The ancient hearts of French towns hold surprises on their narrow, rarely straight streets. Among all these pretty, old towns, Pézenas, in the Hérault department in southern France, is exceptionally lovely.Read more
French Style Fails
Not everything is exquisite good taste over here in the land of butter and croissants. We have soul-less subdivisions with idiotic names and no trees. We have strip malls and mall-malls (though definitely inferior….watching “Stranger Things” made me nostalgic for the mall as social center; though our centre-villes are better than most downtowns). Instead of velvet Elvises, there are velvet Johnny Hallydays.
Worst of all, we have McMansions. There is a wonderful blog, McMansion Hell, which dissects all that is wrong about the genre.
Tear-downs are a new phenomenon. Many a gorgeous château is the result of hundreds of years of additions and renovations. The mixed styles create an endearing eccentricity about these rambling stone heaps with willy-nilly towers. It is quite a different thing to start with a blank slate and do a wide-ranging pastiche all at once. It’s the architectural equivalent of canned laughter, silicone boobs, Viagra. Fake, fake fake.
I also have to say that I have seen more than my share of hideous interior décor. These people clearly are not reading the plentiful blogs about French style. In fact, they have rejected French style for something amorphously modern, but not TOO modern, for goodness sake. Instead, it’s a bastard of modern (aka 1970s/1980s) with the contemporaneous interpretation of traditional. The result is furniture that is both ugly and uncomfortable, a simultaneous assault to the eyes and to the spine.
Take, for example, the home of a couple we know. Her: extremely short hair because it’s less work; had Groucho Marx eyebrows until her daughter’s wedding when they were plucked and she is thank goodness keeping up with that; explained, the first time we met almost 20 years ago, that they had “just” stripped the wallpaper (and neither new wallpaper nor paint was ever put up). She’s all about efficiency not aesthetics, function over form. Him: cocky; retired from a sinecure but likes to brag about his business acumen, which consists of inheriting money from his father-in-law; always on the lookout for a fight (of the fist variety, not the sharp words kind); brags about having finagled great deals, through under-the-table clever negotiations, but always pays way too much. Sound like anybody you can think of?
They bought a house for retirement that was twice as big as the house they had raised a family in. It’s in a subdivision outside of town, where one must take a car to get anything. Not a single shop. It’s near where a big forest fire ravaged the pines last month. Where houses don’t belong.
This house, which was a “great” bargain, has some peculiarities. There’s a three-centimeter (2-inch) step just after you enter, swinging in a half-circle along with the front door. That’s because the builders miscalculated the interior floor. (First tip that this is a bad house!!!!) The steps to the second floor have risers that are about 30 centimeters (12 inches). I found it hard to climb them, and I’m pretty fit. Yet, even though I’m very short, I had to duck not to hit my head going up/down because the stairwell was too small.
But hey, the house is HUGE.
They also bought it furnished, so I can blame multiple people for bad taste–the couple for thinking it was just fine and the original owners for having committed such furniture felonies in the first place. In the living area (open plan kitchen/dining/living), there’s a sofa and matching love seat, both with legs so high none of us could sit back and also have our feet on the floor. In pleather.
The dining table has a similar design, with those big-based chairs/seats that you can’t scoot in once you sit and that are also too high to touch the floor. Maybe the original owners were giants? The current owners aren’t–he’s moderate height and she is even shorter than I am.
This is just one example, because I sometimes think everybody here has bought furniture from the same place. You can get antiques practically for free, and yet people go to big-box stores in a “zoning commercial” (how do I even describe that….it’s a part of town that’s full of strip malls and big-box stores….pure hell) and they choose the absolutely ugliest options available. I love antiques but I also love modern–le Corbusier, lots of Ligne Roset. It isn’t to judge modern vs. antiques. I guess the stuff I see is a downscale version. But why? Ikea does a good job of modern for cheap. Heck, I am a total cheapskate. But that’s why I love antiques. Plus the quality. You can’t beat it–solid wood, hand craftsmanship, no off-gassing.
Anyway, I would not photograph examples of bad taste in people’s homes even though they don’t read the blog. And this post is more about homes as buildings, rather than their interior design. Usually I show you places that are achingly beautiful, worthy of being on postcards or calendars. Yes, there is much to celebrate in French taste, but not everybody has gotten the memo.
