A Travellerspoint blog

Great cities of Central Europe: Munich

My first experience with Munich was back in 1994. I'd met a number of German medical students during a brief neurology externship in London, and decided to visit a few of them on a three week rail tour of Germany. I stayed in my friend's apartment in Munich's Olympic Village and we rode bikes to the Englischer Garten where we did a tour of the beer gardens, consuming a one liter mass bier in each and hopping back on our bikes. After the third or fourth I became separated from my friend and found myself unable to keep the bike straight on the path. I wobbled along at a snail's pace and ultimately fell over completely to the side. I staggered to a bench and put my head down in my hands until it stopped swimming. When I finally raised my head and opened my eyes, all the people near me were naked. I'd never hallucinated after excessive beer consumption before, so I soon realized that I'd stumbled into a nudist area. It was the culmination of a very disorienting morning, and essentially my only solid memory of Munich. More than twenty years later, I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with the city in a more sophisticated way.

After our usual overnight flight to Europe, we started out by picking up our rental car and our local SIM. I had thought I was renting another minivan, and got a shock when our car turned out to be a two row SUV. There were two flip up seats in the trunk but that wouldn't leave enough space for the bags. I was getting ready to go ballistic when I realized that the rear seat was probably wide enough to accommodate all three car seats. We set them all up and amazingly they fit. We had plenty of room in the trunk for our bags as well, especially since we'd brought two individual strollers instead of the gondola. After the stress of navigating the giant Iceberg around France in the spring, the SUV was a welcome change. The only drawback was that now the kids were close enough to touch and annoy each other.

We had a pleasant surprise with the Vodafone SIM as well. Whereas just a few months ago I'd had to buy separate SIMs in each European country, there was now a data plan that covered pretty much the whole EU. That would save me a lot of time and hassle considering that we would be crossing six countries during the trip. Next stop was our Airbnb, which was perfectly adequate except for being a fourth floor walk-up. I find those staircases a lot less objectionable when I'm making a reservation than when I actually have to climb them.

Since we only had three days in Munich and we wanted to get aligned with the time change, we proceeded directly to our highest priority destination, the Viktualienmarkt. This is the most central market in Munich, with a reputation for offering the best quality produce and gourmet specialties. We also quickly found that it was quite expensive, and there were clearly more tourists around than Münchners. We bought a good amount of fruit for the apartment and ate in the small beer garden, where the entertainment was provided by the waiters angrily shooing away people who tried to sit at their tables with food purchased from other vendors.
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We spent another couple of hours walking around the central Marienplatz area, home to the impressive Gothic Neues Rathaus (new town hall) and the formidable Frauenkirche.
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We toughed it out as long as we could but by seven we could barely keep our eyes open and headed back to the apartment. On the way back, we were overtaken by a seemly endless series of police cars and ambulances with lights and sirens flashing but I barely gave it any thought except to wonder if there had been some kind of major auto accident. We ate some of the fruit we had bought and crashed.

I woke in the middle of the night and reached for my phone to check the time. It was three in the morning. I opened Facebook to see if Mei Ling had posted any pictures and saw that she had, and then a lot of messages under her pictures asking her if she was safe. What? Next stop was CNN, where I learned that multiple people had been killed in what appeared to be a terrorist attack in Munich and that more terrorists were reportedly roaming the streets. Everyone in the city was being advised to shelter indoors. I processed this for a few minutes and realized that there was nothing we could do that night to make ourselves any safer. If there was still some kind of active terrorist situation going on in the morning, I'd have to consider packing everybody up and driving to another city. I made a quick post to let everyone know we were OK and went back to sleep.

