When my kid was little, I would always accompany class field trips. It was such a great way to learn about the region, often in ways I never would have sought out myself (spelunking). One such trip was with a bunch of second- and third-graders to go rock climbing, which led to my discovery of a hidden haven, Notre Dame du Cros (literally, Our Lady of the Hole, or, more poetically, Valley).
I have mentioned that the French have other ideas about safety, as in, if you get hurt, it’s your own fault. So somehow rock climbing is a good idea for kids whose permanent front teeth have only just grown in. Even crazier, to me, was the fact that one of the guides had been our guide exploring caves. A man of many outdoor sports. How does one get a job leading children through caves and up cliffs? And how does he not go crazy? He had unlimited patience. I knew and loved these kids but any time I spent an entire day with all of them I had to take a nap as soon as I got home. Their overflowing energy sapped mine.
Despite the buzzing swarm of children, the area of Notre Dame du Cros is utterly peaceful. It’s over the hill from the village of Caunes-Minervois, and so tucked into the hills that you don’t hear anything but birds and the rustle of leaves. And occasionally an explosion from the marble quarry–maybe once in a day.
Legend has it that, around the 6th century, a shepherdess gave water from the spring there to her sick child (although another says it was the shepherdess herself who was ill), who was immediately cured. It became a pilgrimage destination. That led to chapels being built, with the current one dating to the 12th century, and renovated in the 15th and 16th centuries. Mass is said every morning–the chapel is considered part of the Caunes abbey. Stations of the cross are spread around the hillside.
There’s a flat plain next to a stream, named Le Souc, with picnic tables shaded by century-old platane trees. It’s a very popular spot on summer weekends, but manages to stay calm and peaceful–it’s what people come for.
There are two ways to visit a region. One is to progress along a route; the other is the hub-and-spoke approach, visiting a variety of sights while coming home to the same place each night.
We did this on a multigenerational family trip years ago. The 14 travelers ranged in age from 2 to 76, with three preschoolers, three seniors, two preteens and six middle-aged adults. It was the first trip to Europe for everybody but me and my dad, who had been stationed in Germany just after WWII (“You don’t want to go to Italy, sweetie,” he told me, pronouncing Italy as it-lee. “You can’t drink the water.” I assured him that things had gotten a lot better since his previous visit, during his Army tour just after WWII.)We rented a villa outside Florence and daytripped to that city as well as to Rome, Sienna, San Gimingano, Pisa and some others.
Coming back to the same spot was essential for the youngest and oldest to recharge. It kept the trip simple, too. We could all unpack and settle in. We got to see the daily rhythms around us, while also seeing a lot of sights.In that spirit, I posted about seeing the region with Carcassonne as the hub. There’s so much to do, especially if you rent a car and venture around the region. Carcassonne is a small city, which means it has pretty much all the advantages of villages without their disadvantages (not much to see or do) AND the advantages of cities without the disadvantages (crowds and lines). It’s small and easy to get around, including on foot, like a village, yet it punches above its weight for restaurants, offering as many options as a much bigger city. This win-win formula makes it an excellent base.
Day 1: La Cité
Clearly, the big attraction is la Cité, the largest fortified city in Europe. With 52 towers punctuating a unique double set of walls, the medieval city on a hill looks like a movie set. The best bet it to head there in the late afternoon, around 4 p.m. Walk the perimeter of the walls (best before it gets dark), then explore some of the small interior streets. Or save the perimeter for a few days later—you’ll want to see it more than once. Visit the Château Comtal, the 12th century castle that was home to the Vicomtes of Carcassonne, the Trencavel family, and which now is a museum. It closes at 6:30; count on at least an hour, if not more.After the castle, stroll some more until it’s time for an apéritif before dinner. Check out the le Saint Jean, off the beaten path and with great views of the Château Comtal. Le Bar à Vins has a shady secret garden in nice weather. Then head to dinner. If you have the budget, spring for La Barbacane, the restaurant of Hôtel de la Cité, the town’s fanciest hotel. As a matter of fact, the hotel’s bar is an awfully cozy, romantic spot, too, with a library setting. Less expensive but still very good and romantic is Au Jardin de la Tour, a few steps away, with a hard-to-find entrance but a lovely garden.After dinner, take your time to stroll around. It’s when la Cité is dark and the tourists are gone that you most feel transported back in time. If you’re staying at one of our apartments, you can walk home in 15 minutes, and it’s all downhill. Just remember to turn around and look back at la Cité, lit up against the sky, from the vantage point of Pont Vieux.
If you’re wondering what to do before going to la Cité in the late afternoon, you can do a slow tease, by wandering the quaint streets of the Trivalle neighborhood. You have many opportunities for awesome selfies with la Cité as a backdrop (because you can’t get it as a backdrop when you’re IN it). Maybe a glass of wine and a truffle snack?When the weather is accommodating (most of the time), you also can stroll along the Aude river. Turn left at the river and just walk as long as you like, keeping in mind the return. The path goes really far, on both riverbanks. Wise flood control. In spring, you’ll see the cutest ducklings, and in summer it’s well-shaded and surprisingly cool. The joggers going by only detract a little, because there aren’t that many of them.
