Monday 21st – Monday 28th March
On Monday we left our moorings and headed to the Camargue to an Ornithological park passing many paddocks of the famous white Camargue horses on the way. The Ornithological park was understated but absolutely brilliant and our latent twitching tendencies soon resurfaced. I must have taken about a million photos of the funny flamingos, graceful herons and other beautiful birds to whom this expanse of protected marsh land was home. I was not alone, as the other main visitors to the park (much like our little wildlife park on the A22 back home) were either young families or exceptionally determined amateur wildlife photographers (all supporting ginormous zoom lenses). As with our little wildlife park, these two visitor profiles made a slightly unusual combination with the amateur photographers having no scruples about barging kids out of the way in order to get the best shot and the kids in turn irritating the amateur photographers by getting over excited and scaring away the desired subject of said shot.
Nevertheless Matt and I were both in our elements as we wondered around the beautiful marshland park admiring all the wild life. As we walked through the furthest reaches of the park, we were perplexed by some rather strange, rather loud grunting noises and wondered if some kind of strange frog could be the culprit. Our curiosity was soon satisfied when a sharp-eyed Matt spotted the author of the sound, a large, very confident looking Coypu (or river-rat as they are commonly known). Having grown up on ‘Wind in the Willows’ with ratty and mole ‘messing around in boats’ I was really excited to see an actual river rat in the flesh, completedly un-phased by his human admirers. Matt and I watched in wonder until he disappeared down a small stream and into the undergrowth, feeling very privileged to have glimpsed this rare sight (little realising that we would then encounter even more rattys further down the path).
After wiling away many hours at the park, we then headed in land again to Vallabrègues a little town on the Rhone. Here at last it felt as though we had reached the real France, pretty sandy coloured, houses, roads lined with lime trees, old men playing boules and a decent Carnecerie and Patisserie being staples in a town like this. Our aire was a carpark in a little glen next to a park and a stones throw from the Rhone itself. It was so peaceful and relaxing, awash with warming sunshine that we decided to stay for two nights so that we could spend Tuesday relaxing.
Wanting to build upon this promising start to the week and restock our dwindling supplies of fresh produce, I did some googling to find out where the prettiest villages and the best markets were, while Matt enjoyed for a 18K bike ride along the river. After a brief search I hit upon a Wednesday Market in St Remy en route to Gordes (one of the villages I had ear-marked from my googling and our destination for the following night).
Early Wednesday morning we got packed up and headed to the market, parking on the outskirts of St Remy (so as not to get Heidi stuck down any narrow streets) and walked into the town. We managed to gauge the general direction of the town centre and find our way to the market by following the general flow of old ladies determinedly clutching shopping bags.
The market was brimming with artisan produce, huge vegetable stalls and a fish stall greeted newcomers funnelling them into a narrow side street paved with stone. The street was abuzz with people admiring the various wears. Handmade cheese, flavoured honeys, bunches of fragrant lavender, artisan liqueurs and delicious looking charcuterie stalls weaved their way to the end of the road which culminated in the produce-lined market square. Of all the stalls, one of the most impressive was the olive stall, with rows upon roads of beautiful bowls, giant wooden spoons at the ready, waiting to dish up their gastronomic fare.
It was one of the prettiest markets we had seen (in terms of beautifully displayed products), but this of course came with a price tag and we left the market with local lavender honey, hand-made nougat and herb scented olives in tow, having shed a good few euros.
From St Remy we headed straight to Gordes, a picture postcard hill side town conveniently equipped with a free aire on the outskirts of the town which is hailed as the most beautiful village in Provence. It certainly was beautiful and I felt as though we had just stepped out of a novel as we wandered away from the Heidi up the little lanes lined with immaculately maintained drystone walls to the little town nested on its lofty viewpoint. In order to live maintain its pristine appeal, the Gordiens (aka residents of Gordes) have to abide by strict rules when it comes to building and property maintenance…
‘All the new buildings in Gordes are made of stone and use terracotta roof tiles. No fences are allowed, only stone walls. All electrical and telephone cables have been put underground..’ Wikipedia
Seduced by the romantic nature of this place (although in reality it was a little to formal for us) we stayed for a couple of nights before commencing a brief tour of some of the other notably picturesque villages (that I had discovered from my googling). The first the distinctively colourful town of Roussillon (which was by far my favourite due to its rather bohemian arty vibe) and then to Lourmarin where all the elegant people seem to hang out.
Roussillon is famous for its deep burnt sienna and ochre coloured houses, which mirror the colour of the rocks upon which it is built and stands in bright contrast to the creamy sandstone of Gordes. We walked up the narrow streets admiring the colourful walls, doorways and shutters, then Matt went back to Heidi, whilst I hung behind and stopped to take a few photos of the streets, street art and one very gentile artist who volunteered himself as a model for my inaugural attempt at street portraiture, whilst imagining what it would be like to live in a town like this.
