Would it be the last week of December without a long overdue attempt to catch up on everything of mild interest since the last blog post? I think not! So without further ado…
August in France = summer, and the whole country normally shuts down for a solid couple of weeks. This year was a little different of course, but I have to say things kind of worked out in my favour. Because NO-ONE had made any plans, that meant they were free to make plans with me, and I had a much more eventful holiday than might normally be the case with impending obligatory leave and not always something thrilling in mind.
Part one of my intrepid travels took me to Corsica for the first time. For those unaware, Corsica is an island in the Mediterranean, situated just north of Sardinia (Italy). Corsica is part of France and considered no different from any of the mainland regions (as opposed to other overseas departments and territories, which have a slightly different status). Though I can’t claim to be familiar with ALL of France, Corsica was the last major stone left unturned, and soon one thing led to another and my friend Flora and I were off on a ten day road trip!
The first part of the trip was the descent to Marseille from where we were catching an overnight ferry. Normally a two hour trip, we set off bright and early (following my flatmate’s 30th birthday bash might I add) as this happened to be a ‘black Saturday’ on the roads – basically, one of the major holiday departure days where half of France is driving south. All in all, it took us about six hours, and worked out perfectly with couple of hours to stroll around the waterfront before heading to the ferry. Which was quite the excitement for me, having no idea what to expect. I couldn’t get over how comfortable the cabin was, it could have been any hotel room! Fortunately, it was a smooth sailing and any kind of odd movements, sounds or smells were minimal. The ship itself wasn’t that interesting, with just a restaurant and bar (which we paid a courtesy visit to), but the whole experience was quite the novelty.
We arrived in Ajaccio early in the morning and were able to get set up at our campsite, then set off to explore the city. Which I must say, didn’t really grab me. Granted, it was a Sunday, so there was even less going on than usual; perhaps I would have had a different impression on a different day. Nevertheless, we soon headed a little up the coast to the Iles Sanguinaires, before heading to our first beach of the trip at Porticcio, near our campground. I’m pleased to report we survived the first night in tents without incident!
The next day we drove north to the famous calanques of Piana – not dissimilar to the Rimutakas in terms of winding roads, but with the added bonus of overhanging rocks and sheer drops! We visited another beach to cool off in the afternoon and spent the evening at a very serendipitously timed concert from the Choeur de Sartène, a five-man troupe signing traditional Corsican harmonies. We ended up befriending one of the singers who took a shining to us as we were hanging around early (having been advised to get there ‘at least’ an hour beforehand to be sure to get a spot – needless to say, far from the case). Still, it paid off with front row seats and a full-on experience of the beautiful music, which was quite moving even if you didn’t understand a word they were singing. I also realised mid-concert that the fact that we were AT a concert was quite remarkable, in the Covid era. This video gives an accurate idea of the performance.
The following day worked out remarkably well despite its improvised nature; we headed to nearby Porto where we managed to get one of the last boat tours going and spent the day on the water for a very reasonable price. The first part of the tour took us around the calanques and told us a bit about the history of Corsica (for example: that despite being islanders, the Corsicans have never been seafarers but rather mountaineers). The second part went north to the Scandola natural reserve, and this part was more scientific. Unfortunately I was losing interest a little so found it hard to concentrate and appreciate the info as much. On the way back we stopped at Girolata, a little beach accessible only via boat or 8km walk, and had the world’s fastest dip during the 30 mins we had before having to report back to the boat! Once again, this beach was quite different – being covered in some kind of leaves/bark from surrounding trees rather than sand or rocks. Quite fascinating but very impractical for drying off and getting changed!
Day five called for a shakeup in proceedings and we decided to head inland to Evisa, where we swapped out beach for mountain pools, which were beautiful but ABSOLUTELY FRIGID. So, so cold. I also discovered the French belief in thermal shock, AKA that you shouldn’t go for the band-aid approach and get the discomfort over with because it might actually cause a heart attack?? Instead you should prolong the suffering by easing in little by little…slowly losing all sensation in your limbs…definitely a better option, right? WRONG. Not one I’ll be getting behind. Nonetheless, I did my oblig lap of the pool before thawing out in the sun. The next excitement came when a mummy pig and four little piglets came sniffing around looking for lunch, causing quite the kerfuffle. Fortunately they didn’t get too close to us, so townie panic didn’t fully set in; instead we enjoyed the spectacle from afar. I was a little disappointed that it was ‘only’ a pig and not an authentic Corsican boar but still, it was quite the brush with nature! We continued inland, with a little detour to see Flora’s family who were on their own camping trip, then on the main road to Calvi. In contrast to Ajaccio, which I found rather boring and lacking in vibe, Calvi had it going on! Granted it’s more touristy so possibly looked down on by others for not being so authentic, but it just seemed like a much more enticing place to spend time, with the buzz it had going on. So much so that it was next to impossible to find somewhere to eat, but once we did, it ended up being the food highlight of the trip!
