Oh, the cachet of a hidden garden–un jardin caché. Even a small city like Carcassonne holds secrets that I continue to discover, and this was one of the sweetest: the garden of a marquis, hidden from a rond-point (roundabout) by high stone walls. I’d driven by since forever, not knowing a public haven awaited between an empty field used for a regular Sunday vide-grenier and the ultra-modern arts conservatory.
Le Jardin du Marquis de Gonet and its château were bought by the city a little over a decade ago, and the restored gardens reopened for all in 2010. The château is planned for renovation as well, budgets permitting. One idea is to make reception halls for weddings and other events–music late into the night wouldn’t bother the neighbors because there aren’t any. Already, there’s a huge tent (seats 140) that sits in a corner when it isn’t used for the Magie de Noel, and that can be rented, with tables and chairs but without heat or air conditioning (which cost €100 more) for €400. The price might have gone up since the 2013 news article about it, but it still seems like a great deal.
After the Revolution (1789), this area was known as le prat—le pré in proper French, the prairie. Then it caught the eye of Jean-Baptiste Mary, chief surveyor, who bought it and gave the domaine the name Prat-Mary. The main part of the languedocienne-style house was built in the 18th century. The domaine was passed down until it was inherited by the Marquis de Gonet, who was from Béziers. He moved in around 1948 and stayed until he died in 2006. He was the one who planted the gardens.
The local paper had a story about the maid to the de Gonets, who describes preparing the bedroom in the evening: turning down the covers on one side, laying out the nightgown on top and placing the slippers in front on the floor, perfectly parallel.
Back in the day, the garden and its surrounding orchards were watered by the aqueduc de Pitot, which passed along the wall behind the roses. The aqueduct was built in the 18th century to bring drinking water to Carcassonne. It served until the 19th century.
Yeah, everybody does 5k races, and everybody even does them throwing colored powder at the runners. But not everybody does them around a medieval fortress.We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
On Saturday, the young, healthy and energetic citizens of the city gathered along the Aude river for “Color My Run.” It’s in English because that’s cool, authentic. The symbol is a castle because … France.I know these color runs have been a thing for quite a while, but we are in France profonde–deepest France–and it was a first here. Put together by a group of students (more cheers for young people!), with proceeds going to Secours Populaire, or People’s Relief.
It was all organized in usual French fashion, which is to say, extremely organized, except that, in European fashion (I won’t pin it solely on the French, since a number of other nationalities do it, too), the lines were more amoebas than lines, but at least they moved quickly. The young organizers scanned participants’ tickets (you had to sign up online–of course) with their phones (of course. Does anybody use phones to call? I don’t think so, but they do everything else). It helps that Carcassonne is small and not very cut-throat. People are still registering at the starting time? Well, we’ll wait until everybody is ready. Plenty of time! Relax!
I tell you, life here is good. Even people running a race have all the time in the world.We were not on top of the fashion situation, because lots of runners came decked out in crazy outfits.
One group of young ladies even dyed their hair, half green, half red. That’s dedication.
The runners took off along the Quai Bellevue–it does have a pretty view–then crossed the 14th century Pont Vieux, or old bridge, which is entirely pedestrian.
I thought the route was going to be an easy loop along one side of the river–semi-wild, very pretty parkland because it’s in a flood zone–and then on the other–more parks, all flat. However, just after the bridge, the route included a quad-melting climb to the walls of la Cité.
There’s a new art installation, called Eccentric Concentric, by Felice Varini, with 15 yellow circles on the ramparts. I am no art critic, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but to me it looks like either the symbol for wifi or the symbol on the highways to warn that there’s a radar ahead.As long as it’s temporary.
When I lived in New York, first I was downtown and constantly marveled at the high-rises and bright lights. I’d go to the top of the World Trade Center just because it was nearby and always a thrill. Later, I lived in Brooklyn and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to go home, always gazing in wonder at the view out the back window, even after years of it. Now, it’s la Cité that makes me pinch myself. How is it possible that such a place existed? An even bigger question: How is it possible it still is intact today?
