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Russell and Gail and the Pyrenees
Hundreds of years ago, before there was a "France," the region had two distinct peoples, identified by the way they said "yes." In the south there was the langue d'oc ("language of oc''), while in the north there was the langue d'oil ("language of oil"). Over the centuries, oil became oui, and the "language of oil" became modern French. The people of langue d'oc were decimated by the Crusades -- the language today exists only as a regional patois dialect -- but the area of southwest France still bears the name.
On January 28th, with our time in France beginning to run out, we packed overnight bags and drove to the Languedoc region for a few days. We had a wonderful drive; the temperature was an absolutely balmy 21°C (70°F) and we all had short sleeves for the first time in months (all of us except for Gail, who is perpetually cold). Even better, the autoroute retraced the path of the ancient Via Domitia -- the oldest road built by the Romans in Gaul (121 BC) -- which once connected the Rhone with the Pyrenees. We were thrilled to be able to see the Mediterranean Sea to our left and the snow-covered Pyrenees Mountains straight ahead.
Thanks to the autoroute, we were well ahead of schedule by early afternoon, so we took a brief detour directly south. A rest stop that promised "Le Village Catalan" turned out to be both overly touristy and mostly closed, but it whetted our appetite and curiosity. So we continued further south and crossed the border into Spain, just so we could say that we've been there. We exited just over the border at the tiny town of La Jonquera, looked for souvenirs, found none, and crossed back over into France. (We did, however, pick up a few Spanish Euros at the toll booth. Russell also tried speaking Spanish, but only to Gail.)
Our destination for the night was Carcassonne, a completely preserved Medieval walled city that is one of France's most popular tourist destinations. Thanks to the off-season, we were not only able to secure highly-sought accommodations within the ancient walled La Cité (as opposed to the very modern city that surrounds it), but we were able to reserve them only one day in advance. This meant that once past sundown, we were actually allowed to drive our station wagon over the drawbridge and through the main gate into La Cité at La Porte Narbonnaise, then through the frighteningly narrow cobblestone streets (taking care not to run over the few pedestrians) to our chambre d'hôte.
Practically alone in the incredible city of Carcassonne
(France has two kinds of tourist accommodations outside of hotels. A gîte rural is like the self-contained units that we had in New Zealand and Australia, while a chambre d'hôte is more like an English Bed and Breakfast.)
Our chambre d'hôte, near the ramparts, was a very quaint little one-room apartment with a double bed for the adults and a sofabed/trundle for the boys. It had the tiniest kitchen we have ever seen (in what used to be a closet) where we would make our own breakfast in the morning from the furnished supplies. When we knocked on the door to be admitted, it was a workman who answered, so we pretty much let ourselves in and made ourselves at home.
The streets were practically deserted as we strolled through La Cité. As well, many of the shops and restaurants were closed for the season and there were workmen all over the place. As night fell, we made our way outside of La Cité and climbed around on the hills surrounding the outer walls (the boys saw bats), then hiked through the surrounding modern city to the vieux pont blocks away so that we could admire the immensity of the walled city from a distance.
We treated ourselves to a rare dinner out at a restaurant so that we could sample cassoulet, an old Roman specialty that consists of white beans with duck, pork, and sausage. Just about every restaurant in Carcassonne serves it, but we picked L'Ostal, a particularly atmospheric little hole-in-the-wall. Russell had duck cassoulet and Gail had sausage cassoulet, while Cameron and Joss split a pizza. The only other customers were some very friendly honeymooners from Great Britain (in a typical male bonding ritual, Russell and the husband compared digital cameras).
Russell enjoys his cassoulet du confit de canard
We returned to our room well fed and sleepy, stopping only to play with the numerous stray cats that come out after dark. So far we have only really seen Carcassonne by night, and we look forward to doing some more exploring tomorrow.
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