Carcassonne Rings a Bell

With all of the traveling we’ve done over the past decade or so, sometimes we worry a bit about becoming jaded. Like we might have seen it all and there is nothing new under the sun.
Then we stumble upon someplace like Carcassonne and it’s like a bell rings in our heads… CONTINUE READING >> 

With all of the traveling we’ve done over the past decade or so, sometimes we worry a bit about becoming jaded. Like we might have seen it all and there is nothing new under the sun.

Then we stumble upon someplace like Carcassonne and it’s like a bell rings in our heads. This moderately sized outpost in the southwest of France proved to us that there are still gems left to be discovered.

It was a quirk of fate, we never would have known about this amazing city if not for France Cruises inviting us to explore the Canal du Midi with them on the luxury barge Clair de Lune. Carcassonne was one of the pick-up spots to begin our cruise, and when we looked into it we knew we needed to arrive a couple days early.

Our thinking was two-fold. One, we could have some time to overcome the ten time zones of jet-lag that had scrambling our internal clocks and two, we could spend a little more time in town than the visit that was included in our tour.

To celebrate our fortunate discovery we feasted on the area’s most famous dish, cassoulet, made with beans, sausage and duck. We hear it cures jet-lag!

We then set out to climb up to the walled old city, Cité de Carcassonne. The location has been an important trade spot, beginning with the Celts and Gauls, for at least five thousand years and used as a fortress for more than two thousand of those.

The Romans built the original fortifications a century before Christ. Unlike many other places, those structures are not in ruins because the subsequent builders chose to add on to the ramparts rather than replace them.

Much of this additional construction came under the Visigoths, who took the city around the year 453. They were followed by the Saracens from 725 until King Pépin the Short (Pépin le Bref) King of the Franks drove them away in 759.

After that the city was ruled by a series of nearby viscounts from Albi and Nîmes, Barcelona, or of Toulouse. Finally, in 1247, they submitted to the rule of the kingdom of France and the constant changing of the guards came to an end.

At the main entrance, the Porte Narbonnaise, we met Lady Carcass, or at least her stone likeness, and learned the story of how the city got its name. Like any good legend, the facts may be somewhat suspect.

The tale is told that the Franks led by Pépin (the much less than tall) laid siege on the fortifications and after some time (the stories varied from a month to several years depending on who was doing the telling) Lady Carcass, the ruler during the Saracens stay, asked for an accounting of their supplies.

All that remained was a pig and one bag of wheat. The Lady hatched a plan and ordered the wheat fed to the pig and then the pig thrown from the highest tower. Could this be the origin of the phrase when pigs fly?

Anyway, upon seeing this spectacle the Franks surmised that the besieged Saracens must have had plenty of food left to survive the siege so the invading army left. As they rode away Lady Carcass ordered all of the bells to be rung.

Hearing the clamor Pépin looked back and declared “Carcass sonne!” meaning Carcass rings.

One fact that is not up for debate is the impressive fortifications being one of Europe’s finest and largest.  The massive structure was once home to thousands of people and contains 52 towers surround by two miles of walls.

We wandered through the town within those bulwarks, but that jet-lag we mentioned was getting the better of us so we made our way back down secure in the knowledge that we would return in a few days on our barge tour.

The next day we dedicated to exploring the lower town, since we knew it would not be included in our cruise. This settlement was founded in 1247 below the castle and has grown into a fairly large city of about 50,000.

As with many European towns, the oldest part is enclosed within medieval walls. The Bastide Saint Louis began as protective moats, then towers were added on the corners (three of which are still standing), and finally a complete wall.

After a walk through the morning market in the main square, we headed for Saint Vincent’s for what everyone described as the best view anywhere in town.

This fifteenth century church is famous for an octagonal bell tower, the highest around, which provides access to the top for anyone willing to climb the spiral stone staircase of 232 steps.  A surprise awaited about a third of the way up when we found a little room, once used as a jail, with a window that overlooked the interior of the church.

That was a welcome rest on our ascent, but we can safely say that the magnificent 360 degree vista at the summit was well worth our burning leg muscles.

