Woken by the Rozzers

Our departing policewoman

After a good night’s sleep, we awoke in time to watch the sun come up although disappointedly a few clouds spoilt the perfect sunrise image. As we sat drinking tea and making plans for the next few days. There was a knock on the hab door and a very stern policewoman made it clear in no uncertain terms that we weren’t supposed park here and we were to move – pronto. She then sat in her patrol car waiting whilst we hastily packed up our things and swiftly moved on.

We decided not to go back to Banyuls but to continue on the coast road to Spain. Crossing the border was as you would expect (in the EU!) a non-event with only a single border guard showing interest in the occasional car coming from Spain. However as we crossed over the hill and into Spanish territory we saw a good number of armed military. In fact for the first 3 or 4 miles they outnumbered the few locals that we did see in the towns which had an isolated feeling to them on this hilly out-of-the-way back route.

Spain at last

We settled on Cadaques as our destination for today. We’d read that “Cadaques was a picturesque coastal town with magical beaches and we would be enchanted by its charm and enjoy discovering it’s Old Town with the labyrinth of cobbled streets, bright white buildings and blue details, full of shops, restaurants and craft workshops”. [this obviously wasn’t written in February when most of the shops and restaurants are closed]. Also what we didn’t pick up in our research was just how tortuous the route to get there would be.

A windy Cadaques

But in the end weren’t disappointed it was a pretty place and we enjoyed walking along the (tad windy) sea front and exploring the vertiginous back streets. At the top of the town there was a very simple church with vertically stacked tombs which I thought unusual but I suppose it saves space.

Following signs towards Port Lligat the village where Dali lived and his house that has now been converted into the Casa-Museo Salvador Dalí.

The lovely setting for Dali’s house in Port Lligat
From a distance these heads looked like solar water collectors

Unfortunately the museum was closed, but as we planned to go to the Dali museum in Figueres the next day, our art fix would have to wait.

Driving in this corner of Spain the roads are reminiscent of the narrow, twisting lanes with steep gradients in Devon and Cornwall (Porlock or Mevagissey for example). However the similarity ends there as the ‘driving style’ takes some getting used to. Tailgating, must be taught in school, overtaking at the last possible moment is an art form and indicating your intentions at roundabouts is entirely optional.

Who remembers life before we had Zig Zags in the UK

European zebra crossings also do not have the ‘zig-zag’ markings on either side of the crossing, that are compulsory in the UK. In France and Spain the rules are different, pedestrians by law can and will, just walk onto a crossing without waiting to see if you’re going to stop. They’re cool, you’ll stop! They don’t hesitate to see if you’ve seen them, they just expect everyone to stop.

And, along with innumerable (some quite vicious) sleeping policemen it makes a driving journey through French, and now Spanish towns and cities quite interesting!

That’s all for now

Toodle Pip

Signs and wines

As we would be leaving France soon we though we should add a couple more ‘Beau Villages’ scalps to increase our previous tally of five – I hope you’re keeping track?

Our first stop was to walk the ramparts of Villefranche-de-Conflent, lying in a deep valley where the Cady and Tet rivers meet, the Villefranche-de-Conflent village occupied a strategic site since its formation in the 11th century. In the 17th century its strategic role as military capital was strengthened by adding fortifications to the ramparts. Today it’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The ramparts have inner and outer walls covered with a roof – Well you wouldn’t want to get wet!

Inside the wall there are numerous shops selling all the usual tourist stuff (including witches ….in case you needed a spell). We liked the signs for the shops many of which (no pun intended) were made from metal.

We saw this one and thought, it must be a sign!
He looks like a crepe tosser?
Our carriage, waiting patiently for our return

Before heading off we had time to see the village of Eus which is situated about 40 kilometres west of Perpignan and just 10 kilometres from Villefranche-de-Conflent.  Built on terraces Eus takes its name for yeuses (holm oaks). Designed for and very effective in defence the village repelled the French in 1598 and the Spanish army in 1793.

