Surprising Toulouse City Hall

After making sure that our friends Brenda and Aja successfully found their early-morning flight out of Toulouse, we enjoyed a bit of the sunny morning before heading home. It happened to be the first of November, which is the holiday Toussaint. Two fascinating and lovely surprises greeted us.

An immense sleeping minotaur waited for us just outside our hotel on the central square of Toulouse, la Place du Capitole. Even though his eyes were closed, his rib-cage slowly pulsed with his breathing. He looked like some alien-invasion movie CGI come to life.


Some spontaneous internet searching revealed that the minotaur along with a giant mechanical spider were in town for a weekend of theater and festivities. The ambitious people of La Machine created these creatures.

We didn’t stay for the weekend’s performances, but of course YouTube showed us what missed:


The City Hall — or mairie — creates one of the walls of the Place du Capitole. Guillaume Cammas, a Toulouse architect and artist, designed the facade around 1750. While Toulouse’s characteristic brick provides some warmth, the regular classicism is severe. Whenever we are in the Place du Capitole, we pay more attention to the arcades, cafés, restaurants and shops along the other three sides of the square. But today, the main central door was open, and people were casually wandering in. Curious, we followed.

No great surprises at first: just a couple courtyards, and more brick and stone and sculptures.


We noticed a few people disappearing to the left within the stone arch on the far side of the courtyard. Might as well see where they were going. Our first glimpse of what awaited us:


To our good fortune, Toussaint is day for an open-house of the City Hall.

This grand stairway, surrounded by immense lush paintings, is part of the complete reconstruction of the City Hall in the 1880s. The end of the 19th century was a time when the leaders of Toulouse sought to express their political, economic and artistic significance, especially relative to Paris. The art and design of the renovated City Hall expresses themes of this southern part of France. Local painters, sculptors and architects transformed the building.

This is the former wedding hall, with the themes of love and happiness.


This is the Henri-Martin room, named after its painter. He chose to showcase scenes from the countryside on one side of the room, and scenes from city life on the other. Lovely evocation of light and nature.


The Hall des Illustres is the grand finale. Twenty Toulouse painters and sculptors embellished this monumental, long space. Each interpreted some aspect of the themes Glorious episodes in Toulouse life, Toulouse city of the arts and culture, and Defense of the Fatherland.


These are the allegorical figures for the Law, Justice and Truth. Apparently Truth has nothing to hide.


We were struck by the contrasts between sober prim depictions of women, and unabashed voluptuous figures. Imagine visiting City Hall at the beginning of the 20th century, accompanied by such sensual boldness. Who was scandalized; who was liberated; who was repressed; who was exploited; who was turned on?

The prim:


The opposite:


La Cité du Vin

La Cité du Vin (The City of Wine) opened its doors in June 2016. Just this month, it received its millionth visitor. Perhaps we were numbers 1,001,034 and 1,001,035. Maybe I went for the architecture; maybe we both went for the wine. 

La Cité du Vin’s raison-d’être and mission are modest (this is Google’s and my translation from the website): 

Wine is an inseparable part of the culture and living heritage of our country, but also of many other countries on five continents. It has made possible forging bonds between men, shaping landscapes, and generating myths, rituals and a true culture. 

Since 5,500 years before our era, wine has been at the heart of human life. Wine sculpts our landscapes, accompanies our beliefs, our customs, our traditions, our social practices, and it invades our imaginations. 

Universal, plural, it crosses the borders, the centuries, imposes everywhere its material and immaterial mark. It constantly reinvents itself in new forms, in multiple uses. 

The Cité du Vin’s mission is to share this millennial culture with an international audience, to enlighten its meaning, to help protect and transmit this universal intangible heritage.  

The building and its setting 


The architecture firm XTU from Paris designed the building. The architects described the building this way:

This building does not resemble any recognizable shape because it is an evocation of the soul of wine between the river and the city… Every detail of the architecture evokes wine’s soul and liquid nature: seamless roundness, intangible and sensual.

We think it looks like a wine decanter, and why not?! The owner of the attractive bed & breakfast where we stayed in Bordeaux said that she sees a sock. 

The building is now a monument in a major urban-redevelopment area on the site of the former industrial district of Les Forges along the banks of the Garonne River. The district is one big construction site, full of building cranes and a myriad of new residential and commercial buildings. We had read that Bordeaux is experiencing an exploding real estate market: the high-speed train line — TGV — between Paris and Bordeaux opened in July 2017, making it possible for Parisians to be in Bordeaux in just 2 hours. Now Bordeaux is an attractive outer, albeit upper-crust and increasingly unaffordable, suburb of Paris. 

Have a glass of wine in the markets of the world 


We selected an hour-long “polysensorial” wine-tasting experience. Along with other English-speaking visitors (from New Zealand, Ireland, Spain, and Germany), we sat at low tables around the edge of a circular room. Seamless photo montages slowly flowed around the room.  


