Ancient Forts and the Secret French Riviera in Carcassonne and Narbonne, France

When most people think of an around-the-world adventure, they don’t typically think of road trips. They think of planes, trains, and ships. But they aren’t traveling with Mr. Michael Ballard.

Mike is driving in 60 different countries on this yearlong trip, and the second month of our journey began 30 days of canvassing southern Europe by car, visiting Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, and Andorra along the way.

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Our faithful chauffeur in the vineyards of France

We wanted to see the Pyrenees, so we headed north from Barcelona and made our way to Narbonne, France.

Narbonne is a very old city, having been established by the Romans in 118 BC. It sat on the first Roman road in Gaul that connected Italy to Spain. In addition to being an important shipping port, Narbonne also produced rosemary flower honey that the Romans loved. It became the most famous French honey in the world from the 12th to the 20th centuries, and you can still buy it in Narbonne today.

But the best-kept secret of the Narbonnaise region? Its beaches. The area sits on the French Riviera, and it’s blissfully free of international tourists — and the accompanying sky-high prices.

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We drove 20 minutes from Narbonne to Gruissan, a fishing village with a 12th-century tower surrounded by marinas, boardwalks, and summer homes for the French.

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The Gruissan beach sits over the Grazel lagoon, and it’s surrounded by cabanas built on stilts by the town in the 1920s along with modern vacation homes with exotic sports cars in the driveways.

We frolicked in the waves all morning before rinsing the salt off our skin to enjoy lunch at a boardwalk cafe. At Le Paparazzo, Love Is All You Need — the pizza, that is. Fresh tomatoes, grilled chicken, cheese, peppers, and olives topped the stone-baked pie served with herbed olive oil for dipping the crust. And Ben finished his meal with chocolat liégeois, the rich French ice cream topped with fresh whipped cream.

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Definitely nap-inducing, but there was no time for that. We were on our way to Carcassonne!

While it has the same number of residents as Narbonne, Carcassonne is an even older city that has been inhabited since the Neolithic period. The Romans occupied the fortified hilltop until the fall of the Roman Empire, and the medieval fortress is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of its UNESCO status, the city hired a Swiss artist to create a temporary installation on the outside walls of Le Cité de Carcassonne. Many locals have objected to the bright yellow circles, which will be in place through September 2018, but they have achieved the city’s objective to bring attention to the heritage site.

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Inside its walls, the fortress is a mix of the old and the new. Ancient buildings are filled with modern restaurants and boutiques, while the castle itself displays centuries-old carvings alongside weekly live music performances.

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One of the oldest restaurants inside the medieval Cité de Carcassonne is celebrating its 50th birthday

It was a full day of French fun, food, and fortresses, and it was the perfect start to our European road trip.

Next stop, Avignon!

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