Hub-and-Spoke Travel

289.City of Carcassonne at nightA 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.

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Sometimes travel is like picking a pastry: so hard to choose just one!

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. 

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Carcassonne at sunset

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.

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Toulouse

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.

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Bouilhonnac, near Trèbes

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.

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La Cité of Carcassonne

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:

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Summer truffles chez Barrière

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.

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The Canal du Midi

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.

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Caunes-Minervois
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Villeneuve-Minervois

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. 

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The restaurant courtyard at 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). 

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The place to be on Saturdays: the market.

standDay 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. 

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Gruissan

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).

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Puilaurens
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Lastours

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.battle 1medieval rodeo jousting 2I 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.

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Dégustation at la Tour Boisée

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!living to mirror

 

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French Lunch

cheese strawberriesHigh-quality ingredients elevate the simplest meals to moments of wonder and joy.

We are spoiled for choice here in France, especially on market day, when local growers and artisans bring their goods, all nice and fresh and natural, for sale in the square, as has been done for hundreds and hundreds of years (758, to be precise).lunch 1We are big fans of chevre–goat cheese–in all its forms. And there are many: from soft to hard and everything in between; from small rounds (called crottin–which also is the word for droppings of animals like sheep and goats!) to big rounds to bûches (logs) to squares and rectangles. They can be pure white, yellowish, ashen gray. Pasteurized or not. Something for everybody.

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Piment and mustard, semi-fresh, dried cherries, fresh.

I am partial to the semi-soft rounds that are encrusted with all kinds of yummy stuff: peppercorns, dried cranberries, herbs… Our kid likes bûches for their chewy crust, but anything with strong flavor will do.

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Each vendor has a unique wrapping technique.

Although I have some favorite vendors at the market, sometimes I can’t pick just one. So it is with cheeses. There are several artisans, with slightly different products, so I buy a couple from each. We know some from having visited their farms during the Ferme en Ferme open houses–the 2018 season opens May 1!lunch 3lunch 5Of course, good bread is easy to find. And strawberries, grown in the cool, wet hills of Ariège. goat cheese closeuplunch 2If you can’t come here, take yourself on vacation with some really good bread, some juicy strawberries and a real goat cheese that isn’t sealed in plastic from some factory. Every bite will be worth it.lunch 6

Monks and Ghosts

05.FEBRUARY 12 - 44Saint-Hilaire is a pretty village of ancient stone buildings and a more-ancient abbey, nestled in the first hills that rise from the plain of Carcassonne until they become the mountains of the Pyrénées. 05.FEBRUARY 12 - 21The Benedictine abbey began early in the 9th century, when King Louis I, son of Charlemagne, granted it a charter. Louis was nicknamed “the Fair,” “the Debonaire” and “the Pious,” which is an interesting combination indeed.The abbey is mostly famous for having claim to the first documented existence of bubbling wine, which was made at the abbey but which is known as blanquette de Limoux, after a nearby town. 05.FEBRUARY 12 - 1705.FEBRUARY 12 - 29Despite the abundance of bubbly, life wasn’t so good for the monks. You would think that, being monks, they would have come out well in the crusade against the Cathars in 1209, but instead they got into a fight against the formation of a Dominican abbey down the road in Prouilhe–the “cradle of the Dominicans.” 05.FEBRUARY 12 - 2405.FEBRUARY 12 - 33By the 1300s, money was tight, but the plague, the 100 Years’ War and roving mercenaries called routiers forced the monks to fortify the abbey into a military outpost. A real litany of threats that make a person happy to be living in the 21st century.05.FEBRUARY 12 - 38

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Drawbridge Street

Things went from bad to worse: by the 1500s, François I persuaded the pope to let the king appoint the lead monk instead of the monks themselves. Such monks usually were aristocrats and didn’t have to follow any of the order’s rules or even live at the abbey. The money problems worsened. I didn’t find out whether the monks sold their wine, but the idea that prices would naturally go up wasn’t accepted any better than the idea that gravity pulled objects to the ground or that the earth revolved around the sun. Prices were considered to be immutable, and you weren’t allowed to raise them.05.FEBRUARY 12 - 4505.FEBRUARY 12 - 34By 1748, the monk left. The abbey’s church was used by the village and its cloister used as the village square. The abbey was sold off before 1800, as were many religious institutions after the Revolution.05.FEBRUARY 12 - 2805.FEBRUARY 12 - 40There’s a legend that outside Saint-Hilaire, the monks had a little country getaway, which fell to ruin and disappeared after 1748. On a Christmas night centuries later, before the Great War began, a local man passed through the moonlit domaine and heard bells ringing. But no bells were within earshot. Then he heard singing, and witnessed a procession of ghostly monks.

