art project*.   (* They were most definitely prostitutes, as I read later that this border town is the sleazy centre of the Spanish sex industry. )   Most had an eastern European look, some looking grumpy and bored, others over-enthusiastic.  It was certainly a strange and unexpected sight in the pre-lunch sunshine on Good Friday morning.  We couldn’t quite imagine the clientele they were expecting to draw in at this time of day, in such public surroundings, but there must be demand.

Trouillas - Olive farm shop

A few hours later we were in a very different setting, parked up in a friendly Olive Farm on the outskirts of Trouillas, near to Perpignan.  There were no gesticulating ladies of the day nearby, but instead a plethora of olive oil products to taste, products to browse and sunshine to enjoy.  The producer, Les Oliviers de la Canterrane, had a wonderful free aire and, after making a few tasty purchases, we settled in for an afternoon of lazy sun-worshipping.  The weather we had hoped for had finally arrived, just after we left Spain behind.  We were blissfully alone most of the day, but around 4pm a string of vans suddenly appeared, slowly bringing the Olive Farm visitors today up to eight strong.

Lautrec (walking route)

After a slow morning we said our goodbyes, heading north-west.  We followed the main road north to Narbonne and then took back roads, cutting through the gorgeous Haut-Languedoc Regional Nature Park.  The road was wide and clear, empty of other traffic and perfectly undulating for a combination of easy driving and beautiful views.  It didn’t hurt that the sun was back shining brightly and we settled in to fully enjoy the drive.  Looking around for pretty places to visit on our route, we settled on the village of Lautrec, north of Castres.  After a few tries we found a simple parking area suitable for motorhomes just outside the village walls (43.704847, 2.139952 ) and wandered up the cobbled streets to explore.  As is usual, we gravitated first to the stone church and the neat surrounding squares.

Lautrec (town view)

We were eventually drawn to the highest point, reaching the mound where the Moulin à vent de la Sallette sat.  We circled through their gardens, watching as the views over the countryside unfurled in front of us.  There was a table d’orientation on the top of the hill, pointing out landmarks as far back as the Pyrenees.  We stood a while and picked out the route we had taken to arrive here, both on road from Spain and on foot through the village.  The windmill was available for visits but we declined in favour of roaming their brightly flowering gardens.  We dropped back into the neat stone village and passed through the narrow streets, slowly making our way back to where Benny was parked.

Lautrec (nicky and windmill)

Lautrec (Nicky and town)

Labastide-Marnhac (aire)

In late afternoon we stopped at a small aire in Labastide-Marnhac, just short of Cahors.  This was to be our final stop before arriving back home.  The village was hosting a wedding at the local château and we could hear their announcements and music. On one occasion a long procession of tooting cars slowly passed, marking the happy couple either arriving or leaving.  Otherwise, it was entirely serene, the surrounding trees filled with bright blossom.  The only other notable occurrence was when a Belgium couple, fully settled in with the best corner site in the aire since before we arrived, packed up their awning and left around 8pm; to go where?  It seemed a strange call so late on.  But we enjoyed one last night of simplicity and quiet before returning to our long list of jobs to do at home.

A&N x

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Spain – El Mas Pinell beach, Roses & Empuriabrava

After leaving the too-perfect beauty of Pals, we needed a new place to overnight.  Despite the lack of warmth, we decided to head back to the coast and spend a night at the beach.  We chose a secluded parking spot at the end of a dusty track at El Mas Pinell beach ( 42.018222, 3.192852 ) and squeezed in between the dog-walking day trippers.  Our chosen route in was a sandy trail, rough and pitted, but we later discovered the much better road in from the north, tarmacked most of the way, that would have saved us a few bumps.   But we were practically on the beach here, thirty seconds stroll from the sea, so all was well. (bar the weather).  We walked the sands, tentatively testing the sea with our toes, but not braving a swim.  At least initially.  After a return to Benny and to fill ourselves with tea and bravado, we returned to the sea for a splash around and the briefest of dips.  The wind ripped the heat from us all too quickly and we retreated back to Benny to regain our warmth.

El Mas Pinell beach (selfie)

El Mas Pinell beach (Nicky in waves)

One by one our single-use beach friends peeled away, and we were alone by early evening.  This left us free to enjoy a sun-setting walk with the soft sound of the lapping waves as our only companion. We collected a few pieces of smooth, white driftwood with thoughts of fashioning door handles or stool legs from them, in some mythical future existence where we become competent at wood-working.  We rose early in the morning and walked our tea mugs along the beach, lapping up the solitude, before making the decision to move again.  We were definitely feeling restless on this trip, unrooted.  We drove away from the coast, via the much better northern road, and turned north to visit the popular tourist town of Roses. We had skipped around it last time we were in the Costa Brava, instead heading straight to Cadaqués.  With no formed expectations we were a little surprised by what we found.

