Category Archives: Things to Do

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

 

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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!

Riding the Voie Verte from Lavelanet to Mirepoix (Part 1)

Before the holidays, determined to make a better job of it than last year, I started putting together a list of microadventures we could have over the summer. One of the things high on that list was riding the voie verte that is closest to us here: the 38km trail from Lavelanet to Mirepoix. My original plan involved an overnight camp, with James acting as chauffeur enabling us to ride the route in sections then spend the night in a tent before carrying on the next day. I originally thought three short rides with two overnights. Then I thought it would be fun to do this with friends. Then I decided the logistics of organising said trip with friends or even just between the two of us was giving me a headache and that I’d do it alone. Then I decided that it was too sunny and hot for any kind of bike ride let alone with children and a trailer, so sacked the whole thing off and tried not to be down about it. Did I let it go? Of course not.

Then we spent the morning up on the mountain at Bonascre where there are some pretty sweet looking downhill mountain bike trails. I got excited about riding my bike. I needed to ride my bike.

Me & DS having a “babychino” and getting fired up about bikes – Bonascre 2018

As luck would have it the forecast for the day after our visit to Bonascre changed from upwards of 30 degrees with full sun to an overcast morning topping out at about 24 with rain to follow. I needed something to do with the two smalls as James planned to work, so what to do, what to do? A morning ride then. Yippee!! In my head the route was 45km (I’m sure I’d read that somewhere) so I figured three rides of 15km would keep it nice and short for the smalls and also fit well around the weather forecast.

After an early start (as is usual these days) and a half-arsed attempt at breakfast, my two passengers were briefed and ready to go. I was worried that they’d both want to bring/ride their own bikes, only one of which has pedals, which would involve a whole lot of stop-starting, an epic amount of faffing, not least I still haven’t figured out how to attach their bikes to the trailer while they are also in the trailer. I was starting to get planning fatigue again so was relieved when DD said she didn’t want to ride her bike and just wanted a trailer ride. DS was not so readily convinced but I got around that by leaving his balance bike here accidentally on purpose. Oops, sorry. Car packed, children loaded and secured, bike unelegentally lifted onto the roof (I am soooo unfit!) and we were off.

The advice online is to start the ride in Lavelanet as then more of it is downhill than up. That certainly proved to be true for the first 5km or so. It was a breeze! The surface was good, there was plenty of shade (not that that mattered as there wasn’t any sun to hide from) and we were all happy to be off on a little adventure together. The last trailer ride was me and DS alone while DD was at maternelle – and he hadn’t liked it at all! But now with his big sister holding his little hand (cute), DS was calling out, “faster mummy!” too. Just brilliant.

Passing under a bridge en-route from Lavelanet to Chalabre

I didn’t want to stop to take pictures because stopping and starting was a massive faff, so I had the camera round my neck and took pics as we came to the main crossings or places of interest. I did really well on that front for the first half of the ride, which was actually pretty easy thanks to the terrain and the surface. We quickly got to the 8km marker and I was starting to think we’d shoot for 20km and not the 15 I’d planned.

By now the sun was out and I realised I had forgotten the suncream. Actually not forgotten but dismissed because we were half way out of the village when I realised I didn’t have it – and we trusted the meteo. Fools. Now DD was hot and hungry. Time for a snack stop. We pressed on, past La Peyrat, to the junction with the D620 just before Sainte-Colombe-Sur-l’Hers where I hoped there was a picnic bench. There was. We crossed over the road and stopped under a shady tree for a snack.  My kids are so spoiled: I’d packed apples. Just three of them. And water. They did the job. DD of course wanted more so after a happy little jump around the picnic table we continued on.

A snack stop alongside the D620 between La Peyrat and Sainte-Colombe-Sur-l’Hers

It was at this point that my legs started to feel like lead (I was pulling about 40kg in combined child-trailer weight), I was worrying a bit about the suncream, and the track surface turned from leg-friendly, trailer-friendly pedal turner to bumpy farm track and ever-so-slightly up hill. Not as easy goibg as before. DD was still mithering for food but DS was soon asleep, thankfully. I called James to report on our progress and requested lunch at the park in Chalabre for 12h30. Confirmation received, I started to fantasise about food, which is a bit tragic given I’d only ridden 11km by this point.

Voie Verte Lavelanet-Mirepoix: The bumpy approach to Sainte-Colombe-Sur-l’Hers

Full sun, some shade and still a terrible track, from Sainte-Colombe onwards was some welcome almost downhill again. I say almost because mountain bike plus trailer doesn’t roll too well on a rough track, so there was quite a lot of pedalling. DD helped to keep me motivated by whining from the back about being hot and hungry. I pedalled on. DS continued to sleep despite bumps and also the squeak that had developed, and eventually we arrived at our destination: Chalabre.

