GRAND TOUR 2015

THE GRAND TOUR: FRANCE 25-30th AUGUST 

A couple of days family get together on the Loire was spent paddle boarding and kayaking around the tidal waters and picnicking on the beaches when the weather was good and holed up in Tranny playing games when it wasn’t, which was a lot.

When the others left for their ferry we left for Normandy. The day had started well

 But soon deteriorated and we had a wild and wet drive north. We were heading to another area we’d never been to ,the Alpes Mancelles in the Parc Naturel Normandie Maine. There was a free camper parkup next to the river Sarthe in St Leonard des Bois

 in the centre of it and we arrived in the evening with the rain finally easing. We parked under a massive slab of sandstone cliff that alarmingly had lost a chunk recently but awoke unharmed.

  A pretty town filled with flowers,

   and little curiosities

 it had numerous walks marked out around it. We chose a 4 hour geological ramble and set out on a figure of eight through time.

Included in the Natura 2000 list of remarkable European sites because of its geological and topographic diversity it’s been an area that has attracted nature lovers for centuries. To name it Alpes is overstating its height somewhat and it was hardly in the same league as a lot of the stuff we’ve been exploring but it was pleasant enough and the route was studded with signboards and viewing pipes and rock samples to explain the landscape, most of which was due to those volcanos again.  The first thing we came across was an ancient stone cross marking the pilgrimage to Mont de St Michel.

Halfway round we stopped at the Domaine du Gasseau, a big chateau with potager or veg garden which we obviously had to look over.

 There was also a show of photos taken in local ponds that was charming.

 Back on track we climbed up through heathy woodland to traverse an escarpment before descending to the river and Tranny.

Our next stop was St Ceneri le Gerei, listed as one of “France’s prettiest villages. “

  

It was indeed very pretty but its tweeness had probably driven up property prices and driven out the locals. We certainly came upon a few groups of Brits who had invested in a French dream home.

There was a wonderful garden open to the public , Les Jardins de la Masoniere,made up of 18 different enclosed spaces. The plantings and landscaping had a certain je ne sais pas ,a certain joix de vie. Magnifique! 

There was going to be a classical concert held there the following night lit by 1000 candles which would have been magic but we had to go in search of a shower. It had been too long.

We found one miles down tiny back roads at La Ribardiere organic cider farm, which was handy. They had a couple of caravans and people camping, so for a couple of quid we were able to wash and clean and sit in the orchard sipping the produce. No air miles involved.

 The sheds were covered in solar panels which was something we’ve seen a lot of in this area of France.

 A very quiet Saturday morning on the farm with only the sounds of cows and birds was followed by a short drive into “Swiss Normandy”.

Like the Alpes Mancelles, the name was a bit of poetic license but it was a dramatic landscape on a smallish scale.

 We stopped at La Roche d’Oetre where the escarpment peak at the Swiss like altitude of 118m, gives a fine view of the surrounding wooded river gorges. Like on our previous Alpinne experience the hills were all that was left of the oldest mountains in Europe, the Armorican massif. We did the trail.

 There’s a pretty convincing head profile in this slab of rock.

  The path circled around down through the oak woods and along the river below.

   The river meanders were impressive but I couldn’t get a decent view of it and in the end Serena came up with the best display.

We were gradually making our way north towards Cherbourg and the end of our time away. We had one more night on the road and we trusted our parkup guide to supply somewhere nice en route. It didn’t let us down and when we arrived at the Abbey in Cerisy le Foret at the edge of a huge oak forest we were delighted to find a sculpture park had been created there. Every year since the mid 90’s artists from around the world had been invited to an annual festival to carve a piece in public and in 2013 a park was made to house 112 works by 71 sculptors from 34 countries and the municipal camper park was in the middle of it.

 There was also a placid pond surrounded by the marble and granite pieces.

 And the mighty Abbey above it all.

 A fine meeting place of artistic cultures and a very tranquil spot to contemplate the end of our journey.

Which only left the next morning to complete our trip by returning to the sea we had left in Holland on the first day of our Grand Tour.

