Blizzards and storms hit parts of the U.S. last weekend. Here, we’ve been getting plenty of rain…and sun.
When you’re packing, it can be hard to imagine being somewhere much warmer or colder. Plus, northern France–Paris–has quite different weather than here in the south.
It was upon moving to Belgium that I learned the concept of the summer sweater. It’s the sweater to wear when you are sick to death of candles, hot chocolate and curling up by a fire. When you’ve had it with hygge, but it isn’t yet warm enough to bask bare-armed in the sun.
(Don’t these make you want to cringe after March 20? The one on the right is yak hair, from Katmandu. I get around….and come home with something to wear. It is VERY warm.)
I remember being dumbstruck early in my European séjour, by a movie on TV in which Catherine Deneuve walked a pebbly Atlantic beach, dressed in white capris and a loose turquoise sweater. I forgot the movie, but I remember that sweater. A sweater! On the beach! (And pebbles on the beach!!!! So many new concepts at once.)
I soon learned that yes, you might need a sweater on the beach, even in summer. A bunch of colleagues and I went to the (sandy) beach at Ostende one weekend. The wind was wicked. I bought a windbreak (not a windbreaker but a long strip of plastic with posts and a rubber mallet for pounding the posts into the sand) and we all huddled behind it. At work the next Monday, other co-workers ridiculed our claim that we had been to the beach–where were our tans? In fact, the only skin we could bear to bare was on our faces and hands. We froze. In mid-summer.
The summer sweater is is cotton or silk, not wool, unless it’s the finest, thinnest cashmere. It has a smooth, flat weave, or else a loose, open weave. It isn’t chunky.
The best ones can be worn with a shirt underneath, or alone. Options, layers. Perfect for travel. Lots of shirts, which are light and pack small, and just two sweaters.
Even better is to have a matching or coordinating cardigan, so you can have yet another layer, or wear it open instead of a jacket on warmer days. And if it’s really warm and you never wear your sweater or cardigan (I bet you’ll wear them at least in the evening), you won’t kick yourself for having loaded up your suitcase for nothing.Also, take a scarf. Always! The pashmina still is worn around here and is always good against a chill. The large square silk scarf is a classic.
What’s very popular among both men and women is the chèche, a very long cotton scarf that you wrap a million times around your neck or that you leave hanging long. But don’t be like Isadora Duncan. The value of chèche is that it can be surprisingly warm when it’s all wound around you and it can be no more heavy than a necklace when it’s worn hanging long. I have a gorgeous 9-foot-long dark purple one I bought in Timbuktu…and in true Berber fashion it turns my skin bluish-purple when I wear it.
Favorite French coats for this time of year are the perennials: the leather moto jacket and the trench. My trench has a zip-in lining–if I were traveling in early spring, I would take it and be almost as warm as with a winter coat (because I don’t want to wear anything with furry trim come March). In late spring, I’d leave the lining at home.
Either option is good for dealing with the possibility (probability…higher as you head north) of rain. The tips for winter travel hold for spring’s tempestuous days, but you know what they say: there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. I’d rather have a rain hat than an umbrella, but better yet is a hood, and best of all is a hidden hood.
What are your astuces for packing for uncertain spring weather?
In the dead of the past winter, we spent the day in Toulouse. It’s such a lovely city, one that punches above its weight in sophistication. I suppose travelers might think of Carcassonne as a daytrip from Toulouse, but I prefer to think of Toulouse as a daytrip from Carcassonne.My favorite thing to do in any city is flâner–to walk aimlessly. I don’t need to shop, though I enjoy faire du lèche-vitrine (literally, licking windws, but it means do window-shopping). And of course some time en terrace at a café to people-watch.
The pre-Christmas outdoor dining scene.
The architecture is a bit different from Carcassonne. Grander, for sure, in such a big city. But there’s also the use of red bricks, which give Toulouse its nickname of La Ville Rose, which was adopted as a tourism slogan more than a century ago, after the author Stendahl wrote insultingly of his visit. Over the years that we’ve lived in the region, Toulouse has cleaned up nicely. More streets in the center are limited to pedestrians, new tram lines have been built and parking is nigh impossible. Bikes are everywhere. Hipster boutiques and restaurants are filled with young French women who look beautiful despite bedhead and young men with bushy Brooklyn beards. The brick walls are authentic.
An optician. Of course.
I never get enough of the narrow, crooked streets.
You have to look up.
You have to look down.
So many grand entrances, to let in carriages.
Sometimes you get to peek inside.
Have you been to Toulouse? I have more Toulousain treats in store.
I keep seeing pieces about solo travel, and I am a little flummoxed. I never considered that there was any problem with traveling alone. Before meeting the Carnivore, I traveled all over the world solo, and my approach evolved over the years. You shouldn’t let solo status stop you from seeing the world. Travel opens minds, brings a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the world, adds a finish of sophistication.
La Cité of Carcassonne. A song says, “You shouldn’t die without having seen Carcassonne.”
—Start small. Do a weekend away by yourself. Or join a tour. I went hiking in the Atlas mountains in Morocco with Nouvelles Frontières; the others joked that while for them it was adventure travel for me it was an intensive language course. In fact, my French improved by leaps and bounds during 10 days of being the only non-native French speaker. I made a bunch of new friends, too. And it was an experience I wouldn’t have had otherwise—hiking in a remote area of a foreign country is not something I would have done without some kind of group.
La Grosse Pomme, dream destination of nearly every French person I meet (exotic depends on where you’re coming from). They worry whether it’s safe enough.
—Be happy. I went to a nice restaurant in the Calvados region of France, looking forward to an amazing meal. I was met with dismay by the host, who finally conceded to give me a small table next to the kitchen door. I had a book to keep me company and just kept a smile on my face. But the book was set aside and my smile turned to moans of pleasure as I ate. By the time I had finished, the entire staff was around the table, telling me about the preparation of the dishes, the history, the seasonings…..My swooning reaction (more discreet than Sally’s, but still) made them forgive me for being a single woman. For good measure, for the good of all single women diners to come after me, I tipped generously.
—Don’t let the jerks spoil your trip. On the other hand, I was turned away from nearly empty restaurants in Thessaloniki and Copenhagen. It wasn’t because I hadn’t reserved—in each case, a couple came along, admitted to not having reservations and was seated immediately (as I said, the restaurants weren’t busy). I didn’t argue; I decided such a restaurant wasn’t worthy of my business. Then I told everybody I knew. Don’t expect slights, but when they come along, don’t let them ruin your experience.
—Luxuriate at lunch. In general, if I wanted to eat at a nice restaurant, it would go at lunch, when one doesn’t get funny looks for eating alone, and have something small and informal for dinner. This tactic also is good for a budget–lunch menus tend to be better deals than dinner ones–and better health-wise, too.
Barcelona’s Park Guell.
—Be safe. Wear a cross-body bag. It keeps your hands free, is hard to grab, and unlike a backpack keeps your stuff in front of you. Only once in my multiple decades of travel to multiple dozens of countries have I had a problem of any kind. I was walking to my hotel in Barcelona, my Furla bag on top of my wheeled suitcase, and a guy ran by, grabbing the bag. I saw my weekend away flash before my eyes: hours at the consulat replacing my passport. So I held on. He dragged me down the street, in broad daylight, me screaming, people doing nothing but staring. My Furla didn’t break, and he finally let go. My lesson: carry my passport and credit card in a pouch inside my clothes and never again have a bag in my hand.
I’ve hitchhiked in Africa (probably not a good idea but once I was taken home by some American missionaries, given a hot bath–a huge treat since I didn’t have running water–and fed Rice Krispie bars while watching “Little House on the Prairie” with their kids), taken the subway late at night in New York and walked from the Left Bank to Montmartre in Paris when the Métro had closed and I couldn’t find a cab. Cars stopped to offer me a ride, but I’d say I had only one block to go and thanks but no thanks. I see little old ladies walking around Carcassonne with a cane in one hand and their handbags dangling from the other and feel quite safe indeed.
No explanation needed.
—Don’t imagine that the couples around you are happy, especially in Paris. How many teary fights have I witnessed in the City of Light! But the worst was at the Picasso museum. I noticed a woman entranced before a painting. She didn’t move, except for her eyes, which seemed to devour the work. People swarmed past her, snapping selfies with the painting (somebody was looking at it, plus it was big, so it must be one worth photographing) and moving on to the next thing almost without stopping. Then a guy came into the gallery and barked at her. “There you are! I looked all over for you. You’re STILL here? Come on, we’ve got to go.” She winced and tore herself away. And I thought how grateful I was to be there on my own. Sartre might have been a little tough when he said “hell is other people,” but you have to admit that sometimes it’s better to be alone than to be with certain folks.—Consider the local culture. Travel in some countries is pretty easy because the cultures are similar. France and the U.S., for example, have many differences, but on a scale of 1-200 (there are about that many in the world today), they would be lumped fairly close together. If you go to countries that are more different, the difference usually is in the average wealth of the people. You might not consider yourself rich at home, but in some countries, you are wealthy beyond their hopes and dreams. No, people aren’t going to want to rob you. No, you shouldn’t give handouts, even to children, out of guilt (though if the poverty touches you, find an organization that you can donation to). I guess you could, but having lived in Africa, my friends found such handouts at once demeaning, too small (why did this foreigner give me a pencil?), and confusing—should they ask for them? Should they refuse? With kids, it just teaches them to beg from foreigners. The charity GiveDirectly is interesting. A great podcast about it here.
