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Thursday, 28 April 2011

Europe trip 2011 - Narbonne to Collioure

6th March.
After a sublime France Passion pitch we moved to a super-campsite. Camping La Nautique is a very large ACSI site by the Etang de Bages, about 5km out of the centre of Narbonne and is unusual in that each pitch has its own individual shower block (more of a garden hut actually). The Dutch girl in reception spoke almost accent-less colloquial English and quickly gave us a pitch number, handing us the keys to our garden shed with en-suite shower.
Not so good was the wi-fi set up - it was only available at the reception with a minimum charge of 10 Euros for a week. Apparently they didn’t have the “cards” to charge for a shorter period – hmm..

GPS: 43.1486 N, 03.0009 E

Lake Bages from the Camping La Nautique

Just as we were pulling into our pitch a woman descended out of the Hymer van opposite and ran forward to speak to Sue. Uh-oh, I thought, we have a problem here - some crossed wires with the pitch allocation - but to our amazement we swiftly realised that the van contained our friends from Switzerland, Brigitte and Peter. With no idea of their itinerary, and on a vast and rapidly filling campsite, we had been directed to the  pitch opposite them - how small a world is that!

They had a sorry tale to tell. Whilst shopping in the Carrefour supermarket in Narbonne, their Hymer van was broken into and their laptop stolen. Despite the two dogs in the van, the villains prised open the window next to the entrance door, then put their arm through the window and opened the door from the inside. So much for having a super-secure door with three hinges and three locking points!
Fortunately, it seems our friends returned before the thieves could ransack the van and their main loss was the computer. Peter reckons the thieves were from an old van next to them, who watched them leave and posted a lookout to watch for them returning, hence making good their escape without notice.

It’s easy to be wise after the event, but ever since we fortuitously foiled a break-in in Spain we have made it a hard rule to always leave somebody in the van whilst shopping in a large supermarket. As Peter lamented, it wasn't the relatively minor damage, but the loss and consequential vulnerability of personal data that was the real aggravation.

Anyhow, delighted to see Brigitte and Peter again, we soon had the cork out of a bottle and chatted until the sun had disappeared and we were stiff with the cold.

Our route from Narbonne down to Collioure

(Microsoft Autoroute 2010, GPS track: Globalsat BT 338X Data logger)

7th March
The warm spring sun of the previous day was replaced with a chill north westerly wind - the bikes stayed locked to the tree and our “sundowners” went down inside the warmth of Peter’s van.

8th March
We said farewell to our friends and returned to the campsite pastimes of updating the blog, pouring money into the washing machines and odd jobs around the van - more purchases required.

9th March
Warmer sunshine prompted a cycle ride down to the Port de Plaisance at La Nautique. Either side of the water sports and sailing centre are two large open areas of dirt car park along the foreshore of the lake. They are beautiful spots to stop - tranquil, with flamingos feeding in the shallow water.

One of two signs the worse for somebody's ire

By the entrance to each however, a couple of trashed notices banning camping and caravanning gave witness to somebody’s view of authoritarian restrictions, but no boulders or height barriers were in evidence - yet.

Picnic spot
GPS: 43.1424 N, 03.0094 E

A solitary van enjoys the lakeside

10th March
We were none too sad to leave Camping La Nautique. Perhaps inevitably for such a large site, it felt a bit impersonal and other things niggled, particularly the wi-fi setup - just one tiny interior table in reception, shared by the whole campsite, plainly inadequate. It's nonetheless the only ACSI site in the area and is obviously a popular staging post for caravanners.

We drove through the city centre once more to Narbonne Accessories and they helped us out with a new cbe electric step switch (in the right colour!) and some fittings to make up a new drain connection for the waste tank.

GPS: 43.1681N, 02.9876 E

The Geant  supermarket for some more GPL was more problematic, it was impossible to get our left hand side adjacent to the gas pump, short of reversing up the narrow lane and through a barrier!
Despite our Dutch guide book to GPL stations we failed to find another outlet in Narbonne -  the Total garage being under reconstruction and the Elf now apparently a supermarket.  Realising we were running out of time for the day we reluctantly went back to the aire opposite the Parc d'Expositions. A walk down to the nearby Carrefour where our friends had been broken into revealed that Carrefour too had given up selling GPL - a worrying trend for us Gaslow bottle users.

