Help! with two days in the Languedoc

Old Dec 11th, 2006, 01:17 PM
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Help! with two days in the Languedoc

I've done way too much research without making any decision, and could use some suggestions on our possible itinerary.

The players in the drama are DH, our 11-year-old son and I. We're foodies; like nice places to stay but not luxurious, with lots of character; son wants to see castles and caves; I'm a big history buff; none of us are beach types. DH just likes being in Europe, and has a morbid fear of ending up in a hotel with a "yucky bathroom" (based on a mistake I made ONCE). DH & I have visited the Dordogne, and are delighted to return! Son is fine with long car rides, but doesn't appreciate beautiful countryside and cute villages the way us grownups do. So I'm trying to come up with a plan that leaves flexibility, includes castles and caves, not too much driving, and some decent restaurants (dinner). We're not trying to see everything, as we're assuming we'll return to the area again. (Which is good because there's so much to see!)

We're starting in Barcelona, then one night in Figueres (Dali, etc.). We're driving from there to the Languedoc. My son really wants to stay at a chateau hotel in Couiza our first night (though really, Carcassonne would work much better). We'll probably drive through Carcassonne and visit it that day, though I'd also like to get to the two Cathar castles of Queribus and Peyrepertuse, which are on the other side of Couiza (a logistical problem, I know).

The next day, I'm thinking we'll drive to the Grotte de Niaux, Foix, Mirepoix, then end up somewhere north of there for the night. This is where I'm having problems. I'd like to be close enough to Cabarets to
visit Pech Merle the next day without too much driving beforehand (and we'd probably stop in St Cirq Lapopie on the way, for a short time). I've looked at overnight stops in Revel and hotels near there, Chateau des Cambards outside of Saint Sulpice, which I can't find much about, and decided Albi and even places like Castres are too far east for our plans. Now I'm thinking we should stay in or around Cahors, which would make the day driving there a longish day, but at least we'd be nearer Caberets for the next morning. Oh, I'm so confused...any suggestions would greatly help.

After Pech Merle, we'll head up to Sarlat, where we'll spend the next four nights. If we could fit in Monpazier and Biron in particular on the way up, after Pech Merle, that would be good - I think my son would really like the exhibits in Biron. I know most people say to take the Gourdon route, but seems like Monpazier and Biron would be good for us that day.

And, another question, how many caves are too many? So far, on our "possible must see" list are the Grotte de Niaux, Pech Merle, Lascaux II and Font de Gaume(us grownups have visited the last of those only). I know they're all different (and Lascaux is a reproduction), but I don't want my son to get "caved out." Or us, either!

Thanks in advance.
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Old Dec 11th, 2006, 02:57 PM
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I’m assuming you are planning on a visit to the Dali museum in Figueres. Otherwise, I’m not sure the town is worth a stop – it’s OK if you’re in the area for a period of time, however.

This is the scenic route to Caberets/St Cirq Lapopie
Hop back on the freeway from Figueres & head north – don’t take any non-freeway roads yet. Make sure you have Michelin Map #344, because this next loop is a little tricky. Get off the freeway at Exit #41 just north of Perpignan. Take the N9 north to Fort de Salses – a very interesting Vauban type military fortress. It’s rated 2 stars in the Michelin guide & we enjoyed our visit there (we recently stayed in this region for 2 weeks). You then need to immediately go south on the N9 road that parallels the freeway . The sign will probably direct you to Perpignan. As you approach Perpignan, you need to go west on the D117 – which is the road that goes by the airport and also in the direction of Rivesalts. Stay on the D117 heading west. In a few miles the scenery becomes quite pretty . At the town of Maury (sweet wine growing region) take the D19 north on another scenic drive and drive by/or visit two very interesting Cathars Castles. The first one is Chateau de Queribus – stop & take some pictures from outside. Then get on the D14 and visit the ruins of Ch de Peyrepertuse. There is about a 20 min hike to the chateau. Perhaps plan on a 1 ¼ hr visit if you like this type of thing. Read about the Cathars and this chateau in the Michelin Guide to the Languedoc. Continue on the D14, to where it hits back on the D117 & go west on the D117. This section of road is quite pretty. Stay on the D117 towards Quillan and you will drive through the scenic Defile de Pierre-Lys. At Quillan, head north on the D118 for a 12K drive to Couiza.

