France 2015

What a year! After visiting Berlin and the UK early in 2015, I couldn’t resist an offer to join Denise (friend from Adelaide) in France in October. Denise is an artist and had been painting in Tuscany, also travelling in Spain. She had a home exchange lined up in Lans en Vercors, near Grenoble. My English friends, Sue and Simon, had also offered us the use of their French home – very close to where I’d spent summer the previous year. Didn’t take long to arrange everything! We shared 2 weeks in an alpine chalet in Lans en Vercors, then 4 weeks in a lovely home in the Pyrenees in late autumn.

PARIS  Wednesday 14th October…8am (before joining Denise)

First full day in Paris coming up, waiting for it to start.  It’s still barely light outside and the city hasn’t properly woken up.   I can hear the bells of Notre Dame right now as I sit here in my tiny little bedsit.  It’s literally only a 5 minute walk to the great Cathedral and the River Seine.  A fantastic location in the Latin Quarter.

Arrived at CDG airport at 1.30pm yesterday, caught the local train into the city and found the apartment relatively easily.  It’s in an old building with a single door on the narrow little street. Two lots of codes to gain entry, and old worn stone steps to the spiral stairs up to the 3rd floor.  The room is like a little shoebox; when the bed’s pulled out there’s about 1 sq metre to stand in. Maybe an impoverished artist lived here many years ago.  Not much room for an easel though. Rue Maitre Albert down below has a number of artists’ studios, a couple of modern design places and an Artistique Tateour (tattooer),  also lots of bars, cafes and superb food shops in nearby Place Maubert. 

I walked around the district yesterday afternoon and spent 5 minutes in Notre Dame. But with more phones, cameras and selfie sticks than stained glass windows, it’s not a great experience these days.   Why can’t people just look and enjoy the real thing?.?

It’s now Thursday 15th – but I’ll continue with Wednesday’s activities:

The day lived up to all expectations. Started with typical French breakfast (coffee and croissant) in Place Maubert. Then walked.  And walked, and walked and walked some more. After strolling through gardens, along the river bank, another quick look inside Notre Dame and Isle St Louis, I joined a guided walk around the Latin Quarter.  Shakespeare and Co (my favourite bookshop in the world), old churches, old Roman streets, jazz clubs, famous old pubs, Sorbonne University, Cluny museum , the Pantheon and other delights of the area-all within minutes of where I’m living

With Nelson in Paris

Finished the tour in good time to meet Nelson for lunch. He was on his way back to his boat after a short visit to Jocelyne’s, so he hopped off the train at Gare de Lyon, unfolded his bike and pedalled over to Place Maubert ….   Really great to have time to talk and laugh and remember the amazing summer at Can Guillet last year, when he fell in love and I watched the whole drama with Jocelyne unfold (see ‘2014 France’ for all the  details.) For anyone who may be interested….Jocelyne still hasn’t sold the house, she and Nelson continue to enjoy holidays together,  Jean-Pierre is being difficult, and she is still quite emotionally fragile, struggling without much money and very uncertain what the future holds.  Nelson’s providing lots of support but can’t (doesn’t want?) to be there full time.  I’m very much looking forward to seeing Jocelyne again in a few weeks.  Denise and I will be living close to her on the mountain.   After lunch, Nelson and I had coffee in the little bakery that Shakespeare and Co has just opened next to the bookshop. Then he flipped out his bike again and pedalled off to catch his next train!

Paris at night

In the evening I became a true tourist and did a River by Night cruise.   only €10 and worth it.  Paris sparkles by night. All the bridges and famous buildings are lit up and even on a cold evening with light rain, it all looked very pretty.  

Thursday 15th October

The Lady with the Unicorn tapestry ….. superb

With only a few hours left in Paris, I filled them very happily with a visit to the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages, a delightful small museum in an ancient Benedictine convent, in the Sorbonne district.   It has a wonderful collection of sculpture, wood carving and tapestries from the 12th to 15th centuries.  The artisans of that time were amazing . The pieces are superb.   The most prized items in the museum are the famous tapestries of The Lady with the Unicorn.   These 6 huge tapestries were rediscovered in the 1800s in a state of disrepair, but have since been beautifully restored.  There’s still some mystery surrounding the artist and the weavers, but historians have several theories about who commissioned them and what they mean.  (There’s also a novel by Tracy Chevalier that I read recently that throws some fictional possibilities about their origin.)

I discovered a local bus, minutes from my little street, that went straight to Gare de Lyon, so took my bags and myself there to catch the TGV (very fast train) down to Lyon in the afternoon….an easy and fast trip.

It’s now Friday 16th, but I’ll leave all descriptions of Lyon until next time.

FRANCE 2  LYON Saturday 17 October

Time in Lyon has been just as action-packed and enjoyable as Paris.  Amazing what you can do and see in a day and a half.   But it’s nearly up and I’ll be catching the train to Grenoble later this morning.

