Wednesday 28 December 2016

Our 18.5 mile Christmas Day bicycle ride

Street art near Theza 
In the true tradition of Christmas we got a bit carried away on the Day itself, but instead of overindulging in food or drink we set out for a little bike ride and ended up doing an 18.5 mile epic! It was great fun to be out in the sunshine on mostly pretty quiet roads, circling a lake, and spotting examples of fabulous street art en route. Dave gmapped our whole route when we got back so if you'd like to see exactly where we cycled to and around, click This Link Here!

The painted electricity box above was, I think, just off a main road near Theza. I love its depiction of a clog wearing man hanging on to his hat as the wind tries to blow him away!

Snow capped mountains from Lac de la Raho 
Shortly after Theza, we arrived in Villeneuve de la Raho where we had driven last week for a stroll around the large municipal lake they have there. We paused nearby to check where we were on Dave's map and decided to detour for another circuit of the lake, this time on our bicycles. It was wonderful to be able to look across the water to the snow capped mountains in the distance. They did seem to have more snow this year than at roughly the same time last year so we checked against our Ceret photos today and this is indeed the case. The lake wasn't quite as busy as our previous weekday walk, but there were still a good number of joggers, cyclists and families making the most of the leisure facility. One group had even set up a large table for a meal.

Insect Hotel at Lac de la Raho 
We didn't quite complete a full loop before leaving the lake as we wanted to exit Villeneuve de la Raho from the other side of town. However we did get far enough round that I could photograph this large Insect Hotel. There were people in the way last time. The Hotel is over a metre high and stacked with different shaped and filled 'rooms' to encourage a wide variety of insect life to while away winter there. We did peer in, but couldn't actually see any nesting guests!

The roads got even quieter as we cycled away from the lake, everybody presumably having made it to their Christmas lunches by this point. I was starting to slightly regret have suggested the detour as it dawned on me just how far away we still were from our campsite! I was soon glad to be going through Bages though as we saw the fabulous train (pictured below) bursting through a house's first floor wall! It looks even more three-dimensional in real life than in my photograph and was an incredible sight. I have no idea why this particular mural is here and forgot to look for the artist's name. Please do Comment if you know!

Train street art in Bages 
There were some interesting old buildings in Bages too so we might return at some point for more of an explore. On Christmas Day though we fairly zoomed through both Bages and Montescot. Elne was the quietest we have yet seen it - one pedestrian out in the whole town apparently - and we triggered another speed checker. 17kph this time, but it wasn't uphill like the last one was. Our cycle ride took about nearly three hours altogether with various photo and map checking stops along the way.

Monday 26 December 2016

Walking from Paulilles to Banyuls

Spooky driftwood head at Place de la Pelle,
near Paulilles 
We visited Alfred Nobel's former dynamite factory, Paulilles, back in January and walked northish along a little of the coastal path passing it. I remember the walk being quite an exertion so was pleasantly surprised on Friday that following the path to the south is actually much easier going. We drove from Latour bas Elne to Paulilles where there is a large free car park, grabbed our hiking poles and set out for the nearby seaside town of Banyuls. It was only about 4.5km and took us just over an hour to get to the town outskirts.

From the car park we followed the pedestrian route through a short tunnel to Paulilles entrance, turning right onto the Chemin du Fourat where the path splits into three. The chemin is a wide track with occasional traffic and we got a great view of a huge factory chimney - although it came out looking tiny on my phone camera!

Sentier littoral signpost 
The coastal path is well signed with yellow painted stripes and detailed signposts at frequent intervals. It is pretty solid underfoot and not too steep up or down (apart from one short section) so we felt we had a good walk. I have no idea what the spooky driftwood head at Place de la Pelle was all about and I haven't been able to find it online. It is a bizarre sight out on its own on a small headland! We both loved the gorgeous views across bays and out to sea, and after twenty minutes or so we found ourselves looking back down at the earlier factory tower, now dwarfed by its landscape. Luck with the weather meant gorgeous blue skies and blue-green sea!

