Living Marble and Other Marvels

IMG_2401You can see so much art for free in France–in all of Europe. Just walk into a church, the bigger the better, and amazing works will be in front of your nose, usually without crowds and almost always in wonderful silence. Aside from the really major attractions, like Notre Dame de Paris before the fire, you can wander in without lines. Sometimes there’s even mood music.IMG_2398You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the work for its quality. Back in the day, the Catholic church was a major benefactor of the arts. Maybe benefactor isn’t the right word–it was a major consumer/commissioner/purchaser/collector. Churches are chockfull of sculptures and paintings, and the buildings themselves are wonders of design.IMG_2363 2IMG_2366 2This is part two of my day trip to Narbonne. (Part one is here.) We’re going to explore le Cathedrale de Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur, which is part of the same cluster of buildings as the city hall/former archbishops’ palace.

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Jean de Seigneuret de Laborde (1607)

First, the name. Just and Pasteur were two Christian brothers who were martyred near Madrid around the year 304 (A.D., obviously) under the Diocletianic Persecution. The Roman Emperor Diocletian rescinded Christians’ rights and required them to make sacrifices to the Roman gods. Just and Pasteur, 12 and 9 years old, refused. There are multiple versions of their grisly deaths.

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Note the panel on the bottom left. The tomb of S. Emi Guillaume Cardinal de Briçonnet, archbishop of Narbonne from 1507 to 1514.

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The red stripe is a keep-out ribbon.

Pope Clément IV (born Gui Foucois but known as Guy le Gros–Fat Guy) decided in 1268 to build a fancy new cathedral in Narbonne, where he had previously been archbishop. Emphasis on the word fancy. The cathedral was started in 1272 in a gothic style. Only the choir was finished, around 1330. Remember that the vicious crusade against the Cathar heretics ran through the area in 1209, from the sacking of Béziers just north of Narbonne, to the surrender of Carcassonne just to the west; Narbonne, between them, was the headquarters of the Catholic forces. The bishop of Narbonne had been fairly tolerant of the Cathars, which led to him being fired in 1211. The crusade was lucrative for the church, which grabbed the land of dispossessed lords who had been linked to the Cathars. This led to the construction of a bunch of churches in the region, including the cathedral.

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The choir. The organ is 23 meters (75 feet) tall, 12 meters (39 feet) wide and 14 meters (45 feet) above the ground. It was completed in 1741. The pews date to 1780.
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The cathedral viewed from the top of the donjon.

The cathedral and the archbishops’ palace were built like fortifications, perhaps because they abutted the city wall. In fact, finishing the cathedral would have possibly required tearing down part of the wall, which might have been a factor in it not getting finished. The other reasons it wasn’t completed were the plague and economic decline of the city.

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Big buttresses!

What they accomplished shows how ambitious the plans were. It’s still one of the tallest churches in France. But back to art.

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The tomb of Jean de Seigneuret de Laborde (1607). His gloves are in the top photo. He would have been around at the time our apartments were built. To think…
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Look at the details! The bow on his stocking. The lace of his skirt. The helmet. The folds of his boots.
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How a piece of marble became this just astounds me.

There are tapestries and paintings and frescoes.

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So, so old.

IMG_2369 2IMG_2380There’s a strong preoccupation with the afterlife. It was the cudgel raised over the the people, to keep them in line. Obey now or else you’ll be sorry later.

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Purgatory.
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Souls headed to hell (the part under the statue).
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Going to hell. You can make out commoners, bishops and kings. There was a new entrant today, in fact.
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Heaven.

In good gothic style, the exterior is studded with gargoyles, impressively expressive.IMG_2358IMG_2359IMG_2360IMG_2361IMG_2364IMG_2368 2The stained glass windows offer more tableaux. I failed to zoom in, happy to just appreciate the play of light and color.IMG_2395IMG_2370Almost every surface is decorated.IMG_2396IMG_2397Doors upon doors upon doors.IMG_2409 2The cathedral and its archbishops’ palace rise above the plain like some kind of shipwreck, or an island, even a mountain. Not discreet in the least. Bold, daring. Declaring “yeah, we’re here. What about it?”

Do you visit churches? What do you like inside?IMG_2410

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Day Trip to Narbonne

P1010958Are you a beach bum? I’m way more interested in history and culture than sun and sand, but Narbonne, on the Mediterranean coast, has both. Just half an hour’s drive from Carcassonne, Narbonne’s history has been closely linked with Carcassonne’s, but it’s even older, at least as a modern city.

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What lies beneath: a Roman road.

Around 120 B.C., the Romans showed up, forming the first Roman colony in the land of the Gauls, dubbed Narbo Martius. They built la Voie Domitienne–aka la Via Domitia, or the Domitian Way–to link Rome with the Iberian Peninsula, roughly where the A9 autoroute goes today. It was named after Cneus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a Roman general who oversaw its construction, although some called it la Voie Héraclénne, after Heracles, the strongman demigod who supposedly did the work. Eventually, the Romans built more roads, including the Via Aquitania that cut across southern France to the Atlantic, more or less along the A61 autoroute.

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I guess this beats mud.

Roman stuff is all over town, despite the fact that the Barbarians (literal Barbarians, not figurative ones) tried to destroy everything. A square still respects the outlines of the Roman forum, and a couple of columns from two centuries ago stand there.  Other bits of columns show up here and there, and of course recycling was big back in the day; some Roman rocks (we know because they’re carved) ended up in a later city wall.

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Just your typical French skyline.

It’s easier to find “new” architecture, like from the 1200s. I love a place where “old” is 2,000 years old, and “new” is just 800 years old.IMG_2355The stunner is le Palais des Archevêques (the Bishops’ Palace), which is an accretion of a couple of centuries’ of styles. Le Vieux Palais (the Old Palace) dates to the Romans in the 5th century and butts up to the cathedral; le Palais Neuf (the New Palace) is across from it, started in the 14th century as a fortress in a gothic style. It’s flanked by two towers: the 42-meter-tall donjon, built from 1295 to 1306, and the smaller Saint Martial tower. The city hall, as well as museums of art and archeology, are housed in the Bishops’ Palace since the place was renovated in 1845 by Eugène Viollet le Duc at age 24 and without an architecture degree. Viollet le Duc went on to renovate Notre Dame and la Cité of Carcassonne, among other important sites.

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The gothic town hall between its two towers.
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The donjon looking up.
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From the top of the donjon, looking down.

The Aude river passes through Narbonne passes near the palais on its way to the Mediterranean. The city has done an impressive job of making parks along it. The historic center is closed to vehicles, which is great for walking. Cafés spill out into the medieval streets. On the other side of the Aude, les Halles, or the covered market, is a pretty Belle Epoque building that bustles in the mornings only. Look for the café where former rugby stars call out orders to the nearby butcher, who throws the requested cuts of meat through the air (wrapped in paper).

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Do you see the bridge with buildings on it? LOVE.

IMG_2348You also can visit the home of Charles Trenet, the crooner from the 1930s to the 1950s, probably best known for the song “La Mer.” You probably know the cover by Frank Sinatra or Bobby Darin, translated as “Beyond the Sea.”

