Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

IMG_1845Happy Bastille Day!

Last night, our village was among those hosting a dinner and fireworks–done the night before the holiday because they can’t compete with the big fireworks tonight at la Cité of Carcassonne.

Here is the dinner menu: salad with gizzards; civet of duck (this civet isn’t the little animal but a kind of ragout made with lots of onions and pronounced see-VAY); bleu de coeur cheese; and apple pie. The Carnivore went, but I skipped it–too many calories and not enough vegetables.IMG_1796When it got dark, everybody went to the park of our château (almost every village has at least one château) to watch the fireworks. There is something charming about being in a crowd where you know 90% of the people. Children ran around freely; the park is their playground and they were excited by a place so familiar seen so unfamiliarly dark. IMG_1922When the fireworks started, more than a few of the little ones became hysterical. Fireworks are an acquired taste.

The crowd oohed and aahed in in unison, which added to the feeling of togetherness.

Compared with last year, the display was smaller and had some glitches. The park has an old stone bridge that used to go over the river until a flood changed its course. Sparklers hanging off the side give the impression of a waterfall of lights. Very pretty, especially with the elegant arch of the bridge. But the string came loose, and half of the waterfall turned into more of a puddle.

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This one looked like one of those deep space photos. And it was a very starry night.

After the big finale, we stood around chatting with friends as people slowly shuffled out. Suddenly another firework blasted off and lit up the sky. One of the technicians took off across the lawn, flashlight in hand, toward the launching area. A couple more strays went off. A small fire burned under the bridge. Technicians’ flashlights flickered back and forth near the rose garden. Clearly little villages have to make do with the farm league of fireworks.

Tonight, though, is the big leagues. For a week, you could feel the excitement mounting in town. There were more people around, adding to the energy. July brings the Festival of Carcassonne, with concerts, theater and dance. I went to a dance performance in the courtyard of the château of la Cité–a fabulous setting (la Cité isn’t a castle but a fortified city, with a château inside it that was the last resort). IMG_1872Tonight, the only concerts are free ones at Place Carnot, in the Bastide, or “new” town (dating from only 1260, but that’s how things roll around here). Guy Lacroux will play old-fashioned bal musette dance tunes on the accordion before the fireworks, and BRBB, for Béziers Rhythm & Blues Band, will play after.

At the same time, the reason for the holiday is a serious one. The fight for freedom, for equality, for fraternity and pitching in together for the common good. They aren’t easy principles to uphold, and sometimes what seems right can turn out wrong. But France does a pretty good job, and I’m grateful to live here.IMG_1903

Turrets and Towers

P1070625A château wouldn’t be a château without some towers and turrets. Once I started looking, I found them everywhere, and not just on châteaux.

 

Turrets are little towers that start on an upper floor, usually tacked onto a corner. Towers go all the way to the ground. Turrets offered a good vantage point for archers defending their castle.P1070483

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Crenellated wall, to boot!

Today turrets are just charming, except on McMansions (I saw a great example–which is to say it was abominable–in a subdivision in Béziers, but my shots didn’t turn out). Yes, there are McMansions in France. Even subdivisions, which are called lotissements.

It’s quite popular among McMansions here to stick a tower, for the master bedroom and bath, in the middle of an otherwise banal suburban house. P1070593beziers river

 

 

P1060556Happily, there are plenty of real châteaux all over the place, as well as more modest buildings that have odd towers tacked on. Why are those OK while the ones on McMansions are tacky? Maybe it’s snobbism, but it seems like the McMansions are just trying too hard to be special, and failing miserably. Kind of like wearing a sequined T-shirt with sweatpants–the sequins aren’t enough to make it dressy. And with clothes or houses, outer appearances can be good or bad but it’s what’s inside that really counts.P1070403P1060674P1060618

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The shape of that window! Like a sleepy eye. You can tell I’ve been collecting these photos for some time. It’s very green and hot here now.

