Life in a French Village

P1100281Yesterday was la rentrée des classes–back to school–though it’s the official end of summer for those without kids, as well. The cars on the roads seem more purposeful, if not exactly rushed. Folks in these parts don’t rush very often.P1100276Although the end of summer and the return to routine marks the passage of time, in the little villages of the south of France, time seems to stand still. Time feels less linear and more like accretion, layers upon layers, with the old still there, forever.P1100274Welcome to the village of Trausse, on the edge of the Black Mountains, not far from Carcassonne. Host of a cherry festival in May and home year-round to excellent Minervois wine. As you can see, it’s bustling.P1100265

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The beating industrial heart of Trausse….wine, of course.

In that way of small villages, life is both intensely private and lived in public. P1100270

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Note there are TWO chairs sitting in the street. The better to see you with, my dear.

P1100258There are old stones, remnants of an illustrious past. In the late 1700s, there were more than 800 residents; today there are about 500.

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The Tour de Trencavel dates to the 12th century. It was a watchtower on the periphery of Carcassonne. The Trencavels pretty much ruled the region back then.
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Only in a village like Trausse is this not extraordinary but just normal.
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The church, like the tower, keeps the Christmas lights up all year because it’s nuts to climb up there to put them up, take them down, put them up, take them down.

Nothing is straight. If the walls in the photo above look like they’re leaning in toward the street, well, yes, they are.

People come and go, but the stones remain, sometimes putting up with modernization, like electricity.P1100242

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Do you see the loudspeaker on the right? That’s for public announcements, like the fishmonger’s truck has arrived, or a vide grenier is scheduled, or so-and-so has died.

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Note the doorbell.

Although fetching water was probably a moment for gossip and camaraderie, I doubt folks regret having indoor plumbing. Somebody told me my village got plumbing in the 1970s!

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Do you see the scowling face in the middle, saying “turn off the tap!”

P1100273Trausse is overshadowed by its neighbor, Caunes-Minervois, which is undeniably adorable and which attracts many tourists. I heard that J.K. Rowling recently spent time in Caunes. But that might just be bragging. In any case, Caunes is a good place for somebody like her to be incognito, just another British lady renting a holiday home. P1100278

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Even the mudscraper is cute. Notice the different materials–stones, concrete, red bricks.
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Faded, but it says “Bike Exit”–often garage doors have “sortie véhicule” to indicate that you’ll be in trouble if you park in front. I found this to be charmingly cheeky.

There are so many cute villages here–I’m hard-pressed to think of any that don’t have at least a picturesque ancient center, even the ones surrounded by ugly subdivisions. It’s easy to skip the subdivisions and stick to the quaint old streets, where elderly residents sit in the shade unperturbed, cats nap in the middle of the road, and time meanders gently.P1100267

 

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Holy Grail

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What do you get when you cross novelist Dan Brown with cheese? Rennes-le-Château!

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Shining village on a hill.

IMG_5008Rennes-le-Château made an appearance in “The Da Vinci Code,” Brown’s thriller about a conspiracy and some very creative interpretations of history. Supposedly Jesus high-tailed it to France with Mary Magdalene, which is how the Holy Grail–or the cup he used at the Last Supper–ended up at a tiny church in a tiny village in the deepest depths of France profondeIMG_5018

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Entrance to the church and museum. The visit is for another time.

This just shows that we have stories for every stripe of crazy, from ufologists to people drawn to Rennes-le-Château, including to excavate for buried treasure. Which is strictly forbidden, and written all over the place.IMG_5011IMG_5012
IMG_5042IMG_5037Back in the 1890s, the village priest, Bérenger Saunière, seemed to be suddenly rolling in dough. He had the church fixed up, then built himself a domaine and a tower, la Tour Magdala, in 1901. By 1902, the bishop of Carcassonne, who had turned a blind eye to the priest’s spending, had died, and the new higher-ups demanded an accounting, which the priest didn’t want to do. IMG_5019

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Grand Street, or Main Street…somewhat of an exaggeration.

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Is it art or is it just a muffler on a roof?

It isn’t clear whether the holy grail story was made up by Saunière or by a local hotelier looking for publicity. In any case, long before the advent of the Internet, the tale worked magic, because all kinds of illuminés turned up and haven’t stopped. For example, in 2011, some “researchers” claimed that Rennes-le-Château holds King Solomon’s gold and that the Visigoths brought the original menorah, used by Moses. Because that makes complete sense, right?

