Saturday, 27 February 2010

Picturesque villages and gorge-ous roads.

Written 26th february 

Today we have been following the trail of Tom and Katy in search of picturesque villages and pretty gorges.  Its always good to benefit from other people's holiday reseach and experiences and today has been no exception :)

We had an inauspicious start to the day in La Couvertoirade - alternate sun, rain and hail made for a brisk and icy walk from the mandatory carpark (€2 in season) to the village - apparently a typical Templar and Hospitaliere (whoever they are) walled town - which has been designated as one of 'les plus beaux villages de France'

Unfortunately although the town gate was open, the visitor centre and ramparts access weren't and the whole town was deserted. 

Undeterred, we wandered the maze of typical rues (not bored of them yet!), walked up to the keep,

the windmill

and Hospitaliere church and graveyard

before concluding that whilst it was indeed pretty, we were no nearer to enlightenment as to who the Hospitalieres were, nor was it likely that we were going to find out and what's more, we were cold with no prospect of coffee - onwards!

Next on the list was a drive to La Cirque de Navacelles in the Vis gorge - allegedly (from their info board) one of the biggest gorges in Europe.  In preference to the tourist signs, we took the unsigned D142 from Caylar to Blandas - an extremely narrow road with many places which close often enough due to flooding to warrant permanently installed lowerable barriers - and were rewarded with a superb view down into the valley. 

The Cirque de Navacelles is an abandoned meander in the river Vis, left behind when the river cut a new course straight past some 6000 years ago.  It is remarkable for the near-perfect circle of flat grassland which marks the course of the old river bed, and which surrounds a striking triangular hill.  The village clings to the rocks beside the new waterfall and uses the meander as pasture and the hill as olive and vine terraces. 

There isn't much to see in the village itself except the rushing waterfall which is the new river path - although there look to be lovely cafes and walks in season -

and we headed on up to the signed viewing point - La Baume Auriol - where we found a closed restaurant which promised coffee with panoramic views when open.  Although still spectacular, in our opinion the view from the other side was better, if you are prepared to brave the road!

Back on the road to St Giulhem le Desert, another of France's designated pretty villages,o in the Herault valley.  

Willem of Gellone, one-time Count of Toulouse and Duke of Aquitaine, was renowned for his military campaigns against the Saracens and the Seige of Barcelona in 801.  Deciding by this time that he had had enough of war and guided by St Benedict of nearby Aniane (reformer of the Benedictine order), he founded a monastery in an isolated valley and finished his days there, having established a tradition of veneration of a supposed relic of the One True cross, a gift to him from his cousin Charlmagne.  Sometime after his death in 812, a series of epic poems were written about his exploits and he was beatified.  In the 10th century, the monastery of Gellone became a vital stopover on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela - we can't escape the place! - and to cope with the resulting popularity, it was expanded in the 11th century and was renamed Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert in the 12th century.  Things didn't happen quickly back then!

The monastery gradually fell into decline after this time until it was registered by the French Historic Monuments Commission in 1840 and has been undergoing restoration  since the 1960s.  Today it is in part occupied by the Carmelite Order of St Joseph and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The sun was shining bright and warm by the time we pulled up in a free street parking spot between two pay carparks and we set off, via the tourist office into the honey coloured old village - no maze of typical streets here, one winding street up the valley to the square, same one back again!

But all the artisan craft and tat shops you would expect... ;)

But it was open, there were people around and in the sunshine, it was all jolly lovely.

We walked to the square,

then followed a path which climbed steadily up the side of the valley

for glorious views over the streets and rooftops of the village. 

Heading back down, we found the church, the cloister,

the relics of St Guilhem and a cross shaped reliquary which we can only believe does indeed hold a portion of the cross - its the church, they wouldn't lie to us...  Would they?

Sadly we weren't able to continue up the valley to explore the gorge further as suggested as we had urgent home matters to deal with which necessitated more Mc'Ds hot chocolate several kms away in Clermont l'Herault - shame but there we go, real life does go on and occasionally encroaches on our little dream world.

Nevertheless, an excellent day out - thanks T&K! - and stuff done, we are now en route to Sete, one of Bill's recommendations, and back on the coast where we are hoping for sunshine.

