Lavender Roads from Villaneuve to Manosque

I left Villaneuve about 4pm, later then I planned. The lavender industry in Provence produces a nice map of good routes for seeing lavender fields and touring distilleries. GPS and I had trouble leaving the Avignon area, because the entry ramp to our route was under construction with no alternate route signage. After a long detour, I tricked GPS into finding a new route. Finally on our way, we come quickly to a town with a lavender museum. I know most tourist attractions in France close at 6pm, so I seize the opportunity to visit, in order not to miss learning about the lavender from Provence. The museum was a delight. The woman at the ticket counter spoke excellent English and gave a nice presentation on the difference between lavender and lavendine. Then I watched a short 20-min video that explained lavender farming and essential oil distilling. My English audio guide allowed me to listen, instead of having to read subtitles. The museum houses a collection of lavender stills from the 18th century to present. With 24 explanations on history and process, it takes a little over an hour to complete (including the movie). I buy a couple of items in the shop.

A little after 6pm, I am on my way again. Ignoring GPS, I consult my map to route through the little towns. I see lots of fields, but no lavender. After 40 minutes, I pull over to consult the map again. I am going the right way and am on the suggested road. I look up to pull back onto the 2-laner, and to my surprise, there is a lavender field on the right. I laugh at myself. I am early in the season, so the buds are small, hinting at the rich blue-purple they will become over the next six weeks.

Motoring on, I spot a field here and there, some untended. At the museum, I learned that synthetic scent production, creating lower priced products, has driven down demand for fine lavender oil. Is this the reason for the untended fields? In one village, I see signs for a “cherry” road and festival in July. I am reminded of cherry picking in Washington State during a summer vacation roadtrip during the 1980’s. My parents owned a 2-toned green Chevy Beauville van. We routed from central California up through Oregon, Washington and across Idaho, then back down through Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada. Our French exchange student, Nathalie, was with us. As few years older than me, at a time when the maturity differences are large (I think she was 17 and I was only 13), my younger sister and I did not connect with her. Her English was not great an no one in our family spoke French. She kept to herself, likely isolated by language. We didn’t keep in touch for mor than a few months after her visit. I do not even remember what part of France she lived in.

Lavender grows only in Provence (I failed to ask why) and only at altitudes of 800M or higher. As I traverse through the cherry town, I notice I am climbing. Maybe the more prolific fields are in the Alpes-de-Provence. I selected one of the larger towns on the map as my destination for the night, Forquelquier. Unlike the Languedoc-Roussillon region, where the towns nest on the banks of rivers, these towns perch on mountaintops. The road passes in the valley, a few kilometers from each town, I am tempted to turn off to see many of them, but I remain focused on my destination. I have to take my little Peugot back to Cannes by noon tomorrow. I expect the drive will be 2-3 hours..

Finally, in the rolling mountains, I reach the lavender farms, where the fields blanket the horizon. Other crops too, and of course grapes, but mostly lavender. I imagine the blue-purple color of the blooms. Blue gold, the locals called lavender, before synthetic production affected the lavender industry. Stills we’re hand made, built of expensive copper. Most farmers could not afford their own still. In some towns, the farmers pooled their money and bought a town still. The stills were small and pulled on carts by donkeys from field to field. Enterprising men built stills and rented their use to the farmers. The annual lavender harvest occurs in early August. During the rest of the year, the stills were rented to make fruit liqueurs.

I reach my destination, Forcalquier, and cruise the town for a hotel. The only two-star I see is not inviting. There are signs for others, but I don’t see them. GPS tells me they are 1-2 miles from town. I stop to inquire at the 2-star, it is full. I head back the way I came, to a 3-star I passed on the way in. They are full, the receptionist explains they have a wedding party and there are not many hotels in town, would I like them to call another. It is after 8pm, gratefully, I reply yes. It is also full. She asks if it would be ok to go to another town, Manosque, about 10 miles away, of course, I reply. She calls and then translates to me, they have a room for 90€, but the ceiling, she doesn’t know the word. She asks her colleague and gestures, I think she means high. I really don’t care, I just need a place to sleep. I tell her yes and she makes my reservation.

Do I want dinner at the hotel?

I am not sure, maybe I eat before I go.

When will I get there, the lady is waiting?

Do you have a phone?

Yes, a French phone, I pull it out of my pocket and give her the number.

