A Travellerspoint blog

What's Toulouse?

In the land of the Cathars

sunny 22 °C

Hello friends. At the end of the last instalment we had just arrived in the elegant city of Toulouse and, after a frustrating two hours driving around the city finally found a hotel. Although it was late we still headed into the centre of town to wander and find something to eat. At the heart of the city lies an enormous public square, dominated by an extravagent 19th century opera house. The square was relatively quiet at night though so we wandered down one of the many narrow winding streets that lead to the canal front with their numerous hole in the wall bars and cafes. In the daylight the canal front had looked warm and inviting, but at 11pm it seemed just a little too dark to wandering aimlessly. So we turned around and headed back towards the centre. Eventually we found a place to eat and then crashed back at the hotel.

We had planned to be up early, wander the town and then head off to Carcassonne early, but like all our plans it didn't really happen that way. Once again we slept in and could barely drag ourselves out of the hotel before 11. Then we had to find somewhere to park the car. This proved surprisingly easy in the end. I parked in a motorcycle bay with two wheels up on the pavement - done! I had a good impression of Toulouse from our drive through the city the afternoon before. The city is very lively, old and attractive. Many of the buildings are in red or pink brick with touchs of marble facing here and there to brighten their facades. Toulouse was once a very important city, home to the Counts of Toulouse who were virtually independent of the French crown. They built plenty of monuments (mostly magnificent churches) to advertise their power, wealth and independence. In fact, during the Middle Ages the entire south of France was virtually a separate country (or more correctly a series of independent countries) as we would see further on our travels.

"Kill them all..."

We set off to Carcassonne later than expected but were pleasantly surprised to find that the city was only some 80kms away so we arrived early and did not get lost. We found a little hotel on the outskirts of the new town - with its own private carparking - and then drove in to the old town. Carcassonne is a fortress city situated upon a small hill. It was abandoned in the 16th century (ok, by abandoned I mean an invading army came and burnt it down and killed everyone) leaving the original double rows of fortifications intact. It was restored in the 19th century and is now a stunning and fairly accurate example of a medieval city. From the car park in the lower town the looming walls and battlements looked very impressive - the kiddies carousel at the city gate however looked a trifle out of place. Funny thing really, but almost every city we've visited in France has had an old fashioned carousel or circus - and they're always very popular. Another feature of almost every French city seems to be the petite train - a little electric car (shaped like a train) pulling carriages of tourists around. The Lonely Planet bagged Carcassonne as a typical tourist trap swamped by hordes of day trippers and crappy souvenier stalls. Okay, well there were a lot of tourists and the shops did sell crappy souveniers, but you get that everywhere tourists go. It wasn't as busy as Mt Saint Michel and as the city was much bigger it was pretty easy to escape into some quiet sidestreet and avoid the crush.
Every city in Europe has a bloody history to tell but Carcassonne has more than its fair share. In the 11th century it was an important city in the Langue D'Oc, the Occitan speaking provinces of the south (Occitan is a little like a mixture of French and Catalan and is still an official language - the bilingual signposting in Toulouse threw us initially). Independent and proud, the Langue D'Oc strenuously expressed its separateness from the northern French heartland through its language, culture and religious leanings. In the 11th century a heresy known as Catharism spread through southern France. This didn't mean most people were Cathar, but the Cathar clergy were widely respected because they led lives of such outstandingly high morality that the Catholic clergy - who didn't - began to fear they were losing contol of southern France. In 1208AD Pope Innocent III decided to sort the problem out with a crusade. All the crusades were bloody affairs but this crusade against other Christians was especially brutal. When the crusaders reached the city of Beziers (population 17,000) they demanded the citizens surrender all the Cathars. There were probably only a thousand or so Cathars in the city but the citizens refused and so the crusaders sacked and destroyed the city. Thousands of citizens fled to the fortified cathedral for protection. The papal envoy ordered the army to burn the cathedral to the ground. Some crusaders objected to the wanton slaughter of fellow Catholics, to which the papal envoy replied "kill them all, God will recognise his own." And that's the origin of a phrase that has been repeated down the centuries ...

In 1209AD it was Carcassonnes turn. Carcassonne's massive fortifications held the crusaders off some time but the city eventually fell. The slaughter was so terrible that many crusaders began to question just what they were doing here. The crusaders then attacked Toulouse but were defeated by a coalition of the southern counts (Toulouse would be besieged three times). The crusade dragged on until 1271AD, by which it had degenerated into a war between the north and south, with the south eventually acknowledging defeat and the overlordship of the French Crown. The story of the Cathars, the injustice, cruelty and bloodsheet is still a living issue in the Langue D'Oc. The Cathar story is told everywhere with sympathy, especially their final stand at Montseguer in the Pyrenees. There, the last Cathars were forced to surrender after a lengthy siege and then walked voluntarily into an enormous pyre prepared by the besiegers.

