Where were we?
There and back again: we started the week in Avignon and ended it back in the safety and familiarity of the Chartreuse. It wasn’t an epic trip across China, but we did see things that were even older than the terracotta warriors.
Where should we have been?
China. The original plan was that we would spend a month there, arriving in Beijing in early June and leaving by boat from Shanghai in early July. When we left the UK in February, we hadn’t finalised many more detailed plans than that – at six months distance we didn’t think it was necessary and with news of a strange flu-type disease in Wuhan province, we thought booking anything at that stage was silly. So all we can say is that we should have been in China, somewhere. It’s a big place.
Where were we really? What did we do?
After our tourist-heavy day in Avignon last Saturday (which culminated in Aurora finally being allowed to buy the shoes she’d wanted since before Christmas and hadn’t been allowed to have as they’d be no use on the trip), we headed away from this beautiful town on Sunday morning.
Unfortunately the handy park and ride bus doesn’t run on a Sunday so Ben and Sophie walked back across the Rhone to get the car, while Lucy and Harriet took a stroll up and behind the Palais des Papes to admire the bridge from above. It was much better (and cheaper) that way. And there was an entirely incongruous duck pond. Magnus and Aurora decided to stay in the flat and enjoy the wifi, which had been much missed in the Camargue.
From Avignon we headed North for a little less than an hour to Suze-la-Rousse. You won’t have heard of it (though it does have a very nice chateau) as its major attraction (for us at least) is that Harriet’s Uncle and Aunt live there. They had very kindly invited us for lunch – their first guests since deconfinement.
This was therefore a first glimpse for us of what it must be like for many of you reading this – we saw family but only from a safe two metre distance. It was lovely to see them and they treated us royally (including digging out books for Harriet and a huge amount of lego for Magnus, which we have borne off in triumph). They also gave us some great hints and tips for the Ardèche, where we headed next.
Vallon Pont d’Arc
We were staying just outside Vallon Pont d’Arc, in another lovely lucky AirBnB find, with our own pool and the best equipped kitchen we have seen so far. This was actually the second AirBnB we had booked in Vallon having discovered (after paying and too late to get a full refund) that the first place provided neither sheets nor towels. You live and learn.
Grotte Chauvet 2
We arrived on Sunday night and the plan was to canoe down the Ardèche Gorge on Monday morning, however when we rang to confirm our canoe booking we were told that it wouldn’t be possible as the storm we had experienced in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer had had a rather dramatic effect on the water level. The river was well above safe limits and there would be no canoeing on Monday, although it might be possible on Tuesday.
Left with a day to spent in the Ardèche, we had time for the obligatory supermarket shop (Lidl let us down by having no fresh milk at all – if we can’t cope with UHT, we should perhaps be counting our lucky stars we haven’t had to try yak) and a splash around in the pool in the morning.
We then headed with our sandwiches for a picnic lunch in the shade of the famous Pont d’Arc, a natural rock bridge over the Ardèche. Again, it was a treat to find it, if not abandoned, certainly much quieter than it would normally have been on a hot day in June.
After lunch, though, we headed off, at Harriet’s Aunt’s recommendation, to the Grotte Chauvet 2. This proved to be, for Harriet at least, the unexpected highlight of the entirety of the trip so far.
The Grotte Chauvet was discovered in 1995 and is one of the oldest known painted caves in the world. The paintings have been dated back 36,000 years and the cave was blocked off by a landslide some 21,000 years ago. It is extraordinary to think that humans knew about it and used it (though they didn’t live there) for 15,000 years – and that was still 12,000 years before the Great Pyramids was built.
The cave itself is, for obvious reasons, very off-limits to the public (Magnus was hugely impressed by pictures of the bullet proof door), but, some 5 km away, a complete 3D replica has been created, down to the bear footprints on the floor and the stalactites hanging from the roof.
It was, and is, utterly extraordinary. We were, once again, lucky to be here now: the site only reopened last week and so we were among very few visitors. Rather than being led around by a guide, they have created an app, so we used our own phones. There was only us and one other family in the cave system and we felt almost entirely alone. The paintings are indescribable, not because of what they portray: rhinos, bears, mammoths, deer, aurochs, horses and even an owl, but because of the power and vitality of these incredible images, which have endured across an almost incomprehensible span of time, yet were made by people who were, really, just like us.