El Mas Pinell beach (morning walk)

We parked easily in a free car-park ( 42.266346, 3.166726 ) near to the walled Citadella de Roses and walked into the centre.  Roses was much bigger than we thought, with an expansive crescent of golden beach lined with all manner of shops and apartments.  It looked much more like the Spain of package tours, Costa del Sol and drunken tourists than anywhere else we had visited in the Costa Brava.  Behind the glossy façade lay a maze of tiny streets and small plazas filled with snacky restaurants and pubs touting for customers.  The car parks were filled with foreign cars, mostly French, Italian and Swiss, with the local Spanish looking to have skipped town for the holidays.  We walked as far as the marina and returned the same way, eyeing up the beach and the frothing sea, but again turning down an opportunity to swim.

Empuriabrava (waterways)

Instead we drove a short way south along the coast to reach the town of Empuriabrava where we parked in a scruffy, quirky free aire ( 42.258463, 3.115425 ) that was almost full.  The marked spaces were over-wide, much too generous, almost like a campsite.  We and two other adjacent vans parked right in the centre of our bays and later found two other vans had sneaked in between us.  There was still ample room for all of us.  We had a short exploratory walk around the nearby streets.  The whole town was based on strips of water, with each house having a road to the front and a boat to the rear, offering a very different feel to anywhere we’d visited before.  The following morning we went for a run through the bright streets and down to the beach, exploring around mini-marinas and curved avenues, eyeing up which style of house we’d prefer from the plethora of choice.

Empuriabrava (run to beach)

Empuriabrava (jetty end)

We ran out to a small marker at the end of a jetty.  The sea was crashing wildly against the rocks, with large waves rolling through the protected narrow opening of the town’s waters.  We watched several small craft try to breach the waves and escape to open sea, only to be repelled back to the calm waters to think again.  One larger vessel, lifeboat sized, bounced strongly through the crests, impressively catching metres of air between each successive wave.  I was glad to be watching rather than on board; the passengers must have been shaken to the core. We continued our run along the beach then back a different route, still gaping at the extent of this mini-Venice.  It was an interesting maze of affluent neighbourhoods and waterways, not at all similar to the tourist trappings of Roses.

A&N x

2019 Catch-up – What we’ve been up to lately…

Wow, it’s been over three months since our last blog post.  Time certainly moves on quickly when you fill your days.  We decided that this blog would be better suited for the recording of our exploratory travels in Benny, and that intermittent updates of our daily grind working on house projects were deemed not interesting enough to post about.  Instead, we have gathered together a few of our highlights of 2019 so far, to help capture a smattering of the interesting, noteworthy places we have passed through and a few events we have recently attended.

Angôuleme International Comic Festival (January)

Each year Angôuleme hosts one of the largest international Comic Festivals in the world.  Despite Nicky not being a particular fan of the genre, after some gentle persuading she was keen to visit and see what the festival could offer.  We thought of staying over, but decided to make it a day trip as the city is only an hour from our base.  The town itself was quite beautiful, set on a steep-sided hill dominated by a cathedral, and absolutely thronged with people.   There were many main exhibition venues spread out around the city, with free buses carting the crowds between each. The breadth and scale of each exhibition hall was incredible.  No longer the sole domain of superheroes, the comic genre reflects every conceivable topic; suicide to pornography, biting political commentary to historic tales, incestuous abuse to supernatural thrillers.  Every topic is described in detail, in a multitude of styles, the lined black inks of noir whodunnits through photo-realistic renderings of fantasy creatures to the large-eyed cartoon dramas of angst-ridden Manga teenagers.  We watched skilled artists personalise purchases of their novels by adding requested character artwork and personalised messages to any blank pages, and long lines queuing patiently for such a prize.  It was a great day out, fascinating to learn more about the process and the artwork and see a few of the big names behind the comics.  The only downside was the that almost all displayed comics were in French; I had held hopes that at a large international festival there would have been more availability of popular comics in English.

Chartres, cathedral city (February)

Heading home for our annual visit, check-ups and servicing dates, we stopped off just short of Chartres in Marboué, leaving our city visit until the next morning.  Here I had a hilly 10km training run around the nearby villages.  The next morning we found easy parking on the south of Chartres at a long gravel car-park that doubled as an aire, then walked along the gently meandering river an easy thirty minutes to reach the celebrated Cathedral quarter.  The city was quiet and still in the early morning, the sky a solid undisturbed blue, and only a few other walkers and joggers were around.  We walked slowly through the historic streets and enjoyed a visit inside the cathedral, marvelling at the intricacy of the carvings.