Vogue by Claude Gomez 
Heading down into Banyuls we were both disappointed to be walking through streets past large appartment blocks - not very picturesque. It turned out we just needed to keep our heads down until we got to the centre where it is much more picturesque! If you follow in our footsteps though, keep your head up enough to see Vogue at the top of the concrete arched road. The sculpture was created by Claude Gomez in 1991-92 and I think it depicts boats and beams although I may be completely mistaken! Banyuls also has a sculpture trail of works by 'local boy' Aristide Maillol. We saw two which were early 20th century female nudes. There is a museum dedicated to Maillol just outside town which we might go back to.

Banyuls harbour front has a cute row of artisan shops and studios underneath the promenade. It is dominated by two large buildings, the first of which we passed was an odd pink structure that apparently houses oceanographic researchers and students. It's meant to look like a coral reef and the award-winning(!) design is by Atelier Fernandez and Serres. There's more information and photos on this architecture website, Inhabitat. The other large building is the far more stately Universite Pierre et Marie Curie. The oceanographic department is located here. As to be expected, Banyuls is a tad pricey and the front has many restaurants, several which were open. We chose a blue decorated Restaurant De La Plage and Dave treated us to a posh lunch for Christmas. He had entrecote steak and I had 'loup' which we established was fish, but weren't sure what sort until the waiter suggested 'dorade' as similar. We knew that is bream and, when it arrived, discovered loup is sea bass. It was very good!

Attempting our return walk after a good lunch was more demanding than anticipated although we completed the return leg in about the same time so weren't slowed unduly by all the food. Passing the Hotel de Ville, I saw this tile mural created by Eric Freixinos in August 1999. It depicts the GR10 walking route from Banyuls to Hendaye - some 900kms which is walked in, on average, 55 days. Perhaps that endeavour is best left until next year?!

GR10 by Eric Freixinos 

Sunday 25 December 2016

Merry Christmas everyone!!

I loved this upcycled snowman in the foyer of our local Casino supermarket in Latour bas Elne. It's made from rinsed out plastic drinking cups. What a fabulous idea!

Dave is undertaking a mammoth edit of all last year's photographs on his laptop. Hopefully he will put another video together so we can look back on our travels, but that is quite a task! In the meantime, he found this one taken from a Ceret walk last winter which looks out across to where we have pitched up this winter!

Friday 23 December 2016

Cycling to Saint Cyprien

Dancing at the golf club 
After being somewhat cooped up by a couple of days of perpetual drizzle it was great to get out on our bikes again yesterday afternoon. Not an epic ride, but a good two hours cycling around the back roads and voies vertes between Latour bas Elne and Saint Cyprien by way of Alenya. We didn't stumble across any unexpected Christmas Markets this time around, but I was surprised by the number of people who were also out on bikes or on foot enjoying the fresh air and sunshine. I guess several businesses must have already broken up for Christmas?

We arrived into Saint Cyprien Plage from the opposite direction to our first visit there last week and realised that the small marina and boat building area was only about half of the whole village. The reason there had seemed to be unusually few cafes and bars was because they are all just a hundred yards further on around another bend. We enjoyed a somewhat pricey coffee on the waterfront gazing out at the boats.

Saint Cyprien Plage 
We undertook our annual Lidl trip on Wednesday to stock up on German gingerbreads and lebkuchen biscuits for Christmas. Sadly they had already sold out of chocolate covered marzipan bars! It's still pretty quiet here at Camping Le Florida and we're fairly confident that there won't be a massive influx of people to the static cabins for the weekend. We just need to decide now what we shall do to celebrate on Sunday. We might get another great walk like last year!

