[personal profile] luis_mw
Forward then, to Cucugnan and Queribus.

The village of Cucugnan is a small cluster of buildings, winding up the hillside. Typically of the region, the buildings have pale-coloured walls with the usual terracotta coloured roof. There seem to be a couple of hotels and restaurants, assorted shops and a recently restored windmill. We saw a small assortment of shops, selling all sorts of useful things like books, postcards, souvenirs, various stone castings and such like. There was even, supposedly, a general store, but when we eventually found it, after enquiring at the tourist office, it was closed. Looking at the village website now, it seems to keep very limited hours. The village even boasts a theatre, which supposedly presents a version of the story of the Curé de Cucugnan, hero of Alphonse Daudet's book Lettres de Mon Moulin. We were unable to verify this as there was a notice stuck to the inside of the door, apologising for the theatre being closed due to some local problems.

According to the net, the village has a population of 134. According to the local website, 9 of these sit on the local council, so it is obviously a good place to get involved in local politics as you have a 7% chance, just by living there. The village boasts many artisans – potters, pewter maker, casters of stone knights, a bakery under the windmill etc. This somewhat contradicts the initial observation that the chief occupation of most of the village was putting a battered kitchen or dining chair on the pavement outside your house, sitting on it and watching the world go by. Or maybe that’s just the local hobby. Some of them, at least, must run the restaurants and hotels and the like.

Like many of the villages we had seen, the roads were narrow and rarely flat (another website claims the elevation of the village ranges from 715 feet to nearly 2700, but I suspect that encompasses the area around the village rather than just the populated bit). Local restrictions meant that we could bring our car in to unload, but then had to return to the public car park at the end of the village. Our hotel was the Auberge du Vigneron (Inn of the vine grower), a pretty little building tucked away at one end of the village, near the theatre. We checked our bags, determined from the manager that we probably had time to do Quéribus, possibly Peyrepertuse, although that would take longer and had a harder climb, but definitely not both. Aside from the business with the Ibis receptionist on our first night, this was the longest conversation I had had in French on the entire trip. I apologised for my limited command of the language, explaining I had learned it at school up until the age of 16,and was now considerably older than 16. She told me that she had no problem understanding me, which was nice.

Off we set to Quéribus, with a side-mission to obtain some basic groceries – something to drink, and something to supplement the breakfast on our journey back to Toulouse. This is where we discovered (c/o the local tourist office) where the local store was, and discovered it was closed. Since we had a little spare time, we thought we would try the neighbouring village of Duilhac sous Peyrepertuse. This showed some initial promise, but the little booth serving ice-creams etc at the car park was closed, and everything else seemed to be a restaurant of sorts. Then we saw a sign for a mini-market. A quick enquiry of one of the locals pointed us in the right direction and we soon found it. Biscuits were purchased, as was some beer (in case the bar wasn’t open or too expensive) and a large bread thing that looked a little like a large pretzel, only with olives in. Groceries achieved, we returned to Cucugnan and set off up the hill to Quéribus.

This was the local castle, colloquially known as the Thimble on the Thumb, hence the title of these missives. It certainly seems appropriate, with the octagonal main tower perched on the tip of a more rough-hewn crag. As with Aguilar, it seemed scarcely possible that you could drive there, but once again, the road twisted and turned and climbed up the hillside to the base of the final crag. Much to my relief, this road was much wider than the one at Aguilar, with plenty of space to pass other vehicles. This one had a proper car park, public toilets (albeit of the festival variety – waterless, chemical-less, pump the lever five times after use) and an actual gift shop.

From this point, the climb to the castle looked fairly daunting, but not oppressively so. The initial pathway up the side of the hill wasn’t too bad, though, being unfit; I did have to stop and catch my breath take photographs a couple of times. [livejournal.com profile] silme, meanwhile, was striding ahead, occasionally checking back to see if I was still coming. The views were spectacular, but boy, was it windy up there. By the time I reached the base of the actual constructed parts – the steps leading up to the base of the curtain wall and the gatehouse into the castle – the wind had grown to an almost solid force. So much so, that I started to get jittery. I sometimes get a little touch of vertigo – usually no more than a nervous twinge in the stomach when I go near the edge on something high. Somehow, today, this, the effort of the climb and the wind almost overwhelmed me. Rationally, I knew that it would take a much stronger wind to lift my body weight, but for a few minutes, I couldn’t quite translate that into being able to stand up and start climbing the steps for fear of being blown away. I found a convenient point where I could sit down, catch my breath, and calm myself. [livejournal.com profile] silme called down from higher in the castle. I couldn’t quite hear what she was saying, but I guessed she was asking if I was OK. I tried to explain it was the wind, but wasn’t sure she could hear me. Other people, much lighter than I, passed by, commenting on the wind, so I steeled myself and carried on. Clutching hard at every possible hand-hold, rope or piece of rock I could find, I slowly ascended. A couple of times, there were exposed turns where the wind hit me full force and I had to stop and hold on, willing myself to continue, but almost trying to will the wind into calming down. Soon, I was through the gateway into the castle proper. The wind was still strong, but there were good solid walls around me. I caught up with [livejournal.com profile] silme and reassured her that I hadn’t been having a heart attack or anything like that, just an attack of the vertigo.

