Our parking place for the night came at an excellent Aire in the village of Vassieux en Vercors. This beautiful region of The Vercors National Park, was in fact home to the most brutal massacre during World War ll. Now, the Vassieux en Vercors War Site memorial, is a tragic reminder of the horrors of the war under Nazi occupation.
Our journey had begun a couple of months earlier, as we set off on a campervan tour of The Alps and South Eastern France. First of all, I’ll begin where I left off in my last post, when we left the fabulous Himalayan Bridges behind, before arriving at the gorgeous village of Châtillon-en-Diois.
This region of France, seems to have one extremely useful advantage – bilingual tourist signs! Not only that, but they make a walking tour of the old streets all a bit more educational.
We’d set off on foot from the spacious Aire fairly early in the morning. It’s a good job, because the sun is still strong in mid September, so walking is easier during the early or later parts of the day.
This historic village reminds us of ancient villages of Italy. It’s simply full of charm with enough character and nooks and crannies in every corner. There are also cobbled alleyways adorned with plants, all of which are labelled! It’s a nice idea, so any botanical enthusiasts or curious types, can see exactly what they’re looking at.
There’s a few small cafe’s open, but not much else here. Yet the place is perfect as it is.
The old parts are like another world – compact in every way, yet rustic. Above all, each comforting speck of detail brings an added cosy feel and intimate atmosphere.
This area is surrounded by vineyards, mountains and a sort of unspoilt feel. Châtillon-en-Diois is actually famed for having over 300 species of plants! How is that for a botanical influence?
We have such a pleasant surprise at this medieval village, walking in the shadow of the 2041m high Glandasse cliffs, dominating the landscape. Next, we move on to another historic village a short drive away – Die.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite live up to expectations. However, there’s a good opportunity to empty and fill at the motorhome dump area – always a bonus! There’s a good Aire here, but it is fee paying with a barrier entry. Don’t quote me, because I forgot to make a note of the price, but if my memory serves me right, I think it was about 9 Euro.
We manage to find a place to park just outside the Aire, fitting into a normal parking space in the 5.93 long Sprinter is easy enough. After a quick coffee, we set out to take a look around.
First of all, ok- this village is still pretty and with Roman origins, there’s plenty of history too. For us, it lacked the intimacy and Wow factor of other villages. Finally, although it’s renowned for its pastel tones, we found them a little dull, perhaps more average than outstanding.
We decide to move on from Die, now heading in the campervan towards the mountain pass of The Col de Rousset.
It’s not long before the road turns to hairpin bends, now so familiar to us on these mountainous journeys across South Eastern France. This one connects the Northern Alps to Provence further South, passing fields of Lavender and lush vineyards. These vines are famed for the sparkling regional wine of Clairette de Die and the mesmerising Mediterranean influences add a dramatic feel to these mountain ranges.
By the time we reach the 1254m high summit, there are ski towns appearing before us. This mix of Mediterranean meats snow territory brings a strange feel to the surroundings. However, this is another beautiful route and one we’re grateful to be experiencing.
The views are expanding out around us as we step out the van at a viewing area. There’s a slight haze in the air, yet it’s beautiful all the same. Right behind us is the entrance to the 769m long tunnel where we will now drive to reach the Vercors Plateau beyond.
Another pass, joined by motorcycles and cyclists which leads us onwards to our next destination – Vassieux-en-Vercors War Site.
So, we arrive at Vassieux en Vercors and find a really good Aire just beside the village centre. There’s a good dump area too and plenty of walking routes direct from the parking area.
We find a free space, although it’s busy with motorhomes of all sizes. Then, before the threat of rain looms too close, we head out on foot for the short walk into the village. Soon, we find the grim past that lies under our feet – a tragic reminder of all that is so heartbreaking about war.
It was here on July 21st 1944 that the Nazi’s destroyed the entire village, killing 71 inhabitants in the process. This area was home to the French Resistance, and this was retaliation for their cause.
We walk on towards a museum dedicated to the memory of The Resistance movement. Here we come across a display of German gliders, still vividly remaining amongst the re-built streets. Unfortunately, the museum is closing for the day, so we don’t get to go inside.
The following morning, we decide to follow a walking route from the Aire, in the direction of The Memorial Museum. It’s located on top of the mountain above the village, it’s a steep hike up a dirt track to the top – probably we’d have been better driving!
Once again, we arrive at the Memorial Museum just in time for closing! Typically, we’d overlooked the fact that everything here closes for a good couple of hours over lunch. Never mind, we’d had some exercise and good views in the process.
There’s reminders all around us of the events that unfolded here back in 1944. Invaded by road and air Gliders, the brutal assault must have been terrifying in magnitude.
As well as the destruction of the entire village and its inhabitants, there was also the slaughter of 91 members of The Resistance. It’s a solemn yet dignified place.
On our return walk to the Aire, our route passes through another memorial and cemetery. Here, the graves of those lost are marked in neat rows, each having a brief inscription of the life lost.
We pause for reflection under the September sun, no matter how many war memorial sites we visit, each brings its own grim reminder of the perils of the war. Above all, we feel blessed to be able to live freely today, thankful for those that fought for future generations.
Join us next time, where we take on one of the best Balcony Roads yet and a true mountain drive to remember.
We’re on a Summer tour of Eastern France, and have just arrived at the location for tomorrow’s fascinating walk – The Himalayan Bridges.
Located at Savel and spanning the incredible blue waters of Lac de Monteynard, this dramatic sight is found about an hour’s drive from Grenoble.
It’s an area of watersports, fishing, camping and yes – those amazing looking walking routes of The Himalayan Bridges.
Luckily we’re here just out of peak season, in mid-September, so we’ve managed to park overnight in the day parking area. This is after leaving Les Sources des Gillardes and Lac du Sautet behind ready for this next location to explore.
Having said that, although this is tolerated in quiet times, there are signs on the entrance stating “no overnight parking”. In other words, perhaps pre-book the campsite located just up the road during high season.
After parking up the van, next we take a look around to try and find some extra information on what to expect. Soon, we realise that we need to book a boat. That’s because the walking route of The Himalayan Bridges actually starts across the lake from Savel at Treffort.
A quick and easy online reservation follows, at just 6 Euro each for the one-way boat crossing. Then, a bar code is e-mailed to us ready for boarding the boat on the 9am crossing.
Now, we want to do a circular walk, which means catching the boat to the start. This way, they’ll be no rush in having to do the walk in time to catch the last boat back to Savel – if you understand what I mean?!
Boarding the 9am boat crossing on this fine sunny morning is a pleasure. We take a seat on the open upper deck, which brings a relaxing tone to crossing the Lac de Monteynard-Avignonet.
We’re about to do the 12.5km Passerelles route which will take us on a voyage of discovery around the lake. Most significantly, we’ll be crossing the massive swing-type bridges of L’Ebron and du Drac.
The boat is busy and the lake serene. It’s as if we’re gliding across, skimming the blue waters of the lake without a care in the world. To put it simply – this is breathtaking.
By the time we disembark, we can’t wait to get started. It’s that type of walk that brings and extra bit of excitement and challenge – this is going to be good!
