The 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. This 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.) The 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.
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.
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.
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. Wishing you short lines and beaucoup de bonnes affaires!
Coffee: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Last time, I showed one of the restaurants we visited in Casablanca, La Sqala. We never had a bad meal in Casablanca, even when it was take-out sandwiches from a tiny shop–there are many of these, sometimes two or three in a row. They have a couple of tables inside, a glass-front counter on the street displaying gorgeous kebabs and sausages, and an open kitchen just behind. Like a tiny diner, Casablanca-style.
The day Morocco played in the World Cup, some friends advised us to take it easy at our AirBnB by the end of the match, because a win would have crazy celebrations in the street, best appreciated from five floors above rather than in the midst of. Although I have to say, at least in Morocco you don’t have to deal with belligerent drunks.
We wanted to explore the Gauthier quarter, which was a bit more chic and modern than Derb Omar, where we were staying. And my kid and I both had found good comments about the Mood Café, so off we went.
Uncharacteristically, we didn’t take photos. It was international modern, the kind of place that could be in Paris or New York or Sydney. The food was excellent but also international modern. The Carnivore had a steak (a steak is a steak is a steak) and the kid and I had tartines, one with salmon the other with chicken. Very nice, with fresh ingredients, but what you would find at a good upscale café anywhere.
On the one hand, I think it’s great that people have choices for eating, and that they aren’t stuck with the same local specialties everywhere they look. Our friends informed us that Casablanca residents don’t eat Moroccan food when they go out–they eat that at home, and they have very high standards. So when they go out, they want something different–Chinese, Lebanese, French, Italian, international modern healthy.
In fact, the most sublime meal we had was at our friends’ home. OMG. We didn’t take photos of that either. Briouats, a big meze of cooked but not hot vegetable dishes, then a tajine that made me want to cry tears of joy.
Back to the Mood Café. It was nearly empty when we arrived. We ordered and watched it fill and fill and fill. Somehow I managed to sit on a banquette right under a big screen TV showing the match against Portugal. That meant EVERYBODY was facing me but, happily paying not one iota of attention because they were all riveted to the screen above my head. And I had the best deal–I got to watch the spectators.
A table just behind the Carnivore added more and more people. A mixed crowd in almost every way–they were all Moroccans but split about 50-50 men and women; the ages seemed to range from early 20s to late 40s; some of the women–the older ones–wore Western clothes and had their hair loose, while some others–including the youngest in the group–covered their hair. The youngest woman wore a tightly pinned headscarf in maroon polyester that matched her loose pants; she had a loose white tunic with that and Converse All Stars. Her face was as round as her oversized, gold rimmed glasses, and, unlike the other women, she didn’t have a speck of makeup. She was the most enthusiastic of the group. She drew her legs up, sitting Indian-style on the chair, sometimes hugging her knees as she stared at the TV, looking as if she was going to burst into tears (Morocco didn’t play well).
We watched everybody react as one, heaving with excitement, jumping up, grabbing each other’s arms so tightly their fingers turned white, their hopeful faces so bright they could compete with the sun, and then…the disappointment as the goal wasn’t scored. Their faces fell. Several men held their heads in their hands.
As it turned out, Morocco lost and there were no celebrations at all.
We also ate at a good restaurant in the Habbous neighborhood. Habbous is a new medina, built in the 1920s, much calmer than the old medina. We were approached by an old woman who was recruiting people for the Zayna restaurant, which happened to be the one we wanted. Delicious food! No website….
Then we went around the corner to Bennis Habous, a bakery, where you buy goodies by weight. Just point, and they’ll put them into a box for you to take away.Another restaurant was l’Etoile Centrale, directly across from the Central Market. Very pretty inside, but no match for Zayna or home cooking.
The New York Times had an article last week about Rick’s Café in Casablanca.
