Near the Spanish border – Callioure

From Mas d’Azil we headed east to the Mediterranean coast near the Spanish border.

Rather than retrace our steps and go north to pick up the main west-east autoroute which then branches to go south towards Perpignan and Spain we decided to go via the D117 which was portrayed on the map as a major connecting road. Big mistake! It was a beautiful route but by the time you go slowly through every single village etc and then end up in a stunning gorge and get the wing mirror taken out by one of the dreaded white panel vans cutting the corner on a narrow windy part, you start to think it was a mistake.

We managed to stop some distance further on and put the wing mirror back together enough so that it functioned and eventually arrived at our destination – a campground right on the coast just a few minutes north of the town of Callioure. the campground has its own private coves for swimming which I make good use of. There is also a coastal walkway to Callioure and to the village and resort areas further north as well. We discovered that the area to the north, around Argeles-sur-Mer is not particularly attractive being a low lying expansive beach with almost non-stop coastal holiday development.

Callioure, by contrast, is a very pretty town with a chateau right on the harbour which is much more low key than those on the Côte d’Azur but has its share of good restaurants.

Collioure is full of pastel painted houses of many hues

We visited Cadaques in Spain via the very windy coast road in Twiggy. It is a beautiful coastal town – quite different in character from just over the border in France with terracotta roofs and white painted buildings.

After an excellent lunch at Talla Restaurant we headed off to Figueres to visit the Salvador Dali theatre museum – built in an old theatre with many of the artworks created by Dali especially for the spaces in the old building.

This painting is nearly 3 stories high

Many of his works are quite confronting or bizarre.

Next blog – Girona, Spain

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L’Ariege Pyrenees- foothills of the Pyrenees

We headed south from Toulouse to a campground close to a place called Le Mas d’Azil, which has an interesting cave system inhabited about 14,000 years ago by Magdalena Man. We were able to tour through the caves. You enter from a huge cave which passes right through the mountain ridge and which forms the main north-south road route through the area. You could see why it was favoured by prehistoric man during the Ice Age occurring at the time.

We realised we might have been better staying further south close to the main highway south to Andorra for the amount of driving we did on day trips. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but we didn’t realise we would have a minimum of 25 minutes drive to get to the main highway so we ended up doing long day trips several times. We spent one night staying with a friend from my French class in their little village further west in the Midi-Pyrenees. We visited some of their favourite haunts including St Bertrand de Comminges which has a cathedral with some beautiful paintings and wood carvings.

Given Richard’s love of caves we also did the boat trip along the underground river at Labouiche, an interesting experience as the guide pulls the boat along using cables fixed to the walls of the cave. it is the longest navigable underground river in Europe. It was a good thing to do on a hot day as the caves were nice and cool.

Another day trip was to La Grotte de Niaux where we walked in 800m over uneven sometimes slippery ground with just a torch to view the only original cave drawings now accessible to the public in Western Europe. We had to be careful not to touch the walls anywhere and were not allowed any bags or walking sticks as they are very wary of the risk of spreading mould etc from the outside. This happened at Lascaux in the Dordogne where we took the girls 18 years ago and they used a mini electric train to transport people – sadly it is now closed to the public. No photos were allowed but it was an amazing experience to see first hand the complexity of the art including lots of bison and ibex. These paintings are from about 12-14,000 years ago.

We had thought the area we stayed in would have lots of good hiking, and while there was hiking (the Santiago de Compostela Pilgrim’ trail passes through the area), and we did do on short one, it is mainly low level hill walks or along minor roads. We found an amazing sounding walk about 1 hour 30 drive south to Le Pic Tarbesou, which reaches 2400m altitude. Luckily there was a windy road up to the pass which meant we only had about 400m to climb, the most by far that Richard had attempted since rupturing his Archilles at the beginning of the year. It proved to be a fabulous walk of 3 1/2 hours with a steady climb to the top and amazing 360 degree views once we got there.

Horses grazing with bells attached
We came across lots of horses grazing, some with bells – we have seen sheep, cows and goats with bells before but never horses.

We suspect they may go on to become la cheval on the local restaurant menus!

After a week at Le Mas d’Azil it was time to move on – to near the French border with Spain.

Back to the south of France

From Edinburgh we flew into Nice for a family reunion, staying with good friends near Saint Tropez. Beautiful weather and apparently a lot cooler than the previous week, thank goodness. We revisited some favourite haunts in the area with Anna, Sophie and Tom and really enjoyed just chilling out with lots of swims in the sea after the previous 2 months which had been fun but very busy and in much cooler climates.

Coastal path from Gigaro to national park

We all departed on the Saturday, Soph and Tom heading to Copenhagen, while Richard, Anna and I drove to pick up the van

Our first night in Biggy was a bit of a culture shock after 2 months of travelling in various degrees of luxury.

But we soon got back into the swing of things even though it was a year since we had last been in Biggy.

Our first stop was northeast of Nîmes near the Pont du Gard.