From time to time, a spritz of scented air came our way: was that the smell of leather, or barbecue, or tomatoes?  

Our charming French host introduced four different glasses of wine for us, without telling us what each one was. Each of four wines was introduced by a seductive stream of images, sounds and smells from different places around the world. The first was Mediterranean areas (Provence, Greece, Italy). Another was scenes from Algeria. Our charming French host invited us to imagine the foods, tastes and experiences of these places as we sniffed and tasted each mystery wine. She did not tell us anything about the wines before we had some time to experience them on our own. She was splendid in assisting us to identify aromas and tastes. I loved it when she said that we come to each glass of wine with our own scent and taste memories and associations. So if I say the nose evokes pineapple, and you say banana, then that is just because of each of our own specific past experiences. Our host made it safe for everyone in the room to share their own associations.  

The wines that we enjoyed, and their world-market contexts were: 

  • A rich vintage Prosecco from Valdobbiadene in the Veneto — Mediterranean markets 
  • A lightly sparkling Pinot Gris from Alsace — Markets along the Mekong River 
  • A Cabernet Sauvignon – Pinotage from South Africa — diverse Algerian scenes and foods 
  • A Malbec – Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Argentina — Andean barbecues and markets 


The permanent self-guided tour 

At the entrance of the main exhibit area, the staff presents you with an iPhone-like device and headphones. Throughout the exhibit areas, you just point the device at a dot symbol and the audio connects you to the exhibit. You can wander in any order and pace that you want. The exhibits flow in all directions beneath the organically shaped building shell. 


The interactive displays helped connect scent experiences with their sources. We liked the refined steampunk aesthetic: The shiny glass covers and the brass tubes captivated us. The offered scents were clear and accurate (which is not always the case in this type of olfactory exhibit). 


One section was entitled The Art of Living. Three long tables were set with virtual items, and surrounded by big chairs. We visitors were invited to sit at the table — along with two animated conversationalists in tall bright monitors. As they talked about experiencing wine and food at the social table, the table top animated and morphed to illustrate their points. 


Other exhibit areas explored wine in cultures through history, highlighted vintners from many wine regions of the world, visited different terroirs, and helped new wine experiences to understand why wines have the colors, textures and aromas that they do. 

At the end of the tour, we took the elevator to the Belvedere at the top where we were offered a choice of wines from which to select one to taste. Unlike so many places we have visited in France, here there were wines from around the world, not just from France. I selected a red wine from Armenia, because, well, have you ever had an Armenian wine? It was light, slight of aroma, and not very deep. But now I’ve tasted a wine from Armenia. Mike selected a Rioja from Spain, and was rewarded with a rich complex glass. 

While it was inevitable to have wine bottles in the decor, the ceiling of the Belvedere was attractive anyway. 


A few of the wines for sale in the “wine cellar.” 


For us, the polysensorial wine tasting was the highlight. No big surprise, because any time we have the opportunity to explore wines, especially with a good guide (or salesperson), we enjoy ourselves. The collection of exhibits was very attractive and engaging; they were extremely well designed and made. But, at the end of the day, smelling, feeling and tasting wine is far more satisfying than just talking about it! 

PS: A foodie dinner 

We went to Restaurant Côte Rue for dinner the night after our Cité du Vin experience. We had selected the restaurant because of good reviews, the work of young chefs, and the fact that it was only a few-minute walk from our B&B. Each dish was beautifully presented, all were tasty, and a couple were notable. Here’s today’s food porn for your enjoyment. 

This was our favorite. Complex when we explain it, but all the textures and flavors cooperated very well. The rose-red sauce at the right is a tomato-beet mousse. Beneath it is a layer of a creamy white cheese. And beneath that were three pieces of white fish, ceviche style, with a bit of caviar. To the left is an arrangement of slightly pickled tomatoes, beets, and radish slices. Neither of us is a fan of beets, but in this dish, the beets were gentle, and the combinations of beet, tomato, vinegar, creamy cheese, crunchy radish, and ceviche fish kept delighting our tongues. 


Dorade (a white fish), with a verveine foam.


Roasted beef with young zucchini and carrots, and dried black olive bits.


The cheese course was just goat cheese. We have discovered that in many restaurants, if there is a cheese course, it can be just three or four slices of unremarkable cheese. Here, the chefs cannily chose a single creamy goat cheese from the Bordeaux region. They decorated it with tiny flowers and herb sprigs; this was not just to be pretty: the tart herbal field flavors complemented the cheese. Little fresh figs, simple almonds, and a delicious slightly crystalline local honey charmed us. 


PPS: Our B&B 

Our B&B was beautiful, and its owner / host, Béatrice, was full of life. Highly recommended: Bordeaux Wine Lodge. The breakfast table for just the two of us: 



Le Potager – The Vegetable Garden

We knew the synthetic putting green needed to turn into a vegetable garden.