It does seem like the kind of place where, if ghosts exist, you might find them.05.FEBRUARY 12 - 1905.FEBRUARY 12 - 25The abbey is really pretty and open for visitors all year. A peaceful haven.05.FEBRUARY 12 - 13

Stone-Faced in Toulouse

P1090199When walking around French cities, don’t forget to look up. Somebody might be looking down at you.

Oh, the things they’ve seen!P1090155

This one is wearing a lion skin. Look at that paw on the right.P1090146

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.P1090147

This one seems happier, and with flowers, not animal skins. I also like the shutters, with that shade of almost-blue faded gray.P1090148

Sometimes you have to look way up.P1090188

This lady seems to be studiously ignoring the antics of the buffoons on either side of her.P1090168

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.P1090154P1090155P1090156

Gorgeous railings, eh? They’re called garde-fous, which literally translates to crazy guards. P1090150

The one above was a consulate, hence the barbed wire.P1090175

All the photos are from Toulouse.

 

Bonus! Our Apartment on Hello Lovely

living to fireplaceThe 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.

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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!

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In the living room of l’Ancienne Tannerie.

 

A Day in Toulouse

P1090162In the dead of the past winter, we spent the day in Toulouse. It’s such a lovely city, one that punches above its weight in sophistication. P1090200I suppose travelers might think of Carcassonne as a daytrip from Toulouse, but I prefer to think of Toulouse as a daytrip from Carcassonne.P1090142My favorite thing to do in any city is flâner–to walk aimlessly. I don’t need to shop, though I enjoy faire du lèche-vitrine (literally, licking windws, but it means do window-shopping). And of course some time en terrace at a café to people-watch.

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The pre-Christmas outdoor dining scene.

The architecture is a bit different from Carcassonne. Grander, for sure, in such a big city. But there’s also the use of red bricks, which give Toulouse its nickname of La Ville Rose, which was adopted as a tourism slogan more than a century ago, after the author Stendahl wrote insultingly of his visit. P1090180P1090141Over the years that we’ve lived in the region, Toulouse has cleaned up nicely. More streets in the center are limited to pedestrians, new tram lines have been built and parking is nigh impossible. Bikes are everywhere. Hipster boutiques and restaurants are filled with young French women who look beautiful despite bedhead and young men with bushy Brooklyn beards. The brick walls are authentic.

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An optician. Of course.
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Rue Alsace-Lorraine is closed to vehicle traffic. On Saturdays, it’s packed.
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Rue Saint-Rome is one of the first pedestrian streets. Isn’t this couple adorable? So typical. People dress up to go out.
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Christmas decorations at Galeries Lafayette.

I never get enough of the narrow, crooked streets. P1090197P1090143P1090192P1090149P1090163P1090181

 

You have to look up.P1090145P1090189P1090183

You have to look down.P1090172

So many grand entrances, to let in carriages.P1090152

Sometimes you get to peek inside.

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Notice how green it is, just before Christmas. And do you see the little fountain?

Have you been to Toulouse? I have more Toulousain treats in store.

 

Tips for Solo Travel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI keep seeing pieces about solo travel, and I am a little flummoxed. I never considered that there was any problem with traveling alone. Before meeting the Carnivore, I traveled all over the world solo, and my approach evolved over the years. You shouldn’t let solo status stop you from seeing the world. Travel opens minds, brings a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the world, adds a finish of sophistication.

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La Cité of Carcassonne. A song says, “You shouldn’t die without having seen Carcassonne.”

—Start small. Do a weekend away by yourself. Or join a tour. I went hiking in the Atlas mountains in Morocco with Nouvelles Frontières; the others joked that while for them it was adventure travel for me it was an intensive language course. In fact, my French improved by leaps and bounds during 10 days of being the only non-native French speaker. I made a bunch of new friends, too. And it was an experience I wouldn’t have had otherwise—hiking in a remote area of a foreign country is not something I would have done without some kind of group.

