France – Provence and Les Alpilles

We moved on to beautiful Provence and have been staying in a gorgeous picture postcard stone village, Eygalieres.  We’ve spent the last week exploring the area, on the bikes and in the car and have completely fallen for it.  Based amongst a chain of white jagged mountains, Les Alpilles, we are surrounded by vineyards, olive trees, lavender fields and good restaurants!  There are beautiful stone wine farms and olive mills everywhere and we’ve loved cycling through the mountains, taking in butterfly filled vineyards and magnificent stone villages.

Nearby in neighbouring St-Remy de Provence, is a remarkable Roman town, Glanum, dating from the 3rd century BC, and which includes an amazingly well preserved triumphal arch and mausoleum.  Also close by is Les Baux de Provence, which is perched on incredible limestone spurs, filled with picturesque stone houses, winding cobbled streets and a ruined castle.  We were lucky enough to visit when a festival celebrating the stone carving heritage of the area was taking place, based in a nearby quarry, where the art of stone carving was being kept alive.

We took a day trip to Aix-en-Provence, one of the hosts of the European Capital of Culture for 2013, and saw a wonderful exhibition celebrating the south of France as an inspiration for painters, from Cezanne to Matisse.  Aix has a delightful feel, with tree filled boulevards, lots of fountains and beautiful squares and buildings.  Another day trip was with the bikes to the Camargue, where we left the car just outside Van Gogh’s Arles and did a long circular route on the bikes, through the marshy Camargue.  To be honest, we were rather disappointed by the Camargue – it was far tamer than we were expecting, with much of it farmed (either as rice paddies or for ranches for the horses and bulls) but we were pleased to see the famed white horses.

The highlight for Leigh was a day-trip to Sault, set in the heart of lavender country (sadly the lavender was no longer in bloom, but the scent of lavender filled the air and it was quite amazing to see the fields, filled with row upon row of small round lavender bushels), where we parked the car and set off on the 26km climb of Mont Ventoux.  It took us slightly longer than Sky’s Chris Froome to make the ascent (I blame the fact that we had knobbly mountain bike tires on our bikes) but we were happy with our time of 2 hours 15 minutes.  Ventoux, known as le geant de Provence (Provence’s giant) is quite remarkable and looms like a white capped phoenix above northern Provence (the white is from stones rather than snow at this time of year).  We have had glimpses of it on most of our rides, but it was quite strange as at the start of the climb we weren’t actually able to see it, as it was hidden by the pine forests of the lower slopes.  The summit finally appears after about 15kms of cycling and shortly after that the vegetation starts to disappear; the last 7kms are extremely steep and it feels a bit like being in a moonscape, surrounded only by the strange large white stones known as lauzes.  We took a much needed break at the top and then stopped at several places on the descent to take photos, and it still took us less than 40 minutes to get back to Sault (including our photostops!).  We drove back through the beautiful Luberon valley, filled with amazing villages perches (literally perched villages), perched on rocky crags and surrounded by strong rocky walls.

Today is market day in Eygalieres, and stall holders have come from all the neighbouring villages, filling the high street with lavender, honeys, olive oils, nougat, flowers and wonderful fruit and veg.  This afternoon we head off for wine tasting at Chateauneuf-du-Pape and will explore the Vaucluse area.

France – the Cote Vermeille (or Vermillion Coast, otherwise known as Catalonia)

We decided to head south once more in search of late summer sun and based ourselves just outside the picturesque village of Collioure.  Collioure is a magical place, a Catalan harbour nestling under the shadow of the Pyrenees mountains, surrounded by vineyards and made famous by Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Chagall and many others.  Our camp was a short walk away, along a rocky cliff-top path, which took in two gorgeous pebble bays along the way.  We enjoyed running among the vineyards and also did several long sea swims in the crystal clear Mediterranean from the campsite’s private beaches.  Collioure saw the birth of the Fauvism movement, spearheaded by Matisse and Derain, and, as well as having a good Museum of Modern Art, has a myriad of commercial galleries.  We enjoyed walking the cobbled streets and taking in the scenes painted by the above-mentioned artists.

Being less than 30 kms from the Spanish border we also took a day trip along the coast into Spain, turning it into a “Dali day” visiting the beautiful coastal town where Dali spent childhood holidays, Cadaques, as well as nearby Port Lligat, the tiny fishing cove where Dali spent his later life.  Cadaques is unlike any other part of Spain we’ve visited, feeling much wealthier and quite magical, obviously kept wealthy by the floods of French visitors and Dali fans (not forgetting of course that the legend that was El Bulli was not far away just near Roses).  The countryside is quite dry and contrasts quite dramatically with the stunningly blue Mediterranean: the starker scenery must have provided some of the inspiration for Dali’s surrealist work.   After exploring the pedestrian only winding backstreets of Cadaques we headed inland to Figueres, where Dali was born.  Figueres is now the home of the rather bizarre (or should I say, surreal) Teatre Museu Dali, created by Dali in the ’60s and ’70s as “the largest surrealistic object in the world” out of the remains of the Municipal Theatre, which had been destroyed in the Spanish Civil war.  It traces Dali’s works from his early artistic experimentation (works which we were unaware of, including beautiful impressionist and cubist works) to the weirder later surrealist creations.

