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An Epicurean Odyssey: The Dordogne part II (Périgueux)

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Our Airbnb host in Périgueux was a very kind lady who insisted on giving us a tour of the town center. Our apartment was situated on the bank of the River L'Isle. which nestles the town in one of its many sinuous curves. Just a hundred meters away was a preserved 14th century watchtower that perched improbably on a narrow stone base.

Périgueux is the largest city in the Dordogne and also its capital. The center was as lively and commercial as Bergerac had been inert. Tables were filling up in the outdoor cafes, and numerous shops were doing a brisk business in local specialties such as foie gras and walnut oil.

We weren't in the mood for cafe food, but none of the restaurants we passed were ready to prepare a real meal yet. Eventually we found a gourmet store on a pretty square that had begun serving lunch. It was a little less substantial than what we were craving, but it was enough to launch us into our day's itinerary.

Many of the top attractions in the Périgord are clustered around a short segment of the River Dordogne near the cliffside village of La Roque Gageac. We started our exploration of the area at Les Jardins de Marqueyssac. There are several famous gardens in the Dordogne and my research indicated this one would be the most impressive. From the foot of the hill the gardens are perched on, we could see across the valley as far as Château de Beynac and Château de Castelnaud. Both were festooned with banners declaiming "Non au Massacre de la Vallée", a protest against a new road being built in the area.

The centerpiece of the gardens were the carefully contoured boxwood shrubs that formed layers of whimsical shapes.

The gardens gave way to a park which stretched to the east. From the paths we had gorgeous views of farmhouses along the southern bank of the Dordogne, which was littered with kayaks and small tourist barges.

In the middle of the park there was a crafts station and a playground to entertain the children. This provided some welcome relief from their complaints about there being "nothing for kids" that day.

At the summit at the eastern end of the gardens was a balcony from which we had an unparalleled view of our next destination, the village of La Roque Gageac.

The Dordogne is full of beautiful villages, but La Roque Gageac is one of the most unique. Most of the town consists of a row of similar-appearing stone houses that face the main road through town along the Dordogne. A few more houses are placed along the road that ascends the steep hillside, and behind the hillside is a sheer and formidable cliff. In the upper reaches of the cliff is a medieval fort built within a cave. At the riverside are the companies operating the tour barges, or gabarres. We arrived less than an hour before the last departure of the day so we didn't have time to climb the road up the hill. Instead we ordered some ice cream and let the kids play in the makeshift sprinkler on the town plaza.

The boat ride was a little out of character for us but I was determined to get up close and personal with the river that gave the Dordogne region its name. We cruised slowly a few kilometers downstream, passing the Château de la Malartrie at the western end of the town. If your dream is to stay in your very own Dordogne castle, this château is available to rent for about $5000 a week. Further down were campgrounds on the riverbank and rocky beaches with numerous sunbathers and waders. The river was clearly beloved by locals and tourists alike.

We were behind schedule so I decided we would change the evening's market from the popular one I had chosen previously to the one in Montignac, a village on the way back to Périgueux. Montignac was simply one name from a list of Monday night markets and I hadn't found a single reference to it elsewhere. The car was low on fuel and we stopped at a couple of gas stations around the town of Sarlat. The offices had already closed and the card readers at the pumps wouldn't accept any of my credit cards. We decided to press onward to Montignac, figuring dinner was the more immediate issue and we would eventually find a gas station where we could refuel.

Montignac was spectacular. The small village is bisected by the River Vézère, a branch of the Dordogne. Old-fashioned streetlamps cast a warm glow on the stone buildings as the sun fell. The northern bank upstream from the bridge was lined with outdoor cafes which were filled with patrons.

The night market was the best we were to experience. The selection and quality of food was enormous and the vendors were very friendly and attentive. The usual specialties of duck breast, foie gras, and walnut cakes were complemented by an unusual variety of red meats and seafood. The best part was the clientele, who were clearly almost all locals who knew which village to go to for the best food and ambiance. And the language? Nothing but glorious French, all around us.

Once we'd emptied our plates for the last time, we danced along with the other early arrivals to a very talented and energetic cover band. It was a jubilant conclusion to a great evening in the Dordogne.

