Driving around the French countryside, one often spots little signs pointing out local objects of pride. The ones for menhirs especially intrigued me, but I always was rushed, especially when passing a certain sign, and when I did have time, I wasn’t on that road–out of sight out of mind–I didn’t have a checklist of “when have 20 free minutes, go check out this stuff,” with menhir at the top of the list.Read more
We’re all naïve. All 7.8 billion of us. In more ways than one.
I saw the word used technically, to describe humans in the face of the new coronavirus. Because the virus is new, none of us had ever had it before, and so we are “naïve.” It’s the perfect word in other ways, too.
Like many people in February and early March, I thought it was a lot of hubbub about nothing. Cover your coughs, wash your hands, not that bad unless you’re old and sick with something else. Remembering SARS, which came with so many gloomy warnings, and which sounded so scary. It was deadlier than Covid-19. People caught it from the plumbing in their apartments. Way worse than being near somebody coughing–you can at least step away from such people, but to catch a deadly disease while sleeping in your own bed? SARS was under control fairly quickly, and no vaccine or treatment was ever found…. Thinking it would always be so efficient to control pandemics was naïve.A microscopic string of RNA has changed everybody’s lives. Not just today, under various lockdowns, confinements, remote learning/working, etc. It is going to haunt us for a long time. Perhaps forever.There will not be a switch that flips us back to Before, to some date in November 2019 or so (probably earlier), when the threat hadn’t yet crossed over into humans. When the world economy was humming. When the future looked, if not bright, then as a glass somewhat more full than empty.As far as the future goes, we are still naïve, in the other sense of the word, of lacking experience or understanding. We don’t know for sure whether people who were infected will be immune for life, or whether it will be like colds (also caused by coronaviruses, different ones) that we get over and over. We don’t know the long-term effects. We don’t have a cure or even a treatment besides oxygen. We don’t have a vaccine.I wondered about the 1918-1919 influenza. I have a set of Encyclopedia Britannica from 1929, which I figured was both close enough to the event for the pandemic to still be remembered as a big deal and distant enough to have some perspective. Indeed, the entry covers almost two full pages. It mentions the previous influenza outbreak of 1890–which was only 39 years earlier itself; of course there were still people around who had lived through that. Interestingly, a decade after the “Spanish flu” pandemic, the cause was still in dispute–was it bacterial or viral?
Now experts say that influenza not only was viral but that it was a kind of H1N1 virus, like the kind that broke out in 2009. It hit in three waves: the first was relatively mild, the second very deadly, and the third was similar to the first.
“Frequently the lungs became severaly affected and the patient passed into a state of anoxaemia recalling that due to exposure to the ‘pulmonary irritants’ of gas warfare.”The 1890 outbreak, which also actually had three waves between 1889-1892, is described in detail as well:
“The invasion is sudden; the patients can generally tell the time when they developed the disease; e.g., acute pains in the back and loins came on quite suddenly while they were at work or walking in the street, or in the case of a medical student, while playing cards, rendering him unable to continue the game. A workman wheeling a barrow had to put it down and leave it; and an omnibus driver was unable to pull up his horses. This sudden onset is often accompanied by vertigo and nausea, and sometimes actual vomiting of bilious matter. There are pains in the limbs and general sense of aching all over; frontal headache of special severity; pains in the eyeballs, increased by the slightest movement of the eyes; shivering; general feeling of misery and weakness, and great depression of spirits, many patients, both men and women, giving way to weeping; nervous restlessness; inability to sleep, and occasionally delirium. In some cases catarrhal symptoms develop, such as running at the eyes, which are sometimes infected on the second day; sneezing nd sore throat; and epistaxis, swelling of the parotid and submaxillary glands, tonsilitis and spitting of bright blood from the pharynx may occur. There is a hard, dry cough of a paroxysmal kind, worst at night. There is often tenderness of the spleen, which is almost always found enlarged, and this persists after the acute symptoms have passed. The temperature is high at the onset of the disease. In the first twenty-four hours its range is from 100 F in mild cases to 105 F in severe cases.”
It also said that, in the 1890 outbreak, stress around the pandemic caused a 25% increase in suicides in Paris.The Covid-19 virus’s complete genome was sequenced and put online in mid-January. And yet there’s much we don’t know. It might seem as if experts are changing their minds, or that they don’t know what they’re doing, but in fact they are honing and updating information as it becomes available.