We recently spent a few days in Casablanca. I had visited Morocco several times, but never Casablanca. I have to tell you, it doesn’t deserve its reputation as ugly, or not having anything to do. It admittedly isn’t touristy–it’s Morocco’s biggest city, with 3.5 million residents, and its economic engine, accounting for half the country’s gross domestic product. In such a bustling place, you get to see real life, instead of a sanitized tourist version.
I have way too many photos for one post, so you’ll get more about Casablanca in the future. All these were taken by our kid, whose eye for detail I admire.
I was very thankful our kid saw Casablanca. It was an eye-opener. The poverty was a shocker–and Morocco isn’t even that poor; it’s considered a lower middle income economy. Poverty dropped to under 5% in 2014 from more than 15% in 2001. That is a huge achievement. (If you are a regular reader, you know this is not the blog for “10 Most Luxurious Spas in Morocco” or “Five Most Instagrammable Spots in Casablanca.”)At the same time, our kid succinctly expressed what I couldn’t help thinking: “They really need a day where everybody goes out and cleans the place up.” Not just litter, but sidewalks that are broken in inexplicable places and gorgeous Art Deco and colonial buildings that are abandoned but that seem to have so much potential.
Speaking of crumbling Art Deco, we stayed in an AirBnB between the train station and the central market. It was a convenient location, but it turned out to be the red light district, though we never saw any evidence of that. I regret not taking my second choice, which I too late learned was owned by a friend of the person we had traveled to Casablanca to see. Here it is–the good one. And once I figured out the lay of the city, I realized the other apartment was equally convenient but in a much nicer neighborhood.
The old medina was simultaneously laid back and frenetic. Of course, we were wooed by shopkeepers, but they weren’t insistent. Of course, a couple of guys offered to be our guide, but we generally navigated by joining the dense flow of humanity coursing through the narrow alleyways. A few times when we got off track, we were directed by kind bystanders–kids playing soccer in a quiet corner who stopped their game to call to us when we headed the wrong way; a chic young woman on her way home who took the time to lead us through the maze and who was a delight to talk to en route. Nobody who helped us asked for money. Random people would strike up conversations with us–a fellow shopper who waxed on about the wonders of argan oil, for example. It was genuine friendliness, not tourist-friendliness. I liked it.The insane traffic also had a surprising lack of aggression. On the one hand, everybody started honking as soon as the cross-traffic’s light turned yellow–about two seconds before they actually got a green light. Plenty of cars would slide through the light change, triggering more honking. Nobody stayed in a lane. This made crossing the very wide boulevards a dance with death–except that cars swerved or stopped for pedestrians, who seemed as unperturbed as bullfighters in the face of a charging bull, deftly dodging danger. To cross streets, we adopted a strategy of sticking with locals, and the more the better, figuring we had safety in numbers and they knew when to stop or go.The times we took taxis it was impossible to figure out whether the rule was priority on the right, as in France (in principle, yes, but practice is another thing), yet the rides weren’t scary–the starts and stops were gentle, like a dance rather than a battle. It was chaotic, but a shrug-your-shoulders, what-can-you-do chaos, not a my-way-or-the-highway mean chaos.
We ate at La Sqala, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in a little oasis on the edge of the old medina, next to the waterfront.
It was very good and a nice experience. The Carnivore had a hunk of meat (lamb), our kid had salmon, I had a vegetable tajine.
Summer is here. It seemed like it arrived a long time ago, but it’s clear that was just late spring–warm sunny days alternated with rain showers and everything was emerald. Now we have day after day of cloudless azure skies. The cigales sang for the first time yesterday. The lawn is starting to go dormant and turn brown. My summer habits have started–closing the east shutters before bed, opening all the windows early in the morning to let in the cool air, then closing them all around 10, when temperatures start to rise. Opening the east shutters and closing the west ones in the afternoon….I like that it’s manual. It makes a rhythm for the day. It’s ancient, effective technology that relies only on my own energy.
