A château wouldn’t be a château without some towers and turrets. Once I started looking, I found them everywhere, and not just on châteaux.
Turrets are little towers that start on an upper floor, usually tacked onto a corner. Towers go all the way to the ground. Turrets offered a good vantage point for archers defending their castle.
Today turrets are just charming, except on McMansions (I saw a great example–which is to say it was abominable–in a subdivision in Béziers, but my shots didn’t turn out). Yes, there are McMansions in France. Even subdivisions, which are called lotissements.
It’s quite popular among McMansions here to stick a tower, for the master bedroom and bath, in the middle of an otherwise banal suburban house.
Happily, there are plenty of real châteaux all over the place, as well as more modest buildings that have odd towers tacked on. Why are those OK while the ones on McMansions are tacky? Maybe it’s snobbism, but it seems like the McMansions are just trying too hard to be special, and failing miserably. Kind of like wearing a sequined T-shirt with sweatpants–the sequins aren’t enough to make it dressy. And with clothes or houses, outer appearances can be good or bad but it’s what’s inside that really counts.
It still takes my breath away to go down some ordinary street here in Carcassonne and catch a glimpse of la Cité:
Dry stone walls (pierres seches) are one of the iconic features of the French countryside. “Dry” means no mortar. (The French use “dry” in many circumstances which have nothing to do with “not wet.” For example, a soup can be “dry” if it doesn’t have enough fat–quite aside from a powdered mix. Go figure. To me, soup = wet, therefore not dry. “Dry soup” is one of those phenomenon that make my head explode.)
The walls look as if they were thrown together by teen boys in a hurry to finish so they could do something else, undoubtedly more fun. How else to account for the horizontal/vertical/nonsensical design? Yet, these walls are hundred(s) of years old, a testament to the skill of those who built them. I can point you to several retaining walls and houses of recent vintage that have moved with the earth and bowed or cracked dangerously. Around here, old means strong.This is going to be a photo-heavy post, because I can’t resist the patterns, the way they wave as the terrain has moved, the colors of the lichen, the impossibility of their continued existence. I’ve never met a stone wall I didn’t want to photograph.The walls are home to many creatures: little lizards mostly, but also snakes, spiders and other things that make me scream. Think twice about sitting on them. Not comfortable anyway.Just now, it’s hot hot hot out. The nights are deliciously cool, and during restless breaks in sleep I migrate toward an open window to let the chill breeze wash over me. During the day, we move slowly and snap at each other quickly. We aren’t yet used to the heat.
The stones are ironic. Our house’s two-foot-thick stone walls keeps the inside fairly cool during the day, without air conditioning. The apartments are even cooler. But similar stone walls, out along the edges of fields or in improbably remote spots in the garrigue, soak up the sunshine and spew it out, like retailers with their doors open in winter, heating the street. Passing a sun-baked wall is like passing an open oven.Our house was built after World War II (just old enough to be in the strong category), and had never even been a house before we bought it. It had a big parking lot. UGLY. We wanted to give it un coup de vieux (a hit of age), and found people who wanted to get rid of stones. Can you imagine getting RID of these? I guess if you have a falling-down grange and you want to build something neat and modern, then the stones have to go. The proverbial millstone around one’s neck.
Some low walls, with mortar (fewer spiders and snakes, though there are plenty of adorable lizards), made a huge difference in the charm factor. You can tell they came from two different places.
If you haven’t heard enough here about why you should visit Carcassonne, check out the lovely article about our region in Condé Nast Traveler.
Titled “Why Languedoc Is Like Nowhere Else in France,” you can see it here.
The gorgeous photos are by Oddur Thorisson, whom francophile blog readers probably know as the husband of Mimi Thorisson of Manger. (Because I don’t reproduce other people’s photos without permission, the photos here are my own.)The writer visits many of our favorites, from la Cité of Carcassonne, shown at the top, to the beach at Gruissan, above, the garrigue, below, and more. The article calls Languedoc the Tuscany of France, but I think of it as the “other” south of France–more low-key and down to earth, less fashionable and flashy than Provence.The markets overflow with succulent local produce and products that end up in delicious dinners shared among friends and family or at restaurants. And the wine!
It is a pleasure to share the local secrets with you, especially the ones about savoir-vivre–the French art of living well.
Tangentially, check out this beautiful tapestry that some dear friends gave us. We put it in la Suite Barbès. It’s two meters (six feet) wide, which gives you an idea of how big the room is.
Among the delights found in the long-forgotten closet was a well-worn cookbook, “Le Nouveau Livre de Cuisine” (The New Cookbook), by Blanche Caramel. That is the best pen name ever.
