Category Archives: France

If Carlsberg did cycling events…

Well, maybe it wasn’t that good, but for me, getting out on my bike to ride an event I’ve had my eye on since we came on holiday here 4 years ago, it was great!

The event was the VTT Ronde 3 Quilles, an annual event with three routes of 15km, 30k, or 45km, in the hills and fields around the town of Quillan in the Aude region of France. This place really is a haven for anyone who loves cross-country mountain biking and also benefits from being only a stones-throw from some world-class downhill trails too, such as those at Axe-les-Thermes and others at Font Romeu.

Since leaving the UK my mountain bike hasn’t had much trail love. Actually, that’s been true for the best part of 5 years, pretty much since DD arrived. I’ve had a few rides here and there and, if I was still in the UK I’d like to think I was back out hanging with my bike buddies again, at least for the odd ride, but those friends were built up over time and at a time when I had nothing else to do but ride. In a new country making new friends takes time of course, so mostly it’s just me.

Anyway, on the day of the ride DS woke at 6am, his new regular wake-up time, after a busy day and a late night the day before (we’d been to visit friends on the coast so were out all day and only got in at 9.30) I was tired and feeling rough. I’d been planning this ride for a while though (4 years, I suppose) and as I was sitting there with DS, trying to keep him entertained and quiet, I decided just to look up the registration time and see how feasible it was for everyone to come along, as planned. The whole idea was that we’d all go to the lake then I’d go off on the ride for as long as it took while James hung about in the park with DS and DD. That way there was no rushing around.

I checked the schedule online. This being a French event it took me nearly half an hour to find these useful details, which meant that if I was going to get there when registration opened I only had another 30 minutes. Was I, wasn’t I? Fuck it – yes, I was.

I called up the stairs to announce that I needed to leave in 20 minutes for the ride and that I assumed everyone would be staying put. Yes, James confirmed (still in bed, you see) , they wouldn’t be coming along. After a mad dash to get ready, ignoring James’s passive-aggressive appeals to make me stay (he had a cold), my bike was loaded into the car and I was off. Brilliant! I probably could have stayed a while longer and left in less of a rush but this was the first event I’d ridden in France and I wasn’t sure how it worked, with registration, start times, etc and I didn’t want to be late!

Arriving at the park it was very exciting to see that the car park was already full. Obviously lots of people had already set off! I headed to the registration tent clutching my fee (11 euros), excited about the whole thing. Registration was easy enough – just my name, address, age, etc. – then I was handed the laminated event card (it wasn’t a race, so no numbers) and some cable ties for my bike and two tokens: one for my free beaker and another for food. I wasn’t really sure what to do with that so just put it safely away.

Mountain bikers getting ready for to ride at Lake Bertrand in Quillan
Me & DB (my bike) ready for the 15km loop

The start times were staggered so that those riding the longest distances set off first. The ride I was on, 15km, was the shortest and therefore the last lot to set off before the route was signed over to the walkers. There were lots of people, mostly blokes, riding big full sussers with body armour on. What was I letting myself in for? Apparently nothing because as it turned out the average age for the riders on the 15km loop was about 15.

I waited a while, helped myself to a couple of free coffees (very civilised), smiled at a few of the women who were also hanging around, so I assumed were also waiting for the 15km start time, then, after seeing a group riders set off in the direction of the short route, decided to set off too.

Uphill, of course. After a while I caught up with a group of what looked to be club riders; two adults with a group of young kids, mostly boys. I think there was one girl amongst them. They were regrouping at the top of a climb so I “bonjoured” them and then carried on past. Next I caught up with another group: two women riding with three boys, I presume their sons. One was at the top of a descent, looking down it, and said, I think, “attention” to the other woman, which was cue for me to let go of the brakes and fly down as fast as I could. Pure fun.

On the other side the two older boys caught me up and overtook. And that’s pretty much how the rest of the ride went. It was one long dosie-do between me and these two kids. The only people to overtake me for the rest of the ride were two adults on ebikes, which really pissed me off. I get it, but they’d better not be on Strava because I overtook them on a descent (they were mincing down on foot while I bombed down by the seat of my pants) then they came gliding by on a climb shortly after. Fuck that.

The route itself was nice but definitely mostly uphill. It used some waymarked VTT trails as well as some tracks through private land, which is why I can’t share the GPS trace, unfortunately. There were a few nice decents (3?) and one quite hairy one that will be rideable now I’ve had chance to get a good look at it. The nice thing was it ended with a long, swooping descent on some single track all the way from the hill overlooking the lake to the bottom, with a couple of drop offs. It’s shame that that section is one of the ones on private land though, so unlikely rideable outside of this event.

After the ride, well, the registration tent had been transformed into a buffet station. Awesome. I tried to hand in my token, thinking that was needed for the food but no, that was for the sausages sarnies and beer, that they were just getting ready. I tucked into fruit, cheese, bread, pate (all the usual French nibbles!) had a good guzzle of some squash and another coffee then headed back. I had been gone nearly three hours so my time was up.

Unfortunately, because it was a head down and ride type of ride and I was on my own I didn’t stop for pictures, so there’s only the one from the start.

Next year I’ll be riding the 30km and making sure that James and Co. meet me afterwards so I don’t have to squander my beer & food token. It was a really well-organised event!

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What we did in October

After a busy return to real life after the holidays (September), we launched ourselves into a new phase in October and it has flown by with not a minute to spare to update the blog. So what have we been doing in all this time? Well…

We went to the park.

We walked. Some shorter walks together as a four and a longer one with friends.

Two young children and an adult walking on a rocky path through the woods
Walking the rocky path from the Roman bridge at Bugarach

We enjoyed the autumn sun and went to the free theatre festival, un pave dans la malle, which is just up the road. This year DD was old enough to enjoy a show and we saw a really funny one about a miniature circus with a terrible safety record (all the miniature circus creatures were killed off one by one!) Apart from the climbing inside a horse routine, which I think was a bit too much, it was excellent. A really good choice for the five year olds – and lots of adult jokes to keep us entertained. Or so I’m told. My French as it is I think a lot of the nuance was lost on me though so I probably enjoyed it on the same level as the kids. 

Circo Pirulo midway though their act
Circo Pirulo performing at Le pave dans la malle

We had visitors (my parents).

The usual.

We had a lot of problems with the car. It needed new suspension (or something), new tyres, and new brakes. It was VERY expensive, although we saved about 300% on the cost of parts thanks to Magic Mark (as I call him) and his generosity in buying and shipping parts to us from the UK for only a small markup. If you’re anywhere near to Huddersfield and drive a VW, Skoda, Seat, or Audi then look up IVS Huddersfield because their service brilliant.

I managed to get out on my mountain bike and ride a local event. I got a free beaker for the trouble but had to pass on the buffet after so I could get back and rescue James (he was ill and would have preferred me to stay home, I think

Lots of people with bikes by the sign up and refreshment tent at lake Bertrand in Quillan
Getting ready for the 15km at the Trois Quilles VTT event in Quillan

We had a lot of fun in the new bike park at Quillan, which thankfully wasn’t washed away in the terrible floods that were experienced in our area during this time.

The tragedy of the month of course being the floods, which washed away many roads and bridges, devastated communities and also took many lives. It reminded me of floods we had in the UK many years ago and also to be grateful that we live on a hill – and to add “make sure you’re not next to the river” to the land or house buying checklist! Floods can and do happen and living so close to the mountains colossal quantities of rain can fall at any time.

DD rounded off October with her first proper (as in, the first year she’s known about and been interested in) Halloween, complete with trick or treating. Boy do the old ladies of Fa know how to load kids with sugar. We’d heard that in years past they collected about 12kg of sweets and I’m sure that if the total was totted up this year would be on a par with that. She ate her own body-weight in sweets on the night itself and brought as many back. They’re in a cupboard, out of reach, and despite the best efforts of James and me to have one now and again, as well as of course letting the two smalls have some, we still have a full Tupperware of them. Still, she had a lot of fun and the makeup job James did on them both was excellent. Picture to follow! (once I can get it from James’s camera.)

And now it’s November.

