French Summer Fashion Summary

IMG_3562Before the weather changes too much–and it’s very summery here today–here are the street style photos I’ve gathered over the past two months.

Some “trends” include white dresses, like the one above. Though a printed sheath dress like her friend’s, with flat sandals, is very popular as well. And note the two girls on the left with their short skirts, tucked-in tees and white tennis shoes–another look among the younger set.

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Flowing. Cotton tote bags are de rigueur, as much if not more than straw bags.
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With a print–floral or abstract (and more tote bages!).

Metallic accents are everywhere. In the top photo, the woman in white has metallic accents on her bag and sandals. The dress below has gold leaves all over it. I saw so many women in versions of this dress, some long, some very short, some, like this one, short in front and long in back. There was a woman at the market in a long, Greek goddess version of it, and she walked as regally as the dress deserved (and disappeared into the crowd before I got my phone out).

 

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Metallic sandals.

The woman was so crisp on a hot day. Slick chignon. somewhat structured straw bag, perfectly pressed dress and ramrod posture. She brings me to another trend: crisp and tailored.

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With two more trends: white pants and metallic shoes. And as soon as the temperatures drop below 85 F, bring out the scarf.
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Looking dressy in jeans. Great haircut.
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That jacket, with the collar popped! More great hair. And how about the snakeskin boots.
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Airy but structured. 
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Something you see often here: young men in starched shirts. This one is rocking the fanny pack as bandolier.
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Maybe crisp, for athleisure (black and white!), but what grabbed my eye was the way he is wearing his fanny pack as a neck bag. Daring.

While we’re on people doing their own thing, here are a few more. I admire their confidence.IMG_3239

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Sorry for the blur, but I was trying to catch up. Red gingham shirt and RED GINGHAM UMBRELLA!!! You go, guy!
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A vest/duster with Modigliani’s portrait of his lover, Jeanne Hébuterne. But it isn’t simply a print–it isn’t exactly the painting. I’m betting the wearer did a tribute. Unique. Too cool.
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Zebra with snakeskin. I love it. Also, that she wears driving gloves to steer her walker. It can’t be easy for her to walk, but here she is, navigating the market crowd, and with tons of class. Inspirational.

Color is another trend, especially red.IMG_3001

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I just can’t get on board with the visible bra. Her dress is so cute with that crisscross detail, and the peekaboo back is messed up by the bra closure.
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And metallic sandals!
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Bandana, pants, shoes in red, and cotton tote bag in a small red print that looks like a pale red from a distance. 

IMG_3005Which brings us to white pants. If the fabric is lightweight cotton or linen, they are worn loose.IMG_3582IMG_2987And if they’re denim they can be more form-fitting.IMG_3011While not a trend, per se, these women managed to look cool despite the heat. Loose dresses rule!IMG_2990IMG_3213Which looks appeal to you? Are you wearing similar styles?

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Gorgeous hair, striped shirt, but above all, that BIKE.

End of Summer

IMG_3595The nights have been crisper, wonderful for sleeping. But it’s only today that it finally feels like fall. Some much-needed rain started during the night and is supposed to continue, gently and steadily, all day. I imagine the plants in the garden straightening up, as if they’re doing the sun salutation in yoga, raising their anthropomorphic faces to the sky and greeting the raindrops

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Croissants on the balcony of our AirBnB in Carcassonne.

The wine harvest has started, but it seems subdued compared to past years. Vast stretches of vineyards have been plowed under to become fields of wheat, sunflowers and other crops. Usually the mornings at this time of year would be heralded not by the neighboring rooster but by the growl of the big vendange machines, that look like monsters from a horror film.

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Winegrowers use tiny tractors to move between the rows of vines. I love that this museum piece is a Lamborghini. It used to be driven by an ancient winegrower who was bent over in half but who worked his vineyards daily.

Another reason we’re happy for the rain is that there have been a few fires. Every year, there are fires, but these seemed especially worrisome. One brought in 12 firefighting planes. I had only ever seen two flying over, en route between the fire and Lac de Saint-Ferréol, where they refill with water.IMG_3640IMG_3612One fire grew significantly between the time I first saw the smoke and when I was heading home later. I pulled over at a rare wide spot on the road. Other cars joined me. Everybody took pictures with our phones and ended up chatting for quite a while. It’s crazy how you can connect with people sometimes.

