Mirepoix, in the South of France

IMG_1701Mirepoix can conjure up two very different things. A mirepoix is a mix of diced carrots, celery and onions that serves as a base for a number of dishes.  And the charming, medieval town of Mirepoix, about a 45-minute, very beautiful drive south of Carcassonne.IMG_4172IMG_4170Mondays are the day to see Mirepoix–market day. This is convenient, since so many towns, Carcassonne included, have markets on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. If you were busy on Saturday, you can catch up in Mirepoix on Monday. (Just forget about shopping anywhere on Sundays.) Mirepoix has another market day on Thursdays, but Monday is the one to see.

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Quite a difference from winter!

The heart of Mirepoix is its central square, lined with half-timbered houses with arcades that offer shade or shelter, depending on the season. It once was a fortified town, the halfway point between Carcassonne and Foix. It sprang up in the 10th century and became a holdout for the Cathars, which led to its being captured during the last crusade (the real one, the Albigensian Crusade) in 1209 just after Carcassonne. The town was wiped out again in 1289, when a terrible flood destroyed it. The locals rebuilt, but on the other side of the river. The area once was in a forest; today a big oak at the entry to the town, classified as a historic monument in 1945, is all that’s left–the other trees went into those half-timbered houses.

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The fortifications.

Mirepoix also has some great antique shops and brocantes.

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Sign of summer.

In the summer, it draws throngs–of course. Nobody makes a trip to see a mediocre town. But in winter, you can have the place to yourself.IMG_4173

 

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Play it again, Sam

IMG_4634Casablanca is such a contrast between modernity and history, between rich and poor, between beauty and ugliness. It’s an assault on the senses, yet it feels mostly benign, not menacing.

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The view from our AirBnB. In the very center, greenery is scarce, but the city lives up to its name: white house.

Earlier I posted about our visit and about the restaurants we went to. This time, we’re just going to tool around town, observing life, how it’s the same yet different.

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Just beyond the warren of streets in the center, palm-lined boulevards carry lots of cars.
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I love the reflection of the palms on the glass façade and the plants on the terrace near the roof. It could be any southern city, right?
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More integrated greenery. Note the grill at the top–for cutting the sun.
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Cacti on this roof. The overhangs are so smart–the windows stay shaded from direct sunlight.
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Note the open windows on the blue-green glass building. I kept looking at Casablanca’s weather during the summer. Highs around 79, thanks to cooling sea breezes. Very pleasant. No need for A/C.

One foggy morning we went to the huge Mosque Hassan II, the fifth largest in the world. Walking back, we sought out some other sights.

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Closed for renovations.

The Casablanca Cathedral, also shown in the top photo, is an Art Deco gem. It opened in 1930. It’s no longer a church but is used for cultural events. I’m a sucker for Art Deco.

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The lacy cutouts reflect the local architectural styles. It doesn’t look out of place at all.

Casablanca has a shiny new tram, which was decked out in honor of the national World Cup team. The tram was clean, quick, comfortable and cheap (about 70 cents a ride).58.Tram équipe du MarocI’m so conflicted over trams and metros. On the one hand, they tend to be viewed as better than buses, and in Casablanca the buses were rickety and packed to the gills. However, they require a huge investment, and they’re stuck in place, whereas buses use existing streets that serve other vehicles and it’s easy to change bus routes.

The Casablanca tramway has two lines. The second line is 17 kilometers (10 miles), cost €262 million and serves nine districts with a total population of over 1 million people. While it’s a lower-carbon alternative to the fume-belching buses, I think you could buy a lot of new, even electric, buses for €262 million.

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Red for local rides.
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Lots of taxis!

Taxis are another way to get around, and amazingly cheap. The petits taxis are red and are for trips within the city only. If you want to go farther, say to the airport, you need a grand taxi. These are usually white. Either way, you get a white-knuckle ride.

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Two-wheel parking lot.
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We saw lots of these three-wheeled delivery vehicles. This one had to be pushed over the bump to cross the tram line–it couldn’t quite make it with the engine alone!
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Delicious pineapple.

There also were some donkey carts and human-pulled carts, like the pineapple vendor above. Can you imagine a life of pushing your pineapples, probably quite far, because Casablanca is relatively expensive and you probably would have to live on the edges of the city. You navigate your precious cargo to a spot in the center of the city, where passersby have jobs that allow them the luxury of spending a few dirhams on a whim, like for a wedge of juicy pineapple. If you don’t sell, your pineapples will rot. You have no cushion, no salary. Just income from what you manage to sell, trying to survive another day. Nobody grows up thinking, “boy, I hope I can sell pineapples by the slice one day. What a life that would be!” No, it’s what you do when all else fails.

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The Grand Theatre of Casablanca, aka CasArts.

