Little House on Les Prairies

Trip Start Aug 09, 2010
Trip End Mar 17, 2012

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Where I stayed
Les Prairies de la Mer, Port Grimaud, Provence
What I did
Toured Calais-Besancon-Annemasse-Aix en Provence-Port Grimaud-St Etienne-Sens-Calais in 15 Days

Flag of France  , Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur,
Tuesday, September 13, 2011

We hurtled down to Dover from the North East of England at breakneck speed to catch our 7pm Dover-Calais P & O ferry, all the time thinking of the wide open spaces of France's autoroutes.

The sun was going down as we made the sleek one and half hour crossing. We gazed in awe at the pink and blue sky with deep reds around the blazing sun.

"Hope the weather's good,"  I said.  And I was granted my wish.

Calais à Besançon via Lac d'Orient

Leaving our Formule 1 hotel (cheap as chips, clean and cosy) in Calais and stocking up on beer, wine and fresh food - oh, French produce is heavenly! - we set off for Besançon the capital of the Franche-Comté region of Eastern France, taking a small detour to the Lac d'Orient, the largest of the man-made lakes of the Forêt d'Orient, where we spent an hour or two walking along the lakeside, beach-combing the sands for stones and having a welcome beer at one of the lakeside cafés.

Described as "A mysterious land where water, forests and earth come together, the Orient Forest Regional Natural Park is a wildlife sanctuary which covers 70,000 hectares," we expected to see some unusual birds and animals - but not a sausage did we encouter!  Although that was unfortunate, I would not have missed the sight of this beautiful lake and woodland.  Watching the sun set over the water was spectaclar vision.

Onward, we travelled in our Honda Civic with top box attached - toward mountainous Besançon.  We arrived at our Formule 1 hotel far too late in the evening to catch the wonderful scenery around this area.  Ah, but tomorrow is another day!

Besançon à Annemasse via Le Source du Lison, Le Pont du Diable et Geneva

The mountains surrounding Besançon could be seen as soon as we opened the curtains in our hotel room.  It certainly had the 'WOW' factor.

After seeking breakfast in the beautiful town, we decided to do the riverside walk.  There's lots more to do in this quaint town (a visit to the amphitheatre, for example) but time wasn't on our side to see everything of interest.

The riverside walk was remarkable and memorable.  We set off on a clear, blue-skied morning with the sun shining bright and warm.

The river, called Les Doubs and nicknamed 'la boucle' (meaning 'the curl') runs through the whole city  The river quite literally winds through the city like a curl. At different points throughout the river we saw boats, kayaks and fishermen doing their thing. We encountered cyclists, skateboarders and people strolling along the banks and over the bridges. Tucked in a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Doubs River, Besançon enjoys the beauty of the countryside and the sophistication of cities many times its size.It's a wonderful city with a rural feel.


Onward, we drove south through twisting, winding country roads, past signs for the prehistoric 'grottes' (caves) that are in abundance in this area, through the pretty village of Eternoz and on to Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne, forty-four kilometres south of Besançon where Source du Lison and the Pont du Diable are situated

The Source du Lison (translated Spring of the Lison) is an impressive karst spring,
The river flows out of the portal of a waterfilled cave at the foot of a limestone cliff, the amount of water is huge and may become enormous during spring and after heavy rain.
There's a prehistoric cave here, the Grotte Sarrazine, that is partly accessible, with clear signs to it.  We arrived too late in the day to make the visit.  Never mind!  We've seen several grottes in this area that display stunning stalactites and stalagmites, that show off whole chambers of natural rock formations, that contain babbling underground lakes that are the relics of the ice age where great glaciers had formed and were now melted.  Grottes des Planches and Grotte d'Osselle are examples of the amazing grottes we've visited in the past.

We arrived at the Source du Lison and before we saw even a drop of water, we heard the immense gushing of the waterfall.  Though we couldn't yet see it, we knew it was near - very near.  So we took a stroll along the leafy mountain track, downstream and over a rustic, rickety bridge.  And there it was - oh, so magnificent, rushing downward from huge limestone rocks toward the pool at the bottom, looking for all the world like bubbly flowing over dozens of champagne glasses at a wedding.

The Lison is partially a resurgence of the Doubs, sourced in an underground cave, cascading a prism of multi-colours at the spring after a long journey underground.

