Travel Diary: South of France and Northern Spain (part 3)

Contrary to previous years, this year at the end of June we opted for an all-European itinerary for our holidays: we traveled from the French Riviera to the French Atlantic coast, and from there to Spain until the most extreme point, Finisterre. After, we followed an inland route through the Pyrenees to return to Provence and also visited Andorra along the way.

This was our complete itinerary:  TRIP

Read about the first part of our trip here. You can find the second part here.

During the whole trip, our loyal companion has always been Booking.com, the hotel reservation site (if you are not registered yet and wish to do so, using this Booking link you will be credited 15 euros the first time you make a reservation).

Booking offers many advantages:

  • a wide range of different facilities (not only hotels, but also apartments, B&Bs, villas, hostels, etc.)
  • Almost always the best prices for a given facility
  • an excellent rating service, which makes it easy to understand the strengths and weaknesses of every hotel
  • the possibility, in many cases, to cancel the reservation until the last moment without any cost
  • frequent offers and promotions

For many years, we have been using Booking almost exclusively for our reservations all over the world, especially for itinerant trips.

DAY 11 AND 12 – LEON, BURGOS AND PAMPLONA

Today our journey back east begins. We stop for lunch in Léon, it’s Sunday morning and the city welcomes us with its peaceful atmosphere. We walk around and visit several churches, enjoy a nice aperitif on the main street and finally take the car to the vaults of Burgos.

Streets of Léon

In Burgos we manage to stay at a comfortable and very central hotel . In the evening, a big storm breaks out and we can only run to the nearest restaurant (fortunately there are many in a narrow street just behind the hotel) and stay there for dinner. 

The next morning we finally visit the city of Burgos, have breakfast in the main square (IMHO, Spain and France are countries you get to know very well simply by sitting at a table in a café and watching life flowing) and then spend a few hours visiting the huge and magnificent Cathedral of Burgos.  The cathedral is truly unmissable with its countless chapels and rooms, rich in historical and artistic treasures.

Burgos cathedral: a detail

After our visit we take the car to drive to the city of Pamplona. Because of the San Fermin festival celebrated this week , we are not able to find a hotel downtown, so we decide to stop few miles from the city center. A good decision, given the cheerful chaos we find downtown!

The whole city is in the midst of celebrations, we see an incredible number of people dressed in white and red everywhere (there’s literally no one around dressed differently!) eating, laughing, dancing and walking around the city – and it’s only 3pm!

We become immediately infected by the spirit of the festival and we decide to join the many people celebrating (I’m already dressed in white and red, the other family members quickly buy some clothes from one of the many stalls).

 

It’s one of the most incredible and fun experiences of the whole trip. Just as incredible is the great civic sense of the inhabitants, who celebrate happily but without showing any kind of misbehaviour whatsoever. The cleanliness is also impeccable: everywhere there are vehicles and personnel that immediately clean the squares and the streets.

Sunset in Pamplona

DAY 13 – PAMPLONA – ANDORRA

The next morning we wake up at dawn to return to the city and attend the famous bull race. As I am a bit sensitive on this subject, I informed myself earlier: the bulls do not suffer any kind of violence; in fact, it is a bull race of around 800 metres, which ends in the Plaza de Toros and takes place every day between July 7 and 14 at eight in the morning, with an average duration of between three and four minutes.

Here, too, the organisation is absolutely perfect: double barriers, police and medical personnel ready to intervene. We expect a breathtaking, perhaps even dramatic race . Instead it looks more like a sort of transhumance, with the bulls trotting slowly and quietly, heedless of the “runners” that precede them, up to the Plaza de Toros. For the many viewers, the entire show only lasts a few seconds.

 

Churros: hypercaloric but so good, especially in the early morning and after an early wake up!

After a “coffee and churros” breakfast in one of the many cafés located on the main square, we leave the town , aiming towards the Pyrenees. Today we will cross a new border: we will sleep in Andorra la Vella, the capital of the small state of Andorra.

The route through the Spanish Pyrenees is simply spectacular, one of the most beautiful drives of the entire journey. Scenic valleys with small lakes and pastures alternate with more inaccessible mountain stretches.

Some pictures of the Spanish Pyrenees

At the Spain-Andorra border, at almost 2000 metres , we encounter a customs house; after having passed it, we finally enter the territory of Andorra, which looks like an alternation of lovely alpine stretches and ugly barracks that host mostly hotels for skiers and shopping centres with tobacco, liquor, perfume and watch shops.