During dinner we had put the issue of the gas tank out of our minds, but now that it was pitch dark we had to focus all our attention on solving that problem. Our gauge was telling us we would run dry in 28 kilometers, nowhere near enough to make it back to Périgueux. We found a sizable station just outside of Montignac but the office was once again closed and the pumps wouldn't accept our cards. I saw a man using the station's hose to wash his car and was able to communicate our problem to him, and he advised me that we needed some kind of special card to access the pumps. Could we use his and pay him back in cash? No, he didn't have one. I wondered how he filled up his own car. I saw another car pull up to the pumps adjacent to our own vehicle and raced over. The young driver was already filling his tank when I reached him. We were saved. Could he use his card to fill our tank if I paid him back in cash? I held the bills up, offering a substantial bonus over the cost of the gas. I can't, he answered. This is my mother's car. Ummm ... what? I repeated myself in disbelief, showing him every bill I was offering. He shook his head and hurriedly jumped back in his car and drove off. I had to wonder if it was a common scam in France for a couple to throw their three small kids in a car and head to a petrol station to trick people out of gas money.

We waited at the station another half hour but no one else pulled in. We'd been in gas trouble a couple of times before in our travels but this was the worst. We were looking at a serious possibility of spending the night in the station. I used the search function on Google Maps and found another station slightly off our route back to Périgueux, 13 kilometers away. That would surely be our last shot with 22 kilometers reading on the gauge. When we got close to the station, my spirits were lifted when I saw it seemed to be a different chain from those we had failed at earlier. The card reader looked completely different as well. I pushed the card in and waited a few breathless seconds until the card was accepted. I've never appreciated the comforting rumble of gas running through a fuel nozzle so much. The kids were all asleep at this point and I looked at their faces through the window of the car. I was astounded that we'd encountered this kind of problem with international credit cards in Western Europe in 2018, but I resolved to be extra careful about our safety and comfort for the rest of the journey. Even in a place like France, it can be very dangerous to become complacent.

We got a slow start the next morning and didn't arrive at the weekly market in Le Bugue until nearly eleven in the morning. We found the market exceptionally crowded and also with a preponderance of souvenirs and other merchandise aimed primarily at tourists. We did find one decent seafood stall where we bought some whole cooked crabs and bulots which we consumed at an outdoor cafe (with drinks we purchased there of course).

We returned to that same short stretch of the Dordogne we had visited the previous day. Les Jardins de L'Eau, also known as the Water Gardens of Carsac, was a stop for the kids more than anything else. The water gardens are probably a fairly recent creation to take advantage of the influx of tourists into the Dordogne. However, they've made it a very beautiful place and the kids really enjoyed feeding the koi. If we'd had one less day to explore the area I'm sure this wouldn't have been on the list, but as it was it made for a pleasant hour for everyone.

The hilltop village of Domme was just a few minutes from Carsac, on the other side of the Dordogne. The prime attraction is the promenade on the northern side of town with views of the Dordogne valley that are breathtaking and limitless.

The town itself was attractive enough but even more saturated with ice cream shops and souvenir stores than Monpazier had been. We didn't stick around for long. We had perhaps the most renowned city in the Dordogne to squeeze in before that evening's night market.

Posted by zzlangerhans 12:01 Archived in France Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: The Dordogne part I (Bergerac)

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France is a country composed of smaller pieces, each with their own distinct renown. These regions to some extent correspond to the administrative divisions, but also have invisible boundaries that have been shaped by more than a thousand years of history. There's Paris and its surrounds. Provence, of course. Brittany and Normandy. Alsace. The Loire Valley, Bordeaux and Bourgogne. One of the smaller areas to enjoy this legendary status is the Périgord, more widely known outside of France by its departmental name of Dordogne. The Périgord epitomizes everything that is wonderful and unique about France, from the verdant countryside to the iconic towns and castles to the delicious cuisine. We were excited to have four entire days and part of a fifth to work our way through a long list of markets, villages, and historic landmarks.

Our previous forays into the Loire Valley and Provence had taught us well that France can't be approached in the same way as Spain. Whereas Spain has less to offer in the early morning and forces travelers into late bedtimes, France is very unforgiving of slow starts. A typical market in the summer has seen its best moments before ten in the morning and is basically over except for the tourist stragglers by noon. On Sunday morning we set our alarms as early as we could stand and raced a half hour southeast to the weekly market of Issigeac, one of the most heralded in the Périgord.