We remained here, in this waterfall wonderland, until eventually, more and more tourists piled off a bus to see the magical sight.  A fitting time to leave, we thought...

A couple of miles further down the way from Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne, is the fearsome Pont du Diable (translated Devil's Bridge) It hovers dizzily above a remote canyon, at Creek Chateau-Renaud, above the Cascade du Diable (waterfall of the Devil).  The bridge was built in the nineteenth century to allow access to Sainte-Anne-Miguet Crouzet.  The engineer of the bridge good-humouredly carved a devil's head to the key above the bridge. 

Now me, I'm not scared of heights, but looking down over the bridge gave me such a sense of vertigo, I had to look away!  It's an awe-inspiring sight.

Clambering up the rocky hillside at one end of the bridge, I expected to look down from the cliff's edge to a similar vision - but, ah, it was a plateau containing a meadow with grazing cow-belled cattle.  How strange is that?

It was time to leave this fairy-tale land in the Haut-Jura region and travel onward through the hautes-Alpes, then down to the French-Swiss border and our hotel in Annemasse.

We set the Sat Nav to guide us, it being late in the day - not enough light to navigate with a map.  And wasn't that fortunate?  Because, our dear Sat Nav guided us through the mountains of the French/Swiss Alps, the centre of Geneva, (Switzerland) and the lakeside road alongside Lake Geneva to our destination nearby in the town of Annemasse.  Oh, Geneva and this vast lake are a sight for sore eyes at night, with the grand buildings lit up in myriad colours and shades and the fountain in the lake spraying bubbles into the glorious colours of the underwater lights.

Annemasse à Aix en Provence avec un détour à Evian les Bains

Annemasse is situated in the Haute-Savoie department of the Rhone-Alpes region in the east of France, 34 km from Annecy, the department capital.

We'd visited beautiful Annecy on a previous trip, so our mission today was to visit Evian les Bains, passing through Thonon les Bains, both of them famous spa towns.

We had a breakfast stop in Thonon before moving on to Evian.  Thonon les Bains is an attractive town, sitting on the edge of Lake Leman (Lake Geneva). The town centre sits above the lake and its attractive port called Rives sits on the edge of the lake - the biggest lake in Europe. Thonon les Bains is the capital of the area known as Chablais.

Reaching Evian, we motored on a meandering lakeside road with views over Lake Leman of the stunning Swiss mountains and the unbelievable sight of Mont Blanc.  Heading for the car park underneath a supermarket, we collected our supplies of fresh food before walking around their famous market place and grabbing a snack lunch at one of the lovely restaurants.

The Cachat spring here in Evian is the most famous of the many springs in Evian and is opposite the Cachat pump room. Its fame began when it cured a mysterious illness suffered by the Baron of La Rochette. The waters of Evian are now famous throughout the world.

Heading back down toward the lakeside, we walked along the promenade, watching the ducks and swans gliding along the lake shores; the coots and gulls preening on the rocks.  We passed ice cream stalls selling so many flavours of glacé and sorbet, it was difficult to choose which one to have!

The walk along the lakeside was amazing on this warm, bright blue-skied day, with the lake and views across to Switzerland on one side and the Palais Lumiere, the Casino and the Theatre on the other. I could almost imagine the ladies of the early 19th century promenading Evian's quays with their parasols and long flouncy dresses.

Sitting in one of the cafés, looking out over the lake, watching the pleasure boats that run between Evian, Geneva and Lausanne we were loath to leave this lovely place with its charm and its ambience.  But leave we had to. 

We had a long drive in front of us to get to Aix en Provence - our next port of call.  We fed the sparrows with crumbs for a while, watching their antics as they fought over the biggest, tastiest morsels - then it was time to get back in the car, set the Sat Nav for our Formule 1 hotel in Aix en Provence and get back onto the autoroute, through the extraordinary mountain passes of the Rhone-Alpes region and down to sunny, laid-back Provence.

Aix en Provence aux Les Prairies de la Mer, Port Grimaud

We loved the situation of this Formule 1 hotel, just outside the town of Aix en Provence.  Its pretty gardens surrounding the hotel and car park were delightful.  Drinking coffee from paper cups at the picnic tables was so de-stressing, I wanted to stay here and watch the world go by forever!

But, I had to drag myself away.  Aix en Provence awaited us with its own delights.  And Aix en Provence is a truly delightful city, so they say.  Let's see.