Down the street but a world away, the Grand Theatre of Casablanca is taking shape. Designed by French architect Christian de Portzamparc, the theater is supposed to resemble a medina, with fluid lines, and many alleyway-like entries that will provide natural ventilation, shade and places for people to relax. The entrance will double as an outdoor soundstage.

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The theater is directly across from the fountain that dominates Square Mohammed V.

I really couldn’t get over the palm trees. And the bougainvillea.40.Palmiers1P1100386

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Bananas too.

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Even palms on the beer!!!
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This house was like a lot of “inner” Casablanca–undoubtedly beautiful at one time, but no longer kept up.

I still have more photos to share of this fascinating place.34.Plage4

 

 

 

 

 

Wine to Go

IMG_5681If you visit France, of course you want to take home one of its most famous specialities: wine. Whether for yourself or a gift, you can get some amazing wines in France from wineries that are too small to export, or, even if they do export, that aren’t easy to find.

How do you make sure your treasures get home safely? We have used this method for more than 15 years and have never had a broken bottle. It’s easy and nearly free.

You need one cardboard wine box for every two bottles; scissors or a box cutter; duct tape or some other strong tape. (BTW, I read once that it’s smart to pack a small roll of electrical tape in your carry-on for emergencies. It saved me once when my suitcase appeared on the carousel completely open, with all three latches broken. Of course this wasn’t in any way the airline’s fault. Anyway, the tape let me get the suitcase shut enough to get out of the airport.)

IMG_5686First, cut the box so it opens flat.

Roll the bottle and cut where it goes all the way around.

Wrap tape around the middle.

Bend the bottom like wrapping a present and tape well.

Squeeze the top–the cardboard will pleat around the narrower bottle neck. Tape well.

IMG_5700Tape the whole thing like crazy. It goes through the X-ray machines just fine, and we’ve never had them questioned or opened.IMG_5701Sometimes for good measure we first wrap the bottle in bubble wrap and then do the cardboard. And sometimes we then put the wrapped bottle into a plastic bag so that if, heaven forbid, it breaks, it won’t seep out all over your clothes. At least not as much.

This method has worked well for us, though. Even when we’ve dropped our luggage. Even when we’ve dropped the wrapped bottles.IMG_6307FYI, the wines shown here are beyond excellent, from small wineries that do export. We featured la Tour Boisée earlier; le Château Villerambert Julien also is fantastic. Both are from the Minervois A.O.C. (appellation d’origine contrôlée–the official guarantee it comes from a certain region and meets strict standards). Minervois is just northeast of Carcassonne. Look for it!

Australia in France

kangaroosIt’s hard to believe, but there are French people who dream of traveling far away. Yet, many French families just have the budget for a modest vacation in a sunny corner of their homeland. The places they go and the things they do offer some great tips for all travelers, but especially those with families.ostrich closeupFor those who would love to go to Australia but can’t afford flights, the Australian Park near Carcassonne beckons. It’s also great for families. It’s also a popular place for local kids to hold birthday parties, not to mention school trips.white kangarooIt’s like a small zoo, which is good. My hometown in the U.S. has a world-class zoo, which has grown and grown since I was a preteen earning spending money raking leaves there in the fall (it’s quite interesting to rake leaves while being watched intently by elephants). But it’s so huge that it’s impossible to see everything, and the weight of all those other animals presses one to keep moving rather than spending the time to observe (and anyway, so many animals sleep during the day that there isn’t much to watch).kangaroo 1Visits at Le Parc Australien take place in small guided groups, so you get to go into the animal enclosures, including one with 150 parrots that you can feed. There are other birds, including ostriches and emus, and other animals, including wallabies and dromedaries. There’s even a nursery with babies. Even though the park is small and the variety of animals is limited, a visit can take the better part of a day because you don’t just look and move on but can interact.kidThere are other activities, such as playing a didgeridoo, throwing a boomerang, playing aboriginal games or panning for “gold.”

The park was created in 2001 by a biologist, who was the first to raise ostriches in France. All the animals were born in captivity in Europe, because Australia stopped exports of animals in 1964 to protect its species.

The park is about three minutes from la Cité, just past the suburb of Montrédon and near the Lac de la Cavayère. The hours change by season; check the site.ostrichesIt is funny to see what other cultures find to be exotic. There is one cupcake shop in town, and it has turned into a roaring success with, as far as I can tell, almost exclusively local clientele. I make a mean cupcake, so I’m not about to shell out €3 for one, though I wouldn’t hesitate for one of those perfect strawberry tartelettes that are standard in French bakeries. A few years ago, hamburger joints appeared everywhere. Then bagels (not everywhere; just two bagel restaurants in the centre ville). Now it’s Mexican restaurants, whose menus are heavy on hamburgers and lacking in enchiladas.  birdsMy kid’s kindergarten class visited the Australian Park, and in second or third grade they went to a zoo in Toulouse. There’s also a kind of safari park at Sigean on the coast that we visited. The landscape at Sigean actually reminds me a little of Africa. While I feel kind of sorry for the animals in zoos, especially having seen them in the wild in various places around the world, they are important in making a connection with kids, so they don’t view nature and animals as abstractions on TV or in books. The Australian Park is especially nice, because of the petting areas. A real hands-on experience.kissing kangaroos

Driving in France

Peewee Herman signIt’s entirely possible to vacation in France without a car. High-speed trains connect the big cities as fast as planes, and even the slower trains are faster than going by car. And inside any big city, a car is more of a hassle than anything—parking is nigh impossible.

