Friday, June 8, 2012

France Day 1 - Heading to the Black Mountains

So we decided to head to France for the week, it was a bit of a rush job, as we only booked it Thursday and flew out Sunday. As is usual though, we had been thinking about it for about 4 weeks, but couldn’t decide where to go, either France or Italy, and were undecided where in each country to visit. But, as usually happens, we got fed up thinking about it and just decided to go for the cheapest place we could find. Why we never do that to begin with is, and will probably be forever, a mystery.

Which is why, at 3am on a Sunday morning, we were struggling about in dimly lit rooms trying to get the last of our things packed and loaded so they could accompany us to the Aude department of Languedoc that region of France that sits at the bottom, near the Pyrenees and next to Provence.

Got to Gatwick in pretty good time, parked the car, got the shuttle bus to the South Terminal and then stood in a line to check in for far too long at that time in the morning. After that is was just a case of quietly dozing off into some breakfast for a while. Unfortunately an early night couldn’t be had the day before, as one of our neighbours thoughtlessly married off his daughter and then compounded his mistake by feeling the need to host the reception in his garden, replete with live band.

So needless to say, I was feeling slightly groggy as I tucked into my strange cereal, which consisted of oatmeal matter on some kind of cheesecake mixture placed on an underlay of jam type substance. It was a somewhat bizarre concoction but not entirely unpleasant. So this, along with the breakfast baguette seemed to do the job. Little did we know that baguettes would feature more heavily in our forthcoming diet than would be acceptable, even for France.

After that it was just a case of going through security, where yet again, Sarah got pulled over for carrying an offensive weapon, she never manages to hide them well enough, bless. This time it was a screwdriver in her camera bag, she said it was for her filter system but I’ve never seen her use it before, I think she just likes to be tooled up. Still, it wasn’t as bad as the knife she had in her handbag a few years ago, luckily she remembered it was there before we went through security, so quickly hurried off and left it in the toilets. True story.

After a lovely short flight, only and hour and 20, we landed in Toulouse, where we had the pleasure of waiting for 45 minutes at the hire car desk for them to grace us with a vehicle. At least it wasn’t as bad the 2 hours we had to wait last time at this airport, but you’d think there would be some kind of system in place that doesn’t make their customers wait interminably for a transaction that, at most, takes around 7-8 minutes.

So when my turn came I was ready to get things done as speedily as possible, I greeted the young lady with a jovial Bonjour, at which point she started speaking to me in French. I assumed this was because my greeting was dripping in such rich, hearty Gallic tones she mistook me for a citizen of this fair country. It was only after a few beats that I realised she was actually speaking to me in English but, obviously, with a French accent. This was a bit of a blow, she knew straight away I wasn’t French just from that one word, and it’s my best word as well.

So we had a frustrating (her) and embarrassing (me) conversation where I had to keep asking her to repeat herself, as I just couldn’t get to grips with her French accent. Never mind my dreams of speaking a bit of the lingo whilst here, I couldn’t even understand English. But on the plus side, we got an upgrade. I had booked a compact car, but we ended up with Citroen DS4. I had an inkling when she told me what car we were getting it might be something better by the way she said it, but to be honest my knowledge of automobiles is somewhat lacking, so she could have been presenting me the keys to a wheelbarrow for all I knew, so I’m not sure I sounded suitably grateful.

When we arrived at our designated space in the parking lot we were faced with what looked like a small tank, rather than a car, it had a grill so large that small animals, and possibly small children for that matter, must quake in terror at the sight of it, should it accidentally hoover them up as it passed by. It also had sat nav, electric seats, basically all the trimmings you could ever want. Unfortunately it didn’t have an anti stall device, which would have been very handy as I chundered out of the car park in fits and starts, giving our progress all the debonair qualities of an asthmatic tortoise having a fit.

Our chariot for the week, looking all moody next to a big French house
Having got this inbuilt sat nav we then foolishly let it guide us to our destination, so after having told it we wanted to go via the quickest route, it casually directed us right through the centre of Toulouse, despite the fact there are several perfectly serviceable and I believe, very well known ring roads around the city. This sort of thing annoys me, not just because it’s unnecessary and time consuming, but because it gives Sarah more ammunition in her ongoing war against sat navs. I am unaware of any journey she has undertaken using a sat nav that hasn’t involved some kind of argument ensuing between her and the device, sometimes quite heated. And the kind of behaviour ours was displaying did not help its cause in any way.

Anyway, after a protracted tour of Toulouse we headed away and towards the Black Mountains, or Montagne Noire, where we would abode for the week. On the way there we started to get a bit peckish so we picked up a baguette from a Boulangerie, one of the finest French words ever invented in my opinion, and troughed down part of it in the car. We finally arrived at Fontiers Cabardes, or Village of Fountains, a medieval village founded in 1203 where, during the 1600’s, it was the home to Pierre-Paul Riquet, the creator of the Canal du Midi, that 240km long engineering marvel that links Toulouse with the Southern coast of France.

Our gite was situated next the only remaining structure that survives of the chateau that used to stand in the village, a tower, or more importantly, as we would discover, a bell tower. By the time we got there the village shop was closed, this being a Sunday, so we couldn’t pick up anything for lunch, so we decided to make do with the dry bread we had picked up on the way there. We were also informed that the next day was a Bank Holiday, which would mean the shops would be shut all day. This of course meant we decided to make do with only a portion of the dry bread we had picked up on the way there. Suddenly the ubiquitous French baguette seemed rather lacking in its appetency curtailing powers.

Our gite on the right, with our alarm clock on the left
Once our bags were safely ensconced, it was time for presents of course. This being Sarah’s birthday, so we had a cup of startlingly weak tea, and she ploughed into her cards and gifts getting through them in no time at all. Despite me getting her some outstanding presents I think her favourite was the wind up key ring torch, which was somewhat of a surprise. As for the rest, she just ended up playing with the boxes they came in, pretending she was driving a bus or something. I wonder why I bother sometimes.

So with our bellies filled only with feeble tea and a foreboding sense of deprivation, we decided to go and have a nap. This did not last long however as the historic tower next to our gite rang its, presumably, historic bell every hour on the hour, twice for some reason, in case you missed it the first time I suppose. So what with that and an assemblage of children shrieking away beneath our windows, it was soon time to get up again. We headed to Saissac, another medieval village not far from us, and took some pictures of the chateau there in the afternoon sunlight, before taking a drive around the small winding roads that ease you through the heavily wooded landscape and over the multitude of streams that weave their way down from the mountains above.

Saissac Chateau in the afternoon sunlight
That evening we drove into La Cité, the oldest part of Carcassonne, and the capital of the Languedoc region, for some dinner. It’s very touristy but an amazing place to go, and with a myriad of restaurants to choose from it didn’t take too long to find somewhere to serve us. So 3 courses later and half a carafe of wine under our straining belts we headed back to the village and collapsed into bed.   

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