By the morning it was already apparent that what had taken place was actually an American-style mass murder by a disgruntled teenager rather than a terrorist attack, and there was no longer any active threat. No less horrific for the families of the children who had been killed and injured, but a relief for Munich and for us. We proceeded with our planned walking tour of Munich as though nothing had happened. Our first stop was the Elisabethmarkt in the bohemian neighborhood of Schwabing, north of the center. This was a quieter market than Viktualienmarkt with a more local vibe, but still with an excellent selection of produce and numerous small artisanal food shops.
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Lunch next to the market was the classic combination of weisswurst, currywurst, and draft beer. From there we walked down Leopoldstrasse, the main drag of Schwabing, to the center. We encountered what appeared to be some kind of street festival in the process of being either set up or disassembled. I asked some of the folks involved if there would be a festival that weekend and they shook their heads. We learned that the previous night's events had resulted in the abrupt cancellation of all ongoing festivals in the city for the weekend. I felt somewhat guilty about the disappointment I felt, considering a bunch of kids had lost their lives. After walking around the cluster of palaces and museums in the center known as the Residenz, we walked through the beautiful green Hofgarten to the southern entrance of the Englischgarten. We watched the surfers try to tame the waves at the famous Eisbachwelle for a while, and then headed north. We soon encountered the nudist section of the park, much to Mei Ling's amusement. I suggested the whole family strip down and pose for a photograph from behind, but Mei Ling vetoed that idea.
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We stopped at the Chinese tower beer garden for more beer and sausages, along with delicious grilled vegetables. It was good to see that there were hundreds of people enjoying the weekend in the beer garden despite the previous night's tragedy.
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On our last full day in Munich, we walked around the gardens of the Nymphenburg Palace for a couple of hours. The grounds of the 17th century Baroque palace are very expansive and contain a complicated network of canals and beautiful lakes.
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We spent the rest of the day at the nearby Hirschgarten, which had the best beer garden yet and tons of stuff for the kids to do. There was a splash park, playgrounds, a deer feeding station, and a small fair with plenty of rides. The highlight of the beer garden was Steckerlfisch, delicious and savory mackerel that were barbecued on a spit. We ate lunch, entertained the kids for a few hours, and then ate dinner at the same spot before heading home for another early night.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 06:14 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

The great cities of Central Europe road trip

After our epic road trip around the Adriatic in 2014, I started daydreaming about other routes that would take us through every part of Europe I'd ever wanted to visit. I settled on a time frame of four to five weeks, since it would be long enough to make the hassle and expense of flying and renting the car worthwhile yet not long enough to make us weary of traveling and managing the kids. This summer we were able to knock out two of my highest priority routes. I've already blogged about our Catalunya and Southern France trip, and this is the story of our month-long round trip that began and ended in Munich and took us to most of the great cities of Central Europe. Originally I had planned an eight country trip which would have begun in Frankfurt and included Zurich and Liechtenstein, but we would have needed at least another week to avoid skimping on the rest of the itinerary and we didn't want Cleo to miss her first week of Pre-K. I sliced the westernmost part of our circle away and moved our anchor point to Munich. We'll see the Rhine and Lake Constance on another road trip. That left us with Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and Czech for this trip which ended up feeling slightly rushed but overall a great experience.

Of course, every trip we take seems to spawn two or three new itineraries in my mind so we're no closer to completing our mission of seeing everything we ever wanted to in Europe. My highest priority trip at the moment will begin in Milan and take us through Tuscany, Corsica and Sardinia before concluding in Rome. I hope to get that one done in 2018 (in odd years we go to Asia). I have at least one other trip planned for Italy as well: Rome through Naples and the Amalfi coast to Calabria and Sicily and then back to Rome. Some other ideas in the pipeline are Barcelona to Bordeaux to Galicia to Northern Portugal and back to Barcelona; an Amsterdam round trip that would take us through Belgium to Luxembourg, Alsace, Switzerland and Western Germany; Berlin to Riga and back via Poland and Lithuania; and a couple of extensive trips through the Balkans and Greece and through Scandinavia that I haven't yet given much thought to. By the time we're done with Europe, the only European country I don't expect to have visited is Moldova. But then again, I never planned to go to Poland and now I can't wait to go back.

