Monthly Archives: January 2016

Back to the Limousin

I had intended to return to the very pretty town centre of Sarlat on the Sunday morning to take more photographs of the beautiful buildings there, but the morning dawned grey, wet and foggy, so hoping it might improve Phoebe and I hunkered down with the heating on full blast.  I hadn’t bothered to pay for electricity at 2 euros for an hour’s worth, but the gas heating keeps Thebus plenty warm enough.  I cooked a large pot of Truffled Mushroom Soup, and we had warmed Coulommeirs Cheese on French Bread with grated truffle, and Chicken in a Cream Sauce with truffle – in fact anything I could think of to include truffle.  They apparently keep about a week and I didn’t want to waste any of it at 800 euros a kilo.

Eventually having run out of ideas I still had half a truffle left which I put in an airtight box with four  extra fresh eggs I had bought.  The idea being that the perfume of the truffle infuses the eggs which are then used to make scrambled eggs.  I have to say it was all very indulgent and I felt it had been well worth buying my truffle.

The weather stayed miserable the next day and I thought to visit a goose farm, as I was obviously in the heart of the goose farming district, and chose one from the specially prepared brochure given me at the Tourist Information Office (which I had eventually tracked down finding the signpost for it about 10 meters from its door)

The Goose Farm I selected proudly proclaimed it was open all the year plus there was a spot for camping cars (what we would call a motorhomes) to stay overnight.

I half expected any farm would be up a lane, but as this one seemed quite a large enterprise with camping chalets as well I hoped it might be more easily accessible than some of the others.  And maybe it was.  But that fact did not make it easily accessible.  It just meant the others might have been worse.

The usual narrow twisty lanes, then a hairpin bend on a steep bank to the even narrower lane leading to the farm, with lots of overhanging trees to avoid.  The driveway next to the farm was just about wide enough for Thebus to pass through, and I pulled up to see where ‘Camping Cars’ could stop for the night

Before I could even get out to ask a French lady – I think the farmer’s wife, as I saw a guy disappearing round the back of the house – rushed towards me gesticulating and shouting something, which when the engine was switched off and I opened the door turned out to be ‘Ferme’ which doesnt mean ‘farm’ but ‘shut’  and judging by her face was very firmly ‘ferme’. ‘ L’oie’ (goose) –  I tentatively enquired  ‘Non’ was the stern reply with an equally firm shake of the head and wildly crossing hands –  ‘Ferme’

I guessed there would be no point asking about spending the night there and simply asked if I could turn – really meaning where would be a suitable place to turn!  ‘Oui’  was the reply as she turned on her heel and disappeared round the other side of the house leaving me to cope as best I could.  Apart from the fact the place was built on a forty-five degree slope in the middle of a wood it wasn’t too bad, and keeping an eye out for the overhanging trees whilst trying not to catch the scooter rack on the steep slope we gingerly managed to turn round and wend our way back through the overhanging trees, past the hairpin bend before finally re-negotiating the bendy lanes all the way back to Sarlat where we had started.

Although the Dordogne countryside round Sarlat is pretty its not easy to appreciate it driving something like Thebus, and eventually I decided to give goose farms a miss and head back to Parc Verger to collect my parcels, and I have to say when I saw my first Limousin cows grazing in a field next to the road it almost felt like coming home.

Truffle Fair at Sarlat-de-Caneda

 

By now I had given up any thoughts of visiting Rocamadour or the Millau bridge, and instead headed for my next intended place.  The Annual Truffle Fair at Sarlat-de-Canada  in Perigord.

On my way north the weather had steadily been deteriorating and getting colder, though thankfully only intermittently raining.  But over the hills the motorway was skirting the sky looked a curious and ominous colour.  When we finally made it out though our last set of toll booths it was beginning to sleet, and as we got the the more mountainous areas snow began to fall.  Thankfully not much as once again it was getting dark.  So I was glad to reach the aire in Sarlat, and find that not only was it was open, but there was room for me.

I have to say I went to bed quite early and slept soundly, though when Phoebe woke me in the early morning the inside temperature of Thebus had dropped to 43F,  I can’t be bothered to look that up in centigrade as since getting Thebus my mind has entirely reverted to thinking in Fahrenheit.  It took ages to get us warm even though I put on the generator and ran a fan heater at the same time as the gas heating.

Outside it was perishing cold, but I wanted to get down to the town early as I know French markets start early and sometimes only last for the morning.  I took Phoebe with me and she behaved well, even though there were lots of people and dogs about.  But the market was not at all as I expected and chilled and disappointed I returned to Thebus though clutching a thick wedge of applecake being sold by some jolly mums and schoolchildren, I would guess in aid of school funds.  So we boosted up the heating and I had some coffee and shared the cake with Phoebe.

The satellite internet was sullenly refusing to cooperate even though I could see no reason for it not wanting to connect so I could do no research on the festival, and hadn’t even been able to find the tourist information office.  Feeling chilled to the bone and a bit grumpy I spotted a motorhome with British plates, and thought I might ask the guy who was scraping ice from his windows if he knew anything about it.  He turned out to be Dutch, and on his first motorhome trip with his wife,  He had lived in England for many years, but had previously lived in Sarlat some twenty years ago.  So could explain where the Truffle market was, as opposed to the street market which is what I had found.

Leaving Phoebe this time I headed off again, and by now it was not quite so chilly as first thing.  Sarlat-de-Caneda is a beautiful golden stone town with many medieval buildings.

 

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Every other building seemed to be a Restaurant serving Foie Gras with truffles or a Foie Gras or Truffle emporium of some sort.  And when I finally made it to the market it was bustling with activity and good cooking smells.  Of course I had to buy a black Perigord truffle, though I got one of the smaller ones as the price was between 800 and 900 Euros a kilo. IMG_2054

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I also tried some of the delicious food, mushroom soup with truffles, scrambled eggs with truffles and a truffle burger.

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More Problems…..

Once the penny dropped that I had been robbed, and that the iPad was missing I contacted Apple to put a bar on it.  I had registered it for tracking, but apparently it doesn’t kick in unless it is switched on – so not really much use.  Once barred the tracking cannot work as all that happens is a message is displayed on the screen.  I kept the message simple and it reads This iPad has been lost – Then gives my phone number.  My reasoning was that it might be marginally more likely someone would phone me to say they had found my lost iPad than they had my stolen iPad.

