[This post was originally an email sent in April, 2019 to friends and family before this blog was started.]
Last week I, Cherie and Jessica [Cherie’s niece] spent a few days in the south of France. This region is historically known as Languedoc and is culturally a very distinct region of the country. It’s an area influenced by several successive waves of peoples, including Gauls, Romans, Visigoths, and Ummayads (Narbonne was, for a time, the muslim capital of this part of their kingdom); it was later part of several northern Spanish kingdoms. Languedoc was also the scene of a devastating crusade (the Albigensian Crusade). It’s a fascinating place and so different from what we have seen in Brittany.
It’s about a 9 hour drive to the area of Rousillon where we were based. Some of you may know this area for the excellent wine they produce. As you ply the many tollways southward through Nantes, Bordeaux, and Toulouse, the landscape becomes drier but remains verdant. Finally one arrives at the Mediterranean Sea. It was the first time for any of us to see the Mediterranean; I even convinced Cherie to at least dip her toes in the water. In her defense, it was surprisingly cold. But at least we can now declare that we have touched its waters.
We stayed in a bit of a dodgy resort called the Malibu situated on the coast in Canet, between Narbonne and Pepignan. It was not the greatest accommodation we have ever had, but it was passable. From there, we were able to visit lots of really interesting and beautiful places.
Amongst the extraordinary sites we visited was the medieval city of Carcassone. The first visible fortifications go back to at least Visigothic occupation and much of what remains is from the 12th and 13th century. The old town is surrounded by a double ring of defensive walls within which is a fortified castle. One can walk the ramparts of the inner curtain walls with its many towers and tour the castle itself. Even though it’s very touristy, the entire old town is a medievalist’s dream and we’re so glad we got to see it.
Far up in the hills of the Pyrenees lies the village of Castelnou. Perched on a rocky spur, the village’s houses cling to the steep slopes, huddled together around narrow cobbled streets below the medieval keep which still stands a sentinel watch over the rugged landscape. Almost on a whim we decided to visit Castelnou and we were richly rewarded. It was beautiful and we had the village almost to ourselves. A kind woman in her open-air café just before the fortified village gate chatted with us as we stopped for a brief rest and glasses of Moroccan tea. We were the first Americans she had ever met in Castelnou. Hopefully, we left her with a good impression! For our part, Castelnou left us with a lovely, lasting impression.
In the bustling city of Perpignan we saw many interesting sites, including the Palace of the Kings of Majorca. In the center of a large military fortification, the palace was built in the 13th century when Perpignan was part of the Kingdom of Majorca. It was so different from what any of us have ever seen. We spent a lovely afternoon investigating its many spaces, including a somewhat harrowing climb up an open spiral staircase in order to get this spectacular view of the palace’s courtyard from high above:
On a different note in Perpepignan was the Hotel Pams, the lovely Art Nouveau home of the Job cigarette rolling paper magnates. Jessica is very fond of this style of architecture and decorative arts so she particularly enjoyed our visit to this house.
Lastly, I will just mention the Abbaye de Fontfroide, a Cistercian abbey in the isolated Corbières hills west of Narbonne. It’s a beautiful monastery in a lovely setting, nestled in a narrow valley amongst forested hills festooned with pine and olive trees. Expecting some unattended ruins, we were surprised to discover a well-maintained monument, to include a lovely restaurant where we enjoyed an excellent lunch before we set about exploring this historic edifice. It’s privately owned and the owners are also one of the many producers of Corbières wine in the area. They also appear to rent out the abbey as a film location; we arrived to find that several rooms of the abbey were temporarily off limits as a film crew was beginning to dismantle set decoration, lighting, sound and catering equipment that had been set up in many areas. A bit disappointing, but we were still able to see a great deal and we had a rewarding experience.
There was much more but I won’t burden you with an even longer account. We had a lovely time. Thanks for letting us share a little bit of it with all of you.