My day kicked off with four ten-second bursts of freezing cold water, full in the face.
The shower cubicle was so small that it was impossible to stand to the side to get out of the way of the icy jet. So small that I had been unable to close the door once I hung my wash bag on one of the hooks inside!
Campsite showers are a bit of a law unto themselves. Although we have a lovely shower in the caravan, we rarely use it. The tank supplies only eight litres of hot water, all of which we have to collect and carry ourselves – and then empty the waste. It’s a bit of a faff, although that is not the main reason why the shower stands idle. The principal deterrent is that, whatever precautions you take, the water is guaranteed to run out the second that you are fully lathered in soap. At this point, your partner is inexplicably likely to be unavailable to refill the Aquaroll. As such, we generally tolerate the many quirks and peculiarities of the on site facilities.
Sometimes, you can be lucky and get a luxurious wet room, with a proper shower mixer and a never ending supply of hot water. Sometimes you get a pathetic trickle from a scaled and rusting shower head that you have to hold in your hand.
Some showers can inflict GBH. A common foible is having the hot and cold reversed, meaning that you suffer cold water shock or third degree burns when you try to adjust the temperature. One campsite shower almost gave me a black eye when a heavy metal chain that had to be pulled to release the water came adrift and clobbered me around the head! And then there is the scourge of the timed lights or motion sensors; these are affirmed to plunge you into pitch blackness the moment you are naked, wet and fully foamed.
At Chambod, I had to press a button repeatedly to self-inflict the ten second blasts from the water canon. It was cunningly built into the wall at head height and directly opposite the cubicle door. Ten seconds of water is a bit miserly in a shower, although I suppose it meant that each freezing face-full was mercifully short.
Fortunately, after only four, the water warmed up and I could step under the shower – with one buttock pressed delicately against the button to keep the water flowing continuously. Taking care, of course, not to inadvertently brand myself on the scalding hot pipes.
We had driven from our little piece of Paradise Found on the Auvergne to Camping de l’Ile Chambod on the River Ain. The Ain was gorgeous; deep turquoise and green. It was just such a shame that there seemed to be no access to the water, otherwise we might have stayed more than one night!
Every part of the river frontage was private. I accidentally trespassed when I took the dogs out. I walked through an inviting opening into what looked like a park, with benches sitting invitingly under trees, right on the river bank. It was 33°C, so the pups had a lovely, cooling swim but when I turned around, I panicked. We were imprisoned behind a sturdy, security gate! It was actually a private club. I acted nonchalantly, while rapidly weighing up my options. Then I spotted someone sliding the gate to one side to let out a car. The pups and I made a swift dash and slyly slipstreamed our way out!
There was a bridge over to the Ile Chambod, through a turnstile with a charge of €3 per person. I can’t tell you if the island itself yielded any river access; dogs were not allowed!
So once again, we moved on. We got up-and-at-’em and were all packed and ready to go by, oooh, 11am… Then; “Where is the Mont Blanc Tunnel Pass?”
We had to more or less empty the whole van to find it in its ‘safe’ place. “It’s a good job I’m not an angry man!” observed Mark as he repacked all our worldly goods, albeit he was the mastermind behind the mysterious location of the ‘safe’ place!
The drive was gorgeous. Another for the list of places to which we will have to return! We rose up through the Bugey Valley, with her limestone escarpments and vineyards. We wound through pretty villages – and saw the flyover that usually speeds us through to the Alps on the Autoroute Blanche.
We had decided to do a functional trip and just get ourselves to Italy, so we opted to use some toll roads. This went well for a short while, until we saw that there was a traffic jam coming up. We don’t do traffic, so we nipped off at Bellegard.
The Sat Nav is great, but it can’t legislate for roadworks! The centre of Bellegard had a diversion in place, because the main street resembled a major archaeological dig. Some of the turns that we negotiated on the diversion with our 40ft caravan combo were nothing short of miraculous. There were narrow streets; high kerbs; barriers; we even went through a car park and a housing estate before we got back on track.
