Week 30 – Monday 28th – Monday 4th April
It didn’t take long after arriving in Sospel to realise that this was a lovely location. We had parked in a free aire next to a sports ground just behind the sports hall in between a few neighbouring motorhomes.
Our first day in Sospel was spent relaxing mixed with a bit of gentle exploring as we wondered around the town admiring our surroundings. Sospel is built on a river in a valley surrounded by mountains. One of the most unusual features of this small town is its colourful houses which on first glance look to be adorned with decorative stonework but in actuality are sporting some pretty impressive tromp d’oeil. After a little pondering we hit upon two possible theories for this unusual artistry, the first being that perhaps Sospel had been recently used as a film set or else that it was perhaps the work of an unstoppable local genius who in an enthusiastic attempt to express his or her talent, had literally ‘painted the town’.
Another of Sospel’s positive attributes was it’s two Boulangeries, which afforded Matt a daily supply of delicious fresh bread. Needless to say we soon got into Sospel life and decided to stay for a few days. This plan of in-action (in the driving sense at least) was in part inspired in part by the beauty of the town, in part by the fact that we befriended a lovely couple in the motorhome next door, and in part as it afforded Matt the opportunity to take off Heidi’s wheels and clean her brakes which had been squealing up and down mountains for the past few days.
I think it was our second day of arrival when we began to wonder who the owners of the next door motorhome were, after spying their GB plates. I began to suppose that they could perhaps be our age or there abouts (a supposition informed by the impressive amount of mountain biking attire that was drying in the sunshine). And I hoped that we might at some point bump into them (as motor-homers of our age are a rare find indeed!).
My gut feeling turned out to be right, they were indeed our age! … Matt was outside Heidi inspecting our squeal-y brakes and I was inside getting lunch when I heard a friendly hello from our neighbour and so headed out to find Matt was in the process of meeting Leon and Cece, a pair of intrepid travellers and extreme mountain biking fanatics who had come to Sospel to ride some of the numerous mountain biking trails for which apparently it was very well known (a fact that Matt and I being fractionally less sportily-inclined had accidentally overlooked). It was really great to meet such a fun loving couple, with a similar sense of humour and similar age!
After a brief introduction, we then caught up with them a little later on for a drink in one of the local bars. We found out that they too were embarking on an adventure of a life time which had been inspired by an idea that Cece had had pre-Leon. Then once they got together, Leon’s love of mountain biking and Cece’s love of climbing and desire for adventure fanned the flames of Cece’s idea and turned it into reality. During the last couple of years, they had each quit their jobs and sold their respective pads and two months ago had hit the road together in search of adventure. Their goal, to spend as much time as possible enjoying their two enormous passions of mountain biking and climbing. Un-restrained by any time pressure (as they are planning to travel indefinitely) they were taking a slower, more laid back approach to traveling than us, picking spots they knew would be perfect sport-wise and staying as long as they felt like it.
Their enthusiasm for outdoor life and sports was infectious and after spending one evening with them I felt really inspired and ready for exercise (my enthusiasm for which had been slumping a little of late). The next day I embarked upon a walk whilst Matt set about cleaning Heidi’s brakes with some brake cleaner that Leon gave him (these guys have serious kit!). My walk took me over the railway line and up steep track that cut across one of the roads which wound up the mountain. It was great to be out in the fresh air and to get a chance to admire Sospel from above. Though I could have happily keep on going, after about an hour or so I headed back to check on Matt as I had told him I was only going for a quick stroll around the town and had promised to pick him up a treat from one of the Boulangeries. Having meandered off for longer than I had anticipated, I had a sneaking suspicion that they would be shut and sure enough they were. Luckily Matt was not too disappointed, he had had great success cleaning the brakes and fortunately for us had discovered that the inside of one of Heidi’s tyres had split. Feeling very relieved that he discovered this before the tyre burst (not what you need when driving up and down mountains) we took a walk down to the local garage to see if they would be able to replace both of our back tyres. The answer was yes but we would have to wait a couple of days. This was not a hardship, as we were definitely getting used to Sospel life and Leon and Cece’s easygoing approach was rubbing off on us.
