After Toulouse, our first stop was Carcassonne. Because of Bastille Day – which is a big deal in Carcassonne – accommodation had been hard to come by, even months ago when it had been booked. Fortunately, camping had always been on the agenda, and a campsite was found about ten minutes drive away. The day was what is known in official circles as a “roastbox”, hitting figures we in northern Scotland are wholly unfamiliar with, and we timed our arrival just as the campsite owners were out on their daily 3-hour lunch. We found whatever meagre shade we could.
Shade was less present when we put up our tents, turning us into sweatmongers in the process. I can’t recall the last time I put up a tent, but it may have been many years ago during my travels with Varwell. I don’t recall it ever being a smooth process, although I believe we only ever pitched in the dark or when drunk. This time, my newly purchased €30 tent, from a French hardware chain called Decathlon, popped into place like a dream. Either my skills have subconsciously developed, or tents are much easier to build these days.
Carcassonne has been described in my review, so I need not describe it again. Needless to say, that day and the next, we explored the city, bought some tourist tat, ate some food, and managed a group photo in between.
It was time, after ticking off this next Wonder, for a short holiday within a holiday. French Claire’s parents live in a small village called Morlaas, near the larger city of Pau, within sight of the Pyrenees. Being only a few hours drive, it was on our route, and they had kindly agreed to put us all up for a couple of days. These couple of days turned into a gigantic food and wine extravaganza.
From the moment of arrival to that of departure, all sense of time leaves me. I think back of Morlaas and all I can see is food being shovelled into my mouth, under a blue sky and warm sunshine. The pace never relented; our arrival timed well with the beginning of a family part, which involved 600 snails, profiteroles, sausages, and I begin to lose track after that. Our departure, two mornings later, was a coffee-washed and pastry-filled occasion. I’m not sure if they have meal-times in Morlaas, it's just a continuous frenzy of eating. It was great.
Most of the dining took place outside, under a canopy, but the big family dinner took place inside, around a huge square ring of tables. It was quite a scene. I’d reached a state of delirium at this stage as a series of profiteroles found themselves hurled in my grinning, chomping mouth, and it is this unstable state I blame for the atrocity that then took place. Seeing Claire’s brother, Olivier, in the centre of the ring of tables, I made some joke about it being a performing ring, and he should give us a dance. He said he would, if I would. Sure, why not: I agreed. And Olivier proceeded to pull off some pretty smooth moves – it turns out that as a youth he attended a dance class for many years. Great. So, it was my turn. When faced with this no-win situation – dance before an audience, or skulk away pathetically – I have come to learn that the best approach is to stop all processes of thought and just do. So, I just did. Earlier in the day, outside, to please one of Claire’s aunts, I had done a little pseudo-macho strut, like a beach poser. I modelled my public dance on this, marching up and down the performing ring with elaborate turns and flourishes. The very best I can salvage from it is that the reaction was not, at least, stunned silence – rather, the whole room was in laughter, especially Lucy, who burst most of her arteries in her hysteria. Oliver won the dance-off, but at least I salvaged my pride. No, no, I didn’t. Any pride I might have had was thoroughly lost, gone in the same way as these profiteroles disappeared into my stomach.
If the first day in Morlaas was wholly food orientated (although we did play a little petanque in the garden as an afternoon activity), the second day had a few set pieces. In the morning, we headed into Pau for a wine tour and tasting. It was mostly sweet white, which has never particularly attracted me, but gosh this was tasty wine. The tour was pretty good too, including a room in which some 4th Century Roman murals, found on-site when building the winery, were displayed, almost as an aside. And the main wine storing room had something close to a Wonder Wow moment, as wee entered this huge space filled with 500,000 bottles.
After lunch was a trip highlight: the Tour de France. I don’t particularly follow it, but some of the group are avid fans, and had been watching each stage before the holiday, and during, when possible, in cafes. As a Brit, Bradley Wiggins, was leading, with an excellent chance to become the first British winner ever in the competition, there was added interest. It just so happened that the route went by a mere ten minutes walk from Claire’s family home, so in the glorious sunshine we strolled to a street corner lined by people.
First up was the caravan. The caravan precedes the actual cycling, like a warm up, featuring countless number of companies driving customised vehicles, handing out free gifts. It is hilarious. The vehicles are ludicrous, ranging from being built from baguettes, or in the shape of a a gigantic teddy, or a gigantic plastic bottle. It goes on and on, and the most ridiculous or most child-friendly (e.g. Haribro or Nesquik) would be heralded by a shriek of excitement as they approached. The nine of us took our positions on either side of the road, to maximise free gift collection, and collected free stuff ranging from caps (many) to T-shirts to sweets to washing-up powder to newspapers to biscuits. The best gifts sometimes incited a scramble, where it was man versus child, with the child usually being the victor. It went on for almost an hour, an extravaganza of free gifts and hilarious nonsense, that had the area buzzing, and very warmed-up for the actual cycling.
We assumed a different position for the cyclists, finding a decent spot up a slope that would afford a good view of the oncoming cyclists but wasn’t too busy with people. We chose well. It’s strange – in one sense, all that really happened was that a bunch of people cycling went by, taking up no more than 30 seconds of our time. Boil any sport down to its bare essentials – a bunch of men kicking a ball, a man hitting a ball with a stick into a hole, a bunch of men on their bicycles – and it sounds mundane and pointless, but the Tour de France, like all good sports, was so much more than that. It was the build up, the anticipation, the hush a couple of minutes before they arrived, the sound of the helicopter and then the astonishing sight of it hovering low ahead, seemingly almost close enough to jump up and grab. Suddenly a bunch of cyclist passed by, there was a breathless pause – and it was all over.
In fact, due to a breakaway group, we got about five riders passing by about ten minutes before the main bulk of over a hundred. This made for a nice preview. Then seeing the main bulk, including Wiggins in his distinctive yellow jersey, was a genuinely thrilling moment. A very entertaining afternoon out.
It need not be said that in the evening we were treated to yet another food extravaganza, this time at Claire’s godmother’s house, nestled deep in the awfully-scenic countryside. This time it was duck hearts. Many ducks died so on that night a table full of wine-soaked, cycling-stoked gluttons could guzzle on their hearts.
There was a timeless, hazy feel to our two days in Morlaas. The warm sunshine and simple but utterly delicious food, and all the wine too, gave the impression of slipping into an alternative universe, a kind of hedonistic heaven in which there were no such thing as worries, and only food and drink and sunshine could possibly matter. It was like these books and films in which the hero is drugged or seduced into some unreal paradise where he or she forgets the nature of his quest or reality. In the end, they always manage to shake off the illusion and continue on, but had I the choice I would still be in Morlaas, eating duck and drinking wine, and catching Haribro from cartoon cars. I would have happily stayed with the delirious illusion but for one thing – my next Wonder. For a new one was ahead, the Millau Viaduct, and one dreamy reality was to seamlessly morph into another.