On a recent trip to Montpellier, the street art really wowed me. I’ve previously posted about the pretty garlands strung across the narrow medieval streets. They were still there, along with others that I found amusing.Coming out of the underground carpark, I headed down the Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle and, though I’ve been there before, only noticed for the first time the playground that looked as if it had been designed by Dr. Seuss. I couldn’t find who designed it, but I did learn that it was installed in 2008 and the structures, including delightfully unsafe climbing (see French attitudes about safety here), are supposed to be related to music.The city encourages the street art. I love it. Little surprises, like small gifts or serendipitous wonders, that prompt a smile. I think they enhance, rather than detract, from the old buildings of the historic center.
The art isn’t just painting. There are tiles all over, too. FYI, a hot-air balloon is called unemontgolfière in French, after the Montgolfier brothers who invented them.There’s plenty of old art, too.Still looking down, there were designs painted on the sidewalks or streets related to whatever business was there. I walked past several before finally taking photos of these bars, across the street from each other.
Something about street art warms my heart and makes me feel surrounded by gentle souls. It’s whimsical, not aggressive. I suppose too much could become twee. But in the midst of these buildings and streets so heavy with history, a little whimsy is a welcome jolt of modernity, livening up the old without tearing it down. It’s democratic, free for all, no ticket required.Is street art a thing where you live?
Quite unrelated: I made my blette (Swiss chard) recipe even easier. For a long time, I made the recipe I’d found in a magazine: little packets, which are very pretty for guests. Then I tweaked the recipe, adding a can of white beans, for protein, to make the packets into a vegetarian meal. Then, to get rid of the tedious process of folding up the packets, I did the same recipe but as a kind of blette lasagne, layering the leaves with the stuffing. Finally, I just chopped up the chard and mixed it with the stuffing. The result is below. A horror for the Carnivore, who likes each ingredient to be separate and whose lowest critique of a dish is “mish-mash.” But I love one-dish meals, and now this one is even easier. Same recipe–just cut up the greens and sauté them with the stems and onions until they’re soft.
What is it about humans that we love to look down on everything? To get up high, for a better view? The chill of vertige with the thrill of omniscience.On a balmy February day, a friend and I went to the Passerelle of Mazamet, which has been on my bucket list for a moment. One of those things that’s too nearby to miss, but far enough that I never got around to it. The drive from Carcassonne to Mazamet takes nearly an hour. Longer if a nervous retiree from a distant department is ahead of you and slowing to a crawl around the curves but, with a bigger engine, speeding like an idiot on the rare straightaways, as if that makes up for anything. The $*%&ing driver ahead of us aside, the route was absolutely gorgeous. It goes up and up and up, and the vegetation changes to dense forest. There were signs about the pass being open, snow markers on the sides of the road, but we were in fleece jackets and during our hike had to take those off. A weird winter. It was 70 F here yesterday.
The passerelle was inaugurated in 2018. It’s 140 meters (460 feet) long over the Arnette river and 70 meters (230 feet) above the ground. It’s free and open 24/7, but you’d be crazy to go after dark. We were glad to be there in February–plus it was lunch time and the French do one thing during lunch time: eat. So we had the place almost to ourselves. It would be much less fun in the heat of summer with a gazillion people on the narrow path. Even worse, a gazillion people on the passerelle. It can hold 42 tons, which is a lot of people, but even a couple of other people walking made it bounce such that I was glad I hadn’t eaten.
The only other people were grandparents with three girls. One was maybe two or three years old, and she galloped up and down the passerelle fearlessly. One was maybe 12 and she clung to her grandmother for dear life. We passed them in the middle of the passerelle on their way back. And we discovered another girl, maybe 7 or 8, on the other side, steadfastly refusing to budge.
We saw the grandfather start back and figured he was coming to the aid of the middle girl. He stopped and took photos. Lots of photos. The littlest girl came tearing down toward him. She passed him, then turned around and came back to him. He never stopped taking photos.
We started back and were about halfway when the grandmother and the oldest girl, still clinging and looking like she was going to puke, came back. Grandpa wanted to film them. As if the granddaughter would want to remember this moment. Who was the middle girl supposed to hold onto? Grandma was taken, and grandpa was filming. Nobody seemed worried about the middle girl or even the little one. Yes, the passerelle had no holes where the little one could fall through, but she was at that nimble age where she could climb the chain link side, which came up to my armpit, and be over it in a flash, and grandpa still wouldn’t stop filming. His obliviousness reminded me of a type: “I’m doing this for you! You’re going to do it and enjoy it whether you like it or not!”
