Mr Google advised that it was a very long way home. We were in the car by 6 am because we supposedly had at least 9 hours of actual driving to do and needed to cover 870km just to get to Calais, so with the need to make stops we back-calculated that 12 hours would be our minimum journey time. The reality proved somewhat different, but fundamentally we spent all day travelling.
Early Morning Autoroutes
Getting out of Grenoble at 6am on a Sunday morning was very easy and there was pretty much nothing on the road. I’d planned not to make stops for caches during the day as timings looked tight. I didn’t want geocaching to be the reason for any failure. As a result we proceeded directly through Rhône and Metropolis de Lyon without stopping for a cache, and we found ourselves all the way up at the Saint Ambreuil services near Chalon-sur-Saône at 8am, having already covered 225 of the 870km. That sounded like time for breakfast. We gave ourselves a decent break, filled the car up with fuel, and had something to eat and drink.
Kas took over the driving here and drove a massively long but very quick stint which got us all the way to Sommesous in another 2 ½ hours. It was only 11:30 am and we’d already done nearly ⅔ of the distance.
None of us fancied a proper meal, so we found a cache and grabbed some thoroughly unhealthy sweet snacks in the garage. We ate these whilst sitting outside, and then we got back into the car for another stint. We were very early, but we chose to go to Calais as soon as we could. There was always the option of getting an earlier train, or so we thought.
We were 350km away from the tunnel still. This should be around 3 hours, we thought. Even with another impromptu toilet stop, we made it to the terminal at 3 pm. That was three full hours less than Google suggested.
The day went downhill at a rapid rate after this. We weren’t getting an earlier train. Why not? Because the terminal was so busy that they wouldn’t even let you drive up to the check-in gate unless you were within two hours of your scheduled departure time. So we were sent off site, around the houses a bit, and onto a massive holding area where we were segregated out in approximately one-hour lots.
We sat there for 90 minutes before being allowed through, and then spent another hour getting checked in and passing through the two passport controls. At least we were on the train I’d booked (or so we thought, again).
The terminal building was heaving, as ever. We queued up to grab some pizzas for dinner and then killed a further 20 minutes not buying anything in the duty-free shop. Then we went to sit in the car. 20 minutes later we thought we might be able to blag our way into the holding pen. We were early, so it was a risk, but we trundled round for a look. We failed. They sent us into a separate lane for our allotted train. And that’s where we stayed for another 90 minutes.
The trains were all running late. I think they fill them up to the gunwales rather than sending them off on time. On Sunday nights in summer the trains fill up quickly with flexiplus tickets, which means everyone else gets bounced back. Anyway, whatever the reason, we got a train about an hour later than originally booked.
The Last Leg
All of this put us back into the UK somewhat after 8 pm. We realised that we weren’t going to be getting home in time for the Co-Op still to be open. Also, I’d been in the driver’s seat since we left Sommesous, so it was time for a driver change. We stopped at the first lot of services out of the tunnel. I missed the lane as we entered the motorway so we ended up taking a circuitous route to get in. We grabbed a few snacks and drinks to eat at home and then set off again.
The motorways home were busy, like they always are. We eventually made it home at around 10:30 pm. We’d driven 1,080km (or 670 miles) over the course of the day. I thought it took a long time to get home from Aberdeen when I’d done it three weeks previously. The journey took 18 hours and we’d been out of bed for 19. It was indeed a very long way home. After a quick snack, Kas and me went straight to bed because we’d both got work in the morning.
Breakfast in Grenoble
We started our day out fairly late on this day. We weren’t in a rush. The previous night we’d decided we’d go and try the castle down at Vizille. It’s not far from Grenoble, and the kind of places where an afternoon should be enough.
Kas decided that going up to the Bastille on the téléphérique the previous day wasn’t strenuous enough, so in the morning she decided to run up it as part of a long morning run. While she was doing that, the girls and me went to “Paul” in Caserne de Bonne for some breakfast. Now we knew the form it was a better experience than the previous morning. Kas joined us as we were finishing, having done her run and been for a shower.
Moby Dick, Geocaching Style
While we were there, I took the opportunity to go and find a geocache in the gardens outside Caserne de Bonne. I’d been unable to find it previously due to it being in a very busy spot. Even this morning a guy was sitting right on top of the location. It should have been under the end of a bridge. I tried looking from the other side. I could see the location, but I couldn’t reach it from where I was.
The guy seemed in no hurry to move. Rather than miss it, I decided to ask him ( or tell him ) what I was doing. I didn’t want to freak him out. He didn’t respond. He didn’t seem bothered, to be honest, so I went for it and did the doings. Throughout the whole process he didn’t so much as look. After leaving the site it became clear this lack of communication was related to him later turning into “shouty” bloke. Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to go so close to someone who obviously wasn’t entirely there.
By the time we were all done it was approaching midday. We’d thought a little about going up into the “proper” mountains but I think by the time we got here we’d done our share of long days in the car, and as a result, the enthusiasm for spending a couple of hours each way driving to the mountains was pretty much missing.
An Afternoon in Vizille
Vizille promised to be no more than half an hour away. It also had the advantage of being somewhere I hadn’t visited previously on three visits to the city forty years previously, so I had no idea what to expect.
It was easy to park and there was a cache in the back of the car park. I managed to squeeze that in while one of the kids was farting about with footwear. The chateau is quite impressive – the biggest in the Dauphiné, apparently, and it’s been kept (or restored) in good condition. A great dollop of irony was introduced in 1984 when a wing of the Chateau was redeveloped as a Museum to the French Revolution (see Musée de la Révolution française), after the castle became government property and was donated to the Community Council of Isère in 1973.
The castle has extensive gardens and that’s where we focussed our attention. There are false canals (part of an early water-powered scheme for the town and castle), a parterre and lots of lawns. There was a kids’ playground but it was full of children, so neither of ours bothered. I guess we probably spend an hour and a half walking around before deciding to retire for an ice cream. It was a bit cloudy but still very warm and humid.
To get ice-creams we walked out of the front gate of the castle into the town. We found a place that sold granités – we developed a taste for these in Italy on last year’s holidays but it was the first time our eye had been drawn to one in France.