Temperatures have fallen a bit and there’s been some rain but in between, so far, we have sunny days. It’s warm in the sun, so it’s a shame that we are living in this East-West facing house as we don’t get much benefit from it and it will stay that way now until next Spring. Needless to say the wood burner is on. We intended to wait until November 1st to light it but had to concede defeat on October 29th on a day when there was no sun and the temperature was in single figures. Chilly – and the house was starting to feel damp.

We have a lot on in November too – and are busy working away on house plans. At the end of next year the thermal study parameters for new builds change, meaning it will be more expensive to insulate a house. We need to find land before then and get a permit. Having our plans at the ready will make that easier. Aside from work, life, kids, etc. that’s our focus for now.

Useful links

Un Pave dans la Malle
An annual theatrical festival in Lieurac, Ariege. Over two days (the weekend) and everything free (except food and drink!)

IVS Huddersfield for Magic Mark (he can keep any VW going way past it’s recommended shelf life, even if the customer moves to another country!)

VTT Ronde 3 Quilles
A regular mountain biking event in Quillan. Routes are usually 15km, 30km, and 45km. There’s a very impressive buffet at the end. Entry gets you a beer and hotdog token too. And there’s the free beaker.

A Short and Sensible (But Not Fast or Easy) Walk Around Bugarach

The Plan

When a friend suggested joining them for a walk naturally I agreed. We don’t get out on “proper walks” as often as I’d like and making a date with someone else is always good motivation. Said friend suggested tackling the Pic du Bugarach. Okay, I said. I checked the route she was thinking of, plotted it in GPSies to verify the ascent and distance info – 7km there and back with 500 metres of ascent. On paper? Fine.

The idea didn’t sit so comfortably though. We really haven’t done much walking as a four which meant that we didn’t know our own or each others limits. Was this mountain walk the best way to find out? If we were still in the UK the first mountain walks with the children would be to somewhere we already know and had walked without children in the past. I wasn’t comfortable that our first big walk would involve taking our two small children onto a mountain I did not know.

I Googled for pictures, hoping to find some reassuring pics of a the paths up to the top. Nope. The one walk write up I did find was from the route we’d decided not to take as was longer with 200 metres more ascent and also looked to involve a rocky scramble towards the end. Given we’d most likely be carrying the two youngest by that point, we all agreed that route was a definite No. I found lots of pictures of the peak. And I also found this video. Look, I love a good ride the mountain video. They give me the chills and make we want dust off my body armour and hit the trails. But this wasn’t about me or my bike. This was about my family tackling a mountain walk for the first time.

By now my perspective had shifted from being 80% sure it was do-able to about 80% sure it was a Very Bad Idea. I had an alternative route – en Pays Cathare from the excellent Les Sentiers d’Emilie walking book series – and we’d discussed doing that instead of the peak if the weather wasn’t ideal. It was a great relief to see that storms were forecast because it meant everyone was amenable to a change of plan and walking the lower level route.

The Walk

The route we took, described in the book and signed locally as Sentier du Pont Romain, is clearly waymarked by a horizontal yellow line. It leave the village, past the school and the small bouladrome, onto a wide open track through fields with just cows, butterflies, crickets and the odd (lost) hunters dog for company.

WalkMapBugarachPontRomaine

As adults I think we would have marched along the track keeping an easy pace but for four children there were so many things to stop and see it took us about an hour! About 10 minutes into the walk we rounded the bend to find the three girls sitting on the side of the track with their backpacks open. Snack time, apparently. The book said it would take 2 hours 20 minutes but I had a feeling that estimate was a little on the low side.

A cow stands and stares from the field
Are you looking at me?

A Pale Yellow and Black Swallowtail Butterful Resting on Dirt and Stone Track
A Swallowtail Butterfly Resting on the Track

After much stopping and starting we arrived back at the road, which we then followed up to the vulture observation point. Our friends had already been there that day, we were late to they’d popped up to kill some time, but no-one minded arriving there again. It was a great spot to stop, with picnic benches, and safely away from the road. Since everyone was hungry we decided to stop there and eat.

The vulture observatory is well worth a visit. There are boards giving information about the different types of vulture that have been seen locally (there are four species) as well as other birds of prey. For the children it’s a really nice to play and there’s an oak tree that’s perfect for climbing. Of itself it doesn’t justify a day out but by including it within all or part of this walk, you can easily fill a few hours. The birds are easy to see – you can use the fixed binoculars that are there or free to use. If you have some of your own, take them. I had the foresight to take mine, not even knowing about the vultures, and was glad I did. With clear optics you get a really good view: just scan along the tops of the rocks and trees of the ridge opposite the viewing spot and you’ll see them. When we arrived there were two sitting on the ridge and by the time we left about six were circling the rocks, possibly in anticipation of our sandwich remains.

IMG_2536.JPG
Looking across from the observatory to a rocky ridge – home to many vultures

Continuing on, we passed some sociable donkeys who came plodding across the field to say hello, before reaching the main feature of the walk: an Roman bridge. It’s not the original (it was rebuilt a few years ago) but it’s a replica. And the photo in the image doesn’t do it justice because it’s quite a feature. Take a look at the pictures below and you’ll see what I mean.

The first picture is from the book.

The second is one I took. And the third one, from the same spot as the second but with someone walking over it, shows the scale. Dramatic, eh?

Actually, marginally more dramatic than it appears because what the photo doesn’t show very well is that there’s a a drop the height of the bridge the other side of it. We were going to walk over there with our children. Hahahahaa. Not worried about that at all. Okay, maybe worried.

We’d promised the children another snack (DD knew I had biscuits) when we got to the bridge and also a paddle. At first glance it looked like the last place you’d want your kids to be but just around the corner, before the rapid descent under the bridge, the river was quite wide and shallow. It was a really beautiful spot, perfect for a future wildcamp and perfect for the pit stop we’d promised.

We sat for a while, cooling our feet in the river. The two older girls were busy trying to hatch their vulture eggs (we’d got eggs in our picnic and they’d decided they were vulture eggs) and the little ones were sitting and exploring the rocks. The water, being in quite a shady spot, was unfortunately a bit too slipping to paddle in safely, so we didn’t stay long. Plus we were still only half way on our walk and with all the stopping and starting it was nearly 3pm! Four hours since we left the cars.

IMG_2557.JPG

Then it was time to pull ourselves together and cross the scary bridge. At least we knew there wasn’t anything hiding underneath it!

 

Crossing the bridge wasn’t nearly as heartstopping as we thought but it’s much more of a challenge than we were expecting. James walked over the DD and I was with DS, who was on foot. The approach was too steep for his little legs and since I wasn’t too keen on him scrambling up I carried him. I’d say that James hid his nerves well as he watched while I carried DS on my hip with one hand and the cuddly toy, a child’s rucksack and my walking book in the other, but he really didn’t. Our friend’s little girl, a natural climber, particulary enjoyed it – fearlessly looking over the edge and smiling away. (I spotted a few big fish down there as I walked over but for some reason no-one was interested in going back onto the bridge and taking a better look!)

A small child in a pink dress holds a mans hand and crosses a small stone bridge over a ravine
The most fearless of them all crosses the Roman bridge with a smile

From this point on it was a little tough as the path winds up the hill. There’s a clear path but it’s quite badly eroded by heavy rain. The older ones managed it – sometimes needing a hand to hold – but it was too difficult for the little ones who soon ended up on our backs.

Once at the top, the path bears left and leads back towards the village. For the most part this was an easy walk. I’ve noticed that children really lose themselves in the woods and the walks where you can’t see too far ahead go smoothest. The journey back was broken up nicely by finding some “dinosaur bones”. To you and me that’s the remains of a cow who met an unfortunate end at some point in the not so distant past. We couldn’t find the skull, unfortunately, but having picked over the rest we were soon loaded up with our treasures.

From here, after another short climb and another post-climb rest stop, it was a fairly short and easy walk back to the village, which was lucky because we’d just about run out of water by that point.

Just before arriving back at the car we found figs and blackberries, so we stopped one last time for a quick forage before finally making it back.

IMG_2595.JPG
One last forage before the end of the walk

Despite the whole day being a significant deviation from our original plan, we definitely made the right call. The walk was just enough time and distance-wise with enough interest along the way and places to stop.