We continued through the stunning hills of the Haut Jura National Park, with the cokey smell of Big Blue’s straining clutch accompanying the climbs. We had a near miss with a buzzard. It nearly flew into Big Blue. We decided that if we had winged it, we would have kept it as a pet. I have always wanted a raptor, especially since the book and film ‘Kes’. (My hawk of choice would be a handsome, white Gyrfalcon, however.)
We dropped into Geneva where a congestion miscalculation became very evident. Although we passed CERN, which made my day, we soon hit a monstrous traffic jam in the city. We decided to hop back on to the autoroute, which we duly did, noticing too late the sign on the slip road saying ‘Vignette Obligotaire’
“We need to buy a vignette!!!” I said urgently to Mark, not that there was much that we could do about it at that point. We were already in free fall down the rabbit hole and heading inexorably towards another fine. The only difference was that this time, our transgression had taken place in one of the most notoriously expensive countries in Europe!
We made a bolt for sanctuary in France, sick with the anticipation that at any moment we would be relieved of a month’s living allowance for using 3-miles of Swiss freeway. I thought that our number was up when we hit a Customs station at the Swiss / French border, populated by heavily armed and uniformed guards. However, we were simply waved through and crossed back on to French soil with a full wallet and a sense of deliverance. With our history of budgetary Armageddon, I can’t tell you the relief!
We crossed through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur and decided once again to take the scenic route. Although we have passed this way often, we have never really seen the Aosta Valley and it is so beautiful! We usually hurtle through via a system of tunnels. We had been planning to camp near Aosta itself, but due to a slight error of scale, it turned out that the campsite we had chosen was one hour’s drive up a side valley in the Gran Paradiso National Park!
The drive there was amazing; both from the point of view of the scenery and the hairy-pins that we had to negotiate en route! There were times when I could look directly down and see the previous bit of road directly below us. We climbed up hairpins and dropped down to Introd on some more, before joining a third series that wound like intestines back up Val Savarenche to deposit us at Campsite Gran Paradiso at 1820m!
The area around the campsite was stunningly beautiful; we had a 100ft waterfall behind our caravan and would be lulled to sleep by the sound of its cascading waters and the rushing river in the bottom of the valley. The mountain air was refreshingly cool; it felt like the smooth caress of a newly starched and pressed pillowcase against my cheek. After 33°C yesterday and temperatures in the 30°s seemingly for as long as I could remember, I greedily inhaled great lungfuls.
However, there is always a fly in the ointment. Excited about exploring the National Park, we discovered that dogs are not allowed off lead anywhere in The Gran Paradiso and there were only four walks nearby where dogs were even permitted – and then they had to be kept on the lead! (Click here for a map showing where dogs are permitted in the Gran Paradiso.)
In the evening, a further variety of insects appeared to sully our balm. The campsite was mosquito city, so despite the challenging drive, we decided very quickly to move on again the following day.
The atmosphere in the campsite wasn’t friendly. It reminded us of our stay in Sixt; it was full of hoary, beardy, mountain types who have no truck with people. Particularly those avoiding the mosquitoes and character-forging hardships of proper mountain life by staying in a namby pamby caravan. Even though it had been a considerable effort to get such a large and sissy caravan this far up a mountain!
Franco, the owner, was lovely, even when we fused all the electrics by switching on our water heater. We told him that it couldn’t possibly have fused the electrics because we had it on the lowest setting; 1KW. He nearly fainted! “1KW?!!!! No WONDER it fused! Why do you need a water heater anyway?!” he asked. “There is free hot water in the building!”
Franco had climbed Aconcagua among many other incredible peaks, including Mont Blanc. Maybe underneath it all, he had no truck with softies in a caravan either!
However, I don’t think that attitude was the real reason for the lack of caravans on site. I am not sure that we did boldly go where NO van has gone before, but I doubt that there are many who have made it. Certainly if they have any sense…
I would definitely think twice about towing up the SR23 again!
Join us next time as we experience a surprising shave with Italian Bureaucracy!
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