Dinosaur bones

12 Sep

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.

Heatstroke

9 Sep

There’s a very good reason why locals don’t walk in the Pyrenean foothills during July. It gets hot, much hotter than we’d expected. Still, hindsight is a wonderful thing and we’d thought that setting off early again would allow us to escape the midday sun. It didn’t.

We walked north from the cottage to Croux via the ridge, back down towards Fa in the south, and then finally east to Esperaza. Whilst there was a very much appreciated breeze on the ridge, along with fantastic views over both Esperaza and Antugnac, the cool air disappeared as we descended. As always we’d packed our sunhats, lots of water, sunscreen, sunglasses and mineral replacement tablets, and stopped for regular breaks to make sure that we didn’t dehydrate.

The trail was well marked and in a good state of repair, and as was the case in Romania, we were more often than not surrounded by butterflies. Just above Fa, we also came across a very fat affectionate little Shetland pony who we nicknamed ‘little saucisson’, tethered to the side of the track. It was hard to drag ourselves away as he so loved being cuddled, and was obviously very well looked after.

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By the time we’d reached the outskirts of Esperaza though I was feeling the effects of mild heatstroke and not really taking much in. My head felt as if it was melting, and my body as if it was walking through cotton wool. Rich had already realised that I needed to get out of the sun, mainly because I’d sworn at him earlier when he’d berated me for letting my hat blow off.

I’d very much gone into auto-pilot and don’t remember much of the walk home from there, only that when we got back to the house Rich forced me to drink several jugfuls of water, and that I then had to lie down in the fortunately very cool bedroom.

I love visiting hot countries, but despite my best efforts, thanks to a condition called POTS (Postural Tachycardia Syndrome), my body sometimes finds it very hard to regulate its temperature, even with meds. I’ve learnt to accept that I’ll usually feel unwell at some point during a trip, and we just factor in downtime to accommodate our medical quirks. This means that we can still travel our way. Unfortunately on this occasion I woke to a full blown migraine, leaving Rich to batten down the hatches whilst I divided my time between the bed and the toilet.

Cassoulet

5 Sep

To try and avoid walking during the hottest part of the day, we forced ourselves to get up early. Neither of us enjoy road walking and the road to Couiza was suprisingly busy, but most of the drivers gave us a wide berth – something which sadly doesn’t happen in the UK. In fact sometimes I’m sure that some drivers deliberately aim for walkers and cyclists.

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Once we’d passed through the town and set off up the hill to Rennes-le-Chateau we had the footpath to ourselves. The name might be familiar to fans of ‘The Davinci Code’ as this is where the book was set, but as I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories I won’t go into the numerous histories associated with the hilltop village. All you really need to know is that it’s a very pretty place, has a church, and would make a good base for exploring the Cathar Castles in the region. Fortunately, by getting there early we were able to look around unhindered by the reams of tourists which descend on this place in search of buried treasure.

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We headed north towards Coustassa and it’s Cathar castle remains, but had to divert thanks to an unfriendly landowner and lots of barbed wire along the track. This then meant having to sneak across another landowner’s land but fortunately she was very friendly, as were her dogs, and took pity on us when we tried to explain what we were doing. We stayed on the south side of the River Sals, following tracks back in to Couiza and then up to the train station for a picnic lunch in the station shelter.

Whereas in the UK regional train services look very much tin cans on wheels, in Southern France they’re mini versions of the inter-city trains. Even the conductors look glamorous, making us feel quite scruffy. They’re superbly priced too – 1 euro per person per journey no matter where you get on along the Aude valley line between Carcassone and Quillan.

After jugfuls of cold water, cool showers and a nap Rich set to work on his version of a local cassoulet, the regional dish. Leaving it to simmer in the oven we then took our glasses of wine over to the square, to sit and people watch. Squares in France seem to serve the same purpose as hot pots in Iceland. They’re where the locals go to meet, gossip, do business, and have fun. If only ours were used like this back home. Instead, the green opposite our house is full of dog poo and overgrown bushes.

Church bells

1 Sep

The music stopped suddenly at 2am. But then the patriotic singing started. What with the sound of drunken men bonding, and the festival day stalls being dismantled, there was no possibility of sleep for me even with my super dooper earplugs, so I kept reading until 4.20am when peace finally descended. At which point I realised that the church bells continued to toll through the night, every friggin 30 minutes. Rich of course was oblivious to it all, and slept soundly. Still, he’s used to dealing with a crotchety sleep deprived wife.

