Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Emily sells out

Cheese, Watches and Yodelling

After a brief stop over in Grenobles, Cecil and I finally entered Switzerland this week and camped in a small village marina on Lake Geneva. We had one day of gentle rain, an opportunity to rest, recuperate and carry out house hold (or bus hold) chores. The next day the sun re-emerged and I took to the lakeside paths.

The village of Cully seems to have been set up purely as a rest stop for tourists. The marina here, which has a hard stand for campervans, is flanked by restaurants and bars, plus a grassy area with steps down into the lake for swimming. And that's it.

View of the campsite from the lake. He is there - look harder.

As I walked on past these in hope of something more (for starters I hadn't yet found a cash machine and was in dire need of Swiss Francs), I stumbled upon a train station and took the easy route to nearby city Lausanne. It was instantly noticeable how much more 'with it' this area was than anywhere I'd been in France... there were electric buses running up and down the streets using overhead contact wires, shops open right the way through the day, and the first restaurant menu I looked at included a vegetarian option with tofu!

Beetle boats with built-in water slides! How awesome is that?

I found a cheap cafe by the water for lunch and booked an afternoon cruise on a steam boat that would, in three hours, give me tour of the East side of the lake and drop me off back at my little marina. Most handy.

Betraying my mission...

It was whilst preparing to board the boat that I had a call from Cardiff. A job offer. It's only temporary! But I'm to fly back to the UK and start next Wednesday, finishing some time before the end of August. I know it's the boring thing to do and trust me I'm heartbroken to stop the adventure just as we were really making sound progress, but the money will help a lot and I'll have a chance to deal with some of the things that have slipped at home, such as finding a new lodger and selling my little car. It also sort of saves me from the 'high season' down here.

I'm still heading to North Switzerland to see my friend this weekend and then travelling back to France for the flight home (the airport parking is much cheaper there).

The boat where it all happened...

Anyway, I will continue to update the blog... I may even pop back to Europe for a long weekend... but the next big adventure will be the drive home. Then of course it will be Bestival and on to Australia! This is certainly not the end.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Whose idea was this?

I left the Antibes on Thursday, on yet another bright morning, to make my way North. I had researched some pretty campsites between there and my next fixed destination in Switzerland and plugged it into the old GPS.

A very, uh, 'interesting' route

The first hour of the journey was as easy as you might expect... we started on motorways and then took pleasant roads around pretty villages and landscapes, enjoying some shade along the way. There weren't many petrol stations to be found so we grabbed the opportunity around lunchtime, then pulled over in a leafy layby by the river for lunch.

Surrounded by waterfalls and mating beavers
As soon as we set off again I was glad we'd had the break... although much of our journey had been uphill already, the path ahead was getting steadily steeper and windier. But traffic was low and I figured it couldn't get much worse.

I figured wrong.

As the engine roared in first gear up steep hairpin bends, I thought "Holy altitude sickness, SatNav, where are you taking us?". There were insanely steep and high cliffs on the side of narrow roads, a noteable thinning of the air and snow. Real snow this time - actual frozen water precipitation snow.

On two separate occasions we stalled on a steep bend... each time I calmly applied the handbreak, restarted the engine and revved like hell to pull us up. Finally I grabbed an opportunity to pull over and take in the breathtaking views of the Alps.

How the hell did we get up here?
I returned to Cecil and stroked his dashboard gently, reassuring him that we were almost there - just 28km from our destination and as far as I could tell already at the highest point in the mountain range. Cecil quietly started but refused to rev. There was a moment of panic - we're on a mountain. No phone signal, no internet - what if we can't get down again? But it was just the weird angle we'd managed to park at - a little push in the right direction and he was back to roaring like the little trooper we know him to be.

Sure enough, the peak was just ahead and only a relatively gentle incline from where we were. The road began to slope downwards and Cecil gratefully rumbled his way down the same kinds of hairpins that had terrified us so much on the way up. We passed this sign on as we went:

2,802 metres high (that's 9,193 feet to you and me)
The highest road in Europe*. Holy. Shit. If there's one vehicle that doesn't belong on the highest road in Europe, it's a 40-yr-old campervan packed full of life posessions. But no matter - we'd done it. We cheerfully waved to smiling hikers and bikers and descended into Barcelonnette and to a campsite that was ready and waiting.


Barcelonette is an odd little town - it's set in a 'valley' that's still 1,000 metres above sea level, so it has absolutely stunning views all around with giant fir trees and towering rocky outcrops framing a frosty blue sky. For the last few hundred years, its main trade has been with Mexico and there are signs of it everywhere - from the Mexican flag on the town's welcome sign to the plethora of South American clothing and food available to buy. And is it pure coincidence that there is a higher density of moustachioed gentlemen here than I've previously witnessed elsewhere? Hmm.

I parked Cecil in the campsite and took a walk along the river into town. There was a live music event in the main square, so I pinched a seat in one of the cafes and had drinks and snacks brought to me while I enjoyed the entertainment. There was an intesting set by a young Stomp-style band, who played percussion pieces using things like suitcases and oil drums. They did insist on using a different set of instruments for each track which made for some slightly tedious pauses but I didn't mind - it was just more opportunity for ordering beer.