It was still as magnificent as when we last saw it 18 years ago – only then there wasn’t a fancy visitor centre etc.

Our next stop was a campground east of Toulouse, chosen for its proximity to Toulouse and Carcassonne.

Anna flew out to Ibiza the next day and we visited Carcassonne which I have always wanted to visit.

It is impressive but was absolutely heaving with tourists even though we visited late in the day.

On reflection we would have been better not to visit in peak season.

We found places near the Pyrenees which were just as impressive in their own way and not overrun with tourists.

We decided to head south to be closer to the Pyrenees.

Next stop – the Ariège.

East of Scotland

Our first stop was Grantown-on-Spey – chosen by Richard because of the large number of whiskey distilleries in the area! Our accommodation was another fine old stone house right in the centre of town.

We had 3 nights here and spent our time either hiking or playing golf plus a visit to a distillery which was interesting even to a non whisky drinker like me. While there was whiskey galore we could not say the same about the restaurant options – every menu seemed to be identical with fish and chips, pies and burgers and variations along those themes. We did find one exception which was a welcome relief.

Richard making believe he is trout fishing- the river was very low apparently

Our drive over to our next stop, Pitlochry, was beautiful.

We passed by the Queen’s residence in Scotland, Balmoral – you can visit the grounds during certain months.

But you can’t see anything from the road.

Pitlochry was a very busy small tourist town. We stayed in another grand stone house.

A beautiful loch near Pitlochry

Blair Castle a few km away was well worth a visit.

Blair Castle still has nearly 150,000 acres of land surrounding it and has some beautiful woodland walks.

We walked up to The Folly – specially constructed a few 100 years ago as a site for picnics!

Purely decorative.

The history of the castle and the sumptuous interior were fascinating. The family stills lives in part of the castle.

One evening we heard there was a Highland Festival happening at the local domain so thought why not?

It was a great atmosphere with performers of all ages.

There was lots of dancing with pipe bands, soloists etc. At the end we followed the pipe band through the town.

We felt very much like we were following the Pied Piper.

South to Edinburgh

On the way south to Edinburgh, Richard wanted to visit the spiritual home of golf – Saint Andrews.

I tried to get him to go on his knees on the edge of the Old Course but to no avail.

Playing golf there is on his bucket list but it was the peak season when we were there.

Edinburgh

Edinburgh was really humming when we arrived – with both the Tattoo and the Fringe Festival happening.

It is an interesting city with the old castle dominating the skyline

We loved all the street performers in the Old Town near the castle.

Some were very good particularly a classic guitarist from Tasmania who we listened to for an hour.

Others were advertising their theatre shows.

But the absolute highlight for us was the Edinburgh Tattoo, the best show we have been to.

And on such a scale. The atmosphere and lighting effects using the castle as backdrop were spectacular.

Band from Sultanate of Oman with drummers on horseback

The show was incredibly varied with bands and dancers from many parts of the world.

The Edinburgh Tattoo is definitely a must see if you are planning a trip to anywhere near Edinburgh in August.

West of Scotland

More new territory to see as neither of us had visited Scotland before. After picking up the hire car in Glasgow we decided to do a scenic drive to get to our first stop, Oban.

By a stroke of luck we decided to have a look at Loch Lomond at the pretty village of Luss. Most of the houses have been beautifully restored.

Oban is also an attractive town and a busy departure point for ferries to several islands. Our guesthouse was a magnificent manor house once owned by the owner of a major diamond mine in South Africa – we had a beautiful view over the town and harbour.

Unfortunately our luck with the weather ran out when we got to Oban and we had rain 2 of the 3 days we were there.

We did the drive up the Glencoe Valley but the famous views were somewhat obscured by low cloud and rain which arrived the same time as us. Still it felt very authentic seeing it in those conditions.

When the rain eased off we did some more local sightseeing.

And yes it was a lot colder than in Ireland. Richard was very thankful he had bought his authentic Paddy cap which is quilted on the inside and waterproof!

After 4 nights we set off for the Isle of Sky via the Isle of Mull and a long scenic drive after 2 ferry crossings from Lochaline to Mallaig where we took a third ferry to the Isle of Skye. We had treated ourselves to 2 nights at Kinloch Lodge, a boutique hotel off the beaten track in the south east corner of Skye. It has a beautiful setting and better still, a well known Michelin star restaurant.

On our one full day on the Isle of Skye we decided to drive to the far corner as it has the most dramatic scenery plus an opportunity for a hike.

It would have been a great hike if the rain had not arrived and obscured the views. But the pinks and purples of the heather in full bloom were amazing.

Loved the old farm houses in the north of Skye
Portree – the main town on the Isle of Skye

We only had one full day on the Isle of Skye but it was well worth a visit.

Next stop – eastern Scotland and Grantown-on-Spey, Pitlochry and Edinburgh

Northern Ireland

After a week in Kenmare we headed north to the Skerries for a night on the way to Northern Ireland. Some interesting stops on the way.

