View from the belvedere

The châteaux of Lastours are among the Cathar castles the closest to Carcassonne. The site consists of four ruined châteaux, perched on hills in the Montagne Noire, or Black Mountains.

672.Lastours7Looking at the steep, rocky terrain, you wonder how they picked this spot to live. Life must have been rough, with good views. The Orbiel river runs at the bottom of the valley, providing an occasional flat and fertile spot for gardens.

The visit starts in a former textile factory, with a great archaeological exhibition—the site has been inhabited since the Bronze Age.

661.Lastours3The climb winds around the hill, which makes it longer but safer than trying to go straight up. Still, it’s challenging. Not handicapped accessible or stroller accessible or even out-of-shape accessible.

657.Lastours1But the vistas are fabulous. On a clear day, you can see all the way across the Aude plain to the Pyrénnées. Lastours has only one road, which just goes further into the mountains and thus isn’t heavily traveled. As you climb, you don’t hear cars but birds and the wind whistling through the low brush. You also pass through a mostly open cave, which tends to be unbelievably exciting for kids.

671.Lastours6The four castles that make up Lastours (which is Occitan for “the towers”) are perched close together on a ridge, so once you’ve climbed, you’re good.

My fireman brother was fascinated (not in a good way) by the spotlight wiring, bundled haphazardly and running right across the trail for everybody to step on, and the guardrails (as in, lack thereof).

685.Lastours12Those who can’t hike can get a bird’s eye view from an even higher spot on a hill across the valley, where a belevedere is set up with benches for an evening sound and light show. Entry is included in your châteaux ticket, or reduced if you just hit the belvedere.684.Lastours11For a village of under 200 people, Lastours punches above its weight gastronomically. Le Puits du Trésor has a Michelin star, thanks to Jean-Marc Boyer, who is a real sweetie besides being a great chef. The restaurant is situated in the same factory as the entry to the châteaux and is open for lunch and dinner. Boyer also has a less-expensive bistro, Auberge du Diable au Thym (Thyme Devil’s Inn) next to the restaurant, with a terrace next to the fast and clear Orbiel.

A five-minute walk away, still next to the river, there’s a little bakery with homemade ice cream and tables in a little garden. And at least one shop sells local products, meaning local FOOD products.

You can’t get out of Lastours without eating, I’m telling you.

658.Lastours2You need a car to get to Lastours. Maybe a Tour de France biker would take on the steep road (no shoulders, no guardrails). Anyway, follow the signs for parking. Do not think you’ll find something closer. You’ll end up driving through town and then you’ll have to keep going until you find a spot wide enough to turn around. The town is vertical, with the road at the bottom next to the river, and there isn’t room for a sidewalk let alone parking, aside from the little parking lot.

Middle Age Spread

glovesThe medieval fête at the Camping de Moulin de Sainte Anne capped off with a dinner, as fêtes in France tend to do.

The slate slabs were roof tiles. I bought some myself at a vide-grenier for use on the grill.

The tables were laid with pottery, slate slabs, knives and wooden spoons. The wine glasses were recycled yogurt pots. You know how Pinterest is full of DIYs for Ball jars? Same thing here, but with yogurt pots, in glass or terra cotta. Yogurt of the brand la Fermière (the farmwife) comes in them.

As we enjoyed an apéritif of spiced wine, the actors and band set up.

arranging skins
Must place the skins just so.

There was a witch hunt, a sword fight, a king crowned and much more.

reading decree
Declaring the hunt for the witch
sword fight
behind palm

As for the food, we started with a tranchoir, a large round of bread, topped with slices of ham, pâté and smoked duck breast, along with a salad, for which we had no forks because those weren’t common until later. (Quizz: when did the Middle Ages end? Answer at end.)

entreeThe actors, who were part of the Echansons du Carcassès club, also served the dishes, which were carried out on a litter.

entree prep

The multitalented members of the Echansons du Carcassès. The “witch” is far left.

Next, we had bowls of fèves, or fava beans, with grilled sausages. It doesn’t look like much, but it was delicious and hearty. One tour guide, at the Château de Guise in the north, described the cuisine of the time in detail. For example, a bird like a turkey would be killed, put in a pot with spices, buried with the head sticking out and left to sit. When the beak fell off, it was “done.” No. Thank. You. More medieval dishes here and here.