In the late afternoon, the day trippers and the tourist buses all left town and we had the city much to ourselves. We had cassoulet - a traditional stew of white beans and pork. It was excellent but it probably delayed us getting to our next destination - Avignon - as its very hard to drive at full speed on the motorway with the windows down.

PS - Shelly would like it made very clear that she did not have the cassoulet.

Posted by paulymx 05:48 Archived in France Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Ode to a dark dog

Number of times we heard James Blunt's 1973 yesterday = 1 (a record)

sunny 24 °C

Apologies for the tardiness updating the blog. Unfortunately it hasn't been easy finding internet cafes in France, and even when we do find them it's late and we don't have any time to do an update. So, lets wind the clock back a week... let's go to... Bordeaux.

Unfortunately we had our first series of misfortunes in Bordeaux. These were (in order of significance):
1. We arrived on Sunday and every single shop was shut (people at home (Perth, Western Australia) complain about the limited shopping hours on Sunday - get over it! Try every single shop shut every Sunday);
2. I dropped and smashed my beloved camera (damn!);
3. Ireland was playing Namibia in Bordeaux and the city was filled with Irishmen (yes, there were a few women amongst them, but not many) and we were forced to go out on the town to drink and celebrate Ireland's victory (although the Irish were a little unhappy that they didn't do better);
4. We both woke up with raging hangovers, and;
5. Many shops don't open on Monday mornings in Bordeaux either - specifically all the shops Shelly really wanted to visit.
Things were so bad on Monday morning we broke the cardinal travellers rule - we went to McDonalds for food (it's acceptable to go to McDonalds to use the toilet when you travel but one should never, ever eat their "food" - unless drunk). Needless to say it didn't really help. Sometime after 12, dosed up on expresso and Dark Dog energy drinks we hit the road. An hour later we'd made it onto the motorway. Clearly our navigational skills have not improved.

I don't remember much of that drive. I'm pretty sure that James Blunt's "1973" was played on the radio something near 700 times. It has become our theme song for the trip. It seems that every radio station in France is required to play it at least once an hour by law. "And we sang, here we go again." You said it James.

We took a detour off the motorway to visit the little town of St Emillion, deep in the heart of Bordeaux's wine country. Of all the many wine regions we'd visited, the region of St Emillion was the neatest. All the vineyards were as neat as pins and the vines themselves were as ordered as a formal garden. The grapes - I don't know what variety they were - were rich and black. St Emillion, which was renowned as a beautiful heritage village, did not disappoint. It was set on a hill amongst the vineyards and although only small and beset by tourists, it was a lovely little town. We scammed a parking spot and then wandered around. We ate a late lunch in the town square before descending into the catacombs under the town on a walking tour. St Emillion was originally a monastery town and the monks who settled here in the 10th century carved the first churches out of the soft limestone. In the cliffside facade of one of the two town squares a small church is etched. It looks rather small and poorly constructed from the outside, but inside it's the size of a small cathedral. The effort required to carve it our of the mountainside must have been astronomical (and odd, considering it would have been much easier to just build in stone). In passages around the church were catacombs, some still containing the mouldering bones of their occupants. This was a bit of surprise to see and a little disconcerting.
St Emillion is famous for its red wine and having admired the beautiful vineyards of the region we could be excused for wanting to enjoy a taste or two, but the hangovers we both had were still raging and the mere sight of an open bottle of wine was too much so we left without so much as a sip.

We arrived in Toulouse about 5ish. Hooray! And early arrival in a new city is a joy - it's great to be able to wander around in the evening light, enjoy the ambiance before settling down to a nice meal (no alcohol tonight though). Toulouse looked lovely - all red and pink brick, shady tree lined streets and canals, and a young, studenty crowd gave the city a real bohemian feel. It was not to be however. Although we had far less problems with navigation this time, we could not find a single hotel with a vacancy. After Bordeaux - which was after all hosting a World Cup Rugby match the very day we arrived - we assumed accommodation in Toulouse would be a breeze, after all Toulouse was hosting..... nothing. It took over two hours of tense, frustrating driving to find a room. Fortunately, French drivers are surprisingly tolerant. True, the road rules seem to be a little flexible at times (if you can overtake on the inside lane - well, why not?) and I have been tooted a number of time for driving a little too slowly or refusing to run over pedestrians French drivers seem to tolerate quite bizarre and arbitrary driving behaviour. For example, if you can't find a parking spot and you see an old friend by the side of the road you want to have a chat to, or need to pop into a cafe for a quick expresso, or decide to pick up a street walker, there seems nothing wrong with just stopping in the middle of the road, putting on your hazard lights and getting out of your car for 10 minutes. Sure, the other drivers are annoyed, but they all sit patiently and wait. This proved a lifesaver for us as I had to block up quite a few lanes of traffic while Shelly ran from hotel to hotel looking for a room.

