Swiss Family Phillips

London Luton Airport. The guy in yellow is NOT part of the family.  Just in case you were wondering.

Breakfast! 4.30am London Luton Airport.

A very early morning start in London saw us catching a taxi for Luton airport at 3am (after climbing into bed at 12.30am after a wonderful but last late-night-out-in-London with the Cramps). One taxi, an international flight, two trains and 12 hrs later, we were finally ensconced in our spacious chalet apartment in Champery Village, overlooking the magnificent Swiss Alps. Happily, sleep exhaustion could not detract from our appreciation of the almost indescribably, beautiful physical surroundings of the famous Swiss Alps.

View from chalet balcony

View from chalet balcony

After only getting 2 hrs sleep the night before, a very early first night was had by everyone.  Especially keen for a good night’s sleep were the snow bunnies who had decided to arise early the next morning and take the cable car up to hit the ski slopes.

The cable car off up the slopes

The rest of us (the tired, the sensible and the sick) enjoyed a lazy sleep-in and peaceful morning blob, accompanied by lashings of good food including Nicola’s most popular breakfast museli idea with lashings of warm berries on top.

A short walk around the small village later in the day in the crispy mountain air to view the quintessential chalets and snow clad jagged mountain peaks, was about excitement enough for my sleep-deprived self on the first day.

Cheesy. Yum.

Cheesy Fondue time. Yum.

Champery Village turned out to be the most expensive place in Europe we have encountered for food. Apart from a night out in the village trying cheese fondant/fondue, and the occasional hot chocolate/coffee, we chose to buy groceries and cook in the apartment.  Dining privately together around the large dining table in the apartment, generated a lovely sense of family well-being, which was especially precious after being apart for 8 long months so it was hardly a hardship to eat-in.

Unfortunately, our few days were dogged with sickness with two people quite unwell.  However, between visits to the local pharmacy, and the sharing of prescribed medications (naughty, lol) and health remedies between us all (and with a little help from Dr Google to make sure no-one was actually being poisoned by the various cocktails we were cooking up), everyone was able to participate in the most important parts of our holiday, like New Year’s Eve and Cheese Fondue, even if the people in question were a little spaced out, lol.

Party time!

Party time in the lee of the church

Champery Village offered a New Year’s Eve disco on ice which roused the surprisingly keen (who would have thought?) ice-skaters amongst us. This was followed up by a fabulous street party where the french-speaking DJ mixed it up with an eccentric offering of euro pop/trash, remixed country (Country Roads!) and old skool chart-toppers (YMCA, I will survive).  Despite the eclectic music, a surprisingly good boogie was has had by all. It was just such a wonderful, celebratory, party atmosphere surrounded by very enthusiastic Europeans who were intent on enjoying themselves and ensuring everyone around them was having fun too.

Go Paper Lantern, Go.. even if your side is leaking hot air through the burn hole, lol

Go Paper Lantern, Go.. even if your side is leaking hot air through the burn hole, lol

Paper lanterns were on offer for free at the street party.  After a supreme team effort, we managed to send a few soaring skyward,  with only a few mishap moments ,including the side of the lantern catching on fire, and the lantern flame-source parting company from the lantern and falling back down into the dance area.  Fortunately though, it fell straight down onto clear ground and not onto someone’s head! The HR operations managers in our group (of which there were two of us, lol), were freaking out slightly re risk management, or lack thereof.  The DJ only got a tad unhappy when a lighted paper lantern actually floated inside his little stage booth area and almost on top of his equipment!

Street Fireworks. In the street. Right next to us.

Street Fireworks. In the street. Right next to us.

Rather large-grade fireworks/rockets were also let off disconcertingly close to us a few times and we just hoped like heck that they were well secured to ensure they travelled upwards and didn’t zoom sideways into the street party.  Somehow however, this all contributed to the crazy, zany atmosphere that conspired to make it one of the best New Year’s Eve partys ever!

Si (via his ongoing iPhone weather updates + a dose of positivity) fueled our hopes for snow in the village, and sure enough, it finally did snow overnight.   We awoke one morning to a genuine winter wonderland (magical!), and the sound of snow ploughs clearing the roads and footpaths (not so magical).

Chalet balcony view PRE snow fall

Chalet balcony view PRE snow fall

View from the balcony after snow fall

View from the balcony after snow fall

The snow bunnies went off excitedly for a bluebird day on the slopes which included skiing/snowboarding into France for a significant part of the day.  No passports required! They arrived back home in the dark, reporting it to be the best ever day on the slopes. Ever. Mount Hutt is sure gonna be a come-down in Winter 2013, lol.

