What is it about humans that we love to look down on everything? To get up high, for a better view? The chill of vertige with the thrill of omniscience.On a balmy February day, a friend and I went to the Passerelle of Mazamet, which has been on my bucket list for a moment. One of those things that’s too nearby to miss, but far enough that I never got around to it. The drive from Carcassonne to Mazamet takes nearly an hour. Longer if a nervous retiree from a distant department is ahead of you and slowing to a crawl around the curves but, with a bigger engine, speeding like an idiot on the rare straightaways, as if that makes up for anything. The $*%&ing driver ahead of us aside, the route was absolutely gorgeous. It goes up and up and up, and the vegetation changes to dense forest. There were signs about the pass being open, snow markers on the sides of the road, but we were in fleece jackets and during our hike had to take those off. A weird winter. It was 70 F here yesterday.
The passerelle was inaugurated in 2018. It’s 140 meters (460 feet) long over the Arnette river and 70 meters (230 feet) above the ground. It’s free and open 24/7, but you’d be crazy to go after dark. We were glad to be there in February–plus it was lunch time and the French do one thing during lunch time: eat. So we had the place almost to ourselves. It would be much less fun in the heat of summer with a gazillion people on the narrow path. Even worse, a gazillion people on the passerelle. It can hold 42 tons, which is a lot of people, but even a couple of other people walking made it bounce such that I was glad I hadn’t eaten.
The only other people were grandparents with three girls. One was maybe two or three years old, and she galloped up and down the passerelle fearlessly. One was maybe 12 and she clung to her grandmother for dear life. We passed them in the middle of the passerelle on their way back. And we discovered another girl, maybe 7 or 8, on the other side, steadfastly refusing to budge.
We saw the grandfather start back and figured he was coming to the aid of the middle girl. He stopped and took photos. Lots of photos. The littlest girl came tearing down toward him. She passed him, then turned around and came back to him. He never stopped taking photos.
We started back and were about halfway when the grandmother and the oldest girl, still clinging and looking like she was going to puke, came back. Grandpa wanted to film them. As if the granddaughter would want to remember this moment. Who was the middle girl supposed to hold onto? Grandma was taken, and grandpa was filming. Nobody seemed worried about the middle girl or even the little one. Yes, the passerelle had no holes where the little one could fall through, but she was at that nimble age where she could climb the chain link side, which came up to my armpit, and be over it in a flash, and grandpa still wouldn’t stop filming. His obliviousness reminded me of a type: “I’m doing this for you! You’re going to do it and enjoy it whether you like it or not!”
On the way down, we passed other grandparents out with the grandkids, starting to show up once it was 2 p.m. And more retirees. A lady with very inappropriate shoes (ballerinas with wedge heels…what are those called?).
To go up, we took the steep route, called the Voie Romaine, or Roman Way, which was the ancient salt route, and partly paved with stones. It had a heart-pounding 19% grade, but I’d rather take that going up than down.
The descent, on a path with an 8% grade, was via the Jardins Cormouls Houlès, which date to the middle of the 19th century, with interesting towers and stone walls. First we checked out the ruins of the church of Saint-Saveur, which dates to the 1100s. The church was built on a hilltop, for views. Up in the air. Like life right now, waiting to see where things will land, trying not to fall.
I’m leaving you with these ghostly images. I couldn’t pick one, so you get three.
This week was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and I kept thinking back to my visit there years ago. It was haunting in ways I couldn’t have anticipated and that I haven’t been able to shake in the nearly two decades since.The entrance is famous. The railroad tracks, too, especially for anyone who has seen “Schindler’s List.” The familiarity of a place one has never been before is a punch in the stomach. I didn’t want it to feel familiar.I visited on a gorgeous spring day. Some friends and I made a weekend excursion to Krakow and, being serious intellectuals interested in history and culture, included a trip to Auschwitz. The train took us through the lush, rolling hills of the Polish countryside. As we walked the grounds, butterflies danced through the air and birds sang. I have read that when the camps were packed with people, there wasn’t so much as a blade of grass, much less wildflowers bobbing in the breeze. Did people hear the birds sing beyond the barbed wire? The movies seem to always be set in winter, almost black and white even when shot in color. But what of those balmy days when the wind carries the syrupy perfume of freshly cut grass? What a cruel juxtaposition, to see the stars above at night or feel the spring breeze or hear a bird sing and to know the universe is brimming with beauty, and yet they are trapped in a living hell. A living nightmare.Unfortunately, in the 75 years since the end of Auschwitz, genocide has not ended. It is always a delicate subject to bring up other cases, or other mistreatments. The point is not to compare; each case is monstrous for those who suffered. But if we think genocide is wrong, then it is wrong no matter who the target is, and we should push back against creeping “otherization” that strips people of their humanity, that treats them as a block to be expelled without exceptions. Because one cruelty leads to another. History might not repeat itself but it rhymes.The National Public Radio show “Fresh Air” ran an interview with Laurence Rees, author of the book “Auschwitz: A New History.” You can listen or read the transcript here. National Public Radio delivers uniformly excellent reporting. Support them if you can. Journalism–the real thing, with reporters who dig for facts–is what keeps us free.That top photo is one that haunts me most. It’s in the bathroom–it shows the long trough sink, and the squares are soap holders, with ridges so the soap doesn’t sit in water and melt. It sums up the insanity of Auschwitz: a place where soap was valued but human life wasn’t.I am not in a position of authority here. I am not Jewish and didn’t know about the Holocaust until high school when I read Anne Frank. On the other hand, the whole point is the universality of our humanity. Everybody should care. We all must remember.
