Where were we?
Places! We went to places! Read on…
Where should we have been?
Early last Sunday we packed up again and headed for the main station in Ulaanbaatar for our last booked train. From here on in (weird mental leap here) we didn’t (in March) have much actually booked; plenty of plans and ideas but nothing concrete.
We arrived in Beijing on Monday afternoon and have spent the week exploring this amazing city. We left it briefly mid-week for a night. In a tent. On the Great Wall of China.
Where did we actually go? What did we do?
St Pierre de Chartreuse
Sunday was a day of torrential rain, but we needed to get out, so we put on lots of waterproofs and drove 5 miles or so down the gorge towards St Laurent du Pont and explored a path recommended by Fabienne, whom we met last week. This path was the original path used by the monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery before the late 19th century road was built.
The way was marked by painted blue fishes, and the river was in full spate, which was glorious to behold, as was the beech forest. Ben could not believe he had never been there in the 30 years of coming to the Chartreuse.
Wet river walks aside, the top excitement at home prior to our departure was the arrival of the dishwasher repair man. Keen readers will remember that the dishwasher broke about three days into confinement and dishwasher repairs were not considered an essential service. It has taken this long since deconfinement a) for us to ring him and b) for him to come up the hill and see us. When he arrived Harriet had just taken a batch of biscuits out of the oven. He had a cup of coffee and several biscuits and… turned the dishwasher on. €48 for the privilege. Oh well.
If free French lessons and endless pots of delicious jam aren’t enough, our now-not-so-new friend Debbie went further to the top of Harriet’s list by (apparently) being genuinely astonished to discover that she (Harriet) was over 40. As Harriet is rapidly heading for 43 and a half and hasn’t worn make up in months this was A Good Thing.
Pont du Gard
Anyway, we left the Chartreuse on Monday morning intending to head straight for the Camargue, about four hours South.
The drive was easy and those of us that were looking out of the windows enjoyed watching the landscape change entirely: the beech and fir were replaced by the iconic cypresses, the roofs became flatter and the buildings more golden, Mont Ventoux loomed over the horizon and as if we needed any more Provençal clichés, there was lavender growing in the field next to where we had our picnic.
The plan to head directly South went awry though when Harriet spotted that our route took us within five miles of the iconic Pont du Gard.
Ben had first been here thirty years ago, when there were no railings and you could walk along the top (as parents we were very pleased that is no longer possible), and Harriet and Ben came 15 years later when there was major building work going on.
Now, though, there is a swanky visitors centre, with museum and cinema, and over 1.5 million people visit each year.
Except in 2020 of course. It was both extremely eerie and an extraordinary privilege to have the place almost entirely to ourselves. There were perhaps a hundred or so other people across the entire site. That elusive tourist photo that makes it look like you are the only person there was suddenly easy.
It is also possible to walk down to the river Gardon itself and paddle (or jump, or swim, although as we hadn’t come prepared we stuck to paddling). The water is absolutely clear and the little fish will come and give you a pedicure…
The Camargue is formed by the delta of the Rhone, which forks at Arles into two branches. The land is marshy and low-lying and famously home to wildlife found nowhere else in France: flamingos, Camarguais black bulls (no one ever mentions the cows) and white horses and infamously, hordes of particularly vicious mosquitoes.
The main town in the Camargue is Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a small seaside resort of the reassuringly unclassy variety. It is named after the four Saints Mary, two of whom you have never heard of (St Mary Salome and St Mary Jacob). According to legend these saints arrived in France by boat after the resurrection along with their maid Sara. Sara had dark skin and is, apparently just because of her skin colour (even writing this feels wrong now) the patron saint of gypsies. (That’s another word that feels wrong. The French use the word Tzigane which is traditionally translated as “gypsy“. We have done the same but if that is wrong we would love to be educated).
In any event there is a huge Spanish and Romani tradition in the town, with massive festivals twice a year, though not this year of course. The famous bulls are bred for the ring, but we were relieved to discover that in Course Camarguaises the point is to snatch a rosette from between the bull’s horns (or possibly shoulders) and not to kill it. The best bulls become local superstars.
Sadly of course the bullring is another casualty of Covid-19 but we were all agreed we would love to come back and see it.
We were staying, for the first time on this trip, in a hotel. We had wanted somewhere right by the sea in the hope that might lessen the threat from the mosquitoes. In any event AirBnB accommodation seemed thin on the ground. Whether that was Covid, short notice or just because there are so many of us we don’t know.
Staying in a hotel was a useful exercise as it reminded us why we don’t stay in hotels. They are too expensive (not to mention having to eat out for every meal) and we like having our own space.
But it was lovely being so close to the sea. We couldn’t see it, but we fell asleep to the sound of the seagulls (ish, they were very noisy and there was a whiny mosquito too) and woke to the waves on the sand.
