Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The French Alps, Easter 2011

Our first foray abroad with the van.

Over the winter my daughter Abi and her boyfriend had been working as chalet hosts at the French ski resort of La Rosiere. Initially we thought we might go over and see them at Christmas, but felt it might be a little tough for newcomers to motorhoming. As it turned out, Hawes was at least as cold, if not colder, than the Alps (see earlier post). So, we decided to visit Abi and Dave at Easter.

After an overnight stay at the Caravan Club site at Folkstone;

we set off on the short drive to Dover and a brief wait at the dockside,

before boarding for a smooth, sunny crossing via DFDS to Dunkirk. Check out the discounts for Caravan Club members; this crossing was just £66 return.

Then it was off for a right-side-of-the-road journey. We've both travelled in France before, by motorbike, Land Rover and car but never before with a motorhome. Chrissie speaks good French thanks to many exchange visits as a youngster, while my French is strictly, very rusty GCE O level standard.

We were minus dogs on this trip but planned to start the "pet passport" process as soon as we got back. Evidently it takes around 6 months, so we should be able to take them with us in 2012. We both miss the dogs when they're not around; they're very much a part of our family.

We planned to try using some of the French Aires for overnight stops and had bought a copy of "All the Aires - France" from Vicarious books prior to the trip.

After a stop at a patisserie for bread and pastries we parked up in the square of a sleepy, quiet town for lunch.

Then it was back on the road again,

travelling steadily south. We chose to avoid autoroutes and stick to quieter, stress-free roads.

And after a peaceful overnight stop at a campsite by a river,

our sat nav found some very tranquil roads,

and our first Fench supermarche of the trip.

Chrissie was distracted by this.

And wondered how much they cost, and whether or not ours could be converted.

Eventually we passed Lac d'Annecy,

and began to see our first views of big mountains.

And after a wild, hairpin climb we arrived at,

 just outside La Rosiere, and got settled in at a pitch.

At just over 6000 feet above sea level, Camping De La Foret is, allegedly, the highest campsite in Europe.

It was the end of the ski season anyway, but there was a serious lack of snow, even for Easter; so much so that Abi's employers had moved customers for the last week of the season to another resort, which at least had sufficient snow to ski. We're not skiers anyway and we'd used visiting Abi & Dave as an excuse for this trip. We were just happy to be there in pleasant warm weather. The resort itself is just a 10 minute walk from the campsite, through the surrounding forest.

Abi & Dave popped down to the van shortly after we'd arrived and we enjoyed chatting and hearing of their escapades through the winter. It was great to see them so happy.

This was the main chairlift from the centre of La Rosiere, giving an idea of how little snow was around. It's usual to ski right down to here.

A view across the valley towards Les Arcs.

A patch of snow lingering in the forest,

and Abi, Dave and me, wandering.

The next day Chrissie and I took a hike.

The trails from here to higher elevations were closed due to avalanche risk, despite the shortage of snow. The trails open were around our elevation and below so both the walks we did from here were back to front, ie they involved walking down the valley side then back up again!

Here are a couple of views from the first walk we did.

The only other people on the campsite were a German couple with a caravan, which meant it was exceptionally peaceful.

The loo block had underfloor heating and was spotlessly clean.

We took Abi & Dave for a meal that evening.

And the next day went for a longer walk, almost to the bottom of the valley and back again.

When we got back it was time to comply with the kids' wishes and fit "just a few things" in the van for them. To be fair, they had come down by coach but for various reasons their employers were flying them home. So we drove up to their chalet complex,

and with a little pushing and squeezing

we managed to fit everything into the, seemingly endless, space below our nearside sofa.

And after a lovely photo of the kids

and, thanks to Abi's friend, the inevitable group shot,

we bid them farwell on their journey back to England.

The next day we left La Rosiere to head for Chamonix. I'd had two climbing trips there back in the '80s but hadn't returned for over 25 years! Chrissie had visited briefly as a teenager.

Here's a first view of the Mont Blanc massif.

And here are a couple of shots of the road on stilts up the valley to Chamonix. This had only just been completed on my first trip here. Despite many years of road travel around the world Chrissie and I have never quite got comfortable with driving over high or long bridges. This bit of road didn't bother me but Chrissie was distracting herself by taking photos. It's quite unusual in that the original old road now forms the downhill section of this, now, dual carriageway, while the uphill bit is this high level part. Also, it feels strange cos, as you progress up the valley, the right carriageway crosses over the left, so you're actually driving to the left of the downhill carriageway. 'Hope that's clear?

We got a better view of Mont Blanc, which seems to be visible wherever you are in Chamonix, as we approached the town.

We found a really pleasant campsite, the Mer de Glace I think it was called. I reckon it was the one I first came to all those years back, but of course trees have grown and the site would have been developed since then.

The reason I was convinced it was the same site is we were very close to the heliport used by the rescue helicopters. Here's a view of one coming in to land. The spire of rock at back right is the Dru, overlooking the Mer de Glace glacier, climbed in the '60s by a very young Chris Bonington with Don Willans.

