Day 96: A surreal(ist) day!

Waking to views over impressive Spanish mountains, it was soon time again to brave the very narrow mountain roads (and crazy Spanish drivers!) and head on to our next stop. I have to say that I was already looking forward to getting onto some wider roads as even after covering some serious miles in our trip (not far off 6,000 now I think!) and driven on some ‘interesting’ roads, these really were hard work and not for the faint-hearted! So it was with great relief that we made it out of the mountains and found ourselves in one of the homes of Dali, Figueres.

As is now the norm parking the BFG can be a bit of a pain, so we found ourselves in a spot that had less than glowing reviews, but was free, seemed safe enough (there were other campers around) and was just a 10 minute walk from the main focus of the day, the Dali museum. I’m not really much of an ‘arty’ person (I generally leave that to Blaise), but I do find Dali’s work interesting so I was looking forward to learning more about both the work and the man.

To pre-empt what I’m about to say, it was peak season so we did expect a bit of a tourist scrum but……..as we joined the queue to get in, it was one of the first of a few reminders as to why we normally visit places like this well out of the main season!

After about 40 minutes we were in and with map in hand, set about making our way around this massive collection of the weird and wonderful images and sculptures to come out of the mad mind of Dali! The building that houses this collection is a work of art in its own right, but sadly not designed for the masses of people all trying to squeeze through the narrow corridors and into relatively small exhibition rooms!

Elbows sharpened and trying my best to stay calm we worked our way around and I was surprised by the range of styles that Dali produced having only seen the famous surrealist pieces.

Had it not been so busy I would have happily spent most of the day in there however I’m not great in crowds at the best of time (ask Blaise about me and shopping in London!) so having popped our heads in every room, and with my head about to burst from the amount to take in, made our escape!

After grabbing a quick snack of fartos (ha ha, nothing like a good fart joke!) we made our way back to the BFG and were pleased to see that she was fine and fully intact (I subsequently read of reported break-ins at the parking spot, but fortunately not today!). A quick spot of lunch and it was time to get back on the scorching road to our stop for the night.

On our way to the campsite it looked like the weather might be turning to give some cooler temperatures, as we heard thundery rumblings in the hills and saw the odd spot of rain, but it remained stubbornly hot! Checked in and parked up, we set about the usual tasks of consuming caffeine and getting logged onto the wifi so that we can keep you lot up to date!

Blaise left me in the van to head down to the communal area where we could get the wifi, and it was at this point that the heavens fully opened, turning the track up to our pitch into a mini river! After what seemed like a very long time Blaise returned having updated the blog and with a rather disturbing story of two young Spanish girls who decided that Blaise was their new best friend and that it was ok to follow her around and even talk to her when she was on the loo (despite them speaking no English and Blaise no Spanish)! Later that evening I also had the pleasure of meeting these two – if you want to get a true idea of the experience, just watch ‘The Shining’ and you’ll get the idea!

After all of this it was still super hot, so dinner eaten and sweating continuing we rested our heads, trying not to dream of Steven King films!

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Day 95: Cathar castles and crimson ladies!

After a rather windy night’s sleep on top of the mountain – where I think we both thought the BFG might blow over! – we woke again to yet more cows outside the van! A quick bite to eat and it was back down the mountain and south towards Spain, however not before we explored a little more of the Pyrenees-Orientales.

Sat nav set us on the quickest route and having had a look on the map it looked like it would be quite a nice scenic route, but nothing prepared us for the stunning gorges and pretty villages the windy road took us through. After limboing the BFG under some rather low overhanging rocks we made a stop in Marsa in search of coffee, however this sleepy village was too sleepy to have a cafe or bar and after a nosey around the narrow streets we headed on.

Luckily Puilaurens-Lapradelle, with it’s historic chateau, proved to be a little livelier and we managed to grab a couple of coffees in a sweet little cafe overlooking a viaduct and church.

From here we continued on the one of the famous cathar castles my Dad had recommended visiting and were soon looking up at the ancient Queribus castle perched on the hillside overlooking the Pyrenees.

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As I’m sure you know by now the BFG isn’t a fan of going downhill so we decided to park at a lower parking spot and walk the rather steep 2km up to the castle (in temperatures nearing 40 degrees!). Whilst this was good for the BFG, giving her a well deserved break, it did make for two very sweaty travellers when we eventually arrived at the top. I have never been so happy to see a ticket office that also sold ice creams!!

