Thursday, 31 January 2013

le bivouac

The road we take to Bonifacio is down the western coast.  From Eccica it's a lovely downhill back to the sea and we follow the shoreline for a while before climbing steep roads over a couple of headlands, each with an old Genoese tower at the point.  The roads are quiet and so are the villages we pass.  We take a road down to a sandy bay and meet our first wild boar en route - a tiny little piglet rooting the verge which shoots off into the maquis as soon as it hears us.  There's a 'no camping' sign at the beach - which means 'good camping' to us.  It's wintertime and there's no-one around and as Chantal and Jacques have explained, a one night camp is a bivouac. We're not planning on staying for a fortnight.  As the light fades we hear nothing but the waves crashing on the shore. 

In Propiano the next day we stock up at the supermarket - it's Sunday tomorrow and hardly any shops open.  Our route climbs away from the coast and takes the main road here so we decide to camp at the beach before continuing.  The wind is blowing but we find a spot not visible from the road and put the tent up.  Sunday's looking grey and wet and we can't see far into the hills behind us in the morning so we have a 'tent day'.  Time to read and relax.  Looking back this is our first such day.  The beach is virtually deserted - just a couple of dog walkers.  The following day is much better and we're glad because we seem to spend a lot of time cycling upwards.  Eventually the road flattens out and we cruise along with views out to sea before descending into a cloudburst as we cross a wonderful green valley.  So much of the land is thick maquis - dense brush and stubby trees - ideal for hunting but lousy for wild camping.  At the end of the day we're happy to find a track inaccessible to vehicles and we camp along it, protected from the wind by the maquis.

Bonifacio sits on high cliffs at the most southerly tip of the island and we see it well before we reach it.  The wind speed is around 80 km/h as we take shelter in the tourist information office.  But the sun is out and we find a little plaza in the old town built right on the cliff edge.  Great walls give the whole town a citadel feel - it's a fantastic location.  We asked about campsites in the tourist office because we were worried about the strong winds but they're all closed at this time of year.  The young woman suggested we just camp on the beach or in a field.  The trouble is so much of the open land is fenced off or littered with rocks.  We haven't seen a great deal of farmland - mostly rocky fields with sheep, but out of town we come across a strip of no man's land between two stone walls so we settle there.  In the morning we return to the port to catch the boat to Sardinia.  The wind is still up and as the boat leaves its moorings in the natural harbour sheltered from the open sea we rock from side to side.  A collective 'oooh' goes up in the lounge where everyone is sitting.  If it's this bad in the harbour, what's the hour-long crossing going to be like?

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Corsican daze

We meet the family the next day and are relieved that Jacques and Chantal speak good English - perfected on their travels.  And it is no surprise that they are lovely warm people - after all they invited us without even meeting us. They have spent a year touring South East Asia on bikes with their children and close friends who also had two young children and it was on this journey that Albane and Benoit met them.  They have also spent time volunteering and living in the Indian Ocean and New Caledonia before coming to Corsica to work in the Agriculture/Environment/Forestry ministry.  We spend a good few evenings chatting about all sorts.  Our plan originally was to stop a couple of nights and then head southwards, but somehow we end up staying a week......and more.  Somehow, in the process of spending time with Jacques and Chantal and their kids and meeting their neighbours and friends we feel drawn into a comfort blanket of love and friendship which is hard to shrug off.  We have been lucky enough to spend the last two months in the company of friends and it is very hard to strike off again, just the two of us, upon our journey.


Jacques takes us with him on a visit to the east coast where he has to go for work.  The route goes through the dramatic mountain scenery in the centre of the island.  It's a rainy day but sometimes the clouds part, opening up fantastic vistas of the coastline and the mountains.  The high villages look quiet and closed up for the winter - not a lot happening at this time of year.  On our return Jacques offers me the wheel.  It's almost a six-hour return drive for the day so I accept, happy that at least the car is automatic.  But the mountain roads twist and turn and I see not so much of the scenery, with eyes glued to the road (but hands not glued to the wheel, to Gayle's horror, as I talk to Jacques), until we stop at the Col de Bavella, where the GR20 footpath crosses the road.  We can understand the attraction of working and living here.