Trip back to the UK (February-March)
After Chartres, we competed the road north to park at Saint-Nicolas d’Aliermont, our usual pre-ferry stopover.  Here we went for another 10km run that proved much hillier than we’d expected, before crossing early the following morning.  Once back in Blighty our days were packed with appointments with dentists, opticians, MOTs, Benny servicing, and more.  We fitted in bouts of visiting friends, hopping from High Wycombe to central London to Northampton to Thaxted, before catching a flight from Stansted to Belfast.  There were more family visits around Lisburn, Ballinderry & Portadown, interspersed with lough shore runs, an American football game (more below) and a trip to my nephew’s student digs in Whiteabbey.

Craigavon Cowboys – our First American football game (March)

It was a freezing day with a bitter north wind on a playing field in the People’s Park, Portadown.  My nephew David was playing his recently discovered new sport with his local team, the Craigavon Cowboys.  We were there to support.   It was a little confusing at the start, not having realised that they only had one goal set up, effectively playing on a shortened pitch, so each change of possession required a direction and position change, with the team in possession always playing towards the one end-zone.  It was never fully clear what would happen in event of an interception, but I’m sure the black and white striped professional-looking officials had it all worked out.  With player shortages, my nephew played in both offense and defence sets, enjoying lots of game time.  The cold wind and less players to swap ensured less standing around time between plays, allowing the game to flow quicker than normal, to be constantly moving and action-packed.  We enjoyed the spectacle of it all.

After our return flight to England, we stayed with Nicky’s dad in Downham Market before reaching Nicky’s mum near Louth.  Here we had a few days of relative quiet, several long runs, a spot of tree surgery, and several days of opening and checking through the remainder of our packed possessions to see what could return with us to our French house.  We had a great night of comedy at Louth theatre, even if we had front row seats, an instant involvement in the show, and became the soft targets of several witty one-liners.   Then too soon again we were off, spending nights with friends in Market Harborough, Northampton and St Albans before finally reaching the south coast at Peacehaven to await our ferry.  We saw a monument marking the southern-most point of the Greenwich Meridian on UK soil and enjoyed our last fish and chips before returning (on an earlier 1am-5am ferry as our morning sailing was cancelled due to high winds) to France.

Nantes & its mechanical menagerie (March)

Nantes - visit (courtyard)

After our late ferry switch and a wild, rough crossing, we were missing a night’s sleep but a day ahead of schedule.  We paused at Fougères to catch up on sleep, then checked into a campsite in the centre of Nantes as a birthday treat.  Here we watched the exciting finale of the Six Nations, then the next morning caught a tram to the centre to explore the sights.  The Île des Machines, our main target, did not open until 2pm, so we had plenty of time to see the historic centre. There was a race on, a pink charity event, with many thousands dressed up, and we wished we’d known and could have participated.  Instead we became spectators, seeing the crowds of happy runners from all angles as we wandered the city.

Nantes - visit (elephant)

After lunch we made our way to the Île des Machines and queued to enter the venue, seeing the mechanical spider, sloth, crane and giant ant, amongst many others.  We climbed in one prototype  branch of a giant tree, the next extension to the park, due to be completed in 2020.  But the main event for us was the wandering Elephant, strutting and spraying at tourists on its slow trundle around the grounds.  A grand spectacle.

Marathon de Cheverny (April)

We drove to Cheverny on a slow Friday afternoon, leaving us time to find the designated free aire by the cemetery and settle in before the racing began.  Nicky was running the 10km on Saturday afternoon, and I was running my first marathon on the Sunday.  Each race was to begin in the grounds of the Château de Cheverny, an impressive house famous now for being the inspiration for Tintin’s ancestral home in Hergé’s comics.  Nicky ran well, beating her expectations to finish in 48 minutes, a new post-back operation PB. The pressure was on for me to meet my target.

The day began with a blanket of chilling cloud, dropping the temperature to 4 degs, before warming up slowly through the morning.  All my long training runs were through cold winter months, and a hot sunny day would have rendered them for naught as I wilt badly in heat.  Unfortunately, my mind failed early -I knew exactly what not to do, yet did it anyhow.  I began much too fast, still feeling I was going slow and backwards as many were wildly rushing past me.  It was only at the 10k point that I realised I was under 50 mins, far ahead of my projected pace schedule.  I reined it in, but it was too late. I was closer to my schedule on halfway, at 1hr 48 mins, but by 25k I was done.  My legs were lead, refusing to turn over properly.  I had never felt this level of fatigue on long training runs, so put it down to the over-fast start.  I paid dearly for it, struggling through the next 12k, then with 5k to go I ran hard again, forgetting the pain and pushing through to make it end.  I just made it in under my 4hr target, at 3hr 56mins.

