Monthly Archives: February 2014

St Nectaire – More than just Cheese

I am visiting the village of St Nectaire in the hope of tasting some of the local cheese but I soon discover that there is much more to this village that I first imagined.

Masque-AfricainI arrive from the east and enter the lower village first, once a favoured spa resort. The main road is lined with formerly grand hotels and the tourist office. As I continue to the higher village I come across a more modern spa centre opposite the ‘Petrified Fountains’. 200 years ago, the enterprising Papon family discovered that they could create interesting and unusual works of art from the 50 °C mineral springs that emerge from an underground source. Now they have a rather profitable business providing tours of this natural phenomenon and selling the resulting products in their gift shop.



DSCF5993Meanwhile, in the upper village is another cave complex which the Romans used as a bath complex in the 1st century AD. The Cornadore Caves feature 2,000 year old stalactites, as well as the 55°C hot springs and a petrified waterfall. Opposite the caves is the Maison du Fromage which offers tours of their cheese cellar with explanations of the cheese-making process. There’s also the opportunity to taste some of the cheese and buy some from their shop. There are two types : Fermier, which is strong tasting and made entirely on the farm, and Laitier, a milder cheese which is refined by wholesalers and made from the milk of many different herds.

DSCF5921However, the one thing that I find most interesting about St Nectaire is the large Romanesque church that dominates the skyline above the village. Inside are some beautifully carved capitals which still show evidence of their once colourful paintwork, and some beautifully detailed stained-glass windows. Outside there is some fine mosaic stonework and, in the wall leading back down to the town, a curious cross made from old stone tombs.













I stay overnight in the neighbouring village of Murol where a dark medieval chateau is perched on top of a basalt hill. Opposite the aire is a ski rental shop which seems incredibly busy. DSCF5938It is the beginning of the school holidays but I wonder where exactly they are conducting such winter sport. The following morning I discover the answer to my question when I climb out of the village and the volcanic peaks to the west are revealed. The Monts Dore are topped with bright white snow, though after a week of nice sunny days, I wonder whether it is actually much good for skiing.


The Gorgeous Gorges du Tarn

DSCF5755Unlike the Cevennes, where I took the route along the high plateau, today I am following the gently flowing River Tarn through the magnificent gorges that is has carved over the years. I start my journey in Ispagnac, a sleepy little village at the north east end of the gorges. It’s probably not so sleepy in the summer, but in February it is as quiet as the grave.


DSCF5772The route through the gorges follows the right hand side of the river as it weaves its way downstream. There’s very little traffic on the road, which is good, as I seem to spend most of it on the wrong side, avoiding the overhanging rock faces. I also have to squeeze through short, but low, rock-hewn tunnels, but the views down to the river and up to the sheer cliff faces on each side are worth it. Small villages seem to cling to the rock face and vultures soar overhead.









After 17kms I stop at the village of Sainte Enimie, named after the sister of King Dagobert, who found a cure for her leprosy in the local Burle spring and set up an abbey. There is a small hermitage dedicated to her memory set high up in the cliff face above the village and built into the rock. I follow the narrow footpath, marked by the Stations of the Cross, which climbs steeply up to the hermitage building. Then I continue on to a viewpoint overlooking the village and the valley far below, finally following the road back Sainte Enimie and the deep blue source of the spring that she discovered.

DSCF5884The road continues along the gorges through the Cirque de Pougnadoires and the Cirque des Baumes. When I reach the village of Les Vignes, I take a route recommended by well-informed lady at the Tourist Office in Sainte Enimie. It is a steep and winding road up to the Point Sublime but I’m assured that it is worth it. Unfortunately, by the time I arrive the clouds have descended, it’s trying to snow and the panoramic viewpoint is not as sublime as it should be.

Travels in the Cevennes without a Donkey

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go; I travel for travel’s sake.
And to write about it afterwards……”

Robert Louis Stevenson


I fully agree with Mr Stevenson with regards to travelling and I’m following in his footsteps by visiting the Cevennes National Park, although I am not travelling with a donkey named Modesto but in a motorhome named Trixie.

