South of France Holiday
I am full of impressions and while it is all still fresh in my memory, I want to write about it ;)
We have spent a week in south of France: Toulouse (Ramonville) – Agde – Sete – Carcassonne – Toulouse. The link takes you to the Evernote shared file with all the planning and description of each point (what to see, do etc). It is not what we eventually did point by point but is a good basis for planning.
The journey was planned couple of months in advance, we considered taking Eurostar or flying in. After some discussions we chose to fly as the return cost of London-Paris Eurostar and Paris-Toulouse TGV was higher than London-Toulouse flights. Return Easyjet was £279 from Gatwick airport.
All accommodations were booked via airbnb, a fantastic invention, thanks a lot to its creators.
Original plan was to hire bikes and cycle along Canal du Midi. When we got there we didn’t stick to that idea and instead biked, walked and took trains. A lot of inspiration I got from Experience France by Bike blog and from RelaxRentals website.
Part 1 – home to Ramonville
Sunday we got up early to get a taxi, which was pre-booked, to London Bridge station. It is cheap but don’t use it! :( We were to take a Southern train to Gatwick (£35.60 return for 2 people) at 05.08 to arrive to the airport by 6.00, flight leaving at 07.40. The taxi driver misread GPS directions and took us to City, so we had to take Tower Bridge to return to the station and as a result we were late for our train. He did not charge us, and luckily the train got delayed as well so eventually it worked out well. I was a bit nervous but all is well that ends well.
Having landed in Toulouse we followed the instructions sent by our first host, Anne. Bought a 5 euro ticket to la navette (shuttle bus) from Blagnac airport to the city of Toulouse, got off at Compans Caffarelli metro station, took line B to Ramonville, got on the bus for 1 stop Marnac and walked to Canal du Midi. For the first 2 nights we stayed at Anne’s boat. Sundays everything is shut in France – shops, banks, markets, some of the restaurants. We went out that night to Toulouse and had dinner – Bruce Willis burger for Ben (purely because of the name :D) and a steak. Thus began our French feast, one week long.
I have to make a small digression and say a few words about French food. Breakfasts are usually unhealthy – a croissant and a coffee. By lunchtime everyone gets hungry and eats a proper meal (no sandwiches). Lunch time is from 12 to 15. Around 15 getting a table is problematic as it is time for restaurant staff to have lunch. Then everything is dead from 15 to 19. You can’t get food anywhere except for boulangerie/patisserie which sell croissants, croque monsieur, caneles and simple sandwiches. At 19 everything reopens and offers big meals until 22.30. After that it takes some luck and a lot of French snobbism to be fed – an alternative is a kebab shop.
In terms of food French are as crazy about it as Malaysians, but in a completely opposite way – Malaysians love food so much that they are ready to eat and feed any time day and night while French take it very seriously and treat it as a cult that should be worshipped on a strict schedule.
Everything is compensated for by the quality of food served everywhere – it is almost an insult to serve bad food. Obviously croissants are to die for :) Petit dejeuner includes an orange juice, a hot drink, a croissant with butter and jam. This is the so-called sucre petit-dejeuner (sweet version). The salted one includes eggs fried with ham, a baguette and a hot drink.
Caneles are Bordeaux speciality and shop versions of it are not that great – it is just biscuit soaked in rum and vanilla. Beignets are doughnuts with apple-pear filling. Croque monsieur is a double toast with ham and sauce hollandaise with cheese on top.
Anyway, coming back to the boat, it was such a great stay – we stocked up on food at the local shop and stayed on a quiet pretty Canal.
Toulouse and Ramonville especially are full of graffiti:
After we had dinner on our first night we went back to Ramonville and I didn’t like walking in the night along the canal. Especially the part where we had to go under the bridge, that looked well dodgy. But we got home ok and little did I know about adventures ahead of us that made this experience look like a summer picnic.
Toulouse is called the Pink City because of the color of the bricks used in building it. We walked around Capitole, popped to shops, met lots of cute French kids,went to churches and saw cool things.
All of that made me hungry and the tartare was a great fuel top up. Personally I prefer when meat is chopped and not grinded but as it was well past 15, I couldn’t afford to be picky :) Ben went for a safer option of parma ham and melon.
