Cambridge to Dover, England--Calais to Chamonix, France--Northwest Italy September, 2013
Mark and Vicki shipped their RoadTrek to Europe in May, 2009 and are now in their 31st month of European RVing. They will return to the US in November. Their website is TheRoadGoesEverOn.com and their blog is at www.roadeveron.blogspot.com.
As the heading indicates we have covered a lot of ground in the last month as Schengen visa issues and weather dictate a sometimes skewed path through Europe. We spent the last part of August working our way south to Dover for the ferry. In Cambridge we stayed right on the river about a mile's walk from King's College at N 52.21410 E0.14376. Several spaces would fit a 6 meter rig but longer spots were already taken so we had to leave by 9 am. Still we walked into town for a last pub meal and enjoyed the window shopping. Last time we spent 4-5 days there but stayed in a Caravan Club campground.
Back on the road we took a slight detour to Hatfield Forest—one of the oldest hunting forests in England and quite a bear to find even with the National Trust directions. If you decide to go the entrance is near N51.32070 E0.24574. It was certainly not a must see but we enjoyed the amazing blackberry picking. Many of the trees are hundreds of years old but have always been harvested for wood and so have been coppiced to grow low and wide—not tall. We skirted the eastern edge of London for the suburb (Bexleyheath) where William Morris's home—the Red House--is located. He built it for his bride at the age of 25 and designed not only the house but furniture and decoration. Further he and his wife and friends painted the tiles, the stained glass, walls, ceilings themselves. A lovely stop for fans of the Arts and Crafts movement. That night we spent at a lay by near Knole—N51.32070 E0.15735. This is an area with lots of great houses to see—Churchill's and others, but a difficult area to find any free or even certified locations (Caravan Club overnight spots) to stay at.
Knole was owned by the Sackville-Wests and is famed for its amazing furniture from the 1500 and 1600s. Knole was a return visit for us as was also a detour to Sissinghurst to see the fabulous garden at a different time of year. A new stop was Ightham Mote. We had debated even going there as the picture and description in the National Trust book wasn't that compelling. It turned out to be an absolutely fabulous visit—a house dating from 1320, set in its original moat, with wings added in the 1500s and beyond. The last owner was an American who saved it from collapse and his area of the house from the 1930s has been left untouched. 700 hundred years of house all in one place. One note, we let our GPS guide us from Knole to Ightham—it was 9 miles of the scariest of England's lanes. It would have been far better to take the longer way around. We stayed near by in a church yard in Barming N51.26113 E0.46569 that we found through our wildcamping.co.uk membership.
We spent our last weekend in England in Canterbury stocking up on scones and clotted cream and just wandering around. Again we stayed at the aire at the Dover Road carpark for £3 a day. The carpark is closed on Sundays—you can leave but you can't enter, so keep that in mind. The next door pub will let you stay but only if you spend £20 on food and drink.
Our Dover crossing was smooth as glass and we quickly got to our first stop in France at the new Louvre Museum branch in Lens. The aire is at the parking for Bollaert Stadium, which is also the overflow parking for the museum. N50.43234 E2.82108. There is a McDonalds in the parking lot, too. The Louvre decided several years ago to try to bring its collections to more of the France and this branch opened in December, 2012, at the site of a derelict coal mine in a very economically depressed area of France. The museum is free until December of this year and worth a stop even if you have to pay. Its strength is in its chronological layout and its ancient and medieval collections. You begin in about 5000 BC and stroll your way through to 19th century painting in about 3 hours. It is not overwhelming like the Louvre in Paris, and each object is displayed so that you can get a 360 degree view and rather close up.
From this point our plan was to visit the rest of the outstanding cathedrals that we had learned about from the Great Courses DVD series. Basically the towns ringing Paris were in competition with each other to see who could build the biggest, highest, best cathedral. At Reims we headed for the aire that is right on the river downtown. We got to the coordinates N49.24886 E4.02199 but all we could see was what looked like an apartment building with a gate across a driveway. Luckily, a French camper had stopped at the same time. They spoke no English, but I followed their directions into the building to get the gate code. The building is actually the Reims city hostel (CIS de Champagny) and they allow a limited number of campers to park in the back for free. Unfortunately, the last spot was taken so we decided to park in one of the bus spots. By night others had joined us along with several double parked campers. Turns out we could have also parked at the stadium parking lot just across the street. Anyway we love being back in France where aires are everywhere and no one thinks twice about people over-nighting in their rigs. Reims is a marvelous town. The cathedral is one of the few in Europe that allows you to tour the roof, and though it was all in French there was an English handout. There are also 3 amazing stained glass rose windows and lovely sculpture everywhere. Andrew Carnegie donated the library next door to replace the one burned by the Germans during World War I. It was built entirely in Art Deco with stained glass chandeliers, skylights, and windows. An super bonus for this retired librarian.