—Put a ring on it. A brass one will do (wash the green off your finger at night). If you are in a poor country, it is just logical that certain guys see you and say “Green Card!” They are going to give it their best shot because why not! It isn’t about you. It is about them wanting to escape poverty. So you give them a tall tale about how you are traveling with your husband who got food poisoning and is back at the hotel puking and you just had to get out for an hour before going back to him. It isn’t personal. You just want to be left alone and saying that is NOT going to make any green card hopeful give up. A story is so much kinder and more effective than saying “there is no way on earth that you and I would ever get together.” A husband, even an imaginary one, is an argument they can’t beat.
France’s Mediterranean coast. To me, palm trees = exotic vacation.
—Consider a guide. When I was in Morocco (different time than hiking), I was besieged by guides. A pack of them would follow me all day (not unlike the green card seekers). Rather than wear myself out rebuffing them all day long, I impulsively hired the youngest would-be guide, who looked to be about 8 years old. I gave him my best stern schoolmarm speech about how we were going where I wanted, and so we did. He was delightful company, in fact, and the other guides gave him knowing nods of respect when we’d pass. I had total peace….and control. It cost a pittance. I didn’t even barter the price he asked. Best money I ever spent.
—Mingle with the locals, not just with other tourists. I once took an overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa. In the sleeper car were two other women, both Kenyans. Let me tell you, it was the greatest time. We drank Tusker beer and talked and talked and talked. This insight into their lives would never have happened if I were traveling (A) with a guy or (B) even with another woman. With a guy, we wouldn’t have been put in the same car. And with another woman as a travel partner, we would have talked between ourselves and the Kenyan in the third bunk likely would have been too shy to join in. The fact that I was alone let them feel free to unload what they really thought…about life, love, politics, everything. This is what travel is all about–understanding the world.Anything to add?
Travel in winter can be challenging, although off-season can be deeply satisfying–no crowds, cheaper prices, you can really experience the local lifestyle. All it takes is being prepared for the whims of the weather.
Depending on where you’re from, the temperatures might feel downright balmy. According to the site Où et Quand (Where and When), Paris has an average January high of 6 Celsius (43 Fahrenheit) and low of 3 C (37 F), and rain an average of 13 days, or 40% of the time. (For reference, London is nearly identical, with two more days of rain.) Down here in Carcassonne, it’s warmer–average high of 9 C (48 F) and low of 4 C (39 F), with 15 days of rain. However, the sun often comes out even on rainy days (we have 35 more hours of sunshine than Paris). On Saturday’s drive to the market, I needed the windshield wipers and my sunglasses at the same time.
This year, though, we’ve had one tempête (storm) after another. Carmen, David, Eleanor, and a series of nameless storms that have brought unusually warm temperatures, plentiful rain and merciless winds across France and Europe. We went from T-shirt weather (in January!) to four days of intermittent downpours and wicked wind. As I started to write this, the wind had calmed, the sun was out, and it was 9 C (48 F) at 8 a.m. Later, with it was 17 C (62.6 F). An absolutely glorious day.
But when you’ve made your reservations six months earlier, you don’t know whether you’re arriving for the week of unseasonably mild weather or the week of storms. My advice:
Pack layers. Duh. But not just one layer; if you have three sweaters, can you wear them all at once? It can mean the difference between enjoying your trip or being miserable during a cold snap. Wear them together in Paris and separately in Carcassonne.
Have a hood. While a knit cap is good for covering your ears and keeping warm (and not blowing off in the wind), this winter you wouldn’t have needed it (not a problem–a knit cap doesn’t take much space). But what about the rain? A very chic friend of mine abhors umbrellas, and it’s true that it’s a pain to cart one around. She chose coats with hoods that she could just pop up as needed. Water-resistant fabric is even better. Hoods don’t blow off, don’t need to be carried around, don’t mess your hair as much as a hat and are always there when you need them.
Or get one of those little fold-up rain ponchos. Yes, you will look like a tourist. Like a smart tourist, whose trip (not to mention health, coat and bag) wasn’t ruined by some water.
Treat your shoes with waterproofing products before you leave. If you didn’t do this, never fear: they sell the stuff at any shoe store or supermarket here. We have all the mod cons. The downside of doing it during your trip is that it will stink up your room and you have to let it soak in and dry well before wearing the shoes. Plan ahead!
Make sure your bag is waterproof, too. Or have a waterproof pouch for your electronics.
Bring a hat and gloves. They take no space in your bag and make a huge difference to keeping you warm.
Pack a swimsuit. See below.
Think about ways to get out of the weather. My favorite thing to do when traveling is flâner: wandering around, taking in the architecture, shop windows, and above all the people. This is less fun in a storm. Here are some alternatives:
Museums. It may be time to check out some of the more obscure options.
Cafés. You can sit all day with a cup of coffee and watch the world go by. Classic.
Shopping. Duck out of the rain and into some shops, including some that you might have passed by. French shopkeepers often have very clever goods that you never would have thought of. And as for clothes shops, they’re an alternative to people-watching.
