Balkan Road-trip 2017

Balkan Road-trip 2017

As we look back at 2017 and our highlights – Eastern Europe is going to always stand out to us. Whilst we love Western Europe, our curious souls sought more cultural education and east was where our hearts took us.

Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and all too briefly, Hungary. What delights these countries were with history, nature, cultural diversity and a world that has been teetering on the edge of communism into the European Union. What a fabulous six months we had.

To bring our experiences to life, we have produced an interactive map that shows not only all the camping spots we stayed at during our tour, some of the highlights too. Combining our videos, Drone footage and blogs, you have one resource all in one place.

So if Eastern Europe is calling you for 2018 – then this interactive map complete with pictures and co-ordinates is all you need to ignite your plans.  We hope that it gives you some seriously entertaining travel inspiration.

Click on any of the icons on the map for more information about each place we visited. Please bear in mind that we started from Italy, headed over to Greece, then had a short trip to Crete and then headed north through Bulgaria and Romania before having a short period in Hungary.

 

 

 

Our Route France to Spain

Our Route France to Spain

Highlights from our France to Spain Road Trip

Winter is a season that calls us snow-birds south to the warmer climes of southern Spain, where we can shelter from the harsh realities of England’s unpredictable forecasts. Except the call of Español is far more than just a winter haunt – it’s an destination that us Brits have pretty much fallen in love with, especially so for lovers of life on the road with our trusty steeds.

There are so many routes to take heading south; the quick ones, the mountainous ones, the ferry ones or the meandering ones. Whichever path you may be considering, perhaps driven by budget, speed to destination or time constraints, we would like to offer one of our routes, taken this winter. With time on our side, we decided to follow one a meandering route that has granted us the opportunity to go off the beaten track, breathe in a few new places and plot a path that makes the journey all part of the experience.  So we hope that this gives you some options for your next trip to southern shores.  Check out our interactive map below by clicking on the dots for more information, camping co-ordinates and pictures of our highlights.

Our starting point – Southern France 

We had the advantage of already being in France after our adventures earlier in the year, in Eastern Europe. France is always a lovely place to come ‘home’ to and it truly feels comfortable and known to us. So after two months meandering around the south coast and the  Pyrenees for some housesitting, we were ready to hit the road and make our way to Spain, in readiness for a Christmas rendezvous with my mum.

Having crossed the French Border in 2016 via the east coast of Costa Brava, we wanted to try something new and, given our love for the Pyrenees, this seemed like a perfect road-trip for us. We had 10 days to reach Dénia on the south-east edge of Spain, so a bit of wandering pleased our nomadic souls. A number of ports of call found themselves on our very sketchy itinerary and the rest, we knew would be added along the way, based on other people’s recommendations and research that piqued our interest.

So here are the highlights of our Road-Trip south.

Mirepoix – Ariège

Our journey actually started close to Carcassonne and so taking the quiet roads through to the Pyrenees must include Mirepoix. We have been many times before and yet this quaint little village, with its delightful chocolate-box central square of quirky, wonky buildings, never disappoints. This medieval village looks like something out of an Dickensian novel and you will want to stop for a coffee or lunch and just watch the world go by. Caste your eyes upwards as the view is as beautiful as the one at your eye-line, as the detail in the shop signs and the colourful displays of their window sash are just so picturesque.

Lourdes – Hautes-Pyrenees

Taking all the minor roads rather than the speedy autoroutes, we meandered through the French countryside, keeping the snow-capped Pyrenees teasingly to our left. Little French villages in all states of attire imploring us to stay awhile. Although our destination was firmly in our heads; Lourdes in the Hautes-Pyrenees. It was a long hike, especially when SatNav took us on a circuitous route and we had to do a food shop and fill up with diesel. Still we arrived at Camping du Loup, a five minute walk from the famous town, ready for supper and bed.

Now Lourdes really does divide opinion. If you go in the Pilgrimage period, April to October then I sense it takes on a more sombre feel, as the town is filled with people searching for hope and a miracle cure to their ills. We visited at the end of November and loved the vibe and the lack of crowds. Whilst religion is of course Lourdes’ new identity, behind this are intriguing origins of its ancient market-town. The partnership between tourism and religion is a delicate one and as one of France’s most popular tourist destinations, secondly only to Paris, you may have to look beyond the shops selling bottles for the Holy water. After all, every book is more than its cover and we loved what the area had to offer in terms of activities, the possibilities of the funicular, the kayaking, the walking and the history. Whatever your religious beliefs, Lourdes is definitely worth checking out – especially out of season.  Here’s our full blog on our visit – Lordy Lourdes

The Pyrenees via the Somport Tunnel into Spain

Post Lourdes, we hot-footed it out of the Pyrenees as there was a threat of a big artic front coming in and the last place you want to be in a camper is in the mountains when the snows hit. Our route took us towards Oloron, just south of Pau, along the valley floor, which was so lovely especially with all the autumn colours. Then a turn left heading south through the Pyrenees and the Somport Tunnel. En route Red Kites flying on the thermals will distract your eye and the ever changing scenery of mountain communities will elicit the odd ‘ah’ from your delighted heart. Little villages clustered along the valley floor in the shadow of their towering protectors, prepare themselves for the harsh winter ahead. Smoke already billowing out from their chimneys, their wood piles strategically stacked in readiness for what will almost inevitably arrive.  And the paternal dominance of these snow-peaked pinnacles command respect as the ever-changing weather swirls around their heads. The Somport Tunnel is temporary respite from the overwhelming feast for the eyes as you adjust to the darkness. Opened in 2003, this 8.3km tunnel has almost a magical feel to it, as you enter it in France and you exit it in Spain. One tunnel, two countries and not a Border Patrol crossing to be seen.