Our local cafe with interesting decor. Comfy seats though and the real deal hot chocolate

Our local cafe with interesting decor. Comfy seats though and the real deal hot chocolate

The rest of us spent time wandering about or attending another session in the local cafe downing delicious, real-deal hot chocolates.  Yes, the kind made from melted chocolate – not some Milo/Quik hot-chocolate pretender.  Unfortunately, the cafe surroundings  were rather hard on the eye, sporting a pretty dubious decor that had been further compromised by the addition of some weird Christmas decorations.  As one of our group succinctly summarised, “it looks as though Christmas threw up in here”.  A leetle harsh perhaps, but you get the picture.  Well, in case you don’tget the picture”, here are some pictures to assist you with getting the picture.

The visual assault of an un-coordinated approach to Christmas decorating.

The visual assault of an un-coordinated approach to Christmas decorating.

Christmas Turtles. Because they can.

Christmas Turtles. Because they can.

Christmas owl.  Who knew?

Christmas owl. Who knew?

Village walkabout with the specially purchased snow boots getting their debut.

Village walkabout with the specially purchased snow boots getting their debut.

Snow walkabout. Our chalet is at the centre back behind the girls.

Snow walkabout. Our chalet is at the centre back behind the girls.

It took a lot of planning and quite a few months to organise and co-ordinate, but the fantastic family holiday time had together in London and Champery was indeed priceless..

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London on Repeat

 

The Shard from Tower of London - about 4.30pm in late November

The Shard from Tower of London – about 4.30pm in late November

Second-time around, London would have been hard pressed to beat the celebratory atmosphere experienced back in July/Aug with the summer Olympics, but none-the-less, I have been delighted to be back in the city (Nov/Dec), soaking up more of what it has on offer.

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The onset of winter has meant short daylight hours, making it harder to be motivated to leave the warm, cosy house we have been house-sitting in North London. The day gets to 3pm and the light starts falling fast.

The River Thames by Kew Bridge

The River Thames by Kew Bridge

Christmas festivities just makes so much more sense in London with its cold, icy mornings and the possibility of snow at any moment. The city is adorned with twinkling, festive lights that shine prettily banishing the sense of gloom that would otherwise pervade the city, and beautiful churches and building are everywhere, looking so friendly and welcoming all lit up.

German Christmas Markets on the banks of the Thames in the rain.

German Christmas Markets on the banks of the Thames in the rain.

Trafalgar Square looking towards the inviting St Martins - even more inviting is their fabulous big cafe.

Trafalgar Square looking towards the inviting St Martins Church – even more inviting is their fabulous big cafe.

Christmas Carol service 16/12 at St Paul's Hammersmith Just so lovely with amazing acoustics and thousands of tea light candles.  Bliss.

Christmas Carol service 16/12 at St Paul’s Hammersmith Just so lovely with amazing acoustics and thousands of tea light candles running the length of the church. Bliss.

Another crispy day where merino magic rocks!

Another crispy London town day where my marvellous merino works its magic!

After 8 months joy-riding around in my suitcase, my marvellous merino layers are well and truly earning their keep, although everytime I am indoors again, the heat is overwhelming. The temperature at which houses are kept with affordable central heating puts NZ homes to shame. So many of us kiwis live in places with ice boxes for bedrooms. It’s shameful the low comfort levels we have to put up with because it’s too expensive to be comfortably warm throughout our homes. Ridiculous. Brrrr!

Our local park in North London. The birds don't seem too perturbed by the frozen lake. Well adjusted? or just stupid?

Our local park in North London. The birds don’t seem too perturbed by the frozen lake just wandering around on the surface. Well adapted? or just stupid, lol?

Of course, the city is enhanced further simply because of the presence of our very good friends who live there. Much time has been spent with them both getting out and about, and just “being”, by which I mean immersing ourselves in their friendship and sharing great experiences, memories and food together.

11.15pm waiting inside in the warm for the bus which was yet to arrive outside.

11.15pm waiting inside in the warm for the bus which was yet to arrive outside.   Someone is very proud of having a British passport 😉

Historic phone boxes in Hampstead Heath. The London Walks guide said the only time he had ever seen them in use was in the rain when someone was standing inside talking on their mobile phone. lol.

Historic phone boxes in Hampstead Heath. The London Walks guide said the only time he had ever seen them in use was in the rain when someone was standing inside talking on their mobile phone. Ah, progress, lol.

We really rated the guided “London Walks” which run every daily for 2 hrs and cover all aspects of London, whatever you fancy. No booking required – you just turn up at the relevant Tube station. Insights into the past, current perspective and understanding of the city – all for £7-9 per person.