I love it all the same.
Surely you have McMansion horror stories to share. Unload them!
1,000 Years Ago
OK, 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.
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?
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.You 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. After 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. Things 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.
By 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.
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.Fontfroide 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.In 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!)
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. So much to see. Big stuff and small details.Check out this drone video, which gives an idea of just how alone the abbey is in its setting.
I am still collecting French fashion photos, especially couples and men. So many chic people out and about! But today is crazy busy so I’m going to share my penchant for all the fancy carved details that let you know you’re in France.
What are your favorite decorations? Faces? Lions? Really old dates? Coats of arms?
Day Trip to Toulouse
Toulouse, the pink city of the south. Pink because of the pale red bricks that dominate the architecture. A friend and I decided to brave the gilets jaunes in order to get a needed breath of city air. The city air has much improved since Toulouse limited so much of the center to pedestrians only. What a joy to stroll around. No crowding on the sidewalks. There’s plenty of room for those who want to stop and look in the windows and those who are in a hurry to get somewhere. It’s perfect for flâner, that quintessentially French term for strolling leisurely in town, certainly with some lèche-vitrine (literally translated as licking the windows–window shopping) along the way.The car-free streets have led to an explosion of bicycles. Perfect.So much prettiness everywhere. And since we weren’t really interested in shopping, our eyes paid more attention to the architecture. Quite a mix.Do you see the old tower? And the half-timbered building?A steeple perfectly framed by the narrow streets. (Note the rental bike dock.)Then there are more modern touches. Haussmann’s influence is felt down here, though the old lanes weren’t eliminated in favor of grand boulevards. There are some boulevards, to be sure, but they follow the traces of the ancient ramparts. Plenty of Belle Epoque buildings.I’m so glad the little lanes survived. Like the Marais in Paris, but without the crowds. Some of the main shopping streets were noir du monde–full of people–but they never felt like a crush of humanity. And on the little side streets, we got to eavesdrop on conversations. A group of young men, I’d say in their 20s, were in a lively discussion about cheese. You would have thought they were going over a controversial call in a sports match. For several blocks, they walked just behind us, talking excitedly, while my friend and I listened and exchanged smiles. Only in France. We saw groups of gendarmes at nearly every intersection and square. Near the building below, we bumbled onto the assembly point for the gilets jaunes, and passed a bunch of people in T-shirts with DIY labels of “medical volunteer.” They had spritzer bottles tucked into the straps of their backpacks. I didn’t want to be around for when those would be needed.We managed to avoid any action. Anyway, the timing of things here works to one’s advantage. Nothing, but nothing is going to happen anywhere until after lunch, which ends at 2 p.m. Talk about sacred. Which means the yellow vests were just getting together around then and didn’t start marching or whatever until a good hour later. By then we were far away.I would like to live across the street from this building. Across the street so I would see it every time I looked out my windows. I’m a sucker for Art Deco and a sucker for mosaics. They don’t make buildings like they used to.For example the one below. It was on a narrow street, so the interiors must be terribly dark with the metal façade, which apparently can open like shutters.On the other hand, I rather liked the geometry of the building below, with the sharp zigzags contrasting with the layered cake rounds that resemble the Guggenheim in New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.I liked the repetition with the rounded columns on the Art Deco building in the foreground on the left. (More bikes!)We parked on one of the boulevards rather than in an underground garage, which I usually use. Another example of good city planning: two hours of parking was only €1; four hours was €2 and four hours and 45 minutes was €20. This encourages people to park for short errands and discourages the nearby office workers from leaving their cars there all day (you can’t just feed the meter, either–you have to enter your license plate number and you get a ticket that you have to leave on your dashboard.) Our feet were plenty tired before our four hours were up. I took so many shots that I’ll do another post with just doors and windows.
A Day in Montpellier
We recently made a nice day trip to Montpellier. We usually do our “big city” shopping in Toulouse, but we decided to mix it up. It’s an extra half-hour drive, but it feels completely different than Toulouse–Montpellier lies on the Mediterranean coast, and its stately avenues are lined with palm trees.
