Walking in Portes du Soleil

As soon as the snow disappears, normally early May, we are out walking in Portes du Soleil.  Walking in Portes du Soleil mountains from Morzine and Montriond has easy access and is very rewarding with amazing views across Haute Savoie region from many of the peaks.Morzine portesdusoleil summer hikingIn spring and summer the valleys and peaks are transformed by nature.  Verdant and welcoming from the valley floor to the rocky peaks where miraculously mountain flowers appear everywhereSpring mountain flowersand crocuses force their way through the fading patches of snow.sheepskinalps-walking-holiday1.jpgDuring May and June, the wonderfully peaceful ‘inter-season’ Adam and I enjoy a variety of walks from our home in Portes du Soleil.  Some walking out to conquer particular peaks and others simply a nice circuit along the rolling hills of the lower slopes.

Everywhere is well sign posted so, as long as you have an idea of where you want to head to, it’s easy to walk in Portes du Soleil without a map.sheepskinalps-walking-portesduesoleil14.jpgWe have now completed/conquered the four main peaks that dominate the skyline from Morzine & Montriond; Pointe de Nantaux, Ressachaux, Pointe de Nyon and Roc D’Enfer.

Pointe de Nantaux was particularly daunting and rewarding at the same time and took us two attempts to conquer since the first time the summit was still very much covered with snow but in August 2017 we made it to the top with our friend David.Nantaux-summit-Haute-savoieThe sign at the bottom ‘KMV’ (kilometre vertical) gives it away that this is not the easiest of walks and this is by no means the roughest or steepest part.
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In short the KMV is 1000m of ascent in 2000m of distance covered and then you have another 200m or so of climb and around 500m distance to reach the summit.

The arrow shows the top of the KMV (where I took the photo below), you may just make out the path directly below and the summit you see to the right is not the true summit….Nantau-Montriond-portes-du-soleil

IMG_4775The peace and tranquility, that we had all to ourselves (even on a bank holiday), at the summit was spellbinding.walking-in-portes-du-soleil-nantaux-summitNantaux-summit-montriondWalking the descent was harder on the legs though easier on the lungs and the scenery, with views across Portes du Soleil, absolutely breathtaking.  Oh to be the shepherd who gets to stay here!Sheepskinalps-walking-portesduesoleil5Everywhere reminders of the power of nature.amazing-nature-walking-portesduesoleil

Pointe de Ressachaux is another must conquer peak when walking in Portes du Soleil. We set off reasonably early suspecting it was a 5-6 hour walk to the summit and back.   It was Sunday so, after several cups of coffee, 10.30am wasn’t a bad achievement!Sheepskinalps-walking-portesduesoleil2As we huffed and puffed up and up through the forest we were embarrassed and just a little demotivated to be cheerily greeted by a group of pot-bellied, grey haired ‘ramblers’ striding down towards us at 11.30am.

In my halting French I asked were they returning from the summit already? ‘Bien sûr! Bonne Montée!’ they replied as they disappeared down through the forest.

A few corners later some very kind, and fit, person had made a welcome bench from a fallen tree…Sheepskinalps-walking-portesduesoleil11We envied the French group, probably enjoying a menu du jour very soon but the tasty cheese baguettes in our rucksacks for lunch at the summit spurred us on. and hat a picnic spot it is.Morzine walking amazing viewshiking morzine portesdusoleil area

Pointe de Nyon, our favourite peak in winter for easy to reach, fun, off-piste on powder days and actually a deceivingly difficult walk in summer.
Morzine spring summer walk bike resortWe have walked from our home in Montriond, through town and up to the plateau du Nyon via the Cascade de Nyon which makes it about 5 hours to the top and back.IMG_4663On a clear day, as our next walk to the summit of Nyon, you can clearly see Mont Blanc from here…IMG_4659To make it shorter we’ve driven up to the plateau and walked from there which makes it a little more relaxing and leaves time for lunch at Chez Nannon.

