Saturday, November 12, 2011

The trip we didn't take to Barcelona

A little over two weeks ago, Paul and I decided to get away for a few days. The Nov. 1 holiday, All Saints Day, meant that I didn't need to go into the library and since it always coincides with school holidays, my other activities were off, too. Where to go? Well, we could go east and visit our friends in Freiburg, Germany and Basel, Switzerland, or south towards Montpellier where we also have friends and then on to Barcelona. We chose to go south. 
We left on Wednesday morning and took the highway that goes through the Massif Centrale, through the volcano area beyond Clermont-Ferrand, through Ardeche to Millau, where we got off the highway to take smaller roads. From Millau there is a beautiful view of the new bridge on the highway. It is quite a high and long bridge. Since we got off before the bridge, we got to see the view. We knew we were heading for Aniane, which is a town north of Montpellier where Emma is interested in settling. There should have been a road that went though the hills of maquis, but we got to T intersection instead of being able to cross. So, really we ended up going on a big detour because we ended up on the highway again. 
Aniane is a town that seems to have a permanent population and activity. Nearby is St-Guilem-le-Desert, with its abbey. St. Guilem is all shut down for the winter. It's beautifully restored, but very touristy. There are gigantic parking lots as you approach and in season you have to park there and take the shuttle to the village. The shops, most of which are shut, are all tourist-trap type businesses. Almost every house is a "guest" house. On the far side of the hill -- go left instead of right -- is St. Jean de Fos, where the grape and olive growers live. There are lots of vinyards and olive groves all around the area. We spent Thursday morning driving and walking around those two towns and then headed down to Montpellier to see our former neighbors. They lived next door to us for a few years; he's American, from Cherry Hill, and she's Spanish, from Barcelona. They have a little boy, 6, and twin girls, 3 1/2. They certainly made a good move to a spacious house near the center of Montpellier and not far from the university. It was a pleasure to see them and have a nice family lunch with them before they themselves headed off on a holiday the next day. After lunch, and on their recommendation, we visited the Valmagne Abbey. Beautiful. The architect created the illusion of greater depth by making the pillars thinner (almond-shaped) and closer together at the far end. The stone is old seabed limestone, so you can see the shell incrustations. And it's a nice faded ocre color. It was raining off and on and by the time we got back to the hotel in Aniane, it was pretty non-stop.
The rain was heavy the next morning and the weather report was for heavy rain all day and the next few days, and according to the map, we figured it was going to be that way all the way to Barcelona. However, it looked like it might be clearer towards Toulouse. So, we headed westward towards Toulouse. We went to see the Lac de Salagou, which is another area Emma has been interested in. We could drive around the lake over the dam, so it was a long drive to get to the other side and see Celles, the village that was abandoned when they built the dam, but which did not end up under water in the end. In the rain and out of season, it's really desolate.
We continued, taking the smallest roads, zigzagging through the Montagne Noire, which was indeed dark in the rain. But it was a beautiful drive. The leaves are changing color (late, this year) and most of the trees still have their leaves. The road was sometimes tiny and it took us almost 8 hours for this short drive to Toulouse.
The next day, we spent the morning walking around Toulouse (St. Sernin, les Jacobins, the museum, ...), and then it was time to go see our old friends. We spent a few hours with them, catching up on families. We even saw their two girls, one, who lives near Pau now, and the other, who is a lawyer in Paris. 
On Sunday, we left a little early in order to reach the Lebelles in Pau for lunch. Again, we wanted to take the leisurely pace of the smaller roads. Unfortunately, I had left my notebook computer at the parking lot (I guess I put it down when I paid) and we had to go back to get it. Since I had handed in a voucher from the hotel, the parking lot attendant called the hotel and they called me -- oof!), so we headed back, picked up the computer, and then had to take the highway to Pau in order not to be late. We didn't want to miss lunch because Emmanuelle's parents were there and heading home after lunch. We hadn't seen them in 10 years, so it would have been a shame to miss saying hello, at least. 
Emmanuelle and Alexandre are great hosts; we did make it for lunch and stayed on over night. The next morning, under cloudless skies, we went for a nostalgic drive to Bagnères-de-Bigorre and then through the Vallée de Campan to the Tourmalet and then on to the Col d'Aubisque. As we left the mountains, we hit rain again and stopped for the night in Mont de Marsan. 
We headed home on Tuesday, through the Périgord and Dordogne. It was raining the whole time, so we didn't feel like visiting much of anything. Sarlat looked pretty full of people; we couldn't find a parking spot. We stopped for lunch, an excellent lunch at Les Viviers St. Martin, which seemed to be one of the very few restaurants open on the holiday.
At some point we ended up on a highway, the old N 20, but as we got closer to the toll road, on the approach to Paris, we got off again and meandered home.
I hope you open some of the links to the places I mentioned. 
Last week was an uneventful week at home and now I'm at Claire & Geoff's! I'm going to see Beth Levin later in the week when she comes to Manchester. Haven't seen her in 43 years; I hope we manage to find a little time to chat ;-)

No comments: