Day Eighty Four – Saturday, 3rd September Barèges/Albi
Moving on this morning, had to catch the 9.20am bus to Lourdes as the next bus wasn’t until after 12.30pm – we didn’t want to spend the morning hanging around Barèges as we had seen everything there was to see just about in this tiny mountain village except for the inside of the thermal baths. In the days before antibiotics a soak in a Sulphur bath in Barèges was a cure for just about everything and even today the baths in Barèges are therapeutic with a three-week course of baths prescribed and paid for by the French Health services. However, Corrynne had had a soak there and a massage and she said it was very expensive for a tourist so we hadn’t bothered.
This morning, the hiking four were each going our separate ways – we heard Corrynne and her bag go out the door at 5.30am and fade away down the road – she was off to San Sebastian. We had our last breakfast, but not sharing it with the three keen NZ cyclists who had stayed for the past three nights (moved in when we were away) as they had gone for an early morning ride. We said our goodbyes to our hosts at the door before heading down the narrow road and up to the bus stop where Gabby was waiting anxiously, hoping the bus was going to be on time for her to catch her train to Paris.
The bus did arrive on time but then the bus driver proceeded to lock the bus and march down the street carrying his baguettes. After about ten minutes he returned, opened the bus, we got on, and we set off down the mountain with numerous stops and delays for cyclists racing or just out for a Saturday ride – a very French weekend activity. We had to change buses and drivers at one point and the new driver told Gabby to relax and be like him – that’s how he came to be 80 but look 50! He said she would get to Lourdes on time which she did.
We deposited our bags in a nearby hotel then set off to find the famous grotto where the apparition had happened, turning the town into a major Christian pilgrimage site. We walked down the narrow streets with one shop after another jam packed with religious artefacts, icons and souvenirs. The nearer we got to the grotto the more crowded the streets became, many hoping for a cure or here to make the pilgrimage. It was too hot and we were too tired to queue to go into the grotto so found a coffee shop to have a welcome coffee and watch humanity go past.
Back to station where we retrieved our bags and caught a taxi to the airport to pick up our hire car. Of course, we totally forgot about the French two-hour lunch break and arrived at 12.30pm. It was too hot to do anything but wait in the empty terminal where we caught up on our blog. Weird, we were the only ones there except for a security guard who wandered past once or twice. At 2pm we picked up our car, 30 mins of bureaucracy before we finally got the key. After needing more assistance to sort out the GPS, and a few moments to orientate ourselves to driving on the opposite side of the road, we were on our way towards Albi with the air con on full blast –the Pyrenees were on the horizon as we headed north east giving us a last glimpse of the Pic du Midi observatory and the ‘Paramount’ mountain where we had hiked and they were both the highest summits on the skyline – that was where we’d been hiking the day before! Amazing.
Drove on motorway/autoroute – up to 130kms – with “Julie” guiding us to our destination – the city of Albi. All went well till we reached the outskirts when a combination of double barrelled road name, unclear instructions from Madame Maryanne and a confused Julie had us going round in circles – eventually Maryanne and Bernard came and found us and led us to the apartment – as it happened not more than half a km away! Lovely old place – right in the centre of town as promised. We were on the third floor with a view over the garden. Having settled in – we sauntered off to the old town centre – not really knowing what to expect.
It was absolutely stunning – a medieval city dating back over a thousand years, with narrow streets, gabled houses, a remarkable towering brick cathedral and abbey
– and a bridge dating to c. 1040. The bishop commissioned the bridge turning the town into a major trading centre.
We wandered up and down the streets and up a set of stone steps dating back to the 13th century.
The heatwave continued even as the sun went down but it was time to eat. We’d had a recommendation for a restaurant but it was booked out so ended up eating in this square behind one of the churches.
Very French and atmospheric – slow service but reasonable food. As three men lit up their cigars, we toddled off back to our ‘chambre’ for a well-earned night’s rest.
Day Eighty Five– Sunday, 4th September Albi
Leisurely breakfast served in the lovely garden. We’d decided we wanted to go to the Toulouse-Lautrec museum –since he came from Albi.
This turned out to be an absolute treasure house of his works – gathered together by friends and family – with a large bequest from his mother. Henri was the product of a marriage between two first cousins, and that plus two accidents in his early years combined with a heavy drinking habit led to a very short life. He died at 37. The gallery/museum contained many early works, sketches, drawings etc but also a large selection of his mature works as well as original posters he designed and painted for famous entertainers and dramatists in Paris. All housed in an ancient brick abbey, Palais de la Berbie.
