Wild Swimming France – one long aquasmic adventure


Photo: Wild Swim France

Wild Swimming France is full of warnings about health and safety, and how wild swimming must be treated with caution and care. However, what it did not warn me about was the extreme pain I was going to get when reading it, caused by an acute case of resentment that I wasn’t jumping off  the white dolomite rocks of the Mercantour National Park into the turquoise pools beneath, or letting the River Dordogne carry me downstream on my back, as I float under fern adorned rock arches. Or, I admit it, that I wasn’t married to the guy who wrote it.

As I lay in bed leafing through every river, lake and gorge, in a Sunday morning lazy lie in sort of a way, groaning each time I looked at an even more seductive wild swimming location my (equally wonderful of course) husband became rightly curious about the fantasy land the book was taking me into, as he listened on from the kitchen making coffee.  My greatest ‘When Harry met Sally’ moment had to be in The Var, however, where Daniel Start, the author, slides down slot canyons into concealed plunge pools using  waterfalls as modes of transport from one pool to another. This is extreme wild swimming, however, and he rightly advises readers to only attempt this with canyoning experts. The majority of the swimming locations (and there are over four hundred of them) are more accessible, all inland, and mostly in the southern part of France.

Photo: Wild Swim France

The book is a brilliant guide to France too, especially if hiking is your thing, offering  the perfect introduction to the French pastime of ‘aqua-randonnée’ , where you scramble your way along rocks and through water wearing good aqua shoes and a waterproof back pack. Divided into regions, with excellent maps, and more detailed latitude and longitude readings, as well as details on how difficult a walk it is to access the swim point, Wild Swimming France will make you want to explore parts of  France you may never even know existed before. More groans.

Another handy breakdown in the index is the ‘themed’ swimming points, so if you love waterfalls you can check out all of Daniel’s G-ushing spots in one go. Or if freestyling past a chateau, such as the glorious Chenonceaux in Normandy which sits on the River Cher is your scene, then you can find several such bourgeois bathing points. There is also a great collection of locations suitable for families, as well as some with small camping facilities nearby, such as the riverside tipis at Les Cournoulises on the banks of the River Lot.

Photo: Wild Swim France

I love the fact that this book isn’t all health and safety obsessed either, although it does warn you about the dangers of wild swimming, of course. For example, there is a useful explanation of how many of France’s river levels are controlled by the EDF (Electricité de France) due their being an important source of hydropower. The book points out that there are EDF signs on many of the rivers to warn that water levels can suddenly increase due to dam release, and that care should be taken at these times.

However, Daniel does turn a blind eye to rules and regulations in the book sometimes, making the book even more readable, of course.  For example, at the magnificent waterfall Sillans-la-Cascade in the Haut Var region, where the main pool is closed to swimmers due to a freak rockfall,  Daniel tells us most local people ignore the signs, and there is a photo of someone, possibly the author himself, diving into its stunning waters.  And although wild camping is illegal in France, he isn’t afraid to admit that he, like many others, do partake of it, albeit responsibly, and reminds us to ensure that wild campers should arrive late and leave early, should not light fires, and must absolutely leave no trace.

So, buy the book as a gift to yourself or any other water loving Francophile you know, or just to drool over on a Sunday morning, if that is your thing. Daniel has also written Wild Swimming (UK) and Wild Swimming Coast and there is also an app for these. He is one Smart guy. But not as smart as the woman who married him.

www.wildswimming.co.uk/wild-swimming-france

Ile de Batz, Brittany, France

Catherine's family on Ile de Batz at Poul C'horz Photo: Catherine Mack

I don’t really get the island daytrip thing. Why would you go for a day when, in most cases, you can stay for a few, explore every corner, get to know some of the people who live there, and not worry about catching the last ferry home? But I now realise that I am becoming a bit of an offshore obsessive. It all started with La Gomera off Tenerife, way back in my twenties, when I got a last minute cheap flight to the mainland, and followed a few hippies heading straight from the airport to the port to catch the first crossing of the day to this unheard of place which at that time was way off all traditional tourist radars. I have been there three times since then, as well as La Graciosa off Lanzarote, Formentera off Ibiza, Privc off Croatia, and  not forgetting my rapidly growing love affair with Ireland’s own fine collection, of course.  The latest to steal my soul is the Ile de Batz, just fifteen minutes off Roscoff in Brittany.

