Travel reports France
We waited a long time for this moment; ten years to be exact. At that time we finished our first world trip. Since then a lot has happened, we enjoy a fulfilled life; secure job, own company, exciting clubs, good friends and much more. It is therefore no surprise that the farewell will be emotional. Especially considering the current situation around Corona. We will often have to deal with travel restrictions in the future. Still, it feels right; which is why we leave concerns and fears behind and say “goodbye” for a second time. Thanks to Corona a big farewell party on a grand scale is canceled. A small forest party with a big campfire is just the right thing for us to toast again with good friends and family. In the morning at four o’clock we fall exhausted but happy into our new bed on four wheels. “Guys, we will miss you”.
At the same time, the final preparations are in full swing. The project started 5 years ago with the planning of the Expedition vehicle. 2020 is the year of completion. For the past three months we have already been living with friends and family so that we don’t have to deal with all the challenges of moving out of our apartment, de-registration, website and vehicle at the same time. This decision was definitely worth it, because as we all know, the devil is in the details. In particular, finalizing the vehicle took a long time. A little delayed we start our adventure at the end of January.
On the Road – with minor starting difficulties.
The big emotions only come when the time really comes. At least that’s how we experienced it. Despite huge anticipation, all the pressure relieves and you know there’s no turning back. The uncertain future as a result of the pandemic certainly also contributes to this. Step by step, we are getting used to life “on the road”, despite some initial difficulties. A departure check inside and outside is enormously important; if done carefully, it can prevent a full bottle of syrup from turning the floor into a sugar icing, for example. Stowing the car key properly while jogging is also an advantage, unless you absolutely want to complete a jog twice. The relief is great when the bunch of keys lies on a bench. Also annoying is that we bought the wrong I-Pad. Our navigation model therefore unfortunately does not (yet) work as desired. Read more in the “On the road” section. Further, locating places to stay is something we need to reacquire. After all, they are supposed to be beautiful places, not highway rest stops.
Annecy – French city of the Alps
After the French border – which we crossed without any problems, by the way, without the required Corona test – we spend our first night in Annecy, the city of the Alps. With its canals winding through the pastel-colored houses and the beautiful old town, it even reminds a little of Venice.
We are surprised by the many people moving through the alleys – after all, there is a pandemic and the general trend is “stay at home”. A first impression of the French flair “Savoir-vivre”already penetrates. So we also equip ourselves with regional products from the small specialty stores.
However, we quickly leave the alpine flair behind us. The warmth (a few degrees and no snow is quite enough) pulls us south. Winter camping is not our focus, despite a very cozy living space in our truck. One night on the city parking lot – where campers are allowed to stand 24 hours free of charge – is enough for us and we start towards the Vaucluse plateau. The only question is; highway or secondary road? Toll fee vs. diesel costs?
The decision falls on the overland route. The Vaucluse region attracts many tourists in spring and summer. Narrow streets – at least for our Whaly – already bring one or the other heart palpitations. Something we can slowly get into the habit of doing to get us in the off-road mood. Along the “Route Touristique” we cross huge lavender fields, olive groves, pine trees, nougat and wine growing areas – in the blooming season definitely a wonderful road trip. However, it is also worth a trip in winter. For us it was a liberating feeling to leave snow mountains and cold behind and feel spring spirit. Although it’s only a few degrees, it warms the heart and the anticipation builds more and more for our road trip.
In Le Barroux we make a small stop and visit the medieval castle, which was built in the 12th century and transformed into a Renaissance chateau in the 16th century. In 1929 it was purchased in ruinous condition by a private person and restored. France counts more than 40,000 castles from the 100 years war in the 14th century. In the 16th century – during the Renaissance period – the nobility and the kings settled in the castles and restored them. Even if Le Barroux is certainly one of the smaller ones; it is always a special feeling to stroll through the walls.
Luberon Natural park
The Luberon is a ridge stretching for 60km and we are immediately taken with the area. There is something mystical about the Provençal style with the stone houses, castle ruinsand completely extinct villages – at least now in January. Endless expanses and lush nature also make it easy to find places to spend the night. In contrast to other European countries – including Switzerland – a place can be found here and there. We often use the two apps “iOverlander” and “Park4Night”. This is also how we find our first place in the Luberon area. Wonderfully situated on a hill with indescribable sunsets and sunrises. On our improvised roof terrace we enjoy an aperitif and are speechless by the beauty and the feeling of freedom. For us, it is the moment when we have really arrived.