Being as we didn’t have to rush off, we decided to invited our new next door neighbours round to dinner to sample my first attempt at an Ottolenghi vegetable paella, an invitation which they readily excepted. It was not only me who had been inspired by Cece and Leon, Matt also had caught the bug and was starting to re-kindle a forgotten fondness for mountain-biking and after hearing that Sospel had it’s very own bike park, he decided to have a go and very soon was whizzing around the track like a pro!
After the bike park, we headed back down to pick up provisions for my paella. On one of our wanders around the town we had discovered a little greengrocers which not only sold a plethora of mouthwatering fruit and veg, but that was also half the price of the local corner shop’s shrivelled equivalents. We approached the shop tentatively hoping that it would be open otherwise I could kiss goodbye to my paella. Thankfully we were in luck, and after fully stocking up on ingredients, that afternoon I began my preparations.
That evening we all enjoyed an evening of surprisingly tasty food (it had been touch and go at one point), a touch of alcohol and great company. After dinner, Cece grabbed some tasty sweet snack balls that she had made earlier for desert which were very much appreciated by Matt and we chatted into the night.
We had originally been due to leave the next day, but as so often happens, we had successfully managed to get our back tyres changed only to find out that one of our leisure batteries was on the fritz so we decided to wait one more day for the garage to order in a battery. This was no hardship as it meant the we could go for a proper hike in the beautiful mountains surrounding Sospel so we decided upon a route up to an old second world war fort.
The route was pretty steep and shaley but we made good progress despite feeling a little worse for not having done much proper hiking since before Barcelona. I have to confess to getting quite tired and grumpy at one or two points, as we were not really sure where we were going and feeling a bit lethargic, I wasn’t particularly keen on the prospect of getting lost. Matt however managed to tease me into good cheer and we made it up to the fort. The fort itself comprised of a couple of strange impenetrable entrances which loomed formidably in the side of the mountain. One of the entrances had a strange drawbridge like contraption, which Matt supposed was designed for letting in tanks. All in all it all looked very austere. The way back down from the fort was much more simple if a bit slippery, but we made it to the bottom in one piece.
The next day we headed to the garage to check on our battery situation. Though the battery had arrived it was unfortunately the wrong one so we decided to give it a miss and try and find a suitable battery in Italy. Back at the aire we met up with Cece and Leon again and headed out with them for a farewell coffee or two. After being inspired by Cece’s descriptions of great opportunities for Via Ferata in the Dolomites (one of their earmarked destinations) we had decided to add it to our list as well which meant that we would hopefully meet up again. After coffee we waved goodbye to our fearless friends and hit the road once more.
We had heard from Georgio, an very friendly old Italian guy and another of our neighbours, that our best route was to head back down the D2566 to Menton, follow the A8 to Ventimiglia and then drive up the Roia valley following the river, not only was it a beautiful drive, it was also easier than heading across the mountains. Despite speaking no english and me no Italian we managed to muddle through in French and he had also recommended a free aire for our first nights stay. So armed with this knowledge we followed his advice.
The drive up the gorge of the Roia river was beautiful, completely different to the heady heights and aqua blue of the the Verdon gorge, but unique for its burgundy and green coloured rock and enormous boulders that lined the river bed. The road also seemed to weave its way in and out of Italy and France with each alternate village and we saw many more pretty Sospel-esque towns on the way. After a while we emerged from the mountains into the plains of Northern Italy, a very different landscape than expected.
That evening, tired from the journey we parked up in an aire next to a football pitch in Borgo San Dalmazzo (as Georgio had recommended) and spent the evening watching some under 16s play a friendly out of Heidi’s front window.
It is safe to say that Matt after hearing many stories and reading many blogs had been seriously dreading driving in Italy but so far it had not been too bad. Still our mission to find a much needed new leisure battery meant a drive into Turin on Saturday morning (something that we would have ordinarily avoided). Matt as ever, when faced with a challenge, woke up at the crack of dawn armed with a plan, and soon we were heading towards the first of two battery shops he had found via a route that he had earmarked. Although we managed to make it to the first battery shop unscathed I could tell Matt was feeling a little tense, so when it turned out that they were out of stock and that we only had 15mins to make our way across town through some very tricky junctions to the next battery shop… tensions were rising. Despite a few near misses and stressful moments, we made it just in the nick of time and were rewarded with a new leisure battery. Matt’s preparation also paid off as he was able to question the quoted price and show the guy behind the counter the price that they were advertising on their website saving us from having to pay an additional €20. Nice one Matt!
