When Montpellier was founded in 985, cities were for survival. Most people went out to work in surrounding fields, and didn’t have time or energy or space for greenery. We have watched Montpellier evolve over the years, ridding the narrow streets of its historic center of cars and introducing a profusion of vines that completely change the character of a place that otherwise is stone on stone.In 2017, Montpellier launched a “vegetation permit” to encourage “microflowering” by geting individuals to plant greenery around them–in small communal gardens, containers, wherever roots could find dirt. The city also is planting 1,000 trees a year.
The result is lovely. I can think of all the practical arguments against such climbing vines–they destroy the mortar joints of walls, they are full of creepy crawlies like spiders, they hold humidity, which also is bad for the walls, they tangle with electric wires. And yet, I can’t help but be charmed. The streets become magical passages suitable for fairies, especially with the garlands that were strung.
Some of the garlands were made with bits of lace, very romantic.Some were colorful, very dramatic.You can’t just look up, because sometimes the surprises are underfoot. And you might not even be aware you’re walking on a rainbow if you aren’t going up.Everywhere that the narrow streets open even a little, to a space not worthy of being called a square, there are trees squeezing up between the cream-colored stone buildings, and café tables spreading beneath them.Behind the façades, too, are hidden gardens. Real gems. Others, who have neither garden nor sidewalk, make do with balconies.
I think it’s a brilliant idea. The climate around here is such that these vines stay green year-round. The city says one benefit is they help clean the air.
Toulouse is such a pretty city. I went with some friends on Saturday, and we had such fun.It was the Journées de Patrimoine (Heritage Days), but my friends weren’t too interested in history, alas. That didn’t stop me from snapping photos right and left. On l’Allée Jules Guesde, a vegan festival was in full swing, and we were disappointed that we had already eaten. Besides history and food, there was music, with brass bands playing at various squares. I loved the all-woman group, playing a cover by Madonna.In the main square, Place du Capitole, a Basque festival was going on, with a band, dancers in traditional dress, giants that we later saw parading around, and lots of stands where you could taste and buy the regional specialties.We were strolling down the main pedestrian shopping street, rue Saint-Rome, when the Gilets Jaunes approached from the direction of the Capitole. To avoid them, we turned down a side street and discovered some cute shops we usually would have missed by sticking to the main shopping streets. Then we headed toward rue Alsace-Lorraine, but the Gilets Jaunes had turned and were coming down that street. So we zipped a couple of streets down to cross ahead of them and managed to get to Place Saint-Georges, for gelato and tranquility.
It was lovely. The ice cream was amazing, and we were entertained by a group of swing dancers. I was itching to join them. We meandered on, popping into the Lush store. A very young salesclerk unlocked the door for customers and then locked it again. We could hear the Gilets Jaunes drums and chants, but figured they were on the bigger street. No–they poured past, chanting but not breaking anything. More or less respectful. Non-protesters managed to swim upstream on the sidewalks on either side. We just watched from inside the store. Finally they were gone and we left. Looking back down the street, it was a fog of tear gas at Place Saint-Georges. No more swing dancing, or gelato. Soon they were retreating down the same street, pushed out of the square. Parents hustled their kids along to stay out of the GJs’ way. I heard a very small child, maybe four or five years old, on a trottinette, remarking to his mother that there was tear gas. I can tell you I was pretty old before I had any idea about tear gas. All the same, it shows that people have stopped paying attention and just continue to carry on, despite the protests.On a separate note, we recently got to meet Janelle of the Distant Francophile blog, and her husband, Scott. They manage to be utterly chic and adorable at the same time. And a real love story. Janelle mixes travel tips, wardrobe advice and recipes, all with fantastic photos. I was tickled that they chose to stay in one of our AirBnBs and that we got to know them better. If you’re a francophile, then definitely check out Janelle’s blog and Instagram.
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?”
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.
As a parent, I’ve been there and done that as far as sight-seeing and eating out with kids in France. Here are some tips, mainly for eating out with kids. Restaurants seem to be the most-fraught moment in many travelers’ trips to France, what with the different customs and language barriers (especially when menus use terms that are clever but not very clear about what will be on your plate). This is a repost, because today is C.R.A.Z.Y.
It’s fairly rare to see children at fine restaurants in France. It isn’t that the French don’t love kids–they have a higher fertility rate than other developed countries (1.98 kids per woman in France, compared with 1.91 in the U.K. and 1.86 in the U.S.). and government policies around maternity leave, job protection and pay are strong (I don’t want to say “generous,” because that sounds as if it isn’t deserved, when in fact it’s earned).
