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Found 30 results

  1. Day 8: Chamonix

    Much as we enjoyed yesterday's walk, once we were partway through it we realised that it might have been better to do it in the opposite direction, because then we would have been walking towards the view of the snowy mountains rather than away from it. When we were discussing last night what we wanted to do today, we kept coming back to the same idea of repeating the walk again Of course, it all depended on what the weather was going to be like... There had been heavy thunderstorms throughout the previous evening, but luckily when we woke up this morning and went out onto the balcony, we could see that there was a bright blue sky again. We'd caved in and decided to eat breakfast in the hotel, so we headed to the breakfast room to see what it was possible to get for €13.00. To be honest, it looked like a fairly average breakfast buffet! There was bread and croissants, ham and cheese, some scrambled egg and a bit of fruit; pretty much what you would expect from any hotel. I made several trips to the buffet to try and get my money's worth. The coffee was good at least Once we had eaten as much as we could we set off to walk to the bottom of the Flégère cable car, which we would be using to go up the mountain today rather than down. We left our hotel and crossed the river, which was looking particularly scary this morning! As we walked we could just see up to the top of the cable car station where we were headed... ...and when we turned around, we could also just make out the one that we would be walking to. The cable car was quite busy this morning and we only just about managed to squeeze in. We were rather squashed, but at least had a better trip than one French lady in the middle of the cable car who must have been terrified of heights, and so spent the entire ride burying her head in her husband so that she couldn't see anything and swearing loudly every time the cable car swayed We were soon at the top and ready to set off on our walk. As soon as we started off down the path, we had a wonderful view down the valley towards Chamonix. We were soon to find though that some bits of the walk were easier in some directions than in others. In particular, I was worried about a steep set of steps carved into the side of the mountain, which had been difficult enough to climb up yesterday and seemed like they might be even harder to climb down. We soon arrived there and I found to my horror that the steps were even worse than I thought, because the rain overnight had made the wooden bits quite slippery. Let's just say I didn't particularly enjoy the climb down! The worst bit was near the bottom, where you had to negotiate these two strange metallic steps! Eventually I made it down in one piece and was able to enjoy the views again The respite was only short-lived though, because before too long we were approaching the rocky part of the path once again. And it really was rocky... ...very, very rocky! The rocks didn't last forever though, and the advantage of doing the walk in this direction was that we had got the most difficult bit out of the way at the start, and were able to relax for the rest of the walk. There were fewer clouds in the sky today than yesterday, so we were finally able to see the top of Mont Blanc And we had an unrestricted view of most of the other mountains as well. It was definitely worthwhile to repeat the route and always be walking with the snow ahead of us Because we'd done the walk before, we were pretty sure that we would recognise the route without any problems. There were some bits I didn't remember though, like the point at which the path went round this rather scary corner! We seemingly also didn't remember the point at which we were supposed to have turned off this wide path onto a narrower one. Somehow we missed the correct sign and ended up walking quite a long way downhill, on a path which was wide enough to be a road. By the time we realised our mistake, we were too far down for it to be worth retracing our steps. We could see that the wide path would ultimately lead back uphill towards the gondola station at Planpraz, so the best option was to stick with it. It did give us a different perspective on where we'd been... ...and actually some better views of the snow than we would have had from the original path Although in places it was quite steep, we couldn't complain when we turned corners and had views like this When we got to the gondola station, we stopped at the cafe for a drink. The views from the cafe terrace were pretty impressive too. Then it was time to go back down to Chamonix in the gondolas. We had a go at taking a selfie with the view on the way down, but I think maybe we need more practice When we reached the bottom, it was fun to look back up at where we had been. Then we set off through Chamonix in search of a place to have lunch. Tim was very impressed with his steak After lunch we explored the town a bit more. It's a really pretty little place... ...completely surrounded by the mountains. As we began walking back to our hotel along the valley, we realised that we now had a complete overview of the route we had walked. It was impressive to be able to see both the start and end points from down below. As we got nearer to the hotel, I realised that there was something unusual about this afternoon; it wasn't pouring with rain yet! After a bit of a rest in the hotel, we decided to take advantage of the unexpectedly good weather by having an evening stroll around the forests behind where we were staying. It was a nice relaxing end to what has been a brilliant holiday. Tomorrow morning we will be getting a bus from Chamonix to Annecy, and then changing in Annecy for a bus which will take us directly to Lyon airport. From Lyon we will fly back to Birmingham, via another stop in Brussels. It will be a long day of travelling to get home again, but it has definitely been worth it
  2. On Thursday it was time for us to leave Chambéry and move on to the final destination of this holiday: Chamonix. When we were looking at the map and planning the holiday, we initially thought it would be quite easy to travel between Chambéry and Chamonix by train. When I eventually got around to looking at the timetables in more detail, however, it soon became clear that it would be anything but! Most of the options I found took around 6 hours and involved multiple changes of train, including travelling via Switzerland. I was on the verge of giving up on the idea of visiting Chamonix at all, when I came upon the website of the French bus company, Ouibus. Ouibus seemed to have a good network of buses in this part of France, including a line between Annecy and Chamonix, and the prices were quite reasonable. Best of all, it was really easy to book tickets online on their website, and they also had an app you could install to get what you'd purchased as an e-ticket on your mobile The only downside was that there were only a handful of buses between Annecy and Chamonix every day, with the most convenient one not departing Annecy until 15.50. We therefore had a rather relaxed start to Thursday morning in Chambéry first of all, before taking a regional train to Annecy. We arrived just on time for lunch, which we ate in a restaurant not far from the station, where I was delighted to find that they had Flammkuchen on the menu! We stretched out lunch for as long as we could, because it wasn't possible to have much of a walk around Annecy with our cases. Finally it was time to head to the bus station; we wanted to be there quite a long time before the bus was due to depart, because there were all sorts of dire warnings when booking with Ouibus about making sure you were ready to board the bus at least 15 minutes in advance of the departure time. I was a bit sceptical about whether the bus would actually be at the bus station 15 minutes ahead of the departure time, but it proved me wrong and it was There was a bit of messing about before we were able to board, because the driver handed everyone a baggage label which we were supposed to fill out our names and addresses on. But despite that we set off on time, and the only downside was that people seemed to be taking the Montenegrin approach of not sitting in their assigned seats Luckily there were plenty of spare seats on the bus, so that wasn't a problem. It was a pleasant journey as we left Annecy and headed towards Chamonix. The closer we got, the more mountainous the scenery became, until we got our first glimpses of the snow-covered peaks in the distance. The bus took us through some tunnels and over a very impressive road bridge. Finally we were there Chamonix is another place where accommodation is ridiculously expensive and so the only way we could afford to come here was to stay in a 2-star hotel a couple of kilometres outside the town. I had been contemplating whether we ought to take a taxi, but it seemed to be a nice evening when we arrived, so we decided to give walking a go instead. We'd made it about halfway there when a very threatening cloud appeared - seemingly out of nowhere - and the heavens opened. We took refuge in a nearby bar to avoid getting completely drenched. Luckily the shower was only a brief one and once it was over, the rain held off again until we were almost at the door of the hotel. The hotel turned out to be really nice; the room was basic, but it has a very Alpine feel with lots of wood-panelling Unexpectedly, we found we had a little balcony, and although the highest mountains were covered in clouds by this point, it was still a great view The rain seemed to have eased off a bit while we were settling into the hotel, so we decided to try and walk back into the town and pick up some supplies. Rather than walking alongside the main road, we found a path which ran parallel to it through the forest. It was a lovely path, but unfortunately the further we got along it, the darker the clouds become, until we started to feel the first drops of rain. The sky looked so threatening that we decided we'd better give up and go back to the hotel instead. It turned out to be a wise decision; no sooner had we got back then there was an enormous storm, with thunder, lightning and torrential rain. We went to bed hoping that the weather would be better in the morning! Fortunately, when we woke up on Friday the weather was indeed better, although the forecast suggested that it would only stay dry until around lunchtime. The view from our balcony definitely looked a lot brighter We were eager to make a start to the day but before we could go anywhere there was one small problem to resolve; breakfast. It was possible to get breakfast at the hotel, but the price was €13 each which was way beyond what we would deem an acceptable breakfast price to be. There are no shops anywhere around the hotel, so our only other option was to walk into Chamonix. I'm not ordinarily a fan of leaving the house before breakfast... and definitely not without a cup of coffee... but if you do have to take a walk to look for breakfast then this is definitely a very scenic one to take. I think I look remarkably cheerful given how hungry I was Eventually we made it to the town. It was around 08:30 by this point and so our next challenge was that some of the places which looked like they might serve breakfast weren't even open yet! Out of the places which met the criteria of having a breakfast menu and actually being open, we were surprised to find that €12 or €13 actually seemed to quite a popular price to charge. Oh dear In the end we did find a cafe where we were able to have what was described as a "French breakfast" for €6.90. This included a coffee, a glass of orange juice, a slice of French stick and a croissant. It was nice, but by the time we'd finished we felt like we could have eaten a second one. Perhaps it might be easier to pay for breakfast in the hotel tomorrow after all...! Once breakfast was complete, we had a little stroll around the centre of Chamonix. We found the church... ...the tourist information office... ...and the town hall. We walked up a road behind the church to the base station of a gondola, which would take us up to a place called Planpraz at around 2,000m. There are lots of cable cars around Chamonix, but this one had come to my attention when I was doing my holiday research primarily because it was comparatively cheap. Some of the cable cars are horrifically expensive, but this one was only €14 to go up, which when you consider that breakfast can cost €13 seemed like very good value. I had then found a walk we could do for a couple of hours along the side of the valley, coming down on a different cable car closer to our hotel. When we arrived at the base station and Tim started to buy the tickets, we realised that the prices were actually even better than we thought. For €17.70 we could buy a round trip ticket, which would enable us to go up this cable car and down the other one. That was definitely good value! We didn't have to go far once we got to the top of the gondola to get some amazing views. We set off on the walk.... ...but it was difficult to get very far because we kept having to stop to admire the view. On a completely clear day it should be possible to see the summit of Mont Blanc from here, but unfortunately today it was just hidden by the white cloud. We realised belatedly that it might actually have been better to do this walk in the opposite direction, as the path was leading us away from the views of the biggest glaciers. It was still beautiful, though. The walk started off quite easy, but as we progressed further the terrain became a bit rockier. We had to pay more attention to where we were putting our feet, but every time we turned a corner the views were breath-taking. We continued onwards for a while... ...and were soon at the halfway point of the walk, from where we could see back down the valley to Chamonix. The views to the opposite side of the valley were still amazing.... ...but we also had good views up to the rocky mountains above us on our own side of the valley. We passed some enormous rocks... ...and we soon came to a slightly disturbing sign, which warned us not to linger for too long on this part of the path as there was a danger of falling rocks! The path was indeed quite difficult to traverse here... ...and once we'd got safely across, we could look back and see that it had indeed taken us across quite a large scree slope. After this the path became a bit less rocky, but I was puzzled by the fact that we could hear intermittent shouts and screams from somewhere above us. Eventually we caught up with another English couple who had passed us earlier, and they pointed out that there were people climbing on the rocky pinnacles above us, and that there was also a zip wire up there. No wonder people were screaming! From here the path went a bit lower, so that we were back among the trees. We were almost at the cable car station of La Flégère. Before we caught the cable car back down to the valley, we stopped at a little mountain hut for a much-needed drink. It wasn't a bad view to sit down to The cable car down was very speedy and took us to the village of Les Praz, which is on the outskirts of the main town of Chamonix, not too far from our hotel. After our slightly sparse breakfast we were starving by this point, so we went into the first restaurant we found. It turned out to be more expensive than the restaurants we would normally eat in, but we had a very nice meal and some wine When we emerged from the restaurant we realised that the sky had completely clouded over and it looked like storms were about to break out again. We hurried back to the hotel as fast as we could and just about managed to avoid getting drenched. It was a brilliant day, and we definitely managed to make the most of the good weather while it lasted