Monday 19 December 2016

Amaretto Chocolate Cake recipe

Amaretto Chocolate Cake 
This recipe is a twist on a simple chocolate sponge and is quick and easy to whip up if you're suddenly confronted with unexpected visitors over the festive season. It smells divine while it is baking and is especially delicious when served warm. You could also let it cool and ice it, but the flavours are already rich so that might be overkill - but then again, it is Christmas!

2 free range eggs
Demerera sugar
Butter, softened
Plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp drinking chocolate powder
2-3 tbsp Amaretto liqueur

Grease a cake tin and preheat the oven to about 200c.

I haven't put quantities for several of the ingredients above because this cake is made up according to the weight of the eggs. So first weigh the eggs (in their shells) and make a note. Mine weighed 116g together.

Set the eggs aside and weigh out the same each of sugar and butter (ie 116g of each). Beat the butter and sugar together until they are fluffy. This is so much easier if you have an electric whisk. We don't in the caravan so instead this was great exercise!

Put the baking powder and chocolate powder into the scale pan together and make up to the egg weight (that 116g again) with plain flour. (If you already have self-raising flour, use this instead and omit the baking powder.) Mix these dry ingredients into the butter-sugar until completely combined.

Break the eggs and mix them into the cake mixture until well combined, being careful not to over-whisk.

Amaretto Chocolate Cake 
Add 2-3 tbsp of Amaretto liqueur or enough to bring the cake mixture to a soft dropping consistency, ie when a little of the mixture will drop from a spoon by itself when the spoon is tipped. I admit I didn't actually measure here, just sort-of poured!

Pour the cake mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 25-30 minutes or until an inserted skewer comes out clean.

Serve warm with cream or left-over liqueur butters.

I have only tried this cake with Amaretto which has an almond flavour, but I think most fruit or nut liqueurs would work well instead. Kirsch would add a cherry flavour or Frangelico would be hazelnutty - like Nutella spread! In fact, you could make two cakes, let them cool and layer them together with Nutella ... !

Sunday 18 December 2016

Cycling around the Etang de Canet Saint-Nazaire

Fishing boats and an abandoned canoe 
We had a great couple of hours cycling today which took us right around the Etang de Canet Saint-Nazaire, a large lake just inland from the sea. Now we both have folding bicycles, we can pop them in the car so we aren't restricted to only cycling from our campsites any more. Today we parked up in Saint Cyprien Plage (just over the road from the Total garage) and started by heading inland along the Rue Jouy d'Arnaud as far as Alenya. Once there, we turned right onto the D11 which headed out into open countryside before going through Saint Nazaire and then onto Canet-en-Roussillon. I loved that much of our route was on dedicated off-road cycle tracks, but when it wasn't the French car drivers were extremely courteous. They all made sure to give us a wide berth and several stopped to allow us over crossings too! And we managed to trigger a speed detector whilst riding through Saint Nazaire - we were doing 14kph!

Painted stalls at Canet-en-Roussillon 
Canet-en-Roussillon gave us the first of our two nice surprises because we arrived when a seafront Christmas fair was in full flow. There was a large old-fashioned carousel, several gift and craft stalls and a double row of little wooden cabins selling various foods and drinks and all adorned with fir boughs and twinkly light garlands. We managed to resist the numerous offers of Vin Chaud as we still had quite a way to cycle back. Instead we had a tasty Soupe Maison sprinkled with croutons and gruyere cheese. We did miss out on seeing Santa - a stage was set up with a red velvet covered chair and lots of wrapped presents - but admired the stalls which had been painted with mostly Russian motifs - matryoshka dolls, minarets and nutcracker soldiers. The Christmas fair was very busy which explained why the rest of the town was so quiet!

