Friday, January 30, 2015

Road Trip in Southwestern France

White Camargue horses, one of the oldest breeds in the world
We are back from a lovely road trip through southwestern France. Our starting point was west of Draguignan, our little village of Salernes, and our goal was to join a rally of roadsters in the French part of Cataluña. As we wanted to break the journey we decided to stop off in the Camargue, west of Marseilles where we found a wonderful Mas (farmhouse) to stay in just outside of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the capital of the Camargue. Part of the charm was that we had to take a pont across the Petite Rhone every day to get to and fro from the Mas. A sign posted by this ferry which only took 8 cars, stated that horses and pedestrians had priority. The food was wonderful, shared with other guests around a big table with large slabs of meat cooked in the open fireplace, after drinks on the terrace including a sangria of Cointreau and rosé. Our room overlooked vast terrain with horses roaming and we woke up to the rooster crowing. Couldn't have been more tranquil and relaxing. It is considered a chambre d'hôte, rather than a hotel, but it felt more like an inn and definitely off the beaten track.

Pink flamingoes are just one of 340 bird species in the area
We rented bikes in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to get across the dike between the swamps and the sea, so we could see the pink flamingoes, wild horses and bulls cycling over beaches and little dirt track roads. The Camargue is basically flat swampland but a haven for birds and the famous horses and cattle. The "wild" part can be debated as we noted many fences even though the properties were vast, and the horses and bulls did seem to belong to somebody so I think the wild should be compared to free range chickens: they roam freely but are not for everybody to take, and definitely belong to people, however the setting is wild and vast.

Black bull roaming the Camargue marshlands
Given the fact you are right on the sea there were many restaurants offering seafood platters and the restaurant, La Cave à Huitres, lived up to it's name with delicious oysters, scampi, shrimp, cockles, mussels etc. It sits on the waterfront of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer named after the two Mary's, Mary Jacobé and Mary Salomé of the scriptures, who were believed to have arrived there by boat. One could go to a manade (bull farm) and learn how they raised bulls and watch a mock bullfight during dinner if so desired. The other popular (and worthwhile) attraction was the Ornithological Gardens full of birds in a very pretty setting.

Our drive further east took us by Aigues-Mortes ("dead water"), which is a charming town, originally a citadel retaining many of its old walls. We followed the road to Barcelona, turning off where it was marked Andorra, and started climbing into the mountains. There are many gorgeous towns along the way, Villefranche-de-Conflent (another citadel) and Prades with a lovely old abbey nearby, the Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa. The annual Prades Festival (now named the Casals Festival) specializes in chamber music and was begun in 1950 when eminent musicians were invited to play with Pablo Casals to commemorate the bicentenary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Cave exploration in Fontrabiouse

Our final destination where we were meeting the other participants of the rally was Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via, a ski resort at 1800 metres (over 5,900 feet) in altitude. The mountains are beautiful with lovely windy roads over mountain passes past the Lac des Bouillouses and through quaint villages.  Of further interest to some was the world's largest solar furnace located there. We were more attracted to the nearby grotto of Fontrabiouse which was formed centuries ago by a raging river inside a mountain, and discovered perchance in the 1980's by workers excavating the blue marble quarries when they stumbled upon this deep hole that led them to the vast network of grottoes. The walk through the stalactites and stalagmites was well worth it.

Joining in the roadster rally
As we were a group of 80 people we stayed at a ski residence, but there were plenty of attractive smaller hotels and auberges nearby. One morning we drove to Andorra, which is a very small self-contained municipality, and some of the other participants drove over the border into Spain for some tapas. The food had a strong Catalan flavour to it, and everywhere the red and yellow flag was proudly displayed. We saw flamenco dance and an a capella concert of Catalan songs including Pablo Casals’ “Song of Birds” in an ancient little chapel. It was a very interesting mix hearing French spoken but being in Catalan country with its very distinct own identity. People are very friendly and all came out to wave to our cars driving by.

The drive back to Salernes took just under six hours, so it would be roughly the same to Nice, about 4 hours to Nice and easily done in a day.

- Petra Macintosh, Travel Consultant

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