After our whirlwind tour of Bordeaux, we decided to stay in le France a little longer and took the car almost across the entire south of France to a little village called Caunes. With only 1500 residents, this little village is not something you would probably set your sights on when glancing over a map of the country, but we had an amazing destination in mind.
Madeline, a friend I met when I moved here who now lives in London, frequents the little village because her London-born mother actually has given up the hustle and bustle and moved to a gorgeous home on 22 acres of breath-taking land. Her mother, Rowena, runs it as a B&B and it just so happened she had a room for Joseba and I to meet up with Madeline and her boyfriend John for the weekend!
Finding it was a bit of a challenge as the road has a name but no street numbers. The houses are named, so you just need to keep an eye out for the house name and that's how we eventually found the house and headed down the gravel driveway where Madeline and Rowena were waiting for us with a picnic ready to go. We grabbed a neccessary bottle of wine, changed into our swimsuits and headed off to the most beautiful part of her property - a small little stream and a waterfall. After 4 hours in the car, the potato salad, cous cous, chicken and veggies and the wine were just what we needed as we relaxed in the sun.
B&B site the place is gorgeous and we were happy after a stressful week to just BE. In the afternoon we managed a small trip into Caunes (about 5 minutes away by car) to buy the all important wine for dinner and that was our day - lounging around, drinking wine, getting a tan and dozing off from time to time. What a life! The wine was especially tasty. Caunes is in a wine region called Minervois, after the Roman Goddess Minerva from when the Romans were there and introduced grapes and olives to the area.
The next morning we took advantage of the peaceful atmosphere to sleep in and then woke up and had our coffee barefoot on the huge wooden porch looking out at the grass. There is something about eating breakfast outside in the sun that really makes your morning. Having woken up like that, we got around and headed into the little village to do some exploring while Madeline and her mom went off to the airport to pick John up. For 2 hours we wandered up and down the narrow streets and in the process barely crossed paths with anyone. All of the windows were open and seeing as the town was so small we could hear TVs, kitchen conversations and music spilling out of the windows as we meandered.
The whole town is practically all made of sandstone and the things that differentiate the houses are thier shutters. Colorfully painted, they are the way the owner can express their personality with thier curb appeal. Pale blue seemed to be the color of choice, but we did pass some purples and pinks and whites. The name Caunes comes from the word for Cave, of which there are many in the area. In fact, the red marble that is quarried from the nearby caves is quite a tourist pull for the little village, and it just so happened that the day we were wandering around was a Marble Fair. As people came out to the streets little by little, stands started appearing with elaborate and beautiful marble sculptures for sale. As a result of so many Marble Fairs, the city was also dotted with massive pink marble sculptures in tribute.
The sun was beating down on us and when we met Rowena, Madeline and John again, we were happy to enjoy an ice cold beer before heading back to the house. Following the same routine as the day before, we packed up the picnic bag and headed to the waterfall for lunch in the sun. The evening was relaxed again except that that evening we were able to watch Rowena and some of her B&B guests do a special pottery firing process! On the property, Rowena, a potter and pottery teacher, has her own studio and many guests come to do week-long pottery vacations.
For dinner we had a delicious meal called Raclette. A Swiss dish from the French word racler, to scrape, the idea is that you have a small grill where you cook veggies and meats and below, in individual little cooker spoon-like dishes you place cheese which melts and then is poured over your cooked goodies from above. It was heaven in my mouth. Match it with some wine and the scenery while eating, and it was paradise!
Carcassone is thought to have had settlements since all the way back in 3500BC but turned into a fortified city when the Romans entered the picture in 100BC. Later however, Septimania (as it was called then) was ceded to the Visigoths in the 5th century and soon after was founded under that name and became an important trading post. The Visigoths added to the fortress by adding more walls and towers and the start of the massive basilica within the walls now called Saint Nazaire.
As a flourishing medieval city, the castle although now designed for tourists is set up to reflect this era. As you cross the massive drawbridge over the once full moat, you can climb up the stone street and imagine it without the ice cream shops and tourist stores and imagine horses speeding up the way or ladies with magnificent dresses around the town. Looking out from the outer walls and the towers, the vast landscape is beautiful and the castle positioned perfectly to see 180º of the land.
While looking over Pays Cathare, or Cathar Country, I tried to piece together the tumultuous history that it had - changing hands from the Visigoths to the Saracens, then conquered by the Viscount of Nimes and then getting dragged through the Albigensian Crusades to rid the area of the county's namesake Cathars. After the Viscount Trencavel was overtaken and left to die in his castle's own dungeon the city was soon after taken over by King Louis IX who added even more protection to the already almost impossible to enter castle walls. After about 400 years of stability, the city's focus went less from being a fortress and more to the woolen industry during which the castle started to go into ruins. By the mid 1800s, in such bad shape, the French government had the intention to just tear it down but this outraged many people and the decision was overturned and renovations begun taking place in 1853. The project was a mighty one but was done so well that in 1997 it was named a UNESCO Heritage site and a definite must-see!