Canfranc Estación  – The Titanic of the Mountains

Our main purpose for taking this route was to check out the intriguing abandoned train station at Canfranc. Myles had read up on it and its mystery drove us to explore. It’s so easily missed, as no sooner are you out of the tunnel you hit the signs for the station.  Blink and you will miss it.

Canfranc was put on the Spanish map when this out-of-place station with all its ostentatious grandeur was built in 1923, following the construction of the railway line and tunnel between 1912-1915. The station was formally opened in 1928 and it is the second largest in Europe; with its 240m long building, 365 windows, 156 doors and a platform of 200m. It remained open during WW2 as part of the Franco-Spanish International Convention, under which it was built, allowing some refugees to leave France into Spain.

Its life came to an abrupt end in 1970 when there was a derailment on a bridge on the French side and they could not afford to rebuild it. And so today, this glorious building stands in a sorry state, a ghostly station, where the faint echoes of passengers transiting across these mountainous giants can be heard through the wind, as it whistles through broken panes of glass. You can get guided visits into the station during July and August, although even when it is closed, just to stand and reconstruct in your mind how this station buzzed and thrived in its day, is enough of an experience. There are plans to turn it into a hotel and to rebuild the line, with the agreement of the French Government, so new life will be breathed into this town after fifty years.  It is definitely worth stopping off at.

Jaca’s Monasteries, Aragon

We love exploring the hidden depths a place has to offer us curious travellers. It is all too easy to travel too fast and miss the secrets that lie just off the highway. So the region of Aragon was our explorative teacher.  After a short stopover at Jaca, a ski-resort with its ancient hexagonal fortress, we headed for the hills. Taking our route west, our chariot guided us into the foothills of the Pyrenees towards the Monastery of San Juan de la Peña. En route we were enthralled by Santa Cruz de la Serós, with its honey-coloured stone buildings and two Romanesque churches, one of which was an all-female monastery in its day. Just to wander around this tiny hamlet and through its cobbled streets carved into the hillside, was a delight.

Back on the road, which snakes up through the mountains, gives you an incredible view of the Pyrenees, so stopping for a photoshoot is essential. And then you come to the beautiful old Monastery carved into the rocks with its brand new cousin about 2km up the mountain which will wow you as you take in its size and splendour. It’s like a magical kingdom with its dominant reign over the plateaus and valleys beyond – it is such an interesting destination. There’s plenty of parking up there and a place to stop over night if you want to camp and unless there’s snow coming in, a great place to stop awhile and indulge in some walking.

Laguna Gallocanta, Aragon

If there’s anywhere on the map that looks like a Nature Reserve then that becomes a magnet for us as wildlife lovers. And so when I found Laguna Gallocanta purely by chance, it was our chosen detour.  After doing some research I found that it is a winter stop-off point for Cranes and is the most popular destination for these magnificent birds in Europe.  So of course if became a beacon for us and in addition it was way off the beaten track, which had even more appeal.

So we headed on south past Zaragoza and turning off the motorway drove through some amazing countryside. At first it looks a bit bland although in fairness the snow did add a little more character. It didn’t take long though for us to take a few left turns and to see the whole landscape change dramatically.  Twisting roads around rotund hills and valleys that looked like something out of the Hobbit and with its red soil gave a really atmospheric and beautiful drive. And then you approach Daroca, a fortress encased village, which out of nowhere stakes in claim from the surrounding landscape. We didn’t have the time to stop, as we’d been driving a while, although with its honey coloured buildings and fortress walls is definitely worthy of an explore.

Not far from Daroca, you will enter the tiny hamlet of Gallocanta, which is at the centre for the Nature Reserve and there is an Information Centre from where you can do Guided Tours from November to March and you can also stop over night at in the car park, which has views across the Lagoon.  Now I will manage your expectations, as at this point of the year, sadly there was no water in the lagoon, so it looked a little sorry for itself, although the Cranes still came.  You can’t get close to them by road or at the Information Centre, although you will see flocks of them coming in to land and with good binoculars will see them on the sandpits. It is a beautiful place to come – peaceful and so incredibly rural. Your exit from this region takes you on a narrow yet characterful road, through small Spanish villages with their ornate churches and cobbled streets that transport you into an authentic Spanish culture beyond the tourist magnetism of the cities and coast.