If we are honest, we suspect that the beach was the highlight of the Camargue for the children. A sandy, gently shelving strand with regular breakwaters and not a sunlounger in sight. We treated Magnus to a bucket and spade and he was as happy as one of the local clams digging endless holes, making castles and burying anyone who sat still long enough.
The girls, on the other hand, turned into water babies. It may have been the Mediterranean but the water temperature was still only about 15 degrees. Nonetheless they were in it like fish, swimming, jumping and generally enjoying their new and much-longed-for bikinis. As parents the (2 and a half year) age gap between Magnus and Aurora and Sophie has never seemed wider.
Having said that, on the beach, all four of them seemed closer than ever. The girls were brilliant with Magnus, keeping an eye on him in the water and actively wanting him with them. This isn’t normally the case and it was lovely to see.
On our second day we dragged them away from the beach and onto a boat for a tour along the coast and up the Petit Rhone. This was billed as a chance to see some of the wildlife up close. Although it was slightly disappointing on that front, sitting watching the world (and the many herons – which possibly would have been more exciting had we not been so used to them at home) go by was a very happy use of ninety minutes.
We got much more up close and personal with the birdlife at the Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau. Harriet had been longing to see flamingos and this more than fulfilled her wishes. As a protected wetland area it is home to many more species than just the pink leggy ones and we also spotted more herons, storks, avocets, oyster catchers, black kites, endless swifts and swallows and many more including a coypu, a large aquatic rodent rather like a giant swimming guinea pig.
We also enjoyed some proper frivolous shopping for the first time this year (all our Christmas presents last year were very trip-ly practical (when will we ever get to use our filtering water bottles?)). As well as the bikinis, Aurora and Sophie got new matchy-not-quite-matchy skirts and Ben treated himself to the first collar he’s worn since leaving Britain. Magnus was hugely tolerant of a morning spent waiting outside changing rooms and was rewarded with a slushie and a bucket and spade.
On Thursday we headed away from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer towards Aigues-Mortes. This medieval walled city was once on the coast and was the port of embarcation for Louis IX when he set out on crusade. Now however it is some five miles inland and is surrounded by salt flats. Baleine sea salt, the one with the whale, is extracted here (and probably other places too).
It isn’t the salt itself though that makes this area spectacular. That credit goes to a little algae called dunaliella salina which lives in the highly concentrated salty water. In Summer it blooms, turning the water in the salt pans a spectacular bruised raspberry pink.
The town of Aigues-Mortes itself rises out of the salt flats like a Disneyfied dream. It’s lovely inside too, all little boutiquey shops and houses with hollyhocks outside and stephanotis climbing the walls. It’s also (who knows why) stuffed with sweet shops. It felt a bit twee and clichéd in some ways but it was lovely for a wander and lunch. There’s really not much wrong with a big salad in a plane tree-shaded square after all… and in case it all felt too predictable it also had an All Blacks Rugby shop. Who knows why?
The Campbell girls had hoped to ride the famous white horses too. This would have been Harriet’s first time on a horse in thirty years and Aurora and Sophie’s first time ever. Sadly though the arrival of 40 mile an hour winds meant it had to be cancelled.
We left the Camargue on Friday morning. Our next “big” plan is to canoe down the Ardèche gorge but Ben was keen we should avoid the weekend for this if possible. This forces us into a few extra days in Provence. A bit of spontaneous AirBnB-ing saw us booked into a very glamorous and surprisingly reasonable place in the centre of Avignon. The high winds drove us inland early in the day, and we headed for Arles, based solely on the fact that it gets a specific mention in our road atlas and Nîmes doesn’t. This turned out to be a good thing as there was a serious police incident in Central Nîmes yesterday and we are very pleased to have been well away from that.
Arles was lovely for a wander and we enjoyed the Roman Arènes, which is now used for bullfighting of both the Camarguais and Spanish varieties. We also wandered through the Roman baths and the Theatre. Once again we had these almost entirely to ourselves.
We accidentally followed in the feet of Van Gogh when we found ourselves lunching feet from where he painted his Café, le soir. Lucy recognised it, which we were most impressed by. (Though it may help that it is yellow).
We arrived in Avignon yesterday afternoon, after a traumatic (for Aurora and Sophie) bus ride from the park and ride (“But everyone will be looking at us with our rucksacks” (They weren’t, and the bus was virtually empty anyway)). The apartment is stunning and extraordinarily central. We can see the Palais des Papes as we clean our teeth.
This morning we visited both the Palais, and the famous Pont d’Avignon (where we didn’t dance but Harriet did do 25 press-ups, much to the bemusement of the only other people on it at the time).