Malls, aka centres commercials or galeries. They are mostly in the International Ugly style, but you can be oblivious to the weather. Often they’re anchored by a hypermarket–like a Wal-Mart with groceries and everything else. This can be interesting as a sociological exercise–I am not being sarcastic. The products are different! Most are on the outskirts of towns and require taking a car, bus or taxi to get to.
Malls in Paris here. Carcassonne is more or less surrounded by centres commercials on its periphery: Pont Rouge, LeClerc, Salvaza, Cité 2.
Hit the books. FYI, a librarie is a bookstore and a bibliothèque is a library and a médiathèque has other media besides just books. Either way, you can browse for free, even though you can’t check anything out. Bibliothèques are better for people-watching (the French love books), but bookstores offer the possibility of finding a good souvenir to take home. Bibliothèques also host events–I went to a ballet presentation once.
Paris bibliothèques here. Carcassonne médiathèques here.Get a haircut. This was one of my go-to options on my regular trips to Paris. I would get sick of walking and being cold, and you can only drink so much coffee, so I would find a hair salon that took walk-ins (look for a sign that says sans RDV–without rendez-vous, or appointment). I never went to the same place twice and never got a bad cut. It was delicious, too, to have a nice, warm, shampoo. Nervous? Just get a shampoo and blow-out (shampooing et brushing–sounds like shawm-pwan, kind of) or ask for a trim–une coupe d’entretien. Other possibilities: mani-pedi, massage or hammam (you’ll need a swimsuit for that).
The hammam at the Paris Mosque here. It’s amazing. Separate days for men and women.
Go to church. The Catholic church for centuries had a tighter hold over daily life in France than any king. It was a main sponsor of the arts, too. Some churches have museum-quality paintings and sculptures. The stained-glass windows are full of stories, and the architectural details are fascinating, if you take the time. Some churches have crypts or areas that have been excavated for archaeological research. If you’re lucky, a choir or organist will be practicing while you’re there. Sometimes churches also host concerts, especially in the evenings. The local tourism office can give you details.
In Carcassonne, there’s often a choral group singing at the Basilique Saint-Nazaire in la Cité. And the Chapelle des Jesuits in the Bastide, with exceptional acoustics, has concerts on Thursdays, starting at 8:30 p.m.
Take a class. Tourism offices are good resources for one-off class options. I used to do Argentine tango, but you have to make sure the class takes walk-ins. Yoga and Pilates are easy to find. Cooking is another possibility, but you might have to arrange that at least a day in advance. Classes are also a good way to expand your French vocabulary–usually whatever is being taught is also being demonstrated, so even if your French is basic you can understand.
A wide variety of activities in and around Carcassonne here.
Go swimming. If there’s no indoor pool at your hotel, never fear. There are plenty of public pools, almost always indoors. You will be required to wear a swimming cap, and baggy swim trunks aren’t allowed (hence the famous Speedo reputation).And, of course taste wine. You can find a tour, go to a wine bar (Carcassonne has a large choice) or just visit a wine shop if you can’t get to individual wineries; many offer tastings at reasonable rates.
We don’t do things by half measures. We have two vacation rental apartments, and both have earned four-star ratings. We featured la Suite Barbès on Tuesday. Today is the turn of l’Ancienne Tannerie. On AirBnB, you can find la Suite Barbès here and l’Ancienne Tannerie here.
The apartment’s name comes from the fact that, back in medieval times, the inner courtyard was a tannery. The tiny alley behind the building is called ruelle des Tanneurs–Tanners’ Lane. Our apartments are in the “new” town of Carcassonne, which was built around 1260 under the orders of King Louis IX, aka St. Louis, to house the refugees expelled from la Cité after the Albigensian Crusade of 1209. Our building, however, must have replaced an older one (that likely burned down–fires were a big problem), because the high ceilings (13 feet) and large windows are in later architecture.
BTW, here’s a list of the residents in our building in 1624. You can see several were tanners, well into the Renaissance. (There’s also a captain, “called Captain Galaton of Pezens,” although Carcassonne isn’t on the coast.)
As with the other apartment, we preserved the historical details while adding modern conveniences (sauna, anyone?). And, to make sure visitors know they’re in France, it’s furnished with locally sourced antiques. Like this marvelous crystal chandelier that we drove to a little village to the south of here to buy.
We kept the old piano with ivory keys. I love the sconces on it, though I imagine that one would have had to play carefully if candles were burning.
What’s new: all the wiring, double-paned windows, plumbing…. plus the original terra-cotta tomettes were cleaned and treated.
The apartment sleeps up to five. There’s a spacious bedroom, a small bedroom, and a sofabed.
The kitchen is my favorite room. The fireplace is big enough to stand in. I love having the table in the middle.
