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Must sees in Southwest France

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We are spending a week in southwest France in late April 2014. Coming from Paris by train and renting a car. Where shall we travel to? Must sees?

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    Must Sees? Just about everywhere in the Pays Basque and Béarn to begin with. You might be interested in taking a look at Maribel's Guides (still free) of the Pays Basque and PaÍs Vasco.

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    The SW of France is enormous. There are thousands of " must sees." Have you winnowed it down at all??

    I probably have 15+ trip reports up on Fodors about the 21 years I've owned and visited my home in the Dordogne. You might want to check out one or two.

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    Two Michelin Green Guides might be essential: Bordeaux, Aquitaine, Pays Basque and Languedoc and Gorges du Tarn. A third one if you are interested in the Dordogne. But that represents a large area, and if you intend to cover all of it by doing a grand tour, the Michelin Green Guide for France might suffice to give you the highlights of that area.

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    Below is something I wrote about the southwest Languedoc/Roussillon area. It is part of my Languedoc/Roussillon itinerary.

    Got another week to visit the Languedoc/Roussillon region some more???

    Here is an itinerary for a drive through part of the Pyrenees, a stay in the Roussillon area (with some beach time), a visit to the largest fortified town in Europe, and then a drive through the heart of the Languedoc.

    Sunday

    Switch to Michelin Map 344

    Leave Toulouse on exit 5 towards Carcassonne & Montpellier. Since this is Sunday, there will be much less city traffic (almost none, if you leave by 10), and the trucks won’t be on the roads. Continue on the A61 and visit Carcassonne*** - the largest fortress in Europe. Take the #23 freeway exit and follow the signs to “La Cite”. As the road crosses over the freeway, get the camera ready – there is a remarkable view of the fortress. We were last there in mid June ’04, and we feared that it would be crowded like Mt St Michel, but it wasn’t. At the entrance to town, buy a ticket for the next guided tour – it’s the only way you can see the most interesting parts of the fortress. They have tours in English – but for some reason they were not offering it the day we were there. Carcassonne is a nice place for lunch. Since almost all of the commerce in la Cite is tourist oriented, I imagine that all stores will be open on Sunday.

    After visiting Carcassonne, get back on the A61 freeway (see if the good view looks the same later in the day), and drive towards Toulouse. Take exit #22 off the A61, and head southwest on the D4, and then the D119 to Mirepoix.

    Mirepoix++ is the last one of our three favorite bastide towns. There’s a picture of it in the Green Guide. There are some very pretty outdoor cafes in the center square, and it would be a great spot for a slow Sunday lunch. This town is worth at least 3 photos. There are some nice shops in town too – one that carries my wife’s favorite pottery. It’s Sunday, but Mirepoix may be one of those towns that’s a very popular destination for the French tourists who like to do a stroll in a town on Sunday - so the shops may be open.

    Switch to Map 343

    After visiting Mirepoix, get on the D119 going west, and then the N20 south to Foix.

    Foix* is a very nice non-touristy town and worth a visit – except if it’s Sunday or you spent a lot of time in Carcassonne. If you happen to not follow this itinerary exactly and you’re not here on a Sunday, then stop for a visit. We stayed at the simple Lons hotel, which is very centrally located & easy to get to. It’s directly on the river, so there is a nice view out the window. We dined at the Phoebus, which was excellent. It also has a nice view from the dining room. I think the Ste Marthe restaurant (listed in the Red Guide) is permanently closed, and we didn’t like the appearance of the restaurant anyway. We didn’t have breakfast in the hotel, because the many cafes in town lured us – we ate at one across from a church.

    Exit Foix and take the D17 west. There is a map in the Red Guide, and the D17 is on the south side of the river near exit 3. This D17 is the very pretty Route Verte**. It is described under “Foix” in the Green Guide. My Guide says that the road is often covered with snow at the Col des Marrous & therefore not open until mid June. We asked the person at the Foix tourist office about this, and she confirmed that it was not open yet. However, we set out anyway, and the Route Verte was entirely open and there was not a trace of any snow that might have prevented it from being open. There were signs posted just past Foix, which tell you if the cols are open or closed, & they said that the col was open.