The rest of the site is lovely too, with a small museum (interactive, and unusually, with everything working – though masks and gel were everywhere) and a paleolithic encampment, with a hugely knowledgeable (and English) curator, who explained to us (some more enthralled than others) who these people were, what they would have been like and eaten (Clue: not potatoes) and how they would have made lived.
It was a brilliant afternoon, topped off by another swim.
Canoeing the Ardèche Gorge (well, a bit of it, at least)
We had rung the canoe company (of which there are an almost untold number) in Vallon Pont d’Arc on Monday night and been told that the river was still not yet low enough to confirm whether it would be safe to attempt the descent on Tuesday morning. As instructed therefore we rang at 8 a.m. on Tuesday and were told that it was all systems go, if we could be there by 9. This was a bit of a panic as, having booked only two nights’ accommodation, we had to pack up and move out of our lovely modern house and across the road into the owner’s mum’s more 14th century gite (no food processor here).
We made it, ish, only to discover that in fact everything was very laid back, in a classically surfer-ish (canoeists seem to be rather the same) way. We hung around, while other groups came and went, for what felt like ages. Having become used to people being desperate for our business, it was rather odd to be somewhere where there were clearly plenty of clients. When we were finally at the front of the queue, we were rather crestfallen to be told that it really wasn’t advised for us, five of whom had never done the descent before, to attempt the full, 24 km version. The water level was within legal limits, but only by 5 cm. Ben was quite keen to go ahead regardless, but Harriet, with vivid memories of her father and a friend capsizing on the Tarn thirty years ago, was less keen.
Eventually we compromised on doing the shorter 8 km top section that day, with a view to doing the longer one the next if it went well.
It might perhaps suffice to say that we didn’t go back the next day.
The longer version is that the river was, as promised, very high and fast: there was no need to paddle at all on any of the non-rapid sections. This didn’t stop us trying to paddle and getting a little cross and shouty with each other as a result. There were also more people on the river than we have perhaps seen in one place since the beginning of March, so it wasn’t the relaxing, calm, merrily down the stream experience some of us had imagined. It would probably nonetheless have been more positive had the inevitable not happened to Harriet, Lucy and Aurora going over Charlemagne, the last and biggest rapid before the Pont d’Arc.
Clearly we were all fine, and we all did what we were told, and floated feet first out of the rapids. We also did exactly what we were told not to do and managed to rescue all the paddles (Aurora), five out of six flip flops (Lucy) and the boat (Harriet), before swimming hard under the famous arch (failing entirely to appreciate it in the process) and making for a beach, where we landed rather out of breath and (in Harriet’s case) very concerned to find out if her phone (and all the photographs) had survived the experience.
They had, but a small sense of humour failure nonetheless ensued. This was assuagued by some lunch and a swim back under the arch. We set off again, restored to ourselves, and thoroughly enjoyed being washed, effortlessly, down the last kilometre or so to our rendezvous. Nonetheless, five out of six of us decided that we weren’t keen to go back. Not for a couple of years anyway.
Instead we headed back to our little house and into Vallon Pont d’Arc for a little shopping (to replace the missing flip flop) and a well-earned pizza.
St Pierre de Chartreuse
We returned to St Pierre on Wednesday and have had a relatively quiet time since then.
The journey back was uneventful, although we enjoyed spotting the pink feathers of the tamarisk trees, endless lavender (Harriet did her press-ups), wheeling vultures, the thick scrubland of the Garrigues and even a flash of blue from a jay. As we headed back into Rhone Alpes proper, the lavender was replaced by orchards and wheat fields before we climbed the hills back into the Chartreuse, which was ominously grey and cloudy.
Nothing hugely exciting seems to have happened without us. The garden has survived our absence, but the peonies have been destroyed by the heavy rain that apparently persisted all week. The flowers of the week are therefore these roses. Everything else is mostly deadhead.
The beasties of the week were a very large llama which had got out of its field on our walk yesterday and decided that it was king of the path. We walked round its back end rather nervously (would it be better to be kicked or spat at?). We also enjoyed a very small flying thing that does, if you squint, sort of look as though it has “love hearts” on its wings.