Among the paintings we found was one of the kitchen. It shows the clock and the fireplace.Another painting we found in the apartment depicts Square Gambetta, which is two blocks away, before World War II. During the war, German troops destroyed the pool and its fountain, pictured.The square was redone a few years ago for construction of an underground parking garage. First, it was completely covered with gravel, and everybody hated it. So it was done over, with squares of formal gardens, a small restaurant, the old carousel and a fountain where kids can play in the water in summer. The same allée of plane trees still stands.
Visitors always ooh and ahh over the bathroom. It has a giant glass shower that doesn’t photograph well at all, being clear. The sauna always brings smiles, too.
It has been such a pleasure to hunt for pretty furnishings and accessories that establish an ambience of French tradition and authenticity. And it has been an even greater pleasure to meet people who appreciate it all as much as we do.A quick reminder of the main draw of Carcassonne, the majestic Cité, just a few minutes’ walk away from the apartments:We’d love to welcome you and your friends!
Our vacation rental apartments in Carcassonne received four stars in an official inspection recently.
We are doing everything strictly by the rules, from the renovation to the rental, and are focusing on the highest quality. The ministry for tourism’s department for furnished tourism rentals set the criteria.
We’re very pleased with the results. Five stars weren’t possible—no possibility of a swimming pool in an apartment in the center of town, nor, for a historically classified building could we have an elevator or air conditioning. The renovation was under the supervision of the Bâtiments de France–our apartment is historically classed not just for the façade but also the interior.
Our apartments are listed on AirBnB, with la Suite Barbès here and l’Ancienne Tannerie here. Let’s take a look again at la Suite Barbès; the next post will look at l’Ancienne Tannerie.
Not to repeat previous posts too much, this one will zoom in on a few favorite details. You can find other posts with pictures and stories about the apartments and their renovation via the tab Our Vacation Apartments above. The post about being featured on Desire to Inspire shows broader shots of the rooms.
Each painting has a story.We bought this watercolor at the Toques et Clocher event in Cépie. The painter looked familiar–it turned out we had met at a dinner party some months before, plus she’s the sister of the apartment’s neighbor. Is that karma or what?
We found the other three paintings in a storage closet in the apartment. They all feature local scenes. You’ll see almost the exact shot of the one below in this post about the Canal du Midi (the photo captioned “Black Mountains in the background).
The stars are based on a long list of criteria, including the quality of furnishings and decor, modern conveniences like washing machine and hair dryer plus all the usuals in the kitchen, how well the kitchen is stocked with everything needed to prepare meals, the space, etc.
La Suite Barbès has a large living room and a crazy big bedroom (35 square meters, or 375 square feet), plus two marble fireplaces, and elaborate moldings. The furniture is almost entirely antiques sourced from local brocantes or bought from the previous owner.
We have enjoyed meeting the people from all over the world who stay in our apartment. They like the décor–you know you’re in France. They also like the location, just a block from the central square, so it’s close but without the noise. La Cité is about a 10-minute walk away, making it easy to get to without actually staying all the time in the touristy area. The Canal du Midi is also about a 10-minute walk away, as is the train station.
We hope to welcome you and/or your friends in 2018!
The castle ruins bristling atop hills are reminders of the religious and geopolitical strife that once tore at southern France. The Château de Puilaurens is one of the “Five Sons of Carcassonne,” built to defend France from Spain when the border was farther north of today’s line.The first mentions of the château date to 985, when the site held the abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa. Around 1241, it became a harbor for Cathars–Carcassonne had already surrendered in 1209 in the crusade against the Cathars by Pope Innocent III. Catharism was a dismal religion that espoused that everything on earth was evil and who were ascetic to the extreme–quite the juxtaposition with the corruption in the Catholic church.Eventually, though Puilaurens surrendered, though nobody knows exactly when, possibly around 1255. The fortress then was fortified by King Louis IX, aka Saint-Louis, to stand up to the Kingdom of Aragon (Spain wasn’t united until the 1700s). By 1659, though, the Treaty of the Pyrénées made it obsolete by moving the border south, into the Pyrénées. During the Revolution, it was abandoned completely.It’s easy to see why. It’s in the middle of nowhere!
Which is charming in its own way.Puilaurens makes for a nice day trip from Carcassonne, a chance to mix nature and history and to get the very different feel of the mountains.
It’s not for the weak of heart, or of legs. The path is rugged, and the last bit is the steepest, the better for archers picking off invaders. Not being a bird nor having a drone, I don’t have the bird’s-eye view, but you can see some here and others here.
One of the towers is called the White Lady tower, after Blanche de Bourbon, the granddaughter of Philip IV (aka the Fair or Handsome, but also known as the Iron King), who stayed in Puilaurens, but it’s hard to say when. Maybe on her way to be married, at age 14, to Peter the Cruel, king of Castile, who abandoned her three days after their wedding and had her locked up. So much for the alliance with France, which was the reason he married her at all. Blanche died eight years later, supposedly on orders of her husband, either by being poisoned or shot by a crossbow (but she might have gotten the plague). She supposedly haunts the grounds of Puilaurens as a white, misty apparition. However, it is often misty at Puilaurens. It’s at an altitude of more than 700 meters (2300 feet).