Day 2: Medieval Monday
Operating on the principle that most French arrive at vacation spots on Saturdays, I treated Day 1 like a Sunday. So Day 2 would be a Monday, and that’s market day in the town of Mirepoix. It’s about 45 minutes southwest of Carcassonne, though you’ll want to factor in plenty of time to stop and admire along the way.Mirepoix’s market (in the morning!) is in a square surrounded by half-timbered buildings that date to the 13th to 15th centuries. The buildings have arcades, which house café terraces—the perfect place to people-watch while having a coffee or lunch post-shopping. The entire town is very cute and full of charming boutiques. Mirepoix has a great selection of antique shops, too.From Carcassonne, you can pass Bram, then Fanjeaux and on to Mirepoix, or else go to Montréal and then Fanjeaux and Mirepoix. All those villages are charming and worth a wander for an hour or so. Montréal and Fanjeaux are hilltop towns with commanding views over the valleys. Bram’s adorable streets radiate out from the central church in circles, and it has a museum of archaeology.Only 15 minutes south of Mirepoix is Camon, one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France (an official thing) and well worth a detour.
Day 3: Sea Breeze
After a leisurely breakfast with croissants from Papineau (rue de Verdun, just off Place Carnot—true love is running three minutes to pick up fresh croissants), or a continental breakfast from one of the many cafés around Place Carnot, there are few things as romantic as a walk on the beach.You can bike or take the #1 city bus (€1) to Lac de la Cavayère just out of town. A manmade lake, set in hills of garrigue, the lake has a string of small beaches, plus a wide, paved walkng path (no hiking shoes needed) of about seven kilometers (just over four miles) all the way around. A castle (Château de Gaja) peeks through the pines in the distance. The beaches nearest the entrance get very crowded on summer afternoons, but otherwise are quiet.Even prettier, though, is the Mediterranean. If you’re going to drive over there (about 45 minutes), make a day of it. If you’re like us, an hour or two of sand and surf is enough. So on the way, check out the Abbaye de Fontfroide. The abbey dates to 1093 and played a role in the crusade against the Cathars. Today, its cloisters are a place of peacefulness and flowers. The gardens are just gorgeous. So is the architecture.Our favorite time to visit the beach is off-season. Narbonne’s beach is nice, but we like the Plages des Chalets at Gruissan even more because it doesn’t have high-rise apartment buildings, and the little cabanas on stilts are barely visible from the water. Off season, you’ll have the sand mostly to yourself, and there’s a paved walk as well for biking or skating.You have two options for lunch: the port, which has lots of terrace cafés and restaurants and views of the boats, or the village, which has lots of cute little restaurants on its tiny streets. Obviously it’s a place for seafood. But keep your meal light because there’s a treat tonight.
The village has a high cuteness factor, so count on a romantic stroll and lots of photos. Climb the hill to the fortress.Head back to Carcassonne. If you have time, take the departmental road D6113, which passes through a string of villages. Conilhac-Corbières and Capendu are particularly pretty. Or, at Villedaigne, cut north to the D610, which more or less follows the Canal du Midi, and is punctuated by one cute village after another.
In the evening, dine at le Clos des Framboisiers. This is our favorite restaurant. The €28 fixed price menu isn’t huge, but there is something for everybody. The Carnivore and I havediametrically opposite tastes, yet we both find multiple choices tempting and are always both happy. You can’t beat it on quality/price. The service is impeccable and the setting is beautiful. It’s isn’t far from the center of town but it’s nearly impossible to find without a GPS. On a visit in July–at the height of tourist season–all but two of the license plates of the cars parked in front were 11’s (the department we’re in is Aude, #11)—this is where the locals go. Dinner only; closed Sunday and Monday. Reserve! (If you’re at one of our apartments, I can do it for you.)
Day 4: Cathar Castles
The department of Aude is truffled with castles and forts built by the Cathars, those Middle Age heretics. If such ancient ruins, set amid gorgeous scenery, are your thing, then you can spend several days just visiting them. In that case, be sure to get the Passport for the Sites of Cathar Country, which gives you a discount on admission.One of our favorites is in Lastours, north of Carcassonne in the Black Mountains, where the ruins of four castles bristle on hilltops, offering commanding views. Park in the lot at the entry to the village; there is nothing further, I guarantee you.The village is tiny and the entrance isn’t far. The road hugs one bank of the Orbiel river, beneath sheer cliffs. Getting to the hilltop castles entails a steep climb on a narrow dirt path—these castles were built to be inaccessible. Not at all handicapped accessible, nor appropriate for small children (there are no guard rails). For this reason, it’s rarely crowded.Be sure to go up to the Belvedere on a facing hilltop, from which you can look down at the entire site. Under the shadow of the towers, next to the museum at the entry are two restaurants, including one of the region’s finest: The Auberge du Diable au Thym (The Inn of the Thyme Devil) and Les Puits du Trésor, run by Michelin-starred chef Jean Marc Boyer. If you want to eat here, keep in mind it’s open from Wednesday to Sunday (which is lunch only) from noon to 2 p.m. and from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Reserve! As the châteaux close before dark, you’ll have quite a wait until dinner during the off-season (the châteaux are open until 8 p.m. in July and August, though). So it might be best to do Lastours with lunch in mind.
If you want to hit two Cathar castles in one day, add in the Château de Saissac, about half an hour away. It isn’t particularly far, but you can’t go very fast on mountain roads. Saissac is more accessible—we went with the Carnivore’s mother and our kid who was then very small—two age extremes with limited mobility.
On your way back, pass through Montolieu, the village of books. There are several places to dine. If you missed out on Les Puits du Trésor, your loss, but an alternative is l’Ambrosia, which you’ll pass on your way back to Carcassonne, just after you turn onto the D6113. Fancy-schmancy and very good. For smaller budgets, try anything in adorable Montolieu or just wait until you get back to Carcassonne.
