On the whole I like to have a plan. I feel happier when I know what I’m doing and where I’m going. But on our trip through France it’s been the things we haven’t planned that have provided some of the best moments. Like our lunch at Les Orangeries on our second day; like the wonderful evening we spent dancing in the village square at Paunat; like our visit to the amazing Chateau de Marqueyssac with its extraordinary gardens. And like our magical supper by the side of the Canal du Midi while the sun set over the water.
Now – on our fourth morning – we’re starting with breakfast in the charming courtyard at Camellas-Lloret.
And here’s another thing we hadn’t planned – looks like our fourth day on the road is going to be conducted according to the itinerary provided for us by Colin, the owner of this latest of our B & B stopovers. So we have got a plan; but it’s not ours. And that is fine with us. Because after his recommendation for dinner last night, we’re excited to see what’s in store for us today.
Breakfast is delicious – all the places we’ve stayed in have served great breakfasts. So really good coffee, fresh fruit, pastries, breads, jams, all served with the easy elegance that characterises this particular stopover. And it’s another glorious day. We sit at a long table under an awning with the other guests, a delightful young couple who turn out, like Colin, to be Barcelona enthusiasts and offer us advice on where to stay and what to do when we get there. Because that’s where we’re heading for today.
Before we leave Camellas-Lloret Colin invites us to take a look at the apartment that he and Annie have created out of the building in the corner of the courtyard. It’s empty of tenants at the moment so we can have a sneaky peak. And I’m so glad we do, because it’s a miracle of style and ingenuity in a very tiny space.
We wave goodbye to Montreal and get back on the road. And now we’re driving across a wide open landscape with fields of golden sunflowers, their drooping heads heavy with seeds. In the far distance we can just make out the hazy blue silhouette of the Pyrenees. I’ve been going to the Highlands all my life, I’ve slept in a tent at Everest Base Camp surrounded by the highest mountains in the world, every year if I’m lucky I get to ski in the Alps. There is something about the sight of mountains on the horizon that always makes my heart beat a little faster.
But we’re going to have to put off our mountain adventure for a little while. We have had strict instructions from Colin to head for Mirepoix, where he has assured us we will ‘experience a moment’. So we do what we’re told, drive into what seems to be a pleasant if unexciting French town, park the car, wander for a while, uncertain of what and where and if this ‘moment’ of ours is going to happen. Until we turn a corner and find ourselves on the edge of the market square in the centre of town.
And Colin is absolutely right. We experience a moment to beat all moments. Because this place is a medieval miracle. We are open mouthed. And slightly shell-shocked. People are going about their daily business as if this was any old place. Rather than something completely extraordinarily wonderful. All I can say is go.
We leave Mirepoix and drive towards the Pyrenees, the scenery changing from gold to green on either side of us as we start the climb into the foothills. And now we’re stopping off at Les Cabannes, a village tucked against the feet of a mountain range that will see us through into Spain. Here is another place we would never have thought of to visit. But Colin has told us about a restaurant there run by local farmers, who serve meat reared on their farms. Where we can try the best steaks, the best burgers, the best… Well let’s just say the place is going to have to deliver to live up to the hype.
Which it does. We sit on the small terrace in front of La Maison Lacube on the edge of the village square. There isn’t a seat to be had and the waiters are busy. But they take our order with great charm and friendliness and we sit in the sun and watch the world come to this one little place. Because inside are a whole load more tables and they are all filled up with locals. And more are turning up and being turned away. And we’re really glad that Colin has booked us a table. And even more glad when the food arrives. Because the burgers really are the best we’ve ever eaten. And their version of shepherds pie is possibly the best shepherds pie we’ve ever tried. (Which for a woman who is ferociously loyal about her family shepherds pie recipe is saying a lot!)
We’re pretty full by the time we leave and happy to sit in the car and enjoy the view as we drive up into the mountains. Another change in scenery – we’ve seen so many different landscapes in the past few days. And this has got to be amongst the most spectacular: plunging ravines, densely wooded slopes, breathtaking blue skies. The road twists and winds its way upwards and we crane our necks from side to side to see as much as we can. Because Colin has told us that if we stick with the scenic route all the way into Spain we’re going to be on it for rather longer than we would like. So we’re going through the tunnel, which takes us under rather than through the mountains, misses out a big chunk of scenic, but delivers us into Spain in quick time.
The tunnel is super modern – all smooth road surface and twinkling lights – and driving through it we have the bizarre experience of being in a computer game, hard to describe, you kind of have to be there to know what I mean. When we come out at the other end the countryside has changed again, and now there’s a whole different vibe – here there are Spanish place names replacing the French, the world is hotter, drier, browner. We pass the ridge of one of the most spectacular (and definitely the rudest) mountain ranges I think I’ve ever seen. (If you click on the link here you will see what I mean!) This is Montserrat, which literally means serrated, and it’s not difficult to see where the name came from. We indulge in some childish giggling as we wind our way towards the coast and the outer edges of one of my favourite cities in the world.
Barcelona makes me happy. It’s beautiful and energetic and colourful and wild and just bloomin’ wonderful.We’re staying at the same hotel we did on our way home last year, the H1868 just off La Rambla right in the centre of the city. It’s a whole different ballgame from the places we’ve stayed on our drive through France, very stylish but not so characterful, a little bit corporate, but oh so comfortable. The beds… Oh the beds… I feel I could sleep for a week if I am given the chance. But what a waste not to get out and about in this fantastic city. So we go up to the roof of the hotel for a drink in what must be one of the coolest bars in town, and then head out into the happening and heaving La Rambla to walk to the restaurant Colin has recommended.
Which is where, for the first time, the plan goes a bit tits up. Because a) – it takes us ages to find, and b) – the restaurant is full and doesn’t have any tables free. But they very kindly take us to their new sister restaurant round the corner – which has lots of tables (in fact we’re the only people in the place) but is slightly lacking in character. Still there is a delightful waiter and decent food. And we’re feeling rather weary. So we go with it. But we’re still full from stuffing our faces with burgers at lunchtime. So this meal is not all it could have been.
We finish off a long but wonderful day with a walk back to the hotel through Barcelona’s teeming streets, excited at the prospect of sleeping in comfort. And looking forward to seeing what tomorrow is going to deliver. It’s our last day before we get on the boat to our final destination. Can it live up to the rest of our trip? It’s a big ask.