Out of Turin and back on the road we headed to the nearest Auchan to stock up on provisions. Matt loved the Auchan which he thought was just as good as Waitrose (praise indeed) and we were both overwhelmed by the sea of beautifully presented meats, cheeses and groceries. Needless to say we came out having spent much more than we had intended (a trend that was set to continue in Italy at least as far as food was concerned).
Fully stocked up we headed to the nearest aire, a small carpark in the village of Cherasco where we had a bit of lunch, hooked up to a pay-as-you go electric meter and were just deciding whether to stay for the night when a we saw a rather large vehicle pulling in. We watched as what we perceived as a mother and her two grown up sons proceeded to manoeuvre their seven and a half ton truck into place. Once in place it unfolded like some kind of strange transformer with DIY double glazed sections protruding out from every side and a homeless style wooden front door complete with brass knocker. Clearly deft hands at this, as soon as they had got settled the older son strode confidently out crow-bar at the ready and proceeded to ratchet open the door to the electric mains before hooking up their vehicle in a nonchalant manner. After this and a couple of other shady manoeuvres it became clear to us that the pikys were in town. Whilst these three did not appear to be disturbing anyone we knew from back home that where one leads more will follow and did not relish the thought of sharing a small rural carpark with a bunch of pikys for the night, so decided to try another aire.
Desparate to find somewhere nice to stay I spotted a promising looking aire in the little village of Grinzane Cavour, in the heart of the Langhe, a region designated as a UNESCO world heritage area, famous for it’s rolling hills, its cultural landscapes and it’s wine-growing and wine-making traditions. The tiny village centres around the beautiful ‘Castello Di Grinzane’ home to the Cavour Regional Enoteca, a showcase for the very best Piedmontese wines and grappas of the Piedmont region. It was drizzling miserably when we arrived and parked up in Heidi, and though the weather did prevent us from taking any photos of what we could only guess was a magnificent view (as it was hidden from sight by a thick and pervasive grey mist), it did not stop us from adventuring out to explore the village and pay a visit to the Castello. The Castello was beautiful and though we managed to refrain from being tempted by the exclusive restaurant or the elegant Enoteca, we could not by-pass the opportunity to indulge in a luxurious coffee in a tiny two-tabled cafe hidden within the thick stone walls offering what would obviously normally be an incredible view out of the tall arched window. The coffee there was the best I had ever tasted, a true Italian coffee, and we sat and daydreamed away the hours for as long as we could, admiring the many old and elaborate gourmet recipe books on a little bookshelf next to us that were obvious favourites of the restauranteur. The next morning we were loathed to leave this lucky find, as our experience of Italian aires so far had been very hit and miss, but we knew we had a lot of Italy to see, so we decided to sucked it up and got Heidi ready to leave.
The next aire was in Alessandria a larger town a couple of hours to the west, but as we approached the aire we saw to our dismay a huge field full of piky vans stretching into the distance and a booming funfair already in full swing. Keen to protect Heidi from any kind of vandalism or intrusion we didn’t even stop but just kept driving. It seemed as though piky vans were in great abundance in this part of italy and didn’t fair any better at our second attempt, an overgrown semi derelict aire on the edge of Regio Emilia another three and a half hours drive away. By this point Matt was knackered and desperate to stop but I managed to persuade him to keep going for just another 10 mins to another local aire behind the football stadium. This he did and to our relief we found ourselves in a huge carpark devoid of any pikys, the aire itself however was out of action so we would have to either go back to the dodgy aire or risk potentially being moved by the stadium car park security guards. Feeling safer by the stadium, we decided to opt for the later and take the risk. Luckily our gamble paid off and we actually managed quite a peaceful nights sleep and we woke up bright and early, eagerly awaiting our next adventure.