South of France
(August 2012)

This trip was intended to help my mom realize her lifelong dream of traveling to France. Not surprisingly, it became much more.

IcelandAir didn't serve any free food on the two flights from the States. A disappointment when one plans to eat on the plane! Of course, we couldn't eat in Reykjavik either because we had no Icelandic krona and we didn't dare try the credit cards, lest the accounts be suspended for suspected fraud.

I think by the time we got to Paris we had had some food. Don't remember.

What I do remember is the lack of traffic in central Paris! I had planned to sit in rush hour traffic and was very surprised at the lack of traffic. It was a Wednesday morning, after all. Did the zombie apocalypse happen, like in London at the start of 28 Days Later?

Here's a good shot of the Arc de Triomphe. Unlike Chevy Chase in European Vacation, I didn't get caught in the crazy rotary around the monument. Not to say that a few Parisian motorists didn't try to hit us! Welcome to Paris. (Click the photo for a larger image.)

Recall the last time I was in this city, I was on foot. I recommend that. Don't drive in central Paris unless you're just passing through. Driving isn't difficult if you can be aggressive and drive quickly.

The trouble is finding parking in central Paris. It's around, and really isn't that expensive; however, the problem arises when you want to walk out of the underground car park. At least, that's what happen to us when we pulled into a parking garage marked "libre" near the Eiffel tower.

There were no unlocked doors leading to the surface and no card readers to accept our parking ticket. Thinking back, I still don't know how they intended people to get out. Maybe the garage was just for locals who had magic badges? You know, like most (all?) Europeans have computer chips in their credit cards.

We paid (no simple task) and left the parking garage. After driving around central Paris a while longer, Mom said she'd seen enough and suggested setting out south. I saw something new in Paris: an ATV like mine threading its way through traffic near the Louvre. Which one of these vehicles doesn't belong...

At a motorway service station we bought some bread and cheese made by the cow who laughs. The cheese is nothing to laugh at because it is better than most cheese spreads available in this country!

We stopped in Nevers to visit the resting place of Saint Bernadette. Unfortunately, we'd arrived a bit too late and the caretakers had gone to lunch. Not to be rushed, they returned an hour later. Normally, this wouldn't be a problem, but we had just arrived and were still six hours away from our hotel room!

An Indian family was also waiting. I took a couple of photos of them all with their camera. I guess I still don't look like a thieving scoundrel. Darn!

Everyone was thrilled when the caretakers returned and opened up the church. It was warmer than usual and a bit humid. Inside the church to the audience's right of the altar laid Bernadette. I'd never seen an incorrupted body before. It's one of those things that never leaves you. She was a tiny woman.

French motorways (autoroutes) are well maintained and easy to drive. One does have to stop every fifteen kilometers to pay a toll, though.

Here you can see the new famous bridge near Millau. It set a record or two. Indeed it is an impressive bit of engineering. The French agreed and charged us for the privilege of driving over it! Click the thumbnails below for closer photos. We got our money's worth crossing that viaduct

A caravan on a quick downhill road... Hmm, this reminds me of the time Mike and I got stuck behind a mini-van while rolling down from the Skyline drive. At least this guy went faster, though I did overtake him.

A sunset worthy of the American Southwest! Judging by the color, we've good weather in store for tomorrow. By this time I was getting very tired. I remember Mom saying, after the fact, that she knew I was getting sleepy because I would take more swigs from my pop bottle. I applaud her for staying awake the entire time, too! We arrived at the hotel without a problem somewhat after sunset.

The next morning we overslept the breakfast by a bit. But we noticed that the hotel breakfast area was open: the owners had kept breakfast open just for us! This is the typical behavior of the southern French: understanding and kind. I would stay at the Fasthotel in Carcassonne again. The husband and wife went out of their way to make us feel welcome.

Fueled by a good French breakfast, we set out in the car. The first stop was centré ville (town center) of Carcassonne. This fully operational walled town center is a special place.

Ben & Jerry's? How far did we fly away from Vermont?!

Fortunately, our minds were elsewhere. Mom hadn't been able to ring her husband since we arrived in France. Understandably, this hung heavily over our heads. A worker in the Fasthotel said: don't you have an iPhone? After learning that we were technologically backwards, he said if we were to find an Internet cafe, it would be in centré ville.

Fortunately, Mom just purchased a phone card and mobile phone in the post office. (American post offices should sell cell phones because, if executed properly, that would generate a lot of profit.) The old man in the post office was very understanding and kind. He spoke slowly and clearly that even a retard like me could understand him. What a considerate people: the southern French!

We sat down at a table in the square to decipher the phone card instructions. And what a spot to sit down. Queue the accordion. Click the thumbnails above for views from the table. As expected from my viewing of 'Allo 'Allo, a pretty waitress turned up to take our order.