After sitting outside for a bit we decided we’d had enough for the day. We drove back to the apartment and camped down for a while. I think we were starting to get the “going home” feeling. Vizille was nice enough, but our hearts weren’t really with it.
A Final Night on the Town
We went out for dinner at about 6 pm and found a boutique burger joint – nicer than McDonald’s but not really a restaurant as such. The burgers were good. From here we moved next door and had a beer. The kids started running in and out of a fountain in the street, with predictable results.
We walked back home again and got most of the packing done. We had an early start in the morning and didn’t want to be late to bed. I also didn’t want to drink much. According to Google, we’d got 870km to drive just to get to Calais and we needed to be there by about 6 pm, so we’d planned an early start. Google reckoned we should allow 12 hours. We were in bed by 9:30 pm.
The Bastille of Grenoble is the city’s most obvious tourist attraction. You can see it from most of the city centre.
A Lazy Morning
We went for a lazy breakfast at a branch of “Paul” which was right next to our apartment block. We toyed with the idea of going next door but not for long. It didn’t actually have much that would constitute breakfast. OK, so we sat down. Then we got up two or three times looking for a menu. We failed.
The girls were in various states of grump because the weren’t sure about anything and didn’t want anything they’d end up not liking. It caused me a bit of a sense of humour crisis. We were at the point where nobody seemed happy. OK, so let’s go somewhere else. We walked into “Paul” next door. They had a grand array of sandwiches and pastries. And they were all neatly laid out behind the counter and labelled. Being able to point is much better when trying to order food in a language you don’t speak very well. We grabbed a handful of breakfastables and made our way to their outdoor tables. It was a rather warm day again.
Walking through Town
After breakfast we headed off for our primary target for the day – a trip up to Grenoble’s Bastille (see Grenoble’s Bastille). This is a prominent feature from most of the city centre, because unlike the Parisian Bastille, Grenoble’s is on top of a mountain. I guess the prison builders in Paris didn’t have the option to put theirs on a mountain.
The foot of the mountain was about 1.5km away from where we were staying, and involved a leisurely walk through the old town centre. This gave us the opportunity for a bit of sightseeing and a couple of geocaches before we eventually found our way to the bottom station of the Téléphérique that leads up to the Bastille. There was another geocache at the bottom station, which I was obviously duty-bound to look for.
The ride up in the bubbles was like sitting in a greenhouse on a sunny day for 10 minutes. It was a bit warm. We got our own back in some small way by completing a virtual geocache. It required us to photograph our thumbs, with a ghost drawn on them, whilst rattling over the one and only supporting pylon on the cable-car. In your face, sunshine ! You’re not going to stop us from acting like children…
At the top of the Bastille the view is fantastic. It was a little cloudy the day we were there, so the tops of the Belledonne massif were a bit hidden from view, but the view over the city towards the south and the view west towards the Vercors was excellent. I loved this place the first time I went up there, maybe 40 years previously, and I loved it again.
The fortress has been improved somewhat since my last visit. There are now cafes, a couple of new buildings that house little museums, and some excellent information boards. These relate mainly to the geological features of the mountains that you can’t really appreciate from the valley floor. Several of these information boards had earthcaches attached to them, so that kept me occupied for a little while. A little too long though, so it seemed. The heat was taking its toll. Even up here Kas somehow had managed to trip up on something and make herself bleed.
We beat a tactical retreat from the tops of the buildings and retired to a shaded bit. We needed to collect our thoughts and formulate a plan of action. Our plans generally end up being more acceptable to the majority of the family if they are formulated with the assistance of ice-cream, so that’s how we did it.
Down we go!
The plan involved walking down again rather than catching the bubbles. Downhill is easier than uphill, and there are multiple routes down the mountain. These pass through different types of scenery on a theme of “wooded hillside with bastion walls”. We picked the route to the east side, which had a greater quantity of geocaches on the way down. It was slightly further to walk downhill, but it drops you off in a better place.
The walk down was entertaining, although the kids were grumpy. It turned out that they were grumpy because the caches were all earthcaches, with nothing to actually find. As soon as we reached ones that had actual boxes to find then the mood picked up quite a lot. Ami enjoyed scrambling up a bank and through some trees to fetch one. She was then doubly pleased when she pulled out one cache that I’d been staring at for a couple of minutes without recognising it.
Once back at the bottom of the Bastille we were about ready for a break again. We stumbled into a nearby bar and had a beer whilst waiting for what turned out to be some beautifully hand-cooked chips. I think it was “La Renaissance” on Place aux Herbes – a pleasant little square in the old town.
From here, the ladies of the house decided they wanted to spend the rest of their afternoon snoozing and shopping, so they wandered off in the general direction of home while I went off for a few more geocaches. For this phase I stayed down in the city centre, checking off a selection of real and virtual caches.
I got the routing wrong and walked backwards and forwards quite a lot, but made a pretty decent sweep. I returned to the famous Grenoble Helicoidal Garage where we’d failed at earlier in the day. When I went back, the table was clear, but the cache wasn’t there anyway. The owner of the bar that owned the table came out to direct me further along the street. Once I was in the right place I found the cache immediately. I thought it was therefore reasonable to say thanks by buying a drink from him.
Subsequent walking took me to a selection of the best bits of Grenoble, including the old Roman walls, the Lycée Stendhal and Place Verdun. It was a bit of a throwback to 40 years previously – which was the last time I’d walked around here. Memories now rebooted and updated to the modern era. I toyed with the idea of walking round to Parc Paul Mistral too, but eventually decided that it was time for a break rather than time for another hour and a half of caching.
A Quiet Evening
We went for dinner fairly early to a pizza place in Caserne de Bonne. Because we were back fairly early, I was able to sit up for a while trying to collate notes. I’d set a new personal best for the number of earthcaches found on the same day. I didn’t finish them though.
Relatively early to bed, because Kas was going to run back to the Bastille in the morning, so she wanted to be in the snoozy zone fairly early.
Driving from Vallon Pont d’Arc to Grenoble, a city I know from way back.