Stepping off the boat onto the lakeside, first we need to check the signs of this well-marked walking trail.
We pass a brilliant Aire – fee paying but an enviable position beside the shores of the lake. It’s full by the looks of things, everyone busy outside, enjoying breakfast overlooking the views of the water.
There’s also some rather lovely campsites here, again the position alongside the water is superb. There’s lush green pitches and beachside locations, we can see this being a popular area for families in Summer.
Soon, we’re following a forest path, leading us away from the lakeside on an uphill trail, away from the shore. Now, we’re grateful for some shade, because this late Summer sun is hot and the heat is beginning to get to us.
Then, as a clearing ahead brings an open viewpoint, before us lies an incredible gorge type formation. However, the best bit and the most dramatic, has to be the awesome image of the first Himalayan Bridge – The 180m long bridge of L’Ebron.
It’s a magnificent structure of metal, spanning the turquoise blue water below. At a height of between 45m and 85m, depending on the water levels of the lake, there’s no mistaking the impressive stance of this structure.
Well, we just have to hold our breath and go for it – stepping out onto the metal expanse above this dramatic gorge.
Then, a shimmering image of orange flashes before us, this is a handglider, moving through the sky in front of us. Before we know it, the wings dip, quickly gliding below our feet. Under the bridge it flies before emerging like a bird on the other side.
Thankfully, there aren’t too many other people sharing the narrow expanse with us. This means, we can take our time to cross and just enjoy the views and the experience.
It’s just brilliant, although we’ve crossed many swing bridges in other parts of the world, this has to be one of the best yet.
As our feet touch the dirt track on the other side, we take a moment to look back at this remarkable structure. Wow! To be honest, this is one very special place.
Next, we’re following the track onwards, heading through forest trails, where occassional open spaces bring fabulous views of the lake.
We’re able to stop and take in the views, luckily the paths are still fairly quiet, so there’s no need to feel rushed.
It’s not long before we’re on a downhill track, where suddenly more people begin to appear. That’s because we’re nearing the second bridge – The Drac. This is popular for walking the shorter route, to see one of the Himalayan Bridges.
By the time we reach it, there’s rather a lot of people taking in the views. Perched high up on the longer, 220m span of this second metal bridge.
This bridge looks steeper too, nonetheless, we take our first steps out onto the open metal treads. Goodness me! The French really do know their engineering and no more so than here.
This is not for the faint-hearted though. As we put all our faith into their engineering skills, we tentatively cross the vast expanse towards the opposite side of the cliff.
Once again, we stop to pause for a few photographs, although, there’s more people to navigate this time. There’s plenty of scenery to take in – from the stunning, narrow chasm of this second gorge-type location.
Then, there’s the colour of the lake – it’s a gorgeous tone of blue against the rock of the cliff. Equally impressive is the way in which we’re suspended above the lake, feeling as if we’re walking on air!
We look back from the walking path as we leave the Himalayan Bridges behind. It’s not far now from the van at Savel and it’s here that the bridge of Drac looks absolutely incredible. Probably seeing it from a distance, brings a more impressive feel, as it’s suspended in mid air above the water.
After nearly 4 hours, we arrive back at the van, ready for lunch. Then, we’re driving off through some tiny villages along the D529, a route that takes us above the lake.
Next, we find ourselves driving across another bridge, where the lake narrows at St.Georges de Commiers. This leads us back to Treffort, where we’d arrived on the boat earlier in the day. Here we take advantage of the excellent Aire that we’d passed on foot this morning. So, we pay the 13 Euro fee for the night and settle down beside the lake for the remainder of the day.
Some days we feel a little less active than others, and today is one of them! Hold on though – fear not, because we’re still up for a dose of daily exercise, which involves a stroll up into the village of Treffort itself.
Unfortunately, our efforts to find somewhere selling a Baguette are not successful. Even more frustrating, I think we’d walked to one of the only villages in France without a Boulangerie!
Oh well, this is a pretty but unremarkable village, so we don’t hang around for long. Instead, we return to the van and in true itchy feet style, we choose to move on.
As it happens, it turns out to be a good move, because soon enough, we find ourselves on the most fabulous mountain pass of the Col de Grimone.
First, we give the village of Clelles-en-Triéves a try. I can’t say it’s anything special, although there isn’t anything wrong with it either! Having said that, it’s surrounded by incredible mountains and serene countryside. This is including a giant pinnacle that can be seen for miles around, called Mont Aiguille.
Next, things get really exciting, as we enter the Gorges des Gats. Here, we drive passed the most neatly cut privot hedges and verges, all rather unusual for a public road. It’s almost as if we’re driving through a garden! Best though, are the narrow, craggy tunnels that we find ourselves driving through, heading towards the ancient village of Chatillon-en-Diois.
This is the Drome region and it looks beautiful.
For tonight, we find a parking place below the village, just us and another campervan at an Aire beside a small river. This perfect overnight resting place is where we’ll leave you for today. Join us next time when we explore the village before finding some interesting historic villages from World War II.
If you look closely, you soon realise that this river of bubbling cascades, isn’t actually a river at all! Far from it in fact, because this is Les Sources des Gillardes, and it’s absolutely fascinating!
Yes, Les Sources des Gillardes is a natural spring, emerging under pressure from its underground hiding place! It then flows through the mountains where it forms the Souloise River, before reaching the reservoir of Lac Du Sautet.
Above all, in this picturesque corner of South East France, Les Sources des Gillardes is only one of two of its kind in France.
We’re here on a 3 month tour of Eastern France, spending most of our time in the Alps. Last night we arrived from the direction of Gap, and now we’re heading North towards Grenoble.
Parking at Les Sources des Gillardes is easy and we manage to find a scenic overnight spot at the dedicated parking area. The location, situated in the Haute Alps sits within the department of Isére and we can’t wait to explore further.
Deep within these forested hillsides are a labyrinth of walking trails. Not only only that, but many walks begin directly from the parking area and are well sign-posted. We feel as if it’s a rather remote area, less visited than many hot spots, but absolutely beautiful at the same time.
After a hearty breakfast we set about checking out the signs and information board in the parking area. Then do a quick cross-reference to a walking route from a book we brought with us – Back Roads France .
Choosing the return walk of Les Gillardes, should take us from the “Source” on a trail of discovery through this scenic forest.
First, we cross the road from the parking area to join the easy path through the trees. It’s not long before we arrive at the incredible sight of “Les Sources des Gillardes” as it bubbles up from nowhere. To be honest, at first, we thought it was actually the river. Then on closer inspection, we realised there was no river at all beyond the bubbling cascades.
Yes, they are a wide mass of water, tumbling over rocks – gurgling and bubbling, as this underground spring makes it way through the forest.
The sun is bright and the sky clear. Undoubtedly, it’s the most beautiful September morning for a walk in these idyllic surroundings. On top of that, there’s picnic areas and places to chill. Above all, we’re sure in the height of Summer, it would be a place full of families, enjoying the clear water and magical ambience.
