Saturday, 30 May 2015

Canals, Tunnels and Champagne - ish Elegance

canal side wildflowers
atop a Napoleonic canal at Riqueval
Our final few days in France have been spent pootling along the champagne route, strolling along canals, and stumbling on Australian War Memorials. We’ve seen stunning wild flower fields, elegant chateaux, and massive canal boats full of tourists toasting us with champagne. 

maybe we could swap Dickie for this mansion in Champagne
One aire happened to be located atop a canal tunnel built by Napolean’s army in the early 19th century which was used by the Germans in the First World War along the Hindenburg Line. This is where we found the Australian Memorial for the Fourth Battalion which lost around 10,500 men and left thousands more injured. As we drove around this area it was a poignant site to see the many war graves for so many different nations.
Memorial to Australian 4th Battalion on the Hindenburg Line
The boys enjoy some hot grape action in Mutigny
It’s a little bit sad to be going home after nine and a half thousand miles and 6 months on the road but there are worse places to go than Cornwall and we’re quite looking forward to redecorating, house hunting, and kayaking. And anyway, we’re seeing friends in Deal and Marlborough along the way so the fun is not over yet.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Hugo Has A Say

I think my ears look cute in this
The gray one tries to steal my stick
Well it's about time. The humans have allowed me my own little piece of blog space and I have some great photos of myself to show you.
Since I joined this pair in October last year I've had a smashing time in a move-able house that lets me out at a different sniffing place each time it stops. We've been to 3 different countries and I'm not even two yet.
I'm hoping Hymer will use me in an ad
I was unlucky enough to pick up a flea this week and 'the woman' freaked out, scraping my body with a funny little comb and throwing all our bedding in a very hot wash. She then had the temerity to stick some weird drops on my neck and I can't even reach around to lick it off. Anyway the flea is all gone and I'm trying my hardest to get another one from the grass around these canals.
I smell a rat

Disgruntled in faux Burberry

Rehearsing for 'Oliver'.
'Get behind me Satan!'
Here are some photos I'm considering for my modelling book. They don't know it yet but I'm hoping for a career in TV. Bye for now - maybe they'll let me have a go at this again some time.
Looking windswept

Wood, Walks, But No Wine

Now That's What I Call a Woodpile
I never thought I'd ever hear myself say this but I didn't love the Alscace Wine Route. Maybe it was because we were there on a holiday weekend but it was busy, our British credit cards didn't work in the parking meters (the first we've seen on our trip) and we had no change to stay in Kaysersberg which, when I quickly dashed in to town to try to get change, flashed me back to a strange past life experience (real or imagined) and I forced Graham to get me out of there.
Forest at Etival

Since then we have been travelling up through lovely forested areas and along the canals and the Moselle River on our way to the Champagne region. Now I can't hate that ... can I?
So Far So France

We've stayed in some lovely spots: Etival Clairfontaine with its impressive abbey and forest walks; Thaon Les Vosges; Richardmenil; and today at Ligny-en-Barrois - the last three all along the canal. Graham is in ecstacy about the size of the woodpiles here. It's all I can do to stop him popping a few logs in the back of Dickie.

Hugo has been having a spectacular time and he's asked to do his own blog so that will be next up.

Where's the Dickie

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Graham Explains

I notice that Kerriann mentions that having an awning out on our motorhome is ‘naughty’ and thought that a few words of explanation might clarify the position. In France we always stay at the wonderful camping-car aires, i.e. free and legal stopping places for motorhomes. When staying at an aire, it is usually accepted that permission is granted for ‘parking’ and not ‘camping’. Parking means that you are self-contained and do not put tables, chairs and other camping equipment around your van.
Naughty Awning Action

This said, the French have a great aptitude for ignoring the sometimes ridiculous rules. Usually, when over-nighting on an aire we would not wind out Dickie’s awning but on this lovely spacious aire with its big bays it would be silly not to make use of the generous space allocated. In fact we also snuck our satellite dish out so that we could watch live British TV. All the other vans on site were French and all of them were breaking the ‘camping’ rule and we love them for it!

In the 5 months we have been travelling in Europe on this trip we have only stayed 4 or 5 nights in paid campsites – the rest of the time we have parked legally in aires and spent our money in the towns and villages that have kindly provides them. The UK has a lot to learn from the European system – it is also interesting that we have not had to pay to park anywhere since we left the UK apart from one instance in a busy French town where we paid two euros for four hours. How different to our local parking in Cornwall.