A car is useful only if you want to get out into the countryside, for example, to go from village to village, or to get out into the garrigue. Even if you plan to bike, it’s important to know the rules of the road, which aren’t at all like in the U.S.

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Priority to the car on the right. Be careful!

Possibly the most important, or the thing the least like the U.S. is priorité à droite. When in doubt, priority is to the car on the right. There are no four-way stops. A triangular sign (point up), bordered in red, with a black X means at the next intersection, you have to stop for any cars coming from the right. Look out; sometimes the next intersection is with an alley you barely see, and the locals will plow right into you because they know they have the right of way. In case of an accident, fault is easy to determine—the car dented on its right side is wrong.

White line for stop
This intersection has both a stop line and a stop sign…rare.

The French hate stop signs. Instead, they paint a heavy white line at intersections where you are supposed to stop. So you have to watch the pavement as well as the signs.

A dashed line across the road means yield. (Actually, they often interpret it as ‘I see a car coming, so I’m gunning it to cut in front.’ So you’ll probably have to slam on the brakes a lot.) It can be a dashed line instead of a solid stop line like above, which basically means you can do a rolling stop. Or it can be where you merge into traffic.

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Arrows mean the passing lane is near the end.

As in the U.S., a dashed center line means you can pass and a solid line means no passing. Sometimes, they have a solid line where there is a long sight line, just because the road curves a bit. And sometimes, they have a dashed line where you can’t see oncoming cars. Lesson: just because it’s a dashed line, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to pass. And beware of passing stuff like tractors and bikes where there’s a solid line because you can get a ticket if a cop sees you. Also: they put curved arrows when the dotted lines are about to end, meaning it’s too late to start to pass.

Speaking of cops, they rarely pull you over. Instead, they sit in their cars or hide in the bushes with radars that take a picture of you speeding by. The picture is mailed to you (or to the car rental place, which will then just bill your credit card). No sweet-talking your way out of it. With special binoculars, they can get you from over a kilometer away. They do have traffic stops, where they check every car or every fourth car or whatever, to check for drunk drivers. They are strict: the limit is 0.5, which is about one glass of wine. When you go to wine country, you’re going to need a designated driver (called le capitain). The French are very sharp at spying cops in hiding and will flash their headlights when there’s a speed trap or traffic stop ahead (or for other reasons, like an accident, or a mess on the road—whatever the reason, it’s best to slow down).

There are radar signs on the highways, which indicate a fixed radar lurks ahead. They, too, take pictures of speeders.

Speed limits, unless indicated otherwise are (in kilometers per hour):

50 in towns of any size—as soon as you get to the sign that marks the town limit, you have to slow down to 50. Watch out, because there could be signs limiting the speed further, like to 30.

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Leaving the city limit (it’s not a “no Carassonne” sign)

80 out of town on any road (tiny track between vineyards, county road, national highway). Sometimes the speed will be limited to 70, but that will be indicated with a sign. Beware: the speed limit changed July 1 to 80 kph from 90.

110 where indicated on national highways that have two lanes in each direction, divided by a median (just because you have two lanes doesn’t automatically mean you can go faster).

130 on autoroutes, except when it’s raining and then it’s 110 (and yes, they do check).

A triangular road sign with a heavy black arrow, intersected by a thinner line means a crossroads is ahead.

A diamond-shaped yellow sign bordered in white means you have priority. Same sign with a black line through it means you no longer have priority (so look out for the black X or the arrow with a line through it, which warns you of intersections where you don’t have priority…but they don’t always mark these intersections).

A circular sign bordered in red with a white center means cars aren’t allowed. Not the same as a do not enter sign, where you would simply be going the wrong way on a one-way street.

A triangular sign with three curving arrows making a circle means slow down for a roundabout ahead.

Céder le passage = yield. Usually with a triangular sign, white bordered in red, with the point down.

A sign with a red circle and a red car on the left and a black car on the right means no passing.

A blue sign with arrows pointing up and down, with one in black (or white) and the other in white (or red) means the road is narrow and the car in the direction of the bigger arrow has right of way.