  3. I said at the end of yesterday's blog that our plan for today was to visit Annecy. When Tim was reading the France guidebook last night, however, he noticed another place which sounded like it might be worth visiting: Aix-les-Bains. Aix-les-Bains is an old spa town with thermal baths that used to be visited by the rich and famous in centuries gone by. The town is situated on the shores of Lac du Bourget, which is the largest glacial lake in France. It's also on the train line between Chambery and Annecy, so all in all it seemed like an excellent place for an unscheduled diversion Aix (pronounced "Ex") is actually really close to Chambery, so it took us a mere 11 minutes to get there on a regional train. As soon as we arrived at the train station and started walking through the town, we got the feel that it was a really pleasant place. We followed signs to the tourist information office, where we picked up a free map. Tourist information is located in a building just off the main square, where there was some rather impressive topiary! The square is also home to Aix's town hall, which looks impressively like a castle... ...some pretty flower displays... ...and some Roman remains. Our interest in thermal spas is limited, so the main thing we wanted to see in Aix was the lake. We consulted the map and thought that it didn't look too far away, so we set off to find it. Appearances can be deceiving, however, and it turned out to be a very long way indeed! Or, at least, it turned out that there wasn't a terribly direct way to get to the lake from the town, and so we had to take quite a convoluted route, walking a couple of miles along main roads, through an industrial estate and past a drive-through McDonalds and a cinema before we got our first glimpse of the water. And it really was only a glimpse of the water, because it turned out the bit of lake that we had found belonged to a hotel with a private beach that was all fenced off. Oh dear! We'd come so far that we were determined to see the lake and luckily, once we'd navigated our way out of the hotel car park and past some sort of swimming pool complex, we eventually found a bit of lake that was open to the public. Yay! A sign told us that this was the town's designated public beach. There was a wide promenade/cycle path around the lakeside here, so we decided to walk along it in the vague direction that we had come, assuming that at some point we would see a side road that would lead us back towards the town. The views became increasingly attractive as we left the more commercialised bit of the lake behind us. It was quite a hazy day though, so we couldn't see very far in the distance. We must have walked along the lake for about half an hour, before it occurred to us that we hadn't seen any side roads (or any sort of signs) leading back towards the town. In fact, it didn't look like it was possible for there to be any side roads, because an unexpectedly rocky hill had inserted itself between us and Aix. It was approaching midday at this point and we'd wanted to catch a 12.36 train to Annecy, so we were keen to get back to the station as soon as possible. We kept walking and walking... eventually the hill seemed to flatten off a bit and we came to a small settlement of houses. They looked more like a complex of expensive holiday homes than a suburb of the town, but there were at least some roads here... though most of them looked like cul-de-sacs. In the end we had to resort to the power of a map and GPS on our phones to plot the best route back to Aix. It was lucky that we did have our phones, because I don't think we would ever have found this route without them! We twisted and turned uphill through the housing estate, before turning off onto a small grassy path which led us to the top of the hill. From there we turned onto another path, which led us through a dense forest and ultimately down onto a road on the outskirts of Aix. By the time we got back to the town centre, it was after 1pm and we had walked nearly 7 miles. We decided that rather than catch the next train to Annecy, it would be better to get lunch in Aix and have a much-needed sit down with some water! We found a nice restaurant not far from the main square, where I had my first pizza of the holiday and Tim had some sort of beef skewers on a bed of courgettes. He left the courgettes and ordered chips Feeling a bit more refreshed, we caught a train to Annecy in the early afternoon. It's about a 40 minute journey by train from Aix, so it was nearly 4pm by the time we arrived, but it was still really warm and sunny Annecy is sometimes called "the Venice of the Alps" and it didn't take us long to work out why. Two canals and the river Thiou run through the old town, and they're really beautiful. Away from the water, the old town itself is also fascinating, with lots of narrow medieval streets... ...and fascinating clock towers. Although it was quite busy with tourists, it was a lovely place to walk around. The most famous view of Annecy, which I'd seen in lots of places online, is this one of the Palais de l'Isle. Originally built in the twelfth century, this castle-like building sits on a triangular island in the middle of the river and historically served as a prison. It looked just as impressive in real life as it had done in photos, as did the rest of Annecy One of the other main attractions of the town is that it too is situated on a lake; Lake Annecy. And Annecy definitely beats Aix in a competition for accessibility of lakes, because you can easily stroll to Lake Annecy within five minutes from the centre of town There's a pleasant promenade around part of the lake, so we went for a stroll. Soon we could see back to Annecy... ...and further away to the mountains in the distance. Although it was early evening by this point it was still really hot, so we stopped for a drink at a bar by the lakeside. Eventually it was time to head back to Chambery. We had expected to get a train, but upon arriving at the train station were slightly confused to find that it was instead going to be a bus, albeit a special bus run by the SNCF train company. I had some misgivings, with traumatic flashbacks to rail replacement bus journeys in the UK, but it actually turned out to be really efficient and got us back to Chambery even quicker than the regional train would have done. All in all we had a lovely day, but a tiring one; the final step count on my Fitbit was over 11 miles
  4. We weren't in any particular rush this morning, as we didn't have to check out of our hotel in Grenoble until 12 and we knew we couldn't check into our new hotel in Chambéry until after 2. After breakfast we went for a final stroll around Grenoble city centre, finding the cathedral again much more easily than we had last night, and then made our way to the train station, where we caught the 12.05 train to Chambéry. It was a regional train, without much space to store luggage, but we were really lucky because it didn't seem to be a terribly popular route, and so we almost had the top deck of a carriage to ourselves That gave us plenty of space to arrange our luggage and enjoy the journey to Chambéry, which took about an hour. I think when we were originally discussing the itinerary for this holiday, we had intended Chambéry to be a day trip from Grenoble, and it is definitely close enough to get there and back in a day quite easily. We were then planning to stay for a couple of nights in Annecy. Accommodation in Annecy, however, turned out to be prohibitively expensive and so we had to rethink our plans, with Chambéry becoming an overnight destination and a base from which to make a day trip to Annecy tomorrow. As seems to be a theme for this holiday, we arrived around lunch time and set about finding a restaurant where we could stop with our cases. We found one without too much difficulty and had an amazing view of Chambéry's town hall as we sat and ate our lunch. After lunch we checked into our new aparthotel, where we found we had a much more spacious room than the one in Grenoble, although unfortunately there is no air-conditioning, so it's a bit warm. Not as warm as it is outside, though; it was a blazing hot day as we set off to explore Chambéry. The first thing we found was the town's theatre, which is a really grand building. From there we strolled along some of the main shopping streets... ...until we came to out into a pretty square with a clock tower. From there we walked down one of the side streets. ...until we found Chambéry's cathedral. It actually looked more impressive than the one in Grenoble! From there we made our way past the town hall again... ...alongside the very impressive courthouse... ...and towards Chambéry's most famous monument: the Elephant Fountain. Yes, bizarrely, this is the most famous landmark in Chambéry. It was constructed in 1838 to commemorate the achievements of a local adventurer, Count Benoît de Boigne, who made his fortune as a mercenary in India and used some of his money for the benefit of the town. It's quite an unusual fountain, but it's rather cool how the water comes out of the elephants' trunks As we turned away from the fountain, we got our first glimpse of the Château de Chambéry. A castle was first built here in the thirteenth century and was an important stronghold until 1563, up to which point Chambéry was the capital of Savoy. After 1563, the capital was moved to Turin and both the castle and Chambéry itself declined in importance. Today the castle has been restored and is used by the local government. That means you can't go inside it, but we did have fun walking around outside and viewing it from different angles Chambéry is quite a bit smaller than Grenoble, so by this point we had managed to locate all the main sights that were listed in the guidebook. It's impossible to tell from the brief description in the guidebook just what a pleasant place it is to walk around though Despite being early evening, it was still unbelievably hot and sunny so eventually we decided to make our way back to the hotel to try and cool off. Tomorrow we will be going on a day trip to Annecy, possibly with a detour to Aix-les-Bains
  5. Day 3: Sète

    When we woke up in Montpellier on Monday morning, we were pleased to see that the sky looked a lot brighter than the day before. The plan for our final day was to visit the seaside town of Sète, so after breakfast we set off down the palmtree-lined road to the train station. Sète is located on the Mediterranean coast, only about 15 minutes away from Montpellier on the local train. If you look at Sète on the map, you'll see that it is in an unusual location, on a thin strip of land between the sea and a saltwater lagoon. The town centre itself is also criss-crossed by a number of canals so you are never far away from water, as we found when we stepped out of the train station. We didn't have a map of Sète but we knew it was only a small town, so we decided just to stroll around and see what we could find. We quickly realised that Sète is a really colourful town; all the canals are lined with brightly coloured buildings. Behind the town is a small hill called Mont St Clair. While we were admiring the hill, we caught sight of the tower of the town's main church, which is set a little way uphill, above the canals. We decided to walk towards it... ..arriving there just on time to hear the clock strike for midday. Midday meant it was time to start looking for somewhere to have lunch. One of the canalsides was lined with restaurants and looked very promising indeed. Unfortunately, once we took a closer look at the menus though, we realised that Sète's location means it specialises in fish. Every restaurants seemed to be advertising a different type of fresh fish on its lunch menu. Mussels, prawns, things we'd never heard of; it all sounded disgusting! I was relieved when in the end we managed to find an Italian restaurant, which was serving fish-free pizza. I had a margherita, which somewhat unusually came with ham. It was tasty though, and it was warm enough to sit outside in the sun After lunch we walked to the town's main square. Continuing the fish theme, it featured a rather unusual statue of an octopus. We climbed a very hilly street... ... found another church... ...and strolled along some more canals. In the mid-afternoon it was time to say goodbye to Sète and head back to Montpellier. The hotel had kindly been looking after our backpacks for us, so we went to retrieve those and then had a final stroll around the city centre. We revisited some of our favourite sights from Saturday... ...and then walked in the direction of the bus stop where we would need to catch a bus back to the airport in the evening. We had decided it made sense to find somewhere to get dinner not too far from there. We weren't starving after our pizzas earlier in the day in Sète, but we were feeling a bit peckish. In the end we found a nice restaurant by the river where we were able to share some tapas and some wine. Up until this point, it had been a very relaxing day. Then we got to the airport and found our flight had been delayed. At first, for an unspecified amount of time, which ultimately turned out to be 3 hours and 40 minutes. That wouldn't be good at the best of times, but it's especially not good when the flight was a late one in the first place (scheduled to leave at 22.00). After what seemed like forever waiting in the airport, we eventually took off at 01.45. The airport staff had said that the delay was something to do with the weather, but the pilot explained that there had been a technical difficulty with the original plane, which meant we had had to be allocated a different plane and a crew called out from standby. It was 02.30 by the time we landed in Gatwick, it took about 45 minutes to get out of the airport and retrieve the car, and so by the time we finally pulled into our own driveway, it was 05.45 on Tuesday. That's definitely the latest we've ever got home from a weekend away! But it could have been worse - at least we didn't miss the flight this time And it was still a really enjoyable weekend in France.