11th March
The only outlet selling GPL nearby Narbonne was back down at Gruissan - a Dyneff garage on the edge of town, which also has a handy laundrette.

GPL/Autogas garage
GPS: 43.1082 N, 03.0913 E

We thought the town was worth a further look, and fancied another meal out. Disappointingly, the  Gruissan Plage aire was still shut for the winter and we were re-directed to the aptly named “Four Winds” aire by a large marina. Here the heavy, rain drenched gusts of wind soon put paid to our planned gastronomic excursion.

Aire "Four winds", Gruissan
GPS: 43.1028 N, 03.0988 E

The Gruissan Plage aire still closed at this time of year

12th March
The wind was still whistling and the barometer steadily falling as we surfaced in the morning, there didn't seem to be any point in going anywhere in those conditions. The red and white striped warning placard on the bikes was removed before it disappeared into the wind…
It rained and howled all day, becoming more violent as night fell, and a large puddle several inches deep formed under the van.

We went to bed with the van lifting and rocking with every gust, though all the vans around seemed prepared to sit it out with us.
Around midnight a very loud and mournful alarm siren added to the cacophony - what was that all about, a callout for the lifeboat?... a high level alarm?... a tsunami warning?!!
We peered out to see if anyone was moving amongst the 30 or so vans around us. One van with a large covered trailer had its outside light on, but nobody else appeared to be interested.

Still it went on - an incessant wailing, impossible to sleep through. Eventually the door of the van-with-trailer opened and we could see a heated discussion between a figure in the doorway and a very wet one on the ground, his jacket glistening in the floodlights. Then the van door slammed shut, driving lights were switched on and it came to life and drove away, the siren fading into the distance! It leaves you wondering why they didn’t just turn it off – were they really expecting to leave it going until it ran out of power?

13th March
The storm evaporated, the sky had cleared and the marina boats were glinting and sparkling in the sunlight. We were almost tempted to stay, but instead took the scenic route back to Narbonne via the D168, and parked for most of the day at a fine viewing point high above the plain.

Picnic spot
GPS: 43.1690 N, 03.1294  E

Not a bad spot to spend the day

Later, after Narbonne, we took the D105 to Bages. The waterline along the Etang du Bages is a pretty drive, and Bages looked attractive from a distance, but it is more shabby close up and there is nowhere really to stop.

The approach to Bages

We carried on to Peyriac de mer, which has a small aire directly off the road. Four French vans were already parked up. Some knocked-down barriers and red/white warning tape lying around looked a bit ominous, as if some body had intended to close it, but the aire sign was still there. No facilities though.
Despite the still low temperature the "mozzies" put in an appearance and up went our fly screens.

Aire, Peyriac de Mer
GPS: 43.0923 N, 02.9624 E

The small aire at Peyriac de Mer

14th March
After a late start, and under more overcast skies, we investigated the waterfront in Peyriac de Mer, finding it very cramped and not to be recommended in a motorhome. Some of the buildings were very run down, but as you work your way up through the town, the newly and expensively renovated holiday homes add their contrast to the dilapidated terraces.

Looking across to Peyriac de Mer

Just below Peyriac is the Sigean African animal reserve - not the sort of thing you expect to pop up in a Languedoc wine producing region!


Arrival at Port la Nouvelle is marked by a vast cement works at the first roundabout - so big it even gets a mention on our Michelin map! The scenery doesn't get much better, but I would say the graffiti has greater artistic content than your average paint spray job.

Welcome to Port la Nouvelle!

There is however a very large free aire situated below the flyover and next to the dechetterie and some oil storage tanks. The services are 'flot bleu', but for a change you don't have to flex your credit card to empty the loo!
A surprising number of vans were parked up for a wet and windy March morning.

Aire, Port la Nouvelle
GPS: 43.0133 N, 03.0419 E

Moving on to the N9 briefly, we turned off at the D427 to la Franqui, a tiny little seaside resort just at the entrance of the Etang de Lapalme, north of Cap Leucate.

The municipal campsite was firmly fermé, but there was a patch of ground outside which did us nicely for the night.

