Sorry for such a long blog but there has been a lot going on lately. We are posting this from the lower hills of the French Pyrenees with the high mountains off in the distance and in what we think is probably the prettiest countryside we have seen in all our travels. We are at Camping Parc d’Audinac les Bains near St Girons, a camp we would recommend. A former military school estate, it is set in a large and beautiful park with good facilities.
We ended up staying 3 weeks at Camping D’Anglas, near Brissac, a camp we would recommend to anyone. As always, it wasn’t perfect but it had fabulously friendly staff, a tiny but wonderful weekend restaurant, an absolutely beautiful location, a swimmable river and an easy bike ride to anything and everything you need.
Camping D’Anglas is in the midst of an eco friendly vineyard and is owned and run by the winemaker. We went on the regular Saturday evening walk through the vines and wine tasting with him – it was enlightening. Everything is done in a chemical free way and the land is managed with as little human interference as possible, even down to only minimal mowing of the grass.
The land area is a mixture of vines, garrique (a sort of herb-filled scrubland) and forest, all of which are quite close together. All the sections work in harmony and give the land a huge diversity of plants, insects and animals. We have never seen as many insects and lizards as there were all around us there. Insects were so thick on the ground and in the air and yet they were seldom a bother and there were very few mosquitoes and flies. In just an hour or two you could see at least 100 different varieties of bugs. Incredible!
The garrique was equally amazing with a mass of different aromatic plants. Walking through it lead to a wonderful sensory experience of very potent smells from the exotic plants and wild herbs as your footsteps kicked up the aromas wherever you walked.
The forest was alive with foxes and wild boar. The river was teaming with fish and so many noisy frogs that you could hardly hear yourself think in some parts. The camp also encouraged dozens of bird varieties by providing nests for them. The result was a camp abuzz with non-human activity. All this worked so well together and resulted in wonderful wines and a beautiful and relaxed natural environment.
Cleverly, the owners made money from the wines and the campsite but also by harvesting the aromatic plants for the medicinal market. And in winter, they handed the land over to sheep. So 400 sheep would graze amongst the vines.
Naturally, being on the river at D’Anglas meant a canoe trip. Details are not necessary but the trip did result in Alison getting a little wet (actually a lot wet) and her favorite hat and sunglasses are either at the bottom of the river or have now made it to the med….where the river finished!
We also visited the Grotte des Desmoiselles near the camp. The photos do not do it justice. It was a fabulous cave with an enormous cathedral-like main cavern. Really something.
We hardly ever tell you about the weather so here’s an update. In Montpellier we had some good days but mostly the weather was unusually cool and wet, particularly for May. At least when it rained it was more of a drizzle than a downpour. From about our last week there it turned fine and warm with temperatures into the high 20s most days.
At D’Anglas we had two great weeks and one that was a bit wet and cool. Generally though we have had really good weather over the past 6 weeks or so. At the moment almost every day is in the low 30s, fine and sunny and with beautiful evenings that are warm and light until about 10 o’clock. Even in the high mountains we have had hot days, but with cooler nights at as low as 9 degrees.
We have had to get back into the rhythm of driving and generally moving a bit faster (otherwise we will have a great time but will never actually go anywhere). Before Alan was back into the swing of things he went over a speed bump a tad too fast and broke about a dozen plates and glasses. Lucky we had plenty of spares. He insists it’s all part of his plan to reduce our payload. Yeah, right! What a mess!
Over the past 6 weeks we have meandered through some of France’s most spectacular rocky countryside from Montpellier through the Tarn gorge and on to the incredible Pyrenees. Along the way we have met many interesting people and have had a very social time of it even with relatively short stays in most camps. We have also experienced some of France’s special roads as well as a few that we would not recommend.
We stopped for a few days at Goudargues, a pretty riverside village and had a great lunch surrounded by wonderfully friendly French travelers and with a very chirpy waitress. We did as we so often do and chose a restaurant away from the tourist area.
As is common in France, we attracted quite a bit of attention as we were the only foreigners there and believe it or not, the French are really not used to tourists. As usual they were reserved until they realized we were from Australia and could communicate with them. We had a great laugh with everyone there and by the end of lunch we were all the best of friends.
