Château de Puilaurens

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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.P1010161The 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.P1010143Eventually, 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.P1010148It’s easy to see why. It’s in the middle of nowhere!

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Part of the forest was royal, set apart by a 7km stone wall, remains of which exist in parts, including stones engraved with the fleur de Lys.

P1010132P1010130Which is charming in its own way.21. JUNE 2012 - SEPTEMBRE 2012 - 287Puilaurens 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.

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The Boulzare Valley.
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The village of Lapradelle.
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The viaduct is for a rail line, originally for passengers, then for feldspar, and today, in summer, for tourists.

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.

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The zigzag path

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).P1010137P1010144P1010162

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.P1010126P1010127

If you like history, check out the post on the Châteaux de Lastours as well.

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The Quiet, Vibrant Village of Caunes

P1080886Nestled 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.P1030364It 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. P1080815P1080813296.Hotel in CaunesIn 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.312.Abbey in Caunes6The 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.  307.Abbey in Caunes5You 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.

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The crypt.
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The bell tower.

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.P1080888P1080816P1080837P1080880P1080852P1080840P1080859P1080860P1080827P1080826315.Street in Caunes316.Street in Caunes1317.Street in Caunes2

 

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.

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Renaissance windows.

P1080851P1080814The doors range from majestically imposing to extremely small. I saved most of them for another post just on doors.P1080881P1080874P1080875

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The gated door was, for a while, the entry to an underground bar called “Le Trou Dans le Mur”–the hole in the wall. I’m short and had to bend over to get through. It was very cool and it’s too bad it closed.

Near the abbey is an old lavoir, or communal laundry, which still gets used.314.Laundry in Caunes

Its location on a hill offers views across the plain that extends to the Pyrénées. Gorgeous.P1080855320.Panorama from Caunes2

And the views of the roofs are wonderful, too.P1080891

Charm is everywhere.P1080883P1080812

Though it’s not without its challenges.P1080861

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.P1080870P1080876P1080862

French Desserts: A Partial Guide

P1050820The 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. P1050819Here 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.

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Oh, baba!

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.P1080771Boudoir: 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.

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The supermarket had boxes labeled boudoir and others, like the one above, labeled biscuits à la cuillère. Fine distinctions, lost on me (ingredients looked the same; the boudoirs were a little more perfectly formed). On this box, a photo of charlotte aux framboises.

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.

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Éclairs on the right. Mocha and chocolate.

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.P1080779Financiers: 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.

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Moelleux aux abricots (apricots).

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.

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Fondant au chocolat

P1080783Langue 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.P1060657Madeleine: 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.

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Madeleines.

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.

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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.

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From left: Religieuse, Paris-Brest, strawberry éclair, Saint-Honoré

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.

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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.P1020484Saint-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.P1080319Succès: 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.

What’s your favorite? Any funny mix-ups to share?

Prehistoric Man

view 1If archaeology is your thing, a great day trip from Carcassonne is to Tautavel, for three reasons:

  1. There’s a fabulous musuem dedicated to l’Homme de Tautavel, who lived 450,000 years ago.
  2. The scenery is gorgeous.
  3. 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.

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Fire demonstration, using a special kind of fungus. Always good to know. This guide was amazing–a real comedian but full of interesting info.

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.view 2Speaking of vineyards, the region is near Fitou and has good wines. Here is a link to the local producers.

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Typical French village cuteness in the heart of Tautavel.

Poor M. Homme de Tautavel, living in a wine region before the advent of wine.

Who Needs Whole Foods?

standWhy go to an air-conditioned supermarket when you can buy most of what you need from local producers under the shade of plane trees, and stop for a coffee or apéritif with friends at a café terrace afterward?

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Prunes are plums in French.

The Saturday morning market is the high point of my week. It’s a sensory cornucopia. It’s practical. It’s social. It’s the heart of la belle vie française. It’s part of the French savoir-vivre–knowing how to live. Because making your errands enjoyable, social moments of beauty and pleasure is the way to live the good life simply.beans

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Directly from the producer to the consumer, the sign says.

