Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Summer Family Road Trip Through France: From Cambridge to Corsica

As usual, we planned this summer's road trip holiday around a naturally beautiful, beachy destination; this time, Corsica. Beaches, mountain walks, and eating local food were the main items on the agenda. It worked out cheaper to take our Corsica ferries to and from different cities, so we got a nice varied road trip with a totally different route home.

We mainly travelled for around 3 hours a day on the journey to and from Corsica. We broke it down each day, stopping for lunch and walks (and shopping) in appealing places.  

Klowski and I started with a pleasant little day in Cambridge whilst Richard finished work, then we left from there for Dover. This set the tone for the rest of the trip, not least Klowski's thoughts about where we were at various points ('Cambridge' for at least 80% of the time apparently).

Rouen & Le Mans

On the way to Le Mans, we stopped in Rouen to eat quiche on the steps outside the magnificent cathedral, and I bored Richard with some high street jewellery shops.

Although cars are more Richard's thing than mine, at Le Mans racing museum I was impressed with the sheer amount of historic cars and vehicles displayed, including an early 1900s fire engine. Another highlight was Klowski running from car to car with random excited outbursts: 'let's see the next one daddy! Look! Blue! Green! Big wheels!'


This next stop was no exception to the heatwave sweeping most of France. It was around 38-40 degrees for the two days of our stop. We kept to our plans but moved a lot slower!

I had previously put my French-learning efforts to searching (en francais) for a wine-tasting lunch in Bordeaux, hoping to find something off the tourist trail (at least for us Brits). The chateau lunch I'd booked was at Blaye - 45 minutes North of Bordeaux again, argh! But the whole experience at Chateau Marquis de Vauban was worth it. We ate our 3 courses al fresco and tasted 4 wines along with each course and cheese, accompanied with explanations by the staff. We even made some new friends and got a special mention at the end for being the only Brits and listening in French. (English visits are possible but stubborn as always; I insist on learning the hard way).

Before leaving Bordeaux I came across the Miroir d'eau on my pointless morning internet searches from bed. I couldn't believe we'd nearly missed seeing the biggest reflecting pool in the world! After enjoying the Ibis breakfast buffet we headed over the ornate Pont de Pierre bridge, straight for Place de la Bourse. It was huge, so unusual, and a lot of fun for the little one; despite a fall when she was running with daddy, including some free tears, and a bonus sore shoulder. 


We stopped at a pretty and unassuming little town called Agen for a another quiche and a baguette in the sun. I saw two patterned scarves in Gallerie Lafayette that I didn't need, so I bought them and we got back on the road.

Perpignan instantly hit me as a colourful, well-kept and buzzing city with real character. The Catalan accent, language, food and buildings contrasted with the ones we had left behind in Bordeaux. I loved the impressive 13th century Mallorcan palace of kings, and the beautifully colourful and flowery canal, on which we rented a little electric water boat before lunch.


The storm clouds were setting in. Despite this, over the next couple of days we enjoyed some good indoor shopping and eating at the newly regenerated docks area of Marseille, and a mooch around the historic Vieux Port harbour. Klowski enjoyed the boats, then we spent a considerable amount of time choosing some soapy Marseille gifts in a little boutique while the rain passed.


My favourite bit about taking the night ferry from Marseille to Corsica was the pesto vegetarian lasagne I had for dinner. Unfortunately it went downhill from there. Our cabin was lovely and comfortable until we actually set off and the engines rattled the ceiling all night. Waking up feeling like we had just gone to bed after a heavy night, our spirits were lifted slightly when the little one woke in a favourable mood. At least one of us was fresh and well-rested.

In Corsica, when we weren't in restaurants, I lived in my swimming costume for our four days there. The shallow crystal waters of the beaches to the West of Ajaccio were perfect for our little cub, and the rock-pool 'vasques' in the mountains near Bavella provided a break from the heat. After a swim and a climb up to the higher reaches of these falls - where we had the place to ourselves - Klowski begged me to take her on the natural waterslides shooting down through the streams at the busier part below. There were lots of children giving it a go so I gave in and took the plunge (Richard had barely put his ankles in, so it was no use asking him). She had the best time, and so did I, despite a wet bottom half after previously having dried nicely in the sun.

Ajaccio is a bustling little city with a great market in the main square selling an abundance of tempting local produce, which we had for lunch one day on a bench in the square, in the shade of a palm. The traditional local charcuterie is not to be missed, and other Mediterranean delights such as olives and tapenade. 