The call concludes, she hands me a brochure and explains how to get there, it has a little map. I have GPS, I tell her. Assured with accommodation, I enter the address into GPS. Twelve miles, off we go. GPS turns me off onto an isolated 1-laner. My gas needle hits red and then
Iight comes on. GPS indicates 6 miles o go. I pass a sign reading “private forest”. The light wanes as we curve and climb. An intrusive message keeps popping up on the GPS, I think it is telling me to get gas. The forest is thick with small trees. I become anxious, what if I run out of gas? I am I even going the right way? I stop to check the address on the brochure. It is correct in the GPS, but the road is not what the receptionist at the other hotel described. I chastise myself for not buying gas earlier. At least I have my French phone, the phone number to the hotel, and the car rental emergency number. Cognitively, I know that I should be able to go 6 miles before the tank is empty. But my emotions scream, you are in a foreign country, this is a Peugot, climbing mountains uses more gass, conserve, don’t accelerate too hard. Finally we summit, there have not been any cars on the road since we turn off. I do not see signs of civilization. GPS says 2 miles, at every chance I get, I shift into neutral to save gas. Does this work for a diesel engine, I wonder? I know it works for my manual BMW at home. When I coast in neutral, Peugot picks up some speed, a car pops up , I brake and move to the side. After we pass the car, the trees thin a bit and I see rooftops. GPS says 1.2 miles. We ease into a residential area, I continue to wonder if GPS is right. There is no town or gates, as described to me by the woman at the other hotel. Skeptical, I finally come upon a sign forthe hotel. I turn in, greeted by signs of life in the restaurant, Relief, I am safe. The parking lot full, I follow the drive past reception, up around the back of the hotel and park.

20120609-204454.jpg

Advertisements

I became a pigeon lady today

Have you ever watched a pigeon eat spaghetti noodles? I fed some of mine to a pigeon in Nice. Pigeons are not smart, they are impulsive, reactive, yet demonstrate some evidence of decision making, per my observation. I threw crumbs from the breaking on my veal Milanese, which the pigeon gobbled up. I threw spaghetti and more crumbs. The pigeon went for a piece of spaghetti and slurped down with effort. OK, I thought, so pigeons eat spaghetti. The pigeon seemed to prefer the spaghetti to the crumbs, but not the effort to eat it. It would slurp a piece (looked a little painful) then spit it out. Tired of the spaghetti, it searched an ate all of the crumbs. After circling the spaghetti a few times, it started eating again. The pigeon grabs the spaghetti, tries to swallow it, and in closing its beak as it spits it out, manages to break into smaller pieces that it can swallow. Wouldn’t it just be easier to peck it into smaller pieces? Apparently not for the pigeon.

From Axat to Montpellier

I stayed in Axat in order to visit castle Puilaurens in the morning. Deemed one of the five sons of Carcasonnne, strategically located castles on the borders of France, Aragon and Spain battles over territory borders from the 11th century to the 17th century took place. The others in the 5 are Peyrepertuse and Queribus (visited yesterday), Termes and Aguilar.

I awaken to find misty clouds resting on the Pyrenees. The sky is grey, but not threatening rain. The air is cool, not cold. I turn through the village at the base of Puilaurens, met by another flowing river and a lumber mill. The forest of pines thickens as I proceed up the poorly maintained 1-lane road to the tiny carpark. Along the way, I pass a few hikers and note the signs indicating hiking paths of 25km.

I buy my ticket and start out. I feel more prepared for this climb, after my experiences the day before. I decide to create a video blog of the climb with my iPhone, which I will post after I get back to the States. The hike is comparable to Queribus and not as intense as Peyrepertuse. At the castle, I enjoy the panoramic views and wish the clouds would lift. Dense pine forests blanket the mountains here. Except for a single town I can see from the castle, the forests are without human intrusion. Again, I am reward for the efforts of my climb.

After buying a couple of post cards for the castle, because professional photographers do a much better job than my iPhone, I head to the toilet. I am not rewarded, as there are only 2 stand up stalls. Fortunately, my need is not urgent, so I refill my water bottle and pass on relieving myself.

With my GPS programmed for Montpellier, we make good time on a newly built, wide 2-lane road. I remember that I wanted to stop to see the Gorges de Galamus I read about. The GPS offers a handy “points of interest feature”. I quickly find the gorge, about 8 miles away. Up we go, past Queribus, Cucuignan and into the valley on the other side of Peyrepertuse. I enjoy seeing the castle from this perspective. My chest puffs out a little with accomplishment as I past the castles, because I hiked up them!

I am back on a 1-laner in honey and farm country. No mountains or gorge in sight. Eight miles becomes long on these windy turns, where a vehicle coming the opposite way coils pop out at any moment. My GPS has
Not failed me yet, but the topography here offers no suggestion of a gorge. On we go reaching a junction where I have a river on my right. A small wall is built up on the side of the road, common for these little rivers. A mountain roses on my left and I lose sight of the little river as it drops off beside me. The 1-laner narrows and I pass underneath an area carved out of the rock to accommodate the road, like a half tunnel, only carved, not built. I begin to pas people walking along side the road. As I survey the road ahead, I see more carved out rocks and people dot the walled riverside. As I approach another turn, walkers signal me that ther is oncoming traffic. I pull into a tiny turnout that barely fits my little Peugot. A van passes beside and behind me. I get out to view the gorge. Intensive winds hit me hard, I see other walkers struggling against the wind. I manage to make it to the wall and look over. “Incroiyable”, as the French might exclaim. I do not feel steady in the treacherous wind. I want to stay to visually take in my surroundings, but feel as though I am going to blow over the wall into the gorge. This would not be good. I revert to the safety of my car and wind along the road carve into the side of the rock. We share the road with the walkers and take turns yielding and passing with opposing traffic. Towards the end of the gorge, we pull into the carpark and attempt a view.

