Friday 6th January 2006, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Yesterday was spent just sorting out after our travels. It is surprising how much laundry accumulates and when everything needs washing in a bucket in the shower it takes ages. Modestine too was filthy, inside and out, with melted snow and the aroma of dog pooh. She is still in need of a serious cleaning when it finally stops raining. She really is incorrigible.

The lovely weather we experienced at la Grande Motte was very localised. Here it has been cold, dark and wet since our return. Yesterday afternoon we went into Béziers to use the internet shop and buy Jill some more shoes. She is walking her way through them at an alarming rate! Having found a comfortable pair we told the shop assistant not to wrap them as they were needed for immediate use. Jill’s feet were soaking wet and icy cold from the puddles and piddles of the Béziers streets. We left the assistant the old ones to throw away with a warning not to accidentally sell them! We had the feeling she was relieved to see the last of us!

The footwear of the women in Ian’s life is costing him a fortune. Jill has worn through three pairs of shoes since leaving England and Modestine has worn her way through all four of her tyres! As we plan to move on from here permanently very soon for Spain, we have been checking Modestine over to ensure she is in a good roadworthy state and decided her tyres should be investigated. The man in the Citroen garage in St.Chinian scratched his head, ooh la la’d a bit and pronounced that she did not reach French legal requirements and new footwear all round would be required. So Modestine has an appointment to be re-shod on Monday. Because they are special tyres (special in this instance is a synonym for expensive) and we need all four done together he has promised us a 15% discount.

It was still grey, chilly and mizzling with rain as we took a lonely drive this afternoon through the misty hills and vineyards of the Minervois wine appellation. The towns and villages of southern France are generally rather rundown and dilapidated but the countryside of vineyards, olive trees and the garrigue of bare grey rock, red earth, wild herbs and stunted shrubs is enchanting. It is this we will remember most about our time here when we move on.

Back in Ambre we met Mme. J. our wine supplier who told us she had passed a disastrous Christmas in Tuscany which has been hit by enormous snowfalls for the first time in twenty years and they had been obliged to return home. Such a shame as it is the only time in the year the vines can be left unattended while they take a break. It might explain why we found the Camargue so full of Italians if they too were seeking dryer and warmer weather.

Making plans to move on we rang friends in Spain for a weather check. They live on the Mediterranean coast near Almeria. There it was 16 degrees today but it was raining for the first time for weeks. Our American friends in St. Chinian have already cut their losses here, hired a car and gone off to seek the sun in Spain for a while. Unfortunately this means we will be unlikely to see them again before we leave here. And leave here we must before long if we are to arrive back in Northern France in early March.

Saturday 7th January 2006, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
It has rained steadily throughout the night and rivers today are swollen, brown and flecked with white foam as they race through their rocky beds. So is the little one flowing down the village gutter and all night we can hear it gurgling its way along. Thinking positively however, after the constant rain Modestine was looking clean and shining outside the marie when we collected her this morning so we can put off that cleaning job for a while.

The morning was spent in St. Chinian’s médiathèque loading our travels onto the blogsite and catching up on emails. By lunch-time we were frozen through as the heating system hasn’t been sorted out yet from Christmas. Back in Ambre we fully expected to see Colin and Jenny back from their travels. They must be frozen through in this icy, clammy weather. There can be few things worse than cold wet coats and soggy shoes to dry out in a camping car. However, British campers are hardy creatures and as yet they have not returned.

Monday 9th January 2006, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
There is still no sign of our fellow house guests. We are beginning to think they have given up on France and returned to the warmer climate of southern England.

We were invited to Boubals yesterday by Christine and Mostyn. They felt that with such horrid wet cold weather here we might find it more enjoyable suffering together by their log fire with glasses of Noilly Prat. We turned off to Villemagne l’Argentière on the way up, to visit the monthly book fair held there. We had met one of the book sellers, Paul, previously at Boubals. An English teacher of French by profession he moved out here some years ago and has carved out a career teaching French to the many English residents who now live in the area. In addition he is experimenting with a long held desire to become a bookseller. Spending the day in an icy village hall selling second-hand books to the French struck us as a particularly masochistic pipe dream! Who amongst the local peasantry, we wondered, would be eager to purchase a copy of Teach yourself Turkish for example?

