1. Oregon to Paris 2. Notre Dame 3. Versailles 4. Mt. Saint Michel to Carnac 5. Chenonceaux and Le Mont Dore 6. Vers 7. Maison de Martin 8. Carcas-
9. Chamonix 10. Lausanne to Paris 11. The Itinerary 12. A Note on the Photographs And a Plea for Feedback!

VIII: Carcassonne and Driving in France

Sunday, 13 June 1999

Sunday morning we have our coffee and sweeties from the bakery, then head out for Carcassonne, each in a different direction. We take the scenic “red highways” (for that is the color of the “National Routes” on our map). After meandering through every village on the way, we come to Bezier, where MB is attracted by a market. After picnicing just off the road, we hit the flea market section, where Gabriel finds a Lego set for 40F which keeps his attention for the rest of the afternoon.

Frustrated by our slow progress towards Carcassonne, we decide to head for the nearby AutoRoute. The AR is certainly a lot faster, even though it is a toll road. By midafternoon, MB is ready to give up the wheel, so we head for a rest stop for a shot of coffee for me and a chance to rest a bit before going on. The next table is occupied by three German truck drivers, one of whom is loud enough to be heard in Berlin.

By the time we get to Carcassonne, it is getting late and in what is becoming a predictable situation, we get lost in the maze of streets. MB takes over the wheel again so I can try to navigate. We find our way to the train station, which is on the map in the guide book. According to this map, the streets across the canal from the station are in a clear grid pattern, and it appears that it should be easy to find our way to the hotel. Nevertheless, as soon as we find our way back across the canal (not so easy thanks to one way streets), we are once again lost in a maze of streets going off in all directions at once. After fruitless searching, we try to find our way back to the train station, meandering aimlessly through the streets of Carcassonne. Suddenly ahead we see Pont Neuf, and know that the hotel must be near by. Sure enough, around the corner MB spots a sign for the hotel, and parks while I get out to investigate. As I head out, MB waves frantically, insisting that the hotel must be behind us, but there is no trace of it there. Ahead, I round the corner, and as I spot the hotel sign, I see Peg and Nolie approaching from the other direction. The three of us are equally frustrated with the streets as we go into the hotel. Actually, we’re still not certain we’ve got the right hotel, as it is not clearly marked.

We know that no one here speaks English. My first attempt at making reservations by fax had not yielded a response, so MB and had tried to call, but was not able to communicate with the receptionist. My attempt had been equally fruitless, so MB had translated the fax request into French. That had not gotten a response, either, so she asked her French teacher, Linetta, to call for us. Linetta found that the reservation was okay, but could hardly believe that the price of 155F was correct. As it turned out, the price was correct, and unfortunately appropriate, as the rooms were less than wonderful. But for a place to sleep for one night, we reasoned that they would be acceptable.

By the time we struggled through the acceptance process, Peggy went out to find MB, who was getting impatient waiting for us. It seemed a bit strange that it was so difficult to communicate here. Of all the rooms available (perhaps 30 or so), only about four seemed to be reserved, three of which were ours. By the time we paid for the rooms with breakfast (at 20F), Matthew and Sandi arrived. Although they were the last ones to arrive, they had had no trouble finding the hotel, much to our surprise.

Not wanting to linger at the hotel, we stash our things and head across the river to the castle. By then ready for a rest, and it being late, we head for a bar at the top of the road leading from the gate of the fortress. The bar, someone tells us, is always open. We order “vin ordinaire” (which it is) and juice for Gabriel. We even manage to get some cold water. Matthew and Sandi are hungrier than the rest of us, so they order peach galettes. The peaches are a bit “fizzy,” which results in a conversation across the language barrier about why the peaches are fizzy. One of the waiters suggests its achieved by adding a bit of vinegar, but the more skeptical among us suspect the peaches were beginning to ferment. Nevertheless, the waiter brings MB a complimentary glass of wine in exchange for a kiss on the cheek.