Looking at our Camperstop book we didn't see an aire in Troyes our next destination, so we stayed nearby in Piney—not very good—and it turned out that Troyes has a wonderful, huge aire right next to the police station N48.29067 E4.07253 (as per their TI). There are lots of reasons to go to Troyes. Right outside of the city are two of Europe's largest fashion outlet malls with hundreds of stores (we didn't go.) Inside the city are hundreds of 15th and 16th century historic Tudor style buildings. Every street was a delight, and then there is the Cathedral. I am a huge stained glass fan. Troyes has the second best stained glass collection in Europe—both older windows and from the Renaissance. In addition Troyes has three other interesting churches—St. John, St. Madeline, and St. Urban. All different historically and artistically. A really great stop.
We drove on to Sens to see the first truly Gothic Cathedral—whose windows were done by the masters from Troyes and well labeled in English. The indoor market building faces the Cathedral and looked intriguing but was closed. We parked at N48.19794 E3.28989.
Vezelay is a highly touristed but beautiful little hill town. There is ample camper and other parking at N47.46431 E3.74054 but it is anything but flat. The TI said it was fine to spend the night but we went on to a layby that had little night traffic at N47.46252 E3.72631. There were even better ones further along. Vezalay town starts at one level of the hill and spills up to the monastery church at the top. The church is a huge Romanesque design that was finished in 1155 and the sculpture is superb—especially all the interesting Bible stories carved on the capitals. Also because a narthex was added to accommodate all the pilgrims, the original sculpture on the West end is some of the best preserved in Europe. A must see.
We continued going west, even though we really were headed east. Why? to return to Bourges, to see the Cathedral again that we just saw in May. Why? stained glass that is so close to you that you are only a couple of feet away, plus a good aire, great sculpture on the outside of the Palace, and lots of 15th and 16th century buildings.
At Autun we stopped again to visit the cathedral—terrific. And this visit took time to walk through the old town and also see the Roman theater. There are two free aires here—the one near McDonalds is not at all level and very noisy. Instead go to the one just past the theater at N49.95109 E4.31108.
On to wine country and its heart in Beaune. The aire is just 3 blocks from the main square and close to the hypermarche. Officially there are only about 10 spots but about 20 more campers parked in the bus parking—which was probably fine for overnight outside of high season. The French are not timid about parking their campers just about anywhere. We wanted to have a nice meal in the heart of Burgundy country and we did at the Bistro Bourgoune. Mark claims his snails and steak tartar were very good—my beef bougonoine was good but not as good as at Chartres.
Having looked at the weather outlook for Chamonix—rain starting Sunday and lasting at least five days—we decided not to spend the night in Bourg en Bresse. We instead stopped for lunch at the buffet restaurant directly across from the abby church at Brou. Unfortunately, the famous chicken wasn't on the buffet so we ordered it rotisserie style from the menu. Excellent, but I think I liked it better last year when I had it with cream sauce. Last year we had skipped the interior of the church as some of the guidebooks described it as too flamboyant and “over the top.” Now having seen dozens of great cathedrals, we thought we should not skip this one. I actually enjoyed it as the tombs of Margaret and Philibert the Fair are quite moving and even though an abbey from only the early 1500s, its three cloisters were quite beautiful.
Pressing on we hoped to make it to Chamonix by dark but as it was overcast we stopped at the aire in St. Pierre en Fracignac, just 3 k. from Bonneville, and it even had free electric. We arrived in Chamonix before noon and headed straight for the giant parking lot at the Aiguilles du Midi cable car where we have stayed so many times for €12.50 per night. We spent the afternoon enjoying the shops and deciding where to go for our hike the next day before the weather closed in. A trip to the TI revealed that most of the lifts were closing for the season in just two days. We were amazed as it was not mid September yet. The next day we left early to visit the Saturday market to buy a superb poulet roti. Mark took it back to the camper's refrigerator and we met back to take the 11 am Montenvers train to the Mer de Glace. Hiking in the alps is expensive because unless you want to spend most of your time in grueling up and down, you have to take the lifts. Though we have been to the Mer du Glace before, we had not walked the Balcony South path from the glacier to the Plan Aiguilles du Midi cable car run. Tickets were a hefty €24 each. However, the hike was stupendous. Some uphill at the beginning but the trail is definitely one of the best constructed in the Alps and with marvelous views of Mt. Blanc, the Aiguilles Rouge and Brevent, etc. I had always thought that my favorite hike in the Alps was the Balcony North, but not any more. Most guidebooks suggest you do the Balcony South in combination with the lift to the top of the Aiguilles—which would be cost effective. But however you do it—don't miss it.