The drivers in Toulouse were a little less patient than in other cities I will admit, but that is probably because they have to deal with pedestrians in Toulouse. It appears actually looking before you step into a line of traffic in Toulouse is just not on. In fact I almost ran down the same girl twice and I hit a bicyclist - who apologised to me!

Looks like I'm out of time. Don't worry tomorrow is Sunday and every single shop will be shut in the next town we get to - except the internet cafe. So till then......

Posted by paulymx 02:29 Archived in France Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Ou est nous?

Getting lost in France

sunny 23 °C

Since we left you in Nantes in southern Brittany we've picked up a hire car and been attempting to drive ourselves around France. From Nantes we headed north, intending on reaching St Malo on the northern coast. After some misadventures where we ended up on the wrong side of a roundabout, almost hitting a bus, and being wiped out by a truck we finally found ourselves on the motorway south. South? Weren't we going north? Well, yes officially, but it would be fair to say we've struggled a little with French highway signage. Not that we cant't read the signs - it's just that whatever destination we're heading for always seems to be missing from the signs. It's been a challenge!

Our first day on the road was a series of misadventures but we did finally make it to St Malo. By this stage however we were a little over it and St Malo didn't really live up to expectations. We found the little town of Dinan to the south much nicer.
The next day we drove to the fortress abbey of Mont St Michel; strategically set in the middle of a tidal lagoon, the abbey features in almost every guidebook about France as one of the must sees. It certainly lived up to expectations. It was beautiful, but like all popular tourist attrractions was beset by crowds.
I then convinced Shelly that we should visit Bayeaux, home of the famous tapestry of William the Bastard's conquest of England in 1066AD. I'm not sure Shelly was entirely convinced by my arguments that it was a must see, but it certainly turned out to be a highlight of the trip. The presentation of the tapestry was extremely well done and very interesting, even to someone without a special interest.

From Bayeaux we headed up to the Normandy beaches where we again came unstuck with poor road signage. Nowadays everyone who has seen Saving Private Ryan takes the trip out to Omaha beach. The D-Day landings are especially celebrated in France and every town has its own set of monuments. But could we find any signs? And directions? The Lonely Planet only provided only a basic "it's over there somewhere" set of directions and so we spent hours driving around and around, arriving at dead ends and private roads. Just as the sun was setting we came across the German gun emplacements at Longes-Sur-Mer. I was excited but Shelly was non-plussed (and I always thought she liked big guns?). As night began to fall we were forced to backtrack to Bayeaux and stay in an old mansion/bed and breakfast (the things we put up with!).
The next day we went back to Normandy as we'd seen a tiny little sign mentioning the Omaha beach memorial tacked to a wall outside of Bayeaux. Sure that we were now on the right track we promptly got lost, although we did manage to find the Omaha Beach Memorial Golf Course (tasteful). EVENTUALLY we stumbled upon the beach more by accident than design. Like Gallipoli and other battle fields it doesn't really look like anything nowadays. There is no sense of horror. The headstones were errie due to their numbers, but the patriotic, overblown monument that dominates the site gives a garrishness to the place.
So - to the south again. It was a long days driving to Tours in the Loire Valley. We stopped in to a few historic places on the way - Angers, dominated by a brooding 12th century castle. Angers was home of the Angevine dynasty who counted amongst their number some of England's greatest kings - Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, King John, Henry III, Richard II, etc, etc. In fact the ghosts of the Angevines would haunt this section of the trip. Then on to the Chateau at Saumur (stunning), and then the obscure Abbey Royale at Fountevrault. This out of the way abbey is the final resting place of two of Englands most famous kings - Henry II Plantagent and Richard the Lionheart - along with their wives. Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine was once the most powerful woman in France and owned as her personal fief almost a third of modern France. Richard the Lionheart is of course idolised as one of the greatest kings in English history. This is probably because he never actually lived in England. He was Norman to his core, spoke French and lived mostly in Poitiers, a little to the south of Angers. In Henry II's last years, as he struggled to wrestle more French territory for England, his son Richard actually fought against him on the French side. Henry's last words to Richard were "I hope I live long enough to see you suffer in hell (in French of course)" He died the next day in the castle at Chinon and was buried in the Abbey Royale. Now king of England, Richard popped over to England for about six months - just long enough to decide he really hated the English weather and to sell off as much royal land as he could to fund the Third Crusade ("I would sell London if I could find a buyer."). He never set foot in England again, eventually dying from an infected arrow wound he recieved while besieging some minor castle in France. All in all, he was a violent, vicious, and treacherous bastard, hated by most of the people who knew him, and was probably gay. He was also buried next to his father - which was probably ironic. A few years ago England asked the French if they could reintere Henry and Richard in Westminister Abbey, as a more fitting burial place for two kings than the very obscure Royal Abbey in rural France. The French politely said sod off.
The abbey itself was a disappointment - restored so heavily the place looked like it was brand new and totally lifeless.