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A fountain with a sea theme at the base of the donjon.

Getting to the beach from Narbonne is a little tricky if you don’t have a car, in which case it’s about 10 or 15 minutes’ drive. By bike, you have to go up, then down, the Clape “mountains” (very steep hills). Plenty of folks do it, but it’s very steep, there are no shoulders, and lots of campers, which take up every bit of the lane. Also, it runs through a pine forest that smells amazing but that has fire warnings every few feet. Or you can go to Gruissan, which goes around the Clape, with a wider road. Alternatively, you can take the No. 4 bus. Personally, we prefer Gruissan.IMG_2357 2Last time I was there, we ate at le Bouchon Gourmand, on Quai Valière,  because with a name like that! Two of us had mussels, which were correct (the French sense of “correct” is good quality and quantity for the price). And one friend had something I don’t remember now but it wasn’t worth taking a photo. It was partly our own fault–we went on a Monday, when most of les Halles is closed (including the rugby restaurant with flying meat).

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Mussels served in the classic casserole
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You use the lid for the empty shells.

More Narbonne on Friday–insane details from the unfinished cathedral of Narbonne, which rises like a beached ship from the oh-so-flat plains.

Kid-Friendly Travel in France

kid menu 4As a parent, I’ve been there and done that as far as sight-seeing and eating out with kids in France. Here are some tips, mainly for eating out with kids. Restaurants seem to be the most-fraught moment in many travelers’ trips to France, what with the different customs and language barriers (especially when menus use terms that are clever but not very clear about what will be on your plate). This is a repost, because today is C.R.A.Z.Y.

It’s fairly rare to see children at fine restaurants in France. It isn’t that the French don’t love kids–they have a higher fertility rate than other developed countries (1.98 kids per woman in France, compared with 1.91 in the U.K. and 1.86 in the U.S.). and government policies around maternity leave, job protection and pay are strong (I don’t want to say “generous,” because that sounds as if it isn’t deserved, when in fact it’s earned).

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Choice of slice of ham with fries or mussels with fries. Yes, the kid’s menu has mussels.

All the same, kids and adults occupy distinct realms in France. And to have the best experience possible while traveling with kids, it’s good to know the cultural expectations (you can always flout these–it’s a free country–but you will be subject to Gallic scowls).

Dinner is late in France. Most people I know eat between 7 and 8 p.m. at home (BTW, the French use the 24-hour clock, so it would be 19h (h for heure) and 20h). But it’s rare to find a restaurant open at 7. Most start service at 8. When toddlers need 12-14 hours a night and even preteens need 9-11 hours, it’s logical that they are in bed around 8 p.m. The French deal with this by leaving the kids at home with a babysitter.

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Opens at 7 p.m.! The owners have kids, so they’re understanding.

The other challenge is the French expectation that dinner should be enjoyed slowly. It is difficult to enjoy dinner when you have a ticking time bomb of a toddler sharing your table. We would target one of the few restaurants that opens at 7, La Grande Bouffe, which suited the Carnivore just fine, as it specializes in large slabs of red meat cooked (well, quickly passed near) a wood fire right there in the dining room. We would get there the minute it opened and order quickly, lest a big table arrive and overwhelm the one-man kitchen.

Our child would sit angelically for an hour, which seemed like quite a feat for a one- or two-year-old, but after that, all bets were off. First fussing, then increasingly emphatic demands to get DOWN. However, even in family restaurants, kids don’t wander the way they do in the U.S. Restaurants do not provide crayons and special paper placements for coloring. Bring your own. Also a sippy cup, because they also don’t have plastic glasses, and you can’t enjoy your meal if you are trying to keep your kid from dropping or knocking over a glass glass. A stroller is a good option (if there’s room–some restaurants are tiny), because they can go to sleep.

There are options, such as brasseries, with wider hours. Informal family restaurants–mostly chains like Hippopotamus or Buffalo Grill–open early and have reliably OK food but do you really want to spend your meals in France in the equivalent of Applebees? (I like Applebees well enough but I wouldn’t cross the ocean to eat at one.) One Parisian restaurant that’s quite loud–in a raucous, not discotheque way–is Nos Ancêtres Les Gaulois, a medieval-style place where the servers, dressed in period costumes, stab your knife into the table. It is not gastronomic, but pretty fun, a bit like our medieval meal last summer.

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Sirop is usually grenadine mixed with water; sometimes other flavors are available. Milk is almost never an option. Pom’pote is applesauce that you suck out of a little plastic bag.

Nice restaurants in France are quiet. In the U.S., the louder the better, but that doesn’t hold here. Everybody speaks in a whisper. That means you have no cover or plausible deniability when your kid shrieks. And nicer restaurants rarely have children’s menus or high chairs (and forget about changing tables!).

If you don’t want to go downmarket to family-focused restaurants, consider nice restaurants with outdoor seating, where the ambient noise level is higher. The catch is that all the smokers want to sit outdoors, but you might be able to score a spot upwind or with nonsmokers around.

Another option is to shift your schedule and eat your “nice” meal or main meal at lunch. The expectations for calm are somewhat less strict at lunch, plus the menu usually is cheaper–double win.

If a place doesn’t have a kid’s menu, they sometimes will offer the same menu as for adults, with half portions at half the price. One of our favorite restaurants in Carcassonne, Le Clos des Framboisiers, does the half-size, half-price option. Our favorite Chinese restaurant, La Jonque, suggested a stir-fry of chicken and vegetables with rice–not on the menu, but it was a big hit with our kid.

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“Pitchou” is a term of endearment for “child” in the South of France. The menu choices are hamburger (without bun), fish or chicken breast wrapped in hame and cheese and breaded. Sides are homemade fries, vegetables or penne pasta. Dessert: two scoops of ice cream.

Some years later, our kid asked to have a birthday sleepover with two friends, with dinner at La Jonque–ALONE. So I called and reserved two tables, specifying that they should be as far apart as possible in such a small place. The chef and his wife have kids, and understood. We arrived all together, then split into opposite corners of the dining room. Another family with kids about the same age were there, and those kids stared wide-eyed with naked jealousy as ours ordered on their own and seemed to have a great time at their very own table.

If you have decided your main “nice” meal is lunch, then you can have something simple or even get takeout for dinner. This is one of the best arguments for renting an apartment, where you can feed your kids, put them to bed, then relax with a glass of wine. I am not one of the people who will put a child to sleep in a hotel room and then go down to the lounge in the lobby. But it’s no fun (been there, done that) to sit IN the hotel room in the dark while your kid sleeps for 12 straight hours. A separate bedroom lets them get the sleep they need (a tired kid is a cranky kid), while letting you look over plans for the next day or just zone out in front of the TV.

The way to hold out from noon to 8 p.m. is to adopt the French snack, called un goûter (a taste), un quatre-heures (a 4 o’clock–this one doesn’t follow the 24-hour system) or even un petit quatre-heures (a little 4 o’clock). Don’t even get me started on how un quatre-heures is masculine when heure is feminine.

