Southern France (Part One)
From Andorra we drove back into the vine-filled landscape of France and headed for Carcassone, using our new Garmin. We asked it to avoid tolls and it ended up taking us through the back streets of back streets, up and down mountains and through narrow, winding roads that I'm pretty sure even locals avoided. There must have been a quicker way. By the time we arrived in Carcassone, we were over driving and over Garmin. Garmin did help us find McDonald's so we could use internet though – TomTom couldn't do that.
We went all out and ate dinner in the McDonald's car park (along with a ridiculously cheap vodka tonic), thinking we could park there safely for a while. However, after looking out the window and seeing half a dozen guys standing around a burnt-out motorbike, we thought differently. We moved the van closer to La Cite, number one on our to-do list tomorrow. Unexpectedly, we ended up with prime views of the citadel lit up at night, which beat looking out at the remains of vehicles. We found a spot where a few other campervans had parked, providing us with some reassurance - not only from the questionable locals, but we also thought there would be less of a chance of the police moving us on later in the night.
In the morning we stepped out of the van and discovered we had picked a perfect parking spot – the car park was packed, plus there was a line of cars waiting to enter. From here we walked straight up the hill to La Cite, the largest fortification in Europe. We expected a scattering of old, run-down buildings but discovered a whole town inside the walls, complete with restaurants, hotels, churches and souvenir shops. We wandered around aimlessly, taking in all the sights, and happened to enter a church where a five man choir was singing hymns in French, without accompanying music. The acoustics were fantastic, causing us to sit and listen for some time.
In the tourist office Danny found a brochure for Le Parc Australien, which advertised a range of Australian animals, didgeridoo playing, boomerang throwing and Aboriginal face painting. They even showed French men dressed up as Aborigines. We did contemplate going for a second before deciding it would be a little too tacky for us.
After leaving Carcassone we made our way to Roquefort (aka cheese mecca), which excited Danny more than a kid in a candy store. Once again Garmin took us the back streets, making the journey an extraordinarily long one. We finally made it, after ascending and descending what felt like a thousand hills and passing almost no other traffic. As soon as we arrived Danny shot off to explore the Roquefort caves and ended up doing a tour in French. He tasted as much cheese as he could and restrained himself from buying the place out. I stayed in the van to unwind after the stressful drive, and to put as much distance as I could between me and the stinky blue cheese.
We reverted back to TomTom to take us to Montpellier, which was more direct than our previous drives (but for all we knew, Garmin could have taken us the same way). I think in future we will be using a combination of both devices. Montpellier was a fairly large town and it took us a while to find a car park. In the end we had no choice but to park on a main road for the night, but we are getting so used to traffic now that it didn't bother us. We hit the local general store for groceries, picking up a decent regional wine and a not-so-decent French goat's cheese (too strong for me). Danny spent the night trying to pick up a TV signal on his laptop, using the aerial he bought in Andorra. It worked fine when we tested it in Andorra but now, nothing.
The alarm woke us early the next morning, as we had to buy a parking ticket for our car spot. By early I mean 9 a.m. - it's hard when you're not used to it. We walked into Montpellier, found a map of the city and sprinted through the town (we only had two hours on our parking ticket). We stuck to the well-kept old city, which was mostly pedestrianised and full of shops and cafes, plus the usual touristy things that we avoided. There was another Arc de Triomphe – it seemed that most towns were proud of some triumph or another.
We ran back to the car and thankfully found no parking ticket. We felt there wasn't much more to see in Montpellier to warrant another walk into town, so we left. On the way out we stopped at two wine tasting centres but both were shut for the lunch period. I could really embrace that sort of lifestyle.
Next stop was Avignon, which required navigating through terrible traffic. We gave up on finding a car park pretty quickly and parked a couple kilometres from where we wanted to be. It wasn't all bad - on our walk into town, we crossed over the Rhone and were presented with photo-worthy views of the town. Again the old town was mostly walking streets, cafes and some wonderful architecture. Danny managed to slip by security to reach the top of a building, giving a fantastic outlook over the town. When I tried I was asked for my ticket (which of course I didn't have) – I don't know how Danny always gets away with things like that.