I sit in in the glorious gloom of a summer thunderstorm. Minutes ago, the skies and the church around the corner competed loudly for which could produce the loudest peals. The church won, working through the four plus ten chimes of the hour, then moving on to 23 (!!!) uninterrupted minutes of random ringing, interspersed with some very pretty hymns (I recognized one but couldn’t recall the title; another was Bach’s “Ode to Joy”), then some more raucous ringing. Thunder clapped and rumbled, but the bells dominated.Read more
I went exploring, as one does during a pandemic lockdown. All within my one-kilometer radius. Not even! It was just a tiny slice of my circle. I’d never ventured off-road. Once, years ago, when I was new to the area, I went for a walk/hike with a neighbor. She was so absorbed in our chat that she missed a turn and we were lost for a while, until we walked on to within sight of a landmark. There are other places, not far, where it’s a bad idea to get lost, because you could walk for a really long time if you’re pointed in the right (wrong) direction.This hike was low risk. I would stay within a perimeter of tarmac road. Impossible to get lost. Usually I run on that tarmac circuit, from one village to the next and the next and back around to home. But I was tired of cars and, above all, curious. I looked at it on Google Earth. The outskirts of the villages aside, no houses were in the interior of the loop. There was a stream, some vineyards and other fields, and lots of woods.Tracks for farmers to access their fields would peter out into narrow footpaths, or not even. I saw boar tracks. Taking a photo of a little waterfall in the stream, I sensed movement. Fearing a dog (which I’m more scared of than boars), or, worst nightmare of all, a dog off leash, I froze. But instead, an enormous hare rounded a curve on the path across the stream, apparently to get up speed to leap over the water. Until it saw me, froze for a fraction of a second, and did a 180.
I explored these paths, free of all-terrain bikes for a change (more ferocious than boars) day after day, trying out different forks in the paths. I found a truffle farm, surrounded by electric fencing. Many capitelles, or stone refuges, built without mortar from stones found in the vineyards, to give workers a place to cool off for a midday sieste, when walking home would have been just too much work on top of the heavy manual labor they already did from dawn to dusk.
One place reminded me of a story. When the Carnivore and I were newlyweds, he wanted to take a honeymoon to Strasbourg. I’d never been to Strasbourg and wanted to see it. I still haven’t crossed it off my bucket list. Some turbulent events at the time of our planned trip had created bargains for travel to where I’d been in in the Peace Corps. I booked flights on a Wednesday; we left that Friday. I also called one of my favorite hotels, and the Carnivore was astounded when I asked for room 12. What on earth was he in for?
When we got to the first hotel, where I hadn’t specified a room number, the doorman greeted me by name. I’d last been there almost exactly a year earlier. It was a smallish hotel that was very mid-century modern in a way that was vintage back when I first went there in the mid-1980s and that had never been changed since. I loved it.
But we weren’t staying in the capital. I rented a small four-wheel-drive vehicle to go to where I used to live. No need for a map. This was not at all reassuring to the Carnivore. One could say his knuckles were white. Plus it was a former British colony, so I had to drive on the opposite side of the road. And “road” was a grand name for the bits of tarmac we traversed.Over an hour later, we were close. The countryside was very hilly, rising from plains of rice (the most delicous, aromatic I’d ever had) and pineapples to cornfields, then coffee. Above, in altitude, was tea. I lived just on the line between coffee and tea.
The road went up and down and around curves. Besides the enormous potholes, there were other obstacles—overloaded buses with people hanging off the back; overloaded pickups, their beds enclosed, where people would be squished seven or eight to each flat board that served as a seat (there was room for five butts, which meant one’s legs tended to be compressed to numbness during the ride); overloaded lorries that ground their way up hills and then went full speed down the other side in order to get maximum momentum to coast as far as possible up the next hill; overloaded people on foot, on bikes, motorcycles, ox-drawn wagons, all balancing impossible burdens.
We stayed at a hotel in a nearby large town, where, back in the day, I would stop for a milky tea when I would go to the big market on Saturdays. How I loved the market! I would buy a wedge of very local pineapple, which would be hacked with a machete before me, and wrapped in a dusty scrap of old newspaper. I would choose my rice from the open sack that had the most bees resting on it—a sure sign it was heavily perfumed. I would half-heartedly haggle for my fruits and vegetables, only because to not do so was considered arrogant. I would take my heavy bag home after an hour-long, two-leg trip on a bus followed by a pickup; the same drive in a private car was 20 minutes.
