Chambord, Clos Luce and the Saumur Mushroom Museum – Some Typical Touristy Stuff – 2-4/4/12

It’s hard not to compare this trip to our other trips every time I write a blog entry. With our previous trips not many people knew a lot about the countries we were travelling through (and writing about) and we were often amazed by the unusual things we ran into. It was easy to write about things that were so foreign and surprising.

France, on the other hand, I find more difficult to write about. It’s a country that everyone knows something about (baguette, croissant, château, fromage, “Bonjour mon petit bureau de change” … a Flight of the Conchords reference there), even if only because we were forced to do so in history class at school.

It’s difficult and discouraging to try being creative and original when writing about a country that has been an inspiration to countless writers, artists and tourists for centuries, so I’m not even going to try to (for now :-)). Instead, here’s a few interesting and extremely touristy attractions we’ve visited in the last few days.

Château de Chambord, Loir-et-Cher

Chateau Chambord in all its glory

Chateau Chambord in all its glory

You can’t drive down the Loire Valley without seeing a château, big or small, in literally every town and village you drive through. Of course, it’s also impossible to visit them all. Well, probably not impossible if that’s your life’s mission and dream, but you would really have to be very determined, have loads of free time and be extremely interested in chateaus. Which we aren’t.

In front of Chambord

In front of Chambord

We saw the chateaus in Sully, Ambroise and Saumur but didn’t actually go in. Instead, we decided to limit the number of chateaus we actually visited to just one. And Chambord, being the biggest and most kitsch of them all, was our choice. It was built as a “hunting lodge” for King François I but it seems like his idea of a hunting lodge was a bit different from mine. It’s absolutely huge and weird and fantastic from the outside. The views of his hunting grounds from the uppermost terraces are spectacular. Inside it was draughty and cold and I got bored of it pretty quickly, since there are 440 rooms you can visit (and I only have patience for small museums).

But, there were a few things I really liked about it:

  1. The smell of wood burning in fireplaces that had spread all over the chateau
  2. The open staircase in the shape of a double-helix, allegedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci himself
  3. Several horse-drawn carriages they had on display (I imagine travelling in them was very romantic)

Clos Lucé, Ambroise

In Leonardo's park

In Leonardo's park

The town of Amboise is small but charming (which is pretty much typical for a town in the Loire valley, to be honest.) The place we found the most interesting in it was Clos Lucé, a mansion in which king François I grew up and Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life.

Knowing that it was a home of king François, I had expected something similar to his lodge in Chambord. I was pleasantly surprised when we climbed little streets of Amboise to a relatively small mansion surrounded by a beautiful park and garden. (I guess François must have really suffered as a child, being forced to live in a house with less than 100 rooms).

Thanks for the bridge, Leonardo!

Thanks for the bridge, Leonardo!

The museum is really well organised and quite original. The tour starts in the mansion, where you walk through the different rooms with the original furniture (most of it from the 18th century though) on the first floor and the ground floor is a museum dedicated to Leonardo’s inventions. There are sketches, models, 3-D computer animations and well-written explanations of 40 of his original (more or less) ideas. Those same inventions you can then visit in the park where they have been built in real-life size. The museum has little to do with the time that Leonardo da Vinci spent living in the mansion, but it was still very interesting.

Another thing I liked: dogs were allowed in the museum park. They were also allowed in the mansion itself, but only if you carry them. We weren’t sure Klara would have liked being carried around for an hour, so her tour was limited just to the garden.

The thing I didn’t like: irritating renaissance music playing on repeat inside the mansion.

Mushroom Museum, Saumur

Jay disgusted by some of the mushrooms

Jay disgusted by some of the mushrooms

The third touristy thing we visited was the mushroom museum in Saumur. To be honest, I am not sure if it is actually popular with tourists since we were literally the only visitors on a gloomy Wednesday morning in early April, but if it isn’t, it should be, because it’s fascinating and disgusting at the same time.

