I love AirBnB–we’ve used it on trips, and it’s great when you want a kitchen or more than one bedroom, things that are rare in hotels. Especially on longer trips, eating out three meals a day is just too much.
We searched for just the right property for more than a year. When we started looking, there were about 100 AirBnB listings around Carcassonne. Once we found the most beautiful apartments in Carcassonne–decorative moldings as elaborate as ours are very rare, as are ceilings that soar as high–we completely renovated them, with new wiring and plumbing, and restored the original tomette floors. We furnished the apartments with locally sourced antiques. The renovation took another year.
By the time we listed our apartments, there were more than 300 listings. Unfortunately, when we went to pay our taxes (there are two–the taxe de séjour–a hotel tax–and income tax), the folks working in the tax department expressed surprise when we mentioned how the number of listings had exploded in such a short time. They had under 100 listings. The others were renting illegally. “The law of the jungle,” a minister called it.
This hurts the city by depriving it of revenue and it hurts the AirBnB hosts who do play by the rules (and hotels, which are important employers and taxpayers). As of July. 1, AirBnB will collect the taxe de séjour (but not the income tax) on rentals and pay it Jan. 1 directly to municipalities in France. The move may cause the number of illegal listings to drop, though I imagine some will continue, betting that it might take a long time before anybody gets around to auditing them.How can you tell whether a listing is legal? Look for the stars–not the AirBnB stars given by guests, but the official stars. The government gives a tax break to property owners that get classified by stars (if you don’t pay any taxes, you don’t care about a tax break, eh). To get it, the rental property must be inspected–which is an important guarantee to you as a renter. The inspection is not just for amenities and taste but also for safety. It’s probably the clearest way to see that a rental is legal. Of course, if a property gets a bad rating, they might not want to show how many stars they have (or don’t have). Both our apartments have four stars, which is as high as we can get without having a pool or elevator–neither possible in a 17th century building in the center of the part of town that dates to 1260.
Of all the things I love about living in France, buying groceries at the outdoor market is the one that feels most French. I’ve written about it many times, but again on Saturday I was struck by just how gorgeous it all is. The colors, the smells, the artful arrangements that create still lifes wherever you look.
Even better, because they’re edible!
Flat peaches have arrived, and asparagus is hanging on. The weather has been record-setting wet, which has helped them.
A mountain of cherries. I thought the flags were a nice touch. And other cherries below–“pigeon heart” and Napoleon, I think.
Green beans grown locally…they have three kinds: green, “butter” and cocos, which are a kind of flat bean.
It’s all so pretty…
There are even zucchini with their flowers.
The roasted chicken vendor draws a long line.
The sausage seller promised one kind was “spicy, spicy, no fat, diet!” In English, even!
Sheep’s cheese from the mountains…
Everybody was in such a good mood. The World Cup has started, which invigorates the football fans, the weather is gorgeous at last, and summer is here.
The tightly trimmed boxwood motifs in such gardens as those of Versailles are what usually come to mind when one thinks of French gardens. But I think of roses, especially roses that climb and then spill over, like fountains of color.
Not everybody has space for a garden like Versailles, but even humble houses in tiny villages–with no yards at all because they were built by/for people who worked long days in the vineyards and fields and who really didn’t need to pile it on when they got home–have found a few inches of dirt in a crack between house and street (because sidewalks are rare and who needs them anyway when the streets themselves are only wide enough for one vehicle at a time), and from such miserly roots climb the most magnificent, flamboyant roses.
Roses are a thing around here. Winegrowers plant them at the ends of the rows of grape vines–pests tend to hit the roses first, like the canary in the coal mine, and the vigneron gets early warning that action is needed. The rest of the time, they look pretty. Win-win.
Roses aren’t alone. Wisteria’s moment has passed, but other delights are on full display.
