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France - Part 3 - July

FRANCE | Sunday, 27 November 2016 | Views [775] | Comments [1]

South of France

For weeks we had been building toward this challenge, a dash across the entire South of France from Pamplona in Spain through to Nice, virtually on the Italian border with just thirty hours to achieve it using one driver!  We were unable to take our usual meandering approach as we were headed to a family reunion in Nice to celebrate the eleventy-first birthday of my Aunt (60½) and my cousin (50½).

We set off early from Pamplona, going against the flow of revellers arriving for the next day of the fiesta, and wound our way up and over several picturesque mountain passes before eventually joining the main highway.  We were now into the French holiday months which meant that the roads were very full.  I have noted before that the French are very good drivers on the whole (Paris excluded) yet they have one dreadful habit; following incredibly close to the car ahead no matter the speed.  We found ourselves in a line of traffic compressed to the point where we could foresee calamity and opted to drop out of that lane and slide back from the pack.  Unfortunately our fears came true as ahead of us we watched with alarm as trucks started to fishtail, brake lights lit up the sky and a nose-to-tail chain reaction commenced.  Fortunately there was nothing other than bodywork damaged as we saw shaken people emerge unhurt from each of the ten or so cars, several of which would eventually be written off.  If we had continued holding our position our travels would have become much more complicated so we are thankful for the sense to act on our “inner voice” which we have learned to trust much more during this trip.

Champagne Moments

Champagne Moments

With the first 500km under our belt we stopped in Carcassonne for a welcome overnight break.  We had visited this fairy tale medieval town previously during the daytime but it was great to spend the evening quietly chilling in its cobbled squares listening to arias from a live performance of La Bohème which wafted through the warm air.  A very heavy armed police presence implied that a VIP was attending but we were never to ascertain who except to be assured that it was “pas le président”.  The next day we set off incredibly early and soon rattled off the remaining 500km to Nice arriving just in time to join in with a family champagne tasting.  Mission accomplished.

Pool Party - Nice

Pool Party - Nice

Our next week was spent very pleasantly catching up with my family and so it consisted of a mixture of picnics, pool parties, mountain walks and visits to old towns.  One of these towns, Grasse, is the centre of perfume making, not only for covering the bad odours of the well-to-do but also to develop food additives that make us want to buy more processed food!  While half of the crew took off to visit the perfumeries I went with one of my young cousins to walk the streets in search of clues for a treasure hunt.  France was hosting the European Cup during our stay and to everyone’s delight the national team had made it to the final.  We all went to the local town square to watch it and the place was packed with national anthem singing home team supporters all decked out in red, white and blue.  One supporter in particular had the lungs of a horse and the singing ability of a bull, putting these two to good use he belted out sole renditions that gained in originality as the game wore on.  Even the red flares at half time could not fire up Les Bleus sufficiently though and Portugal were the eventual winners 1:0 – very disappointing for us and crushing for the local fans.

Standing Guard - Fréjus

Standing Guard - Fréjus

Once most of the family had headed on their way, including my cousins, Tamara and I were entrusted with the wonderful responsibility of looking after their house for the three weeks that they were away.  This was such a blessing to us and so we decided to be a blessing back setting about a top to toe makeover of the place.  After several days we were ready for the big reveal but also pretty nervous about the amount of liberties we had taken.  Would they be delighted or offended?  Makeovers were not all that we got up to during that stay however.  We went with my aunt and her son (another cousin – Gabriel whom you may remember from our tour around Northern Greece!) down to the old Roman town of Fréjus. After a good wander around to view the ancient arenas and the Cloitre de la Cathedrale de Frejus we settled down for a bite to eat in the town square.  This was Bastille Day and the town was gearing up for a fireworks festival that night so we casually asked the waitress whether she would be going?  “Oh no” she replied, “they have been cancelled as it is too windy”.  Once we were back at the house I was pretty keen to head down to the fireworks at Nice as planned but my aunt was a bit tired and we reckoned it was about 50:50 whether those would also be cancelled so decided at the last minute to stay in and watch from the balcony – We had only just watched a firework display in Pamplona and Tamara and I would go next week instead.  Once the last explosion had died away in the distance we went to bed, blissfully unaware of the carnage that had been brought to that innocent celebration by a terrorist claiming allegiance to Daesh whereby he had driven a truck at speed through the crowd killing 85 innocents and horrifically wounding more than 200, to say nothing of the thousands who’s lives would forever be affected by the carnage they saw.  We could so easily have been one of these, especially as we would have been one of the last to arrive so would have been obliged to stand on the promenade where the killings took place.

