Our four nights in Cassis passed by all too quickly. Although we lost the bright sunshine after the first couple of days, the temperature was still mild enough for swimmers to bathe in the blue Mediterranean waters. One of the natural features that this region is most well known for is the succession of Calanques along the coastline. These are a bit like a French version of a fjord, with sheltered inlets surrounded by towering rocky cliffs. Many of these calanques have been utilised to make safe, sheltered marinas for pleasure craft.
Maggie and I thought it would be a good idea to walk from our accommodation in the centre of town to the Calanques. We should have remembered that nothing can be achieved in Cassis without walking up and down an endless succession of steep hills. After staggering up the first few climbs we were already hot and tired – and we hadn’t even left the town. I reminded Maggie that we could have driven to the parking section and just walked to the Calanques themselves, but she had thought it would be good for us to walk the entire way. It was a dumb idea.
After walking around the first calanque and taking a few pictures we deduced that, if you have seen one calanque, you have probably seen them all. It seemed like a fine idea to head back to the town, unfortunately somewhere on the way back we took a wrong turn and ended up executing a complete (and completely unnecessary) loop around the town. I was reminded of the Grand Old Duke of York as we noticed the same houses pass on by the second time around. Finally we found our way back to familiar territory and sat down at the water’s edge to watch the boats gently rocking back and forth in their moorings.
The following morning it was time to pack our car and find our way out of Cassis. When we visited this town for the first time in 2013, we never thought it would be possible for us to return, however two years later we had been able to enjoy it all over again. As we drove out along the nearby tollway we both knew that, this time, it would be most unlikely for us to be able to return for a third visit.
The weather had undergone a distinct change and the clear sunny skies had been replaced with low dark clouds and very limited visibility. We settled down for another long and fast drive on a succession of tollways. Although the payment systems on these roads is always a little hit and miss, we had learnt that it is safest to always carry a huge stockpile of coins. Although they are supposed to accept credit cards, for some obscure reason, the machines often reject the cards you insert. When you have a line of impatient waiting cars behind you, it is NOT the best time to try to work out what is going on.
As we left the Mediterranean coast and headed north toward the Alps, the temperature steadily dropped. I reminded Maggie that I had advised her to bring some cold weather clothes on this trip. Although she had ridiculed me about this virtually every day up to now, I knew that sooner or later they would prove welcome.
The first section of the drive took us back over the same section of road we had driven a few days earlier, but fortunately this time we were able to skirt by Avignon and continue on the tollway. Our destination for the day was the famous small town of Pont En Royans. The main feature of this town is that it is perched precariously on sheer cliffsides above the Bourne and Vernaison Rivers. The so called suspended buildings really are quite mesmerising, although I couldn’t help but feel a little vertigo as I stood precariously close to the raging waters in the river. The water was so clear that the bottom was clearly visible. Certainly anyone who had the misfortune to slip into the water would have little chance at survival.
Since we were still dressed for the much warmer climes of Cassis, it didn’t take long for us to feel frozen. As we walked along the narrow walking track along the river we came across a very welcoming sight. It was the local library and one step inside its warm interior convinced us that this would be a lovely way to spend the next 30 minutes or so. We both picked a book and sat down to read. For me this meant utilising my rusty high school language skills, and mostly looking at the pictures. It was a thoroughly relaxing and very enjoyable way to pass the afternoon.
A short time later we were at our accommodation at the Mas Du Servant B & B. The room was lovely, the surroundings were as peaceful and quiet as you could find anywhere and the proprietors were fantastic hosts. The only problem was that they did not speak a single word of English between them. The entire conversation had to be conducted in French. Somehow we did manage to communicate, and I was even able to show them our web site and tell them about our recent bike ride to Le Croisic. In the morning we were fed a lovely breakfast and we each bade a fond Au Revoir to our hosts.
The next day was to be the longest driving distance of our entire trip and a large section of the drive would take us through Switzerland. Along the way we would also pass through a succession of long and impressive tunnels cut through the towering mountains. The names of the places certainly were familiar, and I am sure that the views would have been amazing – if we could have seen anything. Unfortunately the visibility was still almost non existent as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. It felt like we were standing in the middle of the smoking room at Singapore Airport.
We stopped for lunch at the beautiful town of Annecy, famous for its canals running through the centre of town. It certainly was a photographer’s dream and the lovely Plat du Jour (Plate of the day) that we enjoyed in one of the small cafes was delicious. The only somewhat sour note to this place was a miserable looking homeless woman who was busy eating scraps from the cast off piles of rubbish. I could not but help but wonder at what sequence of events could bring anyone to such a dreadful state.
In the final hour or so of the long drive we climbed relentlessly higher and higher into the mountains. I stopped to check my GPS at it told me that our elevation was already well over 1000 metres. The temperature gauge on the dashboard was also flashing a warning that we were in danger of ice on the roads. I suppose we did not need any reminder that it was really cold, the steady fall of snow drifting down from above was enough to remind us that Cassis was now just a distant memory.
We briefly stopped at a market to buy some food for the night and, when we got back to the car, we both had a layer of snowflakes on our shoulders. Across the road some council workers were already erecting the Christmas decorations in the main street. Christmas decorations ? Where had summer and autumn gone ? A lot can certainly change in a couple of days.
Befitting the alpine nature of the area, our accommodation was in a lovely mountain chalet, complete with roaring log fire and natural pine walls and ceilings. Judging by the numbers of doonas and blankets they had loaded onto the bed, they must have been expecting another ice age. There was no way that I could ever had slept under all that weight and immediately throw the vast majority onto the floor, and then opened the large window. Living in the Dandenong Ranges for the past 30 years had obviously prepared us for all conditions.
The next morning we began by following the beautiful La Doubs River for around 30 km. This river skirts along the border between France and Switzerland and we were so glad that we had listened to our host’s advice to take this route. Although it was not our original plan, it rewarded us with some of the prettiest scenery we had seen so far. Although the weather was still overcast, at least the rain had stopped and we even had a few patches of blue sky overhead.
The colours of the autumn trees now ranged from yellow all the way through to dark red. We had seen a progression in these shades in the past couple of weeks and we also noticed that many of the trees were now well along in the process of shedding their leaves for the coming winter.
The road steadily dropped altitude, at times quite quickly. I could not help but think how hard it would be to ride a bike up these roads. The drop in altitude also raised the outside temperature to a relative balmy 5C !
We have now entered the Alsace Region of Eastern France. This region has been hotly contested for centuries and has, at various times, been part of France and Germany. The names on the towns all bear clear evidence of the divided character of this region. The capital of this region is the nearby town of Strasbourg. It is this town that has been a favourite subject for trivia quizzes for many years. When asked the question “In which country is Strasbourg, it is not surprising that most would answer (incorrectly) that it is in Germany. The correct answer is France.
Our home for the next three nights is another B & B in Colmar. When we pulled into the final street Maggie saw an obscure sign and insisted that it was the place we were booked into. We spent some time trying to break into the place, before I noticed that the house number was NOT the same as the place we were looking for. In fact the correct place was several hundred metres further along the road.
We are now looking forward to spending a couple of quieter days enjoying the local region.