I have also managed to get to two showings of Wicked – the musical version of a “chick-flick”. First time was spent sitting in the cheap front row (amazing), and the second was prime seating in the stalls. One musical, two different experiences – great value for money!  Our second trip with our family group produced for me, the second most stressful experience of our entire trip.  We got completely lost trying to find the Apollo theatre, and ended up running around the streets of London, desperate to get to there before they closed the doors as the show started.  We made it, with 5 mins to spare and an awful lot of sweat running down our backs… all that merino layering was not so fondly regarded at that point!

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Chris checking the Tube map at our local station, Southgate.

Chris checking the Tube map at our local station, Southgate.

Using the Underground is very efficient for getting around but it makes it harder to orient yourself to the city, and you miss seeing so much of the interesting city streetscapes and environment. A lot of time has been spent travelling on the Tube including a good few hours travelling the length of the Piccadily line in order to meet and greet our children and their husband/girlfriends at Heathrow Airport. Somehow, they had managed to space their three separate arrivals out over 4 days but, after not seeing them for 8 months, the 1.5 hr journey each way (=9 hrs on the Tube) was hardly a trial. They arrived in various states of health, and with different reactions to the jet lag from flying up to 27 hrs.

Meet and Greet at Heathrow except it was a Parental Fail on the "meet" part as we were late.  Ooopsies.

Meet and Greet at Heathrow except it was a Parental Fail on the “meet” part as we were late. Ooopsies.

By Christmas Day though, everyone was feeling well enough to participate fully in the spirit of it all, and in the mandatory stuffing of oneself with fabulous food prepared by moi. The day was shared with our both family and friends and it was such fantastic fun to be together again; raucous laughter, competitive games (of the non-computer type), recalling of shared memories (more raucous laughter!), all tinged with just a hint of sadness because of the knowledge our precious time together would be so short.

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Final days in London were spent racing around, cramming in the sightseeing with the kids as the days grew short, and was topped off with attending a performance of the pantomime, Cinderella, where we got to see our friend, Joffy, strutting his stuff on stage. Thrilling to see him here in London and “doing it”!

The only time you are allowed to take photos in a theatre - before the shows starts.

The only time you are allowed to take photos in a theatre – before the shows starts.

So a final few shots to say Farewell to London for at least a wee while….

Trafalgar square was the place to be

Trafalgar square was the place to be

 

Boris Bikes - all lined up with nowhere to go in the rain.

Boris Bikes – all lined up with nowhere to go in the rain.

Little street in Hampstead Heath

Little street in Hampstead Heath

 

 

 

 

 

 

Megs and me all window shopped out (Harrods)

Megs and me all window shopped out (Harrods)

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Winter can be spectacular too.

Winter can be spectacular too.

Beautiful Barcelona

Truly a majestic city of beauty and grace.

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IMG_9419Barcelona – what a surprise in so many ways!  I was surprised by:

– The City itself – surprisingly quirky, eccentric, energetic, clean, arty and beautiful with accessible beaches right on the city edge

City Meets Beach

City Meets Beach

Lots of interesting art and statues:

Statue:  "Woman and Bird"

Statue: “Woman and Bird”

Pregnant Madonna.

Pregnant Madonna.

"The Happy Lobster"

“The Happy Lobster”

– The strength of the widely expressed feeling expressed towards Catalan independence from the rest of Spain (it was local election time so this was a key voting issue)

– But the greatest, and best surprise of all was getting to meet up with my brother, Mark in central Barcelona. We had been aware that Mark was elsewhere in Spain for business but somehow his email reply to our original invitation proposing a Barcelona meet up (if at all possible), had disappeared into the great cyber archive and so Chris and I had resigned ourselves to not seeing him.

Imagine then our surprise when he flicked us a quick email giving us his arrival details the next day, lol!  Wha, wha, what?!   It was incredible, almost surreal, to tube into central Barcelona and exit to see him standing out in the street.

Fast and furiously, we saddled shank’s pony and tripped around some of the tourist highlights which included time well spent visiting Gaudi’s Casa Batllo.

Gaudi's Casa Batllo in Central Barcelona.

Gaudi’s Casa Batllo in Central Barcelona.

Rooftop on Casa Batllo

Rooftop on Casa Batllo

I felt as though I was in some adult fairytale, hobbity house.  It was amazing to experience and something I still catch myself musing over in my day dreams from time to time.

However, I don’t think that any of us would want to actually live in quite such a warped house.  My love of order and precision wouldn’t cope everyday with this kind of  “break-all-the-rules” architecture.

