Mini Motos

IMG_2681It’s increasingly easy to get around French cities on two wheels. More cities offer rental bikes and bike lanes are expanding. Mopeds, or cyclomoteurs, are another popular choice. I like their candy colors and retro style.IMG_2674pink motoP1100785 2P1030288IMG_2569One reason they’re popular is that you don’t need a license. Since you can’t get a driver’s license in France until age 18, lots of teens find mobility on mopeds, though there’s still a test for driving them. Usually there’s a sea of cyclomoteurs in front of high schools.img_0658The podcaster Oliver Gee of the Earful Tower and his lovely wife Lina did a heart-shaped (kind of) tour around France on their cute little red scooter for their honeymoon, and even stopped in Carcassonne. If you’re a francophile, you should check out his podcast and YouTube videos. IMG_7043

This one isn’t trying to look retro; it is the real thing, still plugging along.

I can see the convenience, especially in a large city, where going across town by bike or public transport could take a long time, or if you have to go very early or very late. There is somebody with a puttering moped who goes through our village around 4 a.m. Sometimes when I’m lying awake with the windows open, I can hear the motor buzzing its way closer and closer, like a mosquito that you kind of make out in the room and then realize it’s coming in for your blood as it nears your ears. The moped moves beyond our house, sputtering as it struggles up the steep hill before it descends on the other side, out of earshot. Why so early? What does the driver do? Probably works in a bakery in town–that starts early.IMG_2672IMG_2670I keep hearing about electric scooters and have spied one so far in Carcassonne. Manual scooters are more popular. There’s also an outfit that does tours on Segways. IMG_2670IMG_2571I used to think it would be great to have a moped to tool around town. Not where we live now–it’s too far and too hilly and the roads don’t have shoulders. I don’t need to go anywhere at 4 a.m. Long ago, I met a colleague for drinks in Paris and he offered me a ride on his moped. It was terrifying. In Paris, drivers turn left from the far right lane and stuff like that. Not my colleague, but cars. The folks with a ton of steel around them to protect them if they happen to run into anything.

OK, not a moped, but very stylish.

That brings me to the Twizy, which is a great name for this thing. Made by Renault, it’s called a quadricycle. Seats up to two people and even has a tiny trunk (considering the trunk of my Aygo holds one bag of groceries, I am used to a small trunk). Plug-in electric, with a maximum range of 100 kilometers (62 miles). It’s expensive for what it is (€7,000 for the basic model), but I think it’s cute and interesting. IMG_1823IMG_1824 2IMG_1825Meanwhile, it’s hot here. School has been canceled. National exams for ninth-graders have been postponed, throwing families’ summer travel into chaos. The heat wave is called a canicule, which has to do with dogs–the dog days of summer, which is when Sirius, or the dog star, rises with the sun. Enjoy this analysis by a weather forecaster. IMG_2671While I definitely appreciated a dip in the pool late last night, it isn’t as bad as all that. This region is built for heat. Thick stone walls insulate interiors like caves. Shutters blunt the greenhouse effect. Everything just slows down and activity is shifted to morning and evening. Surprisingly, I haven’t noticed the cicadas, who start singing when temperatures rise to 25 C (77 F), the music of summer around here. Yesterday, we were at 34 C (93 F) and today we are supposed to hit 38 C  (100 F).


Tour de France 2018

IMG_9007The Tour De France left from Carcassonne today, having arrived on Sunday. A big, big, big event for a small city. Two years ago, the tour had a departure from Carcassonne, but to have an arrival AND a departure AND a rest day is huge.

Of course, we had to see it. After all the preparations, the roads miraculously repaved just days earlier, the banners, the excess all around. Plus, we’ve seen the Tour de France a few times and know there are goodies. More on that on Friday. Just sayin’, if you ever plan to watch the Tour de France in person, get there at least two hours early and I hope you can catch.

The (other) guy in a yellow shirt is waving a Romanian flag. What you don’t get to see is his wife, who also had a flag and who was wearing a Sponge Bob costume (not just a shirt, but a stiff thing that stood up as if it had a life of its own). I admire their devotion, but can somebody explain the Sponge Bob-bike connection?

This time, the riders came from Millau, passing the Pic du Nore, the highest point of the Montagne Noire (Black Mountains), which is the bottom part of the Massif Central (the highland region in the middle of southern France). I love that the Pic du Nore (the Northern Peak) is the southern most peak of the Black Mountains and the Massif Central. This tells you it was named not from the perspective of, say, Paris, but from a different perspective–from the plain that separates the Black Mountains from the Pyrénées, and from where the peak would be to the north. Like where Carcassonne is. BTW, the Pic du Nore is a first category mountain pass, with a 6% incline.

Clearly these are not in order. There’s Geraint!