On the way down, we passed other grandparents out with the grandkids, starting to show up once it was 2 p.m. And more retirees. A lady with very inappropriate shoes (ballerinas with wedge heels…what are those called?).
To go up, we took the steep route, called the Voie Romaine, or Roman Way, which was the ancient salt route, and partly paved with stones. It had a heart-pounding 19% grade, but I’d rather take that going up than down.
The descent, on a path with an 8% grade, was via the Jardins Cormouls Houlès, which date to the middle of the 19th century, with interesting towers and stone walls. First we checked out the ruins of the church of Saint-Saveur, which dates to the 1100s. The church was built on a hilltop, for views. Up in the air. Like life right now, waiting to see where things will land, trying not to fall.
I’m leaving you with these ghostly images. I couldn’t pick one, so you get three.
I write this from the dark hole of my office, the large, east-facing window covered by a black-out shade that helps enormously to reduce the greenhouse effect. The heat wave, or canicule, has ended in our region, but it’s still 27 C (80 F) in my office.
All of Europe has been in the furnace this week. We’ve been spared the worst of it. We got to 31 C (88 F) yesterday, though our own thermometer showed 98 F. It was hotter in Paris, which set a record of 42.6 C (108.7 F) and in London, with a record 36.9 C (98.4 F). In normally cool and rainy Belgium (when I was moving there, a colleague told me not to bother packing short-sleeved shirts because I wouldn’t need them), fields were so hot and dry they caught fire.
In France, the Mediterranean basin was relatively spared. Between the last heat wave at the end of June and this one, the weather has been delightful. Warm days with highs around 30 C (85 F) and cool nights with lows around 16 C (60 F). Really perfect summer weather, with clear blue skies and the thrumming of the cidadas (check out my Instagram for a video). The south of France is called the Midi, which doesn’t refer to the middle but to noon–it’s the region where it’s always noon, or warm. As such, it’s designed for heat, with narrow streets that get shade from buildings, and buildings constructed like caves, with stone walls two feet thick. Even our house, built after WWII, has two-foot-thick stone walls.
The rest of the house is less gloomy, with shutters closed on the east but open on the west. For now. When the sun crosses over, I’ll shut the shutters on the west and open the ones on the east. I shut the windows around 9 to keep the cool air in and the hot air out. Even with all the windows open, the house never cools down quite as much as outside. Like 95% of Europeans, we don’t have air conditioning, and I’m glad. Yesterday, I sat outside to soak up the cool morning air. It was 24 C (75 F), and I was cold. That is the benefit of not having air conditioning. You get used to the heat. But only up to a point. It’s hard to put up with long stretches higher than body temperature.
My parents had a whole-house fan in the ceiling of the hallway at the center of the house. It was hidden by shutters that would clack open when the fan was turned on. The fan sucked in air from every window. It was heavenly. When we were little, we had only a window air conditioner, in the living room. Heat spells were party time. Usually we were sent to bed on time, I think by 8 p.m., because that’s when the “family” shows were over and the “adult” shows came on. But during heat spells, my dad spread out a feather bed, handmade by my grandma from down plucked from geese my dad had hunted (and eaten). My siblings and I staked our claims, angling for a good view of the TV. My dad would eat ice cream straight out of the box, and so would we, jousting with our spoons to mine a good vein of chocolate ripple or whatever, while watching TV shows our mother usually prohibited because of violence: “Mission Impossible,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Mash,” “The Rockford Files”….The nuclear reactor near Toulouse had to be shut down because the river that provides cooling water was too hot. Meanwhile, France set a record for electricity consumption yesterday. Imagine how much more it would have been with widespread air conditioning. There have to be other ways to deal with the heat, to keep things from getting worse. To me, air conditioning is the equivalent of Thneedville, the comfortable but completely artificial town in Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax,” where people move once they’ve destroyed the rest of the environment.
What kind of world are we bequeathing to our kids? A real living hell? I’m not a fan of Vice, but check out this article.
This week has been too hot to do anything physical. It was too hot to do anything mental. I couldn’t work anyway–my computer overheated and shut down. My kid and I binge-watched TV shows, waiting for the respite of evening, when the pool would be in the shade for a cool soak. We ate almost nothing. Fruit and yogurt. No cooking. Nothing was appealing, certainly nothing hot.