Saying Goodbye to Mr Gaudi and his house

Saying Goodbye to Mr Gaudi and his house

We followed up a few hours of some serious hours of tourist traipsing, with a hearty serve of tapas.  Fabulous food, fabulous company!

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Gaudi’s mark is everywhere in the city with so much of his legacy visible as you travel around.  Of course, Sagrada Familia, the yet-to-be-finished (2026?) cathedral is truly incredible and takes the fantastical to a whole new level.

Sagrada Familia dominates the Barcelona Skyline. It has yet to have the highest tower added (will be 175 metres tall)

Sagrada Familia dominates the Barcelona Skyline. It has yet to have the highest tower added (will be 175 metres tall)

Evening light on the Sagrada Familia Passion Facade

Evening light on the Sagrada Familia Passion Facade

The interior of Sagrada Familia plays alot with light. Truly magnificant.

The interior of Sagrada Familia plays alot with light. Truly magnificant.

Light floods the church at all levels.  It was hard to leave this place.

Light floods the church at all levels. It was hard to leave this place.

And so Barcelona has a huge tradition of contributing towards the study of architecture.  Interesting then, the building in which current architectural students must study today.

Redefining "Cruel Irony" - the Barcelona School of Architecture. They tried to tart it up with the Facade. Does it work?

Redefining “Cruel Irony” – the Barcelona School of Architecture. They tried to tart it up with the Facade. Does it work?

We were forewarned by on a guided tour of an impending, disruptive (esp to public transport), general strike and protests so made a conscious decision to stay in doors during daylight on the strike day.  A couple of times through the day we heard raucous yelling outside but that was it. When we emerged later that day, the banks had been majorly targeted with spray paint and suffered wrecked cash machines.

IMG_9125Unfortunately, my normal, sterling, plan-ahead skills had clearly suffered from some sort of brain blip and so we found ourselves with usually low cash reserves.  Bad timing.  Initially, I felt a little vulnerable walking the streets searching for a working cash machine and being greeted with their destruction but by machine #8, my mood had shifted to feeling a little peed off at the anonymous protestors.  I was almost desperate enough to risk it and use a machine which had its keyboard smeared with unrecognizable and suspicious substance.  In the end, I did some sort of think-on-my-feet quick cost/benefit risk analysis and concluded the potential warm glow of having cash in my pocket again might not be worth the definite health hazard posed by the keyboard gloop.  In other words, I thought “Yuk, that’s soooo disgusting”.  And then there was the tiny matter of Chris restraining my arm while yelling “You don’t know what it is. Don’t touch it!”.

I am pleased to report that a trip further afield on the Metro the next day produced a positive cash yield from a nice, clean machine.  Cash crisis averted.

Another Gaudi Casa (house)

Another Gaudi Casa (house)

One week in Barcelona was a good amount of time but as usual, we departed for London remarking to one another “we really must come back here some day”, and then spent the flight trying to work out how that might be possible……it fills in the time 😉

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The long lull is over…

IMG_8613Following a rather long lull in my blog writing, I feel compelled to catch you all up, if only for the sake of completeness. Damn you, Type A personality!  Our return home is now firmly on the horizon but before that becomes our reality again in a few weeks (gulp!), there is Christmas in London to enjoy with our family (exciting with a capital E) which is where I am penning this from. But first, a run down on the past few weeks.

Autumn’s arrival in Europe was rather beautiful in Germany.

No more sundresses for me :-(

No more sundresses for me 😦

Yep another mish-mash motorhome meal. This one was special - our last.

Yep another mish-mash motorhome meal. This one was special – our last.

After our drive from the South of France, we spent three nights in a campground in  Dusseldorf (Germany) deprogramming ourselves away from the motorhome way of life.  This involved working out how to dispose of stuff we had accumulated over 8 weeks (electric jug, blanket, kitchen tools, storage containers, non perishable food) in an environmentally-responsible, non-wasteful manner.  Open rubbish skip. Throw stuff in.  Close skip. *Jokes*   We actually ended up leaving most of the stuff for the motorhome cleaners who apparently get to take home any extras left by the likes of us.  Thus my conscience was almost salved.

Our time in Germany was very short but somehow in that window of time, I had the total misfortune to have a real-life encounter with nothing other than the accent of a fellow Kiwi woman.  Ouchies!  Upon hearing it for the first time in months, I was quite shocked.  It really hurt my ears. I wanted to interrupt her mid-stream and beg her to please just STOP talking for-the-love-of-all-that-is-worthwhile-in-the-world! Yowser, it was both cringeworthy and hilarious, and all the more so because I know my accent is probably even worse than hers, lol.