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An example of the lunch menu being the same as the dinner menu but cheaper.

I have found that an essential element to good behavior in children is to use up their energy. France has great parks and playgrounds. The lovely Place des Vosges in Paris has a big playground, full of beautifully dressed kids (wearing artfully tied scarves) being watched by their chicly dressed parents. Our kid’s eagle eye would detect playgrounds from a mile away. “Maison!” I would strain to pick it out, and sure enough, on the corner of a public square otherwise filled with café tables, there was a playground with a little house on stilts and a slide coming out. Just watch out for the “Pelouse interdit”–keep off the grass–signs and stick to the actual playground.

In Paris, in the basement of the Louvre, there’s a shopping gallery, and at one end, there’s a big empty space where you can see excavations of the ancient foundations. Almost nobody goes there (“What’s this?” “Old stones.” “Cool. OK, what’s next?”). This is the perfect place for some little ones to run and scream their heads off before dinner. It’s especially good on rainy days when they can’t run and scream outside; one of the few indoor places where outdoor voices are OK. Even if you’ve been hoofing around sight-seeing, your toddler has probably been strapped into a stroller and is dying to move.

With a little planning, your kid can have fun, you can relax and people around you won’t be annoyed.

Village on the Hilltop

IMG_2280The number of adorable villages in the south of France is nearly infinite. Each is unique, boasting something special–a château or some historic artifact, a location that offers spectacular views, a quirky market–yet they are all, if not alike, then from the same family, with narrow streets that wind between ancient stone houses, built as needs arose, without planning but with a great sense of purpose, many generations ago. They were built to stand for generations, too, and despite the lack of advanced engineering or equipment, they have indeed survived.IMG_2317IMG_2306IMG_2297IMG_2309IMG_2305Saissac is all of those things. Château: check. Sweeping views: check. Streets too narrow (and vertical) for cars: check. Stone houses that aren’t quite plumb: check. I wanted to take some recent visitors to a ruined Cathar castle, but one that didn’t entail a long, vertiginous hike. And so we went to Saissac, which offers gentler access. Just west of Carcassonne, Saissac is in beginnings of the Black Mountains, enough above the plain that sprawls between the Black Mountains and the Pyrénées that you can take in vast vistas. At one time, the castle towered over the village, but after a few ransackings the castle was ruined and the village moved up. That means you get to trundle gently down to this castle, doable even in sandals, not too far for little ones with short legs or elder ones with tired knees, doable with strollers and possibly wheelchairs, though inside there are still ancient bits that require climbing and jumping. The principle of “if you get hurt it’s your own fault” applies here.IMG_2310

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Carcassonne to the left (far!) and Castelnaudary to the right (also far!). Pyrénées straight ahead, about where those clouds are stuck.

IMG_2311IMG_2287The Saissac castle was started around 900 BCE, and it was mentioned in a document in 960 in which the bishop of Toulouse gave the castle to the count of Carcassonne. It got passed around various noble families until the Revolution; it was already in ruins by then and its condition just got worse. In 1864, some bounty hunters dynamited the keep, which didn’t help matters. The village bought the castle in 1994 and started renovations, more to keep what was left from crumbling than to put anything back together.IMG_2304IMG_2321The bounty hunters weren’t wrong in their choice of target, even if they came up empty–in 1979, a treasure of 2,000 deniers, or coins, was found during some repairs. The coins dated to 1250-1270 and are on display in the castle. They’re behind glass, and my photos of them didn’t turn out. You’ll have to see for yourself!

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Talk about bedrock foundations!

IMG_2326We clambered around the ruins like wannabe Indiana Joneses, looking at details to imagine what it must have been like. Traces. A doorway, filled in. Holes peering to other rooms or cavities or something mysterious. The angled ghost of a staircase. One lower-level room had been set up to look like a medieval kitchen.IMG_2318IMG_2316These castles were never just one thing. At times, they were fortresses against invaders. They often were safe havens against the marauders that plagued Europe in the Middle Ages. At other times, they were elegant residences, and the owners added on rooms or wings. Jean de Bernuy was one of them. He bought the château in 1518 and added a living area with large windows, a couple of fireplaces and a staircase–it was the Renaissance, after all. De Bernuy was an immigrant success story: he came from Burgos, Spain, and made his fortune in the pastel business. He was so loaded that he stood security for the ransom of King Francis I, who was held hostage in Pavia in 1525. Pastel came from woad, and would be ground up and pressed into balls to use as blue dye. The balls were called coques and gave the region the name Pays de Cocagne, which means land of milk and honey. Even Carcassonne had a big textile industry, and this region just to the west made fortunes from the blue dye, especially between 1460 and 1560, when indigo from the Americas started to show up. Globalization.

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Do you see the staircase?

IMG_2310Saissac’s church also was interesting. It seems to date to 1290, after the crusade against the Cathars (1209). The Cathars and Catholics had lived side by side until the crusade, so maybe the surviving villagers wanted to show allegiance to the church after the Cathars had been exterminated. By 1568, there were other troubles–the Wars of Religion. The church was burned, the priests massacred and the village pillaged by the Huguenots. Only the castle resisted the attack. The village and church were pillaged again in 1591 by the Antoine Scipion, the duc de Joyeuse, brother of Anne (who was a male and whose name is the brand of blanquette de Limoux–the family had a castle nearby, in Couiza). Scipion had become military leader of the Catholic extremists.  Why did he attack the church, if he was after the Huguenots, and why did he do to the village the same damage the Huguenots had done? Maybe the people of little Saissac were too live-and-let-live liberal for his tastes? He was known for his brutality, for having the injured executed at Montastruc, and for killing without regard to age or sex.IMG_2300IMG_2295IMG_2294IMG_2291IMG_2292IMG_2288

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L.O.V.E. painted churches!

IMG_2289Things in Saissac eventually got better, and more additions were built onto the church in the following years until the Revolution–the church was closed in 1794, only to reopen in 1795. The back-and-forth could give a person whiplash. Somehow I suspect that the folks of Saissac, which today borders on 1,000 inhabitants, just wanted to live their lives in peace and quiet, tending their fields and animals and focusing on getting enough to eat. I’m sure everybody in Saissac has enough to eat these days, but overall in the world, very little has changed. The worries and crises haven’t evolved much.IMG_2286The village itself is cuteness personified. We passed some residents of a certain age who were outside on the sidewalk/street/their personal patio, seeking a little fresh air and breeze in the shade. We greeted them as we passed, and they seemed resigned to having outsiders traipsing through and cutting into their conversation (which was about when melons would be ripe…). There was only one other family at the château when we were there. It was a delicious luxury having the place practically to ourselves, but I imagine a lot more people come through in the summer, perhaps shooting photos of the quaint locals trying to get cool in the shade. When I lived in New York. I don’t think I ever managed to get a coffee at an outdoor table without having my photo taken by somebody, and I am not, and was not then, a beauty. I was just local color. At least then, the cameras used film and I didn’t have to worry about my mug being on the Internet. Call me old-fashioned. With facial-recognition technology, I have no intention of making it easier for anybody to find me using my face.IMG_2284I live in one of these little villages, not quite as vertiginous as Saissac, but similar insofar as it has little streets that even my itsy-bitsy Aygo can’t squeeze through. Even Google’s Street View car can’t negotiate them. They were built for wheelbarrows. The more a place is authentic, the less it’s practical. There’s another village that I absolutely must show you soon if I can organize myself to get back there; it’s just far enough that every time I think about it I also think, nah. On the one hand it’s paradise–no cars at all. It’s insanely beautiful but WTF for bringing home anything heavy? Actually, it’s so beautiful that it’s mostly gîtes and AirBnBs and B&Bs. The quaint locals might not be locals at all. Who wants to haul groceries from a car park half a mile away (come to think of it, I don’t think there’s a grocery store there). When you’re on vacation in an unspeakably cute village with lovely, delicious restaurants that have jaw-dropping views, then you don’t buy groceries, you eat out and walk home along the stone paths, not having to worry about cars, though you might have to worry a tiny bit about not getting lost, since little villages are crazy mazes but hey, they’re little. You can’t stay lost for long.

