Despite it’s unabashed tourism and increasing number of theme parks, Lake Garda remains a favourite of most people I know who have visited Italy.
I first visited Lake Garda in 1970 as a teenager with my parents. I returned countless times in the 1980’s (whilst working in Milan with Foster Wheeler Italiana); called in on Sirmioni with Vanya during our honeymoon in 1991 and; overnighted there last year while making my way from France to Austria in the Van. This time, we elected to stay over for a couple of days on the quieter western side of the lake between the two small villages of Villagio Sanghen and Manerba del Garde.
These villages are quieter than most around Lake Garda, sitting as they do in the heart of the Valtenesi, a green area between Salo and Padenghe. While the lakeside remains a tourist area with its campsite and accompanying bars and restaurants (they are everywhere around Garda now), go inland to the village of Manerba del Garde and you’ll barely notice the tourists. The village has retained much of its traditional character and has a very rural style about it.
This is particularly true of the restaurant at which we stopped for lunch. We spent a lovely two hours in a local cafe restaurant there and were delighted at how very cheap the place was (especially having regard to the portions) – 3.5 Euros for a 15″ pizza! Just a few hundred yards away on the waterfront we’d have paid four times as much.
This is a wine producing area – Bardolino. I thought Bardolino was produced only to the east of Lake Garda but no, it happens in the Valtenesi too. In fact, in this particular area the focus is on Bardolino’s Chiaretto, a pale rose wine. I need to find some of that before we move on but if not, there’s one thing for sure about Lake Garda, we’ll be back.
The 200 mile drive from Baratier to Lake Maggiore was mostly motorway and we made good time but upon arrival at Stresa it became obvious that we would not be able to negotiate the Van along the narrow lane into the campsite. It took us another hour to find an alternative site at Feriolo on the northern end of the lake but it actually worked out well for us.
Feriolo is a small picturesque fishing village nestled into the northwest corner of the lake and we were very lucky to find it. Picturesque is an understatement.
Most of the western side of Lake Maggiore has succumbed to tourism and while Feriolo is not entirely without tourists (the campsite we stayed in is testimony to that) this place is one of the quieter villages in the area with just one small hotel and four cafe / restaurants (excluding the campsite pizzeria) and it has a very local feel. It has the only sandy beach in the area (if not the whole of the lake), a charming little promenade and the smallest most simple marina used predominantly by local fishermen. There is a small dock too where a ferry used to call but that ceased operating a while ago and the space is now filled by a statue of a mule, the symbol of Feriolo. The only other building of any note is the Church of St Carlo.
That first night in Feriolo we chose to eat out at one of the four restaurants on the harbour, The Vistaqua. That’s Italian for “Water View” and the setting was great. So too was the pizza. Mine was filled with Gorgonzola, Pears and Walnuts (which combination worked really well) and it was accompanied by a fantastic but inexpensive Salento Primitivo. I cannot recall what Vanya chose to eat but it will come as no surprise to those who know her that she was drinking Prosecco.
The next day I witnessed the most impressive sunrise I have seen in many years and that combined with a promise of continuing fine weather prompted us to stay on another 24 hours. Time to get the BBQ out!
We had two almost contradictory objectives today. One was to make some headway towards Italy (mine) and the other was to find a decent sized Lidl, Leclerc or Carrefour and stock up on Cremont Limoux (Vanya’s). In the end we managed neither. Had we travelled the southern route past St Tropez, Cannes, Nice and the like we could perhaps have achieved both objectives but that is such a tedious route.
Instead we googled Lidl to find a decent sized store and then, armed with the necessary information, made our way north through the Alpes Haute de Provence to the small town of Digne-les-Baines. A little further research and we may have discovered that Lidl had only 4 bottles of Crement left. No matter, Vanya bought them all and then we set off to a campsite she liked the sound of at a place called Baratier.
Baratier is just 40 miles from the Italian border with Italy so while neither of us had fulfilled our respective objectives we both made progress. Best of all we were each blown away by the scenery on the way across to Baratier. We took the route through Le Vernet, Seyne, Saint Vincent les Fortes and Savines le Lac (which I believe the Tour de France follows). The road winds through and over some quite spectacular mountain scenery and for a while it follows the beautiful La Durance River and along the south bank of it’s reservoir, Lake Serre-Poncon.
One remarkable site we stumbled upon en route to Baratier (on the D954 in the Durance Valley near La Sauze du Lac) is a series of natural columns of earth and stone known as Des Demoiselles Coiffees; meaning, Young Ladies with Fancy Hair or a Nice Hat. Not hard to see why they were so named as each column is topped with a large rock.
