Life in the mountains is all about exploring and getting out into the great outdoors – which is why we bought a camper van last week! From our home in Morzine we can reach some stunning places within an hour or few’s drive – Annecy, Switzerland, Lake Geneva, Italy’s lakes or coast. We could even just pop up the road to beautiful Lake Montriond with the BBQ and a bag of wine for sunset any day of the week! With just a moment’s notice Steve, the dog and I can hop in the van and be on holiday. We can’t wait! The van has a pop-up roof, a couple of hobs and a sink, electrics and we’ve got plenty of outdoor furniture to play with. So here begins the Downs’ Camper Adventures (nothing to do with Steve’s limp wrists – or my currently broken one).
The first trip was driving the camper back from the UK to Morzine, which we did with a stop in the Champagne region. It was a flying visit, but we’ll definitely be back to do it properly. Driving into Epernay, just south of Reims, we passed the Champagne house ofMoet & Chandon first. Apparently it offers one of the best tours and tastings, taking you down to their cellars 10 to 30 metres under the chalky soil and among their 28kms of caves! Though, it being Easter Sunday they were closed and I could only dream of the bubbly loveliness inside its doors. There are hundreds of champagne houses dotted around Reims and Epernay – a slightly wobbly summer bike ride champagne crawl would seem the best way to take them in. Some of the vineyards offer free parking for motorhomes so you can attend their ‘degustations’ (wine tastings), fill up your camper with bottles of the stuff and crash out on the premises.
We downloaded a great app, Park4Night, which shows a whole range of locations for overnight stays – from wild camping with a view, to campsites with all the facilities. We decided to check out a vineyard called Ferme de Bel Air which it said offered tastings and parking plots with stunning views. It looked beautiful when we pulled up, but no-one was in at the house and we couldn’t find any toilets (note to self, when you don’t have a port-a-loo with you always double check toilets are nearby), so we reluctantly moved on. It was getting late and we were ill prepared so we headed for a municipal campsite which would have everything. We drove to Chalons-en-Champagne, which looked like a really interesting city to stop in from the fun mini Arc de Triomphe on the roundabout (italso has its own version of Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral). In fact, this is the capital of the Champagne region – despite being much smaller than Reims. Sitting on the river, there are lots of gardens to explore and beautiful architecture.
We landed at the municipal camp site on Rue de Plaisance on the river and paid €14 for the night. We’d not had time to stop anywhere for supplies so it was with great relief we saw they sold champagne by the bottle in reception, and had a little snack hut. It’s a friendly little place, the toilets and showers are kept really clean and there were plenty of parking bays, all surrounded by a little hedge and with electric hook up. It’s not the most romantic place – the French prefer function over beauty when it comes to places like this – but there’s a little lake, green areas and flowers. It has bags of character, and characters – it looked like the snack bar is used by locals for their aperatif and the kids playground is well maintained and used.
Sitting outside the camper, and later inside watching films on the laptop, we drank champagne from mugs and ate easter eggs – if that’s not what camping’s about I don’t know what is. A perfect first night in the van!
In the morning we set off, aiming for a lake just beyond the town of Langres for lunch. But when we saw Langres we just had to stop and have a walk round. Perched on a hill and completely surrounded by medieval stone walls and gates, the old fortress town looked imposing and spectacular. Up close you realise the houses peeking over the walls are less aesthetically pleasing – who allowed 60s concrete social housing to be built in such an historical and stunning site?! In fact, France is full of these beautiful medievaltowns because they have never had enough money to replace the crumbling buildings – they’re rich in history but not much else, which is why this bizarre juxtaposition exists.
A walk round the 3.5km of ramparts which overlook Burgundy, taking in the history, is a fabulous way to spend a driving break.
The tower in the picture above, which juts out over the wall, was built in 1565 as an artillery tower. Another tower we saw had walls up to 7 metres thick going down into underground passageways. One of my favourite games in France is Spot The Best Shrine. They’re everywhere when you look out for them, some Thailand-style tacky, some lovely statues. There are 100 dotted around this town on houses that date back to the 15th century – from the bizarre to the lovely.
In the centre of the town is St Mammes Cathedral, built in the 12th century, and a beautiful piece of architecture it is too. It left me wondering, though, how tall werepeople back then? Look at this size of this door…
The organ above it was made in 1714 and has 4071 pipes! I would have loved to have a blast on those!
It was odd to spot an electric tram perched on the wall. Although it no longer works, the tram used to use the tracks built for a steam train, which would carry items up to the town from the train station below.
The nearby lakes we had been aiming for are part of the town and the Tourist Info Centre was advertising summer activities and events there – it looked like a lovely picnic spot.
We continued cross country using main roads instead of motorways, which is a great way to see parts of France you’d never have experienced otherwise. Via Gray (which was actually a fun and colour fun town right on the river), and Dole (‘what are the benefits of living there?’) we drove to Geneva and on to Morzine and home. Always interesting, surprising, breathtaking and bizarre, France – you did it again!