Packing Up, and Heading Off
We left Vallon Point d’Arc at about 10am after a very leisurely start to the day. Kas ducked out of running as it was a “moving” day and we hadn’t packed the night before. We made one final run down to the bakery to buy fresh pastries. Then we had a quick breakfast before packing everything up. We’d reached the stage of the holiday where we could segregate dirty clothes into separate suitcases. Having done some washing in Luz Saint Sauveur I think we were at about 50:50 still, so we were able to pack two of the suitcases entirely with dirty stuff and then leave them in the car.
On the way out of Vallon we took the northern road, which goes past the Caverne du Pont d’Arc on its way through Bourg-Saint-Andéol and then Pierrelatte on it’s way to the A7, which runs between Marseille and Lyon. We somehow managed to get lost by getting confused about a large blue line on the map. It was the river, but it didn’t appear to be so, and this is a confusing bit where the Rhône has two channels and we were expecting only one. So we lost a few minutes driving in the wrong direction and then recovering by driving along some distinctly rural routes.
Once we made it to the motorway we headed off pretty quickly to the north and made a short stop at some services near Montélimar. This allowed me to colour in the department of Drôme by finding the “only cache in the services” as well as grabbing some cold drinks and letting the kids run around in the playground and climb on the rope frame for a while.
From here it was quite a quick drive up to Valence and then it took another hour or so from there to get into Grenoble, our destination for the following three nights. We were all parked up and into our apartment by 2 pm, which was cool. Lunch was on the agenda next. We took a walk out to the nearby Caserne de Bonne shopping centre to see what we could see. We saw a place that did cold drinks and fries. They did other stuff too, but they weren’t required.
So, why go to Grenoble?
Grenoble might not seem like the most obvious of places to go at the end of a holiday, but a number of things influenced the decision. Firstly, we’d originally planned to go to Divonne-les-Bains, on the other side of Geneva, because there’s a parkrun there, but a few days before we set off we concluded that we were only planning to go there because of the parkrun – no other reason – and it didn’t feel like a good enough excuse to warrant three nights. Secondly, we’d been pretty much out in the countryside for a fortnight. We thought it might be good to finish off with a short city break. Thirdly, we’d sort of figured this was about as far away from Calais as we dare risk whilst still being confident of getting there in a single day.
Finally, and most importantly for me, Grenoble is a place I had ingrained in my memory. When I was a kid, one of the first trips I took abroad, and certainly the first I took abroad without my parents, was on a school exchange visit. Somehow the school I was at had come to an unlikely arrangement with the Lycée Stendhal whereby about 30 of our pupils visited them for a couple of weeks in the spring, and then a corresponding number of theirs would visit us in the summer term. It was back in the good old days when everybody was apparently trustworthy, so the sleeping arrangements involved each of us staying with a French family for the duration who had a child in the Stendhal.
I stayed with a wonderful family who I won’t name. It turns out that the family father was really rather famous within his sphere of work, although we never really discussed it while I was there. Anyway, my adoptive friend was a little younger than me and was their youngest child. At the time I was about 12, maybe 13. I can’t really remember what year it was. Either 1977 or 1978 the first time I went. I know the second time was 1980 and the third was 1982, but can’t remember the year of the first. I might even have been 1979 the first time, but I don’t think it was that late. Past history, anyway.
I still have quite vivid and very fond memories of the three trips I made to Grenoble. I spent a five or six-year period exchanging letters with my new friend. People don’t do that nowadays. A part of that gig was for both of us to practice our language skills, but to be honest I’m not sure how well I did on that front. The mother of the family spoke pretty much perfect English. Anyway, I remember very distinctly where they lived. And I remember the three tall white tower blocks that are still there. And finally I remember using the téléphérique to go up to the Bastille (more of that tomorrow).
The main thing that lodged in my memory, although the mental images had diminished somewhat, was the mountains. Since I last went to Grenoble I’d subsequently been skiing about 20 times and have visited several other mountainous locations. In my humble opinion, Grenoble gives the starkest contrast between mountainous country and urban living. The mountains are huge, especially on the eastern side where they rise up into the “proper” Alps of the Belledonne massif. I also remembered a pretty good old town centre. Grenoble’s old centre is small but perfectly formed. It looked very much like I remembered.
Settling in for the Night
Two things that definitely weren’t there last time I visited the city were the Caserne de Bonne Shopping Centre and geocaches. Kas took the girls for a walk around the former after we’d eaten lunch, while I wandered off to find some of the latter, thereby completing the department of Isère. This proved to be the final new department for the holiday, although far from the last caches of the holiday. We didn’t really have the time to stop in Rhône or Metropolis de Lyon on the final day, or at least we thought we didn’t, but we’d done enough to join up a circle with various departments we’d cached through in 2016 (see Chamonix). That looked good enough for me as far as this holiday was concerned.
Back at the non-caching activities, I met up with the girls again back at the apartment. We decided to find some dinner by just going out for a walk and seeing what came up.
A Surprise Meal
We walked down a few disappointingly empty streets before finding the rather excellent Cafe Quai d’Orsay on Rue Condorcet. They didn’t normally do food on a Thursday evening, but they did have a snacks menu. That’d probably do, so we thought we’d try it.
There was a brief discussion amongst the staff. Then a guy we assumed was the owner came forward and offered a selection of things that he could do without needing the chef to be there. OK, so I know that sounds like a really dodgy way to do anything. Nevertheless, the verbally-conveyed menu du jour included burgers and chips and carpaccio. That was more than plenty. Two each of those please. Guess who had which. It was really rather good, and was accompanied by a couple of equally nice beers. He managed to rustle up a couple of puddings for the girls too, which was even better. Sometimes when you go “random” like this on a holiday it can end up being rather a disappointment. Other times, like this one, it can be a bit of a gem.
It hadn’t been a particularly long day but we decided to go to bed fairly early anyway. Kas was off running in the morning at some godforsaken hour.
Why Avignon? In the grand scheme of cheesy, touristy things to do on holiday we had yet to achieve the heady heights last year’s trip to Italy. On that trip we ate bolognese in Bologna, we climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa, we toured central Turin paying homage to The Italian Job, we got fleeced in Venice, we got hot and sweaty in Florence and we went to Lake Como to find the villa used in the shooting of Attack of the Clones. That’s some cheesy stuff…..
