Mediterranean Coast, Fall, 2017, Part 1
Mediterranean Coast, Fall, 2017, Part
We arrived in Barcelona after a fabulous flight from Dubai on an Emirates Airbus 380. We had not flown one before. These are two story planes with first and business class upstairs and steerage down. However, everything was pretty new with comfortable seats, larger screen individual monitors and more room—especially since the flight was pretty empty. We each had a row to ourselves and the opportunity to sleep after the all night flight from Cape Town and then a full day of seeing Dubai. Due to the separatist election on Sunday in Catalonia, public transportation was on strike and central Barcelona blocked off. Our cab drive wasn't too expensive but, at 36E with 4 bags, more than usual. The Euro is also no longer at $1.06 as it was last April but now $1.18. But it is what it is.
We spent the night at the Hostalin Barcelona-Desputation—tiny room, but clean with air conditioning for a pricey $80. I choose it as I thought the website said it was close to train station—wrong. We had wanted a day in Barcelona to visit the restored Gaudi house that was to open this fall. But not open yet, so we walked by our favorite sights--La Pedrera and had chocolate, coffee, and free internet in the Cafe at Amatlla house, then on to the central market. We planned to do another ham tasting at the Jamon Experience museum but none were scheduled until 3 pm, so we had lunch instead (very good) and bought a supply of the good stuff—guijelolo bellato--to last over the next couple of weeks. On to see the Catalonia Musica, gelato at Amorino, and then hotel and taxi (16E with luggage) to Santos train station. I bought our tickets on line that morning for only 11E pp for the 55 minute trip to Figures. The taxi to Caravan Storage was 23E and our rig was parked up in the field, plugged in, filled with water and ready for us. We actually started unpacking that evening. The next day they finished up some repairs we wanted while we fully unpacked and then restocked at the Carrefour and headed up the road a short way to Camping los Pederes l'albera in Capmany for 18E a night. Two nights later on to Roses (lovely town) and a stop at Cadaques.
We had been to Cadaques before on the way to visiting Dali's home and I had remembered a narrow, mountainous road—right, but beautiful. Campers aren't allowed in town and there is a large car park right at the edge. About 2E an hour and 20E for over 8 hours if you want to spend the night. Cadaques was a beautiful town and though the church is not open you can see the magnificent Baroque altar through the glass doors—not a fan of Baroque but this one was special. Moving on we climbed the mountain to St. Peter of Rhodes monastery which is located in a breathtaking spot overlooking the sea. It takes about 90 minutes of time to visit as the monks did not plan ahead for parking so it is about a 15 minute walk from the lot. We thought about spending the night there as there was no contrary signage but leveling would have been difficult.
From here one has the choice to backtrack towards Figueres and take a main road north or continue along the winding coastal road. We opted for the later and were well rewarded with lovely coastal scenery, and it turned out that the worst part of the road was behind us. We were headed for an aire in Port Vendres but instead found free parking in a cliff side lot right after the French border just before Cerbere N42 26.381 E 03 10.253. We were joined by four other campers. Even though it was on the road there was next to no traffic during the night
It was only a few miles further to Port Vendres to a very popular aire 10E per night, collected about 8am. The aire is right by a large commercial port that you walk past to reach town in about 15 minutes. It was lunchtime on Sunday and the dozens of seaside restaurants were packed with tourists and locals enjoying the maritime cuisine. Mark and I were looking for free wifi and found a tiny bar/restaurant that was quieter than the rest where he had 6 oysters and a glass of wine for 7E and we enjoyed the internet for a couple of hours.
The next day we headed to the Michelin 2 star town of Collioure intent on parking and walking around. Alas parking was tres difficile but we enjoyed the drive through. The local aire has a bus to town from June to September and if we are ever in the vicinity again we will stop there. Collioure is basically the last of the hilly, rocky cove Cote Vermeille, and we enjoyed our drive immensely.
North of Collioure the coast flattens out with long, long, wide beaches that vary between newer and highly developed family areas—lots of high rises, beach homes, and campgrounds and long areas that have been left natural. At St. Cyprien-Plage we spotted lots of campers parked at N42 38.446 E03 02.006 but there was a height bar that had been opened. I imagine that during high season it would be closed. Yet north from here is an abundance of parking all along the coast with possible wild camping spots as far as Port la Nouvelle where we turned inland to Narbonne.
