Tuesday, 21 October 2014


Please accept my apologies, dear readers - I think there's more than one of you - for not adding the final week of our trip, nor yet updating with photos.

We got home to the marvellous news that the renovations on our home are almost complete, and we can start moving back soon. I'm also back at work, the boys are back at rowing, and after a week, we've nearly all gotten over our jetlag. Oh, and I'm now into book six of the Outlander series, which is probably the main reason I've not done anything.

I think I warned somewhere that I tend to run out of steam for the last 10-20% of a trip, and photos are rather a pain in the arse to select, resize, upload, and embed. And I've got a book to read :)

I will try to update, and will post once I've added photos to the previous month's worth of posts. So drop by from time to time/subscribe so you can see if, I mean, when I get around to it.


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Day 25 - Erice: another medieval hilltop town

When talking with Mum and Dad in Brive for some highlights we should aim to see while in Sicily, one of the first ones they scribbled onto my tiny guidebook map was Erice, just outside Trapani. It was also one of the closest ones to where we were staying, after Palermo. The Michelin guide book I'd acquired in Palermo gave the town three stars, rating it as highly recommended.

At my insistence, we set off reasonably early, around 10am, and following the bizarrely circuitous route demanded by the GPS system, we eventually got to the A29 freeway. The GPS shut down periodically, freaked out if the cable was slightly askew, and insisted that it would send us to Via Erice in Trapani. With the help of the map in the guidebook, we were able to bully it into sending us to a street in Erice instead. The only really useful service the GPS provided was to advise the speed limit for various sections of the freeway.

We climbed the hill into Erice (~750m/2500 ft above sea level), arriving about 11:30 (our parking meter ticket was stamped 11:47am), and then set off to investigate the town.

Erice is an old town perched on a triangular outcrop overlooking Trapani in one direction, and the Tyrrhenian Sea in another. I overheard a guide tell a group that on a very clear day, one could see Africa (specifically, the port of Libya) some 80km to the south across the Mediterranean Sea. As someone who has lived mainly in NZ and the south of Australia, the concept of seeing another country, let alone another continent, by standing on a readily accessible hill is gobsmacking. Today was not a crystal clear day, so we couldn't see Africa. Instead, the sea blended into the sky, the horizon barely discernable, like one of those photographer's backdrops, but made of shimmering shades of blue.

[Pretty pics of buildings on blue backdrops]

The origins of the town are steeped in legend, but long associated with Venus and her predecessors (according to my guidebook). It was reputedly named by Eryx, king of the Elimi, for the temple thereon dedicated to his mother Venus Erycina. It was later associated with Astarte by the Phonecians, with Aphrodite by the Greeks, and later still with Venus by the Romans. It still styles itself the 'Mountain of Love'.

The Elimi-Punic wall, built ca 8C-6C BC, runs along the northeastern edge of the town. It protects the only exposed side of the town - the other two are precipitous cliffs. Within the three sides of the roughly equilateral triangle, the are some 60 churches and monasteries, in various states of repair (several presently undergoing restoration), as well as a scattering of piazzas, connected by a maze of cobbled streets, some potentially wide enough for two cars, many barely sufficient for one car, some barely wide enough for a large person.

[More pretty pictures of walls, churches, and cobbled streets]

We enjoyed an excellent lunch (the 'Antipasti Rutica' was outstanding, a selection of local salami, cheese, and mixed baked vegies), and a bit more of a walk, making it back to the car just before our parking display ticket expired at 3:47pm. The boys were both knackered - Ky was asleep before we were halfway down the mountain - but we  wanted to have a squizz at Segesta on the way back.

Segesta has an exceptionally well preserved Doric temple, built ca 430 BC, but likely never completed. There is also a well-preserved amphitheatre, as well as some other, Norman, remains at the archeological site. Unfortunately, the boys were too tired (and stayed in the car), so we couldn't visit either of the structures. [Pics below will be borrowed from the interwebs.]

