Autumn Walks, Grands Sites…And Van Plans (?)
And just like that…it was Autumn.
It seems mere moments ago that I wrote about SW France, and yet it also seems like years. We’ve been back a little while in “real time” so we’ve had a chance to settle-in again, and in fact loads has happened since then. My brother came down to visit from England, we did a bunch of outings around home and….errrmmmm….we did a crazy thing and bought a van. Yeah, I’ll tell you why in a minute.
Our home is much the same, albeit bathed in the beautiful, crisp light of Fall.
It’s a glorious time of year where the ridgeline of the Pyrénées is so sharp they almost seem also carved into the sky, and the foothills cascade in a million shades of orange, yellow and brown. The trees are in the midst of their change, and every day colors appear and then fall to the ground as their summer chlorophyll fades away. It’s a feast for the eyes, and the camera too.
These are the last days before winter and we’re packing in as much as we can. Visits, walks and van plans. I’ve got lots to share…
A Brotherly Visit
“Il ne va pas tenir le coup, celui-là” (he’s not going to last, that one)
We were at the weekly market with my brother and the pork lady was in especially witty form. It’s taken me years to get the point where I can actually throw a few lines back at her, but these days we usually have a pretty good exchange.
“Eh oui, ils tiennent rarement (yeah, they rarely last)” I shot back, “mais c’est mon frère, je suis obligé de le guarder” (but he’s my brother, I’m forced to keep him)
We were giving my bro the “full treatment” so-to-speak, taking him out to all our favorite haunts as well as a few that we don’t usually visit unless we have guests. He’d jumped on his motorbike to ride down from UK on an impulse, eager to get away after a year+ of on-and-off COVID restrictions in England. And of course none of us had seen each other in ages. I’m sure many families can relate.
So we packed in a week of excursions, going to the market, attending a local village get-together and driving around to see some of the extraordinary sights we have here in the SW of France. We had a blast.
We Visit Two “Grands Sites”
One of the coolest things we managed while my brother was here was to visit two Grands Sites.
In case you’re not familiar with these, Grands Sites are places of exceptional history and nature in France. A few of the more famous National-level ones you likely already know, such as Rocamadour or Carcassonne, whereas the regional ones may be lesser known. In Occitanie they have their own sub-set of ~40 Grand Sites (specifically called Grand Sites Occitanie), a whole 6 of which are in Ariège, the département right next to where we live. Believe me when I say they are ALL worth seeing!
One of these spots is a place that none of us had ever seen before and that’s the Caves of Niaux. it’s an incredible labyrinth of caves that stretch 14 km deep in the Pyrénées with over 70 drawings that date back to the prehistoric Magdalenian Era.
And for those not “hip” to the eras, that means these drawings are between 14,000 -17,000 years old!!!
Soak that in for a second, and then gasp a second time when I tell you that you can see these drawings in real life, perhaps one of the few places in the world you can still do this (most prehistoric cave-art has been shut off to public visits, for preservation).
We went on a misty morning and took the ~2 hr tour to hike into the cave depths, view the drawings and hike back out. It’s an incredible experience not only to hike with lamps into these deep caves, but especially to see the masterpieces, intricate figures of bison, horse and goat still vivid in color, drawn for a purpose we do not know (religious? protective? illustrative?) and so delicate that if you took a sponge and wiped the wall they would disappear.
No photos allowed inside, but wow….what a visit!
The other spot we went was to was Saint-Lizier, a medieval city with an extensive museum of artefacts and history dating back to Roman times. It’s a fascinating place that both dad and I know well, with a spectacular Bishops Palace (once also an insane asylum), several churches and a wonderfully preserved 17th century pharmacy. Another fab visit!
Visit Tips: For the Caves of Niaux (14€ per person), no pets allowed & visit numbers are very limited so definitely book ahead. For the Bishops Palace (7€ per person) and Saint-Lizier no pets allowed inside the historic sites, but pets OK in town. Note that sites are open all summer, but some close (or have limited times) in winter.
Useful Links: For the “Grand Sites” in the Ariège, this website has it all: https://www.sites-touristiques-ariege.fr/. For other tourist sites in the area, this website is an excellent resource: https://www.ariegepyrenees.com/en/to-prepare/explorer/.