At Narbonne we stopped at the municipal aire for 9E a day with electric, and you can use your entrance card as a free bus pass. (bus stop to your left as you exit aire-do not cross street). Our first afternoon we rode into this lovely small city and purchased tickets 6Epp to the central monuments. (note they are closed Tuesdays) The archaeological museum had stunning Roman wall paintings with vivid colors and good English descriptions. The rest of the museum areas, including a large pre-history section, were also nice but descriptions were only in French. The Cathedral of St. Just is the third tallest in France and dates from the 13th century. Don't miss the Chapel of St Marie of Bethlehem where they uncovered a Gothic altar in 1981 with its unusual last judgment depicting purgatory (though it sure looked like hell to me.) Our second day we decided to catch up on blogging and other administrative things so we just stayed in the aire another night. We also spent a couple of hours in the giant Carrefour just a few blocks away where we saw our first automatic crepe making machine and an unusually large selection of everything edible. Such places are always a delight to the senses and almost inspire me to cook.
A couple of years ago a friend recommended the magazine France which is written in English for GBers but is also available by subscription in the US. I spent the long drives this summer from California to Montana going through issues and pulling out articles on places we might want to visit. One such place near Narbonne was Guissane—a Michelen one star, but what intrigued us in the magazine was the picture of the large village where the houses formed concentric circles out from the ruins of the former castle. It turned out to be an interesting place with lovely rooftop views from the castle hill. It is surrounded on three sides by water and we also drove a couple of kilometers over to the Plage to see the approximately 1300 beach houses on stilts. We passed the Aire of the 4 Winds near the marina on the way but ended up staying right on the beach following a German camper into the site. The sign for the aire was in French and we couldn't read it. Turns out the aire was closed for the season on Oct. 1 so there was no charge and parking was tolerated—there were about 20 campers there spending the night next to the boardwalk. N43 05.770 E03 06.697 In the morning we had to exit down the one way entrance road to avoid a height barrier. But when in Rome----
Journeying on we headed for the aire on the beach just south of Sete. There was plenty of room at midday but it is no longer free. 7E now and 11E in high season. We didn't stay because the bus into Sete proper only runs from May to Oct. 1. Seeing Sete was why we were there, having passed through the town twice before without being able to find a place to park. It was still difficult but because our rig is only 5.4 meters we were able to squeeze in next to a canal and enjoyed lunch in the covered market (go before 12:30 or shops will be closed). On the way out of town we found actual, designated camper parking at N43.41253 E03.69850. (Sorry about changing the GPS format but we use two different aire guides and they use two different formats.) Billed as the Venice of Languedoc because of the several canals, it wasn't quite that, but we liked it a lot. After several wandering hours (does everyone in France own a boat?) we headed to the next aire going north in the town of Baraluc-les-Bains N43 26.750 E03 40.662.
What a find! A spa town since Roman times this very French tourist town on the largest lagoon in the Languedoc was a perfect size for strolling. There are three small aires all close together and by four in the afternoon we snagged the last spot. All our neighbors were French. The sign said 8.5E payant but no one ever came to collect. Water and electric were available for tokens from the tourist office. Two blocks towards town was a laundromat, two blocks further a lovely commercial area and beyond that the beach and marina. It was Friday and market day as an added bonus. We stayed two nights but never made it to the therme (baths) but were tempted by the thermal foot bath right by the tourist office. It reminded us of ones we saw in Turkey. The aire didn't seem to enforce any length of stay as the folks next to us were obviously there for several nights. This is why we love France and Europe—almost any village , town, or city you stumble upon offers delights around every corner. Next life I will speak French, Mark Spanish and Italian and that will make our travels perfect.
Mark and I like rock formations a lot and so decided to head somewhat away from the coast to the small village of Mourze surrounded on three sides with limestone karst formations. Everyone must part at the edge of the village for 3E and campers and spend the night for 6E. We were able to get water and dump and spent an hour or so walking through the village. Mark especially liked the wood creations of a local artist—a life size crucifix on the side of the church, men and women in various poses outside his home. There is a circular walk of about 3.5 miles through the karsts outside of the village, but we weren't in the mood. The area was very reminiscent of Paraje Natural Torcal De Antequera in Spain last spring.
We decided to skip Montpelier as we wanted to get to L'Isle sur le Sorgue Saturday so we would be there for the Sunday markets. Again France magazine had alerted us to this marvelous town which is the third largest antique center in France. There are over 300 permanent sellers and on Sundays, a splendid French market also with street after street of small sellers of brocante—as the French say. In addition, the town itself is surrounded by the Sorgue River and crisscrossed by canals. Fourteen of the original fifty water wheels remain in the canals where they used to power a wide range of manufacturing. Day and overnight parking is free at the train station right next to town although if you wait till Sunday morning the lot will be overflowing by 9am even in the off season. (no aire services) In shoulder season most of the dealers only open their shops Friday or Saturday through Monday. The town hosts two international shows at Easter and in mid August for those who love crowds. We found it fascinating and beautiful and pretty upscale—as good or better than some of the markets in Paris which have gotten very touristy. The tourists here were antiquers searching for lovely one of a kind items. The food market was also superb, but don't expect bargain prices. We tasted some lovely cheese so I asked to purchased a slice—didn't seem that big to me but the price was 37E—most expensive cheese we've ever bought.