Back down on solid ground, we walked through the Portail des Jacobins and right into another street market just outside of the south wall. Following along to the end of that wall, we came upon a hidden treasure that was not marked on any of our maps, the Jardin du Calvaire or Calvary Garden.

Contained within the Bastion les Moulins on the southwest corner of the city wall, this garden is a walk through the Stations of the Cross that culminates at a full-sized crucifixion scene of Jesus and the two others on either side on top of a small hill. Mary stands below the gruesome and shockingly lifelike scene.

In 1825 Canon Cazaintre, who is now buried on the site, formed a group to create the garden and hired architect Jean-François Champagne for the job.  Unfortunately it has fallen into some disrepair, however, for us that added to the dark and surreal quality of the setting.

When we returned to Carcassonne after boarding the Clair de Lune we spent another afternoon up within the ancient fortifications of Cité de Carcassonne. This time we had a guide, so we learned much more about the construction and history of the remarkable site.

Under Antoine’s guidance we got so we could identify the different structural styles of the various occupants who built here over the centuries. He pointed out the arches and bricks of the Romans, the more intricate stone work of the Visigoths, and the various more modern wooden works inside the ramparts.

Having spent three days walking over five thousand years of history, it was no wonder our heads were ringing like Lady Carcass’ bells.

Little did we this was only the beginning of an amazing adventure.

See our social media from this incredible barge tour here.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

See all of our previous adventures in France!

A big thank you to France Cruises for helping with this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

Fear Conquering & Zip Lining 300 Feet High

I have to wonder who thinks up things like zip lining? What kind of sick mind muses – “hey, lets launch folks across a gaping canyon on a wire – that’ll be awesome!”

Zip lining, in my mind, falls into the bungee-jumping, rodeo-clowning, leaping-off-buildings-in-suits-with-wings category of antics. Better off left to the fearless young whippersnapper types.

Not something I’d ever… CONTINUE READING >>

With the good ole summertime upon us, we thought we’d re visit this hair raising way to cool off.

WATCH: I scream my way across the canyon!

Veronica is trying to smile through the fear before zip line in Newfoundland
Apparently this is what I look like when I attempt to smile whilst terrified!

Ziplining at Marble Mountain in NewfoundlandWho thinks up things like zip lining?

What kind of sick mind muses – “hey, let’s launch folks across a gaping canyon on a wire – that’ll be awesome!”

Well, whoever that was, I’d like to personally thank them. As crazy as it sounds, I’ve become a fan.

When I first found out that we’d be zip lining during our Newfoundland adventure, I had a major panic moment.

Zip lining, in my mind, fell into the bungee-jumping, rodeo-clowning, leaping-off-buildings-in-suits-with-wings category of antics.

Better off left to the fearless young whippersnapper types.

Not something I’d ever volunteer to do at my age (or at any age, for that matter).

But there it was, staring out from a sheet of paper, just daring me, taunting me. Intriguing me.

So I popped over to the Marble Zip Tours website – not a good move. The site features out-of-control photos and videos along with slogans like “Canada’s Highest Zip Line” and “It’s a cross between parachuting and flying.” Yikes.

Having never parachuted nor flown, this “cross” sounded like one I wasn’t willing to bear.

BUT, I had specifically told our sponsors at Go Western Newfoundland that I wanted to conquer some fears during our visit, and I was game for anything (when will I learn to keep my yap shut?), so I pulled up my big-girl panties and headed to the beautiful Humber Valley.

Waterfall view while zip lining in Newfoundland with Marble Zip Tours
A pretty good shot considering I was screaming my brains out as I took this, eh?

After getting harnessed in and going through the surprisingly hilarious safety talk, I was actually getting excited. The true panic didn’t hit until I was actually hooked on and on my way…

Ziplining three hundred feet in the air with Marble Zip Tours in Newfoundland

The Marble Zip Tour is made up of a total of nine zips, and after my first terrifying run I settled down and really started to enjoy myself. Our guides were funny and engaging, pointing out points of interest along the way that, by my third or fourth zip, I was actually able to focus on.

The valley magically morphed from a place of terror to one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on Earth.