Alberracín, Aragon

As short drive away from Gallocanta, is one of Spain’s most beautiful villages.  If it had a body like France’s Les Plus Beaux Villages, then Albarracín would most definitely be on it. From the motorway, much like so many places, you can’t imagine what it would be like and you are almost tempted to by-pass it, although the 20 minute deviation is definitely worthy of your turning wheels.

Once off the main plain, you turn into the mountains which are full of character, incredible sandstone eroded cliff faces and a gorge route that will have you enthralled. It is a superb drive. Yet strangely with the weight of expectation on its shoulders, as we approached Albarracín, we found ourselves disappointed. Surely this modern town with its industrial area is not all there is to see?  Alas our patience was rewarded as, when we turned the corner, rising in front of our disappointed eyes, is the very reason we travelled here. A church steel adorned with white and green mosaics, an archway where the road travels underneath the village and sandstone buildings that nestled amongst the rocks protected by a fortress that curves around the village. This sight had us feeling instantly humbled and apologetic for ever having doubted it.

For the best experience of 11th Century Albarracín, approach the archway and then turn left, climbing up to the far end of the village and then tracking back towards the main centre. There are so many alleyways to explore and vistas that take your eyes over the gorge below, where the winding Guadalavia river of emerald green gives a real sense of this village’s Alcazar and Moorish roots. And one of the best bits about this town, is that is hasn’t lost its soul to the tourists. For sure there are restaurants and a few shops, although its authenticity is clear to feel as you wander around the streets. We almost felt intrusive, as the lives of the locals continue regardless of the milling crowd.

One of the things I loved best about this tiny village, in the middle of nowhere, is how the views changed around every corner. From the view of the arcing fortress defending the village’s honour, to the perspective from the fortress heights; views over the village walls to the gorge below and out through the windows of the castle remains to the land far away. And that’s before you even wander the streets looking at the quirky buildings, the architecture, the roof lines and the cobbled streets that feel like a maze at times. It is an atmospheric experience and you easily need 1/2 day to wander, absorb and climb to see the full picture of this little hideaway.

N330 Teruel to Utiel, Aragon

After our little dalliance with Albarracín, we hot-footed it over to Teruel, which according to the Guide Books can be one of the coldest towns in Spain – hey we’re not scarred of a bit of cold. After all we’d just endured -11.  We did have a quick trip into Teruel given we were so close, although we were disappointed. It was one of those towns, where the battle between old and new rages on and somehow the ancient world seems to be loosing out with modern culture consuming its precious history. Whilst there’s no denying that the main Plaza del Tourico is very pretty with its unusual buildings and undercover cafe bars and restaurants, trying to capture Teruel’s Mudéjar monuments, isn’t easy despite not being far apart from each other.  You could almost do with having a Drone to rise up above the tightly packed buildings to really get the beauty of the cathedral and other iconic buildings that would have stood proud in their day.

Teruel needs to be visited as we’ve never seen architecture like it, although an hour will do perfectly well and then move on, as the countryside that is about to greet you is far superior, in our humble opinion. The N330 route is your travel guide for this part of the journey. Taking you away from the built up town and into the heart of a natural tapestry of ochre red and yellow rocks, filled with copious amounts minerals from eons beneath the sea. You could almost imagine yourself in a Spaghetti Western with the pillars of rock being akin to their American cousins and John Wayne galloping through the valley on his trusty stallion. Small villages, kilometres apart from each other, survive on the energy of the land and as the road winds around valleys, gorges and hilltops, you feel lost amidst its natural paradise.  Your journey becomes timeless and the vistas entice you to travel slowly and mindfully until you reach Utiel for an overnight stop.

 

N330 South from Requena to Cofrentes, Valencia Community

The final stage of our journey south was the route from Utiel to Requena with a short diversion south on N330 towards Almansa.  Here the vineyards create a patchwork across the countryside and then surrender to the pine-clad mountains. The road turns this way, then that, through the ochre walls and all we could see were acres of forest – oh and a couple of power station funnels! As our heart sank feeling that these blots on the landscape would ruin our experience – we held steady!

And patience brought us to the oasis of Cofrentes, which sits at the confluence of the rivers Júcar and Cabriel – hence its name, originating from the Roman name Confluentum. It is here you can try the regional dish of Gazpachos, eaten by many of the mountain workers and Orza which is a cured sausage. Food aside you have guided tours around Cofrentes’ Gothic Castle and El Cerro de Agras – the region’s only volcano, which still shows some activity by way of the Hervidieros Spa, where gas escapes from the chamber to a spring where the water looks like it is boiling. A river boat trip can be taken up the Júcar for 14km of the Júcar Route and if fishing is your thing, the pike and black-bass in the reservoir may appeal. January, May and August are their festival seasons where this tiny population gather as a community to honour their religious icons and celebrate together. For a tiny village in the middle of the mountains, this is where you can begin to experience, not only the mountain way of life, the true sense of inland Spain with its rituals and traditions. Walking, cycling, fishing – there’s plenty to amuse you in this mountain hideaway.

So this brings us to the close of our route from southern France into Spain, via the Aragon region. What a Christmas sack of gifts this was and how thankful we were not to rush through this area. Whilst we have by no means explored all its depths, we have at least a taster of Aragon’s presence and know for sure that we will return to uncover more of its delights. We hope that it might influence you to stop awhile and also unwrap its hidden depths.