DSCF5669I start my journey in the south eastern town of St Jean du Gard where, during the summer months, it is possible to take a steam train ride through the valley. I have chosen to take the Corniche des Cevennes which traverses the higher ground at altitudes of 500m to 1000m. Initially, I am winding my way through mountains thickly covered with firs and pines. I stop briefly at the village of Saint- Roman-de-Tousque where there is a stunning viewpoint featuring a war memorial to the soldiers who died in the local battle at Saint-Etienne-Vallee-Francais in April 1944. Unusually, as well as the local French losses, it also names the Germans, some Russians and a Spanish man.

DSCF5696After the village of Le Pompidou, I find myself on a high plateau with pastures and occasional menhirs (standing stones) beside the road. At the far end, I branch off to the village of Barre-des-Cevennes where the main road through the village looks so narrow that I leave Trixie in the car park before the entrance. I have a small leaflet with a guided walk and it leads me to fountains, squares, the small but beautiful Romanesque church and the old chateau, now camouflaged by the houses built around it. As I leave the village by the main road I have to step aside for a large and long, low-loader to pass by. So, I guess the main road isn’t as narrow as I imagined after all!


DSCF5729At the end of the Corniche is the town of Florac where I decide to branch off to Le Pradal which sits at 1000m, above the town, on the edge of the Causse Mejean. At the entrance to the road a sign warns that the route is “dangerous and difficult”, and it is indeed a hair-raising ride to the top. The road is narrow and steep, clinging to the cliff edge with tight hairpin bends.
DSCF5749However, I safely make it and park up, completing the last kilometre on foot for a spectacular view down the valley below. It’s a desolate place and there is not another soul in sight. Travelling back down the road to Florac is almost as scary as the ascent, but Trixie copes bravely proving that she is as strong and determined as any donkey.

Nostradamus – A man of Visions

DSCF5613Most people know of Nostradamus and his visions of the future. Many believe that his prophecies have predicted wars, natural disasters and space missions. But what many people don’t know is that he came from a Jewish family, he studied medicine in Montpellier and spent many years helping to cure victims of the plague, and that he was an astrologer for the Royal family, providing Catherine de Medici with horoscopes for her children.

Nostradamus was born in the town of Saint Remy de Provence in 1503 but I am visiting Salon de Provence where he finally settled down, died and is buried. These days it is a sprawling town encircled by a large ring road. DSCF5624I arrive early and park outside the town at a huge college and sports complex where there is a free bus into the centre. A market lines the main street with stalls of fruit and vegetables as well as clothes, shoes and leather handbags. The tourist office is easy to locate and I pick up a comprehensive heritage guide to the local museums, monuments, fountains and statues. They excitedly inform me that the Emperi Castle and museum are free for the year, but what they don’t mention is that it is closed in the mornings for building works.

DSCF5617Close by is the house where Nostradamus spent the last 19 years of his life. I’ve read that it is very outdated and overpriced, so I don’t bother going in. Besides, I am more interested in seeing his tomb which is located inside the Collegiate Church of Saint-Laurent in the northern part of town. The church is an impressive 14th century Gothic building and I am keen to get inside to see the beautiful alabaster statue of the Madonna and child, the statue of the deposition as well as the tomb of Nostradamus. Unfortunately, the church is also closed.



His wife wrote his epitaph which reads: “To our good and great God. The remains of the most illustrious and unique Michel Nostradamus, in view of all mortals, whose near divine pen could describe the future events of the world over from the influence of the stars. “

To Pay or not to Pay? – That is the Question.

For the most part during my travels I have chosen to avoid the roads which charge a toll, preferring to use the original main roads and smaller roads through the local villages. I feel that this way I get to see a lot more of the countries I visit and sometimes I discover something a little bit special that isn’t listed in any guide books.

autostradaHowever, I also try to avoid retracing my steps and after the stress of the Ligurian coast roads and the lack of any feasible alternative I decide to take the Autostrade from Viareggio to Ventimiglia and the border with France. The road is not very scenic, mostly passing through long, dark tunnels with the occasional glimpse of the sea, and there are quite a few large lorries on the route. However, it is two lanes and fast. In fact it only takes me 3.5 hours to complete 300kms and that includes a stop along the way for coffee. I have no idea what the cost will be and so when I arrive at the little booth and the sour-faced woman takes my ticket I am prepared with cash and card. It’s €35.60, which is about what I expected.

peage machineI continue with the ‘peage’ when I arrive in France. Again the road is fast and stress-free but I find it rather annoying that I have to stop and pay every 20 kms or so. This time there is only a machine and the local woman in front of me is already having problems. Having already inserted her money, she punches every button, but the barrier remains firmly closed. In the end, I back up and go to another lane. There is no sign that any assistance is on the way. Each part costs about €3 or €4. When I finally leave the motorway at Frejus, I add up the tickets and discover it has cost me €19.40 to cover about 100kms in 1 hour. Even more expensive than Italy!