You get a lovely introduction to this scenic village as one of the best views is as you approach it from the main Prades to Perpignan road.

Tying your shoe laces is a good excuse to take a breather on the way up
Is it really up here?

The village clings to the steep hill, with calf-muscle burning narrow cobblestone streets meandering through the old restored shale stone houses, which give the village a lovely harmonised feel.

Ok time to head for the coast, not before unintentionally going through the centre of Perpignan….. Bl**dy Sat Nav.

Banyuls-sur-Mer

A while ago when we lived in Manchester, Lesley and I did a wine tasting course, where we also met some great friends, we now imaginatively call ‘the wine crowd’. During the 6-week course were introduced to lots of excellent wines, including a couple of very memorable desert wines Elysium and Banyuls. So part of our trip is a pilgrimage to Banyuls-sur-Mer where we plan to stock up and maybe have a dégustation and is our destination for this evening.

As E M Forster would have said – “A room with a view”

With no obvious stopping places in Banyuls-sur Mer, following a bit of internet research we soon found a wild camping spot not far from the municipal camp site on a headland at Cap de Peyrefite, with another motorhome already there we felt safety in numbers and we were just 7 kms from the Spanish border.

Wrinkles and Cols

Anyone travelling down from Toulouse on the route to the eastern Pyrénées and Andorra would have, before the bypass was built, gone though the spa town of Ax-les-Thermes.

Ax-les-Thermes is well known for its multiple naturally occurring hot springs, emanating from the ground in a range of temperature from 25° to 78°C. The sulphurous  waters were used by the Romans, to treat rheumatism, skin diseases and other ailments. The springs were developed in the medieval period on the orders of Saint Louis to treat soldiers returning from the Crusades afflicted with leprosy. From the 19th century, the town exploited “taking the waters” and a spa tourism developed.

Our plan for the day was to unwind in the main thermal baths in the centre of town.

Les Bains Couloubret is the centre of Ax-les-Thermes, based on a hot spring where sodium sulphide water naturally emerges at 38°.

We were lucky to choose a time when most others were having their 2-hour French lunch so it was pretty quiet. As we entered the first part with the red columns (the red columns are supposedly designed to transport you to an atmosphere of Roman thermal baths – remind anyone of Knossos) we were immediately hit by the warmth of the water and a slight smell of sulphur.

Did you know if you spend too long in the water your fingers and your toes go wrinkly? Well wouldn’t you after being marinated in boiling water for two hours?

With both indoor and outdoor pools of hot thermal water all with multiple powerful jets to massage your neck and shoulder we gradually worked our way round spending time in the steam room, sauna, vaporarium, frigidarium and caldarium. Lesley missed out the fridge bit and we both skipped the ice-cold bucket tipped on the head after the sauna.

Lesley outside the baths wearing her glasses!

Most people book the two-hour spa session. So, when we came to leave, Lesley had her shower, thought she’d emptied her locker, got dressed then realised she’d left her glasses behind…. Meanwhile the next user had found the locker empty, put their stuff inside and went off with the key! And yes, you’ve guessed it, didn’t come back for, another two hours. Not a big disaster, Lesley was ultimately reunited with her specs and lunch turned out to be rather nice, although admittedly a bit longer than planned!

Ax-les-Thermes is also a ski town with a gondola giving access up to the 3 Domaines ski area above Bonascre. There’s a variety of intermediate and on and off piste skiing and boarding with 80km’s of pisted runs. We thought about it but decided to continue on towards Spain.

The tunnel is the straight line, the Col is the wiggly bit

Not wishing to repeat the expensive (58€) route choice we made a few weeks ago when we used the Frejus Tunnel to get to Montgenerve, we elected not to go through the tunnel but to go over the Col de Puymorens instead. They had a big dump of snow here a week ago which was still in evidence, but the roads were clear and we had no problem going over the Col.

