A Summer Holiday in the Midi-Pyrenees, France…

A two hour drive from Toulouse airport along winding roads, past sunflower fields and beautiful farmland is the tiny town of Loudet.  So tiny in fact that apart from a church, houses with terracotta roof tiles, chickens and fields there isn’t much else….perfect for escaping everything.  This equaled six days in the Midi – Pyrenees of exploring, drinking red wine and munching on bread and cheese, bliss!
Our Gîte ‘Pyrenees View’ certainly lived up to its name with views of rolling fields and snow capped mountains.  Evenings were spent relaxing on the front terrace barbecuing and quaffing on sparkling wine or a tasty rosé, while watching the sun go down and the clouds change from dusky pinks to vibrant oranges leaving just a faint outline of the mountains in the distance…
Day 1:
A supermarket was the first thing on the agenda to stock up for the week ahead, especially as the nearest shop from Loudet was around 25 minutes drive.  This was followed by a stop off at a boulangerie to get the all important bread and croissants!  Arriving at our Gîte via a tiny lane we were greeted by owners Jane and David who gave us a quick tour and a welcome bottle of red.  Blue skies, sunshine and 38°C heat meant it was time for a quick dip in the pool.
Surrounded by farmland every morning we would stroll along tiny lanes hardly seeing any traffic.  Walks took us past barns with donkeys peeping out, fields of wild flowers and crops, vineyards, buildings with wonky shutters, goats living in a house made from an old barrel and lots of chickens.  Apart from cockerels there was pretty much glorious silence and limited wi-fi meant that relaxing and reading was the number one option.
Day 2:
A twenty minute drive to Montréjeau had us peering over the bridge into the fast flowing river below and exploring the local boulangerie and charcuterie. (The equivalent of a butchers in England but with dried and cured meats.) Here we found lots of meats hanging and tons of tasty local cheeses.  I loved observing the locals greeting each other with double kisses, so very French!  Next it was on to San Giron for a spot of lunch, the highlight for me was dessert; a chocolate mousse which was to die for.  Made from dark chocolate and oh so light and fluffy in texture, one thing the French are good at is definitely dessert!  A lovely river and waterfalls surrounded this gorgeous town, this was a beautiful characteristic of many of the towns we explored.  Leaving San Giron, on a lovely drive along winding roads I caught a glimpse of children swimming in a crystal clear stretch of water.  Pulling over to explore, a check of the map indicated that this charming little place was Engomer.  We strolled along the river’s edge past elders chatting in the shade and buildings on stilts above a weir with pastel coloured shutters.  I stopped to take few photos of a small Fromagerie and a man fishing, it was such a picture perfect area and felt somewhat undiscovered.
Day 3:
Day three saw us drive across the border to Spain stopping at Bossòst for a coffee, full of alpine chalets this little town had a very Pyrenean village feel.  I was still a little confused as to whether I was in France or Spain it felt like such a novelty to be suddenly in a different country!  Continuing through Spain, we drove up further into the mountains along winding roads and down into steep valleys.  Passing Vielha a large ski resort and continuing into the Vielha tunnel, a three-mile stretch through the mountains added more excitement to the journey.  Coming out the other side, yet more gorgeous views and alpine rivers greeted us.  This signalled a quick stop off by the river and a paddle to cool off from the midday sun, the tranquil rush of water looked very inviting but on dipping my toes in I came to realise it was in fact icy cold!  Feeling hungry and as we were in Spain, Tapas was on the cards.  The tiny village of Aubert had the answer, so small I’ve not really been able to find out anything about it online.  A five minute drive from Vielha in the Aran Valley, or Val d’ Aran the restaurant Roc ‘n’ Cris served up cracking Tapas, so be sure to visit if you ever pass through the area.  Unsure what to try and speaking minimal Spanish we asked the lovely waitress to choose a selection for us; she was very excited at this prospect and we were looking forward to being surprised!  