As many of my friends know (and are tired of hearing about it I am sure), I am recovering from a nasty encounter with a patch of black ice, meaning that I am housebound nursing a sore but thankful body. No concussion and no broken bones, but lots of soft tissue damage = sofa bound. (ADDENDUM: Since starting this really long post I am somewhat better. But it’s below freezing outside so I am happy to stay sofa bound today). Anyway, I thought I’d take advantage of the downtime to reminisce about our recent adventures through the south of France.
We decided to visit the Languedoc because, as I mentioned in this post, when we thought that Doug was getting a job with UNESCO we envisioned having a second home in the south of France, somewhere where he could have his canoe and his workshop and where we could escape from Paris whenever we wanted. We looked around and the Languedoc seemed like the place! According to the internet there are still affordable properties there. I had been there once, 10-11 years ago, and while it wasn’t my most memorable place immediately after returning from a trip that started in Nice and ended in Barcelona, memories of the Languedoc rose to the surface slowly, aging well, like a fine wine. I had always wanted to return and could just envision my little village abode there! It was as fated as Doug getting the job in Paris! We were SO sure that ALL of this was going to transpire that when he didn’t get the job, all of the bubbles were burst. No living in Paris! No home in the south of France. Boo HOO!
But in time we started thinking, hmmm. Maybe the job and the Paris apartment didn’t materialize, but the cute place in the south of France? MAYBE that could still be a (remote) possibility. So we decided to go snooting, as the husband likes to say, and planned a trip. We invited my mother-in-law to join us. Petunia (as she is known to her grandchildren and great grandchildren) is a world traveler and at 39 (give or take a few decades) pretty sprightly. RoadTRIP!
I did a lot of research on possible houses in the south of France locations before we left, checking out everything from voting records to amenities to distance to the sea (canoe, remember the canoe). So I had a list of villages to snoot, as well as places to just tourist. We stayed in the lovely village of Lagrasse, chosen for its central location, as well as its designation as one of the Beaux Villages de France. And it was really beaux.
We rented an apartment from these lovely folks:
Guy and Claire did a fabulous job renovating the property.
It was perfect, I highly recommend it. (Just be forewarned, if you stay over the Christmas holiday all restaurants in town will be closed. It was fine for us as we ventured out during the day and snacked on cheese, wine and other delicacies in the evening. For us it all worked out perfectly!)
We wasted no time venturing out and about. Our first full day took us to the sea, Gruissan to be exact. We had a wonderful lunch in the village, fresh seafood and wonderful service at La Cranquette.
It was a lovely sunny day so we decided to walk off that delicious seafood along the med, popping over to Gruissan Plage. It was a nice sandy long beach, with houses that reminded me of old Ocean City (MD). I can imagine that it’s hopping in the summer. We enjoyed our stroll and Doug found some beautiful shells to take home as souvenirs of our day by the sea.
The next day was Christmas Eve and we wanted to feel in the spirit. I had heard that there was a Christmas market in Carcasonne, home of the famous Chateau Comtal.
(Not my picture, but this is the best view). An enjoyable 45 minute ride later we luckily snagged a parking spot not far away from said market. It was sweet and charming and full of people enjoying the mild December weather, drinking mulled wine or, like us, taking advantage of the wonderful freshness of the oysters (and we of course had to have wine).
We walked around Carcassonne town and worked up another appetite, so we went back to the main square and had a bite and more wine, because why not? Rose to match the sunshine.
Fortified, we figured that we had to visit the castle while we were there, only to find that it was closing soon. But we were still able to wander around the outside, marveling at the view.
Christmas Day! We knew that most places would be closed so the plan was to drive to Narbonne to the market to purchase goodies for our Christmas feast. We were a little late getting on the road so when we got to the fabulous indoor market most of the vendors were packing up to (rightly) head home to enjoy their holiday. But we were able to snag some provisions including a wonderful roast chicken with potatoes and something called Bouchee a la reine, which is a delicious puff pastry, in this case filled with salmon in a cream sauce. SO GOOD! We also purchased the obligatory Bouche de Noel, and some assorted cheeses and charcuterie and salad fixings and of course a baguette.
All that shopping made us hungry, but we didn’t want to eat a big meal knowing the feast that awaited us, so we found a little café by the canal and sat outside and had an omelette and salad for 10e and pichets of rose and it was so so sweet.
After our lunch we walked around Narbonne. It’s a really charming town, I look forward to returning.
We took the long way back to Lagrasse, checking out some villages along the way (see below) and had a lovely Christmas dinner.
The next day Petunia was a bit pooped, so Doug and I decided to venture out and about on our own while she chillaxed in the apartment. We had our GPS set to some towns along the canal du midi, as I thought that they might make a nice home base. We had already scoped out some of my other possibilities: Fabrezan, which was close to Lagrasse and looked good on paper, but was just a bit too dark for Doug’s taste. Then there was Saint-Laurent-de-la-Cabrerisse, also very close to Lagrasse and actually quite charming, with a nice little grocery store and a few restaurants. There was Doug’s favorite on paper, the funnily named Fontjoncouse. There was the super sweet Villerouges de Termines. But, as we were to discover about all the nice pretty little villages that I had painstakingly researched, EVERYTHING we might need was a 30-40 minute drive away. Call us spoiled Americans, but as Doug said, if I need a box of nails I don’t want to have to drive 30 minutes to get them. Hmmmmm something to ponder. Was my dream of finding my perfect place dashed already? No place had hit the spot so far and I was starting to get worried – but I was not ready to give up hope!