Travel off the beaten track, drive slow, see much and learn plenty as you explore the land which has much to offer the curious explorer. 

 

Lordy Lourdes

Lordy Lourdes

Whatever your religious beliefs, Lourdes is worth a visit – out of season!

On a cold November morning snug underneath the duvet, an air of anticipation crept over me as I thought about the morning’s adventure. After a seven hour journey the previous day that took us from Carcassonne in south west France, we had finally landed in Lourdes, partly as a stop over because we were exhausted and also we thought we might check it out before the snow came in. Lourdes wasn’t on our radar for specific personal pilgrimage; for us it was just a great chance to explore a much talked town that has a global reputation and it intrigued us. Well perhaps it more intrigued me.

Although I was educated in a Catholic Convent school as a small minority of non-Catholic students, my beliefs moved to a more spiritual and scientific nature as an adult. Yet I have always had a strange draw to Churches, influenced by my teenage years. It’s not so much about the religion per se, it’s more about the faith and devotion that goes into creating these magnificent buildings and the reverence that is encased within their walls. So coming to Lourdes was not a bucket list entry, although it was certainly a chance to pique my curiosity and uncover what lies behind a pilgrim’s determination to receive a holy blessing and a miracle cure from its waters.

Lying in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the south west of France, Lourdes is a market-town that was originally built up around its chateau  fortress that rises like a Phoenix from its craggy base. Sheltered by majestic mountains, Lourdes could be so easily missed, although one day in 1858 its destiny shifted in a heart-beat, thanks to the apparition of a young girl – placing them both firmly in the history books and on the international religious stage.

Bernadette Soubirous was the eldest of eight children born into a life of poverty. Many of her sibblings didn’t survive birth and Bernadette herself was a sickly child, contracting cholera when she was very young and tuberculous in her thirties. Yet when she was 14, out collecting firewood with her sister, a simple moment in time changed her life and that of her community forever.

An apparition spoke to her that day and on a further seventeen occasions, eventually revealing herself as the Immaculate Conception. The townsfolk were divided in their views of Bernadette’s claims, some of them thinking she had lost her mind. And yet throughout her interviews with the Church, she maintained her story and by 1862, the Church confirmed her visions were genuine. The building of the Sanctuary of our Lady of Lourdes began and people came on pilgrimages to drink the holy water in the hopes of a cure from their ills.  Today, Lourdes is the third most important religious site after the Vatican and the Holy Land. A town that started with simplicity at its heart, now must harness the partnership between religion and tourism, receiving over 6 million visitors each year. To this day there are no explanations for the miracles that occur here and to find scientific cause would in some way dishonour the faith and belief that this beautiful town has evolved around.

Making the most of your visit to Lourdes

Whether you come as a pilgrim or an intrigued visitor like us, then a trip to Lourdes will not disappoint as long as you caste your eyes away from the religious influenced tourist shops. Every significant town of tourist merit of course has them, although move beyond them and the crowds and you will begin to feel the unquantifiable magic of Lourdes.

My first recommendation has to be to visit out of season. I can only imagine that the crowds from April to October are suffocating with people loosing their grace and humility to grab a drop of holy water and that Instagram selfie. At the end of November we had the place to ourselves and I am convinced that this added to the positive experience for us, as you could really hear the silence and reverence as it swept around the town’s major monuments.

Second recommendation is to follow… not the yellow brick road – instead follow the blue-lined roads, which guide you around the town’s best bits.  This will ensure that you don’t miss the important historical jigsaw pieces that build up the evolutionary canvas of Lourdes.

Thirdly and paradoxically, get off the beaten track and be prepared to deviate from the blue-lines. We’ve always been a bit non-conformist in our explorations and like to find the real hub and throb of a place beyond the way-marked walks. There’s more than just religion in Lourdes. There was life before the apparitions and to feel Lourdes’ origins by visiting the fort, the undercover market and the back streets are all part of this town’s package.

And finally, make sure you have a minimum of three hours and up to two days to really soak up Lourdes’ subtle hews and palpable vibe – as to give it any less would be to miss something special about this holy ground.

7 Sights of Lourdes’ Soul

Tourism and religion work in partnership in Lourdes and for those making the pilgrimage to be at one with its healing magic they have a sole purpose. For the rest it is about seeking the soul of Lourdes beyond the holy waters and looking to understand the stories that lie behind the architecture, the ancient buildings and the protective landscape that surrounds it. Lourdes is one of the places of the world that really requires no marketing – it has an effortless allure.  So for your trip to Lourdes, here are seven of the many major sights that need to go on your exploration list.

1. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

This has to be the number one draw for all visitors as this magnificent building housing a number of chapels, is at the heart of the apparitions of the Immaculate Conception. The building is truly devine with its magnificent architecture taking your gaze to the skies to marvel at its stone work. The slightly out of place and ostentatious golden cross creates a beacon as it sparkles in the autumn sunlight and the sweeping staircases either side of the Basilica looks like something out of Gone with the Wind. Although it is an incredible structure that has you transfixed in so many ways.