It is still 27 degrees at 10.30 at night – we are all hot a sticky.  We might not miss the UKs parking charges but we do miss the cooler evenings.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Chants and Dangles

Never before have I been to a concert of ancient music in a cathedral where the audience starts clapping along to the songs. I should have realised something was up when, after a particularly lovely polyphonic piece, one of the group whipped out his guitar. The group, called Cirnese, is from Corsica and, by the heavens they do mix it up a bit! Stunning vocals, melifluous chanting, and powerful bass notes suddenly switch up into Corsican folk songs and Country and Western. After the initial shock and, being unable to escape as we were in the middle of a pew, we got into it and even enjoyed the sudden eruption of Corsican flags darting heavenwards from the audience as the they swayed and clapped to the popular tunes.
Leather Clad and Loving It
Fishing in the dunking river
Despite the burning of over 150 people on the site where we slept, Thann proved to be a pretty wine growing town with some lovely scenery. How they manage their vertiginous vine fields is a mystery to me as they seem almost vertical. Apparently they dangle from ropes and used horses or donkeys in the past.
For the love of wine.....

Saturday, 16 May 2015

The Burning Place

The Witches Tower in Thann
The Witch's Eye at the Castle
Having just returned from the Tourist Office I'm a little disturbed about our current location. We arrived in Thann, at the southern end of the Alsace Wine Route, this afternoon and were interested to see we are parked next to the Tower of Witches. The pleasant woman in the Tourist Office cheerily told me that it was the prison for witches in medieval times. 'Oh yes they burned them in the area of the car park opposite the tower.' Great! I must say it has put a damper on the place. At least the sun has come out.
Spot the Dickie in Thann

Serpents on the path

Not Keen on Nantua but Vive la Resistance!

As someone of a perfect disposition (J) who never complains about anything (another J) I have got to say that Nantua, listed in our All the Aires book as a gold-rated site, is one of the worst places we have stayed on our trip. The book says ‘amazing lake/mountain views’ – tick, ‘renovated in 2012’ – tick, ‘lots of shops’ – no tick. Yes the views were spectacular but that is where the ‘fabulous’ ends and the ‘hideous’ starts.
Deceptively gorge view
Nowhere did it mention the TGV track directly behind the parking that carried a noisy high speed train along it every 20 minutes or so; neither did it mention the incredibly tight spacing for the 13 slots provided (no chance to get the awning out here) or, even worse, the gangs of youths spinning their cars around (again at high speed) at midnight whilst their girlfriends screamed excitedly as they squeezed between the vans. Annoyingly, our usually barky dog Hugo was so pooped from his poop sniffing that he failed to raise even the slightest of snuffles. And as for the ‘lots of shops’, every second shop was for sale or rent. I should have realised we were in trouble when we couldn't find a boulangerie and Lidl didn’t even have a hot bread section. Quelle horreur!
Tighter than a tight thing
The saving grace of the town was the small but well put together Musee de la Resistance which told the tale of the Maquis in the Ain region, the assistance given by SOE (Special Operations Executive) parachutists in the war, the Vichy, and the terrible story of the Jews, many of them children, who were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. In fact the enthusiastic chap at the museum told me his father had been on one of the deportee trains and only survived by jumping off and running to safety in the mountains. One of the tableaux is actually narrated by a man called Patterson who is the very soldier depicted in the scene. There are several plaques around the town marking the spots where locals were shot by the Germans which shows how active the Resistance was in this area.

It was chilling to see a Gestapo uniform behind a piece of glass but the most unsettling artefact I saw was a Hitler Youth Drum, the upright kind that you hit with two sticks on either side. Maybe it was the thought of this dreadful ideology being ‘drummed into’ the young so it could be carried into our future. Thankfully not.

But back to the site, I can only say that the only positive (apart from the view) was that the police were obviously so embarrassed by the place that they did not come and collect the 7.50 euro charge. Hoorah! Off to the vineyards. 

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Hot Map Action

Five Months So Far
The Hymer has done a great job on our 7,500 mile trip so far. Graham says we're getting 30 miles to the gallon on average which is pretty good for a van our size.
Mr Fluffy takes a dip

We plan to head up to the Alsace Wine Route on our way back to the UK but it's around 31 degrees here by a lake at Serriere de Chautagne in the foothills of the Alps, so we're not in a big hurry to move just yet. Mr Fluffy has been brave enough for a swim but I am happy with a glass of wine in the shade watching the blonde horses have a trot among the trees.
Awning out - how naughty

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Friends, Flowers and Ancient Towns

