Around Christmas, making a detour around the gilets jaunes, I passed through the charming village of Pennautier and pulled over. I have you to thank. In the past, I would have craned to peek down the interior streets but I wouldn’t have stopped. Now, I park and get out my camera. Pennautier is a stone’s throw from Carcassonne. Prehistoric tools have been found, but it didn’t take off until the Romans came along around 100 B.C. and put up some fortified agricultural buildings. In 508, King Clovis the First gave the territory to one of his lieutenants and called it Pech Auter, which means High Old Warrior. On a rocky hill with a river nearby, the village was fortified by walls that were torn down in 1591 probably because the village was a refuge for Protestants, according to the mairie.It doesn’t look like the heart of the village has changed much over the centuries. It’s a maze of narrow streets, improbably full of cars parked as close as possible to one wall, because there’s barely room for anybody to pass.
It was late on a Saturday and raining when I stopped. I saw quite a few people walking briskly, then realized they were going to church.
Unfortunately, the château was closed. The top photo shows just one end of it; you’re missing the broad front. It’s called the Versailles of Languedoc! Huge! It was built in 1620 by Bernard Reich de Pennautier. You have to watch the video clip on the château’s site, especially the bed that was a gift of King Louis XIII when he visited in 1622.In 1670, the son, Pierre-Louis de Pennautier, took over and added on. He hired Louis Le Vau, who was the architect of Versailles, to design the wings, and Andre Le Nôtre, who did the gardens at Versailles, to design those at Pennautier. Starchitects of the 1600s.
The whole place was redone in 2009 and now has 24 double and twin rooms, but you have to book a minimum of four bedrooms or two suites.
Did I mention they make wine, still today? Good stuff.
The château is on my to-do list for the next Journées du Patrimoine.
We recently made a nice day trip to Montpellier. We usually do our “big city” shopping in Toulouse, but we decided to mix it up. It’s an extra half-hour drive, but it feels completely different than Toulouse–Montpellier lies on the Mediterranean coast, and its stately avenues are lined with palm trees.
We didn’t get outside the city center; in fact, we didn’t even explore all of the city center. So much to see! Especially since I had to stop every few steps to gasp, and then photograph, the over-the-top architectural details.
The center of Montpellier is an interesting mix of tiny streets and big squares. The center has been off-limits to cars since 2004, when Montpellier created France’s largest pedestrian-only zone–24 kilometers without traffic.
Place de la Comédie, above and in the top photo, is enormous, full of people passing through or hanging out, yet not crowded.
Small streets open up to little squares, always filled with café tables, which were always bustling.
I loved everything about this street–the turret made me stop, but then I saw it has a tiny arched window! And look at that “balcony” full of plants. And the double-extension window boxes on the left!On rue de la Loge, brass circles in the street mark the Camin Roumieu, one of the main routes to Compostella, linking Arles and Toulouse. So you have to look down, but you also have to look up!
There are other kinds of artwork as well.
Montpellier is a lovely city. I can’t compare it with Carcassonne, which is like a big village. Montpellier is much more go-go, with people walking quickly, shops full of quirky stuff and restaurants touting the latest health crazes. In Carcassonne, one sees little old retirees wearing pajamas and slippers as they walk their dogs, not very early, either.Chic shops! Arches! No cars! A ROOM OVER THE STREET! I’d love to know what’s in there and who lives there.
With temperatures here more like April than December, I’m trying to get into the Christmas mood with some photos from a visit to Brussels last year.Brussels is such a pretty city. During the six years I lived there, I didn’t appreciate it–I would hop on the Thalys fast train to Paris or show up at the airport with only a carry-on to check the bulletin board of cheap last-minute tickets. One year, I traveled 50 out of 52 weekends. It was a good way to see Europe.We’ve gone to Belgium for all but one of the past 14 Christmases, and will finally spend our first Christmas at home this year. The highlight of the Belgium holidays was always our day spent in Brussels, amid the lights and pretty architecture, so different from the rundown towns of southern Belgium that are the definition of the word triste.The center of Brussels is its famous Grand-Place (which, despite being LA Grand-Place is not la Grande-Place, a mystery I must resolve one day). The fancy houses on the Grand-Place, mostly with wood construction, were burned down in three days during a bombardment by the troops of Louis XIV in 1695. The wealthy merchants, guilds and corporations weren’t put down, however. By 1697 were rebuilding, this time using stone.
