France, August 2009
This trip grew out of a germ of an idea, to go see the Cathar Castles. The Cathars (links generally go to Wikipedia, I'm a big fan) were a Christian religious sect around the 12th century that rejected the attractions and possessions of the physical world. Not being entirely unaware of the reaction this would create in the Roman Catholic church, they built exceptionally well protected fortresses for themselves. It will come as little surprise to anyone who knows the history of the time to hear that the Pope raised an army and wiped them out. Although most of their fortresses had to be taken by siege rather than direct attack - once you see the pictures, you'll understand why.
Along the way, we picked up a bunch of other fascinating sites in the southwest of France. Most of the world is more aware of the southeast of France: who hasn't heard of Provence and the Côte d'Azur? Instead, we went to Languedoc, which I would recommend to anyone.
Carcassonne is fairly widely claimed to be the best maintained medieval town in the world. I'd be surprised if this wasn't true. It's also very famous, and in the month of August when everyone in France simultaneously goes on vacation, it's very, very crowded. I enjoyed it, but it was one of our most tourist-oriented and hectic stops.
Minerve kind of swung the other way. That was probably the hottest day of our trip, with the temperature reaching about 40°C - we moved very slowly. Minerve is a tourist destination, but out of the way and not heavily pursued. It's a small town (population 125?) perched on a rock outcrop in the middle of a dry river bed in a stone valley, a really spectacular setting. We stayed the night, and had the best meal in a week of excellent eating at a restaurant called Relais Chantovent. For €19 each (the cheapest menu) we had three courses plus an "amuse-bouche" to start.
I should say something about eating dinner in France. When I went to Paris in 2004, I never ate a menu. I avoided it because it's quite expensive and I didn't have much money, eating out of supermarkets instead. If you go to France, don't do this. Save your money, set aside a lot of time for dinner every night, and enjoy the food. (Unless you're in Paris - then you may want to consider the cheaper path as Paris is both more expensive and perhaps less reliable for good food ... your call.) Dinner in France starts sometime around 8:00 or 8:30 PM - in fact, the restaurant probably doesn't open until 7:00 or 7:30. None of the courses are particularly large, and they arrive quite slowly - most likely you leave at 10:00. So whoever sits down in a seat in the restaurant is probably the only person in that seat all night. That and the incredible attention to detail and quality of the presentation of the food was such that I came away considering it a miracle that the menus are so cheap.
Our amuse-bouche was a tiny cup of watermelon slush with mint, and an even tinier spoon. One of the appetizers was proscuitto with an excellent eggplant and parmesan concoction, the other was a bowl of melon balls and cherry tomatoes with goat cheese. We had the same main, which was baby squid stuffed with ratatouille and a creamy risotto. I had blanc manger with raspberry sauce for desert, and Sylvie had chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream (both, I suspect, made on site). All this with a bottle of very local (1 kilometre, we were assured) red wine, quite nice. Which brings up another thing about French food: on our trip, most of the places were quick to point out how local the produce was - it was as much a point of pride as "this is imported" is sometimes in Canada. I'm glad Canada seems to be skewing a bit in favour of local produce, even if it limits our options some of the time ...
We didn't get to sit on the patio with the spectacular view over the valley as it was already booked when we made our reservation around 5:30, but the inside of the restaurant was lovely too. But we got the view in the morning, as our breakfast was at the restaurant - the guy who owns the (only?) hotel also owns the (only?) restaurant.
If you're ever in the southwest of France, stop in Minerve for dinner and a night - you won't regret it.
Heading north, we stopped to admire the Millau Viaduct. I had read about this in one of the several travel guides I borrowed from the library, and had become quite fascinated (I was, after all, a mechanical engineer in a previous life): it was completed in 2005, designed by Norman Foster, he of the Gherkin, the phallic, pickle-like monstrosity that dominates London's skyline (I don't dislike it, but it's definitely distinctive). The Viaduct is one of the largest bridges in the world, and one of its masts is taller than the Eiffel Tower - this is not a small construction. Look for the regular road bridge underneath it in my pictures.
Shortly after that we visited Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, a food pilgrimage that Sylvie could have lived without, but which I very much wanted to make. This is the town that produces Roquefort cheese, and we ate lunch there. I was happy.
Our final destination was Lyon, and unfortunately we only had one day there so Sylvie didn't really get to show me as much of her hometown as either of us would have liked. I liked it, but I'm afraid it didn't leave a strong impression.
About French roads: French roads seem to come in two sizes: massive toll expressways with a speed limit of 130 kph (or 110 kph if it's raining - a very sensible idea), and one-and-a-half lane wide country roads with a top speed of 90 kph. On the latter you will usually average about 45 kph because every 5 km you hit another tiny little town and your speed goes down to 30 kph. And then there are the hills. Many, many hills. With lots of switchbacks. Did I mention that the roads are one-and-a-half lanes wide? Only about half the French drivers actually slow down when passing people on these narrow roads, and it's a truly nerve-wracking experience to pass another car at a combined speed of about 170 kph with 15 cm clearance between your mirrors. And then there are the round-abouts. This is somewhat akin to driving a slalom - while hundreds of other people simultaneously run slaloms at 90 degrees to your course. Very exciting.
I'm exaggerating a bit for emphasis, and I've obviously returned intact. French roads are generally very well maintained, and, while I'm not kidding about the drivers not slowing down, they're generally reasonably good drivers. But the roads are frequently quite narrow, and we did see a lot of hills and switchbacks, and I really don't like round-abouts.
I hesitate to say "I had a fantastic trip." I did - but I don't think I've ever had a trip that was less than fantastic, so perhaps it's getting old hearing me say that? To those of you that have (already) said "I hate you" after seeing the photos - save your money and go. I'm not a rich man, I make it happen by being careful and choosing what I spend my money on. You can do that too.