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France 2009 - Alps to Ardeche

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From the Alps to Ardêche

Now back in France we headed south through the hills to Morzine and after a circuit of the town followed the distinctive but not prominent wooden roadsigns to Lac de Montriond a delighful green lake surrounded by forests. After lunch and a stroll around the lake at this popular picnic spot we returned to the main road and then turned off to the pleasant town of Samoëns where we spent the night at the free aire at Vercland a small ski station with super views across to the mountains lit up by the setting sun. The next morning we continued along the flat valley to Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval and the awe inspiring horseshoe cirque where the road ends with high cliffs and waterfalls all around. This area is a nature reserve with way marked walks but we stayed on the low level paths alongside the river which at times must be a raging torrent judging from the eroded banks. The sound of the rushing water kept us awake when we parked overnight at the new free riverside aire at the raft launching area in Sixt.

Lac Mondriond
Lac de Montriond
Samoens mountains
mountains near Samoëns
Jardin Botanique Samoëns

We stopped at Samoëns on the Sunday morning as there was a market by the famous Jardin Botanique (worth a stroll around) and then drove back to the main road and down a long hill to Cluses where we eventually found an unmanned Total petrol station that luckily accepted our Nationwide debit card. After getting lost in the suburbs due to diversions as there was a street market we found the not very wide but fairly steep road to take us over the Col de la Columbière. Once at the top there were so many cars parked that there was nowhere to stop obviously a honeypot place for a French weekend outing. The road down the other side was wider and took us to the mostly closed ski resort of Le Grand-Bornand and on to Thônes. We had intended to visit a contemporary art foundation at Alex but it wasn't open until later in the day so we drove on to Talloires on Lake Annecy. Again this was overrun by visitors enjoying a warm sunny Sunday afternoon and of course there was nowhere to park near the lake and every space even by the roadside was occupied by cars and sunbathers. We eventually found somewhere to park up and walked back into the town and the lakeside gardens but didn't linger for long as we were rather overdressed compared to the locals.

      Annecy sunbathers
              bathers on Lake Annecy

We continued around the lake and then headed up into the hills following the sat nav through a maze of narrow lanes through gentle wooded hills to find a quiet overnight stop at the spacious aire at Le Féclaz another deserted ski resort by Mont Revard above Lac du Bourget. The next morning after a tortuous trip around the busy trading estates on the edge of Chambéry looking for an LPG filling station we decided that Lac d'Aiguebellette sounded interesting but rather than joining the autoroute for an easy nine kilometre journey through a tunnel we decided to head on the green marked D916 over the Col de l'Épine. After getting totally lost in the modern district of La Motte Servolex with a complete absence of direction signs (as we've so often found in the suburbs of French towns) we climbed on one of the narrowest and winding roads we had been on this year up to the top of the ridge at 987m then down on a wider road, noticing a 3.5 tonne limit sign as we descended. We drove all round the lake and stopped at one of the laybys on the eastern shore. Hearing voices we discovered that the only access to the lake was down twenty foot steep banks onto tiny ledges next to the deep water where families were having barbeques. We opted to sit next to the van for lunch. There were more accessible "parking payant" leisure complexes on the opposite side of the lake. As the weather was mixed we drove on towards the Chartreuse and a campsite in the village of Entre-Deux-Guirs so that we could do some washing and other chores.


Cirque du fer a Cheval
Cirque du Fer à Cheval
sixt church
Sixt Fer-à-Cheval church

Sixt walks sign
Sixt - old walking routes sign

We had planned to spend a few days touring around the Chartreuse Massif Regional Park but there were many Route Barre signs on the roads through the gorges and the weather was very damp and misty so we decided to leave the mountains and head west. Passing through Voiron a large town apparently noted for ski manufacturers we made good progress on open D roads through ordinary small towns although La Côte St-André had an interesting old centre, and on to cross the Rhône at Serrières. A steep climb out of the valley took us to the large industrial town of Annonay where the road was covered with strips of coloured paper for about half a mile until we passed a demonstration of workers and police outside a factory gate. It would have made an interesting photo but we didn't dare stop!

