I write this from the dark hole of my office, the large, east-facing window covered by a black-out shade that helps enormously to reduce the greenhouse effect. The heat wave, or canicule, has ended in our region, but it’s still 27 C (80 F) in my office.
All of Europe has been in the furnace this week. We’ve been spared the worst of it. We got to 31 C (88 F) yesterday, though our own thermometer showed 98 F. It was hotter in Paris, which set a record of 42.6 C (108.7 F) and in London, with a record 36.9 C (98.4 F). In normally cool and rainy Belgium (when I was moving there, a colleague told me not to bother packing short-sleeved shirts because I wouldn’t need them), fields were so hot and dry they caught fire.
In France, the Mediterranean basin was relatively spared. Between the last heat wave at the end of June and this one, the weather has been delightful. Warm days with highs around 30 C (85 F) and cool nights with lows around 16 C (60 F). Really perfect summer weather, with clear blue skies and the thrumming of the cidadas (check out my Instagram for a video). The south of France is called the Midi, which doesn’t refer to the middle but to noon–it’s the region where it’s always noon, or warm. As such, it’s designed for heat, with narrow streets that get shade from buildings, and buildings constructed like caves, with stone walls two feet thick. Even our house, built after WWII, has two-foot-thick stone walls.
The rest of the house is less gloomy, with shutters closed on the east but open on the west. For now. When the sun crosses over, I’ll shut the shutters on the west and open the ones on the east. I shut the windows around 9 to keep the cool air in and the hot air out. Even with all the windows open, the house never cools down quite as much as outside. Like 95% of Europeans, we don’t have air conditioning, and I’m glad. Yesterday, I sat outside to soak up the cool morning air. It was 24 C (75 F), and I was cold. That is the benefit of not having air conditioning. You get used to the heat. But only up to a point. It’s hard to put up with long stretches higher than body temperature.
My parents had a whole-house fan in the ceiling of the hallway at the center of the house. It was hidden by shutters that would clack open when the fan was turned on. The fan sucked in air from every window. It was heavenly. When we were little, we had only a window air conditioner, in the living room. Heat spells were party time. Usually we were sent to bed on time, I think by 8 p.m., because that’s when the “family” shows were over and the “adult” shows came on. But during heat spells, my dad spread out a feather bed, handmade by my grandma from down plucked from geese my dad had hunted (and eaten). My siblings and I staked our claims, angling for a good view of the TV. My dad would eat ice cream straight out of the box, and so would we, jousting with our spoons to mine a good vein of chocolate ripple or whatever, while watching TV shows our mother usually prohibited because of violence: “Mission Impossible,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Mash,” “The Rockford Files”….The nuclear reactor near Toulouse had to be shut down because the river that provides cooling water was too hot. Meanwhile, France set a record for electricity consumption yesterday. Imagine how much more it would have been with widespread air conditioning. There have to be other ways to deal with the heat, to keep things from getting worse. To me, air conditioning is the equivalent of Thneedville, the comfortable but completely artificial town in Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax,” where people move once they’ve destroyed the rest of the environment.
What kind of world are we bequeathing to our kids? A real living hell? I’m not a fan of Vice, but check out this article.
This week has been too hot to do anything physical. It was too hot to do anything mental. I couldn’t work anyway–my computer overheated and shut down. My kid and I binge-watched TV shows, waiting for the respite of evening, when the pool would be in the shade for a cool soak. We ate almost nothing. Fruit and yogurt. No cooking. Nothing was appealing, certainly nothing hot.
Some people don’t get a choice about taking it easy. Workers were chopping down enormous platanes, or plane trees, hundreds of years old but infected with a fungus. Garbage trucks circulated, relieving us of our overconsumption. The baker turned out loaf after fresh loaf. I remembered the workers in Lamu, unloading bags of cement by hand in a kind of bucket brigade from dhows at the dock, shimmering with sweat in the heat and humidity, unable to drink because it was Ramadan. But they never slowed their pace.
After receiving numerous appeals to give blood, I realized I needed to act quickly because I had a dentist appointment–there’s a waiting period after dental work, which had fouled me up previously. I had a checkup on Thursday. I called the donor office and they gave me a 12:30 appointment on Wednesday. No problem, I thought. My car and the hospital have A/C. And it was fine … until I walked out into the parking lot and felt like I got hit by a frying pan. Je suis tombée dans les pommes–I fell into the apples, which is the poetic French way of saying I passed out. Eventually I recovered but was more or less wiped out for the rest of the day. I felt as droopy and wilted as my hydrangeas.
The hydrangeas are out of luck. We aren’t under watering restictions that some other departements face, but I’m only watering the fruits and vegetables. I try to remember to catch water from washing fruits and vegetables, or cooking pasta (the extent of turning on the stove these days), to give to the flowers. When I lived in Africa and had no running water, every drop was precious. I’d catch my “shower” water (my shower was me pouring cupfuls on myself) for washing clothes, and then that water would be poured on trees. It is shameful that we have designed our buildings–our lives–to pour purified water down the drain.
We are supposed to get rain today and tomorrow. We’ve had day after day of perfectly blue skies, so the change is welcome. It’s hard to believe we could have a drought after the deadly deluge in October. Extreme drought, extreme floods. Welcome to the new normal. Not just here, but everywhere.