The fragrance is intoxicating. The lavender is bursting open, though even closed it perfumed my clothes when I brushed against it. The first oleander have arrived. That means summer. So does the buzz of a lawnmower somewhere in the village. Birds, so many different birds, making a marvelous chorus, even all night long. The lizards have been busy, too, darting from under a flower pot to behind a shutter to under a rock. They are as comical as cats–I should film them; do you think lizard videos will go viral? An impressive passion fruit vine. I don’t know whether the variety that grows here is edible. I loved passion fruit in Kenya. Two kinds: smooth orange ones with unappetizingly gray yet sweet, delicious insides and rough dark purple/green ones with orange innards, a little more tangy. I even learned how to crack them open. You cradle them in your hands and gently press your palms together until the shell just cracks with a satisfying pop. Too hard, and you end up with mucus-y seeds all over. When the shell is cracked, you pull the halves apart gently, then suck out the slimy insides. It took a while to get past the esthetics, but now I can’t pass up passion fruit.
Mountains of cherries at the market these days. They are labeled by variety–Burlat, Montmorency, Bigarreau, coeur de pigeon (yes, pigeon’s heart), Napoleon, Van–and by origin–Spain, France, or, more specifically, surrounding villages like Caunes-Minervois. A lot of cherries, especially the early ones, come from Céret, south of Carcassonne. Actually, it’s also south of Perpignan, right near the border with Spain.Céret has several claims to fame. Cherries, to be sure. It is in the foothills of the Pyrénées, in the neighboring department of Pyrénées-Orientales, in a little protected valley that has a very mild microclimate. Hence the early cherries, a crate of which is sent to the French president.
It also was the capital of the Catalan county of Vallespir, back before this area became part of France in 1659. Even today, there’s a Spanish flavor to the region. Although official borders are delineated down to the centimeter, in reality, countries–cultures–overlap, and you pass from one to another not by hopping over a line but in a progression, like ombre colors, with the intensity deepening the farther you go. Especially here, where borders have moved so many times, and where people have moved even more.An example of Céret’s Spanish–or, really, Catalan–heritage is its feria, with running of bulls and bullfights every July (11-15 this year). The modern feria was started in 1980, but records of the practice date to the 1500s, when the celebration was held in September for the feast of Saint Ferréol. Never heard of him? I know the name only by the reservoir that feeds the Canal du Midi. I looked him up and found this site, which warns, “Don’t mix up your Ferréols!” Who knew this could be a problem with such an uncommon name? Saint Ferréol was born in Vienne in the 3rd century. Though he doesn’t seem to have visited Céret, there’s a chapel dedicated to him just outside town, with crutches of the miraculously healed hanging on the walls.
Céret is a small town of around 8,000 inhabitants, but it became an important center for Cubism. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque moved there in 1911. Soon their friends joined–Raoul Dufy, Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, Juan Gris, André Masson and others. The little town lost in the mountains became a refuge for Marc Chagall and several other artists fleeing the Nazis during World War II. In 1950, Picasso and Henri Matisse helped establish the Museum of Modern Art in Céret. Besides those painters, the museum also has works by Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and many of the artists who have stayed in Céret over the years, like Chagall and Masson.Céret is another pleasant day trip from Carcassonne–about an hour and a half drive. It’s a little place, and even with a visit to the museum, you have time to include a stop at the beach.
A hub-and-spoke itinerary is a deep, rather than wide, approach to travel and can be very gratifying, unless your main goal is to hit as many cities or countries as possible.
I’ve done both of those—the tasting menu of travel is pretty typical for a first trip abroad. After all, it’s expensive and who knows when or if you’ll be back. So I’m not being judgmental.
But if you want to get into the daily life of a place and pretend you’re a local, then staying in one place is a good idea. You get to try it on for size, instead of browsing the racks. It’s also very good for travel with a group or family, because you aren’t constantly packing up and moving.
One reason we chose to move to Carcassonne was because of the diversity of sights and activities in proximity. Mountains to the north and south; beaches to the east (and, if we want to drive longer, to the west). Lovely cities like Toulouse and Montpellier an hour-ish drive away. And all over the plain, beautiful vineyards sprinkled with charming villages and so many medieval ruins.
