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While we stayed in Andorra, we breached the border a few times (as it is so quickly and easily accessed at either end of the country) to see some sights in the surrounding countries of France and Spain. I'm making this post about day trips to France with pretty much one single motivation ... which is simply to share some of my photos from these sights, as I was having so much fun with my wide angle lens (10-22 mm). It's more fun to share the fun -- haha -- than to keep it locked in my own little computer. Plus, maybe it will inspire you further to visit this delightful corner of the world. So, without further ado or much accompanying text ... I give you a slice of the French Pyrenees and the Languedoc region. 
Shara presents France.
There are two routes to reach Andorra through France. One is to come from the north and one is to come from the coast (east). The small historic town of Villefranche-de-Conflent lies right along the route coming from Spain's Costa Brava, and we happened upon it by luck. Well, OK, we happened upon it because we couldn't help it ... it's right there on the road. When we saw the city walls on the river and fortress up on the hill, and a parking lot right there along the road, our car simply drove itself directly into the lot. How could it not? Rental cars, if you didn't know, have quite an insatiable curiosity in their nature. Some trips I do more research for ahead of time than others, and for this particular one, I left our itinerary largely up to the curiosity of the vehicle.

So ... we found ourselves in Villefranche de Conflent at the meeting of two rivers in a valley in the gorgeous snow-capped French Pyrenees Mountains. This region is culturally and historically part of Catalonia, even though I typically think of that as a Spanish region. Catalan was the language spoken in Villefranche de Conflent. Because of it's geographical misfortune or fortune, I'm not sure which you would consider it, the town was often fought over between the neighbors -- France and Spain. And so it evolved a stout defensive wall around it and a military fortress on the hillside above it, Fort Liberia. Now a small population keeps the town alive mostly for tourists. But alive, indeed -- cafes and souvenirs shops, a train station and of course the fortress. It's roughly a 2-hour drive from here to Canillo, where our home-base was in Andorra.

Stone wall enclosing the town of Villefranche-de-Conflent, France.Narrow streets in the town of Villefranche-de-Conflent, France.Walking along the fortress walls to Fort Liberia above Villefranche de Conflent, France. The French Pyrenees. Looking down onto a watchtower inside Fort Liberia above the town of Villefranche de Conflent in the French Pyrenees, France.
So there are 740 stairs from the valley to the interior of the fort -- these are inside of the mountain in a tunnel, so soldiers were protected while huffing it up and down. As we were walking down those stairs, we passed a couple of workmen who had the misfortune of needing to do some repairs in the middle of the tunnel, so they were struggling *up* the stairs carrying a bunch of equipment with them. I imagined the soldiers of old having to run up and down these stairs carrying heavy shields and swords and a body weighed down with armor ... if it were me, I'd have given up probably somewhere around step #82. 
Inside Fort Liberia at Villefranche de Conflent, France.Inside the lower courtyard in Fort Liberia above the town of Villefranche de Conflent, France, in the French Pyrenees.Inside Fort Liberia at Villefranche de Conflent, France.Inside Fort Liberia at Villefranche de Conflent, France.
In addition to the tunnel with 740 stairs, there were other hallways and passages and mazes of rooms inside the mountain itself; so in addition to the outer courtyards and walls and watchtowers, there is a whole other world underneath, like a cave. This was one place where I appreciated all the ropes and signs with arrows directing a one-way self-guided tour through the fortress, as we surely would have missed some things otherwise.
Interior passageway inside Fort Liberia at Villefranche de Conflent, France.
The one big side-trip I had fully planned out from Andorra was a 2-day dip north into the Languedoc region of France to see the famous medieval walled city of Carcassonne, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We left Andorra in the morning and had a cracking fine drive along the rural roads through the French Pyrenees ... beautiful and provincial, with spring dawning on the meadows and farming fields. Fortunately we didn't encounter another vehicle for miles and miles because there were stretches in which we would have had a hard time passing one another. Kind of reminded us of driving in the Cotswalds when we had to drive in reverse sometimes to facilitate a successful path-crossing with another vehicle. It was hard to be certain sometimes on these French roads that we were on an actual road rather than a bike path. I love how big the world feels when you don't encounter other cars along your asphalt journey.

We spent the afternoon inside the fortified medieval town of Carcassonne, which has been impressively restored to provide the experience of an ancient European walled city. The only part you have to pay money to see is the actual fortress part. You can stroll the quaint cobblestone streets inside the walls all you want, otherwise. The restaurants are pricey, being such a tourist zone, but I had a delicious lunch of duck, which frankly, was totally worth the price to me. The "beer," however, was not. haha. The French aren't really known for a beer-making prowess. But their breads and pastries and duck are divine.
Outer walls of the fortress of Carcassonne, France.Outside the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, France.  Outside the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, France.Outside the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, France.Along the outer walls of the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, France.Entering the fortress of Carcassonne, France.Inside the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, France, looking at the fortifications.
A water holdy thingy ... guess I don't remember the associated placard. :) I just thought it was kinda pretty there on the red floor.
Inside the military fortress of the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, France.
Inside the old city, there is a lovely, rather dainty cathedral (when you consider it amid the massive city walls and watchtowers).  Actually, this is kind of funny ... I just now Googled this building to find out its name, which is Basilica of St. Nazaire and St. Celse. Wikipedia calls it a "minor basilica." So I guess my description of "dainty cathedral" was right in the spirit! haha. I don't know the difference between a basilica and a cathedral; you can Google that one yourself. In any case, we heard a short a capella performance by 4 guys standing at the front of the church - a Gregorian-type chant. Clearly they performed this regularly for the tourists. But I love that kind of stuff. (And notice how yummy my wide angle lens was -- so satisfying to be able to fit so much in a single shot ... like a chicken cordon bleu, where you stuff a lot of tastes into one bite.) 
Basilica of St. Nazaire and St. Celse inside the ancient walled city of Carcassonne, France.Basilica of St. Nazaire and St. Celse inside the ancient walled city of Carcassonne, France.Interior rose window of Basilica of St. Nazaire and St. Celse inside the ancient walled city of Carcassonne, France.Interior rose window of Basilica of St. Nazaire and St. Celse inside the ancient walled city of Carcassonne, France.Interior, front of the sanctuary of Basilica of St. Nazaire and St. Celse inside the ancient walled city of Carcassonne, France.
In order below: a view from the top of the wall around Carcassonne; a street inside the walls; Erik's attempt to outfit me with a viking helmet at a souvenir shop (unsuccessful). 

