day 5 :
thursday, 15 september
We had the best breakfast of our trip at our gîte this morning - breads, pastries similar to profiterole shells, cheeses, confiture, honey, and yogurt, all from the surrounding Corbières area. If we could, we'd eat like this every day, savoring the fresh, incredibly good-quality local artisan foods.
We headed out right after breakfast, toward the medieval town of Lagrasse. The drive was typical of most of our drives in the Corbières - windy roads hugging the craggy hills spotted with garrigue scrub, periodic washes of bright green vineyards where the harvest was in full swing, and very few cars in any direction. Lagrasse is famous for its 8th-century abbey chartered by Charlemagne. Unfortunately, we just missed getting into the abbey - this was our first lesson that France is on a different schedule than Spain. Here, everything (and we mean everything) closes between 12-2PM (or later) for lunch. So, it's important to plan your day accordingly and show up places before or after this lunch break. Also, don't try to eat lunch outside of this time frame, because you won't get any!
After lunch we continued on to Carcassonne, one of the sights that we were really looking forward to on our trip. This Cathar fortress was even more impressive than we imagined - we spent the afternoon and evening wandering the streets, stopping in a few shops, and taking the very-worthwhile tour of the fortress. The weather was perfect (as usual), and when the sun set it bathed the castle walls in warm light.
Dinner was at Le Saint Jean inside the fortress walls, where Eric enjoyed trying the cassoulet de maison au canard de confit, a specialty dish of the area. It paired well with our bottle of 2003 Chateau Salitis Cabardès, a red table wine also from the region. At one point during the meal, a large praying mantis appeared on the arm of Eric's chair; our waiter saw it, said, "Ah, la mante religieuse," and was kind enough to escort it out of the restaurant.
Driving back to our gîte that night was a little more nerve-wracking than we expected. We were low on gas as we left Carcassonne, but figured we could stop off at a self-serve station and fill up using our credit card. Unfortunately, that's not how things work in France. If you want to pay for gas using a standard credit card, you have to go during regular work hours (not too early, not during lunch, and not too late - you do know that the French only work 35 hours a week, right?). People living in France have special microchipped credit cards that work at the gas stations, and we heard that the rest of the EU is going to require microchipped cards in the near future, as well. But for poor travelers like us who don't have one of these cards, we were pretty well stuck. In addition, this bit of information was non-obvious: we pulled up to a gas pump with a big "Visa" sticker on it, but the card-reading machine would simply eject our card when we tried to use it. It was only later on our trip that a friendly British couple explained all of this to us. So, after several failed attempts to get gas, we crossed our fingers and drove back to our gîte, wondering how far from civilization we would be when we ran out of gas; there's a whole lot of nothing in the Corbières. Fortunately, we made it back, and promised ourselves to not let the gas tank get that low for the rest of the trip!