The book is barely held together with tape. Its pages harbor many hand-written recipes and others clipped from newspapers. Written in 1927, my copy dates to 1933. So it was conceived in the post-WWI boom years, but my copy was printed after the Great Depression had entrapped France. I think the clippings spanned many years.
One of the clippings is titled “Conseils et petits secrets” and subtitled “Quelques petites économies” (Some small ways to save), signed by “Le Grillon du Foyer” (The Cricket on the Hearth, like the Christmas tale by Charles Dickens).
The suggestion is to save the peels of oranges and mandarines to prepare “delicious liqueurs” by soaking them in 90-degree alcohol. And dried peels can be added to the fire to make a “gay and sparkling flame.” And if your mayonnaise has turned, don’t throw it out but add a spoon of very fine flower and work in the paste to get rid of lumps.
In the forward, Blanche (or should I call her Mme. Caramel?) says, “Dishes are welcomed by stomachs that are also well disposed; if the service is calm, friendly remarks can be exchanged completely naturally, chasing away the worries of the day and making the meal an hour of intellectual relaxation and of physical well-being. Each person will leave the table rested, comforted, with more courage and optimism for returning to his tasks.”There is a chapter titled “L’utilisation des Restes” (“Using Up Leftovers”), in which cooks are counseled to not have them to begin with by cooking only what’s needed.Another section, “Ce Qu’il Faut Manger” (“What you should eat”), surprisingly begins with grains. However, it says not to confuse pain de campagne (“country bread,” or a kind of rough, sour-dough-like loaf) with le pain complet (whole-grain bread), “which is found at certain specialists and which suits only men who face a considerable physical expenditure, such as the blacksmith or the ditch digger, not sedentary employees.”Under “Mangeons des Fruits” (“Let’s Eat Fruit”), Blanche says, “The simplest remedies are often the best and the most effective. We have on hand natural products, the good and beautiful fruits ripened in the sun, which can replace with advantages many medicines that are very expensive and that sometimes have bad side-effects.” People can tolerate up to two kilos (4.4 pounds) of fruits, though with heavier fruits like bananas and apples, one kilo (2.2 pounds) is enough.
Blanche offers advice about coming up with menus. A very luxurious dinner would comprise one or two soups; one or two relevés de potage (a light course, such as a timbale, a soufflé, fish, eggs); two entrées (starters/appetizers, such as ham, sautéed chicken, or meats in ragoûts, accompanied by mashed potatoes or another purée); a roast (“la pièce de la résistance du repas,” Blanche says); a cold dish (she suggests pâté, lobster or aspic); a salad (served with the roast and made with mayonnaise); vegetables (served after the roast); entremets (a tart, cake or ice cream); dessert, which would be cheese, fruit or small cakes.
I wonder when cheese came to move forward, before the sweets.Even more perplexing is how they managed to eat so much. I guess a roast wasn’t so outrageous if it had to feed a big family. In her books, “Long Ago in France” and “As They Were,” the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher reminisces about living in Dijon in 1929. She and her husband lived at a boarding house, where Madame and her cook turned out elaborate meals every day for the family and their tenants. Maybe meals were more like the tasting menus at El Bulli.
Blanche offers menus for special occasions, from Christmas and New Year’s to Easter to First Communions. There are “rich” menus and “simple” menus. For example, in the simple category: Lunch: Oysters; oeufs sur le plat à la crème (eggs sunny-side up with cream); salt-marsh lamb chops and matchstick potatoes; cold chicken with mayonnaise; refreshing fruits. Dinner: Potage Saint-Germain (split-pea soup); homard financière (lobster in a truffle and Madeira wine sauce); tarragon chicken; foie gras with port; Saint-Honoré (a dessert of cream puffs); Roblochon cheese; fruits.That’s simple. Sure.
The book ends with a chapter on the Calendrier Gastronomique, or the gastronomic calendar. For June, Blanche advises that meat from the butcher (beef, lamb–red meat) is less tasty and should be replaced by chicken, duckling and young turkey. Légumes de plein terre (leaf vegetables, but also broccoli, leeks, asparagus, radishes) are plentiful. Red fruits also are abundant: cherries, strawberries, raspberries, melons, with apricots appearing at the end of the month. I think Blanche must have lived in the north, because we are a good month ahead of this schedule.I intend to try out recipes from the book and its bounty of clippings and scribblings and present them to you. Look for the tag #blanchecaramel.
For reasons we don’t understand, the listings for our apartments in the heart of Carcassonne were completely messed up on AirBnB. We have openings!