Spectacular, tremendous, unlike any other place! I think I expected a wide, Colorado style river where adventurous travelers would rafts through the rapids. I find a steep, deep, V-shaped ravine covered by small trees and scrub bushes growing out of every viable edifice of the rocky walls. It is too windy to hear the water. I enjoy the remarkable surprise of the gorge as long as I can manage the wind.

Back in the car, GPS wants us to turn around and drive back through the gorge. In retrospect, maybe I should have. But the intensity of the small road, pedestrians and opposing traffic put me off, so I choose the longer way to Montpellier.

We traverse little 1-laners and what I consider 1-1/2 laners. On the former a car needs to pull almost off the road to allow passage, on the latter, driving on the edge of the shoulder or a bit in the weeds proves sufficient. It is Sunday, the motorcyles are out in droves, tearing around the corners, episodically racing past me in both directions. Dropping into a valley, I pass two women hiking/ walking the road, with backpacks and walking poles. They appear to be in their 60s. A
Few miles on, we come across the castle Aguilar. I have time and can’t let this go by. It is another strategically important castle in the border wars and one of the 5 brothers. If you ski, then you know the “bunny” slope, for beginners. Bunny slopes seem practically flat to advanced skiers. Well, compared to its 3 brothers, it was a bunny slope, yielding similar pleasure without the pain. And unlike Queribus and Piularens, offered a comprehensive written English guide. A little disappointed at missing Termes, the fifth brother, I consider back-tracking. No, I decide, it is time to leave Languedoc-Roussillon for another region. I want to reach Montpellier before it is too late, we have a planned stop at the Abbey Fontfroid, and a few hours drive ahead of us.

What a find in Sommieres

I read some good reviews on Trip Advisor about the Hotel Estelou, an affordable hotel (2-star) that is an old converted train station. Previous travelers commented that the town is quaint with a nice river promenade and an old city area. At about 6:30p, I set my GPS and my Peugot and I are off. The GPS tells me we have a 35-min drive ahead of us. Until we get stuck behind a tractor for 5+ miles. Oh well, c’est la vie.

GPS tells me to “tournez a droit”, where my Peugot takes me across a lovely bridge spanning a flowing river, lined on the city side by mature eucalyptus trees shading a wide promenade. I drive a long, envying the diners at the tables by the river, soon, I wi be one of them.

GPS is not familiar with the hotel I am seeking, so I have her direct us to another one. We find it at the bend in the road, sitting riverside. I park and walk to the gate, the posted rate is 130€, more than I want to pay. I ring the bell at the adjacent place, with no response.

As I walk back to the car, I spy a sign for the Hotel Estelou. I jump into the Peugot and we motor up the hill to the old train station. The parking lot is mostly vacant and the gates are closed and locked. I press the buzzer, no response. I walk around the other side, which is obviously not the entrance. OH, WAIT, I have. French phone, so I call the number on the sign. I get a message, first in French, then in English that the number is disconnected. I am not surprised, as their website contained no information on the property or room rates and the “booking.com” search came up negative.

Now, what to do?!?!? There is one other hotel in town, L’Orange. GPS asks me to take some illegal turns, I take the most intuitive legal turns. Together, we ascend a tiny steep street that leads us to the hotel. There is no where to park, unless I block vehicles in their tiny carpark. If I park behind them, the space is so small, I fear I cannot maneuver Peugot back out. I don’t have a choice, there is no other place to park Peugot. My desire to secure a place to sleep takes priority. I pull into the lot. I find the pedestrian gate locked, so I press the buzzer (it is after 7.30p after all. In my mentally practiced French I ask “avez vous une chambre pour ce soir” A man responds and buzzes me in. I carefully close the gate and walk down through the small elegant courtyard and he greets me at the door. I ask if he has a room for the night. He responds that he could not understand me on the intercom, and sorry, no the hotel is full.

Back to my Peugot I go, with great machinations, we realize we can’t turn around, so we back through the small gate into the tiny street. Then head back down the hill to Hotel Auberge du Pont Romain and pull into their spacious carpark. Inside, there is no one at reception, so I ring the bell and wait; ring it again and wait; ring it more vigorously and multiple times and wait. While I wait, I am eased to learn that 130€ is their most expensive room, they have others for 80€ and 94€. A man walks in and rings the bell, we wait. I call the hotel number with my French cell phone, the phone on the other side of the desk begins to ring. Then rings, rings, and rings. It’s annoying me, shouldn’t I be annoying someone who works here? Finally, a woman emerges from the restaurant area and begins to help me. She searches her information then tells me she has a room for 130€. After a pause in rapid French, she says she has a village room for 94€. I don’t understand her, it takes me time to hear and translate, if I can catch the words.

It happens this way every time, I manage to ask for a room for one person for one night in French adequately enough that they fire machine gun French back at me. I tell her I speak English and she try’s to find the words for 94. My translation kicks in, realizing she said village room, which is posted on their card for 94. I point to it and indicate yes, I will take it. I learned it is easier for them to copy my name from my Visa then for them to understand my name or my attempt to spell it. I hand her my Visa as the phone rings, and I wait. Another woman emerges from the restaurant and offers to help me, I indicate I am being helped, so she moves on to the man. He has a reservation, and may even be a regular, she hands him his key and he is on his way.