We reluctantly, walk on, leaving “Les Sources des Gillardes” behind for a moment. Now we’re heading up hill, towards the rocky canyon of the Gorges de L’Infernet. Soon, bridges crossing the gorge take us in a criss-cross pattern from one side of the narrow hollowed out rock to the other. All the while, the water whirls and swirls through its narrow chasms.
The water is bright blue and the rock face of the gorge look perfectly smooth, rubbed down by the passage of time.
Our route now leads us through a mix of more forest and open fields, all up hill. Before long, the river is left behind, as we near an extended section of trail towards the village of Pellafol.
By the time we arrive in this mountain hamlet, we’re tired from the sun and the steep sections of path. Nothing much is going on here, except for strangely enough, a rather apt selection of overland campervans! Yes, here in the middle of nowhere, we stumble across someone converting old vehicles into overland trucks – what a small world!
We take a moment to cool off, by splashing our faces with some welcome spring water from the local fountain. Oh, how we love these mountain regions of Europe, where water flows in abundance for all to enjoy.
The return route takes us back the way we’d come. Except for an alternative detour when we arrived back at the gorge. This lead us on a path on the opposite side of the river to the way we’d come. As we neared the finish, we spotted a few campervans parked in an idyllic location beside the river. Oh, why hadn’t we spotted that last night!
After about 4 hours walking, we were back at the start of the trek, opposite “Les Sources des Gillardes”. We couldn’t’ resist another quick glance over at the bubbling water. Just one last section before arriving back at the van – a gorgeous glen, where a wooden footbridge crossed a pond-like stream. This was like something out of a fee-paying gardens!
Next, after a coffee and snack back at the van, we drove on towards the hamlet of Pellafol-Par-La-Souloise. Now, we weren’t going to stop here, but we realised, there are supposed to be some fascinating rock formations here.
Not only that, but we’d also seen a sign for a ruined village. So, both things put together, just seemed too good to resist.
Unfortunately, the 1.4km return walk wasn’t really worth the effort! Maybe, it’s because we’d been walking all morning, but whatever the reason, a long steep hill didn’t help! Then, we have to admit that the rock formations weren’t the best either – especially as we’d just seen the incredible Les Pénitents les Mées a couple of days ago!
Finally, we couldn’t find any sign of a ruined village! Despite the signs, obviously this ruined village had been well and truly ruined!! Perhaps it’s worth mentioning why. Apparently, it was destroyed due to the construction of the nearby dam of Lac du Sautet – well they certainly did a good job of it!
Now, we’re on the move again, this time heading towards the reservoir and recreation lake of Lac du Sautet. This is one of those dramatic moments where we soon find ourselves driving across the dam wall and it’s Wow!
We sort of expected there to be an Aire here somewhere on the lake, but we failed to find one. Having said that, there’s a good campsite right on the waters edge. We park beside a nautical centre, overlooking the water. Incredibly, on this September day, it’s deserted here.
It’s a reminder of the short season in these French regions, but we imagine it in the height of Summer, when these still waters would be a hive of activity.
Driving back the way we came, soon we find ourselves at the barrage and it’s a dramatic encounter. There’s a parking area here, so we take advantage and take a look out across the dam wall. Heck – there’s the most scary looking Via Ferrata too, including a cable wire which crosses the ravine itself.
Today it’s all closed up, probably too late in the season to attract any adventure thrill seekers. Now that’s one activity that we’ll leave for those a little more daring!
Finally, we’re back on the road, heading towards the town of Savel and the start for one of the most incredible walks – The Himalayan Bridges!
Well, I hope that wets your appetite, because that’s where we’ll be taking you next time – see you there!
We’re on a Summer tour of Eastern france, heading towards Sisteron and Lac de Serre Ponçon. It’s wonderful weather on this September morning, as we leave the incredible Pénitents des Meés behind us. Then before we know it, we come across a Citadel town perched high on a rock. Wow! This is something we’re not expecting.
To be honest, we can’t remember if we’ve been here before, but soon decide that we probably haven’t! Next, comes a sign for an Aire, bringing an ideal excuse to park up and take a look around.
Although there’s an option for paid parking at the adjacent Flot Bleu of 7 Euro for 24 hours, soon we realise this is for peak season only. So today, we’re able too park up for free – excellent news!!
Sisteron lies along the wide expanse of the Durance River. Most significantly noticeable is how this fee-paying Citadel dominates the landscape. Who can miss this fortress like structure, as it clings to a rocky outcrop above the town? Temptation gets the better of us, so let’s start exploring!
At this point, we’re not actually sure what Sisteron has to offer, as it rises up like a phoenix, it’s seen for miles around.
A walk through the ancient narrow street of the old medieval town is a welcome find. For those not wanting to tread the hilly inclines on foot, low and behold there’s the iconic Petit Train to take you to the top.
Located in the Haute Provence region of South East France, Sisteron is typically French. We love the intricate alleyways and stone steps guiding us through the historic centre. Above all, we feel this is a charming place, where views spread out before us.
Now we can see the river in all it’s glory, as it flows beside the town, crossing it sits a bridge, linking two sides together. Then we get to see the large pinnacle of rock, towering over the opposite bank like a skyscraper of stone.
There’s a few climbers making their way slowly up the steep rock face, attracting a few onlookers in the process.
In Summer there’s a large, free-foam bathing pool at the Base de Loisirs, ideally located a short distance from the Aire. Unfortunately, the season for swimming is over. Despite the heat, all that’s in the empty depths today, are workers, power hosing it down ready for Winter.
I imagine this lagoon full of fun and laughter in the height of the Summer sun.
Although we could stop the night, our itchy feet lead us North towards the direction of Gap.
Passing orchards of ripening apples, seemingly they spread across the landscapes forever. Without a doubt, it reminds us of the richness of the land. Not forgetting just how strong this vast fruit-growing region still is.
Before long, the draw of another ancient village awaits. This time, it’s Tallard, a tiny place in comparison to Sisteron, yet equally enticing on this warm evening.
Luckily, we find a free Aire to park up for the night – of course, this is France – what more would you expect?!
Our hunger pangs get the better of us, so we eat before taking a stroll through this quaint, deserted village. Then it’s time to take a look through these tiny alleyways of extremely rustic buildings, many of which look a little crumbly!
One thing’s for certain – time has indeed stood still here. And, we can’t help but think, how incredible it is that these fascinating little villages are still standing today. Probably, they are even more intriguing in this humble condition, where we can hear the voices of those behind the shutters of these darkened alleys.
For us, as darkness falls through the castle ruins above the village, we decide to call it a day. With that, we return to the comfort of the van, for a peaceful nights sleep beside the river.
After a morning run, the refreshed energy levels bring a surprise message from an old school friend – Lesley. Coincidentally, she’s parked up with her husband, Steve, in their own motorhome – at Lac de Serre Ponçon!
First of all though, our chores are calling – that’s laundry and shopping, followed by fuel and water. This is where things got a little awkward, because the fuel pump wouldn’t accept any of our British cards! Now this is something we’ve had before in France, but not for several years. So, I guess we sort of thought the problem no longer existed – whoops!