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P1070623It still takes my breath away to go down some ordinary street here in Carcassonne and catch a glimpse of la Cité:P1060621P1060639

 

Dry Wall

P1070036Dry stone walls (pierres seches) are one of the iconic features of the French countryside. “Dry” means no mortar. (The French use “dry” in many circumstances which have nothing to do with “not wet.” For example, a soup can be “dry” if it doesn’t have enough fat–quite aside from a powdered mix. Go figure. To me, soup = wet, therefore not dry. “Dry soup” is one of those phenomenon that make my head explode.)

The walls look as if they were thrown together by teen boys in a hurry to finish so they could do something else, undoubtedly more fun. How else to account for the horizontal/vertical/nonsensical design? Yet, these walls are hundred(s) of years old, a testament to the skill of those who built them. I can point you to several retaining walls and houses of recent vintage that have moved with the earth and bowed or cracked dangerously. Around here, old means strong.P1070319P1060922This is going to be a photo-heavy post, because I can’t resist the patterns, the way they wave as the terrain has moved, the colors of the lichen, the impossibility of their continued existence. I’ve never met a stone wall I didn’t want to photograph.P1070317P1060920P1070033The walls are home to many creatures: little lizards mostly, but also snakes, spiders and other things that make me scream. Think twice about sitting on them. Not comfortable anyway.P1070035P1070315P1070034P1070320Just now, it’s hot hot hot out. The nights are deliciously cool, and during restless breaks in sleep I migrate toward an open window to let the chill breeze wash over me. During the day, we move slowly and snap at each other quickly. We aren’t yet used to the heat.

The stones are ironic. Our house’s two-foot-thick stone walls keeps the inside fairly cool during the day, without air conditioning. The apartments are even cooler. But similar stone walls, out along the edges of fields or in improbably remote spots in the garrigue, soak up the sunshine and spew it out, like retailers with their doors open in winter, heating the street. Passing a sun-baked wall is like passing an open oven.P1070032P1070306P1060921P1070325Our house was built after World War II (just old enough to be in the strong category), and had never even been a house before we bought it. It had a big parking lot. UGLY. We wanted to give it un coup de vieux (a hit of age), and found people who wanted to get rid of stones. Can you imagine getting RID of these? I guess if you have a falling-down grange and you want to build something neat and modern, then the stones have to go. The proverbial millstone around one’s neck.

Some low walls, with mortar (fewer spiders and snakes, though there are plenty of adorable lizards), made a huge difference in the charm factor. You can tell they came from two different places.P1080034P1080041P1080036

Languedoc in Condé Nast Traveler

79.Cité le soir2If you haven’t heard enough here about why you should visit Carcassonne, check out the lovely article about our region in Condé Nast Traveler.

Titled “Why Languedoc Is Like Nowhere Else in France,” you can see it here.

The gorgeous photos are by Oddur Thorisson, whom francophile blog readers probably know as the husband of Mimi Thorisson of Manger. (Because I don’t reproduce other people’s photos without permission, the photos here are my own.)footprintThe writer visits many of our favorites, from la Cité of Carcassonne, shown at the top, to the beach at Gruissan, above, the garrigue, below, and more. The article calls Languedoc the Tuscany of France, but I think of it as the “other” south of France–more low-key and  down to earth, less fashionable and flashy than Provence.4 view to carcaThe markets overflow with succulent local produce and products that end up in delicious dinners shared among friends and family or at restaurants. And the wine!

It is a pleasure to share the local secrets with you, especially the ones about savoir-vivre–the French art of living well.

Tangentially, check out this beautiful tapestry that some dear friends gave us. We put it in la Suite Barbès. It’s two meters (six feet) wide, which gives you an idea of how big the room is.tapisserie

AirBnB Woes

mirror-and-boiserie-chimney-sideFor reasons we don’t understand, the listings for our apartments in the heart of Carcassonne were completely messed up on AirBnB. We have openings!