Bonsoir tout le monde x x

Lost for words once more

Written 25th February    

Who would have thought, speechless twice in one trip!  We have found the man-made equivalent of Dune de Pilat.  A sight so unexpected and awesome it has quite taken my breath away.

The Millau viaduct was always on the route, right from when this trip was just pins in a map on our living room wall.  But having come down to earth with a bump on the price of petrol here, we almost, almost, decided that the 220km round trip detour from our south coast route from Bezier to Montpellier was not worth it.  Fortunately for us, my brother Tom has been and told us that he thought it was worth the petrol and even better, his girlfriend Katy, gave us a list of places they had enjoyed on their visit which we could take in en route.

I have seen many pictures of the Viaduct at Millau but you always have that slight feeling in the back of your mind that there must be clever camera angles or lenses or retouching going on and nothing prepares you for the colossal reality of the thing, when it appears in front of you.  

We didn't really know where we were going so stayed on the A75 until the very last exit before the toll and ended up going though St Rome de Cornon and back towards Millau on a route which seemed destined to take us under the bridge.  

Worth noting here that we were just 7 km from the village of Roquefort at this point but sadly I was not allowed to visit as I still have cheese to eat in the van :(  it is a large lump of not especially nice cheese bought in a Mercadona in spain and I am not particularly enjoying it but I am not allowed more until it is finished or gone mouldy... So hard being me :(  the only consolation is that Will has two unopened packets of pate which he is similarly ambivalent about and at least my cheese will go off first!

Other people making this trip might like a cheese diversion at this point...

Anyway, we still hadn't seen the bridge - and were just wondering how you hide a bridge that big!?! - and contemplating the gently sloping valley and wondering whether it really warranted a bridge on the scale we were anticipating, when we rounded a corner and there it was, stretching up and away as far as the eye could see in both directions - simply staggering.

We found the south side visitors centre on the road we were on, 

before continuing on down the valley to the foot of the bridge and the 4m wide river Tarn which its 2,460m span(!!) crosses 270m up above.  



Heading on through Millau town and out the other side we found the Aire du Viaduct, another exhibition centre, and spectacular views down onto the bridge.

The bridge came about as the result of a government commitment in 1975(!) to provide a free motorway alternative to the main north-south toll road from Paris to Montpellier which goes by way of Lyon.   By 1991, they had got as far as planning a route from Clermont Ferrand through the Massif Central, when the question of how to cross the Tarn Valley at Millau came to the fore.  Having decided that it was more environmentally sound to go straight over rather than down and up again - a decision which we are sure was in no way influenced by the realisation that going across would result in a world record breaking bridge... ;) - Norman Foster's iconic design, with its 7 pillars and arrow head shaped supports was chosen from the five proposals submitted.

It is the world's highest multi-stayed viaduct and the numbers involved are incomprehensibly immense.  The bridge is 2,460m long, the road 270m above the river below, there are seven pillars spaced 342m apart, the tallest of which is 343m and has a ground footprint the area of a tennis court.  The steel deck is 65,000m2 and weighs 36,000 metric tons, with a further 10,000 tons of bitumen road surface, and the pillars and supports equate to 205,000 metric tons of concrete.  It took three years to the day to complete and cost €400M, €80M of which was the tollbooths -  they must be some fancy tollbooths!

The most staggering thing however is the way it was constructed.  The bottom sections of the pillars are concrete.  They were constructed with self raising, internal and external forms, and continuous pour concrete, raising 4m every three days.  Each pillar had its own crane which built itself upwards at the same rate as the pillars and lifted the concrete.  All fairly obviously so far. 

What I didn't know - and to be fair, had never had cause to think about before - was how they built the road.  I had assumed that the pillars were solid to to bottom and the road some how lifted into place between them, section by section, but no.  The metal deck of the road was constructed in sections on the granite plateaux on either side of the valley and was then pushed slowly into place until the two sides met in the middle!  With the metal pylons which top the middle two pillars already erected on the deck as it slid across!!

Special jacks were constructed to to this which raised the deck 2cm then pushed it forwards 60cm each go and the whole thing progressed at an astonishing rate of 9m/h.