We browsed without success for a copy of Daudet’s Tartarin de Tarascon – our visit there has roused an interest to re-read the work. Instead though, we were pleased and amused to discover a book about Leamington Spa in French originally written in 1909. It is delightfully written and will make an excellent gift for our friends Peter and Kate from Leamington. As we will both be converging on Kate’s brother in Spain shortly we will not even need to carry it around with us for long!

Book fair at Villemagne l’Argentière

The rain fell ceaselessly all afternoon from leaden skies. It was most agreeable to pass such a miserable afternoon so pleasantly with Christine and Mostyn. Around 5 pm Ian and Mostyn returned to the book fair to help Paul pack away his stock, dismantle the tables and pack everything away in a cellar on the far side of the little town. To Christine and Jill the time they were absent seemed quite out of proportion to the work involved and despite their protestations we suspect they adjourned to the local bar with Paul to help him spend the meagre profits of a cold wet afternoon!

[Ian: Well, we did have a glass, or rather plastic beaker of wine in the hall, not the local bar, the residue of what was left from the cubi that had kept the three booksellers going during a slack rainy day in the remote village. One of the three, who was not as local as Paul and his colleague, had hardly taken enough in sales to cover her petrol costs. Paul’s colleague, who relies almost entirely on his fair business, had taken only 150 Euros all day and only had one more fair, in Montpellier, before the end of the month. There was rather despondent talk over the general stagnation of trade in this, the most depressed region of France, with the nation’s highest unemployment rate. Apparently even the village stores in Saint Gervais, remote from supermarkets, reported a decline in business.]

Paul stacks his books back in the cellar

We had been invited to spend the night, so the evening was delightfully relaxed with good company, wine and food. What more could one wish for?

This morning was as dismal as yesterday and has continued so all day. Modestine had her appointment to be re-shod in St.Chinian at 2pm so we left our hosts mid-morning, taking the valley route home, avoiding the steep twisting minor roads through the dark mountains of the Haut Languedoc National Park, wreathed in thick white swirling clouds.

Le val de l’ Orb on our route back to Ambre by the less scenic route!

Our mission to discover a bedside cupboard contemporary with the date of the house in Ambre has been ongoing for several weeks. Emmaüs proved inappropriate and it has been the wrong season for “vide greniers” and brocantes (car boot sales and curiosity shops). Passing through Bédarieux this morning we stopped to investigate a brocante which was actually open! His stock was better than we have seen anywhere and after lots of furniture moving to reach forgotten dusty corners, we eventually found something we hope will meet with the approval of the owners of our “home” for the past few weeks in Ambre. They’re now lumbered with it anyway as we do not intend lugging it around Spain with us! The more we look at it back in the house the more we like it.

Mission accomplished!

Modestine went off bravely to the garage workshop while we sat waiting anxiously. It was almost reminiscent of taking the kids to the dentist! She’s now got smart new tyres all round and we’ve got an empty wallet but an increased technical vocabulary. Having mastered how to ask for the tracking to be checked in French, we were told it would need rechecking after 1,000 kilometres. As we will be in Spain by then we are now wondering how to ask the same question in Spanish – which we do not speak!

What is there to do in the deserted French countryside of flooded vineyards on a cold wet Monday afternoon? Even the médiathèque in St. Chinian was shut today, so we returned to the house, turned on the kitchen fire, opened some wine and improved our French by reading up on Leamington Spa and Harry Potter à l’école des sorciers.

Tuesday 10th January 2006, St. Jean-Pla-de-Corts, Roussillon
We are very near the border with Spain here at the southern end of the Pyrenees. Having previously followed this mountain range along to the Pays Basque and the Bay of Biscay, we naturally wanted to complete the experience by doing likewise in Catalonia down to the Mediterranean before we finally leave southern France behind. Tonight we listened to the news on Modestine’s radio in Catalan and marvelled that it was possible to speak so quickly in any language, let alone one where they roll their Rs as roundly as a sumo wrestler does! (Think about it.) This area used to be part of Aragon and Catalan is commonly heard here as well as French. It also formed part of the kingdom of Majorca until 1344 when it returned to Aragon.

