01 July 2006

Crumbling Fortifications (or Act II, Scene III)

WARNING: Today's blog entry will contain several photos of ruined castles. These photos of explicit dilapidation may shock and horrify some. These castles, over the centuries, have been the sites of graphic and gratuitous violence, and are currently stripped bare with what should be their most private areas left exposed for all to see.

Really, there will be lots of crumbling walls and the piles of centuries-old carefully stacked stones that are currently not quite as well-stacked as they originally were. They may start to look the same to you, but hopefully I can keep you interested with my witty commentary and links to insightful web resources.

With the disclaimer out of the way, let's get started!

If we had been thinking the day before, we would not have driven all the way from Andorra to Perpignan, instead we would have found somewhere in the Têt Valley or, even better, somewhere along highway D117 to spend the night. As it turns out, we ended up doing a lot of backtracking and also driving through some extremely remote areas to make it to the crazy places I wanted to see. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, or whatever, so that's easy to say now. And I will admit, that, for the most part, the crazy route we took was a lot of fun and we saw a lot of really amazing stuff.

We started out by returning to Villefranche-de-Conflent, a tiny little town in the Têt Valley. This town is sandwiched between the Têt river and the steep valley, and once you add the massive defensive walls, there's not much room for a town, at least in the direction perpendicular to the river & valley.

Jeannette and I are not the kind of people that sleep in when we're on vacation. When we go somewhere, we go out and do stuff. I am sure we totally miss the "nightlife" in the areas we visit, but we're definitely more interested in seeing stuff in the daylight and collapsing from exhaustion shortly after a relatively early (especially for French standards) dinner. I bring this up because sometimes the strategy backfires. When we reached Villefranche-de-Conflent, we parked at the parking lot NE of town (there isn't room inside the walls of this skinny town for visitor parking), and payed the 2 euros. It was a bit of a ripoff, since there is no more than an hour or two's worth of poking around one can do in town and you have no choice but to buy parking for the entire day. (To be honest, one can catch the "Little Yellow Train", a highly regarded tourist train through the Têt Valley, here, and I suppose those who do this think the 2 euro all day parking is a steal) We considered selling our parking stub to the next visitors for 1 euro when we left, but we didn't have the Eier. Anyway, we arrived around 9:00 only to find out that the sights didn't open until 10:00. We poked around a bit, considered climbing the massively steep slope to the fortress that looms on the valley wall above the town, but decided against it, realizing that we had a lot of stuff to see today, and Villefranche-de-Conflent was merely on the might-as-well-if-we-have-time list. So, after an hour of poking around, we decided to skip the just-opened tourist stuff (add that to the list for next time!) and head to the thing my research really got me drooling over - Chateau Puilaurens.

Before I tell you that that was much easier said than done (whoops, I just told you that... hmmm...), let me explain a bit about the local geography. Simply put, the major roads go east/west and north/south travel is reserved for offroad vehicles or aircraft (and even those would have difficulty). Trouble is, the map shows these things that look like roads going in the northward direction, and they are even marked on the map as being scenic routes. Looking back, the "scenic route" thing should be read as "probably slow". But by the time we were in Villefranche-de-Conflent, we had no chance to get to a non-scenic north-bound road without backtracking almost all the way to Perpignan or Andorra. Villefranche-de-Conflent and Chateau Puilaurens are only 24 km (15 miles for the metric-impaired) apart as l'oiseau flies, so how hard can it be, right? Let me tell you how hard it can be!

First off, there's a mountain range in between the two points. That's not so bad, except that the roads are narrow and there is no center dividing line and no guard rail on the sheer dropoff into the abyss below. The locals drive like... well, like locals anywhere drive - like they know the place and are late to where they need to be. So to the foreigners like us, they seem to be maniacal road hogs. Especially when it's a big, huge truck riding your behind.

About half-way up the mountain, we ran into a herd of cows on the road that were also quite road-hoggy. Yes, even though they were cows, they were hogs. Someone could probably prove they have infinite limbs or something if they tried. Then, we got to go down the other side of the mountain. Turns out that path was through a national forest. The roads were pretty rough in that forest, and it didn't help that there was debris from the freshly-logged trees all over the road. Oh, and did I mention that the few times that there were road signs in the forest, there were no town names listed, only road numbers? And those road numbers didn't match any numbers on our map.

