At the start of 2017, we embarked on our next chapter in our lives: retiring and moving ourselves and our two cats to Carcassonne, France. We will be sharing notes and photos about our lives in France, and our travels in Europe and beyond.
At the start of 2017, we embarked on our next chapter in our lives: retiring and moving ourselves and our two cats to Carcassonne, France. We will be sharing notes and photos about our lives in France, and our travels in Europe and beyond.
Black truffles grow wild and are cultivated in our region of Aude in southern France. The harvest season is mid-winter. Various towns and villages host truffle markets from December to March.
On 5 January, the village of Moussoulens, a 10-minute drive from our house, presented a truffle and local products market.
It was a cold but sunny morning. We found the village square populated by local vendors of food, wine, crafts and beauty products.
A brass ensemble filled the air with festive tunes.
But the main purpose of the day was the sale of the local producers’ truffles. Here is the traditional way the market works:
The producers bring their truffles to the market.
Local expert officials examine all the truffles, ensuring their quality and provenance.
The public waits for the opening of the market, crowded against a rope, a few steps from the producers’ stations along a table.
The producers, however, look like they are having a good time on this sunny winter morning.
Officials make announcements, including the mayor of Moussoulens (the man to the right).
The anticipation mounts. We can all see the baskets and piles of the black truffles. The expert says that there are about 5 kg of truffles on this day, so that there are plenty for all. Still, the crowd pushes against the rope line.
At last, the mayor blows a whistle; the officials drop the rope; and the crowd happily pushes forward to the tables. The sales begin.
On our winter Saturday, the official had been correct: there were plenty of truffles available. We were able to walk up to the table and select a little truffle just for us. The current price of these Aude black truffles is one euro per gram. That’s more than twice the current price of silver!
Back home, Mike poached two eggs with truffle crumbs. Then he shaved more truffle on top. The warmth of the eggs and their relatively quiet flavors allowed the aroma of the black truffle to peek forward. However, we found the aroma and flavor extremely subtle. (We are spoiled: the Italian white truffles that we experienced in October had far more personality!)
These are moments when we are very happy about our life in France!
There’s more to Barcelona than Antoni Gaudí.
As a visitor to Barcelona, you can’t miss the celebration of the architect Antoni Gaudí. All tours visit the Sagrada Familia, the Casa Battló, Park Güell, and many other Gaudí-designed buildings. All the souvenir shops are filled with Gaudí-inspired objects.
But Gaudí, while an unequaled genius, was one among many expressive modernisme architects and artists who flourished at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century in Barcelona. Another was Lluís Domènech i Montaner.
At the turn of the 20th century, the catalan choir association Orféo Català commissioned the design of a new performance hall. They chose the most prominent architect in Barcelona at the time, who was not Gaudí. It was Lluís Domènech i Montaner. Construction was completed in 1908.
For the people of Barcelona, this was a time of great industrialization, economic prosperity, social change, and Catalan cultural resurgence. The founders of Orféo Català sought to celebrate Catalan choral music and to support ordinary people in the working neighborhoods of industrial Barcelona. The singers in the choirs of the Orféo Català were ordinary people, not paid professionals.
The performance hall is squeezed in the midst of the textile-workers district. Still today, you can’t get a long view of the facades because of its tight location. Instead, its artistic exuberance reveals itself in glimpses and around corners.
Barcelona’s modernisme style is an explosion of classical, natural, regional, art nouveau, gothic and just plain creative elements. You feel the pride of Catalonia’s uniqueness. Forms and colors from nature react to the challenges of industry. You see the hands of artisans and artists in the mosaics, carvings and sculptures.
Characteristic materials of the mosaics of the modernisme style are broken ceramic, stone and glass. The broken pieces were less expensive than whole elements, and they allowed the construction of sinuous curving forms.
The lobby and entry stairs hint at the exuberance of design awaiting you in the main hall.
Natural light fills the hall.
The architect designed the space for choral performances, not orchestras or operas. The choral society wanted light and openness. Even with the building’s being squeezed between workers’ buildings, the architect filled the hall with light from great windows on all sides, and through an astonishing drooping glass ceiling.