Some drifting was above the cab door
A building at the summit – Yes that is snow piled up inside

The summit of the pass is at 1,915m and had historically crossed the border between France and Catalonia, until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 when the whole of this area was ceded to the France

One over the top we drove down onto the beautiful high plateau of the Catalan Pyrenees. This sheltered spot is surrounded by peaks with cultivated fields as far as the eye can see. The impression is of a closed world, island-like in character.

Sometimes referred to as “Tibet” of the Pyrenees”. because of the difficulty in getting here and surrounded on all side by high mountains, one imagines the people living here feel the isolation and have developed the necessary self-reliance, which in turn has fuelled the fierce pride and sense of independence in being Catalonian.

Note to road section at the top and the train line sharing the space

If the road up from north via the Puymorens to this high-plateau is tough. To go east, you have to undergo the long decent down to Villefranche-de-Conflent. This is a driving test under most conditions. Safely steering a 3.5 ton motorhome with dodgy brakes certainly “kept me on my toes”.

Ur, Err …… no, that’s not me lost for words, but just two of the mad names of the towns we passed by on our way to the aire at Vinça.

Toodle Pip for now

D&L

Canal du Midi

If you’ve seen Rick Stein’s ‘A French Odyssey’ you’ll remember he travelled down the combined Canal du Midi and the Canal de Garonne in his much acclaimed TV series.

He created some great looking dishes using a wealth of fresh local produce, prepared on-board various vessels as he cruised down the canal or stopped off to enjoy local food at any one of the nearby restaurants. Basking in what appeared to the idyllic south of France climate.

The canal just behind our aire

Our travelling hotel has brought us to Castelnaudary on the Canal du Midi. After the excesses of skiing we’ve now tightened our budget, so there’s less dining out and more dining in. I’m eating salad (which is unheard of) especially nice with goats cheese on toasted french bread. When we’re on hook up Lesley is still experimenting but making some great stuff in the Remoska. And although I’m biased the chef’s also much, much better looking than Mr Stein…..!

Running from the city of Toulouse down to the Mediterranean port of Sète, the Canal du Midi is considered an extraordinary 17th century feat of engineering and has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1996.

The idea of building a waterway joining the Atlantic to the Med was voiced by the Romans, but it took one of Louis XIV’s tax inspectors to realise it.

Pierre-Paul Riquet, who designed and built the Canal du Midi, was a local farmer with intimate knowledge of the rivers of southwestern France, in particular the Montage Noire (Black Mountain) and its abundant springs.

Riquet ‘s main brainwave was to get over the lack of any major nearby river by creating a huge dam and artificial reservoir, the Bassin de St Ferréol and a two-way feeder canal.

Originally Riquet had not planned for the canal to go through Castelnaudary however the town’s councillors – showing more vision than those in Carcassonne – paying the sum of 30,000 ‘livres’ to have the canal flow beneath their town walls and have the basin built in, this caused Castelnaudary to develop substantially in the 18th century.

The Grand Bassin

The Grand Bassin is a large man-made lake and is reputed to be big as Carcassonne’s walled city. But the Bassin is exposed to every single wind that blows and the day we were there it was blowing an absolute hooley! The Cers and the Autan winds were/are a real hindrance to manoeuvring boats and before a breakwater was constructed, when it properly blew, real havoc could be caused so that men and horses would be frequently blown into the water.

On this exposed position this windmill whizzed round at 1 revolution per second

The building of the canal gave a significant boost to the flour mills transporting grain and flour and combined with the strength of the Cers or Autan winds, the 32 windmills were no doubt very productive.

Lesley revelling in the warm weather

A bit of a change from the low temperatures we had whilst skiing, we saw 16 degrees in the van today, but with wind-chill in Castelnaudary I doubt the temperate ever got above “IT”S BLUMIN FREEZIN”……… Quick let’s go find somewhere warm!