Another stop was at Bagnols sur Ceze at Camping Les Cascades. This is one of the few campsites we would not recommend. Despite it being a 5 star camp and in a very pretty spot, access within the camp was terrible with low trees, very little room to negotiate and very few flat pitches. Also, most access roads into the camp were extremely narrow, one had a 2.1m wide bridge! We are 2.3m wide so it was not possible to cross and meant driving back to the next town and it’s wider bridge. All told that little bridge added another 30kms to the trip that day.
At Anduze we stayed at Camping Le Padral, a well-located camp with good facilities. From there we took the tourist train to St Jean Du Gard, a very interesting trip and a great day out for us. The Japanese section of the famous bamboo gardens nearby were a treat.
Then it was along the gorge road to Florac, a pretty town deep in the mountains followed by a dramatic drive to St Enimie and to Camping Gorges du Tarn. This campsite is very simple but in an incredible location right on the river and deep within the gorge. With the little medieval village just a short walk down the road, and the surrounding gorge soaring hundreds of meters all around you, it is quite a place.
After St Enimie we encountered our first really challenging road. Up until then the roads had all been seriously winding but with room to move. Even the Corniche (that’s a cliff-top road) des Cevennes was drivable for us without too much drama, although we did see some very serious accidents along the way. But immediately after St Enimie the road became very difficult and remember, we have travelled some of France’s most challenging high mountain and gorge roads.
The direction we were driving in meant that we were on the inside of a 40kms road which has been cut into the rock. It had numerous side rocks and very low overhanging rocks jutting onto the road and much too low for us to travel under. Most corners were so blind and so sharp that everyone just crawled around them. Many parts were so narrow that someone had to reverse when you encountered an oncoming vehicle. Whilst there were a few motorhomes, at 7 meters we were about as big as is possible. In fact we are the biggest camper we have seen since we left the coast. Not a road we would recommend in a motorhome….but the word ‘spectacular’ just doesn’t seem to do it justice.
We finished the drive through the gorge by crossing the modern and spectacular bridge at Millau, one of the world’s grandest bridges. And we helped pay for it with a 23.50 euros toll!
After the mountains we headed back to the coast, not just for the sun and sand but also to do a tour of the Noilly Pratt winery at Marseillan and try the vermouth.
This was another one of those magic days that come unexpectedly. We arrived at the winery after an interesting bike ride but had to wait an hour or so until 3pm for the tour to start. So we stopped at a great little restaurant nearby, had a Perrier and met Linda and Steve, two Brits on their last day of a 2 week holiday. After the tour we returned to the same restaurant and they were still there. We joined them for drinks which then became dinner and resulted in us peddling the 8 kms back home in the near-dark amidst masses of twilight insects and slightly (!) under the influence. They joined us for lunch the next day on their way to the airport. We had a terrific time, thanks guys!
Our campsite at Marseillan Plage was just a short walk from the Cap d’Agde naturist village, one of the world’s largest. So, yes, Alan, walked there and spent an afternoon in what is in fact the busiest place we (or at least Alan) have seen in Europe so far.
It is extraordinary, a village about the size of Shepparton (Victoria), with a beachfront of about 2kms and tens of thousands of naked people. There are endless strips (pardon the pun) of bars, simple cafes and ritzy restaurants, all very busy.
One of the differences we have seen recently is that tourist numbers are well down on normal. A campsite owner told us that it is devastating to many camp businesses. One camp we spent a few nights in in the Pyrenees, just across the border into Spain was a 300 pitch camp with about 15 to 20 pitches occupied. It would normally be almost full at this time of the year. This is the first real and identifiable impact we have seen of the euro crisis.
But it is pretty easy to see why the euro is a bit limp. Alan went to the pool the other day and put a ten euro note under his hat. Of course he completely forgot about it and finished up with a very soggy paper tenner. That’s right, they still use paper money in this part of the world. Now, if too many people in Europe are doing the same thing it’s no wonder the currency is shrinking.
One of our issues over the past year has been our lack of a BBQ. Most campers have one and many people do all their cooking outside. We have even seen people with the new portable induction hotplates cooking elaborate meals outside (which included plucking a chicken…..not kidding).
We have really struggled to find something suitable as almost all the gas cookers are either dinky little things made for 4 sausages or massive patio models. We decided to really solve this problem after we left D’Anglas and searched high and low for the right unit, traveling a few hundred kms back and forth to check gas bottles and BBQs in all the biggest camping and outdoor stores in the area. Alas, no luck.
Complicating the problem is that there is a bewildering array of gas bottles on the market in France, most of which are either huge and heavy or tiny and with enough gas for just one meal, if you are lucky. And we need something which can be swapped easily all over the country. It is amazing how tricky and difficult it can be to buy such a simple thing. And the problem is compounded by the French lunchtime where all small shops and even many very large ones close for lunch from 12 to 2. Imagine Bunnings doing that! There’d be a riot in the carpark!
After much thought and investigation we finally settled on a Cadac, now christened ‘Caddy’. It ended up being easier, and cheaper, to buy it online from the UK. It was actually shipped from a dealer in Bangor, Northern Ireland, of all places….should have gotten Alison’s mum to drive there and pick it up. We also signed up, yes we needed a formal contract and photo ID, for a French gas bottle.
Cadac is a popular brand for campers and is similar to the Webber. So over the past month we have almost exclusively used Caddy. We’ve cooked chips, toast, curry and of course meat, we even bake bread on it. It is so easy that we have finally become the most Australian of all things…BBQers!
After the coast we headed to Trebes and Carcassonne on the Canal du Midi before venturing into the Pyrenees. The canal is fabulous and a bike ride alongside it is pretty much your quintessential French holiday experience. Unfortunately many of the famous plane trees lining the banks are being cut down because of a tree disease. This will totally change the landscape for many years to come and will likely reduce the number of boat tourists. We had a laugh watching the “mental rentals” struggling in the locks in their plastic rental boats (a trip down memory lane as we remember doing the exact same thing in 2006!)
The drive from Limoux through the Cathar countryside and into the high Pyrenees was one of the most picturesque we have ever done. The gorges, rocky cliffs and castles perched impossibly high up were really something. The Pyrenees have offered probably the most beautiful landscapes we have seen and that is saying something because we have seen some amazing places during our travels so far. The roads can be really difficult so we have decided to stick to the main national roads but they still offer outstanding views.
We stopped briefly at Bourge Madame and took the tourist train (we are fully trained tourists after all) to Villefranche. A fabulous but very long ride (3 hours each way) through the mountains. Once again the photos do not do it justice but you get the idea – high mountains, rocky ridges, medieval villages, massive gorges, skinny bridges, endless sunshine, nice lunch…..a few glasses of wine, etc, etc, etc.
Just down the road from where we are now we stopped at Ax les Thermes, a sort of ski resort at about 700m altitude. Once again, a casual walk into town lead us unexpectedly to one of the highlights of our trip so far. We took the enclosed cable car up to 1400m (that’s higher than the Mt Buller village) then the open air chairlift, with your feet dangling in the air, up to 2000m (that’s higher than the summit of Mt Buller). Wow, what an experience – scary, exhilarating, amazing. A “once in a lifetime” thrill (as the old joke goes, we won’t be doing that again!)
We have been doing some practical things recently. Alison got a really good haircut in the little village near D’Anglas. No doubt she was their first customer from Australia. We also had Berty serviced there in the local garage and they did a great job. In the past, tasks like these have been quite a challenge but it is fantastic to have a bit of French language skill and be able to ask for what you want.
It still amazes us to meet Brits who live in France or Spain and cannot speak the language. A Welsh couple we met recently have been living here and running a restaurant for 12 years in a small village, he with no language and she with only a basic level. And they wonder why the locals don’t support their business!
We have also given Berty a wash, at more than 20 euros, in the truck bay at a car wash. Such facilities are common but hard to find so she was pretty grubby. And we have even put all the curtains through our washing machine. So Berty is looking pretty spiffy, maybe can’t say the same for us!
From here we will head along the lower mountains to Lourdes then across the very top of the Pyrenees into Spai
Until next time, keep well, stay safe and enjoy every moment of life.
Cheers, A & A