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.

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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.

On the road again

At last! Because of various commitments we haven’t been able to travel that much in Gertie since we came home last December. We did manage to sneak in a very wet Easter weekend visit to the Queen’s estate at Sandringham but it was over so quickly it didn’t seem to count somehow.

Now we’re heading for the Camargue in the south of France and if you’re planning a first trip to France I thought you might be interested in our itinerary and timings.

We were booked in for a 10.36 Channel Tunnel crossing last Saturday, but as the sun was shining and it was a Bank Holiday weekend we were delayed just a little bit.  We finally got going from Calais at around 12.20 local time and headed in the direction of Lyon, the best route to the south of France if you want to avoid Paris and the dreaded Périphérique.

After a very short lunch stop we arrived at Camping Municipal Chalons en Champagne, at around 4.30pm.  This is a very peaceful campsite, albeit with dated facilities. The great thing about it is that it’s an easy cycle ride into Chalons, where there’s lots of the local brew to taste. Yum!

The next morning we headed for Lyon, a 450 kilometer drive .  As Gertie weighs in at 3.85 tonnes so is technically an HGV we try to keep to the statutory 90 km per hour speed limit on motorways so this leg took about five hours, but as we both take turns at the wheel it wasn’t too bad.

Our stop off in Lyon was at Camping Lyon in Dardilly, about ten kilometers from the city centre. It’s set in a country park and is surprisingly peaceful considering how close to the motorway network it is. And then on Monday we reached Arles, our first destination on this spring tour of the Camargue. It’s a beautiful city on the river Rhone, made famous by the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. More on this later…

Hoe hoe hoe

Last year I wrote a post about getting my garden ready to cope without me while I’m travelling, https://gertiethehymer.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/readying-the-garden-for-travel/. We’re just off on another jaunt, this time to the Camargue region in France (there’s a post about this trip coming soon), so I thought it would be a good time to let those who are interested in such things know how the garden is faring.

Most of the groundcover plants are doing well, although the Pachysandra terminalis, usually a survivor in any situation, isn’t thriving…or to be more precise of the six plants that went in only one survives, and that’s not looking too peachy either. I really have no idea why this is, which is one of the reasons why, perversely, I love gardens and plants.  You can’t make them do anything they don’t want to.

On the bright side, the other ground cover plants, Laminum maculatum, Erigeron karvinskianus, Bergenia ‘Overture’, Campanula portenschlagiana ‘Catharina’ (how could I resist?) and various varieties of Geranium are all doing the job brilliantly.

Having opened the beds out quite a lot, it’s given me the the opportunity to really get in there with the hoe, one of my favourite garden tools.  I know the fashion is for dense planting with as little soil showing as possible, but really there’s nothing quite so effective as hoeing to keep the weeds in check.  Done carefully it doesn’t break up the soil like a fork or rake will do, bringing more weed seeds to the surface. A hoe will disturb the nascent weed seedlings enough to prevent them growing and keep them in check for a few weeks so I’ll have less to deal with when I get home. Result!

Talking of weeds, this shy little beauty is known locally as Hairy Bittercress, or to give it it’s proper name Cardamine hirstuta.  It’s invaded our village over the last few years and is very difficult to eradicate.  If you try to pull it out the seeds will explode over a wide area.  The most effective way to control it is by hoeing.

Two Ports, one lemon

You know when you turn up somewhere and it’s a bit scuzzy and you think ‘Oh well, it’ll do for the night’? That’s how we feel when we arrive in El Puerto de Santa Maria, and yet…

There’s a lot of shabby ribbon development along the approach road, loads of graffiti, the campsite is arranged in closely packed rows that look like battery hen cages for camper vans. But the point is that the more we get to know it the more we like it and end up staying eight days instead of two. It’s not gorgeous and alluring like its neighbour just thirty minutes across the Bay of Cadiz, but it’s interesting and easy and a place where people live and work, not just spend their holidays.

We visit the Osborne Bodega, the headquarters of the famous brandy and sherry company (if you’ve ever been to Spain you’ll know their big black bulls which dominate the skyline up and down the country.) We buy fabulously fresh shellfish from the counter at Romerijo then go to their restaurant next door with our paper cones of langoustine and crab and tip it out to eat at a freshly laid table with china, glassware, bread. We wander the narrow streets of the old town and begin to get to know it. We find a favourite bar with a great waiter. We cycle to the ferry and spend a lovely day in Cadiz. We make friends with the slightly odd Spanish couple camped next door. We are sad when we leave and know we’ll come back one day.

After leaving Puerto we head for Almuñecar, tricked by reviews on our Camper Contact app that a ‘quirky, easy-going campsite you’ll love’ awaits. It isn’t. We don’t. We move on. The nearest alternative we can find is eight kilometres away at Motril, in our minds an unlovely place at the junction of the busy A44 to Granada and the A7 to Almeria.