France is supposed to gradually reopen as of May 11. It already is happening, though. I see more cars on the road. Businesses that had been closed have found an excuse to reopen. One change is that almost everybody is wearing a mask now, even while driving alone in their car. Maybe they don’t want to touch it?
I was going to our mairie, or town hall, to get recycling bags the other day, mask in hand, because usually I would see nobody out in the village. However, lots of people were out, going to the bakery, to the little grocery, for walks. I saw a friend sweeping the sidewalk in front of her house, and she was talking to a little old lady who was out for her constitutional. I’d met this lady many times, including on a run in winter where she responded to my bonjour with “bonjour, j’ai 89 ans” (hello, I’m 89 years old). My friend asked her whether she had a mask and she said no, she didn’t know where to get one in the village and had no way to go out of the village. How old are you, my friend asked. “Ninety,” she answered, adding, “in July,” which she pronounced as “juillette,” adding many rolls of the tongue in an especially heavy local accent. I handed her my homemade mask (I was still holding it–we were talking–shouting at top volume–from a distance of at least three meters from each other). She was thrilled. I can make more. My friend, a retired nurse, instructed her on cleaning of the mask. So I ran back home to get another mask and go back to the mairie. A sign on the door said it was closed and that if villagers needed anything they were to call. So I called. They told me to come and ring and they would hand the recycling bags through the window. “Oh, you’re outside now,” the secretary exclaimed. A window opened a crack and the roll of yellow bags emerged–not even a fingertip of the person inside was evident. I hollered merci as I grabbed the roll. The window shut the the instant the roll passed through.The Saturday market reopened. It is far superior to shopping at the supermarket, as always for quality and price but also for hygiene. The central square is barricaded, with a single entrance and exit, and a table with sanitizer at each. And police, who were neither wearing masks nor social distancing as they shot the breeze. There were just a few vendors, but they included the family of vegetable farmers, the goat cheese guy (who rocked a gorgeous tie-dye mask), and the local apple grower. A ribbon separated shoppers from the produce. We waited in line, spaced by tape on the marble, and the vendors served us, so there was nobody else handling the produce. Almost everybody had a mask except for the oldest shoppers. I was among the youngest, so that tells you how skewed the demographic is at the market.It was very sad, though, to see all the cafés closed, their terrace tables stacked up under tarps. I wondered whether this was what it was like during the war, when people ventured out to stand in line to buy food. It was sad, too, to see the other shops, mostly for clothes and jewelry and such, closed but in a way that felt like “Sleeping Beauty”–as if they were about to fling open their doors but were frozen in mid-step.
I wonder about life afterward. Will people be afraid to take the bus or métro, and flood the streets with individual cars? Or will they feel the same way and commute by bike? Will people be afraid of being cooped up in a small space and move to suburbs, eating up more and more of the precious farmland that needs to feed more and more people? Or cutting down the little wild nature that is left, so they can have their individual houses with yards that function like private parks, like buffers from neighbors, full of grass that needs watering and mowing and that they almost never spend time in? Or will people who are hearing birds for the first time realize that it’s important to preserve and even enlarge the space for nature?
How are you holding up?
What is it about humans that we love to look down on everything? To get up high, for a better view? The chill of vertige with the thrill of omniscience.On a balmy February day, a friend and I went to the Passerelle of Mazamet, which has been on my bucket list for a moment. One of those things that’s too nearby to miss, but far enough that I never got around to it. The drive from Carcassonne to Mazamet takes nearly an hour. Longer if a nervous retiree from a distant department is ahead of you and slowing to a crawl around the curves but, with a bigger engine, speeding like an idiot on the rare straightaways, as if that makes up for anything. The $*%&ing driver ahead of us aside, the route was absolutely gorgeous. It goes up and up and up, and the vegetation changes to dense forest. There were signs about the pass being open, snow markers on the sides of the road, but we were in fleece jackets and during our hike had to take those off. A weird winter. It was 70 F here yesterday.