In summer, we often find ourselves at a little lake on the edge of Carcassonne, Lac de la Cavayère. It’s a manmade lake, created after a huge forest fire in 1985 ripped through the pine forests that cover the rugged hills. Today, you would never know–the trees are big, and create a cool, sweet-smelling oasis. And, of course, there’s a castle in the distance. Because France.We used to go to the lake’s beach when our kid was little. There is nothing as amusing as sand and water for a toddler, plus it’s minutes away. Eventually the draw became “accrobranche,” which is a portmanteau of accrocher–to hold on– and branche–branch. I don’t think there’s a direct translation to English. You climb up in the trees, which are connected by ropes and various obstacles, and you navigate the course. You can’t fall because you wear a harness that’s attached to a safety rope. There even are zip lines, like Dora the Explorer (Dora, l’exploratrice).
There are different courses for different ages/heights, mostly based on how high you have to reach to clip on your safety rope. Now that my kid is a teen and I serve only as chauffeur, I no longer have to wait amid the whistling pines (and provide moral support) but can go for a walk or run around the lake. It’s lovely.
The lake has added more beaches, so they aren’t too crowded. And there are more water activities, like a slide and a bunch of floating islands that are designed for losing balance and pushing each other into the water. A couple of friends come late on moonlit nights to swim the length of the lake.
There’s a sports center that local schools use. My kid’s class did cross-country running and kayaking at the lake this year. I am astounded. We did not have kayaking when I was in school. Plus, they did it in winter!
It’s not too late. In July and August, the city sponsors free courses in kayaking, as well as other sports like beach soccer, nordic hiking, mountain biking and Krav-Maga. Under threat of a phone ban, my kid reluctantly agreed to “do something,” and tried archery….and loved it. Went back every day. They supply everything. It’s free. Open to all ages. Even though it’s close to town–there’s city bus service–it feels like the middle of wilderness. The beaches are beaches, with lots of people shouting and laughing and splashing, but as you walk the lake’s perimeter, you pass through a fragrant forest and hear only the songs of birds. It’s quite a different definition of summer in the city.
I love AirBnB–we’ve used it on trips, and it’s great when you want a kitchen or more than one bedroom, things that are rare in hotels. Especially on longer trips, eating out three meals a day is just too much.
We searched for just the right property for more than a year. When we started looking, there were about 100 AirBnB listings around Carcassonne. Once we found the most beautiful apartments in Carcassonne–decorative moldings as elaborate as ours are very rare, as are ceilings that soar as high–we completely renovated them, with new wiring and plumbing, and restored the original tomette floors. We furnished the apartments with locally sourced antiques. The renovation took another year.
By the time we listed our apartments, there were more than 300 listings. Unfortunately, when we went to pay our taxes (there are two–the taxe de séjour–a hotel tax–and income tax), the folks working in the tax department expressed surprise when we mentioned how the number of listings had exploded in such a short time. They had under 100 listings. The others were renting illegally. “The law of the jungle,” a minister called it.
This hurts the city by depriving it of revenue and it hurts the AirBnB hosts who do play by the rules (and hotels, which are important employers and taxpayers). As of July. 1, AirBnB will collect the taxe de séjour (but not the income tax) on rentals and pay it Jan. 1 directly to municipalities in France. The move may cause the number of illegal listings to drop, though I imagine some will continue, betting that it might take a long time before anybody gets around to auditing them.How can you tell whether a listing is legal? Look for the stars–not the AirBnB stars given by guests, but the official stars. The government gives a tax break to property owners that get classified by stars (if you don’t pay any taxes, you don’t care about a tax break, eh). To get it, the rental property must be inspected–which is an important guarantee to you as a renter. The inspection is not just for amenities and taste but also for safety. It’s probably the clearest way to see that a rental is legal. Of course, if a property gets a bad rating, they might not want to show how many stars they have (or don’t have). Both our apartments have four stars, which is as high as we can get without having a pool or elevator–neither possible in a 17th century building in the center of the part of town that dates to 1260.