We opened our suitcases and they sort of just sort of exploded into the comparative space of the hotel room.

We opened our suitcases and they sort of just sort of exploded into the comparative space of the hotel room.

After returning the motorhome surprisingly dent-free (well done Chris!), we caught a train to Cologne (still Germany) for 5 days.  And so it came to pass that Chris spent his days in an exhibition centre and his evenings smoozing with business colleagues, while I spent my days alone in the hotel room, luxuriating in the sense of space of the studio-sized room.  Quite ironic how eight weeks in a cramped motorhome can so quickly change your perspective on what constitutes personal space.  After I caught up on emails, skyped, watched DVDs, I ate. Weirdly, I only ventured outside the hotel once for dinner, and twice for lunch. I basically only saw the inside of a hotel room.

On the way to the airport after our short and sweet sojourn in Cologne, I did manage to  snap the second highest cathedral in Europe. Is it a travel travesty that I couldn’t summon the energy to go visit and climb its hundreds of steps?

Cologne Cathedral, sadly in the distance.

Cologne Cathedral, calling to me in the distance.

Following an easy flight to Malaga, Spain, we arrived on the shores of Costa del Sol, the most unauthentic part of Spain where tourism has been designed for the Brits who were out representing the mother country in force. Yes ,we did know this when we chose this part of Spain to visit but we since we had almost free accommodation for two weeks, we gave it a go anyway.

Costa del Sol  - where old timeshares go to die.

Costa del Sol – where old timeshares go to die.

A rental car redeemed the situation somewhat and gave us wheels to get out and explore our surrounds:

– the white Andalusian villages and towns

IMG_8707 – The amazing caves at Nerja

Huge caverns. So glad we didn't miss this.

Huge caverns. So glad we didn’t miss this.

– The beaches

Tired buildings crowding the sand

Tired buildings crowding the sand

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– View from the Balcony of Europe

IMG_8766What was less redeemable was the weather.  Out of 14 days down south, it rained for 10.

With a break in the weather, we were going to take a walk to the beach. Maybe not.

With a break in the rain, we decided to take the path to the beach. Ok, maybe not today….

Funnily enough, we just didn’t care that much about the weather though. I think we both enjoyed having an excuse to sleep in and blob around.  A lot. The conserving of energy worked out well, giving us renewed vigor for moving onto our final stop in Spain- Barcelona…..

Farewell to France

Vesoul, Eastern France. Taking a 6km stroll around the lake there to stretch our legs after hours of motorway driving.

Peace….

5600km, 30 campgrounds, 8 weeks on the road and we have finally left France. It has been such a magical country to visit and travel around, and there is still so much of it that we didn’t see.

We have explored quaint towns and villages, vibrant big cities, and drifted over the borders into neighbouring countries. In the north, there was so much war history, and many more windmills than I expected. In the south, there was a glimpse into the lives of early man, and ancient Roman civilisation.

I now have visual context and explanations for the many historical novels I have read, and our travels have helped books come alive in my imagination.

The smile on my face belies the fact that we are only halfway around the lake, and I have realised I am wearing the wrong shoes. Blisters again. But it was so soul-refreshing and still, it really didn’t matter

The landscape is diverse and beautiful, with miles of beautiful, rolling french countryside, brown rivers and crystal blue ocean framed by craggy Lord-of-the-Rings mountains. In France, a sandy beach is only 10 mins drive from a medieval, hilltop village; a lush green camping spot by a lake only a roundabout away from the motorway.

One minute this:

At this point, I am glancing at the GPS thinking, how can the lake only be 800 metres from here?

Nek minit:

View from our camper

With the fabulous, warm light that bathes southern France, it is easy to understand how so many French painters were inspired to paint their masterpieces.

We loved visiting the abbeys and chateaux, swimming in the mild Mediterranean, watching successful fishermen on the banks of the rivers and lakes, repeatedly climbing the well-worn steps of town cathedrals, and being subjected to massive thunderstorms that lasted several hours.

The motorhome has travelled along cute, windy forest roads where we almost expected to meet a shiny knight on his stallion, or the local peasants on foot. It also travelled along roads that challenged our driving and navigational skills, but this has been all part of the experience that is France.

Enjoying the quaint, windy, rural roads….

…then, groan….

The French are proud of being French, fiercely nationalistic and defensive of their language, and and why not? Their country is gorgeous, the land has been inhabited for thousands of years, and they have had to fight hard to retain their identity at times. They can be quirky with a different sense of logic that is frustrating and baffling when you encounter it, especially as a weary traveller who just wants to find what you need, and be on your way.