The rain and much colder temperatures arrived right on time Sunday with only a small break Tuesday afternoon. We were happy to spend the time doing the wash and planning where we wanted to go in Italy. The last rainy day we filled up on diesel, propane, and French groceries and headed through the Mt. Blanc tunnel (€54 one way)to Courmayeur, Italy. We parked at N45.79336 E6.96703 for the next four nights and only had other campers there our last night. (This area is not open Wed. from 6am to 3 pm because of the market--we have also been told that it is sometimes not allowed during high season. There is an alternative truck parking area just south of town on the non-toll road to Aosta.) The next day the weather cleared, and we walked the short way into town to go to the TI. We had wanted to take the bus up the Val Veny and hike back on that part of the TMB (Tour du Mt. Blanc) but the bus had already finished for the season. Instead we caught the bus to the Val Ferret to its last stop Plan Principeux. (It travels further during the summer—or you can drive, though it is a narrow, twisty road.) We were taking an alternative trail up to Refuge Bertone which is also on the TMB. We did the entire TMB 8 years ago before we retired. It is a magnificent hike which I would highly recommend to anyone to do in whole (11-15 days) or just in sections through France, Switzerland and Italy. Write me if you are interested. Anyway this was a much better and easier trail than the one heading up to Bertone from the top of Courmayeur town. We met a couple from Alaska near the refuge who had started on the tour 3-4 days before and were finding some of the refuges already closed. They were not happy to find that the lifts to the valley in Chamonix were closed. So though we had splendid weather in Courmayeur, I would have to say that if your headed to the Alps don't wait past the first week of September.
The original plan had been to head east to the Dolomites in eastern Italy. We have been before and enjoyed the unusual shapes of these mountains and the hiking. However, upon close inspection of the map it looked like a difficult trek through the alps and now we knew that most likely the lifts would be closed there too. We could have taken the toll road but we accidentally got on it for 10 miles a couple of years ago and it cost €10. We also noticed that the price of diesel in the Italian Alps has jumped form €1.38 a liter in Chamonix, France to an average of €1.75. Ouch. Hopefully, it will drop a lot as we work our way south. Anyway we decided to forgo the Dolomites and head south seeing some new territory starting with the Gran Paradiso National Park.
This is only a short hour's drive from Courmayeur back into the village of Cogne. The park had been the hunting grounds of King Victor Emmanuel II and he gave it to the country in the 1920s. The drive to Cogne was intensely beautiful and actually not too hair-raising—well not as hair-raising as some roads we have been on in the Alps. We parked at the huge aire right in town at N45.79336 E6.96703 for €9 a night. There are free electric bike loans and wifi but you had to go to the park office to get the password or have an Italian phone. We were there on Sunday, September 22 and it was the day of the bull fights. Not like Spanish bull fights, but between two bulls. They lock horns and tussle it out until one gives up and runs off. The Italians call this Reine de Alps and every area has their preliminaries and then the finals are near the Little St. Bernard pass. We found it pretty boring but certainly local culture. The road ends 3k up the valley at Lillez where we took the short easy walk to the waterfall. There is also a sosta (aire) there for the same price but without optional electric and the village has no shopping area like Cogne. There are lots of hiking possibilities in the area but with nighttime lows of 36, we decided to head further south.
Aosta is the capital of the region where we parked for 3 hours at the sosta (€6, €7 half a day, 12 day) for the short walk to the Roman wall and interesting pedestrianized shopping streets. The restoration of the Roman theater was recently completed and there is a huge Roman triumphal arch and bridge. It was also our first opportunity to go to a Wind phone store and get our USB modem activated. No one spoke English but we think we got two months of service with 10G for €35.
