Of all the things I love about living in France, buying groceries at the outdoor market is the one that feels most French. I’ve written about it many times, but again on Saturday I was struck by just how gorgeous it all is. The colors, the smells, the artful arrangements that create still lifes wherever you look.
Even better, because they’re edible!
Flat peaches have arrived, and asparagus is hanging on. The weather has been record-setting wet, which has helped them.
A mountain of cherries. I thought the flags were a nice touch. And other cherries below–“pigeon heart” and Napoleon, I think.
Green beans grown locally…they have three kinds: green, “butter” and cocos, which are a kind of flat bean.
It’s all so pretty…
There are even zucchini with their flowers.
The roasted chicken vendor draws a long line.
The sausage seller promised one kind was “spicy, spicy, no fat, diet!” In English, even!
Sheep’s cheese from the mountains…
Everybody was in such a good mood. The World Cup has started, which invigorates the football fans, the weather is gorgeous at last, and summer is here.
You never know when someone will reveal their heart. Their true feelings.
We were invited to dinner last weekend. All three couples in attendance have known each other for many years now. Yet, stories remain to be told. This one touched me so much, I had to share it.
I don’t have pictures of the dinner, which was delicious. The hosts, great lovers of animals who take in every stray, became vegetarian about a year ago. Yes, there are French vegetarians. It was SO good, from the vast array of appetizers, consumed outside on the gravel courtyard, surrounded by lush vegetation and flowers–like an outdoor room with living floral wallpaper–to the main course of a spicy (!!! unusual for the French!) stew with tofu/soy that mimicked chicken surprisingly well, served with an interesting couscous, followed of course by a large cheese plate, then floating island for dessert.
Instead I offer some shots from a recent walk/run. Just random nature that caught my eye.
Back to the story. How we got into it, I don’t recall. But it led to the tale of how one couple met. I had heard their story over the years, but the abridged version. The full version was better.
A moved to the region from Paris when she was 16. As new arrivals do, her family visited the sights in the region. On one such outing, they passed an old tower in the process of being consumed by an overgrown garden.
“Someday I’d like to live there,” A recalled her teenage self dreaming.
Years later, she was separated from her then-husband. Likewise, R had just been divorced and was living in an apartment in town.
A used to stop at a bureau de tabac operated by a friend. Le bureau de tabac is a kind of cigarette shop, but much more. It was an institution, a pillar of daily life where one bought stamps when the post office was (as usual) closed; bus or metro tickets; lottery tickets; vignettes, a kind of stamp proving you’ve paid a tax for various official functions; cards for using pay phones (I had quite a collection of these from around Europe, pre-mobile phone); as well as candy bars, sodas and magazines (all of which reeked of smoke). As you can imagine, le bureau de tabac is disappearing. Fewer French smoke (33%, down from 45% in the 1960s and even higher before that); the post office has automated machines for buying stamps; nobody buys magazines anymore (total paid tirage–press run–has dropped to 6 million last year from the high-water mark of 15 million in 1946, even though the population of France has risen to 67 million from 40 million in the same time). And good luck finding a pay phone.Anyway, you went to a bureau de tabac of a friend, or where it was convenient and the owner would become your friend by virtue of frequent encounters. Especially a few decades ago, shopping was social; it’s what we lose with convenient clicks.
B went prospecting for houses and fell for the crazy little tower with château pretensions.
One day, A was driving in the countryside with her friend from the bureau de tabac. They passed the tower-house. “I always dreamed of living there,” A confessed. Her friend said, “Oh, I know the guy who bought it!” She wanted to play cupid with A and B, but no effort was needed. In a small town like Carcassonne, A and B were soon at le bureau de tabac at the same time, and the owner introduced them. They would run into each other there regularly, and conversations would ensue, not only because that’s how life was but also because A and B are fun to chat with. Even now, A looks an awful lot like a younger Catherine Deneuve and has what can only be described as an effervescent personality. We used to take a yoga class together, and even when she would arrive in a foul mood, she would be bubbly, and she never stayed upset long. B, meanwhile, is quiet, cultured and well-traveled. When he says something, it isn’t some uninformed opinion grabbed out of thin air. He’s eminently calm and reasonable.
In fact, he so impressed A during their impromptu chats that she thought, “That’s the kind of man I’d like in my life.”
Isn’t that the best?
They did progress from le bureau de tabac to dating and have been married for 30 years. They also turned the tower/ruin into a bijoux of a home.
