A few weeks ago, I went to a delightful jazz concert at a winery in the countryside outside of Carcassonne. I’ve been to concerts there before, since we first moved here. This concert was by the Marc Deschamps trio, who embodied 1950s cool cats of jazz and who played a mix of beloved standards and lesser-known pieces by such pillars of jazz as Dave Brubeck. As lovely as the music was, the concert room, as always, was the star of the show.Read more
The word on everyone’s lips in France these days is sobriété–sobriety. Not regarding consumption of alcoholic beverages but regarding consumption of energy. It all just makes sense, but as usual, it takes a crisis to kick people into action.Read more
Vicarious Adventure Travel
I went exploring, as one does during a pandemic lockdown. All within my one-kilometer radius. Not even! It was just a tiny slice of my circle. I’d never ventured off-road. Once, years ago, when I was new to the area, I went for a walk/hike with a neighbor. She was so absorbed in our chat that she missed a turn and we were lost for a while, until we walked on to within sight of a landmark. There are other places, not far, where it’s a bad idea to get lost, because you could walk for a really long time if you’re pointed in the right (wrong) direction.This hike was low risk. I would stay within a perimeter of tarmac road. Impossible to get lost. Usually I run on that tarmac circuit, from one village to the next and the next and back around to home. But I was tired of cars and, above all, curious. I looked at it on Google Earth. The outskirts of the villages aside, no houses were in the interior of the loop. There was a stream, some vineyards and other fields, and lots of woods.Tracks for farmers to access their fields would peter out into narrow footpaths, or not even. I saw boar tracks. Taking a photo of a little waterfall in the stream, I sensed movement. Fearing a dog (which I’m more scared of than boars), or, worst nightmare of all, a dog off leash, I froze. But instead, an enormous hare rounded a curve on the path across the stream, apparently to get up speed to leap over the water. Until it saw me, froze for a fraction of a second, and did a 180.
I explored these paths, free of all-terrain bikes for a change (more ferocious than boars) day after day, trying out different forks in the paths. I found a truffle farm, surrounded by electric fencing. Many capitelles, or stone refuges, built without mortar from stones found in the vineyards, to give workers a place to cool off for a midday sieste, when walking home would have been just too much work on top of the heavy manual labor they already did from dawn to dusk.
One place reminded me of a story. When the Carnivore and I were newlyweds, he wanted to take a honeymoon to Strasbourg. I’d never been to Strasbourg and wanted to see it. I still haven’t crossed it off my bucket list. Some turbulent events at the time of our planned trip had created bargains for travel to where I’d been in in the Peace Corps. I booked flights on a Wednesday; we left that Friday. I also called one of my favorite hotels, and the Carnivore was astounded when I asked for room 12. What on earth was he in for?
When we got to the first hotel, where I hadn’t specified a room number, the doorman greeted me by name. I’d last been there almost exactly a year earlier. It was a smallish hotel that was very mid-century modern in a way that was vintage back when I first went there in the mid-1980s and that had never been changed since. I loved it.
But we weren’t staying in the capital. I rented a small four-wheel-drive vehicle to go to where I used to live. No need for a map. This was not at all reassuring to the Carnivore. One could say his knuckles were white. Plus it was a former British colony, so I had to drive on the opposite side of the road. And “road” was a grand name for the bits of tarmac we traversed.Over an hour later, we were close. The countryside was very hilly, rising from plains of rice (the most delicous, aromatic I’d ever had) and pineapples to cornfields, then coffee. Above, in altitude, was tea. I lived just on the line between coffee and tea.
The road went up and down and around curves. Besides the enormous potholes, there were other obstacles—overloaded buses with people hanging off the back; overloaded pickups, their beds enclosed, where people would be squished seven or eight to each flat board that served as a seat (there was room for five butts, which meant one’s legs tended to be compressed to numbness during the ride); overloaded lorries that ground their way up hills and then went full speed down the other side in order to get maximum momentum to coast as far as possible up the next hill; overloaded people on foot, on bikes, motorcycles, ox-drawn wagons, all balancing impossible burdens.