A round sign with a blue center and a red border with a red line through it means no parking. The sign on the right, above, means you need one of those little hour-cards that you can buy at a bureau de tabac. You set the time you arrived. Same sign with an X means no stopping.

A round sign with a black line through means end of something. A sign like that with the number 70, for example, means end of the 70 kph speed zone, i.e., 80 kph.

A square blue sign with a P means parking. If it has a little meter in the corner, it means you have to find the meter (someplace on the street, it might be two blocks away) and pay and put the ticket on your dashboard so the meter readers can see it.

A square blue sign with a kind of a T, where the T is in red, means dead end.Traffic circle ahead

Signs for highways with the city names on green backgrounds mean they are free highways.

The same kinds of signs with blue backgrounds mean tollroads.

The same town signs on white background mean departmental roads.

Roads are numbered like this:

D123 (I’m making up numbers here) with yellow background means a departmental road. Like a county road. Small, lots of stops. Usually, the bigger the number the smaller the road.

N123 with a red background is a national highway. Can be 1, 2 or 3 digits.

A12 with a red background is an autoroute, usually toll, but some stretches may be free. (1 or 2 digits)

E3 with a red background is a European highway. This just means you can follow the same road across borders and perhaps not get lost because the national numbering systems aren’t the same. (1 or 2 digits)

Sortie means exit. The exit signs are an oval with the autoroute sign (two parallel lines converging in perspective) and a little arrow coming out of the right line, along with the number of the exit.

A kind of double white X on a blue background, with the points of the X connected to each other by curved lines, means a junction of two autoroutes.

At the tollbooths, do not go in the ones marked with a T (usually an orange T). Those are for people who have the RFID tags, like EZ Pass. A blue or white sign that says CB means credit cards (Cartes Bancaires). A green sign, usually with a kind of outline of a person in profile leaning out a window, or with a bunch of circles (for coins), means you can pay in cash, to an attendant.

A curved arrow painted on the ground means merge in the direction of the arrow. So if you’re getting onto the highway, it’ll point to the left, meaning the entry ramp is ending and you need to move over. Or if three lanes turn into two, it’ll point to the right, meaning the left lane is about to disappear. Sometimes these turn up where there’s road construction.

Aire = rest stop. Watch out: some have gas/food and some are just with toilets and picnic tables. They are marked.

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I love those exclamation points.

Péage = toll.

Rocade = peripherique = ring road that goes around the town.

Sortie de camions = truck exit/entrance (caution for slow trucks)

Piétons = pedestrians

Attention! Nids de poules en formation = beware! Hens’ nests (potholes) forming. This is on the road to Carcassonne and I giggle every time I see it. The road has been repaved and now is as smooth as a baby’s bottom, but the sign remains.

My favorite, though, is the top sign, which reminds me of “PeeWee’s Big Adventure,” where PeeWee is in the truck with Large Marge.

I just don’t have time today to write. This is a repost of one of my earliest entries, updated with the new speed limit. I hope it’s useful.

I am up to my ears in baking. We are having a gigantic party this weekend. I’ll give the rundown next week. This is not the moment to bake–it’s the canicule–heat wave, and yes, related to canine, but it’s because of a constellation, Big Dog, whose brightest star, Sirius, rises and sets with the sun during the hottest part of the year). We have mostly been spared–highs around 34 Celsius, or 93 Fahrenheit, but that’s hot enough when you don’t have air conditioning.

Any driving tips to add? Questions? How are you dealing with the heat? Bon weekend!

Love Nest

living to mirrorWe’ve noticed a trend in our AirBnB apartments. Our guests often are celebrating honeymoons, wedding anniversaries and special birthdays.

The best part about being an AirBnB host is meeting people. I don’t want to jinx ourselves (touche du bois–touch wood, or knock on wood), but our guests have been a delight. In some cases, I’ve been sad they live so far away because I would like to see them again.

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l’Ancienne Tannerie

The Carnivore is Mr. AirBnB, and he is constantly tickled by the reaction when guests enter either apartment for the first time. I think our photos are great, but they always say the real thing is much better.

He also is tickled by how happy they are. On vacation, care-free, celebrating. Lots of good karma.

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A sauna is inducive to good karma, no?