I don’t think it’s a case of feeding some sort of Crusoe craving, as deserted tropical islands don’t really do it for me.  I am not even great with small ferry crossings, but as soon as I can see new shorelines and micro landscapes approach, my wanderlust kicks some strength into my otherwise wobbly sea legs. I spotted the Ile de Batz on a walking tour of Brittany’s pink granite coastline last year , just one of the many granite rocky outcrops which pepper the Breton waters. Island daytrips are a feature of this coast, but as we had accommodation pre-booked along the mainland we stuck to our walking itinerary that time round. Ile de Batz grabbed my attention, however, because despite being pretty well populated (nearly 600 permanent residents), car-free to visitors,  plenty of ferry connections, a shop, bike hire,  accommodation  and even a campsite, it had hidden its Breton beauty under a bushel, tucked well away from those who are just passing through.  

As people whizzed off the Roscoff ferry in search of autoroutes or cycling trails, we walked into the sleepy town centre, just ten minutes from the port, where we grabbed a €7 breakfast of ‘grand crème’, freshly squeezed orange juice, a pannier full of warm croissants and pain de campagne. I find it strangely  reassuring on my travels to revisit the same spot, and this sunny waterside Café Ty Pierre was where I had sat this time last year, spotted signs to the island, and been gripped by my island grá.  There are ferries to the island every hour, so we supped slowly, took in our new surroundings, and headed out along the pier for the 11am departure. The journey was very calm, crossing out into the bay past the island’s south east peninsula, a Breton flag flying on the cliff top. Well, more high rocks than cliffs, really, with the highest point of the island a mere 33 metres. My heart lifted at the sight of the first white sandy cove of Pors Adelig, then another, Pors Alliou, with just a couple of small fishing boats bobbing in each, before we came round one more small headland into our mooring point, and hub of the island,  at Pors Kernoc.

Hire bikes on Ile de Batz Photo: Catherine Mack

We had booked a family room at the island’s Auberge de Jeunesse, or youth hostel, which was just five minutes’ walk from the pier, up a short hill past seashore creperies and couple of bike hire outlets, to a spot which is elevated enough to see paths leading down to both the north east and south east sides of the island. The Ile de Batz is only 3.5 kms long and 1.5 kms wide, with a walk around the whole coastline all of 12 kms. Ah, so we could ‘do it in a day’ , I hear you say, and yes you could, but for the other island infatuates out there, you can do half the island one day, the other half the next, and then just choose a different beach to loll on each day after that, with one for almost every kilometre you cover.

Our first beach, Pors Alliou, was just fifty metres from the hostel, down a quiet path to sands which lead out to grassy island when the tides are low, but which we left in peace as hundreds of seabirds were nesting at the time. But it must make the most perfect fishing spot at other times of year. Pors Allious was close enough to run down in togs and a towel (OK, wetsuits) and be back to put the kettle on, which we did need as the waters here were Celtic cold. There is plenty of drying room at the hostel, so don’t hesitate to pack a wetsuit if you love a quick dip, especially with enticing swim spots at the end of just about every lane.

