Day 12: Journey to the Citadel of Carcassonne and to Albi
Cross the fertile Languedoc region, before heading inland to the fortified town of Carcassonne. Travellers are often amazed at their first sight of this medieval gem. The city has a complete set of ramparts and a medieval keep. Enjoy an orientation tour of Albi, known for its amazing cathedral and the birthplace of Toulouse Lautrec. Hotel: Hostellerie Saint Antoine, Albi. Buffet Breakfast, Dinner.
Well I’ll be honest. It was at this point that I stopped writing while on my trip. I think I was getting tired of the trip at some point, and it became mentally exhausting to continue to write so much, and to find the time to while still out there. So anyways, what preceded this point was written during the trip and cleaned up afterwards. What follows is written approximately two weeks after the fact to the best of my recollection.
So we left Avignon this morning. It was where we spent the most time on the whole trip, three whole nights. It was nice, as I said earlier, I could see myself making a getaway for myself in my magical fantasyland.
After getting on the road, we eventually came to a comfort stop, after a period where the bus was way too hot. I had a fan with me, which Joyce bought for me at once point but I didn’t think too much about, but it’s portable and USB powered, meaning that I can plug it into my big twenty thousand milliamp USB battery pack for just such occasions. I just sit it up on the tray in front of my seat and stay quite comfortable while the rest of the bus suffers. I brought it for the plane and although I didn’t use it going either way, the psychological value of knowing it was there if I needed it was immense.
At the first comfort stop I saw a military fuel truck which looked kind of funny for some reason. I had Joyce take a picture of me with it. It was also here while looking for snacks inside that I showed Carolinda the video of Ben Carson forgetting his luggage and she thought it was hilarious too. I overheard the younger single traveler American woman say something to the effect of ‘so I just don’t talk to them anymore’ and wondered if it had anything to do with me but assured myself I was just paranoid.
Whether it was this day or the night before that we first saw it, at some point in Avignon Ronald and Irene bought matching loud button up shirts and now frequently wore them together. They’re cute like that, I guess he’s a good sport. Or she is… Joyce told him about the John Lennon collection at the Bay and he seemed very interested.
Back on the road we saw an amazing number of wind turbines, they seemed to go off into the distance and some seemed to be really moving. It was quite a sight to see, and a sight that made me very happy and encouraged for them, and kind of woeful for the rest of the world.
Our lunch stop was at a place called Carcassonne. Not only was this definitively the point at which old walled cities officially became old, to the point that five minutes in we passed the Australian siblings who commented that they didn’t know how they were going to spend the time there, but it was to see this place that we bypassed the Millau Viaduct. Man, fuck Carcassonne. It was a little neat and different from the rest though. It had a distinct renaissance fair feel to the buildings, it really looked like a castle with the pointed rooves and corrugated wall tops. It also helped that right at the front drawbridge gate there was a fiddler dude who really created a mood. I gave him some change and he said merci.
This place was big on the whole knights and jousting motif, to the point that I actually saw a full suit of armour for sale, as well as all kinds of swords and stuff. We kept joking yeah, good luck getting that through airport security. We wandered around for a bit, and I surveyed my coin, sticker, and bottle opener options. Stickers I found right away, coins I quickly rushed over to where I saw the one which was the best of the three I saw around, and finally I bought a bottle opener which was one of the shitty ones again, and to top it all of it was overpriced. And then, just to torture myself, I went into the shop immediately next door to see if I could find a better one, and of course I did, and for several euros cheaper. Naturally.
After this, Joyce needed the bathroom, and I was keen for lunch though time was getting tight, so after some arguing we sat down somewhere. I mentioned a wish to get a beer, but I ended up just getting a Coke Light and I think Joyce did as well. She didn’t eat anything, but I had a breakfast Crêpe which was delish, it had white cheese and ham inside, and a fully cooked egg on top (well, fully cooked whites which is certainly enough). I noticed again here that the server ordered directly onto an electronic device at the table, meaning that it went directly to the kitchen, meaning it wasn’t a thing there for servers to take several table’s orders and then ring them all in at the same time. As a cook I like this of course, it seems like a great system. In fact I’m pretty sure I’d seen them use those devices a number of times while we were over there.