Back on the road, it was already 5pm. We weren't sure what time the little local supermarket closed, but it would likely be before we got back. With no internet with us, and a bloody useless GPS system, we decided to pick an exit from the freeway, and just ask for directions to a supermarket. Quite by chance, the exit we happened to choose was right next to a large shopping complex, whose primary tenant was a massive supermarket. We stocked up on requisites (speck for the cabonara for dinner, more bread and cheese and wine, some toothpaste, a couple of large coffee mugs (the demitasse in the holiday apartment not really sufficing for a large cup of tea), some cannoli for the kids to try for dessert, and some oranges (JD is missing his daily megadose of vitamin C). We also got a bottle of softdrink for the boys, and a couple of bottles of water, although the latter turned out to be 'frizzante' (lightly sparkling) and therefore barely acceptable to the kids.

Once past Palermo, we again had to put some faith in the GPS system, which again freaked out (ie turned itself off) at inopportune moments. The GPS's main use when in town is to help identify a path through the warren of one-way streets and to give the driver sufficient confidence to push into a stream of on-coming traffic which has right of way, being the only way to get across some intersections.

In Bagheria, at the end of the exit ramp, we again encountered the single worst intersection I have ever had the misfortune to drive through. It has five roads, all of them two way, with nothing more than a couple of give way signs, and a heavy volume of traffic, into and out of each. In the morning, we had to turn sharp left across five different lanes of traffic to get onto the on-ramp, where as best as I could tell, we ranked lowest for right of way. On the way back, we only had to deal with other cars trying to do what we did that morning (oh, and in peak hour traffic). Such an intersection in Australia would have both roundabouts and traffic lights, and would still be hideous, but nothing compared to the clusterf**k of this one. Still, it worked, we didn't see any prangs, and we got through relatively unflustered.

Of course, the GPS then flaked utterly, having decided we weren't going to Solunto, but to some random street in Bagheria, and then shutting down completely. At that point, I went with my gut and said, I'm going that way, let me know when the GPS agrees with me. Thankfully my gut proved more reliable than the GPS, and we were soon home.

Dinner was linguine cabonara, followed by cannoli, with a lovely ginormous mug of tea to take with me to bed.


Tomorrow is JD's choice, and he's not telling anyone yet where we're going (but he is threatening Ky that we might go to the catacombs in Palermo where mummified, dressed bodies are interred and on display).

The day after, Thursday, we're up and out early as we have a 11:30am flight from Catania, and not only have to drive back, but also return the car (a process that may take an obscene amount of time given our experience a week before).

We then have two nights in Naples (Pompeii, Herculaneum, Vesuvius), and finally will head homewards, departing from Rome on a 10pm flight via Dubai and Singapore

Day 24 - Solunto: washing and ruins

JD and I set off earlyish to take the washing to the laundry place, telling the boys we'd be back in half an hour or so, and would then head out to do something.

Except the laundry place turned out to be a dry cleaners, and our massive bag of washing (8kg or so) would have cost a helluva lot to get cleaned. On talking to the proprietor, he offered to do it for 50 euro (AUD75), which would be a loss for him, but a lot for us. While we appreciated his generous offer, we hoped to find a laundromat.

Back at the house, our internet searches revealed that there were only a handful of laundromats as we know them in Sicily, the nearest ones in Palermo. I spoke with our host, but after working through several options, and me getting absurdly wound up (and freaking her our with my tears of frustration), JD ended up handwashing a fair bit of it, and Marida, our host, offered to use her washing machine for the jeans and my (still unbelievably stinky) fleece jacket.

At least one of my frustrations was that if I knew we'd be handwashing, we could have bloody done that yesterday when we were sitting around doing not much, instead of losing another day to doing not much. At least the mega-sized travel plug, and quarter bar of Sard laundry soap got used!

After lunch, we went up to the local ruins of Solunto. We had been told it was walking distance, but after the last few days efforts with the rain, we decided not to risk it, and drove up, with the brollies in the car. In the end we probably should have used them, as parasols - it was quite hot up on the top of the hill.

