From Provence we drove west, towards the Languedoc-Roussillon region and our base for the next eight nights, Lagrasse. And west it felt… the wind was blowing fiercely along the A61 (highway), kind of like it can in Colorado and Wyoming (for those who do not know, I was born in Idaho, but moved to northern Colorado at 1 ½ and lived there for most of my life). Then we turned off down the D212 and into the L’Orbieu river valley. The dry vegetation, the gentle gradient of the hills, the coloring all increased the association with Colorado/Wyoming. Then a tumbleweed blew across the road and sealed the deal. Thank goodness for all the vineyards and stunning stone homes and distant ruins or I would have been completely confused.
In all seriousness, this region is stunning. I can’t believe I never got to this part of France before. Elements of the landscape bear a strong resemblance to parts of the arid West I love dearly. But here it includes endless vineyards, stunning in their fall colors. And ancient abbeys. The Abbey de Lagrasse, visible from our apartment, dates from the 8th century with stones laid by Charlemagne. And ruins of Cathar castles atop mountainsides (really, atop them; provisioning them must have been hard enough let alone build them). Oh, and coastline with oysters… So kind of like Colorado, only better in some wonderful ways.
Here as in Provence we rented an apartment for about a week, the Riverside Gite. Also as in Provence, we rented in an old stone building near a river; this one backed right to the Orbieu. Actually a really old stone building, with the back wall dating to the 14th century. And a view down the river to a bridge built in 1303.
A few highlights from the week:
Another town included in the listing of “The Most Beautiful Villages of France” that is highly deserving of the praise. The view coming into town is stunning, especially with the fall colors (abbey, river, bridges, old stone buildings, winding streets…). The town is fairly central to sights throughout the region, especially the Corbières. Though all roads in and out were windy and some very narrow; never boring driving.
The town has about seven restaurants, though the summer season being over, only about three were open. A couple of small groceries, a wine store with mostly natural wines, an old market place (outside our door) with a Saturday market with great local vendors, and literally right outside our door, two designers with their own stores and several other artisans throughout the town.
The ground floor of our building houses a store run by a husband and wife who do jewelry (she) and made-to-measure clothing (he), some with vintage couture fabrics. EPPO. Next door (and the first place I stepped into when we were totally lost looking for our apartment) is Beverly Smart. Instantly knew I had to return there. As Jeff would tell you I did, several times. Got a lot of great tips about the region from her. And about how to bake a round of Mont D’Or cheese in the oven (poke holes in it, insert slivers of garlic, pour white wine over the whole thing and bake for about 20 minutes). That made an amazing dinner with potatoes and bread to sop up the cheese. Beverly’s store is a beautiful, calm space. All white walls with clothes she designs and makes and jewelry she finds and/or creates in collaboration with female artisans in South Africa (a venture that started when she went to visit a friend, found amazing artisans there and wanted to work with them, so kept going back, sound familiar???). Beverly is quite tall and always made clothes for herself. Her designs are all clothes you would want to wear about anywhere, anytime. Somehow elegant and structured, yet at the same time casual and easy. I’m typing this all in a long-sleeve cape-like wrap top. Hard to describe and hard to take off. She left a high-stress job in her late 20s following a gut instinct to move to France (to Lagrasse) and ultimately found this work. A good sign such bold moves can work out.
My favorite winery? The one next to the car park near our apartment, Domaine Durand. Small garage where a father and son make easy-to-drink, spicy yet light red wines. Made for some good drinking and was fun to say hi to father and son as we saw them around town that week. Close second was the cooperative in Camplong.
If you had asked me before about the Cathars, I would have said “Oh yes, I know about them.” If asked to provide any details… We were right in the heart of Cathar country in the Corbières, so a quick trip to Wikipedia, several other sites, and a book in the lobby of our building helped fill in the history. For more information, see Cathar Wiki and Cathar Castles (to see the book go to Lagrasse…). In very brief terms, Catharism was a branch of Christianity that did not follow the Catholic Church and was the subject of the Church’s first crusade against fellow Catholics. From the 13th through the 14th centuries the Catholic Church decimated all those following the religion, thought to be tolerant of those following the religion, etc. etc. And as the Church and political rule was intimately tied together, the wars extended to issues between France and the then separate “Pays D’Oc”.
