Archive for July, 2008


Saturday, July 26th, 2008

As we entered Geneve I had already been watching the black stormclouds pile higher and higher in the sky. Karina was sleeping in the back of the  van,  and the Swiss border guards didnt seem too interested in my people smuggling. I found a parking spot in the centre right on the lake promenade, the nearby 120m high waterjet fountain near the lakes western end a handy reference point. I woke Karina up and we made our way to a lakeside van cafe just as the storm unleashed in torrential downpour of rain wind and lightning that the cafe’s canvas annexe couldnt hold back.

I’d been to Geneve a few times before, the first time when my Easyjet flight was predictibly late causing me to miss my bus to the ski field and forcing me to spend the night there. I remember walking the streets on a Friday night thinking, “what a quiet, dull town” as I searched in vain for a busy bar. However, on subsequent trips friends have shown us a different side to the town, of bars run by squatters and upmarket eateries. We caught up with our good friend Ernst, a longtime Geneve resident, UN worker(IT at UNHCR), and effortlessly multi-lingual, who has been a knowlegable guide for us in the past on all things Swiss. The lucky dog had a charming new girlfriend, Florence, and seemed in good spirits when we met him for some lebanese food in the Paquis district. We were also joined by our friend Soli, who we shared a chaotic flat with in London way back in 2000.  Another annoying multilinguist, she had moved there from Genoa a year and a half ago on a company transfer and seemed to be really enjoying it. In fact, a lot of the people we talked to, americans italians and french, all seemed to like Geneve so I reckon the city must have something going for it. Great skiing on your doorstep doen’t hurt either. We were all a little hungover so it was a relatively early night, though on a sunny morning the next day we caught up Soli and some of her shipping brokerage mates for coffee at a nearby cafe.

Geneve doesnt tend to dub it’s movies as often as they do in France, so Karina and I went to see Sex & the City.  Like an extra long tv episode, it managed to take product placement to levels not seen since the Pokemon movie.  That evening was the day of the Lake Parade, a techno parade and party similar to Zurich or Berlin’s Love Parade. We had a cycle down to have a look at it, following the trail of empty beer cans to the lake’s southern shore where there were about 2 dozen floats anchored along a road playing different sorts of dance music. Some people had taken the trouble to put the full rave gear on, and there were a few big trannys around that were hard on the eyes. It seemed a little bit incoherent, with more people walking in search of god knows what instead of stopping and dancing. Karina and I had a dance for a whil, but her legs were a bit tired after carting the bikes down the mountain in Chamonix, so we left early. We caught up with Ernst and Florence at a traditional Brasserie and sunk beer from 5 litre dispensers. Ernst noticed some arab looking bloke leaning back in his chair and fishing around suspiciously near Florence’s handbag. Upon being noticed he cheekily got up and sat near a group of americans and started doing the same thing. I wasn’t having this and yelled at him from across the restaurant to piss off, which he did but his smile revealed that it want before snatching one of their wallets. In hindsight, I wouldnt be surprised if the waiter was in on it too.

The next day Ernst invited us to the Montreaux Jazz Festival, on at the time about 80km around on the north side of the lake.  Leading us at our usual 85kmh all the way must have been a new experience for him. Rain and low cloud persisted, and pretty Montreux wasnt at it’s best as we cruised in singing Smoke on the Water. Herbie Hancock was playing that night and we splashed out as an English bloke was selling his excess tickets, and I really wanted to take the chance to see one of the greats. Herbie had played piano in one of Mile’s legendary quintets. It was a cookin’ show, mixing some of his classics with some Joni Mitchell song, and he had two exellent female singers in the band and Beninese guitarist who did some beat box stuff as well. Ersnt has thoughtfully brought along a bottle champagne to kick things off. After Herbie, Chaka Khan was next on the bill. She had turned into a big, slightly scary-looking soul mama. Her band was really tight as she belted out her big numbers, though her voice what it had lost in range seemed to compensate in volume. We moved off to the wings, and had a dance with Florence and Ernst before retiring for the night, Ersnt back to Geneve and us in the local carpark.