[Lots of pictures, and some more info, to come]

On the way back down the hill, we went into town to pick up some more groceries (speck or similar for cabonara, more wine, few other items), but discovered the route blocked - some kind of festival or other going on. We found a park a block above the supermarket and walked down to discover the supermarket closed up tight even though it had only just turned 5pm. We moved the car, and this time left the hot and tired kids in the car while we went to find the little convenience store we'd spotted on our first night. Turns out the festival was some kind of major local religious event, with every shop shut, and people either lining the street, or waiting in groups with a big banner and some kind of uniform, as the parade slowly progressed up the main drag, collecting the waiting groups as it went.

No shopping was happening in Porticello today, so we headed back and made bolognaise out of whatever we had left over. It wasn't bad, but it was a little lacking, and particularly lacking wine. Ah well, a sober day wasn't going to kill us.

Day 23 - Solunto: another lay day

We identified that we really need to do some washing, but that the laundry place recommended by our host is closed on Sundays. The heavens opened aggressively again before we'd decided what we were going to do for the day, which put an extra vote towards the 'not much' option for the day.

After the frustrations of yesterday, I was happy enough to sit around a read for a bit while the boys played in the pool in the arvo. We did another supermarket run (having found that it was open Sundays, but not sure when), and puttered about.

On the one hand, it feels like an utter waste to be sitting on our arses while on the far side of the world on an island that was host to dozens of civilisations (Punic, Carthaginian, Greek, Roman, Norman, Arab, and plenty of others) over more than three millenia. On the other, the lads are all a bit burnt out, and this is as good a place as any to have the 'holiday to recover from the holiday' that is often missing.

Lunch was fresh bread, pesto, salami, fresh local cheese (tuma fresca, a very mild somewhat flavourless cheese, a bit like fresh mozzarella, and excellent with) tomatoes, and some vino for the grown ups.
Dinner was risotto made with the rest of the speck and dried mushrooms.

Day 22 - Palermo: another day's travel plans thwarted by rain

Will flesh out later

- caught 10:34 train to Palermo (running a bit late)
- wandered a bit, found a tourist office, and a map, and a guide book
- poked heads into a couple of churches, including one where a wedding was taking place (it's a Saturday)
- got some lunch (some trepidation choosing restaurant after last night's effort, but perfectly adequate with very good service)
- got some umbrellas, as it had started raining again, heavily but not monsoonal like Thursday night in Ponticello
- walked up to the duomo, a hodgepodge of building styles, reflecting construction, repairs, renovations, alterations over several hundred years
- then on to Palazzo dei Normanii (no photos allowed in the Royal Apartments) and the Capella Palatina (12th C Arabo-Norman design, ceiling decorated with rich gold mosaics)
- boys (and JD) utterly over it, so we head back to the train station in the light drizzle

- arrive at station around 3:45pm, and identify train (16:14) and platform (2), and find coffee/tea in the half hour until it is due; get on train
- get off train when advised train not going, and race across to another train, a limited stops train which will get us to Bagheria, the stop before ours (Santa Flavia)
- train was supposed to leave half an hour ago, and still hasn't left a half-hour later
- everyone gets off, and some one with a little English explains that the (only) line out of Palermo is cut due to the rain, but he can't tell us more as there are those who decide, and those who do, and he is one of the ones who does.
- we split up: I get bus tickets (having already validated our train tickets) while JD tries to find out where the bus goes from
- meet up, and go to bus stop (unmarked, but others also waiting for bus to Bagheria) for 5pm bus
- at 5:25pm, decide to give it another 10mins, and then get a cab (I'm reluctant as we're already 20 euro out of pocket for this trip)
- bus shows up at 5:30, and into Bagheria a half hour later or so. My bastardised Italian identifies that we should get out here (not in fact the end of the bus route) for the train station, and us four plus three other English tourists with less Italian than us, get out. They decide to catch a cab; we've been assured it's only a couple of kms from Bagheria to Santa Flavia, and our place is this side of Sta Fl, so we'll walk.
- forty minutes later, walking along the non-existant shoulder of a busy road in the drizzly rain, we get home.

