Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Tuesday 29th September and Wed 30th– starting the trip home

Happy Birthday Mum!

(no photos today as the wifi here is terrible!)

Today we ‘point the nose’ in the direction of home. Our BnB in Collias has a rather Spanish hacienda feel about it and the woman who runs the place has put out a lovely spread out for our breakfast. We feel we have really completed our touring and so we are happy to take our time over breakfast.

When we leave we try to go to the local town of Uzes. We don’t have a lot of time, and it is very busy and finding a car park close to the old town ends up being too difficult. So we drive around the old city twice and briefly admire the old town built of stone…maybe next time!
Then we direct Gertie (the GPS) to lead us back up the motorway to Valence. We drive through some more Cote de Rhone vineyards until we hit the motorway, where we plant the foot. The speed limit is 130km here! It takes us about 2 hours in total, til we are back in Valence where we drop off our hire car. While the initial stages of driving were a bit ‘exciting’, in the end we got the hang of it and were glad we had the flexibility of being able to go wherever we wanted to.

An hour’s train trip and we are back in Lyon. We have an hour or so to fill in before we head back out to our friend’s place and there is a shopping centre nearby, so we leave our big bags in storage at the station and then do a spot of shopping (the first for the trip…well done!).

It is then time to catch the metro out to the suburbs where Mouna, Lina and Noa come past and pick us up and we head back to their house about 30mins away. Anthony is away in Madrid, but luckily Mouna speaks pretty good English and we have a bit of fun communicating with the kids! They have been kind to offer us a bed for our last night in Lyon.

Mouna prepares another wonderful meal even thought it is a ‘quick mid-week’ dinner. Bruschetta to start, pasta and salad and the best tiramisu I have tasted (I learn her secret so I can try and replicate at home). And while Mouna prepares dinner, Lina (who is just 11 years), decides that she wants to cook muffins for our breakfast and so without any bother just whips up a batch!  We have a great night chatting and looking at photos. Noa, who is 7, keeps us entertained communicating to us via guestures..he is very funny.

Wednesday 30th

We are up early to say Goodbye to Lina and Noa before they head off to school. We have another lovely breakfast of fresh fruit, chocolate muffins (the French love their chocolate…so civilized!) More chatting and then Mouna kindly drives us all the way to the central station. This family has been just so kind and helpful. We are now trying to ensure that they come to Australia at some stage so we can repay the hospitality. Anthony rang us every couple of nights to check that everything was ok and kept telling us to ring him if we had any problems!

We do a final bit of shopping before heading to the station to pick up our bags and get on the train to take us to Mulhouse. This town is in France but very close to the border with Switzerland. We were going to have the last night in Zurich but it was ridiculously expensive. So instead we are staying at a cheap hotel in Mulhouse and will then catch the train early tomorrow morning to Zurich to fly out just after lunch.

We arrive in Mulhouse about 4pm and it does not take too long to realise this is not one of those 'beautiful' French towns. It is alright though and so we still manage a walk around and even to find a decent dinner before heading back to our hotel to sort our bags out for tomorrow. 

We will land in Melbourne about 10pm on Friday, so should be home by midnight. We are so excited to see Leyla, but Elaine & Andrew have advised us that they are heading to Rye for the weekend and will have Leyla with them. We consider this looks like we will have to drive to Rye on Saturday to pick up our girl!

Monday, 28 September 2015

Monday 28th Sept: Heading south

We start the day with our final breakfast at the beautiful and scenic La Bastide de Sanilhac! The only others staying at the hotel are a Danish couple to whom we said ‘Bonsoir’ to last night. A final breakfast on the terrace and we try to memorise the view as much as possible…and take a few more photos as well just in case.

Then we are off. First stop today is the Chauvet Cave. This is a full replica of a cave with cave art that is 36,000 years old. They have learnt from the Lascaux caves that they cannot allow tourists in the real cave as it increases the humidity so much that it destroys the drawings. So this is an exact replica. It is really impressive, as is the whole tourist and educational centre that has been built around it. The drawings are impressive and they were drawing with perspective even 36,000 years ago. Not sure why they had to rediscover it in the Renaissance!

From the Cave our next stop was back at the gorge that we went to a few days ago. At the beginning of the gorge there is a spectacular natural rock arch, that we totally missed while I was trying to stay on the right side of the road and grind through the gears! And it really was worth going back to see it. Again it was another beautiful sunny day and about 23’C. It was tempting to have a swim but we did not really have time. My driving this time around was much better.

It was then time for lunch, which can be hard on a Monday as many places are closed. Anyway, at the nearby town we found a boulangerie open, so bought a chicken roll, tart and ├ęclair and we sat on the nearby steps of the town square to eat. A few minutes later the Danish couple from our hotel last night came by and also went to the same place to buy their lunch and on seeing us came over to eat and chat. They are from Copenhagen and are on a 2 week driving holiday. They assured us they knew ‘Our Mary’ (Princess Mary) well but I think they might have been pulling our leg!

