3 Nights in Martigny

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Tuesday 24 June 2014

3 Nights in Martigny

Crossing the French/Swiss border from Pontarlier late on Tuesday evening, we followed the coordinates from our camping guide into the nearby hills, driving up more than 1000m on forested roads to the pretty village of Sainte-Croixe. Having spent the previous week living on permissive car parks in towns, we were delighted to find our new base for the evening, although still a car park, was set against  distant hills and surrounded by fields and forest. Better still the motorhome spaces offered had free water and electric hook up as well so we could make full use of our vans facilities.

After a peaceful night we woke to sunshine and to the sound of cow bells. We enjoyed a relaxing morning, jogging in the hills, powering up our juicer for the first time in the van and even taking a hot shower. Sainte-Croixe was a picturesque and peaceful village and the numerous walking signposts dotted through the village coupled with the excellent camping spot did tempt us to stay longer. However, we were also eager to get to the high mountains so decided to move on.

Taking inspiration from our other Dutch guide book, 75 Beautiful Camper Tours in Europe, we settled on Martigny at the head of the Valais region as a good starting point before moving east through the mountains. However, unlike the guides itinerary we had no intention of racing though the Valais in just a few days, but instead planned to take things slowly and see what was available.

Driving south past Lausanne we got out first exciting glimpse of the alpine peaks high above and covered in snow. We arrived fairly late on Wednesday and made our way to the permitted camping which was another car park in the city. Unfortunately this time there seems to have been some reorganising since our guide was published as the facilities listed were missing, but encouraged by the half dozen other campers already there we made ourselves as home.

By now the  sun was setting but there was still enough light to reveal
dozens of snow capped summits visible from the city so on advice from a very friendly local, Daniel, who gave us a parking permit and tourist brochure, we decided to take a twilight stroll on his advice. We immediately stumbled upon a fairly complete Roman amphitheatre 50m away from our van. We were surprised to find it completely open to visitors and we took the time to amble around. It was an imposing place which we felt anywhere else would be closed off and charging admission fees. Later as we headed into the town centre to check the location of the tourist info, we passed dozens of other Roman ruins all equally open to the public and in many places with new buildings constructed sympathetically around them. For example, a sports centre was built partially on stilts as a ruin ran beneath one corner of the building. Over the days ahead we would learn just how important a Roman centre Martigny had been, with Julius Caesar originally sending troops here to control the trading lines in 45 AD and as a stopping off point for Britain! We actually found the remains of a Roman road with a signpost marking "Londinium".

The following morning we headed back into town to visit the tourist info. 19th June was a local holiday day so we were able to leave the motorhome where we'd slept all day rather than the normal 5 hour max disc parking system, which was handy. Emilio in the tourist info office was incredibly helpful and we were very impressed with the quality of the handouts available in terms of detail and scope showing walks, history, museums, etc. We left, having used the free WiFi, loaded up with leaflets and resolving to stay a few days.

Since the weather was amazing we planned to try a hike to one of the local cols about 1300m up that afternoon, but as we got back to the van we bumped into a Tasmanian couple in a motorhome and ended up enjoying an afternoon having a tea with them instead. Going with our plan of letting the people we meet guide our steps, Graham and Freya were full of ideas and passed on even more guides they'd picked up in France.

Saying farewell by early evening we had dinner and decided to make the most of the fine weather and try the shorter "Vineyards trail" , a 6km loop on the lower slopes surrounding the town covered in terraced vineyards. Apparently Martigny wine has won awards.  Starting by the river and heading up past Chateau de la Batiaz, an imposing 800 year old fortress, the route started steeply but immediately revealed a whole new perspective. Looking east down the Rhône valley, the farms of the valley bottom stretched away and were framed by the bowl of the hills and  the numerous 4000m plus peaks in the distance. The walk took 90 minutes or so, with a detour through Martigny old town, infamous as being the location of the last public execution  in 1840, but also a pretty walk along narrow streets almost Italian in style. A quick trip into town to use the free city centre wifi and take in the atmosphere of the cafes rounded off our first full day here.

Friday was the opening day of a Renoir exhibition at the Foundation Pierre Gianadda museum which our tourist info friend Emilio had described as "like our Louvre". The hundreds of Renoir banners in town were also hard to miss and since we were currently living in the museum car park (the location of the permissive camping) we decided to give it a go. Also, we had planned this year to try and visit a few art museums if we came across them. In addition to the Renoir they also have a permanent exhibition including Picasso, Van Gogh, Toulouse Letrec and others alongside a sculpture park, car museum and Da Vinci exhibition. There isn't space here to go into much detail but we had a great time, spending about 4 hours and felt it was excellent value at about £13 each.  I'll write more about our time there in a separate post.

After a break for lunch we ambled back into town in the sunshine to pay a final visit to tourist info in search of charge for our camera. One of the hazards of free campings in car parks is the lack of mains power and we don't currently have an inverter to use 230V supply from our 12V leisure battery. We were pleased to find Emilio working again and told him about our time at the museum and vineyards walk. It was really touching that as we left as the office closed he even ran after us to ask where we were heading next and give us further recommendations of walks in his home area, Verbier.

Later that evening, on our last night in Martigny, we took one final stroll into town to enjoy the festival atmosphere as Switzerland played France in the World Cup. It was party time as Friday night and football combined and we enjoyed being a neutral observer.

The following morning we got ready to move east to the picturesque village of Grimentz at the top of one of the mountain passes that we'd learned about in the extensive guides from tourist info.  We could easily have spent more time in Martigny where we had felt so relaxed and 'on holiday' for the first time, but it also felt like the right time to move on and get closer to the peaks on the horizon.

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