Many–not all–of the stands are local producers. That means the person who grew the food is standing there selling it to you. They increasingly are going bio, or organic, but it involves lots of paperwork that some don’t want to deal with. As a friend told me when I first arrived in Carcassonne, most of the people in the region are way too cheap to use a drop more fertilizer or pesticide than they absolutely have to and will go without whenever possible. So I don’t sweat the bio label and just stick to the locals.

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Garlic!

Although I might have a list of things I need, it’s short–along the lines of don’t forget garlic. Instead, the best way to shop the market is to listen to the market. It will tell you what’s in season.

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Earlier this summer, cherries. No more.
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Apricots arrive, overlapping with cherries and still around.
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Then come peaches and nectarines (white and yellow. We like the yellow ones). They’re still tasty and plentiful, therefore it’s still summer.

The other tip is to go early, which I often am guilty of not doing. You get the best choice, it’s less crowded, and it’s important not to hurry. Take the time to assess the produce, and also to assess the protocol of each stand. Some serve you and get riled if you touch anything. These usually have lines, and cutting will bring the wrath of the regulars down upon you. Others are a jostling jungle requiring you to reach between arms and torsos to get at the pile of produce and then to get the attention of the vendor to weigh it and to pay.

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Figs. So delicate. To avoid smashing them, just buy and shove directly into mouth.
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Figues longues d’août–long August figs

First, walk around the entire market. It’s the best way to gauge what is bountiful at the moment. The vendors usually align prices, but you might see that one has particularly good-looking beans, or another has a bumper crop of zucchini for a bargain.spices bagsspices cinnamonIf you say hello and smile, and if the stand isn’t too busy, the vendor will likely start up a conversation, or join in one if you initiate. That’s where magic happens, where you get a family recipe or a really good idea for dinner or a restaurant recommendation–sometimes from the vendor but sometimes from other market-goers picking out their produce next to you. And if the vendor likes you, you’ll be rewarded with a bunch of parsley as a gift, or an extra onion, or some such.

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Goat versions of popular cheeses. Note the two-month-old tomme on the right; there are different ages, all marked.

Many stands offer samples–taste the melon, the ham, the hard sausage, the cheese. A good way to discover. It’s how I learned that ugly flat peaches are amazing.

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Charlottes. Because there are MANY kinds of strawberries, all different.
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Currants from M. Fraise
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And blueberries from Ariège

I have a rollerbag for my purchases; they’re just too heavy to carry in baskets, and the car is parked blocks away. I start at the strawberry stand, because sometimes they sell out before the market ends at noon. Being a regular has its advantages–Bernard, the vendor, will hold my strawberries for me while I do my other shopping.

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From Marseillette, a cute village near Carcassonne that had a big etang, or shallow lake. The water was drained in 1851 to reduce mosquitoes, and the land is particularly rich for farming rice and fruit.
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“Diablo” melons from Spain. I passed.

Next I try to buy the heavy stuff, like carrots and melons, that can withstand having the other produce piled on top. Then the fruit like nectarines and peaches, which are heavy but risk bruising. Then light but sturdy things like peppers or lettuce. Finally, the delicate items, with the tomatoes and then the strawberries on top. It means I ricochet around the market like a pinball, rather than circling it. Drives the Carnivore nuts.

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They taste like they’ve already been buttered.
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Still dirty. Good sign.
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Hard-to-find, ephemeral zucchini blooms.
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Sweet peas…earlier this summer.

The other thing to appreciate at the market is the variety. Half a dozen kinds of artichokes. And zucchini. And tomatoes. And eggplant. Sometimes it’s aesthetic, but often there are real taste differences, and the vendor will explain if you ask. White eggplant, I recently learned, is milder and less bitter than the dark purple kind. And don’t get me started on the differences among varieties of tomatoes. Or strawberries.peppers many kindspeppers hot

eggplant 4 kinds
Four kinds here, almost black, paler purple, striped and white! Plus another below.

eggplant japanesePrices at the French market tend to be lower than at the supermarket; the farmers’ markets I’ve been to in the U.S. have often been a lot more expensive than the local supermarkets. The market produce isn’t as uniform, and it might still sport dirt or bugs from the field, but to me those are qualities, not faults. They are proof that it was grown without a lot of chemical intervention.