The passerelle was inaugurated in 2018. It’s 140 meters (460 feet) long over the Arnette river and 70 meters (230 feet) above the ground. It’s free and open 24/7, but you’d be crazy to go after dark. We were glad to be there in February–plus it was lunch time and the French do one thing during lunch time: eat. So we had the place almost to ourselves. It would be much less fun in the heat of summer with a gazillion people on the narrow path. Even worse, a gazillion people on the passerelle. It can hold 42 tons, which is a lot of people, but even a couple of other people walking made it bounce such that I was glad I hadn’t eaten.
The only other people were grandparents with three girls. One was maybe two or three years old, and she galloped up and down the passerelle fearlessly. One was maybe 12 and she clung to her grandmother for dear life. We passed them in the middle of the passerelle on their way back. And we discovered another girl, maybe 7 or 8, on the other side, steadfastly refusing to budge.
We saw the grandfather start back and figured he was coming to the aid of the middle girl. He stopped and took photos. Lots of photos. The littlest girl came tearing down toward him. She passed him, then turned around and came back to him. He never stopped taking photos.
We started back and were about halfway when the grandmother and the oldest girl, still clinging and looking like she was going to puke, came back. Grandpa wanted to film them. As if the granddaughter would want to remember this moment. Who was the middle girl supposed to hold onto? Grandma was taken, and grandpa was filming. Nobody seemed worried about the middle girl or even the little one. Yes, the passerelle had no holes where the little one could fall through, but she was at that nimble age where she could climb the chain link side, which came up to my armpit, and be over it in a flash, and grandpa still wouldn’t stop filming. His obliviousness reminded me of a type: “I’m doing this for you! You’re going to do it and enjoy it whether you like it or not!”
On the way down, we passed other grandparents out with the grandkids, starting to show up once it was 2 p.m. And more retirees. A lady with very inappropriate shoes (ballerinas with wedge heels…what are those called?).
To go up, we took the steep route, called the Voie Romaine, or Roman Way, which was the ancient salt route, and partly paved with stones. It had a heart-pounding 19% grade, but I’d rather take that going up than down.
The descent, on a path with an 8% grade, was via the Jardins Cormouls Houlès, which date to the middle of the 19th century, with interesting towers and stone walls. First we checked out the ruins of the church of Saint-Saveur, which dates to the 1100s. The church was built on a hilltop, for views. Up in the air. Like life right now, waiting to see where things will land, trying not to fall.
I’m leaving you with these ghostly images. I couldn’t pick one, so you get three.
This week was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and I kept thinking back to my visit there years ago. It was haunting in ways I couldn’t have anticipated and that I haven’t been able to shake in the nearly two decades since.The entrance is famous. The railroad tracks, too, especially for anyone who has seen “Schindler’s List.” The familiarity of a place one has never been before is a punch in the stomach. I didn’t want it to feel familiar.I visited on a gorgeous spring day. Some friends and I made a weekend excursion to Krakow and, being serious intellectuals interested in history and culture, included a trip to Auschwitz. The train took us through the lush, rolling hills of the Polish countryside. As we walked the grounds, butterflies danced through the air and birds sang. I have read that when the camps were packed with people, there wasn’t so much as a blade of grass, much less wildflowers bobbing in the breeze. Did people hear the birds sing beyond the barbed wire? The movies seem to always be set in winter, almost black and white even when shot in color. But what of those balmy days when the wind carries the syrupy perfume of freshly cut grass? What a cruel juxtaposition, to see the stars above at night or feel the spring breeze or hear a bird sing and to know the universe is brimming with beauty, and yet they are trapped in a living hell. A living nightmare.Unfortunately, in the 75 years since the end of Auschwitz, genocide has not ended. It is always a delicate subject to bring up other cases, or other mistreatments. The point is not to compare; each case is monstrous for those who suffered. But if we think genocide is wrong, then it is wrong no matter who the target is, and we should push back against creeping “otherization” that strips people of their humanity, that treats them as a block to be expelled without exceptions. Because one cruelty leads to another. History might not repeat itself but it rhymes.The National Public Radio show “Fresh Air” ran an interview with Laurence Rees, author of the book “Auschwitz: A New History.” You can listen or read the transcript here. National Public Radio delivers uniformly excellent reporting. Support them if you can. Journalism–the real thing, with reporters who dig for facts–is what keeps us free.That top photo is one that haunts me most. It’s in the bathroom–it shows the long trough sink, and the squares are soap holders, with ridges so the soap doesn’t sit in water and melt. It sums up the insanity of Auschwitz: a place where soap was valued but human life wasn’t.I am not in a position of authority here. I am not Jewish and didn’t know about the Holocaust until high school when I read Anne Frank. On the other hand, the whole point is the universality of our humanity. Everybody should care. We all must remember.
Marseille is such an interesting city. New nestles against very, very old. Even in the rich areas, grit never feels far away. All kinds of art is everywhere.I already knew to beware of cars with 13 license plates. The départements of France are numbered, in alphabetical order, so Aude, where I live, is 11, and the Bouches du Rhone, home to Marseille, is 13. Cars with 13 plates treat red lights as mild suggestions. Right of way goes to the biggest car or the driver with the steeliest nerves. Turning left from the right lane, in front of other cars, is normal. Any space big enough to fit the car is a legitimate parking place, even, say, a sidewalk. Turn signals on cars with 13 plates do not work except when they are in the left lane on the autoroute, blinking impatiently for cars ahead of them to move over so they can pass, pedal to the metal.
Driving in Marseille is thus a white-knuckle experience. But the city fathers have made much of the city center off-limits to vehicles. As a result, where it’s bad, it’s very, very bad, but where it’s pedestrian it’s wonderful. Except for the motorcycles and motorbikes, which do what they please. I was happy for the GPS to guide me to an underground parking garage, so I could relax a little.It was mid-December, but the weather was mild. A small Christmas market was next to the ferris wheel at the port, encircled by barriers and guarded by security officers who tried to strike a balance between stern and holiday-jolly. Fake firs flocked with fake snow juxtaposed with apartment balconies dripping with brilliant red geraniums, real. A few veiled women pushed strollers through the mostly deserted market, whose stalls were exclusively dedicated to provençal santons.
Marseille has a rich selection of the universal Instagram/Pinterest-driven all-female restaurants featuring vegan poke bowls and cafés roasting their own coffee served by burly men with beards and buns. Such places haven’t yet turned up in Carcassonne, so it was fun to try them out. Brooklyn is everywhere but in France most profonde.
I’ve wanted to see Mucem since it opened in 2013. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations incorporates part of the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean, with a very cool cube designed by Roland Carta next to it. The cube looks like it’s made of laser-cut paper doilies, but it’s actually fiber-reinforced concrete.
The outdoor spaces at Mucem are open to the public for free. Clean, quiet, beautiful. I was surprised there weren’t throngs of people, especially on a mild December afternoon. If I lived in Marseille, I would get nothing done because I would spend all my time on a chaise longue, admiring the vista and watching people.
Mucem had these exhibits: a collection of toys made in Marseille between the end of the 19th century and the late 1970s; an exhibition on Afghanistan, including one of the blue burqas that imprison women there, its yards of knife-pleated fabric going round and round, and many multi-media installations; an abécédaire, or A-to-Z, on the theme of luck and chance; and a retrospective on Jean Giono, whom I’d never heard of but who was a noted novelist whose experiences in World War I made him a pacifist to the point of being accused of collaborating with the Nazis in World War II. There was another exhibit, very surreal, with famous paintings remade as, say, a puzzle or a refrigerator door, and books whose titles twisted the those of the classics. It was fun to spot the jokes.
The old fort was amazing to see up close. As Marseille goes, it isn’t very old–the oldest bits of the fort go back to the 1100s. By contrast, the city was founded by the Greeks around 600 BCE, though there are traces of human habitation well before that.
Afterward, I strolled through the neighborhood called le Panier, or the Basket, the oldest part of town, settled by the intrepid Greeks.
Going back toward the ferris wheel, the architecture was a feast for the eyes, an open-air museum of sculpture.This isn’t a very useful post–no recommendations other than Mucem and Dr. Max Ginger Healthy. My only recommendation is to walk and look and smell and walk and walk and walk. You will not lack for places to eat and drink and shop. I like serendipity, a sense of being an urban explorer.
I just read the most horrific article. I’m still a bit in the vapors over it. It seems that antiques are among the things millennials are killing.