We continue on to explore the streets of this medieval walled city which had defeated the siege by Charlamagne. Matthew and Sandi want to have a special dinner here, their last with us as they will be heading north tomorrow on their way to Paris and their return flight. After investigating every restaurant in town, we settle on one which turns out to look quaint, but features poor to ordinary food with an over-amplified musician, whose music arrives with the main course. By the time we leave the restaurant, it is getting quite late, but we wander a bit more before finding our way to the main gate, and the way back to the hotel. Crossing the river, the walls of the city are illuminated against the night sky, and the street lights reflect off the water of the river below.

Monday, 14 June 1999

After breakfast at 8 a.m. (coffee and hot milk from a pitcher with slices of bread with butter and jelly), we go our separate ways again. The three of us head back to the old walled city to explore some more. After deciding that a trip to Beynac to the north would make too long a drive on the next day, we head back to the AR (which had cost us 59F the day before) and a quick trip to the beach at Sete. We leave the AR a bit west of Sete and head for the cape, which affords us a good view of the Mediterranean on one side and endless condos on the other. The view of the sea is a bit of a let down, actually, it is so placid that no real waves are visible, only the beach stretching off to the east, and rocks below us, with a few sail-boats visible in the distance.

A bit farther along, we found the beach which Peg and Nolie had described from their trip to Carcassonne. We enjoy a long stopover here, replete with many small shells, though nothing one wouldn’t expect to find on Oregon beaches. But on the way back to the car, Gabriel apparently steps on a piece of broken glass or a sharp fragment of a shell, which makes the last part of the walk a major struggle. It appears to be just a small wound, though, and it heals quickly.

We hope to find some picnic supplies in Sete, but it appears that all of the shops are closed, and even if we could find one open, it would be a major accomplishment to find a place to park. It is unfortunate not to be able to get out and explore the town a bit. It is a very picturesque sea-port, with the buildings of the town center facing either side of the quay. The streets are not quite as bad here, at least once we get to the main part of town, but construction has diverted traffic onto a narrow side street. We follow a truck which creeps along slowly between parked cars, missing them by less than a couple of inches on each side.

As we leave town, we spot a commercial area off the main road, so head there in search of food. What we find, mirabile dictu, are the golden arches. We hope this will be our only mac-xperience in France, but now we are nearing desperation. They seem to want to reinforce that idea, since our usual simple meal of burger/fries/drinks costs over 100F. It seems odd that the menu inside sports McChicken instead of McPoulets, but the fries box is labeled McDonald’s Ristorante.

Back on the AR, we zip back towards Vers. We marvel at the fact that we have seen no auto accidents during our first two weeks in France, despite the high speeds on everything from the AR to narrow city streets. Nolie has noticed that despite the aggressiveness of the drivers, there has never been the appearance of “road rage,” and if one makes one’s intentions clear, the other drivers are almost invariably courteous in making way. This is not to say that if one doesn’t observe proper round-about etiquette, one won’t get honked at! And on the high speed AR, where speeds apparently approach 150 mph or more, it is suprising how well the traffic moves. One never sees a slow car in a left lane, cars always move to the right after passing. And while tailgating is common, it seems to be accepted as the norm, and never seems to lead to lights flashing or honking. Even though following perilously closely, drivers always seem to wait patiently for their opportunity to pass.

The Photos: Japanese tourists posing at one of the entries and the walls of the inner citadel (the innermost of three walls); between the walls and a tower of the second wall.

1. Oregon to Paris 2. Notre Dame 3. Versailles 4. Mt. Saint Michel to Carnac 5. Chenonceaux and Le Mont Dore 6. Vers 7. Maison de Martin 8. Carcas-
9. Chamonix 10. Lausanne to Paris 11. The Itinerary 12. A Note on the Photographs And a Plea for Feedback!

Text and photos copyright 1999 Meredith L. Bliss