Escape to the Sun! Well, that was the idea. To be fair, down on the Cornish coast, we escaped the worst of Britain's frozen winter and enjoyed many cool but sunny days, but for one reason or another our Autumn trip to Scotland went "west" and attempts to get away before Christmas were also thwarted - hence our longest spell at home for years!
Finally, with a Dover to Calais ferry booked for 0640, we left late in the afternoon - with an 8 hour journey ahead of us.
Well into the dark and descending from the Blackdown Hills on the A303, we were treated not only to someone's impressive firework display in the clear sky ahead, but the most enormous orange full moon emerging from the horizon.
Soon, like a massive luminescent camembert suspended in the sky it lit up the chilled landscape, turning tendrils of thin cloud to wisps of grey smoke, and bare trees into stark black silhouettes.
Nature's own display had reminded us that the magic of life on the road had begun!
As usual we grabbed a few hours sleep on the seafront at Dover and then later a few more on the Plage de Calais aire opposite the ferry port.
GPS: 50.9663 N, 01.8442 E
Hoping to escape the rain and the noise of the passing ferries, we moved the van 45 km down to the municipal Le Bease Jour aire at Arques, near St Omer.
GPS: 50.7455 N, 02.3048 E
|A small but useful aire at Arques, near St Omer|
|Spot the real fowl!|
As we finished our stroll in the fading light we nodded to a couple of tweed jacket clad gents carrying gun shaped shoulder bags. In the last of the light before total darkness 3 almost simultaneous gunshots shattered the stillness.
A particularly wet, murky, miserable day - we stayed put and went over our options for this trip.
Because of other commitments we have to be home by the end of April or even sooner, so our original plan of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica was put on hold again and we decided on Spain and Portugal, but this time exploring the interior rather than the coast - or perhaps we'd just head South and see where our fancy took us!
|New toy! - Globalsat BT-338X GPS tracker|
Sue had a play with her new gadget - a Globalsat BT-338X GPS with built in tracker. After extensive research this seemed to be the only piece of kit that really met her requirements. It is a nifty portable GPS receiver with the ability to record every position plotted and then allow you to download your entire track for the day to virtually any mapping program, such as google earth, or as we use: Microsoft Autoroute 2010.
The accuracy is amazing, if you zoom in you can even see where we have made a 3-point turn in a car park!
|Our route down to Auxerre|
Sue used to laboriously enter push-pins into Autoroute to log our route - now she can put her feet up even earlier, and no more disputes over the route we actually took!
We started our trek south, stopping off for lunch at the ruined abbey at Mont St Eloi, then passing through the impressive Place des Héros at the centre of Arras.
|Impressive architecture in the centre of Arras|
One thing you have to remember about being in France (or anywhere in Northern Europe) at this time of year, is that it is a lot harder to get water because most bornes at aires de service are shut off to prevent frost damage.
There are not that many aires in the Pas de Calais region and even though we found a new one at Bapaume, the flushing water was still turned off, and it required jetons from an un-named source. There are a couple of small dedicated parking spaces for overnight by the side of a large carpark.
GPS: 50.1015 N, 02.8502 E
Our stop for the night was at Compiègne, where the World War I Armistice was signed in a forest clearing on 11th November 1918.
Car Park, Compiègne
GPS: 49.4292 N, 02.9079 E
The venue for the historic signing was the luxury Wagon-Lits railway carriage 2419D, specially converted for the event. After a long journey, the two trains arrived in the forest on separate dead-end spur lines that had originally been built to put heavy artillery guns into defensive positions.
The ground in the small misty copse between the two trains was so wet and marshy that wooden duckboards had to be laid for the German delegation to walk to meet Marshal Foch and the British and American representatives in the ex-dining car.
|The site of the 1918 signing of the Armistice|
In 1922 the clearing was opened up and laid out as a memorial park.
In 1927, the original carriage (reconverted again from dining car to office), was housed in a shelter on the site.
In June 1940, when the Battle of France was lost, the carriage was brought out of its shelter to occupy the same spot it had held for the 1918 armistice, but this time “the tables were turned”.
In contrast to the sombre and private, early morning signing, as the Germans capitulated to the French, this time the losing signatories were humiliated by flag waving crowds, pomp, music and film screens. The memorial site was dug up and the grand old dining car taken to Berlin and later burned. The only monument left on site was the statue of Marshal Foch - as Hitler wanted him to gaze down on the annihilation of his memorial.
