We’re on a Summer Campervan tour of the French Alps and are now at Sospel, in the Alpes-Maritime region. Next up, is a route of historic villages, a glimpse of the Mediterranean and the blue lake of Lac de Cassien. Above all, this route from Sospel to Castellane is a true French Fancy of drive!
First, there’s a knock on the campervan door. Gosh! This is like old time France, when we awake to the sight of the local Marie. Yes, this is the Mayor’s office, here to collect the 5 Euro for our overnight stay on the local Aire.
To be honest, it’s really good value for money, so we’re all too happy to pay! We’re parked beside a sports field, so it’s a pleasant place for the night. In addition, comes the benefit of an excellent service point, so we can empty and fill at no extra cost.
The climate is hot with a Mediterranean feel. It’s hard to believe that coastal resorts of the French Riviera are a short drive South. Not only does Sospel date back to the 5th Century, but it also has a claim to fame, because it’s mentioned in the Daphne du Marier novel – Rebecca!
We choose to have a wonder around this ancient town of Sospel and it doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it’s quite an intimate kind of place, where locals are drinking coffee in outdoor restaurants, protected from the heat by large parasols.
There’s a cluster of narrow streets, threading through its centre, where buildings rise above the alleyways. It’s a maize of cosy nooks and crannies, winding below washing that hangs from the windows, drying in the hot air of Summer.
Sospel has a cluster of small shops set amongst the pavement cafes, but that’s about the extent of the activity. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing – far from it! No – this is a place that’s seen little change over the years and sometimes that’s just how we like it.
The village splits in two with a wide river bed flowing between, we imagine those strong storms of Summer sweeping swathes of torrents along the dry river bed. Little do we know that soon, the storm from hell would unleash it’s madness on this region, destroying homes, countryside and taking lives in its wake. Now, we stroll over a stone bridge towards the tiny alleyways of the almost deserted village, all is calm on this hot morning.
Next though, our sights are set on a lake we’ve spotted on the map. We can’t remember if we’ve been there before, so won’t know until we get there if we actually have or not!
To reach Lac de Cassien, we need to head West. The easiest route without venturing on to more mountain passes is to drive towards Nice.
After lunch in another old village in the middle of nowhere, the road takes us towards the Mediterranean and the outskirts of Nice itself. Today, the busy coastal roads of the French Riviera are not where we want to be. After all, this is the year of the virus and the French coast is a hotspot at the moment. In a nutshell – we’re avoiding it this trip!
To be honest, we’ve toured this stretch of coast quite intensively over the years, so we don’t feel as if we’re missing out at all. For those of you who haven’t been, it’s well worth exploring, despite the crowds at this time of year.
One thing to remember though, is that the coastal routes are long, narrow in places and hectic in peak Summer. However, it’s the best way to see the amazing scenery of the French Riviera if you have the time. If you don’t follow the coast, the motorway is the other option, but this is high above the big name resorts and somewhat inland.
Today, we want to avoid the coast road, so we take the easy option – the motorway. This takes us as far as Cagnes-Sur-Mer, where we take the exit off the motorway and head inland.
Although we want to reach the Gorges du Loup and the hilltop village of Gourdon, we soon notice a road sign for Vence. A few years ago, we visited the gorgeous hilltop village of St.Paul de Vence, across the valley from our location. That’s one beautiful place and definitely worthy of a visit. There’s even an Aire just outside the centre, so parking is easy enough in the van.
So, with that in mind, we presumed that we’d able to park at Vence – how wrong we are! Instead, after attempting a 3.5t road, navigating parked cars and tiny streets in the process prove too much. Eventually, we have to give it up as a bad job. Yes, despite driving around, we can’t find anywhere to park the campervan.
You know when to call it a day, when all that separates you from someones house wall is a couple of inches! Thank goodness for Nigel’s driving skills – sweaty palms are enough though!
Instead, we continue inland towards the gorgeous village of Gourdon. The route passes a few similar intriguing looking hilltop villages. Unfortunately, all either have no place for us to park or are just too busy to find a place.
However, our luck soon changes, as we drive along the pretty Gorges du Loup. A winding road beside a river climbs upwards towards Gourdon village.