The campsite? At first glance, it was very quiet and had everything we needed but it really is in the middle of nowhere and that evening we walked miles in the dark looking for a restaurant that would tolerate dogs. The only open restaurant we could find was a hotel restaurant and they wouldn’t admit dogs. It was back to the Van for cheese & biscuits because we hadn’t defrosted anything in the freezer.
Talk about being blessed. If La Vogue was an amazing experience, the next stop at Moustiers Sainte Marie was out of this world.
We took our time over the 85 mile journey, avoiding all toll roads and driving across the Valensole Plateau. For miles in every direction there was little else but large fields of Lavender interspersed with the occasional olive orchard. Unfortunately the Lavender was not in bloom (we’d missed it by a month) but it wasn’t difficult to imagine how magnificent these fields would have looked just a few weeks ago. Beautiful.
Moustiers Ste Marie is a small village of some 700 people in the Natural Parc Regional du Verdon. Dating back to the 5th century it is perched in a semi circle of rocky cliff at the entrance to the Gorges du Verdon (the largest canyon in Europe) and it’s setting is as attractive as the place itself with spectacular views as much from the foot of the village looking up as from it’s heights looking down over the rooftops and across the Maire Valley.
It is another plus beau village du France (that’s two in one day); full of charm, narrow streets, little squares, faience workshops, cafes and restaurants; all dominated by the 12th century four storey bell tower of the Notre Dame de l’Assumption Church (which sits in a pretty square in the centre of the village with an unmissable fountain). It’s very much a tourist town now and busy.
The whole town looks a bit like a nativity scene with a 1.25 metre gilded gold star suspended by a chain high in the sky above another religious monument sitting in the cliffs at the back of the village. This is the Chapel of Notre Dame du Beauvoir. There is a legend concerning the star which was related by the poet Mistral. He tells of a knight of Blacas who after being captured by the Saracens in a 12th century crusade swore that if ever he managed to return home he would hang a star up over the chapel in honour of Saint Mary. So it came about.
The high spot of the village for me (and please forgive the pun) is this small chapel. It’s a beautiful little chapel in its own right but the views over the Maire Valley and down on to the village are equally special. It takes only 15 minutes or so to reach the chapel from the village below and it is well worth the effort. I took the left hand path up, passing the Grotte Saint Madeleine on the way and came down by the right hand path. If you’re nervous about heights you will probably prefer to use the right hand path for the ascent and descent but there is no real exposure on either route.
It was first built in the 9th century but the oldest part remaining today is the nave which was built in the 13th century. It was a popular pilgrimage centre in the Middle Ages and in the 17th century was known as a chapel where still born children would return to life for the time it took for them to be baptised and their souls could go to heaven.
Before tourism, Moustiers was largely about pottery. It is famous for it’s Faience Earthenware. There’s an earthenware museum in the village holding a collection of this fine glazed earthenware some of which dates back to the 17th century. Faience Pottery is made to this day with the village operating 14 workshops and 22 sales outlets. Vanya gave the museum a miss, preferring to visit a workshop and buy some new Faience Pottery rather than just look at the old stuff. And what did she buy? A glazed wine cooler. What else?
We returned to the village early that evening so as to be certain to get a table in a restaurant (like I said, the place is busy) and thereafter enjoyed a lovely meal on a packed restaurant terrace – the wine was cheap and the food was good; mine was a Wild Boar Stew cooked in Lavender Honey. We were pretty much the last people to leave. Nothing wrong with that.
Just 15 minutes drive south of Aubenas and sitting on the banks of the Ardeche is the small village of La Vogue. It’s another Plus Beau Village de France (voted into the top five) and a very popular tourist resort and we were not surprised to see the place quite busy even at 10 o’clock in the morning. Ordinarily I try to steer clear of busy villages but this is one that you just have to make allowances for. It is stunning.
It sits up against a small cliff and it’s labyrinth of narrow winding lanes, of which Rue des Puces has to be amongst the narrowest I have ever come across, is truly wonderful.
This is a place the French love to visit (we didn’t see or hear anyone who is not French during our time there) and, leaving aside “Francethisway.com” and “France-voyage.com” it is difficult to find much in writing about the place that is in English. It is as if the French want to keep it a secret all of their own.
To discover anything about La Vogue you need to google in French and if, as is the case with me, your knowledge of the language is insufficient to understand anything about the castle and it’s inhabitants or how the village was built up around it, you should just revel in the place, take your photos and let the views themselves do the talking… Une atmosphere unique; Vogue c’est vraiment chouette; C’est une vrai paysage de carte postale.
