Exploring southwestern France by car

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 55 of the November 2015 issue.
Gail Keck standing by the gate leading to the Elne Cathedral. Photo by Randy Keck

(First of two parts)

Prior to our June 2015 Canal du Midi cruise in southwestern France (see my August and September 2015 columns), my wife, Gail, and I allowed time to experience Montpellier.

Notable Montpellier

Compared with many of it neighbors, the city of Montpellier is a relative newcomer, its origins traced to the 10th century. By the 13th century, it was a thriving center of commerce and trade with the East, including the exporting of wine. Montpellier has the oldest medical school in the world, dating from 1220, and through the centuries it has been a center for medical research. 

Gail and I chose to stay at the Odalys Vacances Apartment Hotel Les Occitanes (20 rue de la République, Montpellier; phone +33 467 029 250, www.odalys-vacances.com), a pleasant, apartment-style hotel directly across from the train station — an easy walk with our bags.

An excellent value (we paid $75 per night for two nights), it provided an abundance of space and was within walking distance of the charming Old City. Using the city tram from a stop outside our front door, we also were able to visit a riverfront restaurant precinct and a Saturday morning street market.

At 3 p.m. on Saturday we joined a 2-hour, guided walking tour of the Old City, learning about its history and architecture. The English-language tour is offered only once a week. We booked it ($7 per person) at the tourist office in the central square of the Old City, which was also the tour’s departure point.

Among the fastest-growing cities in France, Montpellier has a population of 275,000-plus, one-third of whom are university students. It is prospering economically, especially as a high-tech center.

Auto-rental essential

We booked our rental car for France through Hertz (for international bookings, phone, in the US, 800/654-3001, www.hertz.com) in the US after comparing rates and terms. Upon picking it up at the Montpellier train station after completing our canal cruise, we upgraded to a more spacious Renault Megane (a 6-speed with a diesel engine, manual transmission and GPS) for an extra $11 per day.

The rental cost about $300 for a week. Over that time, we also paid about $80 in motorway tolls. The gas mileage was great. I don’t want to rent a Megane diesel again; I want to buy one. 

Speaking with a no-nonsense British accent, the GPS proved to be invaluable. From the moment we departed Montpellier, I was traveling with two women: Gail and our GPS (which we named Bridget). While this was not always a perfect relationship, Gail and I came to depend on Bridget as we navigated city roadways and searched for backcountry shortcuts, especially in the Pyrénées. I recommend having GPS.


Before departing from the US, Gail and I had gotten in touch with John Sutcliffe, a British friend of a friend of ours. John, with his faithful dog, Sutty, owned the small Le Carasol Hôtel & Restaurant (10 boulevard Illiberis, Elne; phone +33 4 68 22 10 42, www.hotelcarasol.com) in the quaint, historic village of Elne. 

A member of the Logis hotel chain, La Carasol is located a few kilometers inland from the coast, between Perpignan and the coastal hamlet of Collioure. The property is situated high in the old citadel, next to the village cathedral. 

All of La Carasol’s rooms offer sweeping views of Elne, the sea and Canigou Mountain. Rates for a double room (which, for us, was partially hosted) range from $75 to $95, depending on the season.

After purchasing the hotel in 2000, John completely reconstructed the historic property as well as an adjoining building, increasing the number of guest rooms from 10 to 15 and dramatically upgrading the kitchen and restaurant. During our overnight stay, we experienced an evening of fine dining on the restaurant’s patio.

Elne, a county capital of a former principality, was visited by Hannibal and his elephants on his way to Rome in 218 BC. Today it is a picture-perfect village best known for its beautiful, 11th-century Romanesque cathedral with its superb cloister of pale-blue-veined marble. The south side of the finely sculptured cloister is particularly noteworthy, dating to the 12th century and telling the story of creation. 

Collioure whirlwind

We left Elne for nearby Collioure just in time for the huge, regional, open-air Sunday market, which takes place on the village waterfront. 

The town’s dominant feature is the massive Château Royal fortress, established by the Templars and in 1669 reinforced by Vauban. 

Collioure gained fame because of the artist Matisse, who in 1904 was captivated by the brilliant light, the colorful fishing cottages, the azure seas and the balmy climate. This led to Collioure’s becoming an artists’ colony, with a new, controversial art movement, Fauvism, ensuing. One of the most colorful villages in France, Collioure has maintained its appeal as an artists’ colony over the last century. 

Despite the crowds due to the market, we were enthralled by the magnificent setting of bays, coves and fabulous beaches playing to a backdrop of swaying palms and leafy hillsides sporting enviable sea-view residences. 

We spent some time exploring the vast market and purchasing items at great prices, including multicolored belts for 5 each and sandals at 10 a pair. The array of fresh fruit available so early in the season was surprising. We particularly enjoyed the peaches and apricots. 

Outside the market, we wandered the narrow pedestrian lanes near the seafront and just enjoyed being a part of the bustling scene.

Lourdes via the fast lane

To reach our next destination, the pilgrimage center of Lourdes, we had to travel over 400 kilometers, and we were getting a late start from Collioure. Fortunately, the motorway allowed easy, relaxing driving and we made up the time. This was important, as, in order to keep our options open for itinerary changes, we had no advance reservations for the next four nights.

Per our plan, we would examine online hotel rates on a couple of major websites (Expedia.com and Hotels.com) several hours before arriving at our destination. On arrival, we would go to our first-preference property, where, at the front desk, I would advise the desk staff that I was aware of the hotel’s online rates for the night as well as those of their immediate competitor properties. 

This was all done in a relaxed, good-natured manner, and in both Lourdes and, later, Biarritz we were able to obtain last-minute, in-person rates and terms better than the rates we had found posted online. Leverage in our favor — it was still a few weeks before the primetime summer tourist season, and with a direct booking the hotel had no commission to pay. 

In my next column I will report on Lourdes, Biarritz and, across the border in Spain, San Sebastian, providing a few self-drive tips as well.    

You may reach Randy at c/o ITN.