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Potted and cut flowers
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Lavender and wheat bouquets
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Snails, 100 for €10, already starved for seven days in order to eliminate any toxins from their systems. Ready to cook, in other words.

When I first shopped at an outdoor market, in Africa, I learned to use my senses to pick produce. How does it feel? Firm? Soft? Unripely hard? How does it smell? The strawberry stand is smelled before it’s seen. As it should be. The best way to pick a pineapple (admittedly not grown locally) is to sniff it. I have no idea how to choose produce that’s wrapped–hidden–in plastic.

confit tomatoes
Sun-dried tomatoes
confit hibiscus
Candied hibiscus
confit kumquat
Candied kumquats

Every town and many villages have markets, and the days will be posted someplace in town (for example, signs saying no parking on X days for market). They’re always in the morning; you snooze, you lose (OK, some tourist spots have night markets. But forget about afternoon). Carcassonne’s central square, Place Carnot, has a small market on Tuesdays, a bigger one on Thursdays and the big blowout on Saturdays. It’s not just for fruits, vegetables, ham and cheese; there’s an indoor meat/cheese/fish market two blocks away, and a housewares/clothes market two blocks further. See you there.

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Ham…just as well it’s wrapped up. But tastings are available.
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Artisinal hard sausages

 

Charmingly Bookish Montolieu

IMG_4529Books, art, old buildings. In the south of France. The village of Montolieu, just 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Carcassonne, is intellectual AND adorable.IMG_4528Montolieu bills itself le village du livre (the village of books), with 17 bookstores for under 800 residents. Plus art galleries. Plus very cute cafés and restaurants. All nestled among tiny, car-free lanes and crooked stone houses. With jaw-dropping views.

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We arrived too late for lunch and too early for dinner… Note the lady sitting outside and reading at the end of the street.

Enough said. Let’s go for an afternoon stroll.P1080629

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For a little coolness, visit the basement. Everything for €2 (books).
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Local resident.

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A table in the middle of a street. Why not? Note the curtain on the door at the right (to keep out flies and mosquitos), and the clothesline along the wall. And the straightness of the walls, as witnessed by the rain spouts.

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Two-way street, barely big enough for one car.
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Public toilets, with poetry.

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A vending machine for organic vegetables. On the wall to the left of it is a pile of books. There were books sitting around everywhere.

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And finally, the views, over the Dure river. The village is in the Black Mountains, atop a hill that allowed for fortification (but was invaded by Vandals and Visigoths nonetheless). It was a stronghold of the Cathar religion, and later a center for textile manufacturing.

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Vertiginous terraced gardens overlooking….
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The Dure river.

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These folks also have a view. I wouldn’t want to have to fix those roofs.
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At the lookout point, a table with books for those who manage to take their eyes off the scenery.

I have lots more photos and will put some on Instagram, so check there, too. I’ll have to go back to visit the Manufacture Royale (royal factory, for textiles) and the book museum. A very worthy day trip from Carcassonne!P1080610

Mediterranean Waves

gruissan 1The siren song of the beach beckons every summer, and we always succumb. Even though we aren’t beach lovers. The wind, the sand in everything, the traffic, the fear of sunburn. Summer wouldn’t be summer without at least an afternoon at the seaside. I grew up on that sea of grass known as the American prairie, about as far away as you can get from any sea or ocean. I was in my 20s before I saw the ocean. Now, I live a 45-minute drive from the Mediterranean. Close enough to go on short notice and come back to sleep in my own bed. Far enough that my life in July and August isn’t ruled by the traffic jams snaking to and from the beach.gruissan 5Our strip of the Mediterranean is lined with beaches, some quite famous: Cap d’Agde, for example, is known for its naturalist (i.e., nude) beach, so much so that if you say you’re going there people assume you are going to go naked, even though there are also parts of that beach for people whose limit on undressing stops at the tiny, strategically placed triangles of cloth known as bikinis and Speedos.

