Saturday, July 31, 2010

Day six - the beaches south of Narbonne

Today we decided it was time see the sea. We had chosen to stay inland thinking that the coast would be busy with French holiday makers. The coast along here has been developed with a series of holiday towns which I am guessing are mostly rentals. We drove out towards Narbonne before turning south on smaller roads and soon found that it was nowhere as busy as we imagined. We didn’t get caught in traffic or have trouble parking and the first beach we visited at Port Leucate was practically deserted . Along here the holiday resorts occupy a long stretch of land separated from the mainland by a beautiful lagoon. We had lunch at a little promenade restaurant at a place called Le Lydia, named after the small passenger ship dug into the sand and now serving as a casino. Lunch consisted of grilled sardines. Excellent! And some more rose wine to go with it. And frites.

We next drove down a narrow neck of land until we found a stretch of beach we liked and hung out there for a couple of hours. It was very windy which is apparently typical as part of our beach was reserved for kite boarders and one was busy while we were there putting on quite a show. The water was fabulous. El is mad she doesn’t own a bikini as all the other women were wearing them. (I hadn’t actually noticed as I was just reading my book).

We wended our way into Perpignan, which has a beautiful town centre and just had pizza for dinner (and wine of course). For the trip home we stuck to the toll roads and that would have been uneventful except I hadn’t been paying much attention to the gas and we spent some tense minutes on the highway waiting for a gas station to appear, which it eventually did.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Day five - Carcossone and Homp

El got her day off to a good start by taking a dip in the hotel pool, apparently a little on the cool side. At first we decided we would drive south and explore further south of Limoux but after coffee and pastries in Pomas we decided to go north instead and check out Carcassone. The guide book said to not visit Carcossone in summer as it would be a zoo; it is apparently one of France’s three most visited towns. It was in fact a zoo but we have seen worse. Carcassone is popular because it includes a small walled city with a positively fairytale appearance. It looks like a film set except with lots of narrow winding streets now filled with little restaurants and souvenir stores. We were done in an hour and headed into the ‘newer’ part of town to wander about.

Here we had our first chance to admire the Canal de Midi, a masterpiece of engineering and the determination of one man to build a canal connecting the Atlantic. Completed in the late 17th century it is now most popular for leisurely one or two week boat holidays up and down its length from Toulouse to Narbonne. We tried to find a drive that would allow us to parallel the canal and did so as far as Trebes where we ate lunch at a restaurant overlooking one of the locks. We decided to make the canal our focus for the day and continued driving parallel to it until we reached Homps, a major staging area for boat tours. We were in time to sign up for a two-hour boat ride up the canal to see firsthand its locks in action along with other features such as flood spillways (kind of like the overflow hole in a bathroom sink) and an aqueduct that carries the canal across a small river. What makes the canal really beautiful is that it is lined on both sides with plane trees, which it turns out are more than decorative as their roots are what keep the banks from eroding. All quite fascinating and left us more than ready for dinner.

This is where our day began to fall apart a little. We had this idea that if you drive through any town of a certain size you are bound to come to restaurant. This is not the case. We drove through many towns before finally ending up back at Limoux where we had eaten the night before. This would have been tolerable if not for the fact that the town was having some kind international folklore festival with a major performance in the square that evening. I believe these are actually put on by locals who like to dress up and perform traditional song and dances from places that should have stopped doing that a long time ago. Tonight’s entry looked like wherever Borat was from. What we found amazing is that the whole town seems to come out to enjoy this kind of thing, although I am guessing that many are there not so much for the show as the attendant social scene.

Day four - Barcelona to Cavanac

Merde! My pants are getting a bit tight. Today we picked up our Megane rental car in Barcelona and got on the highway without getting lost. The road travels right by the Mediterranean. We were surprised to see so many beaches that weren’t that crowded. My vision of nothing but wall to wall people was wrong.

We stopped for lunch at Sol de Mar, a lovely quaint little town. The gazpacho I had was amazing’ maybe it was the setting who knows. The bread was pretty good too and this with the croissant for breakfast, snack midmorning makes for tight pants.

We continued on the highway and went down to the coast again in a couple of places on the Costa Brava but we weren’t impressed. The beaches looked nice but the towns were made up of 5 or 6 storey boring block apartments. On to France.

We reached Chateau Cavanac fairly easily. It is in beautiful rolling countryside with vineyards everywhere, five miles south of Carcassone. The hotel has about 30 rooms and a restaurant that is quite well known. It is midnight, the parking lot is pretty full and we can hear happy people wending their way back to their cars.