The hotel manager explained that for reasons I’ve forgotten there was a problem with the hot water. Instead, each day, several women hustled across the lush grounds with big basins of steaming water balanced on their heads. A different definition of running water.
I wanted to take the Carnivore to see one of my former students. We got in the car and headed even higher into the hills. “Watch out!” the Carnivore hollered. It’s true that there were often sheer drops and no shoulder on the side of the road. It’s why everybody drove in the middle, in both directions. I turned left, and since I was driving on the left, the Carnivore was certain I was doing a Thelma and Louise. “It’s a road,” I told him. “THIS is a road?!?!!?” he answered.
We went through a collection of shacks. Everybody came out to see; a car on this road was a big event. I waved. “Do you know them?” the Carnivore asked. “No, but it’s polite to wave,” I said. Honestly: same thing in rural France.
I turned right onto a much smaller lane. “Are you allowed to go here?” the Carnivore asked. “Sure,” I said. “It’s a road.” “THIS is a road?” he answered. It was admittedly harder going. Boulders gouged up through the red dirt in some places and deep ruts nearly swallowed us in others. I gingerly picked our way through. Non-native blue gum trees towered over us.I turned right again. “You can’t tell me this is a road,” the Carnivore said. “Yes, it’s a road,” I told him, driving over cropped thick grass. “You can tell because the grass is cut.”
Then I cut the motor. “We’re here,” I said. “But you said this is a road,” he exclaimed. “You’re just going to leave the car here?” “Sure,” I said. “There won’t be any other cars.”
I thought about that moment when I came upon this grassy lane. So similar. Coffee trees and grape vines are about the same size. The birds singing. The sweetness of the air. The absence of motorized sounds.I thought, too, about my housegirl, Jane. During training, we had been introduced to the concept of houseboys and housegirls, and I was sure I would be quite able to do everything myself and would never have hired help. In the 1980s in the Midwest, regular people didn’t have somebody come to do yard work or house cleaning. Kids—boys, usually—might make money mowing lawns or shoveling snow, usually for retirees. If you were able to do it yourself, you did. Plus, racism.
After a while on the job, my headmistress and another teacher I was close to invited me to tea. It turned out to be an intervention. Why hadn’t I hired a housegirl? Oh, I really can’t do that, I said. You have to, they told me: “If you have a job, you have to make a job.”
Well, that changed everything. I had been viewing the situation in terms of myself, proving that I wasn’t racist because I didn’t have a housegirl. The very term was offensive to me, even though my African neighbors and colleagues all had houseboys or housegirls and called them that.
Instead, the important framing was economic. If you have a job, make a job. My headmistress and friend informed me that they had found just the housegirl for me, and that she would be starting the next day and that I would pay her so much.
My housegirl, Jane, was a delight. She was indefatigable. When elephants trampled the pipeline bringing water to our school, she went to the river to fetch buckets. She washed my clothes by hand, then used the water to mop the floors. She sang as she worked. She always smiled. She gave most of her earnings to her parents and saved the rest to start a beauty shop. I was proud of her.
Back on the grassy lane, my former student, Editor (that was really her name), was surprised to see me. Our hasty trip hadn’t allowed time for a letter to arrive, and she didn’t have a phone. Or electricity. Or running water. She, her husband and two children lived in a two-room house (a sitting room and a bedroom) made of rough wooden slats. The kitchen was a separate hut outside, where Editor cooked over an open fire. She grew coffee and tea and vegetables. She once took me to pick tea. It is not easy.
I asked about a severe drought the year before. “Pff,” she said (just like the French do!). “We weren’t really affected.” But how did their crops survive? “The crops failed,” she said. “Everything.” How did she and her family survive? “We didn’t starve,” she said proudly. “We just ate every other day.”
Those words have stuck with me. There are people doing fasts to body hack, but this wasn’t about denial in the face of abundance; it was about survival in the face of famine.
Times are tough these days, but for some people, times are always tough, and lately they are worse.