After spending the night in Couiza, return to Quillan & get on the D117 heading west. I have not traveled on this section of road, so I can’t comment on it. In Lavelanet, take the D625 north to Mirepoix. Mirepoix is a very cute Bastide town (look up Bastide towns in the Michelin Guide), and it would be a great place to explore & have lunch – if you make it here by lunch time. There is a picture of the covered arcades of Mirepoix in the Languedoc Green Guide. Lots of cafes in town and a nice houseware store on a corner.

From Mirepoix, head on to Carcassonne for a visit. You didn’t say what time of year you’ll be doing this, but since you’re taking your son – I’ll assume it’s in the summer – when Carcassonne tends to get quite crowded. If so, then I would skip Mirepoix (equally nice Bastide towns later) and get to Carcassonne early in the morning (9;00) from Couiza. If this were my trip, I’de bribe the 11 YO with pictures of Carcassonne & convince him to want to stay there overnight instead. That way you could visit Mirepoix & get to Carcassonne when the tourists have left. Stay overnight in Carcassonne. I don’t think you’ll have any difficulty with this itinerary if you leave Figeures reasonably early in the morning.

Next morning, get on the Freeway towards Toulouse & then head to Albi.

Albi is a very pretty town – we’ve been there twice. It’s much nicer than I thought it would be. The Toulouse-Lautrec museum is, of course, in Albi. It has a lunch closing (except for July & Aug) according to my Michelin guide – but when we were there in Sept, I think it was open all day – check with the tourist office. Even if you don’t want to see the art, the museum is in a lovely chateau, with a nice garden (which you can visit free w/o going to the museum). Albi is about a ½ day or less visit, so you could stay overnight in this town after visiting it. Buildings with historical significance are well marked. Make sure you take in the view from the bridge over the Tarn (best in AM when the sun is behind you). There is a huge underground parking garage which seems to accommodate all needed parking. We didn’t stay overnight (the Gite we rented was close by), so I don’t have any hotel recommendations. Things lock up tight for the lunch closing.

If you do not want to visit Albi, let me know & I’ll describe a scenic drive from Carcassonne to the Albi region (but no time for a visit)

When you leave Albi on your way north to St Cirq Lapopie, here is a nice drive. Head west to Gaillac on either the freeway or on the D998 (neither is scenic). In Gaillac (no need to visit – it’s OK but you will see better – only stop if you have plenty of time) take the D964 toward Castelnau-de-Montmiral. Get out and visit this town – it is a Bastide town. Of the 20 or so Bastide towns we’ve visited, this was our favorite. The drive there is very pretty. After Casatelnau, leave northwest on the D964 to Bruniquel. This is a pretty town too – get out & visit. See the Michelin guide for details. The drive there is very scenic. You are now in the Gorges de L’Aveyron area. In your Green Guide to the Languedoc, look up Gorges de L’Aveyron in the “St Antonin” section of the guide and take the #1 driving tour in the clockwise direction (Bruniquel to Montricoux to St Antonin, to Penne). Watch for the view of Penne after you cross the river. If you don’t have time to do the full round circuit (it’s only about 30 mins extra to do the entire #1 tour), head counterclockwise from Bruniquel to Penne, and when you leave Penne, drive a few Ks but before crossing the river, turn the car around & head back to Penne again for a really nice view of the castle ruins. If you need a lunch break, there is a nice looking place near the tourist office with a view of the castle. St Antonin is worth a stop if it is Sunday AM market day (we’ve purchased a lot of food at this market, also a basket, & pottery).

