En France; Week 1

DSC01444All the convenience of getting to France, without the pain in the arse of the 3 hour motorway trip from Dublin. That could be a tag line for Cork tourism and a slogan for Brittany Ferries all in one. Now somewhat freshly married, it was finally time to set off for three whole weeks, touring around the cities & countryside of France on a shiny and almost new motorbike that I somehow managed to sneak into the deal. The first view is, naturally, of Cobh. Or Cob-H as it’s frequently called by our neighbours across the Atlantic. From here, it’s out past Roches Point lighthouse and further afield off the coast of Wales and so on and so on. It’s becoming something of a tradition (OK twice. Twice can be a tradition.) to stay on deck until passing the lighthouse and then retreating back inside the ship. After weighing up the travel options, it had to be Brittany Ferries again. Their Cork port is less than ten minutes down the road after all. The other options, namely travelling to Rosslare, didn’t even really come up in conversation. Not polite conversation anyway. The Cork to Roscoff service may have been the most expensive option (not by very much) but it’d be worth it not to have to start our holiday by riding to Rosslare. Well, and then riding back from Rosslare to Cork on our return journey. Unbearable. Yes, I am a drama queen.

There were also two modifications made to the journey. First, a larger cabin. Something not resembling a cross between a phone box and a coffin. Second, an outside cabin. One where I could throw open the curtains in the morning and delight upon the sight of Roscoff port. Natural light would also be a bonus.

The ferry crossing would also signal the beginning of the ‘Creme Brûlée challenge’. That is, to eat as much Creme Brûlée as humanly (or inhumanely) possible during the holiday. It was an inauspicious beginning, with the first entry bearing striking resemblance to a depressed jellyfish and attempting to slide off my plate with every motion of the ship. So, for the record, Creme Brûlée count: 1.

The arrival in Roscoff was as with any other port town. You rush to get off the ship then rush to get out of the town. Before that, this. We didn’t have to go very far before Julie’s pastry-senses started tingling. The roadside breakfast of the Gods.

IMG_0428Our first stop was the bones of 500km to the south, on Ile-de-Re. The most remarkable part of this journey was actually crossing the high, sweeping bridge to the island and having a birds eye view of the beaches and the boats in the harbour. The first few kilometers on the island were a maze of roundabouts and inevitably, tourists performing laps of same in ‘the dance of the out of date GPS maps’. The ride from the end of the bridge to our hotel in Ars-en-Re seemed to take an eternity and I imagined we’d run out of island before we reached the hotel. Just how long is this damn island anyway? As we made our way west, the tourists hoards became thinner and the roads became easier to manage. After a few wrong turns, the type of wrong turns that only a GPS can force you to take, we arrived in the hotel and were informed we’d have to wait 40 minutes for our room to be ready. Exactly what you want to hear after a 7am start and having just slid off the bike cowboy style after a 6 hour ride.

DSC01491There was a brief visit to the Rue des Tourettes in the hotel lobby even before I knew it existed in the nearby town. Not too long before we were checked in, showered, changed and exploring the delightfully relaxed Ars-en-Re; the arse of the island.

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DSC01502To use a phrase that I even find myself rolling my eyes at, it is a ‘charming little town’, except it’s not really that little. We settled down by the harbour with a drink to weigh up our dinner options, to watch the locals coming and going and other such difficult tasks one engages in while on your first day of holidays. Restaurant investigations led us back to what appeared to be the main square of the town, across from the church below. More beer, food and having spotted a very promising looking boulangerie across the square, tomorrows breakfast sorted.

DSC01482Leaving Ars-en-Re the next morning, we briefly took in the sights of Saint-Martin-de-Re. The opportunity was taken to buy a pair of sunglasses and a very small donkey. Saint Martin is nice, but I’d say it’d be nicer if you arrived by boat and had a large wedge of €50 notes in your back pocket. Eating, drinking or doing anything other than buying sunglasses and very small donkeys was a pricey affair. With enough Saint Martin soaked in (including the by now melting temperatures) we hopped back on the bike and headed further south.