We didn’t get outside the city center; in fact, we didn’t even explore all of the city center. So much to see! Especially since I had to stop every few steps to gasp, and then photograph, the over-the-top architectural details.
The center of Montpellier is an interesting mix of tiny streets and big squares. The center has been off-limits to cars since 2004, when Montpellier created France’s largest pedestrian-only zone–24 kilometers without traffic.
Place de la Comédie, above and in the top photo, is enormous, full of people passing through or hanging out, yet not crowded.
Small streets open up to little squares, always filled with café tables, which were always bustling.
I loved everything about this street–the turret made me stop, but then I saw it has a tiny arched window! And look at that “balcony” full of plants. And the double-extension window boxes on the left!On rue de la Loge, brass circles in the street mark the Camin Roumieu, one of the main routes to Compostella, linking Arles and Toulouse. So you have to look down, but you also have to look up!
There are other kinds of artwork as well.
Montpellier is a lovely city. I can’t compare it with Carcassonne, which is like a big village. Montpellier is much more go-go, with people walking quickly, shops full of quirky stuff and restaurants touting the latest health crazes. In Carcassonne, one sees little old retirees wearing pajamas and slippers as they walk their dogs, not very early, either.Chic shops! Arches! No cars! A ROOM OVER THE STREET! I’d love to know what’s in there and who lives there.
Have you been to Montpellier? Any tips to share?
Window on Europe
There’s a lot to love about Europe. Not just the food, the history, the culture, the architecture, the countrysides, the windows (with a few favorites chosen today to accompany the text). A big part of what makes life here so good is thanks to the European Union. Photos of pretty windows aside, this isn’t the usual light fare yet everything is relevant to most people’s lives–like protecting you against bank fees and phone companies. What’s not to like?A favorite pastime seems to be making fun of silly legislation passed by the European Parliament. But that is often unfair, and sometimes the supposed laws aren’t even for real (get your news from mainstream media!). Take, for example, the Great Olive Oil Affair. The EU wanted to make olive oil labels easier to read and to ban restaurants from serving olive oil in refillable containers … because restaurants were refilling with lower-quality oil. In fact, the olive-oil producing countries were in favor of the ban, yet it was cited as a reason to vote for Brexit, because the Leavers wanted the right to be cheated by restaurants. In fact, everybody but Emmanuel Macron loves to bash the EU. It reminds me of the Monty Python skit about “what have the Romans ever done for us.”
Lest anybody think otherwise, I wrote most of this ages ago, and it’s absolutely not intended to troll the U.K. for Brexit. While we all whine about how things need to be better (and lord help us if we get self-satisfied and give up on improving!), we don’t appreciate enough how far we’ve come. Think of this as a pre-Thanksgiving post.Aside from the big things, like peace, and the ability to travel and trade easily, here are a few ways the EU has improved life:
—Probably the biggest thing has been the reduction of poverty and modernization of southern Europe. Spain, for example, wisely used its generous handouts from the EU to build top-notch infrastructure like high-speed trains. My taxes make Spain better? YES!!!—Since 2006, the EU has banned the use of antibiotics in animal feed to fatten livestock. More than a decade later, the U.S. banned certain antibiotics for fattening livestock. While it isn’t 100% proven, some scientists theorize that the obesity epidemic is linked at least to some extent to people consuming so much meat that contains antibiotics. However, the bigger threat is from antibiotic resistance.—The EU eliminated mobile phone roaming fees within the EU with a “roam like at home” rule. So I can use my basic (yet with unlimited calls) plan of €2 a month even when I’m in another EU country and not get hit with surcharges.
–The “Universal Service Directive” (those EU bureaucrats kill it with sexy names for their laws, don’t you think?) lets you change mobile phone companies but keep your number–and they have one day to switch you over. It encourages competition by making it very easy to switch operators.