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La Tour Magdala

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The gardens of Saunière’s domaine, including lots of roses not yet in bloom earlier this month.
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A glass lookout on the domaine with sweeping views.

What is undeniable is that the hilltop village of 65 inhabitants (and THREE restaurants!!) is charming and has breathtaking views. We stopped on our way home from Bugarach, having loaded up on goat’s and sheep’s cheeses as part of de la Ferme en Ferme, or From Farm to Farm, circuit–something to check out if you’re in the region.

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Sheep’s cheeses…don’t you love the hearts?

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So many cheeses.
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Cheese factories. I mean, sheep.
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Sheep art.
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Possibly the cutest WC ever. At the sheep/cheese farm.

Rennes-le-Château is 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of Carcassonne. There’s lots to see along the way! Cute villages, mountains, farms, ruins, cows and sheep and goats….

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Do you see the tower in the center of the photo?
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Same tower, viewed from Rennes-le-Château. I love all that dark red earth in the distance, and the white rocky cliffs.
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A little zoom. It was very windy, so we didn’t tramp around much.
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A different tower, in the village. I bet every single local kid has climbed that thing. I would have been the only one not to climb it, but would have gotten in trouble for just being present.
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Those weird things across the street are rain spouts!
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Hey! It’s Bugarach, almost hiding in the clouds!
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On the road.
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Another castle seen from the road…not sure which one. There are so many.

 

Details

mantel fullHaving restored our 17th century apartments to their former grandeur, the spaces speak to me, as if we’re now friends and confidantes.

Bacchus would have been a dinner party regular….kitchen fireplace straight

The fireplace, the hearth of the kitchen, is big enough to stand in. To think that originally, it was the place for cooking. Even now, the French term for a house-warming party is pendaison de crémaillère–hanging of the notched tool that held the cooking pot above the fire–rather than increase or decrease the heat, you had to lower or raise the pot.  You can see the transformation of the kitchen here. I can almost hear the voices and laughter of the generations who gathered around the table. The hands upon hands upon hands that smoothed its wood.

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On the kitchen mantle.

Not far from Bacchus’s reach is a bottle rack. Our guests have joined in the game of adding to it. kitchen fireplace side

We encourage them…kitchen counter w:wine

Wine tip: when choosing a bottle, feel the indentation, called la piqûre–the punt. It reinforces the bottle, and costs more than a flat bottom. If the winemaker is shelling out for a better bottle, you can figure what’s inside is pretty good.

What is so satisfying about tracking down just the right thing–as opposed to ordering with a click–is that everything has a story.

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Like this Louis XVI armchair, so perfect for reading (feet up on the pouf), that matches the sofa and makes me wonder how the tiny lady who sold it to us is faring these days. And I smile at the little desk she threw in, which had seen better days but was revived with some fresh paint. Because that drawer really deserves it. They don’t make drawers like they used to.deskOr this cupboard, which had served generations in the huge, familial kitchen. hutch tophutch bottomSometimes we staysauna here ourselves, to enjoy a night on the town, so to speak. It feels like vacation. Especially the sauna, followed by a cool-down in the huge shower, with its funny niche that we kept. Check out what was there before.shower

I love how the bathroom turned out. The Venetian mirror. The pedestal sink. The second mirror, that shows a glimpse of the sauna in its reflection. The cabochon floor.

 

 

We found another Venetian mirror for the powder room.wc

It’s hard to choose between black and white and blue and white. So we have both.sauna tile

By the sauna, above, and then the blue and white china, assembled from so many brocantes!

 

The things you can find at brocantes! Young ladies…bust

More blue and white…and cool mantle ornaments. Befitting of a cool mantle.mantle

A few things didn’t quite work in our house and found a home here. Like this table I bought many years ago in Lamu, a little island near Kenya’s border with Somalia, now too dangerous to go back, unfortunately. I have many happy memories of Lamu, including how I first admired the work of the carpenter who hand-carved this table back in the mid-’80s. Alas, I was a broke Peace Corps worker who could barely afford $1 a night for a mattress on the roof at a dive hotel (mosquito net included). Years later, I returned, dead set on buying a Lamu coffee table. Lo and behold, the same carpenter was working in the same place. He didn’t have any coffee tables, but he also wasn’t going to miss a sale. He got this one out of his own house, unscrewed the legs and wrapped it up for me to take home. While the cobbler’s children are the worst shod, I hope he got around to making himself a new coffee table. lamu table

It is just perfect in the apartment–the right size, not visually heavy, the carving remarkably similar to that on the Louis XVI sofa and to the swirls on the antique carpet.