The hostel is basic and not for everyone, but I value the hostel ethos, and even though our family room was just a smaller dorm off the larger communal one, which we had to pass through to go to the loos and (not very efficient) showers, we threw ourselves into the hostelling vibe of it all and enjoyed the company of our fellow travellers. Especially over breakfast, with fresh baguettes, Breton butter, home-made jam and coffee always ready when we got up,  all of us pyjama clad in the communal area discussing our plans for the day.  A couple of battered sofas were much needed in my view, however, with benches around tables getting a bit tiresome after a day. And with what one co-hosteller described as ‘grains de pluie’ (literally ‘grains of rain’) being regular features in Brittany,  you do need a bit of a cosy corner to play cards in or read your book, rather than just heading back to the dorm. There are, however, plenty of self-catering options on the island as well as a couple of charming guest houses. See iledebatz.com for details.

Luckily, the sun shone nearly the whole time for us, and with my 9 year old discovering a love of rock climbing, and almost every beach being accessible by gripping and grasping his way along the impressive piles of granite, we were out all day. My husband volunteered to supervise the clambering while my 12 year old son and I opted for the rather more yielding dune and marram grass route up above. This route also shows off the impressive amount of farming on the island, something a lot less evident in island life back home. Fields bearing potatoes, cauliflowers and shallots belong to 25 farms in total, their produce being sold on via a cooperative to mainland supermarkets all over France. This explains why the only traffic you see on the island is that of a few tractors. Otherwise the roads are quiet, allowing us to send the kids into the feral mode they so miss living the urban lives we have thrust upon them.

Fishing is also still very much in evidence on the Ile de Batz, with several houses along our walks offering fish and seafood for sale. Within two minutes’ walk from the hostel we were able to buy fresh new potatoes straight from the field and so, on our second night we dined on enormous Pollack steaks with local salad and spuds, all sourced within about three minutes’ walk from the hostel, as we sat in the sun overlooking the bay. Another night was spent drinking our aperitifs and eating savoury galettes and crepes at the Creperie du Port, again on the sunny water’s edge, where fishermen gathered at the end of the day, and kids spent hours jumping over the sea wall onto the soft sands below.

And all only ten minutes’ walk back along the shore to our beds. Ah, so perhaps that is why I have an insatiable love of islands. It isn’t some tortured need to be isolated from the world, or to feel like I can walk around it and always know where I will end up. It’s simply sheer laziness. Nothing is far away, natural beauty is everywhere I look, I can swim, trek and cycle, and not feel as if I have to take on a triathlon, and the pace of life reverts to the traditional clocks of farming and fishing. We all tuned into this quickly and happily, watching the daytrip suckers dash for the last boat back, as we sipped our Breton cider ‘au bar’ and pretended we were locals. We may have only been islanders for a few days, but the separation of even just this short stretch of water made us feel as if we had been marooned for a month.

Ile de Batz Porz Reter Photo: Catherine Mack

Go there: Take the ferry from Cork in Ireland, or Plymouth in UK to Roscoff with Brittany Ferries. From €185 per person return from Ireland, based on two passengers travelling on foot and sharing a 2-berth en suite cabin. Or £160 return from UK. Ferry from Roscoff to Ile de Batz €8 adults, €4 children. Bring cash for the island ferry, as card facilities were not available when we travelled.

Stay there: International Youth Hostel Association Membership  €11 for under 26,€16 for over 26,  €23 for family (per annum), Seemauberges-de-jeunesse.com. €17 per night including breakfast to stay at the Ile de Batz youth hostel. Sheets €2.50 per visit.  For information on all other accommodation see iledebatz.com

Eat there: There is a small island market every Sunday morning in the summer season, or you can catch a burgeoning food market in Roscoff every Wednesday between 7am-2pm, with over 150 stalls. Otherwise the island has a host of creperies and family run restaurants. For more information on Brittany and its stunning coastline, see  brittanytourism.com

This article was first published in The Irish Times

 

Walking holiday along the pink granite coast of Brittany

Plage de Trestrignel - view from Manoir du Sphinx, Perros Guirec Photo: Catherine Mack

“Don’t forget to pack your umbrella!” a French friend laughed, somewhat smugly, down the phone from his apartment on the Cote d’Azur, when I told him I was going on a walking holiday along the coast of Brittany. But he had got to me, as I kept a fervent eye on five day forecasts and, finally, dug out my raingear. I felt bad as I had persuaded a good friend, Katie, to come with me, a mother of two young boys who had just packed in her night shift job, desperately needed some rest and, ideally, sun. I optimistically sent her Facebook messages to pack suncream and swimsuits, despite my Riviera rival’s mocking sneers still haunting me.