However, never be tempted to buy into the stereotype that the French are rude and arrogant. Apart from one receptionist in a campground, we have experienced nothing but polite, friendly helpfulness. As drivers, we found them to courteous and patient, with not one incident of road rage witnessed.

Thanks France for a journey of many surprises and much enjoyment! To finish, here are just a few of the quirky things that surprised and amused us:

At first, we thought it was just a realistic window display. Very realistic when the dog blicked. lol

Nuclear Tourism. For real. We decided not to follow the signs and stop off here for some more sightseeing, although there was a part of me that was quite curious

Just because

So the corn is harvested and stored here but what happens next? Surely, it cant stay here long?

Any guesses what these were used for in times gone past? NB: Not as in NEVER a gravy boat.That’s right! Church services would be so long that women of class took one of these puppies nestled discretely under their dresses so they didn’t have to interrupt the preacher and leave church to pee. Necessity is truly the Mother of Invention.

– Peaceful paradise – well it was until this guy shows up and decides to start talking to us… all chatty and naked like……

– On a major roundabout. Good job I keep the camera handy to grab these quick, quirky snaps. Kia ora to my friend 🙂

Personal stuff

Medieval port of Collioure.

Disclosure: Blog pictures don’t bear much relationship to this blog. They are just there to make it look pretty and for the people who don’t read the words but like the pictures… and I know there ARE some of you, lol

On the road to Gorges du Verdon. Note the cool “Rebecca’s fingers reflected in the window” effect 😉

A couple of weeks ago, I had quite an epiphany. My personal grooming efforts had reached an all time low. The trigger for this radical reassessment, this dire moment of truth, was a throwaway comment whereby I mentioned in passing to Chris, “I might see if I can get my hair dyed somewhere soon”. Such was the level of his enthusiastic response, that I thought he was going to simultaneously break out both his wallet and the French Yellow Pages then and there, and see if he could hook me up with an instant appointment. Of course, he probably didn’t realise it at the time, but he was, how shall I say this…..”sailing close to the wind”. Heck, I should have just gone the whole hog and asked “Does this top make me look fat?”

In the heart of Provence in lavender territory.

A quick, self-critical trip to the mirror confirmed that my bad hair day had indeed morphed into a pretty bad hair month. My un-dyed mousey brown hair was overrun with never-seen-before grey. Now, if you have black hair and are going gray, at least you have a cool contrasty thing going on; black/white, salt/pepper, dark/light. With the blessings of a mousey brown base, the integration of grey mixes to produce a colour that can only be optimistically described as dank dishwater. If I was a Nana, perhaps I could make peace with it. Perhaps. But being a non-Nana (no hurry guys!), and on the happy side of 50, grey is still definitely enemy territory. And there is nothing for enemies, but to man an aggressive, frontal assault (me thinks, we have been to one too many Normandy war museums).

Palace of the Popes, Avignon

Combining the grey invasion with what shall forever be known as “the bad German haircut” from a few weeks back, I was forced to score my hair a lowly 2/10. Ok, ok, I thought. No need for a major meltdown. Everything else was under control…wasn’t it?

Looking across the Provence Plateau to Europe’s Grand Canyon, Gorges du Verdon

Unfortunately, a more thorough, objective self-assessment revealed the plain, ugly truth. Things had indeed gone to pot. Various factors had converged to produce something worse than Marmageadon (yep, I have been keeping abreast of the silly Marmite dramas in NZ). Fingernails were uneven and several were ‘catchy’. My right big toe nail, which had had the side ripped off during a cobble stone trip-up session a couple of weeks ago, remained neglected, jagged and torn. The shocking state of my eyebrows explained why it had been so difficult to see clearly lately. And then there was my poor, poor skin. It was in that sad state of decline post summer, where the glorious tan flakes off to leave behind a dry, taut, and white surface. Ugh.

This was a first world emergency calling for some heavy duty pampering. And yes, I could have gotten all soul searchy and asked deep and meaningful questions such as “Is my self esteem too strongly linked to my appearance?”. Am I too wrapped up in the excesses of the Western world?” Aren’t I fortunate to be so privileged to have time and resources to put towards resolving such major appearance dilemmas? I could have. My reaction was more basic. “Holy cow, I look terrible!”.

In fairness to Chris, it is he who must gaze upon my hairy chin. If he indicates he is feeling a tad eye-sore, I am advised, nay, compelled to take action.

And so it came to be that we spent two days, not exploring the delights of Southern France, but parked up in the unexciting destination of Montpellier, in pursuit of a decent hairdresser, hunting down a few personal grooming products, and, most importantly, purchasing some more chemicals for the MH loo (you really wanted to know that eh?!)