All the same, kids and adults occupy distinct realms in France. And to have the best experience possible while traveling with kids, it’s good to know the cultural expectations (you can always flout these–it’s a free country–but you will be subject to Gallic scowls).
Dinner is late in France. Most people I know eat between 7 and 8 p.m. at home (BTW, the French use the 24-hour clock, so it would be 19h (h for heure) and 20h). But it’s rare to find a restaurant open at 7. Most start service at 8. When toddlers need 12-14 hours a night and even preteens need 9-11 hours, it’s logical that they are in bed around 8 p.m. The French deal with this by leaving the kids at home with a babysitter.
The other challenge is the French expectation that dinner should be enjoyed slowly. It is difficult to enjoy dinner when you have a ticking time bomb of a toddler sharing your table. We would target one of the few restaurants that opens at 7, La Grande Bouffe, which suited the Carnivore just fine, as it specializes in large slabs of red meat cooked (well, quickly passed near) a wood fire right there in the dining room. We would get there the minute it opened and order quickly, lest a big table arrive and overwhelm the one-man kitchen.
Our child would sit angelically for an hour, which seemed like quite a feat for a one- or two-year-old, but after that, all bets were off. First fussing, then increasingly emphatic demands to get DOWN. However, even in family restaurants, kids don’t wander the way they do in the U.S. Restaurants do not provide crayons and special paper placements for coloring. Bring your own. Also a sippy cup, because they also don’t have plastic glasses, and you can’t enjoy your meal if you are trying to keep your kid from dropping or knocking over a glass glass. A stroller is a good option (if there’s room–some restaurants are tiny), because they can go to sleep.
There are options, such as brasseries, with wider hours. Informal family restaurants–mostly chains like Hippopotamus or Buffalo Grill–open early and have reliably OK food but do you really want to spend your meals in France in the equivalent of Applebees? (I like Applebees well enough but I wouldn’t cross the ocean to eat at one.) One Parisian restaurant that’s quite loud–in a raucous, not discotheque way–is Nos Ancêtres Les Gaulois, a medieval-style place where the servers, dressed in period costumes, stab your knife into the table. It is not gastronomic, but pretty fun, a bit like our medieval meal last summer.
Nice restaurants in France are quiet. In the U.S., the louder the better, but that doesn’t hold here. Everybody speaks in a whisper. That means you have no cover or plausible deniability when your kid shrieks. And nicer restaurants rarely have children’s menus or high chairs (and forget about changing tables!).
If you don’t want to go downmarket to family-focused restaurants, consider nice restaurants with outdoor seating, where the ambient noise level is higher. The catch is that all the smokers want to sit outdoors, but you might be able to score a spot upwind or with nonsmokers around.
Another option is to shift your schedule and eat your “nice” meal or main meal at lunch. The expectations for calm are somewhat less strict at lunch, plus the menu usually is cheaper–double win.
If a place doesn’t have a kid’s menu, they sometimes will offer the same menu as for adults, with half portions at half the price. One of our favorite restaurants in Carcassonne, Le Clos des Framboisiers, does the half-size, half-price option. Our favorite Chinese restaurant, La Jonque, suggested a stir-fry of chicken and vegetables with rice–not on the menu, but it was a big hit with our kid.
Some years later, our kid asked to have a birthday sleepover with two friends, with dinner at La Jonque–ALONE. So I called and reserved two tables, specifying that they should be as far apart as possible in such a small place. The chef and his wife have kids, and understood. We arrived all together, then split into opposite corners of the dining room. Another family with kids about the same age were there, and those kids stared wide-eyed with naked jealousy as ours ordered on their own and seemed to have a great time at their very own table.
If you have decided your main “nice” meal is lunch, then you can have something simple or even get takeout for dinner. This is one of the best arguments for renting an apartment, where you can feed your kids, put them to bed, then relax with a glass of wine. I am not one of the people who will put a child to sleep in a hotel room and then go down to the lounge in the lobby. But it’s no fun (been there, done that) to sit IN the hotel room in the dark while your kid sleeps for 12 straight hours. A separate bedroom lets them get the sleep they need (a tired kid is a cranky kid), while letting you look over plans for the next day or just zone out in front of the TV.
The way to hold out from noon to 8 p.m. is to adopt the French snack, called un goûter (a taste), un quatre-heures (a 4 o’clock–this one doesn’t follow the 24-hour system) or even un petit quatre-heures (a little 4 o’clock). Don’t even get me started on how un quatre-heures is masculine when heure is feminine.