Even the name of our chosen section of Brittany was less exotic. The Côtes d’Armor, sounding almost militaristic in comparison to the azurian images of the Med, until we landed on its shores and realised that those Med Men have let the sun go to their heads. ‘Armor’ comes from the Breton, Ar Mor, meaning, quite simply, The Sea. They have no need to glam it up here in Brittany. They just live and breathe the sea here, celebrating its dramatic coastlines and influences on local culture, rather than inviting celebrities in to pose on promenades or meander on moorings.

It was seven o’clock on a sunny morning as we walked off the ferry into Roscoff town, just a ten minute stroll past blue and white shuttered houses, down quiet Hydrangea lined streets into the pretty old port. At first we thought we wouldn’t find a café open but a quick stroll along the seafront

Tregastel

brought us to the charming Café Ty Pierre, where a fine French breakfast, and very friendly staff, welcomed us onto their sunny terrace.

Our self-guided walking trip was organised by Inntravel, a company which sorts out accommodation, itineraries, trains, luggage transfers and food,  so that all Katie and I had to think about was getting the train from Roscoff to our first hotel, just half an hour away. With seamless organisation throughout, Inntravel couldn’t have picked a better starting point than the sumptuous 17th century Manoir de Troezel Vras, a family-run chambre d’hôtes stone manor house, all restored with minimal chic, boasting fine antique furniture and superb Breton art. Restored by owners Jean-Marie and Francoise Maynier, their design skills were also on show in their gardens, thriving with covetable displays of both flora and food, giving them Jardin d’hôtes status as well. And with Jean-Marie’s extraordinary cooking, with scallop starters, followed by cod served on a bed of perfectly steamed cabbage, and home made crème brulee, he deserves a Michelin mention as well.

Our week’s walking itinerary mostly followed the GR34 path, one of France’s 60,000 kms of walking trails, or ‘Grande Randonées’. Inntravel had sent GR maps in advance and following them was pretty easy, with red and white markers along every route, as well as additional written directions. Walking

The stunning troezel-vras.com Brittany Photo: Catherine Mack

on to different hotels most days, Katie and I rotated our daily duties as navigator, so that one of us was free to follow aimlessly along what is also known as Little Britain, due to its historic Celtic links across the Channel. Indeed, the immediate environs of Troezel Vras did sometimes resemble parts of Devon or Cornwall, with rolling hills covered in swaying wheat fields, protected by hedgerows, elderflower and pine trees. Even the stone cottages with rose creepers and lawns heaving with hydrangeas at every turn felt a tad more Blighty than Brittany. Until we walked down a grassy path lined with poppies, which opened into a giant field of artichokes, or onto a rocky beach with an offshore chateau staring back at us, and we knew this was somewhere quite different.

The country lanes which slipped into dunes, then onto sandy beaches, and back through fecund fields again, were the typical makeup of our first day’s 15K circular trail. It also led us into the ancient town of Pleubian, home to an enormous outdoor pulpit, where pilgrims must have trodden the same paths as us to hear their Sabbath sermon. We stopped at the beach of Port Beni to tuck into our picnic lunch of salade à la Jean-Marie, fruit, Madeleines, baguette and cheese, with similar deliciousness being supplied by all our hosts who awaited us along the coast.

The seascapes did start to vary every day, however, as did our inns for the night. Our second stopover was at Tréguier and, with our luggage being safely deposited for us, we took on another 15k of the coastline, with Brittany’s famous pink granite now starting to come into view. Jagged rocky outcrops pepper the shoreline here, and even though they just look like dots on the

Catherine on Ile aux Lapins outside Tregastel

map, we soon realised that this prolific archipelago is awash with islands boasting cottages, campsites or, quite simply, burgeoning colonies of seabirds.