I would spend the night in the Gorge de l’veyron at the following hotel/restaurant:
Les Jardin des Thermes in Feneyrols – rating 8 (6/02 & 9/03)
This “restaurant with rooms” is very simple, but the colors & décor in the dining room are lovely – someone has a lot of creativity.
We started out with 2 amuse bouches
- deep fried croquettes accompanied by artichoke leaves topped with a pea & pomegranate mixture
- Slices of smoked white fish served with herbed crème fraiche and mustard seeds accompanied by a cold broccoli floweret
We had a hard time choosing among the menus (17,22,29,41E), but Stu (surprise, surprise) chose the Carte Blanche du Chef (41E) which featured whatever courses the chef decided on that night.
Stu started the 41E menu with
- Foie gras mi-cuit and poelle, each with a different sauce. Sautéed apple chunks served in a “Chinese” soup spoon sitting on the plate. A mirepoix of vegetables in 3 dollops, and brandied cherries.
- Sautéed Lotte in a fish stock with mushrooms. This was served not in soup bowl, but in a hollowed out round squash. The squash “bowl” was not cooked, but the squash flesh had been incorporated into the sauce. Along side the squash bowl were crisped wafer thin zucchini slices on a bed of leeks, mushrooms, & red peppers.
- Pigeon breast (rare) & roasted leg. This was served on a bed of ratatouille and artichoke chunks, sautéed red & yellow grape halves, halved small tomatoes topped with toasted herbed breadcrumbs, and 2 zucchinis sliced & spread out like a fan. Caramelized apple slices, and a potato & celery root quenelle accompanied the dish.
- The cheese course (which we both had) was a small dressed green salad served with two cheese wedges – a chevre & a double cream cheese, along with a tomato vegetable chutney (the chutney was served on a Chinese spoon)
- For dessert, we both had 3 individual items – peach ice cream, whipped cream topped with sliced strawberries, and a clafoutis (like a small individual cake) of apples & pears.
With these 5 courses, he had 5 different wines, finishing with a sweet rose. Everything was magnificent - and the price (41E) included wine!!!
I had the menu a 27E (only 4 courses)
- Magret de canard sec, with foie gras, smoked white fish rillettes and pieds de porc en croustillant
- Lotte wrapped in a dry cured ham, served with saffron infused fish stock based sauce. Chinese rice noodles were sprinkled over one of the pieces of lotte. I too had the ratatouille/artichoke along side, with shaved raw jicama.
- Same cheese & dessert as Stu

Next morning, head out on on the D19 to Caylus. The town is in a pretty setting, but not as interesting inside the town. One of my wife’s favorite pottery shops is on the D926 around the D19 junction. After Caylus, take the fast D926 toward Villenfranche-de-Rouergue (visit if you are there on Thursday AM for their very picturesque market). Perhaps my wife’s all-time-favorite home furnishings store (outside of Paris) is in this town. If you don’t visit Villenfranche, skirt this town to the north & get on the D922 to Figeac. This is one of our favorite towns – pick up a walking guide at the tourist office. Budget 1 ½ hrs for a visit. After Figeac, take the very scenic D41 west along the Cele river. The 11 YO will love the houses built into the sides of cliffs. This will get you to Caberets/St Cirq Lapopie for an afternoon visit to Peche Merle Cave.

Stu Dudley

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Old Dec 11th, 2006, 04:35 PM
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Stu -

Thanks for the suggestions. The place in Feneyrols is one of the places we'd been considering, based on your restaurant experiences there!

Figueres, yes, is for the Dali museum. Also, we wanted to spend time in a smaller Spanish location, but didn't want to stay on the beach, and Girona seemed too big (though I think we'll stop in Girona on the way to Figueres).

We'll be traveling in May - it's my son's last year of year-round school. So the crowds shouldn't be a big problem.

You don't mention the Grotte de Niaux - have you been, and if so, what was your impression, and how would you compare it to Pech Merle, Lascaux, Font du Gaume?
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Old Dec 11th, 2006, 05:28 PM
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>>You don't mention the Grotte de Niaux <

Drove past it & decided not to visit.

Stu Dudley
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Old Dec 12th, 2006, 12:18 AM
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A couple of points.

The medieval centre of Girona is worth a visit.