...and of course, our order produced two small, distinctly French coffees. The accordion music continues...

By this time Mom and I had figured out how to use the French phone card & French mobile phone, which was just like mine except thicker, to ring the States. Her husband directed Mom to have a fun trip and not worry about phoning. Very decent of him.

I returned the coffee mugs--can I call those tiny things that?--and paid the waitress, which I forgot doesn't need to be tipped to survive. (French custom is not to tip, or to do so only when service is exceptional.) Oh well, that's a casualty of being a well-off American. You know, secretly the French love us... and so would I, if I were in their place: the German language is much harsher on the ears than French!

As we wandered out of the square we took a look at the fountain. I believe it's inscribed with Latin words. I don't know what they mean. If you can read Latin, why not give me a hand and translate the inscription? If you complete the technical problem form with a translation and leave your name, then I'll give you credit on this page. Click the photo for a larger view of the inscription.

We headed towards a church within the city walls. Just before we arrived, we came upon this curious little bookshop. To be honest, it and the female owner reminded a bit of Bernard Black's shop, except this French woman was far more considerate of her patrons!

The church we were heading towards turned out to be closed.

Next stop was la cité of Carcassonne. Can you say tourist trap? I wonder if these people realize that they're visiting a place where life was kill or be killed.

After fighting down the main street, which was also uphill, we came to the castle. Outside the gates is this map. The previous photo was taken outside marker no. 3. This one was shot at marker no. 1.

We then headed towards the church (marker no. 2). It was a big, old Catholic church inside.

Behind the castle there were a good view. Click for a larger photo.

We continued along the ramparts. Here's a shot looking back at the rear of the castle. Click for a larger view.

Here are some happy people taking a wagon ride around the ramparts. Below are more shots.

This Indian musician outside the main gate was quite good. Far from home, though.

As we were leaving la cité, we saw this cool trike!

So I introduced Mom to the gourmet food associated with traveling with one of her sons. Wine is dirt cheap in France. The junk food is about the same quality as anywhere.

Here's what the room looked like. Useable with an ensuite bathroom. French TV presenting the stereotypical programming.

The Fasthotel's breakfast is very significant and decidely French. It was something to look forward to in the morning!

The famous tree-lined roads that are so prevalent in France are not abandoned in the south.

Here's a roundabout in Limoux (pronounced Lee-moo). This town will come up again in further down this page. In this photo you can see artwork of bicycles and a date inside an outline of France. The 15th of July, 2012 marked the beginning of the fourteenth stage of the Tour de France. I believe the stage started at this roundabout and terminated at Foix, another town we visited.

After driving up a twisty and narrow road, we arrived at Rennes-le-Château. This small town at the top of a small mountain is known for a buried treasure discovered by a 19th century priest named Bérenger Saunière.

Briton Henry Lincoln, while vacationing in the south of France, read a book describing the possiblity of the priest's treasure. Upon his return to England Lincoln worked with two others to write a novel explaining the clues left behind by Saunière. This was broadcast as documentary on the BBC in the '70s.

The idea was embellished by a New Hampshire resident in 2003 and became a best-selling novel and later a blockbuster movie. The idea is quite controversial: Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene and she bore him a son. So little Rennes-le-Château is a site of a modern reawakening. Heady stuff, eh? And you thought we were on vacation!

Despite the likes of Jules Verne leaving clues about the Rennes-le-Château mystery in books, this tiny settlement is largely just a chapel, a few cafes (of course, we're in southern France), a tower, and a few shops.

We arrived so early that the shops were just opening when we arrived on the scene. So we visited the chapel dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. Immediately as you enter, you look down on the devil angrily bent over under the holy water basin.

Inside is very small: about six rows that would fit at most six people each. Above are some thumbnails leading to full-size images of this impressive little chapel.

Near the top of Rennes-le-Château is this small round tower.

Here's the Tower Magdala.

From there we set out across Cathar country. Here's Puivert castle. We had to drive up a somewhat tricky dirt road to get there. Rather than paying to walk around in a destroyed castle, we returned to the car.

This day turned out to be quite hot. It must have been in the mid 90s and the sun was very strong. I wondered if I'd make it to Montségur. This little castle reaching for the heavens was the last stronghold of the Cathars. Inside, not much is left.

This is where the Cathars' houses were.

The drop is as sheer as it looks. There was only one way to get to this fortress. Click for larger image.

Near this spot 205 Cathars were burned alive after a successful siege drove the Cathars out of Montségur. Their crime was not renouncing their faith. This monument reminds us of this terrible act. This marked the end of the Cathars, at least according to the Catholic church.

