Seeking the sun

Friday 2nd April 2010,Champagne-sur-Loue
Here we are back in the Jura with friends Roland and Susanne. Everything in the flat is as we left it and it feels as if we have returned home after just a brief visit to Exeter. We have spent more time in this flat than in our own home over the past year! However, we are here only for a couple of nights as we make our way south to Toulon where we are hoping to take a ferry to Corsica. We decided that after all Romania was a little too far for me to drive this time and with the possibility of joining up with Hungarian friends there later in the year, we would wait until my joints have fully recovered.

My knees and hips are still creaking from excessive driving despite a visit to the physio' while in Exeter to request some suitable exercises. I now do warm-up exercises before driving Modestine. It attracts bemused stares as I gyrate on one leg beside the driving door but it certainly helps.

We crossed to Caen on Monday where we spent a couple of nights with Geneviève. The weather turned icy and very wet which rather spoilt a day spent together in the Suisse Normande area where we spent ages over lunch in a bar in Clécy as the rain teemed down outside. The evenings were good though, back in the now fully refurbished house with aperitifs amidst all the shelves stacked once more with the familiar books, generally none the worse for their adventure.

Jill and Geneviève at the Geology of Normandy museum in the Suisse Normande

Gateway to the Cistercian Abbey of St. Marie, founded 1127 at Villers-Canivet, near Falaise

A particularly beautiful willow tree just coming into leaf, Villers-Canivet

Falaise castle, birthplace of William the Conqueror

It's good to have friends to visit as we travel, but each time we move on it is difficult to say goodbye. We were sorry to leave Caen but at the same time we were looking forward to our new travels and to seeing Susanne and our special corner of the Jura once more.

It is well over four hundred miles across France to reach Champagne-sur-Loue.The roads are now familiar and the countryside, for most of the journey, is across flat, bare plains where this year's crops have not yet been planted. The twin spires of the cathedral at Sées could be seen from many miles away. With the lighter evenings we'd reached Château-Chinon in the Morvan national park before we eventually stopped for the night at one of the very few all-year campsites.

Even so we were almost the only visitors. The owners were English and pleased for some conversation. They explained they'd been running the site for a couple of years and kept open all year mainly so they could talk to a few people, otherwise the long, cold winter would be lonely and intolerable.

Next morning we discovered just how wet and soggy everywhere was when Modestine refused to leave her pitch! The more we tried to encourage her the further into the mud she ground her wheels and the more plastered we became as we slithered around trying to help her out! Eventually the campsite owner arrived with four French workmen and together with Ian managed to extract Modestine from the mud.

Nearby Château-Chinon was once the home town of François Mitterrand, president of France back in the 1970s. At the very top of the little town, built on a steep hillside with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside, is the museum in which are displayed all the gifts he received from heads of state around the world during his fourteen years as president. For once we were in luck with at least an hour before the museum closed for a two hour lunch break. It was a bit rushed but definitely worth a visit. What do you give a visiting president? If you are from one of the African colonies it may be a mask, a ceremonial shield, a quiver full of decorated arrows, a stuffed leopard or a pair of exquisitely carved, ethically unacceptable elephant tusks. European rulers tended to offer family photos, as did America. So the monarchs and presidents of the world back in the 70s smiled down at us. Ronald and Nancy Regan, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, the Danish, Belgian and Spanish Royal Families and even President Bongo of Gabon. Tunisian gifts included exquisite mosaics and ceramics while Islamic countries offered rugs, inlaid tables and Turkish coffee sets. The Japanese gifts ranged from delicate tea sets, pretty flower bowls and painted wall hangings to theatre puppets and silk kimonos. The Chinese offered bronze statuettes of the Xian warriors and huge painted vases, while the Russians offered carved wooden bears and a model of their latest sputnik. The most lavish and tasteless gift, in our opinion, was offered by the Arab Emirates. A two foot high solid gold palm tree incised with Arab decoration while the glistening dates were made from real rubies! In addition there were medals, ribbons, academic robes and the keys to several cities around the world. Everything, we were assured, was presented as personal gifts to M. Mitterrand rather to him as the President of France. He had bequeathed them all to his home town of Château-Chinon. So we can only assume that around the world all heads of state, royal and presidential, are receiving similar gifts on every official visit they make, paid for, presumably, by the tax payer. Hmm ... Where does Tony Blair keep his goodies? And what does Gordon offer at the G20 summits? Haggises all round and a bottle of whisky perhaps.

It started to snow as we left the museum to continue our journey. As we stopped for a picnic lunch in Modestine the wind buffeted us and melting slush gathered on the windscreen. In Autun the streets were flooded with icy water while hail bounced off our roof. Hey, it was April 1st and spring should have arrived. Some foolish joke of the weather perhaps.

