The battle of the bees

As I said, we left the bees alone – unwisely, as it turned out. So when we got back from being away in May this year, there were millions of them. All very busily flying in & out of the extractor fan grille in the back wall. There were also lots of dead bees in the kitchen & bathroom when we returned, so they were obviously finding their way into the house now.

Joy & I both ended up getting stung a number of time in June whilst out in the garden: I got stung once up my nose and another time in my earhole. Our patience is at an end.

We first called A1 Beekeepers in Bristol: They promised a flat rate fee of £90 to get rid of the bees, regardless of how many visits might be needed. Their methodology being to spray the entrance to the nest with a pheromone-based powder that would encourage them to swarm and hence, leave. After 3 such treatments over a 4 week period, the bees were still firmly in place, and all we had to show for it was a large number of dead and sickly bees. 1 week after each treatment, they seemed to be back in equally large numbers.

After the pheromone treatment: they don’t like it.

After the 3 (unsuccessful) treatments, the Irish guy from A1 Beekeepers said he could do no more; it being the worst infestation he’d ever seen (I wonder if he says that to all his customers?).

I then decided to start some serious investigations, beginning with taking bricks out of our back wall to scope out the size and whereabouts of the colony. Only to find they weren’t in the wall cavity at all.

Where’s the nest, then?

Nope, they’d manage to find their way across the cavity, through a large gap in some shockingly badly constructed masonry, and into the cavity above the kitchen ceiling. Although this sounds drastic, it was actually a good thing to be able to locate them: Now we could figure out what to do about them.

So I bought an endoscope – a mini (7mm diameter) camera on the end of a lead – that I could plug into my smartphone. I then drilled a number of exploratory holes in the kitchen ceiling adjacent to where I could see they were getting through the inner wall and stuck the endoscope in to see what was there. I was seeing lots of bees and honeycomb. Eventually, I struck gold. Well, honey, actually: It started dripping out of the ceiling, and I was able to figure that the nest was constrained between two joists, and to a length of about 1.2m in from the back wall. All very well, but what now?

The exploratory holes
The honeycomb, through the endoscope.

I spoke again to a local beekeeper again to explain what I’d found & to seek his help: he was very reluctant as there’d be nothing in it for him; the assumption being that – as they were a feral colony – they’d be infected with all manner of mites and diseases and he’d end up having to kill them all anyway. Eventually he agreed to remove them from the ceiling and take them away, as long as I actually did the ceiling removal bit. He’d have to quarantine them in a field well away from any of his other “cultivated” hives/colonies. In the meantime, I took the extractor fan grille out and sealed up the original access gap.

Extractor fan ducting sealed up.

On the appointed day, and per instructions from Jeff the beekeeper, we cleared out the kitchen and covered everything in dust sheets. Jeff and colleague – Tom – arrived and we all donned beekeeper suits. It was then a simple matter of me sawing out the ceiling between the two joists, and Jeff & Tom removing comb. And what a lot of it there was!

The ceiling comes down and Jeff goes in.
So that’s what’s in the ceiling!
Cutting out the comb
Buckets of removed comb
Our kitchen – the aftermath.
That’s the queen.

Jeff & Tom had brought along an empty portable hive: Once the queen was located and gingerly placed in a “gate”, much of the honeycomb was loaded into the portable hive, with the queen placed on top, and the hive closed up – apart from a small entrance hole. With the queen safely inside, the remaining colony – detecting her pheromones – gradually started to make their way into the portable hive.

Loading the comb into the portable hive.
They’re getting the messages – the queen’s in there!

In the morning, Jeff came to collect the hive & take them away. Hooray!!

No way back in.

So now, we’re left with a wrecked kitchen with missing ceiling panel and lots of mess. Worse still, wasps have moved in, scenting the honey and coming to scavenge. But by now, we’ve temporarily blocked up the entrance in the brickwork so they can’t get through there, but the weather’s hot and we have doors & windows open. No more bees; just wasps.

