Oradour-sur-Glane, remembered forever

Oradour-sur-Glane, remembered forever

Oradour-sur-Glane, an unassuming name on France’s map that looks like any other of its neighbours. Yet this innocuous village bears deep scars that speak a thousand words of horror.  It is a story that needs to continually be told so that memories of Oradour’s families can be kept alive and honoured.

On our pilgrimage to connect with Europe’s World War history, we have travelled east to Treblinka in Poland, south to Bovec in Slovenia and Kalavrita in Greece and west to the harrowing region of Ypres, Verdun and the cemeteries of northern France. So when Myles said he wanted to visit Oradour-sur-Glane, it made perfect sense. I have heard others talk about their visits to this village, ravaged by war, although had no idea about its history or what we could expect there.  One thing was for sure, our experience would undoubtedly be moving if our other commemorative visitations were anything to go by. 

From memorial stones and razed killing fields to the profound and stark images created by the Birkenau railway just west of Krakow. What would our souls be called to learn at this little-known village in central France?  Check out our memorial visits on this interactive map.

 

 

Our visit to Oradour-sur-Glane

It seemed fitting that our visit to Oradour coincided with All Saint’s Day –  1 November. An important day on the Religious calendar when the dead are remembered and celebrated. What a symbolic day to be visiting a memorial site where a village fell to its knees, at the mercy of an army set on retribution and annihilation.  

As we drove into the village of Oradour-sur-Glane just north west of Limoges, it was clear from the map that there were a large number of cemeteries around the outskirts. Nothing necessarily unusual about that per se. They were sheltered from the road by trees to create some privacy for those buried there. Yet the grim reality soon stood out, as this village turned from a name on Google Maps to a village martyr.  Separated from the new village by a road and underground walkway, the ruins of an entire community lay bare as we drove past in mesmerised silence. Only one expletive uttered from our mouths, which was one of incredulity. Oh my god! 

Parked up opposite the ghost village, images went through my mind about what unfolded here and, more importantly why. A story that would not really become any clearer as we entered the commemorative arena, built by its modern day citizens. 

The first thing that struck us as we walked to the entrance was a 100ft statue. A monument of a woman being engulfed by flames. Engraved words triggered the beginning of a story that we knew would not have a happy ending. The events that unfolded on 10th June 1944, told simply by this statue, began our Oradour journey. 

‘Ici des hommes firent a leurs meres et a toutes les femmes, les plus grave injure. 

Ils n’epargnerent pas les enfants.’

‘Here men made to their mothers and all women the most serious insult  – they did not spare the children.’

As we walked across a flat tarmac pavement towards the Oradour village plaque, we were taken down some steps generating a surreal feeling of going into another world.  Underneath the ground a shop, a ticket desk and a museum greet you giving you options. Turn right into the museum where upon you pay 2€. Or go straight on towards the ruined village, which is free to enter. As we had been travelling all day we only had time to do one or another, so we chose to visit the village, where we knew we would feel the soul of the place.

Through a dark tunnel, adding to the atmosphere of Oradour’s tale, we were presented with a photographic project that the community is still working on. Their aim is to collect pictures of every single inhabitant of this tortured village and honour them on this Remembrance Wall. And so like our experiences at Auschwitz, seeing the faces of young and old made the whole experience more real and poignant. This was no longer a story, or movie to immerse ourselves in – this was real life. This was a moment in time of people’s lives, captured by these images.

I felt my heart skip a beat as I saw families; generations of mothers, brothers, fathers, aunts and grandparents, dads and sons all lined up on both sides of the tunnel. The eldest I saw was 81 and the youngest just 2 months old. This truly set the scene for what were about to witness. 

Returning to the surface, the cleverly created tunnel that protects the village, really transports you from the new to the old. Streets in tact with pavements and electric cables for the tram that travelled through the beating heart of this place. Yet then the stark reality dawned on us as we saw the fire torn buildings, with chard rubble strewn where the rugs would have lain. Rusted shutters at the windows that now just let the wind course its way through. Signs for the garage, the café, the boulangerie, the sabot maker and the coiffure.  And the faint yet distinct smell of smoke still hung in the air making the massacre all the more real. The walls vibrating with the sobs of scared children looking to their mothers for answers. Fear trodden into the dust that has settled between the buildings holding secrets of their death. 

So what events unfolded here to create such a travesty?

 

Oradour’s Massacre – the why’s

There is some ambiguity about the reason for this insane massacre on a peaceful village where children played on their bicycles and cafés bustled with war-time stories. Because only 6 people survived and the commander who order the attack died days after, the real justification for this attack has many shades of truth. The definitive reason may remain buried beneath the rubble with the muffled screams of those who perished.

One of the suggestions was that it was retribution for the capture of a German officer. Another that it was because of Resistance activity centred at the village. Or that it was simply German frustration over the D-Day landings that occurred just four days earlier.

The why’s are tough for us as we try to get our heads around such atrocities. Yet however you look at it, the reason for this act of terror can never be settled in any sane mind. What seems more poignant is the unfolding of events on that day in June 1944. A mere 74 years ago, where 24 hours saw terror run through this community leaving only the echo of the victims’ screams for mercy.

200 Nazis stormed the village on 10th June where upon they rounded up the community. Women and children were taken to the church and men and boys over 15 were gathered, ostensibly for the purpose of an identity check and a  search for explosives and weapons. Those held captive in the church, after a failed attempt to gas them, were shot and then set alight. The men were separated into 6 groups and taken to different barns, where upon they were shot from the knees down. Only intending to wound and prevent escape, the Nazis then covered them in straw and wood and set them on fire, left to die the most horrific death. 