Carousel at Canet-en-Roussillon 

Village de Pecheurs 
We cycled on the road out of Canet towards Saint Cyprien until the promenade became less busy, then tootled along the prom for a while enjoying great views across the beach and out to sea. Once clear of the town, there is a well-maintained off-road cycle toute parallel to the D81. From this we noticed a number of odd looking buildings grouped off to one side and a rough car park near them so turned off to investigate. This was our second nice surprise - a traditionally built Village de Pecheurs (fishermen's village) which we could walk around. The village comprises of maybe a dozen reed and wood huts which reminded me of the fascinating Irving Finkel book, The Ark Before Noah (Oh reed wall, reed wall!). I don't think I've actually seen reed houses before. Most of the wood used in their construction was washed up on the local beaches and the reeds grow on the shoreline. These huts were renovated in 1993 and aren't actually lived in any more although they are still used to store fishing gear. In the summer one hut is open as a reception with information about the history of the village and the ecology of the lake. There's even suitably rustic-looking wooden bicycle racks and a hoop!

Village de Pecheurs 
From the village, we didn't have much further along the cycle path to return to our car. The whole circuit ended up being just about two hours of actual cycling although it took much longer with our various stops. Dave estimated the distance at about twelve miles and we both appreciated that it was almost entirely flat!

Saturday 17 December 2016

A castle for a shower block at Camping Le Florida!

Camping Florida 'castle' shower block 
Up until now, the weirdest campsite shower block we had seen was at Camping Le Rupe just outside Toulouse. There they have a garden, complete with small trees, growing in the centre of the structure. However our current campsite, Camping Le Florida at Latour bas Elne in the Pyrenees-Orientales, has a far dafter construction. Here the block looks like a little castle and even has medieval knights fighting over a treasure chest inside. It certainly is a bizarre sight, especially as the rest of the campsite is pretty standard, and reminded us a little of Trago Mills' oddness in Devon! Inside, once you've gotten over being watched by fibreglass knights, the facilities are good. The block is always heated and has plenty of hot water in the showers.

Knights at Camping Le Florida 
Camping Le Florida is €17 a night with our ACSI card at this time of year and that includes electric hookup and free wifi with a good signal. There are about two dozen large pitches available for touring caravans and motorhomes with probably three times as many taken up with static cabins. We think these are all for summer rentals as there is no sign of individual decoration or people around them. I imagine in summer this site would be frantic, but in December it is reasonably peaceful. There haven't been more than seven or eight units pitched up at any one time, the bar-restaurant is closed while the large swimming pool is being remodelled. The campsite entrance is on a fairly busy main road so there is pretty much constant traffic noise from that, but we can use a pedestrian/cycle gate at the far end of the campsite which leads out on to the chemin network (small agricultural roads).

The sleepy village of Latour bas Elne is a few minutes walk away and we also walked to our nearest supermarket, an Intermarche. We prefer the Casino supermarket though because it has better looking fresh produce. Casino is a little further away, but still easily cyclable along the chemins. We have enjoyed two long (for us) cycle rides already in the five days we have been at Camping Le Florida. The first took us to Saint Cyprien marina to see the boats and our second, which was meant to be a shorter ride, ended up being even longer and saw us enjoying coffee and cake at Le Pain du Sud on the outskirts of Argeles sur Mer. We did set out to cycle to Argeles once last winter, but hadn't allowed ourselves enough time for the distance. Now we've finally made it and almost entirely on signposted quiet roads and dedicated cycle routes. I love the French Voie Verte cycle route system! We used it a lot from St Jean Pla de Corts this time last year so I was delighted to spot its distinctive green signs again near here.

Our bikes at Le Pain du Sud, Argeles 

Thursday 15 December 2016

Le Sentier du Ritou - 13km walk from Rennes-le-Chateau

Le Sentier du Ritou sign 
Conspiracy theories abound about the village of Rennes le Chateau, the result of a supposed cache of gold having been discovered there by the impoverished parish priest, Berenger Sauniere, in the 1890s. Was it Knights Templar money? Priory of Sion? It's all very Dan Brown and we didn't actually know anything about the mystery until I started to research this post. We just went there for a good walk!

