Auf Wiedersehen, Pet

The dunes at Noordwijk

We’ve now been on the road for almost four weeks, and are pinging about all over the place. The original route’s gone to pot because of the awful weather most of western Europe is experiencing at the moment and we’re flying blind, so to speak.

Charlemagne in Aachen
Charlemagne in Aachen

Our ten-week plan was to visit family in the Netherlands (the unexpectedly beautiful dunes at Noordwijk in South Holland) then travel across Germany and Austria into Slovenia then Croatia. Lovely, except…the Netherlands are cold and grey with the exception of one day when the unexpected blistering sun gives us red faces for a week. Western Germany is pretty rubbish weather wise too, although we enjoy the thermal waters and Charlemagne’s tomb in Aachen (not at the same time, obviously.)

Things begin to look up when we reach Würzburg in Baden Würtemberg to start driving the Romantic Road, which isn’t actually a real road but a marketing tool which came into being in the ‘50s. The route is mainly on the B25 and B17, both just a tad too narrow for Gertie. We also realise that we’ve started at the wrong end.  We expect fairy-tale castles on hillsides with towering mountains in the distance but the first bit, pleasant enough in its way, is mainly flattish farmland. Then we get to Dinkelsbühl, quieter and less touristy than its famous neighbour Rothenburg. It’s beautiful and at night, when the visitors have gone, we go with the nightwatchman on his rounds of the town, drinking wine and beer at the tavern stops.  He also tells jokes and sings a little song but as we don’t speak German we just smile and nod…and sway a bit, what with all the wine and beer.

But it’s so cold. Far too cold for late May, and when it starts to rain on the Romantic Road and we see weather warnings of flash floods and thunder storms in Slovenia we decide to abandon Germany, change tack and head for the Cevennes in southern France instead where it’s a balmy 26 degrees and sunny. From there we will cross the Pyrenees into north-west Spain, wander around a bit then get the ferry home from Santander.

Several hundred kilometres and the Viaduc de Millau later we arrive in Florac and camp right alongside the tumbling Tarn.  It’s idyllic. We go to the market and buy olives and cheese and strawberries. We roll out the awning for shade and swim in the pool.  Next day it starts raining.  And the next. We get out the hot water bottles because the temperature at night plummets. Then, on 7 June, we read that Storm Miguel has overturned a rescue ship in the Bay of Biscay and the coast is battered by winds.  On the other hand, now the weather in Slovenia is beautiful.  Almost 30 degrees, cloudless.

Aigues-Mortes

Guess what?  We decide to head for Slovenia again, athough it’s quite possible we may never get there. Currently we are in Aigues Mortes in the Camargue and we plan to take a leisurely few weeks travelling in the south of France before crossing into Italy, stopping over in Venice and entering Slovenia from Trieste. Or maybe not. The weird thing is that we don’t really mind.  Oddly, we’re enjoying this peripatetic existence.  We’re in Gertie, we’re comfortable, and we’re enjoying the ride.  As they say, watch this space.

 

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The price of infidelity

We’re being unfaithful to Gertie on a flirty little island called Sifnos in the Cyclades.

We’ve visited this beautiful place many times over the years but this year it’s different. In the past we’ve both been working and John particularly has been in need of the peace and tranquility of the placeBut now he’s retired and just a few weeks ago we were enjoying France in Gert. So, we wondered, how would we feel this time?

The sun is out, the sky is blue, there’s not a cloud to spoil the view and although it’s far from raining in my heart we’re missing Gertie.

We miss the independence. We miss travelling with our home. We miss having the freedom of moving on when we want to. We even miss the chores, like cleaning (which takes about five minutes), cooking our own food, biking to the market, planning our next route…

Don’t  get me wrong. We love Vathi and over the years have made good friends here. We’ll always come back. But next time we’ll have our big, smiley faced friend with us.

Beer and skittles in rural France

We’re visiting our friends Jill and Simon. They moved to Lot-en-Garonne, near Villeréal in south west France five years ago, and now we’re grey nomads (I didn’t make that up but really like it) we finally have the leisure to drop in.

To reach their place we navigate a winding single track lane then a long downhill drive.  It’s very green and peaceful and seems far from 21st century life.  The only sounds are natural ones — birds, crickets, frogs, hens, three stroppy cockerels and the occasional sheep.

Jill’s a garden designer too, that’s how we met, but unlike me she and Simon work their socks off designing and building beautiful landscapes in France. On the day we arrive she’s off for three hours of French lessons. I think she speaks the language well, better than my mixture of schoolgirl French and sign language, but she needs to be pretty fluent so she can cope with long, detailed business meetings with potential garden design clients.