That said, at almost any beach you’ll find plenty of topless sunbathers. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Nobody bats an eye. However, very few of them are young nymphs with perky breasts, so don’t get your hopes up. On a recent trip, there were two topless sunbathers nearby. They must have been in their 70s, and their breasts dangled limply on either side of their torsos. My first reaction: “Sun cancer!” (I wear a high-necked, long-sleeved rash guard myself.) My second reaction: “Elles sont bien dans leur peau.” They are good in their skin, which is a French expression for being at ease with oneself. Though in this case, it works literally as well as figuratively.gruissan 6Starting at Montpellier, you have Palavas-les-Flots, upscale and reminiscent of the beach at Barcelona, with high-rises nearby. Beach time segues seamlessly into shopping and nightlife. And eating, though that goes without saying, no matter where you are in France.gruissan 4gruissan 3Next comes Sète, followed by Cap d’Agde (the city of Agde is inland). The beach by Béziers–the city itself is inland and on a hill–is Valras-Plage. Just south, Narbonne, likewise inland, has Narbonne-Plage and Gruissan. These are equidistant from us, but we prefer Gruissan, whose beach is a little wilder, lined with little wooden cottages on stilts, vs. the concrete high-rises of Narbonne-Plage.

Onward to the south come Port-la-Nouvelle, Leucate and le Barcarès, which are even more hard-core beach vacation destinations. And then you get to Perpignan and its beaches, such as Argelès, then down to Collioure, Banyuls and Port-Vendres. Then you hit Spain.gruissan 7gruissan 2Gruissan, shown in all the photos here, suits us for many reasons besides being nearby. The road to Narbonne-Plage climbs then descends through the Clape mountains, which are G.O.R.G.E.O.U.S. But if you are behind a camper or a bike, both of which are very common, you can’t pass them until you’re practically at the beach. The road to Gruissan isn’t as pretty, but it’s flatter and has a bike lane, keeping the traffic moving. gruissan 10Gruissan has high-rises, but only around the port, which is also where most of the restaurants and shops are located. The port is a bit far to walk from the beach (a good thing, insofar as you don’t see the high-rises when you’re on the beach). As the road to the beach passes by the port, we just stop the car on the way home and have dinner. The port area is very lively and fun in its own way, but there’s a quieter, quainter option: the ancient village of Gruissan. It circles around the ruins of a hilltop medieval château (protection from pirates–before pirates of the Caribbean, there were pirates of the Mediterranean). The charming, narrow streets have several good restaurants, especially for seafood. gruissan 11gruissan 13Our modus operandi is to go to the beach around 3 or 4 p.m. Usually the folks who had arrived early have left or are leaving, making it easy to find parking and a spot to spread out by the water. We avoid the peak hours for sun exposure, as well. gruissan 14gruissan 15Our “must-have” equipment has diminished over the years. We had a windbreak that I had bought when I lived in Belgium and did a beach trip to Ostende; we were freezing, and the windbreak made it a little more bearable. On that trip, I got a sunburn–on my hands only, because otherwise I was completely covered up, shivering. Here, we don’t have to worry about being cold, but it is windy. We upgraded to one of those pup tents, which are nice for shade (the wind often makes parasols fly away), keeping gear in one spot, privacy for changing, and a bigger angle of protection from the wind. gruissan 8gruissan 9Our gear also used to include many plastic buckets and shovels and molds and balls and lifesavers and waterwings and goggles and so on. Now, it’s just sun block, hats, anti-UV rash guards and lots of water in a cooler.

Beach tips: put your phone in a zip-lock plastic bag. Take a book or magazine if you want something to look at and keep your phone safe from the sand. Put your clean change of clothes in another zippered plastic bag to keep it sand-free. A straw bag to carry everything lets the sand fall out if you shake it vigorously before putting it in the car….

Any tips to add? What do you look for in a beach?

Languedoc in Condé Nast Traveler

79.Cité le soir2If you haven’t heard enough here about why you should visit Carcassonne, check out the lovely article about our region in Condé Nast Traveler.

Titled “Why Languedoc Is Like Nowhere Else in France,” you can see it here.

The gorgeous photos are by Oddur Thorisson, whom francophile blog readers probably know as the husband of Mimi Thorisson of Manger. (Because I don’t reproduce other people’s photos without permission, the photos here are my own.)footprintThe writer visits many of our favorites, from la Cité of Carcassonne, shown at the top, to the beach at Gruissan, above, the garrigue, below, and more. The article calls Languedoc the Tuscany of France, but I think of it as the “other” south of France–more low-key and  down to earth, less fashionable and flashy than Provence.4 view to carcaThe markets overflow with succulent local produce and products that end up in delicious dinners shared among friends and family or at restaurants. And the wine!

