Claire, Pat and Sophie leave Oz...

In April 2004, we decided to leave Oz and explore Europe in search of a place to live. No more Thursdays at the beach. Our last evening was spent at Innes and Serena's, with a very tasty meal. We're really going to miss Australia and all our friends there.


En route, we stopped in the UAE and stayed in Sharjah; Claire and Sophie stayed one night, whilst Pat attended the Gulf Maritime trade show. We had a bit of a wander around the souks, but Sophie had tea in KFC, as it was the only thing she was likely to eat. We managed to find some more local fare - kebabs.

Sharjah Rotana hotel fish souk Sophie taking in the local cuisine Pat taking a photo of Gooitzen working


It was only a brief stay in England - a week and a half for me and Sophie, less for Patrick. When Pat arrived back in the UK, the extended family caught up for a Thai feast put on by step-sister Cas.

yum yum! Thai feast

Sophie was reunited with some toys (as were Claire and Pat who had left their bikes in the UK), although some, like the glockenspiel had to come with us from Australia. We had a fun time at Dad's. Sophie enjoyed watching the ducks at the bottom of Grandpa's garden.

The journey down through France

We bought lots of camping gear and headed over to France. The trip was pretty cold and wet. We were so pleased that we'd bought a big tent - with two bedrooms and an 'atrium' for us to huddle in once Sophie had gone to bed. Sophie seemed to really enjoy camping. Her room was fully equipped with her sofa-bed, blankets, Dolly, Tigger, etc, and she slept very well.
We stayed one night in Cenac, Dordogne, where Patrick lived between the ages of 6 and 9, in the campsite just down the road from his old house. We had a very nice evening there, with dinner at the local creperie. In fact, that night it didn't rain, at least not until about 7 am, which meant a sudden mad dash to get everything packed away before the tent got soaked.

testing the tent (and French wine) Cenac campsite, 500m from where Patrick used to live

We visited another of the places Patrick's parents had bought to do up, this one in the Lot part of France.

On the fourth night, we finally arrived at the base of the Pyrenees at Bagneres-de-Bigorre. It was so spectacular - the mountains looked so close. It wasn't actually raining when we arrived, but we had a feeling it would be cold, so we decided to book into an on-site van rather than the tent - luxury!. We were really glad we did, since it rained a lot after that and it was so cold. On the plus side, there are about 300km of signed MTB trails starting from Bagneres-de-Bigorre and then several other centres nearby. Pat tested one of the trails in the pouring rain - interesting riding in muddy conditions after eight years in WA!
He also suggested driving up to La Mongie (a ski resort near the Col du Tourmalet) one day. We didn't quite get there - we could hardly see a thing anyway, and then it started snowing. (N.B. Most of the pictures here show good weather - well, it was nice some of the time, and we didn't bother taking photos of the rain.)

On-site van I think not! Nice flowers - its all the rain they get here View from the campsite at Bagneres de Bigorre We drove up towards la Mongie and the Col de Tourmalet, but the snow and lack of visibility stopped us Did see a nice waterfall though

Despite the appalling weather (we kept thinking, "if this is what it's like in May ..."), we really liked Bagneres, and put a deposit down on a flat within the week. It's the top floor - 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and comes with a garage, which is great except the neighbours keep blocking the entrance.

Outside our very helpful estate agent's:


It was then time to head south for Patrick's conference in Siguenza (between Zaragoza and Madrid, in Spain). As soon as we had gone though the tunnel in the Pyrenees and arrived in Spain, the sun came out!

We had an easy drive down, stopping off for one more night in the tent on the way down. Then, when we got within 10 km of Siguenza, we ran into a religious fiesta. Anywhere else, they'd suggest an alternative route, but here we were just told we'd have to park in the field along with everyone else and we might be able to get out by lunchtime. It was a huge market and fun fair, and also with queues of people waiting for confession - several queues for confessions by a post in a field. Eventually, we decided that the dirt track we were parked by would have to join back onto the main road further down (people and cars kept coming from that direction). It didn't, but in fact it went all the way to Siguenza, and it was an amazing sight to suddenly come out by the castle.
The conference was in a Parador... (this one was a restored castle dating from about the 11th century, that had been mostly destroyed during the Spanish Civil war. Patrick, of course, was very busy with the conference, and all the sumptuous meals that were put on. Sophie and I just had a quiet week, pottering around the town (with all the driving we'd been doing and that was to come, I couldn't be bothered to get into the car).
We had a couple of problems. In Spain, lunch doesn't get served until 1 o'clock, just in time for Sophie's midday nap, then nowhere serves dinner before 8:30pm, and we were struggling to keep Sophie up till 8pm. Lunch wasn't too bad, because we usually have sandwiches and salads, but dinners were tapas (for me and Sophie that is). Also, the fact that we were all in one room together meant once Sophie was in bed, we were huddled in the window niche, trying to keep quiet and not using too much light. But it was still great to stay in an old castle.
Also, Sophie managed to charm everyone at the Parador. She even managed to get her sofa bed made up for her, with Dolly in it.

