“Island Hopping”

From Port Barton we took another minivan journey 4 hours further north on the island of Palawan to El Nido, a key jumping off point for tourists wanting to see the beautiful islands in Bacuit Bay. The town itself feels a bit shabby, only coming alive in the evenings and guesthouse prices are much higher than elsewhere even with ‘wet room’ bathrooms (i.e. a shower that sprays everything)!

Needless to say we joined the masses and plumped for “Tour A” one of the cheapest of the several options, stopping at 5 locations for 1200 pesos each (about £20). Whist the views, snorkelling and islands we saw were delightful, the tour itself was somewhat shambolic.

The rough seas meant we had to swim to the boat at the start of the day trying to keep cameras and towels dry by holding them above our heads in the big swells, the 9am departure left at 10.20 we think after recruiting a replacement captain, we were the last boat to arrive at every key site meaning we often wallowed around for 20 minutes waiting for a ‘parking space’ and we arrived back ‘home’ after dark in a different town to the one we left as it wasn’t safe to return to El Nido itself with the rough sea!

Despite this, we had the best lunch on a tour we have ever had, enjoyed ‘7 commando beach’ where 7 Japanese soldiers were discovered long after the 2nd WW had ended, saw some pretty coral and a myriad of small brightly coloured fish. The scenery of limestone karsts was spectacular and our photos don’t really do it justice. We did miss out on a kayak trip because we weren’t brave enough to take on the big waves in near darkness!

Other highlights here included a trip to another beach for sunset and ‘sundowners’ and each of our three nights sampling different flavoured ice creams on a stick from a stall Annie found – raspberry cheesecake flavour being Richard’s favourite and Annie’s mint choc chip!

Still moving north we caught the ‘fast ferry’ for a 4½ hour trip to Coron on Busuanga Island. Sadly Richard suffered quite badly with the rough seas, Annie only keeping everything down by virtue of her anti seasick patches!

10 El Nido, Palawan (110)

Here again, thanks to our friends Debbie and Mari for a generous birthday gift of some Philippine Peso, we enjoyed another island hopping boat tour. This one was on calm seas, well organised and a really fun day even if the lunch wasn’t so good. Once again we snorkelled, swam, explored lagoons, quiet bays and hidden lakes.

11 Coron (111)We only stayed in Coron town for two nights, on one climbing the 700+ steps up Mount Tapyas for sunset views overlooking the bustling and authentic (e.g. not so ‘touristy’) town. Yet again however we’re finding that food and accommodation prices are higher on these islands.

For our final two days we had a complete contrast by moving only 35kms north and were the only guests staying in a restaurant with basic rooms in a tiny rural village called Concepcion. We enjoyed a couple of days reading our books, walking, running and watching village life go by.

12 Conception, Coron (20)On Friday the 13th December we had a transfer to Coron Airport courtesy of a totally reckless van driver so we arrived somewhat shaken up. We then sat and waited for our flight to Manila that was delayed by 3½ hours whilst watching the UK election results rolling in on the BBC news feed. Saturday 14th will hopefully see us arrive in Bangkok, Thailand where we plan to stay for a few days before travelling down the coast and crossing to Koh Samui for Christmas.

The Philippines has been a fun experience although the country has not captured our 12 Conception, Coron (23)hearts. The weather has been mixed and travel between destinations has not always been straightforward, however the friendliness of the Filipinos has been amazing. So many people greet us and ask where we are from and the children all want to chat and ask your name. Particular oddities for us include the passion for cock fighting and the colourful Jeepneys we have mentioned in other blogs but on top of this we have never seen so many McDonald’s restaurants per square kilometre as in this country. In addition there are Basketball courts in every small community and nets along many roadsides but these appear to hardly ever be used. Most weirdly the country has two telephone network providers, Smart & Globe but they cannot communicate with each other! As a result most businesses, even tiny stores all have to have two separate phone numbers, one on each network and when we asked one guest house to call an airline for us they weren’t able to as they didn’t have a compatible network – rather strange!