Absolutely extraordinary. We returned to our B&B – packed up, intent on leaving town, but were exhorted by our delightful hosts to visit the cathedral before leaving Albi – a must!! Bernard also gave us tips on which route to take north, which villages to visit.
The cathedral visit was well worth it – with a stunningly painted and decorated interior, contrasting with the more austere, less elaborate brickwork on the outside.
Back to our car and headed north. First stop Cordes sur Ciel.
An ancient hilltop fortified village with narrow winding streets and characterful buildings – and lots of tourist shops.
Climbed steadily to the top of the village where there were stupendous views over the surrounding countryside.
We had lunch in the central square, then sauntered down the other side of the village and taking the advice of Lonely Planet paid to visit the Le Jardin des Paradis, quirky privately grown and managed gardens.
Took the backroads (slow route) through French countryside past Abbe de Beaulieu to our next “beautiful village of France”: St Cirq Lapopie – perched on cliffs overlooking the Lot river, recommended by Rob Mason.
Worryingly the camera suddenly stopped working, the button to take pictures wouldn’t operate the mirror. From there wound our way along the river valley – a beautiful drive along limestone cliffs to Figeac, our stop for the night. “Julie” took us through ever narrower streets into a square where it felt like we were trespassing illegally. But it was where our hotel was! Hotel Chompollion, named after the man who helped crack the code of the Rosetta stone and came from Figeac. Checked in, parked car up the hill. Had light supper outside in square and hit the hay!
Day Eighty Six – Monday, 5th September Figeac/Collonges La Rouge
Drove north out of Figeac heading for the village of Collonges La Rouge, one of the “most beautiful villages of France”. We’d tried to book a Chambres D’Hote the previous night unsuccessfully. This morning we received a message saying they were closed and we called them to ask for a recommendation which they gave. Our plan was to take in a couple of places on the way and arrive mid late afternoon. Our first stop was Loubressac…
…another gorgeous medieval village – this one was tiny and we wandered into the local church which was being restored – funded by a mixture of local, regional and state government grants. Stunning stained glass windows. After getting lost in local roads, misread by “Julie” – we headed for La Chappelle aux Saints, home to a small museum dedicated to the discovery locally of the first almost complete Neanderthal skeleton, dated to 60,000 yrs ago. It was closed when we arrived, so headed off to find a place for lunch. No lunch (everywhere seemed to be closed) but we did discover a pretty medieval village – Carennac on the Dordogne. We wandered around in searing heat, taking some photos on the iPhone and admiring the architecture.
We also checked in with Collonges tourist office (open after lunch – this is France) who gave us the phone number of the B&B recommended to us – we called and spoke with Guy – from La Douce France – and yes he had a room available. Drove back to La Chappelle aux Saints and went through the museum. Although the original bones had been removed to the Musée de L’Homme in Paris, they had an excellent reconstruction of how the body was discovered as well as the latest scientific finds/thinking on Neanderthal physiology and neurology, including that they could speak and did have language.
This made Kerrie much happier about acknowledging her ancestry!! Took a short drive up the road to visit the actual site of discovery back in 1908, then headed to Collonges. Amazingly “Julie” found her way to the rather remote B&B up a country road up above Collonges – delightful red sandstone buildings overlooking farmland and with views across the valley to the south west.
We liked the look and feel of the place so much and of Guy our host who was most congenial that we changed our plans and decided to book in for two nights. As we sat in the garden, shaded by a huge tree with home-made lemonade, life felt very good!
Later in the evening, we drove down to the village and wandered around, gorgeous red sandstone buildings all cheek by jowl, quirky turrets and rooms over the road.
We took Guy’s advice and had dinner at the Hotel St Jacques, a Michelin Guide listed restaurant. We weren’t disappointed, beautiful food served on the terrace. Great day!
Day Eighty Seven – Tuesday, 6th September Collonges La Rouge
Went for a walk before breakfast along country lanes, bucolic peace and simplicity. Breakfast was served in the courtyard – delicious.
Our priority today – other than enjoying where we were, was to try and get the camera fixed! Guy suggested a shopping centre outside Brive La Gaillarde, the closest major town. Found a camera shop online, called and they said they’d take a look. We drove in and found Photo-Vezère, lovely woman Sylvie went through the menu, checked it all out and said she didn’t think it was battery problems, more a technical issue but she couldn’t fix it. We were getting rather worried at this point but then she said to leave the camera with her and she’d ask her colleague who arrived later to take a look. Nothing to lose so we said yes. With several hours to kill, we decided to check out Guy’s recommendation to visit the nearby town of Turenne, another medieval hill-top village. And another stunner!
