A Day in Toulouse

P1090162In the dead of the past winter, we spent the day in Toulouse. It’s such a lovely city, one that punches above its weight in sophistication. P1090200I suppose travelers might think of Carcassonne as a daytrip from Toulouse, but I prefer to think of Toulouse as a daytrip from Carcassonne.P1090142My favorite thing to do in any city is flâner–to walk aimlessly. I don’t need to shop, though I enjoy faire du lèche-vitrine (literally, licking windws, but it means do window-shopping). And of course some time en terrace at a café to people-watch.

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The pre-Christmas outdoor dining scene.

The architecture is a bit different from Carcassonne. Grander, for sure, in such a big city. But there’s also the use of red bricks, which give Toulouse its nickname of La Ville Rose, which was adopted as a tourism slogan more than a century ago, after the author Stendahl wrote insultingly of his visit. P1090180P1090141Over the years that we’ve lived in the region, Toulouse has cleaned up nicely. More streets in the center are limited to pedestrians, new tram lines have been built and parking is nigh impossible. Bikes are everywhere. Hipster boutiques and restaurants are filled with young French women who look beautiful despite bedhead and young men with bushy Brooklyn beards. The brick walls are authentic.

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An optician. Of course.
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Rue Alsace-Lorraine is closed to vehicle traffic. On Saturdays, it’s packed.
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Rue Saint-Rome is one of the first pedestrian streets. Isn’t this couple adorable? So typical. People dress up to go out.
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Christmas decorations at Galeries Lafayette.

I never get enough of the narrow, crooked streets. P1090197P1090143P1090192P1090149P1090163P1090181

 

You have to look up.P1090145P1090189P1090183

You have to look down.P1090172

So many grand entrances, to let in carriages.P1090152

Sometimes you get to peek inside.

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Notice how green it is, just before Christmas. And do you see the little fountain?

Have you been to Toulouse? I have more Toulousain treats in store.

 

Age Is Just a Number

P1080404Trying to explain what is “new” and “old” in France to somebody from the Americas is challenging. In a place where the first buildings still standing went up in 485 CE, something from 1663 is relatively new.P1060555

I never liked history because of having to memorize dates. It’s very strange, because I’m good with numbers and am likelier to remember somebody’s phone number or zip code than their name. I guess we also had to memorize a lot of names. Not enough emphasis on the stories!

I finally have a few key points under my belt, such as July 14, 1789: Bastille Day. These things never happen on a whim. The kindling is laid for years, and then when the fire is sparked, it takes off ferociously.

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The U.S. was one year old.

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The houses above were built in the period when things had been getting better to the extent that people lived longer and populations swelled. France had the biggest population in Europe. For a while it was boom times, then prices for food rose sharply.P1090682

This 1790 house was built in the early days of the revolution, not far from the 1780 house. Had the unrest reached this far into France profonde? To get here, you have to pass the mountainous Massif Central, until the band of plain where these houses lie. Beyond here, you hit mountains, where sheep outnumber people, and then Spain. P1090591

I constantly marvel and am thankful that these houses, with their not-square corners and not-plumb walls and not-level floors, have been inhabited and tended to, rather than torn down for something modern. P1090684

In the little streets, time stands still.P1090588P1090676P1090539

Despite the simple tools of the time, curves (the intentional ones!) grace the architecture.P1090548P1090546P1090544

Concrete and glass can be beautiful, but after a while, so many pure lines feel bland. Give me a nice stone wall that has seen some things.P1090545

Arched door, arched back.

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I mentioned just last week, on the first day of spring, that the trees had a green haze that hinted at leaves, which I predicted would burst out all at once. Well, the switch flipped. The photos below are from almost the same spot. The one on the left was from a couple of weeks ago with the first buds, and the one on the right was taken yesterday.

Spring fever is contagious. My kid occasionally  often forgets to be a sullen teen, for example, yesterday, exclaiming at breakfast that the birds were singing. Indeed, a whole chorus of birds chirped and twittered in the background of a belted-out aria from Merle, our resident blackbird. Un merle is French for blackbird, and I think it’s a good name for such a singer. He often sits on the peak of our house and serenades us as we dine en terrace in the evenings, something we can finally do again.

I hope your spring day is as beautiful as mine.P1090510

How do you feather your nest?

P1080573Home. The word itself is soothing. All soft H, long O, humming M, even the silence of the E.

Houses are built but homes are made.