After boarding the bus again we were on the road again. It was on our way to our next stop that I had my next big lament after the viaduct over what we would be passing and not stopping at. There was something l’espace, looking it up then and now later on, it was actually called ‘La Cité de l'espace’ and is a French national space centre. Off the side of the road I saw a full scale model of an Arianne 5 rocket, and looking it up after we passed it I saw that it also had a full size model of the Mir space station which you could crawl around in as well as a Soyuz capsule, and a mock mission control in which one could oversee the simulated launch of an Arianne 5. Oh man, I wished we could have stopped and checked that out. Guess not thought to be of interest to our kind of crowd. Très désolé…
Next we got into our hotel in Albi, and although in the write up above clearly says ‘enjoy an orientation tour of Albi’, none ever occurred. Instead we were given maps and told what direction to head in if we wanted to see apparently the only thing interesting about Albi. The hotel was interesting, if a little quirky. For one we had physical keys that took some finesse to make work in the locks, and which we handed in at the front desk when we headed out because they were too bulky to carry around with us and had our hotel name and room number on them, meaning that if they were stolen the thief could use the key to get into our room since they knew exactly which one it was. There was also an interesting garden in a sort of central courtyard to the building. The hotel room itself was another with two twin beds lashed together to serve as a queen, which is fine but not ideal, had no fridge for me to put beer or pop in, however the window had the mechanical slats which came down to fully black out the window which I hadn’t seen since way back in Isle of Capri. I think they’re great and that we should get them at home. There’s a button by the bed to roll them up and down like a garage door and when they get to the bottom they then clack down more firmly on each other. It’s strangely satisfying.
Anyways after getting our luggage we left the key at the front door and headed out. In this situation a big part of you wants to just hang out, put your feet up, and wait for dinner time, and I think Joyce thought about doing just that, but you’ve got to just suck it up and get out there anyways. I’ll probably never be in Albi again, and we leave in the morning, so I’m going to take the couple hours I have to see it to see as much as I can in a couple hours. So we headed out.
Outside our hotel we found a town square with these really interesting fountains flanking a nice tree shaded areas. These Europeans really like their fountains and I approve. They really class up the joint. Also, a merry go round. We saw one in Avignon too… and Nice, apparently they’re everywhere and we’re not sure why other than… kids like em? I guess? I stopped in to a corner store looking for stickers and bottle openers, but no luck. Porno mags though… I kept that noted. We then walked down this side street with innumerable pink umbrellas hanging overhead. The banner translated as October Pink. Ah, breast cancer. Sein, is apparently breast. You’d think I’d know that.
Walking down that alley we got the impression that this part of France saw tourists a lot less frequently. Although we eventually came across tourist shops beside the city’s main draw, the cathedral, otherwise we didn’t see any. I did however see a cardboard cutout of a rugby player begging to have his picture taken with me pretending to be kicking him in the nuts, and I obliged. We also passed the elderly single Australian lady Annette along the way, I believe she was buying something from a street vendor. Hearing her say French words is funny in that there is zero attempt at accent whatsoever.
When we rounded the corner and saw the cathedral, it took my breath away. The Cathedral Sainte-Cécile for the record. In my travels, I’ve seen a lot of churches, and quite a few cathedrals, but this was extraordinarily imposing. It was made entirely of red brick and was so big! It was another one of those experiences where your mind keeps trying to reject the notion that something could be that bid and still be that far away. I walked up to it and took a picture looking up the side of it like I did with the skyscrapers in Manhattan, and Joyce took a picture of me (and a couple from our group we ran into) at its base for a scale comparison. There’s no way to make the pictures convey just how imposing a structure like that is to see, especially when you’re not really expecting it.
We went inside, and it was… a church. It was impressive and all, but still all seemed so wasteful and silly. Absolutely the last place I would ever want to hang out if I was the master of all space, time, and matter. Joyce is still very irritated with me taking pictures of her taking pictures, I still find it immensely amusing. We also took note of the severe contamination and transmission hazard that is the ‘holy’ water.
Outside we wandered the back streets for a bit, thinking we’d be able to loop back around but we came to a dead end and had to retrace our steps. The area was remarkably run down, but relatively well to do people still passed on their way to and from their homes there. We saw an interesting mural painted onto the side of one building, which included a recreation of the creation of Adam, two old men sitting outside a café and a French soldier watching on, and a woman leaning out of a window near the top of the building.