Had lunch at small café in centre of town, served by amusing waiter, William who turned out to be an out of work airline steward from Air Mediterranée which had close down. The French government sends the unemployed to retrain and serve as interns for local businesses – so although William was from Paris – his allotted workplace was here in Turenne. After very pleasant lunch, sauntered up through the town in stifling heat – at least 32-34 degrees to the remains of the chateau/fort at the top.
Paid to go in but it was worth the cost and effort, amazing 360 degree views from the top of the remaining tower and interesting history – one of the most affluent and powerful regional centres in France at one stage, until it grew too powerful and the king tore it down. We later saw a portrait of the Maréchal of Turenne in the chateau of Chambord.
Afterwards, headed back to the village and an ice cream to cool us down. Andrew spotted some distinctive locally made jewellery next to the restaurant (the same one) so we waited for the owner to arrive. Bought some lovely pieces for Kerrie.
Called the photo shop and amazingly the guy had managed to get the camera working again by going through a complex series of procedures! Phew. Drove back and picked up the camera (no charge), bought some food for dinner and headed back to Collonges. We ate a light supper in the garden as the sun set. Gorgeous.
Day Eighty Eight – Wednesday, 7th September Collonges La Rouge/Loire Valley
We had a biggish drive ahead of us today – to get to the Loire. We had had trouble finding a B&B with rooms available and so had gone for one listed on a French site. Not sure how this was going to pan out! “Julie” took us around the back roads for the first leg – which was to Chalûs – where Richard the Lionheart met his end. Some roads were more interesting than others and sometimes we did wonder if she’d lost the plot! But eventually the roads and scenery improved and quite by accident found ourselves in another of France’s most beautiful villages – called Segur le Chateau.
Stopped for a wander around, met a middle aged English woman who’d moved here with her husband a while back, farmers from the Fens who wanted a more restful life in countryside where butterflies and bees and wild flowers still grew. Pressed on to Chalûs – had lunch at hotel owned by Londoner, classic grumpy Englishman abroad, does and does not like France, feels he’s discriminated against by bureaucracy. Tried to find where Richard the Lionheart died but the closest we could get was an old ruined church and a tower seen up the hill but on private land.
Programmed “Julie” to take the fastest route to the Loire valley and our B&B in Chitenay. Found a pharmacy to get some ointment for Andrew’s ears – not quite right after the swim in the lake in the Pyrenees! Zipped along on the autoroute, apart from one section which seemed to be a gathering point for trucks – dozens of them all bumper to bumper – heading for Paris we assumed. Eventually got past them and made good time. As it turned out our B&B was as dowdy as we’d feared.
Run by very sweet retired farmers, Henri and Monique – but like staying with grandparents, creaky old stairs, gloomy rooms and 1960s furnishings. However, it’s only for two nights and we plan to be out most of the time – and it is cheap!
Tried to find a place for dinner – but the café was closed and the local auberge was a bit stuffy and expensive, so we had fruit and a cuppa tea. Bed was extremely hard – also very hot as we were up in the attic – so had a fan on full blast all night!
Day Eighty Nine – Thursday, 8th September Loire Valley
Madame served breakfast at 8am – she’s very sweet but it sounds like she’s had some kind of accident and has trouble remembering some things – perhaps head injury. We feel very sorry for her. Got away early – and headed for the biggie – Chateau Chambord. Got there not long after 9am, bought ourselves a 4 chateaux pass and headed in. Incredibly grand and impressive.
Built by Francois 1st of France – but then he barely spent any time in it as it was too draughty! Most of the records were lost due to the upheavals of the French revolution, so not even the architects are known – it’s hinted but unconfirmed that Leonardo da Vinci may have been involved as he had been “discovered” by Francois and did indeed live his last years in the Loire. The renaissance/gothic mix is stunning – and the history fascinating.
We bought audio guides which did help – although they were frustrating as they operated by either radio or infra-red connection and chopped and changed between sections if you moved around. You had to stay still if you wanted to listen to the whole section before moving to the next room or area.
A highlight of the entrance foyer was a double helix staircase – actually tow sets of stairs that never meet, the first of its kind.
Due to the revolution, there’s very little furniture – so many rooms are empty and you have to imagine their original glory days – some have been partly furnished and some pieces restored but overall it’s a glorious but somewhat soulless edifice as a consequence. Not helped by the fact that one wing and the grounds are undergoing restoration.
Nevertheless, it was a grand place to see and a great start to the chateau tour we’d chosen. The forested grounds and lands belonging to the chateau cover the same area as the whole of Paris! We had a simple lunch in the outdoor café, then headed off to our second chateau of the day – Cheverny.