- make bolognaise for dinner using miniscule kitchenette using ingredients bought yesterday

Day 21 - Solunto: a lay day (and a lousy dinner)

We agreed that a day lazing about, reading, drinking vino, a bit of grocery shopping and the like was in order. The rain came in the morning, the lads played in the pool in the afternoon. I finished book 4 of Outlander, and started number 5 (yes, that's the main reason I'm a bit tardy with my blogging).

Dinner in town again. We wandered up and down the tourist section, including a large section on the waterfront that looked like sideshow alley, without the rides. there was practically no-one about eating dinner - many places seemed to be packing up, but may have in fact been setting up.

In the end, we chose the place next door to where we ate the night before, not least because they had non-seafood options for my non-seafood adoring menfolk. Bad choice. It was by far the most unpleasant meal we've had to date, and at least as bad as last night's meal was good.

Surly, bordering on rude, waiters who ignored repeated polite requests for drinks (billed multiple times, but not brought); the 'antipasti caldi' turned out to be a plate of chips, a handful of overcooked chicken nuggests, and a couple of squareish battered things that I still have not identified. The meals for the other three came out, and after a few minutes I asked where my meal was. It took another ten minutes before it arrived, without so much as a comment, let alone apology, for its tardiness, by which time the others had of course finished theirs. (Well, Ky hadn't eaten his - it was practically inedible.) We requested the bill before I'd even finished, challenged the overbillings, and paid the exact amount in cash, eager to get out of there.

Day 20 - Barcelona to Solunto: driving in Sicily

Our 12:30pm flight was not even on the board when we got to the airport around 10am - there are a heckuva lot of flights from there. It later appeared that one reason was because it was in fact a 12:40pm flight (I'd printed our boarding passes a month before).

We'd packed and breakfasted at leisure, discovering that I *really* should not have left my wet fleece jacket hanging in a separate wardrobe (ensuring it was overlooked when I did a load of washing). Good Lord, it stank. I mean ponged. I quickly zipped it into one of the packing cells, and then wrapped that in another layer of bag so as not to contaminate everything else nor utterly freak out any sniffer dogs.

I contemplated using public transport to get to the airport (I don't think you've really been to a place until you've navigated its PT system), but I was outvoted by the others. Given the uncertain timeframe, and the ticket cost for four people, I was not hard to persuade.

Through security and with a couple of hours to kill, we found a cafe for a drink - no, 11am is not too early for a drink in southern Europe - and a pastry for the boys. The gate for our flight was only posted a few minutes before boarding began, so by the time we got there we were straight into the queue and onto the plane.

The flight itself was uneventful, as all good plane trips should be, but there was some heavy cloud as we approached Catania. (This resolved into heavy rain shortly after we landed.) We got across to the hire car place (not screamingly obvious), where two separate buildings each hosted five or six hire car companies. (Hertz had a counter inside the terminal - if you ever fly into Catania and need a hire car, seriously consider paying the premium to go with them.)

Inside the building which held Europcar (with whom our prepaid reservation was made) were possibly as many as a hundred people in a not very large space. The two busy desks (Avis and Europcar) had a ticket system. My ticket was #51; they were up to #24 when I got it. At some point, dismayed by how unbelievably slow the process was, I checked whether it was possible to get fast-tracked given I already had a reservation. Ah no, everyone there had a reservation. Right, then. A German guy standing waiting near us said it was as busy as Sardinia's car hire set up, but far far more organised (no ticket system there). Things could always be worse! Oh, did I mention it was now absolutely pissing down?

It took well over an hour for our number to come up (complete with me whooping rather loudly when ours did finally tick over), and a long half hour extra to complete the process. We endured the upsell process: this Fiat 500L is a much better car that the small one you've reserved, it's diesel, and much bigger and more comfortable, and you can have it for just 12.60 euro a day extra, instead of 36 euro extra. Hmmm, nope, not unless you can throw it the GPS system as well. The GPS was to cost 12.30 - discounted from 15 euro - per day. Nope, couldn't possibly do that. In the end, we effectively got the GPS with the Fiat thrown in, as there were no small cars left, when it was clear I was getting mighty pissed off, and they'd best just bloody give us a car.

