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France 2010 - The Journey South

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The Journey South

Setting off from the Calais ferryport mid morning we drove inland to St Omer and Lens then diverted off the main road to visit the Canadian WW1 memorial at Vimy Ridge. We walked around the reconstructed trenches which we felt were not as evocative as those we had visited a few years ago at Le Linge near Colmar in the French Vosges. The next two days we headed south on mostly empty minor D roads calling in at the old walled village of Noyers-s-Serein, the first of many Plus Beaux villages that we seem to come across in France each year, and stopping overnight at Sainte Honoré les Bains in the Morvan region.  

Vimy Ridge memorial
Canadian WW1 memorial Vimy Ridge
Noyers sign
Museum sign at Noyers
Noyers gateway

We reached Paray le Monial, a large pilgrimage town in the Charolais region which is worth a wander around and then continued on more minor roads to St Galmier known for its casino and rose gardens but too early for many colours. After a lazy but damp day we met heavy traffic around the large city of St Etienne and called in to a camping-car dealer's to look at their accessories which were much dearer than in the UK.  We managed to find a bypass route and headed across wooded hills via Annonay to reach the Rhône north of Valence. Now we were in the Drôme department with terracotta tiled roofs and vineyards, we meandered more slowly towards Crest with its impressive chateau overlooking the old town. From there we thought we would drive into the Vercours National Park but after a slow climb into the hills found the road over the Col de la Bataille was still closed from the winter. Always looking out for interesting places marked on the Michelin road atlas we drove up a narrow road to the Cirque d'Archiane, a blind valley on the edge of the mountains where we walked up a track towards a waterfall we could hear in the distance but didn't actually reach it. The lanes around here are lined with neatly clipped box hedges which look out of place in the rough terrain - we wondered who cuts them.

    Clipped box hedges near Archiane
                       Trimmed box hedges

 Continuing south we stopped at the Saut (jump) de Drôme where the river flows over a chaos of rocks, then over the Col de Premol to La Charce where there are interesting  rock strata (this area is a geologists' paradise)  and on to Remuzat and its Maison de Vautours from where you can watch the griffon vultures circling high above the Rocher de Caire. (We had passed through this delightful Drôme Provençale area many years ago). A short drive took us to Nyons, a centre of lavender distilling and an overnight stop at Mirabel aux Baronnies before turning east with the bare summit of Mont Ventoux dominating the landscape.

    Mont Ventoux
          Mont Ventoux from near Sedéron

    Montbrun old road sign
                   Montbrun old sign

We arrived at the small town of Montbrun les Bains with its houses clinging to the rockface for a quiet night then drove to Sault among more lavender fields. Near there we attempted a hike we had found in a Walks in Provence guidebook, heading for the Rocher de Cire (wax) overlooking the Gorges de la Nesque but as so often happens we found the route was fenced off after a couple of miles and it was rather too hot for serious walking. The Luberon mountains were not far to the south so we drove across more narrow roads to reach the small hilltop village of Murs and found its shady municipal campsite in the woods nearby. From there we spent a day visiting Rousillon with its ochre quarries and the touristy town of Gordes, finishing up at the Abbaye de Sénanque in its remote valley but busy with large car parks.

   Ochre quarry
                Rousillon ochre quarry

The next day we stayed in this area calling in to L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue with its busy antique market (not a good idea for parking on a Saturday morning!) stopping for the night at the crowded aire at nearby Fontaine de Vaucluse. Continuing our meandering southwards we visited the Luberon hilltop town of Ménerbes (Peter Mayle's Provence) with its impressive citadel walls and old buildings surrounded by vineyards and orchards, and more workaday Bonnieux with its old church and narrow lanes and a bread museum, before getting caught in a terrific thunderstorm in Apt. We drove into an unusually quiet Aix-en-Provence as it was a bank holiday and strolled along the main boulevard and old streets to the massive fountain in the city centre, then headed out towards Montagne St Victoire, much painted by the artist Cezanne, and found a restful parking area in the hills for the afternoon.
menerbes   Bonnieux   aix
Ménerbes                                                     Bonnieux                                 Aix en Provence fountain

Paray le Monial abbey
Paray le Monial basilica

Crest - chateau and old town

     Cirque d'Archiane   
Cirque d'Archiane - Drôme

      La Charce rock strata
Rock strata at La Charce

Montbrun les Bains
Montbrun les Bains - Drôme
   Rousillon ochre quarry       Rousillon 

 Abbaye de Senanque
Abbaye de Sénanque

I'sle sur la Sorgue

After another quiet night at the free aire outside the coalmining museum at Greaque we drove south through industrial builtup areas around Aubagne and headed for the highest cliff (394m) on the French Mediterranean coast at Cap Canaille, overlooking the port of La Coitat to the east and the resort of Cassis to the west, where we booked into Camping Les Cigales for a couple of nights so that we could take a boat trip to Les Calanques.

Greaque mining museum     Cap Canaille     Cassis from Cap Canaille
    Greasque Mining Museum                                    Cap Canaille                                     Cassis from Cap Canaille