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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 CĂ©ret, 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

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