The previous owners of our house had installed a long narrow putting green below the living room window. On-site golf didn’t particularly resonate with us, but the idea of growing our own vegetables — in moderation — did. (Is this a retirement stereotype, or what?) It was easy to visualize a raised garden on the footprint of the putting green. A bit more challenging to make it a reality.


Mike had come across a garden approach called the Square Foot Gardening, so we bought the book and studied it. Among the advantages of this approach is cultivation of a variety of plants in a small accessible area. I, who have a disturbing affection for spreadsheets, loved the idea of a gridded garden. The organizational concept is to make all the one-foot squares easy to reach; the garden areas are no more than 4 feet across. Perfect for our long thin putting-green.


Life is too short to be bending over all the time to weed the cabbage patch, so elevated was a necessity. That the raised garden surface would be visible from our living room was an added benefit.

Inspiration images

I pulled up the synthetic green and its concrete barrier. I refined the layout with string and stakes, and made sketches and calculations for the raised garden frame. The design required large thick wood planks, wood anchor stakes, and waterproof lining.


Next step was to find materials. In the two local big-box stores like Home Depot — TriDôme and Brico Depot — we inspected our way through the outdoor lumber racks. Inscrutable labels: the French have a different word for everything! So we needed to walk slowly with phone translators in hand to figure out types of wood and their properties. It was all pretty overwhelming. 

We then tried another place called Union Matériaux. It looked like a building supply company for contractors, but they were happy to talk with us. We sat at a desk and explained our project. The young man worked on his computer with us, drawing up the garden frame, and figuring out all our supplies, down to quantities of screws. Within a half an hour, he presented us a detailed proposal. Even though the Union Matériaux solution was a bit more expensive that what we think TriDôme would have cost, the ease and collaboration made it an easy solution. A few days later, all was delivered to our garden area.


We are fairly handy around the house, but we realized we needed someone more capable — and stronger — than we to build our garden box. One of our expatriate friends here recommended a multi-talented fellow named Owen. He is South African originally, but has lived in this part of France for about 30 years. He is a charming, enthusiastic man. He attacked the project and delivered our garden box in a day.


Now we needed to fill the box with soil! Soon after moving to this house, we learned that the soil around us is mostly clay. Our little neighborhood was built on former vineyards. Grape vines may be able to grow in this type of clay, but flowers and vegetables won’t. Therefore, we needed to import all the vegetable garden soil. 

Geometry told us that we needed 2 cubic meters of gravel underlayment, and 5 cubic meters of soil for the raised garden and other plantings we anticipate.

We could buy bags of vegetable garden soil at the big box stores. We would need about 100 50-litre bags. In addition, we needed the two cubic meters of gravel underneath the soil. That seemed too cumbersome and expensive. 

Union Matériaux had already said that they only offered decorative gravel; not construction gravel nor garden soil. 

We found online only one local source for bulk gravel and soil, a company called Posocco. I studied up on French vocabulary about dirt and rocks, and we headed out in search of the place.


I called to get directions, but could only discern the equivalent of “the road to Limoux,” and Le Chapitre, which could mean “the chapter.” We know the road to Limoux, but the Le Chapitre meant nothing. No worries, we have Google Maps, right? The first place Google Maps took us was a house in a residential neighborhood. There was indeed a sign at the front gate with the name Posocco on it. But this was obviously not a gravel and earth distribution yard. I called the phone number on the sign to ask again for directions. A woman answered; we could hear a child practicing the piano in the background. Must be a family-owned business. Again: Road to Limoux, and Le Chapitre. Sigh.

Google Maps again: near the road to Limoux, but on the other side of the Aude River, was another pin for Posocco. Not exactly on the road to Limoux, but let’s try anyway. We found a Posocco sign, and at the end of a rough road, an opening full of piles of rocks and gravel, and a small building. Inside the building, a good-humored man agreed that we were still not at the correct place. He, fortunately, explained in detail how to get to the main location. He counted out the number of round-abouts and turns needed.

Of course, we miscounted the round-abouts. Halfway to Limoux, we agreed that we needed to turn back. At the first round-about we encountered (again), there was a small sign for Le Chapitre Bed & Breakfast. This felt very small-town: like, “Turn left where the steak restaurant used to be.” There was a Posocco sign facing the way we were then going, but invisible from our original direction. At the end of another pot-holed little road appeared more mounds of gravel, big trucks, and signs for Customer Parking! At last.

In the building, we found a man sitting behind a counter at a desk, and next to a little window at truck-cab height. We stood patiently at the counter as he dealt with one truck after another, presumably delivering and picking up rocks. While we waited, two other men came into the room, talking animatedly. When the desk man looked over to us and I tried to explain what we were there for, all three started discussing our project. They debated what type, shape and size gravel would be best for us. We just watched quietly as they figured it all out. At last, the desk man pulled out a laminated price sheet. He noted what we were asking for and the unit prices (per ton!) for soil and gravel — on a post-it note! Apparently we weren’t yet at the right office. He gave us a number to call to place the actual order.

