In his 1958 film Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati satirized the idea of “modern comfort.” His story centers on Monsieur Hulot, the spacey, beloved uncle of a nine-year-old boy who lives with his parents at Villa Arpel–a home where contemporary notions of design, consumerism, status, and mechanical efficiency come together to create a home that is ridiculous, impractical, and at times downright hostile. If you’ve seen the film you’ll remember the absurd set: a “garden” covered in multi-colored gravel; a finicky automatic garage door; a fully mechanized and gadgetized kitchen; a giant fish fountain turned on only for important visitors.
At the Centquatre art space in northeast Paris, a full-size replica of the Villa Arpel set is currently on display. Visitors can walk all around the set, peak in windows, and, with the film playing on repeat in the background, listen to the sounds of the mechanized lifestyle exemplified in the movie. The perfect reproduction is a fascinating thing to see.
The Centquatre is a huge venue, featuring more than thirty major art projects and installations per year as well as studios and small exhibits for nearly 200 artists and a full calendar of film screenings. Most of the art is free to see, and the building and grounds are open late, with music and dance groups often performing in the courtyard in the evenings. Among the other exhibits I saw was a year-long gardening installation that is taken over each month by a different group of landscapers, each giving the garden a different theme by changing both the plants and the presentation.
Cassis, located just east of Marseilles, is a Mediterranean port town known for its dramatic coastline. All along the shore, big rocky cliffs form sheltered inlets called calanques at the spots where ancient rivers flowed into the ocean. The unique stone of Cassis was quarried for many years and was used to build the quays of large Mediterranean ports, as well as the base of the Statue of Liberty.
While its downtown area is touristy, Cassis is considered one of the mellower Mediterranean cities, partially because building codes have prevented high-rise buildings from sprouting up along the coast. Away from the harbor area and downtown, there is a lot of rugged nature to investigate, from the dramatic calanques to the trademark rocky hills of Provence.
I took a nature trail called the Path of the Petit Prince, named so because Cassis is also the area where Saint-Exupery went missing while on a reconnaissance mission in 1944. While hikers look out on a view of Cap Canaille, an ochre-colored bluff that served as a sailor’s landmark for millennia, a sign below reads “le plus beau et le plus triste paysage du monde.”
Next up: Nîmes. I only spend one night here, with half-days on either side mostly spent trekking back and forth from my hostel. I did, however, see the three major Roman monuments that everyone is supposed to see when in Nîmes.
La Maison Carreé:
La Tour Magne:
All three were impressive, but I was more intrigued by the bizarre caterpillar activity happening in the shadows of the Tour Magne:
Thanks to a friend at the Symphony who saw this photo and did a little research, the phenomenon has been explained:
Next stop was Carcassonne, where my hostel was located within the walls of the medieval city. In fact, Carcassonne consists of more than just the medieval section, with a much larger “lower city” spreading out on all sides from the hill of the old town.
Carcassonne’s history as a fortified city goes back as least as far as the first century AD. Its strategic location has served many purposes throughout its history: for example, as the intersection of two trade routes–between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and from Spain to the center of France–and, later on, as the border between France and the kingdom of Aragon, located in modern-day Spain. In 1659, this border moved south to the Pyrénées; that change, combined with the fact that Carcassonne’s fortifications weren’t designed with modern methods of warfare in mind, led to the fall of the city’s military significance. The fortified walls fell into disrepair until the mid-19th century, when the architect and historian Eugene Viollet-le-Duc was commissioned to restore the medieval fortifications.
According to legend, Carcassonne got its name from the princess Carcas, who, seeing Charlemagne lift the siege on her city, ordered the bells to be rung–thus “Carcas rings” or “Carcas sonne.”
These days, the medieval city is a tourist haven–souvenir shops; restaurants serving cassoulet, the regional specialty; and expensive lodgings. Still, wandering the winding streets, seeing old wells scattered around, visiting the castle, it’s possible to ignore the tourist trap and to have some fun imagining what it was like to live inside these walls.
