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Friday, 25 September 2009

Red, red wine, go to my head

Agriculture has provided a changing back-drop for our journey; olive trees in Southern Italy, rice fields in the north, tall rows of hops in Slovenia and fields of dark green ripening corn in Austria. Everywhere there have been vines, but the scale of the viniculture is most significant here in the Rhone Valley.

This is pleasant cycling country and as we meander around the lanes we pass a field of vines with no more than half a dozen workers in hats harvesting the grapes; farmers in check shirts and green overalls pass us on their tractors, pulling a trailer brimming with bunches of the dark red fruit; the sweet smell of grape juice from the wineries makes stopping to try a glass of red irresistible and we watch the farmers chatting in the sun as their harvest is unloaded.

Each small village we pass is on a hill and has narrow streets circling up to the church at the top. As well as the wine, the villages have patisseries to tempt us with apple tarts and sugary buns, just the thing for flagging cyclists. At a picnic spot we sit watching kestrels fly over the vineyards and crack open the fallen ripe walnuts from the tree we were leaning on.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

One of these mornings that chain is going to break

After a week of unsettled weather, which provided us with some entertainment on the campsite at Aix, as we watched large vans skidding and digging themselves into the mud from our lofty and, we hoped, well draining pitch, it is now hot and sunny again.

Despite numerous cafes and restaurants, there is often a lack of veggie food and we are delighted to find that France has at last adopted the very best of British cuisine; in the charming town of Avignon we found Pain Frites, the chip butty. In a small, greasy café we ate half a baguette filled with chips and mayonnaise and reminisced about chip butties in Salford.

You might think that after over 60 different campsites we had encountered every type of showering facility available in Europe. Yet, the French have come up with a shower that takes the discomfort and awkwardness of camp site showers to new heights; the pull-chain shower. To access hot water you have to use one hand to pull the chain, leaving your other hand free to wash your nooks and crannies. Reaching your toes while hanging on to this chain requires flexibility we no longer have and washing your hair one-handed is a skill we never knew we needed to develop.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Paint your palette blue and grey

In Aix-en-Provence we took the opportunity for a spot of culture; an exhibition showing the influence of Cezanne on Picasso was showing at the Musee Grandet. Knowing very little about either painter, we enjoyed some of the ideas in the exhibition and were interested to learn more about the life of both painters.
Aix is a lively and attractive place, even without its links to famous artists. We enjoyed window shopping around the narrow streets of the old town and being an audience for the chic weddings at the town hall and the Cathedral.
The camp site in Aix has a small cat population too, including the lovely moggy in the photograph who made herself at home in the van. She clearly has Siamese relatives and is the first cat we have met who is hungry enough to eat the vegan staple food, couscous and vegetables.

To live without my music would be impossible to do

While we have been away we have bought two new CDs; this years Green Day CD, ‘21st Century Breakdown’ and the new Muse CD, ‘The Resistance.’ Coincidently, the lyrics of both CDs depict a dark world we need to break free from and speak of the oppression and control in society. Musically, they are very different; while Green Day continue to thrash out angry, political rock, Muse have made the inevitable evolution to a rock-symphonic sound.

After a wet day driving through the spectacular Verdon Gorge and a tri-lingual argument with an arrogant camp site worker, we spent a couple of days on the Presqu’ile de Giens on the Mediterranean coast. On a campsite we would recommend to anyone with sinus problems; we were surrounded by eucalyptus trees and their scent hung thickly in the air, you would save a fortune in Olbas Oil. We cycled along the old salt pans, stopping to watch the Flamingoes, Little Egrets and Avocets, to the pleasant little town of Hyeres and walked through the shady terraces of the Cubist garden, Parc de St Bernard, full of glorious flowers and shrubs and later dipped our toes into the sea.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

We tumble and fall, together we crawl

We are often surprised by the relaxed attitude continental Europeans have to health and safety. Everywhere we have seen road workers working in precarious stretches of road above ravines and in gorges, controlling traffic with a green and red lollipop and not a hard hat in sight.

At the campsite in Guillestre we have been entertained by the tree pruning. This is carried out by a family member who props a ladder against a tall pine and clambers up the ladder and high up into the crown, using the base of previously pruned branches as foot holds; he holds on with one hand, in the other he dangles a large saw. At a lofty height he then saws through branches which fall on to the campsite among the caravans and tents.