You can even get the chair lift to just below the summit so that you can reach the amazing viewswalking-ported-du-soleil-Nyon

Roc D’Enfer lives up to its name Rock of Hell.

We walked from home which made the total circuit about 30km and around 7 hours. On the way to the base of Roc D’Enfer you have spectacular views, even Mont Blanc in the distance.walking Portes du soleil Mont Blanc viewWhen you pass the sign that basically says ‘ this way if you’re sensible and want an easy walk back to Les Gets or this way Danger of death’ you know you will have to keep your wits about you.

A steep, scramble over rocks takes you up to a narrow path along the long ridge which follows the crest where sometime it can be quite tricky to see where the path is.walking portes du soleil Roc D'EnferFor several kilometres the narrow path picks it way up and down the ridgesRoc D'Enfer walking portes du soleiluntil finally emerging into a mountain meadow and the long track back to Col D’Encrenaz and home with Roc D’Enfer looming large behind you.walking portes du soleil mountain meadow

Walking in Portes du Soleil is not all about ‘up’, high peaks and tough climbs.

We’ve had great days wandering in the valley and found virtually flat walks with friends and family by the river and around Morzine town using the suspension foot-bridge to avoid ups and downs.Morzine  - 6th July 2016The advantage of staying close to town is that there are always plenty of places for refreshments in the sunshine…IMG_3686and if you do fancy exploring and walking a little higher in Portes du Soleil you can always take the lift up.Sheepskinalps-walking-portesduesoleil15

My favourite, relaxing rather than challenging, walking in Portes du Soleil has got to be around Lac du Montriond.  A flat walk with spectacular views in every direction and a bar at either end!

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Similarly Lac du Mines D’Or is a short drive, up, along Vallee de la Manche and rewards you with amazing views, a short walk and the Chalet Freterolle just a little further up for a spot of local lunch…

walking-portes-du-soleil-lac-mines-d'or

Off-piste, back country Snowboarding

Serene-snowscene-Avoriaz

Off-piste, back country is what snowboarding is all about for many keen snowboarders. Previously, we now know, we have been, reasonably safe, ‘side-country’ off-piste snowboarders.

Off-piste, side-country snowboarding is what most snowboarders do, it’s the type of off-piste snowboarding that is likely to be covered in your travel insurance, it’s normally easy to find (not far from or in-between the pistes), doesn’t involve hikes or walks, so long as you keep a lift in sight somewhere, however it does mean you need to be an early bird to get first tracks and fresh powder.

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backcountry-guide-morzine-luke-rees
Helen-snowboarding-offpiste-backcountry-luke-rees
Helen-snowboarding-offpiste-backcountry-luke-rees

There is so much more off-piste snowboarding to discover in the back-country!

We are both reasonably good snowboarders and love exploring independently so over time we could get to know the back-country off-piste in the Porte du Soleil however we are also both very impatient.  Rather than spend lots of time searching ourselves we saw the value in joining a guided group on a week long off-piste back-country course and chose the ‘off-piste back-country ‘ with Mint Snowboarding in Morzine.

We had high expectations of the week off-piste and David, our Mint snowboarding guide / guru (the ‘green giant’ disappearing off into the mist below), did not disappoint.

misty-backcountry-hike-offpiste-luke-rees
misty-backcountry-hike-offpiste-luke-rees

When the group, of six, met on the first morning David asked each of us what we wished for from the course; the answers were all reassuringly similar.  To have a better understanding off-piste conditions, to improve our confidence riding in the twists, turns and powder of back-country conditions.

A couple mentioned they’d like to do some cliff drops which scared and excited me all at once.  During the week we practised (and landed!) several cliff-drops which all felt, and looked from above, a lot bigger than they do here)…

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adams-cliff-drop-luke-rees
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helens-cliff-drop-luke-rees

But before we went into the back-country search of fresh tracks off-piste first a refresher for us all on avalanche safety.  We all had avalanche transceivers, probes and shovels and had been on avalanche training courses before and all agreed you can never have too much practise using your equipment, practising avalanche situations and understanding as much as possible about weather and mountain conditions to hopefully avoid the avalanche in the first place.