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The square tower
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The Big Tower, now home to the museum of old occupations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keys to the Castle

IMG_2265It looks as if it were a castle designed by Disney for a princess. But Carcassonne isn’t a castle. It’s a fortified city (la Cité) with a castle inside it. I’ve been to the castle many times, and recently went back with visitors. I really don’t get tired of it–there are so many details. La Cité became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997.IMG_2246IMG_1463The castle is a museum and you have to buy a ticket to get in. Only fair–I can barely keep up with maintenance of my house; I can’t imagine what this joint must require. The oldest parts date to 2,500 years ago. Ouf! Talk about built to last.

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A Roman tower in front, with a medieval tower behind. The Romans used the strip of red bricks to make sure the walls were level. 

You enter through a barbican. The castle was the last defense within the well-defended city. The city itself had a drawbridge and walls–eventually a double ring of walls, which is unique–with many barbicans. A barbican is a brilliant piece of design–a half circle, it allows the residents 180 degrees of range of attack toward the outside. If, horrors, the attackers overwhelm the residents, the residents retreat farther inside and the attackers find themselves in the half-circle of the barbican–which has transformed from defense to trap, because there’s always a spot just a little beyond the barbican from which the residents can shoot at those in its confines, like fish in a barrel.

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Barbicans, here and below, on the outer city wall.

IMG_2270 2So if attackers made it over the first drawbridge they would be stuck in the sets of double doors that would drop down to trap invaders between, with a trap door above so the residents could pour boiling water, boiling oil, stones or whatever down on them. The trapped invaders would be left to die of their injuries/starve to death or, if the invaders seemed not worth the wait, the outer door could be opened so they could flee.IMG_2243If the attackers breached this defense, they could run up the narrow lanes of la Cité. The residents would have already absconded for the castle, the final refuge. It has a barbican–a big one, separated from the castle proper by a drawbridge over a dry moat. Why a dry moat, you ask? Well, Carcassonne is on top of a hill, so it isn’t like there would be water in the moat. (Except during the filming of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” with Kevin Costner.) But the structure was useful anyway because it slowed down the attackers and kept them corralled where it was easy to shoot at them.

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A covered gallery for archers to aim at attackers, and, when not used for that, for members of the court to get around the castle.

There’s another set of double drop-down doors and then you’re in the Courtyard of Honor. Time to forget about invasions and to think more about court life.

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Fascinating mix of materials in the Cour d’Honneur.
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Through the wavy glass.

The museum shows a wonderful short film about how Eugène Viollet le Duc restored la Cité, starting in 1844, saving it from almost being torn down. How he looked for traces of what was before–where there was a window, supports for a ceiling, etc. In other words, what you see today is a restoration of what was left centuries later but not quite as it was in its heyday in the early 13th century.IMG_2247IMG_1435

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Another inner courtyard.

What do you think of historic restorations? I think it’s important to preserve the past, but you can’t bring it back. And so I like la Cité. It takes me to another time, another perspective.

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The slate roofs were/are controversial–the roofs were gone when the restoration took place, and Viollet-le-Duc was criticized for using slate instead of terra-cotta tiles.

Do you go to the tourist attractions in your town? In France, the entire country is a tourist attraction. La Cité is very popular, and in the summer, in the afternoon, it is crowded and hot and unpleasant with daytrippers who come over from the Mediterranean beaches for a few begrudging hours of culture. But even in summer, in the mornings and evenings, it’s not crowded and is so interesting. And off-season you can practically have the place to yourself, to let your imagination run wild. I love going to la Cité. After all these years, I still make discoveries.

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Fireplace mantels.

IMG_1460The little details grab me more as time goes by. Long ago when I lived in New York, I had a membership to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and would pop in once or twice a week. When you go that often, you don’t feel obliged to see everything. I spent one visit just looking at the Grecian urns–a room full of them–marveling at the stories painted on them. I also was impressed by how few people stopped to look at them, instead just passing through to more “important” things.

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A knight’s sarcophagus, just the legs–can you make out the skirt top right? The detail carved into his shoes amazed me.
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They even carved the hinge on his armor.

The museum holds quite a few things from the cathedral, especially mascarons that were too fragile to leave in the elements.IMG_2253IMG_2251IMG_1450

IMG_1451IMG_1452Check out this pillar…hard to get good exposure on the two sides, so there are two shots of the same thing.

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Human face, with lion’s claws?
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The tail…

What people did with stone is so incredible. Sculptors’ names lost to time. IMG_2252IMG_1461IMG_1444IMG_2255The other cool thing about visiting the museum is you have access to the ramparts, which offer amazing views over the “new” (1260) city and the countryside, down to the Pyrénées, if you’re lucky.

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Olive grove.

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The “new” town. Our AirBnBs are just beyond the funny tower with round windows in the center. About a 15-minute walk (10 minutes to go back because it’s downhill).
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The golden field is wheat.

IMG_1436IMG_1438 While it’s great to see Carcassonne off-season, the summer has advantages despite–or thanks to–the crowds. Tonight, I’m going to see a dance performance in the Cour d’Honneur–talk about a setting! It’s part of the Festival of Carcassonne, with concerts, theater and more, some awfully expensive but other events free. And in August, it’s all things medieval, with jousting tournaments between the walls.

For a small town, there’s never a dull moment.

 

1,000 Years Ago

IMG_2421OK, 926 years. Old. The previous post focused on the gardens at the Abbaye de Fontfroide in the south of France. This time, we’re going inside.

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The definition of n’importe quoi. But gorgeous anyway. Or maybe beautiful because it’s haphazard.

The abbey is founded in 1093. By 1145 it joins the Cistercian order, which itself starts at the Citeaux Abbey in Burgundy in 1098. Lots of monastic orders start in the 11th and 12th centuries. It was a turbulent time (when wasn’t it?) and people were searching for answers. Western Christian monasteries are based on the rules of St. Benedict of Nursia, who lived from 480 to 547, give or take. He didn’t become a saint until 1964 (two of his miracles involved avoiding being poisoned which makes me think of SNL’s Father Guido Sarducci describing a saint and saying two of the miracles were card tricks), but we’ll cut Benedict some slack because he was upset about the excesses of his time. Was it like the ’80s (not to mention Gordon Gekko…who was the villain! Not the hero!!!) the ’90s, the 2000s, the 2008 or was it–gasp–even worse?