—It required the same bank fees for payments, transfers and ATMs within the EU as domestically. No surcharges if you use your bank card at a shop or ATM while traveling.—The euro reined in prices. Inflation in France was 24% between 2001 and 2011, compared with 68% between 1981 and 1991. Regarding the years chosen: in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty laid the foundations for the euro. That led to 199, when a single currency in fact, but not name or physical currency, began, because the exchange rates among the first euro members were locked in. The actual euro coins and notes appeared Jan. 1, 2002. (If you click on the link, the headline reads: L’euro fait flamber les prix depuis dix ans? Que nenni! Which means: The euro made prices skyrocket over the past 10 years? Not at all!) And let’s not forget how nice it is to travel around Europe without changing money–that also saved money because each time people or businesses exchanged currencies, they paid a commission.—In particular, prices fell for electronics and home appliances, largely because of cheap imports. And those were possible in part because the EU set standards for member countries (except the U.K. and Ireland), which previously had slightly different plugs, the better to protect domestic producers. All in all, life in the EU is good. Life expectancy has soared to 81 years today from 69 in 1960. Carbon dioxide emissions have fallen from a high of 10 metric tons per capita to 6.7. Those regulations have improved air and water quality, and thus life in general. Things aren’t perfect here, and there are plenty of ways the system could get better. But overall, the EU is a great example of how the government is indeed the solution, not the problem.
I realized I have three folders of door photos, and they are getting out of hand. Let’s meander through one folder, which ranges from Carcassonne to Montolieu to Caunes-Minervois to Cépie, which are all quaint little villages around Carcassonne.
The top photo is technically a gate. But so gorgeous! look at how the scrolls in the stone match the scrolls in the ironwork. And the bits of “lace” hanging from the gutter.This one might be a gate to an inner courtyard or just a garage door. Who knows! Good luck driving up over that curb.A hidden courtyard elsewhere in town that I spied before the huge doors closed automatically. I love how old French buildings keep so many secrets.Perfectly imperfect.Another gate. But the colors!Why do the women’s faces on doors and buildings usually look unhappy? The men usually look stern or fierce, but the women look like their patience is being tried.Note the fish knocker. And the date: 1746.I wonder whether the shutters and door started out the same shade and the shutters faded more because of more exposure to the sun, or whether the homeowners intentionally chose different shades.The little pot! Notice how almost no threshhold is straight.This door doesn’t even come up to my shoulder, and I’m short. For a while, it led to an underground bar, called “Le Trou Dans le Mur”–the Hole in the Wall. It was gorgeous, with a high vaulted ceiling and stone walls and a deep well that they had artfully lit. It was no easy feat to crawl through the hole and then descend the steep stairs. Too bad it closed.Arches+ivy+old stones = French charm.
Which is your favorite?
Life in a French Village
Yesterday was la rentrée des classes–back to school–though it’s the official end of summer for those without kids, as well. The cars on the roads seem more purposeful, if not exactly rushed. Folks in these parts don’t rush very often.Although the end of summer and the return to routine marks the passage of time, in the little villages of the south of France, time seems to stand still. Time feels less linear and more like accretion, layers upon layers, with the old still there, forever.Welcome to the village of Trausse, on the edge of the Black Mountains, not far from Carcassonne. Host of a cherry festival in May and home year-round to excellent Minervois wine. As you can see, it’s bustling.
In that way of small villages, life is both intensely private and lived in public.
There are old stones, remnants of an illustrious past. In the late 1700s, there were more than 800 residents; today there are about 500.
Nothing is straight. If the walls in the photo above look like they’re leaning in toward the street, well, yes, they are.
People come and go, but the stones remain, sometimes putting up with modernization, like electricity.
Although fetching water was probably a moment for gossip and camaraderie, I doubt folks regret having indoor plumbing. Somebody told me my village got plumbing in the 1970s!
Trausse is overshadowed by its neighbor, Caunes-Minervois, which is undeniably adorable and which attracts many tourists. I heard that J.K. Rowling recently spent time in Caunes. But that might just be bragging. In any case, Caunes is a good place for somebody like her to be incognito, just another British lady renting a holiday home.
There are so many cute villages here–I’m hard-pressed to think of any that don’t have at least a picturesque ancient center, even the ones surrounded by ugly subdivisions. It’s easy to skip the subdivisions and stick to the quaint old streets, where elderly residents sit in the shade unperturbed, cats nap in the middle of the road, and time meanders gently.
She looks how I feel.
Although I have 10 drafts of posts, none are yet up to snuff. And sad surprises have been filling these otherwise gorgeous late summer days.
I hope regular programming resumes soon. Meanwhile, enjoy a couple of golden oldies: