Avignon, Provence, France, Monday, May 7, 2012
When we visited Carcassonne three years ago we became interested in the strange episode of French history known as the Albigensian Crusade, in which the Catholic Church made war on the Cathars. This Christian sect followed
a dualist belief in which existence was a constant battle between good and evil. All material things were seen as evil, and the Cathars strove to renounce worldly things and live a simple, spiritual life. They had no organised clergy, and women
enjoyed an unusual level of equality. This doesn’t sound particularly threatening, but the Catholic Church of the time, like all totalitarian regimes, felt the need to persecute all who didn’t toe the party line. Many of the Cathars
took refuge in castles perched high on rocky crags. Although the castles were almost impregnable to attack they were unable to resist long sieges, as food and water ran out. Thousands of Cathars died or were burnt at the stake as heretics.
The castles are spread over a wide and fairly remote area, somewhat off the beaten track. There aren’t many campsites in the area but we found one called Domaine la Peiriere at Tuchan, in the heart of the Corbieres vineyards, which was within
reach of two of the most spectacular ruins.
The campsite couldn’t have been more different from the large, well-equipped one we had just left (L’Amfora, on the Costa Brava.) It was very small, with a slightly hippy ambiance – a Bob Dylan album was playing in the bar(which was decorated with African and Native American masks) and the first campers we saw were a young couple in full hippy gear, she in a long, colourful skirt, he with dreadlocks. Only limited sanitary facilities were open this early in the season, and they were very basic – one squatting-type toilet and one ordinary one, which was on a raised platform so it really was like sitting on a throne! The showers were cramped and the water shot out with great force, soaking everything in the cubicle (but at least the temperature was good.) The cleaning of these facilities left a good deal to be desired – the young lad who seemed to be in charge of the place squirted a hosepipe around now and then. There was a small swimming pool but it wasn’t functional, being half-full of murky green water and home to a large population of noisy frogs. The best feature was a small lake with a kind of mini petting-zoo – lots of friendly little goats, ducks, hens and a very vocal turkey!
The next day was sunny so we set off for Cucugnan, a pretty little village where we found a pleasant restaurant for our morning coffee, and a tourist information office. Armed with leaflets, we drove up to the castle of Queribus. It’s built on top of a rocky peak, at a height of 700 metres, and seems to grow out of the rock as if part of it. The road goes almost to the top, then there’s a steep climb of 10 minutes to the castle itself. It’s an extraordinary feat of military engineering, with stunning views over the surrounding countryside, but must have been most uncomfortable to live in. It always amazes me how people in the Middle Ages had the skill to build such fantastic structures in the most inhospitable places, yet were so primitive in other ways that their idea of a toilet was a hole in the battlements!
After our exertions clambering about these vertiginous fortifications, we were in need of some fortification ourselves, and returned to the restaurant in Cucugnan (to be honest, there wasn’t much choice – it’s not the most populated of areas!) We had a delicious “plat du jour” and a carafe of the local wine, but found the prices a lot higher than in Spain. We also found it quite difficult to speak comprehensible French, as we kept unconsciously using Spanish words, to the amusement of Madame (who spoke no English.)
After lunch we went to the next castle, Peyrepertuse. Again, the road took us most of the way up the hill then it was a scramble up a steep, rocky path. These castles are definitely not suitable for anyone with mobility problems! Unlike Queribus, which rose vertically from a small base, Peyrepertuse is spread out along the crest of a rocky ridge. At 824 metres it’s even higher, and again the views were terrific, but the whole experience was very hard on the legs, and in the UK would no doubt be condemned as a health and safety accident waiting to happen – in other words, it was great fun! Neither of these two castles were the scenes of horrendous massacres so the atmosphere was not sinister. I don’t know if I would enjoy a visit to Monsegur castle, which was captured after a long, hard siege and 200 Cathars were burned on a huge pyre nearby.
Then we drove on to the Gorge of Galamus, along a scarily narrow corniche road. The gorge is very deep and every bit as impressive as the gorges of Verdon or the Tarn, but a lot shorter and not as accessible. There is a small hermitage in the gorge, which is very picturesque, but our leg muscles weren’t up to the long walk down to it, so we simply parked at the nearby belvedere, had an ice cream, and then drove back to the campsite.
The next day was grey and drizzly so we spent a quiet day in the caravan, with a brief sortie into the village (Tuchan) to go to the Spar shop and the Post Office. We couldn’t even pass the time by using the computer, as the site has no WiFi. The following morning (28 April) was also grey and miserable so we felt it was time to move on, and set off for Canet-Plage on the coast near Perpignan.
The car was due for a service, and John had found a Hyundai dealer in Perpignan who could fit us in on May 2. In the meantime we intended to relax for a few days – there’s not a lot to see in the area, but there are long sandy beaches, lagoons with flamingos, and Canet has a pleasant promenade and a large marina. I needed to catch up with the washing again, too!
campsite was the “all-singing and dancing” type we normally avoid, but as it turned out it was very pleasant. The mobile homes and bungalows were fairly busy and there was a lot going on around the pool and bar, but the touring
area was very quiet. It was rather nice to have facilities such as a takeaway on site, and we used it on several occasions.