The Grand-Place became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1998, noted for the harmonious yet eclectic mix of buildings that have stayed the same for more than three centuries.
The most outstanding building is the gothic Hotel de Ville, or city hall, built in three phases–the left wing (from 1401-1421), then a nearly identical extension on the right (added from 1440-1450), and finally the top of the tower (from 1449-1455). So obviously it survived the big fire. The top photo shows most of it.Do you notice anything strange about the main entry?
Supposedly the architect became so upset about the mistake that he jumped to his death, but that seems to be urban legend, and the portail is likely off center just because the building got added onto.
The Maison du Roi, or King’s House, is directly across from the Hotel de Ville. It actually is a 19th century reconstruction of what the architects would have wanted to build at the beginning of the 16th century, replacing a building that also survived the fire and that was built in 1515. That building was falling to ruin, and the city spared no expense with the replacement, which took 22 years to build (1873-1895). Keep in mind that Belgium became a country only in 1830. At the time the King’s House was built, the king was Leopold II, the same one who colonized and pillaged the Congo. So that’s where his deep pockets came from.La Maison du Cygne, or Swan House, originally was an inn but now houses a very swanky restaurant. Very good, too.Not far from the Grand-Place are the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, three glass-roofed arcades that connect.
All around the galeries, the neighborhood is a warren of medieval “streets” that are more like cobbled footpaths. For example, l’Impasse Saint-Nicolas is one of 17 impasses, or dead-end paths, in the area that lead to buildings that are behind buildings. The entry to our apartments is a similar impasse, a former medieval street leading to an interior courtyard that used to be a tannery, and to buildings that don’t reach to the main streets.
A bit farther off, old and new sit cheek by jowl. La Tour Noire, or Black Tower, remains from the first ramparts of the city, now nearly swallowed up by a Novotel.
The above excepted, there ARE are plenty of classy buildings, dolled up for the festivities.Even the Christmas street lights are classy.Not far from the Black Tower is the Place Sainte Catherine, site of a Christmas market. It’s near the quais of the canals built in the 1500s and another in the 1800s to transport goods, since the river that the city was born next to (aren’t all cities next to rivers?), the Senne, was hard to navigate. In fact, the city covered over the river 200 years ago, since it had become mostly a sewer.
The quais now are lined with restaurants, especially those for fish and seafood.While we’re excited about having Christmas at home for the first time, we will miss getting a hit of city sparkle. Meanwhile, the gilets jaunes are the Grinches stealing Christmas. People are shopping online rather than in stores to avoid having to brave the gantlet of protesters. Already the Internet was killing stores; the outlook is decidedly unfestive.
Do you shop in stores or online? Have you been to Brussels?
Even after so many years of living in Carcassonne, I still get tingles at the sight of la Cité. As I drive into town, my eyes scan the distance for its distinctive turrets. I know where to train my eye on my usual routes, but yesterday I ran an errand in a different direction, and, wanting to avoid les gilets jaunes, made a big detour.Les gilets jaunes, or the yellow vests, are the latest wave of protesters, so called because they wear the high-visibility vests all French drivers are required to have in their car. They are angry about a 10% increase in the tax on diesel. Previously, diesel had been significantly cheaper than unleaded gas. In addition, diesel cars get about 30% more mileage, and diesel engines need less maintenance and last longer. So even though diesel cars tend to cost a few thousand euros more than standard cars, they can be worth it if a person drives a lot.At least that used to be the case, and it’s why there has been a proliferation of SUVs–called quatre-fois-quatres, or 4x4s–that are too big to negotiate turns on little village lanes or to fit in typical parking places. In the Bastide, the heart of today’s Carcassonne, they often hop onto the sidewalk, being wider than the streets.Transportation is the single biggest source of greenhouse gases in France, and private citizens’ cars make up more than half of that. At one time, car makers promised they had found a way to make diesel clean, which led France and other European countries to push people to switch to diesel cars by making diesel cheaper than unleaded. But it turns out diesel still is dirty.