I changed all my passwords and that was about it.  But my day was not finished yet!

The next fuel station had the obligatory 3.5 m height restriction, but in the daylight I could see that if I went round and through the lorry entrance I could then reverse back into the LPG pump.  So I walked all the way over to the shop, and managed to make the cashier understand what I proposed to which she nodded her assent.  Great!  Well it would have been had they not decided to undertake some maintenance work on the canopy (which was way over 3.5 high so why they restrict you is beyond me)  Anyway the upshot was that for Health and Safety reasons (or I assume that was the case) I was not allowed to to LPG pump at that present time.  Still I filled up with petrol so at least we would not run out of fuel completelyl.

On then to the next filling station.  And amazingly this one had no height restrictions.  Perhaps it is just in Southern France – who knows?  But yet another disaster.  I filled the main tank fine.  I had been obliged to leave my cash card at reception – which although I didn’t like to do it there seemed no other way – in retrospect I should have paid for a set amount, but wasn’t sure how much both tanks would take.  I needn’t have bothered because I had to walk all the way back to pay for the first lot before they would let me start filling the second tank anyway.

And that was not the be the end of my ‘day’  As I wearily stood with my hand firmly pressed on the green button I noticed a smell of LPG stronger than normal and looking round gas was jetting out everywhere, and continued to do so even when the green button was released.  Inhaling lungfulls of the stuff I finally managed to remove the nozzle and the gas dispersed, though I did feel a bit light-headed.  So back to the counter to pay again and recover my card.

It was the first time I had filled the living tank with LPG since crossing the channel, so I was not quite sure if the adaptors were correct or if there was some other problem.  By now I was not that far from the lovely Frankie in Toulouse so phoned her to ask if I might visit her very helpful garage.

She turned out to be really ill with a hideously bad back requiring spinal supports and a course of injections but was still having to work.  So I said rather than be a nuisance I would spend the night at a nearby camping site, but she insisted I call over and I gratefully headed for her place reaching there just after dark.

She kindly gave me the addresses of two garages, and next morning I headed off.  Fortunately the first one she sent me to had a really helpful English speaker there, and though he looked at it shaking his head and explaining they weren’t permitted to deal with LPG he gave me the printed out addresses of some LPG specialists.  Now whether I was in-putting them in the Sat Nav incorrectly or what I really don’t know, but Strict Lady refused to acknowledge the existence of any of them.

I have to say I felt it was a bit of a sign, as I wasn’t convinced that it might not just be something simple.  And so it turned out when later in the day parked up at yet another Motorway Aire I emailed my brother with various photos and between the two of us we sorted it out (well at least it took a full tank of LPG when I returned to the pump)

I was robbed……

The traffic in Nimes is bad, and the road system quite tricky, so I held off leaving until the traffic was lighter, which meant starting out about about eleven pm.  Even the cars in the carpark hadn’t cleared until just before then.

I set the Sat Nav for a pretty village the mountains and the spectacular Millau Bridge and also set it to avoid the motorway, as I thought we could maybe pull up in a picnic area or layby for a few hours, then start out again early morning, and I knew the motorway rest areas were not to be trusted.

After a hour or so of travelling we had been through many sleeping villages, but found nowhere obvious to stop.  The road we were on was now a main one, and in the dark we hit complicated roadworks. Strict Lady seems a bit delayed with her instructions here in France, often telling me where I should have gone just after I have already gone and done it.  And so it was here.  The road swept round in a wide circle of blinking orange traffic cones and blinding workmens’ arc lamps, then suddenly we were between high walls with a sign ‘Peage’ (Toll Motorway)   And not only that we were heading south again.  Booooo…….

Once on the motorway of course there seemed to be no way of setting the sat nav to avoid toll roads, so having turned round so I was at least heading in the right direction, I drove on thinking at least it was easy driving.  But I had another problem.

On arriving in Nimes I had been getting short of LPG and although I saw several stations selling it, and at good prices – they were on the opposite side of the road and the dual carriageway system made it impossible to cross over.  Never mind I would fill up the next day.

Of course when I left Nimes that night most of the stations had already shut and those that were open just had automatic pumps, and the LPG pump was not one of them.   So I thought it might be an advantage being on the motorway system as the filling stations would be open 24/7.  Wrong again!

Not only were there just automated pumps open at most of them, but even worse – for some reason the filling stations I visited all had 3.5m height restrictions (Thebus is 3.65)  and the lorry entrances only led to diesel pumps.  After stopping at three or four without success, and the time now approaching one a.m.  the fact that I had stayed awake the previous night was beginning to tell. Plus I wasn’t sure how much further I could go on my petrol reserves, and didn’t want to run out on the motorway, or even on a country road if I exited it.

Now my researches had made me well aware of the risks of parking at motorway aires so I tried to be careful.  Most of the Aires where there would be food in the morning were so TOTALLY jammed with HGV’s in every conceivable stopping place, plus some where they patently should not have stopped, I had no chance of getting in there, plus I judged those might be the riskiest places as thieves would have richer pickings.

Perhaps the one I choose to stop at was nearly empty for a reason.  Anyway I selected my spot.  Stopping in as well lit an area as I could, and not too far from the loos where cars were pulling in fairly frequently.  Of course that might have been just the wrong thing to do?  I am not quite sure, and will hesitate to make further researches.

So having parked where I deemed safest I checked the door locks were on, locked the sliding windows and set the alarm, though of course it has to be disabled for internal movement because of Phoebe and myself.

Now bear in mind that I was tired, and that I had gone through several toll booths which involved opening the sliding window on the driver’s side.  In retrospect I think what I had done was not fully shut the driver’s window after the last toll both, then when I flipped the lock – which felt tight though it did turn –  it had not fully engaged, so the window was able to be pushed open.

Anyway about an hour after I arrived (which makes one think there is someone waiting and judging when a tired driver is sound asleep) I was woken by Phoebe, who though not actually barking (she is still a friendly puppy) made enough noise to rouse me.  I had deliberately left my bedroom door open and fastened her travelling leash, so she was in her bed to listen at that end of Thebus, but I would hear her easily.  Of course I was amazed to see the window open, but in my sleepiness thought I must have forgotten to close it.  I told her she was good guarding girl and went back to bed.  Obviously closing and locking the window first.

