Forum rules: Each member may post travel stories to their own thread. You may comment on others' threads but do not take them over with your own stories. Please try to ensure these stories are entertaining and snappy. You may include a FEW pics to illustrate your story. Please don't use this as a platform for your photo albums: they are best put in (say) Picasa with a link.
 #23362  by ColinW
 Sat Apr 23, 2011 7:36 pm
Off the beaten track in central France hill country
DSCF1884.jpg (12.71 KiB) Viewed 855 times
 #23372  by ColinW
 Sat Apr 23, 2011 8:08 pm
Provence from the hills
DSCF1924.jpg (19.02 KiB) Viewed 851 times
 #23373  by ColinW
 Sat Apr 23, 2011 8:11 pm
Siege machines
DSCF1927.jpg (18.1 KiB) Viewed 851 times
 #23407  by ColinW
 Sun Apr 24, 2011 8:23 pm
Still bad weather, so here is some more.

An advantage of having two nights at Mines was to catch-up with some laundry. Like most camping grounds I visited, there were no washing machines, but this one had huge porcelain tubs and old fashioned wash-boards. It was also a chance to empty the toilet cassette, but I saw dump-points (for cassettes only) at most aires, often wanting a coin in the slot for access.

I decided to head south to see the Mediterranean Sea, so set off in that general direction. On the way I stopped first at an old castle in the middle of farmland that was now a thriving art gallery. Then at a fortified village near the coast – the fortifications being to keep pirates and Moorish invaders out. The sea was nicer here than at the mouth of the Rhone, but I’d picked a no exit road and had to back-track to get anywhere. I set the GPS for Narbonne and went through a series of small villages till I got on a by-pass road that avoided Montpellier. I again headed for the coast and found a road that followed the beach – at one stage there was a stretch of about 30 miles where cars were parked bumper to bumper. I found a gap and enjoyed a swim – there were a few other vans around and I decided to stay the night – fortunately it was not a major road so there was little traffic noise.

In the morning I set off heading south, but it was not possible to follow the coast all the way. I eventually reached Colliure near the Spanish border, which was recommended by the Lonely Planet. Again, narrow streets and nowhere to park so I drove on a couple of miles to Port Vendres. I’d been given a copy of ‘All The Aires’, which had the local aire listed among the hundreds of others in France. I found it and squeezed into a park under some good shade and decided to walk back to Colliure. Colliure was a major port of departure for the crusades and the old town and castle are well preserved, but a bit of a tourist trap. I returned to Port Vendres where I had a leisurely look around the port and art gallery. One large fishing boat was moored to a cannon set in concrete
I didn’t know if I needed a visa for Spain so headed North again. I wasn’t impressed with Narbonne so pushed on towards Carcassonne. On the way I visited a restored abbey that had been sacked in the wars of religion, now owned by a wealthy wine trader who lives in part and has guided tours around the rest. They didn’t allow overnight parking so I found a vineyard listed in France Passion. Next morning I got to the old citee on the hill at Carcassonne before the crowds and tried to follow the signs to a car-park – the attendant had me back out and directed me to the new aire, still under construction, and a short walk to the old city. The parking machines were not connected so it was free – a week later it would have been 10 euro. Parts of the fortified city date back to Roman times. There was a major restoration in Napoleon’s time and the whole place is now a real tourist trap. The old buildings are now museums, shops and restaurants. From the battlements you get a good view of the modern city. In the mid-afternoon when I thought I’d seen it all I followed a crowd to an area between the inner and outer walls. I had to pay 25 euro but it was one of the highlights of my trip – a jousting tournament. It was all stage-managed, but they were good actors with beautiful horses. The lances all had balsa wood tips, but they still had enough force to knock the opponent off. One had a tame eagle. That night there were about 50 vans in the aire.
In the morning I set off to Trebes where ‘All The Aires’ recommended the aire by the Canal du Midi. Sadly the aire was closed, but I parked by the sports-ground and spent the day cycling along the canal path – good cycling with no hills! At one lock I met a Swedish couple who had taken two summers to take their small launch from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean via the inland waterways of Germany, Holland and France. Now they were going across France from the Med to the Atlantic on the canal built by the French to avoid going past Gibraltar. I felt quite envious as this was something my late wife and I had on our bucket list.
 #23417  by ColinW
 Mon Apr 25, 2011 1:20 pm
Hi again. Sorry, no more photos – Mark has changed the rules – if you want some pics, send me a message with your email and I’ll send you a brief selection. I don’t go in for social media sites!