After the foul wet weather of the last few days it was a joy to experience blue skies and a milder temperature today. As we were planning to leave Ambre this morning for a final brief visit to the surrounding area, Colin and Jenny rang to say they were returning to the village today after several days around Avignon and Montpellier. We seem destined to keep missing each other. Maybe we will have returned before they move on back to England.

We followed pleasant country routes through little villages, skirting Narbonne, taking the coastal route around Perpignan. This route follows a dyke along between the sea and the huge Etang de Leucate with its oyster beds and fishing nets. At Canet Plage we stopped to find some lunch. The town is really a seasonal holiday station and everywhere was closed up but with lots of activity on the esplanade as new paving was laid ready for the coming season. The sandy beaches looked very pleasant with large breakers rolling in from a rough sea. The streets were regrettably filthy with no attempt either to control dog owners or remove offending deposts, so walking around continued to be as risky and as unpleasant an experience here as in most of the towns of southern France. The seafront was wide and pleasant with rows of date palms and bordered with bright, attractive holiday apartments and hotels.

Fishing nets in the Etang de Leucate

Knowing from experience that the casino would be the best place to solve all our problems we headed there, handed in our bag immediately to avoid a repetition of being searched as we were at Biarritz, and ordered coffee and a sandwich while we watched the town’s senior residents eagerly disposing of their pensions in the slot machines. We find it quite surprising to see just how popular casinos are in France and feel very ignorant as we watch the customers tottering from one machine to the next, confidently distributing the contents of their little pots of tokens quite undeterred if they win nothing.

We continued to Collioure, by-passing Perpignan along the dyke separating the smaller Etang de Canet from the sea. Collioure, nestling between the sea and the foothills of the Pyrenees, is a delightfully picturesque pink fishing village with a couple of little harbours and an enormous mediaeval castle on the water’s edge that was formerly the summer residence of the kings of Majorca. The climate seems generally quite mild. Certainly it was very agreeable today and the flowers growing outside the little houses on the steep, pedestrianised streets, implied a lack of frosts. There was even pink bougainvillea blooming.

The castle of the Kings of Majorca, Collioure

Pretty street in Collioure

We strolled along the harbour wall, skirting the castle and admiring the row of mediaeval loos suspended on the external wall of the church, immediately over the water of the harbour! Primitive but functional. The inside of the church however, was decorative rather than functional with a lavishly gilded baroque altarpiece in a heavy Spanish style.

The church with its row of loos and the harbour, Collioure

Collioure from the harbour showing castle, church and cloud topped hills behind

Near the harbour, Collioure

Modestine admires the scenery, Collioure

The town really is delightful, even in winter. During the summer it would be bright and animated with sandy beaches, sunny terraces and an excellent centre for exploring the beautiful coastline and the mountains behind. With its bright houses clustered around the harbours it struck us as France’s answer to Brixham but with more polish. It is, and always has been, a popular haunt for French painters and there are facsimiles of the paintings of Matisse displayed around the streets.

Ian tries an “artie” shot

Near the castle gates we came across the local boulodrome, crowded with locals playing or supporting several simultaneous matches. So crowded was the arena that one person got hit on the ankle by one of the solid metal balls from a neighbouring game and we heard some new words to add to our vocabulary!

Battle on the boulodrome

We would have liked to linger at this delightful seaside town but the nearest campsite listed in our book as open was a good 30 minutes drive away, so we headed inland through the dark hills of the Alberes, wrapped in wisps of white woolly clouds, to this pleasantly wooded site.

Wednesday 11th January 2006, St. Jean-Pla-de-Corts, Roussillon
We have returned this evening to the same site as last night. We had intended to explore Perpignan today but found so much else to divert us that we would not have done the town justice by the time we would have arrived.

We woke feeling decidedly chilly despite a couple of duvets. Outside the ground was white with frost and the foothills of the Pyrenees covered in snow. The half dozen donkeys in the campsite field were motionless and desolate as they waited patiently for their breakfast to thaw, their nostrils breathing out clouds of white fog. Presumably they had been outside all night!