  6. We knew that today was going to be a rainy day in Montpellier, and sure enough when we opened the curtains this morning we could see a very wet street outside. From consulting the weather forecast last night, we knew that the weather was expected to be slightly better away from Montpellier, and so we had decided to visit the towns of Nîmes and Avignon, which we first visited in May 2015. Nîmes is about 30 minutes away from Montpellier by train and Avignon is a further 30 minutes away from Nîmes, so they were both mangeable for a daytrip As we left the hotel to get breakfast on our way to the station, the main square in Montpellier looked quite damp and dismal. Our train to Nîmes was at 10.13 which doesn't sound like a terribly early start, but getting up felt a bit of a struggle after the tiredness of yesterday! It was a pleasant journey though, and we were soon stepping off the train in Nîmes. We remembered from 2015 that when you come out of the train station in Nîmes, there is a long tree-lined avenue which leads straight to the town's main square. Unfortunately there was some drizzly rain, so everything looked a bit damp here too. Around the corner from the square, we soon got our first glimpse of Nîmes's amphitheatre. We could see that there was a crowd of people gathered outside it, so we went over to investigate. It turned out that this was a special Roman weekend in Nîmes, with Roman re-enactments taking place all around the town. Some of the costumes were truly amazing. We saw soldiers dressed in animal skins, like this rather scary-looking guy draped in a lion skin. There was a solider draped in a bearskin too! And, of course, there were plenty of more traditional uniforms as well. The soliders all congregated in the square in front of the amphitheatre for a while, in numbered legions. Then at a signal, different legions started marching off in different directions around the town. We ran into groups of them at various intervals as we began exploring Nîmes ourselves. We soon found our way to the Maison Carrée, one of the best preserved Roman temples in the world. From there we continued towards the cathedral, which turned out to have a rather unusual water feature in its backyard. You could walk between steps of flowing water to get from the cathedral to the little square below. We found another really pretty church not far away too. This one was just across the road from a bit of Roman wall... and just by chance we happened to arrive there at the same time as one of the Roman legions. This legion was headed by a man with a bearskin. It was really cool to see them in action... ... and we got some great photos as they started to march onwards. By the time we got back to the amphitheatre it was looking a bit quieter, with the Romans dispersed all over the town. We had a coffee and then headed back to the station for our train to Avignon. There was no rain forecast in Avignon today at all, and sure enough when we stepped off the train we found it was a cloudy, but dry day. It was about half past one by this point, so our first priority was to get lunch, and we found a nice restaurant on one of the main streets where we were able to sit outside eating steak and chips We followed it up with pudding, though I think my choocolate mousse looked slightly more appetising than Tim's cheese. After lunch we set off to see the main sights of Avignon. From our previous visit, we knew there were two things in particular that we wanted to see: the Palais des Papes and the Pont d'Avignon. It didn't take us long to find the former. Although we had been here before, we were impressed once again by just how big the palace is. It was home to seven different popes during the fourteenth century. We also had a good view of the cathedral, which is situated next to the palace. Together they make a very imposing collection of buildings Once we'd admired the palace for a while, we set off to find the bridge. We soon had our first sight of it We remembered from last time we had been here that we had managed to cross the river via a road bridge and then get some great views by walking along the opposite side of the river, so we decided to try and do the same today. We got some really good views straight away from the road bridge; we could see the mountains in the distance... ...and the walled city of Avignon behind us. The bridge in Avignon was first built in 1177. Unfortunately it was never a very successful bridge, with the arches tending to collapse every time the river Rhone flooded. Eventually the constant upkeep and repairs of the bridge became too expensive, and so it was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair. Today there are only a few arches of the bridge remaining. We walked along the opposite bank of the river for a while, enjoying the views back towards Avignon. Then we got level with the bridge, we took some final photos of it and turned around to head back into the town. It was soon time to set off back on the train journey to Montpellier. We've had a really fun day exploring Nîmes and Avignon today, despite the weather not being perfect, and it was particularly exciting to see the Roman re-enactments in Nîmes. We're hoping that the weather will be better tomorrow, because we want to visit the nearby seaside town of Sète before catching our flight home tomorrow evening
  7. When we were booking Bank Holiday flights back in January, a 06.20 flight from Gatwick seemed like a good idea. Or, at least, I assume it did! When we started trying to work out last weekend what time we would need to leave home at today in order to make the flight... and realised it would be 2am... it started to seem like less of a good idea. It feels like it's been really difficult to find any cheap flights at all this year though and Easyjet to Montpellier was definitely the most reasonable price I could find for this particular weekend. The flight time aside, Montpellier itself sounded like an attractive destination, with a good chance of it being warmer and sunnier there than in the UK. Getting up was painful as I'd anticipated, but we got to Gatwick with plenty of time to spare and our flight even arrived in Montpellier 30 minutes ahead of schedule. That didn't actually help us, because there's only one airport shuttle bus every hour and we'd just missed one by a couple of minutes, but it did make Easyjet seem efficient and they didn't even play a self-congratulatory jingle over the tannoy as we landed Montpellier itself is inland, but it turns out that the airport is quite near the coast. Until about 30 seconds before the plane touched down, we were still flying over the sea and hoping that the pilot could see some land ahead which we couldn't! Montpellier airport is quite small and so it didn't take long to get through passport control; definitely an improvement on our experiences at Charles de Gaulle earlier this year. There was a very visible security presence; as we sat drinking a much-needed coffee in the airport cafe, we saw an armed solider patrolling past us. I realised later there were quite a number of armed soliders positioned at different points inside and outside the airport. Getting from the airport to the centre of Montpellier itself is a little complicated, despite the fact that in terms of kilometres it isn't actually very far. First of all you have to catch the airport shuttle bus, which runs once an hour and drives for 15 minutes, before depositing passengers at Place de l'Europe, a square on the outskirts of the city. From there you have to catch a tram, which runs from the square towards the main train station. You can buy a combined ticket which covers both parts of the journey for only €2.60, so it isn't very expensive, but it's a bit of a pain having to change transportation halfway through. We arrived in central Montpellier around 10.30 and found a very sleepy town, almost devoid of locals. It seemed like they might all still be in bed, whereas we were calculating how long we had left before we could respectably try to have lunch! It was good though, because it meant we were able to wander around the streets of the old town without dodging hordes of other people. From the tram stop at the main train station, it wasn't far to walk until Montpellier's central square - Place de la Comédie. The square is home to Montpellier's opera house. There are also a number of other very pretty buildings and a fountain. From the square it was easy to start walking through the old town. Before long we'd caught sight of something in the distance which looked rather reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe. It's not quite as big, but this is Montpellier's triumphal arch. It is called the Porte du Peyrou and was originally built in 1693. Further detail was added to it in 1715 to glorify King Louis XIV. Behind the arch is a park, complete with statue of Louis XIV on his horse Hercules. From the statue we had a good view back towards the opposite side of the arch. We were walking along what is known as Promenade du Peyrou, an esplanade first created in 1689. This unusual structure at the end of the promenade is a water tower. It was built in 1768 to help distribute drinking water to the town. From this side it just looks like a pretty monument... ...but from the other side you can see that it is actually attached to an aquaduct. If you climb up the steps at the side of the water tower there is a really great few back along the promenade towards the arch. From there we walked back into the town, looking for the cathedral of St Peter. This must be my favourite building in Montpellier The conical towers at the front are really unusual and reminded me of some of the towers in the old walls of Carcassonne. It was almost lunchtime by this point, so we wandered back towards the centre of the town in search of places to eat. We found a nice restaurant in the main square, and it was (just about!) warm enough to sit outside while we ate some delicious steak and chips The hotel I had booked is just off the main square, so we headed there to check in straight after the meal and then decided to have an hour nap... which ultimately turned into more of a two-hour nap... before we set out again. We had seen most of the old town of Montpellier during the morning, so when we emerged from the hotel later in the afternoon we wanted to see some of the more modern parts. On the map we could see that there were some newer developments by the river, so we decided to head in that direction. We soon found the river Lez, which was surprisingly big for a river we'd never heard of. There are some very modern-looking developments by the river. We particularly liked this office building which mirrors the shape of the triumphal arch We found our way back into the old town via a series of atmospheric little streets. Montpellier is a really pleasant city and we've had fun exploring today. Unfortunately the weather isn't forecast to be quite as bright here tomorrow, so we're investigating whether there are some other towns we can visit with a lower chance of rain
  8. Clare and I have been a couple for ten years now. I don't think many, if any, people would consider me to be a romantic, and it's true that I usually get the date wrong but I was well aware that 2017 would be tenth anniversary. And so in June last year I thought to myself that it would be nice to take Clare away for a surprise to celebrate, reminded myself that since I think the anniversary is January 22nd then it's really the 21st, and had a look on a calendar to see on what day it would fall. A Saturday? Great! I would've been prepared to go to just about anywhere if the price were right but my first preference was Paris. That's supposed to be a romantic destination, isn't it? I bit of Googling and I found that it would be possible to fly from Birmingham, our local aiport, leaving in the morning of the Saturday and returning in the evening of the Sunday. Magnificent! No particularly early start and no late finish. So I booked it, half a year in advance. I've never been so prepared in my life! Not long afterwards, I sourced the hotel. It involved a bit of work finding out which arrondissement was where, but I found something at a reasonable price in the fifth or, more descriptively, bordering the south side of the Seine not far from Notre Dame. Now the trick was making sure that Clare didn't want us to make plans to go away ... Clare was still concerned in December about how busy January would prove to be and it put me in an awkward spot. Would it do more harm than good to take her away if she had work to do at weekends? So I adopted the best tactic I could think of: I approached the subject of going away for our anniversary whilst we were eating a meal and she was most of the way through a bottle of wine, knowing that she wouldn't read too much into it. As it happens, she felt that she'd be OK ... but then, of course, I had to point out that she needed to leave the weekend free because I had something in mind. She asked me a few times and, as usual, can't read past my dead-panning, so she went into January believing that we would be travelling to Rhyl to watch a darts match. She put a brave face on it but, I suppose fairly, wasn't too happy that she wouldn't be allowed a lie-in on the Saturday after a heavy week. To be fair, she didn't know that we were catching a flight at 09:15. We set off, with the aid of a satnav, not long after 07:00. I had told Clare that we could stop en route to get breakfast, then decided to get a McDonald's breakfast anyway, ready for when she woke up. That proved to be useful because the ice on the windows was so steamed up that it took over ten minutes to clear. At least I could do that whilst Clare was in bed, and not get caught out whilst we had a plane to catch. Clare did question whether I'd got the details entered correctly into the satnav: I'd told her that we had to be on the road at 07:00 and a lie-in wasn't possible, yet we appeared only to be travelling 18 miles. Fortunately, she accepted my answer (which was truthful, though should've led to more questions) that we had to go somewhere else first. That somewhere else was the car park. "Are we getting a flight?" came out of her mouth as we pulled up, and I asked her whether she'd remembered her passport. I had it really. One quick check that she didn't need a toiletries bag later, we were boarding the bus and she had a Paris guidebook in her hand. One wholly uneventful trip later, we touched down in Paris, barely an hour after having left Birmingham. Everything seemed to be going well, although we weren't to know that the airport had decided to have just a skeleton crew manning passport control. We and the people from several other flights spent a lot of time standing still, wondering why nearly every booth was unattended. This would prove not to be a one-off problem. We bought train tickets from the airport (10€ each) and got off, about an later and having seen some gritty, industrial neighbourhoods, not far from where our hotel was. The first thing we saw when we emerged above ground was Notre Dame, excellent confirmation that we were indeed in Paris and not far from where we needed to be. And so we headed off with our hotel in mind, but with a slight detour: our map indicated that the Panthéon was nearby and, having seen the Roman equivalent last year, we thought we'd compare. It unexpectedly required us to head uphill but we didn't mind once we turned a corner and caught site of it: Pretty big! And then we headed downhill in the direction of our hotel and checked in, dropped off our bags, and headed out again. Our first destination was the Jardin du Luxembourg, which meant we were crossing into a new arrondissement already. Maybe Paris isn't that big? The Jardin is owned by the French Senate and would normally be a beautiful sight. This was January, though, so we had to imagine what it would look like when life springs back: The Senate meets in the palace: The basin is supposed to be home to model sailboats. There was no chance of that at the moment, when even the majority of the water running from the fountain had frozen! We'd caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the misty distance, so decided to head to it via the Invalides. The dome confirmed we were in the right area: We came to a temporary standstill because of an anti-Trump march but later continued back along our original route, which took us to the Parc du Champ de Mars. As with the Jardin du Luxembourg, it doesn't look at its best in January, but it did its job of helping Paris's most prominent landmark stand out: We headed across the Seine and saw the tower from the other side before beginning the walk to the Arc de Triomphe. It and the Eiffel Tower look close together on a map, but it takes a while to cover the distance. We got there in the end, though: And then began the very lengthy walk down the Champs d'Elysée. Again, January didn't do it any favours, and we were there at the point when the light is fading but the street lights aren't on yet. With no leaves on the trees, it wasn't particularly impressive. We enjoyed seeing Cleopatra's Needle, though it is dwarfed by the Wheel: And then it was time to stroll through the Tuileries before capturing a glance at where we had just come from: The end of the Tuileries was marked by the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel beyond which lay the Pyramide and the courtyard of the Louvre: We hadn't eaten in around ten hours, so we were feeling hungry. The first job, though, was to find the FNAC store and buy some Astérix books. I'm a collector and the fact that the FNAC was marked on our map made it hard to say no. It wasn't the easiest place to find because it was part of an underground shopping centre called les Halles, the foreground to which was a building site, but we got there in the end and Clare kindly bought me the missing volumes to finish my collection. And then we crossed the Pont Neuf, stopped to admire the view, and headed in the direction of our hotel but intending to find a reasonably priced restaurant en route. Restaurant choices happened to be few and far between so we ended up spending a fair bit, but after covering over 13 miles that day, we were happy just to be able to sit down for an hour. We then headed back to our hotel where I, even though it was only 20:30 back in the UK, fell asleep for the night. Clare managed an hour of reading before tiredness got the better of her too. The next morning we got up and went looking for breakfast, rather than pay the extortionate price that the hotel charged. This shouldn't be a problem in France, should it? It was for us in Carcassonne last year, and we noticed here too that most brasseries and restaurants were closed. I suppose that's part and parcel of these establishments being small and privately owned; the people have to take a day off at some point. We came across a place after five minutes' walk or so and had a traditional French breakfast, before strolling back to our hotel to exchange anniversary presents (since I'd fallen asleep before we could the night before) and check out. Clare got me several novels in Spanish (in preparation for a holiday to Fuerteventura I'm going on with my family later this year), and I got her a proper engagement ring, so that she didn't have to continue wearing the ringpull I'd offered her eight years ago when I had even less money than I do today. Our hotel was opposite the National History Museum, so it made sense to pop by for a visit. Botanical gardens aren't much to write about in winter though: We didn't have any intention of doing anything ambitious. We'd pushed our bodies too hard the day before, so we settled on heading to Montmartre. And that meant passing by Notre Dame again: The sky was much clearer than the day before so we got some better views across the river: Plus clearer views of the Louvre: One thing that you can't say about French breakfasts is that they power you for long. And we had barely eaten the day before, so we decided to track down lunch. As was the case with breakfast, we passed lots of establishments which were closed until chancing on an open one, in which we spent an hour or so. (An hour or so too long for Clare, who was repulsed at the presence of gherkins and vinaigrette on her starter.) And then we left to find Montmartre. It took a fair bit of walking uphill but we got there in the end: We still had plenty of time to spare, so we settled down for some wine in a café and then began our trek to the airport. And that's where a nasty surprise was in store for us. Clare and I aren't strangers to travelling. If you're reading this site, you should know this. We're also not new to travelling without luggage and know full well that if you check in online in advance, you don't need to be at the airport as early as you do if you've got luggage to check in. So we didn't leave the usual two hours that passengers travelling with luggage are advised to. This approach has never caused us any problems. We reckoned without Charles-de-Gaulle airport, though, which saw fit to have a single, solitary person manning passport control. Well, one person for the EU passports, and three everybody else. And ours wasn't particularly fast, either. Our queue became longer and longer, until emergency action was taken. The second person was much faster, but we were still too far in this queue to benefit quickly. We finally made it through and then found out that our gate was different to the other ones, in that we needed to catch a shuttle. We did this (one arrived within a minute) but were stuck on the spot for several minutes before the doors closed and it took off. We raced from there into security. There were still maybe 30 minutes to go, so although things looked slightly concerning, we weren't desperate. We weren't until we realised that the airport had taken the same approach to staffing the security as with passport control. There were 20 gates, and only two were manned. The minutes ticked by, ever more frustratingly as we heard the same requests made over and over again: "Any liquids? Computer? Please take your boots off. And your belt. And put your coat in here." Sure enough, half of the people in the queue didn't have the common sense to realise that these rules also applied to them and so were holding up the queue. And as we were about to get to our turn, our hearts sank: the boarding pass on our phones deleted itself. There was still ten minutes or so left but the message seemed clear, that boarding had ceased. We explained, were eventually let through and ran to our gate. Too late. We'd missed the flight home. We were sore and frustrated. We'd never come close to missing a flight before. And we'd never been in an airport which was so chronically understaffed. If there had been even two people on passport control rather than one, we'd have been fine. If there had been three gates on security open, we'd have been fine. The end result was that we had to buy another ticket. And the cost of those was astronomical. We spent over £500 to get the next aeroplane, instead of overnighting in the airport and taking another flight in the morning. That was £500 that we hadn't bargained for and which really put a downer on the weekend. We're trying to look at it positively. Ten years ago, that £500 would have been a huge problem for us. We're now comfortable enough in life where the only real impact it has, aside from the frustration, is that it's £500 less that we'll be putting into savings or making as overpayments on the mortgage. It's not the crippler that it would've been a decade ago. It still hurts, but at least has served in a philosophical sense to be grateful for what we have and the progress we've made together as a couple.
  9. Today was the final day of our holiday. We had arranged with our landlady that she would collect our keys at 11:30 and then drive us into town to save us the journey with our cases. That gave us time for a leisurely stroll around Carcassonne again in the morning. It proved to be delightful! There were no people around, which meant we got those normally busy restaurant areas and crowded narrow streets entirely to ourselves: The bridge leading to the chateau looked beautiful in the light: As did the countryside, which opened up to us as we headed out the Porte d'Aude: The archways provided a beautiful frame: And soon we were walking downhill towards the Porte Narbonnaise: Looking back at where we'd just walked from presented us with a lovely sight too: And soon we were approaching the lap, heading back towards the Porte d'Aude: We were conscious of running out of time and knew that we would have to go into the town to find breakfast. That meant a walk downhill and across a bridge. It's normally only in fairy tales that you get the backdrop that we had on the Pont Vieux: Breakfast proved elusive and we really had to penetrate deeply into the town until we found somewhere open. Breakfast was a simple affair; the breakfast option for Clare (an orange juice (to be drunk by me), a coffee, and a croissant), and a baguette for me. Paying for breakfast proved tricky, though. The man working there was a hard worker but a little slow on the uptake. I handed him 10€ to cover the cost (6€ for Clare, 3.50€ for me) only for him to try counting the items up individually. Unbelievably he came out with a smaller number than it should've been, even though you would expect the meal option to be cheaper than buying everything separately should be. I pointed this out to him so he said he would speak to the boss. Then he came back with a totally different figure, which I had to amend by pointing out that the orange juice wasn't a separate item but part of Clare's breakfast option. "It's six euros for her breakfast, plus three and a half for my baguette. 9.50€." Off to the boss he went, then he came back with a massive number, saying the the baguette I'd eaten wasn't part of the breakfast option, so it was going to cost more. "I know! There's one breakfast option. One! Hers! Mine isn't a breakfast option. It's just a baguette!" Then he started trying to count again and I had to help him. Eventually he hit the magic number 9.50€, and we were able to head back, a little behind schedule. Still, a destination is always nearer when you know where you're going and before long we were walking back across the Pont Vieux and through the narrow streets. We knew we were getting very close when the end of the street looked like this: We were back in time to shower and pack. As 11:30 arrived we said goodbye to our appartment with a shot of the view from the window: And then we descended the stairs to wait for a landlady and say goodbye to the medieval town. And then something wonderful happened: The lady had taken a liking to us and so, instead of dropping us into town and leaving us with "nothing to do", she arranged with the shopkeeper next door to look after our cases, giving us the option of catching the shuttle to the airport from the car park instead. And just like that we ended up with a bonus four hours there! And then we found a lovely little restaurant outside of which to eat: And we helped ourselves to several pichets of wine there: And that was the end of a lovely holiday, which was very, very relaxing. Although time didn't seem to lag, we kept catching ourselves by surprise by saying that "X was only a week ago" at different stages in it! I had the bonus of seeing some old friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in fourteen years, and Clare got to meet a Russian friend of hers who by coincidence had a few days in Toulouse which coincided with hers. We'll definitely be coming back and, as I said to my friends, won't be leaving it fourteen years this time!
