Wednesday, 31 August 2011

CAVES & CASTLES

26th.August - 29th.August.

We got very wet on Friday and it didn't stop raining until the evening. Very Lake District like. Off on Sat morning bright and early as our visit to the caves at NIAUX was booked for 9.45, we had to 'check in' by 9.30 and we were about 45 mins drive away. Getting to NIAUX village was no problem and I had checked when booking that there was plenty of parking space at the caves for a large motorhome. What they had omitted to mention was the that from the village on the valley floor, the caves were 2 miles up a mountainside on a very narrow,winding road with overhanging rocks at every corner. There was however, just about enough parking space at the top at the enormous entrance to the caves. This complex is one of the few in europe,(14 I think they said), where you can still see the original cave paintings which is why entry is strictly controlled by allowing only groups of 20 to enter at any one time in order to reduce heat and carbon dioxide. The tour took nearly 2 hours and involved walking 800 metres into the mountainside through a magnificent series of galleries and tunnels to reach the main chamber with the paintings. led by a very informative guide. The caving system was carved out of the rock by water but are now nearly completely dry which is why the paintings have survived for 14,000 years (some paintings were damaged by water in 1978 and nobody knows why). There is no lighting in the caves, and we were all given rechargeable battery torches with low heat emission bulbs, which we had to turn off in the vicinity of the paintings whilst the guide used special torches to illuminate them for us as he described them. Altogether quite a stunning & unforgettable experience.
The drive down was just as hairy but we waited until the next group had congregated at the reception so that there would be little likelihood of meeting anyone on the way up.
Drove to AX LES THERMES, thought about going up to ANDORRA and then found a terrific aire at LES CABANNES where we spent the night for 4€ with another 26 vans. Superb mountain views and a pretty village ( on the Tour de France 2011 as it headed into the Pyrenees)

As we missed out on the high Pyrenees, our plans were somewhat scrambled so we decided to head for the Cathar country and the castles. As MONTSEGUR was quite close, and any visit was going to involve a strenuous climb, we arrived there about 10am. And the climb was very strenuous but a Gold star for the GF and we were rewarded with stunning views all round. The Castle is in ruins of course but the history comes alive when you reach the top.....500 people held out for 10 months in 1244 when it was besieged during the Albigensian crusade. The 220 Cathars they were sheltering were offered safe passage in a peace settlement if they renounced their faith but they refused and walked down the mountain and on to the pyres waiting for them at the bottom. I think it is one of the worst massacres of the middle ages and an atrocity that the Catholic church should never be allowed to forget. End of obsessive rant.

From there the road took us the strange phenomenon of the fountain of Fontesforbes at BELESTA....a cave at the side of the road which is the outlet for a stream running through the mountain. Due to some unique channels cut by the water, the flow is intermittently a trickle and a spectacular flood of 15000 litres a second. This complete cycle of trickle-flood-trickle happens continually in the summer months every 30 mins or so.
There a very detailed diagram and explanation about the level in channel Q falling below the level in the underground reservoir M and sucking air through hole P which is incomprehensible.But the effect is wonderful.

Stopped for lunch at PUIVERT, but did not fancy climbing up to the castle in the afternoon heat and headed for the CHAT.de PEYREPERTUSE, associated with the Cathars but more realistically a defensive fort, alongside its near neighbour at QUERIBUS, during the wars with Aragon/Spain, passing the Chateau at PUILAURENS on the way.

PEYREPERTUSE is a very iconic castle, perched on a ridge, and Mr Michelin thoroughly recommends a visit by campingcar in one of his Escapades. As there is an aire in the village below,DUILHAC s/s PEYREPERTUSE, it seemed the perfect night stop, esp. as All The Aires describes it as the 'prettiest aire in the Pyrenees'. Nobody mentions the access road over the GRAU DE MAURY which whilst not especially high, seems to be, with an unguarded road not much wider than the van and very steep with hairpins. White knuckle ride for the GF and when I enquired as we crested the summit if she was Ok, the response of 'what are you bloody going to do about it if I'm not?'seemed a tad edgey. But we got there in one piece with the happy thought of getting back to sustain us. Terrific setting for an aire and a dozen or so vans there. Walked round the village, found a man making wine in his garage and after a tasting bought 5litres of the red Corbiere for 15€ and a bottle of the white for the GF. Then found a man in a van with a wood burning pizza oven in it and bought what turned out to be an excellent pizza for dinner.

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