Saint-Hilaire is a pretty village of ancient stone buildings and a more-ancient abbey, nestled in the first hills that rise from the plain of Carcassonne until they become the mountains of the Pyrénées. The Benedictine abbey began early in the 9th century, when King Louis I, son of Charlemagne, granted it a charter. Louis was nicknamed “the Fair,” “the Debonaire” and “the Pious,” which is an interesting combination indeed.The abbey is mostly famous for having claim to the first documented existence of bubbling wine, which was made at the abbey but which is known as blanquette de Limoux, after a nearby town. Despite the abundance of bubbly, life wasn’t so good for the monks. You would think that, being monks, they would have come out well in the crusade against the Cathars in 1209, but instead they got into a fight against the formation of a Dominican abbey down the road in Prouilhe–the “cradle of the Dominicans.” By the 1300s, money was tight, but the plague, the 100 Years’ War and roving mercenaries called routiers forced the monks to fortify the abbey into a military outpost. A real litany of threats that make a person happy to be living in the 21st century.
Things went from bad to worse: by the 1500s, François I persuaded the pope to let the king appoint the lead monk instead of the monks themselves. Such monks usually were aristocrats and didn’t have to follow any of the order’s rules or even live at the abbey. The money problems worsened. I didn’t find out whether the monks sold their wine, but the idea that prices would naturally go up wasn’t accepted any better than the idea that gravity pulled objects to the ground or that the earth revolved around the sun. Prices were considered to be immutable, and you weren’t allowed to raise them.By 1748, the monk left. The abbey’s church was used by the village and its cloister used as the village square. The abbey was sold off before 1800, as were many religious institutions after the Revolution.There’s a legend that outside Saint-Hilaire, the monks had a little country getaway, which fell to ruin and disappeared after 1748. On a Christmas night centuries later, before the Great War began, a local man passed through the moonlit domaine and heard bells ringing. But no bells were within earshot. Then he heard singing, and witnessed a procession of ghostly monks.
It does seem like the kind of place where, if ghosts exist, you might find them.The abbey is really pretty and open for visitors all year. A peaceful haven.
When walking around French cities, don’t forget to look up. Somebody might be looking down at you.
Oh, the things they’ve seen!
This one is wearing a lion skin. Look at that paw on the right.
And the next window seems similarly dressed, with the paws tied in front. Are those weapons on the left? Even then, women were smooth-faced, while men could have wrinkles.
This one seems happier, and with flowers, not animal skins. I also like the shutters, with that shade of almost-blue faded gray.
Sometimes you have to look way up.
This lady seems to be studiously ignoring the antics of the buffoons on either side of her.
There will be building after building with no more decoration than the character of their stones and bricks, which, truth be told, is mighty fine in itself. But then a building will have something–or someone–at every window.
Gorgeous railings, eh? They’re called garde-fous, which literally translates to crazy guards.
The one above was a consulate, hence the barbed wire.
Yeah, everybody does 5k races, and everybody even does them throwing colored powder at the runners. But not everybody does them around a medieval fortress.We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
On Saturday, the young, healthy and energetic citizens of the city gathered along the Aude river for “Color My Run.” It’s in English because that’s cool, authentic. The symbol is a castle because … France.I know these color runs have been a thing for quite a while, but we are in France profonde–deepest France–and it was a first here. Put together by a group of students (more cheers for young people!), with proceeds going to Secours Populaire, or People’s Relief.
It was all organized in usual French fashion, which is to say, extremely organized, except that, in European fashion (I won’t pin it solely on the French, since a number of other nationalities do it, too), the lines were more amoebas than lines, but at least they moved quickly. The young organizers scanned participants’ tickets (you had to sign up online–of course) with their phones (of course. Does anybody use phones to call? I don’t think so, but they do everything else). It helps that Carcassonne is small and not very cut-throat. People are still registering at the starting time? Well, we’ll wait until everybody is ready. Plenty of time! Relax!
I tell you, life here is good. Even people running a race have all the time in the world.We were not on top of the fashion situation, because lots of runners came decked out in crazy outfits.
One group of young ladies even dyed their hair, half green, half red. That’s dedication.
