Monthly Archives: Jan 2017

Saint Just, Sommieres and Boisseron

Saint Just, Sommieres and Boisseron

We woke up in our aire in Villeneuve les Maguelone to the delightful news that, as our privacy blinds were shut and our displayed ticket on the dashboard was partially obscured, we had a police message on our windscreen notifying us that a spot fine would be sent to our vehicle’s registered address for non-compliance with the site’s rules.  (Good luck with that).  Next up, the services we had paid for in the cost of the ticket were also all out of order, water taps turned off and grates frozen solid so there was no way to empty Benny’s waste.  All in all, not quite the experience you hope for in a paid commercial aire, especially considering how hard they made us work to pay for our entry to the aire in the first instance.la-grand-motte-beach

We left early, glad to be away, and hugged the coast south then east along to La Grand Motte.  This area was filled with small waterways and pleasure boats, with lots of ‘futuristic’ apartment blocks, looking like Star Wars transporters, lining the streets.  The beach here is said to be beautiful but unusable for sunbathing as high winds batter it continually, even in the height of summer. We stopped for a few minutes to have a look at the sea and along the narrow expanse of sand, but it was a very cold morning so we didn’t walk far.  Passing on through, we turned north to the town of Lunel and then a little way back west to the small, rural village of Saint Just, on a remembrance pilgrimage of sorts.

saint-just-signage

saint-just-church

Many years ago, Nicky had a French school exchange visit to this village when she was fifteen, staying there with a local family who owned and ran the local Boulangerie.  When Nicky’s Mum and Dad dropped her off at their house, she was the only English person in the small French village for two full weeks.  She spoke only French the entire time, a total immersion experience.  The first week included a local village festival involving dancing, bull fighting, Camargue horse running and barbecues.  The second week was more wide-reaching, with visits to the local towns of Nîmes, Montpellier and La Grand Motte.  All the time she was loving the experience of living above a busy boulangerie and patisserie, building indelible memories of France.

saint-just-boulangerie

She returned the following summer for a few more weeks, and got to know Sophie, her extended family and her circle of friends quite well.  She had since lost touch for many years but through the magic of Facebook, she contacted the bakery recently and got reconnected with Sophie, who now lived with her own family in the nearby village of Boisseron.  She hadn’t strayed too far from the original family business though, and now runs her own boulangerie in her new town.

saint-just-town-hall

We walked around the centre of Saint-Just, allowing Nicky to reminisce on the changes since, and the similarities remaining, to her time there. Nicky recited stories of what the gathered local youngsters did in this yard, or what happened over here, of being made to buy cigarettes for the local kids in the Tabac, so their parents wouldn’t find out they were smoking.  We nervously went into the boulangerie, and Nicky talked to the lady behind the counter.  It turned out that Sophie’s parents had now retired, and her brother managed the boulangerie.  After much chatting, with some members of the forming queue getting involved and interested in the story, we left Nicky’s village of teenage memories to meet up with Sophie.

saint-just-30-years-ago

On the way we drove a little way north, to the village of Sommieres for a short visit, as we had heard it was a pretty town.  On our way we passed a horrific traffic accident site.  The air-ambulance helicopter was circling and landed just as we passed by in stop-start traffic.  One of the cars involved was totally destroyed, only the engine block and chassis making it recognisable.  The wreckage was surely not survivable, although we never did find out for sure.

sommieres-town-hall

Our initial view of Sommieres as we arrived didn’t disappoint, as we crossed the narrow bridge into town.  The Mairie and an adjacent stone clock tower sat directly in front of us, lit up beautifully in the early afternoon sun.  They were framed with tall plane trees and draped with flags, and looking very French.  We parked up in a free aire by the river and walked back into the centre, enjoying the fresh, chilly air as we passed through the lovely squares and cobbled streets.  We climbed up through the town to a castle on the hill behind to bask in the fantastic vista over the roofscape.

sommieres-streets

We headed next to the village of Boisseron to our pre-arranged meeting with Sophie.  The whole conversation was carried out in French, with Nicky handling herself comfortably and providing intermittent translations into English for her less linguistically-gifted husband.  After an excited reunion and the introductions of husbands the girls, busily reliving their teenage memories, settled into easy conversation.  They enjoyed reminiscing and chatting about Sophie’s family, friends and the intervening thirty years, and Sophie kindly invited us to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening with them, so we pulled Benny onto the drive to overnight.

boisseron-black-bulls

We later went with Sophie for a cold, dusk walk around some local Roman ruins, where we saw many black Camargue bulls in nearby fields.  They were bred on this farm for use in competitions, called la course Camarguaise.  In comparison to Spanish bullfighting, the aim of the Camargue matador, the raseteur, is to pluck a red ribbon from between the bull’s horns as it runs wild in the arena.  Béziers, Arles and Nîmes are all centres for local bullfighting, the Roman built arenas still being put to good use.  Although traumatised and irate, the bulls aren’t physically injured, but for the men trying to collect the ribbons it can be an extremely dangerous activity. A dozen raseteurs, all dressed in white, spread out around the arena, calling out to bull to gain its attention and focus, before attempting their steal. They then have to leap up into the stands to escape the charging bull and, hopefully, avoid injury.  The raseteur who retrieves the most ribbons is then celebrated in local folklore for the coming year.

boisseron-bulls-at-sunset

Later we all had pizza and red wine, as the chat continued, followed by tastings of French whisky.  The chat all night was entirely in French.  I could understand partially what was being said, but Nicky continued translating for me on occasion so I could keep track of most of the conversation.

boisseron-nicky-and-sophie

The following morning their pool was entirely frozen over from the low overnight temperatures.  The current weather, Sophie explained, was a rare freak occurrence, the previous January being generally in the mid-teens and mild, rather than the minus five we had been experiencing.  We said our goodbyes to Sophie and her family over a hearty breakfast of bread, jam and croissants from their boulangerie, then drove east to the local city of Nîmes for our next adventure.