THE GRAND TOUR: FRANCE 23/24th AUGUST 

We left our restaurant side park up disappointed by being turned away from a deeply anticipated meal there. We’ve had some trouble being served a few times for reasons exceptionelle. ?

But as it was a very rainy day we’d had our first real lie in and hadn’t left the cloudy gorges till nearly midday.

 We had a few hours drive northwest cross country to get to our next park up in Oulches near the centre of France. The area around there, the Park Naturel Reginal de la Brenne, looked really interesting with acres of forest and a myriad of lakes.

 The weather improved as we went and after settling in to our temporary home and checking the facilities

 we went for a marked hike about the environs.

   It was all deeply rural. A little unknown (to most) patch of rich land and thick oak forest studded with little ponds and pools and rich in fungi.

                  

 The little village had a huge church and nice little houses.

We went further into the park the following day, to an interpretive centre, where there were boardwalks across some ponds and hides full of twitchers spying on the rich bird life.

 There was all manner of wildlife in the area including boar and deer and little terrapins.  You don’t often see this road sign.

The lakes and other man made ponds were often stocked with carp, a specialty of the region, which must have been great terrapin and bird food.

Time to move on again. Another few hundred km northwest to a family rendezvous on the banks of the Loire near Nantes. Keeping away from major roads again we past through one beautiful town or village after another , anyone of which would have a steam of coach tours and tourists but here were left to fade in a very chic fashion.

And so we arrived at our free parkup from the guide to discover yet another nice tranquil spot with water and toilets, walks and cycle ways, restaurant and bar, ancient ruins and history. How civilised this country is.

THE GRAND TOUR: FRANCE 20/21/22nd AUGUST 

3 Days of Hiking the Auvergne Volcanos.  32/ 21/ 16 km

We’d parked the Tranny outside the camper site with a little note saying we were walking the GR30 for three days and headed off hoping not to return to a parking ticket.

We had a vague circle in mind but with a multitude of trails crisscrossing the countryside we had options. Which was just as well because it didn’t take long to realise that we had bitten off more than we could chew.

Their was something indescribably French about the landscape and little details in it.

The way was littered with crosses, a lot ancient looking ones, and we realised we were on yet another Camino route. Or maybe the same one we were on in the Valle di Susa in Italy.

We were traveling up and around and down steep sided volcanic cones and the dogs were already looking to cool down.

This was also granite country and there was a big dolmen that seemed to be incorporated into a little village football pitch.

At the quiet hamlet of Olloix about 12km into the journey we were already heating up. The initial cool of France had gone and we welcomed a sign for the first Gite D’ Etape of the route.

 These places did food and drink and beds and were geared for the walkers. We had thought about using them as an alternative to carrying tent , mat, bag , cooking and eating stuff etc etc but didn’t know if the dogs would be welcome and anyway we like to carry heavy loads up steep sided mountains in very hot and humid conditions.

So we just had a cold coca cola.

A couple more hamlets and then a fairly big spa town ,St Nectaire ,was in view with the day’s goal of Murol in the background below the hill top chateau.

 Back into oak woods after all the beech of the last couple of months, and down into town where we passed bains or baths that had seen better days.

With over 20km and a lot of sweating done it was a bit of a slog back up into the menhir and troglodyte cave rich hills for the final push. We passed, bizarrely, a kangaroo and emu zoo where the fencing needed to be high.

 And then the Chateau de Murol which was heaving tourist bait.

 We had to get round the hill ,down into town where the pharmacy thermometer said it was 33*( this was 6 pm),pick up water and supplies, get out of town a couple of Km and hope we could find a lake side camp spot.

Unfortunately the place was more of a resort than we had realised and the lakeside trail was a running, cycling, family strolling kind of amenity path where camping was strictly interdit. 

But we found a little patch unseen to call home for the night and after an aborted nudey swim in water up to our knees, we’re happy enough to call it a day.

Next day dawned fair to the sound of a hot air balloon’s gas burner.

We were going to do a lot of climbing,up to 1700m , and do a long ridge walk across the spine of the Auvergne so we headed off as soon as we could down the boardwalk around the lac. 

 Passing through deeply rural villages with some lovely traditional buildings we slowly climbed higher onto the hills.

