Dream Home?

If you’ve ever dreamt about owning a gorgeous French apartment, I know of one for sale. Built in the 1600s, with four-meter (13-foot) ceilings, fabulous decorations above the marble fireplaces, balconies, a lovely shared interior courtyard….all renovated according to the strict rules of the historical authorities, Bâtiments de France.

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Hello Again

I sit in in the glorious gloom of a summer thunderstorm. Minutes ago, the skies and the church around the corner competed loudly for which could produce the loudest peals. The church won, working through the four plus ten chimes of the hour, then moving on to 23 (!!!) uninterrupted minutes of random ringing, interspersed with some very pretty hymns (I recognized one but couldn’t recall the title; another was Bach’s “Ode to Joy”), then some more raucous ringing. Thunder clapped and rumbled, but the bells dominated.

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Endless Summer

It’s crazy. We’re halfway through September, nearly to the official start of fall, and I still can stand only the thinnest sheet I own, no blanket, and the fan on during the night. It was 23 Celsius (73.4 Fahrenheit) here in Carcassonne when I got up this morning. That’s not unusual in August, but now? Our Septembers have an average low temp of 14.2 C (57.6 F) and an average high of 24 C (75.2 F)–perfection. But lately? It’s been in the 30s, which actually is higher than the average high temperature in summer. It’s worse to the west of us–Toulouse is setting records.

Obviously, it’s far worse much farther west. On many levels. But we won’t talk about that.

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Dreaming of a White Christmas

IMG_0232It’s a dark, gray day. It looks as if it could snow, but that’s out of the question. The temperature is 12 C (53 F). This is considerably cooler than a couple of days ago. Crazy. The plain between the Black Mountains and the Pyrénées is a patchwork of plowed brown fields or sculptural bare vineyards, mixed with a vivid emerald of all the things happy for the season’s rain so they can grow. (Actually, in the time it took me to write this, the clouds dissipated and the sun is shining brightly.)IMG_4379

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The snow-capped Pyrénées. The stripe of silver-leafed trees in the center of the photo is an olive grove.

IMG_4370IMG_4376The mood in town feels upbeat. Stores are bustling. The sidewalks are packed with people out shopping or going to the Christmas markets, which emphasize food and drink for adults and rides for children. I haven’t looked up close at the skating rink, entoured with Christmas trees flocked with fake snow. I remember one time that I accompanied my kid’s class, despite not knowing how to skate myself, and a big part of the rink was slush because it was so warm and sunny.IMG_0311IMG_0305IMG_0304The rocade, or ring road around town, is backed up with traffic going to the centres commerciaux, or shopping malls. Last year, the Gilets Jaunes went after shops, both in town centers and at malls. This year, the strikers are focused on government buildings and public transportation, and shoppers are more or less left in peace. It certainly has been years–since 2008–since I’ve seen so much activity.IMG_0231It’s invigorating, but I also like to step away to the relative calm of la Cité. It can be packed in summer, but at this time of year, it’s quiet and haunting. Like having my own personal fortress. IMG_0319IMG_0320IMG_0229IMG_0321My kid is disappointed with the mildness of winter here, longing for a good snow. I remember our family’s big old station wagon, and all four of us kids would be in the back seat, huddling together under an old blanket (the “car blanket”) and waiting for the heat blasting the windshield to finally reach us. The windows would resemble submarine portholes, small rounds scratched into the ice that had encased the vehicle in the time it took us to pay our weekly visit to grandma. la cite winter from audeI don’t know whether my kid’s longing is for snow, or for having siblings to snuggle with in a cold car, or for having grandmas to visit weekly if not more. Even though I did what I could to create an ideal childhood for my kid, some things just aren’t possible to provide.IMG_0308I also feel some twinges of jealousy. There’s a particularly beautiful shop in Carcassonne, la Ferme, which sells all kinds of good things to eat and drink as well as cooking and dining gear. It’s a step back in time, packed to the gills, and I want every single thing in there. I eavesdropped on shoppers, debating whether to get this or that for grandpa, for auntie. There are many great things about being an expat, but being far from extended family is the hardest.IMG_0313How about you? Are you shopping? Done? What are your Christmas plans? I so enjoy reading your comments. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of you in real life, and every single time my biggest disappointment is that you live too far away to get together–to a person, everyone has felt immediately like a long-time friend. I treasure that. Thank you.

