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.
Yeah, everybody does 5k races, and everybody even does them throwing colored powder at the runners. But not everybody does them around a medieval fortress.We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
On Saturday, the young, healthy and energetic citizens of the city gathered along the Aude river for “Color My Run.” It’s in English because that’s cool, authentic. The symbol is a castle because … France.I know these color runs have been a thing for quite a while, but we are in France profonde–deepest France–and it was a first here. Put together by a group of students (more cheers for young people!), with proceeds going to Secours Populaire, or People’s Relief.
It was all organized in usual French fashion, which is to say, extremely organized, except that, in European fashion (I won’t pin it solely on the French, since a number of other nationalities do it, too), the lines were more amoebas than lines, but at least they moved quickly. The young organizers scanned participants’ tickets (you had to sign up online–of course) with their phones (of course. Does anybody use phones to call? I don’t think so, but they do everything else). It helps that Carcassonne is small and not very cut-throat. People are still registering at the starting time? Well, we’ll wait until everybody is ready. Plenty of time! Relax!
I tell you, life here is good. Even people running a race have all the time in the world.We were not on top of the fashion situation, because lots of runners came decked out in crazy outfits.
One group of young ladies even dyed their hair, half green, half red. That’s dedication.
The runners took off along the Quai Bellevue–it does have a pretty view–then crossed the 14th century Pont Vieux, or old bridge, which is entirely pedestrian.
I thought the route was going to be an easy loop along one side of the river–semi-wild, very pretty parkland because it’s in a flood zone–and then on the other–more parks, all flat. However, just after the bridge, the route included a quad-melting climb to the walls of la Cité.
There’s a new art installation, called Eccentric Concentric, by Felice Varini, with 15 yellow circles on the ramparts. I am no art critic, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but to me it looks like either the symbol for wifi or the symbol on the highways to warn that there’s a radar ahead.As long as it’s temporary.
When I lived in New York, first I was downtown and constantly marveled at the high-rises and bright lights. I’d go to the top of the World Trade Center just because it was nearby and always a thrill. Later, I lived in Brooklyn and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to go home, always gazing in wonder at the view out the back window, even after years of it. Now, it’s la Cité that makes me pinch myself. How is it possible that such a place existed? An even bigger question: How is it possible it still is intact today?
To do something as universal and ordinary as running, while in the shadow of such a place, well, I never can believe it’s real, even after so many years.The thing is, all the stuff around it is so pretty but la Cité is so awesome you don’t even notice the rest. Like the pretty little dam on the river with a little footbridge.At the end of the run, which was noncompetitive, there was an afternoon rave with the cutest DJ brothers. They clearly took their work very seriously, and made playing music look as complex as any scene from the command deck of a space ship that’s under attack, yet they seemed to enjoy it at the same time. The post-run crowd relaxed by jumping madly (after a run!) and had good, clean fun, as you can see below.
And if anybody now has an earworm of Chicago crooning “Color My World,” bringing back a flood of prom and homecoming memories, well, maybe next time you will run, too?
For about a year and a half I’ve been wearing a wrist-based monitor and I love it. I work from home, and since our kid started going to school by bus in town and I no longer walk to and from school four times a day (coming home for a two-hour lunch…yes, it’s the south of France), I can easily get consumed by my screen and barely budge for hours.
My monitor tells me how many steps I’ve taken, how many calories I’ve burned, more or less, how many hours I’ve slept and how well, and my heart rate. For a while, I filled out the online form with everything I ate, but that was too tedious, so I just look at the total that I’ve burned. It is sometimes depressingly low.
My monitor is like a Mary Poppins on my wrist, seeing all and nudging me to be my better self. I can see when I’ve been at my desk too long and whether I slouched through a run or whether I actually went all-out, based on the heart-rate stats. The overall effects are in the resting heart rate, which are comfortingly low. I am a type-A overachiever, and I love nothing better than to best myself.
I can see how I slept–not just how I thought I slept, but actually how many minutes I was tossing and turning and how much time was in the Alzheimer-fighting deep sleep zone. I can look back at factors like how late I ate, or whether I had wine with dinner, or how late my last coffee was, to try to tweak my sleep for the better, and to see how it turns out.
I realize that all of the numbers are broad generalities, because a wrist-based sensor isn’t the same as the precision of a laboratory. But it gives me an idea and keeps me from being overly optimistic. A reality check. A kick in the pants.
