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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!

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