Europe » France » Languedoc-Roussillon 11 June 2009
01.06.2009 - 11.06.2009 25 °C
There it was in red and yellow - the packet of cereals on our breakfast table confirmed what most French people would like you to believe: the world’s international language is French, not English.
The only English words on this packet were 'Corn Flakes'.
Details of what they were made of, how to serve them, and volumes of nutritional advice were in French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and Greek. However, as any Englishman who’s an average French-speaker will tell you, when you start to stumble for a word in conversation with a native they’re almost certain to help you out by saying it in English! So, let’s be generous and say that the English bits were probably left off the cornflakes packet by mistake.
Yes, we’ve been to la belle France once again, albeit unexpectedly this time. Our son and his family had booked a holiday in Languedoc on the sunny southern Mediterranean coast - the bit that's north of the Pyrenees, the range of mountains you have to fly over to get to the Costas.
At the last minute, two others who’d planned to travel with them had to drop out, so we took their places. It meant flying from Liverpool to be on the same early-morning Ryanair flight - and some careful packing to be sure of meeting the airline’s peculiar weight restrictions. Alas, those peculiarities make no allowance for the mountain of stuff needed by a one-year-old who has no baggage allowance of her own, so our son was charged 30 quid for excess baggage on the outward journey - for just two kilos! We’ve since invested in some lightweight baggage scales and, in future, can carefully check the bags before getting to the airport. Guess who can expect to receive similar scales as one of his Christmas presents!
Our flights were to and from Gerona in northern Spain, the airport that Ryanair chooses to call Barcelona. Close, but no cigar! The Irish lilt of the recorded in-flight announcements disguised the fact that the cabin crew were from all points of the globe except Ireland. Anything not pre-recorded was so indecipherable that it could have been in Polish - and possibly was!
Everything was geared towards making you hand over some more of your hard-earned cash - well, I guess they have to make up their past year’s losses of £145.9 million somehow. Perhaps the 2007 YouTube video of Cheapo Airlines really wasn’t too far off the mark!
The flights left on time - and arrived, with a fanfare and a ‘didn’t we do well’ announcement, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Would it be too cynical to suggest that their scheduled flight times are overstated to make sure they arrive early and thus maintain their 94% on-time record?
Europcar at Gerona Airport came up trumps, providing us with a spacious nine-seater Fiat Scudo minibus instead of the six-seater Citroen Grand Picasso that we’d paid for. Phew - we’d wondered how we were going to fit in all that luggage. It was also an economical diesel-powered beast and easy to drive, once familiar with its length and width.
A speedy (and notoriously dangerous) toll road took us safely into and out of France, less than an hour away. Our first stay involved a relatively short onward journey from the autoroute through pretty countryside to the Pyrenean spa town of Vernet-les-Bains, just to the south of Prades at the foot of snow-capped Mount Canigou.
Even pushing a buggy uphill is a pleasure in the countryside around Vernet-les-Bains.
With more time here, we might have taken the Petit Train Jaune (the little yellow train), which jogs its way through mountain scenery and which my wife and I had enjoyed on a visit to the region a few years ago. Instead, we enjoyed the lush green countryside, the town's market with its freshly-picked strawberries and cherries (later enjoyed in the park adjoining the spa) and visited the nearby fortified town of Villefranche le Conflent which, at this time of year, was gloriously free of crowds. Apart from its honey-coloured stone buildings and shaded streets with a constant flow of spring water alongside the pavement, most of its shops and restaurants displayed wrought-iron signs illustrating their particular speciality - quite unusual.
Villefranche le Conflent. The lovely, if a bit touristy, old town of Villefranche le Conflent, a short journey from Vernet-les-Bains
One of the signs in Villefranche. They were everywhere!
Three nights later we moved an hour’s drive east to the village of Villelongue dels Monts, about half-an-hour from the bustling seaside resort of Argelès-sur-Mer. The sprawling resort of Argelès is actually Europe’s camping mecca but we were not to be under canvas for our week’s stay here. Instead, we stayed at a British-owned gîte, a well-converted five bedroom/four-bathroom former farmhouse with a private swimming pool and a great view towards the distant sea. It was a quality villa, although we did have a few reservations about safety if, like us, you're travelling with small children.
The farmhouse ...or rather: the view towards the sea from the farmhouse at Villelongue dels Monts.
Dusk in the Pyrenees. The view from our room in the early evening light.
The villa was a 10-minute stroll to the local bar, baker and small grocery shop and within sight of the sea on the horizon. Although we did seem to spend most of our time with our feet up, either on the huge terrace or down by the swimming pool, one particularly good excursion was to Collioure.
A regular tourist boat service runs from Port Argelès southwards along the coast to Collioure, a picturesque town much enjoyed by artists, with a timetable that allows you to spend either a half day or a full one in the town. Again, June was an ideal time to visit - fine weather and tolerable numbers of visitors. Villelongue itself was somewhat sedate and rural - certainly no noisy nightlife here (and not a lot of life in the daytime either actually), although there's plenty of it in Argelès, with fun fairs, shops galore and mile upon mile of sand.