I am not into selling stuff, and so I haven’t mentioned the name of my monitor, but it’s one of the popular ones. The first one fell to pieces (and I was furious) but was still under guarantee so I have a newish one that seems to be of sturdier design. There are many options. A friend has a phone app that counts steps. Whatever works. Sometimes we need somebody/something to tell us, hey, do better! Other people who have tested multiple brands are better positioned to make a recommendation.Another interesting, and free, test is the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s World Fitness Level Calculator. It asks lots of questions (like maximum heart rate and resting heart rate) that are easier to answer with one of these wrist fitness monitors, but it also asks lots of lifestyle questions, like whether you’ve ever smoked, and your waist circumference. At the end, it gives you your fitness age. My fitness age is less than my chronological age, despite the fact that my best sport is reading (I have never successfully caught a ball). It’s probably because I do exercise pretty much every day, figuring that being able to run up steps and carry stuff and act like the much-younger parents of my kid’s friends is well worth a daily half-hour of misery. I also go to Pilates once a week, to add to the suffering, but that is so worth it for correcting back problems.
As for the French take on this stuff, almost all my French friends do some kind of exercise. One swims (outside!), even when I think it’s insanely cold. Another does Pilates and aquagym. Several go to the village exercise class, which I did for years. Some do yoga. Another does yoga and walks for an hour a day. I had always read that French women don’t work out or do anything that involves sweat, but pretty much everybody I know actually does work out in one way or another. A group of retired villagers goes for a walk around the vineyards every day–early in summer; midday in winter. Their ranks have dwindled over the years and is down to four feisty old ladies. They stop at the cemetery on their way home.
I even found some stats: 64% of French people over age 15 do some kind of sports at least once a week. The most common activity is walking for leisure, with 42% of people doing it. The sport most people do the most frequently is “utilitarian” walking–i.e., commuting on foot. It probably helps keep obesity levels to around 15.3% in France, compared with 38.2% in the car-centric U.S. Another source said 48% of the French walk or run.There are gyms and associations for every imaginable sport, from fencing to flamenco to football. Crazily, to join a gym or sport club, you have to go to the doctor for a medical certificate that says you’re healthy enough to do the sport. The city of Carcassonne just launched a program to get people in not-great health (people with chronic illness, cancer, obesity, diabetes, Parkinsons, hypertension, arthritis, or kidney or respiratory problems) to do sports in a supervised way–you get a prescription from your doctor and can go to a sports center for €50 per six months for locals. Which is quite a bargain. The sports include rowing, kayaking (in a pool), swimming, walking, nordic walking, climbing (indoors), archery, stretching, tennis, muscle-building, exercise, balance, yoga and cardio training.
If you can motivate yourself to exercise alone, you’ll save money–running doesn’t cost anything except for shoes. I was on the track team for one year in high school, at the behest of some friends, and came in last in every event I tried. I once ran a 10K and came in second-to-last, nosing out a guy twice my age. Despite my lack of aptitude, running appeals because it’s cheap, time-flexible and efficient. I’ve been doing high-intensity intervals–30 seconds of walking, 20 seconds of jogging and 10 seconds of sprinting. Last fall, during a sprint, I asked myself whether I was really at my max and tried to go faster. I ended up splat on the ground with two skinned knees. On the other hand, I can take stairs two at a time without getting winded, so it’s worth it.What do you do to stay in shape?
If you do something stupid, it’s your problem. The French are big on personal responsibility when it comes to safety.
I was walking along a path around a nearby manmade lake, Lac de la Cavayère. A lovely place, set amid rugged hills of pine forest, with beaches and water sports clustered at one end so the other end remains quiet and wild. And I came across the sign below. Careful: Hold children by the hand.In order to get all the way around, the path had to traverse the dam that created the lake. It was plenty wide—about five feet—with as much grass sloping off on either side. It looked as if the lake side was filled in so if one fell, it was into shallow water, at least at first. But on the other side, there was an almost sheer drop to the valley below. No rails. Just a sign.
This is typical. In France, there exist things that are dangerous, and they either are so obvious that you should just act appropriately, or, in the rare cases of nanny state rearing its head, are noted with signs. In the U.S., the least danger would have to be remedied lest somebody do what they clearly shouldn’t and sue anyway. In France, danger is accepted as a natural part of the world, and it’s on you to deal with it.In the U.S., for example, I was surprised to see seat belts in grocery shopping carts and on horses of a carousel. No such thing in France. In fact, parents are asked to keep off the carousel, except to hold very small kids. If your kids can climb onto the horses, they can ride around the carousel on their own.
The hike to Lastours, a spectacular group of four medieval Cathar châteaux, is on a rugged footpath that winds around a mountain. There are a couple of spots with railings, mostly in wider places where people are apt to stop for a photo and where they can pass each other. Rocks poke out of the ground and pose tripping hazards. A fall could send a person tumbling quite far through the brush.
Watch your step.
The castles are lit at night for a sound and light show. It isn’t easy to wire lighting on a rocky mountain. The wiring, in fact, just snakes up, crossing the path here and there. Code? What code?
Never mind the ponies; everybody is watching the people dangling from the trees.
We went to a gastronomic fair recently. Tastings of artisanal foods and wine. Boring for kids. So there were pony rides for the little ones and zip lines through the trees for the big ones. Of course.