Since this was the longest walk we’ve done as a family it was a useful test in terms of kit and supplies. Taking advice from the Adventure Queens Mums Group on Facebook, I’d made sure to pack some sugary treats for when the going got tough. That worked out well. My friend had done the same (Pain au Lait, yum) so between us we had plenty of “bribe food” as well as proper food and healthy snacks. By the time we got to the end our picnic had all gone and not far from the end we were almost out of water. I wasn’t too worried because I knew we had some more in the car but James wasn’t happy about it so he went ahead.

Although I’ve had it a while (I bought it back in the UK when we were planning to do some “proper walks” with DD) it was the first outing for my shiny blue Vango Traverse 40L Rucksack, and it was brilliant! I’ve not carried a rucksack that size in a while but since I often have a small child on my back. It looks like they’re now only 50 quid in Amazon – a bargain! The best feature was “AirVent back system” which keeps the back of the pack away from your body, keeping you cool and dry, which was perfect in the heat (it was about 25 degrees for the sunny bits.)

Some Links

The Vulture Observatory at Bugarach
http://www.bugarach.fr/rapaces.htm

Info about the Pic du Bugarach (WikiPedia)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pic_de_Bugarach

Download the GPX File

Fancy doing this walk? Check out the route map or download the GPX file on GPSies.


This article contains an affiliate link. This doesn’t cost you any more but, if you click on the link and decide to make a purchase, pays me a miniscule commission. 

Life in France, Two Years On

The two-year anniversary of our arrival in France came earlier this month and passed without the slightest hint of a bang. A day I’d hoped we’d mark with some kind of celebration – or at least acknowledge – became a day of stress with us viewing two more unsuitable pieces of land (north facing, etc., – the usual) and having heated discussions about a plot we saw a while ago. It’s a plot that I like and think a few compromises are worth it but James is struggling with compromise, period. Maybe he’s right to stand firm. I’ll say no more lest the argument begins again!

Anyway, the fact that it’s been two years is remarkable. Time seems to march on irrespective of what we do. The children grow but so slowly we hardly notice in the day-to-day. Then one day we see the changes. Their bodies are longer and more robust, their language has changed, their expressions, and all the while their personalities stay the same. The evolution is so natural, so inevitable. Their eyes, their energies are the same as the days they were born. It’s a magical thing to facilitate and to witness. They have both adapted so well. DD is as good as bilingual and DS, who is just starting to master English understands pretty much everything that is said to him in French. When he’s ready to start speaking the language, I’m sure he’ll blow us away. By the end of our first year he’d spent more of his little life in this country than his country of birth but it’s been in this second year that he’s been exposed to the language. This time last year I was trying to settle him into creche. A year on he now asks to go. He’s happy there, as DD is happy at her school.

The preferred outfit of small children: naked every day

Home-wise we’re a long way from where we wanted to be. And that’s fine. I’m happy with what we have and what we don’t. It’s been a big learning curve for us and we’ve made some sensible decisions and had some lucky escapes from some stupid ones! I know some people just turn up for two weeks and find a house, but that’s not the way it’s working out for us and so be it. Part of me wishes we’d bought 10 years ago, when it was just me and James and we had a full salary to cover repairs. But then I suspect now we’d be stuck up in the mountains with two children, wishing we could be somewhere busier, more accessible, and also wishing we had the money for the new roof we need.

The old railway tunnel on the voie verte between Chalabre and Camon

So why haven’t we found anything? Honestly, the state of some of these houses is just depressing. They’re fine if you want something for a few weeks in the summer. No-one cares about an old uninsulated roof when it’s 35 degrees C outside. Likewise, the house’s aspect. A stone East-West or North facing house provides a welcome respite from the sun in July. Not so in winter, where temperatures can fall below freezing and stay that way for weeks. Last winter we had no sun so even the well-position houses felt the cold (and damp) but the first year, while it was cold the sun shone almost every day. With this, one side of the valley stays buried deep in frost while the other basks in the winter sun, where clothes can still be dried, children play, life goes on much as before – but in jumpers and woolly socks.

Just in case you’re thinking it’s endless sunshine, we had plenty of snow last winter

Any house that ticks our boxes (that’s 8/10 for me and 10/10 for James) comes at a price we can’t afford. Anything we can like is on the market at cost + however much was spent on repairs + imaginary profit. Anything we can afford requires money spending on it to get it how we want it – and by that I’m not trying to win any Home & Garden awards, just to have a liveable house that we can is  warm and dry in winter. By the time that money’s factored in we’re back in the range of houses we can’t afford! So there’s that.

Sunshine is plentiful though

Add onto this the shoddy workmanship that goes on. There are so many builders, carpenters, handymen (it’s usually men) here. But trained where? With what qualifications? From what I’ve seen, all self-taught, either learned on the job from someone equally as unskilled, or by doing their own build or renovation project. It’s mind boggling how lacking in common sense some of these apparently registered artisans have when it comes to construction. There’s a renovation in a hameau close to us being carried out by an apparently reputable builder (registered, advertising with a large billboard on the side of the road) and wow, the workmanship is downright dangerous! The roof looks good, admittedly – all new timbers – so once it’s all finished (as in rendered and plastered) you could walk in and no doubt it’ll look great, but what’s hidden behind there is an archway without a supporting lintel, just breeze blocks at the top of the gap. That’s one of the worst things we’ve seen but it’s not an isolated find. I have other examples like this and a blog post about it in draft. I send the pictures to my dad from time to time (he’s an old-style 5-year apprenticeship on site type of actual carpenter who’s seen it all) and he can’t quite believe it either. The idea that we might spend our actual money on a house that’s been repaired/renovated/built by someone who was in all likelihood winging it. Not exactly reassuring.

Lazing around watching the sunlight on the cotton-like seeds of willow. I love days like these.

Which is why we’re looking for land. And the search continues. And it will go on. We’ve decided to focus less on the house (we’re renting a “good house” at the moment, as in plenty of space and warm in winter) and more on the life side of things. That’s why I’ve been trying to get my business going and also we’ve been enjoying spending this time, while we can still afford to be very part time, with the smalls. This phase won’t last for much longer, I know. With DS approaching his third birthday, he’ll soon be at maternelle along with DS and then it won’t be long after that before they are out all day every day for most of the week. I’ll be ready for it but I know it will be bittersweet and that I’ll look back on these slow-progress no -progress years (by adult standards) as some of the best.

Would your British neighbours let you use their garden – no strings attached? Here they do, so this year we’ve been able to grow some veggies.

Language-wise, I doubt I’ll ever reach a standard I’m totally happy with. I like to talk so it can be incredibly frustrating not to be able to talk to anyone and everyone. Chit chat is something I miss, in the shop, in the post office, in the street. Without that there’s always a barrier. Our neighbours here are lovely, they know we want to chat. A few times I’ve become upset when not being able to say what I want. It does get me down. And that’s why I have to keep trying. It’s paying off little by little. Today I spent 30 minutes at the French equivalent of the local council office sorting out an ongoing admin issue (the system for paying the bins is exceptionally complicated, it seems) All In French. Yes, check me out. That is one hell of a change from two years ago. It’s exciting, actually. Having the time to work on this some more is one of the reasons I probably won’t notice my kids are in school full time once that happens. I have so much to do. Like them, I like to learn and I like to be busy. Which is lucky!

Lucky to be here everyday, not just on holiday.

Am I glad we came? Hell, yes! Would I go back? Actually, no. I really don’t want to go back and can’t see myself going back, ever. There are many ways that life is better here, not least the weather!

So what’s in store for year 3? For one I hope I’ll start to be able to understand what the locals are saying to me. That would make life drastically easier! I’d like to get my business going and making enough to cover rent and bills as that enables us to relax a bit more about the fact that we haven’t found what we’re after. I also have a new venture to work on with James, but that requires extra time that we just don’t have but will have one both children are at maternelle, so all eyes on that bit change. Finally, I got an e-mail this morning about arranging a cycle tour. Since cycling is my passion this is a really big deal for me and gives me a reason to be very excited indeed about 2019. This activity is very time consuming and being able to do that full time dependent on quite a few other things, so this next year is the perfect time to dip my toe into the water and see where it leads. It’s all go and I love it.


