Monday, 30 September 2013

Contursi Terme...

Setting off from Diego's place on the side of Mount Etna was a difficult task.

I personally could have spent a long time there. I would sit and imagine what such a place would be like if I had all of my friends there around me. It all felt so free... liberal. But it was time to move on and we headed for the port of Messina to cross the short 20 minute ferry and land on Mainland Italy.

We drove up the A3 motorway, headed North, destined for Kerry's Grandfather's house. Kerry's family have deep seated roots in a small town called Contursi. Her Grandfather moved from Italy to Horsham just before Kerry's Mother and siblings were born, leaving behind an old farmhouse, nestled on the side of a small mountain.

The roadworks and tunnels on the motorway were both plentiful and suspect. Some tunnels lacked any lighting what so ever. Stalactites hung down from the top of the arch where water had managed to seep through. Most of the time the road was narrowed to one lane with small, 2 dimensional cones marking out the route. The seismic activity around the Dolomite range of mountains coupled with strong rains had caused tremendous damage to the infrastructure, washing away some of the road.

There are no road tolls in the Southern part of the country. The people live very much hand to mouth with little money. An agreement was made whereby the southern parts are helped out by the more affluent people of the North with regards to road tolls and other taxes. I found it quite incredible to learn that the Italian GDP had surpassed that of Great Britain in early 2012. Especially as I was driving through landscapes where people lived in basic accommodation and ran 25 - 30 year old Fiat Pandas down roads as potholed as some rally tracks.
Artisan checkers board! (might have enjoyed making it more than playing on it

The ironic thing is whenever I logged in to my Facebook I'd see huge threads of people complaining about how long a section of roadworks had been installed on a road near my hometown. If these people could experience these roads I'm sure their internet whinging would go through the roof! Sometimes people don't know when they have it good.

We enjoyed a pleasant lunch in a roadside cafe for under 5 Euros and set out on the last hundred miles to Contursi. Pulling off of the motorway and we were met with huge cracks in the road, causing steps of up to a foot deep. It was quite amazing to think the earth around here moved enough to cause these cracks.

We were met with alot of stares as we pulled in to town, immediately finding ourselves driving through the town square with, what seemed like, every resident sat around chatting or smoking. We headed up the main street and were met by a very old lady waving as she lept from a small Fiat Cinquecento with its horn blaring.

"Follow me... come come... you come my house!"

Kerry recognised the lady as her Great Auntie, sister of her Grandad, Zia (auntie) Maria. The driver of the car was her son, Kerry's second uncle, Mario.

The whole experience was very bizarre, to be driving through a quaint little Italian town and be instantly recognised and welcomed in to someones home. We followed the little green car for a few miles until we pulled in to the drive of a single story house belonging to Maria. We were showered in all sorts of foods and lovely fresh cafeteria style coffee only rural Italians know how to make.

It turns out Maria was expecting us. Kerry's Grandad, Vito, had telephoned to say we would be in Italy around this time and she took great pleasure in calling Vito in Horsham to let him know we arrived safe.

After a light lunch/dinner with Maria we drove across town to Vito's farmhouse to settle in for the week. The house itself is fairly basic. Of concrete construction, the interior was sparsely furnished with no plumbed gas and low grade electrics. It did, however, have running hot running water and a washing machine so we were in our element!

After our experience on the Vollo del Angelo (Flight of the Angel) the week was a very relaxed affair. The house is set on the side of a large hill and surrounded by arable land that Vito allows relatives and local farmers to use to heard their livestock and plant their crops. One lazy afternoon I was building a fire out near one of the fields and watched a shepherd at work. I didn't think there were such things as shepherds anymore. Not since baby Jesus graced his way on to the Earth. Yet here I was, watching a bloke watching sheep. For HOURS.

The abundance of wildlife was also quite incredible. Upon opening the front door to leave the house there was a disorientating amount of movement from and in every direction as loads of green lizards scurried for cover from their concrete sunbeds. They can stick to anything with their claws. Even scuttling along the ceiling upside down!

Kerry came face to face with a huge wasp type creature after hanging her PJs outside to dry in the sun. It was a strange flying beast about the size of a hornet but instead of having black and yellow marking was entirely black. Even it's wings were black instead of the usual translucent. It stung her 4 times in the leg before expiring on the floor. Luckily there was no adverse reaction!