Walking into the many chapels I felt myself humbled by the sheer reverence that filled the air as people prayed on the basic looking pews.  The sense of hope and faith is palpable, there’s no doubt. Yet it is as much outside the chapels that has you mesmerised.  The paintings on the lower chapel walls, with closer examination are in fact the most intricate mosaics. And I defy you not to want to walk through Le Porte de Vie and see what is behind its doors.

We’ve been to the Vatican and have to say that the Basilica in Lourdes stands firmly shoulder to shoulder with the Pope’s Palace and you can imagine, with a mass of worshipers gathered beneath the cathedral, that the ambiance is quite electric. Experiencing all of this without the crowds though seriously appealed to me and no suffocation required today. Just a humbling opportunity to absorb the partnership of natural beauty with intriguing religious evolution. A strange and yet powerful combination.

And before you leave the Sanctuary’s embrace, a walk down the tree lined avenue towards the river Gave is yet another perspective that you cannot miss and will no doubt have your camera working overtime. The whole body of this place has a very special energy to it, as people armed with their plastic bottles scuttle towards the holy water taps and nuns in their beige attire walk purposely towards the home of their dreams.

2. Lourdes’ Market

Heading up the tourist gauntlet having crossed the river from the Sanctuary, you will be amazed by the sheer number of hotels that line the streets, almost paling the tat into insignificance! Lourdes is secondly only to Paris for the sheer volume of accommodation establishments. And restaurants of every nationality will greet you – opening your eyes to the global influence of this small mountain town.   Heading right you find yourself in 10 minutes at one of the most authentic features of any town across Europe – the Market Square where the locals gather and live their lives oblivious to the throng of passing tourists. We always love coming to these parts of town as there is no tourism here, just life – pure and simple. Wander around the daily indoor market stalls to find local Pyrenean produce that will whet your appetite.

3. Lourdes’ backstreets 

Lured by the call of the chateau, you find yourselves walking through Lourdes’ back streets where suddenly the blandness of homes that are close to the Sanctuary change to a picture perfect blaze of colour. Facias of multi-colours take on a life of their own as they cluster around the ancient Tour de Garnavie holding onto their originating history. The tower is one of the last standing monuments of Lourdes’ military constructions and dates back to 13th Century, still standing guard over the town, in the shadow of the chateau.

Past the fortress, the rest of the backstreets bring you back to more recent history and Bernadette’s birthplace and home. The Moulin is now a museum which was shut whilst we visited although the street shows you where her impoverished family barely survived. Who would have thought that their existence would bring so much wealth, fame and notoriety. What would they be thinking now if they could see how their homes were interwoven into such a powerful tale?

 

4. Chateau Fort and Museum

If the cathedral is about Our Lady, then the chateau would be personified as king as his lofty presence looms over the valley Gave creating a spectacle all of its own. Over a thousand year history will amaze you as you take the newly created lift or old fashioned staircase into the heart of this ancient community.  For €7 per person you will be treated to a self-guided tour of not only the chateau walls that the Pyrenean ghosts still call home, you will also experience a very well put together museum that portrays life in this mountain region through the ages. What enticed us into its kingdom was the prospect of the views from the towers and wow they are incredible. A full 360 degree vision awaits you are you wonder at its panorama. Yet don’t miss the model villages that take you back to another time where locals of the region made their homes.  These Lilliput style monuments are beautifully crafted and bring your tour to a lovely conclusion.

 

5. Funicular – Pic du Jer

If keeping your feet on the ground feeling Lourdes’ soul is enough for you, then you will have plenty to amuse yourself. Although if a little more adventure and activity is your thing and you have a bit more time than one day, then Lourdes has an array of possibilities. You can kayak, mountain bike, trek the Ice-Age lake 3km away or simply take the Funicular up 1000m to see Lourdes from a completely different angle.  In Lourdes’ attempt to appeal to a diverse traveller, the activities in the area are limitless for those seeking adventure.

6. Grotto Massabielle

Outside of the pilgrimage period (April to October) the grotto is a serene place where you can contemplate, meditate or simply think of the people you love. With only a few people milling around, it is a perfect opportunity to capture the moment; a time when something special happened creating a religious evolution for Lourdes. Sadly between November and March, massive red water barriers hold the holy waters at bay and spoiling the image, although the ambience is palpable none the less. What I found slightly more disturbing is that to appease the masses (over 200 million visitors have come to Lourdes since 1860) the water has been channelled into taps that look more like they belong in a toilet block than a spiritual capital. So people go along with their plastic containers, press the tap and get their fill. It seems like a rather odd experience, although there have been 69 unexplained miracles after drinking the water, so make of it what you will. We said a little prayer for a friend who is going through a difficult time right now – so whether holy or not, this place certainly brings out the compassion in your blood.