We were now in more forested countryside of the Vocance in an area known as the Ardêche Verte and we headed for Lalouvesc where there was a large basilica and the town was being decorated with yellow and purple garlands as were many others for a cycle race in a few days. We took the minor D236 road which once it had climbed into the hills maintained a virtually level contour around the winding hills through an area that had been devastated by forest fires a few years ago with many ghostly grey tree trunks but new vegetation and abundant wild flowers were now growing. At the Col du Buisson in the middle of nowhere was a miniature village although only open at weekends. We also somehow missed the Michelin 3 star attraction of the ruined Chateau de Rochebloine before driving through the narrow streets of Nozières with a now distinct Provençale style, and down the very long hill to Lamastre. There is a large grassy area beside the river where we initially parked with several other motorhomes but ithas a height barrier closed except on market days so in the evening we were asked to move to the aire in the car park in the busy main square. The next morning we wandered around the centre of this workaday town and called in to the tourist office where we learnt that the town held several events each summer including a jazz and film festival of course starting in a few days time.

Lalouvesc basilica
Lalouvesc Basiica

hills near Lalouvesc
Fire damaged hills near Lalouvesc

We drove on the main road to Désaignes, a "Village of Character" (a different organisation to the many Plus Beaux Villages we've visited over the years) with an old wallled centre. Again there was a helpful Syndicat d'Initiative and we were given leaflets of local walks. We also spotted a poster for a free Fête de la Musique at the weekend but we decided maybe it wouldn't be our scene as the bands had such worrying names as Panic Gastric and Annita Babyface and the Tasty Poneys!! As it was a sunny morning we followed one of the walks and as usual after a promising start up the terraced hills through old vineyards, struggled to follow the waymark stripes but we came acrooss a rough wooden hut which turned out to be a loo with a view complete with an old (thankfully empty) bucket and many wooden plaques with profound and some not so thoughtful quotes. It taxed our knowledge of the French language to translate some of them and we chose not to add our own!

desaignes gateway
Désaignes gateway
Desaignes Lou
Loo with a view near Désaignes
desaignes wooden plaques
rustic loo plaques

After that interesting diversion we continued our tour around the Green Ardêche calling in at the larger market town of Le Cheylard to get some diesel then proceeded on a long slow climb through rough terrain to the high plains of the Massif Central with immense views towards the Alps, luckily only meeting one artic on the narrow winding road. At the crossroads at Mézilhac we turned west to head for the aire at Lachamp Raphaël, a small isolated hamlet high up on the open plain at 1400 metres, but discovered the borne was broken and as we needed to top up our water we turned back and headed south to another aire at the pretty village of Antraigues-s-Volane in a deep wooded valley. After a peaceful night on our own and a stroll around the town centre with its red painted fountain, we continued to the small spa town of Vals-les-Bains which seemed rather industrial, then joined the busy N102 main road turning west along the Ardêche valley and another very long slow climb to Pradelles. Driving straight through it appeared to be another ordinary French town but we turned back and after parking in the main square discovered an interesting old town centre with a large convent, narrow alleyways and a craft museum, where we had an animated discussion in bad French about the local sabotiers (clog makers) and the fact that we had similar shoes in our Northern mill towns now worn for traditional dancing which
I tried to demonstrate to everyones' amusement! - we wondered if they have the equivalent of morris dancers in France?

     Pradelles convent
                  Pradelles convent


Antraigues red fountain
Antriagues-s-Volane fountain

Pradelles old gateway     Pradelles cloister
Pradelles ancient gateway and doors 

Looking on the map the artificial Barrage de Naussac was not far away so we headed there and enjoyed a vivid sunset across the lake along with several other motorhomes at this popular aire. As we had now reached day 40 of our tour we studied the maps and decided to start our journey northwards as we wanted to tour the Cantal and Auvergne before the drive to the Channel.

Lac de Naussac sunset
Sunset over Lac Naussac
van in sunset

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