  10. I set my alarm for 7am this morning so that we could make an early start. Our aim was to have an early morning stroll around the walled city of Carcassonne before the hordes of tourists descended on it. It wasn't a very sunny morning when we opened the curtains and it felt like a bit of a struggle to get out of bed, but it was worth it to have the town almost to ourselves We started by walking around the centre of town. There really was hardly another soul in sight. And even though there wasn't a blue sky, this view of the chateau and the basilica was still beautiful. After strolling round the town for a while, we passed through a gate and began to walk around between the inner and outer walls. This gave us some fantastic views of the turreted towers... ...and there was still hardly anyone else in sight Eventually we passed through the main gate in the outer wall... ...and began to leave the old city behind us... as we started our descent into the lower town. The more modern part of Carcassonne is actually very pretty too, although I suspect it often gets overshadowed by the walled town. As we walked further into the town, we kept looking over our shoulders for a view of the fortifications behind us. The further we walked, the better that view got. The best view of all was probably the one from the middle of the old bridge. Once over the old bridge, we were in the centre of the new town. We found a brasserie serving breakfast near the train station, then bought tickets for the 10.32 train to Béziers. The journey from Carcassonne only takes 45 minutes, but our tickets entitled us to seats in carriage 6. Tim had seat 84 and I had seat 87, so unfortunately we weren't going to be next to each other, but we expected we would still be sitting pretty close. We boarded the train at the correct carriage and Tim instantly found seat 87 for me. Excellent. He walked a couple of steps further down the train to find seat 84, but was soon turning around in confusion and coming back to where he had started. Inexplicably, there was a gap in the seats between 77 and 85, so that the numbering on the electronic displays jumped straight from 75 - 76 to 86 - 87. Much to our dismay, seat 84 simply didn't exist! We weren't the only ones to be annoyed; Tim soon encountered another man who had been sold seat 94... but 87 was the final seat in the carriage! It all ended happily in the end, because the other man walked further down the train and found another carriage with spaces in it, then came back to let us know But it didn't do much to improve our impression of the efficiency of French trains; it all seemed very reminiscent of the time we got sold a reservation for seats 33 and 34 on a bus to Budva that only had 27 seats. Anyway, the good news was that when we stepped off the train in Béziers, the weather had improved and we were treated to a beautiful blue sky once more. Béziers is one of the oldest towns in France, with evidence of settlements dating back to the fifth century BC. We wanted to visit because we had seen some beautiful pictures online of the town's cathedral, towering above a river. We were impressed already when we walked straight out of the train station and into a landscaped park. At the entrance to the park was an enormous war memorial, surrounded by French flags. The path through the park led steeply uphill and we soon caught sight of this unusual monument in the distance. Eventually we climbed up beside it and had a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside. We were now in the centre of the town and first impressions were promising. I particularly loved these colourful displays of umbrellas which were hanging in some of the streets. There was a tourist information office in the main square, from where we were able to get a map of the town and plan what we wanted to see. The main attraction was definitely going to be the cathedral. The cathedral is perched on the edge of a steep hill and so from the square outside it we were able to see for miles. The hill overlooks the river Orb, and our next goal was to climb down and find the town's old bridge, from where we should be able to get the views back up towards the town that we had already been admiring on the Internet. It looked a long way down though! We set off through the streets once more, following signs for the bridge. Eventually we got down to river level... ...and managed to see the picture postcard view of Béziers for ourselves It was a view definitely worth climbing down for. Having walked across a newer bridge to start with, we then went back across the river on the old bridge... ...and began our ascent back up to the main town. We were fairly tired by the time we got back to the top of the hill, so found a nice restaurant where we could sit outside and have some lunch. There was plenty more to see in Béziers in the afternoon. We even managed to find a market under the trees, where Tim was able to stock up on some French books. When it was time to return to the station, we walked through the park once more... ...and even found a friendly local cat. We thought our train back to Carcassonne was supposed to be at 15.40, but when we got to the station it was a bit unclear so Tim went to the information desk to double-check. The man behind the desk confirmed that the train was indeed at 15.40, although for some reason that train hadn't been showing as an option on the electronic ticket machine we'd consulted. Just to make 100% sure, Tim clarified that that was the 15.40 train to Perpignan and the man agreed, so we set off to catch the train. It was a pleasant journey and we expected it would take around 45 minutes again. After about half an hour though, I looked up from my book and was a bit surprised to see this out of the window. Although Béziers itself is only a few miles from the coast, Carcassonne is firmly inland and there's no reason at all why a train from Béziers to Carcassonne ought to be driving past scenery which looks like this. The view from the train window between Béziers and Carcassonne ought to look more like this. I was hit by a horrible feeling that this train was going to Perpignan via a route which wasn't taking it anywhere near Carcassonne at all. When we consulted the display board with the list of upcoming stations, we realised this was indeed the case. Oh dear. Around 5pm we arrived in Perpignan. While we did enjoy our time in Perpignan last week, we hadn't expected to be back there quite so soon. Having consulted a map of the regional train lines, we now realised that we should have got off the train at the first stop of Narbonne in order to get a connecting train to Carcassonne, but the man at the information desk in Beziers hadn't made any reference to us needing to change trains, which was very frustrating. There was a train back in the direction of Béziers leaving at 17.15. We decided to chance getting on it without buying new tickets as far as Narbonne. We didn't feel like this misunderstanding was our fault and the regional trains don't always have a conductor checking the tickets anyway... although once the train started moving we quickly realised that this one did! Luckily for us he was very reasonable and when Tim explained to him what had happened, he seemed to take pity on us and didn't try to fine us for not having the right tickets. Phew Once in Narbonne, we had just four minutes to make our connection to Carcassonne but we managed it, and luckily this train turned out to have a very understanding conductor too, who didn't complain that our tickets had been validated several hours ago and even apologised for the poor quality of information we'd received in Béziers. By 7pm we were back in Carcassonne and walking back to the walled city for the last time. We've had an amazing holiday for the past two weeks, and I think being able to stay here has been the icing on the cake
  11. We had a relaxed morning in Toulouse today, not wanting to arrive in Carcassonne too early to be able to check into our accommodation. Tim did some shopping for books, picking up some learning materials for the local language Occitan, and we had lunch at a Bavarian restaurant which we had been to a couple of times in 2010. I had a delicious Flammkuche, while Tim had a goulash which he says was almost as good as our favourite goulash in Trieste We caught a train to Carcassonne in the early afternoon and arrived at the station there just after 15.30. I had received a text message earlier in the day from the lady whose apartment we were renting, asking for our arrival time. When we replied she said that she would pick us up from the station, which was an unexpected bonus. Sure enough, there she was as we made our way towards the station exit, holding a sign with my name on it. Amid a torrent of French, she packed us up into her car and drove us through the newer part of Carcassonne to a large car park on the outskirts of fortified old town. At this point I was expecting we would get out and walk with our suitcases to the apartment, but much to my astonishment there was a second lady with an electric buggy waiting for us in the carpark. It was a bit like the vehicles the National Trust use to transport people with reduced mobility to and from properties, except it had a large space at the back where we could put our suitcases. We all transferred to the buggy and the lady proceeded to drive us at a remarkable speed, down a main road then through a gate in the city walls. We bumped and bounced over the cobbled streets and nearly took out several slow-moving pedestrians, before finally arriving at the apartment in one piece. I think this has to win the prize for the most surreal experience of the holiday! The apartment itself is small but comfortable and in an amazing location within the fortified walls of the old town. This is the view from one of our windows, from where we can just make out the tops of some of the towers that surround the town. We settled in and then set out for a stroll around Carcassonne. Our landlady had told us that you could now walk around some of the ramparts within the the main chateau in the heart of the city, so we decided to prioritise doing that before the doors closed for the evening. Luckily we didn't have far to go - the entrance to the chateau was just a few hundred metres from our front door It cost €8 each to get in which seemed quite expensive, but Carcassonne is a very popular place with tourists. It's not difficult to see why. Inside the chateau we listened to part of an audiovisual display about the history of Carcassonne in French, before following signs to begin our walk around the ramparts. Unfortunately at this point the very hot weather gave way to a bit of a storm and we had to shelter in one of the towers until the rain had passed. In between the showers we had some fantastic views though. The chateau ramparts were shorter than we expected, and soon we were inside the building itself. The rooms of the chateau were full of historical artefacts, but we didn't spend too much time looking at them because we were keen to get outside again. It was time to explore some of the pretty streets in the old town. We soon saw a sign to a viewpoint, which led us slightly downhill and out of a gate in the city walls. From here we had a view towards the modern part of Carcassonne and the surrounding countryside. Best of all, we were able to walk around the outskirts of some of the walls. The reason that Carcassonne is such a fortified town is that it used to be in a strategic location on the border between France and Spain. The borders moved in 1659 as a result of the Treaty of the Pyrenees, which transferred the region of Roussillon to France. All of a sudden Carcassonne was no longer in a key location, and in the nineteenth century there was even talk of demolishing the fortifications. Fortunately this didn't happen, and an architect called Viollet-le-Duc began a project to restore and renovate the fortifications in 1853. It's amazing to think that if he hadn't, this might not be here today for us to admire. After exploring the ramparts for a while, we came back into the main town. There's some really interesting architecture here as well. This is the basilica of St Nazaire in the centre of the town. Although there were still some tourists around, it was nice to be able to stroll around a relatively empty Carcassonne as the evening drew on. We're hoping to make an early start tomorrow morning to enjoy the town some more before the hordes of other visitors arrive.
  12. Our destination for today was Foix, a town about 50 miles south of Toulouse in the direction of the Pyrenees. We had been there in 2010 but felt like we hadn't been able to enjoy it properly, as it was the day after our ill-fated walk from Narbonne to Narbonne Plage and our legs had been rather tired. I was excited to be revisiting it today, but when I opened the curtains this morning I started doubting whether we should go, because we were confronted with a rather unusual sight for this part of the world: a cloudy sky! The weather forecast suggested that it might start raining in Foix in the afternoon, but with the train we were planning to catch we knew we could be there by 11am, so we decided to risk it anyway and see how much of the town we could see before any bad weather set in. We had a pleasant journey on a regional train, with the landscape becoming increasingly hilly the closer we got to Foix. When we got off the train and started to walk towards the main town, it was a bit cloudy but still dry at least. We got our first glimpse of the castle which towers above the town. Foix is the confluence of two rivers, the Arget and Ariège, which ultimately flow into the Garonne, the large river which flows through Toulouse. The bridge across the main river was decked out with colourful Catalan flags. We knew the walk up to the castle would be steep, so we had a stroll around the town to stretch our legs a bit first of all. Every now and again we got glimpses of the castle. And sometimes great views of it like this one. Eventually we decided to start our ascent up to the castle rock. The steep path is made even more tiring by the cobblestones, which mean you really have to watch where you put your feet. As we climbed upwards we started to have a good view of the countryside around Foix. And of course, a good view of the castle up close. It was a bit hazy, but you could still make out some of the mountains in the distance. It cost €5.50 each to get into the castle, but for that you can climb up two of the towers... ...and walk around the grounds on the top of the castle hill. The first tower we climbed was the one with the crenellated roof. There were a lot of steps and we had to pause at times to wait for a party of French schoolchildren to pass us, but the view was worth it when we got to the top. We could also see the second tower we were going to climb; this circular one. There were a lot of steps to negotiate on this one as well, but eventually we made it to the top The views were equally impressive from here. There was a great view of the rest of the castle as well. It seemed like the weather was improving slightly as well, which was a bonus. It was 1pm by this point so we decided we'd better start the climb back down to Foix to get some lunch. When we got to the foot of the castle hill, we found this large church, which we learned was the abbey of Saint-Volusien. We found a nice place to sit outside and it remained dry while we ate, though it did cloud over a bit during the course of the meal. As we went for another walk around the town after lunch, we could get some perspective on just how high we'd climbed to get to the castle. Soon it was time to walk back towards the station for our train back to Toulouse. There was just time for one more shot of the castle before we left We had a lovely day in Foix and were glad we weren't put off by the threat of rain which never materialised! Tomorrow we will hopefully be going on a trip to Albi, another beautiful town which we also visited in 2010.
  13. Our destination for today was the town of Auch, located about 80km to the west of Toulouse. This was a place we hadn't been to before but which looked beautiful in Google image searches when we were researching possible day trips from Toulouse. We took a train to L'Isle-Jourdain first of all and from there could get a connecting train to Auch. Fortunately French train stations have a much better level of information about incoming trains than Catalan ones seem to do, so we didn't experience the same problems as we did trying to change trains on the way to Girona last week, but we did find we had half an hour to wait for the next train, so we decided to have a quick stroll and see what there was to see in L'Isle-Jourdain. It seemed to be a sleepy sort of place... ...although there was a nice square in the centre of the town. We did spot one very impressive building, but we weren't sure whether it was part of a church or a castle. We made it make to the station just on time for our onward train to Auch. As we walked out of the station we got our first glimpse of the town and the catehdral. The main town of Auch is situated on a hill so we had quite a walk upwards from the train station. As we climbed upwards into the town, we began to hear what sounded like loud and repeated banging on a drum. As we eventually came up alongside the cathedral the noise got louder and louder, until we turned a corner and found what appeared to be a group of communists protesting against some sort of cuts. Someone was indeed banging very loudly on a drum, while a group of policemen, some with noise-cancelling headphones, stood and watched. I guess today must have been some sort of strike day in France! Protests aside, the entrance to the cathedral in Auch was very grand. Behind the cathedral, the centre of the town was also very attractive. We found the town hall... ...and some statues (though unfortunately it wasn't always clear who they were of!)... ...but wherever you go in the town, you could see the cathedral towering above everything. It was here... ...and here... ...and here too After walking around for a while, we started looking for a place to have lunch. Eventually we found a restaurant which went by the not very inspiring name of Brassierie le parking but which had a promising-looking menu of the day. For starters I had ham, which turned out to be of a slightly uncooked variety and so Tim had to help me finish, then steak and chips for the main course. The waitress was very friendly, and after Tim had been talking to her in French for a while, she asked where he was from and whether he was Belgian, as she couldn't quite place his accent After lunch we decided to climb back down the hill and go for a walk along the river. The waitress in the restaurant had recommended that we walk down the steps in front of the cathedral, where we would find a statue of d'Artagnan. We walked around the cathedral, from where we had a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside. From this side, the cathedral looks a bit more like a castle. We found the steps that lead down from the catehdral to the river, and partway down them we came across the statue of d'Artagnan. The further down we climbed, the better a perspective we had on how big the cathedral was. The best view was from the far side of the river. There was a pretty path by the side of the river which we were able to follow for some time. Though however far we walked, the cathedral still dominated the skyline. Soon it was time to head back to the station for our return journey to Toulouse. Auch was a really pretty destination and we had a lovely day there.
