Friday, June 17, 2016

Fin de la voyage

Gradually, as we drove west out of Switzerland and back into France, the weather improved.  It was only temporary, however. We found a campground in the village of Villersexel.  Shortly after we got our supplies, the skies opened again, this time with small hail.  By early evening, skies had cleared and it was a nice evening on the French countryside again, where we were camped by a small river.

The next day, we wanted to get closer to Paris so we could get there early in the morning to inquire about prospects in the event of a controller strike, supposedly scheduled for Tuesday.  Nothing much helpful came from our visit to the airport, so we drove in search of an old château to visit and a new campground.  The village of Melun appealed, so here we are.

 The village is on the Seine and our campground was partly under 1m of water two weeks ago.  About 100 campground visitors had to be evacuated in the middle of the night.  You can still see the high water mark on the bushes.  This village had another devastating flood in 1910; a display in town shows the results.  My navigator here points to the high water mark on roadside bushes in front of the campground.

 The château visited was Vaux-le-Vicomte, constructed in the mid-1600s by Nicholas Fouquet.  Vast spaces of very formal gardens, stone work, ponds, statues, and, of course, the château itself.  It was a precarious existence, though, because the owner attracted the envy of King Louis XIV, who had him arrested.  He spent the next 34 years imprisoned.

Château de Fontainebleau was also nearby, so my navigator visited that as well.

On Monday, we checked in at the airport again to hear that our airline supposedly is not to be affected in any labour troubles.  Flights on Tuesday should be fine.  Unfortunately, after spending 2 hours in horrific traffic on the "A" roads outside of Paris, we decided against going back south to Melun or to Chartres.  Instead we went north and had a look at the cathedral at Senlis, dating from the 1100s.  Senlis was once the home of French royalty until they began to favour other places like Fountainebleau.

Only the flights and the waiting left.

Update... A quick, 15 minute drive to the airport from Senlis.  We were there before 7 am for a flight that is scheduled for 2 pm.  The customer service guy offered us a flight with Air Canada that went thru Toronto and gets to YVR 90 minutes earlier.  We took it.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

The French Alps & Switzerland

We're down to the last 11 days now.  Just time to wander north into Switzerland, see some of the landmarks there, do some hiking and then head back to Paris, assuming it hasn't been washed away by then....

Tonight we're stopped in a small village called Corps.  About an hour south of Grenoble.  It's a municipal campground with only about 20 sites, but it has some unusual attributes: toilet paper, toilet seats, and water available at our site.  The water in the showers is also decently warm.  Not hot, but warm enough.  And all for about 10 Euros.

 There are big mountains here and I think the really big ones are hiding in the clouds.  It would be nice to see them but at least we aren't being inundated by floods.  Some cloud we can manage.

Sunday.  No clear skies when we get up, but little surprise there.  A short drive brings us to Switzerland where we get a 2 second look from the border guards before being waved on.  It's Sunday and traffic is light, the roads are wide and quiet. We're heading for Visp which is the valley access to Zermatt and the Matterhorn.

A quick Google maps search earlier has identified a campground which we quickly find and get set up.  Here, the language options seem to be German or English.  Amongst the information we're given is one gem.  Free bike rental for up to 4 hours.  And it happens to be open today.

After completing the passport scanning, deposit paying and such, we head down the Rhone valley on our free bikes past two small villages which offer good photo opportunities.  And it's sunny and warm.

After, fortified by a beer and snacks, we drive in the direction of Zermatt to explore.  New highway construction with tunnels.  Possible trails through some of the highest vineyards in the world.  Stuff for tomorrow.  It's time for supper.

Monday we visit Zermatt.  First we drive 28 km to Tasch.  There we must use pay parking.  Buy tickets ($20 each) for a 10 minute train ride to Zermatt.  There, the common option seems to be C$150 each for another train ride to a peak at some distance from the Matterhorn.  We opt to hike and do what any climbers would do: head towards the mountain.  In a couple of hours we are at about 2500 m and close enough to the mountain that we can study the route up the SE ridge, examine the glacier (where 4 of Whymper's first ascent team ended up after falling 1700 m), observe a Swiss Alpine Club hut not far away... All under clear blue skies.  Our return route takes us higher before dropping down to Zermatt.  Past weathered Swiss pasture shelters, weathered wood, stone roofs, meadows with sheep....

We buy some lunch.  It reminds us of how expensive things are here in Switzerland.  Here is a photo of our $30 lunch.