Never one to miss an opportunity (?), I realised now’s the time to change the kitchen lighting, replacing the twenty year old lights with LED downlights. Of course, this entails completely rewiring the cabling in the ceiling, but as the ceiling is going to need re-plastering anyway… Obviously, I had to cut many more panels out of the ceiling to access the cabling/install new. Looks awful, but who cares as it’s going to be replastered anyway?

Ceiling cut-outs.

After the lighting’s done, I replaced the panels I’d removed. Only then, I thought: “wouldn’t it be nice to lay in a cable to facilitate underfloor heating in the bathroom?” The route is directly through the kitchen ceiling and then up into the bathroom airing cupboard. I’m not going to actually put the underfloor heating in yet – some time in the future we’ll refurbish the bathroom – but at least, we be able to have the underfloor heating if we want it. So that necessitated cutting out a couple more kitchen ceiling panels, doing a lot of precise measurement to drill through the wall from kitchen into garage (where our fuse box is) – the kitchen ceiling and garage roof are at different levels; I had a drill margin of error of a mere 20mm. Fortunately, that went fine & I hit the spot exactly. So I laid the cable in and was about to replace the ceiling panels again, when I realised I now had access to the meter tails: These are the big thick cables that run from the electricity meter to the fusebox. When I replaced the consumer unit/fuse box several years ago, I was troubled by the fact I couldn’t replace the meter tails which were – by contemporary regulation – undersized. They were simply inaccessible and couldn’t be pulled through. But now, with the kitchen ceiling open, I could see a chance to replace them. Of course, this meant two further panels being cut out of the ceiling to get better access, but the ceiling was going to be replastered anyway.

How many holes?

So on Monday, this week – with Joy away in Germany – off with the electricity and out with the cables: Main earth cable first. That pulled through relatively easily. Next, the live meter tail. The way to do these things is to connect the end of the new cable to the end of the old cable and pull the cable through. When I say connect, I mean go to great lengths to secure them together such that you don’t increase the overall diameter at the join between them (the cable has to go through tight spaces), and you ensure there’s no way the cables will come apart, because if they separate in an inaccessible point whilst pulling them through, then it’s game over. You don’t get a second chance at this. If they separate, then there’s no easy way of getting the new cable in there.

The cables separated. With one last almighty tug in the garage, I was left with the old cable in my hands, and the end of the new cable still somewhere in the wall cavity between kitchen and garage. Thus it was time for a sense of humour failure. As it happened, I could just about see the end of the new cable up behind the garage roof joist, and was just about able to get a pair of long-nosed pliers onto it, but it wouldn’t budge: couldn’t get a tight enough grip on the cable end. Time to call in reinforcements in the form of our neighbour opposite.

With my neighbour in the kitchen pushing the cable through the ceiling into the garage, and me in the garage trying to pull the cable through with my pliers, we eventually succeeded. I was very, very lucky.

With the neutral cable, I went to great lengths to ensure no repeat, and that pulled through without any major problems.

The emerging meter tails in the garage.

On Tuesday, we had the ceiling replastered. Hooray!

The replastered ceiling

All that’s needed now – once the plaster’s dried-out – is to cut a hole to fit the last downlight and then repaint. That’s hopefully the end of the bee saga. [Now done]

The completed ceiling.

And yet, I miss them in a strange way: we’ve become so used to seeing them, and observing their behaviour, and now they’re no longer there. They were definitely a memorable part of our life for a long time.

The bees – In the beginning…

Back in autumn 2015, we noticed a few bees going in and out of the kitchen extractor fan grille on the back wall of the house. We’ve had masonry bees for several years previously. These are solitary bees, in the same way that bumble bees are. I.e. they don’t live in colonies.

In spring each year, they lay their eggs in a couple of air bricks at the back of the house and cap them with mud. Eventually the eggs hatch, they break their way out through the capping and to go to live a happy and fulfilled life, we assume. There are never more than one or two of them around at any one time.