Balcony des fleurs
As we walked up to Carleen’s 13th Century Templar house we noticed her balcony still had traces of the Marche aux Fleurs that had taken place in Richerenches the week before. A hardboard butterfly, three tasteful paper flowers, and a selection of pots gave a feeling of merriment to the frontage.
The famed balcone - photo courtesy Carleen
Having known Carleen and her family since she was ten and I was twelve (since school in the NSW town of Orange) it seemed strange for two daggy chicks from Oz (well one at least - ie me) to be meeting in another hemisphere, in a setting from an ancient century, some ‘cough cough’ years after school. Who would have thought it…?
Carleen doing green by the clock tower
Mr Fluffy was happy to busy himself with a few DIY projects particularly when the girly vibe almost exploded with a hairdressing session in the kitchen. He could safely retreat to Gerard’s workshop to angle-grind the legs off a metal table and drill holes in things that needed holes in. The village itself dates back to the Templars and has a very famous truffle market on Saturdays over winter.
By the restaurant O'Rabasse
Hugo ‘kind of’ enjoyed meeting Elvis the dog for the second time (we visited briefly for Christmas Eve) but was a tad annoyed he was no longer the sole canine target of our affections. We ate at an excellent restaurant O’Rabasse, run by a Belgian couple, who made the best strawberry desert in the world. It was almost as good as the jar of coq (au vin) I'd cooked the night before.
View over Lunas

Hugo enjoys a stroll by the river in Lunas

Boys' Delight
The boys sneak in to St Georges' Chapel in Lunas
This does not look scary enough

Hugo enjoying a good sock by the river

We’d spent a few days travelling to Richerenches via the Pyrenees and what stunning medieval villages we encountered along the way. We spent the full moon night in the aptly named Lunas and went on to steam train wonderland, St Jean de Gard. We have just driven north through some horrendously windy alpine roads along gorges and through tunnels that have seriously set me up with a bout of extreme stress but thankfully we are now in St Antoine L’Abbaye for a couple of days to rest before heading for the Route De Vins in the Alsace (although I have sworn off the drink after a couple of nights on the lash with Carleen).
I thought I was the immature one - Abby at St Antoine
Oh and the good news is we’ve found some suitably overpriced PG tips so there is no longer any need to hurry back.

Medieval garden St Antoine

Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Vicar Has No Tea But He Does Have a Devil

The worst has happened and we will need to come back post haste. Yes, we have run out of PG tip tea bags! We are making do with Twinings but it’s just not the same.
Devilish Digits

After reading Holy Blood Holy Grail in the eighties I have always wanted to go to Rennes-Le-Chateau and today we did just that. It’s a stunning place and the church is fascinating. What other church has a gigantic devil holding up the font by the entrance door? And the place certainly has a buzz about it. The few shops that are there are making the most of the whole ‘Dan Brown Thing’ and you can’t blame them. It’s a bit like a mini Glastonbury with esoteric bookshops, angel and unicorn merchants, and one can even buy branded wine.
Astrological Sun Dial over a doorway 

Hugo loving Campan
Our drive through the Pyrenees over these last few days has been absolutely gorgeous. Imagine our amusement when we were in a tiny mountain village called Campan and we came across an English tea shop doing fish and chips (and not in a Costa Del Sol way) – not quite the French cheese we had been craving but of course we had to indulge. We parked by a river packed with fish and Hugo enjoyed whizzing around the green fields with no fear of being run over (he has no road sense whatsoever). 

Wine, Witches, and a Not So Near Death Experience

As my life flashed in front of my eyes Graham finally realised he’d entered the winding mountain road on the wrong side and was driving on the left. His mind had suddenly gone back into UK mode. Luckily the previously busy road had gone quiet and we escaped unharmed. Phew! (I would like to say that his driving has been very good up till this point.)
Mr Fluffy loves a French woodpile
We’d pootled along the Camino de Santiago, stopping, of course, to overnight near a free wine fountain at a monastery in Irache.
Love a free Wiiiiiiiiine
After taking of the holy drop we went on to Zugurramurdi in the witchiest Basque country, there to partake of the Museum of Witchcraft and famous caves where 17th century witches held their sabbats.
Spain's Museum of Witchcraft

Tableaux of The Inquisitors and a Captured 'Witch'

The museum was an interesting affair, mainly focusing on the history of the witch hunts in the area where several people were burned as witches when hysteria overtook the region, thanks to the doings of The Inquisition. Although light on actual artefacts they had several tableaux and audiovisual pieces which made it a very interesting visit.
Nice Skull
There is a section on local folklore, of the Basque Goddess Mari and her accompanying legendary figures, and of the political similarities of the witchhunts of the 17th Century with persecutions which have taken place later in history, such as the Nazis in Europe.
Ready for the Akelarre

On to the caves. We had visited here several years ago and pretty much had the place to ourselves as it was the middle of winter. This time it was busier but still atmospheric, especially in the Akelarre cave where the witches are said to have held their sabbats.
La Grande Grotte

These days the caves are more likely to be filled with parents taking photos of hilarious children pulling ugly faces pretending to be nasty witches.

And now, back in France, we look forward to a market or two where we can buy some fabulous cheese and practice our French.