Undaunted by our lack of mutual WOW to that point we headed to some towns along the canal. First stop La Redorte, which was a nice town, but we just weren’t feeling it. So we went on to Homps, which we really weren’t feeling. We didn’t get it at the time, but later we realized that we are Corbieres-ians (I made that up). Lagrasse and environs (including all the way to the sea) are part of the region called Corbieres. From this site:
The Corbières is one of the wildest areas of France with one of the lowest population densities. It is picturesque with wine growing areas alternating with garigue and mountainous countryside. The name Corbières comes from “cor” a pre-Celtic word meaning “rock” and “berre” from the River Berre which runs through Durban. The eastern part of the Corbières with its Etangs, borders the Mediterranean Sea and is called the Corbières maritimes. It has its own distinctive climate and characteristic vegetation known as thermomediterranean vegetation.
OK, all we knew was that we always felt good when we saw this road sign,
and not because of the wine. We just somehow felt better there…
OK I digressed from the travelogue. As we were standing on a hilltop looking over a lake outside of Homps, me feeling like I would never find “our village”, I said “let’s just go to Bages”. I had visited Bages, a fishing village on one of the aforementioned Etangs in the Corbieres maritimes, and remembered liking it. And off we went, first stopping off at the giant Carrefour off the roundabout outside of Narbonne to stock up on…wine, and then 7 minutes later our eyes fell upon this:
Bages, just as I had remembered only better. There were flamingoes! It’s on a hill, but there were fishing boats lining the shore and I could see that Doug was intrigued. He took a video (that I can’t seem to upload unfortunately) and we stood there feeling happy, a feeling that only grew stronger as we made our way up and around the village. We just loved it, the charm, the sea, the fact that it’s a 7-minute drive to civilization (we are so American).
We drove along the Etang to the next town, Peyriac de Mer, which is also very nice, but Bages had captured our hearts. The minute we got back to the apartment we popped open some wine (Corbieres AOC mais oui) and looked at some real estate listings in Bages. OK, not quite as dirt bargain cheap as some of the inland tiny villages, but not out of the question. YES!
The next day we took Petunia to see what we had started feeling was OUR town, and had a lovely lunch with a view
(those windows are the restaurant) We walked around some more envisioning our new house with its rooftop terrace view of this…ahhh.
We took the long way back through the Corbieres, happy.
The next day was our last full day! We decided to go really far afield and drove south, towards the Pyrenees, destination Tautavel. Tautavel is a wine town in the foothills of the Pyrenees, best known for being the site where they discovered that oldest human remains in Europe, dubbed the Tautavel Man. I wish we had taken pictures of the scenery, but we were awestruck and Doug was hesitant to stop the Mercedes along the steep winding little roads. It was breathtaking, huge granite mountains in the distance, green fields and vineyards in the valleys. (Here is a picture of Tautavel, not mine).
We were really hungry when we finally made it to the town and were happy to find a gem of a restaurant called El Silex: Catalan no less! We had a wine from nearby Vingrau and delicious meal served up with Catalan hospitality by the owner/waiter/chef.
Fortified, we popped over to Vingrau (again not my picture, but wanted to show the mountains)
and found the cave open (hate when that happens) and bought 3 bottles.
We decided to check out the area to the east, by the sea, to see if we liked the med further south (we were just south of Leucate). Short answer: we did not!!! Of course, when we headed towards “home” and saw THE sign we understood why. Corbieres-ians all the way.
We sadly said goodbye to our lovely Arch Apartment the next day. We had booked a hotel in Toulouse for our last night, the charming Albert 1er in the center of town. We dropped our beautiful car off at the airport only to discover that most transportation to the center of town was diverted due to the Gilets Jaunes (or Yellow Vests in English). That meant we had to take a tram and walk 20 minutes, including the resilient Petunia. We showed her to her room for a well-deserved rest and ventured out to see what we could of Toulouse. We soon came across a group of said Gilets Jaunes, milling about as the protest was winding down.
All seemed peaceful so I approached a woman and asked her in my not so great but passable French to explain to me why she was protesting. From what I could understand, for her it was economics, she lives outside of the city is having a harder time making ends meet and she sees Macron’s government as elitist. I can’t claim to speak for anyone else and it’s not my country or my battle, but in human terms I couldn’t argue with anything she said.
We went back and fetched Petunia and showed her some sites, she had been in Toulouse with Doug’s dad, and she had many memories to share over a really nice dinner.
It was a great way to end a fabulous trip.
We’ve spent many pleasant evenings since returning reminiscing about our trip over bottles of, what else, Corbiere wine. We decided that we can taste the terroir of our hopefully soon to be “home”. I hope that future entries chronicle my International house hunt in Bages. I hope you come along as I try to live my dreams…