In the heart of Seborga

In the heart of Seborga

Soon after this we took a trip to Northern Italy for one of the quirkiest days of our trip in which we visited a Principality that does not exist and also a town which does not exist!  We were made to feel very welcome by the 360 inhabitants of the Principality of Seborga (standing army size – 24) and duly collected our passport from the local souvenir shop.  The Seborgan crest was on every letter box and their flag flew proudly from many a flagpole.  We have sent a post card from every country we have visited to our nieces in Auckland to assist them with their home education and this would have been one of the more unexpected that they would have received!  Until the Italian unification in 1860, the land was a conglomeration of city-states, republics and other independent entities one of which was Seborga.  Following Napoleon’s defeat these were all gathered together into the country of Italy – except for the fact that some silly billy omitted Seborga from the list.  No-one noticed this omission until the 1960’s when a local historian Giorgio Carbone spotted it and began a successful campaign for recognition. As a reward for his tireless lobbying he was anointed as His Serene Highness Giorgio I, Prince of Seborga, which he held in all due seriousness, ruling under the advisement of a Privy Council, until his death in 2009 whereupon the title passed to his successor Marcello I.

Bussana Vecchia

Bussana Vecchia

If that was quirky then nearby Bussana Vecchia would certainly match it.  This former ghost town was so severely damaged in 1887; killing more than 2000, that the authorities abandoned it, buying out the owners and re-building further down the valley.  The buildings were left to stand and rot but were expunged from any official documents.  Again in the 1960s the anomaly was discovered by a group of artists who laid claim to it and allowed others to join them so long as they were also artistic.  As we wandered the largely deserted streets we were struck not only by the public art and the galleries but also by the precariousness of the buildings.  Following a sign to the visitors centre we found ourselves in a bizarre garden as we tried to orientate ourselves we heard a call from above “come on up, you’re welcome!” so we wound our way up the steps into a strange bar/restaurant/private terrace area where we were offered some wine.  “Why not?” we thought but when we tried to pay we were told that everything was free – “it’s my house, do you charge your visitors for a drink?” This was joined by slow spit-roasted pork and home baked bread while we and some other, equally bemused, guests entered into all kinds of spirited discussions with the host.  Did we want to stay?  No problem.  How long for? It’s up to you.  How much?  Oh come on, I said it was all free.  What work would you like us to do?  You decide.  Are you on drugs? No they are not allowed here.  What is your helper up to? Don’t worry about him; he’s always high but harmless.  There are a lot of different people out there folks but boy; it makes the world a more interesting place!

High Speed Chase - Monaco

High Speed Chase - Monaco

One day we popped down into Nice to board the bus to Monaco (an actual Principality!)  It was sobering to view the sea of flowers on the Nice promenade right where we would likely have been standing.  The sun was once again shining but the world had changed.  To try to make sense of it all we went to the hedonistic millionaires’ playground of Monaco!  This must be one of the best value public transport routes of all time with amazing views all along the coast and no need for parking when you arrive.  We opted to take a tour around the palace and then wandered the streets before going into the giant aquarium.  We had expected to spend a fortune during a day trip to Monaco but looking at super yachts is much cheaper than owning them and taking photographs of the supercars lined up outside the famous casino doesn’t cost anything.

Icecream!

Icecream!

When my cousins returned home we are delighted to say that they were delighted.  At the very least we have an offer to look after their house next time they need to go away so it can’t have been all bad!  In addition to this we had drawn up some revised kitchen and bathroom plans for them so we look forward to seeing how that turns out too.  We still had a week in Nice and were able to go with Anya and Bruno high into the mountains and we also visited Renoir’s house in Cagnes-sur-Mer, rode a bruising banana boat on the Med, visited a sweet factory, bathed in a crisply cool river, missed our sailing trip (drove to the wrong location and sat around waiting before the mistake dawned on us with horror!), took a boat trip around the bays, took a ferry from Cannes to the Île Sainte-Marguerite where we stood in the cell of the man with the iron mask and ordered ice-creams from a floating launch and so many more things.  I swore that I would not write an account that consisted of a list of goings on but we would be all night if I expounded on each one.  Suffice to say that when we packed up our bags once more for the long trip north we had had a wonderful time in the South of France and had really enjoyed the chance to stop and relax for a bit.

