Under Marble Cliffs

falaiseWhen my kid was little, I would always accompany class field trips. It was such a great way to learn about the region, often in ways I never would have sought out myself (spelunking). One such trip was with a bunch of second- and third-graders to go rock climbing, which led to my discovery of a hidden haven, Notre Dame du Cros (literally, Our Lady of the Hole, or, more poetically, Valley).

06.MARCH 12 - 61

falaise 3I have mentioned that the French have other ideas about safety, as in, if you get hurt, it’s your own fault. So somehow rock climbing is a good idea for kids whose permanent front teeth have only just grown in. falaise 2Even crazier, to me, was the fact that one of the guides had been our guide exploring caves. A man of many outdoor sports. How does one get a job leading children through caves and up cliffs? And how does he not go crazy? He had unlimited patience. I knew and loved these kids but any time I spent an entire day with all of them I had to take a nap as soon as I got home. Their overflowing energy sapped mine.

climbing lines
Do you see the climbing lines?

Despite the buzzing swarm of children, the area of Notre Dame du Cros is utterly peaceful. It’s over the hill from the village of Caunes-Minervois, and so tucked into the hills that you don’t hear anything but birds and the rustle of leaves. And occasionally an explosion from the marble quarry–maybe once in a day.

Marble just lying around.
A spring.

Legend has it that, around the 6th century, a shepherdess gave water from the spring there to her sick child (although another says it was the shepherdess herself who was ill), who was immediately cured. It became a pilgrimage destination. That led to chapels being built, with the current one dating to the 12th century, and renovated in the 15th and 16th centuries. Mass is said every morning–the chapel is considered part of the Caunes abbey. Stations of the cross are spread around the hillside.

06.MARCH 12 - 06
The old entrance; now the entrance is on the side to the right.
06.MARCH 12 - 01
Do you see three little chapels for the stations of the cross?
06.MARCH 12 - 03
Le Souc

There’s a flat plain next to a stream, named Le Souc, with picnic tables shaded by century-old platane trees. It’s a very popular spot on summer weekends, but manages to stay calm and peaceful–it’s what people come for.

up to churchinscription

06.MARCH 12 - 07
The former rectory.

06.MARCH 12 - 02


The Quiet, Vibrant Village of Caunes

P1080886Nestled in the foothills of the Black Mountains, Caunes-Minervois is a storybook French village, with cobbled streets too narrow for cars, one beautiful door after another, stone walls adorned with climbing roses and ivy.P1030364It also has lots of life. Although it doesn’t even have 2,000 residents, it has EIGHT restaurants! They are really good, too. The Hôtel d’Alibert, for example, is beautiful and delicious. The Cantine de la Curé (the priest’s canteen–it’s across from the abbey) has tapas in a garden. La Mangeoire (manger, as in away in a) and la Marberie (the marble works–Caunes is known for its quarry for red marble) have lovely interiors as well as shady terraces. P1080815P1080813296.Hotel in CaunesIn the summer, outdoor classical concerts on Fridays animate the lovely garden behind the abbey. In winter, jazz concerts in the abbey’s caveau, or wine cellar, take advantage of the great acoustics.312.Abbey in Caunes6The monastery was the heart of the ancient village, although it was inhabited since neolithic times, and later had a Roman villa. The abbey was started in the 8th century, when the town was becoming rich.  307.Abbey in Caunes5You can visit the church, sumptuously decorated with local marble, and go under the altar to the crypt. There’s a cloister, and a small museum of archaeological finds.

The crypt.
298.Abbey in Caunes
The bell tower.

Mostly, though, it’s a pleasure just to stroll around Caunes. Some of the streets turn into stairs, and most in the center of the village are just too narrow for cars to pass. Which means the soundtrack for your walk is the wind and birds.P1080888P1080816P1080837P1080880P1080852P1080840P1080859P1080860P1080827P1080826315.Street in Caunes316.Street in Caunes1317.Street in Caunes2


There are some beautiful homes, not just from medieval times but also Renaissance, including Hôtel d’Alibert. Most of the Renaissance buildings are near the mairie, or town hall.

Renaissance windows.

P1080851P1080814The doors range from majestically imposing to extremely small. I saved most of them for another post just on doors.P1080881P1080874P1080875

The gated door was, for a while, the entry to an underground bar called “Le Trou Dans le Mur”–the hole in the wall. I’m short and had to bend over to get through. It was very cool and it’s too bad it closed.