Ziplining three hundred feet in the air with Marble Zip Tours in Newfoundland

There truly is a difference between standing on the edge of something wonderful and actually being in amongst it all. Suddenly I became more than a bystander; I realized it was the first time I felt a part of something so vast and natural – as a bird might feel.

I will be zip lining again.

Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Visit Marble Zip Tours website

See all of our Newfoundland adventures!

We are so grateful to Go Western Newfoundland and Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism for making this adventure possible. As always, all opinions are our own.

YOUR TURN: Would you, could you zip line? Have you zip lined? Tell us of your adventure!

A Consummate Cruise of Cuisine, Castles, Crusades, and Curiosities

We have been on plenty of boats before, but never one like the Clair de Lune; and cruises have taken us across oceans and seas, as well as down some of Europe’s most famous rivers, but never anything like the Canal du Midi. This was a voyage of discovery… CONTINUE READING >> 

A big thank you to France Cruises for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

Every now and then we embark on a journey without a clear idea of exactly what to expect. This trip to the Occitanie region in southern France was one of those occasions.

It was not for a lack of research prior to setting out, just that no amount of reading could really prepare us for an experience so completely exceptional and unusual.

The crew of the Clair de Lune.
The crew of the Clair de Lune… Manora, Nathalie, and Yves.

We have been on plenty of boats before, but never one like the Clair de Lune; and cruises have taken us across oceans and seas, as well as down some of Europe’s most famous rivers, but never anything like the Canal du Midi.

No, this was a voyage of discovery, not only of new territory, but of engineering marvels, foods, wines, people, castles, churches, crusades, sieges, slaughters, and scenery.

Yes, it even has a hot tub!

Boats have long been the preferred method for hauling large amounts of heavy cargo over long distances. Large ships took to the seas at least five thousand years ago, when the ancient Egyptians began building sailing craft over one hundred feet long.

Several thousand years later rivers became highways, but there was one big drawback. The rivers didn’t go everywhere that the cargo needed to. Sometimes following the water meant adding hundreds, or even thousands of miles to a trip.

Human ingenuity being what it is, before long canals were dug and barges were built specifically to haul people and goods using horse power. A draft animal walking along the shore could pull up to fifty times as much on water as it could in a cart on land.

French wine
Wine was instrumental in the creation of the Canal du Midi.

With this in mind Pierre-Paul Riquet developed a plan to transport wine by connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean across southern France while bypassing the Straights of Gibraltar. Ambitious, to say the least, especially in 1665.

After nearly going broke in his endeavor, he managed to get the blessing of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Minister of Finances under King Louis the fourteenth.

This alliance made possible one of the world’s great engineering marvels for the time, the Canal du Midi, and allowed us to enjoy a most interesting cruise nearly four centuries later.

We climbed aboard a refurbished barge that began as a working vessel hauling heavy loads back in 1935, and was converted in 1998 to continue its life as a luxury vacation cruiser.

Lock on the Canal du Midi
Going through a lock. Easy as 1. Pull in 2. Fill up with water 3. Pull out.

This meant that we could not only see, but also ride through the locks that ancient engineers used to solve the problem of raising and lowering boats.

We also eased easily through the first tunnel ever built for a canal, along with several aqueduct bridges where our barge passed over rivers.

These waterway over water crossings were unique to say the least.

Another interesting aspect is that the towpath that the draft horses used to pull the barges makes a great bike trail, and of course several bikes were on board so we took advantage.

Each evening we tied off in stunning surroundings, either in the midst of towns that measure their age in centuries not years, or ageless secluded countryside all to ourselves.

Our captain / boat designer / wine connoisseur, Yves, navigated the tight spaces with all of the aplomb that years of experience brings, then gracefully transitioned into sommelier at meals and talented guitar entertainer afterwards.

Speaking of meals, our in-house chef Nathalie prepared flawless gourmet dishes at both lunch and dinner every day of the trip, without even the slightest deviation from perfection. All of these were impeccably served, with a complete explanation of ingredients and background, by our hostess and first-mate Manora.

If it sounds as though we are gushing, it is simply because we are. For us, after ten years of nearly nonstop traveling, this was a week like none other.