Le Circuit du Ritou is a fairly easy going 13km walk which took us just under 4 hours to complete. We began by driving up a winding mountain road to the village and parked in one of the ample car park areas just under its entrance. The parking provision seems vastly excessive at this time of year, but apparently they get thousands of visitors in the summer season. We set straight off on our walk and didn't explore the village at all. Starting back down the road up which we had just driven, we soon picked up the yellow stripes which would indicate our route. An early section went offroad onto a cobbled path, steeply downhill for a change - usually good walks commence with a steep uphill!

View back to Rennes le Chateau 
We soon came out onto a plateau with a single pillar and what looked like four small stone lions on corners of a square pool in the middle of a field. I've since learned that this is a fountain. The plateau was fenced off so I couldn't get close enough for a decent photograph, but it was an intriguing sight. There were great views back up to the village as we got further away and we would see these again on our return as the whole walk is balloon shaped starting along the 'string'. Once we had turned to begin the loop, we found ourselves in woodland with a variety of trees but not much in the way of wildlife. It was a Saturday though and there was a hunting group about so I guess anything more substantial than a small bird was keeping a low profile! We were first alerted to the chasse en cours (hunt in progress) by a sign in a jeep window. The jeep was precariously making its way towards us along a footpath at the time and it was frequently only a couple of inches from plunging off the hillside! The hunt seemed to mostly consist of men in jeeps and larger four-wheel-drive vehicles driving slowly along behind dogs wearing high viz collars, bells and radio antennae. We only heard a couple of shots all through our walk so I don't think anyone actually caught an animal.

View back towards Rennes le Chateau 
Our lunch spot was unexpectedly perfectly timed as the path briefly emerged onto a stone ridge above the treeline giving us gorgeous views back towards Rennes le Chateau to admire while we ate our salad bowl and pains au raisin (guess who had which!). The pic (peak) pictured below was nearby and turned out to be a brief diversion from the marked route which was fortunate as, just behind where Dave is standing, a path does continue but down loose scree which I hate. We stuck to mostly earthen woodland tracks throughout the walk with the worst obstacles being occasional muddy puddles.

Le Circuit du Ritou was our longest walk of the season so far and we hadn't tried routes of this length over the summer either so neither of us was particularly looking forward to retracing our route back uphill to the car as the final stages. It turned out that if we had parked in the very first car park we passed, we could have reduced this uphill slog by about ten minutes, but it was ok in the end. Steady plodding got us back in just under four hours which we were pleased with.

Dave on the pic 

Sunday 11 December 2016

A day of two walks - Cepie and Pieusse

Cepie walking route map 
We are enjoying great walks in the Aude region of France. Days in the valley tend to start out misty and frosty, but once the sun breaks through in the late morning we have glorious blue skies and perfect walking weather. On Thursday we combined two shorter walks into one great day out by completing a circuit of 6.5km from Cepie in the morning, picnicking in the car, then completing another circuit of 5km from Pieusse in the afternoon. Both routes were well marked with yellow stripes and had sign boards at their departure points. Both of the maps shown on this post are photographs of these sign boards which would be adequate to complete the walks although we did appreciate our flyers from the Tourist Office too.

Pieusse walking route map 
Neither walk went across particularly challenging terrain so we could take time to enjoy the varied environments through which we passed. I loved seeing gorgeous autumn colours everywhere! Oak trees have yellow leaves, strawberry trees have red and orange fruits, and dark green cypress trees stand tall in between. The geology referred to on the Cepie walk sign is an area of sand, strewn with shells and rounded pebbles which used to form an ocean floor, but has now been thrust upwards to form the Pyrennean foothills.

Thursday 8 December 2016

Les Capitelles 8km walk from Couiza

One of les Capitelles near Couiza 
Back in February we were in Spain, near Montroig, and one of our more memorable walks was to discover a number of traditionally built stone structures known locally as Barracas. These little huts function as shelters for agricultural labourers and are cleverly constructed using only stones and rocks. Yesterday, our walk in France took us past a number of remarkably similar structures which are known here as Capitelles. I suppose it was not so suprising to find them as we are just over the other side of the Pyrenees mountain range!