Next day I still didn’t realised I had been robbed until I came to look for something I kept in my computer bag.  The bag wasn’t there!  First I imagined I had moved it elsewhere but soon realised I never move it.

I had chosen the place I keep it as supposedly being safe, in that it was the beside the driver’s seat on the farthest side from the door and not easy to see.  So I imagined reasonable secure from opportunistic sneak thieves.  That not being the case if the window is opened!  They must have simply climbed up on the wheel leaned in and taken it.  Next day I found my camera was under the seat, so they may have been reaching over for other stuff when Phoebe made enough noise to rouse me and they made off.

Without a dog with me I feel sure they would have climbed in and made off with far more.  Very fortunately for me I hadn’t put my prized Apple MacBook Pro back in its traveling bag, but they did get some expensive and nearly brand new apple storage devices, my iPad and whatever else I have not missed yet.

It could have been so much worse!  I have recently taken to hanging my handbag on the far side of the driver’s seat for the same safety reasons.  Had that been there then my credit cards, money, phone etc would all have been gone.  Disaster!

If anybody has travelling safety hints and tips I would be most grateful to hear from you

I am hoping that soon Little Miss Phoebe will be like her namesake who would have bounded at the window with her bark which was loud and deep enough to frighten anybody, and Great Danes being a guarding breed may have even bitten.  I would like to think so anyway.

Nimes

My journey in the dark from Pont du Gard to Nimes was a bit fraught, and we passed nowhere I could pull in to stop the night – arriving in Nimes around midnight.  I had guessed the carpark wouldn’t allow overnight stays, and so it was.  Cars were permitted, but Camping Cars – as motorhomes are known over here, were prohibited between the hours of 2am and 7am.  There was a large carpark opposite so I parked up and decided to wait until 7 am.  Having spent some time last summer with Sally I knew it was perfectly possible to go a night without sleep, and I preferred to do that rather than go to bed, as I knew I would not sleep through worrying if there would be a knock at the door.

At seven prompt I drove over to the carpark recommended by the tourist board, and went straight to bed setting the alarm for 10am.  In fact there was no way Phoebe was going to stay in bed till that time so we were up and doing well before.  I couldn’t take her with me as I thought she would be prohibited from the places I wished to visit, though in fact I think she would have been allowed pretty well everywhere, other than the delightful cafe, where even if dogs had been permitted (which they probably were) there simply would not have been room for her writhing bulk.  So she had to make do with some gallops round the carparks, then she was left with half a chicken and I set off.

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I was blown away by the beauty of the centre of Nimes.IMG_1933 IMG_1935

I knew the water from the aqueduct of which the Pont du Gard was part, were headed for the Roman city of Nimes, and my goodness what a splendid use they must have made of it if the gardens, fountains and ornamental canals there are anything to go by.  Quite, quite wonderful.

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Backing the beautiful gardens was a hill with a Roman tower (apparently build on a Celtic hill site.  I would have liked to go up, but knew I would never have managed all those steps.

As it was The Supters battery was looking low.  It was over 3 kilometres to the centre from the carpark, plus I got quite seriously lost on the way.  Then spent ages in the city.  Surprisingly non of its tourist treasures are signposted, well not until you are about a hundred yards away and can just glimpse it round the next corner.  Neither is the tourist information office, so having left Thebus I was a bit in the dark.

But I found most of the places I intended to visit (other than the Tourist Information Office)

In the splendour of the water gardens was the Temple of Diane, (or at least a Roman building of some description) complete with ancient and very stylish graffiti

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Then suddenly and unexpectedly I came upon the Maison Carree, which was built as a temple around the time of the birth of Christ, and is supposedly one of the best preserved and most elegant Roman Temples  in the world

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And I finally tracked down the Arena.  Apparently built in the first century AD just a few years after the Colosseum was completed in Rome.  It was converted to use as a bull fighting ring in the 1830’s, and once again one of the best preserved Roman Arenas in the world.

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I managed the tour even though there was a lot of climbing, but couldn’t  quite make it to the very top as I would have liked – the steps were the depth of the old roman stone seats, and my knees would never have managed that.  Still I did get quite high.

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Afterwards I retraced my footsteps to a wonderful looking shop I had passed

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And went inside for one of the sickliest, and most delicious confections I have ever eaten.  Reminding me that this area was once under the sway of the Ottoman Empire, or Musselmen as they were known at the time.  And who replaced our Christian vice of alcohol with a love of sugar in all its forms.

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I took with me a ‘Cigar” which I though would be a light crispy biscuit affair, but turned out to be a thin flexible sponge wrapped round  the most rich and dark chocolate ganache, the whole thing weighing about a quarter of a pound, and which lasted me and Phoebe about three delicious days.

I also bought some what I thought was nougat.  And maybe it was.  I chose the cherry, pistachio and almond, but this was just too sickly for me altogether so I picked out the nuts and gave the rest to Phoebe

Pont du Gard

I knew the parking fee at this famous landmark was £13 – of course if you were a family of ten, as many are here in France it was still £13 so good value.  I have to say for just me it felt a little steep.  I thought of trying to google for other carparks nearby, but on my recent experience decided this would probably be a waste of time – so I might just as well pay up.

I had been assured that there was a wonderful museum and many other attractions on site, all included in the parking fee, though of course being January all bar the museum and one very boring looking self-service cafe were closed.

Still the bridge looked wonderful especially as by now the sun had appeared and lit up its golden stone.  And there was one benefit to everything being closed, it meant that I was almost alone there and could imagine it as it might have been had i been fortunate enough to have visited it in previous centuries.

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I did take a look round the vast museum – as normal with such places today the exhibits lurked in a gloomy semi-darkness, so much so it was hard to read the information panels, artistically printed in sepia on a yellowing background.  I suppose I am just an old fogey, with diminished senses, but I cannot see why the exhibits (almost none of which were original as far as I could make out by peering closely) need to be shrouded such gloominess.  Still at least here I could find the exit.  I have to say in one such museum I got so lost, and it was so dark I felt I would never get out, and in the end had to retrace my steps to the entrance, otherwise I might still have been there now.