The iconography of the art in the hall connects the cultural heritage of Catalan composers and performers with the greats of the Western tradition.
The sculpture to the left of the stage shows a famous Catalan composer of the time and illustrates one of his hugely popular songs.
Balancing this Catalan expression is the sculpture on the right, with Wagner and his valkyries. This pairing says that Catalan musical culture is the equal of the best of Europe.
Eighteen muses from around the world overlook the stage. Note the creative combination of two-dimensional mosaic forms with the emerging sculptural torsos. The Catalan flag holds the center. Catalan culture at the center of the world, and connected to all the world’s musical heritage.
Beyond all the history and meaning, we just find this place beautiful. The fertility of art, craft and design wraps you up. It is amazing that all this is just one room.
Here are more images of the design details. Enjoy!
Our guide from the Palau de la Música Catalana brought as much exuberance to our tour as the architect did to the hall. Splendid ambassador for this remarkable place.
We recently took a road trip to Venice and back. This post comes from some of our travel moments.
A beautiful mountain lake and old town.
Our hotel was located about a 15 minute walk along the lake from the old town. The view from our window.
We walked into town just before dusk. The light on the hills and the water kept changing as we walked. The placid lake is perfect for sailboats and even stand-up-paddlers. Ducks and swans lolled about.
A lovely canal just off the lake:
The old town of Annecy dates back to Roman times, although much of what remains today is from the 12th to the 16th centuries.
The stone building on a tiny island in the little river — Le Palais de l’Île, or the Palace of the Island — was the residence of the lords of Annecy from the 12th century and an administrative centre when the counts of Geneva came to Annecy in the 14th century. The Palace was also a prison, operating until 1865.
Another intensely picturesque medieval town. As usual, turned into a tourist mall of restaurants, cafés and shops. Picturesque nonetheless.
We sat outside to enjoy a beer and a glass of wine.
We selected a restaurant called Ô Savoyard. This is the Savoy region of France. The landscape, activities and animals define its character. We could feel the influences from Switzerland and Germany. We thought we should have some food from the region.
It seemed that everything on the menu was some combination of potatoes, melted cheese, and sausages. Designed for cold snowy mountain winter nights. Not a bad combination. But when our main courses arrived, we faced two immense bowls of melted cheese, potatoes, sausage and chicken. Really enough for 4 to 6 people. Lubricated by a pleasant bottle of red wine, we dug in … and overate. (Perhaps as usual?) Today, as I’m writing, a few days later, the thought of more cheese and potatoes banishes any feeling of hunger.
This is a town and lake that we want to visit again. The setting is gorgeous. The town seems to be filled with people biking, sailing, running and strolling, all enjoying the outdoors. The first Saturday in August, the town hosts a massive fireworks festival over the lake. In June each year, there is a festival of animated cinema. Much more to explore. But perhaps less cheese and potatoes.
One pleasure of our home outside of Carcassonne is watching the neighbor’s vineyard through the seasons. We see the first sprigs burst forth in April: almost overnight. The vines grow lush under the summer sun. After months of anticipation, in September, the grape harvest is over in a day. And then, slowly, the leaves of the vines grow crispy and brown, and disappear. But we know it will all renew next spring.
We’ve collected photos each week, and used them to make two little time-lapse videos. (I think the videos are visible only when you go to the blog site rather than just the email announcement.)
We hope you’ll enjoy!
Once we had decided to make a road trip to Venice, we realized that along the route was the Italian Piedmont wine region of Barolo.
We had enjoyed Barolo red wines in the past: lovely rich and aromatic wines, usually pricey, so only for the most special occasions. Maybe they would be less expensive at the source! Since we were going to be traveling with two wine-loving friends, we created a two-night one-day stop in the region. We knew nothing detailed about this wine region and its wines. By pure coincidence, the dates of our visit were the start of the annual white-truffle festival. We arranged to take a day-long wine- and truffle-tasting tour.