We stayed at a hotel in a nearby large town, where, back in the day, I would stop for a milky tea when I would go to the big market on Saturdays. How I loved the market! I would buy a wedge of very local pineapple, which would be hacked with a machete before me, and wrapped in a dusty scrap of old newspaper. I would choose my rice from the open sack that had the most bees resting on it—a sure sign it was heavily perfumed. I would half-heartedly haggle for my fruits and vegetables, only because to not do so was considered arrogant. I would take my heavy bag home after an hour-long, two-leg trip on a bus followed by a pickup; the same drive in a private car was 20 minutes.
The hotel manager explained that for reasons I’ve forgotten there was a problem with the hot water. Instead, each day, several women hustled across the lush grounds with big basins of steaming water balanced on their heads. A different definition of running water.
I wanted to take the Carnivore to see one of my former students. We got in the car and headed even higher into the hills. “Watch out!” the Carnivore hollered. It’s true that there were often sheer drops and no shoulder on the side of the road. It’s why everybody drove in the middle, in both directions. I turned left, and since I was driving on the left, the Carnivore was certain I was doing a Thelma and Louise. “It’s a road,” I told him. “THIS is a road?!?!!?” he answered.
We went through a collection of shacks. Everybody came out to see; a car on this road was a big event. I waved. “Do you know them?” the Carnivore asked. “No, but it’s polite to wave,” I said. Honestly: same thing in rural France.
I turned right onto a much smaller lane. “Are you allowed to go here?” the Carnivore asked. “Sure,” I said. “It’s a road.” “THIS is a road?” he answered. It was admittedly harder going. Boulders gouged up through the red dirt in some places and deep ruts nearly swallowed us in others. I gingerly picked our way through. Non-native blue gum trees towered over us.I turned right again. “You can’t tell me this is a road,” the Carnivore said. “Yes, it’s a road,” I told him, driving over cropped thick grass. “You can tell because the grass is cut.”
Then I cut the motor. “We’re here,” I said. “But you said this is a road,” he exclaimed. “You’re just going to leave the car here?” “Sure,” I said. “There won’t be any other cars.”
I thought about that moment when I came upon this grassy lane. So similar. Coffee trees and grape vines are about the same size. The birds singing. The sweetness of the air. The absence of motorized sounds.I thought, too, about my housegirl, Jane. During training, we had been introduced to the concept of houseboys and housegirls, and I was sure I would be quite able to do everything myself and would never have hired help. In the 1980s in the Midwest, regular people didn’t have somebody come to do yard work or house cleaning. Kids—boys, usually—might make money mowing lawns or shoveling snow, usually for retirees. If you were able to do it yourself, you did. Plus, racism.
After a while on the job, my headmistress and another teacher I was close to invited me to tea. It turned out to be an intervention. Why hadn’t I hired a housegirl? Oh, I really can’t do that, I said. You have to, they told me: “If you have a job, you have to make a job.”
Well, that changed everything. I had been viewing the situation in terms of myself, proving that I wasn’t racist because I didn’t have a housegirl. The very term was offensive to me, even though my African neighbors and colleagues all had houseboys or housegirls and called them that.
Instead, the important framing was economic. If you have a job, make a job. My headmistress and friend informed me that they had found just the housegirl for me, and that she would be starting the next day and that I would pay her so much.
My housegirl, Jane, was a delight. She was indefatigable. When elephants trampled the pipeline bringing water to our school, she went to the river to fetch buckets. She washed my clothes by hand, then used the water to mop the floors. She sang as she worked. She always smiled. She gave most of her earnings to her parents and saved the rest to start a beauty shop. I was proud of her.
Back on the grassy lane, my former student, Editor (that was really her name), was surprised to see me. Our hasty trip hadn’t allowed time for a letter to arrive, and she didn’t have a phone. Or electricity. Or running water. She, her husband and two children lived in a two-room house (a sitting room and a bedroom) made of rough wooden slats. The kitchen was a separate hut outside, where Editor cooked over an open fire. She grew coffee and tea and vegetables. She once took me to pick tea. It is not easy.