A shady old railway bridge between Sainte-Colombe and the old station at Rivel

I didn’t get any photos from there, unfornately. We were too busy tucking into our picnic! I like Chalabre. We spend quite alot of time there these days – it’s where DS goes to crèche. I like it there. For anyone attempting to ride the voie verte in a day and looking for a place to rest midway – or a place to camp (there’s a municipal site as well as a nice but unofficial spot by the river) – you can do worse than the stop there. You’ll find some shops (chemist, grocer, butcher, boulongerie), which are open in the mornings and afternoons (usually everything is shut for lunch, so you’ll struggle between 12h30 and 2h30), and some cafes. The best place for a picnic is down by the river, where there’s also a little park. The park is tucked away under the big red metal bridge, which is the continuation of the voie verte towards Camon, over the L’Hers river. The park has shade and is a good place to contain small children while also allowing them to let off some steam in the playground, where there’s a climbing frame, slide, and a see-saw. Because it’s right next to the river, which you can walk down to to sit on the bank and have a paddle, or have yourself a proper cooling off just a few meters down where it gets a bit deeper. For grown ups sans children there’s a picnic bench there and, again, big trees so plenty of shade.

After eating our picnic and having a little play, we headed home. In the end we’d ridden 17km and just under half of the route. This makes the rest is manageable in a single day as long as I plan a decent midway stop. Now all I need is another un-sunny day. I’m sure one will be along at some point but until then we can settle back into good-weather-mode.

Part 1, done!

We did it! Read all about the second part of our adventure here:
https://aleapintothevoid.wordpress.com/2018/09/01/riding-the-voie-verte-from-lavelanet-mirepoix-part-2/

A Short Walk along a Long Distance Path (GR7)

We used to walk a lot both before DD and when she was still small enough to carry. Since having DS and also moving, we’ve mostly been limited to short works to and from the park or thereabouts; walks of a distance just far enough for the big one to walk both ways and the small one to walk or be carried as far as he wants or is able. It causes that parenting conflict where on the one hand you don’t want to be wishing their little lives away, but on the other you do kind of look forward to being able to do some proper walks again. The only way round this with children of their ages (2 and 4) is to carry the little one and make sure you have the capability of carrying the bigger one once she decides she’s had enough. When you’re carrying the little one, is often within the first 5 minutes of the walk, so we always have to factor that in when thinking about distance. Sigh. That means it’s really much simpler to walk with just one of them and, if it means carrying, that’s definitely easier with the little one.

So when DD was going to play at a friend’s house just over the hill I decided that, rather than just stay at home and try to get DS down for a nap (he’s started napping in the morning again!) I’d pop him in the sling and walk over to meet James and DD, then catch a lift back. I wasn’t exactly sure how far it was – there wasn’t time to check an online map or plot the route – so I figured it “wasn’t far” (that’s a technical term) and allowed myself an hour to get there. It was a cool weather day, warm but overcast, so a good temperature for walking, especially with a sling. I wasn’t worried about route finding because for most of the way, until the path rejoined the road, I’d be following GR7. GR is short for Grande Randonnée, which is the designation for a long-distance route that is well marked using the standard. There are over 100 of these criss-crossing Europe. GR7 is 1900 km long, starting in Spain then passing through Andorra and into France. The French part is 1400 km long. The section I was walking was from Puivert in the direction from Chalabre, heading North.

The Walk

This was a pretty interesting walk. There was plenty to see nature-wise with lots of spring flowers on the edges of the path both in the field and through the woods. There was plenty of evidence of the damage done by the moth that invaded last year – the Pyral du Buis (Box Tree Moth) – which I wrote about in a blog post. At the time I was quite blase about it. I don’t think I realised just how much boxwood was around here as I am more accustomed to the smaller-leaved versions that we have in the UK than the larger-leaved variety that’s around here. Now winter has passed and everything is greening up it’s really obvious how much damage there is. All along the first half of this week, where the landscape is open, the box has been decimated. This picture is an example.

Three boxwood bushes with brown leaves damaged by the Boxwood Month (Cydalima perspectalis)
The Impact of the Damaged Boxwood on the Landscape

Here you can see the damage close up.

Brown leaves of boxwood plants
A Closeup of Boxwood Damaged by the Boxwood (Cydalima Perspectalis) Moth

It wasn’t until I got deeper into the wood that I saw healthier specimens. Perhaps those within the wood were protected by the trees, out of sight, perhaps? Either way, I do wonder whether we’ll see them again this year given how much damage they did. There may not be much left for them to eat. I also worry a little about the fire risk given there’s so much dead vegetation around. I’m not sure how prone this area is to fires but I know that they get them regularly further down the valley, however, there also seems to be much less box down there and I’m not sure the moths ventured that way. Time will tell on the fire front.

Tragic decimation of the many boxwood trees aside, there were plenty of living plants to see – and evidence of wild animals. I took as many pictures as I could but DS started to get impatient with my stops and starts so I gave up after a while. Here are a few plant pics that I managed to grab, of the Early Purple Orchid and a small blue flower I’m not familiar with and need to identify. I also saw two different types of vetch, cowslips, clover, buttercups, another small blue flower on a tall stem which as bit like self-heal with a more orchid-like flower so another one to identify.

