What do you do when your vacation in the south of France is hit by rain? We locals were happy for the rain a couple of weeks ago–it had been too long and our gardens were wilting from thirst. But for vacationers, so many of the attractions involve outdoor activities–wandering around old villages, hiking through the countryside, exploring châteaux ruins.
With some recent visitors, we went underground. The mountains, like Emmental cheese, are full of holes. These holes were carved by water, not bacteria (in case you wondered how those holes got into the cheese–they’re bubbles formed by gases emitted by bacteria).
The Grotte de Limousis, just north of Carcassonne, is particularly pretty, and easy to walk through, making it appropriate for most ages (but not those in strollers or wheelchairs–there are some narrow spots and some steps). The series of caves are big and well-lit, so you don’t feel claustrophobic.
The cave winds a kilometer underground through three “rooms.” The first is the Column Room, because of how many columns there are–columns where stalactites (the ones that hang down) and stalagmites (the ones that rise from the ground) grew together.
The ballroom got its name because the nearest village, Limousis, actually used it as a party room for the annual village dinner, held in October to close the grape harvest. The acoustics are amazing, and the floor is naturally flat, having formed when the room was half-filled by a lake. Limestone deposits crept across the lake’s surface like ice, then hardened. The water drained away, leaving the bottom hollow, hence the drum effect. The floor is as smooth as the surface of an icy lake–one unperturbed by wind or anything.
There are two “lakes.” In one, the level of the water rises and falls. It never rises above the tallest stalagmite, with the highest level in summer–after all the rains of winter and spring have had time to filter down. By November it’s dry–the effect of our typically rain-free summers. The other lake has a shower pouring into it. It’s green, which indicates it’s at least two meters (six feet) deep. Limpid water is the same temperature as the cave–14 Celsius, or 57 Fahrenheit–but the falling water is colder–8 Celsius or 46 Fahrenheit–too chilly to take a dip! The water is potable, but not too much–while it doesn’t contain bacteria or any living organisms due to the lack of light, it does contain lots of calcium, so you would get kidney stones.
The final room–spoiler alert–contains a huge crystal of aragonite, four meters tall and 10 meters wide (13 feet tall and 32 feet wide). It grew thanks to perfect conditions that were undisturbed for millennia. It’s unusual, not only for its size but for the variety of shapes, from snowflake-like crystals to round bulbs. I’ve been to the Grotte de Limousis five or six times and it still takes my breath away. I never would have put it on a top 10 list until I actually went. Also a great respite on a hot summer day!
What could be cuter than a French village? How about one with sumptuous roses climbing up its stone walls. Camon, in the southern French département of Ariège, is Rose Central. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the “Plus Beaux Villages”–Most Beautiful Villages–of France, which is an official thing.In fact, last weekend Camon held a Rose Festival. Just before, I went with some visitors (which is why I didn’t post last Friday–stop the computer and smell the roses; I did however use my phone to take photos). It was funny to see folding tables set up in the little lanes, in preparation for the communal feast. Camon possibly has more blooms than humans (population 143). It’s called “Little Carcassonne.” It does indeed have lots of stone walls and a château, which is now a fancy hotel. It looks nice, but Camon is really, really quiet. I’d rather be in big Carcassonne, in our apartments to be precise, and take a daytrip down to Camon, which can easily be covered in meticulous detail in under an hour.
Camon is just 10-15 minutes’ drive from Mirepoix, so you get a two-fer. A new Mirepoix post is coming soon, surprise, surprise.
It was raining the day we visited, but the light drizzle didn’t deter us. It might have even added to the ambiance, making the roses even brighter.
Driving through the French countryside, castles are as common as cows or crows. Turrets and towers pierce the treeline, no longer needed for spotting marauders arriving from afar. Sometimes you can see the full edifice, always a conglomeration of additions and wings added over centuries, different generations leaving their marks.Back in December, I made a detour out of Carcassonne to Rustiques, a little village I’d driven through before and decided would be worth a second look on such a sparkling winter day. This explains the vegetation, which has changed drastically to lush, lush green of spring.
The château was closed, but it’s so big that you can still see a good deal of it. Here’s what I found out. Around the 5th century, barbarian invasions by the Visigoths, Sarrasins and Francs made the locals unite for safety on a high spot from which they could spot invaders. They went one better with a tower, the oldest part of the current château, which also served as a dungeon. The Rustiquois, as locals are called, corralled the seigneur’s house and other houses in a wall with just two entries and plenty of meurtrières, or those tall, skinny openings from which you shoot arrows. The wall didn’t last–the town grew and crime fell, so the wall came down.There’s a document from 1063 attesting to the existence of a castellum, or watch tower.