Tickets and cornets bought we continued up to the castle itself and were soon looking out to magnificent views in all directions.The Queribus castle is one of the ‘five sons of Carcassonne’ helping to guard the French-Spanish border from the 13th to 17th century and it was hard to imagine what life in the castle must have been like at that time.

After a much nicer walk back down to the BFG we were soon back on the road and nearing the Spanish border when we hit an unexpected traffic jam. Thinking they must be getting stricter with border checks, we prepared ourselves for a bit of a wait and after thirty minutes or so of crawling along began to feel like two sweaty dogs left by their owners in the car!!

As we reached the last French town before the border we were surprised to discover the delay wasn’t due to border checks, but bargain hunters keen to get their hands on cheap goods before they crossed the border!! The photos really don’t do justice to what this town (if you can call it a town, as it seemed more of a glorified shopping centre!!) was like! There were people everywhere – in shops, on the pavements, in the middle of the road – carrying bags and bags of tat. Every shop seemed to be selling cheap knock offs or tacky souvenirs and it was such a departure from the charming French towns we’d seen over the last few weeks!!

On crossing the border into Spain, France definitely took the upper hand again as we began a fun car game of ‘spot the prostitute’! It seems it’s not illegal to sell yourself in Spain (only to buy) resulting in ladies touting their wears on the side of the road. In the very short distance before we turned off the motorway we spotted 2.5 prostitutes (I’m not sure if the third was just a semi naked couple having an argument on the side of the road or a prostitute and her client!!), 2 strip clubs and 1 brothel!

As we headed away from the motorway we soon found ourselves driving along lush mountains roads, before reaching our stop for the night – a campsite hidden away in the hills that was accessed by roads that were not made for a van the size of the BFG! Luckily for us Rob was able to calm his nerves after the sketchy drive by sharing a bottle of local red wine – for a bargainous €6!! – whilst we rinsed the free wifi to plan our next few days in Spain.

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Day 93-94: A tale of many (many!) towns…

Having spent three weeks (!!) in Lamalou it was finally time to head south and after a lot of faffing we’d decided to spend a few days exploring the far west of the Languedoc-Roussillon area before crossing the border into Spain.

Despite Dad having lived in South East France for eight years the only place either of us had visited in this area was Carcassonne so we made a vague route to visit some towns we’d heard were pretty/interesting/had good walks/riding opportunities and went exploring…

We set off west and soon found ourselves driving through the pretty towns of Prémian and St Pons, which were barely 45 minutes from Lamalou!! From there we headed through one of our favourite wine growing areas, Minervois, where I think it’s safe to say we both thought the wine was far superior to the landscape.

A brief stop in Limoux to grab some food and stretch our legs revealed a lively town centre where a brass band played ‘classics’ like The Beach Boys in the sun-drenched square. We had a wander around the village – snapping away – and were soon following the sounds of yet more local music coming from further up the river. We had a stroll along the river banks and soon found a spot to sit and relax, where we scoffed chouquettes whilst listening to a french version of Bare Necessities!!

From Limoux we continued our whistle-stop tour of the Aude region, taking in Alet-Les-Bains (again a very pretty hamlet with an old ruined abbey) and Rennes-le-Château (a pretty village high in the hills, but seemed like a weird tourist ‘hub’ with no real heart or sense of community) before arriving at our home for the night in Rennes-les-Bains.

With another full day of exploring ahead of us we decided to stretch our legs before hitting the road and went to play in the hills near our campsite at Rennes-les-Bains. We set out on a lovely (if steep) walk up the hill on the other side of the valley which gave us some fantastic views, before heading back to the BFG to pack up and head off.

The first stop today was Couiza which we found to be strangely deserted (as if all it’s inhabitants had run away following a zombie invasion!), before coming to the much livelier (although everything is relative here in this pocket of France) village of Espéraza. With the two big town attractions being a dinosaur and a hat museum we decided to plough on and reached the charming town of Quillan around lunchtime.

Quillan is a busy little town, situated on the banks of a river and home to lots of cafes and bars that line the squares and streets. After stumbling upon a street party to celebrate the jour de fete (public holiday) we decided to go in search of some food of our own and were soon scoffing lunch in one of the main squares.

