Monday, January 18, 2010

The Hairdryer's behind the Chainsaw: Apt to Get to Italy

Gosh this travel log is taking me forever. I'm just leaving Apt -- why didn't I take any pictures -- I am definitely losing marbles -- I could swear I remember taking some from the parking lot -- but, nope, I didn't ... I should mention that before leaving the hotel, I decided to part with 8 euros and have some breakfast -- and I'm glad I did, it was yummy and tres continental -- good pot of tea, gorgeous warm freshly baked bread with apricot jam and perfect croissant. I managed to clumsily turn over the orange juice, and the lady in charge very kindly took it away and brought be a fresh tray -- she'd struck me as being on the grumpy side of 'ok', but in fact was very sweet and not at all admonishing and I happily continued to yum away. In the meantime Neil cleared the room, packed the car and went off for the nearby bakery.

So, fresh loaf of Sunday bread in hand for lunch, we headed toward the motorway for a brief ride -- we were heading for Gap. Somehow at the end of the motorway we turned off too soon and were soon heading off in the wrong direction. I had seen a lake on the map and our planned route would have taken us east from Gap and onto a road that bordered the lake -- it had promised to be a pretty drive. Now having seen some pictures of Gap, I'm sorry we didn't have a look around, but we did come upon a very pleasant and interesting surprise.
We could see on our map a road connecting to the road we wanted to be on after leaving Gap, and thinking we were upon that turning turned off and headed for it! The way was winding and desolate and the views began to be rather spectacular and we could see off in the distance that we were approaching what appeared to be a dam. And indeed it was the Barrage de Serre Poncon. What a spectacular surprise! As usualy, the French had done a fantastic job with their visitor center and there were informative glass panels in many languages explaining the how, whens and wheres and history of the scene we were observing. It is a very impressive hydro-electric dam which supplies 10% of France's hydro-electric output!
Having waited several extra minutes for a school of motorcyclists to pass through -- there must have been at least a hundred of them -- we set off down the other side of the dam a towards a hopeful rendez-vous with lunch alongside the lake and once more on our planned route. We found a lovely little spot to pull over and enjoyed our repast while watching the sailing school in the distance, just outside Savines-le-Lac, one of the villages re-sited when the valley was flooded and the lake was made. In the middle of the lake is an island withh a small chapel that is all that remains of this village -- the chapel once stood atop a hill.

Lunch over, we were now heading for Italy and our next benchmark the highest town in France: Briancon. Briancon is truly spectacular and yet again another place we were only able to pass through because of our restrictive time-table. Life is too short for all the wonderful places in France! We found the signs for Torino and headed up and up towards the border. First we came to a statue of a climber, who stood at the bottom of the final climb -- was he welcoming or warning? What a climb! What a harrowing road. The higher we climbed the narrower it seemed to become. I had to keep closing my eyes, but I was afraid to keep them closed for fear I wouldn't be ready to keep the car on the road from the passenger side. Both of us were grateful that we were there at the end of the tourist season when there was little traffic -- actually we were there between tourist seasons -- though I can't imagine that road often being open once snow begins to fall. The road was in terrible shape -- sheer drops and crumbling verges and cars, buses and trucks coming the other way as we or rather he negotiated one hairpin turn after another. In the distance were brief glimpses of Briancon and I longed for a place to stop so that Neil could get out and take a picture. It was some time, but finally there was a small place at the side of the road. We were steeling ourselves for what the road would be like once we were over the border into Italy. We assumed the worst and we were wrong!
The Italians had built a wonderful road -- even I would not have been afraid to drive on it! A magnificent descent down the other Alpine side! We also noted that the French side of the Alps is much more rugged looking -- stonier and more barren and rough. Neil was determined not to be caught out by Italian high motorway fees and we were only on the Italian motorway system until we could determine the appropriate alternative route that would get us to Novara, where we had decided to head for for the night.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Grumpy Old American Living in England and It's Freezing!

Several hours a week of my life are spent lying awake in the middle of the night trying to go back to sleep. Some of my best ideas descend upon me during these hours. Ideas that are almost alway forgotten by morning. However, a few nights ago I began coming up with acronyms that might be applied to me! At the top of my list is GOALIE: Grumpy Old American Living in England. This morning it occured to me that perhaps I should amend the 'England' part to 'the Empire' -- in keeping with other prominent New Year's lists. This morning I thought of Old Broad of the Empire, but some of my adopted countrymen and women might take offense.

Living in England at the moment is a frigid affair. Our old Victorian house with its high ceilings is a refrigerator -- a few minutes I will be relieved to close the heavy curtains in my study --it's tempting to keep them closed all day -- it's tempting to stay in bed all day -- as it is I get up after 11 am -- so far rising before noon is sacrosanct to me -- it may not last much longer. I keep up with the ironing to get warm -- imagine that! I've even started taking a hot water bottle to bed. I never knew people did that before I came to England in 1980. You should see the fancy ones they have here in England. Functional hot water bottles that come with nifty fashionable covers -- I don't have one with a cover so I have to cover mine with a towel -- so as not to burn myself. Thinking about it now, I am tempted to go upstairs and grab it.
At the moment my Internet weather programs says it is one degree celsius above freezing outside -- not that cold if you are a New Englander well used to sub zero temperatures and snow measured in feet not centimeters. The trouble is this weather is rare in these parts -- I would say Florida has cold weather more often than we do in this part of England. The snow came a week ago and the side streets of this town of 88,000 people are not gritted and none of the pavements/sidewalks have been cleared.

I may have to get out my mink coat from the wardrobe where I've hidden it -- I'll say it's a fake -- even though my plan is to wear it to church on Sunday. For those who don't know, that is the coldest place in the Kingdom!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Hairdryer's behind the Chainsaw: Part 3

The Pont du Gard has been on my 'must see' list for a very long time and it totally lived up to my expectations. In some ways it is unfortunate that it has now become a major tourist attraction in the region -- however, on the other hand without this interest it would probably deteriorate and be lost to us forever. It was wonderful to be able to be able to walk across and back again. I was not feeling up to the hike up to the top of the aqueduct, though I probably should have made the effort (in hindsight!!).

As we arrived toward the end of the season we were not overwhelmed with an onslaught of tourists, though there were still many around -- including a bridal party posing for posterity.

It was a perfect day for this excursion -- neither too hot nor too warm. The tourist site is attractively situated and the walk from the entrance to the bridge is pleasant and not too long. Because it was the end of a hot and dry summer the water level of the Gard was extremely low, and it is hard to imagine the wild torrents of water that are said to flow from the mountains in the early Spring. The river bed is white limestone and tends to look more like snow that rock. The engineering logistics of the aquaduct are as impressive as any in our world of engineering feats and a testament to the time when Rome ruled the known world. I hope I get to go back there again one day.

If it were up to me and if time were not closing in on us I would have lingered there for longer. I had already had to give up all hope of seeing Avignon though we did drive along the edge of the ancient city and around and about to get onto the route to Apt, where we had decided to spend the night. Once thing is certain, there is no town in Provence that is easy to drive through! We chose a rather modern looking hotel, which proved to be very comfortable and provided a very nice breakfast -- it was convenient to the entrance of the old town and parking was not a problem. Unfortunately, we did not have the best luck with our choice of restaurant -- that was very disappointing and quite expensive for what we got. We had seen another restaurant/creperie which we found so quickly that we rejected it -- silly mistake. The restaurant we chose was open to the outside and had nasty little tiny bugs that were impossible to escape.

The next day, Sunday, we found some fresh bread and headed for Italy ...