Siquijor and Palawan

A 90 minute ferry full of tourists of all nationalities whisked us across calm seas to the island of Siquijor (pronounced See-Kee-Hor), which at only 343² kms and a population of 100,000 is the 3rd smallest inhabited island in the Philippines.7 z Siquijor (91)We were immediately struck with how quiet the roads were on the island, the main road is a coastline circumference road with some smaller inland roads crossing the forested and hilly interior. The sun was shining and the temperatures less humid for our 3 day stay here and we found a lovely guesthouse just across the road from the seafront in the village of San Juan on the south coast, arriving in a small van that bizarrely had two steering wheels!

Our first afternoon on a walk to explore the local neighbourhood we stumbled across hundreds of people with flags and banners marching towards the basketball stadium all wearing matching t-shirts saying ‘Jesus Reigns’ on the front and ‘One Day of Celebration’ on the back. We were intrigued and so followed the crowd and before we knew it were being invited to join in a service of worship and praise. We declined to purchase the requisite t-shirt but despite that were warmly welcomed.

The activities were planned to last for over 4 hours but after 40 minutes of ear splitting emissions from several speakers way too big for the space we made our exit for some peace and quiet! We have since found out that it was an inter- denominational event held simultaneously across the 82 provinces of the Philippines. www.jesusreigns.ph

The best way to see the island is by motorcycle and so off we set on our bright orange machine and spent a fun day seeing all the sights the island has to offer including going off the beaten track through the hills and villages inland on dirt tracks. It is impossible to get properly lost on such a small island, but that said we tried hard whilst clocking up over 100kms in the day. We clearly didn’t take the most direct routes!

Our day started with a quick stop to take a photo of the 400 year old Balate (Banyan) Tree before finding the beautifully simple 1884 San Isidro Church made of coral stone and timber and its nearby stone and timber villa once a catholic convent.

We visited two of the main waterfalls on the tourist route; The Cambugahay Falls which after clambering down some steep steps we found was incredibly busy, clearly a popular spot for locals and tourists alike who swim in the various pools and jump from rope swings into the water

before finding the less impressive but much quieter Lugnason Falls deep in the rainforest that seemed to be suffering a water shortage! We had our lunch of a beer and packet of crisps at Salagdoong Beach which was very underwhelming despite its popularity and entrance fee before trying to find our last call of the day which was Mount Bandila-an. At only 557 metres it is the islands highest point in the centre of the island and surprisingly we were the only ones there standing on a not quite fully built viewing platform with views of the whole of island.

Siquijor is known for its Folk Healers who live in the forested interior of the island and can be visited if one has a condition that needs healing, they are not widely advertised and we weren’t aware beforehand of this aspect at all. We did however notice that there were a number of small fields and fenced off areas with well-spaced out tethered cockerels.

We soon discovered that cock fighting is a major sport (and gambling opportunity) in the country. When we stopped to take some photos of a small operation in the hills the owner of these lovely cocks and his neighbour proudly showed us his prize bird and invited us to a cock fight that evening. Not a sport we would like to watch.

7 z Siquijor (77)It was a slightly anxious last day on the island as Typhoon Tisoy (Kammuri) gathered strength and badly affected the whole country, one consequence being that all ferries to and from Siquijor were cancelled the day before we were due to leave. The winds were still high when we took the 35 minute journey to the Ferry Port to see what our options were and were amazed and relieved to hear that despite a number of other cancellations both our ferries were going that day.  A fairly rough 6 hours and 2 ferries later we were docking in Cebu on the island of the same name and finding our way to our accommodation close to the airport.

 

On Wednesday 3rd December a 90 minute flight from Cebu took us to Palawan Island which is about as far east as you can go in the Philippines and judging from the other passengers we were clearly entering a well-travelled tourist route. We then took a 2½ hour mini bus journey north from Puerto Princesa to Port Barton where we had booked 2 nights in a very basic ‘tourist inn’.

After two long days of travel we enjoyed a chilled out day exploring the tiny but charming town of Port Barton. It feels like we have come here at the right time, the roads are not yet paved and the accommodation is all very basic and geared towards travellers rather than the holiday tourist.

However wherever you walk in this essentially 2 road community there is evidence of building work with more accommodation options under construction, a precursor to a rapid expansion of the town and possibly the loss of its charming character.

