No, I didn’t mean it THAT way (au naturel can mean nude). I meant, let’s wallow in the prettiness of the French countryside on a walk around the neighborhood.
We had a big storm a few days ago. Rain came down as if from a firehose. The river rose enough that I couldn’t cross it on the little blocks. In fact, the blocks caught branches knocked down by the storm.
The wind howled for a couple of days. That’s when it’s nice to have shutters.
The rain may have poured, but the village fountain has been shut off for winter.
It seems as if autumn has only just settled in, and now we’re getting ready for Christmas.
Snow appeared about a week ago on the Pyrénées. It’s nice that it’s near enough to visit but we don’t have to deal with the mess of slush and ice.
So often I have to pinch myself when I step outside and see such that yes, I am living in a postcard. Especially lately.
One of the great fall foliage spectacles happens as the vineyards of southern France change to patchworks of vivid reds, oranges and yellows. The colors depend on the grape varieties, so each plot is a defined hue in a patchwork. The rolling hills of vines in the south of France give New England’s trees some stiff competition.
Fall is one of the greenest seasons of the year here. The return of rain makes the grass grow again. Soon the plowed fields of winter wheat will be emerald seas. Many of the trees and shrubs keep their leaves all year, so it never feels quite as bare as in the north.
During the height of summer’s heat and dry spell, it was rare to see butterflies, but now they are all over, mostly flitting in pairs, and catching the sunshine in a way that reminds me of July fireworks, spilling over and over across the sky. I suspect they left us for cooler climes during the summer and now are on their way south. Our winters are mild, but not mild enough for butterflies.
They clearly got the memo about fashionable fall colors.
Even the houses are dressed in saturated shades.
Everywhere I go, another breathtaking vista unfolds.
Sometimes the light is sharp and clear, the cloudless sky a hard blue, the Pyrénées–newly white–sharply etched across the horizon. But in the mornings and evenings, the light is golden, then increasingly red. Not so different from the leaves themselves.
Fine days mean crisp nights. As fireplaces are lit again, the scent of burning wood perfumes the air. It contrasts with the wet, earthy compost smells as leaves and grass turn back into rich dirt.
Sometimes the light reminds me of the paintings of Jules Breton.
There’s even beauty underfoot. All it takes is opening our eyes. The mix of colors is wonderful.
It’s a very busy period, yet I can’t help but stop and stare. Today, we take the time to appreciate.
I always loved fall–I was that nerd who couldn’t wait to go back to school. But now fall is associated with the loss of loved ones. Long lives well lived, but their absence leaves a hole that’s as raw as ever.
At the same time, it’s a wake-up call. A reminder to appreciate every minute. Every hug. Every bite, and not just on Thanksgiving. Every leaf and stone.
I’m lucky and grateful to have such a wonderful family.
There’s a charming little gallery on rue de Verdun, the main drag of la Bastide in Carcassonne. Formerly a church, it hosts a diverse range of exhibits.
The doors were open, so we popped in.
The paintings made me think a little of Chagall, but also of Cézanne, but then another was a little more Pissarro, and a few had hints of Picasso. But I’m no an art expert. Just a museum nut.
There were quite a few dedicated to the Carnival of Limoux, a town just south of Carcassonne. And several around tauromachie, or bull-fighting, which happens in Carcassonne and several other towns around the south of France.
We were delighted to discover that the man tending the desk was the painter himself. He explained that he indeed admired all those artists, and learned how to paint, as many artists do, by copying their great works before establishing his own style.
But he can explain himself:
For the love of painting
Because the hand of the painter is the eye of his heart, the extension of his soul, because the hairs of his brush are the thread that connects the spirit to the material, Hugues Tisseyre paints, he paints his Carnival and all the things he loves.
The Carnival of Limoux, mystical and lyrical, which goes farther than anecdote, farther than the figurative, is the instant magnified by the play of the human comedy deliberately consenting and not submissive to the truth of the mask and its possibilities of transformation of the obvious fatality.
Painting in fact must not progress except in the mind of the senses.
He said he was from Limoux and always loved its Carnival, the world’s longest. Here are his thoughts on that:
The carnival festival has behind it a long history, which we perceive through texts.
Often a drawing, a painting, an engraving suffices to explain all that to us.
