Stone Faced

Aug 16

She looks how I feel.

Although I have 10 drafts of posts, none are yet up to snuff. And sad surprises have been filling these otherwise gorgeous late summer days.

I hope regular programming resumes soon. Meanwhile, enjoy a couple of golden oldies:

The French Market

Picnic in the Garrigue

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Le Jardin Chez Nous

IMG_6186I’ve been in the trenches. Literally.

I’ve been thinking about how to be a better steward of our environment, at least the part I have some control over: our yard. My first thought: Lawns are crazy.P1100308Our grass usually turns golden brown by early July and stays that way until October. We don’t water it because water is a scarce commodity around here. Anyway, much of it is weeds. I pull and pull, but once the ground dries, it’s like concrete and nothing is coming out of it.

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The view from the outdoor dining table. 

What do they say about insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and thinking it will turn out differently? Lawns like that.

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More luck with strawberries in pots, where the ants don’t eat everything.

We don’t have a big lawn, mind you. And there was a period where the bits of grass got plenty of use by our kid and friends. But the swings are gone from the swing set, to be replaced by a hammock, which we have, but since nobody sets foot in the backyard, we haven’t hung it.

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Fruitful palm trees. 

There’s a strip where we grow herbs and cherry tomatoes. It’s next to the swing set, with the idea of being a snacking garden for our kid. We wanted our kid to actually pick food off a vine (we also have raspberries and strawberries). It worked. The tomatoes produce right up until Christmas. Not a ton, but I do find it amazing to pick tomatoes in December.IMG_6189We planted some fruit trees, too–apricot, cherry and fig. The fig actually was growing wild in the yard. The apricot tree gave us huge bounties year after year, but last year and this year have not been good. And the cherries are for the birds. That’s OK.

When the ground was still soft from spring rains, I started digging a trench for compost. The soil here is very argile, or clay, and I wanted to add organic material. I experimented over winter/spring in the tomato bed, and the compost broke down in about a month. I was delighted, and the tomatoes seem similarly happy.

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This part is done. Lots of oleander, that, now that it’s established, is very drought-resistant and full of color all summer long. No grass!

The idea of composting is such a no-brainer. Rather than throw away something that will create climate-destroying methane gas, it’s so much better to turn it into healthy soil. Some places burn municipal trash to generate electricity, but wet food waste can make it burn less efficiently. Plus, how many times had we gone to the garden center to buy huge sacks of decent dirt? Talk about crazy.

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Note the gigantic rocks.

Now the trench is nearly full. (I took the opportunity to pull some huge stones out of the ground, too–they are getting a new life as a border.) Later, when the human food has turned into plant food, that strip will be filled with drought-resistant perennials that will please the bees and butterflies and birds. Nothing is planted at this time of year–the garden centers are nearly empty. It’s just too hot and dry.

Eventually, I might do another trench on a new area of grass. The goal is to eventually just have parterres with gravel paths and no grass at all. And also, eventually, a potager with more than just cherry tomatoes.

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More mulch = more blooms.

The trash-collection company offers composters for €15. I need to order one to do regular composting. We have a mounting leaf pile to prepare a stock of brown material to balance out the wet kitchen scraps. I also spread crushed dry leaves as mulch around plants, including in pots, to help retain moisture, and it seems to have helped. I spread leaves around the raspberries to keep the weeds down, which has worked like a charm and has also kept the raspberries from wilting. I then did the same around the fruit trees.   The Carnivore was skeptical at first, but  the leaf mulch didn’t blow away. Now even he is sweeping up the leaves from the terrace and dumping them on the leaf pile. How crazy it was to bag them and dirty the car to haul them to the dump!

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Garden buddy.

What about you? Do you garden? Do you enjoy it? Do you compost? Any tips?

 

 

Heat Wave

P1100624By the time this is published, the canicule, or heat wave, is over. But for about a week, it was just a tad too hot. And hardly anybody, ourselves included, has air conditioning in the south of France.

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Same candle on June 26…it’s almost gone now.

The word canicule comes from canine, as in the dog days of summer. It’s because Sirius, the brightest star in constellation Big Dog, or Canis Major, rises and sets with the sun in late July–often the hottest period of the year.

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Fishing on the Aude river…a cool activity.

The south of France is called le Midi, which sounds like middle, but it means middle of the day–noon. It’s the region where it’s always noon. Italy uses the same terminology–the mezzogiorno.

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Yes, that’s the Eiffel Tower below la Cité.
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There was an open-air showing of “La La Land.” 

We really shouldn’t complain–the hottest it has gotten was 36 Celsius, or 97 Fahrenheit. However, the nights never really cooled down–sometimes only to 27 C (81 F). This compares to averages for July and August of 27-28 C (81-82 F) for highs and 16 C (71 F) for lows.

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The wildflowers are going gangbusters.
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These blue ones are gorgeous.

Despite no precipitation since an incredible rainstorm in mid-July, the moisture has stuck around. We have the first summer dew I’ve seen since moving here and the grass is holding onto an aura of green. Usually it would be dry straw. OTOH, we haven’t seen the firefighting planes this summer either.

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Dew!

We open all the windows at night to let in the coolish air, then close them when the sun starts to hit the house. The shutters, too, get closed. We hide in the penumbra, not moving too much. On entering the house from the pitiless sunshine, it feels surprisingly cool, but one soon adapts, and even inside it seems too hot.

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Thank goodness for the woods. Exercise is at dawn or not at all.