The first thing we saw as we walked into the center was a woman tending a counter with an array of enormous pans, each containing a different tantalizing preparation of meat or seafood. We resisted the temptation to begin eating right away, knowing that every minute that passed would bring larger crowds to impede our progress through the market.

Issigeac was a tiny village with narrow streets, stone and half-timbered houses, and the ancient Saint-Félicien Church overlooking the bustling central square. The atmosphere for our first Dordogne market couldn't have been better.

After a couple of circuits through the market, we'd selected our bread and cheese, strawberries, freshly-shucked oysters and other delicacies and retired to a park bench to enjoy a messy breakfast.

It turned out we'd escaped just in time. We ventured back into the market to let the kids play with the soap bubble guy and found it jam-packed. Arriving early had saved us from having to compete with crowds for the attention of every vendor.

We continued southeast to Château de Bonaguil, one of the most picturesque castles in the Périgord. This formidable medieval edifice suddenly appeared at the top of a hill as we approached on the access road, inspiring an immediate rush of traveler's euphoria.

A castle on a hill like Bonaguil is really two experiences in one, each with its own distinct pleasures. The first part is the climb up the winding path to the castle past ancient, crumbling stone walls and a carefully restored limestone church.

Once we reached the top of the hill it was time for the main event. A stone bridge crossed the crevasse between the hill and the rocky outcropping, or aigeulle, on which the castle is perched.

It took a half hour to explore the half-ruined fortress. The crumbling masonry created surreal, Escherian perspectives of the interior elements of the stronghold. We could only imagine the majesty of the castle during its heyday in the 18th century.

The views of the Périgord countryside from the tall castle keep were spectacular. We were getting a dramatic introduction to this extraordinary and singular corner of the world, and we were energized to continue onward to the other destinations in our day's itinerary.

Our next stop wouldn't have ideally been another castle, but the first sight on the way back from Bonaguil was Château de Biron. Like Bonaguil, this château was a spectacular sight both at a distance from the road and close up. Biron has been preserved and renovated to the extent that the main building can host art exhibitions. By the time we arrived, both the boys were sleeping so I took Cleo for a walk along the side of the enormous castle. I don't think we missed much by skipping a tour of the interior.

In the Périgord there are numerous villages that have been clearly designated for tourism. They are featured in every guidebook and they have a support system of cafes and souvenir shops for travelers. Are they truly the most picturesque of all the villages in the region, or simply the ones that prefer the financial boost of tourism to peace and quiet? We weren't going to be staying in the area long enough to uncover all the secret towns that the tour guides haven't discovered, so we followed the crowds to Monpazier.

Monpazier was certainly picturesque, a well-preserved bastide that was established in the 13th century in the run-up to the Hundred Years War. On the day of our visit they were having a book festival, and the central square was filled with vendors of old magazines and used books. Much to the kids' enjoyment, a craftsman was demonstrating the historic method of making paper from the pulp of old fabric.

We only spent another half hour in Monpazier, enough time to absorb the best examples of medieval architecture and the colorful decoration of the narrow pedestrian streets. In the end it was hard to overcome the feeling of Epcot Syndrome, the term I use for environments that feel more like a theme park pavilion than an authentic travel destination. Perhaps the best examples I can think of in France are Aix-en-Provence and the walled city of Carcassonne, but even central Paris suffers from it to some extent.

We had skipped lunch in anticipation of an early arrival to our chosen Sunday night market. Monbazillac is a small village just south of Bergerac best known for its château and sweet white wines. On the road approaching the village we encountered a whimsical art installation of colorful bicycles.

The roadside market wasn't as picturesque as the one in Audrix, but the selection of food was much larger and the vibe was more local. Whole farm animals roasted on spits and a woman tended to an enormous basin of simmering mussels. We ate reverentially in the shadow of the château.