Off the phone, she finishes my registration. Then asks that I follow her so she can show me the room. She shows me the after hours entrance and how to use my key and the code if I come in late. We turn and I exclaim “oh you have a lift”. She replies, yes if you want. She pushes the button, and we wait. The door opens, I step in, she reaches in and presses the button for the 1st floor and then steps out to take the stairs. At the top of the stairs, she waits. How embarrassing! I only commented on the lift because it meant I would not have to hump my bag up the stairs, not because I want to take it. As the door opens, I try to explain to her that my suitcase is very large.

The room is delightful, vaulted ceilings, tall shuttered windows, with a view od the river and the castle tower. Appointed with two French wooden carved twin beds, low to the floor, a small table and veneer antique vanity. I learn later that the hotel is a converted silk manufacturing mill. I love it.

Settled in for another night, my next order of business, dinner at a riverside cafe.

20120605-231430.jpg

Starting with the Abbye de Lagrasse, I hit 5 castles and 2 abbeys in 2 days

I set out from Carcassonne 2 days ago to check out castles and abbeys. There are so many castles and abbeys in the south of France, I am overwhelmed. My “Passeport des Sites du Pays Cathare” contains more than 20. I missed hiking the 4 castle ruins in Lastours because it was a scorching 100+ degrees and I decided not to die of a heart attack, dehydration or heat exhaustion on the 2-hour hike with no shade. I missed the abbey St. Hilarie because I missed some of the road signs and decided to head over to Lagrasse. I was rewarded by a stately abbey set in a valley adjacent to a well preserved medieval town, Lagrasse. Fortunate to also secure lodging in an 8-room hotel, I think the only I town, I planned to visit the abbey upon opening in the morning.

At around 9:40am I leave the hotel to walk across the river bridge from the town to the abbey. The proprietress of the hotel directs me and it is market day, so seeing the market is a bonus. To get to the abbey, I passed through the small town market and walked over an old cobblestone pedestrian bridge. I arrived shortlly before the abbey opened at 10am, so I explored the adjacent cemetery. Similar to the cemetery adjacent to the old city in Carcassonne, and others I passed in the small towns, the most prominent graves are large marble mosoleum crypt like structures. The graves are well tended, a lady tended a few while I was there. They are FAMILIE crypts, often with multiple surnames and varying commemorative plaques, some dating back 200 years, others with photographs.

The Abbye de Lagrasse offered a pamphlet in English and English on some of the placards, but no audio tour. I enjoyed seeing the kitchen/ bakery with an engineering system to flow water through it. The bishops chapel, and the ceremony room were impressive, if only to see them in their heyday with frescoes and tiling fresh and intact. The church is in complete disarray as part of a restoration project.

The sun promised heat like yesterday, and had prepared for it. Slathered in SPF and with a cool tank top on, I felt confident and fulfilled as I walked back across to the bridge to the hotel to gather my belongings. On my way out, I asked the proprietress for recommendations on where to go and which castles to see. She recommended Peypertruse and Queribus, as some of the most important castles.

With the car loaded, I look on the map for the nearest adjacent town to these castles and program it into the GPS. Our team, my little Peugot, my GPS and I are hard at work again. HiHo!

Do you com back for more?

Apparently, I do. The castles and abbeys are generally open from 10a to 6 or 7p. Generally, it takes about 1-hr, sometimes more, to tour a castle or abbey. Which meant, if I wanted to see (hike) Queribus castle, I needed to hustle. I left castle Peyrepertuse just before 5pm, Queribus is only a dozen kilometers away (on windy 1-1/2 lane roads). I pull into the car park for Queribus around 5:15p. The blustery wind chills me as I get out of the car. The clouds still threaten a storm at any moment. But I want to do this, I think for the bragging rights, because I can, and to say I did. Similar to Peyrepertuse, Queribus is intimidating, perched high atop a mountain, I feel as though I strain my neck just to look at it from here.

The woman at the shop next to the ticket office is closing up, yet the castle park is scheduled to be open until 7. I ask the clerk how long it will take to get to the castle. She says 15 mins and about an hour to tour the whole thing (at least I think that’s what she said). Determined to go for it, despite my conservative conscience questioning my judgement, I present my Passeport des Sites du Pays Cathare (a tourist discount card) and buy my ticket. I ask for the English audio guide. She says there is none. Then she tells me that if the storm starts, do not stay in the castle, it is dangerous, come down. What does she portend!

I go to the car and grab my Monaco Grand Prix souvenir sweatshirt, the only warm piece of clothing I have on the trip, and my Brita water bottle with the intact filter (a cost containment measure to avoid spending beau coup Euros on bottles of water. I zip myself up and approach the daunting climb. As I begin, I ask myself, why am I doing this? Is it a good idea? If I turn around now, will she five me my money back? C’mon, I say to myself, you climbed Mt. Vesuvius last year. Certainly you can summit this castle! This is the plan, you have to execute the plan. Why? I ask. I am no mountainside goat, as I pick my way carefully up the rocky path. I don’t get far before the sweatshirt comes off, it is making me hot as I exert myself.