Some people don’t get a choice about taking it easy. Workers were chopping down enormous platanes, or plane trees, hundreds of years old but infected with a fungus. Garbage trucks circulated, relieving us of our overconsumption. The baker turned out loaf after fresh loaf. I remembered the workers in Lamu, unloading bags of cement by hand in a kind of bucket brigade from dhows at the dock, shimmering with sweat in the heat and humidity, unable to drink because it was Ramadan. But they never slowed their pace.
After receiving numerous appeals to give blood, I realized I needed to act quickly because I had a dentist appointment–there’s a waiting period after dental work, which had fouled me up previously. I had a checkup on Thursday. I called the donor office and they gave me a 12:30 appointment on Wednesday. No problem, I thought. My car and the hospital have A/C. And it was fine … until I walked out into the parking lot and felt like I got hit by a frying pan. Je suis tombée dans les pommes–I fell into the apples, which is the poetic French way of saying I passed out. Eventually I recovered but was more or less wiped out for the rest of the day. I felt as droopy and wilted as my hydrangeas.
The hydrangeas are out of luck. We aren’t under watering restictions that some other departements face, but I’m only watering the fruits and vegetables. I try to remember to catch water from washing fruits and vegetables, or cooking pasta (the extent of turning on the stove these days), to give to the flowers. When I lived in Africa and had no running water, every drop was precious. I’d catch my “shower” water (my shower was me pouring cupfuls on myself) for washing clothes, and then that water would be poured on trees. It is shameful that we have designed our buildings–our lives–to pour purified water down the drain.
We are supposed to get rain today and tomorrow. We’ve had day after day of perfectly blue skies, so the change is welcome. It’s hard to believe we could have a drought after the deadly deluge in October. Extreme drought, extreme floods. Welcome to the new normal. Not just here, but everywhere.
How are you dealing with heat where you are? Has it gotten worse?
OK, 926 years. Old. The previous post focused on the gardens at the Abbaye de Fontfroide in the south of France. This time, we’re going inside.
The abbey is founded in 1093. By 1145 it joins the Cistercian order, which itself starts at the Citeaux Abbey in Burgundy in 1098. Lots of monastic orders start in the 11th and 12th centuries. It was a turbulent time (when wasn’t it?) and people were searching for answers. Western Christian monasteries are based on the rules of St. Benedict of Nursia, who lived from 480 to 547, give or take. He didn’t become a saint until 1964 (two of his miracles involved avoiding being poisoned which makes me think of SNL’s Father Guido Sarducci describing a saint and saying two of the miracles were card tricks), but we’ll cut Benedict some slack because he was upset about the excesses of his time. Was it like the ’80s (not to mention Gordon Gekko…who was the villain! Not the hero!!!) the ’90s, the 2000s, the 2008 or was it–gasp–even worse?
The monks, about 80 of them plus 250 brother converts (except around 1438, when the Black Death cut their number to around 20…can you imagine?), are committed to hard physical labor, silence and poverty. The vow of poverty is one reason why, despite the huge size of Fontfroide, the decoration is austere, though you can pick out that later parts have faces, etc., though nothing as naughty as Saint-Hilaire. Even the columns in the cloister show only plants, not faces as you would see elsewhere.You would think that the vow of poverty and dedication to hard work would make Fontfroide’s monks find common cause with the Cathars, but in fact the crusade against the Cathars is set off by the assassination of Pierre de Castelnau, a Fontfroide monk who is the papal legate, sent to negotiate with the Cathars. Even before the actual battles begin, the Cistercians fight to stamp out the Cathar beliefs, though how they do this, stuck in a remote abbey and under a vow of silence, is unclear. I guess the lay brothers could talk, being the ones to leave the abbey walls to work, but they are lay–not all-in on the religion, though in that time everybody is all-in on the religion, like it or not. It dictates every aspect of everybody’s lives down to the smallest detail, no matter who you are, like in Iran today. After the Cathar crusade, Fontfroide rises in prominence, thanks to Jacques Fournier, head abbot in 1311 (succeeding his uncle…nothing like a little nepotism). Fournier is named bishop of Pamiers in 1317 and is part of the Inquisition court trying Cathar holdouts (the crusade was in 1209, so they’re exacting revenge more than a century later!). He is then named bishop of Mirepoix, then is promoted to cardinal in 1327 and is elected pope in 1334. This happens during the Great Schism, or the Avignon papacy, from 1309 to 1376, when seven consecutive popes live in France, not Rome. In fact, it’s Fournier, as Pope Benedict XII, who builds the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, and he is buried in the Avignon cathedral. Things go downhill from there. More of the monks are nobles appointed to sinecures by the king and not very interested in monastic life. In fact, the so-called commendatory abbots suck up all the money of the abbey–and it covered 30,000 hectares between Béziers and Spain, versus 4,000 hectares today–to the extent that the real monks are probably in greater poverty than even they had signed up for. There are only seven monks left by 1594. About the same time, the non-religious monk-nobles build the fancier additions to the abbey, like the Court of Honor, built between the 16th and 17th centuries. They eat meat and chocolate (!!! a treat from newly discovered North America!) and play billiards. Can it be any worse? Sure it can–the church is one of the targets of the French Revolution in 1789, and the cushy noble-in-a-castle-that-pretends-to-be-an-abbey gig ends. The abbey is turned over to the Hospices of Narbonne in 1791. In 1833 the abbey is sold to the Saint-Aubin family, who want Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (the guy who restored la Cité of Carcassonne and Notre-Dame de Paris) to take it on. But it doesn’t work out.
