When my kid was little, I would always accompany class field trips. It was such a great way to learn about the region, often in ways I never would have sought out myself (spelunking). One such trip was with a bunch of second- and third-graders to go rock climbing, which led to my discovery of a hidden haven, Notre Dame du Cros (literally, Our Lady of the Hole, or, more poetically, Valley).
I have mentioned that the French have other ideas about safety, as in, if you get hurt, it’s your own fault. So somehow rock climbing is a good idea for kids whose permanent front teeth have only just grown in. Even crazier, to me, was the fact that one of the guides had been our guide exploring caves. A man of many outdoor sports. How does one get a job leading children through caves and up cliffs? And how does he not go crazy? He had unlimited patience. I knew and loved these kids but any time I spent an entire day with all of them I had to take a nap as soon as I got home. Their overflowing energy sapped mine.
Despite the buzzing swarm of children, the area of Notre Dame du Cros is utterly peaceful. It’s over the hill from the village of Caunes-Minervois, and so tucked into the hills that you don’t hear anything but birds and the rustle of leaves. And occasionally an explosion from the marble quarry–maybe once in a day.
Legend has it that, around the 6th century, a shepherdess gave water from the spring there to her sick child (although another says it was the shepherdess herself who was ill), who was immediately cured. It became a pilgrimage destination. That led to chapels being built, with the current one dating to the 12th century, and renovated in the 15th and 16th centuries. Mass is said every morning–the chapel is considered part of the Caunes abbey. Stations of the cross are spread around the hillside.
There’s a flat plain next to a stream, named Le Souc, with picnic tables shaded by century-old platane trees. It’s a very popular spot on summer weekends, but manages to stay calm and peaceful–it’s what people come for.
There are two ways to visit a region. One is to progress along a route; the other is the hub-and-spoke approach, visiting a variety of sights while coming home to the same place each night.
We did this on a multigenerational family trip years ago. The 14 travelers ranged in age from 2 to 76, with three preschoolers, three seniors, two preteens and six middle-aged adults. It was the first trip to Europe for everybody but me and my dad, who had been stationed in Germany just after WWII (“You don’t want to go to Italy, sweetie,” he told me, pronouncing Italy as it-lee. “You can’t drink the water.” I assured him that things had gotten a lot better since his previous visit, during his Army tour just after WWII.)We rented a villa outside Florence and daytripped to that city as well as to Rome, Sienna, San Gimingano, Pisa and some others.
Coming back to the same spot was essential for the youngest and oldest to recharge. It kept the trip simple, too. We could all unpack and settle in. We got to see the daily rhythms around us, while also seeing a lot of sights.In that spirit, I posted about seeing the region with Carcassonne as the hub. There’s so much to do, especially if you rent a car and venture around the region. Carcassonne is a small city, which means it has pretty much all the advantages of villages without their disadvantages (not much to see or do) AND the advantages of cities without the disadvantages (crowds and lines). It’s small and easy to get around, including on foot, like a village, yet it punches above its weight for restaurants, offering as many options as a much bigger city. This win-win formula makes it an excellent base.
Day 1: La Cité
Clearly, the big attraction is la Cité, the largest fortified city in Europe. With 52 towers punctuating a unique double set of walls, the medieval city on a hill looks like a movie set. The best bet it to head there in the late afternoon, around 4 p.m. Walk the perimeter of the walls (best before it gets dark), then explore some of the small interior streets. Or save the perimeter for a few days later—you’ll want to see it more than once. Visit the Château Comtal, the 12th century castle that was home to the Vicomtes of Carcassonne, the Trencavel family, and which now is a museum. It closes at 6:30; count on at least an hour, if not more.After the castle, stroll some more until it’s time for an apéritif before dinner. Check out the le Saint Jean, off the beaten path and with great views of the Château Comtal. Le Bar à Vins has a shady secret garden in nice weather. Then head to dinner. If you have the budget, spring for La Barbacane, the restaurant of Hôtel de la Cité, the town’s fanciest hotel. As a matter of fact, the hotel’s bar is an awfully cozy, romantic spot, too, with a library setting. Less expensive but still very good and romantic is Au Jardin de la Tour, a few steps away, with a hard-to-find entrance but a lovely garden.After dinner, take your time to stroll around. It’s when la Cité is dark and the tourists are gone that you most feel transported back in time. If you’re staying at one of our apartments, you can walk home in 15 minutes, and it’s all downhill. Just remember to turn around and look back at la Cité, lit up against the sky, from the vantage point of Pont Vieux.
If you’re wondering what to do before going to la Cité in the late afternoon, you can do a slow tease, by wandering the quaint streets of the Trivalle neighborhood. You have many opportunities for awesome selfies with la Cité as a backdrop (because you can’t get it as a backdrop when you’re IN it). Maybe a glass of wine and a truffle snack?When the weather is accommodating (most of the time), you also can stroll along the Aude river. Turn left at the river and just walk as long as you like, keeping in mind the return. The path goes really far, on both riverbanks. Wise flood control. In spring, you’ll see the cutest ducklings, and in summer it’s well-shaded and surprisingly cool. The joggers going by only detract a little, because there aren’t that many of them.
Day 2: Medieval Monday
Operating on the principle that most French arrive at vacation spots on Saturdays, I treated Day 1 like a Sunday. So Day 2 would be a Monday, and that’s market day in the town of Mirepoix. It’s about 45 minutes southwest of Carcassonne, though you’ll want to factor in plenty of time to stop and admire along the way.Mirepoix’s market (in the morning!) is in a square surrounded by half-timbered buildings that date to the 13th to 15th centuries. The buildings have arcades, which house café terraces—the perfect place to people-watch while having a coffee or lunch post-shopping. The entire town is very cute and full of charming boutiques. Mirepoix has a great selection of antique shops, too.From Carcassonne, you can pass Bram, then Fanjeaux and on to Mirepoix, or else go to Montréal and then Fanjeaux and Mirepoix. All those villages are charming and worth a wander for an hour or so. Montréal and Fanjeaux are hilltop towns with commanding views over the valleys. Bram’s adorable streets radiate out from the central church in circles, and it has a museum of archaeology.Only 15 minutes south of Mirepoix is Camon, one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France (an official thing) and well worth a detour.
