Saturday, 6 August 2011

Home safely

Just a brief and final blog to report in as back in Norwich safe and well, and once I find homes for everything we brought back, we should be back to some level of normality! We left the campsite in Troyes on Monday morning with ferry tickets for Tuesday morning. However, we made such good time up the motorway that Victor suggested we try and get a boat a day early. Luckily I called P&O from his mobile as we battled our way up through the well-known places from World War One, always a sobering few miles, to find that there was a space on the 4.30 but they wanted a further £175 for the privilege. We declined, instead beginning our search for a free France Passion stopover for the night.

This we found in a farmyard in a delightful village some 20 minutes drive west of Calais. A really good decision as it turned out, for the view was pretty and the home-made ice-cream and fresh milk bought from the farmer’s shop were totally delicious and we bought four tubs home! While we were settling into the farmyard location on a beautiful hot sunny afternoon, another motor home with GB plates drove in, and we subsequently spent a fun evening sharing meals and wine, and more wine, and more chat with a couple from Bridgewater who are heavily into cross-country eventing (horses)!

After a reasonably restful night and the alarm set for eight, we drove over to the port with our 1120 ferry tickets. Again, due to leaving nice and early we arrived in time to get a spot on the 1030 boat which would save us loads of time at the other side. Then came immigration – as we had no passports to show them (see earlier blog), we were called inside the Border Control office where a couple of immigrant families were being given the third degree. We were treated with suspicion at first, but then having filled in a massive form and them running us through the database, we were cleared with a smile and sent on our way. Dodgy moments though – we just did not know what to expect to happen! We will now buy ourselves some new ones. The crossing was clear and smooth, and the drive home tedious but uneventful. The unloading, washing and ironing were to follow! Totally exhausted but pleased to home in one piece.

In retrospect, we have agreed this year was probably not as epic as last, clearly shorter, but also not so many different places visited, hardly any France Passion stops, and certain stresses and difficulties what with towing a little car, and being robbed! But we did see some amazing cities – Avignon, Grasse, Cannes, Monaco, Dijon, Nancy and Troyes come to mind, and met some lovely people. We enjoyed a typical French Festival, spent a week enjoying the company of our Stratford friends, rode on four tourist trains and went up in a balloon. We have bought home some great wines and some fantastic olives, and have over a thousand photos to remember it by. So no complaints – just a big thank you to all you guys who have kept the faith and followed us on this blog. Until next year.....

And just a couple of little things – I now have a mobile phone with my old number back, and my OU results came through for my penultimate module –Children’s Literature – and I got 88% for my final exam piece! With 80% average for my essays I have a good Grade 2 Pass – an equivalent of a 2.1 in uni language. So well pleased and looking forward to my final year of study. Bring it on!

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Bumps and Bouchons!

And so it was dear friends, that on Monday 25th July my aviator husband had his first hot air balloon flight, accompanied by his less than confident wife, our competent brother-in-law, and the balloon pilot. 8.15pm on a breezy Chambley airfield near Metz, the balloon took off along with about two hundred others to fly a distance of around 6km in 55 minutes over the countryside and villages north of the airfield. When you buy a commercial balloon flight (as I did once in another life) you are invariably the only balloon in the sky, so to share the space with hundreds of others is a unique experience, only achieved at festivals. During our flight there were times I could understand why my sister and her husband have become addicted to this pastime, but there were other moments when I wished I had stayed on the ground! About thirty minutes in, I was quietly taking a small video of the multi-coloured mass of balloons ahead of us, when a draft of cold air pressed down on the balloon (so I had it explained to me later), which meant that as we passed low over a hedge and into a field, we suddenly descended, fast, and bumped on the ground, just for a moment, but enough to send me to the bottom of the basket, clutching my glasses and spraining an ankle, with Victor losing his favourite Mercedes cap overboard! The funny thing was I did not stop filming, and so the very end of this minute long piece is a very black screen with me whelping (I refuse to use the word ‘screaming’) in the background!