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La Grosse Pomme, dream destination of nearly every French person I meet (exotic depends on where you’re coming from). They worry whether it’s safe enough.

—Be happy. I went to a nice restaurant in the Calvados region of France, looking forward to an amazing meal. I was met with dismay by the host, who finally conceded to give me a small table next to the kitchen door. I had a book to keep me company and just kept a smile on my face. But the book was set aside and my smile turned to moans of pleasure as I ate. By the time I had finished, the entire staff was around the table, telling me about the preparation of the dishes, the history, the seasonings…..My swooning reaction (more discreet than Sally’s, but still) made them forgive me for being a single woman. For good measure, for the good of all single women diners to come after me, I tipped generously.

—Don’t let the jerks spoil your trip. On the other hand, I was turned away from nearly empty restaurants in Thessaloniki and Copenhagen. It wasn’t because I hadn’t reserved—in each case, a couple came along, admitted to not having reservations and was seated immediately (as I said, the restaurants weren’t busy). I didn’t argue; I decided such a restaurant wasn’t worthy of my business. Then I told everybody I knew. Don’t expect slights, but when they come along, don’t let them ruin your experience.

—Luxuriate at lunch. In general, if I wanted to eat at a nice restaurant, it would go at lunch, when one doesn’t get funny looks for eating alone, and have something small and informal for dinner. This tactic also is good for a budget–lunch menus tend to be better deals than dinner ones–and better health-wise, too.

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Barcelona’s Park Guell.

—Be safe. Wear a cross-body bag. It keeps your hands free, is hard to grab, and unlike a backpack keeps your stuff in front of you. Only once in my multiple decades of travel to multiple dozens of countries have I had a problem of any kind. I was walking to my hotel in Barcelona, my Furla bag on top of my wheeled suitcase, and a guy ran by, grabbing the bag. I saw my weekend away flash before my eyes: hours at the consulat replacing my passport. So I held on. He dragged me down the street, in broad daylight, me screaming, people doing nothing but staring. My Furla didn’t break, and he finally let go. My lesson: carry my passport and credit card in a pouch inside my clothes and never again have a bag in my hand.

I’ve hitchhiked in Africa (probably not a good idea but once I was taken home by some American missionaries, given a hot bath–a huge treat since I didn’t have running water–and fed Rice Krispie bars while watching “Little House on the Prairie” with their kids), taken the subway late at night in New York and walked from the Left Bank to Montmartre in Paris when the Métro had closed and I couldn’t find a cab. Cars stopped to offer me a ride, but I’d say I had only one block to go and thanks but no thanks. I see little old ladies walking around Carcassonne with a cane in one hand and their handbags dangling from the other and feel quite safe indeed.

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No explanation needed.

—Don’t imagine that the couples around you are happy, especially in Paris. How many teary fights have I witnessed in the City of Light! But the worst was at the Picasso museum. I noticed a woman entranced before a painting. She didn’t move, except for her eyes, which seemed to devour the work. People swarmed past her, snapping selfies with the painting (somebody was looking at it, plus it was big, so it must be one worth photographing) and moving on to the next thing almost without stopping. Then a guy came into the gallery and barked at her. “There you are! I looked all over for you. You’re STILL here? Come on, we’ve got to go.” She winced and tore herself away. And I thought how grateful I was to be there on my own. Sartre might have been a little tough when he said “hell is other people,” but you have to admit that sometimes it’s better to be alone than to be with certain folks.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA—Consider the local culture. Travel in some countries is pretty easy because the cultures are similar. France and the U.S., for example, have many differences, but on a scale of 1-200 (there are about that many in the world today), they would be lumped fairly close together. If you go to countries that are more different, the difference usually is in the average wealth of the people. You might not consider yourself rich at home, but in some countries, you are wealthy beyond their hopes and dreams. No, people aren’t going to want to rob you. No, you shouldn’t give handouts, even to children, out of guilt (though if the poverty touches you, find an organization that you can donation to). I guess you could, but having lived in Africa, my friends found such handouts at once demeaning, too small (why did this foreigner give me a pencil?), and confusing—should they ask for them? Should they refuse? With kids, it just teaches them to beg from foreigners. The charity GiveDirectly is interesting. A great podcast about it here.