But before I got as far as the museum Phoebe and I made our way to try and reach the very top of the Aquaduct.  Obviously there was no hope of my climbing all those stairs, especially as my visit to the Pope’s Palace and the Pont D’Avignon had given my knees a hard work-out.  So we went the long way round on The Supter.  And what a Supter it is.  At first it was a fairly steep but tarmaced road – then a sign sent us off through some olive groves.

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The path though windy and stoney was not too bad, if a little narrow in places.  But as we went on – Well only those who have visited the monument and walked the path will know what I mean.  How we got there and back is beyond me!  Sometimes I think I am too brave for my own good.

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One last look at the Pont du Gard and then back to Thebus where I now had an internet connection, and following my last success using the Tourist Information I phoned them for parking in Nimes, which was where the water being carried in the Pont du Gard Acquaduct was destined.  Yes! there was parking at the Stadium there but I should not sleep there, or at least that is the impression I got.  The only place I could stay was a campsite some miles out of town, which seemed a bit pointless.  I was sure there would be some sort of parking area on the way to Nimes were I could sleep over so packing everything up I decided to leave.

I don’t know what it is with me and automated ticket machines.  I am not good with English ones, but French ones!!!!

I gathered I was to insert the ticket and pay by card.  There was a picture of the ticket with its coloured top, though sideways on rather than the way it would need to go in the slot.  I offered it up.  No!  Not interested!  I tried in the other way up, Non!!  Then back up the way it was pictured but feeding from the far end.  Well it didn’t go all the way in, just far enough to get stuck.  I pressed the eject button but it stayed firmly in place.  I pressed the help button and a disembodied voice told me (thankfully in English) to go to the information booth – which had of course now closed for the night.  “Oh!  Then you will have to go to the information office by the museum.”  Oh no – that was probably more than half a mile away on the other side of the bridge.  And I had just spent a quarter of an hour loading and covering The Supter.  Should I just stay here the night?  I knew that was not allowed.

Just as I was trying to find the phone number for the information office to check that it was actually open a van came in though the gates, and as it was by now dark I guessed it was a member of staff rather than a visitor.  If he spoke any English he was not owing up to it, but I genuinely think he had less English than I had French.  Eventually I got him to understand that I had inserted the ticket but it was jammed.  He pressed the button and spoke rapidly and irritatedly with the disembodied voice and eventually got me through.  I think the problem had been that I had not pulled Thebus near enough to the exit barrier, but of course had I done so I would have been jammed inside and couldn’t have got out to press the buttons and insert the card and ticket.  And I certainly couldn’t have reached them from Thebus’ window.  So perhaps I was not so ‘stupide’ as I thought I was.

There was a horrid grating bang as I was exiting and I pulled over to check, but could see no damage to the exit gate or to Thebus.

Of course by now not only was it pitch dark, but I was back in French rush hour as everyone left Nimes and headed for the surrounding countryside.  Plus a few irritated motorists queuing behind me trying to get into Nimes.

I hope my travels in France become easier soon.  My cold over Christmas and the New Year dragged me down somewhat, and though Phoebe is a joy she is much more effort than my lovely Old Phoebe so I am feeling somewhat tired.

But on the whole a good week so far.  Lovely Carro, Cezanne’s mountain, a walk on the Pont D’Avignon, a view of the Pont du Gard, and an adventure in some olive groves.

Better than Bungalow-ville!

Sur La Pont D’Avignon

Next morning we explored the site which would hold literally hundreds of motorhomes in the height of the season, though as I said it was all very tight, and I was glad we weren’t parked under some of the older plane trees which looked very much past their best.

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And some of which must have succumbed, hopefully not onto some unsuspecting camper

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Avignon is a beautiful city, the fairytale castle walls almost make it look like a film set – I know Viollet le Duc the well known 19th C  ‘improver’ of medieval buildings worked in the city and wondered if he had a hand in some of the restorations.

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But it is a spectacular place to visit, My main reason for coming here was of course the bridge.

‘Sur le Pont D’Avignon’  was one of the songs taught in my infant school classes – the words meaning absolutely nothing to any of us, and the teachers not taking the time to explain anything simply teaching the sounds by rote – So I was completely amazed to find it was only half a bridge.

The bridge was actually called the Pont Saint-Bénézet, and the old legend that it was constructed int e 12th C by a shepherd boy acting on a message from God.  Though this doesn’t seem to tie in with the known facts which are few and sketchy, though an entrepreneur known as Benezet did buy land on the banks and formed a bridge building consortium .  The wild and fast flowing Rhone river -now tamed with locks and sluices – did much damage to the bridge on a regular basis during the winter spates and flooding.  Finally the rise in water levels and increased volatility of the river during the mini Ice Age demolished many of the arches and by the late 17th C. the bridge had been abandoned.

But it was pleasant to admire it and walk on it remembering my childish singing.

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I knew little else about Avignon, but it turned out that it had a Pope’s Palace and had been the centre of the Roman Catholic church for nearly a century.  I wondered how this could have come about and a bit of research on wikipedia revealed this.

The Papacy in the Late Middle Ages played a major temporal role in addition to its spiritual role. The conflict between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor was fundamentally a dispute over which of them was the leader of Christendom in secular matters. In the early 14th century, the papacy was well past the prime of its secular rule – its importance had peaked in the 12th and 13th centuries. The success of the early crusades added greatly to the prestige of the Popes as secular leaders of Christendom, with monarchs like the Kings of England, France, and even the Emperor merely acting as Marshals for the popes and leading “their” armies. This state of affairs culminated in the unbridled declaration of papal supremacy, Unam Sanctam in November 1302. In that papal bull, Pope Boniface VIII decreed that “it is necessary to salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff.” He followed up with a bull that would excommunicate the King of France and put the interdict over France, and to depose the entire clergy of France, when in September 1303, a French delegation forcibly brought the pope to France

One has to say that then as now most successful religions have very little to do with God and everything to do with human greed for power.

Still I had a walk round the Pope’s Palace, though confined myself to the three lower floors, by which time I felt I had enough of stairs and steps, and headed back to Thebus and Phoebe.

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But not before exploring the gardens rising behind the Popes’ Palace to  admire the views of the surrounding countryside, which according to one French King were the most beautiful in France.

 

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To Avignon

I could have toured the area round Mont Sainte Victoire but I felt I had quite enough of the narrow roads, and in any case the day was grey and turning to rain. So I headed for Avignon, where I wanted to, if not dance, then at least walk on the bridge of the famous song – Sur La Pont D’Avignon!

