France Travel Blog› entry 1 of 21 › view all entries
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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....