The town has some excellent eating options and limited places to visit but we enjoyed our brief stay despite our hostel having no hot water and no plans to provide any!

South Luzon and Bohol Islands

A 10 hour bus journey back to Manila which seems to be an essential hub for so many routes around the Philippines, a short sleep and a few hours later we were boarding the Light Railway alongside many thousands of other commuters to cross the city.

After hunting for the correct bus company we caught our £1.30 ride for the 2½ hour journey (50kms) south to Tagaytay and Lake Taal. By mid-afternoon Friday 22nd November we were checking into our room in a very quirky Eco Hotel made out of old shipping containers. Our visit coincided with the weekend which is always busy because Tagaytay is a favourite destination for those wanting to escape the madness and smog of Manila and of course the many tourists visiting the Philippines.

The attraction here is a fairly unique natural phenomenon. Tagaytay is situated on a ridge that forms part of an ancient volcanic caldera, it has spectacular views of Taal Lake and the active Taal Volcano, reportedly the second most active volcano in the Philippines with 33 historical eruptions. What makes this so unusual is that within this caldera is the second volcano with its own lake and island within, so essentially a volcano within a volcano!

We obviously had to take the boat across the lake to Volcano Island and then had a hot sweaty walk up a steep path to the rim of the inner volcano. Here we were rewarded with views of the lake within the volcano’s crater and panoramic views of the bigger lake that the volcano is situated in. We were so happy to do this in dry weather and even some sunshine and get the wonderful if a little hazy views from the top. The Crater Lake on Volcano Island is the largest lake on an island in a lake on an island in the world (follow that if you can!). We were happy we set off early in the morning as when we descended there were so many tourists coming up the path, some of them being led on horseback to avoid having to do the uphill walk. We felt sorry for the horses carrying all shapes and sizes up an uneven rocky path.

The following day we visited the other busy tourist attraction in Tagaytay ‘People’s Park in the Sky’. This is an area on a high point outside the town housing a small chapel, a huge statue of Jesus and an incomplete mansion. The mansion is known as the palace in the sky and was built during the Marcos era to host the visit of US President Ronald Reagan. Work on the mansion stopped when Reagan canceled his visit so it remains incomplete and yet draws the crowds mainly to enjoy the 360° views.

Annie was missing her regular exercise as she had been unable to run since we arrived in the Philippines. So she took advantage of the traffic free 0.5 km uphill access road to ’People’s Park’ and ran up and down several times much to the amusement of the other visitors whilst Richard enjoyed the panoramic views.

From here it was a bus back to Manila, a night in an airport hotel before a 90 minute budget fight to Bohol Island in the southern part of the country where we had decided to base ourselves for 4 nights in the beach resort of Alona

The weather perked up and we were happy to finally see a beautiful beach and some sunshine, although during our time on Bohol we experienced every kind of tropical weather including heavy rain, overcast humid days and hot sunshine.

The reason for coming to Bohol was to see the tiny endangered Tarsiers, officially the smallest primate in the world and to visit the Chocolate Hills. Our first day was spent on an Island Tour which took in these two sights and other places of interest. You will see from the photos how green and beautiful the island is. 6 Bohol (102)We arrived at the Chocolate Hills viewpoint in pouring rain and had to wait patiently for the mist and haze to move to get any decent photos. That said they are an extraordinary geological sight, as far as the eye can see and with 360° views there are these cone shaped grass covered hills of varying sizes (apparently over 1000 spread over and area of 50² kilometres).

In the dry season the grass turns brown hence their name. (We’ve included a cloudless internet picture to illustrate)6 Bohol (1)The Tarsier Sanctuary was a special experience, it is set in rainforest and visitors walk along a carefully managed forest trail where guides are positioned to point out the tiny primates. We saw about eight of the one hundred or so who live here and found them very endearing with their tiny bodies that could fit in the palm of your hand, huge eyes, hairless rotating ears, long tail and long finger-like claws. They reminded us of Yoda from Star Wars! (Again an internet picture of a Tarsier in someone’s hand to show their size)

It was a fun day seeing the island, its varied landscape of rice fields, forests, hills and rivers as well as a butterfly garden and the following two days were spent pottering around the beach area of Alona, swimming in the pool at our accommodation, agreeing and booking our onward destinations and catching up with chores, like our laundry and admin whilst dodging rain showers.