I think you can now understand why I was so winded by climbing to the castle. It's tough hiking in flipflops.

Familiar supermarket? We stopped here to get picnic makings. Like the French parking, too.

Here's our car. "The dog tried to bite that too." It's a Seat (pronounced SEE-ahht). Spanish car. Not bad. Not as good as the Renault Clio that Bob and I rented when we visited northern France.

The picnic food.

The next day, after our excellent French breakfast, we set out for a Roman aquaduct. It was pretty far afield, however, Mom humored me and didn't complain. This is what I really wanted to see in the south of France.

After several tolls, we arrived at Pont du Gard. The welcome center was cool because water was sprinkled from the open ceiling. Good thing too because that day it was 105 degrees and sunny.

I recall Mom asking if we'll notice this aquaduct. Ahem... There's the answer!

Here are some shots that show just how immense this structure is. Truly, it's a monument to Roman engineering.

I climbed to the top and took a few shots of where the water traveled across the river on the aquaduct. It's now fenced off to discourage jumpers, and idiots. The French excavated a tunnel through the hillside in 1865 to more directly transport the water. So the French used this aquaduct until at least 1865!

Oh look, canoes! Don't see them? Click image for a larger view. Lots of Frenchies on the river banks sunbathing, too...

And this is where the aquaduct conveyed water... Les Arènes de Nîmes.

Rather than try to park, we drove around the city of Nîmes. Here's la Maison Carrée. Built two years after the resurrection of Christ, it's very well preserved.

A few shots of the streets. "Sell you unwanted gold..." Cash Converters are even in France!

And here's the cathedral in the city.

We left the city and headed further into Provence. Our aim was Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the coastal region named the Camargue. This area is known for flamingoes and small white horses. We saw the horses but didn't get any great shots. All the roundabouts were decorated with sailboats, horses, pottery, etc.

We couldn't get to the church built to commemorate Mary Magdalene's and Martha's landing in France. We saw it from the distance. The story goes that Mary landed here fleeing the church with the unborn son of Jesus Christ. We did manage to get to the Mediterranean coastline. Today the village is a resort and has lots and lots of traffic.

Bottom shelf wine in France is cheap (under 2 Euro) and surprisingly good! I tried another type of beer & Mom sampled another bottle of wine. Good end to a good day!

The next day, Sunday, we headed to la cité to meet Mom's penfriend. We arrived early so we wandered around the city. We managed to find a small alley that allows us to glimpse what the city must have been like centuries ago.

We re-visited the cathedral in the walled city. I managed to get this neat shot of stained glass window.

Mom took this photo of the pipe organ.

We met Mom's friend Marie-Claire and her husband Richard (pronounced "REE-chard"). Richard drove us to Limoux, Marie-Claire's birthplace. We'd driven through this town several times already so it was good to learn more about it from a native. Here's a church.

Richard turned out to be very funny! He knew some American actors (e.g. John Wayne) and even knew some English words. He told Mom that the typical French workweek is indeed 35 hours but many are choosing to work more to earn extra money. According to Richard the economic problems have made an impact in France, too.

Our trek terminated at a museum of automatons. My only exposure to these simple machines has been in movies. In Hugo a boy tries to repair a writing automaton. While the machines in the Limoux museum aren't as complicated, the mysticism is still there. If you're ever in Limoux, I recommend paying them a visit:

Musee des automates
4 rue Anne-Marie Javouney
11300 Limoux Aude
Telephone 06 70 39 01 74

Below are two photos and two movies from the museum. The movies are 19.7 & 21.2 MB.
The high-pitched squealing is caused by metal-on-metal sliding. It has an almost musical sound to it. Very French!

We got to speak with the creator and museum owner. She had just done a show in New York City. She commented that the electricity was different there. As I recall, she also mentioned the quick pace of life in the city.

We walked over a stone bridge over the Aude. Richard joked that the rain gutters (just visible above) were there to help people to take a leak off the bridge. Funny guy! Though, there is some truth to that because we saw men pissing on sides of roads.

We stopped for a drink because it was still unusually warm for this part of France. They had this drink flavored with mint syrup. Not being a fan of mint, I opted for the American alternative.

As we were driving back to la cité, Mom commented about this bush in the shape of a clown. Marie-Claire immediately told Richard to stop. The guy didn't complain as he crowded the car into a tight spot. Afterwards Mom told me she was just remarking how artistic the thing is. She is not a fan of clowns either!

On the way back to la cité, Richard stopped the car so we could take photos of the view of the city. In fact, the decent guy took this photo for me. It's a great shot with the vineyard in the foreground!

For supper mom had a Le BigMac, the one and only...

The next day, our final day in France, we returned to centré ville. We walked by a typical boulangerie. Mom purchased a typical long bread.