The apartments date to the 17th century and have 13-foot ceilings, huge marble fireplaces with gorgeous high-relief decorations above them, and huge windows. They were renovated according to strict historical preservation rules and are furnished with antiques.
There’s a divide between France and the U.S., and it has to do with how people take care of their clothes.
Let’s start with washing. Front-load washers have gained popularity in the U.S., but they have long been typical in Europe. They are easier on your clothes than top-load agitators, which really tear them up. However, washing times are longer. Mine has a 15-minute freshen-up cycle, but the shortest real wash cycle takes over an hour and the longest is three hours. That’s in part because the machines heat the water themselves, rather than take it from a hot-water heater.
The models sold here are getting bigger, but they are still a lot smaller than in the U.S. Our old washer held a maximum of four kilos–just under nine pounds. Our new one has a maximum capacity of twice that. According to Consumer Reports, capacities in the U.S. are as high as 28 pounds. (French vocabulary lesson: a laundry room is unebuanderie, a laundromat is une laverie and the old-fashioned outdoor laundries are lavoirs. Dry cleaning is nettoyage à sec, and the place that does it is un pressing or une teinturerie.)
Another difference is drying. Plenty of people don’t even have electric dryers. I put towels in the dryer to keep them soft and fluffy but try to hang everything else outside–again, it’s better for your clothes, better for the environment and it’s free. Sheets definitely go outside. It makes them smell so good!
Related to that: walking around in the mornings, you see windows open, even in the dead of winter, and duvets hanging over the window sills to air out for at least 15 minutes. Bedrooms tend to be minimally heated (and back in the day weren’t heated at all), and we don’t have bitter temperatures, so it isn’t very wasteful.
One reason my friends cite for avoiding dryers, besides making clothes last longer, is the cost of electricity. Looking at my bill, we pay between 6.38 centimes and 10.43 centimes (about 7 cents to 11 cents) per kWh before tax (which is 20%). The tariff varies by time of day, with heures creuses, or off-peak, discounted. I set the timers on the washing machine and dishwasher to run during off peak. Surprisingly, residential rates in the U.S. are higher–an average of 12.90 cents per kWh.
One reason many Americans I know do use dryers: to avoid ironing. Some don’t even own an iron or ironing board. When we briefly lived in the U.S., the Carnivore was delighted to discover a setting on our apartment’s dryer called “fluff,” which he adorably pronounced “floof” the first time. He was so excited about how things came out with only minor wrinkles.
By contrast, Europeans tend to be not just wrinkle-free but to have knife-edge creases. Even jeans get ironed. The Carnivore is very talented with a steam iron (see the ads below). Personally, I hate to iron but have been doing a lot of it lately, pressing the sheets for our rental apartments. We want them to be impeccable.
While I iron my own clothes, I don’t do my kid’s. Some of the local mothers would iron their children’s clothes even for toddlers–who wear things for about two minutes before getting dirty. An extremely scientific survey of my gym class showed most spend two to three hours a week ironing.
Ironing isn’t limited to France. I remember being impressed by the teen boys in Rome, perched on their Vespas, wearing immaculate white shirts with crisply creased sleeves. Nothing slovenly about them.
When I lived in Brussels, my apartment faced a lovely row of hidden gardens, “Rear Window” style. In a window across the way, a woman (housekeeper, I think), would iron for hours, including the tiniest flouncy baby dresses. And sheets and sheets and sheets.
Another time, I was at the big department store El Corte Inglès in Barcelona. The household appliance department was animated by many demonstrations. There was a woman carving candles. All kinds of shoppers, including families, watched her work. Some of the candles sported the typical curls, while others represented couples in a sexual act. This was something I never saw in the U.S.
And there was a guy ironing. This was no simple steam iron but what the French call a centre de repassage–an ironing center. A big water tank was fixed to the base of the ironing board “so you can iron all day!” my friend marveled. A dozen people–men and women–watched the demo intently.
Do you hang laundry outside? Do you iron? Do you pamper your clothing?
A closet left untouched for over a decade, but probably filled long before that, is a kind of time capsule, full of clues about life in France years–sometimes many years–ago.
First, the closets themselves. They (both, I think) started as water closets–toilets. Folks used to have chamber pots, which they would empty out the window to the street below, passersby beware.
According to the genealogy blog Histoires d’Antan et d’à Présent, there were some public toilets, which were little stalls with holes in the floor, set above a pit. How difficult that must have been when women had to wear long dresses with big skirts!
People started to want more privacy and would put in a water closet as high as possible in the building–as far as possible from the main living quarters. The excrement would flow down a pipe into the street, while the odors would escape above. By 1553, the parliament of Paris required each house to have a septic pit.By the 18th century, most buildings had two WCs, one near the ground floor or near the stairs, and the other on the top floor. And indeed, in our apartments’ building, there are two closets on the landings between the floors.