Modern history since 1945 to today marks its limits. Carnival thus ferments, resists, transforms itself according to society’s solicitations. It shows all its capacity for dialogue, renewal, ironic rejection, refual, to reserve the identity which defines a common man’s living culture.
This festival which fascinates and questions is indeed the place that holds the imaginary, memory and writing.
I asked about a huge painting on the ground. “The city of Minerve,” he said. Minerve is one of the most beautiful villages of France–an official designation!–about 45 kilometers northeast of Carcassonne.
I almost fainted when he walked right onto the painting.
“Oh, it’s very tough,” he said. “If you only knew how many layers of paint there are.”
He explained that one day he got hold of a big roll of moquette, or carpet, and thought the nap would make an interesting base for painting. And the price was right. Though that very nap ate up his brushes, which in turn cost a fortune, he added.
Unfortunately, Minerve was out of our budget. Perhaps one day.
Just before school started, we went to the beach. Our first trip this year, though it’s just 45 minutes away.
We aren’t sun worshippers. And that grit of sand in one’s hair and mouth, sand that sticks to everything, even to dry skin, even to dry clothes that were put into a zippered plastic bag at home–well, meh.
Then there are the crowds. The drive is 45 minutes in winter. In summer it can be two hours. Bumper to bumper. And then, you have to park.
We usually head out around 4 p.m., when most people are leaving. This is a good policy in general in France. The French love their schedules. Pretty much everybody does the same things at the same time. By being out of step, you get the place to yourself.
For example, the supermarkets have 20 checkout lanes but operate a maximum of eight. I often have spent more time waiting in line to pay than shopping. If you go to the supermarket at noon (supermarkets being among the few businesses open between 12 and 2), there are only two or three checkout lanes open, but nobody in line. On the autoroute, the time not to stop for lunch is at noon, when the rest stops are packed, lines for the restroom are miles long and the sandwich selection is depleted by 12:30. No, lunch time is the time to enjoy the unencumbered highway before all the French get back in their cars and cause traffic jams.
Back to the beach. We drive smoothly past one 80-kilometer-long traffic jam in the opposite direction, then arrive at the beach to find the empty parking spot of one of the cars now stuck in that traffic jam. We get our fill of sun and sand in an hour or two, then look for refreshments. Ice cream is always a good idea. Sometimes, if it’s still crowded, we’ll stick around for dinner (fresh fish!) rather than join the throngs on the highway.
The two nearest beaches are Narbonne and Gruissan. Narbonne is a little more built-up, with a few apartment high-rises on the beach front. A parking strip runs the length of the boardwalk (which isn’t boards here, but you know what I mean). But the shops and restaurants are right there, too, which is nice.
Gruissan has a bigger beach, and little chalets on stilts line the edge. The parking lot is very small but close by and hidden from view. More charming by far. We’ll take you to the pretty port and the adorable town, which are away from the beach, another time.
On the day before the new school year, the beach was mellow. Only half had a lifeguard on duty, and the side without was nearly deserted. Walking the length of the beach, I thought a gentleman emerging from the water looked familiar. Indeed, it was a neighbor! Lots of Carcassonnais have beach chalets at Gruissan or Narbonne.
I didn’t see any burkinis, but I did see lots of kids wearing a high-SPF version, left. A good idea–better than a wrestling match to apply sun lotion, which then immediately gets washed off. There also were a frightening number of naked and badly sunburned kids.
We’ll be back. Our favorite time to visit the beach is winter. The sun is bright but not burning, the beach is empty, and a few restaurants stay open. We only need one.
The summers in the south of France are hot and dry. It means no sticky humidity. No mosquitos.
By hot, I mean mid-80s to mid-90s Fahrenheit, sometimes dancing around 100. Nights usually are cool, in the 60s. Yesterday, the high was 34 C (93 F) and the low 13.5 (56 F). It’s why we don’t have air conditioning. Just gorgeous summer weather.
But the last rain that was more than a trace was 4.4 mm (0.17 inch) on Aug. 4. It’s about one-tenth the usual total for August.
This river has dried up. It’s hard to believe that a few years before we moved here it flooded houses in the village up to the upstairs floor.
Now, the little rapids look like ghosts. Will we be haunted by what we’ve done to the Earth?
At the beginning of the summer, I couldn’t even see the blocks to cross the passage à gué.
Farther downstream, underground springs revive the river to a trickle. Enough for some ducks, who set up housekeeping at the same spot every year.