Initially, we assumed the bees going in and out of the extractor grille were masonry bees too, so we let them get on with it thinking perhaps their activity would stop over the winter.

Our winter was fairly busy, then we were away several time early in 2016, and were away for 2 weeks in May. When we came back in May, the bees had been busy. There weren’t just one or two; there were now anything up to 20 or 30 coming and going every minute. This is clearly not the behaviour of masonry bees, these were patently honey bees. And the role of honey bees is – quite simply – to make more honey bees. Everything else they do – e.g. making honey – is done with the single-minded purpose of making more honey bees.

I contacted a few pest control companies, but none of them wanted to tackle honey bees – “they’re endangered, don’t you know?”. I contacted a number of local beekeepers who all said more or less the same thing – “you’ve got a problem, mate! You’ll not get them out of there without the queen, and the queen won’t leave unless they swarm. And they won’t swarm until the nest starts becoming too small for them or problematic in some way. But do contact me if they swarm & I’ll come round to collect them.”. Hmm.

By now, we were a little uncomfortable in the garden with all the bees around. Not only that, we discovered bee poo. Yep – bees poo. Especially in the spring. Blobs of sticky brown stuff that goes all over the washing hanging on the line, and all over the windows. It’s murder to remove and doesn’t easily wash out.

In June/July 2016, we went away for a month in the motorhome. On our return, their numbers had not diminished. Quite the contrary, in fact. There were more than ever and our discomfort levels rose accordingly. Tried the beekeepers again: same result.

In the end we left them alone. Bad idea.

The Referendum and Anglesey

Yesterday was referendum day – stay in, or leave, the EU. We’d already postal voted before we came away and we’d more or less forgotten that the result would have become known overnight. So when we switched on the radio to listen to the Today programme, it was with only slowly dawning realisation that the impossible, the unimaginable ‘leave’ outcome became clear. We were both utterly horrified and dumbstruck at how this could possibly have happened. Not for one moment had I contemplated that this could happen.

So it was with us both dazed and in deep depression that we set off for Anglesey, calling in at Caernafon en-route to pick up some supplies. We drove round to Niwbwrch (Newborough) Warren, pausing to help a delivery driver clear a tonne of pebbles from the road, and onto the drive where he was delivering. To be fair, we had to stop because we couldn’t get past the delivery truck and when the pallet underneath the sack broke, there was no means of transporting the pebbles from road to drive. So all three of us shifted a tonne of pebbles by hand, and the delivery man was very grateful for our help.

We walked along the beach at Niwbwrch, all the way over to Ynys LLanddwyn (Llanddwyn Island) in the sunshine. Hot it wasn’t, but very pleasant all the same. Fabulous views over Snowdonia in the clear skies – not that it was clear over Snowdonia!

Southern Snowdonia from Ynys Llanddwyn

Overnight stops are not allowed at the Warren and we were told by the lady on the gate that the Rangers would chase us off if we tried to stay in the car park there. Very hospitable. So we drove off and found a nice layby off the side of the A4080 between Llangadwaladr and Aberffraw for the night and got treated to a fabulous sunset to offset our sombre moods.

Climbing Snowdon

It’s odd how alert one can become, and how threatening otherwise innocent things can feel during the night. At around 02:30, a car pulled-in to the layby in front of our van. Lights on, engine running. Just stayed like that for a good 10-15 mins, then drove off. One’s mind is turning over what to do if they start banging on the van, or shouting or honking their horn. All things that have been experienced by hapless motorhomers stopping overnight away from campsites.

In the morning, we drive through Beddgelert, turning North up towards the Snowdon Ranger Station beside Llyn Cwellyn Here is a car park and a trail (the Snowdon Ranger Trail, obviously!) that leads up Snowdon’s Western side begins from here. Paying for 4 hours of parking, we begin our ascent: it’s a continuous climb, and it’s always steep (ish). We make it past the zig-zags, and slowly make our way above Llyn Ffynnon-y-Gwas, where we watch the tiny (in the distance) Llanberis steam train making it’s way up the Northern ridge to the summit, way above us.