DSC01506The next leg was going to be a journey of about 240km to a B&B we found south of Bordeaux in the Sauternes region (think very very sweet and reassuringly expensive white wine). The Sauternes region is tiny and by complete chance we ended up picking a B&B smack in the middle of it. If I’d known, I’d have booked a second night here and waved bye bye to one of our upcoming nights in the Pyrenees. Lesson learned. Next time stay an extra night and play a game of ‘drink all the wine’.

DSC01512Julie did make a valiant effort to drink some of the wine however, no minor miracle given that it was Monday night in France. So, Mondays in France for the uninitiated. Nothing is open. N-o-t-h-i-n-g. You need petrol? Too bad. Want groceries? No chance. Dying and need a doctor? Good luck. Pretty much our only hope for eating anything was a small family restaurant a few kilometers from the B&B. So while we tucked into our dinner at the very same small family restaurant, a storm rolled over. The first of what turned out to be many storms we’d encounter over the next few weeks. Dinner proceeded with the usual pleasantries. Us not really understanding them, them not really understanding us and all the while trying to avoid the unnerving gaze of the lone local old man, sitting in the middle of the now half full room, next to a tank full of lobsters trying to break free from their elastic shackles.

To keep you all up to date on the most important of proceedings, Creme Brûlée count: 2.

I’m not overly fussed by lightning. It happens and it doesn’t really strike people that often. If you’d have told me that when we were riding back to the B&B and the sky lit up directly in front of us with the hugest fork lightning I’ve ever seen* I’d have punched you in the face. As I’m writing this now, we obviously survived and made it back to the B&B.

*I was about to see more impressive lightning, I just didn’t know that yet

I still can’t help thinking about those lobsters though. If they weren’t so damn tasty it’d put me off eating them for good. Tasty, tasty murder.

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DSC01531The B&B, as with all the other B&Bs we’ve found on this website, was outstanding. We ended up having breakfast with a young couple (I possess both rapidly greying hair and beard so I can say that kind of shit now) from the UK who had taken upon themselves the task of traveling back to the UK from Pau in the above car. To call it a car is probably embellishing it’s abilities somewhat. I believe it was commented that the vehicles top speed was somewhere around 60kph. Downhill. With a wind behind it.

Before hitting the road to our next one night stop, we took an opportunity to take some photos of the nearby wineries (there were many) and their endless fields of vines.

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DSC01553As we were heading further south into the Pyrenees, we were warned of thunderstorms we would meet up ahead. I didn’t really know at the time if we should believe this or not, it seems to be somewhat of a hobby around Bordeaux to report of thunderstorms. By many accounts, this is accurate about 80% of the time. So with a thorough soaking and possibly getting hit by lightning to look forward to, we said our goodbyes to our hosts and hit the road south. Well, north a bit first, I took a wrong turn.

DSC01559Behold, the majestic Pyrenees. They’re in there somewhere behind all that mist, trust me.

DSC01572Thats a bit better. The best, as it usually is, was yet to come.

DSC01581You don’t have to squint to see it, you can click on it to make it bigger. It’s not quite like being there but it’s not bad.

Having never been to the Pyrenees before, I always considered them a poor substitute to the ‘real thing’, the Alps. I was wrong. It may just have been the day we arrived (a Tuesday afternoon) or the area we first hit, but the roads were quiet and it was toasty warm. Perfect weather for a little bit of tyre destruction.

DSC01575After quite a spirited ride through some of the twistiest mountain roads I’ve ever been on, I had to take it down a few notches when we arrived at our destination for the night, Torla. The town seemed to be undergoing an unspoken rebellion between generations of inhabitants. The new (a guy in his mid to late 30’s who served us in a small supermarket) was full of chat (in Spanish) and genuinely seemed happy to see us. While fifty yards down the road, a sullen looking man in his 60’s grumbled and stared intently as I gave him a cheery ‘hola’ while passing. Some day, I hope I’m exactly like that 60 odd year mouldy old bastard. In a lot of ways, I already am. The only difference being that I’m currently 33 on the outside. But I digress…

There were several places to eat in Torla. Some of them looked very promising. Others looked downright terrifying. Given that my general level of Spanish includes phrases like “where is the data center?”, “take me to the airport” and the ever useful “large beer please”, it was no great surprise that we ended up in the only establishment in town with a large neon sign outside that read “WE SPEAK ENGLISH”. Dios Mio!