I asked about a severe drought the year before. “Pff,” she said (just like the French do!). “We weren’t really affected.” But how did their crops survive? “The crops failed,” she said. “Everything.” How did she and her family survive? “We didn’t starve,” she said proudly. “We just ate every other day.”
Those words have stuck with me. There are people doing fasts to body hack, but this wasn’t about denial in the face of abundance; it was about survival in the face of famine.
Times are tough these days, but for some people, times are always tough, and lately they are worse.
I hope you are surviving and staying healthy. If you have a job, please do make a job. And I hope everybody gets to eat every day.
Under Marble Cliffs
When my kid was little, I would always accompany class field trips. It was such a great way to learn about the region, often in ways I never would have sought out myself (spelunking). One such trip was with a bunch of second- and third-graders to go rock climbing, which led to my discovery of a hidden haven, Notre Dame du Cros (literally, Our Lady of the Hole, or, more poetically, Valley).
I have mentioned that the French have other ideas about safety, as in, if you get hurt, it’s your own fault. So somehow rock climbing is a good idea for kids whose permanent front teeth have only just grown in. Even crazier, to me, was the fact that one of the guides had been our guide exploring caves. A man of many outdoor sports. How does one get a job leading children through caves and up cliffs? And how does he not go crazy? He had unlimited patience. I knew and loved these kids but any time I spent an entire day with all of them I had to take a nap as soon as I got home. Their overflowing energy sapped mine.
Despite the buzzing swarm of children, the area of Notre Dame du Cros is utterly peaceful. It’s over the hill from the village of Caunes-Minervois, and so tucked into the hills that you don’t hear anything but birds and the rustle of leaves. And occasionally an explosion from the marble quarry–maybe once in a day.
Legend has it that, around the 6th century, a shepherdess gave water from the spring there to her sick child (although another says it was the shepherdess herself who was ill), who was immediately cured. It became a pilgrimage destination. That led to chapels being built, with the current one dating to the 12th century, and renovated in the 15th and 16th centuries. Mass is said every morning–the chapel is considered part of the Caunes abbey. Stations of the cross are spread around the hillside.
There’s a flat plain next to a stream, named Le Souc, with picnic tables shaded by century-old platane trees. It’s a very popular spot on summer weekends, but manages to stay calm and peaceful–it’s what people come for.
South of France Is for Romance
Here’s an itinerary for a romantic vacation for a couple. Our AirBnBs, la Suite Barbès and l’Ancienne Tannerie, get a lot of love birds on honeymoons and anniversaries. I’ve done posts about some of the sights and have yet to go more in depth on others. Stay tuned.
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 have diametrically opposite tastes, yet we both find multiple choices tempting and are always both happy. You can’t beat it on quality/price. The service is impeccable and the setting is beautiful. It’s isn’t far from the center of town but it’s nearly impossible to find without a GPS. On a visit in July–at the height of tourist season–all but two of the license plates of the cars parked in front were 11’s (the department we’re in is Aude, #11)—this is where the locals go. Dinner only; closed Sunday and Monday. Reserve! (If you’re at one of our apartments, I can do it for you.)
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!
What do you look for in a romantic getaway?
A Rustic French Village
France, and especially this region of France profonde, has no shortage of adorable villages. A while ago, I took a detour home to stop and gawk in Rustiques, home to a whopping 513 residents about nine kilometers (5.5 miles) from Carcassonne. Surrounded by vineyards and pine forests, it lives up to its name, and, amazingly, it’s supposed to be the only community in France to have such an obvious name.Rustiques dates back to about 100 B.C., when the Volques Tectosages, a Gallic tribe, settled in the forest. Then the Romans came through and possibly gave it its name, from villa rustica. Around 700 A.D., the Visigoths arrived, then the Sarrasins, then the Francs. In the 1400s, the growing lawlessness of roving bandits prompted locals to band together in a walled community around the seigneur’s château, which was at the highest point. I took so many photos that I’ll do a separate post on the château, even though it was closed when I visited.
In fact, it was so quiet I barely saw a soul. Il n’y avait pas un chat–there wasn’t a cat–as the French say.
