Helen in Europe travel blog


on the road, between Perpignan and Lapradelle

cozy fire at Deb and Roy's house in Lapradelle

single file driving; great navigation from Carol and intricate driving from Annie

typical opening hours

our yellow house and the local chateau beckoning in the distance

the taps look different here

Jesus it's pretty around here

paying it forward to a Canadian camper who almost had to go...

Axat rooftops

terraced garden at Jean-Jacques and Dominique's house

walking around Lapradelle

The Chateau almost up close

the Chateau again

yes, it's the Chateau from a different angle

Why do we travel?

For some it's to experience a contrast to their work environment and pace - if work is busy some travellers wish for nothing more than reclining by a pool in a sunny location, cocktail in hand; or if daily work is mundane, we may thrive on action, exercise, challenge and interaction. Some can't wait to brag about their bucket-list of countries to tick off whilst others like to plan nothing and just let fate dictate their day's adventures.

Europe. Not all of Europe but what may seem a random selection of southern and central European regions; that's my itinerary: and how do you sum up the culture, people, rules and geography of these countries? You can't.

From a distance of only around 250 kilometers (think Bendigo to Echuca) and still within a whisker of the proud region of Catalonia (see my previous blogs for more discussion around Catalonian pride), there are vast differences.

Time: In Barcelona, people are out at all hours (except siesta), and there is no clear delineation between the hours with which it is appropriate to drink alcohol or coffee; you can smoke cigars and drink beer or wine with your breakfast or for blue collar workers, during morning break. In the Aude region of South France, you need to plan your shopping and appointment times stringently. Supermarkets are commonly open between 9.30 and noon and may close until 3 or 4pm. Doctor's rooms may close at 2.30 for the rest of the day. It's like the country has rigidly prioritised life and leisure over work. Not that we saw many people out and about at all. Not many locals and definitely no tourists - except us.

Fortunately for us, Annie hired a car. This meant that on our way to Lapradelle from Perpignan (I'll just skip the evocative description of snow capped mountains, narrow roads and charming Medieval towns and wineries along the way - check the pics for this) we were able to check in to our house, generously loaned to us Deb and Roy from Warrnambool (yes, Warrnambool!) and have a rest, like the rest of the region, before driving back to Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet to glean enough groceries for our four day stay, as there are no cafes and sporadic opening hours for the one grocery store in Lapradelle. At 3pm when the supermarket re-opened, a queue had formed outside that would rival Big day out in the 90s. Annie and I were proud to have arrived with shopping bags (in France you have to byo bags) but were caught out when we learnt we were required to pre-weigh our vegies. Fortunately our check out chick was very patient and seemed able to hold our order and put the others through whilst we facilitated weighing.

After weathering (no pun intended) single digit temperatures, we opted for a night in at our French provincial Lapradelle home. Warmer temperatures were promised tomorrow according to our apps. And what more could we want than a home cooked French meal, three bottles of French red wine and a view of the amazingly vertical mountains from our dining room window -and a peek of the hauntingly stunning Château de Puilaurens from our front doorstep (no, I kid you not).

My sleep in my single bed in the attic room was cosy; as a petite woman I rarely need to watch out for ceiling heights but this is the first time I have needed to stoop since staying in one of those dirt cheap Georgian house hotels in London in 2005. Despite this I am enjoying the Romanticism of sitting upstairs in a lounge chair during downtime, like a writer or artist from the 19th century.

On our second day in Lapradelle I took a morning wander around the narrow streets, shuttered homes and postcard perfect views of the chateau, mountains and the local acquaduct. I had also been entrusted to buy our daily baguette, despite me having the worse French of the three of us (um, let's say, no French). When purchasing the bread, with my shakingly pronounced 'une baguette', I had not a clue how much money I was being asked for so presented her with a few different Euro coins. With complete honesty I was given 10 Euro cents from one euro dollar. I could have been ripped off but I wasn't.

Upon return, Annie announced that it still wasn't the right time to ascend Château de Puilaurens as tomorrow was predicted to be even warmer. So our consolation prize was a different local walk alongside the train line, recommended by Deb. Then Annie had a surprise in stall when Carol and I met the delightful couple Jean-Jacques and Dominique who literally live around the corner (think - 2 minute walk) and entertained us with afternoon tea and a tour of their aesthetically decorated home with 18th century French fiance ceramics and Dominique's intricate oil paintings of the region. We were also accompanied by their delightfully affectionate dogs Mathilde and Maurice, who willingly accompanied us on our tour of the house, art gallery and exquisite terraced garden of herbs, roses, clematis and five varieties of lavender.

After a belly full of strong coffee, chocolate and pastries, we decided to walk this off with an excursion to Axat, another provincial town of about a 10 minute drive. Near our car we were passed by a distressed Canadian cyclist from Montreal who enquired (firstly in French) about where one could buy food supplies. As the local shop closes at noon, we offered him some of our own supplies as he was about to head for the mountains. After a chat, he indicated that he actually had food but needed wine. With complete empathy for the horrific thought of him spending a night without French wine, we offered him a bottle and Carol collected our last bottle from the house - hoping we'd be able to buy another one from Axat. Fortunately, we got there just in time at the Axat general store and stocked up on two more bottles of the best red wine in the region.

So, whilst travel may afford us to see the world's heritage listed tourist sites, the largest cathedrals, the best food, the prettiest beaches and the most iconic buildings, it can also throw us challenges and enable us to interact with people in different ways to how we would at home.

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