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A Guide to the Midi-Pyrenees: Part Deux

A Guide to the Midi-Pyrenees: Part Deux

Waking up in an antique bed and opening the shutters to see a field of sunflowers is certainly one way to start your day on holiday. And that’s just the way every day started while Shannon and I were in France in July. Our aunt and uncle’s house almost felt like we were staying in a boutique hotel except we were able to eat our breakfast in our jammies (boiled eggs, peaches and croissants – yes please) and snooze in for as long as we wanted.

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Our second full day was going to be a long one; we planned to venture a bit further as far as Lagrasse, Minerve and then back through Carcassonne on the way home. With this in mind we set off early with a basket my aunt had prepared for us including picnic blankets, bread and some beer. All the essentials for an afternoon in the French countryside of course.

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I think those drives through the valleys and alongside fields of all kinds of colours were my favourite parts of the trip. Road trips are always the best way to see a country I remember thinking as we watched how the landscapes changed from vineyards to mountains to crumbling villages perched precariously on ancient hilltops.

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We reached Lagrasse just before the markets finished which were abundant with local crafts, cheeses, meats and sweet treats. I purchased a wrap and we bought some souvenirs for the folks at home before finding somewhere to hide from the midday heat.

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We managed to find a place hidden in one of the cobbled streets called Les Trois Grâces with a wee courtyard out the back that provided us with just the right amount of shade. I decided to go very healthy with a pasta and Shannon opted for a lamb tagine which we washed down with a carafe of wine like true Europeans.

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After filling our bellies we felt like a little snooze by the river and so off we went, with baskets in hand to the river flooding with locals having a swim on their lunch breaks. We dipped our toes in for a little while but found it just as relaxing on the river banks where we could read and have a few beers (just Shannon to be fair – I was the ever-responsible designated driver).

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Feeling suitably rejuvenated and realising the time, we packed up our little Aygo and typed Minerve in to our Google maps. We left Lagrasse and turned up towards a mountain with a perilous lane curling up it’s side overlooking the valley below. I drove the car up the lane, not daring to look to my right and hoping that Google maps knew where it was taking us. It turns out the app was drunk and we ended up on a dirt track with a dead end and in very real trouble. Our wee rental was in danger of being completely ruined as we drove at snail speed over the rocks praying that we didn’t get stuck in the middle of nowhere with no signal.

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With Shannon directing me we eventually made it out of the (quite literal) woods and back down the scariest lane in the land. Once back down to a safe height, we decided to forego the plan for Minerve in favour of living and headed towards Carcassonne which was on the way home.

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Carcassonne is one of the biggest cities in the Occitanie region but the main attraction is La Cité, a medieval fortress which looks over the modern city which has grown around it. The castle is a stunning piece of architecture that was saved from dereliction in the 19th century and became a UNESCO  World Heritage Site in 1997. The streets are a labyrinth of shops and restaurants, very easy to get lost in which is exactly the best way to explore the grounds.

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The fortress has two outer walls and the best place to escape the crowds is between these two walls. Here you will find a space to roam in peace, admire the architecture and get the best views across Carcassonne. Shannon and I were completely enchanted, imagining the stories and lives these walls must have seen over a thousand years.

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After we ate some pizza and managed to recover from our near-death experience (slightly dramatic but we are a dramatic pair), we decided it would be best to get home to our aunt and uncle’s where we would be safe from cliff roads and less likely to suffer a tragic fate. Turns out driving on the opposite side of the road is even harder in the dark and my knuckles we white gripping the wheel for fear of drifting in to the wrong side of the road!

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On our arrival home, we were given some delicious hot chocolate (made with the really good stuff) which we took outside to drink under the night sky, spying a few shooting stars to wish upon before heading to out long-awaited beds. It had been a long day!

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The following morning we decided to keep close to the house, only nipping out to grab some roast chicken from the local stall in Castelnaudary and then to the Sunday markets in Saint-Michel-de-Lanès. Here I got to see just how cheap French antiques can be and I had to hold myself back from purchasing a huge vintage suitcase which I am sure wouldn’t have made it to Ireland on a plane. Instead I settled for 4 beautiful carafes which I stole for an eye-watering 5 Euro and 2 pipes for a Euro each because I liked the idea that they had been cherished by someone for a long time.

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After a Sunday roast that was eaten mostly with our hands, we finished the day lying outside watched the sun go down over the sunflowers and showering golden light over everything around us. We ate our desserts on the grass, not wanting to move inside because it meant our last day was over. Eventually the chill forced us inside to get changed in to something warmer as we took a spin to the canal for a few drinks by the water, swapping stories until we couldn’t avoid sleep any longer.

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We were awoken the morning after by the sound of gentle rain on the terracotta roof. Our flight was in the early afternoon and we soaked up the morning in our beautiful bedroom, packing half-heartedly and sitting on the windowsill to watch the rain. With a touch of Autumn in the air, our uncle decided to light the stove in the sitting room and brought the dining table inside so we could eat breakfast by the fire. It was the sweetest gesture and cemented our decision to return to this beautiful hideaway next year. Although next time I ain’t drivin’!

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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, 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 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 and 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 any longer. 

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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 crumbling 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 as 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 is 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 or if there was some apocalypse we hadn’t heard about as we ascended up a hill to check out the view. 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 snaked up the hills 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 were 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 immediate 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 another French post coming soon…