We stayed at the stylish, clean and friendly Hotel Napoleon in the city centre and enjoyed the 20 minute evening 'promenade' to and from the restaurants along beach each night. The hotel was also a great choice particularly due to mine and Richard's breakfast enthusiasm (12 euros each but the choice and freshness was totally worth it).

Pisa & Varenna on Lake Como

Our ferry back from Bastia in Corsica was to Livorno in Italy. We promised the little one we would take her to see the leaning tower of Pisa, and we were so late for our next hotel booking. After considerable faffing, we realised we weren't going to just land in the right place, so we Google-mapped it, dumped the car, and carried on on-foot, carrying the little monkey in the evening heat. We had ten minutes spare so quite literally we had a gawp, took some photos, and got back in the car to carry on the journey, but she did love it.

Our stop for the night was lovely hotel 'La Trigola' up in the hills of Liguria (another hotel choice based on dinner and breakfast reviews). Our very late arrival made for some severely rumbly tummies. With a missing phone charger, much kerfuffle, and lots of bickering, we made our way to the restaurant which was - by the grace of God - still open. Ordering food and waiting for it was fraught with tension. Klowski demanded various toys and whinged her way through complaints for every letter of the alphabet, and Richard and I were tired and irritable. The food-wait continued... Some salty olive-oil soaked crispy bread arrived at our table unexpectedly, and relations improved slightly. Then our food arrived and my meat grill was the crispiest, most tender and juicy meal, all at once. All was forgiven. 

Halfway to Milan on the Sunday, we realised it was the 'Assumption of Mary', so my planned stop at favourite jewellery shop Michal Negrin was foiled. However, carrying on towards Switzerland, our next stop more than made up for the disappointment. The old town of Varenna clung to the steep hills and reflected majestically in the lake. It was busy, but uncommercialized. We hunted around for a pizza restaurant with a view and stopped for an ice-cream and a mooch by the lake, then poked around the tasteful gift shops selling handmade and local goods. We enjoyed the peace of the botanical gardens at Villa Monastero hotel before continuing our journey.

Valganna & Lavertezza: Italian & Swiss Alps

With empty tummies again, we arrived at our sweet little B&B 'Ca Pelitti' in Valganna; a small village in the mountains just before the Swiss border. The Assumption of Mary meant most restaurants were closed, and the few open ones were rammed. The alternative soon made itself apparent; as the kind owner showed us to our room, loud and happy music wafted up from the valley below. He told us there would be 'food and dancing, and whatever you want' at the village festival, so we didn't hesitate. It was difficult to choose our favourite bits of that night, but Klowski eating calamari and barely keeping her feet still for a split second on the dancefloor were up there, as was the simple but insanely tasty and cheap seafood, risotto and sausage. 

The next morning we headed to Lavertezzo in Ticino (Italian Switzerland). I found this beautiful place by Googling Ticino but I was not prepared for how perfect it was! Just seeing the traditional Swiss stone houses and the intensely teal-blue water, I was desperate to get out of the car and met the full car park situation with an entourage of whingeing (yes me, not our little cub). 

Once out of the car, we took our yummy picnic down to the crystal waters and warm rocks of the Verzasca river. (traditional Swiss sausage, and a cheesy pickle and sausage salad disturbingly called 'worst kase'). It was busy on the river but there was plenty of space for everyone and despite the occasional embarrassing Instagram poser (seriously what is the point), we were largely undisturbed. The hardcore Swiss attitude could clearly be seen; the young men jumping from the stone bridge into the blue depths below was a sight to see, and met with cheers and clapping from the surrounding sun-baskers. 


Crossing the Swiss border briefly into Germany I couldn't help but feel sad speeding away from the alps. The trip wasn't over yet though, and in addition to the best Chinese restaurant in the world that night, I had found a great 13th century castle ruin (Rotteln) to see the next day (after a yummy buffet breakfast again of course). The views from the top tower were just stunning and the castle felt way off the main tourist trail.   

For the last few days of the trip we stopped at beautiful Strasbourg for lunch and a spot of shopping, then Metz for a delicious pizza and a bed for the night, and Namur (more shopping and food). It seemed months ago that we had set off for Bordeaux and I knew from that feeling that we had seen and done a great amount in 16 days. Begrudgingly, I was ready to get home and prepared myself for a bump back to reality, including a distinct lack of breakfast item choices. Although my Mum had kindly put milk in the fridge, which was a start.