A purple flower on a all green stem on a grassy track
A slightly out-of-focus (blaming DS for wriggling) Early Purple Orchid
Small blue flowers amongst the wet and dry grass
A small blue flower to ID later. Any ideas?

One of the reasons I was keen to do this walk was that I hoped it would be cycle worthy. Which it is, absolutely is – on a mountain bike. It’s up there on there on my to-do list and will be welcome relief from sensible trailer-friendly tracks and tarmac. Oh yes.

But it’s really not one for the trailer. It nearly wasn’t one for a child-carrying solo parent: at one point there’s a fairly steep near-on scramble up a muddy, and slipping in the damp, bank. There were just enough rocks for me to get a steady footing and we made it. It was made all the more exciting by DS cheering me along with fearful cries of, “No, Stop!” – which suggests he didn’t have every confidence in me, the cheeky little so-and-so. We made it, of course, and continued, but it’s something to consider if a near vertical scramble isn’t your thing. I did wonder how that would work out for someone travelling with horses or a pack mule. Or actually just on a mountain bike. Can I get my bike up there by myself? There’s only one way to find out.

A muddy bank with rocks on a path lined with yellow broom plants
The steep and slippy bank rising up into the woods towards Col de Lapeyrouse on GR7
A rocky path through woodland
Rocky happiness, right there. I want to ride my bike, tra-la-la…

Having done it on foot I’m quite excited to the point of impatience about the possibility of scaring myself shitless clattering down the rocky descent from the Col de Lapeyrouse to the D121. It’s been a while since I’ve ridden anything that hectic – maybe Potato Alley in the Peak District comes close? I’ll find out, soon I hope, and will then report back. See, now I’m excited about it again!

A rocky path lined by tall boxwood trees
A landscape very similar to the labyrinth at Nebias – hardly surprising since it’s just up the road!

If you’re interested in the route and the map, read on.

The Route

From the village, cross the D117 and follow the D121 up the hill and towards Saint-Jean de Paracol. At the turning to Métairie d’on Bor, turn right onto the track and then immediately left. Follow this track through the field (conveniently edged by electric fence) and up towards the woods.

The rest of the way is easy to find as it’s an obvious path and waymarked using the standard white and red lines.

This is a one-way route so you can either come back the way you came or take the D121. It’s not as picturesque but is a pretty quiet road – no problem if you’re riding and not likely to be a problem on foot either. In future I hope to explore a few of the other tracks around and pick the brains of knowledgeable locals so that I can make it into a more interesting loop.

Map and GPX Track Download

To view the full-size map or download the GPX track, click on the map below to go to the main GPSies site.

//www.gpsies.com/mapOnly.do?fileId=zutrkceruzqgcash

Where to Park, Eat, Pee, etc.

There’s parking outside the Mairie in Puivert, in many side streets, or in the small car park on the D117.

As far as eateries go, there’s nothing at the Tougnets end so take food and water with you. On your return you can try: the Brasserie du Quercorb (an English-run microbrewery, civilized enough to also serve tea and coffee but no food); Adeline & Joan, a cafe/bar that has a menu and a small shop area – excellent coffee and free WiFi too; or try one of the buvettes down by the Lac du Puivert. Of the three that are there, my preference is for the L’escale.

Toilets can be found next door to the Mairie and also at the Lake.

Accessibility

Definitely not suitable for pushchairs, wheelchairs, or bike trailers! Also not recommended for anyone who is uncomfortable walking on steep or unsteady ground. A walking pole or stick is recommended.


Have you followed this route before? Are you planning a walk that way in future? A ride, maybe? Please comment and share your story!

48 Hours in Narbonne – with kids

Ah, the city break. Before having kids we were quite big fans of city breaks: meandering around back streets, in and out of cafes and the odd bar, heading out in the evening for a meal in a cosy looking restaurant. Oh, those were the days. Not that we had them very often but, being country folk at heart, we always quite enjoyed a few days in the hustle and bustle before skulking off back to our quiet life in the sticks. So it was that we were looking for somewhere to go for a few days away in the holidays. Our first instinct was to look to the mountains. James was keen to explore the area around Les Angles, having talked to someone who regularly goes there for holidays, so that was the first place we looked. If it had just been the two of us, fine, no problem. But out of season, with cold weather approaching, possibly in the wet, what would there be to do with two small children? After trawling the Internet and having a good look at various maps, we hadn’t found anything that was much different from our regular life here. If we struggled to get out for “proper” walks where we live, which is pretty wild as it is, spending a couple of days somewhere even wilder might not be much fun. I also didn’t want to drive too far. I don’t think it’s fair on the kids to spend too much of the day in the car and would rather just get somewhere than take up too much of the holiday travelling.

