Across France for the journey home

We left Switzerland and the lakes and mountains behind us and travelled on to Strasbourg.  We had spent time in the Alsace region and the Black Forest before, so decided to take a city break here for a change and to get to know Strasbourg itself.  It is a lovely city, the centrepiece being its amazing Gothic cathedral, surrounded by cobbled, twisting narrow alleyways and crooked half-timbered houses, but also housing the glittering glass building of the EU parliament, united by the beautiful canals and rivers flowing through the centre of the city.

We enjoyed the wonderful collection at the Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art as well as wondering through the narrow alleys of the old quarters and exploring the weekly farmers market.  We also visited the Cave des Hospices de Strasbourg, a beautiful underground wine cellar founded by the local hospital in 1395, back when wine was considered a cure for all ills!  It is of course still operating and we laughed when we saw that the hospital pharmacy was a far more recent addition, dating from the 1800s.  We cycled out along the Canal du Rhone au Rhin, a canalized section of the nearby Rhine (the river forms the border between France and Germany) into the forests which form the starting point of Germany’s Black Forest.  The canal was full of swans and lined by beautiful autumn trees and we were pleased that the sun was shining and it was far warmer than Switzerland had been.

After a few days in Strasbourg we continued on to the Champagne region, visiting wonderful Epernay, the capitale du Champagne and home to some of the larger Champagne houses including Moet et Chandon, Mercier and Perrier Jouet.  There are an incredible 110 kilometers of Champagne cellars beneath the streets and rumoured to be more than 200 million bottles in those cellars!  We tried to put a dent into the 200 million, by doing a “Champagne flight” tasting: delicious.

We spent two days in Champagne and then journeyed on to Dieppe, passing through some of the battlefields of the Somme and seeing some of the military cemeteries along the way.  We overnighted in Dieppe, a small port enclosed by limestone cliffs (not unlike the white cliffs of Dover) prior to catching the ferry back to Newhaven in the UK.  Although the European adventure is over for now, we know that more adventures await, in the summer in South Africa!

Toasting the end of the road trip: a glass of champagne in Bambi

Toasting the end of the road trip: a glass of champagne in Bambi

Switzerland – the Lakes

The journey back to the UK has begun: we left Italy via the gorgeous (but very built up) Lake Como and crossed over into Switzerland and into the already snow-covered Alps.  The tunnels through the mountains are quite incredible, the most impressive being the Gotthard tunnel, which is just under 17 kilometers long and is the 3rd longest road tunnel in the world!

We passed one lake after another, each as beautiful and picturesque as the next and finally set up camp on the shores of Lake Lungern and had the place to ourselves.  It was quintessential Switzerland: an emerald lake surrounded by forested mountains, cows with bells, a few goats, rolling green fields and log homes with sloping roofs.  From here we explored the Sarneraa Valley area.  We put on just about every layer of cycling clothing we had with us and cycled around the lake and then up the Brunig Pass, which was just behind the campsite.  We also drove the beautiful “Panoramastrasse” (we were amused by the literal road names: the campsite was in Campingstrasse) up into the nearby Alps.

It was, however, pretty cold, with the temperatures dropping quite severely at night (our first single digits since January!) and the sun, now noticeably lower in the sky, taking a while to warm up Bambi and Cali alone in the field beside the lake.  We therefore didn’t hang around too long and ventured onwards, back to France again after only a few days.  We did enjoy our time in Switzerland though: an amazing country for outdoor enthusiasts (well signposted and incredibly beautiful cycling, running and hiking routes), great cheese, chocolate cheaper than bread and free wifi in every village!

Italy – the Lakes

We headed on from the Cote d’Azur, driving through magnificent mountains with villages tucked in all the nooks and crannies of the mountains and crossed over into Italy.  It is amazing how the architecture always reveals a change in country; even though there are now no real borders to cross!  Italian villages also lay higgedly piggedly in the mountain folds, but were brightly coloured and have a completely different feel to France.

First stop was Genoa, where we stocked up on magnificent pesto, and spent a long afternoon at the port and with shipping agents to see if it would be possible to ship Cali and Bambi from Italy (allowing us time to head south and soak up more Italian sunshine, avoiding the cold of northern Europe).  Unfortunately the cost of transporting them was prohibitive (and thanks to Rosie for all her efforts looking into shipment too!) so we will get to see some of northern Europe after all.  We stayed on the beach just outside Genoa and were amazed by the black sand and pebble beaches there.

From there we headed up to the Lombard lakes, staying on the banks of Lake Iseo, the smallest of Lombardy’s four major lakes.  It is not quite as glamourous as Lakes Garda and Como, which makes it all the more magical: completely surrounded by mountains covered in dense forest, it has only 3 major towns, all with lovely medieval centres.  There is a lake road which follows the shoreline and is very dramatic along the northern edge.

