France 2007

France Travel Blog

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Oradour memorial site

It was love at first sight. J'adore la France, I love the country! After my parents took me to Najac, Aveyron in 1980, I have been back to France dozens of times. I felt the wind on top of the Eiffel tower, enjoyed the sun at the Cote d'Azur, slipped my way to the isle of Noirmoutier, was challenged by a plate of choucroute in Colmar, conquered the Galibier by bike, walked to the Pyrenee top of la Rhune, looked for Van Gogh's ear in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, paid my respect to the castles of the Loire, wandered around the battle fields of the Somme and of Verdun, swam in the Lac d'Annecy, had a seat at the stands of the F1 race in Monaco etc.

Oradour, tram station
etc. etc.

The 2007 French trip came into my mind because of an old article in the paper and because of some books. The article was about the small village of Oradour-sur-Glane, west of the porcelain city Limoges, with which it was linked by a tramway. In 1944 German general  Lammerding was responsable for whipping out almost the entire village. The books feature the Cathars: "The yellow cross: the story of the last Cathars' rebellion" by René Weiss, "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" by Michael Baigent c.s., and the novel "Labyrinth" by Kate Mosse. I all read them with much interest.

A well maintained 800 km tollway took me to Limoges in the middle of France. From there it was only 20 km west to Oradour-sur-Glane, where I rented a room at the local hotel Glane.

Oradour, old main street
This was a simple family hotel on the main square with a fine restaurant. The village is constructed after the second worldwar next to the location of the original village. At this original location it all happened on June 10th 1944 in the shadow of D-Day. A group of German soldiers arrived in Oradour marching north to Brittany. The village was surrounded and all inhabitants were united at the main square. Men and women were separated; women and children were brought to the church and the men formed small groups and were led to different locations. The church was closed and a bomb announced the massacre. The church was set into fire, machine guns were heard from all corners of the village. Hundreds of people were slaughtered, only 6 survived. The village was burned down and the Germans marched on.
Najac, pool view
Nowadays the ruined village makes an impressive sight. Everything was kept the same since the destruction. I was deeply touched while walking through the streets of this memorial site. Plaquettes on the ruins descrip the old function of the buildings. A backery, a garage, a school. Only walls, rusty sewing-machines and car wrecks are the silent witness of what happend more than 60 years before. Places of execution are located and even the tramway is still visible. It made me very silent...

Next location was Najac, a village hanging on a hill above the river Aveyron. I was curious about its location, where we spent the 1980 summer holidays. As time stood still, not much had been changed. Only the name of the holiday village nearby had lost its name Prexotel... The bungalows were exactly the same and the view from the swimming pool to the village remained magnificent!

Only a few km south of Najac is Cordes-sur-Ciel (sur ciel, because of its situation high on a hill).

Albi
It has not really a single sight, but it is the town as a whole with medieval walls and old houses, that makes Cordes a kind of open-air museum. Sorry, it was too tempting to ignore that little train (don't tell any further that I didn't walk up hill).

Prominent in Albi is the Cathédrale Sainte Céile, constructed with red bricks. Hence, the nickname "Albi la Rouge". The other major feature of the town is the Toulouse-Lautrec museum. The city lent its name to the bloody Albigensian Crusade, when the catholics wiped out Cathars in the area. This was the fil rouge of the rest of my trip. The old town is a chaotic jumble of narrow streets spreading east and south of the cathedral. Beside the cathedral is the Berbie palace housing the ToulouseLautrecmuseum.

Continuing south I passed Mazamet and drove to the Montagne Noire.

Carcassonne
I stopped to see Hautpoul, a hill-top village which history ended when Simon de Montfort stormed it during the last crusade. All what remains are ruins. At the end of the day I reached Carcassonne. As I had a reservation at the Hotel Le Donjon (very nice hotel  in a medieval setting), I was allowed to drive my car into the walled upper town, pushing the tourists aside the narrow streets. No victims only jealous eyes... Carcassonne has two separate parts, le Cité and the Ville Basse. Like most visitors I was attracted by the medieval citadel-like Cité, which is situated spectaculary on top of a hill. It's actually a restoration of the original medieval fortified town with high walls, many towers, gates, a castle and even a basilica. It was the biggest fortess where the Cathars fought during the last crusade (read Kate Mosse's Labyrinth!).
Rennes-le-Chateau
Carcassonne is one of the highlights for tourists visiting France, and justly so.

Rennes-le-Chateau would have been yet another poor hard to reach hamlet, if not parish priest Béranger Saunière spent much money a.o. on a house (Villa Bethania), a curious library (Tour Magdala) and a better road up from Cuiza. How did this simple priest suddenly become so rich? The mystery began with the restoration of the tiny church by Saunière around 1890. Did he find a treasure? Speculations include links to the Templars, the Priory of Zion, Cathars, the Holy Grail and even a Christ having escaped crucifixion. Salut, Dan Brown.

Via the beautiful Defilé de Pierre-Lys (Quillan to Axat) and the Gorges de Saint Georges I found myself in Fenouillet country.

Le Corbiac
Descending 1500 m high Col de Jau I arrived in Mosset. Having read Rosemary Bailey's nice novel "Life in a postcard, escape to the French Pyrenees" about a little ruined monastery she bought and restored, I wanted to see her new home near Mosset, called Le Corbiac. It was hard to find, I passed it although well visible from the road, but I still found it. No Mrs. Bailey though, she had sold the place!