Whilst I snoozed Rich nipped out to the local mini-market across the square and returned with a breakfast fit for a king – fresh apricots, yoghurt, magdalenes for him, rice cakes for me, and eggs. We’ll not go hungry here, that’s for certain.

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We then thought we’d try and walk to the nearest Intermarche, to buy supplies for the rest of our stay. Unfortunately, as walkers, sometimes we assume wrongly that everyone else likes to walk too, and that the local infrastructure accommodates this. Realising a little too late that the D118 is a very busy road running the length of the Aude Valley, and that there’s no footpath, I try not to panic as we walk along the verge with cars and lorries whizzing by. I’m not worried about myself, just about Rich’s balance, as having no cochlears means that sometimes he’s a bit swervy. Within 20 minutes we’d reached the safety of the car park though, and decided that we’d get a taxi back.

Fortunately the Intermarche was quiet, and very well stocked with gluten free produce. When I asked one of the checkout clerks for a taxi number she very kindly called one for us, and within minutes we were being ferried safely back to Esperaza. After a late lunch we followed the example of the locals and headed off for a siesta in what we’d already started to call ‘our little house’.

By 6pm it was still 28 degrees C outside as we headed out for an evening stroll along the river. The Aude is very beautiful, and surprisingly fast flowing in places, hence its appeal for kayakers. Walking past lots of gardens and allotments it’s clear that self sufficiency is taken far more seriously here than it is in the UK, where sadly gardening is still seen as ‘uncool’.

After 4 miles of walking in hot sun the house felt wonderfully cool on our return, like a little cave. Houses here are designed for comfort in all weathers, whereas back home we tend to suffocate on very hot days as houses just haven’t been built with global warming in mind.

Bastille Day

19 Aug

Despite the Ibis promise of new super comfy beds, ours had ‘body holes’ in them. We don’t like body holes. They mean that there’s little support in the mattress. Still, we decided that we could catch up on sleep once we’d reached Esperaza.

We were however very impressed by the free breakfast. I was expecting to have to nip to the supermarket to forage for something gluten free. Instead I was able to fill up on ham, cheese, yoghurt, fresh apricots and plenty of proper black tea. Rich tried the mini pain au chocolat but found them too dry, even with mugfuls of cafe au lait. Fellow guests piled their plates high again and again however. I’m always amazed at how much some people can eat. We love our food, but no matter how hard we try we can never keep up with continental appetites.

Once suitably full, we nipped round the corner to the nearest ‘Carrefour City’ supermarket for our first food shopping experience in this part of France. Buying groceries here really does feel very different to the UK. Even at the corner shops. So I’ll forgive them for selling Walkers shortbread and Heinz baked beans. Food plays a much bigger part in people’s lives here. What they eat really is a big issue, and quite rightly so. Especially when having access to so much food is a luxury that we tend to take for granted.

After turfing someone out of our reserved seats on the crowded inter-city train, we settled down to enjoy the scenery. French trains are definitely more polished than British ones, although their toilets have a stronger wee smell than ours.

Forty minutes later we arrived at Carcassone, where I made the mistake of asking the woman sitting at the information desk where to catch the replacement bus to Esperaza from. As it was Bastille Day – pretty much the most important festival day in the French calendar, they were only running trains on the main lines. Said lady gave me a map, told me we had to walk 10 minutes through town to a car park, and wait there. So we did, despite her instructions sounding a tad strange, and no one else following. By this point I was already cursing the trolley dolly suitcase Rich had managed to persuade me to bring instead of a rucksack. Its wheels kept jamming so I ended up carrying it anyway, kind of defeating the object.

At the car park, with no obvious signs as to where this bus would magically appear from, and with the clock ticking, I left Rich with the bags and walked quickly back to the station to ask the information lady if she was sure that the bus would be leaving from across town. When she said that actually we’d best wait at the train station because she wasn’t sure where the bus would be leaving from, I wanted to strangle her. Instead I rushed back to fetch Rich. When I approached the information lady for a third time, and she announced that the official replacement bus stop was behind the train station, and that we should go there, I managed to restrain myself and mutter a thank-you, even though I was thinking very dark thoughts. Sure enough, there was a queue of people waiting for the replacement bus. Sometimes I’m glad that I can be very persistent.

The bus driver obviously knew the roads well, and seemed not to mind sitting on the bumpers of cars in front, no doubt terrifying the passengers within. At just over an hour, the journey took us through all of the villages along the Aude Valley, and into the foothills of the Pyrenees. We were the only tourists to get out at Esperaza, but we already knew that we’d chosen somewhere off the beaten track.  After a 5 minute walk through town we were met at the house where we’d be spending the next 8 nights. It was rustic, old and very French. In short, it was perfect. With 2 double bedrooms, a small kitchen and dining room, a downstairs toilet, family bathroom, and separate shower room on the top floor, it was certainly spacious.

