First lesson: “At school one learns lots of good and useful things: one learns to correctly speak and write one’s mother tongue; one learns the history and geography of one’s country; one learns above all to know and love chores of all sorts that morality commands us.”So begins a 1919 French home economics book aimed at middle school girls. It was among the trove of treasures we found in various cupboards, cellars and attics of the apartments we renovated. It instructs in detail, well, everything. For example, how to set a table: “First, place a cotton cover on the table, over which you lay the tablecloth. This cover absorbs the noise caused by contact with utensils, and prevents glasses from breaking.”
“Then, you place the plates, leaving an interval of at least 60 centimeters between them. The guests shouldn’t bump elbows or feel restricted in their movements.”
I guess today we have the Internet for these kinds of details, though what’s out there is mostly about selling something.The treasure trove also contained portfolios done by the previous owner herself, on sewing, cutting (separate from sewing!) and layette. Girls were steered along a narrow path 75 years ago.
The ones related to sewing fascinated me. I grew up learning to sew. My mom made a lot of my clothes, very much like Ramona’s in Beverly Cleary’s books. I remember going to the fabric store and flipping through the pattern catalogs, where anything was possible. The suits I wore to my first post-college job I made myself. They were dreadful. And I HATE sewing. But while I might not enjoy it, it is useful to know.
I can’t sew without a pattern (unless it’s a simple rectangle, like curtains), just as I can’t play piano without sheet music. Sewing without a pattern–creating a pattern–is like composing music or at least like improvising jazz. I am in awe.
And then there’s the absolute worst: ironing.
Did you take home ec? I refused. I also refused to take typing, upsetting my mother to no end, though I eventually took it in summer school and now can type as fast as a person talks. I’m still not sure an entire year-long class on sewing, ironing and baby care is a good use of school time, but we might be a lot healthier and less wasteful if people knew how to cook and how to repair their clothes. The wonderful blogger Garance Doré (a must for francophiles!) interviewed Jean Touitou, the founder of A.P.C., who said that everyone should know how to mend their clothes, to not throw away perfectly good pieces that are, say, missing a button.
The young generation seems to be into DIY; the last time I was in a fabric store here, the other customers were very young, pierced and tattooed. I had the impression they knew not just how to mend but how to create and improvise–play jazz with material.
The castle ruins bristling atop hills are reminders of the religious and geopolitical strife that once tore at southern France. The Château de Puilaurens is one of the “Five Sons of Carcassonne,” built to defend France from Spain when the border was farther north of today’s line.The first mentions of the château date to 985, when the site held the abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa. Around 1241, it became a harbor for Cathars–Carcassonne had already surrendered in 1209 in the crusade against the Cathars by Pope Innocent III. Catharism was a dismal religion that espoused that everything on earth was evil and who were ascetic to the extreme–quite the juxtaposition with the corruption in the Catholic church.Eventually, though Puilaurens surrendered, though nobody knows exactly when, possibly around 1255. The fortress then was fortified by King Louis IX, aka Saint-Louis, to stand up to the Kingdom of Aragon (Spain wasn’t united until the 1700s). By 1659, though, the Treaty of the Pyrénées made it obsolete by moving the border south, into the Pyrénées. During the Revolution, it was abandoned completely.It’s easy to see why. It’s in the middle of nowhere!
Which is charming in its own way.Puilaurens makes for a nice day trip from Carcassonne, a chance to mix nature and history and to get the very different feel of the mountains.
It’s not for the weak of heart, or of legs. The path is rugged, and the last bit is the steepest, the better for archers picking off invaders. Not being a bird nor having a drone, I don’t have the bird’s-eye view, but you can see some here and others here.
One of the towers is called the White Lady tower, after Blanche de Bourbon, the granddaughter of Philip IV (aka the Fair or Handsome, but also known as the Iron King), who stayed in Puilaurens, but it’s hard to say when. Maybe on her way to be married, at age 14, to Peter the Cruel, king of Castile, who abandoned her three days after their wedding and had her locked up. So much for the alliance with France, which was the reason he married her at all. Blanche died eight years later, supposedly on orders of her husband, either by being poisoned or shot by a crossbow (but she might have gotten the plague). She supposedly haunts the grounds of Puilaurens as a white, misty apparition. However, it is often misty at Puilaurens. It’s at an altitude of more than 700 meters (2300 feet).