I have seen some pretty spartan living quarters, but they always included decoration, even if it was pages and pictures from old newspapers and magazines, wildflowers in a used tin can. Usually, there is something personal. A memento. A photo, a souvenir from a happy moment in the past, a relic of a loved one.P1080571Homes are gathered. Some might say collected or curated, but that involves an aesthetic that doesn’t necessarily include raw emotion. It’s why, to me, the best interiors are those that are layered by years of life experiences, not the latest trends clicked and ordered and delivered same day.

There is a magical quality to the minimalist and modern Roche Bobois aesthetic. Epuré– streamlined–is the term. One imagines that the resident of such pared-down perfection could have an entire wardrobe of white clothes and that they never would be wrinkled or stained, and no paper would ever arrive from officialdom to cause one to tear one’s hair out and spend several days trying to get the situation resolved. Because such houses have no place for papers that represent unresolved problems. All surfaces are void. All problems are null. It is a seductive proposition.P1080584But I don’t believe it for a minute. And while I like a modern space every now and then, the way I like vinegar–a bright, bracing contrast to more comforting, comfortable things–a little goes a long way. Too much, and all you get is sour emptiness. No heart. No past. No memories. No love.

I’m very sentimental. As I type this, I’m wearing a sweater that belonged to my mother, even though there’s a huge rip on the sleeve. I have other sweaters, but this one was hers.  It will have to be far more shredded before I part with it. (Fair warning to my husband.)P1080581Every piece of art in our house has a story. Sometimes the story is that I, or my husband, or both of us were someplace and the picture or carving captured that place, that moment, and we wanted to keep it with us forever. None of it is valuable in a collector’s monetary sense, but all of it is beloved–not so much the items themselves but the moments they represent and the people we were then. Sometimes the story comes from having been was passed down. Especially the photos. The exuberant smiles on my siblings’ then-young faces. What a mess we made our home, four forces of nature with far too much energy to be contained by the walls and roof of a mere house. The smallest thing can transport me there, across the ocean, across the decades, so much so that I am startled to find myself here, now, when I snap out of my reverie. I am not sad to be here. I want to go hug my kid and kiss my husband and jump for joy for being so lucky. That doesn’t negate the yearning to also throw an arm around the buzzcut boy in the photo. P1080586A home is feathered not only with things but with rituals and sounds and scents. My mother’s constant classical music. My dad’s snores from down the hall that let me know he was home safe from work. Roast beef on Sundays whose smell permeated the house when we came back from church. We have different rituals, but they still tie us to each other, like a shared safety net. As Rick says in Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris.”

 

 

Turrets and Towers

P1070625A château wouldn’t be a château without some towers and turrets. Once I started looking, I found them everywhere, and not just on châteaux.

 

Turrets are little towers that start on an upper floor, usually tacked onto a corner. Towers go all the way to the ground. Turrets offered a good vantage point for archers defending their castle.P1070483

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Crenellated wall, to boot!

Today turrets are just charming, except on McMansions (I saw a great example–which is to say it was abominable–in a subdivision in Béziers, but my shots didn’t turn out). Yes, there are McMansions in France. Even subdivisions, which are called lotissements.

It’s quite popular among McMansions here to stick a tower, for the master bedroom and bath, in the middle of an otherwise banal suburban house. P1070593beziers river

 

 

P1060556Happily, there are plenty of real châteaux all over the place, as well as more modest buildings that have odd towers tacked on. Why are those OK while the ones on McMansions are tacky? Maybe it’s snobbism, but it seems like the McMansions are just trying too hard to be special, and failing miserably. Kind of like wearing a sequined T-shirt with sweatpants–the sequins aren’t enough to make it dressy. And with clothes or houses, outer appearances can be good or bad but it’s what’s inside that really counts.P1070403P1060674P1060618

IMG_3625
The shape of that window! Like a sleepy eye. You can tell I’ve been collecting these photos for some time. It’s very green and hot here now.

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P1070623It still takes my breath away to go down some ordinary street here in Carcassonne and catch a glimpse of la Cité:P1060621P1060639

 

Faces of France

tlsOne of the nicest things about this blog is that it has reopened my eyes. I have gotten used to living in the south of France; it has been good to look around me with fresh eyes as I think about stories to tell.

And I see eyes looking back.

balcony
Venus? The entire grand house this lady rules, facing Square Gambetta, is decorated with seashell motifs.

The Bastide, or the “new” town (having been built in 1260, vs. la Cité, which is far older), is truffled with these decorations. I suspect that back in the day of la Cité, only the aristocracy and church had the means for anything beyond the slimmest basics of life. Styles and tastes change, but also, by the time of la Bastide, trade was booming and Carcassonne was a center for textiles, wine and cereals. The buildings show it, with flourishes and sometimes elaborate decorations.