While I sympathize with idea that people feel squeezed and many have yet to feel an end to the 2008 global crisis, at the same time, hearing SUV drivers complain about a tax on diesel is like hearing smokers complain about a tax on cigarettes.To broadly generalize, the French like the idea of revolution, of protest. To the barricades! Stick it to the man! Friends fondly reminisce about 1968, even though most were too young to have been throwing pavers in the streets of Paris. When, some years ago, the education poobahs tried to cut a teaching position at our village school, which would have increased already-crowded class sizes, parents immediately organized a strike. Some had strike kits, the way a crafty mom might have a gift-wrapping station, all ready to pack up and carry to wherever it might be needed. Spray paint, poster board, old sheets… I joined them on the roadside–it was how things get done in France, I was told. Indeed, it worked, at least temporarily.Anyway, on my detour yesterday, I spotted the faraway turrets, ghostly in the rainy mist. As I neared, I came around a turn by the old hospital, where one has a particularly good view, and I gasped, as I always do.Back in la Cité’s heyday (before 1209), transportation was by foot–by horse if one was wealthy. France’s population is guestimated at around 17 million in the 14th century (an official census didn’t happen until much later, not to mention the issue of changing borders–check out this cool time-lapse video). Today the population is 67 million. Before 1884, when Edouard Delamere-Deboutteville of France built the first (?) gasoline-powered car, there were no automobiles; today France has 32 million passenger cars, and 30% of French households have two cars. When you live in a place where the “new” town dates to 1260 and local history stretches back more than 2,000 years, the change brought by cars in just over 100 years is shocking. And that’s just France–the same change is happening across the globe. Pollution knows no borders.Clearly the streets of la Cité were made for walking–at most, hand-pulled carts. La Cité’s unique double walls and 52 towers were built to resist attacks and were never breached. The only time Carcassonne fell was in the Albigensian crusade, when Pope Innocent III called for the extermination of the Cathars. Even then, after holding out for two weeks of siege, the inhabitants weren’t overrun but decided to surrender, having gotten news of the mass slaughter in Béziers. They fought the man, but the man won. In fact, the Inquisition followed.The gilets jaunes vow to continue, and even ramp up, their protests. The president, Emmanuel Macron, vows to stay the course. Taxes here are high, yes. But of all the taxes to protest against, why the one on pollution? This protest leaves me ambivalent.
I realized I have three folders of door photos, and they are getting out of hand. Let’s meander through one folder, which ranges from Carcassonne to Montolieu to Caunes-Minervois to Cépie, which are all quaint little villages around Carcassonne.
The top photo is technically a gate. But so gorgeous! look at how the scrolls in the stone match the scrolls in the ironwork. And the bits of “lace” hanging from the gutter.This one might be a gate to an inner courtyard or just a garage door. Who knows! Good luck driving up over that curb.A hidden courtyard elsewhere in town that I spied before the huge doors closed automatically. I love how old French buildings keep so many secrets.Perfectly imperfect.Another gate. But the colors!Why do the women’s faces on doors and buildings usually look unhappy? The men usually look stern or fierce, but the women look like their patience is being tried.Note the fish knocker. And the date: 1746.I wonder whether the shutters and door started out the same shade and the shutters faded more because of more exposure to the sun, or whether the homeowners intentionally chose different shades.The little pot! Notice how almost no threshhold is straight.This door doesn’t even come up to my shoulder, and I’m short. For a while, it led to an underground bar, called “Le Trou Dans le Mur”–the Hole in the Wall. It was gorgeous, with a high vaulted ceiling and stone walls and a deep well that they had artfully lit. It was no easy feat to crawl through the hole and then descend the steep stairs. Too bad it closed.Arches+ivy+old stones = French charm.
Hamlet as in tinier than a village. Not Hamlet as in Shakespeare.