The best we’d managed this year was Kas’s epic run over the Col du Tourmalet a week previously. That was epic but not very cheesy, because its fame is rather niche. So we needed some cheese, and we needed it quickly.
The best-looking option from Vallon Pont d’Arc looked like a trip down to Avignon so we could go sing the song and dance on the bridge.
We started the day, as ever, with Kas going for a run while the rest of us had breakfast. From there, we drove entirely cross-country to get down to Avignon, taking the car’s recommended route south-east through Bagnols-sur-Cèze. It was pleasant if a little slow. It took us an hour or so to get to Avignon. By the time we parked up it was more or less midday.
Elizabeth the Satnav had taken us to a very large car park by the side of the river. There were plenty of spaces and we were only a few hundred metres from the first target of the day. This was the old medieval bridge that’s the subject of the song and dance.
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tous en rond.
The Pont Saint Bénézet was originally planned to be a massive walkway crossing the entire Rhône, which has a couple of major branches here at Avignon. It’s really a very big river and it occupies a very large valley. One can imagine that back in the day, when river management wasn’t so great, that the entire valley floor would flood fairly regularly, thereby necessitating a bridge which spanned the whole valley. There are similar items throughout Europe, including one famous (locally where I grew up) at Swarkestone on the River Trent. The bridge at Avignon is somewhat bigger. Correction, it was somewhat bigger.
It isn’t so big now. As a strategic crossing point on the Rhône one of its primary purposes was obviously to allow the good denizens of the town to extract a few pennies each for use of the bridge. The history seems to say, however, that as a business enterprise it was a bit of a failure. This was mainly because every time there was a flood, one or more of the bridge piers collapsed. This meant the thing was probably never completed all the way across, and was in a constant state of rebuilding.
One more thing completely destroys the romantic image. The song and dance were originally performed beneath the bridge (“sous le pont”) rather than on top of it.
What remains of the bridge now is four arches on the town-side of the river, which is all very convenient because it means you can walk onto the old bridge without having to take a massive hike around to cross the river at any point. There’s a charge to get on the bridge, but it was a relatively modest one by French standards and it was possible to get a multi-buy discount that included the Palace of the Popes too. That was us all booked up for the day, then.
From the car park we walked along the side of the river, stopping for a geocache or two (new department – Vaucluse) and found our way to the bridge. We wandered around a bit before finding the way in – it involved going through the city walls and around the houses a bit. The approach from the city was quite easy, but from the riverside it took a couple of seconds of thought. The bridge itself was busy but not the worst place we’d been. It was at least possible to find breaks in the people-traffic to take a few photos. You can see from the photos that we were also having a cloudy day. Still warm and humid, but cloudy.
The Pope’s Gaff
After the bridge, we took the short walk through the town centre to the Palace of the Popes, where I wasted an uncomfortable amount of time searching for a geocache in a particularly dirty area before giving up and moving on to use the entrance tickets we’d bought at the bridge.
The palace was not quite what we were looking for in terms of entertainment. It’s a very grand building but inside it is basically airless. There’s not a huge amount of enclosed courtyard space that you can get to – the “paid for” zone consists mainly of two walking tours around different floors of the building. The first was quite short but we were a bit drained by the heat and lack of ventilation, so decided to see if we could just walk out.
You can’t just walk out. You have to walk around the whole of the second circuit to get to the exit. We proceeded to do that as fast as our legs would carry us, no doubt drawing disapproving looks from the museum-loving other visitors as we went. Bum to that! We were hot and bothered, and the Palace, impressive though it was, wasn’t helping with the hot-and-botheredness. The girls couldn’t even raise the energy for a half-hearted look around the gift shop.
Once back out in the open air, it was evidently ice cream o’clock. We stumbled across a very fine vendor of ice creams in a square just down from the Palace. These kept us company as we walked fairly slowly through the town and back to the car. The car was where I’d left it, which is always a bonus.
A Nice Evening Meal
The drive back home was pretty uneventful and we got back to the apartment in the late afternoon. The girls fancied a quick dip in the pool, so we let them do that. Meanwhile I went to check the leaving procedure and Kas went over the road to check that the nice-looking restaurant was open in the evening. It was, and she booked us a table.
The restaurant proved to be one of the best of the holiday. It was very pleasant to sit outside in a garden restaurant surrounded by trees. For once there weren’t many insects, so we weren’t getting bitten. We took our time and enjoyed the evening. The check-out time was quite late, so we were in no particular rush to get home and pack bags. That could all wait until the morning.
Today turned out to be a bit of a “couldn’t be bothered” day. It’s not that we did nothing, it’s just that the things we did didn’t add up to much. A day of chillin’, as it were.
I started (again) with a solo trip to the only boulangerie in the village while everyone else was asleep, or at least in bed. We had a bit of an in-and-out breakfast, with various members of the family coming and going at seemingly random intervals, but eventually we’d all done with it and had progressed into the “getting ready” phase.
The girls wanted a bit of beach action, especially after we’d totally failed to dip our toes in the Mediterranean on Saturday, and whilst kayaking on the previous day we’d passed a man-made beach right underneath the Pont d’Arc. It was the best we were going to get.
The beach in question was serviced by a car park that was, how can I put it, designed for parking rather than driving. Since I swapped the motor I’ve been somewhat more cautious when parking. I’ve been used to sitting high up, having high ground clearance, and having tyres that would quite literally make the Michelin Man look like he needed to go on a crash diet of bacon sandwiches. All of this meant I was quite relaxed about where I was prepared to try to drive that car. It would go over the top of most things.
Not so with the new one. Having driven it several thousand miles over the course of the summer I am now thoroughly convinced it’s worth every penny when it comes to cruising, but when it comes to parking in non-urban locations it’s not really at home. It’s lower down, the ground clearance isn’t great, the tyres are like strips of liquorice and the front of the bonnet is in a different time zone to the driver’s seat. All in all, I have rediscovered my liking for long and wide parking spaces on tarmac.