By 1901, the last monks leave the abbey. It sits empty until 1908, when Gustave and Madeleine Fayet buy it at auction and start renovations. Gustave is a painter from a family of artists, and later adapts paintings into carpets, which are a big hit. Apparently, he also is an architect, industrialist, banker and winemaker. But to make money, it helps to already have money. Above all, he inherits an immense fortune from three generations of running barges on the Canal du Midi and transporting eau de vie–which better explain how he could afford such a project. He is so loaded that he buys another abbey as a gift for a female poet, because, hey, why not! Before buying Fontfroide, he flits around Europe and Algeria buying up art from the likes of Gauguin and Odilon Redon. In fact, he sells two Gauguins to a Russian collector in order to pay for the Fontfroide renovations in 1908, then in 1910 sells seven (!!!) works by Cézanne to fund more renovations. Meanwhile, he hosts musicians and artists, including Redon, who does a little decorating of the library while at the abbey. I found an article that called Fayet a cultural elitist, and it was meant as a compliment. So French.
Gustave Fayet died in 1925 in Carcassonne, and his wife, Madeleine died in 1971. The Fontfroide abbey is still operated today by descendants of Gustave and Madeleine.
Fontfroide isn’t related to the Cloisters that are part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. That said, the museum’s four cloisters were acquired from the general vicinity of Fontfroide–the abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa not far to the south, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert just to the north, Bonnefont and Trie-en-Bigorre near Toulouse to the west. Those were bought by U.S. art dealer George Grey Barnard between 1934 and 1939, well after Fontfroide was in the Fayets’ hands.Fontfroide has two sets of interesting stained-glass windows. When Fayet bought the place, all the windows were destroyed. Traditionally, they would have been just grisaille, or gray, in keeping with the ascetic décor. In 1920, Fayet hired his buddy Réné Billa, alias Richard Burgsthal, to assemble collages from fragments of church windows in northern and eastern France that were destroyed in World War I. Very touching.In the church and, especially its Chappelle des Morts (Chapel of Death), which overlooked the cemetery and was built during the plague, the windows are audacious, full of vibrant colors. In the church, they depict moments from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. In the Chapel of Death, Father Kim en Joong in 2009 created contemporary abstract windows with deep reds and blues that make the dark space even more meditative. Sorry, but my photos didn’t turn out. (I have others!)
The central courtyard, or Louis XIV courtyard, is the site of workshops, from the forge to the joinery and bakery. There’s an underground cistern that provides very cold water–Fontfroide means cold spring. So much to see. Big stuff and small details.Check out this drone video, which gives an idea of just how alone the abbey is in its setting.
Carcassonne 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. It’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.The central square, Place Carnot, fairly gleams now. Above and below. All those colors are so Instagrammable.Even the safety netting was celebratory.The main street, rue du Verdun, also is looking smart.Below, a façade that has seen some history. Those claw-like things are to reinforce where the wall is threatening to buckle.I 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.
So 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.
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.We 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.Having 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!”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.
On 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.We 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! On 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.
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.
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.)We 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.In 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.
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.After 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.
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?When 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.
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.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.From 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.Only 15 minutes south of Mirepoix is Camon, one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France (an official thing) and well worth a detour.
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.You 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.Even 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.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.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.Head 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.
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 havediametrically 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.)
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.One 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.Be 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.