Toodle Pip

Hey Lesley’s just told me you can make even CAKES in the Remoska…

Triskaidekaphobia

As the saying goes travel broadens the mind, although you don’t have to go that far to realise how little you know of other cultures of the world – their languages and our shared history.

Here’s a case in point, we parked up last night in Olargues ‘one of the villages from the book‘ and decided to stretch our legs and explore. Walking up through the town’s inclined cobbled streets, we entered a really old stone staircase that went up though the heart of the town, where after 5 or 6 flights there was a glass window into a room displaying Knights Templar.

Knights Templar

Who were the Knights Templar then? After a bit of research, I discovered they were medieval crusading knights who lived like monks and fought in some of the deadliest battles in the Middle Ages.

The Order Of The Poor Knights Of The Temple Of Solomon (aka The Templars) were founded in Jerusalem in 1119 to protect pilgrims travelling around Christian sites of worship in the years after the armies of the first crusade had seized the holy land from Muslim rule. Over the next two centuries they developed into an elite paramilitary organisation with a side-line in banking and financial services!

Well there ya go, all we need is to get Lesley some chain mail….

I think an apology is overdue to all the photographers both professional and amateur reading this blog. Many of the images have been shot, not I’m afraid with a Hasselblad H4D-60 or a Canon EOS-1DX Mark II, but usually with our iphones. So sorry to all our friends ‘on the spectrum’ for some the quality. Yes, I know that’s not an excuse for poor composition, but in our defence,  I would argue some shots have only been included to help with the storytelling.

Anyway, If I were French I might respond to any criticism with a Gallic shrug and emit a nonchalant “Bouf”.

The village is clustered around the belltower,
which was formerly the main tower of the castle.

Dominating the town from the top of the hill behind, is the ruins and remains of an old fortified castle from the active days of the Knight Templars. It is the Castrum fort of Languedoc dating back to the 12th century. It was later destroyed by a king of France, when the church crushed the Templars into hiding.

In addition to the castle and château, once on top of the hill, you can see the infamous Pont du Diable – The “Devil’s Bridge” is said to date back to 1202 and is reputed to be the scene of transactions between the people of Olargues and the “devil”.

THE ORIGINS OF superstitions can be hard to pin down. There are often several theories about how they started, and a bunch of people ready to debunk those theories. Friday the 13th is one such example.

If you read Dan Brown‘s The Da Vinci Code, you might remember learning that members of the Knights Templar—a medieval society—were arrested on Friday the 13th. Brown’s book helped popularise the belief that these arrests are the reason people fear the date. But although some of the Knights Templar were arrested on Friday, October 13, 1307, that isn’t the origin of the superstition.

Montpellier

Getting to our target Mediterranean aire Palavas Les Flots, like its namesake it all ended up being a bit of a palaver.

Firstly, the motorways (which we’re avoiding) especially the A9 south of Montpellier. This is a completely mad 12 lane wide affair with the six middle (paying) dual three-lane carriageways, separated by a barrier from a triple (free) carriageway in either direction on the outside….

All very fantastic, however if you happen to go wrong (which of course we never do) and find yourself on the wrong bit, by the time you realise your mistake you have to carry on to Bournemouth before you can turn around.

The new A9 is actually amazing and cost € 800,000,000 to build and carries the through traffic to Spain which in summer peaks at 170,000 cars a day.

The new A9 12 lane motorway

When we finally make it to the location of the aire there’s nowt there except a dusty disused car park with a low barrier.

However we eventually find another spot by the sea at Le Grau-du-Roi and everyone’s happy. Well not quite (this is a recurring theme). It says on the very confusing parking meter up to 35€ for 16 hours! mmmmm that’s not good. If that’s the price we’re off!

Lesley eventually figures out with 2 free hours and only staying till 9am and as it was Monday and it is the low season so it’s only 9.50 €.