Every evening brought a thunder storm and the rain would lash down. It was still very hot though. The storm would roll around the valley outside of the house, sometimes for hours, spitting out huge cracks of lightning and rumbling the windows. Storms are so much more massive and violent on the continent.

After a week of relaxing, reading, painting and soaking up the sun we were set to move North and in to the hustle and bustle of cities.

Thursday, 26 September 2013


The drive to the ferry terminal at Genoa, Italy wasn't particularly far distance wise but the journey seemed to take a long time. All the way the creaking and clunking noises from under the front of the van got louder and louder.

The work that had been done had not cured any of the noises. It had cost us in parts, labour at the garage as well as getting the gyometry done, which doesn't feel like its been done correctly, and we had to move the ferry crossing from Genoa to Palermo by 3 days for the extra sum of €90. And all for nothing.

To say I was annoyed was an understatement. I do expect our vehicle to have some teething problems. Its nearly as old as me. But I also expect a mechanic to diagnose and fix the problems. Instead of apparently pluck a solution out of the air and send me packing after doing the work.

The ferry journey definately was a long one! 20 hours in a seat slightly bigger than an aircraft seat. Granted we could walk around the boat but sleeping was tricky. We did look at getting a cabin for the journey but it was €200 more! Thats a meal out in London for two with a hotel at the end as well! We were on a ferry where the cabaret pianist singer wore sunglasses... inside! 

Arriving on Sicily just after dark we decided to drive a little but to save most of the driving for the next day so we could see the scenery. We drove right through the middle of Sicily which took on a strange terrain of semi-mountainous yet fairly fertile fields. Most of which had just been freshly ploughed.

We had directions to get to a farm run by Diego and pulled in to the near vertical track, leading to the farm perched on the eastern side of Mount Etna, at around midday.

The farm was beautiful, stretching up in to the hillside like a vine up a tree. We were introduced to Diego's girlfriend Cinzia, his business partner and girlfriend as well as a long term woofer who had her Mother visiting. They lived communially except for individual bedroom buildings. 

Every day we gathered round for lunch and dinner either outside on the terraced garden or in the communial space in the old winery. Diego had painstakingly restored the old winery from a crumbling ruin to the future well being center he invisages it functioning as in the future. The old stonework is matched seemlessly with modern technology. Solar Photo Voltaic panels line the roof as well as solar water heatgain panels. All of the lighting and power outlets are wired to a central bus setup so that everything can be controlled and configured on the computer rather than conventional hard wiring. 

After alot of chilling out over the weekend it was time to start the harvest of the olives. Diego said that this years weather had not been as expected, with more rain and less sun. Consequently the grapes in the vineyard tested way below their required sugar content and the planned grape harvest was put on hold. An adverse effect of the increased rain was that the olives had matured more quickly and had started to drop off of the trees of their own accord. So the planned harvests were switched. Olives first, grapes later, once theyd had more sun days to bring the sugar levels up.

It was hard work. We lay out big green nets under the trees and then simply ran our hands down the spindly branches to dislodge the olives and let them drop on to the net. Whilst the picking wasnt too strenuous,  holding yourself in one position either dangling from a branch or perched on a precarious ladder used muscles I dont think I'll ever use again. It did lend itself to a few funny instances as Kerry let out a yelp and came crashing to the floor under one particular tree. Luckily she wasn't hurt as the ladder twisted round and dumped her off. 

After two days we had finished harvesting the majority of the trees and Kerry and I took a day out to ride the small, 1 carriage, diesel train that circumnavigates Etna. We didn't go all theway round, opting for a 45 minute excursion to Randazzo, a fairly large town in comparison to most Sicilian towns. We strolled around looking at the old buildings where function seems to prevail more than form. The way it should be. Utilising space fpr its usefulness rather than to look pretty. Very disilimar to the Italian people where the police wear ray bans and white belts in a bid to look swish when accomplishing not alot. 

We sat in the town square just as hundreds of people descended on it. Kids riding bicycles in an infinte circle, grandads sat next to each other not saying a word, house wives bellowing orders over great distances at each other. Id read that Sicily was organised chaos, and this square proved that. 