Ben was delighted that his new cycling bib shorts have arrived (courtesy of a voucher that was a leaving present from work) and has booked a hire bike for Tuesday. He’s having a hair cut first just to make sure he’s super aerodynamic and to shave (no pun intended) off a crucial 75 grams or so.
We resumed our daily walks, at first just along the familiar routes we trod during lockdown, but today further afield, relying on a new book of walks we had treated ourselves to yesterday. It was not an unmitigated success. We suspect that the writer hadn’t actually been on the walk he was describing because rather a large number of the paths didn’t exist and the words didn’t match up with the map. Nonetheless we had a lovely stroll through head-high meadows and along another beautiful stream. We rewarded ourselves with an entirely unnecessary and very large ice cream afterwards.
We have put a large warning sticker on the book.
Also new this week were Sophie and Aurora’s Primary School Leavers Hoodies and P7 Kelso Cougars Rugby tops. The rugby tops in particular are a big deal – they won’t be able to play for Kelso again until they are adults as there is no girls team and mixed rugby has to come to an end once they leave primary school. They were hugely touched to have these posted to them.
Chartroussin wild flowers of the week were new to us (i.e. Harriet): the pinkest of pink musk mallow and the pincushion-like of the masterworts. Top of the wild plants of the week though were the alpine strawberries which are beginning to ripen along all the paths. They’re much better than Haribo for keeping a walk going…
What were the highlights?
Aurora: Getting my leavers’ hoodie, getting my Kelso Cougars new top, my Vans, kayaking, having pizza, the pool being clear, salmon wrapped in Parma ham (best thing ever), coming home to the rest of the teddies again and pizza all together.
Ben: The massive silver lining in the small cloud that was not being able to go kayaking down the Gorge on Monday was the Grotte Chauvet museum/reconstruction. Having the cave to ourselves (normally there are 28 in a group) was an unrepeatable treat.
I was struck by the realism in the artwork, but also their longevity despite their fragility. The oldest pictures were 36,000 years old, the most recent 21,000, just before the rock slide which blocked the entrance to the cave. That meant the oldest pictures had 15,000 years of human contact all of which they survived – it would have taken a day or two out of any of those 15,000 years to destroy or deface them, yet they are still there, still exquisite.
I loved our day canoeing, and would be delighted to go back and do more, even if it’s not this year. I think that days when I exercise are generally better days. The press up challenge Harriet and I have been doing to raise awareness of the RSABI has been fun, and I’m looking forward to cycling next week.
Magnus: I liked the canoes because it the water moved us really fast and it was nice. I like my new lego. My favourite bit is the Star Wars lego.
The pool in Vallon was awesome. It was so clear and nice and it wasn’t too cold or hot.
It’s good to be back here because there is actually a duvet in the cover.
Sophie: I really enjoyed the cave paintings and thought they were inspiring.I really enjoyed the pool being clear too and the pool in Vallon. Some of my favourite bits were listening to Percy Jackson with Lucy and Aurora, and Lucy telling us about Greek myths.
I also enjoyed getting my Edenside leavers jumper and rugby tour t-shirt.
Harriet: I was, however much of an unbelievable cliché it may seem, moved to tears by the paleolithic art. I don’t know whether it was the sheer minimalist beauty of the paintings, or their age, or the atmosphere of being almost alone, but I could have stayed looking at them for ever, and having to leave them made me weep.
I loved clambering around on the rocks bordering the Ardèche. The extraordinary colours of the water, the stone and the trees were a joy.
I enjoyed our walk today, through the alpine meadows, for all that the uselessness of the book was rather irritating.
Lucy: The cave paintings were amazing and really thought-provoking. I enjoyed being on the Ardèche beach especially the non-Newtonian fluid sand. Coming home was nice but I do want to go away too. I have also enjoyed listening to Percy Jackson with Sophie and Aurora.
I also really liked how clear the pool was in Vallon.
Any bad bits?
Magnus: I didn’t like the rapids because we got absolutely soaked through and it was so scary. I didn’t like the pizza in Vallon because I was grumpy and bored.
Aurora: Not having Duplo A to talk to and share the experience, Everyone being annoying.