The balloon quickly got up again with the use of the very noisy gas jets, and from then on I was sort of okay again, watching all the other balloons skimming along around us, and gazing down at the little villages and waving at the people who came out of their houses to wave at us. Then the pilot decided it was time to land and up ahead was a huge ploughed field with the stumpy remains of the crop and, as we discovered later, a layer of cow’s muck, recently applied! Two other balloons had already landed in the huge field, conveniently next to a road so my sister and her colleague in the retrieval vehicle could get to us, and this was our destiny. Once again I feared the bump, so crouched low in the basket while everyone else stayed on their feet (the correct way to do it). This was fine apart from during the landing I was hit on the head by a couple of metal links which fell down as the basket tipped. Ouch! I crawled out into the smelly field feeling very sorry for myself. Certainly an unforgettable experience all round, and we were grateful to Pilot David for the opportunity to be part of the team just for a few hours. Those things take a lot of putting up and taking down, we had to admire the commitment of everyone concerned, as they get up at 4.30 every day for the morning flights, snatch a few hours sleep in the day, and are out again at 4.30 for the evening flight, not getting back to bed until after 11.00. Three days later we had a text to say that the team had taken part in the world record breaking attempt of the most balloons to take off together from a line-up (349) and that my sister had been a part of that flight! Congratulations to all concerned! See incredible photo at

The following morning we packed up the final bits and left that rather overcrowded, noisy and muddy camp behind and set off slightly south-west in search of some sun for our final week in France. Our chosen destination was the historic city of Troyes (pronounced ‘tois’ as in ‘three’ in French), the furthest south of the Champagne cities. We had not visited there before and as there seemed to be a promising campsite just outside Troyes, it seemed a good choice. Well, we have been here for five nights now, and although the sun has only shone a few times, it is a small, pretty and peaceful camp, with friendly fellow campers, plenty of space between pitches and a lively clubhouse for a drink in the evenings and with free internet connection. We have been entertained by a lovely Flemish family with three little girls of 2, 4 and 6. Their antics have made us laugh out loud many times!

Our France guidebook describes Troyes as ‘a delight’ and so it has proved. We have visited twice, the final time this afternoon and each time was gob smacked by the ancient houses with colourful wooden beams and original wattle and daub walls. They have a number of fascinating churches and we visited the Cathedral of St Pierre and St Paul yesterday with its stone vaulting and breathtaking stained glass windows. Troyes has its own local delicacies and I tried one for lunch earlier this week. The andouillette de Troyes (little sausage) is a very old recipe for using up tripe and other unmentionables from the pig, not that this worried me, but although the taste was okay, it was the consistency that put me off! Yesterday was preferable when we tried some Bouchons de Champagne (liqueur chocolates shaped like champagne corks). Now, they were worth a taste!

The sun has now come out and today, our very last day here, could be hot, which is typical as we have to clear up ready for early departure on Monday. We might squeeze in a little sunbathing! So, my next blog will hopefully be sent from the comfort of our own home in Norwich, and will cover our two day trek back, our channel crossing and maybe an overview of our adventures! I am expecting you all to arrange good weather for our return to Norwich! Take care everyone!

Monday, 25 July 2011

Mustard and many balloons!

And so to continue, a slightly shorter blog than usual as we have a busy day ahead and with moving on tomorrow, we don’t know where the next wi-fi connection will come from. The Olive oil place was a good as hoped with a small olive grove to look around, a film about the history and production of the stuff, a look around the factory (off season at the moment!) and best of all, a tasting of various oils and ‘table olives’ – all so different – and then a big shop! Temptation everywhere........ The wind got very strong up in our mountain top campsite at the beginning of last week and life there became less pleasant, so we moved north last Wednesday, taking in a lovely night stop at one of the free France Passion sites in the next village to our very first France Passion stop nearly two months ago now. It was in a very smart vineyard and we enjoyed eating Gold medal winning olives along with Gold medal winning wine wine from the vineyard in the late evening sunshine outside the van overlooking an idyllic French lane! The lady in the wine shop told me all about the Salon de l’Agriculture competition in Paris every February when all the best that France can produce comes together for tastings and judging – the public can go too – sounds like the perfect weekend away!