Suitably fueled it was back on the road again for another whirlwind afternoon in the Aude region, this time visiting Puivert (super quiet with the only things to note being a lake and an afgan restaurant!), Chalabre (larger than Puivert, but the only life seemed to be at the local bar), Roquefeuil (literally nothing there, not even a boulangerie!), Belcaire (seemed amazingly busy after Roquefeuil and was home to a boulangerie, bouchers, corner shop and climbing wall!!) and Camurac (surprisingly home to a ski resort, complete with chair lifts!!).

As we didn’t arrive into Camurac until early evening we decided to scrap our planned campsite and try out a spot we’d seen on Park 4 Night so after a rather shady journey in a biblical downpour of rain and via some twisty, turny roads we arrived at our stop on the top of the mountain ready to meet our neighbours for the night – a herd of cows!!

Day 88-92: Moule, merriment and moving on!

With the house of GUB now back to a more grown up state (although some may disagree!), it was time for me and Blaise to start thinking about the upcoming weeks. However as we all know, you can’t plan on an empty stomach so it was back to the institution that is the salon de thé for coffee and cake (and a catch-up with some of GUB’s friends). Caffeine and calories inhaled one more time, there was one other task to carry out before we could crack on with planning and a little more relaxing.

In a vague effort to cover a few of the costs of our travels, we had arranged to help with the ‘vendange’ (grape picking) at the vineyard that supplied the wine for our wedding, so we headed down to the little hamlet of Faugères to confirm when we were needed and find out what the plan was. It turns out that they start pretty early, so we are now preparing ourselves for 6am starts in a few weeks time – a bit of a change of scene compared to the more ‘relaxed’ mornings that we have been able to have recently!

Tuesdays also mean time for another Lamalou tradition – all you can eat moule night! We’ve been enjoying the silliness of this for a few years now and it is always good fun! There is always a good mix of locals and tourists and this evening was no exception. After consuming our own body weight in moule, frite, pain and a drop or two of house red we hit the hay, vowing to do something more energetic the next day!

The next day came around very quickly and with a house free of little balls of energy (I have no idea how Lindsey manages it!) no-one surfaced until late morning. A gentle start to the day lead to a walk up to an old church behind GUB’s house which gives great views over the valley – unfortunately for us, Blaise’s phone storage was getting close to full so the only photo we managed to take before it decided enough was enough was this one!

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We’ll just have to do the walk again when we’re back in Lamalou in September and post some photos of the view then! So with our excerise done, it was time for a quiet evening and early night.

As some of you may know Blaise is not the most confident of cyclists, with me being something of a cycling nut! To help with the ongoing learning process for Blaise, the plan today was a trip along the Voie Vert (Green Way), an old railway line that now runs for about 75km connecting local towns in the area.

My pupil did a great job, and we spent an enjoyable couple of hours cruising along enjoying the views and working up an appetite for a return visit to Petite Abbeye so that Blaise could enjoy a dinner out and finally have her favourite (and incredibly good!) chocolate fondant dessert. The evening was great fun; again meeting up with some familiar faces, enjoying good conversation, food, wine and some ‘interesting’ music and dancing in the street that takes place a couple of times a week over the summer in the town. At times it looked like we were watching a cross between Strictly Come Dancing and a drunken school disco as different dancing styles literally collided!

It was very nearly time to move on, however I first had a very important task to take care of. The BFG had been sporting a windscreen that had seen better days for some time now and today was the day to get a new one fitted. Leaving Blaise at GUB’s, I made my way to the nearest big town of Beziers to meet my appointment with a new screen. Some successful Frenglais and a couple of hours later, the BFG had a lovely shiny new windscreen – I’d forgotten what it was like to look though something that wasn’t covered in scratches, cracks and had what looked like a bullet hole in it!

On my return, Blaise had completed more posts for your delectation (which you have obviously all read by now!!) and the remaining day and a half was spent slowly collecting our belongings that were spread around the house (space is amazing!), re-packing the BFG, some final planning and a last supper before part two of la grand aventure commenced.

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Day 86-87: We ♥ vodka (and cake and diggers…)!

