End of Summer

IMG_3595The nights have been crisper, wonderful for sleeping. But it’s only today that it finally feels like fall. Some much-needed rain started during the night and is supposed to continue, gently and steadily, all day. I imagine the plants in the garden straightening up, as if they’re doing the sun salutation in yoga, raising their anthropomorphic faces to the sky and greeting the raindrops

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Croissants on the balcony of our AirBnB in Carcassonne.

The wine harvest has started, but it seems subdued compared to past years. Vast stretches of vineyards have been plowed under to become fields of wheat, sunflowers and other crops. Usually the mornings at this time of year would be heralded not by the neighboring rooster but by the growl of the big vendange machines, that look like monsters from a horror film.

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Winegrowers use tiny tractors to move between the rows of vines. I love that this museum piece is a Lamborghini. It used to be driven by an ancient winegrower who was bent over in half but who worked his vineyards daily.

Another reason we’re happy for the rain is that there have been a few fires. Every year, there are fires, but these seemed especially worrisome. One brought in 12 firefighting planes. I had only ever seen two flying over, en route between the fire and Lac de Saint-Ferréol, where they refill with water.IMG_3640IMG_3612One fire grew significantly between the time I first saw the smoke and when I was heading home later. I pulled over at a rare wide spot on the road. Other cars joined me. Everybody took pictures with our phones and ended up chatting for quite a while. It’s crazy how you can connect with people sometimes.

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Early evening.
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45 minutes later.

A few crazy things I’ve noticed, which are too random to warrant a post.

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Why do you need a windshield wiper on a window that you can’t see through?
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Ha ha–connerie is stupidity/nonsense/silly antics, so it says “general stupidity.” It originally was “maçonnerie general” or general masonry.
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At a wine and food tasting: Occitan relaxation and naps. Occitan is the old language and adjective for this region, where Languedoc comes from–oc is how people in these parts said yes.

The foods at the market are changing. Soon the peaches and nectarines will turn mealy and we’ll have to give up on them. But happily there are already apples. Still lots of tomatoes and I have been given orders to make sauce. IMG_1881If I get it together, I will post a street style roundup on Friday. Until then…IMG_3499

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More Minerve

IMG_3337As pretty as Minerve is, it has a dark, gruesome history. Back in June 1210, it was beseiged by the papal forces in the crusade against the Cathars. It was almost a year after the massacre at Béziers and the capitulation of Carcassonne, bigger towns about equidistant from Minerve. Refugees had fled to Minerve, which must have seemed like a safe place, nearly surrounded by sheer cliffs, the sole access by land guarded by a fortress. It was isolated, in the middle of nowhere, and so had been passed by during the original campaign.IMG_3395The leader of the crusade, Simon de Montfort, didn’t like having a refugee center around. He used Minerve’s natural defenses against it, setting up trébuchets on the opposite sides of the deep ravines that surround Minerve. He ordered Minerve to be destroyed. There’s a reconstruction of a trébuchet, dubbed Malvoisine, or Bad Neighbor, on the plateau opposite Minerve.IMG_3373 What broke the Minervois, however, was that their access to their only well was cut off and it was summer–no rain to carry them over. The residents were given a chance to convert but only three did; 140 were burned at the stake, probably in the dry riverbed of the Cesse. It was the first collective stake burning of the crusade. They weren’t tied up but marched down rue des Martyrs (Martyr Street) and had to throw themselves into the pyre.

Good thing we aren’t so barbaric anymore, eh?

Today, Minerve is the picture of calm and charm.IMG_3387IMG_3359IMG_3357The rivers must be something when they are high. Think of the force it took to carve these cliffs.IMG_3363

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The very porous local limestone.

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You can see the waves that water left in the sand.

Not far away, not very well marked, is the Curiosité de Lauriole, which I have been dying to see. I don’t have good photos of it, because it’s something you have to see in person, though there are videos online. The road looks like it’s inclining ever so slightly, but in fact it’s going downhill.

I took a ball, but it failed miserably because of the wind. Then I put my car in the middle of the road, stopped completely and let my foot off the brake, expecting to roll gently forward. Instead, I rolled gently backward. I’m all in for cheap thrills.IMG_3364Back to Minerve. I appreciate a street with an archway. I always wonder about the title to the house that goes above it. How do they deal with the street part? The notaries of France must be very creative. When we were looking for property to buy, we visited a house in a little village where access to a bedroom was via a small door–so small that even a shortie like me had to bend way down. How would you even get a mattress in there? And to get to that room you had to go through another bedroom. Crazy.

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It looks too low to walk through, eh?
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Mais non! It’s plenty high.
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View from the other side.