 

Keys to the Castle

IMG_2265It looks as if it were a castle designed by Disney for a princess. But Carcassonne isn’t a castle. It’s a fortified city (la Cité) with a castle inside it. I’ve been to the castle many times, and recently went back with visitors. I really don’t get tired of it–there are so many details. La Cité became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997.IMG_2246IMG_1463The castle is a museum and you have to buy a ticket to get in. Only fair–I can barely keep up with maintenance of my house; I can’t imagine what this joint must require. The oldest parts date to 2,500 years ago. Ouf! Talk about built to last.

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A Roman tower in front, with a medieval tower behind. The Romans used the strip of red bricks to make sure the walls were level. 

You enter through a barbican. The castle was the last defense within the well-defended city. The city itself had a drawbridge and walls–eventually a double ring of walls, which is unique–with many barbicans. A barbican is a brilliant piece of design–a half circle, it allows the residents 180 degrees of range of attack toward the outside. If, horrors, the attackers overwhelm the residents, the residents retreat farther inside and the attackers find themselves in the half-circle of the barbican–which has transformed from defense to trap, because there’s always a spot just a little beyond the barbican from which the residents can shoot at those in its confines, like fish in a barrel.

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Barbicans, here and below, on the outer city wall.

IMG_2270 2So if attackers made it over the first drawbridge they would be stuck in the sets of double doors that would drop down to trap invaders between, with a trap door above so the residents could pour boiling water, boiling oil, stones or whatever down on them. The trapped invaders would be left to die of their injuries/starve to death or, if the invaders seemed not worth the wait, the outer door could be opened so they could flee.IMG_2243If the attackers breached this defense, they could run up the narrow lanes of la Cité. The residents would have already absconded for the castle, the final refuge. It has a barbican–a big one, separated from the castle proper by a drawbridge over a dry moat. Why a dry moat, you ask? Well, Carcassonne is on top of a hill, so it isn’t like there would be water in the moat. (Except during the filming of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” with Kevin Costner.) But the structure was useful anyway because it slowed down the attackers and kept them corralled where it was easy to shoot at them.

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A covered gallery for archers to aim at attackers, and, when not used for that, for members of the court to get around the castle.

There’s another set of double drop-down doors and then you’re in the Courtyard of Honor. Time to forget about invasions and to think more about court life.

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Fascinating mix of materials in the Cour d’Honneur.

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Through the wavy glass.

The museum shows a wonderful short film about how Eugène Viollet le Duc restored la Cité, starting in 1844, saving it from almost being torn down. How he looked for traces of what was before–where there was a window, supports for a ceiling, etc. In other words, what you see today is a restoration of what was left centuries later but not quite as it was in its heyday in the early 13th century.IMG_2247IMG_1435

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Another inner courtyard.

What do you think of historic restorations? I think it’s important to preserve the past, but you can’t bring it back. And so I like la Cité. It takes me to another time, another perspective.

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The slate roofs were/are controversial–the roofs were gone when the restoration took place, and Viollet-le-Duc was criticized for using slate instead of terra-cotta tiles.

Do you go to the tourist attractions in your town? In France, the entire country is a tourist attraction. La Cité is very popular, and in the summer, in the afternoon, it is crowded and hot and unpleasant with daytrippers who come over from the Mediterranean beaches for a few begrudging hours of culture. But even in summer, in the mornings and evenings, it’s not crowded and is so interesting. And off-season you can practically have the place to yourself, to let your imagination run wild. I love going to la Cité. After all these years, I still make discoveries.

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Fireplace mantels.

IMG_1460The little details grab me more as time goes by. Long ago when I lived in New York, I had a membership to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and would pop in once or twice a week. When you go that often, you don’t feel obliged to see everything. I spent one visit just looking at the Grecian urns–a room full of them–marveling at the stories painted on them. I also was impressed by how few people stopped to look at them, instead just passing through to more “important” things.

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A knight’s sarcophagus, just the legs–can you make out the skirt top right? The detail carved into his shoes amazed me.

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They even carved the hinge on his armor.

The museum holds quite a few things from the cathedral, especially mascarons that were too fragile to leave in the elements.IMG_2253IMG_2251IMG_1450

IMG_1451IMG_1452Check out this pillar…hard to get good exposure on the two sides, so there are two shots of the same thing.

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Human face, with lion’s claws?

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The tail…

What people did with stone is so incredible. Sculptors’ names lost to time. IMG_2252IMG_1461IMG_1444IMG_2255The other cool thing about visiting the museum is you have access to the ramparts, which offer amazing views over the “new” (1260) city and the countryside, down to the Pyrénées, if you’re lucky.

