Our first day saw us cross over into France from Italy via the town of Menton, which is part of the French Riviera. We travelled along the coast until we reached the road to Monarco. We were advised by a guard on the road that caravans are not permitted in the Principality, so we had to about face and ascend the hills.
We had not anticipated this and were somewhat concerned as to how steep the climb would be. Luckily, it all went well. Although we didn’t get to drive through Monaco, I could still see the enormous sailboats and motor boats moored off its coastline. I have to say I have not seen anything in the size and realm of their ostentatious presence, except maybe once on a Gold Coast waterway in Australia.
We set up camp for our first night in a town called Grasse. Grasse is famous for making perfumes, but we arrived too late to have any inclination to go and check out one of the perfume houses.
Grasse was a pleasant enough place but the next day we were keen to push on, so we drove until we reached the small town of Aups. We had planned to stay in Aups as it was reasonably close to Les Gorges du Verdon, which my brother had recommended we make the time to drive through. Les Gorges du Verdon is a grand canyon and as such we were unsure whether we would be able to drive along it with the caravan. Thus we arrived at Aups early enough in the day to pitch camp and headed for Canyon du Verdon in the car, sans caravan.
As were approached the gorge our eyes were captured by the pretty and enticing vibrant blue waters of the Lac de Sainte-Croix. This alone was a wonderful sight and we had no idea how much better the afternoon’s driving views would get! You can drive along both sides of the gorge, and we decided to take the southern side for our journey as it was the closest. The canyon is a gorgeous and majestic natural divide through the land that harbours the aqua blue waters of the Verdon river. It was so much more impressive than I had anticipated, and we stopped at several viewing points along the road to gingerly peer over the edge at the impressive depths below.
On our return journey we commented to each other what excellent advice it was to come here. It would have been very likely missed if not for the heads up from my brother Mat.
Once back at the campground we elected to walk into Aups, which was a pleasant 5 – 1o minute stroll. As we crossed the open and tree-covered market place, there were dozens of stalls. We remarked how we had hoped we would find a town where we could walk to the markets to buy fresh local produce that I could cook for our meals. We had hoped this would have been our experience in Italy, and now we had finally found a place in France. What a shame we had to press on the next day, we said to each other. Past the market place we walked further up the little laneway into the town where several cafes and restaurants had tables spilling out onto the pavement, and a lively assembly of patrons enjoying the balmy night air. Music filled the night. We meandered up and down the charming old streets and admired how pretty it all was. How good it would be to stay a while longer!
By the time we had finished our little inspection of the town and walked back to the campground (which we found very pleasing I might add) we had convinced ourselves that it would be a crime not to stay another day. We wanted to enjoy the town a bit more, and perhaps find a good walk to do in the local area.
The reason we did not immediately come to this decision was because of our planned travel schedule back to Graepel to return the car and caravan to Helga and Jean-Pierre. Our epic journey from Graepel to Plitvice Lakes had taught us that we should not aim for more than about 130 – 150 km a day, if we wanted to maintain our sanity and enjoy our holiday. With this in mind we had planned for two rest days each in Burgundy and Champagne, and another two “spare” rest days to use where we saw fit. So only being our second night into this three week return drive we worried whether it was a bit pre-emptive to be using up one of our spare days so soon. But we felt that Aups offered all we had been looking for in a little provincial town, and we knew we would have run the risk of doing those “Oh, what ifs” should we deny our overwhelming urge to stay put.
Sterling decision. So sterling in fact that it took us no time at the end of the following day to decide we should indeed use the other spare day and try and make up a “spare day” by driving longer somewhere down the track. And upon returning to mail a postcard on the day we were to leave I reported to Damien that he was lucky he did not see the Saturday morning market or he would want to stay yet another day. The market was teeming with tempting food stalls and others with interesting knick knacks to window shop. I had desperately tried to conjure up some reason why we should stay and use up our yet to be made “spare” day, so we could go shopping in the market and I could cook up a storm in between cooling off at the excellent camp ground pool. But alas, I could not find a way to justify it. It came as no surprise to me that when I lamented to Damien about the fact there was an awesome market happening in Aups – and we could not use it – that he too said that he wished he could find a justification for staying one more day.