Marco was our host and tour guide. His family has raised grapes and made wine in this region for generations. Marco and his brother — both in their mid-30s — are the latest generation to manage the family business.
We stayed at his family’s very comfortable B&B. It is set amid their vineyards and next to their family home.
Marco, being a wine producer himself, overflowed with detailed and fascinating knowledge and experience.
While there are a number of grapes grown in this region, three varieties are prominent: dolcetto, barbera, and nebbiolo.
Up until about a generation ago, dolcetto was the grape most cultivated. The local economy was generally agricultural — not just grapes — and not particularly prosperous. Vintners were primarily farmers and produced wine for their own consumption. Dolcetto yields drinkable wine immediately, no aging needed. Farmers couldn’t afford the time to hold and age wines, and what customers there were couldn’t afford more expensive wines.
So what changed so that now high-quality exportable wines are now produced? In some part, innovative Piedmont vintners saw the rise of Tuscan wines and started to experiment.
Tuscany had something crucial that the Piedmont did not: an aristocracy who owned the land and vineyards. They could afford to travel to see how the French make wine. In the Piedmont, these were just poor farmers, who couldn’t afford to explore and learn. And there was competition between farms and villages, rather than a tradition of cooperation.
With Tuscan marketing and changes in mind, at least one forward-thinking Piedmont vintner ventured out to France to see how the French make such notable wines. The story we were told goes like this: The maverick went to Burgundy. He showed up at a winery, and asked to see how things were done. By chance he met the owner who was in his sports car on the way out to his other house in the French Riviera. The Italian was taken aback by such a show of wealth and fine living. He thought, we aren’t doing this right. These French know how to produce good wine, while also enjoying a fine life.
In the 1980s, a number of these innovative wine makers, including Angelo Gaja, pushed forward. They shifted the focus from the dolcetto grape to nebbiolo and barbera grapes. Nebbiolo grapes are the heart of Barolo wines. Wine from Nebbiolo grapes can be harsh in taste when the wine is young. The innovators developed aging approaches that yield lovely smooth complex wines.
One part of the process is to age the wines in giant wooden barrels from Croatia, sometimes for 6 years and longer. The giant barrels mean the wine has less contact with the wood than if the wine were in traditional-sized barrels. Since the nebbiolo grape starts with tanin and edge, the less wood influence there is, the better. They now use a combination of concrete tanks, stainless steel, and wood barrels. And some vintners are currently experimenting with terra-cotta amphora, just as the ancient Greeks and Romans used.
Barolo wines come from a very specific bit of land in the Langhe region of the Piedmont. Other nebbiolo-based wines include Barbaresco, Roero, Gattinara and Ghemme. We had assumed, ignorantly, that Barolo was a type of grape, when in fact it is a precisely defined region within Langhe.
Among the specific rules for creating and marketing a Barolo wine is that the wine must spend 18 months aging in oak, then 18 months aging further as the vintner wants — wood, stainless steel, concrete, etc.
We visited the Langhe region in mid-October, only a few days after Marco and his family had completed this year’s harvest.
Marco helped us read the land by looking at the vines. These hills are composed of distinct areas of clay and of tufa, which is a kind of limestone. The clay holds more water than the tufa; the tufa is a less nutritious medium, although it drains well. Newly planted vines do better in the clay. Vines planted in tufa have to struggle to grow. They develop very deep roots to find the water they need. The vines that work hard tend to produce grapes that are better for making good wine. You can read the vineyard’s soil through the leaves and density of growth: lusher foliage signals tufa soil.
At one of the wineries we visited, they had just completed construction of new facilities. They had excavated into the hill for one of the buildings. They left exposed the cross section of the soil, including strata of clay and tufa.
Marco told us about his family’s experiences and challenges on their hillside vineyards. Snow in winter is necessary because it gives the water time to soak into the soil. Heavy summer rains don’t help. They need to install drainage pipes beneath the vines to carry off excess water. However, one year recently, heavy rains followed right after they had planted new vines on some steep slopes. The vines and the top soil slid down the hill; they needed to start over.