The light became dimmer over Torla as we sat on the terrace eating some chorizo based concoction. It was here that Julie first experienced the delights of ‘flan’. I’d heard of flan but never actually experienced it. While spending time working in Spain in years previous, I’d always heard the locals raving about flan. It was as if it bestowed magical, almost supernatural powers on those that consumed it. Flan was the way forward. Praise flan, praise it! Consumption of flan proved to bestow immensely useful knowledge on Julie, even within the first few bites. I can share that knowledge with you all. It is “avoid flan at all costs”. Having been enticed with a coffee flavoured flan (this is turning into a ‘how many times can I type flan in one paragraph’ competition) by our charming waiter, she reported that it was very much like a mix of bad coffee and cold scrambled eggs. Mmmm flan. So that was the beginning and end of the flan obsession. I selfishly tucked into my Creme Anglaise while not entirely sure if I could include it in the official Creme Brulee count. Answers on a postcard please.

Creme Brulee count: 2 (possibly 3).

DSC01616The next morning (after witnessing an attempt at serving us breakfast), we were back on the road for the relatively short trip across the mountains to Sort, our final stop in these mountains. More truly amazing roads, scenery and the customary ‘biker wave’ every 40 seconds or so. This is what being on holidays is all about. Unless you’re not on a bike, in which case I feel rather sorry for you.

DSC01647Sort is, well, probably more interesting if you own a canoe. The hotel, while being comfortable, reminded me somewhat of a minimum security prison. Not that I’ve ever been in a minimum security prison, I just watch a lot of TV. But it was cheap. Suspiciously cheap. We had lunch in a very nice nearby tapas restaurant and then ran out of options for things to do in the town. Unless we missed some small undocumented corner of the town where everything happens, I think it’s safe to say we ‘did’ Sort. In fact we were so utterly shattered from ‘doing’ Sort that we opted to eat dinner in the hotel. You know when you sit down to dinner in a restaurant with another person and the waitress comes over to take your order? Except she doesn’t. She takes the order of the person you’re with then buggers off back into the kitchen. I, um. Hi? Food. It took a few minutes to explain to her that yes, I also wanted to eat food tonight. The whole dinner was a comedy of errors and was eaten only out of the wish to remain living rather than any satisfaction taken in the enjoyment of the meal. It made the previous nights dinner look like a seven course spectacular served in a Michelin star restaurant. We were both afraid.

With the benefit of hindsight, I would have left Sort out of the itinerary and jumped at the option to stay an extra night in Sauternes, risking another encounter with the ultra-depressing rubber banded lobsters. The poor little delicious buggers.

We were now as far south as we’d be going on this adventure and the next morning, we saddled up and headed back into France where if nothing else, at least we could be somewhat understood by the locals. Hooray!

I was advised to take a break in Rennes-le-Chateau which was along our 250km ish journey from Sort to Carcassonne. The recommendation came along the lines of “lots of weird shit has happened there”. Sold. As it transpired, by the time we got there the temperature had risen to a level whereby all that it was possible to do was slide off the bike under the shade of a tree, drink a bottle of overpriced Orangina and basically mash an ice cream into my face while tourists in air-conditioned rental cars looked on in a kind of amazed disgust. By the end of it, my visit to Rennes-le-Chateau was undoubtedly included in the “weird shit that has happened here” claim to fame. It was over 30 degrees at this stage and it was only getting hotter. Nice view though, shame about the heat. Much like a computer, I tend to go into a kind of thermal shutdown whereby my brain refuses to allow me to do anything except seek any form of coldness. “I’ll take a short walk to the church” I though. Brain said “eh no, eat this ice cream instead”. So my only photographs of Rennes-le-Chateau, a town where “lots of weird shit has happened” is of me eating an ice cream under the shade of a tree.