The tightly trimmed boxwood motifs in such gardens as those of Versailles are what usually come to mind when one thinks of French gardens. But I think of roses, especially roses that climb and then spill over, like fountains of color.
Not everybody has space for a garden like Versailles, but even humble houses in tiny villages–with no yards at all because they were built by/for people who worked long days in the vineyards and fields and who really didn’t need to pile it on when they got home–have found a few inches of dirt in a crack between house and street (because sidewalks are rare and who needs them anyway when the streets themselves are only wide enough for one vehicle at a time), and from such miserly roots climb the most magnificent, flamboyant roses.
Roses are a thing around here. Winegrowers plant them at the ends of the rows of grape vines–pests tend to hit the roses first, like the canary in the coal mine, and the vigneron gets early warning that action is needed. The rest of the time, they look pretty. Win-win.
Roses aren’t alone. Wisteria’s moment has passed, but other delights are on full display.
The fragrance is intoxicating. The lavender is bursting open, though even closed it perfumed my clothes when I brushed against it. The first oleander have arrived. That means summer. So does the buzz of a lawnmower somewhere in the village. Birds, so many different birds, making a marvelous chorus, even all night long. The lizards have been busy, too, darting from under a flower pot to behind a shutter to under a rock. They are as comical as cats–I should film them; do you think lizard videos will go viral? An impressive passion fruit vine. I don’t know whether the variety that grows here is edible. I loved passion fruit in Kenya. Two kinds: smooth orange ones with unappetizingly gray yet sweet, delicious insides and rough dark purple/green ones with orange innards, a little more tangy. I even learned how to crack them open. You cradle them in your hands and gently press your palms together until the shell just cracks with a satisfying pop. Too hard, and you end up with mucus-y seeds all over. When the shell is cracked, you pull the halves apart gently, then suck out the slimy insides. It took a while to get past the esthetics, but now I can’t pass up passion fruit.
Mountains of cherries at the market these days. They are labeled by variety–Burlat, Montmorency, Bigarreau, coeur de pigeon (yes, pigeon’s heart), Napoleon, Van–and by origin–Spain, France, or, more specifically, surrounding villages like Caunes-Minervois. A lot of cherries, especially the early ones, come from Céret, south of Carcassonne. Actually, it’s also south of Perpignan, right near the border with Spain.Céret has several claims to fame. Cherries, to be sure. It is in the foothills of the Pyrénées, in the neighboring department of Pyrénées-Orientales, in a little protected valley that has a very mild microclimate. Hence the early cherries, a crate of which is sent to the French president.
It also was the capital of the Catalan county of Vallespir, back before this area became part of France in 1659. Even today, there’s a Spanish flavor to the region. Although official borders are delineated down to the centimeter, in reality, countries–cultures–overlap, and you pass from one to another not by hopping over a line but in a progression, like ombre colors, with the intensity deepening the farther you go. Especially here, where borders have moved so many times, and where people have moved even more.An example of Céret’s Spanish–or, really, Catalan–heritage is its feria, with running of bulls and bullfights every July (11-15 this year). The modern feria was started in 1980, but records of the practice date to the 1500s, when the celebration was held in September for the feast of Saint Ferréol. Never heard of him? I know the name only by the reservoir that feeds the Canal du Midi. I looked him up and found this site, which warns, “Don’t mix up your Ferréols!” Who knew this could be a problem with such an uncommon name? Saint Ferréol was born in Vienne in the 3rd century. Though he doesn’t seem to have visited Céret, there’s a chapel dedicated to him just outside town, with crutches of the miraculously healed hanging on the walls.
Céret is a small town of around 8,000 inhabitants, but it became an important center for Cubism. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque moved there in 1911. Soon their friends joined–Raoul Dufy, Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, Juan Gris, André Masson and others. The little town lost in the mountains became a refuge for Marc Chagall and several other artists fleeing the Nazis during World War II. In 1950, Picasso and Henri Matisse helped establish the Museum of Modern Art in Céret. Besides those painters, the museum also has works by Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and many of the artists who have stayed in Céret over the years, like Chagall and Masson.Céret is another pleasant day trip from Carcassonne–about an hour and a half drive. It’s a little place, and even with a visit to the museum, you have time to include a stop at the beach.