We walked around for a couple of hours, sat and enjoyed a cup of coffee in the sunshine and finished with a photo-shoot of Vanya “a la Vogue” before moving on to our next destination of Moustiers Sainte Marie in the Alpes de Haute Provence.
This was one of the prettiest camp sites to date and certainly the most friendly. We were parked up right alongside the Ardeche River and decided to stay two nights, notwithstanding the mosquitoes. Thank goodness we had Avon’s Skin So Soft, the most effective midge repellent by far.
The camp site restaurant was not doing food but the owner reserved us a table at the “La Maison Restaurant” and very nice it was too with Vanya and I both going for Saint Jacques et Crevette followed by the largest Creme Brulees.
The next day was about chilling around the pool and enjoying some beers Vanya had found in the local supermarket.
We spent the weekend at the Yelloh in Montclar and had a most relaxing time although by Sunday night all the good beer had gone. That was not all my doing – there was a birthday party on the Saturday night and the attendees pretty much finished the draught beer off.
We were off to Limoux early on the Monday morning for a wine tour. Vanya had been able to organise another tour with Guinot Wine for 10.30 am. It was really informative and of course the actual tasting was enjoyable.
Our guide was named Eltonjean (he told us his father was a great fan of Elton John) and over about an hour and a half he introduced us to Guinot’s whole range of wines (and very good they are too). An hour and a half is not a lot of time to “Sacrifice” at a wine tasting and you could tell I didn’t drink a great deal because “I’m Still Standing”. In any event, I “Believe” I could have managed a great deal more and “I Guess That’s Why They Call This The Blues” that I’m now suffering from. This is utter nonsense and I should stop this and apologise but “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”. Bloody hell, seems like I could go on forever. Truly sorry. Just a bit of fun.
We came away from Guinot much more knowledgeable regarding Cremant and Blanquette wines. All the Guinot wines are made using the traditional method (i.e. by hand) using Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and, peculiar to this region, the Mauzac grape varieties. Their Rose also has a little Pinot Noir. It is the mix of these grapes which tell the Cremant and Blanquette apart with Blanquette being predominantly Mauzac and the Cremant using considerably less. If I understood Eltonjean correctly, Cremant comes in at 12% and will keep a good 5 years. This is a feature of a good Cremant; like most Champagnes it will last (until such time as you open the bottle).
We came away too with a mixed case which included two bottles of their best wine and, yes, it is the same wine as the one we had been gifted by the owner last Saturday (i.e. the Cremant Imperial Tendre Boise). Sounds fanciful this but Vanya and I each consider it to be at least on a par with the Louis Roederer Crystal that we drank at Rohan’s graduation last year and at a fraction of the price. It could have been the atmosphere in the cellars that made us feel this way but we can put it to the test again when we return to the UK. Ironically and I discovered this much later, Guinot’s Cremant Imperial Tendre Boise and Louis Roederer Crystal were both favourites of Czar Nicholas II and both companies mention the Czar in their marketing. Not many people know that.
We had a good wander around Limoux before moving on…
This was a busy day. Finishing brunch at the Gruissan Marina, we set off for Limoux for a pre-arranged wine tour with Guinot Wine. Vanya had booked it over the Internet with the Limoux Tourist Office.
Having allowed plenty of time for our journey, Limoux is only an hour and a half away from Gruissan, we decided to call in on the UNESCO World Heritage site of Carcassonne. Almost fully restored during the 19th century by Eugene Viollet le Duc, Carcassonne is one of the most impressive walled cities in France. It has an almost fairy-tale appearance with it’s watch towers, imposing double walled fortifications and labyrinth of narrow winding passageways. It also has a fair share of history with the Romans having built fortifications here as early as 100BC. The city is perhaps best known however as a primary city of the Cathars until it was captured in 1209, during the Albigensian Crusades, by Simon de Montfort.
The downside of Carcassonne is, unless you choose both to visit during Winter and stay well away from the place at lunchtimes, you’ll more than likely find it packed with tourists. Because of the significant crowds we didn’t stay long but, if you haven’t seen the place (as was the case with Vanya), it is always worth a visit.
We arrived at Guinot Wine with 5 minutes to spare only to learn that no tours take place at weekends because of the Corona issue. By chance the owner of Guinot Wine turned up at his office with a Finnish client as we arrived and it was he who gave us the bad news. The Tourist Office were remiss in booking us on a Saturday tour. He was very apologetic but said he could do nothing for us until Monday. Having said that, he gave us a bottle of his very best Cremant – seriously good it is too!