Here, there’s not one but two free Aires provided for motorhomes – the choice of parking is just great. Not only that, but the flat, open areas even have lovely views and provide a peaceful night sleep.
Waking up to sunshine and the gorgeous Gourdon village looks even better in the morning light. Even better are the views – simply stunning, reaching out across the Mediterranean landscapes towards the sea.
For us it’s time to venture out on foot. Soon, we’re exploring the narrow streets surrounded by beautiful stone buildings, their facades draped with flowers in bloom. The setting is so romantic, beautifully perched on a rocky outcrop and oozing enough charm and character to attract the most sophisticated types.
It makes for a pleasant change to our trip so far. Looking out over the Cote d’Azur brings a new perspective and welcome change of scenery. To put it simply – this is breathtaking in a different kind of way.
Now the perfume capital of the world or Grasse to you and I, is one of those towns that has always escaped us. Situated just 15km from Cannes, it’s home to 30 perfume factories which began production here in the 17th century.
Although we’ve passed through many times before, we’ve never had a look around. So, with this in mind, we decide to take a look.
After circling round a couple of times, we come across a motorhome parking area in the centre. At just a few Euro for a couple of hours, we pay the fee and set off on foot.
Grasse is actually a rather exotic looking type of place – typically French with a touch of glamour in its flamboyant displays. As usual, the old village is full of narrow streets, but the character isn’t one to tire from. Above us are bright pink umbrella displays, so popular now in many tourist locations, of course, Grasse is no different.
It’s a classy sort of place, probably due to the influence of the perfumers “nose”. Without a doubt, the aroma of scent is still dominant throughout this town. There are museums dedicated to perfume, but we choose to leave those for a non-virus time.
Located high above the coastal resorts, Grasse holds a unique setting. It’s position, close to the affluence of the Riviera yet inland from the hustle and bustle has an appeal in itself. Here, there’s a mixed feel of lazy days meets extravagance, you sort of can’t help imagine that it could tell a tale or two.
Next up is the gorgeous, but not so easy to access Lac de Cassien. This is one of those places that looks fantastic on a map, but when you get there, it’s not quite how you imagine it to be.
Now, I’m not saying that it’s awful – far from it because it’s actually quite beautiful! However, it’s not the easiest place to park with the campervan, because it’s actually rather inaccessible in most places.
It’s a sort of remote kind of place, with water as blue as can be, sparkling off the clear sky above. Not only is it bigger than we expected, but it’s location below the road means that we can’t drive close up.
After a few attempts at various side roads and parking places, we have to give up. In addition, there’s no Aire to park overnight, so we decide to move on to a nearby village.
Last but not least, it looks familiar, but we still can’t be sure if we’ve been here before!!
Sometimes, fate plays a part in where we end up for the night and no more so than here in Fayence. This hilltop village close to Lac de Cassien provides several places for motorhomes to park, along with a service point.
We take advantage of the chance to empty and re-fill before driving into the village centre and finding a cosy place to park.
Incredible views across Olive trees and Mediterranean landscapes make a really gorgeous backdrop. This is a beautiful place, including the village itself which is full of character and old charm by the bucket load.
A walk around the village centre has us explore the little alleyways. Soon we find tight-knit dwellings decorated with flowers and colourful plant pots. On top of the kerb appeal comes impressive view points from higher parts of the hilly streets. The aroma of pines and rocky outcrops from the mountain scenery blend well with fields of lavender and more Olive groves – simply idyllic springs to mind!
Then, we spot something we haven’t’ had in a while. Now, don’t get too excited! We’re talking Pizza, so before we know it, we have a large Margarita on order – delicious!
Our route from Sospel To Castellane brings a sense of French Fancy! It’s charismatic yet intriguing and as usual there’s lots of hills involved!
Next, we’re driving on from Fayence, crossing rocking hills towards the Gorges du Verdon and Castellane. First though, as our campervan wheels navigate the narrow mountain road we catch sight of the intriguing looking village of Mons.
Now this looks too good to miss and as we’re driving right by, we choose to take a peek. There’s a picnic area where we’re able to park up, which is lucky because the alternative parking area has a height barrier.