Us lazy bones riding a tourist train again.  This time, Avignon with dodgy headphones that cut in and out with a commentary in heavily accented” French” English that was quite cute. Such gems as “the orrible fluids” that devastated the town when the river broke its banks, and the “Virgin Murray” got several mentions as we passed by some of the churches, lol.

It was the sweetest feeling to exit the coiffure (hair salon) with freshly tamed, Wella-woman hair, as well as the addition of a few more words to my french vocab. They spoke virtually no English so it actually was a lot of fun trying to ensure that my visit resulted in Hair Happiness for Rebecca and not Coiffure Catastrophe!

With personal appearance disaster dealt to, I felt energised to move on again. Amazing the power of a good haircut and colour. 🙂 I’m so glad we did move on, because the Gorges du Verdon which flows into the man-made Lake de Saint Croix was a fabulous part of France to visit- (picky’s below).

You can kayak up the gorge as we did, OR…. this.

It truly was lovely here, and the lake so warm to swim in (Lake de Saint Croix)

Did I mention how warm this lake was, and how nice it was to swim in? lol

Nice Navigation Nightmares

Nice beach and city. Beautiful, warm water according to Megs and Chris who swam in there at 6pm one night

From what I saw of Nice central city, it looked fabulous for shopping but for me, it is more what surrounds Nice that really makes the area a worthwhile destination to visit. Coupled with the ease of travelling up and down the coastline on the train, I would love to return some day to see the bits we missed getting to.

What Nice will forever be remembered by us for however, is the navigation dramas we had in the MH in the Nice city and surrounds.The trouble started the moment we drove into southern Nice and didn’t stop until we left over a week later.

Nice Beach bordering the Old Town. The best place to swim in Nice city.  Isn’t the light fabulous?

First up, upon arriving in Nice suburbs, we experienced quite a lot of hassle finding our campground, and had to suffer getting “parped” at by other drivers frustrated with us. I know. Who would have thought we would be the dodgy MH drivers?

Nice Port reminding us visually how close we were to Italy with its Italian-looking buildings

Our next problem that same day was to pick our friends, Megs and Col, up from Nice airport (11 kms away). Fortunately, I had researched in advance as how to do an airport pickup with the MH. The answer is you don’t. Ever. No MH parking anywhere. You can’t even use the dropoff area for a cheaty pickup because it has height barrier restrictions.  We would have got so embarrassingly trapped so good job we sussed that sucker out.

Following others’ advice, we decided to catch the airport express bus to meet Megs and Col. After forking out NZ $57 (I kid you not) return-bus-fare for just the two of us, we arrived at Nice airport only to encounter problems finding Terminal 1. After phaffing about, and a shuttle ride later, we met up with our patiently waiting friends.

On our first outing together the next day, the GPS tried to immediately navigate us under a railway bridge with an overhead height restriction of 2.5m. Stop!! Col jumped out, and asked the traffic behind us to back up in his best French charade speak. Chris reversed up, Megs n Reb sweated inside for a few minutes, and then we were out of that sticky situation. Phewy!

We’re here, we’re here!

Juan les Pins beach looking towards Cap d’Antibes

Off for a spot of exploring, we headed to Juan les Pins, parked up legally and enjoyed a few hours at the lovely beach. Easy. We then took a little tourist tour of Cap d’Antibes peninsula where the millionaires live (so says the tourist info) where one wrong choice meant five minutes of narrow, windy, and steeply descending streets (ummm, are these one-way? oops, nope). We did our best not to scrape the sides of the parked BMWs and Audis. Truly.

Not sure that I am really into city beaches with their passing traffic, and visually crowded backdrops. Chris and Col laxing out in the sun.

After some nervous laughter and some “oh well, we should be right now” mutual verbal assurances, we ploughed on back towards the campground, with the help of our used-to-be-oh-so-trusty GPS. Sadly for us however, someone in GPS land was having a very bad “I hate my life” day when they decided on the ‘fastest route’ back through Antibes.

This “riding along in the back” and compulsory sightseeing gig is HARD work man.

Antibes is a quaint town on the seafront, with old fortified city and sea walls (ramparts) which I can report passed by us in a blur of terror as the GPS guided us down a one-way, pedestrian-friendly street, past sidewalk cafes and cutsie little shops. A fishmonger even hosed down the side of our van as we crept by. Trying not to sound totally panic-stricken and overly alarm our guests in the back, Chris and I mused aloud as to just why the heck we found ourselves bang-smack in the middle of Quaintsville….not that Chris had much energy for pondering so really it was me just talking out loud to myself trying to keep the situation mentally under control. Chris was too busy trying to maneuver the MH to keep it from scrapping the metre high metal pedestrian safety poles that lined both sides of the “road”.