  14. This morning we left Perpignan behind to travel on to our next destination: Toulouse. First of all we had to take a train to Narbonne, which brought back some painful memories of the time we tried to walk from Narbonne to Narbonne Plage, not realising that they were 16km apart! The journey to Narbonne was actually quite pleasant, but when we changed there onto a faster train to Toulouse, it was so chaotic that we felt like we'd accidentally transferred to the Balkans instead. Having booked our tickets quite far in advance we had two seats reserved, but when we arrived at the right carriage we found our seats were already being occupied by someone else and her suitcase. She refused to move because she said that someone else was sitting in her reserved seat, so she suggested that instead we went to sit in someone else's seat. We reluctantly did that, but then the person who one of the seats belonged to turned up and he in turn went to sit in a different person's seat, so that by the end of the exercise I think almost everyone had a seat but no one was sitting in the right one! It was just before 2pm when we arrived at the main station in Toulouse. The aparthotel we were staying in was not far away and our booking confirmation said that we could check in at 2pm, so we headed straight there. The staff on reception weren't terribly efficient, but when they had eventually checked us in and we made our way up to the 8th floor where we were staying, we found that the cleaners were still working there and our room wasn't ready at all! Luckily they were very friendly and we just had to sit in reception for 15 minutes while they finished our room. It was immaculate by the time we did get into it and after some brief unpacking we set out for a walk around Toulouse. Our apartment is in a good location and so it was only a brief stroll to the Capitole. The town hall building is really beautiful... ...and this turretted building may win the prize for being the most impressive tourist information office ever! We got a town plan from the tourist information and started to walk towards the cathedral, which Tim couldn't remember seeing from when he lived in Toulouse. Having now seen it, it seems like it ought to be hard to miss - it's an enormous building! The square around the catehdral is full of beautiful old buildings... ...and the cathedral has an attractive facade too. Around the corner from the cathedral we found a large memorial for those who died in World War One. This was the start of a series of parks which ran into each other. The central park had some slightly disturbing statues... ...but also a very pretty fountain. We could see that the town had put a lot of effort into preparing for the football championships. We left the parks behind and wandered through the town some more until we came to the river Garonne. It was just as pleasant here as we remembered. The final stop on our tour of Toulouse was the basilica of St. Sernin. This is a UNESCO world heritage site, being the largest remaining Romanesque building in Europe. We'd walked 8 miles by this point so decided to call it a day and find somewhere to have dinner. We haven't been to Toulouse since 2010 which feels like a long time but it's lovely to be back and we're looking forward to some day trips to places in the surrounding area over the next few days
  15. We hadn't paid for breakfast in our hotel in Perpignan so we set out early this morning to find something to eat. We still didn't have a town plan, as the tourist information office had been closed by the time we got into the town centre last night, so we were pleased when we came across a map in the street. We consulted it for a few minutes to get our bearings... and guess which street we found we were standing just a few minutes away from?! Of course, once we'd seen it on the map we had to try and find it in real life. In this part of France the street signs are in French and in Catalan. Eventually we found a nice cafe in one of the squares to have breakfast and then set about exploring Perpignan. The first striking building which we caught a glimpse of was the Castillet, the old city gate. It used to serve as a prison as well, but today houses a collection of Catalan art. Not far away from the Castillet is the cathedral of Perpignan. It has a clocktower with an unusual but pretty roof. The main attraction in Perpignan is located a bit outside the town centre. This is the Palace of the Kings of Majorca, which was built in Perpignan in the thirteenth century when the town was the capital of the Kingdom of Majorca. It only cost €4 each to get in and there were some beautiful views from the walls. There weren't many other tourists, so once we got inside we were able to wander around wherever we wanted. The castle was quite bare inside, but interesting to see nevertheless. I didn't know before today that there had been a Kingdom of Majorca, much less that it had included Perpignan! Back in the town centre, we found we had managed to see most of the sights. We found a nice restaurant by the river to get some food. Tim's burger came with a football-themed message Perpignan hasn't been quite as exciting as Girona was yesterday, but it's been a good stopping off point on our journey between Spain and France. Tomorrow we are off to Toulouse, where we'll be spending most of the rest of our holiday.
  16. Yesterday was our last full day in Catalonia/Spain, with the aim of today being to cross the border into France en route to our next destination of Perpignan. Originally our plan had been to travel to Perpignan from Barcelona on a fast train, but unfortunately I had forgotten to buy the tickets soon after they came on sale and by the time I finally remembered, it would have been about €50 each to take the train. A bit of panicked Internet research later, we found that it was possible to get a bus to Perpignan from Girona for only €18, and the bonus was that we would get to spend a bit of time in Girona as well. The first stage of the journey involved travelling on the local suburban train from Mataró to a place called Maçanet, a journey of about an hour. This was fine, but when we arrived in Maçanet at around 10am we were rather confused because we couldn't find any information about the connecting trains to Girona. There was no timetable on the wall, no loudspeaker announcements and no information on the display boards on each platform. We had partly had this problem in Mataró earlier in the morning, because they didn't announce which platform the train was leaving from until a minute or so before the train departed, which is probably fine if you get the train every day and know which platform it normally goes from, but not terribly helpful if you're a tourist and need to carry suitcases up and down staircases depending on the platform choice. We coped in Mataró, but in Maçanet we were rather bemused. Luckily it wasn't just us and several other tourists were wandering up and down the platforms, trying to find any sign which might indicate which one the train for Girona was due to depart from. Eventually one man who seemed to know more than everyone else authoritatively said that it was going to be platform 3, so we all settled down to wait. Happily he was right, and so when the train was announced a minute before its arrival, we didn't have a frantic rush to get to the right place. Within 20 minutes we were in Girona The map of Girona in our Spanish guidebook wasn't very comprehensive so our main aim was to make our way into the town centre and find the tourist information office. Fortunately this turned out to be relatively easy, despite the fact that the station is about 20 minutes outside the main town, and we soon had a much better map, as well as some advice on the best things to see if we only had a couple of hours to spend in Girona. One of the most striking sights in Girona are the colourful houses which line the banks of the river. We had seen pictures of these when researching Girona online, so one of the bridges across the river was our first stop. The newer part of Girona is across the bridge, on the far side of the river. The man in the tourist information office had recommended that Plaça de la Independència would be a good place to get lunch. After a quick look at the square, we crossed another bridge back across the river... ...and into the old town. In the distance we could see the striking tower of the church of Sant Feliu. We walked towards it to get a better view. Nearby was Girona's cathedral, which had a rather daunting flight of stairs to climb to reach it. There was a nice view once you made it to the top though. Climbing a hill behind the cathedral, we found the entrance to the town walls. These were originally built in Roman times, being rebuilt and fortified during the sixteenth century. There were quite a few steps to negotiate, but we soon had a great view of the back of the cathedral... ...and of the surrounding countryside as well. At once place in the wall there was a spiral staircase which led up to a higher viewpoint. We were really enjoying the scenery, but the heat was baking! I think it would be nice to stay overnight in Girona and walk around the walls in the early morning/evening before it got too hot. We had time to walk round most of the fortifications before heading back down into the old town and across the bridge into the new town in search of lunch. Girona seems like quite a popular place with tourists, and so the menus of the day we were seeing advertised were more expensive that what we had been paying elsewhere in Spain this week. We eventually settled on a place where I was able to have pizza and Tim ordered a Catalan sausage. We were initially just going to have these, with some wine, but after we ordered Tim noticed that this restaurant also offered a menu of the day for €16.95 and these dishes were part of it. We didn't want a starter at this point, but he went to speak to the waitress to see if we could switch our order to be the menu, with the result that we wouldn't have to pay extra for the wine We enjoyed our main courses, followed them up with some chocolate icecream, and were expecting the bill might be around €40 in total, because we had also had a bottle of water and a beer. Imagine our surprise then when it arrived and was only €22! Tim spoke to the waitress and she explained that she had only charged us for one menu of the day at €16.95 (plus the beer and water) as we hadn't had starters, so had only had two dishes in total rather than four! So what was going to be our most expensive meal of the holiday actually turned out to be a bargain And it was a lovely location to eat in too. Our time in Girona was drawing to an end and we made our way back towards the station for our bus to Perpignan, which was due to depart at 14.50. It arrived promptly and we got a seat without any problems. It was an interesting journey, as we passed through increasingly mountainous countryside on our way to the French border. I didn't expect there to be any checks once we got to the border, but our bus did get pulled over by the French police who had a cursory look at everyone's passports. Within less than two hours we had arrived in Perpignan, and the aparthotel we are staying in very conveniently happened to be situated right opposite the bus station. We checked in and were rather confused, upon being asked whether we wanted Wi-Fi in our room, to be presented with a router and told to install it ourselves! Luckily Tim's was able to understand all the instructions in French We went for a preliminary stroll around Perpignan this evening and it seems like it has a pleasant town centre, with lots of palm trees. We will be exploring in more detail tomorrow
  17. Evening 2: Nîmes

    Our early start to the day meant that even though we'd not only been to Avignon and thrown in a bonus visit to Arles, we still had several hours of the day left in Nîmes. Clare wasn't particularly hungry but she agreed to join me anyway on a quest for food. As it happened, she came out best; we couldn't find anywhere reputable that was open. This was a Sunday evening and it seems that everybody in Nîmes has the good sense to pull down the shutters, with the exception of the kebab restaurants. Our sojurn, though, did give us the opportunity to revisit a deserted Nîmes with the backdrop of a dark sky.