Photo by Grégoire Bertaud on Unsplash

Our First Camp in the Mountains: Orlu, Ariege

Camping. We all had a lovely time on our first camping trip so promised the smalls another couple of camping adventures before the end of the summer and rentrée.

A friend had spoken highly of Orlu, just south of Ax-les-Thermes, where there’s a beautiful nature reserve. I’d read a blog post of hers describing it and chatted with her afterwards and based on that wanted to visit. It wasn’t too far away so just right for a short two-night trip again) so we decided we’d give it a go.

The campsite I chose was the municipal site in Orlu: Camping d’Orlu. It was fairly easy to narrow it down because it’s the only site in that valley – unless you have a mobile home or campervan. Checking the website over and also reading various reviews, it sounded like it would work for us: the valley itself looked stunning and facilities-wise it had a playground, a pool, plus access to the river. Everyone looked happy in the photos. It seemed to fit the bill better than others and it was right in the place we wanted to be. What could go wrong?

Our First (and maybe last) Municipal Campsite

Actually, nothing really did go wrong. We just discovered that this kind of campsite, the busy kind where the world and his wife arrive to pack out their permanently-sited and privately-owned static caravans (complete with satellite TV), are not for us. Actually, I think we already knew that but our experience at the first site lulled us into a false sense of security where camping-with-the-masses was concerned. This site, while in a quiet and beautiful place, was busy. Too busy.

Two big things got on our nerves there. First, dog shit. What the fuck is wrong with dog owners!? We all love our pets. Just like we love our kids. But what we don’t do is let our cats or our kids shit on the footpaths everywhere. So what is it with dogs that makes this okay? There were a fair number of dogs on the site. To be fair there weren’t that many shits on the campsite itself, but a footpath leading into and out of the valley alongside the valley ran through the campsite and this was evidently where all the TV watching weekenders were taking their dogs for their shits. Ugh. It’s grim as an adult but when you have two small and inquisitive children who want to pick everything up, sometimes put things in their mouths (if not the things they just picked up then certainly their hands end up there), and also tend not to look where they’re going – jeez, the stress of even a short walk! No fun for us, no fun for them.

The second thing about this site: the cars. People were driving it felt like all the time. It was a small and densely packed site with a one-way system. Fine, but with two kids who want to play on the road in front of the pitch, that was another stress. I was a bit more relaxed about that than James (not that I want them to get run over, of course!) but to be fair to him there was a regular flow of cars past our tent.

Then there a few niggles, like the pool, which had been on the list of site essentials when making the choice. It was a nice spot and well-maintained, plus it had a paddling pool, but that’s no use if it’s closed. We arrived on Friday and fancied a dip but it was closed. It opened on Saturday at 1pm but the water was cold (24 degrees). The pool guy wasn’t happy about that either but there was nothing he could do. Later it was so busy it was impossible to swim and increasingly difficult to manage the two smalls, who just wanted to bob about in the armbands. Because the main pool was first too cold and then too busy, we splashed around in the paddling pool before that also started getting a bit too chaotic.

Some things we did like about the site were the playground, which was perfect for DD and DS. It had a baby swing – one of the first we’ve seen in France – a fab slide, a see-saw (which DD made alot of friends on) and plenty of shade. The other children seemed nice and DD had a great time with a few other children, mostly other girls, of the same sort of age. She protested every time she was told time was up and constantly wanted to go back and play, which is great – one of the reasons camping is a great holiday choice with children. (In a gite after a day spent trapsing around as a four it would be back to the house or apartment then TV, dinner and bed, most likely! Just like home.)

There were a few standard things you expect on a French site, like fresh bread or croissants in the morning (order the day before). The facilities were varying degrees of clean, depending on where you were on the site. The block opposite us was very clean and cleaned regularly, and there was plenty of hot water.

But it wasn’t just about the site. What about the area?

Orlu Nature Reserve

Although the campsite didn’t tick our boxes, the location was excellent. The village, Orlu, is in an area just outside Ax-les-Thermes called the Vallée d’Orlu and is a national nature reserve covering 4250 hectares. Access is restricted to those on foot: there are no roads through the reserve and no dogs allowed in order to protect wildlife. It’s soooo peaceful. To get there you drive down the valley passing through the villages of Orlu and Orgeix, until you come to the end.

Driving down the valley, it felt just like being back at Wales! Spooky but wonderfully familiar. At one point it’s eerily similar: there’s a bend in the road and a little stone bridge over the river that feels just one of the villages en route to Betws-Y-Coed from Llandudno. What a shame there wasn’t an equally Welsh-feeling campsite! What it is with all these sanitised sites?

Anyway, back to Orlu. When you get to the end of the valley road your choices are park up and walk or turn around and go back. If you’re lucky enough to have a motorhome you can park up and spend the night there.

From the car park onwards is a visitor centre (for next time) and some other activities and workshops, including an awesome looking AcroBranch (like GoApe in the UK but way better), some cafes.

Because we were only there for a couple of nights, we only popped up, essentially our reccie visit, and made a to-do list for another time. Things on my lists include the Le Maison des Loups (The House of Wolves) and a proper walk into the reserve beyond the forge, of which there are many. In the reserve proper (which is closed off to dogs) there’s plenty of wildlife, including marmottes. I’ve never seen one yet so that’s a definite Must Do. There’s also Le Sentier d’Arazet, a walk through a woodland path and musical installations. Of course you have to pay (details on their website) but it’s another on the to-do list as it looks fab.

In future-future (because it’s not advised with kids younger than five) I want us to walk to and spend the night at Refuge D’En Beys, which is 1970 metres up, in the heart of the reserve and high on the mountain. Maybe we’ll try it next year (well, one of them will be five.) I can’t wait!! Aside from those two things, there are tonnes of things to do around there. Tonnes of walks and plenty of cycling opportunities, once the two small are up to that (if they’re into that.)

So that was Orlu. Stunning.

Will we go back?

Despite the positives, I don’t think we’ll be going back to that particular campsite, which is a shame because the staff at the main office were really friendly and helpful and the kids had a great time. Perhaps if we visit again our of season – so not August – we’ll have a different experience?

We definitely want to go back to explore the nature reserve and surrounding area, so perhaps I can persuade James to give the campsite another go if we see it’s less busy another time. Most likely we’ll opt for another one. In such a wild place there must be a wild campsite for people like us!?

What’s weird about this whole trip though is that I don’t think I took a single photograph. Not one! In order to pep up this post I’ve use pics from original website and also some stock pics from Unsplash. Sorry folks – I’ll get my camera charged up for the next one!

What happened next?

Based on our experiences this time my new Find A Campsite criteria were dutifully extended to now include:

  • in the mountains
  • quiet
  • no cars
  • no dogs
  • plenty of shade
  • no static caravans

Is that even possible in France? You’ll have to wait until my next post to find out whether I managed it or not.

Spoiler: Of course I did!


Main image: Photo by Ian on Unsplash

 

DD’s First Big Ride! Esperaza-Campagne and Back

She started pedalling at the beginning of the holidays. I was impressed with how easily she migrated to pedals and attribute that to her riding the same bike without pedals for the prior 9 months. It meant she got her confidence on it, grew into it, and was as confident on the bigger bike as she had been on her little balance bike. After that the switch to pedals was straightforward.

She was so pleased with herself but still getting frustrated as she couldn’t start off by herself. She tried and failed. We reassured her that once her feet knew what to do she’d just start doing it and for now the best thing was not to worry about it. And then, one afternoon when we’d popped out to a quiet, traffic-free path with them, she just did it. the smile on her face said it all.

She was only riding in short stretches because we were on foot alongside, so we’d help her get going then she’d pedal a short distance away before stopping to wait for us. To help her actually ride and have a good go at pedalling, I dug out the old Trailorgator attachment that I bought for my oldest nephew close to a decade ago and hatched a plan with a friend, also keen to get her daughter happy on two wheels, to meet and ride out as a four while the two little ones were at crèche. She had the TrailAngel attachment, which is the upgraded and slightly more expensive version of the Trailorgator, for her daughter’s bike.

After an hour fiddling with the parts the fittings seemed robust enough for the ride ahead. It was definitely a job of bad-workwoman-blames-tools, as lack of the appropriately sized socket meant alot of swearing while using a just-about-fitting-but-almost-impossible-to-use spanner. All in a good cause. We were ready to go.