We arrived in Tours fairly late and tried to navigate ourselves through the city to the old town. This was easier said than done. Like in England, traffic in the old towns is minimised by making all the streets one way, and then - seemingly deliberately - ensuring that none of the one way streets link up in any coherent fashion. Typically, the street we wanted was one street over from the street we were forced to turn up, which promptly turned us away from our destination and right off the map. We tried approaching from the other side, but again the same problem. The roads continually twisted in on themselves, and then - incredibily - when the streets became so narrow that they are barely navigable by goats and old ladies with walking sticks, they reverted to two way streets, which meant pulling onto curbs and into alcoves whenever someone so much as rode passed on a bicycle! By the time we found a hotel we were utterly frazzled.
The next day we drove out into the Loire valley and did a tour of the chateau's. To call this chateau country is an understatement - the region is littered with them. We visited Amboise, Bloise (where we got lost again - for an hour), Chamboard, Cheveny, and Chenonceaux, where we went ballooning. It was excellent - but I still found it scary as I'm afraid of heights and a big girls blouse. Shelly enjoyed it - thank's girls!
The next day we visited Villandry - which had stunning gardens - and Azay le Rideau. We also saw Chinon, where Henry II died, but did not go in. After a long drive we arrived in La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast. We'd hoped to see the Aussies play in the rugby but the game was well over by the time we arrived. It was difficult to find accommodation as the small city is very popular but the Tourism Office helped us out and got us an excellent deal close to the centre of town.
Today we've been on the road again driving to Bordeaux. There is a game tonight - Ireland versus Namibia - so we expected it to be difficult to get accommodation, but again the Tourism Office helped us book a room one street from the centre of town (and only one street from where I'd already parked the car). Tonight we'll be drinking with the Irish.

The food on the road has been better than in Paris. In Brittany the speciality was savoury pancakes - lovely and cheap. I think I'm a bit over them now though. The cheese is excellent - although when we went to Rocquefort this morning we could not find any Rocquefort cheese! Wine is still a bit ordinary - not as good as Australian or Italian wine. Doesn't stop us drinking it though. France is odd with its coffee I think - restaurants serve it from auto dispensers - for expresso - press one; for cappucino - press two. Very different from home (and Italy). I am longing for a decent coffee when I get back......


Posted by paulymx 07:59 Archived in France Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

To be sure, to be sure

sunny 19 °C

Hello groovers and shakers. Apologies for the tardiness with the blog but it's been hard to find either time or an internet cafe this last week. We're currently sitting in Dublin airport, about to leave the Emerald Isle back to France. Thank's especially to Tara and Clive who put us up and showed us terrific Irish hospitality this last weekend. It was only a quick visit, but a goodun. We saw a couple of castles and manor houses (and took an appropriate excess of photos) and visited the ancient monastery ruins at Clonmacnoise, but spent most of our time in Ireland on crack. Or is it having a craic?? I forget now - too many pints of Guiness or something. Let's just say that no one got much sight seeing done on Sunday as we were all nursing sore heads after a great night out at the local "Irish pub" - the Wolftrap.