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Early evening.
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45 minutes later.

A few crazy things I’ve noticed, which are too random to warrant a post.

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Why do you need a windshield wiper on a window that you can’t see through?
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Ha ha–connerie is stupidity/nonsense/silly antics, so it says “general stupidity.” It originally was “maçonnerie general” or general masonry.
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At a wine and food tasting: Occitan relaxation and naps. Occitan is the old language and adjective for this region, where Languedoc comes from–oc is how people in these parts said yes.

The foods at the market are changing. Soon the peaches and nectarines will turn mealy and we’ll have to give up on them. But happily there are already apples. Still lots of tomatoes and I have been given orders to make sauce. IMG_1881If I get it together, I will post a street style roundup on Friday. Until then…IMG_3499

More Minerve

IMG_3337As pretty as Minerve is, it has a dark, gruesome history. Back in June 1210, it was beseiged by the papal forces in the crusade against the Cathars. It was almost a year after the massacre at Béziers and the capitulation of Carcassonne, bigger towns about equidistant from Minerve. Refugees had fled to Minerve, which must have seemed like a safe place, nearly surrounded by sheer cliffs, the sole access by land guarded by a fortress. It was isolated, in the middle of nowhere, and so had been passed by during the original campaign.IMG_3395The leader of the crusade, Simon de Montfort, didn’t like having a refugee center around. He used Minerve’s natural defenses against it, setting up trébuchets on the opposite sides of the deep ravines that surround Minerve. He ordered Minerve to be destroyed. There’s a reconstruction of a trébuchet, dubbed Malvoisine, or Bad Neighbor, on the plateau opposite Minerve.IMG_3373 What broke the Minervois, however, was that their access to their only well was cut off and it was summer–no rain to carry them over. The residents were given a chance to convert but only three did; 140 were burned at the stake, probably in the dry riverbed of the Cesse. It was the first collective stake burning of the crusade. They weren’t tied up but marched down rue des Martyrs (Martyr Street) and had to throw themselves into the pyre.

Good thing we aren’t so barbaric anymore, eh?

Today, Minerve is the picture of calm and charm.IMG_3387IMG_3359IMG_3357The rivers must be something when they are high. Think of the force it took to carve these cliffs.IMG_3363

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The very porous local limestone.

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You can see the waves that water left in the sand.

Not far away, not very well marked, is the Curiosité de Lauriole, which I have been dying to see. I don’t have good photos of it, because it’s something you have to see in person, though there are videos online. The road looks like it’s inclining ever so slightly, but in fact it’s going downhill.

I took a ball, but it failed miserably because of the wind. Then I put my car in the middle of the road, stopped completely and let my foot off the brake, expecting to roll gently forward. Instead, I rolled gently backward. I’m all in for cheap thrills.IMG_3364Back to Minerve. I appreciate a street with an archway. I always wonder about the title to the house that goes above it. How do they deal with the street part? The notaries of France must be very creative. When we were looking for property to buy, we visited a house in a little village where access to a bedroom was via a small door–so small that even a shortie like me had to bend way down. How would you even get a mattress in there? And to get to that room you had to go through another bedroom. Crazy.

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It looks too low to walk through, eh?
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Mais non! It’s plenty high.
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View from the other side.

But the craziest part was that I realized we were above a neighboring grange. Who owned the grange? Someone else. What if they wanted to tear it down? You couldn’t have the bedroom just hanging there, suspended in the air. That place was nuts in other ways, too. I wonder who ever bought it.

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This is called the Poterne Sud, the southern gate to the town.

And we also saw a house, just next to la Cité of Carcassonne, where the bathroom was down some steps, kind of a half basement, under the neighbor’s house. I asked about it and the owners said, oh, the neighbors are nice. (My reaction: ?!?!?!?) The owners were a certain kind of French older couple you find in rustic places. They were dedicated smokers, both with voices of gravel. He wore a gold chain and pinkie ring. They loved Johnny Hallyday (the French Elvis) and had posters and “paintings” of him all over. One might have been velvet. I wonder whether they got to hear Johnny’s concert in Carcassonne–his last–just steps from their house. I think they sold before. IMG_3378We never know how close we came to having luck, do we? It’s one thing to be in the right place, but you also have to be there at the right time.IMG_3380IMG_3342IMG_3350IMG_3352

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This was ridden by a man as old as the scooter.