 

 Overjoyed to find a restored mountain hut operating as a Gite but disappointed to discover they were booked out.

 Still they had plenty of reviving water and cake and yogurt.

 Water was a crucial element in this hike. We were sweating loads so needed loads but couldn’t carry loads. And we were never sure where we could get it. And the dogs needed loads too. Scruff did a stirling job of carrying theirs but it got too much for him and I’d ended up carrying his rucksack too.

Anyway suitably revived we’d carried on to a saddle at Coll de la Croix St Robert were we erected some shade and rested up before the big climb up Puy de l’Angle at 1738m.

And on up and down along the ridge with beautiful views all around towards the next drop to Coll de la Croix Morand.

Salvation at the Coll. Another funky hostelry revived us with beers and replenished our water supplies so we carried on happy another couple of km and made camp beside the path where I spent the night in my bivvy bag gazing at the Milky Way in the crystal sky at 1440m and it was cold enough for Toby to wear his silks.

In the clear blue sky of the morning we crossed a broad flattish plateau and then started to descend passed many old summer grazing both us, to the lower ground.

The least exciting 10km section finished it and us off as the heat sapped us of strength and enthusiasm and we were relived to arrive back at Tranny to find him/her unmolested and without tickets. We snuck into the camp for showers and clothes washing and hung everything up on the railings around the football pitch to dry like proper travellers and as things cooled off joined the motorway madness of the return to the north for the thousands whose holidays were over this weekend, before quickly pulling off to park up in a lovely free camper spot next to a fine looking inn.

THE GRAND TOUR: FRANCE 18/19th AUGUST 

Our next move was to drive 300km west to Clermont Ferand and the volcanos of the Auvergne.

We had planned to spend some time hiking around this area and needed some info so headed into the city centre.

 Chic and sophisticated plantings and transportation and streets capes.

 We visited the cathedral and marvelled again at the money and majesty needed to do this thing.

 ‘Twas a handsome city

 but not the wilds I was looking for, so after a long stop at the olive oil and other overpriced frippery store , managed to get to the take off point for a hike around some volcanic comes. Unfortunately that point was a massive car park but it had a good view and as the hordes left we settled in for the night.

Bright and early we hit the trail, noticing how much cooler no colder it is now. A balloon rose over the scene

 as we headed up the Puy de Dome, the tallest volcano in the region with a fine view of the other forested cones to the south.

We did it the hard way while most folk took the train.

 The thing ran till 11 at night but didn’t give you time to stop and take in the sights like we did.

 There were flights of steps running down this volcano and up its neighbour and they were made from oak. 

  A very different, more open landscape, to the mountains we’ve been in. They were working hard to protect it with the steps and fencing.

 and the caldera of the cones was impressive.

Back down through hazel wood

 and heathland and some nice mature birch

Back at base we planned our backpack exploration of the area to the south and drove off to Aydat from where we will hit the GR 30 at dawn tomorrow for a three day hike and leave the wheels behind.

THE GRAND TOUR:ITALY to FRANCE 16/17th AUGUST 

Our sunny Sunday morning in the unsung village of Maglione was spent discovering why it was known as a City of Art. In the mid 80’s Maurizio Corgnati had the idea to create an outdoor gallery of contemporary art here and there are now around 170 works mounted or created on the walls of the buildings and sculpture dotted around between. Some have faded and flaked over the years but that was part of the plan. For the art to grow and die back with the fabric of the place. 

Anyway it was a nice walk with different scenery to the forests and mountains of our usual backdrop.  

         

We wandered up to a viewpoint by the church and looked out over the geological marvel of the Moraine Amphitheater of Ivrea but were more interested in the vast and stylish family vaults in the cemetery.  

   

Before we left I realised that the strange structure next to our parkup was a work by the landscape artist Nils-Udo of whom I’m a fan. This piece, a raised circular grotto like earthwork, has gone wild.  

 I also managed to find a touring bicycle to photograph as requested.  

 

We programmed Serena to take us to another parkup listed in the guide, far up in the Susa valley en route en France. It’s like a magical mystery tour letting the guide and the GPS decide destination and directions. It’s an exercise in letting go of control and surrendering to a higher power. Fate. And it usually works out grand. If it doesn’t it teaches you acceptance. 