On Monday morning it was already time to leave our first Dordogne Airbnb. We hoped we could replicate our success with the Pau daily market in Bergerac but it wasn't to be. The market was open in name only, with just a couple of stalls in business and nothing that could be considered a decent breakfast. There was no point in trying to make it to a weekly market as we still had to pack, so we walked around the largely deserted center of Bergerac. There were more than the usual number of attractive half-timbered houses and an intriguing little plaza where an upright piano had been converted into a miniature garden.

It was still far too early for any restaurants to be open for lunch, so we decided it would be best to head straight to our next Airbnb in Périgueux. Once we were settled there we wouldn't have to worry about rushing back in the evening to meet our host. We hadn't even made a dent so far in our list of destinations in the Dordogne.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:27 Archived in France Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Over the Pyrenees and into France

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This was our second time driving from Spain into France through the Pyrenees. Two years earlier we had gone through Andorra and the drive had been underwhelming, but the route via Spain's E-7 was a different story. After we passed Jaca, the road quickly ascended and began to wind through beautiful verdant mountains, with the occasional majestic crag projecting upward like a broken tooth.

The views from the road became even more breathtaking once we crossed the border into France. We were now about mid-level among the mountains, and on every side were steep, lush green slopes dotted with fluffy sheep. There was just enough mist to create an eerie ambience but not enough to obscure visibility. I was the only one awake at this point and I wanted someone to stir and share the moment with me so badly, but I figured we would be better off in the evening with everyone well-rested. One of my biggest regrets from the trip is that I didn't pull over and take some pictures, but there never seemed to be a good spot at the most beautiful locations. I figured that eventually someone would wake up and be able to pose in the foreground of my shots, and then suddenly it was over and we descended to nondescript flatlands. I never got my photo but I was able to find this one from the web that gives some idea of what I was seeing, without all the sheep.

Pau was an obvious choice for our first night in France despite the fact that I had never heard of the place before I planned the trip. It was the first mid-sized city between the border and the Dordogne which meant it probably had a decent daily market. There was also an old town with enough sights to occupy us for the morning before we got back on the road. We arrived at our Airbnb amidst a chilly drizzle in the early evening. Our host hustled everyone inside where we found a very pleasant and spacious loft-style apartment. Our good fortune with accommodations seemed to be continuing. Once the rain died down we went for a walk in search of dinner. I was surprised to find that we weren't encountering any restaurants, despite the fact that we were relatively close to the town center and the covered market. TripAdvisor only found us one good candidate within walking distance, and when we arrived I was a little disconcerted to see it was a rather dignified family-run restaurant with a prix fixe menu. At this point we had no good alternative and they just happened to have a free table the right size for us. I was very self-conscious with the three kids but they couldn't have been better. They quietly watched their iPads on low volume until the food came and then ate very peacefully. The staff and other patrons didn't even bat an eyelash at us.

The following morning it was Saturday, the best day for daily markets, so we walked to Les Halles de Pau with high spirits. We were initially crestfallen to see that the market was undergoing renovations, but it soon became apparent there was a lot of activity despite the disarray. I don't know if I can put it into words, but there's a clear difference between Spanish and French municipal markets. In Spain there's an emphasis on cured meats, olives, preserves, shrimp, dried fish, and similarly tangy and salty items. In France one sees much more roasted meat and rotisserie poultry, grilled vegetables, and more shellfish than crustaceans. Which do I prefer? Probably whichever country I happen to be in at the time.

We had a blast reacquainting ourselves with French culinary specialties and brought home a delicious and savory haul that included a roasted leg of lamb, grilled endives, a head cheese salad, yellow plums, and fresh bulots (whelks). We celebrated our first morning in France with an exemplary French market lunch.

After the listlessness of the area around our Airbnb and the market, we were surprised to find Pau's old town humming with activity just a few hundred meters away. The most well known sights are clustered in a small area adjacent to the Boulevard des Pyrénées, the town promenade that overlooks the valley of the Gave de Pau river and provides sweeping views as far as the mountains on a clear day.

The center of the old town had magnificent, perfectly preserved old buildings that looked as though they had leaped right off a postcard. The wrought-iron balconies, wooden shutters, and colorful flowerbeds in the window sills were quintessentially French and almost felt like a personal welcome to one of our favorite countries.