—Put a ring on it. A brass one will do (wash the green off your finger at night). If you are in a poor country, it is just logical that certain guys see you and say “Green Card!” They are going to give it their best shot because why not! It isn’t about you. It is about them wanting to escape poverty. So you give them a tall tale about how you are traveling with your husband who got food poisoning and is back at the hotel puking and you just had to get out for an hour before going back to him. It isn’t personal. You just want to be left alone and saying that is NOT going to make any green card hopeful give up. A story is so much kinder and more effective than saying “there is no way on earth that you and I would ever get together.” A husband, even an imaginary one, is an argument they can’t beat.

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France’s Mediterranean coast. To me, palm trees = exotic vacation.

—Consider a guide. When I was in Morocco (different time than hiking), I was besieged by guides. A pack of them would follow me all day (not unlike the green card seekers). Rather than wear myself out rebuffing them all day long, I impulsively hired the youngest would-be guide, who looked to be about 8 years old. I gave him my best stern schoolmarm speech about how we were going where I wanted, and so we did. He was delightful company, in fact, and the other guides gave him knowing nods of respect when we’d pass. I had total peace….and control. It cost a pittance. I didn’t even barter the price he asked. Best money I ever spent.

—Mingle with the locals, not just with other tourists. I once took an overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa. In the sleeper car were two other women, both Kenyans. Let me tell you, it was the greatest time. We drank Tusker beer and talked and talked and talked. This insight into their lives would never have happened if I were traveling (A) with a guy or (B) even with another woman. With a guy, we wouldn’t have been put in the same car. And with another woman as a travel partner, we would have talked between ourselves and the Kenyan in the third bunk likely would have been too shy to join in. The fact that I was alone let them feel free to unload what they really thought…about life, love, politics, everything. This is what travel is all about–understanding the world.21. JUNE 2012 - SEPTEMBRE 2012 - 163Anything to add?

 

Tips for Winter Travel in France

P1090387Travel in winter can be challenging, although off-season can be deeply satisfying–no crowds, cheaper prices, you can really experience the local lifestyle. All it takes is being prepared for the whims of the weather.

Depending on where you’re from, the temperatures might feel downright balmy. According to the site Où et Quand (Where and When), Paris has an average January high of 6 Celsius (43 Fahrenheit) and low of 3 C (37 F), and rain an average of 13 days, or 40% of the time. (For reference, London is nearly identical, with two more days of rain.) Down here in Carcassonne, it’s warmer–average high of 9 C (48 F) and low of 4 C (39 F), with 15 days of rain. However, the sun often comes out even on rainy days (we have 35 more hours of sunshine than Paris). On Saturday’s drive to the market, I needed the windshield wipers and my sunglasses at the same time.

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Climate for Paris, above, and for Carcassonne, below

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 4.11.06 PMThis year, though, we’ve had one tempête (storm) after another. Carmen, David, Eleanor, and a series of nameless storms that have brought unusually warm temperatures, plentiful rain and merciless winds across France and Europe. We went from T-shirt weather (in January!) to four days of intermittent downpours and wicked wind. As I started to write this, the wind had calmed, the sun was out, and it was 9 C (48 F) at 8 a.m. Later, with it was 17 C (62.6 F).  An absolutely glorious day.

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Our thermostat: 20 C inside, 17 C outside on Jan. 23.

Screen Shot 2018-01-21 at 1.29.01 PMBut when you’ve made your reservations six months earlier, you don’t know whether you’re arriving for the week of unseasonably mild weather or the week of storms. My advice:

Pack layers. Duh. But not just one layer; if you have three sweaters, can you wear them all at once? It can mean the difference between enjoying your trip or being miserable during a cold snap. Wear them together in Paris and separately in Carcassonne.

Have a hood. While a knit cap is good for covering your ears and keeping warm (and not blowing off in the wind), this winter you wouldn’t have needed it (not a problem–a knit cap doesn’t take much space). But what about the rain? A very chic friend of mine abhors umbrellas, and it’s true that it’s a pain to cart one around. She chose coats with hoods that she could just pop up as needed. Water-resistant fabric is even better. Hoods don’t blow off, don’t need to be carried around, don’t mess your hair as much as a hat and are always there when you need them.