Then they burnt the whole village, looted homes and businesses and left without any explanation. The Nazi troops  headed up to Normandy to join the fight against Allied troops from the D-Day landings. In Devine retribution, many of those soldiers and the Nazi commander Diekmann, who ordered the massacre were killed and in a cruel twist of fate never brought to justice. 

 

Oradour’s memory

Some time after the massacre and whilst the smoke still rose to the sky, French President, Charles de Gaulle ordered the village remains to be left as a memorial. To honour one of the biggest massacres on French soil, Oradour would serve as a reminder of the atrocities, the victims and the horror. Only 6 people survived; 642 were brutally murdered, including 205 children and each and every one will be remembered by generations to come. To walk in the footsteps of their terrified souls as they were led to their deaths is a surreal and sobering act. And if you are in the area, a visit to this village martyr to pay your respects is a must.

Whilst it seems the world has not learned its lesson, we can only hope that memorial sites like Oradour serve to remind us of the importance of kindness, love and respect. 

Check out our Gallery of photos from our current World War visit by clicking the image below.

 

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Rocamadour – France at its best

Rocamadour – France at its best

Rocamadour is one French landmark that we have been trying to get to for nearly three years and for one reason or another, it has eluded us. Although as we so often say, ‘It’s not going anywhere. There’s time enough.’  Finally 2018 – the year we made it and marked it as an important day in our calendar.

Some icons around the world are built up so vividly in our minds, thanks to those who have gone before us, allowing us to craft an image of what it will look, sound and feel like. Blogs play a fabulous role in inspiring us to visit new places, although equally they can construct an expectation that, when seen with our own eyes, can disappoint.

 

Whilst I had heard plenty about Rocamadour, I had never seen any pictures and as a visual girl, I was very grateful to have a blank canvas to paint with my own experiences. And I’m so glad, because our visit, one autumnal day in October was not just any old day. It was 4th October and whilst this may seem insignificant to most, it is the day we celebrate my dad’s life.  I so didn’t want to be disappointed, as my parents had been here a couple of decades ago and so to tread in their footsteps on this day, of all days, I wanted it to be perfect.  Check out our video footage showing the footprints we left behind at this gorgeous village and then I’ll tell you all about it…

 

 

 

Rocamadour, one of those iconic French villages that is on so many people’s lists and a place that draws you into its valley of wonderment, peace and spirituality. Known as the Sacred City it is famous for a number of things;

  1. For being vertiginous – yes I had to look this up – it means being extremely high or steep.
  2. For its important religious status and a source of miracles, placing it firmly on the Santiago de Compostella pathway.
  3. For its three-levelled construction, each one having a completely different character and charm.
  4. For its 8 sacred religious buildings, one of which is the UNESCO Basilica and the Notre Dame chapel, home to a walnut carved Black Madonna that is a thousand years old.
  5. For its 216 steps up the Grand Escalier – the Pilgrims’ Staircase.
  6. For its medieval castle that perches regally above the valley asserting its position in the Dordogne valley.
  7. For its annual Montgolfiades Balloon Festival at the end of September, which looks like a sight for sore eyes.

Let me tantalise your senses with Rocamadour’s splendour, because this is what will entice you to experience this place for yourself.

 

A Feast for the Eyes

We approached the village from the southern side and this gave us the most incredible glimpse of the rock temple with a face-on perspective. The castle, the Sanctuary, the little houses precariously built into the rock, created a vision that was almost out of this world. Surely this was not human-made. It looked like something that was crafted by a giant girl making a doll’s house village. Although whilst this was surely a photographer’s dream, once drawn into the alleyways, Rocamadour takes on a whole new identity.

As we wound our way to the northern aspect and parked up our van in the free overnight Aire, our eyes would be further satiated by the wiggling path that takes you to the village floor and to the heart of Rocamadour’s sacred space. And as you walk through the gates to the Sanctuary that conceals its Notre Dame and Basilica, the vista is hard for the camera to capture. It is only the eyes that can really digest the whole scene as you turn 360 degrees trying to take in this magnificent complex of buildings. Chapels, spires, staircases and intricate detail in the balconies all create a very special vision.  The tower reaching way above the village looks like a Disney castle and you half expect to see Rapunzel standing there with her flowing locks. Its majesty is seen from almost every street – it is hard to not have it as centrepiece of every photograph.

 

And of course you cannot miss the image after the setting sun; the village set against the blackness of the night illuminates its beautiful architecture and an orange hew castes its dominance around the buildings. I wish I had taken my tripod to capture the picture professionally, as it was a sight to behold and completed my Rocamadour experience beautifully.

 

 

Music to your Ears

Upon the hour, the Sanctuary rings out its bell, which reverberates around this dramatic rock village in the heart of the valley. It’s almost as if the sound bounces from one side of the mountains to the other, as if in competition. And if you are fortunate enough, legend has it that you may even hear the sound of the miracle bell that rings from the inner sanctum of the Notre Dame chapel. The bell is said to ring when an oceanic miracle happens and a marina’s life is saved.

 

Combined with the melee of tourists that creates its own energy even in the autumn, Rocamadour hums with an accent of appreciation from its visitors, some of which are pilgrims making their own spiritual passage. And yet it is the sound of silence that will grip you the most as you pass through the religious chambers and wonder at the nobility who have graced these floors.

 

In stark contrast, as you head down the pilgrims’ stairway, the cafés and shops on the village’s lower level create their own music as they entice you to buy scented pebbles (which are delightful) and to taste their gastronomic fare.