Starting with bread, mussels and a tuna dish, a plate of tasty looking cured meat and anchovies followed.  Octopus and a dish of snails were next, the snails were apparently a very local dish to the area, the waitress checked with us first to see if we wanted them.  Having never tried snails before I felt I should…I have to say I am up for trying anything new, but I did struggle with the snails, perhaps thinking about it too much in the process!  After much deliberation and picking the smallest one I could I shut my eyes and went for it.  I was actually pleasantly surprised as it tasted pretty good, but I left it at just the one!  Finally a lamb dish appeared and ending our Tapas selection nicely was a chocolate mousse.  It was a delicious selection and such a novelty driving over the border for lunch.
Day 4:
Still not tired of exploring we jumped in the car and drove 32 miles to the pretty town of Arreau; one thing I noticed about all the towns in this area of France is that they all seemed quite untouched by the tourist scene.  There were often a few tourist type shops to be found but no sign of ice cream vans or stalls.  Going in between school half terms meant that we hardly saw another soul around, it was nice to feel like we had these beautiful places all to ourselves.
From Arreau we hit the mountain roads towards Bagnères-de-Louchon; signs here indicated that the Tour de France would be using the route.  As we meandered up the mountains more signposts displayed the altitude, climbing higher and higher the views became more and more dramatic.  Snow capped mountains and steep valleys appeared all around. Stopping at 1563 metres Matt and I jumped on a landmark indicating the altitude for a photo.  Following hairpin bends down into a huge valley was an adventure in itself.  Arriving in Louchon the temperature must have been up above the 30 degree mark so we decided to relax in the shade with a beer.  Our mission here was to find the gondola up to the ski resort of Superbagnères; in winter Louchon turns into a bustling place for après ski.  Feeling refreshed we walked along the high street and came across the base of the gondola.  A word of warning, in the height of the summer the gondola cabins become sweltering so take plenty of water!  It takes just 8 minutes for the gondola to climb 1800 metres, just over one mile high, the views of Louchon and the surrounding mountains were fantastic.  It felt strange to be standing on a ski resort with no snow, and to see chair lifts lying dormant.  Looking just like a scene out of ‘The Sound of Music’ cows were busy grazing, the bells around their neck majestically ringing.  The air felt fresh and clean and although warm there was still snow on the peeks of the higher mountains.  Looking out across the vista I spotted a glider far below us, the Pyrenees Mountains certainly have some epic views summer and winter.
Day 5
On our last full day it rained heavily, a trip to a market at nearby Lannemezan came in handy as I bought a very smart umbrella!  The market was huge and lined up along many different streets in the town, full of local fruit, vegetables and cheese plus some interesting bric a brac stalls and not forgetting heavenly bread and pastries.  It was well worth a visit even though it was pouring down with rain.
Day 6:
Day 6 signalled the end of our break, on the drive back to the airport in Toulouse there was an opportunity to stop off by the sunflower fields, I’ve never seen so many sunflowers, endless fields of yellow finished off by terracotta buildings in the distance.  France is just picture perfect and this was a lovely end to a lovely break.
Things to know:
  • A Gîte is the name for holiday accommodation in France, typically the owner will live nearby or often on site and be on hand to welcome you when you arrive and assist when needed.
  • Lunch in France tends to be served in most restaurants between 12pm – 2pm, this is worth bearing mind as after that time you will be hard pushed to find anywhere serving food until dinner time.
  • If you plan to cross the border into Spain take your passport as Police sometimes stop cars for random border checks.
  • The Gondola in Louchon costs €9.50 per adult for a round trip.
  • Lannemezan market is on Wednesday mornings until midday.

