Camping a la Camargue

Trip Start Jun 03, 2010
Trip End May 28, 2011

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Where I stayed
Camping La Sousta

Flag of France  , Languedoc-Roussillon,
Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March 19:            Monsarrat

We didn't get away from Barcelona environs until 1 pm or so, what with grocery shopping etc. We then headed for the hills, the Serrata, north west of Barcelona for the monastery town of Monserrat.

This was a bit of an after thought, as we had not thought much of going there, but it seemed to be well publicized in Barcelona, and we now can see why. It is indeed a monastery town, with 16th to 19th C residences, hostels and now restaurants, grouped around a large 16th C church which features the "black Madonna" sculpture. Once thought to have been carved by St. Luke, that seems to be downplayed  a bit in the historical notes, and the black face of Mary and the infant are now thought to be due to chemical effects of aging. It is still a big deal though, and we stood in the line to go up to her elaborate throne above the alter. Everyone else was close to tears and were touching the small globe in her right hand which poked out of a hole in the Plexiglas which encircles her. There was also a considerable bit of film on the front of the Plexiglas from kisses.

The church was founde in the 5th or 6th C, and the current edifice was built in the 13th C, sacked by Napolean’s troops, and rebuilt again in the 19th C, at which time most of the ostentatious decorating was added.

The location of the monastery is the most important thing. It is set on a hillside halfway up some very striking 1000 metre serrated mountains. We accessed it by a brand new funicular train trip of about 5 kms. There had been an older train, and there were also cable cars which run in the summer season. It was a lovely sunny Saturday, and so the atmosphere was quite delightful, with many family groups and children and grandparents, romantic couples, tourists, and a good many serious hiker types.

We are camping in the parking lot of the funicular tonight, feeling a bit exposed as the only vehicle in this enormous parking lot, but we did ask permission at the ticket wicket, so it seems OK… so, off to bed…

March 20:            Collioure, France

T’was a bit strange waking up in the big parking lot all by ourselves at the Montsarrat funicular train station just as tourist busses began to arrive. It was also a bit embarrassing that we left some of our “gray water” behind in the pristinely clean concrete parking lot. We had not been able to empty the gray water tank at Barcelona, so when it gets full, as it did, it just overflows. Gray water, for those unfamiliar with camper lingo, is the water from the sink, so it is not toilet water, but it still leaves some minor traces as it contains dishwater leavings and soap scum. It is quite illegal in France to dump the gray water anywhere but official drains at campgrounds, but we are not always able to comply.

We headed east toward the coast on various secondary highways. With coffee and lunch stops it took a good three hours to get to the coast. There were a couple of interesting “Sunday” events along the way… three hot air balloons overhead in one valley, and another bicycle race diversion with all of the trimmings such as police motorcycles and escort cars roaring by.

We ended up in Collioure in mid-afternoon, a very pretty little harbour town just north of the border. Collioure was indeed the primary harbour of the region up until the 17th C, and still has piers and breakwaters and forts and seaside churches to show for it. This being a nice sunny early spring Sunday, the town was alive with romantic couples of all ages, families, motorcyclists of all shapes and languages. The cafes were open, and we had to join in on an afternoon coffee. Speaking of coffee, you might be interested in what it is like here. Pat almost always has a cappuccino… strong coffee with steamed cream and often whipped cream on top. Sometimes they ask before putting on the whipped cream. A Cappucino will cost between 2.50 and 3.50 Euro. I almost always ask for “café noir”, which gets me a very small cup of strong black coffee, almost, but not quite as strong as espresso. Sometimes I might ask for large, which gets double the amount… about half of the size of a Starbucks “tall”. Occasionally I might ask for an “Americano”, which won’t be that different from the double coffee. The small size may be as low as 1 euro, but can go up to 2.50 if I ask for a double at a more expensive place.

After wandering the streets and seaside walk at Colloiure, we drove north a bit to the much larger town of Perignan. Unfortunately we were unable to find any kind of suitable camping there, neither free camping, nor any of a half dozen private campgrounds which turned out to still be closed for the season. So we drove back the 12 kms to Collouire, and find ourselves in a lovely spot… a parking lot up on the bluffs well above the town, overlooking a large 18th C fortress complex still occupied by the military, with a trail system on the bluff to our east overlooking the sea and the town well below, and to cap it off (literally), a beautiful castle on a hilltop beyond the town, which is brightly lit at night, giving it the impression of floating in the sky.

