Thursday, June 30, 2011

Carcassonne - world heritage site

The chateau/fortress at Carcassone is truly a wonder. It was restored under the supervision of Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the same man who restored Notre Dame de Paris. One of the outer walls dates from Roman times, but most of the fortress was built in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is a monument to medieval architecture. The major entrance is the Narbonne gate.

There is an outer wall and an inner wall.

There are many towers above the ramparts.

The gothic basilica was the first restored building and has amazing stain glass windows.

We had a wonderful day exploring all the nooks and crannies of the fortress. After a wonderful dinner in the lower town we looked back to see the fortress at night. It was never breached and was considered impregnable.

Heading west through southern France

On Tuesday we left the chateau and headed into more of Languedoc's wine country. The roads we had chosen followed small watercourses and there seemed to be a chateau (decaying or otherwise) about every 5 kilometers.

All the towns had a cooperative for the crushing of grapes and a distillery After lunch we joined the Canal du Midi, a large canal with motor boats traveling along it.

The day was fairly hot and we stopped in Lesignan-Corbieres. We decided to get a hotel room since a strong wind has come up in the afternoon and threatening skies were to the west. We had dinner crepes for the second time. The creperies offer cider by the bowl or bottle. The bowl refers to a serving cup and we enjoyed this nice brut cider.

The decision to stay in the hotel was a good one since the wind blew extremely hard all night with some severe gusts. When we awoke Wednesday, the wind had abated a little and we decided to push on. It was not the worst headwind we have ever had and each town provided relief every 4 kilometers. Just before lunch we were crossing a canal and noticed that the there was a lock full of boats.

We stayed around and watched two groups of boats pass through the locks. These locks are pretty tight quarters for the boats.

We got a little lost in the maze of canals and roads in the afternoon, but saw this lovely chateau.

We reached the bike path further down the Canal du Midi for the final 10 kilometers into Carcassone. It's tree lined banks provided a good windbreak.

We will take a day off the bikes to explore the old town of Carcassonne and the spectacular ramparts.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

From campground to chateau

We left Aniane Sunday morning and the temperature was rising fast. When we stopped to get bread, the line at the boulangerie (bakery/breadstore) was out the door. The French eat fresh bread every day and the boulangerie is one of the few stores open on Sunday. We rode south with a gentle tail wind and then turned west towards the Lac du Salagou. We had a climb to be up above the lake and there were oak and pine forests lining the road. We had planned a short day after the 72 km on Saturday. We hoped to get cold drinks in Liausson, but the town had no cafe. However, a nice English couple heard our discussion from their balcony and offered us some drinks.

Ian and Chris spend the summer in France and the winter in England. They windsurf on the lake and we had much in common with them. The drinks revived us in the heat and we rode another 6 km in blistering heat to Salasc. The landscape was a lot like western Colorado and southern Utah with lots of red rock and dry washes.

We had a big lunch of cold salads waiting for the the heat to diminish before heading to the campground. We had selected the campground because it had a pool. However, it was also a naturist campground and no one had on a stitch of clothing. We set up the tent and then joined the natives at the pool and politely followed their convention for the next hour or so until the heat dissipated. The next day we got an early start to climb the Col de la Merquiere, 372m. We saw this ancient chateau just above a paleontological site of preserved dinosaur tracks. What a contrast!

The climb was long but the grade was very manageable. Then we had a delightful descent to Le Mas Blanc. This climb and descent was on a very small country road, lightly traveled. We saw many interesting old farm buildings.

We descended for most of the rest of the day with one small climb just past Bedarieux. We ended our day traveling small roads to Murviel-les-Beziers. Here the only accomodations were at the top of the hill in the center of town, yes, the Chateau! The front gate opened onto a delightful courtyard.

This was the entry hall through a door just to the right of the gate.

The fireplace in our room with 16 ft. ceilings.

Tomorrow we head south for one more day then we go west towards Toulouse. This is a big departure from our original plan to go south into Spain. We have decided that due to the lateness of the season and the heat in Spain that we would tour Spain another Spring. Also our pace has not been as planned and we need to reduce significantly the distance we are to travel.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Two days after Arles

We left Arles and headed into the marshland of the Camargue. We saw lots of white horses and rice fields as we rode some very small roads. The bullfighting theme was very prevalent in towns with ads for bullfighting festivals. We saw all sorts of bull icons and this sculpture at an atelier (workshop) along the road.

After lunch we had a wonderful ride along a bike path to our final destination, Sommieres. We saw this wonderful old foot bridge along the way.

Sommieres is an old walled city and we found a chambres d'hotes (bed and breakfast) at one of the old gates. When we asked the proprietor about the age of the building, he said it was from the Middle ages. The wall around the town had been the protection for the chateau. The siegneur of this chateau had been killed in one of the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in France. Sommieres has one of the most unusual bell towers we have seen.

Today, Saturday, we left Sommieres and headed into rolling country near one of the high points in the area, Peak St-Loup.

It was beautiful country and the road was good and the traffic light. The afternoon's agenda was another gorge, the Gorge de l'Herault. The heat made the climbs tiring, but the gorge was unique.

