I realized I have three folders of door photos, and they are getting out of hand. Let’s meander through one folder, which ranges from Carcassonne to Montolieu to Caunes-Minervois to Cépie, which are all quaint little villages around Carcassonne.
The top photo is technically a gate. But so gorgeous! look at how the scrolls in the stone match the scrolls in the ironwork. And the bits of “lace” hanging from the gutter.This one might be a gate to an inner courtyard or just a garage door. Who knows! Good luck driving up over that curb.A hidden courtyard elsewhere in town that I spied before the huge doors closed automatically. I love how old French buildings keep so many secrets.Perfectly imperfect.Another gate. But the colors!Why do the women’s faces on doors and buildings usually look unhappy? The men usually look stern or fierce, but the women look like their patience is being tried.Note the fish knocker. And the date: 1746.I wonder whether the shutters and door started out the same shade and the shutters faded more because of more exposure to the sun, or whether the homeowners intentionally chose different shades.The little pot! Notice how almost no threshhold is straight.This door doesn’t even come up to my shoulder, and I’m short. For a while, it led to an underground bar, called “Le Trou Dans le Mur”–the Hole in the Wall. It was gorgeous, with a high vaulted ceiling and stone walls and a deep well that they had artfully lit. It was no easy feat to crawl through the hole and then descend the steep stairs. Too bad it closed.Arches+ivy+old stones = French charm.
Hamlet as in tinier than a village. Not Hamlet as in Shakespeare.
A little wide spot in the road that I’ve driven by without stopping. A church steeple beckoned. I pulled over.The hamlet of Grèzes was founded in 778 by Charlemagne after defeating the local Visigoths. Charlemagne founded un prieuré, or a priory, at Grazanis, which became Grèzes, now a bedroom community of Carcassonne. The priory had five or six monks of the order of St. Benoît, a hospital, a dispensary and a school. It sounds downright bustling. Charlemagne established a number of abbeys across the region, including Saint Hilaire (birthplace of bubbly wine!!! YES, not Champagne…more on that later), Caunes, Saint Polycarpe, Lagrasse, Saint Papoul. He wanted to re-instill Catholicism across the land. This was well before Catharism took hold in the region and led to the last Crusade, against the Cathars, in the early 1200s, when Carcassonne surrendered rather than face the slaughter that happened at Béziers.The other high point came in March 1579, when Catherine de Medici visited Grèzes during a five-day stay in Carcassonne with her son, Charles IX. She gave two chandeliers that light the choir. The church was closed when I passed, but having learned of this must-see décor I will go back! It dates to the XIII century, but has had many additions, renovations and restorations. It had only one bell until 1952, when two more were added.I saw more cats than people.
All the streets were two-way but barely big enough for one car.
A pretty drève leads out of town. So many of these have been cut down because of the blight killing the platanes, or plane trees.The Black Mountains are visible in the distance, beyond the rolling wheat and hay fields and vineyards.
And Carcassonne’s airport is very close.
Somehow, even places that are little more than a wide spot in the road manage to be charming here. I promise to report back on Catherine de Medici’s taste in light fixtures.
As I write this, a Euro-electro cover of the Italian folk song “Bella Ciao” is blasting into my window from a boisterous gathering. Sound travels easily in the countryside.
If you don’t know this song, listen here (not the techno version).Years and years ago, an eternity really, when my kid was a little round sausage of yumminess and naïvété, the (first grade?) class learned the song “Bella Ciao” for the year-end show. They always learned something that would bring great applause from all the grandparents in the audience, and there was something adorable about these little tykes belting out hits from half a century earlier.
Thus I’ve known Bella Ciao for a while. Obviously it was an Italian song, so I didn’t understand the lyrics (unlike another song my kid learned in school even earlier: “Si Tu Vas à Rio”–“If you go to Rio….don’t forget to go up yonder, to a little village, hidden under wild flowers, on the side of a hill….” a song about reminiscences and good old times, which is kind of hilarious coming out of the mouths of four-year-olds).Several years later, my kid was studying World War II, and “Bella Ciao” came up again in the context of families deciding whether to weather the terrible fascist political climate or to flee, to become refugees. The song’s origins were the women of the Po river valley who weeded the rice paddies and who suffered terribly. (How did a song about suffering women manage to be sung by so many men?) (Italian and English lyrics here)Later (although one article said the partisans came first, in 1919, and the rice weeders came after World War II), it was adopted as an anti-fascist anthem, and then as a pro-communist song. These kinds of liaisons are difficult, because you can be very anti-fascist and also downright cold to communism–the original idea might have been nice but in reality communism was a huge con job and an economic and social failure. Yet, in binary, black-and-white situations, you don’t get to be anti-communist AND anti-fascist, because those get lumped as one and the same. So either you have to choose to be anti-fascist and just ignore the communist part or you shrug and walk away from everything altogether. In some parts of southern France, communists haven’t gotten the memo about its demise. There also are plenty of refugees or descendants thereof from Franco’s Spain, so there’s a strong anti-fascist streak as well (a Spanish cover of the song was censored in Spain in 1969…Franco died in 1975, for those of you who don’t remember Chevy Chase on SNL’s Weekend Update). “Bella Ciao” became the hymn of labor strikes in the 1960s and then crossed the Atlantic in service of the government of Salvador Allende in Chile, which, you might recall, ended badly, thanks to the CIA.