Then, after seeing our struggling expressions, along comes a friendly French guy to our assistance. Next, he’s offering to fill up our tank in exchange for cash to refund him.
Well, what do you know it? As usual with Nigel and I, it soon becomes apparent that we’ve been here before! To Lac de Serre Ponçon that is!
This scenic blue lake of Lac de Serre Ponçon was created in 1961. Not to mention, it’s actually one of the largest dams in Western Europe. On our last visit, many years ago, we stopped at some fabulous rock formations – The Damoisellles Coiffees. However, this time, we just past them by. That’s only because yesterday, we’d spent the morning walking through some similar formations. If you haven’t seen any before, then they may well be worth a look, in our opinion they are quite intriguing.
As we drive along the lakeside route towards Savines-le-Lacs, we admire the scenery of mountains and water. It’s quite a country-type of drive, elevated in most places from the lake with nothing much around other than greenery.
Not forgetting, some incredible locations, where several motorhomes are parked, overlooking the waters edge. We don’t drive down to check it out, but it looks like they’re staying the night, possibly a spot of wild camping in this idyllic setting.
There’s not much in the way of options for Aires up until now, but we do pass campgrounds, with enviable positions overlooking the lake. The Aires we do find around Savines-le-Lacs, are all fee-paying with a barrier entrance, a lot has changed since our last visit!
We remember how we drove in all those years ago, of course, even then the Aires were busy in the height of Summer.
Outside a municipal campsite close to the shores of the lake at Embrun, is where we meet Lesley and Steve. Chatting and sipping wine until the clock struck midnight, we reminisce about the good old days. Then, a grumpy French chap appears in his pyjamas – the glare in our direction speaks volumes!
Retreating indoors and saying goodnight, brings an end to such a pleasant evening. Our exchanges of travel and hopes for the future bring a welcome relief to the woes of the virus. One thing we notice about travel, is that sometimes you really do loose the ability to hold a decent conversation. So, it’s no surprise that when you meet a fellow English speaking person, especially when it’s someone from back home, there is no stopping us once we get going.
The following morning we wake to the sight of the local Gendarmerie, knocking on the doors of the grumpy chap and his neighbour. We wonder why? Then, the next thing we know, both motorhomes drive off their levelling ramps, leaving the tyres firmly on the ground and those bright yellow ramps resigned to the garage.
This is the first time ever, in 15 years, that we’ve seen the “no ramps rule” enforced on an Aire. Although we’ve always known this rule exits, personally we never use them partly for that reason.
It’s a reminder that even here, in the ultimate motorhome-friendly country that these rules should be adhered to.
A walk by the lake brings a chance for both a closer look at the area and more of a catch up with my old school friend.
There’s plenty here to keep the active types entertained. From cycle paths to sailing, walking routes to parks, it’s a pretty low-key, attractive setting. When Summer arrives, so do the crowds who flock to the water-side beaches for swimming and relaxation beside the lake.
We take a detour up towards the hilltop town of Embrun, where a steep path leads us up to the centre. For us, there isn’t a much of a Wow factor here, instead, it’s more of an ok kind of place. There’s a shopping street and views over the fields below, where we can see the lake in the distance.
Probably, in normal times, we’d have stopped for a drink in a pavement cafe, but this is the height of the virus, so caution is still forefront of our minds.
Now, our sights are set on different shores – The Vecors Regional Park. And a driving a route that we’ve come across in our book – Back Roads France . Starting just North of Gap, our first destination and parking place for the night is absolutely incredible.
This is the Sources des Gillardes, and we’re at an Aire in a gorgeous setting amongst a river-side forest area, making a perfect lazy evening below the pines.
Next time – We take the most fascinating walk to the Sources des Gillardes, where bubbling water marks the start of this scenic river.
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No sooner had we left our overnight stop at Malijai, near Digne-Les-Bains, than the most wonderful sight appeared. We had happened upon The Pénitents of Les Mées, towering there right in front of us. There was only one thing to do – stop and take a proper look.
These incredible rock formations of hardened pebbles, stretch in a near straight line, rising to almost 500m high.
As usual in France, motorhome parking is easy enough. So we find a spot to park the campervan, in the large car park at the base of these colossal structures. For a moment, we just sit and look! Taking it all in and wondering if there’s more to see here.
Soon we realise, that this is just the start of a marked walking trail through the Pénitents. Now all we have to do is check out the signs and follow the route to discover more.
Before we know it, we’re taking to the 4km, 2-hour trail leading above these incredible stone-filled towers. We set out into the chill of the cool September air, knowing as soon as the sun hits us, that we’ll be in for some hot air to contend with.
Beginning in the old historic village of Mées, the easy path leads us from the parking area passed the towering natural formations. This little hamlet is worthy of a visit in itself – it’s simply a fascinating kind of place.
We wonder what we’ve come to. The narrow alleyways of Mées provide enough rustic charm and chaotic appeal to last the rest of the trip. What an intriguing find, and no more so than the way it’s huddled below the Pénitents themselves.
As the pebble path begins to rise above the little village of Mées, the change underfoot is obvious. Now, we are reaching the beginning of the main walking route through the gigantic structures. It’s time to turn back if there’s any doubt of fear of heights and narrow ledges.
For a moment, we can relax, as there’s little difficulty as we approach a view point. Then we pass a group of ramblers, taking their time on the pebbles, they wave us on as they stop to strip off a layer of clothing. Yes, that sun is out and the heat is on already.
Not only do we have the most amazing views of the flat plains below, but The Durance River is there in all its glory too. Best of all, we’re right by the pinnacles and feel in touching distance of the pointed marvels.
Then comes our worst fear – there’s a sign and it states the path ahead is difficult! So, the sweaty palms kick in – here we go – do or don’t time again!
Well, there’s only one thing to do – read the sign again to double check what lies ahead. Next, we know for sure – there’s warnings of sheer cliffs, narrow ledges and not forgetting the chance of falling rocks!
Fear not – because today we feel brave! So, onwards we tread, leaving the safety of the wide path and railings behind, each protecting us from the cliff edge and doom!
I’m pleased to report that all was worth it in the end. To be honest, I think we’ve been on worse paths and thankfully this was actually much better than many.
Better still, we didn’t feel too threatened by any sheer drops, but maybe that’s because we couldn’t see them. Yes, this is one of those places where the nature of the ground, doesn’t allow much in the way of seeing those sheer drops. Having said that, we’ve no doubt that they are exactly where they are supposed to be.
Today, the overgrowth around the edges disguises the peril that lies beyond the narrow track – thank goodness!
We tread carefully, not wanting to make a wrong move and end up in oblivion. Then as the path nears the top of these pointed pinnacles, we begin to feel more comfortable.
The views between the pointed peaks are stunning – stretching out across The Durance Valley, a fertile landscape and home to over 80,000 Olive trees.
Our location in the Alpes-Haute-Provence region is rich in produce from the land. It’s an area of South East France that brings a mix of history, industry and horticulture together. For us, it’s the surprise finds that add to the memories of our journey.
Stretching at almost 1500m, the first impression of these East to West facing Pénitents of Les Mées are quite something. Despite having seen similar pinnacles before in France, Italy and New Zealand, these seem quite extraordinary in appearance.