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.
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
The 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.Saint-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.
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.
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.
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.
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.Among 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.Before 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.Once a month, from September to June, there are jazz concerts in the wine cave of the abbey. Talk about ambience and acoustics.
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.
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.
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).Keep 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.In 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?For 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!
Paris is such a treasure chest of marvels that one could spend a lifetime unpacking them and still not get to half of them. It’s why so many people who visit France never get out of the City of Light. But those folks are missing out on a completely different view of French life. To me, one needs both to understand and appreciate France.
Since most people don’t have infinite vacation time, it’s necessary to prioritize and to be efficient, while still allowing for serendipity. A strict schedule is a bad idea! But so is running back and forth needlessly.
What kind of traveler are you? Are you up for walking? How much walking? I am happy to walk for 10 hours straight but I’ve found that most of my travel companions over the years would prefer somewhat less than that. The more you walk, the more you need to know where you’re going so you don’t backtrack.
On the other hand, wandering aimlessly and enjoying the architecture, shop windows and passersby is a time-honored tradition in France, which invented a word just for that: flâner. Your schedule should include a bit of flânerie in each neighborhood; it’s how you’ll spy the perfect souvenir in a little boutique that will remind you for years of your trip: a scarf, a book, a bag, a dish, a picture. NOT an Eiffel Tower keychain or a Paris T-shirt (though, if you USE them, why not!). It’s when you’ll get the photos that capture the spirit of France—in the streets and not in a museum gallery.
Which images do you conjure up when you think of Paris? Which things do you absolutely have to see? Notre Dame? The Eiffel Tower? Sacre Coeur? Pont Neuf? The Louvre? Les Champs-Élysées? Are you interested in history? Architecture? Art? Fashion? Food? All of the above?
Break it down again. History: which periods? Roman? Medieval? Renaissance? Art: what kind? Impressionist paintings? Modern? Sculpture? Street art? Decorative arts? As wonderful as the Louvre is, it’s a pain to get through security and deal with crowds (I saw the Mona Lisa once, kind of, in a terrifying mob of people, almost all of whom held cameras over their heads to snap photos. WHY? They can see photos, without strangers’ hands and cameras, on the Internet! Why do people take photos of art anyway? Go to the gift shop and buy the post card!). Either head for less-frequented galleries or go instead to one of the smaller museums specializing in whatever’s your jam. Le Musée de Cluny is all about the Middle Ages; Arénes de Lutèce are Roman ruins. Le Musée d’Orsay has Impressionists; le Musée Marmottan has Monet; the Picasso museum has Pablo; the Rodin museum has sculpture, including the Thinker; le Centre Pompidou has modern art. Paris has no shortage of museums. Some of the smaller ones are likely to be the most memorable, because you won’t be in a crush of people. Museums like Musée Nissim de Camondo (full of fine art and furniture), Musée Jacquemart-André (15th to 18th century art) and Musée Cernuschi (Asian art) are all in former mansions around Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement; the park also is a delight for people-watching.Only you can say what interests you. Don’t feel pressured to see the Mona Lisa when what really trips your switch is Louis XVI furniture—instead head to the Louvre’s Richlieu wing, first floor, rooms 500-632 (the 600-rooms are in the Sully wing, but you will flow through to them), which display European decorative arts—fabulous palace rooms full of antiques. Or go to the Musée Nissim de Camondo. Or take a day trip to Versailles.
If you really want to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower or to the Louvre, buy your tickets in advance! This will save you a huge amount of time. In fact, in both cases, you have to select a time and date; otherwise you have to stand in line and hope there is still room. (The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, as well as Jan. 1, May 1 and Dec. 25. In addition, some of the rooms are closed on different days, so look at the schedule to be sure that you can get into the collections you want.) Louvre tickets here; Eiffel Tower tickets here.Plan your day by starting with the musts, because you might run out of time for everything on your list. Also, keep in mind the habits of other tourists: they sleep in a little, because they’re on vacation, after all. They have a leisurely breakfast at their hotel or in their rental. Then they mosey out to start sightseeing around 11. Some say, “oh, heck, it’s almost noon, no time for seeing big Sight X,” and they do some little thing before having lunch, hitting the tourist trail in force around 2 p.m. In other words, the worst time to do anything touristy is in the afternoon.I would aim for seeing the Eiffel Tower at 9 p.m. It’s open until 11:45 p.m. Make sure to get there early because even with pre-purchased tickets you have to stand in line for airport-style security. The site says it takes 2.5 hours for a visit to the top because you have to change elevators and there are lines. But you are unlikely to be in line with a lot of families with small children; even most adults are going to be at dinner then—in fact, plan your meals accordingly. (If you have kids, I would skip going up and instead go to the top of the Tour Montparnasse or the top of the Arc de Triomphe, both of which give you views of the Eiffel Tower and of the city from up high, without the long waits.)