Day six was possibly the hottest day of the trip, at least the sweatiest as we explored Calvi in the morning before heading to a nearby beach in the afternoon (different once again, this time being totally covered in rocks and seaweed – and fish!). Things got off to a rough start with a particularly rude beach neighbour but once she left we had quite the relaxing afternoon in the shade, and capped off the evening with a convivial dinner with our hostel mates.
The next morning we were on the road again, crossing the Desert des Agriates to Saint Florent, where we were camping again and had to arrive first in, first served for a spot. Success! Once we got set up we trekked into town for a little explore and after the worst meal of the trip, were back on the sea again. This time it was a rollercoaster-esque jetboat to the plage de Saleccia, another one that is only accessible by boat or track. It was absolutely packed, which spoiled the charm a little, but right at the end had quite the labyrinth of rocks and fish to explore. I did get serious Finding Nemo vibes though from the sudden drop off into ‘the deep’. From Saleccia we headed on foot to the plage de Lotu, where we were getting collected for our boat back. This was a bit of a fail with very unclear signage/paths and rising panic that we were going to get lost and miss our boat, the last one of the day. BUT everything worked out fine (and the boat was late, of course). We inadvertently ended up on the inland track rather than the coastal walkway we were hoping for, but it was arguably more interesting. Back to camp and I don’t remember exactly what happened but we ended up cooking dinner on the camping stove in the dark at 10pm. Are we real campers yet?!
The next day we ended up spending the whole day at the beach. I DO remember how that happened. As it was literally across the road, we felt we had to go for a pre-breakfast dip on principle. And we ended up staying all day! So good just to nip across the road whenever we needed supplies, and constantly go from sea-sun-shade, having snagged a good spot early on and just rotating slightly as the sun moved. Flora brought out the lilo at last which meant everything we had in the boot of the car had been used! Amazingly, this humble little beach ended up having the most impressive concentration of fish to swim amongst, right at the end by the seawall. We both agreed this was (surprisingly) the best beach of the trip. We did manage to drag ourselves away and back into town to celebrate the final night of the trip with a sophisticated drink or two at a very nice tapas bar. To top it all off for Flora, the Lyon football match she’d been thinking about all trip happened to be broadcast on the big screen at the local bar, so we joined the crowds in the street to watch that (well, she did, I found a nearby bench to sit on for the second half).
The final day of the trip was another drive day, which the added ‘excitement’ (=stress) of the car being low on petrol. We set off on a tour of the Cap Corse. We didn’t make it round the whole thing, but we did stop by the Tour de Sénèque (in a word: underwhelming) before making it safely down to civilisation and a petrol station. From there I was off back to the mainland from Bastia airport and Flora headed south to met her family.
Overall I’d say that the road trip was a great success, the perfect blend of planning the essentials (accommodation, how much time we thought we’d need in each place) and going with the flow each day. There were very few tourists, and it was less expensive than I expected – though there was an island-wide ‘our eftpos is down, could you use cash please’ conspiracy going on. Masks were obligatory in the cities and in shops etc, but not when at the beach. Temperatures were in the low 30s, which was just right! As was the length of time, I felt. Just enough to see a decent chunk of the place, but moving on to a new adventure before I started getting a little tired of beaching every day.
ILE DE RE
After a whirlwind stop back in Lyon to essentially do laundry and get a good night’s sleep, it was off again for part two of the summer adventure: Ile de Ré. Ile de Ré is an island situated off La Rochelle on the Atlantic Coast, approximately 30km long. I mention this as you don’t really realise the scale of the place until you’re there. The island has a special eco-friendly status and although cars can come to the island (with a significant toll on the bridge), the main way to get around is by bike. It’s made up of a whole lot of villages which gives it a quaint, cosy feel, but some of them are actually pretty far-flung!
First though I headed to Paris, where I met up with my friend Sarah for a day in the big smoke before we headed down to the island. Our trip just happened to line up with the last day my friend Xavier was there visiting his family, so we were able to spend the day larking about together, mostly near Saint-Martin-de-Ré. From there we headed to Ars-en-Ré where we were staying in an incredible bed and breakfast with the most wonderful hosts that I truly can’t recommend highly enough: Le Havre du Capitaine. What we found as basically the last room available on the island turned out to absolutely exceed all expectations! The price already seemed very reasonable (and surprising) but we were truly blown away. We really felt like we were in a home away from home, with a small yet comfortable room, homemade breakfast in the garden, bike racks and washing line at our disposal – something you wouldn’t necessarily think of, but were definitely glad to have! Best of all we struck up a fantastic rapport with Eric who was on breakfast duty. While at first we weren’t sure if he was just tolerating us and our boundless enthusiasm and questions, by the end we were sure it went both ways!