The High Alps – Day 43

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

All I see is white. There is little hope for rescue. Karina has lost her toes to frostbite, and we ate the last of the dogs last night. It fell to me put the faithful trusting hound out of its misery, before sautéing it in a red wine and garlic sauce. The wind howls at us like a banshee day and night, and I find myself longing at each step for a crevasse to swallow me up like it took Sebastian, and put an end to this futility. Only the thought of once more seeing cricket on the village green keeps me going, along with my crystal meth. Tell Fanny to keep her chin up.


We had a coffee in one of the rubber-necking cafes on the pedestrianised avenue of Aix-en-Provence, or Exy in Provence as I named it when we got the bill, and contemplated our next move. We could head east along the Cote D’Azur through Cannes, San Tropez, Nice and Monaco to Genoa, or chance the van in the mountains and head north to Geneve. After staring at the road atlas until my eyes started moving in and out of focus, we decided we’d take the high road, as this would let us go through Switzerland then drop back down to the Italian lakes, and we had some friends in Geneve who we could get loco with, Swiss style.

Karina and I had been in Aix before, in a freezing yet romantic December, and though it was a beaut little town. Its warm yellow buildings hid a town of bars and boutiques, student hangouts and street markets, and blokes bickering over boules. Karina checked out the clothes and bought herself a pair of earrings, while I sprayed myself with a sampler bottle of aftershave that hung around me in a cloud of eye-watering musk for the rest of the afternoon.

We cooked up a lunch of our usual beans and rice while parked in the median strip, then decided to take our first motorway to the town of Gap, the theory being that it would be easier on the van than the backroads we’d been holding up traffic along, though the tolls can be quite hefty in France. We headed north into the Rhone Alps, part of the Alps that I’d not traveled through before, and followed up a wide bottomed ex-glacial valley (Im a geo, and I know a wide bottomed ex-glacial valley when I see one) with peaks of folded sandstone in an area of stark beauty. We passed the magnificent fort town of Sisteron, and I asked Karina weakly if we could get her Sisteron drugs, before reaching Gap, nestled in the palm of the surrounding mountain fingers. We stopped here for while, as both the car and my throat needed some lubrication, before we attempted the high road to Grenoble. The town had an artist thing going on in its mall which we browsed down, though none of them were Rembrandt, and I was happy to find no Gap in Gap.

The road to Grenoble quickly turned steep and windy, and the mountains we passed got bigger, though I should point out this was only in comparison to ones we’d encountered previously and that they didn’t visibly gain mass as a result of us transiting their base. After driving around a long cold-looking lake we started to pass a lot of Napoleon references in the street and place names, and inferred that the Emperor with the Napoleonic complex must have passed through here with his Grande Armee at some stage. Coming close to Grenoble, we worked our way higher and higher before going down an exceptionally long steep (12%) slope that I was grateful we weren’t driving up.

Grenoble is a big town, the queen of the Alps, with a big student population and progressive politics. We parked the night just next to the river near the old city, and wandered in that evening. For a Tuesday night it was packed, with veritable enchiridion of funky overpriced bars and haunts. Karina wondered whether they all had to work tomorrow or not. We had a drink in one then settled in to watch some free screenings of a short film festival that was happening in one of the squares. The French shorts were about half short films and half animations. I’ve seen a shedload of movies over the years and consider myself an open-minded film buff, but while the animations were excellent both in their ambition and realisation, the short films were some of the most dreadful self-indulgent tosh I’d seen from somebody given access to a camera: dull with nursery school level narratives. One about some sheila trying to fly a kite on the beach was particular waste of celluloid. Still, it was free…

The next day we continued through the Alps, from Gremoble to Megeve following a steep river canyon most of the way. We van made a couple of paff sounds, like a pissy backfire, so we pulled over and had some lunch while it cooled. It seemed to go away when we continued on to Chamonix. Karina and I have at various times contemplated buying an apartment in Chamonix or Tignes-Val D’Isere and wanted to check out how busy it is in the summer. Chamonix was absolutely chockers with punters, though how many to the week rental Im not so sure. We stayed in a campground in Chamonix-Sud, under the morning shadow of Mount Blanc and the Aguille Du Midi, capped with snow and looking magnificent. We decided to walk up to a waterfall that afternoon. After starting off on the wrong side of the river we had to ford a fast and icy stream then scramble up the steep slope before we could join the main trail. At the waterfall under the slopes of Mount Blanc, we thought about traversing across to the bottom of a nearby glacier, but it was getting dark and the arse-end of the glacier looked kind of dirty from a distance, so we hiked back down then rode out bikes back to the campsite.

