Friday, December 20, 2013

Speed Run Through France to Barcelona: Revel and Carcassonne

On December 11th, our weather station told us it was 24 degrees Fahrenheit outside. It was time to leave Paris and head south (before our tanks froze). Our interim destination was Camping Les Boueix in the village of Fleurat about 70km north east of Limoges.

At about 16:00 we pulled into Camping Les Boueix (€30/nt) which was seriously overpriced for what it was. (No dumping point, no water at the pitch (during winter), no laundry facilities; one shower in the office building (but it turned out to be a great shower; lots of hot water and you didn't have to keep pressing a button to keep the water going.))

After settling in, we drove to the nearest town, La Souterraine about 16 km away, to get a 2GB top up for our mifi (pricey cost of €20, compared to £25 for a top up of 7GB in the UK). For an apples to apples comparison, that is $5.87/GB in the UK vs $13.80/GB in France. That's a serious differential. What happened to the benefits of the EU collective market?

We also had to do laundry; we were in serious need of clean clothes. Our host at Camping Les Boueix told us about a laverie in the town and we found it. We decided on doing one large load of darks (at €9/load to wash and €3 for 30 min to dry) and hopefully we could do the balance on the weekend. There was one pizzeria restaurant open, and fortunately it was located a half block way from the laundromat and so we managed to get fed as well. We played Scrabble while we waited for the machines to finish.
Five people generate a lot of dirty laundry quickly. But when you have five people folding, the job is completed in no time.
On December 12th we woke up to 37 degrees F so at least we were above freezing temperatures. It was a lovely clear morning.
Our site at Camping Les Boueix. We had the place to ourselves.
The unfortunate part was that we were essentially in the middle of nowhere. We were too far south to see any of the highlights of the Loire Valley; we were too far north to see any sights in the Dordogne area. We didn't have a full day to indulge ourselves and go to Futuroscope. So Vincent, Sarah and I decided to drive to Limoges and try to do some Christmas shopping. (Paul and James opted to stay behind and work on math and science.) It was the 12th of December and so far, to my knowledge, we had nothing. We aimed to find Les Halles (covered markets) but never came across them. Instead we ended up at a mini-shopping plaza in Limoges that wasn't really anything noteworthy but we did manage to find a few presents so it wasn't entirely a wasted outing.

What we saw of Limoges was pretty unremarkable. I had imagined a more charming city scape. Apparently the old town has some handsome buildings but we just couldn't find that section of town. France doesn't seem to be big on using signage to promote places of interest. Most signage is devoted to places of commerce, like hotels. If one is interested in ceramics, the museum is worth visiting. But I was traveling with 4 others who definitely weren't interested in ceramics and porcelain so the museum was a miss.

Anyway, we returned back to La Souterraine and hit the Carrefour supermarche. Then Vincent dropped me off to do more laundry so we wouldn't have to impose on our friends with kilos of laundry this coming weekend; while Sarah and I were taking care of the next 14 kilos of whites, Vincent drove back to the campground to pick up the boys. We had dinner at the same pizzeria a half block away from the laverie. It was a good choice because the kind proprietor, had kept one of our Scrabble letters, "M", that we had left behind the previous evening.

On December 13th, it was time to head towards Revel, which is a small town in the Haute Garonne department of the Midi Pyrenees region. We were going to visit friends of mine, Pamela Rose and Iain and their sons. Pamela Rose and I became great friends way back in senior year at Miss Porters School. Pamela Rose and Iain had kindly identified a great place for us to camp, Aire Moulin du Roi (at a bargain price of €10/night), which was just a few blocks from their home.

The scenery on the drive to Revel was lovely. It was a clear day and the low sun in the sky highlighted the orange tones of the autumn foliage and the rustic farmland. Unfortunately there weren't any good safe vantage points to pull over; I would have really liked to get some photos.

The windy roads made it a pretty stressful drive for Vincent and part way through he opted to go on the toll roads. I followed him much of the way but after the last toll, we got separated. The French tolls don't seem to take our Andrews chip and pin credit card. (One of the few chip and pin cards one can get in the US and in our opinion is a total failure.) So we had to use cash. The toll machine at which Vince arrived however wouldn't take cash either so he was stuck for about 6 minutes until an attendant rescued him. So I ended up ahead and decided to just continue on to the Aire. Fortunately Pamela Rose and Iain provided a map of how to get to the Aire, otherwise we would never have found it (that problem of scarce signage again). Their son, James, spotted Vince going the "wrong way" and he alerted Iain that we were in town. (LandShark is anything but subtle.) So Iain came down to meet us, which was a good thing on a practical level because our fine Andrews chip and pin card wouldn't work in the campground registration machine. Within seconds of meeting Iain, we had to borrow his credit card...
This was our first time staying at an Aire. The Aire Moulin du Roi was just built about a year or so ago and offered electricity at the pitch. It only allowed stays of up to 3 nights. There were no other amenities, as is typical with Aires, with the exception of a dumping point and a single source access to water.
Once we parked, Vincent started to open the driver's side main room slide. Craacckk! Another mishap. That pesky right hand lower cupboard door was ajar and the slide forced the right side of the cupboard to separate from the unit. Let's just say, Vincent was really, really, really unhappy. Lesson learned: Make sure all slide paths are clear when opening slides as well as when closing slides.

