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|
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.
GPS: 43.3101 N, 03.1182E
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
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.
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?
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.
Yesterday’s sunshine had disappeared, a cold grey day - time to bury our heads in the laptops.
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?
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...
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.
GPS: 43.1320 N, 02.8445 E
|France Passion - Can you beat it?|
Next: Tautavel Man and Peyrepertuse