Marseille is such an interesting city. New nestles against very, very old. Even in the rich areas, grit never feels far away. All kinds of art is everywhere.I already knew to beware of cars with 13 license plates. The départements of France are numbered, in alphabetical order, so Aude, where I live, is 11, and the Bouches du Rhone, home to Marseille, is 13. Cars with 13 plates treat red lights as mild suggestions. Right of way goes to the biggest car or the driver with the steeliest nerves. Turning left from the right lane, in front of other cars, is normal. Any space big enough to fit the car is a legitimate parking place, even, say, a sidewalk. Turn signals on cars with 13 plates do not work except when they are in the left lane on the autoroute, blinking impatiently for cars ahead of them to move over so they can pass, pedal to the metal.
Driving in Marseille is thus a white-knuckle experience. But the city fathers have made much of the city center off-limits to vehicles. As a result, where it’s bad, it’s very, very bad, but where it’s pedestrian it’s wonderful. Except for the motorcycles and motorbikes, which do what they please. I was happy for the GPS to guide me to an underground parking garage, so I could relax a little.It was mid-December, but the weather was mild. A small Christmas market was next to the ferris wheel at the port, encircled by barriers and guarded by security officers who tried to strike a balance between stern and holiday-jolly. Fake firs flocked with fake snow juxtaposed with apartment balconies dripping with brilliant red geraniums, real. A few veiled women pushed strollers through the mostly deserted market, whose stalls were exclusively dedicated to provençal santons.
Marseille has a rich selection of the universal Instagram/Pinterest-driven all-female restaurants featuring vegan poke bowls and cafés roasting their own coffee served by burly men with beards and buns. Such places haven’t yet turned up in Carcassonne, so it was fun to try them out. Brooklyn is everywhere but in France most profonde.
I’ve wanted to see Mucem since it opened in 2013. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations incorporates part of the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean, with a very cool cube designed by Roland Carta next to it. The cube looks like it’s made of laser-cut paper doilies, but it’s actually fiber-reinforced concrete.
The outdoor spaces at Mucem are open to the public for free. Clean, quiet, beautiful. I was surprised there weren’t throngs of people, especially on a mild December afternoon. If I lived in Marseille, I would get nothing done because I would spend all my time on a chaise longue, admiring the vista and watching people.
Mucem had these exhibits: a collection of toys made in Marseille between the end of the 19th century and the late 1970s; an exhibition on Afghanistan, including one of the blue burqas that imprison women there, its yards of knife-pleated fabric going round and round, and many multi-media installations; an abécédaire, or A-to-Z, on the theme of luck and chance; and a retrospective on Jean Giono, whom I’d never heard of but who was a noted novelist whose experiences in World War I made him a pacifist to the point of being accused of collaborating with the Nazis in World War II. There was another exhibit, very surreal, with famous paintings remade as, say, a puzzle or a refrigerator door, and books whose titles twisted the those of the classics. It was fun to spot the jokes.
The old fort was amazing to see up close. As Marseille goes, it isn’t very old–the oldest bits of the fort go back to the 1100s. By contrast, the city was founded by the Greeks around 600 BCE, though there are traces of human habitation well before that.
Afterward, I strolled through the neighborhood called le Panier, or the Basket, the oldest part of town, settled by the intrepid Greeks.
Going back toward the ferris wheel, the architecture was a feast for the eyes, an open-air museum of sculpture.This isn’t a very useful post–no recommendations other than Mucem and Dr. Max Ginger Healthy. My only recommendation is to walk and look and smell and walk and walk and walk. You will not lack for places to eat and drink and shop. I like serendipity, a sense of being an urban explorer.
I just read the most horrific article. I’m still a bit in the vapors over it. It seems that antiques are among the things millennials are killing.
Realtors are digitally redecorating homes to replace antiques with spare modern furniture and white walls, according to “When the Antiques Have to Go,” in the New York Times. The “after” in the article just looks C.H.E.A.P. to me. The article says that as lifestyles have gotten increasingly informal, antiques are out of the question. But have you ever sat on those horrible modern plastic chairs? I get a backache just looking at them. And who wants their legs to stick to the seat? In the realm of informal dining, I cite McDonalds; even their seats are now more comfortable than those fashionable molded plastic seats. What qualifies as informal? Something you can hose down? Or something where you don’t need to dress for dinner like the Crawleys at Downton Abbey?
Of course, there are antiques and antiques. It seems that vintage, especially anything from the 1950s and 1960s, in that midcentury modern sweet spot, is still hot. Anything older is not. OK, it could be difficult to use a computer on a roll-top desk. Not the right ergonomics. Beds are wider and longer (but can be adjusted! We did it!). Carved details require dusting. But so do smooth surfaces….so what gives?
The thing I really don’t understand are the faux-tiques. The Pottery Barn/Restoration Hardware/Ethan Allen/Birch Lane etc. ilk–even Ikea has some of it–that looks vaguely traditional but is new. Now, knock-offs have been around for quite some time. In the late 1800s, the style of Henri II, which goes back to the 1500s, had a revival in France, as new wood-working machines could easily create the signature spiral rails on chairs and buffets, but the rest of the carving was still done by hand. Either the traditional look is passé or it isn’t. Why pay so much for something new that looks old? Though it doesn’t. The pieces are too perfect, like Real Housewives. Inauthentic.
English antique furniture values have fallen 40% in 10 years. The prices of 18th and 19th century antiques have tanked. In these parts, that’s not even very old. I was talking to an antique dealer who showed me a buffet from the 16th century. “I can’t get €200 for it,” he lamented. “Soon shops like this will be completely gone, and so will the furniture, the history. The new generation doesn’t care.”
The truly fancy stuff aside, judging from the listings on Le Bon Coin (the Good Corner), the French version of craigslist, folks have little interest in incorporating family heirlooms in their décor. They just want to get rid of them. Antiques dealers can pick up inventory for cheap, but if there are no buyers? There are still antique lovers out there. The entire town of Pézenas is one big antique market, even when the twice-yearly antiques fair isn’t going on.Here are my arguments to millennials for why they should give antiques, or older second hand, a second look:
The price. A quick perusal of leboncoin brings up a set in solid oak for €200, including a six-door buffet, a table and six chairs. Granted, it isn’t an antique, but neither is anything at Pottery Barn. In fact, all the better that it’s just a quasi-antique: you can paint it white. Or red. Anyway–not formal. The cheapest table at Ikea is €129, made of metal that they say can be recycled, so that’s an improvement over particle board. The Ingatorp wood particle board table (with a traditional look…go figure) is €299. The Ingolf chairs that usually go with it are €60 a pop. And the Havsta buffet is €910. Ikea is great for some things, and I respect that they deliver good design for low (low-ish) prices and make an effort to be environmentally responsible. But consumption is consumption.
The environment. In the mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle, giving something a new life beats sending it to recycling, which, is in turmoil as the system is overwhelmed with stuff to recycle without demand for the materials that are produced. That’s mostly for paper and plastic, and I’m not sure where a particle board table would enter the stream, but I’m not too hopeful. Sure, millennials are giving new life to MCM pieces, but as authentic stuff has gotten more expensive, you see cheap knockoffs everywhere. Knockoffs don’t count as reusing!!! They are new even if they look old.
Your home environment. The resins used to make particle board emit formaldehyde and other lovely volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs. Something that’s solid wood (and decades if not centuries old) is not going to off-gas.
Personality. I will scream if I see another interior with Eames Vitra chairs (or knockoffs thereof, but either way they are plastic), a fiddle-leaf fig, shiplap, a repurposed pallet and a Beni Ourain rug (probably also a knockoff and made of polyester that will disintegrate into plastic microbeads). If some “influencer” declared something cool and then you copied it, are you cool or pathetic? With antiques, you can get a one-of-a-kind design. Even if all your friends become antiques nuts, you are not going to end up with the same stuff by a long shot. That goes for accessories and tchotchkes, too. Why buy some mass-produced thing to style your bookshelf? What kind of statement is that making, really? Some second-hand stuff was mass-produced, but you won’t find it everywhere anymore. And lots of really old furniture was made by hand. Marquetry is like painting with wood. It’s art. If you don’t like the old stuff, then support a living artist, perhaps someone you know.