The apartments date to the 17th century and have 13-foot ceilings, huge marble fireplaces with gorgeous high-relief decorations above them, and huge windows. They were renovated according to strict historical preservation rules and are furnished with antiques.

bed-lights-onThe front apartment, or La Suite Barbès, sleeps two. It has a lovely kitchen, a big living room, a gigantic bedroom (375 square feet, for the bedroom alone) and the biggest shower I’ve ever been in. It also has two small balconies overlooking the street. It’s a block from the central square, on a fairly quiet street–there are cars, but it isn’t all that easy to drive by, so they pass only occasionally.

toward kitchen with carpetThe back apartment, or L’ancienne Tannerie, sleeps a maximum of five, with a double bedroom, a small single bedroom and a double sofabed in the large living room. It has a very generous country kitchen, a big shower and a sauna. It faces the flower-filled interior courtyard.

cuisine-2-toward-window-afterWe also can arrange cooking lessons or antique shopping separately.

If you don’t see the dates you want, please contact us directly at booking.carcassonne (at) gmail.com

 

 

Cleaning the Closet

P1070981A closet left untouched for over a decade, but probably filled long before that, is a kind of time capsule, full of clues about life in France years–sometimes many years–ago.

First, the closets themselves. They (both, I think) started as water closets–toilets. Folks used to have chamber pots, which they would empty out the window to the street below, passersby beware.

According to the genealogy blog Histoires d’Antan et d’à Présent, there were some public toilets, which were little stalls with holes in the floor, set above a pit. How difficult that must have been when women had to wear long dresses with big skirts!

People started to want more privacy and would put in a water closet as high as possible in the building–as far as possible from the main living quarters. The excrement would flow down a pipe into the street, while the odors would escape above. By 1553, the parliament of Paris required each house to have a septic pit.remise 2By the 18th century, most buildings had two WCs, one near the ground floor or near the stairs, and the other on the top floor. And indeed, in our apartments’ building, there are two closets on the landings between the floors.

When I first moved to Europe in the 1990s and looked for an apartment in Brussels, I was shown one with the toilet and bathroom (separate) on the landing; the facilities were shared with the other two apartments in the building! I passed on that one. Also, on a trip to Paris around the same time, I had chosen an “authentic” hotel from the Lonely Planet; it praised a “charming Turkish toilet.” If you don’t know what that means, see the photo below. And steer clear of “authentic” and “charming”!

Anyway, these water closets had been converted into just closets (the toilet was filled with concrete). And they were full.  One had nothing interesting, but the other one, which had no traces of its former use, was full of stuff.

loot shot
Some of the finds, after being relieved of a thick layer of dust. Four irons!

The lock box in the top photo, was an exciting find, but sadly it was empty. (Imagine the typical French gesture of swiping your forefinger under your nose–meaning out of luck.)

A plastic tote bag held architectural documents for city halls/schools from the late 1800s; I want to go around to the villages and get photos of the buildings today. With them was this document, which seems to be a handwriting/copying exercise: “Hommage to Our Lady of Angels. Extract of a letter from my Lord the Count of Massaïra (today brother Mary Joseph of Angels) to his sister, Madame the Countess of Weisemberg.”P1070984P1080013Look at how it was bound by sewing the three sheets together. Even a tear on the fold was repaired by sewing. P1070988The handwriting is beautiful. Not a single bit scratched out.

The content is odd; the writer says he was born in Naples and recounts his life, mentioning that he married off his sister to the count of Weisemberg. Wouldn’t his sister be on top of this info already?P1080011There were several pots à graisse (grease pots), used for making confit de canard (duck) or pork.

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Missing the lid. There was still sugar inside!

A few stray pieces of a set of Limoges china. I plan to use the surprisingly large sugar pot, above, as a vase.

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I’m trying to trace the Saunier-Limoges link.
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Sweet hand-painted plates and an ivory mustard spoon.
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A magnifying glass in a silver frame.
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A bed-warming brick. It was set on the hot coals, then wrapped in a blanket and set at the foot of the bed.
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Bandages still inside.
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Silver holder for a cièrge, or church candle. Supposedly, the bigger the candle, the better the chance of the prayer being granted.
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A mirror for a tabletop, with decorative beveled edges.

In the lower closet–the one with the Turkish loo–we mostly encountered rubble and coal! The upstairs closet did harbor a charbonnière, or a kind of scoop/bucket for gathering coal from the heap to put into the furnace. Happily we don’t heat with that anymore.P1070995

What’s the best thing you’ve ever uncovered in cleaning out a closet?