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“Anti-rain.”

Or get one of those little fold-up rain ponchos. Yes, you will look like a tourist. Like a smart tourist, whose trip (not to mention health, coat and bag) wasn’t ruined by some water.

Treat your shoes with waterproofing products before you leave. If you didn’t do this, never fear: they sell the stuff at any shoe store or supermarket here. We have all the mod cons. The downside of doing it during your trip is that it will stink up your room and you have to let it soak in and dry well before wearing the shoes. Plan ahead!

Make sure your bag is waterproof, too. Or have a waterproof pouch for your electronics.

Bring a hat and gloves. They take no space in your bag and make a huge difference to keeping you warm.

Pack a swimsuit. See below.

Think about ways to get out of the weather. My favorite thing to do when traveling is flâner: wandering around, taking in the architecture, shop windows, and above all the people. This is less fun in a storm. Here are some alternatives:

P1090379
The fine arts museum in Carcassonne.

Museums. It may be time to check out some of the more obscure options.

Paris museums here. Carcassonne museums here.

Cafés. You can sit all day with a cup of coffee and watch the world go by. Classic.

Shopping. Duck out of the rain and into some shops, including some that you might have passed by. French shopkeepers often have very clever goods that you never would have thought of. And as for clothes shops, they’re an alternative to people-watching.

Malls, aka centres commercials or galeries. They are mostly in the International Ugly style, but you can be oblivious to the weather. Often they’re anchored by a hypermarket–like a Wal-Mart with groceries and everything else. This can be interesting as a sociological exercise–I am not being sarcastic. The products are different! Most are on the outskirts of towns and require taking a car, bus or taxi to get to.

Malls in Paris here. Carcassonne is more or less surrounded by centres commercials on its periphery: Pont Rouge, LeClerc, Salvaza, Cité 2.

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A bookstore…this is a really good one,too.
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A médiathèque.

Hit the books. FYI, a librarie is a bookstore and a bibliothèque is a library and a médiathèque has other media besides just books. Either way, you can browse for free, even though you can’t check anything out. Bibliothèques are better for people-watching (the French love books), but bookstores offer the possibility of finding a good souvenir to take home. Bibliothèques also host events–I went to a ballet presentation once.

Paris bibliothèques here. Carcassonne médiathèques here.P1090376Get a haircut. This was one of my go-to options on my regular trips to Paris. I would get sick of walking and being cold, and you can only drink so much coffee, so I would find a hair salon that took walk-ins (look for a sign that says sans RDV–without rendez-vous, or appointment). I never went to the same place twice and never got a bad cut. It was delicious, too, to have a nice, warm, shampoo. Nervous? Just get a shampoo and blow-out (shampooing et brushing–sounds like shawm-pwan, kind of) or ask for a trim–une coupe d’entretien. Other possibilities: mani-pedi, massage or hammam (you’ll need a swimsuit for that).

The hammam at the Paris Mosque here. It’s amazing. Separate days for men and women.

Spas and hammams in Carcassonne here.

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Chapelle Notre Dame de la Santé, finished in 1697, next to a hospital for the plague.

Go to church. The Catholic church for centuries had a tighter hold over daily life in France than any king. It was a main sponsor of the arts, too. Some churches have museum-quality paintings and sculptures. The stained-glass windows are full of stories, and the architectural details are fascinating, if you take the time. Some churches have crypts or areas that have been excavated for archaeological research. If you’re lucky, a choir or organist will be practicing while you’re there. Sometimes churches also host concerts, especially in the evenings. The local tourism office can give you details.

Free concerts in Paris here and here.

In Carcassonne, there’s often a choral group singing at the Basilique Saint-Nazaire in la Cité. And the Chapelle des Jesuits in the Bastide, with exceptional acoustics, has concerts on Thursdays, starting at 8:30 p.m.

Take a class. Tourism offices are good resources for one-off class options. I used to do Argentine tango, but you have to make sure the class takes walk-ins. Yoga and Pilates are easy to find. Cooking is another possibility, but you might have to arrange that at least a day in advance. Classes are also a good way to expand your French vocabulary–usually whatever is being taught is also being demonstrated, so even if your French is basic you can understand.