7. Le chemin du Croix – The way of the cross

There are two paths you can follow – The way of the cross – High Station is adjacent to the Sanctuary going up deep into the woods.  Or you can take the river walk on the opposite side of the river Gave. Before reaching this pathway, you will find a number of black kiosks that invite you to buy a pretty expensive candle and light it in honour of a loved one. Wandering through this area, which strangely has security guards surrounding it , is a sensual experience; the smell of burning candles fills the area, you stick to the carpet of wax beneath your feet and the sense of hope and faith that is behind the lighting of these candles make this a vibrant place to walk through. Beyond this is the way of the crosses; modern-day statues that depict religious scenes from the cross, which are beautifully designed and the views from the river are quite amazing, giving you a completely different picture of Lourdes yet again.

So should you come to Lourdes?  Without doubt, a resounding yes. Lourdes is mostly certainly an appealing place for pilgrims, explorers and sport enthusiasts alike. It absolutely has something for everyone. And religion aside, the journey that this humble market town has taken, tucked away from civilisation, is a testimony to its valour, strength and courage – standing out to proclaim its greatness. It is a true warrior and deserves its place on your route’s itinerary.

For more information, check out this comprehensive guide to Lourdes and its surrounding area.

There are plenty of accommodation options, from hotels in the town to campsites just a few kms away.  We stayed at Camping de Loup which was €13 for the night without electricity and allowed us a five minute walk into town.

Lordy Lourdes blog, Lourdes, France

Looking ahead to 2018

Looking ahead to 2018

Whilst for many of us our attention may be firmly placed on Christmas festivities, for others, New Year is a more welcome prospect with the hope of a fresh start and new adventures. For us, this time of year is always about reflection, reminiscing about our experiences and being grateful for all the people we have met, all the experiences we’ve enjoyed and the learning that we’ve had.

And whilst we’re feeling grateful, this is such a great opportunity for us to say a huge ‘THANK YOU’ to each and every one of you who have chosen to follow our journey and support us along the way.  Your encouragement to post funny videos and deliver our blogs just keeps us driven to provide content that we hope is meaningful and that of course is seriously entertaining to boot.

So our gesture of thanks come in the form of three different Calendars that feature some of our best photography over the last couple of years.  Whilst not full, hard copy versions, in this age of technology and ease, we wanted to produce something that could be easily downloaded onto your device and be a visual reminder – given how much time we spend with a laptop or iPad in our hands.

There are three calendars to choose from

Our Best Shots Calendar

Scoobie’s Sleepy Spots Calendar

Nature at its Best Calendar

You can download all three if you wish and please do feel free to share with others.  They are free and you can download as many times as you wish.

We would like to wish you happy festivities and more importantly a healthy, happy and fulfilling 2018.  We look forward to bringing you more excitement and adventures in the months to come.  Thanks for being with us.

Karen, Myles and Scoobie.

 

 

Les Plus Beaux Villages de France – Part 1

Les Plus Beaux Villages de France – Part 1

Travelling opens up our horizons and our experiences as we move out of our own country comfort zones and into a different culture that has history, tales of love and war and unique community values ingrained into its fibres.

Every country has its own complex jigsaw creating a cultural canvas that gives us the privilege of stepping onto its land, walking through its labyrinth of villages, towns and regions, to understand its music – from its heart and its deepest soul. And France is one place where that soul is so freely expressed. Ghosts of past eras guard their secrets in the ancient walls where their homes are honoured and more importantly preserved for future generations.

Les Plus Beaux Villages de France is an association that officially launched on 6 March 1982 and was the vision of Charles Ceyrac.  There are currently 157 villages throughout France (including the island of Corsica) which have the enviable label of being one of the most beautiful villages in France and this body offers the community a chance to conserve their heritage.

It wasn’t until we began to travel full time in March 2016 that we stumbled upon this gorgeous collection of places with awareness of their role in French culture. Without much structure, we started to visit places, not because they were on the list necessarily, just because they looked or sounded beautiful.  And yet it was with woeful realisation that we had only actually visited a mere 15  of 157 village and a large majority of those were in Provence, during our three months there last year.  Shame on us!  From that moment on, we committed to exploring more of these delicate delights and knitting together our own French cultural experience by meandering our way through the countryside.  This blog and the many more to come over time, I’m sure, is a short insight to those we visited and the routes we took, with the hope that perhaps you too may decide to continue your cultural education en France.

 

Part 1 – Occitane in Autumn

Autumn is a great season at the best of times, although in the oak forests of Occitaine in south of France, you will be treated to a canopy of colour. Every shade along the spectrum from brown, green, red, gold, orange and yellow.  In fact the colours we have seen this week make Joseph’s Techni-coloured Dream Coat pale into insignificance.

Our mission this week was to explore the area east of Cahors – covering the Lot, Tarn et Garonne, Tarn and Aveyron regions and what a treat we were in for.  We started our route from Toulouse and we took just over five days, taking a pretty relaxed pace.  If you click the markers on this interactive map below, you will see the villages we visited.

 

St-Cirq Lapopie

Hidden in the depths of the Parc Naturel Régional des Causses de Quercy, our route took us through some wonderful scenery. Meandering through the forests, we felt as though we were being transported into our very own private Narnia. We became one with the oaks; leaves falling like snow, covering the ground with a golden carpet. And yet after thirty minutes we were suddenly left speechless and breathless as we reached the junction for St-Cirq Lapopie.