We also took a day trip to Ceret, driving through the beautiful Tech Valley up into the foothills of the Pyrenees.  Ceret is another charming village beloved by artists and the Museum of Contemporary Art here has a superb collection including many works donated directly to the museum by Matisse, Picasso and Chagall.

France – from Biarritz to an Airstream Trailer Park

We finally tore ourselves away from our wonderful camp in Zarautz, having accomplished our goal of learning to surf!  We then took the boards to Biarritz and had an amazing time surfing the gentle waves at the famous Cote de Basque beach, flanked by the iconic Villa Belza, built in the late 19th century as a medieval style home and now a fancy hotel.  We were happy to be able to join surfing glitterati surfing here, as Biarritz is where surfing was first brought to Europe, back in 1957, by Hollywood screen writer Peter Viertel, husband of Deborah Kerr, in town for the filming of Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises and who was so impressed by the waves had his surf board sent over from California.  Europe’s first surf club launched soon after and now the whole Basque coastline is famous for its waves.  We completely understand why Biarritz is known today as the California of Europe: it’s chic yet laid back, buzzy yet beautiful and full of sophisticated shops and cafes and, of course, beautiful people!

From there we headed south following the Pyrenees, down to the Ariege valley in the Midi-Pyrenees.  Our destination was an airstream and retro camping trailer park, set on a beautiful hillside overlooking forests and meadows, with the Pyrenees glimmering with a smattering of snow in the far distance.  It is an amazing place, run by Perry, an English airstream enthusiast and his French wife Coline.  Ours was the first Bambi they had welcomed for a while (although she had actually visited once before with her previous owners) and Bambi immediately felt completely at home amongst the 15 airstreams Perry and Coline have for hire at the BelRepayre Trailer Park.  From there we explored the delightful medieval villages of Mirepoix and Foix as well as the Cathar fortresses at Foix, Lagarde and Montsegur.  This area, which stretches along the Pyrenean foothills down to the Mediterranean, was a Cathar stronghold in the 12th century and there are castles in varying states of repair on many of the rocky hills.  The Cathars were a fundamentalist sect, who were completely disapproved of by Rome (surprisingly for France, they were vegetarians, but it was their more extreme views such as the rejection of the Old Testament which dismayed the Pope rather than their dietary choices) and eventually there was a large crusade against them, resulting in long sieges at many of the castles and the slaughter of many hundreds of thousands of those faithful to the Cathar teachings.

We also took a boat tour of the longest navigable underground river in Europe, underneath Labouiche just outside Foix.  It is 60 metres underground and goes through magnificent caves and chambers full of stalagmites and stalactites.  The water, fed purely from rain, is crystal clear and it was a fascinating experience.

Underground river de Labouiche

Underground river de Labouiche

Our highlight, however was neither the underground river tour nor the brisk walk up to the rocky fortress at Montsegur, but the evenings in the Appollo Lounge at the BelRepayre Trailer Park!  The Appollo Lounge is housed in a 32 foot airstream transformed into a bar by a French architect in the 1980s.  Entertained by Perry on the decks and with Coline either behind the bar or cooking up a storm in the kitchen, we got to know the other campers and had several fantastic evenings.

The Appollo Lounge at the Belrepayre Trailer Park

The Appollo Lounge at the Belrepayre Trailer Park

South Africa to Spain – back to the Basque Country

We had a lovely last few days in Cape Town, catching up with a few more friends, exploring the vibey Woodstock area and being hosted to a wonderful dinner by friends of Antonia’s, Andi, who runs Dish (a well known Cape Town catering company) and her husband Oscar, who gives Andi a run for her money on the food front serving his freshly baked bread and pan fried steak; Leigh was thrilled, but I was in my element with Andi’s deep fried courgette flowers and stuffed mushrooms.  We also enjoyed sundowners overlooking the Atlantic with Rosie and Sean and lots of drinks with them and friends in Hout Bay as well as a chilled out day with Andrew exploring the Cape peninsular.

We were pleased to spend an afternoon with Mum and Dad in Constantia before starting the marathon return journey, arriving back in camp 24 hours later.  We were happily reunited with Bambi, still in pride of place in the campsite, and were even happier when we were once again given a sea-view site, just metres away from where we had been before.  It was a bit of a shock to the system leaving Cape Town winter and arriving to 37 degree Spanish heat, but the waves were good and we quickly acclimatized.  The August rush is over but the camp is still buzzing and has a now has a nice laid back feel.

There is a local Basque festival on in Zarautz this weekend and we look forward to soaking up the atmosphere there before heading onwards, probably in to France.

The photos below are a snapshot from our time in South Africa.