After two quiet nights in L'Isle we drove the 6 miles upstream to the source of the Sorgue in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. The river springs from a 1000 ft. deep cave at the foot of u shaped cliffs. The water originates from the plateau above and it is said to be the third largest spring in the world with its greatest flow in spring after heavy rains. Also in town is the house the poet Petrarch who lived in it for sixteen years in the 1300s, an 11th century Romanesque church, and a working paper mill. Most parking is before the town is reached but with height bars. Since it was only 9 am on a Monday in October we found parking in town. It is about a 20 minute easy uphill walk from the town center on the left side of the river to the fontaine itself. There is also an aire in town but we didn't pass it. On our way out the tour buses were headed in—
After lunch in a picnic spot outside of Gordes we parked in an aire (no services) 1.2 miles before the town which is perched on the top and side of a hill. N43 54.049 E05 11.582 There is paid parking closer in and you can spend the night but it is not at all level. This is a well discovered “beautiful village” of France and completely given over to tourism with prices to match in the gift shops and restaurants. (Though even higher elsewhere in Provence.) Still it is quite beautiful especially from the viewpoint marked on a tiny side road about halfway up from the aire.
Next morning we drove the 7k distance to Roussillon—home of ochre and another beautiful hilltop village. There is only one allowable parking and even approach for campers at N43 53.781 E05 17.817—3E for the day and additional 8E to spend the night until 8am. No services. There are several walks to the various former ochre mines that sounded scenic—next time. Just a few miles outside the village on the way to Aix en Provence we stopped at a well preserved Roman bridge. Beside the bridge is a lovely parking area which would be a much better place to spend the night than the aire in Gordes. N53 51.689 E 05 18.407
Beyond the Roman bridge the area gets very pretty and after the somewhat hair raising drive through the hill town of Bonnieux we were in the natural park area of the Petit Luberon—a beautiful drive. A couple of the pull outs near the end of the park looked large enough to spend the night. Frankly, this whole area is just lovely and deserved more time and attention than we gave it, but we wanted to press on to Aix, We spent the night at a free aire with services in Jouques and were the only ones there. It is only a short walk to the village so a nice spot for an after dinner stroll. A small cold front came through and we had our lowest temperatures of 40 degrees at night, but back up to the 70s during the day and fifties at night the next week. Truly lovely weather.
Aix proved to be difficult in terms of parking---what city doesn't? Even at only 5.4 meters long the spaces were too short for us. We finally found parking at a large shopping center just at the edge of town featuring a Geant store—unfortunately I forgot to write down the GPS. We caught the bus just at the end of the uncovered parking lot. It was bus number 3 and lets you off at the main fountain from which all of historic Aix flows—the Rotonde. We wandered happily for several hours, and had a good and reasonable lunch at the Lonely Planet recommended Charlotte's (near the Rotonde). I particularly enjoyed the visit to the Cathedral and cloisters because I was rereading Guy Gavriel Kay's historical fantasy Ysabel in which the cathedral and the surrounding Aix area plays an important role. We did walk by Cezanne's birth home—the city is Cezanne crazy, but we are not so we didn't do the whole pilgrimage thing. By late afternoon we were back at the camper—the bus does not leave from the Rotonde but a couple of blocks short of it the kindly bus driver who spoke excellent English was nice enough to point out for us. Normally we would have stayed in a campground near Aix but none were still open that we could find. Many close September 30 and more in mid October—the only downside we can find from touring this area in October.
Since we don't like to drive after dark we stopped at the aire at the Super U in Brignoles—actually there were about ten campers there. N43 24.637 E05 03.730 Noisy as the market was having some construction done all night long—concrete saw, etc.
There is an aire near St. Tropez—not too many in this neck of the woods. It is less like an aire than a lousy campground. 16E for a site with electric, toilet, and a couple of coin operated doubtful looking showers. However it is only a couple of blocks from the Sentier Littoral—the coast path that runs from St. Tropez then on for 35k around the cape and several famous beaches. We just walked the hour or so into St. Tropez and back. Lovely walk though the wind was really whipping up the bay so the path was wet in places. St Tropez was not crowded but lots of evidence of the wealth that is there—the parade of yachts in port, the exclusive shops, and $12 pina coladas at one of cheaper of the portside restaurants. We had planned to take the ferry across the bay from St Maxime as the Witts had done but were glad we didn't as it wasn't a light chop and in fact the ferry was the only boat on the bay. Higly recommended for the coast walk though the aire fills quickly in season.