Exiting the car park later is a strange experience.  I drive to the exit and feed in my ticket.  Won't accept it (at least that's what I think it's saying because of my poor German skills..).  Catherine mentioned seeing an obscure sign asking if you've paid for your parking yet.  I park again and walk back into the "terminal" where I'm directed to a machine that accepts my ticket and my credit card, returning both after exacting the appropriate toll.  I try to drive out again, this time successfully.  Is it just me or is this an awkward way to do things?  I can think of one better place for that payment machine.  Wanna guess where that would be?

Our campground has a communal fridge.  We have cold beer in it which we appreciate after the day's explorations.

Tuesday, we hike through some very high vineyards before driving off towards the Interlaken area which is just on the other side of the mountain range we're looking at.  It's an all-day drive, however. 

The first pass is still closed from winter snow so we drive on.  A second pass is closed.  Fortunately, there is still a way around and we arrive at Lauterbrunnen early on the afternoon.  Quite a stunning drive.

We are now in the valley that counts the Eiger and the Jungfrau among the towering sentinels at its end.  We can sort of see them.  Showers seem imminent.

The next day, skies seem likely to clear, so we take a cable car to a high point and hike for another 4 hours, with great views of the large peaks at the end of the valley.  The Eiger, the Jungfrau, Monch.  All in the 4000 m range.  It rains for the last hour of our hike and basically keeps raining.  We pack up and leave the next morning.

Some driving in a downpour, some convoluted routes, more construction, more long tunnels, bring us out of Switzerland and back into France.  It's interesting how little fanfare there is about changing countries here...nothing.  A border control officer talked to us for a couple of minutes and that was it.

We're now in the Hautes Saone region of France.  At least the weather is starting to clear, for the moment.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Bonjour Provence

After leaving Spain, we made a fast drive on the French "interstate" to get north as far as the valley of the Ardeche, which is almost in Provence and which we had visited earlier in the upstream regions.  That also put us very close to Orange and Avignon.

We made one small diversion along the Mediterranean coast to drive down to the beach and put body parts in the salt water.  Despite being a nice day (to a Canadian), the huge beach was empty.  There were people on the campground, but apparently the weather wasn't good enough to tempt them any further..

 Speaking of French "interstates"...  These are the "A" auto-routes and, so far as we can tell, they are all toll roads.  Lots of traffic, very good condition, and a speed limit of around 130 km/hr.  We drove on one for about 3 hours and it cost around 20 Euros.  That's about $30 CAD in case you're thinking you already spend too much on roads.  User pay.  I like it.

Once we got off the main roads, old roman ruins and buildings dating from the 11th and 12th centuries are scattered here and there.  One collection was close to our campground on the Ardeche.  The next day, we visited Orange, a town with some interesting Roman ruins.  Then we went a short distance south to see the old walled city of Avignon.  Old.  Lots of rocks.  Big.

 Having had our fill of cities, we moved further east to the town of Apt.  As usual, something that looked small on the map was surprisingly larger.  We found a nice campground, a place to rent bikes the next morning and went hiking for what remained of our day.

 Apt is in the Luberon (a range of hills and a region) in southwestern Provence.  It's dryer here and the forest is more short-needled pines and a kind of scrub Mediterranean oak.  There are none of the many streams and rivers flowing that we've seen elsewhere in France.

We spent a morning biking near Apt and it was nice pedalling by fields of lavender (sadly not blooming yet), ripening cherries, sunflowers, grapes and some other unidentified growing things.

 We've been hearing about floods in Paris.  Our weather has certainly been mixed, and there have been notices in every campground about flooding, but we seem to have escaped "les innundations" that have been happening in other places.  We had one torrential downpour in Dijon, but that was the worst and short-lived.  Otherwise it's been occasional showers and quite a bit of cloud.  Yesterday, we had blue skies while biking, which was most pleasant.

 Our campground the second night, just across the valley, had a restaurant, so we went out to sample the regional cuisine for supper.  For a small place down at the end of a small road out in the country, the place was hopping by 8 pm.  Notable were the pommes de terres au gratin and warm goat cheese on baguette.  Gourmand that I am, I had fries and a brochette au boeufSalade vert avec l'ail.

This morning (Friday), we started driving north.  Our time is running out and we need to see some of Switzerland.

Our route north took us out of the Apt valley, up over the hills and down into more valleys with great views.  Lots of woods, cultivated fields and the occasional small village.  Some sections through rocky gorges with narrow winding roads.

