Back on the road through France

09.04.2016 Verdon region of Provence (1)

The beautiful landscape of Provence in France

Newly retired and all the time in the world we were back on the road in our blue campervan.  We set off south in April sunshine hopeful we would find beautiful and interesting places and have some fun.  Just being in the ‘van is relaxing and we were soon in a meandering frame of mind, stopping when we found somewhere lovely, making coffee among gorgeous scenery and taking strolls to interesting places.  Our first night was at the popular aire at Pont au Mousson, our second in the lovely Bourgogne wine producing town of Beaune, stopping on the way to stroll around Langres, on its stunning hilltop position.   We passed through pretty honey-coloured villages where men chatted outside the Marie, drove by large fields hunted by buzzards and under trees dripping with mistletoe.

Leaving the vineyards of Beaune we got mixed up with the circus vehicles in the next town, around us were vans and cars blowing their horns to announce their arrival.  We used the aire at Bourget-du-Lac and had a sunny afternoon walk to the lakeside, the ruined Chateau St Thomas II and the bird hide overlooking lovely pools busy with cormorants, red-crested pochard and one great egret and we watched marsh harriers flying low as they hunted.  We also walked in to Les Bourget-du-Lac and found the priory with its stately garden.

The weather was being so kind to us and after resisting the urge to stop in the Ecrins we treated ourselves to a couple of nights in Digne les Bains to give us time to stretch our legs after days of mostly driving.  We were now among the rocky Mediterranean landscape rich with herbs.  Our early evening stroll from the campsite took us to the large orderly cemetery of the Cathedral de Notre Dame du Bourg; we strolled around the fascinating graves enjoying the glimpses in to people’s lives.  Later as we ate sitting outside the snow covered mountains at the end of the valley were pink from the setting sun.

The campsite in Digne les Bains was perfectly placed for the lovely circular three chapels walk.  The path with signposts followed a lightly-shaded path through small oak trees and broom, the path edges blooming with cowslips, thyme and marjoram.  The route is only around five kilometers but follows a steep rocky path to give great views over the town.  Chapel number one, St Vincent, is a large church-like structure above the town.  Continuing uphill we found chapel number two, the Chapelle de la Croix, a tiny chapel perched on the highest point at 870 metres.  We ate our lunch enjoying the panoramic views and the peace, just the butterflies busily flitting around the flowers and small lizards taking in the sun.  We followed the ridge and then took the path downhill, meeting a group of mountain bikers struggling up the craggy path.  Chapel number three, Notre Dame, is in the trees just above Digne.  This small ruined church has a shrine underneath it in a cave.  We found cooling ice-creams in Digne before walking back to the ‘van.

From Digne les Bains we drove through the stunning scenery of Castellane and Grasse.  The road climbed over cols and took us through woodland, the landscape becoming more arid and more dramatic.  We stopped to take in the staggering vistas on a mountain road; I was awestruck by the landscape of white layered limestone rocks dotted with attractive Provencal farmhouses.  Our final night in France was in Cagnes sur Mer before we headed in to Italy to catch our ferry to Greece.

05.04.2017 Beaune (4)
The pretty French town of Beaune
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The villages of the Ecrins

06.06.2016 La Grave walk to L'Aiguillon (7)
Hameau de Valfroide near La Grave

In the mountainous Ecrins the houses in the villages huddle together for warmth and companionship around a winding road, joined by steep narrow cobbled lanes and steps.  The houses are built from rough stone with steep roofs and small windows.  Typically, the windows have shutters and the traditional stone houses have a sort of wooden balcony for storing logs.

Above the village of La Grave the villages cling to the hillside, looking as if they could slide down at any time.  Around the villages the pattern of the old farmed terraces can still be seen in the meadows.  Each village has a church in a similar style and there are also stone wayside shrines on the roads between the villages, you might also find the communal oven and you will always find a water tap of fresh mountain water.  As you climb higher the houses in these villages are less likely to be occupied all year round.

In Vallouise and Venosc we admired the sundials, including the beautiful 19th century Zarbula sundial on a magnificent villa in Vallouise.  You can follow the Sundial trail through the region to find more.

We toured around the Ecrins National Park in an anti-clockwise direction over a couple of weeks and camped in five different valleys, each one having its own personality and each offering spectacular mountain walking.

06.06.2016 La Grave walk to L'Aiguillon (11).JPG
Looking towards La Meije above La Grave

The Ecrins National Park in France

02.06.2016 Mont Dauphin marmots and fort (3)

We are back from our annual fix of European culture, weather and food.  As well as enjoying excellent and unbeatable mountain walking in the Ecrins National Park in south-east France [don’t worry no one seems to know where this is – find Grenoble and go slightly to the south and east], we found some adorable wildlife.

The Alpine marmots were abundant in the Ecrins and we saw at least one or two every time we were out walking.  Sometimes we firstly heard a marmot, calling out a warning high-pitched whistle and searching the rocky landscape we would spot the look-out marmot on a rock, sitting up on its hind legs apparently warning the other marmots of our presence but really drawing attention to the presence of marmots.  At other times we would spot them scampering low across a meadow or moving easily down steep craggy hillsides, twitching their stubby tails as they move and then disappearing down a handy burrow.  At Pré de Madame Carle the marmots were pottering around the car park and finding shade under the cars.

If you don’t want to climb the steep paths of the Ecrins to see marmots, there are a group that are easy to find at Mont-Dauphin, south of Briançon.  Since we last visited here in 2009 [Mr BOTRA had lots of fun making the video embedded in the blog post at the time] the humans have been managed so that the marmots can now run in and out of their burrows freely and avoid the humans if they wish to.  Marmots hibernate for more months than they are out and about so you need to be around in summer to see them.