Situated on the foot of the omni-present mount Canigou, Prades is a lovely French Catalan village. Here I stayed the rest of the holidays at the (again by English) restored Villa Lafabreque. Highlight of Prades is the huge retable in the church of Saint-Pierre. Just south of town is the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-Cuxa, a part of it was moved to New York to the Cloisters (how barbarous!).

Prades, eglise St.-Pierre
West of Prades is the beautiful fortified village of Villefranche-de-Conflent, start of the tourist traintrip "le petit train jaune"(yeah, the trains are yellow). Up into the Pyrenees mountains I parked my car in Vernet-les-Bains, from where I had a beautiful walk further up to the Abbaye de Saint-Martin-du-Canigou. Perched on a rocky outcrop this monastery's red rooftops and square bell tower provide a landmark far around. Only with a nun-guide you can make a tour in the complex. Another important abbey in this region is the Prieuré de Serrabone. A twisting side-way of the road from Ille-sur-Tet (here is an extraordinary landscape called "Les Orgues") to Amélie-les-Bains leads to this romanesque priory with a richly decorated interior including flowers and animals on the capitals and an elaborate pink marble bishop's throne.
Prieuré de Serrabone
West of Amélie further into the Tech valley is the village of Arles-sur-Tech with the Gorges de la Fou, which can be explored from a boardwalk (cul-de-sac) with a hired helmet. 

Driving back on the D115 the road leads to the Mediterranean Côte Vermeille at Collioure, a charming little port 35 km south of Perpignan, which is a magnet for tourists. Narrow cobbled streets with galleries and souvenir shops lead to the harbour/beach clenched between the château-royal and the church of Notre-Dame-des-Anges with a distinctive round bell tower (once lighthouse).

About 15 km west of Perpignan, just off the highway, is Forca Réal, which offers a splendid view to the coast and the Pyrenees.

Peyrepertuse
Don't drive back to the highway but drive to the village of Caramany and buy a bottle of their great red wines. Remember: don't drink & drive ;-). The road is north to the Gorges de Galamus. The drive along this 3 km long gorge high above the river Agly is one of the most dramatic in the region. From the carpark at the entrance of the gorge you look down on the small Ermitage St.-Antoine-de-Galamus. The road brings you to two of the most famous castle ruins. This is the heart of Cathar country. The first is the Château de Peyrepertuse, a must see. Okay, it's a climb up to these old stones spread along a 300 m long ridge, but it's worth it; the highlight of the Corbières! In the shadow of Peyrepertuse, but definitely also not to be missed are the ruins of the Château de Queribus, 6 km down the road.
Montaillou

Descending the Col de Jau to the west I arrived in Quérigut with its castle. This was the last stronghold of the Cathar leadership, who held out here 11 years longer than Montségur. All what remains is a sorry stump. To get to the village of Montségur I had to drive over the Col de Port de Pailhères. I was hold up by 4 cyclists accompanied by a car with bikes on the roof. Those cycle-tourists are getting more and more professional. Passing the car I thought the driver had a familiar face..... it belonged to Viatcheslav Ekimov, twice Olympic gold winner and now assistant directeur sportif of the cycle team Discovery. The first cycler I recognized was Levi Leipheimer. When I drove my car next to him, I opened the window and asked why he couldn't keep up with his teammate in front.

Montségur
He only smiled. This teammate turned out to be Alberto Contador, 2 months later the winner of the Tour de France!

Montaillou village (nowadays with some 20 inhabitants) got its name in the history books because of the precise records of the Inquisition, looking for Cathars, from which it was possible to recreate every aspect of the villages' lives around 1320 A.D. (including some sexual escapades!). The ruins of the castle Montségur once provided refuge for over 200 Cathars, until they faced the same  lot as many Cathars in other conquered places during the Albigensian Crusade. They were martyred on a burning pyre after they descended from the stronghold. On the way back to Prades I stopped in Odeillo to admire the Four Solaire, an enormous solar power station.

Cathar monument

Well, these were most of the highlights of my 2007 trip to France. The country is so full of things to see, that you won't stop to amaze how that is possible in only one country! Thanks to the modern Pont de Millau I was able to drive the 1.350 km home in less than 12 hours....

viktosha says:
I shall travel across France in this year. Your entry with this information has very much helped me. :)
Posted on: Mar 18, 2008
polvandenwirre says:
When I visited Rennes-leChateau last May I was the only tourist in the village!
Posted on: Feb 22, 2008
richardAmsterdam says:
Hey great write up!!
Quick question, did you find Rennes-le-Chateau crowded? I hear it has become very popular due to the da vinci code etc.

Richard
Posted on: Feb 22, 2008
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Oradour memorial site
Oradour memorial site
Oradour, tram station
Oradour, tram station
Oradour, old main street
Oradour, old main street
Najac, pool view
Najac, pool view
Albi
Albi
Carcassonne
Carcassonne
Rennes-le-Chateau
Rennes-le-Chateau
Le Corbiac
Le Corbiac
Prades, eglise St.-Pierre
Prades, eglise St.-Pierre
Prieuré de Serrabone
Prieuré de Serrabone
Peyrepertuse
Peyrepertuse
Montaillou
Montaillou
Montségur
Montségur
Cathar monument
Cathar monument