Baratier (Haute Alpes), France September 2020

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.

Lake Serre-Poncon from the south as we came over the mountains

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.

The Campsite Pool looked good but we decided to move on

Moustiers Ste Marie (Alpes de Haute Provence), France September 2020

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.

No photo can do this place justice – It is breathtaking

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.

Fountain outside the Notre Dame de l’Assumption

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.

First sight of the Chapel

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.

Vogue (Ardeche), France September 2020

Just 15 minutes drive south of Aubenas and sitting on the banks of the Ardeche is the small village of 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 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.

My favourite photo, taken from where we had our coffee

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.

Aubenade (Ardeche), France – September 2020

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.

Not a bad view to wake up to…

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.

… and Nala has always liked the water.

Limoux (Aude), France September 2020

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.

So here we are. Back again.

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…

Montclar (Aude), France September 2020

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?!?

Gruissan (Aude), France September 2020

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.

The footbridge leads to and from the old town but before then…

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.

Limoux, here we come.

Vanya’s View (Part 3) St Emilion to Hendaye

At the risk of sounding like Princess Diana, I often feel there are three of us in this marriage. There’s me, Dave and Davy. Davy appears most often when Dave is having a shower, cooking, washing up or performing some other menial task. Fortunately he stays away when we are out shopping or in a pub or restaurant. He must be Dave’s alter ego. This is not to say that Dave is schizophrenic, just sad. Davy joined him in the shower the other day. I listened in on their conversation, it went like this:-

“Ouch, too hot. Now, turn it off. Okay. Alter the temperature. Put it back on, ahh, good, good, perfect. Oh, put that there. Lovely jubbly Davy. I should probably open that window but I have had problems with it. That was nice. Lovely jubbly. Good. Finally, nothing wrong with that shower, Van” (starts singing Feeling Groovy).

I shall carry on eavesdropping on Dave and Davy as we continue with our tour but in the meantime, coming to a good shop near you very soon – “The Best of Dave and Davy’s Shower Songs”.

We headed to Saint John de Pied Port and our first sight of the Pyrenees. I really don’t like heights and so mountains do little for me but it was still quite exciting. Dave definitely thought so. After bridges, mountains are his next favourite thing. Quite where the kids and I fit in the ranking I am not so sure. The town is very pretty with medieval buildings and cobbled streets but very touristy and very busy. We had a walk around and then moved on to Hendaye which is the most South Western town on the border of France/Spain. This was our first sighting of the Atlantic which was great (the sea is my equivalent of Dave’s passion for bridges, well, nearly anyway). We couldn’t take the dogs onto the beach, probably a good thing as Beanie is far too young to see all those topless bathers. We were very obviously in the south of France. The nicest thing about Hendaye is you can see Spain from the seafront and for 2 Euros each we did in fact take a 10 minute boat ride across to the Spanish town of Hondarribia. We had a nice lunch and meandered around the old town for a few hours. As this was Spain’s lunch/siesta time it was very quiet and we happily tried to fill our iphone memories with pictures. Both days we were in Hendaye we walked a minimum of 8 kms. Poor Beanie’s legs must have been aching and, as for mine…..

This was our last port of call in France for a few days as we were heading over the Pyrenees into Spain. This was most definitely not part of Dave’s initial itinerary but, what’s that got to do with anything?

Hendaye (Pyrenees Atlantique), France – September 2020

Vanya made it clear that she would like us to head for the coast and she had set her mind on Hendaye – a sprawling town of more than 15,000 people located at the most southwestern tip of France on the border with Spain. She wanted to rest up on the coast and swim and who was I to argue? Hendaye is only 50 miles away from Saint Jean Pied de Port and with Labastide-Marnac not proving to be the chill event we had hoped for, it made sense.

Everywhere we have travelled in France has taken almost twice as long as the predicted Google Map journey time. This is more a reflection as to the amount of time we spend in the Leclerc, Lidl and Carrefour stores than my driving speeds but, the journey to Hendaye was no different. No matter, we arrived early afternoon and there was still enough time left in the day to walk down into the town, along the beach and back – an 8 kms round trip.

Hendaye is really about it’s beach and water sports. It’s a stunning long sandy beach; 3 kms between the River Bidassoa at one end and Les Deux Jumeaux (Two Twins) at the other. Sheltered from the wind and big swells (the waves are on average half the size of the more exposed spots just to the north) the area has become a training area for surfing so much so that swimmers are precluded from certain parts of the beach. So what, the beach is big enough for all. Having checked out the town centre we were content for the most part to sit at a beach cafe and just chill. There’d be time later for further exploration.