“Bella Ciao” has been in my head lately because it was a theme of the hugely popular Spanish series (picked up on Netflix) “La Casa del Papel”–“Money Heist” in English. What an interesting series! I didn’t see all of it, but it was fascinating, with the corrupt victims, the good-hearted villains, the messed-up police….nothing rote, everything complicated. AlloCiné compared it to “Ocean’s Eleven,” but it was free of smugness and made you question everything. Maybe it was an intellectual “Ocean’s Eleven.” It also was devoid of fashion, yet had such indelible looks. The red jumpsuits! The Salvador Dali masks!In looking around for who in the world did the electro version I was hearing, I discovered that “Bella Ciao” is in a renaissance as it were, thanks to “La Casa del Papel,” which made it hip again. French-Congolese rapper Maître Gims did a version with lots of la, la, la (which translates as la, la, la, whether Italian to French or French to English). French DJ Jean Roch (I do NOT approve of that silky green jacket. Nor of the backup dancers) and American electro house musician Steve Aoki also did it. And French-Spanish singer Manu Chao, though he was before the current craze. In fact, his family fled Franco’s Spain, which is how he was born in France.Have you heard Bella Ciao before?
Yesterday was la rentrée des classes–back to school–though it’s the official end of summer for those without kids, as well. The cars on the roads seem more purposeful, if not exactly rushed. Folks in these parts don’t rush very often.Although the end of summer and the return to routine marks the passage of time, in the little villages of the south of France, time seems to stand still. Time feels less linear and more like accretion, layers upon layers, with the old still there, forever.Welcome to the village of Trausse, on the edge of the Black Mountains, not far from Carcassonne. Host of a cherry festival in May and home year-round to excellent Minervois wine. As you can see, it’s bustling.
In that way of small villages, life is both intensely private and lived in public.
There are old stones, remnants of an illustrious past. In the late 1700s, there were more than 800 residents; today there are about 500.
Nothing is straight. If the walls in the photo above look like they’re leaning in toward the street, well, yes, they are.
People come and go, but the stones remain, sometimes putting up with modernization, like electricity.
Although fetching water was probably a moment for gossip and camaraderie, I doubt folks regret having indoor plumbing. Somebody told me my village got plumbing in the 1970s!
Trausse is overshadowed by its neighbor, Caunes-Minervois, which is undeniably adorable and which attracts many tourists. I heard that J.K. Rowling recently spent time in Caunes. But that might just be bragging. In any case, Caunes is a good place for somebody like her to be incognito, just another British lady renting a holiday home.
There are so many cute villages here–I’m hard-pressed to think of any that don’t have at least a picturesque ancient center, even the ones surrounded by ugly subdivisions. It’s easy to skip the subdivisions and stick to the quaint old streets, where elderly residents sit in the shade unperturbed, cats nap in the middle of the road, and time meanders gently.
What do you get when you cross novelist Dan Brown with cheese? Rennes-le-Château!
Rennes-le-Château made an appearance in “The Da Vinci Code,” Brown’s thriller about a conspiracy and some very creative interpretations of history. Supposedly Jesus high-tailed it to France with Mary Magdalene, which is how the Holy Grail–or the cup he used at the Last Supper–ended up at a tiny church in a tiny village in the deepest depths of France profonde.
This just shows that we have stories for every stripe of crazy, from ufologists to people drawn to Rennes-le-Château, including to excavate for buried treasure. Which is strictly forbidden, and written all over the place.
Back in the 1890s, the village priest, Bérenger Saunière, seemed to be suddenly rolling in dough. He had the church fixed up, then built himself a domaine and a tower, la Tour Magdala, in 1901. By 1902, the bishop of Carcassonne, who had turned a blind eye to the priest’s spending, had died, and the new higher-ups demanded an accounting, which the priest didn’t want to do.