Gorge du Verdun

Gorge du Verdun

We dropped the roof of the car and headed north via the very impressive Gorge Du Verdun taking a detour known only to the locals to head around its northern rim.  Looking out over the circling eagles was breath-taking and we bumped into a couple of car loads of Kiwis enjoying the same views.  “How did you know about this place” they asked, they had a local friend who had helped them.  We went one better – we had local family :-) 

Classic Provence

Classic Provence

One of the dreams I had was to travel through Provence viewing the fields of sunflowers and smelling the lavender.  We were cutting it fine however as we were well into the harvest season and for a while all we saw were fields of neatly trimmed green stalks.  Eventually we struck gold and spent some time watching and photographing the farmers as they harvested the lavender in the sunshine, a range of mountains in the hazy distance and the fragrance of lavender giving us sensory overload – Heaven!  Lunch beside the rushing waters of Fontaine de Vaucluse completed a heavenly day.  All that was needed to fulfil the dream was the opportunity to eat copious amounts of food from a communal table under a giant plane tree beside a stone farm house.  Sadly our budget did not cover such delights.  Happily I had received a call from AirBnB the night before telling me that our accommodation had been cancelled at short notice.  Not a problem, we re-booked.  During a follow up customer service call we got notice that the replacement accommodation had also cancelled so they gave us the option to book a hotel at their expense and also gave us a credit to use for future bookings.  Our selected Provençal hotel was a lovely stone farmhouse with a pool and a giant plane tree beneath which we sat in the morning sunshine sharing copious amounts of food with our fellow guests.  God is good!

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

We were now virtually in Avignon with the sole purpose of visiting the Pont Du Gard, one of the surviving sections of the 2000 year old Roman aqueduct serving the city, 48m high and 360m long – but what have the Romans ever done for us……?  Not only did we get the chance to wander around this we got to swim under it and walk over it too.  One of the most fascinating things was the thickness of lime scale that had built up during the 500 years of its use and which eventually led to its downfall.

Le Puy-en-Velay 

Le Puy-en-Velay

From Avignon we continued north passing Le Puy-en-Velay whose stunning volcanic plugs are topped with religious statues and a cathedral which is the starting point of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.  Eventually we arrived at Chateau de Guédelon which is a modern day castle currently being constructed using traditional mediaeval methods.  Set up as a not-for-profit trust dedicated to unravelling the mysteries of times past this became rather successful and the founders rather conveniently found a route to transition to a for-profit business of which they are the beneficiaries.  Nevertheless it was fascinating to tour the completed areas of the castle and the surrounding village in which the craftsmen and women were honing the stone, burning the lime, hewing the wood etc.

Chateau de Guédelon

Chateau de Guédelon

The place that we stayed that night was fabulous, shyly hiding from the village square behind tall green shutters yet containing an Aladdin’s cave of antique furniture and mirrors which set off the high ceilings which were ornately decorated with plaster mouldings.  During the night I had to negotiate a fairly tortuous route to the bathroom which involved stepping from our bedroom squarely onto an enormous hound.  When we had both got over the surprise I padded through the lounge and hall to the bathroom where my nerves recovered a little before moving back out into the pitch dark hall and stepping squarely onto an enormous hound!  This family were true hosts, inviting us to join them for dinner and for breakfast even though it was not part of the deal.  As we got to discussing the lovely house and the furnishings the man of the house seized a broom and led us down a steep stone staircase into a huge 16th Century convent cellar above which the house had been built, sweeping aside curtains of cobwebs as he went.  A raiders of the lost ark moment which will stay with us forever.

Boat Lift - Strépy-Thieu 

Boat Lift - Strépy-Thieu

Our time in France was nearly over so for a little variety we opted to continue north into Belgium stopping first in Champagne to tour the cellars of the Castellane winery and later at the giant boat lift at Strépy-Thieu which uses a counter-weight principle to lift or lower 1350 tonne boats through a level change of 73m height.  Amazing!  We arrived just in time to see the last boat of the day exit the lift which was a little bit of a let-down (so to speak!).

Atomium - Brussels

Atomium - Brussels

Our final day on the continent was spent in Belgium, first visiting the shiny Atomium in Brussels then wandering around the beautiful canals and admiring the intricate stepped gables of Ghent.  All good things must sadly come to an end however and so it was that, clutching our freshly purchased Belgian chocolates, we drove past the “prison camps” of Calais to board the channel ferry.  England beckoned.

‘Till next time…………. 

Tags: champagne, gorge du verun, guedelon, lavendar, monaco, nice, provence, south of france, sunflowers

 

Comments

1

Chateau de Guédelon looks like a great DIY project. It was a blessed decision to stay at home to watch the fireworks.

  Frances Nov 30, 2016 2:03 PM

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