We were running to support a charity – WalktheWalk – as Nicky’s friend Emma was recently diagnosed and currently undergoing treatment.  Our Justgiving page is still open should any kind readers wish to donate.  Many thanks.

So, that’s a few of our recent highlights.  In between, we have been catching up with friends ( Hi to Dave & Kate, and Chris & Peter ) reading, writing, painting, sketching, playing music, watching movies and completing DIY projects.  And running, lots and lots of running.  Our swim training will start again soon, with the warmer weather and water. Our wetsuits are certainly well rested, having gone unused since last September, and our bikes have been left unpedalled throughout autumn and winter.  With my marathon completed our running will likely taper back to only a couple of times a week, leaving time for more cycling and swimming.   This week we have a garden to cut back, dig over and plant out and then bathroom to tile, then we’re off to explore the Costa Brava for a few weeks.  Phew!

A&N x

Spain – Ulibarri-Gamboa lake – walks, runs and cycles

Under dull, monotone skies and with heavy hearts we again said our goodbyes to San Sebastián and drove south, away from the coast. The morning was chilly, a damp, hanging fog had descended and, combined with a light but bitingly sharp breeze, the heat from our limbs was ripped away.  This was very different weather from our glorious arrival.  For twenty miles we remarked on how green Spain was looking, until suddenly the entire countryside transformed into blonde stubble fields and burnt grass, a palette of pale yellows and muted browns.  It looked like this region had suffered drought and burning sun for long months.  We were on an easy dual carriageway, twisted and steep as it navigated the hilly terrain, reaching the northern outskirts of Vitoria-Gasteiz.

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (first look)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (circuit map)

We had plans to visit Ulibarri-Gamboa lake for a few days of gentle running, walking and, perhaps, swimming. Our first stop was a tourist office at Garaio, near the south-east lake shore.  Here we were informed that we could park overnight at one of the nearby car-parks, which proved ideal for us.  We went there and ate lunch, marvelling again at our luck.  The sun had broken through, burned off all the fog and the sky was a cloudless pastel blue.  The trees lining the park were turning to the muted reds and amber of rich autumn colours, and best of all, there were no other visitors; the stunning lakeside park was all ours.  During a leisurely lunch armed with detailed maps from the tourist office we planned a 44km cycle (tomorrow) and a 13km easy walk/run (today), each hugging the shore.  We set off in perfect running conditions; still warm air, wonderful autumn foliage providing occasional shade, no time constraints and with no one else in sight.

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (viewpoint above church)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (running trails)

We passed timber miradors overlooking wide, still rivers alive with grebes, coots and egrets, feeling a little guilty when our presence disturbed their restful day.  The paths were leaf-strewn gravel or compacted white sandstone dust, perfect for exploring on foot.  We crossed a low timber bridge, more of a pontoon, then later another more substantial, arrow straight bridge, built high above the water.  We could see energetic sprites darting in skittish shoals below our feet.  Just beyond this bridge crossing stood the ivy-clad remains of a stone church, the sole remaining structure from one of the many abandoned villages that were flooded back in the 1950’s during the formation of this important regional reservoir.  Exactly on our 13km expectation, after passing loose cows on the path, we crossed a raised timber walkway that returned us to the rear of the quiet car-park where Benny was patiently waiting.  Joyed by the beautiful weather and happily weary from our beautiful, exploratory run, we spent a restful afternoon sipping tea and scoffing pannettone, amazed we’d found yet another gem of a stop.

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (towards church ruin)

The stillness and quiet, mixed with fresh-air and exercise, led us both to a deep, lengthy sleep.  After nearly 11 hours in bed, we were well rested and utterly famished.  After breakfast we chatted to our new motorhoming neighbours Nadine and Chris, a couple who lived in the Vendée coastal town of St Jean de Monts.  We have long been considering a circular coastal trip round Brittany, starting near Nantes, and their kind offer for us to visit anytime may make a very good starting point for our planning.

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (view accross)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (aaron on shore)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (return to benny)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (great parking)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (start cycling)

We finally got moving, wary under very different conditions.  The sky was now streaked with muted greys, almost black in places, layering the whole park with a shroud.  Autumn foliage was no longer vibrant and bright, but consisted of muted browns and muddy olive greens.  We hoped it might clear with time, but sensibly planned for the more likely scenario – dull, persistent rain. With waterproof jackets donned, we started off in the reverse direction of yesterday’s run, following the lake shore on easy paths.  We covered distance quickly and soon were back at the tall straight bridge, but passed by rather than crossing.  From here the path quickly deteriorated, a less used route.  It was steeper now, up and down in rugged, rocky bumps, the surface deeply cracked and broken like it had recently been subject to flash floods.

