Abbaye de Fontfroide

Our friends Paula and Jerry, while house sitting for us, visited Fontfroide Abbey and wholeheartedly recommended that we visit. We chose a sunny cool March day for our outing. Because we were so early in the season, we were almost the only people there. I had expected a diminutive stone church, perhaps with a small court, mostly in ruins. The Abbey is instead grand, beautifully restored and maintained. We intend to go back as the seasons progress to enjoy the aromatic gardens that fill the site.

The photos tell most of the story.

The cloister: the heart of the spiritual life of the abbey:

The Lay Brothers’ refectory:


The abbey church, which was much grander and more austere than we expected:


The windows in the Lay Brothers’ dormitory come with a poignant history. By the early twentieth century, these window openings had no glazing. After the First World War, from fragments of much older stained glass windows in northern France that had been destroyed in the bombings, new windows were fabricated for this space. At first glance, they seem to be pleasant modern interpretations of traditional windows. As you get closer, you can see bits and pieces from many designs. The compositions are very pleasing, almost traditionally symmetrical, with deep colors. Then the beauty and sadness of these little disembodied quotes, tiny remnants of horrible destruction, flows over you.

Lots of beautiful contemporary metal and glass work:


For more detailed history, I’m quoting the following from the abbey’s materials:

The founding of the Fontfroide Abbey
The abbey of Fontfroide was founded in 1093, on land given to some Benedictine monks by the Vicomte de Narbonne. The abbey takes its name from the nearby spring, the Fons Frigidus, the Cold Fountain. Besides the water, the monks found in this hilly area the wood and stone for the construction of the monastery. But Fontfroide did not really develop until after 1145 with its attachment to the Order of Cîteaux. The Cistercian monks, under the direction of St Bernard of Clairvaux, wished to return to the purity of the rule of St. Benedict, advocating poverty, austerity and architectural sobriety.

An abbey in the land of the Cathars
In the 12th century, a Christian religion different from Catholicism developed in the south of France: Catharism. This new belief spread rapidly throughout Occitania [the southern part of what is now France], demanding a return to the Church model of early Christianity. This ‘heresy of good men’ was condemned by Pope Innocent III and became the target of Catholics, first and foremost Cistercians. Since the monks of Fontfroide could not convince the Cathars to abandon their beliefs by preaching alone, the papacy decided in 1209 to set off against the Cathars of the South the first crusade organized in Christian land against heretics and those who support them. The assassination of Pierre de Castelnau, a monk of Fontfroide who became a legate of the Pope, was the triggering act of the Crusade against the Albigensians.

Benoît XII, The Pope of Fontfroide
In 1311, Jacques Fournier succeeded his uncle Arnaud Novel on the abbey seat of Fontfroide. He was appointed bishop of Pamiers in 1317 and directed the tribunal of inquisition against the last Cathars. Transferred in 1326 to the bishopric of Mirepoix, he was promoted cardinal in 1327. He was elected pope in December 1334, succeeding John XXII under the name of Benedict XII. Barely elected, he revoked all the commands and undertook the reform of the monastic orders, beginning in 1335 by his own Cistercian family of Fontfroide Abbey. He built the Palais des Papes in Avignon where he died in 1342 and was buried in the cathedral of Avignon. With this disappearance, the abbey lost its last great protector. Then came the times of change.

Castle life in an abbey
From the 15th century onwards, the King of France put in his own abbots, mostly noblemen who were little concerned about monastic considerations. New buildings were erected, giving a castle look to Fontfroide: Cour d’Honneur, pediments, terraced gardens … The monks, few in number, forgot in their turn the rigor of the rule and ate meat and chocolate, some even played billiards ! The French Revolution put an end to all monastic life, and Fontfroide was given to the Hospices de Narbonne in 1791.

The renaissance with Gustave Fayet
Twelve monks of the abbey of Senanque (Gordes) came to reoccupy Fontfroide in 1848. But the laws of separation of the Church and the State provoked their departure in 1901. In 1908, Gustave and Madeleine Fayet bought the abbey at auction . Artist and curator of the Museum, Gustave Fayet is best known for his talent as a visionary collector and his commissions for symbolist works: Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, and especially Odilon Redon, whose Day and Night decorates Fontfroide’s library. He also undertook a vast campaign of restoration and redecoration of the abbey. Today, the descendants of Gustave Fayet still maintain the Abbey of Fontfroide with the same passion.