Then it was off on the 1.5hr drive further south, to the final stop in the south, the Pont du Gard. This is a triple storey roman aqueduct built in 50AD and remains in almost perfect preservation. It is also a very impressive piece of engineering to take water across a decent size valley. I did see this on my first trip to Europe that was nearly 30 years ago. Needless to say the aqueduct itself has not changed, but the tourist infrastructure certainly has. I think we just pulled up on the rivers edge back in those days, no entry fees…it’s a little different now. 

We spent a good hour or so, and as it was nearly 6pm we were able to see the colour of the bridge change as the late afternoon sunlight changed.  Then it was time to head to the nearby village of Collias and to our little bed & breakfast. It is beautiful and it is a shame we are only staying one night here. Only shame is that there is nothing in the village open for dinner and we did not fancy driving 10kms to the nearest town in the dark. A night with out dinner will actually probably be good for our bellies!

Sunday 27th Sept – a walk and a rest

No driving is planned at all today… the car deserves a rest (or at least those gears do)! We sleep in til 8am and then head down to breakfast. The mornings have been so beautiful that we have been taking our breakfast out on the terrace where we can look over the wonderful valley below, with its vineyards, stone built hamlets, the distant hills and now defunct farm terraces.  It is a stunning view.

Once our bellies are full, it is then off on our 10 km hike up some nearby hills (5 km ‘up’ and then 5 km back down) to a tower that is on top of one of the nearby hills. The second half of the walk up is quite steep and so Jackie has told me I have to say we scaled a mountain today!

It takes nearly 2 hours at our slow but steady pace to reach the top, but it is so worth it with 360’ views of the surrounding countryside. Almost everything we see is villages and countryside there is not a large city or town, for that matter, to be seen. It really is a lovely part of France around here.  The tower itself seems to be the only remaining bit of a castle which they have then refurbished and I think use as a meteorological measurement site and I suspect fire-spotting tower in the summer. After taking a stack of photos, we walk back down which of course only takes half the time it took on the way up.

Then it is back to the pool for some more relaxing, prior to our last few days before heading home. Jackie manages another swim and I manage to get up to my knees! 

We will have our dinner and then pack up tonight before heading off tomorrow morning directly after breakfast. We have a few stops on our way further south, before heading to a place called Uzes, near the famous roman aqueduct, Pont du Gard. We have one night there, before turning around and heading north again on Tuesday. We will drive back to where we picked up the car and then catch the train back to Lyon. We have a night in Lyon before then heading back to Mulhouse up on the Swiss border but still in France. We were going to have a final night in Zurich, but the cost of accommodation is too expensive. Mulhouse is in France, but is only 1 hour by the TGV fast train from Zurich, which will give us plenty of time to catch the plane on Thursday lunchtime.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Saturday 26th Sept – a bit of a rest day

Today is our rest day…we figure we should have one or two while we are on ‘holidays’ and given that we will be home next week.

A lazy lie-in starts the day, before we decide that we should at least head down to our local village to check it out and get a coffee. This is a 7 km drive though and takes a while when you hardly ever get out of 3rd gear because the road is so narrow and windy. This village, Largentiere, does not even rate in our guide book to the area, however we discover that it is still an old stone village, with the a square, the usual civic buildings and is really quite lovely and typical of the area.

We find a shop open to sell us a coffee and then buy a croissant to eat by the small river that runs through town. After a bit of a wander around we head back up to the top of the hill to our hotel.

Then it is RnR time! The hotel is nearly at the top of the hill, but its outdoor pool is a few flights of outdoor stone steps at the very top. It is a beautiful sunny day of around 21’C. The pool is all set up with banana lounges, but of course we are the only ones mad enough to be up here. I test the water, it is freezing, so decide to lie on my lounge and read my book. Jackie, of course, decides that the pool must be swum in and so slowly eases her way in and manages a few laps of the short pool (crazy!).

It is a most pleasant way to pass the afternoon. Then it is time for a bit of nap before our dinner. We are working our way through the menu at the restaurant and we can buy a bottle of wine, and leave it half finished for them to bring out the following evening. Very civilized!

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Friday 25th September – driving around the Ardeche countryside

Breakfast at our rather luxury hotel is a reasonable buffet…nothing too over the top, but sufficient to send us on our way. We have chosen a few more remote village locations in the north of the area that we are in. These narrow roads are getting easier.

The northern Ardeche area is full of mountains (large hills at least) with great views all around and valleys with villages, rivers and farms. While this area is nice and green, there are also lots of rocky limestone outcrops and escarpments. I suspect it gets quite hot here in the summer and some of the higher areas also get snow in the winter. At this time of year, the weather seems mild and around 19 – 21’c averages with occasional days of rain (not this week though!).

Our first stop is a small hilltop village, and like all the villages the house are made from the same local stone, meaning there is a consistency of look to everything. This village is quite exposed and the wind is blowing hard and cold, so we don’t spend long here. No one is about, and all the houses seem shut up, but a dog wanders out to say hello indicating that there is some life about.