We had to dismount and push for a couple of the steeper climbs, the path too poor to gain traction. Soon after we joined a tarmac road, glad for the easy going. With a miserable drizzle filling the air, and with low visibility across the lake, we decided to stick on the road and enjoy a simpler stretch, cruising downhill and across a river before rising smoothly up to meet the main dam.  We paused soon after to nibble fruit cake on a timber bench and could barely see the walls of the dam opposite – such a different day from before.  Soaked through and devoid of views, we pushed on with a shortcut in mind.  Before we got there Nicky’s front tyre was punctured and we had to pause on the path, in heavy rain, to fix it.  Only here did we discover all our glues had expired so a patch was impossible but we also carried a spare tube, so this was fitted and we were on our way again.

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (on the trail)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (steep rises)

At the top left-hand corner of the lake, near Landa, we decided to forego the shore-hugging cycle route and, heads down, quickly progressed down the shorter, straighter, easy tarmac route to Marieta. Turning right off the road, we re-joined the wiggling cycle path, walked across a pedestrian bridge we’d ran over the day before and, after another grassy shortcut, we happily arrived back at Benny.   Our shortcut had reduced the lap to 37km, rather than the expected 44km. Drying, cleaning, rinsing, showering and packing dominated our next hour, as we faced the usual motorhome struggle of what to do with a load of sodden gear, especially when the rains persist outside.  We steamed cosily inside, reading and supping tea much of the afternoon.

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (evening walk views)

Ulibarri-Gamboa lake (evening views)

Late afternoon, after a warming rest, we got a little restless and decided on a short walk.  The weather had dried up and small patches of blue sky were visible in the otherwise grey murk. We followed the road back towards the tourist office, before cutting left to ascend to a local high point. Stone steps formed the route, our leg muscles being tested again. Adding just this small raise changed the perspective over the lake.  We spent a few restful moments at the top picking out places we had visited and spotting key landmarks in the rolling landscape.  A small number of vivid copper trees lit up the vista, set between a sea of darkened green, lime and white leaves.  At a distance we could just see the river that had been dammed to form the reservoir.

At the bottom of the mound we passed a metal sculpture of a dinosaur-like creature that, like the polar bear in Tromsø before it, just had to be climbed.  (always a child at heart).

A&N x

Tour de Mont Blanc – hiking the TMB (a personal reflection)

Tour de Mont Blanc – hiking the TMB (a personal reflection)

Through scratched perspex, we looked down like giants on the rows of tiny buildings and straight roads that littered the flat valley base, carpeting the flat plain in dense, interlocking patterns.  It all became toy-like, insignificant in the deep shadow of the high mountain massif.  Opposite, we watched as the white domed cap of Mont Blanc came slowly into view as we rose higher in our gently-rocking cocoon.  The famed peak would be the focal-point of our next ten days as we hiked a 170km oblong circuit around it, through three countries.  We were both buzzing with anticipation.

We arrived at the top of Plan Praz from Chamonix, France, to begin our trail.  There were others here, colourful, noisy day-trippers, but we saw no one likely to be starting the hike alongside us.  This was unsurprising, as we had chosen both an unconventional place to begin, and were walking the opposite direction to most.  With a little trepidation, partnered with nervous excitement, we followed a dusty path of loose gravel up behind the lift station, gaining height with each forward step.  We felt alive, readied for the challenge, eager to get moving and to begin discovering the path ahead. We were soon engulfed by the tall sides of nearby mountains.  Their dry faces towered above us in grey knuckles of coagulated rock.  Smudges of pristine snow remained set in deep gullies and rubbed high on deeply shadowed slopes.

Around them the earth smoothed to a shrub-speckled plain, and on all sides the horizon was closed-in by snowy peaks, pale in the distance.  We traversed this stony face on a well-used trail, leading through pockets of vivid-green fir trees on narrow, dusty trails. Combined with the remaining blotches of greying snow this created a Christmas postcard feel, jarring in our imaginations with the muggy heat of the late morning air.  In the next valley, deepened with heavy shadows, we could see dots of colour approaching, lined like caterpillars along the obvious snaking path.  These were the groups of tradition-respecting anti-clockwise walkers we expected to meet each day.  We nodded and smiled our way past them, glad for each spark of company but occasionally craving the clear and quiet solitude of an empty trail.

With us walking clockwise, against convention and crowds, we experienced wonderfully alone mornings, full of welcome solitude.  We could stumble and sweat up our morning climbs in peace, without witness.  Around halfway through each day’s walking we began to meet others, usually on a downhill stretch, for us.  We enjoyed these sociable afternoons, brimming with cheery greetings and occasional chats, as we silently, selfishly, revelled in the thought that we had completed the most difficult stretch of our day.  All those we passed had still to face the climb we were now descending from.  On occasion we jogged small stretches of downhill trails, slow in hiking boots, but it was much easier on our knees to fall with rather than fight against gravity.  We were occasionally passed by committed cyclists on fat-tired bikes, belligerently forcing their way up the steep, rutted trails, or joyously falling fast down them.