Finding lunch was alot more difficult than I'd thought it would have been. We walked around looking for an open restaurant for what seemed like ages. Id grown accustomed to weird opening times from our French neighbours, but being unable to find a restaurant open at 2pm was a little silly. Eventually we stumbled on 'Sainto Georgio del Drago' hoping the patron saint of the Motherland could help us out in our time of need. 

Meat is a rare privilege at Diego's, reserved for festivals and other special occassions. Consequently I'd been deprived of protein for a week now and couldn't entertain another pasta dish for fear of losing some precious muscle weight.  Luckily Saint Georgio came good with a mixed grill of Pork, Beef and Sausage coupled with a side of fresh salad... and beer. Id been without a beer for a few weeks now, and it tasted gooood!

That evening at dinner Diego pulled out a large slab of what I can only compare to a hunk of dog food. When I asked Diego said of course it was dog food, but that it was also very good eating as he sliced a portion off and doused it with the juice from a lemon. I gingerly followed suit, squeezing every last drop out of my half lemon and tentively putting the piece in my mouth. Diego was right, it was good eating, I could tell it wasn't the prime cuts of meat in the jelly, but it didn't taste horrible. Then Rossella, the woofing lady, asked for some. She couldn't speak English and Diego said something to her as he passed her a slice of the dog food. She started laughing histerically as she squeezed her lemon over it. It wasn't dog food. Just a trick on Diego's part. And he had firmly got me. Its a kind of meat similar to pork pie filling with the jelly and everything. Still I guess I proved that I would infact be prepared to eat dog food!

Cinzia kindly gave Kerry and I a lift to the local beach the next afternoon. Id wanted to get one more swim in the mediterranean sea before the weather turned or we headed North and it was lovely. Being the end of September I guess it's the hottest time for the sea, having warmed up all summer. 

That evening was our last supper on the farm. We had to leave the next day so I bought a crate of beer from the shop on the way back from the beach. Diego had a friend over, Alessandro,  who eagerly showed me their bottle of Cactus liquor. Diego had let me have some earlier in the week and I liked it. It made your tongue go completely numb. But it wasn't until Alessandro told me it took 100kg of cactus fruit and 2 days to make this one litre bottle! Now I felt very guilty as I'd enjoyed quite alot of the mouth numbing drink and apologised to Diego, but he didn't seem to mind. 

Being a people person I've always loved communial living and often have a lodger or house shared in the past. I commend Diego's strive towards self sufficiency. I too would like to achieve the same. However, from my time on his farm, I don't think its an easy task to accomplish. We have developed a society where people specialise in things and we havea monetary system so we buy stuff from others. This stops everyone having to learn how to make toilet rolls, or mine for gas, and buying these things leaves you more time to do the other things you enjoy. A happy medium must be met...

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Van troubles and silver linings...

After leaving Port Grimaud we took a slow meander along the coast of southern France. In my opinion one of the most spectacular coast lines in the world. (From what I've experienced!)

Every turn of the road yielded a new cove or lagoon to explore. Small beaches manifested themselves and a short jaunt down a steep cliff side was rewarded with the most beautiful and secluded section all to our selves.

The clunking noise we'd heard back in the Dordogne wasn't cured by replacing the wheel bearings. After a quick google I feared the worst and succumbed to taking the van to a garage. Luckily we found a local Brit who owned a garage not too far in Mouans Sartoux and after some investigative work it was deduced that the steering rack was worn on the outward bushes.

The part had to be sourced from the UK as we have a right hand drive van and so we were to wait for a few days for it to be delivered.

Mouans Sartoux itself is quite a pleasant little town with a particularly old section of narrow roadways and alleys. Some of the buildings here were 400 to 500 years old. Unfortunately we seemed to just miss the end of lunch at 2 oclock so had to resort to food in the van.

The part came a few days later and the mechanic Phil phoned to inform me, asking if I would do him a favor on the way. He had a car that he needed to move across town and he picked me up in his landrover as we finished a little walk on a strange derilict piece of land.

Phil pulled alongside this lovely white Toyota MR2 and asked whether I was ok driving left hand drive cars. Of course never having done so before in my life, but eager to drive the little sportster, I proclaimed that I was a professional! Toured year round in a left hand drive camper once! Fibbing to secure my place in the shit car. Because thats what an MR2 is in French. M - er - deux ... merde.