    Continue on the Route Verte (D17) until it connects with the D618. When the D618 hits the D3, take the D3 south a bit to the town of Oust. Stay at the Hostellerie de la Poste there (see the Red Guide). The hotel is a family owned place that’s been in the same family for several generations. They live behind the hotel, and if you stay there, they’ll be eating in the hotel’s staff room prior to serving dinner to the guests. The hotel has a pool, and it’s a “Michelin Red Man” (good food at reasonable prices). The dining room is quite comfortable. If you arrive with some time left in the day, you can either relax by the pool, or do a few “out-&-backs” to see the beautiful Pyrenees.

    Out & Back Drives
    From Oust, go to Seix, and take the D17 west. This is the pretty Vallee de Bethmale* (don’t try to look it up in the GG, because it’s in the Atlantic Coast Green Guide). The ’04 Tour de France followed this vallee, and they climbed over the Col de la Core - which is a category 1 climb (they went west to east). Lance Armstrong won this stage which ended at the Plateau de Beille, and along with winning the La Mongie stage on the previous day, he took command of the Tour at this point. There are several cute villages in this vallee. When you get to Castillon, you can either retrace the same route back to Oust (& see this climb from the bike rider’s perspective), or you can take the D4, & then the D618 to St Girons (we didn’t find this drive to be very scenic – too much commerce as you approach St Girons), and then take the D3 back to Oust.

    Another out-&-back is to take the D3 south of Seix (we had fun with the name of this town) and toward the Col de Pause**. Although the vistas were exceptional, we got cold feet when we were almost there and the 1 lane paved hairpin-lined road turned into a gravel road & then became a rutted gravel passage resembling a wide “trail”.

    Perhaps the best round trip from Oust is south from Seix (I know, more Seix) on the D3 and then east on the D8 along the Vallee d’Ustou+, over the col de Latrape and to Aulus les Bains. This is also the route the Tour de France took on the way to Plateau de Beille. Aulus les Bains is an old spa town and it has it’s requisite of old “Grand Hotels” most of which looked pretty much down on their luck now. For some strange reason, my wife really loves seeing these old “Bains” and “therme” towns – they conjure up a time of elegance & demeanor that is long gone. At Aulus, head back to Oust on the D32 along the Vallee du Garbet*.

    Dinner at the hotel

    Monday

    You could not have completed all the out-&-back drives I described yesterday, so take the remaining ones today. Remember the sun in your face thing, so perhaps the Bethmale is the best one to save until today.

    Head out from Oust to the next destination by taking the D618 east to Massat, and then over the col du Porte (with beautiful mountain scenery along the way) towards Tarascon sur Ariege. Just before Tarascon, take the faster N20 south to Ax les Thermes – this is a very pretty drive. From Ax les Therms (old spa/thermes architecture has given way to modern French architecture – ugh!), continue on the N20 along the river & snow capped mountains (spring & early summer I suspect – we were there in late May) to the Col de Puymorens* . Go over the col (often closed in the winter) and continue south on the N20 to the Cerdagne*.

    Switch to Map 344

    Look up Cerdagne* in the Michelin Green guide. It’s a plateau at 5,000 feet – replete with grassy fields & wildflowers (at least in late May) and rimmed by snowy mountains. Follow the driving itineraries in the Guide. We did not find the towns of Bourg Madam or Font Romeu to be that interesting as we drove by, so we didn’t visit. We did visit the Spanish towns of Llivia & Puigcerda, and we wished we hadn’t. Mont Louis* is very interesting. It’s a “Vauban town” – which is to say the entire town was/is within the walls of the Vauban Fort (Vauban was Louis XIV’s military architect – he built many forts throughout France). What was significant about Mont Louis is that it was never under siege, so it remains intact. Pass by & visit the small town of Eyne, and also drive up the Gorges du Segre. Visit Llo*, which is also where we stayed, and I’d strongly recommend that you stay there too at the Hotel l’Atayla. It’s a very restful place, and the décor & setting is excellent. This is an ideal place to stay in this region. The rooms are 90 to 140 E and ½ pension is available. There’s a pool, and balconies in the rooms look out over the village (ours had a lovely view of a ruined chateau tower). The hotel was suggested to me by someone on the internet, who lives in the Rousillon area of France & is familiar with this region. We spent a considerable amount of time relaxing on the balcony. The restaurant was very enjoyable too.