I reach the stairs, from Peyrepertuse, I learned, each castle climb presents a second phase, the stairs to reach the entry. I am comforted by the wall separating me from falling off the mountain, a luxury I did not enjoy at Peyrepertuse. I use the wall and the ropes provided to stabilize myself. One of the few principles I know of hiking and climbing is the 3-points of contact rule.

Finally, the castle. There are 2 men in the courtyard when I enter. The vistas are spectacular, even in the hazy low light. My pictures do not do the experience justice. I move through the areas I presume to be the living quarters, courtyard and approach the more important structures. I climb a few short stairs to the chapel and yelp in shock as I peer inside. A man stands in front of me, peering up at the gothic style ceiling. I am not a ghost, he says in English, with and English accent. I apologize for being startled, I did not expect anyone to be in here. We chat idly about living in the castle and he too wants to be sure I know there could be a storm. I move on. our paths cross again a couple of times as we make our way through the castle. I greet him near the castle entrance, as I begin to make my way down to the carpark. The two men are about 1/3 of the way down the path ahead of me. I see their car pull away as I approach the ticket office. As I approach my card, I feel accomplished, this visit was well worth the climb.

Now I have a choice to make, do I proceed to Axat as planned, to climb the castle Puilaurens? It is further south and east, pushing the distance away from Cannes, where I will return my little Peugot. I want to and I planned this as my overnight, so I press on. I had hoped to make the Puilarens climb tonight, but the castle will be closed, too late in the day.

After about a 35 minute drive of mixed two land and smaller 1 1/2 lane roads, I reach the town at the base of Puilarens and see the castle up on the hillside. There are many signs for hotels, I could stop here….but Axat looks large on the map, so maybe I can get a Bette price, and it is only a few kilometers more. I continue on to find Axat is a very small town on the river with 2 hotels/ chambers and 1 hotel restaurant and 1 bar/ snack bar restaurant. The main road, like most others in the small towns in France, sits atop the riverbed. I cruise the street and decide to inquire first at the Echappee hotel. This town is too small to have a carpark, so I park along the road, like many of the other vehicles. As I approach the door, the proprietor sees me, by happenstance, as I think she was locking up. I ask in my mentally practiced French for une chambre pour ce soir (one room for tonight). She responds, do you speak English with joy in her voice. She shows me the room, and I agree to the 50€ price. This was an easy yes, as the room is bar far the largest, with the largest bathroom and most appealing bed and pillows I have seen since I have been in France. She gives me the key, we agree to settle the bill in the morning; she tells me my car is safe and legal where I’ve parked it; and I shuffle my belongings around, hump in one bag, leaving everything else in the boot and I am settled for the night.

Final agenda, food. The hikes drained my energy, so I decide to forego the one proper restaurant in town, the bar with the testosterone imbalance does not appeal to me or feel safe, so I take refuge in the town market shop that is surprisingly still open for a few minutes. I buy some food and drink to supplement my half of a 4 cheese panini left over from lunch. As well as a special find- rice cakes. Not because I am a lover of rice cakes, but because I cannot find salty style crackers to eat with my peanut butter. I have looked in 3 supermarkets through the cookie and cracker aisles. They are full with cookie style biscuits. I sometimes find melba toasts. When I do find salty crackers they have unusual herbed favors that would not go with peanut butter. After 3 weeks, of “panning” these ricecakes are my gold nugget in the Yukon.

Back in my hotel room, I open the window, listen to the rush of the river gurgling by and gaze up at the lush green, tree covered Pyrenees. What a pleasure.

Victory Lap – Monaco Grand Prix

My fellow race fans and I wait eagerly as the cars come out of the tunnel and race before us. The cars pass in a flash and maneuver the S curve, hugging the wall on the right, then crossing to the left, buzzing loudly when they hit the red and white striped section depicting the edge. The more laps they complete, the more their path etches rubber tracks onto the pavement of the road that usually carries buses, cars and motorscooters.

I watch the TV screen and as the laps countdown to single digits, the fans become more enthusiastic, cheering loudly and swing towels in the air as their favorite driver passes by. Each lap, the drivers become more intense and aggressive on the curves. The announcers become more animated, building towards a crescendo. When it happens, and the race is called, the crowds go crazy, the yachts honk their horns incessantly. The race goers are fulfilled.

All of the cars take a victory lap, to the applause of the race goers, the horns of the yachts and other noisemakers, and flashing cameras everywhere, next to me and dotting the hillside.