I have found that an essential element to good behavior in children is to use up their energy. France has great parks and playgrounds. The lovely Place des Vosges in Paris has a big playground, full of beautifully dressed kids (wearing artfully tied scarves) being watched by their chicly dressed parents. Our kid’s eagle eye would detect playgrounds from a mile away. “Maison!” I would strain to pick it out, and sure enough, on the corner of a public square otherwise filled with café tables, there was a playground with a little house on stilts and a slide coming out. Just watch out for the “Pelouse interdit”–keep off the grass–signs and stick to the actual playground.
In Paris, in the basement of the Louvre, there’s a shopping gallery, and at one end, there’s a big empty space where you can see excavations of the ancient foundations. Almost nobody goes there (“What’s this?” “Old stones.” “Cool. OK, what’s next?”). This is the perfect place for some little ones to run and scream their heads off before dinner. It’s especially good on rainy days when they can’t run and scream outside; one of the few indoor places where outdoor voices are OK. Even if you’ve been hoofing around sight-seeing, your toddler has probably been strapped into a stroller and is dying to move.
With a little planning, your kid can have fun, you can relax and people around you won’t be annoyed.
The number of adorable villages in the south of France is nearly infinite. Each is unique, boasting something special–a château or some historic artifact, a location that offers spectacular views, a quirky market–yet they are all, if not alike, then from the same family, with narrow streets that wind between ancient stone houses, built as needs arose, without planning but with a great sense of purpose, many generations ago. They were built to stand for generations, too, and despite the lack of advanced engineering or equipment, they have indeed survived.Saissac is all of those things. Château: check. Sweeping views: check. Streets too narrow (and vertical) for cars: check. Stone houses that aren’t quite plumb: check. I wanted to take some recent visitors to a ruined Cathar castle, but one that didn’t entail a long, vertiginous hike. And so we went to Saissac, which offers gentler access. Just west of Carcassonne, Saissac is in beginnings of the Black Mountains, enough above the plain that sprawls between the Black Mountains and the Pyrénées that you can take in vast vistas. At one time, the castle towered over the village, but after a few ransackings the castle was ruined and the village moved up. That means you get to trundle gently down to this castle, doable even in sandals, not too far for little ones with short legs or elder ones with tired knees, doable with strollers and possibly wheelchairs, though inside there are still ancient bits that require climbing and jumping. The principle of “if you get hurt it’s your own fault” applies here.
The Saissac castle was started around 900 BCE, and it was mentioned in a document in 960 in which the bishop of Toulouse gave the castle to the count of Carcassonne. It got passed around various noble families until the Revolution; it was already in ruins by then and its condition just got worse. In 1864, some bounty hunters dynamited the keep, which didn’t help matters. The village bought the castle in 1994 and started renovations, more to keep what was left from crumbling than to put anything back together.The bounty hunters weren’t wrong in their choice of target, even if they came up empty–in 1979, a treasure of 2,000 deniers, or coins, was found during some repairs. The coins dated to 1250-1270 and are on display in the castle. They’re behind glass, and my photos of them didn’t turn out. You’ll have to see for yourself!
We clambered around the ruins like wannabe Indiana Joneses, looking at details to imagine what it must have been like. Traces. A doorway, filled in. Holes peering to other rooms or cavities or something mysterious. The angled ghost of a staircase. One lower-level room had been set up to look like a medieval kitchen.These castles were never just one thing. At times, they were fortresses against invaders. They often were safe havens against the marauders that plagued Europe in the Middle Ages. At other times, they were elegant residences, and the owners added on rooms or wings. Jean de Bernuy was one of them. He bought the château in 1518 and added a living area with large windows, a couple of fireplaces and a staircase–it was the Renaissance, after all. De Bernuy was an immigrant success story: he came from Burgos, Spain, and made his fortune in the pastel business. He was so loaded that he stood security for the ransom of King Francis I, who was held hostage in Pavia in 1525. Pastel came from woad, and would be ground up and pressed into balls to use as blue dye. The balls were called coques and gave the region the name Pays de Cocagne, which means land of milk and honey. Even Carcassonne had a big textile industry, and this region just to the west made fortunes from the blue dye, especially between 1460 and 1560, when indigo from the Americas started to show up. Globalization.