Day 3: Sea Breeze
After a leisurely breakfast with croissants from Papineau (rue de Verdun, just off Place Carnot—true love is running three minutes to pick up fresh croissants), or a continental breakfast from one of the many cafés around Place Carnot, there are few things as romantic as a walk on the beach.You can bike or take the #1 city bus (€1) to Lac de la Cavayère just out of town. A manmade lake, set in hills of garrigue, the lake has a string of small beaches, plus a wide, paved walkng path (no hiking shoes needed) of about seven kilometers (just over four miles) all the way around. A castle (Château de Gaja) peeks through the pines in the distance. The beaches nearest the entrance get very crowded on summer afternoons, but otherwise are quiet.Even prettier, though, is the Mediterranean. If you’re going to drive over there (about 45 minutes), make a day of it. If you’re like us, an hour or two of sand and surf is enough. So on the way, check out the Abbaye de Fontfroide. The abbey dates to 1093 and played a role in the crusade against the Cathars. Today, its cloisters are a place of peacefulness and flowers. The gardens are just gorgeous. So is the architecture.Our favorite time to visit the beach is off-season. Narbonne’s beach is nice, but we like the Plages des Chalets at Gruissan even more because it doesn’t have high-rise apartment buildings, and the little cabanas on stilts are barely visible from the water. Off season, you’ll have the sand mostly to yourself, and there’s a paved walk as well for biking or skating.You have two options for lunch: the port, which has lots of terrace cafés and restaurants and views of the boats, or the village, which has lots of cute little restaurants on its tiny streets. Obviously it’s a place for seafood. But keep your meal light because there’s a treat tonight.
The village has a high cuteness factor, so count on a romantic stroll and lots of photos. Climb the hill to the fortress.Head back to Carcassonne. If you have time, take the departmental road D6113, which passes through a string of villages. Conilhac-Corbières and Capendu are particularly pretty. Or, at Villedaigne, cut north to the D610, which more or less follows the Canal du Midi, and is punctuated by one cute village after another.
In the evening, dine at le Clos des Framboisiers. This is our favorite restaurant. The €28 fixed price menu isn’t huge, but there is something for everybody. The Carnivore and I havediametrically opposite tastes, yet we both find multiple choices tempting and are always both happy. You can’t beat it on quality/price. The service is impeccable and the setting is beautiful. It’s isn’t far from the center of town but it’s nearly impossible to find without a GPS. On a visit in July–at the height of tourist season–all but two of the license plates of the cars parked in front were 11’s (the department we’re in is Aude, #11)—this is where the locals go. Dinner only; closed Sunday and Monday. Reserve! (If you’re at one of our apartments, I can do it for you.)
Day 4: Cathar Castles
The department of Aude is truffled with castles and forts built by the Cathars, those Middle Age heretics. If such ancient ruins, set amid gorgeous scenery, are your thing, then you can spend several days just visiting them. In that case, be sure to get the Passport for the Sites of Cathar Country, which gives you a discount on admission.One of our favorites is in Lastours, north of Carcassonne in the Black Mountains, where the ruins of four castles bristle on hilltops, offering commanding views. Park in the lot at the entry to the village; there is nothing further, I guarantee you.The village is tiny and the entrance isn’t far. The road hugs one bank of the Orbiel river, beneath sheer cliffs. Getting to the hilltop castles entails a steep climb on a narrow dirt path—these castles were built to be inaccessible. Not at all handicapped accessible, nor appropriate for small children (there are no guard rails). For this reason, it’s rarely crowded.Be sure to go up to the Belvedere on a facing hilltop, from which you can look down at the entire site. Under the shadow of the towers, next to the museum at the entry are two restaurants, including one of the region’s finest: The Auberge du Diable au Thym (The Inn of the Thyme Devil) and Les Puits du Trésor, run by Michelin-starred chef Jean Marc Boyer. If you want to eat here, keep in mind it’s open from Wednesday to Sunday (which is lunch only) from noon to 2 p.m. and from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Reserve! As the châteaux close before dark, you’ll have quite a wait until dinner during the off-season (the châteaux are open until 8 p.m. in July and August, though). So it might be best to do Lastours with lunch in mind.
If you want to hit two Cathar castles in one day, add in the Château de Saissac, about half an hour away. It isn’t particularly far, but you can’t go very fast on mountain roads. Saissac is more accessible—we went with the Carnivore’s mother and our kid who was then very small—two age extremes with limited mobility.
On your way back, pass through Montolieu, the village of books. There are several places to dine. If you missed out on Les Puits du Trésor, your loss, but an alternative is l’Ambrosia, which you’ll pass on your way back to Carcassonne, just after you turn onto the D6113. Fancy-schmancy and very good. For smaller budgets, try anything in adorable Montolieu or just wait until you get back to Carcassonne.
Day 5: A Toast to Love
The original sparkling wine comes from just south of Carcassonne, at the abbey of St. Hilaire. There are two kinds: blanquette de Limoux (named after a larger nearby town) and crémant de Limoux.Saint-Hilaire, being tiny, has two places to taste and buy. Limoux has no shortage of places to sample, including the very large Sieur d’Arques, which sponsors the annual Toques et Clochers food and wine festival to restore the region’s church bell towers.
In Saint-Hilaire, the abbey is a fascinating visit and has a beautiful, peaceful cloister with a fountain. It might be a religious site but it’s very romantic.
Limoux also is lovely. You can stroll along the Aude river, then walk up to the central square, where you can have a drink at one of the many cafés. For an excellent meal, go to Tantine et Tonton (it means Aunt and Uncle).
From January to March of each year, Limoux goes crazy, with the world’s longest Carnaval. Locals dress up and hold parades. One more reason to visit during the off-season. The festivities are on weekends, though.