How are you dealing with heat where you are? Has it gotten worse?
It’s increasingly easy to get around French cities on two wheels. More cities offer rental bikes and bike lanes are expanding. Mopeds, or cyclomoteurs, are another popular choice. I like their candy colors and retro style.One reason they’re popular is that you don’t need a license. Since you can’t get a driver’s license in France until age 18, lots of teens find mobility on mopeds, though there’s still a test for driving them. Usually there’s a sea of cyclomoteurs in front of high schools.The podcaster Oliver Gee of the Earful Tower and his lovely wife Lina did a heart-shaped (kind of) tour around France on their cute little red scooter for their honeymoon, and even stopped in Carcassonne. If you’re a francophile, you should check out his podcast and YouTube videos.
I can see the convenience, especially in a large city, where going across town by bike or public transport could take a long time, or if you have to go very early or very late. There is somebody with a puttering moped who goes through our village around 4 a.m. Sometimes when I’m lying awake with the windows open, I can hear the motor buzzing its way closer and closer, like a mosquito that you kind of make out in the room and then realize it’s coming in for your blood as it nears your ears. The moped moves beyond our house, sputtering as it struggles up the steep hill before it descends on the other side, out of earshot. Why so early? What does the driver do? Probably works in a bakery in town–that starts early.I keep hearing about electric scooters and have spied one so far in Carcassonne. Manual scooters are more popular. There’s also an outfit that does tours on Segways. I used to think it would be great to have a moped to tool around town. Not where we live now–it’s too far and too hilly and the roads don’t have shoulders. I don’t need to go anywhere at 4 a.m. Long ago, I met a colleague for drinks in Paris and he offered me a ride on his moped. It was terrifying. In Paris, drivers turn left from the far right lane and stuff like that. Not my colleague, but cars. The folks with a ton of steel around them to protect them if they happen to run into anything.
That brings me to the Twizy, which is a great name for this thing. Made by Renault, it’s called a quadricycle. Seats up to two people and even has a tiny trunk (considering the trunk of my Aygo holds one bag of groceries, I am used to a small trunk). Plug-in electric, with a maximum range of 100 kilometers (62 miles). It’s expensive for what it is (€7,000 for the basic model), but I think it’s cute and interesting. Meanwhile, it’s hot here. School has been canceled. National exams for ninth-graders have been postponed, throwing families’ summer travel into chaos. The heat wave is called a canicule, which has to do with dogs–the dog days of summer, which is when Sirius, or the dog star, rises with the sun. Enjoy this analysis by a weather forecaster. While I definitely appreciated a dip in the pool late last night, it isn’t as bad as all that. This region is built for heat. Thick stone walls insulate interiors like caves. Shutters blunt the greenhouse effect. Everything just slows down and activity is shifted to morning and evening. Surprisingly, I haven’t noticed the cicadas, who start singing when temperatures rise to 25 C (77 F), the music of summer around here. Yesterday, we were at 34 C (93 F) and today we are supposed to hit 38 C (100 F).
On Tuesday, I said goodbye to our latest visitors, a friend of many years and his sister. It was a really good visit, and they claimed they enjoyed it even more than the week they spent in Paris before coming down here. The pace is calmer, the lines are shorter to non-existent, the weather is sunnier, the food is better and there’s no shortage of things to see and do.
As usual, I made a spreadsheet. I gave it to my friends so they would know what was in store each day. It wasn’t about keeping a strict schedule; instead it was to know whether to dress for walking or visiting. For me, it was to group destinations geographically.However, this was overly ambitious. It’s a little bit like a buffet serving only foods you like. You want to taste everything, but it isn’t possible–there’s just too much. Everything looks so conveniently close on a map, but in reality, especially on small roads in the mountains, it takes a long time to get from A to B. Happily, the driving is accompanied by jaw-dropping views, no matter where you go. So you have to pick the best options, which are sometimes just the most realistically accomplished, and really relish them. Here is what we actually accomplished:We started the days a little later than I had expected (totally fine! it’s vacation! but in case they were ready to charge off early, I had a plan), we spent more time than I had expected at each place, and some things ended up just too far to drive. Even though my friends stayed at our apartment l’Ancienne Tannerie in Carcassonne, just a short walk from la Cité, we didn’t go Carcassonne’s main attraction until Saturday afternoon, when other family obligations limited how far we could venture. It was good to have a sight to see that was so close by. We returned to la Cité on Sunday morning to see the museum and to walk around again when there were fewer people. We also didn’t go on Thursday because it was a holiday and was certainly crowded.
We alternated restaurants and home cooking to avoid feeling overfed, but two of the meals at home were copious anyway because we had another visitor–a longtime friend of the Carnivore’s from Belgium. Luckily he spoke good English and my friends were able to get another European perspective in the dinner conversation. We cooked our greatest hits, almost all of the recipes having appeared here on the blog. The cooking portion will get its own post.
If you’re staying in a home or apartment and want to eat in but you don’t have all your recipes or usual utensils, you can pick up prepared dishes at supermarket delis or at butcher shops. We got a cassoulet from the butcher with each round of visitors–just put it in the oven. Couldn’t be easier. And believe me, the local butchers make very good cassoulet. Another thing we picked up was aligot, a cheesy potato dish.