Climate change is not abstract and theoretical to these wine producers. During the last 30 years, they see the changes. Summer are hotter; winters provide less snow. It used to be that southern and western slopes were best. If the changes continue as they have in the last 30 years, in coming decades, the best exposures may be east. It used to be that vintners would trim leaves away from the grapes so that the grapes could warm in the sun, creating more sugar. Now, they retain the west-facing leaves to protect the grapes from the harsh sun, and instead expose the grapes to the gentler east sun.
As climate change progresses, vintners will need to replant grape varieties on different hill slopes. Zones that currently don’t produce the best grapes may become tomorrow’s stars.
Oh, and we had the pleasure to taste some Langhe and Barolo wines! Marco took us to three wineries: a small one, a medium-sized one, and a large one. That way we could explore some differences.
Funny how wine-tasting leads to wine-purchasing. In our two years in France, so far, we have learned that non-French wines are barely available in France. Our mission in the Langhe and Barolo region was to find some wines that we enjoy, and surreptitiously drive them back home. But we probably will now have to drink them with the curtains drawn, secretly savoring these luscious Italian tastes.
PS: At each restaurant, shaved fresh white truffles were available, priced per gram. We were told that a warm, relatively neutral dish works best for the the delicate truffles. Options included a sunny-side-up fried egg, pasta with a bit of butter and cheese, a melted delicate cheese with artichoke stems, and steak tartare. To our surprise, the one we liked the most (and I mean, REALLY liked) was the steak tartare. While the truffle aroma is in itself strong and distinctive — and fabulous — other tastes and aromas easily overpower it. The clean aroma and taste of the tartare allowed the truffle to take center stage. Each inhale was deliriously wonderful. Sorry, we have another snobbish addiction.
Bonjour! Here, simply, are a few holiday images and a video from Carcassonne and Toulouse. We hope you enjoy!
One evening in Toulouse after seeing a movie (in English, with French subtitles):
A video of the shopping street and its animated lit Christmas tree:
Now on to Carcassonne:
Each year around St Nicholas’ Day, Carcassonne hosts the Marche aux Flambeaux (the march with torches).
People gather outside La Cité, buying wax torches. The proceeds support local charities. Led by medieval reenactors, the festive crowd crosses through La Cité, out the stone gate, down the hill, across the Pont Vieux (old bridge – 14th century), and into the main square of the Bastide (the “new” city from the 13th century). Our friends Jef and Val are leaders of the medieval participants.
Murano is an island in the Venetian lagoon, a 15 minute boat-ride from Venice proper. Its celebrity is tied to a centuries-long history of glass making. Originally, glass foundries were operating in Venice itself, not on Murano. After many fires in the glass district, which spread to other neighborhoods, in 1291, the foundries and operations were sent over to Murano.
Today, you find canals lined with glass shops, as well as cafés and restaurants. The variety and forms of glass objects are delightful as well as overwhelming. Our recommendation is to allocate a day, stroll slowly, don’t hurry, take a wine and lunch break, and enjoy.
We decided to look for some drinking glasses, some door pulls for our new dining area cabinets, and if possible, a chandelier for over the table. Having a mission was part of the pleasure.
A few anecdotes:
We found one shop down a side alley. The displays were more professional and gallery-like than most. Much of what was on offer were heavy geometric vases. But we spotted some solid glass door knobs which led us to ask the woman at the counter if she had any cabinet door pulls. She proceeded to pull out baskets of glass beads.
They were much too small to be door pulls, but she explained that we could select any style and color, and she could make them into pulls. The price she quoted was exorbitant, but we chatted anyway. She quickly launched into a presentation about authentic Murano glass, as distinct from the increasing amount of copies produced on the mainland and, scandalously, in China. As we were talking, a small group of Asian people came into the shop. She immediately went over to them and explained that this wasn’t a shop, it was just a display, and anyway it was closing time. She ushered them out with a smile. Coming back to us, she apologized for the interruption, but not for the racial profiling. We could feel her passion about unfair competition. It wasn’t clear however why only Asian people would buy her pieces with the intention of counterfeit.