But then we arrived in Carcassonne, our first two night stop. The usual dance of removing the bike gear, showering and dressing in the lightest possible clothes I have was performed and we were off to see this citadel thing everyone was talking about. This was our first real experience with tourists since we arrived. Granted we were tourists ourselves, but you get what I mean. The “gee-whizz-come-get-a-look-at-this” super enthusiastic crowd that always seems to travel in groups no smaller than ten thousand strong. I’m not even talking about Americans either. Just in case some of you readers thought I was singling a specific group out. Shame. Shame on you for thinking that!

DSC01723I had been reading about this thing called “cassoulet” and on arrival in the citadel, I saw tins of it everywhere. Big tins, small tins, tins that appeared as if they could feed an army. Duck, sausage and beans. My initial reluctance was to eat duck, an animal that I frequently talk to when nobody is looking. Don’t judge me damnit! We ensconced ourselves in a restaurant that looked a little too fancy for the way I was dressed but I quickly shrugged that notion off as I usually do, with a “they can go and shite, I’m on holidays”. Oddly, the proprietor appeared to be hustling Asian visitors indoors, while everybody else was seated outside to share their dinner with whatever multi-legged creatures fell from the overhead vines. A conspiracy theory began forming in my head shortly after the starter arrived.

My duck eating reluctance wore off when I saw how delicious it looked and a serving (which I think was actually meant for two people) was delivered to our table. I ate it all. Food coma ensued shortly thereafter, but thankfully I remained conscious enough to eat yet another Creme Brulee. To recap; Creme Brulee count: 3 (possibly 4).

Being so utterly full of food mean the downhill walk back to the riverfront hotel was more of a waddle, but we did happen upon waddling past an area of the citadel which I can only assume is reserved for the kind of tourist I mentioned a little while ago. TVs blaring. Children running all over the place. Cheap lager being swilled by the gallon. Nineties dance music being played out of a cheap public address system. People in football jerseys. Surely we had accidentally wandered into the third circle of hell. Seeing that my high horse would never make it through the tangled web of passageways in this tourist trap, I dismounted and continued on foot to the main gate of the citadel.

We elected to do something odd on the morning of the second day; visit the actual town/city of Carcassonne. The new bit that is. We were looking for evidence of a market, although after walking around and becoming completely bemused at the existence of this market, we opted to pause for a little while at a cafe in the square and have an iced coffee.

What we actually got was about as far from iced coffee as it’s possible to be. It was coffee based, of that I’m almost sure. The waitress that served us obviously imagined that she’d done something worthy of a 400% tip and didn’t return to the table with my change. In true Irish style, I didn’t actually go and complain as you might expect someone who has just been robbed to do. Instead I’ll advise anyone that asks that they should do their utmost to avoid ending up in “Le Petit Moka” on 4 Place Carcassonne. Because after all, google indexing is the gift that keeps on giving. Carcassonne is a tourist location built solely on the existence of the citadel, of that I’m sure. Stay in a hotel outside the new town, visit the citadel, then leave. This advice is my gift to you.

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DSC01750The next day was ‘citadel exploration day’. We paid our entry fee and had an enjoyable stroll around the chateau, the results of which can be seen above and below.

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DSC01713Having investigated dinner options on the way back from the citadel, we ended up in “Restaurant Le 37″ on the way to/from the citadel, not too far from the hotel. Fantastic dinner, great staff and Creme Brulee count + 1. Creme Brulee tally: 4 (possibly 5).

We got back to the hotel just before the impossibly heavy rain rolled in and from our bedroom window, we watched people rushing across Pont Vieux and the lightning over the citadel. A truly enjoyable couple of days in Carcassonne and after the last few non-stop overnight only kind of days, it was a well timed day off the bike. However we need to keep this show on the road and so back on the bike tomorrow morning I’m afraid.

 

 

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