After I safely delivered the Toyota to Phillip's nice villa with infinity pool his mechanic set to work replacing the steering rack on our van. It was getting close to Mia's departure as she had a flight booked for the next day, Friday, and we had our van booked in for the tracking to be done the same morning so we drove the van towards Nice airport and enjoyed lunch in a roadside cafe.

10 miles later and there was a rattling under the van again. Further inspection showed that one of the retaining bolts holding the steering rack on had sheered. We couldn't move the van for fear of us losing the steering and plumeting off of one of the mountain roads to our deaths! Our new breakdown cover was to now come in handy.

After a few phone calls and about an hour and a half we were doing one of the strangest, and I suspect most dangerous, thing I've done in a long time. The recovery truck driver asked all 3 of us to jump in the back of the van whilst he whinched her up on to the flat bed and drove the 25 miles back to the garage. The combined suspension felt like we would tip over at any point. People on the pavements spotted the girls sitting in the driving and passenger seats and laughed or waved. All while I experienced the van from the back whilst moving along. Fellow motorhomers passing in the opposite direction would also greet us with the obligatory wave when they spotted the girls in the van. All while on a flat bed recovery truck!
Two new high tensile bolts and nuts were sourced from Ford and we had a 5 day wait before they'd get to us. The breakdown company, a German firm called ADAC, were fantastic. They took care of organising the recovery vehicle and advised us to get a hotel whilst we wait for the repair to be made. We had an allowance of €65 per person per night for a maximum of 3 nights as well as a €52 per day allowance for a hire car for up to 7 days.

We settled in to the hotel and its pleasures like running hot water, swimming pool and massive beds before sinking a bottle of wine with Mia and watching a few episodes of Breaking Bad.

We said our final goodbyes to Mia that evening as she had a taxi booked to the airport at 4:30am the next day. We have really enjoyed Mia's company on our jaunt through the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Now the time has come to head our own ways. It is exciting to hear of Mia's plans to build her own van and start touring. The days of questionable looks from fellow campers, bar owners, petrol pump assistants and mechanics as 2 girls and only one guy jumps out of the van are over.
Kerry and I enjoyed the hotel for the few days we were there, relaxing by the pool and using the internet to our hearts content. On the Saturday evening we took our little Toyota Yaris hire car out to crawl the streets of Monaco. The little car was a godsend. Id never dream of trying to pilot a motorhome around the small country so it gave Kerry a chance to see the decadence for herself as well.

We even drove through Monte Carlo, right infront of the famous casino with hundreds of people gathered round Lambo's and Porsche's,  their owners inside squandering their millions. It really is fascinating. Its a country in its own righr but only covers 0.78 square miles. 35, 000 people live there making it the most densily populated country in the world. And they all benefit from 0% income tax!

The bolts came in and it took literally minutes to replace them. We dropped the hire car back and headed out along the coast to a garage with a big enough ramp to do the Gyometry adjustments. Then a long drive up and in to Italy, aiming for Genoa or Genova (I'm not sure which is correct) for our ferry ride to Palermo...

Friday, 13 September 2013

Port Grimaud, Monaco and St Tropez... again...

After leaving Moto camping Dordogne at around 5pm we decided to drive till we were tired. We'd told David and Paul that we'd get there in 4 days, arriving mid-week on Wednesday.

Well the van engine ran alot better that evening. I think the cooler air helped the diesel so we drove until 11ish, stopping to find a place to stop for the night just after seeing Carcassonne all lit up from afar. The sat nav said that within an hours drive we could be in Montpellier and it was decided that we would wildcamp down on the beach and enjoy the sea the next day.

We had parked up to numerous other vans that seem to congregate on the spit of sand called Grand Travers and the next day I woke up needing the toilet quite desperately. Whilst I was doing my thing I smelt a faint smell of smoke but put it down to someone having a cigarette somewhere. Jumping back in to bed I could hear a peculiar noise like someone walking through the trees next to us on the sand dunes. The noise continued and I stuck my head out of the roof vent to investigate. The smell was stronger and I saw a haze in the air.

Fire plane
It was a fire. About 50 metres away in the bush by the sand dunes. We immediately packed up ready to move. The land around here was so dry and the wind was relatively strong. We were worried it would spread quickly towards us. Other van occupants were quickly packing up and we moved down the beach 100 metres and watched as the fire got bigger and bigger, seeing flames licking the tops of the trees.