To do something as universal and ordinary as running, while in the shadow of such a place, well, I never can believe it’s real, even after so many years.The thing is, all the stuff around it is so pretty but la Cité is so awesome you don’t even notice the rest. Like the pretty little dam on the river with a little footbridge.At the end of the run, which was noncompetitive, there was an afternoon rave with the cutest DJ brothers. They clearly took their work very seriously, and made playing music look as complex as any scene from the command deck of a space ship that’s under attack, yet they seemed to enjoy it at the same time. The post-run crowd relaxed by jumping madly (after a run!) and had good, clean fun, as you can see below.
And if anybody now has an earworm of Chicago crooning “Color My World,” bringing back a flood of prom and homecoming memories, well, maybe next time you will run, too?
In the dead of the past winter, we spent the day in Toulouse. It’s such a lovely city, one that punches above its weight in sophistication. I suppose travelers might think of Carcassonne as a daytrip from Toulouse, but I prefer to think of Toulouse as a daytrip from Carcassonne.My favorite thing to do in any city is flâner–to walk aimlessly. I don’t need to shop, though I enjoy faire du lèche-vitrine (literally, licking windws, but it means do window-shopping). And of course some time en terrace at a café to people-watch.
The pre-Christmas outdoor dining scene.
The architecture is a bit different from Carcassonne. Grander, for sure, in such a big city. But there’s also the use of red bricks, which give Toulouse its nickname of La Ville Rose, which was adopted as a tourism slogan more than a century ago, after the author Stendahl wrote insultingly of his visit. Over the years that we’ve lived in the region, Toulouse has cleaned up nicely. More streets in the center are limited to pedestrians, new tram lines have been built and parking is nigh impossible. Bikes are everywhere. Hipster boutiques and restaurants are filled with young French women who look beautiful despite bedhead and young men with bushy Brooklyn beards. The brick walls are authentic.
An optician. Of course.
I never get enough of the narrow, crooked streets.
You have to look up.
You have to look down.
So many grand entrances, to let in carriages.
Sometimes you get to peek inside.
Have you been to Toulouse? I have more Toulousain treats in store.
Trying to explain what is “new” and “old” in France to somebody from the Americas is challenging. In a place where the first buildings still standing went up in 485 CE, something from 1663 is relatively new.
I never liked history because of having to memorize dates. It’s very strange, because I’m good with numbers and am likelier to remember somebody’s phone number or zip code than their name. I guess we also had to memorize a lot of names. Not enough emphasis on the stories!
I finally have a few key points under my belt, such as July 14, 1789: Bastille Day. These things never happen on a whim. The kindling is laid for years, and then when the fire is sparked, it takes off ferociously.
The houses above were built in the period when things had been getting better to the extent that people lived longer and populations swelled. France had the biggest population in Europe. For a while it was boom times, then prices for food rose sharply.
This 1790 house was built in the early days of the revolution, not far from the 1780 house. Had the unrest reached this far into France profonde? To get here, you have to pass the mountainous Massif Central, until the band of plain where these houses lie. Beyond here, you hit mountains, where sheep outnumber people, and then Spain.
I constantly marvel and am thankful that these houses, with their not-square corners and not-plumb walls and not-level floors, have been inhabited and tended to, rather than torn down for something modern.
In the little streets, time stands still.
Despite the simple tools of the time, curves (the intentional ones!) grace the architecture.
Concrete and glass can be beautiful, but after a while, so many pure lines feel bland. Give me a nice stone wall that has seen some things.
Arched door, arched back.
I mentioned just last week, on the first day of spring, that the trees had a green haze that hinted at leaves, which I predicted would burst out all at once. Well, the switch flipped. The photos below are from almost the same spot. The one on the left was from a couple of weeks ago with the first buds, and the one on the right was taken yesterday.