Today there stand many ruins of Cathar castles, strongholds atop mountains. We visited two, Peyrepetruse and Quéribus. Absolutely stunning and a bit magical. We visited on foggy days, and with the clouds swirling in and amongst the ruins, you could almost imagine being there in any century.
We made two daytrips to the Mediterranean. The first day was a walk between Leucate Plage and La Franqui, along the bluffs overlooking the sea. Once in La Franqui we had an amazing lunch. We learned you could do the set menus with one person getting an entrée (appetizer) and main dish and the other getting a main dish and a desert, an effort to reduce our gluttony a bit. Here we shared and entrée of mussels with butternut squash ‘fries’, followed by steak for Jeff and white fish in a crab bisque sauce for me, and a molten chocolate cake with caramel center for desert. Paired with excellent local wines. We then walked a bit in the ocean, then put our shoes back on for the return to Leucate and a visit to, hooray, the oyster shacks. Had a dozen on site plus another dozen to take home. Two dozen oysters plus wine for 15 euros… These were good, firm and salty (but I’m still a Normandy oyster gal). And yes, this day was as good as it sounds.
The next beach foray was to Collioure, close to the border with Spain. A quintessential seaside town with brightly colored buildings rising up from the harbors, an old fort/castle, plenty of ice cream, and anchovy processors. Fauvism started here, inspired by the light. Plaques around town show where Matisse and Derain painted. Here another delicious lunch, highlight was a seafood risotto for me and smoky, spicy chorizo risotto for Jeff. Couldn’t resist picking up seashells, rocks and sea glass, but in an effort to keep our load lighter, just took a picture and threw them back at the ocean.
Day one in the region we visited Carcassonne, a “new” city and an “old” city, the Cité de Carcassonne, a medieval fortress restored in the 1850s. Wandered all over the old city, including around the fortress walls. Never would a tourist site in the US allow people to be up on such unprotected edges. Was fantastic. In the “new” city had lunch at a café in the town center, which it turns out is a well-known and loved place, Chez Félix. Then walked along the Canal du Midi and to the art museum. Check out this man’s shoes.
And in Carcassonne finally found my local beauty product! Walking towards the castle noticed a little shop done up in pale blues. Turns out this blue coloring was made from the woad or pastel plant (scientific name Isatis Tinctoria). Toulouse was famous for production of pastel, exporting “cocagne”, little balls of dried pastel. Production declined in the 1800s and was recently revived. The plant has a long history of cosmetic and medical uses and “Graine de Pastel” has created a line of face and body products, soaps and so much more. As I was about to celebrate a birthday, I bought a few items from the ‘anti-aging’ line. Will see how it does! The store clerk patiently explained all about the history, product and company, answering my many questions. She was obviously a devoted fan (has worked for the company for over four years), and told me they have just started a push to open more stores in France and abroad. So if anyone is interested in opening an outlet, let them know!
Finally, we made a day trip to Albi, home of Toulouse-Lautrec. This is technically part of the Midi-Pyrénées and is undoubtedly a beautiful city. Unlike the other areas we visited, Albi was built primarily with brick, so it has a very different look and feel. We had an amazing lunch at L’Epicurien, a restaurant recommended by a friend. Three courses starting with lentils and salami, followed by white fish on potatoes with an herbed ‘foam’ sauce, followed by three small cream puffs. Amazing.
After lunch we toured the massive cathedral of Sainte-Cécile. A truly beautiful ceiling and interesting feature in the middle. A highly ornate gate across the middle of the church. Apparently all/most cathedrals had this. Had to keep the commoners on one side and the nobility on another. Did not learn a lot of endearing historical facts about the Church on this trip…
From here we walked across the square and waited for the Toulouse-Lautrec museum to reopen (nearly everything closes for lunch). Housed in the Palais de la Berbie (palace built by the bishops of Albi), it is the largest collection of Toulouse-Lautrec works. I have long been a fan of his works. Too much has been written about his work to add much here, but in a nutshell, for me he captures the anguish and despair of life, while somehow conveying its beauty and wonder. And he does so with such a restrained elegance. A single line, a small sweep of color, and a world of emotion is conveyed. The beauty continued with a walk to the river Tarn. The light was magical, with stunning reflections of the bridges.
There’s so very much more to share about this region and our short time there, but if I don’t stop here this will never go online. But just for the heck of it, here are photos of fabulous mustard in a little to go package, our cassoulet, and perhaps my favorite French food, fromage blanc.