Team Mitchell had been in France for nearly a week and still not made it to the famous salon de thé – Lamalou’s best coffee and cake shop (which also uses my mum’s lemon drizzle cake recipe)! That had to change and with everyone now feeling 100% we headed into the village for coffee, cakes, biscuits and pastries!! Rob went for his classic pain au chocolat, Dad tucked into a paris breast and Lindsey and I shared a millefeuille and some sort of dangerous chocolate affair!

With the children now wired on mini pistachio cakes and biscuits we headed down to the japanese gardens – via a flea market in the town square – and let Uncle Robin entertain his mini me whilst the ‘grown ups’ (me, Lindsey, GUB and Tabitha) discussed important things like dinosaurs, turtles and poo!

Another leisurely afternoon followed before Rob served us a delicious dinner of moules and potato gratin, happily washed down with a bottle or two of wine…

Heads a little sore from the wine last night we were up early today to reattempt horse riding before Lindsey and crew headed home that afternoon and I’m happy to report success!! Tabitha was quickly introduced to her horse ‘Vodka’ – quite apt given how Lindsey’s head was feeling – and after a little patting and brushing was sitting in the saddle ready to trot off! With the French known for their blasé approach to health and safety it was little surprise that GUB was simply handed the reins, given brief instructions on how to stop the (thankfully bilingual) horse and told to bring him back in half an hour or so!

With Tabitha and GUB leading the way we all trotted along after them thinking this morning would be mainly be about the horses, so imagine our delight (well Murray’s mainly) when we spotted a digger and the nice owner invited Murray sit in the cabin.

Horses ridden and diggers sat in, all that was left now was a quick stop in town to grab a few last minute souvenirs, before heading back to the house to pack everything and everyone into the car and head off to the airport.

After a brief detour into a fire station car park so Murray could check out the fire engines we arrived at the airport to wave our visitors goodbye. The week seemed to fly by far too quickly, but happily I already have a movie night planned with Tabitha for when we’re back home to watch Inside Out (and apparently if we’re lucky Mummy will let us eat our dinner on the sofa too!)!

Day 84-85: Down on the farm…

Unfortunately today it was Rob’s turn to feel ill, so we left him resting at home whilst me, Lindsey and GUB took the kids to a local playground in Le Poujol. Children entertained and adults amused with ice cream it was back to the house for another lazy afternoon and evening at home.

The next day – and with Rob still not feeling on top form – we decided to go back to Plaisance to complete the last third of the walk. With GUB navigating we soon found the start, where the kids hung about on the monkey bars before getting very excited by the goats, donkeys and pigs that lived next to the path!! A little more walking, balance beaming and nature spotting followed – this time in the form of a luminous green caterpillar – before our tummies began to rumble and we headed home for lunch.

Knowing of Tabitha’s love of horses, earlier in the day we’d sent GUB on a mission to the equestrian centre just outside the village. Unfortunately they were full in the morning, but said they might be able to squeeze us in that afternoon. So with bellies full we packed everyone – except Mr Sick – into the car and popped down only to find them closed!

Not wanting to disappoint the mini people with the lack of horse riding, we decided to head back to the playground at Le Poujol and I think everyone was super excited when GUB spotted a battered old tractor right next to the car park!! Murray and Tabitha were soon happily amused ‘driving’ the tractor, beeping pretend horns and getting absolutely filthy (check out the Tabitha’s black hands!!).

A little sliding, swinging and seesawing in the playground followed – with a cheeky beer from the bar next door for the grown ups – before it was back home for BBQ number two of the week!

Day 83: Gorges, gateau and gastroenteritis

Now that GUB was here the fun could really start so we decided to venture down to Gorge D’Heric to paddle in the pools and enjoy a picnic. With not enough space in the car for all six of us – and Rob keen to check out the new bikes in the local hire shop – me, GUB and Team Mitchell packed ourselves into the car whilst Rob rode down to join us. After a brief stroll up the path we found the perfect spot and set up base for the morning, on a little beach next to the river.

Feeling brave Tabitha and Murray were soon paddling in the surprisingly cool water, with the grown ups following shortly after. Tabitha showed off her swimming skills and managed to go from one side of the pool to the other despite never having swimming lessons, whilst Murray seemed more amused at being repeatedly dunked in the water!! With appetites worked up we decided to dry off (and warm up!) in the sun and snaffled our picnic, before Rob headed off into the hills for a ride. Once again the excitement got a bit much for Master Mitchell and he was soon asleep on Lindsey’s shoulders on the walk back to the car.

