November 2010


Wheeled Migration

France


As you may remember from our last message, “The time had come, the walrus said…”the time to move south that is.  

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So, we moved as expeditiously as we know how (hmmm) down through Scotland and England, and took the ferry to France.  It was chilly and we fondly remembered having been warm at some point in the past, we just couldn’t recall when that had been.  We thought it would be nice to renew our acquaintance with short-sleeved shirts, at least; but for now our focus would be on the beauties of fall color.

We landed in France just in time to enjoy that country being on strike – fuel stations had no supply; roads were blocked by strikers burning tires; the usual.  Landing in Calais we had no trouble leaving the port, but had decided to go a ways further down the coast where we knew of a nice overnight parking spot along the water.  Unfortunately it was in Boulogne, also a port town, and there the strikers were very active.  They gave us no trouble, however, and we were able to get away the next morning.  Having been forewarned that there might be some problems in France, we’d filled with fuel before leaving England and managed to continue to get some frequently enough that we had no problems while we were in affected areas, although fuel was scarce for several days.  At one location we had to wait in a short line and then were limited to a purchase of 25 liters; at another, people were waiting in line for the station to open for a brief afternoon selling period.

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Not everyone was affected however.  In fact, as is normal with such news stories (France On Strike!... Nation in Turmoil!!), things actually seemed to be absolutely normal almost everywhere.  The small towns we were passing through appeared to be oblivious of the issues around them.  At one lovely overnight stop a group of older gentlemen were having their regular afternoon tournament; in other towns the shops were open for business as usual.  Another unchanged aspect of things was that upon arriving back in France, we were immediately reminded how much bigger it is than Britain.  All the open space!  Parking lots for vehicles bigger than Smart cars!  We felt like we’d returned to the land of regular people.  We’d loved every bit of our time in Britain, but this feeling of roominess was a nice change!

So what was the plan?  Go south young man, go south.  We figured southern France was a good beginning, and then we’d start down into Spain.  The general idea would be to head toward the canals of the Midi, west of Toulouse.  From there we’d visit the French Pyrénées, then hop over the top, cruise down the mountains into central Spain, and thus to the ocean at the bottom.  Our end game involved getting to a campground outside Lisbon, Portugal where we intend to leave the Tiger over the worst of the winter while we go back to the States for a couple of months.

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We quickly moved down through western France.  We cringed a bit as we passed up chances to visit major-major spots we knew we wanted to see, but it was still cold and the areas we passed by were not at their springtime best by any means.  It was rainy some of the time, but the sunny days were delightful, and we saw lots of fall color wherever we were.  Hunters were ever-present, walking the fields with guns and dogs at the ready.  We skipped the Normandy area and the WWII beaches this time through, but passed right through Le Mans, home of the famous 24 hour motor race, so that Rick could visit the museum there; photos at www.motor-museums.com.  We spent several nights in delightful little towns with small spots set aside for visiting motorhomes.  

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One (Vasles) had an entire section of the village given over to an amusement area with a sheep theme.  It was sort of cute.  The moon was full, each town had church bells to listen to, and we were happy.  The locals were happy to see us, to say hello and discuss their gardens, but one lovely older lady was not about to let us take her picture.  

We crossed the Loire River, on the western edge of the Loire valley; the castles would have to wait for another visit.  The vineyards were full of grapevines whose leaves were turning various bright colors.  Wine tasting was available, but we kept going.  

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At the Garonne River we stopped.  There were several places to park ourselves along this river as it flows from Bayonne to Toulouse; then it splits off to become the Canal du Midi and flows east to Narbonne.  We could camp beside it all the way to the Mediterranean; if you look closely at this picture you’ll see the Tiger parked under the trees on the left.  The days were suddenly warmer, the trees were all turning wonderful colors, there were little villages along the river where you could buy fresh bread and a few vegetables; we’d finally arrived, even if it was still pretty cold over night.

We spent a week along the river, sitting in the sun and taking pictures of the enormous shade trees losing their yellow leaves.  We were far enough south and east that the towns were beginning to take on a Mediterranean look.  It all began to seem familiar, and we both realized we were thinking about Argentina.  It was the same time of year, which helped, but the colors of the buildings, the greengrocer’s wares piled outside the store, roosters crowing in the morning, the huge shade trees, all looked like South America.  