We felt that we had made progress, for sure, but that we hadn’t found the end of the corridor yet. Time to give it a break, go home, and have a glass of wine.

We were visiting with our friends Georges and Michèle the next day. We told them our Google-Maps fueled adventure in search of gravel. Georges said that he knows someone at Posocco and would be glad to make the call for us. Yes! Merci beaucoup.

The next day, Georges texted that he had talked with his friend. He learned that we needed to buy the gravel and soil from Union Matériaux (!) rather than from Posocco directly. We could expect a proposal (devis in French: a very useful word it turns out) in the next day or so. As promised, the devis arrived by email, and it was much more expensive that what our post-it note showed, and the quantities were all wrong. But at least it was now from our new friends at Union Matériaux. I visited them again the next day, which was a very rainy day, and we sorted it all out easily. It turns out that Posocco had just partnered with Union Matériaux to be able to sell to individuals rather than in bulk to construction companies. The added cost came from packaging the gravel and soil in meter-cube bags and delivery to private residences.

Some days before, we had brainstormed delivery strategies with Owen, who had built the garden box. Mike and I had envisioned delivery of the bulk materials either in front of the garage or in the side yard by our cross street. Both locations would have required our transporting gravel and soil one wheelbarrow at a time to our new potager. Not a lovely prospect, but at least a lot of healthy exercise. Owen had looked around, and said we could arrange for the delivery truck to drive into the adjacent vineyard, and then deposit the bags over our wall and directly on the garden. It hadn’t even occurred to us. He asked if we knew the farmer; we said that we see him from time to time, and even occasionally wave, but that was all. I said that I would ask his permission the next time we saw him. Owen had just finished his work for the day, so he drove off. Five minutes later, he texted to say that he had seen the farmer, explained and asked permission, and the farmer had easily agreed.

At Union Matériaux, with gravel and soil purchased, we discussed this delivery strategy. It was still raining. In fact, we were in the midst of the wettest spring and early summer in about 50 years. It was all that anyone around here could talk about. All that rain meant that the dirt paths around the vineyard were muddy and far too soft for a heavy delivery truck. Now we needed to wait for a few sunny days and a dry vineyard. That wait turned out to be about a month. We kept looking out our living room window at this ark-like wood box. Spring became summer, and we didn’t have any soil for our garden.

At long long last, biblically, the rains subsided. Union Matériaux agreed that delivery was possible. The delivery truck driver skillfully backed into the vineyard, avoided the ditch between our wall and the vines, and lowered each cubic meter over the garden. Mike and I scrambled to rake out the gravel as it fell from the opened bags. We mounded the soil on top, and had the deliverer place the remaining soil cubes. Never before had we celebrated piles of rocks and dirt, but we did this time.



On to the good part: planting a square-foot-style potager. Happily, I marked the garden area spreadsheet with strings. We scoured the garden stores for plants: Chinese cabbage (Mike is going to make kim chee), lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, fennel, thyme, rosemary, chives, shallots, leeks, sage, and mint. We interspersed marigolds, petunias, and nasturtiums because they naturally repell some destructive insects — and they look great from the window. I added a drip-irrigation line.


While we aren’t ready to host a produce stand at the Saturday town market, we have at last started enjoying some lettuce, peppers and fennel from the potager. More produce to come as the summer progresses. The cucumber plants were so prodigious that we needed to replant them elsewhere. Who knew that some good soil, lots of sunshine and water, plants — and perseverance — will give you wonderful things to eat! Amazing.


Our Village Fête

On a warm Saturday evening recently, our village hosted its annual summer fête. We joined a few hundred of our new neighbors for an open-air evening of food and conversation. Our village has only about 1000 residents.

Instructions were to bring our own couverts, which is flatware, glass and plate. As we were strolling at about 7pm from our house to the center of the village (only about a 5-minute walk), we joined various other groups and families on their way.

We have learned that the center of our village, which is a circle of stone buildings and houses, with a small church and the current town hall, dates from the 13th century. The heart of the village is a simple attractive little square, shaded by a large plane tree. Arriving, we found the square full of long lines of tables, and many clusters of folks chatting, beverages in hand. We noticed that most places at the tables already had plates on them, some with chairs tipped forward for obvious reservation. We found a couple spots at an edge table.


We went in search of some rosé, which we could see in people’s plastic cups. At the crowded beverage table, we found only empty soda bottles and a few peanuts. But under the plane tree was a table with a line of wine boxes, spigots ready for us. Plastic cups in hand, we poured out full cups.

We noticed our neighbors at another table. They exclaimed that they didn’t know that we were coming. They are a retired couple who moved to our village a few years ago after their working life in the Paris region. They have always been kind to us during our first year in the village. We enjoy talking with them, but the husband in particular speaks very quickly and with a bit of a slur, so I struggle to understand what he is saying. He is always jolly, but a bit inscrutable. They were quick to introduce us to a few other expatriate village residents so we could speak some English.