Our walk began in Couiza, a small town about 8km from our campsite, where we parked behind La Poste (the post office). After a quick diversion to find a boulangerie (bakery) we were off. The route started by passing through the Les Oliviers area of town and was a gentle-ish uphill along a residential road and past a Maison de Retraite (retirement home). Looking back over Couiza and into the distant mountains we caught our first glimpse of snow for this trip. If you click or zoom in to the photo below, you might just about be able to make it out on the skyline almost directly above the tiny Dave!

Looking back over Couiza to the Pyrenees 

Once we had turned off the main road through Couiza, our path was clearly marked all the way with yellow stripes and sometimes with Les Capitelles arrow signs. It intertwined with a VTT mountain bike cycling route except that walkers were directed off-road as much as possible so we often strolled along the edges of vineyards or through serene pine copses. We weren't sure that the markers took us exactly on the route shown on the map (at the end of this post) because we twice passed by the Chapelle de Saint Alain at Coustaussa. This is a great lunch spot because not only is there are large stone table and bench seats, but anyone who is a bit bored can play music on the table! It's a bit like a steel drum so tapping different places creates slightly different notes. We thought the sound creation might somehow be the result of how the large stone slab was balanced on its pedestal, but there wasn't a handy expert around to ask!

Capitelle hut near Couiza 
The whole 8km walk took about three hours and our farthest point out was the pretty and sleepy village of Cassaignes. We must have seen at least a dozen Capitelles in varying states of repair although several were in electric-fenced fields and therefore inaccessible. Others were right by the path though so we could go inside and have a good look at how they are built. The huts ranged in size from one which would only just shelter one or two people to another which could have comfortably sat ten. The walk itself was quite easy - it only rated one boot on the exertion scale! - with long but not steep uphill sections and mostly good surfaces on the tracks and footpaths. There was an interesting mix of environments including the aforementioned woodlands and vineyards, two villages which could be diverted into, lots of open countryside which was great in yesterday's glorious sunshine, and superb views across to hills and mountains.

Les Capitelles randonee map 

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Treacle Tart recipe

Treacle Tart 
We didn't manage to eat the last loaf of bread I baked quickly enough so a third of it went stale. Rather than waste the bread, I tried to think about how we might use up and remembered that I had previously baked a treacle tart using breadcrumbs. We've brought a couple of large tins of Golden Syrup away with us because we like a little in our morning porridge so I had all the ingredients I needed.

4 oz plain white flour
2 oz butter
Cold water

4 large tbsp golden syrup
12 tbsp breadcrumbs
Squeeze of lemon juice

The first three ingredients are to make the pastry shell although you could use bought pastry if you prefer. I made enough for an eight inch diameter pie dish.

Rub the butter into the flour as lightly as you can until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Slowly add cold water, tbsp by tbsp, stirring it in until you have a soft dough. If your dough gets too sticky, you might need to dust it with more flour. Try to handle it as little as possible or your pastry will be hard instead of flaky and crisp!

Wrap the dough in cling film and refrigerate it for 30 minutes.

Grease a pie tin and put the oven on to preheat to 180c.

Roll out the pastry to about the thickness of a pound coin. Line your pie dish with pastry, trimming off any excess. Prick the pastry base several times with a fork.

Treacle Tart 
Put the golden syrup into a saucepan over a low heat. When it thins, stir in the breadcrumbs. Mix well so all the breadcrumbs are soaked with syrup. They change colour as they do so. Stir in a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice too.

I wasn't sure exactly how much treacle filling I would need so I added a tbsp of syrup and 3 of breadcrumbs to the pan at a time, building up the quantity until it looked enough to fill the pastry shell.

