Southern France has captured my heart like no other place in the world. Part 1 covered the northern half of my trek through the region. Here are the very personal, very bright parts of that natural and cultural mosaic that pulled me into the southern half – the Pyrenees and their surroundings – so very deep.
Palm trees and snow-capped peaks in Vernet-les-Bains
Imagine waking up to the sound of birds chirping, opening your villa window to let the cloud of rose aroma fill your room while you look down onto a valley as it emerges from the slowly dissipating cloud of morning mist, grabbing a handful of juicy cherries right off a tree as you walk through the garden and out onto the street to be greeted by blinding sunshine, lush palm trees and snow-covered ridge of the Canigou Massif looming over you. That’s staying at Vernet-les-Bains for you.
Swimming under a secret waterfall in Prades
I won’t tell you exactly where it is. Only the locals know – and this makes me feel like one of them.
Possibly the best meal of my life came from the sole McDonald’s in the area and involved two plain cheeseburgers, fries and a diet coke after a morning/day/night of backyard barbecuing with bottomless rosé and mojitos, and a Frenchman showing me his hairy bum over dinner. There will be no photo illustration for this bit. You’re welcome.
Hiking the Carlit Mountain trails solo
It was a personal feat. I had never done a mountain hike before in my life. It took seven hours. I got frozen, soaked and cut walking knee-deep through the snow that has been packed by spring rays into razor-sharp ice. I got sunburned so badly that I peeled three times over the next month and a half.
I was alone. I was constantly freaked out: that I took the wrong path, that I would be attacked by a bear (yes there are bears), that I would be attacked by strangers (duh, there are strangers), that I would be caught in a hail storm atop a mountain (like I did the day before, on a much easier plateau hike with friends), that I was getting too tired to continue going up and up and up AND UP my path, that I wouldn’t make it back to my car before dark…
That I was about to tumble off this tiny rock at the edge of a cliff because SOMEHOW I thought I was on the right path till it hit me in the face that I very much wasn’t, because suddenly there was no path and I was holding on to some twigs in order to not plummet 300 meters to my death. Crawling up. Getting scratched and cut everywhere. Crawling down. More snow. More slippery rocks. Rumbling streams. Fucking concealed swamps.
This is still one of the best days of my life. I have never breathed the air like this. I have never seen views like this. I have never pushed myself like I did on that day.
Someone Else Driving in the Pyrenees
All the scenery, none of the stress.
ALL. THE. FOOD.
The regions I covered on this trip have the best French food, period (sorry, all other parts of France, I love you!).
Every incarnation of duck. Every incarnation of the foie gras. Wild boar and venison. St Nectaire cheese (produced in the adjacent region of Auvergne), delicate and intensely flavorful at once. Anchovies, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh olive oil, once you get closer to the Mediterranean. Sweet fortified wines like the Banyuls. Cassoulet, an inelegant and hearty casserole of a duck leg, white beans and charred pork sausage. Cherry clafoutis, which is like a pudding-cheesecake stuffed to the gills with fresh cherries, as soon as they are in season. All the saucisson sec. As they say in Russia, it was a celebration for the stomach.
I usually try to include a bit of a “reality check” in my travel notes — the downsides of visiting a particular place or at a particular time, overrated attractions, the unglamorous bits. Well, this trip was as close to perfection as it gets. Pretty much every item on my to-do list either met or exceeded expectations in real life.
If there was one experience that was kind of disappointing, it was the Carcassonne fortress. It looks absolutely magical from the distance but the inside it’s your quintessential tourist trap. It wasn’t bad, per se, but, overcrowded with foreign tour groups and tchotchke-selling shops, it lacked the authenticity of other places I visited.
A little while ago I have set a goal of visiting all 13 of France’s European regions (only three left to go!). But once that’s done, I cannot wait to go back to southern France. I know that I barely scratched the surface of this jewel box.
There are dozens more castles and villages that I want to see in Lot and Dordogne. I want to stay in an old manor with horses. I want to take a helicopter or a hot air balloon ride over Cathar ruins, visit art museums in Collioure and Perpignan, soak in the hot springs around Prades and explore urban hubs of Toulouse and Bordeaux. Perhaps most of all, I want hike so much more of the Pyrenees, particularly Canigou, Le Cirque du Gavarnie and Garbet River valley.
Southern France is my geographic spirit animal. It is my romantic fantasies brought to life. And maybe, just maybe, the setting of my memoirs many years from now.