Carcassonne, France and Spanish Pyrenees; August 23-26

Our last stop in France was Carcassonne, whose incredibly well-preserved (and restored) ancient walled city and castle resemble nothing less than a fairy tale -- see photo 1. It was a worthwhile stop, also breaking up the drive from Provence to the Spanish Pyrenees. To top off the medieval experience in Carcassonne, we went to what we thought was a jousting demonstration. It turned out to be a show that included some jousting (photo 2), sword-fighting, and a story line involving a baby's baptism and a number of other hokey elements we weren't able to decipher entirely from the French. At the end, the entire cast and audience -- all but the horses and the baby doll -- stood up and sang "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," in English, which we found simply bizarre.

After Carcassonne, we headed south into the Pyrenees and Spain. We were tempted to stop in the tiny country of Andorra, but it was a fair bit out of our way, with not much to offer except an additional entry on our country-list. (Andorra used to be a magnet for duty-free shopping, which isn't our cup of tea anyway, but the adoption of the Euro by France and Spain pretty much eliminated the duty-free advantage.) Instead, we went straight to the mountain resort town of Benasque.

We picked Benasque because it's situated in a tight valley among the highest mountains in the Pyrenees, and it offers a variety of activities other than hiking, which is on hiatus while we keep our fingers crossed that Emily's knees heal up. We were pleased to find that we'd made it off the main tourist trail -- Benasque has mostly Spanish visitors, and English is far less prevalent than anywhere we've been so far. We also found that, in Spain at least, the tourist season is finally winding down. Some of the smaller mountain-resort activities the kids were hoping for (e.g., tube-riding, trampolines) had recently been dismantled.

We didn't suffer for activities during our time in Benasque, though. The most dramatic event, hands-down, was Tim's tandem paraglide. It's certainly a new level of parenting when one allows one's child to hurtle off a 3500-foot drop latched onto a random Spaniard. (Wasn't it just yesterday he was our little toddler?) Needless to say, Tim loved it. His first remark upon landing: "Can I go to paragliding school, oh please?" Emily and Jennifer countered with a couple of horse-rides -- more their speed. Alex's primary activity: chauffeur.

In both Carcassonne and Benasque we stayed in "aparthotels," and both were excellent. We've continued to reserve places in advance (sometimes only one day in advance), but we've been making an effort not to spend so much of our valuable travel time on onward reservations. As a result, we don't comparison-shop quite as much, we end up reserving slightly pricier places, and we get what we pay for. Jennifer was observing that for the first month of the trip we didn't stay in even one place that provided little shampoos, and now it seems every place we stay does. Shampoos or none, in our travels so far we've been happy with every single place we've stayed, which is quite remarkable. There's got to be a dud coming.

Catching up a bit, we've assembled our photos from the Mont Blanc Circuit into a collection of 69 (which includes most of the ones in the travelogs). They can be viewed here.

Next stop: Barcelona, then on to Madrid to catch our flight to Morocco

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