Villefranche de Conflent & Carcassonne
Our Second Trip To The Pyrenees
This trip to the Pyrenees took us to the lovely village of Villefranche de Conflent. This walled city is home to ‘Le Petit Train Jeune’ (the Little Yellow Train) and was on our list of things to do while we close by.
We headed out early in the morning and took our time driving through small villages, towards Toulouse, taking the ring road around the city. We were going to stop and explore the city, but we figured we would do this further into our stay. In order to get to Villefranche de Conflent from where we were staying in a reasonable amount of time, it was necessary to head towards the coastline of the Mediterranean and Perpignan and double back along the Pyrenees. We could have gone the slower route, but decided to do this on the return journey, when we weren’t as anxious to get to our destination.
The landscape from Toulouse towards the coast was flatter, and the wind was stronger, I’m guessing from blowing around the mountains and off the ocean. There were quite a few windfarms taking advantage of mother nature, and of the course the Pyrenees were always beckoning us to our right. At one point, in the distance, we saw what looked to be a medieval town and fortress, which was very impressive. After looking at the signs we discovered it was the city of Carcassonne and we put that on our list for the return journey also. Traffic was light and the weather was pleasant. We had booked a hotel in Prades for 2 nights, so we decided to scout that out first and then head straight to Villefranche de Conflent to check out the town and see where we might catch the train the following day.
As we moved towards the town, the roads became busier, narrower and the mountains reared up on either side of us. We found the hotel, and then looked for the station for the ‘yellow train’ and made a note of its location and parking facilities. We arrived in the town which was surrounded by a wall, with archways and entrances spaced all around, and the river running along one side. It is one of the most visited places in France due to its history and is the home of three UNESCO world heritage sites. We parked the car and walked to the center to have our lunch. It was quite busy with tourists, the winding cobbled streets full of boutiques, gift shops and local food and wine stores. We were hungry after our journey so found an inn with outdoor seating to spend a couple of hours recharging our batteries. The restaurant wasn’t too busy, so we expected to be served fairly quickly, but aft 10 minutes without anyone coming with a menu, even though they had shown us to our seats, and watching the only two waitstaff, who appeared to be in total disarray, we decided to move on. Lunchtime is usually 12.00 til 2pm and it was already 1.30pm so we had to find somewhere quickly. We were lucky, finding another restaurant, that although did not have outdoor seating, did have a very tiny, two-table courtyard, which was cozy and romantic. We had a lovely lunch with wine, and after ending the meal with coffee, we decided to explore the town.
It was very small, but full of narrow alleys, ancient buildings, unique doors and windows and locals sitting on doorsteps, ‘bonjouring’ with toothless grins to the passing tourists. We did a little shopping for souvenirs and then decided to visit Fort Liberia. This garrison is on the hill outside the town, and after our large lunch we decided a small walk would do us good. Not quite so small, as it turned out, and the hill was steeper than it looked. We puffed and panted up the winding path, wishing we had not drunk so much wine and that we had brought water with us. Nevertheless, not ones to give in so easily, we continued to the top. It was later in the afternoon and once at the top, all seemed a little quiet. We thought the place had closed but on further investigation we found out there was a film crew setting up, ready to film some action movie. We asked the guide stationed there, who was making the film, but apparently it was a secret, and even the staff had not been briefed on the details. My heart skipped a beat! Perhaps I’d glimpse George Clooney, or Harrison Ford as they swung into action, ready to save the world, or perhaps we would be asked to star as extras? However, it turned out to be a very low-key affair; they were preparing lights and sound and it looked like the actors were not even on set yet.