Another reason we like Carcassonne is that it’s small enough that life is easy. And on vacation, who needs hassles? Aside from the Michelin-star restaurants (and even then), this isn’t a place where you have to reserve a table a week ahead or have special connections to get in. You can walk blindly into almost any restaurant and get a good meal at a reasonable price. Parking is easy and often free. Traffic is light and relatively polite (I’m constantly shocked, but then I go someplace else and see that Carcassonnais are very nice drivers all in all). In fact, if you don’t want to drive, you can do plenty of things on foot, by bike or by public transportation. If you do rent a car, check out my driving tips.
Although so many people descend from all over Europe to bake on the beaches of the Mediterranean in summer, once you head inland a little it doesn’t feel very touristy. Yes, there are tourists—there are amazing things to see—but this region remains mostly undiscovered and authentic.
Here’s an example of a hub-and-spoke vacation for a week, using Carcassonne as a base:
Day 1: La Cité. Duh. Go early or go late. The beach hordes will come by for a requisite few hours of culture in the middle of the day, so avoid it then. It’s really lovely in the evening, a nice place to stroll after dinner. In the middle of the day, walk around the Ville Basse—the lower “new” town (built in 1260) that is full of locals. Or walk upstream along the Aude River—there are shady paths on both sides—and you’ll soon be out of town, surrounded by vineyards. Or check out the antique shops in and around the Ville Basse (also called la Bastide) and the Trivalle neighborhood. Stop by Barrière Truffes for a wine tasting with some truffle appetizers. Definitely eat dinner at le Clos des Framboisiers, which will get its own post soon.
Day 2: Bike along the Canal du Midi. Pack a picnic lunch, or, if you bike toward Trèbes, you have a large selection of waterfront restaurants (we are partial to La Poissonnerie Moderne and Le Moulin). A canal bike ride is really lovely—no cars, flat, out in the countryside, still a lot of shade despite the sad removal of many plane trees that have been destroyed by a fungus.
Day 3: Village life. You can catch a bus to, say, Villeneuve-Minervois (half an hour away), spend a couple of hours exploring, then catch a later bus to Caunes-Minervois (about five minutes from Villeneuve). If you look at the bus schedules, keep in mind that when school is out, there are far fewer buses—look for the chaise longue with parasol, which indicates summer hours. Don’t miss the last bus back! Caunes is a bit far to bike and very hilly. Alternatively, if you have a car, it’s a pretty drive and you can stay for dinner at the Hotel d’Alibert.
Day 4: Head for the hills. The train to Quillan is just €1 per person. Can’t beat that. It takes an hour and 20 minutes, so leave plenty early. Perhaps a hike on the Sentier de Capio? If you go by car, you can also explore the Gorges de la Pierre-Lys, a bit south of Quillan, a spectacular collection of sheer rock faces worn down by the Aude River. There’s a hike to a lookout (called the Devil’s Lookout).
Day 5: At some point in your trip, Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday will roll around with the market at Place Carnot in Carcassonne. Saturday is the best day, with the most vendors and all the locals stopping each other with hands full of carrots and radishes to double or triple or quadruple kiss cheeks before heading to one of the terrace cafés for coffee or a cold glass of rosé. Beware: the market packs up around 12:30 p.m. If you miss the market in Carcassonne, then you can catch up on Monday morning in Mirepoix. It’s a cute town with a nice collection of antique shops to occupy your afternoon.