I hope you are surviving and staying healthy. If you have a job, please do make a job. And I hope everybody gets to eat every day.
Here’s an itinerary for a romantic vacation for a couple. Our AirBnBs, la Suite Barbès and l’Ancienne Tannerie, get a lot of love birds on honeymoons and anniversaries. I’ve done posts about some of the sights and have yet to go more in depth on others. Stay tuned.
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 have diametrically 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!
What do you look for in a romantic getaway?
France, and especially this region of France profonde, has no shortage of adorable villages. A while ago, I took a detour home to stop and gawk in Rustiques, home to a whopping 513 residents about nine kilometers (5.5 miles) from Carcassonne. Surrounded by vineyards and pine forests, it lives up to its name, and, amazingly, it’s supposed to be the only community in France to have such an obvious name.Rustiques dates back to about 100 B.C., when the Volques Tectosages, a Gallic tribe, settled in the forest. Then the Romans came through and possibly gave it its name, from villa rustica. Around 700 A.D., the Visigoths arrived, then the Sarrasins, then the Francs. In the 1400s, the growing lawlessness of roving bandits prompted locals to band together in a walled community around the seigneur’s château, which was at the highest point. I took so many photos that I’ll do a separate post on the château, even though it was closed when I visited.
In fact, it was so quiet I barely saw a soul. Il n’y avait pas un chat–there wasn’t a cat–as the French say.
I never get tired of wandering in these little places. A sign told me the four banal, or the seigneur/lord’s oven, was down a little street in a house belonging to the lord, but I didn’t find any marker for it. I am a little obsessed with fours banals. In Rustiques, bread was baked twice a week, and for every 24 loaves, the people had to give one to the lord.
The four banal was to keep villages from burning down, but floods were as much of a problem as fire. Two streams join at the village and overflowed, sometimes disastrously. The village detoured one stream in 1912. There also was a lavoir, in use into the 1960s, and a big improvement from what came before–From 1899 to 1906, the town rented eight benches for washing laundry on the Canal du Midi in Trèbes, about a mile away. How convenient, eh? Not to mention clean…NOT.
There also was an impressive clock tower, built in 1897, so all the inhabitants, known as Rustiquois, would known the time of the republique.
So many old, old details.
The surrounding countryside was inviting in the winter sunshine. The bare vines, Mount Alaric in the distance.
Villages like this are what make Carcassonne such a great base–they’re adorable, but you can walk around them leisurely three times and not have spent a whole hour. They’re perfect for an occasional diversion.
With temperatures here more like April than December, I’m trying to get into the Christmas mood with some photos from a visit to Brussels last year.Brussels is such a pretty city. During the six years I lived there, I didn’t appreciate it–I would hop on the Thalys fast train to Paris or show up at the airport with only a carry-on to check the bulletin board of cheap last-minute tickets. One year, I traveled 50 out of 52 weekends. It was a good way to see Europe.We’ve gone to Belgium for all but one of the past 14 Christmases, and will finally spend our first Christmas at home this year. The highlight of the Belgium holidays was always our day spent in Brussels, amid the lights and pretty architecture, so different from the rundown towns of southern Belgium that are the definition of the word triste.The center of Brussels is its famous Grand-Place (which, despite being LA Grand-Place is not la Grande-Place, a mystery I must resolve one day). The fancy houses on the Grand-Place, mostly with wood construction, were burned down in three days during a bombardment by the troops of Louis XIV in 1695. The wealthy merchants, guilds and corporations weren’t put down, however. By 1697 were rebuilding, this time using stone.
The Grand-Place became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1998, noted for the harmonious yet eclectic mix of buildings that have stayed the same for more than three centuries.
The most outstanding building is the gothic Hotel de Ville, or city hall, built in three phases–the left wing (from 1401-1421), then a nearly identical extension on the right (added from 1440-1450), and finally the top of the tower (from 1449-1455). So obviously it survived the big fire. The top photo shows most of it.Do you notice anything strange about the main entry?
Supposedly the architect became so upset about the mistake that he jumped to his death, but that seems to be urban legend, and the portail is likely off center just because the building got added onto.