I don’t have good photos here of the castle’s modern conveniences–latrines and a speaking tube cut into the stone that allowed people to communicate between different floors of a tower.
If archaeology is your thing, a great day trip from Carcassonne is to Tautavel, for three reasons:
There’s a fabulous musuem dedicated to l’Homme de Tautavel, who lived 450,000 years ago.
The scenery is gorgeous.
The region’s wines are yummy.
Tautavel man, a Homo erectus, was discovered in 1971 in a cave, along with 149 other human remains. He was about 20 years old and 1.6 meters (5 feet, 3 inches) tall. Sorry I don’t have photos! I hate taking photos inside museums. Click on the links to see the museum’s site.
Tautavel man hadn’t yet domesticated fire, but was a very good hunter. The prey was typically horse, deer, wild sheep, and bison but also included rhinos, lions and panthers, as well as smaller animals.
You can visit the cave as part of a guided group between April and August. Two museums, the Musée de Tautavel and the Musée des Premiers Habitants de l’Europe, display the site’s finds and illustrate prehistoric life. The dioramas are very realistic and not corny at all. Explanations are in several languages. Tip: the museums are closed at lunch, between noon and 2:30 p.m. Tickets, €8 adults/€4 kids, are €1 apiece cheaper if bought in advance online and are good for both museums.
There are demonstrations of how to light a fire using flint and by rubbing two sticks together, and how to use prehistoric weapons, such as a propulseur (not easy—I tried it). In mid-April, the museum hosts the Prehistoric Arms Firing Championship!
I accompanied a school trip, so we went by bus, taking the autoroute to near Perpignan (the exit, sortie 41, is well-marked for Tautavel man), then leaving the coastal plain to wind through low hills—I suppose they count as the foothills of the Pyrénées—with rugged, white rock outcroppings, plenty of garrigue and lush vineyards. The drive is about 1.5 hours, but the countryside and charming little villages make it seem like less. There’s a lot to look at.Speaking of vineyards, the region is near Fitou and has good wines. Here is a link to the local producers.
Poor M. Homme de Tautavel, living in a wine region before the advent of wine.
During the second weekend of September, France opens the doors on many buildings that normally are off-limits, in honor of les Journées de Patrimoine, or Heritage Days. It is the perfect opportunity for the curious/nosy/antique-lovers to eyeball how the French really live and work.
For example, I found my dream office, pictured above and below.Don’t you agree it meets all the criteria? Awesome chandelier? Check. Amazing drapes on French doors that open to Juliette balconies? Check. High ceilings and moldings? Check. Mega mirrors, gilt? Check. Silver candlesticks (in case the lights go out, probably)? Check. Herringbone floors with carpets? Check.Gigantic Aubusson tapestry that coordinates with the Empire (?? feel free to correct me) seating.
Sigh. I could be very productive in an office like this. It’s at the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie, in the hôtel de Murat, an 18th century building. It was built by the family of a local judge, but the proprietors fled in 1792 during the Revolution and the property was confiscated. That includes their amazing library and its 13,206 books. In addition to the classics in French, Greek and Latin, there also are precious manuscripts dating back to the 14th century.
The smell of a library is a heavenly perfume.
Check out the jib door covered with fake books!
Today it’s a meeting room. With a very functional, not-of-the-époque folding table…and the typical French ingenuity for electrical wiring (look in the fireplace).
But that mantle! And the mantle clock!
They don’t make ’em like they used to.
The stairwell was a work of art.
We also visited the Palais de Justice. I didn’t get a shot of the biggest of the three courtrooms because a mock trial was under way. I got lost in the back and forth of the trial–dogs biting cows, a fight, a broken phone….my kid informed me afterward that the witnesses kept changing their stories. No wonder I was confused. The audience was full of nonchalantly chic French parents with their mostly teenage kids, everyone riveted by the proceedings. I have never seen such a concentration of good haircuts.
We also popped into the Musée des Beaux Arts. Most museums are free during the Heritage Days. I prefer to focus on the buildings that aren’t usually open to the public, rather than just avoiding a museum entry fee. Plus, we’ve been to the museum before. But we were walking in front of it, so we went inside.
The plate on the back of a massive fireplace in the museum entrance.