If you don’t like brown, paint it. This would not be a good idea for an 18th century marquetry desk. But if it’s great-grandma’s dresser or a second-hand wardrobe that you plan to repurpose, then go right ahead. And you can personalize it. Or stain it darker or strip it bare, two looks I see on Restoration Hardware’s site. Antiques, or old brown furniture, doesn’t have to be precious.
When I was young, I had romantic ideas about antiques, along with lace curtains and chandeliers. Moving to a few continents meant paring down, giving back (to stay in the family) and, often buying new on arrival in my new country. It’s true it takes a while to get into shopping for older stuff. There’s a learning curve to discern a gem from a pebble (but sometimes a pebble is what you need). It requires patience–one might not want to look for months for just the right bed frame when it’s so tantalizingly easy to click online and get it delivered to your door. But, my dears, it’s worth it! Hold out! You won’t regret it!
As pretty as Minerve is, it has a dark, gruesome history. Back in June 1210, it was beseiged by the papal forces in the crusade against the Cathars. It was almost a year after the massacre at Béziers and the capitulation of Carcassonne, bigger towns about equidistant from Minerve. Refugees had fled to Minerve, which must have seemed like a safe place, nearly surrounded by sheer cliffs, the sole access by land guarded by a fortress. It was isolated, in the middle of nowhere, and so had been passed by during the original campaign.The leader of the crusade, Simon de Montfort, didn’t like having a refugee center around. He used Minerve’s natural defenses against it, setting up trébuchets on the opposite sides of the deep ravines that surround Minerve. He ordered Minerve to be destroyed. There’s a reconstruction of a trébuchet, dubbed Malvoisine, or Bad Neighbor, on the plateau opposite Minerve.What broke the Minervois, however, was that their access to their only well was cut off and it was summer–no rain to carry them over. The residents were given a chance to convert but only three did; 140 were burned at the stake, probably in the dry riverbed of the Cesse. It was the first collective stake burning of the crusade. They weren’t tied up but marched down rue des Martyrs (Martyr Street) and had to throw themselves into the pyre.
Good thing we aren’t so barbaric anymore, eh?
Today, Minerve is the picture of calm and charm.The rivers must be something when they are high. Think of the force it took to carve these cliffs.
Not far away, not very well marked, is the Curiosité de Lauriole, which I have been dying to see. I don’t have good photos of it, because it’s something you have to see in person, though there are videos online. The road looks like it’s inclining ever so slightly, but in fact it’s going downhill.
I took a ball, but it failed miserably because of the wind. Then I put my car in the middle of the road, stopped completely and let my foot off the brake, expecting to roll gently forward. Instead, I rolled gently backward. I’m all in for cheap thrills.Back to Minerve. I appreciate a street with an archway. I always wonder about the title to the house that goes above it. How do they deal with the street part? The notaries of France must be very creative. When we were looking for property to buy, we visited a house in a little village where access to a bedroom was via a small door–so small that even a shortie like me had to bend way down. How would you even get a mattress in there? And to get to that room you had to go through another bedroom. Crazy.
But the craziest part was that I realized we were above a neighboring grange. Who owned the grange? Someone else. What if they wanted to tear it down? You couldn’t have the bedroom just hanging there, suspended in the air. That place was nuts in other ways, too. I wonder who ever bought it.
And we also saw a house, just next to la Cité of Carcassonne, where the bathroom was down some steps, kind of a half basement, under the neighbor’s house. I asked about it and the owners said, oh, the neighbors are nice. (My reaction: ?!?!?!?) The owners were a certain kind of French older couple you find in rustic places. They were dedicated smokers, both with voices of gravel. He wore a gold chain and pinkie ring. They loved Johnny Hallyday (the French Elvis) and had posters and “paintings” of him all over. One might have been velvet. I wonder whether they got to hear Johnny’s concert in Carcassonne–his last–just steps from their house. I think they sold before. We never know how close we came to having luck, do we? It’s one thing to be in the right place, but you also have to be there at the right time.