Above Llyn Ffynonn-y-Gwas, about 2/3rds of the way up the Ranger Path.

The climb gets much steeper from here, and it still looks quite a long way to the summit. We know we won’t have time to get to the summit & back before the ticket runs out on the van, so we’ll have to save our conquest of Snowdon for another time. [Edit – Sept 2017: Having just climbed Cadair Idris last month, we know we can do Snowdon!]

Heading further North towards Anglesey and keeping an eye open for likely-looking overnight spots, we just happened to come across a small campsite at Waunfawr, with a pub attached: Tafern Snowdonia Parc. And attached to the pub is a brewery – The Snowdonia Brewery, or Bragdy Eryri. Well, it would have been rude not to!

Tafern Snowdonia Parc & brewery.

We ate & drank – possibly a little too much, but there was a good range of beers to be tested. Truth be told, not the world’s greatest beer but still a great overnight stop and we had a good night’s sleep.

Llangollen, Betws-y-Coed & Lynnau Mymbyr

We’ve made it up to Snowdonia, having spent last night at Cranberry Moss campsite just South of Oswestry. We stopped off for a couple of hours in Llangollen, managing to just about squeeze the motorhome into slot in the main town car park. Lovely town. Had a mooch round the steam railway, and a relaxing pint at the Corn Mill, right on the river Dee.

Llangollen Steam Railway
The Corn Mill, Llangollen

On to Betws-y-Coed, where we stopped for a couple of hours again: taking a walk down by the Afon Llugwy. Moving on, we wanted to stop by the Swallow Falls but there’s nowhere anywhere close we could park the van.

Ever onwards, now looking for somewhere to stop overnight. At Capel Curing, we hung a left. Just a mile or two down the A4086 lies Lynnau (a little lake!) Mymbyr, with a perfect looking lay-by and no prohibition of overnight stops. Lovely spot, with a backdrop of Snowdon.

Snowdon, behind Lynnau Mymbyr
The Teds at Lynnau Mymbyr

And we’re off again…

We’re planning too much again. I can feel it. Just a mere tour of Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and finally Northumberland.

We want to complete the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) that we drove the Southern part of in Ireland, last year. It goes all the way round the West of Ireland, up to the border with Northern Ireland. It is, indeed, pretty wild in places. We also want to see Northumberland. I’ve never been there, Joy did a geography school field trip there and I’d heard great things about it, so that’s what decided our route for us.

To resume the WAW roughly where we’d left off, the best route seems to be via the Holyhead-Dublin ferry, then head SW towards Limerick and then West to the coast. Rather than doing all motorway up to Holyhead, we’ll to take the scenic route and take a few days to get there.

2014 European Tour – The final chapter

We’re back home. In fact, we’ve now been home for over one week, but it’s taken until now to get a phone line and internet connection set up. And that’s good going since we were told it would be 1st Oct when our line would go live. I just thought I’d try it out tonight and – hey presto; real internet! So what’s happened in the intervening period…

We spent a couple of nights at Rocamadour, calling in the “Produits Regional” shop to buy some local Rocamadour cheese (all Chevre, or goat’s milk) as we left on Wed 17th Sept. We’d booked our ferry whilst in Rocamadour, so now we had a definite date on which to be in Calais (21st Sept). In truth, we’d wanted to take the Roscoff to Plymouth ferry as it would have been shorter driving distances both in France and England, but the different in price was 5-fold, making it much less expensive in fuel to go via Calais.