We walked by the post office where Mom purchased her mobile telephone from the kind, clearly-speaking postman.

We walked by the classic "duck car". This was a late model Citroën 2CV so it probably had more than two horsepower.

On the way out of the semi-walled central town, we stopped in to see the Cathédrale Saint-Michel de Carcassonne.

...and this is the outside.

We took a different route away from Carcassonne center. This took us along the Canal du Midi. That would be a fun boat ride!

We continued on the D6113, which parallels the autoroute, towards Toulouse. We weren't up to sitting in traffic around Carcassonne.

If I'll remember anything about this part of France, it'll be the sunflowers.

Unless, of course, it's the vineyards!

Along the way we stopped to visit a graveyard. We didn't know anyone in the cemetery. We just wanted to see how they bury their dead here.

Well, they don't bury their dead, as you can see here.

Or do they?

We set back out towards Toulouse. We decided to stop for lunch in Villenouvelle. We enjoyed excellent dishes of some meat in a tasty sauce. Coffee was served afterwards. I remember the pretty waitress looking more Spanish.

We took the autoroute back to Carcassonne because, frankly, I was tired of driving!

Near the hotel is a Géant hypermarket run by Groupe Casino. It's essentially a small mall with a department store and the usual mixture of phone shops and small take-out restaurants.

We went to get la pizza for the second time. It was as good as the first time!

I tried another brand of beer. It wasn't bad. Then, I helped Mom finish up the open bottles of wine. Tough job, I know, but someone had to do it!

The next day we set out for Barcelona. Along the way Mom wanted to see where her penfriend Marie-Claire lives. We left the autoroute and set out on the lonely D roads. Above you can see that an impressive castle overlooks Fitou.

As you can see the wine vines here are much shorter and the terrain is more barren.

The road got twistier and much narrower. I mentioned that this is OK as long as we don't meet a large car coming the other way. And sure enough, we had to slow down and squeeze by a late model convertible Mustang.

We saw these wind turbines from the autoroute so it was good to see them up close.

The downhill bits were tight. Imagine driving down someone's driveway at 30 mph wondering if someone was coming the other way at the same speed. Oh well, at the sun was shining!

We made it to Treilles without incident. Here are some shots of Marie-Claire's & Richard's village:

Back on the autoroute we resumed our journey to Barcelona. I remember commenting about these two Land Rovers, who were obviously together and heading towards Spain. I said wouldn't it be cool if these trucks were carrying a film crew for the British car program Top Gear.

By this time we were running late so I punched up the speed. I was concentrating so much that I didn't realize that Mom had snapped this photo for my benefit. How kind! So maybe this coming series will be filmed in Spain...

We filled the car in France for the last time. Then, we sat in a traffic jam as we crawled up the Pyrennees towards the Spanish border. Our first impression of Spain wasn't good. Burned hillsides, strip joints, rundown houses, and generally ugly, fat people. Would it get better as we advanced to Barcelona?

The road opened up after we made it through the pass. I was able to recover lost time.

We entered Barcelona through the tunnels to the west because I didn't take the direct route. Oops! It did allow us to see how the Spanish do tunnels. (About like the French except with more siesta time and less food.)

By this time we were into siesta time (you know, 2-4 PM), so we gave up trying to make it to the hotel quickly. Instead, I wrecklessly threw the rental car around in Barcelona traffic. Surprisingly, I was only honked at a couple of times. We drove around much of Barcelona. Despite my rough driving, Mom did a fantastic job snapping shots of the city. Click the thumbnails below to see them.
We were looking for the Residencia Australia just outside the old Gothic city. What a pain in the ass this job became! I finally said we need to park and set out on foot. I knew we were in the right area, I just couldn't find a sign.

We parked in an underground parking lot. We were able to walk out of this one! After some walking around in the hot and sunny weather, we found the hotel on the third floor of a building. No wonder we couldn't find it in the car!

The clerk was away so we decided to head back to the car and retrieve our baggage. Sounds easy, right? Well, the garage we parked in had four different locations. Two of which numbered the spaces starting in the two thousands.

After nearly dying of heat exhaustion in the garage, we found the car. It must have been well above 120 degrees and humid underground. After being underground, the surface seemed cool!

The hotel room turned out to be very good. Clean, comfortable, and air-conditioned! The clerk said we could move our car to another garage a dozen blocks away and get a cheaper overnight rate. I smiled and listened attentively without any intention of moving the car. I don't want to lose it again, and I'll gladly pay 40-50 Euro for this convenience!

The comfort of the room made the arduous trek worth it. Here are some shots in the room and looking out.

The next day we flew back home. ...and the final score is--just to be European--France, three and Spain, one.

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