Travelling East, helicopters and riot police – Sarlat-la-Canéda, Volcanoes #2, Chalon-sur-Saõne, Besançon

This week continued on the sporting theme when we made use of the Sarlat-la-Canéda campsite facilities on Monday for a super tournament of table tennis, badminton and tennis in which I won not a single game 😳😂🫢. However, I put up a reasonable fight. At least I could relax with a non-competitive swim at the end.

We looked at the route east and saw it took us back in the region of the Auvergne Volcanoes Region National Park, of 395,000 hectares containing four volcanic massifs. It is also where the famous Volvic mineral water comes from. We had previously attempted the Puy-de-Dôme, the highest of the Puys chain of volcanoes on our way west from the Alps but had timed it to arrive in such low cloud the top was shrouded.

Visit #1 v the Sequel

When we left Sarlat-la-Canéda we had a little better forecast and decided to give Puy-de-Dôme a second attempt. There was still a little cloud when we arrived in the now familiar car park, but after we had a little lunch we decided to give it to. However, following the sporting theme, we decided not to take the panoramic train which carries visitors to the summit at 1465m, but the Chemin des Muletiers (ancient mule track). We had googled and it said 45mins to the top, 365m of ascent in 2km, those mules are obviously not afraid of a bit of an ascent. However, that turned out to be from a different car park, as 45 minutes into our walk, we reached that car park and the bottom of the walk 🥴

Chaîne des Puys from Puy-de-Dôme

It was a fairly steep walk from there, though the view from the top was well worth it. We could see for miles to the snow covered peaks of one of the other volcanic massifs in the distance. Plus, as is often the case, when we got to the top, the Roman’s had got there first and not just walked up, but built a temple there. Sadly little remains of the temple of Mercury and the later additions make it barely recognisable as a Roman temple. However, the sight which people make the ascent for is the view over the chain of 80 volcanoes comprising the Chaîne des Puys. It seems it was not until 1751, when Jean-Étienne from the Academy of Sciences in Paris decided to investigate the origin of volcanic rocks in the Volvic fountain, that the origin of the volcanoes was understood.

After all that walking, we decided to pick a local spot in Royat for the night to stop. Dramatically there was an ambulance and helicopter rescue occurring on-site just after we parked up. It was pretty brave in amongst all the trees. However, despite it being a spa town, Royat did not look all that appealing, so we decided to press on the next day.

After enjoying our time on the river Dordogne we had decided to try another riverside town, this time Chalon on the river Saõne. Again our first impression was less appealing, as we arrived through the docks area, big rivers being used much more for commercial transport in France in the past.

Helicopter rescue in Royat

However, further investigations of Chalon-sur-Saōne revealed a pretty old town with half timbered houses, a riverside marina and old stone bridges. We had a couple of nice runs along the river bank in the mornings and only one dunking for Lola trying unsuccessfully to chase ducks again. One poignant memory from our riverside campsite, was a single gravestone randomly on its own along the perimeter fence for a 20 year old German soldier killed far too young, in September 1944 presumably during the post D-day liberation of the area by the Allies. It was odd to find a single grave like that, presumably he was buried where he fell on the river side, though there was no more information.

On Friday, another random pick of a town by a river took us to Besançon, which we had not heard of but looked nice from the photos. It turned out to be a real gem. We pulled up in the Aire provided by the municipality for only €7 per night, with all services right beside the river and opposite the old town. Beautifully sleek and quiet electric trams run along the river, which are so nice I was tempted to find some excuse to travel on them anywhere. However, we opted for a walk around the town. The old town is in the ultimate defensive position built inside a loop on the river Le Doubs. The narrow exposed “neck” has a hill on which Vauban built one of his famous citadels.


Apparently Besançon is one of the 12 of the fortifications built by Vauban have become UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I think we must have visited a good percentage of the rest of them in the last couple of years too. The town which has occupied the rest of the land within the bend of the river is a lovely mixture of grand stone buildings, churches, cathedrals and large sunny town squares. We enjoyed a wander around the street with lots of independent shops and pavement cafés. It is always nice when you arrive with no knowledge of a town and no expectations and find it is so charming and pretty. Glimpses of Roman remains with remnants of a theatre and an arch, as we follow their path through Gaul.

We decided after a reviving cup of tea or two back at the van to return for aperitif into Besançon old town in the evening. We got the perfect window seat position in the Pub de l’Étoile, people watching the flow coming and going over the old Pont Battant bridge. Impressed at how popular and busy this largely traffic-free city was on a Friday evening. Commuters passed on their practical sit-up-and-beg bikes and those dressed for the evening crossed the river in search of aperitif.


However, the Friday night flow was shortly to be abruptly disrupted by the arrival of four police vans with blue lights flashing coming through the pedestrianised area and over the bridge blocking the entrance, usually reserved for trams. We looked up the street to see what on earth could possibly warrant such a display on a quiet and peaceful Friday evening. We saw a group of people and a small fire just a little up the street opposite the police cordon.

Protests in Besançon

It was then we remembered reading that morning that the vote for the increase of the French pension age from 62 to 64 years was being held that day by the Constitutional Committee. President Macron having controversially used his veto to bypass a vote in parliament, that day’s vote would be one of the final stages to enable the legislation. It had presumably already been completed by the evening, but undoubtedly this must have been the cause of the protest. Having grown up with headlines of port-blockades and cars torched in the streets in French protests you cannot help but admire the French national spirit in not taking such life changing events lying down.

Besançon citadel by Vauban

If we were running a proper travel blog with sponsorship and follower stats and monetisation, I would probably have to had to dash out into the street to pose looking worried in front of the blue lights and fire for a suitably click-bait friendly headline. Thankfully, I could sit with my Aperol Spritz and watch the fire brigade arrive and put the fire out which seemed to disperse the crowds and the whole thing was over in about 20 minutes. It was a little disappointing a display from the heroic French protestors we read about to be honest and it makes you wonder a little what the reality behind some of those headlines actually looks like.

The following morning, as per forecast it was raining heavily, with 100% chance of rain for most of the rest of the day. It seemed like a sensible time to get some more miles east in, so we set a course for Colmar. Again, we know little of the town but the photos look pretty. We actually managed to out run the rain and arrived to another lovely campsite by river, as the nearby Aire apparently charges to dispose of black waste and the consequences of the evasion of the charge are not pretty 🤢 We settled down in the afternoon for one of the last weekends of the rugby premiership season.

Beautiful sunset at our campsite in Colmar

After a lovely run along the river this morning, we went into Colmar to explore this afternoon. The whole town had gone big on Easter decorations with some sort of craft market on through the centre of town. The old town of Colmar is full of pretty colourful half wood houses and a small canal system earning the predictable nickname of Little Venice. It was a rapid walking tour of 4.5 miles from the campsite before the rain restarted and the Leicester v Exeter rugby started.

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