Before we leave Charente Maritime, it is worth stopping to explore the Il de Ré.
To get a bird’s eye view of the whole island, why not climb up the lighthouse, “Le Phare des Baleines”. Probably the nicest way to get around the island at a leisurely pace is to rent a bicycle. And on the way, you can stop off at some of the more fascinating things on offer.
The Atelier Quillet (www.quillet.fr) is a small company which restores old documents, manuscripts and books, often using gold leaf. Next, visit the soap makers. They make soap from donkey’s or goat’s milk. https://www.savonneriedere.fr/
By now, you will probably be thirsty. Time to stop for a beer. The local craft brewery was established in 1996. Being rather innovative, they developed new products such as the “Blonde au Miel de l’Abeille de Ré à Loix” (The blond honey from the Ré at Loix). It was awarded the gold medal at the Agricultural Trade Fair in Paris in 2018. Cheers! https://www.bieresdere.fr/home/
Another interesting place to visit is the old apothecary. In a splendid room, you can see a large selection of curious pots and jars. Among them, are different types of jars such as small jars for preserving liquid preparations and cannon jars for ointments. All the pieces are from the 17th and 18th centuries.
This is only a small selection of curious and unusual things to discover. Naturally, there are many other activities and historical buildings for you to explore and enjoy. Don’t forget to taste the local oysters and fruits de mer.
In Châtaillon-Plage you can admire the beach and the belle epoch architecture of some of the houses. The activities include sailing, cycling and spa treatments not to mention the many festivals as well. It is a typical beach resort.
I leave Charente Maritime now and start cycling east. Next stop Poitiers. See you then.
Pau and Pyrenees are synonymous. It is a city in the south-west and is the capital of the Béarn region with a population of 150,000 inhabitants. Although it is 85km from the Spanish border the Pyrenees are very visible. Walk along the Blvd de Pyrenees and you have a panoramic view of the mountains.
Pau is also the birthplace of Henri IV (1553 – 1610), King of France and Navarre. His reign was marked with religious tumults but also political pragmatism.
Pau’s unique selling point is its climate. Influenced by the Basque coast, it has a temperate climate and enjoys a long Indian summer when the rest of the country is already significantly cooler. It is this, along with a harmonious architecture and plenty of attractions which draws the visitors, students, and many companies to the region.
British holidaymakers visited the town from the 18th century. The first full 18-hole golf course in Europe was created by people from Scotland. So popular was the town, that it became the world’s first holiday resort and a template for other towns to model their attractions in a similar fashion.
Pau is also the departure town to explore the rest of Béarn and the Pyrenees. About 30 km south-east of Pau is the famous pilgrimage town of Lourdes. It is of course known as the town where Marie-Bernarde Soubirous, in 1858, then aged 14 had visions of the Virgin Mary. Today, between 4 – 6 million visitors per year come to Lourdes to seek healing.
Not far from Lourdes are the magnificentLes grottes et le sanctuaire de Bétharram. Travelling by small train and a boat, you reach an underground lake. Then on foot, you can discover the five excavated gallery levels of different geological epochs. You can admire stalagmites, stalactites, cave draperies and columns, all in amazing shapes.
Oloron Sainte Marie is a small town at the entrance of the Béarn Valley. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site because the Romanesque cathedral from the 12th century has a magnificently sculptured entrance. Inside are also goldsmiths’ and silversmiths’ items, and an organ in the Baroque style. The town is also on the St Jacques de Compostela path.
There are plenty of markets to visit and see, there is a half marathon for the sports-minded people, the first weekend in June. Nature lovers can enjoy breathtaking panoramic views of the Pyrenees, rivers invite fisherman to catch trout and salmon.
The winds known as the “the foehn” sweeping in from the Atlantic give the Jurançon Wine their special characteristic taste.
Walking along the paths, you will see protected flora such as Edelweiss, the Venus Orchid and many others. The region also is home to many birds of prey, heather cockerels, snow partridges and rock ptarmigans. The Pyrenees are also the home of bears and otters.
You can move around the region in many different ways, walking, cycling, on horseback, in snowshoes. There are many different sports activities for you to choose from.
In the heart of the Béarn is the Vallée d’Ossau, an ideal destination to rejuvenate body and soul.