But the craziest part was that I realized we were above a neighboring grange. Who owned the grange? Someone else. What if they wanted to tear it down? You couldn’t have the bedroom just hanging there, suspended in the air. That place was nuts in other ways, too. I wonder who ever bought it.

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This is called the Poterne Sud, the southern gate to the town.

And we also saw a house, just next to la Cité of Carcassonne, where the bathroom was down some steps, kind of a half basement, under the neighbor’s house. I asked about it and the owners said, oh, the neighbors are nice. (My reaction: ?!?!?!?) The owners were a certain kind of French older couple you find in rustic places. They were dedicated smokers, both with voices of gravel. He wore a gold chain and pinkie ring. They loved Johnny Hallyday (the French Elvis) and had posters and “paintings” of him all over. One might have been velvet. I wonder whether they got to hear Johnny’s concert in Carcassonne–his last–just steps from their house. I think they sold before. IMG_3378We never know how close we came to having luck, do we? It’s one thing to be in the right place, but you also have to be there at the right time.IMG_3380IMG_3342IMG_3350IMG_3352

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This was ridden by a man as old as the scooter.

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Utterly Adorable Minerve

IMG_3282There are cute French villages and then there are REALLY CUTE French villages. Minerve is in the superlative category. Officially so: it’s on the list of les Plus Beaux Villages de France (the Most Beautiful French Villages). I know I just said I was a city girl, but I do love places like this.IMG_3330It has been a while since we’ve visited. Though it’s been on the to-do list for all of my recent visitors, we just never had the time for the 45-minute drive from Carcassonne. What a mistake. The drive is gorgeous. And the village…well, these photos were taken on a Sunday afternoon in August. Peak tourist. Yet you can see for yourself that Minerve was quiet. A secret. Now you know. Share wisely.IMG_3328The town is built at the confluence of the Cesse and Brian rivers. About 50 million years ago, the entire area was the bottom of a warm-water sea, as evidenced by the fossils in the limestone. The rivers carved deep gorges, which form a comma-shaped peninsula, kind of. Natural fortification. Unsurprisingly, it has been occupied since the Bronze Age.

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Aerial view.
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The work of water.

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It reminds me of Gaudí’s Casa Milà, aka la Pedrera, in Barcelona.

The Romans came along, too. The town appeared officially in writing around 873. Old. Stuff like that just boggles my mind. Obviously places fell down and were built over, but probably some of the same stones were used. And today those houses are still there, and they have Internet.IMG_3331

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The side of one street.
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Right across from the preceding photo. Traffic is not a problem in Minerve.
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What IS a problem: wise guys tossing rocks into the gorges. People hike down there. It is “Forbidden to throw rocks.” Clearly an age-old challenge.

There’s a charming bookstore and lots of artists’ shops and studios and many places to eat and drink. There are about 130 residents, down considerably from the boom years of the mid-1800s, when there were about 400. It’s clearly not an easy place to live. Imagine hauling your groceries–or worse, a new piece of furniture–down these “streets.” But vacationers provide some animation. Just enough to keep the place alive, without overrunning it. IMG_3326IMG_3316The rivers lie far below, bone dry at this time of year, but prone to flashes of rage. At least the town is high and dry.IMG_3336

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Can you imagine having to replace the tiles on that roof on the right? With a plunge I don’t know how far down but many times more than the house itself.
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Imagine how that bridge was built, before mechanical aide.

The Candela is all that remains of the viscount’s castle, which was built at the end of the 13th century. There once was a drawbridge nearby. The castle was dismantled in the 18th and 19th centuries. I wonder why.IMG_3305IMG_3298IMG_3294The church was closed, but the exterior was fascinating.IMG_3320IMG_3319

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Anything goes. N’importe quoi.

I took so many photos, I’m going to do another post. Come back for more on Friday.

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La mairie, or town hall.

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Residents of Minerve are called Minervois, which is also the name of this wine region. Very good wine!

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Country Mouse or City Mouse

IMG_3568In the south of France, people are laid back, things move slowly, we take the time to savor life, and that includes two hours (minimum) in the middle of the day for lunch and nap. It all seems idyllic, until it isn’t.

We woke up on Thursday morning with no Internet, no fixed phone service and no mobile phone service. Things were a bit like when la Cité of Carcassonne, pictured above, was built back in the Middle Ages.

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Can you see it on the hill?

It turns out that a telephone substation in another village caught on fire. This station serves 33 villages, including ours, across a surprisingly wide area. Who knows when it will be fixed. (1) It’s still August. You can’t do anything until after la rentrée (the re-entry) on Monday, Sept. 2. And even then, people are coming back from vacation and need a good week to get back into the routine. (2) The phone company, Orange, is unfamiliar with the concept of customer service. They seem to have watched Lily Tomlin’s phone operator skits as guides. I shouldn’t dump too much on Orange; I cannot think of any phone company in any city or country where I’ve lived (and the list is long) that had good service. (3) We’re in the south, and nothing moves quickly, even  when it isn’t vacation. (4) The point that irks me the most is that it just affects some little villages, and thus isn’t important.