The marin has kept the Pyrénées in crystal clear focus. Not a cloud in the sky. Usually the easterly marin brings rain. Thunderstorms are forecast for Monday. Fingers crossed.
Before the cassoulet dinner, there was a 2.5-hour hike in the garrigue. (1) It’s a good idea to burn off some calories before indulging in cassoulet. (2) It’s a good idea to hike in the garrigue with a guide who knows all the paths well.
Our guide, M., grew up in the village. M. could be retired but works at the maternelle, or preschool, as an assistant, mostly wiping little ones’ butts and noses. Once I was having a hard time fixing something, and my kid, then under M.’s charge on weekdays, informed me, “You should ask M. She can fix anything.” Another time, I got a cut, and my kid said, “M. can fix it. She’s a doctor.” Which she isn’t. However, my kid is right that M. is superwoman.
The randonnée, or hike, drew only three people, plus M. She considered the possibilities, then asked whether we’d be interested in seeing something whose name I didn’t catch but it involved something volcanic. I said sure.
We quickly left the road to walk along little tracks along a trickle of a river. I’ve walked along there, but on the road, without ever spying this path. How is this possible?
We soon came to a clearing where the trickle traversed a rock basin: “la gourde de la dame,” or the lady’s gourd or water jug. M. informed us that the lady of the local château would come here to bathe, and that usually the basin was fed by a spring. However, this August, it’s too hot and dry and water levels are extremely low.
M. and another hiker, also a native of the village, talked about old times, like when they had races through the garrigue for gym class. They also said they had washed at our house, which used to be a municipal shower before the town got running water in individual homes in the mid-1960s. The showers operated only on Saturday–the whole village came once a week.
We came to the barrage, or dam, built by the château’s owner to provide irrigation. Usually the water is much higher. A few boys were fishing.
We went up and down hills, but mostly up. M. is part of the VTT club, or all-terrain bikes. They also do hiking, and M. leads groups twice a week. She also maintains the paths, many of which are barely visible, especially if you step to the side a bit. Rocks and trees are painted with indicators.
Finally, M. announced we were nearly at the top. We climbed a steep bit, turned around and saw:
“Voilà, les photo-volcaniques!” M. exclaimed. I had to be careful not to fall on the ground laughing. After all, M. knows a million things. If we both were stuck in the wilderness, she would be able to survive. Not me. I respect that knowledge. She can be forgiven for a malaprop like photo-volcanique instead of photovoltaic.
The panels were impressive in their quantity. The site previously had housed some windmills, but they were of an earlier generation and the owners, a Spanish company, had removed them. I had no idea they’d been replaced by solar panels. You could see the windmills from la Cité, but you can’t see the solar panels until you’re right next to them.
From the hilltop, we had amazing views. To the north, la Montagne Noire, the Black Mountains. Including a gold mine that’s been closed for over a decade, having gained notoriety as the most polluted site in France.
It’s really so sad. The place is so bucolic. We didn’t hear anything, not a single motor. Just birds, wind and of course cigales.
And to the south, Carcassonne and the Pyrénées in the distance.
It will be a while before I venture into the garrigue again. M. warned us that hunting season started Aug. 15 for sanglier, or boar. She urged us to wear fluorescent vests and orange caps and to make plenty of noise. I’ll just wait until hunting season ends Feb. 28.
The garrigue is a magical place. We try to picnic there at least every summer, which really shouldn’t be a big deal, because it’s a 20-minute walk outta town. Yet, it’s another world.
The garrigue is a wilderness. It has trees, but isn’t really a forest like in the north. In some places, there’s just low bush that reminds me of the African savannah. Apparently, there was a vast Mediterranean forest that from time to time was degraded, often by fire, and the garrigue is what grew up afterward. The ground is so rocky that it escaped farming or development and stayed wild.
The garrigue has the most divine perfume. A mix of dry pine needles, hot dusty rock, thyme, rosemary and wildflowers. I would love to bottle it and spritz it around my house.
The garrigue also has an enchanting song. The wind whistles and hums through the pines. The birds sing. But they’re all just backup for the lead singers, the cigales, that scratch out their steady beat. (Here’s a link with recordings of cigales.)
Cigales are cicadas, but their song here isn’t at all like the one that lulled me to sleep in the Midwest of the U.S. It’s as if they speak different languages.
