Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Adventures of Julie & Michelle - Take 2... off to France!

On Sunday, Josh's parents suggested Michelle and I take a day to ourselves while Josh and they took the kids.  So on a whim we decided to rent a car and go to France.  That Sunday night we went on to and booked ourselves a supa fancy car and at 9AM Monday morning we were off and running to Carcassonne, France!

I have to say I feel foolish about this whole car thing.  I LOVE to drive.  I'm sad without my car.  I miss it like I would miss an arm or leg.  Though I think the driving here is insane, however, regardless of that, I've let a fear get to me, an unfounded fear, about renting a car and just going out.  Why?  I have absolutely no idea.  And now that I saw how simple it was (it's not like I've never rented a car and it's never been complicated before), I will most definitely do it again and will not fear be in the driving seat (ha ha ha).  However, we rented a stick since that's what most Europeans drive and so therefore, Michelle drove. 

It was actually strange being in a car for the first time in 6 months.  I actually felt anxious.  It took me a while to feel comfortable as we made it out on to the highway and to FREEDOM!!  Free of the confines of the city life.  I've been enjoying the city but it was so nice to get out and spread our wings and enjoy the life all around us. 

We decided to go to Carcassonne, France.  So why Carcassonne?  Because my friend had recommended it as a great place to see and so after looking at the town website we agreed that it would be a perfect place to have an adventure.  It was also a reasonable distance from Barcelona - about 3 hrs.  It took us only about 1 1/2 hrs to cross over the border into France.  There was a toll booth type setup at the crossing, but we didn't have to stop - just drove right thru.  We slowed down, being unsure if we were supposed to stop or not, but no one seemed to care and so we kept on driving!!

The drive was incredibly scenic even though it was pretty much all highway the entire way.  We took just one highway all the way to the French border which was nice and simple.  Mountains all around us and as we got closer to France, views of the Mediterranean were to our right and just absolutely stunning.  The pictures don't do the view justice.

We passed this on the highway.

Welcome to France!!!

View of the Mediterranean 

So after crossing over into France I was surprised to see an amazing amount of windfarms.  You know, like the controversial ones that they want (and I've recently heard are going to put) in Nantucket Sound.  Michelle and I had lengthy conversations about these windfarms and both of us are most definitely for them.  They were in no way an eyesore and actually were kind of cool to look at.  It goes to show that in some ways Europe is so far ahead of the US when it comes to being more green and utilizing alternative energy solutions.  We should take note and stop complaining about the view in Nantucket and think that if we don't protect the earth there will be no Nantucket to view.  Ok, that's enough ranting on being green...sorry to go off on a tangent there!!

One of many windfarms

Shortly after entering France we started to head west towards Carcassone.  Map of Carcassonne.  Again, more wind farms and more mountains.  Even during our audio tour at the castle they mentioned the respect the French, and specifically the French of this area, have of the wind and the ability to harness it into energy. 

We finally arrived in Carcassonne shortly after noon.  An adorable, quaint town with tree lined streets.  Hungry at this point, we stopped at the first restaurant we saw and had an absolutely fabulous meal, just relaxed, and laughed about the fact that we just picked up and left Barcelona a few hrs ago and now we're in FRANCE!  The restaurant was outside a hotel and they must have sensed we were tourists because without asking they brought over a ton of information on Carcassonne (which you will see me start to reference shortly!). 

Cafe where we had lunch

Carcassonne is listed on the World Heritage site and the walled city itself is more than 2500 years old - that's more than 20 centuries!!!  While it has not always appeared as it does today in those 2500 years, in some form this castle has been in existence.  The earliest traces of Carcassone go back to the 6th century BC and are by where the "cite" is built today.  For a brief history, you should know that in 122 BC the Romans conquered this area of France and this is when they fortified the town of Carcassonne, then known as Carcaso.  The Romans ruled here tunil the middle of the 5th century.  Let's fast forward thru history a bit to the Albigensian Crusade where the "cite" was conquered yet again and the military leader of the Crusades, Simon de Montfort, took over leadership of this area starting in 1209.  Eventually in 1224, King Louis VIII became ruler in this area. 

View as we entered the town of Carcassonne

It was after Carcassonne became a part of the royal domain that the "cite" began its most significant changes, most of which is what we see today.  They built the outer defensive wall during this time.  At the end of the 15th century the "cite" lost the honor of being a royal fortress.  It was no longer in tune with the times and could not handle the new technologies of gun powder and cannons.  It slowly began to fall apart in disrepair until the mid 1800s when Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevielle and architect Viollet-le-Duc restored approximately 30% of the buildings, roofs and milling.  Today there are still people residing within the "cite" walls - approximately 128.  There are 52 towers and 2 defensive walls which make up 3 km of ramparts. 

