Jan 22nd
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On the road about France

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On the road about France
Page 2
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Jaunts around Europe
. . . exploring France

    In 1971, I traveled from Britain to the Continent for the first time, with my parents in a Comma Autosleeper. We drove from northwest Kent to Dover and boarded the ferry for the laborious trip across the English Channel. The actual ferry ride took an only 3 or 4 hours but it felt like 9 or 10 hours to me and my seasick stomach.
    In 1972, we took the hovercraft across the Channel. This more comfortable water transport took only 45 minutes, but it involved a lengthy check-in process, and still a significant amount of stomach churning.
    In 2002, these two crossing options are still available, but now there is a third option, the Eurotunnel train. Andrew and I and our two youngsters traveled on the train to France in mid-August at a cost of £175.75, and we will never look back. The tunnel begins in Folkstone, just a two-hour drive from our Sonning home west of London, the check-in process is quick and painless, and the actual train ride takes just 35 minutes. And, no seasickness.

On the Road in France

    We arrived mid-afternoon in Calais and started on a clockwise route via the northeast, to the Rhone Valley town of Montelimar, just north of Provence. When we originally planned the holiday, we decided to take two days to reach Montelimar, so that our sons Morgan (7) and Duncan (4) wouldn’t have too long a journey on either day. We booked two interlinking rooms at the Marmotte Hotel in Langres, north of Dijon. The Marmotte chain (www.mar has hotels across France at reasonable prices. For just 52 Euros (around $52), we had an interconnected double and single, each with a bathroom and television and just enough room to swing a cat. Great value if you’re on the move.
    After surviving one of France’s infamous August weekend bouchons – traffic jams that stretch for multiple kilometers – we arrived in Montelimar, where we would be based for a week with friends. Of the little information I had read about Montelimar, I had learned that it is the home of nougat, and is located in a so-called non-scenic stretch of countryside running alongside the highway that carries traffic to the south of France. I was pleasantly surprised to find Montelimar a pretty town with unique character. Situated on the Rhone River, just north of Provence, it has something of an identity crisis. The town’s architecture crosses over from northeastern French grayness to the pastels of the Mediterranean, but it has a light feel to it and is quite welcoming. Montlimar is far enough off the tourist track, thanks to its exclusion from most guide books, to require that its visitors speak passable French, but the locals are friendly and accommodating and they appreciate all efforts to speak their language.

Day Trips from Montelimar

    On our first day we went for a long walk in the woods around the nearby village of Puygiron, where it is also possible to play games like boules or petanque while sipping a glass of pastis or Coca at the local bar. We loved this aspect of French life and were captivated by both the game and the players – serious-looking, mostly working-class men, usually smoking quietly and pondering their next move.
    Our next outing was a trip to the south coast. We avoided the tourist traps of the Cote d’Azur and instead drove to the western end of the Petit Camargue, close to the Florida-like seaside resort of Montpellier. The beach is flat and when the tide is out, you almost need hiking boots to reach the ocean. The tide was in, however, and the water was a comfortable depth for Duncan and Morgan who can both swim but are inexperienced at ocean swimming.
    The beach itself was surprisingly uncrowded, but still featured the typical Cote d’Azur food vendors. My favorite was a dreadlocked  Noah look-a-like selling delicious chocolate, apricot, and apple pastries known as baigniers.
    Our next visit was to the Ferme aux Crocodiles (www.lafermeaux located next to the nuclear power station at Pierrelatte, a few miles south of Montelimar. Our friend David, who is a nuclear physicist at the Pierrelatte plant, told us that the farm had originally been created by a group of entrepreneurs who intended to breed African crocodiles for their skins, using the 85C degree cooling water from the power plant to keep the farm at the appropriate temperatures. The place attracted so many visitors interested in seeing the crocodiles and their breeding process that the entrepreneurs decided it would be more profitable – and more ecologically sound – to run it as a tourist attraction. For a Euros 25.40 family ticket, you can view hundreds of crocodiles in what is essentially a giant greenhouse, with a gift shop and an air-conditioned restaurant. Don’t expect to find any crocodile skin products in the shop, however, there are plenty of fun croc-related goodies. The kids had great fun here.
    Just east of the Rhone River and heading towards the Alps, the terrain becomes more hilly, and hill towns more evident, leading eventually to the area’s famed perched villages. We visited the picturesque hill town of Grignan, which is topped by a magnificent chateau that features outdoor son et lumiere theatre productions during the summer (Tel. 04.75. 91.83.55). For Euros 2 per person we toured the outside of the chateau, and then raced back down the hill to our car.

The Ardeche

    One disappointment was a trip to Aerocity, a popular amusement park built some years ago in the dry, mountainous Ardeche region west of the Rhone Valley. After an hour-long wait in the hot August sun, we found that the mountaintop park would not accept foreign credit cards, and we had to pay Euros 22 in cash to get in. We found the park, in a word, tired. The water rides were overcrowded and not very original, and the other rides were somewhat rundown as well.
    My suggestion is to stick to the Ardeche’s natural attractions. The Gorges de l’Ardeche is breathtaking and you can either see it from the road or rent a canoe or kayak by the hour or day and experience it at a more adventurous level.
    The Ardeche is also known for its numerous caves and its remarkable display of fossils and cave paintings. Of the many caves open to the public, we chose the Aven de Marzal (Tel., which proved to be delightfully down-market. For an entrance fee of Euros 31.50 for the family, we descended 210 meters down a steep circular wooden staircase into a series of caverns that feature intriguing stalactites, stalagmites, bones, and skeletons. Take sweaters down into the cave because the temperature drops as you descend.
    Near the Aven is the Prehistoric Zoo, a selection of huge dinosaur statues located in a woodland setting. It is fun and informative, with an information sheet available in quaint English, and the entrance is included in the entrance fee to the Aven.


Where was Solomon born?

This is Solomon, a new born Humpback whale. He provided hours of entertainment for our group of whale watchers. Where was Solomon born? Click here to find out.

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