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Friday, 30 October 2009

Flowers in France

The photographs are some of the flowers we saw in France in September and October.

The white lilies were growing by the sea and lagoons on the south coast of France. We saw Meadow Saffron growing in Austria and the French alps.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Holding hands and skimming stones part 2

We have received a request for more videos, so have obliged with this demonstration of how we never get chance to get bored as we are so busy with our self improvement programmes. Hopefully the skills we learn while we are away will help us find suitable employment when we return!

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Once bitte[r]n twice shy

Apologies for the terrible pun in the title of the blog, but we couldn't resist!

We spent a sunny afternoon on a walk along the beach at L’Estartit, to the local nature reserve and settled down in the hide over looking the lagoon and reed beds, content to let the Mallards, Egrets and Black-Backed Gulls entertain us. However, it seemed we were in for a more exciting afternoon; firstly we spotted two groups of terrapins enjoying the warmth of the sun; then we marvelled at the proximity of the Marsh Harrier who provided a couple of displays over the lagoon; finally out of the reeds popped a Bittern, it stood in the sunshine and thoroughly preened its thick neck for long enough to stop us fighting over who would look through the binoculars, before disappearing into the thick reeds again.

Lunchtime in Girona and we found the city centre street where the Lonely Planet guide recommended a veggie restaurant; as we often find with such specialist places, it was no more. Anthony wandered around the corner and returned grinning from ear to ear, he'd found an Indian restaurant; we were able to have onion bhajis for the first time in six months.

We think we may have found the answer to improving the populations health; take a gap year. We now have the time and the weather to be out cycling or walking almost every day; there are always new places to see and we easily exceed the minimum recommended amount of exercise each week. We are also eating plenty of local fruit and vegetables, we are certainly relaxed and feeling well; we haven't had a cold between us since we left the UK. We've both lost some weight, which means that Anthony is verging on fading away, although no danger of that happening to Carol.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Holding hands and skimming stones

Near to Sant Pere Pescador is the Parc Natural dels Aiguamolis de L'Emporda; a wetland area that is a haven for wildlife. We spent a relaxed afternoon there and particularly enjoyed seeing the Cattle Egrets feeding around the horses grazing in the natural park: one Cattle Egret perched cheekily on the back of a horse, others got in the way of the horses as they tried to eat.

We were very impressed with the natural park; it is Ramsar site, which means it is internationally important as a wetland; the interpretation boards were well placed and provided information in five languages, if you count the latin; the footpaths were dry and well marked and there were plenty of hides from which to watch the birds.

We have found exploring this part of the Costa Brava very pleasant; spending a few hours at the Greek and Roman ruins at Empuries and a day pottering around the narrow streets and rocky bays of Cadaques. The beach at Cadaques is a stone skimmers paradise and Anthony rose to the challenge, achieving eight bounces. When Carol picked up a stone, everyone on the beach wisely took cover - they must have seen Stephen's video from Aysgarth Falls!

Thursday, 22 October 2009

We're half way there, livin' on a prayer, take my hand and we'll make it I swear

Having driven the long way round to reach Spain, it has taken us six months to get here. We celebrated our six month milestone in France with a bottle of Blanquette de Limoux, the local sparkling wine that tastes like Champagne to those of us who know no better. The six months have gone by so fast and yet when we look back, we have packed so much in to those months, the day we drove on to the ferry in Dover also seems a life time away.

Despite the attempts by the banks to sabotage our trip by plunging the value of sterling lower and lower, we seem to be on budget: during the seven weeks we spent in southern France we averaged 310 Euro a week, considerably cheaper than Italy and Slovenia.

We have now crossed the border in to Spain, feeling ill-prepared language-wise, but excited to be spending time here, we can't believe it is 15 years since we visited this country. This excitement soared after we inspected the sanitary facilities at the camp site in Sant Pere Pescador; not only did the site provide toilet paper, there were toilet seats too! These are the priorities of two people in a small camper van.

