Since January 1st there have been only a few boats on the move through the Carcassonne lock – no more than one a week, if that – and in my opinion it has not been ‘boating weather’. Although no frost all winter, we have frequently had rather dull grey and wet days, sometimes with a biting wind making it feel chillier than it really is. So we have been amusing ourselves with ‘off the boat’ activities and in particular local sightseeing.
Our new British narrowboat friends, Mike and Aileen, who rented a house here in Carcassonne for January and February, invited us on a couple of scenic tours of Cathar Country. First they drove us north up ‘a stairway to Heaven’ (so described in the leaflet ‘8 tourist routes to discover the Carcassonne area’) to the Black Mountain. Passing through Lastours with its four castles up at 300m, we followed the deep valley of the River Orbiel to Mas Cabardes where we stopped to look at the church and walk around the village.
From there we climbed and twisted our way across mountain roads, with superb views south towards Carcassonne and beyond to the Pyrenees, to Cuzac Cabardes before returning home along the main road through Villemoustaussou.
On our second day out we headed south through Limoux and across country roads to Mirepoix where we stopped for a coffee to admire the beautiful town square and its House of Consuls with 150 carved wooden heads.
The present town was built in 1290 following a previous massacre by the crusaders and then a devastating flood. We arrived just as the last stalls of the Monday market were being cleared away.
We didn’t stop at Fanjeux, now not even the buses do, although in its former medieval glory this was the capital of Occitan troubadours who competed with poetry and song in the “floral games” here. We did stop at the Port in Bram, as Mike wanted to see a bit of the Canal du Midi here, but then we headed straight home.
Our next February outing was by train, to visit my cousin Paul who lives on the ‘Cote Vermeille’ (Vermillion Coast). After a change at Narbonne, with time for a good lunch of confit de canard and frites, for €16 each including a carafe of wine, in the station restaurant, we disembarked at Elne, the next stop after Perpignan heading south.
It had been 25 years since we last met so we were not sure that we would recognise each other – in the event we were the only people at the station! Paul put us up at his ‘artist’s pavilion’ gite in Palau del Vidre and from this comfortable base took us on some great tours of this 20 km Mediterranean stretch of Roussillon, formerly part of the Kingdom of Majorca, from Argeles-sur-mer to Cerbere.
Our first port of call along this scenic coast of small rocky bays, creeks, coves and beaches and steep terraced vineyards was Collioure. Famous for being the home of the Fauvist Movement it was popular with many artists, including Miro, Pixtot, Derain, Matisse and perhaps more surprisingly Charles Renee Mackintosh.
We made it to Port Vendres for lunch – delicious seafood in one of the harbour restaurants. We sat looking out across to the Art Deco building, formerly an hotel, where in June 1950 my parents had spent part of their honeymoon.
That evening we attended our first ever ‘Vernissage’ in Theza. It was here that Paul founded and taught an adult artists group some 20 years ago and every year they raise money through a public showing of work entered by artists at which prizes are awarded. It was quite a ‘do’ with the Mayor very much to the fore and we enjoyed the general social buzz with wine to drink, nibbles to eat, and art to look at.
Other local artists favoured Ceret, the cherry capital of southern France, a little inland in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Here in the Museum of Modern Art you can see works by Dali, Picasso, Matisse and Chagall who all used to hang out in the ‘Grand Cafe’. However we only spared enough time to shop for our lunch in the extensive Saturday market and to visit the recently restored, to its original glory, Church of St Pierre. Paul, being a talented organist as well as a gifted artist, wanted to check out the organ which has been put back into use. Of all the churches, and there have been many, that we have visited in France I found this one the most beautiful. The light and colours and detailed craftsmanship in its decoration throughout creates a wonderful ambience. Paul has promised to take us back there to listen to him play and to convince me that organ music is not depressing but uplifting.
On Sunday Paul had a date with the local group of ‘beach cleaners’ which he founded in Llanca. So, despite severe rain warnings, we headed off early in the morning for Spain, taking the coastal road through Banyuls-sur-mer to Cap Cerbere and across the border (a deserted graffiti decorated concrete blockhouse) around Portbou to the Costa Brava. By the time we had stopped off at Paul’s apartment to pick up his ‘Platjes Netes’ T-shirt we arrived at the beach half an hour late to find it empty.
It wasn’t actually raining but Paul’s Spanish fellow society members had decided to cancel this month’s activity – and so we went for a very pleasant walk around the headland (making sure that on the way we at least picked up a token plastic bag or two) before heading on to El Port de la Selva for a hearty Paella lunch.
It did start to rain in the afternoon (and lunch is a late affair in Spain) but had stopped again for our drive inland to La Jonquera, where we bought very cheap booze (Banyuls, Gin and Sherry) and a paella dish, before crossing back over the border at Le Perthus and heading home for a late light supper.
During the night the wind got up in anger – gusts of up to 130kmph reportedly – but our train left Elne on time despite a board full of delays to trains heading south. There was only a 5 minute connection time at Perpignan Station – described by Dali as ‘the centre of the world’ – and we literally jumped aboard, only to find ourselves still sitting in ‘le centre du monde’ an hour later. The train crept along very cautiously, blasted by strong cross winds, between etangs (inland seas) around Port la Nouvelle and arrived in Narbonne well after our next connection had departed on time.
We were allowed to get on the next train to Carcassonne, a TGV, and after all the delays arrived back only an hour late and still in good time to shop and prepare supper for old friend Nigel who happened to be over at his house on the weekend we were away.
The buses in Carcassonne are good – and only cost €1 for an hour’s trip (regardless of how many changes you make in that time). The Number 2 leaves from outside the station for Z.I. (Zone Industriel) Pont Rouge where there is a huge Carrefour in the retail and leisure park. The Number 1 goes from Park Chenier beside the Port, in one direction to Centre Commercial Salvaza with both Aldi and a Geant Casino amongst many other retailers, and in the other direction past another Geant Casino and others, including a McDonald’s, to Lac de la Cavayere.
This lake, formed from a reservoir, offers numerous opportunities for boating (no engines), acrobatic adventure trails in the trees, swimming on several beaches, and a 5 km walk around the whole park – a bit further than we had at first realised but there was no short cut back once we’d set off! We had taken a picnic lunch, ham and cheese baguettes from the bakery, which proved wise as the few concessions there were closed (out of season). It makes for a nice day out and it is always good to get a change of scenery and a breath of fresh air – it’s about now, late February and early March that cabin fever can start to take hold.
Before we set off in April we are going to spend two weeks in England visiting friends and family over the Easter break so we should be rearing to go on our return.