Friday, January 30, 2009

Across the Pyrenées – or maybe not!

We get an early start from Carcassonne on the road just before 8 am – our earliest start yet! The day is just dawning and reflective of the national strike day, the streets are far less busy than we have seen over the last two days.

Our route today takes us towards Limoux and then south to Axat where Ron and Fliss Murray had a house. We travel through the Gorges of St Georges along narrow twisting roads – still however in brilliant condition. Although it is a beautiful sunny day, the narrow walls and negotiation under overhanging rocks keeps the temperatures through here down to winter degrees! We turn off the main road south through here to go into Axat. This town is on the higher waters of the Aude River that runs through Carcassonne.

Again, we are surprised at the size of the town – guess we were expecting some quiet little backwater – however, it is obvious that there is a huge summer adventure sport industry that operates through here – mountain hiking, rock climbing, rafting and canoeing advertisements abound. We try to identify the Murray’s former home – unsuccessfully. However the photos are testament that we were there!!

From here we hoped to drive over the top of the Pyrenées, but Col de Jau (pass) is closed and snow chains are required on the other. While we could have bought chains and fitted them, prudence was the order of the day and we opted to travel down the coastal road through Perpignan and Girona.

Here we turn west to travel towards Cardona. The roads are traversing valleys and hills – up and down, up and down. The country through here is hard to tame so the traffic fluctuates between labouring up steep inclines, some short, some longer and then flying down the declines from the apex of the peaks. You have the Pyrenées to the north and the Montserrat mountains to the south. Both form spectacular backdrops to our journey – the Pyrenées higher but more rounded and snow covered while the Montserrat are sharp and jagged and in the afternoon light look like castles in the air against the clouds.

Again, we come around a bend and all of a sudden can see the castle where we hope to stay. It sits high on a hill that appears to be a volcanic plug jutting out of the flat floor of an extinct volcano – totally dominating the landscape around it. We see it about 4 kms away, but it would easily be visible from many more over the flat valley floor. It’s very easy to see how you could defend your vassals when you can see aggressors approaching for maybe a week from over the surrounding hills and across the broad open valley.

Cardona is home to a very large salt and economically important salt deposit that has been mined for centuries. The castle of Saint Vicenç de Cardona stands on a site that has housed fortifications that date back to Iberian times before conquest by the Romans. In 798 AD, work began on the structure that now stands – although most of the current site’s architecture only dates back to the 10th Century!

We have not yet made a booking at the Parador de Cardona, hoping that we can get a room when we arrive in this, the low season. While it is not cheap (rooms begin at the equivalent of $AUD300 per night), we had decided that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and not to be missed. Luck was with us! Not only do they have vacancies but Noemi at at Reception almost apologetically states that the present offer is €100 per night bed and breakfast. We are thrilled and book for 2 nights. Then we get into our room (suite). You have to look at the pictures to appreciate it. Noemi had asked whether we wanted one big bed or two beds. We opted for the one! Big? You have no idea - we almost need a map to find each other in it! Our suite is large and luxurious - the only ¿problem being that last Saturdays big storms have knocked one of their aerials and so we can only access the internet in the Reception lounge - no problemo!

We opt for a late lunch as opposed to waiting for an early dinner and so at 3:00 pm walk down to the Restaurant - silver service if you please. Paradors of Spain are celebrating 80 years of operation and have a special menu on offer. It includes four cold and three entree tasters, a choice of hors d'oevres and a dessert. It was a great introduction to Spanish food. The menu included cold and hot seafood delicacies, cold dried meats, hot veal cheek, pickled cauliflower, a shot glass of hot soup, dried breads, Michael's choice of Special Beans with Cuttlefish and Clams and mine of Desalted Ham in rich Tomato Sauce. The dessert was a composite of Turon, hard custard and fresh fruits - all local specials.

After lunch we take a tour of the Hotel but the rest of the castle complex is closed at 5:00pm before we can take a look. (and yes - the sky really was this blue!!)

A fantastic buffet breakfast awaited us in the restaurant this morning. Cereals, fruits, juices, hot dishes includng items such as black pudding and local sausages, delicious Spanish ham, eggs done in frittatas, fried or boiled, cold delicacies such as anchovies, cheeses, breads as well as sweet cakes and churros - that delicious spanish delicacy!

Once the appetites are filled, we then get tickets to allow us to explore the rest of the castle complex. The keep, the magazine, the gun ports and the former church complete with tombs and crypt and 10th century wrought iron are all amazing. As is the view from the ramparts on such a clear and beautiful day.

Late this afternoon we have come in to update the blog and to book an apartment in Barcelona for a week. So, in the words of Peter Cundell (google him if you don't know who he is!) thats your lot!

See you in cyberspace again soon!

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