Spring fever is contagious. My kid occasionally often forgets to be a sullen teen, for example, yesterday, exclaiming at breakfast that the birds were singing. Indeed, a whole chorus of birds chirped and twittered in the background of a belted-out aria from Merle, our resident blackbird. Un merle is French for blackbird, and I think it’s a good name for such a singer. He often sits on the peak of our house and serenades us as we dine en terrace in the evenings, something we can finally do again.
During the second weekend of September, France opens the doors on many buildings that normally are off-limits, in honor of les Journées de Patrimoine, or Heritage Days. It is the perfect opportunity for the curious/nosy/antique-lovers to eyeball how the French really live and work.
For example, I found my dream office, pictured above and below.Don’t you agree it meets all the criteria? Awesome chandelier? Check. Amazing drapes on French doors that open to Juliette balconies? Check. High ceilings and moldings? Check. Mega mirrors, gilt? Check. Silver candlesticks (in case the lights go out, probably)? Check. Herringbone floors with carpets? Check.Gigantic Aubusson tapestry that coordinates with the Empire (?? feel free to correct me) seating.
Sigh. I could be very productive in an office like this. It’s at the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie, in the hôtel de Murat, an 18th century building. It was built by the family of a local judge, but the proprietors fled in 1792 during the Revolution and the property was confiscated. That includes their amazing library and its 13,206 books. In addition to the classics in French, Greek and Latin, there also are precious manuscripts dating back to the 14th century.
The smell of a library is a heavenly perfume.
Check out the jib door covered with fake books!
Today it’s a meeting room. With a very functional, not-of-the-époque folding table…and the typical French ingenuity for electrical wiring (look in the fireplace).
But that mantle! And the mantle clock!
They don’t make ’em like they used to.
The stairwell was a work of art.
We also visited the Palais de Justice. I didn’t get a shot of the biggest of the three courtrooms because a mock trial was under way. I got lost in the back and forth of the trial–dogs biting cows, a fight, a broken phone….my kid informed me afterward that the witnesses kept changing their stories. No wonder I was confused. The audience was full of nonchalantly chic French parents with their mostly teenage kids, everyone riveted by the proceedings. I have never seen such a concentration of good haircuts.
We also popped into the Musée des Beaux Arts. Most museums are free during the Heritage Days. I prefer to focus on the buildings that aren’t usually open to the public, rather than just avoiding a museum entry fee. Plus, we’ve been to the museum before. But we were walking in front of it, so we went inside.
The plate on the back of a massive fireplace in the museum entrance.
The museum was actually purpose-built, in 1836. It isn’t huge and it doesn’t have big-name artists. I find that’s a plus–no crowds jostling for a photo of a painting (I understand wanting to get close to examine, but why a photo? just buy one at the gift shop!) or a selfie with a sculpture. People actually look at all the works, rather than passing over the “nobodies” in search of the Famous Artists. The benefits of Carcassonne–small and civilized.
Tell us your stories about les Journées du Patrimoine! Last year’s visit is here.
Pâte feuilletée, or puff pastry, sounds like such a challenge to make–all that rolling, all that butter. It turned out easier than I had thought and far more delicious than readymade pie crust. That is saying something, because store-bought pie crust in France is, honestly, fantastic.
I used the recipe from my 1933 cookbook, “Le Nouveau Livre de Cuisine,” by a so-called Blanche Caramel. I had previously read that you have to beat the cold butter with a rolling pin, and not just any rolling pin but the plain wooden dowel kind. While Blanche specifies using a wooden rolling pin, she says nothing about batting butter. She even says that “in winter, it’s necessary to soften the butter a little by putting it in a bowl warmed by bowling water.”
While I understand the science of it–the “lean” water-based dough is wrapped around cold butter and the air bubbles released during baking are what make this pastry puff–I also am intrigued by the fact that puff pastry predates refrigeration. Only 3% of French homes had frigos (fridges) in 1950. What did Blanche do? Are we depriving ourselves of fresh, preservative-free puff pastry because we are worried about not living up to cold butter standards?