It is a pleasure to share the local secrets with you, especially the ones about savoir-vivre–the French art of living well.

Tangentially, check out this beautiful tapestry that some dear friends gave us. We put it in la Suite Barbès. It’s two meters (six feet) wide, which gives you an idea of how big the room is.tapisserie

AirBnB Woes

mirror-and-boiserie-chimney-sideFor reasons we don’t understand, the listings for our apartments in the heart of Carcassonne were completely messed up on AirBnB. We have openings!

The apartments date to the 17th century and have 13-foot ceilings, huge marble fireplaces with gorgeous high-relief decorations above them, and huge windows. They were renovated according to strict historical preservation rules and are furnished with antiques.

bed-lights-onThe front apartment, or La Suite Barbès, sleeps two. It has a lovely kitchen, a big living room, a gigantic bedroom (375 square feet, for the bedroom alone) and the biggest shower I’ve ever been in. It also has two small balconies overlooking the street. It’s a block from the central square, on a fairly quiet street–there are cars, but it isn’t all that easy to drive by, so they pass only occasionally.

toward kitchen with carpetThe back apartment, or L’ancienne Tannerie, sleeps a maximum of five, with a double bedroom, a small single bedroom and a double sofabed in the large living room. It has a very generous country kitchen, a big shower and a sauna. It faces the flower-filled interior courtyard.

cuisine-2-toward-window-afterWe also can arrange cooking lessons or antique shopping separately.

If you don’t see the dates you want, please contact us directly at booking.carcassonne (at) gmail.com

 

 

Antique Mania in Pézenas

champagneSunday was the grand déballage–the big unwrapping, a term used in connection with antiques–in Pézenas.

Pézenas is a beautiful town in the hills of the Herault department, a bit beyond Béziers. We have been numerous times to visit its bounty of 50-some antique shops. Many are open on Sunday and offer a rare something to do for those of us who don’t have the usual obligations with extended family on that day. Twice a year, Pézenas holds a big brocante faire, with about 150 antiques dealers, who set up stalls along about a mile around the ring of the historic old city center.

shop cafe
Vintage shop in front, café-restaurant in back.
courtyard shop 2
A gate leads to a lush courtyard serving several shops, including this one and the one below.

courtyard shop 1It was a lot of fun, on many levels. We had specific things in mind to buy and tried to ignore everything else, no matter how enticing. (It is very hard to stop looking at furniture when you’ve been hunting for so long, but now there’s no more room!) Still, we couldn’t help but be distracted by pretty or quirky things from time to time.

pharma tool
A tool used by pharmacists to seal caps on bottles.
lettuce baskets
Lettuce baskets, which I recognized thanks to Corey Amaro’s blog.
sharpener
A sharpening tool with its wooden holder that would hang on a wall.
bed
Detail of a bed frame.

The top photo shows a crystal egg, called a cave à champagne. A glass or mirrored tray inside holds the champagne flutes around a hole for the bottle, which descends into ice below. The whole thing looks like it requires nerves of steel and no partaking of the champagne by the server to ensure a steady hand. We saw several, including in dark blue. Très cher.

pipe

fountainWe heard English (of both the British and North American varieties), Spanish, German, Dutch, Flemish and Italian, as well as plenty of French–with different regional accents.

phones

scalesWe didn’t find what we wanted and came away with just a framed picture. However, we completely enjoyed browsing. There were many objects, and many collections of such objects, that we rarely see at the vide-greniers, which are often the first stop on an antique’s journey to a second life.

jesusangels

shower
Plumbing with panache.

That’s what makes antiques a challenge and so satisfying–you can’t just walk into someplace or order online and get just what you want, the first try. You have to look and look, and wait and keep looking some more. You have to play a long game. Here, where vines take six years to produce grapes worthy of turning into wine but then produce for 40 or 70 years, the long game is in the DNA. Rushing to buy almost-good-enough is throwing money away. Patience and persistence make the find all the sweeter.

cellist
Along the route, all kinds of music, from jazz to classical.