 

You Never Know What You’ll Find

artichokeAppearances can be deceptive. The Maison des Mémoires (House of Memories) is a haunting name for nicely restored building in the center of Carcassonne, mixing industrial modern touches with ancient stones. A sun-drenched interior courtyard shows beyond the reception desk.

Why I never entered is a mystery. I love this sort of thing. But la Maison des Memoires is modest, at least from the street, and when I passed, I was usually in a hurry on my way to something else.

I finally visited. And it was a treat. An unexpected discovery of unexpected discoveries. How’s that for meta?

The building, at 53 rue de Verdun (entry is free), was the home of Joë Bousquet, a poet and author who hobnobbed with the surrealists. They came to him because he was unable to get out. He was paralyzed by a bullet to the spine in World War I at the age of 21.

CHAMBRE JOË BOUSQUET Photo de Daniel Depoix
With paintings by his artist friends, who included many Surrealists. Copyright Centre Joë Bousquet/Daniel Depoix. Used with permission.

Bousquet mostly stayed in the dim of his upstairs room, where he smoked opium to cope with the pain. Opium became popular in France at the turn of the last century, as sailors and military brought it back with them from Indochina. It became so popular that smoking it was outlawed in 1908. But Bousquet’s father was a doctor, who had legal access, and his circle of artistic friends supplemented his supply.

Tangent discovered in researching this: France is the biggest legal producer of opium poppies rich in codeine (which is one of the six naturally occurring opium alkaloids; morphine is the most important one for medicine).

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Another view. He lived by the light of a reading lamp, and the world came to him here. Copyright Centre Joë Bousquet/Daniel Depoix. Used with permission.

The ground floor has a reception area (entry is free), and upstairs are two rooms for visiting exhibits–a series of photographs about immigration when I visited–and two more rooms about Bousquet, with photos and his books. At the end of a small hallway, you can look into Bousquet’s bedroom, kept as he left it, with the shutters closed.

The exhibit rooms are stunning, exhibits notwithstanding. When the building was renovated, gorgeous painted ceiling beams were revealed. They were restored but not brightened or altered. The first room is kept dark, so it was hard to photograph without flash.

first ceiling 1
Ceilings in the first room, which date to 1570.

first ceiling 2The second room’s beams date to 1640 and are quite different. They would be stylish today. I would love them at home!second ceiling 2

second ceiling 1

second ceiling corner

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A matching square was on the opposite wall.

The rooms are arranged in the typical French disposition, with doors aligned for sight lines and air circulation. As you stand in the second room and look through the first to the hallway beyond, there’s a trompe d’oeil fresco that was discovered after a new staircase had been installed. The fresco was placed to give the impression of a pastoral view that continued on to the horizon.trompe d'oeilAnd then, get a load of this beauty below. This is no reflection on the Bousquet family, because Joë lived in two other houses on the same street before moving here. But sometimes you have to appreciate when decorators don’t do the “right” thing. Like when they slap something new right on top of the old stuff, instead of first removing the old.wallpaper full angleIn this case, the old stuff was Aubusson wallpaper, signed and dated: 1791. It originally had been a few feet away, at the end of a hallway, but was moved here, away from the window. Whoever had gotten sick of it so many years ago just left it there and covered it up.

wallpaper straight full
If this were in my house, I would put a really comfortable sofa facing it, and then stare at it all day.
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Border detail. You can make out the seam in the paper. Perfectly matched.

Another tangent: the tapestries that had made Aubusson (and Gobelins and Beauvais) famous fell out of fashion, in part because they weren’t needed for insulation as homes were better heated and in part because the French Revolution (1789-1799) put a big dent in their clientele. So they started making wallpaper, which was coming into fashion. In fact, the first definition of tapisser today in French is to hang wallpaper. I love etymological connections.