In most shops, when we said that we were looking for a chandelier that was part traditional and part contemporary, the salespeople would eagerly escort us to a display floor above the shop. That’s where they display the serious pieces, as well as more variety. Even if they have only traditional pieces, they are happy to try to seduce us with what they have. We almost always saw attractive and interesting light fixtures, even if not quite what we had in mind.
We specifically sought out a shop that we had visited 8 years ago during our first time in Murano. At that time, we had selected a colorful large vase that we wanted to turn into a decorative lamp. The salesman agreed to drill a hole in its base, for the power cord, and ship it to us. We took a photo of our vase, paid the down payment, and went on our way. A couple of months later, a very well-packed crate arrived in Hawaii. We found an intact vase with a hole in the bottom. But it didn’t quite match our memory. Thanks to the photo we had taken, we could see that it was different, and we decided it wasn’t as attractive as the one we had selected. The people at the foundary back in Murano explained that when they drilled the hole in the vase we had selected, the vase broke. They broke at least one other before they succeeded with the one they sent to us. We weren’t happy enough with the one they sent. They were pleasant and professional, and said that unfortunately they didn’t think they could make this work without destroying more vases. We sent the vase back and received a full refund.
So with this experience, even if it hadn’t worked out, we thought we should see what they had for our current quest. At the door was sitting a very large man, and standing behind him was a very thin man of about 70. We cheerily explained what we were seeking. The thin man and the fat man talked with animation in Italian. Then the thin man said with dour expression, “We don’t have anything for you.” Silence. OK. Rejected, we exited. What they lacked in tact they fulfilled in clarity.
We stopped in a small shop that had only little decorative items and some drinking glasses. We spotted a set of 6 glasses that appealed to us right away. As we reached for one, the young saleswoman called out pointedly not to touch and that she would be glad to help us. Not liking to be told what to do, I was a little put off, even if I knew why she had called out. Chastened, we asked to see our target glasses. They were well priced and we thought they would look great on our new wood dining table.
I chatted with the saleswoman while she wrapped each glass in bubble wrap and tissues. She apologized for the sharp response to our reaching out to glasses. She said that people break items all the time. There had recently been a Chinese woman in the store; she reached for a tall slender sculptural piece, and knocked it over. It fell on a shelf’s worth of small pieces, shattering many of them. Embarrassed and panicked, she ran out of the shop. A big American man ran after her and brought her back. She had broken something like 1000€ of glass, and eventually paid for her mistake.
I asked if this shop was hers. She said, no, she just worked here part time. Seeing that Mike and I were together, she started to share some of her own history. At first I wasn’t quite sure why. She said that she had been working for Fiat in a marketing department. After she had been working there for a while, her boss, a man, discovered that she had a girl friend. He fired her. She took him and the company to court. She said that the court process took six years, and in the end, the man won. The court’s opinion was that she couldn’t prove that the man’s motive was homophobic. She said that this kind of case is very hard to win in Italy. I asked what she was going to do now. With a very nice smile and determined expression, she said that she was going to open her own marketing firm. Terrible path, but fantastic response.
Then she asked how long Mike and I have been together. Impressed with the answer (almost 25 years), she took out her phone. She showed me a lovely photograph of her and her wife of 5 years. Two stunningly beautiful women, viewed from above, embracing, with wedding dresses flowing around them. She showed another photo of the two of them with their parents. She said she came out to her parents just before going to university in the UK. Her parents were shocked and blamed themselves, even though there was nothing to blame anyone about. She went off to London. A couple of months later, her parents came to visit. Her father apologized for his reaction, and embraced her fully. Ever since, her parents have fully accepted her and her wife.
Very warm and open chat just from purchasing a few glasses.
In the end, we did find a chandelier that met our expectations, both aesthetically and financially. As a condition of the sale, we had to promise not to post any photos of the chandelier. So you will have to come visit next year to see it!
By the way, this is why the title of this post is Chandalier Shoulder. After two days of walking in and out of shops looking up at light fixtures, our shoulders were sore and tight like after a stressful day at work. Much happier reason however!