After practise using our transceivers and probes we dug a snow pit to investigate the snow pack which fascinatingly and worryingly showed a few weak layers.  Here I am separating off one of the weak layers…

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offpiste-avalanche-training-mint-snowboarding-rob-palmer

I hasten to add I am stood in a hole here which makes David look even more like the Jolly Green Giant towering over little me – one of the group, Rob, took to calling me ‘Ninja’ from this picture I can see why ;-).

One thing we learnt quickly was that although it is great to snowboard the ‘off-piste’ that you can find easily from the lifts you are amply rewarded if you hike a little off-the-beaten-track and into the back-country.

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ridge-hike-to-backcountry-offpiste-snowboarding-luke-rees

No matter where you are in the mountains there is always a stunning vista to remind you what an amazing and beautiful world it is and how privileged you are to be in the special place.  Our hikes into the back-country often rewarded us with spectacular views and special moments…

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view-worth-the-walk-in-off-piste-backcountry
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offpiste-backcountry-course-mint-snowboarding-alex-horton

On each of the five days we had a few ‘five’ minute hikes (or at least five minutes for David with legs twice as long as mine and who thinks nothing of hiking up 700m and snow-boarding down off-piste before breakfast!) and a few climbs…

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climbing-offpiste-backcountry-alex-horton
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climb-offpiste-backcountry-luke-rees

and more often than not beautiful powder and fresh tracks once we reached the back-country destination…

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fresh-powder-worth-walk-off-piste-backcountry
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more-first-tracks-in-fresh-powder-offpiste-backcountry

One of our group, Luke, is owner and writer for adventure travel website awe365.com and wrote a great article about the five day back-country course with more detail of what we did and where.

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magical-mystery-tour-offpiste-backcountry

Overall it was a wonderful week when nature was kind to us with frequent falls of fresh snow to make each day different and amazing fun.

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more-snow-portes-du-soleil-ardent-mint-snowboarding-off-piste-back-country-course

Vanity struck at some points and on mellower, less demanding slopes we played with videos.

An eye-opening, exhausting, exhilarating and extremely enjoyable five days with a fantastic bunch of like-minded and fun-loving people.  One of those life-changing experiences.

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mint-snowboarding-backcountry-offpiste-group-alex-horton
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offpiste-funky-views-nature-alex-horton

Relocating, renovating, regenerating

Sunrise over French alps

We are constantly on the move; regenerating ourselves, our ideas and horizons, through travel and exploring or relocating and renovating houses, all as jobs or life require it.

After a summer of regenerating ourselves and indulging our passion for travel we have also thrived on the changes that our business and our life choices have brought. The result is we are relocating again.

We thoroughly enjoyed renovating and regenerating a 1960s bungalow, transforming it into a contemporary home.  We learned a lot about building, renovating and, enjoying the privilege of living there, we learned a lot about us. We surprised ourselves when the day came by how difficult we found it was to leave.

We both felt a mix of nostalgia, apprehension and excitement as we stood one last time in the now empty rooms together.  A pair of Muntjac deer came to say goodbye and we smiled as each of us silently pictured the wonderful memories of our time there.

Time to move on, we nodded to each other, we had made our home in this house for a short time but our hearts have already relocated and we leave the house to be regenerated into their home by the new, young family.

Relocating this time is driven by our enthusiasm to expand our holiday cottage business outside of the UK and what better way to do it than guided by our passion for the outdoors, the stunning landscapes of the French alps and for renovating houses.

On a visit to the French Alps last year we fell in love with a tumble down barn in dire need of renovating and, though it wasn’t in our plans quite so soon, we decided that regenerating the ancient building into a luxurious and unique chalet could be a perfect fit us and for our holiday property business, sheepskin.

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Over the year we have been through the processes of French planning, selling in Oxford and buying in France and are now, for the foreseeable future, relocated in Morzine, France.

