04/14/2016 - 04/15/2016
Our next destination in France was Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, a tiny village two hours to the north of Toulouse in the Causses du Quercy Natural Park with a reputation as one of the most beautiful towns in the region. We parked at the small lot above the village and walked down the road overlooking the village on the cliff and the River Lot far below.
Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is designated as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, of which there are less than 200. This means that it is small and scenic, but also attracts a lot of tourists and has its own little industry of gourmet food and souvenir shops.
Overlooking the town are the ruins of the old Chateau, from which there are views of the town from one side and of the valley and river from the other.
Despite the abundance of tourists and apparent absence of villagers except for store and restaurant proprietors, there was no denying the beauty of the village and the setting.
We took a meandering route back south through the French countryside, so by the time we arrived in the fortified hill town of Cordes sur Ciel it was beginning to get dark and all the day tourists had already departed. This allowed us to see the town in a more natural state, but also conveyed a somewhat sad and ghostly quality to the surroundings. The top of the hill afforded a beautiful view over the French countryside.
I had one of those classic uneasy vacation moments coming down the other side of the town where I wasn't sure I would recognize the street where I'd parked the car. My iPhone GPS wasn't connecting well which didn't help. Fortunately we got to a spot I found familiar before Mei Ling noticed my growing nervousness. It was too late to make our last planned stop in the ancient wine town of Gaillac, but I didn't regret dawdling in Toulouse all morning. Gaillac wouldn't be the last town we had to scrub from our itinerary.
Albi was just a short drive from Cordes-sur-Ciel, so we were able to get there in time to drop off our bags at our Airbnb and find a restaurant for dinner. We were fortunate to be turned down at our first choice because our backup, Lou Sicret, turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip. The restaurant specialized in hearty dishes of the Languedoc countryside, most notably cassoulet. This thick stew of white beans is the signature dish of Languedoc, and different towns are known for the specific meats that get mixed into the casserole. The version at Lou Sicret contained the old standbys of duck confit, sliced sausage, and pork belly. For our tired bodies and empty stomachs it was manna. We complemented the cassoulet with grilled squid, copious pommes frites and vegetables, and a hearty Languedoc red in the restaurant's atmospheric back garden.
The next morning, we explored the cobblestoned old town of Albi, eventually arriving at the fortress-like brick cathedral that the city is famous for.
From the cathedral we proceeded to the covered market, a cavernous structure that was surprisingly subdued at 11 in the morning. We lunched on oysters and duck hearts at a small bistro inside the market and topped them off with delicious fruit pies. Despite a sense we hadn't given Albi its full due in a 16 hour visit, we packed up and set a course northward to Conques.
I'd come up with the plan to visit Conques after reading about it on someone else's blog. It didn't look that far out of our way on the map, but due to the one lane roads, slow vehicles, and numerous towns we had to pass through it took us more than an hour and a half to get there from Albi. However, the drive took us through some lush Languedoc countryside and forest. Conques is a lovely hillside village with the yellow limestone Abbey of St. Foy as its centerpiece. It seemed like everything in the town was shades of yellow and brown, which contrasted beautifully against the green valley that surrounded us.
It was already getting late when we left Conques but I stubbornly clung to my plan to stop off in Rodez, a larger city with a famous cathedral. We got a look at the cathedral and the neighboring Catholic church but between struggles with traffic and finding a place to park in the center, we burned another hour and a half in Rodez. It was after seven and it would take us three and a half hours to reach Avignon by my planned route via the Millau Viaduct. I sent an apologetic message about our late arrival to our Airbnb hosts and we set off again.
We had to burn rubber once we got on the highway in order to make it to the Viaduct before darkness fell. The Millau Viaduct is the tallest bridge in Europe and arguably one of the most beautiful modern bridges in the world. It was dusky and raining when we reached it, and the highway itself doesn't provide a good vantage point to photograph the bridge. I included a professional photo ripped from the web to complement our weak effort.
After the Viaduct it grew dark quickly and for another two hours we plowed through the darkness and rain to Avignon. We couldn't enjoy the beautifully-illuminated old city on arrival due to the usual difficulty of navigating the old town and locating parking. Our hosts graciously helped us hoist our bags and kids to the fourth floor apartment despite the late hour, and Mei Ling took the kids to eat at the Chinese restaurant across the street while I found a stable parking spot just outside the old town. We eventually collapsed into bed about midnight, grateful that we wouldn't have to uproot ourselves for another week.