Monday 13th June.
What a great drive today! Yesterday in Susa we met another English couple who were planning the same route as us into France, basically avoiding the Frejus tunnel and the associated €47. Also it's not a lot of fun driving for 15 kilometres through a tube. We were going to call at the tourist information office this morning to check the road was open but they beat us to it and reported back that the office was closed (Monday) but they would set off and text us the outcome. We set off for some last minute Italian shopping and received a text to say they were in France and the road was open.
We set off and climbed to over 2,000 metres through some spectacular scenery with the snow covered Alps all around us and stopped for coffee at the top of the pass, the massif is over 3,500m! This alpine pass has been used since the Middle Ages by pilgrims travelling from France to Turin and onwards to Rome. The first ever Fell mountain railway system was built here alongside the road in the late C19th, designed and built by an Englishman and operated by English drivers. Unfortunately it was closed three years later when the Frejus rail tunnel was opened - bad timing eh? The road over the pass was built in the early C19th by Napoleon and formed the border between France and Italy until 1947. The border is now located a few kilometres back toward Susa and we were waved through the customs post with a cheery wave as we drove by this morning. This pass was the principal route for crossing the Alps between France and Italy until the late nineteenth century and a series of forts, of which one remains and is being renovated, testify to the strategic importance of the district. But forget all this modern history with mules and wagons and engineers, roads and railways. Close your eyes and think back 2,000 years and whose coming over the top? Why it's Hannibal, of course, taking the war to the Romans. Many of Hannibal's marches are subject to debate but the folk round here reckon he came through this pass, they celebrate it accordingly and I'm not going to argue with them.
Views from the pass including the tourist office/church (closed Monday!)
From Mont Cenis we dropped down through Ski resorts to Mondane and joined the Route des Grand Alps and after an hour or so ended up here (45.27954 6.34666) at Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. We haven't really explored the town because we spent the afternoon in the Opinel museum. Everybody knows Opinel, they make the penknives with the wooden handle and locking steel bands. Old Mr Opinel started off making nails not too far from here but being an ambitious kind of chap branched out into farm tools and knives. Over a hundred years later his descendants have dropped the nails and farm tools and get through 300 tons of steel a year making penknives and cutlery. Old man Opinel and his sons were at the cutting edge (sorry) of knife design and manufacture and had a few marketing skills up their sleeves as well and despite setbacks - one factory burnt down, they were using waste wood chippings to heat it - they probably sell more penknives today than anyone except Vitrinox. The museum houses some of the old machinery, there's a guide in English and an excellent short film with English subtitles. Best of all, it's open on Mondays!!
The view from our parking spot tonight:
Last evening and this morning in Susa it was pretty windy. This morning as we were getting ready to leave an Italian guy came up and started talking to me, my blank expression told him I wasn't a fellow countryman. "Where are you from, France, Germany, England?" I told him I was English. "Ah, this wind it doesn't know when to stop and summer doesn't know when to start. Shitty weather. How's my English?" I told him it was very good. Whilst it was gloriously sunny if a little cool up in the mountains today now, down to 600 metres in the valley, it's been overcast and it's been raining now for a couple of hours. But we're a long way from Greece and I guess we'd better get used to this "shitty" weather for a few weeks or months now.
Tuesday 14th June.
Before we set off this morning a man on the bench next to where we were parked said to Phil "No sun today." We seem to be attracting random weather forecasters. He was true to his word as we drove between the Alps in a big loop down to Grenoble and then up and round following the river L'Isere and on toward Valence. Not the most spectacular journey but pleasant enough. We avoided the toll roads and a little way after Grenoble pulled into a parking area for a bite to eat and a coffee. As we parked a young lady at the end of the car park rose from her plastic chair and glared at us. She was dressed all in yellow, apart from her white stilettos, wearing an extremely short skirt. Ahh, we're in her place of business! We reversed back as far as we could so potential punters could get a good look at her. Within a few minutes a car screamed into the car park, she jumped in, the car screamed off and that's as far as I want to speculate. Folk have to earn a living how they can eh?
We haven't stopped on a vineyard for a while and thought we would rectify that today. Last night we had a look in our France Passion book and saw that Domaine du Chateau Vieux was on our way to our daughter's house. As usual the last mile or so involves narrow single track roads but we finally arrived. The guide said the owners spoke English but we've been caught out with that one before. But we arrived, parked up and I set off in search of an English speaking wine maker. There he was and he spoke English and informed me that they were no longer part of the France Passion scheme! We haven't bought this year's book because nobody has ever asked us to produce the appropriate documents on any of the vineyards we've stopped on so we were unaware that he wasn't in the 2016 edition. But, no problem if you'd like to stop the night he said. Excellent, we parked up in a lovely area looking over the vineyard, had a cup of tea and then went to the cave to see "My woman" who let us sample the wines they produce. Ten minutes later and a few euros lighter we lugged half a dozen bottles of AOC Saint-Joseph "Les Rivoires" 2014 back to the van. It wasn't cheap but it was delicious and probably would be fifty percent dearer in a supermarket here and at least double or treble the price in England. We've decided that we can always buy acceptable cheap wine in supermarkets here but if we're on a vineyard it's worth pushing the boat out for something that little bit better.
And the car park bench weather forecaster wasn't entirely correct, from when we parked up here (45.09945 5.11799) at about three o'clock the sun hasn't stopped shining. And it's been hot!
Our view over the vineyard:
Wednesday 15th June.
A short drive today with a stop to empty those things that need emptying and here we are now at our daughter's house in St Etienne. We'll probably stay here until next Tuesday, which means I can watch the next England match on the telly. Back on the blog in a week.