The runners took off along the Quai Bellevue–it does have a pretty view–then crossed the 14th century Pont Vieux, or old bridge, which is entirely pedestrian.
I thought the route was going to be an easy loop along one side of the river–semi-wild, very pretty parkland because it’s in a flood zone–and then on the other–more parks, all flat. However, just after the bridge, the route included a quad-melting climb to the walls of la Cité.
There’s a new art installation, called Eccentric Concentric, by Felice Varini, with 15 yellow circles on the ramparts. I am no art critic, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but to me it looks like either the symbol for wifi or the symbol on the highways to warn that there’s a radar ahead.As long as it’s temporary.
When I lived in New York, first I was downtown and constantly marveled at the high-rises and bright lights. I’d go to the top of the World Trade Center just because it was nearby and always a thrill. Later, I lived in Brooklyn and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to go home, always gazing in wonder at the view out the back window, even after years of it. Now, it’s la Cité that makes me pinch myself. How is it possible that such a place existed? An even bigger question: How is it possible it still is intact today?
To do something as universal and ordinary as running, while in the shadow of such a place, well, I never can believe it’s real, even after so many years.The thing is, all the stuff around it is so pretty but la Cité is so awesome you don’t even notice the rest. Like the pretty little dam on the river with a little footbridge.At the end of the run, which was noncompetitive, there was an afternoon rave with the cutest DJ brothers. They clearly took their work very seriously, and made playing music look as complex as any scene from the command deck of a space ship that’s under attack, yet they seemed to enjoy it at the same time. The post-run crowd relaxed by jumping madly (after a run!) and had good, clean fun, as you can see below.
And if anybody now has an earworm of Chicago crooning “Color My World,” bringing back a flood of prom and homecoming memories, well, maybe next time you will run, too?
Trying to explain what is “new” and “old” in France to somebody from the Americas is challenging. In a place where the first buildings still standing went up in 485 CE, something from 1663 is relatively new.
I never liked history because of having to memorize dates. It’s very strange, because I’m good with numbers and am likelier to remember somebody’s phone number or zip code than their name. I guess we also had to memorize a lot of names. Not enough emphasis on the stories!
I finally have a few key points under my belt, such as July 14, 1789: Bastille Day. These things never happen on a whim. The kindling is laid for years, and then when the fire is sparked, it takes off ferociously.
The houses above were built in the period when things had been getting better to the extent that people lived longer and populations swelled. France had the biggest population in Europe. For a while it was boom times, then prices for food rose sharply.
This 1790 house was built in the early days of the revolution, not far from the 1780 house. Had the unrest reached this far into France profonde? To get here, you have to pass the mountainous Massif Central, until the band of plain where these houses lie. Beyond here, you hit mountains, where sheep outnumber people, and then Spain.
I constantly marvel and am thankful that these houses, with their not-square corners and not-plumb walls and not-level floors, have been inhabited and tended to, rather than torn down for something modern.
In the little streets, time stands still.
Despite the simple tools of the time, curves (the intentional ones!) grace the architecture.
Concrete and glass can be beautiful, but after a while, so many pure lines feel bland. Give me a nice stone wall that has seen some things.
Arched door, arched back.
I mentioned just last week, on the first day of spring, that the trees had a green haze that hinted at leaves, which I predicted would burst out all at once. Well, the switch flipped. The photos below are from almost the same spot. The one on the left was from a couple of weeks ago with the first buds, and the one on the right was taken yesterday.
Spring fever is contagious. My kid occasionally often forgets to be a sullen teen, for example, yesterday, exclaiming at breakfast that the birds were singing. Indeed, a whole chorus of birds chirped and twittered in the background of a belted-out aria from Merle, our resident blackbird. Un merle is French for blackbird, and I think it’s a good name for such a singer. He often sits on the peak of our house and serenades us as we dine en terrace in the evenings, something we can finally do again.
I prepared this post last week. Today, we are in shock. Crazies again. In a little, old-fashioned supermarket. In a town where little old ladies walk around with a cane in one hand and their handbags dangling from the other. The picture of safe.