Well, maybe other people wouldn’t find it disgusting, but I did. Also, maybe other people wouldn’t find it fascinating, but Jay did. The museum consisted of a moist, cold cave with long hallways in which mushrooms are grown. Lots of them, different sizes, shapes and colours. Some of the kinds I’d already heard of, some of them were new to me, some of them are new to the world as a whole, because they are experimental hybrids created in the cave.

Iva investigating the mushrooms

Iva investigating the mushrooms

All of the descriptions were written in English as well which made the whole tour a lot more interesting. We found out, for example, that there is a mushroom so poisonous and powerful that only one could kill an entire family. On hearing that we spent a few moments imagining that sad, poor family, all of them nibbling on one mushroom … I got so carried away imagining that I forgot the name of the mushroom. And what it looks like. So this blog post is not very helpful for those of you who hope to avoid lethal mushroom poisoning.

Things I liked:

  1. Interesting descriptions
  2. Obvious enthusiasm put into the organisation of the museum
  3. That all of the mushrooms in the museum are hand-picked when fully grown and available to buy

Things I didn’t like:

  1. Most of the mushrooms. I found them slightly disgusting, when growing in a group of a thousand. I wrote “things” in plural because there were many mushrooms I didn’t like.

Since we’re planning on visiting quite a bite more touristy stuff in beautiful France, watch this space for updates :-)

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Roscoff, Mont St. Michel, St. Malo and Pete – 5-6/4/12

In the midst of the excitement of planning this year’s tour of La France, my friend from university Pete suggested that he nip across on the cross-channel ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff to meet up with us for a day.

Great idea, we replied, despite us having no idea where Roscoff was and Pete having no idea that he’d be spending 8 hours attempting to get just a little bit of sleep on the ferry floor.

Our original plan included visiting Britanny (the top-left bit of France), but our appointment with Pete – who was arriving on the 5th April at 8:00am – meant a straight up 4 hour drive north-west from Saumur to Roscoff the night before so we could pick him up from the ferry terminal.

Parked up in Roscoff

Parked up in Roscoff

We arrived in Roscoff around 18:00 and Iva found a good place to park with a sea view, well off the main road through town. It’s odd, but since France is in the same timezone as Germany and Roscoff is so far west, the sun doesn’t set until 21:00, so we had time to walk around the town (pretty, creperies by the shedload) and along the front. It was quite moving for me to realise that the land mass I was looking across the channel at was England.

After Klara had been walked and emptied we found a cosy restaurant in the town centre for what was one of our first meals out since we’d arrived in France. Iva ate something fishy and I ordered a pizza a lá Flammkuchen accompanied by a cheerful caraffe of local wine (I’ve now officially given up on ordering beer in France, since it costs a lot and tastes like piss).

Making good to Pete on my promise of a Camperissimo fry-up

Making good to Pete on my promise of a Camperissimo fry-up

So far this month the weather has been kind to us, but most mornings we’ve woken up before dawn and put the heating on until breakfast. On the Loire it dropped to 4°c on a couple of mornings, but the heating in the van packs a serious punch (we already survived two nights in the Alps, mid-winter). That night our gas bottle ran out around 5am, and since one of the hinges on the back door of the van snapped and then snapped again*, changing the gas is a far from trivial endeavour. Chilly.

*It’s just a 15cm piece of metal, but our stupid garage couldn’t find a replacement so they welded the broken one instead, a stroke of genius which held for precisely three days. Monkey-brained idiots.

We picked Pete up at 8:00 and I cooked us a full on fry-up in the van before making a plan for the day to come.

The long walk to Mont St. Michel

The long walk to Mont St. Michel

It was a toss-up between spending the day in Brest or the longer drive to Mont St. Michel, which is about 2,5 hours from Roscoff. Based on a pretty crappy weather forecast we had been leaning toward Brest, but the blue skies spurred us on and instead we drove east to Mont Saint Michel.

Neither Pete nor Iva had been there before and both of them were very impressed. I had visited the mount about 20 years earlier on a family holiday, but even so it’s hard not to be taken aback again at the sheer size of it.

Mont Saint Michel

Mont Saint Michel

I’ll leave out the details of the parking situation here, save to say that it was absolute and complete horror.

