If you haven’t heard enough here about why you should visit Carcassonne, check out the lovely article about our region in Condé Nast Traveler.
Titled “Why Languedoc Is Like Nowhere Else in France,” you can see it here.
The gorgeous photos are by Oddur Thorisson, whom francophile blog readers probably know as the husband of Mimi Thorisson of Manger. (Because I don’t reproduce other people’s photos without permission, the photos here are my own.)The writer visits many of our favorites, from la Cité of Carcassonne, shown at the top, to the beach at Gruissan, above, the garrigue, below, and more. The article calls Languedoc the Tuscany of France, but I think of it as the “other” south of France–more low-key and down to earth, less fashionable and flashy than Provence.The markets overflow with succulent local produce and products that end up in delicious dinners shared among friends and family or at restaurants. And the wine!
It is a pleasure to share the local secrets with you, especially the ones about savoir-vivre–the French art of living well.
Tangentially, check out this beautiful tapestry that some dear friends gave us. We put it in la Suite Barbès. It’s two meters (six feet) wide, which gives you an idea of how big the room is.
For reasons we don’t understand, the listings for our apartments in the heart of Carcassonne were completely messed up on AirBnB. We have openings!
The apartments date to the 17th century and have 13-foot ceilings, huge marble fireplaces with gorgeous high-relief decorations above them, and huge windows. They were renovated according to strict historical preservation rules and are furnished with antiques.
Appearances can be deceptive. The Maison des Mémoires (House of Memories) is a haunting name for nicely restored building in the center of Carcassonne, mixing industrial modern touches with ancient stones. A sun-drenched interior courtyard shows beyond the reception desk.
Why I never entered is a mystery. I love this sort of thing. But la Maison des Memoires is modest, at least from the street, and when I passed, I was usually in a hurry on my way to something else.
I finally visited. And it was a treat. An unexpected discovery of unexpected discoveries. How’s that for meta?
The building, at 53 rue de Verdun (entry is free), was the home of Joë Bousquet, a poet and author who hobnobbed with the surrealists. They came to him because he was unable to get out. He was paralyzed by a bullet to the spine in World War I at the age of 21.
Bousquet mostly stayed in the dim of his upstairs room, where he smoked opium to cope with the pain. Opium became popular in France at the turn of the last century, as sailors and military brought it back with them from Indochina. It became so popular that smoking it was outlawed in 1908. But Bousquet’s father was a doctor, who had legal access, and his circle of artistic friends supplemented his supply.
Tangent discovered in researching this: France is the biggest legal producer of opium poppies rich in codeine (which is one of the six naturally occurring opium alkaloids; morphine is the most important one for medicine).
The ground floor has a reception area (entry is free), and upstairs are two rooms for visiting exhibits–a series of photographs about immigration when I visited–and two more rooms about Bousquet, with photos and his books. At the end of a small hallway, you can look into Bousquet’s bedroom, kept as he left it, with the shutters closed.
The exhibit rooms are stunning, exhibits notwithstanding. When the building was renovated, gorgeous painted ceiling beams were revealed. They were restored but not brightened or altered. The first room is kept dark, so it was hard to photograph without flash.
The second room’s beams date to 1640 and are quite different. They would be stylish today. I would love them at home!
The rooms are arranged in the typical French disposition, with doors aligned for sight lines and air circulation. As you stand in the second room and look through the first to the hallway beyond, there’s a trompe d’oeil fresco that was discovered after a new staircase had been installed. The fresco was placed to give the impression of a pastoral view that continued on to the horizon.And then, get a load of this beauty below. This is no reflection on the Bousquet family, because Joë lived in two other houses on the same street before moving here. But sometimes you have to appreciate when decorators don’t do the “right” thing. Like when they slap something new right on top of the old stuff, instead of first removing the old.In this case, the old stuff was Aubusson wallpaper, signed and dated: 1791. It originally had been a few feet away, at the end of a hallway, but was moved here, away from the window. Whoever had gotten sick of it so many years ago just left it there and covered it up.