Yet again I found somewhere suitable to park on the internet.  This time I had the choice of a large carpark with 24 hour parking or an aire.  I headed for the carpark – and guess what – Height restriction barriers in every direction.  Not to worry I simply headed for the aire…… only to find that it was closed until March.

There was space for me to park by the river, but I was getting the feeling that France – at least in the tourist areas, is about as motorhome friendly as the UK and I didn’t want another knocking on the door.

IMG_1796When I was stuck with nowhere to stay in Aix, my French friend, Frankie, had phoned the tourist information office for me.  And it was they who had imparted the information that ‘Motorhomes were banned from Aix-en-Provence’

Well it was worth a try here in Avignon, and at least if motorhomes were banned I would just drive on again as I had in Aix.  I must admit to having given up bothering with the tourist information offices in the UK, either they are closed, or centralised to such an extent that I probably know more about the area than they do.  But here the offices are open every day of the week – Sunday included – until six in the evening.

The recorded message which greeted me was in French and then English.  If I wished to listen to an English menu press one.  I did and pressed another button to be greeted by a real person but in French.  I hesitantly apologised and launched into what little French I knew, but the lady spoke some English and could recommend a campsite – the only one open at this time of year – and assured me it was near enough for me to reach the centre of the city.

Of course I managed to take a wrong turning and headed away from the city.  Seeing a handy pull in I slowed down to turn, and the lovely young lady who was wiggling her bottom at the passing motorists thought she had a customer.  I had to shake my head, but she smilled, and when I had got us facing in the right direction I pointed at my camera to ask if she minded having her photo taken, and with a big grin she struck a pose.  With a couple of toots in farewell I left her to continue with her gyrations , and I was certain it wouldn’t be long before someone was tempted!!

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The Tourist Information Office was right, and when I had fought my way through the evening rush hour traffic I found the campsite almost in the centre of Avignon and right on the river bank opposite the famous bridge.

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The campsite felt tight entering it between the rows of knarled old plane trees with low slung electric cables festooned overhead.

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But we got settled and I took Phoebe for a run along the river bank as the sun started to set to take another look at the famous bridge, only noticing on our return that dogs were forbidden.  The French had a way of putting a single sign forbidding dogs when there are five or six entrances to a park or beach, so it is only as one leaves you are made aware of your misdemeanour.  Having said that several other (probably French) dogs were enjoying the very same river bank walk!

Aix-en-Provence and Cezanne

I only have Satellite Internet at present, which can be a bit hit and miss, though is better than nothing.  So using this I found a good carpark in Aix-en-Povence where we could stay overnight.

Huh!!!   I am not sure if France is becoming tired of the amount of motorhomes which travel about, but many of the places I find now have height barriers restricting parking to cars.  And so it was here.  I tried one place, then another.  Nothing.  A French friend phoned the Tourist Bureau who said motorhomes were now banned from the town .  That’s okay, but it might be good to put that information on your tourist site.  Don’t let people arrive thinking otherwise.

So – we sat sullenly on the roadside, in a place somewhat too narrow for Thebus’s bulk whilst I worked out what to do next.

I had hoped to visit Cezanne’s studio, but with nowhere to park it looked as though that was not to be.  Perhaps the mountain which obsessed him and which he painted so many times might be a good place to visit instead.  There was nowhere to stop for the night there either, but in my internet researches I suddenly found an overnight parking place only a couple of miles from where we were marooned.  It was a council owned carpark with free 24 hour parking for camper vans.  I set the Sat Nav and headed off, and though the approach was hilly, narrow, twisty and very tight under the trees, when we finally made it there was a huge, empty carpark, with very few cars and a single motorhome.

Feeling more secure we settled down.  And as the carpark was so vast and empty I didn’t feel the need to turn and face the exit ready for escape.  The next day was promising grey and rain, so I thought to stay until the early morning rush was over, then head off to Le Tholonet which lay beneath the Montagne Sainte Victoire

In the morning I heard some cars and children and thought it was the owners’ of the vehicles parked up overnight taking their children off to school.  But when there was a tap on the door i rose quickly to find a concerned gentleman saying (in so far as I could understand) that I could not stay where I was as it was a school carpark.  And when I looked out I was completely hemmed in by hundreds of cars and children.

I thanked him and organised myself as quickly as I could, did a neat three point turn, amazing myself at my abilities, and escaped.  Though of course everywhere I went within the next couple of miles was thronging with the school run mayhem, so it was not the easiest of starts to the day.

Before long there were roadworks with little flags along the road edge.  That was fine, but then the flags petered out and the road edge became a deep ditch with signs in French saying what I assume to be something like ‘Crumbling Road Edge”

As the road was so narrow and the early morning commuters headed in the opposite direction were in such a hurry, at one point I had to apply the brakes more fiercely than usual.  In my haste to get us out of the school carpark I had left the half-filled kettle on the hob.  This now flew off towards Phoebe scattering (cold) water and clattering loudly.  In turn she was upset, and in my rush not only had I forgotten to stow the kettle, I had neglected to fasten her to her travelling leash.  She rushed towards me, I scolded her so she tried to get onto my lap, when I prevented that she crawled under my legs towards the pedals. Disaster!  Luckily I was close by a small road, so gently coasted in and stopped.  Switched off the engine, applied the handbrake and began to wonder how to extricate Phoebe from beneath the driver’s seat where she was now totally jammed.

When she was a little puppy she loved to hide under the driver’s seat and I had forbidden her to do so for just the reason we now found ourselves in.  Should I try and pull her backwards?  Should I try to move the seat?  Fortunately as I was wondering she wriggled round and out – and it was fortunate, as just at that very moment another commuter was attempting to get out of the roadway we were blocking. I just had time to move the kettle ,chain Phoebe in and set off again,

The narrow bendy road went on for a few miles combined with the early morning traffic rushing towards us, but finally we reached our destination of Le Tholonet.

Almost the first thing you notice as you enter is the old chateau and a magnificent avenue of plane trees.

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IMG_1752I think Cezanne was supposed to have painted this Chateau, but I can find no information or image, so I hope it was an artist’s impression, rather than a two undercoats and a gloss topcoat on the chateau window frames!

