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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Marseilles, Provence and the Verdon Gorge - June 26 - July 2, 2012




Leaving Ax Les Thermes was made much easier when we learned that, in order to complete escrow on our Seattle home, we had to have documents signed and notarized by the US Consulate General in Marseilles.  What?  Sell a house?  Are we dreaming?  It all came up so suddenly (the house not even on the market) that we were struck mute and just stared at each other in disbelief.  But the shock quickly turned to excitement when the documents arrived so we quickly packed up and headed to Marseilles.

As you know by now, big cities are not really our thing especially with The Noses and temperatures in the 30/90’s.  So I was disappointed to find Marseilles not the quiet fishing village I had envisioned, but the teeming, hot and dusty second-largest city in France.  The city will be the Center of European Culture in 2013 and, likely as a result, has most of its streets under construction.  It was pure hell attempting to drive Pepper around so when we found the Sofitel Hotel and they suggested turning over the keys, we had our first glimpse of the luxury that awaited us inside.

I have raved about hotels before, undoubtedly they all seem much better when coming from living in 19’, but the Sofitel in Marseilles is simply an oasis.  The staff was incredible:   Finding us a dog sitter (for the paperwork appointment at the Consulate); the Concierge, Christian utilizing all his patience on the telephone with FedEx coordinating the paperwork shipment back to the US; and another Christian serving us (and The Noses) with humor and interest for two nights in the delightful lobby bar. 

I received a long-awaited and fabulous short French haircut in the salon and we both took advantage of some spa treatments.  There was a pool but we never seemed to find the time to get down there.  All too soon our visit had come to an end.  It was with heavy hearts that we checked out, walked into the wall of heat and began the torturous drive back through the city, returning to our safe but dusty Salt.

We had left Salt at the Ste. Victoire Campground in Beaurecuiel, just outside Aix en Provence, another disappointing city for me.  Like Marseilles, Ax en Provence is much larger than I anticipated and not the quaint little village you so often see portrayed in the movies—I think the adjacent rolling hills harbor the quaint villages, a vision not attainable when towing a caravan as will soon become quite evident.

Just by chance, when we left the Aix en Provence area with Salt, Snoopy led us down the wrong road (OK, the Snooper is useless outside of the UK, it doesn’t know what roads are ok for caravans!  After this disastrous drive we have finally [finally, finally] learned the lesson of using a regular old map) and we ended up amongst rolling fields of cultivated lavender.  People were parked all over the place, walking into the fields and taking pictures.  (We did not stop for pictures; we barely had room on the road to drive let alone pull over.)

After altering our route twice due to road signs specifying no caravans (again, unbeknownst to Snoopy), we ended up at a four-way junction.  One option said no caravans and the other two didn’t need a warning; they were barely larger than an alley.  Time to turn around.  Not easy . . . I got out, we walkie’d up (walkie-talkies are indispensable!), and, holding up traffic in two of the three options, we pulled into one alley, then backed Salt into the other alley and eventually were able to turn around.  Joy.  I must say, though, that the French are much more tolerant of unusual traffic occurrences (sadly, we did find the one driving issue they clearly hate, but that comes later), everyone just waved and smiled as I thanked them profusely.  Of course, many of them had their cell phones out and were taking pictures of Salt . . . she must be all over the Internet by now.

Despite my almost hourly request that we stop the foolishness of traveling the back roads of France and stay at the municipal site right off of the A15, we eventually wound our way to our campground, L’Aigle, outside Lake St. Croix in the small village of Aiguines.  My nerves were frayed, I tell you!  If it wasn’t for SP, we would never have reached the Gorge (at least with Salt in tow.)

Lake St. Croix is gorgeous (an incredible shade of aqua) and the Verdon Gorge is quite stunning; it is referred to as the Grand Canyon of Europe, although I would label it more the King’s Canyon of Europe.  Unfortunately for us, the hiking in the area is very difficult—the walls of the gorge are too steep to get down except for the most experienced hiker (we reached a point one day where, in order to continue, you would have to hold onto a rope while backing down the slippery stone wall; we may have tried this on a dry day and without The Noses, but thankfully it was raining.) 

We did accomplish one great hike along the ridge to Le Grand Marges where we could see the entire canyon from end to end but, alas, not down to the gorgeous river bottom.  The hike up to and along the crest was a treat for the senses as the hills are filled with wild lavender making the air (as well as The Noses after their patented crazy dog in the meadow) a delight to smell.

Still anxious to see the canyon floor, on our last day we rented a small electric boat from the shores of Lake St. Croix and cruised up into the canyon.  What a refreshing treat!  Particularly the quick dip I took before heading back in. 

After three nights we were ready to tackle the chore of getting back onto the small roads and head up to the French Alps.  This time I spent the morning pouring over maps (electronic and paper) and painstakingly writing out our course.  We only had 350 KM to the next spot, but Snoopy thought it would take seven hours, that gives you an idea of the types of roads on which we were to travel.

We did have some nice relaxing time on the toll highways (happy to pay tolls for those smooth, wide lanes!) except for the first one where, with no cash and the machine not accepting any of our credit cards, I had to push the help button and explain our situation over a loud speaker.  A very loud speaker.  Cars were lined up behind us when, about three minutes later, they gave up and lifted the gates.  We immediately pulled over and SP walked back to the office in an attempt to pay.  The office was closed.  I stood outside Salt trying to calm my nerves while the long line of cars proceeded past, with three motorists shouting (what I imagine were) expletives.  That is how we discovered what makes a French driver yell.  We owe France €5.60.  (By the way, all the other toll machines had no problem taking our various credit cards.)

I don’t usually talk about roads much, (may your guiding light help you if you ever try to follow our route!) but if you are ever in the area, the trip up the E712 toward Grenoble, although slow, is stunning.

Now we have landed in Landry, a small town at the foothills of the French Alps, at the Flower Campground L’Eden de la Vanoise.  Our pitch has a view of snow-capped peaks out the front door, a river running along behind us, fresh pastry at the office every morning and a full hook up! (Don’t ask me which one I appreciate more just yet.) 

We have multiple hikes lined up and the possibility of seeing three good friends so it should be a fabulous couple of weeks!

-K

PS:  Since I know some of you worry about The Noses, here is The Dog Sitter’s Report:  Rosco sat and stared at the door the entire time we were gone (2.5 hours), River took a nice long nap then played with the sitter.  The sitter said she tried to get Rosco to play, but he wasn’t interested.  No surprises there.