Another tangent: the tapestries that had made Aubusson (and Gobelins and Beauvais) famous fell out of fashion, in part because they weren’t needed for insulation as homes were better heated and in part because the French Revolution (1789-1799) put a big dent in their clientele. So they started making wallpaper, which was coming into fashion. In fact, the first definition of tapisser today in French is to hang wallpaper. I love etymological connections.
Sadly for Bousquet, all these beauties had been hidden under plaster and discovered only during the renovation to create the museum. I can just imagine, having been there, done that: a bump against a wall sends a layer of plaster clattering down. In our case, we discovered not antique wallpaper but that the walls had been filled with straw. You never know what you will find.
After my second visit to la Maison des Memoires, I hit the library for some of Bousquet’s books. I wasn’t familiar with Bousquet, nor with his contemporaries, such as Andrew Gide and Paul Éluard. Another happy discovery. Here are a few passages translated:
The truth that we understand is but the image of that which inspires us.
You have presumed too much of the future and of luck. The time which should have brought you happiness is dead en route, and you fall again to the power of the shadows that follow you. But an unhoped-for rescue comes to you with your strengths, which you hadn’t imagined. Would you say that everything is lost because there’s only you to save yourself?
Don’t imitate reality, collaborate with it.
Meanwhile, a call for help from a reader: what exactly are these scissors used for? They are 6.5 inches or 16 cm long. I was thinking for sewing, though they’re longer than my pretty sewing scissors and the blades are different. What do you say?
Send your answers in the comments. And merci mille fois!
Last week, the news was full of about how bad weather in Spain and Italy had hurt vegetable crops, sending prices skyrocketing.
I have to admit that I had picked up a few courgettes (zucchini) at the market and then dropped them as if stung by a bee when the vendor informed me the price was €7.50 a kilo. In summer, courgettes sell for €1 a kilo. My fault for wanting something out of season.
Because we live in an area where frost is rare and the ground doesn’t freeze in winter, fresh local produce is available year-round. But it means forgetting about zucchini and tomatoes.
At the Saturday market I gathered photos from my favorite maraîchers, or vendors, who also grow all their own produce. There’s plenty of variety, even in the dead of winter.
Take radishes. There are the red variety, like the first photo. But also black or blue.
What do you do with these giants? You can dice them up in a soup or slice or grate them to eat raw in a salad. Speaking of salad, there are many kinds of lettuce and such, including piles of single leaves of roquette (rocket or arugula), cresson (watercress), chicorée (chicory) frisée (curly endive) or escarole but not iceberg. No loss there.
I don’t count lettuce as a vegetable. It’s like a condiment, a nice thing to eat on the side, a crisp break between the main course and the cheese course, but you still need a vegetable, or you need to eat a truckload of lettuce. The Carnivore argues that a few tired* leaves of laitue are all you need, and that fish, poultry, eggs and dairy could possibly count as vegetables because they aren’t meat. Logical.
We even have kale in Carcassonne. Moving up in the world.
Kale may be new and trendy in France, but cabbage comes in many varieties and is cheap.
Did you know that calling somebody a cabbage is a term of endearment? Mon chou and p’tit chou are like saying “honey.” (Don’t call anybody miel in French!) The teacher’s pet is the chouchou. And a petit bout de chou is a small child.
Topinambour, or sunchoke, can substitute for potatoes, and are prepared the same way.
Alain and Juliette Fumanel‘s stand is another favorite. M. Fumanel is known to all as “Fufu,” and usually is in highly amusing conversation with his many friends and clients. And Mme. Fumanel is always very elegant. I go directly to their farm near Pont Rouge in summer for tomatoes and the other vegetables I put in my tomato sauce.
Check back on Friday for a special recipe using a purchase from the market: Swiss chard.
*Re “tired” lettuce: some people like to “fatigue” the salad by dressing it a few hours before the meal, so it isn’t as crisp. They actually do it on purpose.
It isn’t easy to find curtains that are four meters long (13 feet). Lined, traditionally pleated (no grommets or tabs for hanging). Made of elegant fabric. Custom is too costly; the only option was DIY.
I HATE to sew.