Our friends arrived at lunch time, so the first thing we did was go to eat. I had expected to have a simple sandwich at a café on the square, but they had left their hotel in Paris very early to get to the airport and hadn’t had breakfast. So we went to a little restaurant on Place Carnot, l’Artichaut (The Artichoke). One had duck, the other a macaroni dish with blue cheese and beef, and the Carnivore and I both had steak tartare.
Somehow we managed to work up an appetite by evening to go to our favorite restaurant. Le Clos des Framboisiers was recommended to us shortly after we moved here and it has stayed our favorite spot ever since. The food is always interesting, never ordinary, and both the Carnivore and I (with opposite ideas about food) find offerings we like. The service is impeccable and the setting is gorgeous–it’s in an old stone farmhouse that once was on the edge of town, or even outside it. A housing development has since grown around it–you wind around the maze of streets to a cul de sac, where almost all the customers’ parked cars sport 11 license plates–each département in France has a number, and Aude, where Carcassonne is located, is 11. Even though it’s in walking distance of la Cité, it’s hard to find and has no website, so it remains a locals’ favorite, and you had better reserve. Once you pass behind the tall walls, you’re in another world. There are several rooms, each intimate yet different: One has stone walls, another overlooks the pool, another is all wood, with lots of African and other ethnic art. The diversity of the décor–which changes frequently–make each visit feel fresh. The menu changes frequently, too. We were there in March, and two months later it was different. Here is the latest:Plus there were a starter and a main dish that weren’t on the menu. The only thing missing is a vegetarian option, though I see they make alterations; will ask next time. The menu is prix fixe–apéritif, starter, main dish, cheese and dessert for €32 per person. I think the only reason le Clos des Framboisiers doesn’t have Michelin stars is that the décor is too relaxed. On our early visits, everything clearly came from brocantes, and no two chairs matched. Same with the cutlery. I loved it. Personality! Certainly the food warrants Michelin notice.
My friends thought the restaurant and food were a surprising mix of fancy and casual. The food was delicious, as always, nothing industrial or prepackaged about it. It isn’t a chain, but a restaurant run by the chef and his wife, using locally purchased ingredients. The restaurant felt relaxed, but everybody there was wearing what might be called casual smart. It didn’t seem like a fancy place, but it was so much nicer than, say, Carraba’s or Olive Garden, yet the same price or cheaper for similar menu items, and far less than a chain like Ruth’s Chris. The portions aren’t gigantic–doggy bags are unheard-of here–but even the Carnivore is stuffed to the gills by the end of the evening.
Not to forget there’s a cheese interlude. Because: France.
For some reason, I don’t have photos of all the desserts. There was a lemon sorbet with vodka and pear sorbet with pear liqueur.
I think we were at the table for more than three hours. It never felt long, and any time between courses was a welcome pause to prepare for the rest. Also, the conversation was fantastic. My friend and I had a lot to catch up on, picking up the thread of each other’s lives as if it hadn’t been three years since we last saw each other. I guess when you’ve known each other for more than three decades, such a gap is nothing. And his sister turned out, unsurprisingly, to be my soul sister. It was a total delight to get to know her, yet frustrating, because she wasn’t staying.
Don’t you love making those connections? Where you discover someone who has come to more or less the same point in the world, albeit by another route? The sister and I couldn’t be more different on one hand–she said her goal in life was to be a stay-at-home mom. I put off having children until it was almost too late, rebelling against the pressure to have kids and to accept second-class status in my career because the sacrifices to succeed would be incompatible with family life–for women, not for men, who had no problem having kids and working. Early on in my work life, my supervisor (we’ll call him Kent, his real name) told me that “the problem with America is women like you: white, married, educated and you refuse to have children.” Of course, the real problem is supervisors like Kent, who count the number of hours spent at work rather than the quality of the work done.
The sister was not someone who sought refuge in child-rearing because everything else was too hard. I’ve met more than a few of that type, too–let the men go to work and handle the money, and the women can cook and clean and take care of the children and not worry about anything. Paternalism. If that’s what some want, fine, but don’t impose it on others. Anyway, my friend’s sister was simply passionate about children, and they are endlessly interesting, if energy-sapping. She also loves cooking, in an intellectual way, understanding how the chemistry works. She knows how to make things with her hands: not just food but also textiles. I was impressed. But where we communed was our mutual curiosity about the world. Either you see the world as a troubled, scary place to turn your back on, to shut out, wall off, keep out of your ordered, predictable existence. Or you see the world as a fascinating place, full of adventures and surprises. There are few things as satisfying as presenting such a curious person with a new experience–a painted medieval ceiling, a hidden picnic spot, a gorgeous view, a new food, new drink–and watching them discover it with the enthusiasm of a child unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.
Thanks to my friend and his sister for giving me that joy over the past (too few) days.
What do you do when your vacation in the south of France is hit by rain? We locals were happy for the rain a couple of weeks ago–it had been too long and our gardens were wilting from thirst. But for vacationers, so many of the attractions involve outdoor activities–wandering around old villages, hiking through the countryside, exploring châteaux ruins.
With some recent visitors, we went underground. The mountains, like Emmental cheese, are full of holes. These holes were carved by water, not bacteria (in case you wondered how those holes got into the cheese–they’re bubbles formed by gases emitted by bacteria).