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I parked in a council carpark by a neat petanque square,  though felt unsure if I was allowed and asked an early morning council worker,  I got a French shrug of the shoulders, and what I think was ‘Sometimes it is – Sometimes it isn’t”  So took a chance and let Phoebe for a run about, noticing on our way that I was well and truly in the South of France, when I passed the open door of the public lavatories.

IMG_1734 After our walk I went alone to explore, as the roads were too narrow and bendy for a mobility scooter with a frisky Great Dane in tow.

Rounding the bend on a hill just leaving the town is a wonderful view of Montagne Sainte Victoire, Apparently Cezanne painted it so often as he was charmed by its contrast against the intense clear blue sky.  On our January visit I am afraid it was more grey and cloudy.

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Perhaps I shall return another year, especially as I was looking forward to trying Duck with Olives at his favourite restaurant – only to find it was yet another place closed for January!!

Carro

Carro is not that far away from Nice, so it took us quite a while to get there, longer than I expected in fact and although driving through The Camargue at sunset was charming, before long it was completely dark.  We skirted Marseilles in the worst of the evening traffic, and approaching our destination it was me, not Strict Lady that took a wrong turning – meaning we went through a tiny little seaside town, with a very narrow streets and an even narrower stone bridge, passing on the way some wide-eyed pedestrians.  Still we got though unscathed and arrived at our stopping place for the night.

I was pleased it was late as I felt it would give me time to work out how the entrance system worked, but after about ten minutes of getting nowhere I had to admit defeat and ask someone passing by in my non-existent French if they could help.

I think I was doing it right – just expecting the machine to work more quickly than it did.  Anyway after asking me twice if I was alone, and thinking I must have misunderstood the question,  they kindly helped me in and I gratefully parked up.

The waves were thundering in, and knowing what the tides are like in Britain I took Phoebe for a walk in the dark to enjoy the sound of the sea – I always forget how much I miss it!  Then getting back to Thebus I remembered reading that the Mediterranean sea hardly has tides at all, and of course the next morning it was still thundering in just as joyfully.

We had a lovely day there and I took Phoebe for lots of walks.  I half thought about staying on another day or two, but in the end after some googling decided to press on to Aix-en-Provence which the friend who had recommended the wonderful spot at Carro was so enamoured with.

Through the Camargue at Sunset

I hadn’t really appreciated how near I was to the Carmargue I was until I saw the Flamingos at Narbonne, and the Wild White Horses and Black Bulls of the Carmargue were something I had often thought about and longed to see.  I felt I was so near now I might just as well head on down there.

I checked out various places of interest to visit, and while planning, a friend who has travelled extensively on the continent in a motorhome suggested that Aix-en-Provence was one of her most favourite French cities, and that not far away was an aire at Carro which was a wonderful place to stop

So thinking I could travel though the Camargue, stop at the beach side aire at Carro then head back to Aix my plan was fixed, and off we went.

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There are many times when I wish I had someone with me who could photograph the interesting places I pass.  So often it is not possible to stop to take a snap.  Mind you when I finally got to the Camargue and saw my first herd of magnificent Wild Black Camargue Cattle, the bull with splendid curved horns, I might have been tempted to pull over but another traveller already had, and I felt that two of us stopped on a roundabout might be just tooooo much.  I will need to get more confident.  But I must be getting a little braver, as having missed the first herd of Wild White Camargue horses, then the wonderful Black Bull and his herd I spotted another group of a stallion and mares across the salt flats and just pulled onto the hard shoulder to take a few snaps.

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But I did miss photographing the enormous bay with mile upon mile of what I think must have been oyster beds, and the huge glistening bays and lakes.  Then later on a river, or was it a canal, flowing though endless lakes and marshes.  All made even more romantic by the fact the daylight was fading and the sun was setting in shining spender over the still, flat, glistening waters.

And did I mention the Flamingos – I almost felt ashamed of my excitement  on seeing the Flamingos near Narbonne.  Here there were thousands upon thousands, upon thousands of them. Every lake had two or three or even ten flocks, feeding and doing Flamingo things, and looking a glorious glowing pink in the evening sunset.

As we headed on towards Marseilles the scenery became more and more Mediterranean, with masses of palm trees, and low pan-tiles whitewashed houses.  Then reaching (I think)  Port Saint Louis du Rhone, beautifully situated on a bay, Strict Lady and I had a bit of a contretemps

She had told me to go round a roundabout, taking the fourth exit which I duly did.  I must admit the road looked somewhat familiar, but within a couple of miles she sent me back again.  Once again telling me to take the fourth exit.  I complied, and guess what we were back on the same road again.  After the third mistake for some reason she sullenly refused to speak to me at all, and on reaching the roundabout I chose the correct exit for myself.  A couple of miles on down the road she and I were on speaking terms again.

Although she has had her problems in the UK I think here on the Continent they are somewhat magnified.  I cannot rely on her to tell me the correct road number, the next town, or even the exit.  But for all that, I am grateful for her, and realise that without her guidance there is no way I could cope with getting from one end of France ( a country I know NOTHING about) to the other.  And when I get lost she eventually helps me find my way back onto the correct road.  So for all the abuse I have hurled at you Strict Lady, you now have my apologies, and thanks for getting me at least somewhere near to where I want to go.

The Etang of Montardy

Before leaving the district around Narbonne there was an unusual landscape feature I wanted to take a look at.  The Etang de Montardy.  Etang means pond and before the middle ages there was a brackish lake below Montardy which was a danger to health from the mosquitos which bred there. So in 1270 it was decided to drain the lake and a sump was sunk in the middle which led to a  tunnel of over 1300 meters taking the drained water away and out under the nearby d’Ensérune hill.

Once all this was done an area of some 420 hectares was released for agriculture, much of which was planted with wines.  But as a by product an amazing wheel was produced by the radial drainage channels. The best place to see this wonder, other than from the air, is from the nearby hill on top of which is an ancient settlement or ‘Oppodium”

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In my experience many ancient settlements are not well served by modern roads, so I was a bit nervous about getting there in Thebus, and had I followed Strict Lady’s instructions this would have been more than justified.  But instead I followed the Tourist Signs, which lead me quite easily to a large flat parking area.  Having taken The Supter and Phoebe on up to the top I discovered it would have been quite possible to have driven Thebus all the way up, but I was happy with where we had stopped.

