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Published: July 17th 2012
The dramatically sited last stronghold of the Cathars.
I tend to choose the most random places when I'm deciding on trips; hence I've seen more of Burkina Faso and El Salvador than Wales. Therefore, I was initially apprehensive about a trip to the South of France. It seemed too obvious a destination. “Doesn’t everyone go to the South of France?” Yes they do, and now I know why.
Julia’s aunt Nicola’s house is in a lovely little village in the province of Aude, not far from Perpignan. We had been invited over to stay for a few days and thought we’d make a weeklong trip out of it. We got up every morning, went to the little village shop for croissants and a baguette, ate lots of fantastic sausage and cheese, discussed advancements in genetics (of which Claudio is a professor), browsed their vast collection of books, and generally relaxed, explored and enjoyed the area.
The area is famous for the Cathar castles. Due to the vicious oppression of the Cathars (look up the Albigensian Crusade), the castles were built on high inaccessible crags affording great views of the surrounding hills all the way to the snow capped Pyrenees further west.
A couple of buses then took us to Collioure, an old fishing village on the coast close to the Spanish border. I don’t think you have hostels in this part of the world thus, unlike us, we had pre-booked a hotel. It turned out to be very well located, very pretty, and most importantly, very French.
Collioure is incredibly pretty. A quaint harbour is surrounded on one side by the huge walls of a castle, and on the other by a shingle beach and a great stone church, whose walls and tower rise straight from the sea. Across the bay is a hill topped with a small fort and an old windmill. The townhouses which line the bay are painted all colours of the rainbow that are broken up by parades of trees. The restaurants spill out onto the cobbled streets and artists dot the promenade trying to emulate the Fauvists who made this place home at the beginning of the twentieth-century.
It was lovely to stroll through the village, stopping in the market to buy smelly cheese, lay on the beach a while, go out in the evening for moules frites and
a bottle of viognier, then return to a nice hotel room filled with antique furniture. I started to wonder if I was getting old; or at least if I was growing up. Looking around at the other tourists, I could see that most were retirees or families.
In fact, the reason I’ve seen less of western Europe than many other parts of the world is because I’ve always thought that western Europe is easy, close, and expensive. Therefore, better to go there when I’m older, have less holidays, more money and less of a desire to rough it. Seemingly I’d arrived at that point without realizing.
The next stop was Carcassonne. The old walled town is the most visited place in all of southern France and is definitely worth a look. The cobbled streets and towering walls are most majestic and it is big enough that the tourist hoards cannot occupy all the streets at once. However, I do agree with some comments that the energetic restoration has led to the town looking a little bit like Disney Land. The endless souvenir shops selling little swords and shields plus the waitresses in medieval garb
Ermitage Saint-Antoine de Galamus
Nesting in a cliff in the lovely Galamus Gorge
luring you into restaurants further add to this image.
A surprisingly comfortable sleeper train brought us to Paris. And Paris is just Paris. One of the greatest world cities where only a boring person could get bored. We walked and walked, popping in the odd gallery or museum, stopping in a cafe for a coffee, walked some more, bought more great cheese and sausage to eat on a bench in a park, walked some more. I like Paris.
I had failed at convincing Julia that we should go to the Faeroe Islands and only agreed to France when I realized that I could have a few days in the mountains (see the previous blog). However, I’m now game for seeing much more of France after really enjoying a part of the world that I wouldn't normally visit.
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