The leader of the Albigensian crusade, Simon de Montfort, granted the fiefdom of Rustiques to a family from the north, whose descendants still live in the château. That is quite a heritage!
Last night, a little before 7 p.m., my kid rushed in and turned on the TV. “Notre-Dame is on fire!”
Sadly, the kid doesn’t really remember having visited Notre-Dame. Paris is a faraway universe from here in la France profonde. When will it be possible to again enter that huge, dark space that was designed to invoke awe and make one keenly aware of one’s place in the the world, which is that we are very, very small and insignificant. Specks of dust.
Many, many years ago, I was wandering around Paris on Christmas Eve. I crossed Île de la Cité, the original Lutèce where Paris was founded, and thought, hey, why not see whether there’s midnight Mass at Notre-Dame?
Yes, there was. It is very interesting to attend a religious service in another language. I spoke French but not nearly as well as now. As an ex-Catholic, I have had the Mass drilled into my brain. And it’s exactly the same in French, the same rhythms, the same pauses, the same rises and falls and intonations. It also was a special way to appreciate Notre-Dame, serving its original purpose and not for tourism. There was no line to get in. It was before 9/11, so there was no security check. Nobody was taking photos. They were singing Christmas carols.
When I went to Africa for the Peace Corps, I took with me three posters of Paris that had hung in my Midwestern apartment. One was of the back side of Notre-Dame, with its curved wall that houses ambulatory chapels, the flying buttresses, the lacy stonework, the delicate spire that is no more. I hung the posters on the corrugated iron sheets that made up my house.
The Square Jean-XXIII, from where my poster photo was taken against a pink sky, is a surprisingly quiet haven. Most tourists don’t think to walk all the way around the place, I guess. Last night, the TV showed the familiar shot of the back of Notre-Dame, but the roof was red, the spire broken off.
The roof beams were made from single oak trees–1,300 of them. Hewn by hand. Hauled in by carriages. Raised by human force. Built to last. They survived 850 years. The first stone was laid in 1163 by Pope Alexandre III. Work continued into the 14th century.
The design was made to awe, but facts like those also are awe-inspiring. They put our lives into perspective. What will we contribute that will survive and be treasured 850 years from now?
To read about the history of Notre-Dame, check out the cathedral’s own website. And here is a video of the jaw-dropping light show. If you have time, this is a special Mass. Oh, the acoustics! And if, like somebody I know, you like Gregorian chant, here is an amateur snippet from inside Notre Dame with some shots of the stained glass windows.
When my kid was little, I would always accompany class field trips. It was such a great way to learn about the region, often in ways I never would have sought out myself (spelunking). One such trip was with a bunch of second- and third-graders to go rock climbing, which led to my discovery of a hidden haven, Notre Dame du Cros (literally, Our Lady of the Hole, or, more poetically, Valley).
I have mentioned that the French have other ideas about safety, as in, if you get hurt, it’s your own fault. So somehow rock climbing is a good idea for kids whose permanent front teeth have only just grown in. Even crazier, to me, was the fact that one of the guides had been our guide exploring caves. A man of many outdoor sports. How does one get a job leading children through caves and up cliffs? And how does he not go crazy? He had unlimited patience. I knew and loved these kids but any time I spent an entire day with all of them I had to take a nap as soon as I got home. Their overflowing energy sapped mine.
Despite the buzzing swarm of children, the area of Notre Dame du Cros is utterly peaceful. It’s over the hill from the village of Caunes-Minervois, and so tucked into the hills that you don’t hear anything but birds and the rustle of leaves. And occasionally an explosion from the marble quarry–maybe once in a day.
Legend has it that, around the 6th century, a shepherdess gave water from the spring there to her sick child (although another says it was the shepherdess herself who was ill), who was immediately cured. It became a pilgrimage destination. That led to chapels being built, with the current one dating to the 12th century, and renovated in the 15th and 16th centuries. Mass is said every morning–the chapel is considered part of the Caunes abbey. Stations of the cross are spread around the hillside.
There’s a flat plain next to a stream, named Le Souc, with picnic tables shaded by century-old platane trees. It’s a very popular spot on summer weekends, but manages to stay calm and peaceful–it’s what people come for.
It’s late July in 1209. You wake up to yet another cloudless day, the morning fresh but free of dew—it’s far too dry. In the afternoon, the blazing summer sun will turn the stone walls and cobbled lanes of your fortified town, Carcassonne, into an oven.