Let me say: Do not be afraid!
Some years ago, I toured the château of Guise (pronounced geez) in northern France and learned that in medieval times, people collected ice, stuck it in the deep cellars beneath the chateau, packed with straw for insulation, and used it to make sweet sorbets during following months. Here are my notes from that trip:
The underground tunnels were very effective at keeping things cool. People would put snow and ice in them and it would keep for several months into the spring, and they would eat fruit sorbets made from the ice. However, it didn’t occur to them to use ice to keep food cool and fresh. One thing they used to do, and our guide said she found a medieval recipe for this, was to take a fresh pheasant and bury it in manure with the head sticking out. When the beak came off gently, it was ready—the meat would be falling off the bones. You’d unearth it, clean off the maggots, and cook it in lots of spices and wine to mask the fact that it was rotten. If people had such lousy teeth back then, they needed the meat falling off the bones so they could just gum it, since they evidently couldn’t chew.
Anyway….Blanche says the dough must rest in a cool place (“au frais”), and I did take that to mean my fridge.
The ingredients are simplicity itself:
200 g (2 cups) flour
4 g (1 tsp) salt
100 g (3.5 oz. or 7/8 cup) water
200 g (a tad over 7 oz. or 7/8 cup) butter
The recipe starts with the flour on a pastry board–just as my grandma seemed to start all of her cooking, from homemade noodles and dumplings to massive batches of cookies. Come to think of it, my grandma was of Blanche’s era, a housewife in the 1930s.
Make a well in the heap of flour. Pour in the salt, and little by little add the water while kneading by hand. The dough will be smooth and soft.
Form it into a ball, cover with a tea towel and let it rest for an hour or two.Sprinkle the pastry board with flour and roll out the dough until it’s 1 cm (less than half an inch) thick. Slather it with all the butter.
Fold the dough in half, then half again, sealing the edges so the butter doesn’t escape.
Roll it out as long as possible without tearing. Fold it in thirds lengthwise and then again in thirds along the width. Let it rest (in a fridge if you have one) for 10 minutes. That’s called “one turn” of the dough.
Roll out the dough again, fold it in quarters. Roll that out and fold it in thirds lengthwise then in thirds along the width. Let it rest (in the fridge!) for 10 minutes. That is the second turn of the dough.
Do another turn of the dough and your puff pastry is ready to use. I cut it in half and put it in two 9-inch pie pans.While it was resting, I prepared quiche innards:
2 cups milk or cream or sour cream or yogurt or a mix of any or all of them
some leftover ham
any other leftovers in the fridge
The only thing I measure with quiche is the number of eggs. Three fills one 9-inch pie pan. I had enough crust for two, so I used six eggs. Quiche is a good place to use up egg whites or yolks left from some other recipe. Beat the eggs with a fork. Add the milk /cream/yogurt, which makes the quiche less dense and more fluffy. Add whatever else you want in your quiche. Don’t forget salt and pepper, and maybe some herbs if you feel like it.
Stab the bottom of the crust with a fork a few times. Pour in the quiche filling. Bake in a preheated oven at 190 degrees Celsius/375 degrees Fahrenheit. I considered pre-baking the crust and then went without and it was fine–no soggy bottom at all.
Among the delights found in the long-forgotten closet was a well-worn cookbook, “Le Nouveau Livre de Cuisine” (The New Cookbook), by Blanche Caramel. That is the best pen name ever.
The book is barely held together with tape. Its pages harbor many hand-written recipes and others clipped from newspapers. Written in 1927, my copy dates to 1933. So it was conceived in the post-WWI boom years, but my copy was printed after the Great Depression had entrapped France. I think the clippings spanned many years.
One of the clippings is titled “Conseils et petits secrets” and subtitled “Quelques petites économies” (Some small ways to save), signed by “Le Grillon du Foyer” (The Cricket on the Hearth, like the Christmas tale by Charles Dickens).