I didn’t get any pictures of that ride, unfortunately: I had my hands full with the two bikes and the every-so-slightly-twisted Trailorgator we came back with. Think bike in front at 90 degress and the one behind nearing 45 and you get the picture. We hadn’t gone that far, mostly because with all my bolt-wrangling we’d set off much later than planned, which turned out to be for the best given my kit wasn’t performing properly. Of course I’d forgotten the lacklustre spanner so any on-trail repair wasn’t an option. Lucky for us DD was a tired of cycling and wanted to run back! Sometimes I swear she’s part sheepdog.

After the relative success of that ride, I hatched a new plan. I wanted to try a short local ride to see whether I could manage DD and DS, both their bikes AND the trailer. Really my concern was the trailer: could I safely transport everyone and everything or did I need to hack a contraption (or find an extra trailer) so that I could keep the children and bikes separate? My friend also has a trailer and was planning to bring it along. It would be a good chance to test it out and with another adult as back up.

The day of the ride it was raining. In France that means no-one goes outside unless they have to, so I checked the forecast – still predicting a cloudy but dry morning – and messaged my friend to make sure she was still up for it (she was but her husband wasn’t so sure). All good. Then she sent a picture of the hole in the tyre of her trailer. Then another saying that her son, who’s a little older than DD, would just bring his bike and she’d carry her DD on the bike seat. Sorted! DD would bring her bike and ride too, I said.

DD was excited to be going on a proper bike ride with her friend! I was a bit excited too of course, but also worried: would she make it there and back, and – if she needed a rest, would the trailer carry everything given I’d also said the DS could take his balance bike along. In family-bike-ride mode I started packing food and quickly realised a trip to the shop was needed. As usual I had apples and water and no a lot else. Bad planning but better than nothing at all.

After meeting our friends we got all our kit together and set off. I didn’t quite know the first part of the route and whether we could get there totally off road, so we did the first part on the road altogether. It was only a short way and both of the two smalls on their big bikes were very well behaved. Watching your own child cycle their own bike on a real road is way more stressful than a group of children or adults wobbling around for a Bikeability session! We made it to the totally traffic free section without any issues: a tarmaced but restricted road between Esperaza and Campagne-sur-Aude. Now we could relax. And just pedal.

IMG_2336.JPG

So we did. DD pedalled along. DS got bike envy and came out on his balance bike for a bit but couldn’t keep up and soon needed a rest, so back in the trailer he went. Thanks to my excellent planning skills and experience in planning these family rides (ahem) there was a playground at the other end, which served as a place to let the trailer and bike seat-bound little ones stretch their legs and the big ones chance to stock up on food. In my case that was the aforementioned apples and also some cheese. Luckily my friend also had biscuits, which went down very well.

After a brief rest, worried the big ones would wear themselves out on the play area and be too tired to pedal back, we got everyone organised and started the ride back. The two biggies were definitely tired by now. DD’s friend was wobbling around a bit. DD was starting to get a bit stroppy. DS was asleep in the trailer (bless) and my friend’s youngest was happily bobbing along in the bike seat. At one point DS almost bailed: she misjudged a gap between a rock and the barrier (tired) blaming her friend for bumping into her, which maybe he did but we didn’t see. I persuaded her to stay on her bike because we were nearly back – and she did. She made it!

At 4.1 miles it was the longest ride she’s ever done and I am so proud of her for making it and also for sticking it out when it got a bit tough at the end. She had an epic first ride and then topped it off by tearing round the “bike park” (in inverted commans because it’s really just a couple of ramps – but hey) with DS and her friend while my friend and I ate most of the picnic.

Having done it this one time it’s definitely one to do again: it’s great route for a socialable ride that’s just right for little legs.

What, no Carte de Sejour?

We left the UK almost two years ago to the day, running from the island I had called home for my entire life. With the cataclysmic din of the Brexit vote still ringing in our ears our departure was not entirely the celebration we had hoped it would be. Instead of starting a new chapter full of hope and excitement our hearts were heavy with uncertainty. If we set up our new home, if we find what we are looking for, for how long will it last? Will our rights be lost, taken away? Not knowing, not having anywhere to look for or find the answers, was a huge burden on our shoulders during this time.

Aside from introducing uncertainty to our move, the Brexit vote has taken it’s toll in other ways. First it made the period from June to September incredibly frought emotionally. One of my parents (the insolent and Daily Mail reading one) voted FOR Brexit, which was the most fucking stupid thing she’s ever done given exactly one half of her family was planning to go and live within the EU in the six months that followed. In my opinion. Maybe it was some wierd passive-agressive thing where she didn’t want us to go and thought we’d be forced to stay if the UK left the EU? Who knows. Or maybe she thinks the 1950s were some sort of glorious hay-day (washing machines? fridges?!!) and has forgotten about things like outside toilets, caravan holidays in bognor, and tinned spam.

Whatever her reasons, “her decision” (nothing at all to do with Daily Mail brainwashing, of course) to vote the way she did caused a huge upheaval. Never in my life have I felt such rage towards my parents. And never before have I wanted to not talk to them – for weeks. Like so many other families who experienced similar fall outs, we’ve managed to move on but what’s left is a punctured relationship that I hadn’t realised was broken until it was. Now we’re here I think I miss them less than I would if Brexit hadn’t happened. I don’t feel particularly inclined to visit and when they come here it’s more for the kids. I feel apart from them in a way I didn’t before. I don’t care that they think they know better (“We remember how it was before. This isn’t what we voted for!”) As far as I’m concerned they have sold my family and the future of their grandchildren down the river. Part of me looks forward to them being stuck in a 4-hour immigration queue when they visit. If they’re allowed to. If they can afford to. C’est la vie.

Which brings me to the impact on the pound. When we first floated the idea of moving here, staring into estate agents windows 10 years before, the pound was riding high. I think at one point it was 1.5 euros to the pound. Maybe it was more? I don’t remember (and prefer not to think about it.) That would have been awesome. But thanks to Brexit , and in large part also due to the prediction that Remain would sneak through (social media echo chamber, anyone?) we didn’t rush to change our money from sterling to euros before the vote. Big mistake. In the days after we frantically set up a euro account and transferred all our money. That in itself was incredibly stressful: we had an “incident” with the bank where they submitted multiple buy orders on our behalf because when the first transction didn’t show on our account (we tried to do it online) we called and made the order – as it turns out again. We managed to get that sorted out but not without a huge amount of stress.

Given the situation, we got a pretty good rate by today’s standards, at least. It’s scraping the barrel compared to the rate both before the vote and in years past  which means we’re not in such a strong financial position as we hoped. Hey ho, it is what it is. We think about from time to time (like often) but what’s done is done. (Thanks, Mum!)

Then there’s the time pressure. All eyese on the 31st March 2019! What will happen then? If we’d come any other time – what’s Brexit? – we’d still have a whole lot to do but the pressure would be significantly less. We’d just be here, as is our right, happy and relaxed, just enjoying our time here, making a life. With Brexit looming it all feels like a very different proposition. We both feel a sense of urgency. Buy or build a house? Urgent. Set up and run a business (or two)? Urgent. Learn French? Urgent. Integrate? Urgent. Pay tax and be recognised as someone worthy of French citizenship in future? Urgent. The fact that we may run out of money sooner adds urgency to the urgency.

We’ve largely coped with the pressure we feel by focussing entirely on the things we can control and ignoring completely those we can’t. That’s why I’ve not read the news since we came. When people try to talk to me about the news, la, la, la, I can’t hear you (mature). Anything to do with Brexit brings me out in interchangeably rage and crippling despair. Instead we’ve been busying ourselves, learning the language (slow progress but progress nonentheless), setting up a business, registering for a carte vitale, registering the car, submitting our first tax return, paying our taxes – and so on.

All that doesn’t sound like much but anything admin here is a real mind fuck. Seriously, it can take a week or a month to complete a task that in the UK it would take me a day or a week max. That’s partly because the French system is paperwork intensive and also because of the language barrier. Fitting that in around childcare, school runs, client projects, and networking to find new clients – oh, and sometimes sleeping. Add to that searching for land or a house, trapsing around the countryside looking at houses we can’t afford because, well, Brexit.

