Les Plus Beaux Villages de France – Part 1

Les Plus Beaux Villages de France – Part 1

Travelling opens up our horizons and our experiences as we move out of our own country comfort zones and into a different culture that has history, tales of love and war and unique community values ingrained into its fibres.

Every country has its own complex jigsaw creating a cultural canvas that gives us the privilege of stepping onto its land, walking through its labyrinth of villages, towns and regions, to understand its music – from its heart and its deepest soul. And France is one place where that soul is so freely expressed. Ghosts of past eras guard their secrets in the ancient walls where their homes are honoured and more importantly preserved for future generations.

Les Plus Beaux Villages de France is an association that officially launched on 6 March 1982 and was the vision of Charles Ceyrac.  There are currently 157 villages throughout France (including the island of Corsica) which have the enviable label of being one of the most beautiful villages in France and this body offers the community a chance to conserve their heritage.

It wasn’t until we began to travel full time in March 2016 that we stumbled upon this gorgeous collection of places with awareness of their role in French culture. Without much structure, we started to visit places, not because they were on the list necessarily, just because they looked or sounded beautiful.  And yet it was with woeful realisation that we had only actually visited a mere 15  of 157 village and a large majority of those were in Provence, during our three months there last year.  Shame on us!  From that moment on, we committed to exploring more of these delicate delights and knitting together our own French cultural experience by meandering our way through the countryside.  This blog and the many more to come over time, I’m sure, is a short insight to those we visited and the routes we took, with the hope that perhaps you too may decide to continue your cultural education en France.

 

Part 1 – Occitane in Autumn

Autumn is a great season at the best of times, although in the oak forests of Occitaine in south of France, you will be treated to a canopy of colour. Every shade along the spectrum from brown, green, red, gold, orange and yellow.  In fact the colours we have seen this week make Joseph’s Techni-coloured Dream Coat pale into insignificance.

Our mission this week was to explore the area east of Cahors – covering the Lot, Tarn et Garonne, Tarn and Aveyron regions and what a treat we were in for.  We started our route from Toulouse and we took just over five days, taking a pretty relaxed pace.  If you click the markers on this interactive map below, you will see the villages we visited.

 

St-Cirq Lapopie

Hidden in the depths of the Parc Naturel Régional des Causses de Quercy, our route took us through some wonderful scenery. Meandering through the forests, we felt as though we were being transported into our very own private Narnia. We became one with the oaks; leaves falling like snow, covering the ground with a golden carpet. And yet after thirty minutes we were suddenly left speechless and breathless as we reached the junction for St-Cirq Lapopie.

With the village to our left, the river to our right – we saw emerge from behind the trees, a village perched high above the valley floor – dominating the sky line with the grace of an eagle. This Medieval village dates back to 13th Century where history of family feuds is evidenced by the three different castles looking for supremacy against one another. Sat 300 metres above the Lot valley, this lofty village commands a view to the hills beyond and is master of all it purveys.

Within its protective embrace, St-Cirq Lapopie has 13 listed buildings and is a homage to the artisans who crafted their wares; from button makers, wood turners and skinners. Climbing up from the valley floor to the height of the castles’ towers, we got a real sense of medieval tunes played out through the ages. And today on a crisp, autumn day, the chimneys puffing out their smoke left us with a feeling that we had gone back in time.  No tourists to cloud our view, only cobbled streets that took us in-between the houses that have so many ancient scars and stories to tell.

This is a completely 3D experience; we approached the town from the river beneath, and looking up to the skies there was a perspective of grandeur; then within the walls we smelt the bygone era of artisans and felt like Alice in Wonderland, and then on the road back down to the river, we saw the village stretch out like one of those concertina Birthday cards giving us a totally different view of the multiple layers of streets and rooftops, framed by the Lot valley beneath us.  What a ‘wow’ this place was and a magical experience.

Camping

There’s two camping opportunities; both an Aire and an official Campsite, both just down the hill from the village. We stayed at the Aire on the river’s edge and for €7 with free services.  We had a grand position along the river Lot, staring across the banks at houses carved into the gorge walls and the distant sound of the weir as the river made its way through the valley.   A short walk along the river’s edge brought us to a mill and lock on this navigable river and soon the prospect of a stretching climb to the village heart.  (44.47017 1.67893).

 

Najac

After a couple of nights, sitting out a weather front in nearby Monteils, we headed off to Najac, a completely unique village nestled in the Aveyron valley. The drive to it gave us glimpses of what we would experience, although we were not ready for this village’s mystery. In the distance a castle silhouette caught our eye, although we were brought back into the present moment, by the distraction of the  most enthralling oak-lined road to this village kingdom.

Parking at the foot of the castle hill, we diligently climbed through the woods.  As we reached the church and castle, we were most definitely impressed.  And rightly so as this has royal heritage, as one of the many chateaux royeaux in the area, demonstrating the Royal control of Najac back in 13th Century.  It’s said that the dungeon here was where the Knights of the Templar were imprisoned. Sadly the fortress was closed when we visited, although it is still an incredible sight with its fairy-tale turrets that look to the valley below.

As we continued our walk through the old village, we couldn’t help thinking that we’d climbed all this way for just this tiny hamlet and – don’t get me wrong, it was lovely and certainly very quaint with its ancient architecture, although we felt a little underwhelmed at this point. And then the walk continues – just up one street.  There are no others – just one street and soon we came to appreciate the unique status of this plus beau village.  The whole place is just on one street along an entire rocky ridge.  With the church and chateau one end and the town square and fountain at the other, this 0.6km long village is like nothing else we’ve ever seen. The cobble streets gives a feel of Dickensian England yet with its typical French shutters we were left in no doubt which side of the Channel we were stood.