I think I'll experiment with being a little more succinct on this blog. I wrote up the first two European trips in exhaustive detail with a lot of pictures because I approached the blog as a living photo album that we could go back to to relive the memories of our trip. I like the idea of the kids reading it when they're older, having no real memories of the trip, and seeing their younger selves having fun in those forgotten places. Perhaps it will keep the fires of travel stoked in them when they've gone off to school and moved on from us. I went through a long travel drought in college and medical school simply because I had no idea how much fun it could be to travel on my own or with friends, then rediscovered it in my mid 20's. I've always regretted not taking a semester away in college. However, the downside of the long format is that it is very time-consuming to write, and it's not really accessible to someone who finds the blog because they're looking for a quick overview of an interesting part of the world. We've gone on a lot of trips before and since the Adriatic road trip that I didn't blog simply because I couldn't face the time commitment. I'll see if I can write this trip up in about half the pages and about half the time and decide if I like it as much as the other blogs I wrote. If so, I might blog some of our older trips including the USA road trips. It would be interesting to know what other readers think as well. I know some people come here and read the blog but never comment or provide feedback, so it's kind of like writing in a vacuum regarding what the general public wants to see.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:36 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Back to the Med! Top ten lists

Six months have gone by since this trip, which is enough time to gain perspective and compare it objectively to our Adriatic road trip. While it was an amazing month and overall better food than we had around the Adriatic, I have to say it didn't have the quite the same magical quality. The villages and cities were beautiful, but we didn't find those unique experiences comparable to Plitvice Lakes or Rocca Calascio. Perhaps the extra work of one more kid made it a little harder to appreciate the beauty around us. Or perhaps it was just that we were on a more well-worn tourist trail, especially in Provence, that slightly limited the thrill of discovery. Nevertheless, the journey cemented our newfound love of Europe and made me even more eager to add new itineraries to the ones already bouncing around in my head. We've already completed one of those in August, a tour of the great cities of Central Europe, which I'll probably begin writing about before too long. To conclude my chronicle of this trip I'm entering my ten best lists, which of course are somewhat arbitrary and omit amazing places like Montpellier and Marseille just because those cities didn't include any single standout experience. The heart and soul of our trip was the week we spent touring markets and villages near Avignon, so of course that period in total was the peak experience of the trip.

Best experiences

10. Rampart walk, Girona, Spain
9. Saturday market, Aix-en-Provence, France
8. Wednesday market, Sète, France
7. Walking around Avignon and Fort Saint-André, Provence, France
6. Villages of the Haut-Var, Provence, France
5. Jardin Japonais and exploring Toulouse, France
4. Mas de la Fargassa, Roussillon, France
3. Walking around Monaco
2. Mercat de La Boqueria, Barcelona
1. Western Provence markets and villages

Best meals

10. La Table de Marthe, Cap d'Agde, France
9. Ramblero, Barcelona
8. Txalaka, Girona, Spain
7. Toinou Les Fruits de Mer, Marseille
6. Le Carré d'Herbes, L'Isle sur la Sorgue, France
5. Borda del Tremat, Encamp, Andorra
4. Lou Sicret, Albi, France
3. Ô Pica Pica, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, France
2. La Gaudinade, Mougins, France
1. Le Clos des Vignes, Cotignac, France

Another major difference from the Adriatic trip was that I reserved all our accommodations in advance for this one, while we winged it around the Adriatic. This allowed some last minute schedule changes to the Adriatic trip, but I never regretted our fixed itinerary on this trip and in retrospect there isn't anything I would have changed. Knowing everything I know now, I would probably have made a few small adjustments to have had time to see a few of the small towns we missed. I'm not sure what to do about May Day and Ascension Day except to try to make them beach days if we happen to be in France. We used a fixed, prearranged itinerary for our Central Europe journey as well. Once I get going on that blog, we'll see how that ended up working out.

Posted by zzlangerhans 12:27 Archived in France Comments (0)