That it is also a top mountain bike spot was rather surprising. Sure we researched some tours in advance. On site, however, we come across countless well-marked trails and GPX tours to download. The French are well positioned in this respect. As passionate bikers, we already explored quite a bit in Europe; however, we did not expect to exceed these. All the better to rock the trails with a smile on your face.
The hiking boots are also laced up; after a 24 km round past the sights of the region we are exhausted in the evening. In the village “Fontaine de Vaucluse” we visit the largest spring in France; the fifth largest in the world. By far, we are not the only ones – once again we wonder if France has left the Corona pandemic behind. The “Sorgue Spring” is surrounded by a 230m high rock face. The deepest point is at a depth of 308m; 630 million m3 per year are ejected here. The water is so clear and wonderfully emerald green that we later take the liberty of filling up our water tank with it. Such opportunities need to be seized. Being the attraction in the visitors’ parking lot while pumping water – we’ll get used to that, too.
Irony or fate? We pass parts of the “Mur de la Peste” again and again. There is something special about standing at a wall in Corona times that was built during the last big pandemic. When the plague was smuggled in from a Syrian ship in 1720, the French built a 25 km long and 2m high wall to stop it. Exactly 300 years have passed since then and we are asking ourselves how long the current pandemic will continue to occupy us and which measures are more effective; the current ones or those of 300 years ago.
The combination of a wonderful place to spend the night and a top biking (as well as hiking) area moves us to stay a little longer. Instead of one “overnight stop,” it becomes six nights. That’s exactly what we look forward to – staying where we like.
Colorado or France?
The next stage takes us about 30km further to Rustrel – the starting point to the “Colorado Provencale”. Since we have not yet traveled to the USA, it is difficult to make a comparison. The “real Wild West” is probably x times bigger than the French version. Nevertheless, it is a small foretaste. Who knows how long we will be put on the rack until the Americans let us in. The ochre quarry, which was created by man and erosion, offers a fascinating color spectacle: from bright yellow to orange and red to terracotta earth tones. Along the hiking trail “Cirque de Barriès” we marvel at the colorful ambience. Natural rock is still used today in the production of arts and crafts; up to 20 different colors can be filtered from the rock.
The area can also be easily explored by mountain bike. Between Rustrel and the mountain village of Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, 9km away, brilliant trails line the hills. The altitude meters, however, can not be compared with biking in Switzerland. Technical climbs on trails rob us of more energy than paved roads or dirt roads. We are in our element; although fitness still has room for improvement. After all, we are at the beginning of the season, so we use the region as a small training camp to build up form.
After enjoying spring-like weather for the last few days, a cold front is now moving over us. Temperatures drop to 7° during the day and below freezing at night. This also lowers our spirits. The joy of hours of mountain biking is limited; it’s time for warmer climes. However, we are not leaving Provence in quite such a hurry. We would not like to miss the Verdon Nature Park. This is on the way to the coast, so we can enjoy the area without a major detour.
On the traces of lavender
The “Plateau de Valensole”is famous for its huge lavender fields. During the flowering season in summer, this sight is guaranteed to make hearts beat faster. The violet dream is unfortunately denied to us in February; but also the streams of tourists, which it probably attracts en masse in July. The plateau is especially known for its lavender honey. In addition, the oil produced from the purple plant is used for cosmetic products, perfume, cooking, as well as for medicinal purposes.
The Provençal mountain village is considered one of the most beautiful in France. Nestled in the mountains, this 5th century village offers a magnificent panorama. The main source of income of the village, besides the traditional faycence craft, is especially tourism. The fact that we can visit the narrow streets, the cathedral and church completely alone is nice; however, our hearts ache a little for the French. A soon return to normality is to be wished for such small villages.
The “George de Verdon” is also called the Grand Canyon of France. With its turquoise river “Verdon”, which meanders deep through the mountains, definitely a highlight of the region. Unfortunately, not for us. On both sides, winding mountain roads lead through the gorge, on which spectacular vantage points for dizzying views invite again and again. The prerequisite is that the weather plays along. Difficult in winter, as the humidity over the river probably often makes for fog and clouds. The winding roads are generally not for the faint of heart. In our case, aggravating that we are not very agile with our 10T trucks. Nevertheless, we try our luck on the southern route. The roads lead to an altitude of about 1’400m above sea level; we ignore the sign “snow chains obligatory” for the time being. Turned around we are fast. As we pass the first remnants of snow on the road, we also do just that. The risk becomes too high for us; our nerves too weak. Since we could not see anything due to fog, certainly a wise decision.
Somewhat disappointed, we leave the region in a hurry – now we’ve really had enough of the cold. We are all the happier when we reach the coast in Sainte-Maxime later in the afternoon. The next morning we can finally enjoy our breakfast with sea view while waiting for our laundry.