The Grotte de Limousis, just north of Carcassonne, is particularly pretty, and easy to walk through, making it appropriate for most ages (but not those in strollers or wheelchairs–there are some narrow spots and some steps). The series of caves are big and well-lit, so you don’t feel claustrophobic.
The cave winds a kilometer underground through three “rooms.” The first is the Column Room, because of how many columns there are–columns where stalactites (the ones that hang down) and stalagmites (the ones that rise from the ground) grew together.
The ballroom got its name because the nearest village, Limousis, actually used it as a party room for the annual village dinner, held in October to close the grape harvest. The acoustics are amazing, and the floor is naturally flat, having formed when the room was half-filled by a lake. Limestone deposits crept across the lake’s surface like ice, then hardened. The water drained away, leaving the bottom hollow, hence the drum effect. The floor is as smooth as the surface of an icy lake–one unperturbed by wind or anything.
There are two “lakes.” In one, the level of the water rises and falls. It never rises above the tallest stalagmite, with the highest level in summer–after all the rains of winter and spring have had time to filter down. By November it’s dry–the effect of our typically rain-free summers. The other lake has a shower pouring into it. It’s green, which indicates it’s at least two meters (six feet) deep. Limpid water is the same temperature as the cave–14 Celsius, or 57 Fahrenheit–but the falling water is colder–8 Celsius or 46 Fahrenheit–too chilly to take a dip! The water is potable, but not too much–while it doesn’t contain bacteria or any living organisms due to the lack of light, it does contain lots of calcium, so you would get kidney stones.
The final room–spoiler alert–contains a huge crystal of aragonite, four meters tall and 10 meters wide (13 feet tall and 32 feet wide). It grew thanks to perfect conditions that were undisturbed for millennia. It’s unusual, not only for its size but for the variety of shapes, from snowflake-like crystals to round bulbs. I’ve been to the Grotte de Limousis five or six times and it still takes my breath away. I never would have put it on a top 10 list until I actually went. Also a great respite on a hot summer day!
Carcassonne has been encouraging property owners in the center of town to freshen up their façades. At first, the results seemed garish amid the predominantly sandy shades of plaster past. Painted ladies. But now that so many have been done, the effect is festive. It’s also an opportunity to hide all the wires that have accumulated over the decades. As one of the historic preservation people told me, folks put in an electric line for one lightbulb per room, then they added lines as they added radios, refrigerators, and other appliances, usually without redoing the wiring, and just bundling everything on the outside, because these walls are stone, as thick as an arm’s length. Indeed, the wiring in our apartments was frightful, and we had it completely redone. I see lots of hanging wires still, but the regulation is to hide them, so it must be coming.The central square, Place Carnot, fairly gleams now. Above and below. All those colors are so Instagrammable.Even the safety netting was celebratory.The main street, rue du Verdun, also is looking smart.Below, a façade that has seen some history. Those claw-like things are to reinforce where the wall is threatening to buckle.I kind of enjoy the traces from the past, like the walled-over door. But there’s a fine line between character and disrepair. I’m also chuckling because I took these photos over several months and somehow the sky is consistently azure.
I am still collecting French fashion photos, especially couples and men. So many chic people out and about! But today is crazy busy so I’m going to share my penchant for all the fancy carved details that let you know you’re in France.
What are your favorite decorations? Faces? Lions? Really old dates? Coats of arms?
Toulouse, the pink city of the south. Pink because of the pale red bricks that dominate the architecture. A friend and I decided to brave the gilets jaunes in order to get a needed breath of city air. The city air has much improved since Toulouse limited so much of the center to pedestrians only. What a joy to stroll around. No crowding on the sidewalks. There’s plenty of room for those who want to stop and look in the windows and those who are in a hurry to get somewhere. It’s perfect for flâner, that quintessentially French term for strolling leisurely in town, certainly with some lèche-vitrine (literally translated as licking the windows–window shopping) along the way.The car-free streets have led to an explosion of bicycles. Perfect.So much prettiness everywhere. And since we weren’t really interested in shopping, our eyes paid more attention to the architecture. Quite a mix.Do you see the old tower? And the half-timbered building?A steeple perfectly framed by the narrow streets. (Note the rental bike dock.)Then there are more modern touches. Haussmann’s influence is felt down here, though the old lanes weren’t eliminated in favor of grand boulevards. There are some boulevards, to be sure, but they follow the traces of the ancient ramparts. Plenty of Belle Epoque buildings.I’m so glad the little lanes survived. Like the Marais in Paris, but without the crowds. Some of the main shopping streets were noir du monde–full of people–but they never felt like a crush of humanity. And on the little side streets, we got to eavesdrop on conversations. A group of young men, I’d say in their 20s, were in a lively discussion about cheese. You would have thought they were going over a controversial call in a sports match. For several blocks, they walked just behind us, talking excitedly, while my friend and I listened and exchanged smiles. Only in France. We saw groups of gendarmes at nearly every intersection and square. Near the building below, we bumbled onto the assembly point for the gilets jaunes, and passed a bunch of people in T-shirts with DIY labels of “medical volunteer.” They had spritzer bottles tucked into the straps of their backpacks. I didn’t want to be around for when those would be needed.We managed to avoid any action. Anyway, the timing of things here works to one’s advantage. Nothing, but nothing is going to happen anywhere until after lunch, which ends at 2 p.m. Talk about sacred. Which means the yellow vests were just getting together around then and didn’t start marching or whatever until a good hour later. By then we were far away.I would like to live across the street from this building. Across the street so I would see it every time I looked out my windows. I’m a sucker for Art Deco and a sucker for mosaics. They don’t make buildings like they used to.For example the one below. It was on a narrow street, so the interiors must be terribly dark with the metal façade, which apparently can open like shutters.On the other hand, I rather liked the geometry of the building below, with the sharp zigzags contrasting with the layered cake rounds that resemble the Guggenheim in New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.I liked the repetition with the rounded columns on the Art Deco building in the foreground on the left. (More bikes!)We parked on one of the boulevards rather than in an underground garage, which I usually use. Another example of good city planning: two hours of parking was only €1; four hours was €2 and four hours and 45 minutes was €20. This encourages people to park for short errands and discourages the nearby office workers from leaving their cars there all day (you can’t just feed the meter, either–you have to enter your license plate number and you get a ticket that you have to leave on your dashboard.) Our feet were plenty tired before our four hours were up. I took so many shots that I’ll do another post with just doors and windows.