Sometimes–often–I hate living in the country. I love France, and I love living in France. But I regret not living in a city. I am 100% city mouse.

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Zooming in a little.

I remember one time we went to Barcelona for a weekend. We stood near the corner by El Corte Ingles, the big Spanish department store worth a post of its own one day, and looked at the wide street sloping down, completely full of people. I sighed with happiness; the Carnivore sighed with stress. Some of us cannot wait to jump into la foule (the crowd) and swim with the schools of humanity. I find my heart warming as I observe my fellow humans going about their business. Some are chic, some are eccentric. Children seem to be in a bubble of their own, never paying attention to where they’re going, quick to spot other children, or animals, or disgusting things on the sidewalk (they ARE closer, after all), while their parents struggle to herd them along. I wonder where everybody is going, what their lives are like. I want to chat with them all.

I was talking to somebody just recently about moving to France. I told her we moved here from New York and that it was hard. I cried and cried for months. Her eyes grew big, and she said something about culture shock. I assured her that I’m a lifelong francophile; the culture shock wasn’t about France, but about going from a major metropolis to a village a few hundred people.

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And more. Not my idea of skyscrapers, but definitely beautiful.

The closest Carcassonne comes to bustling is la Cité on summer afternoons and the market in the central square on Saturday mornings. Even then, it’s a dialed-down version. There’s a certain convenience to life without crowds. Parking is easy. Lines for anything are rare. People are friendly.

I try to appreciate the good side. It’s essential for survival. The rolling hills of vineyards, giving way to the mountains, are exquisite. This blog has made me pay attention to all the beauty around me.

Thank you for reading. Who knows whether we will have Internet next week. Maybe I will commute to Carcassonne for a connection. We’ll see. Meanwhile, tell me, are you a city mouse or a country mouse?IMG_3565

 

Midsummer’s Night Dinner Party

IMG_3079We had a little get-together last weekend, and I wanted to share some dishes with you. But first, some exciting news: We’re featured on Distant Francophile, on the “Franco-Files” audio interviews. Janelle, the Distant Francophile herself, visits France regularly and writes a great blog about French style, travel tips, culture and more.  I was very flattered to be included. We talked a lot about buying property in France and renovating it.

On to the dinner: Everything was made ahead, no last-minute slaving in a hot kitchen. Like most people in France, even in the south of France, we don’t have air conditioning. But the evenings are cool and the climate is dry enough that we don’t battle bugs. It’s ideal for using our outdoor dining room, a pergola surrounded by stone walls.

Our neighbors and our kid are vegetarian; I am 99.5% vegetarian, too. When I was dating the Carnivore, he asked me, warily, whether I was vegetarian. In my mind, either you are or you aren’t, like being pregnant, or being an art thief. There’s no, “it depends.” Thus, having a hamburger once a year and steak tartare maybe twice a year, plus a chicken a couple of times, and fish, too, made me anything but vegetarian, even if the total came to once or twice a month. Certainly not once or twice a day, which is the Carnivore’s case. So I have been a huge disappointment in the meat department, especially because he doesn’t count chicken or fish as meat.

Anyway, my plan was to have a complete vegetarian meal, and he would grill ridiculously gigantic steaks for the meat-eaters. I wasn’t interested in the usual vegetarian option of making a menu and just leaving out the meat for the vegetarians–“let them eat potatoes.” I wanted to flip that and make a vegetarian menu and just add meat for the carnivores.

For starters, we had crudités with ranch dip (huge hit in France); oeufs mimosa (deviled eggs); and hard sausages.

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Tarte soleil with carrot rillettes in the bowl in the center.

The entrées were tarte soleil with zucchini and tomato, carrot rillettes and a clafoutis with cherry tomatoes. Une tarte soleil is just a tart with the crust cut to look like a sun. Very pretty. And while clafoutis is typically a dessert, this was a savory version with cheese.

 

The main course was a daube, or thick stew, of eggplant and chickpeas, served with potatoes–same as for the steak eaters. And there was a vegetable terrine on the side. I wanted the vegetable side dish to be cold, pretty, and something I could serve as a piece, not by the spoonful. It was an esthetic choice. I didn’t want the vegetarian plates to be just splotches of undefined stuff.