Once again, both were virtually empty and it was an extraordinary experience to have these normally thronged and world-famous places to ourselves.
What were our impressions? What surprised us?
Sophie: Wearing a mask is horrible. It’s difficult to breathe.
Harriet: The overturning postcard stand surprised us all. Chasing beautiful postcards down a narrow street in blazing sunshine felt a bit like being in a film.
I absolutely loved the Camargue. I loved the sea, the wind, the huge skies, the endless flatness (and yes, I am from East Anglia). I loved the brightness and clarity of the light and the colours. The paddy fields the most acidic green, the sea in the harbour turquoise, the salt lakes and flamingos pink, pink, pink. I found myself noticing the birds and plants more – the oleander trees, the vines, the endlessly wheeling swifts and swallows.
I was very pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t bitten at all. I am to mosquitoes as marshmallows are to my children, and everyone we had mentioned the Camargue to had said “ohh, mosquitoes“. I slathered on repellent several times a day and it worked. Maybe forewarned really is forearmed.
Aurora: Sandy, loads of shops open and masks everywhere.
Lucy: I felt St M de la M was very Spanish which was odd because we are in France. I liked all the walled cities and roman culture though I wish there were more roman mythology things. I thought the Camargue was very pretty and I like the southern france architecture. The Camargue was very pink! – pink water, pink birds and even pink high-viz!!
Ben: Travelling again has been a massive change, and I’ve been surprised how much of a mental leap it has taken to get into the cadence of it. Spending lots of money (after all these relatively frugal lockdown weeks), no washing machine, eating out, even filling the car with fuel have all been novel and a little jarring at times.
The museums, sites, shops, beaches, and all the public places were a worry – how would people act or react – but they have felt very normal, if almost empty apart from the shops, with fairly cursory attempts at post-Covid regulations.
In terms of places and sites I have enjoyed the cities – Aigues-Mortes, Arles, Avignon – and their histories. The ipad guide thing in the Palais des Papes eventually won me over, but the interminable audio guide to the half bridge that is the vastly over-egged Pont d’Avignon was daft.
Magnus (in five words): Watery, sandy, busy [in Avignon, apparently] salty (because of the massive salt mountains), pink.
What were the highlights?
Sophie : The best bits were shopping and getting my bikini and skirt. I also enjoyed having meals out.
I also liked how there were lots of sweet shops in Aigues-Mortes. I adored being by the beach.
Aurora: My bikini, the sea, staying in a hotel, seeing flamingos, window shopping.
Ben: Sitting in the sun as almost the only passagers on a tourist boat up the Petit Rhône was lovely, as was watching the children be children on the beach.
Saying goodbye to all those mountains and hills has been good for my running – I achieved my fastest 10k ever in the Camargue this week, helped by being at sea level and being entirely flat (total elevation gain of 2m). I’ve realised that I need little goals to keep going with getting fitter, and looking for great backdrops for our RSABI 25 pressups challenge has been fun. So far we have had the Pont du Gard, the beach, a boat, the Palais des Papes and the Pont d’Avignon, much to the bemusement of various onlookers.
Meals out have been a treat, both with the children (now that they will eat more than just bolognaise and pizza) and without (happy anniversary to us), and being able to go to any restaurant and immediately commandeer a table for six has been a never-experienced luxury.
Magnus: Flamingos, digging in the warm sand on the beach, and jumping in the waves, though I was quite nervous sometimes, was good fun.
Lucy: I LOVE the beach and being in the sea. I have also enjoyed pottering round and going into shops. I was pleased with my Van Gogh knowledge (I spotted the cafe) and I really liked the salt flats. This seems short but I can’t really describe the good bits because I loved all of it. And flamingos.
Harriet: Apart from the Camargue itself? I have really enjoyed the Provençale architecture and narrow streets. It was lovely having a meal with just Ben for our anniversary on Thursday. Weirdly I have rather enjoyed the press-up challenge. I enjoyed the utter pointlessness of the three-minute ferry across the Petit Rhone on the way to Aigues-Mortes (you can go the other way round on the road and it’s exactly the same distance). Every single flamingo was a thrill, whether in the bird sanctuary or just viewed from afar. I loved watching the children looking out for each other on the beach.
It has just been lovely being on the move again.
Any bad bits?
Harriet: I was surprised by how disappointed I was that our horse riding was cancelled. It sounded so wonderful – splashing through the marsh with the wildlife all around. I hadn’t been that keen (hence leaving it to the last minute) but I wish we’d done it earlier.
I’d forgotten how expensive travelling is. Admittedly this trip was even more expensive because we were in a (very basic) hotel, but eating out, activities, shopping (forgotten about that!) all adds up very quickly. After 13 weeks where our only expenditure has been the boulangerie and a weekly trip to Intermarché the bleed of money out of our account has come as a shock. Even though that’s exactly what the money was there for.