From Rocamadour, we drove for about 3 1/2 hours up to the Camping Municipale at Vatan, just to the SW of Vierzon. I was getting a bit nervous for the last hour as we were getting pretty low on fuel and there were no filling stations on the horizon. We pulled off the (toll-free!) autoroute, and – just before Vatan – was an Intermarché with a filling station. This would have been good except that – like most supermarket filling stations in France – this one was totally unattended, and the only payment option was pre-pay by card. Only it didn’t like our card. Several times, in fact. Even worse, the message telling us it didn’t like our card suggested that the machine was rather insulted by our attempts to use a nasty foreign card. Humph.

Next morning, we drove the 30km up to Vierzon very carefully so as not to waste an ounce of fuel unnecessarily! As luck would have it, we made it ok and were able to pay. The campsite at Vatan was very pleasant with a clean sanitary block, hot water and showers, all for a tad under €10. It also lay adjacent to a small pond, which – although good for the ducks – seemed to be a source of mozzie attacks, and I got bitten a couple of times.

Thur 18th:
After Vatan, in the morning, we motored through Vierzon where the toll-free autoroute section ends, and then took the RN road up towards Orléans. This road – the D2020 – must be the longest stretch of road without any bends. About 40km of straight-as-a-die road through the forest, gently undulating so you could see it way into the far distance.

We’d decided to head NW from Orléans in our Paris-avoidance ambitions; this took us through Chartres – where, in fairly slow traffic, we caught a few glimpses of the wonderful-looking cathedral that was – like so many others – largely shrouded and heavily scaffolded for restoration work.

After Chartres, we carried-on up the N154 – which was by now beginning to get pretty busy with trucks – up to Dreux, where we turned W toward our next stop – the Camping Municipale at St Rémy sur Avre, yet another really nice municipal campsite.

Here I got chatting with a English chap who was on his way South to his place in the Dordogne. He strongly recommended avoiding Rouen which would otherwise have been directly on our route, as the tunnel under the river Seine was closed and there was absolute chaos on the roads. So we studied the maps & I programmed her on the windscreen to take us along an alternative route to avoid Rouen.

Fri 19th:
On up through Evreux, then time for the diversion to kick in. It worked for a while & then she got us lost, insisting we head back to a junction she didn’t believe we’d passed through, even though we clearly had. I had to resort to silencing her with the “off” button, and we continued under Joy’s guidance.

At Abbeville, we swung left and parked up for the night at the aire in St Valéry sur Somme; quite literally on the mouth of the river Somme.

This used to be a wide estuary that would flood on high tides. However, land reclamation schemes in the 19th century have resulted in the estuary silting up and now there are only a couple of channels that are tidal; the rest is permanently dry other than during stormy high tides.

The mouth of the Somme

The estuary is a mecca for birdlife – especially ducks. This seems to attract many shotgun-wielding Frenchmen intent on turning as many as they can into duck paté.

Bizarrely, St Valéry also has a medieval town! It’s the spot from which William the Conqueror (Guillame le Conquérant) set sail to lead the Norman invasion of England in 1066. For some reason, the town seems to rather big-up old Guillame, and there are several statues, streets, and squares named after him. It’s also the place where Joan of Arc, four centuries later and as a captive of the English, was held imprisoned before being sent to execution in Rouen (presumably the tunnel was open then).

It’s an interesting little town, and has similarities with many of the more twee Cornish resorts. We spent the best part of of Sat 20th exploring the town, and even stopped at a street café for some lunch. We couldn’t help noticing that the people at practically every table around us were tucking in to vats of moules (with frites, of course). Now I have very wide-ranging tastes in food: I’ll eat almost anything, but I draw the line at offal, shellfish (other than shrimps, prawns, and – perhaps – the very occasional crab) and squid/calamares. I just don’t see the attraction of spending 1/2 hour on a mission to get through a vat of mussels in a garlic cream soup and have the texture of fine thick latex, with only the occasional chip for light relief. Maybe I’m missing something?

Looks like Cornwall to me
I’m sure that’s St Ives
Former fishermens’ cottages. Attractive though they appear today, by all accounts, these were very poor buildings for very poor people back in the day.
Commemorative plaque to Jean D’Arc on one of the old town gates.