We were interrupted by the announcement of the start of the meal. We headed back to our spot at a distant table. To one side of us was a self-absorbed animated group. To the other, a few couples who were obviously friends. We introduced ourselves as best as we could. We could see the looks on their faces that say, “Oh, great, English speakers.” But as the evening progressed, we were able to exchange small talk — in French. They were lively and pleasant, and fun to talk with. We have learned that (as we did at the Pennautier dining event) we just have to ask for their suggestions of interesting restaurants off the beaten track, and that gets everyone discussing and debating. And we add to our list of places to try.


Even outside, under the village tree, with our own knives, forks and plates, the village presented a three-course dinner. Nothing particularly fancy, but really tasty. Half a melon topped with prosciutto started us off. Then a creamy tender pork stew over rice, with a baguette, of course. Mini-brie packages. Ice cream in the cup with the wooden spoon. And a chocolate éclair. Accompanied by a pitcher of red wine.


Our first village event! It was fascinating to see who else lives here. With our unstructured, non-work life, we see the village quiet and seemingly empty during the day. But the village is full of young families, whose children go off to school everyday and whose adults disperse for work. In everyday life, we are probably as invisible to them as they are to us. It was nice to see the generations and village friendships on this warm summer evening.


Santa María (as in Niña, Pinta, & Santa María)

In July, the attractive Mediterranean port town of Sète (about an hour’s drive from Carcassonne) hosted a brand-new replica of Columbus’ Santa María. Perfect reason for a history-themed outing.


Views of Sète

Our main wonderment was contemplating the experiences, fear, challenges, courage, danger, and uncertainty on this tiny tiny vessel. We stood on the main and quarter decks, imagining mid-ocean waves taller than the ship itself. To sail across the Atlantic — before they knew there was an across the Atlantic — in a ship the size of an 18-wheeler highway truck: impossible to comprehend even while standing amid the ropes and masts.

The notes in this post come from the exhibit itself, and from a news report. I’ve added some image captions for a few of our personal reactions.


The Santa Maria was the flagship with which Admiral Christopher Columbus carried out one of the most significant ocean crossings in history. On August 3rd, 1492, it set sail from the port of Palos de la Frontera (Huelva, Spain) together with the caravels “Pinta” and “Niña”, and reached America on October 12th, 1492, causing an encounter between two worlds that had been unknown to each other until that point.


The Santa María 525 project came about with the objective of reliving history in order to promote the heritage, tourism and culture of the province of Huelva, with the construction and development of one of its most recognizable symbols of identity.

This true-scale replica of the Santa María was built by Fundcacíon Nao Victoria, a Spanish institute that specializes in historic ships. The work was carried out in the coastal town of Pinta Umbría (Huelva, Spain) over twelve months starting in January 2017 and ending in March 2018.

The design includes the results of the new studies on the shapes of this famous vessel, in order to achieve greater maneuverability and better control of the steering. During the process, an innovative system was applied in the sector of construction of historical ship replicas, which combines construction in fiberglass and posterior covering in wood. A new technique that implied enormous progress with regards to the environmental impact, costs, durability and maintenance of the vessel, without affecting its historical aspect, seaworthiness or maneuvering.

A glimpse behind the scenes of the modern structure of the replica.

100 marine professionals and trades: This is the approximate number of people that have participated in its construction: naval carpenters, net workers, rope workers, historians, engineers and other artisans.

300,000 hours of work: 14 months of work during which the mould of the hull was created, the work with wood was carried out for the cladding, the placement of the masts, the preparation of the rigging and apparel and the installation of the equipment.

Oak wood: Structural pieces
Pine wood: Planking, masts and braces
Olive and holm oak wood: Pulleys and deadheads 
Iron: Nails and anchors
Hemp canvas: Sails
Hemp impregnated with tar: Ropes and standing rigging
Esparto (a coarse grass with tough narrow leaves): Anchor ropes



“We intend to go to the east coast of America and Canada, but the construction completion was late; therefore we didn’t have the time to cross the Atlantic during the good weather conditions this year,” explained Carlos Herrera, the captain of the Santa María. It is necessary to wait for the end of hurricane season for the inaugural voyage to America. So various Mediterranean ports will be able to host the ship until November. From tourist to specialist, all will have the chance to be amazed! (France 3, 12 July 2018)


A ship of 100 tonnes had an average crew of 45 members. The men at sea consisted of sailors, apprentices, cabin boys, carpenters, caulker, chaplains, steward’s mates and surgeons, who obeyed the high commands of the authorities: owners, pilots, captains and boatswains. There were also royal officers such as sheriff, scribe, treasurer or accountant, who were responsible for ensuring the interests of the Crown.

More than 40 men lived in boats that were just 25 meters in length, with main decks of just 90 m2 of free space to live and work. The responsibilities of each role and trade were clearly established and organized. There was strict discipline on board, so that the operation of the ship was optimized.