Some of the reviews. First l’Ancienne Tannerie (a link to the listing is here):

From Veronica:

This was our second stay at Serge’s place, and had we not found our own year-round apartment, we would definitely stay here for a third time. In fact, it was his meticulous attention to detail that allowed my husband and I to see the possibilities or restoring a voluminous historic apartment and turning into a museum-quality gem. Each of Serge’s apartments is outstanding and we’ve stayed in both. Location is just near Place Carnot and a 10-15 minute walk to the Old City. The kitchen view over the courtyard is charming. Our first visit was in mid-December 2017; originally we rented the front apartment, La Suite Barbès, for a week and then we extended it, in total, by almost another 3 weeks. This visit at L’ancienne Tannerie was for 5 nights. As a host, Serge does everything right; he’s there to greet you and welcome you into one of the most tastefully and faithfully restored apartments in Carcassonne (over the last year I have stayed in 4 others). Everything is at your fingertips, with a bright, spacious and recently appointed kitchen with clothes washer, dishwasher, induction cooktop, sparkling bathroom with large 2-door shower, two bedrooms, TV, fast internet and don’t forget the sauna! Fresh towels for sauna and bath are provided. Everything throughout the apartment is immaculate and you will feel as if you’re his very first guest. And that’s a very rare feeling. Thank you again Serge! Hope to see you in town.wcAnd Igor, who was our first guest in l’Ancienne Tannerie:

Serge is a very helpful host and helped us with all we needed. The house is located in an excellent place, a few steps from Place Carnot but on a quiet street. There are some parking lots, markets and plenty of places to eat and shop around too. The apartment is very fancy. Serge kept the looks of a 17-18th century house, but everything is brand new. The bathroom is spacious and the shower is superb. You can walk about 25min to the Citadel, take the bus a few minutes from the house or do a 5min trip by car. Very good location. Our stay in Carcassonne couldn’t be better. Thanks, Serge!
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l’Ancienne Tannerie

And François:

Visitez Carcassonne en châtelain ! Notre appartement rénové avec goût et selon critères des Monuments historiques est lumineux, calme et extrêmement propre. Vous allez goûter aux très hauts plafonds, aux grandes fenêtres à l’ancienne, au salon cosy et à la grande cuisine ; profitez ! Deux chambres complètent le confort. Deux cheminées, des meubles de style, la décoration est à la hauteur de la rénovation. Tout l’équipement est à votre disposition et rien ne manque.
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l’Ancienne Tannerie

And in the Suite Barbès (AirBnB link here):

From Marc:

We would absolutely stay here again. No doubt about it. This apartment has everything going for it. 6-7 minute walk from the train station. It sure is nice to get to the destination so quickly after a travel day. The neighbourhood is fantastic Really, walk out the front door and you are right where you want to be. Little shops on every street. 1 minute walk to a more than lovely square lined with restaurants bistros and brasseries. Its a fabulous walk to the walled city. On and on. Really, we now have a crush on Carcassonne, we stayed three days and would have stayed much much longer had we known is was so easy and comfortable to be here. Totally safe place. The food here, was honestly the best we had during our whole month in France.

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La Suite Barbès

And Susan:

Serge’s apartment is amazing. It’s in a building dating from around 1640 and has been faithfully and tastefully restored. The rooms are huge, the amenities are excellent, with a very well equipped kitchen (including cook books!) and two bathrooms. It’s also within easy walking distance of the major tourist sites, cafes and restaurants. We took Serge’s advice and went to his favourite restaurant, where we had our best meal in France so far.

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La Suite Barbès…the bedroom is 35 square meters, or 377 square feet. Just the bedroom.

And Jane:

Fantastic location 2 minutes from place Carnot where local produce markets are held 3 x week. There are also a couple of bars and restaurants and the obligatory fountain in the middle. A great spot to sit and people watch. The appartment is an easy 15 minute stroll to the historic Cité. If you love the idea of pretending you are French aristocracy this place is for you, beautiful French mirrors, rugs and antique furniture. It’s not cheap but neither are the surroundings.
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La Suite Barbès

And Ian:

What an amazing place, fantastic location, wonderful host and close to restaurants, bars, shopping and a short stroll to the walled city. My wife and I were amazed at this apartment, and it was way better than we ever expected. The host Serge, he was amazing, spending time with us explaining the local area, restaurants and sites to see. This was by far one of the most unique, classy and beautifully furnished places we have stayed while travelling through Europe. If you are looking for somewhere very special to stay, then do yourself a favour and stay here, you will not be disappointed!
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La Suite Barbès

And Kit:

I have to admit I was a little cautious at first about staying at a new Airbnb without any reviews, but I am so glad I did and absolutely wanted to write the first one so others could enjoy it as much as we did! By chance, we were privileged to be Serge’s very first guests. Even the stunning photos online do not do the apartment justice; it is so beautifully furnished with such care by Serge and his wife, with every detail of antique furnishing and fittings approved by heritage architects. You will feel like you are sleeping in one of the royal bedrooms you see in palace museums! The apartment located within the Bastide, only a few hundred metres from Place Carnot, where there is a large outdoor food market on Saturdays. It is only a 15-20 minute walk from the Cité, which means it is nicely away from the tourist crowds but gives you the chance to grab the stunning view of the city on the hill as you cross over the Pont Vieux each morning or evening. Serge was so friendly, helpful and accommodating in the lead up to the stay and very flexible with check out on the final day. Serge’s English is perfect, so even all of the complicated French forms and accommodation contracts were a breeze. I would heartily recommend this apartment to anyone travelling to Carcassonne who likes a bit of luxury!
We would love to welcome you, too!kitchen fireplace straight