These rocks were just teasers for later in the week, however, as we headed back onto forest lined estuarine paths, with waterfalls and wooded glades, and finally alongside a creek fed by the River Jaudy, into the cathedral town of Tréguier. Here, the hotel Aigue Marine, very different to the last, felt like it hadn’t changed much since the 50’s, but in the most charming way possible. We didn’t see much of it anyway, too exhausted even to try out their pool. Plenty of energy to sample their superb food, though, which was now becoming a regular feature of the holiday, with langoustines, sea bream and a glass or two of Breton cider to completely wipe us out.

Although we had plenty of sunshine, the Brittany weather did keep us on our toes, with every season crying for attention on an hourly basis. You need to bring everything in your walking backpack on this trip really, raingear being regularly swapped for t-shirts and fleeces for togs, with this blue as the Med but cold as Kerry coastline begging a quick dip or two. The rain, which came down softly for just one full day was, thankfully, soft and mild, so walking was still more than manageable, when we took on our stretch from Tréguier to Perros-Guirec.

From this point onwards, as far as our final inn at Trégastel in fact, the scenery seemed to crescendo into an explosion of pink. Every headland brought greater examples of natural, pink granite sculptures, tumbling off cliffs like fruit fallen from a giant’s orchard, or jutting out of the water in surreal displays (see video below, bit wobbly in parts but you’ll get the idea!) . It was as if we had entered a world of Roald Dahl meets Henry Moore. The Hotel Manoir du Sphinx in Perros-Guirec provided a sumptuous send off point for this final stretch too, with clifftop views, silver service Breton feasts, and room with a view of the waters which had just fed us. This is the place to have breakfast on the balcony, and with the Plage de Trestrignel just a few minutes away, you can catch a swim before breakfast.  It’s also the place where Katie won my travel companion of the year award, producing a hipflask of fine single malt for a late night sup on the strand.

The pink granite is almost impossible to capture in photographs, because these rocks are, ultimately, a tangible experience, only truly appreciated by being climbed on, swum out to, fished from or dived off. We followed the ‘Sentier des douaniers’, a narrow clifftop path used by 18th century customs officers prone to pounce on smugglers and pirates, which leads into an extraordinary natural sculpture part at Ploumanac’h.  My most treasured moment, however, was the descent into the beach at St. Guirec, where the pink, mammoth rocks which were now smooth backed and softened by the waves, spread out like basking whales across the bay.

We raised our final glass in Trégastel, where more islands and coves awaited us. The last dip was taken off the shores of Ile aux Lapins, just minutes around the coast from the town, accessible via a sandy causeway which gets covered when the waves come in. As I sat on the sand, letting the sun dry those last

Gone swimming Photo: Catherine Mack

few drops of sea on my body, as if to keep this sensation until I got home, an elderly French gentleman must have read my mind, when he stopped to chat. I told him I was heading home, “Ah, so now you can take some of our lovely sea back with you” he said. “Oui, Monsieur”, I said “I love your sea”. What I should have said, of course, was – Armor, je t’adore.

Catherine travelled with Inntravel, 00-44-1653-617000 on the Granite Coast of Brittany self-guided walking holiday. From £895 sterling per person based on 2 sharing, including 7 nights’ B&B accommodation, 5 dinners, 4 picnic lunches, luggage transfers, itineraries and maps, rail and taxi transfers from Roscoff. Ferry extra.