Realtors are digitally redecorating homes to replace antiques with spare modern furniture and white walls, according to “When the Antiques Have to Go,” in the New York Times. The “after” in the article just looks C.H.E.A.P. to me. The article says that as lifestyles have gotten increasingly informal, antiques are out of the question. But have you ever sat on those horrible modern plastic chairs? I get a backache just looking at them. And who wants their legs to stick to the seat? In the realm of informal dining, I cite McDonalds; even their seats are now more comfortable than those fashionable molded plastic seats. What qualifies as informal? Something you can hose down? Or something where you don’t need to dress for dinner like the Crawleys at Downton Abbey?
Of course, there are antiques and antiques. It seems that vintage, especially anything from the 1950s and 1960s, in that midcentury modern sweet spot, is still hot. Anything older is not. OK, it could be difficult to use a computer on a roll-top desk. Not the right ergonomics. Beds are wider and longer (but can be adjusted! We did it!). Carved details require dusting. But so do smooth surfaces….so what gives?
The thing I really don’t understand are the faux-tiques. The Pottery Barn/Restoration Hardware/Ethan Allen/Birch Lane etc. ilk–even Ikea has some of it–that looks vaguely traditional but is new. Now, knock-offs have been around for quite some time. In the late 1800s, the style of Henri II, which goes back to the 1500s, had a revival in France, as new wood-working machines could easily create the signature spiral rails on chairs and buffets, but the rest of the carving was still done by hand. Either the traditional look is passé or it isn’t. Why pay so much for something new that looks old? Though it doesn’t. The pieces are too perfect, like Real Housewives. Inauthentic.
English antique furniture values have fallen 40% in 10 years. The prices of 18th and 19th century antiques have tanked. In these parts, that’s not even very old. I was talking to an antique dealer who showed me a buffet from the 16th century. “I can’t get €200 for it,” he lamented. “Soon shops like this will be completely gone, and so will the furniture, the history. The new generation doesn’t care.”
The truly fancy stuff aside, judging from the listings on Le Bon Coin (the Good Corner), the French version of craigslist, folks have little interest in incorporating family heirlooms in their décor. They just want to get rid of them. Antiques dealers can pick up inventory for cheap, but if there are no buyers? There are still antique lovers out there. The entire town of Pézenas is one big antique market, even when the twice-yearly antiques fair isn’t going on.Here are my arguments to millennials for why they should give antiques, or older second hand, a second look:
The price. A quick perusal of leboncoin brings up a set in solid oak for €200, including a six-door buffet, a table and six chairs. Granted, it isn’t an antique, but neither is anything at Pottery Barn. In fact, all the better that it’s just a quasi-antique: you can paint it white. Or red. Anyway–not formal. The cheapest table at Ikea is €129, made of metal that they say can be recycled, so that’s an improvement over particle board. The Ingatorp
wood particle board table (with a traditional look…go figure) is €299. The Ingolf chairs that usually go with it are €60 a pop. And the Havsta buffet is €910. Ikea is great for some things, and I respect that they deliver good design for low (low-ish) prices and make an effort to be environmentally responsible. But consumption is consumption.
The environment. In the mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle, giving something a new life beats sending it to recycling, which, is in turmoil as the system is overwhelmed with stuff to recycle without demand for the materials that are produced. That’s mostly for paper and plastic, and I’m not sure where a particle board table would enter the stream, but I’m not too hopeful. Sure, millennials are giving new life to MCM pieces, but as authentic stuff has gotten more expensive, you see cheap knockoffs everywhere. Knockoffs don’t count as reusing!!! They are new even if they look old.
Your home environment. The resins used to make particle board emit formaldehyde and other lovely volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs. Something that’s solid wood (and decades if not centuries old) is not going to off-gas.
Personality. I will scream if I see another interior with Eames Vitra chairs (or knockoffs thereof, but either way they are plastic), a fiddle-leaf fig, shiplap, a repurposed pallet and a Beni Ourain rug (probably also a knockoff and made of polyester that will disintegrate into plastic microbeads). If some “influencer” declared something cool and then you copied it, are you cool or pathetic? With antiques, you can get a one-of-a-kind design. Even if all your friends become antiques nuts, you are not going to end up with the same stuff by a long shot. That goes for accessories and tchotchkes, too. Why buy some mass-produced thing to style your bookshelf? What kind of statement is that making, really? Some second-hand stuff was mass-produced, but you won’t find it everywhere anymore. And lots of really old furniture was made by hand. Marquetry is like painting with wood. It’s art. If you don’t like the old stuff, then support a living artist, perhaps someone you know.