The shower block is unheated and the water merely tepid so we both chickened out today. Once the sun rose, everywhere started to thaw and became horribly wet instead.

Last night we fell into conversation with an Englishman who lives in a mobile home on the site, having come out here eight years ago. He told us of several nearby places we should visit so this morning we made our way to the little town of Céret which proved to be delightful with lots going on - bars and cafes, little shops, large squares with huge shady plane trees that completely dwarf the surrounding colour-rendered houses. The town also has a huge but rather dilapidated church with many life-size plaster figures of saints and a massive painted ornate wood and plaster redos that, despite the amount of gold paint on it, has definitely seen better days. The main attraction though in the town is the museum of modern art with works by artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Pignon and others, attracted to Catalonia, and to Céret in particular.

Plane trees dwarf the town gates at Céret

Returning to the car we took yet another photo to add to our ever increasing collection of Ponts du Diable. The one at Céret was built in the 14th century and is quite spectacularly situated on high pillars across the river Tech. Unfortunately the residents of Céret appreciate it only as a place to walk their dogs so crossing it on foot becomes a singularly unpleasant and hazardous experience.

Pont du Diable, Céret

The sunshine was bright and warm and the surrounding countryside alluring with its snow clad hilltops, so we decided to continue to the prettily named spa town of Amélie-les-Bains where we parked overlooking the river near the remains of the old Roman bridge. It was so bright and sunny we picnicked beside Modestine and had to force ourselves not to just snooze there like lizards all afternoon.

The town turned out to be just as pretty as its name with steep streets leading up from the river to the spa complex at the top of the town. The lower town was full of 19th century hotels and guest houses and everywhere advertised rooms to rent for the season. There was the usual genteel atmosphere of a spa town with people strolling sedately through riverside gardens in the sunshine and the casino with its gambling tables, slot machines and restaurant.

The restored roman baths were closed for the season with workmen busy getting it ready for its Easter reopening, but what really fascinated us were the town’s lavoirs. We’ve mentioned lavoirs previously in our blog. They come in all shapes and sizes and are to be found in many French towns and villages. They are really communal areas for washing clothes, generally consisting of one or several large stone troughs with water running through. Here at Amélie-les-Bains, the water passing through whole series of troughs was hot and steaming, straight from its nearby source in the woods above the town! The lavoirs appear to still be in use and lines are even provided for drying! Except that it was not allowed and would have been too hot anyway, it would have been lovely to just soak in one of the huge sinks looking across to the snowy mountains and bright blue sky!

Open sided communal lavoir at Amélie-les-Bains

After that we kept noticing steam billowing up from drain pipes and even the public fountain had warm water! We went for a walk in the woods and discovered the original source at Mont Jolet where it came out steaming from the rocks. Unfortunately, the narrow gorge of Mondony we were also hoping to visit had been closed off because of dangerous rock falls, but we got the exercise climbing up to the entrance and some pretty views on the way down.

Pollarding plane trees at the entrance to les Gorges de Mondony, Amélie-les-Bains

The days are already slightly longer but it still gets dark and cold too early to do a great deal each day. It was 4.30pm by the time we rejoined Modestine. Exploring any of the twisting routes up through the mountains would take too long to complete before dusk, so instead we returned back to this campsite and went for a walk across the ford and along to the old village of St. Jean-Pla-de-Corts which seems reasonably lively for a place with just a few narrow streets of tightly packed houses. People were standing talking on the street, playing boules outside the mairie or busy painting their doors in the now freezing temperature of early evening. All greeted us cheerfully and several cats accompanied us around the cold gloomy alleyways and tiny squares. The village is built on a promontory with vegetable gardens below and views towards the dark silhouette of the mountains set against the last rosy glow of the evening. By the time we had returned to Modestine the sky had darkened, there was a bright full moon, a clear starry sky and iciness in the air that warns us we are certain to be chilly again tonight.

Thursday 12th January 2006, Le Barcarès, Roussillon
Last night was much as the previous one and we woke around 7.30 this morning feeling decidedly chilly around the edges of the duvet. Outside the fields were again white with frost but today, with our British sang-froid habituel (usual bloody English cold) we actually braved the showers and are now feeling both clean and self righteous! If cleanliness is next to godliness we are both exuding a glow of sanctity and soap! Believe us, that is quite something with a stone-tiled shower block and no heating in sub-zero temperatures!