Highly coloured shutters and facias rewarded our continued walk, with stone and wooden structures that give it such an authentic feel. Suddenly the love for this village oozed from within us. A respect for the way the residents perched their existence in the most of unlikely places and yet thrived for over seven hundred years. It was like a movie set and to appreciate it without the buzz of the crowd on this cold yet stunningly beautiful, blue sky day was a honour. Najac is a delight.

Camping

We stayed at a free Aire in Monteils about 20 minutes away (44.26702 1.99721), although there are two options in Najac itself, on the valley floor:

Camping Paisserou (44.2206 1.9693) which has river frontage pitches for €16 except for July and August when the price rises to €27.

Najac Aire (44.22137 1.96741) opposite the municipal swimming pool, an old tennis court has been converted into an Aire where you can park for access to the village for €2 for 2hrs or €6 for 24hrs with facilities.

 

 

Bruniquel

After an overnight stop in Saint Antonin Noble Val, which in itself is worth a visit for its canals and ancient buildings, we took the Aveyron Gorge route, which was very special. If you’ve ever been through the Gorges de Verdun, then this is a second-cousin twice removed, with the same hallmark narrow roads, craggy outcrops and stunning valley floor views – just a little shorter. If your vehicle is under 3m tall and less than 3.5T then traversing this road is very easy, if not a little caution needed.  The other side of the gorge, Bruniquel was waiting for us; a bastide, which is a fortified village common to this region of France.

As we walked up from the car park, we had a welcoming view of the village’s hub – a clock tower that proudly sits at the gateway. With this as a welcome we wandered around the outer edges of Bruniquel, marvelling at the deep red Virginia Creeper clinging to the old walls and the radiant yellow maple trees.  Ancient portals signal the outer reaches and soon we found ourselves weaving back into the sanctuary of the bastide’s embrace towards the gardens and chateaux. Again out of season the museums were all closed, although to walk through the streets of this tiny village is almost enough to sense the feuding cousins that split the chateau into two.  This is a small and compact village with charm and delight.

Camping

There is a dedicated camper parking area with water facilities two minutes from the village, although Saint Antonin is so close with its Aire, that this is a perfect stopping point.  (44.152091 1.75128).  Alternatively you could motor further onwards to Puycelsi another 30 minutes drive away, where there is parking available. (43.99426 1.713816).

 

Puycelsi

Rising up from the valley floor our eyes fell upon Puycelsi and although some way in the distance, we just knew it was going to be something special. We were so excited to explore this one and I can’t quite tell you why;, it was a just a feeling in the depths of my stomach – like a butterfly had been released.  After an overnight stop in the parking area at the bottom on the village, we woke with anticipation. Sadly an early morning mist had descended and shrouded the whole area in an eery, white blanket. Somehow this made our whole exploration that bit more intriguing and atmospheric. The 800m thick ramparts, on the face of it, seem to be unwelcoming although that soon altered when we walked around the rampart walls. We imagined what the view beneath the four cornered bastide might look like as it stretched invisibly in front of us over the Grésigne Forest and Vère Valley.

Unlike the other villages, the buildings seemed to have been steam-cleaned, they were so pristine. The love and tender care that radiated from the bricks gave this village a really energetic feel. Children laughed in the small school playground and the mist still clung to the buildings like a child being prised from its mother’s arms.  Although as it turned out – it hadn’t always been this way – even up until recently as the history books told us.

Wandering through the alleyways of this charming village, the mist didn’t change how the homes gathered around us in comforting embrace. Puycelsi had such a lovely feel about it – we felt immediately integrated into it. Its 13th century history of sieges and survival of four major epidemics made the village resilient and its strength grew. It was only after World War 2 when the houses were abandoned and fell into disrepair that Puycelsi lost its courageous hold. Although it didn’t take long for people to gather and put a concerted effort into renovating this prosperous and ancient village and hence the love we felt in the walls of each home.

Puycelsi, with its fortress reputation, defensive walls and resolute spirit is written into every cobblestone, into every brick and every rafter – its medieval tale is one that will now be held as a legacy in this stunningly restored village.

Camping

There is a car park just in the shadow of the towering ramparts, attached to the Tourist Information, where camping overnight was permitted – see Bruniquel for co-ordinates.  We had a sheltered and quiet night there and once the mist had cleared by lunchtime, the views were incredible.

 

Castelnau de Montmiral

 

The final village on our list for the week was a short drive down the road from Puycelsi.  Through beautiful autumnal agricultural land, where the shadows extended like long fingers towards the horizon, Castelnau soon appeared above the Vère river valley with the residue of mist curling around its turrets.

Castelnau de Montmiral is another bastide and dates back to 1222.  Yet it is not the towering village ramparts that struck us most; the first thing that we saw was the monument on the hill – a Virgin Mary standing gracefully at the village entrance, enticing us into the bosom of the community.

This, unlike the others has no chateau, as this was destroyed by war.  Yet what it lacked in victorious castle splendour it made up for in its village square, which had us spinning round in awe as we took in the medieval architecture, archways and central fountain.  It is said that the pillar of one of the buildings was used to tether adulterous women, thieves  and animals before they were sacrificed. We could almost  imagine the sound of the villagers’ heckles when we stood still for a while, as their voices echo around the square.

One final wonderment that we couldn’t miss was inside the church.  Whilst the walls needed a bit of TLC, the beautiful blue ceiling  was pretty impressive with its magnetic portrait of religious design. Although we moved deeper into the church to seek out the small ante-room where the famous 14th Century Reliquary jewelled cross, once owned by the Counts of Armagnac, is kept safely. Whilst it is behind protective gates, it is an incredible sight with its sparkling jewels.