our room its cold here - hence the big fire places nice hall courtyard can you spot our car?

After the conference we headed north-east for my(Patrick's) Mum's flat in St Raphael in Provence, France. On the way we spent a night in Cardona, north of Barcelona, this was in another Parador. By this time, we'd had enough of trying to get Sophie off to sleep in the evenings, so we just gave in and took her down to the restaurant, where we had a lovely (but short) meal.

St Raphael

Arriving at my Mum's, we took to the hills behind her flat on our mountain bikes. Unfortunately there had been some nasty fires the previous summer and the vegetation was only just starting to sprout. Here we tried some proper hills - a 600m climb to the top of Mnt Vinagre, followed by a fun single-track descent all the way down.
The rest of the time, we just took it easy, went to the beach, visited Frejus on market day, etc. We also caught up with Catherine and Eric a couple of times, visiting their new place in Miramar, just around from Cannes.

view from one of the smaller hills Frejus bay and St Tropee in the distance Sophie enjoyed 2kg of straubs for 6euros.

The Alps

After a week we decided to visit our friends Marianne and Andy in Switzerland. We drove up through Italy and stayed the night on the banks of Lake Como. On the Italian motorway near Milan, the number of Ferraris, Porches, BMWs etc was quite amazing.

Sorry no photos of the awesome mtbing in Switzerland, just one of Sophie playing with Marianne's Mum's cat!
Marianne and Andy live near Zug, not far south of Zurich. It was a lovely area and we mainly spent the time taking it in turns to go out riding. They also took us up to Marianne's parents' farm. Apart from the cats, there were donkeys, sheep, alpacas, rabbits, guinea pigs, dogs, a pig and a peacock. Naturally, Sophie loved it there.

From Switzerland, it was on to Chatel in the Port du Soleil ski area in France, just over the Swiss border, to visit some long time friends, Guy and Boutaina, from Southampton University. They have two boys: Hugo 3 and Lucas 1.5, and it was really nice for Sophie to have some other kids to play with.
Patrick and I both managed to get out for a short ride, separately though. Unfortunately the ride I decided to do turned out to include part of a national downhill course, Naturally, I ended up walking most of that part. Patrick, however, enjoyed trying it out later.

three in a tub two kids is too many

Our new home

Then it was back to Bagneres de Bigorre to sign our rental agreement and move into our flat. It all went very smoothly, considering we hadn't had any contact with the estate agents for 3 weeks. We moved in on a Tuesday and didn't get the gas or electricity connected until the Thursday, but we had all the camping gear, so that wasn't too much of a problem.
We also had our first visitors within a day of moving in - Patrick's Dad and Frances drove down from their place in Brittany, bringing all the bits and pieces that we hadn't managed to fit into our car when we left England. It was great to see them, but unfortunately they could only stay for one night (in a local hotel - we didn't even have mattresses to offer them, let alone the gas and electricity), as they had to get back up to Brittany.
It doesn't seem to have taken us long to clutter up the place, as you can see from the photos of Patrick's office.

first few days was spent camping in the flat before the electricity and gas were connected my office my office

Here are a few pictures from around Bagneres de Bigorre. You can look out the window and see straight up the street to the Pic du Midi (although it;s not too clear in the photo).

view of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre fromteh flat window front door the the appartement building <

Some great mountain biking, and also road riding. Pat's been up the Col de Tourmalet (about 1600m climb -58km round trip from Bagneres-de-Bigorre) and we are eagerly awaiting the Tour de France on the 18th July.

To give you a feel of what its like, here are a couple of pics I took on an evening ride, 8:30pm looking south towards the Pic du Midi...

Watch this space...