So, the question is: To pay or not to pay?

I think it really depends on the time you have and what you want to see. Also on how big your budget is. Weather can also be a factor as the toll roads are usually cleared and gritted. Although when I was travelling from Pamplona to San Sebastian in a blizzard this was not the case.

Carnevale – Viareggio

DSCF5513I had hoped to be in Venice for the traditional February Carnevale but I realised that it was a long way to go and I was worried about being trapped on the wrong side of Italy if the weather changed and snow descended from the skies. However, my disappointment at missing the Venice Carnevale was forgotten when I discovered that they celebrated with even more fervour in the coastal Tuscan town of Viareggio. Each year, for the four Sundays leading up to lent, the main streets are closed off for a grand parade of extravagant carnival floats.

DSCF5532I’m nervous about parking as trying to find somewhere convenient and safe for Trixie is always difficult and even more so when such a popular event as the Carnevale is taking place. By some stroke of luck, I stumble across an Italian Motorhome Association that has taken over one of the public car parks for their members. After chatting up the president, he agrees to let me stay with them for free, as a matter of courtesy. I’m relieved to have saved some money on parking as the entrance ticket for access to the Carnevale parade is €15. I soon discover that it’s worth every penny as the atmosphere inside is electric. The floats are lined up ready for the parade and participants are dressed up in appropriate costume for the theme of their float. Locals and visitors have also gone to town on their costumes, with children and adults dressed as pirates, fairy-tale characters, superheroes, ghouls and even a family of bumble bees.

The music is loud and also themed with the floats. Beatles songs blast from a John Lennon ‘Peace’ float and Native American chants blast from a giant Red Indian. A young lady is singing live from a pastel-coloured float from where sweets are thrown. One hits me rather hard on the shoulder and I wonder how many people may get injured from this generous gesture. Surprisingly, there is not much security and people wander freely through the streets, weaving between the floats and marching bands. There are fairground rides to entertain the youngsters and plenty of unhealthy food and drink on offer. I succumb to a pot of Italian ice-cream and it tastes wonderful and creamy. I’m sure I’ve burnt off the calories given the 3km length of the parade route, which I have walked from one end to the other.

DSCF5541Viareggio Carnevale is notorious for the way in which the floats satirise the Italian Politicians. However, I can also see caricatures of other leading political figures, including Angela Merkel and Barack Obama. My favourite float is dominated by the figure of Neptune, surrounded by iconic Italian buildings (Leaning tower of Pisa, St Mark’s Belltower in Venice, Rome’s Coliseum and the Florence Campanile) and, of course, featuring naked Italian politicians!


Da Vinci – A Man of Vision

Vinci27 kms west of Florence is the small town of Vinci, where Leonardo, the famous artist, architect, engineer and inventor was born. At the sound of his name most people will immediately think of the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa but he was more than just an accomplished artist. His notebooks show that he was a voracious designer and inventor, studying the mechanics of life to draw inspiration for modern architecture, machines and vehicles.

To find out more about this genius, I am visiting the Museum Of Leonardo da Vinci. Two buildings in the old town, one of them the 12th century castle, house models of his creations with written details and video graphics to better explain the ingenious designs. I avoid a rather large Italian school group by first visiting the rooms attached to the ticket office where Da Vinci’s designs of cranes, weaving looms and clocks are displayed. Then I move on to the castle to see models of his designs for a bicycle and car, his observations on flight and his appreciation of optical illusion in his art. As a qualified engineer myself, it’s all very fascinating, but what I find most intriguing is his great insight and imagination for someone living in the 16th century. His wealthy patrons, who required his assistance with construction and military projects possibly realised his genius but it is only the scientists of today, who study the scribblings in his notebooks that really appreciate his talent.

da vinci bike designda vinci bike
da vinci copter designda vinci copter

His creations are so close to those we find in our lives today that I often wonder if he was a time traveller or if he could see into the future. I would certainly be keen to return to the past and meet the man behind the mind.