Onwards up the motorway bypassing Beaune – sadly as it one of our favourite wine cities – but neither of us had visited Dijon before – yes, the home of the mustard – and so it had to be done. We had identified a campsite down on the river, just 20 minutes walk from the centre of the city, and booked in for one night. It was drizzling and windy but we put on our big raincoats and hiked along the little river into the city centre – surprise, it has a mustard shop very like the one in Norwich (if slightly larger and older), and we risked the bus back after having a drink just outside the wonderful Place du Ducs, a huge square infront of the Palace where the Dukes of Burgundy lived until they were ousted in the French Revolution. It had fun little dancing fountains and we were amused by a couple of young kids who thought it was fun to get totally drenched by walking through them, even though it was a cool breezy evening! The following morning we did not need to leave camp until noon, so we took the bus again to find that Friday morning in Dijon is where it is at..... the huge Victorian style market hall was buzzing, and outside stalls of all types were mingling with the coffee and wine bars. We stocked up the fridge with fish, pates and veg – all fresh and good quality – the French know how to eat!

And so onto Lorraine, that area of France that has changed political and national hands so often in the past. As we drove up the motorway we could see the terrain changing to include far more livestock than before, and the villages began to look more alpine with sloping roof tops and tall steepled churches. Unfortunately the rain followed us, and we arrived at our new campsite in a heavy shower – always good fun. They had apparently had rain all week and the ground is just mud. Totally unpleasant as it is always difficult to keep the floors of the toilet blocks clean and we dared not put down our flooring outside the van as it would be too muddy to pack up again. The camp was filling up with caravans, campers and tents, many with trailers alerting us that they were balloonists from all over Europe. That first evening I had to delay cooking the tea twice as we were called outside to watch and photograph groups of colourful hot air balloons rising up above the hill and over the camp. Quite a breathtaking site! The following morning was more rain so sadly the balloons did not go up. We had other plans and set off on the tourist trail again, this time to the historical city of Nancy with the largest and most beautiful French classical square in Europe, listed in the UNESCO World Heritage sites. It was a lovely day out, riding once again on the little Tourist Train and walking miles around the city centre.

By now, my sister and brother-in-law had arrived in the area, they had a warm snug hotel room (!), and we arranged to see them the following day as once again afternoon rain stopped the evening balloon flights. So yesterday, quite unexpectedly we found ourselves visiting an old fort on the Maginot Line, built during the 1930s to protect France from German invasion. It was manned by over 1000 soldiers for four months, all preparing for the worse, but it never came and during WWII the Germans simply came round the top through Belgium! This network of underground tunnels is now looked after by a team of enthusiasts and it was a fascinating (if cold) visit – rather long at 2.5 hours – but very different! And so that brings us to today. This morning, despite early rain, the balloonists did get their wish and at 8.00am we had a text – ‘we are up in the sky – worth a look’. And we got up and we looked and it was worth it! Fantastic sight of hundreds of balloons (more than Friday evening) sailing over the French countryside. My sister’s balloon captain says we might get a flight with them tonight – our last night in the area – so fingers crossed for the weather and I will report in when I can.... Take care.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Fortress towns and wild gales!

As described at the end of our last blog, we have been holed up in a campsite high on a hill near to Minerve, a medieval village just north of the Pyranees, inland from Narbonne and north-east of Carcassonne in the region known as Languedoc-Roussillon. Back in the medieval era Minerve was a powerful town and embraced the new Christian religion of Catharism that was popular in many cities in this region since the year 1000 A.D., including Beziers and Carcassonne. Unfortunately it criticised the Papal activities in Rome, and in 1210, on their way to the Crusades in the Holy Land, Simon de Montfort and his army cruelly besieged many of the Cathar towns, including Minerve, wiping out their buildings with a huge catapult contraption known as La Malvoisine or Bad Neighbour, which was set up outside the ramparts. At the same time the local water supply became contaminated by rats and as this was the only water available, the citizens became ill. Once captured, the 140 ‘Perfects’, Cathar holy men and women living and preaching in Minerve, on refusing to renounce their religion, were burnt to death at the stakes set up on the dry bed of the river running through the town. Victor and I visited this awe inspiring place on our third day here, driving alongside a deep gorge and blown away by the sight of this village seemingly hewn from the rock face high above the gorge with its multi-coloured rock formations and sparse undergrowth. It really is a mini-Carcassone, as all the everyday shops and amenities have been slowly replaced by artisan workshops, tourist shops, little museums, wine caves and restaurants all sharing the ancient cobbled windy lanes and amazing views. But we are tourists and we like this sort of thing, enjoying a light lunch on a sunny terrace as we photographed a beautiful striped butterfly as it chomped on the geranium tubs in front of us!