It took 30h of continuous pushing to get one section in place, supported mid-way between each pillar by specially erected temporary supports which looked like giant mechano structures.   They then constructed the next deck section on the hill top and started pushing once more, proceeding in this manner with a section every 4-6 weeks. Simply awesome.  The remaining 87m tall pylons were then transported across the bridge and erected in situ, and the eleven pairs of steel tensioning cables on each one connected up and tightened to support the deck.

The bridge was load tested by driving 28 fully laden trucks (a combined weight of 968 metric tons) on to each span in turn and measuring the deflection - all within expected tolerance of course!

We learnt all this from the video in the southside visitors centre - magnificent construction footage (including lots of of happy engineers drinking celebratory champagne at any and all significant events - well this is France!) as well as stunning bridge shots in all weather conditions, including the valley filled with cloud up to the level of the road with just the pillars peeking out the top -  and in the northside exhibition we found more info about the road plans, models of all five original proposals and one of the pushing jacks, which you can actually see in operation.

The jack is noteworthy for its simplicity alone.  It has two parallel fixed beams on which the deck sits.  There are then two wedge-shaped sections sitting one on top of the other in the centre.  The lower wedge section is pushed forward with a massive ram which has the result of raising the upper wedge section so the deck is now resting solely on that, 2cm above the fixed beams. 

A second massive ram pushes the top wedge section forwards, sliding the balanced deck forwards and downwards until it is resting once more on the fixed beams, 60cms further forward than it previously was.    The wedge sections are pulled back, then the whole cycle starts again.  

The jacks were conceived and purpose built for the job by the engineering and construction company Eiffage who built the bridge and 64 were used in total in positioning the deck.  Simple awesome stuff.

The video is also available on the northside exhibition centre, which does have more information than the one on the southside if you only have time for one, and which is also accessible from the A75 so you can see it all en route without leaving the motorway (€6.10 to cross the bridge) but the detour to the valley bottom is definitely worth it - and means you can freeload the whole experience if you wish ;)

The visitors centre also has eat free maps and booklets of the whole A75 from Clermont Ferrand to Montpellier which shows places of interest and little circular routes at each junction so you can take picturesque detours on you journey if you wish - all very nicely done and showing all the places Tom and Katy have recommended and interesting roads by which to get to them - brilliant.

We considered crossing the bridge just for the experience, but from above, it didn't look like you could see very much - I'm sure I read elsewhere that the safety barriers were originally designed to be clear so you got the view but it made drivers disorientated so they filled them in - so we set off southwards through the russet-hued Dourbie gorge where the icy clear river alternated emerald green and sapphire blue between bucolic mills and hilltop hamlets, all stone-coloured and barely visible against the rocky banks and cliffs.

A simply perfect day.  

We're now parked for the night in a small picnic area just outside La Couvertoirade and excitingly, Will's fishing rod has finally had its first use... Although not, sadly, for fishing, merely for holding aloft the piece of wire by which we can extend our car ariel and get intermittent radio 4 - depending on the weather between here and London.  Night all.

Friday, 26 February 2010


Written 24th february

So we have a book and map of france showing all the free aires de service where camping-cars are welcome, a series of circled suggestions in our atlas - some from Bill, some from Tom & Katy and some to do before we die - and finding wifi is as easy as finding Mc Donalds (ie pretty easy!). France is, somewhat surprisingly far and away, their largest european market.  Maybe the food is better - we don't actually know, the hot chocolate is good and often the wifi reaches the carpark... - but there are always queues both in-store and at the drive-in, consols in some of them so you can order and pay by card and not actually talk to anyond and many more things on the menu so perhaps.

Anyway, we spent our first nuit in Limoux in the company of seven others in the town square carpark and settled in for the night to the backdrop of our chattering, wine-quaffing voisins.  At the risk of sounding cliche'd, there was definitely some 'oh la la'ing' at one stage - it is comforting ;)

Next day, sun was shining again as we headed for Carcassonne - yes I know I said we had had enough of walled cities and mazes of typical streets but this is apparently pretty special - and anyway, its french, bound to be different... :)

The road was lovely - wide and straight and shaded with lines of tall trees, apparently planted by Napoleon to provide shade for his marching armies - very forward thinking off him! - 

and soon la Cité of Carcassonne sailed into view on the horizon like a ship on the sea of vines.