Les eaux d’Eaux-Bonnes, are thermal springs that have been benefitting people since the reign of François 1 (1494, crowned 1515, died 1547). The waters are known to heal wounds and help ease rheumatism. Gourette is a large ski resort with many different runs, levels, and possibilities.
Or simply walk along the “Shepherds » path and learn about their way of life and work. Again, as we pedal forward on our tour, we leave behind a beautiful region with more to do and see than can fill these lines. But we must continue, as we head north to Charente Maritime. I will send you a postcard when I get there.
We know of Paris, Provence, Côte d’Azur, but hidden to the west is a true jewel. Tarn is a Department in the South West of France and is also called the Pays de Cocagne. Translated, it means “Land of Abundance”. Knowing this, preparing a trip made my brain whirl.
What can we do here? Here are some recommendations, but there is much, much more. This is just a drop in the ocean.
Lavaur is an old medieval town in which a heretic massacre took place in 1211. 400 people were burnt at the stake and the Chanson de la Croisade tells of this tragic event. Don’t forget to have a look for the belfry of the Cathedral Saint Alain, you will be surprised by the “Jacquemart” – a wooden figure which reminds us of the religious wars. He strikes the bell.
There is also the Musée de Pays de Cocagne, (the Museum of Abundance). It exhibits many sacred art objects, archaeology, and popular traditional art. There are also themed exhibitions.
Not far from Lavaur are many historical towns. One noteworthy town is Gaillac which is well known for its wines.
Albi: a medieval town, on the river Tarn, is also the Department’s principal city. Walk on the Bridge and discover the “red town”. Stroll along the narrow streets, wander past the half-timbered houses, to the fortress-like cathedral. The interior of the building is an eye-catching decoration, in the style of Flamboyant Gothic to Renaissance.
Albi is also the birthplace of the painter Toulouse Lautrec, and also the Navigator La Perouse.
The town also offers two of the four Paths of St. Jacques de Compostella. Coming from Puy in the north, it leads south to Cordes, Gaillac and along the Agoût River to Castres. The pilgrims sometimes leave the main path go along the smaller ones to see the relics, holy healers and miracle fountains.
Castres and the “Black Mountains”. A masterpiece of nature. The Lac des Montagnès is also an exceptional “éspace naturel”. In Mazamet is a “Himalayan Bridge.” Not for the faint-hearted. And, if you are there at the right time, do not forget to attend a rugby game.
Not far from Castres is Burlats. Let yourself be bewitched by the legend of Adélaïde de Burlats. To start with, rent a Kayak and discover the Rivière Agout which meanders through a forest. Continue in the Gorges du Lignon and if you feel like it paddle on the Lac du Merle. After this sports activity, go to the Pavillon d’Adélaïde and narrate the legend of the lady of the same name. Idolize her violet eyes. She was the daughter of the Comte de Toulouse. Her beauty apparently was legendary, and the troubadours of the day told other noblemen about this. You can hear the story on the path leading from the Pavillon to the Waterfalls.
If you like rocks, discover the caves of St. Dominique. Also, stop in Sept Faux and its shaking rocks.
A Venetian style carnival takes place in Castres every March. The Carillon, you can watch and listen to the Carillonneur at the Notre Dame de la Platé. He plays with his fists. Plenty of possibilities to walk and explore nature.
You can also discover Tarn on horseback. The region offers horse riders up to 500 km of paths. From the Black Mountains to the Gaillac vineyards, the Tarn valley, the granite “Sidobre” and the Lacaune mountains. On horseback, you can admire the beauty and variety of the landscape. There are many liveries in the department for you to “park” your horse or from which you can rent one. If you are not a horse rider, bikes are also an alternative.
Food & Wine, like the geography, is of great abundance. My advice is to go and discover and do not hold back. The atmosphere of the restaurants, artisan producers and vignerons are in tune with the beauty of the department. So, to satisfy your hunger, eat and drink your way through the following:
Garlic /Garlic Soup
Jambon de Lacaune
Courges and Pumpkins
Wines of Gaillac
Onions from Lescure
Veal from Lauragais
White asparagus (Le Responchons)
Cheeses: goat’s, sheep’s and cow’s.
Truffes du Tarn
Pot au Feu Albigeois.
A pleasant sojourn can be spent here. But as our tour continues to beckon, we must say, au revoir et à bientôt.