Campsite, la Franqui
GPS: 42.9439 N, 03.0299 E

Outside the campsite at la Franqui

Beside the campsite resides a huge car park with a wooden walkway to the beach. We were nearly blown backwards by the onshore wind - waves roaring ashore a hundred yards away. It was hard to imagine the happy hordes in the summer with their buckets and spades, but just off the town waterfront a brave bunch of kite and windsurfers were making impossible speeds in the extreme conditions.

We retreated back to the van as the rain lashed around us again. Was this Spring?... the South of France?... Mediterranean?...  it felt more like the Scottish Western Isles!

15th  March
The weather was no better in the morning, our exit road was partially flooded and I wasn’t best pleased to be soaking my wheels in what at best would be brackish water.

Still hugging the coast we entered Leucate Plage. There is little more dismal than a beach resort in the rain, however this one is well catered for with aires - a large new one on the outskirts (GPS: 42.9135 N, 03.0202 E) and a double one on the beachfront. One solitary van was braving the howling onshore wind on the seaward part, but no electricity (contrary to our guide).

Aire, Leucate Plage
GPS: 42.9000 N, 03.0526 E

Happily, I got to wash my wheels again in roads flooded with fresh rainwater.

Despairing of the weather conditions, Sue found an ACSI campsite at Sainte Marie La Mer called Camping de la Plage. As you enter there is a huge painted cement statue of a rugby player. Unquestionably an aficionado of Rugby, the owner has painted portraits of famous players all around the white pool walls, and of course, all the allees are named after them!

No doubt who this campsite owner supports!

The "free" wi-fi turned out to be a pain, you have to go through a complicated registration process, including giving your email address - no thanks.

GPS: 42.7403 N, 03.0359 E

16th -17th March
Sainte Marie La Mer was another gloomy holiday ghost town, the owners of some run down looking cafes and bars looking forlornly out at the wet, empty streets as they contemplated this years opening re-fit. With more wind and rain forecast, we just battened down the hatches for a day or two.

18th March
Some sunshine at last, and an incredibly fierce wind (the Tramontane) to go with it, but magically the Pyrenees, still well dressed with snow, had suddenly appeared in the clear air.

The snow-capped Pyrenees appear after the rain
Our spirits and sense of adventure rejuvenated, we decided to give the coast a miss for a while and go inland to visit Fort de Salses.

The Fort de Salses was swiftly constructed in only 7 years, after the French army sacked and razed the then Spanish village of Salses in 1496. It occupies a strategic site on a narrow strip of land between the hills of Corbières and Lake Leucate, part of the ancient route linking France and Spain.
Later it was rebuilt by the Spanish King Ferdinand and in 1503 withstood its first seige before it was fully completed.

Inside the Fort de Salses

It was finally taken by the French in 1642, but the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 pushed the border back and the fort became no more than an observation post, albeit upgraded by the great military architect Vauban. It was both a prison and a gunpowder store before being classified as a historic monument in 1886.

Fort de Salses has also been used as a jail

Virtually deserted when we visited, in piercing sunshine, it had an almost "Foreign Legion” desert fort feel to it. Our French speaking guide had the presence of a former soldier and in the large dining hall spoke at length and with great enthusiasm on the culinary luxuries the officers enjoyed.

Fort de Salses
GPS: 42.7730 N, 03.0147 E

The spectacular D12 road to Tautavel

Our next stop was Tautavel, a wine producing village made famous by the discovery 40 years ago of a 450,000 year old skull. It now has a large purpose built museum dedicated to prehistoric Tautavel man. The town’s notoriety and tourist development however, doesn't seem to have gone to the heads of the local vineyard workers - they still park their tractors in the street outside their houses!

Our France Passion guide lists a certain Domaine Celler d'Al Mouli of the Famille Pelou. The directions simply say "in the centre of the village" but their residence was in a narrow street without any obvious parking area and they were distinctly closed. We pitched up in the free car park nearby with a French campervan for company.

Car park, Tautavel
GPS: 42.8154 N, 02.7435 E

Our pitch for the night in Tautavel

A fine view in the morning

19th March
The museum opens at 1000 and is a steep climb up some steps from the information office in the main street. It is actually barely visible from the road, but has a bronze statue of Tautavel Man and other distinctive artwork outside.
The displays are very detailed and comprehensive, but are virtually all in French, though an included audio guide bridges the gap fairly well and gives an English soundtrack to the videos.

"Tautavel" men butcher a killed rhinoceros

No, it's not a Rolling Stone, it's Tautavel man anticipating his breakfast!

