Why fly to Languedoc-Rousillon? Generally, if you're heading for southern France, you'd visit Provence, that mecca of delights that entrances most traveling Americans, and in the past we've explored Provence happily. This time, though, we are excited by the romanticism and exoticism of the Land of the Cathars and the heresy that fired the papal Albigensian Crusade—its fortified castles perched on high, its non-stop vistas of vineyards, its unspoiled medieval villages and Romanesque shrines.
My husband Bob and I are traveling with four women, all painting enthusiasts, to Languedoc, where for two weeks we've rented a house in the village of Paraza on the Canal du Midi. This plan has spawned many jokes, of course, re: Bob's Harem! In a rented van we drive north from Baltimore to Kennedy Airport, just making our flight, with the aid of the Air Train, which saves precious time and eliminates traffic snarls.
Iberian Airway's Airbus is filled to capacity with 600 passengers. Ouch! But we make it comfortably. At Madrid we catch a smaller plane to Marseilles, where a National Rent-a-Car Ford van (reserved on the Internet) awaits us. A long drive straight west toward Narbonne follows, and the French Superhighway brings us in a timely fashion to Languedoc-Roussillon. Somehow Bob follows winding lanes to the small village of Paraza, in time for dinner at the Café du Port by the Canal du Midi. We are duly greeted by our contact, who is also doyenne of the Café. The meal is expensive, the cuisine healthy and robust with fresh fish and sardines. But we note the sad decline of the dollar in relation to the soaring Euro!
6/8 The house we'd found on the Internet—#7 rue de la Mairie—is delightful! It looks like the old bastide we stayed in in Provence with its plain, thick walls and shuttered windows from centuries ago. There are three floors, two baths and four bedrooms (some discontent among those on the top), but I'm in love with the place—its cool ground floor, its well-equipped kitchen, its stone stairs to a comfortable living room, its varied nooks for different groups, its serene swimming pool tucked under the soaring majesty of a fin-de-siecle mansion and its view out over endless vineyards glowing green and golden in the sunlight before dark mountain ranges.
Houses are compactly laid out in the village, with variously angling roofs of red tile over bright yellow walls in contrast to the luscious green texture of ever-present vineyards originally brought to the region by Romans. It's a working town of simple farm folk, with no frills, but on our walks Bob and I find doorways handsomely decorated with pots and plants—even a Hand of Fatima door knocker whose tradition originated in Morocco.
Our breakfasts, including the incomparable croissant and delicious fruit preserves, are bought at the little épicerie on our street, but for essentials we shop at the Intermarche in the bustling town of Lézignan. The weather is windy and chilly, as we scour our village for other places to eat, but spirits are high at dinner; somehow three bottles of various regional vintages will disappear daily during our stay!
6/9 We relax at home as the weather turns warmer. At the nearby village of Ventenac Bob and I find rented houseboats drifting along the Canal du Midi to the squawking of ducks and geese looking for tidbits. Sunbathers sprawl half-nude on the decks. The canal, built to span the distance between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, takes its water from mountain streams and is an outstanding feat of seventeenth-century engineering by Pierre Paul Riquet, based on a Roman plan; some of us book a short tour. At Ventenac a stalwart bridge spans the canal and a large chateau sells its own wine at good value. We return to lunch by the pool, which is a perfect temperature, but the weather is cool.
At 2 p.m. we head out to tour interesting villages of the Minervois region through fields upon fields of scenes reminiscent of Van Gogh paintings, with vineyards of young grapes splashed with yellow broom and plane trees shading our route. Minerve is an ancient town of stone dwellings, set atop a canyon bored through sheer rock by a small river. Stunning! Here in 1210, after a seven-week siege, 180 Cathar leaders were burned. We bounce along that narrow road in our huge Ford van (with a few complaints from the ladies!), cruising across the Minervois area to Caunes-Minervois. Its handsome Romanesque church and abbey offer displays of modem art as well as Neolithic bronzes. (It's interesting that these two extremes are what one frequently finds in the area.) An earlier church from the eighth century has been recently discovered beneath the tenth century shrine. Following a sign, we stop at Centielles, where an interesting early church offers softly colored frescoes. I photograph a companion leaning on the remains of a Roman pillar.
6/10 Everybody paints by the pool. Later, a walk to the Canal du Midi results in an encounter with a large, hissing goose who keeps the boaters trapped on their vessels.
6/11 It's a bustling market day for Lézignan. We buy fish, an excellent big bass, for dinner. The colorful market throbs with activity. Three of us set out for La Grasse and its beautiful abbey whose dates span seven centuries. Uh, oh! We have a contravention to pay for parking illegally at the market. We receive instructions as to how to handle it at a tabac. I pay thirty-five Euros (fifty dollars) for a stamp which I believe to be glued onto paper, but it flies off and disappears between two cases held together by computer wires (essential to the store's operation!). Adorable Paulina, daughter of the irate patrone, struggles for half an hour and miraculously finds it. Now it's six p.m. We search for the Police Station, finding it closed next to the empty Hotel de Ville. I rush in, call out for help and a young man appears who promises to turn in the duly stamped contravention first thing in the morning. A bit of red tape easily handled!
6/12 Carcassonne is a storybook medieval walled town of much fame. The earliest sections were built by the Romans, then came the Visigoths and eventually Louis IX of France strengthened its fortifications into the cluster of round towers with peaked roofs, vast moat and royal palace that we see today. Inside, its streets are lined with shops luring tourists, but the overall impression is one of unforgettable magnificence.