We cycled in to Figueres to visit the Salvador Dali's Theatre Museum and spent a fun couple of hours in this strange monument full of paintings and montages without really understanding any of it.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

I took her to a supermarket, I don't know why

Alet les Bains is a small village about 30 kms south of Carcassonne with some impressive medieval buildings and a thermal spring with Roman connections. It has a camp site owned by a British family with sanitary facilities the Caravan Club would be proud of. The river Aude runs through the site and from our pitch we have seen an Otter and a Kingfisher. The walking is also good here; from a hamlet above the village we had fantastic views over to the Pyrenees, another afternoon walk took us through prickly undergrowth only rivalled by the last Scottish walk we were on with Stephen and Jenny before we came away.

Our walk up to the hamlet was on a Sunday and the groups of hunters were out in force; we passed three groups of parked white vans and jeeps, spotted men in fluorescent jackets on the woodland edge and heard occasional gunshot, we felt lucky to return to the van unscathed.

We cycled along a track from Alet les Bains in to Limoux, a charming small town which seems to have retained more than just cafes, boutiques and estate agents in its town centre. Out of town shopping is everywhere in France; even the book shops and music shops are large warehouse buildings on the ring road and generally if you want to buy anything more substantial than an ice cream you need to find the nearest hypermarket.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Come on with me cruising down the street, who knows what you’ll see who you might meet

Gruissan, south of Narbonne is a pleasant coastal town and in the windy weather we’ve had, strangely reminiscent of Scotland, with its ruined castle, lagoons and craggy hills. The walking on these limestone hills is more spectacular than their size might suggest and the views over vine yards and the Mediterranean are marvellous. The photo is in a shelter for hunters, but welcomed by two non-hunters on a breezy day.

We took the bus into Narbonne for the afternoon and strolled around the narrow streets and along the tree-lined canal that runs through the centre of the town. We saw more people in obvious poverty here than anywhere else in France; an elderly woman in black asking every passer-by, ‘Avez vous une cigarette?’, a group of men in one of the squares drinking beer, other men on their own, sitting on the ground with their dog huddled next to them and a busker; not a music school student busker, earning some extra cash for his gap year, this was a busker playing a couple of tunes on a cheap recorder. This active street life reminded us of people you see in Preston and we felt at home in Narbonne.

The weather has changed dramatically in the last week and for our day out in Carcassonne we had to put away the shorts and dig out our long trousers, as the strong wind took the warmth out of the sun. It is impossible not to have high expectations of Carcassonne and the scale and splendour of the place is impressive, which even in October is full of tourists.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

When she walks by she brightens up the neighbourhood

The Camargue is a protected area in France and Europe; the Rhone delta is a vast area, important for wildlife and plants, with strict limits on development and traffic and the area is managed by a conservation charity.

We cycled along the tracks, in to the reserve; a stunningly beautiful area of lagoons, salt marsh and sturdy plants that can withstand the salty and windy conditions. We watched numerous flamingoes, little egrets and curlews and enjoyed the cheerful colour of the Golden Samphire. The deep pink of the underside of the wings of the flamingoes when they are in flight is stunning. On the edges of the reserve the characteristic white horses are common and black bulls stand up to their knees in the lagoons.

In Saintes Maries de la Mer, you don't have to get out and about to experience the wildlife. Anthony risked public humiliation, taking the camera into the toilets to photograph the tiny bright green European Tree Frog that finds camp site sanitary facilities the perfect location for insect catching. This fantastic frog, about 3 - 4 cms long, would be very difficult to see in the wild, but is easy against white PVC windows.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Standing at the fork in the road

The French are very polite and helpful. Twice while out for a walk in the Cevennes we have been studying our map at a cross-roads and a Renault has screeched to a halt and the occupant helped us find the correct route. The first apologised for not being able to speak English, the second seemed to realise we were English despite our excellent French and gave us directions in our own language. We don't understand why people say the French are arrogant, unless they are confusing arrogance with pride in their country.

The French word for tyre, pneu, is one of those we struggle to say with a straight face and so we had to practice hard before we went in search of two new front tyres for the van to ensure we did not giggle inappropriately.