Saissac’s church also was interesting. It seems to date to 1290, after the crusade against the Cathars (1209). The Cathars and Catholics had lived side by side until the crusade, so maybe the surviving villagers wanted to show allegiance to the church after the Cathars had been exterminated. By 1568, there were other troubles–the Wars of Religion. The church was burned, the priests massacred and the village pillaged by the Huguenots. Only the castle resisted the attack. The village and church were pillaged again in 1591 by the Antoine Scipion, the duc de Joyeuse, brother of Anne (who was a male and whose name is the brand of blanquette de Limoux–the family had a castle nearby, in Couiza). Scipion had become military leader of the Catholic extremists. Why did he attack the church, if he was after the Huguenots, and why did he do to the village the same damage the Huguenots had done? Maybe the people of little Saissac were too live-and-let-live liberal for his tastes? He was known for his brutality, for having the injured executed at Montastruc, and for killing without regard to age or sex.
Things in Saissac eventually got better, and more additions were built onto the church in the following years until the Revolution–the church was closed in 1794, only to reopen in 1795. The back-and-forth could give a person whiplash. Somehow I suspect that the folks of Saissac, which today borders on 1,000 inhabitants, just wanted to live their lives in peace and quiet, tending their fields and animals and focusing on getting enough to eat. I’m sure everybody in Saissac has enough to eat these days, but overall in the world, very little has changed. The worries and crises haven’t evolved much.The village itself is cuteness personified. We passed some residents of a certain age who were outside on the sidewalk/street/their personal patio, seeking a little fresh air and breeze in the shade. We greeted them as we passed, and they seemed resigned to having outsiders traipsing through and cutting into their conversation (which was about when melons would be ripe…). There was only one other family at the château when we were there. It was a delicious luxury having the place practically to ourselves, but I imagine a lot more people come through in the summer, perhaps shooting photos of the quaint locals trying to get cool in the shade. When I lived in New York. I don’t think I ever managed to get a coffee at an outdoor table without having my photo taken by somebody, and I am not, and was not then, a beauty. I was just local color. At least then, the cameras used film and I didn’t have to worry about my mug being on the Internet. Call me old-fashioned. With facial-recognition technology, I have no intention of making it easier for anybody to find me using my face.I live in one of these little villages, not quite as vertiginous as Saissac, but similar insofar as it has little streets that even my itsy-bitsy Aygo can’t squeeze through. Even Google’s Street View car can’t negotiate them. They were built for wheelbarrows. The more a place is authentic, the less it’s practical. There’s another village that I absolutely must show you soon if I can organize myself to get back there; it’s just far enough that every time I think about it I also think, nah. On the one hand it’s paradise–no cars at all. It’s insanely beautiful but WTF for bringing home anything heavy? Actually, it’s so beautiful that it’s mostly gîtes and AirBnBs and B&Bs. The quaint locals might not be locals at all. Who wants to haul groceries from a car park half a mile away (come to think of it, I don’t think there’s a grocery store there). When you’re on vacation in an unspeakably cute village with lovely, delicious restaurants that have jaw-dropping views, then you don’t buy groceries, you eat out and walk home along the stone paths, not having to worry about cars, though you might have to worry a tiny bit about not getting lost, since little villages are crazy mazes but hey, they’re little. You can’t stay lost for long.
It looks as if it were a castle designed by Disney for a princess. But Carcassonne isn’t a castle. It’s a fortified city (la Cité) with a castle inside it. I’ve been to the castle many times, and recently went back with visitors. I really don’t get tired of it–there are so many details. La Cité became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997.The castle is a museum and you have to buy a ticket to get in. Only fair–I can barely keep up with maintenance of my house; I can’t imagine what this joint must require. The oldest parts date to 2,500 years ago. Ouf! Talk about built to last.
You enter through a barbican. The castle was the last defense within the well-defended city. The city itself had a drawbridge and walls–eventually a double ring of walls, which is unique–with many barbicans. A barbican is a brilliant piece of design–a half circle, it allows the residents 180 degrees of range of attack toward the outside. If, horrors, the attackers overwhelm the residents, the residents retreat farther inside and the attackers find themselves in the half-circle of the barbican–which has transformed from defense to trap, because there’s always a spot just a little beyond the barbican from which the residents can shoot at those in its confines, like fish in a barrel.