The idea of a trip to the mountains just wasn’t cutting it. Then were remembered the city break. Why not!? We’d really enjoyed a few days in Cahors on a trip back from the Charente earlier in the year and there was the added bonus that it would probably be warmer than out in the sticks and have a few more wet weather options. But which city? We haven’t been to any French cities, ever – other than a trip to the Carcassone to register the car. Toulouse was an option but in the end we decided on Narbonne as we could also easily reach Gruissan, somewhere we had wanted to visit in the summer but had decided against due to the travel factor and being unable to find accommodation for a short camping trip (and also not having the bottle for a camping trip!) I found a nice-looking apartment a short walk from the city centre, promptly booked it, and that was that: we were going to Narbonne.

As with so many things these days the whole trip was a bit flying by the seat of our pants. For example, it was only as we approached Narbonne that I even looked up the address of the place to get directions. In days gone by I’d have printed maps and had a least some idea of where it was. No more. It was a miracle we all ended up in the car, frankly, as the morning we were due to set off did not go well! James had done a little bit of research previously but hadn’t turned up anything particularly good to do with kids. Just the usual site-seeing stuff: old buildings, city tours (for the full list, check out Trip Advisor). I did a bit of Googling while we drove down and managed to write a very small list of child-friendly things to do, thinking also that it might be cold and wet, so with wet-weather as well as child-friendly activities. Here’s what I found and what we did.

Narbonne Swimming Pool

Narbonne Piscine Municipale

Website: http://www.espacedeliberte.fr/piscine/ 

Top of the list was a visit to the swimming pool. DD loves swimming and is as happy as anything splashing about in arm bands. The pool looked quite impressive, with some fantastic outdoor facilities (not open in November, of course) as well as some fun indoor things, like a waterslide and a play area. The reviews weren’t great with some people saying it was a bit dirty, but there was only one way to find out whether that was true. So off we went.

 

NarbonnePiscine
Plan of the facilities at Narbonne’s Municipal Swimming Pool

 

And it was great! It seemed pretty clean to me, plus it was warm in both the changing rooms, the pool area, and the water. I hate a cold pool! There was plenty of room in the small pool, which started at 40cm and then dropped down to 70cm, which was perfect for both DD and DS. There wasn’t a massive queue for the water slide, so DD went on three times, twice with James and then with me, and DD enjoyed the play area once the water sprayer went off. Once she discovered how fast she could go on the small slide, she really went of it! We passed a happy hour there and only left because DS was getting hungry and showing signs of tiredness. We’d definitely go back!

Pricing was hard to find on their website though. For the four of us (two adults, one 3 year old and a one-year-old) we paid 11 euros 30 cents. Not bad. It’s a bit more than we pay locally but there were more facilities. You’d definitely get better value for money in the summer, given the access to the outdoor facilities, but really it was perfect for us on a grey and stormy looking afternoon.

Other facilities at the same site include a skate park – very popular, looking at the numbers on it – and an ice-skating rink, which DD was fascinated by. Another one to revisit if we end up in Narbonne again.

Google Maps reckoned it was a 30 minute walk from the centre, so we drove. I’m glad we did because it was dark when we came out and everyone was tired. There are supermarkets near by as well as a few fast food places, if that’s your thing.

As far as refreshments go at the pool, there’s a restaurant (open for lunch and dinner) and a couple of vending machines in the foyer.

The Indoor Market

Les Halles de Narbonne

Website: http://www.narbonne.halles.fr/

An indoor market wouldn’t have been my first choice with two small children but as it was we struggled to get DD out of there. She loved it, especially the lobster tank (kids, or at least my kids, really don’t care about the killing and eating thing) and the baskets with all the strange-looking shellfish, including the very odd looking (for a foodstuff) sea urchin. Who would want to eat those!?

The nice thing about the market is that there are also a few cafes and bars – more wet weather places to hang out. And you can also do your shopping while you’re there. We didn’t but a few stalls that caught my eye included one selling moroccan food, with various tagine-cooked meals for sale, and an Italian stall with some really tasty calzones and pizzas. DD was very interested in some the cakes, of course.

The Playground

This isn’t really an official tourist destination of course, but anyone with small kids knows that you can’t beat a play ground. The kids get to let off steam instead of being dragged around the streets (or around boring churches and museums) and you get to put your feet up. The play area was clean – fenced off from the main park – and within a small, quiet park. We had a happy 20-minutes here.

It’s only a few minutes walk from the centre, just past the Cathedrale Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur, behind the MJC building on Place Roger Salengro. Pick up a coffee then take a seat on the bench while your kids run about.

The Roman Road

Via Domitia of Narbonne

Website (Trip Advisor Review): https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g187155-d11548276-Reviews-Via_Domitia_of_Narbonne-Narbonne_Aude_Occitanie.html

This is a section of the original roman road in the main square that has been exposed. What’s particularly nice is that you are able to walk on it – it’s not just something to look at. The striking thing about it is the depth. Roman Narbonne existed a metre or two lower than the present day. Also the stones are giant compared to anything we would consider road-worthy today. Cobbles these rocks are not.