Before the weather changes too much, I want to share the street-style photos I’ve been collecting. Usually I am doing something else–I’m no Bill Cunningham, who spent hours at the corner of 57th and Fifth, snapping fashionable Manhattanites on their way to work and inventing street-style photography. So my hands are full, my phone in my bag, and I have to fish it out, open the camera (a feat in itself with bifocals) and try to catch up with my prey, often while pulling a shopping caddy and navigating market throngs.
So it takes me a while to get a collection of photos. These have been collected since January, which accounts for the climatic range.
What catches my eye are people with flair. Or personality. It’s a high bar here, because nearly everybody dresses up to go to the market or to go shopping in town. Carcassonne is far from France’s fashion epicenter, yet I appreciate that people make an effort. I’m not interested in fashionistas wearing the latest off the runway. Or young models or those who could be, who look good no matter what they put on. I like seeing real people with style.
My visiting cousin remarked on it–the contrast with farmers markets in a big U.S. city, where everybody looks like they just took a break from weeding the tomatoes to pop by the market and sell or buy some produce. It’s beyond casual to the borderline of grungy. My cousin was surprised to see a vegetable vendor here with perfectly manicured, painted nails.
This lady seemed to part the crowds as she walked through the market. She had perfect posture and walked with purpose. I asked to take her photo and she agreed, saying that often happens. We chatted a while and she told me her age–78!!!!! I have seen her since at the market, recognizing her sans chapeau thanks to her shopping caddy. She is always striding like Shelley Hack in the Charlie perfume ads (speaking of which, OMG somebody has a blog just about that!). I was with a friend once when I saw her–too far to catch up. She had a great haircut (of course) and was wearing jeans with boots and a fur vest. My friend sniffed and said something about another 40-something woman trying to look like she’s 30. I informed her that this woman was nearly double that age. That changed everything. Goals.I don’t know how old this lady is, but her hair also was impeccable. And despite walking with a cane, she had rod-ram-straight posture. Also, you can’t really see it, but she was wearing a cleverly tied scarf.
Note the couple on the left in the same photo, with matching sweaters. I should do a post on couples’ style. I very often see couples with coordinating outfits. Do they plan it, or does one see the other putting on, say, a mustard-colored sweater and then decide, hey, I’ll wear my mustard-colored jeans, to cite an example I spied on Saturday.
So much to note here. Cute straw bag. Both have sharp haircuts. Both wearing scarves–cotton for spring–and hers matches his shirt. She has on patterned tights. That leads me to another tangent: tights. Especially now that the weather is mild, but bare legs would be too much, colorful and/or patterned tights are everywhere.
Let’s go back to my favorite demographic: the older women who will not be invisible. Women get either ogled or ignored when they’re young, and then just ignored. I love seeing the ones who make staff spring to attention to serve them. It doesn’t depend on beauty or being tall or thin. It does seem to depend on walking into everyplace as if you owned it, like the woman below.This lady was so straight, considering she had a walker. She wore leather gloves, and when she sat down for a coffee on the terrace near me, I saw her perfectly manicured nails matched her hat. A friend of hers walked by and greeted her with the bise. Both wore dangling earrings.
This woman has my admiration for going to the market on a bike! While wearing a skirt! Note that in the photo on the right, her coat and bag match. And on the day on the right, it was raining. I want to get to know her.
Some colors are clearly trending. Red is big. Red with black. Red with gray. Red with red.
Olive, sage, hedge green, whatever you want to call it, is big. I saw three women–and three men (not with the women)–in three days completely dressed in olive.
And camel is still going strong, a good color to bridge winter to spring to summer.Did any of these strike your fancy? Are you seeing similar trends?
When my kid was little, I would always accompany class field trips. It was such a great way to learn about the region, often in ways I never would have sought out myself (spelunking). One such trip was with a bunch of second- and third-graders to go rock climbing, which led to my discovery of a hidden haven, Notre Dame du Cros (literally, Our Lady of the Hole, or, more poetically, Valley).
I have mentioned that the French have other ideas about safety, as in, if you get hurt, it’s your own fault. So somehow rock climbing is a good idea for kids whose permanent front teeth have only just grown in. Even crazier, to me, was the fact that one of the guides had been our guide exploring caves. A man of many outdoor sports. How does one get a job leading children through caves and up cliffs? And how does he not go crazy? He had unlimited patience. I knew and loved these kids but any time I spent an entire day with all of them I had to take a nap as soon as I got home. Their overflowing energy sapped mine.