It seems our slothful nature once again dictates our plans - but our plans are always fluid in any case.  The threat of heavy rain on Sunday decides our actions.  We will leave on the Monday.  In the meantime we have some laundry to do and we offer to oil the wooden garden furniture - a winter job in readiness for the spring when it will get warm enough to sit outside again.  Gayle finally has a go at making chapattis with fairly successful results, although the idea of doing this in the tent seems fairly implausible.  We are invited to dine on roast lamb with chestnuts and mushrooms with beans from the neighbours' garden.  In fact, Jacques and Chantal try nowadays to eat as much fresh local produce as they can.  A friend also delivers a leg of boar, a humungous thing, a result of a successful hunt and so a Sunday festival is declared....

The weekend turns out to be very sociable.  Sophie and Matthieu who live just down the hill hold a soiree de fromage welcoming in the New Year and an opportunity to taste some of the many cheeses they have brought back from their holidays.  Now, it may be a stereotype that the French are obsessed with cheese, but some stereotypes are founded in truth.  In our time with Magali and Jean-Baptiste and now here with Chantal and Jacques we are discovering an endless variety - made from the milk of cows, sheep or goats, pasteurised or "raw" - all wonderful and all rather aromatic.   At the end of a great evening we depart with a generous taster of each from our kind hosts.

after le fromage has been consumed

Sunday is indeed very wet and we meet more friends who come to partake of the boar and play some board games.  It's like Christmas isn't over.  It's a real pleasure to talk and laugh in our broken French and we are lucky that there are enough people who understand and speak English for us not to feel left out.  Inevitably, as Monday rolls around we do not feel like departing just yet.......

Later in the week Jacques tells me he can't wait to read our account of our stay here.  It's getting dark and behind the neighbours' house we're digging a grave.  This is a new experience for me.  Jacques digs like an expert and is quite handy with the pickaxe and shovel.  He looks like he's done this before.  After some huffing and puffing we decide the grave is big enough and Jacques manouvres the dead sheep into the hole.  Earlier in the week he showed me how to split logs with a long axe.  I'm a townie from Manchester - never done this kind of thing before - but had to admit that Jacques was right - when that log splits in half at the first blow it feels good.  Mind, when it takes about 38 blows it does not feel good.  It feels bloody stupid.  "You are the new Charles Ingalls" Jacques declares when I have finished, "and you still have two feet!!" He looks surprised and delighted.

Somehow, I'm not sure how, we contrive to stay another day or two.  When we finally leave we are possibly suffering from what Brazilians call "saudade".  (I'm not sure how this translates - but if you listen to a lot of Brazilian music you can hear it.)  

Sunday, 13 January 2013

the end of the road

Ajaccio harbour
It's Sunday morning and the sun is out as we eat our breakfast in the harbour of Ajaccio.  The market in the square is busy with locals and full of enticing fresh produce - the highlight being the urchins being sold by four women at stalls outside the fish hall. The black spiny creatures wiggle in the crates but look quite different when they are sliced open, the orange flesh exposed.  We set off around the bay and up the road to Chantal and Jacques' home.  Friends of Albane and Benoit from Grenoble, they have invited us to stay in their wooden house when we arrive even though they won't be back from visiting family until Monday.  So, bizarrely, we are going to stay with someone who isn't there.

We take a small quiet road that climbs up away from the main road, luxuriating in the warm sunshine and remarking that the stone houses we pass remind us of Hebden Bridge. Apart from the palm and orange trees in the gardens, that is. We are wearing cycling shorts for the first time in a long while.  The final stage of our ride is up a steep road to a clutch of houses high up on the hillside.  We pause to check our map.  A woman passing by asks us in English if we need help.  Chantal and Jacques? Yes, keep going up. You see that house at the top? They live beyond that.  Eventually we have to push the bikes as the gradient gets steeper.  Just like Hebden Bridge.  But for the last twenty metres it's too much.  It takes two of us to push each loaded bike up to the wooden house.  Finally, as Jacques tells us with a big smile later, we have reached the end of the road.
it's a shorts day
Inside the wooden house is a simple living room with kitchenette, a deck, and a small bathroom.  Up the stairs is a bedroom.  We find a book of photos telling the story of the building of the house and recall Benoit explaining how Jacques and Chantal decided to build it so that there was a space for visiting family and friends.  They live in the main house next door with their two young children Jeanne and Joseph.  The story shows how the house was built with help from many friends.  It's a bit strange having no-one to meet but we are glad to unload and have somewhere so comfortable to stay.
the wooden house