So now, just when I feel like we’ve almost got on top of the admin and I can finally focus on work so that we can start to relieve some of the financial pressure and maybe even justify a day snowboarding this winter, there’s a noise from the Internet telling me I, we, need to apply for a carte de sejour otherwise we might lose our access to healthcare, be deported, or whatever. I read all this on a Facebook group, Remain In France Together, some time ago and had to turn their updates off because it was wreaking havoc with my blood pressure! The general consensus was that because no-one knew what we should or shouldn’t do, whether Brexit would happen or not, and whether that meant we could stay or we’d be unceremoniously chucked into the channel on April 1st, the best we could do now is something, anything, and there was always the option to PANIC!!! Wait and see seemed to be off the table.

Which is fine if you have nothing else to do all day and feel the need to do something to justify your existence, but I am already 12 hours short of the time I need to do all the things I need to do as it is. Stressing out about Brexit? Running around to the prefecture with my It’s Your Life style dossier of bills, birth certificates (officially translated at a cost of 100 euros, thank you very much) and all the rest of it, then finding a time to actually go to the office that doesn’t clash with school, creche, work, etc. Hah, you have to be joking.

So what to do? I read another blog recently which just about sums it up, and I quote:

What if, post Brexit, you need a special type of card? A card that isn’t a Carte De Sejour but a card that is for someone who was here as an EU citizen but then they weren’t. Just like all the EU residents in the UK. So, if I apply for a Carte De Sejour – it could transpire that I need a different card and what a waste of time that would have been #wails.

What if, they all agree, we don’t need any card for residents pre 2019. Or you just have a card issued that says you don’t need a card, as you were here before you needed a card. It does make sense you just have to re-read it.

– from Our Normandy Life: Why I Won’t be getting a Carte de Sejour

Nail On Head.

That said, I have done some reading about it – today, in fact. Maybe it is a good idea? YOu see, it’s confusing! There was a Government statement about this the other day, which I thought was reassuring. Except the people in the RIFT group assure me (and everyone else of the not-panicking variety) that that very sensible statement is only valid if (big if) an agreement is reached. Because I was struggling to cope with people online telling me what my own eyes were sure was a real thing complete with dates and everything, I decided to email the consulate in Paris, who pretty much told me the same thing as the Goverment. But RIFT (again) assure me that the consulate are also wrong (apparently they’ve now admitted it – to them, as in RIFT) that they, the consulate, mean only in the event of an agreement being reached. So what happens if an agreement isn’t reached? And here we go, around we go, again, again, again. No-one knows – and I Hate That.

So for now, no carte de sejour. If I get the willies about it I may just throw caution to the wind and make an appointment anyway. What the hell, eh? I don’t want to miss out on the ultimate Brexit experience! They say there’s a three-month waiting list, so that will give me plenty of time to gather the necessary paper work or follow the latest news and decide whether it’s necessary at all. Grrr. Fucking Brexit.

Photo by Jurica Koletić on Unsplash

 

 

La Rentrée 2018

It’s that time of year for the second time in our lives as parents. Yesterday we watched our DD, now nearly 5, skipping down the road to go off to her school. She loves it there and was so happy to be back. I don’t think we’ve bored her silly over the holiday but at the same time she hasn’t been entertained 24-7 and I think she needs the interaction with other kids – and she likes to learn.

This year she moves up to the la grande section (GS), which is the final part of maternelle before the more formal learning starts in CP1. Two years ago she was nervous and shy and spoke not a word of French. She spent 8 months in la petite section (PS), last year in la moyenne section (MS), and now she’s the same age and in the same section as the “big ones” who she remembers being kind and looking after her when she started. She’s doing great and it’s remarkable just how much she’s grown over the summer: her language, her mannerisms, her demeanour. Everything different yet everything the same.

Because it’s a small village school “moving up” doesn’t mean moving to a new classroom though: they have a single room for the whole maternelle (kindergarten) so she’s in the same room as la petite and la moyenne sections. Usually the next class, le cours préparatoire (CP1), are in the same room too but it turns out that as well as having a new teacher there are a few other changes this year. Instead of CP1, CE1 are in with the maternelle and CP1 are in the with primaire group. We’re not entirely sure of the rationale for this but the maîtresse seems to know what she’s doing so I’m sure there is a good reason, which may be to do with numbers (this way the classes are more balanced – 15 in one and 17 in another) and also to do with having a more self-directed class in with the little ones, who can be quite hard to manage, it seems.

Unfortunatley the back-to-work, time alone, getting-stuff-done rentrée that I’ve been waiting patiently for wasn’t possible until today thanks to DS picking up his first bug in I don’t know how long and starting with a temperature of 38.5 on Sunday night. By midnight he was up to 39 and when I checked again about half an hour later (he was still tossing and turning) pushing 40. I medicated him and not long after he cooled down and settled down to sleep but woke up hot again. So no crèche. Bummer. I had considered medicating him and sending him anyway (we were getting four hours out of a dose and he’s only there for three and a half) but he wasn’t right and was asleep by the time James got back from dropping DD off.

He’s better today. Tired, perhaps, and not quite as enthusiastic about being at crèche once he actually got there (the last two weeks he’s been demanding we turn the car around when leaving the town where it is!) but no tears, no drama, and no phonecalls and only 40 minutes to go ’til pickup.

And here I am. A slow start – I’m unlikely to properly organised and focussed until next week as this week will be catching up on all the little admin jobs and tidying up so I can think straight, but we’re getting there. Then it’s work, work, work. We had a great holiday but we definitely need to get focussed on our businesses here. And then there’s next year’s summer holiday to plan 🙂


 

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

 

Riding the Voie Verte from Lavelanet-Mirepoix (Part 2)

With the last week of the holidays looming, I really wanted to get out and finish the remaining 20km of Lavelanet-Mirepoix voie vert (greenway). I rode the first “half” (from Lavelanet to Chalabre) with DD and DS a few weeks before and it worked out well. It was much easier than I thought it would be and surprisingly enjoyable considering it was just me and the two smalls with the trailer. For the second half, not wanting to jinx it by expecting a carbon copy of the first ride, I asked a friend, P, if she wanted to come along with her daughters – both friends with my DD and DS. She agreed but was a little apprehensive about the distance and how it would work out with her two (who fought for most of the way back the last time we did a trailer-ride together!) but I was confident we could do it. We just had to take our time and make sure we had plenty of food.

A bike propped up against a large metal bridge with a child in a bike seat and a man wearing a blue t-shirt looking at another child in a bike trailer
Getting ready to go on the bridge in Chalabre

With a couple of day of warm but cloudy days forecast, Thursday was the day. We met at bridge over the river L’hers in Chalabre – the end point from the last ride – and after a quick bike check and a short delay while we waited for James to go back for my bag which I’d left at home (oops) we were off. Because P was a bit worried about the weight of the trailer over the distance, I took DD and L, the two oldest and heaviest children, for the first half. DS had a trailer all to himself, which he didn’t look all that sure about, and P’s youngest daughter was in the bike seat. We set off.

A child with her face covered in a cycling helmet sits in a bike seat resting her feet on her mother's back. Another child is in a yellow child trailer behind.
Looks no hands

DS was tired and looked like he wasn’t sure what was going on for most of the way. On the bike seat, I, was making herself very comfortable, having a nice chat with P as we rode along, and the two oldest girls, DS and L were chattering away in the trailer together, reading a book about The Romans that L had brought along.

A short way out of Chalabre, past the rearing horses statue (that DD loves) and through the tunnel, and we were into unchartered territory as I’d not ridden far past there before. The trail was in good enough shape for us to ride comfortably side-by-side and we talked about student life in London and French feminism, amongst other things.

A metal sculpture of two horses rearing with their front hooves touching in the air
A metal sculpture alongside the trail leaving Chalabre

We soon arrived at Camon – the furthest point along the route that P had ventured before. When planning the trip I had considered stopping there – there’s a nice park, a picnic spot by the river, and also a snack bar (that’s open, sometimes) – but once we got to that point, not all that long after leaving Chalabre, and given it was a bit of a faff to get leave the trail and find these places, we decided to carry on.

