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An Epicurean Odyssey: Over the Pyrenees and into France

View Iberia and Southwest France 2018 on zzlangerhans's travel map.


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)

Back to the Med! Languedoc inward bound: Carcassonne

After gorging our eyes and stomachs at the amazing Sète market, we still had a couple of stops to make on the way to Carcassonne. First up was Béziers, where I executed a parallel parking maneuver with the Iceberg so magnificent that I had to record it for posterity.

We climbed a steep hill in the old town to reach Cathédrale Saint Nazaire, where there were great views of the countryside on the other side of the river Orb.

We walked back across town to the wide boulevard Allées Paul Riquet, where we encountered a shellfish vendor, an ice cream cafe, and a carousel.

At the end of the boulevard was a beautiful park called Plateau Des Poètes. The kids were able to get their playground fix and there was a pond with birds to feed.

I regretfully abandoned my amazing parking spot and we drove on to Narbonne. My main motivation in visiting here was to get a look at the Canal du Midi. Before I began researching this trip, I never knew it was possible to travel from the Atlantic coast of France all the way to the Mediterranean thanks to this amazing feat of 17th century engineering. I had originally wanted to take a half day boat trip on the canal, but abandoned that plan as I added more cities to our itinerary. Narbonne is actually on the Canal de la Robine, a branch of the main waterway built in the 18th century. We had a very enjoyable walk along the bank, admiring the glassy surface of the water and the flat houseboats reminiscent of Regent's Canal in London. Set back slightly from the canal were tall plane trees and elegant Parisian-style town homes.

We walked back to the old town and hung out just long enough to see the outside of the Palais des Archevêques and the Narbonne Cathedral. I got a reasonable picture of the palace but I think it's impossible to photograph the cathedral from the ground without special lenses. There's a great photo of the beautiful and unique cathedral here

The obvious choice for dinner in Narbonne was Les Grands Buffets, which purportedly had a great selection of regional specialties and was universally lauded in guidebooks and review sites. We found the restaurant with some difficulty and unloaded everyone only to find out at the door that they were completely booked for the night. I had automatically assumed that a large capacity buffet restaurant wouldn't be a problem on a Wednesday night, but international travel is always full of surprises. We dejectedly returned to the Iceberg and had to scramble for a new dinner choice. Fortunately our replacement, L'Ecailler Gourmet, was quite a good seafood restaurant although the menu was a little too unimaginative to qualify for a place in our top ten. The presentation was great though.

It was quite late once we left the restaurant so even though Carcassonne was a straight shot on the main highway from Narbonne it was after ten when we arrived at La Ville Basse, the residential part of the city. There was no parking close by so we had the usual routine of unloading everything into the Airbnb followed by my lonely search for a legal parking spot. Our host had warned us about the downstairs neighbor so I took off my shoes to walk in the kitchen. I made the mistake of pushing a chair back from the dining table to sit down and was immediately greeted by a series of pounding thumps emanating from underneath the floorboards. Apparently the neighbor keeps her broom close at hand to welcome the Airbnb guests.

Thursday was a market day in Carcassonne, but the main square of La Ville Basse was strangely deserted. I resorted to Google again and discovered that it was Ascension Day, another national holiday that I had never even heard of. Hopefully this would be the last trip where I would be unaware of any of the national holidays of the country I was traveling in. The covered market was a ghost town as well, so we went directly to La Cité, the famous medieval citadel that everyone thinks of when they hear the name of Carcassonne. I had anticipated this stop even more eagerly than I had Aix and Èze, and just like those towns La Cité was unable to live up to those high expectations. The walled city looks like a fairytale castle from a distance, but up close it is an overdeveloped tourist attraction with endless cheap outlets for souvenirs and fluorescent frozen drinks. We did our best to find the few quiet corners that weren't commercialized but we were bored after an hour and left.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:45 Archived in France Tagged carcassonne narbonne beziers Comments (0)