In addition to the time aboard the Clair de Lune, each day included a guided tour of some of the region’s most notable historic sights. We can only say that many of these were nothing short of epic. This corner of southern France has been a crossroads of civilizations since before Roman times.

We wandered the walls of hilltop fortifications built by the Gauls or Celts, both of which were here long before the time of Christ. These were then added on to by a succession of Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, Franks, and finally the modern French monarchy and republic.

The most impressive of these, among many most impressive sites, was the fortified city of Carcassonne.

Here we could easily see the distinct differences in the construction from most of those groups we just named.

Our personal guide, Antoine, pointed out the idiosyncrasies of each style while we meandered around, through, and between the walls. There was so much to take in at Carcassonne that we will have to do a separate story just on the city soon.

We visited another incredible fortified city a few days later when we toured Minerve. The entire town stands atop an outcrop high above two rivers, making for a nearly perfect natural stronghold.

We also learned that the perch proved to be imperfect early in the thirteenth century when the Albigensian Crusade, an alliance of troops faithful to the pope, came to lay siege, and ultimately wiped out the religious sect known as the Cathars that were living there.

We will certainly have more to say about these events soon as well.

While these two stops stand out, we walked through history going back over two thousand years every day, from Roman roads in Narbonne, to towering cathedrals in Bréziers, to an ancient Celtic dolmen standing alone in the forest still aligned with the solstice.

We encountered so much that this is one of those trips that will take some time for us to digest all of the mind boggling information that we consumed.

Maybe even longer than all of the food.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

See all of our previous adventures in France!

A big thank you to France Cruises for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

Discovering the Lost City of the Inca, Machu Picchu

In honor of the summer solstice, we are re-posting this account of our visit to Machu Picchu on nearly the longest day a few years ago.

A harrowing bus ride, brushes with llamas, and inexplicable happenings – and even when visiting a wonder of the world, your GypsyNesters can sniff out some weird regional food!
 CONTINUE READING >> 

In honor of the summer solstice, we are re-posting this account of our visit to Machu Picchu on nearly the longest day a few years ago.

Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas in Peru

When we stepped off the Expedition Train at Aguas Calientes we wasted no time, proceeding directly to the busses for the ride up to Machu Picchu.

Bucket list item: Discover the Lost City of the Incas - Machu Picchu!

We did not stop to eat, did not check into our hotel, did not pass go, and did not collect two hundred dollars.

We just climbed aboard our carriage for the harrowing trip up the side of a crazy-sheer cliff.

The road to Machu Picchu has thirteen switchbacks for the busses

A switchback on the bus road up to Machu Picchu
A switchback on the jungle-y bus road up to Machu Picchu.

The road takes thirteen switchbacks to make it up the mountain, all while passing busses coming down hill on this somewhat-less-than-two-lane dirt road.

Several times we were clinging right on the edge… with no guard rails… not that they would stop a bus from going over the side.

But hey, they would’ve made us feel better.

However, as soon as we rounded the last switchback and saw the ruins spread out before us, all of that was forgotten.

Machu Picchu, Peru with Road Scholar

Goldfish Cerviche at the Machu Picchu Lodge

Our super-guide Eddy would take us through the entire site, but first lunch and some delicious Goldfish Ceviche… we had no idea, hopefully a translation snafu and not actually the bowl-inhabiting pet.

Crazy name aside, it was tasty.

Machu Picchu (old mountain)
Machu Picchu (old mountain)

Over our Goldfish, Eddy explained that Machu Picchu is not really the name for the city – that name is lost forever. When Hiram Bingham came here in 1911, the locals told him of a place between Machu Picchu (old mountain) and Huayna Picchu (young mountain).

When Bingham told the world of his “discovery,” (how does one discover something that lots of people already knew about?) the name stuck.

Click here to learn how we dealt with altitude issues while in Peru

Huayna Picchu (young mountain)
Huayna Picchu (young mountain)

The Lost City of the Incas, Machu Pichhu

Our tour began with Eddy showing us the very different styles of stone work, which implies that the building of Machu Picchu took place over several different times.