Paris dance lessons here.

A wide variety of activities in and around Carcassonne here.

Go swimming. If there’s no indoor pool at your hotel, never fear. There are plenty of public pools, almost always indoors. You will be required to wear a swimming cap, and baggy swim trunks aren’t allowed (hence the famous Speedo reputation).P1090386And, of course taste wine. You can find a tour, go to a wine bar (Carcassonne has a large choice) or just visit a wine shop if you can’t get to individual wineries; many offer tastings at reasonable rates.

We’ll do this again for spring and summer!

 

Umoja

kilimanjaroThe group “By Invitation Only” has chosen Unity for today’s theme. I had planned to write about a few of the many successes of the European Union, but something came up that struck near to my heart. So bear with me.

BIO-300x300-bordered-1px-white-edgeWhen my kid was in preschool, the extraordinary teacher, Mme. L., decided to structure the year as a trip around the world. All the lessons—learning the alphabet, colors, counting—would relate to different countries. Some parents thought it was too much for four-year-olds to learn geography and concepts about other cultures when they should be getting drilled on writing S and E in the correct direction. Maybe even learning how to add. But Mme. L. persisted.

The children made “passports.” They “visited” China, India, Mexico, Senegal and the U.S., and they also talked about other countries. They learned songs, were read stories and ate food from those countries. They learned phrases in other languages. They made musical instruments and miniature houses of the countries’ style.

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Real huts, in the foreground.

One day my kid came home with red clay all over. “We made huts today,” my kid explained, going on to describe how the clay walls kept the interiors cool in the warm climate. (BTW, a teacher friend informed me that young kids should always come home from school dirty, as it shows they did things and didn’t just sit like zombies at a desk.)

Mme. L. opened the world to these kids right at the moment when they were curious and not yet inculcated with negative stereotypes. Our village isn’t exactly diverse. Carcassonne is a little better, but it’s a sleepy town with no industry and limited economic opportunities.

One day, I was at a shopping center with my kid when a black man wearing a colorful, beautifully embellished robe walked by. My kid was curious: Which country do you think he’s from? Do you think he likes the weather? The food? Do you think he misses his country?

I was most struck by the fact that my kid’s reaction was not fear or rejection of someone different but interest. Also that my kid knew, at age four, that Africa was a continent with many countries, and that in those countries live individuals who might eat different food or live in different kinds of houses, but who are basically the same as us.

Another time, my kid, surveying the bounty of toys on the bedroom floor, declared gravely, “I am spoiled rotten. Some kids don’t even have one toy.”

Not everybody is lucky enough to have had a preschool teacher like Mme. L.

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Jacaranda trees in bloom in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
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Downtown Nairobi is much fancier than in this “archive” shot.

The title of this post is “Umoja,” which is “unity” in Swahili, the national language of Kenya and of Tanzania.

I have not been to all 54 countries in Africa, but I have visited five and lived in one. They were all beautiful, but beyond the natural beauty what I loved most was the beauty of the people, the culture. How many people have gone on safari and swooned over the animals while shunning the people?

I landed in Kenya in October 1985, as the drought that ravaged Ethiopia was still going strong. That was the famine that killed a million people and that inspired Michael Jackson to write “We Are the World,” which you can listen to here, and the lyrics are here. It’s time to read them again.

I saw many things in Kenya. Lions so close I could hear them crack the bones of the wildebeest they were feeding on. Giraffes grazing with cows. Majestic mountains (the top photo is of the Kibo peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, which is in Tanzania, right on the border). Exotic flowers. Scan 18Scan 16I saw incredibly hard-working people, many of whom did back-breaking labor for all 12 hours of sunlight. I saw very devout Christians who didn’t just attend church every Sunday in their best clothes but who walked the walk, taking care of each other though they themselves had so little. I saw very devout Muslims unloading sacks of cement at the port in hot and sticky Lamu, sweating profusely but not drinking a drop because it was Ramadan. I saw a culture where children were revered. Where education was paramount, worth every sacrifice.