    Tuesday

    Head east on the N116 down the Tet River to Villefranche de Conflent* (see the GG under “Conflent” for this route, and Villefranche for the town). Villefranche is another of TMBVoF. It has some very interesting ramparts+ encircling the town – don’t miss exploring them. There are some sclocky tourist stores in a few places, but they don’t interfere with your enjoyment of the medieval architecture. There is another Vauban fort* perched high above the town (we didn’t visit the fort).

    After visiting Villefranche, head south on the scenic D116 to Vernet les Bains* (GG under Conflent for the route). Vernet is another Bains (bath) town, but a flood many years ago washed out many of the old grand hotels – what’s left is not that exciting. However, there are some very interesting streets with colorful houses up the hill to where an old church stands. We approached Vernet from the “other” side on the D27, which is where the Church is located, so we walked down and then up again along the various streets in this town. If you approach town from the D116 you will walk up to the church and then back down.

    Now, check your legs. It’s close to the end of your trip, so they should be in good shape. If they are not, or you don’t have about 3 hours to do this next site, then skip it. Visit the Abbey St Martin du Canigou** (see GG). There is a large 2 page picture of this abbey in the front of my Green Guide on the Introduction page – about page 20. There is a 45 min climb up to this abbey, and portions of the walk are very steep, but they are on switchbacks. It’s a very scenic walk, however. You can be driven up to the abbey (see GG), but we watched them do this & it seemed a little scary to me. There is a lunch closing for the abbey, so don’t do like we did and walk for 45 mins, only to get there just as they closed for lunch. The wait, however, allowed us to catch our breath. After we toured this abbey, we were glad that we walked up because it gave the abbey a greater sense of remoteness – something that adds to the enjoyment of the place.

    After visiting (or “passing”) on the abbey, take the D27 from Vernet to Prades, passing the Abbey de St Michel de Cuxa* on the way. We didn’t visit the Abbey, but we took a picture. Head east on the N116, and look for the perched village of Eus on the way – it’s worth about 2 photos from the N116 road (we didn’t visit the town). About 2 K before Ille-sur-Tet, take the D618 south. This drive is described in the GG under Aspres*. Visit the Prieure de Serrabone**, especially if you did not visit the Abbey St Martin. We enjoyed the Prieure quite a bit & it’s easy to access. Continue south on the D618 towards Amelie les Bains, visiting the small Trinite church in Prunet el Belpuig along the way (it won’t take you more than 5 mins).

    At Amelie les Bains, head to your hotel. We stayed in a Gite close to Ceret for 2 weeks in June ’04, so we don’t have any experiences with hotels, except that we know the area a little & can point you to towns/areas that you would enjoying staying in. I would recommend staying in one of two places – in Ceret if you want to be close to the mountains, or in Collioure if you want to be close to the beach & Mediterranean. Both towns are very nice – Collioure is the most popular, because beaches are usually a more popular destination. In Ceret, I would not recommend the Terrasse au Soleil, unless you want to be a little remote. The setting is pretty, and the views from many spots (not from the restaurant, however), are quite nice. It has a pool, and rooms are 217 to 265.

    If you are staying in Collioure and the weather is nice, one of the outdoor restaurants would be a fun spot for a “tourist oriented” dinner where you can watch the crowds, the beach, and the Med. We dined at the Michelin 1 star Neptune* restaurant, which has nice views of the town. Perhaps the most interesting place we dined was at the simple Hostalet de Vives in the town of Vives just north of Ceret. There are signs on the D115 directing you to this restaurant which is on the second floor of an old stone building in the hamlet. We dined twice at Al Fanal et Hotel El Llagut in Banyuls (reserve ahead).