After the victory lap, the rain starts while the grandstand viewers file out. The space is small and we push like cattle through a slew. The lines for the toilets are long. We move slowly on to stairs and a scaffold staircase takes us up to the street. I manage to open my umbrella and protect myself. It is really pouring. I am cold and have decided to buy a sweatshirt. Some of the sweatshirts and jackets are 120€ or more. I don’t want to spend that much. I walk all of the stands, despite the rain and crowds and settle on a lower priced zip-up hoodie. I put it on, glad for the warmth and make my way towards the train station entrance by grandstand K. The crowds are insane, packed and standing at the little street, not moving. It reminds me of summer festival in Barcelona, where I stood and was pushed, the crowd becoming a collective organism, moving and flowing, for 45 mins as 3 trains passed by before I could board the 4th. NO THANK YOU!

I turned on my heel and walked the streets in search of a place to sit and eat. And use the toilet. Everything was full because if the rain. My need to go to the toilet intensified every time the next restaurant was full. I don’t care for public toilets and the lines for those were super long. Finally, I come across a bar / restaurant and make my way into the bar and to the toilet without being stopped. After waiting a while in a tiny, overcrowded unisex sink space, I enter the stall and am relieved. Upon exit the bar is crazy crowded and there are no tables for dining, so I make my way out, grateful for the free toilet.

I wander through the streets up hills, weaving through my fellow race goers. I see signs for another train station entrance and follow them. This one is impacted too, although not as badly. The police are letting people in in waves. I decide to grab a beer and not wait in the density of the crowd. There is plenty of time to get back to Cannes and change for the showing if Therese Desqueyroux, the closing film of the festival.

Staircase of Trepidation

I feel like I rode a death defying emotional roller-coaster today.

On the advice of the proprietor of the Hostellerie des Corbieres, I set out to visit Castle Peyrepertuse and Castle Queribus, two strategically important castles from the 10th century to the 17th century, when the Treaty of Pyrenees was signed (1659), ending the
regional war between France and Spain on the borders in the region. She advised me the drive would be about 45 minutes.

I choose Peyrepertuse first, awed at its imposing facade on the mountain top. Yes, mountain top. The drive up is 3km. I stop at a cafe on the way and enjoy half of a 4-cheese pannini, saving the rest for later. My Peugot and I twist and turn up the road to the carpark, which is well below the castle. I buy my ticket and audio guide and am told it is a 15-min hike up to the castle. Not bad, especially as the path is shaded in most areas by trees and brush. I am rewarded by a light cloud cover as well, so it is not the scorching 38C/100F of
yesterday in Lastours.

I start into the scrub brush with mixed emotions. Excitement in reaching and important mountain top castle and anxiety in wondering how I am supposed to get from where I am to where the castle is. It looks far, the path is narrow, and the sides of the mountain descend vertically. Better to ski you with, my friend.

If you know me personally, you may not believe this, but I do have a fear of heights, sometimes feeling vertigo in high places. I feel it on my balcony sometimes (29th floor of a high rise condo), often at the edge of a steep black diamond ski slope, and in this case, on a path where see only the cliff edge of the path. Poor footing or a slip
and who knows where I might land. Up and down on the rocky path, periodically, steep slippery stairs to the final and more steep stair stepped approach to the entrance.

The audio guide is a dramatization of a visitor to the castle sent to document and take inventory for a king. I appreciate that he huffs and puffs just like the rest of us. Feeling accomplished, flushed and sweating, I speak in my poor French to a lady looking at the castle map, that I have done it. With an empathetic, knowing look, she indicates there is more.

I move through the castle as quickly as possible, as it is thundering and the sky threatens rain, with a few drops reminding me a downpour could come at any moment. I exit the castle after a look at the chapel and cistern, and look up another steep slope to the second castle site. I move along to past the building for storing food and other
supplies, round the bend in the path and am met by the Stairs of Saint
Louis, built in 1242 on the order of the king of France after he formally took possession of the castle. The steep white stone stairs both intimidate and challenge me. I made it this far, I have to finish, reach the top, right? The only border to the cliffside is a thick rope strung through iron postings. There is a rope affixed to the stone on the rock side as well.

I have to do this. I am going to do this. I pick my way carefully up the staircase, hugging the rockside and drawing security from my light grip on the rope. The stairs, of course, are uneven and worn, not easy to traverse. At the turn in the staircase, about 2/3 of the way up, I move a few steps up the turn and lean against a large rock to rest. I am having a vertigo moment and maybe a mini panic attack, feeling paralyzed that I cannot go up or down. What if I can’t get down off this mountain? Unnerved, I know my only option is to seize control and continue on. A thick, solid stone wall now protects me from the
cliff and I feel safe again. Thunder cracks and I wonder when the rain might come.

I move quickly through this castle as well, punching the numbers into the audio guide before I reach the signs for them. The vista views are rewarding, but my vertigo cautions me at every step, though I am surrounded by thick stone walls. I return to the the top of the St. Louis stairs.

The decent before the turn is no problem. I reach the same point
before the turn and again feel paralyzed. I do not think I can go
down. I cannot find a way to get to the ropes to feel secure. I stand helplessly. An older French couple, probably in their 60’s begins to defend the stairs. He proceeds with confidence and she with caution, calling “attend, attend” or “wait, wait”. He coaches her down and she does fine. This couple is my ticket out, I can follow them, particularly her path as he coaches her, and I will be ok. Feeling relief and confidence, I fall in behind them.