French Floats

IMG_6214About two hours before the cyclists of the Tour de France pass by, there’s complete craziness on the route as the beloved caravane parades through, tossing goodies to bystanders.P1100568No homemade homecoming floats here. It’s all professional, promoting the official sponsors of the race. They are simultaneously slick, professional advertisements and laughingly absurd.P1100548Take, for example, the Gaulois chicken brand. Yes, chicken–the cigarettes are Gauloises, feminine. The first vehicle had a chicken on a bike. Yes, it’s the Tour de France, and it was all bicycles all the time. But I learned during a trip in Mali that really tough chicken is called poulet bicyclette–bicycle chicken–so hard to chew that it must have been raised riding a bike, which doesn’t seem like an image to promote. On the other hand, the number of spectators who have eaten tough chicken in Africa is probably low.P1100549They also had nuggets…”Crousty Chicken” is quite the franglais mashup. “Crusty” in French is croustillant.P1100551Gizzards (you KNOW you’re in France when gizzards are all over your salad, whether you asked for them or not)…P1100552And very tantalizing brochettes. They didn’t forget the bun (petit pain--little bread–when something sells like hotcakes here you say “c’est parti comme des petits pains”).IMG_6226It takes a certain nonchalance to drive such a beast, no?

I don’t remember what they were throwing to the crowd, but we didn’t score any. Keychains? Magnets? The top photo shows Vittel, and they handed out bottles of water (no throwing those!). Then a float came by with people spraying the crowd with mist. Years ago, people would dance and jump in the mist, arms in the air, but this time everybody hurried to protect their phones.P1100560This one is very Parisian, n’est-ce pas? The lamp post, the advertising kiosk….Krys is an optician chain.

The floats are an opportunity for people to live out their superstar fantasies. Parading past adulating crowds. Several floats were like Krys, with booming party music and somebody pretending to DJ, and usually some dancers. Never mind that the crowds want freebies and don’t care about you. A person can dream! IMG_6222P1100571Cochonou (cochon is pig; Cochonou is a brand of hard sausage), with its iconic red gingham on iconic Citroën 2CVs. It’s definitely the crowd favorite–they distribute little sachets of sausage. Where else, right?P1100539Juice…P1100535Mickey Mouse magazines…P1100562Madeleines….and they throw out little packets with two madeleines in each! P1100541P1100542This one cracked me up–the family biking and the mother and daughter are smiling but the dad is grimacing. Skoda is a brand of cars built in the Czech Republic, owned by Volkswagen.IMG_6227Candy is dandy…and of course that’s what they tossed out.IMG_6225IMG_6224Laundry soap…we scored a sample of that.

I noticed that the people on the floats were wearing harnesses that were attached to the vehicles. It was kind of odd to see the ones who were on bikes (not on the road but atop the floats, a common theme) or dancing tied to the float. The ones who were throwing stuff really leaned out, and I suppose the sponsors didn’t want falls, even though the floats go much more slowly than the racers, at least in towns.IMG_6217Promoting the movie Hotel Transylvania 3…IMG_6218IMG_6219FDJ is France de Jeux–the lottery operator. Notice the symbol is a four-leaf clover. IMG_6221McCain is a brand of French fries. Notice that they’re in a fryer basket–there’s even the handle on the back.IMG_6223Bic pens, native to France, are so iconic that many people don’t say stylo (pen) but instead say Bic, the way people refer to a photocopy as a Xerox or a paper tissue as a Kleenex.

Lots of fun, with lots of scrambling for prizes. If you want to see an old guy race a young kid, just throw a free refrigerator magnet in between them.

On Tuesday, I did a post about the actual cyclists. And if you missed them, you can see the posts from when the Tour came to Carcassonne two years ago: the caravane and the race itself.

Did you know about the Tour de France caravane?

 

 

 

 

 

Tour de France 2018

IMG_9007The Tour De France left from Carcassonne today, having arrived on Sunday. A big, big, big event for a small city. Two years ago, the tour had a departure from Carcassonne, but to have an arrival AND a departure AND a rest day is huge.

Of course, we had to see it. After all the preparations, the roads miraculously repaved just days earlier, the banners, the excess all around. Plus, we’ve seen the Tour de France a few times and know there are goodies. More on that on Friday. Just sayin’, if you ever plan to watch the Tour de France in person, get there at least two hours early and I hope you can catch.

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The (other) guy in a yellow shirt is waving a Romanian flag. What you don’t get to see is his wife, who also had a flag and who was wearing a Sponge Bob costume (not just a shirt, but a stiff thing that stood up as if it had a life of its own). I admire their devotion, but can somebody explain the Sponge Bob-bike connection?