Despite the buzzing swarm of children, the area of Notre Dame du Cros is utterly peaceful. It’s over the hill from the village of Caunes-Minervois, and so tucked into the hills that you don’t hear anything but birds and the rustle of leaves. And occasionally an explosion from the marble quarry–maybe once in a day.
Legend has it that, around the 6th century, a shepherdess gave water from the spring there to her sick child (although another says it was the shepherdess herself who was ill), who was immediately cured. It became a pilgrimage destination. That led to chapels being built, with the current one dating to the 12th century, and renovated in the 15th and 16th centuries. Mass is said every morning–the chapel is considered part of the Caunes abbey. Stations of the cross are spread around the hillside.
There’s a flat plain next to a stream, named Le Souc, with picnic tables shaded by century-old platane trees. It’s a very popular spot on summer weekends, but manages to stay calm and peaceful–it’s what people come for.
There are two ways to visit a region. One is to progress along a route; the other is the hub-and-spoke approach, visiting a variety of sights while coming home to the same place each night.
We did this on a multigenerational family trip years ago. The 14 travelers ranged in age from 2 to 76, with three preschoolers, three seniors, two preteens and six middle-aged adults. It was the first trip to Europe for everybody but me and my dad, who had been stationed in Germany just after WWII (“You don’t want to go to Italy, sweetie,” he told me, pronouncing Italy as it-lee. “You can’t drink the water.” I assured him that things had gotten a lot better since his previous visit, during his Army tour just after WWII.)We rented a villa outside Florence and daytripped to that city as well as to Rome, Sienna, San Gimingano, Pisa and some others.
Coming back to the same spot was essential for the youngest and oldest to recharge. It kept the trip simple, too. We could all unpack and settle in. We got to see the daily rhythms around us, while also seeing a lot of sights.In that spirit, I posted about seeing the region with Carcassonne as the hub. There’s so much to do, especially if you rent a car and venture around the region. Carcassonne is a small city, which means it has pretty much all the advantages of villages without their disadvantages (not much to see or do) AND the advantages of cities without the disadvantages (crowds and lines). It’s small and easy to get around, including on foot, like a village, yet it punches above its weight for restaurants, offering as many options as a much bigger city. This win-win formula makes it an excellent base.
Day 1: La Cité
Clearly, the big attraction is la Cité, the largest fortified city in Europe. With 52 towers punctuating a unique double set of walls, the medieval city on a hill looks like a movie set. The best bet it to head there in the late afternoon, around 4 p.m. Walk the perimeter of the walls (best before it gets dark), then explore some of the small interior streets. Or save the perimeter for a few days later—you’ll want to see it more than once. Visit the Château Comtal, the 12th century castle that was home to the Vicomtes of Carcassonne, the Trencavel family, and which now is a museum. It closes at 6:30; count on at least an hour, if not more.After the castle, stroll some more until it’s time for an apéritif before dinner. Check out the le Saint Jean, off the beaten path and with great views of the Château Comtal. Le Bar à Vins has a shady secret garden in nice weather. Then head to dinner. If you have the budget, spring for La Barbacane, the restaurant of Hôtel de la Cité, the town’s fanciest hotel. As a matter of fact, the hotel’s bar is an awfully cozy, romantic spot, too, with a library setting. Less expensive but still very good and romantic is Au Jardin de la Tour, a few steps away, with a hard-to-find entrance but a lovely garden.After dinner, take your time to stroll around. It’s when la Cité is dark and the tourists are gone that you most feel transported back in time. If you’re staying at one of our apartments, you can walk home in 15 minutes, and it’s all downhill. Just remember to turn around and look back at la Cité, lit up against the sky, from the vantage point of Pont Vieux.
If you’re wondering what to do before going to la Cité in the late afternoon, you can do a slow tease, by wandering the quaint streets of the Trivalle neighborhood. You have many opportunities for awesome selfies with la Cité as a backdrop (because you can’t get it as a backdrop when you’re IN it). Maybe a glass of wine and a truffle snack?When the weather is accommodating (most of the time), you also can stroll along the Aude river. Turn left at the river and just walk as long as you like, keeping in mind the return. The path goes really far, on both riverbanks. Wise flood control. In spring, you’ll see the cutest ducklings, and in summer it’s well-shaded and surprisingly cool. The joggers going by only detract a little, because there aren’t that many of them.
Day 2: Medieval Monday
Operating on the principle that most French arrive at vacation spots on Saturdays, I treated Day 1 like a Sunday. So Day 2 would be a Monday, and that’s market day in the town of Mirepoix. It’s about 45 minutes southwest of Carcassonne, though you’ll want to factor in plenty of time to stop and admire along the way.Mirepoix’s market (in the morning!) is in a square surrounded by half-timbered buildings that date to the 13th to 15th centuries. The buildings have arcades, which house café terraces—the perfect place to people-watch while having a coffee or lunch post-shopping. The entire town is very cute and full of charming boutiques. Mirepoix has a great selection of antique shops, too.From Carcassonne, you can pass Bram, then Fanjeaux and on to Mirepoix, or else go to Montréal and then Fanjeaux and Mirepoix. All those villages are charming and worth a wander for an hour or so. Montréal and Fanjeaux are hilltop towns with commanding views over the valleys. Bram’s adorable streets radiate out from the central church in circles, and it has a museum of archaeology.Only 15 minutes south of Mirepoix is Camon, one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France (an official thing) and well worth a detour.
