Homage to Catalona

Thursday 11th April 2013, Amélie-les-Bains, Roussillon
We left Ambre yesterday lunchtime with regret. We probably needed something to shift us and the pending arrival of friends of our hosts was the catalyst. They were due to arrive just a few hours after we left. The “Boss” trotted around after us as we transferred our belongings back into Modestine and he was in the square to watch us depart. He has definitely aged and made no attempt to race us to the top of the village as he used to do.

In St. Chinian we needed money and a stop for coffee at one of the bars with a sunny terrace. We were loath to leave, so it was an excuse to linger. Eventually however we were on our way. We’d abandoned our intention of camping near Sète for a couple of nights in order to attend a concert in which our friend Sylvia was singing. We will visit her in Hereford once we are back home. Instead we decided to head for Rousillon, the Catalan area of France that borders Spain. So now we find ourselves once again in Amélie, first visited back in 2005. It is a spa town and is considered to be rather chic. As usual, we drove along the minor roads, avoiding motorways and passing through the countryside, small towns and villages.

Our first near disaster was when we reached Lézignan. It was market day and our route was barred by stallholders. We crawled around tiny back streets and dead ends until finally refinding our route on the far side of the market. Here though we discovered we needed to pass beneath a low bridge - 2.3 metres, so too low for Modestine. The sign was on the bridge. Presumably the early warning was back in the market place but as we’d been diverted we’d missed it. The road was a busy one with a tailback behind Modestine as she needs to move slowly on the broken, potholed roads of many small provincial French towns. We held up the traffic in both directions as we managed a multi-point turn in the road at the bridge. Generally drivers were amused rather than cross however. Thus we found ourselves negotiating the backstreets once more until we eventually found another route under the railway with a 4 metre clearance. Twenty minutes later we found ourselves triumphantly on the far side of the 2.3 metre bridge we’d balked at earlier.

Once we’d left the vines of the St. Chinian area behind we found ourselves in the Corbières region where Côte du Roussillon and Fitou wines are produced on the slopes of the rugged mountains on which stand the remains of the castles of the Cathars. The sun shone as we picnicked in a vineyard near the châteaux of Quéribus and Peyrpertuse which we visited one cold winter’s day during our first visit to the area.

Picnic in the vineyards of the Corbières region

Château d’Aguilar, Tuchan

Overcoming the temptation to revist them we continued on our way across the wide, rugged, empty landscape at one point driving into a thick dark cloud of swarming bees! Many sadly ended their lives splatted on Modestine’s windscreen. Our windows were wide open at the time so we count ourselves lucky not to have been stung. It happened so quickly there was no opportunity to avoid them.

We eventually found ourselves winding down from the hilltops to the attractive town of Céret which Picasso found so charming during his various visits to the town. He donated several of his works to the museum of modern art in the town. The 19th century buildings of Céret are more elegant and more recent than we’d seen in the Languedoc with attractive iron balconies and shady streets. Huge plane trees line the streets, dwarfing the buildings and offering shade to the many cafes on the central boulevard of the town.

Main boulevard, Céret

Apse of the church, Céret

CChurch interior with Spanish style Altar, Céret

Ramparts, Céret

Fountain of the nine jets, Céret

Town gates, Céret

Ian was confident of the location of the campsite we were seeking. Unfortunately we’d approached from the wrong end of the road and had to drive a tortuous winding route along a narrow, badly tarmacked road for several kilometres before we reached it. At one point we stopped to ask for directions and Ian managed to choose the only person in the little village who was dumb! My eye was hurting and we were driving into the sun. Ian was in serious trouble that evening!! Unfortunately my eye is still bad today and I have been unable to drive.
It hasn’t mattered (other than the obvious fact I’ve been in discomfort) as we have spent a very pleasant day around Amélie. When we were last here the stunning Gorge de Mondony had been closed to visitors a month before our arrival because of rockfalls. We were told today that it would reopen in May, just a month after our second visit!
Thermes du Mondony, Amelie-les-Bains

Thermes Romains, Amelie-les-Bains

Steam rising from the town lavoir which is fed by naturally heated water from a hot spring

We took a walk up behind the smart spa buildings and followed a minor road up high above the town. From here we could look across at the snowy peaks of the nearby Pyrenees shrouded in wisps of white mist. The air became chilly as we climbed until after several kilometres we could look down onto the town way below and catch tantalising glimpses down into the ravine. It was stomach churning to realise how deep it was, the river a tiny stream mostly hidden by rocks and boulders. On an inaccessible rock on the other side of the gorge someone had raised the flag of Catalonia. Eventually we turned back and plodded back into town in search of a late lunch.