We motored the couple of miles into the city after packing up and leaving the hotel.  We parked on the periphery of the old city and had lunch in an 'oh-so-French' restaurant.  The waiter couldn't (or wouldn't!) speak a word of English, so I had to try out my poor conversational French on him.  Happily, it worked.  Maybe my French isn't so bad after all!

The signposts led us around the corner and on to the main tourist drag. 

The city's main thoroughfare (and its most famous one) is the Cours Mirabeau, a street lined with cafes, restaurants and beautiful mansion houses, shaded by several rows of centuries-old plane trees. Once a street for horse-drawn coaches, the Cours Mirabeau of today links the Mazarin district to the south with the old commercial town to the north.

To sit down at one of the terraces and watch life go by while sipping a cappuccino or a latte  is a thrilling experience - one I'll never forget. Life is like a pantomime on the Cours Mirabeau!

Watching the cool water flowing from the fountains littered on Cours Mirabeau and listening to the sounds of water splurging playfully is another great attraction for the tourist.  It made me feel as though I was in my own little fairytale land rather than being hustled and jostled on this oh-so-busy street.

Atelier Cézanne
(Cézanne's Studio) - Many visitors to Aix en Provence have an interest in the work of Cézanne, me included. And here we had an opportunity to discover several of the artist's familiar objects, many of which feature in his wonderful paintings.

After picking up a souvenir or two from both Cézanne's studio and the Cours Mirabeau, we were eager to drive the one and a half hours to our caravan destination at Les Prairies de la Mer in Port Grimaud, La Côte d'Azur, on the French Riviera.  Ah, time for some R & R, methinks!

Les Prairies de la Mer - Port Grimaud  (La Golfe de St Tropez - La Côte d'Azur)

Arriving at Les Prairies de la Mer holiday complex, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, we soon realised that this huge place was a veritable maze that you (we!) could easily get lost in - competely lost!  It took me until the end of the week to get my bearing - and even then, I was sure which path to take.

Nevertheless, Les Prairies is a super complex with lots of attractions - lots to do.  We wanted a week of relaxation with a smattering of sight-seeing thrown in - and that's what we got.  Ah, bliss!

23 years after our last visit here - when my son was only eight years old - we were amazed and delighted to find
that it was as good as we remembered it. He'd been hankering after a return sojourn to this very campsite and although I'd agreed to come back, I'd said it might be a disappointment.  But it wasn't.  Not at all. Of course it had been updated and more things had been added like more food outlets on site, a live music venue more water sports etc..etc.. but unlike so many places, the look and feel was exactly how we remembered it from all those years ago.

We stayed in a super, spacious 6-berth caravan - our 'Little House on Les Prairies'  The only problem was that there was no satellite TV.  Not even in 2011!  What?  That was a disappointment for my son - but for me and my husband, well, we couldn't have cared less!

If you want to stay in the Gulf of St Tropez and not get ripped off this is the only place to stay.

Port Grimaud

Enchanting Port Grimaud, with its colourful Provencal style houses built along a network of canals lined with yachts and cruisers, is often known as the Venice of Provence. Situated at the foot of the Massif des Maures and only 3 miles from lively St Tropez and Ste Maxime, it is well placed for exploring the countryside, beaches, vineyards and lovely villages of this beautiful region.Port Grimaud offers restaurants, bars and shops, a twice-weekly Provencal market and large supermarket all within fifteen minutes walking distance of Les Prairies de la Mer.

The day we visited Port Grimaud, it was the only 'poor' weather day.  The wind whipped around our knees and ankles and the sea's surf covered us from head to toe.  But we laughed all the way there and all the way back! 

A thirty-minute round-trip around the bay and back, we found this 'Little Venice' to be charming.  Walking along the canal-sides, wandering over the picturesque bridges, calling in at the quaint cafes and tourist shops - and checking out the stunning yachts at the bottom of the residents' gardens (!!), we were enthralled with the wonderful atmosphere of Port Grimaud.

It is the most significant construction of its style in the whole Meditteranean. All of the units in Port Grimaud, except very small 'apartements', have their own mooring.

The Marina

Port Grimaud has an excellent marina, looking across the Bay of Saint Tropez, protected from Wind form the East and the ”Mistral” from the West.

The marina was built on the sea, in the ilk of Venice.  Walking around the brand new marina, there are statues of anchors and small but very pretty cactus gardens.  We loved it.

The Sun, the Sand - and the Beach Bars!