Day 3: Sea Breeze
After a leisurely breakfast with croissants from Papineau (rue de Verdun, just off Place Carnot—true love is running three minutes to pick up fresh croissants), or a continental breakfast from one of the many cafés around Place Carnot, there are few things as romantic as a walk on the beach.You can bike or take the #1 city bus (€1) to Lac de la Cavayère just out of town. A manmade lake, set in hills of garrigue, the lake has a string of small beaches, plus a wide, paved walkng path (no hiking shoes needed) of about seven kilometers (just over four miles) all the way around. A castle (Château de Gaja) peeks through the pines in the distance. The beaches nearest the entrance get very crowded on summer afternoons, but otherwise are quiet.Even prettier, though, is the Mediterranean. If you’re going to drive over there (about 45 minutes), make a day of it. If you’re like us, an hour or two of sand and surf is enough. So on the way, check out the Abbaye de Fontfroide. The abbey dates to 1093 and played a role in the crusade against the Cathars. Today, its cloisters are a place of peacefulness and flowers. The gardens are just gorgeous. So is the architecture.Our favorite time to visit the beach is off-season. Narbonne’s beach is nice, but we like the Plages des Chalets at Gruissan even more because it doesn’t have high-rise apartment buildings, and the little cabanas on stilts are barely visible from the water. Off season, you’ll have the sand mostly to yourself, and there’s a paved walk as well for biking or skating.You have two options for lunch: the port, which has lots of terrace cafés and restaurants and views of the boats, or the village, which has lots of cute little restaurants on its tiny streets. Obviously it’s a place for seafood. But keep your meal light because there’s a treat tonight.
The village has a high cuteness factor, so count on a romantic stroll and lots of photos. Climb the hill to the fortress.Head back to Carcassonne. If you have time, take the departmental road D6113, which passes through a string of villages. Conilhac-Corbières and Capendu are particularly pretty. Or, at Villedaigne, cut north to the D610, which more or less follows the Canal du Midi, and is punctuated by one cute village after another.
In the evening, dine at le Clos des Framboisiers. This is our favorite restaurant. The €28 fixed price menu isn’t huge, but there is something for everybody. The Carnivore and I havediametrically opposite tastes, yet we both find multiple choices tempting and are always both happy. You can’t beat it on quality/price. The service is impeccable and the setting is beautiful. It’s isn’t far from the center of town but it’s nearly impossible to find without a GPS. On a visit in July–at the height of tourist season–all but two of the license plates of the cars parked in front were 11’s (the department we’re in is Aude, #11)—this is where the locals go. Dinner only; closed Sunday and Monday. Reserve! (If you’re at one of our apartments, I can do it for you.)
Day 4: Cathar Castles
The department of Aude is truffled with castles and forts built by the Cathars, those Middle Age heretics. If such ancient ruins, set amid gorgeous scenery, are your thing, then you can spend several days just visiting them. In that case, be sure to get the Passport for the Sites of Cathar Country, which gives you a discount on admission.One of our favorites is in Lastours, north of Carcassonne in the Black Mountains, where the ruins of four castles bristle on hilltops, offering commanding views. Park in the lot at the entry to the village; there is nothing further, I guarantee you.The village is tiny and the entrance isn’t far. The road hugs one bank of the Orbiel river, beneath sheer cliffs. Getting to the hilltop castles entails a steep climb on a narrow dirt path—these castles were built to be inaccessible. Not at all handicapped accessible, nor appropriate for small children (there are no guard rails). For this reason, it’s rarely crowded.Be sure to go up to the Belvedere on a facing hilltop, from which you can look down at the entire site. Under the shadow of the towers, next to the museum at the entry are two restaurants, including one of the region’s finest: The Auberge du Diable au Thym (The Inn of the Thyme Devil) and Les Puits du Trésor, run by Michelin-starred chef Jean Marc Boyer. If you want to eat here, keep in mind it’s open from Wednesday to Sunday (which is lunch only) from noon to 2 p.m. and from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Reserve! As the châteaux close before dark, you’ll have quite a wait until dinner during the off-season (the châteaux are open until 8 p.m. in July and August, though). So it might be best to do Lastours with lunch in mind.
If you want to hit two Cathar castles in one day, add in the Château de Saissac, about half an hour away. It isn’t particularly far, but you can’t go very fast on mountain roads. Saissac is more accessible—we went with the Carnivore’s mother and our kid who was then very small—two age extremes with limited mobility.
On your way back, pass through Montolieu, the village of books. There are several places to dine. If you missed out on Les Puits du Trésor, your loss, but an alternative is l’Ambrosia, which you’ll pass on your way back to Carcassonne, just after you turn onto the D6113. Fancy-schmancy and very good. For smaller budgets, try anything in adorable Montolieu or just wait until you get back to Carcassonne.
