Thursday, July 01, 2010

Ash Cloud or No Ash Cloud, I'm Having a Holiday and Just You Try and Stop Me

Ant and I were due to go on holiday to Sicily back in May, but thanks to the Icelandic volcano and its pesky ash cloud, our flight was cancelled and our carefully constructed travel plans scuppered. Determined to find adventure regardless, we threw some camping gear in the back of our ancient Nissan Micra, and hopped on a ferry to the continent from Newhaven, praying that the old jalopy could survive another long haul jaunt.

We'd booked ahead for one night's accommodation in Orleans, but the rest of the trip was a complete fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants mystery tour. My GCSE French was tested to its limits, frantically reserving hotels over the phone and ordering dinner in the remote rural non-English speaking villages in which we found ourselves. The camping thing didn't really work out (we're getting separate air mattresses next time), so we ended up bimbling between B&Bs as we made our way down towards the South coast, taking in Montpellier, Le Grau du Roi and Sete along the way. A visit to the beautiful hillop town of St Guilhem le Desert - with its picture postcard perfect winding streets and rustic monastery - was a highlight of the Languedoc stretch of the trip.

From the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean we swung a right and ventured into the majestic surroundings of the midi-Pyrennes and by pure luck and some garbled Franglais, found ourselves a delightful farmhouse gite in which to kick back and wind down for a few days. The village of Bourieges has nothing but a church, a (lovely) cafe, post office (only open on the Third Thursday of every month) and a handful of rustic houses. We were welcomed by Mr & Mrs Pous, who also left us several bottles of locally brewed plonk, including some from their own vineyard and an excellent Limoux bubbly, alleged to be better (and cheaper) than Champagne. I'd have to agree, it was super.

Having fond memories of cave paintings from a childhood family holiday in France, I was keen to explore the famous Niaux, just a short drive from where we were staying. Poor Ant came along too, despite his fear of small spaces and caves in particular. It was a magical experience, a small group of us trekking into the darkness with only handheld torches to light the way and mind-blowing underground landscapes all around. I have been known to get spooked in very dark outside spaces, but the womb-like surroundings felt somehow comforting as I imagined men and women making the same journey some 13,000 years before into what archeologists believe to have been some kind of spiritual sanctuary.

The paintings themselves were fascinating and surprisingly accomplished - considering the tools with which they would have been working back then. On the way back out of the caves, I asked if anyone in the group minded us all switching off our torches to experience complete darkness. It's an amazing sensation being in such pitch black that you can't seen your own hand in front of your face, or even the faintest outline of a person next to you.

Another adventure in these parts was to Carcassonne - the fortified town that inspired the game of the same name (now available as an iPhone app, FFS). Much like the famous Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, Carcassonne is overtly touristy, packed full off naff souvenir shops selling everything from frdieg magnets to medieval costumery. But it was a pleasant place to wander around and the castle itself was most interesting and well presented. We drove back from Carcasonne to Bourieges via the quaint little cloistered town of Mirepoix, which I shall always remember as the place where I received news of our dear old family cat Go-Tabs having to be put to sleep. The disproportionately large and rather pretty catherdral there made a perfect sanctuary in which to reflect and have a little cry.

Heading North back in the direction of Dieppe, we'd arranged to stay with friends in the Dordogne for a couple of days. After a quick pit-stop in charming Albi (where we just missed the opening hours for the Toulouse Lautrec museum), we arrived at Bellevue, near Bergerac, where we were thoroughly spoiled with wonderful food, stunning surroundings and exceedingly good company. We were even introduced to 'Click', a Carn family favourite after dinner game involving dice, paper and in this case, a generous helping of Alan's hearty homebrew. The Sunday market in Issigeac was one of the loveliest markets I think I've ever been to and Ant even managed to find a sunhat to fit his massive head there.

Our final stop off was in the little town of Azay-le-Rideau along the Loire, where we found a very cute B&B just around the corner from a spectacular Chateau - which proved a lovely place to bimble around on a sunny day. As we got behind the wheel once more for the final stretch of the trip home, I was frankly amazed that poor old Lottie was still going. It may not have been the highly-planned Sicily trip we'd hoped for, but we'd certainly managed to pack in a decent amount of adventure and a whole huge helping of stunning scenery to boot. And we discovered pear jaffa cakes, which really was the icing on the cake.
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