This has been my first visit to Lyon. Must try to get back one day.  Stayed in the old part…always the most interesting…and this city really is old.  Lots of Roman ruins and much evidence of pre-Christian times.  Every building seems to have at least 2 or 3 others underneath, only discovered when renovations get done.  For example, the cathedral of Saint-Jean has been restored many times over the centuries with archaeological evidence showing that it was a Christian place of worship from when the first of the disciples came through to spread the word. The old streets and houses also hold many secrets that are still being discovered – false ceilings,  hidden doors etc.

Fountain in Lyon – centre of the city

Apart from the history of Lyon, the geography is also quite impressive.  Established at the confluence of two great rivers, the Rhone and the Saone, it sits in a valley with high hills on either side.  Many bridges span the rivers , and the main thoroughfares mostly run parallel to the rivers in the old town.  However there are hidden tunneled lane ways that connect the main streets – known as ‘traboules’.   There’s a network of over 300 of these through and under old Lyon , with people living in small apartments built around the hidden courtyards.  Only a few are now open to the public on guided tours in daylight hours. There has to be 100% agreement from all the residents of any traboule to allow it to be accessible. In return, the city council pays for electricity and cleaning of the common areas, stairways etc. 

It seems that the traboules were originally built as simple thoroughfares , but there’s a connection to the silk book printing trades that were the key industries in Lyon in the middle ages.  Work got done, and goods were carried through these tunnels. The workers lived in the little houses in the towers and courtyards behind the main streets.   They were also used by the French Resistance during WW2 to print leaflets and hide soldiers.   It’s hard to imagine what the living conditions would have been like in the very early days before electricity and plumbing, but these days the apartments in the traboules have all the mod cons of the 21st century, as well as the charm of ancient stone work, old wells, spiral stairways and other decoration.

Basilica, Lyon

The other special thing to do in Lyon is to take the funicular cable car up to the Basilica on top of one of the hills overlooking the city.  This huge church (the Fouviere ) was only built in the 1800s, so not very old by French standards.  Well I’ve seen a Cathedral or two in my time, and admit that I’m generally not particularly awe-struck by any of them these days, but this one blew me away.   It’s absolutely sumptuous inside….gold, mosaics, carved pillars, marble… all the trimmings of any good cathedral, but especially rich and gorgeous.   I walked around a bit up on the hill, but as it was a very cold day, I decided to give the ancient Gallic ruins a miss and caught the funicular down again.   On a warmer day, it would be good to walk all the way down the hill with fantastic views of the town and the rivers all around.

Lyon library trompe l’oeil

Lyon is famous for its cuisine too. There are small restaurants known as bouchons all over the place. I had a typical French dinner one night –  choice of 3 or 4 entrées , mains and dessert or cheese for a fixed price.  All OK, except that I found I couldn’t read the menu properly, and ended up with quail for the main course – a few stringy bits of meat on tiny bones.   Luckily the rich, flowing chocolate coulant for dessert was divine.

I worked out that I must have walked at least 16 km in Lyon one day. Shades of the Camino again.  Even saw the golden way markers outside the cathedral that indicated this city was also on one of the great pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Sunday 18 October – now in Lans en Vercors

Left Lyon yesterday morning by train to Grenoble – about 1 hour away.  The scenery became more and more spectacular as we climbed towards the Alps.  Huge, rocky mountains and lush green valleys with picture postcard houses and cows. 

Denise, Marie and Denis on the balcony

Was great to meet Denise and our French hosts, Denis and Marie, at the station in Grenoble.   Everything worked perfectly… Denise had flown up from Bilbao in Spain.  Her bus from the airport and my train from Lyon arrived minutes apart, and Denis and Marie then drove us up to their little chalet that will be our home for the next 2 weeks.   They now live in a nearby village, but have kept the chalet to rent out in the ski season.  This whole beautiful valley is under metres of snow in the winter – it’s very much a ski resort/ alpine village. Marie was actually an Olympic skier and trainer of young elite skiers.  No skiing for us in October, though there is snow high up on the mountains now and breath-taking autumn colours on the trees.  It’s very, very beautiful.

Our home exchange chalet, Lans en Vercors

Tuesday 20 October: Las en Vercors

The view from the chalet

We’re completely settled in this lovely valley now. Have explored the village of Lans,  found all the local shops and cafes, places that have wifi, bus routes and so on.  We’ve done a couple of great walks through the countryside, up a few hills, but no mountain climbs as yet. Yesterday we took the bus up to Villarde, about 7 km away, and a bigger town than Lans.  Met a friendly young French woman in the tourist information office who kindly helped Denise sort out how to recharge her phone, and then took us for a gorgeous walk around the town, through sun-dappled forests, over grassy ski slopes, along mountain streams.  In broken French and English we were able to communicate well and enjoyed her company…her name’s Chrystelle, she used to work as a train conductor, moved to Villarde 2 years ago after having a work injury, and is now looking for another job. 

With Chrystelle walking in the forest

This morning was market day in Lans so we stocked up on fresh farm produce and crusty bread.  Tonight we’re going to dinner at Denis and Marie’s place.  Altogether,  life’s good.

