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.

Cut for your page length... )

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
So, farewell to Villerouge and onward to Aguilar…

Onward and upwards, it seems, as we head further into the foothills. The scenery was just getting better and better, and the roads even more fun to drive. By now I was well used to being on the wrong side of the road, and had settled comfortably into the driving or our little (one-eyed) Peugot 207. By now, the roads were reminding me of an old TV car advert where the sat-nav kept seeming to direct the driver in the wrong direction for Glasgow until it finally brought him to the top of a long and winding road down through the hills, with the final instruction of “Enjoy!”

We did have a secondary mission, to obtain basic supplies – snacks and drinks – but none of the villages we passed through seemed to be possessed of anything resembling as shop. One did have signs promising a Spar, but it was evidently invisible that day. Never mind, there would surely be something at our final destination that evening.

The turn-off to the Château d’Aguilar did not seem promising – a very narrow road that seemed to disappear in between the rows of grapevines, almost seeming like a farmer’s access track than a real road. However, it rapidly became much more interesting. While I consider myself an experienced driver, unlike my dear [livejournal.com profile] silme, I have limited experience of narrow roads that climb up the sides of mountains. Looking ahead, it seemed scarcely possible that we could get anywhere near the castle itself, standing at the top of the crag ahead.

Despite my doubts, each twist and turn and climb brought us a little closer. I don’t mind admitting that I was more than a little nervous. My hands were sweaty and I was biting my lip all the time. [livejournal.com profile] silme did offer to take over, but I was determined to see if I could do this, despite the perceived lack of anything material between me and a rather more direct route to the bottom of the hill. Deep breaths were taken, more lips were chewed, low gears were engaged and the steering wheel was gripped, perhaps a little more tightly than necessary. At least I didn’t close my eyes, although I very much wanted to. That might have been a bad idea. At last, the car park loomed. It wasn’t much, it wasn’t well surfaced, but it was at least a patch of horizontal ground. I switched off the engine and paused a few minutes to catch my breath and let the heart rate slow down a little. Part of me was trying very hard not to think about the journey down, but for the most part, I was glad just to be on a flat surface. When I climbed out of the car, I didn’t fall and hug the ground, but it was a close thing. Camera, spare batteries and hat were gathered from the car and we set out on foot.

Château d’Aguilar sits atop a hill above the Tuchan plain, looking towards the Corbières mountains. It’s only 1050 feet, but it seemed a long way up at the time. Dating from the 12th century, it seems to have had somewhat of a chequered history, and once the border between France and Spain moved, its strategic importance was gone and it was eventually abandoned. Of all the castles we visited on our trip, this was the most decrepit. It is still a historic monument; though not one that yet rates a visitor centre. It did have a lady in a wooden hut about the size of a garden shed who took Euros from us, gave us the guidebook (please bring back when you are finished) and later sold us postcards.

The castle loomed above us, up a somewhat straggly path. I was awfully glad I had chosen to wear proper shoes instead of my Crocs. This was definitely not a wheelchair-accessible site, or even a granny-accessible site, unless the granny concerned was of the breed that dons hiking boots and takes a gentle stroll to the top of Snowdon. As I remarked to [livejournal.com profile] silme at the time, I couldn’t imagine it being allowed as a public attraction back home. The pathway was, at times, little better than loose scree and often quite steep. There were no handrails or proper steps and only a few hand-painted signs. Even those were few and far between, so it wasn’t entirely obvious which bits you were supposed to go into. The little chapel on the hillside, a little below the keep was quite charming, with spectacular views. It also provided welcome respite from the breeze, which, up here, was quite brisk. The rest of the castle was, well, a bit more like some back home, little more than broken walls and rubble. Except I doubt that much of this was robbed to build somebody’s cottage, unless they were really, really keen. Photographs were taken, but a few suffered from me not noticing the camera was on the wrong setting for outdoors. We didn’t explore the interior of the central keep itself. What we could see looked somewhat overgrown and anyway, getting to it looked like it required one to be a mountain goat.

The descent back to the car park was a little easier than the ascent, though possibly slightly harder on the knees. We gave back the guidebook, purchased some cards and a bottle of water, and the nice lady gave us a free rolled-up poster. I couldn’t put it off any longer; it was time for the drive down. Loins were girded, sweaty palms wiped, and first gear engaged. Despite my fears, the journey down was easier than I had expected, and somehow seemed shorter. We stopped halfway for some good views up the hill. Soon, much to my relief, we were back on the flat bits and heading back to the road. The scenery continued to impress, necessitating a couple of photo-stops, including a brief pause in the village of Padern, to take a couple of long-distance shots of their castle. Had we had more time, we would have stopped and explored it also, but later afternoon/early evening was looming, and we wanted to get to our hotel, get ourselves booked in, and then explore just one more castle before dinner.

As ever, there are photographs...

Forward then, to Cucugnan and Queribus...
First, Villerouge...

Well, Villerouge-Termenès to be more accurate. To avoid confusion with any other Villerouges there might be out there (at least one other, according to Google Maps). Our journey took us further south, further into the foothills, further into countryside that could have made our journey very long indeed had we stopped to appreciate it each time we saw something nice. It was evident we were in wine country, with every other side road promising a vineyard or winery at the end. With more time and more money, we could have had a very happy journey – well, at least, until the point at which I fell asleep from too much tasting (yes, I know you’re supposed to spit, but what a waste).

Villerouge-Termenès proved easy enough to find, and the castle therein was clearly signposted. They seemed to take it quite seriously, with each signpost drawing us further into the history of the castle, of the Cathars, and in particular, one Guilhem Belibaste - the last Cathar Perfectus.