We resolved that we would have to be happy with what we had enjoyed, and glad we had not driven on after our first night there. In hindsight, with the knowledge of how much more quickly we were able to drive through France than when we first set out from Germany all those weeks before, it would have been no problem at all to stay a couple more days…. but we weren’t to know.
Nonetheless, we squeezed out all the goodness we could from the extra two days we enjoyed in this fantastic little slice of France. The first day we went for a walk through the town with the assistance of a local brochure that provided information about the relevant historical points of interest. This little town certainly had past worth learning about, with some dramatic and sometimes gruesome tales to tell. One such site being that which is commemorated by the small virgin statue set in the fascade of the old Church of Notre-Dame de l’Assomption. On 16 August 1574 the Huguenots from Allemagne-en-Provence entered the village and murdered many people. They gathered eighteen young men and women at the site where the statue now stands and slit their throats to set an example to the rest of the villagers. It was sad that there was so much blood that it flowed onto the street below. The shocked villagers gave this day the name of the Massacre and built the statue on the sight. They asked Henry III that a fair be organised in memory of this event. It still happens today, and we were only about a week shy of being there at the time of our visit.
From here we walked out of the town and commenced the walk through the hills to La Croix des Pins. The start of the hike wound its way past a curious chapel that had been built in one of the caves in the side of the hill. From here we continued on up and up the path. It was an extremely hot day and quite a strenuous hike. We took some respite for lunch, perched on two rocks as we looked out over the valley below. We enjoyed delicious sandwiches which we had made from baguettes we bought at the boulangerie and chunky slices fromage de tete (the rather unappealing French name of “head cheese” for this terrine I ate) and pate de campagne (for Damien) bought from the charcuterie. We pressed on and felt a sense of achievement when we finally reached the peak of the hills to take in the view. It was a nice enough view and a good walk but nothing compared to the hike we did the next day. If truth be told, I enjoyed the historical walk we did through Aups before La Croix des Pins and the walk back down through the outskirts of the town, more than I did the long ascent in the heat!
When we got back into town, dripping with sweat, we swung by the information centre to quiz the staff there some more about a map we had purchased on hikes in Les Gorges du Verdon. When we told them we had just got back from hiking up to La Croix des Pins, the woman looked at us as if we were a bit mad and exclaimed something to the effect of “you walked up there in this heat?”. Yes, I guess it was a bit full on but we made it.
We then made a bee line for the pool once back at the campground, and stayed there enjoying reading our books and a trashy French magazine in which we attempted to decipher the captions that accompanied the pictures.
The next day’s hike down into the gorge was an awesome bush walk, and so much more interesting than the one the day before. We were, yet again, so glad we had decided to stay another night as the views and walking terrain this hike afforded were excellent. We enjoyed the same sandwiches as the day before (because they were so lush the first time around), but this time we were treated to a far superior lunch spot by the crystal clear waters of the river that runs through the canyon. I did go for a paddle up to my knees but soon decided that you needed to be European to withstand the freezing cold water temperature! There were quite a few doing just that but I was content to just look on. This was also a challenging walk and we were both a little tired from the long walk the day before, but we both rated the experience highly. Damien said it is probably his favourite bushwalk ever.
What was also fantastic about going on this hike was that we got to drive along a large section of the northern road through the gorge, which as it turns out is very worthwhile. Both sides of the gorge afford you different and stunning perspectives on the canyon and it was lucky for us we got to experience both. After the hike we then checked out the local tourist village of Moustiers Sainte Marie. It is an extremely lovely town and a worthy tourist drawcard, but we both agreed that we were happy staying in our lesser known, but charming in its own way, little Aups.
I think for both of us, a return visit to Aups and further hikes in Les Gorges is on the cards in the future!