La Grande-Motte nearby was far too, far too much for us…. even out of season

And seeing all that water reminded us it was time to do our washing.

Yes, one of the joys of touring in a motorhome is you have to wash your smalls. As we’d be passing by a big city where a laverie or laundry should be easy to find. Lesley took Charlie to the centre of Montpellier, but not before a final wrestle with the outer lanes of the A9. That accomplished, negotiating the city was an easy task and our luck was in as we found a laundry with the aid of Google maps near the centre of town and a bonus – we were able to park Charlie very conveniently outside!

le laverie
Time to head west

Where next? Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is another spot counted among the Plus Beaux Villages (most beautiful villages) of France. Here in 806 Saint Guilhem established the monastery of Gellone. It is now home to numerous artists, many of whom may be found in their studios around the square that is dominated by a huge and ancient plane tree.

This town was on an important pilgrim route, through Arles, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert and Toulouse the path crosses the Pyrenees to join other routes to Santiago de Compostela.

One of the many colourful nooks and crannies in the village

As parking is limited, in the high season to cater for the visitors there’s a huge car park 9 kms away where a bus service operates to shuttle visitors along the road and up the gorge to the town. In February, with no bus service running we were able to park Charlie on his own in the small coach turning area directly at the foot of the village.

The aire at Aniane

After a long day we ended up in a free aire in quiet part of the small town of Aniane. There were no facilities just a designated patch of land, but we were very comfortable and had two other vans for company.

Toodle-oo

A head for heights

One of the minor considerations when driving a motorhome is how big it is and particularly how tall and wide it is… Therefore, as we slowly started to enter the gorges of the Ardèche, it was not very wise, (when your clever motorhome size specific SAT NAV says go this way), to repeatedly ignore it……, maybe it’s for a reason perhaps??? what about a narrow series of tunnels and overhangs with a 3.1M height limit. So a bit too close for comfort in a motorhome that’s 3M high!

it really wasn’t as high as it looks

So it was with much relief we arrived at the Aire in Ruoms near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, with that bit that keeps us dry, still largely in place. Although I still have nightmares about a giant sardine can opener!

Next day after servicing Charlie (emptying waste water & loo, refilling with fresh water) we took a short detour to the Pont-d’Arc, the region’s postcard landmark, a natural arch that spans the river Ardèche.

Luckily the tunnels were a bit bigger on today’s route

This place is simply beautiful and provokes all kinds of thoughts and questions about the history and geology of the gorge and the people who’ve lived here.

We’ve been to the region before with Josh when the three of us canoed down the Ardèche river and under the Pont-d’Arc. I remember it being super busy and very touristy so it was a real pleasure to go out of season and see the real beauty of the place and literally have it to ourselves.

Leaving the Ardèche behind we pointed Charlie south stopping for lunch at Uzès.

Typical tree lined french roads but why?

Tree-lined roads stretching into the distance are one of the best-loved features of the French landscape. The myth that Napoleon is credited with lining French roads with trees, to enable his soldiers to march in the shade is explained in this article.

Lesley and I are not quite in the rhythm of France yet, as we seem to be making a habit of arriving when things are closed. Today we missed the chance to go to the Happy Lab at the Haribo Candy Museum in Uzès.

Uzès is a Languedoc Rousillon town and one of those places you feel you could come back to spend more much time exploring the car free streets and soaking up the atmosphere of the old part of Uzès town, where the houses are built with an attractive pale limestone with matching creamy coloured smooth pavements.

Uzès, like many Medieval towns, was built in a circle around the Duke’s Castle, which you can go and visit and if you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the Duke himself, whose family have resided at the castle for the most part of the last 1,000 years!

The main square had these ver nice arcades around the edge
Parking for once was easy – “Lesley is that van following us”?

Unsure if the French Passion aire nearby was open on a Sunday we ‘headed for the med’ and Montpellier – Can you see the sea yet?

Toodle Pip D&L