Similarly, at the Louvre, consider getting there first thing (it opens at 9 a.m.) or go on Wednesday or Friday night, when it’s open until 9:45 p.m. In fact, the museum’s own Web site advises this. They even have an app that shows how busy the museum is. This is key if what you’re dying to see are the Egyptian mummies, whose galleries typically are a miasma of sweating humanity and no matter how much your kid is into the topic it will be a disaster that is difficult to escape from—you just have to follow the flow. Another tip: unless the weather is great, enter via the Métro station to avoid standing in the long line to the Pyramid in the courtyard.
It’s hard to say which neighborhood you’ll be in at mealtime, so the best thing to do is to pick a restaurant as you would a bottle of wine. There are telltale signs of very good or very bad, which I elaborated on here.
I’ve stayed in many places in Paris, but my favorite hotel is Hotel des Grandes Ecoles in the 5th arrondissement. It is one of the few places in Paris where you are likely to wake up to the sound of birds singing, thanks to its lush interior courtyard (in fact, you might want to ask for a courtyard room when you reserve, although it’s on a very quiet street).
According to the Earful Tower podcast (go subscribe now if you’re a francophile!), the 5th is the best district for flâner, because you can wander from the Arènes de Lutece to the Pantheon to rue Mouffetard (that market street in the Amélie movie) to the Latin Quarter around the Sorbonne. It also has the Jardin des Plantes, the Grande Mosquée (excellent tea room; I used to frequent the hammam but hear it isn’t so great any more), the Institut du Monde Arabe (beautiful architecture, interesting exhibits on art, history and culture, and great views from the rooftop café) and, my favorite thing in Paris: open air (summer only) Argentine tango dancing on Friday and Saturday nights at the Jardin Tino Rossi, right next to the Seine.
The 1st is the place for fashion, with rue Saint-Honoré lined with boutiques. Hotel Costes is a hangout for the fashion crowd and has such wonderful service. I once had a six-hour lunch with a friend there—the waiter discreetly refilled the water carafe but never were we pressured in the least to wrap it up and leave. Coco Chanel’s original boutique, at 31 rue Cambon, is just off rue Saint-Honoré. The Palais Royal courtyard is rather hidden, but you’ll recognize the iconic striped columns. The Louvre also is in the first. And nearby is Pont Neuf, leading to Île de la Cité, a charming place to explore and also home to the stained-glass wonder that is Sainte-Chapelle.
And you’re right by Notre-Dame, also on Île de la Cité. However, Notre Dame is in the 4th, the Marais, packed with interesting shops and cafés. It’s also home to the Picasso museum, among many others. My other favorite secret place in Paris is the Marais Dance Center, hidden in one of the oldest courtyards of Paris at 41 rue du Temple and dating to around 1580. You can sit at the cafe in the courtyard and look up, “Rear Window” style, at ballet in one window, salsa in another, waltz in another…Walk down the boutique-lined rue des Francs Bourgeois to Place des Vosges, where you can sit (not on the grass) and watch very chic parents with their very chic children at the small playground, while a busker sings exquisite opera aided by the acoustics of the surrounding arcades.
Montmartre is in the 18th, a bit farther from the center. From Sacre-Coeur you get great views, and the surrounding streets—except for Place du Tertre, which is unpleasantly touristy—are charming. At the tiny Square Suzanne Buisson, you might find locals in a game of pétanque; one day when I did, I watched a while, amused, and when I left they stopped playing and tipped their hats!
Montmartre is kind of off the path, and you’re likely to take the Métro (Line 12 to Abbesses or Line 2 to Anvers) and then possibly the funicular, which offers great views. You can combine it with some of the little museums near Parc Monceau, which is on Line 2 of the Métro. In fact, you could start at the Arch du Triomphe for day views, take the Métro to Monceau, then the Métro again to Anvers/Montmartre. That is, if you like views, museums and parks. But it also includes plenty of gawking in little streets around Montmartre.The Eiffel Tower is in the 7th, along with some great museums—Rodin, d’Orsay, Maillol (one of those charming little ones). It’s also home to le Bon Marché, the oldest of the grands magasins, or department stores. However, they aren’t really close together. I would wander from Musée d’Orsay to the Musée Rodin and then over to the Bon Marché and maybe on to the Jardin du Luxembourg and its little pond where kids (some of them with gray hair) sail little boats, though it’s technically in the 6th. Then I’d go back separately to the Eiffel Tower after dark.
