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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.