Girona and Figueres are very close via the highway

Other than the museum Figueres is not too interesting

The Dali museum is closed on Mondays October - May

I've got Languedoc info here : http://www.the-languedoc-page.com

Peter


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Old Dec 12th, 2006, 01:45 AM
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I've stayed in the Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse before. I think your son will enjoy it. You are very close to the Chateau d'Arques when in Couiza. It is a small lesser known Cathar castle but I think it is lovely and worth a visit.
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Old Dec 12th, 2006, 07:47 AM
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Thanks for the suggestion on the Chateau d'Arques - especially in case we don't make it to some of the other castles. You post was probably the one that led us to Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse; my son likes the fact that the chateau retains a medieval appearance (small windows, etc.) Did you eat there as well?
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Old Dec 12th, 2006, 09:13 AM
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My wife & I spend 2 months vacationing in Europe every year (80% France, 15% Italy), and we've been doing this since '99. That's about 40 restaurant meals evey year - 300 total in last 8 years. We do not dine at Michelin 2 or 3 star restaurants - we can't afford to put out that amount of money in dining AND spend 2 months in Europe

One of our top 5 dinners of all-time (perhaps #1 even) was just outside of Figueres at Mas Pau. It is also a hotel.

Stu Dudley
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Old Dec 12th, 2006, 10:20 AM
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I'm a lurker on this list, making my first posting. In response to your question about Grotte de Niaux, here are some notes from my September, 2004, journal:

We drove east to cross into the Ariege Valley to the city of Foix (home of the “Counts of” who were Cathar supporters). Their imposing castle ruins rise high above the modern city.

The approach to Niaux is up a steep, winding road; the entrance is high above the valley. Niaux was once ranked with Altamira and Lascaux in terms of the importance of its cave art but new, recently discovered caves have relegated it to a lower ranking.

As has happened before, we’re first told we must go in two groups but then allowed to go as one. Very good, English-speaking guide. We go through a two door airlock and generally descend on a fairly smooth, wide path. This cave was formed by moving water so it doesn’t have as many stalagmites/stalactites as some of those with more dripping from above. We don’t stop until we get to the Salon Noir (Black Gallery) as far into the cave as we’ll go. It appears there are no lights installed in Niaux—any couple without a flashlight is offered one.

There are six species of animals depicted on the Salon Noir, mostly bison, horses, and ibexes. We entered Niaux at 9, emerged a little after 11. The guide told us it usually takes 1 hour, 15 minutes so the folks with bad knees slowed us down.

We felt the Niaux paintings are the best preserved and most realistic we’ve seen so far.

I'm back in real time--keep in mind that we had not yet visited Lascaux II or Font de Gaume when these notes were written. These caves are probably more impressive to first-time visitors but I'm glad we got to see all three.

The beauty of the Dordogne region so impressed me in 2004 that my wife and I returned there for the entire month of September this year. I have a 29 page journal that I'll be glad to send you via email (request to [email protected]). We based ourselves in rented houses in Daglan for two weeks and outside Les Eyzies for the second two weeks.

Steve
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Old Dec 12th, 2006, 11:10 AM
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No I did not eat at the hotel and have not heard great things about the restaurant there. You might want to consider the restaurant in the Hotel Modern et Pigeon in Limoux if you want a nice meal.
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Old Dec 12th, 2006, 11:40 AM
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Depending on your knowledge of French, you might want to consider Rouffignac which involves a electric train ride of 1 km. each way to see the cave drawings. But the tour is exclusively in French, and it is recommended that you get there when it first opens in the morning; no reservations taken.
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Old Dec 12th, 2006, 12:26 PM
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Thanks for the info! I can't believe I missed Mas Pau until now - it looks great. And I appreciate the details on Grotto de Niaux.

I speak a little French, DH and son none. We visited Combarelles on our last trip with me translating for DH, and that's the last time we'll do that! So Rouffignac is out.

I need to start making some decisions (DH is the type who briefly looks at my plans and many ideas and says everything looks fine - nice of him, but not much help.)
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