 

A Sense that reaches into your Soul

There are some places around the world where there are simply no words to describe your experience; where just by standing still you can feel its heart-beat and the stories that contribute to the fabric of its identity.  France’s Rocamadour is one of those places and I’m not sure whether it’s a spiritual energy brought by pilgrims past or if it’s the pure beauty of the architecture and its precarious cliff position that draws you into a speechless state. Either way, Rocamadour has a certain something that whether gazing from afar or admiring from within, there is a special vibe about this medieval ‘cité’.

 

Feel your feet in the footprints of those before you, feel the hope in the walls of the cheerleading houses that line the streets and sense the 1000 years of legend and history that has put this iconic village top of France’s tourist map. Built on the site of a shrine to Madonna, Rocamadour symbolises healing, borne out by the 8 religious buildings in the Sanctuary complex. And with that reputation comes a deep sense of faith, which is palpable, whether you are religious or not.

 

Out of season, Rocamadour is a perfect time to visit, allowing you to contemplate the historical souls magnetised towards this place, or perhaps simply acknowledge the reflections of your own thoughts as you climb the steep and winding Path of the Crosses. It gives you permission to gaze in wonderment at the underground pillars that, in some Herculean feat are holding up the rock above or perhaps sit in prayer in one of the chapels to offer your own appreciations and gratitudes. Perhaps you need some healing… well this place is certainly somewhere where you could express hope and feel that, beneath the shadow of the Black Madonna’s presence you feel compelled to trust that you are being heard by someone or something in the Universe.

 

 

How to make the most of your experience

1. Getting there

Although there may well be day trips by coach from Toulouse or Marseille, it is best if you have your own transport, enabling you to time your visit to avoid the crowds. We took the D39 and D32 which brings you in on the southern road, offering you the most staggering view of the village. It is a perspective not to be missed. For those of us in campers, this is a narrow and winding road, although it is doable for long vehicles. I always comfort myself in the knowledge that if coaches can reach it so can we.  Although I suspect they don’t take this route.

Parking is plentiful around the village and all for free. The lower parking by the river is small and in high season probably very busy. It is the easiest parking area for anyone with walking difficulties or disabilities as there is little ‘hiking’ up or down to be done from here.  The middle parking area, Parking de la vallee de Rocamadour has height restrictions of 2m so is limiting depending upon the size of your vehicle. The upper car park, Parking de Chateau, is the largest space and if you have a camper is ideal as there is a specific Motorhome Aire that allows free parking day and night.

 

2. Getting around

Depending on which parking area you choose, there is some walking to be done so come prepared. Whilst the lower streets with the cafés and shops is fairly level, the steps up to the the religious complex are more demanding depending on your fitness. Whilst pilgrims ascended on their knees, I wouldn’t recommend it; by foot is more than enough of a challenge.

If you park at the upper car park, then you have the Path of the Crosses from the chateau to navigate, which whilst going downhill is fine, coming back is a good calorie burner. There is a lift that can take the effort out of the climb which takes you to all three levels of the village.

3. Camping

As we’ve mentioned, there is a free Aire at the chateau that you can stay at for free, overnight. There are no facilities although it is perfect for visiting the village and seeing it by night too. Alternatively if you prefer campsites with your tent or camper, then there Camping Le Paradis, which is within walking distance, albeit it a good hike. They are open from 1 April until 30 September, so not great if you are looking for genuine out of season visiting.

4.  When to visit

For us as introvert travellers, we love the peace and quiet to experience places with the solitude that they deserve. Although sometimes this is just not achievable. So if you can, we recommend visiting in March, April, September or October as these are probably the best times to experience the place without claustrophobia and shoulder barging. If this isn’t realistic for you and the summer season is all you can do, then do visit either early morning or late afternoon, when most of the crowds have dispersed. The added advantage of this, of course, is that you get to see the village in its nighttime glory, which is definitely worth staying for. It is a spectacle for sure.

I would love to have visited a week earlier so we could have caught the Balloon Festival. I can imagine how magnificent the balloons are set against the backdrop of this medieval cité. Although with over 20,000 visitors for this last weekend in September, I bet it feels a bit all-consuming if you are introverts like us.

 

 

Final thoughts of Rocamadour

Whether you have a specific reason to be at Rocamadour or perhaps you just are looking for a special experience, either way this Sacred City will not disappoint. With its commanding vistas, its Devine architectural tapestry and its charming and characterful three-tiered streets, it will take you on a journey; spiritual may be, although for sure an exploration that will enchant you from the moment you set eyes on it. Knowing I was treading in more important footsteps than the nobility before me, made it a memorable trip and one that brought me closer to my dad. This place is seriously worthy of a diversion en route to the south coast.

Rocamadour – iconic France at its best….

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Iconic France symbolised in the vertiginous medieval cité of Rocamadour

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A Parley With France

A Parley With France

France what a delight you are. Just when I think you can’t amaze me any more, you throw us a surprise that just endears you to my heart even more. How is it you get underneath my skin so well?

From our voyage through the Chartreuse, Vercors and Cevennes Natural Parks to the Haut-Garonne region, little treasures keep emerging that bowl me over and create just a little flutter in my stomach. After all, who cannot love the gorgeous Les Plus Beaux Villages that hide in your countryside with tales to tell those looking beyond the castle walls?

Of course I love the iconic French destinations; Avignon is to die for, Provence Lavender just so sensual and Annecy is beyond adjectives. And yet this week, France you have thrown up so many joyful routes, villages and compelling stories that I find myself reengaged with you and your diverse characterful landscape. You are a joy to behold.

In search for a place to rest our travel weary heads, we found ourselves in Soreze in the Midi-Pyrenees region of the south west, nestled within the Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castres triangle. Seemingly inconspicuous and just one of many towns embedded into your map and yet, like an unexpected Christmas gift, we opened up your present which had me melting like putty in your hands. 