This was very different, a simpler rectangular structure, but still very imposing, set in beautiful grounds. We walked around the grounds for a bit then went inside: as it had remained mostly in the original owners’ hands, it was better preserved and was furnished throughout – which gave a much better sense of what life was like. Richly painted walls and ceilings, canopied four poster beds, suits of armour and Flemish tapestries as well as everything from a wonderful collection of 17th century children’s toys to musical instruments and paintings by Italian masters.
We exited, wandered down through the gardens to the Orangery for a pot of tea. A bit more of a garden saunter, took some photos (they had cleverly set up a giant picture frame that you could photograph the chateau through)
then to see the hunting hounds (dozens of them – quite large!) and the kitchen garden – most impressive. We didn’t do the optional “Tintin” expo visit as it cost more money and we were tired by now. The connection is that Hergé took Cheverny as his inspiration for the castle featured in the Tintin books.
For dinner, we decided to go to Blois, a city that had suffered severe bombing in WWII and lost much of its ancient buildings, but still boasts a chateau (on our list). After some blundering around, we found a park and wandered around some of the old streets, and along the river where we watched a large rat-like creature in the water, apparently chewing on something. We asked a couple what it was – not sure – perhaps a beaver or a coypu – introduced from South America ? Finally, we came to a small square and picked a restaurant for dinner. We had a very good plate of cheese and charcuterie followed by a salad.
Somewhat comically a couple of guys were manhandling large paintings down a side street and into the square – eventually to be loaded into a small van, awful paintings but quirkily French scene.
Day Ninety – Friday, 9th September Loire Valley
A slightly better night chez Henri and Monique, but after breakfast and paying for our lodging, we were happy to move on! First stop was back to Blois – to visit the third of our four chateaux covered by the pass. This was one recommended by Bernard back in Albi. Found our way to the chateau underground carpark and headed in. We chanced our luck with an audio guide again – but these were both simpler and much easier and more effective to use. Blois is characterised by having four quite different architecturally designed and built sides to the classic chateau layout – surrounding a central courtyard.
The guide talked us through the history of these and then took us inside. Francois 1 was again a source of inspiration, funds and love of the renaissance/gothic design for one of the four sides. Inside we saw pieces of carved masonry, gargoyles and sculptures that had been rescued when part of Francois’ original chateau was knocked down to make way for a more Roman style militaristic side.
These were enormous – and gave a great reference for how large the ornamentations are sitting on top of the building.
Although affected by the revolution, Blois benefits also from being partly furnished, with some well restored rooms and in some cases, original wooden panelling. So – like Cheverny, a more rewarding and interesting interior.
Some historical characters keep recurring – like Francois 1, Catherine de Medici and her sons and husband. She was mother to three kings of France and wielded immense power. One grisly event took place here when one of her sons, King Henri III had the Duc de Guise, head of the Catholic League murdered who together with his brother a Cardinal were driving the internecine bloodshed between the Catholics and the Protestants, the religious wars that ravaged France in the 16th century.
Henri, appearing to seek a rapprochement invited the Duc de Guise to Blois only to have him murdered, then incarcerated his brother the Cardinal and had him killed as well. Such is politics. But it did lead to a downscaling of the religious wars. Who knows what might have happened under the reign of Queen Kerrie?
After touring Blois, we headed south west, driving along the River Loire, eventually crossing it and on to Chenonceau, our fourth chateau.
This was gorgeous and stunning – the best of both worlds – a grand chateau, spanning the river Cher set in glorious grounds and with a wealth of history. Like Cheverny many of the rooms are furnished and often with original paintings, tapestries and décor. We sauntered down the long avenue leading to the entrance, detoured for lunch at the Orangerie – rather nice salads, then through Catherine de Medici’s gardens, beside the river Cher and into the chateau. Originally built in the early 16th century, the chateau has a fascinating history in which the chateau’s enlargement, preservation and success were largely driven by three powerful women – Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici and Louise de Lorraine (who lived in mourning in a black room after her husband Henry III was assassinated by a Domenican monk. Amazing place that straddles the river with a grand ballroom. Lush, grand and richly decorated. You can see why the French revolution happened!
In many ways it’s remarkable how much has survived till today!
Afterwards, we wandered back through the forest, wended our way through the maze and out. From there we drove north to our LoireLife B&B&B for the cycling holiday. Alison and Jon really do live out in the back roads of rural France and it took us a while to find them – but eventually got there – lovely spot, very nice room and en suite (greatly appreciated by Kerrie after the previous two nights!). One English family there – all very pleasant. Dinner chez Alison and Jon, sitting outside in their garden – with a glass of wine, a lovely way to end the day.