The Maison du Roi, or King’s House, is directly across from the Hotel de Ville. It actually is a 19th century reconstruction of what the architects would have wanted to build at the beginning of the 16th century, replacing a building that also survived the fire and that was built in 1515. That building was falling to ruin, and the city spared no expense with the replacement, which took 22 years to build (1873-1895). Keep in mind that Belgium became a country only in 1830. At the time the King’s House was built, the king was Leopold II, the same one who colonized and pillaged the Congo. So that’s where his deep pockets came from.La Maison du Cygne, or Swan House, originally was an inn but now houses a very swanky restaurant. Very good, too.Not far from the Grand-Place are the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, three glass-roofed arcades that connect.
All around the galeries, the neighborhood is a warren of medieval “streets” that are more like cobbled footpaths. For example, l’Impasse Saint-Nicolas is one of 17 impasses, or dead-end paths, in the area that lead to buildings that are behind buildings. The entry to our apartments is a similar impasse, a former medieval street leading to an interior courtyard that used to be a tannery, and to buildings that don’t reach to the main streets.
A bit farther off, old and new sit cheek by jowl. La Tour Noire, or Black Tower, remains from the first ramparts of the city, now nearly swallowed up by a Novotel.
The above excepted, there ARE are plenty of classy buildings, dolled up for the festivities.Even the Christmas street lights are classy.Not far from the Black Tower is the Place Sainte Catherine, site of a Christmas market. It’s near the quais of the canals built in the 1500s and another in the 1800s to transport goods, since the river that the city was born next to (aren’t all cities next to rivers?), the Senne, was hard to navigate. In fact, the city covered over the river 200 years ago, since it had become mostly a sewer.
The quais now are lined with restaurants, especially those for fish and seafood.While we’re excited about having Christmas at home for the first time, we will miss getting a hit of city sparkle. Meanwhile, the gilets jaunes are the Grinches stealing Christmas. People are shopping online rather than in stores to avoid having to brave the gantlet of protesters. Already the Internet was killing stores; the outlook is decidedly unfestive.
Do you shop in stores or online? Have you been to Brussels?
This summer we had the pleasure of meeting Oliver Gee and his lovely bride, Lina Nordin Gee, when they passed through Carcassonne on their honeymoon trip around France on an adorable red scooter. They stayed in our AirBnB apartment, L’ancienne Tannerie.
Oliver is the founder of “The Earful Tower,” a podcast and blog as well as fun Instagram about France, especially Paris. The stories are excellent–in fact, when I discovered The Earful Tower, I immediately binged all the episodes and have been listening ever since. Often I go back and listen again, because there are so many great details. And plenty of puns. I can now confirm what I suspected when listening–that he has a mischievous twinkle in his eye, what the French call espiègle, quick to spot humor in a situation.
Oliver was gracious enough to submit to a little interview:
Who are you and what in the world are you doing?
I’m Oliver Gee, an Australian who has called Paris home for almost four years. Around a year ago, I quit my job as a journalist to focus on a podcast I’d been running called The Earful Tower. It’s been quite the gamble, but my goal was to make the project my full-time gig and I’m pretty much there.What are some of the biggest differences you observed between Paris and small-town/rural France?
The biggest difference I noticed was that people have more time for you outside of Paris. Paris is hectic, almost chaotic, as most big cities are. The baker doesn’t (usually) care to comment on the fact that you might be speaking French with an accent, they’ve probably heard that accent before anyway. In the countryside, there’s not a long line of people waiting for their food, drink, car to be serviced… whatever. What was really great about this for me was that it meant I had the chance to really converse with people in a day-to-day way, which is an excellent way to improve my French!
Do you find it easier to eat well outside Paris? I have been to some fantastic restaurants in Paris, but they were pricey, whereas in the middle of France profonde you can get some awesome meals and they’re cheap.
I have to say that the best meal I’ve had in France was in the middle of nowhere, in Puymirol at a two-star Michelin restaurant. It was my birthday so we splashed out while on the honeymoon trip. But the food options in Paris are so exponentially greater than in the countryside that – statistically at least – you’re more likely to find what you want in Paris than elsewhere in France. What about culture? Paris is chock-full of cultural sites and activities. Would culture-loving travellers find enough to satisfy them outside Paris?