The final draw of Castelnau is not found in the streets, nor the timber framed walls of the ancient buildings.  No you must look to the sky and watch for the clouds of Red Kites and Storks that encircle the village on the day’s thermals. It was a truly magnificent sight – there must have been 30 birds just floating in the sky, playing not hunting and it was a sight to behold.

Camping

There is a car park dedicated to Motorhomes at the side of the village, although it’s not very level for overnight. So we headed out of the village where we had a couple of options; there were two France Passion sites en route to Gaillac although our ‘home’ for the evening was actually just beyond the town along the river Tarn, at Lac de Bellevue (43.861818 1.818547).  This was a great spot close to the lake with full facilities.  A perfect end to a perfect week.

 

And so there is our autumn extravaganza around the most colourful, atmospheric region. A tour that allowed us to rub shoulders with ancient ghosts, battle scars and charming streets that old legends have now made into modern homes.  The protection of Les plus beaux villages de France allows their history to be honoured and never be forgotten.  Our visit was made even more special by the autumn colours and no crowds.  Whilst there were no shops or cafes open we were happy to not share these special places with anyone else.

From this point forward, our exploration of these charming and characterful villages will continue – may not be tomorrow or next week, although rest assured our French education will expand in the future of our Motoroaming Adventures.

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Gallery

Camargue’s Stunning Diversity

Camargue’s Stunning Diversity

France’s Camargue – the land of true diversity

Imagine travelling through the heart-land of a delta region – what jumps out at you?  Is it the flatness of the region or the endless acres of salt flats divided by borders of gravel banks leading to who knows where – perhaps just the horizon or some other equally distant destination that is unattainable.  May be your mind leaps to a haven of wildlife and even flamingoes, hidden by seven foot reed-beds defying your camera lens access to the private ornithological playground.

Whatever your impressions or images are of delta regions, I would love to set you a challenge of falling in love with France’s Camargue.  We’ve been to four deltas during our 20 months on the road; two in Spain, one in Romania and one in Italy.  They are all very different – and in their individuality you can look deep within their characters to experience the true battle between land, river and sea and watch unfold an incredible evolution that serves both the human race and the natural world in an incredible dance of harmony.

 Camargue Map

Yet the Camargue, the largest delta in western Europe is one of the stand-out areas for me such is its diversity, expanse and intrigue.  Nestled in the arms of the Rhône that splits out into two; the Petit Rhône to the west and the Grand Rhône to the east, the south of France claims protection over this incredibly fertile and rich plain.  With a blend of Mediterranean Coast, a Spanish cultural influence and a highly balanced ecosystem of salt lagoons cut off from the sea’s reign by sand dunes and reed beds, the Camargue has supremacy in Europe for tradition, cultivation and ornithology.  It is so much more than a land of flat nothingness.

Let me see if I can inspire a visit with these seven reasons to put the Camargue on your list:

1. Sexy Salt-flats?

So let’s talk salt-flats and deal with the iconic delta landscape before we delve into cultural intrigue.  Now these are no ordinary salt beds; the Camargue has coloured salt-flats that just cry out for a few ‘Ooohs and ahhhs’ from passers by.  Thanks to the algae in the region, the landscape is quite breathtaking and in the mid-day sun the hue sparkles pink and purple.

There’s also something quite earthy about the salt industry here, because although there’s a slight hint of exploitation of the earth’s resources, somehow there feels like a grace in which this process is undertaken, almost as if, with gratitude the salt is lifted and manufactured.  A mixture of salt we use for cooking and also road salt – this production line has huge benefits to the local community and beyond.  Fringed with coarse plants and crystal rocks, this area defies you to not be impressed. Go to the Visitors’ Viewing point about 2km from Salin-de-Giraud and you will be treated to a magnificent sight.

 

 

2. Arles

Arles is Camargue’s capital and a thriving city that boasts the splitting of the Rhône in two. Although we didn’t spend any time here other than passing through looking for petrol, it certainly looks like a place to stop.  It has one of the region’s longest and most major markets around its city walls, every Wednesday and Saturday morning and if you love markets, then get your walking shoes on and go explore.  On top of that you have a UNESCO site in the Roman monuments, theatre and amphitheatre and its main claim to fame is that it was host to Vincent Van Gogh who called this home for a year, creating over 300 hundred paintings. So Arles is definitely worth exploring and we will do it justice next time we’re in the region for sure.

 

3. Sainte Marie de la Mare

Black Madonna – Sarah

This small, Spanish influenced, whitewashed town on the Camargue’s coast has strong links with the Romany people, for whom Sarah or ‘Sara the Black’ is their patron saint. The Black Madonna, as she is also known is honoured at Sainte Marie each May, when there is an annual pilgrimage of Romanies to the town.  The drive there transports you to a land that time forgot, with Ranches spring out of nowhere, where the famous Camargue horses form the heart of local’s passion and their livelihood.

It is here that you start to feel the culture behind the Camargue, where Gardians or cowboys hold their centuries old tradition of raising black bulls for the Spanish Bullfighting industry and using the wild horses to round up their herds.  Today there is more of a tourist feel to this town as many of the Ranches offer horse-ridding excursions around the Delta, although it is quaint enough and definitely worth hanging around to pick up an evening vibe.