Day 5: A Toast to Love
The original sparkling wine comes from just south of Carcassonne, at the abbey of St. Hilaire. There are two kinds: blanquette de Limoux (named after a larger nearby town) and crémant de Limoux.Saint-Hilaire, being tiny, has two places to taste and buy. Limoux has no shortage of places to sample, including the very large Sieur d’Arques, which sponsors the annual Toques et Clochers food and wine festival to restore the region’s church bell towers.
In Saint-Hilaire, the abbey is a fascinating visit and has a beautiful, peaceful cloister with a fountain. It might be a religious site but it’s very romantic.
Limoux also is lovely. You can stroll along the Aude river, then walk up to the central square, where you can have a drink at one of the many cafés. For an excellent meal, go to Tantine et Tonton (it means Aunt and Uncle).
From January to March of each year, Limoux goes crazy, with the world’s longest Carnaval. Locals dress up and hold parades. One more reason to visit during the off-season. The festivities are on weekends, though.
All around Limoux are little circular villages—those of the restored bell towers. They are very picturesque and not touristy at all (except when hosting Toques et Clochers). You can wander from one to the next (by car—too far by foot): Digne d’Aval, Digne d’Amont, Loupia, Donazac, Alaigne, Bellegarde-du-Razès, Caihau, Caillavel…there are more, you’d need days.
The Domaine Gayda, one of the standout restaurants in the region, with its own organic wines, is next to another of these villages, Brugairolles. The scenery is just gorgeous, so it’s nice to have a reason to wander about in it, and an extraordinary meal at the end is the perfect prize.
Day 6: More Medieval
There are tons of other things to do around here—from white-water rafting to mountain biking to skiing (yes, in winter, you can ski for the day and come back to Carcassonne in time for dinner) to spelunking. A sporty itinerary is in the works. For some, working up a sweat is romantic. Others, though, prefer a pretty view.
The village of Minerve is a little gem—it has just 120 inhabitants and is classified as one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France. Its streets are too small for cars. Because it’s so pretty, it attracts visitors, who want to be fed, and you will find no shortage of restaurant with jaw-dropping views. Wander down to the Cesse river, whose force carved the gorge where Minerve is perched, and check out the catapult.
While you’re in the area, check out two important things: la curiosité de Lauriole (a road that descends but looks like it’s rising—take a water bottle or something that rolls and test it out); and wine.Among the surrounding wine regions, Minervois la Livinière is the best, and you will go right through it when you travel between Carcassonne and Minerve, which obviously gave its name to Minervois. Château Massamier la Mignarde’s Domus Maximus was chosen best wine in the world in 2005 in an international competition. It’s a gorgeous place: the cave is amazing, and so are the grounds. Not to mention the wine. If you want to take home some French wine, get some of this.
In all honesty, you can pick any Minervois la Livinière with your eyes closed and it will be good. We also love Château de Gourgazaud and Domaine Borie de Maurel. Just have a designated driver or spit, because the gendarmes don’t mess around.Before you reach Carcassonne, you’ll see Caunes-Minervois. Don’t miss it! It’s such a pretty village, also with very good wine (Château Villerambert Julien, which is worth a visit, just outside the village). Visit the abbey, and, if you’re adventurous, the marble quarry and the chapel of Notre Dame du Cros, an extraordinarily peaceful spot at the bottom of some sheer cliffs that attract rock climbers.Once a month, from September to June, there are jazz concerts in the wine cave of the abbey. Talk about ambience and acoustics.
Caunes also has more restaurants than its size would warrant, and they’re good ones. Or maybe you want to be sure to try the regional specialty—cassoulet. For that, go to the Château Saint Martin, in the suburb/village of Montlegun (about 10 minutes away by car). Gorgeous setting, and the chef, Jean-Claude Rodriguez, is a member of the Universal Academy of Cassoulet.
Day 7: Another Market
Place Carnot, the heart of the Bastide of Carcassonne, bustles on Saturdays with the market (it’s smaller on Tuesdays and Thursdays). It is more than food—it is social. The cafés lining the market are buzzing with people; many bises (cheek kisses) are exchanged. Admire the fresh produce, sample cheeses and saucisson, and if you speak French eavesdrop on the conversations (often about food, something that warms my heart and entertains me to no end). For romantics, note how many of the couples, of all ages, are sweetly holding hands as they shop. I’m sure the older ones—and there are quite a few—would have stories to tell about true love.
Stop by the master pâtissier, Rémi Touja, to pick up some amazing desserts for a snack later in the afternoon (un goûter or petit quatre-heures–a little snack around 4 p.m., observed even by adults).Keep the market mood by having lunch at the Bistrot d’Alice, just off the market square. It’s extremely popular, so reserve well ahead. It’s what you would imagine when someone says “bistro.” If it’s full, try le Bistro d’Augustin, very old school and grand, with Caunes marble all over.In the afternoon, take a stroll along the Canal du Midi, or rent bikes (across from the train station)—the flat path is perfect. In summer there also are boat rides on the canal. It’s wonderful—no cars, and it quickly veers into rural territory. What is more romantic than a bike ride in the French countryside?For dinner, there are many choices: la Table de la Bastide (modern fresh French), le 104 (vegetarian), or au Lard et Cochon (“Lard and Pig”—not vegetarian)….
This just scratches the surface of possibilities. The love birds we’ve hosted have told us they spend a good deal of time just hanging out in the apartments, because they’re so beautiful and romantic. All the better!