The Condons' Adventures...and beyond!
Sarah and Peter Condon
We took delivery of our van in May 2017, and saying goodbye to the lovely team at Jerba, we took 10 days to travel home from beautiful North Berwick going north first to Leith (for The Kelpies and Falkirk Wheel), then turning south to Alnwick, Castle Barnard, Ludlow and into Wales for a crazy cycle ride in which my husband Peter was taking part, called The Dragon Ride, then home.
What a line up!
Peter is an obsessive road cyclist; the bigger the hills, the longer the climbs, the better. Over the years he’s completed numerous sportives and personal challenges and in 2016 rode one of the gruelling Etape du Tour Alpine stages, from Megeve to Morzine. Previously, by way of a training ride, Peter completed the Fred Whitton Challenge in the Lake District – 112 miles with some killer climbs in excess of 20% (http://www.fredwhittonchallenge.co.uk/the-route/).
Peter had previously entered the 2017 Etape du Tour, which takes place in July, and we made a crazy mad weekend dash in our shiny new van to Briancon, in the Alps, reputed to be the highest village in France. We had an amazing weekend, camping out in the beautiful pine forests in the mountains in glorious sunshine, next to the icy cold running river with crystal clean air – fabulous.
In the Alps near Briancon – ready for the Etape
The finish line of Etape du Tour 2017, Briancon
Campsite in the Alps
We had to head back to UK the day after the Etape, and whilst washing-up and getting ready to leave, I got chatting to a fellow cyclist, Chris, who’d also done the Etape the day before. In conversation I learned that he’d already cycled to get to the Etape over two major mountain climbs, Col Du Galibier and the The Telegraph from the south shores of Lake Annecy where he and his family have a holiday apartment, then done the most gruelling Etape du Tour, and was happily getting ready to cycle the return trip back to Annecy – all this crazy cycling Englishman had with him was a water bottle, wallet and phone!
He was about our age, and obviously incredibly fit, but was grateful for the offer of a lift; I think he’d definitely earned a rest. I went to grab the road map from Peter, to work out our best route to drop Chris off on our way north, and we set off. Just outside Briancon Chris said he could take us a shorter route back and to turn off right, back the way he’d cycled from Annecy. Looking out of the window the road ahead now looked absolutely terrifying. In fact, we were driving up the Col du Galibier, the Tour de France’s most iconic ‘climb’ – by bike or mountain goat, sure!
Roads getting a bit scary
Single Lane – you can just see our wing mirror right hand corner
Being the Tour de France, masses of motorhomes were parked up and down the mountain sides, and had been there for several days to ensure gaining the best viewing point, something Peter and I have on our bucket list to do. Mind you, thank goodness we have a VW campervan and not a massive motorhome when you looked at the insane way the French had parked on some of these precipices, just centimetres away from the edge! You’d certainly need to check which door to open when you wanted to step out for a wee in the night! After traversing the single lane, no barriers Col Du Galibier, the two lane Telegraph which came next was a walk in the park!
Down the other side – looking down the valley and up at the next
Later in the year, in September, Peter was entered for a ride in northern Italy, along with a large group of our cycling buddies. The plan was to meet up and join them in their hotel for a couple of nights to take in the ride. We had just over 2 weeks to make the trip so we knew that there would be some long driving days; one of the best things about having a campervan (and in particular a Jerba campervan!), in France, is that you can stop almost anywhere overnight, so you can park up after a long day’s drive, pop up the roof, open up the wine and have your feet up within minutes (and snoring happily in 15!).
We travelled south through the Alsace region, which was fabulous – one of the few areas of France we’ve not visited over the years – delicious food, interesting wines, and quaint cobbled streets in chocolate box villages were wonderful. We had time to take in some amazing sights, including Riquewihr the ‘village full of storks’, famous for its Reisling and historical architecture, and nearby Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle.
Chocolate box houses in the Alsace region
Chocolate box houses in the Alsace region
Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle is one of the most popular monuments in France with 600,000 visitors per year. Built in the 12th century, the Castle occupied a strategic position. Its purpose was to watch over the wine and wheat routes to the North and the silver and salt routes from West to East. It was reduced to ruins by the Swedes during the Thirty Years’ War and then abandoned. In 1899, Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to rebuild the castle entirely with the aim of turning it into a museum and at the same time a symbol of Alsace’s return to Germany.
Leaving France we crossed the border into Switzerland (no-one stopped us) and were immediately impressed by the fabulous super smooth roads and endless tunnels we drove through, including The Gotthard Tunnel, which until not so long ago was the longest road tunnel in the world – all 10.5 miles of it. Road travellers planning on visiting Switzerland, please note that you will need to buy a “Vignettes”, so do check this out well in advance of your trip.We pitched up on the stunning shores of Lake Lugano and spent 2 glorious days exploring the beautiful and super elegant town of Lugano itself and chilling around the beautiful campsite pool which being September was completely deserted, maybe because the water was absolutely freezing.