Canigou seen from above Amélie-les-Bains

Canigou and Amélie-les-Bains

Amélie-les-Bains from above the Gorge de Mondony

Gorge de Mondony, Amélie-les-Bains

Gorge de Mondony, Amélie-les-Bains

Gorge de Mondony, Amélie-les-Bains

Fort les Bains, 18th century, dating from the Franco-Spanish wars, Amélie-les-Bains

Just a few kilometres further up the valley is the former iron mining little town of Arles-sur-Tech. It merited a visit though Modestine was miffed to learn we would be leaving her down beside the disused railway station as she was not allowed within the old town. I suppose it must be on one of the pilgrim routes to St. Iago de Compostella, a route modern day pilgrims sometimes follow with a hired donkey.
Arles sur Tech

Modestine is not welcome, Arles sur Tech

Tourist Office, Arles sur Tech

The town is a jumble of decaying houses crowded into dark narrow passages without the charm of the mediaeval villages of the Languedoc. At the top are a few shops and cafes and the occasional Art Nouveau house with its façade of decorative ceramic tiles, but the main attraction is the Romanesque Abbé Ste. Marie which was founded in the 8th century and was one of the very first to be established after the area was recaptured from the Moors.

The Hôtel de Ville is a charming eclectic building. Constructed in 1901-2 Las Indis was once owned by the engineer of the local iron-mining company. Having enjoyed a stroll in the grounds we went inside to admire the colourful Art Nouveau stained glass windows. Nobody seemed to mind so we explored the ground floor which we found delightful with mosaic flooring and moulded ceilings.
Las Indis, Arles sur Tech

Peacock window, Las Indis, Arles sur Tech

At the tourist office back in Amélie we discovered we could take a bus into Perpignan for a flat rate fare of one Euro each! This has got to be a bargain! So we decided to stay on at this campsite for a couple more nights and tomorrow we will catch the bus as it passes along the road below the campsite and ride into Perpignan for the day, giving my eye an extra day to recover and an opportunity to explore the capital city of the kingdom of Mallorca.

Friday 12th April 2013, Amélie-les-Bains, Roussillon
Today we put our plan into action and at 9am we were on the main road below the campsite waiting to flag down the bus on its way along the valley towards Perpignan. We’ve had a very pleasant day and have not needed our jackets once. Indeed it has been slightly too hot for us.
We have described Perpignan on our visit here in January 2006. It was comfortably warm even then. It is a typical Mediterranean city, all pink tiles, lemon walls and decorative wrought iron balconies with tall palm trees along the main boulevards.

Typical street in Perpignan

The bus dropped us at the railway station, described by Salvador Dali as the centre of the world. The city has taken his comment to heart and since our last visit has opened a shopping mall in the Passage Salvador Dali and called it Le Centre du Monde or El Centro del Mon as they say in Catalonia – and this is very much the heartland of the Catalans.

Railway station/Centre of the World, Perpignan

Here they have even named one of the schools Ecole Jordi Barre. He was born further east in the Hérault but his father came from nearby Argentès-sur-Mer. Originally a jazz musician and conductor of a symphony orchestra, able to speak fluent French and Catalan, he changed his name from the French Georges to the Catalan Jordi and the rest is history. He became a cult figure in Catalonia, both in French Perpignan and Spanish Barcelona and has been idolised ever since. He died at the age of 90 in 2011, still a popular singer capable of drawing huge audiences. Yesterday in Amélie we visited an exhibition about his life and work in the chapel of the former military hospital above the town. We were the only visitors but we learnt something completely new and realised just how strongly this area regards itself first and foremost as Catalan, allied more closely with the Spanish Catalans across the Pyrenees than with their nearer neighbours along the coast in French Narbonne.
Once again we visited the chateau of the Kings of Majorca - at two Euros for seniors it was certainly worth a second visit. We climbed the spiral staircase of the Homage Tower from where we had excellent views stretching from the snowy peak of the Pyrenees to the coast and from Colliure to the Cap Leucat. This time the gardens were being relaid so the castle stood in the centre of a building site surrounded by the daunting defensive walls of the Vauban fort constructed on the orders of Louis XIV following the annexation of the area to France in 1659. Our earlier account of Perpignan says it all.
Inside the Chateau of the Kings of Mallorca, Perpignan

View across Perpignan from the Homage Tower, Chateau of the Kings of Mallorca, Perpignan

Perpignan land survey, 14th century

Lunch was a sandwich and a small beer as I wasn’t driving, on a sunny square in an area surrounded by crowded flats occupied largely by ethnic minorities. Children and dogs played on the square while mothers gathered to chat around the fountain. Nobody seemed to have any work to do other than clip the children round the ear from time to time for kicking their footballs against the walls and in front of passing cars.