    Wednesday

    We stayed in this area for 2 weeks, and never ran out of things to do. I’ll describe 3 separate driving & sightseeing itineraries, which you can follow or combine anyway you like. Roussillon is a very scenic area – at the foot of the Pyrenees and next to the Mediterranean. However, there are a few sections that are not as scenic as the remainder of this region. Look at the #344 map. The rectangle east of the A9, north of the D618, and south of the D627 from the A9 #40 exit to Leucate is an area that gets some sprawl from Perpignan, and along the coast there are a lot of mass vacation developments that are not real pretty (there’s even a nudist resort). The beach is very nice white sand, but the hundreds of vacation homes, campgrounds, and high-rises, are not what I enjoy experiencing. Perpignan is certainly worth visiting, however. Also, Amelie les Bains on the Tech river is not worth a visit (I was pre-warned of this by my internet friend & confirmed by us when we drove through Amelie many times).

    Mount Canigou*** can be seen from almost anywhere in this region – at least it seems that way. You won’t have any trouble spotting it.

    Route #1 – the Tech river area.
    Find le Perthus on the map – it’s on the France/Spain border. In fact, one side of the street is in Spain & the other in France. The Spain side has a lot of discount shops, but the “scene” is horrible – I would not waste any valuable vacation time trying to save a few Euros on cigarettes, wine, trinkets, etc. Look up “Boulou” in the GG and take drive #2. As you approach le Perthus, there is a parking lot on your left just before you hit the traffic & pedestrian snarled main section of the town. Turn left just past the parking lot & take this drive #2 east as far as you can. It’s marked as the D71. We drove it twice – in the morning & again in the evening (the morning sights were better because of the position of the sun). If it’s a clear day, there are spectacular views on this drive. It is also a popular place for picnics. Return to le Perthus, and then to Ceret on the N9 and D618. Visit Ceret*. There is a famous Musee d’Art modern**, but since we’re not modern art fans, we didn’t visit it. The town, however, is worth a stroll around. There are some nice plane trees in town, with some outdoor cafes. Saturday is market day. Ceret is the center of the cherry growing region, and you’ll see dozens of stands selling cherries in late May/early June.

    Look up “Vallespir*” in the Green Guide, and take the D115 west along the Tech River. Just past Arles, you’ll see signs for the Gorges de la Fou** (in the GG under “Arles sur Tech”). Park the car in the lot & walk along a metal grate suspended above this gorge. The gorge is only about 3 ft wide in spots – it’s an easy & interesting exploration. Return to your car & head east on the D115 for about 1 K & then turn left (north) on the D43 at Arles. This route is described as “Round tour west of Arles” under “Arles” in the GG. The first part goes through some forests, but later there are nice views. When the D43 hits Corsavy, take the D43 north (departing from the itinerary in the GG). After about 8 K or so, turn the car around & retrace your route – there are some very nice views from this road. When you get back to Corsavy, turn right on the D44 and continue on the GG route to le Tech. This will join the D115 west (very pretty in this section) to Prats de Mollo* (see GG). Park the car & explore Prats – follow the walk described in the GG.

    After visiting Prats, continue west on the D115 to the Col d’Ares. At the Col, turn the car around & retrace your route east towards Arles – this is a pretty drive. About 4 K before reaching Arles, take the D3 south towards Coustouges (see GG under Arles). Continue past the town of Coustouges into Spain on the D3 which becomes the GI503 in Spain. My internet friend who lives in Roussillon suggested this drive – it’s quite pretty. Continue on the GI503 until it hits the GI504 & take this north to the #2 entrance on the A7 freeway, where you will return to France. Don’t take the N9 into France unless you like lots of stop & go traffic at Le Perthus.