The circuit contained a continuous accessible beauty, and we never tired of the new vistas each section brought.  Flowering meadows crowded with bell-ringing golden cows, villages of perfect timber chalets decorated with climbing roses, and high mountain peaks topped with snowy domes, scarred with deeply-clawed gullies.  Set above the treeline, in shaded crevices, we stared at the ragged tongues of rough-surfaced glaciers as they prodded menacingly towards the valley floor.  At smaller scales, tiny alpine flowers brightened each path, their tiny star-blues and butter-yellows a reflection not of insignificance but robust hardiness.  We longed for each upcoming change, to see what was next, just as we wished a favoured view could stay with us longer.  Nothing was permanent, yet every change was valuable and worthy.  We soaked up all that we could, breathing in the views alongside the fresh, clean air of the high mountains.

We saw this trip as a break from our normal van life, each night after walking a treat of long showers, clean sheets and prepared food, away from the usual daily chore of shopping, cooking and washing up.  Both the daily freedom of the mountain hiking and the welcoming comfort of the hotels were our reward.  In such clear weather there was no mistaking the path, so we walked free of concern.  Each day, rather than bringing weariness, made us stronger.  We got hike-fit by doing, each completed climb a strong, building session for legs and lungs. We grew to crave every tough rise, the constant sweat and burn of sustained effort and the joyous reward of a newly earned and compelling mountain vista.  Each passing Col brought us the next visual wonder and a new valley to explore on the opposite side.

At Les Mottets, we were sat on long wooden benches, by long tables, in groups of fourteen or more.  Each course was brought out in huge serving bowls or platters to be distributed by each table of guests. We hesitantly plated up what we thought our share, trying to judge a fair portion and not offend our neighbours.  But we need not have been cautious as unending refills were available to any who requested them.  We ate hungrily whilst discussing the trail so far and sharing a sketch of our outside lives with the nearest others.  Our hosts entertained us with traditional organ music from a colourful box, the tunes magically read from punched cardboard sheets fed into one side.  Once sated, the majority retired to a night in the dreaded bed-lines of the cramped dormitory, but we had a coveted double suite.

Despite our private room, we still suffered a disturbed night.  Stiff from sleeplessness, we stepped slowly back into the glaring sun. Our day began with another cloudless sky over a dusty gravelled path that carried us upwards.  We passed supine cows wearing thick leather necklaces hung with heavy brass bells before rising sharply along a series of stony hairpins to reach a grassy bluff, surrounded by a curtain of sheer grassy slopes.  The dusty grey valley turned to green-yellow slopes lined with deeply-worn brown tracks. Minute alpine flowers speckled the grasses with dots of vibrant colour.  We passed idle, furry marmots nuzzling in tall grasses.  We crossed rivers flowing over wavy rocks, worn smooth with time.  We marvelled at the swirling-lined strata under a shallow waterfall, veined with vivid colours, a freak creation of geology and water.  Our rich salty sweat, mixed with sun-cream, all but blinded us as we rose sharply.

Hours passed and the stubborn mountain greens gave way to patches of loose shale, steep and crumbling, and a return to a hard, all-grey landscape.  The only softness found here were the ribbed blobs of last winter’s remaining snow, pristine white, untouched.   A bright sea of hikers was dropping down the opposite slope, giving scale to our path, our only true reference in the monotone greyness.  We stumbled onto a hard-to-see path, denoted only by knee-high cairns stood grey on grey against the discarded shale, and followed this up a long line of tight turns.  Eventually we were led to the snow-capped summit of the Col des Fours, at 2685m. We paused here, satisfied from our efforts.  We took time to savour the moment, breathing in the thin cool air and examining the expansive view.

As beautiful as each vista was, we always felt a constant impatience to keep moving.  We knew we still faced a long downward path to reach Les Contamines.  We dropped off the Col on long stretches of crisp-topped snow, with well-worn deep channels of muddy-brown slush denoting the path.  The kilometres fell away easily as we lost height, passing multitudes slowly slogging their way up to the Col des Fours.  We fell alongside the green-glass river, passed pristine churches and scalloped rock pools of deep, frothing blue, to reach the outskirts of Les Contamines and our boutique Hotel Gai Soleil.  We were treated to a tidy, characterful room with a balcony overlooking the gardens.  The in-house chef prepared us a stylish reinvention of the traditional French raclette, serving salad, potatoes and hot, melted Camembert, followed by a wonderfully tart berry sundae.  The hard kilometres fell away in sudden luxury.