Day 5: A Toast to Love
The original sparkling wine comes from just south of Carcassonne, at the abbey of St. Hilaire. There are two kinds: blanquette de Limoux (named after a larger nearby town) and crémant de Limoux.Saint-Hilaire, being tiny, has two places to taste and buy. Limoux has no shortage of places to sample, including the very large Sieur d’Arques, which sponsors the annual Toques et Clochers food and wine festival to restore the region’s church bell towers.
In Saint-Hilaire, the abbey is a fascinating visit and has a beautiful, peaceful cloister with a fountain. It might be a religious site but it’s very romantic.
Limoux also is lovely. You can stroll along the Aude river, then walk up to the central square, where you can have a drink at one of the many cafés. For an excellent meal, go to Tantine et Tonton (it means Aunt and Uncle).
From January to March of each year, Limoux goes crazy, with the world’s longest Carnaval. Locals dress up and hold parades. One more reason to visit during the off-season. The festivities are on weekends, though.
All around Limoux are little circular villages—those of the restored bell towers. They are very picturesque and not touristy at all (except when hosting Toques et Clochers). You can wander from one to the next (by car—too far by foot): Digne d’Aval, Digne d’Amont, Loupia, Donazac, Alaigne, Bellegarde-du-Razès, Caihau, Caillavel…there are more, you’d need days.
The Domaine Gayda, one of the standout restaurants in the region, with its own organic wines, is next to another of these villages, Brugairolles. The scenery is just gorgeous, so it’s nice to have a reason to wander about in it, and an extraordinary meal at the end is the perfect prize.
Day 6: More Medieval
There are tons of other things to do around here—from white-water rafting to mountain biking to skiing (yes, in winter, you can ski for the day and come back to Carcassonne in time for dinner) to spelunking. A sporty itinerary is in the works. For some, working up a sweat is romantic. Others, though, prefer a pretty view.
The village of Minerve is a little gem—it has just 120 inhabitants and is classified as one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France. Its streets are too small for cars. Because it’s so pretty, it attracts visitors, who want to be fed, and you will find no shortage of restaurant with jaw-dropping views. Wander down to the Cesse river, whose force carved the gorge where Minerve is perched, and check out the catapult.
While you’re in the area, check out two important things: la curiosité de Lauriole (a road that descends but looks like it’s rising—take a water bottle or something that rolls and test it out); and wine.Among the surrounding wine regions, Minervois la Livinière is the best, and you will go right through it when you travel between Carcassonne and Minerve, which obviously gave its name to Minervois. Château Massamier la Mignarde’s Domus Maximus was chosen best wine in the world in 2005 in an international competition. It’s a gorgeous place: the cave is amazing, and so are the grounds. Not to mention the wine. If you want to take home some French wine, get some of this.
In all honesty, you can pick any Minervois la Livinière with your eyes closed and it will be good. We also love Château de Gourgazaud and Domaine Borie de Maurel. Just have a designated driver or spit, because the gendarmes don’t mess around.Before you reach Carcassonne, you’ll see Caunes-Minervois. Don’t miss it! It’s such a pretty village, also with very good wine (Château Villerambert Julien, which is worth a visit, just outside the village). Visit the abbey, and, if you’re adventurous, the marble quarry and the chapel of Notre Dame du Cros, an extraordinarily peaceful spot at the bottom of some sheer cliffs that attract rock climbers.Once a month, from September to June, there are jazz concerts in the wine cave of the abbey. Talk about ambience and acoustics.
Caunes also has more restaurants than its size would warrant, and they’re good ones. Or maybe you want to be sure to try the regional specialty—cassoulet. For that, go to the Château Saint Martin, in the suburb/village of Montlegun (about 10 minutes away by car). Gorgeous setting, and the chef, Jean-Claude Rodriguez, is a member of the Universal Academy of Cassoulet.
Day 7: Another Market
Place Carnot, the heart of the Bastide of Carcassonne, bustles on Saturdays with the market (it’s smaller on Tuesdays and Thursdays). It is more than food—it is social. The cafés lining the market are buzzing with people; many bises (cheek kisses) are exchanged. Admire the fresh produce, sample cheeses and saucisson, and if you speak French eavesdrop on the conversations (often about food, something that warms my heart and entertains me to no end). For romantics, note how many of the couples, of all ages, are sweetly holding hands as they shop. I’m sure the older ones—and there are quite a few—would have stories to tell about true love.
Stop by the master pâtissier, Rémi Touja, to pick up some amazing desserts for a snack later in the afternoon (un goûter or petit quatre-heures–a little snack around 4 p.m., observed even by adults).Keep the market mood by having lunch at the Bistrot d’Alice, just off the market square. It’s extremely popular, so reserve well ahead. It’s what you would imagine when someone says “bistro.” If it’s full, try le Bistro d’Augustin, very old school and grand, with Caunes marble all over.In the afternoon, take a stroll along the Canal du Midi, or rent bikes (across from the train station)—the flat path is perfect. In summer there also are boat rides on the canal. It’s wonderful—no cars, and it quickly veers into rural territory. What is more romantic than a bike ride in the French countryside?For dinner, there are many choices: la Table de la Bastide (modern fresh French), le 104 (vegetarian), or au Lard et Cochon (“Lard and Pig”—not vegetarian)….
This just scratches the surface of possibilities. The love birds we’ve hosted have told us they spend a good deal of time just hanging out in the apartments, because they’re so beautiful and romantic. All the better!
