Every choice has its consequences.
On Saturday morning if we’d continued as planned to Digne I’m sure it would have been good.
As it was we took a smaller road towards Moustiers and towards deep landscape joy.
The actual Verdon Gorge needs walking. Nonetheless our road, the D952, was utterly spectacular. The gorge is as much as 770m deep and glimpses of the river at the bottom are infrequent. The road clings to the edge, and is sometimes carved into the rock, thousands of tonnes of cliff threatening to drop onto the road.
Even in winter there were a fair few people out loving nature’s best.
At the end of 25 or so magnificent miles the gorge opens out to the lake (massive reservoir) of Sainte Croix de Verdon.
And it just gets better.
We pull into a little motor home parking spot below the village of Moustiers and gaze in awe at another village perched on the edge. This one’s more dramatic for having a church above it guarded by two peaks that are lit up at night.
Most of the village opens in April, but the shops canny enough to open on a sunny March Saturday were reaping the benefits.
It’s known for its earthenware, and every other shop is a studio selling heavily decorated pottery.
The French Aire.
France is known as a motorhome friendly country.
Most towns have dedicated motorhome parking with water and toilet facilities. Many have electricity too.
But it comes at a cost.
So far overnight stops have been priced at €9 a night.
However the French seem to resent having to pay in winter so we have followed their example by either parking nearby or not being able to pay (last night’s machine wouldn’t accept our card).
We saw a big increase in numbers of motor homes in Italy, and now in France it already feels like holiday time, we pass many and park with some every night. After the emptiness of most of Greece it feels quite communal.
I need to add to this section – we’ve since stayed in free town aires. At Le Puy en Velay there’s a dedicated space for six vans and the town’s clean public toilets and drinking water are opposite. The parking is right under the town’s main attraction, its church poised on a needle of rock.
Tonight the aire was free, and the town excellent.
Forcalquier has been a centre of thinking and artisan workshops for centuries. We had to pass on its many great looking restaurants, but we did enjoy the comforts of Le Bourguet, a busy bar on the main square, where we sampled the excellent local pastis called Henri Bardouin, and the local aperitif made from green walnuts called Noix Saint Jean.
On Saturday we’d been to the small market at Castellane.
Today’s at Forcalquier was a very different affair.
The market takes over the town.
People head in from miles around.
The bars are full, the restaurants busy, and the stalls are buzzing.
Leather goods and pocket knives are both made locally and many stalls sold beautiful examples.
Artisan bakers bring their superb, if teeth shatteringly crunchy, breads. We shared a pain au raisin that was nearly the size of my head.
Butchers, farmers, fruitiers, vignobles, nougat from Montellimar, candied fruits from the town, including the delicate hibiscus flowers in Minty’s picture below.
Rag traders display clothing by colour.
Book vendors offer as many as any shop, all displayed on pavements and trestles.
Pizza bakers are hard to resist. Oh, go on then, just the one. Ours from an ancient Peugeot van had a fab base, better than any we had in Italy (sorry Italy).
And Vietnamese. France took in Vietnamese long before England, and their oriental food of choice has long been influenced by this. We had the best spring rolls and summer rolls from a hectically busy couple who must have been preparing for market day all night long.
Cheese? Oh the cheese. Not the factory produced pap we see in the supermarkets at home, but ancient wheels of deep and complex flavours. Wonderful, and wonderfully priced too!
And rotisseries self basting chickens that smell so utterly delicious.
Everywhere away from the food the town is scented by Provencal lavender. In fact most of Provence is scented with lavender even this early in the year. We must come again when it’s in flower.
Could we live here? Oh yes! And rent is much cheaper than at home (it may be the only thing that is cheaper, but given that it’s the biggest expense that means more steak frites for Minty).
Greece and France – so very different, but both attractive places to settle.
L’isle sur la Sorgue.
Provence offers so many beautiful towns and villages. It seems that wherever we stop offers a calmer, more cultured and better fed life than that which we’re used to. And the 300+ days of sunshine a year make it rather attractive too.
L’isle sur la Sorgue is France’s antiques town, with more dealers than any other outside of Paris. It’s also rather pleasant having the river Sorgue flowing in and around it. You’re never far from the water, or a great restaurant and beautiful epicerie.
Just a little further west Avignon was planned in as a stop en route to Nimes. But we ended up staying the night, and then booking a second.
Seat of the pope for 69 years (hence Chateaux Neuf du Pape) and fine walled town, Avignon sits on the Rhone and radiates splendour.
Minty had read that motorhome break-ins are rife so we took the caution of parking in a campsite just over the river. For €4 we had security, loos, and a lovely walk over the bridge to town. When we got back to the van we decided to stay the night, and once we’d got the chairs out that was extended to another night.
Avignon is simply beautiful.
There has always been plenty of money here. Today the glorious buildings, shops, restaurants and food stores all reflect that. Although thankfully it’s not as expensive as some places we’ve stopped at.
We gazed longingly at plates of grilled fish served on new season asparagus, steak frites, fruits de mer and more. It may be rude to stare at people’s food, but if they will insist on parading such delights outside at pavement cafés how are we to help ourselves?
We didn’t visit the papal palace, but it sure looked good from the outside.
Across the river, on a small hill, there’s the Villeneuf, the new town. As new towns go, it’s pretty damn old, having been founded in the 1300s by the pope’s entourage who were fed up with life in Avignon’s then filthy walled city. Today both are well worth a visit, and our campsite, the Bagatelle, is ideally situated between the two.
€18 a night for an excellent site in a prime location seemed a bit of a bargain. It was hard dragging ourselves away, but we’ve now booked the van to have its water pump repaired and so have a deadline in the UK. We need to head north.
With bodies and clothes clean again we trundled gently along the D906, a green edged road that skirts the national parks of Cevennes and the Ardeche to arrive at Le Puy en Velay, another religious town.
It’s possible to drive for hours across dreadfully boring countryside in France.
It’s also possible to drive for days through stunning and varied scenery with towns and villages that yearn to be explored.
We chose the latter.
Until the need for speed forces us onto a motorway we’ll stick to the green routes, that policy has worked extremely well so far.
Le Puy en Velay.
Le Puy en Velay is one of the favoured starting points for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella and sure has Christianity at its heart.
We haven’t explored yet, but we parked under the Chapel Sainte Michel d’Aiguilhe last night – commissioned by a bishop to commemorate his pilgrimage in the 10thcentury (I’m sure we were still pagan savages in Cornwall then). It’s up a hellofalot of steps again.
It’s interesting how history credits old Bishop Le Put with having build the chapel himself, I’d be awfully surprised if he even lifted a stone.
There’s also a cathedral and two massive statues of Mary and Jesus – one of which was made from cannons seized during the Crimean War and donated but Napolean III.
We’re off to wander the streets of the town now so hopefully there’ll be more photos added to this post over the weekend.