I will certainly have something to say about it later. I am glad I gave blood again this morning.
Back to the previously scheduled post:
Our local bakery is awful. Shocking, but true. For years, we went to a bakery in the next village, tucked away on a barely one-way street (I say “barely” because it was practically a tunnel, lined by houses that were erected when traffic was exclusively on foot, whose walls are well-scraped by passing vehicles). The oven was wood-fired, and the baker’s wife would wear big mitts to bring out hot pain de campagne. The baker was crowded with people waiting to buy it—you snooze, you lose. While waiting (in a huddle, never in a line), they discussed the weather, and their forecasts were 100% accurate. This is not surprising in a crowd of winegrowers and other farmers and gardeners. Stooped pensioners showed up wearing their plaid flannel bedroom slippers. In winter, the heat from the oven and the people would steam the windows on the bakery, and, when I got my lumpy loaf, holding it with my sleeves because it was still too hot to handle, it would steam up the windows of my car.
Sometimes the Carnivore and I would eat the entire loaf while it was still hot enough to melt the butter, which we applied copiously. But our beloved bakers got tired of the early mornings six days a week and sold the bakery. The young guy who bought the place had his own ideas about things, and the bread wasn’t as good. He went out of business after two years.We tried other bakeries, but the problem with village bakeries is that you show up early, yet are informed that the hunters have passed by even earlier and have bought everything but a couple of éclairs, which aren’t very good for sandwiches. Or that the baker had a party the night before and is running late and so come back in an hour.Good French bread is a revelation, but disappointing bread is practically criminal.
Though most of my friends are cook-at-home-from-scratch experts, they don’t make bread. Restaurants might pride themselves on their elaborate patisseries for dessert, but they won’t make their own bread. For bread, one goes to the boulangerie. Every day.
I had noticed this French habit long before I heard of the four banal—the banal oven, which probably played a role.
What does the word “banal” have to do with ovens? Or “banalities”? Did you know these words are related to bread?According to the French Federation of Baking Enterprises, around 50 B.C., the Romans introduced (unleavened) bread to France, having adopted it from the Greeks.
Keep in mind that people cooked over a fire, and it isn’t all that easy to translate into an oven. I did it when I lived in Africa: I made an “oven” out of a very large covered pot that I lined with pebbles, and into which I placed a smaller pot that held the bread. Necessity is the mother of invention. It was delicious, BTW. Some people put ovens into the walls near the kitchen fireplace. Except that all these fires, including candles and lamps for light, meant that houses were burning down rather frequently. With houses sandwiched against each other, one person’s faulty chimney could quickly destroy an entire village. I saw a communal oven, with loaves waiting their turn, in Timbuktu, where not only is it safer to have a communal oven, but you wouldn’t want any extra heat in the kitchen, and wood is so scarce that it makes sense not to use fuel for individual ovens.So the seigneurs—lords—started building separate ovens for bread, and charging the locals to use them; meanwhile they banned home ovens.
Un ban in French originally meant a public proclamation—for example les bans de mariage, the official pronouncement of a wedding engagement. As official proclamations tended to come from the lords of the château, and as lords tended to proclaim what locals could NOT do more than what was permitted, the word “ban” assumed more of its current connotation of “forbid.”Imagine you’re living in your medieval village, you’ve made your bread, you’ve marked it with a B (seriously, everybody had to mark their bread to keep the loaves from being mixed up) and now you have to schlep over to the lord’s oven—le four banal—to throw it in the oven (for a fee). Plus, you had to bring a log to add to the fire. You might have to wait your turn. Other villagers will be there, waiting for their bread to come out. Of course, you all chat—about the weather (some things never change) and little things that happened. You see each other all the time and there’s little news to share nor is there time for delving into intellectual discussions. And thus, the word “banal” acquires its connotation of that which is idle, trivial, common or boring. Le four banal is where banalités—banalities—or fees for use of the oven (usually in kind, not in money) are exchanged. And so you have the very bad pun of my title. I am not the only one to riff on glutton/gluten. And pain is not pain but bread, and rhymes not with rain but with hand, if you left off the nd. Kind of. Listen here. (My best title pun, if I may say so, was this one.)Keep in mind that until quite recently, all bread was whole-wheat bread and quite healthy. It wasn’t even salted until the 18th century, when the tax was lifted on on salt, which is related to the word salary, but that’s another monopoly and another story.
