Living local (in France)

by Stephanie Gilmartin in , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

So... I've been quiet.  I know, this happens all the time (sorry, what can I say, I'm a busy lass).  Anyways, we're just back from our longest holiday in aaaaages, an epic 10-dayer which took in France and Barcelona (or Francelona, as we have been calling it).  Dan's old house is only 300km away from Barcelona, which is probably my favourite city ever, so it only seemed logical to do both.

We had a hire car (for the French leg of the trip, anyway), and thought we might as well use it, so we threw in a good few road trips around the South of France.  Here are the best places we went to near Paulhan (where Dan's old house is): 

1) Marseillan - a lovely little town on the edge of a huge lake (like, so big you can't see the other side, so it    

    looks like the sea).  We had dinner by the harbour (pictured) in a nice little restaurant called Entre Ciel et 

   Mer.  Marseillan is also home to the excellent La Table d'Emilie (trip advisor reviews


), where Dan's

   dad very kindly took us on our last trip to France.

2) St Guilhem le Desert - a gorgeous little medieval village with a monastery, tiny little cobbled alleyways, 

    some nice little shops selling honey, hats, crocheted goods and whatever else people in very isolated 

    places make, and lots of lavender and butterflies.  One of "Les Plus Beaux Villages de France" (officially).

3) St Jean de Fos and the Pont du Diable - Dan used to jump off this bridge when he was a kid.  That    

    makes my teeth sore. We did go swimming here though, and Dan jumped off the rocks, though not off the     bridge.  Think he's a little bit more


 terrified now.

4) Minerve - another medieval village, stuck on top of a big hill and surrounded by a deep valley.  It properly      looks like somewhere time has forgotten - to the extent that there's still an Asterix-style trebuchet across

     the valley from it.  You're only allowed to take your car over the bridge if you live there, and parking

     looks, quite frankly, terrifying. It is also home to one of the nicest "posh" restaurants I've ever been to, Le Relais Chantovent - really friendly service despite the food being incredible, which is regrettably uncommon.

[the bridge across to the trebuchet!] 

[Had to climb up and check what one puts in a trebuchet.  Rocks, apparently.]

 5) Carcassone - The first thing we saw in Carcassone was this GIANT RIVER RAT.  I can't really explain 

     how scary it is to see a foot-long rat, but I was VERY VERY glad that we were on the bridge above the 

     river.  And that the tide was low.  A man tried to tell us it was a beaver - it wasn't.  The internet has answered - it was a


, which is indeed a giant rat.  I rest my case.

[Carcassone - also home to some strange Wicker Man-style sculptures]

 The main attraction is of course the castle, which is frankly the biggest castle I've ever seen in my whole life.  It's amazing - it looks like something from a Disney film.  

When you get inside it, it's more like a village - there are loads of shops, restaurants and even a couple of Best Westerns (thanks, globalisation).  I can't rate its restaurants for you (we were still much too full from lunch in Minerve) but it was a great place to explore, and the views from the turrets were great (see below...)

6) Aix-en-Provence felt like by far the busiest place we went, and had incredible shops - in fact, we were so busy shopping that I didn't take any pictures.  Notables include


, which I have just discovered we have here too - superb separates, and Repetto, which I have loved for ages.  I also managed to get some proper provencal lavender to use in baking, which made our suitcase smell amazing on the way home.

7) Marseille - although it wasn't very sunny, the Vieux Port was still well worth a visit - it's still quite a busy port, and the museum at the waterfront had a lovely terrace for watching the boats.

 [view from inside the museum]

 [pasty legs]

We got the petit train along the coast and up a mountain, which was unexpectedly scary - every French town seems to have a miniature train for tourists, and we'd been making fun of them all week, but we didn't have much time and wanted to see a bit more of Marseille before we had to go home, so we hopped on.

 [bateaux-mobiles in the church at the top of the hill]

 [post boxes for one apartment block]

 Tucking into some frankly incredible pizza at Le Cigalon - I had heard that the pizza in Marseille is some of the best anywhere, and although we didn't see any of the famous pizza trucks, this definitely did the trick.  Amazingly light, crispy bases, toppings the right combination of tomato-ey and salty... YUM.

[A reflection from a very large, very tall mirror by the port]

I also got to buy some real Savon de Marseille (soap) while I was there and

a lovely pair of shoes

from Anniel to match my birthday dress, so I was very happy on the way home as I finished reading Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson.  Getting out of Marseille was something of a nightmare because the road signs are very, very confusing, and we didn't get home until 1am.  Poor Dan.

8) Beziers - We spent our last night before getting the train to Barcelona in Beziers, which I wasn't very excited about (we'd only ever been past the train station and it looked very industrial).  We only got there around 5pm, but thanks to Trip Advisor we managed to find a cool little restaurant in the shadow of an old cathedral (in a much less industrial area) where all the food was cooked on an open wood fire.  It was easily one of the best meals we had all holiday, and it had competition.

The next day, we got the slooow train (300km in 4 hours) to Barcelona Sants.  You can't complain with train scenery like this though, can you?

[photo credits to Dan for this one]