5th – 16th November 2017
Birthday over, the intention was to drive across the country to Pescara for work on the van then drive more than 1300 miles through the Alps and down through France and Spain and Formentera del Segura by 17th November to catch up with Del & Glyn before they head home for Xmas. That’s the trouble with making even vague plans……
It started well. Our first detour was when Kate noticed signs to Montecassino Abbey – she had visited on her school-trip so we drove up to it which of course involved winding our way through hairpins 1700 feet up the rocky hill on which the it is perched.
The first abbey was built here in 529BC by St Benedict, his first, but it’s more famous for being obliterated by the Allies during World War 2. The Germans avoided taking the abbey to prevent it being destroyed, but the Allies believed they had so bombed it out of existence, creating rubble that the Germans then occupied and used as cover. It took thousands of lives to dislodge them – not the Allies finest hour. The abbey was rebuilt after the war in grand style with wonderful use of coloured marble and, in the crypt, mosaics.
It was just as magnificent as Kate remembered. The Poles, who lost a lot in the fighting, built a cemetery on the hillside which can be clearly seen from the abbey terrace, very poignant,
but the Commonwealth cemetery was built near to Cassino and is now difficult to see from the abbey as the town and it’s industries have sprawled out around it.
After that worthwhile detour we headed inland up into the mountains and moving straight into autumn. (Yes it’s November, it just didn’t feel like autumn before this). The clouds were lowering but the colours of gold and yellows on the trees as we entered the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo were gorgeous. It was great to be back in the mountains.
In the Sangro valley just outside the hillside village of Opi (above) we found a pretty campsite surrounded by trees where we were the only customers,. We hooked up just as it went dark and the rain and thunderstorm set in.
The rain stopped by morning and the clouds had lifted to show us the wonderful landscape around – what a great setting amongst mountains and woods. As we moved on the scenery was even better than the day before and we saw plenty of signs warning of the deer, bear and wolves that inhabit the park. (Nat had thoughtfully sent us a link to a “how to deal with bears” website.) The sat nav took us between Lago di Barrea and the village above it, reminiscent of the Lakes but without the people, and definitely somewhere for walking in the summer if you don’t mind the bears!
Further on, still over 3000ft above sea level we drove along the flat broad bottom of the Piano della Cinquemiglia – Plain of the 5 miles – a glaciated hanging valley which reminded Kate of geography lessons in the dim and distant past, then steeply down to the Pescara river valley which we followed down to the coast and Squadralab, the garage that was going to fix all our problems….
They let us stay overnight in the yard for free with full motorhome facilities and settled in for roasted quail and green lentils for dinner. A long morning at Squadralab who looked at – but declined to work on – our gas system which is unfamiliar in Italy (or Spain, or Germany). The oven issue was resolved and some minor warranty work done but more importantly he replaced the kitchen tap. Hurrah!
After that detour we now had 10 days to make it to Del & Glyn’s place. We took the autostrada north getting as far as Rimini before stopping overnight at an almost empty campsite near the beach – typically the rain started almost straight away.
Next day was one of autostrada – all toll roads – which cost us a whopping €120. We only came off to get diesel – a massive 32 cents/litre cheaper than on the autostrada. Our budget wasn’t at all unhappy that we were heading out of Italy! It did however allow us to make very good progress, crossing Italy passing Bologna, Modena, Parma, and Turin then north back into the Alps and finally through the 8-mile long Tunnel du Frejus (a staggering €58.60) that took took us into France and from the clouds and golden hues of autumn to the snow of winter. The pine covered mountains with their dusting of white looked quite magical and snowflakes were gently falling when we came out of the tunnel. It felt a bit unreal – we had been in 26℃ sunshine only 4 days ago.
We quickly located an Aire at St Jean de Maurienne, a carpark in the town centre where we parked for free. It had a motorhome point that we couldn’t work out how to use and one of those great self-cleaning public toilets. We set up the satellite dish and celebrated our return to BBC world by settling down to watch Masterchef The Professionals.
Having spent so much time on the toll roads yesterday we now took a route without them and were immediately glad. We gradually left the snow behind as we travelled south along the Arc river valley.
We stopped at a small Super U which made us delighted to be back in France as compared with Italian supermarkets the selection of produce was fantastic. Good beef and lamb, old favourites such as Old el Paso and Sacla, Asian basics such as egg noodles, and all the great french stuff in tins and jars – cassoulet, lentils with sausage, ratatouille. Heaven.