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Utterly Adorable Minerve

IMG_3282There are cute French villages and then there are REALLY CUTE French villages. Minerve is in the superlative category. Officially so: it’s on the list of les Plus Beaux Villages de France (the Most Beautiful French Villages). I know I just said I was a city girl, but I do love places like this.IMG_3330It has been a while since we’ve visited. Though it’s been on the to-do list for all of my recent visitors, we just never had the time for the 45-minute drive from Carcassonne. What a mistake. The drive is gorgeous. And the village…well, these photos were taken on a Sunday afternoon in August. Peak tourist. Yet you can see for yourself that Minerve was quiet. A secret. Now you know. Share wisely.IMG_3328The town is built at the confluence of the Cesse and Brian rivers. About 50 million years ago, the entire area was the bottom of a warm-water sea, as evidenced by the fossils in the limestone. The rivers carved deep gorges, which form a comma-shaped peninsula, kind of. Natural fortification. Unsurprisingly, it has been occupied since the Bronze Age.

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Aerial view.
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The work of water.

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It reminds me of Gaudí’s Casa Milà, aka la Pedrera, in Barcelona.

The Romans came along, too. The town appeared officially in writing around 873. Old. Stuff like that just boggles my mind. Obviously places fell down and were built over, but probably some of the same stones were used. And today those houses are still there, and they have Internet.IMG_3331

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The side of one street.
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Right across from the preceding photo. Traffic is not a problem in Minerve.
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What IS a problem: wise guys tossing rocks into the gorges. People hike down there. It is “Forbidden to throw rocks.” Clearly an age-old challenge.

There’s a charming bookstore and lots of artists’ shops and studios and many places to eat and drink. There are about 130 residents, down considerably from the boom years of the mid-1800s, when there were about 400. It’s clearly not an easy place to live. Imagine hauling your groceries–or worse, a new piece of furniture–down these “streets.” But vacationers provide some animation. Just enough to keep the place alive, without overrunning it. IMG_3326IMG_3316The rivers lie far below, bone dry at this time of year, but prone to flashes of rage. At least the town is high and dry.IMG_3336

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Can you imagine having to replace the tiles on that roof on the right? With a plunge I don’t know how far down but many times more than the house itself.
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Imagine how that bridge was built, before mechanical aide.

The Candela is all that remains of the viscount’s castle, which was built at the end of the 13th century. There once was a drawbridge nearby. The castle was dismantled in the 18th and 19th centuries. I wonder why.IMG_3305IMG_3298IMG_3294The church was closed, but the exterior was fascinating.IMG_3320IMG_3319

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Anything goes. N’importe quoi.

I took so many photos, I’m going to do another post. Come back for more on Friday.

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La mairie, or town hall.

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Residents of Minerve are called Minervois, which is also the name of this wine region. Very good wine!

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Country Mouse or City Mouse

IMG_3568In the south of France, people are laid back, things move slowly, we take the time to savor life, and that includes two hours (minimum) in the middle of the day for lunch and nap. It all seems idyllic, until it isn’t.

We woke up on Thursday morning with no Internet, no fixed phone service and no mobile phone service. Things were a bit like when la Cité of Carcassonne, pictured above, was built back in the Middle Ages.

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Can you see it on the hill?

It turns out that a telephone substation in another village caught on fire. This station serves 33 villages, including ours, across a surprisingly wide area. Who knows when it will be fixed. (1) It’s still August. You can’t do anything until after la rentrée (the re-entry) on Monday, Sept. 2. And even then, people are coming back from vacation and need a good week to get back into the routine. (2) The phone company, Orange, is unfamiliar with the concept of customer service. They seem to have watched Lily Tomlin’s phone operator skits as guides. I shouldn’t dump too much on Orange; I cannot think of any phone company in any city or country where I’ve lived (and the list is long) that had good service. (3) We’re in the south, and nothing moves quickly, even  when it isn’t vacation. (4) The point that irks me the most is that it just affects some little villages, and thus isn’t important.

Sometimes–often–I hate living in the country. I love France, and I love living in France. But I regret not living in a city. I am 100% city mouse.

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Zooming in a little.