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The refectory or dining hall. Silent except for one monk who would read scriptures. The fireplace was aded in the early 20th century and comes from the castle of the Dukes of Montmorency in Pézanas.

The monks, about 80 of them plus 250 brother converts (except around 1438, when the Black Death cut their number to around 20…can you imagine?), are committed to hard physical labor, silence and poverty. The vow of poverty is one reason why, despite the huge size of Fontfroide, the decoration is austere, though you can pick out that later parts have faces, etc., though nothing as naughty as Saint-Hilaire. Even the columns in the cloister show only plants, not faces as you would see elsewhere.IMG_2478IMG_2479You would think that the vow of poverty and dedication to hard work would make Fontfroide’s monks find common cause with the Cathars, but in fact the crusade against the Cathars is set off by the assassination of Pierre de Castelnau, a Fontfroide monk who is the papal legate, sent to negotiate with the Cathars. Even before the actual battles begin, the Cistercians fight to stamp out the Cathar beliefs, though how they do this, stuck in a remote abbey and under a vow of silence, is unclear. I guess the lay brothers could talk, being the ones to leave the abbey walls to work, but they are lay–not all-in on the religion, though in that time everybody is all-in on the religion, like it or not. It dictates every aspect of everybody’s lives down to the smallest detail, no matter who you are, like in Iran today. IMG_2423After the Cathar crusade, Fontfroide rises in prominence, thanks to Jacques Fournier, head abbot in 1311 (succeeding his uncle…nothing like a little nepotism). Fournier is named bishop of Pamiers in 1317 and is part of the Inquisition court trying Cathar holdouts (the crusade was in 1209, so they’re exacting revenge more than a century later!). He is then named bishop of Mirepoix, then is promoted to cardinal in 1327 and is elected pope in 1334. This happens during the Great Schism, or the Avignon papacy, from 1309 to 1376, when seven consecutive popes live in France, not Rome. In fact, it’s Fournier, as Pope Benedict XII, who builds the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, and he is buried in the Avignon cathedral. IMG_2474Things go downhill from there. More of the monks are nobles appointed to sinecures by the king and not very interested in monastic life. In fact, the so-called commendatory abbots suck up all the money of the abbey–and it covered 30,000 hectares between Béziers and Spain, versus 4,000 hectares today–to the extent that the real monks are probably in greater poverty than even they had signed up for. There are only seven monks left by 1594. About the same time, the non-religious monk-nobles build the fancier additions to the abbey, like the Court of Honor, built between the 16th and 17th centuries. They eat meat and chocolate (!!! a treat from newly discovered North America!) and play billiards. Can it be any worse? Sure it can–the church is one of the targets of the French Revolution in 1789, and the cushy noble-in-a-castle-that-pretends-to-be-an-abbey gig ends. The abbey is turned over to the Hospices of Narbonne in 1791. In 1833 the abbey is sold to the Saint-Aubin family, who want Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (the guy who restored la Cité of Carcassonne and Notre-Dame de Paris) to take it on. But it doesn’t work out.

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The Court of Honor. Clearly Renaissance.

IMG_2437By 1901, the last monks leave the abbey. It sits empty until 1908, when Gustave and Madeleine Fayet buy it at auction and start renovations. Gustave is a painter from a family of artists, and later adapts paintings into carpets, which are a big hit. Apparently, he also is an architect, industrialist, banker and winemaker. But to make money, it helps to already have money. Above all, he inherits an immense fortune from three generations of running barges on the Canal du Midi and transporting eau de vie–which better explain how he could afford such a project. He is so loaded that he buys another abbey as a gift for a female poet, because, hey, why not! Before buying Fontfroide, he flits around Europe and Algeria buying up art from the likes of Gauguin and Odilon Redon. In fact, he sells two Gauguins to a Russian collector in order to pay for the Fontfroide renovations in 1908, then in 1910 sells seven (!!!) works by Cézanne to fund more renovations. Meanwhile, he hosts musicians and artists, including Redon, who does a little decorating of the library while at the abbey.  I found an article that called Fayet a cultural elitist, and it was meant as a compliment. So French.

Gustave Fayet died in 1925 in Carcassonne, and his wife, Madeleine died in 1971. The Fontfroide abbey is still operated today by descendants of Gustave and Madeleine.

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Fontfroide’s cloister.

Fontfroide isn’t related to the Cloisters that are part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. That said, the museum’s four cloisters were acquired from the general vicinity of Fontfroide–the abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa not far to the south, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert just to the north, Bonnefont and Trie-en-Bigorre near Toulouse to the west. Those were bought by U.S. art dealer George Grey Barnard between 1934 and 1939, well after Fontfroide was in the Fayets’ hands.IMG_2467IMG_2455Fontfroide has two sets of interesting stained-glass windows. When Fayet bought the place, all the windows were destroyed. Traditionally, they would have been just grisaille, or gray, in keeping with the ascetic décor. In 1920, Fayet hired his buddy Réné Billa, alias Richard Burgsthal, to assemble collages from fragments of church windows in northern and eastern France that were destroyed in World War I. Very touching.IMG_2458IMG_2453IMG_2452In the church and, especially its Chappelle des Morts (Chapel of Death), which overlooked the cemetery and was built during the plague, the windows are audacious, full of vibrant colors. In the church, they depict moments from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. In the Chapel of Death, Father Kim en Joong in 2009 created contemporary abstract windows with deep reds and blues that make the dark space even more meditative. Sorry, but my photos didn’t turn out. (I have others!)IMG_2444IMG_2447

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The central courtyard. Be still, my heart!

The central courtyard, or Louis XIV courtyard, is the site of workshops, from the forge to the joinery and bakery. There’s an underground cistern that provides very cold water–Fontfroide means cold spring. IMG_2504IMG_2481IMG_2461So much to see. Big stuff and small details.IMG_2448IMG_2466IMG_2451IMG_2456IMG_2470IMG_2450IMG_2471IMG_2422Check out this drone video, which gives an idea of just how alone the abbey is in its setting.

 

Gardening for Introspection

IMG_2495In a place that’s a thousand years old, gardens that date to the 1500s are relatively modern. Or are they timeless? Certainly they are a place without time, where the minutes seem to stop ticking by, replaced by the rhythmic crunch of one’s footsteps on gravel or dry leaves.IMG_2473I haven’t been to the Abbaye de Fontfroide (Coldspring Abbey) for years, and the previous time was with my mother-in-law, who wasn’t up for any climbing or hiking. With that in mind, on a recent return I stupidly wore sandals, remembering the abbey as a classy kind of place. What a mistake. We took the “short,” 45-minute walk through the surrounding countryside (there’s a shorter climb to the hilltop cross, but it also takes 45 minutes, and then there’s a longer trail through the abbey’s vineyards). The path was mostly flat, but rocky and uneven, and my feet slid around in my sandals. I was so focused on trying not to break them and wind up barefoot far from the car that I didn’t really get into the moment. There are few things I love more than a hike in the garrigue, but usually I get the footwear right.IMG_2430IMG_2432We were alone on the trail but the breeze carried the chatter of those who had climbed to the cross was carried across the valley until we rounded the hill and heard nothing but birds. This landscape must be nearly the same as when the abbey was founded in 1093.