The museum was actually purpose-built, in 1836. It isn’t huge and it doesn’t have big-name artists. I find that’s a plus–no crowds jostling for a photo of a painting (I understand wanting to get close to examine, but why a photo? just buy one at the gift shop!) or a selfie with a sculpture. People actually look at all the works, rather than passing over the “nobodies” in search of the Famous Artists. The benefits of Carcassonne–small and civilized.
Tell us your stories about les Journées du Patrimoine! Last year’s visit is here.
You could call it shopping the closet. We bought much of the furniture along with the apartments we renovated in Carcassonne. And in closets and cupboards there have been lovely finds.
The embroidered screen now stands in front of a fireplace. It’s really exquisite. I suppose it was handmade–everything was, even just a couple of generations ago.
The wooden bowl, below, is big and heavy and certainly hand-carved. So much of the furniture has a grape motif. Appropriate for the region!
And this funny dish, shaped like a shell, very light, and painted by hand. What would such a dish have been used for? There’s a souffler for a fireplace.
And this delicate lamp.
We also found lots of books, mostly old school books of several generations. School back in the day must have been awfully rigorous. The pages of the history book below are half-consumed by footnotes. Enough to make the biggest history buff’s eyes glaze over.
Which is probably what led to notes like the ones below.
There were books for all ages. How about this one:
The title translates as “While Laughing: Reading Without Tears.” One would hope so! It’s from 1930 and does away with the “old analytical method” in favor of the new “global method.” As illustrated below:
I’m not sure it accomplished its goals. It’s not exactly a laugh a minute. And how confusing to have to learn letters as printed and in cursive at the same time as trying to figure out the code of what they say.
Another book has vocabulary for items I don’t even recognize. What ARE those clippers?
However, it gives some great pronunciation points. Here, you have a list showing which “o” sounds are alike. It’s similar to a book I had in a French class back in the day, “Exercises in French Phonics,” by Francis W. Nachtmann. Excellent book, although pronunciation can’t be learned by books alone. It helps to also have a native speaker around to say the words correctly and then to point out how one has failed miserably to repeat them.
We also found another trove of old newspapers. It seems madame (or monsieur? their kids would have been pretty young) was thrilled by the Apollo 11’s moon landing on July 24, 1969. The papers show the extent to which it was big news, even in France profonde.
Ted Kennedy’s woes also warranted saving for posterity.
I was intrigued by a note about the weather. Perpignan had a record high of 36.9 Celsius, which comes to 98.4 Fahrenheit, while Carcassonne was at 33.2 Celsius, or 91.8 Fahrenheit. The all-time record for Carcassonne was during the 2003 heat wave, with 41.9 Celsius, or 107.42. That is definitely hot, and shows that the records are getting higher. Usually the average high temperature in summer is 28.6 Celsius, or 83.5 Fahrenheit–very pleasant.The finds reminded me of the book “A Paris Apartment” by Michelle Gable“A Paris Apartment” by Michelle Gable, which was based on the real story of a Parisian apartment that was left untouched for 70 years. Another book, in French, titled “Madeleine Project,” by Clara Beaudoux, is the true story of the author trying to figure out the life of the previous owner of the Parisian apartment she has bought–full of stuff.
We have found many small traces of the previous residents, some too personal too show. A torn bit of a photo. An electricity bill from 30 years ago. A Mary medal pinned to a mattress. I know the family endured tragedies, but I don’t know the details. In cleaning out a storage room, amid all manner of sports equipment, we found a wrapped present, itself wrapped up in sheets and stuffed into a box of clothes. I think it was too painful for them to go deal with, and too hard to let go. Even I was overwhelmed by emotion, their grief was so evident, despite decades of being shut away.
Dry stone walls (pierres seches) are one of the iconic features of the French countryside. “Dry” means no mortar. (The French use “dry” in many circumstances which have nothing to do with “not wet.” For example, a soup can be “dry” if it doesn’t have enough fat–quite aside from a powdered mix. Go figure. To me, soup = wet, therefore not dry. “Dry soup” is one of those phenomenon that make my head explode.)