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Olive grove.

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The “new” town. Our AirBnBs are just beyond the funny tower with round windows in the center. About a 15-minute walk (10 minutes to go back because it’s downhill).

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The golden field is wheat.

IMG_1436IMG_1438 While it’s great to see Carcassonne off-season, the summer has advantages despite–or thanks to–the crowds. Tonight, I’m going to see a dance performance in the Cour d’Honneur–talk about a setting! It’s part of the Festival of Carcassonne, with concerts, theater and more, some awfully expensive but other events free. And in August, it’s all things medieval, with jousting tournaments between the walls.

For a small town, there’s never a dull moment.

 

Facelift

P1090909Carcassonne has been encouraging property owners in the center of town to freshen up their façades. At first, the results seemed garish amid the predominantly sandy shades of plaster past. Painted ladies. But now that so many have been done, the effect is festive. P1100777P1070868It’s also an opportunity to hide all the wires that have accumulated over the decades. As one of the historic preservation people told me, folks put in an electric line for one lightbulb per room, then they added lines as they added radios, refrigerators, and other appliances, usually without redoing the wiring, and just bundling everything on the outside, because these walls are stone, as thick as an arm’s length. Indeed, the wiring in our apartments was frightful, and we had it completely redone. I see lots of hanging wires still, but the regulation is to hide them, so it must be coming.IMG_1535The central square, Place Carnot, fairly gleams now. Above and below. All those colors are so Instagrammable.P1090755IMG_1534P1090122Even the safety netting was celebratory.IMG_1532The main street, rue du Verdun, also is looking smart.IMG_1017IMG_1015Below, a façade that has seen some history. Those claw-like things are to reinforce where the wall is threatening to buckle.P1100775I kind of enjoy the traces from the past, like the walled-over door. But there’s a fine line between character and disrepair. I’m also chuckling because I took these photos over several months and somehow the sky is consistently azure.

More visitors are arriving this week, and I have to keep this short so I can finalize preparations. On the menu: asparagus omelette, strawberry-mushroom risotto (my kid’s new specialty), cheese soufflé (which I have had my past two rounds of visitors make and it was perfect both times, proof even beginners can make it!), and chocolate mousse.

I’m sure we’ll see some fun things to share soon.

Itinerary in Action

IMG_1438So much to do, so little time. My cousin came to visit recently. Just a short side trip to say hi during a work trip on this side of the Atlantic. We wanted to put on a good show.

L arrived late Wednesday afternoon. We strolled through la Cité of Carcassonne while waiting to pick up the kid from sports practice nearby. We skipped the museum, but stopped to admire the rope marks dug into the lip of the big well, and the stone steps to the Basilique Saint Nazaire et Saint Celse, which slope from the wear of 800 years of the faithful’s steps. Little details like that make time real, for me at least.

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That’s the basilique’s steeple.

We came home to a dinner of coq au vin that I had prepared in advance. Dinner was all about catching up, though. L was a pure joy. The difference in our ages meant I was out of the house—out of the country—by the time L was starting school. We barely know each other. But we know the same people, the same houses, the same neighborhoods. Stories about our shared grandmother were more vivid because when L talked about Grandma’s kitchen, I could picture every detail–the green linoleum table that was her only counter space for her incessant and abundant cooking, the pies cooling in the pantry, the celadon bowl of salt (she measured with her fingers, always).

 

The next day was a little crazy. I let our kid stay home from school. Good grades, rarely absent, why not. First we did a tour of our little village, then L asked what the garrigue is. So we set off past the vineyards to get a taste—a whiff—of the tangle of brush and pines and wild herbs that make the garrigue special.We had asparagus omelettes for lunch, then headed to Caunes-Minervois to see a really pretty village. We went into the abbey and down to the 8th century crypt. Since it was a gorgeous day, we moved on to Lastours, about a 12-minute drive away. There, we were perhaps overambitious. The lady at the reception told us it would take at least two hours to go up and come back. I was thinking, oh, the castles are right above us—it’s no problem. I had been there when our kid was small and got tired and had to be carried. I had taken my mother-in-law, who was not a walker. I had been there with a former colleague in his late 70s. No sweat. barrage-lakeWe were there for an hour and 52 minutes—I can see it on my Fitbit. We didn’t stop. It’s up and up and up, then down and up and up and up. As I’ve noted before, no guard rails. At least we were alone and didn’t have to share the narrow trail.