In this area it is the River Bidassoa that forms the border between France and Spain. Hendaye in France and Hondarribia in Spain sit opposite each other on the river. The two towns are quite different. Hondarribia has an old quarter which reflects its quaint medieval Basque heritage while Hendaye, having been completely destroyed by the Spanish way back in 1793,has been totally rebuilt and is comparatively modern. They actually complement each other quite well inasmuch that Hendaye has the beach, water sports and nightlife while Hondarribia has a sleepier feel and all the historical interest you could want. We stayed in the area for the best part of 3 days and took time to explore both towns.

One place well worth visiting in Hendaye is the Chateau d’Abbadia. It is set in extensive grounds on a promontory to the north of the town and it has fine views all around. It was built in the 1870’s at the behest of Antoine d’Abbadie, a Dublin born eccentric scholar, linguist, astrologer, anthropologist, explorer and cartographer (he was the first to map Ethiopia) who travelled the world with his wife Virginie.

Chateau d’Abbadia
The Chateau’s very impressive entrance

The Chateau, with its novel and extravagant architecture very much reflects the extraordinary personality of it’s owner. Instead of the usual gargoyles that tend to adorn such structures there is a menagerie – crocodiles, snakes, snails, frogs and elephants to name but a few…

The inside of the building is as unpredictable as the outside…

Given the remarkable personality of Antoine d’Abbadie it comes as no surprise to learn that upon his death he left the chateau to the Academie des Sciences and it became and still remains an astronomy observatory.

The area around the Chateau is beautiful cliff walking country and after my visit I did just that. The views were spectacular…

One final thing before we visit Hondarribia. Hendaye also has some historical significance. It was at Hendaye’s Railway Station that Hitler and Franco met on 23 October 1940 discuss Spain joining the war against what remained of the British Empire…Not many people know that.

Saint Jean Pied-de-Port (Pyreness-Atlantique), France – September 2020

Good to be back on the move again and it showed in the mileage we completed today. From Labastide-Marnac we made our way south west to Ascarat just outside of Saint Jean Pied-de-Port; a journey of some 254 miles. SJPP has long been on my wish-list of places to visit and I couldn’t wait to get into the town.

We arrived in Ascarat late afternoon and after walking the dogs, Vanya elected to stay with the dogs and chill while I immediately set off on the 30 minute walk into Saint Jean Pied-de-Port or Donibane Garazi as the Basques refer to the town. We are well into French Basque territory here.

As well as being one of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”, SJPP is a popular waypoint for pilgrims and/or adventurers on the pilgrim trails to Santiago de Compostella and it came as no surprise to see the place so busy during the late afternoon and early evening. It is both the finishing point for Le Puy Camino (which begins in Le Puy en Velay and is sometimes known as the Via Podiensis) and the starting point for the Camino Frances (which finishes in Santiago de Compostella and is often referred to as the Camino Way). It has long been my intention to complete these two walks which together total about 1,000 miles. Maybe next year.

Via Podiensis
Camino de Santiago (The French way)

Enough about the pilgrim trails. All things being equal you will hear more about them next year.

St Jean Pied de Port is a small, walled town on the banks of the River Nive. It was founded in the 12th century after Richard the Lionheart destroyed the nearby town of Saint Jean le Vieux (1177). There is really only one street to the town, La Rue de Citadelle, and it leads from the Porte St Jacques down into the centre of the town to the Church of Notre Dame du Bout de Pont, across the bridge and then up to the Mendiguren Citadel which is now a school.

A church service was underway as I passed the Eglise Notre Dame du Bout du Pont and the singing was so good it drew me in. It is a very impressive church with an equally impressive congregation.

I listened to some of the service and then continued up the hill to the Citadelle de Mendiguren passing the Prison des Eveques (Bishop’s Prison) on the way. The museum was closed at the time but I would be returning to the town in the morning with Vanya.

The Citadelle itself is closed to the public (it is now a school) but it was enough to walk the grounds and take in the views.

We like St Jean Pied de Port so much so we spent almost two full days here and failed to take in other villages in the area that also deserve a visit (e.g. Espelette the home of red hot chillies and Sare and Ainhoa both plus beaux villages de France) but there’s always next year or the year after that. They’ve been here a long time. Vanya wants to get to the coast.

Only downside to SJPP – the awful tourist train and the number of shops selling fridge magnets – Ugh!