The walls look as if they were thrown together by teen boys in a hurry to finish so they could do something else, undoubtedly more fun. How else to account for the horizontal/vertical/nonsensical design? Yet, these walls are hundred(s) of years old, a testament to the skill of those who built them. I can point you to several retaining walls and houses of recent vintage that have moved with the earth and bowed or cracked dangerously. Around here, old means strong.This is going to be a photo-heavy post, because I can’t resist the patterns, the way they wave as the terrain has moved, the colors of the lichen, the impossibility of their continued existence. I’ve never met a stone wall I didn’t want to photograph.The walls are home to many creatures: little lizards mostly, but also snakes, spiders and other things that make me scream. Think twice about sitting on them. Not comfortable anyway.Just now, it’s hot hot hot out. The nights are deliciously cool, and during restless breaks in sleep I migrate toward an open window to let the chill breeze wash over me. During the day, we move slowly and snap at each other quickly. We aren’t yet used to the heat.
The stones are ironic. Our house’s two-foot-thick stone walls keeps the inside fairly cool during the day, without air conditioning. The apartments are even cooler. But similar stone walls, out along the edges of fields or in improbably remote spots in the garrigue, soak up the sunshine and spew it out, like retailers with their doors open in winter, heating the street. Passing a sun-baked wall is like passing an open oven.Our house was built after World War II (just old enough to be in the strong category), and had never even been a house before we bought it. It had a big parking lot. UGLY. We wanted to give it un coup de vieux (a hit of age), and found people who wanted to get rid of stones. Can you imagine getting RID of these? I guess if you have a falling-down grange and you want to build something neat and modern, then the stones have to go. The proverbial millstone around one’s neck.
Some low walls, with mortar (fewer spiders and snakes, though there are plenty of adorable lizards), made a huge difference in the charm factor. You can tell they came from two different places.
A closet left untouched for over a decade, but probably filled long before that, is a kind of time capsule, full of clues about life in France years–sometimes many years–ago.
First, the closets themselves. They (both, I think) started as water closets–toilets. Folks used to have chamber pots, which they would empty out the window to the street below, passersby beware.
According to the genealogy blog Histoires d’Antan et d’à Présent, there were some public toilets, which were little stalls with holes in the floor, set above a pit. How difficult that must have been when women had to wear long dresses with big skirts!
People started to want more privacy and would put in a water closet as high as possible in the building–as far as possible from the main living quarters. The excrement would flow down a pipe into the street, while the odors would escape above. By 1553, the parliament of Paris required each house to have a septic pit.By the 18th century, most buildings had two WCs, one near the ground floor or near the stairs, and the other on the top floor. And indeed, in our apartments’ building, there are two closets on the landings between the floors.
When I first moved to Europe in the 1990s and looked for an apartment in Brussels, I was shown one with the toilet and bathroom (separate) on the landing; the facilities were shared with the other two apartments in the building! I passed on that one. Also, on a trip to Paris around the same time, I had chosen an “authentic” hotel from the Lonely Planet; it praised a “charming Turkish toilet.” If you don’t know what that means, see the photo below. And steer clear of “authentic” and “charming”!
Anyway, these water closets had been converted into just closets (the toilet was filled with concrete). And they were full. One had nothing interesting, but the other one, which had no traces of its former use, was full of stuff.
The lock box in the top photo, was an exciting find, but sadly it was empty. (Imagine the typical French gesture of swiping your forefinger under your nose–meaning out of luck.)
A plastic tote bag held architectural documents for city halls/schools from the late 1800s; I want to go around to the villages and get photos of the buildings today. With them was this document, which seems to be a handwriting/copying exercise: “Hommage to Our Lady of Angels. Extract of a letter from my Lord the Count of Massaïra (today brother Mary Joseph of Angels) to his sister, Madame the Countess of Weisemberg.”Look at how it was bound by sewing the three sheets together. Even a tear on the fold was repaired by sewing. The handwriting is beautiful. Not a single bit scratched out.
The content is odd; the writer says he was born in Naples and recounts his life, mentioning that he married off his sister to the count of Weisemberg. Wouldn’t his sister be on top of this info already?There were several pots à graisse (grease pots), used for making confit de canard (duck) or pork.
A few stray pieces of a set of Limoges china. I plan to use the surprisingly large sugar pot, above, as a vase.
In the lower closet–the one with the Turkish loo–we mostly encountered rubble and coal! The upstairs closet did harbor a charbonnière, or a kind of scoop/bucket for gathering coal from the heap to put into the furnace. Happily we don’t heat with that anymore.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever uncovered in cleaning out a closet?