And yes, we were alone. It is utterly glorious to have four medieval ruins to oneself, to look out over the rugged mountains and on over the plain until you see the other mountains, the Pyrénées, snowcapped on the horizon. The mountain air is sweet and clear. Only occasionally the rumble of a car on the winding road far below reminds us of which century we’re in.683.Lastours10Having descended, which entailed a surprising amount of climbing, we were surprised to discover the exit roped off, a sign pointing to a gate. It was unlocked and put us directly on the single road, a two-way thoroughfare with room for one car most of the time and no shoulders. In fact, it was at the bottom of a cliff on one side and a river on the other.

On our way down we had spied a group of hikers and now we caught up to them. They were a tough lot. All retirees. Considering how tired we were from our hike, we were impressed. The hikers spread out like a flock of cats all over the road. A car came and had to slow to a crawl as the retired hikers stayed planted in the middle of the tarmac, giving it no heed. Finally the car came to a wide spot and maneuvered around them, but not quite enough for one hiker.

“Attention aux mémés!” she yelled. “Look out for the grannies!”661.Lastours3 We got home in time for a short nap and shower before going to our favorite restaurant, le Clos des Framboisiers. I promise to go interview the chef sometime. The food was as wonderful as always, the service impeccable as always, the parking lot full of 11 license plates (locals), except for one car, as always. L was astounded. The menu is fixed price—€32 per person—and includes an apéritif (on this visit it was sangria), appetizer, main course, cheese and dessert.

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L’s first steak tartare, a starter.

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Followed by fish.

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The Carnivore had meat. Duh.

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Strawberry soup.

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Chocolate ganache. The little meringue was lavender-flavored.

IMG_1431On Friday, we took it easy. (The day before we covered 10 miles, or 24,635 steps and 135 floors, according to Fitbit.) First, we went to Montolieu, to poke around some bookstores and admire the views, no climbing or hiking involved.

Then we returned to Carcassonne. We went to les halles to buy a cassoulet from a butcher for dinner. It’s a great deal. They have different sizes, depending on how many people you’re serving, and it comes out to about €7 per person. It comes in the cassole, the earthenware pot that gives the dish its name. You pay a €7 deposit for the cassole that you get back when you return the dish, or you can keep it (and €7 is a very reasonable price). It was all ready to pop into the oven—for an hour, at 220 C (425 F).  The Carnivore prepared foie gras as a starter.P1100769We also looked in a few shops, checking out la Ferme in particular for food-related souvenirs. That store is heaven. Food downstairs; kitchen and dining accessories upstairs. The store itself is beautiful.

We had lunch en terrace at Place Carnot. Simple, but good. Then we checked out the French beauty supplies at the Grande Pharmacie de la Gare. The staff there are very helpful in explaining and finding just the right thing. 

L wanted to see a supermarket, so we went to SuperU in Trèbes, which is just a supermarket and not a hypermarket (they don’t sell refrigerators or TVs or baby car seats). I agree that a supermarket reveals a lot about local culture. Milk and eggs in the same aisle, not refrigerated! An entire aisle, on both sides, of yogurt! Octopus in the fresh fish section! IMG_4419On Saturday, we of course went to the market. We also stopped for cheese at Bousquet; I should have given more thought in advance to my order because just looking around is overwhelming—I want some of everything. Cheese and some good baguettes from the Papineau boulangerie across the street, plus some charcuterie, would be our lunch. And fresh strawberries. 

After lunch we went back to la Cité to take in the museum in the château (la Cité is a fortified city with a château inside it). We braved the wind to walk the ramparts.IMG_1442

 

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Wavy glass!

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The detail on a knight’s sarcophagus…

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A close-up of the hinge on the boot/leg covering. I love details like that!

Then we cooked. I dragooned L into making cheese soufflé. Our kid made strawberry-mushroom risotto. I made a mustard-crusted pork roast and leeks. And we had pineapple-mascarpone parfait for dessert, which L also assisted in. 

And that was it. A full trip, I think. Not many photos of the visit–we enjoyed the moment. Thanks to L for coming and bringing such wonderful conversation. We miss you!IMG_1450

South of France Is for Romance

balconyHere’s an itinerary for a romantic vacation for a couple. Our AirBnBs, la Suite Barbès and l’Ancienne Tannerie, get a lot of love birds on honeymoons and anniversaries. I’ve done posts about some of the sights and have yet to go more in depth on others. Stay tuned.

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La Suite Barbès, with its 35-square-meter bedroom. Top photo is the apartment’s balcony.