Back to the Med! Final weekend in Catalunya

I realize the large majority of our city arrivals seem to be rather difficult and painful. I think that's because of our preference for staying in old town Airbnb's rather than in hotels on the main roads. For the most part our locations have been worth the trouble, but Girona might have been the final straw for old town accommodations when we have our own vehicle, even though we were staying in a hotel. Thanks to having crossed the border again, we had no Google Maps navigation. I didn't have the foresight to load Girona into Google Maps before we left France, so we didn't have cellular GPS either. That left us with our Garmin navigation, which should have been enough. We had no problem getting into Girona and finding the old town, but that was when things started to get hairy. As soon as we drove in, it was clear we were in a crowded pedestrian area. People slowly parted to let us through, but I had a strong feeling we weren't supposed to be driving there. The next problem was that the old town was three dimensional with a tall central hill. The street we were on split with one half ascending the hill and the other half remaining level. There was no way to distinguish between the two on the GPS and we incorrectly chose to remain at ground level, requiring us to leave the old town and circle all the way back in through the pedestrian zone we had initially entered. We went uphill the second time round but the driving situation quickly deteriorated as we found ourselves in a tiny but busy square that was obviously the old town center, and the GPS was directing us the wrong way down a narrow one way alley. It took ten minutes just to turn the van back around with a dozen overly helpful tourists shouting different instructions. With no cellular GPS and no ability to call the hotel, I resorted to parking the Iceberg next to a cathedral and headed out on foot with the Garmin. The Garmin screen is not designed for foot travel and can't be easily scrolled or zoomed. I couldn't find the name of the street where the hotel was located on the Garmin, and none of the locals I asked had ever heard of it, including the security guard at the church. I wandered around for twenty minutes with no luck. I got back just in time, as Cleo was desperate to go to the bathroom and Mei Ling had no way to take her with the other two kids in the van. While they were gone, I kept playing with the Garmin and suddenly I saw the street I was looking for briefly flash into view as the display constantly shifted and reloaded. I couldn't get it back again so I tried to freeze the image of the screen where I'd seen it in my brain. Once Mei Ling and Cleo got back, I set off again up an unpromising steep incline behind the cathedral, turned a corner, and found the hotel.

The hotel staff seemed unsurprised and unphased by my pitiful account of our troubles. They handed me a parking pass and instructed me to drive up the way I had walked because there was simply no other way to get there. Back at the van, we prevailed on the security guard to hold the pedestrians at bay while we reversed into the square and then gunned the Iceberg up the steep slope to the level of the hill our hotel was on. In the one stroke of luck of the evening, a single parking spot was free in the tiny row of spaces next to the hotel. Once we unpacked, I came across my old Spain sim card which should have expired long ago. I slipped it into my phone and it worked perfectly. I decided not to tell Mei Ling about that until the next day.

Somewhat recovered from the stress and disorientation of our arrival, we walked back downhill to the cathedral. It was clear this was no ordinary weekend in the old town. At first, I thought it was a religious holiday due to the floral displays that seemed to be everywhere, but after asking around I learned that it was actually the Temps de Flors, the annual flower festival. Despite being overcast and drizzly, the town was quite beautiful amidst all the decoration.
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We had a decent dinner at a tapas place in the Jewish quarter, then went straight back to the hotel for a well-earned sleep. The two bedroom private apartment was just as good as most of the Airbnb's we had stayed at, with refrigerator and kitchen to boot. The next morning we cooked the kids breakfast before heading back out into the old town.