There are cute French villages and then there are REALLY CUTE French villages. Minerve is in the superlative category. Officially so: it’s on the list of les Plus Beaux Villages de France (the Most Beautiful French Villages). I know I just said I was a city girl, but I do love places like this.It has been a while since we’ve visited. Though it’s been on the to-do list for all of my recent visitors, we just never had the time for the 45-minute drive from Carcassonne. What a mistake. The drive is gorgeous. And the village…well, these photos were taken on a Sunday afternoon in August. Peak tourist. Yet you can see for yourself that Minerve was quiet. A secret. Now you know. Share wisely.The town is built at the confluence of the Cesse and Brian rivers. About 50 million years ago, the entire area was the bottom of a warm-water sea, as evidenced by the fossils in the limestone. The rivers carved deep gorges, which form a comma-shaped peninsula, kind of. Natural fortification. Unsurprisingly, it has been occupied since the Bronze Age.
The Romans came along, too. The town appeared officially in writing around 873. Old. Stuff like that just boggles my mind. Obviously places fell down and were built over, but probably some of the same stones were used. And today those houses are still there, and they have Internet.
There’s a charming bookstore and lots of artists’ shops and studios and many places to eat and drink. There are about 130 residents, down considerably from the boom years of the mid-1800s, when there were about 400. It’s clearly not an easy place to live. Imagine hauling your groceries–or worse, a new piece of furniture–down these “streets.” But vacationers provide some animation. Just enough to keep the place alive, without overrunning it. The rivers lie far below, bone dry at this time of year, but prone to flashes of rage. At least the town is high and dry.
The Candela is all that remains of the viscount’s castle, which was built at the end of the 13th century. There once was a drawbridge nearby. The castle was dismantled in the 18th and 19th centuries. I wonder why.The church was closed, but the exterior was fascinating.
I took so many photos, I’m going to do another post. Come back for more on Friday.
You can see so much art for free in France–in all of Europe. Just walk into a church, the bigger the better, and amazing works will be in front of your nose, usually without crowds and almost always in wonderful silence. Aside from the really major attractions, like Notre Dame de Paris before the fire, you can wander in without lines. Sometimes there’s even mood music.You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the work for its quality. Back in the day, the Catholic church was a major benefactor of the arts. Maybe benefactor isn’t the right word–it was a major consumer/commissioner/purchaser/collector. Churches are chockfull of sculptures and paintings, and the buildings themselves are wonders of design.This is part two of my day trip to Narbonne. (Part one is here.) We’re going to explore le Cathedrale de Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur, which is part of the same cluster of buildings as the city hall/former archbishops’ palace.
First, the name. Just and Pasteur were two Christian brothers who were martyred near Madrid around the year 304 (A.D., obviously) under the Diocletianic Persecution. The Roman Emperor Diocletian rescinded Christians’ rights and required them to make sacrifices to the Roman gods. Just and Pasteur, 12 and 9 years old, refused. There are multiple versions of their grisly deaths.
Pope Clément IV (born Gui Foucois but known as Guy le Gros–Fat Guy) decided in 1268 to build a fancy new cathedral in Narbonne, where he had previously been archbishop. Emphasis on the word fancy. The cathedral was started in 1272 in a gothic style. Only the choir was finished, around 1330. Remember that the vicious crusade against the Cathar heretics ran through the area in 1209, from the sacking of Béziers just north of Narbonne, to the surrender of Carcassonne just to the west; Narbonne, between them, was the headquarters of the Catholic forces. The bishop of Narbonne had been fairly tolerant of the Cathars, which led to him being fired in 1211. The crusade was lucrative for the church, which grabbed the land of dispossessed lords who had been linked to the Cathars. This led to the construction of a bunch of churches in the region, including the cathedral.
The cathedral and the archbishops’ palace were built like fortifications, perhaps because they abutted the city wall. In fact, finishing the cathedral would have possibly required tearing down part of the wall, which might have been a factor in it not getting finished. The other reasons it wasn’t completed were the plague and economic decline of the city.
What they accomplished shows how ambitious the plans were. It’s still one of the tallest churches in France. But back to art.
There are tapestries and paintings and frescoes.
There’s a strong preoccupation with the afterlife. It was the cudgel raised over the the people, to keep them in line. Obey now or else you’ll be sorry later.
In good gothic style, the exterior is studded with gargoyles, impressively expressive.The stained glass windows offer more tableaux. I failed to zoom in, happy to just appreciate the play of light and color.Almost every surface is decorated.Doors upon doors upon doors.The cathedral and its archbishops’ palace rise above the plain like some kind of shipwreck, or an island, even a mountain. Not discreet in the least. Bold, daring. Declaring “yeah, we’re here. What about it?”
Are you a beach bum? I’m way more interested in history and culture than sun and sand, but Narbonne, on the Mediterranean coast, has both. Just half an hour’s drive from Carcassonne, Narbonne’s history has been closely linked with Carcassonne’s, but it’s even older, at least as a modern city.