  18. Day 2: Avignon & Arles

    We had a choice of two trains to get to Avignon this morning; either the 08.50 or the 10.50. When we had been feeling tired last night it was tempting to choose the later option, but ultimately we decided to be disicplined and set the alarm for 7am. It turned out to be a good decision, because we had Nîmes almost to ourselves as we walked towards the station in search of breakfast. This is what the main square looked like with no one in it. We were able to get a good photo of the amphitheatre without other people too. We bought our train tickets and found a nice cafe just outside the station, where we able to sit outside eating bread and croissants until it was time to catch our train. After a short journey, we arrived in Avignon around half nine. As soon as we left the train station and started walking towards the town centre, we were able to see the old city walls and ramparts. Our first stop was a church with a pretty park and some ruins. From there we soon found ourselves in the main square, complete with imposing town hall. I was somewhat confused to read on one of the tourist information boards that the square was called Place de l'Horloge because I couldn't see any sign of a clock. When we walked back a little way it all became clear though! The most famous site in Avignon is the Palais des Papes, a huge palace which was home to seven popes during the fourteenth century. It's an enormous complex of towers, which is now a UNESCO world heritage site. The guidebook had said that it was more impressive outside than in, so we didn't pay to go inside but instead climbed up into the park alongside it. We had a nice view back towards the town... ...as well as a closer view of the cathedral. There were also some amazing views of the surrounding countryside. We were surprised to see how mountainous it looked in the distance. We could see back towards the towers of the Palais des Papes... ...as well as towards some more distant fortifications on the opposite side of the river. We even found some ducks! One of the best bits about the park was that there was hardly anyone else there! It was still only just after 10am and we almost had the views to ourselves. If the Palais des Papes is the most famous sight in Avignon then the second most famous must be the Pont d'Avignon, also known as the Pont Saint-Bénézet. We decided to make our way down from the park to the riverside and see if we could find it. A bridge was first built here in 1177 but collapsed and was rebuilt from time to time when the river Rhone flooded. Eventually the bridge was abandoned, and all that remain today are a few arches which stop abruptly in the middle of the river. We walked along by the city walls for a while... ...before crossing the river by a more modern road bridge. There was a great view back towards the palace. We were then able to stroll along by the side of the Rhone, admiring the views of the bridge. By this time everyone else had woken up and Avignon had started to get very busy. Large quantities of coaches were arriving and depositing hordes of tourists, who were being ferried up to the palace on tourist trains. We decided that we had probably seen the best of Avignon without the tourists but the day was still young, so we consulted the guidebook to see whether there was anywhere else we could go. The nearby town of Arles sounded interesting too, so we headed back to the station and managed to time it so that we arrived ten minutes before a train to Arles was set to depart. Perfect. The first thing on our minds when we arrived in Arles was lunch, and after rejecting a couple of menus that were either too expensive or featured too much salad(!), we found a lovely place where we were able to sit outside and eat spaghetti bolognaise for a very reasonable price. From our table we were able to catch a glimpse of what looked suspiciously like another amphitheatre. Sure enough, once we had finished lunch and set off to explore, that was exactly what we found. The rest of Arles was pretty too... Unfortunately there seemed to be some particularly allergenic plant growing in the town and we soon joined dozens of people who were wandering around the town sneezing profusely. After a few hours we decided to call it a day and head back to Nimes
  19. Day 1: Nîmes

    Back in January we decided that we wanted to make the most of all the Bank Holiday weekends this year and booked some cheap flights to Nîmes in France. It wasn't a town I had ever heard of before, but when we did a Google image search it looked really pretty, and we realised that it was also close enough to Avignon for us to have a day out there too. All in all it seemed like a brilliant idea, until a couple of weeks ago when the French air traffic controllers threatened to strike on 2 May, the day we were due to fly out. When your plan is to fly out on a Saturday and back on a Monday afternoon, any sort of delay or cancellation means the trip is hardly worthwhile, so we started reading the small print of our travel insurance and trying to resign ourselves that we might not be able to go. As things turned out we were lucky and, after carrying out a strike earlier in April, the air traffic controllers decided to cancel the additional strike in May. Our holiday was back on! What could possibly go wrong now?! Nothing, except nearly missing the flight We thought we had left home on good time this morning, allowing ourselves two hours to get to Luton when it should actually only be a journey of about 90 minutes. I thought there might be lots of traffic because it was a Bank Holiday, but it turned out that there wasn't really. Things were going according to plan until we got within a couple of miles of the airport parking. There seemed to have been some fairly dramatic roadworks around the motorway junction which had resulted in the abolition of a traffic island which both our sat-nav and the instructions on the parking confirmation were requiring us to go around. We drove around in circles for a while, unable to figure it out, before deciding just to follow signs for Luton Airport and see whether we could find it. We normally park in the official long-stay carpark at Luton, but this time we had chosen to park with Airparks, because it was slightly cheaper. The booking confirmation suggested that we would simply be able to follow signs saying "Airparks", but we drove around the airport and almost as far as the long-stay parking without seeing any sign of them. Fifteen minutes later we ended up pretty much back where we had started, but this time we had a lucky break and saw a sign for one of the B roads which was mentioned on the Airparks instructions. Soon we were on the correct route, happily following the promised Airparks signs. We were running a few minutes behind schedule, but it was only around 11.30 and the flight wasn't until 13.20, so there was still plenty of time. We arrived at the car park, parked, and made our way to the queue for the bus to the terminal. And what a queue it was! There was a lengthy shelter for people to wait inside, but the queue was already overspilling outside it. A bus arrived at 11.40 and started loading people on but unfortunately we weren't anywhere near close enough to the front of the queue to get on. Never mind, we thought, there are so many people waiting here that there is bound to be another transfer bus along in a minute... Fifteen minutes later we were still standing there with no sign of a bus, and I was starting to get seriously stressed. I Googled "Airparks" and established that their buses only run to the airport terminal every twenty minutes. Oh dear. Sure enough, just after 12pm a bus finally arrived. By this time there must have been over a hundred people waiting and there was complete chaos. Several people brazenly queue-jumped and there were a few anxious minutes where it looked like there might not be enough room for us to get on the bus. Fortunately we managed to squeeze on though and were still in with a fighting chance of catching our flight. The Airparks carpark was only about 5 miles away from the airport, but somehow it was 12.25 before we got to Luton and were disembarking from the bus. To say I was stressed would be putting it mildly, as according to our boading passes the gate was due to close at 12.50. We didn't have any luggage to check in so were able to race through the airport towards security. I was keeping my fingers crossed that it wouldn't be very busy... only to be confronted by the world's largest queue just to show our boarding passes. 12.40 and we had finally had our boarding passes scanned and were in the queue for security. Our flight had probably already started boarding. I wondered if they would let us out of security again if we missed it! This queue, though long, was moving fairly swiftly but it felt like everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The man at the security desk made us take our shoes off. Then I set the scanner off and had to be searched. It was 12.50 on the dot before we emerged out the other side and into the departures lounge. The screen showed our flight as boarding at gate 3. Gate 3. That didn't sound like too far away. We set off at a quick trot, hoping that we might still be on time. Gate 3 was surely just down the corridor. Or perhaps the corridor after this one. Or the corridor after that... It turned out the gates were numbered in reverse order with gate 1 being the furthest away! We made it to gate 3 at 13.00, to find that they had only just started processing the huge queue of passengers waiting to board. Phew! We made it! I have never been so close to missing a flight in my life!! It took most of the flight to Nîmes to calm down and realise that we were actually going on holiday now It was just after 4pm when we touched down and it immediately felt like we were in a different world; a warm and sunny one where it was already summer! After a brief bus journey into the town centre we made our way to the hotel and set out almost immediately to explore the down. Just a little way down the road from where we were staying, we came to the gate into the old city. We also found our first palm trees of the year The most famous sight in Nîmes is the Roman amphitheatre. Built around 90 AD and restored in the eighteenth century, it is now used as a concert venue and a bull-fighting arena! We had seen pictures before we came, but weren't quite prepared for how huge it was going to be. There seemed to be some sort of Roman reenactment going on today so we weren't able to go inside, but we enjoyed walking around the perimeter. The amphitheatre might be the main attraction, but the rest of Nîmes is very attactive too. We walked through the main square, complete with an impressive fountain, where lots of people were out and about enjoying the sunshine. We found several interesting churches... ...and also the war memorial. One of the most stunning buildings was Maison Carrée, one of the best preserved Roman temples in the world. It was about 19.00 by the time we had finished strolling around the old town and we were starting to feel tired, so we headed back towards the hotel to a pizzeria which the check-in lady had recommended to us. The food was beautiful, as was the wine, and we began to feel properly relaxed
  20. Day 6: Tournai and Lille

    When we went to Waterloo yesterday, we weren't anticipating that there would be enough to see there to fill an entire day, so we had been toying with the idea of going to Antwerp as well. It turned out that Waterloo was far more exciting than we had thought, meaning that plans to squeeze in Antwerp had to be shelved. Last night we therefore had to make a decision about whether to go to Antwerp today instead or to stick with our original plan for the day which was to travel to the town of Tournai, then hop over the border into France to visit Lille. It was a difficult decision to make, and we spent a significant part of the evening looking at photos on Google images, trying to decide which place looked prettiest. All the photos looked lovely, so we tried to narrow it down by looking at ticket prices on the train website, but the cost seemed much of a muchness so that didn't really help either. In the end the weather really made the decision for us: when we woke up this morning it was pouring with rain and so the prospect of spending as much time as possible on a train seemed appealing. We decided to visit Tournai and Lille. Tournai is located about 50 miles southwest of Brussels and on a direct trainline. Our guidebook described it as being the most attractive town in Wallonia (the French-speaking part of Belgium), which was our motivation for wanting to go there. The most impressive sight was described as being the cathedral, which has no fewer than five towers and is a UNESCO world heritage site. We were looking forward to seeing it, so a bit disappointed when we got there to find that it was in the process of renovation. The other famous sight in Tournai is the medieval belfry, which was first constructed in 1188. We were able to get a good photo of this one, even if it was a little damp! Walking past the belfry we found ourselves in the main square in Tournai, which is home to the 12th century church of St. Quentin. It looked more like a fortress than a church to us. In what seems to be a running theme for Belgium, the entire square was extremely beautiful. After an hour of walking around we were soaked through so decided to head back to the train station and continue on to Lille. On the way we walked along the river for a while and found the Pont des Trous, an enormous medieval bridge. The journey from Tournai to Lille only takes about half an hour on the train. Unfortunately the weather wasn't any better in France, but the main train station - Lille-Flandres - is located right in the city centre, only a few minutes' walk from the main sights, so we didn't have to walk far before we came across the imposing tower of the Lille Chamber of Commerce, with the opera house next door to it. The main square in Lille was very pretty and still all decorated for Christmas. Overall Lille seemed like a really nice place and I think there is definitely more to explore there then we managed to see in the rain. It showed no sign of drying up so we treated ourselves to an enormous meal at a grill restaurant near the main square and then spent some time exploring the main bookshops, before setting off on the train journey back to Brussels. We're heading back home on the Eurostar tomorrow morning, having really enjoyed our time in Belgium. It's not a place which has ever featured highly on our list of potential holiday destinations and so we've been pleasantly surprised by how much there is to see and do here. Bruges and Ghent have been particular highlights and we would like to return to both places one day in warmer weather. Brussels has made a great base from which to explore the rest of the country, as well as being a fascinating city in its own right. Food prices have been generally higher here than we had anticipated (it feels a bit like eating out in London) but by having an apartment with a kitchenette and self-catering in the evenings we have managed to stick within our budget. We would definitely recommend Belgium as a destination for a short break
  21. Day 14: Foix

    Today was Friday, the morning after the day before. And after our adventures in Narbonne (or, more accurately, in the 15 kilometres between Narbonne and its beach), the last thing we wanted to do was ... anything. But I'd bought the train tickets to Foix in advance and I'm even more reluctant to be parted from my money than I had been the skin on my feet, so I was going to walk on them and go to Foix, and Clare was coming with me. We hadn't heard of Foix and supposed it was a little place with not much to do, so we were going to take it easy. And it's true that it isn't a metropolis and it boasts little in the way of distractions, so we could've relaxed. Except the one thing that Foix does have is a castle, and so we just had to climb the hill to get to the top of it. We got quite a surprise when we visited the local church and saw leaflets in Esperanto! Well, leaflet I suppose, but at least there was one: We rewarded our efforts to drag ourselves out of bed on our weary feet with a monstrous jug of wine. Huge! They're the best kinds. Having got ourselves suitably drunk, what did we do? We looked upwards and saw those turrets looming over us. And, like all good drunks, we made what appeared to be a good decision, but doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. We decided to climb up their again. The healing properties of alcohol are remarkable, aren't they> We made some good progress: But still had a way to go: And were eventually awarded with a view of the Pyrennees: I don't think it's a controversial statement to say we'd had a much better day today than yesterday!