Upon entering the city you can't help but be awestruck.  To believe that people were able to build such structures upwards of 2000 years ago with such little technology never ceases to amaze me.  However, to my slight disappointment, there were touristy merchants everywhere when we got inside the walls.  But to give credit where credit is due, Michelle made an incredibly good point that in hindsight now has me reconsidering my first impressions.  That point that she made was that where the vendors are currently located are likely where the original vendors like cobblers and ironworkers, etc had their shops and so really it's just keeping up with the times like anything else.  My guess is they didn't have as many "I LOVE Carcassonne" shirts as they do now though :)

Entrance to the "Cite"

Another view of the entrance

View of the town from the entrance of the "Cite"

We opted to do an audio tour of the "cite" which honestly, kind of ho hum.  Personally I didn't get a lot out of it but glad I did it just the same and hey, it was all of 4 euros so certainly not a waste. 

Some of the many turrets that surround the "Cite"

The moat here has always been a dry moat

I found it very funny that in a 2500 year old castle that there was a Best Western Hotel!

Unbelievable view thru this arch!

Left:  The streets were all paved similarly to this one.  Right:  The cathedral

Ode to Michelle!

Even a castle needs a food court!

Watch out, it bites!!!

Hmmm, I don't think they made these doors for people your height back then Michelle! 

These were balls used in the catapaults - and were found on the premises of the "cite"

Bar we went to with a tree growing in the middle

But our day was not just about seeing the castle and "cite" of Carcassonne.  No, no way!  We were off on an adventure.  And part of that adventure was trying to see some of the coastline on our way back.  We knew Costa Brava is supposed to be gorgeous based on what people have told us, but we wanted to see for ourselves.  A friend of mine had sent an email a while back with a list of towns in Costa Brava that are "must see".  I had written down this list in no particular order. 

Armed with a gps, but not the smarts to actually zoom out to look at the layout of where the towns were, we picked one at random, plugged in the town, a street ending in Mar (figuring that is a sure giveaway to get us close to the water) and hit the road!  If we thought going to France was an adventure we had no idea what was in store for us!

Conchita Bonita (what we named our GPS) seemed to think that the best way to go was to take the most random of zig zagging streets.  And actually it made the experience all the better!  While there were most definitely moments of questioning Conchita's ability, she would prove us wrong when the moment we hit a roundabout and missed our turnoff (there is a roundabout/rotary pretty much every 100 yards here).  So we decided to continue on as she was directing us.  We saw some of the most beautiful landscapes either of us had seen in quite some time.  Fields upon fields of sunflowers, mountains reaching to the sky in the background, lines of trees dotting the roads. 

But as time wore on, about an hour and a half, we couldn't understand what was taking so long to get us to Tamariu (the town we chose).  After all, Barcelona is by the coast and we took a highway that while it didn't go right against the coast, was pretty close to it if you look at the map so logistically in our minds we couldn't understand how it could take so long to get there.  But it turns out we must bob and weave around the mountains to get to our destination.  And it was worth it.

During our last 3 minutes according to Conchita, before arriving at our destination, she showed the sea on the map.  However, looking around us all we could see were mountains.  Hmmmm...could Conchita really have led us astray this whole time? 

View as we came into Tamariu - amazing!  While the picture isn't really bright since it was almost 9PM the actual moment of seeing the water appear out of nowhere was amazing!

We had plugged in del Mar in our GPS - kind of like entering Ocean Drive... you're bound to end up by the water!

We were finally finished with our adventures for the day, or so we thought.  We still had a long journey home - almost 2 hrs from where we were.  Hopefully it would go quickly and maybe even be a bit scenic.  Of course right off the bat, Conchita Bonita (remember, our GPS?) told us to take this random narrow dirt road.  Hmmm, not so sure of that.  So we passed by it in which case Conchita told us we were going the wrong way and to turn around - but alas, we hit a dead end and had no chocie but to turn back and take the dirt road.  What's the worst that can happen?  Get trapped perhaps?  Get stuck?  At one point another car came toward us in the other direction and the road was so narrow he had to turn back!

The dirt road actually took us to civilization thank god!  But our journey didn't end there.  We didn't anticipate road construction.  No matter what we did (and we had to turn around a few times), Conchita kept telling us to go a way that just wasn't an option - the highway entrance was closed.  So we took a chance and (gasp) read the highway signs til we managed to get back on track.  By 11:30 we finally made it back to the parking garage.  What an amazing day!!  So totally worth it and would do it again in a heartbeat!!


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