Feeling in the zone, we’re glad we took the plunge through the rocky peaks of pebbles. Not only are the views worth it, but the sheer scale of these formations is ultra fascinating from above.
These stoney peaks that surround us are thick with pebbles, where the dry earth clings between the hardened mass.
We soon find ourselves taking a circular route back to the car park and off the narrow path. The route now leads us down steps through some trees. It’s steep terrain, so we can now see why the signs direct you in the opposite way to start from the village. Although we do pass some people coming up this incline to the summit.
Our feet are soon back on the tarmac and the base of the Pénitents. Now, we can look up to the sky and feel accomplished at our morning walk between these huge pebbled structures. What a fabulous find and one more beautiful location to add to the memory bank of campervan travel.
Next time we’re in the Citadel town of Sisteron before reaching the blue waters of Lac de Serre Poncon, so stay tuned!
Leaving the Gorges du Verdon behind, our Summer tour through Eastern France continues. Next, we head towards the lesser known, but equally beautiful Lac de Castillon.
This 8km lake of turquoise blue, stretches out across the landscapes of the Haute-Provence, surrounded by steep, rugged mountains. We arrive from the direction of Castellane – the hub of the Verdon region and a town well worthy of a stay. Most importantly, it’s right here where Lac de Castillon begins and we can’t wait to see what it has in store.
It’s early evening by the time we reach the blue water of the lake. Surprisingly, the roads are quiet, despite it being the first week of September. Ahead of us is a narrow channel of water and the huge concrete wall of the dam. Crossing it brings the views of this scenic reservoir even closer. At 95m high and 200m wide, it’s no wonder we feel like we’re part of the lake itself.
So far, there’s only really been us and the scenery for company. Then we pass some kayakers, probably making the most of the cooler time of day.
During Summer, Lac de Castillon is a perfect spot for water activities, of course it’s not just kayaks available to hire either. Yes, there’s plenty of other water sports to choose from! First up – how about a bit of boating, followed by paddle boarding or even a gentle swim on one of the beaches? Oh what it is to have sunshine, serene water and idyllic mountains at your fingertips.
As the lakeside route winds it’s way along the water, we’re just happy to sit back and enjoy the ride. Then we notice a long stretch of water-side parking, where several motorhomes are parked up for the night.
Our curiosity gets the better of us, so we drive in to take a look. However, not all is what it seems! That’s because one of the first things we see are signs stating “no overnight parking” and one thing we don’t like to do is disobey the rules.
So, onwards we drive and before long we find ourselves in the town of St.André-Les-Alpes and the end of the lake.
Now, luckily there’s not one but two Aires here and we opt for the free one in the town centre. As is often the case, it’s functional and practical with a good service point and plenty of room. All in all, it’s a perfectly good stop for the night, so we’re ready to explore in the morning.
As the dawn of a new day is upon us, our thoughts turn to setting out on foot. Directly form the Aire is a marked walking route, leading us out from the quiet town and into the open countryside.
Soon we reach a wide and fairly dry river bed, where a bridge crossing leads us on towards the opposite bank.
Our path leads above the lake, where the finest views appear, across the water on this hilltop setting. We stop to take in the scenery and admire the views which span out for miles around. Then, the path draws closer towards a rather unique focal point – a statue of two Saints.
It’s a refreshing change to walk today without too much difficulty, let alone appreciate the commanding lakeside views. We’re surrounded by incredible mountains, that feel in touching distance in the haze of sunlight.
For now we pause, relax with a mug of hot coffee from our flask and just enjoy our surroundings.
There’s no doubt that Lac de Castillon, being the second largest lake in the Verdon National Parc to Lac de Sainte Croix is the less visited.
Sometimes it’s good to have the place to yourself and there’s no doubt we feel we’ve found a quieter corner of the region here.
The obvious low-key feel to the lake is somewhat different to its hugely popular competitor – Lac St.Croix. It seems a place for locals, rather than the mass tourism that other parts of this beautiful region attract.
For now, as we stroll back towards the campervan, our thoughts turn to “where next”? As usual we’re not too sure which direction to go. Finally, we take a look through St Andre itself – a town of few attractions, typically French and unassuming.
There’s no better feel than watching the gentle tones of late Summer across the town square. An eccentric mix of elderly folk sitting, drinking wine under the shade of a leafy tree, whilst others hurry on by – a bundle of French baguettes tucked under the arm.
Oh how we still love La France!
Now has come our time to move on, away from the Gorges du Verdon, Castellane and Lac de Castillon. Next we’re driving in the direction of Digne-les-Bains, but choosing not to stop in this rather large town. First though, we check out the Aire, but choose to give it a miss – there’s too much going on there for our liking.
Something doesn’t feel right and the appeal isn’t great. Not to mention the dust and noise from nearby roadworks vibrating across the street.
Instead, we leave Digne-les-Bains behind. Then find ourselves heading out towards a quieter village Aire at Malijai.
Here, we park up with a few other motorhomes, just in time for a decent storm. There’s time to relax, catch up on our travel diary and shelter from the rains.
Little do we realise, that just up the road is the most wonderful natural site and one where we can’t resist exploring!
Find out more next time! Don’t forget you can find plenty more of our adventures, here’s a few to choose from!
The D952 from Castellane towards The Gorges Du Verdon is one we’ve been on a few times over the years. Today it looks so different though. Perhaps it’s because we’re driving the opposite direction and in a different motorhome? Whatever the reason, the drive is a special one.
By the time we reach Point Sublime – a rocky plateau where a viewpoint stretches out across the gorge, we realise we’ve parked here before!
Like many things that have changed since our early days of motorhome travel, today is no different. The vast numbers of tourists who’ve now discovered this route is astounding. So much so, that we can’t even park!
How extraordinary to remember how we easily parked here in our Swift Bessacarr motorhome around 15 years ago. Back then we had the place to ourselves or so it seemed. Now, we have to drive on by, leaving the busy parking areas behind. So, instead we do a slight detour off the beaten track.
It’s lunch time, so the most sensible option is to have a leisurely lunch in the little hamlet of Rougon. As usual in France, we soon find a spacious motorhome parking area. An added bonus are the gorgeous views stretching out across the landscapes of this amazing region.
Rougon is located high above the main route through the Gorges du Verdon itself, but within a short 5 minute drive. It’s dominated by a tall, narrow cliff, almost poking out of the village. Surrounding the parched grazing land are a cluster of narrow streets where small dwellings huddle.
This is the first week in September and the heat is still incredibly strong. Our location in South East France is within the Provence-Alpes region, so Summer sees strong sun and long days. All in all it makes this region even more spectacular in the shimmering sunlight.
We take a short stroll into the small village, stretching the legs before moving back to the route along the Gorge.
We drive from Rougon back to the Point Sublime plateau – the main viewing area of the Gorges du Verdon. Thankfully, just down the road from the crowds is one parking space on a bit of a grassy verge. This gives us the opportunity to park and check out the views from this vast rocky plateau.