You never know the secrets people will spill after a few glasses of wine. The secrets cascade, too. One person divulges something, and, receiving nothing but empathy and caring from those gathered, someone else is emboldened to share something as well. One friend described being taken from his hard-working but impoverished single mother and shipped to a convent, where the nuns were cruel (this was a common theme in the friends’ stories). This guy is the sweetest, calmest, gentlest person. So many people who have had bad childhoods turn out with their kindness broken. It’s beaten out of them. But not him. And it all made me think of how the scars of separation never heal, even seven decades later. He described the scene of being taken from his mother in minute detail. Children belong with their parents. I have several friends who are foster parents, and some of the cases are heartbreaking proof that at times children are not safe with their parents. But then there are cases of cruel bureaucracy–back in the day it was against single mothers; today it is, in some places, against parents with brown skin fleeing violence that has its roots in the very country they’re fleeing to–their hoped-for safe haven created and fed the dangers in their homelands that caused them to run.IMG_3080Another friend is from Normandy. That I always knew, and I always knew his age. But what I failed to put together before is that he was born in 1941. Think of what was going on in Normandy in the 1940s–some of the worst of World War II. He said his earliest memories were the planes buzzing overhead and the German trucks trundling past the house. Can you even imagine raising children smack in the middle of war? But if you can’t escape…. And of course, the problems didn’t end with V-E Day. Communities were destroyed, food was rationed, malnutrition was rampant. Our kid listened, eyes wide, to his very unusual childhood memories. Talk about making history come to life. It’s too bad elders aren’t tapped in a better way as a resource for teaching.

There are titillating secrets, too. I heard about one villager, known as TinTin, who apparently quite the womanizer when he was young. To get even, his wife had an affair with one of his buddies…and got pregnant. As the son grew, he looked exactly like the buddy; it’s true he doesn’t look a bit like TinTin. I used to think he was always mad, and steered clear–our kids were in school together. But now I wonder whether his expression was of sadness, of probably knowing the story of his birth, even though TinTin raised him as his own. And I never would have guessed Mme. TinTin was the scheming, nasty person described; I knew her only as the very prim and proper lady, whom I would greet as she meticulously swept her front step.

Back to the recipes!

Tarte Soleil

1 premade flaky pie crust (pâte feuillété…you can get a bunch of different kinds here).

2-3 tablespoons of soft cheese: cream cheese, ricotta, Boursin. Just so it spreads.

summer vegetables, sliced very thin. I used two zucchini and a tomato. I peeled the zucchini, cut rounds, then cut the rounds in half.

2 tablespoons of olive oil

Preheat the oven to 360F/180C. Spread out the pie crust on a large cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Mine were too small, so I turned one over. The crust extended past the edge a little but didn’t slump.IMG_3087Put a bowl about 5-6 inches (12-13 cms) in diameter in the middle of the crust. Smear the cheese on the pie crust around the bowl. Then arrange the vegetables. I made two rings, facing opposite directions.IMG_3089Remove the bowl and cut the pie crust in the center as shown below. IMG_3090Fold back the dough over the vegetables. Brush with olive oil and bake until the crust is brown. Delicious at room temperature.IMG_3091

Carrot Rillettes

Rillettes are made from meat or fish, cooked very, very slowly in their own fat until they fall apart into shreds. The vegetarian version gets its name because the carrots fall to shreds and you can spread the stuff on bread, but that’s where the similarities end.

2 carrots, peeled and cut into rounds

3 oz. or about 1/3 cup (75g) soft cheese like cream cheese, ricotta, St. Môret….I used cream cheese for both this and the tarte soleil, since the tarte requires so little.

Boil the carrots until they’re soft. Drain. Use a fork to smash them roughly into chunks. You don’t want purée.

When cool, mix the carrots with the cheese; salt and pepper to taste. You can jazz it up with spices–cumin is good.

Spread on baguettes or toast.

IMG_3096Tomato Clafoutis

Usually clafoutis is a dessert, made with cherries. The batter is similar to the batter for crêpes, but instead of individual, thin pancakes, you pour it all into a pan.

4 eggs

1 cup/120 g flour

1 cup/25 cl milk

2 oz/50g parmesan, finely grated (please don’t use the ready-made stuff!)

30-50 cherry tomatoes (small ones are better, but you need more of them)

thyme

peppercorns

Butter for the baking dish

Preheat the oven to 360F/180C. Beat the eggs. Add the flour, then thin out the mixture with the milk so you don’t get lumps. Add the parmesan. Let it rest 20-30 minutes.

Butter and flour a 9×12-inch baking dish. Pour in the batter. Then drop in the tomatoes here and there. Sprinkle with thyme and peppercorns. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Then you can set the oven to broil for a minute to make the top browner, if you like.

Serve at room temperature.

I didn’t have enough tomatoes from our garden, and the tomatoes I found at  the market were pretty large, with the result that they produced a lot of juice.. Look for the smallest size you can. A mix of colors is pretty.