The most impressive exhibit is a meticulous reconstruction of the cave where the skull fragments and skeletal parts were found. The actual skull is, of course, in a museum in Paris, but you wouldn’t know unless you were an expert, the reconstructions are so good, as are the life-size mannequins in numerous displays.


By the time we had absorbed as much as we could, lunch had come and gone and there was just an hour to see the included exhibition at the Palais de Congress. This turned out to be not very engaging after what we had already seen and we returned to the van in the car park for a second night.
A pleasant French-Canadian women who was travelling alone in the VW "California" camper came back to share the night with us again.

20th March
In the morning a crystal blue sky and warm sun made the world feel a different place again, the Pyrenees looked like a postcard, and when Sue suggested we go further inland to the ancient hilltop castle of Peyrepertuse, I was happy to agree.

A glorious day for a drive up into the mountains

We picked the scenic route over the minor roads (D59, D611, D14) and it was a wonderful drive, a beautiful vista at every corner.

The castle at Paziols in the distance

Surprisingly, there is a listed aire at Duilhac, the village sitting on a rocky buttress below the 800 metre high limestone ridge of Peyrepertuse.
A couple of French vans and one German had beaten us to it, but it is a super spot, lined by trees and directly under the ancient castle perched high above.

The only fly in the ointment was the absence of water - one of the jeton-eating service stands had been trashed and even the sink in the public loos had been removed, the water isolation valve locked in a box. The presence of an itinerant caravan at the far end probably gave a clue to this scenario, but it was a shame for the village as many other vans that came later didn't stay to see what the locality had to offer.

Aire, Duilhac
GPS: 42.8614 N, 02.5650 E

We hesitated to take the van up the ridge to the castle, but an indomitable German couple who had walked the 2.5 km to the top told us it was feasible.

Coaches are instructed to park in an area some way below the summit, but we made it to the top car park, albeit with a couple of three point turns on the hairpins.

Car park, Peyrepertuse
GPS: 42.8701 N, 02.5587 E

Minimal parking just below the ruins of Peyrepertuse

Entrance to the castle is Euro 7, with an extra 2 euros for the rather pointless and theatrically overblown audio guide.

Walking boots are a definite plus for this visit, it's quite a scramble along a rocky path before you even get to the castle and until they complete some more “restoration” work the old  ruins present plenty of opportunities to twist an ankle.
The main part of the castle lies below the keep of Saint George, which was built by Louis IX after Peyrepertuse fell to the French in 1240. Walking around the lower grounds it is startling to see people standing on the edge of the keep above, but there is a long stone stairway cut into the rock which gives it  relatively easy access. Having made to the top, particularly to the chapel, the views are deservedly breathtaking.

This is just the beginning!

The original castle from St George's keep

From the highest chapel around!


21st March
Heading back to the coast, we passed quickly through the city of Perpignan to the resort of Canet Plage, where at last we saw some blue-ish Mediterranean sea.

Moving swiftly on through St Cyprien Plage and Argeles Plage we took the high corniche road (naturally) to Collioure.

About 4km above this pretty, fortified port, is an aire incorporated into a large terraced car park. The designated motorhome area however is very tight, and despite the availability of electricity on these spaces, most vans had opted to park higher up on the car spaces. We went right to the top and had a very pleasant view across the valley.

Aire/car park, Collioure
GPS: 42.5263 N, 03.0692

The large aire/carpark at above Collioure

22nd March
In the summer, apparently, there is a shuttle bus, but it's possible to walk down into the port in about 25 minutes. A hundred metres or so along the road towards the town are some steps into a housing estate. Two flights down of these and another kilometre or so and you are at the old fort on the seafront.

There was still a chill wind when we arrived and ominous clouds in the sky. We (and many other bystanders) were intrigued to see some Marines up to their waists in the brown harbour water, receiving instruction on how to roll over and under a floating boom whilst holding their weapon. The instructor, bravely, was wearing a natty short wet suit, but the poor marines, almost to a man, were shivering uncontrollably and looking desperately miserable. Some were even yawning regularly – an early sign of hypothermia.