We visited the ramparts, took steps down into the walls to see stonewalled rooms, barracks, stables, and kitchens, which are always our favorite rooms in historical buildings. We checked out the view through the mountains and down over the town and finished off with a glass of water and orangina. Still no George or Harrison in sight. So it was time to go back down to the town and head off to the hotel. And the way down was by staircase – all 734 steps underground! Standing at the top looking down was like looking into a tunnel, with no light at the end. There were lights along the side of the staircase and a railing, which was going to prove very useful, as the steps were slick with wear and totally uneven. We set off at a steady pace and as we descended, the tunnel made some twists and turns, just to keep us on our toes! I could only imagine what this would have been like in the 17th century. The staircase was used as access to the garrison by soldiers, by those who served the garrison like cooks, servants and lackeys. I imagined the frustration of any one of those servants as they climbed to the top, only to realize they had forgotten something crucial for their masters! This was also an escape from the town to the garrison, and it would have been terrible to have to run for your life up the stairs, the flaming torches being your only light, and the smell of fear and death following you. I was happy when we finally arrived at the bottom, legs feeling like jelly, and we headed to the car to make our way to the B&B we had booked in Prades.
The hotel was in a busy street, but we were lucky enough to park opposite the front door. We rang the bell, the door being locked, and waited. No-one came so I rang again and knocked on the door. A frowning lady opened it and seemed annoyed at my banging on the door, but once she realized we were guests she greeted us and showed us to our room, which was on the top floor! More steps, this time wooden, and by the time we reached the room, four flights up, my legs were like melted jelly. It was a nice room, and bathroom, with two large windows overlooking the pretty garden, and patio, with a small swimming pool at the far end. Several cats were slinking their way around the bushes, chasing after lizards and such, with a couple chasing each other through the many fruit trees in the garden. The landlady explained the protocol for breakfast, but there was no dinner being served so we would have to go out for that. We rested, changed before heading out into the town for dinner. We found several restaurants around the local square, where children were playing ball, cycling, and where people were meeting for a friendly chat. We had a nice meal and wandered back to the hotel ready for our bed. We slept soundly, for the most part. However, one of the cats had an amazingly loud meow .. it sounded just like a baby crying, and several times in the night we were woken up by him.
We woke to a beautiful blue sky the next morning, prepared ourselves for our trip on the little yellow train and waited until it was time to go down for breakfast at 8 am. We looked out the window and saw almost all the tables on the patio taken with other guests waiting for their breakfast, so we headed down, although it was only 7.45am, knowing that we had to be at the station at 9.30am. Breakfast consisted of a large basket of bread, rolls, croissants and pastries, with a plate of ham and cheese, a dish of yogurt, plate of fruit, freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee – delicious! The other guests comprised of 3 couples who were Spanish, another French couple and a young single guy. We all said our pleasantries and enjoyed the meal in the garden, along with the noisy cat and his not so friendly neighbors.
Checking we had cameras, hats, sunglasses and sunscreen we headed out to catch the train. We needed to be there early to ensure that we could get an outside carriage seat, but we need not have worried as we were the first there and duly sat at the front of the line. Within about 10 minutes a coach party arrived and after that a constant stream of people lined up behind us, with one or two managing somehow to get in front of us. Still, we did get a seat in an outside carriage, and were glad that we had made the effort to arrive early. We headed off up the mountain, the little yellow train chugging and hooting it’s way, with whistles and bells sounding at every turn. We climbed the slopes and rushed down the valleys, the majestic peaks high above us. We stopped at several small stations to let people on and off, and crossed viaducts, suspension bridges, crisscrossing the valley over the river and road below us. The scenery was stunning, and we climbed higher and higher until we reached our destination of Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via.
Alighting the train, we passed through the station and out to a very quiet road. The station wasn’t actually in the town but a kilometer or so below it, so it meant a steady climb up the hill. There was a sign advising that you could call a taxi, but we decided to walk rather than wait around, as there were quite a few people who had also decided to stop off here. We were glad we did. After huffing and puffing up the hill, we found the town and the one restaurant that was open. We were hungry and decided to eat immediately before the rush! Again, this was a good move, as after about an hour, all the people from the train had found the town and were now also hungry. The young couple who owned the restaurant were inundated, and worked so hard making sure everyone had food, drinks – it was a blisteringly hot day – and the food was wonderful. We sat for a long time, enjoying the view, people watching and drinking wine, and then decided to take a quick look around the town before heading back to the train.