It didn't take long to leave Provence an we gradually entered the precursor to the Alps.  Of course, cloud obscures the big peaks that we assume are there, but one gets the idea of larger, more massive mountains.  Not just hills any more.

Au Revoir, Provence.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Hasta la vista Espagna

It's Sunday afternoon and we are back in France.  That had to be the shortest visit to Spain ever.
We spent one slightly damp night at a campground near El Pont de Swert.  Very well appointed place.  Continued driving East.  The roads here are quite good and generally wider than those in France, so our trip across half of Spain will have taken only a few hours.
The scenery has been really quite good.  Reasonably big mountains, some good road engineering, long ascents and descents, miles of hairpin turns, and more traffic.  Unfortunately my navigator has an upset tummy.  All the hairpin turns probably aren't helping.

 So far, the Spanish towns have been more active than many of the French towns we've seen.  More restaurants have been open, more people have been in the streets and even on a Sunday afternoon, we found a grocery store open.

 We stopped for the day at a small place near Serdinya, now back in France.  We're running out of time with lots more terrain to cover so it looks like Spain might need another trip just for it alone.  What we've seen so far we have liked.
The valley here is lined by towering rock walls and is probably less than half a km wide.  We're getting the mutterings of thunder among the peaks.
We expect to be back near Provence tomorrow.

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Demain, France

We're on our way out of France, at least temporarily.  After 2 short hikes thus morning, we were ready to find our way south.  More on that in a moment.

First, though, we continued up the small road that ran past our campground slash farm.  It climbed steeply and narrowly, ending once it reached the plateau.  Here we walked for about an hour.  Views out were fair, given the weather.

Then we descended and climbed up the other side of the valley to a small dam where we had a nice hike around the lake and along a rushing stream.  Even had some sunshine.

Time to move on, and to do that, we needed to get into a valley to the east which involved going north to Lourdes, then east, then south again.  We camped for the night and will go into Spain tomorrow.

We noticed a sign that we were able to translate about the closure of the tunnel through the mountains.  Only during the day and not on the weekends.  Tomorrow is Saturday so we should be OK.

Our campground, La Bourie, must have been some kind of manufacturing plant in the past.  There are some large warehouse type buildings and a tall brick chimney in the area of the present campground.  A bit gone to seed, somewhat derelict with only a few signs of it's former life.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Randonnees aux Pyrenees

The skies were somewhat threatening this morning and a few drops did fall, but we pressed on with the day's plan.  No rooster woke us, by the way.

We drove up to the next village, Gavarnie, then up a very narrow, precipitous road into La Vallee d'Ossoue, stopping only when we ran out of pavement.  We continued on foot, eventually reaching a dam and a reservoir (mostly empty) and decided to press on up into the meadows on one of the trails leading off into the hills.  This turned into another 2 hours of wandering before we finally dropped back down to the road just in time for lunch.

We then hiked from the village up to one of the major cirques in the area and admired the views.  Can't say I liked the village.  It's obviously set up for summer tourists (which aren't here yet) and winter skiing, which is well over by now.  And the village has none of the charm we usually find.  A couple of bars were open plus a store selling pink teddy bears and other junk, but nothing selling a tasty pastry, which is what we really wanted.

 The day's outing was nice, though, getting increasingly warm and sunny as the morning progressed.

We also saw a small herd of small deer-like animals.  We discovered later they were Isards, related to the chamois of the Alps.  Lots of marmots too.

Anyhow, it was a full day.  Probably 6 hours of hiking, enough to earn a beer and chips, the snack of last resort when you can't find a pastry shop stocked and open.

C'est dommage, malheursement.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Les Hautes Pyrenees

We are now in the foothills of the High Pyrenees.  Snowy peaks are just to the south of us.
Today's travel was more vertical than horizontal, or so it seemed.

We drove over two high passes, with the second being just over 2000m.  There was much too-ing and fro-ing as we climbed and descended.  A slow way to get anywhere.

The first pass was beautiful, with great views down into both valleys.  The second was marred by a massive ski development.  Huge hotels, many lifts to every peak in view and all completely empty at this time of the year.

The peaks, however, are very nice, even to a person from the Kootenays.  Narrow valleys, high peaks, open fields...mostly deciduous trees here.

We stopped for the night at a small farm campground near a village called Gebre.  Only one more village between us and the several cirques at the end of the valley, with the Spanish border just beyond.  To get to Spain from here, though, will require almost a day's drive, because we can't use this valley but must be on the next valley east.  But that's Friday's problem.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, we plan to hike into the cirques to the south.  We will see when the local rooster wakes us up.