On 30th December we have booked a ferry to take us 2 hours across the sea to the tiny island province of Siquijor where we have booked 3 nights in a guesthouse in the town of San Juan. We’re hoping this goes without incident as yet another typhoon is heading our way.

The Philippines, Manila and North

We are on our travels again, this time heading for 4 weeks in the Philippines and then on 14th December we fly to Bangkok where we plan to take about 6 weeks travelling overland to Singapore.  5.15am on Friday 15th November saw us onto the National Express Coach which limped its way to Heathrow with an engine fault.

2 Mania, Phiippines (5)A very comfortable 13hr flight on a Singapore Airlines A380 Airbus took us across the world to Singapore where we had a very swift transit (almost running from gate to gate) to catch our Manila flight which had just started boarding as we arrived at the gate. Feeling rather tired and lacklustre after 25 hours travel we arrived to find that the Filipinos are fully embracing all that is Christmas even in mid-November. Decorations are up all over the city, Christmas music is playing and in the arrivals lounge at the airport there was even a choir singing Christmas songs. The first person we spoke to on arrival wished us a Merry Christmas!

There are so many transport options in Manila ranging from the regular taxi and bus to the more ornate Jeepney which are customised USA army trucks left behind after WW11. There is also what they call a tricycle or Philippine rickshaw, a sidecar bolted to a motorbike or sometimes even a regular bicycle.

With all of these plus the many cars, lorries and trucks the roads in Manila are chaotic and at certain times of the day gridlocked. It is a noisy busy city, with stiflingly high humidity and yet amongst the hustle and bustle you find very friendly welcoming locals.

The urban sprawl is vast and we hadn’t realised that it is actually several different cities all joined up and these are then sub- divided up into neighbourhoods with different names. Our budget hotel was in Manila in the Binondo neighbourhood, signs in the area claim it as the oldest Chinatown in the world.

We picked this location carefully when booking from home as we had read that getting around the city using transport was very slow. For our two days here we took the guidebooks advice which was to pick one area at a time to explore. Our first day was spent exploring our corner of Manila. We were able to walk around Chinatown and across the river to an area called Intramuros, the old walled city with a Cathedral and Fort and many historic buildings which managed to escape much of the bombing in WW11.

The following day we jumped on the LRT (Light Railway) and for the princely sum of PHP 60 return (just under £1) for both of us we headed several stops north to the Santa Cruz neighbourhood to visit the huge Chinese Cemetery here which covers an area of 5.4 Hectares. This was like no other cemetery we have ever seen as it felt like an eerily quiet residential suburb with streets where the wealthy and not so wealthy Chinese are buried in mausoleums. Some of these tombs are very ostentatious with two or more storeys and take the form of a house, villa or pagoda and others are more recognisable as usual burial areas.

It all seemed very surreal especially in view of the rather poor rundown neighbourhood that directly adjoins this palatial burial ground.

We aren’t sad to be leaving the city though, it is hot and humid, noisy and dirty and apart from the lovely welcoming Filipinos has little to commend it.  At 8pm on Monday 18th November we caught a night bus north to Banaue arriving at 4.30am after a sleepless night despite the coach being relatively comfortable compared with many other long distance buses we have taken on our travels. Sadly our arrival coincided with that of tropical storm ‘Sarah’ just to the north of us meaning that for almost all of our 2 night stay the area was deluged by torrential rains.

Our plan had been to spend time hiking around the famous rice terraces and then continue up the north coast of this, the island of Luzon, one of the largest in the country (there are over 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines with only 154 being larger than 5 square miles) and visit Vigan to see the old Spanish Colonial buildings.

However after two very wet outings with little to see through the low cloud and forecasters saying that as the typhoon is only moving at 35km/h it will take several days to clear we are about facing and returning south in the hope of better weather for seeing more of the sights this country has to offer.

The photos here show how poor the visibility was at the very best of times, mostly all we saw was a curtain of thick cloud completely enveloping us. It is disappointing as the terraces at Batad are UNESCO world heritage listed as being of historical importance and all the tourist web sites extol the virtues of a visit here. A picture pinched off a web site shows how thing could have looked!