The great challenge of the oceanic crossings on the ships was to calculate the position of the ships on the sea, to follow the course traced out and to avoid dangers when approaching an unknown coast. For this, they had rudimentary navigation instruments that, although they did help to determine the latitude through the height of the sun, they made it impossible to calculate the longitude. The mariner’s compass, quadrant, astrolabe, sand time, lead line and log were the navigation instruments used on the Spanish ships. With these, they could measure the height of the sun, the position of the ship, inspect the seabed and determine the speed of the ship in order to draw the route on their navigation charts and determine the course to be followed.



Life on board was carried out on the ship’s decks. Daily work was divided into six shifts and only the meals broke the routine. During the night, only the captain had quarters or a cabin to sleep in. The officials rolled out their thin wool mattresses under the awning deck and the rest looked for a place to rest among the scarce free spaces of the forecastle or the main deck on basic mats.

The lack of hygiene, illnesses, the sensation of danger and permanent concern about their destinations were constraint among the crews on these ships, where there was practically no time for leisure. Harsh living conditions that thousands of men experienced on board these ships on the longest ocean crossings recorded in the history of sailing.

Play, talk and read: The difficult sailing conditions didn’t leave much time for entertainment, which was also halted by any maneuver that required the help of all men for rigging or sails. At sea, “playing, talking and reading”, for those that knew how, were the only possible distractions. Despite the express prohibition of games on board, cards and dice ran along the decks without being hidden and the men gambled their breeches, money and weapons.

Meals were prepared by lighting small fires on the main deck. The basic diet consisted of pound cake, legumes, salted meat and fish, dried fruits, vinegar and wine.

Hygiene and illness: The overcrowding on the ships of men with live animals, lice, fleas and rats, and the lack of drinking water, meant that hygiene was visibly lacking. Frequently they suffered diseases, such as the dreaded and deadly scurvy. Health, which was totally precarious, was in the hands of surgeons and barbers who could barely stitch wounds or perform blood-letting.


Main deck: It is the area where the life of the crew took place: maneuvering, ground-handling, galley… Here the majority of men on board slept on mats, since the hold was used for cargo and gear. During navigation, waves frequently crossed the deck, reducing dry spaces to a minimum.

The main deck is the lower section.


Main deck under the quarter deck. Imagine 40 sailors living and working here.

Quarter deck: It was the center of command for the ship. On it, the Pilot, main responsible for the navigation, could see the sails and the horizon, and he had the basic elements to guide the ship: the navigation needle (compass) situated on the binnacle, and the whipstaff. This deck was used only by the midshipmen.

View to the quarterdeck, above the main deck.
View from the quarter deck toward the bow to the ship.

Stern and rudder: It was the steering system of ships until the appearance of the wheel in the mid-18th century. Exercising a lever over the tiller allowed the crew to control the course of the boat without losing sight of the sails and the sea. Several men were necessary for control of the ship in bad weather.


Captain’s cabin: The only cabin of this type of ship was used just by the captain, the pilot, or the man of greatest rank on board. It usually held just one bunk and a trunk with the nautical charts, navigation instruments, and important documents. Non-officers crew were strictly prohibited from entering this cabin without permission from the captain.

This is where Columbus and the pilot managed the voyage.
Imagine: This is Columbus’ quarters! What did he think about on the voyages? Did he sleep easily?

Hold: The ship’s holds were usually full of food and merchandise stored in dozens of barrels, bundles and drawers, making their environment unbreathable. 

On this replica, the hold has been transformed into exhibit space. Picture it full to the brim with food and supplies.

Some details from the Santa María:


On a recent hot summer day, we visited the very old village of Lagrasse, which is about 30 minutes outside of Carcassonne. 


A steep valley protects the village, and a cool stream refreshes it. The inspiration for our visit was tickets to attend the open-air Danse à Lagrasse performance; more about that later in the post!

Sometime in the last year, we had driven by the village, commenting, “Oh, another pretty stone village.” And we continued on our way. Little did we know how much history, architectural beauty, quaint streets, impressive abbey, pretty cafés, artisan shops, and even a swimmable river, grace Lagrasse.

Through the Danse à Lagrasse web site, we found an afternoon tour. Carlos of Entre les Vignes offered a 90-minute exploration of the village. Carlos is personable as well as knowledgeable. He knows how to share interesting stories, not just facts and figures. He helped us see little details in buildings and around the village that, although small, are full of meaning and history.

The village of Lagrasse exists because of the Abbey of St. Mary, which sits on the opposite side of the Orbieu river.


The abbey is to the right along this road, with the village across the river.


The abbey began where a few hermits had made their home, escaping from the turmoil of the 7th century and the time of Charlemagne and the Saracens (North African and Arab Muslims). It became a major element in a string of abbeys and monasteries in Languedoc, designed by the Church to defend against non-Christian forces. The abbey developed into a major religious and commercial center via tithes and land acquisition.