Geraint Thomas, 32, of Wales and Team Sky, wore the yellow jersey. That’s him in the top photo as well as several others here (thanks to the Carnivore who has a phone that actually takes photos while I use a 10-year-old point-and-shoot camera and my phone’s photos look like what I see when I don’t wear my glasses). The BBC has a story and interview with Froome and Thomas here. The BBC lost big points in my book by misspelling Carcassonne. If it were another outlet, I might shrug it off to kids these days. But the BBC? All hope is lost.

And then a bunch come by. Why is that guy standing?

Today, the cyclists left from Place Général de Gaulle in the center of town, rounded the Bastide, at a couple of paces from our AirBnB apartments (!!!), and then headed toward Montréal (a different one! They’re everywhere, like Villeneuves! This Montréal is very small and pretty, with great views, an excellent day trip, though it wouldn’t take a day to see it all) and then to Fanjeaux (to complete your day trip), where the incline is so steep that when I drive there I have to use first gear, although I take the straight short cut that’s marked DO NOT ENTER, whereas the cyclists will do the switchbacks. It’s a fourth category hill with a 4.9% incline (unless you do the straight line. But I think somebody would notice). Fanjeaux, like Montréal (and la Cité of Carcassonne), is a hilltop village straight out of a medieval painting, designed for defense.

And suddenly there are a zillion of them, riding frighteningly fast.

Some things I learned this time: Sometimes the riders take potty breaks in the roadside bushes, but sometimes they just let loose while they’re riding. Did you know that? Goodness. I didn’t! And I was shocked! I suppose they try to do it in the middle of nowhere (after all, each stage is four, five, six hours). But at least two helicopters were filming them, plus drones. I guess if you’re paid enough, you don’t care.

Possibly related or not: A friend tried very hard to offer a cold beer to a sweet gendarme who was standing on the sidelines, for hours, in the sun, with disobedient onlookers. But he declined! I was surprised.

Does this not ooze V.I.P.? Note the fake tulip! I also appreciate the wheelchair ramp, having wheeled my parents (not as much as my siblings) and noticing the general lack of access in Europe.

Urination aside, the Tour de France is a class act. I poked my head into the VIP tent and snapped these awful shots before being chased away. I was impressed that even though it was a tent in a parking lot, the workers were busily wheeling in large potted plants, and every table had a fake yellow tulip (it isn’t the season for tulips–that’s why they’re fake. Not to mention the logistics–I imagine some poor roadie assigned to scrounge up so many yellow flowers at every stop along the route. Fake is the only solution). To me, it was SO FRENCH. Of course there are flowers on the tables. Of course there are potted plants. Of course there’s a carpet on the asphalt. And, knowing who catered, of course the food was amazing. (Actually, the food would probably be amazing anywhere on the Tour de France route. You have to make an effort to eat badly in France. It can happen, but it really has to be the result of a chain of miscalculations.)P1100522

This is like a paparazzi shot of a plant.

The last time the Tour left from Carcassonne, and when you’re close to the departure, the cyclists are closely lumped together. This time, for the arrival, it was after the Pic du Nore did its triage and the first riders arrived 13 minutes before the peleton.

If you want to split your sides laughing about cycling, check out the movie “Le Vélo de Ghislain Lambert,” with Benoît Poelevoorde, who is one of the funniest actors alive. It’s about a mediocre cyclist who dreams of the fame of Belgian multiple Tour de France champion Eddy Merckx (pronounced merks…he’s still revered today). Hilarious.

Do you watch the Tour de France? Do you bike?

The first guys. No idea who they were.

Bikes and Old Stones


Biking isn’t always easy in the French countryside. The departmental roads are narrow, with no shoulders and ditches right up to the tarmac edge. Except when platane trees are there.


The small streets of old towns and villages were made for horse-drawn carts, not gas-guzzling 4x4s that take up two parking places. Bike lanes? Rare. But they are catching on. It’s odd it has taken so long, when bikes seem so quintessentially French.


Do you bike in France? What has your experience been?

Sunny South of France

view garrigueBefore 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.

dry rapids
What would be rapids in a stream bed, completely dry.

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.

bridgeWe 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.

gourde de la dame
La gourde de la dame

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.

The very old dam
barrage water
The water behind the dam

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.

A path

Finally, M. announced we were nearly at the top. We climbed a steep bit, turned around and saw:

solar panels 1
Clean energy: solar in the foreground, wind on the mountaintop.

“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.

solar panels 3

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.

solar panels 2
Almost like rows of grapevines

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.

The mine pit

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.

A ruin nestled in the mountains

viewview 2

view 3

And to the south, Carcassonne and the Pyrénées in the distance.

view cite
Can you make out la Cité of Carcassonne? Look for towers, right in the middle of the photo.

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.