So, rolling the clock back a bit - here's a summary of our time in and observations of Paris.
We did all the usual touristy things in Paris - went to the Eiffel Tower (but didn't climb it - hey, our apartment was up 4 flights of very narrow stairs, we certainly didnt need to do more stairs!), climbed the Arc de Triomphe, visited the Louvre, St Chapelle, the Rodin museum, Napoleon's Tomb, Sacre Coeur, the Latin Quarter and went to the Moulin Rouge. I think the girls were a little surprised at the amount of nudity at the Moulin Rouge, but it wasn't all about boobs - they did have an impressive acrobatic act and a ventriloquist dog act (really great dog!). Shelly was most disappointed that there werent even any pecs or abs on display and wanted to complain to management - I mean fairs fair. Instead she got to look at six poncy looking guys prance around in silver sequined jumpsuits miming (very badly) to French showtoons. Really, they did look a little pathetic. The girls mimed pretty badly too, but they were topless so it didnt really matter. The Moulin Rouge is very nice inside and it did have a great atmosphere. Whats more we managed to pilfer a few spare bottles of champagne on the way out so "Wa la!" - a great night out for the whole family.
I mentioned earlier that the food in Paris is a bit hit and miss. I should explain. Apart from serving frittes with every single meal, many Parisian restaurants pretty much stick to the same menu so once youve eaten out at a french bistro 4 or 5 times, youre not going to find much new to chose from. In the very touristy Latin Quarter it seemed every restaurant was exactly the same - the French restaurants all had the same menu, the Greek restaurants all had the same menu. However, Paris really is an exceptional international city. It is a real melting pot of people and cultures - French, west Africans, north Africans, Syrians, Lebanese, Turks and Asians, all assimilated into a distinctively French mileu. It's all very lively and vibrant. This means there is a lot of interesting international cuisine available Apart from the ubiqutious kebab shops, Japanese seemed to be extremely popular and often closely clustered together. We saw four Japanese restaurants in a row on the same street!
As far as being a fashion capital, I didnt see much evidence on on the streets of Paris (an exception may be around the top end of the Champs Elysee). Most of the girls were wearing T-shirt material tops and singlets, just like home. But then it was very hot. The men dressed extremelly fashionably but that was because we were in the gay district and they were all gay. For the fashion conscious - here is my tip for next season - silver sequinned boots and denim shorts for men and berets. You heard it hear first so get to the shops

Posted by paulymx 02:06 Archived in France Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Alsace and Paris

They call it 'gay' Paris don't they?

semi-overcast 18 °C

Hello friends

Well, the flight from Perth to Zurich was relatively uneventful. We slept most of the way - well, we didn't sleep at all on Monday night. Still, it's scarely restful sleeping on a plane so we were somewhat zombie-like when we arrived in Dubai and didn't do much more than wander about the airport in a daze. After a three hour stop over we flew on to Zurich, Switzerland, took a taxi to our hostel and slept.
The next day we thought about sticking around and doing the Lindt chocolate factory tour - Shelly was quite keen - but in the end decided to catch the train to France. We had been a little uncertain where we were going to go first in France. There were a number of options - Alsace-Lorraine or Burgundy. We ended up picking Alsace and it proved an excellent choice. We stopped in Colmar, one of the larger towns in Alsace, found a cheap hotel near the centre of town and then wandered into the old town centre. Colmar was so beautiful it wasn't funny. It was like we'd stepped into some crazy fantasy medieval world. We went absolutely mental with photos. IMGP7854.jpg
Alsace was once part of Germany (1871-1918) and there is a stong germanic influence in the architecture and food. Saurkraute is emensely popular! We had pork knuckle for dinner.
The next day we hired a car and although I was a little tense (white knuckle tense) and Shelly was screaming periodically we managed to drive safely around the Alsace wine route. Alsace is a major wine region but after a couple of stops we gave up trying the wine. For those who can remember moselle and reisling in the 1970's, well, the wine here is still in that time warp. Not so nice really.
From Alsace we headed west to check out the boys in Nancy. Nancy was more French but not an amazing place. We then took the very fast train to Paris and checked into our apartment. I's only very small but it was right in the heart of things. There are bars and restaurants all around. In fact it turns out we're in the heart of the gay district. It's fair to say there is a very big scene in Paris - hence the name perhaps? Shelly is just a little disappointed to be surrounded by so many fit men and ... well.
So far it's been sight seeing all day and eating and drinking all night. We've caught up with Leanne and Dieter and Sharon and Ian and partied like it's 2007 in Paris. Fortunately the shops don't open until late so we get to sleep in a bit. Food has been a bit hit and miss. Chips - or should I say frittes - seem to come with every meal. Well, I guess they don't call them FRENCH fries for nothing. Hardly haut-cuisine though. Days have been hot - 28c and humid. Probably explains why so many French have George Hamilton tans.

Posted by paulymx 09:36 Archived in France Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

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