The place down by the Pont d’Arc wasn’t like that. From the driver’s seat it looked bumpy and the drop off the tarmac of the road onto the gravel of the car park looked like I’d be hearing the horrible sound of metal on stone. In the event, we got in and out without incident, but this was one of several occasions on the holiday where I wished we’d flown somewhere and rented a car.
Down on the Beach
Once we’d parked up, Kas took the girls down to the beach while I wandered off for the daily geocache. Well, two, to be honest. It might have been four, but one was evidently not there and for another I went to the lengths of scaling a dodgy path halfway up a cliff into a cave, only to find that I couldn’t find the cache. D’oh!
Down on the beach the girls were chillin’, so I decided to join them for a while. They went swimming, which is something I do my best to avoid, so I played the old “look after the bags” card as a way of craftily avoiding the need to get wet. Anyway, I wasn’t wearing my cozzy.
Back at the car I asked if we could walk around to do a few more geocaches on the condition that we stopped at the cafe we’d have to pass and grab an ice cream. There was a look of displeasure on the kids’ faces until we mentioned the ice cream. I correct myself. There was a look of displeasure on the kids’ faces until we’d actually bought the ice creams. It had been a while since they’d eaten or drunk anything, I guess.
The cafe in question was a roadside one close to the arch and next to the entrance to the “other” car park. The other car park wasn’t surfaced any better than the one we were in. It also included the opportunity to part with some money. Anyway, the caches on this phase were all present and correct apart from the last one. This was another job that involved clambering up a cliff towards a cave. It wasn’t obvious from the hint where the cache should be, so after 5 minutes or so I wrote it off and moved on.
A Night on the Town
For the evening we went out again into Vallon Pont d’Arc. It was busy. It was market day. Sunday’s moderate collection of souvenir stalls was now a full-on tat-fest. Some of the normal shops put stalls outside during the evening, and those ones were generally OK. There were a lot of vendors of utter cack, though. Apparently there’s a market (ha ha) for that kind of thing, so it was busy.
We tried one of the restaurants we’d looked at on Sunday night, but after getting say down we eventually got bored of waiting. They didn’t bring menus and they didn’t clear and clean the table we’d been given. It got so bad that we got up and left without ordering anything. We weren’t impatient. I think the 15 minutes we waited was a reasonable amount of time in which to deliver menus. Anyway, bum to that. A day of chillin’ shouldn’t be ruined this way.
So we walked about 40 yards down the road and went into another place we’d looked at on Sunday. They didn’t have seats outside, which meant going inside to what was a pretty basic looking cafe. However the menu had some things that weren’t pizza. They also provided us with menus pretty much as soon as we sat down. By this time it was getting quite late, so we weren’t in the mood for another long wait.
The food proved to be pretty good. I had some grilled prawns and Kas had a salad while the girls had pasta, or pizza, or burgers. I can’t really remember, but if I risk those three I’ve got a 95% chance of being right.
While we were in the restaurant we bounced a few ideas about what to do tomorrow, and the consensus was to go for a look at Avignon because, well, why not.
Kas drove home and by the time we got there, it was well past snooze o’clock.
After a relaxing day the day before, we decided it would be a good day for something more active. Some canoeing, in fact.
Before we got around to doing that, we had a team breakfast. Kas didn’t go for a run because she was too tired. We sat around the outside table with some fresh breads and pastries from the only shop in the village. We were generally contemplating our state of being before heading off for the main event.
One of the reasons we’d come to this area was that the previous year, whilst watching the Tour de France, we’d seen some overhead shots of the race passing through the Ardèche Gorge. There’d been one shot of kayakers passing beneath the Pont d’Arc. We fancied having a go at that. I mean, why not…
Kas had, on a previous run, noticed the cluster of kayak places just in the village of Vallon Pont d’Arc. We decided just to head over there and see what was what. We didn’t expect to be able to get going straight away. You normally have to book stuff in the busy summer season. But the first place we went to offered reasonable rates and could accommodate us straight away. Fair enough. We had to pick up our life jackets and “stuff buckets” before moving down to the customer parking area. That seemed a bit weird, but I digress.
The weather was warm, so we weren’t quite sure what to take with us. We guessed it would stay warm enough to not need jumpers or much else in the way of other clothes. We stuffed towels and drinks into the buckets and made our way around to the actual canoes. We’d bought a package involving 2 boats seating 2 people each. We’d notionally got 2 hours to progress our 8km down the river. That would allow us an hour and a half to chill in the river before getting their bus back home.
All of the places just here basically do packages where you paddle downstream only underneath the Pont d’Arc. Once we were in the water, we understood why. There are two main reasons. Firstly it’s really busy, and secondly, there are rapids that you’d never be able to paddle up.
To avoid repeating the mistake I made in the Lake District in June, I made sure the boats we got had backrests for the seats – in June I’d got one without a backrest (they didn’t offer me one) and because I’m a bit on the portly side and don’t do enough sit-ups, I found it virtually impossible to use the canoe because it’s like sitting upright on the floor with your feet in front of you. This requires stomach muscles, and mine aren’t very strong.
Anyway, back at the plot, the included backrests in the price. Ami buddied up with me in one canoe and Kas shared the other with Izzy. This fixed a further problem that we encountered in Catalonia a couple of years back (see Kayaking). On that day we’d tried to even out the total muscle power in each boat by having Ami and Kas in one and me and Izzy in the other. The problem with that line up was that the weight difference. Mine and Izzy’s boat was sloping a bit. So much that Izzy could barely get her paddle down into the water.
So this time we went for the most even distribution of weight in each canoe. The two heaviest in one boat and the two lightest in the other. That should at least mean that the canoes were sitting flat in the water. As we are right now that means Ami and I were sharing.
I think we got the hang of the paddling quite quickly. I was at the back so to some extent I was able to counteract Ami’s unbalanced use of the paddle by just going the opposite way to her. Neither of us is great at the game and both of us are strongly right-handed. It took us a while to figure out how to go straight. It seemed to take Kas and Izzy a bit longer to figure it out though. Ami and I were also going faster most of the time.
The river level was really low, and in most places you could easily have jumped out and walked no more than knee-deep. There’s more water in the spring and late autumn, apparently. Anyway, there’s also quite a lot of rocks in the way, which make for rapids. Some of those were a bit narrow and shallow, others had a proper “log flume” moment.