A weekend adventure in Amsterdam…

Amsterdam is a fantastic place for a weekend getaway and 48 hours is plenty of time to discover everything this cultural city has to offer.  Plus it is only short flight from the UK so you can be exploring before you know it!
First things first it’s very easy to navigate your way from the airport into Amsterdam, with a 20 minute train journey to Centraal Station.  Once checked in to your hotel head out and explore, the Jordaan neighbourhood is a great place to stop off for a coffee or even a beer.  While in this part of town pay a visit to Anne Frank’s house.  Step through the hidden doorway and see where Anne and her family hid from the Gestapo during WWII.  It is an incredibly humbling and emotional experience, especially if you have read Anne Frank’s diary.  Tickets are €9.
Next, stroll along one of the many canals, explore the quaint streets and wonderful architecture. Look out for the narrowest houses, the smallest one can be found at Oude Hoogstraat 22 and is just 2.02 metres in width and 5 metres deep!  Hire a bike or take a boat ride and really get into the heart of the city.  The Canal Bus stops at all the major tourist spots, making it a great way to see the sights.  In the evening try some traditional Dutch cuisine.  Moeders restaurant in the Jordaan neighbourhood is popular with locals and a very quirky place to dine.  Order a tasting plate to sample all sorts of Dutch delights.
On day two I recommend visiting the Van Gough Museum, it holds a huge collection of his paintings over three floors.  Entry to the museum is €17.  The opening hours are 9am – 6pm daily and 9am – 10pm on Fridays, plenty of time to discover everything this fascinating museum has to offer.
If shopping is your thing then make your next stop the streets of the Western Canal Belt.  Vintage shops and chic boutiques line the pretty streets and are perfect for souvenir shopping.  An unusual market worth a peruse is Bloememarket, a floating market selling plants, flowers and herbs and a great place for taking those all important holiday snaps.
The Red Light District may be thought of as seedy but being one of the things that Amsterdam is famous for it is worth a visit.  Take a guided tour or stroll around by yourself, it is one of the oldest districts in Amsterdam with some great architecture and tiny cobbled streets.
Indonesian cuisine is a popular meal choice in the city and comes from the Dutch colonisation of Indonesia.  I love  Rijsttafel, a selection of Indonesian dishes that are ideal for sharing and Blauw restaurant is a great place to experience it.  Reserve a table before you arrive as it can get booked up fairly quickly.
Finally, round the 48 hours off with after dinner drinks at Dam Square and watch the world go by.  Cheers!

24 hours in the South of France….

With only 24 hours to spend in Nice, in the south of France I wanted to make the most of it.  This doesn’t sound like a lot of time but you can definitely cram a lot of exploring in!  Arriving in the evening meant checking in at the hotel and heading straight out to explore the nightlife.  With the airport located conveniently close to the town it didn’t take too long to find ourselves in the old town in a very cool bar with a beer in hand.  Wayne’s bar was rammed with locals, and with live music playing it was definitely the right choice of venue.  Although, we enjoyed it a little too much and ended up staying out slightly longer than planned.  This meant sore heads all round in the morning and slightly more money spent than had been intended!  None the less we dragged ourselves up early, ravenous for a typical French breakfast.  Coffee and croissants in a lovely café was the perfect antidote.  All perked up and ready for the day ahead we strolled to the train station, the plan was to spend the day in Monte Carlo.  I was really looking forward to the train journey along the coastline, but once at the station we discovered there had been a landslide and no trains were running!  Feeling a little disappointed we went back to the town centre and decided having only explored Nice’s nightlife that the rest of this lovely Mediterranean area was waiting to be uncovered.  Strolling along the bustling Promenade des Anglais, with the sea shimmering and the sun shining we headed towards the cliffs near the harbour.  Climbing the steps up to the clifftop revealed fantastic views over the coastline, old town and the port on the opposite side.  You could even see snow-capped mountains further inland.  Known as Parc du Château this cliff top park has a man-made waterfall called Cascade Donjon and lovely gardens, perfect for a picnic with beautiful views of the ocean.  Next stop was a visit to the food and flower market in the old town.  It’s a great place to pick up fresh bread, meats and cheeses.  The Corsican cheese I bought was a particular favourite.  There were also lots of lavender products, soaps and oils to purchase.  After checking out the market, it was time to get lost in the tiny side streets.  This is one of my favourite things to do in European cities; the buildings and beautiful architecture were a real highlight of the trip for me.  Continuing further we stumbled across a wonderful bakery and bought some scrummy fresh pastries.  With a huge variety of restaurants to choose from for lunch and being in France I felt it was only right to go for Moules – frites with a glass of white wine.  After lunch it was time for a bike ride, Velo Bleu rental bicycles can be found all over the town and from €1 a day you can help yourself to one of these beauties.  We cycled along the promenade stopping for ice cream along the way.  A quick coffee outside in the sun along with a bit of people watching ended our glorious day in France.  Back at the airport I bought a bottle of red wine as a souvenir of a perfect 24 hours on the French Riviera.  Cheers!