I don’t have good photos here of the castle’s modern conveniences–latrines and a speaking tube cut into the stone that allowed people to communicate between different floors of a tower.
Nestled in the foothills of the Black Mountains, Caunes-Minervois is a storybook French village, with cobbled streets too narrow for cars, one beautiful door after another, stone walls adorned with climbing roses and ivy.It also has lots of life. Although it doesn’t even have 2,000 residents, it has EIGHT restaurants! They are really good, too. The Hôtel d’Alibert, for example, is beautiful and delicious. The Cantine de la Curé (the priest’s canteen–it’s across from the abbey) has tapas in a garden. La Mangeoire (manger, as in away in a) and la Marberie (the marble works–Caunes is known for its quarry for red marble) have lovely interiors as well as shady terraces. In the summer, outdoor classical concerts on Fridays animate the lovely garden behind the abbey. In winter, jazz concerts in the abbey’s caveau, or wine cellar, take advantage of the great acoustics.The monastery was the heart of the ancient village, although it was inhabited since neolithic times, and later had a Roman villa. The abbey was started in the 8th century, when the town was becoming rich. You can visit the church, sumptuously decorated with local marble, and go under the altar to the crypt. There’s a cloister, and a small museum of archaeological finds.
Mostly, though, it’s a pleasure just to stroll around Caunes. Some of the streets turn into stairs, and most in the center of the village are just too narrow for cars to pass. Which means the soundtrack for your walk is the wind and birds.
There are some beautiful homes, not just from medieval times but also Renaissance, including Hôtel d’Alibert. Most of the Renaissance buildings are near the mairie, or town hall.
The doors range from majestically imposing to extremely small. I saved most of them for another post just on doors.
Near the abbey is an old lavoir, or communal laundry, which still gets used.
Its location on a hill offers views across the plain that extends to the Pyrénées. Gorgeous.
And the views of the roofs are wonderful, too.
Charm is everywhere.
Though it’s not without its challenges.
I hope you enjoyed Caunes-Minervois. If you ever see wine from here, buy it (there are several wineries). You won’t be disappointed.
Caunes is a great daytrip from Carcassonne. I haven’t finished with it, either. We will go out of town the next time, plus I have to visit the marble quarry, since our kitchen counters came from it.
The names of French pastries and desserts don’t often give a clue as to their ingredients. When I first moved to Europe, to Brussels, I was flummoxed by menus offering delicacies I didn’t know. One of my early lessons with my French tutor was going over the carte des desserts at a café. Here are a few of the less obvious desserts and pastries. The strawberry tarts above are pretty obvious. Most people can guess that a fondant au chocolat is going to be a molten chocolate cake. But a Saint-Honoré? Read on.
I apologize for not having photos of all these. I am trying to avoid sugar, so I snap shots while in the bread line, and the offerings change constantly. I’ll do more of these, if you like, as I collect examples.
Baba au Rhum: A light brioche soaked in a rum syrup and topped with whipped cream. Also called a Savarin. See the recipe here.
Biscuit: A false friend, a French biscuit (bis-cuit means cooked twice) isn’t savory like the anglophone kind but instead a sweet cookie. Beware: tremper son biscuit means having sexual intercourse. I got caught out on this one when explaining my tiramisu recipe at one of my first dinners with the Carnivore’s family. I said, “you dip the cookie”–trempez le biscuit–“in the coffee and amaretto.” A cousin chortled, which was all it took for the entire table to erupt in laughter. “You were saying?” somebody finally managed to squeak out. I resumed, “you dip the cookie…” more laughter, even harder. They got clueless me to repeat it several times, each time sending them into paroxyms of laughter, before somebody took mercy and explained why it was so hilarious.Boudoir: Known to English speakers as lady fingers, these dry cookies also are called biscuits de Reims, after the capital of Champagne. Boudoir means a lady’s elegant but very small private salon (not bedroom! and that word is related to bouder, which is to pout or sulk). The name was chosen by the famous 19th century royal patissier Marie-Antoine Carême (his last name means Lent, which I find hilarious for somebody devoted to desserts), who adapted a recipe from the Medicis for a sturdier cookie that could be dipped in champagne. The reason is either because he was winking at the dangerous liaisons going on or that, like the lady in her boudoir, the cookie is elegant and rounded, and one’s lips round as they envelope it. Erotic either way, especially compared to the old name, biscuit à la cuillère—spoon cookies, because you lay the dough on the baking sheet and turn the cookies using a spoon (but most people use pastry bags). Use boudoirs in tiramisu (see above) or charlotte. Or dip your biscuit in champagne.