We arrive at Puerto de Motril to find a palm tree lined oasis of peace and tranquillity. The campsite is friendly and relaxed and we find a spot with views through the palms to the sea. There’s a buzzing beach bar a short walk away with a Spanish version of Fat Boy Slim where we enjoy spectacular sunsets and giant gin and tonics. It’s lovely. Who knew? The only downside is that the sand is dark grey, not golden, but it acts like sand, feels like sand so…

Notes for campers: At El Puerto de Santa Maria we stayed at Playa las Dunas, an ACSI site. It’s touted as being close to the ferry to Cadiz but people with mobility issues should know that it is in fact a thirty minute walk away. There’s a really nice, friendly restaurant on site.

At Motril we stayed at Playa de Poniente, another ACSI site. The entry says the swimming pool is closed from 30th September but actually it was open, but without a lifeguard. The water was freezing in November!

The site at Almuñecar which we rejected was Camping Tropical. It’s right on a busy dual carriageway, tatty, full of discarded junk and has very small pitches with hardly any room to manoeuvre. Gertie is seven metres long and it was pretty challenging getting in and out. Inexplicably, it gets rave reviews from Camper Contact users.

Chicken pie in El Puerto

The gas feed to our fridge stopped working a couple of weeks ago and we got it fixed in Anglet, near Bayonne (details below of the highly recommended Dometic engineer). The unexpected bonus is that the ignition for the gas oven and grill now works (we used to have to light it with a match and it took ages to catch) and it seems to be more efficient, so I decide to bake a chicken pie.

We camp near the wide, sandy beach of Playa Puntilla on the west side of El Puerto de Santa Maria. It’s 23 degrees with a cloudless blue sky. We do all the things that people on holiday do… have lunch at a beach side bar, sunbathe, swim in the still-warm sea. It’s lovely for a while, but what we’ve found we really really like is the feeling that we’re not so much on holiday as moving our home (Gertie) from place to place with a different view each time we open the door. Eating home-cooked food definitely reinforces this feeling and we cook at least four days out of seven. Gertie is equipped with a gas grill and oven and a three-ring gas hob. We also have a slow cooker and a Cadac barbecue, with griddle, hotplate, wok and pizza stone. In Burgos we bought a good, heavy paella pan for six Euros which fits the Cadac perfectly (Cadac’s own brand paella pan costs £45.75. Ha ha! Smug or what?)

El Puerto de Santa Maria is more interesting than it looks at first sight, by the way. The quirky Museo Municipal has some interesting archaeological exhibits and there are two sherry bodegas which offer guided tours. Plaza de Espana is in the heart of the old town and is dominated by the Iglesia Mayor Prioral. It’s a pleasant place to while away an hour or so, people watching.

So, back to the chicken pie. What with a potentially erratic oven, the use of an empty wine bottle as a rolling pin and the consumption of two large glasses of delicious Tinto de Verano (summer wine, recipe below) it’s something of a miracle that it’s edible. Luckily, we’re both ravenous by the time I get it to the table and although the pastry is a bit burned in places, it’s tasty.  I think the trick is to rotate whatever’s being baked a quarter turn every few minutes, so cakes are off limits.  Should do a good roast though.

Notes for campers:  The fridge was repaired by Save’Me, 4 Rue de L’Industrie, Anglet. We found them on the Dometic website.

We stayed at the Camping Playa las Dunas campsite at Playa Puntilla. They’re in the ASCI guide. We paid €18 per night including electric hook up. It’s a very large, popular site but this is probably because there’s no competition. It suited us for a few days but we wouldn’t have wanted to stay any longer. The restaurant and snack bar are good. Warning: The site is touted as being very convenient for the ferry to Cadiz but you should be aware that it’s a good twenty-five to thirty minute walk to the terminal.  Possibly a problem for those with mobility issues.

Tinto de Verano (Summer wine): One third cheap red wine, two thirds gaseosa or lemonade, a slice of lemon and lots of ice.

Battle of the pavement in Saint Jean-de-Luz

The harbour at St Jean-de-Luz

It’s been some time since I cycled extensively in France, and in the intervening years there’s clearly been a move to get cyclists off busy city streets by creating dual use pavements, pedestrians on one side, cyclists on the other. What a good idea, yes? Well no, apparently.

Picture the scene. Perfect blue sky, wild, surf-strewn sea, totally beautiful Saint Jean de Luz a mile or so away around the bay, a very wide pavement with clear dual-use markings and signage. It’s France, right? France is the cyclists’ friend. Cars understand the need to take care around us. Everyone rides a bike here. Cycling is easy in France.  Unless, apparently, you have to share a space with pedestrians.

On they come on the cycle side. Babies in pushchairs, joggers, lovers snogging, toddlers, women chatting, hoodies looming. I ring my bell. I smile. I politely say ‘excusez-moi’. They either ignore me completely or reluctantly move at the very last moment. What to do? In the end I give up and weave backwards and forwards through the lovers etc, across the whole width of the pavement and guess what? No-one cares or even seems to notice. No-one tuts or shakes their fist at me. Of course. I’d forgotten. I’m in France.