We left camping Domaine de la Bastide on the outskirts of Nimes in bright but chilly sunshine. The plan was to have a look at the famous Pont du Gard, 20 km north-east of Nimes. However, you have to use the official car park even to get a glimpse of it. At 15 Euro a vehicle, we gave it a miss!
|Our trail from Nimes and through the Camargue Regional Park|
Next stop Avignon, city of the famous bridge and chanson to go with it. Its other claim to fame is the vast and imposing Palais des Papes, the home of nine successive popes - and thus the seat of the Christian world - in the 14th Century.
|The Pont St Benezet or Pont d'Avignon|
Camping Bagatelle, just the other side of the Edouard Daladier bridge is an all year ACSI site. Complete with shop, café and restaurant, most pitches are under large plane trees, but the best feature is the short walk over the bridge into the old walled city.
Wi-fi is over most of the site: 3.5 Euro for two hours, 8 Euro for 24 (non-consecutive) hours.
GPS: 43.9542 N, 04.7988 E
It was a bright evening, albeit with a wind so fierce it sucked the breath out of my lungs walking over the bridge, but once inside the city walls the wind seemed to fade away.
I wandered towards the Papal Palace, gawping at the romantic Valentine’s Day menu on display at the 5-star Hôtel d’Europe. For a mere 110 Euros per person (excluding drinks!) you and your beloved could wade your way through an eight course menu: lobster with a carrot and mango jus, scallops with truffle, filet of rouget (an exotic red fish) with beurre de légumes, hot duck fois gras with cranberry ravioli, sorbet (to cleanse the palate!), medallions of veal with an artichoke and truffle crumble, les fromages de Provence and… chocolate mouse… oh, and petits fours…
Maybe some of the “romance” might have to wait until the following day!
|Yup, it certainly gets your attention!|
Moving on, the square in front of the Papal Palace is currently dominated by a life-sized bronze elephant standing on its trunk - arresting visually, but somehow it seemed like it would be more appreciated elsewhere. Disneyland pehaps.
However, the late sun picked out the golden statue looking down on the crucified Jesus from the chapel tower, and looked just the part.
|A different kind of iconography|
If you thought the Valentine’s Day menu was a bit on the mean side, you could always pop into La Cure Gourmande, the most over-the-top sweet shop I think I’ve ever seen! The array of crystallised fruits and endless shelves of goodies is just incredible.
|La Cure Gourmande - not just any old sweet shop|
The Papal Palace is a "must see" monument according to our Green Guide, but imposing as the outside is, the interior is mostly bleak stone as all papal accoutrements have long since disappeared.
The included audio guides however provide hours of in-depth commentary if you have the interest, imagination and the stamina. Entrance 9.80 Euro, 7 for over 60's.
|The bare interior of the much restored Papal Palace|
You can get an inclusive ticket to visit the much rebuilt Pont St Benezet, but we declined because of the chill high winds. The iconic bridge was finally turned into a non-functioning monument when many of its arches were carried away for the last time by the Rhone’s floodwaters in the 17th Century.
Instead we adjourned to a warm tea shop on the edge of the Place de L’Horloge for a stunning tarte aux framboise and a rich syrupy hot chocolate.
From Avignon we took the N7 and D973 to Cadenet and Pertuis before dropping down to Aix en Provence.
The origins of Aix en Provence go back to the 2nd Century BC when a camp was set up near some thermal springs by the Roman general Sextius. Aquae Sextiae was subsequently laid waste in the 6th Century before being restored by the Counts of Provence in the 12th Century.
It is also noted as the home of the modernist painter Paul Cézanne.
|A fountain to stop the traffic in Aix en Provence|
Camping Chantecler is a 4 star site at Val St Andre, only a 2km walk or 1 Euro bus ride from the old town of Aix. The bus stop is 5 minutes walk away in a useful shopping square.
Set in a mature forest, it's a tight fit if you have a large van, but there are some superb pitches, particularly beautiful with the spring flowers we were told.
GPS: 43.5148 N, 05.4773 E
At last we were treated to a bright morning without the chilling wind.