Sophie: Bad bits were us fighting in general.
Lucy: Falling in the Ardèche and cleaning.
Harriet: I was really disappointed in myself that I did not enjoy the canoeing. It wasn’t the capsizing (although that didn’t help); I wasn’t enjoying it before that. It was too stressful and shouty with the children yelling at each other and the many other canoes. I really wanted it to be brilliant – this is something Ben has wanted to do with the children for years – and it wasn’t and that was, at least in part, my fault. People had all told me how fabulous it was and then it wasn’t. My sense of humour failure on the beach was at least in part because I felt I was letting everyone down by not enjoying it.
More generally we have definitely got out of the way of travelling: we lost more things (a watch, a pair of goggles, some shorts) in eight days than we did in five weeks at the beginning of the trip. Emotions run higher too while we are travelling and I had forgotten that. We have been bickery (particularly about who slept where and with whom – Ben and I don’t get involved in those ones) and scratchy at times in a way that I felt we had learned not to be over the course of lockdown. Change will do that, I know, but however explicable it wasn’t fun.
There are a lot more mosquitoes in the Ardèche than in the Camargue. Just saying.
Ben: There are days when small things – usually children bickering, getting something wrong, or a minor setback – can really take a toll in my happiness in a disproportionate way. Friday was one of those days when many a mickle made a muckle, though thankfully today (Saturday) is another day, on a more even keel.
Being back here has led to mixed emotions. I love the Chartreuse and lots that it offers, but waking up, groundhog day-style, back in the same bed again, not on an exotic Chinese adventure, provoked a somewhat world-weary sigh.
On a more prosaic note, I didn’t like the mosquitos in the Ardèche.
What did we eat?
Being back in AirBnB accommodation meant we could cook for ourselves again. This was mostly pasta but Ben made an excellent parma ham wrapped salmon that (much to Harriet’s surprise) everyone declared delicious.
Weve been baking again since coming “home”. One of our lovely readers (Angela) sent us a recipe for millionaires chocolate flapjacks which we happily sacrificed the last of the home made golden syrup for. It was well worth it.
What about the tadpoles? Did they miss us?
Not noticeably. They are still there but they still don’t have any legs. We are beginning to wonder if they’re doing it on purpose.
Much of the talk has been thinking about what we will do with our remaining time for TweedtoTokyo. This week we finally admitted that Tweed will not get to Tokyo this year, and cancelled our flight home and our Japanese accommodation. This had been looking likely for a while now, but now it is done we need to look at what the last seven weeks or so will look like.
We think the planning will take us about two weeks, and there are various things we need to do (planning, booking, packing, maintenance) and would like to do (Ben’s birthday in early July, some walks, some socialising, a little cycling) before we go. In the first weeks of pre-lockdown adventure, we achieved a lot in 5 weeks, so even if we wrap up the Chartreuse stay in 2 weeks, that gives us a lot of room to play with.
There are questions we have to resolve in the planning: should we take advantage of the opening of most Schengen borders and plot a route through Italy, Switzerland, Germany (or further afield)? Will we finally get to Slovenia for Bled cake? Should we head for somewhere beginning with T so we can rename ourselves TweedtoTrieste or TweedtoToledo?
The current front runner is probably to stay mainly in France and take a long route home, which might feel a little unadventurous, but still offers a lot of scope. The reasons against the exotic other (though we would have laughed at the idea of Germany being exotic five months ago) are both practical – in France we speak the language, we know how things work both generally and new regulations-wise, and there are many ways we can have fun – and a bit of once-bitten-twice-shy risk management – the potential of getting stuck somewhere and not being able to cross a border, potentially not even back to France, and this wonderful bolt-hole in case there is a second lockdown.
We think, and this is still very vague, we will head South and West, before turning North probably along the Atlantic coast. If the Zeebrugge/Hull or Amsterdam/Newcastle ferries are running, that will be our route back to the UK. Currently we think that only Calais/Dover is available, which with current quarantine regulations would require a Dominic Cummings-style 450 mile dash with no stops for fuel or a wee, before 14 days of supernoodles, clothes-washing and Netflix in isolation at home.
Suggestions – on all fronts – welcome.