We were about 3 miles from the town centre so we got some exercise by walking in. Here's the statue of de Saussure and his guide, the first to climb Mont Blanc; the guide's pointing to the summit.

As I said, there are views of Mont Blanc from everywhere. Here you can see the Bosson Glacier and the route I took to the Grands Mulet refuge back in the '80s. Never quite made the summit due to helping a mate suffering seriously from altitude sickness; at least that's my story. I had another attempt a year or two later but was thwarted by unseasonally deep snow. Maybe it just wasn't meant to be.

And this is a view of the summit of the Aiguille de Midi. The highest telepherique in Europe goes right to the top.

This brilliant mural, depicting many of Chamonix's alpine guides, is on the side of a building in the town centre.

Next day, perceiving the need for some retail therapy, we took the train into the town. All the trains and buses around the valley are free. You get a pass from your accommodation - in our case the campsite - or from the tourist info office. Evidently it's a strategy to reduce traffic in the valley, and it seems to work. The trains were clean, efficient and on time!

Cham' was bustling, as ever.

We found an Icebreaker shop. For those who don't know, Icebreaker is a New Zealand company who specialize in merino wool clothing. We're real outdoor equipment junkies and have found that, as advertised, you can wear a wool T shirt for days without it becoming at all smelly. I once wore one for 6 days, walking in summer heat, then got fed up with the experiment cos it still had no unpleasant pong! They come in different weights and the lightest one is as cool and comfortable as any fabric available, in hot weather. They work well for motorhoming, helping to minimise the amount of clothing carried. So, inevitably, we bought a T shirt each in designs we'd not seen before. I also found a pair of Eider lightweight trousers. As an aside, all our clothing on motorhome trips is outdoorsy, mountaineering stuff since it tends to be made from quick drying, easy care fabrics, making clothes washing and drying fuss free.

Next day we took a walk up the valley through the woods to Argentiere,

with spectacular views back down the valley towards Cham'.

We had a snake encounter, sorry no identification of species,

and sung as we walked - at least that's what it looks like Chrissie's doing here ... "I love to go a wandering, a knapsack on my back ...", you have to be a certain age!

Then waited quietly for the train back to the campsite.

After our brief Chamonix adventure we set off to cross the Col de Forclaz into Switzerland.

Here's the top of the col,

and a corresponding view.

From there we dropped rapidly into Martigny,

which is the location of many vineyards which seem to cling to the hillsides.

It was fun racing the Mont Blanc Express and waving to the passengers,

and we passed by Lac Leman, stopping at a vineyard,

for a breath of fresh air and a view across the lake.

We passed some of the sights of Lausanne.

before crossing the border back into France.

My Yorkshire tight-fistedness meant I didn't want to linger in Switzerland, at least not on this trip. In any event, we had no Swiss Francs. So we tootled on until we found a peaceful campsite,

by a lake.

Then it was back on the road north.

And a particularly narrow, quiet road, selected by sat nav woman,

before our first, and only, ovenight stop at an aire. We'd had high hopes aboute aires but, in fact, when we arrived at the ones we selected on our route south we find them to be either in unsavoury locations or jammed full of motorhomes. This one looked fine but, as we waited to get into a space we were amazed at the antics of other motorhomers in carefully postioning their vans so as to maximise "their space" and minimise any space left on the adjacent plot. Although we spent a quiet, peaceful night here it has affected our expectations of aires for the future. Our view is, don't dismiss them entirely but don't rely on them either.
It's fair to say that this was a very tranquil location.

And here's the service bollard. Two cents for, as I remember, two minutes of water or electric.

From here it was off to Reims. We managed to park the van quite close to the centre and, on one of the few rainy days of our trip, set off to find the cathedral.

Right next to the front of the cathedral was this monster, which I recognised as the mechanical spider which caused such a stir when it appeared in Liverpool during its year as city of culture. Sadly, we didn't have time to wait until late aftenoon to see it do its stuff.

The cathedral is magnificent,

especially the beautiful stained glass windows.

Feeling serene, we lit candles and were moved by this war memorial outside.

Sadly, our serenity was shattered by an experience in the MacDonalds close to the cathedral. We took our lunch to a table upstairs. Seeing it was so busy and finding a table for four, we sat next to a window, beside each other, leaving two free seats opposite. We were just tucking into our butties when a female member of staff approached and asked us if we'd move. She was accompanied by two customers who had obviously asked if she could help find them seats. We were confused and pointed out that they were welcome to the two available seats opposite us, but this wasn't good enough for Miss MacDonald, who insisted that we shouldn't sit side by side but rather "en face". In utter amazement we moved, and were thanked by the two ladies. To say Chrissie was annoyed would be putting it mildly and I did my best to pacify her, suggesting that it seemed we had unknowingly contravened some convention.