This is not Antibes but Eze. A mountain village snapped out of the MH window. We wanted to visit but were foiled.

Relieved to reach the bottom of our one-way descent without dinging anything, a warning notice then rose up to greet us, advising of a 2.5m height restriction in order to exit Antibes under the city ramparts ahead. Of course, when they built the ramparts back a gazillion years ago, only a horse and cart, (and maybe the odd prancing war stallion) had to pass out under the walls at any one time. Last time I looked, our MH was just a l’larger than your average horse and cart. We found ourselves completely hemmed in with a row of cars backed up behind us, and no way to go forward and exit. There we momentarily sat, gob-smacked. Four letter words don’t even begin to adequately express what I felt at that moment!

Us in an alternate, happier universe where no-one cares about mundane things like navigation

At the very last minute, a promising road to our right was hastily spied. The MH occupants heaved a collective sigh of relief as Chris gratefully swung into it, zooming up, up, and away, ….and straight on top of the old stone sea walls. Out of the frying pan, and very much into the fire.

Unbelievably, this one-way road was even narrower than before, and it was filled with pedestrian tourists who were strolling along it, looking at us like we were crazy. Which we were. Crazy with ice cold fear. Silence descended in the van as we inched and wound our way along the top. Nothing to do but keep going and “hope for the best”. Not the most sterling of strategies in my book at the best of times. The road/pathway had some little stone fences hemming us in on both sides. Goody. At least, we couldn’t drive off, over the cliff, and into the sea.

Sweat was running down my back and my heart was in my mouth. It looked way too narrow for us to drive along. I had panicky visions of being stuck on on top of the ramparts of Antibes for hours, having to go find an official to organise a sea crane to eventually lift us off, and of hoards of angry frenchmen demanding to lop off the heads of the ignorant tourists who would drive a MH up onto the old ramparts.

While Megs and Col were white-knuckling it in the back, Chris and I were trying to brazen it out in the front. “Ah well, the roads of Europe can be pretty narrow. We are kinda getting used to it now”. Ah ha ha. Somehow, I don’t think we were very convincing. The whole experience can be best described as the antithesis to the much used NZ phrase “sweet as”.

After what felt like an absolute lifetime later, the “road” suddenly widened and Antibes spat us out from its evil clutches. All previous six weeks of French navigation confidence had totally dissipated in a few terrifying minutes.

Villa du Rothschild

Unfortunately, our Nice Navigation Nightmare continued unabated in the following days as we were thwarted several times by height restrictions on roads and tunnels (including an entrance to the motorway (what the?!), and were forced to repeatedly ignore the GPS as he kept insisting we turn into crazy, steep and narrow little streets (Tom-tom, do you have a death wish for us?).

Having a spot of lunch at Villa du Rothschild

Keen to avoid what further stress we could, I even emailed ahead to one tourist destination to check on access and parking, only to arrive and have the original assurances received then over-ruled by the officious Gate Police. This resulted in more tense moments as Colin lept out to guide the required backing-up maneouvres and direct the several tight, multi-point turns.

Megs doing what Megs does. There was part of me that wanted her to fall in, or the musical fountains to start while she was out in the middle, lol. She made it over with a minute to spare, darn it!

Gardens at Villa du Rothschild; we finally made it here! Worth the effort too as it was lovely inside and out

Not totally content with the level of navigation stress in Nice, and in the spirit of “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”, we upped the ante and threw in some motorway driving hassle for good measure and took ourselves up to San Remo, Italy. At one point, we paid a road toll to try and exit the motorway and descend down to the coast, only to circle around again and pay to re-enter the same stretch of road we had just left! That was an expensive laugh, albeit a nervous one.

Our beach at San Remo on the Italian Riveria

We have probably unwittingly convinced our friends NEVER to hire a MH and drive it anywhere in Europe. It is definitely true that by the end of our time in Nice, we were happy just to escape out and get onto the road to Lyon with no more dramas… oh, except for the service station pump that spat diesel all over Chris, wrecking his clothes.

Stuck on the wrong side of the railway line to our campground.

It is fair to say though, that Nice was by far and away the trickiest part of France we have experienced in 7 weeks to navigate around. Chris has done a wonderfully skilled job driving 1000s of kilometres in all sorts of conditions and environments, and making some very quick decisions at only a few second’s notice. We are both learning some new relationship skills too, lol.

Our nemesis highlighted on the info board.