It’s right up there with gardening. Something I can do but would rather not. I just had an old filling replaced; I was happier getting my tooth drilled than I was trying to line up meter upon meter of slippery satin and taffeta.
It used to be nearly obligatory for girls to learn to sew. Proof: In the “Ramona” books by Beverly Cleary, Ramona’s mom is always making the kids’ clothes. In the 1970s, my mom made many of my clothes, and she taught me, with grandmas and aunts offering additional tutoring. I made clothes. Some rockin’ elephant-leg corduroy bell bottoms. With a zipper and everything.
But I refused to take home economics in high school, despite heavy pressure by my adviser. I was more interested in economics than in home economics. And still am.
So, curtains. I can at least sew a more-or-less-straight line, and that’s about as much as one needs to know for curtains.
Comptoir des Tisseurs, at 25, rue de la République, in the center of Carcassonne, has beautiful fabric and excellent advice. Turns out the address has been home to fabric-makers for generations. Fabric from France is a practical souvenir–take some home for pillow shams. Unbreakable, not too heavy, something to remind you every day of your trip. Perfect souvenir!
The living room of the front apartment got satin in a dark gray like the walls. The curtains had to be slim enough not to cover the beautiful boiserie and mirror on the wall between the windows.
The bedroom got taffeta of the same color. Made in France. I bought all that was left–the maker had gone out of business. I wanted these curtains to be fuller, plus I wanted heavier, black-out lining because it’s a bedroom and the shutters don’t cover the top squares of the windows (called impostes, they are fixed; the shutters cover only the parts of the windows that open).
To make the curtains as big as possible with the available fabric, I took a page from the informative window treatments post by Cote de Texas and did like the photo she shows by Suzanne Kasler, putting a contrasting band at the bottom: bordeaux taffeta from the same company.
The transition between the two required a woven ribbon, the search for which entailed visits to all of Carcassonne’s merceries, or notions shops. Let me tell you, they are hopping. Apparently some people like to sew.
DesignSponge provided clear instructions. How hard is it to sew a rectangle? (Answer: Very hard, if the rectangle is ginormous.)
The lining was the worst part. Just the bedroom required 22 meters (about 22 yards) of lining. Even when we managed to fold it in half (and it took all three of us to wrestle it to the ground), it was longer than our “great” room, going up the steps and into the library.
It was HEAVY–10 kilos (22 pounds) for the lining and six kilos (13 pounds) for the taffeta. So each panel weighs four kilos. Yanking all that through the sewing machine gave my left arm a workout. I’m surprised I don’t have a Popeye bicep.
What I do have is fingertips with more holes than a diabetic’s, and deep cuts from pulling thread.
And I screwed up.
Pleating tape is different here than in the DesignSponge example. It has two cords; you knot them on one side and pull on the other, then knot it. The system is similar to making ruffles.
Well, I sewed the tape on inside-out. I spotted this at the apartment, having already made the pleats. I had executed this stupidity on two panels. The four-kilo bedroom panels. Of course.
I had to take them home, undo the knots without losing the cords and retie them with most of the pleats eased out, rip off the tape, carefully push all the remaining pleats to one side so some tape was flat for sewing, sew the tape back on correctly up to the pleats, push them all to the sewn side and stitch the rest. Did you get that? Me either.
The curtains were so heavy we couldn’t open and shut them, even using a broomstick, which was far too short. The blackout lining worked very well–the room was plunged in darkness with the curtains hanging straight.
Next improvisation: find tiebacks. The effect wasn’t what I had in mind, with a straight band, but I think it is pretty anyway.
New upholstery (more sewing!) coming for the chairs, which are in good shape, just not what we want. Pale gray velvet with tone-on-tone paisley.
Another sewing adventure: a new cushion on the daybed. It’s a weird size, because everything in those days was handmade, including the mattress and box springs (francophiles can read a little about this in M.F.K. Fisher’s book “Long Ago in France” or here).
Of course, it wasn’t just a rectangle. That would be too straightforward. It has notches in the four corners. Just to ensure my hair goes gray. Like the walls.