Our days passed in a familiar pattern, each flowing inexorably into the next. We crossed from France to Switzerland to Italy with little change but the daily greetings we shared on the mountain pathways.  Each day we climbed high and each night slept low, secure in small valley settlements or in lonely mountain refuges.  We rose early to breakfast and began walking before the sun broke in glorious rays over the peak-lined horizons.  Days began with a steep return to re-join the main circuit, and the cooler dawn air was a welcome relief as we forcefully regained the altitude lost the day before.  We found the trail became a series of moments, of views, sounds and smells, each vividly distinct yet impossible to separate from the whole.  Everything seen was but a glimpse, an ephemeral whisper of the landscape.

Rising out of Les Houches, the deep shade of the woodland trees brought some relief from the sun’s direct oppression, but offered little respite from the intense heat of the still, close air.  When the wind blew through the branches we instantly felt renewed, revitalised, our repressive tormentor temporarily removed from our burning skin.  The path was formed from gnarled, swollen roots jutting out of dust-brown soil like giant arthritic knuckles attempting to escape a grave.  Grey boulders sat immobile between the roots, forming helpful steps or high barricades to assist or slow our progress.  The dry soil was scalloped in places from the passing of a million boots.  We climbed in silence, and with no view out through the dense trees, we both looked inwards instead, pushing ourselves with a quiet intensity.

The burning satisfaction from our steady efforts kept us striding out strongly.  We rose high, yet were more affected by the intoxicating closeness of the stifling afternoon heat than any achieved altitude. In many ways the higher passes, over 2000m, were a relief to us as they came packaged with a welcome breeze and much cooler air.  We passed by Refuge Bellachat and entered a different landscape, a grassy plateau of bumps and lakes.  This suddenly changed again to a sculpted path of flat boulders, built as steps, weaving through a loose, grey moraine.  Beyond here we reached the crowded lookout at the top of Brévent lift at 2525m, our final climb complete.  With quiet celebration, we began our short descent through snowfields and grey dust to return, days later, to the top of Plan Praz, set above Chamonix.

We completed the walk, our distances measuring a total of 183km including offshoot tails to reach accommodations.  The route may have looked wild, challenging, even escapist on occasion, but it never truly felt it.  We were always close to safety, to other hikers, to the easy comforts of a hotel.  We never thought of ourselves as being alone, isolated, even if experiencing that hint of danger or spark of adventure was something we both deeply desired.  It was a tame, civilised hike, a calm and comfortable multi-day wilderness walk.  It may not have proved to be the difficult, testing physical or mental challenge we had expected, even craved for, but it remains a wonderful route replete with quiet, thoughtful beauty and deeply impressive mountain scenery.  And we can’t rightly fault it for that.

A&N x

Previous posts (of a more chronological nature) from the same trip:
France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 1)
France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 2)
France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 3)

France – Macon, Moulins & Montluçon

Just two days into her antibiotic schedule, Nicky was feeling much perkier; it was time to move on. We left our rest spot in Abondance and returned back down the mountain.  We had to revisit Thonon hospital for some follow-up blood work, as instructed.  We parked easily in the empty hospital car-park and waited only a few minutes to see the specialist nurse, blood was extracted and we were away.  This visit was more efficient and endurable than the first.

Being so close, we decided it would be unforgivable not to have a dip in the glimmering coolness of Lac Léman.  There were two aires nearby, so we first headed to the nearest, set right on the lake shore.  The road in was very narrow and busy with badly-parked cars and I, squeezing through at around 5mph, clipped wing-mirrors with an abandoned Land Rover.  Stopping to check, their mirror was entirely fine, but ours had popped out and the bottom glass shattered.  What a week we were having!  We continued to the tight motorhome parking, a row of three diagonal spaces between the cars on the road, only slightly wider than the spaces surrounding them.  We sneaked in and assessed the damage, and with super glue and sellotape managed to fix up the mirror enough to get by for now.  We were metres from the water, so to relieve tension and soothe our minds, we changed and jumped straight in.

Lalleyriat (lakeside walk)

Lalleyriat (rainy parking)

After a mind-chilling swim and a spot of downtime, we made our way west once more.  We decided to stop at Lalleyriat, a recently refurbished aire by an almost-completed lake.  There was a kid’s play park and a small sandy beach being enjoyed by a few families, although the weather had turned.  It was now cloudy and grey, and they soon began packing up with disappointed looks.  We walked a slow loop around the small lake then snuggled in for the night as the sudden arrival of heavy rain bombarded our roof.  The skies were back to their usual clear and bright when we awoke, so we moved on.  We passed through Nantua and Bourg-en-Bresse to stop by a private vineyard in the small village of Prissé, on the west side of Macon.  A French Passion site with a wine shop, a perfect base for us.