30 Hours in Barcelona

Our friends Carol and Suzanne inspired us to go together for a short visit to Barcelona. It is, after all, only three hours away by car. We had just bought our new car so we relished taking it out on the road. Some notes:

The drive was 98% very easy. There are good highways through France and Spain all the way to the Barcelona exit which is only a few blocks from our targeted parking garage on the Ramblas. But that last 2% was the adventure. Our exit pushed us right into the thick of a major urban roundabout. The multi-lane roundabout encircles the iconic column holding up Christopher Columbus who is pointing out to sea, presumably to the New World, not just out of traffic. In France, roundabouts are everywhere. We have become enamored of them because for the most part you don’t need to stop to navigate the intersection; traffic generally flows really well. The success of the French roundabouts is that nothing is in the way once you spin around them. You can drive around the circle as many times as you need to find your turnoff. (We have had to do that a few times as we figure out what the GPS is trying to tell us.) However, this busy Barcelona roundabout includes four lines of stop lights at the cardinal points. You pull into the roundabout like in France, although there are about three lanes feeding into approximately four lanes. Then you stop at the first line of lights. At the green light, cars to your left turn across the front of your car to exit right. Cars to your right go straight ahead, at least at first. Everyone speeds in all directions until quickly coming to a stop at the next set of lights a quarter the way around the circle. It took us two rotations, one exit in error, seat-of-the-pants return to the circle, and finally down a road that said Buses Only, until we made it to the garage. I was driving, so was flush with adrenaline by the time we made it; my passengers were pale with terror. I kept thinking, “On our first day out with the new car, I’m going to crash it up in a Barcelona roundabout!”

Mike and I have had the good fortune to have visited Barcelona twice before. I have always loved walking into and through the Plaça Reial, just off the Ramblas (the major pedestrian avenue in the tourist district). It is a lovely formal square plaça, ringed by arcades full of cafés. Part of what makes it so remarkable is that the surrounding district is the medieval part of the city (the gothic quarter), all meandering narrow streets. Then, unexpectedly, you pop into this calm, formal, sunlit urban space. Palm trees and ornate lamp posts populate the open space. While the facades surrounding the plaça are classical, their composition hints at relaxation; on the day of our visit, open tall windows here and there showcased people enjoying the early spring sunshine.

Last year, our friends Sergio and Sandra stayed in a hotel overlooking the plaça, the Hotel Do, which they seemed to like. Fortunately rooms were available and, presumably because this is not high season, reasonably priced. While we knew that the location was perfect, even with TripAdvisor and previews, we weren’t prepared for how welcoming and beautifully designy this boutique hotel is. The hotel footprint is tiny. The drum of a circular staircase in the middle leaves a ring of quirky space around it; but every jog and nook is cosy, with a contemporary club feel. A composition of traditional multi-pane glass doors, now filled with mirrors, covers the ceiling. Delicious faceted and mercury light fixtures cascade through the center of the circular stair. The rooms are a bit small as one would expect in an urban hotel, but the ceilings are high, the windows tall and grand, and the bathroom worthy of a spa.

Our first planned stop was the Sagrada Família, the master work designed and executed by Antonio Gaudì. For Mike and me, this place is one of the most wonderful, awe-inspiring, beautiful spaces we have ever been in. We have visited twice already, and were completely happy to make it three. We also were looking forward to being with Carol as she discovered this amazing place for the first time. It turns out that the work of Antonio Gaudì has always been on her bucket list, and we got to share the experience with her. The problem with the Sagrada Familia is that you can’t stop taking photos. Every angle, every detail, every wash of colored light demands to be saved. When you pull back from looking at the building, you see hundreds of other visitors, phones and cameras held out in front of them, filling the cloud with more Sagrada Familia images. Here are few of ours from this visit:

(It was I who had arranged for our tickets. The only catch was that I had bought them for the day before we were actually there. This we discovered in line to get into the basilica. Fortunately we were able to buy new tickets because of the season. The staff were very kind, saying that quite a few people make the same mistake. I think it is early-onset retirement.)