France, and especially this region of France profonde, has no shortage of adorable villages. A while ago, I took a detour home to stop and gawk in Rustiques, home to a whopping 513 residents about nine kilometers (5.5 miles) from Carcassonne. Surrounded by vineyards and pine forests, it lives up to its name, and, amazingly, it’s supposed to be the only community in France to have such an obvious name.Rustiques dates back to about 100 B.C., when the Volques Tectosages, a Gallic tribe, settled in the forest. Then the Romans came through and possibly gave it its name, from villa rustica. Around 700 A.D., the Visigoths arrived, then the Sarrasins, then the Francs. In the 1400s, the growing lawlessness of roving bandits prompted locals to band together in a walled community around the seigneur’s château, which was at the highest point. I took so many photos that I’ll do a separate post on the château, even though it was closed when I visited.
In fact, it was so quiet I barely saw a soul. Il n’y avait pas un chat–there wasn’t a cat–as the French say.
I never get tired of wandering in these little places. A sign told me the four banal, or the seigneur/lord’s oven, was down a little street in a house belonging to the lord, but I didn’t find any marker for it. I am a little obsessed with fours banals. In Rustiques, bread was baked twice a week, and for every 24 loaves, the people had to give one to the lord.
The four banal was to keep villages from burning down, but floods were as much of a problem as fire. Two streams join at the village and overflowed, sometimes disastrously. The village detoured one stream in 1912. There also was a lavoir, in use into the 1960s, and a big improvement from what came before–From 1899 to 1906, the town rented eight benches for washing laundry on the Canal du Midi in Trèbes, about a mile away. How convenient, eh? Not to mention clean…NOT.
There also was an impressive clock tower, built in 1897, so all the inhabitants, known as Rustiquois, would known the time of the republique.
So many old, old details.
The surrounding countryside was inviting in the winter sunshine. The bare vines, Mount Alaric in the distance.
Villages like this are what make Carcassonne such a great base–they’re adorable, but you can walk around them leisurely three times and not have spent a whole hour. They’re perfect for an occasional diversion.
Paris is such a treasure chest of marvels that one could spend a lifetime unpacking them and still not get to half of them. It’s why so many people who visit France never get out of the City of Light. But those folks are missing out on a completely different view of French life. To me, one needs both to understand and appreciate France.
Since most people don’t have infinite vacation time, it’s necessary to prioritize and to be efficient, while still allowing for serendipity. A strict schedule is a bad idea! But so is running back and forth needlessly.
What kind of traveler are you? Are you up for walking? How much walking? I am happy to walk for 10 hours straight but I’ve found that most of my travel companions over the years would prefer somewhat less than that. The more you walk, the more you need to know where you’re going so you don’t backtrack.
On the other hand, wandering aimlessly and enjoying the architecture, shop windows and passersby is a time-honored tradition in France, which invented a word just for that: flâner. Your schedule should include a bit of flânerie in each neighborhood; it’s how you’ll spy the perfect souvenir in a little boutique that will remind you for years of your trip: a scarf, a book, a bag, a dish, a picture. NOT an Eiffel Tower keychain or a Paris T-shirt (though, if you USE them, why not!). It’s when you’ll get the photos that capture the spirit of France—in the streets and not in a museum gallery.
Which images do you conjure up when you think of Paris? Which things do you absolutely have to see? Notre Dame? The Eiffel Tower? Sacre Coeur? Pont Neuf? The Louvre? Les Champs-Élysées? Are you interested in history? Architecture? Art? Fashion? Food? All of the above?
Break it down again. History: which periods? Roman? Medieval? Renaissance? Art: what kind? Impressionist paintings? Modern? Sculpture? Street art? Decorative arts? As wonderful as the Louvre is, it’s a pain to get through security and deal with crowds (I saw the Mona Lisa once, kind of, in a terrifying mob of people, almost all of whom held cameras over their heads to snap photos. WHY? They can see photos, without strangers’ hands and cameras, on the Internet! Why do people take photos of art anyway? Go to the gift shop and buy the post card!). Either head for less-frequented galleries or go instead to one of the smaller museums specializing in whatever’s your jam. Le Musée de Cluny is all about the Middle Ages; Arénes de Lutèce are Roman ruins. Le Musée d’Orsay has Impressionists; le Musée Marmottan has Monet; the Picasso museum has Pablo; the Rodin museum has sculpture, including the Thinker; le Centre Pompidou has modern art. Paris has no shortage of museums. Some of the smaller ones are likely to be the most memorable, because you won’t be in a crush of people. Museums like Musée Nissim de Camondo (full of fine art and furniture), Musée Jacquemart-André (15th to 18th century art) and Musée Cernuschi (Asian art) are all in former mansions around Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement; the park also is a delight for people-watching.Only you can say what interests you. Don’t feel pressured to see the Mona Lisa when what really trips your switch is Louis XVI furniture—instead head to the Louvre’s Richlieu wing, first floor, rooms 500-632 (the 600-rooms are in the Sully wing, but you will flow through to them), which display European decorative arts—fabulous palace rooms full of antiques. Or go to the Musée Nissim de Camondo. Or take a day trip to Versailles.