Oh, the cachet of a hidden garden–un jardin caché. Even a small city like Carcassonne holds secrets that I continue to discover, and this was one of the sweetest: the garden of a marquis, hidden from a rond-point (roundabout) by high stone walls. I’d driven by since forever, not knowing a public haven awaited between an empty field used for a regular Sunday vide-grenier and the ultra-modern arts conservatory.
Le Jardin du Marquis de Gonet and its château were bought by the city a little over a decade ago, and the restored gardens reopened for all in 2010. The château is planned for renovation as well, budgets permitting. One idea is to make reception halls for weddings and other events–music late into the night wouldn’t bother the neighbors because there aren’t any. Already, there’s a huge tent (seats 140) that sits in a corner when it isn’t used for the Magie de Noel, and that can be rented, with tables and chairs but without heat or air conditioning (which cost €100 more) for €400. The price might have gone up since the 2013 news article about it, but it still seems like a great deal.
After the Revolution (1789), this area was known as le prat—le pré in proper French, the prairie. Then it caught the eye of Jean-Baptiste Mary, chief surveyor, who bought it and gave the domaine the name Prat-Mary. The main part of the languedocienne-style house was built in the 18th century. The domaine was passed down until it was inherited by the Marquis de Gonet, who was from Béziers. He moved in around 1948 and stayed until he died in 2006. He was the one who planted the gardens.
The local paper had a story about the maid to the de Gonets, who describes preparing the bedroom in the evening: turning down the covers on one side, laying out the nightgown on top and placing the slippers in front on the floor, perfectly parallel.
Back in the day, the garden and its surrounding orchards were watered by the aqueduc de Pitot, which passed along the wall behind the roses. The aqueduct was built in the 18th century to bring drinking water to Carcassonne. It served until the 19th century.
One of the most sacred moments of the French day comes around 6 p.m. (or 18h, as they say here, because they sensibly use the 24-hour clock). Time for l’apéro, or apéritifs.
It can be simple–a glass of wine and some nuts and olives or a few slices of saucisson (hard sausage), to be nibbled on as one makes dinner. For many people, rushing home from work to throw together dinner for the family, l’apéro is appreciated only on the weekends, an almost sacred rite attached to the evening meal.
Drinks are always accompanied by food, very light, not to ruin the meal. I remember learning about l’apéritif in my French class in New York–that it comes from the Latin word aperire, which means “to open,” and what’s getting opened is your stomach.
The drinks started off as alcoholic beverages made with herbs. Medicinal, of course. However, the most popular apéritifs in our region are simply a glass of wine or un jaune–a glass of pastis, the golden anise-flavored spirit that oxidizes when water is added, turning a milky yellow. If you want to sound like a local, ask for “un p’tit jaune” (a small yellow).
Last weekend was the Fête des Voisins (European Neighbors’ Day), and about 15 of us gathered for dinner en terrace, each bringing a dish. Potlucks are unusual in France. They aren’t unheard-of, but if you’re invited to dinner, you are unlikely to be assigned a dish. However, you can bring flowers, a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates or another thoughtful gift for the hosts.
Homemade gifts are OK, too. Like this one:
Which is not the same as a potluck dish.
But the Fête des Voisins is different. In our neighborhood, it was the Carnivore who took up the mantle of organizing a meal. Tables and chairs were rented (for a ridiculously cheap amount from the village, including delivery and pickup the next day!). Somehow, no matter how hot the preceding days had been, every year as dinnertime approached, clouds would roll in and the temperature would drop.
This is when it’s good to be neighbors with a winery. Several times, the tables were set up amid the huge cuves, or tanks, of wine, with plenty of room, not to mention atmosphere.
This year, the group was smaller, but the intimacy was nice. The weather behaved and we had apéritifs next to the pool before moving to the table. I was assigned to bring appetizers, some of which I wrote about when we hosted a pre-Christmas apéritif dînatoire–basically a cocktail party.
I again made the chorizo cookies and two kinds of croissants (ham and Boursin, and “pizza” with tomato sauce and mozzarella). And I made two new ones that are SO easy: goat cheese mini tarts and savory mini clafoutis.
For the goat cheese mini tarts you need:
A readymade pie crust (feuillété, or flaky, if you have the choice)
A bûche, or log, of goat cheese
Fresh rosemary sprigs
Cut rounds out of the pie crust. I used a small glass. You want the rounds to be slightly bigger than the diameter of the goat cheese. Slice the goat cheese and lay the slices on the rounds. Place a tiny dab of honey on the goat cheese (I used a knife and just dipped the tip into the honey). Top with the rosemary. Bake at 360 F (180 C) for about 10 minutes–until the cheese has melted a little and the crust is cooked.