Once again comparison to Arroyo Seco Gorge came to mind, especially after seeing the above scene. We soon rode out of the gorge, saddle weary and overheated. We stopped at the first hotel we came to. There was no room, but the nice lady called around to find that the next accommodation with room for us was still 7 kilometers away. Well, there was nothing for it but to go. We finished the day in Aniane.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

More History and Food

On Thursday the ride from Avignon to Arles was across flat farmland. We began to see another signature crop of the Provence region.

A nice tailwind made it easy going. Now that we have a little more experience in France, it seems to us that the French drivers are more patient than the Italians or Greeks. Cycling seems popular, though we haven't seen the big club rides like we saw in Italy nor anything like the hundreds of cyclists on the road every Sunday in Lombardy.
Just inside the gate of the old city center we were greeted by this building with a great mural.

Arles has a long history and some significant monuments from Roman times. The area of Provence was the first provincia that Caesar gave to his troops and that is the origin of it's name. The ancient theatre was built around 100 B.C. And the colosseum in 90 A.D. They have been under restoration and are used for modern entertainments. The colosseum is used for conventional bullfighting as well as Camargue bullfighting which is a style that does not kill the bull.

In Avignon we had searched for a good local restaurant, but had only found tourist restaurants.
In Arles the hotel proprietor gave us the name of several good local restaurants and we had a spectacular meal. It started with a chilled artichoke and garlic mousse. For the first course Dave had an anchovy and potato tart and Belinda had eggplant stuffed with roasted chicken, herbs and lamb sweetbreads.

The main course was braised toreaux (bull meat, not cow or steer) that melted in your mouth.

We finished the meal with goat cheese drizzled with olive oil and creme brûlée, c'est magnifique! Today we start the morning crossing the Rhone river for the third time in 2 days and skirting the great wetland, the Camargue, made by the river.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Getting to the Pope's Palace

On Tuesday morning we left the wonderful Chambres La Sarrasine in Villes-sur-Auzon. We had a great meal the previous night and had enjoyed our stay in a home built in 1600. Bertrand, our host, had made us a great dinner with liberal use of herbs from Provence. We loaded up and said goodbye to Bertrand at the front door.

We had a fairly easy day through the farmland outside of Avignon. The GPS in the IPad was critical to our route finding since there were so many roads. We rode along waterways and through small farms for almost 30 km.

The road into Avignon was one of the best we've had into a large city. There was a a good shoulder or a bike lane the whole way. We were arriving on day of a music festival and the town was jumping. We walked around and saw the outside of the major attractions before the party started.

This local street band caught our eye and ears since they were playing "When the Saints go marching in."

The crowd kept getting bigger and the music louder.

We don't know when the party ended, but we're sure it was a late. Today, Wednesday, we did our sightseeing. The palace of the Popes of Avignon was established in 1309 and nine Popes resided here over a hundred year period. The palace was continually added on to and is one of the largest in the world at over 15,000 square meters (over 160,000 square feet). The walls are amazingly thick and hold up one massive room on top of another.

Here is the major dining room.

And the large chapel.

Tomorrow we are on our way towards Arles.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Gorgeous Gorges

We woke up this Sunday morning to clear skies and sunshine. We were dazzled by sights that had been shrouded in mist the day before.

As we rode away from Tallard we got this view of the Chateau de Tallard.

As the day progressed we began to wonder if we weren't back in the uplands of Utah or Southwestern Colorado. The scenery had that feel to it.

In the afternoon we experienced deja vu all over again as we entered the Gorge de la Meouge. The similarity to our own Arroyo Seco Gorge struck us both and we made the comparison immediately. It was a scenic ride.

We left the gorge and the strong headwind returned. We had pushed rather hard in the morning and decided to stop in a very small town and camp. We pulled into Lachau and set up camp, cleaned up and then wandered the quiet streets. There was a large chateau in the center of town.

We had a drink at the local bar and got some of the history of the town. The chateau had been owned by a seigneur who was beheaded during the revolution and the chateau became the property of the town. The town had lost 20 young men in WW I and had hidden Jews during WW II. It now had 219 residents. We thanked the woman for sharing the information with us. Monday morning also dawned clear and the dew on the tent had to dry before we packed up. The morning was calm and warm and we had a steady but manageable climb the first 18 kilometers. We stopped for lunch at the Col de Macuegne and looked back.

There were some Dutch cyclists who invited us to join them at the picnic table with the view. About 15 minutes later we were joined by some German cyclists. We talked about touring, the route ahead and gear. They were doing local rides out from local towns. We got contact information from the Germans, Brigitte and Hans who want us to visit them in the summer apartment they have in Etienne, which is just off our route south of Avignon. We had entered Provence in the morning and the multitude of lavender fields increased as the day went on.

Similar to Sunday our route went through another grand gorge, the Gorges de la Nesque.

We finished the day at the small town of Villes-Sur-Auzon. We rode to the town center following signs for the municipal camping, however on one corner of the town place (French for plaza, piazza, square) we spied a sign for chambres. We inquired and the price was right so we took a room in the charming bed & breakfast. After settling in we went to the cafe on the place and watched as other cyclists cooled themselves at the town fountain as they rode through. Next we're off to Avignon!