“The Transfăgărășan was nothing compared to this!”
Mark was referring to the day we joined the Mile High Club. With Caravan Kismet in tow, you understand. We crossed the Carpathian mountains in Romania on one of the world’s most dangerous roads. Kismet has conquered a number of mountain passes (see the Dangerous Roads section of my blog) but none compared to the Gorges du Verdon, which caught us entirely by surprise. “We drive past the gorge,” Mark informed me. If only that had been so…
When we looked it up later, the Gorges du Verdon appears on the website Dangerous Roads. I am fairly sure that whoever described the drive as ‘not for the faint hearted,’ probably didn’t mean with a 7m (20ft) caravan in tow!
We hadn’t given a second thought to the road that led to our destination; our plan was simply to see the Gorges. Who would not be wooed by ‘Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon’? (A title also appropriated by the nearby Ardèche, a little less deservingly, since Verdon is the second largest canyon IN THE WORLD!)
It was either that, or following the hairpin-related tribulations on our first day back on the road, Mark had secretly decided to get back on the horse that bit him…
We had been worried about getting Kismet out of the campsite at Paesana. It was so tight that to manoeuvre in, we had been forced to use the pitch opposite. Since our arrival, every space around us had become fully occupied. Luckily, our neighbour departed about 5am, giving us one speculative route out; provided that we could swing Kismet around without catching her bum on the hedge at the back and her towing gear on the electricity bollard at the front.
Getting others to help is always a route fraught with problems. In sticky situations, everyone develops their own slightly different vision of a solution. Even if you explicitly tell them your plan, you will usually find that they know best. Not only that, moving a large vehicle such as a caravan is seen as a macho show of strength, so people (men) tend not to understand that you have to watch the back and the front and the top, all at the same time. They invariably launch gung ho straight into pushing as hard as they can with scant regard to anything approaching ‘softly-softly’. This was the very means by which we lost quite a few removable bits of Kismet’s rear end in Romania.
So, with fingers crossed, what we hoped were crystal clear instructions delivered in a mixture of Italian and English to the wife of the muscle co-opted from the pitch opposite, we swivelled Kismet forty-five degrees, hitched and drove off without even the hint of a problem!
Although it was eighty miles further, but only fifteen minutes longer than the scenic route through the mountains, we opted to take the autostrada. It followed the Côte d’Azur, which we thought would be a nice drive, and rather gentler on our van, Big Blue’s clutch.
Our coast-bound vistas were invaded by a plethora of quaint, terracotta-coloured hill villages guarded by tough, unyielding castles. The town of Mondovi spilled down a typical, rounded, Piedmontese mount, like a toffee-coloured topping on a green, Christmas pudding. Niella Tanaro was surrounded by hill towns. Liguria shared the undulating, verdant landscapes of Piedmont and judging by the castles, the same troubled past.
Then, we saw the sea! At Imperia, that most Azure of Côtes was decidedly Mediterranean blue as we joined the Autostrada dei Fiori – the Motorway of the Flowers. The pink or white blooming oleander bushes planted along its length were a much more pleasant variation on ragwort. Instead of exhaust fumes, sweet, jasmine fragrances streamed through Big Blue’s windows, open wide in an attempt to keep our cool. Her air conditioning was defeated by the twenty-seven degrees of heat reflected off the concrete carriageway.
We crossed the border with France and flew past Nice and Monte Carlo to turn north through Cannes. There was not a leaf out of place in the regimented boulevards of palm trees, and the ostentatious villas in the hills above each boasted standard-isue cypress trees.
The obscene wealth and ‘F-You’ attitude of the place was summed up when an expensive, Monaco-registered gangster-mobile with blacked-out windows cut straight across our nose into a line of traffic, after slewing dangerously up our inside on a slip road. He left us nowhere to go. Although far too busy and far too important to deliver it in person, the middle finger flashed in our direction was implied.
Our original plan had been to visit some pretty villages in the mountains above Nice, but we decided to push on. Brash, busy and brimming with their own self-importance, not one of these ill-mannered, modern-day coastal Gomorrahs was our kind of town. Money can’t buy you class; in fact, it frequently buys the opposite.
The narrow hairpins of the D6085 wound a treacherous route away from the crassness on the coast into the magnificent, layered, limestone mountains above Cannes and Grasse. Judging by the number of motorbikes and classic, open-topped cars, the route must have been a designated ‘scenic drive’. There was some mention of Napoléon on a sign, so I clearly had something to look up.
“He probably crossed through here with his elephants!” I smirked. Mark gave me a withering, sidelong glance.