Day 6: Hit the beach, because what’s a trip to the south of France without paying homage to the Mediterranean? Again, go early or late. The French live highly regimented lives and you can use that to your advantage by being slightly off schedule. They will swarm to the sand a bit after lunch, and then leave in time for apéritifs, raising havoc for parking and huge traffic jams for leaving. We are partial to the beach at Gruissan (la Plage des Chalets), because the beach bungalows on stilts are low and barely seen from the water’s edge, whereas Narbonne has some high-rise buildings. There are many other beaches up and down the coast, but Gruissan is nice because it’s huge, so even with crowds, you aren’t crowded, yet you don’t have to walk forever to get to it, and you have a choice of the port or the old town for dinner. Our strategy is this: we head to the beach around 3:30, getting there just as the earlybirds are feeling their sunburn and fleeing, freeing up parking spaces. Then we stay and enjoy as the throngs continue to thin, and finally hit a local restaurant for dinner rather than sit in a traffic jam on the autoroute. I am sure you can get to the beach by bus, but I wouldn’t want to do it because we haul so much stuff with us (umbrellas, shade tent, blankets, balls, change of clothes in sealed bags for sand-free changing afterward).
Day 7: Castles. For this, you need do a car. Those Cathars built their fortresses in out-of-the-way spots. They weren’t looking for trouble, in fact they tried to hide from it, but when invaders came calling, they were in perches that were very hard to attack. Many of them, including Lastours and Puilaurens, require a vertiginous hike. If climbing isn’t your thing, try Saissac or Villerouge-Termenes. In July, Carcassonne is full of medieval re-enactments and jousting tournaments.I haven’t even gotten to wineries (our favorites are la Tour Boisée and Saint Jacques d’Albas)! Or Fontfroide and Lagrasse. Or the underground wonders of Cabesprine and Limousis, so welcome on a hot summer day. Or the cool museums, like the one about prehistoric man at Tautavel.
We have had many couples renting our apartments for honeymoons, wedding anniversaries and birthdays, so I’ll do a similar itinerary with a romantic focus. Coming soon!
Late May is the ideal time to see red seas of poppies stretching across the French countryside. One of my earliest romanticized notions of France was Claude Monet’s painting, “Poppy Field in Argenteuil,” with a woman, hat on her head and parasol over her shoulder, wading through a poppy field with a child. He painted poppies in other places as well, including Giverny, where he had his lovely house and gardens.
It’s easy to play Monet around here. In fact, what’s hard is not driving off the road as I spy yet another spectacular red field. On the drive to the sports complex, there’s a big field on a plateau, and another below it are all red. As I continued my errands, I contemplated where I could pull off and how I could clamber over the drainage ditch and up the steep ledge to get to the view–which would have la Cité behind it! I made some stops in town, including for another field of poppies and la Cité, and then came back from a different direction. A hill that’s usually to my back was in front of me, and it was completely red. The flowers flowed down, like a floral Kilauea, across the road to the plateau I’d already seen. Amazing. But a very busy road, and no place to pull over and shoot photos. I certainly dismayed the drivers behind me as I slowed down to stare and gasp. (I will try to find a safe vantage point for shooting it!)
La Cité from the other side, with other poppies. This field is on the plateau, and the red hill is to the left, but hidden from this vantage point. I tried to climb around but couldn’t get to it.
A small traveling circus set up next to another poppy field. I’ve written about the circus before, but it was a different one. Shortly after this one arrived, I saw a large man at the top of a very, very high light pole. The poles have plugs for the Christmas decorations. While the municipal workers use a mechanical lift to get up there, circus folks just shimmy up like monkeys. Without a net.
During the circus’s stay, I marveled at the ability of some people to make noise for no reason. Mid-morning, a trumpet blared, not in the way of somebody practicing, even badly. It was in the manner of a child who comes upon a trumpet and decides to try it out, with the full force of his lungs. For a couple of hours. No discernible tune or rhythm. Even a child would get bored with just making noise, but this trumpeter didn’t. Day after day after day.