Simon doesn’t make it back for our visit in the end because he’s been delayed by this year’s fickle weather. They have a huge landscaping job for the owners of a chateau about a hundred miles away, and he needs to make the most of the break in the rain to catch up on the build. They’re also doing most of the work renovating their farm buildings too. It isn’t all beer and skittles, or even toute du vin et jeu de boules, but they love the place and after a couple of days we start to fall under its spell too.

Gertie’s parked up by the side of the ancient stone barn, looking just a little incongruous. She’s a big bride and not exactly unobtrusive, but we’re completely self-contained so are undemanding and pleasant guests (just in case anyone out there would like us to come and visit.)

The sun comes out as I write.  Hens are pecking gently around my toes, Jill’s dogs Ruby and Arnie sleep peacefully by my side and I am completely content. Who needs beer and skittles anyway?

Steam trains and silkworms

We are in the Cévennes, a place of  narrow, winding roads, tumbling, rocky rivers, green, craggy gorges and mountains. It’s not considered a number one holiday destination by the French or most other tourists for that matter and yet it’s completely glorious. It’s France as it used to be, with great little restaurants, proper markets, more locals than visitors and a pride in the place and its way of life that’s palpable.

We are staying in the village of Anduze and discover that there’s a steam train, the Train à Vapeur des Cévennes.  The track follows the course of the Gardon river to Saint-Jean-du-Gard, 13.2 kilometres away. How can we resist?   A puff of steam, a toot toot, a train guard’s whistle, slamming of doors and we’re off. It’s like being on the Hogwarts Express. I feel like Hermione Grainger. Except except now days look more like Professor McGonagle…

The route is picturesque in a wild, untamed sort of way, with old stone mills, enormous vistas of the river, glimpses of ancient terracing between the trees. It’s mostly over viaducts, the eleven arches of the Viaduc du Mescalou being the most spectacular with the best photo opportunities of the Gardon bubbling away below.

At St Jean we resist the market and head for the Musée des vallées cévenoles, housed in Maison Rouge, once a large spinning mill used in the production of silk, the principal industry in the Cévennes right up to the second World War. The area produced more silkworm cocoons than the rest of France put together, fed on the leaves of the four million mulberry trees planted in the region between 1554 and 1606. The museum sits in beautifully designed wildflower meadows and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.Wildflower meadows at Maison Rouge

We’ll be on the road again soon, usually something I relish, but this time part of me doesn’t want to leave. The peace, the wildlife, the river, the spirit of this place is very special and I know that one day I’ll be back.

Notes for campers: We stayed in Campsite Castel Rouge in Anduze, on the banks of the river Gardon.  Our pitch was right on the bank of the river and was very peaceful, although this was in May. It accepts the ACSI card.  There’s also a very good Aire de Camping Car in the village.

Starry starry night

Starry Night on the RhoneArles, provincial capital of ancient Rome, major city of the Camargue and inspiration to Vincent van Gogh who lived here from February 1888 to May 1899. The time he spent in Arles became one of his most prolific periods, completing 200 paintings and more than 100 drawings and water colours. It’s also where he chopped his earlobe off. We visit.

We collect a van Gogh Walk map from the Tourist Office, and wander off to take a look at just a few of the places in the city where he set up his easel or sketchbook. It’s a place to saunter and so we do, through little alleyways and grand boulevards, past Roman ruins. One of these is the Arles Ampitheatre, built around 900 BC and still in use today for bullfights, plays and concerts.

We find the first site, where van Gogh painted The Staircase of the Trinquetaille Bridge. The tiny sapling on the right of the painting has now grown into a huge, mature London plane tree (Platanus x hispanica).

 

On to the Place du Forum and ‘The Café Terrace at Night’.  The site was refurbished in 1990 to replicate van Gogh’s painting. Apparently today’s cafe isn’t very good. ‘Don’t go in. We get lots of complaints about the food’ says the man at the TO.

Toward the end of 1888 the first signs of Vincent’s illness became apparent, today recognised as a type of epilepsy that took the form of delusions and psychotic attacks. Back then he was Just regarded as a violent maniac. It was during one such episode that he cut off either part of his left earlobe or the whole ear (experts disagree on which it was.) The Garden of the Hospital in Arles (below) is one of two paintings created during his treatment there after the incident.

The Garden at the Hospital in Arles

It’s a touching, thought provoking few hours. His genius, sensitivity, joyous response to the colours and and people of Arles…and then his terrifying, destructive episodes where he descended into despair and self harm.  As we drive away I can’t get Don McLean’s beautiful song out of my head.

Notes for campers: We stayed at L’Arlesienne campsite, three kilometres from the city centre. Incredibly noisy as it’s in the middle of a large motorway network, and no cycle path into the city.  We didn’t like the idea of taking our chances on the busy roads on bikes so stayed just one night and then moved on to the motorhome aire on the banks of the river in the centre of Arles.  We decided not to stay the night there as there were lots of gypsies checking out the parked motorhomes but it was fine for a stopover for the day while we visited the city.