I never get tired of wandering in these little places. A sign told me the four banal, or the seigneur/lord’s oven, was down a little street in a house belonging to the lord, but I didn’t find any marker for it. I am a little obsessed with fours banals. In Rustiques, bread was baked twice a week, and for every 24 loaves, the people had to give one to the lord.
The four banal was to keep villages from burning down, but floods were as much of a problem as fire. Two streams join at the village and overflowed, sometimes disastrously. The village detoured one stream in 1912. There also was a lavoir, in use into the 1960s, and a big improvement from what came before–From 1899 to 1906, the town rented eight benches for washing laundry on the Canal du Midi in Trèbes, about a mile away. How convenient, eh? Not to mention clean…NOT.
There also was an impressive clock tower, built in 1897, so all the inhabitants, known as Rustiquois, would known the time of the republique.
So many old, old details.
The surrounding countryside was inviting in the winter sunshine. The bare vines, Mount Alaric in the distance.
Villages like this are what make Carcassonne such a great base–they’re adorable, but you can walk around them leisurely three times and not have spent a whole hour. They’re perfect for an occasional diversion.
A Bridge Too Far
Gluttons for punishment, my kid and I headed to Montpellier on Sunday to visit a retailer not found in Carcassonne nor even in Toulouse. While shops in France usually are closed on Sundays, they open on the three or four Sundays before Christmas. Add to that the fact that only semi-trucks carrying refrigerated goods are allowed on the autoroutes, and Sunday seemed ideal.
From the start, things went wrong. I stopped to buy gas and put air in the tires before getting on the autoroute. The station had been flooded in October, and I hadn’t been back for a while, what with the roads out and detours. Turned out it was closed for renovations. No other gas stations before the autoroute, but, hey, no problem, the tank was almost full; my itsy bitsy car needs only about a half a tank to make the 300-kilometer roundtrip.
We would park at the shopping mall with said retailer, then take the tram to the city center, to avoid having to drive all over the place. I finally got a phone with a GPS, so I didn’t need to write out the directions from Mappy. Such luxury.
We sang Christmas carols and admired the moody, haunting countryside on the way. It looked almost like shan shui paintings at the Musée Cernuschi in Paris. The light rain swathed a gray veil over the winter greenery. So different from summer’s parched brown palette, with its sharply defined shadows captured by Cézanne.
After we joined the A9 autoroute northbound, warning signs appeared: car on the side of the road. Then, A75 (a different autoroute) obligatory exit. I wasn’t sure what that meant. That the folks going on the A75, which starts around Béziers and heads to Paris, had to take a certain exit? We continued.
We came to realize that it meant the A9 was closed and all traffic was being detoured to the A75. No problem, I thought. We have a GPS!
We followed the other cars, winding around to the tollbooths. All but three were closed, so the lines were long. And they were swarming with gilets jaunes, or yellow vests. They made a big show of “guiding” cars through the piles of tires and pallets that were burning. The tarmac was a mess, having melted and been churned up by previous fires. Gendarmes stood, bouncing from one foot to another to keep warm in the drizzle, but not interfering. A huge tree in the center of the roundabout after the tollbooths was uprooted.
I’ve read unflattering comparisons between the gilets jaunes and the women’s march in Washington and Black Lives Matter protests. But the women’s march and BLM didn’t set things on fire or uproot trees. There might be bad actors attracted to any demonstration, ready for an excuse to wreak havoc. The folks at the autoroute exits didn’t seem like the casseurs who made a mess in Paris, even though it doesn’t seem like the casseurs were the ones who devastated the tollbooths. The yellow vests seemed intent on getting even with somebody, anybody, for attempts to wean them off their cars, which were parked on the side of the road and festooned with yellow–mostly SUVs. They made a big show of being gentil, kindly directing the traffic mess that they had created.