This week we started renovating the ancient French alpine barn, or Grange in French, with the plan of sympathetically, regenerating the scruffy old man into a more contemporary and unique modern gentleman.

This year we will continue to transition each day between laptops and perhaps, not to flip flops but instead to snowboard boots and hiking boots.  We have been out and about getting to know the slopes and back-country of the Portes du Soleil…

…exploring the Aprés ski places, especially our local favourite a micro-brewery and great place to relax, Bec Jaune.

Each day we will be visiting the barn/building site as we help the team with the renovation…

renovating, regenerating French alps property…and then regenerating ourselves with fresh mountain air, exercise and indulging in great local food, ales and wine.

We will be out exploring with the future guests of our chalet in mind so that we can point them to the best spots during their holidays with us.  We will also be searching for other like-minded chalet owners who have done their own regenerating of a beautiful, traditional building here and want to share their home with Sheepskin guests.

When we have a moment during the renovating, we will post the progress on the barn as it is regenerated into a chalet for the Sheepskin holiday property collection.

If you know Morzine and the Portes du Soleil and have tips on best places to eat, drink, ski or snowboard please do comment below.

If you have already done or are in progress of renovating of a chalet in the French alps and would like to talk about joining Sheepskin as we launch in the mountains again please comment below.

Our favourite places in Oxford

The occasion of Adam’s birthday gave us a great excuse to visit some of our favourite places in Oxford.  Having Oxford as our local town is really a great privilege and we take every opportunity we can to wander the breath-taking streets of Oxford and visit our favourite places.  I wanted to share our favourite places with you to help you make the most of your visit to Oxford…

Oxford has many beautiful and awe-inspiring places and buildings, many of them are out-of-bounds except for the privileged few (privileged not just financially one assumes but in the determination and dedication that they must have in order to have the honour of studying in such a wonderful university town).  However although you will see plenty of private, no entry, closed signs…

No entry private places OxfordThere are still many wonderful places to explore.

We have been locals for several years now and have our favourite places in Oxford.  We never tire of it; we are always finding new favourite places and we still meander the streets, looking up to be sure to see the true beauty of the city its wonderful historic architecture and amazing vistas and skylines.

amazing architecture Oxford historic buildings

There is no denying that Oxford is a transient town, a place for tourists.  Every day of the year the streets are packed with throngs of visitors and rightly so it is a stunning and fascinating town.

The city of Oxford changes throughout the seasons as visitors and students come and go the city, its colours, feel and appearance change with the seasons but our favourite places in Oxford remain the same.

You will see our favourite places in Oxford are a little biased to places to eat and drink however they are also all great places to sit and watch the fascinating world of Oxford for by.

The first of our favourite place in Oxford is really an activity enjoyed in numerous places; walks along the River Cherwell, through University Parks and Christchurch Meadow.  I recommend getting away from the town centre and enjoying the paths by the rivers.  In Christchurch Meadow (behind the Botanic Gardens) the Thames and Cherwell rivers meet.

away from Oxford Crowds Christchurch Meadow

There are many paths along the river Thames but the prettiest and easiest are along the River Cherwell.  You can’t follow the river directly as much of the land is owned by the university but with an OS map it is easy to pick up the paths any quickly get away from the hustle and bustle.

Peaceful walks or punt on River Thames Oxford

Through University parks, north of Oxford town centre, you emerge on Parks Road and are quickly back in town along St Giles to find one of our favourite places The Ashmolean.  Established in the 16th century and refurbished in 2009 a mesmerising museum in a breathtaking building with exhibitions to inspire and amaze.

Ashmolean museum Oxford

We have visited numerous times and still not seen everything.  Since our privileged sneak preview of prior to the reopening in 2009 The Ashmolean remains one of our favourite places in Oxford.  Its only downside is that it is not open on Mondays which has disappointed some of our family and friends on extended weekend visits to Oxford.