Before we’d got into the boats they’d advised us of just two things about the rapids. Firstly, pick a straight line and go at it with confidence and speed. Secondly, if you fall out, it’s best to let the water float you down to a calmer bit and then pick up all your stuff, rather than trying to stand up in the fast-flowing water. That’s what they told us, anyway.
We were all doing just fine and dandy until Ami and I had what I’ll generously describe as a loss of communication when entering one of the sets of rapids. We didn’t decide which gap we were going to paddle straight and fast through. As a result, we ended up side-on with a rock against the side of the canoe. The water was flowing around both sides of the rock, but where we ended up we were pretty much beached and couldn’t get off it again. We managed to tip our canoe over whilst trying to free it.
Hmmm! Riding the rapids out proved to be difficult because the water wasn’t actually deep enough to ride. My knees were immediately on the bottom, as were Ami’s, and for a brief moment, we were also underneath the boat.
We got out quickly enough but were pretty much stuck. The boat wouldn’t move, and we couldn’t get a solid enough footing to push it or turn it back over again. Thankfully we weren’t too proud to accept extra hands from a nice woman who was wading in the river just below us. She walked up and gave the canoe a good tug, which at least dislodged it enough that it moved down a bit into some actual water.
This allowed us to turn it over and collect all the paddles before getting back on top again. And off we went, over the next run of rapids and into a calmer bit, where we accelerated along to catch up with Kas and Izzy, who’d shot across that set of rapids without a hitch.
So Ami and I got totally soaked, and our stuff bucket leaked a bit, so two towels and one phone got a bit of a splashing, but otherwise we were none the worse. Funnily enough, we mastered the art of running the rapids after that and we managed to put in two or three real sterling efforts that probably looked really good from a distance.
The Pont d’Arc
Not too long after the dunking we reached the Pont d’Arc, and they’ve supplemented the natural slip-off slopes thereby adding some beach-worthy sand on one side. On the other side is a big pebbly beach which is pretty easy to get a canoe up to, so that’s where we went. We’d been going a while, so we deserved a break and a drink, probably. It allowed me to dry out my phone, and re-pack the stuff buckets. We put all the wet stuff in one, and all the dry stuff in the other.
After 15 minutes or so, during which the girls both decided to swim in the river under the arch, we jumped back onto the canoes to finish our stint. The river below the arch is much easier to paddle than above it, It’s mainly flat, smooth flowing. No rapids. So Ami and me shot off into the distance and periodically stopped for a breather while Kas and Izzy caught up.
We landed at our destination at about 1:50, having taken 2 hours and 20 minutes to make our way down the 8km of paddling. At the end there wasn’t really a beach for chilling at, and nor were there any useful facilities like toilets or a cafe. We just jumped on the first bus back, because were wet. Anyway, the girls wanted to finish the afternoon in the pool rather than the river.
A Bit of Geocaching
As we were in the period of the year where Groundspeak offers incentives to new cachers in the form of pictorial souvenirs, I was kind of obliged to go out and find a geocache to keep the required one-week run going. After doing most of the caches in the village the previous day I’d left one traditional on the river bridge just down from our village, and there was also an earthcache there.
The traditional was in place and the earthcache was both easy and interesting. It was all about the flooding of the river and the geological and climatic conditions that cause it. It was alongside a bridge over the river. One of the tasks was to go find the height markers on the bridge pillars that are used to measure floods. While we were there the river was maybe 1m deep and the bridge deck was a good 16m clear of the water.
In the late 1800’s they had the biggest ever recorded flood at the site. At that time there was a different bridge, and it was higher up than the current one. The water level came all the way up to the underside of the deck, so the river has risen from 1m depth to about 20m. And because the surrounding land is a flat flood plain, the river expanded from 30m to 900m. This means that the village we were staying in would have been flooded. Madder than a sack of monkeys. The photos here illustrate just how much of a flood it was.
When I got back to the apartment it was most definitely beer o’clock. Kas and I retired to the bar and sank a couple of cold ones whilst wondering if it was time to drag the kids out of the pool yet. We called them out at one point for a cool drink and a few crisps.
We’d sort of decided to go to the nice-looking restaurant over the road, so we weren’t hurrying. When we arrived though, we discovered Monday was their night off. Having already had a beer or two that meant our options were now rather limited. We tried walking along the main road, where we’d noticed a couple of bars. Sadly they were all attached to one or other of the camping venues – not really “restaurants” as such.
We made it all the way over the river bridge before deciding that we were going to walk all the way into town, but also that we weren’t likely to find a nice restaurant any time soon. Monday seemed generally to be their day off.
So we walked all the way back again and camped at pretty much the first place we’d passed. They did pizzas. It turned out that they did quite good pizzas, and they also did beer. So that’s what we had. I had mine later than everyone else because they forgot to put it in the oven. We weren’t in a rush and it’s not like there was anywhere else we could go. Anyway, it was nearly 9 pm by the time we arrived there. It was a pleasant place to sit for an hour watching the world go by.
A Slow Start
Our first full day in Salavas started off (for me) rather slowly. This was, sadly, as a result of having had too many beers too quickly the night before.
Kas went out to Intermarche in Vallon Pont d’Arc to get some provisions and came back wishing she’d taken someone with her. Not because of the shopping, but because the car park has a barrier to stop non-customers from parking there. The barrier was designed for someone with a left-hand drive car, and our cars aren’t.
By the time she came back she needed a break. I would say we had breakfast as a family, but we didn’t. Various members of the collective drifted in and out without there ever being four of us. It was a pleasant environment though. The apartment was on the first floor and had an outdoor terrace. This had a table big enough for us to sit and eat, and it had a big sunshade. The apartment block was rigged up so that all the apartments looked out to the back, and hence looked out over their gardens and the pool area. The weather was warm again.
After breakfast there was a general lack of enthusiasm followed by a wave of apathy. Eventually we decided that the girls were going to laze around by the pool. This meant I could go and do the handful of geocaches in the village. There were supposedly five, spread over the whole village, which meant I’d probably need an hour or more to do them.