Pour the syrupy breadcrumbs into your pastry shell and place the tart on a baking tray in the preheated oven. The baking tray is in case the tart boils over while cooking. I didn't want golden syrup going everywhere!

Bake at 180c for 25-30 minutes or until the tart filling is bubbling and the pastry is golden. Remove from the oven and set aside for five minutes to give the filling a chance to firm up a little before serving.

You can eat Treacle Tart warm or cold. We had ours warm with a dollop of coconut cream which was delicious. You can also serve it with creme fraiche, cream or ice cream.

Sunday 4 December 2016

Limoux and the Automaton Museum

Elegant cat automaton 
Limoux is the nearest sizeable towm to our Alet les Bains campsite and is the location of the Super U (and Lidl if that's your preferred supermarket!). There's a tiny grocer's and a baker's in Alet, otherwise everyone goes to Limoux. We had a wander around on Friday afternoon.

The river Aude traverses Limoux and looked beautiful flowing under this old bridge (pictured below) which I think dates to the same era as the one at Alet les Bains, the early 1660s. They are both of very similar design and construction. Many buildings are timber framed, with the timbers on show, which together with their overhanging upper storeys and a multitude of narrow alleys give Limoux a strong sense of history. This was obviously a rich town at one time too because several houses are rather grand, particularly those along the river banks. There have been disasters here too as was shown by a shoulder-high plaque on one wall commemorating a terrible flood in October 1891. Water from the Aude rose some 8 metres above its normal level! I found further details and images in this interesting blog post.

Bridge over the Aude at Limoux 
Automation butterfly 
The highlight of our afternoon for me was a visit to the Musee des Automates which we had noticed advertised on a flyer at our campsite. The museum is signposted from Place de la Republique and is about a ten minute walk away. It is family owned and now run by the second generation of automaton makers, Martine and Remy, who between them complete every aspect of the process from imagining designs to moulding heads and limbs, from constructing the movements to sewing costumes. Their parents began the business about forty years ago and automata made here are sold far and wide for public displays and to private collectors. The museum itself displays dozens of automata, all fabulously attired in Venetian style costumes and masks, and eerily moving their heads and arms. A couple even appear to be breathing! My favourites included a pair of white cats (pictured above) and an ornate golden butterfly. There's a band too and any number of malevolent-looking sprites. After touring the museum, we watched a film about the history of automata since the 1700s. It was in French, but I was pleased at how much I could understand. We then got to nose about in the workshop too. All in all, good value for the €6 entry fee!

We were also given a free Le Guide TPPO card which is a regional initiative offering discounts off lots of attractions from Mazamet to Limoux, Toulouse to Narbonne. If you're staying around here a while it's definitely worth getting yourself one of these distinctive red cards!


Old door in Limoux 

Saturday 3 December 2016

Boucle de Saint Polycarpe - hiking in Aude, France

Aqueduct at Saint Polycarpe 
Boucle is the French for a loop and the word is applied to routes for hikers, cyclists and motorists. We picked up a half dozen boucles from Alet les Bains tourist office and set out on the first of them yesterday. Saint Polycarpe is a village about 20-30 minutes drive from our campsite - into Limoux and then almost back on ourselves out again! Like Alet les Bains it too has a Abbaye and also boasts a part-ruined aqueduct which originally brought water to the religious community. I don't think it still does. Our leaflet told us that car parking was available at the Mairie (the town hall), but this building actually fronts onto the narrow main through road so it is better to turn off where parking is signposted for the Abbaye and Aqueduc. There's a small car park here, over an old stone bridge, which might fill up quickly in summer, but had plenty of space at this time of year!