Later on Saturday, with a thunderstorm chasing us, we headed up the coast road hoping to find an aire in Boulogne where we could stay the last night before catching the ferry.

We came across just such a thing in a small coastal town called Wissant, about 1/2 way between Boulogne and Calais. Unfortunately, it was also full. Apart, that is, from 4 long marked-out areas with the word “Bus” painted in them. Surely there can’t be any buses wanting to use them late on a Sat night? And we’d be leaving early on the Sun morning anyway, so why not?

I took myself off on a walk through the town and had just reached the beach when my phone rang: Joy was a bit worried because a bus had arrived and the driver – very courteously, and in good english – suggested to her that we move pronto before his non-english speaking and very un-courteous colleagues also arrived with their buses for the night. Oh well, walk abandoned, and back on the road.

We ended up on the docks at Calais having driven up the the coast road through the infamous Sangatte – site of the recent immigrant transit camp and stopoff point before blagging a lift on a train carriage axle into Ashford.

There’s a very large car park and aire in Calais, just by the marina, but it doesn’t have a very nice feel about it. So we drove round to the car ferry terminal booking/ticket office where we’d spent our first night in France 3 months earlier. That’s also not a nice place but at least it’s free of charge. No room at the inn: the free car park for campers was full of cars with dubious-looking occupants, and other cars that had clearly been long-since abandoned there.

So we decided to chance our luck back by the marina. Where the payment machines were taped-up with plastic covers. So no chance of paying then. Suits me.

During the night, the wind blew, the van rocked, and it was cold. It must have been a freezing 18 degrees or so. How can I survive such cold? It hadn’t dropped below about 28 degrees for the previous 3 weeks.

Sun 21st:
At around 08:00, I was just taking a photo of the un-pretty docks when I noticed a uniformed-type person optimistically knocking on the door of a motorhome close by. Clearly the modern-day replacement for a parking machine. Time to make a sharp exit.

The 10:35 ferry got us into Dover at 11:00 (with the time difference) and we were at Morrisons in Folkestone by 11:30, stocking-up with a few essentials for home. It was all too tempting to fill our basket with all the goodies we’d not seen for 3 months: Simple pleasures like proper tea, redbush tea (unheard of in France), pork pie, pitta bread and dips, granary bread, etc. They were also selling quite passable looking fresh croissants. In France, they were always between €0.90 & €1.00. At Morrisons, they were 5 for a quid. Take that, Frenchies!

 

Mon – Wed, 15th-17th Sept. Rocamadour

Avoiding French motorways is interesting. It’s been our determination to avoid paying French autoroute tolls from the outset and – one incident aside, where we found ourselves on a toll section for a short distance by mistake – we’ve managed to stick to this.

Admittedly, it takes longer to get anywhere – sometimes much longer – but it’s far more interesting and you get to see some amazing areas that you just wouldn’t see when zipping along on an autoroute. Driving up to Rocamadour form Cordes sur Ciel took us 3 hours to cover the (SatNav-determined) 86km. I reckon with all the bends in the road, it must have been nearer to 100km, but still not all that far, really and certainly not far in French distance terms. At least we got a chance to call in at a supermarket, and at a roadside “local fruit and veg” stall. Fuel is much less expensive off the autoroutes (as in the UK), as long as you can find a decent sized town where there’s a bit of competition to bring the price down.

So we arrived at the campsite on Mon evening. And we now have an internet WiFi point. Whoopee! And electric hookup: not had that since we were in Chamrousse. And showers! Sheer luxury. Also, it’s not that much more expensive than many aires now that we’re out of season.

Tue:

A Rocamadour “feature”

A walk into” town” to survey the roof-of-mouth tearing baguette possibilities revealed only source – the small mini-market. And it truly was a very, very hard baguette. The sparrows and finches don’t seem to mind it, though. The other thing the walk into the town revealed was that there is a mediaeval town clinging precariously to the cliff walls of the Alzou valley. Yes, we’ve done it again: completely randomly selected yet another mediaeval town! It must have taken sheer determination and a lot of bloody-mindedness to have built it there. Many of the buildings will just have the rock face as their rear wall and/or roof.

how did they build it there?