Aix en Provence's old city is an amiable town to wander around - from the wide, tree lined grand boulevard of Cours Mirabeau, to the large yet somehow claustrophobic gastronomic arena of Forum des Cardeurs, to the crowded, busy vitality of Rue d'Italie, there is somewhere for everyone. It felt as if we could be in several different cities at once, yet it is all within easy walking distance, and there is always another square, a little shop, a bar or restaurant (and a fountain) around the corner.
|The Cours Mirabeau|
There is plenty to see from a historical perspective, but we just wandered - through the Mazarin quarter with its elegant homes of old Aix aristocracy, through the Saturday markets in Place des Chapeliers and Place Hotel de Ville, stopping for lunch in the Forum des Cardeurs.
|Your carriage awaits!|
The sun held out all day, even for a procession of wedding ceremonies at the Place Hotel de Ville - the stone flags freshly washed down after the morning market. We watched one bride teeter away with only a couple of bridesmaids in tow, clutching her dress away from the wet flagstones, whilst another spent five minutes trying to get herself and her dress though the door of an extravagantly decorated Mercedes - still no groom apparently in attendance!
Another fine morning. The air temp dropped below zero again overnight, but with warm low sun and perfectly still air it was a joy to stretch my legs down to the Boulangerie.
Seeing as it was Sunday we thought we'd risk a drive down to the outskirts of Marseille at L'Estaque. In actual fact the D8n was almost deserted and we arrived at the waterfront in quick time.
Moving on to the seaside holiday town of Carry-le-Rouet we parked up by the sailing school with a view of the bay.
Halfway through our lunchtime baguette there was a loud thud and the van lurched forward… Oh No, not again!
Sure enough a woman had backed her 4x4 into us, our bike rack putting a dent into her boot. Very apologetically, she explained that her reversing sensors had not "seen" the bikes!
(Whatever happened to traditional driving technology? - like rear view mirrors!)
Fortunately, for the second time in the life our van, our assailant seemed to have come off worse than we did, but we took photos and accepted her details.
Somewhat unsettled, Sue munched on her half-finished baguette and broke a piece off a capped tooth! Some days just don't work out how you'd like them to.
Taking our leave, we found that every man, woman and their dogs had arrived for the afternoon, a brass band had piped up on the beach, balloons and flags were everywhere.
Not feeling particularly festive, we eased through the gridlock and onto Cap Couronne, another holiday and yachting centre.
This seems quite a pleasant piece of coastline, a world away from the container terminals of Marseille, and well supplied with campsites - I think we counted eight.
Heading north now to Martigues, (and ignoring the power station and oil refinery to the west coast) we slipped along the waterfront and were pleasantly surprised by this attractive resort. There is also plenty of parking, so often at a premium on the waterside.
A few yachts were out on the lake, motionless in the breathless air, their sunlit shapes mirrored on the dead flat water - the crews no doubt savouring a blissfully tranquil boisson.
Next up was Istres and we filtered right out of town for the scenic lakeside D16 route to St Chamas. Our destination was a France Passion vineyard on the D10, just past the D21B turn off for Berre l'Etang.
|Domaine de Suriane|
It's a rough old track to the Domaine de Suriane and we followed the France Passion signs some distance away from the lovely old farmhouse. Having missed the vital sign to the wooded clearing where the owners intended us to stay, we found ourselves on an increasingly dubious farm track across a ploughed field. Soon I was driving into deep ruts which threatened to bottom out the van, whilst the right hand side was sliding into sand. Stopping or reversing was not an option, I just had to keep going until we reached the edge of the field!
Sue having ripped out a path through the high brambles by hand, we eventually made it back to the farmhouse via a long circuit of gravel tracks and a heart-stoppingly low railway bridge. Phew!
The lady of the house spoke good English and was suitably amazed and amused when I recited what we had done, but we were still unsure where to park. Walking at the pace of her toddler (whose pet was a huge cockerel, kept under his control by a pair of sticks) she led us to the correct spot. Doh!!
Feeling just about as smart as her toddler, I was amused to see the big farm dog blithely snatch away from his tiny hand the piece of fruit loaf he had been clutching for the past five minutes!
|The way to the lake|
Once settled, we walked the kilometre or so down a rough track to the lake to watch a gorgeous sunset, as flocks of birds swooped in the sky.
|Serenity at the end of a fraught day!|
Back in the van, Sue roasted a large duck breast and potato wedges in the oven, served up with a tangy sauce made from a tin of peaches, red wine, sugar and balsamic vinegar - a fine end to a fraught day.
Domaine de Suriane
GPS: 43.5310 N, 05.1145 E
The sun had deserted us in the morning and Sue was in trouble - her broken tooth was cutting her tongue, which had swelled up overnight - we would have to find a dentist. A phone call was made to our medical insurance emergency helpline, and she promised to ring back with a list of suitable dentists in Arles.
By way of a diversion we decided to drive down the D21B to Berre l’Etang. This is a place in the throes of a major transformation, from dusty dormitory town for oil refinery workers to holiday resort. The entire waterfront, which appeared to have been previously largely waste land, is being redeveloped with a marina, tree lined boulevards, shops, cafes and accommodation. Every new car park we passed was however firmly resistant to motorhomes, with very low red and white height barriers on each one.