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My house. I had the right half. It was nice. Except for the bats. And the fist-size spiders.
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The view from my porch. I wish you could also smell it. Delicious.

I also saw starving children, especially in the north, their empty stomachs distended, their hair orange from malnutrition, their energy too sapped to swat away flies from their faces. I saw their parents, in no better shape, working desperately to save them.

Once, when leaving “Hoggers,” a hamburger joint in Nairobi so devoted to America that it played tapes of a U.S. radio station, complete with the D.J.’s banter and weather and traffic reports between songs, I saw a young man, barely clothed, filthy, ravaging through the trash in the alley outside Hoggers, and stuffing jettisoned food into his mouth. That image will never leave me.

On a trip back many years later, taking the overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa, I was booked into a sleeping car with two other women, both Kenyans. They were businesswomen; we were all about the same age, and we drank Tusker beer and talked about life. At that time, I was just visiting from New York; their lives and mine differed only in the details; the vast majority of our experiences were the same to an extent that startled me. Life is life. Around the world.

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Editor, holding her baby daughter, in front of her house. Her husband is in white. Notice how neatly pressed his suit is–washed by hand and ironed with a coal iron. That’s her mother in the blue sweater. Notice the flower planted in front. The dirt is swept clean. 

Every trip, I visited a former student. Her Christian name was Editor, which her mother, who didn’t speak English, had thought was pretty. Editor was always my favorite. Not my best student, but hard-working and honest and ambitious. She had a coffee and tea farm not far from where she’d grown up. Married, with two kids. She named her daughter after me.

Editor introduced me to her “big sister,” who wasn’t a blood relative at all but a mentor. In an area with no banks, women formed savings clubs, pooling their money and giving the pool to one member. The member would repay it and the pool would go to the next member. Often they would use it to buy a cow, which was not just a kind of savings account but which provided milk that could be consumed and sold, and each year would produce a calf, which also could be sold. Dividends, basically. New women would be brought in, sponsored by established members who were on the hook for their recruits’ repayment. As a result, the older women kept close tabs on their mentorees, helping them work through difficulties.

The “sister” also had two kids. She had a farm, as everybody did or tried to, because growing your own food means you won’t go hungry, whatever else may happen. She also had a job, and so did her husband, so they not only had a car but their house was made of bricks and had electricity and a TV. I lived for two years without electricity and I can attest that having it or not doesn’t make one a good or bad person, but it most certainly makes a person more efficient. The same with running water.

Over dinner, we talked and talked, and I kept thinking that they would have fit right in with my friends in my Midwestern hometown.

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Some of my students in front of a classroom.

My school had about 450 kids. No electricity. No running water—they had to go to a stream at the foot of the hill to get it by the bucket (not easy because it wasn’t very deep). No glass in the windows. About 40 kids per class. Three kids sitting on two chairs at one desk with one book (yes, the poor middle kid had to straddle two chairs, but had the best view of the book). You could hear a pin drop in class–they were there to learn. It was a boarding school. They got up at 6, dressed into their uniforms, cleaned the classrooms (sweeping, then mopping not with mops but with buckets of water wiped up with big rags, on their hands and knees), studied, had breakfast (always a millet/sorghum porridge called uji). Then class. Lunch and dinner were always githeri, a maize-and-bean soup with vegetables, served with ugali (polenta).  they got a little meat stew with potatoes or more ugali at lunch on Sundays. They had a little free time after school, spent doing sports or clubs like drama, and then studied again after dinner. There was one kerosene pressure lamp per classroom, and they arrayed their desks for a sliver of light.

I loved them. Even the naughty ones. Especially the good ones. They had many questions about the U.S. They thought it was hilarious that I would go jogging, bizarre that my hair was smooth and my feet soft and that it was crazy that there were people who did so little physical work and who had so much to eat that they had to exercise or they would be fat.

I had a bottle of fresh milk delivered every morning, still warm from the cow, with cream at the top. I had to use it all each day because I didn’t have a refrigerator (that electricity thing again). One day, next to my milk were a pair of flipflops I’d thrown away when the thong ripped a hole in the sole, so they wouldn’t stay on any more. They had been repaired, by hand, by the young man who delivered my milk. Such good flipflops shouldn’t be tossed because of such a small problem.

We’re spoiled rotten.