It has generally been a pretty quiet week here, with a couple of very loud and very wet thunderstorms that have interrupted the sun worshipping a little but allowing much reading of books – a rare treat in real life but a joy on holiday! As anticipated, we have enjoyed the company of our two friends, visiting the market day in Olonzac, sharing meals in either their caravan or our motor home, swopping anecdotes, drinking far too much at the communal meal with entertainment (a very good looking French singer who made a good attempt at both Beatles and Stones numbers with his guitar, keyboards and, yes it is true, a small harp!), and last Friday evening taking part in a Nocturnal Promenade around Minerve with about forty French families, complete with lighted torches in our hands, led by a young French tourist officer dressed as a medieval maidservant! Just the sort of theatrical event that appeals, so it was particularly frustrating when her animated commentary was delivered only in super quick French! We had spoken with her earlier in the week when buying the tickets, and she had assured Victor that she would translate some of her talk into English for us on the night. Well, after the second stop she still had not done this, so summoning up all my bottle (and probably aided by the contents of the bottle we had drunk over a very lovely dinner), I called out loudly – ‘Un petit peu en Anglaise si’l vous plait, c’est tres interresant mais je ne conprend pas’! You can see how ‘schoolgirl’ my smattering of French is! I kid you not, but a loud groan went up from the French at the very idea, and I felt my appeal would be in vain. But no, on the three subsequent stops she did try and translate, albeit just a small amount, of her commentary which did help us considerably to get the gist of the tragic history of this place back in the day, and we all found it a worthwhile (and very different!) night out.

Our final two days now, and this afternoon we plan a visit to an Olive Oil factory. Last year we learnt much about the process and philosophy behind wine growing and making, so this year I fancy learning more about olive oil, and visiting their reputedly amazing food hall! I can see a credit card session coming up! Then on Wednesday morning we drive north, heading for the International Balloon Festival in Metz in north-eastern France where we will meet up at the weekend with my sister and her husband who are ‘crewing’ for one of the balloon companies. It should make for an interesting few days (and it gets us nearer to Blighty!) Just two weeks to go!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Bread, Bulls and Bathing Beauties!

Firstly apologies for no photos again - it is a very weak signal up here in the mountains! Five weeks into the holiday and this past week has been one of the busiest yet! There are some days when it feels more like an endurance test!! At the end of the last blog I promised a report on the Festival du Pain in Fayence, held on 3rd July. Sheer delight! So French! Does anyone remember the 1970s BBC drama Clochemerle with the grand mayoral opening of the new urinal in the middle of the village? True Provence style fun mixed with some religion! In the morning there was a full mass at the huge church with the bishop consecrating the bread that had been made by the bakers in the traditional way in really old bread ovens. The loaves were enormous and ornately decorated. The residents, and I suspect, many outsiders were dressed either in typical peasant/folk dress, or alternatively historical costumes reflecting life in the village over the decades. There were donkeys and folk bands, traditional dancers and market stalls selling coloured vegetables, wine, soaps, souvenirs and Limoges pottery (we bought a tiny lidded butter dish exquisitely painted with field poppies). There was a two hour gap for lunch (everything stops in France for lunch!) and then at 3pm they resumed with more dancing and a group of muskateers of all ages, in historical army costume who took great delight in firing their extremely loud rifles into the air at every opportunity during the frequent parades through the village. We had an opportunity that afternoon to explore the residential side of the village, right on the side of a hill with glorious views, did the usual tourist thing of dreaming about owning a house there, and then on finding the estate agents window, reviewing our position with small flats starting from half a million! That evening was a big communal meal (with bread I guess!) but we didn’t stop for that, preferring to return to camp and our own BBQ. A fun day with dozens of photos to remember it by.

