Friday, 27 November 2015

Our Last Days in France

Our Last Days in France

Tuesday 24th November 2015

This morning we left our Aire at Palavas Les Flots and headed for Montpelier Parc Zoologique on the outskirts of Montpelier.  Now, zoos aren't usually our cup of tea, but I 'd read about this one in the ‘France - Lonely Planet Guide’ and it sounded as if it would be ok.  The book described it as 'France’s second largest, and as having an enormous population of wild residents representing the world’s continents'.  It went on to say that it's laid out like a safari park with most of the animals roaming free in open enclosures, and as an added bonus, entry was Free - so on this basis I persuaded John to go!

BAD PLAN!  Things didn’t start well!  John thought that Mrs Snoopy (sat nav)  would be sensible and take us around the Montpelier ring road - alas no - she took us right through the middle of the city - down narrow streets obstructed by parked cars and market stalls, round very confusing one way systems - in fact there was so much ‘ in 200 metres turn left, in 400 metres turn right, bear left and then turn right etc’ that John commented it’s a wonder we haven’t disappeared up our own Jacksey!!

A Montpelier Tram

Part of Montpelier City Centre

Eventually, we did arrive at the zoo - only to find that the main parking area was obstructed by a height barrier - I thought at this stage John would give up and take us somewhere else, but no, after a big huff and puff he manfully persevered, turned around and found us a parking spot just a little further up the road. However, by now he was really a bit peed off to say the least, so I had to put up with going into the zoo with a bit of a grumpy old man!  Then to add insult to injury, we struggled to find any animals to start with - we ended up almost playing 'I spy' and the absence of anything with 4 legs became quite funny, however sadly, when we did find them they all looked a bit sad and forlorn.  The enclosures were big and spaced out but some of them were very bare and uninspiring, I certainly wouldn't recommend it on Trip Adviser!

Having said that our trip wasn’t a total washout.  It was quite cold but the sun was shining again so it was quite pleasant strolling around the grounds, and things improved when we entered The Serre Amazonienne (we had to pay for that bit - 6 euros for me and 3 for John as a senior!).  This area was a huge heated glass house where birds flew free and where we were able to view piranhas, alligators, lizards, frogs, monkeys and  many other animals including bats.

Mr Piranha

Don't think she's an Amazonienne specimen!

The bat house was amazing, the light was low but you could easily see the hundreds of bats flitting about, feeding and hanging from any roughened surface they could find - easily the best bit!

I had thought it would take us several hours to complete our visit but we were all done by 1.30 so we had a quick cup of coffee and set off for our next destination which was an Aire (where we plan to spend the night) at Meze.  This is another coastal area that has huge lagoons between the land and sea, and as we passed one of the lagoons  we noticed these strange rack like structures protruding form the water.  We really wern’t sure what they were but we speculated that it may have been a muscle or oyster farm.

I looked it up on Google later and we were right, it is a muscle farm!
Anyway, shortly after we arrived at our  Aire on the outskirts of the town, and as we expected, it was really just a bit of rough unused  land, but it was free and we only stopped for one night so it did nicely.  We'd also thought it might be deserted at this time of  year but in the end we had the company of about 12 other vans - all French and some of them looked well dug in and as if they intended to stay a while!   We had a little wander into the town and down to the water front and you could have been forgiven for thinking it was the open sea - but no - it was the same huge lagoon we'd noticed earlier. Apparently Meze has three harbours and two beaches, and in season there are often markets and stalls selling oyster's and muscles, but while we were there the town was dead!

We sat on a bench and watched the world go by for a short time but it really did start to getting too cold to linger, and as we'd missed lunch, we both had growling tums, so we quickly decided it was time to turn tail and retreat to the T4rdis for very garlicky tomato pasta topped with parmasan cheese and with more garlic added on our bread.  It was very delicious and it's a sure thing that the vampires wouldn't bother us tonight!

Friday 25th November 2015.

First things first -  Hi Evelyn, Grandad and I would just like to wish you a very happy first month Birthday, and tell you that we're missing you very much and can’t wait to give you a big hug in February when you come to visit us xxx

Now on with the story.  After a very cold night we left our Aire at Meze and headed for The Medieval Castle at Carcassonne in the Languedoc region.  We covered approximately 120 kms and I would swear that for at least half of the distance we were passing field after field of vines - millions of them.  We speculated on the way about how may bottles of wine could be made from each vine, but even if it's only one, we must have passed enough plants to keep the likes of Lidl stocked for years!

