Trip Report: Southwest France

May 5th, 2006, 06:40 PM
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Trip Report: Southwest France

We spent the last week of March and first week of April visiting friends and touring the smaller towns in an area spanning roughly Aigues-Mortes to Les Cevennes to Quercy Blanc and Collioure. This is the first trip report I have written, so bear with me. I owe a debt of thanks to many who have posted here and some with whom I have corresponded privately. Overall, recommendations from Fodor's pay off. Unresearched meals/hotels were often mediocre. Those suggested here and on the Languedoc Pages generally successful.

We flew from Sarasota, FL to Montpellier, using FF miles on Delta. While I thought it would be great to not drive to Miami on this side, or take a train on the other side, we found that connecting to and from small airports meant longer layovers and longer travel days. This was particularly true of our return flights, which took about 23 hours door-to-door. The result was my first experience with jet lag. I was a zombie for several days after returning home. Next time, I'll reconsider that drive to Miami.

We arrived in Montpellier on a Saturday and Air France had lost one of my bags on the leg from Paris. I just about never check luggage if I can avoid it, but since we live in a warm cllimate and the weather was still late-wintery in France, we felt it was prudent to take warm (bulky) clothes. Of course, it was my bag, the one stuffed with gifts for our friends, that went missing. The AF woman helping us was quite thorough and most pleasant, but it took the better part of an hour to work our way up in line to the baggage office. There were about eight of us with baggage that had stayed on in Paris. We were each rewarded with toiletries bags with the basics and an ever-so-chic Air France white cotton T-shirt.

Rented a car from AutoEurope. I do love dealing with them and we got a terrific price I think. It was about 545 USD for 15 days for a deisel VW Passat, same car we had last time. That car was tough to park in Paris a few years ago...too damn big...but in the countryside, in the off season, no problem. It drives like a dream and I loved having the gargantuan trunk for all our coats and luggage.

Leaving Montpellier airport posed an immediate problem. There was a gate in the road in what appeared to be the exit lane. No visible means of lifting said gate. Tired from our overnight flight, we just could not figure out how to escape the rental lot. The airport is small and they were pretty much closed for the day. The car rental desk was boarded up and there was not a soul in sight. Well, finally someone walked by. We stumbled through some exhausted French, asking for help and he told us to use the left lane, since the one we were in was for taxis only. No signs? Driving on the left? Can this be France?!

Well, having made our escape from the airport, we began the drive north through Montpellier proper and onward to Le Vigan at the southern edge of the Cevennes National Forest where our friend A lives. The chamber of commerce folks back at MPL ran a printout from Mappy on how to get through the city to the other side and there were probably 37 street names listed and a similar number of turns. This was not looking good to me! Going around town was not the obvious solution since there is not a continuous circular beltway, but rather a funky set of highways running east and west. But we set out with the idea that we could feel our way using the French road signs.

As always, we found that knowing exactly where we wanted to go, and vaguely where we didn't want to go was enough. Bless the French road signs. I am never so "not lost" as I am in France. We just kept looking for signs to Ganges and sure enough we threaded our way through the very old streets and quais of Montpellier and found ourselves on the other side, headed north to our first destination.



Amy40 is offline  
May 5th, 2006, 07:29 PM
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Oh boy, I just lost about 40 minutes of hunt and peck typing. Three whole days in France gone! I guess I am still on the steep part of the trip report learning curve. Crud....more tomorrow...
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May 6th, 2006, 03:37 AM
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Amy, sorry to hear about the setback with the typing, but you are off to a wonderful start!! Do please continue.

Anselm
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May 6th, 2006, 04:16 AM
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Thanks Anselm. Here's a little of what I lost last night!

Not being one to show up empty-handed, we made a stop at a grocery store for a couple of tarts for dinner, snacks for immediate consumption and bottled water for the duration. Across the street from the Supermarche there was a tiny caravan-like trailer set up, awning propped open, a window displaying about a half a dozen kinds of oysters piled in baskets. Seems like there are culinary opportunites around every corner in France. Unfortunately, I am not an oyster lover and did not want to arrive at A's house with something that might throw off her dinner plans.

Immediately upon arrival, A told us of a small gathering of people who would be playing the piano at a nearby chateau, organized by her daughter's teacher. Since my daughter S also plays, we all piled into the car and headed up into the mountains, driving through pockets of dusky late-day sun. We saw the shepherds, so typical of the area, moving their sheep towards home, carrying their crooks and wearing the characteristec hats. It felt almost like a fairy tale...and so good to be back!

The owner of the chateau, also a piano student, had been a dancer with Twyla Tharp and bought the place with the intent of hosting artistic reteats. She was quite a character, with Mary Quant eyeliner and a long, slender cigarette holder. Her playing was similarly dramatic, so to speak.

What became immediately evident when we arrived was that this was a recital, not just a jam session. I whispered to my daughter that she did not need to play. But as the music came to an end, A and her daughter made a big fuss over S, begging her to play, so she wandered up to the unfamiliar piano, only hours off the plane and fairly sleep-deprived, and ripped out a pretty nice Bach invention. The audience was quite enthusiastic -- a most welcoming first adventure in France.