If you really want to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower or to the Louvre, buy your tickets in advance! This will save you a huge amount of time. In fact, in both cases, you have to select a time and date; otherwise you have to stand in line and hope there is still room. (The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, as well as Jan. 1, May 1 and Dec. 25. In addition, some of the rooms are closed on different days, so look at the schedule to be sure that you can get into the collections you want.) Louvre tickets here; Eiffel Tower tickets here.Plan your day by starting with the musts, because you might run out of time for everything on your list. Also, keep in mind the habits of other tourists: they sleep in a little, because they’re on vacation, after all. They have a leisurely breakfast at their hotel or in their rental. Then they mosey out to start sightseeing around 11. Some say, “oh, heck, it’s almost noon, no time for seeing big Sight X,” and they do some little thing before having lunch, hitting the tourist trail in force around 2 p.m. In other words, the worst time to do anything touristy is in the afternoon.I would aim for seeing the Eiffel Tower at 9 p.m. It’s open until 11:45 p.m. Make sure to get there early because even with pre-purchased tickets you have to stand in line for airport-style security. The site says it takes 2.5 hours for a visit to the top because you have to change elevators and there are lines. But you are unlikely to be in line with a lot of families with small children; even most adults are going to be at dinner then—in fact, plan your meals accordingly. (If you have kids, I would skip going up and instead go to the top of the Tour Montparnasse or the top of the Arc de Triomphe, both of which give you views of the Eiffel Tower and of the city from up high, without the long waits.)
Similarly, at the Louvre, consider getting there first thing (it opens at 9 a.m.) or go on Wednesday or Friday night, when it’s open until 9:45 p.m. In fact, the museum’s own Web site advises this. They even have an app that shows how busy the museum is. This is key if what you’re dying to see are the Egyptian mummies, whose galleries typically are a miasma of sweating humanity and no matter how much your kid is into the topic it will be a disaster that is difficult to escape from—you just have to follow the flow. Another tip: unless the weather is great, enter via the Métro station to avoid standing in the long line to the Pyramid in the courtyard.
It’s hard to say which neighborhood you’ll be in at mealtime, so the best thing to do is to pick a restaurant as you would a bottle of wine. There are telltale signs of very good or very bad, which I elaborated on here.
I’ve stayed in many places in Paris, but my favorite hotel is Hotel des Grandes Ecoles in the 5th arrondissement. It is one of the few places in Paris where you are likely to wake up to the sound of birds singing, thanks to its lush interior courtyard (in fact, you might want to ask for a courtyard room when you reserve, although it’s on a very quiet street).
According to the Earful Tower podcast (go subscribe now if you’re a francophile!), the 5th is the best district for flâner, because you can wander from the Arènes de Lutece to the Pantheon to rue Mouffetard (that market street in the Amélie movie) to the Latin Quarter around the Sorbonne. It also has the Jardin des Plantes, the Grande Mosquée (excellent tea room; I used to frequent the hammam but hear it isn’t so great any more), the Institut du Monde Arabe (beautiful architecture, interesting exhibits on art, history and culture, and great views from the rooftop café) and, my favorite thing in Paris: open air (summer only) Argentine tango dancing on Friday and Saturday nights at the Jardin Tino Rossi, right next to the Seine.
The 1st is the place for fashion, with rue Saint-Honoré lined with boutiques. Hotel Costes is a hangout for the fashion crowd and has such wonderful service. I once had a six-hour lunch with a friend there—the waiter discreetly refilled the water carafe but never were we pressured in the least to wrap it up and leave. Coco Chanel’s original boutique, at 31 rue Cambon, is just off rue Saint-Honoré. The Palais Royal courtyard is rather hidden, but you’ll recognize the iconic striped columns. The Louvre also is in the first. And nearby is Pont Neuf, leading to Île de la Cité, a charming place to explore and also home to the stained-glass wonder that is Sainte-Chapelle.
And you’re right by Notre-Dame, also on Île de la Cité. However, Notre Dame is in the 4th, the Marais, packed with interesting shops and cafés. It’s also home to the Picasso museum, among many others. My other favorite secret place in Paris is the Marais Dance Center, hidden in one of the oldest courtyards of Paris at 41 rue du Temple and dating to around 1580. You can sit at the cafe in the courtyard and look up, “Rear Window” style, at ballet in one window, salsa in another, waltz in another…Walk down the boutique-lined rue des Francs Bourgeois to Place des Vosges, where you can sit (not on the grass) and watch very chic parents with their very chic children at the small playground, while a busker sings exquisite opera aided by the acoustics of the surrounding arcades.
Montmartre is in the 18th, a bit farther from the center. From Sacre-Coeur you get great views, and the surrounding streets—except for Place du Tertre, which is unpleasantly touristy—are charming. At the tiny Square Suzanne Buisson, you might find locals in a game of pétanque; one day when I did, I watched a while, amused, and when I left they stopped playing and tipped their hats!
Montmartre is kind of off the path, and you’re likely to take the Métro (Line 12 to Abbesses or Line 2 to Anvers) and then possibly the funicular, which offers great views. You can combine it with some of the little museums near Parc Monceau, which is on Line 2 of the Métro. In fact, you could start at the Arch du Triomphe for day views, take the Métro to Monceau, then the Métro again to Anvers/Montmartre. That is, if you like views, museums and parks. But it also includes plenty of gawking in little streets around Montmartre.The Eiffel Tower is in the 7th, along with some great museums—Rodin, d’Orsay, Maillol (one of those charming little ones). It’s also home to le Bon Marché, the oldest of the grands magasins, or department stores. However, they aren’t really close together. I would wander from Musée d’Orsay to the Musée Rodin and then over to the Bon Marché and maybe on to the Jardin du Luxembourg and its little pond where kids (some of them with gray hair) sail little boats, though it’s technically in the 6th. Then I’d go back separately to the Eiffel Tower after dark.
