Tag Archives: Tourism

Falling for Southern France, Part Two: Carcassonne

Carcassonne – the word rolls off one’s tongue in a whisper.  To many, the Medieval walled portion of this bustling city is an item on their “bucket list.”  Others know it only as a board game.  It is a wonderful place to spend a vacation day.  (Next time I would stay longer, because it is hard to take it all in during just one day.)

We started our adventure by parking near the train station, which is close to the Canal du Midi – which figures later in the story – and setting out for the walled city.  In all the photos you see of the walled city (which is situated as every fortification worth its salt on a high and formidable hill) one would assume that it must loom up from the more modern part, and that you should be able to see it from everywhere you look.  Not so.

You walk and walk through the lower portion, past attractive shops, cafes and parks, and finally catch a glimpse of the ramparts high above, across the Aude River.  Your first thought is, how the heck do we get way up there?  Following the crowd that is inevidibly climbing the same way is one method.  A young person adept at smart phone way-finding is another.

However you get up there, you must climb steep pathways or series of stairs, but as usual in this part of the world, it is well worth it.  Once you reach the inner walls, you find yourself accosted by gift shops, tourist attractions such as The Torture Museum, and cafes touting the ever-present cassoulet (reportedly invented in this region of France and featuring enough types of meat to make you want to become a vegetarian after a close encounter with it).

You can merely stroll around the walls, which offer lovely views of the hills in the distance, or you can go the historical interpretation route of a visit to the Chateau Comtal, the inner residence of the aristocracy of the city, which is now a museum.  (Even on a non-tourist heavy weekday, the line to enter this inner sanctum is long and slow, especially around lunch time, so maybe take the advice of some Trip Advisors and get tickets ahead.  Also, some of the ramparts are closed between 11:30 and 2 for some strange reason.)

The chateau is a maze of enchanting stairs  and towers that you wish would go on and on forever.  Here, a view of over the tiled roof to the courtyard.  There, a peak through some arrow slits.  Windows open to the bracing wind of the Midi, and views of the mountains beyond.  Even though the useful interpretive slide show at the beginning of the tour reminds us that much of the walled city was reconstructed, it still feels as though you are transported back to the heyday of the 12th century, before a hoard of Northerners laid siege to the castle and brought its inhabitants (including those notorious heretical Cathars) to their knees.

I must admit, my whole experience was colored by the reading of Kate Mosse’s romantic historical novel The Labyrinth, which is required reading before a visit to Carcassonne in my mind (thanks, Hanna!).  Though reading these Goodreads reviews, you might be tempted to skip it, I recommend wading through if you like your historical background sprinkled with plenty of blood, lust, intrigue and time travel.

We finally, and reluctantly, left the walled city and headed back to the canal for another history lesson wrapped in a relaxed boat ride.  The Canal du Midi is part of a system that runs from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.  You can take a commercial boat ride along it, or actually pilot your own canal boat for a leisurely holiday, which may be tempting some day with the right cast of characters.

As you glide down the plane tree lined canal a guide gives you excellent background information, you go through a lock to find out how those work, and you have a lovely rest stop at an old inn.  A whole different view from the rugged walled city, which you could not see from the part of the canal we toured.  It seemed something we had dreamed instead of actually having visited just hours before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seaside Sojourne 2 (sort of) Colonial Beach edition

The widest parts of the Potomac River are not quite “seaside” but they have that sort of feel, nonetheless.  On a two-day tour through Maryland’s Western Shore (or, as some call it “Southern Maryland”), and the Northern Neck of Virginia, my friend Debi and I experienced a wide variety of sites, tastes, and even smells (fish guts on a public pier and fried food in a divey pub/Tiki Bar for instance).

For brevity purposes, I will concentrate on the Northern Neck portion of our journey.  For those of you who are uninitiated, the NN is the portion of land between the mighty Potomac and the Rappahannock Rivers.  This area is billed as, among other things, The Birthplace of the Nation since several founding fathers and other historic personages were born and/or grew up there.