There’s all kinds of cultural things to do around France that are very unique, and that you won’t find in the capital. We found old caves in Burgundy, very well-preserved Roman arenas in Provence, and unique museums like the tapestry from the 11th century in Bayeux, or the D-Day beach museums. Paris, of course, has a way bigger and better collection of monuments and museums – but there’s plenty for a traveller outside of the capital.
What are some things that travelers should consider doing on a trip beyond Paris? I think for a lot of people, France consists of Paris and Provence, and in Provence they go to the markets, see the lavender and visit cute villages, all of which are undeniably satisfying. But how about some other reasons to venture out? Maybe historical sites? Or jaw-dropping scenery?
France is extremely diverse. Once you’ve got Paris and Provence out of your system, explore the other sides of France that are very different from what you typically imagine when you picture France. The Alps, the vineyards, the Mediterranean coastline, Carcassonne, the picturesque island Ile de Ré, the dense forests of the national parks… The big thing I learned from this trip was just how wildly diverse France can be.
What is one famous and one obscure thing in Paris and in France profonde that travelers shouldn’t miss? Some things get derided as being touristy, but they draw tourists because they are truly amazing, so I’m thinking of the things that are worth braving the crowds. And then the hidden treasures that don’t have crowds until we ruin them by telling everybody.
In Paris, go and walk along the remnants of the Philippe Auguste wall, it’s a fascinating insight into France from 800 years ago and most people don’t know anything about it. For the more famous side of the city, you’d be mad not to take a stroll through the Marais district, down onto the islands on the Seine River, then along the river sides.
As for France, I found the tiny village of Vezelay to be really interesting, though I don’t think it’s a huge tourist destination unless you’re doing a pilgrimage. They’ve got a bone on display in the crypt of the cathedral that legend says was Mary Magdalene’s. As for a more-known option, check out Annecy in the Alps. Absolutely the most beautiful town in France, end of story.
Did you have any movie moments during your trip, where you saw or experienced France as it’s portrayed in films? I sometimes see little old men wearing berets and riding bikes, with a baguette strapped to the back—absolutely like the iconic photo, though I think several times it has been the same guy.
When I was struck down by Lyme disease and had to visit two separate doctors in two separate villages, I felt like it could have been a movie scene. They were so friendly, and just as keen to talk about our trip as to cure me. Otherwise, we met so many colourful characters that it felt like it could have been a movie in itself. Small-town mayors, dairy farmers, talkative bartenders, and scores of friendly villagers… I’d love to see the movie version of our own trip!
So, francophiles, do yourself a favor and head on over to the Earful Tower! An interview with the lovely Lina, who is a shoe designer, coming soon!
Mirepoix can conjure up two very different things. A mirepoix is a mix of diced carrots, celery and onions that serves as a base for a number of dishes. And the charming, medieval town of Mirepoix, about a 45-minute, very beautiful drive south of Carcassonne.Mondays are the day to see Mirepoix–market day. This is convenient, since so many towns, Carcassonne included, have markets on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. If you were busy on Saturday, you can catch up in Mirepoix on Monday. (Just forget about shopping anywhere on Sundays.) Mirepoix has another market day on Thursdays, but Monday is the one to see.
The heart of Mirepoix is its central square, lined with half-timbered houses with arcades that offer shade or shelter, depending on the season. It once was a fortified town, the halfway point between Carcassonne and Foix. It sprang up in the 10th century and became a holdout for the Cathars, which led to its being captured during the last crusade (the real one, the Albigensian Crusade) in 1209 just after Carcassonne. The town was wiped out again in 1289, when a terrible flood destroyed it. The locals rebuilt, but on the other side of the river. The area once was in a forest; today a big oak at the entry to the town, classified as a historic monument in 1945, is all that’s left–the other trees went into those half-timbered houses.
Mirepoix also has some great antique shops and brocantes.
In the summer, it draws throngs–of course. Nobody makes a trip to see a mediocre town. But in winter, you can have the place to yourself.
Casablanca is such a contrast between modernity and history, between rich and poor, between beauty and ugliness. It’s an assault on the senses, yet it feels mostly benign, not menacing.
One foggy morning we went to the huge Mosque Hassan II, the fifth largest in the world. Walking back, we sought out some other sights.
