Saturday, 29 June 2013

Cinderella does not belong here after all

Having taken all our visitors over the last 2 years, to la cité, I admit to having become bored with it. I had got to the stage of thinking that if any more of our family or friends wanted to see it, they should go alone.

I had become sick of the crowded streets, the plastic swords and shields on sale everywhere , the poor quality food and even poorer quality service in restaurants that know they are unlikely to see their clients again…so why bother to make any effort at all.
The touristy show put on twice a day over the summer......attracting hundreds to each performance
I had read some of the tourist information and had thought that the 19th century re-building of much of the city had turned it into a Disneyesque travesty of what it had originally been.
I was wrong.

The plastic swords are still there, the cassoulet quality does vary between establishments, as does the service. However……it is unfair to accuse the 19th century architect Viollet-le-Duc with the Disney sin.
 Just delving a little deeper than the immediately available tourist brochures, I discovered that apart from anything else, Viollet-le-Duc’s work only affected about 20% of the buildings. I discovered that there is much remaining evidence of building from Roman times, through to the 5th century Visigoth phase, the brief Saracen occupation in the 8th century, and considerable proof of what was built when and how from the 11th century Trencavel period, through the Albigesian Crusade, the foundation of the bastide town, now the modern Carcassonne, and on into the 19th century when Napoleon influenced things, removing its' military significance and finally restoration work and recognition of the historical importance of the fortifications over the previous 2 centuries.
12th century detail of a mural in the round room at the castle, depicting a battle between the Franks and the Saracens

Roman items within the archeological museum inside the castle

12th century ablution fountain, again in the museum. Fractal flower image from a wonderful current exhibition where such images are put alongside antiquities.

I knew I loved the basilica St Nazaire, and not just because of the Russian singers I have heard performing there on several of my visits. Now I know about the original medieval glass, and the 12th century elements…I am thrilled, and already looking forward to my next visit.
St Nazaire, from the ramparts 
just a glimpse of some of  that glass
I became interested in the Trencavels last year when I learned about the Albigensian crusade, the Beziers massacre of the Cathars in 1209 and the siege of Carcassonne in August of the same year.
Apart from playing such an important part in the crusade called by Innocent III to seize lands held by Occitan Lords ( like Trencavel) who tolerated heresy ( in other words…those who followed the “good men”, who preached equality, chastity, humility, forbade murder, theft and lying, abstained from eating meat, accepted death as deliverance and rejected symbols such as the cross ), Carcassonne has been the fortress marking the border between Aragon and France. It was the 17th century before the modern border between France and Spain was established, removing this strategic role for Carcassonne.
During the 19th century restoration, various pieces of stonework were discovered where it was unclear where they had originally been used. Many of these pieces are preserved in the archeological museum.

The existing buildings are much more authentic than I had realised. Little documentary evidence about the various stages of building exist, but the actual stonework of the different building phases, over 2 thousand years provides the evidence of its continued development and importance over the centuries.
another image from the archeological museum
The Disney look is deceptive…..some of it has been re built, hoping to capture some of what it might have looked like, but much of it is the result of change upon change as different architectural styles developed and the needs of the fortress city changed.
more fractal flowers.....especially for Annie.
My next visitors will be encouraged to see la cité, and I will love taking them there, plastic armour and all.
Recognition of Carcassonne as a potential tourist destination, included using it as a backdrop for fireworks on Bastille day, way back in 1898. This photo is of the display in 2012.


Monday, 24 June 2013

It's marble time again

Considering how strange last 12 months have been for our family, due to my illness, I can hardly believe that this last weekend has been the annual fete du marbre et de la sculpture in Caunes. In some ways last year’s fete seems as if it was years ago, but as we were walking around the stalls over the weekend, some of it felt like just yesterday.
 The weekend began with a musical bonanza on Friday night. 3 venues, including the Abbey grounds, held concerts. All were free, and people just moved from one to another. Classical guitars, some soft bossa nova type jazzy stuff,a 10 year old on key board ( just for 5 minutes) an excellent band playing Pink Floyd, Doors and other old classics, an amazing singer song writer type ( he actually played cover versions…not his own stuff) with guitar and harmonica, and a pretty awful rock band who got plenty of people dancing with their somewhat tuneless rendition of Brown Sugar.

So it was a mixed bag….but great fun, walking from one venue to the next, glass of wine in hand, chatting to people along the way. There was also a village meal, so actually some of the music provided a background for the chattering that went on as people ate....and drank considerable quantities of wine. I don't think any of the musicians minded....they all seemed to understand that not everyone was listening incredibly carefully to their sounds.

I am not wild about some of the marble statues that are displayed just about everywhere in Caunes....even when there isn't a festival going on...but this one fascinated me.....very Rosie the Riveter.

Saturday was the first day of the actual marble festival, and we had arranged to meet Veronica, who lives in a Corbieres village, and who I met last year when I was in Caunes  on my own. We wandered around the displays, chatted away, and spent part of the evening over a village meal, eaten in the lovely abbey gardens. Veronica was a mine of information about getting involved in village life in France, having been part of her village’s life for many years….she also gave me a great compote recipe, which will have to be tried out in the next few weeks.

not everything was about marble.....
The paella was excellent
 After Veronica left to go home, we sampled yet another Caunes musical experience. It was described as electronic music, and consisted of banks of computers, keyboards and speakers, with one of two DJs, who mixed it all and worked very hard on stage, ensuring it sounded as they wanted. Some of it was interesting, and some I’m not so sure about…but it looked impressive and the light show that went with it couldn’t fail to be good as it was beamed onto the abbey walls.
"Marble is Perfekt" Bnoise Electro Jazz avec DJs Janoez et David Brunner
 Sunday was actually the main day of the festival, and we met up with another couple of friends to wander the streets of Caunes again. More sculptors, more stalls, and more entertainment….and many more people around than on Saturday. A band and some brilliant Occitan dancers performed in the village streets and in the abbey grounds.