The road Northwards and Home

From Annecy we decided it was time to make our way homewards and draw this latest adventure to a close. Without rushing too much we tried to find places of interest along our route that we haven’t visited before.

After a couple of nights on quiet, but unremarkable campsites we headed to a lovely Aire in Roanne (90km northwest from Lyon) situated on a strip of land between the Loire River and a canal basin and small port. We realised when we got the last of only 12 wide and grassy parking places that this is a really popular overnight spot as more and more motorhomes arrived and left disappointed. Before getting here we had stopped a few miles downstream to see the tiny but picturesque Chateau La Roche, one of the lesser known chateau in the Loire.57 a road to Chateau La Roche (16)Roanne is a real foodie’s town with a classy covered market and an abundance of Michelin rated restaurants including the famous 3 star Troisgros – Le Bois sans Feuilles. Unsurprisingly therefore a highlight of our stop was a fabulous meal out at Don Camillo, an Italian Restaurant with a buzzing atmosphere, and rated the second best restaurant in town (if you exclude all the Michelin starred wonders).

Having never stopped in the Beaujolais region before we decided this should be our next destination.

We enjoyed a brief walk around the pretty village of Charlieu on the way and then a visit to a wine shop to purchase some quality regional wines in Beaujeu, the ancient capital of the region. Here with little difficulty we managed to bag some Beaujolais grand cru wines before basing ourselves for two nights on a campsite in the lovely village of Fleurie.

We hadn’t realised beforehand that there are only ten tiny villages uniquely approved to grow and make the superior quality cru wines. These villages are clustered together in the north of what is quite a small Beaujolais wine area and they pride themselves on still handpicking the grapes. The south of the region is where Beaujolais Nouveau is produced and by November the 2019 vintage will be hitting the shelves in the UK.

Whilst here Annie set off on an 18km walk, one of the many marked hiking trails that take walkers through the vineyards and villages.

It also won’t be a surprise to read that we availed ourselves of some Fleurie wine from one or two of the wine cellars as well as enjoying a glass or two in the local bar! As we left Fleurie it was lovely to see the harvest just beginning in some of the vineyards.

With the weather getting noticeably more autumnal we followed the Loire north and found a riverside campsite overlooking Nevers.

Here the star of the city was the Cathedral which had been rebuilt after heavy bombing in 1944 and now has the most wonderful contemporary stained glass windows.

Our final stop in the Loire Valley was in the village of Vouvray. Yes, more wine and this time a visit to the star vineyard of Huet as well as another family run vineyard recommended by Dimitri the owner of our campsite. The problem was that they were at least 3 miles apart from each other so we had a long walk carrying our various purchases, 3 bottles in a bag in each hand – so 12 in all!

With the motorhome groaning under the weight of all the wine we are carrying it was with a hope and a prayer that we continued homeward keen not to be randomly stopped and sent to a weighbridge.

A long driving day to a campsite at the Caen ferry port in Ouistreham was broken with a stop at the Le Mans 24 hour circuit and just before we arrived, we realised we were approaching along the Mulsanne Straight with chicanes and barriers down the side of the road. In his excitement Richard almost forgot he was driving a 3.5 ton (plus wine) vehicle!

We spent a happy two nights on the Ouistreham campsite, close to the D Day landing Sword Beach and Pegasus Bridge before catching the 8.30 am ferry home on 10th September.

64 a Ouistreham to Portsmouth (27)

After over 5,000 miles of relatively carefree driving, the first thing we hit on our arrival at Portsmouth was the closure of the M27, miles of virtually stationary traffic on country road diversions and a long delay trying to get home. Welcome to the UK!

The Alps

We didn’t need to look at the map to see that Die lies between the mountains of Provence and the Vercors. Everywhere we looked from the town and campsite there was a view of mountains.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the most challenging part of our route to Chamonix was the first 1¼ hours when, unable to avoid a mountain pass we faithfully followed the Sat Nav and road signs and ended up driving through a dramatic landscape and over the Col de Menée (1402m), from there we had an easy main road journey to Chamonix.

