My French holiday top 10 list
I just returned from a four-week vacation in southern France. I know, I know – poor me, having to switch from cheap-as-dirt baguettes, pastries and wine (plus clear blue skies, dry air, and a 20 degree ocean), to falling leaves, near freezing nights, 7 pm darkness and public adoration of … the pumpkin? … in one short weekend. Oh well.
So quick, before I forget, here’s my top-10 list of things, places, people and experiences, gleaned from a pile of pleasant memories.
1. Travelling with Nichola
Four solid weeks with my wife? Nic and I both confessed to a little apprehension at the nerve of our plan. Could we stand a month of each other’s company, pretty much 24/7, without divorcing each other at the end? Well, I admit we had to stop the car twice to settle disputes or cool frustrations. But that’s a tolerable, even forgettable rate, perhaps better than either of us expected. I knew from previous trips that we enjoy almost all the same things: history, landscape, art, meeting strangers, new food and drink, and especially, everyday things like strolling through a market in a foreign place. Plus we’re a great team when it comes to language (tag-teaming for comprehension), navigation, and the daily surprises of travel. Maybe I had to visit more art galleries than I might have on my own (three or four, as I recall), but she let me lead her through the most harrowing single-lane gorge road we’ve ever driven, with only a half-day of nervous build-up on her part. There were times when we parted for a couple of hours, and I was always anxious to return to her, to hear about what she’d discovered or who she’d met. Once upon a time, we both travelled on our own (we’re talking pre-history here); I can’t imagine doing that now, having no-one with whom to share the daily joys and absurdities.
2. French lessons with Dominique
We chose our locale (Carcassonne, in southwestern France, towards Spain, the region of Languedoc-Roussillon) for a language school that Nic found online. The plan was to spend the first two weeks improving our French command, mornings only, with short trips in the afternoons. We lucked upon a fun and “sympa” teacher, Dominique, who combined conversation, vocabulary and grammar for three-plus hours every day, with a little “pause” for coffee in the middle. One memorable morning, our small class discussed the ins-and-outs of recent changes to France’s pension and “retraite” laws for more than an hour; after the break, a demonstration of 500 or more people passed by our third floor window, protesting the very changes we’d just learned about. We accused Dominique of staging the whole thing for our benefit! (See Ludo Expression.)
3. Staying in one place
On previous foreign holidays, we’d moved around too much, anxious to see and do everything, over too wide an area. So much time was lost to arrangements, packing, schlepping, navigating and travelling, not to mention the expense of restaurants and hotels, with little time for laundry, or just plain relaxation. So Nic discovered an inexpensive, month-long rental at a rural “gîte” (apartment) on an organic vineyard. With a pool. And a washing machine. Outside a small village called “Villegailhenc” (it took a week or more to master that pronunciation), which itself was 10 kilometres outside Carcassonne. We loved our rural refuge. It gave us a daily routine, places to walk or run, and made us feel like we were really living somewhere, as we got to know the local baker, butcher and grocery store owners. Plus, we had company in the gîte, in the form of the other renters (there were four units) – more opportunity to meet strangers and speak French. We did a one-night trip mid-holiday (to the Mediterranean and very northern Spain), plus another at the end (to Nîmes). But mostly we stayed put and got to know one region very well with dozens of short outings, drawn in highlighter like a spider web on our tattered map. A tour of an olive co-op one day; a few hours picking grapes in the vineyard the next. On the Friday of our first week, we spent three hours in class, another two hours by the pool with our gîte friends in the afternoon, then entertained Dominique and her husband for five hours in the evening – a mind-splitting 10 hours of French immersion in one day. (See our gîte.)
4. Southern France in September
I could feel it as soon as we stepped off the airplane in Montpelier before the short drive to Carcassonne – the dry, hot air of the arid south, a soft caress on my skin. When I venture far from home, which is rare, I think the most profound differences are climatic and geographical – far more pervasive to me than food, language or culture. It didn’t hurt that the first week of our holiday was boiling – topping 30 degrees most days, with uninterrupted blue skies. We slept at night with our patio door wide open – very few bugs in the dry environment. I ran through the gorge and hills behind the gîte, on broken limestone scree, past varieties of trees and shrubs I’d never seen before. I marveled at how the grape vines and olive trees grow from the most infertile looking, often rocky soil. I’m used to the relative moisture and lushness of southern Ontario (or the “tropics” of B.C., where I grew up). That a landscape as arid and brown as southern France has nourished rich civilizations for millennia was a marvel to me. In fact, Languedoc produces a third of France’s wine grapes, even if it’s not as well-known as the Loire or Bordeaux. The name is a contraction of “langue d’Occitan”, the language that united the region before it was brought under French control after the revolution. (About Languedoc.)
5. Les apéritifs – French food
I know it’s a cliché to rave about French food, but I will anyway. Baguettes? Yes, a fresh one (or two) everyday. A steady stream of people through the local bakery, which is open until 7:30 pm (or “19h30” as the French say). A total of four places to buy fresh bread in a village of less than 1,000 people. The local grocery store stocked with the most delicious and inexpensive cheeses and pâtés, better than we get at our fancy-pants gourmet shop in Guelph, and at a third of the price. Vegetables? Mostly fresh and local for sale, with huge quantities of the ripest things, like melons. Early on we discovered the store’s Sunday special roast chicken – like a different species, delicious, superbly browned, good for two days of meals. In the end, the French “apéritifs” – a light drink with small snacks before “souper” – made for a fully appetizing meal. We took a long time to try the regional specialty “cassoulet” (Julia Child calls it “French baked beans” – pork, lamb and duck cooked long and slow in the oven with “haricots blancs”). But when we did, it was a two thumbs up, although maybe something we’d eat as winter comfort food at home. (See Baguettes.)