Before heading to the town centre perhaps head out of town a little for a spot of lunch at one of two of our favourite places to eat in Oxford. First Gees restaurant is part of a local, privately owned group of restaurants each of which is very individual.  Gees looks very decadent and pompous from the outside but venture in and it is a very relaxed environment with quirky decor, attentive and friendly staff and great food from local produce.  Adam and I have turned up in walking gear on a late Saturday afternoon and stayed all evening but also enjoyed, slightly, more formal evenings there with family and friends.

A little further out of town but worth the walk (or taxi ride) is The Cherwell Boathouse, it’s hidden away in a quiet spot by the river and worth the trek for a special treat.  The week day lunch menu is great value for wonderfully creative and delicious food thought the wine list may still damage the wallet a little.  If you are in Oxford in the summer then you should book in advance, this goes for most places in fact.

On your way back in to town, just north of Gees, have a wander down North Parade, it’s a lovely little street for a mooch with an eclectic mix of cafés, restaurants and shops.  Carry on straight ahead to reach Woodstock Road and turn left to head back to St Giles and Oxford centre.  If you get thirsty on the way you can stop for refreshments at another of our favourite places The Royal Oak pub.  Being out of town it is a more of a locals place and is a good place for a beer and nibbles.

refueled and re-energised you’ll be ready to tackle the Ashmolean or save it for another day and continue the exploration of our favourite places in Oxford with a food and drink theme…

Not so easy to find The White Rabbit, behind the Oxford Playhouse near to Gloucester Green, is a quirky and friendly place.  The young owners pride themselves on their pizzas (which for me are ‘ok’) but the main thing is it’s a lovely little place to while away a little time, watch a diverse range of students, locals and tourists come and go and enjoy a pint of ale in this tiny and stylish place.

The White Rabbit pub Oxford

Often packed with tourists, because it is easy to find in the heart of Oxford on the corner of Broad St and Holywell St opposite the Bodleian Library, but with an equal mix of locals The King’s arms it’s a great place for a good pint of ale, some very tasty home made pork scratchings or a spicy scotch egg and a good people watching spot if you can grab a seat outside in the sunshine.  We’ve spent some wonderful afternoons there watching the world go by.

Ale and nibbles at Kings arms pub Oxford

If you wander through Christchurch meadow from behind the Botanic Gardens you come out at the other end through a grand gateway on St Aldates, turning right back towards the centre and Carfax Tower and you’ll find another of our favourite place in Oxford.  It’s another pub!  St Aldates Tavern nice atmosphere, friendly staff, a quite usual menu (unusual in that the menu is hidden inside old hard back books but also in that it ranges from pork pie and pickle to Mozzarella and tomato salad or ham, duck egg and chips to fresh pasta).  Needless to say they have great beers too in a great atmosphere so it makes a good place to escape the crowds for a while.

St Aldates Tavern Oxford

Talking of crowds I suppose you have to visit The Bear Inn, the oldest pub in Oxford and a quirky little place. Their website describes as ‘a hidden gem’, and granted it is tucked away but everyone finds it so it is not a place for quiet pint, nice relaxed meal or catch up with friends.  The interior, with its wood panelled walls adorned with the neck ties of previous visitors is worth popping in to see and experience but it is not one of our favourite places in Oxford.

On past The Bear and over Magdalen Bridge towards St Clements and Cowley to the last of our favourite places in Oxford; you guessed it another pub!  The Cape of Good Hope on the corner of Iffley and Cowley road on the roundabout at St Clements is another wonderful people watching place particularly in the summer when you can spill outside and enjoy your pint of local ale.  The staff are always friendly and knowledgable about the guest ales and always offer a little taste before you decide.

The Cape of Good Hope pub Oxford

The very last of our favourite places in Oxford is not a specific place but a general area.  A wander down the Cowley Road at any time of day or night is always entertaining and we have spent many afternoons, evenings (and on into early mornings!) doing just that.  On every block there is a great place to eat, we have our favourite places for Chinese, Nepalese, Greek and Indian food as well as our favourite place to dance into the early hours The Hi-Lo.  It’s a place you should discover for yourself though and find your own favourite places.  Do be sure to venture out away from the tourist and historic centre of Oxford and explore.