There are two ways to visit a region. One is to progress along a route; the other is the hub-and-spoke approach, visiting a variety of sights while coming home to the same place each night.

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What is more romantic than a private sauna? In l’Ancienne Tannerie.

We did this on a multigenerational family trip years ago. The 14 travelers ranged in age from 2 to 76, with three preschoolers, three seniors, two preteens and six middle-aged adults. It was the first trip to Europe for everybody but me and my dad, who had been stationed in Germany just after WWII (“You don’t want to go to Italy, sweetie,” he told me, pronouncing Italy as it-lee. “You can’t drink the water.” I assured him that things had gotten a lot better since his previous visit, during his Army tour just after WWII.)P1100246We rented a villa outside Florence and daytripped to that city as well as to Rome, Sienna, San Gimingano, Pisa and some others.

Coming back to the same spot was essential for the youngest and oldest to recharge. It kept the trip simple, too. We could all unpack and settle in. We got to see the daily rhythms around us, while also seeing a lot of sights.  IMG_5011In that spirit, I posted about seeing the region with Carcassonne as the hub. There’s so much to do, especially if you rent a car and venture around the region. Carcassonne is a small city, which means it has pretty much all the advantages of villages without their disadvantages (not much to see or do) AND the advantages of cities without the disadvantages (crowds and lines). It’s small and easy to get around, including on foot, like a village, yet it punches above its weight for restaurants, offering as many options as a much bigger city. This win-win formula makes it an excellent base.

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La Cité of Carcassonne

Day 1: La Cité

Clearly, the big attraction is la Cité, the largest fortified city in Europe. With 52 towers punctuating a unique double set of walls, the medieval city on a hill looks like a movie set. The best bet it to head there in the late afternoon, around 4 p.m. Walk the perimeter of the walls (best before it gets dark), then explore some of the small interior streets. Or save the perimeter for a few days later—you’ll want to see it more than once. Visit the Château Comtal, the 12th century castle that was home to the Vicomtes of Carcassonne, the Trencavel family, and which now is a museum. It closes at 6:30; count on at least an hour, if not more.After the castle, stroll some more until it’s time for an apéritif before dinner. Check out the le Saint Jean, off the beaten path and with great views of the Château Comtal. Le Bar à Vins has a shady secret garden in nice weather. Then head to dinner. If you have the budget, spring for La Barbacane, the restaurant of Hôtel de la Cité, the town’s fanciest hotel. As a matter of fact, the hotel’s bar is an awfully cozy, romantic spot, too, with a library setting. Less expensive but still very good and romantic is Au Jardin de la Tour, a few steps away, with a hard-to-find entrance but a lovely garden. IMG_5082After dinner, take your time to stroll around. It’s when la Cité is dark and the tourists are gone that you most feel transported back in time. If you’re staying at one of our apartments, you can walk home in 15 minutes, and it’s all downhill. Just remember to turn around and look back at la Cité, lit up against the sky, from the vantage point of Pont Vieux.

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From Pont Vieux…I couldn’t get it all in.

If you’re wondering what to do before going to la Cité in the late afternoon, you can do a slow tease, by wandering the quaint streets of the Trivalle neighborhood. You have many opportunities for awesome selfies with la Cité as a backdrop (because you can’t get it as a backdrop when you’re IN it). Maybe a glass of wine and a truffle snack?IMG_6442When the weather is accommodating (most of the time), you also can stroll along the Aude river. Turn left at the river and just walk as long as you like, keeping in mind the return. The path goes really far, on both riverbanks. Wise flood control. In spring, you’ll see the cutest ducklings, and in summer it’s well-shaded and surprisingly cool. The joggers going by only detract a little, because there aren’t that many of them.

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During a race last year…

Day 2: Medieval Monday

Operating on the principle that most French arrive at vacation spots on Saturdays, I treated Day 1 like a Sunday. So Day 2 would be a Monday, and that’s market day in the town of Mirepoix. It’s about 45 minutes southwest of Carcassonne, though you’ll want to factor in plenty of time to stop and admire along the way.IMG_4172 Mirepoix’s market (in the morning!) is in a square surrounded by half-timbered buildings that date to the 13th to 15th centuries. The buildings have arcades, which house café terraces—the perfect place to people-watch while having a coffee or lunch post-shopping. The entire town is very cute and full of charming boutiques. Mirepoix has a great selection of antique shops, too. IMG_1701From Carcassonne, you can pass Bram, then Fanjeaux and on to Mirepoix, or else go to Montréal and then Fanjeaux and Mirepoix. All those villages are charming and worth a wander for an hour or so. Montréal and Fanjeaux are hilltop towns with commanding views over the valleys. Bram’s adorable streets radiate out from the central church in circles, and it has a museum of archaeology.P1100245Only 15 minutes south of Mirepoix is Camon, one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France (an official thing) and well worth a detour.gruissan 3