The spectacular Guil Gorge, shown in the photograph, is popular with climbers, including the local Gendarmerie; we passed the squad car in the carpark and found them roping up as we followed the occasionally exciting narrow climbers path along the gorge.

Friday, 11 September 2009

If there's a letter in your bag for me

The number of other British campers we have seen has markedly increased since we arrived in France. On the campsite in Guillestre we have chatted and swopped books with Mike and Doreen from Stafford. They have many years of travelling experience behind them and tell a good tale and remain enthusiastic about exploring new places.

The insurance for the van is due this month; the campsite is a bargain at 11 Euros a night, and with free wi fi and a book of local walks from the Tourist Information, waiting for the post to bring the insurance documents is no hardship. The documents reached us after three days, so full marks to Safeguard and La Poste.

The photograph is at the Col de Bramousse, at 2,250 m a lovely viewpoint; we rested and ate our picnic here, closely watched by two vigilant Marmots, while we watched a Spotted Nutcracker flitting among the pine trees.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Just purse your lips and whistle, that's the thing

We consider ourselves very fortunate to have seen Marmots a number of times this summer. We first bumped in to these small, furry mammals in the Dolomites and with Matthew and Rachel we had two lovely days when we watched hordes of them in the Valgrisenche.

Near Guillestre we stumbled on a group of Marmots that live close to human habitation and seem to be happy to co-exist, giving us the opportunity to watch them feeding, relating to each other and moving around. Although small and chubby, Marmots move quickly and nimbly over rocky ground. Their thick fur and layers of fat help them survive the winter hibernation and their feet and toes are made for digging the complex burrows they live in. According to the signs here, they eat dandelions and clover and they spend a lot of time munching away in the meadows; one Marmot is always the duty watch and calls with a high pitched whistle if there is something to be alarmed about. They are marvellous at sitting still, either looking around sitting up on their back legs or flat to the ground with legs spread out trying to keep cool. Despite the signs, many people bring carrots to hand-feed to the Marmots; we stuck to clover, as we did not wish to be responsible for a sick Marmot.

Even though we are in September, there are still plenty of flowers around; the lovely Meadow Saffron and wild lavender are still flowering, as well as lots of fruits and berries ripening; our walks halt as we stop to eat wild raspberries and blackberries. We are also still seeing plenty of butterflies, lizards and grasshoppers on our walks. We have been very excited to see Crested Tits in the pine woods around Guillestre, something we've never managed to see in Scotland.

We hope you are suitably impressed with our grasp of technology; we have hopefully included a video of the Marmots with this blog. Just click on the small arrow below the picture below - have your speakers on. Enjoy!

Monday, 7 September 2009

Je habiter la, a la South of France

We arrived in Briancon from Italy and have spent some time in our first French National Park. The Ecrins National Park is an area of high mountains; becoming a fairly normal habitat for us. Our joy is boundless to find footpaths with signposts and campsites galore along with mountain to mountain sunshine to bask in. The village of Vallouise, where we camped, also had a micro brewery and a choice of bakeries.

We have both read John Hillaby's 'Journey through Europe' recently: He walked from Holland to the French south coast in 1969. It is interesting to read of his experiences 40 years on, reflecting on what has changed. His concerns for the natural environment seem insightful to us now, although the improvements in the quality of the rivers since then is considerable. John Hillaby followed some of France's first Grand Randonee (GR) and argues for a network of paths across all of Europe. Forty years on this has been achieved, with over 100 GRs in France, linking to footpaths in other countries.

John Hillaby's explanation of why he made his trip has resonance with our own:
'I wasn't getting away from it all; I was trying to get with something. Essentially, it was the rediscovery and enlargement of a portion of the world of which I have the joy of being a part.'

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

They call me baby driver

We play crazy golf whenever we get the chance, but Menaggio on the shores of Lake Como was the first time we were aware of playing on a world mini golf sport federation course. It was also the first time in Kubicki family history that Carol had ever won!

Menaggio is a pretty little town where you are never more than 100 metres from an ice cream shop and with plenty of opportunities to catch boats to other pretty little towns. The 1930s Lido in Menaggio is a fantastic curvaceous building of that period, recently renovated and has a micro-brewery. It contrasts with the rest of the town, which is more typical of northern Italy.

After four nights in a hotel, getting used to our own bathroom, a swimming pool and a buffet breakfast, we are wondering how we will adjust to life in the van again. It has been so good to spend the last ten days with Matthew and Rachel; next time we see them it will be Christmas.