In the streets, people are worried. Reports have arrived of the massacre at Béziers. Pope Innocent III had called for a crusade against the Cathars, a dualist religion spreading in the south of France. About 10,000 crusaders arrived at Béziers on July 21, 1209, asking for the surrender of the city. When the locals refused, the crusaders the next day slaughtered the population, Cathars and Catholics alike. When asked how to distinguish the Catholics from the Cathars, the knight in charge, Arnaud-Amaury, supposedly said, “Kill them all; God will recognize his own.” Some 7,000 of the dead—the total is estimated around 20,000—had taken refuge in the Catholic Church of St. Madeleine, which the crusaders set on fire.
Similarly, in Carcassonne, Cathars and Catholics lived side by side. If Carcassonne is in deepest France in the 21st century, it is even more the sticks in the 13th. It is on the border with Spain at the time—the border was moved south to the Pyrénées in 1659. It has its own language, occitan. Runners would have required quite some time to cover the 60 kilometers as the crow flies between Carcassonne and Béziers. The crusaders, laden with weapons and supplies, moved more slowly. It’s why fortresses were built on hills—the better to see the enemy approaching.Carcassonne is better fortified than Béziers, even though at the time, it has just one set of walls. Life isn’t too bad. It is a period of troubadours and minstrels singing about love and chivalry. Carcassonne is ruled by the Viscount Raymond-Roger Trencavel, who also ruled Béziers, as well as Razès and Albi, the epicenter of Catharism.The region enjoys peace and prosperity despite the religious divide because the Cathars are a low-key bunch. They are Christians, insofar as they use the Lord’s Prayer and the Bible. But they are also dualists, an idea that predates Christianity, going back to the Persian prophet Zoroaster. Count Trencavel is sympathetic to the Cathars; whether he shares their beliefs himself isn’t known. What’s clear is that Catharism is very popular among his vassals and he goes with the flow. There are plenty of Catholics, too—the enormous church of Saint-Nazaire and Saint-Celse, started around 925, is declared a cathedral in 1096, though it isn’t completed until about 150 years later. Building, especially with elaborately carved stone gargoyles, is a slow process.
The Cathars believe there are two creations, good and evil, with evil being the material world. So the Cathars try to have the least contact possible with the world. The name comes from the Greek word catharos, or pure. They don’t call themselves Cathars; they prefer bonshommes (good men). The Cathars keep their heads down and work. I haven’t found academic support for this but I suspect one reason the region of Languedoc (which means language of oc—the way locals said “yes,” vs. oil, which clearly turns into oui) was so prosperous is the Cathars. They reject the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, as well as its sacraments. The church otherwise has a vise-like grip on every aspect of people’s lives. In her book, “A Distant Mirror,” Barbara Tuchman writes in detail about how the church both brought order, charity and protection to the poor as well as corruption. Certainly it wasn’t the proudest period for the church.
It’s hard to know exactly what the Cathars believe because everything that’s available comes from the depositions in the Inquisition (the first Inquisition was in France, against the Cathars). The Cathars consider that since life on earth is living hell, they shouldn’t have children. They fast often, are vegetarians (almost vegans—no milk or eggs, but they do eat fish, which don’t count as animals because they live in water) and reject materialism. They are forbidden all forms of violence, including slaughtering animals. They reject hierarchy but have a loose one, with sympathizers, then believers, then parfaits—perfects—who are like priests. Pope Innocent III doesn’t like the holier-than-thou Cathars. The local lords, including Trencavel but also the King of Aragon, are showing too much tolerance toward the heretics. Raymond VI, the count of Toulouse (yes, there are many Raymonds and Raimonds and they all name their sons Raymond and Raimond as well), is especially egregious. The pope sends an emissary to knock some sense into Raymond, but one of Raymond’s aides kills the guy, and Raymond just shrugs. This is in January. The insult is too much for the pope, who calls for a crusade against the Cathars. By summer, Languedoc is under siege.
Raymond of Toulouse is quite a character. As the crusade mounts (it takes time to organize!), he tries diplomacy. Then he tries to link up with Trencavel, who turns him down, to fight the crusaders. Then he gives away seven fortresses to the pope, says he’ll fight the heretics, which he never quite gets around to, and swears he’s Catholic. But when the crusaders come for Raymond’s own land (plundering was one way to finance the crusades), he fights against them. In a sign of either how wily or how powerful he is, he manages to be excommunicated by the pope twice.