 

 

Soreze, famous for three things. Its 754AD Abbey School, the source of the UNESCO Canal du Midi and is a well-known resting point for the Saint-Jacques de Compestela pilgrimage path – what more could you ask from a name on a map?

With maisons à encorbellement – (buildings with upper storeys protruding over the lower portion) and their half-timbered frontage, we felt like you had transported us back into the Middle Ages. The atmosphere here was amazing and with all the plaques around the town that tell you about the famous people who lived here once upon a time, I felt like you were drawing us into an intricate tale that made us just pure bystanders. The view down the narrow streets was like something out of a Dicken’s novel and with the image of Saint Martin’s tower looming at the end of the vision, we were compelled to check out its dominant features. It was a bit of a shock when, impressed by its sovereignty, all that remains of this 15 century church is this bell-tower. No regal interiors, no crafted alters, no stain-glassed windows. Just a shadow of its former glory. How sad and yet perversely how amazing that you have salvaged this historical monument and continue to protect its legacy. 

The narrow, paved streets hold the footprints of man and beast, and I was left wondering what their contribution to the historical tale might be.  And somewhere in the whisper of the wind I am sure I could hear voices from a distant past; perhaps it was the Benedictine monks or the philosophical and military scholars who studied at this prestigious college. May be it was the sound of the horses who carried their loads or the chatter from the artists who made this sumptuous town home. Either way there was plenty to feel in the walls of this ancient yet modest and humble place.

 

Soreze’s neighbour, Revel that was no more than 5km away offered us a slightly different feel; one that had a modern edge to it on the outskirts of its Market Square. With fountains and murals, you have brought Revel into a contemporary world where history holds on tightly with a fingertip grasp on the past. Evidence of that space in time is still clear in the town’s centre, where one of your finest examples of a medieval market square can be seen here. And it is here, each Saturday that a traditional market is held which is reputedly over 600 years old. Surrounding the square are arched walkways with cafés and your traditional stores enticing us with smells and tastes of the local French cuisine. The chocolate box facades of your medieval buildings are part and parcel of the past that the modern world cannot erase and it feels as though it holds a mysterious legacy that only the walls can confess. Revel you were a delightful interlude that we were glad not to have missed.

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France you delight and surprise us around every corner. When we take your off-the-beaten track routes, we find our eyes filled with ancient splendour and our hearts bursting with a gentle respect for these out of the way places. May you always lead us to your quiet treasures and continue to remind us of your grace, simplicity and ubiquitous splendour and charm.

 

If you wish to camp in this amazing region, then there is a great spot, Camping Saint Martin (43.45473, 2.06960) or there is an Aire around the other side of the village close to the supermarket with service facilities, (43.4505, 2.06567)

 

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3 Natural Parks in France not to miss

3 Natural Parks in France not to miss

France is one of Europe’s most popular destinations and with just under 250,000 sq miles, you could be forgiven for not seeing it all. We’ve been visiting France for a couple of decades, made easier by my parents who had a house in Brittany going back 10 years ago. It’s a beautiful yet vast country that is so diverse we never tire of it. With more than 150 Les Plus Beaux Villages dotted around the country that ooze character, France will charm you. And away from the obvious main sights of Paris, the lavender fields of Provence and the southern resorts and beaches, this country has some incredible hidden secrets. Three of which we were about to discover as we travelled from Chambéry, south of Annecy to Beziers on the south coast. Check out the three Natural Park treasures that we passed through in a bid to head for the coast.

Chartreuse Natural Park

Our route; Les Manches, Chambéry to Grenoble, 65km (about 40 miles).

Having nestled ourselves at a lovely campsite just outside Chambéry to do some much needed repairs to our van, our feet started itching on day 4 as though they had been tickled by a feather. So we headed south and looking at the map, the motorway was not an option, it rarely is for us. We love the road less travelled and when the map shows us a bit of greenery, all the better. It can get us into trouble at times, although on the whole the secrets we’ve uncovered have been amazing.

Chartreuse Natural Park was one of those amazing secrets, even though for most of our passage it was shrouded in low cloud. Sometimes whilst the sun certainly enhances a vista, we could just sense that there was beauty here. With Chambéry at the northern end and Grenoble in the south, the route is actually doable in a couple of hours.

Our path took us up into the misty shroud, sadly leaving the warmth of the autumn sunshine behind, and wound up the mountain road to the Col du Grenier. With a left turn we entered what I would class as rural France. Hillside and valley hamlets with one bar, one church, a boulangerie and a clutch of houses. The feel of the place was heart-warming as a sense of authenticity grows the deeper you drive into the mountain shadows. Lush green pastures are home to cows with Swiss-style bells around their necks and the promise of devine diary produce. Rich meadows provide sanctuary to rare plants and the skies, I’m sure if we could have seen them, would be littered with swallows, buzzards and other raptors looking for their prey.

Sainte-Pierre d’Entremont is a gorgeous stone village that begs you to stop and explore. With walks galore up into the natural park and, if it is your thing, why not take the ‘Route de Savoire Faire’ which takes you on an artisanal journey offering you an insight into craftsman’s trade typical of the region.

As you wiggle and wind up, then down like a rollercoaster, you slowly fall in love with this Park and after driving through Le Sappy, a quaint ski resort, you start to make your descent into Grenoble. Capital town of the Alps, France can be proud of this winter sport’s hub with its University, river, chateaux and cable cars. Grenoble marks the end of Chartreuse and offers a gentle introduction into the second of our trio of natural parks that we entice you to explore.

Check out our Gallery below to get a feel for this gentle giant with its pine clad snaking roads.