There’s an argument that the autoroutes were constructed with tax money, and so they should be free. The protesters don’t like that there’s a toll, and that it’s collected by a private company that maintains the autoroute (and also sends out vans to accident sites and cars that have broken down on the side of the road, etc.). For the most part, the autoroutes in France are as smooth as a baby’s bottom, and the speed limit is 130 kilometers an hour–80 mph. The argument is that the toll is higher than needed for maintenance, and anyway there shouldn’t be a toll at all. (For about 90 kilometers on Sunday, I paid €7.80; to cross France north-south costs about €60 in tolls.)
Of course, the militant drivers would not like it if the autoroutes were more crowded than they already are. Sometimes in summer, the A9, which hugs the Mediterranean coast from Spain up to Nîmes, before plunging into the center of France, is a long parking lot of cars from all over Europe, full of vacationers hoping to get to the beach before their cars overheat. Periodic suggestions for surge pricing further enrage people, though I’d be the first to drive at a weird time to have less traffic AND pay less. But having different prices is seen as undemocratic. The protesters have also destroyed roadside radars–every single one we passed was knocked down–because they ruin the fun of speeding.
Our brilliant (not) GPS (actually we used two–Waze and Maps–with identical results) advised us to go on, then had us double back at the first roundabout. “We’ll probably get on in the other direction,” my kid surmised. Nope. Cars were getting off the autoroute, but roaring fires kept anybody from getting on in any direction.
We finally got away again. We ignored the GPS and followed the signs to Agde, planning to take back roads up to Montpellier. But eventually it wasn’t so clear where to go. We listened to the GPS. Bad idea. We turned this way and that and ended up on another divided highway (with no way to make a U-turn) when we passed the same Cactus Park we’d seen half an hour earlier. Indeed, soon we were back at the burning barricades of the roundabout from hell.
My kid informed the GPS yet again that the autoroute was blocked (feedback is how they know about problems) and we tried yet again to find a detour. We went through some charming little towns, but you get no photos because my kid said it wouldn’t be fair to show them in the rain when they must be even prettier in the sun.
We eventually did make it to Montpellier, 2.5 hours late. The mall was a bust. It was just like any mall you would find in the U.S. except it was open to the sky. This usually would be a plus, but we were there on one of the few days a year of rain. Just nine days before Christmas, a few people hurried by. There were no lines for the changing rooms.
We ditched the idea of taking the tram to the city center and decided to just get home. Looking over the routes suggested by the GPS, we chose the detour on the A75, which hooked up with the A9 at a point beyond the disastrous barricades we’d encountered earlier.
We soon were climbing through hills on the outskirts of Montpellier. Disconcertingly, the signs told us we were going toward Millau (not on our way) and Clermont-Ferrand, which is just about in the center of France and much more of a detour than we’d bargained for. My car started beeping that we were almost out of gas, but we didn’t see a single service station.
The scenery was gorgeous, though, a different kind of rugged than what we were used to. And the church steeples were a different shape. It’s funny how you notice regional traits, like the way cousins might have the same nose.
My kid asked the GPS to take us to a gas station. That worked out well, and we got a pannetone as a gift (from Italian gas chain Agip).
The GPS led us back to the A9, with promises of Narbonne and home. This entry, too, had a long line of cars being filtered by yellow vests, and fires burning and destruction all around. A few minutes later, the skies opened and it poured as if to set sail to Noah’s ark. Good, I thought, that will send the yellow vests home. But on arrival at Carcassonne, they were huddled under the roof of the toll station, collecting the toll tickets, as if giving us a present for having destroyed the barriers and letting us pass for free. I handed mine over, but as I pulled away I yelled expletives at them, horrifying my kid. But it made me feel better.
Single Payer FAQs in France
I’ve been reading news about “Medicare for all.” For people outside the U.S., it’s a no-brainer. Of course everybody gets health care. Of course the cost isn’t based on how healthy you are. Of course it’s affordable. Of course you choose your doctor.
I can only really tell you about the French system, which, in nearly 15 years of experience, has been excellent.
All French residents get a Carte Vitale, a green chip card with your French social security number (kids under age 16 are on the card of one of their parents). The card itself doesn’t cost anything. Coverage is obligatory. If you are a tourist, however, you aren’t covered and have to pay out of pocket or get your insurance to pay. But the bill won’t be anything like what you’d confront in the U.S.