The clafoutis recipe is similar to the recipe I used for rhubarb clafoutis, but without the sugar. You can put anything you want in them. I had Boursin left over from the croissants, and I thought sliced black olives would be pretty. When I used up the olives, I still had batter left, so I sliced up some more chorizo (the Spanish kind, which is a hard sausage). Both were delicious. You could do bacon, diced peppers, diced sun-dried tomatoes, other cheeses….
1 cup milk or cream or a combination
3/4 cup (30 grams) flour
pinch of salt
butter for greasing the muffin pan
Beat the eggs and milk/cream. Mix the flour and salt in a medium bowl that you can pour from. Add the liquid to the flour little by little, so you don’t get lumps. Let it rest for about half an hour. Pour into a greased mini-muffin pan. Drop your add-ins on top. Bake for 20-30 minutes (I had to turn the pan halfway through). À votre santé!
A hub-and-spoke itinerary is a deep, rather than wide, approach to travel and can be very gratifying, unless your main goal is to hit as many cities or countries as possible.
I’ve done both of those—the tasting menu of travel is pretty typical for a first trip abroad. After all, it’s expensive and who knows when or if you’ll be back. So I’m not being judgmental.
But if you want to get into the daily life of a place and pretend you’re a local, then staying in one place is a good idea. You get to try it on for size, instead of browsing the racks. It’s also very good for travel with a group or family, because you aren’t constantly packing up and moving.
One reason we chose to move to Carcassonne was because of the diversity of sights and activities in proximity. Mountains to the north and south; beaches to the east (and, if we want to drive longer, to the west). Lovely cities like Toulouse and Montpellier an hour-ish drive away. And all over the plain, beautiful vineyards sprinkled with charming villages and so many medieval ruins.
Another reason we like Carcassonne is that it’s small enough that life is easy. And on vacation, who needs hassles? Aside from the Michelin-star restaurants (and even then), this isn’t a place where you have to reserve a table a week ahead or have special connections to get in. You can walk blindly into almost any restaurant and get a good meal at a reasonable price. Parking is easy and often free. Traffic is light and relatively polite (I’m constantly shocked, but then I go someplace else and see that Carcassonnais are very nice drivers all in all). In fact, if you don’t want to drive, you can do plenty of things on foot, by bike or by public transportation. If you do rent a car, check out my driving tips.
Although so many people descend from all over Europe to bake on the beaches of the Mediterranean in summer, once you head inland a little it doesn’t feel very touristy. Yes, there are tourists—there are amazing things to see—but this region remains mostly undiscovered and authentic.
Here’s an example of a hub-and-spoke vacation for a week, using Carcassonne as a base:
Day 1: La Cité. Duh. Go early or go late. The beach hordes will come by for a requisite few hours of culture in the middle of the day, so avoid it then. It’s really lovely in the evening, a nice place to stroll after dinner. In the middle of the day, walk around the Ville Basse—the lower “new” town (built in 1260) that is full of locals. Or walk upstream along the Aude River—there are shady paths on both sides—and you’ll soon be out of town, surrounded by vineyards. Or check out the antique shops in and around the Ville Basse (also called la Bastide) and the Trivalle neighborhood. Stop by Barrière Truffes for a wine tasting with some truffle appetizers. Definitely eat dinner at le Clos des Framboisiers, which will get its own post soon.
Day 2: Bike along the Canal du Midi. Pack a picnic lunch, or, if you bike toward Trèbes, you have a large selection of waterfront restaurants (we are partial to La Poissonnerie Moderne and Le Moulin). A canal bike ride is really lovely—no cars, flat, out in the countryside, still a lot of shade despite the sad removal of many plane trees that have been destroyed by a fungus.
Day 3: Village life. You can catch a bus to, say, Villeneuve-Minervois (half an hour away), spend a couple of hours exploring, then catch a later bus to Caunes-Minervois (about five minutes from Villeneuve). If you look at the bus schedules, keep in mind that when school is out, there are far fewer buses—look for the chaise longue with parasol, which indicates summer hours. Don’t miss the last bus back! Caunes is a bit far to bike and very hilly. Alternatively, if you have a car, it’s a pretty drive and you can stay for dinner at the Hotel d’Alibert.