The town was a ski town, so in the summer it was very quiet. It was still June, so the Europeans were still working, taking their vacations in July and August, and I’m sure the place would be a lot busier now. The town was the location of the world’s largest solar furnace. It is 54 metres high, and 48 metres wide and includes 63 heliostats. There are 9,600 reflecting mirrors and the furnace produces a peak power of 3200w. It wasn’t open but it does open during July and August and I’m sure would be worth a visit. We just viewed the large structure and the mirrors from outside.
After taking some photos, we wandered down to the station to wait for the train. The journey down, was much faster, and thrilling, although the food and wine made our eyes heavy and I’m sure I spotted Marcel having a quiet nap on the way down. Arriving at the hotel, we did have a nap and then took some more wine out to the patio for a leisurely drink, a show of cat and mouse, put on by the numerous neighborhood cats, and a relaxed a little, before heading out to dinner again. We chose a different restaurant this time and while we don’t usually eavesdrop on people’s conversations, we had an entertaining evening listening to a couple, he British, she American, discussing the delights of traveling through Europe. She was not very happy with their current accommodations, but he was very pleased with the AirBnB. She was leaning more to hotels, like 5 star, the ones with the lovely plush towels, the chocolates on the pillow after the bed has been turned down, and we thought she was going to slap him and walk out when he mentioned he quite fancied taking a caravan through Europe, sleeping bags and all!! We left before they did, but we wondered how far into their trip they were and how much longer it was likely to last.
After a good night’s sleep, with no crying cats, we decided our trip home would be via the Pyrenees rather than the highway that brought us here. We headed out and drove along the winding road which we had crossed on the train and enjoyed once again the beautiful mountains. As we headed north, we took one of the minor roads through the mountains and enjoyed the winding hairpin bends, beautiful gorges and dramatic rock formations that overhung the narrow roads, some of which would be closed during the snowy winter months. We arrived at Limoux and decided to stop off at a winery to get some local wine. We saw a sign for a local winery with ‘degustation’ and decided that would do – after a 15 minute drive, over bridges, down lanes and dirt tracks, up gravel hills which really needed a 4-wheel drive, we arrived at a large vineyard, with an old stone house and a beautiful garden which was being tended to by the quintessential French man, stripy t-shirt and beret. He stopped what he was doing, washed his hands and came over to us. He greeted us and we asked if we could taste the wine. He was very enthusiastic and eager for us to try his wines. We did so, and then he decided to have a drink too – I think he was rather glad we had turned up, giving him an excuse to stop his gardening and have a quick slurp. We bought several bottles, thanked him and headed back along the very uneven, tracks, back over the bridge and towards Carcassonne. We wondered if anyone else ever found the place, many would have given up halfway I’m sure.
On to Carcassonne.. As usual when we arrive at a new town, we head for the ‘centre ville’ and go from there. This is usually where the ‘marie’ and ‘hotel de ville’ is situated and is almost always in the center of the town or city. We parked and headed to an area that looked busy, intriguing narrow streets with umbrellas hanging between the buildings, and eventually came on to a very large square with many restaurants. The city looked to be quite modern with trendy looking stores and boutiques and there definitely seemed to be a young population working there. We had lunch and rather than walk around the commercial area, we decided to head up to the ‘Cite’ which is the medieval fortress. It was quite a walk, but once we were there, it was worth it. We hadn’t realized that you could drive almost all the way to the top, and that there were hotels and restaurants in the ‘cite’ where we could have had lunch, although it did seem quite touristy, with tacky souvenir shops and lots of ‘fast food’. We wandered the ramparts, took in the view, and enjoyed reading some of the history. However, time was ticking on and we still had a 3-hour journey to get home. We would have liked to have spent more time there and put it on our list of revisits, if there was time.
We walked back to the car, had a cool drink on the way and headed out along the highway towards home. There was a snarl up in traffic around Toulouse, the first we had encountered in 3 months, but once through that it was clear and we arrived home, tired, but satisfied that our second trip to the Pyrenees was everything we had expected and more! We vowed to go again before leaving the area and so started planning the next trip….
Click on Photo Below to be taken to a Larger Gallery.