Part 2 – Mediterranean
2 days later we headed to the Mediterranean seaside. Originally we wanted to bike/walk to camping sites in Deyme and Avignonet-Lauragais but the weather wasn’t worth camping and seaside was a lot warmer so we decided to go there. TGV from Toulouse Matabiau station took us to Agde in less than 2 hours. The transport is a lot cheaper compared to UK ;)
Offices de tourisme in France are very helpful: they provided us with a catalogue of camping sites and hotels, and when we picked a couple, they called them up for us to make a reservation. We have decided to stay at Camping La Tama right on the sea shore on La Tamarissiere side. 3 nights in a tent without electricity cost us 59 euros. It took us an hour to walk there along a beautiful canal and when we got there, the view of the sea was so rewarding!
Having set up a tent, we went to get some food. As the canal doesn’t have a bridge over it, we took a boat to get to the other side. A return journey is 2 euros per person. Les Zoulous resto we ate at was very nice, friendly southern staff looked well after us and when Ben accidentally dropped some money, they gave it back to us.
I managed to get connected at the camping site due to that huge wifi tower.
Second day we decided to take a day trip to one of the towns nearby. We hired bikes, went to Agde to get a train to Beziers and walked around Beziers. We discovered a Russian shop there and I stocked up on my favorite candy -)
I got Avene 50 sunscreen at a pharmacy and applied on my face. All 50 screens have got a higher concentration of minerals, e.g. talc, to increase the protection. As a result my face looked like a mask. I do not care about things like that but this time it was impossible as Ben refused to walk with me :D He said I scared people off! I laughed so hard.
When we decided to go back, we took our bikes and headed to the station.
Unfortunately (or luckily, I am still not sure) we missed our station and got out in Sete. I knew there was voie verte (a green route) between Agde and Sete, about 23 km. I suggested we bike it and Ben agreed. Oh boy… how shall I put this… Silly irresponsible kids, we set off without lights, without helmets and not knowing exactly where to go. It took us a while to find the veloroute. When we actually left Sete, it was already getting dark, around 22. We biked away 17 km easily along the seaside on a paved route. But then we had to join the motorway! That was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done and probably the most dangerous. When we finally got to Agde, we got the wrong side of the map which led us to Cap d’Agde. Having realised that I proposed to either stay at a hotel or call a cab. We have tried that and having failed, decided to bike till the end. We had a glass of water with a receptionist who showed us on the map where to go, and set off. By 3 am we were in the camp. It took us 5 hours all in all to do that and this is the highlight of the whole holiday in terms of impact it had on me.
The next day we chilled and did nothing. Lazy breakfast, marche, beach…
Having got tired of restaurants and eating out, we went to a boucherie (butcher’s), stocked up on food and made bbq. We made some friends on the site – a cool German couple, shared a drink and went to kip quite late.
Part 3 – Carcassonne
The next morning it was time to check out of the camping site and go to Carcassonne. Having enjoyed another petit dejeuner we walked to Agde station.
Unfortunately SNCF had other plans and our train was 1 hour delayed. Ben even asked me to take a picture of the timetable where it said ‘retard’ against each train (retarder – to be late in French), one of the trains was 2.5 hours late! o_O
Having eventually got to Carcassonne, we headed the tourist information who called our hosts and they picked us up. The apartment we stayed in was impeccable – pretty, centrally located with a great view of Cite Medievale.
Shower, change and on to castle exploration!
Great site, restored in 19th century by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, it tells you the story of a fortress that was on the border between France and Spain. It was built so well (by a paranoid man, adds Ben) that eventually commerce pushed people settlement outside the fortress walls. We finished the day with takeaway pizza at home.
The next day we checked out and left the bags at the hotel, kindly provided by Robert, our host! :) Went on to explore the city, churches and local market. Came across pet shop.
We had lunch at Le Cathare, a gem resto with local speciality – cassoulet (a duck leg, a sausage, all baked with white beans). They were so kind that gave us a jug of wine for free.
The plan was to take a train to Toulouse around 15 but SNCF has its own plans and the next train was in 2,5 hours. So we found a pub and sat there for a while. Met a great Irish lady there who served us lots of drinks and added crisps for free, accompanied with a nice chat :)
Part 4 – Toulouse to home
We got to Toulouse that night and checked in at the best place ever – a shared house with great hosts – Joran welcomed us to travellers haven and introduced us to Manou, his cat :*
We went to see Le Trader’s Pub where drinks prices float like on a stock exchange :)
The next day we said goodbye to Toulouse who was cleaning its pretty face from Saturday night party.
Having arrived to London, the first thing we did was paying a visit to our local, Mayflower. We met a great lady from Cornwall there and chatted for several hours.
It was a great trip! :) Now it is time to go to bed as tomorrow a new week starts and it will be good to go back to work with that inspiration I got from France. We will be back… :)