You can do this other ways: instead of parmesan, try mozzarella (you’ll want to add some salt to the batter; note that this version doesn’t have any because parmesan is pretty salty).

More recipes on Friday!

 

 

 

Village Theatrics

IMG_2766Little French villages are special in a general way, with their beautiful stone houses and flowers and fountains, and they each have something unique, too. Recently, one of the little villages around here put on the most astonishing performance. Young mixed with old and creativity flowed in a way that almost brought tears to my eyes.

It was a moving performance in all senses of the term. Yes, there were emotional moments, but the scenes were scattered around the village, and the spectators walked from one to another. Screen Shot 2019-07-18 at 9.10.01 PMIt started at the football (soccer) field. A couple of children kicked a ball, then a flood of kids invaded the field, all while music played on loudspeakers. Then referees–adults–ran in and kicked the ball just to each other as the kids surged from one to another of the refs. A loud boom send the players all to the ground. Sirens started, and some guys dressed in white ran onto the field with a stretcher. They loaded up one of the refs, who seemed to have a ball under his shirt. Then the kids all ran off and the audience moved on…not having the slightest clue.

We climbed one of those passageways you find in old villages, made by and for pedestrians centuries ago. Dancers writhed against the walls. Then we came out at a space where a grange or garage or house had been torn down, leaving a gap like a lost tooth in the otherwise complete row of attached stone houses. It was set up like an operating room.IMG_2730The ref was on the table. The surgeon shouted orders. “Pump!” And the ambulanciers loudly worked a bicycle foot pump. “Pump! Pump! Pump!” the surgeon shouted, and the guys, the surgeon and the nurse all jumped up and down. “Knife!” the surgeon yelled. The nurse grabbed two–a butcher cleaver and  machete, holding them in the air. “That one!” the surgeon yelled, pointing at the machete. It got more and more hysterical. Finally they delivered the ball, which was tossed to a waiting soccer kid, who led us to the next scene.IMG_2737In the middle of a street, a bunch of residents, wearing long work cloaks that blue-collar workers used to wear here (one of my kid’s teachers, an older guy, would don a cloak while teaching). They were in a huddle and scooted up and down and back and forth along the street as small children ran to a wall and picked off messages that were tacked there, handing the messages to people in the audience.

We migrated up the street, where a big pot of artificial flowers was in front of a house. A very tiny, very ancient lady stood in the doorway, laughing that so many people were behaving so strangely in this little village. Children came and plucked the flowers, handing some to her and some to the audience. Across the street, somebody’s legs dangled and kicked out of an upper-story window. IMG_2741As we climbed the narrow street, sweet notes of a cello slipped out of an acoustically lovely old stone garage, played by a very handsome young man, maybe late teens or early 20s. Everybody held their breath as he let the music float out to embrace us. It was magical.IMG_2745Around the corner, some people wearing rain coats and hats were seated in a line of chairs, reading the newspaper, as if they were on a train. They took turns reading random headlines out loud, like some kind of Dada poetry slam.

Adding to the train impression was a big white sheet stretched across the street (which was only barely wide enough for a person to lie down in cross-wise). Some bright lights blared at us from behind the sheet, almost like a train coming through a tunnel. We advanced to the sheet, and then music started. Dancers were behind the sheet, casting shadows on it. It got silly and funny and was all improvised. IMG_2753We moved to a village square, where some older residents and young girls playing cards around a big table. They were clearly cheating, getting more and more outrageous. The girls crawled under the table and walked on top of it, throwing cards. All this was to music. Finally the cards got more maniacally tossed in the air, a boom rang out and we were off to the next thing.

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Brilliant costume. Everything was so cleverly low-budget.

The nurse and surgeon were back, this time with an improvised tale that was completely nonsensical, with lots of double-entendres and puns that would be way too complicated to explain in translation. Between the slapstick and the coy jokes, young and old were cracking up. IMG_2700Under the trees in a cool spot by the park, a young woman perched on a stool. She exuded calm and poise. She had two instruments, a large drum filled with pebbles, and a finger harp. She asked us to close our eyes, and she took us to the sea. She spoke about the beauty of the sea, the importance of the sea, while the waves swirled audibly around us. She added a few notes from the harp, which seemed to me to be in my ears what the sun does when it glints off the water. Again, everyone held their breath. Mesmerized.

In the park, a final scene brought all the cast, starting with dancers who scampered among the trees. An adult in a rabbit costume walked a tightrope stretched between two trees. Every talent had a place! The football players arrived, and finally everybody took a bow. Screen Shot 2019-07-18 at 9.09.04 PMTwo food trucks were in the park, and tables were set up for the shared moment to continue.