It was worth the climb, if only for the quite literally breathtaking views from the high points. On the eastern side, they had one of those engraved panoramic views, showing points of interest – towns, mountain peaks etc. Funny, I’d always heard comments on how blue the Mediterranean was, but had never seen it for myself. But there it was, away on the eastern horizon, as blue as can be. Somewhere over there as Perpignan, which might have been our destination, had FlyBe’s prices not gone up so drastically. One day we’ll get to see there.

Being perched on a rock, the castle has many levels. No two rooms seemed to interconnect without a few steps up or down. I wouldn’t have fancied moving around there in a long gown. The best feature was the Pillar Room, which seems to have served as the chapel. A splendid vaulted ceiling with a large central pillar, it seemed like it was the centrepiece of the castle. It was difficult to photograph – I really needed a very wide-angle lens. Some parts we didn’t explore as the custodians of the castle seemed not to have considered the idea of installing any artificial lighting. I did take one picture by flash, just so I could see where a staircase led. Having examined the picture afterwards, I decided it was a good thing I hadn’t tried – it looked rough, very rough. One helpful sign did at least tell me there were 19 steps.

This last castle of the day was almost certainly the most worthwhile. A slightly harder climb that Aguilar, it had much better views, being closer to the mountains and to the sea. It has also been better restored. I could have done without the attack of vertigo on the way up, but the prospect from the top was worth even that. Time, alas, was pressing upon us. We had booked dinner for 8:30 (which was a surprise to us as we had been led to believe the restaurant of our hotel didn’t open on Sundays) and, after the climb and the wind, we both wanted a very quick shower before dinner. Having made it up there, I was a little more relaxed on the descent, even if there were a couple of places I was holding on so tight I left fingerprints in the stonework. We made it down just in time to get a bottle of water from the kiosk (I forgot to get one on the way up), but too late for postcards.

On the way down, we found a suitable point to get a shot of the village below. On the far right, at the edge of the village, you can see a building with an open terrace with a canopy over. That’s our hotel. We made it back there with plenty of time to shower off the dust and get changed. Down the stairs we went, outside the hotel, and down some more steps, to the restaurant. Like most of the other diners, we opted for the terrace, even though, by now, the magnificent views largely consisted of watching car headlights wind up and down the hillside. Now this was a proper restaurant, with a very inviting looking menu. [livejournal.com profile] silme had the smoked salmon salad starter, while I sampled the excellent goose and duck pate. I could get to like living here, with goose and duck being a much more common part of the diet. Indeed, for our main courses, we both had duck – slices of roast duck for Silme and a substantial cassoulet for me. [livejournal.com profile] silme’s dessert of roast pineapple (among many other things) was excellent. I was a little disappointed in the cheeseboard. The cheeses themselves were splendid, but a long narrow plate with a few pieces the size of sugar cubes seemed somewhat parsimonious. A very nice Chardonnay from Limoux went along very nicely with it all.

Happily replete, we retired to our room. It took me a while to get off (it always does in strange hotel rooms), but sleep eventually occurred.

Breakfast was exactly as expected – continental style, as in croissant, bread, jam etc. I would have preferred the other continental style, with a selection of cold meats, cheeses etc, but hey, it was something to get the day started and did include coffee.

Our route back to Toulouse was planned to take in an abbey and possibly a couple of castles on the way. The first part of the drive was very splendid, taking us into the Pyrénées-Orientales department of France. More hills to climb and descend, with beautiful scenery, and the ever present signboards inviting to go taste some wine. We did not make the best speed, however, so we abandoned plans for the abbey, and our visit to the castle at Puilaurens consisted of using the loos in the car park and taking a couple of pictures from the road leading up to it (last couple of pics in the gallery). Diesel was obtained at a Carrefour somewhere past Limoux, and topped up at a service station just before the airport, so we could avoid getting charged for not bringing it back full. We did a bit of duty-free shopping and grabbed a sandwich before proceeding to the gate. Where we discovered that the flight had been delayed for over an hour. Unfortunately, we were past security with no way back. There was nothing there. No cafes, no vending machines, scarcely any seats, just some toilets, which was a saving grace at least. So, there we sat, on the floor, waiting to board.

There’s not much to be said about the journey home. We made it, we retrieved the car, and we drove home. The journey home is always a bit dull, especially after having had such a splendid time. Home was still there, as were the cats, and our guest. Much chatting ensued, topped with a Chinese take-away. Bags were unpacked, at least in so far as those bits required, such as the laptop and phone chargers etc and eventually, sleep happened.

It was a very splendid trip. It was certainly the best birthday present I have ever had, so thanks to my lady for that. I certainly fell in love with the area and look forward to going back some time. Part of me almost wishes I could go live in one of those villages. I don’t know what I would do there. Maybe I could learn to cast knights out of stone and resin, or learn history enough to give guided tours of castles. Heck, I could even get to speak the language properly. But that’s just a dream. But, I would like to go there again, someday…

But in the meantime, some photos to assist the memory

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-12 07:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] maryf.livejournal.com
Glad to hear you had a good time! I think it's one of the best areas of France, with wonderful castles, gorgeous scenery and friendly people.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-12 07:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] silme.livejournal.com
Was Lagrasse one of the places you'd recommended in passing when we talked in Ireland? I'm thinking of writing it up for TI -- such a beautiful village with a wonderful abbey!

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-12 07:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] peaceful-fox.livejournal.com
I have SO enjoyed reading this and looking at the photos. This is a place I will certainly consider visiting. WOW! Thanks for writing this and I am glad you had a good time!



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