It’s a phenomenal sight, we’re surrounded by the vastness of this limestone mass of rock. It stretches as far as the eye can see, dominating the region for miles.
Point Sublime itself is basically one large rock plate, which gives an opportunity to see the gorge below from a viewing platform on the cliff edge. It’s more popular because of its location on the main road through the canyon.
This route we’ve driven several times before, all in a motorhome, including an A-Class, 4.2t Carthago. Today we’re in the Sprinter which is much narrower and shorter – 5.93 m long by 2.04 wide. So, we’re going to take advantage and drive a different route – the hair-raising Route des Crêtes!
At 700m high at its tallest, these sheer limestone cliffs of The Gorges du Verdon tower above the Verdon river. Not only that but the length of the canyon is an incredible 50km, making it the biggest in Europe.
Vultures constantly search overhead for their next prey, their gracious wings spanning the air. Whilst hikers, climbers and rafting adventurers make the most of the extreme landscapes.
The Verdon River is turquoise blue and it glides and bends effortlessly through the floor of this incredible canyon. Above each river bank are those towering cliffs, their rock faces disguised by the leaves of thick overgrowth resembling forest.
This is like a Jurassic wonderland of times gone by. So much so that a dinosaur wouldn’t look out of place munching on the rich fauna.
Back to our drive and we’re about to embark on new territory along the narrow cliff-top of The Route des Crêtes. This winding road follows the edge of the cliffs along a circular route. Before long, it becomes a single, one-way direction up to the point known as the Chalet de la Maline.
As you’d expect, it passes along the top of the gorge, but it’s not for anyone afraid of heights. We know the narrow roads and craggy edges are going to bring a love or hate moment. Soon we’ll find out which one it’s to be.
We take the turning off the main road and head upwards to the beginning of the cliff-top drive and our first parking place.
This is one of several viewing places along the route, allowing for regular stops to admire those views. We step out the van and head to the hand rail, separating us from the depths of the canyon below. My goodness – this is high! Even more incredible is the sheer scale of this place – it is simply huge.
Looking down into the vastness below, we both feel a bit queasy – crikey, this isn’t a place for those who don’t like heights!
Next, we’re driving along the single, one-way section of the route and we can see why they don’t allow 2-way traffic. There’s a mix of narrow, cliff-top road and craggy overhangs from the protruding rocks. There’s plenty of places to stop and enjoy the views, so we take most opportunities to do so.
The most memorable comes from one high section of cliff where a climber is making her way up the dramatic rock face. We can see the concentration in her efforts, every step, each movement of her hand gripping the grey cliff where only oblivion rests below.
Now many of you will know that we love a good walking route. The Sentier Blanc-Martel is named after the first people to navigate their way through the canyon. It starts at Chalet de la Maline and provides hikers with an incredible 16km one-way route through the Gorge.
Unfortunately, the walk involves catching a bus from nearby La Palud-Sur-Verdon to the start at Chalet la Maline. Then once you finish the walk at Point Sublime, you catch a separate bus back to La Palud-Sur-Verdon.
Normally of course, this wouldn’t be a problem for us, but with the virus in circulation, we decide not to risk enclosed spaces. This walk will have to wait for a less risky time. We’re amazed though at seeing large queues of people, waiting for buses, obviously not everyone is bothered by the virus.
As our drive along the Route des Crêtes ends, the road widens and the cliffs are left behind. Now, we emerge at La Palud-Sur-Verdon – a small village surrounded by hills and once green fields, slightly parched from the Summer heat.
After trying to park we have to give up. There’s no Aire and “Wild Camping” isn’t allowed in the National Park, although there is a campsite on the outskirts. It’s a shame we can’t find a place to park, although if we’d chosen to do the walk and catch the bus, we’d have stopped on the campsite.
Instead, we take the road towards the turquoise waters of Lac de Sainte-Croix – a firm favourite and one of our all time greats from motorhome memories.
It’s the first time we’ve approached Lac de Sainte-Croix from the direction of the Gorge, normally we’re heading from the North not the South of France.
I think the approach from the opposite direction is more dramatic, but all the same, Lac de Sainte-Croix is unmistakable in its glory.
This reservoir is blue as can be, unfortunately, the water levels are low at the moment, which leaves a lot of shoreline on view. Our previous visits with higher water levels, make it more appealing.
The big attraction of Lac de Sainte-Croix is the way in which the waters of the lake flow into the narrow depths of the gorge. To be honest, it’s one of the most beautiful locations and in Summer, the waters are busy with Kayaks and pedalos exploring the narrow chasms of the gorge.
I vividly remember the first time we set eyes upon Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. Turning the corner in our first motorhome brought us face to face with this incredible village. The building clinging to the rock face and dimly lit by night to provide a romantic glow. It’s no wonder this is one of the Plus Beaux Village de France or prettiest villages in France.
There was a dusty parking area at the base of the village, which allowed us to park up and explore its tiny streets. The next time we visited, a new Aire had been built, which is where we park for the night 15 years later.
It’s a perfect spot to explore the village, accessed from a footpath across the road from where we park. First though, I’m off for a run. I head towards open fields and a route leading a few miles to Lac Sainte Croix.
Above me, I notice paragliders winding their way to the ground, a display of bright colours bouncing off the evening air.
The following morning we take the path into the narrow streets of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. Best of all it’s market day and stalls selling local produce and crafts line the small spaces. It’s busy and hot, so people relax in the shade of pavement cafe’s while we take a path of cobble stones towards a cliff.
We’re careful not to slip because the stones are so shiny and worn, it’s like walking on ice. Hand rails do little to help our feet sliding from under us. We hope we stay firm and make it unscathed to the tiny chapel which clings to the cliff face in front of us.
Nigel remembers a time on our last visit, when he accidentally took an alternative path. Unbeknown to me, he ended up on a narrow ledge, clinging on for life from a sheer drop below! He still talks about his dice with death as he calls it.
Now, in the blistering heat, we make it to the beautiful little chapel with relative ease. Views from the exterior reach over rooftops of the village. Our eyes see the blue waters of Lac de Sainte Croix in the distance – it’s just a beautiful place.
Dating back to the crusades, these chapel walls and this historic village have long survived the events of history. Even the cobbles of the main streets on our return route through the centre bring some slippery moments.
Shoes with extra grip are needed for these parts, but the authentic element is more present with their smooth, glistening finish.
Above the village and hanging between two cliffs is a mystical golden star, its origins not really known despite several theories. Strangely, there it hangs on a 133m long chain, the first mention of it is found in the 15th Century. Despite a few legends, the real facts surrounding its arrival are still shrouded in mystery.
We’re back at the campervan having lunch. Next, we’re walking through the countryside on a marked walking route to Lac Sainte Croix.
This 2200ha lake is the largest in the Verdon. Above all, it was here on our first motorhome trip that we also had our first Wow moment!
Turning the corner from Moustier Sainte Marie, in our new motorhome, the lake came into view and we couldn’t believe our eyes. The water was as blue as can be, stretching out below the surrounding mountains and we knew then that we’d love this way of travel.
That has been the story of many an enthusiastic conversation, whilst selling the joys of van travel to those unaware of this incredible hobby.