Over the next hour and a half we watched as the fire brigade arrived in their trucks and a small plane circled over head before sounding a siren and dumping water on to the brush. It took the emergency services all morning to satisfactorily put the fire out and we took up our position on the beach after an eventful morning.

It was hot. Very hot. Much hotter than in the Dordogne and we had to take shelter in the van during the hottest part of the day. We knew that David and Paul were only 150 miles away and took the excuse of driving to get some wind through the van. 
Monaco by Motorbike!

4 hours later and we were driving through Grimaud and in to the aire which was conveniently located just outside Prairies de la Mar, the campsite the boys were staying in and the same campsite Kerry and I met my Dad at a few months ago.

A quick walk around the big site didn't shed any light as to their camping spot but we were determined to find them without giving away our location. It was Monday evening and we weren't due to meet them until Wednesday.  Another surprise!

Of course we found them sat in the beachside bar. I crept up behind them and asked "So does that wheel bearing job come with a warantee" to which they both laughed and turned around to welcome us. The evening was gorgeous with the setting sun illuminating the sky over the sea in purples and pinks.

David and Paul had planned a ride out on their bikes to Monaco the next day. Having one extra helmet they offered for one of us to go with them. Not being able to settle the decision amongst ourselves some straws were sought from the bar and I pulled the longest of the three.

We left the campsite around midday the next day and skirted north on the coast road, me riding pilion on Paul's Suzuki TS1000. I cant proclaim to it being the comfiest bike to sit on but I was appreciative of the opportunity to ride with the boys. As we pulled in to Monaco the Suzuki started to smell and feel very hot so I swapped over to Daves BMW and we blatted round as much of the Monaco Formula 1 race track as we could including through the world renound tunnel. All whilst dodging Ferrari's, Porsche's and other expensive cars all displaying their principality of Monaco number plates.

The sheer wealth of the place is only evident when you're there. The number and size of the boats was incredible. All of them were much larger than my 2 bedroom flat and most were the size of 6 story mansions!
Deciding against getting a €200 euro cheese sandwich we headed back to Port Grimaud and the girls for a spot of BBQd burgers and sausages until dark.

After a nice long sleep we all reconveined at the port around midday for an afternoon on the water. Dave has held a boating license for as long as I can remember, even having his own little vessel named "Boogie Nights" in Brighton Marina. So after a short orientation of our floating palace we were set loose in the Gulfe of St Tropez. Picking up speed and getting the boat planing above the water for 10 minutes until we slowed down and entered the port of St Tropez.

It was an especially novel way of viewing the world famous mooring. Posh and expensive cars lined the dock as tanned, balding 50+ somethings swanned around with an ungarish, more stately air about them. Here in the world of French wealth it seems less is more. Except for the size of your boat!

We shot over the bay with extra speed this time as I joined Paul up on the bow of the boat (the front) and our combined weight helped the boat get up out of and on to the waves. We headed for a lagoon the boat rental guy told us about. We dropped anchor in a patch of beautifully crystal clear water and had a lark about, diving for the bottom, drinking the beers and eating the sandwiches we'd brought along.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and I feel very privileged David was there to take us out. I couldn't thank him enough but tried to make up for it with a dinner of chili con carne and rice.

After the meal we said our fairwells. The boys were headed through Italy and in to Switzerland the next day...

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Moto Camping Dordogne...

Id heard all about the place before.

My Dad had been going on his motorcycle for years, my uncle David accompanying him on the last few trips. So when I received a message from my uncle asking if we were up for the end of season party in a weeks time, I found my curiosity too great to refuse.

Spicy ribs!
Moto Camping Dordogne is just that... a campsite for motorcyclists in the Dordogne region of France. Luckily they accept 'friends' of bikers so us and the van were welcome.

Pulling in to the campsite we found my Dad supping his beer at the bar. David had invited him along for the weekend but Dad made his excuses and declined, only to get the ferry crossing a day earlier than David and surprise him.

We met the American handyman Glen, the Dutch chef Peter and the owner of the Campsite, another Dutch national, Renska and her son Gabriel. The whole atmosphere was very appealing. Constant music, constant beer and constant sun with the people working there seeming more like friends than hosts.