Day 4: Head for the hills. The train to Quillan is just €1 per person. Can’t beat that. It takes an hour and 20 minutes, so leave plenty early. Perhaps a hike on the Sentier de Capio? If you go by car, you can also explore the Gorges de la Pierre-Lys, a bit south of Quillan, a spectacular collection of sheer rock faces worn down by the Aude River. There’s a hike to a lookout (called the Devil’s Lookout).
Day 5: At some point in your trip, Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday will roll around with the market at Place Carnot in Carcassonne. Saturday is the best day, with the most vendors and all the locals stopping each other with hands full of carrots and radishes to double or triple or quadruple kiss cheeks before heading to one of the terrace cafés for coffee or a cold glass of rosé. Beware: the market packs up around 12:30 p.m. If you miss the market in Carcassonne, then you can catch up on Monday morning in Mirepoix. It’s a cute town with a nice collection of antique shops to occupy your afternoon.
Day 6: Hit the beach, because what’s a trip to the south of France without paying homage to the Mediterranean? Again, go early or late. The French live highly regimented lives and you can use that to your advantage by being slightly off schedule. They will swarm to the sand a bit after lunch, and then leave in time for apéritifs, raising havoc for parking and huge traffic jams for leaving. We are partial to the beach at Gruissan (la Plage des Chalets), because the beach bungalows on stilts are low and barely seen from the water’s edge, whereas Narbonne has some high-rise buildings. There are many other beaches up and down the coast, but Gruissan is nice because it’s huge, so even with crowds, you aren’t crowded, yet you don’t have to walk forever to get to it, and you have a choice of the port or the old town for dinner. Our strategy is this: we head to the beach around 3:30, getting there just as the earlybirds are feeling their sunburn and fleeing, freeing up parking spaces. Then we stay and enjoy as the throngs continue to thin, and finally hit a local restaurant for dinner rather than sit in a traffic jam on the autoroute. I am sure you can get to the beach by bus, but I wouldn’t want to do it because we haul so much stuff with us (umbrellas, shade tent, blankets, balls, change of clothes in sealed bags for sand-free changing afterward).
Day 7: Castles. For this, you need do a car. Those Cathars built their fortresses in out-of-the-way spots. They weren’t looking for trouble, in fact they tried to hide from it, but when invaders came calling, they were in perches that were very hard to attack. Many of them, including Lastours and Puilaurens, require a vertiginous hike. If climbing isn’t your thing, try Saissac or Villerouge-Termenes. In July, Carcassonne is full of medieval re-enactments and jousting tournaments.I haven’t even gotten to wineries (our favorites are la Tour Boisée and Saint Jacques d’Albas)! Or Fontfroide and Lagrasse. Or the underground wonders of Cabesprine and Limousis, so welcome on a hot summer day. Or the cool museums, like the one about prehistoric man at Tautavel.
We have had many couples renting our apartments for honeymoons, wedding anniversaries and birthdays, so I’ll do a similar itinerary with a romantic focus. Coming soon!
Late May is the ideal time to see red seas of poppies stretching across the French countryside. One of my earliest romanticized notions of France was Claude Monet’s painting, “Poppy Field in Argenteuil,” with a woman, hat on her head and parasol over her shoulder, wading through a poppy field with a child. He painted poppies in other places as well, including Giverny, where he had his lovely house and gardens.
It’s easy to play Monet around here. In fact, what’s hard is not driving off the road as I spy yet another spectacular red field. On the drive to the sports complex, there’s a big field on a plateau, and another below it are all red. As I continued my errands, I contemplated where I could pull off and how I could clamber over the drainage ditch and up the steep ledge to get to the view–which would have la Cité behind it! I made some stops in town, including for another field of poppies and la Cité, and then came back from a different direction. A hill that’s usually to my back was in front of me, and it was completely red. The flowers flowed down, like a floral Kilauea, across the road to the plateau I’d already seen. Amazing. But a very busy road, and no place to pull over and shoot photos. I certainly dismayed the drivers behind me as I slowed down to stare and gasp. (I will try to find a safe vantage point for shooting it!)
La Cité from the other side, with other poppies. This field is on the plateau, and the red hill is to the left, but hidden from this vantage point. I tried to climb around but couldn’t get to it.
A small traveling circus set up next to another poppy field. I’ve written about the circus before, but it was a different one. Shortly after this one arrived, I saw a large man at the top of a very, very high light pole. The poles have plugs for the Christmas decorations. While the municipal workers use a mechanical lift to get up there, circus folks just shimmy up like monkeys. Without a net.
