Escaping Ax-les-Thermes

Despite a broken down vehicle, the Palsson family keeps smiling, reroutes a bit, teases out some silliness, and even discovers a few delightful surprises.

People are looking at us funny. We’re pretty sure no one stays in Ax-les-Thermes longer than 2-3 days. We have to get out of here. If we keep waiting for the car to be ready, we may be in this small town another week! We won’t survive. We pack up with no real plan of where we’re going.

We decide to take the train to a town nearest a car rental. Then we will walk the 4 kilometers to the car rental and hope they have a car for us. I speak with many people on the phone, but it seems impossible to know for sure whether there’s actually a car there for us until we arrive. So we go for it. We leave most of our things at the hotel and drag along one suitcase in case we end up staying overnight somewhere.

The train ride is beautiful, and we’re all excited to be moving. As we walk toward the car rental, the kids and I spot a boulangerie. Snacks! Stefan is so kind and let’s us stay there while he continues the trek to the car rental place. He’s so happy when he returns with a car! It’s small, but it will certainly work.

We pick up our carseats from our van at the repair shop and head back to Ax for our luggage. It’s a bit bizarre to drive the same stretch of road we were on 4 days ago. With Barcelona no longer an option for us (our Airbnb host relet our place and we’d only have a couple days there when we want a week), we decide to just explore for this area near the Pyrenees before getting back to our original itinerary (Montpellier) in 3 days.


Leaving Ax, we follow our GPS up a small mountain road. Maybe this is a shortcut? It leads us onto insane switchbacks that are far too steep and narrow to be legal in the U.S. This is actually scarier than the ride atop the tow truck! As terrifying as the drive is, it is beautiful. We feel apart from the whole world. We drive through the mountains for 2 hours before we begin seeing more small towns. Around 9pm, just before the sun sets, we pass a huge castle with a sign stating it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. We decide to check it out.

This is Villefranche-de-Conflent, an old walled city that acted as a strategic defensive point between Spain and France. It’s so cool. They even have a little playground!

We start calling the hotels we see there in town and decide to find a place on Booking or Expedia in the area. We don’t want to drive the additional hour to Ceret and arrive close to 11. Plus, it’d be really cool to come back and explore this area more! I find a place just 10 minutes away. Lillian is super tired, so I’m glad we decide to do this.

We finally arrive and are greeted by the owners at the Hotel Princess in Vernet les Bains around 11pm. This hotel is by far nicer than the last. Our host explains that because tomorrow is Bastille Day, the town is celebrating all night with live music and lots of partying. And in ten minutes there will be a fireworks show that we can watch from our balcony. What?! This is amazing!

On our way back to Villefranche the next day, we stop at a cave the hotel host recommends, Grottes Canalettes. It’s a well-lit, kilometer self-guided tour. We have a great time admiring the underground formations.

When we arrive back at Villefranche-de-Confluent, we find the town bustling with tourists. Because the kids are super hungry (how are they always hungry?!), we go directly to a beautiful little creperie, La forge d’Auguste, that feels like you are sitting in someone’s home.

There’s a fort up on the mountain above the town, and Stefan insists we must go. You can either pay a bit in cash to take the 1,000-step staircase up the mountain, or you can take the outdoor route and pay with a credit card up top. We opt for the nature hike. To be clear, no one should have let us walk up that mountain with two small children, an elderly dog and a backpack with only 2 water bottles. Making things more interesting, we somehow miss the entrance to the fort and end up hiking up the entire mountain. No joke. It takes hours. Once we decide to turn back down, we must sing songs to keep up morale. We make up a fun song about the ice cream train we are riding and all of the flavors and toppings we will have when we get off this mountain. I am so impressed with our kids and how well they put up with their idiotic parents sometimes.

The Fort is pretty amazing, but there are numerous stairways. I do not recommend this adventure for anyone with small children or who isn’t in amazing shape. We take the insane 1,000-step stairway down. Yikes It’s almost a straight shot, so you can’t pause on your way down. Again, our kids are troopers. We all collapse when we arrive back at the hotel.

Ceret is our next stop. It’s east of the Pyrenees, so we find ourselves in a warm, dry climate for the first time in a week. Our goal is to see the Museum of Modern Art before the bull-fighting festival gets underway. This museum is reasonably priced and just the right size.

Figueres also has a notable museum we want to visit: the Dali Museum. After the kids enjoyed the one in Paris so much, we are excited to take them to Dali’s hometown and to the museum he designed himself. Even if it’s just for one night, we are really happy to be in Spain, too. We walk around the small town and eat our favorite jamon iberico and tapas for dinner at Sidreria Txot’s. Tapas is a fun meal with kids because they can pick out what they want, and it’s not a huge commitment to try a lot of different things.

The Salvador Dali Museum is a real trip. This surrealist is fun and super interesting with kids. In one room, there’s a spectacular mural on the ceiling, so Oly just lays on the floor to admire it. Despite being great, this museum is a little big for kids, so skip some rooms. And avoid Saturdays in July as it is super crowded.

Collioure is a charming town on the coast of France, just east of the Pyrenees. The buildings are old, the streets are narrow and pedestrian, and there are several old castles overlooking the sea. It’s enchanting. We relax at a restaurant on the beach for over 3 hours.

We head on the Montpellier to get back onto our original schedule. It’s comforting to check into an Airbnb again. They offer comforts of home that can’t be matched by a hotel. A full kitchen, a beautiful living space, and a separate bedroom for the kids. Not to mention the washing machine we haven’t had in over a week. Sigh. So we didn’t make it to Barcelona, but we had some fantastic adventures we would never have had if our car had not stranded us in the Pyrenees. So thankful for the surprises in life, and for my wonderful family who make it all so much fun.



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