Started this on Friday 23rd October…..and it’s now Monday 26th.   A lot’s happened in between, so it will be a challenge to get it all down.  Here goes …..

Denise and I have been living in Lans en Vercors for over a week now .  Apart from a short trip up to beautiful Annecy last Thursday & Friday, we’ve been getting to know our village and the surrounding villages, also enjoying some wonderful walks and meeting lovely friendly French people

Denise in the market

Time has passed in a relaxed kind of muddled routine to fit with the working hours of the village.  In much of France, everything closes for at least 2 hours in the middle of the day – but of course there’s no consistency about this.  In some places Monday is the ‘day off’… in other villages it might be Tuesday or Wednesday.   For example, our delicious bakery here is open from 6.30am to 12, then again from 2pm to 4, but the little supermarket in the village doesn’t open until 4 o’clock in the afternoon.   The bakery is worth visiting any time just for the sight and scent of the multitude of  divine baguettes, cakes and pastries of every shape, size and colour, cream and custard.  Mmmmm!!!   Some evenings everything in the village is open…other nights it’s all completely asleep.   We can only get wifi in the Office of Tourism for 20 minutes a day, but one of the local (very good & friendly) restaurants has it freely available so we’ve had quite a few coffees there to catch up with emails.  So we’re learning when to buy bread, when the market’s on, when and where the buses go and generally feeling very relaxed and just going with the flow.

Our walks have taken us to neighboring villages, up and down hills and mountains and through the most beautiful forests and valleys.  The walking paths are well way marked and there are endless magnificent views.  One day we took the bus to Autrans, about 10km away.  Arrived in the middle of the day when almost nothing was open – naturellement–  but we did manage to find the only place to buy something to eat, and enjoyed the ambience of this little town, before walking about 5.5k to the next village, Meaudre. All the houses in all these villages are designed for the long snowy winters with steep sloping roofs and wooden shutters.  The farms have big barns to house the animals when the snow comes, though we’ve been told that the cows actually get taken indoors every evening, all year round.  

Chalets … like the one we were living in … against the autumn backdrop

The weather has been quite mild all week and there’s not even a flake of snow left on any of the nearby mountains.  Sometimes there’s an early morning mist and a nip in the air, but mostly glorious autumn days full of color and sunshine.  Our most challenging walk yesterday involved a very steep mountain descent from the village of St Nizier down to Engins.  Quite exhilarating – and exhausting!  Fortunately someone had hammered some iron handrails into the rocks on the steepest ledges and we made it down safely over a couple of hours.  Then, with not a bar or café in sight in the sleepy village at the bottom , and over an hour to wait until the next bus,  we decided to hitch back to Lans.   Got picked up by a very kind couple who dropped us at our front door.c

We’ve enjoyed chatting to the locals at the little market on Tuesday and Saturday morning while stocking up on fresh raspberries, mushrooms, pumpkin and other vegetables.  My French is still fairly minimal, but better than last year , and I’m having some fun conversations with people we meet.   Everyone’s extremely helpful and friendly.  Marie and Denis also invited us to dinner one evening – had a lovely time with them and their two daughters speaking a mix of English and French, lots of laughs and plenty of good French food, wine and liqueurs.   They live in Villard where we met Chrystelle the other day, about 7km up the valley

the Fairy Band!

After the market on Saturday, we had coffee and lunch at Campe de Base (the friendly restaurant with wifi) then watched a wedding party in the main square with a colorful band of the bride’s friends dressed in funny fairy costumes, and a huge truck decorated with flowers and ribbons to take the happy couple away!  

The yurt where the musicians played

However, it was Saturday night that turned out to be one of the best experiences yet – truly unique and totally entertaining.   A concert in a yurt up in the woods!    We’d noticed a flyer for this event a few days previously so invited Denis and Marie and booked for the 4 of us. It cost 3 euro each for a wonderful evening of folk/rock/jazz & flamenco played by a local guitar and flute duo – along with local wines, cheese and other delights to eat during the break.  We had to meet at the local Tourism Office at 6pm, then were directed to the location of the yurt about a 10 minute drive away.  The last section involved walking up a stony track to a little plateau overlooking the valley to the yurt which had a furnace in the centre, wooden doors and floor , and comfortable padded benches to sit on.  I wish I could describe the atmosphere and pleasure of being in a lovely, warm, round tent high in the woods above a French village with a group of about 35 happy French people, clapping and dancing to some fabulous music on a mild, moonlit night.  Fantastic!