I remember one time we went to Barcelona for a weekend. We stood near the corner by El Corte Ingles, the big Spanish department store worth a post of its own one day, and looked at the wide street sloping down, completely full of people. I sighed with happiness; the Carnivore sighed with stress. Some of us cannot wait to jump into la foule (the crowd) and swim with the schools of humanity. I find my heart warming as I observe my fellow humans going about their business. Some are chic, some are eccentric. Children seem to be in a bubble of their own, never paying attention to where they’re going, quick to spot other children, or animals, or disgusting things on the sidewalk (they ARE closer, after all), while their parents struggle to herd them along. I wonder where everybody is going, what their lives are like. I want to chat with them all.

I was talking to somebody just recently about moving to France. I told her we moved here from New York and that it was hard. I cried and cried for months. Her eyes grew big, and she said something about culture shock. I assured her that I’m a lifelong francophile; the culture shock wasn’t about France, but about going from a major metropolis to a village a few hundred people.

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And more. Not my idea of skyscrapers, but definitely beautiful.

The closest Carcassonne comes to bustling is la Cité on summer afternoons and the market in the central square on Saturday mornings. Even then, it’s a dialed-down version. There’s a certain convenience to life without crowds. Parking is easy. Lines for anything are rare. People are friendly.

I try to appreciate the good side. It’s essential for survival. The rolling hills of vineyards, giving way to the mountains, are exquisite. This blog has made me pay attention to all the beauty around me.

Thank you for reading. Who knows whether we will have Internet next week. Maybe I will commute to Carcassonne for a connection. We’ll see. Meanwhile, tell me, are you a city mouse or a country mouse?IMG_3565

 

Croissants

IMG_3448Of the many things to love in France, one of the most delicious yet most mundane is the croissant. It is nothing short of miraculous that a mixture as simple as flour, butter, milk and yeast and not much else can turn into complex layers of flaky crispness and chewy softness.

I have many happy croissant memories. My grandmother made a kind of croissant, which she or one of her grandchildren dubbed “piggies.” The secret ingredient, not very French, was mashed potatoes. I haven’t made piggies or croissants because I am spoiled, with delicious ones far too easily obtained at nearly any bakery. IMG_3455Perhaps luckily, our local bakery had awful croissants. The baker, a heavy drinker who sometimes was so overwhelmed by hangovers that he burned the bread and everything else, also was a chain smoker of the ancien régime, not the one in which clergy and nobility lorded it over the peasants, but the one in which smokers had the right to light up wherever they pleased, whether that be on the Métro, in a movie theater, or in a restaurant, other people’s lung be damned. Certainly a sole proprietor slaving away alone in his atelier had the right to puff at will, even after the laws changed in 2006 to forbid smoking in public places. We took our business to a nonsmoking bakery.

The baker had his retirement lined up; he found a young couple to buy out the bakery. Lo and behold, just before the couple signed on the dotted line, a young entrepreneur in the village put up a big sign on the grange he was renovating: Bakery opening soon. This space on the main road had plenty of parking, unlike the smoker-baker, who managed to get the mairie (city hall) to draw a 15-minute parking space on the street–just one. And 15 minutes would not dissuade, say, parents parking there while dropping off or picking up their kids from the school across the street–parking is scarce in the heart of old villages.

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Look at the height of that crest!

The young couple realized they would be outgunned by this new bakery and backed out of the deal. Now the baker continues to work–the bulk of his retirement was going to be the sale of his bakery, which now is worthless–but people are coming out of the woodwork to frequent the new bakery, where the bread is not only smoke-free but also delicious, and so fresh it’s usually still warm or even hot.

That reminds me of another bakery we used to go to, in a nearby village. It was on a little street barely big enough for a car to pass. No traffic, whether by car or foot. Sleepy. But it had a following. It was always packed, a jumble of people with no discernible line, but make no mistake, everybody knew whose turn it was. There was a constant buzz of conversation, plenty of it gossip, but as I didn’t live in that village I didn’t know who they were talking about so vividly. But if the gossip was anything like the other main topic, the weather, watch out. Every weather forecast I overheard at the bakery was 100% accurate.

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Holds its shape when bit; doesn’t collapse into flatness. Good distribution of bubbles.