Although it is wonderful to get to see the sea, there is not much to keep us in the region. The bathing weather is still far away; besides, we like the inland just as much. A little trip to Saint-Tropez must still be in it. We combine this with some sport and prepare our bikes. The area looks promising, but we do not find any convincing tours. So we try it on our own. We find a very steep climb on a natural road and promptly a top trail for the descent. Saint-Tropez seems a bit extinct. Strolling among the yachts and dreaming of a next adventure is still fun. Who knows – maybe the next trip around the world will take place by sea.
Continuing along the coast, we venture onto the coastal road of the “Parc National des Calanques”. Once again a road that was not necessarily built for our 10T vehicle. At least that’s what the one or other oncoming vehicles probably think. In any case, we are somewhat relieved when we get over the final section with a 30% slope to Cassis. However, the view is magnificent; at least if the sun would show itself. The trails invite for excursions; due to the bad weather and not better prospects we move on.
Pont du Gard
From Marseille we accelerate our pace and bring a daily stage with almost 200km behind us. For us, that’s a lot. Most of the time we spend much less time on the road. Especially when driving on back roads, our progress with Whaly is slow. At the Pont du Gard we make a stopover. Once again a fascinating building from the Middle Ages. With 49m height on 3 floors it is a breathtaking sight. The ancient masterpiece supplied the city of Nîmes with about 20,000 liters of water per day through a nearly 50km-long aqueduct. Impressive and a great photo object.
With high expectations we travel to the Camargue Natural Park; a wetland where rice is grown and sea salt is extracted. These are more than fulfilled. Over 400 species of birds, including flamingos and cranes, bulls, white wild horsesand much more shall be seen here. Excited we spend the first nights at the edge of the small Camargue. The idyllic atmosphere on the Petit Rhône moves us to stay for two days. The white wild horses keep us company right next to our campsite.
We move on deep into the Camargue, enjoying the beautiful weather and the wonderful viewpoints. Coffee break on the roof terrace of Whaly, lunch on the edge of a pond with flamingos – this is how it can go on. In the afternoon we reach our destination: a magnificent campsite in the middle of nature with amazing sunrises and sunsets. Camping in the Camargue is tolerated, the park rangers come by regularly, but ignore us. In the high season, the peace and quiet is over. Due to the increase in campers, free standing is soon to be put a stop to. This, at least, is what we have heard. In any case, we enjoy it to the fullest and stay a few days. Armed with binoculars, we explore the area, observe the countless flamingos and toast to freedom as the sun sets.
Only the cranes are still missing on our list. When we almost gave up on it, we got lucky. After a short detour to Saint Marie de la Mer, we spot a crane as we continue our journey. Suddenly, hundreds appear out of nowhere. All of them fly to the same field. We do a few laps with Whaly and try to get closer somehow. Unfortunately, there is no getting through; the cranes seem to know this. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be so calm on the field. It was a great experience all the same.
Carcassonne is famous for its fortress “La Cité”, which dates back to the 1st century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We are very excited about this visit, as we are somehow fascinated by the castles of France. As soon as we arrive, we are overcome by the myth of Carcassonne. It is like a journey into the past. In the Middle Ages, up to 4,000 people lived in this impressive fortress complex. The hustle and bustle and the fights of that time can be imagined very well. Carcassonne was hotly contested and had to withstand many sieges. In the 13th century, the outer ring wall was built, which was supposed to make the fortress impregnable.
Thus, 3km of double ring wall and 52 defense towers were built, enclosing the historic old town. Once again, we enjoy this sight almost alone; on normal days, thousands of tourists must show up here every day. The small downside – the closed interior, which normally costs admission – we accept in return.
In the evening hours the fortress is illuminated. A visit is therefore definitely worthwhile in the evening. When we arrive at the Cité, we are the only ones far and wide. Probably it is due to the curfew from 18:00h. Since the fortress is nevertheless illuminated, and we will not pass here again so quickly, we ignore this for once. It’s almost a spooky feeling to stroll through the illuminated castle completely alone. We don’t see a soul, even hear the empty plastic cups wafting through the alleys. Breathtaking and impressive. For us, Carcassone is like Angkor Wat in Asia. Only that the story here is much closer, which is why it impresses us almost more.
It was our last trip in the five-week stay in France. Actually, we wanted to drive through in a few days to get to Spain. But France surprised us so much with its charm, romantic mountain villages, fascinating cultural backgrounds and great mountain bike tours that we enjoyed the extended trip enormously.