2nd - 8th December
Although we were in a comparatively warm spot on the Cote d'Azure, we made the decision to start heading home. The wind had picked up a lot and heavy rain was forecast for the next few days. With northern Europe under a deluge of snow and ice (most of France was under about a foot of snow) we wanted to get back to Calais swiftly and safely, but after experiencing the wallet-emptying Autoroutes decided to take the slower, more scenic Route Nationale roads up the Rhone valley. From what we had learned from locals the Route National, or "N" roads, should be cleared. However we had also been told that no matter how good the French authorities where at clearing the road, if it came down in a hurry, snow would be a problem, so that meant that I could justify buying snow-chains! We also knew we would have to do a lot of driving and skimp on the sightseeing a bit, but this would leave something to see next time round.
Cannes to Avignon
On the 2nd we left Cannes and headed in leisurely fashion towards Avignon to avoid the Alps as much as possible. This meant taking the coastal road as far as St Raphael, then heading up a slightly mountainous road into the Frejus forset. After this scenic drive with wonderful panoramas of the surrounding white-topped mountains, we stopped at the scenic town of Aix-En-Provence to see the town that gave the world Cezanne. We didn't stop long as we still has a lot of driving to do to get to our scheduled stop at Avignon, which we arrived at after dark. We settled into a carpark in between two rivers as the temperature dropped to minus figures. It was a pretty cold night and we had to make some modifications to the van to ensure we retained more heat for the next night, such as covering over vents and ensuring the side door was fully sealed, which made a huge difference, and made for a more comfortable nights sleep.
The next day we were up and had a lovely walk around Avignon to the food market in the centre of town. There are loads of stalls and it reminded me a bit of Wimborne market except that all the stalls were foody stalls from seafood to spices to cheeses and meats, anything you wanted could be found here. Around the town of Avignon are spectacular defensive walls which make for an amazing backdrop. With the morning mist over the river, the scene was complete.
Avignon to Lyon
Later that day we pushed on towards Lyon, our next scheduled stopover. Not far from Orange, jut north of Avignon, we stopped off at some castle ruins perched high on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Route Nationale and the motorway, La Fortresse de Mornas. We climbed up to the ruins which afforded some superb views of the surrounding countryside.
With a couple of detours we didn't quite make it as far as Lyon before the snow started to come down pretty heavily, but we found a friendly truck stop retaurant who let us stay in their carpark for the coldest night we had experienced. The temperature was down to -6 degrees when we pulled up, so I an only guess what it was in the middle of the night!
Lyon to Dijon
The following day the carpark was frozen solid but again with a good fire we were soon warm and toasty in the van. Having survived our coldest night in relative comfort we again hit the road, where our next target point was the keen town of Dijon. After getting lost in Lyon we were soon speeding north again, with jolly tunes being played over the radio, when we were told of a traffic problem ahead on the A6 motorway. As we were on the parallel "N6" road I felt confident we would miss the problem, only to find that my French listening skills weren't as good as I'd hoped. In the distance we could see lorries and cars speeding by on the A6 as we ground to a halt miles from a junction we could use to access the motorway. Hours later we had barely moved, crawling along at a snails pace which did afford the unexpected advantage of me being able to nip across the road to pick up a delectable cream cake and walk back to where the van was!
Also on the way we came across a christmas market in full swing in a little village. We stopped by and the smell of mulled wine was everywhere. They had lots of lovely home-made crafts and nick-nacks for sale and all the clubs from the village, such as the local martial arts club, were raising money for charity by baking cakes and selling the afore-mentioned mulled wine. there was a lively atmosphere and we almost parked the van there for the night as we both had a hankering for some of the beverages on sale, but decided that we still needed to make up some time we had lost in the jam, so on we went. We ended the day in a rest aire in a little village of Beaune just south of Dijon.
Dijon to Reims
On the 5th we had a good look around Beaune which is another lovely walled town. Here they keep millions of litres of wine ageing below the streets, in the numerous wine cellars of the town. It's a really pretty place and the snow covered roofs added to the festive feel.
Again we pushed on north, this time towards the town of Reims and again we spent pretty much the whole day on the road. Everywhere was a blanket of white from the recent snow, but we had timed our trip so we would miss all the precipitation. We stopped in a little picnic spot which was covered in snow near the Champagne town of Epernay.
Just as Beaune keeps loads of wine under it's streets, Epernay is the spiritual home of Champagne. There is a road called Champagne Avenue where all the big name Champers producers have their bases. It's really big and plush, but unfortunately as we had arrived late in the day we didn't get any tasters. Ahh well...
Reims towards Calais
On the 6th we continued our trip north through the Somme area and passed a large number of war graves of British and Canadian forces. They were out in the middle of nowhere and hundreds of graves at a time, a sombre reminder of the events that took place here.
We ended the day a little more north in a picnic spot which was covered in snow with lovely views of a white countryside, just south of Ardres where our vet appointment was the following day. We awoke to the coldest morning yet, as we were exposed on a hill in the middle of nowhere though (with mysterious mountains of potatoes for company). Outside the temperature was a chilly -6.5 when we woke up and there was ice on the insides of the windows! Brrr! Once the fire had defrosted us we then arrived in the town of Guines, where we found our final campsite. We then got Nailz in to the vet for his check-up (required for the PETS passports scheme to return to the UK) which was no problem at all and the vet in Ardres was very good.
Back at the campsite we joined two other British couples (the only others on the site) for drinks, singing (once we were all well oiled) and some impromptu mouth organ playing. We had a great time, but the next morning I had a very heavy head!