We chose Restaurant Agut for a dinner of Catalan food. Being good Hawaiian tourists, we arrived at 7:30 pm and were the first people in the restaurant. Even by the time we finished a few hours later, the real Barcelona diners were just arriving. We selected tapas-style dishes to start: roasted potatoes with a spicy sauce, catalan bread (toasted, rubbed with raw garlic, spread with fresh tomato, finished with Spanish olive oil), olives, pimientos de padrón (small green peppers, roasted, dressed with salt and olive oil). Our main plates looked modest, but all were well prepared. The small filet mignon was a delicious surprise: simply grilled perfectly, a little salt and pepper. I tried the octopus tentacle, which was exactly and only that, laid out the length of the plate. Of course, some Spanish red wine; OK, a couple bottles of Spanish red wine. Fortunately, our hotel was an easy meandering walk from the restaurant. After dark, the streets of the gothic quarter (where we were) are wonderful: all pedestrian, angled, lots of little shops and restaurants, stone walls and paving, seductive street lighting, just the sounds of people talking and walking about.

We settled into our comfortable hotel rooms. In the early morning, when I got up and headed to the bathroom, I couldn’t make the light switches work. They had looked a bit complex the night before; perhaps there was a master switch somewhere. After feeling around a while, using the iPhone light, no success. I peered through the viewer in the door to see that the lights in the hall were working. A call to the front desk led to the explanation: there were power outages throughout the district. The halls were lit by emergency batteries. So we washed by iPhone light, dressed by early morning light through the tall windows, and headed downstairs to meet Carol and Suzanne for breakfast. The young staff in the reception area were apologetic and positive, insisting that we sit on one of the sofas overlooking the arcade and the plaça so they could bring us any breakfast item that didn’t need to be heated. They presented us with immense croissants and almond pastries, fruit, cereal, orange juice (“We are sorry that it is bottled.”) The alternative, if the power had been operational, would have been a breakfast in the basement dining room, without windows or view of the plaça. The improvisational feeling of the breakfast, the attention from the staff, and the club-room setting added spirit. After about 30 minutes, the power re-engaged. Almost instantly, one of the servers arrived with fresh-squeezed orange juice, seeming relieved as if an imbalance had at last been righted.

The main morning event was a tour of Gaudí’s Casa Battló, a masterwork residence for a prominent and ostentatiously progressive turn of the 20th century family. Some photos will have to convey some of the wonder, from artisanal details for door handles and stair rails, to overall color and light. In addition to the remarkable forms and designs (which touch the heart), I find it fascinating that Gaudì’s fundamental drivers for the form and function of the residence were systemic approaches to bringing natural light and air throughout a six-story vertical townhouse, through innovative light well forms and materials, and air ducts and operable internal panels. Gaudì’s unprecedented forms, inspired by / expressive of plants, animals, water, growth, and submarine worlds, are obvious and astonishing, especially if you think about the force of will it must have taken to bring them into the bourgeois end of the 19th century world. And his mind was so deep and creative that he also focused much of it on technological innovations to make the lives of his clients more comfortable.


Our next stop in our ambitious 30-hour Barcelona visit was the Picasso Museum. The Museum is located in the Borne district, which is a about a 30-minute walk from the Casa Battlo. It was a gloriously sunny warm early-spring day. We walked down the Passig Gracia, which is Barcelona’s Fifth Avenue. Carol spotted this store window; we all agreed:


Then an ad-hoc lunch in a terrace restaurant one story above the shopping street, a pass by the Barcelona Cathedral and a flea market in its fore-court. We stopped in the Santa Caterina Market, one of my favorite places in Barcelona. During a previous trip for an AIA Europe Chapter conference, we met the architect of the renovation. The market is notable now for its multi-colored flowing roof that spills out over the street, sheltering the market stalls. The architect related that she, her architect husband, and their young family had set up home and office in the district some thirty years ago when the area was working-class and down on its luck. The market functioned for the neighborhood, but the powers that be in the city thought it should be removed to make way for housing that the residents of the district wouldn’t be able to afford. The architects turned activists. After much time and many struggles, the city managers relented. The architect couple won the ensuing design competition and brought this remarkable market renovation to life. The verve of the roof forms and colors, all in service of the vitality of the neighborhood, always moves and delights me. Of course, we also needed to buy some cured ham, olives and cheese!