Apple press? 
We set out towards Buc and our route soon left the road at a ruined apple press. Uphill - all the best walks start out uphill - towards villas and past barking dogs, I thought the route was going to peter out almost before it had started, but a grassy footpath leads off into trees and woodland. The steepest climb of the whole walk was this first fifteen minutes and was just enough to make me start thinking that a 'two boot' graded walk might be beyond my capabilities right now. I have gotten way out of condition over the summer! However once we attained the crest and were strolling along the ridge, my breathing calmed down and we were able to enjoy some stunning views over the valley below. Once past a dedicated viewpoint, we were delighted to see numerous strawberry trees (arbutus unedo) which reminded us not only of the one we grew in our former Polegate garden, but also of our weeks spent at Serro da Bica in Portugal. Dave tried the local firewater there which was flavoured with the trees' fruit.

Superb views from the ridge 
Golden vineyards 
I liked the variety of terrain encountered on this walk. We saw the towns of Saint Polycarpe and Villar-Saint-Anselme as well as walking through woodlands and out in the open past numerous golden-leaved vineyards. It seems every spare inch of land around here has a vine planted in it and the resultant local wine is highly thought of - a sparkling wine which is claimed to be the forerunner of champagne. We haven't tried it yet! Back to the walk and I was impressed by how well signed it was. The symbols were a yellow dot over a yellow stripe and these were painted at regular intervals and very clearly at junctions. We almost didn't need the flyer although it was nice to have both. I'm certainly now confident to try more walks in the series and we considered a drive to Couiza to get more leaflets. It has turned distinctly frosty here in Alet les Bains valley though so Dave might prefer to move on to Sigean where the campsite is on an open plain and may have sunshine for longer each day!

Boucle de Saint Polycarpe 

Thursday 1 December 2016

Alet les Bains - we're in Cathar country

Alet les Bains 
Our newest campsite is the pretty Val d'Aleth in Alet les Bains. The town itself is small and incredibly historic. It dates back to Roman times and many of the narrow streets and overhanging buildings still have a distinctly Medieval feel. The campsite is at the edge of town, right on the banks of the river Aude, and is approached over an old stone bridge which looked a tad snug as we drove up to it, but was absolutely fine! The sharp right turn into the campsite lane is wider than it first appears too! We're using our ACSI card here to get us a price of €16 a night which includes the pitch, two people, 6A electricity and free wifi. The wifi is technically only around the Reception building, but at quiet times the signal does stretch as far as our pitch. At the moment though I am sitting out in glorious sunshine at a picnic bench to write this post.

The campsite is just over the river from the main road so there is fairly constant traffic noise, but it has lots of trees and hedges so feels tranquil. There's a railway line too and Alet les Bains station is easily walkable from the site. Trains go to Carcassonne and Quillan. The shower block onsite is reasonably new and smart, and there is a small shop in Reception. There's also several shelves of swappable books in a variety of languages. That's me sorted then!

Lion at Alet les Bains 
We took a wander around Alet les Bains on our first afternoon and stopped in at the little tourist office where we were given several local walking maps. We're hoping to get a walk from St Polycarpe in this afternoon. Alet les Bains is famous for its ruined 12th century abbey. Visits are possible when the tourist office is open (not every day at this time of year), but we just peered through the fence for now. There's another tiny book exchange under cover in the main square. It's community run which was great to see. All the books here are in French. Alet les Bains also has thermal springs and a large old 'Thermes' Spa park and building with this lion statue created by Mce Denonvilliers. Slightly further away from the old town, although nowhere is very far here, we discovered another community project - a recreated Medieval Garden with beds of plants separated according to their purpose, medicinal, edible, etc. The Garden was only started this summer and, obviously, doesn't look its best in November, but we enjoyed seeing how many plants we could recognise and labels we could translate.

Jardin Medieval at Alet les Bains 

I'm not sure how long we will stay here. Our plan before we arrived was maybe three weeks because the campsite shuts between Christmas and New Year. There's several towns nearby to explore, walks to take and this area of France is beautiful. I love seeing the golden vine fields! We might even take a trip back to Carcassonne. It must be about a decade since we were last there.

Symbols in Alet les Bains square