Mountains of cherries at the market these days. They are labeled by variety–Burlat, Montmorency, Bigarreau, coeur de pigeon (yes, pigeon’s heart), Napoleon, Van–and by origin–Spain, France, or, more specifically, surrounding villages like Caunes-Minervois. A lot of cherries, especially the early ones, come from Céret, south of Carcassonne. Actually, it’s also south of Perpignan, right near the border with Spain.Céret has several claims to fame. Cherries, to be sure. It is in the foothills of the Pyrénées, in the neighboring department of Pyrénées-Orientales, in a little protected valley that has a very mild microclimate. Hence the early cherries, a crate of which is sent to the French president.
It also was the capital of the Catalan county of Vallespir, back before this area became part of France in 1659. Even today, there’s a Spanish flavor to the region. Although official borders are delineated down to the centimeter, in reality, countries–cultures–overlap, and you pass from one to another not by hopping over a line but in a progression, like ombre colors, with the intensity deepening the farther you go. Especially here, where borders have moved so many times, and where people have moved even more.An example of Céret’s Spanish–or, really, Catalan–heritage is its feria, with running of bulls and bullfights every July (11-15 this year). The modern feria was started in 1980, but records of the practice date to the 1500s, when the celebration was held in September for the feast of Saint Ferréol. Never heard of him? I know the name only by the reservoir that feeds the Canal du Midi. I looked him up and found this site, which warns, “Don’t mix up your Ferréols!” Who knew this could be a problem with such an uncommon name? Saint Ferréol was born in Vienne in the 3rd century. Though he doesn’t seem to have visited Céret, there’s a chapel dedicated to him just outside town, with crutches of the miraculously healed hanging on the walls.
Céret is a small town of around 8,000 inhabitants, but it became an important center for Cubism. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque moved there in 1911. Soon their friends joined–Raoul Dufy, Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, Juan Gris, André Masson and others. The little town lost in the mountains became a refuge for Marc Chagall and several other artists fleeing the Nazis during World War II. In 1950, Picasso and Henri Matisse helped establish the Museum of Modern Art in Céret. Besides those painters, the museum also has works by Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and many of the artists who have stayed in Céret over the years, like Chagall and Masson.Céret is another pleasant day trip from Carcassonne–about an hour and a half drive. It’s a little place, and even with a visit to the museum, you have time to include a stop at the beach.
Oh, the cachet of a hidden garden–un jardin caché. Even a small city like Carcassonne holds secrets that I continue to discover, and this was one of the sweetest: the garden of a marquis, hidden from a rond-point (roundabout) by high stone walls. I’d driven by since forever, not knowing a public haven awaited between an empty field used for a regular Sunday vide-grenier and the ultra-modern arts conservatory.
Le Jardin du Marquis de Gonet and its château were bought by the city a little over a decade ago, and the restored gardens reopened for all in 2010. The château is planned for renovation as well, budgets permitting. One idea is to make reception halls for weddings and other events–music late into the night wouldn’t bother the neighbors because there aren’t any. Already, there’s a huge tent (seats 140) that sits in a corner when it isn’t used for the Magie de Noel, and that can be rented, with tables and chairs but without heat or air conditioning (which cost €100 more) for €400. The price might have gone up since the 2013 news article about it, but it still seems like a great deal.
After the Revolution (1789), this area was known as le prat—le pré in proper French, the prairie. Then it caught the eye of Jean-Baptiste Mary, chief surveyor, who bought it and gave the domaine the name Prat-Mary. The main part of the languedocienne-style house was built in the 18th century. The domaine was passed down until it was inherited by the Marquis de Gonet, who was from Béziers. He moved in around 1948 and stayed until he died in 2006. He was the one who planted the gardens.
The local paper had a story about the maid to the de Gonets, who describes preparing the bedroom in the evening: turning down the covers on one side, laying out the nightgown on top and placing the slippers in front on the floor, perfectly parallel.