We actually had rain on the Monday! Those dark heavy downpours that accompany really hot days in this part of the world. Very sad sitting under the awning trying to keep everything from getting soaking wet! And with no passenger side window (smashed by thieves for those who may have not read the previous blog), driving out to a town for amusement was not an option! So we sat it out, looking forward instead to the communal meal on camp that night. Our hosts Robert and Christiana cooked up a storm to go with the one raging outside, and we huddled together on long trestles with us on the outside edge dodging the raindrops! It was a good evening chattering to a Dutch couple and enjoying the bonhomie of the occasion. The following day we had the call we had been waiting for and at 9am set off to a Mercedes garage one hour’s drive away to have the window fixed. It took a further hour for them to fit the new window and clean out all the remaining broken glass. We were mobile again and moving on day was Wednesday. Just in time to avoid having to change our plans yet again.

So on Wednesday 6th July we said our farewells and headed south –west to the Camargue region and the seaside town of Sts Maries de la Mer. Not sure what to expect as this was new territory for both of us, we were pleasantly surprised by the vibrancy and prettiness of this little dot on the Med. We found a space in one of the town’s two Aires and paid for two nights at 9.5 euros a night. You don’t get much for your money, apart from access to water for your van and toilet disposal, but we were only five minutes walk from all the action of bars, restaurants, shops, seafront, harbour and yes, you guessed it, another little Tourist train! On the drive in we saw numerous ranch like buildings offering pony trekking holidays with a small herd of the ‘White horses of the Camargue ‘ tied up outside,. A long way sadly from the vision of the wild ponies cantering through the wind tossed waves! Also on the agenda were black bulls, especially bred for the bullring (although they do not kill their bulls in France) and the spectacle of hundreds of flamingos wading through the shallow waters of the inland lakes. On the first night we were treated to a fabulous romantic sunset from our parking space overlooking a tiny etang. The following day we took a tourist guided boat trip up Le Petit Rhone, which instantly reminded us of the wider sections of the River Yare, and some of the Norfolk Broads, with familiar birdlife and motorboats moored alongside in the reeds. The main difference was the black bulls stood on the riverside watching the world go by! Not so many of those around Norfolk! Back on terra ferma and we took a look at the atmospheric ancient church which dominates the town, and after lunch we took that little tourist train which drove a surprising distance out of town, showing us the old houses owned by the bull trainers, a horse ranch where we fed the horses with bread, and where to find the flamingos. It was geat fun and very different to the trips in Monaco and Grasse.

And that night was the grand finale – we had only noticed the advertising hoarding that morning, and immediately vowed to buy tickets (all of six euros) for an event in the bull ring that night at 10pm. So after a delicious seafood supper at a sea front restaurant, we bought the tickets and chose our spot on the white stone seats (well, tiers of steps really) inside the circular arena with its sand covered floor and rather strange looking large paddling pool bang in the centre! We were intrigued. The town was still quiet – the French schools break up next week – and there were very few of the 3,000 places taken up. But it was worth the effort of staying up late on an evening which continually threatened a storm, as the bulls were young and confused rather than raging, and although I did feel sorry for them at times, they were only teased and certainly not hurt in any way. In fact we were surprised to find the public being asked to enter the ring and ‘play with the bull’! Not at all what we expected. Four young men tried their luck and later even two ladies, and after much chasing and running, and light butting, they all ended up in the paddling pool, an area considered safe as bulls do not like water! Maybe someone should have told the last bull of the evening who took a liking to standing in the cool water! So much for the safe zone!
The following morning after a breakfast of crossants in town while taking advantage of the free wi-fi in the cafe, we left the Camargue for the hedonistic sun, sea and sand of the Cap d’Agde. Those b log followers from last year may remember that Agde has the largest naturist village in the world, with thousands of pitches for caravans, motor homes and tents along a stretch of fabulous white sand alongside the Med. It was busy with all nationalities scurrying about and enjoying the varied delights of this unique place. We indulged in two evenings out, people watching mainly, listening to live musicians and enjoying meals and drinks, and memorably witnessing a rather too boisterous waiter at a very cool bar, dropping an entire tray of cocktails over a table of punters, completely ruining one woman’s very expensive white lace two piece! The row with the manager was pretty spectacular too – all in French though so we missed the subtleties! During the days we enjoyed some relaxation on the beach under our parasol, which although has now burnt Victor to a crisp (he is very fair skinned!), was a chance to recharge our rather worn out internal batteries....