By 6pm the music for the Bastille Day celebrations was so loud that the house started to vibrate . After a basic dinner concocted from the emergency rations we’d bought earlier in Toulouse, we ventured into the town square to watch the dancing, listen to the music, and browse the Monday night artisan market. Esperaza is an extremely friendly place, and at no stage were we made to feel like outsiders. As promised, the 11pm fireworks display from the road bridge was very impressive, and whilst the locals returned to the square to dance, we headed back to the house to rest up after the journey.

Creme brulee

15 Aug

I’m not sure why, but I’ve never visited the Pyrenees, despite them being so close. With recent health issues meaning that we didn’t want to go too far afield for a summer holiday, or stay in too remote an area, we decided to pay the foothills a long overdue visit in July.

It was certainly worth traveling from Birmingham Airport. It’s easier to get to than Heathrow, simpler to navigate once you’re there, and on this occasion at least, the whole check-in process seemed that much smoother. It helped that we packed our own lunch. I’ve given up trying to find decent gluten free food in airports. Birmingham did seem to have more than it’s fair share of passengers who’d already been on the wine by noon though, making it brilliant for people watching!

Our baggage was ejected with lightning efficiency at Toulouse airport, where we’d decided to stay for one night before making our way into the hills. The airport shuttle bus leaves for the city centre every twenty minutes, and at 5 euros each is a bargain. It stops at the bus and train station, where we only had to walk across the road to the Ibis hotel.

The hotel is divided into three – posh, middling, and budget, and after accidentally walking into the posh section, we eventually got to our room in middling – aka Ibis Styles. The room was large, cool, had a separate shower room and toilet, and looked out onto a little courtyard. The previous guests had even thoughtfully left behind a half full box of condoms.

We ventured across the road for supper at ‘The Bristol Hotel’. Not very French sounding I know. Whilst Rich enjoyed hamburger and chips, I had a ham and cheese omelette, followed by creme brulee for pudding. You have to eat creme brulee when in France. It’s the law.

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After dinner, we inspected the Gare Mantabiu ready for our onward journey to Esperaza tomorrow, and bought the train tickets in advance, anticipating long queues on Bastille Day. The salesman was very friendly, explaining exactly what we’d have to do with the ticket and where we’d have to change. Not a level of service that you’d find in say London, or even in Paris. Toulouse seems that much more laid back. And cheaper. But just as pretty.

After a quick stroll along the Canal du Midi, we headed back to the hotel for a complimentary cup of chamomile tea in the hospitality area. This was my first time staying in an Ibis, but I’d definitely do so again. Whilst this one wasn’t in the centre, and some of the streets near the train station are a little run down, it’s certainly an area that has a lot of character (if you ignore the strip clubs). Bienvenue en France.

Wookey Hole

11 Aug

Talk about a breakfast fit for a queen. French toast, aka eggy bread if you’re from oop north, made with gluten free bread and served with bacon and maple syrup. It smelled and tasted so good that other guests then insisted on Jacqui cooking them the same, and I’ve since recreated the deliciousness back home. Rich’s croissants didn’t stand a chance by comparison.

After saying our goodbyes, and forgetting that we’d left our chocolate supply in the bedroom cupboard – it might even still be there, we decided to head North West to Wookey Hole. Dervla demonstrated that her sense of humour is still very much intact by taking us down miniscule country roads, despite Skyra having developed a clutch problem. We had to pull over several times because we couldn’t get the car in gear. Not an ideal situation in a manual.

By 11am, the main Wookey Hole car park was already almost full. We parked and walked up the road to Ebbor Gorge. Avoid the crowds and save your money on the Wookey Hole entrance fee by bringing the family up here instead. The gorge is stunning, and the walk through the centre and up over the top of it exciting and interesting enough to make everyone feel like they’re having a proper adventure rather than one that’s been stage managed. I’m sure that Wookey Hole is lovely inside, but the hotel is a monstrosity, and the public toilets confusing – women are expected to use those labelled ‘Witch’, whilst men are ‘Wizards’. If like me, you consider yourself to be a Witch only some of the time, then this can be off putting.

Unfortunately, I’d chosen this weekend to forget my camera charger and so there aren’t any pics from today’s adventure. Normally, I’d use this as an excuse to go back and re-visit a place, but as the traffic was bloody awful coming home and again it took us 3 hours to travel 65 miles, then not on your nelly.

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