Back in the day, the garden and its surrounding orchards were watered by the aqueduc de Pitot, which passed along the wall behind the roses. The aqueduct was built in the 18th century to bring drinking water to Carcassonne. It served until the 19th century.
A hub-and-spoke itinerary is a deep, rather than wide, approach to travel and can be very gratifying, unless your main goal is to hit as many cities or countries as possible.
I’ve done both of those—the tasting menu of travel is pretty typical for a first trip abroad. After all, it’s expensive and who knows when or if you’ll be back. So I’m not being judgmental.
But if you want to get into the daily life of a place and pretend you’re a local, then staying in one place is a good idea. You get to try it on for size, instead of browsing the racks. It’s also very good for travel with a group or family, because you aren’t constantly packing up and moving.
One reason we chose to move to Carcassonne was because of the diversity of sights and activities in proximity. Mountains to the north and south; beaches to the east (and, if we want to drive longer, to the west). Lovely cities like Toulouse and Montpellier an hour-ish drive away. And all over the plain, beautiful vineyards sprinkled with charming villages and so many medieval ruins.
Another reason we like Carcassonne is that it’s small enough that life is easy. And on vacation, who needs hassles? Aside from the Michelin-star restaurants (and even then), this isn’t a place where you have to reserve a table a week ahead or have special connections to get in. You can walk blindly into almost any restaurant and get a good meal at a reasonable price. Parking is easy and often free. Traffic is light and relatively polite (I’m constantly shocked, but then I go someplace else and see that Carcassonnais are very nice drivers all in all). In fact, if you don’t want to drive, you can do plenty of things on foot, by bike or by public transportation. If you do rent a car, check out my driving tips.
Although so many people descend from all over Europe to bake on the beaches of the Mediterranean in summer, once you head inland a little it doesn’t feel very touristy. Yes, there are tourists—there are amazing things to see—but this region remains mostly undiscovered and authentic.
Here’s an example of a hub-and-spoke vacation for a week, using Carcassonne as a base:
Day 1: La Cité. Duh. Go early or go late. The beach hordes will come by for a requisite few hours of culture in the middle of the day, so avoid it then. It’s really lovely in the evening, a nice place to stroll after dinner. In the middle of the day, walk around the Ville Basse—the lower “new” town (built in 1260) that is full of locals. Or walk upstream along the Aude River—there are shady paths on both sides—and you’ll soon be out of town, surrounded by vineyards. Or check out the antique shops in and around the Ville Basse (also called la Bastide) and the Trivalle neighborhood. Stop by Barrière Truffes for a wine tasting with some truffle appetizers. Definitely eat dinner at le Clos des Framboisiers, which will get its own post soon.
Day 2: Bike along the Canal du Midi. Pack a picnic lunch, or, if you bike toward Trèbes, you have a large selection of waterfront restaurants (we are partial to La Poissonnerie Moderne and Le Moulin). A canal bike ride is really lovely—no cars, flat, out in the countryside, still a lot of shade despite the sad removal of many plane trees that have been destroyed by a fungus.
Day 3: Village life. You can catch a bus to, say, Villeneuve-Minervois (half an hour away), spend a couple of hours exploring, then catch a later bus to Caunes-Minervois (about five minutes from Villeneuve). If you look at the bus schedules, keep in mind that when school is out, there are far fewer buses—look for the chaise longue with parasol, which indicates summer hours. Don’t miss the last bus back! Caunes is a bit far to bike and very hilly. Alternatively, if you have a car, it’s a pretty drive and you can stay for dinner at the Hotel d’Alibert.
Day 4: Head for the hills. The train to Quillan is just €1 per person. Can’t beat that. It takes an hour and 20 minutes, so leave plenty early. Perhaps a hike on the Sentier de Capio? If you go by car, you can also explore the Gorges de la Pierre-Lys, a bit south of Quillan, a spectacular collection of sheer rock faces worn down by the Aude River. There’s a hike to a lookout (called the Devil’s Lookout).