Have you ever seen such a thing? I was so impressed by the wide variety of people who participated and the many talents of such a little village. If anything, it was a bit like Dr. Seuss’s Whoville, and after this special night, the village’s heart got even bigger.IMG_2768

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TACOS!!! They were good, too, though mine are better…cough, cough.

I don’t have the kind of WordPress account to allow for videos, so I’ll try to put some clips on Instagram. A couple of the acts I have only videos of–the cellist and the wave-maker.

Village on the Hilltop

IMG_2280The number of adorable villages in the south of France is nearly infinite. Each is unique, boasting something special–a château or some historic artifact, a location that offers spectacular views, a quirky market–yet they are all, if not alike, then from the same family, with narrow streets that wind between ancient stone houses, built as needs arose, without planning but with a great sense of purpose, many generations ago. They were built to stand for generations, too, and despite the lack of advanced engineering or equipment, they have indeed survived.IMG_2317IMG_2306IMG_2297IMG_2309IMG_2305Saissac is all of those things. Château: check. Sweeping views: check. Streets too narrow (and vertical) for cars: check. Stone houses that aren’t quite plumb: check. I wanted to take some recent visitors to a ruined Cathar castle, but one that didn’t entail a long, vertiginous hike. And so we went to Saissac, which offers gentler access. Just west of Carcassonne, Saissac is in beginnings of the Black Mountains, enough above the plain that sprawls between the Black Mountains and the Pyrénées that you can take in vast vistas. At one time, the castle towered over the village, but after a few ransackings the castle was ruined and the village moved up. That means you get to trundle gently down to this castle, doable even in sandals, not too far for little ones with short legs or elder ones with tired knees, doable with strollers and possibly wheelchairs, though inside there are still ancient bits that require climbing and jumping. The principle of “if you get hurt it’s your own fault” applies here.IMG_2310

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Carcassonne to the left (far!) and Castelnaudary to the right (also far!). Pyrénées straight ahead, about where those clouds are stuck.

IMG_2311IMG_2287The Saissac castle was started around 900 BCE, and it was mentioned in a document in 960 in which the bishop of Toulouse gave the castle to the count of Carcassonne. It got passed around various noble families until the Revolution; it was already in ruins by then and its condition just got worse. In 1864, some bounty hunters dynamited the keep, which didn’t help matters. The village bought the castle in 1994 and started renovations, more to keep what was left from crumbling than to put anything back together.IMG_2304IMG_2321The bounty hunters weren’t wrong in their choice of target, even if they came up empty–in 1979, a treasure of 2,000 deniers, or coins, was found during some repairs. The coins dated to 1250-1270 and are on display in the castle. They’re behind glass, and my photos of them didn’t turn out. You’ll have to see for yourself!

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Talk about bedrock foundations!

IMG_2326We clambered around the ruins like wannabe Indiana Joneses, looking at details to imagine what it must have been like. Traces. A doorway, filled in. Holes peering to other rooms or cavities or something mysterious. The angled ghost of a staircase. One lower-level room had been set up to look like a medieval kitchen.IMG_2318IMG_2316These castles were never just one thing. At times, they were fortresses against invaders. They often were safe havens against the marauders that plagued Europe in the Middle Ages. At other times, they were elegant residences, and the owners added on rooms or wings. Jean de Bernuy was one of them. He bought the château in 1518 and added a living area with large windows, a couple of fireplaces and a staircase–it was the Renaissance, after all. De Bernuy was an immigrant success story: he came from Burgos, Spain, and made his fortune in the pastel business. He was so loaded that he stood security for the ransom of King Francis I, who was held hostage in Pavia in 1525. Pastel came from woad, and would be ground up and pressed into balls to use as blue dye. The balls were called coques and gave the region the name Pays de Cocagne, which means land of milk and honey. Even Carcassonne had a big textile industry, and this region just to the west made fortunes from the blue dye, especially between 1460 and 1560, when indigo from the Americas started to show up. Globalization.

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Do you see the staircase?

IMG_2310Saissac’s church also was interesting. It seems to date to 1290, after the crusade against the Cathars (1209). The Cathars and Catholics had lived side by side until the crusade, so maybe the surviving villagers wanted to show allegiance to the church after the Cathars had been exterminated. By 1568, there were other troubles–the Wars of Religion. The church was burned, the priests massacred and the village pillaged by the Huguenots. Only the castle resisted the attack. The village and church were pillaged again in 1591 by the Antoine Scipion, the duc de Joyeuse, brother of Anne (who was a male and whose name is the brand of blanquette de Limoux–the family had a castle nearby, in Couiza). Scipion had become military leader of the Catholic extremists.  Why did he attack the church, if he was after the Huguenots, and why did he do to the village the same damage the Huguenots had done? Maybe the people of little Saissac were too live-and-let-live liberal for his tastes? He was known for his brutality, for having the injured executed at Montastruc, and for killing without regard to age or sex.IMG_2300IMG_2295IMG_2294IMG_2291IMG_2292IMG_2288

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L.O.V.E. painted churches!