We skirted Grenoble then went South through Sisteron with it’s enticing looking castle, flags flying, regretting we didn’t have time to stop and visit. We left the valley and climbed a hill through the village of Villeneuve to it’s Aire in the cemetery – described as ‘dead quiet’ in the book – where we were surprised to find another 5 motorhomes already parked up. We wrapped up against the chilly air and went for a walk through the pretty, traditional village with steep winding cobbled streets and panoramic over the valley below.
We continued south, passing the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence and along the road between the Mediterranean and the large lake of Etang de Berre. Despite the industry round here, it manages to maintain a wild air. Just below Arles we entered the Camargue National Park on the Rhone delta, framed between the Grand and Petit Rhone rivers. Soon we were passing the famous white horses and black bulls grazing the wild marshes, saw harriers quartering low for prey, and arrived at the edge of the Mediterranean and Saintes Maries de la Mer, a nice little town with a good sized Aire. We expected it to be nearly empty but it was packed with French motorhomes, a fair few towing quads. We were the only non-French motorhome on the Aire. And apparently the only people unaware of the festival on in the town to celebrate the Gardians, those who still herd the white horses and black cattle of the Camargue in the traditional way. There are no fences in the Camargue and the animals roam free, the Gardians looking after them from horseback. A hard life that is slowly disappearing – if you want to know more a short video can be found at :
The festival involves a cavalcade of Gardians on their horses herding the cattle between them and travelling between villages on the marsh and ending up in Sts Maries. We walked in to explore and found a bull ring next to the sea with a lot of horses, carriages and horsey people obviously clearing up at the end of the day’s cavalcade.
The town centre was buzzing with Camarguois and people who had come for the festival. As it got dark we watched the horsey crowd start their partying, the smell of pastis/pernod almost overpowering. It looked like it was going to be a good night. We retired to our van, feeling our age!
Remembrance Day. We had intended to go birdwatching this morning but concerns about mum changed that and led to our biggest detour yet. Mum had had a fall a few days earlier and was struggling so we decided Kate should fly home. A couple of hours on frustratingly slow internet resulted in a flight being booked followed by a 2-hour drive to a nice campsite on the outskirts of Aix en Provence. Kate got a taxi to Marseille airport, caught the Lufthansa flight via Frankfurt, and with a taxi from Manchester she got to mum’s not too long after 11pm.
Danny spent his time round the van doing a few bits and carried out a recce on Aix en Provence and airport buses, which somehow involved a nice lunch at a pavement cafe in glorious sunshine!
Kate managed to fit in an all-too-short catch-up with Gail who also provided the absolute luxury of a hot bath with bubbles! And under mum’s direction she made the Xmas puds, adding a generous slug of brandy.
When all was done that could be to make her comfortable Kate flew back reassured that we would be back there in 3 weeks. From the airport we took the bus into Aix-en-Provence where Danny had booked a special ‘welcome home’ meal at a restaurant recommended by a local waiter charmingly set in a 15th century vaulted cellar. In our scruffs, rucksacks propped against the wall, we shared a bottle of wine and tucked into a lovely 3-course meal supplemented with free extras. A nice end to a completely unexpected few days.
Danny had liked the site so much that we relaxed there for another day in glorious sunshine enjoying the almost empty site, the privacy of our pitch and the luxury of good wifi.
Next day we filled up with petrol and LPG (which had unexpectedly run-out overnight) and drove back towards the Camargue. When we stopped at a Lidl Danny turned on the LPG cylinders and immediately there was a loud hissing and a strong smell of gas which just wouldn’t stop. We rang Travelworld and whilst waiting for the ‘immediate’ call-back we detoured inland towards an N&B service partner at Cardet. An hour later we called them back and they talked Danny through options. He had already tightened a connector by hand which appeared to stop the leak but we decided to carry on to the service partner and were very glad we did. Cevennes Caravannes checked for gas leaks and gave us the all clear so we went in to browse their excellent shop – at last Danny got the snow shoes he wanted for the van. We had left the snow behind but the Pyrenees lie ahead so who knows.
It was considerably later than we had intended when we left Cardet, intending to park up on an Aire we had seen on the way out on the banks of the Petit Rhone at Nimes. It was dark when we got to the exact co-ordinates in the Aires book – and found a bus depot. After 15-minutes searching – via a gypsy site – we gave up and headed back down to our old spot at Saints Maries de la Mer, arriving late. The first time in our travels we have ever returned somewhere. Strangely comforting. We didn’t have time now to fit in the visit to Del & Glyn, but otherwise the detours were over – we hope!