The Casablanca Cathedral, also shown in the top photo, is an Art Deco gem. It opened in 1930. It’s no longer a church but is used for cultural events. I’m a sucker for Art Deco.
Casablanca has a shiny new tram, which was decked out in honor of the national World Cup team. The tram was clean, quick, comfortable and cheap (about 70 cents a ride).I’m so conflicted over trams and metros. On the one hand, they tend to be viewed as better than buses, and in Casablanca the buses were rickety and packed to the gills. However, they require a huge investment, and they’re stuck in place, whereas buses use existing streets that serve other vehicles and it’s easy to change bus routes.
The Casablanca tramway has two lines. The second line is 17 kilometers (10 miles), cost €262 million and serves nine districts with a total population of over 1 million people. While it’s a lower-carbon alternative to the fume-belching buses, I think you could buy a lot of new, even electric, buses for €262 million.
Taxis are another way to get around, and amazingly cheap. The petits taxis are red and are for trips within the city only. If you want to go farther, say to the airport, you need a grand taxi. These are usually white. Either way, you get a white-knuckle ride.
There also were some donkey carts and human-pulled carts, like the pineapple vendor above. Can you imagine a life of pushing your pineapples, probably quite far, because Casablanca is relatively expensive and you probably would have to live on the edges of the city. You navigate your precious cargo to a spot in the center of the city, where passersby have jobs that allow them the luxury of spending a few dirhams on a whim, like for a wedge of juicy pineapple. If you don’t sell, your pineapples will rot. You have no cushion, no salary. Just income from what you manage to sell, trying to survive another day. Nobody grows up thinking, “boy, I hope I can sell pineapples by the slice one day. What a life that would be!” No, it’s what you do when all else fails.
Down the street but a world away, the Grand Theatre of Casablanca is taking shape. Designed by French architect Christian de Portzamparc, the theater is supposed to resemble a medina, with fluid lines, and many alleyway-like entries that will provide natural ventilation, shade and places for people to relax. The entrance will double as an outdoor soundstage.
I really couldn’t get over the palm trees. And the bougainvillea.
I still have more photos to share of this fascinating place.
It’s entirely possible to vacation in France without a car. High-speed trains connect the big cities as fast as planes, and even the slower trains are faster than going by car. And inside any big city, a car is more of a hassle than anything—parking is nigh impossible.
A car is useful only if you want to get out into the countryside, for example, to go from village to village, or to get out into the garrigue. Even if you plan to bike, it’s important to know the rules of the road, which aren’t at all like in the U.S.
Possibly the most important, or the thing the least like the U.S. is priorité à droite. When in doubt, priority is to the car on the right. There are no four-way stops. A triangular sign (point up), bordered in red, with a black X means at the next intersection, you have to stop for any cars coming from the right. Look out; sometimes the next intersection is with an alley you barely see, and the locals will plow right into you because they know they have the right of way. In case of an accident, fault is easy to determine—the car dented on its right side is wrong.
The French hate stop signs. Instead, they paint a heavy white line at intersections where you are supposed to stop. So you have to watch the pavement as well as the signs.
A dashed line across the road means yield. (Actually, they often interpret it as ‘I see a car coming, so I’m gunning it to cut in front.’ So you’ll probably have to slam on the brakes a lot.) It can be a dashed line instead of a solid stop line like above, which basically means you can do a rolling stop. Or it can be where you merge into traffic.
As in the U.S., a dashed center line means you can pass and a solid line means no passing. Sometimes, they have a solid line where there is a long sight line, just because the road curves a bit. And sometimes, they have a dashed line where you can’t see oncoming cars. Lesson: just because it’s a dashed line, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to pass. And beware of passing stuff like tractors and bikes where there’s a solid line because you can get a ticket if a cop sees you. Also: they put curved arrows when the dotted lines are about to end, meaning it’s too late to start to pass.