Teenagers banging on things
Well this is only a brief stop - we need to continue North. One thing's for sure, we ain't going back the way we came!

* I looked it up on Wikipedia - there are two roads in Europe that are slightly higher but they're both dead ends. So I guess it's the highest through road.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Voila, The Mediterranean!

On Saturday I drove to a vineyard outside Toulon, to meet a wine maker that I met in Japan. The farm is part of a national scheme of free campervan sites where you can buy local produce or artworks and stay overnight. It looks like a good way to see the country - if anyone's interested they can buy the guide book and pass from France Passion for €29 and get information on 7,000 such sites.

Seeing the Sea

After eating, drinking and catching up on Saturday night, we needed a spot of excercise. We packed bags and took a hike on cliff tops that would give an eagle vertigo, staring down into a clear navy blue sea. The sky was cloudless and the water's surface like glass so we were glad to eventually find a way down and to dive into a cove where the pool was deep and cool.

Not the English Channel
We ate an extremely fine picnic on the warm rocks and took out my waterproof camera... I had no goggles but nonetheless floated around trying to snap little silver fishes and the sea bed. I promise to share the results when the film is developed!

The climb back up was a little more difficult but we were soon sat in Thomas's car listening to Led Zeppelin as we rolled home. It was on this journey that I learned about the rule on speed bumps in South France. Apparently these sleeping policemen are always installed outside the homes of the people who requested them and it's therefore obligatory to make as much noise as possible when crossing them, both by honking the horn and by lowering gear and revving the engine.

Hungry cats vocally educating seafood diners in sharing
We finished the day by dressing up and heading to a secluded restaurant on the seafront where we provided fine dining to the local mosquitoes. The chef's special that night was my arse, served through a nylon skirt between narrow slats of a wooden chair.

Cecil has had a brand new battery and has had his gas cannisters filled and we've moved onto Cannes for a couple of days. From there, who knows? Maybe Italy, Switzerland... I'll be back.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Week in Provence

With Cecil finally back on the road and in ship shape, I thought it wise this time to be a little more cautious about leaving. Abandoning my plans for Espagne we instead took a short trip to Narbonne where we kipped in an industrial zone, frequently checking for any problems of a mechanical or electrical nature.

There were none.

An old friend from England called and we arranged for him to fly into Avignon where I would collect him and we would take a three-day tour of the region, after which I would continue alone in my usual style.

Sur le Pont

We checked into a very plush campsite a short walk from the city centre.My friend entered the Palais des Papes (Popes' Palace), where Catholic popes and anti-popes resided in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries... I've done my fill of museums and abbeys and the like by now and couldn't justify the entrance fee, so I settled for a driving tour of the city.

The famous bridge of Avignon
The Sea is pink and it's snowing

This wasn't the effect of LSD but rather the effect of the natural salt marshes in the national park 'The Camargue'. As we drove into the area, we first noticed the bizarre stretch of bright pink waters. Apparently this is caused by algae who are compelled to live in very salty waters and who contain high levels of carotene. Of course its these algae who are eaten by shrimp, making them pink, and in turn eaten by flamingoes.

I was even more surprised, however, to see banks of snow along the side of the road. It was somewhere around thirty degrees celcius! The wind blew across the plains and the 'snow' flakes were thrust across our path. It was then that we realised they were salt flakes that had been blown from the surface of the sea and gathered naturally. So cool!

The salt gathers up on the rocks. The medieval city of Aigues-Mortes in the background.
I took a boat trip through the canals and saw a demonstration of 'gardians', who herd black bulls from their position atop white horses. Unfortunately there was also a gaggle of teenagers on the trip who'd clearly been forced to attend on a school trip, so I couldn't hear much of what the French cowboys had to say.

Chasing Bulls
The area is also famous for its 'Flamant Rose' (pink flamingoes) but, although I saw many from my position on the boat, they were all too distant to really photograph. Still, they were amusing to watch with their long skinny legs and stark pink wings.

Nothing like family

After dropping my friend off, I drove straight to my Aunt's house for a visit. We took a ride in her convertible to the Coustellet market and joined some friends of hers in the Poisonnerie there for oysters and wine. I'd never tried an oyster before so I had to be trained in the technique. It tasted rather like I'd imagine that pink sea tasting if you stuck your tongue into it.

My grandmother very kindly put me up at her house down the road and I went for an afternoon to visit one of my cousins and meet her baby boy for the first time. I also met her new boyfriend who was something of a VW enthusiast and a collector of spare parts. He turned up with a brand new pair of eyelids for Cecil and fitted them on the spot! You can see from his face how much he likes them.

A cheeky look for Cecil
Finally we all gathered at a fabulous outdoor venue in Gordes to watch my other cousin play guitar in his band... this was his final performance with the guys before he moves to Marseille for university so there was quite an emotional atmosphere... and a doting mother recording every second of it on her iPhone.

An astonishingly talented guy - I'm so proud of my cousin!
It's not quite over yet

Although I've taken this opportunity to update you, there's one more chapter left in Provence. Today I'm driving East to visit a winemaker who I met in Japan back in March. And then who knows? That's the beauty of being free!