My brain melts. I can’t focus. A fan blows straight on me, and I get an earache on the side it’s on. But I can’t take turning it off. My computer melts down a few times, refusing to toil on because it’s too darn hot.P1100588We eat food that doesn’t require cooking: salads, melon with prociutto, tomatoes and peaches stuffed with tuna.

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Somebody’s garden entrance.

The village looks drained of color, the beige stone and stucco dazzlingly bright and the shadows so sharp and black. Nobody is out. A cat sleeps in the shade under a car. Even the birds seem to be hiding in the shade. Only the cicadas thrum deafeningly, starting as early as 8:30 and continuing until almost 10 p.m. Peak summer torpor.P1100626Finally, some clouds come through, bringing lots of lightning and thunder though the rain is limited to a few drops. It is amazing to feel the suddenly cool, almost cold, air blow in with the storm. Today we’re going to have a high of 27 C and a refreshing low of 17 C, right on the average, and it looks like the rest of the month will be the same–warm enough to feel like summer but not uncomfortable. Thank goodness!

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I love these dramatic clouds.

How do you beat the heat?

Cookout for a Crowd

P1100608Entertaining in summer is so different from winter. As soon as it’s nice out, we eat en terrasse for every meal, and the same applies for dinner parties. While winter dinners are cozy and intimate around a candlelit table, they can only be so big. That also is nice–the conversations are deeper with a smaller group.

But a big party is fun, too. We got in the groove of cooking hamburgers, partly to redeem them from the bad rep of McDonald’s (people here complain about McDonald’s but France is MacDo’s most profitable market outside the U.S., cough, cough). Fan or foe, anybody would admit that a homemade burger cooked on a real grill is a step above.

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A little help from our friends. Seriously, everybody pitched in. Buns on the right.

Burgers are a good option because they offer mass customization: you prepare and cook a ton of them the same way, and everybody can dress theirs up as they like. We learned our lesson and made them rather small and thin, for quicker cooking and because some people eat just one small one and others eat five. (In earlier years, we threw away an awful lot of half-eaten big burgers.)

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Batter fried veggies, pâté en croute, calamari, fried ham-and-cheese, breaded fried cheese…

One friend brought appetizers, so that was taken care of.

We had two salads on the side: a pasta salad with an Italian vibe (lots of fresh basil, olive oil, red wine vinegar) and an Asian-inflected cabbage slaw–no creamy dressings in this heat. They were made one day ahead.

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I love this. Even better after a day.

And we had a buffet of desserts: Tollhouse cookies, nut bars, a chocolate cake and a carrot cake.

The carrot cake has a history. One of our early such cookouts coincided with July 4. I decorated the carrot cake with blueberries and raspberries to make an American flag. One of our friends thought this was so pretty, it had to be shown to everybody before we cut it to eat. As she walked around with it, she called out to me, “What kind of cake is it?” When I answered “Carrot,” she stopped as if she’d gotten an electric shock, and nearly dropped the cake. She recovered and then, as if to save me from the horror of the idea of a cake made with carrots, asked about the frosting. “A kind of cheese,” I explained. At that time, Philadelphia cream cheese was found only in expat groceries (where I had paid a small fortune) and I didn’t yet know that Saint-Môret is pretty much the same thing.

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Once the carrot cake was cut it quickly became an unphotogenic free for all.

That was it. Nobody touched the carrot cake. Finally, somebody who was out of earshot for this came around and took a piece. Biting into it, she exclaimed, “Wow, this pain d’épice is delicious”–pain d’epice (spice bread) being familiar, but usually much drier and without a tangy cream cheese frosting. That gave the others an excuse to satisfy their curiosity and the carrot cake was quickly devoured.

By now, even here in France profonde,  trendy tea salons serve carrot cake and cheesecake.

Here are some recipes for feeding a crowd (we had about three dozen people):P1100597Asian-influenced cabbage slaw

1 head of red cabbage (green is OK but not as pretty), grated or sliced as finely as you can

1-2 red bell peppers, chopped

4-5 carrots, grated

1 onion, finely chopped

fresh ginger about the size of a thumb, peeled and finely minced

1/2 cup rice wine vinegar

1/4 cup sesame oil

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 tsp soy sauce

Put the liquids in a jar and shake to make the vinaigrette. Toss with the vegetables. If you do it a day earlier, it’s even better, because the vinegar will soften the cabbage. This is a refreshing alternative to traditional coleslaw.P1100604Pasta salad

500 g (1 lb.) pasta of your choice, cooked al dente (don’t overcook, so it holds up)

4 carrots

1 red bell pepper

1 green or yellow bell pepper

1 cucumber

3-4 tomatoes

1/2 cup basil leaves

1 large onion

Chop all the vegetables and toss with the pasta. Because of braces, we chop pretty finely and grate carrots. I peel nothing, just wash–keep those vitamins! The basil I scrunch into a bunch and cut into ribbons, but you also can tear it. Other possible additions: olives (black or green), sun-dried tomatoes, fennel, even fruit like peaches. There is no right or wrong here.

In a jar, combine 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 3/4 cup olive oil, a clove of garlic (minced very finely) and a big spoonful of capers. Shake to mix and toss into the salad.

The carrot cake recipe is from Epicurious–BA’s Best Carrot Cake, from Bon Appétit, May 2016. We didn’t include the rum (actually our kid made all the desserts except for the frostings). For some reason, I didn’t use the frosting recipe there and instead used the Epicurious “Classic Cream Cheese Frosting,” which came out way too runny, perhaps because of the heat here, and I ended up adding a lot of powdered sugar.