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Having seen the view from the summit  (the ruins of the settlement were closed for ‘French lunchtime’ and it hardly seemed worthwhile retuning)  as we dropped back down the steep slope we crossed the over the Canal du Midi – in fact the road went over the top of the famed Malpas tunnel

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So Phoebe and I wandered down to the canal path to take a look at the famous tunnel

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Now, having spent some time in the industrial West Midlands, my ideas of a Canal Tunnel were perhaps inflated.  So having got down to the level of the canal I was quite disappointed with the tunnel itself.

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However reading up on it afterwards it transpired that this was the first Canal Tunnel ever attempted in Europe.  The rock there was brittle and crumbled easily which would have resulted in landfall so the Prime Minister of the day ordered a halt to the work,  but Riquet, the architect of the Canal du Midi, tunnelled on through without permission and cemented over the internal surface of the tunnel. It is said he was inspired by existing tunnel draining the Etang, and in fact his work still holds good today from 1679, so perhaps I am more impressed than I was.

My internet researches made me think Sete would be an interesting next stop.  It had an active fishing fleet, so there would be good fish either to buy or in the restaurants, and there was an aire for motorhome parking right by the port.

Sad to say I think the internet information was out of date.  I arrived at the place looking like the one pictured on the internet, but now height barriers restricted parking to cars.  There was another aire, but away from the town, and it meant doubling back on ourselves and it was now beginning to rain a little, so after on quick stop for a photo of the thousands of yachts moored there, and some of the largest I had seen as well, I decided to press on to Carro

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Betty Blue and Gruissan Plage

Another place Andy and Chantal had taken me to see was the Gruissan Beach.  A real step back in time with its colonial looking timber chalets on stilts and maze of overhead electric wires.

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Apparently in the mid nineteenth century it was usual for everyone to help with the grape harvest, and Nabonnaise families would head out early for a beach break before the hard work of the harvest began, first sleeping in covered wagons then cabins on stilts.

In the 1920’s the Gruissan villagers, with an eye to entrepreneurship, purchased some land on the foreshore from the State and built some basic huts, still on stilts, which were let to the local families on holiday visits. The chalets of today are more permanent, and as the land is now better drained some of the basement areas have been filled in to give more useable space, but it still has an amazing period feel.  And in front of the little holiday village is a fabulous expanse of sand and palm trees

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The cult film Betty Blue was made here in 1968 about a couple living in such a chalet, and though I haven’t seen it I have put it on my Amazon wish list, though I have been warned it is ‘quite raunchy’

 

Flamingos

When Andy and Chantal had taken my on my whirlwind tour of the area they know and love so well I was amazed to see flamingos!

New Year’s Day had been greyish, and there were only a few feeding in the water, but that was exciting enough – even though those there were seemed a long way off. It reminded me of the first time I had seen seals when in Scotland, and then dolphins escorting the ferry boat back to Oban.  But today I had foolishly left my camera behind in the rush to leave Phoebe without getting her over-excited, and so had no mementos.

After the New Year, vaguely remembering where Andy had taken me, I headed off for the salt flats and marshes.

It is a strangely beautiful area – with stoney outcrops and grey craggy cliff-faces to the low hills, the sides of which are covered with rounded Mediterranean Pines;  the tall slender columns of dark evergreen Cypress trees; feathery silver-leaved olive trees; prickly yellow gorse, already flowering in early January; feathery plumed Giant Reed – which really and truly are giant; wiry brown grasses, even occasional fig trees, and of course, acres and acres and acres of vines.

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Narbonne itself was set up by the Romans as a trading port, exporting mainly wine, and the Via Domita, the very first Roman Road connecting Italy to Spain, running through what was then Gaul, passes right through the very heart of the city.  So the whole area is quite literally littered with Roman remains, and earlier settlements as well.

As the stoney tracks leading downwards through the low vineyards get nearer to the marshy coast line they become increasingly muddy.  Well muddy is perhaps an understatement.  Several of these rough roads were completely flooded as we neared the shoreline – looking more like mini lakes.  Phoebe either picked her way round the edge, or did something old Phoebe would never have done and splashed straight through the middle.  She had a few laps at the water, but judging by her face I would guess it was brackish.

I, of course, had to keep to the edges.  But The Supter performed magnificently.  There were a few times when I thought I was really risking getting stuck, but as usual I was not to be daunted by minor difficulties.  I had come to see Flamingos, I knew they were there at the waters edge, and I was determined to get as close as I could.  And we did.

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I could hear them quite close by burbling away to each other, but the giant reeds made it impossible to see the nearest birds, but over in the water not too far away I could make out a small flock and managed to get some photos.  And also a couple of horrendous bites from unidentified insects.  I know the mosquitos here have a reputation, but these bites were so bad I wondered if they were some sort of sand-fly.

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Still I was unaware at the time and feeling satisfied we started back to Thebus, but by now the Supters wheels were coated in the thickest of mud.  So thick and sticky I wondered quite how we managed to keep going.  I can see what they make all those lovely terracotta pots from.  But we did get through. I wondered if we caused minor amusement to the hikers and  four wheel drives which passed us.

Phoebe – I am pleased to say is getting better and better behaved and more and more sensible.  I hope she keeps it up as she is still only a puppy but understands a lot of what I say to her.

Narbonne Cathedral

Having now been travelling for over two years I feel I have seen my fair share of Cathedrals, but Andy said the Cathedral here was special so I felt I ought to at least put my head inside the door.

And once inside it is truly a reminder of how extremely wealthy the Catholic Church was in the Middle Ages.  I would assume that the area here was wealthy in any case due to the vines and wine it was producing even before Roman times.  And of course it was a port and important crossing of two major roads. But that still didn’t prepare on for the sheer magnitude of the building.

It had been started in 1272 and work continued on and off until a lawsuit in 1347 put a stop to it. Part of the city wall needed to be demolished to make way for the enlarged nave, and he city father’s decided this would be a catastrophic move for the safety of the city – so took the Catholic Church to court – which must have been a serious undertaking in those days when the power of the Church was at its height.

