Sunday, June 10, 2012

France Day 2 - After hours at the Lastours Chateaux

After, not exactly an uncomfortable nights sleep, more of an awkward nights sleep, we arose about nine. When we booked the gite we noticed it boasted of its historic credentials, and it is indeed an old building, and also of its historic furnishings. The thing though about the historic people who peopled these historic places, and used these historic furnishings, is that they were historically on the short side. Why this is I do not know, it’s just a fact, enter any old dwelling and you have to stoop to do so, they just did not build things to accommodate those over 5ft 2. I assume this is where the airlines get the inspiration for their seating from.

This propensity for diminutive dimensions stretches, so to speak, to beds, which is why I spent the night sleeping diagonally across mine as it was not physically possible to lie out vertically, what with the bed being boarded on both ends. Even when I laid my head on the furthest reaches of the pillow my feet still hung off the opposite corner. Luckily I was very tired so it was not too much of a handicap to sleep.

Wolfed down a few hunks of yesterdays dry bread and a coffee for breakfast then led the beast out to Montolieu which has made a name for itself as an officially designated Historic Book Village, much like Hay-on-Wye in Wales. This 12th century village has around a dozen bookshops and a museum dedicated to all things bound. It sits at the foot of the Black Mountains on a narrow plateau between two streams, one of which we had to cross over via a high bridge on entering the village, with the views to the town being quite impressive.

A view of the village from the bridge

We took our cameras out for a bit of a roam around the narrow streets before getting an early lunch of quiche and salad, at a very nice café/bookshop, which was very welcome indeed, especially after such a humble breakfast. I washed this down with two excellent coffees, so by the time we were finished I ready to rock.

A door with a bit of personality in Montolieu
I gunned our growling voiture through the lanes on towards the Abbey de Villelongue A Cistercian Abbey whose construction began around 1170, it has recently, well in the last 50 years, but comparatively recently, been renovated and opened to the public thanks to its private owners. It features some very interesting architecture and well maintained gardens. Unfortunately when we got there it was closed, as it was a bank holiday, but we poked our noses through the gates and had a look at what we could. Seemed very nice, so we got back in the car and roared off.

We didn’t mind too much that it was closed, as on the way we drove past a lovely poppy field, so stopped to get a few photos and trample a few of the crops. We were hoping to see a lot of flowers out this time of year, but apart from the odd collection of poppies, most along the sides of the road, and a couple of other exceptions, there wasn’t a great deal to see, it was mainly green, I guess we were a bit too late.

Some poppies we stumbled upon
After that we headed into the western corner of Parc Naturel Regional du Haut Languedoc and in particular to the village of Soreze. Another medieval village filled with timbered buildings, an abbey and lots of narrow winding streets, very atmospheric. 
Soreze street
A shutter that is not often used

A medieval half timbered house
Beneath that undergrowth is in fact fully functioning building

Someone seemed to be taking an interest
Then we drove into Revel, which has a very nice market square, for a coffee, and at 5 Euros for two disappointing coffees, it reminded me a lot of home. We bought some more bread, this was the first open Boulangerie we had seen, where I tried out my French, asking for a large bottle of water, which I thought was pretty straight forward, but the woman behind the counter just looked at me like I was a gibbering simpleton, so Sarah stepped in, and to my ears at least, said the same thing I did and was handed a bottle of water no problem at all. I was mystified.

After that we stopped in at the gite where I filled up on more dry bread, before making towards Fraisse Cabardes, another old village with plenty of character. Then it was onto Chateaux de Lastours, four so called Cather castles built along a rocky outcrop above the tiny village of Lastours. We parked up in the village and searched for the entrance, I think you usually have to do group tours that start from the village, but as this was 7pm and the place was closed, but luckily the gate to the path had been left open, we just hoped it wasn’t going to be shut whilst we were up there, as it was pretty tall and mounted with injurious spikes.

The climb up to the castles, which are 300 meters above sea level, and isolated by the deep valleys of the Orbeil and Grésilhou rivers was fairly demanding, especially with all the camera equipment, but the views when we got there were more than worth it. Especially as the light at this time of day was starting to become golden, it was really making the castles look their best. So we spent the next couple of hours wandering between the castles taking many, many pictures.

A view from left to right of Chateaux Cabaret, Tour Regine & Surdespine
Another view of Cabaret & Tour Regine with footpath

Chateau Quertinheux, the first one of the four and where the
above pictures were taken from
Although these are referred to as Cathar castles, and the Lastours Chateaux were indeed a centre of Cathar religious activity during the 13th century, the structures you can see today were constructed after this time. Each castle is different, partly representing the range of alterations made to them over the years, and partly because each ones build was adapted to the rocks that surround it. As is typical of these types of castles, they almost look as if they are growing up from the rocks they sit on.

So as the light was starting to fade we headed back down the footpath, the crunching of stones beneath our feet the only sound we could hear, we stopped to look at the tremendous views of forest stretching off into the distance under the late evening light, it was incredibly peaceful. To our relief, well mine anyway, the gate was still open, turns out Sarah hadn’t even noticed the 7ft spiked gate on the way in. We got back in the car and headed to Carcassonne again, as at this time of night it would be the only place we could be sure to find a place to eat.

Found another restaurant, had another 3 course meal, which included quite possibly the hottest dish I have ever seen, we both ordered onion soup and it came to the table literally bubbling, but it was fabulous, then I had steak, nice and rare, and a truffle chocolate with crème anglaise. It was indeed, très bon!

Sat nav took us back an interesting way, which favoured tiny roads and seemed to take an age, despite asking for the quickest route. Got back, had a shower and collapsed into bed, diagonally of course. Fell asleep knowing the shop would be open tomorrow so we wouldn’t be on the dry bread for breakfast again.

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