When I first moved to Europe in the 1990s and looked for an apartment in Brussels, I was shown one with the toilet and bathroom (separate) on the landing; the facilities were shared with the other two apartments in the building! I passed on that one. Also, on a trip to Paris around the same time, I had chosen an “authentic” hotel from the Lonely Planet; it praised a “charming Turkish toilet.” If you don’t know what that means, see the photo below. And steer clear of “authentic” and “charming”!
Anyway, these water closets had been converted into just closets (the toilet was filled with concrete). And they were full. One had nothing interesting, but the other one, which had no traces of its former use, was full of stuff.
The lock box in the top photo, was an exciting find, but sadly it was empty. (Imagine the typical French gesture of swiping your forefinger under your nose–meaning out of luck.)
A plastic tote bag held architectural documents for city halls/schools from the late 1800s; I want to go around to the villages and get photos of the buildings today. With them was this document, which seems to be a handwriting/copying exercise: “Hommage to Our Lady of Angels. Extract of a letter from my Lord the Count of Massaïra (today brother Mary Joseph of Angels) to his sister, Madame the Countess of Weisemberg.”Look at how it was bound by sewing the three sheets together. Even a tear on the fold was repaired by sewing. The handwriting is beautiful. Not a single bit scratched out.
The content is odd; the writer says he was born in Naples and recounts his life, mentioning that he married off his sister to the count of Weisemberg. Wouldn’t his sister be on top of this info already?There were several pots à graisse (grease pots), used for making confit de canard (duck) or pork.
A few stray pieces of a set of Limoges china. I plan to use the surprisingly large sugar pot, above, as a vase.
In the lower closet–the one with the Turkish loo–we mostly encountered rubble and coal! The upstairs closet did harbor a charbonnière, or a kind of scoop/bucket for gathering coal from the heap to put into the furnace. Happily we don’t heat with that anymore.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever uncovered in cleaning out a closet?
Appearances can be deceptive. The Maison des Mémoires (House of Memories) is a haunting name for nicely restored building in the center of Carcassonne, mixing industrial modern touches with ancient stones. A sun-drenched interior courtyard shows beyond the reception desk.
Why I never entered is a mystery. I love this sort of thing. But la Maison des Memoires is modest, at least from the street, and when I passed, I was usually in a hurry on my way to something else.
I finally visited. And it was a treat. An unexpected discovery of unexpected discoveries. How’s that for meta?
The building, at 53 rue de Verdun (entry is free), was the home of Joë Bousquet, a poet and author who hobnobbed with the surrealists. They came to him because he was unable to get out. He was paralyzed by a bullet to the spine in World War I at the age of 21.
Bousquet mostly stayed in the dim of his upstairs room, where he smoked opium to cope with the pain. Opium became popular in France at the turn of the last century, as sailors and military brought it back with them from Indochina. It became so popular that smoking it was outlawed in 1908. But Bousquet’s father was a doctor, who had legal access, and his circle of artistic friends supplemented his supply.
Tangent discovered in researching this: France is the biggest legal producer of opium poppies rich in codeine (which is one of the six naturally occurring opium alkaloids; morphine is the most important one for medicine).
The ground floor has a reception area (entry is free), and upstairs are two rooms for visiting exhibits–a series of photographs about immigration when I visited–and two more rooms about Bousquet, with photos and his books. At the end of a small hallway, you can look into Bousquet’s bedroom, kept as he left it, with the shutters closed.
The exhibit rooms are stunning, exhibits notwithstanding. When the building was renovated, gorgeous painted ceiling beams were revealed. They were restored but not brightened or altered. The first room is kept dark, so it was hard to photograph without flash.
The second room’s beams date to 1640 and are quite different. They would be stylish today. I would love them at home!
The rooms are arranged in the typical French disposition, with doors aligned for sight lines and air circulation. As you stand in the second room and look through the first to the hallway beyond, there’s a trompe d’oeil fresco that was discovered after a new staircase had been installed. The fresco was placed to give the impression of a pastoral view that continued on to the horizon.And then, get a load of this beauty below. This is no reflection on the Bousquet family, because Joë lived in two other houses on the same street before moving here. But sometimes you have to appreciate when decorators don’t do the “right” thing. Like when they slap something new right on top of the old stuff, instead of first removing the old.In this case, the old stuff was Aubusson wallpaper, signed and dated: 1791. It originally had been a few feet away, at the end of a hallway, but was moved here, away from the window. Whoever had gotten sick of it so many years ago just left it there and covered it up.