There was nothing to do but find somewhere nice to stay – we settled on a Yelloh Campsite some 20 minutes away in the countryside at a place called Montcalm. Very nice that was too. We stayed for two days taking advantage of the hot weather and Yelloh’s swimming pool – it has both a slide and a bouncy castle!! The wine tour could wait until Monday and we’re already behind schedule for Greece – so what?!?
I think I could live here. It seems to have everything – not that we stayed long enough to check everything out but, certainly, this is a place I would visit again and next time I would be taking a closer look at property prices..
I was getting tired after the journey from L’Escala not least because on top of the drive we had spent a few hours wandering around the stores in La Jonquera and so, instead of continuing to our target destination near Montpelier, we decided to overnight in Gruissan. Not sure as to why we picked this particular place but pleased we did.
Gruissan is an old fishing village, now a small town, situated on the Languedoc coast less than 10 miles from Narbonne and 70 miles from the Spanish border. It is full of contrasts comprising as it does the old circular village of Gruissan (Languedoc has a few of these circulades mostly dating from the 12th or 13th century) with its narrow little streets overlooked by the Barberousse Tower and; a newer area of apartments, restaurants and cafes built around a 1960’s marina which I am told can accommodate 1300 boats and; a number of fine sandy beaches of which the Plage de Chalets is perhaps the most original.
That’s not my photo above but it conveys how Gruissan is structured. You can see the old circular village in the foreground almost encircled by the lagoon. The grey smudge in the centre of the circulade is the Barberousse Tower. Top left of the photo is part of the 1960’s marina. There are actually two basins in the marina. The straight line along the top of the photo is the Plage de Chalets. As mentioned above, the Plage des Chalets is a most original and I should have added “picturesque” beach made up as it is of more than 1,300 old fashioned colourful holiday chalets, almost all of them built on stilts.
The place where we camped doesn’t feature in the photo. We were parked a few kilometres further up the beach at Les Ayguades Gruisson. That wasn’t to stop me heading for Gruissan “propre” that first afternoon/evening and I set off on Shanks’ Pony immediately after the Van was settled.
It was a fair walk in and very hot but there was a good cycle path that I used for most of the way and I reached the town in about 1.5 hours. I breezed through the marinas (promising to myself that I would bring Vanya in the next morning – she likes boats) and then around a large part of the lagoon (looking for potential photo opportunities) and finally on to my primary target – the old town and it’s tower.
Wandering around the old town was quite an experience. There were a surprising amount of people around and I was so totally immersed in watching them go about their daily business that I lost all track of time. I must have sat for quite a while musing over how little life has changed over the centuries in this place.
Eventually, I started towards the centre of the old town, easy when it is a circulade, and quickly found both the church (the 13th century Church of the Notre Dame of the Assumption) and right next to it the entrance to the ruin that is the Barberousse Tower.
There’s little left of the Barberousse Tower to look at but the views from the hill on which it sits are fine. The tower is all that remains of a 10th century castle built to help protect Narbonne (then a coastal town) from Moorish pirates. It was dismantled in the 16th Century on the orders of Cardinal Richelieu.
Finding a place in the centre of a circulade is easy; you simply keep going in. Finding your way out at the correct point of the circle is nowhere near as easy. I came out at the opposite side of the circle to the one I wanted and it took me more than half an hour to correct that mistake but I figured there was just enough time to get to the other side of the lagoon for a couple more photos…
Running very late, I had to jog most of the way back and it was after 8pm when I finally arrived back at the Van. Gosh I needed a drink!
Next morning we drove to the marina for something to eat. We enjoyed brunch in the sunshine and then walked a while; exercising the dogs before we retraced our steps west to visit the town of Limoux. Vanya wanted to find out more about Cremant wine. I admit I was looking forward to that too.
Why on earth did we go to La Jonquera? Vanya had been told that the cheapest wine in France or Spain is to be bought at a retail outlet called La Jonquera on the Spanish-French Border where Spain’s Els Limits meets France’s Le Perthus. So off we set.
In reality Els Limits/Le Perthus is a shabby run down border town whose main claim to fame until recently was it’s roaring sex trade. Even though prostitution is legal in France, brothels are not and when the Paradise Club opened in 2010 (in Els Limits on the Spanish side of the border where brothels are legal) it’s 90+ rooms became quite a mecca for prostitutes and their clients (and it very much remains so today if the number of scantily clad girls hanging around the various lorry parks is anything to go by).
It seems the present mayor of Els Limits is trying to clean the place up (some hope) and a massive retail park has opened. Apparently it is the largest border outlet centre in Europe and if you are into last years labels and designer gear it is a must. For my part it is one of the shabbiest and seediest places I have ever been and it is to be avoided.