To celebrate my birthday this year, Rich booked us a weekend in a yurt in the Cotswolds. We’re slightly obsessed with yurts. Rich grew up wanting to be a pig farmer in Mongolia, and we had our wedding party in this one:
This wasn’t any old yurt however. It came with it’s own woodland, compost loo, and already established guests. As we were staying at the end of the season, several little mice had had plenty of time to make themselves at home, and had obviously established a routine for driving human guests nuts!
The compost loo
They stayed quiet until we’d gone to bed, and then started running around inside the felt lining of the yurt, and peaking into any bags which we’d left on the floor. Even when we got savvy and moved everything up onto pegs, they still insisted on exploring, nibbling, and generally just trying to drive me round the bed. Even though Rich couldn’t hear a thing without his hearing device on, he was still worried about things nibbling at said device, or leaving droppings close by or even on him – a genuine fear when we’re trying to avoid infection, what with chemo n’all.
Even with two disturbed nights however, we still had fun. And to be fair, the mice will have made their home there long before we came along. Rich was in his element chopping and preparing fire wood for the open fire, and we’ve always loved cooking outside. It was so peaceful that we dragged the mattresses outside for a nap in the sun on the second day. Hell it was so quiet that you could quite easily have run around naked and not scared anyone. We didn’t, well apart from night time runs to the loo in our pants.
The bed at the Grand Balcon hotel was particularly comfy and we slept deeply, despite having woken myself coughing and with a migraine in the early hours. Fortunately the triptan worked its magic and we were able to enjoy breakfast just a few metres from the hotel, at the Florida Cafe.
We both ordered the ‘complete breakfast’ so that Rich could eat all the pastries, leaving me two lots of ham and eggs. Whilst gluten free products have been readily available in the larger supermarkets here, they’re not so easy to find in the cafes and restaurants. For 8 euros each though and a seat right on the Place du Capitole, we couldn’t complain. Ok we could have because the eggs weren’t cooked properly and you’d expect better of the food in France, but we’re British and chose to suffer in silence. We could have eaten at our hotel, but thought 18 euros each a bit steep.
Today was market day in the square, but despite it’s size it offered mainly tourist tat, so we headed for the waterfall in the park surrounding the Toulouse tourist office, and watched two deliriously happy toddlers playing in the fountains. Whilst the little girl restrained herself and paddled, the little boy let rip and repeatedly ran through the tallest water spouts. Scenes like this always remind me that adults should remember to play more, rather than worrying about what others might think.
Back at the hotel we finished packing, and walked up Rue de Remusat to the Jeanne d’Arc airport shuttle bus stop. Whilst we waited we made a mental note of the very busy fruit and veg market on the same street, should we decide to come back to the city for a long weekend and self cater.
The bus was almost full so we had to sit separately. For me this meant sitting behind an Irish family, with a daughter who must have been at least 19, and who insisted on spreading her lags and flashing her knickers every few minutes. I’d have understood if she’d had learning difficulties for instance, but given that she was holding a conversation with her mum all the while about her university course, it was a bit disconcerting. I’d have expected her parents to say something, but when we passed the Canal du Midi and the mum declared that “I’ve never been one for canals. They’re a bit too straight for my liking”, I stopped expecting any such thing.
Having arrived at the airport two hours before check-in because we were too tired to carry our bags around whilst we looked at more sights, we headed straight the the magnificent airport lounge – ‘8E Ciel’. In the UK, you tend not to expect much of airport food unless you’re prepared to pay a small fortune to access the first class lounge, and we never are. In Toulouse, you’re able to access such a lounge for free, and for a very reasonable price are served French food at its best. I had Toulouse sausage, potato puree, mustard sauce and grilled tomatoes; whilst Rich enjoyed a starter of asparagus ‘cappuccino’ puree with tempura fried asparagus, and a pudding of grilled peaches on violet biscuits. Beats lunching on a snickers bar that’s for sure, and made a very fitting end to our trip.
We said goodbye to the house, and caught the very busy 10.41am bus to Limoux, where we changed for the single carriage train to Carcassone. By buying the tickets separately, on the day and opting for regional rather than inter-city trains we actually saved money. Not like in the UK where you’ll usually pay a lot more doing it this way, and sometimes get fined for trying to buy tickets on the train itself! When we’d booked this trip we’d been completely unaware that the Tour de France would be leaving from Carcassone this very morning, but it explained the crowds. Had we stayed in the next valley along as originally planned, we’d have gotten a brilliant view of the race. As it was though, we just missed it.
We made the connection to Toulouse just in time, and enjoyed stopping at stations that we’d whizzed through on the way out. Once in the city we caught the metro to Capitole station. Or at least we did eventually. I got confused by the signs and dragged poor Rich off at the next stop, thinking that we were on the wrong line. We weren’t, but despite this mishap the tube network is still a lot easier to understand and use than London’s. Even when living and working in London I always used to admire tourists there, because it’s one of the hardest, and often unfriendliest cities to navigate.