Vercors Natural Park – Balcony Road-trip Extraordinaire  

Our route; Grenoble to Chateau Julien near Villards de Lans then onto Die;  105km (about 70 miles).

I love venturing into new land with little or no knowledge and then exiting feeling richer for the experience. This was certainly true of the Vercors region. Whilst we didn’t have time to explore, what we found and researched in and around our route, was enough to have us rushing back in a heart-beat. For now we had to be satisfied with this little taster of what is a limestone kingdom that will have you mesmerised by its massive character. A protected environment from 1970 you immediately feel the Park’s prowess as you leave Grenoble and climb up into the unforgiving route south.

This Park is a huge contrast to the gentle curves of the Chartreuse. The luscious Alpine valleys suddenly give way to towering gorges, steep rock faces and twisting roads that look like a serpentine.  Huge plateaus of rock rise from the earth in some regal dominance that has expletives rushing from your mouth as you turn each corner. Caves hidden deep within the rocks make this a fabulous region for climbing and potholing, France’s Vercors mountains are a thing of beauty. This fringe of the Alps is home to World War 2 history with museums and memorials dotted throughout the region and yet their biggest secret and greatest challenge are the balcony roads. These are routes of stunning vistas and little passageways that are barely wide enough to fit two vehicles side by side. With cliff overhangs that are mouse-holes for giants, the unassuming and unprepared of us in 2.50m tall vehicles may need nerves of steel to even attempt them. After a lot of research and reading Our Tour’s blog on the area, we decided that to attempt any of these roads with our camper would be fool-hardy, and that a bicycle or motorbike were the only real options for exploration. So this was for another day.

Still after a couple of nights wilding at the Chateau Julien plateau, just west of Villards de Lans, where autumn’s grip was already obvious, we vowed to return for a closer inspection. Until then our path south must continue and so we headed for Die.

Secluded by mammoth pines that would give Sequoia National Park in US a run for its money, we coursed our way downhill to the alluring valley below. Classically glacial, this valley on the D518 was beautiful, passing through rural villages and farmer’s fields basking in the seasonal sun. Then suddenly we approached the tunnel that I had seen on the map – would this be doable? Well we were about to find out.

I love tunnels; you enter with one perspective and then you enter and you wait; like a child at Christmas, waiting for the view to open up, like that present you’ve been poking for the last two weeks. A new vision awaits at the other end and I always feel just a little excited. Well we were not expecting this vista. Our route up until then had been straight as a die (excusing the Die pun!!), that was until we reached the Col de Rousset and that tunnel. Coming out into the light, we were greeted by the most magnificent view – yes I nearly cried! What a dreamboat of a view that was. Suddenly it was like being back on the Stelvio Pass in Italy, which we had mastered only a few weeks earlier. Twists, turns, corners and switch backs where our challenge and a descent of 700m in a matter of minutes. And it was like there was an invisible curtain that, once through the tunnel, drew back to show this new landscape, which rugged design was home to hundreds of vultures. They soared in their flocks above us, enjoying the thermals that kept their lofty view of the dots beneath them. Oh wow, I was in heaven. With rock faces that had more layers than a Christmas cake, you could see clearly how geology and history had played their part in this amazing region of France. Imagine the ancient legacy held within those stratum.

Die gave us a lovely stopover for lunch where, with a serviced, free Aire, it offered us the perfect opportunity to have a quick skeet at this surprisingly authentic and non-commercial town. We’d not seen anything industrial since Grenoble – what a joy that was.  Yet the most interesting landscape change was that we had noticeably entered into northern Provence, evidenced by the abundant lavender fields that were beginning to grace the land.  And even though they had been harvested months ago, there was still a purple and mint hew that draped over the valley. Oh how I love Provence and we know in our hearts that we only skimmed the surface of this region of France although return we surely shall.

Check out our Gallery below to get a feel for this regal limestone region that will test your driving skills should you choose to do the balcony roads.

Cevennes National Park – The many faces of Cevennes 

Our route; Gumiane to Portes, Mont Aiguoal and La Couvertoirade;  345km (about 200 miles).

The third of our Parks held a mystery and a diversity that we had not seen in our other two Parks.  The Cevennes fall in the catchment area of three different French regions; Rhône-Alps to the east, Languedoc-Rousillon to the south and Auvergne to the north and it is almost as if each area brings its own unique character to the party. With part of its personality coming from the Massif Central in the north and the limestone Causses to the south, this area is impressive.

As we left our wild overnight spot at Portes’ castle, it felt like were entering Narnia – the deeper we drove the more wild it became, with seemingly one road in and one road out. We wound gently around the mountains with horsechesnut trees as our cheerleaders – wow this is seriously conker heaven. Thousands of them in their spiky cases just waiting to drop their loads. Autumn is just such a fab time to visit this region as the oak, chestnut and beach trees start to dress in their golden colours. 

Our destination, after leaving our castle retreat was Pont de Montvert, which is at the foot of the highest mountain in the Park, Mont Lozère that reaches a moderate 1700m. Hiking is good in this area and so is simply enjoying the village’s quiet, rural vibe. It’s certainly worth a stop and there is an 80 place car parking area suitable for campers on the hill which is easy enough to get to.  Famous for receiving the 2018 Tour de France and also being a stopping point for Robert Louis Stevenson who travelled this route with his donkey. This village is worth checking out. 

The one thing about the Cevennes that struck us most is how the landscape changed every 30 minutes. Around one mountain you have tightly forested routes with the occasional glimpse of the mountain’s sumptuous curves. And then around the next corner, suddenly everything opens up and you find yourself in a granite gorge carved by the Tarn river. Purple heather dots the ground offering a break from the relentless, yet beautiful greenery and white outcrops of solid limestone rock dominantly rise up through the earth creating a punctured vista that is definitely not man-made.