 

 

4. Aigues Mortes

 Aigues’ Castle Walls

Of all the Camargue towns, Aigues Mortes (name source; stagnant water) was our favourite.  As we cycled along the main road from Montcalm where we were camping at their vineyard, we crossed a river, which at its end has an imposing tower that entices you towards it. With increased pedal power you find yourself intrigued and soon enough you enter the almost Disney-like scene in front of you. Impenetrable walls that for centuries have protected its farmers and salt-miners, standing up against those who wish to claim the land for its own.  Back in the day, Aigues had direct access to the sea, so protection from the Crusaders was absolutely necessary.  Today bridges over the canal, a silted moat and a great road network has you within the bosom of Aigues within no time, although you certainly feel its protective prowess as you approach.

This ancient city is beautifully intact and as you walk around the walls you get a real sense of the stories that were created here and how today’s town has claimed its identity.

Inside the walls, it’s like another world. A place where you can feel the security and as you wander through the grid-like alleyways, you seriously feel like you have teleported into a Dickensian era.  If like me, you take your camera with you everywhere, then Aigues is the place you will click the most.  Outside of the walls you have a  masterful spectacle; waterways that now provide tours for eagerly awaiting landlubbers with a chance to see the Delta up-close-and-personal; and then there’s the romantic, encased town claiming its own unique personality with sandstone walls that tell tales of battles fought, won and lost in bygone eras.  In fact the town saw the largest massacre of immigrants in modern France, when in 1893, Italian workers who were brought in to work on the salt flats began fighting with the French contingent leading to riots and a massacre of Italian workers.  It caused a huge diplomatic incident between France and Italy leading finally to compensation and justice.

We were lucky (or unlucky as the case may be) to have visited early October, where they have a week-long festival of Bull and Horse Running through the town.  Local Gardians and Romanies gather to celebrate their Bull raising traditions and although I hate the idea of bullfighting in any manner, this bull running through the town’s streets is not something that results in death, thankfully.  Whilst I love to experience another country’s traditions, the crowds that these festivals attract don’t make for an authentic visit.  So whilst I appreciated seeing something completely new and I must admit to being intrigued, I would love to return so we can wander through the streets without the throng of the crowds.

 

 

5. Le Grau du Roi 

I think when you come to a new place, visiting as much as you have the time and energy for seems appropriate. It’ll certainly help you form an overall impression of a place and help you decide whether a second visit or a recommendation to others is worthy.  So on our last day in the Camargue, we decided to check out Le Grau du Roi and sadly it was our least favourite of all the places we visited.  Whilst the canal leading to the sea and the old town to the west is full of character and we just love marinas and boat-life, which this has aplenty, the rest of the streets and harbour-front were just full with wall-to-wall tourists shops and restaurants. It left us cold and the beachfront with its high-rise hotels and marinas simply didn’t do it for us.  It’s almost as if this section of the Camargue has lost its soul to the devil and really doesn’t have the same spirit as in the heart of the National Park.  Whilst Le Grau du Roi is to the west of the Camargue, this town marks a significant change in both the landscape and the authenticity that the Delta offers.

Le Grau du Roi coastline

From this point as you head west, small fishing villages have been swollen up by consumerism and commerciality, with hotels rising above the trees in some sort of fight for supremacy and the authentic nature of the coastline lost to holiday-makers. Montpellier sets its southern coast marker where crowds flock rather than birds – and for us, it just wasn’t our cup of tea. We were glad to visit to see the other side, although it was a face of the Camargue that was less appealing for us and we were glad to have moved inland to find a bit more French authenticity.

 

6.Camargue wildlife

If like me, you love nature and the wonders of the world, then the Camargue will not disappoint.  Away from the towns and their tourist trade, you enter a magical world where nature seems unperturbed by the frenetic human activity around it. As if in some grand snobbery, flamingoes defy the photographers’ lens and coach loads of adoring ornithologists. This is a sanctuary to them, a haven of food and relative safety from the elements where they can raise their young and live their simple lives amidst the lagoons, teaming with their favourite dish of the day. Dragonflies dart amongst the reed beds, birds wade, horses roam and buzzards soar all to the delight of the onlookers.

You can visit the Parc Ornithologique at Pont de Gau close to Sainte Marie de la Mare which is open all year – here you get 2.5km of intimate sanctuary that allows you to see seasonal wildlife in a protected area.  Alternatively, just spend time, like we did, cycling or driving around the region and see the area teeming with wildlife everywhere.  Autumn and spring are great seasons to visit as migratory birds will be more evident here, although whatever time of year you go, there is always something on the horizon.

7. Carmargue beaches, sunrises and sunsets

Perhaps beaches are not the first thing you think of when you picture a Delta, although the Camargue has them in bucketloads. Perfect golden sands that stretch for miles offering a barrier to the lagoons from the sometimes harsh energy of the sea. As a south facing landscape, of course the added benefit of the coast is its unmistakably beautiful sunrises and sunsets.  With just a little patience and commitment to perhaps an early morning or two, then  you will be rewarded by the most incredible colours that turn the sky and the land into an artist’s canvas.  Whether you love kitesurfing, horse ridding or simply walking with your bare feet on the the golden grains, the Camargue’s endless beaches are magnificent and just so the diversity of this treasured land.

I hope that these seven reasons for visiting the Camargue have inspired to add this French beauty to your ‘must visit’ list. Easily accessible by plane with flights into either Montpellier or Marseille and a road network of motorways from Spain and Italy, there is no excuse not to visit.

If you decide to come by car or camper, there are plenty of places to camp out which enhanced our Camargue experience although one piece of advice before I leave you – if you are driving from Martigues in the east towards Sainte Marie de la Mare, you will find a ferry that takes you across the Rhône.  Take it!  For no more than €10 you can cross this channel and get direct access to the Camargue, otherwise you will have a 80km detour to Arles which is the only other crossing point from east to west.  Learn from our mistake and just pay the Ferryman!