It isn’t clear whether the holy grail story was made up by Saunière or by a local hotelier looking for publicity. In any case, long before the advent of the Internet, the tale worked magic, because all kinds of illuminés turned up and haven’t stopped. For example, in 2011, some “researchers” claimed that Rennes-le-Château holds King Solomon’s gold and that the Visigoths brought the original menorah, used by Moses. Because that makes complete sense, right?
What is undeniable is that the hilltop village of 65 inhabitants (and THREE restaurants!!) is charming and has breathtaking views. We stopped on our way home from Bugarach, having loaded up on goat’s and sheep’s cheeses as part of de la Ferme en Ferme, or From Farm to Farm, circuit–something to check out if you’re in the region.
Rennes-le-Château is 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of Carcassonne. There’s lots to see along the way! Cute villages, mountains, farms, ruins, cows and sheep and goats….
Bugarach, a tiny village in the foothills of the Pyrénées, is at the end of the Earth in both senses of the term. Well, sort of.
It was supposed to be the only place to be saved when the world ended on Dec. 21, 2012 (or Dec. 12, 2012, depending on your source). According to certain interpretations of Mayan calculations, the planet Nibiru was to hit the Earth on that day, reversing the poles and making the Earth spin in the opposite direction. However, the extraterrestrials would either come out of their hiding spot in the caves and around the supposed underground lake of the mountain Bugarach, under whose shadow the village sits and whose name it carries, or they would swoop in from space and pick up folks smart enough to be there.
Bugarach (the mountain) is indeed unusual. First, it stands alone and looks pretty impressive with its bare pech (in Occitan; pic in French or peak), which at 1231 meters is the highest of the Corbières. Tectonic movement caused it to be “une montagne renversée”–an upside-down mountain, in which the bottom layers are older than the top layer. Supposedly this also causes the magnetic poles to be reversed there, which is why–presto chango–the mountain would be saved during the cataclysmic global pole reversal. The predictions were inflated by the Internet, drawing an international throng of ufologues (believers in UFOs, though the French term is OVNI–objet volant non-identifié–same thing), illuminés (crazies) and zozotériques (a local’s fancy word for zozos–more crazies). The little village of 200-ish people was flooded with folks who went to the mountain to conduct strange rituals in the nude and who collected the mountain’s supposedly magical rocks.
Bugarach was big news in late 2012, and I kept meaning to check out the hippy dippy village–it’s about an hour and a half south of Carcassonne, a beautiful drive. Since then, it has eased back into quiet isolation. It’s a good 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the next village, making it feel quite a bit like the end of the earth…even though the world didn’t end, whether due to the nonexistence of Nibiru, miscalculations by the Mayans, or what.
This week was the start of De la Ferme en Ferme–From Farm to Farm–and the May 1 circuit included a loop from Rennes-les-Bains to Rennes-le-Château, passing through Bugarach for some sheep’s cheese. The two Rennes aren’t next to each other at all; Rennes-le-Château gained some notoriety with “The Da Vinci Code,” because of a fake buried treasure a local priest cooked up, spawning conspiracy theories. Rennes-les-Bains is the site of some Roman baths, of which there are many in the area.
Bugarach’s history also goes back to the Romans, who had a mine nearby in the first century CE. Then the Visigoths turned up around the fifth century; a cemetery remains. During the Wars of Religion, Calvinists from the north sought refuge in what would have seemed to be a safe place at the end of the world, but, no, they were hunted down in several massacres between 1575 and 1577. In the 1700s, Bugarach became known for hatmaking (up until 1990, and Queen Elizabeth and François Mitterand supposedly wore Bugarach brand hats). By 1831 Bugarach had more than 1,000 inhabitants, three hat factories, five water mills and many other businesses. It held three fairs, which must have been good, because it would have been difficult for folks to get to. I imagine many residents back in the day never left the village. Today the road is smooth tarmac (but only wide enough for one car; if you meet another vehicle, one has to back up to where the shoulder is somewhat wider to let the other pass), but when it was just a dirt track, it would have taken a long time to travel those dozen miles to the next town.
Bugarach today is very cute, starting from the view from afar. Everything is little.
What was left of the château was restored and turned into a community hall and exposition space, in what I thought was a decent mix of ancient and modern–something that doesn’t always work.
The town also has two charging spots for plug-in electric vehicles, which seemed exceptionally forward thinking. And three restaurants plus a table d’hôte for a town of 200! It shows how Bugarach continues to pull in people who today come to hike and enjoy the countryside.
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.