Travel Dates May 2006
We left Mas Pinell early and took our time wandering along the coast, and then inland to Figueres, eventually crossing the border west of Perpignan. We decided to take a drive up to Carcassonne. The scenery was interesting and the countryside was surprisingly open and unpopulated.
Our first lunch in France for this trip was one of those moving feasts that turned into a debacle. Earlier I mentioned our tendency to share meals; well, this was the day where it didn't work - twice in one hour.
First, in a small village in a small hotel with a sign out the front advertising meals - we found that was only when the cook turned up for work. And he hadn't. So, a little later we discovered a lovely little restaurant on the back road to Carcassonne, with interesting internal architecture.
It ended up like a Marx Brothers comedy. The lady in charge appeared and we perused the order, assisted by a lady on the next table who helpfully translated for us to explain the salads and mains. We didn't order (we thought) and decided to study a bit more with the phrasebook. Along came a guy who appeared to be the owner and we ordered a steak to share. He disappeared out the back and never reappeared. Then the original lady appeared five minutes later with two enormous salads that we hadn't ordered. Somehow the signals had got crossed; we were prepared to accept the salads and pay up - but not a steak dinner as well - but communications broke down and she got so loud and aggressive that we ended up walking out.
Then we found another restaurant a few clicks further on where the host spoke a little English and happily accepted a "plat du jour" order to be shared between two. As he disappeared to the kitchen his wife arrived and tried to clear the cutlery away from Lorraine's place. She made it clear that an order for one was only entitled to one place setting. When I tried to hang onto the cutlery she got physical; then we decided to leave and she made it clear that wasn't acceptable to her by grabbing my arm and trying to drag me back to the table. Keep in mind that I'm 6' and she was about 4'6". If she hadn't been deadly serious and very loud it would have been farcical. Mine host appeared as we got into the car, apologising and pleading for us to return - but we declined in the circumstances. We eventually ate at a roadside stop with surprisingly good food - and no further hassles. We never had a recurrence of this sort of problem in the rest of the trip. Maybe it's something about Languedoc women? One could easily imagine those two cheering as the heads rolled at the guillotine.
When we arrived at Carcassonne we found the castle besieged by tour buses with the defenders at the gate fighting a losing battle against plaid-trousered attackers aggressively wielding cameras. So we circled them warily and viewed the castle from a distance. It looks very impressive that way - and retained it's mystique for me. It looks the sort of castle you'd expect Lancelot to emerge from in shiny armour on a white steed, charging off to rescue Guinevere.
One of the things I enjoyed about the freedom of wandering by car at our own pace were the unexpected sights - like an old Roman aqueduct (well, I think it was - but it might have been a railway line:-) in the distance, or the unexpected pleasures of a Pays D'Oc cave for a little wine-tasting. I bought three bottles of a wonderful Merlot here for €11 total; I didn't realise then that it would be the best wine I would taste on the trip. I wish I'd bought more. I must remember to write to see what their delivery costs are to the far side of the world.
We had no bookings for that night, allowing us to stop when we felt like it. We stopped at the FastHotel in Montpellier - more like a cabin on an Adriatic Ferry than a hotel room in size and ensuite, but at €35 including breakfast it was OK as a bed for the night. Later, despite it's size, it compared favourably with the terrible Paramount in New York at four times the price.
Next day, between Montpellier and Avignon we followed the back roads and came across this odd lake for lunch. I suspect it was an old quarry, full of water. It was full of trout, you could see big ones cruising past just below the surface, there were rods and tackle for hire and a small kiosk with meals for the fishermen. It turned out to be a very pleasant lunch spot, but it had to be the smallest fishing lake I've ever seen.
But we had one planned stop - the Pont du Gard.
I was raised in a country which considers anything over 200 years old ancient. I'm fascinated by the engineering skills of the Ancients - the Romans, the Greeks, the Mycenaeans and their contemporaries - so I'm truly awestruck by structures like the Pont du Gard, both in the engineeering and skill that went into building it and the associated aqueduct system and the durability of the structure, still standing two millennia later.
Oddly, we both had falls at this time. Just after I took the photo of Lorraine at the bridge, she fell and hurt her hip. She was shaken and bruised, but otherwise OK; the immediate assistance offered by those near us was dramatically different to the restauranteurs the day before and changed our opinions of the French completely. A couple of days later, I fell heavily while seeing Roi Rene castle. It seems that we got our problems out of the way early - because we had no other falls or injuries on the trip.
Avignon was once the centre of the Holy Roman Empire and it's period of glory was the Papal era. This wall shows the Popes who ruled from Avignon.
The original walled city is still there, as "tourist central" now, but it is still interesting to see.
The Popes in those days were effectively feudal kings of kings. The physical remnants of their reign show a liking for wealth and power far beyond the spiritual. This is the Palais du Papes. Not a bad little retreat to live in.ark over the river and told there would be a free bus back over the river - and there was. So we had a lovely afternoon, saw the sights, sipped some wine and coffee, then strolled back after dinner about 7:30 pm to the bus stop. And waited. And waited. Eventually, I deciphered the fine print on my ticket to see that the bus stopped running at 6pm. Well, I needed to walk off that dinner anyway - and it was a pleasant evening.
We took a side trip around the district for a day, enjoying the small villages but also wandering through Orange, and eventually ending up at Tarascon. There I came across the fascinating castle of Roi Rene, which I'll mention in a little more detail in the next post. During the trip we saw this ruined castle; I don't know anything about it - I just like the photo.
We had allowed only one free night between Avignon and Florence, so we needed to speed up a little for the next leg through the Riviera; I planned it that way because we had previously spent a week in Menton and we wanted to leave more time for other places later in this trip.
We stopped for lunch in Aix-en-Provence and had a look at the antiques market. Marseilles was disapointing - the parts we saw were a large modern city, with few signs of it's ancient past. I know we didn't spend enough time there, but it was too big and bustling after Avignon and Aix. So we moved on and had coffee on the beach at Cannes. The film festival was a week later and the rising stars were already there. We saw some film crews, but nobody we recognised. The beach was a "topless" but Lorraine is strategically obscuring the sights. We noticed one incredibly fat man wearing a string bikini bottom and nothing else; grotesque. When he came closer he turned out to be a she. Some visions will never fade from my memory, unfortunately that will be one of them.
By chance, we ended up in Menton again for that night; it's a lovely part of the French Riviera, squeezed between Monaco and Italy and the mountains crowding down to the sea.