It took less time to drive the 195km from Catania to Solunto than it did to collect the damned car (and a shitbox it is too). The autostrada is two lanes with one shoulder in each direction and an upper speed limit of 130km/hr, although signs vary this often and drasatically (although such speed reductions seem rarely obeyed). The most bizarre thing about the autostrada speeds is that at any given time a car could be travelling at anything between 40km/hr and 150+. The exit ramp speed is 40, but very few cars actually move into the slip lane when slowing down to take the exit. Trucks and small cars are often speed limited too. Oh, and indicators are only occasionally used, and often left on for miles and miles (I'm sure my OCD-level use of indicators marks me out as a tourist as much as anything else.)

Carefully following the instructions provided by our host to our accommodation, we arrived around 6:30pm. After a brief introduction to the facilities (including a detailed exposition on the artworks on the walls - limited edition prints of paintings done by our host's husband), we had a cuppa tea and a brief collapse. Having eaten very little since breakfast, I was aware I getting a bit hangry, so we ventured down to nearby Porticello for dinner.

It was threatening to spit, so we decided to drive down to town, so we had some flexibility if the rain decided to get heavier. Ha! Once we had found a park, and had walked a few hundred metres further into town, the heavens opened. We eventually found an overhang where we sheltered for about 10minutes, with no sign of it abating. I then offered to go back and collect the car (no point all of us getting wet) and then come back and get them. I was soaked through to the skin within a few minutes, mostly dodging the ankle-deep puddles and gushing rivers flowing down the steep cobbled streets.

In trying to orient ourselves in the pissing-down rain, we managed to collect a lump of wood under our front axle, which took a fair bit to dislodge, and finally bullied the GPS into taking us to where the restaurants were. Of course by then, the rain was finally starting to ease. We picked one across from where we parked and had a very pleasant meal, in their toasty overflow upstairs seating area. (I was still dripping wet, so very happy to be in a warm place, although the others got a bit hot.)

Not the best day of this trip, but pretty much all first world problems. Except the f**king mosquitoes - they're a third world problem too. Flyscreens are utterly unknown here, and while the flies and mosquitoes aren't as plentiful as they are in some places, there's enough of them to be really bloody annoying. Will be getting some insect repellant tomorrow. **

** No insect repellant to be had, only bug sprays and plug-in zappers. We eventually went with mosquito coils.

Day 19 - Barcelona: a very Gaudi day

Our apartment in Barcelona was a modern serviced apartment type hotel, with washing machine, Nespresso machine, and excellent internet. The only (minor) complaint was that, yet again, the double bed was made up of two singles pushed together, so snuggling up to my husband was again difficult, and one of us would be on the crack, and in this case the mattresses slid apart readily. Nothing like being away to make you really appreciate your own bed and pillow!

After breakfast (we got two serves of hueovos frites and bacon, and two serves of a local sausage served with rather yummy white beans, cannellini?, coffees and tea, and a sweet muffin to finish, we then headed off for our appointment with the Sagrada Familia.

Given the boys' weariness, and our utter lack of Spanish/Catalan, we wussed out and travelled only by taxi while in Barcelona. (With four of us, public transport is not always cheaper.)

Our entry time was 10:30am, and our hour-long guided tour at 11:15am. I had also bought entry to climb the Nativity tower, beginning shortly after the conclusion of our tour.

We were all utterly blown away by the Sagrada Familia. I will likely do a whole separate post on it once I can process my photos. To think this entire building is the vision of just one man, albeit with the assistance of many, is incredible. We were awe-struck.

After a late lunch, we caught a cab up to Park Guell. Also designed by Gaudi, this park is set on the gently sloping hills to the north of the city. We meandered through the outer park, with various buskers including a balloon man (soap bubble, rather than helium) who was delighting many young children (and some not so young ones too).

At our alloted time of 4pm, we then entered the 'Monument Zone' where most of the mosaic work for which Gaudi is rightfully famous is located. Unfotunately, the boys were fading fast so we didn't spend quite as long there as we would have liked.

An ice cream each, and a cab back to our hotel for a rest was in order. I had entertained thoughts of going out for a walk by myself to find one or two of the Modernisme buildings for which Barcelona is well-known, but I could find neither the relevant guidebook, nor the energy.