Today though, brings a bit of disappointment from that first visit 15 years earlier. Maybe our travels have gone beyond the incredible beauty of Lac Sainte Croix? Perhaps the extraordinary busy shores bringing its discovery to the masses, has spoiled the remoteness of the past?
Whatever the reason, the low water levels may not help its appearance. Then on closer inspection, the shallow water develops a murky stir from enthusiastic swimmers, as they wade through the muddy silt.
It’s still outstanding in its beauty and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. Where the water leaves the lake and enters the narrow chasm of the Gorges du Verdon, there is no doubt just how beautiful the location is.
We’ll be back to take a closer look tomorrow. For now, a return along the same path takes us back to the van, just in time for wine under the cooler evening sky.
There is only one thing to do when the heat is on and that’s to cool off by the water.
So, after leaving the Aire behind and making use of the service point, we drive off down to Lac Sainte Croix. Gosh, this place is super busy!
Eventually, we find a place to park and take off to the shore line for a dip in the water. The silt makes an unpleasant feel between my toes, yet the water is warm so makes up for the mud.
The shore line is pebbles and is so popular, as is the pedalo hire, paddle boarding and kayaks. Most people venture off on the water, heading for the gorge which leads beneath a road bridge spanning the lake.
After drying off, we walk along the shore and up onto the bridge to take a look at the activity on the water. We can’t believe how popular it’s become here. Remembering years ago, how we parked in the motorhome on a July day with the place to ourselves.
Unfortunately, lack of toilets brings a messy mass of loo paper and everything else amongst the paths and bushes. Alongside are several motorhomes and campervans parked up – making them prime target of blame for the “outdoor loo”.
The Gorges du Verdon has become a bit of an Instagram favourite, so it’s no surprise that it attracts so many people. Unfortunately, the magical appeal it once had is no longer quite so special. However, it’s still one of those “must see” places in France, if not Europe in our opinion.
Leaving the beautiful landscapes of the lakes and gorge behind, we now head across to the classy village of Aiguines. Its location above the lake brings a more remote feel, yet its pristine appearance is obviously a welcome change.
Typically we fail to park in the village, and before we know it, we’re on the driving route that we had intended to do tomorrow.
Not to worry – this Balcons de Mescala is a route of winding, narrow tunnels, holed out of the rock above The Gorges du Verdon.
Luckily, it’s now evening, so the route is very quiet – maybe a blessing in disguise. This route is the opposite side of the Gorge to the Route des Crêtes. Effectively, taking us down the other side to where we’d driven a couple of days ago.
Once again, it’s one that really needs consideration before setting off. Checking measurements and reading about the route, along with taking into account the driver ability is really important.
We got information at the tourist office before attempting these routes through the Gorge du Verdon. More importantly, for us, we didn’t want to attempt them on past trips, when we had larger vans than the Sprinter we have now.
Soon, we arrive at The Auberge les Cavaliers. This is the starting route for the other big walking route in The Gorges du Verdon – The Imbut Trail.
We’d love to give this 5-hour return walk a go. Reading about the route and how it winds through the depths of the cliff, aided by steps, ladders and ropes built into the rock – it sounds terrifying and exciting at the same time! However, we have a problem because Nigel has well-worn tread on his hiking trainers and no spare pair! Unfortunately, he feels it’s not the time to be clinging to ledges – maybe that’s a good thing!
None the less, we park up by the Auberge and take a walk along the road to check out a hiking trail sign. If we wanted to do the trail, we could park up here and start early the next morning. It’s perfect weather forecast, but we choose to be sensible and not take a risk with that dodgy footwear.
Emerging from the Balcons de Mescala route, we find ourselves driving over a high bridge spanning the gorge. Next comes a pretty village called Tregance and luckily there’s an Aire where we spend the night.
Tregance is a quaint place and worthy of a stop. A morning stroll gives an opportunity to take a closer look along the narrow streets. There’s a remote feel to the location, surrounded by fields and hills and not much else, but it’s beautiful all the same.
Next, we plan to drive back to Point Sublime – remember that? Yes, we’re going full circle through The Gorges du Verdon but it’s for a reason.
What we really want to do is a section of the Sentier Blanc Martel, so to do this we’re driving to what is usually the finish – at the Couloir Samson end.
I’d asked at the tourist office beforehand, if it was possible to walk a section of the route. The staff said we could walk from here and return to sample some of the walk, without having to do the whole 16km and the issue of the bus etc.
Parking along the road is easy enough, although it’s busy, we find a free space. Next, we set off down some steps before crossing a bridge and into the bottom of the gorge. The river is alongside us and the cliffs towering around.
Soon, we reach tunnels, linked by a staircase we walk through the pitch black, our phone torch guiding the way. The longest tunnel is 670m, so it’s quite a trek before the daylight appears. Then we reach a shiny, jagged section of rock, the stone surface under foot is really slippy. There’s a handrail to help cross, but a sign warns of the 13km path ahead being for experienced hikers only.
What we hadn’t realised until now, was that this is a one-way route from here. To continue would be doing so in the wrong direction, something we couldn’t take a chance with.
More and more hikers were walking towards us, as we stopped and watched them cross the slippy rock. These would have begun at Chalet de la Maline earlier in the day and were now approaching the last few km to the finish.
If the ledges are narrow, with ropes to hold on to, then there could be little room for passing space. Last but not least, at such a height above the river, this could be dangerous.
Instead, we turn around and walk back the way we came. Realising we’d just have to call it a day and feel grateful for having seen a small section of gorge, we didn’t really mind.
Feeling as if we still want a good walk, we check out the alternatives and find something that sounds rather interesting. Driving to La Palud-Sur-Verdon, we take the road to Le Plan. Then a few km outside the village is Chateauneuf-les-Moustiers – an abandoned village.
What a treat this turns out to be. It’s in the middle of nowhere, with plenty of space in a marked parking area to park the van. We find a marked trail to the remains of the hilltop village, once home to 600 people back in 1836.
Now, all that remains is the empty ruins, reminders of a different life in this remote, yet beautiful landscape. The cemetery brings names to some of those who once called this home. Whilst the stone walls of home life still stand as a testament to those who lived within the walls.
As we stroll the ruins, we find an old Roman road, leading to the Chapelle Notre Dame. Built into the rock face, its remains are still accessible. We clamber up a rugged path into its natural, hollowed out remains – a fascinating place full of character.
It’s been a fascinating end to our time in The Gorges du Verdon. Above all, it shows there is a bit more to the area once you begin to look.
Finally, we re-trace our driving steps passing Point Sublime and the road back towards the gateway to The Gorges du Verdon at Castellane. It’s been an amazing part of our Summer tour and we’re glad to have seen this beautiful part of France again. Let’s hope we can return again soon.
Next time – Lac de Castillon.
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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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The last time we did The Tour de France by Motorhome, was on one of our first trips back in the mid 00’s. It became one of the highlights of the 6-week trip and one we never forgot. So, last Summer, when we came across a road closure sign for this incredible cycling race, we knew we wanted to be a part of the action.