If you don’t like brown, paint it. This would not be a good idea for an 18th century marquetry desk. But if it’s great-grandma’s dresser or a second-hand wardrobe that you plan to repurpose, then go right ahead. And you can personalize it. Or stain it darker or strip it bare, two looks I see on Restoration Hardware’s site. Antiques, or old brown furniture, doesn’t have to be precious.
When I was young, I had romantic ideas about antiques, along with lace curtains and chandeliers. Moving to a few continents meant paring down, giving back (to stay in the family) and, often buying new on arrival in my new country. It’s true it takes a while to get into shopping for older stuff. There’s a learning curve to discern a gem from a pebble (but sometimes a pebble is what you need). It requires patience–one might not want to look for months for just the right bed frame when it’s so tantalizingly easy to click online and get it delivered to your door. But, my dears, it’s worth it! Hold out! You won’t regret it!
And now, tell me your antique thoughts.
As pretty as Minerve is, it has a dark, gruesome history. Back in June 1210, it was beseiged by the papal forces in the crusade against the Cathars. It was almost a year after the massacre at Béziers and the capitulation of Carcassonne, bigger towns about equidistant from Minerve. Refugees had fled to Minerve, which must have seemed like a safe place, nearly surrounded by sheer cliffs, the sole access by land guarded by a fortress. It was isolated, in the middle of nowhere, and so had been passed by during the original campaign.The leader of the crusade, Simon de Montfort, didn’t like having a refugee center around. He used Minerve’s natural defenses against it, setting up trébuchets on the opposite sides of the deep ravines that surround Minerve. He ordered Minerve to be destroyed. There’s a reconstruction of a trébuchet, dubbed Malvoisine, or Bad Neighbor, on the plateau opposite Minerve. What broke the Minervois, however, was that their access to their only well was cut off and it was summer–no rain to carry them over. The residents were given a chance to convert but only three did; 140 were burned at the stake, probably in the dry riverbed of the Cesse. It was the first collective stake burning of the crusade. They weren’t tied up but marched down rue des Martyrs (Martyr Street) and had to throw themselves into the pyre.
Good thing we aren’t so barbaric anymore, eh?
Today, Minerve is the picture of calm and charm.The rivers must be something when they are high. Think of the force it took to carve these cliffs.
Not far away, not very well marked, is the Curiosité de Lauriole, which I have been dying to see. I don’t have good photos of it, because it’s something you have to see in person, though there are videos online. The road looks like it’s inclining ever so slightly, but in fact it’s going downhill.
I took a ball, but it failed miserably because of the wind. Then I put my car in the middle of the road, stopped completely and let my foot off the brake, expecting to roll gently forward. Instead, I rolled gently backward. I’m all in for cheap thrills.Back to Minerve. I appreciate a street with an archway. I always wonder about the title to the house that goes above it. How do they deal with the street part? The notaries of France must be very creative. When we were looking for property to buy, we visited a house in a little village where access to a bedroom was via a small door–so small that even a shortie like me had to bend way down. How would you even get a mattress in there? And to get to that room you had to go through another bedroom. Crazy.
But the craziest part was that I realized we were above a neighboring grange. Who owned the grange? Someone else. What if they wanted to tear it down? You couldn’t have the bedroom just hanging there, suspended in the air. That place was nuts in other ways, too. I wonder who ever bought it.
And we also saw a house, just next to la Cité of Carcassonne, where the bathroom was down some steps, kind of a half basement, under the neighbor’s house. I asked about it and the owners said, oh, the neighbors are nice. (My reaction: ?!?!?!?) The owners were a certain kind of French older couple you find in rustic places. They were dedicated smokers, both with voices of gravel. He wore a gold chain and pinkie ring. They loved Johnny Hallyday (the French Elvis) and had posters and “paintings” of him all over. One might have been velvet. I wonder whether they got to hear Johnny’s concert in Carcassonne–his last–just steps from their house. I think they sold before. We never know how close we came to having luck, do we? It’s one thing to be in the right place, but you also have to be there at the right time.