On one of the roads down a valley we are desperate for a coffee and find a place precariously perched on the side of the hill overlooking the river, valley and mountains. It doesn’t look much from the outside, but we suspect it might have a coffee machine. Once inside we realize it is a bit of a local institution, as there seems to be quite a few locals wandering in. As it is lunchtime we decided to stay and eat. The food is excellent; all the vegetables are grown in the garden down below the house. We have the ‘plate of the day’ which is entre, main & a dessert or cheese for ~$28. The food was excellent - magnificent homemade pate & salad for entre, a main of pork stuffed vegetables and rice, Jackie had the blueberry pie and I had a selection of cheeses. This was washed down with a glass of local rose and a coffee. It was a great find!

We stop at a couple of other small villages before stopping at the final village that has been built in a secluded valley, up the side of a hill. Another scenic stone village, with church and castle standing out above the houses below. We stroll around, along with quite a few other tourists. We have decided to do all the tourist stuff on a weekday, as I am not sure I could face these narrow roads with the volume of weekend traffic that I suspect occurs. It is all very pleasant and we head back.

Thursday 24th – Gorges L‘Ardeche

Jackie once again volunteers to drive again as we head across country to the beautiful Ardeche gorge. The roads again are exceptionally narrow and windy as we head through valleys and up hills. Eventually Jackie’s headache is too bad and so it is my turn to step up to the driving. We find a parking area near a sports oval and with a good stretch of straight road with round abouts, so I can do a bit of practice before tackling the gorge road. Once I am feeling brave enough, off we go. The road follows the gorge, initially almost at river level, but then climbs as the hills increase. It is very windy and with lots of ‘belvederes’ (viewing spots), so I probably get more practice with gears stopping and starting than I would in 3 weeks driving at home!

Anyway, the gorge is spectacular. The water flows quickly and clearly and there are many canoists on there. We did not organize a canoe trip, and are a little jealous…until we see some of the rapids!

Unfortunately, with the concentration on the driving, changing gears, staying on the right side of the road, we actually miss the most important part of the gorge, the arch of rock…but I am not turning around and doing it again! Sorry!

The drive from one end of the gorges to the other takes a number of hours because of the slow speeds and all the stops. At the other end is a small village where we find a great patisserie for a coffee and cake (well deserved frankly). We then ask Gertie (the GPS) to direct us to our next destination, some caves. More narrow and windy roads….sigh!  But we get there and have just missed the English language tour of the cave system. C’est la vie… they give us a brochure with the main points in English and we wait 30 mins and go on the French tour. The tour guide is obviously a character as he has the audience laughing…oh well. We spend an hour wandering through 3 enormous caves with stalagmites and stalactites, which is an hour well spent as it is all very impressive.

It is then an hour or so drive home again through more spectacular countryside and interesting looking little villages! Dinner and bed…I sleep well!

Wednesday 23rd travelling from north to south

A quick trip to the market for our last Colmar coffee and to pick up a couple of croissants for today’s train trip. We drop off the key to our place at the agency and then head to the train station and wait for our first train, which arrives in just a few minutes. The first trip is a 30 min back to Mulhouse where we wait 45 mins for the TGV train (fast train). It is then just a 3 hour or so train trip and we are back in the south of France. The fast train is very pleasant and we chat for an hour or so to 3 people from East Bentleigh!

Our train destination is Valence where we are to pick up our hire car. We have ordered the cheapest car, which is also the smallest car. We figure with these small French roads and crowded villages with little parking that is the way to go. The other thing we order is a GPS to help us find our way around the countryside. The woman at the Avis hire is lovely, but they are having a few problems with the number of cars available today and the only available car is a Jeep Renegade, bright orange! This is a 4-wheel drive…probably a bit on the smaller size as far as 4WDs go, but nonetheless the opposite of what we wanted! And of course, all hire cars here seem to be manual, which is fine except that neither of us have driven manual for around 7 years.

We have no real option, so take off in the orange beast! How hard can it be in a 4WD, manual, right-hand drive and driving on the other side of the road!!!! Bloody hard!! Jackie is brave enough to volunteer to drive first, while I navigate and work out the GPS. First mistake is that we find ourselves on a motorway (tolls) when I did not want to do these. Panic at the immediate toll gates!! Push the button to talk with someone, who of course does not speak English, so Jackie just says “error” in a Spanish accident (I don’t know why!). Smart man works out exactly what the problem is and delivers us a ticket, which lets us through. We drive on to our exit point and there are able to pop our credit card in the toll machine (we had seen Anthony do this a week or so ago) and we are through…those motorways are not so bad after all.

It is then a 1.5 hour drive to our hotel! We start off on a main road, and it wends it way through villages and spectacular scenary which we can hardly admire as we concentrate so hard on driving and speed limits and other traffic. Then the roads get smaller and smaller, until we are on one-lane roads which only just fit our car, but they are 2-way!! So we are driving in 2nd gear most of the time as we go around blind bends and pray no one is coming the other way!

We arrive at our hotel and decide the stress was all worth it. This place Is on top of a large hill in a beautiful valley… think Tuscany, think Provence… it looks very similar! It is a beautiful valley with small hamlets of stone buildings with those roman semi circular tiles on the roof. The hotel itself is pretty swish… and our room has spectacular views as well. Luckily they have a restaurant for breakfasts and dinner as we could not have driven down the hill again to get any food!