I knew that two days in Barcelona would not be enough, so one was never going to do. Ah well, I guess we'll just have to come back!

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Day 18 - Narbonne to Barcelona: the slow train

With limited wifi, and only in the hotel lobby, I tried to find out whether there were trains to Barcelona. With the help of a similarly stranded traveller, a Russian trying to get to somewhere less than an hour away by train, the SNCF website seemed to indicate there were no trains to Barcelona today.

We booked the rooms for another night, and then set out for some breakfast. I left the others and went on to the train station, figuring that we'd be wise to secure our alternative train as soon as possible. After waiting in a long queue with a whole heap of other similarly stranded travellers, I discovered that there were trains going to Barcelona today. They were only the slow, regional trains (no TGV like our original booking until tomorrow), but we could get there today. The next train left for Port Bou (just over the Spanish border) at 11:55am (it was already 10:15am); from Port Bou, we'd change trains to another regional train down to Barcelona.

I walked briskly back to the cafe/bakery where I'd left the others, and sent them off to fetch the bags, get a refund on the now unrequired accommodation for tonight, while I had some breakfast. As I type this, we are bound for Port Bou, arriving around 1:30pm. We hope to arrive in Barcelona before nightfall (I've no idea when the trains from Port Bou to Barcelona runs, but I think it will take around 2.5 hours)


Customs control at Port Bou involved us showing our passport to the Polizia (??) standing either side of the train station entry - very low key. After some lunch (chips (fries) for the boys, and a glass of wine each for the grown-ups), we boarded a slow train to Barcelona, arriving around 5:20pm. A taxi to our accommodation, and apologies for not contacting them when we couldn't make it there last night, and we were in our rooms with (finally) excellent wifi.

Once the rain eased off, we set out for dinner at a recommended wee cafe nearby. We had some excellent tapas type dishes to start, and the over-the-top burgers for the boys, and paellas for JD and me. For the first time in a long time, Jos could not finish his dinner. We're back home and the guys are watching telly while I type this.

Day 17 - Brive-la-Gaillarde via Narbonne to, erm, Narbonne: the rain in Spain falls mainly on the train (station)

Our plan was to drive from the gite to Brive-la-Gaillarde, return the car before the hire place closed at noon, then find lunch in town before catching our 2pm train to Narbonne. We'd then grab a quick bite to eat in Narbonne, before joining the coastal TGV from Narbonne to Barcelona, arriving there at 8:40pm. I had read the instructions and watched the video for retrieving our room access cards after hours, and after getting settled, we'd then find some late supper in Barcelona.

It all went exactly to plan up to and including the part where we grab a quick dinner in Narbonne, although Brive was very very quiet. The poster I bought in Rocamadour continued to be annoying, as no-one sold (or could even suggest who might sell) poster tubes for securely carrying it, let alone posting it.

In the end, La Poste managed to find a square tube that I cut down to a short triangular prism. I then took it back to the post office to be told that it would cost 27euro to mail a 6 euro poster. Ah, no. She then said I could send it as a 'petit paquet', which would take a very long time to get there, but would only cost 8 euro. Done.

The plan only came unstuck when our train from Narbonne didn't appear on the board, not least because the board was filled with a whole lot of delayed trains, from indeterminate to 3+ hours. We heard from an expat English man (at the station to put his son and daughter-in-law on the train to Barcelona) that Barcelona station was underwater, and the train had been cancelled. Merde. (That rain we had in Cahus overnight was significantly heavier in places south.)

I nipped across to the Hertz rental place, still open, to enquire about hiring a car. One way fee is 800 euro (!!!!), *and* they didn't have any cars suitable for Spain. She suggested we try the bus depot down the street a bit. JD returned the station to try to get verification that the train was indeed cancelled, while I went down to the bus depot. No buses there, and the office was not only abandoned but looked derelict. We met up again outside Hertz, JD having confirmed that not only was the train cancelled but the road was also cut. We met a few other English speakers, and with them a francophonic expat American, Susan.