Take the ferry from Cork, Ireland  or Plymouth, UK to Roscoff with Brittany Ferries. From €185 per person return, based on two passengers travelling on foot and sharing a 2-berth en suite cabin.  For more information on Brittany and its stunning coastline, see  brittanytourism.com
This article was first published in The Irish Times

Climb every Mountain

I always secretly wanted to be Julie Andrews. Leading children merrily across Alpine pastures, with songs to fix every dilemma, and Christopher Plummer hanging on my every note. So, walking in the Alps in late May, (albeit French, not Austrian), with my husband and two sons, the snow-capped peaks glistening in the distance, and Edelweiss- covered meadows underfoot, I was, at last, given the chance to become a veritable Von Trapp.

However, these hills were alive with the sound of a rather different sort of music that week. That of our faithful companion and protector – a donkey. His job was to carry our bags from ‘gite’ to ‘gite’, and ours was simply to follow a map, and walk. Before we left, my younger son, Hugo, aged six, was horrified at the very idea of it all. We are not regular ramblers. Camping, cycling and a walk in the country, yes, but hiking across the Alps for a week, no. This was new territory for us and, as I packed blister plasters over beach towels, and hiking socks over sexy sarongs, I did wonder if a week of nothing but walking and talking was going to make or break us.

The company which organises this hiking holiday is based in Villeplane, in the ‘Alpes Maritimes’ region of France. Our instructions were to find our way to Entrevaux, about 60kms North of Nice, which we did very easily by taking the quaintest of rural trains from Nice itself. We followed the River Var up through its valley of untouched mountain villages, giving us time to get off and take photos as the train driver had a fag break. On board there were peal people, not the botoxed babes we had just left behind on the Promenade des Anglais. Farmers going home after shopping in the city, students studying, and a few tourists thrown into the mix. As we gasped in awe at the Alpine landscape, poor Hugo looked down longingly at the turquoise Mediterranean disappearing into a mere puddle far below, where we had managed to grab a swim on arrival earlier that morning. Just to torture the poor child even more.

Christine Kieffer, who co-owns the hiking company, met us at Entrevaux, a stunning medieval town, with drawbridge over the Var, with a maze of tiny overlapping streets, leading either up to the ancient citadel, or down to the river, which was gushing past at a fair old speed. Christine explained that it was still snow-covered here just ten days previously, and so the river was carrying the full force of the thaw. As we sat sweltering in a café overlooking the river, it was hard to imagine the winter had just passed.

Villeplane was about forty minutes drive away, giving us plenty of time to take in the dramatic gorges of red rock and tumbling waterfalls. This was to become our home for the next few days, but first we had to meet our donkey. One of about fifty owned by Christine, her husband Gerard, and their sons who all work together as a family. Not only do they breed donkeys, but they are also expert mountain guides, conservationists, chefs, and most of all, hosts extraordinaire.

As we drove up the dusty path to her stone and wooden farmhouse, Christine pointed out our home for the first night – a splendid yurt in the middle of a shady field. Shade was already becoming an issue, as we had arrived just in time for a heatwave, with temperatures matching those of August.  The yurt was genuine Mongolian, painted in bright traditional colours, and was the most divine way to start our week’s adventure. Responsible tourism is a high priority here too, with compost loo, outdoor showers, chemical-free products, and a huge respect for the natural heritage which towered around us on all sides.

Cooling down after a four hour climb

All the food is provided and, judging by the extraordinary meal laid on for us that night, we were not going to go hungry. Using locally-sourced ingredients, and showing off the regional cuisine is a priority for the Kieffers. Villeplane was setting a high standard, starting with an amazing aperitif fortified with some of their home-made marmalade which hadn’t set properly. “Nothing goes to waste in the mountains,” said Jeremie, one of Christine and Gerard’s charming sons, who had prepared a refreshing radish leaf soup, lasagne like I could only dream of making, four local cheeses, and a fruit salad with sprigs of mint (which he popped down to pick in the garden below). The boys wolfed it all, and we downed a delicious ‘digestif’, this time fortified with thyme.