Prisse (winery shop)

Prisse (free shop aire)

The popular aire, spaciously housing only six vans, was also positioned directly on a voie verte leading into Macon centre, about 9km away.  We passed two pleasant nights, and Nicky managed the casual cycle on the voie verte to Macon.  We saw hilly fields of ripening vines, green and lush, on the way.  Approaching the town we gravitated to the tall church before snaking through the central streets under the shade of brightly coloured umbrellas.  We rolled along the riverfront as far as a municipal swimming pool in a leafy park, then doubled back to cross a stone bridge and view the city frontage from the opposite bank.  Macon centre was a lively mix of old and new buildings, dynamic and discoloured, scruffy yet dignified, with the long promenade following the river bank by far the best feature.

Macon (cycling past vines)

Macon (central streets)

We reluctantly dragged ourselves away from this comfortable, quiet spot and travelled on, with an extra 10 litres of tasty wine on board from the farm shop.  We maintained our westward driving, this time stopping near to Moulins.  We entered a huge barriered aire, with the look of an abandoned campsite, with the devastating cost of €0.10/hour.  The site felt like it may be an occasional flood plain to allow control of the nearby river.  The signs said it was meant for up to 90 vans, but there were 69 vans there the night we arrived (yes, we counted on an evening stroll) and still lots of space for another 60 at least.  We walked to examine the tall bunds around the site, set under a high railway bridge spanning the site and running across the river.  The rest of the day and evening we sat, enjoying the shade.

Moulins (view from campsite)

The next day we walked into Moulins under a blistering sun to see both of the twin-towered cathedrals.  We walked the pretty streets searching out shade, and truly enjoyed the blissful coldness of the cathedral interiors.  Everywhere was alight with vibrant flowering borders and hanging baskets.  We crossed the main square where street cafés served customers crowded under red umbrellas and excited kids played in the shallow fountain waters.  But the efforts of our short walk in such draining heat proved too much for the still-recovering Nicky, so we returned to base and spent a lot of downtime around Benny, sitting and chilling.  The welcome rest in such a spacious, shaded aire was exactly what we needed, and definitely worth the €4.30 it eventually cost us when we rolled out two days later.

Neris-les-Bains (shared book box)

Neris-les-Bains (traditional dancing)

We moved on to Neris-Les-Bains, an €8/night aire with electricity, Wi-Fi, WC, shower and all services, a row of six spaces set just outside the gates to a large campsite.  There was nothing available inside the triple-priced campsite that we didn’t have outside, except a three night limit, but we planned to stay only two.  It was a short walk into a town that prided itself on keeping busy; a large poster listed all upcoming events – it had five or six listings per day throughout July; art classes, markets, dances, fairs.  We helped ourselves to a French book from a sharing library box in a small flower garden before watching a display of music and dancing by elderly locals dressed in traditional costume.  We passed the baths that feature in the town’s name, still a strong business interest, drawing in crowds.

Montlucon (voie verte bridges)

Montlucon (church garden)

The following morning we cycled to Montluçon along another easy voie verte, gently downhill all the way.  We crossed high bridges spanning deep, lush valleys and rolled through occasional patches of deep shade from tightly-knitted overhanging trees.  We were soon deposited into the busy centre’s roads at a small park and slowly cycled a loop of the medieval heart, stopping in each small square to look around.  We found a modern golden hall beside an old stone church with a beautifully planted walled-garden behind.  The streets were neat and clean, with several restaurants making their first efforts to open in expectation of lunchtime crowds.  After visiting all the main streets, our eyes turned upwards to take in the domineering central château, its high defensive walls a prominent feature.

Montlucon (view from chateau)

A short, steep ascent led us up to the stone and timber château, the main focal point above the town.  It had a decorative clock tower and was hung with well-tended baskets of red flowers.  We left our bikes against a tree and walked the perimeter walls, overlooking the entire town.  Montluçon looked messy from above; the rear façades of the older central buildings were dirty and grey, their grimy shabbiness contrasting with their immaculately presented fronts.  Outside the medieval centre, the town had expanded in too much of a hurry and in all the wrong ways, with dingy industrial units peppered throughout the landscape and garishly-coloured ugly tower blocks blighting the distant horizon.  We passed the Hôtel de Ville as we left, enjoying their playful fountains in the empty stone square.

Montlucon (chateau facade)

Montlucon (hotel de ville)

The next morning we serviced and left Neris-Les-Bains, for another short hop towards our new home.  We were now near to Limoges, but still had a long weekend to wait out, and where better to sit out this achingly hot summer weather than at a large swim lake?  Shady trees and cooling dips were calling us, and we could not ignore their cries.

A&N x