The Campsite near Anduze, Camping Cevennes-Provence, deserves a mention after an enjoyable six nights here. The site is prettily set on a hill, with lots of tree-lined terraces that are a warren to explore, with different views and a stone tower at the top. A river runs along the site and one evening we think we spotted an otter out for a swim, as well as being a good place to watch Dippers and Herons. It is also in an area with some fantastic walks, what more could we want.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

And keeps all your dead hair for making up underwear

It is three months since our last hair cut, so we made a rendezvous on the camp site with La Coiffeuse. She arrived with a bag of equipment, including a folding mirror, so that we were able to have the full salon experience al fresco (to mix up our languages).

Now we are both more presentable again (although still un-ironed) and Anthony no longer resembles a scarecrow after a breezy day cycling, we could consider treating ourselves to a meal out. However, this is France and we are vegetarian and we can only reminisce fondly about the choice of restaurants and dishes we enjoyed in Italy as we study menus for something, anything, that doesn't involve a dead animal. No doubt this will only get worse as we move on to Spain. In the meantime we will just have to make do with the fantastic French cakes.

We are waiting for La Poste to bring us another parcel from Matthew: This one will hopefully bring a replacement tap for the sink in the van, as Anthony has had to cobble together a repair involving a bicycle chain link to fix the one we have, as well as other unknown goodies from Manchester.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Mama take these guns off me, I don't need them anymore

We are camping near Anduze, on the edge of the Cevennes; an area of scrub or Maquis thick with aromatic plants, Strawberry trees and Holm Oak, with no shortage of walking trails.

It is the hunting season in France and the guide books warn you to stay away from the the woods at the weekends. On Sunday we saw gatherings of two or three men dressed in khaki with guns slung over their shoulders intent on terrifying the red squirrels.

After a long days hike on Monday, we chose a shorter route the next day, following a walk in a leaflet from the Tourist Office to a view point above Anduze. In England this walk would have been featured in the local scrambles guide and provided us with some excitement, particularly on the descent. This reminded us of the Austrian Tourist Office cycling leaflet that suggested 60 kms cycle rides as suitable for families. It was reassuring to know that if we had injured ourselves on the scramble the camp site staff all had up-to-date First Aid training; we had watched them absorbing a power point presentation and practising on each other while we had breakfast that morning.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Well there's technicolour and cinemascope

We have put another video on the blog, to show you a little bit of life in the campervan when we are on a site and how we live in our small space. Apologies for the amateur quality of this; we make no claims to be professional film makers. All you need to know is this is take four! Click the arrow to see the short film.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Where do we go now?

The pattern of our trip is controlled by ourselves to a large extent, although we never know what we will find and who we will meet. We are content to find a lovely spot and stay there for a few days, and find pleasure in getting to know a small town and its surrounding area more intimately on foot and bicycle. However, we also find that we enjoy the nomadic nature of the trip; there is always the optimism that we could arrive at the most fantastic campsite in Europe and the excitement of not knowing what the day will bring as we cruise along unknown roads listening to good music and luxuriating in the warmth of the sun.

Many camp sites in France have closed now for the winter, although it is still over 25 degrees C and this will also influence where we stay.

The photograph was taken in the lovely Jardin de la Fontaine in Nimes; the first public park in France and dotted with Roman ruins incorporated in to the 18th Century formal terraces and ponds, shown in the photograph.

Summer has gone and passed ...

It is October and we are still wearing shorts!

Travelling through southern Europe, it seems to us that whatever some people might think in England, we are Europeans; our history, our social and political systems, our geography and our economy are all closely inter-woven with that of European countries and as we have visited different places and seen and learnt more, these ties becomes clearer – the Romans, the Renaissance, the I and II World Wars and so much more are all shared experiences. Why then, don’t we have a special relationship with France or Germany?

In Orange and Nimes we have visited many Roman buildings and are constantly impressed by the scale of their buildings and the skilfulness of their stone masons. The Theatre in Orange was a particular highlight, where we learnt something about life in Roman colonial towns.