With the village to our left, the river to our right – we saw emerge from behind the trees, a village perched high above the valley floor – dominating the sky line with the grace of an eagle. This Medieval village dates back to 13th Century where history of family feuds is evidenced by the three different castles looking for supremacy against one another. Sat 300 metres above the Lot valley, this lofty village commands a view to the hills beyond and is master of all it purveys.

Within its protective embrace, St-Cirq Lapopie has 13 listed buildings and is a homage to the artisans who crafted their wares; from button makers, wood turners and skinners. Climbing up from the valley floor to the height of the castles’ towers, we got a real sense of medieval tunes played out through the ages. And today on a crisp, autumn day, the chimneys puffing out their smoke left us with a feeling that we had gone back in time.  No tourists to cloud our view, only cobbled streets that took us in-between the houses that have so many ancient scars and stories to tell.

This is a completely 3D experience; we approached the town from the river beneath, and looking up to the skies there was a perspective of grandeur; then within the walls we smelt the bygone era of artisans and felt like Alice in Wonderland, and then on the road back down to the river, we saw the village stretch out like one of those concertina Birthday cards giving us a totally different view of the multiple layers of streets and rooftops, framed by the Lot valley beneath us.  What a ‘wow’ this place was and a magical experience.

Camping

There’s two camping opportunities; both an Aire and an official Campsite, both just down the hill from the village. We stayed at the Aire on the river’s edge and for €7 with free services.  We had a grand position along the river Lot, staring across the banks at houses carved into the gorge walls and the distant sound of the weir as the river made its way through the valley.   A short walk along the river’s edge brought us to a mill and lock on this navigable river and soon the prospect of a stretching climb to the village heart.  (44.47017 1.67893).

 

Najac

After a couple of nights, sitting out a weather front in nearby Monteils, we headed off to Najac, a completely unique village nestled in the Aveyron valley. The drive to it gave us glimpses of what we would experience, although we were not ready for this village’s mystery. In the distance a castle silhouette caught our eye, although we were brought back into the present moment, by the distraction of the  most enthralling oak-lined road to this village kingdom.

Parking at the foot of the castle hill, we diligently climbed through the woods.  As we reached the church and castle, we were most definitely impressed.  And rightly so as this has royal heritage, as one of the many chateaux royeaux in the area, demonstrating the Royal control of Najac back in 13th Century.  It’s said that the dungeon here was where the Knights of the Templar were imprisoned. Sadly the fortress was closed when we visited, although it is still an incredible sight with its fairy-tale turrets that look to the valley below.

As we continued our walk through the old village, we couldn’t help thinking that we’d climbed all this way for just this tiny hamlet and – don’t get me wrong, it was lovely and certainly very quaint with its ancient architecture, although we felt a little underwhelmed at this point. And then the walk continues – just up one street.  There are no others – just one street and soon we came to appreciate the unique status of this plus beau village.  The whole place is just on one street along an entire rocky ridge.  With the church and chateau one end and the town square and fountain at the other, this 0.6km long village is like nothing else we’ve ever seen. The cobble streets gives a feel of Dickensian England yet with its typical French shutters we were left in no doubt which side of the Channel we were stood.

Highly coloured shutters and facias rewarded our continued walk, with stone and wooden structures that give it such an authentic feel. Suddenly the love for this village oozed from within us. A respect for the way the residents perched their existence in the most of unlikely places and yet thrived for over seven hundred years. It was like a movie set and to appreciate it without the buzz of the crowd on this cold yet stunningly beautiful, blue sky day was a honour. Najac is a delight.

Camping

We stayed at a free Aire in Monteils about 20 minutes away (44.26702 1.99721), although there are two options in Najac itself, on the valley floor:

Camping Paisserou (44.2206 1.9693) which has river frontage pitches for €16 except for July and August when the price rises to €27.

Najac Aire (44.22137 1.96741) opposite the municipal swimming pool, an old tennis court has been converted into an Aire where you can park for access to the village for €2 for 2hrs or €6 for 24hrs with facilities.

 

 

Bruniquel

After an overnight stop in Saint Antonin Noble Val, which in itself is worth a visit for its canals and ancient buildings, we took the Aveyron Gorge route, which was very special. If you’ve ever been through the Gorges de Verdun, then this is a second-cousin twice removed, with the same hallmark narrow roads, craggy outcrops and stunning valley floor views – just a little shorter. If your vehicle is under 3m tall and less than 3.5T then traversing this road is very easy, if not a little caution needed.  The other side of the gorge, Bruniquel was waiting for us; a bastide, which is a fortified village common to this region of France.

As we walked up from the car park, we had a welcoming view of the village’s hub – a clock tower that proudly sits at the gateway. With this as a welcome we wandered around the outer edges of Bruniquel, marvelling at the deep red Virginia Creeper clinging to the old walls and the radiant yellow maple trees.  Ancient portals signal the outer reaches and soon we found ourselves weaving back into the sanctuary of the bastide’s embrace towards the gardens and chateaux. Again out of season the museums were all closed, although to walk through the streets of this tiny village is almost enough to sense the feuding cousins that split the chateau into two.  This is a small and compact village with charm and delight.

