We had only planned to spend a couple of weeks in France but delays with getting our licence plates and then the late autumn lockdown resulted in us spending far longer in the country. Two upsides are that we’ve made some truly wonderful friends and we’ve come to realise that the country has so much to offer in terms of variety, be it wines (of course!), but also scenery, wildlife, history, etc., etc.
In July, we are hoping to head towards Scandinavia so before the summer heat and crowds arrived in France we decided to head south towards Carcassonne and the Mediterranean coast. Three years ago, we made a whistle stop tour along the French Pyrenees in a campervan and loved the area. The idea of our ‘big trip’ was already forming and we wanted to see if we could live in a campervan; within a couple of days we had decided that a van would be too small.
Before we headed back to the area, fellow motorhomers and new friends, John and Kellie, suggested we visit Quéribus and Peyrepertuse, two Cathar castles in the southwest of France. Catharism was a religious movement between the 12th and 14th centuries; its followers were ultimately annihilated by the Catholic Church after many bloody battles and sieges centred in Pays Cathare (Cathar country). The drive to the parking area at Château de Quéribus was a winding “first gear up/first gear down” road but the views from the top were absolutely stunning. The château is first mentioned in 1020 and was one of the “Five Sons of Carcassonne”: five castles strategically placed to defend the French border against Spain. We were amazed at the effort needed to build a stone castle on the high peak. We also spent a night in the aire in Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse with views of Château de Peyrepertuse. We didn’t visit the castle this time as the access road was too narrow for the motorhome but we would love to go back. While exploring Duilhac, we came across the Fontaine des Amours with a verse from Ronsard (a 16th century poet) inscribed above the fountain. It stated that whoever drinks from the fountain will fall in love – and though we recently celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary we thought it couldn’t hurt to take a sip!
Before the trip, we had also made contact with a couple of home-/world-schooling families and planned a route that would allow Amelia to meet some other English-speaking children for outdoor playdates. She had an amazing time with a new friend in the small town of Caunes-Minervois splashing through a small stream while the parents sipped coffee at an outside café – our first time since September!
While in Caunes-Minervois, Michelle and Denis suggested we visit Minerve. Denis showed us a video and we were sold. The walled village is surrounded on 3 sides by a gorge, and inside the gorge the river has carved a tunnel (the ‘Ponts Naturels‘) through the rock. Truly amazing and our photos don’t really do the village, the gorge or the tunnel justice. When we create a list of must-see hidden gems, Minerve will definitely be on it! Minerve had been a Cathar stronghold which was attacked and fell in 1210. The attackers had four trebuchets (catapults), with the largest one known as Malvoisine or “bad neighbour” which was aimed at the village’s well.
We had another playdate with Petra and her two daughters at Lac de Montbel, just outside Chalabre. Originally we had planned to leave the lake at 8pm and drive to the aire in Castelnaudary; if all went according to plan we’d arrive minutes before the 9pm curfew. Luckily, we managed to find a parking at Lac de Montbel and we decided that it was a perfect location to stay the night. This allowed us to extend the playdate and watch one of the most beautiful sunsets we had seen; the sky and the lake glowed a golden/orange colour with the snowy Pyrenees in the background. When we arrived at Castelnaudary at 2pm the next day, we took the second-to-last spot. If we had arrived at nine o’clock the previous night, the aire would have been full and we would have had to drive on after curfew. In general, there are a lot more motorhomes on the road and the aires and France Passion sites are often busy; unlike October last year when we were often the only motorhome at our sites.
Petra also suggested that we see flamingos at the coast. Wait, what? But it’s true that wild flamingos are found in France. Peyriac-de-Mer was on our route so we made a detour and there they were!
It was an amazing trip to the south-east of France. We enjoyed our flexible route, with many suggestions from friends, as well as other serendipitous experiences such as showing Amelia how locks work on Canal-du-Midi, France-Passion stops with beautiful views, friendly hosts, and wonderful products (including sparkling pink Crémant and kilograms of cherries!), and stumbling upon the Aude River at Belvédère du Diable (Belvianes-et-Cavirac) where Amelia played for hours.
There were a couple of ‘learning’ experiences too. Like many other things in France, many petrol (gas) stations are fermé (closed) on Sundays; while you can still self-serve petrol this means that there is no GPL (propane) available. We suffered without our morning tea and coffee!
Never cut corners when the turn is between two buildings on an extremely narrow road – we almost got wedged! It didn’t help that the elderly homeowners were trying to tell us in French that we needed to reverse (how?) and that our motorhome was too big and didn’t belong there (too late!). Our wheels were up on the side of the road and our roof was tilting toward the buildings but luckily we had few centimetres to spare and we managed to escape without a scratch.
Beware passing trucks on narrow roads – we stopped on the verge to allow a truck to pass but it still scraped the side of the motorhome. Fortunately, the wheel nuts had plastic caps so we only ended up with the smallest of scratches.
When your GPS sends you down a narrow dirt road that doesn’t feel right, stop and back out while you can (the fox and her two cubs were cute though – and they very looked surprised to see us).
All-in-all it was good to be back in Blue Fern.
Gary, Janice and Amelia