On a quiet autumn day there’s space to sit while your young ones jump around all over the rocks. Again, DD was very happy there and could have stayed longer (in fact I’ve just remembered we promised to go back later on – but didn’t.)

Gruissan Beach

Gruissan Plage

Website: http://gruissan-mediterranee.com/escale-nautique/les-plages/ 

On our last day, after leaving the apartment, we drove down to Gruissan Plage. We’d been given a map with some walks on it and wanted to look for some flamingos! Unfortunately the weather wasn’t great for walking, so we just headed to the nearest beach after driving through the small town of Gruissan and ended up on the Plage de Chalets, which was interesting in itself as I’d almost booked up as place there before deciding we’d be more comfortable in town, given the time of year. Anyway, with the wind blowing a gale, the sea was choppy and the kite-surfers were out in force, which both DD and DS loved. Obviously, given it was November, the beach was empty, so both kids had a really nice play: DD playing horses, galloping around, and even going in for a paddle, and DS rolling around in the soft sand! We picked up some shells and a short walk up the beach and back. DD walked on the rocks and DS on the wall. Both were happy (simple pleasure!) Afterwards we sidled into the “beach bar” which also happens to be the surf rental shop. We had a couple of coffees and they made a couple of babycinos for the kids (hot milk with chocolate sprinkles.) It was a bit of a rip off (12 euros!) but then it was a tourist spot.

From here it was an easy drive back to the auto-route through the salt marshes on the D32. Happily, really only a 100 metres from the bridge out of Gruissan, we saw some flamingos, stragglers stuck inland, most likely waiting for the wind to change before setting off. That rounded things off nicely. And we’ll definitely be back in warmer weather when the flamingos will also be in abundance for the walks around the Etang and other nature areas.

Royal Kids Play Centre

Royal Kids Parc de Jouet

Website: https://www.royalkids.fr/parcs/narbonne

This was on my wet weather reserve list. As it was we didn’t end up visiting as it was dry the next day so we were able to visit the beach, but we visited one of these when we were up in the Charente earlier in the year and it was a great place for the kids to let off some steam, especially before the journey back. Soft play, slides, and a cafe. We used to visit these almost weekly when we were in England but they’re few and far between here, usually just the odd one close to the city, so it would have been quite a treat for them to go. Another one for next time.

Conclusion

So there we have. We easily filled our full day there and I was happy that we also made it to the beach and saw some flamingos! The old town in Gruissan looked nice and in warmer weather we would possibly have walked a bit more and stopped there for a look around.

Narbonne itself, despite finding things to do, wasn’t our favourite destination. It was just too dirty. With two small children who like to touch everything and occasionally, spontaneously, throw themselves on the floor and roll/crawl around (while channelling a horse or a dog, presumably) it was one of those parenting-on-high-alert type experiences. It was marginally more relaxing once they were both on our backs in slings but still, as James pointed out, we weren’t getting to see much of Narbonne because we were constantly looking at our feet. It was dire, actually. Every wall had been peed on, recently, it seemed, and you could barely walk 5 metres without coming upon another patch of dog poo. Yuck, really yuck. On that basis, it’s unlikely we’ll go back to the town. The beach, on the other hand, and the area around Gruissan was clean, so our next visit will be to there, I think.

Have you visited Narbonne as a family? If so, what did you do? Have I missed anything off my list?

 

Family Rides around Lac de Montbel (Part 1)

With the end of the grandes vacances rapidly approaching, I realised I had utterly failed in all of my cycling missions, namely to tick off a few sections (at least) of the Mirepoix-Lavelanet voie verte and also to ride around Lac de Montbel. Both routes are pretty local to me so with a few not-so-hot weather days showing on the forecast I decided to go for it, with Montbel top of my tick-list.

The VTT Pyrenees website lists two main routes around the lake that I figured could be tweaked then reccied for their trailer-friendliness.

  • Route 14, from Chalabre, following the voie verte north then taking a track down to the lake via the village of Montbel – 17km in total, classed as Circuit Familial, graded blue.
  • Route 16, which could also be started from Chalabre, which more or less follows the shore of the lake – 32km in total and classed as Circuit Sportif, graded red.

Since I wasn’t in the mood for tackling a major trailer ride on my own (James was having back trouble and didn’t want to ride and I hadn’t had chance to arrange anything with anyone else) we hatched a plan whereby he would drop me off on the eastern shore of the lake, by the village of Montbel, then drive over to the western shore to wait for us. We would picnic together once we arrived and, in the meantime, I’d get my ride and James would get some peace and quiet. James liked the idea, so that’s what we did. I also decided to strap DD’s balance bike to the back of the trailer as I thought it would be nice for her to have the option of riding too, if she felt like it.