The bakery had a pain de campagne (country bread)–a very large, deformed lump that had just the right crust on the outside–a little crunchy but nothing that would break a tooth–with a chewy inside whose bubbles were nice and even. The baker’s wife would use oven mitts to hand them out, and I would have to juggle it in my hands, like a nervous football player fiddling with a ball on the sidelines, as I walked back to my car parked way down the street where it was wider. The car windows would steam up so much so fast I’d have a hard time driving the last few feet of the five-minute trip home. The Carnivore and I would eagerly cut into the bread, butter it, with the (totally unnecessary but delicious) butter melting immediately. Sometimes we ate the entire loaf in one sitting. It cost €2.

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Speaking of butter, there’s enough to make you lick your fingers. Even the bottom is beautiful. Sometimes I see croissant nature vs. croissant au beurre. As if there’s any question! Au beurre!

Back in those days, we’d treat ourselves to croissants on Sundays. All things in moderation, pain de campagne excepted. Our kid was a baby then, and thus an early riser. Soon our kid was talking and demanding to be allowed to hold the bag of croissants for the ride home. On setting out the croissants with our coffee, we were surprised to discover all the ends had been eaten off already. Then came a period of rejecting the ends and eating only the middles. How I miss those days. Every time I see a baby, their thighs with those rings of fat, like croissants rising, almost ready to be baked, I want to gobble them up. No wonder the old fairy tales involved old ladies eating children. I read somewhere that it’s this delight in children that helps us get through years of wiping their poopy butts.

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Who wouldn’t steal a flaky tip like this? Look at all those layers. 

Sadly, that bakery closed quite a few years ago. For a while, we held our noses and went to the village smoker-baker, especially because I passed it on the school drop-off/pickup walk. Then a bakery opened in Carcassonne that was very good, with baguettes traditionelles, the old-fashioned kind, with a thicker crust and chewier sour-dough-like insides that make the regular baguettes just not worth one’s time. But sadly, that baker died, and while the guy who took it over is still better than the smoker-baker, he can’t hold a candle to our new bakery.

The consensus among our friends is that the new bakery is good to the point of being bad. “We’re going to gain weight with croissants like these!” one moaned.IMG_3457

 

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

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.

Apéritifs

P1020922L’apéritif is sacred in France. That means it comes with all kinds of rituals and even special equipment, though that’s not what counts. You can have a fine apéro, as the French like to shorten it to, with just a glass of wine. The ritual can be done by anybody.

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Filling the streets near the Saturday market.

The first and most important ingredient is people. You thought I’d say alcohol, but no. Even if you’re having a soft drink, you can enjoy apéritif hour. It’s a moment of socializing with friends, family, even strangers. The connections and conversation, regardless of whether they’re lubricated with alcohol, are what count.

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I photographed this one too early; usually the Saillan is one of the busiest cafés

Around here, there are two times for apéritifs: the typical one, around 6 p.m., for before-dinner drinks. And similarly around 11 a.m., for before-lunch drinks. I find that to guarantee an unproductive afternoon, so instead I raise a cup of coffee to toast friends I bump into at the Saturday market.

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Beer: Breakfast of champions? A daring place to place a glass, on a bollard barely big enough.

Indeed, the cafés around the market buzz with activity, and many of the coffee cups get replaced by stemmed glasses of wine as noon approaches. Cafés put tables (chairs optional) or wine barrels into the streets that are closed for the market. It’s a big party, and some are so packed, despite the extra street space, that you can barely wiggle past. Feel free to strike up conversation with anybody. It’s all friendly, especially at noon.

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Preparing for a crowd.

A few set up tables serving appetizers, called zakouskis. Zakouskis are part of the ritual. Don’t drink on an empty stomach! Olives and nuts are popular. Pretzels, chips, all that jazz. Charcuterie, or hard sausages, though cheese usually is reserved for after dinner except for little cubes, sprinkled with herbs or celery salt. Also smaller nibbles, which can be elaborate, like tapas, or even become a meal, in which case it’s an apéritif dînatoire.

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Plenty of choice in the olive department, and this isn’t even everything.

For drinks, you have the standards: wine (red, white and rosé), sparkling wine, white wine or sparkling wine with a dash of cassis liqueur for a kir or kir royale (if sparkling), the apéro of Dijon.

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Best served cold, under a palm tree.

