Friday, June 28, 2013

Carcassonne, Cathars, and Cassoulet

This week I embarked on a mini-adventure – my first road trip into France.  I was a bit nervous.  The driver I used to be has deserted me.  Gone are the days when I could drive alone for hundreds of miles with no stress.  Although I studied for and obtained my Spanish driver’s license, the truth is that I still don’t know what all the road signs mean, especially the ones posted at the toll booths.  Where can you pay cash?  Where with credit card?  And where can you find an actual person in the booth.  Perhaps as a cost-saving measure, the booths seem to all be automated and if I wrongly ended up in the lane for pass-holders, I would be unable to back up and unable to go forward – somewhat like what happens in some of my bad dreams.

I approached the toll booths slowly, carefully analyzing the icons for their meanings.  Whether I interpreted well or just had good luck, I was able to pull through each toll, poorer, but with no trouble.

I was headed for Carcassonne.  I’ve been there before – several years ago with Manel.  He thought it was a kind of Disneyland and he was right, but in spite of that, I remember liking it, and according to Google Maps, it was only about an hour and a half away!  That’s closer than Barcelona.  How could I not go?

I don’t know how Google calculates, but my drive to Carcassonne took more like two and a half hours.  But never mind.  I got there with no problems except that the tolls were more expensive than I expected.   I should have known.  Expensive tolls are why I don’t drive on the motorways. 

Carcassonne’s Cité, the walled fortress at the top of the hill, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The citadel was restored in the 19th century but not to its original style.  It would be better if it looked now as it did hundreds of years ago, but even if it is a bit phony, it still is impressive.  Carcassonne was a Cathar stronghold in the 12th to 14th centuries.  The Cathars were a Christian dualist movement not favored by the Catholic church.  I don’t know much about it but I did read a novel set in Carcassonne with Cathars as its protagonists that I thought was good fun and a whole lot better than Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  It’s called Labyrinth, by Kate Moss and you can buy it here!

Besides the challenge of getting there, my other reason for wanting to go to Carcassonne was to eat a bona fide cassoulet, the dish this area is famous for.  I’ve made cassoulet several times from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art, although admittedly, I leave out some of the ingredients and most of the steps so that my version is very simple and not nearly as richly flavored as it should be.  Really, mine is more like pork and beans.  Traditionally, cassoulet was country food, nothing fancy, just leftovers, cooked continuously on the back burner. 

Was the trip worth the time and expense?  Well, I don’t expect to be going back any time soon, but as far as I’m concerned, yes, the cassoulet was worth it.


Inside the walls, you're in the old medieval village

Lunch was at Restaurant Comte Roger

Duck confit, pork, sausage, beans... yum
Bo l nge ie
A beautiful example of my favorite car --
well, one of my favorite cars

Friday, June 21, 2013


When I bought this apartment last year, I signed papers at the notary on my birthday and then took myself out to lunch at a local restaurant to celebrate.  This week, to celebrate both events, I left town.  At one point I thought I would make that local restaurant a yearly tradition, but after considering that for a few seconds, I realized that whereas the restaurant is good, it isn’t wonderful.

So I took the train to France -- to Perpignan to have lunch at my favorite restaurant there -- Al Très.  In addition to lunch, I went shopping.  I had a good time looking, and even tried on a pair of secondhand Armani pants, but they looked really awful and in the end, I didn’t feel compelled to buy anything. 

This was just as well because the next day I had to pay an unexpected vet bill.  Felix has not been his usual rambunctious self lately and I was worried.  Biopsy results of the enlarged gland behind his leg suggested no cause for it, and exploring his insides with a sonogram came up with no culprit for what I thought might be difficulty in urinating.  So with no diagnosis, Felix came home full of cortisone and antibiotics.  The vet says it’s often difficult to diagnose cats or to say if a cat is ill or simply in bad humor, so I’m hoping for the latter.   After all, from his point of view, moving from a house with garden where he could go out and roam the neighborhood all day to a small apartment where he is constantly being held prisoner is nothing to celebrate.
Just a few steps from the train station
and you can see you're in France
View from my terrace seat as I
sipped my cafe au lait and nibbled
a croissant

Some buildings look like they could be in Catalunya.
But hey! This used to be Catalunya.
It's not all fancy shmancy
At lunch

The mussels were to die for.

Sweeter than any dessert

Friday, June 14, 2013

Festa Major, Part 2

La Santa Creu, the festa major, wasn’t all food.  To help work off calories there was dancing, parades, and castells – the human towers.  The public doesn’t build those towers, but it takes some energy to stand for more than an hour and watch the teams that do and then to applaud each time they succeed (as well as those times when they don’t).  The public does, however, dance the sardana, and yours truly, twinkle toes, joined in for one.
Festivals here are not particularly commercial.  There may be food to buy and this one had arts and crafts stands, but there is no corporate sponsorship (or if there is, it isn't visible), no souvenirs are sold, and few, if any, activities or performances charge an entrance fee.   The money to put it on comes from the town hall and the Catalan government, and many of the activities such as the parades with the giants and the castells, are put on and manned by the public. 
The band that plays the sardanes
is called a cobla

Don't look for me, I'm not there


The parade had a police escort at the head and end.
The tail end officer made entertaining some of the
children part of his duties. 

He made a few kids very happy
Getting ready.  Wrapping up to protect
his back and to give those climbing over him
somewhere to get a toe hold

The musicians who accompany castells
always play the same tune once the castell
is partially built and has been deemed
viable by the cap de colla (head of the team)


Friday, June 7, 2013

Festa Major, Part 1

The first of May is celebrated in most countries of the world, or at least most of Europe, as labor day.  In Figueres it also marked the first of the six-day festa major, La Santa Creu.  There were arts and crafts stands, parades, dancing, music, castells (human towers), fireworks, and food – lots and lots of food.

And did I mention chess?  There was a speed chess competition where players of all ages competed.

Sant Jordi, the princess,
and the dragon

Sant Jordi (Saint George) is the patron
saint of Catalunya