Wine also was served. Duh.

saucisse feves

Finally, we had a vanilla cream, like panna cotta. It arrived on a litter with a château replica whose towers were aflame. Nice touch of drama.

dessert castleAs night fell, the band struck up. The Artemuses ladies danced, stories were interspersed between songs and much merriment ensued.

band 1As the last song ended, the skies unleashed a much-needed downpour. Perfect timing.

dancing princess
This princess could not sit still when the music was playing. And she was a good dancer.

These kinds of gatherings are open to anybody. This goes for other kinds of events as well. If you see a poster, you can attend (and don’t forget to look for the line about “apporter vos couverts” telling you to bring your own plates and silverware. If it isn’t indicated, it’s probably provided). Best to call the number on the poster to reserve. The price usually is very reasonable. This dinner cost €20 per person. Bon appétit!

If you miss a medieval fête, you can get a medieval meal at La Rôtisserie restaurant in the Château de Villeroute-Termenès, about 50 minutes east of Carcassonne.

Answer: usually Columbus’s discovery of America in 1492 is considered the end of the medieval period and the start of the Renaissance, though, like much of history, that’s up for argument.

Take Me Back to the Dark Ages



The Camping le Moulin de Sainte Anne knows how to put on a show. Yesterday was medieval day.

A field across the road was set up with a medieval encampment and lots of entertainment.


battle 1

battle 2

battle 3
The guy on the left “lost” the fight but won top prize for best hair.


band 1

What’s this design? The other guys were from Ariège, but this one was named Leroy MacSomething from Scotland.
A cornemuse, or French bagpipes. Made of animal skin. Another time at the camping, someone fabricated one out of a bag that previously had held boxed wine. That’s ingenuity.


dancer blue

Crêpes made over a fire… It was hot work, dressed like that, on a scorching day, with a big fire.

crepes 1
This really reminds me of the ads for La Laitière.

crepes 2


blocks 1
The medieval cigarette kills me.
blocks 2
He’s going to chop off the kid’s head, and what does mom do? Takes a picture!


book sorts
Little Manual for Casting (Nice) Spells…not in the Hogwarts’ curriculum

witch station

book sorciere
Magic Textbook of Witch’s Plants



doctor real tools
Doctor tools from the Middle Ages
doctor tools
Reproduction doctor’s mini kit
doctor kit
Reproduction of a kit for a doctor to travel with. The pots would have been of clay, not glass. Bottom right: scissors, used to cut open the scalp for brain surgery. Note the saw–“arm size” for amputations, the woman at the stand told me. Somewhat worryingly, she’s a nurse in real life. 

Calligraphy…(I love that there were so many young people participating)

Games…guess the grain or herb… “Who am I?”

The show was put on by a club, Les Echansons du Carcassès,” based in Villemoustaussou. They can be hired for banquets, seminars, weddings, parties. They rent out costumes, put on ateliers about leatherworking, woodworking, costume-making. If you ask me, they know how to have fun.

The dancers are a troupe called Artemuses, putting on medieval theater, archery, combat, fire juggling.

Later, there was a medieval banquet. Coming up next time!damsels 1

Dirty Laundry

314.Laundry in CaunesJust kidding! This is to remind yourselves to thank your lucky stars that you didn’t live….50 or 60 years ago.

Caunes lavoirBack in the day, women had to haul the dirty clothes to a lavoir, a spot with water and basins for doing laundry. It wasn’t until relatively recently (the 1970s) that villages around here got running water in their homes.

Actually, the clothes were washed by hand at home, because that didn’t require much water, and then taken to the lavoir for rinsing. That’s even more back-breaking, because wet clothes are heavy.

Caunes lavoir in use
In use! The sign says “no bathing.”

OK, so it looks pretty awesome, but remember, there was no wifi then. And think of doing it in winter!

I already had a shot of one of the prettier lavoirs, at Caunes-Minervois, but I decided to go back for another. A woman was walking just ahead of me, and she veered into the lavoir. I figured it was to take a photo. But no–she proceeded to take rubber gloves out of her bag, then her washing. Well, that’s what it’s for. Cars on the road stop when they see me taking a photo (yes!), but she was not concerned about being in this shot.

Another time that I passed by there, somebody had washed a room-sized oriental carpet, and it was left, unsupervised, to drip-dry over the rail. Which is what one does–we wash all of ours every summer, but in our yard. Over here, wall-to-wall carpet is considered not very hygenic. When I see what is under our rugs, which get swept over and under regularly plus washed every year, I can’t help but agree.