I hope that you find our favourite places useful when you visit Oxford and that this blog helps you make the most of your time in our wonderful town.

I know many of you must have your own favourite places in Oxford so do please comment and add your favourites too.

behind closed gates Oxford

Finding our rhythm in Coastal Croatia

Wanting too find an easy rhythm to our travel we planned to return to Coastal Croatia and some of the places we found and enjoyed on previous trips.  Off the coast of the Croatian Peljasac peninsula, the beautiful Korcula island was our destination.  As the ferry docked, near Korcula old town, and all felt very comfortable and familiar we had the desire to improvise a little and so rather than head directly to the small harbour town of Lumbarda we drove instead to the far end of the island and to the Vela Luka.

As usual the guide book had little positive to say about the small town of Vela Luka, not many ancient sites or churches in the 19th century fishing village, it could be just our kind of place. We are not constant seekers of ancient sites but rather search for inspiration and interest in every day life and enjoy the diversity of local cuisine.  Vela Luka and its people looked like it had kept a frenetic pace during the hot summer season but now felt relaxed and sleepy as the ebb of tourists slowed.

We wandered the harbour and back streets, bought provisions in a small shop and then, reluctantly, headed to the hills to the only camp site nearby.

Camping Mindel promised to be a tranquil site, hidden amongst olive trees on a crest above several bays.

Camping Mindel Vela Luka secluded camping

Within a short wander we found a sheltered bay where waves lapped gently over with rough grey rocks leading down to the clear blue water, a great fishing spot for another day perhaps. We swam in the beautiful crystal waters but were disappointed and concerned to see another bare and almost lifeless sea bed. A great concern and a frustration for Adam who, ever hopeful, had spent several hours sorting and packing his fishing gear this Mediterranean trip.

The evening sea breeze dipped the temperature quickly in the shady cove so we flip flopped home as quickly as we could. We joined a few of our fellow campers on the roof terrace and were treated to a stunning sunset across the Mediterranean to Hvar island accompanied by the rhythmical ticking of Cicadas and the twitter of Housemartins swooping on the breeze that rustled in the olive trees below.

It seemed though that we weren’t all in the same groove; some couples came before the evening sky even started its performance, stayed for the first tinges of red and then left (dinner in the oven?), some snook in half way through, chinking plastic glasses of beer as the orange glow began but still left before the finale.

We stayed until the very last ray of light had disappeared and the Cicadas all fell silent.

Croatian sunset from Korcula island over Hvar

We were woken early and rudely with a dawn chorus of toddler cries and percussion of spoons on plastic plates, really not our favourite tune so we departed quickly to go explore the other bays on the peninsula.

Rather than walk the conventional footpaths to each of the bays we chose to search for a route from bay to bay along the rocks and there was, along limestone and stark white rock formations separated by flinty, pebble beaches in secluded bays.

Beautiful Croatian coastal walk

It was a peaceful interlude as we picked our way along the coast, the vista out to sea was ever changing as were the colours and textures beneath our feet.

It was difficult to see if many others had come this way or not, we seemed not to leave a trace though some of the smoother tops to the white, chalky rocks could be from the tread of human feet over time rather than the wash of the sea.

We crossed small beaches of limestone screes below tree covered cliffs where our path was marked, at least for a moment, by musical notes as our feet shifted the rock fragments to clink against each other making, almost metallic sounds, like the bars of a broken Xylophone.  Though we followed closely in each others foot steps and in the same rhythm the music we each created was completely different. Adam’s foot steps created their tune, my melody was a new one played on a slightly different ‘keyboard’.