The roads course through the terrain with just the odd rural village hanging in the middle of nowhere with its obligatory and oversized. church. Vultures soar way up on the thermals looking down at the tiny images beneath them and goats and cattle treat the roads as if they are their very own.

Heading up to Mont Aiguoal and the France Meteo Observatory for our next overnight stop was a total joy. The vista was a 360 degree panorama with sunsets and sunrises to die for. With a blend of Yorkshire Moors and the Grand Canyon, it feeds all your senses and for us felt like a magical experience.

To top it all off, the Cevennes stakes claim to no less than seven Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. Although some might argue that a number of them are not truly in the heart of the Park, let’s not get into the semantics of geography. We managed to squeeze in two of the villages whilst on our passage through the region; Aigueze on the eastern fringes and La Couvertoirade on the south west tip of the Park. Both are, as always, steeped in history and in particular La Couvertoirade is unique because of its windmill and its tale of the Knights Templar who built the 12th century castle which now protects this little maze of cobbled streets within its citadel walls. This is on our top 10 of our 32 visited so far.

So the Cevennes Natural Park has something for everyone; ornithologists, outdoor lovers, geologists and photographers. Simply just driving around the mountains and through the gorges will seriously entertain you over a couple of days.

Check out our gallery of images of this lovely area.

So three very different and yet beautiful Natural Parks that are just calling out to be explored. With few tourists and the most rural perspective of France imaginable, taking the road less travelled will enrich your experiences beyond doubt.

 

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Provence – Route Map

Provence – Route Map

One of the most poetic and diverse regions of France has surely captured many a heart – ours included. After nine weeks wandering this enigmatic Provence countryside, we fell in love with its mountains, gorges, villages built into the rocks and coastline.

Perhaps Provence is most famous for its lavender and its celebrity status along the Côte d’Azur – French Riviera where bling will outshine even the most sparking water. Although Provence has so much more depth offering you colour, texture and flamingoes.  And how could you forget the eight Les Plus Beaux Village de France that are just waiting for you to succumb to their charm? Who would have thought that one region could have so many ways to captivate its visitor, leaving them surely wanting more.

From the Camargue with its wild white horses, bulls and salt flats to the deep valleys of the Gorges du Verdon and De Loup to the craggy coastline that commands the respect of the richest of the rich – Provence will delight and amaze.  Check out our highlights from the last two years in this interactive map that lists our camping options and must-see spots by clicking the icons.

This is one part of France that deserves your time, your admiration and your adventurous spirits and I defy you not to fall in love….

 

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Our Route France to Spain

Our Route France to Spain

Highlights from our France to Spain Road Trip

Winter is a season that calls us snow-birds south to the warmer climes of southern Spain, where we can shelter from the harsh realities of England’s unpredictable forecasts. Except the call of Español is far more than just a winter haunt – it’s an destination that us Brits have pretty much fallen in love with, especially so for lovers of life on the road with our trusty steeds.

There are so many routes to take heading south; the quick ones, the mountainous ones, the ferry ones or the meandering ones. Whichever path you may be considering, perhaps driven by budget, speed to destination or time constraints, we would like to offer one of our routes, taken this winter. With time on our side, we decided to follow one a meandering route that has granted us the opportunity to go off the beaten track, breathe in a few new places and plot a path that makes the journey all part of the experience.  So we hope that this gives you some options for your next trip to southern shores.  Check out our interactive map below by clicking on the dots for more information, camping co-ordinates and pictures of our highlights.

Our starting point – Southern France 

We had the advantage of already being in France after our adventures earlier in the year, in Eastern Europe. France is always a lovely place to come ‘home’ to and it truly feels comfortable and known to us. So after two months meandering around the south coast and the  Pyrenees for some housesitting, we were ready to hit the road and make our way to Spain, in readiness for a Christmas rendezvous with my mum.

Having crossed the French Border in 2016 via the east coast of Costa Brava, we wanted to try something new and, given our love for the Pyrenees, this seemed like a perfect road-trip for us. We had 10 days to reach Dénia on the south-east edge of Spain, so a bit of wandering pleased our nomadic souls. A number of ports of call found themselves on our very sketchy itinerary and the rest, we knew would be added along the way, based on other people’s recommendations and research that piqued our interest.

So here are the highlights of our Road-Trip south.

Mirepoix – Ariège

Our journey actually started close to Carcassonne and so taking the quiet roads through to the Pyrenees must include Mirepoix. We have been many times before and yet this quaint little village, with its delightful chocolate-box central square of quirky, wonky buildings, never disappoints. This medieval village looks like something out of an Dickensian novel and you will want to stop for a coffee or lunch and just watch the world go by. Caste your eyes upwards as the view is as beautiful as the one at your eye-line, as the detail in the shop signs and the colourful displays of their window sash are just so picturesque.

Lourdes – Hautes-Pyrenees

Taking all the minor roads rather than the speedy autoroutes, we meandered through the French countryside, keeping the snow-capped Pyrenees teasingly to our left. Little French villages in all states of attire imploring us to stay awhile. Although our destination was firmly in our heads; Lourdes in the Hautes-Pyrenees. It was a long hike, especially when SatNav took us on a circuitous route and we had to do a food shop and fill up with diesel. Still we arrived at Camping du Loup, a five minute walk from the famous town, ready for supper and bed.