    Thursday

    Route #2 – cute village, scenic gorges, wonderful countryside, and Cathars castles.
    This is an ambitious itinerary, so get an early start. If you’re staying in Collioure, drive toward Ceret on the D114, D618, and then D115. Take the D615 north of Ceret towards Thuir. Use the map & get on the D48 west to Castelneu+. Explore Castelnou (GG under Perpignan). One of my guidebooks described it as “St Paul de Vence without the tourists”. It’s a cute town. After a visit, take the D48 west and then the D2 to Ille-sur-Tet. Continue past Ille-sur-Tet on the D2 and when it crosses over the N116, you will approach les Orgues+. There is a picture of les Orgues in my Michelin Guide under Perpignan. You may have to take the D21 a bit towards Belesta to get some good views. Turn around on the D21 and then take the D2 back to Ille and get on the N116 heading west (you will have to go through Ille a little to do this – follow the signs to Prades). Continue west to Prades, taking a picture of Eus if you have not done so yet. Take the loop north around Prades and then take the D619 north. Look up Fenouilledes** in the Green Guide. Follow the described route from Prades to St Paul – it’s quite picturesque. When you intersect the D117 at St Paul, take the D117 west – this road is quite scenic too. At Axat, take the D118 south through the Gorges de St Georges*. When you get as far as the D16 fork near Rouze, turn the car around and retrace your route all the way back to St Paul. At St Paul, take the D7 north through the spectacular Gorges de Galamus** (see GG under Galamus). There is a picture of this gorge in the guide. At times, the road is only 1 car width wide. We were there in mid June & we didn’t encounter another car – I don’t know what happens in July or August when there are more tourists.

    At Cubieres, take the D14 towards Chateau de Peyrepertuse***. If you have not already done so, read about the Cathars faith in the Green Guide (or other guidebook) and learn about their religion, life, and fate. Visit this chateau, but be aware that some climbing & walking is necessary. The French don’t like to install escalators or paved walkways to get to their historic sites, so you’ll have to walk along dirt paths, over rocks, & through some low hung trees to get to the chateau. Also, walking around the Chateau is treacherous at times – but worth it. Plan on a 2 hour visit. There is a picture of the Chateau in the Green Guide. After visiting the Chateau, head east on the D14 towards another Cathar’s stronghold – the Chateau de Queribus*. As you leave Peyrepertuse & drive to Queribus, search the crest of the ridge to your right & try to find Peyrepertuse hidden among the rock formations. We did not visit Queribus – Peyrepertuse was enough hiking & climbing for the day. The view of Queribus from the road is spectacular. Take the D19 south towards Maury – this road is very scenic. At Maury (famous for their sweet wine) head east on the D117 & then back to the hotel. It’s difficult to get on the A9 freeway from the D117 – we tried to do so on two occasions & got lost both times.

    Friday

    Route #3 – Collioure, Banyuls, Costa Brava in Spain, and Perpignan
    If you are staying in Collioure**, then you will have explored this town thoroughly by now. They have an OK Sunday market. It’s very difficult to park in Collioure, so we usually like to visit it early in the morning, or later in the day when there are fewer day trippers. If you are starting this drive from somewhere other than Collioure, take the northern most exit to Collioure off the N114 – it’s more scenic. After visiting Collioure head south on the coast road past Port Vendres to Banyuls*. When you get out of Port Vendres, the route to Banyuls becomes very scenic. Banyuls is noted for their sweet wine, and you’ll see lots of vineyards along the way. However, they look like abandoned vineyards & you will wonder how they could possibly get grapes to grow on them – somehow, they do!!. Stop in Banyuls for a visit if you like – we didn’t, so I can’t comment on Banyuls, except that they have a nice restaurant in town – we dined there twice. Continue south on the N114 & into Spain. The coastline is quite spectacular here. Continue to Llanca, where you will run out of map. Take the GI612 and the GI613 to Cadaques**. Park the car & explore this coastal resort town – it’s quite nice. There are lots of café’s, and the town’s buildings are all painted white – quite different than the villages in France. After visiting Cadaques, take the GI614 west to Figueres, where you will get on the Freeway heading north to Perpignan.

    Perpignan** has quite a bit of urban sprawl, but the old part of town is well worth exploring. Be patient when you drive into town & find a place to park. We got lost twice. If you are visiting Perpignan in the morning, have a coffee at one of the outside cafes next to le Castillet. If you are here at lunchtime, there are lots of outdoor cafes on Quai Vauban along the river. Quite a few shops attracted my wife’s attention on R Mailly. I enjoyed the musee Hyacinthe-Rigaud. The Palais des Rois de Majorque was worth a visit. Follow the suggested walking plan in the GG – starting at le Castillet however.