And now I need to go back a day or two to talk about our visit to Annecy, a beautiful town on a beautiful lake close to the Swiss border.    Caught an early bus to Grenoble on Thursday morning – an hour down a winding mountain road –  then a train to Annecy for 2 hours past high mountains, vineyards and green farm country.   Everyone who visits Annecy loves it and we’ve now joined the club.  It would be hard not to be captivated by the old town with its winding cobbled streets along little canals, the charming old higgeldy-piggeldy medieval houses, little shops, cafes, bars and restaurants.   And then there’s also the lake with boats,  white swans, gardens and glorious views in all directions.   Even the newer part of town has a warm, attractive feel about it with interesting shops, easy walking streets and nice hotels.  The one we stayed in was extremely pleasant, in a great location and quite reasonably priced.  In short, Annecy was lovely.  I even managed to shake off the last effects of the cold I’d picked up in Lyon.  On our second day there, we caught a local bus to Duingt, a village further around the lake, then climbed up to a little grotto that overlooked the whole wonderful world of French/Swiss lakes and mountains.   Quite impossible to stop taking photos!

It’s now Tuesday 26th October – and there have been 2 more excellent days since the last paragraph above.  It’s hard to keep up with the diary when life’s just so good.   We spent Monday exploring Grenoble, and today enjoyed a great walk through forests and mountain passes with Denis and Marie, then lunch at their place, followed by a visit to the local museum.   More from the Vercors next time

FRANCE 4:  Friday 30 October 2015

Just one of the beautiful valleys on our walks

It’s the most glorious sunny day today….a brilliant blue sky, not a cloud in sight, snow-capped mountains in the distance and white jet-streams of planes flying off to other parts of Europe.   It’s also the first day we’ve had at ‘home’ with no social engagements. And the first time I’ve had to write anything for over 4 days.    The temperature gauge on the verandah is showing 25 degrees at present. Quite amazing at this time of the year in the Alps.   When we arrived here 2 weeks ago, the hills were ablaze with red, gold, amber and russet, but most of the leaves have now fallen, the trees are nearly bare and everyone is waiting for the snow.  There have been some falls on the high mountains over the past couple of days. We can even see snow in the distance from the chalet and on our walks in the woods.

But now I must take myself back to Grenoble to recall what we did last Monday.   It’s about  a 3/4 hour bus ride to the city from here, down a very winding road.   Grenoble’s an attractive city on two rivers, surrounded by mountains.  The highlight for visitors is a ride up in the cable car (or “bubbles” as they’re called here) to the Belvedere fortress which overlooks all of Grenoble.  It’s a nice place at the top, with fabulous views.   We wandered around, enjoyed a coffee on the sunny terrace, watched children playing on the adventure ropes and climbing equipment, and read all the information about the history and geology of the Alps.   The ride up and down was great.

With several museums and other attractions to choose from, we opted for the Museum of the Resistance to learn more about the war years in France, and the Resistance movement in the Vercors in particular.  We’d already been told about the German atrocities that occurred in some of the villages in this area at the end of the war, and we’ve seen many crosses and memorials in the fields and villages.  The museum provided a comprehensive overview of WW2  in France, including the collaboration of Marshall Petain with the Nazis when it seemed that Germany would conquer all of Europe, the role of the Vichy French government – and the the call of Charles de Gaulle urging France to resist.  The underground resistance movement grew all over France, but Grenoble and the mountains and valleys of the Vercors became a significant centre. It had been thought that this area would be impenetrable, being naturally protected by the mountains, and so it proved until almost the end of the war.   However, as one of their last acts of aggression (or revenge), the German army stormed the valley, destroyed the villages and massacred the people.   There’s another big museum and memorial at Vassieux further down down the Vercors from here, one of the few places we haven’t managed to get to yet.

On Tuesday, we took the bus to Villard. .Denis and Marie picked us up and took us to their home for lunch – another feed of home-cooked French delights.   Then in the afternoon, we all went for a lovely walk through the woods above the deep Gorge de la Bourne.   The forest woodland looked like a fairy world with magical mossy mounds and carpets of autumn leaves, but when we emerged we were high above the Gorge, overlooking massive rocky cliffs and pine trees. We followed a little track along the edge for a while. Quite safe, but not a place for anyone scared of heights. Returned the way we came and drove back to Villard for the rest of the afternoon.  The local history museum and art gallery only opens from 3pm to 6pm at this time of the year and we wanted to visit it.   There was one especially beautiful exhibition in the gallery of black and white pictures in a decoupage style….whimsical scenes of French life done in very fine detail.  The museum also  had collections of old objects and photos depicting mountain life in days gone by,  also a fascinating look at the history of skiing and winter sports, with old wooden skis, sleds, boots and other alpine equipment.  