Around 120 B.C., the Romans showed up, forming the first Roman colony in the land of the Gauls, dubbed Narbo Martius. They built la Voie Domitienne–aka la Via Domitia, or the Domitian Way–to link Rome with the Iberian Peninsula, roughly where the A9 autoroute goes today. It was named after Cneus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a Roman general who oversaw its construction, although some called it la Voie Héraclénne, after Heracles, the strongman demigod who supposedly did the work. Eventually, the Romans built more roads, including the Via Aquitania that cut across southern France to the Atlantic, more or less along the A61 autoroute.
Roman stuff is all over town, despite the fact that the Barbarians (literal Barbarians, not figurative ones) tried to destroy everything. A square still respects the outlines of the Roman forum, and a couple of columns from two centuries ago stand there. Other bits of columns show up here and there, and of course recycling was big back in the day; some Roman rocks (we know because they’re carved) ended up in a later city wall.
It’s easier to find “new” architecture, like from the 1200s. I love a place where “old” is 2,000 years old, and “new” is just 800 years old.The stunner is le Palais des Archevêques (the Bishops’ Palace), which is an accretion of a couple of centuries’ of styles. Le Vieux Palais (the Old Palace) dates to the Romans in the 5th century and butts up to the cathedral; le Palais Neuf (the New Palace) is across from it, started in the 14th century as a fortress in a gothic style. It’s flanked by two towers: the 42-meter-tall donjon, built from 1295 to 1306, and the smaller Saint Martial tower. The city hall, as well as museums of art and archeology, are housed in the Bishops’ Palace since the place was renovated in 1845 by Eugène Viollet le Duc at age 24 and without an architecture degree. Viollet le Duc went on to renovate Notre Dame and la Cité of Carcassonne, among other important sites.
The Aude river passes through Narbonne passes near the palais on its way to the Mediterranean. The city has done an impressive job of making parks along it. The historic center is closed to vehicles, which is great for walking. Cafés spill out into the medieval streets. On the other side of the Aude, les Halles, or the covered market, is a pretty Belle Epoque building that bustles in the mornings only. Look for the café where former rugby stars call out orders to the nearby butcher, who throws the requested cuts of meat through the air (wrapped in paper).
You also can visit the home of Charles Trenet, the crooner from the 1930s to the 1950s, probably best known for the song “La Mer.” You probably know the cover by Frank Sinatra or Bobby Darin, translated as “Beyond the Sea.”
Getting to the beach from Narbonne is a little tricky if you don’t have a car, in which case it’s about 10 or 15 minutes’ drive. By bike, you have to go up, then down, the Clape “mountains” (very steep hills). Plenty of folks do it, but it’s very steep, there are no shoulders, and lots of campers, which take up every bit of the lane. Also, it runs through a pine forest that smells amazing but that has fire warnings every few feet. Or you can go to Gruissan, which goes around the Clape, with a wider road. Alternatively, you can take the No. 4 bus. Personally, we prefer Gruissan.Last time I was there, we ate at le Bouchon Gourmand, on Quai Valière, because with a name like that! Two of us had mussels, which were correct (the French sense of “correct” is good quality and quantity for the price). And one friend had something I don’t remember now but it wasn’t worth taking a photo. It was partly our own fault–we went on a Monday, when most of les Halles is closed (including the rugby restaurant with flying meat).
More Narbonne on Friday–insane details from the unfinished cathedral of Narbonne, which rises like a beached ship from the oh-so-flat plains.
The number of adorable villages in the south of France is nearly infinite. Each is unique, boasting something special–a château or some historic artifact, a location that offers spectacular views, a quirky market–yet they are all, if not alike, then from the same family, with narrow streets that wind between ancient stone houses, built as needs arose, without planning but with a great sense of purpose, many generations ago. They were built to stand for generations, too, and despite the lack of advanced engineering or equipment, they have indeed survived.Saissac is all of those things. Château: check. Sweeping views: check. Streets too narrow (and vertical) for cars: check. Stone houses that aren’t quite plumb: check. I wanted to take some recent visitors to a ruined Cathar castle, but one that didn’t entail a long, vertiginous hike. And so we went to Saissac, which offers gentler access. Just west of Carcassonne, Saissac is in beginnings of the Black Mountains, enough above the plain that sprawls between the Black Mountains and the Pyrénées that you can take in vast vistas. At one time, the castle towered over the village, but after a few ransackings the castle was ruined and the village moved up. That means you get to trundle gently down to this castle, doable even in sandals, not too far for little ones with short legs or elder ones with tired knees, doable with strollers and possibly wheelchairs, though inside there are still ancient bits that require climbing and jumping. The principle of “if you get hurt it’s your own fault” applies here.