The next day was hot, and the parasailers out early, spiraling down the valley trying to catch the thermals. We rode up the valley towards Argentiere. Le Brevant gondola was closed for construction and the Aguille du Midi costs too much, so we decided to take the bikes up La Flegere cable car and ride down. In hindsight this was slightly ambitious given the state of bikes. Mine was a street bike, not a mountain bike, and Karinas bike’s brakes weren’t working properly. The trail down was very steep and coved in loose rocks and gravel. Karina had a couple of small stacks, had we had to walk a few sections. After about a third of the way down we really weren’t enjoying it, so I decided to try one of the walking trails that seemed longer and more zig-zaggy, but less steep. The trail was rideable and encouraging for the first couple of hundred meters, but gradually deteriorated into a very narrow scrambly trail with steep rock sections. We ended up basically having to push, man-handle and carry the bikes down about another 1200m vertical which was very strenuous on a hot day. The first beer we had after coasting back into the centre hardly touched the sides. That night we went into a bar that had free wifi, and met a friendly Australian couple in a bar who invited us back to their apartment where they had a couple of bottles of plonk. We chatted into the wee small hours.

The next day a thunderstorm was brewing and we nursed the van and our hungover heads along the motorway to Geneve.

Agde to Arles

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Up until now, I havent been impressed with the beaches of the French part of the Med. The whole Cote D’ Azur you have to do breastroke to keep your head above the used condos and frite packets floating around in there. Nice has pebbles instead of sand, which brings to mind when I thought I’d get out of London for a day at beach in Brighton. I was that depressed to find rocks bigger than my fist instead of sand, and a turgid sea of cold brown water. Anyway, Agde, or more precisely the Cap D’Agde, which is on the Southwest side of the Rhone mouth, had decent sandy beaches and sea that you could see the bottom of. Speaking of bottoms, where we camped was right next to Europe’s largest Naturism camp. Id been once before to a nude beach in Brazil, hiking for miles through the scrub near Buzios with Karina to discover she was the only women on the beach. But this place was like a city. Curiousity got the better of us and we decided to pay it a visit. Now I’ve grown more comfortable in my own skin as I’ve got older, but pushing a shopping trolley down the supermarket aisle starkers was an eye opener for me, and I decided not to have sausages (or bearded clam) for dinner that night. The place was huge, with hotels, campgrounds, shopping malls, bars and beach. We had a lay on the beach, after some precautionary sunscreen, and I have to admit swimming then showering and laying on the towel are better without the possiblity of sand in your bathers. They advertise as this clean, back to nature lifestyle, and there were a few bare-arsed families that probably fitted that bill. But I detected an undercurrent of sleaze, with lots of single blokes with jewelery in interesting place, and 3 or 4 stores selling bondage gear. Then again, maybe they were just Germans.

After a few days in Agde, and a more extensive suntan than Im used to, we headed to Montpellier. We had a friend of a friend to catch up with, but I was buggered if I could find where I’d written his number. Montpellier is a big town and an old city that seemed to have only one way in or out in the van. We thought we’d keep pressing on as I was eager to see Arles before night fall. This involved driving through the Carmargue, the swampy delta where the Rhone meets the sea. Famed for its Carmargue horses, of which we saw one munching forlornly in a drainage ditch, and mosquitos, of which we saw plenty.

Coming into Arles is like approaching any French town. First you have farms and light industry, then the big Hypermarts, then a zone of service stations and car dealerships that give way to some high rise apartment buildings, then a commercial residential zone of lighting shops and bakeries, and finaly the elegant architecture of the old city at it’s centre.