This post has devolved into a lot of rambling. The point is to encourage you to pick your top destinations—YOURS, not some blogger’s! Or your friends’!—and to look at what else interests you nearby or on a convenient Métro line and to consider opening times and lines so you can make a plan for each day that’s both enjoyable and efficient.
How do you choose where to stay when you travel? I have some criteria to help you decide:
—Food: do you have limited interest in restaurants and prefer to eat some meals in? Or do you like room service, or the convenience of going downstairs to an excellent hotel restaurant?
Answer: please eat out in France! You can cook at home! But yes, eating out for every meal makes the pocketbook get thin and the waistline get wide.
Do you always miss the hotel breakfast hours? Then AirBnB. You have what you want for breakfast, when you want it.
Otherwise, it can be convenient to have breakfast in the hotel and then head out for the day. Breakfast at a café may cost more than the hotel—it depends on how fancy the hotel is—but going out and picking up croissants to have at your AirBnB with coffee you made yourself will definitely cost less. Plus, some hotel breakfasts consist of one croissant and half a baguette with butter and jam; maybe you want TWO croissants and no baguette! Or pain au chocolate (but call it a chocolatine down here). Or maybe you want eggs.
—Independence: do you know where you’re going? Are you OK making reservations? Can you figure things out? Can you call a cab or Uber?
If so, then you’re fine with AirBnB. As AirBnB hosts, we’re always happy to make recommendations or even call for dinner reservations for guests who ask. But we, like many hosts, aren’t at a 24-hour desk on site. If you want help—getting taxis, asking directions, getting recommendations, then hotel. Of course, there are AirBnBs where you stay in a bedroom in somebody’s home and the host is there. But that is too much sharing for me.
—Length of stay: are you traveling for a month, in which case few people can stand to eat three meals a day in a restaurant? Also, you would need to do laundry, which can be pricey at a hotel.
If yes, then AirBnB. Otherwise, if you’re in a place for a short time, either AirBnB or a hotel is fine.—Size of the traveling group: Are you traveling with family, friends or solo?
Do you have kids with you? Then AirBnB. Before it was created, we traveled to New York with our kid, who was then in a stroller. We were on a budget and stayed in a hotel where the room was only slightly larger than the bed; hotels with suites were crazy expensive. Our kid slept between us. But at that age, they go to bed at about 7 or 8 p.m., so that meant I had to go to bed at 7 or 8 p.m. There was no option to sit up and read—the room was too small. I am not the kind of parent who would wait for my kid to fall asleep and then sneak out to the lobby for a nightcap. When AirBnB started, we tried it out on another trip to New York, staying in a brownstone in Park Slope. Our kid had a separate bedroom. We could sit and have a glass of wine and read over things to do for the next day. Perfect.Traveling solo is the opposite. When I lived in Brussels, a colleague in Paris had offered his apartment on weekends when he was at his country place. I took him up on the offer a couple of times a month. I loved it. However, a few times I trekked across Paris, long after the last metro and unable to find a taxi, and I thought, nobody will know if I don’t make it, not until Monday when I don’t show up at work.
A hotel with 24-hour desk staff means someone is checking on you. Also, if you’re traveling for a long period, it’s nice to have people to chat with—usually hotel staff are very friendly and full of suggestions.
Traveling with friends or a bigger family group can go either way. It can be nice to have separate rooms to get a little alone time, which can work with a hotel or a large AirBnB. It also can be nice to have a central gathering spot–a hotel with a good lobby or the living room or kitchen of a rental apartment.—Privacy and Walter Mitty factor: Do you put the “do not disturb” tag on the door because having to put your stuff away even a minimum irks you more than the great pleasure of somebody else making your bed? If so, AirBnB.
Do you want to pretend you’re a local, to feel like you’re coming home, to get comfortable? If so, AirBnB.
I understand that someone who has never traveled abroad might opt for a tour where everything is taken care of, and if that’s what they need to go see the world, then better a tour than not traveling.
To me, travel is about immersing myself in a new place, thinking about how the people live. I love museums and architecture and am happy to walk the streets, soaking in the atmosphere of a foreign place. But I also love figuring things out, talking to locals, and pretending to be one. I used to go to tango dances in whatever city I was visiting, and they were a great way to slip into the local scene, to discover hidden venues, sometimes in unlikely suburban locations.
Much of the fun comes from getting outside your comfort zone (believe me, I was nervous walking solo into some tango clubs—I remember a basement dancehall in Madrid, a former warehouse in Amsterdam, a garden with a live band in the Olympic Village neighborhood of Rome). There are other ways to get outside your comfort zone, all completely safe. Grocery shopping can be perplexing in a foreign place, but it’s far from dangerous. The worst that can happen is you buy something and don’t like the taste. The best that can happen is you start a conversation with the grocer or another shopper and, in a combination of who knows what languages plus mime, they help you discover some great local delicacy.If you want to explore the south of France, the “other south of France” that is still authentic and not all polished and plastic, then consider Carcassonne, and do check out our rental apartments. They are the same size, each about 900+ square feet/85 square meters. L’ancienne Tannerie, in addition to a generous bedroom, has a tiny bedroom with a twin bed plus a sofabed, so it sleeps up to five people (plus it has a sauna! and a huge kitchen). La Suite Barbès has a ridiculously huge bedroom (380 square feet/35 square meters). Both have chandeliers dripping with crystals and antique furnishings and marble fireplaces and elaborate moldings and 13-foot/four meter ceilings.Lastly, if you choose AirBnB, please book one that is paying its taxes. Undeclared rentals hurt cities by depriving them of tax revenue. They hurt the legitimate hosts who do pay taxes. They hurt the hotel industry, which employs lots of people. They may hurt you, because they haven’t been inspected. AirBnB is supposed to start reporting the total rental income for listings in France, but that won’t happen until next year.