We started our adventures in Colonial Beach.  The first thing we noticed was the mural that we parked near, depicted in the large photo at the top of this blog, which might tip one off to the fact that the town, while still charming in its own way, may have had its heyday at an earlier time period.  Other murals we encountered around town had a vintage feel as well (you can view a slide show of more of them here).  

What does one do in Colonial Beach?  We started out by indulging in some retail therapy at a very nice second hand store.  Then, we walked down and out onto to the town pier, where locals were catching some impressive catfish.  Next, walked along the beach on a pathway that leads to, among other things, the humongous Riverboat on the Potomac, a casino and restaurant which apparently gets around strict Virginia laws against such gambling establishments by being located on the river, which is technically part of Maryland.

When asked about the best crab cakes served in a beachside atmosphere, the proprietor of the second hand store recommended  The Dockside, a couple miles out of town.  Basically, you just follow the road that parallels the water until it ends in a marina and the sprawling restaurant, offering a slightly seedy but cool interior as well as two levels of “outside dining” – steamier but with water views.  There is a little beach and a small performance venue on the grounds, no doubt very popular on weekend evenings, and the de rigueur “tiki” furnishings – thatched huts and Hawaiian style decor.  The crab cakes and hushpuppies were very satisfying (I gave it a good rating on Tripadvisor.).

Our appetites being satiated, we next turned our attention to history.  Which eminent figure’s birthplace to visit?  George Washington seemed too obvious.  James Monroe was also vetoed.  Robert E. Lee…well, who could resist such a controversial and complex personage?  We headed for Stratford Hall, birthplace and boyhood home (till he was little more than a toddler) of REL.  This site did not disappoint.

In addition to the Great House, which has an oddly truncated appearance and layout despite its impressive cadre of brick chimneys, the museum at the visitor’s center and the grounds are worth lingering in.  Unfortunately, we caught the last tour of the day and didn’t have enough time to do the site justice.  But we caught the gist.

I came away feeling sad for Robert E. Lee, a brilliant and conflicted figure.  His father was a poor money manager and they had to leave this idyllic home on the Potomac for less impressive digs when the lad was four years old.  Our tour guide indicated that he seemed to yearn for this home for the rest of his life.  (The stately Lee Custis House now located in Arlington Cemetery was his wife’s family home.)  No denying, he was one of the most prominent Confederates and, of course, one of the statues in his honor was a major catalyst of the recent tragedies in Charlottesville.  But visiting his boyhood home also reminded us that he was a human being with an extremely complex history.

The Northern Neck is worth visiting for all of the above reasons:  crab cakes, scenic views, and historic circumstances that continue to haunt us all.

I Got Misty

Last weekend, my husband and I treated the interns staying with us (who are both from Europe) to a trip to Niagra Falls and Toronto.  Blame it on my mother, but whenever I hear the words “Niagra Falls” I cannot help but think (and start acting out even) the old vaudeville sketch of an earlier generation… slowly I turn, step by step…

20160520_160854Jennifer, the intern from the Netherlands, wanted to do the iconic Maid of the Mist adventure – in which you pile into a tour boat with a couple hundred of your fellow tourists, all bedecked in blue plastic rain ponchos, and are transported as close to Horseshoe Falls (the bigger of the two) as possible without capsizing.  I am always up for a boat ride, so I accompanied her even though I had done this at least once (maybe twice) in the past.

20160520_162135Despite the cattle-like treatment of the blue plastic line-up by the staff handlers (“Move up – move along!”) and the rush of teenagers to the better viewpoints, I have to say the experience was still awesome.  Especially when you get to the base of Horseshoe Falls and the cold mists hit you full force.  This makes you abandon your camera and just live in the moment (because you can’t see anything through the viewfinder except water, for one thing).   I have to admit, I got a little choked up – the majesty of nature and all that.


You forget for the moment
that both the American and Canadian sides of the falls are a rabbit warren of tourist traps.  It is just you, and The Falls, and millions of tons of water tumbling and churning endlessly.  There before tourists and Ripley’s Believe It or Not existed, and there forever exerting its endless power.  The refreshment of those few moments was not all in the cold spray and the wet hair (blue plastic is not effective against The Falls).  I got misty in more ways than one.

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