    Fort de Salses** See “Salses” in the Green Guide. If you can possibly fit this into your schedule, then by all means, do so. Read about it in the guide. There is a guided tour, and the guide spoke English when asked to do so.

    Saturday

    Get on the A9 and head north. At exit #38 south of Narbonne, take the N9 northwest around Narbonne and the D607 northwest towards St Marcel. Continue on the D607 and then the D907 and D10 to Minerve*+. Get the camera ready as you approach this village – another TMBVoF, and a Cathars stronghold. Park the car in one of the lots in the D10 – you can’t drive into town. The setting is lovely – it’s in a ravine at the confluence of two rivers, and it sits on a plateau above the rivers. There is a picture in the Green Guide – but that’s not what it looks like. We almost didn’t visit Minerve because the picture didn’t look that interesting. We went through a lot of film here. There are some places to grab a bite to eat in town. It’s about a 1 hr visit. After exploring Minerve, head west for 3K on the D10E1 along the pretty Canyon de la Cesse.

    If you are departing France from Toulouse, then get on the A61 to Toulouse. You can visit Carcassonne*** along the way, but make sure you allow enough time to visit Toulouse..

    If you are departing from Montpellier, here is a good way to get back near the Montpellier airport. From Minerve, head east on the D10/D907 and then the D20 to St Chinian. Continue through St Chinan on the D20. Past St Chinan, the drive is picturesque with vineyards all around. Before Cessenon, take the D14 north & get the camera out. After a few bends in the road, you will get an excellent view of the village of Roquebrun, with the ruins of the old chateau perched above the village. Continue on the D14 along the pretty Gorges de l’Orb to the D908. At the D908, turn left (west) and drive to Olargues* - another TMBVoF. Stay on the D908 until you are 1 K past the village. Turn the car around & head east – the best views are from this direction. You can explore Olargues if you have the time, but it’s better from the outside than from the inside. Continue east on the D908. This is a pretty drive with mountains on the left & valley on the right. As you approach Bedarieux, stay on the D908 towards Clermont-l’Herault (look for the signs). About 8K past Bedarieux, look for the sign to Carlencas & take the small D136E13 north. Continue past Carlencas, and at the junction of the D8, take the D8 south & then east to Moureve. There is a lot of very interesting rock formations and red dirt along this drive. Continue through Moureze (not worth a visit) until you join the D908 again. You can stop for a quick visit in Villeneuvette. This is a medieval “factory town” that made woolen goods – it’s quite interesting & off the tourist route.

    From Cleremont l’Herault, get on the D908 to Montpellier. When you approach Montpellier, follow the map & take the roads in a counter clockwise direction around the city & towards the airport. Soon, you will see signs to the airport. Follow these signs all the way to the airport, but instead of turning into the airport complex, continue on the D62 to Aigues Mortes**-. Stay overnight in Aigues Mortes – it’s less than 20 mins from the airport. When you arrive at Aigues Mortes, park in one of the large lots along the walls of the town. There are parking lots immediately in front of you as you get to the main village entrance, and if those lots are full, keep driving (with the village walls to your right) and circle the village until you get to the car park on the “other” side of the village. You will have to get a ticket to park in the lots, but they give you about 45 mins of free parking. Use these 45 mins to find your hotel on foot. We stayed at the St Louis and dined at the Arcades (which also has rooms). We thought that the St Louis had parking (which it kinda does) but we found out that parking really isn’t a problem inside the walls – you just need to get a “pass” from the hotel. Aigues Mortes is very touristy – the first 2 blocks inside the main entrance at the Porte de la Gardette are horrible, probably the tackiest shops I’ve ever seen. It gets better, however, once you pass these first two blocks. Wander around town. I have mixed opinions about Aigues Mortes. The walls are fantastic, but inside the walls, the architecture of the buildings is rather un-inspired. If this village lost its walls, it would not be a popular tourist destination. The meal we had at Arcades was excellent, and the dining room setting was lovely. Even if the weather is nice, I would opt to eat inside instead of outside.

    Sunday

    Drive to the Montpellier airport from Aigues Mortes, or take a taxi to the Toulouse airport for your return home if you are staying in Toulouse the last night.

    Stu Dudley

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