First was the Cahir Castle in the town of Cahir where by some fluke I managed to buy the perfect outfit for Sophie’s wedding in January – the only time I had tried to look for something and we just happened to park outside the shop when we stopped for coffee.

Next stop was the famous Rock of Cashel with the buildings dating from the 12th and 13th centuries although the history of the site goes back several centuries before that.

On our way north from the Skerries we visited the ancient passage tomb of Newgrange in the Boyne Valley which is a 5000 year old structure designed and built to channel the sun at the winter solistice to deep inside the tomb to the burial chamber. We were able to walk in – the structure is an amazing feat of engineering given its age. It is constructed entirely of stones which overlap to form a dome which was then covered in earth and was found with the inside intact.

Ancient Neolithic patterns carved into the rocks

We arrived at our destination in Northern Ireland, Portstewart, late on Sunday afternoon only to face a 2 km traffic jam approaching and through the town – the downside of travelling during the peak holiday period. We were not too impressed with Portstewart itself but it was a great place to base ourselves and explore the north. An added bonus was the B&B we stayed at which was right on the waterfront and out of the main town but only a short walk along the coastal path.

The next day was our first wet day in 3 weeks so a good day to explore London (Derry) and learn about the turbulent history of the area. There was a fabulous museum there where we learned about the plantation of Londonderry starting in the 1600’s where English citizens were brought over and “planted” in the area to dilute the Irish Catholic influence. This sowed the seeds for the conflict that dominated the area up until recent times. It was particularly sobering to learn about The Troubles from the late 1960’s, including Bloody Sunday where innocent civilians were shot dead by English paratroopers. We walked over to Bogside (in the rain) where it all happened – the street murals on the buildings there were a poignant reminder of what happened and the tensions that still exist.

This mural is in memory of a 13 yr old girl shot by a soldier while collecting items for a school project

Riots occurred in Derry several nights in a row the week before we visited so the tensions are still there.

You could see the burnt areas where cars had been set alight.

We found the coast of Northern Ireland very striking.

There is a walkway, mostly on the cliff edge, all the way from Portstewart to Ballycastle.

We visited the Carrick- A – Rede rope bridge but found it very busy with tourists and not as dramatic as expected.

We then

walked on the coastal track from Dunseverick to Ballintoy Harbour – used in the Game of Thrones.

But the highlight was the walk from the Giant’s Staircase along to Dunseverick.

The Staircase itself was interesting geologically but not as dramatic as expected and very crowded with tourists. The walk from there along the coast was, however, spectacular.

It would rank as the best coastal hike we have done- Richard did well as it was about 3 hours – not much steep stuff but by far the longest hike he has done.

After three and half weeks of enjoying Ireland and wonderful weather it was time to part company with the Cullens and head to Scotland. Next stop – west of Scotland.

Southwestern Ireland

It seemed a long trip down to Kenmare, just south of Killarney where we had booked our next accommodation- partly because we did a detour to the Cliffs of Mohir. Unfortunately there was a heavy sea fog which meant we could not see the Cliffs over a great distance even though we walked for over half an hour along the cliff path from the southern end. And, to be honest, other coastal cliffs we saw in the south west on the outermost part of the Ring of Kerry seemed just as spectacular in terms of height. The Cliffs are one of Ireland’s most visited tourist attractions.

Our accommodation at Kenmare was a few kilometres out of town on the banks of the river. Lovely spacious house. Kenmare was an excellent base for sightseeing in the area and has some very good restaurants- much better than we encountered elsewhere in Ireland. However we did avail ourselves of the large kitchen at the house while we could as we knew we would be having to eat out for the next few weeks. Kenmare is a very pretty small town but was incredibly busy with tourists being peak season.

One day trip was the famous Ring of Kerry- however, the only part that lived up to the hype in our opinion was the outermost circuit which some people miss out as the road is very narrow. Here we encountered some more amazing coastal scenery, including on a hike at the eastern most end of the Peninsula

Lunch stop at Portmagee on Ring of Kerry- a pretty fishing village

Views from our hike around Bray Head on Valentia Island on the Ring of Kerry.

Another day Pamela, Roger and I hiked up in the Gleninchaquin Valley while Richard chased a little white ball around for the afternoon.

Standing stone circle from Neolithic times facing towards the valley we climbed up
Mizen Head, the southwesterly most point of Ireland was another day trip and has some stunning views from the old radio station (the first shortwave radio link around the world was initiated there by Marconi). Being another beautiful day we had views to Fastnet Rock – the construction of the famous lighthouse on the tiny pinnacle of rock that is Fastnet Rock was a major engineering feat in its day.

Access to the radio station is via a footbridge

We also did a 2 1/2 hour hike around Killarney National Park but which had pretty views over the lakes. The landscape is very typical of what we saw on the west coast – quite rocky.

The oldest bridge in Ireland- deep in forest with no road access now

Another week of good weather – can our luck hold?

Next stop – Northern Ireland.