At home with Marie and Denis and their daughters
High above the Gorge de Bourne

Marie and Denis seem to know every mountain path, back road, ski run and forest in the whole area, so they’re the best guides anyone could wish for.   Their life has all been outdoor adventure sports – rock climbing, mountain biking, trekking, downhill skiing and cross country. Somewhat different from ours!  We learn more about them every day. Found out yesterday that they’ve climbed Mont Blanc (highest mountain in Europe) several times, as well as most of the other snowy peaks we can see from our walks.  Marie was head of a French national ski team when she was 20, and competed in the World Championships.  Denis is heavily involved in the Alpine Mountaineer Club, having climbed mountains all over the world.   For them, walking with us must be baby stuff -.but they’re very kind and generous friends and nothing seems to be too much trouble.  They’re both retired now, but still walk, cycle and ski all the time

Chrystelle en route to the Grotto

Wednesday turned out to be another fantastic day.  We caught up with Chrystelle again, had coffee at Campe de Base while she   planned an outing with us in her car – to the Grotto of Chorange.   What a spectacular place this turned out to be.  To get there we travelled  along the winding road of the Gorge de la Bourne, the same gorge we’d walked high above the previous day.   This road is listed in the travel brochures as one of the highlights of the Alps.   It’s an amazing feat of engineering with rock tunnels, overhanging cliffs, big structures to deflect rocks and snow falling down from the cliffs above, and in some places is barely wide enough for two cars to pass.  Chrystelle’s driving was put further to the test when heavy fog descended and heavy rain started – the first rain we’ve experienced here.   But she got us through safely after a couple of detours and missed signs, and we arrived at the Grotto in the thick of clouds and rain.  

The Grotto of Chorange is a massive underground cave system with a network of rivers, lakes, rock formations and exquisitely beautiful stalactites and stalagmites.   The stalactites are extremely fine and delicate, and hang in sparkling curtains above the water below.  Our young guide spoke very good English so we had a full explanation of how they’re formed and how old they are etc…but needless to say, I’ve forgotten the facts.  I won’t forget the sheer beauty of the place though.  At the end of the guided tour we had to climb 100 steps to a massive cavern where a fantastic Sound and Light show happened all around us.  It was beautifully done, not at all tacky and touristy.   Denis and Marie were very pleased to learn that we’d been taken there. It’s a special place, highly regarded by the locals   On the return trip, still in heavy rain, Chrystelle stopped off at the very pretty little town of Pont de Royans.  Here it was on with raincoats, hats and gloves again to explore the winding cobbled streets, the ancient houses hanging on the cliffs above the river, a quick look inside the Museum of Water and a serendipitous meeting with a man who is restoring one of the old houses and invited us inside.   What a sight. Amongst his vast piles of tools and equipment, he’s slowly digging out a series of caves to turn the place into an underground restaurant. We’ll have to return next year to see how it’s going! I really liked Pont de Royans .   Would love to see it again in sunshine

Pont de Royans

Back at the chalet we shared soup, bread, cheese, salad and local sparkling wine with Chrystelle. Also the dandelion aperitif liqueur she’d made and given to us.  More orange and dandelion wine is still waiting to be enjoyed  It was a stroke of luck meeting her….she’s been very generous and good company.

Thursday was spent with our other new French friends.  Marie took us for another fantastic walk high above the spring and summer pastures, looking out towards the highest mountains.  Up, up, up in the car to an alpine picnic spot, then down through the open grassland past mountain refuges and more picnic places.  Quite a few other people around enjoying walks or bike rides up in this area too – families, dogs and keen mountain bikers.   Our luck held as usual and the morning clouds lifted to reveal sweeping views over Grenoble and the jagged snowy peaks of some of the best mountains.   On a really clear day it’s possible to see Mont Blanc from here, but I guess we couldn’t have everything in one day.  The walk back involved a climb through the Pass of the Bear (none around these days) and through snowy pine forests. Very cold by the time we got back to the car…only 4 degrees!

Marie, me, Sylvean, Bernard and Denis

In the evening we were invited to dinner with neighbours of Denis and Marie – Sylvean and Bernard.   Sylvean is a former English teacher and speaks perfect BBC English with hardly a trace of an accent.  She was keen to meet us as she spent 6 weeks in Sydney with a group of her students some years ago.  They were a delightful couple with a lovely home, and we were only too happy to speak English with her, while enjoying more French food and wine. Real French champagne to accompany desert too ….

It’s now Saturday 31st (Halloween). And the past two days have been gloriously sunny.   Temp got to the high 20’s during the day and everyone has been revelling in it.  Denise and I thoroughly enjoyed having a lazy day, sitting on the verandah, with an afternoon stroll up to the village for a beer and coffee.   Last night (Friday) we took Denis and Marie to dinner at the Nepalese restaurant in Lans en Vercors. Great food and another fun evening.   Of course they’ve been to Nepal several times for climbing and trekking, also Ladakh on the Tibetan plateau so we shared some travellers’ tales over a feast of Nepalese goodies.

And today (Saturday) is our last day here.  We’re going up to watch the World Cup rugby final on TV at Campe de Base later today.  Don’t know a thing about rugby, but with Australia and NZ playing off, we thought we’d better cheer our team on.  I think we’re the only Aussies in the valley at present, so hopefully the local crowd will support the Wallabies too.

Tomorrow we fly to Toulouse, then take the train to Albi. now it’s time to sort and pack.

