Monday 9 May 2016

Blown Away by the Winds (and Sights) in the Luberon, Provence

Taking in the views from the Petit Luberon, Provence

France, 28th April – 1st May 2016

We’d returned to France with the ambition of getting the van serviced at an official Fiat garage in a country where Matt could bumble his way through the language rather than struggling with Spanish, but without already having booked an appointment we had a waiting game.  We’d already emailed a few garages while we were in Spain and had only heard back from one of them in Narbonne, who quoted more than we were hoping to pay and with no availability until 5th May, at which point we were hoping to be a lot further north in France towards Switzerland.  Whilst we were waiting around for the other garages to get back to us we didn’t have too much planned beyond slowly crossing the country, but we did set ourselves one very important daily goal: acquiring pain au chocolats.
Whilst we were playing our waiting game we travelled north to Sigean, a town we knew from experience has a self-service launderette outside the Intermarché.  €8 is enough for an 18kg wash, large enough to get all our clothing, towels and sometimes bedding in in one go.  No faffing about sorting our whites from our colours anymore; these days we just whack everything in and hope for the best, and as none of our clothing has emerged a different colour, it’s so far so good.

This area of France has a couple of lagoons nearby, which thanks to flat waters are ideal windsurf territory.  Last autumn when we were passing through the winds were too calm, so this time we decided to check the forecast online to see if it was worth trying again.  Our year-long European data SIM has just expired so we’ve switched over to a Three Pay as you Go SIM using their Feel at Home scheme, but we needed to top it up before we could use it.  Luckily there was a McDonalds over the road from Intermarché with a good enough connection for us to sneakily nip online for five minutes from the car park.  Unfortunately, the wind forecasts were showing a no-go with calm skies for the next two days; it seems we’re never in the right place at the right time.  On the plus side, SuperU had a large special offer box of pain au chocolats further reduced down to €2.10, so if nothing else exciting happened on this day we at least accomplished our daily goal!

Ouveillan (after the other vans had left)
We stayed at Ouveillan for the night (GPS: 43.29189 2.96996, Free inc. serv. point) where we’d previously stayed in November and thought it looked like a couple of vans were parked there permanently.  Returning, it seems we were right; two familiar vans there looked like their wheels hadn’t moved at all in the six months we’d been gone, taking up space on what is already a rather small aire (about 6 spaces).  Combining this with the fact that another van was parked at a particularly awkward angle that took up more than one space, it seems that we arrived and parked just in time; in the half hour slot after we switched the engine off another three vans arrived, wedging themselves in whatever space they could find without blocking anyone else in, including over the service point.

As we still hadn’t heard word back from any more Fiat garages the next day, we opted to crack on driving and call at a couple of garages around the Rhone river, an area we’d wanted to spend some time in.  As a country, France has grown on me; I’m not too sold on the southern coast (excluding a few notable exceptions like the Calanques) but I love the scenery inland, with tree-lined avenues cutting through endless fields of vineyards.  It’s beautiful in the autumn when everything has turned to shades of gold, but in the spring when everything is green, it’s still got a certain something about it.  After over two hours of scenic driving we navigated to the first garage at Nimes, but missed the turn-off on the industrial estate that went into the car park.  The road after the car park lead directly to the entrance for the toll road, with no way of turning around.  Reluctantly we got our ticket with the intention of getting off at the first exit, and routed the satnav back to the garage.

The first exit, it turned out, was not for a very long time: by taking just one wrong turn, right at the end of our journey, we’d added on an additional 45 minutes of driving time to get back where we were.  I imagine that if this had happened when we were at home, we would have been in foul moods and lamented it for the rest of the day.  I think travelling has encouraged us to think more about what’s important, and what is—and isn’t—worth getting upset about.  Yes, it was a bit of a setback, but did it matter?  We are on no-one’s schedule but our own, and we’d still get to the garage during working hours.  We pulled in at a service station, had a breather and a bit of water, double-checked some French keywords in preparation and got going again.  I think we’re converted optimists now; of late we’ve been actively trying to see the best in every situation.  Hopefully we’ll be able to maintain this approach when we get back to the UK and into a working routine!

Rognonas parking - only really suitable for smaller vans
We finally got back to the garage, where Matt managed to make it through all of the important conversations in French.  We were given a flat rate of €539, more than our previous quote and needing a week’s notice; we said we’d call to confirm.  In the meantime we drove on to Avignon, where the garage worked out a proper estimate and quoted us a maximum of €465, with their next availability in three working days.  Both the price and wait time seemed reasonable so we shook on it and got on our way, moving to a small mixed parking area in Rognonas (GPS: 43.89640 4.80386), a small town a little way south of Avignon to park up for the night.

Sénas Aire
We had a while to explore the region while we were waiting for the van service, so we went south to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.  Van Gogh has ties here, having stayed in a clinic here from May 1889 - May 1990, just two months before his death.  It was during this stay that he painted The Starry Night, one of his most famous paintings.  Today Saint-Rémy is a charming little place, packed to the brim with restaurants and boutiques selling local products and crafts.  We explored the town centre but before we could go much further it started hammering down with rain, so we had to retreat back to the shelter of the van, warming up some leftover casserole and then carried on to Sénas (GPS: 43.74431 5.08056, Free, Water €2), which made a convenient stopover for where we were heading next: the Luberon.

Parking at Mérindol
The Luberon is a group of three mountain ranges in the middle of Provence, covering a lot of the area to the east of Avignon.  We’d got in touch with friends Steph and Matt who currently live in this area, and arranged to do a 17km walk in the Petit Luberon, as can be found here.  We set up the satnav to take us to the start point of the walk near Mérindol, not knowing how far we’d get as it was a thin white road on the map.  The answer was not very far, as we weren’t convinced about the first turnoff the satnav tried to take us down so carried on to Merindol, where the road also started looking narrow so we turned around.  While turning into an alternative road to try, a local car beeped and pulled over and the man came over to talk to us.  Once more we managed to use our limited knowledge of French to get the basic gist of what he was telling us; he owned a motorhome, and there was a parking area in Mérindol if we went back to the main road, carried on and took a left turn.  We followed his instructions and found our way to a motorhome parking area that wasn’t listed in any of our books (GPS: 43.75555 5.20711), where we arranged to meet our friends.  As we travelled in their car to the start point, we were quickly glad we’d not brought the van along as we made our way down the narrow track.  We might have attempted it in a small van conversion, but we’d have to be mad to consider getting there in anything bigger.

The walk through the Luberon was rather special.  It went up to the top of the Petit Luberon, where there are panoramic views for miles around.  On a calm day it would have been a pleasant, not too overly laborious walk.  Of course, we didn’t get a calm day.  The mistral was passing through, a strong cold wind frequent in this area of France and part of the reason why the climate around Provence is so dry.  We could feel the winds were strong when we were driving in the morning; of course, when you get to the top of a mountain the effects are amplified.  On a couple of ridges, despite the glorious May sunshine we were all clad in multiple layers with hoods up trying to keep warm; it almost felt like we were on some epic perilous journey as we clung to shrubs and each other to keep from being blown other.  Many of the walks around Provence can get closed for access in July and August due to dangers of wildfire; after experiencing those winds it’s easy to see the need for caution, making it possible to decimate huge areas in short amounts of time.  Despite the winds it was still a fantastic walk, and well worth the effort.  To anyone considering visiting this area of France, definitely bring a pair of walking boots.  The scenery is too good to be missed.

- Jo

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