Once we were inside the town we had a great time, walking all the way to the top, with amazing views and plenty of fluffy white Frenchy dogs for Klara to bark insanely at.

We found a nice quite garden spot half way up for our little picnic and then hiked back to our parking spot, about 45 minutes away.

Somewhere underneath all of that is a galette!

Somewhere underneath all of that is a galette!

Before leaving Munich we’d thought about all three of us sleeping in the van, but after a week on the road to get used to the very limited space available within Camperissimo, we opted for a hotel instead. Iva set about checking what was available on booking.com as Pete filled me in on the latest gossip from the UK and I drove.

This particular stage of the journey was especially challenging and enjoyable for me as the driver because half of the gears in the van suddenly stopped working (or rather the clutch as it turned out).

By the time we arrived in St. Malo – where Iva had found rooms in quite a fancy hotel for half the normal price – I had truly understand the beauty and practicality of 1st gear, 2nd gear and reverse. Oh, how I miss thee.

Iva enjoying St. Malo

Iva enjoying St. Malo

St. Malo was chosen as a convenient half-way stop on our journey, so our expectations were very measured. We were downright astonished to see intermuros,  the walled old town, for the first time. Why had noone told us about this? Bastards!

The last time I saw a completely walled old town on this scale was Dubrovnik, and St. Malo is truly no less impressive.

We checked in at the hotel and then walked the walls of the town, before overeating on galettes and spending a week’s budget on 4 beers. All in all we had a great time with our first ever Camperissimo guest traveller.

Walking the walls in St. Malo

Walking the walls in St. Malo

Looking back onto Intermuros in St. Malo

Looking back onto Intermuros in St. Malo

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What’s It Like Travelling in a Camper Van in France? – 6/4/12

The whole mushroom museum to ourselves!

The whole mushroom museum to ourselves!

Up to the start of this trip we’d spent something like 60 nights sleeping in the van since buying it back in April 2010. Some of those were weekend trips within Germany, or stopovers in lay-bys on the way to Rijeka and back, but the majority were spent in Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Montenegro.

Until now, those experiences formed the basis of what it meant to us to travel in Camperissimo.

In Romania we hardly saw another camper van on the road anywhere in the country, even when we were visiting more popular tourist attractions. On a few occasions In Albania the van drew quite a bit of attention as we drove by, although we may have just been misreading people’s shock at seeing a car not manufactured by Mercedes first hand. In Sofia, a man who’s apartment block we’d parked in front of even came out to greet us personally and find out if we’d slept well in his street.

In France things couldn’t be more different, which has been both a positive and a negative thing.

No camper van shortage here, nosir.

No camper van shortage here, nosir.

We’ve seen a great deal of campers on the road, the great majority of which are large, French and new-looking,  and the towns and attractions we’ve visited so far have almost all made special effort to control the flow of camper van traffic.

We first noticed this because of the frequent little blue signs indicating places where camper vans could drain their various water tanks. In most cases that’s literally all there was: a parking space angled towards a central drain, in some cases with the chance to fill up with fresh water.

In Sully-sur-Loire there were signs pretty much everywhere prohibiting camper van parking after 21:00 and before 08:00, i.e. piss off and sleep somewhere else. At least how it seemed until we happened upon a dedicated parking lot for camper vans just out of the town centre. It was free and quiet and much more convenient than random city parking. Again here we noticed that almost all of the other campers were larger, luxury models, being driven by 50+ French couples.

The municipal campsite in Saumar. Not bad.

The municipal campsite in Saumar. Not bad.

In St. Malo all of the parking anywhere near the old town was kitted out with height-restricted access gates. As a result I ended up accidentally actually driving into the old town, with it’s narrow, semi-pedestrian, cobbled streets and a one-way system designed to keep you in the old town for the maximum possible length of time. Fortunately we broke the code, escaped the labyrinth and parked about 2km away in a residential street.