We went over to Pamela Rose and Iain's home and had a great visit and delicious dinner, which was just what we needed after a rather stressful traveling day.

On the morning of December 14th, Pamela Rose appeared on our doorstep with fresh croissants and a baguette. How wonderful! The croissants were the best I'd had in years; truly a buttery melt in your mouth treat. They must have just been made within an hour or so. We later walked over to collect Iain, as he was going to take us to the Revel market which is one of the best, authentic farmers' markets in France and has been running every Saturday for over 600 years. I don't know if I'd ever seen so much fresh produce in one place in my life. I certainly had never seen so much fois gras for sale, ever. This market had everything.
A seafood smorgasbord.
There was no shortage of oysters.
Could this cheese vendor be anymore French?
Vincent purchased our eggs for the week.
Olives or dried fruit anyone?
Iain also took us by the antiques shop that sells his paintings. I love his work.
An antiques dealer, right on the market square promotes Iain's work.
Painting by Iain Vellacott: A scene depicting Saturday market activity in Revel.
Another painting by Iain Vellacott: Not sure of the location of this scene. Looks a bit like around the Covent Garden area, London.
To find out more about Iain Vellacott's work, go to

That afternoon, James got his hair cut at a local coiffeur. It was one of the best cuts he's had in a long time and he was so thrilled exclaiming, "They even washed my hair with shampoo!" After James was finished at the coiffeur, I walked around Revel a bit and took a few more photos.
A few of the buildings that line Revel's central market plaza.
A view of the medieval market hall. On Saturday mornings it and the surrounding plaza are filled with local vendors.
Revel's Notre Dame.
Meanwhile, Iain took Vincent to a hardware store to find supplies that would enable him to fix the broken cabinet.

That evening, Vincent and I cooked for the Vellacotts. We made Thai chicken which is one of our kids' favorites. It was a nice evening again catching up with friends.

On December 15th, we had intended on visiting Carcassonne but by the time Vincent finished repairing the cabinet (short of installing the door which needed new hinges), and dealt with the other chaotic things going on in the RV which just comes from five people and a dog living in close quarters, he decided he needed a day off.
Vincent has a fantastic ability to repair things. At some point, I imagine he'll want to take on a real challenge like building a house...or bridge...or car from scratch.
With Carcassonne on hold, Pamela Rose suggested that we either visit some castle ruins in the area or go ice skating. James and Sarah opted for the ice skating, which neither had done in at least a couple of years. (Paul opted to stay in LandShark and work on algebra.) The skating session started off a bit dodgy as Sarah held on to the entrance gate with an iron fist refusing to go onto the ice. It took a lot of convincing plus me prying Sarah off the gate with determined force to get her on the ice. She then clutched on to the outer boards for dear life and shuffled forward. Pamela Rose found a "penguin" support aid that Sarah could use to hold onto and push around. With a little time, she had the time to use the penguin and by the time we were about ready to finish up, she was able to give up the penguin and skate away from the boards with one hand holding onto my arm, the other arm free. This was huge for her and she left quite eager to have another skating session as soon as we could arrange it.
That penguin was a lifesaver.
"Look Mom, no penguin!"
James did pretty well too, for a California kid who never sees ice.
When we returned to Revel, Sarah and I decided to go to the market square in the center of town as a small holiday celebration was being held there: A jump house, some wooden games, le Pere Noel and free mulled wine for the adults. At 18:00, there was the added bonus of a fireworks display set off from the top of the market building. The holiday fair was a means to draw people to the center of town and, I think encourage them to do some shopping to support local businesses, but not many stores were open (being Sunday) and those that were open (like the toy store) were only open for 2-3 hours in the afternoon. Having lived in the US and being subjected to 24/7 commercialism, my thought was that if the local businesses want to take advantage of the sales potential of the holidays, they should actually be open. Anyway, Sarah and I enjoyed the entertainment.
Fireworks were set off from the roof of the medieval market building. They didn't seem to be too concerned about fire; at times the live embers were falling all over the roof!
That evening, we had another wonderful meal at with the Vellacotts. Smoked salmon, the best duck I've ever had, duck sausage. We were seriously being spoiled.

On December 16th, we headed to Carcassonne. Specifically, we went to the fortified old city, La Cite. Carcassonne has a second, larger (more) modern city called Ville Basse. (Ville Basse dates from the 13th century.)