Near the abbey is an old lavoir, or communal laundry, which still gets used.314.Laundry in Caunes

Its location on a hill offers views across the plain that extends to the Pyrénées. Gorgeous.P1080855320.Panorama from Caunes2

And the views of the roofs are wonderful, too.P1080891

Charm is everywhere.P1080883P1080812

Though it’s not without its challenges.P1080861

I hope you enjoyed Caunes-Minervois. If you ever see wine from here, buy it (there are several wineries). You won’t be disappointed.

Caunes is a great daytrip from Carcassonne. I haven’t finished with it, either. We will go out of town the next time, plus I have to visit the marble quarry, since our kitchen counters came from it.P1080870P1080876P1080862

Hôtel d’Alibert

wellWe did something highly unusual and went out to eat. We figured we should try someplace new, at least new to us. Many of our friends have raved about the Hôtel d’Alibert in Caunes-Minervois, so we headed there.

tableActually, we were on our way to a different spot. For a small village, Caunes has several good restaurants. But there was a concert and it didn’t seem to be one we would appreciate. So we hoofed it up the hill to the hotel.

balconies far

The hotel is across the square from the mairie, or town hall, in a beautiful Renaissance home. The hotel has only eight rooms (with garage! do Street View or Google Earth of Caunes and you will see why this is important).

I spy the local Caunes marble–the counter on the left in the foreground.

woman face

faceOn a balmy June evening, dining was in the courtyard. Classical music segued into Carlos Jobim and Stan Getz. Very, very pleasant. Much better than the concert.

doorwayThe restaurant offers a fixed-price menu for €29, comprising a starter, main course and dessert.

pintadeFor starters, my husband had foie gras; I had asparagus with vinaigrette. Then he chose the pintade (kind of chicken), cooked with olives, and served with a large dish of potatoes, creamed spinach, and zucchini in tomato sauce. I had mushroom lasagne, served with a green salad.

Novice blogger–I ate first and photographed after. It was GOOD.

He foolishly skipped dessert and had cheese. I had the dark chocolate cake, which was more like chocolate mousse on a layer of soft fudge (bad blogger: I didn’t take a picture but snarfed the whole thing down immediately).

angelEverything was very good. And the ambience was just right. The owner, Frédéric Guiraud, bantered easily in English with the out-of-towners.

Two thumbs up!

Dirty Laundry

314.Laundry in CaunesJust kidding! This is to remind yourselves to thank your lucky stars that you didn’t live….50 or 60 years ago.

Caunes lavoirBack in the day, women had to haul the dirty clothes to a lavoir, a spot with water and basins for doing laundry. It wasn’t until relatively recently (the 1970s) that villages around here got running water in their homes.

Actually, the clothes were washed by hand at home, because that didn’t require much water, and then taken to the lavoir for rinsing. That’s even more back-breaking, because wet clothes are heavy.

Caunes lavoir in use
In use! The sign says “no bathing.”

OK, so it looks pretty awesome, but remember, there was no wifi then. And think of doing it in winter!

I already had a shot of one of the prettier lavoirs, at Caunes-Minervois, but I decided to go back for another. A woman was walking just ahead of me, and she veered into the lavoir. I figured it was to take a photo. But no–she proceeded to take rubber gloves out of her bag, then her washing. Well, that’s what it’s for. Cars on the road stop when they see me taking a photo (yes!), but she was not concerned about being in this shot.

Another time that I passed by there, somebody had washed a room-sized oriental carpet, and it was left, unsupervised, to drip-dry over the rail. Which is what one does–we wash all of ours every summer, but in our yard. Over here, wall-to-wall carpet is considered not very hygenic. When I see what is under our rugs, which get swept over and under regularly plus washed every year, I can’t help but agree.

Actually Caunes has two lavoirs. Other villages have them as well, sometimes with water, and sometimes not. Another slice of traditional life that is no more.

villarzel lavoir 1
An unused lavoir in another village, Villarzel

The Time of Cherries

cherries close
The “Summit” variety

It’s cherry time.

Miam miam! (which is French for yum yum).

Cherries are a big deal around here. The town of Ceret, a bit to the south, is not only a bastion of the Fauvist movement of painting but also has a microclimate that allows it to be among the first to bring cherries to market. Thank goodness.

Because strawberries are dandy but everybody knows life is a fleeting bowl of cherries.