We drove out to the point, where there is a large tank farm. Along the way are several unrestricted parking areas facing the salt marshes.
|And if I catch you talking to her again!!|
We stopped for lunch and watched flocks of Pink Flamingos feeding and squabbling with each other. There were also a multitude of Swans and Black headed Gulls, the latter getting the better every time of the swans with the remnants of the lunchtime bread. In between they entertained us with their little leaps and dives for tiny fish and invertebrates.
|Black headed Gull - Now you see me...|
|Now you dont!|
A heavily overcast day, it felt faintly surreal, all these birds against a industrial backdrop of gas flares, roofless old buildings and the distant thunder of planes taking off from Marseilles airport - the wildlife surviving as normal after the human apocalypse?
GPS: 43.4630 N, 05.1571 E
Not feeling up to much more, we returned to another France Passion site, Perle de Provence. Here, a crusty old guy with a big smile, jabbering away in a mixture of French and Spanish, directed us to peaceful pitch amongst some olive trees.
|A France Passion view of the mountains|
Domaine Perle de Provence
GPS: 43.5494 N, 05.1680 E
Sue was still monitoring her mouth, reluctant to see a foreign dentist. Somehow, going down to see the mouth of the mighty River Rhone seemed like a good idea.
On paper, Port St Louis looks like an interesting prospect - a long harbour, marina, listed large aire and a drive right out to the spit in the Golfe de Fos. In reality however, this is probably not a place you would visit more than once.
It’s a longish drive down and soon the smell of petrochemical and industrial processing hung around in our nostrils. There is a swing bridge, a marina and vast tracts of disused industrial wasteland, one of which turned out to be the aire. The facilities however, were either in the process of removal or renewal. We noticed that half a dozen motorhomes had elected to park up on the other side of the harbour - probably baulking at the asking price of 6 Euros!
Aire, Port St Louis
GPS: 43.3843 N, 04.8190 E
Onto the point, and again the salt marshes were inhabited by huge flocks of Pink Flamingos - a few tired old homesteads hovering on the edge of ruin in the long grass.
|Ships, industrial wasteland and flamingoes|
The vast Plage Napoleon at the end of the road is probably packed in the season, but at this time we were just one of a handful of vehicles parked in the weak sunshine.
GPS: 43.3530 N, 04.8768 E
Finally, Sue decided that the awful moment could be put off no longer and we found our way to Camping Bienheureuse, on the outskirts of Arles at Rapheles Les Arles.
GPS: 43.6494N, 04.7058 E
The campsite owner is English, and despite having her own domestic problems, kindly rang her dentist in Arles and arranged a short appointment for the following afternoon. Later that evening she knocked on our door to say the dentist had phoned with a cancellation appointment for Sue at 0830. An early start for the bus ride into Arles!
At first a Celtic settlement, then a Greek colony, Arles became Roman when Julius Caesar gave the colony to the veterans of his fighting legions. There at the earliest days of Christianity, it became an important religious centre.
In the Middle Ages it was destroyed and ravaged by various invasions, but was rebuilt during the 12th Century with some fine medieval monuments. In the 17th and 18th Century the stately town houses were built - which now cement together the Roman and Romanesque heritage to form the old city.
Standing shivering in the cold misty pre-dawn gloom outside the campsite, we nearly got on the large comfortable school bus by mistake, however when it arrived our No 7 was a just a minibus, one of only a few daily services into town.
The Dentist was only a short walk from the bus terminus, a large white villa in a quiet street, partially obscured by an aged olive tree in the front garden. We waited outside, pacing up and down to keep warm. On the dot of 0830 Sue pressed the bell and the receptionist unlocked the steel door. Inside it was ultra modern and minimalist - strip wooden floors and fancy stainless steel light fittings.
Sue saw a young female dentist, and was back in a few minutes with a smile as wide as a dinner plate. Unbelievably, the bill was only 21 Euro, we paid in cash and left with a cheery wave.
A small quiche from a Patisserie, eaten in a coffee shop close by (seemed to be the regular thing to do), fortified us for the round of ancient sites to come. Our 9.50 Euro passeport liberté tickets from the tourist office entitled us entrance to 4 monuments and one museum - seemed like enough (to me) for one day.
First up was the Cryptoportico of the Roman Forum, a large U shaped underground gallery, dating from 30 to 20 BC. It's pretty dark and murky down there, atmospheric even, with very high humidity, but it gives a glimpse into the sheer scale and quality of Roman architecture.