And now we have been at our new campsite for just one night, a place near the historic little town of Minerve just north east of Carcassone, where we have met up with another couple from Stratford Upon Avon whom we met last summer at a different campsite. It will be good to have some English company and conversation for the next ten days. High in the hills, the views are breath-taking, the camp seems friendly and well equipped, despite the continuous very loud chattering of the crickets! We hope to visit some of the fortress villages over the next few days so I will report on those in about a week. A tout a l’heure for now!

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Royal wedding fever and 'Break-in news'!

One week since our last blog and so much to report! And not all good! The morning of 28th June dawned and we set off in the Smart for a two hour drive to Monaco, the principality in the news currently for its Royal Wedding last weekend. The journey was interesting – once we got beyond Nice it was all tunnels and toll booths as they demanded more and more money to cross the border into Britain’s favourite tax haven, where, apparently, Princess Di owned a house following her divorce. Can’t blame her, it is small (fewer square footage than Central Park), but perfectly formed with every delight for a wealthy playboy or playgirl! Rather more elegant and overtly classy than Cannes, it is set on the side of a mountain and tiered from the sea to the mountain road at the top where Grace Kelly drove her car off the cliff. It was a place preparing for a wedding, all £45 million of wedding, and it showed. Flowers, palm trees, flags, more flags, huge lighting gantries for the concert, barriers around the Palace and everywhere was selling a postcard replica of the special stamp that had yet to be issued. For just one euro we had to buy one! Photos of the happy couple smiled at us from every shop window, and it was all very familiar from last April! The place clearly has more real history than Cannes, with the Grimaldi family in charge since the 13th century, and the injection of Hollywood stardom in the 1950s still apparent with black and white photos of Princess Grace appearing around many corners! We had a light lunch (affordable amazingly), and then took the little tourist train ride, just like in Grasse, around the city (well, country actually), enjoying the craziness of the traffic from the relative safety of the train. Past the casino, as featured in several James Bond movies and the funhouse of princes and kings, round a section of the famous Grand Prix circuit and up the hill to enjoy a fabulous view of the biggest yachts I have ever seen (even bigger than in Cannes!). The Royal Palace is very much centre of the action, smaller than Buck House but with castle turrets and a very public square in front, which was being decorated up for some special occasion or other! Tourists everywhere and sunshine all the way. We had a lovely day, finishing up with a very messy icecream before leaving, but not before Victor drove the Smart (rather too quickly) around another section of the Grand Prix track (you can see where it starts from the markings in the road) with me attempting a running commentary as if on the television! It was 5pm on a Tuesday afternoon and this meant a slow crawl up the hill to the motorway.

That night was oppressively hot and in the morning I vowed to have my haircut that very day before I died of heatstroke! That is how I ended up in the local village (small town really) of Fayance, in a tiny hairdressers shop and a sixty year old man razor cutting my hair to within an inch of its life! Weird experience when you cannot even chat to your hairdresser – not even a ‘are you doing anything special this weekend madam?’ My little French did not really cut it, so he cut my hair instead, in almost total silence! It is okay, and a good deal cooler but I think I will prefer it when it has grown a little! Thursday was another lazing around camp day, doing some handwashing, preparing meals, reading books, playing our first game of boules, a quick swim, you know the type of thing. The original plan had been to drive to a beauty spot in a gorge about an hour away, but we decided to postpone that until Friday – maybe a big mistake!