One day, I will DIY lime the wood so it’s kind of white; the room has more dark wood than I want. Although the apartment is ready to rent, it may never be “done.” I suspect we will always find things to add, get tired of others, changes here and there. We have barely started on art for the walls. In the meantime, the daybed will make a good spot for watching TV or reading a book.
Three more sets of curtains still to go for the courtyard apartment.
Don’t look for the defects; their massive numbers will overwhelm you. I don’t sew as well as, say, an 8-year-old in Bangladesh. This is something I thought about a lot while sitting at my sewing machine. There are so many people–mostly women, too many too young–for whom sewing occupies much of their waking day, in a room not as nice as mine, with few breaks, no benefits, and paltry pay. They are glad for the employment, I know, and their exports have hugely reduced extreme poverty. But it does seem we and they should be able to have jobs and reasonably priced goods without having to resort to work forces that are barely a step above slave labor.
More updates about the renovation coming soon. If you’re interested in renting, let me know at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org!
First, I was remiss in not wishing everyone a happy new year, and above all, good health–meilleurs voeux pour 2017, surtout la santé. It’s the first thing everybody says here at the moment, even strangers.
This kitchen is possibly my favorite room in our renovation. It’s huge. It has plenty of counter space, plenty of storage, seating and a fireplace big enough to stand in.
We didn’t get to buy all the cool copper pans, but as we installed an induction stovetop, they wouldn’t have worked anyway. Let me just say again that induction is the greatest!
We took a leaf out of the table–it’s already big with one–and changed out the benches for chairs. Benches are useful for squeezing in crowds but they are never comfortable. Pointless in a two-bedroom apartment.
I loved the idea of black and white checkerboard–damier in French–but what was there was nasty, cracked linoleum. Replacing it with tile or stone wasn’t historically accurate enough, especially since we found the original tomettes under the linoleum.
Some of the hardest work came from things that are unseen, namely completely rewiring the place. We LOVE our electrician. And our painter. Here are links to the work along the way: changing the windows (the one with wind blowing is the kitchen) and the sink.
I think this is the only vacation rental in Carcassonne–and possibly beyond–with such a nice kitchen. It’s perfect for somebody who wants to go to the market and cook, and we plan to arrange cooking lessons as well. The other apartment is even grander but has a small but complete kitchen. Updated photos of it coming soon.
The apartments will be listed soon–we’re just finalizing the official paperwork. Hope you’ll come!
The decorations are up. The shoppers are out. And, for the kids, the Magic of Noël is in full swing.
The rides for the littlest ones are concentrated at Parc André Chenier, next to the Canal du Midi. The city put up an appropriately impressive entrance, and the whole thing is ringed in, I suppose for security. But it’s also a good idea as far as limiting escape routes for little ones who wander off.
My favorite has kids in the kindergarten-and-below range atop reindeer that bounce at a stately pace along a rail that winds through a forest of flocked Christmas trees. I could stand there all day watching their faces full of excitement. But between the trees and the bouncing not one of my photos came out.
The skating rink at Place Carnot in the center of Carcassonne has grown over the years, now wrapping around the statue of poor shirtless Neptune atop his fountain, which is covered with fake icicles. Temperatures have been in the mid-60s this week.
Even the skating rink has a tough time of it, with one corner that gets a bit more sun tending to melt into slush. Check out the skater in a tank top!
Around the skating rink, chalets sell potential Christmas presents, from light-up skateboards to handmade leather belts to jewelry to scarves, as well as food and drink.
The chalets and rink have displaced the market, but they make a festive backdrop. It feels like a big party. Maybe because the chalets, and the cafés around the square, are about taking a break from shopping, about meeting up with friends. A little respite from consumerism.
We had dilemma with the pantry of our 17th century apartments. As in, what are we going to do with this space?
It was too big to ignore. But a vacation rental, especially one with plenty of kitchen cupboards, doesn’t need a pantry, called a cellier in French.
The municipal and national landmarks experts suggested making it a bathroom, because it was in the former service hallway that we’re allowed to change as we like. But the low ceiling and lack of a window would have been unpleasant as a bathroom.
So we put in a sauna.