Around here, anise-flavored pastis is popular, called un jaune–a yellow–because the clear, golden pastis oxidizes and becomes a cloudy yellow when ice and water are added. It’s a drink with lots of equipment–special glasses with a line showing how far to pour the pastis; water pitchers and ice buckets. The Ricard brand is so popular that many people just ask for a Ricard, if they don’t say “p’tit jaune.”

 

 

Among cocktails, le petit ponch, also shortened to ti-ponch, has rum, lime and cane syrup with origins in France’s tropical colonies.P1030304

Oysters are also popular, with a glass of white wine. Not so much in summer….

Apéritif comes from the Latin word aperire, to open. They had a medicinal origin, with the concoctions of herbs for laxative effect, cited in the 13th century. (See some here.) But in modern times (since the mid-1700s), an apéritif is intended to open your stomach, to make you hungry.

Will you be raising a glass with friends this weekend?

Merle, the Singer

P1070411The opening act is the rooster, starting so far before dawn that the sky, while not black, is  navy blue, a velvety background to the dazzling morning stars. Then comes Merle, who often perches on the neighbor’s television antenna. At this hour, he seems not so much to sing as to deliver either a monologue or newscast. Merle is a merle, a blackbird, and I’ve gotten to know him well over the past couple of years.

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Same branch as above, months earlier.

Merle is gregarious, even with our neighbor, whose big heart finds room for any stray and who currently has six or seven cats and twin bulldogs, named Hermione and Hubert. Merle also sings to the neighbor, who looks like Catherine Deneuve did 15 years ago, so I get a bit jealous, but she admitted she leaves him food. But so do I! With no cats to dodge!

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Not Merle, but other residents.
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Keeping an eye on me.

Merle does spend a lot of time with me. He hops around in the grass, always about six feet away, while I hang laundry on the line. If I turn around or step toward him, he skitters into the bushes, as if I can’t see the fat black bird behind the leaves, especially since he makes a ruckus in the mulch. Merle, get your act together, or the cats will get you!

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Bird? What bird?

When we dine in the pergola, he comes to a branch just above it, violating his six-foot rule, serenading our dinner. At sunset, he perches on the peak of the roof and sings his lungs out. Sometimes it’s a complex aria, full of emotional highs and lows. Operatic. Sometimes it sounds more like speech.

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A different visitor. Gorgeous.

I keep reading about how smart so many animals are. Elephants for sure. Dolphins. Octopus. I heard an interview with a scientist about how even plants may communicate. Just because we can’t decipher it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. P1070351

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Speaking of smart, let’s hear it for the bees.

While filling a watering can, I watched a procession of ants along a wall. Traffic was heavy in on direction, the ants staying in line as if on a highway whose stripes I couldn’t see. Occasional ants made the return trip, and they bumped heads with every single ant they passed. Obviously they were communicating something. Yes, scientists will throw pheromones at you, but I think reduces what they do to something biological and not intellectual.

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Teamwork to haul off a naan fleck.

The other day, my kid made naan. Best eaten hot, so we left cleanup for after dinner. Ants beat us to it. I was fascinated. Several ants cooperate to haul away a fleck of dough. They tugged one way, then one would go around to the other side to help there. Maybe they use pheromones, but they aren’t stupidly sniffing (actually they don’t smell; their antennas pick up the chemical) and following.

Imagine ants looking at a computer and saying, “Humans use this to communicate, but it’s all ones and zeroes. Can’t be very important.”

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What are they saying?

Scientists also think trees talk (a different one here). They not only communicate but share nutrients and water and protect their young. One interview I heard hypothesized that other living beings are on different time scales and different frequencies that we just can’t detect. A tree might live hundreds of years, and the communication might be so stretched out that we observe nothing. A fly lives months, and might be so fast that we detect nothing.

 

We are so human-centered that we don’t pay any attention to anything else. We tear up forests for agriculture, and tear up agriculture for houses and shopping centers. More and more and more consumption, most of which we don’t even consume; it goes through our hands momentarily before moving to a landfill.

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Saturday morning.

And when ants or bees or other bugs bother us, we annihilate them with chemicals. My thinking on this has changed drastically in the past few years. Maybe I was late to the game. But it seems we have a long way to go.

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A bee casualty among the fallen acacia blooms. Why do so many of them die?

That said, please, ants, stay out of the kitchen.