Next was the Cathedral and cloisters of St Trophime. The cloisters are due for a major bout of restoration, but many of the sculptures had suffered so much over the centuries, it was hard to see what could be done apart from to stabilize and clean them.
|Some amazingly intricate stonework|
Onto the late first Century Roman theatre which could, in its heyday, hold 10,000 spectators. Like most Roman monuments however, the construction stone has been "recycled" over the years to build other edifices and what is left now is just a shadow, the bare bones.
Imaginatively, the site has been recently re-developed with a moving steel stage and a sound and light tower to allow contemporary open air performances, thus ensuring that the monument is more than just a pile of broken ancient architecture.
|New life for a Roman Theatre|
Lunch was in a local hotel restaurant, the plat du jour : microwaved chicken with rice served in a miniature plastic pot au feu. 8.50 Euro.
The food was ok, but the incessant musak - a single track on endless repeat, nearly drove us nuts.
The amphitheatre I enjoyed the most, and more than the one in Nimes. The level of reconstruction that has been undertaken is quite remarkable, the balustrades and arches rebuilt right up to the (possibly never existing) third level. On some parts of the freshly cleaned terrace it was possible to gaze upon nothing but new stonework, a real and rare insight into how it must have looked soon after completion.
|The upper terrace before restoration|
Amazingly, in past centuries the townsfolk moved into the arena for protection, some one hundred and twenty homes and two churches packed into the space intended for gladiatorial combat!
Down to the river for a quick look at the Roman baths, then the Van Gogh museum before the bus home.
Maintenance Day. On our arrival at the campsite I had noticed that the alternator wasn't charging the batteries - a problem we had had before, when a fuse blew for an unknown reason. Back then it was replaced by the very helpful Fiat garage in St Omer and I have since carried some spares for this eventuality.
Situated on the fuseboard mounted on top of the starter battery, the alternator fuse is a little rascal to get at without removing the battery first - an awkward job, more suited to a weightlifter!
When it was finally retrieved it was frustratingly intact, but the burn marks and encrusted plastic from the fuse holder indicated no more than a loose and dirty fuse. Relief! I changed the fuse, cleaned up the terminals and all was well.
From the campsite it is a short hop to the Marais de Vigueirat. Strictly speaking, outside of the Camargue Nature Park, it is still one of the most noted nature reserves in the area.
The visitor centre is 2 km up a stony track, black bulls looking disconsolate on the other side of the fence. At the end there is a large car park with room for motorhomes. No overnighting is permitted and there is no access to the reserve when the centre is closed.
Marais de Vigueirat
GPS: 43.5353 N, 04.7520 E
Several walking trails are laid out, and for each, an entertaining and informative little free booklet is available in the major European languages.
We took the main 3km long trail and despite the dull weather it was very enjoyable. We had glimpses of Coypu amongst the reeds and also a very thin - perhaps a rogue - white Camargue horse moving through the hedgerows.
|There are Coypus here, but you had better be quiet!|
Our next plan was to return to Arles, top up with supplies and stop on a new aire near the station (where a young man in the Arles tourist office had reassured us we could stay the night), then cross the Rhone in the morning to commence our tour of the Camargue Regional Nature Park.
We put the rough location in the satnav and found the borne de service ok, but as for somewhere to stop overnight - dream on, narrow bays only on a busy slip road. Down by the railway station we found a full scale itinerant camp, not quite what we had in mind!
A swift Plan B was instigated - a France Passion site near to where we had spent the afternoon. Trouble was, the light was fading, and France Passion directions being what they often are, i.e. a bit vague, we eventually had to give up as it was just too dark. Looking for a domaine sign I nearly got my bum bitten by a territorial hound, who chased the van all the way down the track.
(Should have taken the dog-dazer!)
Plan C was to drive down to Salin de Giraud and cross the river to an aire there. Only one small problem - there isn't a bridge, just a ferry! A bit late for that, so Plan D became a few more kilometres drive down the road to Port Saint Louis! What did I say about it being a place you only visited once?
Deciding to give the official aire a miss, we allocated ourselves a pitch on a car park on the other end of the marina quay from the Capitanerie. It seemed fine until, being Friday night, the local youngsters turned up in their go-faster hatchbacks to chill out with ground shaking “dum-dum” accompaniment!
Eventually, peace broke out and we had a good sleep, though I was roused briefly by the very loud throbbing of a diesel engine or two, which I assumed to be a passing barge - actually it was a large customs launch that tied up to the quay 50 metres behind us!
Next – into the real Camargue National Park.