The collection in the Picasso museum includes works from his student and early years, and then, pockets of work from later in his prodigious life. Much of his work is elsewhere. I have to admit that, while I respect Picasso’s life story and his place in 20th century art, not much of his work really moves me. Nonetheless, it turned out to be fascinating to glimpse his development from young astonishingly talented painter and draftsman toward his mature life of invention and restlessness. You can see his absorbing influences around him, testing them out, and moving on.

Fortunately, the drive out of the parking garage, through my now favorite traffic circle, and onto the highway, was smooth. The afternoon was sunny and calm. Barcelona charmed us once again.



Buying our new car

Next step on our path to really living in France: buying our own car. The rental cars have been OK, but expensive. And having a rental car feels like we are still just visiting.

(A warning: I couldn’t resist putting in lots of detail, probably too much detail. I need a good editor, and you may need a glass of wine. Proceed at your own risk!)

We had been compiling our wishlist for the car for many months; it is at last time to put it to good use. In essence, we wanted a car that looks pleasant and even modest on the exterior, and feels luxe inside. 5-door hatchback. Stick shift. Lots of gadgets. Great fuel efficiency. Fits in on the French road. And really important, a toit panoramique, or glass roof. We had rented a car with a toit panoramique on a previous trip and really enjoyed it. Instead of the little hole of a sunroof, almost the entire roof is glass; like a convertible without the endless wind.

When we rented our most recent car, we chatted with the agent, explaining that we were on a mission to buy a new car. She (in English) was very interested, asked us what we had in mind, and proceeded to offer her recommendations. She does, after all, deal with cars all the time, and undoubtedly hears detailed complaints and comments. She had specific models in mind from Seat (pronounced say-yacht, which is a VW company, with production in Spain), Peugeot, Audi, Fiat (The 500X, but definitely not the 500L, she warned!) and Renault. She cautioned against Citroen, one of the most French of brands, saying that, while the cars are reliable enough, the interiors are less well made, leading to knobs and buttons falling off.

We have bought new cars only occasionally during our lives in Hawaii and California, so this was a great opportunity to have some fun. We get to test drive all sorts of cars, hopefully finding a new car that will be fun to drive and experience (while staying in our budget!). On the other hand, we are buying a car in FRANCE, in FRENCH, with French SALESPEOPLE. I translated our wishlist into French as best as I could (thank you,, and printed out a dozen copies. At each dealership, I said Bonjour, followed by “We’d like to buy a car” (en français), and then showed the salesperson the list. That took care of all the details without too much tricky conversation.

Here’s whom we met and what we discovered over the course of a week:

Audi: All about attitude. Static photo, Colour: Tango RedThis was our first stop, so our first try at doing all this in French. A serious stylish young salesman finally approached us as we milled around in the showroom. He was trim, with dark hair and eyes, and a day’s beard. He studied our list with a set face, checking off each line item. He pointed to the model that we already knew matched our criteria. He took us to his computer, where he worked up a price quote including the toit panoramique. He presented us with a statement of features and prices, which were about 8,000 Euros over our budget. The first price wasn’t really a huge surprise; we didn’t expect that that a new Audi would necessarily fall without our budget. But the assertion that the car wouldn’t be available for 2 – 3 months was a surprise. I immediately was calculating in my head the cost of 3 more months of rental car. His attitude was mostly take-it-or-leave-it. It was disappointing that this salesperson offered so much attitude of “Well, this IS Audi.” The worry was, more significantly, that all the salespeople would not be accommodating, that this process would be a slog.