The Gothic Église Saint Martin dominates one square in the center. The angular, imposing bulk of the church is softened by the lush greenery that surrounds it.

A few steps from the church is Château de Pau, the city's most well-known attraction. There has been a castle at this site since the 11th century, but the existing Renaissance edition was built in the 16th century. The trapezoidal courtyard creates an optical illusion that the building is much longer than it actually is. Mindful of the long drive ahead, we passed up a tour of the interior. We've seen the inside of enough chateaus for a lifetime.

Outside of Pau my eye was caught by a colorful mural that was painted circumferentially around a water tower on a hill. We left the road for a closer look at the whimsical painting. Later I looked up the signature and learned that the mural depicts pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. This artistic cooperative called Ateliers Adeline has decorated countless water towers in the French countryside, and also specializes in remarkably lifelike trompe-l'œil paintings.

Our afternoon stop was Auch, another lesser known mid-sized city in an unheralded area of south-central France. Auch merited a visit mainly due to my philosophical opposition to driving long distances in Europe. In my experience, if you've driven more than three hours without stopping then you've missed something. Auch once played a more prominent role as the capital of the historic region of Gascony, which roughly approximates the French Basque territory. Like Pau, the old town of Auch is perched on a hill above its river which in this case was the brownish-green Le Gers. Instead of a funicular to the lower level, Auch has the Escalier Monumental. This 19th century stone staircase underwent a comprehensive renovation in 2017 and is supposed to be lined with vines representing Gascony's viticultural heritage, although none were visible from the top.

The most impressive sight in Auch is the Gothic-Renaissance Cathédrale Sainte-Marie, whose western facade dominates an open plaza at the highest point of the old town. The cathedral had a beautiful beige color and was pleasingly symmetric. Each of the three levels of the twin limestone towers is fronted by decorative Roman columns and clearly demarcated by balconies with stone balustrades.

Auch's old town was a pleasant place to wander around for an hour. Ancient limestone townhouses with classic French shutters lined the narrow streets, with the occasional half-timbered house disrupting the uniformity.

On the long drive north to the Dordogne, we passed through an undulating landscape of sunflower fields and farmland. Each new expanse of sunflowers seemed to be more golden and vast than the one before. There's not much written about this unusual love of the French for sunflowers, although one thing I hadn't realized was that the plant is native to the Americas and was only introduced to Europe in the 16th century.

One of the features that attracted us most to the Dordogne was the famous night markets. These aren't markets so much as communal dinners which have evolved to become commercial events. Assorted vendors provide the local culinary specialties and wine which is consumed by a variable medley of locals and tourists. As one might imagine, the more the mixture is constituted of locals the more authentic the food and the vibe. Of course, finding those night markets that have retained their authenticity is easier said than done. Most of the markets provide such amenities as dishes, cutlery, and cups but these may require a deposit and also tend to run out. It's much better to be prepared with one's own supplies, with the plates preferably sturdy enough to be laden repeatedly with juicy entrees. I would recommend buying inexpensive hard plastic plates and wine glasses that can be deposited into a plastic bag when used and then washed at home. It's also advisable to arrive early or you might find yourself forlornly circling the tables or sitting on a doorstep to eat.

Saturday doesn't have a one of the larger selection of night markets in the Dordogne, but we didn't have much difficulty finding a seat when we arrived in Audrix an hour after the official start time. It was clearly a more touristic market, with the predominant flavors of patrons being English and German. There were dishes and utensils available and the vendors were a little impatient. We didn't know it at that time, but it was also the smallest assemblage of vendors we would see at a Dordogne night market and the most limited variety of food. Nevertheless we ate well and were pleased with the communal atmosphere in the small, quaint village.

Our Airbnb was almost an hour away to the east in the larger town of Bergerac. I had rather carelessly chosen the two largest cities in the Dordogne as our pieds-a-terre without noting they were well to the east of the Dordogne's most attractive villages and castles. I'd also underestimated the travel time due to the paucity of major roads in the region. The results was an hour or so of extra driving most of our days in the Dordogne, but the sting was eased by the rich landscape of the region. Our apartment in Bergerac was also one of the best of the entire trip, with two spacious levels and a large pool that delighted the kids.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:50 Archived in France 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! 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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