So if attackers made it over the first drawbridge they would be stuck in the sets of double doors that would drop down to trap invaders between, with a trap door above so the residents could pour boiling water, boiling oil, stones or whatever down on them. The trapped invaders would be left to die of their injuries/starve to death or, if the invaders seemed not worth the wait, the outer door could be opened so they could flee.If the attackers breached this defense, they could run up the narrow lanes of la Cité. The residents would have already absconded for the castle, the final refuge. It has a barbican–a big one, separated from the castle proper by a drawbridge over a dry moat. Why a dry moat, you ask? Well, Carcassonne is on top of a hill, so it isn’t like there would be water in the moat. (Except during the filming of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” with Kevin Costner.) But the structure was useful anyway because it slowed down the attackers and kept them corralled where it was easy to shoot at them.
There’s another set of double drop-down doors and then you’re in the Courtyard of Honor. Time to forget about invasions and to think more about court life.
The museum shows a wonderful short film about how Eugène Viollet le Duc restored la Cité, starting in 1844, saving it from almost being torn down. How he looked for traces of what was before–where there was a window, supports for a ceiling, etc. In other words, what you see today is a restoration of what was left centuries later but not quite as it was in its heyday in the early 13th century.
What do you think of historic restorations? I think it’s important to preserve the past, but you can’t bring it back. And so I like la Cité. It takes me to another time, another perspective.
Do you go to the tourist attractions in your town? In France, the entire country is a tourist attraction. La Cité is very popular, and in the summer, in the afternoon, it is crowded and hot and unpleasant with daytrippers who come over from the Mediterranean beaches for a few begrudging hours of culture. But even in summer, in the mornings and evenings, it’s not crowded and is so interesting. And off-season you can practically have the place to yourself, to let your imagination run wild. I love going to la Cité. After all these years, I still make discoveries.
The little details grab me more as time goes by. Long ago when I lived in New York, I had a membership to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and would pop in once or twice a week. When you go that often, you don’t feel obliged to see everything. I spent one visit just looking at the Grecian urns–a room full of them–marveling at the stories painted on them. I also was impressed by how few people stopped to look at them, instead just passing through to more “important” things.
The museum holds quite a few things from the cathedral, especially mascarons that were too fragile to leave in the elements.
Check out this pillar…hard to get good exposure on the two sides, so there are two shots of the same thing.
What people did with stone is so incredible. Sculptors’ names lost to time. The other cool thing about visiting the museum is you have access to the ramparts, which offer amazing views over the “new” (1260) city and the countryside, down to the Pyrénées, if you’re lucky.
While it’s great to see Carcassonne off-season, the summer has advantages despite–or thanks to–the crowds. Tonight, I’m going to see a dance performance in the Cour d’Honneur–talk about a setting! It’s part of the Festival of Carcassonne, with concerts, theater and more, some awfully expensive but other events free. And in August, it’s all things medieval, with jousting tournaments between the walls.
OK, 926 years. Old. The previous post focused on the gardens at the Abbaye de Fontfroide in the south of France. This time, we’re going inside.
The abbey is founded in 1093. By 1145 it joins the Cistercian order, which itself starts at the Citeaux Abbey in Burgundy in 1098. Lots of monastic orders start in the 11th and 12th centuries. It was a turbulent time (when wasn’t it?) and people were searching for answers. Western Christian monasteries are based on the rules of St. Benedict of Nursia, who lived from 480 to 547, give or take. He didn’t become a saint until 1964 (two of his miracles involved avoiding being poisoned which makes me think of SNL’s Father Guido Sarducci describing a saint and saying two of the miracles were card tricks), but we’ll cut Benedict some slack because he was upset about the excesses of his time. Was it like the ’80s (not to mention Gordon Gekko…who was the villain! Not the hero!!!) the ’90s, the 2000s, the 2008 or was it–gasp–even worse?