I didn’t bother plotting anything beforehand, no GPS tracks or anything, as it was going to pretty simple, at least that’s how it looked from various maps, so I just set off with the plan to keep the lake on my right and ask for help/directions along the way whenever I wasn’t sure! One of the things I had no idea about was whether the route would be trailer friendly. There was no indication of such online so I was going to have to ride it to find out.

I started to have my first doubts about this within a few minutes of James pulling off in the car when confronted with a steep and sandy bank with a gap only just large enough to fit the trailer. Thanks to the timely arrival of some helpful (and somewhat skeptical) walkers we made it up and over and were on our way. Only a few minutes in and I was already starting to wonder whether this route would be good with the trailer. The path the other side was narrow, not something I’d have worried about usually but given I’d only managed to get a few hundred metres from the start thanks to assistance I was really hoping it would get better. The narrow path was nice for me to ride on but it meant the trailer wheels were dragging a bit on the grass either side and my two passengers were getting bumped around a fair bit. I wasn’t sure they’d tolerate that over 7 miles. Luckily, the first of four dams quickly came into view and the path opened out. So far so good.

The next section of the route was pretty nice to ride, wider for a short while and then into some woods, following the bank of the water. Lovely!


I was just starting to relax when a bloke came hurtling out of the woods and, after a quick exchange of bonjours, started gesturing and saying, “attention!” (which the French say in the same way we would say, “be careful!” Hmm… I flagged him down and asked him what the problem was and he said to be careful because there was a difficult section coming up. Difficult how, I wondered. Then I spotted it. It was one of those fabulous dirt drop ins, a bit like a half-pipe, great fun to ride but not so great with a trailer in tow! I stopped, took a picture (which really doesn’t do the depth of it justice) then backtracked to look for a path that would take me round it. Of course, I wasn’t the first person to pass that way and not like the look of that drop, so there was a path, which I duly pushed the trailer round until I was back on the trail. First hurdle overcome. Yay, onwards!


After that it was pretty easy going again. The track was nice and it was generally wide enough for the trailer to pass easily with the odd tree root to avoid, so it was a case of picking the most suitable line for the trailer so that the littles didn’t get bumped around too much. It was good fun!

About half way to our destination a wrong turn delivered us to a section of the lake where the water was so low I ended up riding beyond the end of a track onto the hard-baked clay, which was interesting! The littlies weren’t too happy about it as it was very bumpy. I was keen to get off it in case there were any soft patches and I ended up stuck and dragging bike and trailer out of the mud. As soon as I was closer to where the shore would usually be I made for the obvious path.

At this point, on a nice flat, wide track, it seemed a good point for DD to have a go on her balance bike. She had a short scoot then assured me that she was worn out and needed a rest – convenient because there also appeared to be some dinosaur-like tree stumps sticking out of the mud that were calling out for exploration. I’m fairly sure she’d have stayed on her bike for longer if curiosity hadn’t got the better of her.


She really wanted to go down and take a closer look so we parked up, liberated DS, and wandered down to check them out. DD was playing with her new dinosaur friends while DS was more interested in the white cranes that we’d disturbed when we rode across the clay and were now coming back down to land near the water’s edge. With the water well out of easy reach to either of them it was a nice place to relax and take a break.


After both passengers had had a reasonable run around and we were all topped up around for a few minutes, I bundled them both in the trailer so we could get on. We’d been gone about an hour and I didn’t want to be out all day in case the sun defied the forecast and came out in full force. Plus, James was waiting for us and I wasn’t sure how easy or hard the rest of the ride would be. I rode back towards where I thought the start of the trail was, had a moment of indecision, turned back the way I’d come, which turned out to be the wrong way (had there been more water it would have been an island), so turned tail again. At this point a small group on mountain bikes were heading my way, making me doubt my indecision! Had I’d missed a part of the trail? Was I in fact going the wrong way again? I stopped to ask if they knew the way, which they didn’t, told them I thought that was the wrong way, then showed them the map on my phone. They seemed quite convinced that I was going the right way, which I was relieved about. After a quick chat with them – about the trailer, the kids, the cycling, the low level of the water, and why I was in France – they set off again, back the way they’d just come, and I followed along. “Have we got some new friends now, Mummy?” DD asked. That’s my girl.

The next section, which I’d been dubious about taking when I first saw it, looked like it was single-track going into the woods. I knew from the map it had been made into a Strava segment so art of me was definitely a bit worried that it might not be good with the trailer. When I ride solo with the trailer I’m pretty good about asking for advice – generally I want to avoid getting lost or running into problems and, as a crowd was forming around the junction of this latest section of trail, I asked a few people whether it would be okay with the trailer. A few said, sure. One woman said that it was narrow in places and maybe the trailer wouldn’t fit. I didn’t understand everything she said but look on her face suggested she really didn’t think it was a good idea. Another was keen to convey that it was bumpy and not flat. Obviously, I’m the wrong person to tell that too! One of the men in the group  I’d just met asked whether I was going to ride it. I shrugged and said I’d try – and we both laughed.