As usual, there’s a maize of tiny streets and charming stone buildings, but we don’t find it monotonous yet. Once again, we’re high up and the views from the village are just breathtaking. It’s a place full of character, yet sleepy in appearance as it looks out across the rocky dried landscapes for miles around.
It’s one of those chance encounters and one we’re glad to have found.
It’s not long before we’re back en-route, driving towards the small village of Caille, where we notice a sign for a motorhome dump. We drive towards it to check it out – always ready to top-up and empty when the opportunity arises.
Strangely enough, it turns out to be a village we’ve been to before! We recognise it straight away, but had no idea where this was until we see it again today.
Last time we’d come from Castellane and stopped the night on the Aire here, there was a fete on in the village, all the locals were out sharing food and wine under the warm evening sky. Now, there’s not a sole in sight, how times have changed, yet how we instantly remember this isolated location and our short time spent here.
Continuing on our way, we soon find ourselves at our destination – Castellane. This is one of the first places we visited in a motorhome, way back in 2005.
It was one of those times that we learnt a lesson and it’s one that has never left us. Back then, we’d just come from caravanning, so didn’t actually know about Aires instead we’d booked a campsite in Castellane.
We’d driven from the Gorges du Verdon and arrived on the campsite at lunchtime where we set about cooking some prawns on our gas BBQ. Before we knew it, storm clouds had gathered, then the heavens opened. Next came the most terrifying experience, as the torrential rain formed ankle-deep water throughout the site.
Then came the sound of sirens, it was the site evacuation system alerting everyone to vacate their pitches. Lights on the pitch bollards were flashing a warning sign and this was all because we were located next to a river. All we could do was grab what we could and drive out to higher ground.
Although we were absolutely soaked to the skin, we had made it to the safety of the main road without too much trouble. Eventually the rains stopped and the waters receded enough for us to return to our damp prawns!
The lesson learnt – always be cautious when parking by rivers because these Summer storms can quickly be catastrophic.
A few years later, we were on a Winter ski trip, staying on a campsite in the Alps. Unfortuantely in the late 80’s this campsite was the centre of a Summer storm tragedy. Part of the site was washed away in a flash flood from the river. Several people were killed, all of whom had been staying on the site when their tents or caravan were washed away.
This time we head for the excellent Aire at Castellane, where we pay the 9 Euro a night fee at the barrier before parking up. The fee includes use of a good service dump and fresh which is a bonus.
After lunch we take ourselves off to the tourist office to get some information on walks in the nearby Gorges du Verdon. Armed with some free maps and helpful recommendations, we set out to explore the village on foot.
One of the iconic landmarks in Castellane is the Chapel de Notre Dame. It’s perched high on a rocky outcrop right above the village – perfect for a walk!
There’s plenty of marked walking routes around the village, but we choose one stone path towards the chapel.
This gradual incline leads up the hillside towards the Chapel de Notre Dame. It’s an historic route, walked by pilgrims for hundred’s of years, with information boards along the route.
It feels extra special, knowing we’re walking in the footsteps of those ancient pilgrims. After about 45 minutes we reach the top. Here we’re rewarded with fabulous views across the village and surrounding countryside.
The Aire is directly below us and we can see our campervan – now a tiny dot seeming very far down. This rocky plateau is where the Chapel stands, its doors are open and inside lays a shrine to those pilgrims from long ago.
We remember from our visit all those years ago, that you can ring the church bell, something we did with our 2 boys. Looking around us for the cord, we find it and check for any notices. There is one that reminds those who ring the bell to do so in a non-invasive manner.
So, Nigel pulls on the cord and we listen to the chime of the church bell as it rings out across the early evening air. The sound is magical and memories of the time we were here before come flooding back. It’s a reminder that even with the passage of time, those special places from our earlier touring days are still with us.
We reflect on the beauty of this place, the magic that it holds and how lucky we are. Travel brings education and tolerance but above all a realisation that life is great even in the darkest of times. Yes, the virus may still be very much dominating the world, but there has to be glimmers of hope for the future.
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