The job of baker originally started as le tamisier—the one who makes or sells sifters. Around 1200, King Philippe Auguste let the tamisiers build their own ovens, and around 1250—close to the same time the “new” city of Carcassonne was built—Saint-Louis ended the seigneurs’ rights to oven fees in cities, but these ovens continued for a few more centuries out in the countryside. The bakers joined together to control the supply of flour and bread, and it was forbidden to bake one’s bread at home.According to the FEB, it was in 1665 that a Parisian baker added some beer yeast into a light bread, making it taste better and producing a lighter bread. This was very controversial, and the medical faculty in Paris and the government itself came out against using beer yeast. However, taste won the day, because consumers demanded yeasty bread, and the ban was lifted in 1670.Around the same time, in the 17th century, bread in a long form started to appear in Paris: le baguette, which literally means “little stick.” Baguette also refers to chopsticks, an orchestra director’s baton, and, in the case of la baguette magique, a magic wand. This symbol of France didn’t take off outside the cities until the 20th century, according to the Center for Research and Study of Bakery and Its Companions. Maybe that’s why the lumpy roundish loaf is called pain de campagne.Very important advice: when you order a baguette in France, be sure to ask for “baguette tradition,” with a slight sour-dough taste and a chewy interior beneath a golden, bumpy crust. Do not save a couple of centimes by getting the plain old baguette, with a uniform crust and inside that resembles the foam in a mattress and that will be as hard as a rock in a couple of hours.
According to the Balladur Decree of 1993 (another decree! another bread ban!), the pain de tradition français may contain only these ingredients: wheat flour, potable water, salt and yeast, although it also can have small amounts of flour of broad beans, soybeans or wheat malt. It means that all the goodness of a baguette depends on the quality of the flour and the expertise of the baker.
The patron saint of bakers is Saint Honoré, whose feast day is May 16 (saints’ feast days are announced on TV daily with the weather report). Mark your calendar and celebrate accordingly.
Like ghostly apparitions, advertisements from an earlier age whisper hints about the past lives of buildings and places.
There was a bakery here before?
A cured-meat shop down the street? I love the specificity. Not just a butcher, but charcuterie–sausage, ham, cold cuts and such.
This one was near the charcutier. A rival? Salaisons are salted foods, mostly ham and such. Wholesale and retail, it says. Felix B. was called the nice (gentil) something. I wonder what!
This little place was an auto garage? It’s true that cars were smaller back then. The buildings on these streets are very old–13th century mostly–very narrow, with low ceilings. But if you’re a mechanic, you find a way to make your business.
Again, the specificity: wines for Catholic Mass. The second line most likely read vins de dessert–dessert wines–because Banyuls wines are very sweet.
This one is no advertisement, but a warning: With the Legion or against France. From World War II. Reminders of war are never far away in Europe.
Hints that life was different then.
No online shopping. If you wanted something, you went to the specialist.
When we were hunting for an investment property, among the eight-dozen-plus places I saw was a magnificent ruin (at a modest price, but requiring a large fortune to restore to habitability) that included an atelier. The seller’s father had been a sign painter around the era of many of these signs. The workshop was a hoarder’s bazaar, but there were so many interesting remnants of signs. Sign painting was a real profession then.
Occasionally there also are hints of the boom times, from the Belle Epoque or during the 1920s, when advertisements and store signs were more elaborate. This gorgeous mosaic, which glimmers gold in the sun, is signed by the ceramists Gentil and Bourdet (who also did quite a few Paris Métro stations) and adorns what originally was a butcher shop–hence the cow’s head. The surrounding arch is marble from the nearby village of Caunes-Minervois. Today, the address, on the main street in the center of Carcassonne, houses a real estate office, still in the same family.
The top photo is outside the halles (indoor market) in the center of Carcassonne, on rue Chartran. A droguerie is like a pharmacy for your home. Gazaniol was the family name of the owner.
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.