Tree climbing and zip lines are popular here. At the lake mentioned above, there’s an outfit called Accrobranche (accrocher means to hook onto, and branche is branch) where folks of all ages can zip through the trees. There’s even a line across the lake. You get measured if you’re a kid (the courses you can take depend on height for hooking the safety line), pay, get your equipment and five minutes of training, then zip away. There isn’t any “we aren’t liable for your stupidity” contract. It IS completely safe, as long as you follow the directions.
How many times did my jaw drop when my kid came home with news of a school outing. When I was in school, we visited the art museum. Once we went to a local macaroni factory. We did not go spelunking. Nor did we do rock climbing. Nor swimming in the sea. Nor skiing.
That reminds me of when our kid was about four. We went to a ski resort for sledding. It rarely snows in Carcassonne, and even then it isn’t deep and doesn’t last long enough for sledding. But the Pyrénées are a short drive away. Near the café and the beginner piste, there was a designated spot for sledding. It had a gentle slope that flattened out to a broad plateau to ensure the sleds would slow and then stop on their own. The plateau dropped off to the end of a bustling ski piste, with no barriers between them.
Our kid had a wonderful time. We got a workout. Our kid sledded down and we waited at the bottom to haul the kid-heavy sled back up for another round. But our kid was too little and too inexperienced to understand steering. Instead of slowing to a stop on the plateau where we stood, the sled veered to one side, went off the plateau and down the steep slope, picking up speed and crossing the busy ski piste, luckily not hitting anybody. We tried to run after our screaming kid, but the packed snow was slick—bad for running in boots, while making the sled even faster. Our kid was caught in a snow fence, just barely, but enough to get knocked off the sled, terrified but unhurt. The sled went under the net and flew on down to the bottom of the mountain, stopped by a tree. It took the Carnivore half an hour to go down to get it. That was the end of sledding for a while. All of us were pretty shaken.
This was many years ago. I suspect our kid wasn’t the first to inadvertently steer off the sledding area and into the piste. Years later, our kid took ski lessons, and we’ve returned to this resort for practice. The sledding area is still just there in the open.
More kids in trees.
With such a laissez-faire attitude about danger, it’s surprising that every person, young or old, who signs up for sports has to have a certificat médical from a doctor, attesting that one can do physical activity. Even yoga. Even ballroom dancing. Even adults—if you join a gym, you need a certificat médical, with a new one every year. From what I’ve seen, the people who go to the gym aren’t the ones whose fitness needs to be certified.
There are two sports of importance and obsession in the south of France: rugby and pétanque. I haven’t gotten into rugby but it’s hard not to immediately love pétanque.
For one thing, it’s sedate. Players toss steel balls, not too fast, and then leisurely amble over to see the result. The Carnivore even has a magnet on a string to not have to actually bend over and pick up his balls–so important to avoid spilling one’s p’tit jaune. Mostly it involves standing around. The biggest effort is probably climbing the six steps to the buvette for refreshments.
So it’s a game for all ages and all abilities. Kind of like horseshoes, but even more universal, because you don’t even need a stake. Just a flat area, best without grass.
You rarely hear more than the clackety clack of the balls during pétanque. Nobody yells “Oui!” or “Yes!” Enthusiasm is expressed through a lifting of eyebrows, or, at the extreme, a smile. Very French.
Here’s how it works: There’s a little wooden ball called the cochonnet (little pig) that’s tossed into the playing area, or terrain. If you’re playing singles, each player has three balls; for doubles each has two balls. You stand in a little circle and toss your ball as close as possible to the cochonnet. For all the rules, see here.
A friend who helps run the local boulodrome explained that there are two kinds of pétanque: lyonnais and provençal. Lyonnais involves running or something, he said, shaking his head as if such a thing were lamentable. Provençal is the calmer version.
Still, the players exhibit many techniques for tossing their balls. Some stand, some squat, and some are crouched in between.
There’s an official license and everything for playing in tournaments. It costs about €22 and involves a photo and a medical certificate. Then you become a card-carrying pétanque player. Official is official.
The benefits are multiple. There’s insurance (!!!) and of course the prizes. For example, a recent tournament awarded various levels two magrets de canard plus two bottles of wine; two chickens and two bottles of wine; two bottles of Ricard plus two bottles of wine; and the top prize was six magrets and two bottles of wine. Sense a theme?
The Carnivore had a license one year and happily set off at 9:30 one evening to the boulodrome, his little bag of balls in hand. He came home many hours later as excited as a kid: he and his partner had won the gros lot, and he had a bunch of meat to put in the freezer.
In 2010, Karl Lagerfield unveiled his cruise collection in Saint-Tropez, including, in his fashion, an old-time game of pétanque with special Chanel boules.
While you might not have time to get a license during a vacation (proper bureaucracy can’t be rushed), you are certainly welcome to use the boulodromes you’ll find in any town or village across the south of France. It’s the perfect sport for a hot summer night.