Emergency room waiting area. Efficient. Carcassonne’s hospital is fairly new.
Everybody. The government insurance covers 77% of health expenses. A further 14% is covered by complementary insurance and almost 9% covered by individuals (co-pay, if you like, but not for everything; it’s mostly for glasses and dental work). The government funding comes from employer and employee payroll taxes (50%), income taxes (35%), taxes on tobacco, alcohol, the pharmaceutical industry and voluntary health insurance companies (13%) and state subsidies (2%).
I was talking to someone in the U.S. who was turned off by single payer, saying that he didn’t want to pay in for lazy people who don’t work. Of course, there are some freeloaders in France, but the cost of keeping them healthy is nothing compared to the taxes evaded by the rich using offshore shell companies. They are the real freeloaders. But psychologically, humans pick on those with less status than us and turn a blind eye to those with more.
Also in France, there’s a list of 30 health conditions that are 100% covered–hospitalization, treatment, doctor visits, medication, etc. These include diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, incapacitating stroke, cystic fibrosis, HIV, malignant cancer, etc. A friend had a kidney transplant–something stressful enough, and at least she didn’t have to worry about the cost.
What is this complementary insurance?
Complementary insurance covers all or most of the fees not covered by the government program. It’s voluntary and paid individually. It’s private mutual insurance, meaning it’s nonprofit. Patients lose if profits win. The average in 2017 was €688 per person annually or about €57.33 a month.
Patient room. The screens are for TV and Internet; you have to buy time.
How high are the taxes?
Employers pay 13% of salary for health care, maternity, disability and death insurance. Self-employed people making under €43,705 a year pay between 1.5% to 6.5%; over that you pay 6.5%.
In the U.S., the average worker contributions are $1,213 a year for a single person and $5,714 for a family. Worker premiums have gone up about 75% over the last 10 years, vs. about 48% for the employer share. About 80% of workers’ employers pay at least half the premium for both single and family coverage. The average cost of insurance for employers is $6,435, with a $6,000 deductible. (Excuse me, I just fainted at that deductible.)
How does it work?
If you’re sick, you call your doctor. Around here, we sometimes can get in the same day, sometimes not. If it’s urgent, one of the other doctors in the group will take us. We don’t have many emergencies, so we usually make appointments for a week or two in advance for routine checkups. Our long-time doctor moved away, so we shopped around for a new one, trying a few recommended by different friends before settling on someone we liked a lot. The idea of in-network or out-of-network doesn’t exist because there’s just one network. While people are free to shop for a doctor when thinking about switching, the French system does require picking a primary-care doctor to limit abuse, such as how much people can shop for somebody to write them a prescription they might not need.
If you have to go to the hospital, there are no surprise bills from out-of-network doctors you never met or who worked on you when you were unconscious. Some doctors can demand a surcharge, but it’s usually in the tens of euros.
How is it different from the U.S.?
Everything is less fancy. This might be in part because we are in the sticks and not in Paris, but I saw the same thing in Brussels. It’s all nice, but not luxe. One hospital in my hometown had a grand granite entry with a grand piano, carpeting in the halls, sofas and armchairs in the rooms. Here, the hospital is brand-new, heavy on the linoleum, only one hard plastic chair per patient room.
However, granite (or carpeted–EEEWWW) floors don’t make anybody better. All that matters is that the place can be kept clean and that it’s arranged in a functional manner.
The doctors’ offices are pretty simple, too. Always nice, but never fancy. One thing that I found unusual was that the office and examining table are in the same room. You go in, sit at the desk across from the doctor, then get undressed (no paper gowns), get examined, get dressed, your Carte Vitale is read, you pay your €25 and leave. No little exam rooms in a line where a nurse charges in for your vitals, then the doctor comes by for two minutes and disappears. I told one doctor about this, and how the little exam rooms would save a lot of the doctor’s time by not waiting for patients to undress/dress, and she was horrified. Especially with the elderly, she said, it’s important to observe how patients move as they’re dressing. She saw the U.S. system as penny-wise, pound-foolish.
