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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 Cuban Adventure Part 3 – Trinidad

A Cuban Adventure Part 3 – Trinidad

It was a 7 hour journey between Viñales and Trinidad so we made sure to have books to read and a fully charged laptop to watch some movies to keep us occupied! Our new friends were rapidly becoming our biggest irritants and small quarters such as a Peugeot 407 will only enhance tensions! Andrew had asked for a toilet break and Walter refused him only to get the driver to pull over a half hour later (Andrew was not happy). When we got out of the car we couldn’t run away from them fast enough but because luck was not on our side they asked us to join them for dinner that evening – nightmare! Both Andrew and I are pretty bad at saying no so we shiftily said maybe, we were ‘pretty tired’ and we might see how we got on…

 

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After we checked into Casa Jorge Mendez we soon realised how hungry we were and heard the Belgians talking about a pizza place called San Jose. We decided we would go there early to avoid bumping in to them but after our starters in walked Innes and Walter… I didn’t know how to react when they came over and I was getting to the point of giving up and asking them to sit down with us! Andrew sensed this and gave me a kick under the table and a look to tell me he I would be killed if I dared ask. Then came the most awkward silence and I wanted to throw myself in to my delicious pizza. They got the hint thankfully but that didn’t stop us from bumping in them several more times during our stay there!!

 

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Our casa was really great with shutters opening to a courtyard and a massive room and ensuite. A pool had been promised but apparently it had been recently closed for renovation although something told us that the pool may have never existed! The roof gave us a great view of Trinidad out to the ocean and we watched the most amazing thunderstorm that night.

 

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I quickly found out that Trinidad was my favourite town in Cuba. I loved walking down the cobbled streets looking in to the different shops and colourful buildings. The town seemed to not have changed very much since the mid 19th century when it was a busy port and the buildings have kept its character. The old quarter is an UNESCO heritage site on top of the steep hill. It’s a struggle to make it up there in the heat but the views are well worth it especially for the sunset!

 

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We decided to get a taxi to Cienfuegos for the day – another old Chevy that probably hadn’t passed an MOT since 1964. Cienfuegos felt very different to Trinidad with lots of French influences and more western style shops and restaurants. The day was so hot we needed frequent refreshments so found a lovely spot by the pier to have mint and lemon slushies. After a dander round the town we thought we might try and make a trip to the Guanaroca lagoon on the way back to Trinidad. I had heard there was a wild flock of flamingoes based here and thought it would be an opportunity not to miss…

 

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And I’m so glad we didn’t miss the chance because this was one of my favourite times of our trip! We had a guide walk us down, pointing out native trees and birds before we reached the canoe. Our canoe guide didn’t have much English but he knew so much about the environment there. He rowed us to the other side of the lagoon, pointing out herons, snake birds, egrets and pelicans before I saw little pink dots in the distance. As we got closer we could see that the pink dots were actually a few hundred juvenile flamingoes – the most flamboyant splashes of colour against the tropical surroundings. It was eerily quiet but incredibly peaceful save for the distant rumble of thunder in the nearby. When we got close enough the flamingoes became unsettled and took off in unison making a circle around us overhead. All I could hear was their feet hitting the water and the flapping of wings – such an unforgettable experience!

 

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That night we went to Sol y Son, an old restaurant in a colonial home that still has all its original furniture including a bedroom at the front. There was great music while we ate although by this stage I was fully addicted to our chess app we’d been using since the beginning of the trip. Andrew taught me on our first few days and I was obsessed with beating him!!

 

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After our dinner we headed up to Casa de la Musica – an outdoor salsa club that has the best live music and dancing in the old quarter. Lots of amazing dancers made sure that we dared not dance and make a show of ourselves! We tottered on up the hill from the old quarter to the very top where there is an actual club in a cave – no joke! On the way up are little stalls selling mojitos for inflated prices although it’s a great way to take a break from the climb. When you get to the cave, there’s lots of steps down and then you enter a cathedral-like space with a bar. It’s pretty amazing to see although we would’ve preferred listening to music other than salsa for a few hours at least!

 

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The following day we hired out bikes to cycle to the Ancon peninsula which was 12km and seemed perfectly achievable. We packed lots of water and began to freewheel down the hill from the town towards the coast. Once we plateaued we realised fast how hot it really was. The sweat was soon streaming down my face and into my eyes. After 10km we were closed to heatstroke and our lives started to pass before us (cue dramatics). The water had ran out and we began thinking we were going to have to sleep on the side of the road but most important of all we had to find shelter. A hut soon appeared like a mirage before us and I had the tastiest lemonade of my life! After about an hour of solace we managed to get the energy to finish the trek.

 

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The beach was worth the near death experience – the water was a bright blue and the perfect temperature. There was so much coral and fish to dive down and see with a snorkel, I found it a lot better for snorkelling than Cayo Jutias. We didn’t get to spend too long there though because our epic journey took up half a day and we had to start looking around for a lift back to town before dark.

 

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We met a guy at the snack bar who despite sitting with a beer can was more than happy to take us back to town. With a fair amount of apprehension we agreed, we thought it less risky to get a lift home with a guy who may or may not be a bit sauced than cycle all the way back again. He threw our hired bikes in the back of an old Honda Civic and we sat in the back praying it was his first beer that he was still holding in his hand.

 

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We had booked to join a tour to Guanayara National Park and our driver, Papa Noel, picked us up in the morning. Turned out Papa was a big fan of Celine Dion and played her greatest hits all the way up the mountain. There’s something to be said about climbing up through a jungle with a view of the Caribbean in a car belting out ‘Don’t Think Twice’.

 

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We were in a small group tour with a guide, Eddie, who spoke perfect English. Eddie was a fascinating guide and it was great to have a conversation rather than just exchanging names in Spanish. He had studied in Santa Clara and had relatives on both sides of his family who had fought on opposing sides of the Revolution. He explained how the rebels hid in the mountains we were in and how the locals had helped them. He also knew an incredible amount about the flora and fauna of the jungle; I could have listened to him all day.

 

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We trekked around 5km before reaching beautiful waterfalls and then swimming in natural pools. These pools were the real deal, not like the puddles in Viñales! The water was crystal clear and we could dive underneath the waterfall in to caves. After our lunch we were taken to a coffee plantation which told the history of the coffee trade and all the different beans grown there. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of coffee but felt because of where we were I should give it a go. Mistake. I could barely drink it but smiled at the farmers anyway to show I wasn’t really repulsed by the bitterness. I took a sneaky stroll round the back and threw the coffee over the fence. I couldn’t bare to give them back a full cup!

 

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That night we bumped in to the Belgians – again – and decided that since we were leaving the next day we could manage one last night with them. We took them to Casa de la Trova which we had enjoyed before but they thought was too loud so made tracks to Canchanchara. This bar was very chilled although I wasn’t too impressed with our Cuba Libres, they used cordial instead of fresh limes which I thought was complete sacrilege. We said our goodbyes to Innes and Walter, promised to stay in contact (got to love these false holiday promises) and headed back to our Casa. We sat on the terrace watching the shooting stars and planned the next part of our trip to Remedios.

 

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