Friday and we were definitely taking the drive. Others had recommended it for the amazing views and rock formations and we couldn’t miss out. It took a while to get there in hot sun and sure enough it was all very promising as we drove up and up the winding mountain road to the relatively flat bit at the top, army land with warning notices not to enter as danger from tanks! About one o’clock we were just looking forward to our lunch that was packed in the picnic bag in the boot, when we came across a well known beauty spot called Balcons de la Mescla. Very excited, we both leapt out of the car, me armed with my beloved camera (but nothing else), locked it up and disapeered behind the undergrowth to a stone set of steps leading to a walled vantage point to gaze down onto the azure blue river and lake below with tiny multi-coloured canoes scurrying along like tiny catapillers. We look the obligatory pictures of each other with the view behind, and then after only eight or so minutes, climbed back up the layby. Immediately we could see that the passenger window of the Smart was smashed in, tiny green bits of glass like emeralds scattered everywhere and the remaining glass like a huge ugly scar in the window frame. Victor was aware of a woman running downhill, but more concerned with the car, ran to it to find, of course, that my handbag was gone from the front seat along with the Garmin GPS. My precious Jarrolds handbag with its bejewelled handle (only £30 but I loved it!), and more importantly two passports, my drivers licence, mobile phone, credit card, debit card and my trusty diary with the phonenumbers of just about everyone I know! Gutted! Luckily Victor had his phone and credit cards on his person, and immediately called the police. Once they were assured no-one was hurt, they said they could not come out to us, but we should drive to a little town about an hour away, down the twisty gorge scenic route (no other choice) to the Gendarmerie to report the damage and theft. First we had to clear out most of the glass while concerned tourists came up to sympathise and gaze in horror. The lady seen running off, actually returned with her husband and actually gave me a cheap biro as I had nothing to write down what was stolen, so if they were the culprits they had some nerve! We will never know. To cut a long and sorry tale short, the first Police station was shut that day (!) but the lady on the intercom told us another town to go to, and this one did have some officers on duty, who were patient and helpful, filling in the usual forms and supplying us with a document to use as ID, both when here in France and to get back into the UK. It took most of the afternoon though, and we arrived back in camp pretty miserable and exhausted, spending the rest of the evening calling Vodaphone and the banks to cancel the phone and the cards. So don’t try and call my phone – I no longer have one! The car should be fixed by a Smart dealer about an hour away sometime next week so that we move on to our next destination, but even this is uncertain. So there you have it, we broke basic tourism rules and paid for it. Victor has now bought me a new holiday bag and I am slowly filling it up again but it will take a while for me to get over losing my diary. Still, no-one hurt thank goodness.

So we have had a fairly quiet time since then, thank goodness. Our proposed trip to Nice has had to go by the board, but today we went to a Festival de la Pain (Festival of the Bread) at the local Village which was really fun – but I will save that for the next blog. Keep safe all. Until the next time....

Monday, 27 June 2011

The Cote d'Azur and its sunshine!

Over a week since we made it to the Cote d’Azur region of southern France and it feels like much longer – it really is the stuff dreams are made of! Mind you we had a stroke of luck when we left the last camp. The night before we had decided that the one we were booked into was far too far north and the wrong side of the mountain for access to the coast. The whole point of heading east! So we cancelled and choose another from the list we use all the time. Always be wary of descriptions, either printed or on the internet. I will not name the camp but after two hours plus on the motorway we faced up to a twenty minute ‘bump’ down a long, even longer, and when will we get there unmade up track, with the poor little Smart bouncing along behind. And it wasn’t worth the drive – it was a scruffy hillside with a long trek up to the reception and bar shack, the few caravans looked as if they had been stuck there for ever and I’ll be the trees were infested with insects! We did not hang around to find out. Having spoken with Madam (very sweet) about the difficulties of getting our heavy van up inclines, we pretended to take a look around and then legged it! Back down the track!

We then drove on to our second choice, happily less than 30 minutes down the main road (one of those Provencal main roads that resembles a switchback ride!) and as their electronic gate opened to let our vehicles in, we knew we had struck gold. A tiny site called Le Tuquette, run by a lovely middle aged French couple. Far smaller and compact than we are used to – no massive views here – but really good facilities, a warm atmosphere and friendly people. Our van is right by the bar (Victor cannot believe his luck), the pool is equally as lovely as the last one, and we are only fifteen minute drive from the most delightful French hillside town – Fayence – which we discovered on Day 2 here. It has everything including magnificent views across countryside, several great restaurants and bars, fun shops and sunshine all the way! So, in view of all this, and because of the wealth of sightseeing to do in the region, we have decided to completely alter our itinerary and stay here for a total of seventeen nights, leaving on Wednesday next week. Radical I know – but that is the joy of having our own motorhome – flexibility is the name of the game!