The towns of Trausse-Minervois and Caunes-Minervois hold their own in the cherry stakes. Trausse just celebrated the Cherry Festival, which we missed for absolutely unforgivable reasons too boring to go into here.

cherriesMany, many years ago, when we had one of those cute kids in a stroller, we went to the cherry festival, which that year was in Caunes. We immediately bought a bag of cherries, because that is what one does at a cherry festival. So the kid, who was big enough to swallow competently but small enough to complain about walking all afternoon, asked for some cherries. We just handed over the bag to this little person, who sat back in the stroller and casually popped a cherry in the mouth and, shortly after, expertly flicked out the pit. We were mostly too busy looking at things to notice, and there were no choking incidents, so there. (Before that, I actually cut single cherries into nearly microscopic morsels–well, into eighths. But think about how tiny an eighth of a cherry is. And they were picked up meticulously by fat little fingers and consumed with nothing left behind.)

Eventually, said child presented a limp, empty paper bag. “More!” was the command. Never refuse a kid who wants to eat fruit or vegetables. With a fresh supply, we continued to enjoy the festival and escaped while there were still plenty of cherries in bag No. 2.

I won’t begin to describe the diaper that ensued. Those were the days.

cherry tree laden
This is what they mean when they say the tree is “groaning with fruit.”

Anyway, Caunes and Trausse have awesome cherries. I was on a little errand recently that took me in that vicinity. Turning off the main road to appreciate the countryside, I spied a sign: “Cherries 1 km.”  Figuring that it had been there for 10 years, I didn’t get my hopes up. But about a kilometer farther, I saw another sign: “Cherries for sale from the producer.”

vente directe de cerisesI didn’t even pull off to the side of the road, because that’s what kind of path/road it was. Not a place to worry about traffic. The proprietor saw me–duh! nobody comes down this road and he heard me already 2 kms away–and strode toward the table to greet me. I asked for a kilo of cherries. Then I asked for another kilo. Good thing. As soon as I got home I had some. OMG. And some more. And that was the end of one kilo.

Anybody who knows me knows I am beyond terrified of dogs. But this guard dog was OK.

I will be back.

BTW, his cherries were cheaper than the market, which are cheaper than the supermarket. And they had just been picked. He had climbed down from a ladder in a tree. I soon noticed there were half a dozen other people busy picking.

Miam miam miam

cherry tree 1This is where I should give a recipe, but seriously I think it’s borderline sacrilege to do anything to these cherries but to eat them straight. Maybe with a few drops of water from rinsing them. One of the sweetest memories of my youth was eating Bing cherries at my grandma’s house, in certain plastic/fake wood bowls that my brother somehow got (!!!!!!!!). Proust moment.

Now for the French lesson: The title is “the time of cherries,” which is “le Temps des Cerises.” It was a famous song written in 1866. Here is the Yves Montand version. And more recently the name was adopted by a brand of jeans and other clothing.


As for the pits, the cushion above is filled with cherry stones. You put it in the microwave at 700W for 2.5 minutes and use it as a heating pad. (I bought it–not a DIY, but you probably could).

The Other South of France

When I tell people I live in the south of France a few years ago, they invariably respond, “You get to live on vacation!” Then they ask whether I live near Aix or Nice and which movie stars I’ve seen.

Languedoc mapBut I live in the other south of France. This isn’t Provence or the Riviera, those celebrity-studded regions with lofty prices and haughty attitudes. I am in the Languedoc, which starts west of Provence and stretches along the Mediterranean down toward Spain. It’s much more rural and low key. It’s so unglamorous, the pensioners in my village wear their plaid flannel bedroom slippers when they go out to buy their daily baguettes or deformed bread that was just baked on a hot stone in a woodburning oven.

A street in Caunes Minervois
A street in Caunes Minervois

As the antithesis of bling, Languedoc reeks of authenticity. In most of its little villages, life goes on unhurriedly as it did for generations, giving one the impression of having stepped into an old Pagnol movie.  Little old men in crisp white shirts play petanque, the game of bowling with steel balls, in the shade of the ubiquitous platane trees.

Walking the dog with no fear of cars
Walking the dog with no fear of cars

Most of the villages are so small that one can wander all their little streets in less than an hour. While racking up a score of villages visited wouldn’t jibe with the region’s laid-back spirit, it’s addictive to wander among their crooked stone houses, peeking into a courtyard or garden whose door has been left open.  And, while all the villages have certain characteristics in common—the architecture, the quietude, the town square and fountain—they each show a distinct personality.  We’ll explore some of them soon.