A Bit of Geocaching
The first one involved a walk right around the edge of the village heading East – a short walk along a country lane. At the end of the village I turned back in and found the first cache before walking into the oldest part of the village. I’m not sure whether the village is traditional, you would assume that it is, but the overall effect was really rather lovely. It’s composed of narrow streets with buildings made from limestone blocks that come right up to the edge of the street. Some have been “done up” to look quite clean but most were what you might describe as shabby chic.
The second cache was an easy find at the church and then the third proved a little more tricky. Salavas hosts an open-air market on a Sunday morning, and the next cache was right in the middle of it, next to a cheese stall. It took me a little while to interpret the hint, and once I had, I then had to haver around and wait a while until the stallholder went off to talk to someone. I was then able to make a quick smash-and-grab raid for the cache.
The next one was up next to some Roman ruins on the other side of town from our apartment. Another easy find. This was followed by a pleasant stroll along a narrow lane halfway up the side of the hill, which had some nice views back over the valley and the village. The final cache was supposedly next to a well. This one took me ages as I didn’t explore the meaning of the hint in enough depth. Two French lads walked by and asked me if I knew how to get back into Salavas. I showed them my map (on the GPS) in exchange for them confirming my interpretation of the hint. I was about to give in but had one more look, whereupon I spotted the cache hanging in a place I’d been into at least four times already. D’oh!
A Bit More Geocaching
When I got back to the apartment there was still a general lack of enthusiasm. I suggested we go for a little walk over to the market to see if we could buy anything interesting for lunch. Sadly though, by the time we got there the market was just finishing packing up, so we went back home again. There was still a general lack of enthusiasm, so I took the bull by the horns and drove down to Barjac, about 10 km away, to complete a cache in the Department of Gard. We’d driven straight through here on the previous evening when we were a bit tight for time.
Barjac is bigger than Salavas by some way, and seems very typically middle-French. I parked in a grassy field reserved for tourists (on busy days),. It was empty. From here I walked up through the village to a terrace next to the town hall. There was a very easy find there. Once I’d completed Gard the caching map of France was starting to look nearly like a complete loop.
On the way home from Barjac I tried to stop for a couple more caches. One was successful, but the other, in Vagnas, was not so. It was supposedly a micro somewhere in an ivy-covered stone wall. I think it was probably a fake snail. I probably spend 30 minutes before giving in.
A Night on the Town
Back at the apartment, there was still a general lack of enthusiasm.
We planned to go out into Vallon Pont d’Arc for the evening, parking in the same place that we had done the previous night. When we got into town and noticed it was full of market stalls the kids’ enthusiasm increased a little bit. We wandered around for a while looking for a restaurant that everyone was happy with. Eventually, we settled for a nice table inside one which did some very nice burgers.
On the way back to the car the girls indulged in a bit of souvenir hunting. And that was all we managed for the day. Back to Salavas we go.
An Early Start
When we set off, we’d been thinking we might toy with the idea of going to do a parkrun at Toulouse, but once we arrived in Luz Saint Sauveur it became apparent we could forget that idea. The apartment block wanted a formal check on the morning of our departure prior to returning our deposit. The reception didn’t open until 8 am. So a painful early start changed to an infeasible one.
We still had a long way to travel, though. We aimed to get downstairs on the stroke of 8 am and get the first slot in the departure game. We got up at 6:30 and got on with loading up the car, finishing the cleaning, and dumping rubbish and laundry in the relevant place.
We’d apparently done enough to get our deposit back. After that, the checkout was fairly efficient, and we were off at about 8:05. So far so good, then.
The First Stretch
We took the road down the valley and through Lourdes and Tarbes and then headed east on the motorway towards Toulouse. Before we got there we stopped for some breakfast at the Aire de Comminges. We tried to do a geocache there too, to keep the “colouring in” streak going. We couldn’t find it at first, which was annoying. We retired for some breakfast. Whilst sitting there I delved more deeply into the geocache description and found some spoiler photos. D’oh! How did we miss that?
Kas took over the driving here, and managed to negotiate us successfully around Toulouse and on the way toward Narbonne before the day started to go a bit pear-shaped. We found roadworks. And then we found a crash, and a big queue, and then more roadworks. The drive from Toulouse to Narbonne took maybe 90 minutes more than it should. Painful in every way. This kind of set us behind schedule for the rest of the day. We stopped for a geocache and changed drivers near Carcassonne, but didn’t stay long.
Not the Seaside
We’d promised the girls the possibility of having a quick plodge in the Mediterranean, so we fought our way through the minging traffic all the way to Montpellier before jumping off the motorway to head for the beach at Palavas-les-Flots. The plan was to park up, plodge on the beach for half an hour, grab an ice-cream and a geocache, and then move on. Unfortunately, plans rarely happen. We couldn’t find anywhere to park, and after half an hour we had to give up because we’d got an appointment in the evening that was time-dependent. So we didn’t stop. We stopped for a cache on the way out of town. I couldn’t find that either, so we just left. We swapped drivers again while we were musing, so Kas was in the hot seat again.
We needed to stop at the Aire d’Ambrussum to get more fuel and take a comfort break, and there was a geocache in the car park, so we stopped for a bit to sort ourselves our. It had been busy all day and we were starting to get a bit sick of it. While we were there, we grabbed some McDonalds to eat too.
Heading off the Grid
From here to our endpoint the sat nav thought it was going to take half an hour more than the amount of time we’d actually got. That wasn’t good. We took a second opinion by checking with Captain Google. He said we were OK, just, but only if we went the way he said. As we were short of time, we also decided not to stop for any more geocaches. That left us with a gap in the “colouring-in” chart, to be rectified on another day.
The route that Captain Google suggested involved driving to Nîmes and then cross-country up to Alès. We followed google to the letter, all the while watching how the changes of route were making the car’s satnav come more into line. We eventually reached our destination town of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc at just the right time (6:30 pm). We found a car park and pushed our way through some crowded streets. We found the event at a small square with a covered seating area. I’d noticed the event some weeks earlier and promised to try to get to it. The event was only open for half an hour, so timing was important. We made it to the event but it was pretty obvious the girls didn’t want to be there. I did a quick traditional cache around the corner and we said our goodbyes to go and find our apartment.