The trainee marines shiver through a waterlogged lesson

I took a few photos but it was painful to watch – I wonder how many were thinking “I wish I’d taken that job in a bakery instead!” On the board by the entrance to the fort it proclaims that the establishment is for the “hardening” of young officers. I think the town does well out of them though as we saw them later, fresh out of the shower in dry fatigues, looking cool in shades with a camel cigarette, downing a beer at the waterfront bar.

The appealing waterfront at Collioure

Further along the bay is a long breakwater and another ancient tower. Behind the beachfront bars and cafes are pretty narrow streets, with art and gourmet food shops. After all the rather naff and forgettable seaside resorts we had passed through on our pilgrimage along the French Mediterranean coast from Marseilles, this place felt different and (to us) a place we would visit again on a sunny day.


Next - Into Spain, and Barcelona!

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Europe trip 2011 - Port Camargue to Narbonne

18th February.
After the pristine pleasures of the Camargue, we continued our pilgrimage along the Mediterranean coast, heading south west down the D59, through la Grande Motte, Carnon Plage and Palavas les Flots - all easily forgettable holiday resorts.
Incredibly, this early in the season, the aire at Palavas les Flots – little more that a tarmac parking lot - was full of motorhomes, packed like sardines a metre or so apart, and for 12 euros a night, we thought we’d move on.

Aire, Palavas les Flots
GPS: 43.5312 N, 03.9233E

Our trail down the coast and in and around Narbonne

(Microsoft  Autoroute 2010, GPS track: Globalsat BT 338X Data logger)

The approach to Sete along the N12 is pretty dirty and industrial, and with all the canals and docks linking the Thau Basin to the sea, it is theoretically an island. The low height warning on the Pont du Tivoli was too low for us at 2.8 metre and we skirted around the town.

The industrialised approach to Sete from the north

On a patch of waste ground by the Rue de L’entrepot  is a free parking area listed in our “All the Aires” guide. A few expensive “A” class vans were parked up and battened down, as well as a large selection of beat-up old campers, but the trashed caravans lying around caused us to give it a miss as well.

Car park, Sete
GPS: 41.4100 N, 03.7036 E

It might be free, but we didn't fancy it!

Onwards, along the N112 coast road enclosing the Thau Basin to Marseillan Plage where the Canal du Midi ends its passage on entering Lake Thau. After a glimpse of the Canal, we by-passed Agde and Vias, heading for Portiragnes on the D37. France Passion was on the menu, Domaine du Roque Haute to be exact.
After a long day, a grand sight it was too, high on the hill in the red evening sun. It’s a slow drive down a very rough track however, and unsure where to park I hung on the bell outside the cave. An elderly lady appeared and we had a quick look inside, purchasing a bottle of white wine, only too thankful to have a safe, peaceful place to spend the night.

Domaine du Roque Haute
GPS: 43.3009 N, 03.3643 E

Domaine du Roque Haute, looking good in the evening sun

19th February
In the crisp morning sun Chateau Domaine du Roque Haute looked superb and I sucked in lung-fulls of fragrant air. Just as I was taking a photo, several Red Legged Partridges appeared, pecking at the ground. One even condescended to pose for me on a rock!

A Red Legged Partridge coming to see if I've got any breakfast!

Our destination was Camping Les Peupliers at Colombiers. This is a small ACSI site (13 euros) managed by a young couple who are upgrading the facilities, including wi-fi over 80% of the site. (10 euros for a week’s use).
The main railway line runs close by, but the site is only 5 minutes walk from the pleasant little town, and more significantly - the Canal du Midi.

Camping Les Peupliers
GPS: 43.3186N, 03.1427 E

A short walk over the bridge to Colombiers

20th to 26th February
To be precise, the actual Canal du Midi runs only from Lake Thau to Toulouse, where it originally made contact with the Garonne. The full "Canal of the two seas" (Mediterranean to the Atlantic), between Sete and Castets d'Orthe (near Bordeaux), and the mighty Gironde, now includes the Garonne Lateral Canal - because of the difficulties of navigating the upper reaches of the Garonne. However, that was only built in 1857, as one of the last of the improvements to the original canal, brought to reality by the French salt baron, Pierre-Paul Riquet.

Sadly, Pierre-Paul Riquet never saw the realisation of his dream of connecting the two seas because, having exhausted his health and his fortune, he died just 7 months and 2.5 miles short of its completion. However, his son oversaw the last months of the project and was amongst the dignitaries who sailed on a ceremonial barge from Toulouse to Lake Thau on 19th May 1681.