Day 3: Sea Breeze

After a leisurely breakfast with croissants from Papineau (rue de Verdun, just off Place Carnot—true love is running three minutes to pick up fresh croissants), or a continental breakfast from one of the many cafés around Place Carnot, there are few things as romantic as a walk on the beach. IMG_4406You can bike or take the #1 city bus (€1) to Lac de la Cavayère just out of town. A manmade lake, set in hills of garrigue, the lake has a string of small beaches, plus a wide, paved walkng path (no hiking shoes needed) of about seven kilometers (just over four miles) all the way around. A castle (Château de Gaja) peeks through the pines in the distance. The beaches nearest the entrance get very crowded on summer afternoons, but otherwise are quiet.IMG_4417Even prettier, though, is the Mediterranean. If you’re going to drive over there (about 45 minutes), make a day of it. If you’re like us, an hour or two of sand and surf is enough. So on the way, check out the Abbaye de Fontfroide. The abbey dates to 1093 and played a role in the crusade against the Cathars. Today, its cloisters are a place of peacefulness and flowers. The gardens are just gorgeous. So is the architecture.empty Our favorite time to visit the beach is off-season. Narbonne’s beach is nice, but we like the Plages des Chalets at Gruissan even more because it doesn’t have high-rise apartment buildings, and the little cabanas on stilts are barely visible from the water. Off season, you’ll have the sand mostly to yourself, and there’s a paved walk as well for biking or skating.gruissan 11 You have two options for lunch: the port, which has lots of terrace cafés and restaurants and views of the boats, or the village, which has lots of cute little restaurants on its tiny streets. Obviously it’s a place for seafood. But keep your meal light because there’s a treat tonight.

The village has a high cuteness factor, so count on a romantic stroll and lots of photos. Climb the hill to the fortress.gruissan 15Head back to Carcassonne. If you have time, take the departmental road D6113, which passes through a string of villages. Conilhac-Corbières and Capendu are particularly pretty. Or, at Villedaigne, cut north to the D610, which more or less follows the Canal du Midi, and is punctuated by one cute village after another.

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Le Clos des Framboisiers

In the evening, dine at le Clos des Framboisiers. This is our favorite restaurant. The €28 fixed price menu isn’t huge, but there is something for everybody. The Carnivore and I have  diametrically opposite tastes, yet we both find multiple choices tempting and are always both happy. You can’t beat it on quality/price. The service is impeccable and the setting is beautiful. It’s isn’t far from the center of town but it’s nearly impossible to find without a GPS. On a visit in July–at the height of tourist season–all but two of the license plates of the cars parked in front were 11’s (the department we’re in is Aude, #11)—this is where the locals go. Dinner only; closed Sunday and Monday. Reserve! (If you’re at one of our apartments, I can do it for you.)

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Another castle: Puilaurens

Day 4: Cathar Castles

The department of Aude is truffled with castles and forts built by the Cathars, those Middle Age heretics. If such ancient ruins, set amid gorgeous scenery, are your thing, then you can spend several days just visiting them. In that case, be sure to get the Passport for the Sites of Cathar Country, which gives you a discount on admission. 670.Lastours5One of our favorites is in Lastours, north of Carcassonne in the Black Mountains, where the ruins of four castles bristle on hilltops, offering commanding views. Park in the lot at the entry to the village; there is nothing further, I guarantee you.  The village is tiny and the entrance isn’t far. The road hugs one bank of the Orbiel river, beneath sheer cliffs. Getting to the hilltop castles entails a steep climb on a narrow dirt path—these castles were built to be inaccessible. Not at all handicapped accessible, nor appropriate for small children (there are no guard rails). For this reason, it’s rarely crowded.657.Lastours1Be sure to go up to the Belvedere on a facing hilltop, from which you can look down at the entire site. Under the shadow of the towers, next to the museum at the entry are two restaurants, including one of the region’s finest: The Auberge du Diable au Thym (The Inn of the Thyme Devil) and Les Puits du Trésor, run by Michelin-starred chef Jean Marc Boyer. If you want to eat here, keep in mind it’s open from Wednesday to Sunday (which is lunch only) from noon to 2 p.m. and from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Reserve! As the châteaux close before dark, you’ll have quite a wait until dinner during the off-season (the châteaux are open until 8 p.m. in July and August, though). So it might be best to do Lastours with lunch in mind.