During the circus’s stay, I marveled at the ability of some people to make noise for no reason. Mid-morning, a trumpet blared, not in the way of somebody practicing, even badly. It was in the manner of a child who comes upon a trumpet and decides to try it out, with the full force of his lungs. For a couple of hours. No discernible tune or rhythm. Even a child would get bored with just making noise, but this trumpeter didn’t. Day after day after day.
Along with the trumpet (which didn’t seem to be played during the shows–those had canned music), there was incessant hammering, clanking and banging throughout the day and night–normal when they put up and took down the tent, but the other times? Very mysterious. Also, neighing, braying, barking and whatever noise it is that camels make, because there were lots of them, munching on poppies, their humps slumped to the side, like melting ice cream cones just before they plop to the ground.From time to time, I heard a lion roar, and I thought, “it isn’t even show time. All the kids are in school (except for the two zillion children of the circus performers, who ran around screaming from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., except for when they were riding scooters. I don’t mind kids screaming, actually. They have a reckless exuberance that I admire, although not so much at 6 a.m. nor at 11 p.m.). Why are they playing that stupid fake lion tape now?” I even heard it during the night. It wasn’t until they were leaving that I realized it wasn’t a tape, but a poor, pathetic lion, probably as bored as the trumpeter.The morning the circus packed up to leave, at 6:02 a.m., I heard a guy shouting, “Allez, allez, allez!” (Go, go, go!) Then: “Oh! Tenez! PURÉE!!!” (Oh! Hold on! Mush!) I don’t know what went wrong, but I was impressed by his clearly rigorous inculcation in G-rated language, the circus being for children, after all. Even under under duress, rather than say putain–whore–a common swear word, especially in the south of France, where it is used almost like a comma, this distressed/dismayed guy spat out the polite version, purée. Some others are mince (skinny) or mercredi (Wednesday) instead of merde, and punaise (a thumbtack, which in turn is named after a stinkbug) which also replaces putain. So if somebody says Wednesday or thumbtack to you in a sentence where those words make no sense, now you know: they’re mad, not crazy.
I thought about the circus again this morning, when I woke up to the sound of birds singing. SO. MANY. BIRDS. And no trumpets or lions.
What do you get when you cross novelist Dan Brown with cheese? Rennes-le-Château!
Rennes-le-Château made an appearance in “The Da Vinci Code,” Brown’s thriller about a conspiracy and some very creative interpretations of history. Supposedly Jesus high-tailed it to France with Mary Magdalene, which is how the Holy Grail–or the cup he used at the Last Supper–ended up at a tiny church in a tiny village in the deepest depths of France profonde.
This just shows that we have stories for every stripe of crazy, from ufologists to people drawn to Rennes-le-Château, including to excavate for buried treasure. Which is strictly forbidden, and written all over the place.
Back in the 1890s, the village priest, Bérenger Saunière, seemed to be suddenly rolling in dough. He had the church fixed up, then built himself a domaine and a tower, la Tour Magdala, in 1901. By 1902, the bishop of Carcassonne, who had turned a blind eye to the priest’s spending, had died, and the new higher-ups demanded an accounting, which the priest didn’t want to do.
It isn’t clear whether the holy grail story was made up by Saunière or by a local hotelier looking for publicity. In any case, long before the advent of the Internet, the tale worked magic, because all kinds of illuminés turned up and haven’t stopped. For example, in 2011, some “researchers” claimed that Rennes-le-Château holds King Solomon’s gold and that the Visigoths brought the original menorah, used by Moses. Because that makes complete sense, right?
What is undeniable is that the hilltop village of 65 inhabitants (and THREE restaurants!!) is charming and has breathtaking views. We stopped on our way home from Bugarach, having loaded up on goat’s and sheep’s cheeses as part of de la Ferme en Ferme, or From Farm to Farm, circuit–something to check out if you’re in the region.
Rennes-le-Château is 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of Carcassonne. There’s lots to see along the way! Cute villages, mountains, farms, ruins, cows and sheep and goats….
One of the highlights of my life is a family vacation in Italy with my parents, my siblings and their families, plus an aunt. It was before the arrival of the Carnivore and our kid. I was the tour guide.
Here were the calculations: Europeans go on vacation in July and August, because school vacations don’t start until then (some places get out in mid-June). So for smaller crowds and lower prices, we would schedule the trip for right after the kids got out of school in late May.