And so it was that last Wednesday 22nd June, we found ourselves driving to Grasse, the centre of the French Perfume industry. An attractive and historic hilltop town, Grasse offered us a simple French lunch at an open air restaurant near a fountain, browsing around Perfume shops where they distil their own fragrances, a tour around the old town in the little tourist train with headphones giving us a commentary, and a visit to the showroom and museum of the House of Fragonard, the original parfumerie in the town. Victor owed me a birthday present, so I chose a lovely light floral scent called ‘Belle de Nuit’ with notes of geranium, rose, plum and musk. As long as it had ‘Grasse’ printed on the bottle I was happy! It was less than an hour to Grasse, which made for a stress free day out in an iconic spot in Provence.

And then this Saturday was the big one – well, the first of the big ones – I drove to Cannes! Not without certain stresses I will admit, but we did have this deal that Victor will drive the van if I drive the daytrips in the Smart. But the roads around here – I know I have said it before but it is not Norfolk! But I managed and it was with a certain thrill that I drove us along the coast road and into this very special place! I don’t know what I expected from it, apart from sea and sand, but it surpassed expectations and you could smell the money! The sea and the sky really are as blue as when we swoon over George Clooney getting off a launch at the Cannes Film Festival, the restaurants on the beach really do twinkle with the crystal and the bottles of spirits, the girls really are beautiful (although not topless anymore it seems!), and the price tags really are as staggering as you might imagine! Oh, and the boats in the marina and moored offshore are as fabulous as those on any James Bond movie. And more so!

We spent some time taking photos of the boats before walking up the steep hill to the castle to get the panoramic view everyone wants in their photo album. Every few moments there was something else to gaze at, laugh at, admire, envy, lust after etc etc. There are black and white photos of film stars, old and new, in every bar, we found the handprints of several including Paul McCartney in the pavingstones outside the Tourist information and we found a little restaurant offering a three course meal (it included deep fried courgette flowers – yum!) that did not break the bank. Our post lunch stroll along the beach road (Boulevard de la Croisette) in bright white sunshine offered many memorable images, including the contrast between the small piece of public (and free) beach with multi-coloured towels and assorted umbrellas, with the strips of beach owned by the five star hotels, with their matching sunbeds, cushions and sunshades. Out to sea the huge yachts sit in the twinkling water, while helicopters buzz overhead, presumably bringing their wealthy clients in to the hotels or the vessels. There were people water ski-ing or paragliding, and others were simply enjoying a long leisurely and boozy lunch in the glass fronted restaurants that served as gateways to the private beaches with their tanned ‘beautiful people’. I was much taken with the four poster beds (honestly) that were available to hire on one particular stretch of beach, and we were blown away by the preparations being taken for a wedding reception that evening – a whole beach area had been taken over and changed into a big party space with a huge white leather high back sofa for the happy couple, pink and purple streamers covering a huge gantry with full disco lighting rig, round tables with pink cloths and crystal wine glasses and a fully stocked bar. Lucky girl!

As for weddings, at least four took place at the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) that afternoon. We know that because the tradition seemed to be that the couple come racing down the coast road in some fabulous ribbon strewn car, with their friends and relations in convoy, hooting and screaming and waving at all the passers - by! On our walk back to the car in the late afternoon, we could not resist the temptation to take off our shoes and walk onto the public sand (surprisingly crisp underfoot with all the broken seashells!), followed by a quick paddle in the Med! I think this amused the sunbathers! Typical English on holiday! At least Victor wasn’t wearing socks with his sandals! It had been a terrific experience and we were so fortunate to see it in such perfect weather. It was a long hot drive home with just as much anxiety as the outward journey but we got back in one piece and after two days relaxing in camp and up at Fayance, we plan a further trip to Monte Carlo tomorrow – and Victor has offered to drive! Monte is probably more like two hours away on the motorway – they are having a Royal Wedding at the weekend so we expect to see evidence of grand preparations! I will let you know! Enjoy the sun while it lasts!