Set on a hill, commanding the surrounding countryside, there has been a settlement of some kind here right back from 6BC then the Romans, Visigoths, Saracens and Francs all had a go before it became a feudal town in 1082.  Around that time, a new religion - that of the Cathars, meaning 'pure' in greek - was prevalent in the south-east corner of france - as evidenced by the 20-odd abbeys and castles, many perched precariously on vertiginous rocky outcrops on nearly every mountain top in the little triangle of land between Tolouse, Montpellier and the Pyrennese.  But when the Pope declared a Crusade against these heretics, feudal Carcassonne was seiged between the two and eventually fell, first to the crusaders, then to King Louis VIII.

As a frontier town on the edge of what was then the boarder with Aragon, Carcassonne's present day fortress and defences were constructed  and a new Lower town built at the foot of the hill - La Baside Saint-Louis - to house the increasing population.

But, in the 15th and 16th century, Carcassonne's construction proved to be unfit for the new techniques of was, ushered in by the advent of gun powder and cannons, and in 1569, under the Peace of the Pyrennese treaty, neighbouring Rousillion became part of France, thus moving the border with Spain to the mountains and robbing Carcassonne of its frontier defense raison d'être.

In the 19th century, the lower town flourished however the castle fell in to disrepair and was almost ordered pulled down, before it was repreived and  restored to the fairytale turreted splendour of its mediaeval heyday and nowadays, on a sunny afternoon, it is an almost too perfect vision of disney castle loveliness.

We followed the parking signs - naturally there is a whole carpark for camping-cars! - but somehow got lost and ended up parked in a free side street on the otherside of the hill.  It is only in walking up to the cité gate that you really realise the scale of the place, and once through the walls, you enter the ubiquitous maze of tiny streets.  But it was different and indefineably very french :)  Deciding against €8.50 each for the actual castle - although it is the only way you can walk on the actual ramparts and my brother says it is very good - we wandered throught town and out the other gate to go round the outer lists - the gap between the two sets of walls.  Whilst from here there are no views down inside, you can still see the fabulous vistas of the new town and countryside all the way south across the plains to the snow-capped mountains - hazy in cloud with the sun behind them - no marauding enemy armies could sneak up on this place!

Back inside the walls we wanderd through the streets, squares, tat shops and art galleries, resisted the temptation for lunch and a bottle of wine in a sunny pavement café, found the magnificent church -

with an unusual depiction of Mary as wench, not the style religious art we are used to! - and out and onwards once more.

A brief visit only but so glad we went and we are now back on the road once again, en route to Millau, and heading for a dot on our aires map in Anian for the night.

Bon soir tout le monde, dormez bien.


written 23rd february

so, here we are, back in france!  only two days later than originally forecast :)

We (first) crossed into spain by the most western route possible and have crossed back on the most eastern route possible, which has a nice full-circle feel about it, and we got a snowy mountain pass thrown in as well so our Pyrennese experience is complete :)

and what of spain, a country we have literally visited the four corners of in the 6.5 weeks we spent there.  As I have already said, in our little english campervan, we found the less visited north to be much more welcoming - once we got over the inital shock of San Sebastian! - but that could also have been in part, residual good camping-car vibes from france :)

I would also say though, that the north has the more dramatic and beautiful landscape - if you like coast and mountains which I do! - even though we missed out on some of the best bits due to lack of heating and snow chains :)  The people are friendly and very willing to help even if you have no common language and the petrol is cheaper!  The south does have the headline cities - and they are definately worth a visit - and there are some beautiful places to be found, both inland and on the coast, if you are prepared to look and can aviod the real cliche'd horror spots which are unfortunately many and horrible :(  BTW I forgot to say in my reporting of expat news, Benidorm is apparently the new most popular city of romance, with a greater increase in weekenders over valentaines day than Paris, New York or Rome.  Obviously, you can twist stats to say anything but Benidorm??? 