Fun in hats
Dad told us about the renound ribs that come in 3 different sauces, sweet, spicy and garlic and I opted for the spicy version that evening as we chatted about Dad's ride down and our meandering trip over from the Alps. We had been disturbed at 10:30 pm the previous night by 2 of France's finest national police, the Gendarmerie. They were perplexed as to how we were parked in a 2.5 metre height restricted car park. That was until they asked us to leave and we simply drove over the grass next to the height barrier.

The campsite sold bar cards of 15 drinks at a time. When you had 6 completed bar cards you received a Moto Camping Dordogne t-shirt. Well that sounded like a challenge to me! And we made a good dent in a few cards that night.

All around the bar were biking memorabilia and paraphernalia. Old bike panels, oil pumps, chains and sprockets littered the walls and I could have spent all day just looking around. About 40 different styled hats were hung up as well and it made an amusing evening trying them out and taking on the persona of the previous occupant. That was until I tried to put a pink sequined one on one of the two campsite dogs, Ollie. He proceeded to grab it in his mouth and run around the bar and terrace area with me running after him in a desperate attempt to retrieve it. The burley bikers drinking their beers seemed to find it as funny as he did.

After going to bed at 2am that night I woke up quite late and cooked a bacon and egg roll for Kerry, Mia and my Dad. All of a sudden it was beer o'clock and I started plowing through another bar card whilst taking in the sun by the pool. The second campsite dog, Vincent, is fairly young. If I ever get a dog I'd like one the same as him, a German Sheperd. His fascination with sticks was funny, especially when he found one that was too long to fit through the door.

Guess why he's called Vincent?
In the distance we heard the distinct thud thud of a BMW and the beautiful pounding of a big V-twin. David and his friend Paul were drawing near and Dad quickly ran for cover in the bar. Kerry and I greeted the biker boys with a hug and a beer and introduced everyone to Mia and vica versa. I could see Paul looking confused in the direction of Dad's bike and tent further down the site. Then out strolled Dad with the smuggest grin I've ever seem. David had been well and truly stumped. A good surprise!

That night was full of more bar cards as I proposed an arm wrestling match between the big boys, Dad and Paul, only to get thrashed by both. I need to get down the gym!

The next day everyone was suffering. A combination of the heat and too many bar cards being smashed. But after a dip in the pool, Dad, David, Paul and I took a ride out to the nearest town, Gourdon, for a couple of rescue beers and baguettes for lunches. Riding on the back of Dad's bike was brilliant. I don't like riding pilion usually but the meandering roads and the warm air in my face reminded me of how much I enjoy riding.
That afternoon I decided to tackle the front wheel bearings on the van. There was a distinct click noise when we were going slow over bumps and round corners and I suspected they may need changing. This was also the perfect place as the campsite has a tool shop for use by the guests and it just so happens my mobile mechanic task force was present (my Dad and Uncle!). After a bit of poking around on my part they declared I was 'painful to watch' and delved right in to help!

I had another massive rack of 'extra' spicy ribs that night, needing a few glasses of water to quench the 'extra' part! Beer flowed and stories were told of biker festivals in Portugal by my relatives and some more hardcore ones in Germany where they give you a bail of straw to put on the snow before you pitch your tent, by Case who worked at the campsite.

Glen has pool fun with Vincent
Kerry looked over the table at me around midnight with very glassy eyes. The vodka measures had taken their toll and the walk back to the van was eventful to say the least! The next day I found her curled up in the shade of the van feeling a little worse for wear!

David and Paul left early that morning to get the 350 or so miles done to their next destination in the South of France. Myself and the girls were to follow them down, much slower I may add, but the lure of the pool, bar and conversation was such that we didn't end up leaving till the evening.

Biker campsites are the best. No rules, no NIMBY neighbours and good quality people. It made me want to run a campsite...

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Summer Alps...

It took us two uneventful days to get down to the French Alps, but as soon as Kerry and I started to see the peaks in the distance we both got increasingly excited. Our winter season here was so good it was like we were making a pilgrimage to a holy land... the holy land of powdery snow!

Driving through Bourg Sainte Maurice was funny as it wasn't the grey mess that snow tends to turn a town into but a fairly pristine alpine village. The sun was shining and everyone was walking about in shorts and T shirts.