I headed south again, which took me through the Pays Cathar, or Cathar Country. I stopped at a local museum and learned how tens of thousands of Cathars had been exterminated by papal decree in the 1200s. If you believe Dan Brown, they were the descendents of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. I drove up a winding hill road reminiscent of the Crown Range and then climbed the hill to the remains of an old Cathar fortress. It would have been impenetrable, but the papal forces laid siege for over a year and starved them out.

There were lots of big paddocks of sunflowers growing – all facing the mid-day sun. At one stage, in the middle of some limestone hills, the road went through a natural tunnel. After a couple of hours I was thinking of stopping when I was halted by a gendarme. There was a queue of traffic about half a mile long – “le Tour de France” he said. The Range Rover that pulled up behind me was RHD with French number-plates – a sure sign of an Englishman living in France, so I went to say hello. He spoke good French so determined that it would be 2 ½ hours before the race came. We walked down to the crossroads where the crowd was already jostling for best viewpoints and where merchandisers were selling expensive yellow T-shirts. He saw some English friends so we all went back to the van for a cuppa. I was interested to hear that they had all been living in the French village for about ten years, found the cost of living (especially housing) cheaper and the quality of life better than the UK. Eventually we heard helicopters overhead so went back in time to see the bikers come down the hill at breakneck speed, go around the corner and disappear. There were about 2000 people there by then and they only got a fleeting glimpse of the action.

The French have a real passion for the Tour and follow it in the thousands. All the Aires were full so I drove up a hill road to a little village where a “P” sign in the village square indicated ‘all vehicles, except market day’. That was good enough for me, so I parked up and had a shower while 20 yards away people were sitting under the umbrellas of an out-door café having their evening meal. During the day most of the houses have the wooden shutters on their windows closed because of the heat, but in the evening they all opened them up. I was in the foothills of the Pyrenees, so I climbed further up the hill to get a great view of the mountains. The next morning must have been market day as vans and trailers arrived early and stated setting up stalls. I got away early and picked what I thought would be a good route through the Pyrenees. Would you believe that I’d picked the route for the bloody bike race! At 9am, when the race wasn’t due to come till the afternoon, people were parked-up for miles waiting for the action. The cols were obviously the favourite spots and the traffic was slow due to the crowds. The hold-ups did however let me take in some of the spectacular views. After the second col I turned off and headed for the Bordeaux region, on the Atlantic coast.
 #23427  by Mark
 Mon Apr 25, 2011 4:44 pm
Sorry, no more photos – Mark has changed the rules
Mark has clarified the rules, which don't preclude the use of a few pics for illustrative purposes.
 #23575  by ColinW
 Sat Apr 30, 2011 5:22 pm
Thanks Mark. I have privacy concerns about sites like Picasa, so wont be using that option.
Here are two pics to go with last post.

A Cathar fotress
DSCF2116.jpg (14.87 KiB) Viewed 794 times
The tour-de France, with sunflowers in background
DSCF2192.jpg (20.29 KiB) Viewed 794 times
 #23580  by ColinW
 Sat Apr 30, 2011 6:19 pm
After leaving the foothill of the Pyranees there were a few more hills with picturesque villages. I stopped in one for my daily fresh bread and climbed to a view spot to look back over the village roof tops to the mountains beyond.
Looking back to the Pyranees
DSCF2205.jpg (18.65 KiB) Viewed 794 times
When back to the flat it was easy driving and I set my GPS for a vineyard listed in France Passion. It didn’t look far on the map, but France is BIG – about ten times the size of UK, but a similar population. The route took me through lots of villages, some only a few miles from its neighbours. There were vineyards and sunflowers and lots of paddocks with hay-bales stacked. I asked once “where are the animals to eat all the hay?” – the answer was that it was trucked north, mainly to Holland where the agriculture is very intensive.

Eventually, in the late afternoon I found my park for the night which had a sign “welcome – we speak English with a French accent”. Unfortunately, it was very hard to understand, but he gave me a brochure about the vineyard and it’s magnificent chateau. It had been in the same family for several hundred years. In the 1930’s they had been forced to sell most of the land but had kept the house and now grew the grapes on rented land. The proprietor claimed to be descended from one of the three musketeers.
One of the campsites in France Passion
DSCF2264.jpg (11.46 KiB) Viewed 794 times
In the evening an old chap came by for a chat – he had excellent English which he had learnt from Allied servicemen his family had sheltered during WW11. He told me how, as a teenager, he had sabotaged German vehicles. He also told me about Oradour in Limousin and I decided to go there next.

In the morning I was invited to taste some of their wines. Very nice reds, so a bought a half dozen.
Pay with Paymate Express