The main thing to visit in town is the castle:
which houses a museum and where you can climb around on ramparts and see the various methods of defense employed in the city: inner and outer crenellated walls, towers, an additional barbican protecting access to the Aude river.
From my hostel I could look onto the courtyard of an elementary school, where students were listening to music and learning a folk dance. I was disheartened to realize that I couldn’t understand anything the teachers were saying–I thought my French was past that by now! Turns out that the students in this school learn Occitan, the traditional language of the region.
First, here’s a link to a second photo album, this one containing all the rest of the pictures from last month’s adventures:
My first stop after leaving the farm was Toulouse, nicknamed La Ville Rose because most of the buildings are constructed of brick, which, combined with the southern sun, gives the city a golden pink glow. Located along the Garonne river, Toulouse is the biggest city in Southwestern France. Its university, founded in 1229, is one of the oldest in France, and students make up a large part of the population.
Toulouse had its heyday in the 1400s and 1500s, when it was a crossroads for the trade of pastel, a plant whose leaves were ground up to produce a blue dye. The climate and soil of the Toulouse region were particularly suited to growing it, and merchants from Toulouse encouraged the transport of of the dye, set up trading posts all over the West, and created a pastel market in Toulouse. During the golden age of pastel, the Toulouse merchants built private mansions and and generally embellished the city. Pastel began to decline with the arrival of indigo–a cheaper and more practical alternative.
The monuments in Toulouse include a few very old churches and basilicas, among them Saint-Sernin, which was begun in 1080 and reworked throughout the centuries. The changing wealth of Toulouse is evidenced by the ratio of stone to the much cheaper brick in the various sections of the church’s exterior.
The weather was warm and sunny the day I arrived in Toulouse, and groups of people lined the banks of the Garonne. There was a market going on in the Place Capitole that went on well into the night, and later on several parades broke out surrounding the plaza. I have yet to figure out the reason for the festivities, but many of the separate parades wound there way to the courtyard of the Cinemathèque, where everyone who showed up was welcome to eat, drink, and listen to live music without having any idea why we were there.
On one of my first days at the farm, I had the chance to spend a morning wandering the old city of Cahors. This city of about 23,300 people has been around since Celtic times and was prominent in the Middle Ages. Its success was due in large part to its strategic location: the city sits inside a meander in the Lot river and is therefore surrounded by water on three sides–a labor-free moat–and hills on all sides further fortify the position. Nowadays, Cahors is mainly known for its very robust and very tannic red wine.
The city’s major sight is the medieval Valentré bridge, which in the Middle Ages was part of the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela. Pont Valentré is one of a few dozen “Devil’s Bridges” located throughout Europe, meaning that according to local folklore the devil played some role in the construction of the bridge. In the case of the Valentré legend, it is said that the architect offered his soul to the devil in exchange for help finishing the project. As the project reached completion he began having second thoughts, and the devil took revenge by sitting in the central tower and removing the very last stone as soon as it was placed.
Despite its small population, the old city of Cahors is very paved and densely knit and feels pretty urban. I came back to Cahors a week later to help deliver vegetable baskets, and where we met up with AMAP members, in a small alley behind a youth center, it felt a lot like Sesame Street to me.
I’ll start this post by directing you to a photo album I’ve put together from the farm portion of my travels:
La Rivière is the name of the farm in Saint Cernin where I spent the first three weeks of March. Saint-Cernin is located in the Lot department of France, named for the Lot river that runs through the region. This was historially an Occitan-speaking region, and some elderly members of the population still speak the dialect.
The region was beautiful, and I had an incredible experience from beginning to end. The farm is owned by Jean Luc and Cathy; Jean Luc does most of the work in the gardens and Cathy weaves baskets and teaches basket-weaving workshops in her studio on the farm, makes delicious jam–orange, strawberry, fig, apricot–and sells the farm produce at several open-air markets in nearby towns.