Lunchtime on one of the squares of Perpignan

Cathedral, Perpignan
Loge de Mer, Perpignan

Art Nouveau cinema, Perpignan

City gateway, Perpignan

We rediscovered the Mediaeval town hall and the huge city gate constructed in ancient red bricks and generally spent an enjoyable day. Despite my eye-drops and dark glasses my eye cannot cope with the bright sunshine and began to hurt badly while my vision became blurred. We took a bus home around 3.30pm and have decided to head north tomorrow in the hope of cloudier weather which is far more comfortable for my eye. This evening the sun has set and already I am feeling considerably better. Back at the campsite we found two German campers gazing eagerly at Modestine. They dragged us off to see their folding tent on top of their car and asked if we would consider selling Modestine as they’d never seen anything like her and she seemed perfect for their camping requirements. They could not believe how neatly planned she was and felt she would be far more suitable for them than clambering onto their roof each night to sleep. After having her for nine years we still cannot imagine a life without her and have no plans to sell her.

Saturday 13th April 2013, Villegly near Carcassonne, Languedoc
This morning the sun showed its intention of remaining as glaring as can only happen down on the Mediterranean. We poor wimps are already finding it too warm but the real problem for me has been my eye. The brightness really hurts the nerve. I was in real discomfort, unable to see properly, while the eyeball turned bloodshot. So we decided to leave the snow-capped mountains and the brightly coloured Catalan villages behind and make our way northwards in search of some dreary weather. (Yes really!) We have not been successful so far but just this short distance further north the skies are a paler blue with a few wisps of cloud. It makes the world of difference. I have not been driving into the sun today and common sense dictated that we take the longer but less winding routes to get back to the Languedoc area. Generally I have been much better today but I am back on the medication. Seven months and counting!

We discovered a Lidl in one of the towns and Modestine once more has a full fridge. We even bought some duck for Remoska to cook for our supper!

View from Lidls supermarket, near Amélie les Bains

We also discovered the very pleasant little town of Thuir which we’ve never visited before and we arrived on market day. The market was large, the sun shone and everybody was out enjoying themselves, meeting up with friends and neighbours while the children played between the stalls, had their faces painted and danced to the music of an itinerant accordion player seated near the cafe where we stopped for our coffee. (It is becoming a too regular treat.)

Market day in Thuir

We stopped for a picnic lunch with a splendid view to the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees. Later we pulled into a picnic area to make ourselves a drink and started chatting with fellow travellers returning from Southern Spain in their huge campervan. This is their eighth year of winter migration. They were deeply tanned and intend returning every winter for as long as they are able. With what you save on heating costs in England the cost of the diesel getting down there is easily covered! It’s not for everyone but we did it during our first winter though we didn’t stay in one place. That would be awful in a vehicle as small as Modestine and rather boring I imagine.

Vines on the slopes below the Cathar castle of Queribus

We left them and as we continued the road twisted downwards between the grey crags to either side until we found ourselves passing through the Défilé de Pierre-Lys, beside the river Aude. The road was narrow with tunnels cut through the rock carrying traffic in both directions. Initially I was anxious about the clearance from overhanging rocks but there was plenty of height for Modestine in the winding and rugged gorge.

Defilé de Pierre Lys

Defilé de Pierre Lys

As we exited at the far end we discovered the firemen of Hérault and Aude were having a training session rescuing each other from the middle of the fast flowing current. We parked and went to sit with the lizards basking on the hot stones beside the bridge as we watched the firemen of the Hérault throwing themselves into the current and being swept downstream on a long orange cord to prevent them being swept away. Then the gallant firemen of the Aude jumped in from the far side of the gorge attached to yellow ropes to rescue them and bring them to safety. There was lots of laughter, splashing and shouting but I suppose it was work – sort of. On a Saturday afternoon they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the overtime!

Firemen at work and play in the river Aude

As we returned to Modestine our campervan acquaintances of earlier emerged gingerly from the gorge. They’d made it through but with very little headroom or width to spare.