We ate in Limoux tonight. It is a beautiful little town with lots of tiny, narrow streets set on the River Aude. Everywhere you can see huge hanging baskets and the scent of flowers is everywhere. Dinner was at one of the restaurants on the square We had a wicked salad with a bowl of melted Camembert cheese with some chives served with toast. So good but so filling. I couldn’t eat all of my duck in phyllo with whipped potatoes in their jackets. It’s so early in the trip and my stomach has given up. The Limoux wine set my face on fire. It must be the sulphites. A lot of the wine in this area is vin ordinaire that is shipped all over to be cut with other wine. I wonder if it goes to the Okanagan?

After dining outside we went for a walk along the river. It is so nice to be outside at night walking and being warm as well as smelling all the flowers. Heaven!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Languedoc trip - day three - Barcelona

Once again my little watch alarm failed to wake us but El heard the cheering from the end of the street as the 20 km men's race walkers went by - Barcelona is hosting this year's European Athletic Championships. The race walk was being held in a big park complex called Parc de la Ciuttadella which includes a zoo, parliament buildings, and many beautiful walkways. We wandered around there and up to the top where there is a huge Arc de Triumph, and our nearest subway stop.

We decided to take the subway over to an even more spectacular park area, Parc de Montjuic, a beautiful hillside setting with views across the whole city. This is also the site of the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, so we had to visit the pool and main stadium. Eleanor got to check another Olympic pool off her list although we hadn't brought our swimsuits so didn't get to swim. We were also unable to enter the Olympic stadium unless we wanted to buy tickets for the athletic championships then in progress. Next stop was a cable car ride to Castell de Montjuic on the very peak, and even more spectacular views. I am guessing the temperature was in the mid thirties at least, so by this time we were done with tramping about. Even the locals on the subway looked wilted.

After a bit of a siesta back in our room we headed off to Mercat Sanata Caterina. I mentioned yesterday that we had seen what looked like a great restaurant there and decided to try it out. It was indeed excellent. I had grilled Turbot and El had Hake steak with glazed scallions, basil and potatoes. It was busy but we were happy to take seats at the bar, which we always find the most interesting spot anyway. We happened to be right where the servers picked up the orders and so were able to see every dish going by. We saw roasted suckling pig leg go by several times. Grilled razor clams also caught our eye. So that was today. Tomorrow will be mostly a matter of packing up and getting a cab to Estacio de Sants to pick up our car. We anticipate a three-hour drive, all auto route, to our next lodgings in Caravac, just south of Carcassone.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Languedoc trip - day one and two (Barcelona)

We arrived in Barcelona in the early afternoon and found the final day of the Tour de France on tv, which gave us an excuse to nap through the afternoon, a mistake. Eventually we got active and headed off to find the waterfront and seek out a restaurant Davide had told us about, Casa Cosa. The menu included Dorada cooked in salt, so that was El's choice. Someone came by playing accordian. He knew apparently only two tunes, and played neither well, but I would certainly have put money in his hat if he had approached us, not wanting a repeat of what happened to me the last time I had en encounter with an accordionist (another story).

Of course having napped in the afternoon, we ended up staying up late. We set the alarm for 8:30 and although we didn't hear it, we awoke at what we thought was that time and headed downstairs looking for the so called "white room" looking for breakfast. We couldn't understand the strange looks we were getting until someone pointed out it was after 1 pm! Ooops!

So with that leisurely start to our day we went on a big meander uptown towards Placa Catalunya, stopping for coffee and croissants along the way. We also began the inevitable quest for shoes, preferrably Camper. We also found some proper maps and then jumped on Barcelona's excellent subway to get back to our hotel, now being more clued into where everything is. For dinner we found a delightful little place serving traditional foods. The menu came in the form of a magazine which detailed all the food being served, where it came from, the history of the various dishes and pretty much how each dish was prepared. We made the simple choice of an eight course tasting menu, which was very nice - the zuchinni with cod was El's favourite. We had our coffee, taking our time so as to annoy the family waiting for our table (no we didn't!), and then wandered around some more. We got slightly lost, for me one of the essential requirements of any good holiday. Our reward for leavingf the tourist track was a glimpse of a more typical neighbourhood, before finding ourselves right back at our hotel, just like we knew what we were doing! On the way we discovered the local market, which we have earmarked for tomorrow's breakfast.