I had my heart set on visiting the roman arena in Arles. Id never been in the Coliseum in Rome, due to a combination of big queue and general miserliness, but this time I wanted a gander. It was very well preserved and had been in use since 56AD, not to mention it’s appearence in the rather good film “Ronin”. The old city was a narrow maze, and we were lucky to make it out of there, let alone find a parking space. We manged to find one by the river and wandered in and up to the arena. They were selling tickets to the Bullfighting that had just started, to which Karina bluntly refused to go (see earlier posts). But someone explained it was a special “Carmargue” style where the object is to take a ribbon from the bulls horns with a small handheld hook, and that no bull were killed, she relunctantly agreed to join me.

There must have been 25 guys in the arena with the bull, who took turns to run at the bull before leaping quite athletically (you would to if you had a bull’s horn just about to turn your date into a shashlik) to safety of a fence with running board around the bottom. The bulls varied in size, with the bigger bulls provide more entertainment (i.e. chance of gore). The first one managed to jump the fence and terrorise the front row spectators. Sitting on a sunny evening in a 2000 year old arena was quite atmospheric, and I thought “put this crowd in togas, have a couple of albatross sellers, and I could be Alius Maximus”

After the last bull trotted out of the arena like he’d done it a hundred times before, they had a fairly over the top awards ceremony with marching bands and women in traditional dress (they looked like milkmaids) that seemed to drag on until every last partipant had an award. We took the opportunity to jump into the arena and get a bulls eye view on things.

After a glass of wine we wandered back to the van and drove out along the backroads towards Aix en Provence. We stayed on the outskirts of a minor town, where the local kids took turns to ride a loud trailbike up and down next to our camper. I unscrewed the back of a powerbox in an effort to ‘borrow’ some electricity (it’s not stealing if you cant see it) but the bastard hadnt been wired up to the mains yet, so I stopped short before attempting this and probably electricuting myself.

Languishing in Limoux

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

Now I know several people were betting on when our van would die, and those who picked France almost got lucky. After Andorra, we had two more high passes until the terrain finally flattened out somewhat. After the last pass, we were coasting into a village when the van started making a disturbingly loud thunk thunk. I pulled it over and looked at the engine to see if if anything obvious had gone wrong. I’m not a totally shit mechanic, though having your own garage and mechanical team when I was working at the mines encouraged laziness and a cavalier attitude to driving in what I considered a personal rally park. I know how engines work and what each part does, but things that go wrong under the engine case I hold my hands up, and it sounded like it was coming from inside there. I adjusted one of the air intake seals that had slipped down and gingerly tried it again. The sound briefly went away, possibly because of cooling down, but returned under load after a few kilometers. We decided to coast downhill to the bigger village of Limoux and look for a mechanic. It was about half past eight on a friday night but we saw one open and still working who agreed to take a look. He reckoned it was the piston valve that wasnt closing properly on our forth cylinder, and said (at least I thought he did, he spoke only French) he could try to adjust it in the morning. The oil was low which was probably the cause. Id been checking every couple of days and it had stayed steady for a two weeks between the high and low marks, but something must have happened in the last day or two to make it lose quite a bit, grumbling up hairpin bends can’t have helped.  He was a talkative bloke, Francoise, who rambled for hours in french with barely a comma, despite the fact that we have only the basic grasp of the language, telling us about his divorce, his two girls in university and something about cancer. It doesnt pay to offend your mechanic so we listened politely to almost midnight and then slept in the van on his lot.

The next day we waited to after lunch when he got underneath and fiddled while cranked it off an on for him. He said the valve wasnt closing and it would need the whole engine out. He could start next week. 80 euros lighter for just two hours work Karina and I drove out to the camping ground promising to come back monday. As we pulled into the entrance doubts began to creep in. The noise had gone away and the van actually didn’t seem to have lost any power. The prospect of hanging out for an indeterminite number of days in the village while he tinkered away with the meter running didn’t exactly thrill us, so we decided rather adultly:”fuck it”, and to drive to Carcasonne, about 30km away to the north. If the sound returned so would we. As fate would have it, the van seemed to cruise to Carcossone in good order, though at one point I thought I heard a phantom noise that turned out to be cicadas in the fields nearby. Carcassone is a  beautiful fortress on the hill from the outside. Inside it’s like medieval world at Disney. I had a beer to calm the nerves and quench the thirst as the day developed into a scorcher.  We typed the coastal town of Agde into our GPS, and I followed the pink line through the baking vinyards of the Roussilon. It looked like our Capybara would live to fight another day

Kiss my aura, Andorra!