“The deserted swimming pool” Lake Lugano, near Agno
What a view – looking back down at Lake Maggiore, Switzerland
Peter cooling off in Lake Lugano at the campsite after a ride
Back on the road to Lake Garda, to the beautiful town of Sirmoine on the southern peninsula. That evening in Sirmoine there was a massive thunderstorm which threatened just as we’d popped up the sun canopy, opened the chilled wine and got out the olives! Minutes later, and just in time, we were tucked up inside the van, pitch black outside and torrential rain hammering against the windows! No bbq that evening – instead we rustled up a delicious rich tomato sauce on our clever Wallas hob, eaten with fresh pasta and of course with a delicious local red wine! It was also pretty much obligatory to indulge in some devine Italian ice-cream.
Tackling a massive Italian Ice-cream
Arriving in Valdobbiadene, a small town in the foothills of the Dolomites in Northern Italy, we met up with the cycling gang and retired to the local taverna for some light refreshment. Valdobbiadene is a fabulous wine growing area. Just below the Alpine-Dolomite areas of Veneto, it provides a climate for a cool variety of grape. The Conegliano Valdobbiadene area is the home of the best Prosecco one can drink! Can you guess the name of the cycle ride? Yes, The Prosecco Ride! Prosecco was the only drink in town, no white or red, just Prosecco and in fact, the hotel served Prosecco at breakfast too!
The day of the event it poured with rain (we half expected it to be Prosecco!), but it didn’t spoil the fun: dancers in national costume, flag bearers, wonderful music, a real party – Italian style. The local people made us so welcome and we had a lot of fun dancing and partying with them afterwards until late into the night – and of course, drinking Prosecco!
Almost in Valdobbiadene, Italy
Sore heads, lack of sleep, and in Peter’s case sore muscles, and back on the road homeward bound we headed back to Lake Lugano and the devine deserted swimming pool. We had a fabulous pitch right next to the lakeside, and of all the VW conversions on site (and there were many) none were as handsome or as well built as ours, and we had many admirers. The campsite had wonderful facilities so it gave us a chance to catch up with some much needed washing.
Wash day, Lake Lugano
Saying a sad farewell to the beautiful Lake Lugano after a couple of glorious days of R & R, we had a long drive back up north to Nancy for a brief overnight stop, then on the next day to Arras in the Pas-de-Calais to take in some WW1 and WW2 history. Arras has the most beautiful Flemish architecture, being once part of the Spanish Netherlands between 1556 and 1714. The Wellington Caves, a wartime hideout in the network of chalk caverns beneath the town are a must-see, also Vimy Ridge, the Canadian WW1 monument, and the National Necropolis of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette where 42,000 french soldiers lie.
Vimy Ridge was particularly humbling; a breathtaking memorial to 60,000 Canadian soldiers who lost their lives during the Battle of Vimy Ridge in the First World War.
Vimy Ridge, near Arras
We did quite a bit of cycling in this area and took time out to stop off at several wartime graveyards that are so beautifully maintained by the War Graves Commission and which are so numerous in the region. There is so much history to explore in this area that we’ll definitely make a point of returning as soon as we have the time. In the meantime, it was back to Blighty!
What’s next?! Where are you planning to go in the months and years to come?
Wow! That’s a biggy. The world is quite literally our oyster.
Apart from as many weekend escapes as we can get away with, we still have lots of areas in France we’d like to go and explore in greater depth. We’d like to go back to the beautiful deserted swimming pool on Lake Lugano (maybe when the waters a tad warmer but then it wouldn’t be deserted!), and back to see our new best friends in Valdobbiadene (if only to appologise for the 3rd rendition of the National Anthem!), though I’m not sure I could ever drink Prosecco again!
But for us, it’s mostly about seeing new places, visiting new campsites, finding fabulous cosy pubs and walking our Jack Russell Mabel; she adores being out ‘on the road’, she has the cosiest little bed under our camper bed (where the bed folds down so neatly!) and as soon as she hears the click of the key fob she’s ready and waiting by the back door, bags and bone packed!
Long term plans? Hmmmm. Well, we’ll sell the house and all our ‘stuff’, buy a small ‘turn the key and go’ apartment, jack in our jobs, wave goodbye to the mother-in-law, and head for the Channel Tunnel…………living the dream!
Simon’s ingenious removable canvas
Wine and Nibbles
Room with a View
Canvas Roof up and Sun Canopy in place