On Aug. 1, 1209, the crusaders reach Carcassonne. Raymond-Roger Trencavel, the 24-year-old count, is in command of the city. It’s hot and dry and that gives the crusaders leverage over Carcassonne. La Cité is next to the Aude river, but above it, on a hill, and the crusaders cut off access, despite a stiff battle with Trencavel’s troops. There are some wells inside the fortress, but the city is crowded with refugees. Everybody knows what happened at Béziers.
The siege is on.
The crusaders offer a deal—everybody leaves, with nothing but the clothes they’re wearing—with the spoils for the crusaders, and nobody gets hurt. Promised safe passage, Trencavel leaves la Cité on Aug. 14 to negotiate surrender. It’s a trap. He’s immediately seized and thrown in a dungeon of his own castle.
On Aug. 15, 1209—a Catholic holy day, the Feast of the Assumption, a national holiday even centuries later—Carcassonne falls without a fight.
You pass through the gates of la Cité into the unknown. It’s an era of roving gangs of bandits, why the towns had walls. Maybe you’re a Cathar or maybe you’re Catholic; it doesn’t matter. Life is shattered, and it won’t stop for decades.
The crusaders move on, to Lastours, Minerve, Termes, Puivert. Toulouse and Castelnaudary are attacked. Albi, the hotbed of Catharism that gave the crusade its name (Albigensian Crusade), falls in 1215.
Raymond of Toulouse keeps fighting and gets back his land before dying. The crusaders abandon Carcassonne in 1224, then recapture it with no resistance in 1226. Can you imagine the mess? The commander of the crusaders, Simon de Montfort, is killed in Toulouse in 1218 by a bunch of women who drop a rock on him, shattering his skull, as he attends to his wounded brother. Are they Cathars or are they Catholics sick of the invasions?
It gets worse. The new pope, Gregory IX, establishes the inquistiion in 1234. The Cathar parfaits are easy to find—while they abandon their black robes in favor of a simple string that can be hidden under their clothes, they refuse to take oaths. That is the first thing the inquisitors demand. To get lower-level Cathars (or just anybody), the inquisitors offer to split the possessions of any Cathars with informants.
Still the battles continue. Montségur burns in 1244, Quéribus falls in 1255. And the last parfait, a guy named Bélibaste, is burned at the stake at Villerouge-Termenès in 1321.
What happens to the refugees of Carcassonne? Coming soon!
France, and especially this region of France profonde, has no shortage of adorable villages. A while ago, I took a detour home to stop and gawk in Rustiques, home to a whopping 513 residents about nine kilometers (5.5 miles) from Carcassonne. Surrounded by vineyards and pine forests, it lives up to its name, and, amazingly, it’s supposed to be the only community in France to have such an obvious name.Rustiques dates back to about 100 B.C., when the Volques Tectosages, a Gallic tribe, settled in the forest. Then the Romans came through and possibly gave it its name, from villa rustica. Around 700 A.D., the Visigoths arrived, then the Sarrasins, then the Francs. In the 1400s, the growing lawlessness of roving bandits prompted locals to band together in a walled community around the seigneur’s château, which was at the highest point. I took so many photos that I’ll do a separate post on the château, even though it was closed when I visited.
In fact, it was so quiet I barely saw a soul. Il n’y avait pas un chat–there wasn’t a cat–as the French say.
I never get tired of wandering in these little places. A sign told me the four banal, or the seigneur/lord’s oven, was down a little street in a house belonging to the lord, but I didn’t find any marker for it. I am a little obsessed with fours banals. In Rustiques, bread was baked twice a week, and for every 24 loaves, the people had to give one to the lord.
The four banal was to keep villages from burning down, but floods were as much of a problem as fire. Two streams join at the village and overflowed, sometimes disastrously. The village detoured one stream in 1912. There also was a lavoir, in use into the 1960s, and a big improvement from what came before–From 1899 to 1906, the town rented eight benches for washing laundry on the Canal du Midi in Trèbes, about a mile away. How convenient, eh? Not to mention clean…NOT.
There also was an impressive clock tower, built in 1897, so all the inhabitants, known as Rustiquois, would known the time of the republique.
So many old, old details.
The surrounding countryside was inviting in the winter sunshine. The bare vines, Mount Alaric in the distance.
Villages like this are what make Carcassonne such a great base–they’re adorable, but you can walk around them leisurely three times and not have spent a whole hour. They’re perfect for an occasional diversion.