The thing to do in Girona is to walk the ramparts of the medieval city walls, which can be traversed all the way from the cathedral to Plaça de Catalunya, south of the old town. Thanks to the festival the ramparts were crowded with visitors, especially around the center, but we still got some great views of the old town and the rooftops of Girona.
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There was a playground in Plaça de Catalunya, which meant the kids got a break from being carried, and then we walked a short distance to the covered market Mercat del Lleó where bacalao (codfish) was on prominent display.
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We were now on the opposite side of the River Onyar, which splits the center of Girona, and it was time to find a place for lunch. Our first choice couldn't accommodate us, which was very lucky because our backup Txalaka was absolutely amazing. We arrived just before the afternoon rush and got the last table as a long line was about to form. It was another self-service tapas restaurant but much better than we had experienced in Barcelona, with outstanding sangria as well.
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After a great lunch we walked over to Plaça de la Independència, then crossed one of the bridges across the Onyar back into the Jewish quarter. We enjoyed the narrow alleys and flower displays a little longer, then returned to the Iceberg.
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Girona's old town had saved one last unpleasant driving experience for us, which was an arched passage next to the hotel that didn't look large enough to accommodate the van. I asked reception if we could return the direction we had come from, but they said it was impossible. We pulled in the mirrors and Mei Ling walked ahead to make sure no one tried to walk through the passage while I was driving through. I centered myself as much as I could and drove through at a mile an hour. I could practically hear the stone walls brushing the sides of the van as I clenched the steering wheel, although perhaps it was just my mind playing tricks on me. A minute later, we were back in daylight in another wide open square. I celebrated our escape from Girona with one last picture.
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From Girona it was only an hour to our overnight stop at Tossa de Mar, a small town on the Mediterranean coast north of Barcelona. The main attraction here is the fortified medieval town on the hill that overlooks the beach and the rest of the city. We were also hoping to get the kids another beach day on the Mediterranean before we returned home. Our hotel was an attractive, whitewashed place with a pool where we decompressed for an hour before taking the winding road up the hill to the old town.
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The walk up the hill gave circumferential views of the town, the chalky cliffs of the nearby coastline, and the open sea.
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Once we reached the top, we descended partially to tour the interior of the old town and walked the ramparts much as we had in Girona.
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I scouted out some of the restaurants in the old town but they seemed very touristy. Instead, we walked around the beach to the opposite side of the Badia de Tossa where we found a decent seafood restaurant with great views of the old town.
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A steady rain the next morning quashed our hopes for another beach day, so we decided to head straight for Barcelona. Unfortunately it was Sunday, so we couldn't revisit the Boqueria. Instead we took the kids to the science museum, CosmoCaixa, where we kept them entertained with various game-like displays for a couple of hours. Hunger demanded that we bring our visit to an end, so we got a light lunch in a small cafe in l'Eixample. I couldn't come up with many options for the rest of the afternoon, so we went back to Montjuic to visit the Poble Espanyol theme park. I'd skipped this on our initial Barcelona visit because I feared it would be a boring tourist trap, and in fact it turned out to be a boring tourist trap. It didn't help that half the park was closed for a concert, or that we'd taken the strollers and there were stairs everywhere. We walked the parts we could and then returned to the Montjuic fountain to see the National Palace in the daylight.
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Our hotel for the night was in Sant Boi de Llobregat, a boring suburb to the south of Barcelona whose main redeeming feature was its proximity to the airport. I hadn't wanted to deal with parking in downtown Barcelona or the possibility of traffic jams on the way to the airport the next morning. We got an early dinner of grilled meats not far away and spent the rest of our last evening packing and downloading new cartoons and apps for the kids to discover on the flight home. The next morning we got to the airport uneventfully and held our breaths at the rental car dropoff as the attendant gave the Iceberg a cursory survey. Miraculously she didn't notice either of the cracked brake lights and we bolted for the terminal. Another month long European road trip had come to an end.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 06:38 Archived in Spain Tagged barcelona girona tossa_de_mar Comments (0)

Back to the Med! Roussillon

I had an interesting accommodation picked out for the evening. Instead of an apartment or hotel, I had chosen a mas, or campground, that I had come across while researching the trip online. My understanding was that it was a little farm near the Spanish border with a few cabins, walking trails, and animals for the kids to have fun with. The owners seemed very laid back and hadn't demanded a deposit, and in return I promised we would inform them well in advance if our plans changed. I emailed the owners to confirm we would be arriving in the late afternoon, and they replied that I should make sure to arrive before sunset. I assumed that was because they were early risers and early sleepers.

We ate lunch at a farm-style restaurant just outside of Carcassonne and then drove to Limoux, where there was a Museum of Automatons that I thought the kids would enjoy. Cleo was sleeping when we arrived, and Ian was absolutely horrified by the mechanical dolls as soon as he saw them. Eventually he got so hysterical that Mei Ling had to take him outside to calm him down. Cleo had woken up by this point, and although she didn't react as badly as Ian she steadfastly refused to go inside the museum or look at any of the automatons. It was too bad, because several of them were quite cool and there was a workshop where one could see how the dolls are built and repaired.