Our hotel for the night was just a 5 minute walk away. I can assure you that we never usually stay in places like this, but as it was Rich’s birthday soon, and he’d shortly start undergoing chemo and whatnot, we decided that this was definitely one of those ‘what the hell’ moments. The Grand Balcon is by far the swankiest hotel we’ve ever stayed in, so much so that we were worried that we’d be turned away at the door despite a reservation, but completely by accident we ended up with the best room, and a view and balcony directly over Place du Capitole.
Whilst it was undeniably luxurious, it was still wonderfully quirky, and the aviation theme that runs throughout made it feel somewhat bohemian. Our room was designed to look and feel like we were in the sky, with pictures of clouds on the walls and ceiling, and white and grey furnishings. And the bed. Oh my, well that really did feel like we were sleeping on a big, fluffy marshmallow of a cloud.
Once we’d taken in all this loveliness, it was time for lunch, and where else could we go but the local kebab shop! I’m not sure many other hotel guests will have eaten here, but as the very nice lady eating outside told us, this was the oldest kebab shop in Toulouse, and the food was delicious. So we stayed, and she was right. Our pavement table was filled with freshly made hummus, salad, falafel and flatbread, and we ate like kings but for a fraction of the price of the cafes just around the corner.
Following a quick stroll along some of the side streets of the fabled ‘Pink City’, we felt the need to escape the crowds and return to our cloud room for a post-lunch nap. The room was wonderfully quiet, despite being so close to the hustle and bustle of the city centre, and we both slept well – unusual for me as I normally struggle to sleep in new places.
By the time we emerged our stomachs were already telling us that dinner was needed, and after consulting the guide book we headed to Rue des Gestes and the La Mare aux Canard restaurant for their set menu – smoked cheese salad and duck with orange sauce for me; duck terrine and duck skewers for Rich. By the time we’d finished our creme caramel pudding, we were both happy to declare that we much preferred Toulouse to Paris, and would heartily recommend it as a city break.
I woke up coughing and spluttering. At home I take Echinacea tincture at the first sign of a cough or cold, and it usually goes away within a few days. Without it, unfortunately colds very quickly lead to chest infections for me, so I inwardly kicked myself for not packing my special bottle. We wanted to make the most of our last full day in Esperaza though so we decided to take a circular walk along the Savonet mountain bike trail from the cottage up to Pailhères and along to Soubirous. Not the ambitious walk we’d planned from Quillan, but then that’s just another reason to come back to this part of the world.
After a false start when we set off without waterproofs and the floodgates opened, we eventually made our way up the hill, enjoying the magnificent views of Rennes-le-Château and the limestone gorge in front of it. At Pailhères we were greeted by three friendly collie dogs wanting cuddles – one in particular didn’t seem to want me to stop stroking his head and face. When we stopped for lunch under the shade of a big tree a few minutes later they reappeared, and tried to steal our snacks! Fortunately they only escaped with the olives.
Shortly after Pailhères the road turned into a mountain bike track, surrounded on both sides by wild flower meadows. We watched a rain squall head our way and only just had time to slip our jackets on, but our shorts and shoes soon dried out in the sun.
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing!
Back in town we were just in time to visit the patisserie, where Rich picked out a chocolate tart. Sadly they didn’t have anything gluten free, so I bought a posh yoghurt from the supermarket instead. Whilst Rich headed home I ventured into the local art gallery. Expecting landscapes, it was a bit disconcerting as an atheist to find that every piece related to a religious epiphany, so I quietly made my excuses and left.
Rich proved yet again that he has a talent for rustic french cooking and served up a tasty chicken and tomato stew for dinner, after which we enjoyed a final evening stroll to the Monday night artisan market. It sold mainly non-artisan tat to be honest, but Rich was intrigued by the campervan wine bar, and the singer and her DJ partner belting out French classics. We certainly don’t get treats like that down the car boot sale.
I woke in the early hours wondering why there were disco lights shining through the bedroom window at 4am. Slowly it dawned on me that I couldn’t hear any music, and that I was in fact witnessing lighting striking over the Pyrenees in the distance. I do love a good lightning display. It’s the thunder that’s the scary bit.
Whilst I hate shopping in department stores and even supermarkets, I do appreciate a proper market, and Sunday is Esperaza’s main market day. The stallholders started setting up at 6am, and when we could no longer contain our excitement, we headed out to investigate the town’s social engagement of the week. Oh my. Market heaven. Fair enough there were a few tourist tat stalls, but otherwise it was full of fresh fruit and veg, cheese from all over the region, wine, fresh and processed meat, fish, and cakes. By the time we found the gluten free stall I was in heaven. They’d even bussed tourists in from neighbouring towns – I heard accents from as far afield as Australia and Ireland, and talked with British expat stallholders selling honey and cupcakes.