A stony track leading to a bridge with flower baskets along the top, green fields and woodland in the background
Approaching the bridge at Camon

What we really wanted was a nice spot by the river somewhere, so we kept on, keeping an eye out for the river and easy access from the trail. Past Sonnac-sur-l’Hers towards Lagarde, still nothing. By now we were starting to get a few whinges from the trailers behind and DS was looking incredibly tired so whether we had the perfect place or not it was time to stop. We came to a junction with the road leading up to a small hameau (Bordébasse) and could hear the river close by came off the trail onto road to look for a nice spot. Unfortunately access to the river wasn’t possible: it was shady and shallow on the opposite bank but there was no safe way to get there and on our side the water was deep and about 2 metres down from the bank. Shame, but we could see the river moving away from us after this to wandered down the track and found a grassy spot in the field that would do just nicely.

A field of corn (maize) with two children playing in the foreground and an adult and child walking away down the track. The village can be seen in the distance.
Our picnic spot, with the ruined chateau at Lagarde in the distance

The smalls were perfectly happy with our choice: there was a big pile of soil for dinosaur excavations and it was safe and quiet so they could run around. They played cache-cache (hide and seek) on the edge of the corn while P and I speculated whether it was possible to lose your children in a field of corn (we were fairly sure it was possible so this wasn’t very relaxing for us!) Then P also mentioned that snakes quite like it in the corn fields, so we were glad with the smalls decided to come out of there and play in the dirt instead. We talked some more, nibbled at the picnic while they played. They played some more, then they started to fall out a bit (there’s been a bit of a threes-a-crowd dynamic of late and I’m not really sure how we resolve it) so we decided, tired, it was time to put them back in their trailers and seats and carry on with the ride. So far we’d ridden for one hour and spent two playing in a field. I knew we’d be slow but hah!

Two small animal footprints dried in the cracked mud.
Wild boar tracks in the corn field where we picniced

We set off again – this time with DS and DD together with me in our trailer and P’s two girls back with her. This next stretch, where the trail skirted Lagarde, was full of blackberries, rose hips and apple trees. We stopped and started a few times, picking some and sharing them out, but our tired cargo was getting restless and complaining about the frequent stops, so we carried on.

A farm building with a large roof and the ruin of Lagarde chateau beyond
The trail as it approaches the village of Lagarde

It was just after Lagarde that the trail changed from a nice wide track with a good surface to a narrow path through the trees, riding in single file. There were also the odd stretches where it was definitely going up rather than down or flat. By the end of the rough section it opened out again.

We reached a junction, crossed a small road, and it seemed that we were heading in a different direction, perhaps on a different section of railway from before. The signs went a bit strange at this point so we had to check the map to make sure were chose the right section on track to follow. Then, shortly after crossing the bridge at Moulin Neuf, we arrived at slightly busier road and the route took us under a bridge on the road leading up to Roumengoux. A steep and uneven path led away from the road up to the trail, which carried on across the bridge that we’d just ridden under. At this point I think I would have struggled on my own and would probably have had to remove the smalls from the trailer and take everything up piece by piece because with DS and DD in the trailer, DS asleep, and got stuck about half way up! Thankfully L had extracted herself from her trailer and came along to give me a push. Saved by a five-year-old!
I got to the top, secured our bike and trailer against the bridge, then rushed back to help P, who had I (now awake) in the bike seat. L came to the rescue again. We high-fived then got back on the bikes and set off. I was hoping DS would go back to sleep but it looked like that had done it. Oh well.

A narrow shady path with a small group of cyclists in the distance
Some cyclists approach!

Despite the tricky ascent to reach it, the trail was much improved from this point on. Surely our next stop was Mirepoix? I was ready for it now but suspected we still have about 5km to go. I hadn’t looked at the map since a few days before and couldn’t quite remember the details. I’d picked up a message from James earlier and replied to say we were about 20 minutes from Mirepoix – about 30 minutes before. I really had no idea! The landscape had opened up, we passed a few fields of sunflowers and then started to see more people coming our way. As we’d hardly seen another soul day (a handful of cyclists, walkers and the odd owner-less dog) this suggested we were nearing the end. Before long the church spire came into view. Mirepoix!

Looking through blue metal railings down to the a wide and tree-lined river
Crossing Le Grand Hers river at Moulin-Neuf

The trail spits you out unceremoniously at the Super U car park on the main roundabout into the town. What was a car park (I presume for the trail) when we first came to the area about 10 years ago is now a petrol station. There is what looked to be a nice shady spot with access to the river right on the edge of the carpark but there was a “yoof” with a radio blaring, a large untethered dog, and what looked like a can of lager, so we decided to give our paddle in the river a miss, which was a shame because we’d earned it. We made up for the paddling deficit by offering ice-cream. A popular decision.

A wide tree-lined and shady path with a graffitied building on the left had side.
Arriving in Mirepoix!

While heading towards the supermarket entrance we spotted James, waiting for us there. He’d been there about 10 minutes, so the timing wasn’t too bad afterall. Because P couldn’t get a lift home for a while, we all went over together to a little park that has recently been refurbished. This gave our trailer-bound cargo a chance to let off some steam, which they duly did, while we (P and I) sat wearily on the bench chatting some more.

The wide and tree-lined path leading from the current end of the voie verte into Mirepoix and beyond

The park is just off what looks like a newly-renovated area, which I suspect will lead onto the next section of vioe verte, which is due to be extended from Mirepoix up to Bram, making it possible, in future, to ride all the way from Lavelanet to join the Canal du Midi. Once there there’s the possibility to head west towards Toulouse, eventually reaching the coast at Bordeaux, or heading south east towards Carcassone and joining the coast at Narbonne on a route called le Canal des 2 Mers à Vélo route. That’s 400km of traffic-free cycling and the seaside at either end!

This being France, it’s almost impossible to find out when this new route is likely to be finished but that’s okay because we’re not ready for a 400km ride – or even a multiday ride from Chalabre to Carcassone, just yet. We have plenty to keep us busy locally and some training to do. Next in my sights is the voie verte from Foix to Saint Girons – another 40km ish route and top of the list for next summer. Given it’s a similar distance to Lavelanet-Mirepoix it would work best for us – with small children and trailers – to break it up over two days. Of course by the time we left for home I’d already gained approval from James for a potential overnight camp (or B&B) stop and may even have persuaded P to come along too. I may also ride all or part of the Lavelanet-Mirepoix route again on my own as that will give me the chance to stop at a few more places along the way and explore a little. And for day-to-day riding I think my next ride will be to take the trailer from Chalabre to Camon, which is such a pretty village it definitely deserves a good look around. There are always more rides so it’s great that we all had a good day together as riding is always more fun with ride buddies!


Download the route information brochure from
rando-pyreneesaudoises.com.

Download the GPX track from GPSies.


Have you ridden or would you like to ride this route? Do you have any questions about it? Please post in the comments below!

First Family Camp in the Pyrénées-Orientales

It’s the summer holidays and we live somewhere breathtakingly beautiful. In the UK we were always off camping for the weekend, usually to Wales, sometimes to the Lakes. We would walk, rest, read, revive and restore ourselves. Then we had DD, then DS, and then we left the UK and moved to France. We were busy and didn’t have chance to get away. Consequently, the summer holidays dragged on and on. We missed our little camping trips. That wasn’t going to happen again this year, so we decided on a few two-night stays way, to give us a much-needed change of scene and also as a way of checking out other areas we might like to live, since we’re doing so badly at finding a house where we are now! With a few changes to our original Welsh-holiday setup we were ready to go for our first family-of-four camping trip.

What camping used to look like

A field, a tipi, and a wood burner: child-free, all-weather camping

We managed two camping trips with DD: one when she was about 18 months old and another later that same year when she was a little older. The first was less than a success: the temperature dropped to minus something that night which meant we’d heat the stove and we’d all drop off to sleep sweltering hot then we’d wake up once the fire had burnt out, all freezingl. DD somehow managed to sleep pretty well until 5am but then was wide awake and crying. Just what you want when you’re the only couple with a small child on a mountain biking weekend away with the club of mostly child-free by choice 30 somethings (okay, we weren’t the only couple there with a small child but our friends were in a camper and so were much more soundproofed!) I was as tired as hell the next day and James was ready to go home, which really took the edge of my mountain bike ride, as did the torrential rain that followed. It was really good fun – not.