We are going to go to bed early and rise before sun-up, as we expect it will be quite glorious from the clifftop. Will let you know!

March 21: Beziers

Yup… pretty gorgeous sunrise over Collouire this morning! See photos. After an hour or so of watching the sunrise, we packed up and drove down to the little harbourfront to fix our breakfast. From Collouire we drove inland about 30 kms to the little artist’s town of Ceret. This town is famous for being a gathering spot of the “Belle Epoch” artistes such as Picaso, Brache, Soutine, Gris, and indeed it is the town in which Brache visited Picasso and found him experimenting with the “snipping” and repositioning of geometric elements with which they would develop Cubism.

The town had just finished a weekend of Carnivale festivities, and we found it covered in confetti, as if there had been a light dusting of multi-coloured snow. Fountains and gutters were full of it. Street sweepers were just beginning to work.

The town makes the best of its artistic history with many galleries, artists’ ateliers and an excellent modern art musee. Most interesting was about 20 little kiosks on various street corners with copies of paintings of the town by the various famous early 20th C artists. The painting in the kiosk would be a representation of the actual streetscape that could be seen from the positioning of the kiosk. I will attach an example of a photo from today with a  photo of the painting so you get the idea.

The museum was excellent for such a small town with paintings by the aforementioned artists, plus some Matisse sketches from the region and a couple of Cezannes. The upper floor had some big exhibitions of contemporary paintings and installations which were great fun.

After lunch we headed north-west, and mid-afternoon arrived in downtown Narbonne for a quick walk around. The main features of Narbonne are the Canal de la Robine right through the centre, and a very dramatic St. Just et Saint Pasteur Cathedral. This Cathedral was planned to match the size and scale of some of the biggest northern Cathedrals, but only the 55 metre long central “choir” was completed. With its 40 metre tall rib-vaulting, it is still most impressive, but the incomplete buttresses and walls of the naves were and interesting curiosity. The surrounding cloisters and gardens were lovely and green in this early Spring sunshine.

We moved on about 30 kms to this town of Beziers where we knew of some free camping parking lots, and we are now parked for the night in a large parking lot alongside the main town square. We are getting pretty used to the kind of scene, and feel quite comfortable despite the shoppers and dog-walkers coming and going around us.

Toward Provence and Avignon-Arles tomorrow.

March 22:  Pont-de Gard

It is amazing what a peaceful night’s rest one can get sleeping in a parking lot in the middle of a town square, as we did here in Beziers.

We awoke fairly early, and took a 20 minute walk up to the Cathedral. It was a very large structure, mostly 12th C Gothic, but ws not open until 10 am which was more than two hours away. It’s location was very spectacular however, with the whole town built up to the hilltop, so we just enjoyed the view out over the field and towns and canal below.

We then hit the road eastward toward the whole Avignon, Arles, Orange region of Provence. We dawdled along the secondary highways, avoiding the “paeage” motorway, which probably doubled our time from 2 to 4 hours of driving, but we saved big Euros, and we saw the towns and country along the way.

We settled into a real campground at about 2 pm, Camping La Sousta, less than a kilometer from the Pont de Gard which is a huge and dramatic Roman aquaduct. We haven’t seen it as I write this evening, as we spent the afternoon catching up on laundry and doing some tune-ups on the bikes.

The plan is to spend 2 or 3 nights here, seeing the bridge and exploring the little towns in the area, at least a day each in Nimes and Avignon, and then to Arles on Saturday for their market day. The campsite is on off-season rates of just under 20 Euro per night, which is manageable for a few nights despite us getting used to the free camping habit.

March 23:            Pont de Gard

A bit of a relaxing day today, and no driving. We biked to the Pont de Gard, the beautiful Roman aquaduct over the Gordan, then across it’s little bridge and south about 5 kms to Remoulins, then back to the campground. Remoulins was a small town, but did have a pretty little medieval area with a few 12th C buildings. Spring has sprung, so the afternoon was spent just soaking up some sun at the campground.

We plan to bike over to the Pont again at sunset.
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