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My new favorite chocolate cake, with marshmallow frosting. In sheet form, less impressive than a layer cake, but just as delicious.

The chocolate cake was A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. Moist, rich, not cloyingly sweet. It’s from the Violet Bakery, and I found the recipe on the excellent blog 101 Cookbooks. I did the marshmallow frosting, too, which was just like a marshmallow cloud. Didn’t manage to pipe it, though, possible again because of the heat. This one is my new go-to recipe for chocolate cake.

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I forgot to take a photo until they were half eaten…

The Tollhouse cookies were the classic recipe, made in a sheet pan as bars to speed things up.

The nut bars are a tried-and-true success from “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” which is an oldie but goodie. Page 256. This cookbook gets constant use, even after decades. A few things seem very ’80s, but the vast majority is classic. And classy.

Here are the nut bars, called Pecan Squares, but, not wanting to take out a second mortgage to buy exotic pecans, I used walnuts, which are delicious.

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Ditto with the nut bars. People came up to me, still eating them, as if they were in a daze from having had a revelation, and asked for the recipe. All hail the Silver Palate.

The Silver Palate’s Pecan (or walnut) Squares

Crust:

2/3 cup powdered sugar

2 cups flour

1/2 pound butter, softened

Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C). Grease a 9×12 sheet pan (or grease and use parchment paper). Sift the sugar and flour together. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender until you get fine crumbs. Press into the pan and bake for 20 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Topping:

2/3 cup melted unsalted butter

1/2 cup honey

3 tablespoons heavy cream

1/2 cup brown sugar

3 1/2 cups coarsely chopped nuts

Mix all the ingredients together and drop in dollops onto the crust, spreading it out evenly.

Return to the oven and bake for an additional 20-25 minutes (better to set your timer for less and pull it out when it’s brown and bubbly and not when it’s burned!).

I cut everything into bite-sized squares because plenty of people wanted one of everything, and they could always come back for seconds. Or thirds.

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The very dark chocolate cake was gorgeous against the very white marshmallow frosting.

This was not a hugely expensive party to throw, considering how many people we had. Nor was it hugely complicated. The hamburgers themselves involved 9 kilograms (almost 20 pounds) of ground beef, with about 20 eggs, a cup of soy sauce, a cup of Worcestershire sauce and 2 cups of bread crumbs (the eggs and bread crumbs keep them from breaking up). This made about 85 hamburgers.

The best bet is to make the burgers a day or two ahead, and to have three dozen or so in a big container and then to have the rest in a couple of smaller containers. The big container gets cooked first, because everybody will fall on them as fast as they come off the grill as if they hadn’t eaten for a week. The others can stay in the fridge until needed, and, if there are leftovers, you can put them in freezer bags, all ready for a future cookout.

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Prepping the serving table. Dessert-size china plates are an easy size to hold.

We had everything ready the day before, and the day of, we just had put out the paper “tablecloths” and cushions and the plates (real china dessert plates that have been well-amortized over 20-some years) and silverware (Ikea, again, well worth the investment from 20 years ago). Then we all put our feet up and relaxed for about an hour before guests arrived. Which is as it should be.

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A mini-fridge with beer. Note the hanging bottle opener (decapsuleur) and the container for bottle caps. A crate for empty bottles was under the table holding the cooler.

Do you throw big parties? Tell all! If not, what’s holding you back?

Driving in France

Peewee Herman signIt’s entirely possible to vacation in France without a car. High-speed trains connect the big cities as fast as planes, and even the slower trains are faster than going by car. And inside any big city, a car is more of a hassle than anything—parking is nigh impossible.

A car is useful only if you want to get out into the countryside, for example, to go from village to village, or to get out into the garrigue. Even if you plan to bike, it’s important to know the rules of the road, which aren’t at all like in the U.S.

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Priority to the car on the right. Be careful!

Possibly the most important, or the thing the least like the U.S. is priorité à droite. When in doubt, priority is to the car on the right. There are no four-way stops. A triangular sign (point up), bordered in red, with a black X means at the next intersection, you have to stop for any cars coming from the right. Look out; sometimes the next intersection is with an alley you barely see, and the locals will plow right into you because they know they have the right of way. In case of an accident, fault is easy to determine—the car dented on its right side is wrong.

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This intersection has both a stop line and a stop sign…rare.

The French hate stop signs. Instead, they paint a heavy white line at intersections where you are supposed to stop. So you have to watch the pavement as well as the signs.

A dashed line across the road means yield. (Actually, they often interpret it as ‘I see a car coming, so I’m gunning it to cut in front.’ So you’ll probably have to slam on the brakes a lot.) It can be a dashed line instead of a solid stop line like above, which basically means you can do a rolling stop. Or it can be where you merge into traffic.

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Arrows mean the passing lane is near the end.

As in the U.S., a dashed center line means you can pass and a solid line means no passing. Sometimes, they have a solid line where there is a long sight line, just because the road curves a bit. And sometimes, they have a dashed line where you can’t see oncoming cars. Lesson: just because it’s a dashed line, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to pass. And beware of passing stuff like tractors and bikes where there’s a solid line because you can get a ticket if a cop sees you. Also: they put curved arrows when the dotted lines are about to end, meaning it’s too late to start to pass.