This goes against many of the guidebooks that claim the entire city was built, occupied, and abandoned within the span of about one hundred years.

Eddy most certainly doesn’t buy that theory, but as with so much about the Empire of the Incas, the facts remain unknown.

The many types of stonework at Machu Picchu

Amazing stone work at Machu Pichhu

Machu Picchu Peru

Another place where Eddy diverged from the books was when he said how he feels it is not the ruins themselves that are so mind blowing, but the location.

At first that sounded strange, but as we looked throughout the sight we had to agree.

Not to discount the remarkable structures and work involved, just to acknowledge that this spot is truly amazing above and beyond the ruins.

Click here to see our entire adventure through Peru!

Beautiful Machu Picchu

Veronica soaks up Machu Picchu

The Temple of the Condor, Machu Picchu
The Temple of the Condor

Theories abound as to the purpose of Machu Picchu… summer home for the Inca, agricultural testing site, hideout, fortress, or sacred city, but no single explanation seems to fit.

Perhaps the truth is some combination of these that will forever remain a mystery.

Click here to learn how we dealt with altitude issues while in Peru

Hitching post of the sun at Machu Picchu

We moved on through the ruins and came upon a diamond shaped rock that was cut and placed to depict and align with The Southern Cross, then another incredibly carved boulder that is orientated with the sun called Intihuatana.

In the Quechua language inti means sun and watana (huatana in Spanish) means place to tie up, so this is often called the hitching post for the sun.

Reflecting pool at Machu Picchu

Next we entered a small building containing two carved stone pools that perfectly reflect the sky through a window, but only when the viewer is standing on the small rocks that mark the proper spot.

It is believed that these were used for star gazing… perhaps an Inca version of late night TV.

An extra wall was to keep the llamas out of the food supply at Machu Picchu

In one tiny entrance we noticed a strange doorway. A wall blocks direct access, forming a kind of S turn to get inside, so we asked Eddy about it.

He said this was a storage room and the extra wall was to keep the llamas out of the food supply. It seems that they can’t manage the tight turns, ingenious.

Llamas and tourists hike Machu Picchu together!
Llamas and tourists hike Machu Picchu together!

Speaking of llamas, these cousins of the camel pretty much have the run of the place.

The nimble buggers are everywhere, hiking side-by-side with visitors, stubbornly blocking paths and standing around looking pensive.

David tries to sweet talk a llama out of our way at Machu Picchu
David attempts to sweet talk this guy out of our way.

Llama at Machu Picchu

See more great photos of the pensive llamas of Machu Picchu!

Pensive llama at Machu Picchu

Pisco Sour, the drink of Peru

When the site closed at five, we headed back down the crazy road to find our hotel and some food.

We checked into the very European feeling Hotel El Mapi, and toasted the day with a Pisco Sour.

Pisco is a distilled grape type of brandy and is considered the national drink of Peru.

Since we sampled the quintessential Peruvian drink, we figured we should set out in search of some cuy for dinner.

Cuy is guinea pig – yes just like the pets – and is traditionally eaten in the Andes highlands on special occasions. We decided an occasion couldn’t get much more special than celebrating our visit to Machu Picchu, so when we saw a place with cuy al horno (oven roasted guinea pig) on the menu, we sat right down.

The cuy came baked and quartered on a plate, head and all, with some potatoes on the side. Most disturbing were the tiny little feet and the two buck teeth. But we’d come this far, so we had to eat it.

Like the old cliché… it tasted like chicken. Only this time it was true. Like a chicken thigh, or closer to rabbit. It’s good, and yes, we ate the whole thing, which was really only a few forkfuls. Between the cuy dinner and the goldfish at lunch, we took to calling this the day we ate pets.

Cuy, Guinea Pig, in Peru

In keeping with the celebratory spirit of the occasion, we made plans for the next day’s return to Machu Picchu to visit the Temple of the Sun.

Two windows in the temple are aligned so that on each of the solstices the sun rises directly through them. Since we were less than a week away from the June solstice (winter here, summer in the northern hemisphere), we figured that alignment should be pretty darn close.