The Saissac castle was started around 900 BCE, and it was mentioned in a document in 960 in which the bishop of Toulouse gave the castle to the count of Carcassonne. It got passed around various noble families until the Revolution; it was already in ruins by then and its condition just got worse. In 1864, some bounty hunters dynamited the keep, which didn’t help matters. The village bought the castle in 1994 and started renovations, more to keep what was left from crumbling than to put anything back together.The bounty hunters weren’t wrong in their choice of target, even if they came up empty–in 1979, a treasure of 2,000 deniers, or coins, was found during some repairs. The coins dated to 1250-1270 and are on display in the castle. They’re behind glass, and my photos of them didn’t turn out. You’ll have to see for yourself!
We clambered around the ruins like wannabe Indiana Joneses, looking at details to imagine what it must have been like. Traces. A doorway, filled in. Holes peering to other rooms or cavities or something mysterious. The angled ghost of a staircase. One lower-level room had been set up to look like a medieval kitchen.These castles were never just one thing. At times, they were fortresses against invaders. They often were safe havens against the marauders that plagued Europe in the Middle Ages. At other times, they were elegant residences, and the owners added on rooms or wings. Jean de Bernuy was one of them. He bought the château in 1518 and added a living area with large windows, a couple of fireplaces and a staircase–it was the Renaissance, after all. De Bernuy was an immigrant success story: he came from Burgos, Spain, and made his fortune in the pastel business. He was so loaded that he stood security for the ransom of King Francis I, who was held hostage in Pavia in 1525. Pastel came from woad, and would be ground up and pressed into balls to use as blue dye. The balls were called coques and gave the region the name Pays de Cocagne, which means land of milk and honey. Even Carcassonne had a big textile industry, and this region just to the west made fortunes from the blue dye, especially between 1460 and 1560, when indigo from the Americas started to show up. Globalization.
Saissac’s church also was interesting. It seems to date to 1290, after the crusade against the Cathars (1209). The Cathars and Catholics had lived side by side until the crusade, so maybe the surviving villagers wanted to show allegiance to the church after the Cathars had been exterminated. By 1568, there were other troubles–the Wars of Religion. The church was burned, the priests massacred and the village pillaged by the Huguenots. Only the castle resisted the attack. The village and church were pillaged again in 1591 by the Antoine Scipion, the duc de Joyeuse, brother of Anne (who was a male and whose name is the brand of blanquette de Limoux–the family had a castle nearby, in Couiza). Scipion had become military leader of the Catholic extremists. Why did he attack the church, if he was after the Huguenots, and why did he do to the village the same damage the Huguenots had done? Maybe the people of little Saissac were too live-and-let-live liberal for his tastes? He was known for his brutality, for having the injured executed at Montastruc, and for killing without regard to age or sex.
Things in Saissac eventually got better, and more additions were built onto the church in the following years until the Revolution–the church was closed in 1794, only to reopen in 1795. The back-and-forth could give a person whiplash. Somehow I suspect that the folks of Saissac, which today borders on 1,000 inhabitants, just wanted to live their lives in peace and quiet, tending their fields and animals and focusing on getting enough to eat. I’m sure everybody in Saissac has enough to eat these days, but overall in the world, very little has changed. The worries and crises haven’t evolved much.The village itself is cuteness personified. We passed some residents of a certain age who were outside on the sidewalk/street/their personal patio, seeking a little fresh air and breeze in the shade. We greeted them as we passed, and they seemed resigned to having outsiders traipsing through and cutting into their conversation (which was about when melons would be ripe…). There was only one other family at the château when we were there. It was a delicious luxury having the place practically to ourselves, but I imagine a lot more people come through in the summer, perhaps shooting photos of the quaint locals trying to get cool in the shade. When I lived in New York. I don’t think I ever managed to get a coffee at an outdoor table without having my photo taken by somebody, and I am not, and was not then, a beauty. I was just local color. At least then, the cameras used film and I didn’t have to worry about my mug being on the Internet. Call me old-fashioned. With facial-recognition technology, I have no intention of making it easier for anybody to find me using my face.I live in one of these little villages, not quite as vertiginous as Saissac, but similar insofar as it has little streets that even my itsy-bitsy Aygo can’t squeeze through. Even Google’s Street View car can’t negotiate them. They were built for wheelbarrows. The more a place is authentic, the less it’s practical. There’s another village that I absolutely must show you soon if I can organize myself to get back there; it’s just far enough that every time I think about it I also think, nah. On the one hand it’s paradise–no cars at all. It’s insanely beautiful but WTF for bringing home anything heavy? Actually, it’s so beautiful that it’s mostly gîtes and AirBnBs and B&Bs. The quaint locals might not be locals at all. Who wants to haul groceries from a car park half a mile away (come to think of it, I don’t think there’s a grocery store there). When you’re on vacation in an unspeakably cute village with lovely, delicious restaurants that have jaw-dropping views, then you don’t buy groceries, you eat out and walk home along the stone paths, not having to worry about cars, though you might have to worry a tiny bit about not getting lost, since little villages are crazy mazes but hey, they’re little. You can’t stay lost for long.