We parked in the huge Aire/Car Park for the cable car that was already packed with cars and motorhomes. The last remaining spot was right underneath the cable cars where there was a path up the mountain and Annie needed no better invitation to set off on a 2 hour hike!52 d Chamonix (18)
An early evening walk into town and we found it full of tourists of all nationalities and an over representation of fit healthy looking people. We quickly realised why when we stumbled across runners coming in through the streets and then doing a circuit of the town before arriving at a race course finish line. We had come during the week long UTMB event which is The World Summit of Trail Running, this is a huge occasion for Trail Runners with 10,000 participants from 100 different countries.

The main race starts and finishes in Chamonix and consists of a 170km loop around Mont Blanc and goes through Switzerland, France and Italy. It seems that we must have been there on one of the ‘shorter’ race days as we subsequently discovered that the main event was starting the following day. There was a great atmosphere in the town with all the bars and restaurants full to overflowing.

53 a Aiguille du Midi (117)
We enjoyed a very quiet night in the car park despite there being at least 60 other motorhomes with us and by 8am we were in the queue for the cable car to Aiguille du Midi. This is one of those once only experiences but worth every cent of the €63 per person. For this you get a ride in two cable cars, the first one stopping on a high plateau with walking routes on the mountain and back down to Chamonix.

The second is reputedly the highest cable car in Europe taking you up above the snow line to 3842 metres (12,602 ft.). Here at the top by some incredible feat of engineering there is a building with a number of different viewing platforms at varying levels and heights giving 360° views of the Alps and the main attraction, Mont Blanc.

We experienced all but one of the viewing areas but sadly both chickened out of ‘stepping into the void’ a glass bottomed platform jutting out over the drop. Inside the building there were a restaurant and shop and a number of exhibitions and displays all related to climbing and even one providing information on altitude sickness! This was our first experience of such a high altitude and we really did experience its effects on the body, the air felt thin, climbing stairs our legs felt heavy and we had a slightly “woozy” feeling in our heads.53 a Aiguille du Midi (83)
We were in awe of the vastness of the landscape and felt very blessed that we had a beautiful clear sunny day in which to see the views as the previous day it was overcast and rained at times.

From our elevated position we were just about able to make out climbers close to the summit of Mont Blanc, going both up and down.

53 a Aiguille du Midi (36)

In addition we saw other climbers setting off in the snow from the top station of the cable car, two accompanied by a cameraman and sound recorder!

From the wonderful experience of our stay in Chamonix we set off for Lake Annecy which has been on our list of places to visit for a couple of years as on a previous attempt to stay here we found all the campsites full. When we arrived we feared this was going to be the case again as the first one we went to was full and the second rather pricey. However we soon found one in the hills above the lake and were given a pitch with panoramic views of the lake and mountains.

This was probably Richard’s favourite campsite of the whole trip and we enjoyed a two night stop here during which we cycled into Annecy town along the lakeside cycle path but had a hard steep cycle back up to the campsite from the bottom as it’s not called Camping Le Panoramic by being at sea level!

Annecy old town is really charming with lots of lovely buildings in narrow medieval streets set around a number of canals and pretty flower covered bridges. We were surprised to find it twinned with Cheltenham, Gloucestershire and even found a ‘Promenade Cheltenham’ along the lakeside. This was rather special for Annie who spent many years working for the NHS in Cheltenham and The Promenade was one of her favourite shopping venues! We ambled about enjoying the atmosphere, it was lunchtime and the many restaurants were lively and full of diners. 54 a Annecy (46)A walk to Pont des Amours took us through the lakeside Jardins de L’Europe and when we got to the bridge we found yet another sporting event taking place. This time a summer Nordic ‘skiing’ race that seemed to consist of competing teams wearing short skis with a wheel at each end carrying ski poles. It certainly attracted quite a crowd of spectators along with some TV coverage.

Southern France

45 a a the road Err to Vernet les Bains (9)Having crossed into France we began moving in an easterly direction along the N116 in the foothills of the Pyrénées. A short diversion to a village called Llo took us to the Gorges du Segre where we enjoyed a morning walking in the hills with fabulous far reaching views, although the gorge itself didn’t match up to others we have seen in France.