We decided to go to a spot accessed by the far end of the village. Since we had a cooler of food and other stuff, we took the car and parked at the entrance to the garrigue. It’s almost formal. The road goes up past vineyards, then forks, one side continuing to more vineyards and the other turning rocky and forbidding. We advanced to a shady spot and parked.
We aren’t experts on the garrigue, and it’s huge, so we are careful to stick to the main path. We continued on foot, looking for just the right picnic spot with lots of cushiony pine needles and not too many rocks or sprouting bushes.
Our picnic consisted of a classy “empty the fridge” assortment of sandwiches, followed by cheese (duh!) and nectarines for dessert. Nothing tastes as good as a picnic, especially one in the garrigue, where the scent of herbs is so strong you can taste them.
A post-prandial siesta followed. Not so much sleeping as being still and absorbing. Pure heaven.
A visit to the garrigue is a special moment in this part of the south of France. For a happy trip:
–no fires! They’re strictly forbidden because the place is a tinderbox. The region gets a lot of wildfires, often started by something as small as a cigarette tossed out a car window. It’s usually very windy, which makes fire all the more dangerous, and in summer the few streams are bone dry.
I never thought I’d get into speleology. For one thing, where I grew up, it’s flat. No caves that I know of. Well, John Brown’s cave, but that was pretty far away. For some reason, I dreamed of seeing Carlsbad Caverns, but that was even farther.
Turns out the mountains in France are Swiss cheese. Caves galore to expore!
I wouldn’t say I’m “into” speleology, but when it’s as easy as the Grotte du Limousis, it’s hard not to at least check it out. Limousis isn’t adapted for wheelchairs or strollers, but we took elderly mother-in-law, who managed the short hike through the garrigue from the reception to the cave entrance, after which, you’re in a more or less flat cave at 55 degrees. Which is fabulous in the middle of summer. Or winter.
As a room mother, I had the honor (?) of visiting an unmarked, “wild” cave nearby. There is nothing quite as terrifying as being cut off from mobile phone reception (duh, underground), with a lamp on your helmet (already, we have to wear helmets? It’s that dangerous?) and a squirming bunch of third graders who are harder to herd than cats and a guide who says, “keep a watch over there,” pointing to a dark corner of the cave, “there’s a hole that goes down 20 meters or more.” Because that’s the room mother’s job, keeping stray cats, I mean kids, from falling into bottomless holes in the middle of the earth.
Saving grace: while there were bats, there were no spiders. It occurred to me to be afraid of the bugs only after I was well underground with the class and no longer allowed to panic, and it was a huge relief to discover there were no bugs at all.
Limousis is nicer because (1) it’s well-lit, (2) you can walk through it comfortably—no wiggling like a snake through a chatière (definition: “a very difficult and tight passage that you can only get through by crawling”—ha! as if a chatière were big enough for being on all fours! no, you squirm like a worm, plus it’s wet), (3) no puits or deep drop-offs or holes, at least not on the tourist route, (4) it’s beautiful, (5) they serve wine.
So if you’re into caves, just curious, or want to taste some good wine, Limousis is for you.
The cave was discovered by people who could write in 1811, or maybe 1789. It was discovered much earlier by people who didn’t write, but who left skeletal remains, thank you very much. A bear left its marks, too, near the entrance.
There’s a room that’s rather large with a nice flat floor that the nearby village of Limousis used to use as a salle de fête—a party hall, like for wedding receptions—and it’s naturally air-conditioned (summer) or heated (winter)! Plus the acoustics are awesome. The floor was created over millennia by calcium deposits on an underground lake, which eventually hardened, while the lake water receded, leaving the floor stretched like the cover of a drum, and a hollow space below that produces the resonance.
There’s a pretty green pool and stalactites (the ones hanging from the ceiling) and stalagmites (the ones growing up from the ground), not to mention columns where the two meet, all over the place. Don’t touch or you’ll “kill” them—oils from our hands changes the special chemistry. It would be a shame because they grow drop by drop, about a quarter of an inch to almost an inch per century. Math quiz: if a stalagmite is 3 feet tall, how old is it?*
In the last room, there’s a huge formation of aragonite, which is pretty cool.
In the first room of the cave, the wine cooperative Alliance Minervois ages some wine, called l’Amethyeste—what better place, right?