The suggestion is to save the peels of oranges and mandarines to prepare “delicious liqueurs” by soaking them in 90-degree alcohol. And dried peels can be added to the fire to make a “gay and sparkling flame.” And if your mayonnaise has turned, don’t throw it out but add a spoon of very fine flower and work in the paste to get rid of lumps.
In the forward, Blanche (or should I call her Mme. Caramel?) says, “Dishes are welcomed by stomachs that are also well disposed; if the service is calm, friendly remarks can be exchanged completely naturally, chasing away the worries of the day and making the meal an hour of intellectual relaxation and of physical well-being. Each person will leave the table rested, comforted, with more courage and optimism for returning to his tasks.”There is a chapter titled “L’utilisation des Restes” (“Using Up Leftovers”), in which cooks are counseled to not have them to begin with by cooking only what’s needed.Another section, “Ce Qu’il Faut Manger” (“What you should eat”), surprisingly begins with grains. However, it says not to confuse pain de campagne (“country bread,” or a kind of rough, sour-dough-like loaf) with le pain complet (whole-grain bread), “which is found at certain specialists and which suits only men who face a considerable physical expenditure, such as the blacksmith or the ditch digger, not sedentary employees.”Under “Mangeons des Fruits” (“Let’s Eat Fruit”), Blanche says, “The simplest remedies are often the best and the most effective. We have on hand natural products, the good and beautiful fruits ripened in the sun, which can replace with advantages many medicines that are very expensive and that sometimes have bad side-effects.” People can tolerate up to two kilos (4.4 pounds) of fruits, though with heavier fruits like bananas and apples, one kilo (2.2 pounds) is enough.
Blanche offers advice about coming up with menus. A very luxurious dinner would comprise one or two soups; one or two relevés de potage (a light course, such as a timbale, a soufflé, fish, eggs); two entrées (starters/appetizers, such as ham, sautéed chicken, or meats in ragoûts, accompanied by mashed potatoes or another purée); a roast (“la pièce de la résistance du repas,” Blanche says); a cold dish (she suggests pâté, lobster or aspic); a salad (served with the roast and made with mayonnaise); vegetables (served after the roast); entremets (a tart, cake or ice cream); dessert, which would be cheese, fruit or small cakes.
I wonder when cheese came to move forward, before the sweets.Even more perplexing is how they managed to eat so much. I guess a roast wasn’t so outrageous if it had to feed a big family. In her books, “Long Ago in France” and “As They Were,” the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher reminisces about living in Dijon in 1929. She and her husband lived at a boarding house, where Madame and her cook turned out elaborate meals every day for the family and their tenants. Maybe meals were more like the tasting menus at El Bulli.
Blanche offers menus for special occasions, from Christmas and New Year’s to Easter to First Communions. There are “rich” menus and “simple” menus. For example, in the simple category: Lunch: Oysters; oeufs sur le plat à la crème (eggs sunny-side up with cream); salt-marsh lamb chops and matchstick potatoes; cold chicken with mayonnaise; refreshing fruits. Dinner: Potage Saint-Germain (split-pea soup); homard financière (lobster in a truffle and Madeira wine sauce); tarragon chicken; foie gras with port; Saint-Honoré (a dessert of cream puffs); Roblochon cheese; fruits.That’s simple. Sure.
The book ends with a chapter on the Calendrier Gastronomique, or the gastronomic calendar. For June, Blanche advises that meat from the butcher (beef, lamb–red meat) is less tasty and should be replaced by chicken, duckling and young turkey. Légumes de plein terre (leaf vegetables, but also broccoli, leeks, asparagus, radishes) are plentiful. Red fruits also are abundant: cherries, strawberries, raspberries, melons, with apricots appearing at the end of the month. I think Blanche must have lived in the north, because we are a good month ahead of this schedule.I intend to try out recipes from the book and its bounty of clippings and scribblings and present them to you. Look for the tag #blanchecaramel.