So are you Team Hotel or Team AirBnB? Or do you switch, depending on your trip?
We recently made a nice day trip to Montpellier. We usually do our “big city” shopping in Toulouse, but we decided to mix it up. It’s an extra half-hour drive, but it feels completely different than Toulouse–Montpellier lies on the Mediterranean coast, and its stately avenues are lined with palm trees.
We didn’t get outside the city center; in fact, we didn’t even explore all of the city center. So much to see! Especially since I had to stop every few steps to gasp, and then photograph, the over-the-top architectural details.
The center of Montpellier is an interesting mix of tiny streets and big squares. The center has been off-limits to cars since 2004, when Montpellier created France’s largest pedestrian-only zone–24 kilometers without traffic.
Place de la Comédie, above and in the top photo, is enormous, full of people passing through or hanging out, yet not crowded.
Small streets open up to little squares, always filled with café tables, which were always bustling.
I loved everything about this street–the turret made me stop, but then I saw it has a tiny arched window! And look at that “balcony” full of plants. And the double-extension window boxes on the left!On rue de la Loge, brass circles in the street mark the Camin Roumieu, one of the main routes to Compostella, linking Arles and Toulouse. So you have to look down, but you also have to look up!
There are other kinds of artwork as well.
Montpellier is a lovely city. I can’t compare it with Carcassonne, which is like a big village. Montpellier is much more go-go, with people walking quickly, shops full of quirky stuff and restaurants touting the latest health crazes. In Carcassonne, one sees little old retirees wearing pajamas and slippers as they walk their dogs, not very early, either.Chic shops! Arches! No cars! A ROOM OVER THE STREET! I’d love to know what’s in there and who lives there.
With temperatures here more like April than December, I’m trying to get into the Christmas mood with some photos from a visit to Brussels last year.Brussels is such a pretty city. During the six years I lived there, I didn’t appreciate it–I would hop on the Thalys fast train to Paris or show up at the airport with only a carry-on to check the bulletin board of cheap last-minute tickets. One year, I traveled 50 out of 52 weekends. It was a good way to see Europe.We’ve gone to Belgium for all but one of the past 14 Christmases, and will finally spend our first Christmas at home this year. The highlight of the Belgium holidays was always our day spent in Brussels, amid the lights and pretty architecture, so different from the rundown towns of southern Belgium that are the definition of the word triste.The center of Brussels is its famous Grand-Place (which, despite being LA Grand-Place is not la Grande-Place, a mystery I must resolve one day). The fancy houses on the Grand-Place, mostly with wood construction, were burned down in three days during a bombardment by the troops of Louis XIV in 1695. The wealthy merchants, guilds and corporations weren’t put down, however. By 1697 were rebuilding, this time using stone.
The Grand-Place became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1998, noted for the harmonious yet eclectic mix of buildings that have stayed the same for more than three centuries.
The most outstanding building is the gothic Hotel de Ville, or city hall, built in three phases–the left wing (from 1401-1421), then a nearly identical extension on the right (added from 1440-1450), and finally the top of the tower (from 1449-1455). So obviously it survived the big fire. The top photo shows most of it.Do you notice anything strange about the main entry?
Supposedly the architect became so upset about the mistake that he jumped to his death, but that seems to be urban legend, and the portail is likely off center just because the building got added onto.
The Maison du Roi, or King’s House, is directly across from the Hotel de Ville. It actually is a 19th century reconstruction of what the architects would have wanted to build at the beginning of the 16th century, replacing a building that also survived the fire and that was built in 1515. That building was falling to ruin, and the city spared no expense with the replacement, which took 22 years to build (1873-1895). Keep in mind that Belgium became a country only in 1830. At the time the King’s House was built, the king was Leopold II, the same one who colonized and pillaged the Congo. So that’s where his deep pockets came from.La Maison du Cygne, or Swan House, originally was an inn but now houses a very swanky restaurant. Very good, too.Not far from the Grand-Place are the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, three glass-roofed arcades that connect.
All around the galeries, the neighborhood is a warren of medieval “streets” that are more like cobbled footpaths. For example, l’Impasse Saint-Nicolas is one of 17 impasses, or dead-end paths, in the area that lead to buildings that are behind buildings. The entry to our apartments is a similar impasse, a former medieval street leading to an interior courtyard that used to be a tannery, and to buildings that don’t reach to the main streets.
A bit farther off, old and new sit cheek by jowl. La Tour Noire, or Black Tower, remains from the first ramparts of the city, now nearly swallowed up by a Novotel.
The above excepted, there ARE are plenty of classy buildings, dolled up for the festivities.Even the Christmas street lights are classy.Not far from the Black Tower is the Place Sainte Catherine, site of a Christmas market. It’s near the quais of the canals built in the 1500s and another in the 1800s to transport goods, since the river that the city was born next to (aren’t all cities next to rivers?), the Senne, was hard to navigate. In fact, the city covered over the river 200 years ago, since it had become mostly a sewer.