Lourmarin, was less colourful much more chic, with a beautiful cobbled road running through it, lined with cafe’s affording a good view of the comings and goings of the elegant residents and tourists to whom the town appealed. I managed to resist the temptation to persuade Matt to stay there for a lazy (undoubtedly expensive) lunch in this idyllic spot and instead opted for a coffee and perrier imagining ourselves as the ideal visitor (in dreams if not in pocket).
Leaving Lourmarin we drove along the Durance, then the Verdon River, attempting first to stay at an aire in Saint Paul Lez Durance situated over a very narrow bridge before moving on to the remote, rather uninhabited village of Quinson due to me having a few misgivings about the former (which was just a derelict car park next to a campsite that was obviously closed for winter).
The next day there followed a spectacular drive through the incredible Verdun Gorge, which is quite a sight to behold. We were witness to some phenomenal views, thanks to Matts courageous decision to through caution to the wind and ditch the easier road around the lake (which had been the original plan) in favour of following the river along the very narrow, very steep, very twisty route route through the mountains. The sight of rocks towering like granite shards, the giant multicoloured boulders and the luminescent turquoise of the river that ran like a seam below made the hair-raisingly narrow bends, lack of barrier and incredibly steep drop a hundred percent worth it.
Heading out from the gorge the road took us higher up through a beautiful rural landscape framed by hills on either side. Inspired by the beauty and the freshness of the clear, sunny day, we ventured off-route for a small detour to the little town of Trigance perched on a hill where we stopped for lunch in Heidi looking out at the valley that stretched before us, before taking a walk around the town, which according to the signs could only be explored on foot. It was here, I got so carried away with taking photos that I completely abandoned Matt who was somewhat miffed after he found he had been talking to a stranger for ten minutes thinking she was me.
I managed to catch up with Matt and try to sooth my his slightly bruised ego, whilst still trying to take a sneaky photo here and there (which didn’t go down to well). After a walk to the top of the hill amid much teasing and cajoling I managed to get a few smiles from my still somewhat sulky husband. This endeavour was much aided by me accidentally managing to drop my trousers in front of random stranger who chose that moment to emerge from the undergrowth, needless to say Matt found this hilariously funny!
I have to say that when it comes to getting my kit off, I am generally very shy and certainly not in the habit of flashing my wears at unsuspecting passers-by. But worrying that I had just been spiked by a blackthorn I found a discreet looking bush behind which to conduct a more thorough inspection thinking that I had timed my de-robing perfectly (considering there was hardly a soul to be seen). When Matt started laughing I had thought he was just trying to cheekily get his revenge for my earlier abandonment until I glimpsed the agitated hiker trying making a swift exit into the trees.
We made our way back to Heidi (me bright red with embarrassment) and continued on our journey to Caille, a little Alpine town that shared the maiden name of my aunty Francoise and that was home to a tiny three-bay aire overlooking some fields.
The snow had not long ago melted as some tiny traces still remained, and that night the temperature dropped to a chilly -2 degrees, so causing me and Matt to re-adopt the wooly headwear and jumpers, which we had previously discarded, in which to sleep. The next morning I woke with an instinctive sense of a magical scene awaiting just outside the door and at half past six I ventured outside into a shimmery frost covered landscape just as the sun was rising over the hills. A couple of donkey’s looked on suspicious of my approach, the fields glistened as though covered in crystals and little town glowed in the awakening light. My only companions apart from the donkeys was one of the farmers heading down to the barns at the end of the track and a nosy pony that poked its’ head out of one of the many wooden doors that adorned the village houses.
Once the sun had nearly risen I headed back to Heidi and attempted to adopt an efficient demeanour, as we had planned to set off bright and early in order to be in Nice early that evening after a brief stop in Grasse (perfume capital of the world). I am not sure if my attempted efficiency was a hinder or a help, but we were soon back on the road and heading South East.
The route down to Grasse was a little stressful both for Heidi and for Matt, a number of steep decents combined with innumerable switch-backs meant that Heidi’s breaks were screaming by the time we arrived in Grasse and we could smell the distinctive and ominous odour of singed rubber. Motorhome parking in Grasse was not looking hopeful, but then luckily Matt (who seems to have a nose for these things) turned up a hopeful looking side street near the station and was rewarded with the perfect free parking spot.
After checking the temperature of Heidi’s wheels, we decided that it would be a good idea for her to rest for an hour or so, which meant we had time to look around Grasse. Knowing that the three main manufacturers of the essential base scents (used by all the perfumers of the world) gave free tours to visitors we headed towards the town centre where they were located. We managed to find the first one ‘Fragonard’ quite easily but soon realised we would have to wait for twenty along with hundreds of other people for the next tour, so tried instead to find ‘Galimard’ which seemed to be popular among the Trip Advisor reviews. This was easier said than done, as despite having it clearly indicated on google maps, we managed to miss the shop, which was right in front of us (I guess as we had expected a larger industrial building). On entering the shop we were told that there was indeed a more industrial building where the tours were run from, but that it was a couple of kilometres outside the town.