Charlotte: a creamy dessert in a mold that’s lined with langues de chat or boudoirs. Carême (him again) took the original version—plum compote enveloped by toasted, buttered bread—and lined his mold with biscuits à la cuillère with Bavarian cheese flavored with fruit. There also are vegetable versions. Charlotte aux fraises, besides being delicious, is the French name for the cartoon character Strawberry Shortcake, though the two desserts have only strawberries in common.
Croquembouche: the name means crunches in your mouth. This is a mountain of little cream puffs that have been covered with caramelized sugar so they stick to each other and also crunch when you bite them. A favorite for weddings. It also can be made with macarons.
Dame Blanche/Dame Noir: Chocolate sundae. The white lady is with vanilla ice cream; the black lady is with chocolate ice cream. Always with whipped cream on top.
Divorcé: Yup, divorced. This involves two cream puffs, one stuffed with chocolate cream, the other with mocha. Each is topped with a fondant in the same flavor as its filling and stuck together with butter cream frosting. Similar to a religieuse, but with two flavors, and side by side. Hence the divorce.
Éclair: Most people know éclairs, the long choux pastry filled with pastry cream and topped with icing. However, did you know the name means lightning? The delicacy was known as pain à la duchesse before 1850. Câreme—yes, him again—decided to improve marketing of the fingerlike treat by calling it éclair, or lightning, because that’s how fast you’ll eat it.Financiers: a little sponge cake/cookie usually rectangular (though in the 17th century they were oval), made with finely chopped almonds or almond powder. They were made by nuns of the Visitadines order in Nancy to use up the egg whites left after the yolks went to make paint; it was a ruse because they weren’t allowed to eat meat. In 1890, the pâtissier Lasne made the cookies more popular. His shop was near the stock market and the delicacies were a favorite with brokers because they didn’t dirty their fingers (as if!). Lasne decided to change the shape to little rectangles that represent gold ingots. They’re nice with coffee.
Fondant or Moelleux? Fondant means melting, whereas moelleux means soft. A fondant is like an almost flour-less brownie. A moelleux is a soft, moist cake. If chocolate, it’s like a typical brownie, with more flour. A mi-cuit or coulant is not cooked all the way through (mi-cuit is half-cooked), so the middle is runny–coulant.
Fondant au chocolat
Langue de Chat: flatter and softer than a boudoir, often served with ice cream.
Lunettes de Romans: regional specialty of Romans-sur-Isère: oval butter cookie, with scalloped edges, in two layers, with two round holes in the top layer filled with jam. While lunettes are glasses, the cookie looks more like Venetian carnival mask.Madeleine: little sponge cake/cookies that look like sea-shell-shaped financiers but the recipe is quite different—they use whole eggs, baking powder and orange-flower flavoring. A popular primary school goûter, or afternoon snack. Proust famously dipped this biscuit in his tea, which brought back the flood of memories that constitute À la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, previously known as Remembrances of Things Past.
Mendiant: The name means beggar, and includes some religious orders whose members were to live only from charity. It’s a dry cake (the recipe started with stale bread!) topped with almonds, dried figs, raisins and other nuts. The name is due to the colors of the toppings, which are in the browns, like friars’ robes. You’re likely to see them cookie size, with a coating of chocolate enclosing the cookie base and a layer of chopped nuts and fruits, then topped with whole nuts and fruits.
From left: Succès, Merveilleux (chocolate), Mocha, Baba, almond and vanilla tarts, strawberry tart, strawberry éclair.
Merveilleux: Like a macaron but with whipped cream in the middle, and covered with whipped cream. From Belgium.
Napoléon: a mille-feuille, or thousand sheet/leaf. That’s an exaggeration, because it’s three layers of puff pastry, with pastry cream between them, with a white icing decorated with chocolate stripes or marbling. The name possibly comes from the emperor, who took a liking to while warring against Russia in 1812 (he lost), though some posit it was named Napoleon by Russians savoring their sweet victory. Or it might have been an Italian treat (since everybody seems to have had similar layering ideas) known as gâteau napolitaine, for Naples, and just got mispronounced (see pâte à choux). Tip: turn it on its side to eat it. That way you can cut through the layers without making all the cream squeeze out the sides.
Opéra: a layered chocolate-mocha cake, with a base of biscuit Joconde, which is made from beaten egg whites with almond powder, soaked with Grand Marnier or coffee, covered with a layer of ganache (chocolate and cream) and mocha butter cream, then repeated and iced with chocolate. Supposedly it was named in honor of the dancers from the Opéra Garnier in Paris, who would visit the shop of its creator, Cyriaque Gavillon, to eat it. I don’t believe that for one minute.
Paris-Brest: A donut-shaped—or wheel-shaped—choux pastry, cut in half horizontally and stuffed with praline-flavored butter cream, with sliced almonds and powdered sugar on top. It was created in 1920 by Louis Durand in honor of the Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race.