After all that fortifying, and a fine sleep, we got to work early the next morning. Christine showed us maps and talked us through our walking routes, explaining that most of the time we were following the GR52 route, one of several GR walking paths which traverse  Europe. Following it is easy, as there are red and white markers along every route, as well as corresponding numbered signposts. Along with our maps and detailed instructions of every twist and turn, we felt in safe hands. The GR’s wind their way mostly across France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and The Netherlands, and in a wonderful pan-European way manage to work in most languages:Grande Randonnée (French), Grote Routepaden (Dutch), Grande Rota (Portuguese) and Gran Recorrido (Spanish). In France alone, the trails cover approximately 60,000 km. This suddenly made our little bit from village to village seem relatively easy.

Our allocated donkey was a Provencale breed, called Iznogoud, named after a famous French cartoon character, and pronounced as in English, Isnogood. He looked very good to us, however, as he calmly let us prepare him for the journey under Gerard’s careful instruction. We were shown how to brush him, wipe Juniper oil on all his tender parts (yes, all) to keep the flies off and, finally,  put his blankets and beautiful handmade saddle on. Both Christine and Gerard were careful to include the children in all the instuctions, pointing out that if the donkey got even one little stone caught under his saddle, he would be in great pain, so keeping him smooth and clean was very important.  The boys were hanging on their every word by the end, particularly Louis, our ten year old, who vowed to look after him until our return. “Get to know him”, Gerard said, “when you walk he mustn’t eat, he must work. But when you stop, give him all the cuddles he deserves.”

We had transferred our luggage into two military style bags the night before, which were then placed either side of the

Taking in everything we have climbed

donkey, having been weighed first to make sure he was never lopsided. Last but not least, Christine gave us our picnic, which we tied on top,  and off we headed, the children taking turns to lead Isnogoud down the country lane to find our first marker of the day. “Vous etes une belle famille!”, Gerard shouted down to us, giving one final wave before we headed off-road into shady oak woodland, where we began to find our pace. We were only taking on 8 kms that day although,  as Christine had rightly warned us, “We never talk in kilometres in the mountains, only ups and downs”. We tackled our first ‘down’ almost immediately, descending  the woody slopes of the Cante Valley. These footpaths are extradorinary creations, using the natural formation of the landscape, with tree roots, rock, or compressed layers of oak leaves creating a new path every few hundred metres.

A couple of hours later the ‘belle famille’ hit its first major obstacle at the bottom, where we stopped by the voracious Var, following instructions to unload the donkey, give him water, and eat copious amounts of delicious picnic. The river was terrifyingly fast, so the children were under strict instructions to paddle in a tiny pool while we did the donkey work. One of them decided to put some of the water bottles in the river to cool them, only to watch them be swept away immediately into the torrents. The bottles, that is, not my sons. But the potential dangers made me see red, and a screaming match which must have echoed all the way back to Villeplane began. I knew then that this holiday was going to test us in ways that we hadn’t imagined.

However, French food, sunshine, and a good rest heals all, and there was plenty of that in supply. Hugging Iznogoud did the trick too, who went on to lead our reunited team of mountaineers up over the steepest climb of the trip, along stoney paths of wild thyme, gorse, and Alpine flowers galore. As the wooden signpost for Sauze, our bed for the night, came into sight two hours later,  we all cheered and, in a tiny hamlet, we found the confidence to knock on a door and beg for more water. A lovely couple saved the day, and also soaked the boys’ t-shirts so that they had a cool last couple of kilometres up country roads to Sauze, where there was room at the inn.

Arriving into Sauze we met our host, Bernadette, who runs the village ‘auberge’. She showed us the donkey’s field for the night, where to store all the bags, saddle and so on, and took our picnic basket from us, saying she would have it replenished for us in the morning. Then we were taken to our room, a simple, clean,  family room in this village auberge, (a small hostel) showered, and came down for aperitifs and dinner by seven. This was to be our evening routine for the week. One of the most striking things about this holiday was one of the most unexpected. The food. Being villages, I naively assumed it would be bistro style ‘steak et frites’. I couldn’t have been more wrong, as we were presented with a huge plate of charcuterie, followed by baked rabbit, and homemade ravioli (stuffed with wild spinach), followed by a vat of crepes. The highlight was the vast array of homemade coulis and sauces, all Bernadette’s specialities based on traditional recipes: Dandelion flower syrup, elderberry jam, and even pumkin jam. Again the kids ate everything, too tired and hungry to be picky.

