Tuesday, June 22, 2010

White knuckle day!

Well, panic is setting in. With only a few days to go, we are all motivated to do more things, rest less.

Today, we all piled into the Renault Espace and hit the road before 9am. That's the earliest since our soggy run to the Gare de Lyon from my Aunt's house over a week ago.

Since most sights and museums are closed on Mondays, we headed toward the Pyrennes today. It was hard for Mike since, although my route was layed out, what I wanted to see was sort of vague: the area. He likes concrete plans, I like flying by the seat of my pants and often disrupt everyone's happy place by saying, "oh wait, let's...." Ok, I'm working on it!

Anyway, we headed south, to Narbonne and then toward's Carcassonne again, driving the very fast and now familiar N9 an A61 toll roads. Just beyond Narbonne, we got off the "nice familiar road" and chose the roads through the country and the lower hills of the Pyrenees.

After confusing a sign (our map doesn't have great detail) and mistrusting Madame GPS (yes, she has been confused before...) we got back on the road. One of the reasons I'd picked the route I had was it went through Cathar country and had several Abbayes and castles dating from around the 8th Century on. I had no idea what we were getting in to or what to expect from this area. I just needed to see it, damn it!

So through a small plane tree-lined villiage, we saw a sign for the first Abbaye and I said, "Oh, hey, let's go visit that one!" Well I kind of assumed it was in this town. But as we followed signs and Mike, who was getting a bit nervous at this point, asked, Where IS it? I of course had no more clue than him! So, having just found the road we were SUPPOSED to be on, we deviated and followed the signs to the Abbaye de Lagrasse. What seemed like 20 mins later, we arrived at a beautiful midaeval villiage at the ends of the earth - I think...

We wound our way through the tiny streets, across the river, and found the Abbaye and museum...which had closed for lunch 5 mins earlier. Well, 2 hours was too much time to wait. So we crossed the river (more like a stream now) and rested on its banks. Megan rolled up her jeans and waded in. We then followed the winding streets around and back to the main square and although we'd packed food in the car, we needed food in a more social setting in the middle of this back country. We've found that lunch is a happy but long committment and having a sort of agenda, we decided to just eat desert and have a drink. We were quickly relegated to the back where we could see the chef scorn us for messing up French gastonomical protocol. But he seemed like sort of a grumpy guss with everyone.

Back on the road, we went flying back to our correct road and continued. It was wild and desolate country broken by little towns built precariously between the stream and the road.

Suddenly, there was another little town with a Chateau - Chateau Villerouge Termenes. We jumped out and of course, was still early for the opening time. But the views were spectacular and we enjoyed walking through the small, small town. The smell was a mixture of figs ripening, herbs, flowers and lots of trees - very sweet when the wind died down.

By the way, althought the weather had shown full sunshine in this region, it had shown 80 km/hr for wind speeds. Yes indeedy - it was howling!

Again, off we flew - Mike feeling almost fully French in his driving now. Now it got windy. We climbed mountains and dropped quickly into valleys, winding around hairpin turns, barely missing on-coming traffic, and thankful for a manual speed car. I was waring out my imaginary break and Megan took to holding a plastic bag barfing was imminant!

Finally, back to a lovely rolling valley and another ruin. PLEASE...let's stop! Finally, it was after 2pm and we got to go in and walk up the tower. It was a bit disappointing to find that we'd been the 3rd group of Americans in the Chateau that day! And more had been there last week. What was this, an infiltration???

Anyway, we had fun going around and around the spiral staircase to each level of the castle. The first floor above the ground floor had been for the Lord and Lady, the next floor up was where the garrison men slept, and the third was for defending the Chateau and surrounding lands.

Back to the car, we chowed down our French cheese, dried meat, yogurts, and French bread. And off we went. I knew we were near to our "destination" which was called Rennes les Bains. This was a hot springs town boasting a clinic for rhumetoid arthritis. Although this sounds boring, it was also supposed have a public pool with the waters in it!

After again winding around more hairpin turns, suddenly we were in the town, flying buy the ancient Roman baths that were between the rocky overhang and the road we were speeding on. Ok, we'd missed that as there was not even enough room for a walking path back to it. Bummer. But there was a nice big parking area on either side of the street and so we parked and decided to look around. We headed toward the spa/clinic which was perched over the river below it. Unfortunately, it and the public pool had a delayed openning of June 28th. :( So we walked down to the river to feel the river. It was beautiful but cold. However, there was a beautiful promedade along it, crossing it in one place and leading to a park opposite the Roman era baths, high above and on the other side of the river and busy road. It was still a pleasant place to run some ya-yas out and go wading. When other French people arrived, we saw that you could cross the river on rocks (very shallow river) to a man-made basin. Water was flowing under the road from the Roman baths into the basin. Mike and Megan went over and Megan found the water very warm. We would have all jumped in except the others were happy not to move and we were ready to move on.

Disappointed but rested, we got back on the road. Between my big map, my Aude guide map and Madame GPS we determined that we were on the righ road to head forward through some more mountains until we got to Perignan near the sea.

Up and up and up and round and round and down and down and all over again we drove. There were, for the first time, no vineyards, just cows and horses and some sheep.

The country started to get rockier and as we headed through another pass on our 1 1/2 lane secondary road, I looked down and realized...oh ya, I'd seen something about some gorges along the route.

Well before I knew it, my imaginary break was of no use and I was genuinely nervous. In my two videos taken while driving through the hair raising/graying Gorges de Galamus, you can hear my nerves shatter until "holy shit" was about the only thing I could say.

The road was perched on the edge of a mountain - mountain high above us and mountain plummetting down below us. I, of course, was on the side of the plummeting edge. Yes, there was a solid stone build wall all along the plummeting edge side, but it did little to make me feel better. The road was nothing but hairpin turns, the road about a car and 1/4 width wide with a sort of walled turret-style out cropping on the hairpin part, so you could pull over slightly and stop (or back up to) when an on-coming car headed your way. We did meet lot's of traffic including three vans in a row.

Mike drove with nerves of steel and I did nothing to inspire pride with my lack of calm under pressure. Finally after driving under a rocky overhang and then through a tunnel and meeting lots of crazy people walking on the side of this road, we reached a parking place where we stopped and got out to look back and down. With knees shaking, I managed to take some great pictures, including one of a hermitage clinging to the mountain far below the road. We also had a nice peak at the Pyrannes with snow on them.

At this point, the worst was over and we soon reached a normal country road leading us quickly to Perpignan. The flat plane around Perpignan seemed pretty boring after all we'd seen today. But getting onto the fast A9 was a joy.

We were also infanitely smarter than our previous trips in that we got off before Beziers instead of getting off at exit under construction, also known now as the Exit-leading-FAR-away-from-where-we-want-to-be!

As we hauled our tired butts in our villa door, our brains went on holiday and shut down for the remainder of the day.

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