The time has come for the annual gratuitous selfie filled summer holiday round up! Everyone got their passports ready? Excellent!
This year’s adventure was a little bit of something old and a little bit of something new! Instead of the annual trip to Italy with my mum I decided to revisit the summer holidays of my childhood and go camping in France with my friend, Elsie. I had all of the kit I needed (more or less and when have I ever needed an excuse to spend a fortune on rubbish I don’t really need?!) so we packed up my 6 man tent and the nice big air mattresses and off we went!
The first day was a long flog, we set off from York at about 6am and, after the traditional breakfast at Stibbington Transport Caf and a quick stop for Costa and Krispy Kreme later on, we made it to dover in good time to join the endless traffic jam that is the Dover Ferry Port in August! It was a smooth sailing across and then it was time to get to grips with continental driving. I have been a passenger on the continent for many many years. No one has ever let me drive over there before though! Happily, I had Elsie to remind me which side of the road I was supposed to drive on and spotting oncoming vehicles for me so after not too long I felt I had adjusted nicely and it was on to St Quentin, our first stop of the journey!
St Quentin is a lovely city and one I have stayed in many times over the years. It’s just about the perfect journey time when coming down from Yorkshire, if you try to press on to Reims it’s just that bit too far, if you stop any earlier you just haven’t got enough miles under your belt. This time we stayed in the Ibis Budget, my first time staying in one of these hotels. Normally we stay in the Central Ibis but the Ibis Budget is only a short walk up the hill to get to the main square and the Basilica. It’s a curious room arrangement, with the toilet in a cupboard for privacy but the glass walled shower right there in the room but all in all a lovely, clean, bright, modern room with one double bed and one bunk bed above.
We wandered up to the main square and had what I had been looking forward to for weeks. Kir, Flammekueche and Creme Brulee! The Kir was certainly well deserved after a long day of driving. It is my go to aperitif, and I always enjoy the feeling of an aperitif, it just feels more civilised! I can, and have, rhapsodised about the joy that is a Flammekueche here before, and it was great to be able to introduce someone new to this lovely twist on pizza. Finally a creme brulee is the best way to finish a dinner in France. It’s a classic for a reason!
The next day it was up bright and early to visit a number of places on our journey south. First stop was the citadel of Laon and it’s beautiful cathedral. I alway love approaching Laon and seeign the citadel rise before you with the cathedral perched atop like a cake decoration! I think it is probably my favourite cathedral of Northern France. I always seem to spot something new when I visit. The whole cathedral is covered with carved animals and you could spend hours stating up at it. (For the weary traveler an excellent tip is that there is a loo round to the right of the cathedral built into the wall about halfway along and a side door where you can slip inside.)
The inside of the cathedral is always a delight. It’s so light, airy and open. It’s simply a refreshing place to exist in.
Our next stop, after a quick picnic lunch in a village square along the way, was Reims. There was an exhibition in the cathedral charting its destruction during the First World War and the restoration work done to repair it after, which was quite fascinating. It’s utterly astounding to look at what seems like a building that has remained unchanged for centuries and realise that less than 100 years ago the roof had holes blown through it and the roof lead gushed from the gargoyles’ mouths as the cathedral burned! It’s a very different cathedral to Laon but no less charming.
We tarried too long in Reims and the Champagne region so it was a swift trip down the autoroute to Macon for our second night’s stay at a Formule 1. I love the Formule 1s with their shared toilet and shower facilities. I imagine it’s somewhat like living on a space ship would be like! It’s always an adventure picking a motorway hotel as you never know if there will be anywhere to eat nearby. After a day in the car you rarely want to drive for dinner so we were lucky to find a Campanille restaurant that was only a short walk away. Dinner was serviceable, including the delights of a dessert buffet, and after a long day we were quite ready to fall into our beds!
Day 3 brought us the delights of Burgundy. Our first stop was the town of Cluny, which, for some reason, captured my heart many years ago and never quite let go. It’s a charming town full of history and horses. The Abbey of Cluny was one of the most powerful monastic sites in the medieval world and one of the Haras National, the French National Stud Farms, is based in the town. There are only some parts of the Abbey still standing but it’s fascinating to walk round. The streets of Cluny are lovely to wander around and there are Roman houses scattered amongst them.
