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SUN, SEA AND SANGRIA (Voyage to Villemoustaussou 5)

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The weather is hot and sunny … just as it has been all week … and we are in a posh, new marina area, somewhere between Gruissan and Narbonne, recovering after a hectic couple of days in which we have driven up into the Montagne Noire (to visit the Four Castles at Lastours) and then to the coast near Narbonne (to visit the quaint fishing village of Gruissan). The weather forecast suggests that next week the sunshine will probably disappear behind cloud and so Julia is determined to ‘pack in’ as many visits as she can to those places on her ‘holiday visit agenda’ that require good weather for them to be seen and enjoyed at their best.

I am still laughing at the thought of yesterday’s visit to the mountain village of Lastours, and the first of our ‘Spanish experiences’ of this holiday. Of course, although we are deep in the south of France, we are still many miles from Spain … but this does not mean that Spain cannot come to us!? We have been very interested in the story of the ‘Cathars’ for a number of years now, and have visited many of the sites associated with their story, a number of which involve mountain strongholds. It is a mute point as to whether or not the Cathars were religious heretics or the first Protestants … but, nevertheless, their story is an intriguing one. Lastours is the site of four castles perched close to one another on the steep crags overlooking the small town itself. We arrive in Lastours just in time for coffee before the seemingly only restaurant closes after lunch … the English morning coffee time and the French lunch time seem to overlap somehow?! We decide not to climb up to the four castles … the path looks very steep and we have climbed up to enough of these places in the past to satisfy us for a lifetime. There are clearly lots of people up there … we can see the matchstick size figures … perhaps it is a party or group of tourists? Julia’s guidebook tells us that there is an excellent viewing point for the four castles, across the valley, which we can drive up to. We decide to do just that … and have our picnic lunch there at the same time.

We park in the large car park, pay our 4€ entrance fee (the French don’t miss a trick, do they) and walk through the woods to the view point. It provides a spectacular view of the four castles. The weather is perfect, the view is marvellous, there is a wonderful viewing platform, and a lovely shaded area with wooden seating where we can enjoy our picnic. We are the only people there … apart from four artists who are painting various views of the castles. It is idyllic. We enjoy the scene, admire the paintings, take lots of photographs, and finally sit on the wooden benches to enjoy our lunch. Suddenly we hear a lot of noise! We look round and there, bursting on to our peaceful scene, are about 50 Spanish schoolchildren?! They are all talking at once … the four or five teachers who are ‘in charge’ of them are all shouting at them at once …I suddenly realise what a jarring, guttural language Spanish is? They stampede through the shaded, wooden seating area, grabbing all the vacant seats, barging us and ‘the artists’ in the process, and proceed to unpack their own lunches. They are mostly young, early teenage girls and … ‘ladies of Spain we don’t adore you’!

Fortunately we managed to ‘enjoy’ the view, take our photos, and eat most of our lunch before the Spanish children arrived … they were obvious the group who had been up at the site of the four castles that we had seen earlier …so we make our escape. Driving home, we can see the funny side of all this … although it didn’t seem funny at the time.

We are up bright and early the next day (well bright and early for us) and ready for our trip to the coast. It is in the completely opposite direction to the Montagne Noire this time. We are off to the beautiful little fishing village of old Gruissan, near Narbonne. We are not going into the city of Narbonne itself … that is a trip planned for next week sometime … but we are going to look round the village and then spend most of the day on the beach. Part of our holiday ritual … whenever we are near the Mediterranean … involves Julia going for a swim in the sea. I am not really a ‘beach person’ but Julia is. Mr and Mrs ‘Grimsby’ (the couple who spend half the year on our campsite, you will recall) have recommended Gruissan as a good place to visit … and it turns out to be just that.

We have a coffee, and then walk up the main street towards the church and ‘fortified tower’ above the church. Julia finds some nice shops selling scarves, hats, and other ‘Julia shaped things’?! They are all ‘open’ but actually ‘closed’?! The shop keepers are all sitting outside their shops in the shade … but they refuse to sell Julia anything because they are ‘closed for lunch’ but they will be open again at 3.00 p.m. in about two hours time? We leave them to it and wander up to the church … which strangely enough is open in contrast to many of the French churches we have tried to visit. It is an unusual building, quite plain on the outside but quite beguiling on the inside. It is   strangely attractive with a lovely statue of Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist by the entrance. The church is dedicated to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and has a huge statue of Mary ascending into heaven over the altar. There seems to be little place for God the Father, or even Jesus, in this church, and we debate once again the question of exactly who held the most heretical views at the time when the Cathars were persecuted out of existence by the Catholic Church and the King of France?

We climb up the steps by the church to the fortified tower above it, stopping to admire the small houses on the other side of the church with their lovely patios. ‘It would be nice to have one of those!’ I suggest to Julia and she agrees. We climb to the top of the fortified tower (although the tower itself turns out to be ruin) with its wonderful views over the sea, the salt flats, and surrounding countryside. We take lots of photos and then descend back down to the town. As we pass the church, and the nice little houses where we would like to live, the church clock strikes the hour. The horrendously loud noise booms out across the town … loud enough to wake the dead! We decide that perhaps we wouldn’t like to live in one of these pretty little houses after all!

We stop for a late picnic lunch in the marina area at Gruissan and then head for Gruissan-Plage with its wide expansive beach. There are quite a few people there but, even so, it is so expansive that it seems deserted. We find a nice spot on the beach and Julia goes for a swim. There a wind-surfers racing through the same area as the swimmers at colossal speed, and a guy in Iron Man boots flying up and down … I stay safely on the beach reading! After a few pleasant hours … in which I add to my healthy tan and Julia adds to her usual bright pink colour … we get ‘dressed up’ (Julia has brought her special orange dress with her) and go for a drink along the coast. We find yet another marina and wander round the various bars debating whether or not to have a cocktail … or what? We see a notice outside one restaurant offering a mixed plate of Tapas and a litre of Sangria for just 20€? We give in to temptation … even though there is no one else there apart from the waiter. We sit in the sun, overlooking the boats in the marina, watching the people pass by all dressed up in their various summer outfits. When our food arrives it is amazing … a huge plate of mixed Tapas and a huge jug of Sangria! We are sure that we have got it all wrong. ‘It must be 20€ each?’ I suggest to Julia. But even at that price it is worth it. We eventually polish off the lot. Several people passing by are so impressed with our meal that they come in to our restaurant as well. The food is brilliant … such a variety … and the Sangria is the best we have tasted for a long time. It is another taste of Spain for us … and a much better one than 50 screaming Spanish kids! Our Waiter brings the bill over. We brace ourselves for the cost! It really is only 20€ for the lot! ‘Olé!’

Jim Binney

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