One of the inner courtyards of the abbey.
This was the dormitory. The artist of the black-and-white contemporary art piece on the end wall used the soot from flaming filaments to make the pattern.

As the prominence of the abbey grew, so did a lay village across the river. Until the 14th century, the villagers crossed the river to the abbey for their religious life. But the village population and wealth grew, so much so that they petitioned the abbey to allow the construction of a church within the walls of the village for their daily religious life. Once the Church granted permission, they tore down some houses in the middle of the densely built village, and squeezed in the Church of Saint Michel. Here’s the tiny passage between the church and adjacent houses.


The interior:


The various trade guilds contributed to the construction of the church, and in return, allocated themselves chapels for their own business. You can see the pair of fishes at the top of the vault; this is the fishmonger guild’s chapel.


The French Revolution left its heavy mark on the abbey. Starting in 1789, the revolutionaries aggressively destroyed everything linked to the Church and the nobility. They tore buildings apart; they ripped down religious art and burned archives. At Lagrasse, they stripped the abbey, claimed it for the people, divided it in two, and then sold the parts to the highest bidders. Today, the department of Aude (the local government) owns and hosts half of the building (which we could visit). The community of Canons Regular of the Mother of God moved have inhabited the other half since 2004. They are a very conservative order that even now conducts their services in Latin.

More evidence of revolutionary zeal hides in plain sight in the cemetery. Guillaume Alexandre Segur was born on 19 Thérmidoran IV and died on 23 November 1880. The revolutionaries wanted to eliminate every single connection to religious and royalist heritage, including the calendar and telling time. They zealously strove to base all of revolutionary life on decimal systems. For 12 years, the calendar in France had 12 months, each of which had 3 10-day weeks; they had to work hard to accommodate the remaining 5 days of the year. The Roman numerals designed the years since the revaluation. So, M Segur was born in Year IV of the revolution, but since the revolutionary system did not last long, he died back in the old calendar year of 1880.


Carlos wove together tales from Lagrasse’s early history and from the emergence of the medieval bourgeoisie that loved art and showing off. He showed us painted ceiling panels from the 14th and 15th centuries. Carlos likened these panels to Facebook posts! This was how the well-to-do announced their accomplishments, identity and sense of humor.


The market hall was the center of commercial life. To this day, it shelters the weekly local market of fresh produce, meats, honey and seafood.


You can see the “calling cards” of the fishmonger guild here as well. See again the pair of fishes at the top of the column; the fishmonger association’s headquarters was in this building.


The village streets and squares drip with charm! Many artisan shops, offering pottery, glass art, unique fashion, and books, animate the narrow streets.


OK, now about the dance performance!

Danse à Lagrasse exists because of Johanna Adams Farley, Senior Stage Manager at the Royal Ballet (UK), and many other local enthusiasts, who have homes in Lagrasse. In 2010 and now in 2018, the tour schedule of the Royal Ballet allowed a slight detour for these two performances in Lagrasse. 

Stands and stage were erected on the village’s rugby field just for this weekend’s festivities.


While Carlos had kept us engaged with the history and attractiveness of Lagrasse, the summer afternoon had also scorched us. After the tour, in the late afternoon, we lingered over cold drinks, an ice cream, and then a few glasses of rosé in the village. We were waiting for the open-air pre-performance supper to start at 7 pm. At last the food tent welcomed us. We enjoyed a relaxed three-course supper under the trees.


The start of the performance needed to wait until after dusk. By 9:45, we, and about 600 other enthusiasts, were in our seats, savoring the summer sky and dark surrounding hills.


The lights dimmed. Two pianists appeared, bowed, and took their places at a pair of grand pianos at the corner of the stage.

Then we were treated to a very generous succession of solo dancers, duets, and ensemble pieces. There was a mixture of classical ballet and robust contemporary pieces. We generally prefer contemporary dance over classical, but the immediacy of this relatively small setting and the accomplishment of these dancers kept us rapt. The dynamic choreography and physicality of the contemporary pieces, vigorously embodied by beautiful young dancers, made me think over and over, “This is why I love dance!” Beautiful, moving, astonishing, passionate, transfixing.


This was the night of the celebrated lunar eclipse. While the surrounding hills concealed the blood moon from us, the waning eclipse rose later in the evening. The music and dance filled the night. The moon ascended. The air started to freshen. The performances followed one after the other until after midnight! A glorious evening — and day — in little Lagrasse!


PS: A little unexpected moment of beauty: At the abbey, I followed the signs for the restroom. Up some stairs, around a corner, and then into the restroom — with this open window straight ahead.



Since we first met Jean-François Vassal and Valérie Michel last year, we have learned a lot about what the Middle Ages was really like here in Carcassonne. 

One of Jean-François and Valérie’s businesses is the Centre d’Histoire Vivante Médiévale (CHVM).  The mission of CHVM is to provide authentic experiences of medieval culture and society, with focus on the region of Carcassonne between the 12th and 15th centuries. While other enterprises offer anecdotal tours, CHVM’s tours, workshops and presentations dispel so many romantic myths about the Middle Ages, and replace them with even more interesting authentic experiences. The main theme is Myth Versus Reality. We are starting to be able to distinguish what is true (and fascinating!) from what Hollywood has delightfully made up.