French health care is of very high quality despite being lower cost. France has 3.2 doctors per 1,000 people, fewer than some European countries but more than the U.S., which has 2.5 per 1,000. Maternal deaths per 100,000 live births dropped to 8 in 2015 from 15 in 1990, whereas in the U.S. they rose to 14 from 12 in the same years. Check out this article about dying mothers. Life expectancy at birth is 82.4 in France, among the highest in the world, compared to 78.6 in the U.S. Infant mortality is 3.7 per 1,000 live births, vs. 5.9 in the U.S.
In addition, a number of preventive campaigns aim to keep costs down by catching problems early, including free mammograms every two years after age 50, as well as free tests for colorectal cancer.
In the lobby, a piano. Not grand. Nor is the lobby.
Isn’t it weird having the government decide what’s covered?
Well, somebody has to do it, and it’s probably better that it’s decided by society at large rather than by your employer, non? Most people don’t realize that larger companies self-insure–in fact 60% of U.S. workers covered by their employers are literally covered by their employers through self insurance. It’s called captive insurance, and it’s a way of using the risk of employee health costs or death benefits (which would be low risk if you have healthy employees) as a hedge against other corporate risks. The company sets aside a pool of money as its own insurance. It contracts with an actual insurance company to administer claims. The employer can decide what to cover or not, although the Affordable Care Act set some standards on that.
That means employers have an interest in whether you’re healthy. A few years ago, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong announced to employees that he was cutting employees’ retirement benefits because of self-insurance payouts for two “distressed” babies.
With single payer like in France, employers help pay in, but risks are spread across the entire country. There are no questions about pre-existing conditions, because participation in the system is obligatory.
While there are certainly cases of people abusing the system (I know a couple who would go for a weeklong “cure” for “arthritis” every year at a spa), for the most part nobody gets surgery for the heck of it, nobody has chemotherapy just because they can get it for free. Health care is one of those things you want to not have to need. It shouldn’t be available only to those who can afford it, certainly not in developed countries.
At night, a welcome cool breeze slips through the open windows, along with the low growl of grape harvesting machines already toiling as early as three a.m. Wayward grapes stain the sidewalks and streets of the village. Within the time we’ve lived here, the harvest has gone from being all-hands-on-deck to being something that happens in our peripheral vision. The fête du village is always Aug. 15, a last fling before grindingly long days of harvesting. The village gym class didn’t start until after the vendange, because nobody had time for exercise when the vineyards were in full swing. Eventually, only two gym-goers were working with wine.
French wine is celebrated for its quality, and rightly so. Sure, you can find some bad stuff, but that’s the exception, not the rule. The AOCs–appellation d’origine côntrolée, a kind of certificate of quality linked to geographic location–are a very safe bet. Each AOC has strict rules about what winemakers can and can’t do with their wines, including which cépages, or varietals, they can include.Lots of people overlook the AOCs because they require some memory work. AOCs generally are blends of varietals, and the wines that are trendy tend to be monocépage, or single varietal, like Chardonnay or Cabernet sauvignon or Pinot noir. One AOC that’s monocépage is Burgundy, with Pinot noir for red and Chardonnay for white. As far as marketing, it’s easier to sell a Cab or a Syrah/Shiraz than a Minervois that’s predominantly one or the other, with some other varietals mixed in. That mix is the special cocktail, the individualism. When I was in the U.S., most wine stores offered only a few, well-known French options, and the shopkeepers would explain that AOCs were just too complicated for customers.Let me tell you, nothing is easier.