This post has devolved into a lot of rambling. The point is to encourage you to pick your top destinations—YOURS, not some blogger’s! Or your friends’!—and to look at what else interests you nearby or on a convenient Métro line and to consider opening times and lines so you can make a plan for each day that’s both enjoyable and efficient.
The wind has been howling for what seems like weeks. The temperature has tumbled into the low single digits Celsius (mid-30s Fahrenheit). The gray sky is so low it seems to lie like an uncomfortable blanket on the rooftops.
Even though I have cabin fever I don’t venture out. I put on a coat, with the hood on, to open and close the shutters. The wind often tears them out of my hand and they clack hard against the house. Good thing it’s solid.I am fighting another kind of fever–the kind that accompanies achy joints and a throat made sore from sleeping with one’s mouth open because of congested sinuses. I’m not sick but I feel like I’ve been on the verge of it since forever. Low energy. The village exercise classes start up again this week after the holiday break, but I can’t go because we have a dinner invitation. I’m almost grateful for the excuse. Usually I would choose exercise over eating. This feeling, like a heavy blanket similar to those heavy gray clouds, weighs down. It stifles my brain.
I look over the rolling hills of this “plain” where we live, and they are at once similar to the plains where I grew up, and yet so different. No snow, though we might get a few flakes (but tomatoes are still growing in the garden and one of the roses bush has a beautiful red blossom). The sky this morning looked like snow. The early light was wan orange, the color of the vitamin C tablets I’ve been sucking on. It wasn’t like a blazing sunrise; it was uniform, the same pale orange all over. Rather beautiful, actually. Almost like the woozy grayish yellow the sky turns before a tornado. This isn’t tornado territory nor season, though.
The plains here are green in winter and brown in summer. The winter wheat is pushing up. The weeds between the rows of grapevines are living it up. I see solitary winegrowers bent over the vines, pruning them. The line is stark between where they’ve pruned and the wild tangles yet to do. I don’t envy them. I don’t think it’s possible to wear enough layers to stay warm out there, unprotected from the wind. In some places, such grueling work is done by machines, but not here. Doing it by hand gives better quality. I am grateful for these people for whom quality still counts.One day between the holidays, when it was quite a bit warmer (over 10 C, or in the low 50s F), I took a walk. Checked on our sometimes unruly river. Checked on the village. There are always folks out walking. Some walk in groups, probably the same friends since they were toddlers. Little old ladies trek to the village cemetery, sometimes a couple of times a day. Over the years, I watch their hair go white as they stop trying to keep up with dye jobs, their little dogs slow down then disappear, canes appear. They sometimes stop me to tell me they’ve seen my kid out in the village and my, what a grownup now and I remember when….On a couple of weekends, I made detours on back roads to avoid the gilet jaune protests. I saw some pretty things, like the boat on the canal in the top photo. And these locks.I also walked around a few cute villages, but I have to gather some stories or history or something to go with the photos of them. Another day, when it was gray but not cold, I walked over to la Cité. It looks like a movie set in the winter–few people, the stones very medieval moody.
From Pont Vieux at the bottom of la Cité, you get another view of the Pyrénées. Can you spy the people strolling along the river? There’s parkland on both sides, with the prettiest paths that go really far.
I want to cook up another bunch of comforting chili, but I think we will have eggs tonight. The Carnivore bought a truffle at the market in Mousselens, and when you have a truffle, you eat it with every meal until it’s gone. It goes best with mild foods that don’t compete for your attention. It deserves the starring role. Eggs, risotto and potatoes all work well. More on that next time.
Are you avoiding cabin fever and fever fever? Are you a winter person or just hunkering down and enduring it?
This summer we had the pleasure of meeting Oliver Gee and his lovely bride, Lina Nordin Gee, when they passed through Carcassonne on their honeymoon trip around France on an adorable red scooter. They stayed in our AirBnB apartment, L’ancienne Tannerie.