It's about half an hour on the boat from Port Argeles to Collioure.
Picturesque Collioure (although this was in June and it will be overflowing with tourists in August).
Our next two nights were at Serviès-en-Val, a village of around 250 inhabitants in a picturesque valley, west of Lagrasse and south of the medieval, fortified Cité of Carcassonne. We had planned longer here but the village turned out to be tiny, in the middle of nowhere and devoid of interest. Really, the only reason for staying here was to be within reach of Carcassonne, a place worthy of visit at least once. We went twice!
The fort at Carcassonne has probably been a bit too well restored and has become a tourist trap, hardly a surprise as it's apparently second only to the Eiffel Tower for the number of visitors each year. The car parks and restaurants are all relatively expensive and there's the usual range of shops selling the sort of rubbish adored by less-discerning tourists, but it's certainly atmospheric and there's quite a lot to see inside its turreted, defensive walls.
Carcassonne. At the entrance to the medieval city.
Inside the city of Carcassonne, near the School Museum, looking towards the cathedral.
The final two nights, geared towards catching our early morning return flight, were at an hotel in Fornells, 15 minutes from the airport, ten minutes to the attractive old town of Gerona, and 30 minutes or so to the Catalan seaside town of Sant Feliu de Guixols.
The hotel at Fornells was not particularly swish, but it had a very pleasant pool area.
Apart from a decent beach, Sant Feliu de Guixols had a pedestrianised shopping area.
In Vernet and Serviès, we stayed at chambres d’hôtes (literally rooms for guests), the French equivalent of our English 'bed & breakfasts' and more or less unique in continental Europe. Those not familiar with this accommodation option should try it some time. Most of the owners speak at least some English (or understand it when spoken with added hand signals), it’s easy to book on the web, and you get to meet real French people at the same time. Rooms are generally comfortable and have en suite bathrooms. You’re served an ample continental breakfast, often with homemade bread and jams, sometimes with cheese and ham, sometimes with croissants, and always with a choice of tea, coffee or hot chocolate. Some can provide a substantial evening meal as well (at a price - although it is usually a big meal and includes aperitifs, three or four courses, plus coffee); it's often a good opportunity to sample regional food and to meet other guests. The Gîtes de France website explains all (in English).
The one we stayed at in Vernet was a bit cluttered, mostly with remnants of paraphernalia from the owners’ time as restaurateurs. Like their former restaurant, it too was called La Grange Fleurie (which translates as 'the flowery barn' or, better perhaps, 'the barn decorated with flowers'). The owners were actually Belgian, but they spoke French with the local Catalan accent, as well as English. They made us very welcome. The rooms were a good size, had private facilities with lots of hot water and superb views towards Mount Canigou on one side and over rolling hills on the other. Added bonuses were a room with fridge and tea-making facilities for guests’ use and a small swimming pool in spacious gardens - the latter particularly welcome as our visit coincided with beautiful weather.
La Grange Fleurie. Unusually, there was a swimming pool (with a great view!) and a room for guests with a fridge and everything needed for making tea and coffee.
In Serviès, we were told by the charming owners that the house, Relais Marjolène, had been just a ruin with four walls and no roof until five years ago. They had certainly made a good job of the restoration. Externally, the house was grey and very drab (in keeping with the rest of the village!) but, inside, its decor was stylish and its four guest rooms were exceptionally well appointed. Apparently, there was an English family living just across the road - we can only guess that they’d either bought their house at a knock-down price or that they wanted a quiet life!
Relais Marjolene. The stylish interior was a surprise.
Apart from when we stayed at the farmhouse in Villelongue dels Monts, where we made good use of the provided barbecue in the evenings, we ate out at local restaurants. Most were good but unremarkable and, partly because of the currently awful Euro exchange rate, they were expensive too. However, as with most things, there were exceptions.
In Vernet, for example, we discovered the biggest pizzas we’d ever seen. Had we known, we would have ordered one between the four of us instead of one each! In the new town of Gerona, we wandered into a run-of-the-mill cafeteria, ate and drank well from a set menu that we didn’t understand, and ended up with a tasty and filling meal that proved to be the least expensive of the entire holiday.
This giant Pizza Vesuve was liberally scattered with chillies and chilli oil. Vesuve, of course, is French for the volcano Vesuvius. The pizza was suitably fiery!
In Gerona’s old town, we found L’Arcada, a restaurant on Rambla de la Llibertat, the main pedestrianised street - family-friendly, outdoor tables for people-watching, good service, and an excellent menu. We went there two nights running as it was so good. Their boneless ‘back of lamb’ with its flavourful sauce was to die for - ask our son, he had it on both nights!
This was far from being a cheap holiday - prices in France, like most places, have risen since we last visited and they were made to seem even higher in Sterling terms because of the fall in the value of the Pound. It was, however, an immensely enjoyable one, shared with our son, his lovely wife and our two even lovelier granddaughters - and all the more enjoyable because it was unexpected.