Appearances can be deceptive. The Maison des Mémoires (House of Memories) is a haunting name for nicely restored building in the center of Carcassonne, mixing industrial modern touches with ancient stones. A sun-drenched interior courtyard shows beyond the reception desk.
Why I never entered is a mystery. I love this sort of thing. But la Maison des Memoires is modest, at least from the street, and when I passed, I was usually in a hurry on my way to something else.
I finally visited. And it was a treat. An unexpected discovery of unexpected discoveries. How’s that for meta?
The building, at 53 rue de Verdun (entry is free), was the home of Joë Bousquet, a poet and author who hobnobbed with the surrealists. They came to him because he was unable to get out. He was paralyzed by a bullet to the spine in World War I at the age of 21.
Bousquet mostly stayed in the dim of his upstairs room, where he smoked opium to cope with the pain. Opium became popular in France at the turn of the last century, as sailors and military brought it back with them from Indochina. It became so popular that smoking it was outlawed in 1908. But Bousquet’s father was a doctor, who had legal access, and his circle of artistic friends supplemented his supply.
Tangent discovered in researching this: France is the biggest legal producer of opium poppies rich in codeine (which is one of the six naturally occurring opium alkaloids; morphine is the most important one for medicine).
The ground floor has a reception area (entry is free), and upstairs are two rooms for visiting exhibits–a series of photographs about immigration when I visited–and two more rooms about Bousquet, with photos and his books. At the end of a small hallway, you can look into Bousquet’s bedroom, kept as he left it, with the shutters closed.
The exhibit rooms are stunning, exhibits notwithstanding. When the building was renovated, gorgeous painted ceiling beams were revealed. They were restored but not brightened or altered. The first room is kept dark, so it was hard to photograph without flash.
The second room’s beams date to 1640 and are quite different. They would be stylish today. I would love them at home!
The rooms are arranged in the typical French disposition, with doors aligned for sight lines and air circulation. As you stand in the second room and look through the first to the hallway beyond, there’s a trompe d’oeil fresco that was discovered after a new staircase had been installed. The fresco was placed to give the impression of a pastoral view that continued on to the horizon.And then, get a load of this beauty below. This is no reflection on the Bousquet family, because Joë lived in two other houses on the same street before moving here. But sometimes you have to appreciate when decorators don’t do the “right” thing. Like when they slap something new right on top of the old stuff, instead of first removing the old.In this case, the old stuff was Aubusson wallpaper, signed and dated: 1791. It originally had been a few feet away, at the end of a hallway, but was moved here, away from the window. Whoever had gotten sick of it so many years ago just left it there and covered it up.
Another tangent: the tapestries that had made Aubusson (and Gobelins and Beauvais) famous fell out of fashion, in part because they weren’t needed for insulation as homes were better heated and in part because the French Revolution (1789-1799) put a big dent in their clientele. So they started making wallpaper, which was coming into fashion. In fact, the first definition of tapisser today in French is to hang wallpaper. I love etymological connections.
Sadly for Bousquet, all these beauties had been hidden under plaster and discovered only during the renovation to create the museum. I can just imagine, having been there, done that: a bump against a wall sends a layer of plaster clattering down. In our case, we discovered not antique wallpaper but that the walls had been filled with straw. You never know what you will find.
After my second visit to la Maison des Memoires, I hit the library for some of Bousquet’s books. I wasn’t familiar with Bousquet, nor with his contemporaries, such as Andrew Gide and Paul Éluard. Another happy discovery. Here are a few passages translated:
The truth that we understand is but the image of that which inspires us.
You have presumed too much of the future and of luck. The time which should have brought you happiness is dead en route, and you fall again to the power of the shadows that follow you. But an unhoped-for rescue comes to you with your strengths, which you hadn’t imagined. Would you say that everything is lost because there’s only you to save yourself?
Don’t imitate reality, collaborate with it.
Meanwhile, a call for help from a reader: what exactly are these scissors used for? They are 6.5 inches or 16 cm long. I was thinking for sewing, though they’re longer than my pretty sewing scissors and the blades are different. What do you say?
Send your answers in the comments. And merci mille fois!
After a full morning of antiquing recently at the grand déballage in Pézenas, we needed sustenance. It was well past noon when we left, and the Carnivore was even more peckish than me, and starting to panic. Remember, the French eat at prescribed times. If you hesitate, you lose.