Here are our camping spots should you go with your own vehicle:

  • Sausset Les Pins – Free Aire (43.3318816 005.109914)
  • Arles Plage de Piémenson – Wild camping on the beach between the lagoon and the Med.  Windy, although stunning location in good weather.  (43.348050 004.784010). Services available in Salin le Giraud.
  • Domaine Montcalm – France Passion Vineyard – camping for free.  Free wine tasting although no obligation to buy.

There are plenty of other camping options in the area, including official ACSI sites.  However you come – just come and discover the treasures of the land that is the Camargue.


Lake Salagou, France

Lake Salagou, France

Imagine a beautiful lake encased within a basin of iron-red earth that in the autumn is home to yellow and rust-coloured trees dotted around the hills.  Accompanied by autumnal warmth that has you basking as if in a pottery-kiln and sharp blue waters that makes the camera scream out for shots, there is so much that Lake Salagou has to offer the late season visitor.  Let’s see if I can tempt you.

Salagou Lake Map

Just an hour away from the Mediterranean coast and 90 minutes away from the Camargue, this beautiful region of Languedoc-Rousillon is perhaps one of those ‘Road Less Travelled’ places, as people flock to the seaside resorts. This typically French countryside with its iconic vineyards and roads lined with plane trees, gives you so much more than the over-populated towns along the high-rise south.

Lake Salagou… there truly is something for everyone

Lake Salagou is actually man-made, back in 1968 as a preventative measure for the, prone-to-flooding river Salagou, whose swollen waters often threatened the agriculture of its surrounding land.  That said, the lake is beautiful none the less and whether you love sailing, fishing, kitesurfing, SUP, kayaking, cycling or horse riding, there truly is something for everyone.

Salagou curves

One of the things we loved the most, was the shape of the lake which actually belies its man-made conception. It has formed its own curves, inlets and secret coves over the last fifty years and provides refuge to a veritable feast of wildlife and I’m sure a sanctuary to its carp-filled waters.

Get off the beaten track by taking one of the many forestry paths or the lakeside cycle trails that tests out your mountain biking skills with its rugged terrain and see the lake’s many faces.  Each corner offers a new vista of this stunning blue treasure.  Parking areas are dotted around everywhere and you will see many campers bunked down for the night in both official and unofficial places, which out of season seems to be tolerated by the local Gendarmerie.

Salagou Cycling

On the northern side of the lake, a must-visit site is Celles, When they built the lake, the original intention was to raise the water level firstly to 130m and then to 150m, which would have flooded the village that stands at 144m. So the village was abandoned although the second level was never initiated, leaving Celles unaffected, paradoxically.  Today, the buildings of this tiny hamlet are in rack and ruin, with vegetation being the only resident in this slightly eerie place. With the lake licking the fringes of the village’s perimeter, the local commune are currently planning to renovate the entire village, having already started with the local Mayor’s house.  Over time, each building will get the loving care that is needed to bring it back to life and breathe fresh energy into this once thriving agricultural community.

Deserted Celles

Further outside of the lake, not more than 30 minutes away heading north-east, you have Les Gorges de l’Herault, Le Pont du Diable and the medieval village of Sainte Guilhem le Désert.  You will notice plenty of walking signs around and through the village, which are part of the pilgrimage route Santiago de Compostela. Also en route to the village you have caves that look interesting, although we didn’t stop here.  Certainly the Devil’s Bridge is a great place for swimming and picnics, and Guilhem cut up into the mountain rock, with its ruined castled keeping watch is a must visit, given that it is on the 100 Most Beautiful villages in France list.  We would recommend out of season though, otherwise you run the risk of sharing the place with the crowds.

Pont du Diable

There are other sights, such as Gignac, Claremont l’Herault and Cirque de Mouréze which is a natural amphitheatre of dolomites and all worth seeing if you are in the area for more than a couple of days, unlike us sadly.  Although so beautiful is this area and Lac du Salagou in particularly, that we will be back to explore some more.

In the meantime, why not divert your path away from the crowded and built up region of the south coast and head inland.  Place your feet upon the earth that is shaped by Mother Nature and cultivated for its richness and feel the tranquility that Lake Salagou offers the humble visitor.

Scoobie’s camping spot

If you are coming with your camper, then there are plenty of wild camping spots along the lake. There are a couple of campsite that are open from April until beginning of October, and two official Aires that whilst have no facilities, do allow you to park up for free.  Here are the co-ordinates:

Wind 34  – 43.644036 003.383137

Camping Le Salagou – 43.645460 003.389700

Rive d’Octon – Overnight parking with services 43.65425, 3.318127

Come on!  Give it a go – you’ll not be disappointed.

 

Salagou Gallery

Cinque Terre – High 5 or Low 5?

Cinque Terre – High 5 or Low 5?

Anticipation filled the autumn air as we looked ahead to Italy’s Cinque Terre.

The Famous Five; a coastal stretch of Italy’s Riviera that is home to five quaint fishing villages, pastel coloured houses that perch precariously on the rock-face where residents live life on the edge, almost literally.  How would our day fare?  Would we be left disappointed or delighted?

Our Italian love/hate relationship

Our feelings about Italy over the last couple of years have been tinged with what can only be described as a love, hate relationship.  Sometimes we adore its romantic canvas and then we take to the road and the love affair comes to an abrupt end as we navigate the highways and bi-ways with their crazy drivers.