This time, the riders came from Millau, passing the Pic du Nore, the highest point of the Montagne Noire (Black Mountains), which is the bottom part of the Massif Central (the highland region in the middle of southern France). I love that the Pic du Nore (the Northern Peak) is the southern most peak of the Black Mountains and the Massif Central. This tells you it was named not from the perspective of, say, Paris, but from a different perspective–from the plain that separates the Black Mountains from the Pyrénées, and from where the peak would be to the north. Like where Carcassonne is. BTW, the Pic du Nore is a first category mountain pass, with a 6% incline.

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Clearly these are not in order. There’s Geraint!

Geraint Thomas, 32, of Wales and Team Sky, wore the yellow jersey. That’s him in the top photo as well as several others here (thanks to the Carnivore who has a phone that actually takes photos while I use a 10-year-old point-and-shoot camera and my phone’s photos look like what I see when I don’t wear my glasses). The BBC has a story and interview with Froome and Thomas here. The BBC lost big points in my book by misspelling Carcassonne. If it were another outlet, I might shrug it off to kids these days. But the BBC? All hope is lost.

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And then a bunch come by. Why is that guy standing?

Today, the cyclists left from Place Général de Gaulle in the center of town, rounded the Bastide, at a couple of paces from our AirBnB apartments (!!!), and then headed toward Montréal (a different one! They’re everywhere, like Villeneuves! This Montréal is very small and pretty, with great views, an excellent day trip, though it wouldn’t take a day to see it all) and then to Fanjeaux (to complete your day trip), where the incline is so steep that when I drive there I have to use first gear, although I take the straight short cut that’s marked DO NOT ENTER, whereas the cyclists will do the switchbacks. It’s a fourth category hill with a 4.9% incline (unless you do the straight line. But I think somebody would notice). Fanjeaux, like Montréal (and la Cité of Carcassonne), is a hilltop village straight out of a medieval painting, designed for defense.

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And suddenly there are a zillion of them, riding frighteningly fast.

Some things I learned this time: Sometimes the riders take potty breaks in the roadside bushes, but sometimes they just let loose while they’re riding. Did you know that? Goodness. I didn’t! And I was shocked! I suppose they try to do it in the middle of nowhere (after all, each stage is four, five, six hours). But at least two helicopters were filming them, plus drones. I guess if you’re paid enough, you don’t care.

Possibly related or not: A friend tried very hard to offer a cold beer to a sweet gendarme who was standing on the sidelines, for hours, in the sun, with disobedient onlookers. But he declined! I was surprised.

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Does this not ooze V.I.P.? Note the fake tulip! I also appreciate the wheelchair ramp, having wheeled my parents (not as much as my siblings) and noticing the general lack of access in Europe.

Urination aside, the Tour de France is a class act. I poked my head into the VIP tent and snapped these awful shots before being chased away. I was impressed that even though it was a tent in a parking lot, the workers were busily wheeling in large potted plants, and every table had a fake yellow tulip (it isn’t the season for tulips–that’s why they’re fake. Not to mention the logistics–I imagine some poor roadie assigned to scrounge up so many yellow flowers at every stop along the route. Fake is the only solution). To me, it was SO FRENCH. Of course there are flowers on the tables. Of course there are potted plants. Of course there’s a carpet on the asphalt. And, knowing who catered, of course the food was amazing. (Actually, the food would probably be amazing anywhere on the Tour de France route. You have to make an effort to eat badly in France. It can happen, but it really has to be the result of a chain of miscalculations.)P1100522

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This is like a paparazzi shot of a plant.

The last time the Tour left from Carcassonne, and when you’re close to the departure, the cyclists are closely lumped together. This time, for the arrival, it was after the Pic du Nore did its triage and the first riders arrived 13 minutes before the peleton.

If you want to split your sides laughing about cycling, check out the movie “Le Vélo de Ghislain Lambert,” with Benoît Poelevoorde, who is one of the funniest actors alive. It’s about a mediocre cyclist who dreams of the fame of Belgian multiple Tour de France champion Eddy Merckx (pronounced merks…he’s still revered today). Hilarious.

Do you watch the Tour de France? Do you bike?

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The first guys. No idea who they were.

Sales Season in France

IMG_5755The French soldes or sales come twice a year–in July and January. They’re the moment when retailers mark down old inventory to move it and make way for the nouvelles collections. Store-wide sales aren’t allowed outside the designated periods, though retailers can offer promos or promotions at will on a few items, kind of like loss leaders. P1100471This summer’s soldes started June 27–it’s always on a Wednesday, probably linked to the fact that school is in session only half the day on Wednesdays (and classes continue until the early days of July, so yes, it matters). They will be over August 7. For some reason, two departments (Alpes-Maritimes and Pyrénées-Orientales)  have soldes from July 4 to August 14.