There are cute French villages and then there are REALLY CUTE French villages. Minerve is in the superlative category. Officially so: it’s on the list of les Plus Beaux Villages de France (the Most Beautiful French Villages). I know I just said I was a city girl, but I do love places like this.It has been a while since we’ve visited. Though it’s been on the to-do list for all of my recent visitors, we just never had the time for the 45-minute drive from Carcassonne. What a mistake. The drive is gorgeous. And the village…well, these photos were taken on a Sunday afternoon in August. Peak tourist. Yet you can see for yourself that Minerve was quiet. A secret. Now you know. Share wisely.The town is built at the confluence of the Cesse and Brian rivers. About 50 million years ago, the entire area was the bottom of a warm-water sea, as evidenced by the fossils in the limestone. The rivers carved deep gorges, which form a comma-shaped peninsula, kind of. Natural fortification. Unsurprisingly, it has been occupied since the Bronze Age.
The Romans came along, too. The town appeared officially in writing around 873. Old. Stuff like that just boggles my mind. Obviously places fell down and were built over, but probably some of the same stones were used. And today those houses are still there, and they have Internet.
There’s a charming bookstore and lots of artists’ shops and studios and many places to eat and drink. There are about 130 residents, down considerably from the boom years of the mid-1800s, when there were about 400. It’s clearly not an easy place to live. Imagine hauling your groceries–or worse, a new piece of furniture–down these “streets.” But vacationers provide some animation. Just enough to keep the place alive, without overrunning it. The rivers lie far below, bone dry at this time of year, but prone to flashes of rage. At least the town is high and dry.
The Candela is all that remains of the viscount’s castle, which was built at the end of the 13th century. There once was a drawbridge nearby. The castle was dismantled in the 18th and 19th centuries. I wonder why.The church was closed, but the exterior was fascinating.
I took so many photos, I’m going to do another post. Come back for more on Friday.
You can see so much art for free in France–in all of Europe. Just walk into a church, the bigger the better, and amazing works will be in front of your nose, usually without crowds and almost always in wonderful silence. Aside from the really major attractions, like Notre Dame de Paris before the fire, you can wander in without lines. Sometimes there’s even mood music.You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the work for its quality. Back in the day, the Catholic church was a major benefactor of the arts. Maybe benefactor isn’t the right word–it was a major consumer/commissioner/purchaser/collector. Churches are chockfull of sculptures and paintings, and the buildings themselves are wonders of design.This is part two of my day trip to Narbonne. (Part one is here.) We’re going to explore le Cathedrale de Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur, which is part of the same cluster of buildings as the city hall/former archbishops’ palace.
First, the name. Just and Pasteur were two Christian brothers who were martyred near Madrid around the year 304 (A.D., obviously) under the Diocletianic Persecution. The Roman Emperor Diocletian rescinded Christians’ rights and required them to make sacrifices to the Roman gods. Just and Pasteur, 12 and 9 years old, refused. There are multiple versions of their grisly deaths.
Pope Clément IV (born Gui Foucois but known as Guy le Gros–Fat Guy) decided in 1268 to build a fancy new cathedral in Narbonne, where he had previously been archbishop. Emphasis on the word fancy. The cathedral was started in 1272 in a gothic style. Only the choir was finished, around 1330. Remember that the vicious crusade against the Cathar heretics ran through the area in 1209, from the sacking of Béziers just north of Narbonne, to the surrender of Carcassonne just to the west; Narbonne, between them, was the headquarters of the Catholic forces. The bishop of Narbonne had been fairly tolerant of the Cathars, which led to him being fired in 1211. The crusade was lucrative for the church, which grabbed the land of dispossessed lords who had been linked to the Cathars. This led to the construction of a bunch of churches in the region, including the cathedral.
The cathedral and the archbishops’ palace were built like fortifications, perhaps because they abutted the city wall. In fact, finishing the cathedral would have possibly required tearing down part of the wall, which might have been a factor in it not getting finished. The other reasons it wasn’t completed were the plague and economic decline of the city.
What they accomplished shows how ambitious the plans were. It’s still one of the tallest churches in France. But back to art.
There are tapestries and paintings and frescoes.
There’s a strong preoccupation with the afterlife. It was the cudgel raised over the the people, to keep them in line. Obey now or else you’ll be sorry later.