A closet left untouched for over a decade, but probably filled long before that, is a kind of time capsule, full of clues about life in France years–sometimes many years–ago.
First, the closets themselves. They (both, I think) started as water closets–toilets. Folks used to have chamber pots, which they would empty out the window to the street below, passersby beware.
According to the genealogy blog Histoires d’Antan et d’à Présent, there were some public toilets, which were little stalls with holes in the floor, set above a pit. How difficult that must have been when women had to wear long dresses with big skirts!
People started to want more privacy and would put in a water closet as high as possible in the building–as far as possible from the main living quarters. The excrement would flow down a pipe into the street, while the odors would escape above. By 1553, the parliament of Paris required each house to have a septic pit.By the 18th century, most buildings had two WCs, one near the ground floor or near the stairs, and the other on the top floor. And indeed, in our apartments’ building, there are two closets on the landings between the floors.
When I first moved to Europe in the 1990s and looked for an apartment in Brussels, I was shown one with the toilet and bathroom (separate) on the landing; the facilities were shared with the other two apartments in the building! I passed on that one. Also, on a trip to Paris around the same time, I had chosen an “authentic” hotel from the Lonely Planet; it praised a “charming Turkish toilet.” If you don’t know what that means, see the photo below. And steer clear of “authentic” and “charming”!
Anyway, these water closets had been converted into just closets (the toilet was filled with concrete). And they were full. One had nothing interesting, but the other one, which had no traces of its former use, was full of stuff.
The lock box in the top photo, was an exciting find, but sadly it was empty. (Imagine the typical French gesture of swiping your forefinger under your nose–meaning out of luck.)
A plastic tote bag held architectural documents for city halls/schools from the late 1800s; I want to go around to the villages and get photos of the buildings today. With them was this document, which seems to be a handwriting/copying exercise: “Hommage to Our Lady of Angels. Extract of a letter from my Lord the Count of Massaïra (today brother Mary Joseph of Angels) to his sister, Madame the Countess of Weisemberg.”Look at how it was bound by sewing the three sheets together. Even a tear on the fold was repaired by sewing. The handwriting is beautiful. Not a single bit scratched out.
The content is odd; the writer says he was born in Naples and recounts his life, mentioning that he married off his sister to the count of Weisemberg. Wouldn’t his sister be on top of this info already?There were several pots à graisse (grease pots), used for making confit de canard (duck) or pork.
A few stray pieces of a set of Limoges china. I plan to use the surprisingly large sugar pot, above, as a vase.
In the lower closet–the one with the Turkish loo–we mostly encountered rubble and coal! The upstairs closet did harbor a charbonnière, or a kind of scoop/bucket for gathering coal from the heap to put into the furnace. Happily we don’t heat with that anymore.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever uncovered in cleaning out a closet?
After a full morning of antiquing recently at the grand déballage in Pézenas, we needed sustenance. It was well past noon when we left, and the Carnivore was even more peckish than me, and starting to panic. Remember, the French eat at prescribed times. If you hesitate, you lose.
One restaurant after another in Pézenas had set up special outdoor grills and other equipment to feed a crowd, and crowds were waiting to be fed. This does not bode well for good food at a good price. We headed out–it was the Carnivore’s idea, after he rejected my suggestion of a slice of pizza from a food truck, where a long line waited.
So we drove away from Pézenas. Soon we were in the middle of countryside, not a resto for miles. The Carnivore became agitated. The clock was ticking on the French lunch time. Soon we would be out of luck.
“Go to Béziers,” I commanded, figuring it was a fairly big town, simultaneously close enough to arrive in time and far enough from the antiquing throngs, plus on our way home. “Where exactly?” he asked testily, clearly fearful of a wild goose chase that would end with no goose, or duck or anything else to eat. “I don’t know,” I snapped back, hangry. “Centre ville.”