Going down may be easier than going up from a cardiovascular perspective, but not from a safety point of view I remain cautious. Slipping on gravel or a misstep on a rock could have treacherous results. The fear of heights and lurching put in my stomach are
completely gone, I do. It know why, but am glad for it.

We, the visitors, are lucky the storm has not come. The sprinkles increase, but they are only sprinkles. As I near the exit, I find myself climbing up a couple of grades and sets of stairs. Not fair, I
think, it should all be downhill after the intensity of getting up. Finally, I reach the final downturn and the exit. It is 4:30. I buy a couple of postcards, including one of the St. Louis stairs. They don’t look quite as steep and dangerous in the photo.

Next destination, Queribus castle, only a dozen kilometers away.

20120603-003159.jpg

It has to come out somewhere

I had thought to leave Carcassonne by 9:30am, but couldn’t quite get moving. I left the hotel around to 10:30 deciding to change my plan for the day. I started with the castle tour in Carcassonne, as it was not part of my tours yesterday. I’m glad I did, the views are beautiful. I find the daily life and the efforts for defense interesting, like the portcullises, murder holes and other tricks they used to trap their enemies.

I left around 12:15 and set the GPS to Aragon. I couldn’t sort out a place to park the car, so I drove through tiny streets of the town and looked around and proceeded to my next destination, Lastours, with 4 castles on the hillside. The drive through the countryside is beautiful, sometimes on tiny 1 lane roads, there are few other vehicles, so it is not a problem. Sitting at the only restaurant in the tiny town, overlooking a rushing creek, I contemplate the 2 hour hike. The sun is hot and my arms are pink from yesterday. Will another application of sunscreen be enough? The lady next to me in the carpark was wearing long sleeves and carrying an umbrella. If only I had not lost my umbrella the last night in Cannes.

I drank the whole big pitcher of water they served me, as I tried to hydrate and psyche myself up for the hike. I really want to do it, it’s just so darned hot. And my skin has not recovered from yesterday, despite multiple applications of SPF 55. The lady with the umbrella did not make it far, she waits for her husband in the tourist office. I elect not to hike.

Back in the car, I enter my next destination, Limoux. A town in France famous for its blanquette sparkling wine made from a grape grown exclusively in Limoux. As I set the GPS, I note it is 38 degrees Celsius. In my converter, later, I learn this is 100F. Good decision not to hike.

In Limoux, I face the same parking challenge. I drive through the main square and see their market packing up. It is after 3pm. After a couple of turns through the streets, I decide to find wineries to fast the blanquette. The first one I find is a family winery, after waiting a few minutes in the small tasting room, a woman appears. She does not speak English. I taste a Sparkling blanquette and a sparkling rose. She is a sourpuss, as if I am an imposition, I think she wants to close. I buy a bottle of the blanquette for 8.10€. It is not fun for me to taste wine if I cannot ask questions and educate myself. Off again, I spot another much large commercial looking tasting room and stop off there. I am rewarded with clean toilets, ah, sweet relief after my pitcher of water at lunch. I enter the show room and the woman behind the counter emerges with a tote bag and a duffle bag, both pink. She hands them across the counter to 2 girls, probably 14-15 years old. They say their goodbyes and I wonder if this is mother or grandmother. When they leave, I ask if I can taste and does she speak English. Yes to the first and no to the second. We communicate as best we can, she is helpful and accommodating. This wine tasting thing is not going to work if it is me tasting and them staring at me without conversation. I buy another bottle of blanquette for 10€ and leave.

I head toward the Abbey St Honorie. After a couple of roundabouts the roads get smaller and I am entering more rural grape farming area. I see some signs for tasting rooms, but do not want more staring and waiting, so I motor on. The vineyards end and now I am driving through rural hills, the only evidence of man is the road and an occasional gravel off road. The grass beside the road is quite high, I decide the cost and feasibility of mowing it is prohibitive. With St Honarie no where in sight on the GPS and the signs long gone, I program the GPS for Lagrasse. It should take about an hour.

While I would not designate it white knuckle driving, I spend the majority of the next hour on an overgrown one lane road circling up and down these small mountains. I think of the Grand Prix drivers taking the corners with confidence and commitment, while I wonder if I will meet another car head on. My little Peugot did a better job handling the corners than you might think. We didn’t get beyond 3rd gear for most of the trip (there are 6 gears). When I had a reasonable line of sight, I gunned it, we lurched, and hit 4th gear for a few moments.

Driving by myself through uninhabited countryside, many thoughts run through my mind.

-the road has to let out at civilization somewhere

-if I end up off in the ditch on the side of the road, will I ever be found? Wait! I have my French cell phone, I can use that. Oh no! I did not charge the battery and it is low. I can use my iPhone. If I call my mom, what could she do to help me? Can I even explain to her where I am? Oh, the GPS shows the road number and coordinates. Who would she call? Oh, I could call the emergency number for the rental company. Better choice. Glad I worked that out

-why did they stop here? Most of the houses and towns are river or creek side

-do they live off the land? Where do they go for groceries and other necessaries? Into the big cities? Or to the town markets?