Back to the Med! Languedoc inward bound: Montpellier

We experienced another brutal landing in Montpellier. We found our Airbnb fairly easily, but it was a fourth floor walk-up and rather dilapidated and unclean. The coup de grace was the missing toilet seat, reminiscent of Midnight Express. I went alone to park the Iceberg and immediately made a wrong turn into the heart of the pedestrian zone. I had to reverse out of a few blind ends before eventually concluding the only escape was to return exactly the way I had entered. One thing that always amazes me, no matter what country I'm in, is how people will constantly walk behind a reversing van as though they have a cloak of invulnerability. I didn't even have a rear view camera on the Iceberg, so every time I backed up I was only able to move a foot before checking the mirrors to see if someone else was about to stroll behind me. I eventually got to the main road and then made two long passes entirely around the old town looking for the garage our host had instructed me to use and finding no such location. Eventually I pulled off and Googled the garage, only to find out it had permanently closed two years previously. How could our host not know the garage had closed so long ago? Didn't any of the people he had directed there previously fill him in? Bizarre. I found another garage a couple of blocks further away. The good part was that I could tell we had arrived in a beautiful, energetic city during the walk back to the apartment.

Finding a quality restaurant open on a Monday required numerous phone calls, but eventually I was able to reserve a table. Once we arrived at the restaurant, it was clear we were in for a difficult time as we had one of those tall tables with bar stools instead of seats. The restaurant was packed tight and there was no room for strollers, so we left Spenser on the floor in his car seat and spent most of dinner trying to keep the kids from slipping off their stools. I don't remember the food being particularly good or bad, but I'm fairly sure I hardly tasted it because I was so focused on keeping the kids off the ground. This was one instance in which the reservation strategy failed us. To add insult to injury, we saw plenty of open restaurants with good family seating options on the way back from dinner. I resolved to be less hasty to make a reservation and instead scope out the restaurant scene in the future.

The next morning, we started out our Montpellier walk in the beautiful, spacious Place de la Comedie. The elegant buildings and vibrant atmosphere reminded me of Orléans, another of my favorite French cities.

We took a one hour playground break in the lush and expansive Jardins de l’Esplanade adjacent to the square, then meandered back through the pleasant and bustling old town to the Promenade du Peyrou. This 17th century park atop a hill just west of the old town contains interesting statues and monuments and has views over the surrounding Hérault region.

The covered market was a rather wimpy affair compared to Toulouse and Avignon. Nearby, we found the tiny restaurant Le Petit Bistrot where the young chef Nicolas prepares a small menu every day, cooks, and waits all the tables. It was a classic French cuisine experience, down to the duck fat which seemingly permeated every dish.

Just like that, we were finished with Montpellier after only eighteen hours. We drove a few miles to the coastal resort Palavas-les-Flots, where there was supposed to be some kind of festival going on, but we found no festival and nothing else of interest. From there, we proceeded down the coastal road to the port town of Sète. We stopped at the tourist office to inquire about tours of oyster farms but there was nothing available. Instead we walked down Quai Général Durand in search of the fish market, but were unable to find anything. However, we did find ourselves in a beautiful part of the town crisscrossed by canals and bridges, which made for a pleasant walk despite the lack of markets.

We moved on down the coast to Agde, where we checked into our Airbnb. It was early for dinner, so we spent an hour walking around the small Agde old town. The most memorable sight was a trompe-l'oeil, or optical illusion, created by painting artificial windows and storefronts on the flat faces of buildings. Due to the angle of the sun my pictures didn't come out very well, so I added a professional photo for comparison.

The best restaurant open on a Tuesday night appeared to be in Cap D'Agde, a resort town about ten minutes away. Unfortunately once we arrived we found that the restaurant was closed despite information to the contrary on their website. The other restaurants in the harbor area looked rather low end. I was ready to drive back to Agde but Mei Ling suggested I take another look so I reluctantly strolled back down the length of the promenade. Sure enough I encountered another Tripadvisor top pick, La Table de Marthe. They had a table which was perfect for us and we had an excellent meal with delicious desserts, another top ten entry for the trip. Once again, Mei Ling's instincts had saved the day.

Wednesday morning we headed back to Sète to see if we would have better luck finding a fish market in the early morning. We noticed immediately that there seemed to be a lot more activity in the neighborhood we had visited the previous day. Once we turned inward from the canal the reason quickly became apparent. There was an absolutely huge market in progress with stall after stall of produce and prepared food that seemed to go on forever. At the center of it all was the town's covered market, which was a maelstrom of activity. We bought oysters and sea snails in the covered market and ate them at a table with sausages and stewed land snails we had bought on the street. After all the work we had put into researching the premier markets, we found the absolute best purely by random chance.

Posted by zzlangerhans 15:20 Archived in France Tagged sete montpellier agde cap_d'agde Comments (0)

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