Back on the N116 we came across the small town of Villefranche-de-Conflent. This was of interest to us because it turned out to be another place with old fortified walls designed by Vauban. Almost every time we visit France we seem to stumble across another magnificent example of Vauban’s skill.

According to Wikipedia Vauban designed some 150 strongholds as well as large civil works in France. Twelve sites “which benefited from the remarkable work of Vauban” were included on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008.

46 a Vernet les Bains (17)Having moved on a daily basis we decided to use Vernet-les-Bains as a base for a two night stop, get some washing done, have a day off driving, amble around and read our books. Only a few miles on from here at Casteil overlooked by the Pic du Canigou is the wonderful Abbaye Saint-Martin. For Richard at least it was a hard 40 minute climb from the car park straight uphill to the Abbey but it was worth it to experience the views as well as the peace and tranquillity of this beautiful retreat, still inhabited by Monks and Nuns.

47 a Abbaye Saint Martin - Casteil (18)From here we had a bit of a gruelling drive across to Perpignan where it was a run northwards to the outskirts of Béziers and a town called Villeneuve-lès-Béziers bisected by the Canal du Midi. 47 b road to Beziers (2)It was a hard drive because all the main roads were gridlocked with traffic as the holiday season seems to have ended for so many people making the journey significantly longer than it should have been and on a very hot day. We managed to entertain ourselves by trying to spot as many different European car number plates as possible other than the northern Scandinavians the Austrians appeared to be the biggest ‘stay at homers’!

The beauty of being by the Canal du Midi was that we could break out our bikes once again and cycle along this tranquil stretch of water, spotting the occasional boat and stopping at small waterside cafés.

We were heading for the beach and a swim but having ridden for over 15k we decided to turn around as we discovered a coastline completely dominated by huge campsites, holiday parks and adventure parks and virtually no beaches to speak of. Not our cup of tea at all.

So heading back the way we came we compensated with a lovely bottle of Rosé and some tapas at one of the aforementioned cafés and enjoyed the chance to rest our increasingly sore bottoms!

One of the beauties of travelling and arriving in places you hadn’t planned on being in even the day before is the surprises and treats this throws up. Villeneuve-lès-Béziers was no exception as we discovered that our stay coincided with the second day of a two day mini jazz festival so we enjoyed mingling with the crowds and listening in for an hour or so.

Leaving Villeneuve-lès-Béziers we cheated a bit and took the A9 past Montpellier and Nimes, as this is a toll road (and we normally avoid them), and came off at Orange heading back into the hills once more. Some of you may be surprised to hear that we drove right past the village of Chateauneuf du Pape, home of the famously delicious red wine, on the way to our destination Buis-les-Baronnies not far from Mont Ventoux. This is an area of Provence we haven’t previously visited and we wonder how we could have missed it. The area is so beautiful, with rocky hills and fabulous hiking amongst the pine forests and olive groves with views of Mont Ventoux in the distance.

We had a very relaxing couple of days in Buis-les-Baronnies, enjoying a typical French ‘prix fixe evening meal’ but struggling a little as nothing and no one could manage any English so a couple of the dishes were a (pleasant) surprise to us when they arrived.

49 a Villeneuve to Buis-les-Baronnies (5)

This whole area is the heartland of Cote du Rhone wine production with vineyards everywhere, although Olive Oil production seems to be giving this a close run! We are led to believe that the bulk of French table wine comes from this region

Moving northwards now we drove to a town called Die via another small town Crest, known for its castle and very disappointing wooden bridge.

The unfortunately named Die has a small medieval centre and produces its own naturally sparkling wine, unique to this region called Clairette de Die. It is lower in alcohol at around 7-8% and also has a quite fruity taste. That’s another couple of bottles added to the mobile wine cellar!

For anyone puzzled by our choice of route back through France we can explain. We have been inspired by David & Anne Brice who we met very briefly on a mountain pass in Norway last year who also write a blog (http://homeonwheels.co.uk/). Last summer they visited Chamonix and loved it, so we’re aiming to go and see for ourselves. We had planned on taking short hops to get there but it now seems the weather is going to change in a couple of days so we’re now hurrying.