While I enjoy watching the bustle on the street from the balcony in the other apartment, I also appreciate the quiet and the view in this apartment, which overlooks the communal courtyard, full of flowers and plants maintained by one of the neighbors. The apartment faces north, which, with the two-foot-thick stone walls, keeps it surprisingly cool in summer. In winter, who cares–there’s a sauna! And lots of radiators.window view 1window view 2

Both our apartments are on AirBnB: l’Ancienne Tannerie and la Suite Barbès. The perfect place to hang your hat during a stay in the south of France. Bienvenue!

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French Takeout

meat-in-sauceTakeout isn’t a thing in France, at least not in the New York-millions-of-menus-under-the-door sense.

Aside from pizza and Chinese food, and of course McDonald’s, restaurants don’t usually do dishes à emporter–to take away.

The French have their own forms of takeout. You just have to know where to look.

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Above and below, some of the goodies at Pettenuzzo, a boucherie at 30 rue Barbès in the Bastide of Carcassonne. There’s aways a line, which usually is a good sign! Front row: taboulé, salad of pork hocks, potato gratin, hachis parmentier de canard, which is ground meat (duck here, usually hamburger, like a sloppy joe) with mashed potatoes on top and melted cheese.
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Front row, from left: pork blanquette (cooked in a white sauce), tongue in sauce, rabbit in mustard, veal sauté, beef cheeks.
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If the other options are too exotic, how about some ham-filled crêpes?

This can be especially useful if you’re renting an apartment for your vacation and you have a kitchen at your disposal. After all, it can get to be a bit much–for the budget and the waistline–to eat all one’s meals in restaurants. Not to mention that doggy bags aren’t done in France. You can’t just eat half and take the rest home for the next day.

The top place for takeout is la boucherie, or the butcher. France still has lots of small butcher shops, which often have homemade dishes on offer as well as raw meat. I counted 24 mom-and-pop boucheries in the yellow pages for Carcassonne. And if the butcher has volaille–poultry–there’s a good chance they also sell roasted chickens.

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Left, scallops in cream; middle, zucchini gratin; right, tartiflette–a kind of French cheesy potatoes, with onions and bacon included (as if cheesy potatoes couldn’t get any better!).
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Marinade of shrimp and scallops…
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Sausages, pâtés and cassoulets ready to reheat. The two photos above, this one and the one below are from Les Mexicots, 27 rue du Dr. Albert Tomey, in the Bastide of Carcassonne–next to les Halles–which specializes in poultry but also has, well, everything.

Similarly, un traiteur, or caterer, might have dishes to go, though some only do banquets. You’ll immediately see by looking in the window whether takeout is a possibility.

The supermarket usually has a wide selection of prepared dishes as well as salads. Not a salad bar kind of salads–no lettuce is involved–but grated carrots with a white vinaigrette, grated celery root, taboulé, etc. In fact, I’ve never seen a deli-style salad bar in France, though maybe they exist in bigger cities.

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A line for homemade couscous at the Carcassonne market. The veggies are below, left, and the semoule, right.

The outdoor markets have stands, more akin to food trucks without the truck, selling prepared dishes from couscous to paella to Chinese dishes to traditional French specialities like cassoulet and aligot–yet another form of cheesy potatoes. There are trucks whose sides open up to show rows of rotisserie chickens, with the grease dripping onto a bed of potatoes at the bottom. Good enough to make you cry!

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Paella is almost gone. He starts making it early in the morning right there at the market.
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Also from M. Paella: calamaris Catalan style, chicken in wine, and a stew of bull meat (also cooked in wine).

Food trucks make the rounds, especially of villages and roundabouts, selling pizzas, quiches, crêpes, and sometimes other things. One that used to come to our village had specialties of Sète, a town on the coast.

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At les Halles: an onion tart, cheese soufflées, carrot balls and roast chicken….below, two kinds of salad of “muzzle”–pork snout.
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More at les Halles: beef tongue.

You can get a jar of homemade cassoulet from a market vendor or, at the butcher or the indoor market, called les Halles, a bowl of homemade cassoulet big enough for three or four people, ready to pop into the oven.

 

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Ris de veau, or sweetbreads, in a sauce of morel mushrooms. The Carnivore’s favorite food is ris de veau, though in a white sauce. Almost gone, only two lumps left….

The day I decided to shoot at les Halles, I arrived late–around 11:30–and many of the offerings were nearly sold out. Proof they were good!