Speaking of cops, they rarely pull you over. Instead, they sit in their cars or hide in the bushes with radars that take a picture of you speeding by. The picture is mailed to you (or to the car rental place, which will then just bill your credit card). No sweet-talking your way out of it. With special binoculars, they can get you from over a kilometer away. They do have traffic stops, where they check every car or every fourth car or whatever, to check for drunk drivers. They are strict: the limit is 0.5, which is about one glass of wine. When you go to wine country, you’re going to need a designated driver (called le capitain). The French are very sharp at spying cops in hiding and will flash their headlights when there’s a speed trap or traffic stop ahead (or for other reasons, like an accident, or a mess on the road—whatever the reason, it’s best to slow down).

There are radar signs on the highways, which indicate a fixed radar lurks ahead. They, too, take pictures of speeders.

Speed limits, unless indicated otherwise are (in kilometers per hour):

50 in towns of any size—as soon as you get to the sign that marks the town limit, you have to slow down to 50. Watch out, because there could be signs limiting the speed further, like to 30.

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Leaving the city limit (it’s not a “no Carassonne” sign)

80 out of town on any road (tiny track between vineyards, county road, national highway). Sometimes the speed will be limited to 70, but that will be indicated with a sign. Beware: the speed limit changed July 1 to 80 kph from 90.

110 where indicated on national highways that have two lanes in each direction, divided by a median (just because you have two lanes doesn’t automatically mean you can go faster).

130 on autoroutes, except when it’s raining and then it’s 110 (and yes, they do check).

A triangular road sign with a heavy black arrow, intersected by a thinner line means a crossroads is ahead.

A diamond-shaped yellow sign bordered in white means you have priority. Same sign with a black line through it means you no longer have priority (so look out for the black X or the arrow with a line through it, which warns you of intersections where you don’t have priority…but they don’t always mark these intersections).

A circular sign bordered in red with a white center means cars aren’t allowed. Not the same as a do not enter sign, where you would simply be going the wrong way on a one-way street.

A triangular sign with three curving arrows making a circle means slow down for a roundabout ahead.

Céder le passage = yield. Usually with a triangular sign, white bordered in red, with the point down.

A sign with a red circle and a red car on the left and a black car on the right means no passing.

A blue sign with arrows pointing up and down, with one in black (or white) and the other in white (or red) means the road is narrow and the car in the direction of the bigger arrow has right of way.

A round sign with a blue center and a red border with a red line through it means no parking. The sign on the right, above, means you need one of those little hour-cards that you can buy at a bureau de tabac. You set the time you arrived. Same sign with an X means no stopping.

A round sign with a black line through means end of something. A sign like that with the number 70, for example, means end of the 70 kph speed zone, i.e., 80 kph.

A square blue sign with a P means parking. If it has a little meter in the corner, it means you have to find the meter (someplace on the street, it might be two blocks away) and pay and put the ticket on your dashboard so the meter readers can see it.

A square blue sign with a kind of a T, where the T is in red, means dead end.Traffic circle ahead

Signs for highways with the city names on green backgrounds mean they are free highways.

The same kinds of signs with blue backgrounds mean tollroads.

The same town signs on white background mean departmental roads.

Roads are numbered like this:

D123 (I’m making up numbers here) with yellow background means a departmental road. Like a county road. Small, lots of stops. Usually, the bigger the number the smaller the road.

N123 with a red background is a national highway. Can be 1, 2 or 3 digits.

A12 with a red background is an autoroute, usually toll, but some stretches may be free. (1 or 2 digits)

E3 with a red background is a European highway. This just means you can follow the same road across borders and perhaps not get lost because the national numbering systems aren’t the same. (1 or 2 digits)

Sortie means exit. The exit signs are an oval with the autoroute sign (two parallel lines converging in perspective) and a little arrow coming out of the right line, along with the number of the exit.

A kind of double white X on a blue background, with the points of the X connected to each other by curved lines, means a junction of two autoroutes.

At the tollbooths, do not go in the ones marked with a T (usually an orange T). Those are for people who have the RFID tags, like EZ Pass. A blue or white sign that says CB means credit cards (Cartes Bancaires). A green sign, usually with a kind of outline of a person in profile leaning out a window, or with a bunch of circles (for coins), means you can pay in cash, to an attendant.

A curved arrow painted on the ground means merge in the direction of the arrow. So if you’re getting onto the highway, it’ll point to the left, meaning the entry ramp is ending and you need to move over. Or if three lanes turn into two, it’ll point to the right, meaning the left lane is about to disappear. Sometimes these turn up where there’s road construction.

Aire = rest stop. Watch out: some have gas/food and some are just with toilets and picnic tables. They are marked.

Vehicles exiting
I love those exclamation points.

Péage = toll.

Rocade = peripherique = ring road that goes around the town.

Sortie de camions = truck exit/entrance (caution for slow trucks)

Piétons = pedestrians

Attention! Nids de poules en formation = beware! Hens’ nests (potholes) forming. This is on the road to Carcassonne and I giggle every time I see it. The road has been repaved and now is as smooth as a baby’s bottom, but the sign remains.

My favorite, though, is the top sign, which reminds me of “PeeWee’s Big Adventure,” where PeeWee is in the truck with Large Marge.

I just don’t have time today to write. This is a repost of one of my earliest entries, updated with the new speed limit. I hope it’s useful.

I am up to my ears in baking. We are having a gigantic party this weekend. I’ll give the rundown next week. This is not the moment to bake–it’s the canicule–heat wave, and yes, related to canine, but it’s because of a constellation, Big Dog, whose brightest star, Sirius, rises and sets with the sun during the hottest part of the year). We have mostly been spared–highs around 34 Celsius, or 93 Fahrenheit, but that’s hot enough when you don’t have air conditioning.