View from a wall of the medieval city of Carcassonne, France.Typical cobblestone street inside the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, France, lined with souvenir shops.Brief encounter with a viking "helmet" at a souvenir shop in Carcassonne, France.

And here's a big difference we discovered between France and Spain (with Andorra being more aligned with Spain) -- the French eat supper much earlier! We killed time in the modern part of Carcassonne until the old walled city was lit up at night (I'd seen pics of it and wanted to check it out ... didn't get my own pics, though, needed a tripod). How did we kill said time? Surely you can guess. (waiting for you to guess) Answer: in a pub! An Irish pub, as it happened, where a soccer match had the locals out in droves but we found a little nook in which to drink one of our favorite tap beers: Kilkenny. (this beer was also our treasure find in an Irish pub in Reykjavik, of all places, the night we saw the northern lights!) We decided to scout for supper about 9:00pm, having been conditioned to Spanish/Catalonian eating schedules, and nearly went hungry. We managed to find a pizza joint just locking its doors, and they let us in to order.  
 
So we stayed the night in Carcassonne (supporting my fellow airbnb hosts by booking with one of them) and the next day we took our leisurely time driving back to Andorra with several pit-stops. First, the Abbey of St. Hilaire. A small affair with some interesting points the ticket man was kind enough to point out.  The first pic below is one of my favorites from the trip ... not that it's an award-winning photo, but I just tried that same shot in several different abbeys, as they all have those cloister courtyards, and this one came out the best, and again what I love is how much fits into the wide angle (10 mm). 
The cloister at Abbey St. Hilaire, Languedoc region, France.The cloister at Abbey St. Hilaire, Languedoc region, France.The cloister at Abbey St. Hilaire, Languedoc region, France.Inside the sanctuary of Abbey St. Hilaire, Languedoc region of France.Carefully set up self-timer shot in the cloister of the abbey St. Hilaire, France.
This room below has one of the funny tidbits ... on the ceiling those rafters are painted with scores of little scenes, and some of them were not of a particularly ... ummm ... virtuous nature. I'm such a fan of setting up self-timer shots (like above), and after my birthday trip to Iran last year where we encountered mirror-laden architecture everywhere we went, I'm also a fan of the mirror selfie. Erik indulged me here. 
Interior of living space for the bishop of the Abbey St. Hilaire, France.Selfie shot in the mirror of bishop's living quarters at the Abbey St. Hilaire, France.
Next, I'd read about a village that was reputed to be one of the prettiest in this part of France -- Lagrasse. Mostly we just wandered around. It was a little weird, as the place was practically deserted. It felt strange walking the empty streets. I guess particularly after being in Carcassonne, which aggravated my claustrophobia with so many tourists. This happens to us sometimes -- finding ourselves walking through places that seem like they shouldn't be so empty, like something is amiss, and we always break into song with "... welcome to the hotel California ..."

Village of Lagrasse, France.Random ruins along the road through Lagrasse, France.Empty streets of Lagrasse, France. (except for a British guy trying to woo a much younger woman on the bridge)Empty streets of Lagrasse, France.Wandering the cobblestone streets in the village of Lagrasse, France.A lone villager rests on a street in Lagrasse, France.Cemetery in the village of Lagrasse, France. See the church towers rising up in the background.Deserted, yet pretty, streets of Lagrasse, France.

And lastly on this day, though it was wearing late, our curious vehicle drove us into another parking lot ... a small dirt lot on the side of the road. We walked up the path to check out what might lie behind the stone wall. Embarrassingly, I can't tell you what it's called. I appear not to have saved the brochure from there. We went through it pretty quickly in the dimming light -- just a couple of small buildings.   

Name unknown, Languedoc region, France.Name unkown, Languedoc region, France.Name unknown, Languedoc region, France.
And it's a good thing we did breeze through that last sight, as we soon ended up in a torrential downpour of rain while continuing our drive back to Andorra. To accurately describe the volume of water dumping down on us, I need to consult my dictionary for a word that means more torrential than "torrential." By the time we reached the border of Andorra, it was a full-blown snow storm. We had come from warm, pleasant, flowering Carcassonne gradually up into the Pyrenees to a cold blizzard ... so it was slow going for the last portion of our side trip. But a delightful outing full of wondrous sights. Do I sound like a guidebook or a coffee-table picture book?? Well, that's OK. I'm just tellin' the truth. 
*
 
 

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