Practical France and Switzerland, 2009-2010
(We are in month 12 of 24 months in Europe over 3 years)
Our trip to France has been so far, in three parts. In August, 2009 we spent about two weeks exploring parts of Brittany and Paris with our daughters. Then after 14 weeks in Britain (our Schengen time was up) we came back through Calais, hugging the west coast all the way to Spain for 20 days. After touring Spain and Portugal during the winter, we left the camper in Marseille (after another week in France) returning to States until June 14. I will start with the most recent three weeks.
Happily for us, the Euro has been at about $1.24 during June. This compares to $1.44 when we were in Paris etc. last summer and fall. This means that everything except diesel is about 15% cheaper than it was. Diesel was about 1 Euro a liter last summer but is now about 1.17. We have found overall that France is one of the less expensive and easiest of the countries to travel in. The large super-marches have everything including extensive foreign food sections, plus there are still the patisseries, small shops, and the biweekly markets in which to buy chicken roti and wonderful produce. Campgrounds are very reasonably priced. Just outside of Nice we paid $22 a night, in Annecy $18. Prices went up a bit after July 4 with the start of high season in July and August. Those same campgrounds would be about $4 more a night. However, France has thousands of inexpensive “aires” that are free or low cost. In Chamonix we spent 9 nights in the large parking lot at the Aiguille d' Midi cable car. It is two blocks from the main part of town and had free water and dump site. It was 12 Euros or about $15 a night. A “real” campground a little further from downtown was about $25 a night. Note that all these prices are without electricity. To keep the batteries charged we just run our engine for 30-60 minutes every other day if not driving.
We liked Nice very much, had a “postponed” 42nd anniversary lunch, and enjoyed visiting the stupendous National Chagall museum and also the Matisse museum with its next door Roman ruins. We took the Route des Grandes Alpes north to Chamonix. It was still late June and so not quite the season yet. There are at least eight different north/south passes on the route—only the highest one was still closed by snow. We did not have the Michelin Green Guide to the area only the one for all of France. The first pass we finally settled on was the Col d'Allos. As we approached there was a sign for no 3.5 tons and over—we are over, though because of weight not size. In the view parking lot was a German camping car much larger then us, so I asked if they had come south over the pass. Though they spoke little English, they conveyed that yes they had and that the road was narrow and twisting in spots. Since backtracking would be a long way, we decided since they had done it, it must be doable. Luckily for us, it was a Monday, not quite tourist season, and traffic was light. It was one of our worst white knuckle experiences, though the scenery was tremendous. Had we met their motorhome on the 25 k route over the pass, there would have been a lot of backing up to do. After this pass we decided to detour towards Grenoble to avoid the next ones coming up. But still the few days we spent on the high route were wonderful—I just wish we had had some way of knowing which passes were the biggest or had a car instead of a 7 m RV with a long wheel base! This is a part of France that is really only visited by French tourists and so quite enjoyable.
Just before Chamonix we spent several days in a campground on the lake at Annecy, a town that is easy to visit and love.
We spent a long time in Chamonix as Mark got sick, and we had macerator and water pump failures which he spent two days on trying to fix. But we also got to do several glorious hikes using cable cars to get high and then walking both sides of the valley. And we had our favorite poulet roti three times from the market. I swear it was the same stand that we visited in the 80s and 90s on previous trips! On leaving we noticed a free aire on the road towards Martigny, just beyond the Plan de Plaz cable car. There was a time limit there but it would be an easy bus ride to Chamonix and very convenient for the cable car.
We also took a side trip through the Mt. Blanc tunnel to first, Monte Cervino—which is the Italian side of the Matterhorn and then to Courmayeur. Both towns had narrow, hairpin roads to get to the hiking trails we wanted, but large enough at least for busses—well, not for passing them, but they could manage it. We stayed at the free aire at the foot of Mt. Cervino. We spent five days in Courmayeur, doing again some of the hikes we had done as part of the Tour du Mt. Blanc that we hiked five years ago. Mark did the highest parts alone to see some of the scenery we missed last time when the weather closed in. We also accidentally got on the auto-route in Italy—9 Euros for 13 kilometers. We didn't make that mistake twice. The Mt. Blanc tunnel was 58 Euros roundtrip—you have 7 days to do the return.
Just to dive back in time now to last August in France. In Paris we stayed at the campground in the Bois d Bologne (sic). It is an hour's commute from there by campground bus and metro to the old center of Paris. In high season reservations are a must. One night at the end of our week we just wild camped on the street in the park near the campground. However, this can be a sketchy area but we had seen other campers parked there. There is also a campground near Versailles that many books recommend that is a train ride from Paris. The commute is actually shorter and the expense close to the same. We did buy the week long Paris museum pass which not only saves money but keeps you from having to stand in the hot sun in the long lines everywhere. If you want to climb the tower at Notre Dame, get there well before it opens. We were there at opening and after 90 minutes in line we weren't half way to the door—so we gave it up. Also if it is warm, the Louvre gets unbearably hot—much better to do it first thing on a couple of different mornings.