We enjoyed the coast road D559 going north towards Cannes except were a bit put off by the fact that every parking area that didn't have height bars had signs for no campers whether day or night. In Frejus we turned slightly inland long enough to visit the Groupe Episcopal. The Cathedral, which is a Romanesque and very plain, and the far more interesting baptistery are free and the main attraction, the cloisters are 6E pp. The baptistery is seen through bars with its eight gorgeous reused Roman columns with lovely capitals. Also since it dates from the sixth century there is a rock cut immersion pool for baptisms which we have seldom if ever seen. Do not pay to see the cloisters unless it is a sunny day or you have a strong flashlight. You will also need binoculars to really view the 300 or so small painted wooden panels that line the areas under the eaves of the ceiling. To fully appreciated them first see the film (in French, but understandable) about them in the room adjoining. Originally there were 1200 but rot and humidity have whittled the number down since the 13th century. In alternating red and blue background colors they portray the religious, regular people going about their work and play, and a full medieval beastery of fantastical animals, devils, and human mutants. A very rare and unique piece of history. The town actually has parking almost at the center at Place Paul Vernet but we missed that and parked at the Lidl which was only a 20 minute walk.
After Frejus the nasty no camper parking signs pettered out and from Agap on the scenery changed from built up tourist to lovely shore (and mansions) to the Cap Rouge park area where there is mile after mile of shimmering blue-green waters breaking against red rock spits. There are lots of pull offs and even a couple of places suitable for wild camping. (At least they were marked as wildcamps in our Garmin by the data we had downloaded 18 months ago from the wildcamping web site in GB).
So we arrived in Mandelieu la Napoule to stay at the ACSI discount campground Les Gigales—the only one open in the area and next door to Cannes. In fact we ended up paying 24E a night plus tax as the 19E sites were all full. It is a 15 minute walk, mostly along a lovely path by the river to the seafront and bus 22 which goes to Cannes. We missed the bus and at only once an hour decided to get our steps in by walking the 90 minutes to central Cannes. It was a lovely walk with lots of kiosks for drinks and food but no public bathrooms and only two very expensive beach club restaurants. We finally had a much deserved lunch at The Bay Cafe just before the old port—good value at 14.90 for two courses and coffee or tea. We browsed the Saturday antique market outside the Hotel de Ville and watched two wedding parties depart and arrive for their ceremonies there. The first had hired two of the small tourist trains to whisk guests to the reception, a unique and fun option I thought. Sunday the winds were expected to pick up to 28 mph so we decided to stay at the campground, do laundry and other some such. A welcome day off.
At the Cannes' tourist office I had complained that there was not even daytime parking available for campers. The woman said it was an effort to keep down traffic but there was one street we could park and even stay one or two nights—Avenue Roubine N43.54742 E6.97008 We spent two nights which were somewhat noisy but barely okay—unfortunately, we were broken into during the daytime. Apparently they had some sort of key and even though our cab doors were chained together there was enough slack for them to roll down the window. They went through Mark's pack, some bags, but took nothing. Our computers were there but they are three year old Acer notebooks that were only worth $250 new so they didn't bother. Very lucky—our first break in in 9 years of traveling Europe. Lesson learned was to tighten cab chain and park where both sides of vehicle are clearly visible to passing traffic or shops. This time one side was hidden by an embankment and where little pedestrian traffic traveled.
It took two tries to get to Mougins but it was worth it. After checking out of the campground we drove the 7 miles to find no place to park. Every lot had a no camper sign. Finally we pulled into one of them and Mark stayed with the camper while I walked up to the tourist office. She assured me that at this time of year, as long as we fit in the space, it would be okay. She called the police to double check—wrong, we would be ticketed even if we fit. They are “working” on finding a few places. But I don't believe it because this is a village that doesn't look interested in camper or tour bus visitors. I know this because the next day we parked closer to Cannes and took the Palmbus B (which also goes to Grasses) up. The bus was great 1.5E and drops you at Valle Mougins CCC where you can catch the free navitte (tiny bus) up to old Mougins. Unfortunately, it runs beginning at 11:30 and we were there at 10:20 so we walked up the road. We later learned that if you take the short flight of steps to the right of the navette stop you get on an upper road that is much quicker. The village is quite posh with many, many art galleries and artisanale shops. We enjoyed our saunter around, but we came for the private museum d'Art Classique, which opened in 2011. It did not dissapoint. The owner runs the world's largest commodities hedge fund and has been collecting since age 7. He obviously spares no expense and buys only the best. Entrance for over 60s was 7E and it takes about 90 minutes to view the Greek, Egyptian, Roman and even some Celtic sculpture, artifiacts, coins, jewelry. Everything is displayed flawlessly and mixed it are several Picasso's and other artists to drew on the classical periods for their inspiration. Even the armor collection is interesting and we have seen multiple collections before. The owner who lives in London has a villa nearby and owns two gourmet restaurants in the village whose prices he must subsidize. Not cheap, but not as high as for instance in Eze where we went a few days later. Maybe not having parking for tour buses is not all together a bad thing once in a while.