La Cite dates back to Roman times. It's massive walls are completely intact, run nearly two miles around and have 52 towers. Apparently, La Cite's "golden age" was the 1100s when independent rulers allowed Jews and Cathars to live and prosper within the walls while troubadours were permitted to freely write "poems of love". This focus on intellectual and romantic life led to La Cite's downfall; the Crusades overtook the city and in 1226 Carcassonne was annexed to the domain of the King of France.
Standing between the outer walls and inner walls: We had just passed through the Narbonne Gate. I suggested a family photo but clearly no one was really interested.
Crossing over a moat to go through an inner wall: I suggested to the kids, "Hey how about a photo?"
Still waiting for the kids to stand still and pose.
Nope. A nice photo of the kids wasn't going to happen. Typical.
La Cite looks "better" than it might have; in the mid-19th century, a major reconstruction project took place, led by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, which was part of a program to restore France's important monuments. The inner wall still has the same four gates it had in Roman times.

We all went to the Chateau Comtal, which was La Cite's third layer of defense. It was originally built in 1125 but had been altered in later reconstructions. There isn't much in terms of signage so be sure to get the audioguides if you visit here.
The main inner courtyard.
Southern courtyard.
Sarah and I then split off from the boys to look around the rest of La Cite and see what the shops had to offer.
We stepped into the St Nazaire Church to light a candle. St Nazaire was a cathedral until the 18th century, when the Bishop moved to the Ville Basse.
Leaving La Cite, I took a couple more photos.
Sunset reflecting on the outer walls.
Last shot of the day and I finally had some willing participants. In the background is La Cite's main entrance, the Narbonne Gate. To the right of the gate is a bust of Madame Carcas. Legend has it that when Charlemagne's army was laying seige against (what is now called) Carcassonne, in a last ditched effort to convince the oppressors that the inhabitants of Carcassonne could hold them off for years and not run out of food, Madame Carcas had an idea. She took one of the last pigs in the town, fed it with what little wheat they still had on hand and threw the pig over the wall. Charlemagne's army thought that if they have the resources to waste a pig, they must be well fortified. When Charlemagne's army left, all the bells in the town were rung and Charlemagne's men exclaimed, "Carcas sonne!", and that is how the name of the city came to be. This tale may very well be fabricated, but it makes for a good story.
We returned to Revel and had a final, fantastic meal with the Vellacotts. They truly spoiled us. What a nice couple of days in Revel we had.

On December 17th, we drove from Revel to Barcelona to catch the Grimaldi Line's Barcelona. The plan was to sail from Barcelona to Civitavecchia (Rome) and avoid the €400+ tolls we'd have to pay crossing France. Of course driving along the Cotes d'Azur is no hardship but our goal was to sort out a long-term stay in the EC. If we managed to successfully gain residency in Italy, we'd be back to spend more time in France.
Sarah and I are checked in and waiting to board the Barcelona. The ship was set to depart at 22:30.
While we were waiting to "roll-on" the ship, Vincent climbed up to the top of LandShark to see if there was any damage from driving under the low bridge (back when entering Paris). Good news, everything was still in good shape!
On December 18th, we woke to a beautiful sunny day. Perfect for crossing the Mediterranean. Thankfully we all had a good night's sleep; the only one who didn't sleep well was poor Molly who had to spend the night in the kennel on the 11th deck. She was very unhappy when we left her at night.

Vincent and I were awake a little after 8am; the kids were still asleep, so we went to breakfast on our own.
Vincent pre-ordered us all a standard breakfast and lunch. The breakfast was pretty light with a croissant au chocolat and small coffee.
At 8:45, Vincent and I were the only customers in the restaurant. We learned that the main business of this ferry line is to transport trucks and goods between Barcelona and Civitavecchia. Any holiday travelers are just gravy, so in the off season people like us can have much of the ship to ourselves.
Not sure what island this is but there were some lovely views from the ship during the course of the day.
The trip from Barcelona to Civitavecchia would take about 20 hours so we had the whole day on board the ferry.
Paul giving Molly a walk on the deck. She was so happy to get out of that kennel.
At 18:45, the Barcelona pulled into Civitavecchia. When we disembarked I was asked where my front license plate was. (I removed it so it wouldn't get stolen and kept it in my glove compartment. I kept a photocopy of the license plate in my front window to be "technically" legal, having a license plate both on the front and back.) Other than when we boarded the ferry to cross the English Channel, this was the first time I had been asked about the missing license plate. I was then asked to show my driver's license. I presented my California driver's license and that seemed sufficient. So far, I've found no reason to get an "international driver's license".

It took about an hour to drive to our next campground, Roma Camping Village, just on the outskirts of Rome. We were driving in the dark, which is something Vince really wanted to avoid with LandShark. Nevertheless, we made it without major issue (yes, a few wrong turns) and were happy to arrive and finally get safely parked. We were all looking forward to our time in Italy.