We were thrilled that Gaudy, having recently acquired a British passport which allows him the freedom of last minute European travel, decided to fly out to Milan to join us for the weekend.  We had a wonderful weekend with him in Iseo (despite the cold front that had just hit northern Italy and much of northern Europe):  a boat trip out to Monte Isola in the lake, Europe’s largest inhabited island, with a brisk walk to the chapel at the top of the island’s 600m peak; Italian beers in the sunshine; delicious thin crust pizzas; a run to the top of the mountain behind the campsite; and lots of laughter and catching up.  We also drove the beautiful Franciacorta wine route with him, but unfortunately all the wine farms and enotecas were closed on Sundays.

We were sad to say goodbye to him, but know that our homeward journey means that we’ll catch up with him soon again in London, before flying to South Africa for the last two months of the year.

France – the Cote d’Azur

We couldn’t resist the pull of the Cote d’Azur, so we left Cassis and the gorgeous Calanques behind, stopping to explore delightful Provence villages such as La Cadiere-d’Azur and Sanary-sur-Mer along the way.  We headed to a campsite halfway between Antibes and Cagnes-sur-Mer, and a flat 20km cycle ride from central Nice.  As we had holidayed in Nice a few years ago we knew the area quite well (having hired a scooter that holiday and driven it to death along the beautiful coastal roads all the way to Menton and into the mountains around St-Paul-de-Vence), so we concentrated on the bits we hadn’t seen before, soaking up Picasso’s haunts including enchanting Antibes, Cagnes-sur-Mer and Mougins.

Picasso had a studio in the 14th century Grimaldi Castle in Antibes for a couple of years and, in his own words, “if you want to see the Picassos from Antibes, you have to see them in Antibes”: the Castle now houses a wonderful collection of paintings from his time there as well as a host of his earlier ceramics.  We also visited Mougins, where he lived in his last years, which is a delightful hill-top medieval village (reached these days by a nine-story lift from the parking lot!) which is now home to loads of galleries and has a wonderful photographic museum filled with photos of Picasso at work.  Nearby is Grasse, still home to many perfumeries, as well as Biot, once famous for producing enormous and beautiful clay olive oil jars.  From there we took a beautiful drive through the Var mountains over to Eze, on the other side of Nice, which sits overlooking the sea on a high mountain peak with beautiful views of the Cote d’Azur, coming back along the famous coastal road, the Corniche Inferieure.  Sadly Eze village has become a bit too touristy, its medieval cobbled streets taken over with tourist tat.

Absolutely delightful is the hilltop medieval old town of Cagnes-sur-Mer, an incredibly steep walk up from the coastal town of the same name, and home to gloriously narrow winding cobbled streets and another Grimaldi Castle, this one housing a delightful collection of over 50 paintings of the ‘30s singer and cabaret artist Suzy Solidor, by an eclectic range of artists including Dufy and Jean Cocteau (thanks to Valerie who we met in Collioure for telling us about the Suzy collection!).

We spent time strolling the old town of Nice as well as enjoying cycling along the palm-lined Promenade des Anglais and admiring the wares on offer at the weekly Monday flea market.  We also visited Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, designed by Matisse in his later years and considered by him to be his masterpiece.  It is truly magnificent, small and quite simple with the most beautiful green, blue and yellow stain-glass windows, filling the otherwise white chapel (the only other decoration being simple black line drawings on white tiles) with light and colour.  Matisse designed everything: the exterior, the interior, the  altar and candlesticks and even the priests’ vestments, in different colours for different festivals.  Unfortunately no photos were allowed.

We also spent lots of time enjoying the “good life” of Provence and the Riviera – delicious fruit and vegetables, crisp white and rose wines, wonderful olive oils, buttery croissants, divine macaroons and wonderful foodie markets, particularly the daily one in Antibes.  Thank goodness Nice was a 20km cycle ride away: we needed it to ensure we could indulge in it all!

France – Les Calanques

We’ve moved on, back to the coast, just east of Marseilles to the pretty port town Cassis, on the edge of Calanques National Park.  The Calanques are something that I’ve been wanting to see for a long time: a spectacular series of white limestone cliffs, into which deep valleys and creeks were formed millions of years ago, filled with crystal clear turquoise water.  They have been compared to the Norwegian fjords (although these were formed by rivers rather than glaciers) and extend east of Marseille for about 20kms to Cassis and beyond.  They are breathtakingly beautiful and we have explored them both on foot (long walks climbing up and down the cliffs, to beautiful small rocky bays) and by boat, taking a commercial boat trip out to see 5 different calanques, each as dramatic as the last.

We also did an amazing cycle along the notorious Route des Cretes, with breathtaking views over dramatic coastal cliffs, with the calanques in the distance.  It takes in beautiful Cap Canaille, an enormous red-ochre rock that is the highest sea cliff in France.  The ride up, at various stages an incredible 30% gradient, was tougher than the route up Mont Ventoux, though thankfully it was slightly shorter!  The views were well worth the effort however as were the tiny back roads slightly inland, through fragrant pine trees, rosemary and thyme following stone walled narrow roads.

We’ve also enjoyed the local Cassis wine: a crisp, dry rather flinty wine which is not exported outside the immediate area.  The hills of Cassis are filled with beautifully laid out vineyards and the wines are certainly delicious.  Rather confusingly, Kir (wine with blackcurrant Cassis) is not in fact from Cassis at all, but comes from Dijon in Burgundy!