After an all too brief nap at home it was back to child entertainment duties, this time involving Mum’s old fitness swiss-balls and the super steep slope down from the kitchen to the paddling pool!

I’d love to say we all then had a fantastic evening at my favourite restaurant in Lamalou, however unfortunately I think the excitement of seeing people other than Rob got too much for me and I spent most of the evening either throwing up or feeling very sorry for myself whilst Rob sent me pictures of the food I was missing out on (and judging by the shots Mr Bailey’s photography skills aren’t as good after a few glasses of vin!!)! Still we’re back in Lamalou for grape picking in the autumn, so I’m hoping for plenty of other opportunities to visit Petite Abbaye!

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Day 80-82: The adventures of the famous five (and GUB!!)

Having spent two months on the road with the only familiar faces we saw being via Skype it felt strange to be seeing so many in close succession! However having seen Rob’s cousin and extended family in La Tania, my best friend Lindsey and her two children now about to fly over to stay at my Dad’s house in Lamalou and my Dad arriving back from a road trip in the US this brought the tally up to nine!

House childproofed(ish), nappies bought, sign made and ankle healed the only thing left to do was to pick up Team Mitchell from the airport. After a lovely, quiet drive to Montpellier – no rattles and crashes in Dad’s car compared to the BFG! – we took up prime position at the arrivals gate and waited for our guest to arrive.

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After a few false alarms (Is that their buggy? No wait it’s a baby girl!) and a bit of celebrity spotting in the form of children’s TV presenters Dick and Dom, Lindsey and crew arrived from luggage pick up looking a little frazzled (well it was nearly 9:30pm and Murray had somehow managed to get his foot wedged in the bag trolley) but very happy to be à la France! We were soon packed into the car and winding our way through the now dark roads, arriving back in Lamalou to carry the thankfully sleeping children into bed and crack open a bottle (or two) of red wine to celebrate their arrival!!

The next morning, with everyone feeling refreshed, we headed off to explore the town in daylight and being a Tuesday the first stop had to be the market! With stalls selling everything from bad French clothes, local honey, olives, wooded kitchen utensils, oysters, kitch accessories and tupperware we had a slow meander through, wrestling Murray away from dogs and Tabitha from glittery cat purses!

A trip into the boulangerie to grab some bread and pastries and it was back to the house for a leisurely afternoon of grazing on our spoils from the market, cooling down in the paddling pool, sunbathing, creating the best ‘Welcome Home’ sign Great Uncle Bob will have ever seen and generally catching up!! As the light began to fade we enjoyed a BBQ (and a few more bottles of wine!) under the pergola whilst putting the world to rights!

Hoping to wear the kids out enough for a good afternoon nap in preparation for the arrival of Great Uncle Bob (GUB), we decided to try a walk we’d done a few years ago with Mum and Dad. We happily found our way to Plaisance – once Rob had put the right one into sat nav – and even managed some tour guide style commentary on the way, however finding the start of the route proved to be a little trickier! After two failed attempts at directions from the locals at the little cafe by the car park one friendly chap offered to drive Rob to the start point and soon we were strolling along the super flat path amusing ourselves with the ‘sportif’ activities! For anyone that hasn’t experienced a ‘route sportif’ before, expect a flattish walk with various activities on route – this one involved balance beams, chin up bars and weird handstand frames!

After getting about two-thirds of the way along the route we decided to head back to the car as Murray began to fade – to the point where he fell asleep on Lindsey’s shoulders – only to be wide awake again when the words ‘ice cream’ were muttered back at the little cafe!

Back home the final preparations for GUB’s arrival were completed, including hanging up the banner and making chocolate cornflake cakes with smarties on top!! Then the evening’s mission began – how to entertain, but not overexcite, two small children whilst we waited for our weary traveller to return! I don’t think we’ll win any parenting awards for it, but YouTube videos of diggers and bikes seemed to work nicely!!