Look at the bottle. If it has high shoulders, it’s in the style of Bordeaux, which are mostly Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon for reds. These are fuller, bolder wines. A local favorite for this style in Minervois is Domaine la Tour Boisée (which also produces wines, like 1905, in the Burgundy style).If the bottle has sloping shoulders, it’s in the style of Burgundy, even if it doesn’t contain pinot noir. That means soft, complex wines. One of our favorite wineries is Château St. Jacques d’Albas, which uses a lot of Syrah in its red Minervois wines.Around Carcassonne, one finds several AOCs: Minervois, Cabardès, Malpère, with Corbière and Limoux a bit farther. Minervois, Cabardès and Malpère are some of the smallest AOCs in France, made up mostly of very small, family wineries.Before the vendange, taking grapes is theft, but after, the left-behind fruit is fair game. (Beware of the vendange tardive, or late harvest–those aren’t for taking either! The grapes are left on the vine until they start to dry out, to make dessert wine. It’s pretty easy to tell when a vineyard has been harvested–no big bunches are left). Though it’s mostly the sangliers, or wild boars, that snarf up the last grapes.
As I write this, a Euro-electro cover of the Italian folk song “Bella Ciao” is blasting into my window from a boisterous gathering. Sound travels easily in the countryside.
If you don’t know this song, listen here (not the techno version).Years and years ago, an eternity really, when my kid was a little round sausage of yumminess and naïvété, the (first grade?) class learned the song “Bella Ciao” for the year-end show. They always learned something that would bring great applause from all the grandparents in the audience, and there was something adorable about these little tykes belting out hits from half a century earlier.
Thus I’ve known Bella Ciao for a while. Obviously it was an Italian song, so I didn’t understand the lyrics (unlike another song my kid learned in school even earlier: “Si Tu Vas à Rio”–“If you go to Rio….don’t forget to go up yonder, to a little village, hidden under wild flowers, on the side of a hill….” a song about reminiscences and good old times, which is kind of hilarious coming out of the mouths of four-year-olds).Several years later, my kid was studying World War II, and “Bella Ciao” came up again in the context of families deciding whether to weather the terrible fascist political climate or to flee, to become refugees. The song’s origins were the women of the Po river valley who weeded the rice paddies and who suffered terribly. (How did a song about suffering women manage to be sung by so many men?) (Italian and English lyrics here)Later (although one article said the partisans came first, in 1919, and the rice weeders came after World War II), it was adopted as an anti-fascist anthem, and then as a pro-communist song. These kinds of liaisons are difficult, because you can be very anti-fascist and also downright cold to communism–the original idea might have been nice but in reality communism was a huge con job and an economic and social failure. Yet, in binary, black-and-white situations, you don’t get to be anti-communist AND anti-fascist, because those get lumped as one and the same. So either you have to choose to be anti-fascist and just ignore the communist part or you shrug and walk away from everything altogether. In some parts of southern France, communists haven’t gotten the memo about its demise. There also are plenty of refugees or descendants thereof from Franco’s Spain, so there’s a strong anti-fascist streak as well (a Spanish cover of the song was censored in Spain in 1969…Franco died in 1975, for those of you who don’t remember Chevy Chase on SNL’s Weekend Update). “Bella Ciao” became the hymn of labor strikes in the 1960s and then crossed the Atlantic in service of the government of Salvador Allende in Chile, which, you might recall, ended badly, thanks to the CIA.
“Bella Ciao” has been in my head lately because it was a theme of the hugely popular Spanish series (picked up on Netflix) “La Casa del Papel”–“Money Heist” in English. What an interesting series! I didn’t see all of it, but it was fascinating, with the corrupt victims, the good-hearted villains, the messed-up police….nothing rote, everything complicated. AlloCiné compared it to “Ocean’s Eleven,” but it was free of smugness and made you question everything. Maybe it was an intellectual “Ocean’s Eleven.” It also was devoid of fashion, yet had such indelible looks. The red jumpsuits! The Salvador Dali masks!In looking around for who in the world did the electro version I was hearing, I discovered that “Bella Ciao” is in a renaissance as it were, thanks to “La Casa del Papel,” which made it hip again. French-Congolese rapper Maître Gims did a version with lots of la, la, la (which translates as la, la, la, whether Italian to French or French to English). French DJ Jean Roch (I do NOT approve of that silky green jacket. Nor of the backup dancers) and American electro house musician Steve Aoki also did it. And French-Spanish singer Manu Chao, though he was before the current craze. In fact, his family fled Franco’s Spain, which is how he was born in France.Have you heard Bella Ciao before?