A little wide spot in the road that I’ve driven by without stopping. A church steeple beckoned. I pulled over.The hamlet of Grèzes was founded in 778 by Charlemagne after defeating the local Visigoths. Charlemagne founded un prieuré, or a priory, at Grazanis, which became Grèzes, now a bedroom community of Carcassonne. The priory had five or six monks of the order of St. Benoît, a hospital, a dispensary and a school. It sounds downright bustling. Charlemagne established a number of abbeys across the region, including Saint Hilaire (birthplace of bubbly wine!!! YES, not Champagne…more on that later), Caunes, Saint Polycarpe, Lagrasse, Saint Papoul. He wanted to re-instill Catholicism across the land. This was well before Catharism took hold in the region and led to the last Crusade, against the Cathars, in the early 1200s, when Carcassonne surrendered rather than face the slaughter that happened at Béziers.The other high point came in March 1579, when Catherine de Medici visited Grèzes during a five-day stay in Carcassonne with her son, Charles IX. She gave two chandeliers that light the choir. The church was closed when I passed, but having learned of this must-see décor I will go back! It dates to the XIII century, but has had many additions, renovations and restorations. It had only one bell until 1952, when two more were added.I saw more cats than people.
All the streets were two-way but barely big enough for one car.
A pretty drève leads out of town. So many of these have been cut down because of the blight killing the platanes, or plane trees.The Black Mountains are visible in the distance, beyond the rolling wheat and hay fields and vineyards.
And Carcassonne’s airport is very close.
Somehow, even places that are little more than a wide spot in the road manage to be charming here. I promise to report back on Catherine de Medici’s taste in light fixtures.
As I write this, a Euro-electro cover of the Italian folk song “Bella Ciao” is blasting into my window from a boisterous gathering. Sound travels easily in the countryside.
If you don’t know this song, listen here (not the techno version).Years and years ago, an eternity really, when my kid was a little round sausage of yumminess and naïvété, the (first grade?) class learned the song “Bella Ciao” for the year-end show. They always learned something that would bring great applause from all the grandparents in the audience, and there was something adorable about these little tykes belting out hits from half a century earlier.
Thus I’ve known Bella Ciao for a while. Obviously it was an Italian song, so I didn’t understand the lyrics (unlike another song my kid learned in school even earlier: “Si Tu Vas à Rio”–“If you go to Rio….don’t forget to go up yonder, to a little village, hidden under wild flowers, on the side of a hill….” a song about reminiscences and good old times, which is kind of hilarious coming out of the mouths of four-year-olds).Several years later, my kid was studying World War II, and “Bella Ciao” came up again in the context of families deciding whether to weather the terrible fascist political climate or to flee, to become refugees. The song’s origins were the women of the Po river valley who weeded the rice paddies and who suffered terribly. (How did a song about suffering women manage to be sung by so many men?) (Italian and English lyrics here)Later (although one article said the partisans came first, in 1919, and the rice weeders came after World War II), it was adopted as an anti-fascist anthem, and then as a pro-communist song. These kinds of liaisons are difficult, because you can be very anti-fascist and also downright cold to communism–the original idea might have been nice but in reality communism was a huge con job and an economic and social failure. Yet, in binary, black-and-white situations, you don’t get to be anti-communist AND anti-fascist, because those get lumped as one and the same. So either you have to choose to be anti-fascist and just ignore the communist part or you shrug and walk away from everything altogether. In some parts of southern France, communists haven’t gotten the memo about its demise. There also are plenty of refugees or descendants thereof from Franco’s Spain, so there’s a strong anti-fascist streak as well (a Spanish cover of the song was censored in Spain in 1969…Franco died in 1975, for those of you who don’t remember Chevy Chase on SNL’s Weekend Update). “Bella Ciao” became the hymn of labor strikes in the 1960s and then crossed the Atlantic in service of the government of Salvador Allende in Chile, which, you might recall, ended badly, thanks to the CIA.