The quais now are lined with restaurants, especially those for fish and seafood.While we’re excited about having Christmas at home for the first time, we will miss getting a hit of city sparkle. Meanwhile, the gilets jaunes are the Grinches stealing Christmas. People are shopping online rather than in stores to avoid having to brave the gantlet of protesters. Already the Internet was killing stores; the outlook is decidedly unfestive.
Do you shop in stores or online? Have you been to Brussels?
This summer we had the pleasure of meeting Oliver Gee and his lovely bride, Lina Nordin Gee, when they passed through Carcassonne on their honeymoon trip around France on an adorable red scooter. They stayed in our AirBnB apartment, L’ancienne Tannerie.
Oliver is the founder of “The Earful Tower,” a podcast and blog as well as fun Instagram about France, especially Paris. The stories are excellent–in fact, when I discovered The Earful Tower, I immediately binged all the episodes and have been listening ever since. Often I go back and listen again, because there are so many great details. And plenty of puns. I can now confirm what I suspected when listening–that he has a mischievous twinkle in his eye, what the French call espiègle, quick to spot humor in a situation.
Oliver was gracious enough to submit to a little interview:
Who are you and what in the world are you doing?
I’m Oliver Gee, an Australian who has called Paris home for almost four years. Around a year ago, I quit my job as a journalist to focus on a podcast I’d been running called The Earful Tower. It’s been quite the gamble, but my goal was to make the project my full-time gig and I’m pretty much there.What are some of the biggest differences you observed between Paris and small-town/rural France?
The biggest difference I noticed was that people have more time for you outside of Paris. Paris is hectic, almost chaotic, as most big cities are. The baker doesn’t (usually) care to comment on the fact that you might be speaking French with an accent, they’ve probably heard that accent before anyway. In the countryside, there’s not a long line of people waiting for their food, drink, car to be serviced… whatever. What was really great about this for me was that it meant I had the chance to really converse with people in a day-to-day way, which is an excellent way to improve my French!
Do you find it easier to eat well outside Paris? I have been to some fantastic restaurants in Paris, but they were pricey, whereas in the middle of France profonde you can get some awesome meals and they’re cheap.
I have to say that the best meal I’ve had in France was in the middle of nowhere, in Puymirol at a two-star Michelin restaurant. It was my birthday so we splashed out while on the honeymoon trip. But the food options in Paris are so exponentially greater than in the countryside that – statistically at least – you’re more likely to find what you want in Paris than elsewhere in France. What about culture? Paris is chock-full of cultural sites and activities. Would culture-loving travellers find enough to satisfy them outside Paris?
There’s all kinds of cultural things to do around France that are very unique, and that you won’t find in the capital. We found old caves in Burgundy, very well-preserved Roman arenas in Provence, and unique museums like the tapestry from the 11th century in Bayeux, or the D-Day beach museums. Paris, of course, has a way bigger and better collection of monuments and museums – but there’s plenty for a traveller outside of the capital.
What are some things that travelers should consider doing on a trip beyond Paris? I think for a lot of people, France consists of Paris and Provence, and in Provence they go to the markets, see the lavender and visit cute villages, all of which are undeniably satisfying. But how about some other reasons to venture out? Maybe historical sites? Or jaw-dropping scenery?
France is extremely diverse. Once you’ve got Paris and Provence out of your system, explore the other sides of France that are very different from what you typically imagine when you picture France. The Alps, the vineyards, the Mediterranean coastline, Carcassonne, the picturesque island Ile de Ré, the dense forests of the national parks… The big thing I learned from this trip was just how wildly diverse France can be.
What is one famous and one obscure thing in Paris and in France profonde that travelers shouldn’t miss? Some things get derided as being touristy, but they draw tourists because they are truly amazing, so I’m thinking of the things that are worth braving the crowds. And then the hidden treasures that don’t have crowds until we ruin them by telling everybody.
In Paris, go and walk along the remnants of the Philippe Auguste wall, it’s a fascinating insight into France from 800 years ago and most people don’t know anything about it. For the more famous side of the city, you’d be mad not to take a stroll through the Marais district, down onto the islands on the Seine River, then along the river sides.
As for France, I found the tiny village of Vezelay to be really interesting, though I don’t think it’s a huge tourist destination unless you’re doing a pilgrimage. They’ve got a bone on display in the crypt of the cathedral that legend says was Mary Magdalene’s. As for a more-known option, check out Annecy in the Alps. Absolutely the most beautiful town in France, end of story.
Did you have any movie moments during your trip, where you saw or experienced France as it’s portrayed in films? I sometimes see little old men wearing berets and riding bikes, with a baguette strapped to the back—absolutely like the iconic photo, though I think several times it has been the same guy.
When I was struck down by Lyme disease and had to visit two separate doctors in two separate villages, I felt like it could have been a movie scene. They were so friendly, and just as keen to talk about our trip as to cure me. Otherwise, we met so many colourful characters that it felt like it could have been a movie in itself. Small-town mayors, dairy farmers, talkative bartenders, and scores of friendly villagers… I’d love to see the movie version of our own trip!
So, francophiles, do yourself a favor and head on over to the Earful Tower! An interview with the lovely Lina, who is a shoe designer, coming soon!
Mirepoix 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.Mondays 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.
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.
Mirepoix also has some great antique shops and brocantes.
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.
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.
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.
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).I’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.
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.
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.
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.
I really couldn’t get over the palm trees. And the bougainvillea.
I still have more photos to share of this fascinating place.