Carcassonne  Tuesday 3 November

Once again, a wonderful collection of  sights and experiences have been our lot since the last time I wrote.   Finished the last entry back at Lans en Vercors about to watch the World Cup rugby final.  Have never watched a rugby match in my life before, but with Aust playing NZ  – and half of France eagerly following the outcome – Denise and I felt we should wave the flag for ‘our’ team. Sadly they let us down, along with most of the crowd packed into Camp de Base. But it was fun watching and cheering when anything happened . I think everyone was keen for the Wallabies to win because the All Blacks beat France in the 1/4 final.  Anyway it was a fun night.

The fun in the bar didn’t stop when the rugby finished.  Chrystelle called in for a while to say goodbye…then Denise and I stayed on to hear an attractive, sexy,  young  French singer (male) perform as part of the comedy festival that had been going on all over the Vercors valley during the week.   His name’s Gerald Genty. He has a great voice, a ton of personality and a naughty twinkle in his eye.  We couldn’t take our eyes off him! Didn’t understand the songs or the jokes, but loved the performance. A fantastic evening to finish a lovely couple of weeks.

Next day (Sunday 1st) was full-on travel.  Bus to Grenoble (3/4 hour), bus to Lyon airport (1 hour), hanging around the airport (3 hours), plane to Toulouse (3/4  hour), bus from airport to railway station (1/2 hour), then train to Albi  – another hour.   Fortunately, Laurent,  our charming BnB host, picked us up at the station, drove us to the apartment and carried my case up 3 flights of stairs.   A long day, but a lovely place to arrive at.   The apartment was a mix of ancient timber, brickwork, thick stone walls, great oak beams, many levels and 21st century luxury fittings and furnishings – all in the heart of the old city, a
2-minute walk from the Cathedral and the Toulouse-Latrec museum..  Highly recommended if you don’t mind ducking your head as you climb upstairs, or bending and ducking at the same time to get into bed under the eaves. The quaintness and beauty made up for the inconvenience, but I couldn’t stay there for 3 months as the previous occupants had – a retired couple from Canberra.    Albi itself,  however, is definitely somewhere I could happily immerse myself for 3 months or more.  One of the most beautiful, charming medieval cities I’ve ever explored, with a fascinating and extremely brutal history…. (More later……)

WEDNESDAY 4 November…  I’m now sitting in the centre of La Cite, the medieval city & castle at Carcassonne, waiting for Denise to finish a tour inside the castle.  Having been here (done that) just 18 months ago, I decided to spend the time wandering through the little streets window shopping and now catching up with some writing.  It’s like stepping back into the middle ages with pretty and very tempting little boutiques everywhere within the city walls.  It’s also another gorgeous sunny day

We’re now staying in another nice BnB not far from La Cite….not as luxurious as he place in Albi but a great location again.   Laurent, our host in Albi, drove us to Toulouse yesterday, from there we took the train on to Carcassonne.  This B’nB apartment has a great view of the old city – especially when it’s floodlit at night

So, I’m back here and revelling in it.  I’m still a bit obsessed with the story of the Cathars  who lived peacefully here in the south of France in the 12th and 13th centuries before they were branded as heretics, hunted down and completely annihilated by the Popes and Bishops of the Holy Roman church.  (As our current BnB host said last night … yet another travesty the Catholic Church should answer for.)     Well, yes, times were different then, and the church ruled supreme, but the massacres, looting, burning and decimation of so many gentle people who didn’t happen to believe in the church’s teachings was nothing short of ethnic cleansing on a grand scale.  Last year I got to visit some of the final strongholds of the Cathars…stone fortresses high on top of rocks and mountains in the local countryside…. and I’m keen to try to learn and remember more of the stories of this tragic episode of French history.

The huge cathedral in Albi

Albi was also a stronghold of the church rulers. After the crusades against the Cathars, the most powerful bishop at the time had the most enormous, formidable cathedral built in the middle of the city as a symbol of the strength and permanence of the church.  It’s absolutely massive, and built completely of brick, the tallest brick structure in France.  One can’t help but be overawed by the size and solidity of it. It must have really put the fear of God into the local people back in the Middle Ages

But Albi is a truly beautiful little city.   Most of the houses in the old city are made of timber and brick at odd angles, overhanging the street or lopsidely jam-packed into tiny lanes and squares.  They have crooked little windows, wooden shutters and heavy old doors.   Many have pretty flower boxes on window sills or balconies.  It’s picture book stuff, but completely real with modern day people living inside.  

Albi from the cathedral

The cathedral and the bishop’s palace next to it completely dominate the Centre.  The Berbie  Palace now houses the national Toulouse-Latrec museum.   Both buildings overlook the pretty River Tarn, with sculptured gardens, terraces and watch towers completing the picture.  From the other side of of the river – across one of the oldest bridges in France – there are great views of these big brick monoliths. Well worth the short walk to get some photos.

