Although the Ghostriders’ European rides have now been completed, I have had requests to provide an update on what we have been up to since we left Le Croisic. I thought you might like a quick recap of the past week or so.
Since Carol’s unfortunate accident in Angers, David has taken on a couple of new roles. As well as becoming Carol’s unwilling permanent carer, he was also quickly appointed as the official taxi driver for our group. Since we all had heavy suitcases and since the Le Croisic Railway Station was about a km from our hotel and also since David was the only one with a lovely big rental car, his services were rapidly booked for series of transfers from the hotel to the station. In fact, on the morning of October 2nd, he spent his whole time driving back and forth. Maggie and I booked his 10 am departure slot and we soon had all our bags jammed into the boot of his car.
It really was hard to say goodbye to the group for the final time. Over the past three weeks we had become very close and had all shared a series of wonderful times together. I have to admit that I had a big lump in my throat when I gave Dave a hug at the station and thanked him for all that he had done.
A few minutes later we were on our train bound for Nantes. There we had a brief wait before catching our second train to La Rochelle. This is a medium sized town on the Atlantic Coast. As soon as we got off the train we could sense that things in La Rochelle were not as prosperous as they had been in the northern cities. The numerous holes in the footpath took a heavy toll on our luggage castors as we made our way to our hotel and we had to be careful not to get snagged in the blackberries that were happily thriving alongside all the pathways.
The Kyriad Hotel was large and modern – and we hated it. It had no character and reminded me of a huge concrete jail. As we found our way to our allocated cubicle, I felt like a battery hen looking for its cage. We already missed our riding companions and could help but feel lonely in this place.
La Rochelle has a long history and is famous for its three huge waterfront towers. These have served a variety of functions over the years. One of them was used for a considerable time as a prison and apparently housed a number of infamous pirates in bygone times. I would have liked to have seen inside, however I arrived at midday siesta time and would have had to wait another two hours for the front door to open again. I did not want to see inside that much, and contented myself with a look at the outside only.
My walk also found me looking at the huge Hotel de Ville (town hall). Apparently this particular Hotel de Ville was the oldest in France, at least it was until it burnt down during restoration works two years ago. I suspect that some careless tradesman probably flicked his cigarette into the tinder dry roof beams and the rest is history. Among the priceless artifacts that were quickly converted to ashes was the wooden sabre of Charles IV. Of course there is a silver lining in most clouds, and now there is a much bigger project underway to recover and rebuild the structure in something resembling its former glory. I hope it’s now a non smoking work site.
In the evening Maggie and I walked back to the historic old port for dinner by the water. The mid autumn weather was delightfully mild as we walked back to our hotel and locked ourselves back inside our cubicle for the night.
After a couple of nights in La Rochelle, our next stop was the large city of Toulouse. This is actually the 4th largest city in France and we had spent a single night there on a previous trip in 2013. At that time we were sorry that we did not have more time and promised ourselves another visit. This time we stayed in the Ibis Toulouse Centre Hotel (and hated it). Like the Kyriad in La Rochelle, it had clean rooms and working lifts, but the designers had completely forgotten to add any soul. I could not help but think how sad it would have been to have spent the entire trip staying in places like that, but that is exactly how many people travel.
After two nights in Toulouse we were rested enough to face our next challenge – picking up the rental car. Driving in a large foreign city is always stressful, especially when you are driving on the wrong side of the road and don’t understand many of the road signs. We arrived at the Europcar office and handed over our booking form. They asked me for my driving license and passport and were happy with those. Before leaving Australia I had also wasted about $40 buying an “International Driving Permit” from the RACV. I had made the same mistake in the past and decided that it was just a waste of money, but somewhere we had been warned that the regulations had recently changed and that we would now need the permit. We needn’t have worried. The lady at the counter had never seen the International Permit and was certainly not in the slightest bit interested in it. She was much more interested in my credit card and made sure that she warned me that they would make a huge deduction straight away (presumably to save time when I returned the car in Dijon). The last time I hired a car from Europcar they apparently thought I had also given them carte blanche to make ongoing deductions from my card, even long after the car was returned. It was only when I was going through my statements that I discovered these extra deductions and was able to have them all reversed. I sincerely hope the same does not happen this time.
We were handed the keys to our allocated car and given instructions on where to collect it. I asked what type of car it was and was told that it was a Nissan Juke. I had never heard of such a car but decided to nod sagely as if I was a motoring expert. Maggie and I caught the lift to the rooftop car park, and we would have got there sooner if our places in the lift had not been taken by a young couple of American backpackers who apparently had never been taught about correct etiquette that those who were at the lift first should be allowed to get in first. When we got to the roof and found our car we were less than impressed as it had a couple less doors than what we had ordered and paid for.
Full of righteous indignation we went back down the lift and up to the counter. “We booked a 5 door car, and have only been given a two door”.
The lady stared back at me.
“Are you sure ?” she asked.
“Of course I know how to count, and it’s only got two”
I could see a smirk spreading across her face as she shared an obvious joke (in rapid French) with her workmates. She then suggested we should go and have another look. We did and discovered that the back two doors are actually cleverly disguised as body panels. Now nobody ever told us that ! We felt like two stupid foreigners as we packed our bags into the boot and I built up the courage to drive out into the peak hour Toulouse traffic.
The first challenge was to successfully navigate the corkscrew exit ramp. It had obviously been designed for drivers of tiny cars and our bright yellow (and quite large) Nissan Juke seemed in danger of getting jammed tightly between the two walls. Somehow I narrowly avoided rearranging the panels and we safely emerged into the traffic and managed to get out of town without accident or road rage.
Soon we were driving through the magical rolling hills of the Midi Pyrenees. With the myriad autumn colours spreading through the trees and a clear blue sky overhead, it really was as pretty a scene as you could find anywhere. Our destination for the first day was the hilltop medieval town of Cordes Sur Ciel. I had discovered this place on the Internet and it looked like the sort of town that would provide a memorable stay.
The town was established way back in 1222 and it is still incredibly well preserved. Our hotel was situated right at the top of the hill, in the middle of the oldest part of the town. In order to get there we had to navigate a series of tiny cobblestoned alleyways. More white knuckle driving, especially when I had to squeeze past another car that had been illegally parked right in the middle of the road. There was no way to turn back so Maggie had to climb out and guide me inch by inch between the parked car and a solid bluestone wall.
In spite of the trauma in getting here, when we reached our room, we quickly realised that it really was worth the effort. The views from the window were amazing – probably the most incredible view I have ever had from any hotel anywhere. The medieval city was quiet and peaceful with not a single selfie stick carrying tourist in sight. We spent the next three days exploring this incredible place. It is hard to imagine that this town was already 500 years old at the time of the French Revolution. It is even much older than the Inca city of Macchu Picchu. There is magic around every corner and down every narrow staircase and alleyway. The weather also played its part by giving us a succession of absolutely perfect warm and still days.
I am sure the pictures will never do the place justice, but they might at least give you an idea of what this place is like.