Seat (which is next door to Audi): Friendly and comfortable. IMG_0197Completely different experience! A pleasant salesman, an Everyman, interested in what we were looking for. We are, after all, eager to buy a car, with the money ready. OK, we are two Americans, looking a little scruffy, relaxed and retired, but money is money! The salesman was patient with us, with my French, and happy to explain all the attributes of the Seat Leon. He was forthright about how the Seat differs from its more expensive Volkswagen Golf cousin. The first quoted price was in our budget. He sent us off on our test drive with ease. (The car was acceptable if uninspiring.) Again, however, 2 – 3 months wait for a new car.

Peugeot: French intellectual. IMG_0194Another easy experience. Maybe Mr Audi was the outlier. By now, we are getting more comfortable with the preliminary discussion of our list. When it came time for the salesman to show us the list of features and prices, he invited us to sit at his desk. The conversation turned easily to global, US and French politics, Trump, Le Pen, thoughts about political cycles in history, different attitudes of generations (he didn’t look old enough to have twenty-something children but he does), migrants, and cultural similarities and differences. He was convinced that the current teenagers and twenty-somethings are lost in their devices, unaware of how it is that they have so much privilege. You’d think all that could be contentious, but somehow it was just a pleasure. There is an observation that the French really enjoy intellectual and political debate, and here was the evidence. Another good test drive, this time with the salesman in the car, being our GPS along a very attractive country and city route. Again, long delay to receive the new car. Price quote was just above our budget cap. (A bit more solid and attractive than the Seat, but still uninspiring.)

Toyota: Eager. IMG_0193We have driven Priuses for years, happily, enjoying the mileage of the hybrid engine. While the agent at the rental car company hadn’t mentioned Toyota, we thought we’d at least see what was on offer. All the cars tested so far had been conventional diesels, purportedly with really good fuel efficiency: on the order of 55 – 75 mpg! It turns out that the Toyota hybrids, including the Prius, don’t offer any better mileage. We found another positive, communicative salesman. He explained that they don’t sell many Priuses any more since about half of their models are hybrids now. We could get a Prius if we wanted, but it would take the now-expected 3 months. We realized that he was focusing on “Prius,” so we invited him to suggest an alternative that would fulfill our wishlist as best as possible. He thought for a minute, smiled, and led us over to a C-HR, which is a compact SUV. And really SEXY looking. No toit panoramique, alas, and only automatic. The price quote was over our budget by a few thousand euros. We took it on a test drive nonetheless, with the salesman on board. It was great fun to drive. Mike was particularly smitten with its assertive style; I liked it too! It was the first car that generated some excitement. But no toit panoramique! Need to sleep on this.

VW, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Volvo: All these showrooms are next to each other. Fiat and VW were on our list; the others were just conveniently there. We were enjoying the search, so why not see as many options as possible. We came to the Volvo showroom first from our parking spot. A few nice cars in the showroom, much sportier than what either of us had ever seen from Volvo. The posted prices weren’t as high as we had expected. We conspicuosly looked at each car and wandered around. No salespeople. We saw a woman in a glass office, so we went over and said Bonjour. She said that the salesman would be right back. We waited a few more minutes before giving up. On to VW.

The VW salesman was helpful in the usual way. His proposed prices were above our budget. The Golf models were not any more inspiring than the Seat or Peugeot. We didn’t spend much time there.

We thought, let’s give Volvo another try; we’re here so why not. Again no salesperson right away. Within the same general showroom were Fiats and Alfa Romeos. A pleasant salesman for these brands appeared right away. The Fiat 500X, although a little bigger and taller than what we were envisioning, looked interesting — until we saw its fuel efficiency, which was much poorer than our other options. IMG_0196Off in a corner was an Alfa Romeo Giulietta: a very pretty car, reasonable price, with almost all the items on our wishlist. Again, 2 – 3 months lead time. And we would have to wait a day or two for a model that we could test drive. But it was beautiful! All that great Italian design. So we wouldn’t know if the Giulietta was a contendor for a few days.