We’d originally booked in an expensive hotel along the road out towards the Ardèche Gorge, but a few days before leaving home we’d thought that spending five days in a single room (and having to go out to eat all the time) would be too painful. We therefore changed it, and moved to a small apartment complex over in Salavas, just south of the river.
It proved to be a small family-run affair. It had a totally different approach to the commercial skiing place in Luz. We didn’t need to pay until we left, and they were willing to trust. We didn’t have to clean up the flat before leaving and the swimming pool stayed open until “Meh! When we switch the lights off.” They also had a bar that was open more or less all day, so as we were too tired to do anything strenuous, the girls jumped in the pool while Kas and I sat in the bar with a beer and some crisps. When the girls had done in the pool (i.e. when we told them to come out) they had an ice cream from the fridge in the bar.
The apartment was quite small but the bathroom was nice and whilst there wasn’t much room, it was pretty comfortable. Comfort was good, because we hit the beds like four proverbial sacks of potatoes.
After yesterday’s less than complete walk, I suggested today that we have a go at somewhere which, on the face of it, seemed relatively relaxed and not strenuous. I thought we might have a go at the Cirque de Gavarnie, on the basis that it’s one of the most perfectly circular and spectacular examples of this particular geomorphological feature in Europe. The fact that it was 20 minutes away had some effect too, obviously.
We got up and had a leisurely breakfast while Kas was out running. Eventually we left the house still fairly early, around 10am.
The cirque is up at the top end of one of the valleys that run into Luz Saint Sauveur, and the road up there proved to be pretty well surfaced and fairly wide. It was also covered in cyclists, but that was true of everywhere we went in the Pyrenees. We were getting used to it by now.
The village of Gavarnie is a small settlement that is big on the whole “outdoor activity” theme and is also fairly well catered for as far as car parking is concerned. In fact, the car parks are massive, and I can only surmise that this is because the walk to the cirque is one of the famous “must do” things in the area, much like walking up Helvellyn would be in the English Lake District. They may be massive, but mid-morning on a sunny day in summer, they are still full. Getting full, anyway.
On the way up the valley I’d got myself into the middle of what turned out to be a group of four cars that were with each other (I didn’t realise it at the time). Anyway, everyone was going to the same place. I ended up parking second spot in a run of five cars. The occupants in the four-car big group seemed oblivious to the fact that we weren’t in their group. One of their teenage members started peering into the back of my car and seemed just about to pick out one of the sets of walking boots. Seriously dude? I think we made the point eventually without too much argy-bargy.
I started up my GPS (of course, because there were geocaches on the way). It said that the head of the walk, or the foot of the cirque, was about 3.6km away. The first of those was though the village. We strolled through in the rather warm conditions, looking for provisions. We found a supermarket, so Ami and I filled the bags up with cold drinks and biscuits while the other two found a toilet.
The walk to the cirque appeared to be fairly flat on the map, especially compared to the previous day, and for the first two thirds it certainly was. All the way out you can see the very impressive and substantial back wall of the cirque getting gradually larger. It looks big from the village. It gets amazing as you approach.
Up the Cirque
As you can see from the photo, the walk up was along a fairly wide and well-travelled path. It eventually leads into a bunch of trees which completely hid the start of some relatively steep uphill. And then you break out onto a big open paved area and a cafe, which we weren’t expecting. The girls waited for me here while I ran up the side of a cliff to find a geocache. As you do.
When I came back we had a brief discussion about what we wanted to do. The girls opted to go plodge in the stream in the bottom of the valley. I opted for one more earthcache, that involved walking right up to the foot of the waterfall on the edge of the cirque.
The walk up was supposedly a mile or so, but what I’d neglected to account for was the underfoot conditions. It started off as a reasonable mountain path. Closer to the back wall of the cirque it was basically loose and rather unstable rock. It was like walking up a sand dune only with bigger lumps. Every step involved pushing some rocks down behind me.
It took me a while to reach the point required for the earthcache. A part of that involved waiting for the GPS to figure out where it was. I was surrounded by a 600m high and nearly circular cliff. The GPS could only find satellites that were straight above me. If the way up there was rough, the way back down was positively tricky. Having your feet slip away behind you whilst climbing isn’t so bad. Having your feet slide away in front of you is quite disturbing.
Enough of That
Once back on terra firma I met up with the ladies back at the cafe and we retired for some ice cream, water and coffee. It was reasonably priced given the location, and we sat for a while resting our achy legs.
The walk back was done with reasonable speed but also a fair amount of moaning due to aching feet.
The car was where I’d left it (which is good), and we were soon back down to the apartment and preparing for our evening. We needed to wash a few clothes, which worked all fine apart from some oik deciding to take our stuff out of the machine and just dump it on the floor.
Urban Cycle Racing, and Some Really Good Food
While we were getting ready there were large amounts of cyclists turning up in the apartment block. There was an event in the village on Friday evening and it seemed most of them were stopping overnight at our place. The event meant that many of the roads were closed off to cars from about 6 pm so that the cyclists could get to it. More circular stuff, but on bikes.
We didn’t actually spend any time watching them, as a result of the fact that we had a reservation at the “Chez Christine” restaurant – the place we’d failed to get into on Saturday night and where I’d suffered the grumps on Wednesday too. Kas has made a reservation for Friday night and we duly arrived for our date.
It was probably the best restaurant we went to in Luz aside from the fact that they were very busy. It’s Italian in style and we split a selection of pizzas and kinds of pasta between us. I think I had a risotto with chicken and mushrooms. It was well nice. For pudding the girls gorged on their usual things while I ordered a plate of cheeses. Mmmm! Cheese. And port.
We’d done much of the packing before going out. When we got back the girls did a bit more packing while Kas and I did some cleaning. The apartment was one of those places where you pay a deposit against damages and they check prior to departure whether you’re good to go. You could pay €85 to have them clean for you, but that seemed a little excessive. All we really had to do was to sweep the floors and brush the khazi. It was obvious that they sent cleaners in anyway before anyone else arrived, so I guess they were really looking to make sure you hadn’t done a dirty protest or smashed all the furniture. We hadn’t.