As I clambered I wondered how many different compositions there may have been, each fleeting, never to be captured or recorded only to be enjoyed by those there to listen. We had certainly begun to find our rhythm again here in this peaceful corner of Korcula island.

craggy shore line stone scree Croatia

Camper vans and camper van people

We can no longer deny we love camper vans (well ours anyway) and so we our camper van people!  We have had a month attached to laptops back in the UK, focussed on what we know we needed to do but always with an eye on the weather in the Mediterranean.  The promise of an Indian Summer and its arrival was not enough to tie us to our bricks and mortar ‘home’.  We missed our ‘home’ on the road, we missed camper van life and we missed the heat of the sun, so we packed our laptops and flip flops and headed south again.

As usual we set off without a plan, booking our slot on the Channel tunnel as we threw a few shorts, t-shirts and jeans into our bags. We only knew that we couldn’t escape completely ‘off-grid’, we would need to have time, space and connectivity for laptops so wanted to keep it simple.  Still we sought a different route through the alps than we had travelled so many times before; we had stopped briefly in Piedmont a few trips ago and enjoyed the wine and food of this stunning and varied region and so, on the French autoroute, we planned to go over into Italy through Piedmont.

First stop a strangely nice campsite near Fontainemore, squeezed between the quiet road, which wound its way up through the Gressoney valley, and the river that tumbled noisily along the gorge over stark, smooth white boulders.

Gressoney valley beautiful moutnain river

The only other camper van people we saw during our stay were two melancholy, empty handed, fishermen who trudged up from the river, heads down, into the campsite at sunset.  Our spot for the night a little grassy oasis between two empty, permanently pitched, vans with an amazing view one way to the mountains beyond and the other down to the river.   We didn’t mind at all having this place to ourselves, our own little camper van peace of heaven.

An evening of wholesome food and relaxed chat, the otherworldly feeling of this peaceful valley I think had physically and emotionally disconnected us from distractions that may lurk in our laptops, topped off a long day of travelling beautifully.  When the Italian stews of local sausages arrived in their rustic pots, along with a huge portion of polenta baked with Fontina cheese, the conversation did halt for a while as we let our taste buds explore and were delighted once again by the enjoyment we can always find in simple but extremely well done local food.

The next evening’s stop was a complete contrast, equally as strange yet so different in many ways.  Trieste was unavoidable on our way to Slovenia and on to Croatia but not really top our list of places to stay (having both visited on business) however as we approached along the coast (seemingly devoid of campsites) we spotted several campers in a car park by a small marina.  Luckily there was a space so we squeezed our little van between the slab sided motorhomes and investigated.  For an unknown reason these 10 or so spaces, at the coastal edge of a car park, are designated for campers.  It’s a great spot just north of Trieste by a lovely harbour and a long promenade which stretched back up the coast to the Castello di Miramare.

Certainly not the usual secluded and peaceful ‘camp’ we search for but we had a great view, a place to walk and jog and most fascinating, the people we met during the evening… the row of campers as diverse as their owners.

Trieste camper stop

So the camper vans and the camper van people we met…

Two, very swish second-home type vans, who travelled together,  whose owners spent most of their retired time out of the uk exploring.  For several years exploring Spain and Portugal, they had decided to try Italy and Croatia.  We thought it very inspiring and amusing that one of the couples had the lady’s 97 year old mother with them.  ‘She’s in a wheel chair and has a colostomy so can’t go particularly fast or far from the van,’ John explained with a smile ‘we told her she could either come with us or go in a home!’ and so they travelled together, very happily it seemed, the three of them and their funny little dog.

There was another British camper van that had travelled through here before and used this as a base for Trieste city. He was very clued in on local parking etiquette and held us and others decipher the ambiguous signage.

A Luton van, converted into a custom camper van, belonged to a young guy who had set off at the beginning of the summer from Headington in Oxford (a very small world since we moved from there only a year ago). He had made this space by the harbour his ‘home’ in his camper van and was keenly learning Italian, probably driven by his beautiful, ever present, Italian girlfriend.