Finally, the Volvo salesman, Sébastien, appeared: around 30, animated, big eyes, trim, stylish. Once again we produiced our printed wishlist. With theatricality, he ran through the list out loud. He turned to us and said that we were blessed by fate. He happened to have almost exactly what we were looking for available right now, including the toit panoramique. IMG_4509A new V40 had just been moved from the showroom to the lot outside; it had been immatriculé, which is the official transfer from manufacturer to the public realm. It was to be a demonstration car for test drives. It had 8 km on it! The dealership had reduced the price by about 1,500 euros because of the immatriculation, bringing it almost within our budget. And it was here now, not 3 months from now. The styling surprisingly included a bit of flare. The test drive showed a solid energetic car. Nice gadgets too! While the sexiness of the Toyota C-HR (alas no toit panoramique) and of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta (but, research would show, not terribly reliable) was tugging at us, this Volvo surprised us with how well it fulfilled our hopes and needs. Need to sleep on this too.

At home that evening, we did some more internet research, and we tried not to make a decision before the night’s sleep. Great reliability on the Volvo, and just about the best fuel efficiency of all the candidates; decent driving quality; great safety of course (including an external air bag to cushion the blow to a pedestrian if you hit one!). No great reliability on the Alfa; lots of style, decent driving quality. At breakfast the next day, we both had decided that the Volvo was a really good fit for us. We transformed from overwhelm about the cars we’d seen, all of which included significant compromises, including the 3 month delivery delay, to excitement about this car, a Volvo of all things.

Now on to concluding the deal with Sébastien. The car was a little above our budget, but with saving 2 – 3 months of rental car expense, that seemed OK to us. Then a useful and fun coincidence presented itself. On this day, we happened to have a short conversation with Georges and Michèle, our landlords, about something else, but we mentioned where we were in our search. Michèle announced proudly that Georges was the King of Negotiation. He immediately offered to help us with the final negotiation. Of course, we said Oui! We all enjoyed anticipating the turn of events for Sébastien: He was probably feeling pretty fortunate to have these two Americans who couldn’t make much of a fuss in negotiation; and then we would bring in our ringer, Georges!

Georges joined us at the dealership that afternoon. I introduced Georges to Sébastien, and then shut up. It was a joy to watch Georges at work. He started right in, saying that more discount would be appropriate. Sebastién tried his best to dispute all of Georges’ assertions. Then Georges chatted about peripheral things, about Volvos in general, about his being a doctor, who might want to by a Volvo himself. Then, suddenly, he quoted an “acceptable” number, challenging Sebastién good naturedly but forcefully. Sébastien gasped; he turned to Mike and me, miming with a finger down his face that he was sweating now. He pulled up a folder cover and started scribbling behind it, ostensibly working his numbers. But he also animatedly chatted away with Georges while he was “calculating.” Finally, a number 300 euros more than Georges’ position appeared. Georges turned to us, and we confirmed that we have a deal. A handshake with Sébastien and we’re done. Georges saved us about 1,300 euros. He stood up, turned to Mike and me, asking if all was good. Yes, we said. He said, Bon, and turned and left. Sébastien looked stunned. We looked happy!

Later, when we saw Georges again, it was obvious that he had really enjoyed playing his King of Neogitation role.

After the handshake, we needed to arrange French auto insurance, wire money to the dealership, get the carte grise (registration) and wait a few days for them to finalize their papers and clean up the car. We spent a week managing emails, paperwork and payments to get everything in place so that we could pick up the car. All done with about two hours to spare.

We arrived on time for our pick-up appointment. As you’d imagine, there were various documents to sign related to registration, receipt of safety equipment and car manuals, acknowledgement of warranty details. But there was our car, back in the showroom, under a fabric cover. Sébastien relished the drama of unveiling our car for us. He then proceeded to spend about 30 minutes with us to explain every last button, lever and dial in the car. I don’t think he really wanted to let it go. But he was so cute in his enthusiasm, with his occasional phrases of Texas-accented English (all from movies and TV), that we just enjoyed the show.

We delighted in driving our brand new Volvo to the Toulouse airport the next day to pick up our visiting friends, Carol and Suzanne. The toit panoramique worked perfectly well, showcasing the light clouds of a sunny early spring day.

Antarctic Fellow Cruisers

Huge Mahalo and Merci to our best cruise friends for making this adventure a pure pleasure: Berta, Jim, Gail and David!