But eventually we made it to Chateau Puilaurens. It only took one hour to drive 24 km, but it seemed like much longer. Once again, in hindsight, we should have gone inside the castle. I had looked at some web sites that made it seem pretty cool, but I got confused with another castle whose name starts with "P", and since the guidebook we had with us didn't make it sound so exciting, we decided to move on after taking a few pictures. It really looks like an amazing castle, perched atop the rocky peak.

By this time, we were hungry. So we stopped in St. Paul de Fenouillet for lunch. We found a nice little cafe and perused the menu. Since we were in Catalan country, I decided to get something claiming Catalan food. The waitress was interesting - normally when people realize that we don't speak the language all that well, they slow down and enter "formal language mode" (that is, avoiding dialect and slang as much as possible). This waitress didn't. She wasn't all snotty and rude about it like the stereotype that Americans have about (usually Parisian) French people, she was OK with us stumbling through and praised us when we were saying things right and corrected us when it was wrong - but she still spoke in a mile-a-minute jabber that we just couldn't fathom. But we got our food & drinks ordered, and all was well until she came back 5 minutes later and informed me that what I ordered was sold out. Or something. For all I know she said that the cook was tired of cooking that. But the fact remains, I needed to pick something else. So I asked if she could recommend something similar, she said something not-so-understandable and "très bon!" so I said "ja - I mean - si - I mean - oui". Well, it turns out she brought me onion-packed blood sausages. As far as blood sausages go, they weren't bad. Especially when drenched in mustard. They are way better than the German blood sausage I have had. I don't want to make it sound like I am a connoisseur of blood sausage. Really, I have only had it one time before, and I didn't like it. This time I was hungry, I always promise to try to immerse myself in local culture when I travel and they were technically Catalan blood sausage. Packed with onions. Drenched with mustard. And beside a huge pile of French Fries. (There they just call them "fries"). So, I survived. Jeannette just laughed. But she let me get a ice cream thingy for dessert, which was a ice-creamy, caramally, nutty, chocolate-covered mass on a stick. So I was happy.

We moved on to Quéribus, another of the Cathar castles. We skipped going inside this one when we saw the row upon row of tour buses in the parking lot and the continuous stream of people flooding into the castle.

So we headed to Peyrepertuse. This one we hiked to the top of. It is amazing, this castle along a 800 meter high rocky outcropping, whipped by wind and ravaged by time.

As you can see, it was quite windy.

Unlike some castles we have been to, it was quite light inside - enough for me to read without the aid of a candle or a fire in the fireplace!

At the highest point of the castle, not only can you see the lower portions of Peyrepertuse, but also the Quéribus castle off in the distance. (It's that knobby bit on the hill in the background on the right).

When we were about to leave, we saw a sign for a "free spectacle" that started in 10 minutes. So we hung out and waited. It turns out the spectacle was a bird show. The show started with a guy and a falcon. The falcon was pretty well-behaved as the guy whirled dead animal bits attached to a leather strap.

The bird would soop in over the crowd when called, and dive for the meat, only to have it snatched away. After several passes over the audience (I seem to remember feeling the *whoosh* of air as it whipped overhead once), the falcon keeper let the bird have its "prey".

It sat and munched on it for a while in front of us, but at some point, it decided that it would be better off somewhere else, so it took off, carcass on lanyard and all. After 20 or so minutes of futile calling of the bird by the bird show duo, eventually the guy asked the audience for something (in French). A woman pulled a measuring tape from her purse and the guy tied a hunk of meat to it. He whirled it for a while and called for the bird, which eventually came back. That bird was promptly shoved back into its travel box and they got a new bird out. By this time, it was getting late and we needed to eventually get to our hotel. There had been some other commotion at the bird show, and the bird people had made several calls on their cell phones. As we were walking down the mountain to our car, we figured out what the fuss was about. Apparently some other falconers had lost their bird. There as a giant raptor of some sort on the path in front of us. It tried to fly away a couple times, but had trouble getting through the thick canopy of trees. It eventually made it, presumably it found its way home, too.

We popped over to yet a 4th crumbly castle, didn't go in, and headed back to Perpignan. We were pooped after a long day, but did manage to take a walk through town and get lost. We ended up in a neighborhood that didn't feel too savory, but eventually we made it to the hotel, safe and sound.



At Monday, 03 July, 2006 , Anonymous naomi said...

wow, that was a great post! thanks for sharing. crumbly castles are really neat (totally appeals to the history buff in me) also, excellent picture of Jeanette and gusting winds!


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