And faces.

museum
Was he the architect? There is so much to decipher here. How many people walk by without looking up?
carca
On the same building. I see a globe, a telescope, books, what else? Clues and explanations welcome in the comments!

Who were they? Did real people sit as models? Or were they sculpted from paintings, books, memories?

college
Above the entrance to a junior high school. How would you like to greet him every morning before class? At least he seems fairly benevolent. Despite the facial hair.

Some are in unlikely places, more modest embellishments than the grand busts atop grand buildings.

verdun
He’s only about 18 inches tall. I feel his pain.
red door lady
A tiny lady above a red door.
railing
They don’t make railings like they used to.
jesus
A niche above a nondescript door on a nondescript house.
white face
Carved in wood, somehow surviving the elements, above the doors to a grange or barn near la Cimetière Saint-Michel (with great views of la Cité).

Toulouse also has many wonderful faces hiding in plain sight. The series below live on the back side of the Capitole, home to the city hall and municipal theater.

Capitole 3
Cosette, is that you? She gives me a chill–what was her story?
Capitole 4
I love his hat! Panache. The word means plume, but has the connotation of flamboyance.
Capitole 2
This one, by contrast, seems to have a bat atop his helmet. Look at how his mouth is a little lopsided, as if he’s mulling over a question or biting the inside of his cheek.
Capitole 1
He seems to know more than he’s telling.
Capitole 5
The most haunting of all, to me. Why were her eyes closed? So vulnerable.

Which do you like best?

 

 

Before/After: Living Room

salon-daybed-centerIt’s way better in person.

The first apartment is ready. The second one will be ready soon. The last i’s are being dotted and t’s crossed on the piles of paperwork.

The journey has been satisfying, especially when we see where we started. The before, below.

salon-before
Before

Wallpaper (flocked!) removed, wiring and plumbing completely redone, floors restored, windows replaced, furniture edited. Surprises along the way.

tomettes
400-year-old tomettes, paint removed.

Here’s another angle:

angle
Before
angle-before
After

Contrast the dining area:

dining-area
After
dining-area-before
Before

No longer cramped, it’s the perfect place for breakfast…

croissants

or dinner.

table-setNo pets allowed, but there are plenty of animals:

table-animals

p1060451The details are carefully preserved.

zoom-mirror-chimney

The elaborate mirrors echo…

mirror-and-boiserie-chimney-side
the boiseries above them…
street-mirror-boiseries
in the style of Versailles.
fireplace-detail
Fireplace detail
salon-table-bottom
More under-the-table fabulousness

The apartment is arranged as enfilade rooms, designed for a continuous line of sight as well as for cross ventilation.

en-filadeThe previous chandelier is now in the bedroom. We found a bigger, more sparkly one:

chandelier-and-street-side
It looks small up there but it’s a meter wide.

It really does have va-va-voom.

chandelierAs is my wont, I changed the furniture around about eight times. I think I like it with the daybed parallel with the wall, rather than in the center of the room (as in the first photo). What do you think?

salon-daybed-on-sideIf you’d like to rent it for your vacation in Carcassonne, contact me here at taste.france@yahoo.com or at booking.carcassonne@gmail.com. It will be up on the holiday rental sites very shortly.

Character

blue shuttersDo you dream about a house in the south of France? Check this one out.

It’s an architect-designed house, built in 1904. Made of stone, with decorative “quoins,” or corner stones. The walls are 80 cm (30 inches) thick in the basement, and 50 cm (20 inches) thick upstairs. That’s amazing insulation—warm in winter and cool in summer.

street viewThe 190 square meters (2,045 square feet) are spread over eight main rooms, with parquet floors. There are six working chimneys—four in sculpted walnut and two in marble.

officeA grand staircase made of oak.

stairs

The rooms are spacious: a living room of 32 square meters (345 square feet), and 11-foot ceilings. Two offices (it was commissioned by a notary) of 20 m2 and 16 m2. The kitchen is as big as some Parisian apartments—35 m2! The street-side window is stained glass.

And an “oeil de boeuf” or bull’s eye window. (Sigh. I’m jealous. I love those.)

 

Upstairs there are three big bedrooms and one small one, plus a bathroom and separate toilet.

In the basement, there’s a wine cellar (of course!) and an atelier with direct access to the street. And, what I think is coolest of all, a well made of carved stones.