The abbey sits in the heart of a nature reserve, and in the windy dry summers, when wild fires can rampage through, the hiking trails are sometimes closed. In fact, a fire destroyed 2,000 hectares around the abbey in 1986. Smoking is forbidden on the paths–get that! In France! But fires are serious business around here. They also don’t allow dogs–there are kennels for them at the entrance. IMG_2434IMG_2433 Even after culling photos, I have too many for one post, so the abbey itself will come next time. It’s different from the Abbaye de Saint-Hilaire, yet similar. You’ll see.IMG_2420This post will be about the outside. The abbey has a hectare of terraced gardens that were created in the 16th century and a rose garden with nearly 2,500 rose bushes, including a variety of rose named for the abbey.IMG_2496Each garden is different. In the cloister, wisteria–no longer blooming–climb the walls. The central fountain is framed by classic parterres. Two basins are for the “mandatum,” or ritual washing of the monks’ feet every Saturday.

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In the foreground on the left is a basin.

IMG_2475The cloister provided a covered passageway between the church and the kitchen, refectory and scriptorium, a place to walk, meditate and read. Think of the luxury of that–reading. It’s relatively recently that almost everybody learns to read. Back in the day, it was reserved for elites. IMG_2463IMG_2468The rose garden had been planted with roses and with wild flowering plants over the former cemetery of the monks. Since 2008, the abbey has stopped using any chemical treatments in the gardens. I would love to know what they do because my roses are being gobbled up by something. We saw compost bins and insect hotels discreetly tucked into corners of the different gardens.IMG_2493IMG_2502IMG_2488I didn’t capture as many photos of the terraced “Italian” gardens. They climb the hill that the abbey hugs, offering sweeping views, almost like going up in a glass elevator. The terraces feel like individual rooms–in fact, they were created as refuges for introspection. The first terraces were designed by Constance de Frégose, whose son would become the head abbot. Over the centuries, more were added. As one does over the centuries.IMG_2514IMG_2507IMG_2505IMG_2511Do you garden? Do you enjoy it? My grandmother had a green thumb. She had an enormous vegetable garden that produced enormous zucchinis and enormous tomatoes and so many other things. Not a weed to be found. She worked on it every single morning and evening. She also had flowers everywhere. I was taken by the fragrant peonies. There were bright poppies, which might have been planted by her or by her in-laws (who lived next door…can you imagine!) to remind them of the vast red fields of poppies in the Europe they had left behind. The poppies once led to an investigation by the police, who figured out fast that this granny wasn’t running a homegrown heroin operation. She thought they were nuts, and she was right. Knowing my grandma, she would have stuffed them with baked goods.IMG_2498IMG_2499IMG_2497

I didn’t inherit the green-thumb gene. At least not the passion for it. The less garden space I have, the more I like plants. Pots lined the windowsills of my old apartments. I even planted flowers and herbs outside one apartment building, to the delight of my landlord. But now that I have a yard, it’s too much. It’s like a dessert buffet and I don’t have appetite for any more and in fact am getting woozy from a sugar buzz. Going outside, I don’t the little palm trees that are now big, the oleander that forms a wall of green and that now is covered with pale and dark pink flowers. All I see are weeds. More work to be done. No matter how much you weed, you still need to weed. You also still need to clean the house, which gets dirty again before you’ve even finished. Where is the time for meditation and contemplation and introspection? IMG_2486IMG_2484IMG_2485I don’t mind work, in fact I enjoy work. But the Sisyphean nature of gardening (and housework) drains my soul. And we opted for low-maintenance annuals. My mom had one of those under-the-bed storage boxes full of clippings of garden ideas. Plus some other boxes and folders (Pinterest would have been a godsend for her). She would show me some of them and I’d tell her they were beautiful, but they were 40-hour-a-week gardens and was she ready to spend all her time doing just that when she had so many other interests? She would buy seedlings but then would be occupied by something else and wouldn’t plant them, and they’d shrivel up.IMG_2491IMG_2512 I like going to public gardens, especially ones like Fontfroide. I don’t need my own–a little patio or balcony would be quite enough. A place for a cup of coffee or a home-cooked meal outside in summer. Lawns are environmental disasters. It seems like the trend is shifting, with talk about ending zoning for single-family housing. The hearts of villages and cities in Europe are dense, even though lots of buildings have inner courtyards, like at our apartments in Carcassonne. The density makes it easy to walk everywhere, which helps keep people in shape. It means there’s time for other things than keeping up with pulling weeds. There’s time to stop and smell the roses.IMG_2489Gardening: Love it or hate it?

 

Abbey Secrets

IMG_2197As mentioned on Tuesday, sparkling wine originated in the south of France, specifically at the abbey of Saint-Hilaire about 15 minutes’ drive south of Carcassonne. The abbey itself is a magical place where time stops. There were only two other people there during our visit, a real opportunity to let the imagination run among the old stones that echo with the past. There are even ghost stories.IMG_9428IMG_9429IMG_2148It’s hard to pinpoint when the abbey was founded, but Charlemagne made donations in the 800s. It originally was named for Saint Saturnin, aka Saint Sernin, the first bishop of Toulouse, but in the 900s the name was changed to Saint Hilaire, after the sixth-century bishop of Carcassonne.  In the 1500s, the monks invented sparkling wine, with documentation dated 1531.

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You’re seeing it: where sparkling wine was born. This kind of aggregate is called poudingue.
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Trap doors in the ceiling for locals to give food to the monks without actually interacting. Because you know, they can’t be tainted with thoughts from the outside world.

That’s also about the time–1534–that the abbey got a lay financier.  The main abbot, Gérard de Bonnet, administered the abbey from 1509 to 1536 and had his own room lavishly decorated. The ostentatiousness was to signal to anyone who entered just how powerful he was.IMG_2174In the most private room of the already off-limits abbey, we see some wild stuff. Hard to know where to start. The historical notes in the room described the panels below as “inappropriate,” so avert your eyes if you’re more delicate than a dirty old monk.IMG_2181The part on the left has a naked woman in a bath, and a guy is slipping his hand into the water. The inscriptions are like comics bubbles, with the woman saying “what do you expect to undress?” and the man says “I was just waiting for your invitation.” The guy in the panel next to it, dressed in red, holds a pot of oil and ointment, wanting to participate in the bath scene. My goodness!IMG_2185The other eyebrow-raising panel, above, shows a guy mooning us, known as “souflacus,” or “man who farts.” I supposed that back in the day of chamber pots (which were emptied out the window onto the street below) or just going in the street, people must have been rather relaxed about bodily functions. Even the Christmas santons of Provence usually include some vulgar examples.IMG_2187The historical notes speculated the half-man, half-beast above was intended to ridicule someone, but it isn’t known who. Pre-Twitter burn! IMG_2191The woman emerging from a snail shell isn’t explained beyond a note that snails are hermaphrodites and can change their sex. Make of it what you will.IMG_2182The hand is Saint Hilaire’s, and the inscription says “Saint Hilaire blesses people.” Next to it is a falconer leaning out a window.IMG_2186The archer above is shooting at a menacing rat in the next panel, which didn’t turn out. Sorry! It has to do with the plague, which nearly wiped out the population in the 15th century.IMG_2176IMG_2183Not every panel is explained, but above you can make out a carpenter and a joiner.IMG_2175I think this might show Jeanne d’Arc.IMG_2188Monsters are on the beams across the middle of the room. Threats to those who defy authority.IMG_2189There was no explanation of this panel, which seems to show people of African origin. A similar depiction is on a coat of arms above the door. It says “fidelity and valor” on both. Anybody know?IMG_2194It resembles the coat of arms of Henri-Marie-Gaston de Bonnechose, born in 1800 and bishop of Carcassonne in 1847. The Carcassonne link makes sense, and the room was renovated in the 19th century. It was then that the ceiling, which (luckily) had been covered with panels was rediscovered and refreshed and the walls were painted with the names and coats of arms of all the the 55 abbots, along with their date of election.IMG_2177The whole place was fortified, and a village grew up around it. The bad old days, when you had to be in by dark or you could be jumped by roving bandits. IMG_9432The church itself is mostly austere, but there are interesting carved things.IMG_2160IMG_9434IMG_2157The most interesting piece is the sarcophagus of Saint Saturnin, aka Sernin, made of white marble from the Pyrénées. Saturnin/Sernin was the first bishop of Toulouse in the third century, around 250, and is pictured being arrested, martyred by being dragged by a bull, and buried.IMG_2153The sculptor, whose name isn’t known, is called the master of Cabestany and is credited with more than 100 works across Europe–as far as Spain and Italy, plus several around here (Rieux-Minervois, the Saint-Papoul abbey and the Lagrasse abbey, in addition to Saint-Hilaire).

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Under this stone, no human bones but animal remains and pieces of pottery!
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This unmarked tomb holds a mix of bones, probably of nobles, lords and monks.

Whether you like knowing where the skeletons are buried….IMG_2164…or you just like old stones, Saint-Hilaire is a trip in time. There is so much to see, all while listening to the wind whistle. If you come in summer, the wind will be drowned out by the chattering of the cicadas. Still peaceful. Probably unchanged since Saint Sernin’s era in 250. Or before.IMG_2161IMG_2163IMG_2159I highly recommend taking the back roads. The main one is very nice–the Pyrénées are smack in front of you–but the little country roads offer spectacular views.

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Do you see the snowy peaks of the Pyrénées?

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Birthplace of Bubbly

P1090410Where did champagne come from? Not from Champagne or Dom Pérignon! The first sparkling wine can be traced to the 1500s in the area around Limoux, just south of Carcassonne. It was first mentioned in a document from 1544 (the town of Limoux was ordering some!), but it was in 1531 that monks from the nearby Saint-Hilaire abbey figured out how to make sparkling wine on purpose–previously it had just been by accident and not considered a good thing, either. Dom Pérignon wasn’t even born until 1638, nearly 100 years later.

My friends who recently visited are fans of champagne, and I just had to give them a tasting of blanquette de Limoux–in fact, it was the first stop on their first full day here. We went to Sieur d’Arques in Limoux, the biggest house and sponsor of the Toques et Clochers fundraising festival I wrote about here. Sieur d’Arques was a real person, the lord of the region in the 1500s. IMG_2147We tasted the range of Premiere Bulle wines–named for being the “first bubble”–sticking to the brut, or dry, offerings rather than the sweeter ones. The traditional blanquette brut has three kinds of grapes: at least 90% Mauzac, plus Chardonnay and/or Chenin blanc. The grapes are pressed and fermented separately before being mixed and bottled. The magic is in the mix–only those grapes are allowed, and the winemaker can choose whether to add 10% Chardonnay or 10% Chenin blanc to the Mauzac, or a little of each, in some ratio that adds up to 10%. A second fermentation happens in the bottles, over nine to 18 months.

The bottles are stored on their sides until it’s time to put them into riddling racks, almost upside-down, so the sediments move to the neck of the bottles. They are turned–rémuage–then the sediment is disgorged and the bottles are topped up.IMG_2146The méthode ancestrale uses 100% Mauzac grapes. The first fermentation is in vats, then the wine is bottled at the waning moon in March for a second fermentation of only two months, to reach only 6 degrees of alcohol. I’m not a fan of ancestrale, because I find it too sweet.

Then there’s crémant, which is made from a majority of Chardonnay, mixed with another grape–Chenin, Mauzac or Pinot noir (which produces rosé). Crémant has to age for at least 12 months, and Sieur d’Arques ages its crémants for 18-30 months.

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Love the sconces.

Sieur d’Arques isn’t the only maker of blanquette de Limoux. Other large producers include Antech, Aguila, Guinot and Anne de Joyeuse. Here’s a complete list.

Blanquette de Limoux is considerably less expensive than champagne, which, coming from near Paris, became fashionable among the royal court in the 1600s and has enjoyed superior public relations ever since. In the 1600s it would have been a very long, rough journey from Limoux to Paris. Consider this your insider tip for the good stuff whose price hasn’t been jacked up by branding.IMG_2226We did have some champagne, as well, from Chanoine Frères, which is the second-oldest champagne house. It was so fancy it came with a little jacket to keep it cool. It was good, but the blanquette was just as delicious.

Have you had blanquette de Limoux or crémant de Limoux? Or are you sticking with champagne?

 

Five Days in the Other South of France

IMG_2130On Tuesday, I said goodbye to our latest visitors, a friend of many years and his sister. It was a really good visit, and they claimed they enjoyed it even more than the week they spent in Paris before coming down here. The pace is calmer, the lines are shorter to non-existent, the weather is sunnier, the food is better and there’s no shortage of things to see and do.

As usual, I made a spreadsheet. I gave it to my friends so they would know what was in store each day. It wasn’t about keeping a strict schedule; instead it was to know whether to dress for walking or visiting. For me, it was to group destinations geographically.Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 8.52.21 AMHowever, this was overly ambitious. It’s a little bit like a buffet serving only foods you like. You want to taste everything, but it isn’t possible–there’s just too much. Everything looks so conveniently close on a map, but in reality, especially on small roads in the mountains, it takes a long time to get from A to B. Happily, the driving is accompanied by jaw-dropping views, no matter where you go. So you have to pick the best options, which are sometimes just the most realistically accomplished, and really relish them. Here is what we actually accomplished:Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 9.13.41 AMWe started the days a little later than I had expected (totally fine! it’s vacation! but in case they were ready to charge off early, I had a plan), we spent more time than I had expected at each place, and some things ended up just too far to drive. Even though my friends stayed at our apartment l’Ancienne Tannerie in Carcassonne, just a short walk from la Cité, we didn’t go Carcassonne’s main attraction until Saturday afternoon, when other family obligations limited how far we could venture. It was good to have a sight to see that was so close by. We returned to la Cité on Sunday morning to see the museum and to walk around again when there were fewer people. We also didn’t go on Thursday because it was a holiday and was certainly crowded.

Toward fireplace
l’Ancienne Tannerie

We alternated restaurants and home cooking to avoid feeling overfed, but two of the meals at home were copious anyway because we had another visitor–a longtime friend of the Carnivore’s from Belgium. Luckily he spoke good English and my friends were able to get another European perspective in the dinner conversation. We cooked our greatest hits, almost all of the recipes having appeared here on the blog. The cooking portion will get its own post.

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At our favorite restaurant, le Clos des Framboisiers. This is special off-menu starter, a flan with red peppers, served on a bed of vegetables, with asparagus cream. Delicious. The very first photo is half-cooked foie gras, with a balsamic-raspberry jam, a mini-waffle, and sprouts seasoned with a raspberry vinaigrette.

If you’re staying in a home or apartment and want to eat in but you don’t have all your recipes or usual utensils, you can pick up prepared dishes at supermarket delis or at butcher shops. We got a cassoulet from the butcher with each round of visitors–just put it in the oven. Couldn’t be easier. And believe me, the local butchers make very good cassoulet. Another thing we picked up was aligot, a cheesy potato dish.

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Another starter: Sautéed scallops with an orange-curry carrot cream and a drizzle of provençale oil.

Our friends arrived at lunch time, so the first thing we did was go to eat. I had expected to have a simple sandwich at a café on the square, but they had left their hotel in Paris very early to get to the airport and hadn’t had breakfast. So we went to a little restaurant on Place Carnot, l’Artichaut (The Artichoke). One had duck, the other a macaroni dish with blue cheese and beef, and the Carnivore and I both had steak tartare.

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Another not on the menu: stuffed chicken breast on mashed potatoes, and I forgot what all was in it. OMG.

Somehow we managed to work up an appetite by evening to go to our favorite restaurant. Le Clos des Framboisiers was recommended to us shortly after we moved here and it has stayed our favorite spot ever since. The food is always interesting, never ordinary, and both the Carnivore and I (with opposite ideas about food) find offerings we like. The service is impeccable and the setting is gorgeous–it’s in an old stone farmhouse that once was on the edge of town, or even outside it. A housing development has since grown around it–you wind around the maze of streets to a cul de sac, where almost all the customers’ parked cars sport 11 license plates–each département in France has a number, and Aude, where Carcassonne is located, is 11. Even though it’s in walking distance of la Cité, it’s hard to find and has no website, so it remains a locals’ favorite, and you had better reserve. Once you pass behind the tall walls, you’re in another world. There are several rooms, each intimate yet different: One has stone walls, another overlooks the pool, another is all wood, with lots of African and other ethnic art. The diversity of the décor–which changes frequently–make each visit feel fresh. The menu changes frequently, too. We were there in March, and two months later it was different. Here is the latest:IMG_2129Plus there were a starter and a main dish that weren’t on the menu. The only thing missing is a vegetarian option, though I see they make alterations; will ask next time. The menu is prix fixe–apéritif, starter, main dish, cheese and dessert for €32 per person. I think the only reason le Clos des Framboisiers doesn’t have Michelin stars is that the décor is too relaxed. On our early visits, everything clearly came from brocantes, and no two chairs matched. Same with the cutlery. I loved it. Personality! Certainly the food warrants Michelin notice.

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Steak with a morel-port reduction.
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Duck breast with caramelized pear, perfumed with flaxseed.
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Lamb with a honey-onion jam, deglazed with balsamic vinegar.

My friends thought the restaurant and food were a surprising mix of fancy and casual. The food was delicious, as always, nothing industrial or prepackaged about it. It isn’t a chain, but a restaurant run by the chef and his wife, using locally purchased ingredients. The restaurant felt relaxed, but everybody there was wearing what might be called casual smart. It didn’t seem like a fancy place, but it was so much nicer than, say, Carraba’s or Olive Garden, yet the same price or cheaper for similar menu items, and far less than a chain like Ruth’s Chris. The portions aren’t gigantic–doggy bags are unheard-of here–but even the Carnivore is stuffed to the gills by the end of the evening.

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Brie de Meaux.
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Crottin de Chevre (goat pellet!), hiding under the toast, with honey. Classic.

Not to forget there’s a cheese interlude. Because: France.

For some reason, I don’t have photos of all the desserts. There was a lemon sorbet with vodka and pear sorbet with pear liqueur.

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Dark chocolate ganache with whipped cream.

I think we were at the table for more than three hours. It never felt long, and any time between courses was a welcome pause to prepare for the rest. Also, the conversation was fantastic. My friend and I had a lot to catch up on, picking up the thread of each other’s lives as if it hadn’t been three years since we last saw each other. I guess when you’ve known each other for more than three decades, such a gap is nothing. And his sister turned out, unsurprisingly, to be my soul sister. It was a total delight to get to know her, yet frustrating, because she wasn’t staying.

Don’t you love making those connections? Where you discover someone who has come to more or less the same point in the world, albeit by another route? The sister and I couldn’t be more different on one hand–she said her goal in life was to be a stay-at-home mom. I put off having children until it was almost too late, rebelling against the pressure to have kids and to accept second-class status in my career because the sacrifices to succeed would be incompatible with family life–for women, not for men, who had no problem having kids and working. Early on in my work life, my supervisor (we’ll call him Kent, his real name) told me that “the problem with America is women like you: white, married, educated and you refuse to have children.” Of course, the real problem is supervisors like Kent, who count the number of hours spent at work rather than the quality of the work done.

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Another special not on the menu: a raspberry mousse with dark chocolate crumble, topped by raspberry whipped cream.

The sister was not someone who sought refuge in child-rearing because everything else was too hard. I’ve met more than a few of that type, too–let the men go to work and handle the money, and the women can cook and clean and take care of the children and not worry about anything. Paternalism. If that’s what some want, fine, but don’t impose it on others. Anyway, my friend’s sister was simply passionate about children, and they are endlessly interesting, if energy-sapping. She also loves cooking, in an intellectual way, understanding how the chemistry works. She knows how to make things with her hands: not just food but also textiles. I was impressed. But where we communed was our mutual curiosity about the world. Either you see the world as a troubled, scary place to turn your back on, to shut out, wall off, keep out of your ordered, predictable existence. Or you see the world as a fascinating place, full of adventures and surprises. There are few things as satisfying as presenting such a curious person with a new experience–a painted medieval ceiling, a hidden picnic spot, a gorgeous view, a new food, new drink–and watching them discover it with the enthusiasm of a child unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.

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Outdoor dining around the pool at le Clos des Framboisiers during the summer.

Thanks to my friend and his sister for giving me that joy over the past (too few) days.