Day 5: At some point in your trip, Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday will roll around with the market at Place Carnot in Carcassonne. Saturday is the best day, with the most vendors and all the locals stopping each other with hands full of carrots and radishes to double or triple or quadruple kiss cheeks before heading to one of the terrace cafés for coffee or a cold glass of rosé. Beware: the market packs up around 12:30 p.m. If you miss the market in Carcassonne, then you can catch up on Monday morning in Mirepoix. It’s a cute town with a nice collection of antique shops to occupy your afternoon.
Day 6: Hit the beach, because what’s a trip to the south of France without paying homage to the Mediterranean? Again, go early or late. The French live highly regimented lives and you can use that to your advantage by being slightly off schedule. They will swarm to the sand a bit after lunch, and then leave in time for apéritifs, raising havoc for parking and huge traffic jams for leaving. We are partial to the beach at Gruissan (la Plage des Chalets), because the beach bungalows on stilts are low and barely seen from the water’s edge, whereas Narbonne has some high-rise buildings. There are many other beaches up and down the coast, but Gruissan is nice because it’s huge, so even with crowds, you aren’t crowded, yet you don’t have to walk forever to get to it, and you have a choice of the port or the old town for dinner. Our strategy is this: we head to the beach around 3:30, getting there just as the earlybirds are feeling their sunburn and fleeing, freeing up parking spaces. Then we stay and enjoy as the throngs continue to thin, and finally hit a local restaurant for dinner rather than sit in a traffic jam on the autoroute. I am sure you can get to the beach by bus, but I wouldn’t want to do it because we haul so much stuff with us (umbrellas, shade tent, blankets, balls, change of clothes in sealed bags for sand-free changing afterward).
Day 7: Castles. For this, you need do a car. Those Cathars built their fortresses in out-of-the-way spots. They weren’t looking for trouble, in fact they tried to hide from it, but when invaders came calling, they were in perches that were very hard to attack. Many of them, including Lastours and Puilaurens, require a vertiginous hike. If climbing isn’t your thing, try Saissac or Villerouge-Termenes. In July, Carcassonne is full of medieval re-enactments and jousting tournaments.I haven’t even gotten to wineries (our favorites are la Tour Boisée and Saint Jacques d’Albas)! Or Fontfroide and Lagrasse. Or the underground wonders of Cabesprine and Limousis, so welcome on a hot summer day. Or the cool museums, like the one about prehistoric man at Tautavel.
We have had many couples renting our apartments for honeymoons, wedding anniversaries and birthdays, so I’ll do a similar itinerary with a romantic focus. Coming soon!
One of the highlights of my life is a family vacation in Italy with my parents, my siblings and their families, plus an aunt. It was before the arrival of the Carnivore and our kid. I was the tour guide.
Here were the calculations: Europeans go on vacation in July and August, because school vacations don’t start until then (some places get out in mid-June). So for smaller crowds and lower prices, we would schedule the trip for right after the kids got out of school in late May.
Having so many people was going to be tricky, especially with kids ages 2, 3 and 4, and elders ages 61, 71 and 76, none of whom were up for walking all day. We wanted to sleep under one roof (which ruled out my one-bedroom apartment in Brussels) and have a place for two minivans to park. Good weather would be a plus (which also ruled out Brussels).These things also eliminated Paris–we’d have to get pretty far out before being able to find a house big enough and in the price range, and getting around Paris isn’t very easy if you aren’t on foot (and no, I was not going to try to herd 13 people in the Metro). The weather could be freezing or gorgeous, most likely both…in the same week. So despite the fact that I adore Paris and had the advantage of speaking French, I opted for Tuscany. (I had been to the south of France only once then, so I didn’t think of it—now I know better! But Tuscany was great.)“You don’t want to go to Italy, hon,” Dad informed me, pronouncing Italy like IT-lee. “It’s a mess. You can’t drink the water. I’ve been there.”