With that my new group of friends set off and I followed. It didn’t take long for them to leave me behind but I found it reassuring that they were in front somewhere and also knowing that there were quite a few people out. The trail was nice to ride, having opened out a bit again, and tt was all going well. Then I reached a point where the trail split into two levels, running side by side, too narrow for the trailer meaning I had to keep one wheel on the higher track and another on the lower one. With the trailer at 45 degrees it was something of a challenge and it was at that point that almost resigned myself to ending my ride. I say almost. After checking the map, I decided to continue on until the next bend, pushing the bike, pulling the trailer (while also putting my weight on it to stop it tipping down the bank). If it had been hard beyond there I think I would probably have turned round but it turned out to be only a short section and we made it. DD was a little upset by it (she was on the side facing down the bank when it nearly tipped over) and DS, the trooper, slept through the whole thing!

After that I was starting to wonder whether the next section would be too much but really didn’t want to have to turn back so asked a few people I came across what was up ahead and no-one pulled any faces or expressed any concern so I carried on. The trail opened up again. Nice. Time to relax and just ride.

A fallen tree later, with help from another couple of cyclists, I was asking another walker for advice. How was the trail up ahead? “Fine”, said the woman (a mother who was with her young son who was riding his bike alongside). “Just watch out for the steep part.” Her husband was there wearing a black t-shirt and he would help, she said.

Onwards, over some roots, riding through the woods, wondering when this next obstacle would present itself, I suddenly found myself grinding to a halt on a steep bank that seemed to come out of nowhere! Thanks to my mountain bike shoes and cleats I had enough grip to drag myself and the trailer up there in one go. Just. Once at the top, I found the couple that had helped me over the tree. We all exchanged “phews!” over the steepness of the trail then I looked in dismay at the descent – a steep, lovely, rideable drop on the mountain bike that was completely inappropriate for a trailer carrying my two most precious possessions. Luckily the guy, who must have seen the look on my face, pointed round to the left where there was another path, which although still quite definitely down was not anywhere near vertical. I thanked him then set off that way  – on foot. It was a bit rocky but the rocks were wide and smooth and it was easy enough to get the trailer over. Once the other side the trail continued as it had before. If the woman I’d spoken to before was right, that was the only bit to watch out for. Good – and according to the map, nearly at our destination.


By now we’d been out for getting on for two hours including stops. As with all activities involving small people there’s a limit to how much can be done, so now I was keen to get back to base and have lunch before anyone started getting stressed or upset. A few more bends later and the final dam came into site. We made it – phew!! I called James, who was having a coffee at the restaurant, and headed down to meet him. He’d had a coffee and went off to get me one, then I suggested take out pizza. The restaurant on the Leran side of the lake does excellent pizza and I felt we’d earned it.

After a very fine picnic – complete with fresh, hot, homemade pizza – we walked down to the water’s edge with our swimming gear. Sadly though it was not to be. The water level is very low this year – hence my being able to ride on what should have been the bottom of the lake rather than the shore – which meant anyone wanting to swim would be standing on clay and rock with the bottom dropping away very fast. It wouldn’t be nice underfoot and isn’t safe for the little ones. We decided we’d had a good enough day out already and headed home.

Thinking about the route afterwards, would I do it again? Would I recommend it as a trailer ride? Well, yes, I definitely plan to do it again. But only if there’s another adult with me. I needed quite alot of help, compared to other rides I’ve done with the trailer, and might have had to turn round or run into trouble if there hadn’t been so many people around. I was fine because it was a busy Sunday in August. On a quiet Wednesday afternoon at another time of year, I might not have been so lucky. Lucky for me I have some other bike-mad parent friends with a trailer and I’m pretty sure they’ll like the sound of it. I’ll recommend it to them, definitely and suggests they come with me next time! But that’s them. Anyone who isn’t excited by the idea of rooty paths and isn’t up for an offroad adventure would be better off sticking to flat or more sanitized routes, like the voie verte or one of the road-based easy routes around Puivert. That’s one of the things I love about the cycling here: there really is something for everyone!

Read all about my second ride to Lac de Montbel in Part 2 (coming soon).

(Copied from my other blog, One Woman Two Wheels, posted on 31/08/17.)

 

From Farm to Farm

Today we ventured out to visit a few local farms who were taking part in the De Ferme en Ferme open day. I’d seen posters around for a few weeks then, after reading a really nice blog post about last year’s programme, picked up a leaflet that me, James, and DD talked about to decide where to go. The promo leaflet and handout for kids can be downloaded from the Fermiers Audios website, here. DD was very specific about wanting to see pigs, cows, and horses, and we were keen to try out some local places where we might be able to buy good, local produce at sensible prices, reducing our overall reliance on the supermarkets or towns, as we seem to spend an awful lot of time driving too and from the shops. Having studied the map and the descriptions we settled on five places that fulfilled our wishlist while also providing a sensible itinerary, since we’d be carting two littlies around.