Heavy lorries surged through the wet, hurling out spray, passing close to Modestine on the narrow roads as we approached Beaune and beyond. Remembering the stone that broke Modestine's windscreen on our last journey along this route we were relieved when we eventually turned off onto the quieter, more rural routes through the countryside of the Jura.

Soon the names of the villages became familiar. The weather improved too and the sun came out flooding the bright green fields and the huge farmhouses with their log piles and overhanging roofs, with sunlight.

At last we were driving along above the Loue and down into the village of Champagne. Our friends had been expecting us for an hour or more and already the table in their large kitchen was set for supper, bottles of Roland's wines and aperitifs waiting for our arrival. The rest of the evening was spent happily exchanging news while we enjoyed once again the warmth of their friendship. We are extremely lucky people.

Saturday 3rd April 2010,Champagne-sur-Loue
Yesterday was Good Friday and quite contrary to expectations the day was both warm and dry. As we would be gone by Easter Susanne decided to celebrate early. Being Friday though we had fish. Delicious sea fish it was too. It seems to have had a quicker journey from the coast than we'd had. It always surprises us how fresh fish is so readily available in parts of France so far from the sea. Of course we enjoyed different wines with each course and at the end decided we needed a walk to aid digestion. Except Roland who considered a snooze more appropriate. Still, he had already been into Besançon before we were awake his morning for an unwelcome visit to the hospital for a scan. Since Christmas he has been very unwell and still needs to take great care of himself. Fortunately the French doctors would never dream of restricted wine intake as they fully appreciate the importance of a few pleasures in life.

Our walk took us up onto the clos and through the vines, stopping from time to time to chat with the local wine producers as they rushed to finish training their vines along the wires before they began to flourish. Eventually we made our way through the woods where the white stars of anenomies glowed amongst the mossy tree roots, past la Gloriette and down to the banks of the Loue. In Port Lesney Roland was waiting for us, having driven there after his rest. He'd also brought our clean shoes as we were going to the wonderful Château de Germigny for refreshments.

This was as pleasant an experience as we'd found it last time when Ian and I called in just before Christmas. We enjoyed beers and coffees in the lounge while skulls of hunted deer and a huge boar's head looked down on us. English hunting scenes covered the walls and the books too were mainly English, particularly Dickens. The staff was friendly and invited us to look around upstairs. Susanne had heard rumours that the bedrooms contained swimming pools. She can now report back to the rest of the village that the ensuite bathrooms are superb but not large enough to swim in. Tables downstairs were laid for a reception with black, red and green glassware while the windows overlooked the beautifully tended gardens. It was all rather an enjoyable experience.

Leaving Roland to return in his camionette to start preparing the evening soup we walked back beside the river. Roland was pottering in his shed when we arrived home having forgotten his mission. We spent our last evening here upstairs with our hosts enjoying yet another leisurely meal where course after course seemed to appear, each accompanied by a different selection of bottles. Finally we ate the simnel cake we'd brought from Devon together with Roland's special crémant de Jura produced from his own grapes. It beats champagne any day, being dry and crisp as well as intensely tingling on the tongue as the bubbles burst. We discussed marketing it as "Champagne pétillant". The name Champagne is forbidden for the product but as it's produced in the village of Champagne we might get round the law!

Supper in the kitchen, Jill, Roland and Susanne

Saturday 3rd April 2010, Aix-les-Bains
Today was wet and drizzling though comfortably warm. We left our friends with the usual regret and promises to return soon, and made our way south along winding routes that took us up into the peaks of the Haut Jura where the snow still lies in hollows and winter sports have not yet quite finished for the season. We picnicked in the snow at Les Rousses and visited an exhibition of calligraphy before continuing, skirting the Swiss border near Geneva and eventually reaching Aix-les-Bains mid afternoon. We are camped on the same site we used in April two years ago, just beside Lac Bourget. Its main attraction for us is the heated showers. During the afternoon we walked into the chic town centre, crowded with families this Easter Saturday, where we window shopped, admiring the chocolateries with their exquisitely decorated Easter rabbits, chickens and assorted fondant creams. We are not the only English visitors to the town. Queen Victoria was a regular visitor to the Thermes in the 1860s.

Lac Bourget, the largest lake in France, near Aix-les-Bains

Queen Victoria, Aix-les-Bains

Vestiges of a roman arch, Aix-les-Bains

Sunday 4th April 2010, Somewhere along the Route Napoléon between Vizille and Gap
Well tonight we are sleeping in a lay-by in the Alps, far from civilisation with snow on the surrounding mountains. There is no viable alternative. There is a beautiful lake here but the campsite listed in our book as open, was not. So far we are warm and have just finished supper. Darkness is starting to fall so shortly we will wrap ourselves up in absolutely everything warm and go to bed. Normally we keep warm enough but without electricity we have no heating and we are about to experience a "night on a bare mountain". My new computer has at last come into its own with its seven hour battery.