Cycle Swag

057.Tour de FranceThe Tour de France will depart from Carcassonne on July 13 and head to Montpellier. They will take off at 1:50 p.m. I’ve asked for details about this year’s routes and will update you when I get them.


058.Tour de France1The cyclists zoom by in the blink of an eye. It’s hilly around here, but the Alps it isn’t. So they ride in a tight pack.

But the best part will go by much earlier.

We’re talking about cycle swag. Most of which has nothing to do with cycling.

The regional newspapers toss copies in very handy cotton totebags.

The PMU is off-track horse betting. There are often bars or tabacs (cigarette shops) affiliated with the  PMU in big and small towns.


Mostly they throw candy, hats, key rings, pens, coloring booklets, wrist bands and other stuff that won’t hurt if you miss catching it and it hits you in the head instead.

Can you imagine riding around France in a 2CV, heaving little sausages at the crowds on the sides of the roads? Talk about a summer job!

Like little sausages. And, of course, cheese. Good idea!

I think they threw candy.

Obviously no tanks of cooking gas.

Hope they have A/C.

Nor bottles of a beer and lemon soft drink mix.


Not even watches. Sniff!

Make your plans early. The streets get closed off, and the route is crowded in towns, though if you’re in the country, you have plenty of space, as you can see here.

059.Tour de France2


A man, a plan, a canal

The Canal du Midi by Carcassonne's train station.
The Canal du Midi by Carcassonne’s train station.

Carcassonne is home to two Unesco World Heritage sites: la Cité and the Canal du Midi.

The Canal du Midi stretches 150 miles from near Sète on the Mediterranean, to Toulouse, where it meets the Canal de Garonne, which goes to the Atlantic.

Unesco says the canal, which was built between 1667 and 1694, is one of the greatest engineering achievements of the Modern Age, and that it laid groundwork for the Industrial Revolution.

Pierre-Paul Riquet
Pierre-Paul Riquet

It was the brainchild of Pierre-Paul Riquet, who started out as a tax collector and who not only came up with the idea for a canal (well, the Romans thought of it first but couldn’t figure out how to carry it out), he also was the engineer for it.

It was no small feat. Although the canal travels across a plain, it’s flat only in comparison with the Black Mountains to the north and the Pyrenees to the south. There are plenty of hills (ask any bicyclist). Riquet also had to build a reservoir, the Lac de Saint-Ferréol near Revel, to feed the canal with water from the Black Mountains.

One of the locks
One of the locks
waiting for locks
Waiting for the lock to fill

There are 53 locks, or écluses, to accommodate the changes in elevation, which used to be operated by men and/or donkeys but now are electric. As many as 10,000 workers were engaged at a time, making it one of the big infrastructure projects of its time. Support for it was high because it would cut the trip between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and also avoid the piracy around southern Spain at that time. (More locks shown below.)

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Riquet paid for it partly with taxes that he was empowered to collect and partly through his own fortune, which he exhausted. Carcassonne originally had been bypassed, not wanting to pay up; the canal got a detour through Carcassonne that opened in 1810.

Riquet died in 1680, just a few months before the major part of the canal was finished.

Of course, when there’s lots of rain, the canal risks overflowing, so Riquet devised basins (called épanchoirs) to divert the excess.

The canal even goes through a tunnel (the Malpas tunnel), built in 1670 in Hérault, and over a river (the Orb in Béziers).

Canal 6The barges, carrying wheat, wine, fabric and other goods, were pulled by men and donkeys, and fruit trees were planted along the banks to provide food. As the traffic made the banks erode, the platanes that are so typical of the south of France were planted instead. However, the platanes are under attack from an untreatable fungus, and are themselves being replaced by oaks.

Canal 5
The Black Mountains in the distance

The last commercial barge passed in 1980. The only traffic since then has been touristic.

Around November, segments of the canal are drained to allow for dredging and repairs to the locks. It’s a sad time of year, seeing the mud bottom exposed. When the canal is refilled later in winter, it feels as if spring is already around the corner.

The canal is great for hiking and biking—it’s flat and mostly shady. It’s impossible to get lost.

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You also can go for boat rides (or you can rent houseboats (le Boat, Canalous) that you pilot yourself if you want to stay on the water that long). A boat ride is a perfect inactivity for a hot summer day. Just get your tickets in advance–if a busload of tourists arrives ahead of you, you’ll have to wait for the next departure.

A leisurely promenade on the water

Lou Gabaret, le Cocagne and le Defi offer cruises along the canal, with different lengths and starting times. There also are evening dinner cruises. Even if it’s hot, take a sweater, because you get a nice breeze off the water. The starting point is the Port of Carcassonne, in front of the train station. The cruises usually include a historic commentary, given in as many languages as needed. The guides are really amazing linguists.