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Béziers and Montpellier

Béziers

We left the stark, windy inlet aire at Gruissan under dark grey skies and headed first north, then east.  We passed near to Narbonne again before turning right to visit the nearby city of Béziers.  After our now obligatory fruitless drive around the centre, we finally got parked on the side of a wide road just south of the city, an ideal spot that suited larger vehicles beautifully; a good find and an easy five minute’s walk back to the city centre.

beziers-approach-by-bridge

beziers-main-church

We crossed a stone bridge over the wide river, heading directly at the intimidating, elevated cathedral on the hill that dominates the city.  There were three other similar bridges carrying traffic into the city, all looking busy.  Our first thought was to gain height, to enjoy the views and get our bearings.  We found a set of stone steps leading up the side of the rockface and followed them upwards.  They led on to a road, then a narrow side street where we suddenly arrived in a wide plaza with expansive views over the countryside and the rooftops of the city.  This plaza sat directly in front of the tall church we had been seeing on our walk in, standing tall and dominating the square.

beziers-cloisters

beziers-gardens

We passed through a small archway and found a passage leading to sheltered cloisters to the side of the church.  These covered arches then led on to open formal gardens that presented views out over the city roofscape and the river with its many bridges.  We wandered back around the small backstreets into the centre, where Christmas was in the process of being dismantled.  Some very large, each around 5m high, Santas and Snowmen remained on display in prominent places. We walked from the distinctive Town Hall down an impressive avenue lined with large, mature but leafless plane trees to where a holiday season ice-rink was also being removed.  A steady trickle of water from the discarded melting ice and a large plastic polar bear in fearsome attack pose still marked the spot.

beziers-city-overview

beziers-main-pedestrian-avenue

This street led to another very large square, lined with small shops and houses, that had small streets leading off in many directions.  We followed a few, circling around the nearby streets to see a small portion of the city and grasp a little of its flavour and ambiance.  Eventually we ended up back near the church in the historic quarter, to enjoy the views again before making our way back to Benny.

beziers-town-hall

beziers-town-and-bridge

We drove on to an aire that we planned to be our stop for the night, near the town of Sète, but it was bleak, exposed and empty, and was surprisingly still charging at this time of year, so we decided to move on.  We drove through Sète, quite possibly the most anti-motorhome city in France, with every parking space in town being closed off, ugly and wastefully, with individual height restricting barriers to prevent camping-cars from stopping.  Where there were no barriers and ample space, instead large signs declared with no possible confusion that camping cars were ‘interdit’. Again, we moved on, feeling like pariahs, unable even to stop for a short time to have a bite of lunch or to stretch our legs and see any of the busy seaside town.

Montpellier

We continued on along the coast road, hungry and frustrated, to reach the village of Villeneuve les Maguelone, a few miles south of the city, to utilise a commercial aire for a few days. What followed was a tragi-comedy of errors, involving French bureaucracy and small streets; the pay machine at the unmanned aire gate didn’t have the facility to accept cash, and despite their signs saying they accept Visa and MasterCard and all our best efforts, it simply refused to allow us to pay to gain access, trying four different cards.  We asked a passing local Gendarme who confirmed it was possible to purchase a ticket at the Town Hall, so we drove to the centre to see. We parked on a narrow street in a marked bay whilst Nicky jumped out to buy our ticket.

The town hall told her we had to go to another local office, so Nicky did, but on arrival there they said the person who normally sells the tickets was on holiday.  They had to send word back to the town hall for someone else to come over, and eventually a new person appeared from the original booth Nicky had first visited. But the only computer capable of selling the ticket had a dodgy screen, so nothing could be issued until this was resolved.  Cue another techie person dispatched from the thankfully nearby town hall to fix this screen so the first person could then begin the laborious process of selling us our entry ticket.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the road, the narrow streets normally used by tiny French cars suddenly had a large city bus arrive that was unable to pass our parked up motorhome. So I had to drive off, with no idea where to go next, to allow it to pass.  I quickly pulled into a small parking area a few hundred metres further on to be out of its way, but was immediately followed in by several cars who left no space to turn, and the only road onwards was much too narrow for Benny to negotiate. After much teeth-gnashing and complicated, delicate manoeuvring I finally got turned around, only to find another impatient queue of non-indicating but stationary traffic apparently waiting to turn into the same tiny street, so having them reverse to allow me back out was the only option.

When I finally escaped the cramped town centre, found a suitable parking space and walked the long distance back into town, we had still not managed to obtain the elusive aire ticket. We sat for many more minutes whilst four staffers buzzed around the one broken computer screen, as if their dance might appease the computer gods so they would permit access.  For want of a working pay machine at the aire the town instead had traffic flow blocked and four municipal staff members tied up for over an hour to sell one €10 ticket to visiting tourists; what a palaver.