Portovenere poster matches its claim

We had a similar connection with Cinque Terre (CT) when we visited last year, after stumbling upon Portovenere just along the peninsular from La Spezia.  We loved this wonderful town and as a working port has somehow held onto its authentic roots despite growing tourism.  And yet Portovenere is NOT on THE LIST, which perhaps accounts for its serene vibe and distinct lack of visitors.  At the other end of the coast you find Monterosso; a surprisingly grey town cut in half, discourteously by the railway line, seemingly severing its once beautiful sanctuary.  We were so disappointed by our initial introduction to CT that we decided to pass on by.

So this year, late September we were travelling with friends who had the Land of Five on their list and felt we wanted to give it a second chance.  Travel is, after all about exploring beyond the magazine cover and seeking real life within the beating heart of the streets.  Perhaps this trip would re-ignite the love we so wanted to feel for CT.

Our Cinque Terre adventure

Strangely, despite our previous experience, we woke with anticipation and excitement.  With the sun reigning supreme, we set off on what felt like a proper adventure.  A bus from Portovenere into La Spezia, a walk to the train station, purchase of an ‘All Day Cinque Terre Ticket’, a quick coffee from McDonalds and on the train within minutes.  It felt like a scene out of an Enid Blyton novel, where four friends accompanied by their dog, a packed lunch and fully-charged cameras, set off in search of exploration.

Given that we had only one day and had already visited Monterosso, we decided to start our exploration at the next most westerly point, Vernazza; and within a twelve minute train ride, we had arrived. Yet within seconds of stepping off the platform, we were stripped of our excitement as we were met by a throng of Tour Groups and wall-to-wall tourists resembling something out of Piped Piper.  We followed like sheep, assuming that they were all heading towards something spectacular.  We passed by one souvenir shop after another and selfie-taking enthusiasts, and hoped that if we darted around them, we would find our slice of tranquility.

Vernazza resident

They say that ‘First Impressions Count’ and although I’m not a great believer in this quote, I have to say that today, it felt true.  Above the shop facades, four storey buildings rise above your head, framed by uniform green shutters.  Residents look down upon the bustling crowd below with a mixture of amusement and annoyance it seemed to me.  Washing hangs from their lofty windows, despite the camera-clicking posse on the streets beneath them and houses, dearly in need of some love, line the streets blocking out the sun.

At the end of the main street you are presented with a plaza and harbour, which since the October 2011 floods has certainly regained its structure.  Like bees to a honey pot, people are buzzing and flocking – to where, we were unsure, although the harbour seems to be the place to hang out.  And for sure the sight looking back from the breakwater was pretty, although nothing that, at this point, made us go ‘wow’.  Regular ferry boats pull up to the docking pier for yet more visitors to disembark and descend upon this tiny fishing village.  Despite being one of those visitors, I felt sad for Venazza and the invasion of so many tourists. The bygone days of earning a crust from the sea is now replaced by souvenir shops selling pasta and scented lemon sacks.

Cinque Terre ferry

In our attempt to seek something special, we spied a lofty spot at the castle tower; here surely we would see the beauty?  Steadily clambering up the steep steps, we arrive at the castle gates, only to be greeted by a €1.50 entrance fee that our Day Pass didn’t cover.  So two of us climbed the tower, whilst on principle, the other two stayed below. The view was lovely although it just didn’t quite do it for me.  Perhaps the next village would do this iconic region justice.

 

 

So our starter for 10 – Porto Venere 1, Cinque Terre 0.

383 steps to Corniglia

Back on the train we travel east towards Corniglia, which can only be visited by train or car as it is positioned high up on a rocky crag, making it impossible for ferry tourists to access.  From the train station you have the opportunity, with your All Day ticket to take the Shuttle Bus to the village centre, although with hoards surrounding the bus as though a celebrity was inside, we decide that the hike up the zig-zag pathway would do us good. After climbing 383 steps to the top, we smile at the Pharmacy at the path’s entrance, inviting you to take something for your excessively beating heart?

Corniglia was village number two that left us speechless.  After staggering up the steps, we dashed from one potential viewing spot to another desperately searching that x-factor.  Yet scruffy buildings with broken windows, dark, narrow streets with people competing for air and a couple of vistas promising a view to die for and delivering something very underwhelming, was our prize.  Were we missing something? Perhaps because of our travels we have just experienced too many wows in our memory bank that have to compete for our affections – is this is danger of our travelling lifestyle? And yet, not less than two days previously we found a ‘wow’ at Portovenere, so we knew it couldn’t just be a laissez-faire mindset and we so wanted to feel the love.

For the moment though it was Portovenere 2 CT 0.

Riomaggiore

Such was our disappointment and tiredness, if we’re honest, we decided to miss Manarola. We heard a less than positive review from a lady who was staying there, so would Riomaggiore be our final saving grace? It’s true that this most easterly village had a certain charm as its roads rose steeply into the mountain bedrock above it and its streets swooped down to the sea below.  Some buildings had been newly painted, creating something similar to the  magazine images, although we still felt there was something missing.  You need to be fit to wander the streets of this village, as in your pursuit to explore the real village and not just the high street geared for tourists, you will need to climb towards the gods – and the stairways are unforgiving.

As our experience came to an end and we reflected on our day out in the Famous Five, what would our honest appraisal be in influencing future visitors?  I would love to report that this is a ’must’ on your Italy tour, although with all integrity I cannot.  Clearly all experiences are coloured by our own conditioning and the truth is that you must make up your own mind.  I’m really glad we went and we did have a fabulous day together – travel after all is not a Utopian experience – you must experience all sides of a place to truly be enriched. Although these are the factors that influenced our experience; the villages are over-run with expensive ferry arrivals and tour groups.  The villages seem to have lost their souls, selling them to the Tourism devil and it felt to us that they had sacrificed their authenticity for the sake of the crowds, of which we were part, of course.  The buildings look tired, unloved and shabby and fishing boats had been replaced by motorboats looking for their next experience-hungry customer. The marketing of the area creates an expectation that, in reality didn’t match up for us. We hoped for so much more.