Some sizeable barges travel the Canal du Midi

The construction took just 15 years, an incredible feat considering that 7 million cubic metres of soil and rock were excavated by men and women with just picks and shovels. That is not to mention numerous bridges, aqueducts, dams, 63 locks and one engineering first – a navigation tunnel.

The Tunnel du Malpas is just a couple of kilometres along the tree lined towpath from the campsite. This 165 metre long tunnel was cut through Malpas hill in great haste and apparently in secret, as Louis XIV's minister in charge had already called a halt to the canal construction because of the cost.

165 metres of  The Malpas tunnel

In the opposite direction - a 5 kilometre walk or cycle ride from the campsite - is the equally pioneering Fonserrannes eight-lock "water staircase" at Beziers.

The third marvel of Riquet's dedication and brilliance was in fact the key to the whole construction of the canal - the solving of a particular conundrum that had beguiled leaders for 2000 years, since Emperor Augustus in fact.
A canal 150 miles long, that rises 190 metres above sea level, needs a huge continuous supply of water at its highest point (or watershed) or it would simply run dry. This was the problem that had stumped the best engineering brains for centuries. Riquet solved it by constructing a vast reservoir fed by streams that coursed off the Black Mountains. Holding 7 million tonnes of water, it was built at Saint-Ferréol, near Revel.

Malpas hill has more surprises. Between 1854 and 1856 a railway tunnel was cut, passing through the rock just metres below the canal tunnel. The TGV trains now whistle through it, making an incredible noise.

The pre-Roman ruins of Oppidum de Ensérune

On top of the hill are the pre-Roman ruins of Oppidum de Ensérune,  a fortified village inhabited from the middle of the 6th Century BC to 1st Century AD. It’s an important archaeological site - excavations from 1915 to 1967 revealed many objects from the second Iron Age (5th – 3rd Century BC). There is a museum amongst the ruins containing a very large collection of Roman, Hellenic and early Gaul pottery and other artefacts. The first of the Roman roads in ancient Gaul, the Domitian Way (118 BC) runs alongside the foot of the hill.

Lastly, you can also see (without paying to enter the site) a superb view of the Lac du Montardy, a circular lake bed drained in the 13th Century because of the spread of disease from its stagnant waters. The 1,364 metre long drainage channel runs through the hill below the railway tunnel! Its 1000 acres is now split into perfectly symmetrical communal fields, looking like the rays of a huge green lamp.

Lac du Montardy
GPS: 43.3110 N, 03.1163 E

Symmetrical fields of the empty Lac du Montardy

Leaving Camping Les Peupliers we did some stocking up with food and GPL at the local Geant  supermarket and Dyneff garage. Then we nipped back to Oppidum de Ensérune for a quiet night up the hill.

Car park
GPS: 43.3101 N, 03.1182E

27th February
So, back down to the coast. There is a large aire at Saint Pierre sur Mer. On rough ground on the edge of a nature reserve, it is a well organised affair with credit card flot bleu units for everything, including some electrical points. However the barriers were yet to be re-installed for the season and we indulged in another free night.
A walk into the reserve revealed very little wildlife – I think it was too windy even for the birds!

Aire, Saint Pierre sur Mer
GPS: 43.1913 N, 03.1979 E

28th February
Saint Pierre itself is a total holiday village, a ghost town at this time of year. We drove along the seafront and found another large car park with the height barriers removed, a solitary van enjoying the view by the sea wall.
Narbonne Plage is little different, but Gruissan was more interesting with some heritage - an ancient tower on a rocky promontory, a marina and a couple of large waterside aires.

Now we did rather a large backtrack – I wanted to see the Fonserrannes canal locks at Beziers (which unbelievably we had missed by a few hundred yards on our bike trip) and Sue wanted to see the cathedral.

Beziers - underrated?

Beziers is built on hill, at the junction of the river Orb and the Canal du Midi. It claims a history going back 65 centuries, with Greek, Roman and Spanish origins, and was the site of the Roman colony of Baeterrae.
In 1209 its inhabitants were massacred and the city burned by soldiers under Simon de Montford as part of the crusades against the Cathar heresy. From the 4th Century to 1802 it was an Episcopal see.
Its prosperity, at its peak, was derived from the wine industry and its most famous son is of course Paul Riquet, whose monumental achievement now defines the limits of the city.