After the drama of getting parked up we felt like doing nothing more today but buying lots of bread and wine, and consuming it.  This was exactly what we did, along with planning a trip by bus to Montpellier the following morning.

montpellier-city-streets

Early next morning, with much less drama, we bought tickets and caught an early bus to a travel hub stop called Garcia Lorca, a few kilometres shy of the historic centre.  We then hopped on a tram that circles the centre on the same single ticket. On a bit of a whim we jumped off the smooth, modern tram a stop earlier than we originally planned, at Rondelet, and walked in from here. We found the Rue Jean Moulin, a wide commercial lane with many fancy boutiques and Artisan shops.  We passed the Place de la Comédie and proceeded through the pretty Jardins du Champ de Mars to the Le Corum Opera House. We climbed the external stairs to the roof terrace of the building that offered great views over the city.  It was also home to a helicopter landing pad, should we ever wish to quickly return in style to watch a performance.

montpellier-monument

montpellier-central-gardens

We passed through the central market place, busy with commerce.  We wandered the wide boulevards and tree lined avenues skirting around the edge of the centre, before delving into the narrow, older streets that led around darker corners. We reached the inpressive Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, built originally as a monastery in 1364, later becoming a cathedral in 1536.  The dominant portico was supported by two wide diameter circular columns more in the guise of a solid, medieval fortress.

montpellier-cathedral-doors

montpellier-cathedral

We walked on, along grand, tall streets with a real Paris flavour, all solidly paved with marble and stone.  We arrived at the Arc de Triomphe square, and circled through the adjacent Place Royale du Peyrou with its small chateau building and huge aqueduct built in 1754 to supply the city with water from springs in the nearby town of Saint-Clément.

montpellier-arc-de-triumph

montpellier-bridge

Before catching the tram and bus back to Villeneuve les Maguelone, we had a final stop through Antigone, a huge 1970s experimental building project consisting of housing, shops and offices all conceived and laid out in a grand Neo-Classical style.  Whilst it was quite opulent and formal, we found it cold and detached, not a particularly compelling place.

montpellier-antigone

Montpellier was recently designated one of the most desirable places to live in France, likely due to climate, geographical position and employment opportunities.  It was not difficult to see why.  Positioned near the Med coast but sheltered from the worst of the winds, near the haute mountains both east and west, home of a busy, grand and actively vibrant centre with history and class to spare.  We only touched on a small portion of what Montpellier had to offer in our few hours there, but we could definitely sense the energy and love locals have for their city.

 

 

Lagrasse, Narbonne and Gruissan

Lagrasse, Narbonne and Gruissan

We tore ourselves away from our supremely comfortable nest in Jan and Andy’s house near Limoux to drive east across the mountains towards the small medieval mountain town of Lagrasse.  We rose up the snaking pass through scattered settlements and small vineyards, out into more rural, agricultural scrubland.  It was a sharply cold but bright day, the chilly air fresh and clear. Dotted piles of recently fallen snow lined the side of the road, with melting, slushy remains and small patches of bubbled ice on the otherwise black tarmac.  We drove slowly for fear of hitting unseen ice and ending on our side in one of the deep frosty ditches lining the route.  This slow movement gave us time to notice more and appreciate details easily overlooked when rushing; small birds in bare trees, brightly coloured early spring flowers nestled in the grass verge, the play of light on the swaying bamboos lining the edges of distant fields.  It was a beautiful, if unnerving at times, drive.

lagrasse-narrow-streets

lagrasse-river-and-town

Lagrasse was a tiny, medieval town with narrow streets, built around and adjacent to a popular large abbey that was unfortunately closed to visitors, like many things are, at the time of our arrival.  It was due to open again after its Christmas closure in only a few days, but we had no plans to still be here then. The medieval streets of the town were cobbled and tall, but only the width of one cart or car.  The main church was snuggled tightly right into the surrounding streets on three sides, with only a small square of one façade offering any opportunity to appreciate the full scale of the building.  One short alleyway between a neighbouring house and the church was less than a metre wide, tapering to much less at one end.

lagrasse-the-abbey

A biting, high wind ran through the whole town, leaving us sheltering into doorways and shivering between blasts, feeling suitably underdressed for the weather.  We crossed the river via a stone bridge to reach the monastery and looked in through the locked gate to see what we were missing.  We then had a short walk along the riverbank and back to town across a narrow stone causeway.  The views of the town from the opposite side of the river revealed a slightly shabby, worn but characterful façade with the look of practical solidity.  These stone buildings had withstood the ravages of time, weather and the occasional hard-flowing river for many hundreds of years, stoically standing tall.

lagrasse-local-market

The following morning we tried to pay the fee for the aire, as was noted on a small sign at the entrance. With no one around, we checked in with the helpful local Gendarme who suggested we could pay at the Mairie.  After trudging there again in high winds and spotty rain through the sodden streets it turned out to be closed on Saturdays.  The covered square outside the Mairie was hosting a small food market selling local produce that was well attended by locals. We looked around but could find no one specific to contact, so feeling we had definitely tried hard enough to part with our money, we proceeded to skip town without paying for our stay.