Our tour of the French Alps is winding its way South, through deep gorges and high mountain passes. We’ve just finished driving the Gorges du Cians in the Alpes-Maritime region. Now, we find ourselves heading towards The Col de Turini, which by chance is the first mountain stage finish on the 2020 Tour de France.
First, we have to double check our facts. The last thing we want is to be turning up in the wrong location, especially as it’s a mountain pass. In other words – there’s lots of winding bends and steep inclines.
The Tour de France website, confirms the route is heading this way. Great! All we have to do now is find a turning off the main valley road, towards the village of La Bollene-Vésubie.
All of a sudden the sign for this small mountain village is upon us, but there’s a problem – a police road block!
Oh no – hopefully this isn’t stopping anyone going any further.
There’s no choice but to stop in front of the Gendarmerie, who come over to our campervan window to ask where we’re heading. “Le Tour et Le Col de Turini” we say, hoping, waiting for a nod that this is ok.
Thankfully, all is well! We’re told that no parking is allowed at all on the mountain route itself or at the summit finish. Instead we’re instructed to follow the signs at the summit for Camp d’Argent. Luckily, they confirm we can spend the night here in the motorhome.
I have to say, at this stage, we’re a little disappointed. Usually, motorhomes park up wherever there’s a spare strip of grass or a lay-by. Have you seen them parked along the route? For us, it’s part of the Tour de France package. According to the police, it’s only because it’s a mountain stage. So it sounds like you’d still be able to park on the flat routes.
Well, as it turns out, all is not lost. Because, The Col de Turini is actually in our road bible book of ” 1001 Drives You Must Experience Before You Die”.
Not only that, but the 22.4 mile route is famous for its connection to the early days of the Monte Carlo Rally. Apparently, wealthy car owners would be chauffeur-driven across this 1607m high mountain pass in style. The route has also featured in the series Top Gear, so surely this has to be one to tick off the “done” list!
Leaving the Gendarmerie behind, the road soon begins to climb. Unfortunately, the weather is a mix of drizzle and low cloud, meaning we don’t see the views at their best.
Before long we arrive at the hilltop village of La Bollene-Vésubie, where the roads are narrow and very busy. It’s a good job we’ve got a small motorhome. Navigating tiny spaces between parked vehicles between the narrow streets, leaves us squeezing though the smallest of gaps.
It looks like the kind of place you’d like to stop and stretch the legs, but today it’s chaos. To be honest, there’s not a hope in hell of finding a place to park the van.
The route up this mountain is long and steep, but it’s easily manageable in the Sprinter. Considering the most famous cycle race in the World is heading this way tomorrow, it’s surprisingly quiet.
By the time we reach the cold, damp summit the rain is setting in hard. We drive over the Tour de France finish line, gliding beneath the signs and onto the flat plateau of the summit. Now, this is where the cyclists will descend tomorrow, but for now, it’s a no-parking zone with police moving people on.
We look around us for the sign for Camp Argent, wondering exactly what we’re supposed to be looking for! Then we see it – pointing upwards towards fir trees alongside a hotel. The Gendarmerie wave us on, so now we’re heading towards this little hamlet just beyond the summit.
It’s a short drive up more mountain roads before we arrive at Camp Argent, a small ski area with a wide, flat parking area. There’s plenty of motorhomes already settling in for the night, so we join them, taking in a vacant place at the end of a row.
Afterwards, we contemplate those incredible athletes, using all that body power to push them up that mountain. How amazing and exciting it is to be able to watch their skills in action.
Waking up to fresh skies and sunshine is the perfect start to our day. The cyclists aren’t due to grace the summit of The Col de Turini until around 4pm. This means we’ll have a bit of a lazy morning, before walking down from Camp Argent later in the day.
All the roads are now closed off, with a 6am deadline for final traffic in and out of the area. It’s a good job we came up yesterday.
Unusually, it seems to be a relatively low-key affair. We walk along a tree-lined path to avoid the mountain road and soon emerge into the sunlight of the Col de Turini summit. The organisers are busy with final preparations, whilst the police and fire brigade work together to monitor the route.
We find a place right beside the barrier, with only small groups of spectators. We wonder if this is due to the virus or is it the location, maybe it’s a little too far out for some people to travel? Before we know it, the Police instruct those without a face mask to put one on. The atmosphere is relaxed but somehow it’s lacking the buzz of our previous Tour de France experience.
Our spot is just beyond the finish marker, giving a perfect view of the end of the uphill battle. Like all these kinds of events, it’s the waiting around that’s the worst part. It seems to be made even more boring now due to the restrictions of the virus.
We’re waiting in place for a few hours before things get going. First it’s the colourful Caravanne parade that sets the atmosphere and gets the crowd in the mood. This is like a carnival in itself. There’s an elaborate mix of sponsors from big name companies, driving their colourful floats along the route.
Of course, there’s those freebies too! Yes, everything from bottled water to keyrings, sweets and yoghurt pots descend upon us like misiles! Not to mention, the crowd desperate to get their hands on the loot.
Suddenly, helicopters appear overhead, the atmosphere is electric as they land on a nearby slope. Now the spectators bang their fists against the plastic barrier signs. There’s a drum roll effect, echoing around us as we await the first sign of those athletes appearing at the finish.
Nigel and I are now wearing the free polka-dot t-shirts and caps given to the spectators, we’re blending in well with the others on this mountain top.
Finally, there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon! Yes, the motorcades arrive, complete with TV crew, support vehicles and the very first cyclist over the finish line. Wow! It’s incredible and to top it off, these athletes are arriving looking like a breath of fresh air, despite the excruciatingly long, steep ride up this mountain pass.
Quickly following behind are the back up teams, bringing spare bikes and every other kind of accessory an elite cyclist needs. Their sponsor vehicles merge along the army of cyclists now descending on the Col de Turini. Next up is a fast flow of cyclists, the relief etched on their faces yet their bodies hardly noticing the effort.
Those faces of pain, pride and determination are willing the robotic structure of these men onwards. The ride to the top may be over, but this is just the first stage of the race.
What endurance these guys must have. If nothing else, the skill to be this physically and mentally able is one to be admired. After all, this is years of dedication, that will to take them to the top of their game.
Once the final cyclist passes through, our time has come to walk back to the van. It’s been a day of colourful excitement, above all, it reminds us that despite the virus, there is hope to return to a normal life again.
The one thing that you realise with these kind of events – they are over as quickly as they begun! So, before we know it, our day watching The Tour de France by motorhome has come to an end. This leaves only one thing – to leave the fabulous Col de Turini behind via the Routes des Grandes Alpes towards the Mediterranean coast.
Driving around hairpin bends, we reminisce of the bygone era of the original vintage rally of Monte Carlo. The views are dramatic, encompassing far reaching craggy cliffs, high mountain peaks and incredible forests of Mediterranean appearance.
As the road levels out towards the valley floor, we find an Aire to spend the night at the charismatic village of Sospel. We wonder how well those athletes will sleep tonight, above all, they’ve achieved more than we ever could in just one day. Yet, for those elite cylists, it’s just the beginning of their few weeks of extreme exercise. What an achievement!