Susan, an international relations consultant who works in Narbonne but lives in Montpellier, had also been caught out by the train cancellations (apparently the line to Montpellier was completely washed out). She recommended some accommodation, cheap but clean, and offered to take us there. Although she'd made her booking online, she rang on our behalf to ensure they had rooms for us. On a poor line, Susan managed to secure our rooms, and we set off the 600m or so to the hotel. A little tiny bit of me was thinking it could all be a scam, but at that point I didn't care too much - the credit card company could sort it out if it was. In the end, it wasn't. The hotel was a perfectly servicable commuter hotel, offering a two bed room for 50 euro a night, with a kettle and hotplate, and a window that opens. We got two rooms side by side, JD had a quick shower, and then we rejoined Susan downstairs to go out for a drink, and a bite more to eat for the boys.

We walked through the middle of the old town, with its Norman towers and other old buildings, past the exposed bit of Roman road (ca 3rd century, possibly Domitia if our memory serves). Narbonensis was an important Roman settlement for quite some time. The wine bar was on the promenade facing the river, and we sat down to enjoy a beverage each, plus some saucisson Susan sweet-talked the proprieter into providing.

Shortly after that the heavens opened. We were sitting outside under umbrellas, which fortunately had guttering slung between the umbrellas. Ah well, looked like we needed to have another round (or three), plus some tapas. By 9:30pm, the kids were slightly manic - too little sleep, too much lemonade - and I went in to settle the tab, including a bottle of wine to take away. And the rain, which had eased before, resumed more aggresively than before.

We waited it out for another 15-20minutes, but it showed no sign of easing. Nothing for it - we had to walk home in the rain. I had my hoodie with me, and the wine, so I walked briskly, while the others dashed ahead, dodging puddles, and trying to find overhangs to wait under until I caught up. After a while, we were all so soaked, we utterly gave up hiding from the rain, to the point that Susan and the boys started jumping in puddles.

We got back to the hotel, soaked to the skin, and into our room, agreeing to meet Susan shortly in her room to share the wine. We each stripped off, and hung our wet clothes on the heated towel rail (thank heavens for those!), the boys had a shower and went to bed, and JD and I went up to Susan's room (taking some toothpaste and the spare deodorant - she'd bought a toothbrush when she discovered she was stranded unexpectedly). With only one set of very wet clothes, Susan entertained us draped in two towels, and we chatted for a while as we finished the bottle.

We exchanged contact details, and assurances of a bed and assistance should we ever find ourselves in the other's town (Michegan for her). Although it is exceptionally unlikely to ever happen, I hope it does.

We slept well, albeit in single beds yet again, and woke with a light hangover.

Day 16 - Gagnac-sur-Cere: dejuner au Auberge du Vieux Port

For our last day, we had booked a table at one of the two main restaurants in Gagnac, the town at the foot of the hill. Apparently here, one goes out for lunch, not dinner. That was booked for 12:30pm. Mum and Dad, apparently sleeping much better than us, went exploring for the morning, while we happily sat around reading books and drinking tea etc.

Lunch was a very pleasant, multi-course meal, served at the perfect pace over 2.5 hours. We were pleasantly filled, but not painfully so. (Well, except Jos, who insisted on having La flambee Quercynoise, which turned out to be a Bombe Alaska, with lots and lots of very sweet meringue - he was uncomfortably full.)

We returned to the gite, and pleasantly lolled about - reading, napping, and generally relaxing, followed by a light dinner of various leftovers.

For our last night in France, it rained fairly heavily much of the night, but was pleasantly cool, rather than the warm humidity we would be returning to as we went further south and closer to sea level.

Day 15 - Pech Merle and Saint-Cirq Lapopie: some old paintings and an old town

To fit in both our destinations (~1.5 hours away), we had to be sure to leave somewhat earlier than we had been used to, and even (gasp) set an alarm.

We got to Pech Merle, another limestone cave, accessed uphill from Caberets. While this one also has large caverns and gorgeous millenia-old limstone confections, but it also has an impressive array of Neanderthal rock art. Photos inside the cave a very stricly forbidden, so the images below are [will be] taken from other sources. Entry is restricted to 700 people a day, and no more than 25 per tour group. Therefore, even though we arrived at 10:30, we were just behind a tour bus, and therefore the earliest entry we could get was at 11:15am.