Any driving tips to add? Questions? How are you dealing with the heat? Bon weekend!

Love Nest

living to mirrorWe’ve noticed a trend in our AirBnB apartments. Our guests often are celebrating honeymoons, wedding anniversaries and special birthdays.

The best part about being an AirBnB host is meeting people. I don’t want to jinx ourselves (touche du bois–touch wood, or knock on wood), but our guests have been a delight. In some cases, I’ve been sad they live so far away because I would like to see them again.

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l’Ancienne Tannerie

The Carnivore is Mr. AirBnB, and he is constantly tickled by the reaction when guests enter either apartment for the first time. I think our photos are great, but they always say the real thing is much better.

He also is tickled by how happy they are. On vacation, care-free, celebrating. Lots of good karma.

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A sauna is inducive to good karma, no?

Some of the reviews. First l’Ancienne Tannerie (a link to the listing is here):

From Veronica:

This was our second stay at Serge’s place, and had we not found our own year-round apartment, we would definitely stay here for a third time. In fact, it was his meticulous attention to detail that allowed my husband and I to see the possibilities or restoring a voluminous historic apartment and turning into a museum-quality gem. Each of Serge’s apartments is outstanding and we’ve stayed in both. Location is just near Place Carnot and a 10-15 minute walk to the Old City. The kitchen view over the courtyard is charming. Our first visit was in mid-December 2017; originally we rented the front apartment, La Suite Barbès, for a week and then we extended it, in total, by almost another 3 weeks. This visit at L’ancienne Tannerie was for 5 nights. As a host, Serge does everything right; he’s there to greet you and welcome you into one of the most tastefully and faithfully restored apartments in Carcassonne (over the last year I have stayed in 4 others). Everything is at your fingertips, with a bright, spacious and recently appointed kitchen with clothes washer, dishwasher, induction cooktop, sparkling bathroom with large 2-door shower, two bedrooms, TV, fast internet and don’t forget the sauna! Fresh towels for sauna and bath are provided. Everything throughout the apartment is immaculate and you will feel as if you’re his very first guest. And that’s a very rare feeling. Thank you again Serge! Hope to see you in town.wcAnd Igor, who was our first guest in l’Ancienne Tannerie:

Serge is a very helpful host and helped us with all we needed. The house is located in an excellent place, a few steps from Place Carnot but on a quiet street. There are some parking lots, markets and plenty of places to eat and shop around too. The apartment is very fancy. Serge kept the looks of a 17-18th century house, but everything is brand new. The bathroom is spacious and the shower is superb. You can walk about 25min to the Citadel, take the bus a few minutes from the house or do a 5min trip by car. Very good location. Our stay in Carcassonne couldn’t be better. Thanks, Serge!
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l’Ancienne Tannerie

And François:

Visitez Carcassonne en châtelain ! Notre appartement rénové avec goût et selon critères des Monuments historiques est lumineux, calme et extrêmement propre. Vous allez goûter aux très hauts plafonds, aux grandes fenêtres à l’ancienne, au salon cosy et à la grande cuisine ; profitez ! Deux chambres complètent le confort. Deux cheminées, des meubles de style, la décoration est à la hauteur de la rénovation. Tout l’équipement est à votre disposition et rien ne manque.
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l’Ancienne Tannerie

And in the Suite Barbès (AirBnB link here):

From Marc:

We would absolutely stay here again. No doubt about it. This apartment has everything going for it. 6-7 minute walk from the train station. It sure is nice to get to the destination so quickly after a travel day. The neighbourhood is fantastic Really, walk out the front door and you are right where you want to be. Little shops on every street. 1 minute walk to a more than lovely square lined with restaurants bistros and brasseries. Its a fabulous walk to the walled city. On and on. Really, we now have a crush on Carcassonne, we stayed three days and would have stayed much much longer had we known is was so easy and comfortable to be here. Totally safe place. The food here, was honestly the best we had during our whole month in France.

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La Suite Barbès

And Susan:

Serge’s apartment is amazing. It’s in a building dating from around 1640 and has been faithfully and tastefully restored. The rooms are huge, the amenities are excellent, with a very well equipped kitchen (including cook books!) and two bathrooms. It’s also within easy walking distance of the major tourist sites, cafes and restaurants. We took Serge’s advice and went to his favourite restaurant, where we had our best meal in France so far.

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La Suite Barbès…the bedroom is 35 square meters, or 377 square feet. Just the bedroom.

And Jane:

Fantastic location 2 minutes from place Carnot where local produce markets are held 3 x week. There are also a couple of bars and restaurants and the obligatory fountain in the middle. A great spot to sit and people watch. The appartment is an easy 15 minute stroll to the historic Cité. If you love the idea of pretending you are French aristocracy this place is for you, beautiful French mirrors, rugs and antique furniture. It’s not cheap but neither are the surroundings.
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La Suite Barbès

And Ian:

What an amazing place, fantastic location, wonderful host and close to restaurants, bars, shopping and a short stroll to the walled city. My wife and I were amazed at this apartment, and it was way better than we ever expected. The host Serge, he was amazing, spending time with us explaining the local area, restaurants and sites to see. This was by far one of the most unique, classy and beautifully furnished places we have stayed while travelling through Europe. If you are looking for somewhere very special to stay, then do yourself a favour and stay here, you will not be disappointed!
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La Suite Barbès

And Kit:

I have to admit I was a little cautious at first about staying at a new Airbnb without any reviews, but I am so glad I did and absolutely wanted to write the first one so others could enjoy it as much as we did! By chance, we were privileged to be Serge’s very first guests. Even the stunning photos online do not do the apartment justice; it is so beautifully furnished with such care by Serge and his wife, with every detail of antique furnishing and fittings approved by heritage architects. You will feel like you are sleeping in one of the royal bedrooms you see in palace museums! The apartment located within the Bastide, only a few hundred metres from Place Carnot, where there is a large outdoor food market on Saturdays. It is only a 15-20 minute walk from the Cité, which means it is nicely away from the tourist crowds but gives you the chance to grab the stunning view of the city on the hill as you cross over the Pont Vieux each morning or evening. Serge was so friendly, helpful and accommodating in the lead up to the stay and very flexible with check out on the final day. Serge’s English is perfect, so even all of the complicated French forms and accommodation contracts were a breeze. I would heartily recommend this apartment to anyone travelling to Carcassonne who likes a bit of luxury!
We would love to welcome you, too!kitchen fireplace straight

French Floats

IMG_6214About two hours before the cyclists of the Tour de France pass by, there’s complete craziness on the route as the beloved caravane parades through, tossing goodies to bystanders.P1100568No homemade homecoming floats here. It’s all professional, promoting the official sponsors of the race. They are simultaneously slick, professional advertisements and laughingly absurd.P1100548Take, for example, the Gaulois chicken brand. Yes, chicken–the cigarettes are Gauloises, feminine. The first vehicle had a chicken on a bike. Yes, it’s the Tour de France, and it was all bicycles all the time. But I learned during a trip in Mali that really tough chicken is called poulet bicyclette–bicycle chicken–so hard to chew that it must have been raised riding a bike, which doesn’t seem like an image to promote. On the other hand, the number of spectators who have eaten tough chicken in Africa is probably low.P1100549They also had nuggets…”Crousty Chicken” is quite the franglais mashup. “Crusty” in French is croustillant.P1100551Gizzards (you KNOW you’re in France when gizzards are all over your salad, whether you asked for them or not)…P1100552And very tantalizing brochettes. They didn’t forget the bun (petit pain--little bread–when something sells like hotcakes here you say “c’est parti comme des petits pains”).IMG_6226It takes a certain nonchalance to drive such a beast, no?

I don’t remember what they were throwing to the crowd, but we didn’t score any. Keychains? Magnets? The top photo shows Vittel, and they handed out bottles of water (no throwing those!). Then a float came by with people spraying the crowd with mist. Years ago, people would dance and jump in the mist, arms in the air, but this time everybody hurried to protect their phones.P1100560This one is very Parisian, n’est-ce pas? The lamp post, the advertising kiosk….Krys is an optician chain.

The floats are an opportunity for people to live out their superstar fantasies. Parading past adulating crowds. Several floats were like Krys, with booming party music and somebody pretending to DJ, and usually some dancers. Never mind that the crowds want freebies and don’t care about you. A person can dream! IMG_6222P1100571Cochonou (cochon is pig; Cochonou is a brand of hard sausage), with its iconic red gingham on iconic Citroën 2CVs. It’s definitely the crowd favorite–they distribute little sachets of sausage. Where else, right?P1100539Juice…P1100535Mickey Mouse magazines…P1100562Madeleines….and they throw out little packets with two madeleines in each! P1100541P1100542This one cracked me up–the family biking and the mother and daughter are smiling but the dad is grimacing. Skoda is a brand of cars built in the Czech Republic, owned by Volkswagen.IMG_6227Candy is dandy…and of course that’s what they tossed out.IMG_6225IMG_6224Laundry soap…we scored a sample of that.

I noticed that the people on the floats were wearing harnesses that were attached to the vehicles. It was kind of odd to see the ones who were on bikes (not on the road but atop the floats, a common theme) or dancing tied to the float. The ones who were throwing stuff really leaned out, and I suppose the sponsors didn’t want falls, even though the floats go much more slowly than the racers, at least in towns.IMG_6217Promoting the movie Hotel Transylvania 3…IMG_6218IMG_6219FDJ is France de Jeux–the lottery operator. Notice the symbol is a four-leaf clover. IMG_6221McCain is a brand of French fries. Notice that they’re in a fryer basket–there’s even the handle on the back.IMG_6223Bic pens, native to France, are so iconic that many people don’t say stylo (pen) but instead say Bic, the way people refer to a photocopy as a Xerox or a paper tissue as a Kleenex.

Lots of fun, with lots of scrambling for prizes. If you want to see an old guy race a young kid, just throw a free refrigerator magnet in between them.

On Tuesday, I did a post about the actual cyclists. And if you missed them, you can see the posts from when the Tour came to Carcassonne two years ago: the caravane and the race itself.

Did you know about the Tour de France caravane?

 

 

 

 

 

Tour de France 2018

IMG_9007The Tour De France left from Carcassonne today, having arrived on Sunday. A big, big, big event for a small city. Two years ago, the tour had a departure from Carcassonne, but to have an arrival AND a departure AND a rest day is huge.

Of course, we had to see it. After all the preparations, the roads miraculously repaved just days earlier, the banners, the excess all around. Plus, we’ve seen the Tour de France a few times and know there are goodies. More on that on Friday. Just sayin’, if you ever plan to watch the Tour de France in person, get there at least two hours early and I hope you can catch.

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The (other) guy in a yellow shirt is waving a Romanian flag. What you don’t get to see is his wife, who also had a flag and who was wearing a Sponge Bob costume (not just a shirt, but a stiff thing that stood up as if it had a life of its own). I admire their devotion, but can somebody explain the Sponge Bob-bike connection?

This time, the riders came from Millau, passing the Pic du Nore, the highest point of the Montagne Noire (Black Mountains), which is the bottom part of the Massif Central (the highland region in the middle of southern France). I love that the Pic du Nore (the Northern Peak) is the southern most peak of the Black Mountains and the Massif Central. This tells you it was named not from the perspective of, say, Paris, but from a different perspective–from the plain that separates the Black Mountains from the Pyrénées, and from where the peak would be to the north. Like where Carcassonne is. BTW, the Pic du Nore is a first category mountain pass, with a 6% incline.

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Clearly these are not in order. There’s Geraint!

Geraint Thomas, 32, of Wales and Team Sky, wore the yellow jersey. That’s him in the top photo as well as several others here (thanks to the Carnivore who has a phone that actually takes photos while I use a 10-year-old point-and-shoot camera and my phone’s photos look like what I see when I don’t wear my glasses). The BBC has a story and interview with Froome and Thomas here. The BBC lost big points in my book by misspelling Carcassonne. If it were another outlet, I might shrug it off to kids these days. But the BBC? All hope is lost.

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And then a bunch come by. Why is that guy standing?

Today, the cyclists left from Place Général de Gaulle in the center of town, rounded the Bastide, at a couple of paces from our AirBnB apartments (!!!), and then headed toward Montréal (a different one! They’re everywhere, like Villeneuves! This Montréal is very small and pretty, with great views, an excellent day trip, though it wouldn’t take a day to see it all) and then to Fanjeaux (to complete your day trip), where the incline is so steep that when I drive there I have to use first gear, although I take the straight short cut that’s marked DO NOT ENTER, whereas the cyclists will do the switchbacks. It’s a fourth category hill with a 4.9% incline (unless you do the straight line. But I think somebody would notice). Fanjeaux, like Montréal (and la Cité of Carcassonne), is a hilltop village straight out of a medieval painting, designed for defense.

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And suddenly there are a zillion of them, riding frighteningly fast.

Some things I learned this time: Sometimes the riders take potty breaks in the roadside bushes, but sometimes they just let loose while they’re riding. Did you know that? Goodness. I didn’t! And I was shocked! I suppose they try to do it in the middle of nowhere (after all, each stage is four, five, six hours). But at least two helicopters were filming them, plus drones. I guess if you’re paid enough, you don’t care.

Possibly related or not: A friend tried very hard to offer a cold beer to a sweet gendarme who was standing on the sidelines, for hours, in the sun, with disobedient onlookers. But he declined! I was surprised.

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Does this not ooze V.I.P.? Note the fake tulip! I also appreciate the wheelchair ramp, having wheeled my parents (not as much as my siblings) and noticing the general lack of access in Europe.

Urination aside, the Tour de France is a class act. I poked my head into the VIP tent and snapped these awful shots before being chased away. I was impressed that even though it was a tent in a parking lot, the workers were busily wheeling in large potted plants, and every table had a fake yellow tulip (it isn’t the season for tulips–that’s why they’re fake. Not to mention the logistics–I imagine some poor roadie assigned to scrounge up so many yellow flowers at every stop along the route. Fake is the only solution). To me, it was SO FRENCH. Of course there are flowers on the tables. Of course there are potted plants. Of course there’s a carpet on the asphalt. And, knowing who catered, of course the food was amazing. (Actually, the food would probably be amazing anywhere on the Tour de France route. You have to make an effort to eat badly in France. It can happen, but it really has to be the result of a chain of miscalculations.)P1100522

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This is like a paparazzi shot of a plant.

The last time the Tour left from Carcassonne, and when you’re close to the departure, the cyclists are closely lumped together. This time, for the arrival, it was after the Pic du Nore did its triage and the first riders arrived 13 minutes before the peleton.

If you want to split your sides laughing about cycling, check out the movie “Le Vélo de Ghislain Lambert,” with Benoît Poelevoorde, who is one of the funniest actors alive. It’s about a mediocre cyclist who dreams of the fame of Belgian multiple Tour de France champion Eddy Merckx (pronounced merks…he’s still revered today). Hilarious.

Do you watch the Tour de France? Do you bike?

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The first guys. No idea who they were.

Sales Season in France

IMG_5755The French soldes or sales come twice a year–in July and January. They’re the moment when retailers mark down old inventory to move it and make way for the nouvelles collections. Store-wide sales aren’t allowed outside the designated periods, though retailers can offer promos or promotions at will on a few items, kind of like loss leaders. P1100471This summer’s soldes started June 27–it’s always on a Wednesday, probably linked to the fact that school is in session only half the day on Wednesdays (and classes continue until the early days of July, so yes, it matters). They will be over August 7. For some reason, two departments (Alpes-Maritimes and Pyrénées-Orientales)  have soldes from July 4 to August 14.

Usually the soldes run for six weeks, but the government wants to shorten it to four, starting with the next winter soldes. (The winter soldes start the second Wednesday of January, unless that would be after Jan. 12, in which case they start on the first Wednesday.) IMG_5756The idea is that retailers get tired of having soldes for so long and that merchandise gets picked over quickly, leaving the dregs to lie about for too long. Shorter soldes would create more urgency.

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Third markdown…

Each week of the soldes, retailers cut prices further. They start off with a tease, with most stuff marked to 20% or 30% off, then up to 40% or 50%, and finally toward 70% and more.

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Fourth markdown.