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Lastours seen from the Belvedere

If you want to hit two Cathar castles in one day, add in the Château de Saissac, about half an hour away. It isn’t particularly far, but you can’t go very fast on mountain roads. Saissac is more accessible—we went with the Carnivore’s mother and our kid who was then very small—two age extremes with limited mobility.

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Montolieu

On your way back, pass through Montolieu, the village of books. There are several places to dine. If you missed out on Les Puits du Trésor, your loss, but an alternative is l’Ambrosia, which you’ll pass on your way back to Carcassonne, just after you turn onto the D6113. Fancy-schmancy and very good. For smaller budgets, try anything in adorable Montolieu or just wait until you get back to Carcassonne.

Day 5: A Toast to Love

glass for the cookThe original sparkling wine comes from just south of Carcassonne, at the abbey of St. Hilaire. There are two kinds: blanquette de Limoux (named after a larger nearby town) and crémant de Limoux. 05.FEBRUARY 12 - 44Saint-Hilaire, being tiny, has two places to taste and buy. Limoux has no shortage of places to sample, including the very large Sieur d’Arques, which sponsors the annual Toques et Clochers food and wine festival to restore the region’s church bell towers. 

In Saint-Hilaire, the abbey is a fascinating visit and has a beautiful, peaceful cloister with a fountain. It might be a religious site but it’s very romantic.

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Toques et Clochers

Limoux also is lovely. You can stroll along the Aude river, then walk up to the central square, where you can have a drink at one of the many cafés. For an excellent meal, go to Tantine et Tonton (it means Aunt and Uncle).

From January to March of each year, Limoux goes crazy, with the world’s longest Carnaval. Locals dress up and hold parades. One more reason to visit during the off-season. The festivities are on weekends, though.

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Cépie

All around Limoux are little circular villages—those of the restored bell towers. They are very picturesque and not touristy at all (except when hosting Toques et Clochers). You can wander from one to the next (by car—too far by foot): Digne d’Aval, Digne d’Amont, Loupia, Donazac, Alaigne, Bellegarde-du-Razès, Caihau, Caillavel…there are more, you’d need days. 

The Domaine Gayda, one of the standout restaurants in the region, with its own organic wines, is next to another of these villages, Brugairolles. The scenery is just gorgeous, so it’s nice to have a reason to wander about in it, and an extraordinary meal at the end is the perfect prize. IMG_5031

Day 6: More Medieval

There are tons of other things to do around here—from white-water rafting to mountain biking to skiing (yes, in winter, you can ski for the day and come back to Carcassonne in time for dinner) to spelunking. A sporty itinerary is in the works. For some, working up a sweat is romantic. Others, though, prefer a pretty view.

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I don’t have photos of Minerve! Post coming soon. Meanwhile, the carousel in Place Gambetta in Carcassonne is romantic…

The village of Minerve is a little gem—it has just 120 inhabitants and is classified as one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France. Its streets are too small for cars. Because it’s so pretty, it attracts visitors, who want to be fed, and you will find no shortage of restaurant with jaw-dropping views. Wander down to the Cesse river, whose force carved the gorge where Minerve is perched, and check out the catapult.

While you’re in the area, check out two important things: la curiosité de Lauriole (a road that descends but looks like it’s rising—take a water bottle or something that rolls and test it out); and wine.298.Abbey in CaunesAmong the surrounding wine regions, Minervois la Livinière is the best, and you will go right through it when you travel between Carcassonne and Minerve, which obviously gave its name to Minervois. Château Massamier la Mignarde’s Domus Maximus was chosen best wine in the world in 2005 in an international competition. It’s a gorgeous place: the cave is amazing, and so are the grounds. Not to mention the wine. If you want to take home some French wine, get some of this.

In all honesty, you can pick any Minervois la Livinière with your eyes closed and it will be good. We also love Château de Gourgazaud and Domaine Borie de Maurel. Just have a designated driver or spit, because the gendarmes don’t mess around.P1080816Before you reach Carcassonne, you’ll see Caunes-Minervois. Don’t miss it! It’s such a pretty village, also with very good wine (Château Villerambert Julien, which is worth a visit, just outside the village). Visit the abbey, and, if you’re adventurous, the marble quarry and the chapel of Notre Dame du Cros, an extraordinarily peaceful spot at the bottom of some sheer cliffs that attract rock climbers.312.Abbey in Caunes6Once a month, from September to June, there are jazz concerts in the wine cave of the abbey. Talk about ambience and acoustics. 