I think that if we (DH and I) had suggested that our daughter play, it would not have happened. But at the insistence of our friends, she obliged. We have noticed that the French seem to have a particular admiration for musical talent, indeed talent of any kind. Our daughter is greatly admired for her academic and musical interests in a way that I just don't see here in the States. Is it the French? Or is it just the people we hang with there?
Amy40 is offline  
May 6th, 2006, 04:25 AM
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GGRRRR, I hate when that happens! I now type in Word, then copy and paste to here.

Loving your report and hope to read more soon.
jody is offline  
May 6th, 2006, 07:37 AM
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OK, a chateau in the mountains in the south of France, for hosting musical retreats. You have just put my fantasy into words.
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May 6th, 2006, 05:11 PM
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"... driving through pockets of dusky late-day sun ..."

Beautiful. I can close my eyes and feel it. Amy, come back and tell us the rest of the story.

Anselm
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May 6th, 2006, 05:29 PM
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Thanks Amy40. I don't make it to that part of France enough. Dang it.
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May 6th, 2006, 05:43 PM
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That's a trip worth remembering for your daughter rhe rest of her life.
Who else can challange her to have performed in a chateau. What Bliss!!
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May 6th, 2006, 05:55 PM
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Back at home, dinner was a simple affair. Plenty of wine and good conversation around the table late into the night assured restful sleep.

Sunday, we awoke to the arrival of A's father, and old friend of my husband's, who had come down by train from Paris to visit with us. In the morning, we shopped for our midday meal and then began puttering and preparing for a few guests. A made quick work of the chicken's head...I never saw it go! Salad, some frittes for the kids, steamed broccoli and more local wine brought by friends.

I'd been watching the weather for a few weeks prior to departure and had expected the predictable cold and rain. However, we found ourselves basking in the early-season sun, out on the terrace overlooking the town way below. The view is quite sweet, but the road up the hill is dreadful. I nearly burned out the clutch last time so the job of driving in now belongs to my husband.

The gardens winding up the hillside were terraced by farmers in centuries past. Imagine stone walls laced with sedums and dandelions, daffodils and violets. Most of the trees were only promising to bloom, but on the day when my daughter and I sat on ancient stone stairs by the vacant rabbit hutch, the plum tree was in all its glory. We realized that the tree was not only snowing petals down all around us, it was also humming a subtle roar. We didn't notice at first but then became aware of hundreds of bees overhead, each one releasing a petal as it visited a flower. Buzz...sprinkle...buzz...sprinkle. We layed back on the grass, mesmerized and remembering the Springs of our youth, before we moved to Florida and the sub-tropics.
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May 6th, 2006, 06:08 PM
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Late that night, my daughter became ill. I basically did not sleep until about 7 am when exhaustion finally overcame us both. She had been sick in Rome when she was a baby and I was reminded of how nice it is to be at home when under the weather. Monday was a lost day for us both.

The inspiration for this trip was to leave S with our friends for a mini exchange experience, to go to school with A's daughter and to have a different experience of life in France. E had planned to take the train back to Paris on Tuesday and we hoped to head out for some travel "a deux" for the first time in the 12 years we'd been parents. But the C.P.E. got in the way. Strikes on Tuesday closed school and cancelled trains, so we spent another day in the area, feeling as if we'd won the booby prize.

The girls had the idea that driving up Mt. Aigoual to go sledding would be grand. So we loaded that huge VW trunk with sleds, boots, snowsuits, etc. The drive up through changing elevations and vegetation and then finally snow was wonderful. The roads were narrow and winding and I wondered that day, as I did often on this trip, how bad it would have been in season with far more traffic. When we first entered the Park, we drove many kilometers before ever passing a single car.

We drove to the top of the mountain where there is a weather station, but the weather did not cooperate. A snow squall reduced visibility to a few dozen meters and the wind made being outside the car most unpleasant.

On the way back down, we stopped in a village looking for some hot chocolate and perhaps a bathroom, to no avail. Further along, we found the Auberge Cevenole, but it was closed on...you guessed it..Tuesdays! We visited with their geese and goats and one of our company visited with a tree. It was a nice place for a stop, even on a Tuesday.

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May 6th, 2006, 06:28 PM
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Before we reached the valley, we came around a bend in the road to find the most spectacular double rainbow any of us had ever seen. E is a semi-retired physicist, most interested in the physics of everyday occurrences. He was wildly enthusiastic about the depth of the purple and magenta bands. From our vantage point, the rainbow reached from one side of the ravine to the other. We screeched over to a narrow pull-out, grabbed our cameras and gawked for many minutes. Some of the rainbow was still visble about 15 minutes later when we arrived at home. More photos. More gawking!

Finally, in the morning, the world had returned to normal, trains were again running and school was opened. E headed back to Paris, our daughters to school and we took off for the village of St. Guilhem-le-Desert.
Amy40 is offline  
May 6th, 2006, 06:43 PM
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You are doing beautifully for a first report. I've done several and not as well.
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May 6th, 2006, 06:45 PM
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Beautiful!
stokebailey is offline  
May 6th, 2006, 07:36 PM
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Photos, please.
Nikki is online now  
May 7th, 2006, 03:48 AM
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Amy : Can you email me, please ?

Peter
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