From there, we drove back down the hill, and along a bit to another gobsmackingly picturesque town perched on another cliff-top. Clearly, these defensive locations were very important. On the flat, the towns tended to be jammed between the river and the cliff, rather than on the flat. Presumably, if under attack, it was fairly straightforward to block off the two ends of the town, and thereby cut of all non-water avenues of attack.

We enjoyed a leisurely lunch on the terrace of a restaurant in Saint-Cirq Lapopie, and then went for a bit of a wander about town.

[More pics of pretty places here]

We took the long way back, via Figeac, but the others were fading hard, so we didn't stop and explore the old part of town. We did stop in the supermarket and got a range of local antipasto type things for dinner (terrine de lapin, jambon sec, olives, stuffed baby capsicums, and some more bread).

Day 14 - Le Sireyzol: a lay(about) day

The boys were feeling in need of a day off, so we farewelled Mum and Dad, and instead pottered about the gite. I took a rather too long nap in the middle of the day, and any plans of venturing out petered out.

[Some information about the French countryside, styles of buildings, potted history, how town names end in 'ac' as often as not - ?same as ville/town/pur (in northern India), climate, etc]

Day 13 - Padirac and Chatelneu: unders and overs

Today, we went underground, and then to the top of an outcrop.

The gouffre (sinkhole) and associated limestone caves of Padirac were (re-discovered in 1889, by Alfred Martel).

[Pic of sinkhole from above and below]

Unlike NZ limestone caves, these ones don't seem to have glowworms (or perhaps the lights are always on, so you'd never know). There are, however, grand canyons and huge rooms, the base of which hold clear pale green water. Photographs inside the caves are forbidden, but I did manage to sneak a few (no flash).

From the sinkhole, you go down another few flights of stairs, and then walk along the base of the canyon. There is no natural river through this cave - all the water trickles down from through the limestone. The slighly acidulated water carved out these huge channels over a million years or so, about 40million years ago (if my French, and memory, serve me well). The base of the cave is around 103' below the surface, and the biggest room is 94' high. The remaining 3m of limestone is expected to give way at some point in the very distant future, leaving some very surprised cows (or steak tartare, if they're in the wrong place at the wrong time).

Some way into the cave, you then bunch into groups and get into a gondola-shaped dingy, and are poled along the next section of the cave. The water depth is between 40cm and 6m, and a fairly steady 12-13 degrees C. Some 20mins later, you disembark and are guided through the next section of the cave. Undisturbed by the gondolas, the water here is an extraordinary pale green, tiered by naturally formed weirs. There are stalactites (down) and stalacmites (up), and a massive column 2.5m in circumference and the full depth of the cave where two have joined. The column hangs from the ceiling, stopping an inch into the water (as the dissolved limestone can't deposit in water).

There is also the gorgeous confection in the upper lake, formed by calcium carbonate-enriched water droplets falling from a height (rather than trickling down a stalactite). As the droplet splats, the carbonate precipitates out, slowly building up a flat shape, rather than a column.

After the walk, including more stairs, and more surruptitious photos, we then return back out via the gondolas and the stairs, and then back up the stair (or elevator) from the sinkhole.

Emerging at 1:30pm, and with lunch at most restaurants finishing at 2pm, we chose the slightly futher of the two adjacent tourist-focused restaurants, and had a surprisingly enjoyable meal. (Jos still struggles with the fact that 'berger' does not mean (ham)burger, but instead means fieldworker, or ploughman's lunch.)
After lunch, we then agreed to visit Castelneu, a fortified castle atop an outcrop of rock (visible across the valley as far away as Cahus). Built in various stages from the 13th to 17th centuries, it fell into ruins, but was partially rescued by a tenor in the Paris Opera who bought it in the late 19th century before donating it to the state shortly before his death.

[Pics of buildings, and info about their construction, plus pics of the panoramic view].

Everyone was a wee bit pooped by the end of the day, and we staggered home again.