I can also understand some of the anti brit feeling, if their beaches do fill up in season with sunburnt drunken louts who only want to wash their egg and chips down with sangria all day or their towns have a higher english population than spanish one - to be completely fair we are the same, just read any edition of the daily mail! - and in all fairness, I can understand the anti-motorhome frustration of our anonymous friend if only because the actions of the few, tarnish the actions of the many and having been in the Algarve, I can see understand that if you don't manage the situation properly, the motorhome ghetto can quickly overwhelm a small town - Castro Marim was a perfect example.  I just don't belive that banning them completely, all year round is the answer.  Whatever towns might like to believe, although some prefer it, many people who travel in their homes with all their own facilites are not going to pay €25+ for what is, in effect, very expensive parking where they are paying (often more than people in tents) for facilities they are largely not going to use..   But whilst the campsites therefore do not benefit by them being there, the shops, bars and restaurants miss out if they are not allowed.  Regulate spaces, clearly sign them, limit the maximum duration of stay, provide basic facilities (water and a drain), police them for anti-social behaviour, ensure they are clean and tidy so people will be inclined to give the locale the respect it deserves and by all means, make them off-season only if it is really a problem but don't ban motorhomes outright.  Anyway, absolutely, final comment on that subject and I will get down of my soap-box at last as you are probably bored of it.

So, best bits for Spain:

Best meal: seafood in Tazones.  Soup and andaricas definitely highly recommended.  Pintxos in San Sebastian and paella in Valencia also absolutely deserve a mention.

Best night out:  Seafood and cider with Laura and Cedric, no question.  Who would have thought I like octopus!

Best city:  San Sebastian, with Valencia a very close second. 

Best recommendation: 'Guns of Navarrone' at Cartagena.  Spookily awesome.  Ronda is also up there (as much for the quality of café company you find there as the spectacular setting!)

Best 'attraction':  difficult one.  The Alhambra is unique and unforgettable, as is the Mezquita in Cordoba.  That said, the sheer scale of the Cathedral at Burgos is awesome, although as far as churches go, Santiago de Compostela and the Monserrat Monastery are also pretty special. The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona should also be on this list as an unmissable - albeit not from this trip :)

Best 'non-attraction': I loved my birthday mountain drive and the narnia-like Roncevalles pass through the Pyrennese was simply magical.  The roads round Ronda are also pretty good - if it is not dark, raining or foggy :)  We would also definitely go back for the El Torcal rock formations in more clement weather.

Things we have had 'an elegant suffiency' of (as my granny used to say):  Moorish Castles, cities (walled or otherwise) with 'mazes of typical streets', spanish speed bumps - the idea is to slow cars down, not destroy them!, 'no motorhome's allowed' signs ;)

Although not in anyway part of Spain, Gibraltar also needs a mention here as, in the fabulous weather, the views from the Upper Rock are some of the most spectacular we have seen anywhere ever.  I'm not sure what it would be like to be there for longer than one night - it is pretty small - especially if the weather were bad the whole time, and a considerable part of the charm for us was the sudden rush of familiarity after so long and so far away from home.  But again, somewhere that is more than worth a visit if you're passing that way!

All in all then, we have had a pretty good time of it in Spain but it is definitely time to move on again.  It's funny, I finally got round to sorting out the last few Portugal photos the other day - slack I know! - and found the ones I took across the river and bridge from Castro Marim.  The prospect of going back to Spain was so exciting then - how odd to be looking at France in the same way now! 

Life is already different here.  Almost as soon as we crossed over, we seemed to be surrounded by motorhomes.  We have no idea where they were going, the road only went to Spain and we didn't see any on the otherside!  Drivers seem to be more patient - no mad overtaking manoeuvers on blind corners up hills!  We have passed though towns which are deserted and shuttered up in the middle of the day - in Spain there were always people out chatting on the streets - but at least things re-open at 2pm rather than being shut for hours!  And we have RFM once more on the radio, with the 'party quatre-vignt' and cheery plinkity plonk, feel-good songs settling round us like a comfortable blanket as we drive.

Alors, allez-y mes amis, montez-vous encore dans notre chariot de rêves, et nous verrons tous ensemble tout ce que l'avenir va nous envoyer.