Ian had read that there was a museum of Printing in Limoux. I told him he knew enough to set one up so why bother going to look at what he already knew but he didn’t see it that way. So we stopped at Limoux. A small town listed as one of the 100 most interesting small towns in France. We’ve now visited about half of them and really wonder what the criteria is for including or excluding them. Many are interesting but Limoux isn’t really one of them. We wandered the grey streets searching without success for Ian’s museum. The central square looked pleasant with cafes beneath the arcades. It is the place where everybody who lives in the dark, grubby, narrow streets that surround the square comes for some daylight and to meet friends when the weather is good. The town also fronts onto the river Aude which is an attractive point in its favour. However, the public toilets are dreadful. We know, we went to use them! They were holes in the ground, uncleaned for months. The ladies facilities had all the doors missing leaving anyone using them open to public view. The concept of handwashing is not yet widely developed in France, though there is progress. Not in Limoux though.

We gave up on Ian’s museum of printing. It would probably be closed on a Saturday afternoon anyway. We left Limoux with no sense of regret, skirted Carcassonne and arrived here at what seems an idyllic campsite with large grassy secluded pitches, a swimming pool and very few people as yet. It is not far from the Canal du Midi and we are thinking of staying tomorrow to unwind, catch up on “admin” and laundry and perhaps pop in to Carcassonne which we found a very nice place even if the castle is really just a fantasy of the 19th century minister of historic monuments, Violette-le-Duc.

Sunday 14th April 2013, Villegly near Carcassonne, Languedoc
Well as you see, we are still here. It hasn’t been quite as idyllic as we’d hoped though we have got the laundry done, relaxed, taken some local strolls and caught up on internet activities. It has been very windy indeed today. No sooner had we showered and put all out used clothing and bedding into the large capacity washing machine than a crowd of young people arrived to set-up a selection of huge inflatable bouncy castles on the plots surrounding us. Before long the campsite was filled with dozens of children up to the age of around 12, bouncing away and chasing each other around the pitches. Next a pony and cart arrived and proceeded to give the children rides along the various allées.

Setting up bouncy castles on the campsite, Villegly

Pony rides around the campside, Villegly

Around lunch time crowds of parents turned up. We naively hoped they had come to collect the children for lunch but no, they’d actually arrived for a barbecue picnic lunch themselves at the campsite! The quiet country road was lined with cars from all over the region and while the children bounced, the parents ate canapés and drank glasses of rosé. The campsite had obviously arranged to host what turned out to be a full day major event and had not thought to warn us as we’d only originally booked for one night and should have moved on this morning. It’s been noisy but otherwise quite amusing watching the children having a grand time and the dads playing a game of baby foot on a special giant inflatable pitch. An enormous pan of chicken legs was cooked along with huge mounds of mussels fried in the chicken fat once the legs were done. Not really what we would consider children’s party fare in England!

Once our washing was dry and packed away we left Modestine and escaped for a walk up to the nearby Moulin de Ste. Anne on the hilltop above the village. When we reached the ridge the wind whistled over the top straight from the Pyrenees. It wasn’t particularly cold but very violent.

Moulin de Ste Anne, Villegly

Then we explored the little town down below, large enough to boast a château - residential with a park freely open to the public on one side and with fortified towers on the other. The town also had a couple of fountains, a small river, two pizzarias, two schools, a rather nice church with green glazed tiles on the roof, a Mairie, a small supermarket and a cemetery where there were dozens of notices about the intention of reclaiming graves unless the families concerned contacted the Mairie immediately. Presumably families move away and leave their dead behind and then cannot be traced. So dire is the problem that, according to Ian, the Maire has appealed to villagers not to die over the next five years as there is currently nowhere to put them. But then, I didn’t see the notice and I suspect Ian may have misinterpreted something!

Château in the village, Villegly

By the time we returned activities were winding down. The music was still playing and a group of adults seemed set on staying until sunset. Most of the children had been taken home to bed however and the poor little pony was lead away exhausted after spending hours pulling cartloads of kiddies around the campsite and up and down the road outside. We have been the only campers here so we cannot blame the managers for using the facilities for a fund raising event. There is a swimming pool and an excellent children’s playground as well as a children’s football pitch, all of which would have been unused otherwise. We tried to find the manager to pay for an additional night but there has been nobody around in the office all day. Hopefully we can pay in the morning before we leave.

Related links
Céret. See 11th January 2006
Amélie les Bains. See 11th January 2006
Perpignan See 12th January 2006
Queribus. See 13th January 2006