It was such fun - and so relaxing - to eat breakfasts of fresh croissants and Nutella (a favourite of the French) on the balcony of our luxury caravan, soaking in the first rays of sunshine in the early morning

It was great fun wandering down to our favourite Beach Bar, the Beach Boys Bar, on the sands of the bay, munching pizza or croques monsieur or crepes to the sounds of reggae from Bob Marley and UB40! 

It was wonderful, strolling along the white sandy bay, gazing at the mountain tops, staring with awe at the glaring blue sea of the Bay of St Tropez, watching paragliders as they sailed through the air over white luxury yachts.

It was heaven.

The week went by all too quickly - and soon we were mucking out the caravan and leaving to travel north to our next port of call on the way back up to Calais.


Port Grimaud à Le Grand Croix,St-Étienne via les Gorges du Loire

Situated in the Massif Central, in the Rhône-Alpes region, St-Étienne lies 60K south-west of the city of Lyon.

Saying goodbye to our home for the week at Les Prairies de la Mer, Port Grimaud, we travelled north via the beautiful Route Nationale.  The scenery was simply stunning, the road twisting and winding through forest and woodland - and wide open valleys with rolling hills on the horizon.  The Parc Naturel Regional du Verdon is an are not be missed. Situated in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, it is home to the Gorges du Verdon.  One day, we'll visit the Gorges du Verdon properly, instead of just taking glances from the road - but on this trip, we're all set to visit Les Gorges de la Loire.

The sun shone as we had our coffee breaks and a lunch break at the French motorway cafes, called 'Aires'.  The aires in France are so much more landscaped and interesting than the motorway services in England.  There are maps and statues, tourist shops and picnic areas: lots to keep you occupied on a stop when you're on a long journey.

On our way to Le Grand Croix, we decided to take a look at the entrance to Les Gorges de la Loire at Unieux and make a picnic stop at Chambles.

Unieux gave us a grand welcome.  We stopped for coffee at a tiny bar where we sat outside in the warm breezy sunshine and talked with the barmaids who were peeling vegetables and making a huge tossed salad for lunch.  Further along the tiny winding road, there were two rustic bridge that we strolled along to for a little photo shoot - and we were told that the people who live here pride themselves on the fact that these beautiful bridges form the natural gateway to the Gorges de la Loire.

And so they do!  No sooner had we passed under the bridge in the car, we were well and truly into gorge area, with narrow roads leading up and up, giving us splendid views of the river Loire in the valleys.

Ten minutes later, we stopped at the beautiful village of Chambles, that is, in itself, a gateway - a gateway to two famous chateaux.  But the chateaux were on tomorrow's agenda. 

After roaming around the pretty village, we found ourselves in wide-open meadowland overlooking the Loire, where a picnic tea was most certainly in order, with the most fantastic views from the cliff tops to the village of Saint-Victor-sur-Loire and its splendid marina and sandy beach.

Contented and happy with our wonderful day, we motored on to our Formule 1 hotel in Grand Croix.


Le Grand Croix à Sens via le Château d'Essalois et Lac de Grangent

The Formule 1 hotel we stayed at in Grand Croix is in a lovely setting, intertwined with the most gorgeous, geranium-filled village.  We never did learn its name: we looked out for a signpost on the way out of the tiny hamlet, but there was nothing to give this lovely place a title.

This morning, our quest was to motor back to Les Gorges de la Loire, in the Rhône-Alpes region, to visit Le Château d'Essalois and the chateau and lake at Le Lac de Grangent.

The Château d'Essalois is a restored castle in the commune of Chambles in the Loire département of France, overlooking a dammed portion of the Loire River near Lake Grangent.

The oldest documents mentioning the castle are from the 14th century. The puy (hill) of Essalois is quoted in charters from 1337 onwards, variously named Podium deysaluym, Mons deysaluym and Suc du Pré. In 1378, Arthaud de Villedieu paid homage to the Count of Forez for the house and the tower of Essalois which oversaw the Loire. In 1464, the tower of Essalois belonged to Beraud de la Bâtie. But, so far, the vestiges of this early construction have not be identified.

From the car park, we ambeed along the gravel track to the château, enjoying the sweet smell of wild herbs and the sounds of birds singing on this warm, blue-skied morning.  The views down to the Loire were amazing.