Saturday, 5 January 2013

fear and loathing in Provence

securing the chocolate supply
"Bonjour! Chasseurs! Bon Courage!"  The Sean Bean lookalike waves his shotgun through the window at the front of our tent and dashes off in pursuit of his dogs with two friends.  It's about eight o'clock and we should be up and about but we've been waiting for the sun to come up over the hills and dry out our tent.  We're camped in a field in a valley bottom just beyond yet another fantastic Provencale medieval village perched on the steep sides of the valley.  A few minutes later, as we eat our breakfast there are gunshots in the woods down by the river.  Another wild boar gets its comeuppance.  I have mixed feelings about all this.  I fear wild boar appearing at night to raid our chocolate supplies but I also loathe men with guns, however cheery they may seem.

lavender field, not so colouful, but still fragrant
During our week in Provence we come across similar sights in these rural areas.  A clutch of houses perched in a prime spot overlooking a valley, built so close together they look like some medieval citadel.  Short stubby oak trees, fields of lavender that still smell wonderful despite the season, dry dusty looking land, olive groves, old terraced fields abandoned to nature.  And then up pop these men in fatigues and high-visibility jackets or caps with their guns.  We assume there have been too many mistaken shootings hence the high-visibility clothing.  I take to wearing my luminous tabard everytime I go into the bushes for my morning business.  I don't want to die with my trousers round my ankles at the hands of some myopic trigger-happy provencale redneck......

The minute we stepped off the train from Briancon we knew we had entered a different climate.  It was warm and windy with the threat of rain, and our first camp in some scrubland with a great view was dry.  It did rain lightly but the next morning we awoke to glorious sunshine - a scene that repeats itself until New Year's Day.  We are happy to be cycling again, but take it gently the first few days as our route takes us across valleys, up some steep climbs.  The highlight is the Verdon Gorge - the deepest in Europe - a winding road taking us up 700 metres to a highpoint at 1200 metres with views up and down the canyon.  We're glad it's winter as the road is narrow and twisting and apparently gets so busy in the summer the traffic sometimes has to queue.  On this day we see a few Italians and local tourists and Men With Guns.  The streams are all dried up, so it's a relief to come across a tank of water in a parking spot in the middle of nowhere just towards the time we want to camp.

The next day we stop in a village for provisions.  New Year's Eve and the boulangerie is closed.  Zut alors.  We get what we need in a tiny shop run by two jolly owners - not surprising as it's bustling with customers - and then into a bar for water refills.  The patrons sipping anis want to know where we're from and where we're going.  "Japan" still gets a smile and a few comments, I'm happy to discover.

Our path takes us up and over, through a military training area (complete with abandoned village), and then down, down, down, through a couple of pretty villages in the now familiar edge-of-the-world situations.  We have had a few chilly mornings having camped quite high and Gayle can't shake a lousy cough she's had from the mountains.  So we drop out of the high hills and down to the more populous coastal region, before finding an unused field full of boar scars to camp in.  Our festive dinner includes two fantastic pork chops - the smell should keep those boar at bay. New Year's Day is a washout - rain until late afternoon, so we join a few other sad souls who have sought refuge in the only establishment open on the holiday for miles around - McDonald's.  Coffee's not bad and we spend several fruitful minutes with clothing and shoes under the hot air dryers in the toilets.  Funny what you can get up to.
St.Paul de Vence where both Marc Chagall and James Baldwin lived in the sixties

On the way to Nice we pass through some lovely little towns and villages.  The valleys are precipitous and the roads are shady with great views.  We stay with Jean-Michel and Magali just along the coast from Nice for a couple of nights.  There's a cycle path right along the coast and into the city where we visit the wonderful collection in the Matisse Museum.  We learn that he didn't start making his cutouts and collages until his seventies.  We are thrilled by some of the pieces - two great tapestries in particular.  Out on the front there are people promenading, running and cycling in the sunshine.  Even some swimming.  It's balmy.  Can it really be January?

Our ferry to Corsica leaves at midnight so we have time in the evening to kill.  Along the Promenade des Anglais there are still a few runners and walkers about.  We eat in one of the old town restaurants where the waiter is a comedian.  Outside in the square are a handful of young people with rucksacks and dogs, looking like they will be sleeping out tonight.  It feels strange to be looking out from our warm restaurant as opposed to being the ones looking in.

French humour - seen outside Lush, the soap and shampoo