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  • Day834

    Château de Quéribus, French Pyrenees

    September 17, 2019 in France ⋅ ☀️ 28 °C

    Along the parched and rocky outcrops of the Roussilon and Languedoc area of the French Pyrenees are dotted castles that were strongholds of the Cathars, an ultra-devout Christian sect who were persecuted during the 12th century and eventually crushed by the forces of Pope Innocent III (who obviously wasn't) during the Albigensian Crusade.

    As we approached our destination on the bike, we both looked up high to see a building that seemed to have literally grown out of the rocks. That couldn't be it, but it was and so we started up the twisty road. On a rocky perch at 728m, with 360° views towards Spain, France and the Mediterranean, Château de Quéribus was once a Catalan castle of Lords before becoming a French royal fortress. It all depended on who was in power at the time. It had nothing to do with Catharism, except that it was the site of their last stand in 1255, though it was first mentioned in the 11th century.

    You would think that it's location alone would be a good enough defence, but the entrance posed a real trap from any unwanted visitors. As well as three consecutive doors, lethal vents were incorporated on every side housing cannons and soldiers ready to pour hot oil. The King of France's engineers transformed the small castle into a fortress with two and later three sets of ramparts spread out on the ridge.

    The most impressive room is known as the "pillar room" with high vaulted ceilings where each set of four crossed arches meets at the point of the enormous central pillar, with the weight being distributed among them, making the structure near indestructible. How did they manage to build such a structure with none of the tools and technology that we have today.

    From there we ventured deeper into the Pyrenees riding through gorges, climbing high, twisty roads and almost got to Andorra before we turned right and continued our loop through small hamlets and fortified towns where we wondered what people did who lived there all year, especially in the depths of winter. They must be very hardy and self-sufficient.

    Our base at Latour-bas-Elne on the coast was a good jumping off point for exploring the mountains, pretty coastal towns like Collioure and a nostalgic return to Port Vendres that we had visited on our journey into the Mediterranean on the boat 12 years earlier.

    Having seen some of the Pyrenees from the French side, our next stop was to see them from the Spanish side.
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  • Day808

    Italy, Provence, Deb's visit & nudists

    August 22, 2019 in France ⋅ 🌙 26 °C

    We found the sun by heading south, past Milan and Turin, at the Italian seaside town of Albenga where Antonio and Maria-Grazie welcomed us at their agriturismo (private land with basic camping facilities). We explored the old town on foot and then further a field on the bike. We were the only Brits staying but the other Italian campers made us very welcome and invited us to join them for a Saturday night pizza party. We had a great few days, practised our Italian, we're given a bottle of local wine and a chilli plant and were then made a great offer by the owners to return for a month next year!

    From there we took the toll motorway, rather than the twisty coast road, across the French Riviera, and €70 later arrived in the Petit Luberon hills in Provence. At the end of August, the summer holidays were virtually over and the campsite had plenty of space and a lovely pool to cool down in. This part of France, just north of Aix-en-Provence is real Provence famous for its fields of lavender, wine and olives. We had the roads to ourselves as we circumnavigated Le Petit Luberon, riding through sleepy villages of terracotta tiled houses surrounded by grapevines dripping with bunches of grapes ready for harvesting. This was an area of France that we hadn't visited previously but one which we would return to. We couldn't stay longer as we had a rendezvous in Montpellier with Debra, one of Sandra's sisters, who was joining us for a week. So we headed to Palavas-les-Flot, as close as we could get to the airport.

    The next morning, we headed over to Charlemagne campsite in Marseillan Plage, our home for the following week. The site had every facility and a full entertainment programme that we made full use of including aqua gym, modern jazz dance lessons, archery, body strengthening (only Deb did this!), water slide, and nightly evening entertainment. The miles long sandy beach was just across the road and made for a great beach walk lapping the Mediterranean sea. We visited the market and bought olives, sausisson and wine, cooked al fresco and dined out locally all with lots of laughs. On the last day we took the train in to Montpellier from where Deb flew back to the UK and enjoyed a delicious lunch in the sunshine of a pretty square before we said our goodbyes for a while.