Leaving Limoux, I set a course for the campground on our GPS and was surprised to see it provide a circuitous route back to Carcassonne and then all the way back to Narbonne before dropping down the coastline towards the Spanish border. I tried Google Maps instead and found a much more direct route, although the duration was listed at more than three hours for a trip of just eighty miles. I couldn't imagine what would slow us down that much and I hated the idea of retracing all the way back to Narbonne, so I went with the direct route. The first part of the drive took us through beautiful small towns and some hilly, rocky countryside.
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Shortly after I took this photo the drive started to get a little hairy. We entered an area of gorges and the road shrank to a single lane for cars going in both directions. On one side was a cliff with frequent low overhangs and on the other was a shallow rock wall to prevent cars from tipping over the edge into the gorge. It was a popular area for canyoners and we saw a lot of people entering the gorges wearing brightly colored mountaineering outfits. The only place cars traveling in opposite directions could get by each other was on the curves where the road widened slightly. Fortunately, the local drivers were very accustomed to the road and usually saw the Iceberg from a distance, so we would find them waiting for us at the curve so we could get by. The few times we encountered cars in the impassable stretches, they always reversed back to the closest passing zone rather than expecting us to do the same. The other problem was the overhangs which often seemed like they would clip the top of the van. The collision sensors were useless because they were alarming constantly. It took us an hour to drive just a few miles along that road.

After escaping the gorges, we had a stretch of relatively easy countryside driving and then began ascending into the foothills of the Pyrenees. Once again we found ourselves on a narrow road with the mountain on one side and a low rock wall on the other. Eventually even the rock wall disappeared and I found myself involuntarily hugging the cliff to give the van as much distance as possible from the precipice. I now had a much clearer understanding of why our hosts had emphasized arrival before darkness. The thought of driving on that narrow road with only my headlights to guide me away from the edge of oblivion was terrifying.

We finally arrived at Mas de la Fargassa a full four hours after leaving Limoux, just as darkness was falling. Google Maps had actually underestimated the difficulty of the route. However, once we got a sense of the place that we had arrived in, it was easy to forget about the stressful journey. Madhu, the Dutch owner of the property, was waiting by the dirt pathway to show us where to park. The campground was set in a narrow valley with forested hills blocking most of the sky on every side. Between the small clearing where we parked and the farmhouse was a small stream. Friendly dogs came bounding over a narrow bridge of wooden blanks to greet us. There seemed to be little girls scampering around everywhere, and a huge smile immediately planted itself on Cleo's face.
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We settled in our small cabin and then brought everyone down to the farmhouse, where preparations were underway for dinner. Three of the owners' small children were playing on a small jungle gym and a trampoline and Cleo immediately bonded with the oldest girl, an eight year old named Hannah. They jumped into the rabbit enclosure and played with the bunnies while Ian tried out the slide. Afterwards everyone got together on the trampoline.
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Dinner was a communal affair and quite good for a vegetarian meal. Mei Ling was a little annoyed that we'd arrived too late for her to contribute to the preparation.
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We made it an early night because it was getting very cold. We had a space heater in the cabin but still slept in our sweaters. The next morning we put together a small breakfast and let the kids play for a couple more hours, but we had a lot of ground to cover and another difficult drive out of the mountains.
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The mas ended up being one of our best experience of the trip, although I might not have attempted it had I known in advance about the challenges of the terrain. With the luxury of time, we were able to find a couple of places to pull over on the way back down to enjoy the views.
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We were one day too early for the Saturday market at Céret, but I thought I would stop by anyway to see if anyone was selling the town's famous cherries yet. The town has a cherry festival every year and the first cherries of the season are traditionally sent to the French president. Unfortunately, we were a couple of weeks too early and the town was completely dead on Friday morning. We drove onward to the 17th century Fort de Bellgarde at Le Perthus, right at the Spanish border. The fort is only open to the public from June to September, but we were able to walk around the outer walls and take in the views from the hilltop.
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We headed eastward to the coastal town of Collioure, which proved to be a very popular spot for regional tourists. It took us more than a half hour of circling before we found a place to park, despite a good number of large parking lots in the town. The old town had the usual crowded narrow lanes and art galleries. We ate at a decent tapas restaurant and then strolled the scenic coastal promenade.
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To cross back into Spain, I had a choice between taking the highway back through Le Perthus or smaller coastal roads directly south. The Lonely Planet waxed poetic about the mountainous D86 road to the south but when I plugged it into Google Maps I saw it was more than an hour longer than the highway. I knew what that meant - one lane, cliffs, precipices. Eventually I decided we had pushed our luck enough with the Iceberg the previous day and took the boring way out. Half an hour later we were back in Spain.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:17 Archived in France Tagged pyrenees collioure fort_de_bellegarde Comments (0)

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