Portovenere

Photoshop certainly gives us an illusion of Cinque Terre at its best and if you are looking for a genuine insight into the villagers’ way of life back in the day, you may be left sadly disappointed.  You can of course say that you have ticked off Cinque Terre, although unless you are wiling to stay in each village for a short period during November to March then I’m not sure you will feel its real heart-beat.  Our advice is visit Portovenere as this is what encompasses our expectation of the Cinque Terre and it was the ‘wow’ that we were looking for.

Final verdict? Portovenere 4, Cinque Terre 1

Travel Tips for Cinque Terre

  • You can buy a One Day Cinque Terre ticket for €16pp and this gives you access to the walking paths, the Shuttle Buses, the Hop On, Hop Off Train and the toilets that are normally charged at €1 per wee!  We bought our tickets from La Spezia Train station.
  • Tickets must be validated at the Green Machines before getting on the train.
  • You can go by Ferry, which depart regularly from Portovenere, Lerici and Levanto.  From Portovenere it costs €33 per person and is subject to weather conditions.  Please remember that the Ferry does not stop at Corniglia. From people we spoke to, the ferry is a tiring option, only because linking up to departure times can cause a lot of hanging around and the transfer from one village to another is a lot longer than the trains, which generally go every 30 minutes.
  • If taking the train, you can buy a single ticket for €4 one-way, although this will only take you to one village.  You must then buy another €4 ticket for each separate journey you wish to take.  So if you only want to do a couple of villages each day, then this could be a cheaper option than buying separate Day Tickets.
  • The tower at Vernazza castle costs €1.50 to enter and you really only spend five minutes up there. You will need to be fit to climb the steps that leads to the Ticket Office, so be aware of this and the costs before you make the climb.
  • You can take a small dog on the train and boat for free.  You will need either a dog carrier for the train or carry the dog and take a muzzle.  For a larger dog, check before you travel and make sure you have your dog passport.
  • If you take the train, take note of the departure schedule so you can manage how long you spend in each village.  This way you don’t waste valuable time waiting for a train’s arrival.  They are not always on time.
  • Visiting all five villages in one day by train is doable, although it is a tough schedule that doesn’t really allow for any chilling or lunch/refreshment breaks.  We did three villages in our day trip over about four hours and with the walks to and from the station, it makes for a long day.  Ideally to enjoy the villages take two days.
  • You can hike between the villages if you are keen walkers, although some of the paths are still damaged by the 2011 storms, so please enquire before deciding to walk.  http://www.cinqueterre.it
  • To visit Cinque Terre, you must have a reasonable level of fitness due to the steepness of the alleyways, towers and paths to and from the train stations.  The villages are not all Pram or Wheelchair friendly, so please consider this in your plans and get advice before travelling.
  • Of course you can travel by car to each of the villages, although this will add a significant amount of time to your visit as there are no direct coastal roads that link each village. So the mountain roads will need to be navigated to reach each one.
  • You can reach Portovenere by car or bus.  The yellow bus leaves La Spezia from Via Garibaldi and it takes about 20 minutes to arrive at the town and costs €5 return.

 

 

The Real Dracula’s Castle?

They say that Bran castle is most associated with Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula,  but rumour has it that it’s this set of ruins, Poenari Citadel,  has more history. At the foot of the Transfagarasan Pass, Poenari is a climb to get to but the views are spectacular.

Bear Necessities

Bear Necessities

“The thought of seeing traumatised bears in captivity, albeit in the care of a loving environment, made me shudder.”

Mother Nature seriously penetrates my heart and the more we travel the more she gets under my skin with her authentic architecture and the wildlife that she holds within her protective embrace.  It’s just one of the many things that I find so enriching with our life on the road.

Visiting new countries creates huge intrigue for me as we explore the unique creatures that grace our journey; pelicans in Greece, vultures in Spain and wolves in Bulgaria to name just a few.  Seeing or hearing them in their natural environment is a joy and I love capturing them through the lens and immortalising them digitally.

Yet the one animal I’ve wanted to see that has eluded me for so long is the bear.  Since our road-trips to US, they have fascinated me with their power and softness.  Travelling to Bulgaria and Romania gave me some confidence that perhaps now I would see one, just a glimpse of this magnificent king of the forest.  With Romania having 60% of Europe’s bear population surely our Carpathian Mountain adventure would reward my patience.  Alas it was not to be – well not so far anyway.

When a friend suggested going to see the Bear Sanctuary in Transylvania, I was faced with a massive conflict.  Many countries in Eastern Europe have been known for their historical use of caged and performing bears as tourist attractions and the thought of seeing traumatised bears in captivity, albeit in the care of a loving environment, made me shudder. Is this how I wanted to experience these magnificent creatures?

“Libearty Sanctuary – a Bear Necessity”

Having worked for two years as a volunteer at a Donkey Sanctuary, I have a deep respect for the work that these Charities and Conservation Centres do and their compassion and care for vulnerable and abused animals.  So taking a trip to the Sanctuary at Zarnesti just outside of Brasov, seemed like a natural choice, despite my initial discomfort.

What an emotional rollercoaster it’s been and it took me completely by surprise – even now, at the of the day I’m left conflicted about the experience.