6. Gorges de Galamus
Enough of the generalities, here are the places I most enjoyed, of the 20–30 sights and cities we managed to visit. Many people pointed us to this dramatic, near vertical gorge with its grey limestone cliffs. One Guelph friend who had explored the area on bicycle warned, “not for the vertiginous.” Our approach was tentative, as I mentioned above, but once in the dramatic two-kilometre stretch through the steepest section, it was an absolute thrill. If the gorge is 400 metres from top to bottom (I’m guessing), then the road is carved from the limestone at the mid-point. I have no idea how they did that, in the 19th century. You can’t see the river below unless you get out of the car and peer gingerly over the edge. The peaks, high above, are similarly hard to view. And it’s narrow, with only periodic spots for passing every few hundred metres. I googled the history of the spectacular road, but my search turned up mostly YouTube videos of people biking, driving or canyoning (swimming, sort of) through the gorge with GoPro cameras mounted on their helmets (eg. motorcycle, canyoning). I was wowed, and it was only one stop on a day trip that had three major thrills (some beautiful villages in the pre-Pyrenees, and a mountain-top chateau ruin).
7. Grotte de Niaux
This was Nic’s pick, and for some silly reason, I was only moderately interested in the chance to trek nearly a kilometre into the interior of a Pyrenees mountain to view 14,000-year-old cave paintings. Nic, on the other hand, had wanted to do this since she was a child, part of her archeological curiosity. The cave is France’s best, and it rivals artwork from the same period in Spain. However, only France’s cave, pronounced “knee-OH”, is open to the public, with strictly regulated tours and almost no commercial overtone. Twenty of us spent 90 minutes inside, led by a wonderfully multilingual and knowledgeable guide. In July-August, the visit would have been nearly impossible, with only 11 visits allowed per day amid the crush of summer tourists. Instead, we got to spend almost a half-hour studying three panels of drawings in the “salon noir” part of the cave – nuanced, detailed drawings of pre-historic bison, horses, and ibex (goat), sometimes drawn in perspective, or in conjunction with the cave’s natural stone features. Most of the “whats” and “hows” of the drawings have been proven (paint, lighting, age), but the “whys” remain as conjecture – probably spiritual to some degree, an expression of civilization from the homo sapiens who lived in the mountainous region just after the last ice age. It was intensely moving and profound. (See the Grotte.)
8. Plage de Collioure
Everyone said, “go to Collioure”, the postcard-pretty seaside village with the hard-to-pronounce name on the Mediterranean coast just south of Perpignan. So we went as an overnight trip on our anniversary, Friday, Sept. 20. At first, we were a little repulsed by the crowds (even at that time of year), the tourist shops, the commercialism, and the claustrophobia of trying to stuff so many people and cars into one cramped little bay surrounded by the rocky hills of the pre-Pyrenees. However, we quickly latched onto the northern-most beach, a mix of sand and stones beside the jetty that protects the village’s harbour. We even did something that we’d always found a little absurd – renting beach chairs for the day – and passed an amazing afternoon in the sun and the sea, with a mid-afternoon break for freshly grilled sardines and anchovies in a beach-side resto, washed down with rosé and espresso. It was sensory overload in all respects. (Collioure website.)
9. Chateaux de Lastours
The Carcassonne region entices tourists with a lesson in 13th-century history involving the Cathars – Catholic heretics who populated southern France from Toulouse to Perpignan. They were eventually hunted down and eradicated by the church hierarchy and the French monarchy, taking final refuge in a series of far-flung, mountain-top castles, in addition to the major fortress at Carcassonne. We visited and climbed to the top of four of the high castles, my favourite being Lastours. That’s the Occitan name for “les tours”, which means, the towers. For me, Lastours’ charm was its accessibility (a 15-minute, steep climb from the village below) and the fact that you get four small castles for the price of one! It’s hard to believe that anyone could or would live in their cramped quarters (only ruins remain, and even those are largely reconstructed), but I guess that was the price of being a heretic when Simon de Montfort was on the rampage in southern France, determined to burn or siege you out. (He was successful, even if he died at the hands of the women of Toulouse, who bravely catapulted a rock onto his head.) (See the Cathar castles.)
10. Pont du Gard
What the caves were for Nic, the Pont du Gard was for me. It’s nowhere near as old, but it’s still pretty damn ancient, built by the Romans in the first century as part of a 50-kilometre aqueduct that carried water from a spring to their colonial city of Nîmes. I’d always admired the artistry of its multiple arches, the audacity of its construction (the highest bridge built by the Romans), and its longevity with very little restoration. It has survived floods, an earthquake, pillaging for its stone and other indignities since it was abandoned as a water conduit in the 7th century. Two aspects stood out on our afternoon visit. First, the French wisely decided to eliminate all commercialism from the site about 15 years ago. They cleared away the roads, hotels and tourist shops, and in their place built paths, overlooks and planted landscaping that slowly reveals the beautiful bridge as you approach on foot. Second, once you’ve walked across its lower level, you can freely stroll down to the Gardon River and swim or kayak in its cool clear water. We did both, followed by a couple of hours in the excellent interpretation centre, which explains the Pont’s history and construction. The whole venue is a respectful and serene experience (sort of like the caves), everything that Niagara Falls is not, and it was an excellent end to our four-week French sojourn. (See the PdG website.)