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Still chic, IMHO

Sadly for Bousquet, all these beauties had been hidden under plaster and discovered only during the renovation to create the museum. I can just imagine, having been there, done that: a bump against a wall sends a layer of plaster clattering down. In our case, we discovered not antique wallpaper but that the walls had been filled with straw. You never know what you will find.

After my second visit to la Maison des Memoires, I hit the library for some of Bousquet’s books. I wasn’t familiar with Bousquet, nor with his contemporaries, such as Andrew Gide and Paul Éluard. Another happy discovery. Here are a few passages translated:

The truth that we understand is but the image of that which inspires us.

You have presumed too much of the future and of luck. The time which should have brought you happiness is dead en route, and you fall again to the power of the shadows that follow you. But an unhoped-for rescue comes to you with your strengths, which you hadn’t imagined. Would you say that everything is lost because there’s only you to save yourself?

Don’t imitate reality, collaborate with it.

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A fragment of the past.

Meanwhile, a call for help from a reader: what exactly are these scissors used for? They are 6.5 inches or 16 cm long. I was thinking for sewing, though they’re longer than my pretty sewing scissors and the blades are different. What do you say?Scissors 1

Scissors 2

Send your answers in the comments. And merci mille fois!

Dr. Seuss in the South of France

P1070732The fields and roadsides here in the south of France are dappled with colorful spring wildflowers. Blazing poppies, of course. And voluptuous clouds of yellow broom plant–their French name, genêt, is so much prettier.

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The yellow in the middle is genêt.
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Can’t get enough poppies. Plus, can you see the Pyrenées in the upper left? The electric wires connect the big solar panel installation to the grid.

But if you look closely, you will see smaller spectacles of color and design audacity. They are easy to miss because they don’t have the massive presence of, say, the poppies. These wonders look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book, flowering in Whoville or Sala-ma-Sond.

One of my favorites, which I don’t have a good shot of, are the purple Sputniks below:

The wonderful photographer Heather at Lost in Arles did a better job on them, as well as on the little white flowers, whose conical heads look surrounded by manes, like little cartoon lions. Or like sparklers.P1070756There are so many flowers on impossibly thin stems that look drawn by a fine pen, that spread out so far.P1070650

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P1070761These seemed worthy of Whoville lamp posts. Or fairy lanterns.P1070729Long, long stems with big shapes on the end are very Seussian:P1070652

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This one makes me think of Snuffleupagus, who isn’t from Seuss but Sesame Street. But still.P1070721Some scary plants, too.P1070733And some manmade help below. This one is more Barbapapa. Sometimes when I go running, I pass the owner of this place, standing at the end of the drive and waiting for a ride. One day, he was holding a big bottle of whiskey. In the morning. I teased him hard about that. “It’s a present!” he protested.P1070725Maybe I find these amazing because I always lived in a city, where flowers are carefully chosen. Spotting these weird wonders gives me huge joy. What gives you joy?P1070647

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A wonderfully red wild iris.

 

Before/After: Bathroom

WC 2Our vacation rental apartments are a collection of used-to-bes. The bathroom in the courtyard apartment (which we’ve named L’ancienne Tannerie, because the courtyard used to be a tannery) used to be a laundry room.

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It must weigh a ton

One of the earlier demolition moves was to extract that gigantic concrete sink. We kept the niche in the wall. That corner now is the shower, with two shower heads. I tried both and can’t pick a favorite.shower with nicheThe door in the before shots leads to a circular staircase in another building on the courtyard. We sealed it off, and smoothed out the curve, because that deep corner gathered scary things.

buanderie
Before.
towels
After.

I had a hard time getting decent photos. This room is crazy bright, even with a glaze over the windows. The inside of the window frame is black. The Carnivore, our painter and the other workers lamented such a bad decision, but I got the last laugh because it looks great.

toward 3rd door
Before.
looking in door
Same view, after. No more door. The sauna is directly behind me. I love a towel warmer.

This room got the black and white cabochon floor that I had wanted for the big kitchen. The walls have metro tiles, which are beveled subway tiles, like in the Paris Metro. I had asked at the tile store about “subway” tiles and was told crisply that surely I was looking for “metro” tiles. Ahem.