Unfortunately, while getting the caravan ready to leave the Tuchan site John did something to his back. Those of you who have had back problems will know that it doesn’t take much to set it off again, and he had come prepared with a cold pack in the freezer, a tube of Biofreeze and plenty of Ibuprofen (thanks to Helen for bringing us fresh supplies of these – you can’t buy them in Spanish or French supermarkets but have to go to a pharmacy where they cost a lot more.) He had no problems driving, but standing and bending were painful. He was able to take it easy until the day of the car service. This involved leaving the car at the Hyundai garage from 9 to 4, and spending the intervening time wandering round Perpignan. To be honest, there wasn’t an enormous amount to see, and we spent a lot of the day sitting in cafes reading The Telegraph (not our paper of choice, but preferable to the Daily Mail, the only other one on offer at the news kiosk.) We had a pleasant lunch sitting in the square opposite Perpignan’s castle, which is called Le Castillet. We went round it after lunch and found the exhibition about the history of Catalonia interesting. Like the north-west part of Spain, this area thinks of itself as Catalan rather than French. Most of the road signs etc are in both languages, and the food and culture are more Spanish than French.
We collected the car at 4 o’clock, paid the eye-wateringly high bill and drove back to Canet. The day had not been at all good for John’s back, and next morning it was stiff and painful. As he found driving comfortable, probably because the car seat is very supportive, we decided to spend the day driving down the coast. Just south of Canet is the Cote Vermeille, a scenic coast of cliffs, bays and headlands which goes as far as the Spanish border.
Our first port of call was Collioure, a pretty little fishing village and favourite haunt of
artists. We were last here in December 2008, en route to Spain, and found it delightful. This time it was heaving with tourists, there was nowhere to park and we were beginning to get irritable with each other, so we gave up on Collioure and drove on to Port Vendres. This is a working port so is a good deal less picturesque, but at least we had no trouble parking and getting that all-important caffeine fix!
Just beyond the town is one of the many headlands on this stretch of coast, Cape Bear (the E should have an acute accent but I don’t know how to do one.) We sat by the lighthouse enjoying the sea views while we ate our picnic. Our next stop was Banyuls, a pleasant little resort and then it was on to another rocky headland, Cape Cerbere, which is almost at the Spanish border.
We returned via the road to La Tour Madeloc, an old tower high on a hill. The road
twisted and turned its way up, with frequent viewpoints over the plain of Roussillon and the coast. The steep slopes are covered in vines which have to be picked by hand as the terrain is too difficult for machines. The views were incredible and we were lucky to have such a clear day, as the weather has been quite cloudy. In fact the next day was grey and miserable, so we caught up with domestic tasks in preparation for moving on to another campsite tomorrow.
We’re keen to get to the Cinque Terre in Italy, so are not planning to spend long in France.
Our next destination was Avignon, which we visited very briefly when the children were small. There are several campsites on an island in the river opposite the Palace of the Popes, within a few minutes’ walk across a bridge (not the famous Pont d’Avignon, which is a ruin!) The one we chose is by no means the best site we’ve stayed at, but it’s convenient and fine for a couple of nights.
The next day (Sunday May 6) was warm and sunny so we walked over the bridge, entered the city walls and had a coffee in the square in front of the Palace. This was a pleasant experience, marred only by the swingeing price of €5.60 for two small cups of milky coffee. In Spain we could have had two nicer coffees and two splendid cakes for the same price. Then we went and bought tickets for the Palace of the Popes – at least as pensioners we got them at the reduced rate of €8.50!
Now for a very brief bit of history, another of those weird periods when the Catholic Church threw a wobbly. Fed up of the political hassle he was getting in Rome, Pope Clement V (who was French) decided to take his bat home and removed his entire court to Avignon in 1309. For the next 70 years, seven French Popes lived and ruled at Avignon, building a vast residence which was more fortress than palace. Finally they returned to Rome, only to fall into the Great Schism which divided the Christian world. For a time there were Popes, Antipopes, but sadly no Unclepopes. This unholy mess wasn’t sorted out until 1417, when they decided to stay in Rome.
The Palace is huge, impressive but not at all aesthetically pleasing. Having seen the Renaissance magnificence that surrounded later Popes in the Vatican it’s hard to picture them in this austere setting, more military fortress than palace. Admittedly the building has suffered from numerous alterations and was considerably knocked about during
the French Revolution but it still has a chilly grandeur.
We also visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame des Doms, next door to the Palace, and the pleasant gardens on top of Doms Rock, with splendid views over the River Rhone and surrounding countryside as far as Mont Ventoux. Despite being such a tourist magnet Avignon is still a very pleasant city, with riverside walks and open green spaces on Ile de la Barthelasse.
Tomorrow we move on again, to a site near St Paul de Vence just inland from the French Riviera.