Monique & Bernard, from Seebach, France, who did the course on Nice, answered the question if they had been to the south. Here, they crafted the following reply:
Yes, we have. But not all the regions. We visited the area from Hyeres (east of Toulon) to Monaco, with the islands. We took the boat from St. Maxime to the island of Port Cros. Every day a container full of drinking water is brought to the island.
For us, it is a truly lovely region. First is the drive along the coast. You can always see the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains. The colour of the rocks is slightly red, the roads are curvy.
Nature, the trees, the flowers, the umbrella trees. We like the smell of the pine trees, the lavender bushes, the iodine of the sea. It makes people thirsty.
The atmosphere is one without stress. I like the sounds of the crickets. The colour of the sky is different from that in the Alsace.
The fish markets are terrific as are all the farmer’s markets, the produce is fresh, and you spend all day outside and wearing light clothes. It is much freer. Having lunch near the sea, or dinner is wonderful. An apéro by the beach, le petit jaune (Ricard etc), with olives.
You can see many things, monuments, small villages high in the hills. In the evening you can walk along the sea, along the coast, the coastal trail.
To visit, yes, but to live and work there? That is a little different. Things are too relaxed. The people are different. The big difference is that in the summer season, everything is ok, but in winter, when everything is closed, life stops, and people sleep.
Geneviève combines stages 5 -7 of the actual tour and takes us straight to Millau.
Millau is a town with over 22,000 inhabitants, located in the Department Aveyron (12) in the “Parc Naturel des Grands Causses” about 300 km southwest of Privas. The 42m belfry dominates the town and offers a panoramic view of the town and the viaduct. Millau has a typical range of streets and shops, but also, a rather good museum displaying local history from pre-historic times right through to the middle ages.
But today, the focal point is the Viaduc de Millau. It is like a bridge owning the town. The viaduct is an architectural jewel. Although designed by Baron Foster of Thames Bank, (aka Norman Foster) it was engineered by a French team lead by Michel Virlogeux. This bridge has a span of 2460 m and a height of 343 m (which is higher than the Eifel Tower) and traverses the Gorges du Tarn. It was until recently, the highest bridge in the world until an even higher one was constructed in China. The Viaduc de Millau, elegantly rests on 7 slender pylons which extend to 7 masts, to look like a sailing boat. It is slightly curved to protect the drivers from being distracted.
This bridge is the spectacular link on the A75 motorway from Clermont-Ferrand via Béziers to Narbonne, from where you can continue to Barcelona. The bridge was constructed with the goal to considerably reduce the driving time and ease the congestion in Millau. Construction started in October 2001 and the bridge was built in just over 3 years at a cost of about €400 million.
You should make a point of stopping at Peyre, a picturesque village 9km south of Millau. Situated in the Causse Rouge, it is the site in which a mammoth skeleton was discovered in a cave along with Palaeolithic furniture and a hook of the Bronze Age. Oh, and yes, there is also a grandiose view of the bridge from the village.
The Gorges du Tarn (53 km long, and between 400 – 600 m deep) is a paradise for nature lovers as well as being the home of remarkable building heritage. There are traces of troglodytic villages and perched medieval fortresses often located on the sunny slopes. For example, the castle of Peyrelade, the village Mostuéjouls are well worth visiting as is hiking along the French national trail PR41 from Liaucous to Saint Marcelin.
For cheese lovers, an absolute must is Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. This tiny village of fewer than 700 inhabitants is a “big cheese” in the world of cheeses, being the home of the blue cheese made from ewe’s milk and which is matured in the Grottes du Cambalou in the Causse du Larzac. It’s a stone’s throw from Millau, about 25km and you do not cross the bridge! Visiting the caves and participating in tastings are always recommended.
Last, but certainly not least, if you are a history buff, then you must drive to Conques. It is about 100 km north-west of Millau. The Centre of attraction is the Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. Particular attention should be paid to the last judgement tympanum located above the western entrance. The town also hosts the Nocturne Festival from May to October.
The beast is the bridge, but if you allow yourself to be distracted by the beauty of the surrounding area, this is a beautiful place to relax and contemplate human development, from prehistoric caves right through to 21st-century architecture and engineering. Perhaps the bridge symbolizes this and reminds us of what we are positively capable of.