Camping

There is a dedicated camper parking area with water facilities two minutes from the village, although Saint Antonin is so close with its Aire, that this is a perfect stopping point.  (44.152091 1.75128).  Alternatively you could motor further onwards to Puycelsi another 30 minutes drive away, where there is parking available. (43.99426 1.713816).

 

Puycelsi

Rising up from the valley floor our eyes fell upon Puycelsi and although some way in the distance, we just knew it was going to be something special. We were so excited to explore this one and I can’t quite tell you why;, it was a just a feeling in the depths of my stomach – like a butterfly had been released.  After an overnight stop in the parking area at the bottom on the village, we woke with anticipation. Sadly an early morning mist had descended and shrouded the whole area in an eery, white blanket. Somehow this made our whole exploration that bit more intriguing and atmospheric. The 800m thick ramparts, on the face of it, seem to be unwelcoming although that soon altered when we walked around the rampart walls. We imagined what the view beneath the four cornered bastide might look like as it stretched invisibly in front of us over the Grésigne Forest and Vère Valley.

Unlike the other villages, the buildings seemed to have been steam-cleaned, they were so pristine. The love and tender care that radiated from the bricks gave this village a really energetic feel. Children laughed in the small school playground and the mist still clung to the buildings like a child being prised from its mother’s arms.  Although as it turned out – it hadn’t always been this way – even up until recently as the history books told us.

Wandering through the alleyways of this charming village, the mist didn’t change how the homes gathered around us in comforting embrace. Puycelsi had such a lovely feel about it – we felt immediately integrated into it. Its 13th century history of sieges and survival of four major epidemics made the village resilient and its strength grew. It was only after World War 2 when the houses were abandoned and fell into disrepair that Puycelsi lost its courageous hold. Although it didn’t take long for people to gather and put a concerted effort into renovating this prosperous and ancient village and hence the love we felt in the walls of each home.

Puycelsi, with its fortress reputation, defensive walls and resolute spirit is written into every cobblestone, into every brick and every rafter – its medieval tale is one that will now be held as a legacy in this stunningly restored village.

Camping

There is a car park just in the shadow of the towering ramparts, attached to the Tourist Information, where camping overnight was permitted – see Bruniquel for co-ordinates.  We had a sheltered and quiet night there and once the mist had cleared by lunchtime, the views were incredible.

 

Castelnau de Montmiral

 

The final village on our list for the week was a short drive down the road from Puycelsi.  Through beautiful autumnal agricultural land, where the shadows extended like long fingers towards the horizon, Castelnau soon appeared above the Vère river valley with the residue of mist curling around its turrets.

Castelnau de Montmiral is another bastide and dates back to 1222.  Yet it is not the towering village ramparts that struck us most; the first thing that we saw was the monument on the hill – a Virgin Mary standing gracefully at the village entrance, enticing us into the bosom of the community.

This, unlike the others has no chateau, as this was destroyed by war.  Yet what it lacked in victorious castle splendour it made up for in its village square, which had us spinning round in awe as we took in the medieval architecture, archways and central fountain.  It is said that the pillar of one of the buildings was used to tether adulterous women, thieves  and animals before they were sacrificed. We could almost  imagine the sound of the villagers’ heckles when we stood still for a while, as their voices echo around the square.

One final wonderment that we couldn’t miss was inside the church.  Whilst the walls needed a bit of TLC, the beautiful blue ceiling  was pretty impressive with its magnetic portrait of religious design. Although we moved deeper into the church to seek out the small ante-room where the famous 14th Century Reliquary jewelled cross, once owned by the Counts of Armagnac, is kept safely. Whilst it is behind protective gates, it is an incredible sight with its sparkling jewels.

The final draw of Castelnau is not found in the streets, nor the timber framed walls of the ancient buildings.  No you must look to the sky and watch for the clouds of Red Kites and Storks that encircle the village on the day’s thermals. It was a truly magnificent sight – there must have been 30 birds just floating in the sky, playing not hunting and it was a sight to behold.

Camping

There is a car park dedicated to Motorhomes at the side of the village, although it’s not very level for overnight. So we headed out of the village where we had a couple of options; there were two France Passion sites en route to Gaillac although our ‘home’ for the evening was actually just beyond the town along the river Tarn, at Lac de Bellevue (43.861818 1.818547).  This was a great spot close to the lake with full facilities.  A perfect end to a perfect week.

 

And so there is our autumn extravaganza around the most colourful, atmospheric region. A tour that allowed us to rub shoulders with ancient ghosts, battle scars and charming streets that old legends have now made into modern homes.  The protection of Les plus beaux villages de France allows their history to be honoured and never be forgotten.  Our visit was made even more special by the autumn colours and no crowds.  Whilst there were no shops or cafes open we were happy to not share these special places with anyone else.

From this point forward, our exploration of these charming and characterful villages will continue – may not be tomorrow or next week, although rest assured our French education will expand in the future of our Motoroaming Adventures.

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