Along with the trumpet (which didn’t seem to be played during the shows–those had canned music), there was incessant hammering, clanking and banging throughout the day and night–normal when they put up and took down the tent, but the other times? Very mysterious. Also, neighing, braying, barking and whatever noise it is that camels make, because there were lots of them, munching on poppies, their humps slumped to the side, like melting ice cream cones just before they plop to the ground.From time to time, I heard a lion roar, and I thought, “it isn’t even show time. All the kids are in school (except for the two zillion children of the circus performers, who ran around screaming from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., except for when they were riding scooters. I don’t mind kids screaming, actually. They have a reckless exuberance that I admire, although not so much at 6 a.m. nor at 11 p.m.). Why are they playing that stupid fake lion tape now?” I even heard it during the night. It wasn’t until they were leaving that I realized it wasn’t a tape, but a poor, pathetic lion, probably as bored as the trumpeter.The morning the circus packed up to leave, at 6:02 a.m., I heard a guy shouting, “Allez, allez, allez!” (Go, go, go!) Then: “Oh! Tenez! PURÉE!!!” (Oh! Hold on! Mush!) I don’t know what went wrong, but I was impressed by his clearly rigorous inculcation in G-rated language, the circus being for children, after all. Even under under duress, rather than say putain–whore–a common swear word, especially in the south of France, where it is used almost like a comma, this distressed/dismayed guy spat out the polite version, purée. Some others are mince (skinny) or mercredi (Wednesday) instead of merde, and punaise (a thumbtack, which in turn is named after a stinkbug) which also replaces putain. So if somebody says Wednesday or thumbtack to you in a sentence where those words make no sense, now you know: they’re mad, not crazy.
I thought about the circus again this morning, when I woke up to the sound of birds singing. SO. MANY. BIRDS. And no trumpets or lions.
Beauty can take so many forms. The voluptuous lusciousness of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting; her magnificently lined face photographed in her later years. The plump, kissable cheeks of a baby; the undulating starkness of the Sahara’s sands. The south of France has both extremes of beauty–the soft and the rugged. Right now, we’re in the soft season.Douceur in French means both softness and sweetness, which captures the spirit of spring in France. The air is perfect–as our kid remarked, it’s just right no matter what you’re wearing, whether a T-shirt or a sweater. It’s richly scented with newly cut grass and so, so many flowers blooming. We want to fill our lungs greedily with this nectar. Even though our winters are far from insufferable, we gorge on spring as if at a banquet after a famine.
The trees have mostly filled out with leaves, changing their shape from Giacometti sculptures to something more in the style of Botero. The platanes that were heavily pruned stay bare a while longer, with little tufts of green looking somewhat ridiculous on such big trunks. The vineyards are the same–pruned down to a single vine per stump, little leaves popping out in single file, catching the sun like emeralds.
The architecture and engineering of an anthill, bigger than my fist. How did they make such a perfectly round tower, with perfectly round entries?We take our time to savor the market, noting the appearance of each new player on the season’s stage. Bernard, the strawberry man, is back, attracting a line of customers, many of whom he greets by name, not having forgotten during the winter break. Promises of summer show up from Spain and Morocco in the form of melons and tomatoes. It’s so hard to wait, but we will hold out; flavor doesn’t travel well.The cafés are full…outside. The locals greet each other with kisses; the wide-eyed tourists take it all in, probably wondering (judging by the number of people toting both cameras and real estate brochures) whether maybe they, too, should move here for the sweet life.
Blizzards and storms hit parts of the U.S. last weekend. Here, we’ve been getting plenty of rain…and sun.
When you’re packing, it can be hard to imagine being somewhere much warmer or colder. Plus, northern France–Paris–has quite different weather than here in the south.
It was upon moving to Belgium that I learned the concept of the summer sweater. It’s the sweater to wear when you are sick to death of candles, hot chocolate and curling up by a fire. When you’ve had it with hygge, but it isn’t yet warm enough to bask bare-armed in the sun.
(Don’t these make you want to cringe after March 20? The one on the right is yak hair, from Katmandu. I get around….and come home with something to wear. It is VERY warm.)