This theme continued inside the castle, with the audio guide and assorted film segments telling us about the castle, related through the story of Belibaste and his persecution and eventual burning by one Bernard de Farges, Archbishop of Narbonne. It was an interesting story, and I would have liked to learn more, especially the section of film that showed Farges dictating his final memoires before his anticipated death. From my brief Googling, I think I may have to learn a lot more French before I can research it more. The audio guide was less annoying than most, since the appropriate segment was activated by walking into the room, rather than driving you around in lock-step, point by point, painting by painting etc. Once again, there was the bonus of some wall paintings, even if some were restorations/reproductions.

It was a smaller castle, so not so many photos - what I did take can be seen here...

There was a pleasant looking tavern/café across the tiny bridge from the castle. A cold beer was an awful temptation, but we had some more kilometres and at least one other castle to explore before we got to our hotel. So, farewell to Villerouge and onward to Aguilar…
The next morning, onward, via assorted castles and abbeys...

Wonder of wonders – a day that was planned. Maps were consulted, distances were estimated and an approximate timetable was achieved. Pausing only to acquire pastries for breakfast at the local patisserie, off we set, down the A61.

Once we were off the motorway, we began to really appreciate the countryside. The previous day, we had arrived in darkness, so didn’t really get the chance to see. The roads wound gently through the hills and along the sides of valleys. While the landscape was plentifully green, it was a dry green, the green of trees and shrubs and vines rather than the green of meadows. Fields of drooping sunflowers alternated with the regimented rows of grapevines. Around these, the beginnings of the Corbières mountains, and in the distance, the edges of the Pyrénées. When we stopped to admire the view, the air was soft and warm, scented occasionally with bay. Though quite warm, it was a comfortable, dry warmth, tempered by the breeze. With the motorway behind us, there was very little traffic on the road and the general feeling was that life round here took little notice of any time division below that of morning, afternoon, evening or night.

Our first stop was the village of Lagrasse, supposedly one of the prettiest villages in France, there to see the Abbey of St Mary of Lagrasse. It certainly looked pretty enough as we swung down the road into the valley, with the terracotta coloured roof tiles that seem so characteristic of the region. A sign pointed us to the visitors’ car park, which proved to be only a short walk from the main part of the village itself. All was quiet, though we noted that the patisserie and a retro shop were open. Our walk took us over the more modern bridge over the river Orbieu, which gave us good views of the more ancient town bridge and the houses adjoining the river. This view alone was worth a few minutes of contemplation. It was but a few minutes from there, past the older bridge and the cemetery, to the abbey itself.

The monastic community at the abbey dates back to the 7th century and was granted abbey status in 779. Part of the abbey is still occupied by a religious order, but the rest is open to the public. It is small and has a lovely atmosphere, particularly in the central courtyard. As an additional bonus, the chapel features several preserved wall-paintings. Sadly, these were only viewable through glass windows, as the chapel was closed to protect the tiled floor, but the windows were well-placed for seeing them. It would have been too easy to sit and fall under the spell of the place, but the morning was moving on. The abbey’s café turned out only to serve drinks, otherwise we would have had an early brunch there. Instead, we opted to see what the village had to offer.

I’ve not been to many villages in France, so it was hard to judge if the “prettiest village” claim was justified. It certainly had a quiet charm, with the narrow streets and the small covered market-place in the centre. It was very quiet, with hardly anybody around, and such shops as we could see were closed. One restaurant looked hopeful, but didn’t really have much in the way of lunches in our budget range. As we headed out to the village edge, we found ourselves by the patisserie again. It was still open. Sandwiches and pastries were soon acquired and we repaired to a nearby bench to eat our lunch and watch the world go by. Again, it would have been easy to sit there for ages, but we had several stops planned, and a very approximate deadline to get to the hotel to book in. First, Villerouge...

As ever, there was time for photographs...
(No, that isn't a shout-out for our local satellite TV provider, or John Williams' erstwhile band - merely a sort of translation of our next destination)

Eventually, though, we had to stagger out into the daylight again and continue our journey, onwards to Cordes sur Ciel...

Cordes sur Ciel (or just plain Cordes until 1993) is a small fortified town built on a rocky hill above the river Cérou. We were visiting in the evening, so missed the sight of the village rising above the clouds in the valley (the source of the “sur ciel (above the sky)” part of the name). However, despite the best efforts of the French road signage failing to tell us where to go, we eventually found it with sufficient daylight to appreciate the view. Of course, being a small town, we found we had gone past it in no time at all, so had to turn back and find somewhere to park at the base of the hill. This was just fine because we needed to be facing that direction anyway, in order to head down to Carcassonne.

It was but a few minutes walk to the bottom of a narrow street that rose, rather alarmingly from the point of view of my unfit self, between quaint houses and shops to the market at the top. The town dates from the 13th century and, thanks to its fortifications, survived much of the destruction that went on during the later centuries. Thus, there are plenty of older buildings to appreciate. This also gave me plenty of excuses to stop and catch my breath on the pretext of taking pictures. After many winding turns and a couple of gateways, we found ourselves at the top, by the old market square.

We were too late for the Museum of Sugar, but there were a couple of shops still open. We didn’t want to shop so early in our trip, but did obtain some biscuit-like items that would serve as breakfast in the morning (having decided not to opt for the over-priced hotel breakfasts). After some wandering around, we picked one of the restaurants that had tables in the covered market. We both opted for the duck cassoulet, which was very enjoyable (and I got extra meat because [livejournal.com profile] silme had to fish the pork sausage bits out of hers). A glass of wine was a suitable accompaniment (and a small one at that, since I had to drive after), as was a cheese-board selection after.

Lots of photos were taken, which can be see here...

By now, it was getting quite dark, so we made our way back down the hill (much less work than coming up it) back to the car. Back, then, towards Toulouse and onward to Carcassonne…

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June 2012

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