The donkeys were there again as soon as the sun rose so we fed them our stale bread and became friends. They really are such gentle, long-suffering creatures. Actually, compared to the campsite where we find ourselves tonight, yesterday’s one was very nice with spotless facilities and very pleasant staff. The scenery too was second to none with wonderful vistas of the white peak of Canigou in the Pyrenées.

Donkeys’ breakfast

Around 10am this morning we arrived on the outskirts of Perpignan where we parked in a side street of very pleasant houses and walked into the town, skirting the massive red brick walls of the palace of the Kings of Majorca. This building is wonderful and we spent a couple of hours exploring the palace and gardens offering extensive views from the fortified walls and the roof, stretching from the Pyrenées to the Mediterranean. Now of course the castle is in France, but when it was built in the 13th century it was part of the short-lived Kingdom of Majorca. Wandering through the different rooms, seeing the style of architecture, the materials used and the furnishings, it felt as if we were already in Spain and it was almost a shock when we left to find ourselves back in the streets of France!

View of the palace from the gardens, Perpignan

Homage Tower and Palace moat, Perpignan

Palace chapel from the Homage Tower, Perpignan

Perpignan seen from the roof of the palace

14th century Virgin and Child in the palace chapel, Perpignan

Formerly all of this area was part of the kingdom of Aragon. It was divided up on the death of King James 1st in 1272 with his younger son receiving the Balearic Islands, Catalonia and the principality of Montpellier. Majorca became the administrative centre but the main residence of the kings was here at Perpignan in Catalona.

Perpignan is a very attractive, bright and lively town of orange, yellow and ochre colour-rendered houses with heavy pink roof tiles, historic administrative buildings in red brick decorated with stone or, in typical Spanish style, constructed in alternating rows of narrow red bricks and small, rounded boulders. The overall impression of the town is one of brightness and colour even on this January day. The weather though was pleasantly warm for walking without the slightest breeze. There was such a hint of spring in the air it felt as if winter must be drawing to a close though Ian accuses Jill of too much optimism here. In the 17th century the castle was heavily fortified for defence purposes against Spain. As usual throughout France these defences were designed by Vauban. Today the outer defences have been largely removed with smart streets of suburban houses built along their former course.

Queen’s courtyard, showing typical wall of alternating bricks and boulders, Perpignan

Reluctantly, for fear of seeming obsessed, we have to say that the streets are amongst the filthiest we have ever encountered, surpassing even Béziers in the quantity of squashed dogs’ mess smeared absolutely everywhere around the town. French dog owners are so irresponsible the authorities seem to have just given up trying to re-educate them or to remove this street hazard.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the old town and walking down to the railway station which is pleasant enough but remarkable only in being very ordinary despite being proclaimed “the centre of the world” by the visiting artist Salvador Dali.

Centre of the world, Perpignan

In the rose marble pedestrianised streets of the historic town centre we discovered the attractive 13th century façade of the town hall and its internal courtyard with a modern fountain by Aristide Maillol. Near the river stands the last remaining town gate, le Castillet, a huge structure in red brick dating from the end of the 14th century, later used as a prison and now as a museum of popular culture.

Sculpture by Maillol in town hall courtyard, Perpignan

Le Castillet, Perpignan

Perpignan’s cathedral was constructed from 1324 but it was not until 1601 that it was designated as the cathedral. Built in gothic style it is one vast single space inside with side altars. King Sancho of Majorca appears to he interred there. Certainly there is a monumental tomb there supporting a 20th century effigy of him in white marble.

The cathedral, Perpignan

We returned to Modestine through the grassless gardens of Bir-Hakeim, walkways shaded by massive plane trees, not very attractive at this time of year. Within them stands the very modern Palais de Congrès.