Fonserrannes - 8 or 9 lock staircase

An elegant and unusual feature of Riquet’s design for the locks is their oval shape, made so as to better resist the pressure exerted on the walls – like the arch of a bridge.
The original eight “stairs” of the locks have been hacked about a bit with a new canal cut around the town, splicing into the 7th lock, so they are now signposted as the “nine” locks. The original lower canal cut through the town has been blocked off by a levee for a new road, and a further lock left to ruin.
Of interest to travellers by barge is a huge boat lift that has been built to carry vessels from one canal to another when the lock stairs are out of use in the winter.

GPS: 43.3315 N, 03.2015 E

Despite its rich history, Beziers fails to receive an entry in our Green Guide and perhaps in part due to that, has a run down appearance. Nevertheless its steep ancient streets and 900 year old cathedral are well worth a visit. Great attempts are also being made to rejuvenate the sadder parts of town with refurbished buildings around the cathedral and a redeveloped park by its stone bridge.

Onto Narbonne. Easily the best option for visiting Narbonne is a large aire on the main bus route into the town centre. It is well set up with service bays, electricity and floodlights. To enter, you put your registration number into the Flot Bleu machine and receive a plastic card to insert into the exit barrier when you leave - along with your credit card.
There is however a free bus into town on display of your plastic card. A huge Carrefour supermarket, a decent restaurant and a couple of burger bars are within easy walking distance, also an exhibition centre across the road.

Aire, Narbonne
GPS: 43.1804 N, 03.0233 E

This is the way they do it in Narbonne

(Charge is 9 euros per day including hook-up, but 2 euros extra to pump n' dump! The charges escalate by 3 euros every three days if you stay more than 72 hours.)

We parked as far back off the road as we could to reduce the noise, however the wind was still ferocious, rocking the van. Across the road, motorhome after motorhome was piling into the Parc d'Expositions opposite, a show about to start perhaps?

1st March
A bright, but very cold and windy day for a visit to the old city, and our first impressions were good. The Canal de Robine - the Narbonne arm of the Canal du Midi through to Port la Nouvelle - runs through the centre of the old town and under the UNESCO listed Merchant’s Bridge. The tourist office is alongside one of Riquet’s locks.
Being Tuesday most of the museums were closed, but we had a look at the Cathedral which is (of course), undergoing some restoration, but the highest gothic choir in France is worth a look and the cloisters have some interesting gargoyles.

Narbonne Cathedral - a high choir it is

A section of the Roman Domitian Way was discovered in 1997 and is left revealed in the large square facing the Archbishops Palace, now the Hotel de Ville. There is plenty else to see and overall the old city has a nice feel to it. We had an excellent, good value lunch at the Côté Pub on Cours Mirabeau.


Looking through to the town square, Narbonne

The tourist office also told us that the motorhome show started on the 3rd, so we decided to hang around.

2nd March
Yesterday’s sunshine had disappeared, a cold grey day - time to bury our heads in the laptops.

3rd March
The opening of the TPL Salon du Camping Car , with over 200 motorhomes on site, including some 2011 models in the main hall. (Entry 7 euros.)

For the first day of a show there weren’t that many people around, but there were some monster vans on display - Le Voyager, Bürstner, Pilote, Bavaria – we found ourselves asking “how much bigger can they get?”

Is it a train? Is it a plane? Is it a motorhome?

To our minds, for all the lavish lounges and boastful island bedrooms in these leviathans, the basic practicalities (like kitchen, bathroom and shower) can be more compromised than in smaller, (dare I say it) more sensible vans, because everything is given over to vast lounging areas and hotel size beds.

Then there is the often overlooked factor of payload. A load carrying capacity of 270kg in a van intended to accommodate 4 people, and perhaps a scooter or small motorbike in the garage, is just ridiculous!
Where is all your payload going? With so many restrictions on vans over 3.5 tonne in France, just look around at the luxuries of “Alde” water central heating and leather seating, the fripperies and extravagances of “must have” items like mirror lined glass cabinets and exotic bathroom fittings, heavy wooden duckboards in the shower, industrial size stainless steel door handles, etc, and you begin to see.