It looks as if it were a castle designed by Disney for a princess. But Carcassonne isn’t a castle. It’s a fortified city (la Cité) with a castle inside it. I’ve been to the castle many times, and recently went back with visitors. I really don’t get tired of it–there are so many details. La Cité became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997.The castle is a museum and you have to buy a ticket to get in. Only fair–I can barely keep up with maintenance of my house; I can’t imagine what this joint must require. The oldest parts date to 2,500 years ago. Ouf! Talk about built to last.
You enter through a barbican. The castle was the last defense within the well-defended city. The city itself had a drawbridge and walls–eventually a double ring of walls, which is unique–with many barbicans. A barbican is a brilliant piece of design–a half circle, it allows the residents 180 degrees of range of attack toward the outside. If, horrors, the attackers overwhelm the residents, the residents retreat farther inside and the attackers find themselves in the half-circle of the barbican–which has transformed from defense to trap, because there’s always a spot just a little beyond the barbican from which the residents can shoot at those in its confines, like fish in a barrel.
So if attackers made it over the first drawbridge they would be stuck in the sets of double doors that would drop down to trap invaders between, with a trap door above so the residents could pour boiling water, boiling oil, stones or whatever down on them. The trapped invaders would be left to die of their injuries/starve to death or, if the invaders seemed not worth the wait, the outer door could be opened so they could flee.If the attackers breached this defense, they could run up the narrow lanes of la Cité. The residents would have already absconded for the castle, the final refuge. It has a barbican–a big one, separated from the castle proper by a drawbridge over a dry moat. Why a dry moat, you ask? Well, Carcassonne is on top of a hill, so it isn’t like there would be water in the moat. (Except during the filming of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” with Kevin Costner.) But the structure was useful anyway because it slowed down the attackers and kept them corralled where it was easy to shoot at them.
There’s another set of double drop-down doors and then you’re in the Courtyard of Honor. Time to forget about invasions and to think more about court life.
The museum shows a wonderful short film about how Eugène Viollet le Duc restored la Cité, starting in 1844, saving it from almost being torn down. How he looked for traces of what was before–where there was a window, supports for a ceiling, etc. In other words, what you see today is a restoration of what was left centuries later but not quite as it was in its heyday in the early 13th century.
What do you think of historic restorations? I think it’s important to preserve the past, but you can’t bring it back. And so I like la Cité. It takes me to another time, another perspective.
Do you go to the tourist attractions in your town? In France, the entire country is a tourist attraction. La Cité is very popular, and in the summer, in the afternoon, it is crowded and hot and unpleasant with daytrippers who come over from the Mediterranean beaches for a few begrudging hours of culture. But even in summer, in the mornings and evenings, it’s not crowded and is so interesting. And off-season you can practically have the place to yourself, to let your imagination run wild. I love going to la Cité. After all these years, I still make discoveries.
The little details grab me more as time goes by. Long ago when I lived in New York, I had a membership to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and would pop in once or twice a week. When you go that often, you don’t feel obliged to see everything. I spent one visit just looking at the Grecian urns–a room full of them–marveling at the stories painted on them. I also was impressed by how few people stopped to look at them, instead just passing through to more “important” things.
The museum holds quite a few things from the cathedral, especially mascarons that were too fragile to leave in the elements.
Check out this pillar…hard to get good exposure on the two sides, so there are two shots of the same thing.
What people did with stone is so incredible. Sculptors’ names lost to time. The other cool thing about visiting the museum is you have access to the ramparts, which offer amazing views over the “new” (1260) city and the countryside, down to the Pyrénées, if you’re lucky.
While it’s great to see Carcassonne off-season, the summer has advantages despite–or thanks to–the crowds. Tonight, I’m going to see a dance performance in the Cour d’Honneur–talk about a setting! It’s part of the Festival of Carcassonne, with concerts, theater and more, some awfully expensive but other events free. And in August, it’s all things medieval, with jousting tournaments between the walls.