And A Bamboo Forest Park
On another day, this time with one of our neighbors we visited another cool place, a Bamboo Forest Park (Parc Aux Bambous) just ~45 mins from our place. I’d actually seen this thing on the map and wondered about it for years. I mean, it’s just bamboo….how interesting could it possibly be? And what in the world was it doing in the middle of Ariège?
Well, I can now say that it was frikkin’ awesome!
The whole thing only covers around 4 hectares of land, but the experience of entering it is like going into a different world. Hidden pathways through forests of giant bamboos, intricately laid-out gardens with tiers of color and grass, sculptures that seem to dance in the air, and the hollow music of bamboo stalks as they move and kiss in the wind. It’s so very zen & very peaceful that once you’ve been here you want to create a bamboo forest all your own.
Inspired, and gorgeous is all I can say. If you’re in the area, definitely go visit!
Visit Tips: Parc Aux Bambous is located only ~15 mins from Pamiers in SW France. There is ample parking (also for motorhomes) and the entire park is dog-friendly! Plan to book & eat at the awesome Thai restaurant on-site. Open April-Nov. Entry Fee 7.80 €
And Then There Was A Van
I mentioned a van at the beginning of this post, didn’t I? Well I’m not quite sure how it all happened, but somewhere over the past few weeks we ended up with a van. Yeah, we really did…
The idea was seeded during our mini-trip to Scandinavia in our much-beloved LMB. It’s an awesome motorhome, the nicest-built and most comfortable we’ve ever owned, but it’s got two sinks where one is enough, and a shower that we literally never use, wasted space that makes it a little larger than it really needs to be….for us.
So somewhere along that trip we started to think about a smaller camper, one that would take us to even more places, an even-more-nimble vehicle. A micro-Bête?
What if we buy a van and build it out ourselves? Paul suggested, seemingly out of his mind
“That’s ridiculous” I cut back “We have no clue what we’re doing. And you know the French paperwork for that is going to be outrageous!”
It was an absurd idea and yet……hmmmm……something about it was just so darn intriguing.
After a decade or so of RV travel we have a pretty good idea of what we like and what we don’t, so the idea of something custom....just for us...was really quite exciting. And thus the seed sprouted, then grew, then even bloomed a little. Paul created a floorplan, we started looking at interior ideas, and we plodded through a few hundred pages of French van-conversion requirements (’tis not for the faint of heart, I can tell you that).
Finally one day Paul looked at used vans and bada-bing-bada-boom, suddenly there she was. A Fiat Ducato with only a few miles on her (a fleet purchase from a company that folded during COVID). Practically brand new, yet deeply discounted and just the size we wanted. She was perfect.
GULP….I guess here we go??
SO yeah there’s a van build in the picture now. We have no idea how it’s going to go, or what we will eventually do with LMB (rent her out? sell her?), but the project is going to be fun…or so we think. And I’ll definitely be sharing our progress along the way.
Wish us luck, I guess?
It’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood
The weather is darn-near perfect today.
This morning the air was cool and almost biting, with a thick white fog that hung in the valley and flowed like a river from one vale to the next before it dissipated as a mist into the air. Then the sun came out and warmed everything, tilting the earth to that perfect balance of hot and cold; a cozy heat on your skin yet still a chilly edge on your nose when you breathe it in.
We decide to take a trip to the mountains, just an hour south of here to Prat D’Albi at ~1200m (~3,900 ft) to walk amongst the angels and soak in the colors of fall.
And what a perfect trip it turns out to be!
It’s all popping up there, the full drama of autumn at its peak with trees in vivid displays of yellows and red, and a carpet of color on the ground to match. We hear a flock of birds fly by, the rhythmic beat of their wings amplified by the cool, thin air. Polly runs around sniffing in joy and we both enjoy the peace and beauty.
The scene is spectacular and in some ways I wish it could last forever. But I also know that’s the very reason it cannot. The most precious moments are always the rarest, and we simply have to grab them while we can.
So there you go my dear readers. A full update and back to real-time on the blog with lots of pics and news to go with it. Now, I’d LOVE to hear from you. What are you doing these Autumn days? How is Fall in your area? And errrmmm…what do you think of our van build (got any tips)? DO share and comment below!SPONSORED LINK:
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