IMG_2289Things in Saissac eventually got better, and more additions were built onto the church in the following years until the Revolution–the church was closed in 1794, only to reopen in 1795. The back-and-forth could give a person whiplash. Somehow I suspect that the folks of Saissac, which today borders on 1,000 inhabitants, just wanted to live their lives in peace and quiet, tending their fields and animals and focusing on getting enough to eat. I’m sure everybody in Saissac has enough to eat these days, but overall in the world, very little has changed. The worries and crises haven’t evolved much.IMG_2286The village itself is cuteness personified. We passed some residents of a certain age who were outside on the sidewalk/street/their personal patio, seeking a little fresh air and breeze in the shade. We greeted them as we passed, and they seemed resigned to having outsiders traipsing through and cutting into their conversation (which was about when melons would be ripe…). There was only one other family at the château when we were there. It was a delicious luxury having the place practically to ourselves, but I imagine a lot more people come through in the summer, perhaps shooting photos of the quaint locals trying to get cool in the shade. When I lived in New York. I don’t think I ever managed to get a coffee at an outdoor table without having my photo taken by somebody, and I am not, and was not then, a beauty. I was just local color. At least then, the cameras used film and I didn’t have to worry about my mug being on the Internet. Call me old-fashioned. With facial-recognition technology, I have no intention of making it easier for anybody to find me using my face.IMG_2284I live in one of these little villages, not quite as vertiginous as Saissac, but similar insofar as it has little streets that even my itsy-bitsy Aygo can’t squeeze through. Even Google’s Street View car can’t negotiate them. They were built for wheelbarrows. The more a place is authentic, the less it’s practical. There’s another village that I absolutely must show you soon if I can organize myself to get back there; it’s just far enough that every time I think about it I also think, nah. On the one hand it’s paradise–no cars at all. It’s insanely beautiful but WTF for bringing home anything heavy? Actually, it’s so beautiful that it’s mostly gîtes and AirBnBs and B&Bs. The quaint locals might not be locals at all. Who wants to haul groceries from a car park half a mile away (come to think of it, I don’t think there’s a grocery store there). When you’re on vacation in an unspeakably cute village with lovely, delicious restaurants that have jaw-dropping views, then you don’t buy groceries, you eat out and walk home along the stone paths, not having to worry about cars, though you might have to worry a tiny bit about not getting lost, since little villages are crazy mazes but hey, they’re little. You can’t stay lost for long.

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The square tower
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The Big Tower, now home to the museum of old occupations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camon, Village of Roses

IMG_2044What could be cuter than a French village? How about one with sumptuous roses climbing up its stone walls. Camon, in the southern French département of Ariège, is Rose Central. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the “Plus Beaux Villages”–Most Beautiful Villages–of France, which is an official thing.IMG_2055IMG_2047IMG_2041IMG_2036In fact, last weekend Camon held a Rose Festival. Just before, I went with some visitors (which is why I didn’t post last Friday–stop the computer and smell the roses; I did however use my phone to take photos). It was funny to see folding tables set up in the little lanes, in preparation for the communal feast. IMG_2043Camon possibly has more blooms than humans (population 143). It’s called “Little Carcassonne.” It does indeed have lots of stone walls and a château, which is now a fancy hotel. It looks nice, but Camon is really, really quiet. I’d rather be in big Carcassonne, in our apartments to be precise, and take a daytrip down to Camon, which can easily be covered in meticulous detail in under an hour.

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Undoubtedly where the “Little Carcassonne” moniker came from.

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Hmph! Not old at all, at least in these parts!

IMG_2037Camon is just 10-15 minutes’ drive from Mirepoix, so you get a two-fer. A new Mirepoix post is coming soon, surprise, surprise.IMG_2049

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All the roses are planted in the tiniest holes in the pavement. No mulch possible!
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Rose bushes at the end of vineyard rows. Roses attract the pests first, alerting the winegrower. Like a canary in a coal mine.

IMG_2051It was raining the day we visited, but the light drizzle didn’t deter us. It might have even added to the ambiance, making the roses even brighter.

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Églantine, or sweet briar, a kind of wild rose. I have a friend named Églantine; isn’t that a gorgeous name?
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Rose petals on the ground…and not a speck of trash anywhere.