We filled our bag with produce, enjoyed coffee and chai latte from one of the refreshment stalls, and headed home feeling like locals. But I couldn’t resist sneaking out again to buy lunch, and returned with a huge rotisserie chicken and caramelised garlic and thyme potatoes. There was even enough for lunch the following day. Now we know why Saturday night was so quiet – everyone was gearing up for this, and for making the most of a sunny Sunday. Beats sitting in a pub watching footy. Well it does in my mind anyhow.
After our post Sunday lunch nap we donned our walking shoes and headed west of Esperaza to explore the second half of the Dinosaur Trail – up onto the ridge, down into Campagne-sur-Aude, past the Limoux dinosaur wine factory, and back along the River Aude. It was ten degrees cooler that it’s been most days, making for a very pleasant walk. We even saw some other walkers, confirming that no one in their right minds walks when it’s any hotter! Ah well. Lessons learned.
Dinner was followed by a stroll over to yet another festival – this time a wine and paella one, complete with brass band, on the opposite side of the town square. We didn’t go in as neither of us are fans of what I’d called ‘oompah’ music, but it was interesting to watch the huge vats of food being prepared. That is until rain literally stopped play sadly. Still, at least it meant that I wouldn’t be kept awake by drunken trombonists!
It didn’t take long for my back to start complaining about the soft bed. Some people love soft beds. Sadly we don’t – Rich because of the NF2 tumour on his spine, and me because of the EDS. When the pain got too much I made up a bed on the floor using all of the spare duvets I could find.
Having not had very much sleep we abandoned our plans to catch the very early train to Quillan and walk up the nearest big hill. I do get frustrated that sometimes our health stops play, but we’re both guilty of trying to do too much, and the secret to managing our health quirks has been to accept them, modify our lifestyles where we can, and just get on with doing things, even if we have to do them differently. Both of us have stopped really caring what other people think, and whilst we’ll never climb Everest, we do still manage to have adventures which some might class as extreme.
Over a late breakfast we decided to catch the 11.45am train to Quillan, and just amble around for a few hours. Described as the gateway to the Pyrenees, Quillan is a very attractive town with plenty of facilities, but for us it lacked the small town charm of Esperaza. After exploring the side streets we found a shaded bench by the ‘washer women’ section of the River Aude – a natural beach which once served as the town’s laundry room. Whilst tucking in to our picnic of boiled eggs and salami we were overjoyed when four catalan horses and their owners joined us, and waded into the water for a paddle. Two of the horses playfully splashed their owners, and then lay down for an impromptu bath. We certainly choose our picnic spots well.
Back to the cottage on the 1.56pm train, in time for a nap before an early evening stroll along part of the Dinosaur trail – up past the cemetery and onto the hill marked by a cross, from which there are far reaching views over the town. Esperaza is very pretty to look at, but we suspect that there’s real poverty here. Food stamps are common, there’s definitely not much work around, and large families live in small properties. Whilst there are quite a few expats living out here, there’s a noticeable discrepancy between their wealth and that of the locals.
I woke on my 39th birthday feeling relieved that the migraine had passed. Leaving Rich to sleep in, I snuck downstairs for toast and jam, and waited patiently for him to get up so that I could finally open my pressies. We tend to buy each other experiences rather than material gifts, and as always his offering was extremely thoughtful – a weekend in a yurt in the middle of nowhere. We’d last stayed in a yurt two years ago, just before we got married and held our wedding party in this one, and we’ve been desperate to spend more time in one ever since.
Whilst I enjoyed my second breakfast of gluten free madeleines and fresh apricots, we decided that we’d spend the day visiting the Dinosaur museum, for which Esperaza is renowned, and then have a spot of lunch in the nearby T-Rex cafe. That a museum of this size can survive in such a small town, is testament to the passion and energy of its founders and supporters, and to the wonderful quirkiness of the town’s occupants. As both Rich and I both have geology degrees and a thing for fossils, we thoroughly enjoyed looking at the exhibits, and even bought t-shirts.
The hat museum is next door, and whilst they had some lovely hats for sale, it didn’t have quite the same appeal as the dinosaurs. Still it was free to look around, and so a worthy option if you’re on a tight budget. We scuttled around it quite quickly, and then found a table in the cafe for what we thought would just be a light bite, but ended up being a meal big enough for a family of five. Never before have we been unable to finish a plate of salad and chips, but in France food is king, and lunch is taken very seriously, so we must have seemed like lightweights.
We took our coffee outside to enjoy the afternoon breeze, before enjoying a short stroll around town to look at the fountains and campervan park by the river, and returning home to read in ‘the cave’. Once Rich had prepared the pasta sauce for my birthday dinner we sat in the square to people and cloud watch. Today was definitely a chillout day. More of the same please.