Reaching the chateau, situated on a small hill (puy), I've got to say, I've seen prettier castles in France, but the history of the place gave me a buzz, knowing that its origins are, as yet, unknown.  All we do know, is that man has lived here, it would seem, since time immemorial.

Continuing on, past the Château d'Essalois, we came upon the most stunning vision. Looking across the steep gorge and down to the Loire, there's a small island with a fairy-tale chateau at its centre.

The castle is situated in the commune of Saint-Juste-Saint-Rambert in the Loire département of France. At the time of its construction, originally around 800AD, it was on a promontory standing some 50 metres above the Loire Valley. The building of the Grangent dam means that Le Château de Grangent is now on a small island in a lake, Le Lac de Grangent.

I stare and stared at this beautiful castle until time was running out for our stay at the fabulous Gorges de la Loire.  We needed to get motoring north to the city of Sens and our next Formule 1 hotel, just below Île de France and Paris.

Sens à Calais via Pont sur Yonne

Sens is situated in the Bourgogne (Burgandy) region of France and our Formule 1 hotel was just a stone's throw from Sens' magnificent palace and cathedral - and its bustling market place.

We strolled from the hotel, past the bridge over  which the Yonne river flows, along a tree-filled avenue toward the Palais Secondal.  Set just alongside the cathedral, the Palais has been turned into a museum complex housing Le Trésor: tapestries, chalices and robes, including that of Thomas à Becket are on display.

Around the cathedral, I was entranced with the half-timbered houses and classy shops along the pedestrian walkway, Grande Rue.

Off in search of a bite to eat, we came across a T-junction of streets dedicated to the cafe, bistro and restaurant, called the Place de la République.   We sat back to enjoy the sound of an accordion being played down the way.  So very French, the guy even played badly -
typically French-style!!

The cathedral overlooks the outdoor market and it was a shame, in a way, that we caught Sens on market day, because it was impossible to get a full, uninterrupted view of its facades.  Again though, typically French, it is a cathedral in the Gothic style.

Famed for being the first of the great Gothic cathedrals in France, it has been inspiration in layout and design for many others, including England's very own Canterbury Cathedral. It's well-worth a visit, even if just to view the mosaic-tiled colourful roof.  And, of course, the Orangerie gardens on the south side of the cathedral are a must see.

The market place was awash with shoppers.  It's absolutely huge, with both indoor and outdoor stalls selling just about eveything you could ever wish for: clothes, shoes, fruit & veg, fish, meat, trinkets, postcards, bedding and cushions - you name it, Sens market had it!

So, after a morning spent in the sensational city of Sens, we motored north to take in the Pont sur Yonne (meaning 'bridge over the river Yonne') on our way back to Calais.

Pont-sur-Yonne is a French commune,
located in the department of Yonne and the Burgundy region. This small
town is situated a hundred kilometers south of Paris, on National Route 6
between the towns of Montereau and Sens. The locality is named after
the bridge that connects the left and right banks of the Yonne. The old bridge still exists in part as an historic monument and tourist attraction.

Missing the famous Pont-sur-Yonne Sunday market by one day, we could take in the Georgian buildings in the square and walk along the riverside to where the original medieval bridge juts out into the beautiful Yonne river.

I had heard mixed reactions to the medieval bridge.  Some said it was 'neither nothin' nor somethin', others said it was 'very nice' - but we thought it was simply stunning!  We got there at about midday on a hot, bright, blue-skied day and sat at the viewpoint to eat baguette sandwiches. 

"No ducks on the water - how strange: a French river without ducks," I said.

An suddenly there was a honking sound as two handsome geese led a procession of swans through the arch of the bridge, followed by at least a dozen pretty ducks.  As they reached the end of the archway, the geese did a u-turn past the jutting bridge, the swans and ducks continuing on in a retinue down the river, stopping by for a bite of our sandwiches on their way.

We didn't have time to explore the rest of the town, needing to push on north, around the east side of the Paris circular and onto the A1 to Calais.

Reaching Calais that evening, we treated ourselves to a meal in one of the local restaurants. Tucking in to moules marinières and drinking local red wine, we raised our glasses and said,"Merci beaucoup, la belle France, pour un voyage magnifique."

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vinaya ghimire on

You are an amazing writer. I always love to read your travel articles. There is so much to learn form you.

sheilaswheels on

Thanks Vinaya. You're such a great writing buddy. Love having you around. I learn so much from your gorgeus articles/stories/poetry.

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