For our money the only vans worth having were the Fleurettes, who seem to be carrying on where Rapido left off - with beautifully finished, clean-shaped GRP bodies, rounded wooden cabinetry and practical showers and storage features.

Fleurette - our kind of motorhome - but  not perfect!

Even then, on closer inspection, we found shortcomings not present in our 8 year old Rapido - tiny bathroom sinks that you could not wash some "smalls" in, inadequate bathroom storage for jars and bottles, tiny cutlery draws - we could go on. Did we get the only really practical small coachbuilt ever made?

4th March
We left the aire around midday and paid a visit to Narbonne Accessories in town, managing to pick up a brown Presto frame for a new 12v socket (seemingly impossible to obtain in the UK).


The next attraction was Fontfroide Abbey, 15 km out of Narbonne and “out in the sticks” somewhat. Sue had had her head in the Green Guide again, but I was just happy to get away from the constant backdrop of city noise.

We parked up on a deep grass verge in the car park in front of the abbey, and as the last few cars left a perfect peace descended. Later there was just the odd cry of a fox intruding on the utter silence. And so to bed...

5th March
A distinctly spooky night, as sometimes seems to happen when we stay near sites of historic or religious significance. In the deathly quiet it only takes Sue to say "did you hear that?" and we're off, fitful sleep and weird dreams!

Sometime in the early hours a large warm hand placed itself over mine, benignly and gently, as if to comfort me, only problem was - it wasn't Sue's!!
After I had woken my beloved with a fearful scream… we didn't get much more sleep, daylight was a blessed arrival.

The temperature had dropped to 2 degrees in the night, laying a heavy dew, but in the still air of the morning a low, bright sun made the grass and foliage sparkle - beautiful.

Abbaye Frontroide on a glittering morning

A French van had joined us late at night despite the "no camping" signs, and by the abbey entrance I found a more explicit "No Motorhomes between 2000 and 0800" sign...
Oh well, it was only the spooks that had bothered us!

Abbaye Fontfroide, (meaning Cold Well) was founded in 1093 and became a Cistercian monastery in 1145. It was greatly developed in the 13th Century and altered in the 18th, but despite the trials of various religious and political upheavals, the French revolution and the Black Death, it has remarkably kept intact its church, cloisters and chapter hall dating from the 12th Century.

In a wonderful location, tucked away at the end of a small valley of the Massif de Frontfroid, it was bought by a private family at the beginning of the 20th Century, the buildings restored, and the vineyards and farms put to commercial use.

The chapel towers from higher in the valley

Summer or winter, it doesn't open until 1000, and whilst I trekked up the hill to get a better photo of the abbey, Sue found out that a tour was about to start and left me to it.
I joined the midday tour (after listening to the audio guide twice over), and Sue came around again, the tour guide, who had excellent English, was happy to add her to our small group.

In the winter only, or more exactly from All Saints day until Palm Sunday, the tour includes the ancient refectory of the monks, later transformed into a “parlour”, also the pantry and kitchen and the grand dining room - all beautifully and lavishly laid out with utensils, “food” and place settings. They would certainly give the English National Trust a run for their money!

The grand dining room - not for the monks!

The other highlight was the church – the original stained glass was long lost when the abbey was sold at the beginning of the 20th Century, but a French painter was persuaded by the new owner to design and create another set. Fifteen years later, and having had to rediscover some of the long lost craftsman’s skills, the task was complete. A fabulous job he did too – the best 20th Century glass I have seen by a big margin, the photos just don’t do justice to the brilliance of the colours with the sun shining through.

Dazzlling 20th Century glass in the Chapel

The restaurant was newly open for the season and our shortage of bread for lunch was used as an excuse to indulge ourselves. Superb, two courses each and a bottle of Fontfroide's excellent vin de pays came to Euro 49. Sue's chicken and my cod were beautifully cooked and presented, it was a real treat for us.
Time for a snooze!

GPS: 43.1299 N, 02.8964 E

Not thinking we would push our luck for another night courtesy of Fontfroide Abbey, Sue found a France Passion site a few kilometres away. We settled ourselves under some trees on the edge of the vineyard. There didn’t seem to be anybody about so we left our contact with the owners until the morning and just enjoyed the peace and isolation.

Domaine Gaussan-Kozine
GPS: 43.1320 N, 02.8445 E

France Passion - Can you beat it?

Next: Tautavel Man and Peyrepertuse