Taking the Back Roads

With our month in Apt sadly over it was time to get back to what has become the norm on our journeys across Europe, a loaded up car and a tent!

On our way South to The Luberon we had avoided the motorways and instead taken the back roads of France. We had enjoyed it so much, we decided to continue on that way as we made our way back North.

We found that we saw much more of the country as we passed through villages and along rural roads. It was also much easier to stop at scenic points, interesting sights or just for a coffee. Although this way of travel takes much longer, time is our friend these days, and it is certainly a more relaxing way to drive.

First stop was the Ardeche Gorge, only a short hop from Apt. This was the third time in the last five years we have stayed in the tiny village of St Martin d’Ardeche. It is definitely a beautiful location, positioned right next to the river, with a pebble beach and the steep walls of the gorge on either side.

Sarah rented an electric bike and joined Steve on the 80 kilometre cycle around the gorge. Everything was going great until a couple of kilometres before the longest, steepest hill on the route and Sarah’s bike developed a problem and lost power. Panic set in, as although Sarah could probably have slowly made it to the top on her own bike, the heavy electric bike was a no go.

She cycled on the flat furiously pressing every combination of buttons and switches possible, as the climb out of the gorge loomed closer. Then, with only a couple of hundred metres to go Steve heard a big shout of relief and saw Sarah throw her arms in the air as power was restored. Although she encountered the same issue a couple of more times on the way, we arrived back in Saint Martin pretty much unscathed.

The other advantage of taking the back roads is it takes you to areas you may not normally venture because they are not too well known and are a fair distance from the motorways. The Ardeche National Park fitted this scenario.

Many people visit the Ardeche gorge but few venture further into the National Park. We rented a basic log cabin for a couple of days by Lake Naussac and explored the region. It was so peaceful and the scenery was stunning, definitely worth the stop.

Next on our route was as stop in The Gorge du Tarn. We had visited the Southern end of the gorge a few years ago, so this time we stopped in the unbelievably pretty village of St Enimie at the Northern end.

We seriously considered not mentioning this stop in the blog. We don’t want too many people to know about it. We can’t understand why it is not much more popular than it is. Maybe it’s because it is that little bit more inaccessible, but if you like scenery that includes roads cut into the overhanging rock, twisting alongside the river, passing through picture perfect medieval villages. This place should certainly be on your itinerary.

The area is also home to one or two alternative communities and some of the villages have a historical circus connection. As such the communities occasionally put on theatrical shows which tend to feature some form of high wire act. It is quite a sight watching someone walking a tightrope across the gorge, high above the river, while playing a trumpet!

At this point we headed North to the small village of Volvic. Not to sample the famous water, but to watch the Tour de France which was scheduled to pass through. On the day of the race we packed a picnic, our camping chairs and sunscreen (like most of the past month the mercury had been hovering in the mid 30’s) and we set off to join the thousands of others on the route.

The main group of almost 200 riders normally take about 8 seconds to speed past. So in order to entertain the crowds it is preceeded by a seemingly endless line of support vehicles and the famous (well, famous among cycling fans) Tour Caravan. This is a line of extravagantly decorated floats representing the Tour sponsors which speed along at around 50 kilometres per hour, handing or more accurately throwing out all manner of free items, known as ‘Tour Tack’. It takes about 30 minutes for The Caravan to pass and Sarah was in her element, diving here, there and everywhere, pushing small children and climbing over anyone in the way to get her hands on anything from an air freshner to a key fob!

Eventually the cyclists came past and fortunately for us they had split into three groups. So we were able to experience the noise and speed on a few occasions.

At the end of a long but entertaining day we made our way back to the campsite for some food and for Sarah to model some of her ‘Tour Tack’.

With our Tour experience over, we headed to the Dordogne, an area popular among both French and Foreign tourists alike. The Dordogne does not have the dramatic scenery of mountains and gorges as some areas of France, it is more rolling and forested countryside. But it is still an area well worth visiting.

Pretty villages, and dramatic looking castles, follow the meandering Dordogne River as it snakes its way through South Central France. We rented a converted barn for a few nights. Well actually it was a tiny quater of a converted barn and the other three quarters were still derelict, so it sounds a lot grander than it was. However, although small it had been renovated to a high standard and was perfect for our stay.

We spent our time in The Dordogne pretty much the same way as we had done in Apt. Steve cycling in the mornings and then exploring the area together for the rest of the day. Although on one day we had slightly less time than we had planned when Steve was enjoying himself too much and took a wrong turn making his planned 130 kilometre route into almost 200!

Probably our favourite villages in the area were Sarlat de Canada, Beynac and La Roque – Gageac. Although you can’t really go wrong wherever you visit.

Our final stop on our route North following the backroads was in The Loire Valley. We chose to stay in the town of Amboise, which is where Leonardo de Vinci spent his final years and is buried in the town.

Amboise was a great location to explore this part of the Loire. The region is pretty much pancake flat and perfect terrain for Sarah to get out on her bike. On one morning she accompanied Steve as he went for a long run along the side of the Loire River. Coming back into town it was almost lunch time and the roads had become quite busy. We had to cross the main bridge to get back to our campsite and it was heaving with cars. Sarah, who was behind Steve, went to join him on the much quieter pavement. Suddenly Steve heard a crash and turned around to see Sarah had clipped the pavement and fallen entangled in her bike half on and half off the pavement.