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The Universal Academy of Cassoulet gathers at Château St. Martin. It’s usually very quiet and intimate and has a beautiful garden, too.

Caunes also has more restaurants than its size would warrant, and they’re good ones. Or maybe you want to be sure to try the regional specialty—cassoulet. For that, go to the Château Saint Martin, in the suburb/village of Montlegun (about 10 minutes away by car). Gorgeous setting, and the chef, Jean-Claude Rodriguez, is a member of the Universal Academy of Cassoulet.P1080883

Day 7: Another Market

Place Carnot, the heart of the Bastide of Carcassonne, bustles on Saturdays with the market (it’s smaller on Tuesdays and Thursdays). It is more than food—it is social. The cafés lining the market are buzzing with people; many bises (cheek kisses) are exchanged. Admire the fresh produce, sample cheeses and saucisson, and if you speak French eavesdrop on the conversations (often about food, something that warms my heart and entertains me to no end). For romantics, note how many of the couples, of all ages, are sweetly holding hands as they shop. I’m sure the older ones—and there are quite a few—would have stories to tell about true love.P1090191

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Packed even in winter.

Stop by the master pâtissier, Rémi Touja, to pick up some amazing desserts for a snack later in the afternoon (un goûter or petit quatre-heures–a little snack around 4 p.m., observed even by adults).standKeep the market mood by having lunch at the Bistrot d’Alice, just off the market square. It’s extremely popular, so reserve well ahead. It’s what you would imagine when someone says “bistro.” If it’s full, try le Bistro d’Augustin, very old school and grand, with Caunes marble all over.img_0347In the afternoon, take a stroll along the Canal du Midi, or rent bikes (across from the train station)—the flat path is perfect. In summer there also are boat rides on the canal. It’s wonderful—no cars, and it quickly veers into rural territory. What is more romantic than a bike ride in the French countryside?Canal by the gareFor dinner, there are many choices: la Table de la Bastide (modern fresh French), le 104 (vegetarian), or au Lard et Cochon (“Lard and Pig”—not vegetarian)….

This just scratches the surface of possibilities. The love birds we’ve hosted have told us they spend a good deal of time just hanging out in the apartments, because they’re so beautiful and romantic. All the better!

What do you look for in a romantic getaway?

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Skyrockets in flight?

Renovation Nightmares

IMG_0296Happily, no helicopters were needed for our renovations. But such are the challenges of maintaining ancient buildings that lie within walled cities whose streets were laid out a millennium before cars.

A few weeks ago, I was walking around la Cité and heard an incredible racket. With the narrow streets, the sound bounced around such that I wasn’t sure at first what it was or where it was coming from. Then I realized it was a helicopter and got a little worried about why it was so close to la Cité. Carcassonne is home to the Third Regiment of Parachutists of the Marine Infantry (RPIMa), so planes and helicopters are not unknown in skies around here. And when wildfires break out, we get some very low-flying planes that drop water.

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Traffic blocked, too. Not that there was any traffic. The beams were picked up from a parking lot and carried inside the walls, like a stork with a newborn.

Outside la Cité’s walls I understood–the helicopter was making a special delivery of long beams for a renovation project. Such beams would have been too long to thread through the winding paths, not at all straight, of la Cité. Having gulped at the cost of delivery of renovation materials by truck (during certain times on certain days!), I imagined many zeroes popping up behind some number, like in a cartoon. Nothing is easy or cheap with old buildings.

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The main street of la Cité on a busy winter morning.

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Difficult access was intentional. Today’s weather–clear blue skies and flirting with 60 degrees–is nothing like this moody photo.

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Ka-ching!

It made me reflect again on what we went through, putting in new wiring and plumbing in apartments built for neither.

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Before

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After

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YIKES! Not to code!!!

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All new wiring, heading toward the new fusebox.

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Making a path for the new wiring through 2-foot-thick stone walls. 

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Wiring in place.

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Unexpected surprises: In some places, the walls were stuffed with straw and lime paste. Good insulation.

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Not in good shape. Luckily, they covered a treasure!

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We restored the original tomette tiles throughout the apartments.

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It served its purpose, but as the architect says, “it has no historical value”

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After

You can see the saga of our renovations under the heading Our Vacation Apartments. We hope you get to visit in person, too!