“Bella Ciao” has been in my head lately because it was a theme of the hugely popular Spanish series (picked up on Netflix) “La Casa del Papel”–“Money Heist” in English. What an interesting series! I didn’t see all of it, but it was fascinating, with the corrupt victims, the good-hearted villains, the messed-up police….nothing rote, everything complicated. AlloCiné compared it to “Ocean’s Eleven,” but it was free of smugness and made you question everything. Maybe it was an intellectual “Ocean’s Eleven.” It also was devoid of fashion, yet had such indelible looks. The red jumpsuits! The Salvador Dali masks!In looking around for who in the world did the electro version I was hearing, I discovered that “Bella Ciao” is in a renaissance as it were, thanks to “La Casa del Papel,” which made it hip again. French-Congolese rapper Maître Gims did a version with lots of la, la, la (which translates as la, la, la, whether Italian to French or French to English). French DJ Jean Roch (I do NOT approve of that silky green jacket. Nor of the backup dancers) and American electro house musician Steve Aoki also did it. And French-Spanish singer Manu Chao, though he was before the current craze. In fact, his family fled Franco’s Spain, which is how he was born in France.Have you heard Bella Ciao before?
Yesterday was la rentrée des classes–back to school–though it’s the official end of summer for those without kids, as well. The cars on the roads seem more purposeful, if not exactly rushed. Folks in these parts don’t rush very often.Although the end of summer and the return to routine marks the passage of time, in the little villages of the south of France, time seems to stand still. Time feels less linear and more like accretion, layers upon layers, with the old still there, forever.Welcome to the village of Trausse, on the edge of the Black Mountains, not far from Carcassonne. Host of a cherry festival in May and home year-round to excellent Minervois wine. As you can see, it’s bustling.
In that way of small villages, life is both intensely private and lived in public.
There are old stones, remnants of an illustrious past. In the late 1700s, there were more than 800 residents; today there are about 500.
Nothing is straight. If the walls in the photo above look like they’re leaning in toward the street, well, yes, they are.
People come and go, but the stones remain, sometimes putting up with modernization, like electricity.
Although fetching water was probably a moment for gossip and camaraderie, I doubt folks regret having indoor plumbing. Somebody told me my village got plumbing in the 1970s!
Trausse is overshadowed by its neighbor, Caunes-Minervois, which is undeniably adorable and which attracts many tourists. I heard that J.K. Rowling recently spent time in Caunes. But that might just be bragging. In any case, Caunes is a good place for somebody like her to be incognito, just another British lady renting a holiday home.
There are so many cute villages here–I’m hard-pressed to think of any that don’t have at least a picturesque ancient center, even the ones surrounded by ugly subdivisions. It’s easy to skip the subdivisions and stick to the quaint old streets, where elderly residents sit in the shade unperturbed, cats nap in the middle of the road, and time meanders gently.
What do you get when you cross novelist Dan Brown with cheese? Rennes-le-Château!
Rennes-le-Château made an appearance in “The Da Vinci Code,” Brown’s thriller about a conspiracy and some very creative interpretations of history. Supposedly Jesus high-tailed it to France with Mary Magdalene, which is how the Holy Grail–or the cup he used at the Last Supper–ended up at a tiny church in a tiny village in the deepest depths of France profonde.
This just shows that we have stories for every stripe of crazy, from ufologists to people drawn to Rennes-le-Château, including to excavate for buried treasure. Which is strictly forbidden, and written all over the place.
Back in the 1890s, the village priest, Bérenger Saunière, seemed to be suddenly rolling in dough. He had the church fixed up, then built himself a domaine and a tower, la Tour Magdala, in 1901. By 1902, the bishop of Carcassonne, who had turned a blind eye to the priest’s spending, had died, and the new higher-ups demanded an accounting, which the priest didn’t want to do.
It isn’t clear whether the holy grail story was made up by Saunière or by a local hotelier looking for publicity. In any case, long before the advent of the Internet, the tale worked magic, because all kinds of illuminés turned up and haven’t stopped. For example, in 2011, some “researchers” claimed that Rennes-le-Château holds King Solomon’s gold and that the Visigoths brought the original menorah, used by Moses. Because that makes complete sense, right?