Speaking of cops, they rarely pull you over. Instead, they sit in their cars or hide in the bushes with radars that take a picture of you speeding by. The picture is mailed to you (or to the car rental place, which will then just bill your credit card). No sweet-talking your way out of it. With special binoculars, they can get you from over a kilometer away. They do have traffic stops, where they check every car or every fourth car or whatever, to check for drunk drivers. They are strict: the limit is 0.5, which is about one glass of wine. When you go to wine country, you’re going to need a designated driver (called le capitain). The French are very sharp at spying cops in hiding and will flash their headlights when there’s a speed trap or traffic stop ahead (or for other reasons, like an accident, or a mess on the road—whatever the reason, it’s best to slow down).
There are radar signs on the highways, which indicate a fixed radar lurks ahead. They, too, take pictures of speeders.
Speed limits, unless indicated otherwise are (in kilometers per hour):
50 in towns of any size—as soon as you get to the sign that marks the town limit, you have to slow down to 50. Watch out, because there could be signs limiting the speed further, like to 30.
80 out of town on any road (tiny track between vineyards, county road, national highway). Sometimes the speed will be limited to 70, but that will be indicated with a sign. Beware: the speed limit changed July 1 to 80 kph from 90.
110 where indicated on national highways that have two lanes in each direction, divided by a median (just because you have two lanes doesn’t automatically mean you can go faster).
130 on autoroutes, except when it’s raining and then it’s 110 (and yes, they do check).
A triangular road sign with a heavy black arrow, intersected by a thinner line means a crossroads is ahead.
A diamond-shaped yellow sign bordered in white means you have priority. Same sign with a black line through it means you no longer have priority (so look out for the black X or the arrow with a line through it, which warns you of intersections where you don’t have priority…but they don’t always mark these intersections).
A circular sign bordered in red with a white center means cars aren’t allowed. Not the same as a do not enter sign, where you would simply be going the wrong way on a one-way street.
A triangular sign with three curving arrows making a circle means slow down for a roundabout ahead.
Céder le passage = yield. Usually with a triangular sign, white bordered in red, with the point down.
A sign with a red circle and a red car on the left and a black car on the right means no passing.
A blue sign with arrows pointing up and down, with one in black (or white) and the other in white (or red) means the road is narrow and the car in the direction of the bigger arrow has right of way.
A round sign with a blue center and a red border with a red line through it means no parking. The sign on the right, above, means you need one of those little hour-cards that you can buy at a bureau de tabac. You set the time you arrived. Same sign with an X means no stopping.
A round sign with a black line through means end of something. A sign like that with the number 70, for example, means end of the 70 kph speed zone, i.e., 80 kph.
A square blue sign with a P means parking. If it has a little meter in the corner, it means you have to find the meter (someplace on the street, it might be two blocks away) and pay and put the ticket on your dashboard so the meter readers can see it.
A square blue sign with a kind of a T, where the T is in red, means dead end.
Signs for highways with the city names on green backgrounds mean they are free highways.
The same kinds of signs with blue backgrounds mean tollroads.
The same town signs on white background mean departmental roads.
Roads are numbered like this:
D123 (I’m making up numbers here) with yellow background means a departmental road. Like a county road. Small, lots of stops. Usually, the bigger the number the smaller the road.
N123 with a red background is a national highway. Can be 1, 2 or 3 digits.
A12 with a red background is an autoroute, usually toll, but some stretches may be free. (1 or 2 digits)
E3 with a red background is a European highway. This just means you can follow the same road across borders and perhaps not get lost because the national numbering systems aren’t the same. (1 or 2 digits)
Sortie means exit. The exit signs are an oval with the autoroute sign (two parallel lines converging in perspective) and a little arrow coming out of the right line, along with the number of the exit.
A kind of double white X on a blue background, with the points of the X connected to each other by curved lines, means a junction of two autoroutes.
At the tollbooths, do not go in the ones marked with a T (usually an orange T). Those are for people who have the RFID tags, like EZ Pass. A blue or white sign that says CB means credit cards (Cartes Bancaires). A green sign, usually with a kind of outline of a person in profile leaning out a window, or with a bunch of circles (for coins), means you can pay in cash, to an attendant.
A curved arrow painted on the ground means merge in the direction of the arrow. So if you’re getting onto the highway, it’ll point to the left, meaning the entry ramp is ending and you need to move over. Or if three lanes turn into two, it’ll point to the right, meaning the left lane is about to disappear. Sometimes these turn up where there’s road construction.