Pre sunrise at Machu Picchu

Just before daylight we once again made our way to the busses. Several sources mentioned long lines for the first bus to go up each morning, but once again Eddy steered us in the right direction and advised us to get to the bus just before 6am. At 5:55 we walked right on to the second bus.

The Temple of the Sun before sunrise

With daylight breaking we scurried toward the temple, which stands in the center of the ruins, and found a spot where we could watch the sun come through the window.

Sunrise! The cosmic alignment was pretty darn close and the window lit up as advertised. We, and everyone around us, were feeling very in tune with the cosmos.

Click here to see our entire adventure through Peru!

Sunrise at Machu Picchu

Sunrise at Machu Picchu

Sunrise at the Temple of the Sun in Machu Picchu Peru

The Temple of the Sun at sunrise

From the temple we climbed upward to the top of the ridge between the two peaks, Machu and Huayna Picchu, to get our first view of the back side of the ruins.

We were surprised by how much was back there. About half as big as the front side, but concentrated more on the terraces that were used for farming and, perhaps more important in this case, preventing erosion and landslides.

The back side of Machu Picchu
The backside of Machu Picchu

This was also where we could catch the famous Inca Trail. The trail runs for some fifty miles all the way to Cusco, and is a remnant from the expansive system of roads or trails that spanned Tawantinsuyu, the Quechua name for the Inca Empire.

But we would only be going a couple of those miles, up to the Sun Gate, or Inti Punku in the Quechua language.

The Sun Gate at Machu Picchu
The Sun Gate

Click here to learn how we dealt with altitude issues while in Peru

In about an hour we climbed up another few hundred feet above sea level from the main part of Machu Picchu, taking us over 2,000 feet above the valley below. Inti Punku is the spot where the sunrise can be seen through the Sun Temple window on the solstice in December.

It is also where hikers that have walked four days along the Inca Trail from the Sacred Valley get their first view of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

For the rest of the day we simply soaked it all in, until we needed to make our way back so we wouldn’t miss our train.

Missing the train would be a problem since it was our only way out of Aguas Calientes… unless we wanted to hoof it back to Ollanaytambo.
David soaks in Machu Picchu

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Click here to see our full adventure with Road Scholar – a not-for-profit organization – through Ecuador, Peru, The Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu and much, much more!

Finding and Feeling France Like Never Before

In keeping with our relentless quest to see France every which way we can, by bikes, boat, car, at high speed, or lingering like locals, we took to the waterways again, this time as guests on the luxury barge Clair de Lune on the Canal du Midi.
A huge Merci Beaucoup! to the crew for this amazing week. Also big thanks to France Cruises for making this happen.
CONTINUE READING >> 

“Lafayette, we are here!” The exclamation may have first been made by Colonel Charles E. Stanton in a speech in Paris during the First World War, but we certainly feel the sentiment.

France is fast becoming a second home for us, ever since our eldest moved to Paris in 2017.

So in keeping with our relentless quest to see the country every which way we can, by bikes, by boat, by car, at high speed, or lingering like locals, we are taking to the waterways again, this time as guests on the luxury barge Clair De Lune on the Canal du Midi.

Not only will we be traveling like we never have before, with just a handful of cohorts aboard a vessel unlike any we have sailed on, we will also be discovering a part of France that we have never visited, the Occitanie region.

No wonder we are so excited!

The Canal du Midi was created from 1666 to 1681 as one of the greatest infrastructure projects of the time. Ultimately connecting the Mediterranean with the Atlantic across one hundred and fifty miles, this was an engineering feat to rival all others until a certain ditch was dug across the Isthmus of Panama several centuries later. Who knew?

We won’t be covering the entire route, but will discover marvelous Minervois wines and luscious Lucques olives while exploring the historic settlements of Lagrasse , Minerve , Narbonne, and Carcassonne as we stop along the route.

While we cruise we will be sharing all of our adventures on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram as well as posting daily updates right here on this page.

So come along and join us on this Bon Voyage!

Then check back here over the next few weeks for in-depth coverage of everything we encountered after our epic journey.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

See all of our previous adventures in France!

Follow along with us on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

A big thank you to France Cruises for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.