The monks, about 80 of them plus 250 brother converts (except around 1438, when the Black Death cut their number to around 20…can you imagine?), are committed to hard physical labor, silence and poverty. The vow of poverty is one reason why, despite the huge size of Fontfroide, the decoration is austere, though you can pick out that later parts have faces, etc., though nothing as naughty as Saint-Hilaire. Even the columns in the cloister show only plants, not faces as you would see elsewhere.You would think that the vow of poverty and dedication to hard work would make Fontfroide’s monks find common cause with the Cathars, but in fact the crusade against the Cathars is set off by the assassination of Pierre de Castelnau, a Fontfroide monk who is the papal legate, sent to negotiate with the Cathars. Even before the actual battles begin, the Cistercians fight to stamp out the Cathar beliefs, though how they do this, stuck in a remote abbey and under a vow of silence, is unclear. I guess the lay brothers could talk, being the ones to leave the abbey walls to work, but they are lay–not all-in on the religion, though in that time everybody is all-in on the religion, like it or not. It dictates every aspect of everybody’s lives down to the smallest detail, no matter who you are, like in Iran today. After the Cathar crusade, Fontfroide rises in prominence, thanks to Jacques Fournier, head abbot in 1311 (succeeding his uncle…nothing like a little nepotism). Fournier is named bishop of Pamiers in 1317 and is part of the Inquisition court trying Cathar holdouts (the crusade was in 1209, so they’re exacting revenge more than a century later!). He is then named bishop of Mirepoix, then is promoted to cardinal in 1327 and is elected pope in 1334. This happens during the Great Schism, or the Avignon papacy, from 1309 to 1376, when seven consecutive popes live in France, not Rome. In fact, it’s Fournier, as Pope Benedict XII, who builds the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, and he is buried in the Avignon cathedral. Things go downhill from there. More of the monks are nobles appointed to sinecures by the king and not very interested in monastic life. In fact, the so-called commendatory abbots suck up all the money of the abbey–and it covered 30,000 hectares between Béziers and Spain, versus 4,000 hectares today–to the extent that the real monks are probably in greater poverty than even they had signed up for. There are only seven monks left by 1594. About the same time, the non-religious monk-nobles build the fancier additions to the abbey, like the Court of Honor, built between the 16th and 17th centuries. They eat meat and chocolate (!!! a treat from newly discovered North America!) and play billiards. Can it be any worse? Sure it can–the church is one of the targets of the French Revolution in 1789, and the cushy noble-in-a-castle-that-pretends-to-be-an-abbey gig ends. The abbey is turned over to the Hospices of Narbonne in 1791. In 1833 the abbey is sold to the Saint-Aubin family, who want Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (the guy who restored la Cité of Carcassonne and Notre-Dame de Paris) to take it on. But it doesn’t work out.
By 1901, the last monks leave the abbey. It sits empty until 1908, when Gustave and Madeleine Fayet buy it at auction and start renovations. Gustave is a painter from a family of artists, and later adapts paintings into carpets, which are a big hit. Apparently, he also is an architect, industrialist, banker and winemaker. But to make money, it helps to already have money. Above all, he inherits an immense fortune from three generations of running barges on the Canal du Midi and transporting eau de vie–which better explain how he could afford such a project. He is so loaded that he buys another abbey as a gift for a female poet, because, hey, why not! Before buying Fontfroide, he flits around Europe and Algeria buying up art from the likes of Gauguin and Odilon Redon. In fact, he sells two Gauguins to a Russian collector in order to pay for the Fontfroide renovations in 1908, then in 1910 sells seven (!!!) works by Cézanne to fund more renovations. Meanwhile, he hosts musicians and artists, including Redon, who does a little decorating of the library while at the abbey. I found an article that called Fayet a cultural elitist, and it was meant as a compliment. So French.
Gustave Fayet died in 1925 in Carcassonne, and his wife, Madeleine died in 1971. The Fontfroide abbey is still operated today by descendants of Gustave and Madeleine.
Fontfroide isn’t related to the Cloisters that are part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. That said, the museum’s four cloisters were acquired from the general vicinity of Fontfroide–the abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa not far to the south, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert just to the north, Bonnefont and Trie-en-Bigorre near Toulouse to the west. Those were bought by U.S. art dealer George Grey Barnard between 1934 and 1939, well after Fontfroide was in the Fayets’ hands.Fontfroide has two sets of interesting stained-glass windows. When Fayet bought the place, all the windows were destroyed. Traditionally, they would have been just grisaille, or gray, in keeping with the ascetic décor. In 1920, Fayet hired his buddy Réné Billa, alias Richard Burgsthal, to assemble collages from fragments of church windows in northern and eastern France that were destroyed in World War I. Very touching.In the church and, especially its Chappelle des Morts (Chapel of Death), which overlooked the cemetery and was built during the plague, the windows are audacious, full of vibrant colors. In the church, they depict moments from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. In the Chapel of Death, Father Kim en Joong in 2009 created contemporary abstract windows with deep reds and blues that make the dark space even more meditative. Sorry, but my photos didn’t turn out. (I have others!)
The central courtyard, or Louis XIV courtyard, is the site of workshops, from the forge to the joinery and bakery. There’s an underground cistern that provides very cold water–Fontfroide means cold spring. So much to see. Big stuff and small details.Check out this drone video, which gives an idea of just how alone the abbey is in its setting.