Sunday 10 June 2012

Avoiding Tolls and Other Provençal Stories

Val and Mike not only fuelled us with french baguettes, banettes and other assorted pain, but also armed us with plenty of sightseeing destinations. First on the list, a visit to the beautifully restored chateau Cite at Carcassonne, complete with cobbled stone lanes and views all the way around from the extensive ramparts.

We continued following our GPS directions north which was set to avoid the main toll roads that surrounded Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc and Parc Naturel Régional des Grands Causses. Instead it led us straight through; well straight meaning through very winding hill roads. My motion sickness nausea levels got to the point where I usually feel like throwing up, so in order to save embarrassment, my body put me to sleep. Ben told me that I didn't miss much, only pine plantation hills clad frequently with thick fog, though my crazy swinging drowsy head provided mild entertainment.

We did a random walk, I have no idea what this place is called, but it was nice to get out of the car for a while - Pyrenees
Next on the list of things to see was the tallest bridge in the world, the Millau Viaduct. Years ago we had seen this cool specimen of engineering on some megastructures television program showing how the sections of the bridge deck and masts were constructed at each the ends and essentially "launched" out using a system of wedges and beefy hydraulic jacks. Fascinating stuff, if you are into innovative design and construction methods.

Millau Viaduct
There was a train line running along the river far below the viaduct, which we followed to come to a tiny village built alongside (and into) the cliff. Couldn't find what the village was called, but one sign mentioned the name Pear, which suited this quaint collection of beautiful stone dwellings.

Mossy Steps - Tiny village built into the hillside, near Millau
Green Steps - Tiny village built into the hillside, near Millau
Unfortunately all the apparent gîtes here were closed, so we retreated to a guesthouse in Millau, a sprawling but pleasant enough town where we picked up fresh supplies from some of dozens of local specialty boulangeries, traiteurs, fromageries, épiceries, and other marchés.

On to another tick off the list - the musty smelling caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, where nature provided the perfect conditions (95% humidity, temperature around 8ºC to 10ºC) kept constant with just the right amount of ventilation through fleurines (cracks in the walls of the caves that extend to the mountainside) for fostering tasty penicillin colonies in sheep's cheese. After tasting Roquefort cheeses of various ripeness, and investing in a proper cheese knife, we stocked up on as much stinky cheese we felt we could get away with carrying without refrigeration - not much, it turns out.

We continued the drive along the highway to the tail end of the Canal du Midi, then along the thin strip of coastal land to Sète for lunch. Saintes Marie del la Mer was our next destination for some action in the Camargue. The next morning started with a drive out to a local stable where we met a couple of friendly border collies who insisted on playing throw-the-tennis-ball with us. We were then introduced to our beautiful white Camargue horses upon whom we toured the wetlands area all the way down to the beach and back.

Horse Riding in the Camargue, near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Horse Riding in the Camargue, near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
The river crossings were fun, and the more experienced riders got a few cantering sessions in. We didn't appreciate getting bitten by various swampland insects for the first time since Southeast Asia (a good thing we still had insect repellant), and we somehow scored the slightly shorter legged horses who stubbornly broke into jerky trots every minute or so to keep up with the herd. But it was great seeing huge flocks of pink flamingos almost everywhere after the disappointing few at Laguna de Fuente de Piedra in Spain.

It was a hot day as we picnic lunched on shaded wooden tables on the banks of the river Gard, next to that famous section of Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard.

Pont Du Gard
Continuing through Sault, we searched in vain for any sign of purple buds of lavender to pose for a particular photo that Ben was chasing. Using the "Avoid Tolls" setting on the GPS navigator made for some random routes, with the semi-clever device insisting on us taking us through tiny villages and winding roads, recommending that we take all sharp corners at 90km/h. We obviously took a lot longer to drive these distances than estimated on the navigator, but we couldn't complain since these were some of the most scenic drives we could have come across. Far better than driving 130km/h on boring straight A-roads that we'd have to pay up to 70 euros to use.

Avoiding Tolls. One of the many 90km/hr highways that our GPS told us to drive through - through the Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence regions
So it was late and we were weary by the time we decided to take an unscheduled stop in Forcalquier. We arrived late for dinner at restaurant Aux Deux Anges, but the staff were still very welcoming and even apologised for only being able to offer the set menu. We were just glad they were willing to feed us at all, as French kitchens tend to be stuffy with their hours. We couldn't decipher the French menu, but that did not matter. Turned out to be one of the best meals we had in France, perfectly prepared, full flavoured, heart warming home-style cooking like your mamma makes (if your mamma was Provencal French).

Root Vegetable Salad and Tapenades. Provençal Dinner - Aux Deux Anges, Forcalquier
Rosemary Roast Pork. Provençal Dinner - Aux Deux Anges, Forcalquier
Apple Crumble. Provençal Dinner - Aux Deux Anges, Forcalquier
A half bottle of delicious local rosè later and we ambled back to our restbeds very happy.

Inside La Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Bourguet - Forcalquier
A little morning market appeared in Forcalquier's Place du Bourguet, and we scoured through the assorted kitchenware in search of the ultimate butter dish for Layla. Long story short, we were unsuccessful this round, but vowed to accomplish this quest of getting Layla a French butter dish by her birthday. We found it rather amusing that when we tried to say "beurre" nobody could understand us, but saying "butter" in a ridiculous French accent (think Monty Python) people would reply "Ahh, butteur!" with nods of understanding.

French Baguettes - Provence

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