A Guide to the Midi-Pyrénées: Part Une

A Guide to the Midi-Pyrénées: Part Une

Growing up as one of three girls meant that family trips were anything but calm. Someone would be breathing too loudly in the car, someone would be sitting too closely to someone else or a mass riot would ensue if a sister was seen wearing another sister’s dress/shoes/anything that wasn’t their own.

Nowadays we’re mature adults and Shannon and I are so cordial to one another you might find it hard to believe that I ever broke her nose when we were kids. Twice. But those turbulent times are over and now we are more than capable of surviving a short holiday together especially when that holiday involves eating our way through the villages of southern France and taking lots and lots of pretty photos.

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So with that confidence in mind, we decided to take a quick trip to France last month to stay with our aunt and uncle who have spent the last 10 years converting an old barn in to the most beautiful chateaux by the Pyrénées (trés middle class, I know). As they are fairly rural we decided to hire a car and after an hour long process (why do I always get the employee who has just started the job the day before?) we finally hopped in to our beautiful Toyota Aygo that just about fit us along with our carry-on bags.

The French drive on the right hand side of the road which made for an interesting journey to our uncle’s house. It took a few attempts to leave the airport (and Shannon couldn’t even bring herself to look out the window when we eventually joined the motorway) but we made it in one piece to maison de Donnelly in the late afternoon. After we were hugged and my uncle commented on the rental (“that’s some wee yoke there” – typical Irish man review), we were shown around their humble abode which wasn’t so humble and moved me to real-life tears. They have managed to create a home that is warm and still so full of character, each room decorated with gorgeous French vintage market finds at prices that made me shed even more tears. I immediately promised myself that I will be a regular pest of theirs for as long as they would have me.

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My aunt Bronagh is an incredible cook and once we were settled, we sat at a table overlooking the sunflower fields (am I making you sick yet?). The food was glorious and the wine even more so. We sat chatting until Shannon and I could barely speak with tiredness so with heavy heads we retreated to our beautiful bedroom to sleep in our beautiful beds. Turns out we are still kids at heart and we fell asleep in the same bed, talking until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. 

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On our first morning I trotted down to the village to get croissants for breakfast because that is what one does in France. We planned our route for the day over our crumbs and then set off for Fanjeaux, a little hilltop village with views for miles. The rain decided to show up for the first hour or two but I was ferocious in my cheeriness that the rain would soon clear off. I’m one of those travellers that vehemently believes that rain should never dampen sprits but really all that it does is convince my fellow traveller that I’m a bit mental (picture me in the pouring rain with a manic smile screaming “WE ARE HAVING FUN, AREN’T WE?!).

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Fanjeaux is an old Cathar town with old medieval walls surrounding the Dominican chapel. It was beautiful despite the drizzle with plenty of cobbled streets to get lost in (or do circles like we did). It was so quiet and felt a little eerie in places because we hardly saw a soul save for a few damp tourists. We didn’t stay too long because we didn’t have an umbrella but it’s a place I would love to go back to on a clear day.

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Luckily for everyone the skies cleared as we were headed to Limoux and as the clouds parted we could spy the Pyrénées in the distance. The valley between Fanjeaux and Limoux are covered in vineyards which makes it a little difficult to be the chief/only driver. The area is famous for a sparkling wine called Blanquette which is sold by the vineyards alongside the road or in all the local shops. If Shannon had have been driving I would have been making a pitstop at every vineyard but being the ever-responsible big sister I stuck to caffeine and saved the wine tasting to the evenings when I could guzzle guilt-free back at the barn.

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As we approached Limoux we could see that it didn’t quite have the same charm as Fanjeaux. It was a little busier and there were plenty of roadworks which don’t really scream rustic tranquility. However there is a lovely square there which was perfect for soaking up the delayed sun rays and drinking the first coffee I have ever actually enjoyed. After years of trying to like coffee (and failing), it seems all it took was a mocha in Limoux to win me over. I feel more grown up than ever now.

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After a charcuterie feast which was mainly eaten by moi, Shannon and I dawdled back to our car crossing over a very pretty bridge with fantastic views across the river. On our way we dodged a few lengthy gazes from French men who we soon discovered were unashamedly comfortable with staring. Oh how different they are to the typical Irish fella who would look anywhere but the woman he is interested in for fear of coming on too strong…

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Back in the wee Aygo we made our way to Mirepoix with a quick stop off in Luc-sur-Aude. Oh my, this drive was so spectacular. Trees seem to line the entrance of every town in the Languedoc but this road was truly special. Mountains seemed to appear out of nowhere with sheer cliffs towering over the winding roads. Shannon and I had our noses to the windshield as we gazed upwards in awe, not speaking save for tutting to ourselves like old women. We pulled in to Luc-sur-Aude to give our necks a break and again were so surprised at how quiet the little village was. We walked through the streets wondering where the people were and if there was some apocalypse we hadn’t heard about before heading up a hill to check out the spectacle. There were vineyards for miles surrounded by mountains and despite my attempt at taking a photo of the view, I couldn’t do it justice.

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The late afternoon sun was burning above us as we headed up the mountains towards the fairytale town of Mirepoix. Our ears popped as we climbed and we pulled over to drink in even more beautiful views. The roads were so quiet and when we sat overlooking the valleys below all we could hear with the cicadas buzzing in the heat. 

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We got to Mirepoix in the evening and as we hopped out of our car and walked towards the main square, we looked at each other with shared glee, silently agreeing that we had definitely saved the best place to last. The town looked like something straight out of a Disney movie set and I half expected people to burst in to song at any moment. Shannon and I grew up on these movies and you can imagine how giddy we were to see such a place in real life. We strolled through the market stalls and circled the old town walls before picking a spot in the square where we could soak all of the colours in. We sat with the golden light on our faces, barely speaking a word but feeling incredibly content with ourselves.

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Drunk on the day we just had, we headed back to the barn for another feast until the sky. Desperate not to finish the day just yet, we dandered down to the village to watch the locals play bowls (or boules if you want to get technical) and drank coffee while the stars came out. Finally shattered, we fell in to our beds, thoroughly satisfied that sisters really do make the best travelling companion. Even if their driving might terrify us.

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Stay tuned for a few more French posts coming soon…

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