The northern French Alps in September is one of my favourite places anywhere. Ten years ago, we were able to buy a little old chalet in a village on the route de La Plagne and I didn’t imagine just how much I would come to adore autumn here in the
The sun is still warm, hot even, but the light is now mellow and soft. The breeze, when there is one, has the merest hint of coolness and the night skies are deep and black and velvet studded with diamonds. When you leave the chalet to go anywhere you’ll be going either up or down as there really isn’t any flat up here.
One of our favourite walks is the nearby mountain track – up and up gaining height quickly via the steep route through the forest that flanks these magnificent slopes. We follow a trail that is maintained by the local forestières and volunteers and which ascends right up to La Plagne ski station (a big hike that takes almost 4 hours of uphill).
Just about a third of the way up the trail is traversed by a beautiful cascade of freezing cold water; meltwater from the snowpack high above. Where it crosses the path it’s possible to paddle your (by now extremely hot) feet or to go the whole nine yards and take a cold shower in the waterfall. It is truly one of the most joyful and life-affirming things to do.
The tumbling clear water, the trees, the dappled light, the sounds of the forest and the magic of high altitude combine to lift the spirits like nothing else. It’s a little bit of heaven.
Our mountain sojourn was part one of the three stage road trip we’re taking with our motorhome (aka The Van or Big Bertha). We spent a day loading up the van with supplies food, wine and factor 50! Then set the compass to south. There is a point as you motor steadily towards the Mediterranean, where everything starts to mellow.
The light warms up, the rooftops take on terracotta hues and shallower pitches that indicate lower rainfall, the vegetation becomes leathery and aromatic as broadleaf trees disappear in favour of pines, olives and other heat tolerant shrubs. Flowers pop with vibrant colours: pink oleander adorns the motorway central reservations for mile after mile.
There is cerise and purple bougainvilla everywhere as well as bright red giant hibiscus with their come and get me stamens and, my favourites, the imperial blue of the climbing ipomoea that scrambles over fences and up telegraph poles. We watch the kilometres click by, stopping for a picnic lunch at a service station where all the French families on our route seem to be doing the same whilst the few fellow Brits are availing themselves of the fast-food on offer.
The coastline hoves into view, spangly blue sea bordering endless blue sky. I look up and catch sight of a huge flock of storks circling high above us. We cross the border into Spain just after Perpignan, we are heading towards Barcelona, and I adjust my mental navigation from reading signs in French to signs in Spanish. On one side of the road is the sea and on the other row upon row of poly tunnels pumping out tons of lettuce and tomatoes to be enjoyed all over Europe.
I think about the very green tomatoes that are in my English garden and I hope that they are enjoying – and ripening – in the mini-heatwave that we left behind. We arrive at our campsite late afternoon and are pleased to see that the pitches are spacious and shaded by plentiful trees.
The beach is right across the road and I can hear the waves breaking gently. The Mediterranean looks so benign, it’s easy to forget how many lives are lost each year as desperate people make perilous journeys in small, overcrowded vessels, hoping to find a better life. It’s a sobering thought while you’re bobbing around in your bikini and suntan lotion. We spend the next hour or so setting up our camp for the coming week. It’s our home from home and the outdoor kitchen rig (portable gas bbq, portable gas cooking ring, kettle and frying pan) means that we can spend the maximum amount of time outside. However, our German neighbours make our set up look like a boy-scout camp with their array of outdoor appliances including a deep fat fryer! I’m secretly impressed at their devotion to chips!
Night falls quickly, it is now the autumn after all, we sit enveloped in a cloud of citronella to ward off bitey creatures and listen to an audiobook before heading into the van and into the deepest of sleeps, the sea breeze cooling is through the open (mozzie screened) window.
Barcelona, Biarritz and the Bay of Biscay
Although the beaches near to Barcelona could never be described as the best in the Med, there is a faded charm to a strip of sand at the edge of a working town or small port where locals take a midday break or after work dip in the warm sea. The advantage of staying in one of these places is not only the proximity to Barcelona but also the
unbelievable ease with which you can access the city on public transport. The bus and train connections are cheap and frequent.