Our new van hasnt let us down yet and we have put 2500 miles on her in a little under 6 weeks, but the 6km up to Sainte Foy station was painful. 2nd gear was the best we could achieve on the straight bits and we had to retreat down to 1st on the corners! But after 20 minutes of screaching and straining she finally got us there.

We had a walk around the station area, walked back up the 89 or so steps to the chalet and out on to the 'pistes' that were now just grassy fields. The first lift was completely removed and workmen were underway installing a new lift. Much needed as the old ones are very slow, but it did mean that we would be unable to go up the mountain by chairlift.

After a few pints in the Pitchouli bar the previous night it was amazing to wake up to crystal clear skies and the view we had woken up to for 4 months last winter, only this time without a trace of snow. We parked in a car park just down from our chalet and a paddock had been erected for horses and it was amusing to watch the kids have riding lessons with some pretty sturdy little horses.

Le Monal is a very small village up on the mountain which in winter is only accessable by skiing from the top of Sainte Foy and down the otherside through some off piste. We didnt try the run when we were last here in the winter as it has some up hill sections so not suitable for boarders. But now on foot and without a snowflake in sight, Kerry, Mia and I set off up the dusty mountain tracks.

Kerry and I recognised a few of the tracks as blue ski runs we had taken in the winter but now it was totally transformed and wold flowers and fruits were everywhere. The wild strawberries were my favorite with loads of flavour, even if I did have to do a bit of bouldering to get to them!

The views from the otherside of the mountain towards Tignes were breath taking and we could see the last remblances of winter clinging on in the form of a glacier high above us on the opposite mountain.

The next day we took the van down the mountain very slowly, not wanting to overheat the brakes. Once at the bottom we headed in to Bourg to book ourselves on a white water rafting expedition the next day. We pulled in to the worst aire we've been in just as the heavens opened and the rainy afternoon was used to catch up on some television serieses we've been watching.

Bright eyed and bushy tailed we arrived by the side of the river Isere at 9am ready for our raft down the river. The Isere originates at the top of Val d'Isere ski resort and is controlled by the hige dam at Tignes to give constant water throughout the summer.

After putting on our very glamorous and skin tight wet suits and a short safety brief we were carrying the raft down to the rivers edge with our instructor. Just the 4 of us in the boat. A good thing or not I couldnt decipher! But we seemed to get the hang of it fairly easily and I was amazed at how manouverable the raft could be just by having people move their position in the boat.

We were meant to paddle in unison to get the best propulsion, however it seemed too hard for us, especially as we came in to the rapid section and all I could see was a wetsuit cladded Kerry bouncing around laughing her head off.

20km later and we were dragging the raft out for the van ride back. A brilliant way to see the alps and its gorges.

Now we are off for some party times... the Dordogne awaits!

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Antwerp and South...

Cruising further South we crossed the border in to Belgium and the first main city, Antwerp.

We stopped on an out of town campsite next to a large exposition complex. The fee was small. Just 10 euro for the 3 of us per night. But there was only toilet emptying facilities and fresh water so I checked to see if there was any local free camping spots.

We saw a forum post for a place near the centre of town on the quay side and headed straight for it the next day. Turns out its a lovely dock area that had been laid waste to vans, cars and motorhome all parked for free.

The next few days were spent in Antwerp centre itself. Kerry and I have managed to wear one pair of flip flops each for the whole of the time we have been back from the ski season. These flip flops have seen better days, so my mission was to find a suitable pair. Unfortunately it was a Sunday so everywhere was shut bar an art museum named after a belgian art collector.

As far as I know he was only famous for collecting art. When he died his mother put all of these pieces of art work in his house on display and so its been ever since. I dont understand art, especially from the 1500s so I struggled to find any merit in my 1 euro admission but Kerry and Mia seemed to enjoy it.

We ate a nice pizza each in an italian restaurant before heading back for a few movies and a lovely river view by the van.

The next day I found success as an Xtreme-sports shop had a pair of Quicksilver flippers for a reasonable price. There seemed to be a sort of festival in town with girls dancing outside of a huge building in the main square. Kerry bought some Belgian chocolate and Mia and I enjoyed some belgian beer.

Kerry and I have had our hearts set on going back to the French alps, namely Sainte Foy, ever since we left. And so after a quick discussions we were headed South through the rest of Belgium and Northern France