    A couple of days later Chris and I did the beach walk again but this time in the opposite direction. Within a couple of hundred metres, we noticed that there were a few nudists on the beach. A couple of hundred metres later and we realised that we were in the middle of, what we later found out was, the world's largest nudist colony! We weren't bothered but tried to act cool and nonchalant as we walked along the shoreline knowing that we had to do the whole thing in reverse. We saw every shape, size and age during our walk and Deb was very disappointed that when we were together, we had turned left instead of right on the beach, when we told her about it!
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  • Day783

    Jura mountains, France

    July 28, 2019 in France ⋅ 🌧 14 °C

    Decisions, decisions.... With a rendezvous planned in southern Switzerland with friends in 5 days time, we needed to decide whether to enter Switzerland from the north directly from Germany or to go into France and enter in the south via Lake Geneva. We chose to go via France and are so pleased that we did.

    Our destination was the municipal campsite at Vuillafans where we were welcomed by Béatrice, the manager, who had lived in the UK for 25 years and was very happy to have some English guests. The site was located directly on the river Loue, which cut a deep gorge through the valley, with pretty French cottages over-hanging the river where local fishermen were fly fishing for trout.

    During our time there we followed one of the many hiking and walking trails through the woods and along the river, as well as exploring the nearby villages and viewed the deep gorge from high on the motorbike.

    The area is famous for its cheeses and, whilst we didn't have the opportunity to visit a local fromagerie to see how it was made on this occasion, we were able to buy some Tomme, a nutty, semi-hard cheese, and Morbier, a semi-soft cheese with a black vein through its middle. Both were delicious. We shall definitely be coming back.
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  • Day779

    Cité de l'Automobile - Mulhouse

    July 24, 2019 in France ⋅ ☀️ 33 °C

    Just over the border into France, an hour from our base in the Black Forest, was a special car museum that Chris had been keen to visit for some time.

    The Cité de l'Automobile is a striking glass and steel building that is home to over 400 rare and classic vehicles. The origins of the collection goes back to when local wool merchants, the brothers Schlumpf, developed a passion for Bugatti cars. Over many years, this passion became a compulsive obsession, which resulted in the largest collection of classic Bugatti cars, under one roof, in the world. An extraordinary feature of this collection was that it was, despite its size, unknown outside of the family and the full-time mechanics and craftsmen that were employed to maintain and restore all the cars to full running order. It was only after their huge business collapsed in the 1970's, and they fled to Switzerland, that the collection was discovered to the amazement of car enthusiasts worldwide. The collection is now open to the public and has been expanded to include some of the earliest 'cars' dating from 1885 through to the latest Bugatti hypercar.

    We spent all day there listening to our audioguide as we wandered around but it wasn't long enough to take it all in and so we shall have to come back another time.
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  • Day146

    St. Jean de Luz - French Basque base

    October 29, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    In order to visit the French Basque region, we based ourselves at a campsite just outside St Jean de Luz, a few miles from the Spanish border.

    This beautiful seaside town has narrow streets, a lively harbour and large horseshoe-shaped bay with golden sand. The town grew up as a fishing port initially with large catches of sardine, anchovies and whales, but when well-to-do French, English and Spanish tourists started arriving in the late 19th century, it became a fashionable resort and tourism took over.

    We watched some local fishing boats netting large amounts of sea-grass, just off the beach. When the haul was landed, we asked them what they were going to do with it. It turns out that it was all off to Spain to be refined and used in many ways including in the production of cosmetics - not exactly what I had in mind for Crème de la Mer!

    The town's main claim to fame is that it is here that Louis XIV spent his final days of bachelorhood before marrying Maria Theresa. In addition, the composer Maurice Ravel was born in pretty Cibourne, just 2.5km west of the town. It is here too that the prominent fort was built in 1627 and later improved by Vauban before he then went off to assist Napoleon in his many battles.

    It proved to be a great base for exploring the area and one that we look forward to visiting again.

    NOTE
    Camping Itsas Mendi. 15 euros per night with ASCI card + 7=6 inc water, services, wifi. Set on hillside with large terraced pitches. On-site site shop with fresh bread and pastries. Great outdoor pool with water slide and indoor heated pool. Only downside was not enough hot water in the showers.
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  • Day146

    Fête du Piment

    October 29, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 13 °C

    Who would have thought that a small village in the foothills of the Pyrenees would be famous throughout France for its chilli pepper and hold a 2-day festival every year to celebrate the fact. The basque cuisine features chilli heavily in almost every dish from savoury to sweet and it is the chilli from Espelette which is the most famous. Luckily for us, this year's festival coincided with our time here and so we jumped on the bike and headed into the hills to find the village.