Finishing our meal, we excused ourselves to pass the two ladies who, of course, were blocking our exit. They thanked us again and I went, as is normal, to empty our tray, carefully, into a bin, which was almost full. I was quietly congratulating myself at having accomplished this task successfully when Miss MacDonald approached, complaining loudly that I was, evidently, a fool for putting my rubbish into a full bin. In my astonishment I snapped and shouted loudly, to my shame in English, that I'd had more than enough of her rude behaviour. The room was full, and you can imagine the looks on the faces of our fellow diners at this middle-age foreigner ranting in his mother tongue at the hapless member of staff.

We went downstairs to the exit, both seething. And as we exited we simultaneously realised that we should complain. So, we summoned the manager and, suffice to say, he was more than apologetic, insisted we have coffee on him and assured us he would speak to Miss M about her manners. Oh well, looking back, it will remain in our memories as one of life's more comedic moments. I must add that we both managed to avoid blaming the "rude French"; of course, generally this is far from the truth, realising rather that Miss M had her own individual problem. Maybe she was having a bad day?

Continuing our route northwards we found another friendly campsite.

Then back on the road again.

From Reims we wanted to have a short tour of some of the WWI memorial sites, so first headed for the Somme and Albert, home of Historial de la Grand Guerre, a superb museum commemorating the Great War.

First, having arrived at a convenient campsite we caught up with some laundry. Using our elastic washing line we hung it up in the sunshine to dry. While we were in the museum it began to p*ss down! So, not only did we get wet returning to the van but our washing was wetter than when we put it out. The curious thing was, an English couple in a motorhome saw us put out the washing. Now, call me naive, but if it had been me, I'd have taken the washing in, even if I'd just bundled it into a footwell. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned. Anyway, it was an excuse for this photo showing how inventive you can be with washing inside a small motorhome.

But back to the museum.

It really was excellent and did much to enhance our scant knowledge of , "the war to end all wars".

The day after that we set of on our tour of some of the sites. Anyone who's been around the Somme area will know that it's almost impossible to see everything; the number of cemeteries and the like reflecting the huge loss of life here. So, aided by our tourist guidebook we selected a few. First the memorial to South African Troops.

Next was Thiepval, the British memorial to all the unknown fatalities of the war, commemorating all those whose graves are marked, "To an unknown soldier". It's huge and can be seen on its hilltop site as you approach by road.

And it's no less impressive close up.

In common with all of these sites, there is the inevitable cemetery.

There's also an interesting museum. During this day my mind frequently wandered to memories of my paternal grandfather, John Crowther. Research on my family history over the last year or so has revealed that he went to France during WWI, working in some capacity with horses. Sadly I know little more, except that he was lucky enough to survive the war and come back home to raise a family, unlike all the folk commemorated around here. He passed away when I was still quite young and I couldn't help wonder if I was treading any of the same ground as Grandad John.

Our next stop was here.

A large bomb crater, preserved since the war.

And our final stop for this leg of our trip was the Canadiam memorial on Vimy ridge. At its centre is this quite breathtaking edifice.

At the front is this image of Mother Canada mourning her loss.

This site is well known for the preserved remains of frontline trenches,

some of which you can walk through.

It creates quite an eerie feeling, exacerbated by this sign.

So, deep in thought, we left the Somme valley and took a detour across the Belgian border. Our final night of the trip was spent at the seaside resort of De Panne, just a few miles north of Dunkerque (to give it is proper French spelling - why do foreigners around the world insist on mispelling names from other countries?).

As you can see, the good officers of De Panne were in the process of redesigning the pedestrianised central area, so we really weren't seeing it at its best.

Nevertheless, we spent a pleasant afternoon wandering about.

We were quite taken with the bathing huts, now used as storage for beach chairs,

as well as this interesting sculpture celebrating man's relationship with the dog. 'Pity the poor hound seems to be missing a front leg.

And lastly, a final pic of the van at the campsite, of which the least said the better. Let's just say it was a perfect example of how independent you can be in a motorhome, once you've closed the door - and perhaps the blinds - no matter how bad the site.

And so, after a fairly windy, but comfortable crossing back to Dover and an equally windy journey all the way north to our Peak District home, our trip ended.

Our first trip abroad with the van had been enjoyable, fairly free of problems and left us resolved that, on our next trip scheduled for August, we'd feel a little more confident to maybe try some wild camping.


  1. That was an excellent trip Geoff. Plenty of sightseeing and sussing out how good the campsites were. Great picture with your daughter and boyfriend. I was just counting the minutes before you put Miss McDonalds in her place....haha. Love it. Mont Blanc is beautiful. I have a couple of mates who used to do Euro work and loved that route down to Italy. First class read.

    1. Cheers Andy. You've probably noticed by now that I began the blog to document our motorhome travels. It was originally called "A Motorhome Life". You may eventually get to the post where I changed the title and the focus. Enjoy. It's really nice seeing your comments.

  2. I'm enjoying the blog Geoff. If I get the time, I make a brew with a couple biccies and have a read at either you or Chrissie's blogs. It makes for a relaxing afternoon. So thank you sir.


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