We left Aix-les-Bains early this morning and spent much of the day in Chambéry. Last time we passed this way it had been impossible to park in the town so we were delighted to find the streets empty this Sunday morning. It proved to be as beautiful and interesting a city as we remembered from our unexpected overnight stay years ago on our way back from an abortive attempt to drive to Venice.

Chambéry is, or was, the capital of the independent province of Savoy. The area only fully became part of France in 1860 though had been annexed for a while during the French Revolution. It is a strange corner of Europe, wedged in between Italy, France and Switzerland. There is a very strong Italian influence in the architectural style of the buildings in the old town with terraces of huge houses with their old, worn and faded shutters. There are several attractive fountains – including my favourite anywhere, depicting four life-size elephants. There are statues, flower beds and an entire network of alley ways winding through courtyards and between houses dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries.

Typical street, Chambéry

Elephant fountain, Chambéry

Detail of the Elephant fountain, Chambéry

Theatre, Chambéry

Street and fountain, Chambéry

Street in Chambéry

The town is dominated by its huge castle, residence of the ruling family until the annexation to France. It is exactly 150 years since Savoy, and the area of Provence around Nice, became part of France and there were several excellent, free exhibitions in the town museum and the castle to explain the complex history of the region. Suffice to say we found it rather bemusing. The political map of Europe as we know it today has existed for such a very short time. The development of the EU is just the latest step along the road of a permanently evolving Europe.

Castle, Chambéry

View from the castle steps, Chambéry

It being the first Sunday of the month the museum was open without charge. Here we spent a couple of hours absorbing as much as we could of the region's history, its political background, its ethnography, geology and agriculture. There was an absorbing gallery concerning the region during the Second World War. We had not realised before that it was not part of the unoccupied zone controlled by the Vichy government headed by Pierre Laval. For part of the war the region was occupied by Italy. During this period not a single Jew was deported. Once Italy signed the armistice however, Nazi troops moved in, handling Savoy with its usual barbarity, rounding up the Jews and deporting them. Italian fascism was not anti-Semitic as was Nazi fascism and its treatment of the Savoyards was better than under the Vichy government which was nothing but a German puppet government, sending Jews to concentration camps and its residents as forced labour to Germany. In the Savoy region the Resistance movement flourished as elsewhere in France. Exhibits included detailed typewritten instructions on how best to derail trains.

Spirit of Savoy, This statue was removed and taken to Germany as scrap metal but later discovered intact and returned to Chambéry

It was long after lunch-time before we finally left Chambéry, making our way by minor roads around the outskirts of Grenoble. This was a bad plan. We ended up driving down the Val d'Isère, passing through countless boring little towns with 30km (20mph) speed restrictions enforced by horrid humps guaranteed to wreck Modestine's undercarriage unless we crawl over them in second gear. My poor knees!

Even the sex shops close for a two hour lunch break! Chambéry

Eventually we reached Vizille. Back on the same abortive mission to Venice we spent a night here and found it rather a pleasant place with links to the writer Stendhal. Today it was a bustling, friendly little town full of local people out enjoying the sunshine in the lovely gardens of the château. There was also a fair and a jazz festival so parts of the town were rather noisy.

Main road through to Vizille

The castle grounds are completely free. They have a couple of lakes, formal flower beds and extensive lawns with foot paths winding between mature trees. There are charming vistas back to the château and up to the surrounding snowy peaks of the Alps. (That's where we are camping tonight!) There are swans, ducks and geese wandering across the lawns. It's an altogether delightful place.

The impressive, well restored château today houses a museum of the French Revolution. It too is free. Together they are a fantastic asset for a small town and obviously well appreciated by the residents.

Château at Vizille

View down onto the gardens from a window of the Château, Vizille

The museum occupies several floors of the castle and covers all aspects of the French Revolution. There are plaster busts, bronzes, marble statues, paintings, letters and documents. Marat lies murdered in his bath while Charlotte Corday hides behind the curtain, Robespierre and Danton chill the blood as they stare down from the walls, Marie Antoinette looks with distain on red-capped women screaming for blood on the streets of Paris as she is driven to her execution, Rouget de Lisle sits composing the Marseillaise and a guillotine stands in the corner of the room. We learned more too about the Girondins and discovered a preliminary plaster model for the fountain and monument we saw erected in their memory in Bordeaux recently.

Eventually we left Vizille and drove up into the mountains along the Route Napoléon which reflects the route followed by the "little corporal" when he returned from Elba to Paris in 1815 near the start of the "hundred days" which ended on the battlefield of Waterloo. French armies march in straight lines it seems with scant regard for the terrain. The route out of Vizille continued straight on up, seemingly for ever. Modestine was definitely too hot by the time we eventually reached the top and were able to stop to cool down. Up here beside the lake should have been our campsite but the new owners had closed it and there is nothing else we know of anywhere up here. It's now becoming very cold and dark so we're off to bed to keep warm.