In good gothic style, the exterior is studded with gargoyles, impressively expressive.The stained glass windows offer more tableaux. I failed to zoom in, happy to just appreciate the play of light and color.Almost every surface is decorated.Doors upon doors upon doors.The cathedral and its archbishops’ palace rise above the plain like some kind of shipwreck, or an island, even a mountain. Not discreet in the least. Bold, daring. Declaring “yeah, we’re here. What about it?”
Do you visit churches? What do you like inside?
Are you a beach bum? I’m way more interested in history and culture than sun and sand, but Narbonne, on the Mediterranean coast, has both. Just half an hour’s drive from Carcassonne, Narbonne’s history has been closely linked with Carcassonne’s, but it’s even older, at least as a modern city.
Around 120 B.C., the Romans showed up, forming the first Roman colony in the land of the Gauls, dubbed Narbo Martius. They built la Voie Domitienne–aka la Via Domitia, or the Domitian Way–to link Rome with the Iberian Peninsula, roughly where the A9 autoroute goes today. It was named after Cneus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a Roman general who oversaw its construction, although some called it la Voie Héraclénne, after Heracles, the strongman demigod who supposedly did the work. Eventually, the Romans built more roads, including the Via Aquitania that cut across southern France to the Atlantic, more or less along the A61 autoroute.
Roman stuff is all over town, despite the fact that the Barbarians (literal Barbarians, not figurative ones) tried to destroy everything. A square still respects the outlines of the Roman forum, and a couple of columns from two centuries ago stand there. Other bits of columns show up here and there, and of course recycling was big back in the day; some Roman rocks (we know because they’re carved) ended up in a later city wall.
It’s easier to find “new” architecture, like from the 1200s. I love a place where “old” is 2,000 years old, and “new” is just 800 years old.The stunner is le Palais des Archevêques (the Bishops’ Palace), which is an accretion of a couple of centuries’ of styles. Le Vieux Palais (the Old Palace) dates to the Romans in the 5th century and butts up to the cathedral; le Palais Neuf (the New Palace) is across from it, started in the 14th century as a fortress in a gothic style. It’s flanked by two towers: the 42-meter-tall donjon, built from 1295 to 1306, and the smaller Saint Martial tower. The city hall, as well as museums of art and archeology, are housed in the Bishops’ Palace since the place was renovated in 1845 by Eugène Viollet le Duc at age 24 and without an architecture degree. Viollet le Duc went on to renovate Notre Dame and la Cité of Carcassonne, among other important sites.
The Aude river passes through Narbonne passes near the palais on its way to the Mediterranean. The city has done an impressive job of making parks along it. The historic center is closed to vehicles, which is great for walking. Cafés spill out into the medieval streets. On the other side of the Aude, les Halles, or the covered market, is a pretty Belle Epoque building that bustles in the mornings only. Look for the café where former rugby stars call out orders to the nearby butcher, who throws the requested cuts of meat through the air (wrapped in paper).
You also can visit the home of Charles Trenet, the crooner from the 1930s to the 1950s, probably best known for the song “La Mer.” You probably know the cover by Frank Sinatra or Bobby Darin, translated as “Beyond the Sea.”
Getting to the beach from Narbonne is a little tricky if you don’t have a car, in which case it’s about 10 or 15 minutes’ drive. By bike, you have to go up, then down, the Clape “mountains” (very steep hills). Plenty of folks do it, but it’s very steep, there are no shoulders, and lots of campers, which take up every bit of the lane. Also, it runs through a pine forest that smells amazing but that has fire warnings every few feet. Or you can go to Gruissan, which goes around the Clape, with a wider road. Alternatively, you can take the No. 4 bus. Personally, we prefer Gruissan.Last time I was there, we ate at le Bouchon Gourmand, on Quai Valière, because with a name like that! Two of us had mussels, which were correct (the French sense of “correct” is good quality and quantity for the price). And one friend had something I don’t remember now but it wasn’t worth taking a photo. It was partly our own fault–we went on a Monday, when most of les Halles is closed (including the rugby restaurant with flying meat).
More Narbonne on Friday–insane details from the unfinished cathedral of Narbonne, which rises like a beached ship from the oh-so-flat plains.