Having so many people was going to be tricky, especially with kids ages 2, 3 and 4, and elders ages 61, 71 and 76, none of whom were up for walking all day. We wanted to sleep under one roof (which ruled out my one-bedroom apartment in Brussels) and have a place for two minivans to park. Good weather would be a plus (which also ruled out Brussels).These things also eliminated Paris–we’d have to get pretty far out before being able to find a house big enough and in the price range, and getting around Paris isn’t very easy if you aren’t on foot (and no, I was not going to try to herd 13 people in the Metro). The weather could be freezing or gorgeous, most likely both…in the same week. So despite the fact that I adore Paris and had the advantage of speaking French, I opted for Tuscany. (I had been to the south of France only once then, so I didn’t think of it—now I know better! But Tuscany was great.)“You don’t want to go to Italy, hon,” Dad informed me, pronouncing Italy like IT-lee. “It’s a mess. You can’t drink the water. I’ve been there.”
Yeah—when he was in the Army, with the U.S. occupation after WWII.
“It’s changed,” I told him. “You can drink the water now. It’s all fixed up nice.”
It was before the advent of AirBnB, but online rentals were available, with horror stories outnumbering the selection of properties. OK, confession: it was in 2001.I found a beautiful villa outside Florence, Casa Il Focolare, on a hill with sweeping views, a pool and lots of bedrooms and bathrooms. They have upgraded the décor; it was more basic when we were there, but very comfortable–you really have to check out the web site to see how pretty it is now. Rural enough that the kids could run wild around the grounds. Not too far for trips to Florence (30 minutes by car), Sienna (45 minutes), San Gimignano (45 minutes), Pisa (1 hour 15 minutes, to see the “bending tower” and also the beach at Livourne) and, twice, Rome (just over an hour). Plus the cute, less famous villages of Tuscany.
I’d reserved two minivans, but unfortunately, they had only one; the second vehicle would instead be a full-size monster called a Ducato. It had a horizontal steering wheel, like a bus. It held nine people, so we still needed the normal minivan, which held seven.
The next challenge was driving from Rome to the villa. My siblings, being pros at crazy roadtrips, had brought walkie-talkies (which, FYI, are called talkie-walkies in French. In Italian: walkie-talkie). I had a cell phone, but it was still early days and so expensive the others would have had to take out second mortgages to pay for international service (what a horror…I also had a “callback” service–illegal–where I called a computer in the U.S. with my Brussels landline and then hung up. The computer would call me back and patch me to an open line from which I could call U.S. numbers at domestic U.S. long-distance rates and not the approximately $5,000 a minute that Belgacom charged for international calls. It’s far more reasonable now).
Anyway the walkie-talkies worked great as long as we were in range. And the patter was nonstop.
<<static>>”I thought you were supposed to stay on one side of the dotted white line.” <<static>>
<<static>>”Yeah, well, most people think that.” <<static>>
<<static>>”She never could paint inside the lines.”
<<static>>”You gotta fix those things when they’re kids or you can see what happens.” <<static>>
One of the adults would ride shotgun and consult the gigantic fold-out paper map (it was before GPS, too). One time in Rome, I asked my co-pilot which way I needed to go only to see the huge map getting frantically turned around one way, then the other.
“We’re on … V…I…A…We’re on Via!” somebody from the back seat called out triumphantly.
Did I mention that nobody spoke Italian? (EYE-talian, as Dad said)
Another time, some of the women went to Greve, a very quaint town. The guys weren’t there when we got back. When they finally arrived, one made a grand wave at the other two and said, “Let me introduce you to Louis and Clark.” They had gotten very lost trying to go to the supermarket in Montevarchi.
No harm, no foul. No accidents, either.
There was another time, again in Rome, when a local colleague, who had generously gotten us tickets for the Mass with the Pope in St. Peter’s Square, was going to make the handoff as we drove down a boulevard near his home. I was talking to him on my cellphone (BAD) and trying to watch crazy Roman traffic while trying to spy the landmarks he was telling me to look for. Finally seeing him, I eased into the right lane and slowed to a crawl. My co-pilot rolled down the window, stuck a head and hand out, and snatched the tickets before anybody rear-ended us or even honked. Smooth as spies.
Most tourists probably don’t realize there’s an underground parking garage at the Vatican. With low clearance. Happily, the rental company didn’t look at the roof of the megavan when we returned it.