  • Ferme de Jaffus (#9) in Couiza
  • Gaec de Bergnes (#10) in Campagne-sur-Aude
  • Le Gaec du Méchant Pas (#11) also in Campagne-sur-Aude
  • Pépinière de la Roche Blanche (#2) in Puivert
  • Campserdou (#3) also in Puivert

The plan was three farms over by the D118, possibly having a burger at the beef farm (bio burgers for €6) or heading home for lunch, then the two close to Puivert in the afternoon. Manageable.

We set off. DD was excited about the pigs, cows, and horses. Oh, and ducks, chicks, and geese, apparently! A tall order. I was armed with the printed map, the address, and – having plugged the information into Google Maps for our first destination, was hoping the place would be well signed because I was pretty sure there wasn’t a beef farm where the map marker was. We got to the first set of traffic lights and there was the sign, so we turned to follow it and set off down the road. We drover further down the road. And further. No more signs. I was confused because Google (and the farm’s own website) showed the marker much closer to the village. We drove a little more then turned around, thinking we’d missed the turning and the sign. We decided that if we made it back to the main road before seeing another sign we would just skip it and carry onto the next one. We made it back to the lights, no more signs, so that was that. On we went to Campagne-sur-Aude. DS was pretty unhappy that the trip to a farm hadn’t materialised   so it was a relief to pull up at our next stop: La Ferme du Méchant Pas

 

The well-signed entrance to our first farm of the day.

 

This farm had various poultry breeds on display, all of which looked rather uncomfortable in their tiny cages! There wasn’t much to see really so we followed the sign pointing us in the direction of goats, cows, ponies, and sheep. Also lacklustre, unfortunately. So one small pony and one cow later, we headed back to the car and onto our next stop, Gaec de Bergen’s, just a few minutes up the road and where our friends, Matt and An, were waiting, having decided to tag along.

Heading back to the car

 

Our next stop, the cattle farm, also turned out to be a little underwhelming, albeit in an absolutely stunning location, on a hill high above the village with awesome views. While we stood chatting and DD did some colouring, people came flocking in, most likely because a €6 burger was one of the cheaper lunches on offer (most places providing lunch were charging €15 and up for three or more courses). We had considered staying ourselves, but now we were in the company of two militant vegetarians and DS was starting to get into don’t-pick-me-up, don’t-put-me-down mode, so I was keen to get him in the car and back home so he could have a bit more freedom away from the general muck of the farm yard – not the nicest place for a crawling boy.

We headed back, had a nice lunch, let the kiddies let off some steam (DD really enjoyed showing our friends her bed and all her toys) then it was time for the afternoon’s programme of visits. We started with the plant nursery (Pépinière de la Roche Blanche) with Camperdou, the lai cru farm, saved until last. This was the one we were most interested in as I quite fancy making some cheese once I find I have time!

The nursery site was pretty nice – another stunning location – and it was nice to walk around. They had lots of plants on sale – flowers and vegetables – all at good prices and, usefully, they supply salad and vegetables throughout late spring and summer: all I have to do is call in the morning then come and pick them up an hour or so later. Obviously I’m thinking trailer ride, yay!

James and An relaxing outside the main polytunnel

We stayed there while the little ones did some exploring, then it was time for the final farm of the day.

After a short drive we arrived. I was quite underwhelmed at first – there really wasn’t anything to see except for a few cows munching away in the barn, a few calves in a small pen in the yard, and a gazebo, from which you could try or buy the farm’s produce: essentially, the lait crufromage blanc, or confiture du lait, which is already caramelised condensed milk.

We stood around chatting again and the next thing the farmer wandered by so we started chatting to him about how many cows and calves, how much milk they produce each day (25 litres!), how the milk is processed before it’s sold, and – the burning question for me and James – why it doesn’t separate like regular non-homogenised milk. To be honest, I’m still not sure we got to the bottom of the last question, but he assured us the production process is basically cow to bottle with no messing around. While were stood chatting DD started messing around with the feed, giving it to the greedy cows. She had a lovely time! After a few minutes she wanted to see the calves again so we’d wander over there, then she was back to feeding the cows.

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James and DD on their way to the cow shed

Then it was getting late (DS was awake and trying to escape from the carrier) so we decided to head back, stopping on our way out to sample the produce. Boy, that confiture was awesome! It’s basically super-condensed milk, like the stuff you get when you heat condensed milk to make the caramel for a banoffee pie: one of my favourite puddings – yum! Of course, this doesn’t sit well with our sugar-free home, so DD was allowed to try some of their fromage blanc, which was also very good.

All in all it was a good day out. We now have confidence in at least two local producers we will definitely frequent in future and we came home with two very tired and hungry children as well as some some fromage blanc and milk fresh from the farm, the latter of which I hope to try and turn into mozzarella or ricotta cheese. Assuming next year’s event includes many of the same producers there are other 14 for us to discover and as our littlies will be older we can justify driving a bit further and hopefully they will both get a bit more out of it. A nice family day out all round!