At Mont St. Michel all of the public parking was barred to campers and there was literally nowhere, not a single space, which we could legally park in within an hour’s walk of the mount. No exaggeration. In the end we parked in the private lot in front of a restaurant for want of any other choice and even then it was a 45 minute walk on foot.

To sum it up: we’re very much part of the mainstream in France, and the only vaguely unusual thing about Camperissimo is that it’s slightly smaller, older and shitter than any other van we’ve seen. Although our itinerary may differ at least in part from the average, our means of travel does not.

So what effect has this had on the first week of this year’s trip?

Mostly a positive one. We’ve slept better in the knowledge that we draw no attention, and about half of the nights so far we’ve stayed in municipal campsites, which are clean, centrally located and so cheap they may as well be free. The sense of freedom of being able to park anywhere and make that place your home for a night is exhilirating as an idea, but worrying you may stick out and draw unwanted attention can be mentally exhausting and ruin a good night’s sleep.

That said, we’re both very glad to be travelling in the off-season, because taking the same circumstances and doubling, or tripling, the number of vans on the road isn’t a very appealing thought. The risk of bad weather – which so far we’ve completely escaped – is far outweighed by the joy of having an entire museum to yourself … and knowing that wherever you stop at least one of the specially-marked and excellently equipped camper van parking spaces will be free.

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Sully-sur-Loire, 1/04/12

As Jay already mentioned in one of his previous posts, we were a lot better prepared for this trip than for any trips before. We read guidebooks, we asked our friends for different tips and Jay even bought a book called “Cool camping – France” with a list of about 50 special campsites in France. Considering the fact that there’s a campsite every 3 kilometeres here, we assumed they must be pretty impressive.

Based on their campsite suggestion, we chose Sully-sur-Loire as our first destination on our route down the Loire. It said they were open all year and close to the chateau and that alone sounded pretty perfect. As we approached the town, from a distance we saw an amazing looking castle and loads of camper vans parked right next to it. Instinctively we drove to the caravans, only to turn around in disgust when we realised it was just a parking lot. No toilets, no showers, no grass. We deserve better than this, we thought.

We followed the signs to the actual camp-site only to find ourselves in front of the closed gate because they opened the next day! Stupid book! We drove back into the town but all the streets had signs saying camper vans can’t park there in the evening. Which left us with, you guessed it correctly, the same parking lot we drove away from. This time we were pleased to find the last space empty, waiting just for us.

After a great night of sleep, we woke up feeling full of energy (Klara especially). The morning was chilly but bright and sunny so we decided to dress warmly and  jump on our bikes. We were considering riding 500 meters to the town centre to get coffee and a croissant, but we opted instead for an option B – cycle 28 kilometres to the next town. I started off optimistically – I guess I must have in my mind confused a 28 kilometre cycle ride with a  28 minutes long ride. Anyway, things were great until the signs for a bike-path showed us to turn off the path and onto a main road and then they just stopped appearing. Riding a bike on a reasonably busy road with a crazy dog running between us was quite a stressful experience. We found a small road to a nearby village where we stopped for a break in a local café-bar and had a tasty, tasty pain au raisin and a brioche (I had to write this for people who believe we only eat McDonald’s food :-D). In that village, the bicycle path signs miraculously reappeared so we followed them happily (well, some of us were happier that the others, Klara was without a doubt the happiest).

Our excursion ended in Gien, a small town on Loire, which is a regular pretty town, but not fascinating in any way. After a walk around the town and a rest on the bench with the view of the river, we headed back to Sully. Following the same path, we got to the same village as before but then noticed that the bike path signs continue away from the main road! “Oh, what a relief,” I though to myself (and probably said it out loud as well). While we were discussing how it was possible to misunderstand the signs on our way there, we started to realise that a) we haven’t seen the signs for a while on this path either and b) the bike path has changed into a dirt track which changed into a sandy path which changed into a sandy beach that lead us to a few trees between a river on our right hand side and a creek on our left hand side! How did this happen?! Jay took out his GPS (yay for the smartphones!) and found out there was a road on the other side of the creek. Which meant only one thing – shoes and socks off, push the bikes through the freezing water. And that’s what we did.