Oliver is the founder of “The Earful Tower,” a podcast and blog as well as fun Instagram about France, especially Paris. The stories are excellent–in fact, when I discovered The Earful Tower, I immediately binged all the episodes and have been listening ever since. Often I go back and listen again, because there are so many great details. And plenty of puns. I can now confirm what I suspected when listening–that he has a mischievous twinkle in his eye, what the French call espiègle, quick to spot humor in a situation.
Oliver was gracious enough to submit to a little interview:
Who are you and what in the world are you doing?
I’m Oliver Gee, an Australian who has called Paris home for almost four years. Around a year ago, I quit my job as a journalist to focus on a podcast I’d been running called The Earful Tower. It’s been quite the gamble, but my goal was to make the project my full-time gig and I’m pretty much there.What are some of the biggest differences you observed between Paris and small-town/rural France?
The biggest difference I noticed was that people have more time for you outside of Paris. Paris is hectic, almost chaotic, as most big cities are. The baker doesn’t (usually) care to comment on the fact that you might be speaking French with an accent, they’ve probably heard that accent before anyway. In the countryside, there’s not a long line of people waiting for their food, drink, car to be serviced… whatever. What was really great about this for me was that it meant I had the chance to really converse with people in a day-to-day way, which is an excellent way to improve my French!
Do you find it easier to eat well outside Paris? I have been to some fantastic restaurants in Paris, but they were pricey, whereas in the middle of France profonde you can get some awesome meals and they’re cheap.
I have to say that the best meal I’ve had in France was in the middle of nowhere, in Puymirol at a two-star Michelin restaurant. It was my birthday so we splashed out while on the honeymoon trip. But the food options in Paris are so exponentially greater than in the countryside that – statistically at least – you’re more likely to find what you want in Paris than elsewhere in France. What about culture? Paris is chock-full of cultural sites and activities. Would culture-loving travellers find enough to satisfy them outside Paris?
There’s all kinds of cultural things to do around France that are very unique, and that you won’t find in the capital. We found old caves in Burgundy, very well-preserved Roman arenas in Provence, and unique museums like the tapestry from the 11th century in Bayeux, or the D-Day beach museums. Paris, of course, has a way bigger and better collection of monuments and museums – but there’s plenty for a traveller outside of the capital.
What are some things that travelers should consider doing on a trip beyond Paris? I think for a lot of people, France consists of Paris and Provence, and in Provence they go to the markets, see the lavender and visit cute villages, all of which are undeniably satisfying. But how about some other reasons to venture out? Maybe historical sites? Or jaw-dropping scenery?
France is extremely diverse. Once you’ve got Paris and Provence out of your system, explore the other sides of France that are very different from what you typically imagine when you picture France. The Alps, the vineyards, the Mediterranean coastline, Carcassonne, the picturesque island Ile de Ré, the dense forests of the national parks… The big thing I learned from this trip was just how wildly diverse France can be.
What is one famous and one obscure thing in Paris and in France profonde that travelers shouldn’t miss? Some things get derided as being touristy, but they draw tourists because they are truly amazing, so I’m thinking of the things that are worth braving the crowds. And then the hidden treasures that don’t have crowds until we ruin them by telling everybody.
In Paris, go and walk along the remnants of the Philippe Auguste wall, it’s a fascinating insight into France from 800 years ago and most people don’t know anything about it. For the more famous side of the city, you’d be mad not to take a stroll through the Marais district, down onto the islands on the Seine River, then along the river sides.
As for France, I found the tiny village of Vezelay to be really interesting, though I don’t think it’s a huge tourist destination unless you’re doing a pilgrimage. They’ve got a bone on display in the crypt of the cathedral that legend says was Mary Magdalene’s. As for a more-known option, check out Annecy in the Alps. Absolutely the most beautiful town in France, end of story.
Did you have any movie moments during your trip, where you saw or experienced France as it’s portrayed in films? I sometimes see little old men wearing berets and riding bikes, with a baguette strapped to the back—absolutely like the iconic photo, though I think several times it has been the same guy.
When I was struck down by Lyme disease and had to visit two separate doctors in two separate villages, I felt like it could have been a movie scene. They were so friendly, and just as keen to talk about our trip as to cure me. Otherwise, we met so many colourful characters that it felt like it could have been a movie in itself. Small-town mayors, dairy farmers, talkative bartenders, and scores of friendly villagers… I’d love to see the movie version of our own trip!
So, francophiles, do yourself a favor and head on over to the Earful Tower! An interview with the lovely Lina, who is a shoe designer, coming soon!