Following our visit to Cluny we drove out amongst the vines and through the village of Pouilly Solutré to le Roche de Solutré to take in the views, eat macarons and enjoy the scenery. The rock is a distinctive feature of the landscape with a fascinating history and makes a lovely stop while touring Burgundy. I really want to come back and spend more time exploring Burgundy some time as it is an area I have loved for many years and I would like very much to be able to spend more time there. Alas, we had to head south for at the end of the day we had a tent to pitch!
The town of Largentiere was our destination, a small medieval town situated in a tributary gorge just off the main Ardeche gorge. I earned my continental driving stripes that day with Sat Nav taking us up and over the hills with hairpin bends aplenty! Our campsite was Les Ranchisses and it is hands down the best campsite I have ever stayed on. It has an adults only pool and spa area so no need to worry about being knocked unconscious by low flying children in the main pool (true story, happened to my dad on a previous stay, luckily my sister fished him out of the pool before he drowned!). The restaurant serves the best pommes dauphinoise I have ever tasted and serves up delightfully crisp wood fired pizzas to both eat in and take away.
We managed to get our tent pitched and everything sorted with a minimum amount of fuss and then it was straight into the pool for the first swim of the holiday. Bliss!
After a long journey down we took it easy for the first few days. We walked along the mule track to Largentiere on Monday morning and then headed off to the nearby village of Balazuc in the afternoon. The village is one of the most famous sites on the Ardeche, perched above the river the cobbled streets are a maze of twists and turns. You can swim in the river, and I did! I felt very proud of myself as I hate having unknown depths beneath me. The river is shallow enough to wade across in places but where’s the fun in that?!
On the Tuesday we walked into Largentiere again to visit the weekly market. I bought some ridiculous trousers (something of a tradition in my family) and a whole lot of soap. It’s lovely to wander around the market stalls and browse the produce and ridiculous things you would only ever think of buying on holiday.
Our kitchen set up for the tent was basic but serviceable. I had honestly intended to cook more but the wealth of options available from the restaurant meant that in all honesty, we only cooked twice. I have all of the kit now though, so hopefully I’ll be able to get some use out of it with a few domestic camping trips next year when the warm weather rolls back around!
Pizza was one of my main food groups on this holiday but I did make sure to try other, local, options too! An assiette de pays of different regional charcuterie was absolutely delicious. There was pate, ham, saucisson and caillette all of which were delicious! I’m going to have to have a go at caillette but I’m not sure how successful that might turn out, stay tuned! Then I had chicken in a sauce with chataignes (chestnuts) which was deliciously earthy. The aforementioned pommes dauphinoise came into play too! Dessert was another riff on chestnuts with an ice cream sundae of sweet chestnut and vanilla ice creams and caramelised chestnuts on top, yum!
On Wednesday we set off for a bit of an epic adventure. We headed even further south, into Provence, to visit Avignon. I’d never been to Avignon before but it was well worth the trip. The papal palace dominated the main square and made me revisit all of the fantasy novels of my youth. The place would be perfect for landing a dragon in I’m sure! It’s certainly in impressive bit of architecture and somehow fits in well with the later grandeur of the city.
Then it was on to, you guessed it, LE PONT D’AVIGNON! This is me, SUR le Pont D’Avignon. Indeed.
Our whistle stop tour of the south continued with a short hop across to Languedoc Roussillon and the Pont Du Gard. It was absolutely scorching that day so my full Englishness came out in the form of a silly hat and consumption of copious quantities of ice cream!
The Pont Du Gard is an amazing construction with a bridge and aquaducts spanning the Gardon river. It is immense, the picture below just doesn’t do it justice, and to consider it was built by hand by the Romans and has stood there for all this time. I am rather fond of the 1000 year old olive trees too! After that we headed on to Uzes, another charming medieval town where you truly could get lost for hours in the narrow, winding streets or simply sit for hours in the cafes of the pleasantly shaded square.
On Thursday we stayed local(ish) and drove the Ardeche Gorge. The Pont D’Arc is perhaps the most famous image of the Ardeche and rightly so, it’s stunning to see it arching over the river with swarms of canoes and flocks of birds dwarfed by the cliffs.