This was on May 7, election day in France. The day that Macron and LePen faced off. And Béziers has a far-right mayor.
We wound our way to centre ville–downtown, and looked for a parking spot. Even with the elections, we figured a Sunday wouldn’t be difficult for parking. But 99.99% of downtown Béziers is torn up, with no parking anywhere. (Don’t even suggest one of the many underground parking garages; one must pay for those, and the French–and Belgians, ahem, our driver–would rather risk being towed from a quasi-illegal spot than to shell out €2 for a legit one). We went farther and farther. We passed a pretty square where lucky people were eating lunch.
We went down, down, down a steep street, each descent in altitude also descending in gentrification. The square up above was chic, with every building pristinely restored. On the same street, far lower, several shops were open, catering to a clientele for whom Sunday is just another weekday. A barber ran an electric razor over a man’s skull like a lawnmower on a big back yard. A couple of impeccably clean butcher shops with shining white floors made the Carnivore want to pick up some lamb and merguez to take home. “It would taste a lot better than what you get at leClerc,” he said.
He squeezed the Peugeot into a tiny spot on a 45-degree incline, with two centimeters of space in front and behind the car. If you don’t want to pay, you had better be expert at parallel parking.
At a café on the corner, tables outside were filled exclusively with men. It was a big day for them, as France decided whether to shut the door on–or worse, kick out–their community. In Béziers, those issues run hotter than in some other places (the mayor has said there are too many kebab shops in the city center, among other things).
We hiked up the hill to that pretty square. Lunch was still on. We secured a table under the pink parasols at le Millefeuille on rue de la Rotisserie (yes, Rotisserie Street) on Place Gabriel Péri. We sat next to a table of Poles. Some Brits were on the other side. Tourist season is under way.
A small blonde boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, went by, unaccompanied except by his fluffly little dog on a leash. An old lady with a cane tapped toward the mairie, or city hall, across the street, presumably to cast her ballot. A car swung into one of the rare parking spots the instant it was freed, and a bourgeois couple of pensioners, both in suits, hers with a skirt and chunky heels, emerged and walked hand in hand down a side street, her bag swinging carefree on its long strap. Several women with veils and long robes passed, each alone, pushing strollers. For all its famous déliquance, Béziers felt like a pretty safe, laid-back place. Unless one is threatened by diversity itself.
Our food was excellent. The Carnivore went for the menu at €12,90: an entrée (starter) of a charcuterie plate, which included not only a lot of hard sausages but also a nice salad and some fresh pleurote mushrooms, grilled zucchini and sweet red pepper; then he had an entrecôte steak with potatoes and more salad, and a dessert of fresh strawberries with whipped cream. Very correct. That price usually gets you a starter plus main dish or main dish plus dessert. To get all three, and so well-garnished, was unusual. I didn’t want any of the menu options (steak, duck or one other thing that I forget because it didn’t tempt me), so I ordered steak tartare (€13.90). It came with all the special ingredients arrayed like a painter’s palette, so I could include what I wanted (which was everything). And home-made fries. I also consumed the Carnivore’s unwanted salad, surprise. A very lovely lunch, at a very reasonable price. Plus charming service and a beautiful place to sit.
We walked around a little before heading back to the car. A young woman was sketching a building on the square; it was beautiful. As I photographed it, she told us not to miss the lions on another building nearby.
I took pictures of several other places–lots of pretty Belle Epoche architecture in Béziers–and was surveying my next target when an older man asked whether we needed directions. He was tall, wearing a white shirt buttoned all the way up but without a tie, a V-neck cardigan over that, and a suit. He was in his 70s–maybe older but in good shape–and had bushy eyebrows and a nice smile. He held a large notebook or folder in the crook of his arm. We explained that no, we weren’t lost, just appreciating the sights.