Now Lourdes really does divide opinion. If you go in the Pilgrimage period, April to October then I sense it takes on a more sombre feel, as the town is filled with people searching for hope and a miracle cure to their ills. We visited at the end of November and loved the vibe and the lack of crowds. Whilst religion is of course Lourdes’ new identity, behind this are intriguing origins of its ancient market-town. The partnership between tourism and religion is a delicate one and as one of France’s most popular tourist destinations, secondly only to Paris, you may have to look beyond the shops selling bottles for the Holy water. After all, every book is more than its cover and we loved what the area had to offer in terms of activities, the possibilities of the funicular, the kayaking, the walking and the history. Whatever your religious beliefs, Lourdes is definitely worth checking out – especially out of season.  Here’s our full blog on our visit – Lordy Lourdes

The Pyrenees via the Somport Tunnel into Spain

Post Lourdes, we hot-footed it out of the Pyrenees as there was a threat of a big artic front coming in and the last place you want to be in a camper is in the mountains when the snows hit. Our route took us towards Oloron, just south of Pau, along the valley floor, which was so lovely especially with all the autumn colours. Then a turn left heading south through the Pyrenees and the Somport Tunnel. En route Red Kites flying on the thermals will distract your eye and the ever changing scenery of mountain communities will elicit the odd ‘ah’ from your delighted heart. Little villages clustered along the valley floor in the shadow of their towering protectors, prepare themselves for the harsh winter ahead. Smoke already billowing out from their chimneys, their wood piles strategically stacked in readiness for what will almost inevitably arrive.  And the paternal dominance of these snow-peaked pinnacles command respect as the ever-changing weather swirls around their heads. The Somport Tunnel is temporary respite from the overwhelming feast for the eyes as you adjust to the darkness. Opened in 2003, this 8.3km tunnel has almost a magical feel to it, as you enter it in France and you exit it in Spain. One tunnel, two countries and not a Border Patrol crossing to be seen.

Canfranc Estación  – The Titanic of the Mountains

Our main purpose for taking this route was to check out the intriguing abandoned train station at Canfranc. Myles had read up on it and its mystery drove us to explore. It’s so easily missed, as no sooner are you out of the tunnel you hit the signs for the station.  Blink and you will miss it.

Canfranc was put on the Spanish map when this out-of-place station with all its ostentatious grandeur was built in 1923, following the construction of the railway line and tunnel between 1912-1915. The station was formally opened in 1928 and it is the second largest in Europe; with its 240m long building, 365 windows, 156 doors and a platform of 200m. It remained open during WW2 as part of the Franco-Spanish International Convention, under which it was built, allowing some refugees to leave France into Spain.

Its life came to an abrupt end in 1970 when there was a derailment on a bridge on the French side and they could not afford to rebuild it. And so today, this glorious building stands in a sorry state, a ghostly station, where the faint echoes of passengers transiting across these mountainous giants can be heard through the wind, as it whistles through broken panes of glass. You can get guided visits into the station during July and August, although even when it is closed, just to stand and reconstruct in your mind how this station buzzed and thrived in its day, is enough of an experience. There are plans to turn it into a hotel and to rebuild the line, with the agreement of the French Government, so new life will be breathed into this town after fifty years.  It is definitely worth stopping off at.

Jaca’s Monasteries, Aragon

We love exploring the hidden depths a place has to offer us curious travellers. It is all too easy to travel too fast and miss the secrets that lie just off the highway. So the region of Aragon was our explorative teacher.  After a short stopover at Jaca, a ski-resort with its ancient hexagonal fortress, we headed for the hills. Taking our route west, our chariot guided us into the foothills of the Pyrenees towards the Monastery of San Juan de la Peña. En route we were enthralled by Santa Cruz de la Serós, with its honey-coloured stone buildings and two Romanesque churches, one of which was an all-female monastery in its day. Just to wander around this tiny hamlet and through its cobbled streets carved into the hillside, was a delight.

Back on the road, which snakes up through the mountains, gives you an incredible view of the Pyrenees, so stopping for a photoshoot is essential. And then you come to the beautiful old Monastery carved into the rocks with its brand new cousin about 2km up the mountain which will wow you as you take in its size and splendour. It’s like a magical kingdom with its dominant reign over the plateaus and valleys beyond – it is such an interesting destination. There’s plenty of parking up there and a place to stop over night if you want to camp and unless there’s snow coming in, a great place to stop awhile and indulge in some walking.

Laguna Gallocanta, Aragon

If there’s anywhere on the map that looks like a Nature Reserve then that becomes a magnet for us as wildlife lovers. And so when I found Laguna Gallocanta purely by chance, it was our chosen detour.  After doing some research I found that it is a winter stop-off point for Cranes and is the most popular destination for these magnificent birds in Europe.  So of course if became a beacon for us and in addition it was way off the beaten track, which had even more appeal.

So we headed on south past Zaragoza and turning off the motorway drove through some amazing countryside. At first it looks a bit bland although in fairness the snow did add a little more character. It didn’t take long though for us to take a few left turns and to see the whole landscape change dramatically.  Twisting roads around rotund hills and valleys that looked like something out of the Hobbit and with its red soil gave a really atmospheric and beautiful drive. And then you approach Daroca, a fortress encased village, which out of nowhere stakes in claim from the surrounding landscape. We didn’t have the time to stop, as we’d been driving a while, although with its honey coloured buildings and fortress walls is definitely worthy of an explore.

Not far from Daroca, you will enter the tiny hamlet of Gallocanta, which is at the centre for the Nature Reserve and there is an Information Centre from where you can do Guided Tours from November to March and you can also stop over night at in the car park, which has views across the Lagoon.  Now I will manage your expectations, as at this point of the year, sadly there was no water in the lagoon, so it looked a little sorry for itself, although the Cranes still came.  You can’t get close to them by road or at the Information Centre, although you will see flocks of them coming in to land and with good binoculars will see them on the sandpits. It is a beautiful place to come – peaceful and so incredibly rural. Your exit from this region takes you on a narrow yet characterful road, through small Spanish villages with their ornate churches and cobbled streets that transport you into an authentic Spanish culture beyond the tourist magnetism of the cities and coast.