Actually Caunes has two lavoirs. Other villages have them as well, sometimes with water, and sometimes not. Another slice of traditional life that is no more.

villarzel lavoir 1
An unused lavoir in another village, Villarzel

Ice saints

all windows
Windows at the church of St. Vincent in Carcassonne, built in the 13th century

Les saints de glace, or the “ice saints,” are here: St. Mamert on May 11, St. Pancrace on May 12, and St. Servais on May 13.

saint painting
Saints, not sure who

People have been obsessed with the weather since time immemorial. And to keep track of things, if you you were a farmer who didn’t read or write, you used the saints’ days.


Today, France adheres to laïcité, or non-sectarianism, but it wasn’t always so. As Barbara Tuchman wrote in “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century,” “Christianity was the matrix of medieval life: even cooking instructions called for boiling an egg ‘during the length of time wherein you can say a Miserere.’ It governed birth, marriage, and death, sex, and eating, made the rules for law and medicine, gave philosophy and scholarship their subject matter. Membership in the Church was not a matter of choice; it was compulsory and without alternative, which gave it a hold not easy to dislodge.”

And so, today, official holidays include Ascension last week, lundi de Pentecôte on May 16, as well as Aug. 15 (feast of the Assumption), Nov. 1 (All Saints Day), Easter Monday and Christmas.

saints 5
No idea what’s going on here, but it’s pretty

And the nightly newscast’s weather report ends with an announcement of the next day’s saints.


The ice saints got their names from the rotten habit of  a promising spring turning cold and nasty for a last few days. Apparently, Galileo’s students made some of the first observations, and the Little Ice Age from 1645-1715 probably cemented the idea. I once read an article blaming the phenomenon on a final cycle of low pressure out of the Arctic, while another said it was the period when the Earth passed through a bunch of space dust, cutting off the sun’s rays.

saints 2There’s the saying “Avant St. Servais, point d’été. Après St. Servais, plus de gelée,” or before St. Servais, no spring (“point” is like saying “zip” or “zilch”–it means none, but with more attitude); after St. Servais, no more frost.

A relic

But another saying doesn’t let Servais get the last word: Quand le St. Urbain est passé, le vigneron est rassuré, or when St. Urbain is over, the winegrower is reassured.


All this is to say that I am not as lazy/crazy as I look for not having planted the garden yet. Just waiting for St. Urbain on May 25.

The view after 232 steps to the top of the St. Vincent bell tower, toward la Cité. 
Roofs 1
I spy with my little eye the roof of our apartment!
roofs 2
I never get tired of looking at these rooftops
Roofs 3
And you can see the weather was all ice sainty…temps around 70 F. NOT ENOUGH

The cradle of cassoulet

215.1.Academie du cassoulet2
That crust isn’t bread crumbs. It’s the caramelized yumminess of the cassoulet, and it’s supposed to form and be stirred back in seven times.

A horn sounds, and the ancient wood door swings open. A dozen men and women wearing red robes and hats file in, forming a semicircle. The initiate walks into the center of the group, takes his vow and is swathed in a red robe. A green ribbon with the group’s charm is placed around his neck. The members break into celebration.

This cabal isn’t for witchcraft. It’s a meeting of the Universal Academy of Cassoulet.

The charm: a tiny cassole, the clay pot for making cassoulet. The vow: When asked “is the cassoulet good,” the initiate replies, “Aco v’aimi!” which is Occitan for “I like that.” No, not occult. Occitan. The ancient language of the south of France. Oc was the way folks in these parts said “yes,” so the region is the Langedoc—the language of oc. As opposed to the north, where they said “oïl.”

215.0.Academie du casoulet1 copyAfter the vow, the man who came up with the academy, chef Jean-Claude Rodriguez, is asked to give a speech. “Me? I have nothing to say!” he sputters. Then, he exclaims, “Aperitif!” Applause (and glasses of bubbly) all around.

Rodriguez and some friends created the academy to promote true cassoulet around the world. The group’s bible is “Le Festin Occitan,” by Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné, who also wrote the first Larousse Gastronomique.

“The real cassoulet is hidden behind business. It’s hidden by a world that goes too fast. It’s hidden because we don’t have time to cook with tradition,” Rodriguez said in an interview I did with him a while back.

According to legend, cassoulet was created during the Hundred Years’ War with the British. During a siege at Castelnaudary in southern France, food was running low. The people were asked to contribute whatever they had, and the result was good: beans, duck, pork. But it’s a laborious process, taking two days to do it right.