He talked with us as I snapped photos. As we moved on, he came along, still chattering, about how long he’d lived there, the weather, the architecture. He seemed lonely, in need of company. I wondered, is he hanging around to talk because he doesn’t want to go home? What is his life like? At his age, is he a widower with nobody to go home to? Or a care-giver, perhaps of a wife who no longer can provide company? I thought about the movie “Amour.” I wanted to invite him to dinner, but Carcassonne is a good 45 minutes from Béziers, kind of far for a meal.
We eventually parted ways as he stayed on the big street, Avenue Alphonse Mas, and we branched off on the narrow canyons of ruelles, or tiny streets, that wove away at crazy angles.
Eventually, we returned to the avenue, and there he was, standing on a corner, talking on his phone. We smiled at him and took pictures. When he had finished his call, he came over to us again. “Are you interested in buying property?” he asked. I said that I was always “interested” but not “able” in a budgetary sense. I’m fully guilty of divulging in real-estate porn.
“Ah,” he sighed. “It’s too bad. I know some good ones.” He pointed up at the building next to us. “This one. Two buildings. There were two sisters; each had one. One sister died–she was 88–and the other sister was going to sell and move. Then she died, too. She was 92. She counted all the fireplaces, and there were more than 100! There are at least 21 apartments. The buildings start up there”–he pointed halfway up the block on the avenue–“to over there”–he pointed down the intersecting side street. I wondered about “au moins 21 appartements”–so maybe there are 22? Maybe some could be combined or split? Why say 21 and not 20? Too many questions. I just nodded and said I could only dream of being able to renovate such a place. Which is true.
Off the avenue, the buildings were very different, in various states of decay. It could be pretty in that Italian way, or it could just be urban decay. Right now, it was on the fine line between the two.
Our elderly friend took off down a different street. We descended toward the car. A number of people were enjoying the sunny weather on their balconies. A man smoked beneath a gorgeous, gorgeous bas-relief garland of flowers, leaning on an amazing Art Nouveau railing. A couple played with a toddler. A woman hung laundry. They were from three cultures. Why not, I thought. All enjoy the same sun.
Béziers has a bloody history. In 1209, it was the first stop of the Abigensian Crusade, when the ironically named Pope Innocent III decided to eradicate the Cathars. It’s thought there were about 200 Cathar parfaits, or holy people, living among the 15,000-20,000 Catholic residents. Supposedly one of the crusaders asked how to know which inhabitants were Catholic or Cathar. The commander, the Abbot of Cîteaux, said “Kill them all–God will know his own.” And they did. Upon hearing the news, the crusaders’ subsequent targets, including Carcassonne, fell without a fight.
The Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire burned down during the siege. A few years later, work began on a new edifice on the same site, which today rises high on a hill above the Orb river, dominating the town.
Driving out of town, my heart warmed further for Béziers. A family was holding a gathering in the cool shade of a grange/garage, several long tables covered with white cloths under the arched doors open to the street, children ricocheting everywhere. At a bus stop, two elderly men sat on the far ends of a bench but leaned their skull caps toward each other as they conversed animatedly. Pretty details embellished even humble, downtrodden buildings.
One of the nicest things about this blog is that it has reopened my eyes. I have gotten used to living in the south of France; it has been good to look around me with fresh eyes as I think about stories to tell.
And I see eyes looking back.
The Bastide, or the “new” town (having been built in 1260, vs. la Cité, which is far older), is truffled with these decorations. I suspect that back in the day of la Cité, only the aristocracy and church had the means for anything beyond the slimmest basics of life. Styles and tastes change, but also, by the time of la Bastide, trade was booming and Carcassonne was a center for textiles, wine and cereals. The buildings show it, with flourishes and sometimes elaborate decorations.
Who were they? Did real people sit as models? Or were they sculpted from paintings, books, memories?
Some are in unlikely places, more modest embellishments than the grand busts atop grand buildings.
Toulouse also has many wonderful faces hiding in plain sight. The series below live on the back side of the Capitole, home to the city hall and municipal theater.