They won and were soon proved right when the ramparts were necessary to the city’s safety during the Hundred Years’ War. The cathedral still remains unfinished, and in fact all that is in existence is the Apse with its fourteen chapels (an apse is the curved bit which lies behind the main altar of a Cathedral.)  and the Chancel.  The actual Cathedral would have been massively bigger had it ever been completed.

You can see from this photo – and what is there now would have been a mere fraction of its finished magnificence

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But to step inside this tiny portion of what had been planned is to be made strikingly aware of the power and wealth of the Catholic Church in France at the time.

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The stone columns soar upwards to extravagant heights and each of the Apse chapels are opulently equipped.  The altar, quire stalls and organ really need to be seen to appreciate their proportions and grandeur.

I have to say after a short look round one could begin to understand the discontent and politics which brought about the French Revolution.

 

Shopping Sorties

And no…. I don’t mean shopping exits – I am trying to get to grips with shopping in a foreign language.  I have made a few forays into the shops, and all my life having had an eye for a bargain  I am can’t resist trying to apply the same methods when shopping in French.

But it’s hard.  Firstly I don’t speak French and then even the way they write the price is different.  Instead of the euro sign coming in front of the price it generally comes in the middle where we would put our decimal point  – but not always!  The result of this was that seeing a very nice bottle of wine I couldn’t believe my luck that it was less than four euros.  I expect you can guess what comes next.  Still it is probably worth the twenty two pounds I spent, though I think I shall keep it for a more special occasion than I was intending.

Just by the main boulevard in Narbonne is Les Halles – the fresh food market.  A surprisingly modern looking building for one that was built in 1901.

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Inside is a plethora of stalls selling DELICIOUS produce – including the largest loaf of bread I have ever seen for sale!.

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I would have liked to take lots of photographs, but felt it would be too gauche.  For some reason I am still feeling shy and uncertain, probably due to my lack of language skills.  It will all come in time I expect.

I left Phoebe at Thebus, with half a chicken to keep her entertained, so I had time for a good look round the market, though many of the stalls were closed.  I think the French, especially in the tourist areas take quite a lot of time off after Christmas.  Probably a good idea for them, but I shall remember in the future and save my travels in France for the Spring, rather than winter.

Still – as well as the largest loaf of bread I have ever seen, I bought the most delicious looking fruit  tartlet.  So delicious, that I couldn’t wait to photograph it but had to have a bite.

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I also wanted to try some Narbonne Honey – famous since Roman times for its delicate aroma, but didn’t notice a stall with anything on offer, so headed for the town.

Apparently there was a wonderful Patisserie which made another thing I on my list – a local speciality of honey and almond buscuits. But I could find no trace of the Patisserie – perhaps long gone?  About the area I expected to see it was an upmarket Delicatessen, so I thought they might be good for the honey.  I am not sure what I bought, though it was delicious and should have been for the 13.50 euros it cost me.  I must learn to say – How much is it please!!!

In fact I do know how to say this, but confronted with someone speaking French all my thoughts seem to stultify, and I am left with garbled nonsense.

I also bought Phoebe and myself a ‘ Three Kings Cake’ – sold at around the time of Twelfth Night, it comes with a golden crown and little china trinket.  Ours was in the form of a duck.  The idea is you hide the trinket in the cake and the person whose slice contains it is king or queen for the rest of the day.  I didn’t know any of this at the time and finding the china duck assumed it was a sweet and tried to eat it!

For all that I decided it was Phoebe who would have the crown, if only because she is rubbish at taking photos!

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Phoebe thinks the crown is a stupid Idea and she should have charge of the camera!

 

 

Narbonne

Just before leaving for the continent I phoned some friends I had known since the 1980’s, in the hopes of meeting up before I crossed the channel. Chantal is French and Andy English, and both are bi-lingual, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that they had bought an apartment in France, and were just setting out to Narbonne on their first visit as owners. I hadn’t a clue of whereabouts that was, but of course it turned out to be on my route south to Barcelona.  So although I missed meeting with them before leaving England I had a chance to catch up with them in Narbonne as they were flying out again after Christmas.

They kindly located a most convenient Aire for Thebus, right by an enormous Carrefour in one direction and just a short Supter drive to the centre in the other, and even made a recognisance mission to chat with other motorhomers as to whether there was enough space for Thebus.  I needn’t have worried, there were many other European motorhomes equally as big. But I was warned to arrive earlier rather than later as the site was popular especially at the holiday season. And so it proved with all the spaces bar one taken.  But we had arrived in plenty of time.

The city of Narbonne is delightful.  Truly French in both looks and habits.  Pavement cafe life rules, and the beautiful Canal de la Robine, a side branch of the Canal du Midi, goes right through the centre of the city, with leafy boulevards on either side.

 

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There is a huge Market Hall overflowing with good things to eat, and charming little French streets full of buildings of every age, and even the occasional structure from Roman times when the city was founded.

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The street decorations for the festive season were stunning, but foolishly I managed to leave my camera behind, worrying about whether Phoebe would behave when I left her.  I needn’t have -she hadn’t done anything naughty whilst I was away, and was quite calm on my return.  I think we might be making some progress.

On New Year’s Day I took her with me all along the walkway which follows the canal banks right into the centre of the city, which although busy, was not disagreeably so.  There were lots of people with children and dogs, cyclists whizzing past us, cars and motorbikes, even a visiting fun-fair in the centre of the by the Canal, and although a bit jumpy once or twice she did very well.  I have learnt to say in French – She is a puppy – six months old – a Great Dane.  Though soon I shall have to be saying seven months old.  I think just lately she seems to be maturing and leaving her puppy stage behind, and certainly looks more like a dog than a puppy now.  She is lying on the settee behind me as I type this – replete from a dinner of fried heart with rice, peas and carrots.  I cooked it before I went supermarket shopping and left it to cool, and she was really looking forward to it when I got back.  But I am pleased I can leave food around without a fear of her stealing, as already she can look over the counter tops with ease.

Andy and Chantal took me on a whirlwind car tour of the area, which they have grown to know well in the fifteen years they have been visiting.  And I intend to check them out at leisure in Thebus, so will hopefully write more later.

I really took to Narbonne.  I can see why my friends have returned so many times. In the middle of last year a chance arose for them to buy an apartment right in the centre, with views out over the boulevard and canal from the window balconies at the front; and over the pantiled rooftops to the ancient cathedral from the windows of the bedrooms.  Charming!