The valley extends from Torino or Turin of sacred shroud fame all the way up to the passes over the mountains and nowadays the tunnels through them from Bardonecchia into France. Since the Middle Ages there have been numerous abbeys and monasteries of Franciscans, Augustinians and Benedictines and its on a Camino to Santiago de Compostella and the Via Francigena pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome. I was tempted to get the staff out. 

Our camp was a nice small scale community run affair above Villar Focchiardo and below the forested mountains of the Parco Naturale Orsiera Rocciavre where they charged us a fiver. Fair enough.  

 The village had views down the valley over the fine stone roofs.  

 And across the chestnut forests the region is famous for.  

  

 But the thrills came later in the afternoon when a sudden loud crumbling crashing rumble and cloud of dusty smoke had everyone out rubbernecking the landslide on the cliffs above us.  

  

 Before long the civil defence and fire brigade were out and the church bell was ringing the news but after some barriers were erected and some no go tape strung around it was deemed “all clear” and there was no evacuation. 

The next day we hoped the mountains would hold together as we drove through numerous tunnels finally joining a long queue to enter the big one. 12 km of the Tunel do Frejus to France. A mighty piece of engineering that we had to cover the cost of. We reckoned it would be a tenner and handed one over. Yer mans waiting for more. We see the electronic price display flashing before our eyes. € 58.50.  Short and curlies. 

  
Arriving into France and only saved a customs going over by the more interesting car from Bosnia Herzegovina that came after us, we drove to a lakeside parkup at le Bourget du Lac to lick our wounds, plan our next move and have a swim.  

 

THE GRAND TOUR: ITALY 13/14/15th AUGUST 

We had spent the night in the Ampezzo National Park next to the ruins of a famous hunting lodge that had been built by Irish Countess Lady Emily Howard-Bury and her American millionairess friend Anna Potters-Pott. (I’m not making this up) Originally it had looked more like a castle than a lodge  but it had become a victim of WWI when burned down by the Austro Hungarian side to prevent the Italians from using it.  Apparently soldiers from both sides would gather there peacefully together looking for food.

Anna had died of a heart attack at 40 while out hunting some years earlier and  Lady Emily had buried her ashes in a golden urn in the forest she loved so much.

This was going to be a busy weekend. A national holiday, the feast of the Assumption, and we were heading to what’s probably the most beautiful and popular part of the Dolomites, the Tre Cime du Lavaredo or Drei Zinnen both languages being spoken this far north.

The village of Misurina had a camp site and camper park at the beginning of a toll road leading into the iconic peaks that are featured in most illustrations of these mountains. We started up early again to give Tranny cold air around her/his radiator on the climb.

 There were some nice old lodges on the way.

 And the town itself is nicely situated on a lake surrounded by dramatic scenery.

The campsite and parkup were rammed but we slid into a vacated place and did our best to fit in while we showered and washed clothes etc.

After a day of domestic chores and watching the constant stream of motor home coming and going we resolved to get the first shuttle bus to the Refugio where campers pay 36€ to park overnight ,and follow a trail that goes all around the base of the celebrated peaks. It was a repeat of the queue for Marmolada cable car except we had the dogs as well. A mighty scrum altogether.

The bus journey saved us about 7 km and 600m ascent and when we got there the expensive car parks were filling up and were obviously a real earner making the conservationists calls to shut them down to limit the pressure on the mountains unlikely to succeed.

But immediately you could see why everybody wants to go there.

 I have good signal strength right now in a hypermarket so I’m going to whack up a load of pictures while I can. Sorry if it’s overload.  

 We happily joined a stream of humanity on a conga line like procession around the three extraordinary towers of stone.

 Two tiny climbers are visible half way up the sheer wall.

  A lot of work had been done to the track and people of all ages were using it.

 We stopped for picnic on the rocks and decided to avoided the crowded bus and walk back to the village.

 It will stick in my dis functional memory as one of the finest walks of my life and sharing it with hordes did nothing to detract from the glories.