In the afternoon, time for a mountain bike ride as the campsite guide (ACSI) says there are several trails right from the campsite. Not so; according to the campsite office. They know nothing of such things. Off to Tourist Info – a brand new, all-glass building that seems to double as a greenhouse for the poor sods who have to work in there. They were equally unable to shed any light on the MTB routes that supposedly exist. What they did provide us with (at a cost of €0.50, mind) was a single-sided sheet of A4 with a 12.5km walk on it which was claimed to be accessible to mountain bikes. So off we set.

The start point was at the bottom of the mediaeval town and the TI had told us we didn’t need to take the main road down: We could cycle down the smaller, pedestrian road. It took us the best part of 1 ½ hours to fins the start point. We found one stupidly steep, hairpin-bended footpath from the chateau that was full of visitors (did I mention the sheer cliffs this place is built on?), and another road further back that was supposedly for residents. We took that. It ended at the convent and sanctuary (both still in use) and the home of the black virgin (a wooden statue). After Joy had visited some of the buildings whilst I guarded the bikes, we declined the possibility of carrying the bikes down the dizzying stairs that might – or might not – have led to the bottom of the town. We headed back up and discovered another path leading down that looked do-able. It was, but there were also a number of flights of steps to negotiate before we could push our bikes along the mediaeval main street to the very bottom of the valley. There, we found the start point!

The trail was not technically difficult, and there were some spectacular views of the valleys. It was also very hot, dry and dusty, and eventually, we came across a very, very steep climb that was a struggle to even push up. Never mind; shortly after this climb we came across a vineyard, so took the opportunity for a bit of light, fruity refreshment (it’s grape harvesting time just about everywhere, as is clear by the number of times we’ve been held up on the roads recently by ancient tractors with barrows full of grapes and by incredibly slow-moving grape harvesting machines) which did us fine until we got back.

Having been away all summer, and having spent almost two weeks in the treeless Camargue, and it now strikes me that the leaves are starting to fall and the nights are drawing in. It’s now dark here soon after 8pm. This morning (Wed 17th), and it’s raining slightly. Not seen that since Chamrousse either (and the van is filthy – could do with some torrential rain to clean it!).

Time to move on today: This is probably the last posting until we’re back home on Sunday as we’ll almost certainly descend into Internet never-never-land again.

Sun/Mon, 14th/15th Sept – Cordes sur Ciel

Sun:

Arrived here around 5pm. This was just an aire that seemed to be about the right distance to drive from Carcassonne and for us to spend the night before moving-on. It’s a small town, but – according to the various “Aires Guides” we have – hosts an aire big enough for 30 motorhomes. I tend to aim for the bigger ones as there’s more likelihood of being able to find a space than some of the smaller ones – and there are plenty of those that take 3 or 5 camper vans. Retrospectively, I guess the size of the aire might well be proportional to the popularity/”touristicness” of the town, so maybe there’s a clue there?

Anyway, as we drove into town, we couldn’t help notice the ancient walled city high above. The signs pointing to “La Cité” were also a bit of a giveaway. We’d have to investigate in the morning.

Mon:

It’s a long climb from the aire – right down below the “new” town – up to La Cité. It’s also pretty steep in parts up the cobbled roads: Those mediaeval folk must have been fit.

This was yet another Cathar stronghold and dates back to 1222. On a smaller scale than Carcassonne, and having less strategic purpose, it nevertheless has 5 walls built around it – though the 5th, outermost wall no longer exists. The problem with the walls was that – no sooner had a new, outer wall been built, than people would start building houses and places of work up against them, on the outside. This in turn reduced the effectiveness of the walls as a means of defence, and allowed the population to grow, meaning a new wall would need to be built further out. And the process would just repeat itself.