Scotland in May – Camping with DD: All smiles before a night of minus temperatures

The second time was much more relaxing. We had a few days with a toddling DD at the lovely Graig Web campsite would no doubt have gone again if I hadn’t been the world’s most grumpy and uncomfortable pregnant mummy to be. And after that, once DS was born, we were preoccupied with our move to The Continent. And now here we are.

Finding a family tent

Another barrier to a big camping trip was that we didn’t have anywhere to sleep. We decided we needed to “upgrade” the tipi for something more… wildlife proof. Here there are ants, snakes, and – maybe not worst but certainly most annoying of all – mosquitoes. Our tipi, being single-skin canvas was bought on the basis of having a wood burning stove, keeping us both warm and dry in autumn, winter, and spring, and cool, if it ever got warm enough to want to be cool, in summer. Pests were not on radar. Nor were two small children.

After extensive research, reading reviews, trawling websites, Facebook lurking to see what tents friends had and recommended, I took the executive decision to buy the HiGear Zenobia Elite 6 from Go Outdoors (which seems to now be out of stock and replaced by the Eclipse, which is of an almost identical design). In years gone by, while in thrawl to my corporate job, I’d probably have made quite a different purchase (hence the Tentipi) but having a limited budget made it quite a different proposition. I wouldn’t have thought of HiGear except that friends had recently gone down the family tent route and recommended it. Since I know they’re both pretty discerning when it comes to outdoor gear I decided it was a pretty solid recommendation. And that’s how I ended up with the Zenobia. We toyed with the idea of getting the inner for the tipi but we decided that 500 quid was a bit steep and ideally we could use more space. With a budget of 300 quid the Zenobia fitted the bill and had pretty good reviews. Good enough. Not so much Go Outdoors but that was a chance we were going to have to take, given HiGear is their own brand. Postage was a bit steep – £39.99 on top of the cost of the tent – but I managed to pick it up for a great price and even with the postage we were in budget. And it came with a carpet too. Very grown up!

Choosing a campsite

Another reason it had taken us so long to get our camping shizzle together is that we tend to like a certain kind of campsite. In days gone by we were always looking out for remote and quite wild locations, happy with or without hot water, even toilets. There were a few sites we liked but only ever at times when most other people were away somewhere else: with the Welsh mountains’ proximity to several major cities there was a tendency for campsite to turn into giant drinking parties, especially on public holidays – and we hated them when they were busy. We also rejected any site that was good for caravans, so any sanitised site with electric hook up available or, god-forbid, static vans. Oh My Days, noooo! We would not be seen dead on one of those sites (actually, I camped at a few like that and had a perfectly nice time but that was on mountain bike weekends with “The Girls”. For James, if it had a no-fires policy it was a no. And no, chucking a few cheeky sticks onto a barbecue is not the same as having a fire.)

Our favourite site: no neighbours and a “weather-proof” fire

Such sites being hard to find here in France, a new campsite in a new place is always a bit of gamble. With kids, however, and now we’re on The Continent, camping takes a different turn. We are all about sites that are bursting with facilities. Okay, maybe not bursting, but at the very least our list includes: a play area (parc de joue)? check; hot running water and showers? check; a swimming pool (or access to a swimming lake)? check; allocated pitches? check! We still love the mountains though and I struggled with the idea of booking somewhere close to the sea with more of a “holiday camp” feel. But I’m sure I’m just getting warmed up to it and it won’t be long. Maybe next year.

Choosing a location

So having decided that we were ready to brave a well-managed site with good facilities, we then had to decide where to go. Given France is vastly larger than the UK and we don’t know any of it, how to narrow it down?

Apart from having a well-needed change of scenery and chance to just chill for a few days, we definitely feel it’s time to explore some new areas. Remember, we came here to find a house, and that hasn’t gone so well. We’ve ended up renting, which we didn’t want to do, and having seen many, many shoddy and overpriced houses, we’ve also started searching for land with a view to building. Given we’re not doing much better in the search for land we’ve decided it’s time to start searching further afield. First though we need to figure out where we might want to go. Hence our little mini-trips branching outwards from our home and planned in all directions.

In May we spent a few days with my parents in Ceret. 
I wanted to write about it but the opportunity has passed. If we go there again I’ll make sure I try a bit harder and share my thoughts about the place. In short, I liked it. I’d read a bit about the fairly recent history of the area when I fell into a WWII reading rabbit hole last year, discovering Love And War in The Pyrenees: a really fascinating book that makes grim and humbling reading.

That aside, it was nice to be somewhere a bit… smarter – and busier. To say it’s quiet here is an understatement. It’s not just that there’s not a lot going on. It’s also that there isn’t anyone here! The houses are run down, they’re overpriced, there’s no work. It’s really quite dead. We like that but because of that it’s always quite exciting to spend time somewhere that has a bit of a buzz about it. And then leave, of course.

Rather than going back to Ceret I decided it would be quite nice to explore the next valley along, which is therefore a bit closer to our home, making it easier to get to and easier to abort our trip if for any reason it wasn’t going so well.

And so we ended up at Camping Lac du Vinca.

Our Campsite & the Surrounding Area

Vinca is a small village just off the N116, which is the main road running from Perpignan into Andorra via Prades. It’s on the edge of lake that was formed in 1976 as a means of serving the city below with water.

The campsite itself borders the section of the lake that is to the West of the N116. When we first pulled off the main road we thought I might have cocked up with the site choice, as we could see camping cars from the road. Luckily that was the municipal site and our site was a bit further away from the road, tucked away at the other end of the village. It’s a 3*** site, which by UK standards means a well-equipped site, usually with a simple pool or access to a swimming area, hot running water for showers, a laundry room, usually a kid’s play area, and often, in high-season at least, a snack bar/buvette.

The area is good as it’s fairly close to the sea (about 30 minutes) and also close to the mountains. I wasn’t expecting we’d do much on our first visit: usually the first time anywhere we have a good look around, pick up a tonne of leaflets, scour the map for interesting places to go, and make more touristy plans for subsequent visits.

And the outcome?

I won’t go into too much detail about the site (I wrote a Trip Advisor review when we got back, and that says it all) and will just say we all had a fabululous time! The small beach, which was just perfect for the little ones, was barely a minute away from our pitch. We also had a steady stream of “friends” for DD in adjacent pitches, and she and DS had alot of fun interacting with their new companions. The first family – German – had two children who spoke German and some English but DD insisted on speaking to them in French, which was quite entertaining. They left after our first night but were replaced by an large (and sometimes rowdy!) group of French and Spanish women – relatives and friends – with a 6-year-old boy who DD spent the rest of the time we were there playing with. One of the reasons we didn’t bother going anywhere was because DS and DD were fully occupied and content on the site, and it was nice for us just to stop and do not much at all other than just hang out with them.

Our Family Tent and Pitch

Despite having a really nice time in our little camp, we weren’t that excited about the area, at least from what we saw as we drove along the main routes. Prades was nice – quite busy and less shabby than Quillan but not as polished as Ceret – and next time we head that way we’ll go onto Villefranche-et-Conflent, which is an old fortified town which some interesting tourist sites. We were a little underwhelmed by Marquixanes, where I’d seen a number of houses for sale. They looked to be in good condition (nicely renovated stone houses) and at sensible prices so, but that may be because there’s the threat of an enormous road building programme looming over the area, if the signs alongside the route are anything to go by. After all my efforts with the Save Swallow’s Wood campaign at our old house, I don’t really have the stomach for another anti-road campaign!

But back to the camping trip.

DS was so sad when we left the site. He really had a lovely time. DD was devistated that we were taking her away from her new friend. I think being somewhere with a steady stream of children to play with, along with a nice swimming spot, is her (current) idea of heaven. We asked if they want to go again and it was a definite yes. So we definitely will. Now we have all the gear it’s just a case of deciding when and where.

A screenshot of a 5-star review with the title "Nice spot for a family camping trip"
My Trip Advisor Review of Camping Lac du Vinca in the Pyrenees Orientales

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