What did though was getting back to discover that the €10 parking ticket we’d put on Tranny wasn’t enough to stop us getting a €30 fine for putting a camper in a car park. By now the town was heaving and with clouds gathering and rain forecast it was time to pull out. We made it out of the valley to the north and against a stream of traffic, up another a little further west the Val do Braies Vecchia.

It started to rain hard just after we had parked up outside some abandoned buildings which we sussed out had been victims of earthquake.

  Serious thunder and lightning that lit up the clouds lasted most of the night but the morning brought an improvement and we were able to take our last walk in the Dolomites.

 Up through the misty pines to a Coll overlooking an impressive cliff and back across the valley.

Over our 10 days in the Dolomites we had hiked in 6 different National or Natural Parks and even in the honey pot areas of mass tourism their was an awareness of their special need for conservation. Those white towers of stone, flower filled alpine meadows and vast green forests have been beautiful for millennia, long may it last.

The come down from our figurative and literal high was bad. We needed to cross Italy from east to west. The general busyness had persuaded us to give up on visiting the Lakes and head for the Valle do Susa in Piedmont on the way to France.

I’m not used to traffic jams and not very good at dealing with them. We alternated between motorway and A roads trying to find some space to drive through. The desperate situation was alleviated by the fact that the flashy Ferraris and Porches weren’t going anywhere at the same speed as us.

Eventually, for unknown reasons, it cleared enough for Tranny to prove her/him self again by cruising for hours at 120kph. And through a deluge. We felt like storm chasers as we belted along the edge of the strangest cloud formation.

Luckily Serena was on hand to guide us to a place of safety. Our parkup guide had listed somewhere just off the motorway as an “art city” although it didn’t appear in Lonely Planet or any of our maps. It was just what we needed to escape a rainy motorway at dinner time.

 An empty grassy lot in a quaint and quiet village with A ROOF over the pitches and a restaurant next to it.
Remember the name. Maglione.

THE GRAND TOUR: ITALY 10/11/12th AUGUST 

  

Dawn on Lago d’ Allegne from our park up. 

Italy has been very good to us in terms of nice places to stay for the night. Not always strictly by the rules but it does seem pretty relaxed. There are thousands of ” motor homes” here, way more than anywhere else we’ve been and they’re nearly all Italian. Gone are the Dutch and Germans. 

There are lots of municipal camper park ups but it’s the height of the holiday season and they’re pretty crammed, especially in towns. As are the camp sites. It seems like there is some inverse law that means the more unattractive the location, the more camperv, sorry motor homes will be in it. While we were lake side, the town side park up looked like this.  

 Or a small section of it did. There’s as much again on either side of the shot. 

Anyway, each to their own. I guess some folk are sociable. I am improving my skills at interacting with mass tourism facilities and to continue working on them I resolved not to hike on our own up mountains for a couple of days but to join countless others on cable car trips instead. 

From Alleghe there was a two stage lift to the ski runs atop Col del Baldi at 1930m. The second stage had been turned from a chair lift to a cable car this year so we were able to take the dogs. 

A few minutes and 900m later we were gazing in wonder at 350 degrees of splendour.  

   

What impressed us most apart from the peaks was the fact that all the ski runs were grassy loveliness. In Slovakia, Poland and Slovenia we’d seen some really scared up mountains but these looked landscaped and manicured, almost like golf courses. 

  
Another sport that was well catered for was mountain biking as the bikes could be taken up on the cable car and then avail of gravity to get them down. 

Here’s a couple more pictures of bikes to quench the thirst of Giles.  

   

There was a busy bar/restaurant and lots of picnicking and sunbathing around the CC station and a network of trails that headed off hither and thither. Some people were picking bilberry or blueberry of which there was a carpet.  

 As our mission for the day was to mingle with the masses we didn’t stray too far only climbing a solitary bump to check unseen vista. But what do you do when your not hiking? Chat? I wasn’t quite ready for that level of human interaction so found time passing slowly and after what I’ve just worked out to be 7 hours (no wonder it seemed like a long time. I’m better at doing nothing than I thought) we zoomed back down to cool off in the lake and head off in search of a remote, rural, isolated and quiet place to stay. 