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

As we drove north up the river gorge that led to the border, Karina asked me how a country like Andorra can exist, and without being able to wikipedia the history, I reckonned it was like a deep crack in the floor that no matter how hard you sweep you can’t get the dirt out. A slightly offensive metaphor, but Andorra does seem wedged up a mountainous narrow valley with only two roads in or out: one up the gorge and the other North over a high pass.

After hardly seeing the officers of law enforcement, in Andorra they were everywhere and they were busy. Questioning us at the border, giving out parking tickets, directing traffic (even though there were funtioning traffic lights), it seemed like a big employer in the country. The other big industry is shopping, like being in an endless airport duty free. Huge hypermarts selling chococalate, cognac, cigarettes as well as the obligitory Body Shops, C & As and Quicksilvers. My brother Campbell had told me years ago that Andorra was a good place to buy ski mountaineering gear, but after browsing a few shops I didnt find the prices now particulary cheap. Cheaper than england, granted, but that’s like saying warmer than Greenland.

After a couple of days in the mountains, we wanted a campground, but after driving through half the country I started wondering “even if there is one, where would they fit it”. About 10km north of the capital, we found an unlikely one in a field you had to drive through a petrol station to access. But it was cheap, had showers you could leave on without coins or pressing buttons, and we found free wifi nearby.

We drove out of Andorra under beautiful blue skies past the ski resort of Soldeu. This was the only one I’d heard of in the Pyreenese prior to coming, and though bgger than I’d thought I reckon of all the ones I saw the area around the Pic du Midi in France looked the best terrain. The region doesnt always get the best snow, as well, and being south I reckon it’s going to be one of the early ones to suffer as global warming sinks its teeth in.

Pyrenneean Progress

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

In my mind Ive always dismissed the Pyrennese, that mountainous seam that welds Spain onto France, as kind of pissy. Not a proper mountain range like the Alps, the Andes or the You Yangs. But after slowly chugging up, over, and down seven passes around the 2000m mark in 2 days, I have a new found respect for them. Steep, lofty, and extensive, I seldom got out of second gear in the van.

The road hairpins its way past ski resorts, high alpine meadows with herds of goats and cows with their bells dinging, waterfalls and rocky crags and bluffs. The French side is a bit greener, with resort and spa towns nestled in the valleys. We took a couple of hitchers up to a mountain lake, Lac Estaing, and cooked lunch next to a busload of Paisley parish penshioners crooning ‘Flower of Scotland’ and other party pieces.

I guess the other thing to note is that we were following the route of the Tour de France, two weeks before they were due to come through. The first give away is the amount of graffiti on the road tarmac, done in large letters with the hope of being picked up by the TV helicopters. A lot was about the Contador team that I couldnt always translate but I think was suggesting that they were a pack of cheating druggie scum. The other stuff varied from the personal “LOIC 2008” to the imaginative “CUNT CUNT CUNT CUNT”. The road was also full of riders, generally middle aged guys in full cycling gear, no doubt reviving boyhood fantasies of winning La Tour as they labour up 1 in 8 degree slopes. We saw quite a few that were gasping and looked close to tears or total mental breakdown, still with a fair bit of the hill to go. It brought to mind the film Belleville Rendevous (Les Triplets de Belleville) and the scenes of the gasping riders. If you havent seen this one I thoroughly recommend illegally downloading it.

Eventually, we crossed the border backover into Spain again, where the grass is yellower and fuel is a lot cheaper. Having been through Luxembourg I thought it would be unfair if having come so close we avoided Andorra. It’s feeling might be hurt.

Bully for you

Friday, July 4th, 2008

The road east to Pamplona cuts its way up over and through steep forested mountains with almost no signs of human habitation. The city itself is famous for its annual ‘Running of the Bulls’ festival where the bovines are let loose down the streets and locals and kiwi backpackers are photographed with looks of sheer terror on their face as they scramble over one another trying to get out of the way of them, and later make macho claims of patting the bulls head. The festival kicks off in a couple of weeks. Karina doesn’t think much of the whole thing, as the bulls are killed at the end in the arena. I pointed out that they don’t have a fun time at the abattoir either, and at least they get a fair chance of horning some pesky humans before they become sirloin. But I find arguments based on moral equivalence hold little water with most people.