The path continued as normal after a about a kilometre ride through the forest. Seriously, they didn’t really think this part very well through. It turned out that the path couldn’t have continued next to the river because there was a nuclear power plant there. Whatever.

After an eventful day, we were happy to find ourselves back at the camper van parking which was, in our minds, upgraded from “shitty” to “amazing”. Even Klara seemed to be tired (she was strolling behind us for the last three kilometres) and she fell right asleep.  We boiled 4 pots of water, had a warm shower and cuddled up with an episode of “Downton Abbey”. A perfect ending to a wonderfully exhausting day.

 

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Setting Off & Making Time: München to St. Dizier 29-30/03/12

There’s no better start to a day than waking up in a motorway layby after sleeping in your car, parked just a few metres from a stainless steel public convenience, with the roar of trucks racing past and a dog whining at you because it desperately needs to take a shit.

And so our trip for 2012 began.

Our first real meal in the van: veggie meatballs and stew

Our first real meal in the van: veggie meatballs and stew

Iva had been teaching a class until 21:00 the previous evening and we’d hit the road around 21:30. I drove until about midnight – which got us almost as far as Stuttgart – before I could feel myself getting tired. We hadn’t made it to France, but still it we’d managed a fair chunk of the 1000km from Munich to Orléans. Plus, we’d both been so excited to start the holiday that staying the night in Munich and setting off bright and early on Friday morning was never an option.

It had taken me quite a while to get to sleep, because the motorway traffic was pretty noisy and the family-sized bottle of Coke Zero I had drunk to keep my mind razor-sharp while driving still hadn’t fully worn off. The first few nights it’s also always a fairly strange experience to be sleeping in a car, with the various noises of night around you and 30cm of space between your face and the roof.

Scratching the Patisserie itch in Lützelbourg

Scratching the Patisserie itch in Lützelbourg

Predictably, the first stop of the day was for breakfast at McDonald’s 5km along the motorway, I’ll hold off on any further details of that :-)

Soon after we were on the road again, heading for Karlsruhe and crossing the border into France shortly after. Of course, we knew that there wouldn’t be a border crossing of any kind, but we were disappointed to find that there wasn’t even a “You are now entering France” sign.

Giving Lützelbourg the once over

Giving Lützelbourg the once over

Even Austria and Germany manage that, reciprocally. To make up for this distinct lack of ceremony, two French police officers stopped us at a random traffic island a few minutes later and asked to see our passports. They were particulary interested in Iva’s passport, asking her if her German visa was, in fact, not a visa, but rather a notice of detention prohibiting her from leaving the city of Munich. We responded in the negative. After an embarassing silence, we drove on.

It was around this time that we were deliberating on a fundamental aspect of this year’s road trip: to motorway, or not to motorway?

French country roads are great

French country roads are great

For our trips in 2010 and 2011 we’d relied on Iva’s Garmin GPS, despite it crashing regularly and occasionally sending us in completely the wrong direction. Driving cross country in Hungary one time it detoured by about 50km and attempted to have us cross a chain bridge that was no longer there. This year I’d bought CoPilot Plus for my smartphone, which promised to be altogether more up to date and dynamic. One thing that it does automatically is offer you various route alternatives (not good for indecisive drivers) … the fastest, the shortest, etc.

Random nap stop - near Marbache

Random nap stop - near Marbache

From past experience we knew that the motorways in France are expensive and visually barren. Given our realistic top speed of 115km/hour and the fact that the non-motorway route suggested was considerably shorter, we decided to make a point of avoiding toll roads for the whole holiday. It only took a couple of hours for this to prove to be an excellent decision: so far the country roads in France have been straight and fast and beautiful (and the French drivers fault-free, so far).

Parked up in St. Dizier

Parked up in St. Dizier

We spent the next night in St. Dizier and made a stop in a nice little town called Lützelbourg for a croissant and a baguette. And then another croissant. In St. Dizier we parked up in a residential car park near the canal – which proved to be a nice, quiet place to sleep – and headed into town for dinner.

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