Happily, no helicopters were needed for our renovations. But such are the challenges of maintaining ancient buildings that lie within walled cities whose streets were laid out a millennium before cars.
A few weeks ago, I was walking around la Cité and heard an incredible racket. With the narrow streets, the sound bounced around such that I wasn’t sure at first what it was or where it was coming from. Then I realized it was a helicopter and got a little worried about why it was so close to la Cité. Carcassonne is home to the Third Regiment of Parachutists of the Marine Infantry (RPIMa), so planes and helicopters are not unknown in skies around here. And when wildfires break out, we get some very low-flying planes that drop water.
Outside la Cité’s walls I understood–the helicopter was making a special delivery of long beams for a renovation project. Such beams would have been too long to thread through the winding paths, not at all straight, of la Cité. Having gulped at the cost of delivery of renovation materials by truck (during certain times on certain days!), I imagined many zeroes popping up behind some number, like in a cartoon. Nothing is easy or cheap with old buildings.
It made me reflect again on what we went through, putting in new wiring and plumbing in apartments built for neither.
You can see the saga of our renovations under the heading Our Vacation Apartments. We hope you get to visit in person, too!
Around Christmas, making a detour around the gilets jaunes, I passed through the charming village of Pennautier and pulled over. I have you to thank. In the past, I would have craned to peek down the interior streets but I wouldn’t have stopped. Now, I park and get out my camera. Pennautier is a stone’s throw from Carcassonne. Prehistoric tools have been found, but it didn’t take off until the Romans came along around 100 B.C. and put up some fortified agricultural buildings. In 508, King Clovis the First gave the territory to one of his lieutenants and called it Pech Auter, which means High Old Warrior. On a rocky hill with a river nearby, the village was fortified by walls that were torn down in 1591 probably because the village was a refuge for Protestants, according to the mairie.It doesn’t look like the heart of the village has changed much over the centuries. It’s a maze of narrow streets, improbably full of cars parked as close as possible to one wall, because there’s barely room for anybody to pass.
It was late on a Saturday and raining when I stopped. I saw quite a few people walking briskly, then realized they were going to church.
Unfortunately, the château was closed. The top photo shows just one end of it; you’re missing the broad front. It’s called the Versailles of Languedoc! Huge! It was built in 1620 by Bernard Reich de Pennautier. You have to watch the video clip on the château’s site, especially the bed that was a gift of King Louis XIII when he visited in 1622.In 1670, the son, Pierre-Louis de Pennautier, took over and added on. He hired Louis Le Vau, who was the architect of Versailles, to design the wings, and Andre Le Nôtre, who did the gardens at Versailles, to design those at Pennautier. Starchitects of the 1600s.
The whole place was redone in 2009 and now has 24 double and twin rooms, but you have to book a minimum of four bedrooms or two suites.
Did I mention they make wine, still today? Good stuff.
The château is on my to-do list for the next Journées du Patrimoine.
We recently made a nice day trip to Montpellier. We usually do our “big city” shopping in Toulouse, but we decided to mix it up. It’s an extra half-hour drive, but it feels completely different than Toulouse–Montpellier lies on the Mediterranean coast, and its stately avenues are lined with palm trees.
We didn’t get outside the city center; in fact, we didn’t even explore all of the city center. So much to see! Especially since I had to stop every few steps to gasp, and then photograph, the over-the-top architectural details.
The center of Montpellier is an interesting mix of tiny streets and big squares. The center has been off-limits to cars since 2004, when Montpellier created France’s largest pedestrian-only zone–24 kilometers without traffic.
Place de la Comédie, above and in the top photo, is enormous, full of people passing through or hanging out, yet not crowded.
Small streets open up to little squares, always filled with café tables, which were always bustling.
I loved everything about this street–the turret made me stop, but then I saw it has a tiny arched window! And look at that “balcony” full of plants. And the double-extension window boxes on the left!On rue de la Loge, brass circles in the street mark the Camin Roumieu, one of the main routes to Compostella, linking Arles and Toulouse. So you have to look down, but you also have to look up!
There are other kinds of artwork as well.
Montpellier is a lovely city. I can’t compare it with Carcassonne, which is like a big village. Montpellier is much more go-go, with people walking quickly, shops full of quirky stuff and restaurants touting the latest health crazes. In Carcassonne, one sees little old retirees wearing pajamas and slippers as they walk their dogs, not very early, either.Chic shops! Arches! No cars! A ROOM OVER THE STREET! I’d love to know what’s in there and who lives there.