The garden is big enough for a place to eat outside and grow some plants but not so huge that you’ll never have time to do anything but keep up with it.

gardenEven more charmingly, the house has stayed in the same family for a century. In the past 10 years, certain things have been modernized, including the plumbing, electricity, attic insulation and furnace.

corner viewIt’s in Lombez, a town of not quite 2,000 people in the department of Gers, about 45 minutes from Toulouse. The Pyrénées are just over an hour away for hiking or skiing, and the Mediterranean and Atlantic are just over 2 hours away.

If you’re interested, let me know. I’ll put you in touch with the sellers, who are friends.

far view

Another round of Banyuls

flowers 1There were too many photos to put into one post, so you’re stuck with Banyuls again. Hardship, right?

police stationThis time we’ll zoom in on a few charming details around the town. For example, how often does the word “adorable”  come up in connection with “police station”? And that scooter is cuteness itself.

Plus it had CLEAN public toilets on the other side! Four of them! With soap and everything!

The wise people of Banyuls knew to leave well enough alone in some cases….

old sign

while keeping most of the place spiffy. There was a lot of Belle Epoque architecture.

belle epoque house 2

building 2

building

belle epoque house

They had some interesting ideas about electricity, sometimes charming

electric box

sometimes not. I suppose it’s inevitable with stone walls.

electric wires

There were some cute vehicles.

But parking is difficult.

parked car 1
Better not forget the parking brake. (Do you see the van, up high?)

parking flood sign

This sign near the beach says: Attention drivers. In case of a storm, please URGENTLY evacuate your vehicle. The town cannot be held liable in any case.

Of course, steep hills + solid rock or buildings everywhere + sudden rain = flash flood. Get a load of these foundations:

The people of Banyuls like to decorate, whether it’s a rock outcropping, an electric meter cover or a paella pan.

paella painting

Mostly with good taste.

square
Nicely planted palms around a little bandstand and square.
olive tree
This olive tree must be a couple hundred years old.
street light
Wonderful street lamps. The wiring, not so much.

On the flatter, more spread-out end of town, the villas hid behind grand gates.

gate 5

gate 4

gate 3

gate 2

gate 1

More modest homes also had handsome entries, even if they seemed sized for third graders.

And they are crazy about flowers. Especially bougainvillea, in every neon shade.

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flowers 2

flowers 3

flowers 4

flowers 5

flowers 6

flowers 8

flowers 10

flowers 9

flowers 13 cactus

flowers 12

flowers 11

There was another verbiose sign:

boules rules

“Thank you for your public-spiritedness”! These pétanque players seemed to be minding the rules.

boules

Must be rough playing right next to the beach, especially on hot summer nights.

wine shop 1

Banyuls is a highly recommended day trip from Carcassonne. And until you can come, you can pretend, by getting a bottle of Banyuls’ famous fortified wine (it’s like port, but DO NOT say that to anybody from Banyuls). Santé!

Banyuls-sur-Mer

little street 11
The renowned Banyuls vineyards in the distance are just as vertical.

We had a visitor for a few days and wanted to play tourist. We escaped the heavy rains that are flooding the north of France, but we still got some showers. It’s one thing to brave a few drops to visit something new, but another to see the same sites for the hundredth time, no matter how fabulous, when the weather is meh.

mairie
La mairie, or city hall, shows Spanish influences.

Our visitor hadn’t been to Banyuls, near the Spanish border, and it had been years since our last trip. One weather report suggested  scattered showers, while another promised peeks of sun. We ended up under mostly gray skies but dry. A perfect afternoon jaunt that felt like we’d gone on away on vacation.

restoThe weather held out for us to stroll around and have a leisurely lunch en terrace with a view of the beach.

view w beach
The rocky beach. Usually every centimeter is covered with bare skin.

As beautiful as Banyuls is I cannot imagine going there in July or August, when it’s absolutely overflowing with people. But on June 1, there were enough people for it to feel alive and yet for us to find ourselves alone on its charming, vertical streets.

port
A port, of course.

If I went nuts over a tiny village like Malves, imagine what I did with Banyuls. So today you get to see its charming streets, appreciate its beauty, and thank your lucky stars that you don’t have to carry your groceries home like the folks here. Though I bet all the residents are in great shape.

little street 15

little street 13little street 12little street 14little street 9little street 10little street 7little street 5little street 8little street 4little street 2little street 6little street 3

little street 1
The house on the right is for sale!!! View of the beach!!! No privacy though.
trop tard
This is what happens if you don’t buy that house right now: “Too late!”