In late 1944, after German prisoners of war had restored the site, a re-dedication ceremony was held.
|Marshal Foch views his restored memorial|
In 1950, an identical carriage was supplied and refurbished by the Wagon-lits company and fitted out (with the advice and help of some of the actual French officers present in 1918) with the souvenirs and documents that had been preserved.
A new shelter for dining car "2419D" was built and the site restored to its exact pre-war state.
On a damp and misty morning such as when we visited it is indeed a sombre place, the great stone slabs lying where the 1918 carriages stood, surrounded by the dark trees.
|The museum containing the Wagon-Lits dining coach|
Inside the museum (4 Euro entrance) sits the magnificent carriage itself on the original rails, internally lit with the yellow light bulbs of the era, each name placing for the participants marked out on the heavy wooden desks.
Another highlight for me was the 30 "stereoscopic vision" viewers housed in old wooden cabinets, each with 25 sepia slides, rotated by knobs on the sides. When properly aligned some remarkable 3D images came to life.
Some of the photos would have been stunning enough in a simple print, but peering through the binocular eyeglasses brought the best of them to vivid life, with some searing images of war – such that you would not see in the British media today.
Others stuck in my mind because of their incongruity or otherworldliness; a grinning British officer standing in the mud by a tank - his boots polished to perfection; a church interior - the pews removed and the floor covered with straw to accommodate the wounded and the dying.
The museum interior was bitterly cold and my fingers began to ache turning the slides around, but looking at those graphic scenes of suffering, misery and devastation, the intense chill added another dimension - like being able to smell the bloodied earth and the shell blasted trees.
Looking for a quiet route to the east of Paris we settled on Provins as a destination. Provins in the 12th and 13th centuries was the capital of the feudal Counts of Champagne.
It is now in the process of having it's "medieval makeover" - from newly cobbled streets and pavements, to restored ramparts and even the reconstructed Jouy gate in the city wall. Vast amounts of money have and are being spent to put Provins on the map as one of the foremost medieval cities in France.
It certainly is one of the most pleasingly intact, thanks to its gradual decline in importance from the beginning of the 14th Century.
|The heavily restored wall of medieval Provins|
There is an upper and lower old town, all of it a UNESCO world heritage area. The upper part is still protected by ramparts and contains mostly private and historic houses, plus of course brasseries and restaurants. Caesar's Tower and the Saint-Quiriace Church are well worth seeing.
|Ancient timbered buildings abound|
The lower part of the town contains modern commerce, yet still has a lot of charm.
Moving on, we found a lovely peaceful aire by the river in Gurgy, not far from Auxerre.
There is a pleasant wooded walk along the towpath, but sitting in the van we watched coots, herons and swans going about their business until the light faded.
GPS: 47.8631 N, 03.5533 E
|Our route from Auxerre down to Nimes|
Another grey wet dawn. We took the D606 towards the ancient hillside town of Vézelay, with its Romanesque Basilica on the skyline.
Originally a simple 9th Century Benedictine monastery, the site was much visited because of the Saint Mary Magdalen relics thought to be held there at the time, and became a meeting point for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella.
The abbey suffered in the 16th Century religious wars and was trashed during the French Revolution. The Basilica was saved from ruin and oblivion in the 19th Century by a young French architect, Viollet le Duc.
We parked the van on a large car park containing an old tennis court at the bottom the hill. (No charge between 18 December and 31st January.)
Car park, Vézelay
GPS: 47.4622 N, 03.7431 E
|Vezelay, the rise to the abbey|
It’s a fair walk up to the abbey and as we entered the front-nave the echoes of the pigeons cooing in the roof space created an ethereal sound.
The Monks sing the church services at 0730, 1230 and 1800, and according to the girl in the tourist office, it's a sound worth hearing, the acoustics are certainly there.
In the main nave all the pillars have different carvings on the capitals ranging from biblical scenes to heathen mythology - some fascinating and intricate work.
|The high windows at the end of the Nave|
Apparently, should you visit during the summer solstice at noon, a compliant sun will shine through the high windows and create a series of spots of light in the axis of the nave leading to the choir.
We left in the cold gloom of a late January afternoon and returned to the van. There we spent a peaceful night.
Weary of rain and dank, cold weather, we drove south, through (or around) Nevers, Moulin and Clermont Ferrand.
Just south of Clermont Ferrand we left the A75 at junction 19 for the Gorges de l'Alagnon, stopping in a riverside picnic spot just outside the hamlet of Lanau.
|This will do for the night.|
There is a picturesque ruined abbey nearby at Leotoing and across the river, an imposing Chateau.
|Somebody's country pile!|
After a quiet night, our first discovery moving along the scenic D909 was a small hotel offering overnight stops for motorhomes, with all facilities!
At Massiac we picked up the N122 to Aurillac. This attractive route, as we found, is well supplied with many aires, including a brand new one at Neussargues-Moissac.
Spaciously laid out with pitches on individual terraces, it is close to the shops and even features free wi-fi, no code required. Very fast it was too!
GPS: 45.1343 N, 02.9813 E.
|Brand new aire with free wi-fi!|
Anybody who has read a book called "Bloodline of the Holy Grail" by Laurence Gardner, will understand why when Sue saw a sign for a "Merovingien Sarcophage" nearby, we hastened off for a quick look. Not quite having Sue's enthusiasm for peering at dusty old pieces of stone, I was nevertheless intrigued to see such an ancient relic lying in an open shed by a country road.
We continued an enjoyable drive through many pretty hillside towns and villages.
At Aurillac we made a quick stock up of supplies and took the D920 to Conques.
|Conques, as medieval as you could get|
Conques is a beautifully preserved medieval village, sitting in a narrow valley. The Eglise St Foye is one of the oldest Romanesque pilgrimage churches on the route to Santiago de Compestela.
|The pre-Roman relic of Saint Foye|
Also in the village's custody is a collection of religious relics or Tresor, the key item of which is a statue of the martyred child Saint Foye. Much embellished over the centuries, the small statue is said to contain the top of the adolescent's skull and is the only preserved example of such a relic from pre-roman times.
The specially built extension of the abbey cloisters was refurbished in 2002 and contains other treasured relics, displayed in the lush manner and security you would expect from a small nation's crown jewels.
There is also a museum close by with some interesting tapestries.
The church itself was as cold as a morgue, the nativity scene still on display and Christmas tree lights twinkling! Suddenly, in the gloom, a few deep, pew-trembling organ notes blew away the echoing silence. Just the organist limbering up - but it certainly made our hair stand on end!
|There is actually a bar down the road here!|
Afterwards we slipped in for a beer at Auberge St Jaques, the proprietor sitting alone by the wood burner, surrounded by cut firewood. Obviously the season was not yet underway, but he poured us a couple of rounded glasses of Leffe. An acquired taste this beer, with its hint of cloves, but it did the trick.
We stayed on the lower car park - out of bounds to motorhomes in the season.
South East now, though Rodez and onto Millau for a look at the new viaduct, something we had wanted to do since seeing it under construction a few years back. The weather deteriorated rapidly and by the time we got near the viaduct it was snowing! A run over the bridge would have to wait.
|Head south for the sun? Not this time of year!|
There is a new aire de service facility in town and as they wanted 5 Euros for a "recharge" we took the 55 minutes of electricity to boost our flagging battery, as well as the water.
GPS: 44.0947 N, 03.0823 E
Overnight parking is at another aire nearby, but if you have a large van you might find this a bit tight as the bays are marked out with steel and wood barriers.
GPS: 44.0957 N, 03.0855 E
|2.46 Km long, 343 metres high!|
The Millau Viaduct should be listed as one of the wonders of the world. The world’s highest bridge, its tallest pylon stands 343 metres above the valley. Costing 400 million Euro, the vehicle deck alone consumed 35,000 tons of steel and the supporting piers 85,000 tons of concrete. Amazingly the profile actually curves slightly and has a gentle slope on it.
|Highway in the Sky|
The visitor centre is situated on the side of the valley and is accessible directly after paying the toll (9.80 Euro). It is also accessible from Millau without going over the bridge but a little more walking is required.
The centre contains an upstairs room with souvenirs, walls of large photos showing the stages of construction, models and a short video which compresses the construction period and amazing innovatory techniques into a few minutes. If you have seen the hour long TV documentary on the bridge you will appreciate what pioneering stuff this was, watching this short film you probably won't. One interesting point - although conceived by a Frenchman, the actual architects were a British company: Norman Foster and partners.
After crossing the bridge in low cloud (you can't see much anyhow because of the 3 metre high perspex wind barriers), we left the motorway for the D999 or Route Laerzac et Doubie and descended rapidly, leaving the snow covered verges behind.