6/13 I'm painting a cubist scene of angling roofs from a third floor window of the house. Bob and I drive to Montpellier and walk a mile in the hot sun, failing to find the museum in the park. It's difficult to park near the centers of French towns. We scurry to meet my cousin's train; Connie LeGoaer lives in Brittany and will visit for the weekend. With her, we enjoy a good dinner under leafy branches at the Grillage in Ventenac; I delight in my favorite dish of creamed scallops: Coquille St. Jacques.
6/14 We drive to Ensérune, a village of pre-Roman Gaul and a Roman Oppidum, a fortress perched on a high hill. There are many fascinating remains of the early village and fortifications, including huge underground silos for wheat and cisterns for water. I am most fascinated by the Etang de Montady, a circular medieval irrigation system fed by water from a central watery bog. Designed in the thirteenth-century to resemble the equal spokes of a wheel, the system still tunnels water up to the outer edges of this vast circle of wheat fields and is maintained today by owners of the property.
6/15 We drive to Collioure, a seaport on the Mediterranean since Pheonician times where Picasso, Matisse and a host of other French artists painted a century ago. The harbor attracts large modem sailboats that contrast strikingly with the ramparts of a fortified castle that dates from the seventh century and was enlarged by the kings of Aragon and Majorca and, eventually, by the conquering Spanish and then the French. We enjoy a lunch of oysters and fish at our favorite harbor-side restaurant, Amphitryon. Visit this town during the week and avoid July and August. It's immensely popular, but worth every minute!
In recent years the French have been cannily changing their lifestyle to a more ecological way of living. Here are some of the differences that I noted between our way of life and theirs--not all of them new.
1) As our autos have become larger and larger, French cars remain a good deal smaller and lighter and therefore use less gas. Even the European version of the S.U.V. is significantly smaller than ours.
2) In the countryside where roads meet, the French have constructed roundabouts rather than traffic lights. These keep traffic flowing continually. Stopping and starting up again require significant increases in gas useage.
3) Traffic moves more slowly in France than in the U.S., even on "Super" highways, thus saving gas.
4) Long rows of up to 24 windmills generate electricity on hills and close to the shore to take advantage of the strong winds off the Mediterranean (and are not, in my opinion, unsightly).
5) As gas is more expensive in Europe due to taxation, people tend not to drive as much or as far Americans do on a daily basis.
6) Nuclear plants are the major source of electricity in France and have been widely used to good advantage.
7) Agricultural products are grown close to the centers, where they are sold and consumed, thus eliminating long transportation costs and overuse of energy.
8) Fruits and vegetables, like strawberries and artichokes, appear in the markets when they are in season and enjoyed for their rarity. Often our fruits and vegetables are picked early and never ripen properly, so that they can be shipped long distances across the country to market.
9) Preservation of national heritage sites is a priority.
6/16 Our group of six visits the city of Béziers where Simon de Montford massacred 20,000 heretics in 1209. We climb the inner city up to the Cathedral of St Nazaire, rebuilt after its sacking and now sporting Baroque marble pillars and flying figures in its truncated Gothic interior. Its western façade quite understandably resembles an unassailable fort. The best view of Béziers includes its five bridges spanning the Orb River. A mile outside the city are the Nine Locks of Fonséranes, which permit boats navigating the locks of the Canal du Midi to descend a steep gradient.
6/17 Our only day of rain gives way to sunshine in the afternoon. We enjoy a long walk along the canal at Paraza, where moist warm air seems to cosset the steaming vineyards. By the pool we swim and paint, listening to the chatter of birds and happy cries of village children in their nearby school.
6/18 An early start to Narbonne, once a bustling Roman port which became less active as the sea receded during the Middle Ages. Its cathedral, the tallest in southern France, is flanked by museums of art, archeology and history in the Archbishops' Palace. The archaeology of Iron Age Iberians is illuminating, but for us the jewel is an extensive show of Orientalist works, mostly from the Magreb of northern Africa, including canvases of Fromentin and Benjamin Constant. On the way back to Paraza (as we are in the pre-tourist season), we find no restaurants open along our route until at last we stop at a sort of truck eatery, the Relais des Corbières, where several tough-looking honchos look up at us in surprise. I thoroughly enjoy a seafood cassoulet and must learn to make it!
6/19 Céret boasts a Musée d'Art Modeme, which enchants all of us with its Cubist paintings by August Herbin, Pinkus Krémagne and Pierre Brune. One room is devoted to delightful pottery loosely painted by Picasso with renderings of bull fights.
On to Perpignan and the Pyrenees, where the stark Cathar strongholds of Queribus and Peyrepertuse beckon from mountaintops, guaranteeing splendid photographs of multiple ridges in purples and grays. The heavy van winds slowly up the wooded slopes. At Peyrepertuse, a fortress since Roman times, I climb high to the ruins of the castle to ogle the steep drop from its rocky enclave. Thrilling indeed, when one thinks of the jeopardized lives of those heretics forced to convert or die. Descending, I slip on smooth rocks, cracking my head and bruising my arms. Fortunately, a pharmacist is open in Maury, a village miles below, and after another half hour my head is sewn up by a local doctor. His charge is small; the pharmacy supplies a drug and ointment. I am amazed at the efficiency of French medicine and my lack of pain.
6/20 I'm immensely proud that I climbed to the castle of Peyrepertuse, the proper culminating point of a visit to Cathar country. For two days we paint and romp in the pool, its cool water as soothing as the soft bird calls and the cries of young children in a village going about its business. Paraza feels like home.
6/21 We drive back to Marseilles to start the trip home via Madrid. It has been a fine vacation to the other world of Languedoc-Roussillon.
A Word of Advice: Renting a house (on Internet) and van, thus sharing costs among a group, saves substantially over hotel and tour rates. And another Word of Advice: It is wise to ascertain in advance that all group members are experienced travelers in good health.
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This story was published on July 2, 2008.