Another tangent: the tapestries that had made Aubusson (and Gobelins and Beauvais) famous fell out of fashion, in part because they weren’t needed for insulation as homes were better heated and in part because the French Revolution (1789-1799) put a big dent in their clientele. So they started making wallpaper, which was coming into fashion. In fact, the first definition of tapisser today in French is to hang wallpaper. I love etymological connections.
Sadly for Bousquet, all these beauties had been hidden under plaster and discovered only during the renovation to create the museum. I can just imagine, having been there, done that: a bump against a wall sends a layer of plaster clattering down. In our case, we discovered not antique wallpaper but that the walls had been filled with straw. You never know what you will find.
After my second visit to la Maison des Memoires, I hit the library for some of Bousquet’s books. I wasn’t familiar with Bousquet, nor with his contemporaries, such as Andrew Gide and Paul Éluard. Another happy discovery. Here are a few passages translated:
The truth that we understand is but the image of that which inspires us.
You have presumed too much of the future and of luck. The time which should have brought you happiness is dead en route, and you fall again to the power of the shadows that follow you. But an unhoped-for rescue comes to you with your strengths, which you hadn’t imagined. Would you say that everything is lost because there’s only you to save yourself?
Don’t imitate reality, collaborate with it.
Meanwhile, a call for help from a reader: what exactly are these scissors used for? They are 6.5 inches or 16 cm long. I was thinking for sewing, though they’re longer than my pretty sewing scissors and the blades are different. What do you say?
Send your answers in the comments. And merci mille fois!
The fields and roadsides here in the south of France are dappled with colorful spring wildflowers. Blazing poppies, of course. And voluptuous clouds of yellow broom plant–their French name, genêt, is so much prettier.
But if you look closely, you will see smaller spectacles of color and design audacity. They are easy to miss because they don’t have the massive presence of, say, the poppies. These wonders look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book, flowering in Whoville or Sala-ma-Sond.
One of my favorites, which I don’t have a good shot of, are the purple Sputniks below:
The wonderful photographer Heather at Lost in Arles did a better job on them, as well as on the little white flowers, whose conical heads look surrounded by manes, like little cartoon lions. Or like sparklers.There are so many flowers on impossibly thin stems that look drawn by a fine pen, that spread out so far.
These seemed worthy of Whoville lamp posts. Or fairy lanterns.Long, long stems with big shapes on the end are very Seussian:
This one makes me think of Snuffleupagus, who isn’t from Seuss but Sesame Street. But still.Some scary plants, too.And some manmade help below. This one is more Barbapapa. Sometimes when I go running, I pass the owner of this place, standing at the end of the drive and waiting for a ride. One day, he was holding a big bottle of whiskey. In the morning. I teased him hard about that. “It’s a present!” he protested.Maybe I find these amazing because I always lived in a city, where flowers are carefully chosen. Spotting these weird wonders gives me huge joy. What gives you joy?
Our vacation rental apartments are a collection of used-to-bes. The bathroom in the courtyard apartment (which we’ve named L’ancienne Tannerie, because the courtyard used to be a tannery) used to be a laundry room.
One of the earlier demolition moves was to extract that gigantic concrete sink. We kept the niche in the wall. That corner now is the shower, with two shower heads. I tried both and can’t pick a favorite.The door in the before shots leads to a circular staircase in another building on the courtyard. We sealed it off, and smoothed out the curve, because that deep corner gathered scary things.
I had a hard time getting decent photos. This room is crazy bright, even with a glaze over the windows. The inside of the window frame is black. The Carnivore, our painter and the other workers lamented such a bad decision, but I got the last laugh because it looks great.
This room got the black and white cabochon floor that I had wanted for the big kitchen. The walls have metro tiles, which are beveled subway tiles, like in the Paris Metro. I had asked at the tile store about “subway” tiles and was told crisply that surely I was looking for “metro” tiles. Ahem.
On the other side of the sauna, but reached by a different door, is the powder room, in its original place but with a different door (it used to be reached via the closet for the furnace and hot water heater. Yes, that had to change).The former doorway’s arch became home to the sink, with the toilet now across from it (next to where the sink originally was). The floor has the same tile as the wall. I was nervous that it would be too much, but the floorspace is small and it looks nicely seamless.
While we have been obsessed with finding antiques for the apartments, here it feels so clean that everything is brand spanking new. Well, except for the Venetian mirrors. And the little marble-topped cupboard for toiletries in the bathroom. New and old.
The apartments are available for rent on AirBnB: l’Ancienne Tannerie here and the front apartment here.