Thursday, 1 July 2010

A brilliant holiday, the wonderful French landscape and returning home

Well, that's it for another year then. Our traditional 2-week holiday in the south of France has come and gone, seemingly in the blink of an eye, and it is back to the grind. But what a wonderful holiday it was - perhaps the best ever. And, by all accounts, we did a good job of dodging the weather. I'd had reports that the spring had been very iffy, just about everywhere over the south of France. Summer must have arrived on the Cote d'Azur just about the same time as we did. And when we moved to Languedoc, the weather was still relatively cool and dull - but it got better almost as soon as we arrived, and was fantastic for the rest of the week.

Having previously holidayed in southern France at many different times of the year, from mid-May to late August and all points inbetween, I can now say with some certainty that late June will be our preferred time from hereon. Slightly too late for the spring flowers and some of the seasonal fruits, but the weather is generally more reliable. And, oh, the scenery! At most times of the year, the scenery in northern France cannot hold a candle to the middle and south. But this year, it looked a pretty picture from top to bottom. In fact, the traditionally long and sometimes tedious journey back to Calais was an absolute joy. Having departed Laurens at around 10 am, we headed to Pézenas to pick up a few bits and some provisions from the supermarket and fill-up with diesel. We then headed for a quick visit to Domaine d'Archimbaud in Saint-Saturnin (of which more in an upcoming post). Having originally hoped to hit Clermont Ferrand (200 miles up the A75 autoroute) by midday, we didn't actually leave Saint-Saturnin until 12.30, so we were already 3 hours behind schedule. Never mind - I had a cunning plan to avoid the nightmare of circumnavigating (or at least circumventing) Paris, despite the fact that TomTom always seems to send us that way. My plan was to set the destination as Rouen. You still get pretty close to Paris, but veer-off north-west at Versailles. The "normal" route takes you around (or very often, in our case, though) Paris, then on through the pretty boring Picardy and Pas de Calais countryside. The Rouen route is slightly further, but much quicker and much prettier.

As I say, France was wearing its prettiest clothes the day we returned. From the spectacular autoroute climb up the Pas d'Escalette and onto the Causse de Larzac, over the stunning Millau Viaduct, then uphill and down dale over the Massif Central to Clermont Ferrand, the weather and the scenery were stunning. If ever a motorway journey can be described as beautiful, the A75 is it. For around 180 miles, you climb as high as 1120 metres, and rarely get below 800 metres, through France's most remote and least-populated regions. One of these days, we will actually stop there to really explore this beautiful region, rather than drive straight across it.

The A75 autoroute climbs through the Tunnel de Pas d'Escalette - almost a kilometre long

Driving over the magnificent Viaduc de Millau -
- one of a select few man-made structures which actually enhance the landscape
(no, it isn't completely an illusion - it really does slope a little from one end to the other)

From Clermont Ferrand, you can see the volcanoes of the Auvergne in the distance. Then the roads flatten-out a little, and it is rolling countryside and vast open fields for the next 2 or 3 hundred miles. We hit Rouen just as the sun was beginning to set over the River Seine, which was a pretty sight. An hour or so later, as the last rays of daylight disappeared, we stopped at a service station for a comfort break - which is when I took this photo..........

A spectacular full moon rising over central Normandy, at the end of a long, hot, sunny day

Then it was a straight drive towards Calais, with the autoroutes by now virtually deserted (although the traffic had been relatively light and extremely fluid for the whole journey). We made our scheduled 00.50 ferry with almost an hour to spare - 730 miles in under 14 hours, including a supermarket visit, a wine tasting, a picnic lunch and a good few comfort breaks along the way. The most stress-free journey I can ever remember. The only downside was that we didn't feel as if we could stop for an evening meal, so we decided to eat on the ferry. Big mistake. The P&O ferry cafeteria menu offered either "traditional" fish and chips, half a chicken and chips or curry and rice, each costing around a tenner. I surveyed the line-up long enough for the man serving to ask "....still browsing, Sir?" No, I thought - I'm just trying to decide which is the least worst option. I opted for chicken, which turned out to be so dry it fell into a thousand pieces when I tried to cut it. The chips were hard to start with, and were like dried twigs by the time I'd managed to eat half of it. Goodness knows how many times this food had been reheated, but I can honestly say it was right up there with the most miserable eating experiences of my life. Diane's "traditional" fish and chips were equally bad. So, you learn something everyday - I never knew that the word "traditional" was a synonym for "dehydrated".  Frankly, P&O ought to be right royally ashamed for offering such pitifully bad "food". It was the worst 20 quid we've ever spent. A decent(ish) Cappuccino in the bar helped to ease the discomfort, before we disembarked and made the last (and always by far the worst) part of the journey.

As we docked in Dover, I sent a message to my son, Alex. "The Olds are back in Blighty. Party-off, dude. I want to see my house spotless." Back came his reply.... "Party's never off, dude. You won't believe how spotless the house is." Needless to say, we took his advice and didn't believe it - justifiably so, as it happens.

The 3 and-a-half hour drive back to Nottingham was - as always - tedious as tedious can be. For 2 weeks and 2,500 miles driving in France, we had not encountered one single traffic jam or motorway roadworks. Within the first 100 miles travelling back in England, there were 3 long stretches of roadworks (one of almost 20 miles) with 50mph restrictions and speed cameras on all of them. Welcome to England. :-(

At least the house was still standing when we got home at 4.45 am - not at all "spotless", but not completely wrecked either. Thanks heavens for small mercies!


Graham said...

Do the A75 Rouen route frequently but the way we go I would expect Calais to be 650m from Laurens so perhaps you'd better sell your SatNav. Sounds like you have two drivers which helps.

Mid to late June is a good time. May and July are chaotic with holidays and May weather is unreliable. On the seasonal fruits strawberries are past their best and cherries at the end - but that's all.

Leon Stolarski said...

Graham - Some of those extra miles can be put down to our detour via Pézenas, then a detour to Saint-Saturnin, then (before Rouen) to a detour for supermarket diesel - at which point we got lost slightly (I don't think TomTom can be relied upon to find Auchan)! I think our total trip (including the UK leg of around 225 miles) was 930 miles, so about 705 for the French leg.

I think we're agreed on late June, though.

AlanM said...

That's still some going Leon. We always have a couple of days in Burgundy or the Loire (for vinous reasons) to split the journey. But then we have to get back to Durham which is another 350 miles from Calais.
As a teacher the end of June sounds delightful as you won't be crowded by families and children everywhere. Roll on retirement (if the government allow it that is)

Graham said...

Trust the length of the journey home and return to work hasn't wiped you out too much. How's the Archimbaud observations going? I sampled the Enfant Terrible 2008 in an olive grove at over 30 deg and much enjoyed its juicy fruit and spice.

Leon Stolarski said...

I know I've been a bit lazy (or do I mean busy?) recently, Graham, but I will be back posting regularly very soon. I opened a bottle of Enfant Terrible myself, last week. Tasting note to follow. ;-)