At one point I heard a cat meowing from overhead but we never saw it. Joyce also took pictures of me in front of doors which barely came up to my shoulders. We also passed by a museum of… somebody, who is apparently supposed to be the other big draw of Albi. We came across another fountain, a sort of long reflecting pool with arches at the end which we couldn’t figure out if they were genuine Roman ruins or a recreation. Behind that we found a switchback path through a park down to the river. We went down a few rungs, but then decided to head back. We also noticed that some of the brick work by that reflecting poos was roman style, wide flat bricks.
Coming back around the cathedral I went into the gift shop and found my bottle opener and stickers. I can’t remember if I thought it a good idea to get a souvenir coin from the cathedral. I could check right now, but I won’t. On our way back to the hotel, I informed Joyce that I was going to buy that porno magazine and she was half confused and half amused, but that was about it, not that I really expected her to have a problem with it, it’s just embarrassing. I’d explained why I wanted to earlier though, the curiosity. So I went into the shop alone and bought it, tucking it under my arm until we got back to the hotel.
We had a bit of time, so I convinced Joyce to go to a very nearby small grocery store, and along the way we saw a big red dog, the third inexplicable large red creature I’d seen in Europe. I referred to it as Clifford naturally and had Joyce take a picture of me with it scratching it’s head between its ears.
We went on to the grocery store, and I was primarily looking for that ham wrapped boursin again, but no luck! Oh! That was the other thing! I had found it in the small Carre-Four in Avignon, but I’d forgotten it in our bar fridge! At one point Joyce asked me where it was and I immediately remembered that I’d forgotten it there. Idiot! So we looked again for it here and found none. We thought about getting prosciutto and these odd cubes of boursin but in the end we got the cubes and some crackers and made do in the hotel room. Joyce also got some remarkably cheap rose wine (it wasn’t a cheap wine, I just mean that all the wine was remarkably inexpensive compared to prices at home), one of the few screw tops we could find, because of course we now had ten bottle openers but not a single cork screw. I also saw giant sacs of escargot, ready to bake! I guess, or whatever you do with escargot…
When we got back to the hotel we broke into the wine, cheese, and crackers, and I tore off the plastic on the magazine. It certainly was interesting, it seemed focused on the ‘Dear Penthouse’ letters format, with a remarkable amount of ads for sex phone lines, and unbelievably expensive DVDs of really bad looking pornography. It made me wonder how such a thing still existed, the same curiosity that led me have to investigate what could be inside, I mean have these people never heard of the internet?
Now already a little full from cheese and crackers (not usually a problem due to smaller portion sizes for our dinners) we made our way down to the included hotel dinner. Our appetizer was what was billed as a Salade Albigeoise, an Albi salad, and it was green apple slices and what we believe was pork over spring mix and drizzled with some sort of salad dressing. A lot of people didn’t finish it or even eat much of it. I quite liked it though, and I ate every last bit on my plate.
Our entrée was a chicken leg, smothered in mushrooms and gravy which was really good, but I hate eating bony things like that when I don’t feel free to pick it up and eat it with my hands. Trying to tease meat of a leg like that I find not only incredibly tedious, but dangerous as well. It seems far too easy to accidentally fling something towards others or onto oneself. Served with it were French fries and a baked tomato. I liked the fries of course, the tomato… not so much. I’m never very hot on cooked tomato. Hot tomato sauce, yes. Whole baked tomato, no. Dessert was a dark chocolate tart in some sort of custard cream sauce. It was very good, but not anything extraordinary.
Having had some wine and some more alcohol at dinner, I was getting overheated by the end when they directed us to where we could get ourselves some coffee or tea, something which is ALWAYS following a dinner her, possibly by law with how insistent they are about it. I sat out in the glassed in patio which was nice and cool, and listened through the windows as Joyce and the other travelers talked inside. I only caught bits and pieces, but Joyce told me later that they talked about the tipping of the tour director and driver, as is expected, though not required, and something Joyce is increasingly frustrated with. She stopped doing so on our last trip, and in talking with the other travelers found out that many of them do not as well, particularly the Australians.
The Australians are so well known not to tip, that Insight offers the option to pay a tip beforehand as part of the cost of the trip. Well that’s not really a tip then is it? Like all tipping it’s just a way to offload the company’s financial risk of operating to its employees, a way to lie about the price of the trip, list it as cheaper than its true cost, and pay the employees a depressed wage and make them risk and bear the burden of tips not being paid. Joyce doesn’t pay on principle and rages at them about it on the how did we do form we fill out at the end of the trip. I relay a similar sentiment on mine because I agree.
After that it was off to bed, leaving the cheese on the windowsill to stay cool.