We continued at this pace for the next few days, following Christine’s carefully planned itinerary. Some days were tougher than others. From Sauze we walked across two valleys to Bouchanières, during which the terrain seemed to change every twenty minutes. For some stretches it felt as if we were in lush Irish meadows, and then suddenly the path changed direction into sprawling Larch-filled woodland. It sometimes felt as if our moods varied as much as the landscape. When it was dry, hot and dusty we tended to fall into a silent determination, concentrating on pushing ahead. Then we would be soothed by  shady forest, with a soft pine-needle floor, which brought the spring back into our steps. When the children needed motivating, we did quizzes, sang songs, and gave ourselves little targets. “When we get to that rock at the top of the hill, we’ll have a sweet and feet break”. And there were lots of those. A giant bag of sweets is a must for this trip.

Every evening we collapsed into the arms of different families. Such as at the lovely elderly Jeanne-Marie and Andreas’ gite in Bouchanières, who made the best hot chocolate in the world according to Hugo. We, however, will never forget the fine local veal, the best pasta salad ever for our picnic the next day, and the warmest welcome you could ever imagine from a couple who genuinely love sharing their magnificent views and lifestyle with blow-in’s on a donkey.

Further on at the village of Péone, another mad maze of medieval architecture perching delicately on the side of a cliff, we stayed at the very laid-back,  family-run gite, Col de Crous. The next day was a shorter walk so that we could spend the morning looking round the village. However, the nomadic influence must have been starting to take effect, because we all seemed keen to hit the hills again, and retreat back into our newfound peaceful wanderlust.

This holiday confounded all expectations for me. It was much tougher than we had expected, and yet we all rose to the occasion in our own ways, and pushed ourselves beyond limits we had never really set ourselves before. As Hugo approached one of the final numbered signposts on the last day, he said “This holiday was like a treasure hunt without the treasure”. “There’s our treasure”, I shouted, pointing out our beloved yurt peaking through the trees on the other side of the gorge. He smiled and shouted, “Allez, Iznogoud!”, while I basked in pride at what we had achieved as a family, and took in one last exhilarating view of the majestic mountains we had climbed together. We arrived back into Villeplane, hot, filthy, exhausted and totally exhilarated. We chose the Irish rugby anthem to announce our arrival, which echoed rather beautifully around the valley. The hills really were alive with the sound of music now and I, at last, had got my Von Trapp moment.

Le Var

Where to stay

All accomodation, food, donkey and walking itinerary organised by Itinerance-Trekking (www.itinerance.net, 00-33-4 93 05 56 01. 7 days and nights, € 595 adults and €516 for Children (7-12), not including flights or rail fares.

Novotel Nice (www.novotel.com, 00-33-4-93133093) with rooftop pool, the perfect reward after a week’s walking. Family rooms with no room or breakfast charge for children. Rooms from €129 and late check out for families at 5pm.

Go there

Catherine and family travelled to France overland from London with Eurostar and SNCF. From Ireland, take an overnight ferry from Rosslare to Le Havre, www.ldlines.ie, 00-44-844-576-8836 and catch a high-speed train to Nice. For the greener way to travel, contact Irish Rail’s European Rail Reservations, www.irishrail.ie, 01- 703 1885, or for those outside ROI, see RailEurope, www.raileurope.co.uk

From Nice take the mountain train to Entrevaux from the Chemins de Fer de Provence station, www.trainprovence.com. €18 adults, €9 children, one way.