Yeah—when he was in the Army, with the U.S. occupation after WWII.
“It’s changed,” I told him. “You can drink the water now. It’s all fixed up nice.”
It was before the advent of AirBnB, but online rentals were available, with horror stories outnumbering the selection of properties. OK, confession: it was in 2001.I found a beautiful villa outside Florence, Casa Il Focolare, on a hill with sweeping views, a pool and lots of bedrooms and bathrooms. They have upgraded the décor; it was more basic when we were there, but very comfortable–you really have to check out the web site to see how pretty it is now. Rural enough that the kids could run wild around the grounds. Not too far for trips to Florence (30 minutes by car), Sienna (45 minutes), San Gimignano (45 minutes), Pisa (1 hour 15 minutes, to see the “bending tower” and also the beach at Livourne) and, twice, Rome (just over an hour). Plus the cute, less famous villages of Tuscany.
I’d reserved two minivans, but unfortunately, they had only one; the second vehicle would instead be a full-size monster called a Ducato. It had a horizontal steering wheel, like a bus. It held nine people, so we still needed the normal minivan, which held seven.
The next challenge was driving from Rome to the villa. My siblings, being pros at crazy roadtrips, had brought walkie-talkies (which, FYI, are called talkie-walkies in French. In Italian: walkie-talkie). I had a cell phone, but it was still early days and so expensive the others would have had to take out second mortgages to pay for international service (what a horror…I also had a “callback” service–illegal–where I called a computer in the U.S. with my Brussels landline and then hung up. The computer would call me back and patch me to an open line from which I could call U.S. numbers at domestic U.S. long-distance rates and not the approximately $5,000 a minute that Belgacom charged for international calls. It’s far more reasonable now).
Anyway the walkie-talkies worked great as long as we were in range. And the patter was nonstop.
<<static>>”I thought you were supposed to stay on one side of the dotted white line.” <<static>>
<<static>>”Yeah, well, most people think that.” <<static>>
<<static>>”She never could paint inside the lines.”
<<static>>”You gotta fix those things when they’re kids or you can see what happens.” <<static>>
One of the adults would ride shotgun and consult the gigantic fold-out paper map (it was before GPS, too). One time in Rome, I asked my co-pilot which way I needed to go only to see the huge map getting frantically turned around one way, then the other.
“We’re on … V…I…A…We’re on Via!” somebody from the back seat called out triumphantly.
Did I mention that nobody spoke Italian? (EYE-talian, as Dad said)
Another time, some of the women went to Greve, a very quaint town. The guys weren’t there when we got back. When they finally arrived, one made a grand wave at the other two and said, “Let me introduce you to Louis and Clark.” They had gotten very lost trying to go to the supermarket in Montevarchi.
No harm, no foul. No accidents, either.
There was another time, again in Rome, when a local colleague, who had generously gotten us tickets for the Mass with the Pope in St. Peter’s Square, was going to make the handoff as we drove down a boulevard near his home. I was talking to him on my cellphone (BAD) and trying to watch crazy Roman traffic while trying to spy the landmarks he was telling me to look for. Finally seeing him, I eased into the right lane and slowed to a crawl. My co-pilot rolled down the window, stuck a head and hand out, and snatched the tickets before anybody rear-ended us or even honked. Smooth as spies.
Most tourists probably don’t realize there’s an underground parking garage at the Vatican. With low clearance. Happily, the rental company didn’t look at the roof of the megavan when we returned it.
Then there was the time I got near the Coliseum and looked for a place to park, only to go down a street like a funnel—it got narrower and narrower, until I had to back out. Which mean the normal minivan with the rest of the family had to back out first because they were behind me.