Looking for somewhere to stay for the night, Sue plucked a France Passion site from the handbook, Domaine de Blancardy, near Moules et Baucels.
|Domaine de Blancardy|
A 2 km drive down single track, over a bridge and a ford impassable in the winter floods, we eventually got to this 15th Century farmhouse, complete with defensive slit windows.
|Shop and accomodation to the right|
Remarkably, considering its isolation, Domaine de Blancardy is also an auberge, with accommodation, a restaurant (closed for annual holiday, open on 10 February) and a boutique selling their produce.
All services are available as they are also set up as an aire de service with the usual sign on the road. For France Passion members the first night is free. For others and for any consecutive nights it is 5 Euro. Pump n' dump only is 5 Euro, or free if you have a meal or spend 30 Euro in the shop.
The proprietor was very friendly, but with no English, and recommended that we parkup with a view of the mountains. Be prepared also to be mobbed (briefly) by his pack of very good natured dogs. All in all a great spot and we would certainly stop again and sample a meal.
GPS: 43.9366 N, 03.7746 E
Another cold misty morning but eventually the sun broke through, the first we had seen for days. The temperature rose to 9 degrees and we felt we had left winter behind at last as we drove past the snow-cover-browned landscape.
The terracotta roofs of the south had suddenly appeared as we shed 600 metres of altitude down to the plains, but so also had graffiti, and instead of some houses being aged and merely tired, most of the commercial buildings appeared generally run-down in comparison to where we had been.
The D999 took us all the way into Nimes and we checked into Camping Domaine de La Bastide on the outskirts of Nimes. This is a municipal, all year round site with excellent access to the city centre.
GPS: 43.7854 N, 04.3516 E
Situated on the Roman Domitian Way, Nimes developed under the patronage of Emperor Augustus. Its main attractions are the Arene or amphitheatre, the Maison Carrée or Roman temple and the Jardin de la Fontaine.
From directly outside the campsite the "D" service bus starts and ends its run into the city, it couldn't be easier, a one way ticket is 1 Euro, all day pass 3 Euro.
We got off the bus at Place d'Assas, a short stretch from the tourist office and the Maison Carrée, one of the purest and best preserved Roman temples in the world. Inside we bought a 9.90 Euro ticket which gave us entrance to the temple (to watch a 20 minute 3D historical movie), plus the Roman amphitheatre and the Magne tower above the Fountain garden.
|The immaculate Maison Carrée|
|Extraordinary detail and precision|
The stonework on the outside of the temple is extraordinary, but it’s not possible to see anything inside, only the film. If you've ever seen a good 3D telly with the powered glasses the 3D effect won't impress that much, but the content was imaginatively done and worth a look at the all-in price.
Strolling through the centre of the old town we had a look at the Cathedral, some of the fine stained glass was shown off to its best by the low winter sun.
|Beautiful light inside the Cathedral|
With the air temperature just a few degrees above zero and a chilling wind, we had the amphitheatre to ourselves, apart from a pretty young woman endlessly taking photos of herself - presumably "wish you here" shots for a far away lover!
|Hey there lonely girl!|
One surprising aspect of the amphitheatre is that it has been kitted out with steel and wood bench seats and is used for present day entertainments, including bull fighting! Apparently the local people have had a taste for Spanish style bullfighting for over 150 years. None of the film clips we saw in the little museum contained within the amphitheatre walls, showed any injury to the bull however, it seemed to be just bull baiting.
The audio guide is free and has literally hours of interesting commentary and history on all aspects of Roman life.
Eventually the chill air sapped our interest in gladiatorial history and we retired to the Café de Olive on Boulevard Victor Hugo for the Plat du Jour - chicken Cordon bleu with fried noodles.
After a brief look in the Norman Foster designed Contemporary art Museum (I found the glass sided lifts more interesting), we walked the short distance to the Quai de la Fontaine, a boulevard alongside a canal originally built to supply water to the city's textile industry.
|Jardins de la Fontaine|
This now opens onto the elaborate Jardins de la Fontaine, a place to enjoy a rest before the assault up the hill to the Tour Magne. This ancient tower used to form part of the city walls and some parts of the arches still hang precariously to the side of it. In 1843 a spiral staircase was fitted inside and at the top you can enjoy a pretty good view. A picture montage shows the layout of the city in Roman times.
|Path back from the tower to the fountain gardens|
Finally, after a solitary walk (apart from the self-portrait picture girl!) down through the gardens in bright sunshine, we caught the bus, ready for some warmth and hot food back in the van!
Next - Avignon, Aix en Provence and Arles