(It is actually the Route Napoléon, which follows the marching route of Napoléon and his troops in 1815. After escaping exile on the Isle of Elba, Boney landed on the Côte d’Azure with his troops and set off to conquer Paris and overthrow Louis XVIII. He succeeded, and his subsequent ‘Hundred Day Campaign’ went swimmingly, until Waterloo… In one single day, French domination of Europe ended and Napoléon was exiled to St Helena, where he ended his days.
Route Napoléon from Cannes to Grenoble is dubbed ‘one of the best drives in France’ and also features on the website Dangerous Roads!) Click this link for the official Route Napoléon website.)
Near Escragnolles, we stopped for fuel. It was the only thing to do there, because sadly, their donkey festival had been cancelled. A little further, we joined a Route de l’Histoire et des Legendes. (Click this link for a 20-page PDF guide in French to the Route de l’Histoire et des Légendes)
We hadn’t booked a campsite, since few seemed to have websites, but we had one in mind, whose friendly owner had earned good reviews. There were dozens of sites in the area, so we were confident that we would have no problem.
“We go past the Gorges,” Mark told me as we started driving along a narrow road that ran alongside a river. At Rougon, we came upon a Municipal campsite by the water that looked nice and pulled hastily into a layby for a quick discussion.
“We’re only eight miles from our proposed destination,” Mark said.
“Ah well, we might as well go on. We know that’s here, so we can easily come back,” I said. Famous last words!
The next eight miles were the most challenging of our caravanning career!
We had hairpins, overhangs and sheer drops that could be measured in miles (0.4 to be precise – or O.7km), with no safety barriers to speak of. Parts of the route were wide enough for only one vehicle and these often cropped up around blind corners. On a sunny Sunday, you could add to the mix crowds of motorcyclists with a death wish, huge, A-class motorhomes taking advantage of their excellent, all-round visibility to admire the view, rather than watching the road – and a British caravan causing chaos. Jeremy Clarkson would have been proud.
I fear for the observational skills of the average driver, since we hardly travel incognito. A bright blue van, two metres high, with surfboards on our roof, towing a seven-metre caravan. I always enjoy taking note of the point at which oncoming drivers spot us and slam on their brakes. Often, it’s just a matter of a few yards. Even on a road that urged caution with every bend and unguarded, sheer drop, people hared recklessly around corners and tried to squeeze past us. We had at least three occasions where this caused gridlock. Rather than wait a second to let us clear a bend, the oncoming cars chased each other nose-to-tail until nobody could move.
Curiously, etiquette seems to suggest that the responsibility for reversing on a narrow, mountain road falls squarely upon a twelve-metre van and caravan combo, rather than a tiddly Renault 4.
Formula One racing driver, Sir Stirling Moss, famously said, “It is necessary to relax your muscles when you can. Relaxing your brain is fatal.”
The Gorges du Verdon is no place to relax your brain.
Driver stupidity was the very reason that we failed to make it around the final junction en-route to our destination. As we positioned ourselves for a left turn, the rear of Caravan Kismet stretched back far enough to cork up the narrow village road in La Palud-sur-Verdon. Nevertheless, with a spectacular lack of foresight and anticipation, a long snake of cars mindlessly followed each other until, bumper to bumper, about twenty cars blocked the road onto which it was obvious that we needed to turn. It would have taken a moment for one of them to stop and let us go on our way, no reversing necessary had there been a timely response, but impatience and lack of awareness denied us our route, so we couldn’t unblock theirs.
Fortunately, when it comes to U-turns, Mark is as matter-of-fact as Boris Johnson’s Conservative government. Let’s call this one Herd Immunity And If Your Granny Dies You Will Just Have To Take It On The Chin. The unobservant, bovine drivers sitting in a line left us with no choice but to abandon our desired route (Herd Immunity) and continue straight on (with Lockdown and Social Distancing That Already Had A Proven Record of Success Throughout The Rest Of The World) to find somewhere to turn our twelve-metre length around.
It was such a shame that, despite these caravan-dressage heroics, our proposed campsite turned out to be a scorched field, so in the spirit of The Johnson, we executed another volte face. We can call this one Much Stricter Quarantine For Travellers From Places Abroad Which Mostly Have Lower Infection Rates Than Britain. And Bugger Social Distancing (did you see the photos of 500,000 people on our home beach, Bournemouth, at the weekend?!)
We had spotted a shady Municipal campsite just before the village of La Palud-sur-Verdon and that is how we ended up in Camping Municipal Le Grand Canyon. There, for good measure, we did another U-turn on our policy of having a few days off the booze. We had a glass of wine and called it Dominic Cummings Breaking Quarantine Rules By Driving Himself And His Wife to Durham While Both Showing Coronavirus Symptoms. Then Having A Day Out In The Car To Test His Eyesight.
But we wanted to celebrate arriving unscathed, and if it’s OK for Dominic, it’s OK for us.