And we’re off! Only a few hours later than planned – giving us a couple of hours to nap on the tranquil Marine Parade at Dover before making our way, bleary eyed, through border control at 3am (secretly I think they only stopped us to admire the interior of the van!)
My first experience of driving on the right (WRONG) side of the road was at 6am (7am in France) on <2 hours of sleep! I don’t think I did too bad a job.
Under hail and rain, we meandered South along country roads, going to and fro across the Belgium border and passing cemetery after cemetery: lines of white crosses from World War 1. Eventually we joined the main roads (dumping our dysfunctional Sat-Nav for a much improved route on the Android Here app) and around lunch time were distracted by a sign for Jenlain, a village where, fortunately, one of Kieran’s favourite beers is made! After 25cl of a delicious Jenlain Ambrée and brief visit to the Brasserie (brewery), we sped down through to Champagne.
For miles and miles around all we could see were endless fields of grape vines, the branches tied down flat as if bending under strong wind. We passed through villages where nearly every building would have a plaque denoting the champagne producer who lived there. Chamery was one such village and where we stayed the night.
We spent a day in Chamery – cycling up past the vineyards and into the Parc naturel régional de la Montagne de Reims. I’m not sure about Montagne…was more like a hill. The forest made a refreshing change to the endless vines. Where we were parked (on the edge of Chamery) was so exposed, it made finding a toilet spot a bit challenging…!
The road to Dijon, softly undulating at first, got steadily hillier, leaving the champagne fields behind to make way for more green forest. It was a long but pleasant drive and we rolled down into the city early evening. Turns out that the motorhome Aire was not free (or even cheap) but we found a car park for the nearby Lac Kir. It was the only one without a 2m high entrance and ‘no motorhome’ signs, and a bonus: a toilet 2 mins walk away (Woop! trowl not needed!).
The spot was idyllic but our sleep was much disturbed by a busy adjacent road and railway…and we were greeted in the morning by what seemed to be the entire Dijon men’s beachball team arriving in the car park. Oui, the lake even had it’s own ‘plage’.
I wasn’t expecting much from the city – but was pleasantly impressed! We followed the ‘owl trail’ – a series of arrow plaques along the ground with owls on them – to see towering cathedrals with gothic architecture and brightly patterned roof tiles, a huge bustling market, a moutarderie (mustard shop!), a Roman chapel, and cobbled little streets lined with timber framed medieval-style houses. The unusual melange of architecture was fascinating, and we did stretch the budget to buy Dijon mustard 🙂
We left Dijon in search of a quieter spot for the night. After taking a wrong turning up a very steep road (van groaning at 10 mph with a long queue behind) we reached a village near the top of ‘Mont Afrique’ called Corcelles-les-Monts. It turned out to be a rather fortunate mistake, with glorious views over Dijon and the foresty Jura mountains to the East.
The following day (after a much quieter night), we journeyed further south, the hills quickly turning into forest covered mountains. It was a clear, beautiful day (perfect for the boules tournament we passed in one village) and as we approached Grenoble we had postcard perfect views of the snow-capped mountains: the Rhône-Alpes!
We parked in the Aire at Sassenage for the night – which was lucky as it was completely full of enormous camper vans by nightfall (this is April! Imagine what it would be like in peak season). I was often taken by surprise whenever I looked up to see mountains through the trees around us! It was very surreal.
The heavens opened overnight and despite our best efforts to fix the illusive leaks in the van, the cab had filled up with puddles (gah!). So we spent the morning moping a bit before leaving the soggy van to walk up the Gorges du Furon. The waterfalls and glittering pools on our gorge path were listed in my wild swimming book – and did look sorely tempting – if not for the chill in the air (and new snowfall on the lower mountains around us). We also hunted down a fairy castle we had glimpsed earlier with its turrets poking out of the dense forest.
Later on we rode our bikes along the cycle path beside the river Isère to Grenoble. We were slightly underwhelmed by the city (except for the omnipresent cycle lanes), but the surrounding scenery was lovely!
On the last leg of our journey we said goodbye to the snowy peaks and set out along the stunning mountain roads. We sped up and down vertiginous slopes and hurtled round hairpin bends, the torrential rain turning to snow as we climbed higher. When driving through the craggy, green landscape we passed an immense rock formation not unlike the great cracked pillars of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm (except with the remnants of an old stone building upon one). Unfortunately we didn’t have time to take a picture so Lord of The Rings fans will have to use their imagination! We also passed through the commune of Sisteron, which sits narrowly between two mountain ridges and as such is also known as the “Gateway to Provence”. The ominous Rocher de la Baume dominates its mountain side, with haunting caverns looming over the petite houses and shops.
Suddenly we were driving above the magnificent Lac de Sainte-Croix and then the GORGEOUS (sorry) Gorges du Verdon! It is utterly and continually gobsmacking what Nature has carved out of the elements over millions of years, through fracturing, depositing and moulding rock which twists and turns into pulsating veins of layered white, amber and blue-grey limestone, yawning caverns clothed in canopies of green, and at the bottom, the Verdon, once upon a time an unstoppable glacial fist, now a sliver of turquoise snaking along the valley.
Next time: our Workaway adventures in Verdon with llama walking, vulture spotting, canyoning and more…