What is undeniable is that the hilltop village of 65 inhabitants (and THREE restaurants!!) is charming and has breathtaking views. We stopped on our way home from Bugarach, having loaded up on goat’s and sheep’s cheeses as part of de la Ferme en Ferme, or From Farm to Farm, circuit–something to check out if you’re in the region.
Rennes-le-Château is 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of Carcassonne. There’s lots to see along the way! Cute villages, mountains, farms, ruins, cows and sheep and goats….
Bugarach, a tiny village in the foothills of the Pyrénées, is at the end of the Earth in both senses of the term. Well, sort of.
It was supposed to be the only place to be saved when the world ended on Dec. 21, 2012 (or Dec. 12, 2012, depending on your source). According to certain interpretations of Mayan calculations, the planet Nibiru was to hit the Earth on that day, reversing the poles and making the Earth spin in the opposite direction. However, the extraterrestrials would either come out of their hiding spot in the caves and around the supposed underground lake of the mountain Bugarach, under whose shadow the village sits and whose name it carries, or they would swoop in from space and pick up folks smart enough to be there.
Bugarach (the mountain) is indeed unusual. First, it stands alone and looks pretty impressive with its bare pech (in Occitan; pic in French or peak), which at 1231 meters is the highest of the Corbières. Tectonic movement caused it to be “une montagne renversée”–an upside-down mountain, in which the bottom layers are older than the top layer. Supposedly this also causes the magnetic poles to be reversed there, which is why–presto chango–the mountain would be saved during the cataclysmic global pole reversal. The predictions were inflated by the Internet, drawing an international throng of ufologues (believers in UFOs, though the French term is OVNI–objet volant non-identifié–same thing), illuminés (crazies) and zozotériques (a local’s fancy word for zozos–more crazies). The little village of 200-ish people was flooded with folks who went to the mountain to conduct strange rituals in the nude and who collected the mountain’s supposedly magical rocks.
Bugarach was big news in late 2012, and I kept meaning to check out the hippy dippy village–it’s about an hour and a half south of Carcassonne, a beautiful drive. Since then, it has eased back into quiet isolation. It’s a good 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the next village, making it feel quite a bit like the end of the earth…even though the world didn’t end, whether due to the nonexistence of Nibiru, miscalculations by the Mayans, or what.
This week was the start of De la Ferme en Ferme–From Farm to Farm–and the May 1 circuit included a loop from Rennes-les-Bains to Rennes-le-Château, passing through Bugarach for some sheep’s cheese. The two Rennes aren’t next to each other at all; Rennes-le-Château gained some notoriety with “The Da Vinci Code,” because of a fake buried treasure a local priest cooked up, spawning conspiracy theories. Rennes-les-Bains is the site of some Roman baths, of which there are many in the area.
Bugarach’s history also goes back to the Romans, who had a mine nearby in the first century CE. Then the Visigoths turned up around the fifth century; a cemetery remains. During the Wars of Religion, Calvinists from the north sought refuge in what would have seemed to be a safe place at the end of the world, but, no, they were hunted down in several massacres between 1575 and 1577. In the 1700s, Bugarach became known for hatmaking (up until 1990, and Queen Elizabeth and François Mitterand supposedly wore Bugarach brand hats). By 1831 Bugarach had more than 1,000 inhabitants, three hat factories, five water mills and many other businesses. It held three fairs, which must have been good, because it would have been difficult for folks to get to. I imagine many residents back in the day never left the village. Today the road is smooth tarmac (but only wide enough for one car; if you meet another vehicle, one has to back up to where the shoulder is somewhat wider to let the other pass), but when it was just a dirt track, it would have taken a long time to travel those dozen miles to the next town.
Bugarach today is very cute, starting from the view from afar. Everything is little.
What was left of the château was restored and turned into a community hall and exposition space, in what I thought was a decent mix of ancient and modern–something that doesn’t always work.
The town also has two charging spots for plug-in electric vehicles, which seemed exceptionally forward thinking. And three restaurants plus a table d’hôte for a town of 200! It shows how Bugarach continues to pull in people who today come to hike and enjoy the countryside.