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.
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:
Serge is a very helpful host and helped us with all we needed. The house is located in an excellent place, a few steps from Place Carnot but on a quiet street. There are some parking lots, markets and plenty of places to eat and shop around too. The apartment is very fancy. Serge kept the looks of a 17-18th century house, but everything is brand new. The bathroom is spacious and the shower is superb. You can walk about 25min to the Citadel, take the bus a few minutes from the house or do a 5min trip by car. Very good location. Our stay in Carcassonne couldn’t be better. Thanks, Serge!
Visitez Carcassonne en châtelain ! Notre appartement rénové avec goût et selon critères des Monuments historiques est lumineux, calme et extrêmement propre. Vous allez goûter aux très hauts plafonds, aux grandes fenêtres à l’ancienne, au salon cosy et à la grande cuisine ; profitez ! Deux chambres complètent le confort. Deux cheminées, des meubles de style, la décoration est à la hauteur de la rénovation. Tout l’équipement est à votre disposition et rien ne manque.
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.
Fantastic location 2 minutes from place Carnot where local produce markets are held 3 x week. There are also a couple of bars and restaurants and the obligatory fountain in the middle. A great spot to sit and people watch. The appartment is an easy 15 minute stroll to the historic Cité. If you love the idea of pretending you are French aristocracy this place is for you, beautiful French mirrors, rugs and antique furniture. It’s not cheap but neither are the surroundings.
What an amazing place, fantastic location, wonderful host and close to restaurants, bars, shopping and a short stroll to the walled city. My wife and I were amazed at this apartment, and it was way better than we ever expected. The host Serge, he was amazing, spending time with us explaining the local area, restaurants and sites to see. This was by far one of the most unique, classy and beautifully furnished places we have stayed while travelling through Europe. If you are looking for somewhere very special to stay, then do yourself a favour and stay here, you will not be disappointed!
I have to admit I was a little cautious at first about staying at a new Airbnb without any reviews, but I am so glad I did and absolutely wanted to write the first one so others could enjoy it as much as we did! By chance, we were privileged to be Serge’s very first guests. Even the stunning photos online do not do the apartment justice; it is so beautifully furnished with such care by Serge and his wife, with every detail of antique furnishing and fittings approved by heritage architects. You will feel like you are sleeping in one of the royal bedrooms you see in palace museums! The apartment located within the Bastide, only a few hundred metres from Place Carnot, where there is a large outdoor food market on Saturdays. It is only a 15-20 minute walk from the Cité, which means it is nicely away from the tourist crowds but gives you the chance to grab the stunning view of the city on the hill as you cross over the Pont Vieux each morning or evening. Serge was so friendly, helpful and accommodating in the lead up to the stay and very flexible with check out on the final day. Serge’s English is perfect, so even all of the complicated French forms and accommodation contracts were a breeze. I would heartily recommend this apartment to anyone travelling to Carcassonne who likes a bit of luxury!
About two hours before the cyclists of the Tour de France pass by, there’s complete craziness on the route as the beloved caravane parades through, tossing goodies to bystanders.No homemade homecoming floats here. It’s all professional, promoting the official sponsors of the race. They are simultaneously slick, professional advertisements and laughingly absurd.Take, for example, the Gaulois chicken brand. Yes, chicken–the cigarettes are Gauloises, feminine. The first vehicle had a chicken on a bike. Yes, it’s the Tour de France, and it was all bicycles all the time. But I learned during a trip in Mali that really tough chicken is called poulet bicyclette–bicycle chicken–so hard to chew that it must have been raised riding a bike, which doesn’t seem like an image to promote. On the other hand, the number of spectators who have eaten tough chicken in Africa is probably low.They also had nuggets…”Crousty Chicken” is quite the franglais mashup. “Crusty” in French is croustillant.Gizzards (you KNOW you’re in France when gizzards are all over your salad, whether you asked for them or not)…And very tantalizing brochettes. They didn’t forget the bun (petit pain--little bread–when something sells like hotcakes here you say “c’est parti comme des petits pains”).It takes a certain nonchalance to drive such a beast, no?
I don’t remember what they were throwing to the crowd, but we didn’t score any. Keychains? Magnets? The top photo shows Vittel, and they handed out bottles of water (no throwing those!). Then a float came by with people spraying the crowd with mist. Years ago, people would dance and jump in the mist, arms in the air, but this time everybody hurried to protect their phones.This one is very Parisian, n’est-ce pas? The lamp post, the advertising kiosk….Krys is an optician chain.
The floats are an opportunity for people to live out their superstar fantasies. Parading past adulating crowds. Several floats were like Krys, with booming party music and somebody pretending to DJ, and usually some dancers. Never mind that the crowds want freebies and don’t care about you. A person can dream! Cochonou (cochon is pig; Cochonou is a brand of hard sausage), with its iconic red gingham on iconic Citroën 2CVs. It’s definitely the crowd favorite–they distribute little sachets of sausage. Where else, right?Juice…Mickey Mouse magazines…Madeleines….and they throw out little packets with two madeleines in each! This one cracked me up–the family biking and the mother and daughter are smiling but the dad is grimacing. Skoda is a brand of cars built in the Czech Republic, owned by Volkswagen.Candy is dandy…and of course that’s what they tossed out.Laundry soap…we scored a sample of that.
I noticed that the people on the floats were wearing harnesses that were attached to the vehicles. It was kind of odd to see the ones who were on bikes (not on the road but atop the floats, a common theme) or dancing tied to the float. The ones who were throwing stuff really leaned out, and I suppose the sponsors didn’t want falls, even though the floats go much more slowly than the racers, at least in towns.Promoting the movie Hotel Transylvania 3…FDJ is France de Jeux–the lottery operator. Notice the symbol is a four-leaf clover. McCain is a brand of French fries. Notice that they’re in a fryer basket–there’s even the handle on the back.Bic pens, native to France, are so iconic that many people don’t say stylo (pen) but instead say Bic, the way people refer to a photocopy as a Xerox or a paper tissue as a Kleenex.
Lots of fun, with lots of scrambling for prizes. If you want to see an old guy race a young kid, just throw a free refrigerator magnet in between them.
A 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
Day 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.
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).
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.I 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.
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!
High-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).We 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.
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.
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!Of course, good bread is easy to find. And strawberries, grown in the cool, wet hills of Ariège. If 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.
Saint-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. The 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. Despite 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.” By 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.
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.By 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.There’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.The abbey is really pretty and open for visitors all year. A peaceful haven.