Leaving the town behind we headed down to the coast where we knew of an all year campsite at the summer resort of Le Barcarès. There was still time for a sunset stroll around the modern resort before dark but little of interest to see. As we arrived at this less than attractive campsite we were immediately welcomed by yet another self-exiled Brit anxious to make his fellow countrymen welcome in a foreign land. After asking if we had all we needed he invited us to his mobile home for coffee. However, kindly as it was meant, we did not really welcome hearing the story of how yet another Englishman came to be living here and made our excuses. Our hope has always been to mix with French people in France and to improve our understanding of its language and culture. This has not always proved to be as straightforward as we had imagined. Certainly we would never wish to live down here ourselves and we are becoming increasingly aware that many, though by no means all, British who have chosen to do so are frequently rather lonely, clinging together for companionship.

Friday 13th January 2006, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
This morning we decided to visit Quéribus, yet another of the mountain-top refuges of the Cathars. Although Montségur was the last major stronghold to fall, Quéribus lingered on for another eleven years until 1255, but the fate of its occupants is unclear. (See 21st November concerning Montségur)

We reached the castle, high in the Rempart du Languedoc, along minor valley roads that gradually wound up into the bare grey mountains. The cloud cover was low today and there were only occasional bursts of sunshine as we made our steep final approach up towards the castle welded to the rocky summit of the mountain.

Leaving Modestine down below we walked up the last couple of kilometres of the steep (17% gradient) road to the stony track that wound up to the castle through the low evergreen oaks covering the hillside. (Quéribus apparently means bushy rock.)

Nobody else seemed inclined to risk exposure up here on a January day in swirling mist so it was not surprising to find it was closed until the start of February. However, someone seemed to have forgotten to lock the gate so we had a really magic experience wandering around this eagle’s eyrie where the higher peaks of the mountaintops tore through the billowing white clouds to stand black and bare, or capped with snow against the sky. Swathes of cloud flowed up and over the castle walls and down over the ridge below. Visibility changed by the second and added a mystery of its own to an already magical location.

Queribus looms through the mist

Pique de Canigou showing above the clouds

The wind here was glacial and we were soon soaked by moisture from the clouds, but we both claim this to have been the most amazing and exciting castle we have ever visited. Much has been restored and we were able to wander through three different sets of fortifications and living accommodation. At the heart of the castle we discovered a stunning high vaulted room supported by one elaborate central column. A dark spiral staircase led from here up onto the catle roof, the highest possible point on the mountain.

Donjon of Queribus

Vaulted room in the castle of Queribus

View from the castle roof, Queribus

White speck to the right is Modestine waiting our return. Queribus

View from Queribus through a break in the clouds

Castle ruins, Queribus

Room with a view, Queribus

Quéribus stands at the northern limit of Catalonia and following its use as a Cathar retreat in 13th century, it was used as a garrisoned border fortress between France and Spain until the treaty of the Pyrenées in the 1650s. After that its military significance was lost and it became deserted, the haunt of brigands - including a female transvestite!

Soaked through with mist we eventually tore ourselves away from this atmospheric place and clambered back down to the road. On the way breaks in the cloud enabled us a few seconds for photos back up to this formidable stronghold, while in the valley a rainbow appeared over the little village of Cucugnan.

Queribus during a break in the clouds

Rainbow over Cucugnan

Rejoining Modestine we twisted our way down the unfenced road to this well kept little village of closely packed houses and narrow, stepped alleyways. It was made famous in Alphonse Daudet’s story Le Curé de Cucugnan - one of the tales in his Lettres de mon Moulin. The village now thrives on this, and its proximity to Quéribus, with guest houses, restaurants and even a little theatre, closed in January, which seems to present one work only – an adaptation of Daudet’s tale of the village priest who preached a sermon in the church, claiming he dreamt he had gone to Heaven and was horrified to find absolutely no names of people from Cucugnan in the directory of residents. We can’t recall the full story but it seems he had to face the fires of Hell to find them. This sermon apparently so impressed the villagers they never skipped a church service again!

Church at Cucugnan with Queribus on the skyline

From here we drove back across country to St. Chinian, deliberately choosing minor routes through deserted countryside of garrigue, mountain rivers, ravines and gorges. We arrived back in Ambre to find Colin and Jenny had left this morning on their way back to England so our paths never crossed again despite us all sharing the same house for the past three weeks!