Aire = rest stop. Watch out: some have gas/food and some are just with toilets and picnic tables. They are marked.
Péage = toll.
Rocade = peripherique = ring road that goes around the town.
Sortie de camions = truck exit/entrance (caution for slow trucks)
Piétons = pedestrians
Attention! Nids de poules en formation = beware! Hens’ nests (potholes) forming. This is on the road to Carcassonne and I giggle every time I see it. The road has been repaved and now is as smooth as a baby’s bottom, but the sign remains.
My favorite, though, is the top sign, which reminds me of “PeeWee’s Big Adventure,” where PeeWee is in the truck with Large Marge.
I just don’t have time today to write. This is a repost of one of my earliest entries, updated with the new speed limit. I hope it’s useful.
I am up to my ears in baking. We are having a gigantic party this weekend. I’ll give the rundown next week. This is not the moment to bake–it’s the canicule–heat wave, and yes, related to canine, but it’s because of a constellation, Big Dog, whose brightest star, Sirius, rises and sets with the sun during the hottest part of the year). We have mostly been spared–highs around 34 Celsius, or 93 Fahrenheit, but that’s hot enough when you don’t have air conditioning.
Any driving tips to add? Questions? How are you dealing with the heat? Bon weekend!
We’ve noticed a trend in our AirBnB apartments. Our guests often are celebrating honeymoons, wedding anniversaries and special birthdays.
The best part about being an AirBnB host is meeting people. I don’t want to jinx ourselves (touche du bois–touch wood, or knock on wood), but our guests have been a delight. In some cases, I’ve been sad they live so far away because I would like to see them again.
The Carnivore is Mr. AirBnB, and he is constantly tickled by the reaction when guests enter either apartment for the first time. I think our photos are great, but they always say the real thing is much better.
He also is tickled by how happy they are. On vacation, care-free, celebrating. Lots of good karma.
Some of the reviews. First l’Ancienne Tannerie (a link to the listing is here):
This was our second stay at Serge’s place, and had we not found our own year-round apartment, we would definitely stay here for a third time. In fact, it was his meticulous attention to detail that allowed my husband and I to see the possibilities or restoring a voluminous historic apartment and turning into a museum-quality gem. Each of Serge’s apartments is outstanding and we’ve stayed in both. Location is just near Place Carnot and a 10-15 minute walk to the Old City. The kitchen view over the courtyard is charming. Our first visit was in mid-December 2017; originally we rented the front apartment, La Suite Barbès, for a week and then we extended it, in total, by almost another 3 weeks. This visit at L’ancienne Tannerie was for 5 nights. As a host, Serge does everything right; he’s there to greet you and welcome you into one of the most tastefully and faithfully restored apartments in Carcassonne (over the last year I have stayed in 4 others). Everything is at your fingertips, with a bright, spacious and recently appointed kitchen with clothes washer, dishwasher, induction cooktop, sparkling bathroom with large 2-door shower, two bedrooms, TV, fast internet and don’t forget the sauna! Fresh towels for sauna and bath are provided. Everything throughout the apartment is immaculate and you will feel as if you’re his very first guest. And that’s a very rare feeling. Thank you again Serge! Hope to see you in town.And Igor, who was our first guest in l’Ancienne Tannerie:
And in the Suite Barbès (AirBnB link here):
We would absolutely stay here again. No doubt about it. This apartment has everything going for it. 6-7 minute walk from the train station. It sure is nice to get to the destination so quickly after a travel day. The neighbourhood is fantastic Really, walk out the front door and you are right where you want to be. Little shops on every street. 1 minute walk to a more than lovely square lined with restaurants bistros and brasseries. Its a fabulous walk to the walled city. On and on. Really, we now have a crush on Carcassonne, we stayed three days and would have stayed much much longer had we known is was so easy and comfortable to be here. Totally safe place. The food here, was honestly the best we had during our whole month in France.
Serge’s apartment is amazing. It’s in a building dating from around 1640 and has been faithfully and tastefully restored. The rooms are huge, the amenities are excellent, with a very well equipped kitchen (including cook books!) and two bathrooms. It’s also within easy walking distance of the major tourist sites, cafes and restaurants. We took Serge’s advice and went to his favourite restaurant, where we had our best meal in France so far.