Why not, right? It was just the right size. An ugly, awkward hole became a little spa. We tried it out on our most recent stay. It heats up in just a few minutes. There’s a timer so it automatically shuts off–a nice safety feature. We don’t want somebody passing out and getting cooked (you’re supposed to drink a lot of water before and after). The lights are cool blue. There are even speakers and a jack to plug in your phone for music (see the cord, below on the left?).
It’s right next to the bathroom, for a cold shower afterward. A before/after coming on that soon–we finally found the right light fixture.
This is likely to be a recurring theme, because I constantly spy odd little details that make me smile. Like the “51” pastis-flavored macarons from Pâtisserie Greg, who’s at the corner of the market near the Halles on Saturdays.
I can walk past something hundreds of times, and then one day it jumps out at me: this wouldn’t be found in America. Sometimes it wouldn’t be found in Paris, even. Quirks, quoi.
Like the raw milk fountain on Saturdays. I love that it’s BYOB. Raw milk is unpasteurized, FYI. Night and day as far as taste. Of course, pasteurization (invented in France!) cut deaths from germs that had contaminated milk. But that was in the 1800s, before refrigeration and vaccines were a thing. Healthy people can drink raw milk without fear.
Le (B) sandwich shop boasts bagels; it’s new–and there’s another new bagel place on the same street a couple of blocks away. Carcassonne has discovered bagels! While it might be a little oasis of NYC in the south of France, some details are resolutely French. Like closing early when you’ve run out of fresh, homemade goods.
Sometimes walking down the street, I nearly trip over these, because the sidewalk is barely two feet wide, and some places just a foot across, and I think, this would never happen in the U.S.:
And actually, when I start to look down, I realize how incredible the foundations are. Huge stones, little fillers. Yikes.
And then, there’s Place de Lattre de Tassigny, named after a World War I commander, just around the corner from our apartments. It used to be a parking lot, and now it’s an outdoor living room. I love it.
Which quirks do you find endearing in your home? In France?
Cabanel is a cathedral of alcoholic beverages. This Carcassonne institution not only sells everything imaginable from around the world, but also makes its own spirits. Founded in 1868 by Joseph Cabanel, it’s been in the same Belle Epoque building since 1905, making it not just a shop but practically a museum, or a step back in time.
Its signature product is micheline, which supposedly dates to the fourth century as a potion for eternal youth. Like other spirits, it originally was for medicinal purposes, and contains lemon balm, nutmeg, cardamon and many other spices. A framed box shows the different ingredients.
Other specialities of the house include Kina, an apéritif made of plants, including the cinchona bark, which is the source of quinine, and spices. Cabanel also makes Or-Kina (gold Kina), crème de noix (walnut liqueur) and Carcasso (walnut wine) among others. Today, they’re distilled on the premises by Jean-Marc Gazel. Another regional specialty is cartagène, a vin de liqueur, or wine of liqueur, drunk as as an apéritif. (Below, hover over the pictures for the explanation.)
Carcasso, a walnut apéritif.
Rigolo…the name means funny. It’s a vermouth.
Syrups, from left: mint, grenadine and lemon.
Dolin is a vermouth from Chambéry, France.
Mint cream liqueur.
This is a boutique to spend time in. The counter stands in the middle of the shop, as was the custom at the turn of the last century. A glass window separating the shop from the office has an opening marked “Caisse/Reseignements“–cashier and information.
The owners are more than happy to explain the different alcohols and liqueurs, from the ingredients to the history. It was fascinating. Did you know that alcohol comes from the Arabic word “al kohl,” or the metallic powder used to darken eyelids and provide relief from the sun?
A fountain in the corner.
The shop is full of cool old stuff, like the first phone they had–still with the same phone number, and many old photos.
I apologize for the rotten quality of the photos. I went in on a dark, rainy day and didn’t use a flash. Plus I can’t see a darn thing with or without glasses, much less in the gloom, much less on a little screen. My bad. I took the outside shots on a better day.
Cabanel is located at 72 allée d’Iéna, just south (uphill) of the Bastide. Don’t miss it!