The canal areas were very quiet for the most part, although there were still some boats around, either moored or quietly moving along.  It was peaceful and very nice.  After Toulouse our road opened out into wider valleys, with orchards (mostly apples) and vineyards; small towns had huge packing sheds, very busy; there were corn stalks in the fields, drying before being cut down.  We felt we’d moved back in time to at least the 50’s.

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Rested and raring to go again, we climbed into the Pyrénées, and immediately the colors became more intense.  We’d been told that visiting the area of the Cathar castles would be a real treat and shouldn’t be missed; so that’s where we headed. We made the town of Quillan our base, and showed up there every couple of days as we did loops through the surrounding mountains. It was really great.  The castles are very high up on mountain tops; excellent for protection (and for terrific views).  We poked around for several days, going up  higher and higher and then down into low, fertile valleys and through narrow gorges.  These ridges, until 1659, were the border between France and Spain. 

We had lovely weather, I might add, making the trees even more beautiful than we could have hoped for.  Above about 4,000 feet the trees were bare, but lower down they were quite impressive.  One day we drove through the remaining clumps of snow still hanging around in the shady areas after the last storm.  

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We took zillions of pictures of the trees and the charming old mountain towns.  Often they were tiny hamlets, with very narrow streets and sharp turns; occasionally we wondered if we’d ever get out onto the road again!  Such patience the locals had, waiting as we figured out what to do next.  Only once did we have to change our plans.  We had wanted to drive north of St. Paul de Fenouillet, through the Gorge de Galamus.  We were stopped short by a large sign limiting the road to vehicles 2.0 meters wide (we are 2.2) and 2.7 meters high (we are 3.0).  We might have been able to surmount just one of these problems, but….   So discretion made us turn around; fortunately, the powers that be had provided us with a large parking lot just for this purpose, with a great view of the gorge and surrounding area thrown in for a treat.  We had to make do with that.  Now, if we had the BMW along, that would be different.

The eastern end of the Pyrénées, near the Mediterranean, is very dry and…hmmm…Mediterranean looking.  From high atop a ridge, we could see the water.  We started seeing Manzanita bushes and scrub oak, interspersed with cactus.  The interior valleys were filled with fruit orchards and vineyards; it was beginning to look a lot like Santa Barbara.

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The weather was sooooo beautiful we decided to chance it and stay in the mountains just one more day, crossing the mountains further west, close to Andorra; so we turned around and headed back a ways.  It immediately became wetter and greener, and more interesting.  We got lost a few times, of course; otherwise why bother!  At one such moment, we crossed into a new valley and I (Kathy) found where I want to live when I grow up – the tiny hamlet of Radome.  It looks untouched, it’s in a pretty valley with lots of trees and open spaces, at about 3,000 feet, and not too far from Mont-Louis (for those of you who’ve been in the area).  It looked heavenly.  Rick just rolls his eyes and says “Grow up???” rather like Maynard on the old-old-old Dobie Gillis show used to say “Work???”.

Considering our next adventure, we woke up the next day to rain at 45 degrees at 4,000 feet – we’d stayed in the mountains one day too long.  We needed to get moving.  But which way to go.  Over the mountains was our first choice; but we knew if it was 45 degrees where we had spent the night, it would be snowing at the top of the pass (Col de Puymorens) at over 6,000 feet.  Snow didn’t fit into our plans.  So, we decided to take the “low road” and drop into Spain by way of Perpignan, down on the coast.  

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We’d had a great run in southern France: the canals were lovely in the sunlight of late fall; we discovered the delights of the local macaroons and continued our love affair with the breads of France; we were charmed by the long rows of sycamore (plane?) trees that lined the roads everywhere.  We spent one last rainy, cold night in the foothills of the French Pyrénées, then crossed the border. We were rejuvenated, ready to hit the ground running as we traveled south through Spain and toward Portugal.  

 I had a new mission.  So far we’ve been unable to make juice from fresh oranges, the way we had done throughout Latin America. All year we have had to purchase prepared juice, from Tropicana whenever possible.  It was expensive, but far better than any local brands.  We’d been drinking it for months.  We like it with “pulp.”  In France, that meant “avec pulpe;” in Britain that became “with juicy bits;” as we got close to the Spanish border, suddenly we now bought it “pulpissimo.”  Those marketing boys don’t miss a trick.  

Maybe in Spain I can find ripe, juicy, sweet oranges; stay tuned and we’ll let you know.

Happy Thanksgiving to all our American friends and best wishes to everyone.

Rick & Kathy



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