I remember being dumbstruck early in my European séjour, by a movie on TV in which Catherine Deneuve walked a pebbly Atlantic beach, dressed in white capris and a loose turquoise sweater. I forgot the movie, but I remember that sweater. A sweater! On the beach! (And pebbles on the beach!!!! So many new concepts at once.)
I soon learned that yes, you might need a sweater on the beach, even in summer. A bunch of colleagues and I went to the (sandy) beach at Ostende one weekend. The wind was wicked. I bought a windbreak (not a windbreaker but a long strip of plastic with posts and a rubber mallet for pounding the posts into the sand) and we all huddled behind it. At work the next Monday, other co-workers ridiculed our claim that we had been to the beach–where were our tans? In fact, the only skin we could bear to bare was on our faces and hands. We froze. In mid-summer.
The summer sweater is is cotton or silk, not wool, unless it’s the finest, thinnest cashmere. It has a smooth, flat weave, or else a loose, open weave. It isn’t chunky.
The best ones can be worn with a shirt underneath, or alone. Options, layers. Perfect for travel. Lots of shirts, which are light and pack small, and just two sweaters.
Even better is to have a matching or coordinating cardigan, so you can have yet another layer, or wear it open instead of a jacket on warmer days. And if it’s really warm and you never wear your sweater or cardigan (I bet you’ll wear them at least in the evening), you won’t kick yourself for having loaded up your suitcase for nothing.Also, take a scarf. Always! The pashmina still is worn around here and is always good against a chill. The large square silk scarf is a classic.
What’s very popular among both men and women is the chèche, a very long cotton scarf that you wrap a million times around your neck or that you leave hanging long. But don’t be like Isadora Duncan. The value of chèche is that it can be surprisingly warm when it’s all wound around you and it can be no more heavy than a necklace when it’s worn hanging long. I have a gorgeous 9-foot-long dark purple one I bought in Timbuktu…and in true Berber fashion it turns my skin bluish-purple when I wear it.
Favorite French coats for this time of year are the perennials: the leather moto jacket and the trench. My trench has a zip-in lining–if I were traveling in early spring, I would take it and be almost as warm as with a winter coat (because I don’t want to wear anything with furry trim come March). In late spring, I’d leave the lining at home.
Either option is good for dealing with the possibility (probability…higher as you head north) of rain. The tips for winter travel hold for spring’s tempestuous days, but you know what they say: there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. I’d rather have a rain hat than an umbrella, but better yet is a hood, and best of all is a hidden hood.
What are your astuces for packing for uncertain spring weather?
When walking around French cities, don’t forget to look up. Somebody might be looking down at you.
Oh, the things they’ve seen!
This one is wearing a lion skin. Look at that paw on the right.
And the next window seems similarly dressed, with the paws tied in front. Are those weapons on the left? Even then, women were smooth-faced, while men could have wrinkles.
This one seems happier, and with flowers, not animal skins. I also like the shutters, with that shade of almost-blue faded gray.
Sometimes you have to look way up.
This lady seems to be studiously ignoring the antics of the buffoons on either side of her.
There will be building after building with no more decoration than the character of their stones and bricks, which, truth be told, is mighty fine in itself. But then a building will have something–or someone–at every window.
Gorgeous railings, eh? They’re called garde-fous, which literally translates to crazy guards.
The one above was a consulate, hence the barbed wire.
The very francophile blog Hello Lovely has a feature on our AirBnB rental apartment, la Suite Barbès. Michele, Hello Lovely’s author, has given us a royal spread. I hope you’ll stop by her blog to check it out….and it’s one to subscribe to if you like a steady diet of beautiful interiors. Michele offers up a daily moment of zen with the calm, collected spaces she features. And her positive attitude and warm personality come through her writing. It’s a read I look forward to every day.
In the bedroom of la Suite Barbès.
The direct link to la Suite Barbès on AirBnB is here. And our other apartment, l’Ancienne Tannerie, on the same floor, decorated in the same style, is here. They both have four stars from the tourism ministry!