We still had time to drive the 13k to Fenis to see the castle that Lonely Planet recommended as the best of the 150 in the Aosta valley. This time of year they had hourly tours in Italian with an English brochure and no interior photos allowed. This is the only Italian castle we have ever visited and being in the Alps was quite rustic and was inaccurately restored in the 1930s. However, they admitted us free with our driver's licenses since we are over 65. Really you are supposed to get free admission to state owned properties in Italy only if citizens of the EU, but I think they never get Americans at this place! We spent the night at the free sosta by the typically-walled cemetery N45.73947 E7.48586
Heading east out of the valley we skipped the road to the Italian side of the Matterhorn as we visited it two years ago. There is also a road back to Monte Rosa—truly the area is perfect if you want to see mountains and I think somewhat easier to navigate than the French Alps.
It is a quick drive to the Torino (Turin) area even not taking the toll road—but lots of round abouts of course. Torino's slow food market sounded interesting but we just didn't feel like the hassles of navigating a big city for a market. Instead we stopped at the Carrefour in Nichelino just south of Torino. Now we have been to lots of hypemarches in France, and they can be amazing, but this was Italian food on steroids. Hundreds of cheeses, hams, salamis, a double aisle of dry pasta, plus of course, the fresh pasta aisle. Every kind of pre-made deli salad, anti pasta, pasta dishes, pizza, foccacia, plus of course the in-store bakery, fish market, pig's heads, olive bar—it is so easy to overbuy for the small camper refrigerator. We did find that groceries were slightly more expensive than France, wine cheaper, hard liquor the cheapest in Europe. Diesel prices here were €1.59 a liter—that is 20 Euro cents cheaper than in the Italian Alps but 22 cents more than in France. With the Euro currently at $1.35 that makes diesel about $8.40 a gallon. We hope it falls some as we head further south, but it is what it is and with most nights free camping it is not too bad a trade off.
The Lonely Planet had described Cuneo as a calmer, smaller Torino with a huge plaza and terrific food market. We headed for the sosta in our Camperstop book but it was now an extension of the mall parking lot. (We have a 2012 book so occasionally things have changed.) We easily found parking though right at the old market and walked the two blocks to the main street. The food market was just closing at 2 pm but the regular market was in full swing until 4, filling one of Italy's largest squares and spilling over into many side streets. Plus there was a good range of items for sale with the majority being pretty nice clothing and shoes—a far higher quality than we have seen in most such markets. We also found the TI and picked up advice and English hiking maps for the Maritime Alps National Park only 33 k away. We stopped at Arione's chocolate cafe to buy truly some of Europe's best—Mark having their rum-filled specialty and me the chocolate cream and nut filling. Do buy it by weight as it works out to getting one free for each 3 you buy.
Terme de Valdieri is the jumping off point for many of the hikes in the Maritime Alps park. The road back is two lane until the last 4k and then somewhat narrow but not too bad. At the very end is the sosta N44.20562 E7.26856 and car parking for the hikes. It is only an hour from Cuneo and even the drive is quite scenic. In high season and weekends it is €11 (with electricity) a night, but otherwise free. We stayed two nights, one completely alone, and during the day hiked up the 1000 ft to the Reali de Cassa Cucita. Now a refuge it was formerly the hunting lodge of duke. A gravel road goes all the way or you can stay along the stream on a separate path part of the way. It took us about 2 hrs up instead of the stated 1 hr 15min. Further hikes lead all over the park with lots of refuges (rural, rustic hotels)—a great place to hike even for novices.
Though headed for the Cinque Terre we decided to go straight south so we could drive the entire Italian riviera. The road follows the gorge of the La Roya river for most of the 2-3 hours and it is one of the most spectacular gorges we have ever seen. In addition we stopped at a huge antique/junk/you name it store near Limone Premonte N44.22206 E7.56728. Wonderful browsing. Soon after, you cross the border into a small section of France where diesel prices are $1.00 less per gallon. The road ends in Italy but we decided to turn west for 6 miles to see Menton which is a lovely French town on the coast. Parking is at a premium in this area but as we headed back towards Italy we noticed about 20 campers parked at the border between France and Italy as there were larger spots there. Don't know if you could spend the night. Further along on the west side of San Remo there was a huge parking lot for campers right on the coast—we assume there was a charge. In Imperia at N43.88803 E 8.05631 there is a long beach with street parking. No signs about campers or spending the night. We finally stopped at a campground in our ACSI discount book in Ceriale, Baciccia Camping, as we wanted to wash clothes. We have not stayed in a campground since Edinburgh—certainly a record for us. Only €16 for the night but €10 to wash and dry one normal size load. Italy is going to be expensive for diesel and laundry!