It reminds me a bit of the Italian duty-free town of Livigno, but with that ugly ’70 architecture that you can find in other european ski resorts.

Finally, we reach the capital,Andorra la Vella, and our comfortable and modern hotel.

We immediately decide to take a walk and, to tell the truth, we are rather disappointed: it is in fact the usual, typical mix you can find in any tax-free location and in any tax haven – made of banks, shops selling tobacco and luxury goods, but also clothing from the “usual” brands that can be found anywhere in the world.

One of the few “alpine” spots in Andorra la Vella

City center

 

In short, Andorra la Vella is definitely not very characteristic, a bit cold and more oriented toward business visitors or people in the mood for shopping than toward tourists and travellers.

The languages spoken by locals range from Catalan (the main language) to Spanish and French.

We dine in a sushi restaurant and go to bed early.

.

DAY 14 – 16: ANDORRA LA VELLA – ARLES (AND AVIGNON)

Andorra has an average altitude of 1900 metres

The next day we take the car to go to France. After a few kilometres crossing high mountains, between pastures and high peaks, we finally cross the border between Andorra and France. The French Pyrenees are just as beautiful as the Spanish ones, although perhaps sweeter and less scenic.

Descent from Andorra…   

   French Pyrenees

Driven by hunger, by pure chance (we don’t have collected many informations about today’s drive) at lunchtime we discover one of the most delicious places of the whole journey, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site: Villefranche-de-Conflent.

Postcards from Villefranche-de-Conflent

The medieval town is delightful, a true gem in Southern France, nestled between high mountains. Very recommended for a lunch break or even an overnight stay.

We leave Villefranche and in the late afternoon we finally arrive in Arles, where we have rented a “mas“, a rural house with garden and swimming pool, where we will spend the next three nights to relax a little. It’s about time!

Arles, between cuisine and culture

 

The Mas Bonement, booked with Booking, is an ideal choice: deliciously spartan, but furnished with great taste and practical spirit, the house will offer us three days of complete relaxation and lovely visits to the surrounding area.

The Mas Bonement has a beautiful swimming pool with biological filter (without any chemicals) and a beautiful garden. The kitchen is well equipped and the WiFi works perfectly, in fact I also managed to work a bit! It is also recommended for longer stays.

The hosts are very kind: they passed several times to ask if we needed something and one day, after a short blackout, they even gave us a bottle of wine to apologize for the blackout, even if it wasn’t their fault!

We dine in Arles, in the shade of the walls of the Roman amphitheatre, where we find some small restaurants with a nice menù and a fantastic atmosphere.

The following day, after having spent all morning lazy by the pool, we decide to visit Avignon and in particular the Palace of the Popes.

We liked the visit very much, not only for the spectacular building, but also for the interactive methodology of the visit: in addition to the audio guide, the visitor is given an iPad that allows you to recreate, in a sort of augmented reality, the environments and atmospheres of the time. Very nice, especially for kids.

After the visit we decide to stay in Avignon for dinner. The town is very lively because of the theatre festival that is taking place there.

Sur le Pont d’Avignon…

We decide to spend the last day to explore the Camargue . After some relax by the pool, in the afternoon we take a drive around the Camargue. As a nature lover, it’s certainly one of the places that have fascinated me the most.

Pictures from Camargue.

 Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer by night

We visit the salt marshes with their thousand shades of pink and the many beautiful birds, and then walk into the Camargue nature park, where we are able to spot flamingos, otters, beavers, and myriads of other water birds and other animals. It’s the sunset and everything is wrapped in a beautiful light.

To crown our brief visit to the nature of the Camargue, we finally decide to dine in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, in one of the many characteristic fish restaurants.

DAY 17 E 18: VALENSOLE – HOME

The Gorges du Verdo with their spectacular views 

The next day we leave for what will be our last stop on this journey: the region of Valensole with its lavender fields!

It’s the 14th of July, French national holiday, and we are at the peak, or rather almost at the end of the lavender flowering season. Nevertheless, thanks to an itinerary found on the Internet, we see many lavender fields still in bloom, which fascinate us with their intense violet color!

The best itinerary to follow by car during the lavender flowering season:

 

Everything is intense violet and smells so good…

The next day we drive back home by ordinary road to avoid the traffic. It’s a great decision, because we are able to enjoy the beautiful mountain landscapes until the end of the trip, and along the way we do not find any traffic!

Our beautiful trip to explore another piece of Europe ends here. It was a beautiful journey!

 

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