The Sanctuary was created by Cristina Lapis in 1998 after she saw three bears in central Romania cooped up in a cage outside a restaurant used to attract tourists. She was so moved by their plight that she committed to setting up an environment where she could rescue them from their torture and set them free.  Libearty Bear Sanctuary was conceived.  After years worth of work and investment, the 160 acre Sanctuary in the hills west of Brasov opened its doors to the public in 2005.  It is now home to over 70 bears, Carpathian deer and wolves.

Bear Paws, Libearty Sanctuary

As you approach this out of the way place, which seems to be on a never-ending road to somewhere, it strikes you immediately that there’s something special is going on here. With very informal gates, a small hut for buying your life-blood entrance ticket (40Lei per adult – $10, €9) and an understated car park, you know instantly that this is not some Theme Park attempting to lure you into their unauthentic pretence.  Instead you feel a family vibe of carers passionate about their pursuit of parental responsibility and a group of volunteers intent on making a small impact on a deserving cause.

You have a choice of three, one hour tours; 9.00am, 10.00am and the last one at 11.00am, which says something so important about the welfare of their bears. (We would recommend going on the first one of the day if you want a more intimate experience). It costs them €50,000 per month to maintain the Sanctuary and despite having the opportunity to generate more income with more daily tours, their priority is the animals’ well-being; these are not, in anyway a Zoo attraction for commercial gain. This is a home for abused animals where they can finally rest and heal from their tormented past.

The first experience that pulls on your heart strings, is a short video showing how the Sanctuary came to be, with the drive and determination of one woman – Cristina Lapis.  Whether I’m just an emotional softie or others had subtly wiped a leaky eye or two I don’t know, although the video certainly gives a clear message about what the Sanctuary stands for.  And then you leave the room and head up the carefully gravelled slopes into the heart of this bear community.  Would today be the day I would finally see my bear and how would it feel?

“To witness these magnificent creates in the comfort of this haven; it’s a journey into relationship between humans and beast and how over the years we have both been savage and protector.”

And there they were.  My first sighting and my heart skipped a beat.  It took me a few minutes before I could even pick up my camera, which is most unusual as I live my experiences so much through the lens.  I was enthralled by this magnificent giant.  Lying there, clearly comfortable and happy, with the memories of his past now hopefully just shadows in his mind.  What an incredibly humbling moment of my life.  To be only feet away and see every detail of this beautiful creature’s body and to look into his eyes and dive down into his soul.  And then it hit me…

Liberty and yet not free

These weren’t any normal bears, these were tortured creatures, plucked from the savage hands of men who used them as trade convertors.

The full horror of their journeys and their individual stories really gets into your heart when you look into their eyes and see their pain. On the surface, it is true that they are loved and cared for now. They are in the arms of a community who respect them and cherish their lives and yet beneath that fur-covered surface there is a horror that we can not begin to imagine.

And here the dichotomy emerges.  These bears are liberated and yet they are not free.

Can you see me?

And then the experience deepens as you see cubs climbing the trees as if it is the most natural thing in the world, and of course for them it absolutely is.  Thankfully they have no abusive shadows to darken their lives. Just the joy of clambering up the oak tree with a clumsy elegance that leaves you no choice than to smile. Playing with their bear cub pals with no cares in the world and mama standing guard below to supervise the youngsters’ antics.  This is a heart-stopping moment that takes you away from the electric fence reminder of the bears’ stories and reminds you of the symbolism of this beautiful, protective space.

“Libearty Sanctuary stands in the chasm between human behaviour and the natural world.”

It’s sad that a Conservation place like this must exist, as with any other animal sanctuary across the world, although without them animals would continue to fall victim to the hands of their captors and hunters, risking living a life of danger, threat and suffering. Whilst we have, by no means resolved the global problem, we must do what we can to limit and, if possible, prevent cruelty like this from happening.  There are always two stories to every argument, although I find it difficult, as I reflect on my Sanctuary experience to see how there is any justification for the humiliation subjected to our planet’s beautiful creatures.

For Romanian bears there is HOPE.  Laws are now in place to protect them and a Sanctuary that provides the haven for officials to enforce those laws.  Now Zoos, who can no longer comply with the EU directives on animal welfare, have a chance to relocate the bears and, for those who pose a threat to towns and villages as they seek refuge and food, they now have a more natural place to call home.

The Sanctuary isn’t just about rescue, it’s also about rehabilitation, releasing cubs back to the wild and creating a natural and protected home for these lost souls.  Many of the bears will never see the wild again because they have either been injured physically or are so mentally scarred that they would simply not survive in the outside world.

Walking around the permitted areas of the Sanctuary in your small, guided group gives you a feeling of something so much more than a Zoo.  This is not about entertainment this is about awareness, protection and conservation. Libearty Bear Sanctuary symbolised for me the two faces of humanity; the compassionate and the perpetrator. A world divided by survival and ego, kindness and heart.

I am moved by my visit to the Sanctuary and felt that I could have stayed there for the day just gently observing and wishing for the harmony of all animals across the world. What a privilege to experience and see the efforts of this incredible place.  Whilst my perspectives of human nature have not been improved, my fascination and respect for these gentle giants has deepened thanks to our short trip here.  If you are in Romania, I urge you to visit, as it will stay in your hearts and your support will continue to make these animals’ lives peaceful and full of the natural instincts that they were born to experience.  This really is a Bear Necessity in its most truest sense.

For opening hours and updates on the Sanctuary’s efforts to raise awareness please visit their website http://bearsanctuary.com/libearty-bear-sanctuary.  You will not regret it.