One restaurant after another in Pézenas had set up special outdoor grills and other equipment to feed a crowd, and crowds were waiting to be fed. This does not bode well for good food at a good price. We headed out–it was the Carnivore’s idea, after he rejected my suggestion of a slice of pizza from a food truck, where a long line waited.
So we drove away from Pézenas. Soon we were in the middle of countryside, not a resto for miles. The Carnivore became agitated. The clock was ticking on the French lunch time. Soon we would be out of luck.
“Go to Béziers,” I commanded, figuring it was a fairly big town, simultaneously close enough to arrive in time and far enough from the antiquing throngs, plus on our way home. “Where exactly?” he asked testily, clearly fearful of a wild goose chase that would end with no goose, or duck or anything else to eat. “I don’t know,” I snapped back, hangry. “Centre ville.”
This was on May 7, election day in France. The day that Macron and LePen faced off. And Béziers has a far-right mayor.
We wound our way to centre ville–downtown, and looked for a parking spot. Even with the elections, we figured a Sunday wouldn’t be difficult for parking. But 99.99% of downtown Béziers is torn up, with no parking anywhere. (Don’t even suggest one of the many underground parking garages; one must pay for those, and the French–and Belgians, ahem, our driver–would rather risk being towed from a quasi-illegal spot than to shell out €2 for a legit one). We went farther and farther. We passed a pretty square where lucky people were eating lunch.
We went down, down, down a steep street, each descent in altitude also descending in gentrification. The square up above was chic, with every building pristinely restored. On the same street, far lower, several shops were open, catering to a clientele for whom Sunday is just another weekday. A barber ran an electric razor over a man’s skull like a lawnmower on a big back yard. A couple of impeccably clean butcher shops with shining white floors made the Carnivore want to pick up some lamb and merguez to take home. “It would taste a lot better than what you get at leClerc,” he said.
He squeezed the Peugeot into a tiny spot on a 45-degree incline, with two centimeters of space in front and behind the car. If you don’t want to pay, you had better be expert at parallel parking.
At a café on the corner, tables outside were filled exclusively with men. It was a big day for them, as France decided whether to shut the door on–or worse, kick out–their community. In Béziers, those issues run hotter than in some other places (the mayor has said there are too many kebab shops in the city center, among other things).
We hiked up the hill to that pretty square. Lunch was still on. We secured a table under the pink parasols at le Millefeuille on rue de la Rotisserie (yes, Rotisserie Street) on Place Gabriel Péri. We sat next to a table of Poles. Some Brits were on the other side. Tourist season is under way.
A small blonde boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, went by, unaccompanied except by his fluffly little dog on a leash. An old lady with a cane tapped toward the mairie, or city hall, across the street, presumably to cast her ballot. A car swung into one of the rare parking spots the instant it was freed, and a bourgeois couple of pensioners, both in suits, hers with a skirt and chunky heels, emerged and walked hand in hand down a side street, her bag swinging carefree on its long strap. Several women with veils and long robes passed, each alone, pushing strollers. For all its famous déliquance, Béziers felt like a pretty safe, laid-back place. Unless one is threatened by diversity itself.
Our food was excellent. The Carnivore went for the menu at €12,90: an entrée (starter) of a charcuterie plate, which included not only a lot of hard sausages but also a nice salad and some fresh pleurote mushrooms, grilled zucchini and sweet red pepper; then he had an entrecôte steak with potatoes and more salad, and a dessert of fresh strawberries with whipped cream. Very correct. That price usually gets you a starter plus main dish or main dish plus dessert. To get all three, and so well-garnished, was unusual. I didn’t want any of the menu options (steak, duck or one other thing that I forget because it didn’t tempt me), so I ordered steak tartare (€13.90). It came with all the special ingredients arrayed like a painter’s palette, so I could include what I wanted (which was everything). And home-made fries. I also consumed the Carnivore’s unwanted salad, surprise. A very lovely lunch, at a very reasonable price. Plus charming service and a beautiful place to sit.
We walked around a little before heading back to the car. A young woman was sketching a building on the square; it was beautiful. As I photographed it, she told us not to miss the lions on another building nearby.