-how can I make a business out of importing blanquette to the States? What hasn’t anyone done this already?

I miss the abbey St Honoraie for the same parking reason. Plus, the heat continues to deter me from getting out of the car. I can see plenty through the windows while I enjoy my air-conditioning.

As I enter Lagrasse, I fear I am not in the city I intended to be. Did I spell it wrong? It is so tiny, one main street and seemingly only 1 hotel. As I pass out of town I am greatly rewarded with a vision of a grand abbey surrounded by well groomed grounds across the river. This must be why Lagrasse was recommended to me. I park and walk a bit, I can’t find the passage to the abbey. And I know it is likely closed after 6p. I walk down and inquire about a room at the hotel. No problem. I go back to the car, sort the luggage and manage to get my second case into the boot with the bike. This is huge and critical, as I have to leave the car in a public lot. The hotel fits almost all my requirements- free wifi, ensuite shower/ bathroom, short flight of stairs but no air-conditioning. I open the window and turn on the ceiling fan. Hopefully, it is cooled down and the air is well circulated when I get back. I forego the 8€ breakfast, what do you want to bet, this will be a good spread.

Settled, I make my way to dinner.

Can’t go without sushi

After living in Los Angeles, where every block contains a Starbucks, nail salon and sushi restaurant, transitioning to sushi in Atlanta presented a challenge. Could I find fresh sushi? The same variety and quality I have become accustomed to? The answer is NO. Demand is higher in LA, so quality and value pricing follow. I have a few theories about the multi-factorial explanation for why Atlanta does not have good sushi.

– For most Atlanta residents, the idea of eating raw fish is strange and off-putting, much like it was for me until I was well into my 30’s
– For many of those who to eat it, sushi is an exotic dining experience, reserved for special occasions
– Most Atlanta diners, like most Americans, eat little beyond spicy tuna rolls, California rolls, etc. -this reminds me of eating Chinese food when I was a child in the 1970’s. My family would go once or twice a year, tops. My dad would always order the sweet and sour pork. I had no idea there was more to Chinese food than sweet and sour pork until my 20’s, when a friend of Chinese heritage introduced me to the real thing.
-Atlanta is inland and not an area commonly settled by any immigrants. Unlike the west coast, the Asian population there is small.

As a result of my Atlanta experience, I vowed to avoid sushi in France, since a posted menu tells one little about the freshness and quality of the fish (ironically no different from Atlanta or anywhere else). Last week, I passed a sushi shop, my cravings drawing me in. I should have been reassured by their advertising of the secure, temperature monitoring process for their fish. This left me feeling their sushi was manufactured centrally and shipped pre-made. I decided it was not to my taste and re-committed myself to avoid sushi in France.

After 2 weeks in France, I hit the breaking point. Still in Cannes at the time, I convince myself it is worth a try. And I am tired of bread and cheese. I go in and see that they are running the traditional Japanese “fast food” style sushi where the sushi dishes rotate on a lite conveyor belt, like luggage at the airport, and you take what you want and are charged by the plate. In a sushi bar in Japan, the diners eat it faster than the chefs can plate it, which is not the case here. No one wants to eat sushi that has ridden the belt for too long. It is kind of like old tuna salad that starts to crust from sitting out to long, except with sushi you cannot see the crust.

I decide to sit at a table outside, as in American restaurants, ordering from the menu means the chefs prepare it for you upon order. As expected, the menu offers only a few expected options tuna, salmon, and very basic rolls. I am not a roll eater anyway. I order miso soup off the bat and enjoy it so much, I almost order another one. I order 1 order of tuna sushi, so I can sample the tuna and decide for myself the quality and freshness before I go further. It is deep red, which I prefer to the lighter pink. A special treat is the way the wasabi is served. It is in a little jar with a tiny spoon. It is not the low end commercial paste that comes in tubes and is used in the States, rather it seems to be a fresher grated wasabi. I can only compare it to jar “cooked” salsa (the paste tube kind” to fresh salsa – what is served here. While it is not pure grated wasabi, whatever it is, I enjoyed it immensely.

I finish my meal by ordering tuna sashimi (now that it passed my test) and a bowl of rice. Satiated, I enjoyed my meal and relish in my good luck in finding fresh, decent quality sushi.

When I return to Atlanta, I plan to splurge at my two favorite sushi restaurant that meet the LA grade.

1-Tomo Sushi in the 3630 building on Peachtree St in Buckhead. Very pricey but AMAZING. Tomo was a chef at Nobu Las Vegas before opening his restaurant in Atlanta. I believe this is his second restaurant, but am not sure.

2-Taka Sushi and Passion on Pharr Rd in Buckhead. Taka has great relationships with fish buyers in the Tokyo market and blogs when he has something special coming in. His carpaccio appetizers delectably marry the flavors in the Japanese citrus and soy sauces to the fish. This is creative sushi at its best.

Can I make it the last 2 weeks of my trip without sushi? I am not sure. I know I will eat it daily when I get home.