Not sure whether this would be en-route or not, we opted first to have a look around the ‘Musée International de la Parfumerie’ that way we would have at least seen something if Galimard turned out to be too much out of our way to warrant a visit. I must confess I had a somewhat rose tinted vision of the experience that awaited us in the ‘International Perfume Museum’, my imagination running riot with the exquisitely sensual displays I would create should I happen to be the curator of a perfume museum in the perfume capital of the world. Upon entering the museum, it was clear to see that I was in for a big disappointment! I will not dwell upon the mundane displays to which we were treated, but only to say that I know I could have seriously brought that place to life given the opportunity and a few billion, and considering the revenue, not to mention the tourists that the perfume industry brings in… it certainly fell very short of the mark in terms of imagination, design, execution and maintenance!
As we headed back to Heidi and set of for Galimard (which it turned out was en-route) I hoped that it would be better. We pulled up outside Galimard whose banners were flying proudly, alongside a collection of rather superior vehicles and boldly made our way in to the 1980s mock-traditional reception where we were told to wait for the next available member of staff. The girl who showed us around was incredibly knowledgable and really brought the whole process to light, giving us great in-sight into how all perfume is made and the reverie with which the ‘noses’ (creaters and visionaries of the final perfumes) are regarded. The skill of ‘the nose’ is something that is innate in the person and is discovered and cultivated from a very early age (i.e. 6 years old) for this reason many of ‘the noses’ originate from well known perfume families, who have been able to recognise and nurture their talent. Needless to say with these families wanting to retain their legacies most of ‘Le Nez’ tend to be men… which makes me proud to wear Miller Harris perfume created by English lady perfumer Lyn Harris.
Whilst the tour was great in terms of knowledge it still was not the feast of visual beauty and exotic smells that I had been imagining and there was not a real flower in sight which was a shame when you consider it takes thousands of flowers to make one drop of essential oils (but I guess the flower fields which feed the perfume industry are a closely guarded secret). The tour ended inevitably in the shop and whilst I tried to look enthusiastically at the Galimard Scents being promoted (by way of thanking our host for all her efforts), Matt (who hates being sold to) was less tolerant seeing as we had no intension of buying anything. Luckily the four other members of our tour group seemed to be more enthusiastic recipients, so we left our charming hostess to her sales pitch and quickly made for the door.
We arrived in Saint Laurent Du Var on the outskirts of Nice early in the afternoon and managed to squeeze Heidi into a very compact aire that allegedly held up to 7 motorhomes in about the space of a tennis court. Matt managed to deftly manoeuvre into a suitable spot that would allow us a quick get away should we need it. As few more motorhomes arrived and began to play a game of motorised sardines squeezing into the remaining available spots we thanked our lucky stars that we had arrived just in the nick of time.
Having left Heidi safely tucked in, we headed for the bus that would take us into Nice, our mission… to demo some SDLR cameras at the camera shop there, in the hope of finding a suitable camera with which to nurture my growing passion for photography. This would also have the addition benefit of allowing Matt to have our old camera all to himself, which would mean that he could join me in any photographic forays without feeling like a spare part.
The guy in the camera shop was super helpful and having accomplished our mission we stopped at one of the bars to have a quick drink to celebrate. Nice had a very vibrant feel and was buzzing with people and energy. As Matt and I were sipping our drinks outside a trendy little bar, there was sudden confusion and raised voices as two men bundled into one of the pieces of plastic topiary shielding our fellow patrons from the main strip. It seemed as though a shaggy looking bearded man had stolen a bottle of wine and had been chased and caught by the burly looking shop keeper and shaken into giving it back (which he did with a look of astonishment).
Later on as we wondered around the streets we came across the shop keeper back in his shop, a tiny artisan fromaggerie selling the most sumptous looking cheeses along with some select charcuterie, wines and after anti-pasti. After witnessing his earlier heroics we felt it only appropriate to support his endeavours and summarily purchased some incredibly delicious goats cheese which we thoroughly enjoyed in risotto-form later that evening.
Mission accomplished we left Nice early Sunday morning destination Sospel, a small town in the mountains 5 km from the Italian boarder (as the crow flies).
The drive to Sospel was one to rival our previous sourjon along the Verdun Gorge both in view and in difficulty as we climbed higher and higher navigating narrow ravines and mountain passes affording the most stunning (if not slightly scary) vista’s. Matt maintained great spirits as we entered switch back after switch back and even managed to enjoy some of the incredible views, the distinct lack in other vehicles (with it being a Sunday) enabling him to breath a sigh of relief!
After stopping to take the odd photo at a couple of villages on the way, one of which (a ski resort) was still draped in a cloak of snow, we finally arrived at the pretty town of Sospel, which was to be our home for the next few days.