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At about 8:45pm we heard a car pull up outside the house and GUB arrived home to find five more people in his house than when he left – some bronzed, some tipsy and some wearing their best glittery pjs! With the mini people shipped off to bed as soon as GUB had tried one of the cakes, we settled into an evening of curry, bubbles and catching up after what had felt like far too long a gap…

Day 71-79: Our home from home

After Dr B-L’s prescription yesterday we left the Ardeche early and set off in the direction of Lamalou; winding our way down narrow lanes and through pretty villages it felt bitter-sweet as we’d hoped to explore the area much more and not just see if though the windscreen, however I’m sure we’ll make it back there someday (and this time with all our limbs working!)!

We continued on past fields of sunflowers, glistening rivers and stunning mountain ranges before stopping for a coffee in a tiny little village and soon saw signs for places we recognised! Before long we were skirting the north of Montpellier and onto the well-driven road that would take us to our home for the next few weeks, Lamalou-Les-Bains. It felt strange to be back in a house so soon after leaving La Tania – especially in an area we know so well – however my ankle was still super sore and stiff meaning I wasn’t good for much other than sitting!

The next few days won’t make for exciting reading so I’ll keep this short and sweet, however ‘highlights’ of the week include:

  • Rob’s new bike wheels arriving

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  • Finally learning to cook quinoa properly – apparently the secret is to dry roast it first!
  • Having a conversation in French with my Dad’s neighbours that involved more speaking than miming! Okay so it was only about bins and when I needed to put them out to be collected, but it’s still a win in my book!
  • Lots (and lots and lots) of blog writing
  • Sign-writing ready for the Mitchell invasion
  • Rob setting a PB on his now annual Notre Dame de Capimont run
  • Providing photographic weather reports to help Lindsey pack!

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  • Sampling a few bottles from Dad’s wine cellar and checking out the local cheeses – purely to make sure we were well informed for the imminent arrival of our guests 🙂
  • Doing bucket loads of washing
  • Amusing ourselves at how very big the BFG is – or how very small Dad’s van is depending of how you look at it!

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  • Childproofing the house
  • And finally, a trip to the salon de thé at the end of the week to reward ourselves for our hard work!!

Day 70: Le Tour (and a detour!)

So it was finally time to leave our lovely hosts at Chalet Leman and head off west, but not before trying to catch a glimpse of Le Tour De France. Leaving a slightly grey La Tania we saw some awesome clouds on our way down to the valley and decided to pull over for a few snaps. I must have been feeling overexcited at the thought of seeing all those men in lycra later on as I wasn’t really concentrating when I jumped out of the van and managed to sprain my ankle! Lots of hopping and a few choice words followed, before I hobbled back to the van – photos taken 🙂 – and we drove off to Albertville.

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Phil had recommended a good spot to park the BFG in Albertville – thank god, as it would have been a bit pot luck otherwise – which was an industrial area on the outskirts, so we had a quick look in Intersport (coming out with a new bag, approach shoes and water bladder!) before heading into the centre. Luckily my ankle was feeling okay, so we have a slowish wander into the centre and soon found the start line by following the team cars, balloons, flags and general noise!

We had an hour or so before the start so went in search of the best spot to watch and, point picked, went to grab some much needed breakfast. Bellies full of coffee and croissants – and having explored the pretty town centre some more – we headed back to our vantage point where Rob got all David Bailey with camera settings to ensure he could capture the perfect shot. Soon we could hear the crowds further down the road rumbling with excitement and before we know it Froome, Sagan, Majka et all whizzed past!

It was great to finally see the tour in France having seen it in both Crowborough and Tunbridge Wells back home, however next time I’ll leave photography to Rob ‘Bailey’ Bickerton-Leman and simply enjoy the (very quick) moment!

Tour over we (well I!) limped back to the van and set our sites on our next stop – the Ardeche. With a week before my best friend and her two children were due to arrive at my Dad’s house in the Languedoc region we planned to explore the Ardeche and Cevennes on route, however my ankle decided to thwart any plans to explore by foot or canoe and by the time we arrived at Vallon Pont d’Arc I could hardly put any weight on it.

With a broken wife, soaring temperatures and a (nearly) full campsite as we came into peak season, Dr B-L recommended the following course of treatment – rest and recuperation at Casa Bob. Despite confidently saying I’d be fine to canoe still I know Rob was right, so we settled into a film night – the van squeezed into the last free plot on the site – ready to head off in the morning…