  Another picnic place in the shady trees by a river surrounded by soaring towers of limestone.  
 And in the background was our goal for the morning, Marmolada, known as the Queen of the Dolomites, the highest of them all at 3343m. But we weren’t going back to our old ways and hiking up, no we still had work to do on the crowd tolerance. 

And getting up at six to drive the last steep bit while the air was still cool meant we were at the station plenty early to avoid a queue and be unnecessarily tested. Or maybe not.  

 Still there were some lovely sheds I could spend time with while we waited.  

   And some even had the iron roofs I like so much. We had realised in Slovenia, whilst admiring the corrugated iron shed rooves that they were actually recycled 1st World War iron and it was everywhere. 100 yr old thick iron with a coating or patina of rust but still good and outperforming stuff obviously much younger. And here we were again on another Italian /Austro Hungarian WW1 front and the Tin was back.  

 

The cable car which took 70 punters shooting up the vertical wall of rock took 3 stages to work it’s way to the top. From the village of Malga Ciapela at 1435m to El Banch at 2236,  

 straight onto another car to cross the rocky expanse of Valon d’ Antermala  

 to Refugio Serauta at 2950m where there was a new museum devoted to the WW 1 activities at 3000m on the mountain.  

  

 Unsurprisingly it’s the highest museum in Europe, and its surrounded by trenches and caves, steps and observation posts cut into the rock. Over 10,000ft up mind. 

   
 And then into another car to whisk us over the cracked icy wastes of the mountains glacier  

 to the top station with a new viewing platform on which to suck up the thrills and swallow down on the wonder.  

  

  

  

 And so far from home.  

  Then down onto the glacier itself where,again, the refreshing lack of paranoid health and safety measures allowed for a slide of a lifetime (probably).  

   And how the hell did they get that up there.  

 Of course in the winter it’s all about the skiing and taking off from here they have 1200 km of pistes to work. I couldn’t persuade the Missus to come onto the ice but she did wave.  

 We also visited the grotto chapel hacked out of the rock to accommodate the Madonna donated and consecrated by John Paul 11 when he visited the mountain in 1979.  

   The brand new war museum was well designed with interesting exhibits but we had seen a lot further East on the Isonzo front where 300,000 had died. What was amazing on the Marmolada was the Ice City carved out of the glacier by the Austro Hungarians. 10km of tunnels with every kind of facility within. One of the largest, the so called Eisstadt was home to 300 under ice riflemen. 

We had left the dogs slowly baking so had to return 

 to base and take a walk down the “Temple of Nature” a very deep river gorge that runs down to the neighbouring village of Sottoguda. More ubiquitous picnic areas  

 brought us down into the gorge  

  where WW1 men had dug around a obstructing boulder  

   And made caverns and caves along the way.  

 

The village below was a treat with it’s wooden buildings, floral displays and quaint inhabitants.  

                   

In our program of social readjustment we hadn’t reached a level that allowed use of the “fun train” so we were forced to walk back up the hill.  

 Leaving the dogs looking for cool  

 

Off again, and this time for quite a spin. Because we are wary of taking Tranny up steep winding roads we had to go the long way round to get to and beyond Cortina d’Ampezzo the main tourist hub of the Dolomites. The steep sided valley and lack of side roads meant out park up was not of the usual high standard but we had a lovely pink mt Pelmo in the morning.  

   

 We travelled on up in the cool early morning air to get through the town and into a valley to the north where we could park up and hike. 

From Uberto we walked up the Val Salata to the Refugio Stua and then up and up above the tree line to the Alpine meadows of Lerosa at 2020m. A good 18km and 600m climb.  

   The landscape was dreamy and a little rustic hut made a perfect spot for contemplation.  

     Getting up into the high pasture we took a detour to a beautiful restored house.  

     Where we spotted marmots  

 but couldn’t get close. And horses availing of the spring waters.  

 

Further on we were treated to views of spiralling layers of rock in more mountain ranges.  

     And inescapable reminders of WW1 with the sites of cemeteries  

 and trenches  

 and the old military road  

 but the memories were faint and overlaid with a landscape of timeless beauty.  

     

Good to be walking in it.