  22. Day 13: Narbonne

    When I previously lived in France my friend Nico once drove the pair of us all the way to Narbonne and then all the way back. That was a round trip of over 300km late one Saturday night. I'm not sure what the point of this was and I doubt that many could beat that for spontaneity, but it at least put the idea in my head of a place to visit all these years later, now that we had some free days. And so we decided to visit the beach of Narbonne. Our day would be a disaster. Narbonne's a lovely little town, with the Canal de la Robine running straight through the centre of it. There were plenty of Roman remains visible from the days when it was the crossroads of the Via Domitia (the first Roman road in France, connecting Italy and Spain) and the Via Aquitania. We stopped for lunch, which was probably the most memorable one on the entire holiday. Unfortunately, this wasn't for a good reason; there was a cockroach in Clare's spaghetti carbonara. The cook was extremely distressed and apologetic. I think we ended up getting our food free. He was also desperate for us to help ourselves to the digestif, but I can't handle any form of spirit, the legacy of trying to impress a girl at 16 by drinking everything she proffered from her parents' drinks cabinet, with entirely predictable results and a lifelong aversion to licquor. Still, we'd come all the way to Narbonne to see the beach and that's what we resolved to do. My map indicated an arrow pointing off the bottom of the town plan marked "Narbonne plage". I couldn't see it signposted anywhere though, so we popped into the tourist information office to ask for confirmation of the directions. The lady behind the counter indicated the route on her larger map. Bear in mind that it was clear that I was a tourist and extremely unlikely that I was travelling by car. How do I know the lady knew I wasn't a local, much as I might like to pretend that my French is indistinguishable from the locals'? Well, not only did I look like a tourist courtesy of my backpack, but she also asked me for my nationality so that she could record it. Anyway, the point to bear in mind is that she confirmed on her larger map the direction to follow to head to the beach. We found out through five hours of walking, never daring at any point to turn back because "it can't be much further", that Narbonne doesn't have a beach. There is a place called Narbonne beach but it's not part of Narbonne, which lies 15km inland. Good grief, what an experience that was. We walked along dusty and winding roads, saw forests and rocky outcrops (which I tried to scale to see where the beach lay), and even headed into wine country. It wasn't until four hours into the expedition that we finally espied the beach. And even then it took a further hour to arrive at it. We knew we were in trouble as soon as we found a bus timetable and realised that we'd missed the last one of the day. The French tend to take the whole month of August off, which meant that we were extremely unlikely to find accommodation. So concerned were we about what we were going to do that we didn't even dip our toes into the Mediterranean, Clare's first time there, for fear that the five minutes spent doing it might cost us a taxi. Our attempts to find a hotel room proved just as fruitless as we would have hoped and we were fast running out of time as the sun faded. I remember pointing out to Clare that we could buy a beach towel from one of the stalls and bed down on the beach. She wasn't as relaxed about this as I was, and so we had no qualms about trying to book a tent for the night as soon as we saw a campsite. Unfortunately, they don't work like that; you have to have your own tent or caravan. We really were in trouble. Our saviour arrived in the form of the camp attendant, to whom we explained our problems. He was quite understanding about our inability to grasp that Narbonne and the beach named after it could be a five-hour walk apart. He called a taxi for us and it dropped us off at the train station in Narbonne. Of course, we didn't have tickets for the train. Ours had departed several hours before, which meant that we were looking at a hefty fine should the conductor on our sparsely filled train spot the error. Here came the conductor. I elected to tell him the truth rather than getting caught out, backing up the story with our pedometer (showing the 30km we'd walked that day), the photos we'd taken and, crucially, my destroyed feet, which looked like hovercrafts, given the amount of swelling on the sole. He was a nice man and let us off the fine. We arrived at the railway station and the longest part of the day was about to start; the ten-minute walk back to our hotel became an agonising experience for me as my shredded feet, aware that the end was in sight, gave up after over six hours of walking that day. Although we'd have liked to have an easy day afterwards we couldn't do, since we'd already bought the tickets to Foix. We'd just have to cope, and rue the idiot who thought it acceptable to name a beach after a town that's 15 or 16km away.
  23. Day 12: Toulouse

    We stayed in Toulouse today. At the time Clare was trying to learn French so I bought her a parallel text, a Sherlock Holmes book. She'd read all of them as a child and they'd come in handy for other languages; the Hound of the Baskervilles was her first Esperanto book and she dipped her toe into Croatian for the first time with Murder on the Orient Express. We decided we'd go swimming today and so travelled to Joliment, at the end of the metro line. It took us a while to find the swimming pool but we got there after a short trek, whereupon we were made to buy some swimming caps. No problem. There was, however, a problem when we emerged from the changing rooms and went to head into the water. I was intercepted by a lifeguard, who informed me that my shorts were too long for the pool. Well, I understood what she was saying and started rolling them up my thigh! Yep, I totally missed the point, which was that no-one in the street would be wearing swimming trunks but they would indeed be wearing shorts like mine, and so no-one was allowed into the pool with them to guard against people entering the water with dirty, germ-ridden shorts on. we met up with my friend Alix, who had generously lent us her apartment when we previously visited in 2007, for lunch, which was rather pleasant. I'd much rather see people in small groups than large ones, so this approach was working well all holiday. We still had plenty of spare time and so went to the cinema to watch a film set at a writer's retreat in leafy, rural England. I think it was Tamara Drewe, if that's the film that finishes with an author being trampled by a herd of cows. Our decision to save our energy would prove to be prophetic, because the next day we would inadvertently exert ourselves on what we thought would be a simple trip to the beach.
  24. After our return from Andorra, complete with a small crash straight, we had a lazy Saturday with very little planned. In the afternoon we strolled to the Garonne, the wide river that flows through Toulouse. The day was lovely and caused there to be a beautiful sheen on the surface of the water. We visited one of my friends in the evening. I was particularly looking forward to seeing Fabienne's monstrous cat, Pyram, again. He was only a kitten when I first saw him many years before but already then he was bigger than everybody else's cats. The older, more feline-astute me now recognises him as a Maine Coon, a beautiful breed which is the largest of the domestic cats. Clare was worried about having to explain to a stranger that she was allergic to her cat but as chance would have it so was Fabienne's boyfriend, Romain, and so poor Pyram was confined to the balcony anyway. I kept him company - he hadn't got any smaller. Lovely boy. As one might expect, an old friend enquired as to how Clare and I met. We normally don't go into much detail, so as to avoid having to go into detail explaining what Esperanto is and cause the conversation to deviate, so tend to limit the explanation to saying we met in a club for people interested in languages. This time it didn't sit well with me not to be a little more open, plus we were catching up on life over the intervening years, so we explained that we both happened to learn Esperanto and be in the same club. I can't remember whether Fabienne knew anything of it but Romain certainly did; apparently he had always intended to learn it but had never known how! As a favour to him I translated for Clare not from French into English but into Esperanto, and then would explain in French. Interpretation is nowhere near as easy as people might think. I suppose it was all the more difficult because my native language wasn't involved at all. All in it was a lovely night just sitting and chatting. On a previous return visit we'd done exactly the same. I'm not normally one for small talk but there's something to be said about catching up with old friends that you've not seen in years. I'm writing this entry four years later. Fabienne and Romain now have a little girl and, unfortunately, my boy Pyram's succumbed to old age. It's probably way past time that we popped back. Sunday was another lazy day. We didn't do much except for strolling by the canal, until we came across a pleasant-looking park. There were even some colourful chickens rooting around! Monday wasn't a lazy day at all. This was to be the second week of our holiday, an Esperanto event called FESTO. Originally it was to take place at the Paul Sabatier University but there had been an incident shortly before as a result of which the university cancelled all arrangements for outside events to make use of its facilities. The organisers scrambled and did what they could to save the event, finding an alternative site in a small town called Donneville. The problem is that Donneville was 30km away from Toulouse and not easy to get to. We headed most of the way on a bus but had to get off still several kilometres away. Clare and I aren't frightened of walking, so we happily set off along the country roads, past fields of bright sunflowers. There was a sapping sun that day and so we had to step into a roadside tavern and have a few drinks. Ultimately we probably walked for a couple of hours, maybe more but as we approached what we thought should be Donneville we received the reassurance of seeing tents on the horizon. Tired and drenched with sweat, we had arrived. We caught up with many of our friends and joined them for lunch. And then we sat back ready to join in with the afternoon's activities, which happened to be ... ... a trip to Toulouse! Gah! We travelled in a borrowed 1960s hippy van that didn't look at all roadworthy and were dropped off where the Rue de Metz meets the Pont Neuf, near enough directly opposite my usual pub. Well, we'd been in Toulouse for a week and so didn't want to participate in a guided tour, and so we headed off to the pub, arranging to meet the group later. The evening programme was an exhibition on Occitan, the language, tradition and people of the region. There was a fair bit of sitting around because the food didn't arrive anywhere near on time ... and when it finally turned up there was no vegeatarian fare among it! That's disastrous at an Esperanto event, condemning half of the people present to starvation and the rest of us to having to listen to the constant - though justified - complaints. I quite admired the pragmatism of one of the French vegetarians. He shrugged his shoulders and got on with the job of eating the very rare meat! Since we'd learned that Donneville was very difficult to get to we decided that we would probably not attend the rest of the week and so the challenge now was to find something else to do with out days. This meant that we took some bonus trips that we hadn't originally planned, to Lourdes, Narbonne and Foix.
  25. Day 5: Cordes-sur-Ciel

    Our plan today was to head to a small village that was the last bastion of a religious sect called the Cathars, which held out against the Inquisition until 1312. The population had moved higher and higher until they lived above the low-lying clouds which caused the name to be adjusted from its traditional Cordes to Cordes-sur-Ciel in 1993. I wasn't new to it, having been there once before in 2000 with a friend who rightly thought that it would be a shameful waste for me to live in the region but not visit any of these lovely places. We drove in her car. Things weren't to be so easy for us as train passengers though. We'd taken the train and alighted at the appropriate station but it became clear that we'd been caught out by something of a ruse; the train station at Vindrac-Alayrac was several miles away from Cordes itself and there was a notice at the station explaining that to get there you'd have to phone the local taxi driver and get him to take you there and arrange a pick-up. A parisian lady who was with us was not impressed at all and spent the duration of our wait telling us that we should complain to some official body or other and that this was exactly what she was going to do. She gave the driver earache for the journey too, as though he's the one responsible for not building railway lines closer! We settled up with the driver, arranged a time for him to pick us up and bade goodbye to the lady, but not before being made to pledge that we would indeed write a letter of complaint. It's nearly four years later when I'm typing this and we still haven't done it; I imagine it's too late to get around to it now. Sorry, madame. Spending time in Cordes is easy. Everywhere is still so medieval and getting anywhere inevitably means climbing upwards, so it wasn't going to be over in a hurry, even though it's a small place. Going anywhere required a fair but of energy because it was uphill all the way: The buildings retained their vintage appearance. Barely anything has changed over the centuries: We unexpectedly came across a sweet little bell tower with a clock below it: The streets had gift shops on either side but they weren't in any way gaudy. You'd have to look twice to notice them: Some of the walls were surprisingly high: At the appointed time the taxi driver arrived in the spot where we'd arranged to meet him. That worked out well for us because it wasn't the spot where we'd been dropped off, since the foot of Cordes operated a one-way system and so it was better for the driver to not have to head in the wrong direction for a bit. Suitably rewarded for our sense of adventure, we decided to do something totally unplanned the next day by travelling to Andorra on the spur of the moment without having looked for a hotel.
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