 

 

 

Château de Rustiques

IMG_0514Driving through the French countryside, castles are as common as cows or crows. Turrets and towers pierce the treeline, no longer needed for spotting marauders arriving from afar. Sometimes you can see the full edifice, always a conglomeration of additions and wings added over centuries, different generations leaving their marks.IMG_0503Back in December, I made a detour out of Carcassonne to Rustiques, a little village I’d driven through before and decided would be worth a second look on such a sparkling winter day. This explains the vegetation, which has changed drastically to lush, lush green of spring.

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The old tower is on the left.

The château was closed, but it’s so big that you can still see a good deal of it. Here’s what I found out. Around the 5th century, barbarian invasions by the Visigoths, Sarrasins and Francs made the locals unite for safety on a high spot from which they could spot invaders. They went one better with a tower, the oldest part of the current château, which also served as a dungeon. The Rustiquois, as locals are called, corralled the seigneur’s house and other houses in a wall with just two entries and plenty of meurtrières, or those tall, skinny openings from which you shoot arrows. The wall didn’t last–the town grew and crime fell, so the wall came down.IMG_0533There’s a document from 1063 attesting to the existence of a castellum, or watch tower.

The leader of the Albigensian crusade, Simon de Montfort, granted the fiefdom of Rustiques to a family from the north, whose descendants still live in the château. That is quite a heritage!IMG_0523

Spring in My Step

IMG_1378Printemps, or spring, started here about a month ago, but now it’s official. What a joy to have that thin dawn light on waking, instead of inky darkness that makes one want to roll over and curl up. The birds are singing their lungs out, the sky is turning brilliant hues before the sun makes its formal appearance over the horizon. It’s energizing. It’s easy to get out of bed.IMG_1259The vignerons, or winegrowers, are hustling to prune the vines before they bud out. We barely got any frost, let alone a hard freeze or snow, this winter. Frost is a threat until les saints glace–the ice saints–in early May. The afternoons are wonderfully warm, but it’s plain cold before dawn. Spring in the south of France is long and slow, in no rush for those baked days of summer. It tempts and taunts, with surprisingly balmy days followed by a wash of cold gray. We’ve had a good four weeks of almost-uninterrupted blue skies, and even the big, heavy clouds didn’t deliver. The garden is parched, the soil hard. I actually want rain.IMG_1379I’ve been reading about the floods in the Midwest. So awful, and so soon after the last floods. I know how they feel, at least kind of. We were isolated, with no roads, no telephone or Internet, for several days following flash floods last fall. Our house and most of the village escaped damage, but 15 people died nearby and many homes, businesses and farms were devastated. Too much rain, too fast. It happens more and more.

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This little stream was a raging river back in October.

IMG_1257On these nice days, I’m trying to get out for walks. I was really into it for a while, then lapsed. I think it happened when I overdid the running and my knees started to hurt and make strange noises. I took a rest and the rest took over. In fact, that happened just before the flood, which washed away my jogging path, so even when my knee was better, I had an excuse not to go out. I am picky about where I run–I avoid cars and, above all, dogs. IMG_1267IMG_1396IMG_1364The park path is being completely redone, full of earth-movers at the moment, so I’ve been setting off on country lanes. I appreciate getting to a spot where you don’t hear anything but nature. The wind in the pines, the birds singing. In summer, the cicadas thrumming. IMG_1243IMG_1380

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Promise!

IMG_1251IMG_1366I have a Fitbit that tracks my steps. I really like the no-delusions-of-grandeur factual accounting of what I’m doing. If I spend a day at my desk, I can’t dismiss it with embellished ideas about having walked around the house enough to count for something. Because it doesn’t. Fitbit takes your age, height and weight and calculates how many calories you’ve burned, based on the number of steps and heart rate. My average is just shy of the recommended minimum of 10,000 steps, burning an average of 1,980 calories. That is awful! No wonder it gets hard to maintain a steady weight, and even worse to lose weight, as you age.IMG_1266

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Like stars in the sky.

IMG_1260 Yesterday we brought out all the patio furniture and worked in the yard. I continued my Sisyphean fight against weeds. Soon I will plant the bee and butterfly garden. Something low maintenance–one and done. Native plants that won’t need to be watered.

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Can’t resist repeating my IG pun: WALLFLOWERS!!!! My friend B would have loved it.

IMG_1376Spring cleaning inside may occur soon. Not exactly Marie Kondo, though definitely purging some joyless junk. A moratorium on acquisitions of anything but comestibles. Just don’t need it. I want to shake off winter and stuff and just breathe.IMG_1370

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I know I showed some of these ladies recently, but I can’t help thinking of them every time I see these flowering bushes.

IMG_1367Another aimless post, as weightier topics swirl in my mind. Like a snow globe. When they settle, I will set them out. Do you do the same? What are your spring rituals?