I operate on the coup de coeur strategy for the soldes. If you really like something, it’s dangerous to wait for it to be marked down–your size or favorite color might be gone. If you have broad parameters, like “jeans,” or “shoes” then you might find something that tickles your fancy and doesn’t pinch your pocketbook. Some of the best deals are in small boutiques, which want to clear the racks for new items and which might not have a good system to get rid of remainders. The soldes also apply to other retailers, like electronics or appliances.

I did the soldes in Toulouse recently. Even though we brought water bottles, I started to feel overheated after a few hours of beating the pavement. We had waited out the first couple of weeks, not so much out of strategy than out of scheduling, but it was just as well, because by afternoon there were long lines for changing rooms.

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The main shopping drag in Carcassonne with its pretty parasols that cast such lovely, soft shade.

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The parasols of Carcassonne…the opposite of the Parapluies (umbrellas) of Cherbourg (culture tip: that’s the name of the 1964 movie that was Catherine Deneuve’s first big role).

I do have two coping strategies: Go early, as soon as the doors open. This applies to museums and other tourist sights, as well. Everybody says they’re going to get an early start, then they roll out the door around 10 or 11 and it’s almost lunch and so why not just wait until after eating. In fact, lunch time is the other strategy–it’s sacred in France, so if you go against the flow (when you want to get something done, otherwise, by all means, adopt the leisurely lunch!) you can avoid the crowds. P1100470Wishing you short lines and beaucoup de bonnes affaires!

Joie

P1080296What a weekend! Three days of happy events. July 13, a night of communal dinners and local fireworks–the villages know they can’t compete with the giant Bastille Day display above the Carcassonne citadel. Then July 14, the big deal. Plus it was a Saturday. The produce market unrecognizable–more tourists than tomatoes. Every café terrace packed. The party starts early and goes late.

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La Cité…it’s impressive any time but at night you can really imagine the 1200s.

P1080299Leaving the market, I was relieved to find my car still in its quasi-legal parking spot (much of the regular parking had been declared off-limits in preparation for the fireworks crowds that would start showing up). An older woman in a cheerful red dress with white polka dots approached, lugging a clearly heavy tote bag. “Is Avenue Antoine Marty far?” she asked. I pointed to it, a couple of blocks away. She peered into the distance.

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The lights in the foreground are people’s phones.

I told her to hop in, I would take her. She was thrilled. It quickly became evident that she knew very well where Avenue Antoine Marty was; the question seemed to be to determine whether I was fit to ask for a ride. I was glad to have passed the test. The municipal electric minibus that usually took her close to her home wasn’t running because the centre ville streets had been closed to traffic in view of the influx of visitors for the day’s events. I suspect she was trudging home, saw me, a not-young woman pulling a shopping caddy, getting into a car with local 11 license plates and she decided to take a chance. By 11 a.m. it already was hot and she didn’t exactly live nearby.

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Do you see la Cité glowing?

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Then engulfed in smoke.

She informed me she was 90. She was in fine form!! She had hefted her bag into the car before I had a chance to get out and do it. She wore a string of pearls and earrings and, I noticed, her sandals exposed her toes, twisted and deformed and undoubtedly very painful for walking long distances.IMG_5334She said 90 was no fun. She was born in Carcassonne and had lived there her whole life and always had lots of friends. But now, they were dying off, her coffee posse dwindling from 15-strong to five. “What are they thinking, dying like that?” she demanded, not rhetorically but in a clearly irritated way, like “why did you leave the lights on?”IMG_5476As she gave me directions, she told me about her life. Her daughter died of cancer a few years ago. “I died, too,” she said. “I am still here, but I stopped living when I lost her. It is not right to lose a child. What was she thinking, dying like that?”

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The “embrasement” or burning of la Cité. It never happened in real life, at least not here, but you can imagine the horror back in the day when fortified cities came under attack.

P1080302I dropped her off in front of her house and told her we had to have coffee the next time we crossed paths at the market. I don’t doubt I’ll see her again. I thought of something I’d recently read by the poet Donald Hall, who recently died at age 89: “However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying — in the supermarket, these old ladies won’t get out of my way — but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.” I certainly hope my new friend in the red dress felt like the self who still lives inside.

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An ancien combattant let me photograph his medals. The horrors he must have witnessed to have so many. 

Later, our family joined the celebratory throngs in town, having dinner en terrasse at the central square (classic steak tartare, Thai steak tartare and a salade César at l’Artichaut). In the afternoon, a very good singer was belting out Aretha Franklin covers; at dinner time it was traditional bal musette, with people dancing around the fountain of Neptune as others ate at the many cafés.

As the sun set, we headed toward the river to watch the fireworks. I am constantly amazed by how polite the crowds are here. Even when the fireworks started, people stayed seated. No litter. Just laid-back, enjoying the moment.

 

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Some folks came early, with chairs, tables and food. And wine, Duh. This is a civilized crowd!
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Look at the masses on the bridge. That is too much crowd for me.
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Walking back to the Bastide, good moods all around.

And then, on Sunday, les Bleus delivered another World Cup championship. While my husband and kid watched (at home–no distractions), I puttered around the garden and listened, in stereo, to the collective cries of the villagers on the emotional rollercoaster–with air conditioning unheard-of here, everybody’s windows were open. Mostly cheers, but there were a couple of loud groans. Later, young people gathered on the main road to cheer at passing cars, but there was little traffic. The few cars that came by at least participated with plenty of honking.

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Smileys.

Next up: the Tour de France has an arrival, a rest day and a departure from Carcassonne next weekend.

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All photos (except the blurry ones, which are my fault) by our kid.