It’s been a few days of contrast for us since our last post. From the flat French mediterranean coast, up into the mountains, down into the Gorge du Verdon that cuts through said mountains, and then down to Monaco, along the French coast to Genoa, where we camped in the hills amongst redwoods. We spent last night and today traversing the Italian coastal towns of the Cinque Terre, and their accompanying vineyards terraced high above the sea. We moved onto a campsite outside of Florence, which also happens to have a section of cabins that belongs to the Contiki tour company. There are three bus-loads worth of pre-drunk 18-35 year old Australians swarming the place, but luckily the campsite owner told us where to park so that we can’t see or hear them, and it works. We did a half-hearted tour of Florence (it was hot and we were tired), and now we’re sitting by the campground pool in Siena.
Adventure Sports Time
I don’t consider myself a particularly brave person when it comes to heights, so when I jumped off of a 6 meter (18 foot) rock into shallow water not once, but twice, I admit that I was quite chuffed with myself. It was peer pressure that made me do it. Backing up, the Gorge du Verdon in southern France is a spectacular, you guessed it, gorge that is up to a kilometre (800 feet) deep at some points. It’s crowning feature is the Verdon, which is a magical green/blue river that runs down the middle. Luke and I decided to explore it in two ways: By hiking and canyoning.
For the hike, we started at the top of the gorge, walked down to the river, and back up again, an elevation change of 460 metres each way. We cheerfully joked as we descended that it was really going to hurt on the way back up. It did. I would like to brag that Luke ran the last 20 minutes up, just for some extra fitness. I went slower and tried to have conversations with the lime-green butterflies (they said to say hi.) But the gorge at the bottom was well worth it. See photographic evidence below.
As for the canyoning: for those of you who haven’t previously been annoyed by our repetitive canyoning stories (we’ve done it twice before), canyoning is basically just walking down the middle of a river/stream that’s in a canyon. It involves jumping off rocks, sliding down waterfalls, swimming, some abseiling, and general silliness. We wanted to canyon down the main Verdon gorge, but unfortunately the power company upstream had let water out the dam off schedule, flooding the river dangerously. Instead, we canyoned down an equally beautiful tributary. There’s no photographic evidence of this journey, sadly, but suffice to say the canyon was made of lily white rocks (limestone!) and crystal clear blue/green water.
We took to the canyon with 8 friendly French people, including our guide. We found friends in the most adorable teenage sisters, who giggled when they saw Luke braiding my hair, and then insisted on helping me get my wetsuit on. They took it upon themselves to translate everything for us (“Log underneath here!” “Jump to the left, there’s a rock to the right!” “Careful, slippery!” “Only small people through this waterfall running through the slit in the rock and under some boulders, Luke must climb over and jump!”) When we got to the 6 metre jump, I thought about chickening out. I did it, though (as did Luke of course). It feels like you’ll never hit the water. Just as I thought I was done, triumphantly swimming towards the clapping group, the adorable sisters called my name to clamber up the rocks with them and do it again. I was peer pressured. I did it again. (To be fair, it was really fun.)
Luke didn’t do the stereotypical “finding yourself” European backpacking trip in his 20’s like I did, so we joke that he’s doing it now. We’ve decided he is on a real, bonafide journey of personal exploration now that’s he’s wearing Moroccan linen (he bought it in Granada.) A person can’t find themselves without earth-tone linen tunics.
As for me, I “found myself” when I saw my heritage reflected in a fun conversation with a bunch of Italian rock climbers at a campground in La Palud sur Verdon (a small and non-touristy town in the Gorge du Verdon area). I got into a discussion with them because the woman had bright fuchsia hair. Turns out she’s a hairdresser from Bologne and, fun fact, married her husband (also present) at an Elvis chapel in Las Vegas that is now a supermarket. Anyway, they group got into a discussion about where we should go in Italy. Things got dramatic when they started to discuss wine. It was all in Italian, but I could understand them shouting, “Chianti!” “Multepulciano!” “No, Chianti!!” “No, no, no, Multepulciano!!!” while waving their arms in the air and tsking loudly. This sort of thing happened frequently in our lengthy conversation.
Other fun characters we have met along the way include a befuddled-looking Czech walker who I first met when he absentmindedly wandered into our campground, his phone dead and having taken a wrong turn. I helped him find his way (he promptly went the opposite way of what we had decided), only to run into him again two days later in a mountain village about 80 kilometres away. He said he reached it on foot. I expect to see him somewhere in Kyrgyzstan or Laos, having lost his socks or gotten stuck in a telephone booth.
Pretending to be James Bond
We did a big driving day to get from the Gorge to Genoa, Italy. It was our most diverse and probably most beautiful day of driving. We decided on a whim to pop into Monaco, as we were driving fairly close by anyway. For today’s geography lesson, we’ll learn that Monaco is
the second smallest nation in the world (after the Vatican), it is not part of the EU (but uses the Euro and doesn’t have border checks), and has enough Lamborginis and Ferraris to make the BMWs, Audis, and Porches pedestrian and unexciting. It seriously lived up to its glam hype. We didn’t eat anything or spend the night, but I could feel the money being sucked out of my pores when we passed the Monte Carlo, the famous casino that seems to cover half the country. Luke enjoyed driving on the twisty roads, pretending he was James Bond and our car was something other than a dusty Pajero with a bag of stinky laundry in the back.
Also, the drive from Monaco to Genoa, along the French Riviera: I totally get why it’s a toll road. It’s either tunnel or dizzyingly high bridge, without any normal road, for about 100 kilometres. It passes over a valley, barrels straight into the next mountain, and pops out over another deep valley. I’m happy to pay my €8,70 if it means that bridge doesn’t send me flying into the ritzy village below. Also, there are a lot of terraced greenhouses. We have learned that they grow a lot of basil, which goes into Genovese pesto, which we are binge eating.
More about driving
An Italian stereotype we were aware of prior to entering Italy was that the drivers are insane. So far, our experience has only confirmed this. According to Luke, there are two types of Italian drivers: ones that do double the speed limit, and ones that drive at half the speed limit, swerving erratically, talking to passengers or on their cell phones, gesticulating wildly with both hands (“like they are tossing a salad”, Luke says).
Shhh, they don’t want you to know about this
In closing, I would like to let you in on a conspiracy. Some devious mastermind, for unknown reasons, has been teaching all Europeans to say “funny” when they mean “fun”. Seriously, even people with otherwise 100% flawless English. We don’t yet know the goal of this widespread and mysterious conspiracy, but I’m sure it has something to do with world domination.