An Italian lady had discovered the parking spot on the internet she told us and was a little disappointed that she couldn’t find a space.  The car park was a local’s favourite too it seemed, as car after car filled the spaces around us spilling out sprightly couples in running gear, who jogged and stretched (in a stylish way that only Italians can) and then disappeared again.  The Italian lady’s van and a couple of German campers circled like vultures, grabbing the spaces as soon as they were vacated and then they too joined the motley club of camper vans.

The most intriguing camper people were those in the van next to us.  A battered old Italian camper van that looked almost rooted to its space.  The dusty windows were open but it remained dark behind the nets that wafted in the sea breeze and none of us ever saw a soul, though we all had our imaginations painting pictures of who our mysterious neighbours might be.

We shared stories and tips, finding something in common despite the diverse backgrounds and ages of the ‘camper people’. John came back to ask us more about Croatia and then beckoned his navigator / wife, ‘ I just drive’ he said ‘I have no idea and no say in where we actually go!’  Pauline swaggered across, it looked like she had enjoyed almost as much wine as we had, dragging their little white dog behind.  We pointed to a few places on the Croatia map, ‘Hang on, I need my glasses and my notebook’ she said and before I knew it I was standing in a car park in Trieste, between two big white camper vans, holding the lead of a little white lap dog!

In the morning we explored as far as the castle, Castella di Miramare, with a jog along the promenade and a quick dip in the sea before all the camper vans, almost in unison, set off and all went our separate ways.

Trieste Italy camping Barcola harbour

Vines, wines and beaches in Bordeaux region

We were rewarded with vines, wines and beaches in the Bordeaux region after a long drive from Languedoc. Over the Massif Central with a lunch stop in Roquefort (home of the wonderfully creamy blue sheep’s cheese and a must for foodies and cheese lovers!) brought us to our friends already settled in a nice rural campsite at Rauzan just outside of Bordeaux. Roquefort cheese and mountains Our travels, over the next days, around Bordeaux and Medoc regions taking in as much as we could of the vines, wines and beaches of this fascinating area.  Some places such as Saint Emilion surprised us with its many fairy tale chateaus surrounded by a carpet of vines all set up for wine loving tourists… Bordeaux chateau and the medieval town centre, though busy, had some quiet, romantic places. Medieval and romantic St Emilion Pomerol and St Esteph were particularly disappointing with a distinct industrial feel between the few more ordinary chateaux.  The wine never the less was wonderful and of course we took advantage of the abundant wine-tasting and tasted and bought as much as we physically could. Bordeaux vines near St EmilionBut our direction now was north and home.  Already desperately sad to be gradually losing the heat and the sunshine we shivered outside the van in the evening though it was still 22 degrees. A check of the map and the weather forecast suggested we may be able to enjoy a view of the sea and warmer weather if we lingered in Medoc.

The beach at Soulac sur Mer is a vast sandy beach, stretching as far as you can see north and south and looking west to the Atlantic. White tops were being whipped up by the back drop of a stormy sky when we arrived so an afternoon for wrapping up and strolling rather than beach bathing. Edge of storm no beach todayThe dark storm that threatened on the horizon never quite reached us… Storm approaches on beautiful Soulac Bordeaux beach we suspect that us spending half an hour in the blustery wind putting up our canopy, much to the amusement of our fellow ‘camper-vanners’, turned its path.  Much like if you take an umbrella or water-proofs on a day out you can guarantee it won’t rain and if you brave changing into t-shirts and shorts, the sun simply disappears.  The canopy did keep us warm though as we enjoyed our hearty stew with a big fruity Bordeaux.

Exploring the coast of the peninsula the next day with the storm clouds hanging stubbornly over Brittany to the north… storm clouds build above Brittany France our walk took us to a great fish restaurant by the port at Verdon sur Mer where we finally got around to enjoying the great feast of seafood that we had been yearning for since deep in the Mediterranean south. French seafood platter Verdon sur mer Rising early, but certainly not with the sun, we’d enjoyed far too much Rose for that, we made our melancholy way to the ferry to Royan and north to Normandy.  We hoped to have time to explore the area of the 1944 World War II beach landings on the Normandy coast.