There are loads of balconies along the road following the gorge where you can park up, hop out and admire the view. Which we did at most of them! The vertigo got a good work out on this day, peering over the edges down to the river below!
The scale of the thing is just amazing. The power of time and water are never so clear to see, especially when you gaze down on what seems like such a calm, placid river lazily twisting along its path and then realise that this is what shaped the landscape surrounding you.
After navigating the gorge (after which I felt like I should have earned some kind of Brownie Badge for twisty turny driving on the wrong side of the road!) we crossed over the river and stumbled over Aiguèze a, you guessed it, charming medieval village!!! I know, there are a lot of them but they are all so lovely. Each one is unique and you never know what a twist around a corner will greet you with! It’s lovely to have the time to take to wander around and explore simply for the sake of exploring.
This one really was one of the prettier villages I’ve come across and all the more charming for being so quiet too. We lazily sauntered about the streets eating our ice creams and enjoying the silence and the sunshine.
After a long day a meal in the restaurant was only fair. Pizza again but this time I tried something new and different from the menu, a Salade Landaise. I had no idea what was in it, so I ordered it. It turned out to be warm duck gizzard and smoked magret de canard along with some delicious foie gras and was served with an accompanying glass of Vendages D’Octobre. The salad was delicious, and all the more so as I had no idea what I was eating until later when I googled it! The real revelation was the wine though. It was a sweet wine and tasted like peaches and sunshine! Needless to say I bought a few bottles before coming home, dearer than my usual fare but I feel very well worth it! Dessert was that ever pleasing option, a taster plate of many desserts! This should be a standard item on all menus I feel, I love trying all of the options!
On the Friday, our last full day in the Ardeche, we took on a challenge. We canoed along the gorge for a 8km mini descent from Vallon Pont D’Arc down to just below the Pont D’arc. I’ve never done something like that before, I wasn’t really an outward bound kinda kid, but it was so much fun! Bloody hard work! All of my muscles were needed to steer the boat along and over the small rapids without pitching us overboard but we did it! There were a few hairy moments but we didn’t fall out once!
For our final meal I revisited the charcuterie de pays and then had a faux filet (again, that dauphinoise, OMG!) and a deliciously chocolaty chocolat liegeois.
The next morning we packed up our little tent and bid farewell to the Ardeche and its delights and headed north back up to Burgundy. This time we stopped in the city of Beaune, which is famous for its decorative tiled rooftops. We stayed at the B&B Hotel (sud1), which is just outside the city walls and an easy walk into the centre for dinner.
We have many traditions in my family and over many years of travelling in France there are some places we just gravitate back to. Le Galion restaurant in Beaune is one of them. I tried not to influence the decision of which restaurant to pick and happily Elsie chose this one so the tradition is preserved! Kir, Oeuffs Meurette, Boeuf Bourgignon and a Moeleux au chocolate with a caramel beurre sale centre were all excellent choices. So close to Dijon it had to be Kir (and we visited Lac Kir de Dijon the next day) and Oeuffs Meurette was suitably Burgundian without having to resort to snails. Poached eggs in a bacon, onion and red wine sauce what is not to love there? Boeuf Bourgignon was, again, a forgone conclusion, it has to be done! And dessert was just lovely, ticking all of my boxes at once and adding another recipe to try to my list!
We spent most of the next day driving across country between Beaune, Dijon and Troyes. The road between Dijon and Troyes follows the course of the Seine river from the source itself as it grows and grows! We then hopped on the autoroute and got some miles under out belts before peeling off to visit the site f the battle of Agincourt at Azincourt. It’s a big field but I feel glad to have ticked it off my list!
The town of St Omer was our base for the final night and a very welcome one too after what was an incredibly tiring day of driving. Worth it but I was exhausted by the end of it! We stayed at another Ibis Budget, not quite as good as the St Quentin one but nice and close to the city centre to walk into for an explore and dinner.
A final Kir, some more pate, another pizza and a final creme brulee book ended the holiday nicely!
We did our shopping, packed the car up to the gunnels and then awaited our ferry back to England on the beach at Calais, looking out over the channel to the White Cliffs while eating immense baguette sandwiches and fresh frites and then that was that. Another smooth ferry crossing and one last flog up to Yorkshire and our holiday was done!