From left, strawberry tart, strawberry éclair, Paris-Brest, Napoléon aka mille-feuille, éclair.
Pâte à choux: This means, literally, cabbage dough, though you probably call it cream puff pastry. It seems the original name was pâte à chaud (hot dough) because it gets dried out with heat then rehydrated with eggs. The result is a pastry that puffs up without yeast or baking powder. However, it isn’t clear that chaud became choux as a result of people talking with their mouths full of it. It was invented in 1540 in Italy to make cakes shaped like women’s breasts. In the 18th century, another pâtissier used the dough to make cabbage-shaped buns and the name was changed. Or not. Savory versions include gougères (post to come). Sweet versions are all over this post.
Profiteroles: Speaking of pâte à choux, profiteroles are a decadent assembly of several cream puffs, often filled with ice cream, and topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Kind of a cream puff Dame Blanche.
Punitions: butter cookies. so named by famous baker Lionel Poilâne’s great grandmother as a joke (it means punishments).
Religieuse: Two cream puffs, one larger than the other, stacked snowman-style and glued with butter cream frosting. The filling is pastry cream, usually chocolate or mocha. Each puff is topped with fondant, with a dollop of butter cream on top like a button. The two balls (which are basically éclairs in the round) are supposed to represent a head and a body, and the icing is supposed to remind one of religious robes. Though the treat was created in 1865 by the Parisian café Frascati, the name didn’t appear in the dictionary until 1904 and its origins are murky. One thing is clear: the religieuse is heavenly.
Savarin: a lot like a baba, above.Saint-Honoré: another more-is-more dessert involving cream puffs. This one involves a base of puff pastry, upon which sit a ring of cream puffs that have been dipped in caramel (the better to stick) and whipped cream or crème chiboust, which is pastry cream that’s been lightened with egg whites (meringue, basically). Saint Honoré is the patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs. He died on May 16, 600. His miracles: when he was little he told his baby sitter he wanted to become a priest. She answered, “And you’ll be bishop when my baking paddle sprouts leaves.” Which it did. Flowers, even. Honoré became not only a priest but bishop of Amiens at a young age. He didn’t want to be named bishop, but a shaft of heavenly light shone on him and a mysterious oil was drizzled on his head from above in a divine sign. Another time, during a Mass, the hand of God appeared to give him a communion host. In 1202, a Parisian baker gave up a parcel of land for a chapel in honor of Honoré, in the faubourg, or suburb, that took on the holy man’s name. The construction of the chapel inspired the millers, flour merchants and bakers of the area to adopt Honoré as their patron saint. The suburb was consumed by Paris, but a street there still carries the name and is now the epicenter of the fashion industry.Succès: meringue on top of crème mousseline praliné (pastry cream with extra butter, praline–sugared almond–flavor) on top of a crispy almond cookie, covered with almonds. Like a merveilleux, but praline.
If archaeology is your thing, a great day trip from Carcassonne is to Tautavel, for three reasons:
There’s a fabulous musuem dedicated to l’Homme de Tautavel, who lived 450,000 years ago.
The scenery is gorgeous.
The region’s wines are yummy.
Tautavel man, a Homo erectus, was discovered in 1971 in a cave, along with 149 other human remains. He was about 20 years old and 1.6 meters (5 feet, 3 inches) tall. Sorry I don’t have photos! I hate taking photos inside museums. Click on the links to see the museum’s site.
Tautavel man hadn’t yet domesticated fire, but was a very good hunter. The prey was typically horse, deer, wild sheep, and bison but also included rhinos, lions and panthers, as well as smaller animals.
You can visit the cave as part of a guided group between April and August. Two museums, the Musée de Tautavel and the Musée des Premiers Habitants de l’Europe, display the site’s finds and illustrate prehistoric life. The dioramas are very realistic and not corny at all. Explanations are in several languages. Tip: the museums are closed at lunch, between noon and 2:30 p.m. Tickets, €8 adults/€4 kids, are €1 apiece cheaper if bought in advance online and are good for both museums.
There are demonstrations of how to light a fire using flint and by rubbing two sticks together, and how to use prehistoric weapons, such as a propulseur (not easy—I tried it). In mid-April, the museum hosts the Prehistoric Arms Firing Championship!
I accompanied a school trip, so we went by bus, taking the autoroute to near Perpignan (the exit, sortie 41, is well-marked for Tautavel man), then leaving the coastal plain to wind through low hills—I suppose they count as the foothills of the Pyrénées—with rugged, white rock outcroppings, plenty of garrigue and lush vineyards. The drive is about 1.5 hours, but the countryside and charming little villages make it seem like less. There’s a lot to look at.Speaking of vineyards, the region is near Fitou and has good wines. Here is a link to the local producers.
Poor M. Homme de Tautavel, living in a wine region before the advent of wine.