We arrived at Carcassonne expecting to see the castle perched high up on a hill, but our approach was unimpressive as you could only see a small section of the ramparts from the road.  However, once we'd parked in the nearby Aire where we will be spending the night we walked over to the castle to explore, and at this stage we were very very impressed.  The castle is referred to as 'La Cite' and the inner town is encircled by two sets of battlements and 52 stone towers, each topped by distinctive ‘witch’s hat’ roof.

We walked for part of the way around the castle along the outer ramparts, providing views of the old moat and out over the sprawling city below, and also of Les Lices - this is the space between the inner city walls and the outer battlements.  Apparently this space was designed as a defence that would delay attackers, but history has it that it also provided a shanty town of homes and workshops for the city’s poorest residents.

We couldn't completely circumnavigate the castle walls because of ongoing renervation work, so we turned tail and entered the inner streets via the main gate where the drawbridge can still be seen - Porte Narbonnaise.  

The inner streets of the castle were cobbled and very narrow, and now provide a home for numerous eateries and touristy gift shops, but again many of them were shut.  However, it was quite atmospheric and there was certainly a lot of evidence of medieval architecture.  I'm sure in the dark it would have been very spooky!

We explored around and eventually came to The Basilique St-Nazaire - a stunning building with amazing stained glass windows and an organ that dated from the 17th century.  We took our time to explore inside and it certainly put us in mind of ‘Pillars of the Earth’ (a book by Ken Follett that is well worth reading). The original Church's history dates back to the sixth century but it was rebuilt in the 12th century, and since then it has had several further restorations.

Impossible to do them justice but they were really beautiful

And this ugly chap is one of the gargoyles that protrude from the sides 

Apparently this is one of the oldest organs in France with it's original construction dating back to 1680.

Since then it has been upgraded several times - 1772, 1970 and 1982, and today concerts take place during the summer months - We'd have loved to attended one but, like everything else, they've finished for the winter!

Later we left La Cite and went for a walk over the River Aude via the Pont-Vieux - a 14 century bridge that provided a link between Carcassonne’s lower and upper towns.  Now it's only open to pedestrians, but it would seem a miracle that it's still there at all.  As we crossed we saw a flood marker that indicted that the Aude has burst it’s banks on more than one occasion, but in 1891 the water rose by more than 7 metres - it must have been an absolutely raging torrent that passed under the bridge and looking at the height of the arches it's a wonder it didn't take it with it!  

As we walked through the city streets we came across a huge market selling a vast array of goods but we didn’t buy anything because all the chatter in French was a bit off putting. Also, the day was waning and it was becoming increasingly cold again and threatening to rain, so we turned tail and headed back to the warmth of the T4rdis.

Overnight the weather deteriorated more, and it became quite rough with rain pounding on our tin roof and the wind swaying the van quite aggressively at times, and rather than it rocking us to sleep it had the opposite effect! However, we survived unscathed and were soon packed up and ready to move on in the morning.

26th and 27th November 2015

I've not really got much to say about these 2 days. We left Carcassonne and headed for Perpignan, and again Mrs Snoopy led us up the garden path and right through the middle of the city - but it wasn't so bad this time - not quite such narrow roads and not so many obstructions.

We stopped off to do our shopping and then headed for an ACSI campsite called Camping La Florida - about 18Kms from Perpignan. The campsite is quite lovely but the location is grim! It looked fine on the map, but in reality, there is nowhere to walk without dicing with death - as you leave the campsite you exit directly onto a main fast road with no footpath. We've risked it twice, the day we arrived we walked into Elne - a non descript little village that was more or less closed for business, and then today we walked to Port de St Cypren Plarge - another pretty marina.  

Our intention had really been to cycle but this idea was scuppered by the weather. Since we've been here the wind has been blowing an absolute gale and gusting up to 50mph causing the palm trees to almost bend double - so we thought it was best to leave the bikes secured where they were and use shank's pony instead. We've also spotted snow on the top of the Pyrenees, and although it looks very pretty, we have to cross them to get to Spain! Therefore, tomorrow (28th) we're going to make a move in that direction, so hopefully the next instalment will be form over the boarder.  

We could see the snow but I don't think you can!

Click here to see our French Camping Spots