As a result, many people now make it only a couple of times a year or they buy it canned or  order it at restaurants. This is what drives the Academy. A firm denunciation of “industrial” cassoulet and a crusade to see that what’s made in restaurants is up to standards.

“In the beginning, we had lots of member restaurants,” says Jean Ramond, a founding Academy member. “Five or six of us would visit the restaurants, incognito, and order cassoulet. One would sneak into the kitchen, one would check the other rooms, another the toilets. Does the restaurant live up to our standards? We had to eliminate some,” he says, shaking his grizzled head sadly.

The group has “embassies” in several countries, including Japan and Singapore. There is just one in the U.S., in New York. It’s hard to find places that can comply with the charter, namely respecting French tradition and using fresh ingredients.

215.2.Academie du cassoulet3 copy“Over the years, the ingredients have less flavor,” says Academy member Alphonse Caravaca, a man whose booming laugh, mischievous eyes and thick, black moustache mark him immediately as a bon vivant, despite his métier in insurance (his title is “protagoniste avéré,” or proven protagonist, on the Academy’s administrative council). “The pork, the duck are raised differently. Industrially. You have to get back to the land to get the flavor.”

“When we get together, conviviality grows,” Caravaca continues. “The table, the table is a big party. People don’t eat together anymore. Maybe we’re dinosaurs, I don’t know.”

The horn sounds again. Two men enter with a giant, steaming cassole on a litter. This meeting of the Academy is held in Rodriguez’s restaurant, Chateau St. Martin Trencavel, near Carcassonne. As the main critic of inferior cassoulets, and in the midst of a group of self-professed worshipers of the dish, he has a lot at stake with the evening’s dinner. Not to fear. The black crust is rich, the portions of duck generous, the beans tender.

“I like the beans best,” confides Ramond, the ex-arms dealer. “They soak up all the other flavors.”

The noise level drops markedly as the members concentrate on their plates. After a dessert featuring thyme ice cream and peaches and coffee, the meeting draws to a close. Pierre Poli, the grand master, cites Montagné: “Cassoulet is the god of Occitan cuisine, with Castelnaudary the father, Carcassonne the son and Toulouse the holy spirit. Have you found paradise?”

“Aco v’aimi!” the group cries. “I like that!”

Imagining the past

While la Bastide St. Louis of Carcassonne was founded in 1248, few buildings from that period still stand. That’s because they were built of wood, and had a tendency to catch fire.

The Black Prince....Grrr!
The Black Prince….Grrr!

Not to mention that in 1355, the Black Prince, aka Edward of Woodstock who was then the Prince of Wales, burned the place to the ground.

If you look at la Bastide from above, you can see that, aside from a grid of streets, not a lot was planned.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 3.46.23 PMBuildings got added onto. Narrow streets from centuries ago got built over and are now corridors within buildings.

A street, back in the day
A street, back in the day

The son of our apartment’s previous owner, who grew up there, said rumor is that the whole Bastide sits on a honeycomb of tunnels and secret passageways. Exciting!

I was trying to imagine what life must have been like, back when our place was new. Between 1628 and 1633, the plague killed 1,895 people in the Bastide, or a quarter of the population. Things were worse in la Cité, where residences were smaller and more cramped: 2,146 dead, or half the population of the fortified town.

The people who picked up the dead were called ravens because of the black veils they wore over their faces. Robbers disguised themselves as ravens to move around town with impunity.

The town fell into an economic depression. The authorities let in workers, weavers and artisans to make up for the drop in tax revenues. The fabric industry had been tightly controlled because Carcassonne’s products were renowned for their high quality, sought even in Italy and the Middle East.

Eventually, the Bastide was home to many increasingly rich drapery merchants. The fabric was exported via the Canal du Midi, which was completed in 1681. In 1694, the drapery factory on the Cité bank of the Aude was founded and named, two years later, as a royal supplier. It was the golden age for Carcassonne.

La Manufacture Royale de la Trivalle
La Manufacture Royale de la Trivalle

Some of those buildings have been restored. The Manufacture Royale, for example, was renovated for €500,000 euros and now houses government offices. Drapery merchants built their fine homes in the 18th century, such as Hôtel de Rolland, which is now city hall, or Hôtel Roux d’Alzonne, which is now a middle school.

What do the echoes of the past say to you?