All around Limoux are little circular villages—those of the restored bell towers. They are very picturesque and not touristy at all (except when hosting Toques et Clochers). You can wander from one to the next (by car—too far by foot): Digne d’Aval, Digne d’Amont, Loupia, Donazac, Alaigne, Bellegarde-du-Razès, Caihau, Caillavel…there are more, you’d need days.
The Domaine Gayda, one of the standout restaurants in the region, with its own organic wines, is next to another of these villages, Brugairolles. The scenery is just gorgeous, so it’s nice to have a reason to wander about in it, and an extraordinary meal at the end is the perfect prize.
Day 6: More Medieval
There are tons of other things to do around here—from white-water rafting to mountain biking to skiing (yes, in winter, you can ski for the day and come back to Carcassonne in time for dinner) to spelunking. A sporty itinerary is in the works. For some, working up a sweat is romantic. Others, though, prefer a pretty view.
The village of Minerve is a little gem—it has just 120 inhabitants and is classified as one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France. Its streets are too small for cars. Because it’s so pretty, it attracts visitors, who want to be fed, and you will find no shortage of restaurant with jaw-dropping views. Wander down to the Cesse river, whose force carved the gorge where Minerve is perched, and check out the catapult.
While you’re in the area, check out two important things: la curiosité de Lauriole (a road that descends but looks like it’s rising—take a water bottle or something that rolls and test it out); and wine.Among the surrounding wine regions, Minervois la Livinière is the best, and you will go right through it when you travel between Carcassonne and Minerve, which obviously gave its name to Minervois. Château Massamier la Mignarde’s Domus Maximus was chosen best wine in the world in 2005 in an international competition. It’s a gorgeous place: the cave is amazing, and so are the grounds. Not to mention the wine. If you want to take home some French wine, get some of this.
In all honesty, you can pick any Minervois la Livinière with your eyes closed and it will be good. We also love Château de Gourgazaud and Domaine Borie de Maurel. Just have a designated driver or spit, because the gendarmes don’t mess around.Before you reach Carcassonne, you’ll see Caunes-Minervois. Don’t miss it! It’s such a pretty village, also with very good wine (Château Villerambert Julien, which is worth a visit, just outside the village). Visit the abbey, and, if you’re adventurous, the marble quarry and the chapel of Notre Dame du Cros, an extraordinarily peaceful spot at the bottom of some sheer cliffs that attract rock climbers.Once a month, from September to June, there are jazz concerts in the wine cave of the abbey. Talk about ambience and acoustics.
Caunes also has more restaurants than its size would warrant, and they’re good ones. Or maybe you want to be sure to try the regional specialty—cassoulet. For that, go to the Château Saint Martin, in the suburb/village of Montlegun (about 10 minutes away by car). Gorgeous setting, and the chef, Jean-Claude Rodriguez, is a member of the Universal Academy of Cassoulet.
Day 7: Another Market
Place Carnot, the heart of the Bastide of Carcassonne, bustles on Saturdays with the market (it’s smaller on Tuesdays and Thursdays). It is more than food—it is social. The cafés lining the market are buzzing with people; many bises (cheek kisses) are exchanged. Admire the fresh produce, sample cheeses and saucisson, and if you speak French eavesdrop on the conversations (often about food, something that warms my heart and entertains me to no end). For romantics, note how many of the couples, of all ages, are sweetly holding hands as they shop. I’m sure the older ones—and there are quite a few—would have stories to tell about true love.
Stop by the master pâtissier, Rémi Touja, to pick up some amazing desserts for a snack later in the afternoon (un goûter or petit quatre-heures–a little snack around 4 p.m., observed even by adults).Keep the market mood by having lunch at the Bistrot d’Alice, just off the market square. It’s extremely popular, so reserve well ahead. It’s what you would imagine when someone says “bistro.” If it’s full, try le Bistro d’Augustin, very old school and grand, with Caunes marble all over.In the afternoon, take a stroll along the Canal du Midi, or rent bikes (across from the train station)—the flat path is perfect. In summer there also are boat rides on the canal. It’s wonderful—no cars, and it quickly veers into rural territory. What is more romantic than a bike ride in the French countryside?For dinner, there are many choices: la Table de la Bastide (modern fresh French), le 104 (vegetarian), or au Lard et Cochon (“Lard and Pig”—not vegetarian)….
This just scratches the surface of possibilities. The love birds we’ve hosted have told us they spend a good deal of time just hanging out in the apartments, because they’re so beautiful and romantic. All the better!
It’s late July in 1209. You wake up to yet another cloudless day, the morning fresh but free of dew—it’s far too dry. In the afternoon, the blazing summer sun will turn the stone walls and cobbled lanes of your fortified town, Carcassonne, into an oven.
In the streets, people are worried. Reports have arrived of the massacre at Béziers. Pope Innocent III had called for a crusade against the Cathars, a dualist religion spreading in the south of France. About 10,000 crusaders arrived at Béziers on July 21, 1209, asking for the surrender of the city. When the locals refused, the crusaders the next day slaughtered the population, Cathars and Catholics alike. When asked how to distinguish the Catholics from the Cathars, the knight in charge, Arnaud-Amaury, supposedly said, “Kill them all; God will recognize his own.” Some 7,000 of the dead—the total is estimated around 20,000—had taken refuge in the Catholic Church of St. Madeleine, which the crusaders set on fire.
Similarly, in Carcassonne, Cathars and Catholics lived side by side. If Carcassonne is in deepest France in the 21st century, it is even more the sticks in the 13th. It is on the border with Spain at the time—the border was moved south to the Pyrénées in 1659. It has its own language, occitan. Runners would have required quite some time to cover the 60 kilometers as the crow flies between Carcassonne and Béziers. The crusaders, laden with weapons and supplies, moved more slowly. It’s why fortresses were built on hills—the better to see the enemy approaching.Carcassonne is better fortified than Béziers, even though at the time, it has just one set of walls. Life isn’t too bad. It is a period of troubadours and minstrels singing about love and chivalry. Carcassonne is ruled by the Viscount Raymond-Roger Trencavel, who also ruled Béziers, as well as Razès and Albi, the epicenter of Catharism.The region enjoys peace and prosperity despite the religious divide because the Cathars are a low-key bunch. They are Christians, insofar as they use the Lord’s Prayer and the Bible. But they are also dualists, an idea that predates Christianity, going back to the Persian prophet Zoroaster. Count Trencavel is sympathetic to the Cathars; whether he shares their beliefs himself isn’t known. What’s clear is that Catharism is very popular among his vassals and he goes with the flow. There are plenty of Catholics, too—the enormous church of Saint-Nazaire and Saint-Celse, started around 925, is declared a cathedral in 1096, though it isn’t completed until about 150 years later. Building, especially with elaborately carved stone gargoyles, is a slow process.
The Cathars believe there are two creations, good and evil, with evil being the material world. So the Cathars try to have the least contact possible with the world. The name comes from the Greek word catharos, or pure. They don’t call themselves Cathars; they prefer bonshommes (good men). The Cathars keep their heads down and work. I haven’t found academic support for this but I suspect one reason the region of Languedoc (which means language of oc—the way locals said “yes,” vs. oil, which clearly turns into oui) was so prosperous is the Cathars. They reject the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, as well as its sacraments. The church otherwise has a vise-like grip on every aspect of people’s lives. In her book, “A Distant Mirror,” Barbara Tuchman writes in detail about how the church both brought order, charity and protection to the poor as well as corruption. Certainly it wasn’t the proudest period for the church.
It’s hard to know exactly what the Cathars believe because everything that’s available comes from the depositions in the Inquisition (the first Inquisition was in France, against the Cathars). The Cathars consider that since life on earth is living hell, they shouldn’t have children. They fast often, are vegetarians (almost vegans—no milk or eggs, but they do eat fish, which don’t count as animals because they live in water) and reject materialism. They are forbidden all forms of violence, including slaughtering animals. They reject hierarchy but have a loose one, with sympathizers, then believers, then parfaits—perfects—who are like priests. Pope Innocent III doesn’t like the holier-than-thou Cathars. The local lords, including Trencavel but also the King of Aragon, are showing too much tolerance toward the heretics. Raymond VI, the count of Toulouse (yes, there are many Raymonds and Raimonds and they all name their sons Raymond and Raimond as well), is especially egregious. The pope sends an emissary to knock some sense into Raymond, but one of Raymond’s aides kills the guy, and Raymond just shrugs. This is in January. The insult is too much for the pope, who calls for a crusade against the Cathars. By summer, Languedoc is under siege.
Raymond of Toulouse is quite a character. As the crusade mounts (it takes time to organize!), he tries diplomacy. Then he tries to link up with Trencavel, who turns him down, to fight the crusaders. Then he gives away seven fortresses to the pope, says he’ll fight the heretics, which he never quite gets around to, and swears he’s Catholic. But when the crusaders come for Raymond’s own land (plundering was one way to finance the crusades), he fights against them. In a sign of either how wily or how powerful he is, he manages to be excommunicated by the pope twice.
On Aug. 1, 1209, the crusaders reach Carcassonne. Raymond-Roger Trencavel, the 24-year-old count, is in command of the city. It’s hot and dry and that gives the crusaders leverage over Carcassonne. La Cité is next to the Aude river, but above it, on a hill, and the crusaders cut off access, despite a stiff battle with Trencavel’s troops. There are some wells inside the fortress, but the city is crowded with refugees. Everybody knows what happened at Béziers.
The siege is on.
The crusaders offer a deal—everybody leaves, with nothing but the clothes they’re wearing—with the spoils for the crusaders, and nobody gets hurt. Promised safe passage, Trencavel leaves la Cité on Aug. 14 to negotiate surrender. It’s a trap. He’s immediately seized and thrown in a dungeon of his own castle.
On Aug. 15, 1209—a Catholic holy day, the Feast of the Assumption, a national holiday even centuries later—Carcassonne falls without a fight.
You pass through the gates of la Cité into the unknown. It’s an era of roving gangs of bandits, why the towns had walls. Maybe you’re a Cathar or maybe you’re Catholic; it doesn’t matter. Life is shattered, and it won’t stop for decades.
The crusaders move on, to Lastours, Minerve, Termes, Puivert. Toulouse and Castelnaudary are attacked. Albi, the hotbed of Catharism that gave the crusade its name (Albigensian Crusade), falls in 1215.
Raymond of Toulouse keeps fighting and gets back his land before dying. The crusaders abandon Carcassonne in 1224, then recapture it with no resistance in 1226. Can you imagine the mess? The commander of the crusaders, Simon de Montfort, is killed in Toulouse in 1218 by a bunch of women who drop a rock on him, shattering his skull, as he attends to his wounded brother. Are they Cathars or are they Catholics sick of the invasions?
It gets worse. The new pope, Gregory IX, establishes the inquistiion in 1234. The Cathar parfaits are easy to find—while they abandon their black robes in favor of a simple string that can be hidden under their clothes, they refuse to take oaths. That is the first thing the inquisitors demand. To get lower-level Cathars (or just anybody), the inquisitors offer to split the possessions of any Cathars with informants.
Still the battles continue. Montségur burns in 1244, Quéribus falls in 1255. And the last parfait, a guy named Bélibaste, is burned at the stake at Villerouge-Termenès in 1321.
What happens to the refugees of Carcassonne? Coming soon!
How do you pay tribute to cherished people who die? People who were not just special to me, but were special, period. Any attempt to distill their essence comes out bland at best, distorted at worst, because there is too much to pack in. And, where to start?
I met B 26 years ago. He bore an uncanny resemblance to the bearded Sean Connery and was famous for his temper. I was terrified of him. At some point early on, I was the emissary sent to ask him a question, and I braced myself for a rant. But I prefaced my errand by telling him something to the effect that I was already scared to death of him so he could take it easy on me, because I was still going to go crawl off and cry. The look on his face was utter confusion: you’re afraid of me???Maybe because I was the new girl, from the sticks to boot, he turned into a protective teddy bear to me. Actually he softened toward everyone, seeming embarrassed that he had a reputation that he didn’t want. He was a fantastic mentor—exacting about pushing me to do better than my best, and precise about what I did right and wrong and how to fix it.I thought he was ancient. It was the white beard maybe. I remember teasing him about “turning 80”—if your age and work tenure added up to 80, then you could retire.
His knowledge was encyclopedic. He was interested in everything and had traveled widely. With him, it wasn’t six degrees of separation but one or two. He seemed to know everybody who was anybody.He liked to go to Chinatown. He would order because he spoke Cantonese and because in most situations he was in charge. He would examine the menu, ask the waiter questions in Cantonese, then ask his dinner companions questions in English, taking notes in Chinese on a napkin. You never knew what would arrive at the table, but it was always good. He introduced me to pea shoots.I forget the event, somebody’s birthday, and he chose a restaurant in an untouristy corner of Chinatown. He ordered for the whole party, of course, in advance. They brought out an entire fish the size of a child—it took a couple of waiters to carry it. Then, in front of us, one of them carved the fish and removed its skeleton, as if it were a magic trick. Magical things happened with B. The fish was sublime.I would visit him in New York after I moved to Europe. He let me stay at his place, listing the illustrious friends who had previously crashed on his sofa. It was quite comfortable, squeezed among the Asian antiques from his travels. We stayed up late and ate ice cream and watched “Sex and the City,” which, living in Brussels without a TV, I had never seen. Mostly we talked and talked. There was no subject B couldn’t talk intelligently about.
Before a trip to Hong Kong, he asked me and several other female colleagues whether we wanted pearl necklaces. Of course we did. He went to the pearl market, picked out each pearl himself, had them strung (correctly–with knots between each pearl) and fronted the money for quite a few necklaces; we paid him when he came back. I still have that necklace and wear it a lot. I think of B every time I put it on.He loved puns. Usually really bad ones, but sometimes they were perfect. I could no sooner tell you any of the puns than I could tell you which glass of water I’ve drunk was the best; many were good, almost none were actually bad, and some were pure joy.
I was going to say he was an expert in certain topics, but the truth is he knew a lot about everything. He especially enjoyed science and medicine, yet he was deeply informed about geopolitics and art and history. He could tell you stories about buildings as you walked past them in New York. He would walk home, and I would sometimes walk with him as far as the dance studio where I took classes. Walk and talk.The only thing was that sometimes he would tell what seemed like a tall tale, and it would be an elaborate setup for a pun. And other times it would be completely true, however unbelievable—you could look it up and see he got every detail right. He went on about some strange bee, I don’t remember the name but it was so silly it sounded like something a kid would have invented. “You’re making this up,” I told him. “What’s the joke?” “It’s true!” he protested. I checked in an encyclopedia, and there it was.
He was a stickler for the truth. In bees and in everything. It got him in trouble when he was young, a badge of honor he was proud of. I don’t know whether I would have been as courageous.Almost the same time, another friend died, also of cancer. J also had a shock of white hair and an interest in everything. He also had lived around the world and spoke several languages. He had amazing stories to tell, but you had to pry them out of him. He never flaunted his sophistication.
He told of a nightclub in Khartoum that was the end of the road for cabaret acts and a stolen car (I don’t think it was his car but a friend’s) in Albania and the white-knuckle flight into Papua New Guinea’s airport. Like I said, he had seen the world. And then he and his wife chose to retire in our little village in the middle of nowhere, France. Decent weather, competent public administration (often incompatible with good weather, as they had learned on their travels) and the same time zone as their family, who were scattered around Europe.I would scan the crowd at the market, looking for J’s white hair, so easy to spot. Even now, when I see a head of white hair in the distance, I instinctively think it’s J. It was always good to get a coffee with him and his wife, who was one of my closest friends in our village.
They were high school sweethearts. I am fascinated by couples who found each other so young and it actually worked out. They were well-suited, for sure: kind, intelligent, adventurous, patient, diplomatic. With a sense of humor.As befit someone who could pass for Santa, J pulled off a jolly chuckle well. But his sense of humor was less of the joke-telling variety and more of the absurd or situational variety. His house and a neighbor’s house were situated at a bit of a remove from the village. The mairie would change the sign for the entry to the village: sometimes it would include the two houses, sometimes it would exclude them. Back and forth. During one of the exclusionary phases, the two neighbors declared that their property, like Andorra, was a separate principality, and they were the co-princes. And they went on about it. Called each other prince. The principality this, the principality that. For years. Straight-faced, but wonderfully absurd.J and B would have gotten on wonderfully and it’s too bad they never met. But my life is immeasurably richer for having known them.
French men wear berets. They wear other headgear, too, but berets are right up there. Red or black. Some great, big ones, in the Basque style. Worn completely, whole-heartedly straight-faced, mostly by older men. They are not trying to pull off a look. They are not being ironic or kitsch or retro. They are just putting something on their heads because they always have done that when they go out, especially in winter, and the thing they have in the closet is a beret. Because they are French.
I love it.
In an era of H&M and Zara and Levis and everybody around the world wearing the same things, it is great to have a few people who wear some tradition item just because they like it, or because they’ve always done it (tradition), and not because it’s some kind of costume.
That said, the styles of hats seems to have proliferated lately. Another very popular version–even more popular than the beret–is the closely related newsboy/golfer/driving cap, which looks a lot like a beret that is pulled forward, but unlike a beret, which is shaped like a crêpe and can be pulled or puffed to different looks, the cap actually has a defined shape: it rises straight up from the back of the head, then slopes down to the forehead. It may or may not include a bill.
Other men opted for felt hats with brims. Smaller trilby styles to broader-brimmed fedoras. What I didn’t see many of? Baseball caps. At least not in winter.
French women also strutted an array of headgear.
Do you wear hats? Which style? I admit to having two berets, but I don’t wear them as much as I used to. Both black, bought in France. They are easy to slip into my bag in case I get cold and can be pulled down over my ears if necessary. Plus they don’t smash or electrify my hair the way a knit cap (called a bonnet) does.For more about French chapeaux, check out FranceSays.
The other day, I heard a loud knock outside. I figured a bird had flown into the glass on the porch, as sometimes happens. I looked around, but no bird was on the step. Then I spied this guy, hanging onto a stem of the hydrangea, quite upside down.
The photo is taken through the glass, with me trying to hide behind a chair, not to scare the poor thing even more. He hung on, somehow, and I wondered whether he was knocked out, or dead. As I watched, he slid even further.Do you ever feel like you’re hanging on for dear life and still everything is spinning sideways? Where up becomes down and no matter how much you’ve done everything “right” you fly into some unexpected glass wall and are knocked senseless.After a few minutes, the little bird strained to pull himself up. I certainly can’t do a pull-up, can you? Not even when I was young. It was clear he was making an all-out effort to right himself. Once perched on top of the stem rather than hanging below it, he shook his head, like “ouf! what happened?” Having regained his spirits, he flew away, hopefully to someplace higher and out of reach of the neighbor’s many cats. They are well-fed and cared-for and don’t need any bird snacks. I don’t hesitate to chase them away from the birds in our yard. And we have lots, because we hang suet balls from the trees to feed them.
It is constantly amusing to watch a bunch of little birds alight on the balls, all on the same one, even though there are at least a dozen balls hanging out there. The other day, a friend and I went shopping in Toulouse. We passed a little boutique that was packed with people, and more waiting on the sidewalk to get in. We had to see what in the world they were selling–it was jewelry, nothing unusual, all very simple. A few doors down was another jewelry shop, then another and another, all empty of customers. Kind of like the birds all on the same suet ball.I’m sure you don’t want to hear about it, but we have been enjoying incredibly mild weather. As in 24 Celsius (75 Fahrenheit). Blue, blue skies every day. Windows open all afternoon, laundry happily flapping in the breeze (yes, breeze, not wind).
All along the roads, the wild almond trees are blooming. They look like clouds or like ballet dancers.
Other things are blooming, too. The yellow wildflowers were taken on Jan. 17! And the roses on Feb. 5. We have butterflies already. Too soon. I want to tell them, OK, play now, but then go hide someplace warm! Frost is still possible!The asparagus seller has been at the market for two weekends already. So early! Not complaining. Asparagus season is too brief.A group of gitanes, or gypsies, has set up on the outskirts of the village. They hooked a hose to a fire hydrant across the road and they even have a truck with a basket lift to go up the street lights to get electricity–the lights have plugs at the top for the Christmas decorations (when the circus came through, they were able to shimmy up the poles without assistance). It seems like a lot of investment and effort to avoid having a light bill.
This is another post without a theme. Random thoughts. I have about four others started, but I want to get a photo of a certain detail to better explain a point, or I ran into a wall getting information about the history of something and I just haven’t had time to investigate further. Thank you for sticking with me anyway.
France, and especially this region of France profonde, has no shortage of adorable villages. A while ago, I took a detour home to stop and gawk in Rustiques, home to a whopping 513 residents about nine kilometers (5.5 miles) from Carcassonne. Surrounded by vineyards and pine forests, it lives up to its name, and, amazingly, it’s supposed to be the only community in France to have such an obvious name.Rustiques dates back to about 100 B.C., when the Volques Tectosages, a Gallic tribe, settled in the forest. Then the Romans came through and possibly gave it its name, from villa rustica. Around 700 A.D., the Visigoths arrived, then the Sarrasins, then the Francs. In the 1400s, the growing lawlessness of roving bandits prompted locals to band together in a walled community around the seigneur’s château, which was at the highest point. I took so many photos that I’ll do a separate post on the château, even though it was closed when I visited.
In fact, it was so quiet I barely saw a soul. Il n’y avait pas un chat–there wasn’t a cat–as the French say.
I never get tired of wandering in these little places. A sign told me the four banal, or the seigneur/lord’s oven, was down a little street in a house belonging to the lord, but I didn’t find any marker for it. I am a little obsessed with fours banals. In Rustiques, bread was baked twice a week, and for every 24 loaves, the people had to give one to the lord.
The four banal was to keep villages from burning down, but floods were as much of a problem as fire. Two streams join at the village and overflowed, sometimes disastrously. The village detoured one stream in 1912. There also was a lavoir, in use into the 1960s, and a big improvement from what came before–From 1899 to 1906, the town rented eight benches for washing laundry on the Canal du Midi in Trèbes, about a mile away. How convenient, eh? Not to mention clean…NOT.
There also was an impressive clock tower, built in 1897, so all the inhabitants, known as Rustiquois, would known the time of the republique.
So many old, old details.
The surrounding countryside was inviting in the winter sunshine. The bare vines, Mount Alaric in the distance.
Villages like this are what make Carcassonne such a great base–they’re adorable, but you can walk around them leisurely three times and not have spent a whole hour. They’re perfect for an occasional diversion.
The French have the best word for thick, velvety soups: velouté. Even the word is velvety. And we have been enjoying a velouté of white beans since the Carnivore picked up the recipe at a truffle market, where he got this beauty. They call truffles black diamonds for a reason.
It was velouté de haricots lingot et truffe–a thick, velvety white bean soup with truffles. OMG. Lingots are ingots, like the bars of gold, but in this case they refer to the special white beans grown just west of Carcassonne and used for cassoulet.
Here’s the recipe, handed out at the market. We didn’t follow it precisely because the box of lingots was 500g and we weren’t going to keep 100g sitting around lonely like that. Also, it calls for a 30g truffle, and ours had been whittled down to 13g. I tell you what, it was still fantastic.
We made it again, with rehydrated dried shiitake mushrooms–yummy. A good alternative when truffles aren’t available.
Like so many French recipes, you have to make it over two days. The night before, soak 400 g (14 oz.) of beans (or more!). Separately, chop up your truffle and infuse it in 10 cl (about 3.5 fluid oz.) of heavy cream. (You might want to keep a few shavings on the side for garnish.) If you don’t have a truffle, use about a half a cup of shiitake mushrooms that you soaked and put through the blender or food processor to get the effect of shavings.
Next day, cook the beans. Start with cold water and cook them for two hours.
Peel and mince half an onion and one carrot (I set out two carrots for the Carnivore to use and he fell for it. And the soup was divine despite double the vegetables.)
When the beans are done, drain them and rinse with fresh water.
In a casserole, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and cook the carrots and onion to soften them but not brown them. Then add the beans and half a liter (17 fluid oz. or just over a cup) of chicken stock. Bring to a boil and then drop the heat to low. Cook for 30 minutes.
Remove from the heat and add the truffle cream. Salt and pepper to taste. Use a soup mixer to turn it into a creamy, velvety, homogenous texture. If you use a blender, let the soup cool before blending–for safety–and then reheat.
Serve with a few shavings of truffle, if you have any left.
We have a mushroom hater in the house who devoured this because the mushrooms were reduced to tiny bits (we didn’t mention them, either). If you aren’t a fan of mushrooms, I guess you can go without, but since they’re so tiny here, you don’t notice them–you just get the depth of flavor that they add.
Paris is such a treasure chest of marvels that one could spend a lifetime unpacking them and still not get to half of them. It’s why so many people who visit France never get out of the City of Light. But those folks are missing out on a completely different view of French life. To me, one needs both to understand and appreciate France.
Since most people don’t have infinite vacation time, it’s necessary to prioritize and to be efficient, while still allowing for serendipity. A strict schedule is a bad idea! But so is running back and forth needlessly.
What kind of traveler are you? Are you up for walking? How much walking? I am happy to walk for 10 hours straight but I’ve found that most of my travel companions over the years would prefer somewhat less than that. The more you walk, the more you need to know where you’re going so you don’t backtrack.
On the other hand, wandering aimlessly and enjoying the architecture, shop windows and passersby is a time-honored tradition in France, which invented a word just for that: flâner. Your schedule should include a bit of flânerie in each neighborhood; it’s how you’ll spy the perfect souvenir in a little boutique that will remind you for years of your trip: a scarf, a book, a bag, a dish, a picture. NOT an Eiffel Tower keychain or a Paris T-shirt (though, if you USE them, why not!). It’s when you’ll get the photos that capture the spirit of France—in the streets and not in a museum gallery.
Which images do you conjure up when you think of Paris? Which things do you absolutely have to see? Notre Dame? The Eiffel Tower? Sacre Coeur? Pont Neuf? The Louvre? Les Champs-Élysées? Are you interested in history? Architecture? Art? Fashion? Food? All of the above?
Break it down again. History: which periods? Roman? Medieval? Renaissance? Art: what kind? Impressionist paintings? Modern? Sculpture? Street art? Decorative arts? As wonderful as the Louvre is, it’s a pain to get through security and deal with crowds (I saw the Mona Lisa once, kind of, in a terrifying mob of people, almost all of whom held cameras over their heads to snap photos. WHY? They can see photos, without strangers’ hands and cameras, on the Internet! Why do people take photos of art anyway? Go to the gift shop and buy the post card!). Either head for less-frequented galleries or go instead to one of the smaller museums specializing in whatever’s your jam. Le Musée de Cluny is all about the Middle Ages; Arénes de Lutèce are Roman ruins. Le Musée d’Orsay has Impressionists; le Musée Marmottan has Monet; the Picasso museum has Pablo; the Rodin museum has sculpture, including the Thinker; le Centre Pompidou has modern art. Paris has no shortage of museums. Some of the smaller ones are likely to be the most memorable, because you won’t be in a crush of people. Museums like Musée Nissim de Camondo (full of fine art and furniture), Musée Jacquemart-André (15th to 18th century art) and Musée Cernuschi (Asian art) are all in former mansions around Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement; the park also is a delight for people-watching.Only you can say what interests you. Don’t feel pressured to see the Mona Lisa when what really trips your switch is Louis XVI furniture—instead head to the Louvre’s Richlieu wing, first floor, rooms 500-632 (the 600-rooms are in the Sully wing, but you will flow through to them), which display European decorative arts—fabulous palace rooms full of antiques. Or go to the Musée Nissim de Camondo. Or take a day trip to Versailles.
If you really want to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower or to the Louvre, buy your tickets in advance! This will save you a huge amount of time. In fact, in both cases, you have to select a time and date; otherwise you have to stand in line and hope there is still room. (The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, as well as Jan. 1, May 1 and Dec. 25. In addition, some of the rooms are closed on different days, so look at the schedule to be sure that you can get into the collections you want.) Louvre tickets here; Eiffel Tower tickets here.Plan your day by starting with the musts, because you might run out of time for everything on your list. Also, keep in mind the habits of other tourists: they sleep in a little, because they’re on vacation, after all. They have a leisurely breakfast at their hotel or in their rental. Then they mosey out to start sightseeing around 11. Some say, “oh, heck, it’s almost noon, no time for seeing big Sight X,” and they do some little thing before having lunch, hitting the tourist trail in force around 2 p.m. In other words, the worst time to do anything touristy is in the afternoon.I would aim for seeing the Eiffel Tower at 9 p.m. It’s open until 11:45 p.m. Make sure to get there early because even with pre-purchased tickets you have to stand in line for airport-style security. The site says it takes 2.5 hours for a visit to the top because you have to change elevators and there are lines. But you are unlikely to be in line with a lot of families with small children; even most adults are going to be at dinner then—in fact, plan your meals accordingly. (If you have kids, I would skip going up and instead go to the top of the Tour Montparnasse or the top of the Arc de Triomphe, both of which give you views of the Eiffel Tower and of the city from up high, without the long waits.)
Similarly, at the Louvre, consider getting there first thing (it opens at 9 a.m.) or go on Wednesday or Friday night, when it’s open until 9:45 p.m. In fact, the museum’s own Web site advises this. They even have an app that shows how busy the museum is. This is key if what you’re dying to see are the Egyptian mummies, whose galleries typically are a miasma of sweating humanity and no matter how much your kid is into the topic it will be a disaster that is difficult to escape from—you just have to follow the flow. Another tip: unless the weather is great, enter via the Métro station to avoid standing in the long line to the Pyramid in the courtyard.
It’s hard to say which neighborhood you’ll be in at mealtime, so the best thing to do is to pick a restaurant as you would a bottle of wine. There are telltale signs of very good or very bad, which I elaborated on here.
I’ve stayed in many places in Paris, but my favorite hotel is Hotel des Grandes Ecoles in the 5th arrondissement. It is one of the few places in Paris where you are likely to wake up to the sound of birds singing, thanks to its lush interior courtyard (in fact, you might want to ask for a courtyard room when you reserve, although it’s on a very quiet street).
According to the Earful Tower podcast (go subscribe now if you’re a francophile!), the 5th is the best district for flâner, because you can wander from the Arènes de Lutece to the Pantheon to rue Mouffetard (that market street in the Amélie movie) to the Latin Quarter around the Sorbonne. It also has the Jardin des Plantes, the Grande Mosquée (excellent tea room; I used to frequent the hammam but hear it isn’t so great any more), the Institut du Monde Arabe (beautiful architecture, interesting exhibits on art, history and culture, and great views from the rooftop café) and, my favorite thing in Paris: open air (summer only) Argentine tango dancing on Friday and Saturday nights at the Jardin Tino Rossi, right next to the Seine.
The 1st is the place for fashion, with rue Saint-Honoré lined with boutiques. Hotel Costes is a hangout for the fashion crowd and has such wonderful service. I once had a six-hour lunch with a friend there—the waiter discreetly refilled the water carafe but never were we pressured in the least to wrap it up and leave. Coco Chanel’s original boutique, at 31 rue Cambon, is just off rue Saint-Honoré. The Palais Royal courtyard is rather hidden, but you’ll recognize the iconic striped columns. The Louvre also is in the first. And nearby is Pont Neuf, leading to Île de la Cité, a charming place to explore and also home to the stained-glass wonder that is Sainte-Chapelle.
And you’re right by Notre-Dame, also on Île de la Cité. However, Notre Dame is in the 4th, the Marais, packed with interesting shops and cafés. It’s also home to the Picasso museum, among many others. My other favorite secret place in Paris is the Marais Dance Center, hidden in one of the oldest courtyards of Paris at 41 rue du Temple and dating to around 1580. You can sit at the cafe in the courtyard and look up, “Rear Window” style, at ballet in one window, salsa in another, waltz in another…Walk down the boutique-lined rue des Francs Bourgeois to Place des Vosges, where you can sit (not on the grass) and watch very chic parents with their very chic children at the small playground, while a busker sings exquisite opera aided by the acoustics of the surrounding arcades.
Montmartre is in the 18th, a bit farther from the center. From Sacre-Coeur you get great views, and the surrounding streets—except for Place du Tertre, which is unpleasantly touristy—are charming. At the tiny Square Suzanne Buisson, you might find locals in a game of pétanque; one day when I did, I watched a while, amused, and when I left they stopped playing and tipped their hats!
Montmartre is kind of off the path, and you’re likely to take the Métro (Line 12 to Abbesses or Line 2 to Anvers) and then possibly the funicular, which offers great views. You can combine it with some of the little museums near Parc Monceau, which is on Line 2 of the Métro. In fact, you could start at the Arch du Triomphe for day views, take the Métro to Monceau, then the Métro again to Anvers/Montmartre. That is, if you like views, museums and parks. But it also includes plenty of gawking in little streets around Montmartre.The Eiffel Tower is in the 7th, along with some great museums—Rodin, d’Orsay, Maillol (one of those charming little ones). It’s also home to le Bon Marché, the oldest of the grands magasins, or department stores. However, they aren’t really close together. I would wander from Musée d’Orsay to the Musée Rodin and then over to the Bon Marché and maybe on to the Jardin du Luxembourg and its little pond where kids (some of them with gray hair) sail little boats, though it’s technically in the 6th. Then I’d go back separately to the Eiffel Tower after dark.
This post has devolved into a lot of rambling. The point is to encourage you to pick your top destinations—YOURS, not some blogger’s! Or your friends’!—and to look at what else interests you nearby or on a convenient Métro line and to consider opening times and lines so you can make a plan for each day that’s both enjoyable and efficient.
Happily, no helicopters were needed for our renovations. But such are the challenges of maintaining ancient buildings that lie within walled cities whose streets were laid out a millennium before cars.
A few weeks ago, I was walking around la Cité and heard an incredible racket. With the narrow streets, the sound bounced around such that I wasn’t sure at first what it was or where it was coming from. Then I realized it was a helicopter and got a little worried about why it was so close to la Cité. Carcassonne is home to the Third Regiment of Parachutists of the Marine Infantry (RPIMa), so planes and helicopters are not unknown in skies around here. And when wildfires break out, we get some very low-flying planes that drop water.
Outside la Cité’s walls I understood–the helicopter was making a special delivery of long beams for a renovation project. Such beams would have been too long to thread through the winding paths, not at all straight, of la Cité. Having gulped at the cost of delivery of renovation materials by truck (during certain times on certain days!), I imagined many zeroes popping up behind some number, like in a cartoon. Nothing is easy or cheap with old buildings.
It made me reflect again on what we went through, putting in new wiring and plumbing in apartments built for neither.
You can see the saga of our renovations under the heading Our Vacation Apartments. We hope you get to visit in person, too!