lagrasse-village-from-over-river

Narbonne

As usual with larger towns and cities, we circled the busily trafficked roads for a while before deciding that an out-of-town superstore car-park was definitely the best option to abandon Benny in.  We found a quiet corner away from the shops then walked the short distance into the historic centre.   First we passed the impressive Saint-Paul Basilica, nestled tightly into the surrounding houses.  We walked on with no specific goal or target, simply enjoying the winding medieval streets and the casual ambience of the town’s streets.

narbonne-cathedral

narbonne-n-at-the-canal

We crossed the Pont de Merchands barely realising it was a bridge, the shops distracting our thoughts. We had our first glimpses of Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur Cathedral from here, but instead of progressing towards it, we turned left to visit the Tourist Office and glean some local knowledge.  The views over the canal from the wonderfully positioned office were sublime, so we later walked a criss-crossed route over several small bridges to examine differing perspectives down the central waterways. We looped around past the Town Hall and various pretty squares as we continued our exploration, meandering through the tidy streets, enjoying the easy urban walking.

narbonne-town-hall

narbonne-canal-central

Directly south of the cathedral square bare plane trees, as seen in most places in France, lined the banks of the Canal de la Robine.  Even without their golden leaves, the trees were the crowning feature of the visit for us, with glimpses of the Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace Tower behind lit up behind in the early afternoon sun.  We kept walking through the historic streets, searching for interesting views and points of interest, and finding them at each turn.  Although we had no expectations on arrival, Narbonne was still a surprising delight; just large enough to be continually interesting and small enough to be comfortable, with an intriguing and intoxicating history.  This could definitely be somewhere we could happily spend more quality time in future years.

narbonne-a-at-the-central-canal

narbonne-trees-lining-canal

Gruissan

Outside of Narbonne, south east and back on the Mediterranean coast, we arrived in Gruissan.  We parked in a large gravelled aire, free at this time of year, set adjacent to a lovely marina solid with boats moored for winter.  There were many other motorhomes already parked up, clearly a popular winter haunt.  We picked out a spot with our nose facing the water and had a short walk around to get a general feel for the aire and the local area.  Then we hunkered down for the night as harsh, high winds rocked our van without respite.

gruissan-harbour

gruissan-waterfront-walk

On our second day we finally braved the weather and headed outside, to walk around the jagged circumference of the historic centre.  After completing a loop, we cut in to climb to a high stone tower, Le Château de Gruissan, offering panoramic views over the surrounding area.  High winds battered us at every turn, blasting cold air in our faces and making progress very slow.  But the sky was deep blue with white fluffy clouds so everything looked bright and clean and neat as we progressed.   A few dedicated cyclists passed us, their heads bowed into the wind, and we pitied them for the efforts it must be taking simply to stay upright, never mind to progress into the harsh wind.

gruissan-approaching-the-castle

gruissan-town-overview

The following day, after another night of wind-battered sleep, we walked down to another motorhome aire positioned closer to the coast, to find it closed at this time of year.  It was positioned right on the beach, a few kilometres away from our more central aire.  A few hardy fishermen sat on the end of the stony pier with lines in the water. We ate our lunch overlooking the neat, golden sand, sheltered from the wind on the timber porch of the Windshop, an aptly named hire joint for kite-surfing and wind-surfing fans.

gruissan-view-from-castle

gruissan-at-the-castle

We passed hundreds of holiday chalets built on a diagonal grid running parallel to the beach, all locked up and shuttered for the winter.  They all looked abandoned, but we could easily envisage the level of activity, noise and energy that this area must contain in the summer months.  We watched a few hardy enthusiasts kite-surfing in the high winds, straining hard to tack back into the wind to return to the safety of shore.  Across the water was another beach, sculpted deeply with sand dune moguls, dug out by the high winds battering the shoreline.  We returned to the marina for a rest and welcome shelter from the constant wind, content we had experienced the area in full.

gruissan-looking-over-water-to-beach

gruissan-lunchspot-at-beach

gruissan-at-the-beach

 

Around Limoux (with Jan & Andy)

Day 1 – Rennes-le-Chatêau, Alet-les-Bains and Limoux

After visiting Quillan and Esperaza, we kept moving north along the main road on our way to visit friends Jan and Andy, whilst making short side visits to any places or villages that captured our interest.  Our first venture was to the small, renowned village of Rennes-le-Chatêau, set up in the mountains, population 91.  We were the only vehicle in the large car-park provided for visitors, an obviously popular place for visitors in the warmer seasons.  This is likely due to the location being central to several popular conspiracy theories relating to religious bloodlines, priests and buried treasure, fantastical stories that later influenced many aspects of Dan Brown’s 2003 novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’.

rennes-le-chateau

We wandered around the village, saw the Tour Magdala, then completed a short walk outside the town’s stone walls, to stretch our legs a little. There was nobody else around at all; the dreary, bleak weather obviously off-putting, but the dusty circular path offered nice panoramas out across the tranquil fields below.

alet-les-bains

Our next stop was at the spa town of Alet-les-Bains, where we walked from the outskirts to the centre, to see the Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Alet, a celebrated ruin mostly destroyed in 1577 by the Huguenots during the Wars of Religion. As we approached, the church bells very loudly rang out for noon and made us both jump in unison.  We wandered through the back streets, finding a beautiful medieval square lined with wonky, timber-framed buildings.

limoux-view-of-church

Our final stop before reaching Jan & Andy’s village was the main town of the region, Limoux.  We found a reasonably central parking spot on the side of a quiet road, and walked into the town, along the banks of the river Aude.  Even in the cloudy greyness and occasional drizzle the town was interesting and active, with a beautiful central square surrounded with cafés and stores.  The church and the stone bridges across the river added a solid elegance; we enjoyed our short visit here.

limoux-main-square

We had one last dilemma on the last few kilometres to Jan and Andy’s home in the village of Lauraguel, as Google maps informed us of a shortcut through a vineyard, and with unthinking devotion, we followed the suggested route. After about 600 metres on an ever-narrowing dusty gravel track, we came to a dead end, the ‘road’ we were to follow became nothing more than an overgrown steep, muddy bank that we would have had difficulty cycling through, so were certainly not progressing any further in Benny.  With no possible options for turning, we had to reverse the whole way back, with very muddy wheels and egg on our faces.

limoux-bridge-and-river

Soon after, we arrived at Andy and Jan’s to be greeted like old friends, even though we had met only once before, one rather drunken day and night a few months ago in Spain.  We fell into conversation easily and settled in as their honoured house guests.  We were shown to our very comfortable guest room, complete with personal en-suite, and relaxed fully.  Nicky enjoyed her first bath for months and we caught up on laundry, both so thankful for the genial hospitality and the chance to live in a large, spacious house again, if only for a short time.

We had lovely food, great wine and fantastic company, and a very late night catching up and telling tales of all that we had seen since our last encounter.  We heard all the chat about the local area and interesting curiosities of living in a French community, as we hope to do some day; Jan and Andy helped sell the French dream to us.

Day 2 – Limoux, Carcassonne and around

There were some delicate heads at the breakfast table, as we planned an exploratory day out around the local sights. We were kindly driven around by our local guides and shown the regional highlights and insights. First we headed over a winding mountain pass to the village of Saint-Hilaire where our hosts first lived when they moved to France.

carcassonne-main-entrance-to-cite

carcassonne-cite-walls

Next we visited the fortified Carcassonne cité, with its high stone walls with fifty-three strategically-positioned defensive towers.  The day was cold and the streets inside empty of people.  We passed through squares, normally filled with bustling life, that now sat empty and grey in the winter chill.  We saw the central cathedral and concert venue.  It was both better and worse to see the historic cité like this; there was space to move, photograph, touch and absorb it all without the inhibiting crowds, but it lacked the excess life, colour and rowdy, bustling noise that a tourist hotspot usually generates in season.  If we eventually settle near here, I’m sure this is a place we will visit again and again, in all conditions, temperatures and weather.

carcassonne-cite-cathedral

carcassonne-cite-streets

We visited a beach area by a large lake, a superb free resource near to Carcassonne set aside for family picnics and barbeques.  The lake has kayaking, wake-boarding and swimming, flume water slides and several sandy beaches, yet is, we are told, rarely busy and entirely free to frequent.  Another fantastic selling point in a rural area slightly removed from the Med coastline.

carcassonne-cite-main-square

Next up on our busy schedule was the Canal du Midi, where we parked up in a small village and walked a portion of the quiet banks.  The plane trees lining the banks were in the process of being removed and replaced throughout this stretch, and indeed the whole region and across France in general, due to disease and blight.  We saw not a single boat moving on this stretch of the canal, but did see many hire boats moored up for winter, awaiting the invading hordes of tourists in the coming spring.

canal-du-midi-restaurant

We returned to and had a late lunch in the lower town of Carcassonne, with views from the central streets back to the walled magnificence of the fortified cité.  The new town, actually now designated a city, was itself very typically French, picturesque and inviting with boutique stores and atmospheric streets.

The whole day was an unqualified success; it was a varied and quite lovely selection of places to see and offered us a really good introduction to and overview of the central area of the region of Aude.  And we liked what we saw a lot.

Day 3 – Cycling the villages around Limoux

around-lauragel-n-cycling-villages

After a hearty breakfast we readied ourselves for an exploration day around the nearby towns and villages.  We left our hosts in peace for a few hours and cycled through the exposed local landscape in the biting cold.  It was a beautiful countryside, stark and calm, with bare trees and vines.  Our imagination filled in the gaps of how the landscape would transform through the seasons; we had been told that many verges have been seeded with wildflowers and poppies, and although only rough, tufty grass at this time, they will become a bright, exploding torrent of colour in the early spring.  We look forward to seeing the area come alive when we next visit, as it has in our minds.

around-lauragel-in-local-village

We cycled a 40km loop, passing through open countryside and many small villages.  Several of the villages were circulades, a traditional medieval design common throughout the Languedoc-Roussillon region.  The villages were built in rows of concentric circles, with the centre not the expected castle or church as a focal point, but generally an open space that served as both meeting point and market square.

around-lauragel-countryside

We ate our picnic lunch on a sunny bench in Limoux, feeling warmed for the first time on our route. The temperature differential between icy shade and direct radiant sun was huge, and we began to think that, despite the chilly air, prudence may have suggested we have sun cream on for protection during the short moments of direct exposure.

at-jan-and-andys-playing-carcassonne

We passed the evening playing the table-top board game Carcassonne, chatting over wine and gin.  Many stories and fun anecdotes were shared, along with much advice on both the pleasures and pitfalls of purchasing a home in France.  Later Andy treated us to a few songs on his saxophone, his playing sublime as usual.  This was another strong reminder of my desire to have the discipline to make the act of making music a larger and deeper part of my life.  It may take a lot of time, effort, patience and dedication, but the reaped rewards are so great and the ability to reach people through the emotive creation of music is something wonderful.  Our recent visit to Girona was a small reminder of this, and Andy’s playing underlined this obvious truth for us in a thick red marker; must practise more.

at-jan-and-andys-playing-music

We said our grateful goodbyes the following morning, with the firm understanding that we will be in touch again soon.  We drove the short way back into Limoux for a quick food shop and a look around a recommended second hand bric-a-brac store, before continuing on our way east, rested and happy.

Pyrenees Orientales and Aude

Pyrénées Orientales and Aude

Leaving our chilly ski base in Les Angles, we retraced our steps back in the direction of Prades, this time with the intention of exploring  the Languedouc-Roussillon region more thoroughly.  We had always harboured dreams of buying a small place in France, and if we finally do, this particular region would be the most likely place for us to choose to put down our French roots.  Getting a feel for distances, regional variations in terrain and typical village housing stock was a personal priority as we passed through.

Descending from high altitude, we first reached the town of Mont-Louis , a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, one of twelve walled towns spread across France all grouped under the heading of ‘Vauban’s Fortifications’Mont-Louis, geographically the highest fortified town in France, was created ex-nihilo and has maintained an unbroken military presence since its formation in 1697 CE.  We parked outside the walls and walked across a narrow bridge, through a pedimented stone archway into the walled town.  The air was still but chilled, and only a couple of other visitors were around.  The town was mostly closed up, quiet and peaceful.

mont-louis-bridge-to-town

mont-louis-central-streets

We walked quickly to stay warm, exploring the shady streets and passing the stone-built church at the centre.  We wandered over ramparts at the back of the town and up over an adjacent grassy mound, but signs suggested it was still an active military base and we should approach no closer, so we retreated back to the shaded cobbled streets.  Mont-Louis was an historically interesting and important place, but at the time of our visit, in the chilly grasp of mid-winter and with the whole town closed, there was little to hold our interest for long.

prades-central-square

Continuing on towards Prades, we turned off the main road at Villefranche-de-Conflent and back into the green foothills, winding upwards to Vernet-les-Bains, a beautiful spa town with exceptional mountain views.  We had previously looked into this village as a potential settling down place, nestled quietly between the sea and the high mountains.  We had a long walk around to see what the town had to offer, and it was a lot.  It was a beautiful village in a spectacular setting, with nice cafes and bars in pretty tree-lined squares.  The only downside was that it seemed just a little too remote and detached so deep into the lush foothills, so facing the reality of the physical locale rather than a simple well-positioned location on a map, we reluctantly crossed it off our ‘possibles’ list.

vernet-les-bains-mountian-views

vernet-les-bains-main-square

We had a brief look at Casteil, another village further up the mountain, at the end of the road.  The village had two large tourist attractions, the Abbaye de Saint-Martin and an animal safari park, but the village itself was uninspiring in comparison to its neighbour.  The free aire here was leafy and inviting, and it had originally been our plan to rest here for the night.  But the weather forecast was predicting snow and high winds in the area, so we prudently decided to return to the valley to avoid any possible issues should the snow fall overnight.

Casteil - Leafy aire.jpg

We drove further on, enjoying the wide straight roads and easy driving back in the valley.  From here we entered into the rural quiet of the winding ‘Routes du Vin’ that passed alongside many small vineyards and villages; Millas, Montner, Estagel, all small towns built on the back of the production of quality local wines.  All the vines were bare and grey, bent like giant, arthritic hands reaching out of the dark earth. We turned off the main road at Maury, climbing north back into the high hills on a smooth, narrow road with a precarious edge that offered superb views across the valley below.

duilhac-road-to-valley

duilhac-view-of-town-from-above

We passed the Cathar castle of Château de Quéribus on an opposite hill, first documented in 1020CE, looking impressively balanced on the high ribbed, vertical ridge.  We continued on to a free aire deep in mountains at the town of Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse, passing through field after field of vineyards, many marked with large signs advertising the associated brand.  The aire had a clear view of our second Cathar castle of the day, the Château de Peyrepertuse.

We walked a leisurely loop around town to see what, if anything, was open, and found nothing.  We passed a square with a modern pavilion for performances and displays, and found the Town Hall, but one local man walking his dog was the only other person we saw.  The town was scruffy and worn, but it had an underlying charm and a quirky interest at each turned corner.  But a biting wind blew hard through the streets, so feeling chilled and beaten down we retreated back to Benny for the night.

duilhac-parked-in-aire

The following morning was clear and bright, with a sea of cloudless blue above us.  The wind was still blowing strong, as it had through most of the night, so we wrapped up tightly for our walk up the hill to the inviting Château de Peyrepertuse, high above us. We followed a well-marked local path, criss-crossing occasionally with the longer national footpath of GR-36, as we gained height through the wooded scrubland on the hillside.

duilhac-resting-on-walk-up

We broke free of the trees at a flat vantage point that offered views of the village below and the valley behind.  This was also the designated launching point for those wishing to hand-glide back down to the green valley floor below, although not likely to be a popular choice in the 50mph+ wind conditions we experienced; it was sometimes difficult to stay upright simply walking.

duilhac-cathar-castle-on-ridge

We eventually reached the car-park for visitors who drive up rather than walk, and saw a solitary car, no doubt an unfortunate staff member manning the turnstiles.  We enjoyed looking around the entrance foyer and mild steel mirador point, but we didn’t go into the castle due to a lack of cash on us for the entry fee.  We wondered briefly if we would have visited if we had had sufficient money with us; probably not, if we’re honest. If we diligently paid into every church, monument, abbey, castle, gallery, landmark and museum we passed on our travels, our journey would end much more rapidly than we wish; this walk was all about the exercise and the views.

duilhac-castle-from-below

We descended instead by the unused snaking road, a longer but much smoother route.  We passed a large grassy plateau that was utilised as overspill parking in summer and as a landing point for those hand-gliding down to aim for, when weather conditions are more suitable. We arrived back in the village centre after covering around 7km uphill and back in high winds, bought ourselves a baguette and retired for the night, later to be swayed to sleep by the growing menace of the harsh winter winds.

duilhac-a-walking-back

Quillan

The next morning, stiff and tired from a lack of sleep due to the battering winds rhythmically rocking us and Benny like a cocktail shaker, we rumbled off, cautious and slow, back down into the sheltered valley and along to the market town of Quillan. We parked up in a quiet corner of the spacious, central bus station car-park and headed out to explore the town.  This was another town that was on our mind’s virtual ‘possible places to live’ list, so we had high hopes and wished to give it every opportunity to impress us.

quillan-a-with-town-behind

After a quick loop around the central streets, we headed across the currently tame and very low flowing Aude river and climbed up to a ruined castle on the hill, allowing fantastic views over the town and surrounding hills.  The town looked much prettier from up here, with its red roofs, halo of mountains and centrally flowing river, but the reality of the small central streets was one of dishevelled, slow decay and a distinct lack of maintenance, and perhaps, money.  There were many elements we liked, but others that made the location slightly less than ideal for us; a shame.

quillan-river-view

Esperaza

We left Quillan with a slightly disappointing feeling, maybe due to the high pedestal we had raised the town on to in our minds as our perfect ly positioned base. We drove to the next village to park up overnight, in a pretty aire with individual spaces set between plane trees on the banks of the river.  We explored the village on foot and, whilst similar in general disrepair to the streets of Quillan, we had a better overall vibe about Esperaza.

esperaza-riverside-aire

The next morning we were off in the direction of Limoux, to catch up with Jan & Andy, friends made whilst staying in a campsite back in Spain, in the Picos de Europa.

Argelès-sur-Mer and the Pyrenees

 

Day 1- Saint André

Arriving back into France from the beautiful Costa Brava, we settled quickly into our village aire in the small town of Saint André.  Really no more than a shared car-park on a quiet street, it was still quaintly comfortable and inviting, and somehow very French; we were happy to linger here, alongside the grey buildings and the badly parked cars.

We had a slow afternoon, with most of the remainder of the day taken up with the mundane jobs of laundry and food shopping in the local Intermarché supermarket.  We had a short walk around the village to stretch our legs and get a feel for a French village again, which was just interesting enough to lure us from the warm comforts of Benny.

Day 2- Argelès-sur-Mer

argeles-sur-mer-n-cycling

The next morning was clear, bright and cold; the weather was now becoming quite predictable.  The air was crisp and cool, and hurt a little to breathe at first, but this was weather we knew how to dress for, especially when the day involved cycling.  We got out our bikes, wrapped up and headed east towards the coast.   This was a smooth, easy rolling exploratory cycle to Argelès-sur-Mer on flat, quiet roads. The cycling required little effort, yet allowed us to explore much quicker and further afield than on foot.  We first circled the town centre, looking up and down the little streets passing cafés and bars, before finding the local Tourist Office where we were given a lot of information to help plan our next moves in this region of France.

argeles-sur-mer-vineyards-with-mountain-view

Argelès was a quite lovely town with a great, relaxing feel to it, even when this far out of season; we took a liking to it instantly.  We cycled to the beach promenade on the south side of town, overlooking the stone harbour walls.  We enjoyed beautiful views from the beach to the distant snowy peaks of the high Pyrenees, then almost calling out to us from afar. We rolled gently along the wide cycle lane running parallel to the expansive beach frontage for the full length of town, as far north as we could, before cutting back in and returning to the town centre by the empty roads.

argeles-sur-mer-a-at-harbour

argeles-sur-mer-n-at-beachfront

We covered over 20km without breaking a sweat, a nice way to feel we got some exercise and fresh air and to see the extents of the town.  Our long term plan has always been to buy a small place in this region of France, to settle into a community and to use it as a base for future travels.  We had always dreamed of finding our dream home somewhere equidistant from the coast and the high mountains, and convenient for airports.  This was the first prime spot in the Languedoc area that we had visited, and although on the coast and far from the Pyrenees, it was certainly alive with many glorious possibilities for us putting down roots in future years; we have much to consider.