Most of the 13th century gates into the town still exist, though features like drawbridges, moats and ditches have been removed over the years.

Porte de l’horologe (clock gate)
Part of the 3rd wall
Port de vainquers (conqueror’s gate)

What we thought would only take us an hour or two to view, actually took up the best part of four hours so it was a little later than anticipated before we set off to our next destination: a couple of nights of luxury (hopefully) at a campsite in another out of the way place called Rocamadour, in the National parc de Quercy, in the department of Lot.

Sat/Sun, 13th/14th Sept. Carcassonne

Sat: We managed to “escape” from Saintes Maries: it was quite a wrench knowing we’d be heading North and into cooler climes.

That said, after rounding Montpellier and Beziers, I noticed a temperature display showing 31°C, so maybe not so cool after all? In fact, we’ve not headed N at all: we’ve actually managed to go slightly further South, and a lot further West, to Carcassonne.

Carcassonne hadn’t really been on my radar, but Joy wanted to visit the mediaeval old town (la Cité), dating back to early Roman times. We arrived there about 5pm and were immediately mystified by the charging arrangements for the aire. No matter, we can deal with it tomorrow.

We took a quick stroll into la Cité in the evening: it was all lit up (the days are getting shorter now, and it’s dark by 8:30pm), and made plans for a proper revisit in the morning.

The Narbonne gate at night

Sun:

If you’re ever in the South West of France, make sure you pay a visit to Carcassonne; it really is well worth it. It’s free to enter the old town itself, though you have to pay to get into the inner castle. At €8.50 a head, it seemed a bit steep, but the informative and well thought-out route round the castle and the ramparts was value for money. The city is perched high up on a promontory above the plains, giving excellent views to the Black Mountains in the North, and the Pyrenees to the South West.

Although some earlier Roman mosaics have been discovered, and there were certain to have been earlier settlements here, very little remains from those periods. The major part of the town is 13th century, with most of the early building work being around 1220.

Part of the ramparts and just 4 of the 20-odd towers

The city itself was one of the Cathar settlements – the order of semi-Christianity that wanted nothing to do with a pope in Rome. Consequently, they were the subject of a 13th century crusade and the Inquisition. The city – despite it many levels of defence – eventually fell to Simon de Montfort, wherupon the “heretics” were disposed of and the catholicism was re-established.

Eventually, the city lost its strategic military importance and fell into disuse as the “new town” on the plains below and across the river flourished as a commercial centre. In 1822, an eminent architect was appointed to restore parts of the city to prevent further dereliction. Over the next 50 years, work was done to restore the city to the architect’s vision of how it might have been in the 13th century. This is pretty much how the city appears today.

The inner castle

We also took a look inside the Saint Nazaire church within the city walls: It was a cathedral until 1803, and houses what are reputed to be the best stained glass windows in the South of France. It also has one of the oldest organs in existence; traceable back to 1522.

L’arbre de vie (Tree of life) stained windows. Adam & Eve at the root.

We’d found out some time ago that Tourist Information offices in France all seem to offer free WiFi. Whilst in Saintes Maries, it was the only way to connect without spending a fortune with T-Mobile. Unfortunately, it was also a 3km bike ride each way and the connection there was sporadic at best. In Carcassonne, there is a TI office just inside the city walls – only about 10 mins walk from where we’re parked. But it’s also the first one we’ve come across that doesn’t have WiFi. So not sure when I’m going to be able to post this!

By 3pm, we were done and back in the van. Figuring out the payment machine took a little while, and we finally started the long journey North.

I’d picked out an aire in a remote town off the beaten highway – Cordes sur Ciel – as our stopover for the night. We rolled-up here about 6pm. Guess what? It has its own medieval Cité that we’ll have to visit in the morning. And it seems to be firmly on the tourist/history/culture trails judging by the number of camper vans in the aire!