Back to business and armed with advice from Eric, day two saw us set off on our bikes for a tour of the northwestern part of the island, meandering through the salt marshes, beach forest tracks and little villages. We only took a wrong turn once (or rather, didn’t turn where we should have, BECAUSE THERE WAS NO SIGN) which Eric had a good chortle at – classic tourist rite of passage it seems. After cycling all day and never being near a beach at the right time (due to it being the period of extreme tides), we trekked off to the one closest to our house for a quick dip on principle. GRAVE ERROR. Long story short: got absolutely massacred by a giant wave due simply to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bruising, bleeding, and indecent exposure occurred. What hurt the most though was that my newly minted goggle got swept off my head and out into the Atlantic. RIP August 2020-August 2020.
On Eric’s insistence we went to Loix on day three (‘there’ll be too many people there tomorrow!’) where we didn’t visit the salt museum due to bad timing/a horrible reception lady but we DID eat some delicious tartines at the bakery he recommended! We also made it to another beach right on time as dictated by Eric, but while the waves WERE smaller than the day before, the current was still pretty bloody strong and we were sufficiently traumatised enough to not hang about. I was so mad at the universe!
Our last full day on the island was spent exploring our village of Ars-en-Ré, at last! Clearly the best and most photogenic on the island. Cue photos galore. We really made the most of our bnb that day, making several trips back and forth with and without the bikes, to get food, to eat in the garden, change over bags, etc. Finally we headed back to the lighthouse for one last icecream, and miraculously there was not a single person waiting in line, so we went straight up. I managed to forget my camera on the bed though, so alas no great panoramic shots.
On our final morning we started the long trip home with a long and winding bus off the island to La Rochelle, where we had lunch and meandered until it was time for our train. Sarah and I parted ways in Paris where I was promptly pickpocketed (RIP wallet) before I’d even got onto the metro to the second train station. As if I needed a sign that the holidays were over…
Despite the unfortunate end to my holidays, la rentrée, or return to work/school post-summer, was a blissful time where life was pretty much ‘normal’ with the addition of obligatory masks everywhere. Unsurprisingly, the fact that everyone had been encouraged to go on holiday (albeit in France) and that everyone was now back to school meant that it was only a matter of time before Covid numbers started rising again, and restrictions ramping up again. Late October a national lockdown was announced again, although this one had a little more flexibility than the previous one, with many more people continuing to go to work, for example. As I write this, lockdown is over again and we’re back to a curfew, but restaurants, bars, gyms and all cultural establishments are still closed, so you can pretty much only leave your house to go to work or go shopping. The situation isn’t going to change again until at least January 20th, by which time the full effect of holiday season mixing and mingling will be apparent. I don’t think any of us have much hope for things getting better, rather than worse.
Closer to home, my first brush with Covid came in September, when my flatmate Yoann tested positive. We all had to get tested (negative) and stay at home for two weeks. Fast forward one month, and it was my turn! Like Yoann, I fortunately had a mild run of things – I spent a weekend in bed with a fever, headache and muscle pain, and by the Monday just felt fatigued really. Also like Yoann, my first test was ‘inconclusive’, so I had to get a second one done. By the time I finally got the confirmed results, I was pretty much back to normal. By pure coincidence I had the following week off work and although plans to visit friends were scuppered by the new lockdown announcement, it was quite good to be forced to do nothing and recuperate (as I am famously not good at!).
Despite the general doom and gloom of the last few paragraphs (and months), it’s not all bad! I’ve just spent a lovely couple of days away for Christmas with my friend Karen, who’s Irish. While most around us were in turmoil about Christmas plans being complicated this year, we found a lovely airbnb in Chambéry (an hour and a half from Lyon) for a cosy, drama-free getaway! Our host definitely thought we were a little odd when she saw the amount of gear we had with us, but no regrets, the place looked Christmassy, felt like home, and we cooked up an absolute storm. We even stumbled across a wholesome bell concert on Christmas morning, and while no snow settled on the ground, it was definitely floating around in the air. All in all, a very merry Christmas indeed!
As lovely as this winter Christmas was though, it’s just not the same as the downunder way. This time last year I was camping with my friends in NZ and saw in the new year under the stars. What a glorious time! Despite all the craziness, I honestly feel like this year has sped by. Here’s hoping for a happy new year and safe, unremarkable 2021 for all!