Henri Toulouse-Latrec was born in Albi to an aristocratic family.  Born with a genetic bone disease, he suffered much ill health and had a very small stature.  But what an artist!  And what a life….a mix of privilege, decadence and pursuit of excellence.  The museum/gallery houses thousands of his drawings, paintings, posters and photographs.  Many are so well known of course ….the singers and dancers of Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge…but he also painted superb portraits of friends and family, and other scenes of French daily life.  To see the complete exhibition, you walk through  amazing rooms and old chapels of the original bishop’s palace.   It’s a total merging of art and architecture and a very enriching experience.   I’m so glad to have finally visited Albi

Breakfast on the terrace, Sue & Simon’s house in the Pyrenees

Sorry ….. lots of jumping around has happened in this diary, but might as well round off with the day following our sightseeing in Carcassonne.  Today is Thursday 5th November and we’ve travelled on further south to Perpignan, and are now extremely comfortably installed in Sue and Simon’s house in the  Pyrenees. Jocelyne met us at the station, as planned…..and surprise!  Nelson also appeared.   He ‘d made a spur of the moment decision to come down to stay with Jocelyne for a few days  So they drove us back to Reynes and up the mountain to this lovely house where we’ll be spending the next couple of weeks.  I feel as if I’ve come “home” to my place in France.   It’s just 18 months since I was living here and enjoying a wonderful summer in the south of France. This year it’s well into autumn of course, but still warm and sunny.   This is going to be a happy fortnight ahead!

Tuesday evening: 10 November

After a few very active days up here in the Pyrenees, we decided our aching (aging? ) limbs had done enough climbing and hiking  to warrant a day of just lolling around in the beautiful sunshine.  The weather has been true south-of -France perfection. A bit cool for swimming but definitely T-shirt ( or less) when sitting out on our terrace looking at mountains and valleys, a few distant farm houses and a brilliant blue sky.  

Over the past few days we’ve walked for many kilometres,  scrambling up mountain sides to get even better views, or just hiking down the road and little tracks to the village bus stop 6 km away.   The bus throughout the Languedoc  region still costs only 1 Euro for as far as you want to go.  We’ve already had two very full days out, firstly down to the nearest town, Ceret,  for the wonderful, weekly Saturday morning market.  Absolutely everyone in town enjoys the atmosphere of  this market with colourful stalls filling every winding street in the centre. … fantastic fresh fruit and vegetables, also local crafts, interesting clothes, cheese, baskets,  jewellery,  paintings, flowers….everything.  We spent time and money and wished we had more of both.

The other big outing was to Perpignan yesterday, involving the usual 6km walk down, then an hour bus ride (1 Euro), then walking all day through the city – and another 1 hour trip back to Reynes to begin the long trudge up the mountain to the house.   Fortunately we struck it lucky and hitched a lift before we’d gone too far – a lovely young couple who brought us right to the door.  In Perpignan we visited the Palace of the Kings of Majorca, one of the prime tourist sights and one place I didn’t visit last year.  As palaces go, this one wasn’t particularly spectacular, though the architecture, brick and stone work was interesting with more Spanish and North African influences.  Perpignan is said to be one of the most ethnically diverse cities in France with a mix of French, Spanish, Catalan , Algerian, Moroccan and Romany. Many of the streets of the old city have a distinctly North African feel.   It’s a pleasant, laid-back kind of city with a canal and a river, lots of little plazas and grand squares and interesting shops…when they’re open.   Being a Monday, lots of places were closed so it wasn’t as colourful as I remembered it from last year, but we still enjoyed the day, even with tired legs and feet

Several days later….

More of the same.  Lots and lots of walking – mainly because there’s no choice up here where we’re living.  Jocelyne  has given us a lift down a couple of times , but every day except one we’ve walked at least once, up or down. Sometimes both ways.  Thought I’d die after trudging up in the dark yesterday. It’s completely dark by 6pm, so to avoid the night we really need to start the uphill climb by about 4.30.  Easier said than done, because buses are not frequent down on the main road and we can’t always get back to Pont de Reynes by then.  However we’re still ok and have coped well with two very late, dark night walks home.  The most challenging was the walk back over the mountains from Ceret one afternoon.  I did this route several times in summer last year, but landmarks look different in the fog and fading light, and by the time we’d covered about 6km of little tracks and climbs through the forest, we had to do the last section back to Jocelyne’s house down the mountainside in the pitch dark, aided only by the torch light from my mobile phone. The wild boars probably heard the stumbling and swearing!

Highlights this week have been 2 visits to Palalda and one to the fantastic Museum of Modern Art in Ceret. 

gFrom the old village of Palalda
Dancing the Sardane at Palalda –
the old man in the suit is 89!