We felt as if everyone we had ever met since coming to Caunes, was out and about. We saw our French neighbours, and we met up with every English, American and Dutch person we have come across in the last 18 months. What was really interesting, was that everyone we knew....seemed to know everyone else that we knew, even if we had never met them together before.The whole of Caunes was wandering the streets in the rather weak sunshine. 

And finally….dans les jardins de l’Abbaye…..des producteurs …..Pays Cathare et Sud de France…providing incredible assiettes gourmandes.

We ate and drank well !

This seems to be the start of summer in Caunes. The classical Friday night concerts start in 2 weeks time ( les Vendredis Classiques ) in the abbey grounds, and the regularly held village meals are now being advertised.

 Despite a couple of trips back to England over the summer… is going to be pretty full of being entertained, eating and drinking here in Caunes.

Sculptor Eric Stambi putting the final touches on the exhibition piece for this year.." L'Argent Double"
Mark, Jane and Steve, checking out "L'Argent Double"
We have decided we like it.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Les sacs

 There was a time when shopping in France meant carrying one of these:

or  at least, one of these:

You  also had to either finish your shopping before lunchtime….or wait until mid afternoon…….and you could never shop on a Sunday.

Times are changing……….

This can be seen in so many shops now

 I’m not sure how I feel about more and more shops opening all day, and on Sundays. There is something reassuring, if frequently inconvenient, that people have time for a proper lunch, and that commercialism has at least one day off a week.


But, I always thought I knew how I felt about these ….


Old lady trolley shopping baskets.




The evidence is that they should no longer be known as old lady shopping trolleys....young, old, male & female seem to be everywhere with them.

My mum’s one was wicker work, with a walking stick handle.

   I never thought the day would come when I decided they are brilliant.

                                                  This is mine…….and I love it.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Life .....and other important things.

Since the grandchildren left we have poodled around, enjoying the improving weather and finishing a few jobs around the place.
The bamboo has been attached to the pergola roof, pending the growth of jasmine and an orange trumpety climber whose name I have forgotten.
Mark and Erin Trunel outside her gallery in Caunes.
We went to a vernissage at a friend’s art gallery in the village. Erin, whose birthday celebration we attended a couple of weeks ago, has a lovely little gallery on the main street, and she is currently hosting an exhibition of Fabien Laplace’s work. He will  be exhibiting in London soon. His work is interesting and reminded me of the art work involved in map making, and the images of some aboriginal art where footsteps and journeys are described.
Mark talking with Fabien Laplace, the artist.
One of Fabien's works
more of Fabien's work, not sure who the man is...but I thought he looked interesting !

We have visited a few vide greniers, and acquired a few treasures. ( I feel a vide grenier blog coming on )...and watched an incredible storm as it approached and then enveloped Caunes.
The approaching storm

We also went on a wine tasting trip with Wendy Gedney, who lives here in the Languedoc and runs a wine tourism company. (  I went to a lovely winery with her last year and visited some Cathar castles with her on the way back. Wendy’s knowledge of the region’s wine is amazing, and her enthusiasm for the art ( and science) of wine making is infectious.
Wendy pouring and explaining... at Domaine Chateau Ollieux Romanis,
the wine tasting group's lunch

We visited 2 vineyards, one of which is run single handed by an incredible woman, who somehow manages to make and sell beautiful wine and bring up 3 children.
Domaine de Mingraut in les Corbieres, owned and run, single handed by Veronique Cuculiere.....brilliantly
excellent salad starter eaten in La Grasse...on the wine trip
La Grasse....a place to return to and explore properly.

(During the wine trip we found out that daughter Jess got a 2.1 in her we felt we had good reason to celebrate)

We’ve been doing some serious thinking about life while we’ve been here. Surviving cancer is wonderful. Life is so much better than the alternative, but just surviving is not going to be enough…for me, or for Mark. We have decided we need some purpose, beyond enjoying “being here” ( sorry Annie, "being here" is the most important bit, I know), wherever “here” happens to be.
a gorgeous place to be......but maybe just being isn't enough

So, whilst recovering here, doing very little, apart from pottering, reading, learning about the garden, making attempts to improve our French etc etc……is good… is not enough. Neither of us is sure exactly what that means yet, but we’re working on it….and it gives us a meaty conversation topic when we are enjoying some of the gorgeous wine we bought on our tasting trip.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Everything in the garden is better than rosy

The garden here in Caunes is a real joy. When we first saw it, apart from falling in love with it, we were concerned that we could never take care of it.

We were wrong. It is a garden you can leave to go wild completely, or, as we have done, cultivate bits of it at a time….and watch as wilderness overtakes other bits.
This area of France has fascinating plants. The Garrigue, with mountain flora and fauna, fabulous greens and forest land comes head on with the Mediterranean, dry, scrubby, rocky, palms, succulents and desert plants. Our garden has it all…as well as vines, olive trees, almond trees, fig trees, more varieties of oak than I knew existed….oh and a couple of lilac trees that miraculously survived the cold winter of 2012 ( unlike our large palm and 2 mimosa trees….although the mimosa has re sprouted…so all was not lost )

At the moment, I am leaving vast swathes of the garden  completely wild, as it would seem a tragedy to cut down the amazing wild flowers that have self seeded and flourished in the wet spring. I know that in a few weeks, most of the green will have gone, and things will be dried out….the clearing of paths can wait until then.

So here are a few images of the colour in the garden this spring…..when I think it is at its best. ( I haven't included any photos of the amazing trees in the garden, because I think they may feature in a blog of their own).






and there are also...roses.