Monday 2 November 2015

More Time along the Côte d'Azur: St. Paul-de-Vence to St. Tropez

France, 20th – 23rd October 2015

When we’d arrived at our overnight spot at Saint-Paul-de-Vence, we really hadn’t been expecting a great deal.  After finding a lack of places to stay in a motorhome around the stretch of the Côte d’Azur between Nice and the Italian border, we’d simply been relieved just to find somewhere to spend the night that was quiet and wasn’t going to cost us a fortune.  Seeing as we were in the area, we decided we might as well find out if there was anything around and it’s safe to say we were pleasantly surprised.

St. Paul is a fortified hilltop village with sweeping panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, and it’s full of narrow—you guessed it—cobbled streets.  I know we’ve seen more than our share of cobbled streets from our wandering in Italy, but St. Paul felt different as all the streets were jam-packed with galleries and boutiques selling all kinds of different paintings and sculptures.  At the entrance to the town walls was a town map with various ceramic tiles that had been decorated to show contact details for each of the various art shops.  At one of the galleries we passed, a man was moving a sculpture in a display window under the careful guidance of another staff member outside, who looked like he was trying to get precision down to the nearest millimetre.  There were some lovely paintings on sale but if the ice cream prices were anything to go by, I wouldn’t have dared ask how much!  I thought the small town had a very nice atmosphere, and to me was a sweet relief from the overdeveloped coastline we’d traversed so far.

My relief was short lived, as back to the coast we went.  It seems that motorhomers must have been flocking to this region at some stage in too great numbers and upsetting the local authorities, because No Camping-Car Parking signs are plastered all over the coastline on the roadside parking, and height barriers have been installed wherever possible.  We’d have considered perhaps staying on a campsite for a night so we could see the area a bit better, but a lot of the campsites we had listed closed around late September or early October.  We passed through Cannes but didn’t visit as the plethora of signs showing motorhomes being towed were a bit off-putting.  From what we could see it was currently very busy with lots of business men and women in suits for a worldwide conference that seemed to have something to do with tax free sales.  The coastline between Cannes and Frejus was a lot more attractive as a driving route, as it was much less developed with rocky mountains on one side and views out to sea on the other side.

The hunt for somewhere to spend the night didn’t yield much in the way of results.  The Aires were either pricey or full.  We were surprised by how many vans were around for the time of year; over the border in Italy we’d never struggled to find parking and our company was often local Italian vans that looked like they were being stored, but here we were left seriously struggling.  We travelled inland again to the town of Le-Plan-de-la-Tour, were there was supposed to be some motorhome parking by some tennis courts.  Said tennis courts have now been abandoned and appear to be used as a local dumping ground for abandoned vehicles, many of which had smashed windows, flat tyres etc.  Luckily we drove about and managed to find somewhere that looked a bit safer to spend the night elsewhere in town (GPS: 43.33773 6.54604) which looked like an overflow parking area far enough from the road to be quiet.

Pampelonne Beach
The next day was Matt’s birthday, so after a round of birthday pain au chocolats from the local bakery, it was onwards towards St. Tropez for the day.  South of the town is Pampelonne beach, a long sandy stretch that goes on for several km, where there are two motorhome Aires.  The water still felt reasonably warm for swimming, but was a bit choppy during our stay.  The northern Aire that leads out onto the beach is a 3.8 mile cycle from St. Tropez town centre, so we got parked up there for the day (GPS: 43.23941 6.66177, €10/€18 out/in season, electric €5/€7 out/in season, water €2 token) and after a walk on the beach cycled into St. Tropez.

The actual buildings didn’t feel that much more different or expensive than any other French seaside town (although I’m sure their actual price tags probably tell a different story).  The real displays of lavish wealth were in the harbour.  Beyond the rows of street artists peddling their wares were yachts and sailing boats of all shapes and sizes from mega-yachts to day trip boats, the cheapest of which looking like they were probably worth a couple of houses back home.  We had to search long and hard before we found one that wasn’t very well maintained, which was on a jetty well away from the main port area.  A few streets in from the harbour and then the designer labels started; no H&M to be found here.  Dolce and Gabbana, Georgio Armani, Gucci and similar filled the shopping district, complete with shop assistants standing guard eyeing up the window shoppers with a look of suspicion.

Rolex clock on the wall outside the Yacht Club and no
security cameras in sight...
The Sénéquier patisserie café on the harbour front - open
since 1887, sold in 2012 for €15-17 million
Still the odd Mini Moke around for sale (at €10-14k!) -
None spotted being driven though
Some of the chairs for offer at one of the furniture shops
in St. Tropez

The more northern of the two Aires at Pampelonne
We returned to the van for the evening, where we made use of the Aire’s 10 minutes free WiFi (as any longer was too expensive) by first connecting using Matt’s tablet, and then when that expired connecting again with another email using the laptop as an internet hotspot.  After that it was a celebratory evening of Spumante and risotto – it is a hard life!

Past St Tropez, I’m afraid to say we really didn’t get up to anything too exciting, beyond two days having our own personal Tour-De-French-Supermarkets.  The laundry situation was getting a bit desperate having not stayed on a campsite since Slovenia in September (we’ve still not replaced our stolen clothing so aren’t lasting as long).  Not many of the surrounding campsites offered drying facilities so in the time it would have taken us to get some food shopping and set up on a campsite, it was doubtful we’d have enough hours of daylight to get everything dry (we’ve learned our lesson about leaving clothes out overnight!).  Remembering that some French supermarkets have big washing/drying machines at reasonable prices, we went for a venture across the majority of major supermarkets in the area but yielding little results other than a couple that had professional dry cleaners.

During this time we were also searching out somewhere to fill up the water tank having ran it dry at Pampelonne, but had very little luck.  The service points we visited were a) behind a barrier for a paying Aire, b) out of order, or c) no longer existed as the Aire was closed down.  We finally found a functioning one at E.Leclerc (a Flot Bleu station for €2), but then we were left with the puzzle of finding somewhere to spend the night rather than the supermarket car park.  After trying another small Aire at St. Mandrier which was fully occupied we gave up and went inland, as we had plans with friends at the Verdon Gorge this weekend.  Before leaving St. Mandrier we finally found a supermarket (Intermarché) offering the fabled laundry services we’d heard about, but given that it was an hour until the shop closed and the car park appeared that it would be locked up for the night we didn’t have time to use it!  We stayed the night in Brignoles at a Casino supermarket (GPS: 43.41067 6.06216, max 24hrs), where there were a few other motorhomes about and a service point.  As far as we could see it was mainly a working town, but made a handy stopover point on our way further inland.

Designated motorhome parking at Sillans-la-Cascade
The next day we didn’t really do much of note other than continue our supermarket sweep (no laundry in Brignoles) and visit a McDonalds to make use of their WiFi having almost ran out of data this month.  After that we started heading towards an Aire at Salernes, down some very attractive tree lined roads with lots of rolling vineyards.  We found the region to be very beautiful at this time of year, as all the trees are starting to change from greens to oranges and golds, but we were still blessed with beautifully warm blue skies.  Our original plan was to overnight at Salernes, where our friends would meet us in the morning before travelling to see the waterfall at Sillans-la-Cascade.  On passing through Sillans we spotted a designated motorhome parking area (GPS: 43.56703 6.18274) so saved us/our friends the extra journey by staying there instead.  It was a parking area to the side of the (quiet) road with a river running to one side and a few picnic benches, so was quite a nice spot.

We had a much more interesting time at Sillans and around the Verdon National Park so the next post will feature a lot less whining, I promise!

- Jo

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