We know the price of everything and the value of nothing. We have such abundance that we are choking the planet with our waste. We are terrible stewards but we have the arrogance to tell everyone what to do.

With a little humility, we can see that we’re all in this life game together.

We are the world.

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My little neighbor, Muriithi, who would sit in front of my door until I opened it to get my milk, then would leap up to dance and sing my name. His life is worth as much as anyone’s.

You can find the other contributions to “By Invitation Only” at Daily Plate of Crazy. Please read them all–very different approaches to the same topic.

Four-star rental again!

kitchen fireplaceWe don’t do things by half measures. We have two vacation rental apartments, and both have earned four-star ratings. We featured la Suite Barbès on Tuesday. Today is the turn of l’Ancienne Tannerie. On AirBnB, you can find la Suite Barbès here and l’Ancienne Tannerie here.

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Mostly antiques. The hand-carved coffee table is from Lamu, Kenya. Not antique, but it fits in.
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Look at that marble mantle!

Logo 4 étoiles 2017The star rating was given by the ministry for tourism’s department for furnished tourism rentals.

The apartment’s name comes from the fact that, back in medieval times, the inner courtyard was a tannery. The tiny alley behind the building is called ruelle des Tanneurs–Tanners’ Lane. Our apartments are in the “new” town of Carcassonne, which was built around 1260 under the orders of King Louis IX, aka St. Louis, to house the refugees expelled from la Cité after the Albigensian Crusade of 1209. Our building, however, must have replaced an older one (that likely burned down–fires were a big problem), because the high ceilings (13 feet) and large windows are in later architecture.

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View from the living room (and kitchen, and small bedroom, and bathroom).

cour toward doorBTW, here’s a list of the residents in our building in 1624. You can see several were tanners, well into the Renaissance. (There’s also a captain, “called Captain Galaton of Pezens,” although Carcassonne isn’t on the coast.)

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The floor plan is the very definition of “n’importe quoi.”

As with the other apartment, we preserved the historical details while adding modern conveniences (sauna, anyone?). And, to make sure visitors know they’re in France, it’s furnished with locally sourced antiques. Like this marvelous crystal chandelier that we drove to a little village to the south of here to buy.

living fireplaceWe kept the old piano with ivory keys. I love the sconces on it, though I imagine that one would have had to play carefully if candles were burning.

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The stereo was a criteria for the stars.

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Many old books!

What’s new: all the wiring, double-paned windows, plumbing…. plus the original terra-cotta tomettes were cleaned and treated.

The apartment sleeps up to five. There’s a spacious bedroom, a small bedroom, and a sofabed.bedroom 1

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The crazy, lop-sided niche in the bedroom.
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A bedroom for one, au cas où.
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The sofa opens to a double bed.

The kitchen is my favorite room. The fireplace is big enough to stand in. I love having the table in the middle.kitchen to fridgekitchen lightkitchen to stove

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First, note the thickness of the walls. Talk about insulated. Second, note the clock and the painting….

Among the paintings we found was one of the kitchen. It shows the clock and the fireplace.clock paintingAnother painting we found in the apartment depicts Square Gambetta, which is two blocks away, before World War II. During the war, German troops destroyed the pool and its fountain, pictured.gambetta paintingThe square was redone a few years ago for construction of an underground parking garage. First, it was completely covered with gravel, and everybody hated it. So it was done over, with squares of formal gardens, a small restaurant, the old carousel and a fountain where kids can play in the water in summer. The same allée of plane trees still stands.

Visitors always ooh and ahh over the bathroom. It has a giant glass shower that doesn’t photograph well at all, being clear. The sauna always brings smiles, too.bathroombathroom mirror

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Choice of overhead rainfall or handheld shower. The little niche was there originally. Check out the before posts!

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The sauna. Such an indulgence.
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The WC is separate.

It has been such a pleasure to hunt for pretty furnishings and accessories that establish an ambience of French tradition and authenticity. And it has been an even greater pleasure to meet people who appreciate it all as much as we do.mantel decorationA quick reminder of the main draw of Carcassonne, the majestic Cité, just a few minutes’ walk away from the apartments:la cite from bridgela cite peekla cite sunsetla cite trivalleWe’d love to welcome you and your friends!