Two events form the sources for this blog: A medieval fair within the walls of the medieval city, La Cité de Carcassonne, last fall; and a medieval encampment just outside the château of La Cité a few weeks ago.

Here are views of the medieval encampment. The arched bridge leads from the interior of La Cité into the château. The château — or castle — sits within the walls of La Cité. A medieval citadel becomes a Cité once it contains a château, a cathedral, and the residences and commerce of at least a village. The tents of this encampment are relatively authentic for a group of merceneries around 1355. The people in short pants are not.


May I present Valérie and Jean-François in summer — a bit relaxed — and in winter — ready for battle. Their garments are as authentic as they can achieve so far. For each part of the outfits, they have spent at least 10 hours of research. They confirm the textiles, all the details, and the accessories.


While the man on the right is a good friend of Jean-François and Valérie, his clothes and arms would not have existed at the same time as those worn by Jean-François. Before the middle of the 14th century, the chevalier’s protection would have been only chain mail (all riveted; a full covering of mail contains about 42,000 rings!). In the middle of the 14th century, individual plates started to be added, like the plates and gloves that Jean-François is wearing. By 1410, the chevalier protected himself completely with plates.

Jean-François’ armor approaches what a chevalier probably wore at about 1350. Pursuit of authenticity comes step by step: Jean-François is continually refining this combination of mail and plates. Despite what you see in this photo, in 1350, the chain mail would have formed a higher collar beneath his chin, and there would have likely been less sleeve. For the knight on the right, of the mid-15th century, plates would have covered his arms and all his joints.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, our two friends could not have met each other, much less fought.


This is a fairly authentic collection of arms, armor and shields from the 14th century. During this period, shields were made of wood and leather, not metal.


This collection compares arrows, horseshoes and other items from the medieval period with those of today. A subtitle for the arrowhead collection would be 40 ways to kill with arrow heads.


Within the overall medieval fair last fall, Jean-François and his colleagues hosted an area and events dedicated to authentic living medieval history. A centerpiece of this area was re-enactment of fighting chevalier. Jean-François is on the left, in white. Everything he is wearing and carrying, including his underwear, is authentic for about 1350. His opponent’s clothes and equipment are from a later period, around the end of the 14th century, with more armor plates than what was available in 1350. 

The re-enactors were fighting with real but blunted swords and equipment. They hit quite hard, although with a guiding value of respect for the opponent. Jean-François broke a finger during this set of matches. The man in red with the long pole is called the maréchal de lice. His job is to enforce the rules of the matches, such as three touches of the sword constituting a win. 


No one seems too upset that they are all dead.


This is blacksmithing equipment. The blacksmith was, other than the local lord, the most important person in a community. Without his (and it was always a man as far as we know) skills and products, almost nothing in communities during the Middle Ages would have been possible. Farming implements, carts and carriages, the tools of war — all depended on the blacksmith. His role meant he was usually well respected and wealthy.


The trash can isn’t quite authentic while the rest of the equipment, tent, and what the man is wearing are. The clothes of the visiting young lady, under the historian’s intense eye, don’t fit in this vignette. On the other hand, their flirting over a winter brasier is authentic in another way.


Now we will steer much farther away from authenticity. While Jean-François learns and shows through re-enactment, others take a looser romantic approach. They evoke; they play; they party. Hollywood, romantic novels and television inspire.

There is a pair of movies that illustrates romance versus authenticity. Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a fun movie, and was even filmed in Carcassonne, but it presents a jumble of inaccurate costumes, arms, and other details. On the other hand, Arn: The Knight Templar, is a good story and accurate in its depiction. Next time you’re feeling medieval, nest with this double feature.

Our passionate dancer and her accomplishes are having a good time, but they have made up almost all their costumes and activities.


While a knight and his lady on his-and-her horses are perfect for a romance-novel cover, you would never have witnessed a scene like this in the Middle Ages. Much more like Game of Thrones.


Sorry, once again: You would never have seen our charming lady vendor with fabric head ring in the medieval era. Draping scarves, however, were at times in fashion.


Nonetheless, it is great seeing the kids and families work with leather and parchment in ways that evoke medieval workmanship.


Shooting arrows with authentic equipment lets you live a medieval archer’s experience. While this type of curved bow had been used in Asia and Eastern Europe for a long time, it was used in the south of France from the 13th century. 


Whether re-enacting with authenticity, or evoking just to have fun, a main goal is for the history of the Middle Ages to come alive. You can immerse yourself and, through activities, get glimpses of bits of a remote part of our shared history. Why not immerse yourself in the real clothes, arms, equipment, and tournament tents, rather than Hollywood’s fantasies?!


PS. One whine too many…