Palalda is a very picturesque medieval hilltop village not far from here.   Ancient houses, winding stairways, a 12th century church, pretty flower boxes and cats….and superb views of neighboring towns, villages and valleys.  Last year I was amazed to find a tiny museum up in Palalda telling the story of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scottish,  artist, architect and designer.  I learned then that he’d spent some years in this part of France, painting.   Denise wanted to see both the village and the Mackintosh museum, so we made our way there during the week, only to realise that it was 11th November- Armistice Day, which is still very much honored by the French. Hardly surprising given the impact of WW1 on this country.  Anyway, there we were in Palalda when the village band marched up to the tiny market square, with flags held aloft, and the local dignitaries wearing their medals  The Mayor made a speech, someone sang a patriotic song, then everyone (including us) stood up for a rousing rendition of the Marseillaise.  It was all rather moving, and quite unexpected.  There were only 20-30 people altogether throughout the ceremony….everyone adjourned to the only little bar/restaurant for a break, so we joined the crowd and sat in a lovely sunny window overlooking the rooftops and valley below.   Of course the Mackintosh museum was closed for the day, but there was still more afternoon entertainment to enjoy.   After the drinks break, the band struck up again and the people started dancing the traditional Catalan circle dance, the ‘sardane’ .  Anyone could join in, but it would be essential to know the steps – and these local people dreally did.  They danced with incredible energy and enthusiasm …the eldest, we learnt, was a dear old man of 89!    He’d probably been hopping and skipping the sardane all his life….  It turned out to be such an enjoyable day up in the Palalda sunshine, with music, friendly people and local culture, – despite the museum being closed

Charles Rennie Mackintosh still beckoned, however, so we made a repeat trip up to Palalda the next day, helped by a lift with Jocelyne down the mountain.   After hiking up the winding streets and steps of the village again… voilà! …we found the museum was open.  It’s only small but very interesting with some good videos of his early life, lots of photos and prints of his works and a good overall description of his time in the south of France.  Spent a bit too much time there and in the neighboring leather-worker’s gallery, hence the late start walking back up.  Arrived home absolutely dead-beat…. no luck with hitching a ride this time.


The other excellent art gallery in these parts is the Museum of Modern Art in Ceret.  So many well known artists spent time in this little town in the 1920’s  (Mattise,  Picasso, Miro, Braque , Dufy and others) and all painted their impressions of the region.  It seems that Ceret hasn’t changed much in almost 100 years….the same trees, houses, streets and mountains can be seen in all these great paintings.  Picasso sculpted a series of bowls decorated with bullfighting scenes in 6 days…24 in all…and gave them to the gallery.   In addition to this permanent collection by all these artists, the gallery also houses superb temporary exhibitions and the current one that we were very fortunate to see is by Spanish sculptor, Jaume Plensa.  I’m sorry to say that I’d never heard of him before, but his work is magnificent.  He’s exhibited in New York,  Chicago, Berlin, Paris and the UK…one day we’ll see him in Australia hopefully.  His work is huge…metal, resin, stone and other materials…all on the theme of human universality…how we are all the same, despite different languages, religions, culture etc.  The documentary film about him showed him to be a truly beautiful person, and his art is quite mesmerizing.  

Sunday 15th November:

The tree before pruning
After we’d finished pruning!

Had a day at home today.  Spent the morning pruning the big leafy tree on the terrace at the front of the house.  Sue and Simon didn’t have time to do it before they left and asked if we’d mind….seemed a reasonable request in exchange for 2 weeks free accommodation.   Don’t know what sort of tree it is, but there are lots of them in gardens and town parks in France and Spain and they get cut back drastically at this time of the year.  They end up looking like knobbly old skeletons- and that’s what ours is now. Must confess we had some help from Robert, an English guy who’s staying with Jocelyne and whom I got to know last year…. so now the job is done and we don’t have the shady shelter on the terrace that we’ve enjoyed until now.   The weather continues to be hot and sunny without any wind…absolutely perfect.

Tuesday 17th November

Went down to the Ceret market again yesterday.  Also called in to see Nathalie who gave me some French lessons in the Cybercafe last year.   Did the long walk back over the mountains – a very pretty, but quite hard trek.  Much easier in daylight though!

Had a great day out with Jocelyne today.  Drove down to Collioure, my favorite beach on the Mediterranean.  It’s such a pretty place with the old town spreading down the hill to the sea, a massive old fort right at the water’s edge and little bays around the coast with houses of salmon pink, mustard yellow, soft blue …and bright shutters, flowers , trailing bouganvillea….mountains in the background, boats, blue sky and warm sun.  However, because it’s out of season now, not all the inviting little shops, galleries and bars were open, but I remember the charm of the whole place very well from last year when Jocelyne and I visited and swam many times.  But even with closed shops and restaurants, the sea, sky and colors made Collioure a gorgeous place for today’s outing.

Denise and I entertained Jocelyne and Robert for dinner last night….very enjoyable to share good food and wine with friends in such a lovely setting.  Earlier in the day we’d walked down to Amelie les Bains to visit the local fruit and veg market, and while there, we participated in the nation-wide minute of silence for the people of Paris.  I had begun to think that the terrible events of last week had somehow bypassed the south of France, but clearly the people of Amelie les Bains wanted to pay their respects and were deeply affected by the attacks.  After the minute of silence at midday, John Lennon’s voice came across the square outside the Town Hall, singing “Imagine”….. this was followed by the local people singing the Marsellaise together.  A short but moving little ceremony.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) we have to pack and clean, ready to leave on Thursday….and it’s time I finished off this diary for France 2015.  
A l’annee prochaine. … (until next year …)