Alberracín, Aragon

As short drive away from Gallocanta, is one of Spain’s most beautiful villages.  If it had a body like France’s Les Plus Beaux Villages, then Albarracín would most definitely be on it. From the motorway, much like so many places, you can’t imagine what it would be like and you are almost tempted to by-pass it, although the 20 minute deviation is definitely worthy of your turning wheels.

Once off the main plain, you turn into the mountains which are full of character, incredible sandstone eroded cliff faces and a gorge route that will have you enthralled. It is a superb drive. Yet strangely with the weight of expectation on its shoulders, as we approached Albarracín, we found ourselves disappointed. Surely this modern town with its industrial area is not all there is to see?  Alas our patience was rewarded as, when we turned the corner, rising in front of our disappointed eyes, is the very reason we travelled here. A church steel adorned with white and green mosaics, an archway where the road travels underneath the village and sandstone buildings that nestled amongst the rocks protected by a fortress that curves around the village. This sight had us feeling instantly humbled and apologetic for ever having doubted it.

For the best experience of 11th Century Albarracín, approach the archway and then turn left, climbing up to the far end of the village and then tracking back towards the main centre. There are so many alleyways to explore and vistas that take your eyes over the gorge below, where the winding Guadalavia river of emerald green gives a real sense of this village’s Alcazar and Moorish roots. And one of the best bits about this town, is that is hasn’t lost its soul to the tourists. For sure there are restaurants and a few shops, although its authenticity is clear to feel as you wander around the streets. We almost felt intrusive, as the lives of the locals continue regardless of the milling crowd.

One of the things I loved best about this tiny village, in the middle of nowhere, is how the views changed around every corner. From the view of the arcing fortress defending the village’s honour, to the perspective from the fortress heights; views over the village walls to the gorge below and out through the windows of the castle remains to the land far away. And that’s before you even wander the streets looking at the quirky buildings, the architecture, the roof lines and the cobbled streets that feel like a maze at times. It is an atmospheric experience and you easily need 1/2 day to wander, absorb and climb to see the full picture of this little hideaway.

N330 Teruel to Utiel, Aragon

After our little dalliance with Albarracín, we hot-footed it over to Teruel, which according to the Guide Books can be one of the coldest towns in Spain – hey we’re not scarred of a bit of cold. After all we’d just endured -11.  We did have a quick trip into Teruel given we were so close, although we were disappointed. It was one of those towns, where the battle between old and new rages on and somehow the ancient world seems to be loosing out with modern culture consuming its precious history. Whilst there’s no denying that the main Plaza del Tourico is very pretty with its unusual buildings and undercover cafe bars and restaurants, trying to capture Teruel’s Mudéjar monuments, isn’t easy despite not being far apart from each other.  You could almost do with having a Drone to rise up above the tightly packed buildings to really get the beauty of the cathedral and other iconic buildings that would have stood proud in their day.

Teruel needs to be visited as we’ve never seen architecture like it, although an hour will do perfectly well and then move on, as the countryside that is about to greet you is far superior, in our humble opinion. The N330 route is your travel guide for this part of the journey. Taking you away from the built up town and into the heart of a natural tapestry of ochre red and yellow rocks, filled with copious amounts minerals from eons beneath the sea. You could almost imagine yourself in a Spaghetti Western with the pillars of rock being akin to their American cousins and John Wayne galloping through the valley on his trusty stallion. Small villages, kilometres apart from each other, survive on the energy of the land and as the road winds around valleys, gorges and hilltops, you feel lost amidst its natural paradise.  Your journey becomes timeless and the vistas entice you to travel slowly and mindfully until you reach Utiel for an overnight stop.

 

N330 South from Requena to Cofrentes, Valencia Community

The final stage of our journey south was the route from Utiel to Requena with a short diversion south on N330 towards Almansa.  Here the vineyards create a patchwork across the countryside and then surrender to the pine-clad mountains. The road turns this way, then that, through the ochre walls and all we could see were acres of forest – oh and a couple of power station funnels! As our heart sank feeling that these blots on the landscape would ruin our experience – we held steady!

And patience brought us to the oasis of Cofrentes, which sits at the confluence of the rivers Júcar and Cabriel – hence its name, originating from the Roman name Confluentum. It is here you can try the regional dish of Gazpachos, eaten by many of the mountain workers and Orza which is a cured sausage. Food aside you have guided tours around Cofrentes’ Gothic Castle and El Cerro de Agras – the region’s only volcano, which still shows some activity by way of the Hervidieros Spa, where gas escapes from the chamber to a spring where the water looks like it is boiling. A river boat trip can be taken up the Júcar for 14km of the Júcar Route and if fishing is your thing, the pike and black-bass in the reservoir may appeal. January, May and August are their festival seasons where this tiny population gather as a community to honour their religious icons and celebrate together. For a tiny village in the middle of the mountains, this is where you can begin to experience, not only the mountain way of life, the true sense of inland Spain with its rituals and traditions. Walking, cycling, fishing – there’s plenty to amuse you in this mountain hideaway.

So this brings us to the close of our route from southern France into Spain, via the Aragon region. What a Christmas sack of gifts this was and how thankful we were not to rush through this area. Whilst we have by no means explored all its depths, we have at least a taster of Aragon’s presence and know for sure that we will return to uncover more of its delights. We hope that it might influence you to stop awhile and also unwrap its hidden depths.

Travel off the beaten track, drive slow, see much and learn plenty as you explore the land which has much to offer the curious explorer.