And the time I was trying to get the megavan out of the tight turn on the villa’s driveway (which was so steep that our dad described a little grotto alongside the drive as “right before you go over the cliff”). Another guest’s car was in the way (there are also a couple of apartments on the property). One of the guys in front and another in the back directed me: get closer, cut it sharper, crank it the other way. They made catty remarks about how I was riding the clutch. “Might as well burn it out on a rental,” one said. “She’s just warming it up,” the other observed, adding, “She ain’t even spittin’ gravel yet.” At that moment, I gave it gas and sent a couple of pebbles flying. They cheered.
It was so difficult to park in Rome that we generally went to a garage then hoofed it. The littlest kids were in strollers, but our parents weren’t as lucky. Instead, I put them in a taxi, with our aunt, at the Trevi Fountain and told the driver “Piazza Navona.” I will never forget the image of three shocked faces looking at me through the back window as the taxi peeled off. They thought I would come with them. But I had figured that, with traffic, we would arrive on foot before the taxi (and it was true).
Our other challenge revolved around Italian dining customs vs. toddler attention spans. The kids were angels, but too much time sitting nicely at a table is no fun. So we would try to be fairly organized, to have our meals before meltdowns. Good Midwesterners, the guys would order coffee with their meals. They were new to wine, and certainly not at lunch. The waiter would nod, si, si, signori. Of course, the coffee wouldn’t arrive. They would remind the waiter, who would nod and say, what we figured was “don’t worry, I didn’t forget.” Dad would thank them with a heartfelt “Garcia!”
The kids would grow restless. No coffee yet. Then the kids would get VERY restless. No coffee…because of course, coffee is served after dessert, which we hadn’t yet eaten. Eventually we would need to leave—unhappiness in toddlers increases exponentially as you have more toddlers, so if one meltdown is X, then two meltdowns are X10 and three meltdowns are X100. (It isn’t their fault; it’s a fact of nature, like gravity.) Another famous Italian espresso so close, yet so far away. Eventually, the coffee lovers ventured to a café in Magliano. “The cup was about the size of a thimble,” one described afterward. “The foam barely covered the bottom of it. But I tell you, it was enough!”
We operated with a bucket list (the only thing we didn’t get to was Venice, too far at three hours’ drive each way), but didn’t schedule anything. One day at a time. The trips to Rome and Pisa took full days but the rest of the outings were for a few hours max, leaving lots of time for relaxing, chicken fights with the older kids in the pool and cooking lessons from the villa’s owners (who didn’t speak English or French, but we did fine. I still make their tiramisu.) At dinner, we would loosely plan the next day. Or not. Sometimes we did it on the fly. Our aunt was such a wonderful traveler, always game for anything, answering “why not!” to every suggestion. She seemed perfectly content to sit overlooking the breathtaking view and read a novel, yet was always ready to hop in the van at a moment’s notice. (Another time, looking at a guide’s suggestions for what to buy in Florence, she said, “But I don’t want any of this stuff.” I love her.)
It was great to have a kitchen, so we could have breakfast and sometimes other meals without the excesses of eating out for everything. It was great to have a TV, so tired kids could watch the only video we had (“Mulan”) over and over and over. It was great to have a single “home” that we could keep coming back to.
Our dad would regularly leaf through the photo albums (it was also before digital photos) for years afterward. Our mom had the villa’s brochure and some photos put into a big frame, and it moved with them to assisted living, where our parents were always more than happy to recount the adventure to all the aides who came by. The trip brought us closer together, though the littlest ones don’t remember it aside from the photos, and now there are two more kids, and even grandchildren, in the family and our parents are gone. I started writing this as a way to explain how to juggle the wildly different ages and a large group on a vacation, but in the end, it’s more an excuse to relive and immortalize the happy memories.And if you wonder whether a big family trip is possible, remember: Why not!
PS: I will write soon about a similar hub-and-spoke itinerary for the south of France. We have two AirBnB apartments on the same floor, in the center of Carcassonne—they are both good for couples, but one has a small single bedroom and a sofabed, making it possible to sleep five people there plus two in the adjacent apartment. And the huge kitchen is ideal for a family.