If you do stay in the Bois, be sure to ride near the front of the campground bus and head straight to metro ticket machine. Most of the campers have a difficult time with the machine and you can wait an hour to get your metro ticket if you are near the end of the line. Also note carefully where the campground bus lets you out at the metro. This is a big plaza and there are lots of exits from the metro, so it is easy to get disoriented trying to find the bus stop again that night. We have been lost here several times.
We came back to France November 22 after our nearly 4 months in Great Britain. In retrospect, we should have been back by late October. The west coast of France is very cold and wet in November and December. By the way, you can camp free in both Dover and Calais either at the ferry or in Dover in the town lot. We spent almost 3 weeks winding along the coast seeing Normandy, Brittany and on down to Spain. This is a part of France we love, and spent many nights sleeping by a menhir, dolmen, or stone circle. Had the weather been better, we would have spent more time. However, this part of the trip was very economical—in 16 nights we only paid once for our overnight stop, $11 at a city aire parking lot in La Rochelle. Mark also loved the day we spent in Cognac—where the very air smells of the heady spirits. Of course, many more details of the trip are in Mark's blog (www.roadeveron.blogspot.com).
We came in from Chamonix through Martigny on a Sunday and there was no one at the border. We tried at several gas stations to buy the vignette for driving on the auto-routes and some of the tunnels but no one had the sticker for over 3.5 tons. So we programmed Tom for no toll roads. Unfortunately, the south bank of the Interlaken lakes area is only an auto-route. This are only a few miles so we just had to chance it. Our first stop was Lauterbrunnen—Camping Jungfrau is where we have stayed before but it is now over $44 without electricity. We stayed at Camping Schuetzenbach which is also near town and it was $35 with pay showers and dishwashing. Ugh. Another 3 k beyond town is a cheaper priced one—right after the waterfalls—I passed it on my walk--$27 a night but I don't know if that included the 2.5 per person tourist tax. (I have read that you can wild camp at the Schilthorn cable car lot at end of valley, but only if you arrive late and depart early.)
The real expense in Switzerland is the cost of the cable cars and trains into the high country. The Schilthorn is about $90 a person. The cable car and train to Murren is one of the less expensive at $20 round-trip. There are some lovely hikes from Murren with grand views of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. Mark hiked from Murren to the Schilthorn and back but it is a trail for very experienced mountain hikers only—with no fear of heights. In comparison the cable car ride to Plan Praz in Chamonix was $16. Of course in Chamonix if you wanted to go to the Aiguille du Midi, it was big bucks. The most expensive thing to do in either Lauterbrunnen or Grindelwald (next valley over) is to take the train and lift to the Jungfraujoch. If you just want to go as far as Kleine Scheidegg, it is about $50, for the whole way it is $160. There is a week long pass for all these things and more at about $190—it doesn't include the Jungfraujoch—but it gives you half off for it. Whether you do these things is a personal choice. Over several trips to this area we had already done most of them so didn't feel the need to go again. If you do go up high, be sure to go early and only with a good weather forecast. We have also done the Trummelbach Falls in Lauterbrunnen in the past and liked it very much.
By the way, if you have a bike the Lauterbrunnen valley has a long flat bikeway whereas all of Grindelwald is very steep. We spent four nights in Grindelwald at Camping Gletscherdorf about 15 minutes downhill from the village and $35 a night with free and very strong wifi. We saw absolutely no place to wild camp in the area. Stores in town are closed from 12-2 like in France even though this is a German speaking area.
Since we still didn't have a highway vignette we took the smaller roads to Luzern, which we have visited twice before. After spending so much money in the high country we were determined to wild camp. The first night we spent at the public parking lot at the Richard Wagner museum. Right on the lake and about a 30-40 minute walk or bike ride to town. Free from 7 pm to 7 am, otherwise 1 CF an hour with 10 hour limit. A woman at museum said parking overnight was probably okay. The police turned around twice in the lot that evening but never bothered us. Bus fare to town was about $5 round-trip. We went into town to revisit the bridge (burned down in 1993 and not near as nice as the old one,) and the Rosengart Museum. When we discovered the museum was $18 each we skipped it.
We're not that wild about 20th century art.
That evening we drove to the Mt. Pilatus cog train station about 15 k west of Luzern. The parking lot was $5 for 24 hrs and the person at the ticket booth said overnighting was usually “tolerated.” It was fine, but lots of road noise. Mark took the train up the mountain first thing next morning, for $30, and then walked down. He said the views were amazing. I walked into the village (nothing) and then along the lake as far as the local campground. ($40 a night). Lots of benches and steps so you could go swimming—beautiful, but noisy as the autobahn is right there. The marina is also there and you can get a bus/boat/cable car/cog train round-trip from Luzern.
That was our last night in Switzerland, and so we headed for southern Germany and Austria. We never bought a Swiss vignette, but I wish we had. The non-toll roads in Switzerland are a full two lanes wide but still incredibly steep and twisting.