Day 3 – Perpignan, Prades and Les Angles

We had a last wander around the centre of Saint André village, mostly to utilise the free WiFi we discovered at the town hall, before driving north to the outskirts of Perpignan. We visited a motorhome dealership to purchase a pigtail connection for French gas bottles, then bought an expensive Butagaz cylinder from a large Carrefour on the eastern side of the city.  It proved difficult to find parking in or around the city, and after several futile attempts and with no actual knowledge at all of what Perpignan centre had to offer, we decided to push on rather than persevere.  We have plans to be back in this area a lot in future, so skipping the city left some surprises for us to discover later.

prades-church

We took the road west out of the city and drove to the hub town of Prades, in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  We parked on the side of a narrow road in town and walked to the centre, finding the main square with the town hall, pretty church and tourist office.  Arriving during lunch, we slowly wandered around the local town streets until the tourist office reopened.  Here we received some good information on ski resorts and weather forecasts, and made a snap decision not to linger in Prades on the back of this.  We had originally planned to overnight at Casteil, a local aire in the mountains south of Prades, but instead we pushed on up the winding mountain pass towards Mont-Louis and onwards, ever climbing, into the high mountains.

les-angles-skiing-in-the-aire

les-angles-skiing-view-from-benny

We picked the ski resort of Les Angles as our target destination, rather than the originally favoured Font Romeu.  We arrived, through roads lined with snow, amazed to find the ski aire was (we thought) free and with electricity points available for all to utilise; signs suggested it would be payable soon. The aire sits at 1804m above sea level, most likely the highest we’ll be in on our travels.  We were a little nervous to be at this altitude without first acquiring snow chains and shovels, but the tourist office in Prades had assured us there would be no snowfall until the following Monday or Tuesday at the latest, so we were content to trust this advice.  We may well have been the only visitors in the ski resort who were hoping there would be no snow during their visit. We parked up in an empty bay, away from large mounds of ice and with great views of the slopes, settled in and ramped up our heating to fight off the high altitude chill.

Day 4 – Les Angles Town visit

les-angles-skiing-in-town

We awoke to a chilling -8 degrees outside, a little frightening but not exactly unexpected.  Ignoring the free navettes, the ski buses that ran up and down from the aire and the adjacent ski lift to the town centre, we instead walked down the road into town, a distance of around 3km one way.  We explored the town a little, enjoying the very familiar feel of a high mountain ski resort, and scoped out the best prices for ski hire in anticipation of partaking the following day. We later walked back up the hill to our aire with a long baguette in hand, feeling very French.

Day 5 – Les Angles Ski Day

les-angles-skiing-selfie-in-telecabine

After awaking to a further cloudless day, the pink dawn light clipping the tips of the distant mountains, we decided that today was definitely a ski day.  The early morning temperature was -14 degrees, the coldest we’d experienced, but we were still cosy inside Benny.  We ate breakfast, dressed up warmly and readied ourselves for the pistes.

We caught the first navette early morning down into the village centre, where we hired boots, poles and skis and walked, unsteadily in our ski boots, over to the main télécabine lift to begin.  Here we bought our day lift passes and got on the empty gondola lift with slightly nervous anticipation.  For various reasons we had not skied at all for three years, and it was four years since we had skied downhill, so we were not quite sure how our legs and skills would hold up.  We need not have worried; a couple of shaky moments in the first run as we slowly warmed up were the only slight concern, and we soon got back into smooth turning and sliding, then settled in and enjoyed the views.

les-angles-skiing-n-on-the-slopes

les-angles-skiing-a-getting-ready-to-go

The resort had had very little snow recently, so a good portion of the normal runs were closed.  There were still a few natural slopes on the dark side of the mountain, but the majority of open pistes were formed from artificial snow.  This gave the strange appearance of wide ribbons of snow snaking through areas of grass and trees, rather than the usually expected sight of a fully blanketed resort.  The advantage was that the snow quality was very good, smooth and lightly powdered, with only some very small areas where a crispy ice top had formed.  With only one day of skiing we thought we’d struggle to see all of the resort, but with some speedy descents and thoughtful planning, we skied every run that was open at least twice, some many more times, ensuring we experienced all that Les Angles had to offer us on this visit.

les-angles-skiing-n-on-the-piste

les-angles-skiing-a-at-lift

Only once, with the lift momentarily stopped, did we have to wait to access a chair lift, and that was for no longer than a minute.  All the pistes and lift queues were clear, so you could return to the top as fast as you could descend.  We recorded a top speed of 57km/hr on our GPS tracking, not too shabby for shallow slopes that we were cruising purely for enjoyment.  It was a fantastic day, and a great reminder that decent access to skiing areas remains a key priority for us.

les-angles-skiing-n-skiing

Day 6 – Les Angles and return to the valley

The next morning, after three fantastic days around Les Angles, we readied ourselves to leave and return to the valley below.  Having a leisurely breakfast and neatly packing up, we lingered for around twenty minutes too many, as at around 9.30am the local Gendarme arrived on site and requested payment for our nights in the aire.  We had thought it was too good to be true, with the ‘free’ electricity, navettes and incredible, direct access to the slopes.  They insisted we had been there for two nights, so we didn’t contradict and paid the €22 they requested.  Many other fellow motorhomers looked to have escaped the aire without payment, as there were thirteen vans the night before, and only four remaining this morning.  We certainly couldn’t begrudge the cost, but gaining a freebie in any fashion is always something that adds a warming glow and a certain je ne sais quoi…