Then there was the time I got near the Coliseum and looked for a place to park, only to go down a street like a funnel—it got narrower and narrower, until I had to back out. Which mean the normal minivan with the rest of the family had to back out first because they were behind me.
And the time I was trying to get the megavan out of the tight turn on the villa’s driveway (which was so steep that our dad described a little grotto alongside the drive as “right before you go over the cliff”). Another guest’s car was in the way (there are also a couple of apartments on the property). One of the guys in front and another in the back directed me: get closer, cut it sharper, crank it the other way. They made catty remarks about how I was riding the clutch. “Might as well burn it out on a rental,” one said. “She’s just warming it up,” the other observed, adding, “She ain’t even spittin’ gravel yet.” At that moment, I gave it gas and sent a couple of pebbles flying. They cheered.
It was so difficult to park in Rome that we generally went to a garage then hoofed it. The littlest kids were in strollers, but our parents weren’t as lucky. Instead, I put them in a taxi, with our aunt, at the Trevi Fountain and told the driver “Piazza Navona.” I will never forget the image of three shocked faces looking at me through the back window as the taxi peeled off. They thought I would come with them. But I had figured that, with traffic, we would arrive on foot before the taxi (and it was true).
Our other challenge revolved around Italian dining customs vs. toddler attention spans. The kids were angels, but too much time sitting nicely at a table is no fun. So we would try to be fairly organized, to have our meals before meltdowns. Good Midwesterners, the guys would order coffee with their meals. They were new to wine, and certainly not at lunch. The waiter would nod, si, si, signori. Of course, the coffee wouldn’t arrive. They would remind the waiter, who would nod and say, what we figured was “don’t worry, I didn’t forget.” Dad would thank them with a heartfelt “Garcia!”
The kids would grow restless. No coffee yet. Then the kids would get VERY restless. No coffee…because of course, coffee is served after dessert, which we hadn’t yet eaten. Eventually we would need to leave—unhappiness in toddlers increases exponentially as you have more toddlers, so if one meltdown is X, then two meltdowns are X10 and three meltdowns are X100. (It isn’t their fault; it’s a fact of nature, like gravity.) Another famous Italian espresso so close, yet so far away. Eventually, the coffee lovers ventured to a café in Magliano. “The cup was about the size of a thimble,” one described afterward. “The foam barely covered the bottom of it. But I tell you, it was enough!”
We operated with a bucket list (the only thing we didn’t get to was Venice, too far at three hours’ drive each way), but didn’t schedule anything. One day at a time. The trips to Rome and Pisa took full days but the rest of the outings were for a few hours max, leaving lots of time for relaxing, chicken fights with the older kids in the pool and cooking lessons from the villa’s owners (who didn’t speak English or French, but we did fine. I still make their tiramisu.) At dinner, we would loosely plan the next day. Or not. Sometimes we did it on the fly. Our aunt was such a wonderful traveler, always game for anything, answering “why not!” to every suggestion. She seemed perfectly content to sit overlooking the breathtaking view and read a novel, yet was always ready to hop in the van at a moment’s notice. (Another time, looking at a guide’s suggestions for what to buy in Florence, she said, “But I don’t want any of this stuff.” I love her.)
It was great to have a kitchen, so we could have breakfast and sometimes other meals without the excesses of eating out for everything. It was great to have a TV, so tired kids could watch the only video we had (“Mulan”) over and over and over. It was great to have a single “home” that we could keep coming back to.
Our dad would regularly leaf through the photo albums (it was also before digital photos) for years afterward. Our mom had the villa’s brochure and some photos put into a big frame, and it moved with them to assisted living, where our parents were always more than happy to recount the adventure to all the aides who came by. The trip brought us closer together, though the littlest ones don’t remember it aside from the photos, and now there are two more kids, and even grandchildren, in the family and our parents are gone. I started writing this as a way to explain how to juggle the wildly different ages and a large group on a vacation, but in the end, it’s more an excuse to relive and immortalize the happy memories.And if you wonder whether a big family trip is possible, remember: Why not!
PS: I will write soon about a similar hub-and-spoke itinerary for the south of France. We have two AirBnB apartments on the same floor, in the center of Carcassonne—they are both good for couples, but one has a small single bedroom and a sofabed, making it possible to sleep five people there plus two in the adjacent apartment. And the huge kitchen is ideal for a family.