The bathroom is next to the sauna. Of course.

sink and mirror and light
I love the Venetian mirror.

On the other side of the sauna, but reached by a different door, is the powder room, in its original place but with a different door (it used to be reached via the closet for the furnace and hot water heater. Yes, that had to change).Toilette 1The former doorway’s arch became home to the sink, with the toilet now across from it (next to where the sink originally was). The floor has the same tile as the wall. I was nervous that it would be too much, but the floorspace is small and it looks nicely seamless.

WC2 from door
After.

While we have been obsessed with finding antiques for the apartments, here it feels so clean that everything is brand spanking new. Well, except for the Venetian mirrors. And the little marble-topped cupboard for toiletries in the bathroom. New and old.

The apartments are available for rent on AirBnB: l’Ancienne Tannerie here and the front apartment here.

The Hills Are Alive

P1070457Not the Alps. The Pyrénées. Not the highest peaks, but magnificent nonetheless.

We were on the treasure hunt that is de Ferme en Ferme (Farm to Farm), covering some of the same ground as last year. We carefully examined the map in order to hit our favorites (À la Petite Ferme for hard sausage, Campserdou for raw milk) but also to check out some new ones. P1070468The thing about the mountains is that already it takes a while to get there, and then it takes forever to go from one place to another. Plus, the day of de Ferme en Ferme, narrow mountain roads that rarely see a vehicle suddenly have hundreds of cars.

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Quillan.
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You can make out Limoux in the distance; Quillan is just to the right. Carcassonne is beyond Limoux.

But rather than dwell again on hangry people wondering when they are going to eat, we will enjoy the views.

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There’s still snow higher up.

P1070491I couldn’t get over the vivid contrasts in greens, depending on which kinds of trees dominated a part of the forest. And those forests are dense and dark.

I wish I could also share the sweet smells of pine, grass, earth. And the sounds of so many birds. And the cacophony of crickets. It’s been forever since I’ve heard crickets. P1070455We crossed a high plateau and had to turn at the town of Espezel. I looked it up and the population was 209 in 2008; it was 407 in 1962. Says a lot about opportunities in the middle of nowhere. A man, wearing a big black beret without the slightest trace of irony, was about to enter a cute little bar/restaurant. Espezel might be losing residents but it’s gaining visitors who come for hiking. We pulled up quickly to ask the man for directions. They get lax about signs in the middle of nowhere.P1070469The man told us the way to the road we wanted–not a sign anywhere–and we were on our way. However, my co-pilot kept panicking at all the signs that said the col–mountain pass–was blocked. Still snow? Don’t worry, I said, Ferme en Ferme wouldn’t send hundreds of people on a blocked road.

I was right that the road wasn’t blocked. But I was wrong about the road. The instructions got us to the T-intersection as we had requested, but then instead of turning left, we turned right (again, not well marked). I thought we were on our way to Galinagues, and the map showed some impressive zigzags. But in fact, we were winding up the Rebenty river to Fajolle, where one could visit a fishery (not the Carnivore’s cup of tea).

I don’t regret the detour a bit. First of all, get a load of this: P1070480Even better, was the view going down:

 

P1070490And along the way:

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Babbling brook: check. Actually, this is the Rebenty river. Crystal clear.
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Cuteness: check. How’s this for a public library?
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Drinkable water: check. It’s rare to see a fountain like this that says the water IS potable.
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Laid-back vibe: check. This is IN THE ROAD. Clearly they don’t see many cars around here.

The village of Fajolle counts 14 residents, most of whom seemed to be out for a hike together, with the loners preferring to fish from the road. No sidewalks, shoulders, rails. Just a low curb. Back in the day (1793), Fajolle had 365 people. Imagine. They probably didn’t get out much, if ever. And in winter, they were really stuck. There are six-foot poles that mark the roadside for when it snows. Skiing is not far away.

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Marsa, in the Rebenty valley.

We did make it to Galinagues. We bought a bunch of goat cheese of different ages (and therefore harder or creamier). Leaving, we were counseled to follow the valley of the Rebenty back to Quillan. It was lovely. Truly a corner of France to explore again.