I learned a lot on the farm, mostly by observing the way things are run. Jean Luc does most of his planting in greenhouses this time of year, which, among many other benefits, meant that on rainy or cold days most of our work could be done indoors. As the weather gets warmer, many of the crops start to be planted in big fields outdoors, and other than a few citrus trees all of the orchards are outside, too.
Among my jobs: lots of transplants of tomatoes, peppers, and cabbage, starting onion seeds, and planting broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce in the greenhouses and beans in the fields. I also collected the chicken eggs every evening. I joined Cathy for a market-day in the town of Gramat and helped Jean Luc prepare baskets for the AMAP members–this is just like the community-supported agriculture programs in the US. They deliver about 48 boxes to members in two nearby towns, and I joined Jean Luc for the delivery in Cahors–more on Cahors later.
Among the non-work related things I enjoyed: long walks in the countryside;
hikes and bike-rides;
long lunches with wine, cheese, farm-fresh vegetables, and home-baked bread; and a big knitting party with a gaggle of multi-generational French women, the oldest of whom could still drink champagne with the best of them and stay out well past midnight.
The knitting night was hosted by some really cool Americans whom I had the chance to hang out with a few times while I was in town. With them I went to see the cave paintings at Lascaux–actually Lascaux II, a replica of the original cave, but still a fascinating thing to see. Lascaux (both I and II) is in the Dordogne region, where the first Cro-Magnon skull was discovered. All over the Dordogne and Lot regions, and scattered throughout the whole area of Southern France and Northern Spain, are caves with paintings, handprints, and other evidence of prehistoric human presence.
One month, eight cities, four hostels, two hotels, one farm, nine train stations, and countless Euros (the currency, that is) later, I’m back in Paris. And it feels mostly good to be back. It’s always strange leaving a new city for the first time, before you’ve come to know it by heart. The first time I left San Francisco, I kept thinking I was going to go back to Boston. And while I was away from Paris, I was somehow imagining returning to San Francisco at the end of the month.
I’m not sure where to begin summing everything up. A slideshow may be in order; in either case, I’ll share stories as I think of them. For now, I’m adjusting to being back, settling into my cool new apartment, sorting out a month’s worth of experiences in my head.
In the meantime, here’s a picture of the bar/café/marionette theater that’s just downstairs from my new apartment.
The friend whose apartment I’ve been subletting is coming back on March 1. When making plans for what I would do next, I considered two possibilities: the first, to find a new apartment to move into on March 1; the second, to spend a month traveling and find an apartment back in Paris for April 1. I’ve decided to go with the second option, so on Monday I’ll be taking off for a month to explore some different parts of the country.
I’ll be starting off in Cahors, a medieval town along the Lot River. Just outside Cahors, I’ll be spending about three weeks volunteering on an organic farm. The people who run the farm sell their produce in boxes as part of the AMAP program–similar to the CSA farms in the US–and also at a weekly market in Cahors. They have two donkeys, Marius and Moustique, whom I’m looking forward to meeting.
From there, I’ll spend the rest of the month visiting some cities and towns throughout the country, eventually looping back up to Paris. I’ll be spending about two days in each of six towns: Toulouse, Carcassonne, Nimes, Cassis, Lyon, and Dijon.
The map below shows the route I’ll be taking (you can click to enlarge).
I’m not sure how often I’ll check email while I’m traveling, but I’ll be sure to record some highlights in the near future.
A few weeks ago I took a trip to Montmartre, where I visited the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. The first time I came to Paris, my friends and I found Sacré-Cœur by accident after hiking up the hill behind the church, and it was really amazing walking up this wooded hiking path and then eventually starting to see the church peek out through the trees in the distance.
When you approach it from the front as I did this time, it is very clear you are entering tourist territory. The windy streets are packed, crepes are for sale everywhere, and there are these guys who follow you trying to tie strings around your finger–they talk with you and simultaneously weave the strings into a bracelet which they then hope you’ll buy.
But the church is still impressive looming there in the background. When I got up to the main steps, there was a guy playing his guitar and singing Beatles songs, which reminded me that there was a Beatles cover band playing on those same steps seven years earlier.