I’ve been to Barca a few times but had never visited Parc Guell: Gaudi’s public gardens where it looks and feels as if Dr Seuss has taken on a Catalan flavour for several acres high up on the hill at the north of the city. We decided to walk from our bus drop off point in the city centre, swerving to take in the constant work in progress that is the Sagrada Familia – Gaudi’s masterpiece.
I had forgotten how steeply uphill some of the roads in the city are and we sweated our way upwards for a few kilometres before succumbing to giant tubs of divine ice cream (washed down with water-healthy option!) I’m glad we did because food and drink isn’t allowed inside the park (it isn’t sold there either) and, as a result, the vast tree lined terraces and hanging gardens are litter free.
The highest point in the park is a movingly raw rendition of the three crosses at Calvary. There are two stone hewn crucifixes and one pyramid shape atop a giant stone slab. Stark but accessible. I like it. The couple of hours we spent wandering through the park gave us an appetite and we headed downhill this time to the covered market off las ramblas where a zillion food stalls are all vying for your attention and choosing what to eat is not easy given all of the delicious options. However, as we were beside the sea and Spanish fishermen are not known for their restraint when it comes to harvesting marine goodies, a dish of hot,garlicky, lemony squid straight from the plancha hit the spot. I made sure to walk back to the bus stop with my head inclined towards the tops of the buildings – so much amazing architecture is way above eye level. You do need someone with you though to prevent you from walking in front of a bike or scooter.
Back at the campsite and after an excellent sleep (aided by a glass or two of Priorat, the local red wine) we packed down and turned our sights northwest towards the Pyrenees and Biarritz. One of the things I love about touring in the motorhome is that you can vary your route and where you stay according to your whims or those of the weather. We chose to drive the mountain route, through some spectacular gorges, to pop out on the other side in France. Well, more precisely, on the Basque coast at the southern end of the Bay of Biscay.
Surfer’s paradise, our new campsite situated on the cliff top at Bidart and looked out onto a vast sky and endless Atlantic rollers. It was high tide when we arrived and unusually calm so we went straight down to the beach to swim. The beach shelves steeply and the water becomes very deep very quickly. It’s beautiful and scary to feel all of that power moving you up and down as the gentle swells pass beneath you.
Getting out was a challenge – a grappling hook and a length of rope would’ve been useful. Instead the occupants of the beach were treated to our ungainly scrabbling as we hauled ourselves back up onto the sand. We’ll come back in at low tide tomorrow we thought. Which would have been feasible if we had had surf boards and knew how to use them! So we watched the cool dudes ride the breaks as we walked the beach to get to Biarritz.
The iconic casino stands high above the wide, golden beach and looks as if it should have expensive cars turning up, disgorging designer-clad beauties and James Bond lookalikes. But it was closed and the square outside was almost empty, most people having made their way into bistros for lunch (you never miss lunch in France. It’s the law,or something).
I think the howling wind – that had arisen from nowhere and was now sandblasting anyone daft enough to be walking near the beach – helped swell the lunchtime numbers too. We spent a pleasant hour or so in the bistro, enjoying people-watching and the view over the bay past the lighthouse. The wind dropped as suddenly as it had arrived and we were able to explore the old fishing port with its balustraded terrace cut into the rock face of a small cove within the larger bay where a class of school children were enthusiastically taking part in a paddle board lesson.
A far cry from my remembered swimming classes at our local baths – all chlorine and verrucas. I’ve loved being able to hear the ocean roaring day and night just a hundred or so yards away. Today the downpours of autumn rain have been of biblical proportions and that southwesterly wind has pulled up the most enormous waves that thunder towards the rocks and then the shore like runaway trains. Tonight we’ll watch a movie – Point Break – and then sleep with the surf pounding in our dreams.