Usually the soldes run for six weeks, but the government wants to shorten it to four, starting with the next winter soldes. (The winter soldes start the second Wednesday of January, unless that would be after Jan. 12, in which case they start on the first Wednesday.) IMG_5756The idea is that retailers get tired of having soldes for so long and that merchandise gets picked over quickly, leaving the dregs to lie about for too long. Shorter soldes would create more urgency.

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Third markdown…

Each week of the soldes, retailers cut prices further. They start off with a tease, with most stuff marked to 20% or 30% off, then up to 40% or 50%, and finally toward 70% and more.

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Fourth markdown.

I operate on the coup de coeur strategy for the soldes. If you really like something, it’s dangerous to wait for it to be marked down–your size or favorite color might be gone. If you have broad parameters, like “jeans,” or “shoes” then you might find something that tickles your fancy and doesn’t pinch your pocketbook. Some of the best deals are in small boutiques, which want to clear the racks for new items and which might not have a good system to get rid of remainders. The soldes also apply to other retailers, like electronics or appliances.

I did the soldes in Toulouse recently. Even though we brought water bottles, I started to feel overheated after a few hours of beating the pavement. We had waited out the first couple of weeks, not so much out of strategy than out of scheduling, but it was just as well, because by afternoon there were long lines for changing rooms.

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The main shopping drag in Carcassonne with its pretty parasols that cast such lovely, soft shade.

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The parasols of Carcassonne…the opposite of the Parapluies (umbrellas) of Cherbourg (culture tip: that’s the name of the 1964 movie that was Catherine Deneuve’s first big role).

I do have two coping strategies: Go early, as soon as the doors open. This applies to museums and other tourist sights, as well. Everybody says they’re going to get an early start, then they roll out the door around 10 or 11 and it’s almost lunch and so why not just wait until after eating. In fact, lunch time is the other strategy–it’s sacred in France, so if you go against the flow (when you want to get something done, otherwise, by all means, adopt the leisurely lunch!) you can avoid the crowds. P1100470Wishing you short lines and beaucoup de bonnes affaires!

Le Jazz et le Java

IMG_3518Coffee: I don’t know about you, but when I was in high school French class, I learned that there was un express and there was un café au lait. However, things are much murkier.

Un express is an espresso, also known as a café court or a short coffee. This is in contrast to un café allongé, or an elongated coffee, which is stretched out with water and which also goes by the name café américain. It’s more like the filtered coffee you might make with a drip coffee maker, although in a café they don’t have drip machines and just add hot water to the espresso.

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Un café. With a sugar and a little piece of chocolate (that was hoovered up before I got a photo).

But you can also order “un espresso.” Or “un café,” because the default setting for coffee is espresso–small, strong, with a frothy foam, and a sugar or two on the side. It is considered correct to drink any time of the day, and at the end of meals, after dessert.

Coffee with milk is a different beast. For one thing, it’s breakfast. You will get a raised eyebrow but no objection if you order a milky coffee after a meal. Probably because it’s often a big bowl of frothy milk, with an espresso dropped in–it’s filling. And if you say, “un café au lait, s’il vous plaît,” they will nod and repeat, “un café crème,” or just “un crème.” (This is a little like how, around here, if you ask for un pain au chocolate they will nod and repeat, “une chocolatine” or “une choco,” which is the regionally preferred term, kind of like the pop/soda split in the U.S., but more heated because it’s about food and it’s in France. The debate even went to Parliament, and you can vote here.) Now, if you paid attention in high school French class, you know that crème is feminine–think la crème de la crème. But, I guess, since in this case it’s short for café, which is masculine, it gets to be masculine.

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Un crème.

I caught onto the café crème instead of café au lait thing quickly, but it took me a while to figure out the masculine/feminine part. This will make my husband laugh because I am terrible with genders in French, managing to get them wrong more than half the time, he says, noting that a random guess would come out right 50% of the time.

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Un café noisette. Much smaller than un crème.

Another term for confusion: un noisette (that masculine/feminine thing again!) is an espresso with a hazelnut-size dollop of milk. I have seen flavored coffees in some cities, but they are not common.

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A cappuccino. You have been warned.

Also, beware that if you order a cappuccino, you will not get a coffee with frothy milk but a coffee with whipped cream–practically dessert.

Speaking of which, un café gourmand is a coffee served with an assortment of mini pastries or desserts.

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A French press, bien sûr. I love it for cold-brewing iced coffee.

The title of this post is an hommage to the song, Le Jazz et le Java, by Claude Nougaro. Check it out here. A classic!

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Happy Bastille Day! Rooting for les Bleus in the World Cup final on Sunday.