Aurora: Not having Duplo A, not horse riding, not having all the teddies we brought and Magnus being annoying.
Lucy: It was raining today and I was wearing flip flops and looking like a baby giraffe on the (very slippy) streets of Avignon and I found it a bit boring waiting for Sophie and Aurora to try on every bikini in the shops.
Magnus: I got tired on the Pont d’Avignon and had sore feet because of blisters from my flip flops. Sharing a room with mummy and daddy was annoying, and there was sand in my bed and it was too bright and there was no duvet in the duvet cover. It was so boring going shopping for bikinis with the girls, but in the end it was finally OK, because they got bikinis, even though there were 26 million in the shops, and I did get a bucket and spade and a slushie.
Ben: The Pont Bénézet (the famous one in Avignon) is massively over-hyped. It is half a vaguely interesting bridge.
Although I love seeing my happy family being happy on the beach and in the sea, I’m not personally a beach person – too sandy, hot, windy, wet, salty, suncreamy. I’ll stop whinging now – it has been a great week.
Sophie: Something that I would change if I could would be Magnus having a single bed not double to himself, so Lucy’s sleeping on the floor, in the house we’re in right now. [Editor’s note: This is Lucy’s choice]
What about Covid?
Part of the point of this little holiday-from-our-holiday was to see how travelling in a Covid-19 world is. The honest answer is: Variable. All the tourist sites we have visited have been oddly empty. On the one hand this is lovely – we really can get the perfect camera angle any time we want – but on the other they can feel very sterile and unreal without the buzz of others around.
We were worried too that we might not feel welcome: that we might be viewed with fear or distrust, as outsiders and potential carriers of the disease. This has not at all been the case. Perhaps not surprisingly, half-empty restaurants or quiet shops are desperate for our business. Hand gel is everywhere but the requirement to wear masks (which is obligatory in public transport but up to individual shops) seems to be getting less and less and we certainly see very few on the streets. The only tourist site where mask wearing was strictly enforced was the Palais de Papes.
Covid remains a hot topic of conversation and attitudes to it seem to vary enormously. Most people seem to display a sort of resigned optimism: all they can do is carry on and hope things improve, but we have also had conversations with people who don’t believe it was as bad as they said, people who think we should still all be in lockdown, and one woman who said she’s given up swimming in the sea because of it. We never got to the bottom of that particular piece of logic.
What did we eat?
Although Harriet’s elderflower smelt amazing while infusing, once completed it was rather insipid and disappointing. A new recipe and the all-important citric acid are in the post from Essex. Now we’ve just got to hope that the elderflowers aren’t all over by the time we get back.
Being in a hotel meant lots of meals out. (Restaurants here were allowed to reopen last week). Having not eaten out since Vienna (treating Granny) and only once or twice on the trip prior to that (for budgetary reasons), this was a bit of a shock.
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer isn’t a particularly gastronomic destination but Ben and Harriet had a lovely meal out on their anniversary and prior to that we all enjoyed a variety of foods including octopus, Camarguais beefburgers, tellines (which may or may not be clams but were totally delicious either way) and a lot of pizza and ice cream.
The local treat is Fougasse d’Aigues-Mortes, a sort of sweet focaccia-type bread with orange flower water. It is supposed to be eaten as part of the treize desserts (yes, that is what it sounds like and yes, it is a thing) on Christmas Eve but, as with mini eggs and hot cross buns is now available all year round (bah humbug). We failed to find an open boulangerie in Aigues-Mortes but one in Saintes-Maries did us proud. After all that effort, it was, in the words of Magnus: “a bit like soap“.
Lucy asked, mid-week, why there aren’t any blue foods. She was proved wrong at a restaurant in Arles.
Continuing our tradition of eating as many baked goods as we can, in Avignon we tried pompe d’huile from Bella Ciao, a self-proclaimed boulangerie d’utopie. It was pretty good but honestly in utopia we’d hope for something with chocolate in.
What about the tadpoles?
Who knows? Fortunately for them it’s been raining all week in the Chartreuse so they won’t have got dehydrated.
But keen tadpole-watchers will just have to come back next week to find out how they have coped without us.
Tomorrow we leave Avignon and head back north, stopping on the way with Harriet’s uncle and aunt. We plan to canoe down the Ardèche gorge on Monday and will probably head back to the Chartreuse after that.
More long term though this dip of our travelling toes in the water has made us realise that travel is possible. At present we can’t leave France (they wouldn’t let us back in) but that may change in the next week or so. The plan is to see what happens when Macron addresses the nation (again) on Sunday and make our decisions after that.
The big picture though is that we will be on the road again soon (hopefully). It won’t be where and how we planned but it will be an adventure.