We quickly established it was only superficial grazes and potentially bruised knees and hips and, with a big dose of embarrassment, she remounted the bike. The cuts and bruises will definitely be there for a while to come!

Luckily we had already done most of our sightseeing in the area with Chateau Chenechau being the outstanding highlight.

This is a beautiful Chateau which spans the river, set in amazing gardens, and has a bucket full of hundreds of years of history. We spent most of the day there, wandering around inside and out. It was an enjoyable and relaxing way to finish off what has been another fantastic couple of months in France.

Lazing in The Luberon

We have been away from this blog for a few months now due to all sorts of reasons. The first one being we just needed a break from it. Well Steve did anyway!

We had been talking about having some static time for over a year now. We move about a lot and although neither of us would swap our way of life right now, it does get tiring sometimes. There is always plenty of research and admin to do and then the travelling itself can be tiring especially the trips where we move on every couple of days.

Initially we said a three month stop would be good. Then we thought that might be too much so we dropped it to two months and then to just one month. In the end it was a mistake. We should have stuck with the three month option or even stayed longer.

So where did we stay? Well you could say we were a little boring. We went to The Luberon in Southern France. It’s somewhere we’ve been going to since before we finished work and where we came to prepare for our cycling trip from Canada to Mexico, so we know the area relatively well.

We had always wanted to spend some time inside the walls of an ‘Old Town’ as we have always enjoyed visiting them throughout Europe. So we rented an apartment in the centre of Apt, the largest town in The Luberon but still quite small with a population of around 10,000.

The apartment was on the third floor of an old building accesed via a winding set of 50 stone stairs, which presented a challenge to say the least when it came to unpacking a car completely full of clothes, camping equipment and three bikes. A job that was made even harder by the lack of nearby parking!

But after a strenuous hour and a half and with the car parked on the edge of town, we sat down and looked forward to the next month.

The apartment was a great size, more than we needed to be honest, which made storage easy. It was so nice to actually unpack and hang up clothes. Everything about it was perfect and it even had a decent sized roof terrace, which overlooked the higgledy-piggledy terracotta tiled roofs of the Old Town.

We settled in very quickly. We shopped at the fantastic Saturday Market which was so close we had to squeeze past a stall holder as we walked out of our front door. We soon found our favourite bakery for fresh bread and croissants. We practiced our French to the amusement and appreciation of the locals and Sarah visited the local coiffure for a ‘short back and sides’. Everyone was friendly towards us.

We quickly settled into a routine where Steve would cycle some of his favourite routes in the morning and either meet Sarah in one of The Luberon villages or come back to the apartment and we would head off in the car exploring together.

The villages of The Luberon are almost without exception, picturesque and beautiful with each one having something slightly different to offer. They all have a weekly market so it is possible to go to a different market every day for probably three weeks!

We did have a few favourite markets but we also found the villages quite different on non market days too when they would take on a sleepy, very quiet atmosphere.

All of the villages were worthy of a visit, however, we did have a few favourites. Loumarin was fantastic on both market and non market days.

Loumarin is a sleepy town with a small maze of narrow stone streets, which come to life on Fridays when hundreds of stalls and thousands of shoppers cram the streets as art and crafts, fruits and veg, clothes, meats and all manner of local produce are bought and sold.

Our other two favourites were the smaller, less visited villages of Saignon and Saint-Saturnin-les-Apt. The first one seemed to have everything great about the area crammed into a small space. A beautiful square, fountains, narrow cobbled streets, a derelict castle to wander around, a café selling coffee in bowls and a fab ice cream shop.

Saint Saturnin was similar but it was surrounded by a medieval wall which you could walk along and the village was set high on the hillside with a church at the very top, where the view over the valley was incredible. Saint Saturnin also had a great public swimming pool where Steve became a regular visitor and very friendly with the staff who enjoyed his schoolboy French!

We also had a couple of trips out of The Luberon. The first was to the Gorge du Verdon. What an incredible place. The drive to the gorge itself was worth the trip.

The river through the gorge feeds into a vivid blue crystal clear lake. Perfect for lazing around and even more perfect for swimming in.

Our second day out was one which Steve, as a cyclist, could not miss. It was a ride up Mont Ventoux. Being 21 kilometres long, with gradients regularly over 10%, it is one of the most visited mountains in The Tour de France. Consequently, it is a place frequently visited by cyclists of all levels and Steve has done it on several occasions in the past. For some people it is an all day affair. For one or two professionals it is possible in under an hour. Steve huffed and puffed his way up and managed to do it in just over an hour and a half in an all out effort. Then took almost twice as long to recover!!

It seemed in the blink of an eye our time in The Luberon had come to an end. Neither of us were anywhere near ready to leave. But we saw this as a good thing as we now feel confident that, in the right places, we can settle for a few months at a time which is what we hope to do in the future. We know we can’t continue our current way of travelling for ever, but we have a while left in us yet though!