Plain sailing – and plane mad!

To reward it for not dying in the mountains, we took the van for a short holiday to Lake Annecy. The city of Annecy itself is a living, breathing picture postcard of medieval quaintness. On the day we ventured into town it was market day so the streets were awash with cured meats, Savoyard cheeses and strong beers, which is my idea of heaven, and we grazed at the samples laid out by each stall, treating the place like an enormous outdoor buffet. Talking of scavengers, instead of being littered with pigeons like other European cities, Annecy is inhabited by an inordinate number of swans. It’s almost as if the council decided that pigeons weren’t twee enough for Annecy and so shipped in herds of swans instead – trained swans that mill around posing for photos and, well, swanning about I guess.

Anyway, laden with produce, we retired to the south end of the lake and made our way to the beach. Now, when I say beach what I actually mean is a swathe of foot-lacerating gravel. For while the la…

The hills are alive, with the sound of campervan

Auxonne is a fortified town with a military college which, for just two years back in the late 1700s, was attended by none other than Napolean Bonaparte. And, boy, don’t they make a meal of that fact. If they can’t name a street, square or shop after the diminutive despot, then they simply whack up a bloody great statue of him instead. 

We’d been met in Auxonne by our friend Matt who would join us for the rest of our trip. Once we’d ensconced ourselves in the town’s campsite, the three of us set off on a bike ride along the river to the village of Flamarans, seeking out vineyards that might let us taste their produce. However, despite Auxonne being situated in Burgundy, we found not a single grape. Even more annoyingly, Flamaran’s one and only bar was shut. In fact, the only shop in the village was a taxidermist’s and, given that none of us were in particular need of a stuffed boar, we cycled all the way back to Auxonne, hot, disgruntled and empty-handed. 

After our sweaty bike ride, Cl…

Scream if you want to go slower

Due to our mechanical issues, we’d not been able to reach our intended target of Vitry Le Francois on that first day. Instead we made an impromptu stop at a campsite next to a small, walled town called Le Quesnoy. We’d never heard of the town before but can confirm it is a lovely little cobbled enclave and comes complete with its own moat, boating lake and historic town centre. Our stay at the campsite itself was slightly less rewarding, in that there was some sort of children’s karaoke competition taking place until late into the night which meant we had to endure a noise worse than when foxes mate. Imagine a recording of Joe Pasquale being tortured, played backwards, at the wrong speed…

Talking of horrific noises, in the weeks before we set off on this trip, we’d had new brakes fitted to the van. The van is celebrating the fact it has new brakes by emitting a glass-shattering scream every time we come to a stop. You can see people physically cringe and cover their ears every time we …

What's French for throttle?

So, we are off again in our little yellow bread bin. This trip will be just a fortnight this time and, subsequently, I wasn’t planning on documenting it – but then we started getting into a couple of scrapes on Day One so, hey, why not eh? The plan is to head across France to the Alps via a couple of wine regions (Champagne on the way, Burgundy on the way back). Simple, right?
We were about half an hour outside Dover, on our way to catch the ferry, when the accelerator pedal went slack and we lost all power. On a dual carriageway. After a panicked phone call to someone who knows more about engines than we do, I was directed to look in the engine bay to see if the throttle cable might have become detached. We quickly unpacked the back of the van and gained access to the engine (for the uninitiated, the engine lives in the boot). Sure enough, the throttle cable was detached and lying slack on the hot engine block. Luckily, and somewhat precariously, resting next to the cable was what is…

Captain cook

At this time of year a lot of the campsites have started closing for winter so, as we made our way back towards the Alps, our choices of where to stay became a bit limited and we ended up choosing campsites that we might not normally stay at. Which is how we ended up staying at a fairly surreal place in a little town called Torre Daniele. It’s not a massive town but we still had difficulty locating the campsite itself and, even after spotting it, couldn’t find a way in and somehow ended up driving over a sort of rickety old foot bridge. The place was full of old knackered caravans and looked abandoned, apart from a single dog who was barking loudly. Claire hopped out to see if she could find someone in charge and approximately 20 seconds later was back in the van with the barking dog hot on her heels. We drove a bit further into the camp and an elderly couple emerged from one of the caravans. They were Dutch, very friendly and told us that they came here for two months every year to h…

The coast with the most

I’d always assumed that the famous leaning tower of Pisa was once straight and that it had gained its unusual tilt over centuries of subsidence. Turns out that it was just a dodgy building job and has been an almighty cock up all its life. One thing is for sure though: it’s one of those landmarks where it is better to be outside looking up at it, than up it looking out. That little gem of wisdom cost Claire and I 18 euros each in entrance fees. You see, aside from the arduous climb up the stairs seeming a bit steeper in places and ever-so-slightly easier in others, all you get at the top is a view of the rest of Pisa which, apart from the neighbouring cathedral, is pretty dull. There are a few bells up there (it is, after all, a bell tower) and some annoying tourists, whose sole job is to get in the way of every single photograph you want to take, but otherwise there’s not much going on. The best views are to be had down on the ground and they are actually best viewed with the tower b…

Rage against the (cash) machine

Now back in Italy, our plan was to drive up what we thought would be a lovely coastal route, looking at dreamy scenery, all the way to Rimini. Unfortunately that whole section of coastline is nothing like we’d imagined and was, instead, a depressing 120km stretch of tawdry, dilapidated beach resorts and empty hotels all closed up for the winter. It was like repeatedly driving through out-of-season Morecambe, continuously, for two hours. And, just to make it even more unbearable, the roads felt like the tarmac had been applied by some sort of angry primate, using a fork, while having an epileptic fit.

 Surely this couldn’t be right. We needed something beautiful to look at, so we headed inland to Urbino, a hilltop town we’d never even heard of until a couple we met told us that it was a bit of a stunner. They weren’t wrong. It’s a fairly small town but within its walls is a treasure trove of impressive buildings, pretty piazzas and Renaissance art. It was a welcome respite from the horr…