Monday 5th April 2010, Oraison, Alps Provencal
We survived the cold last night feeling like a couple of hibernating squirrels beneath our pile of blankets. We woke to find the snow line of the surrounding mountains was far lower than last night and Ian spent some time scraping ice off the windscreen before we could move on. Unfortunately for some reason my back started to hurt badly during the night, probably because of the traffic calming humps yesterday, and I've been grumbling with pain all day.

By 8am we were in the pleasant but icy cold little town of La Mure, cradled between the white peaks of the surrounding mountains. The wind up there must have been violent judging from the way the snow was blown up in plumes from the peaks to condense as puffy white clouds in a bright blue sky. Down in the town the narrow streets were filled with market stalls while the stall holders shivered and stamped their feet. What a way to earn a living in such penetrating cold.

Wind blowing snow over the mountain top near La Mure.

The most important event in the history of La Mure! Surely the boiler melted the chocolate?

The lady in the local bar sent us off to buy our own croissants at the bakers while she made us a couple of cups of hot chocolate to warm up after our chilly night. So we are none the worse for our adventure though wouldn't willingly sleep in such conditions again.

Near our camping spot last night.

Route Napoléon near La Mure.

Our next stop was Gap, reached by winding, hilly roads through the mountains with stunning views of white peaks, fast flowing rivers and curving lakes lying far below in green wooded valleys. This is almost the last area of France we have not yet explored and is not to be missed. Two major routes across the Alps constructed to link Paris to Antibes and Italy to Spain cross in this town. Though unremarkable, Gap was smaller and more interesting than we had expected. It is Easter Monday and, unlike Good Friday, it is a national holiday in France, so traffic was minimal and most of the town was shut up, but we spent a very agreeable hour or so exploring the streets of the old town.

Route Napoléon near la Col de Bayard

Ian in the snow, Col de Bayard, near Gap

From here on driving was far easier and our route down to Sisteron along the wide valley of the Durance was straight and level. The sun was high, the sky blue, the mountain peaks receding and we were heading for Provence. Parking on the outskirts of Sisteron we followed a footpath up through pleasant woodland with vistas down onto the river as it flowed below the town, hemmed in by the huge folds of the contorted Roche de Baume on the far side. Soon we were up at the citadel, its solid walls standing guard over the town. From here we looked down onto the sun soaked pink and orange pantiles of the roofs clustered around the base of the mount. This was definitely Provence and the atmosphere of the town was so different from La Mure this morning up in the icy mountains. Here every terrace was occupied by people enjoying a sunny bank holiday Monday, soaking up the sunshine and doing very little.

Citadel of Sisteron towering over the town

Tiled rooftops of Sisteron

Cathedral, Sisteron

Clock tower and main square, Sisteron

We were delighted with Sisteron. It setting is amazing, surrounded as it is by the contorted folds of the mountains that have weathered into awesome formations that look as though they have been bent and twisted by Titians.

Folded and weathered rock formation across the river from Sisteron

We are astonished that within the space of a few hours we have left the icy cold of the mountains and northern Europe behind and are plunged into a warm and sunny south! Although they are not yet in bloom, we have been driving through lavender fields. There are beehives to produce lavender honey, there are olive groves and fruit orchards smothered in pink and white blossoms. In the fields there are bright yellow flowers amidst the vivid green grass, while pale azure rivers meander through their wide, stony beds. Above it all the sun shines down from a sky that is bright and blue and cloudless. Back from the roads there are rambling farm buildings and houses so typical of Provence with their bright colour-washed walls in orangey-pink with mauve or pale green shutters and stones piled onto the roof to prevent the high winds that frequently whistle through the region from ripping off the heavy pink tiles.

Digne-les-Bains was something of a disappointment after Sisteron. It was just a pleasant enough spa town with hot thermal springs a little outside the centre, a central square surrounded by pleasant bars and terraces, a Cathedral and a small network of narrow streets through the old town. There are also pleasant gardens along beside the river. There were very few people around and absolutely no atmosphere. All the public toilets were locked because it is bank holiday!!! The tourist office apologised for this and suggested we bought a coffee and used a local bar instead! They were pleasant and helpful and eager that I should mention this shortcoming in the blog as they'd tried in vain to persuade the council to leave facilities open.

Finally we drove south towards Nice and Toulon, turning off through what looks a pleasant village to this campsite. It opened today and we are the only people staying here. The owners are very friendly and we may well chill out here for a day for my back to recover. Unfortunately the wifi advertised has not yet been connected for the season.

Night has now fallen and the world has lapsed into silence, except for a pesky scop owl somewhere nearby. A native of the Midi and Provence region it has a continuous and monotonous single note cry. It's driving us batty!