We parked up and had a stroll down Pamplona’s narrow streets that the bulls will run down in a couple of weeks time. I was surprised to find that they contained fairly upmarket shops, like letting the bulls loose down Bond St. There were a lot of stores selling the white with red sash bull-running pajamas, bull souvenirs, bull labeled wine etc, i.e. classic bull shit. We walked past the colosseum-like stadium the bulls eventually run into that was all locked up at the time, had some lunch then hit the road once more.

East of Pamplona, the road followed a wide dry valley between two mountain ranges, along a river and past drystone hilltop villages and monasteries, most of which appeared abandoned. We eventually came to an inviting long reservoir, its green waters lapping rocky pine-clad shores. We stopped the van and had a dip, which in the heat of day was just the ticket. The water was fresh and cool we stayed for a couple of hours just splashing about. There was a monastery village on the next point, with numerous boats anchored in front of it. Though the only signs of life we saw was a topless Spanish woman driving a powerboat standing up with one hand. She powered across to each part of the lake in turn as if it say, “check out my knockers” to the region. In the late afternoon Karina had a snooze in the back while the clouds that were stacking themselves over the high Pyrenees to the north suddenly let loose with quite chunky hail stones. I thought it best to call it a night, and so parked next to a man-made stone river channel just before the high mountain pass into France we would take the next day. In the distance we could see patches of snow clinging to the rocky peaks.

San Seb Sun

Friday, July 4th, 2008

After sun, sand, surf and saucisson in Anglet, we headed south across the border into Spain, though inter-EU borders now seem to consist of a small blue sign on the side of the road with the country name on it surrounded by gold stars, and not a lot else. I say Spain, but we were heading deeper into Basque country, or Euskatel as the locals have it, and many of them would rather it not be part of Spain. They express this wish with lots of Basque graffiti, flags that looks like a union jack negative, and the occasional car bomb. This aside, San Sebastion looks stunning with it’s natural harbour protected by two mountainous headlands, and an elegant historic centre by the rivermouth.

We drove around aimlessly looking for a parking spot but the city seemed full of couples and families out walking on a balmy Saturday, and none materialized. After so long in Anglet, Karina had valiantly gone without a proper shower long enough, our solar water bag shower being more of stop-gap measure, and plumped for the only caravan park the city had. This turned out to be 6km to the west and up a windy mountain road. After a proper scrub, (though the blokes showers only worked in 2 second bursts of scalding hot water) we decided to get the bus down into the old city rather than navigate our way back pissed. We strolled along the promenade that ran behind the golden horseshoe of the city beach, and had a glass or two in one of the well patronised tapas bars in the maze of alleys of the old city. The last bus left at 11pm, so we headed out just as most people seemed gearing up for a big night out.

The next day we scored it for a good parking spot right next to the rivermouth. Spain were in the Eurofinals, though the atmosphere was fairly muted for their first big final after years of disappointment. I put it down to the Basque thing, like being in Glasgow if England were in the final (that might be overstating things, the locals weren’t actively supporting the opposition). We decided to spend another night here and watched the final, which Spain mostly dominated and deservedly won. It was a pretty international crowd in the bar, with some australians, some dutch surfers, a subdued german couple, a middle-aged English foursome who stood in front of everyone after halftime and belligerently blocked the view of the telly, and some Brazilian bar staff who Karina got chatty with. There were a few car horns in the street both that night and the next day, but I remember when Brasil won the 2002 world cup while I was in London and packed out Trafalgar square samba-ing by comparison. I read El Mundo the next day and it seemed other cities like Madrid were far more festive. We slept that night in the van and I awoke just after dawn and wandered the waking city streets and beach looking for a toilet that was open. By the time I got back Karina was up, so we had ourselves a coffee and tortilla (potato omelette) in a café bar before battening down the hatches and hitting the road eastward. After actively going away from it for 3 weeks we were now vaguely heading in the direction of Australia.