I took pictures of several other places–lots of pretty Belle Epoche architecture in Béziers–and was surveying my next target when an older man asked whether we needed directions. He was tall, wearing a white shirt buttoned all the way up but without a tie, a V-neck cardigan over that, and a suit. He was in his 70s–maybe older but in good shape–and had bushy eyebrows and a nice smile. He held a large notebook or folder in the crook of his arm. We explained that no, we weren’t lost, just appreciating the sights.
He talked with us as I snapped photos. As we moved on, he came along, still chattering, about how long he’d lived there, the weather, the architecture. He seemed lonely, in need of company. I wondered, is he hanging around to talk because he doesn’t want to go home? What is his life like? At his age, is he a widower with nobody to go home to? Or a care-giver, perhaps of a wife who no longer can provide company? I thought about the movie “Amour.” I wanted to invite him to dinner, but Carcassonne is a good 45 minutes from Béziers, kind of far for a meal.
We eventually parted ways as he stayed on the big street, Avenue Alphonse Mas, and we branched off on the narrow canyons of ruelles, or tiny streets, that wove away at crazy angles.
Eventually, we returned to the avenue, and there he was, standing on a corner, talking on his phone. We smiled at him and took pictures. When he had finished his call, he came over to us again. “Are you interested in buying property?” he asked. I said that I was always “interested” but not “able” in a budgetary sense. I’m fully guilty of divulging in real-estate porn.
“Ah,” he sighed. “It’s too bad. I know some good ones.” He pointed up at the building next to us. “This one. Two buildings. There were two sisters; each had one. One sister died–she was 88–and the other sister was going to sell and move. Then she died, too. She was 92. She counted all the fireplaces, and there were more than 100! There are at least 21 apartments. The buildings start up there”–he pointed halfway up the block on the avenue–“to over there”–he pointed down the intersecting side street. I wondered about “au moins 21 appartements”–so maybe there are 22? Maybe some could be combined or split? Why say 21 and not 20? Too many questions. I just nodded and said I could only dream of being able to renovate such a place. Which is true.
Off the avenue, the buildings were very different, in various states of decay. It could be pretty in that Italian way, or it could just be urban decay. Right now, it was on the fine line between the two.
Our elderly friend took off down a different street. We descended toward the car. A number of people were enjoying the sunny weather on their balconies. A man smoked beneath a gorgeous, gorgeous bas-relief garland of flowers, leaning on an amazing Art Nouveau railing. A couple played with a toddler. A woman hung laundry. They were from three cultures. Why not, I thought. All enjoy the same sun.
Béziers has a bloody history. In 1209, it was the first stop of the Abigensian Crusade, when the ironically named Pope Innocent III decided to eradicate the Cathars. It’s thought there were about 200 Cathar parfaits, or holy people, living among the 15,000-20,000 Catholic residents. Supposedly one of the crusaders asked how to know which inhabitants were Catholic or Cathar. The commander, the Abbot of Cîteaux, said “Kill them all–God will know his own.” And they did. Upon hearing the news, the crusaders’ subsequent targets, including Carcassonne, fell without a fight.
The Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire burned down during the siege. A few years later, work began on a new edifice on the same site, which today rises high on a hill above the Orb river, dominating the town.
Driving out of town, my heart warmed further for Béziers. A family was holding a gathering in the cool shade of a grange/garage, several long tables covered with white cloths under the arched doors open to the street, children ricocheting everywhere. At a bus stop, two elderly men sat on the far ends of a bench but leaned their skull caps toward each other as they conversed animatedly. Pretty details embellished even humble, downtrodden buildings.
One of the nicest things about this blog is that it has reopened my eyes. I have gotten used to living in the south of France; it has been good to look around me with fresh eyes as I think about stories to tell.
And I see eyes looking back.
The Bastide, or the “new” town (having been built in 1260, vs. la Cité, which is far older), is truffled with these decorations. I suspect that back in the day of la Cité, only the aristocracy and church had the means for anything beyond the slimmest basics of life. Styles and tastes change, but also, by the time of la Bastide, trade was booming and Carcassonne was a center for textiles, wine and cereals. The buildings show it, with flourishes and sometimes elaborate decorations.
Who were they? Did real people sit as models? Or were they sculpted from paintings, books, memories?
Some are in unlikely places, more modest embellishments than the grand busts atop grand buildings.
Toulouse also has many wonderful faces hiding in plain sight. The series below live on the back side of the Capitole, home to the city hall and municipal theater.