    Thanks to Christopher Columbus, the chilli pepper arrived from Mexico and in 1650, after realising that the growing conditions around Espelette were ideal (how they realised, we don't know!), every local farm was producing it and it became an essential part of every basque kitchen in the area.

    Today, this special chilli is the first and only spice in France accredited with an AOC-AOP (just like fine wines) acknowledging the strict controls governing its production. It is planted in the spring and then harvested between August and December, once it becomes bright red. It is then sold in different ways; as a string of 20 fresh chillies, as a puree in a jar to be used in the cooking process or dried traditionally on the front of buildings and then turned into a powder to sprinkle over a finished dish.

    We were told that visitors from all over France come to the festival and from the long line of traffic backed up into the village, they were right. Travelling on the bike made getting in and parking a breeze.

    Strolling around we realised that it wasn't only the chilli that was being celebrated, it seemed that every basque food speciality was too with stalls full of locally made basque cake, cured meats, cheeses, nougat, wine and the biggest barbecue we've ever seen! For lunch we tried a Taloak, which is similar to a Mexican tortilla, made by hand mixing corn and water before rolling out ( in our case the rolling pin used was an empty wine bottle) and then cooking on a flat, hot plate. Filled wine two types of sausages, onions and of course some chilli pepper, a simple hot-dog will never be the same!

    There followed a procession of bands and dignitaries with the Mayor announcing that next July the Tour de France will stop at Espelette for the first time, to great rounds of applause. Looks like two-wheelers are being welcomed to Espelette. We definitely were.
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  • Day144

    Bayonne - capital of French Basque

    October 27, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 17 °C

    Located between the Rivers Ardour and Nive, with its half-timbered buildings, riverside restaurants and old ramparts all bursting with history, Bayonne is one of France's prettiest cities.

    A strategic stronghold since medieval times, the city is split into three; St. Esprit to the north, Grand Bayonne, the oldest and prettiest part to the west and Petit Bayonne to the east. Visiting places by motorbike is a great way to travel as there are always lots of free spaces to park right in the centre of town. We left the bike under the 11th century Chateau Vieux (Old castle) and wandered around Grand and Petit Bayonne on foot.

    The narrow, rounded streets of half-timbered buildings were a delightful surprise. Being so close to Spain, we were expecting more of a Spanish influence and yet the city could have been plucked straight out of Alsace or Normandy. By contrast, the arches of the Town Hall, opened in 1842, were reminiscent of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris.

    A visit to the shop of Bayonne ham producer Pierre Ibaialde, gave us an insight into how this famous cured ham is produced. During a free guided tour we learnt the craft of salting, curing, de-boning and tasting too! Interestingly, Bayonne ham was never originally made in Bayonne! It got its name simply because the city was a major trading centre long ago and merchants would buy ham produced in the region from there. King Louis XVI greatly enjoyed the ham and promoted it further. Today, there are tight rules on its production in order to call it Bayonne ham. The next time you eat some in a matter of minutes, think about the 12 months it took to produce.

    Having bought some ham, we then paid a visit to one of the town's premium chocolatiers, Cazenave. It was the Spanish inquisition that led to Jewish chocolate-makers fleeing their Spanish homeland to settle in Bayonne. By 1870 the city boasted more chocolatiers than Switzerland, although now only a dozen remain.

    During a final wander around, we came upon a shop selling local beers and came out with a bottle of dark beer with a hint of the famous Espelette chilli pepper with the unlikely name of Bob's beer!

    We had a great day visiting this beautiful city and came away with lots of goodies to remind us of it too.
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  • Day141

    French Basque Country

    October 24, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 17 °C

    Nestled between the Bay of Biscay and the foothills of the Pyrenees, the French Basque country feels like a stepping stone between France and Spain.

    The locals are very proud and protective of their history and unique culture which includes a language - Euskara - unrelated to any other European language. Don't dare to call a Basque French or Spanish!

    Pelote Basque is a generic name for around 16 traditional Basque ball games that are still played today and every village has its own pelota court.

    Most Basque dishes seem to include Le Piment d'Espelette, a chilli pepper from the town of Espelette. The region is also known for its ham and chocolates from Bayonne.

    The main towns of the region are Biarritz, Bayonne and St. Jean-de-Luz, which will be our base whilst we explore
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