The Housesit in Azille
Azille is a small, rural village deep in the heart of the Occitanie region of France. It’s wine country, and it shows. Everywhere you look, there are vineyards as far as the eye can see. And that’s pretty far, given that on a clear day you can see all the way to the snow-capped mountains of the Pyrenees. Every five or ten minutes in the car brings you to a historical village – almost carbon copies of one another. Each with an old church with a tall, stone belltower, red-shingled roofs, and a jarring, bright green pharmacy sign. This is truly the South of France.
Azille is just one of these villages, though I did like how it perched on a slight hill, so that at the edge of the village you could look out over the vineyards and feel like you were tipping into them. In winter, the village is relatively empty, and many of the houses are shuttered and still. The one restaurant and bar was closed for the season, but there was a bakery, a post office, a pharmacy, a butcher, and several wine shops. This ratio of shop types seemed perfect to me.
My home for three weeks was right in the village center. It had four levels, old tile floors, and a back terrace with three connected “gites” that served as holiday homes for guests. My job over the holidays was to watch the menagerie of animals – Henri, the six-year old lab mix found abandoned in a vineyard and sweet as can be. Ralph, the 14-year old toy poodle who was blind as a bat, slightly incontinent, and loving every minute of his life. Mango, an orange potato of a cat that had no tail because she would always attack it. And four other cats that kept mostly to themselves. Mango was arguably my favorite of the cats – she always had quite a lot to say, and wasn’t happy unless she was pressed up against me on my lap, trying to burrow inside my armpits, or stealing my puzzle pieces one by one and hiding them in her bed.
Azille purportedly becomes much more lively in the summer months, when people come south to enjoy the romantic countryside in the warmth and sun, and all the holiday homes are full. Yet, there was more life in winter than I expected. There were always a few people out and about when I took Henri for his daily walk down in the vineyards, and I even met several other dog owners throughout my stay. The market came to town every Friday morning – two produce stalls, a bakery stall, a butcher’s van, and a stand that I came to call the “hodgepodge” stand that just had bits of everything else, from soap to olive oil to nuts.
For a wider selection of goods, the next village had a grocery, gas, and (sorry to admit) a much better bakery. La Redorte was just under five minutes from Azille by car. Wandering through it one afternoon while Leo was visiting, we happened upon an old bookshop, with books piled high up the ceiling without pause, and ladders available for those who wanted something higher up. I hesitantly asked if they had any books in English, and the shopkeeper responded “Yes, of course! So many books!” in thickly-accented English herself. After a long conversation, we learned that she had lived in New York City for a time without papers before she’d been kicked out of the country. I understand a shady man had been involved, and given her artistic aura, can only surmise she must have had quite a life so far. She insisted on giving us books for free. The stereotype of grumpy French villagers just does not hold true, and this is a great example of it.
Perhaps most surprising was the amount of people we saw at a concert one evening in Azille. I had seen a Christmas concert advertised outside the church for the evening of December 27, one organized by the Sisters of Azille. Leo was visiting for that week after Christmas, so we decided to attend. We could always leave if it was awful, but I was worried about being one of the few people to show up, so admitted we’d have to stay if that was the case so as to not be rude. We walked to the church and found it absolutely empty – not even any singers. Leo asked an older woman who was passing by about the concert, and she said it was on the other side of town in the “foyer”, that it was too far to walk, and would we like a ride? And so she drove us across town to the concert – completely out of her way, not even knowing our names. Yet more proof that for every stereotypical village curmudgeon, there is ample kindness and generosity about.
We walked into a completely packed hall, and only just managed to get the last two seats available before it became standing room only. On the stage were fourteen nuns, all dressed in white, singing Christmas carols a cappella from all over Europe. Their voices were strong and beautiful, and filled the enormous hall with ease. After the concert, they served hot wine and “sirops” (syrups) of thyme and rosemary, mint and dill, and sold jars of honey from their monastery. One of the sisters introduced herself to us and invited us to attend mass or vespers at their monastery in the village, where we could hear more of their traditional Gregorian chants. Naturally, we took her up on that offer later in the week, and the nuns’ singing in the sanctuary of the old church, accompanied by the scent of candle wax and the chill of old stone, was like stepping into another world and time.
The Medieval City of Carcassonne
This is what the South of France is to me – a journey through time. Most of you probably know the name Carcassonne from the ever popular board game. That’s fair, it’s a good game. The real Carcassonne is a picturesque, medieval walled city that while postcard-perfect in pictures, is overrun with tourists in real life.
I always imagined Carcassonne as it appeared in pictures for us dreamers. A fortified stone city frozen in time for hundreds of years, crowning a hilltop and just waiting to be discovered. Reality hit just a little differently, as it so often does. Carcassonne is made up of two parts – the old city, which most people are familiar with, and Bastide St. Louis, the more “modern” side of town. There is an old bridge connecting the two parts, but to the casual observer it seems that it’s all one. Unless you’re looking directly at the ramparts of Carcassonne, it’s incredibly obvious that the modern era is alive and well.
Carcassonne is one of the top three most-visited sites in France, next to Paris and Mont St. Michel. Huge car parks sandwich the old city, and once inside the double layer of ramparts, the town is bursting with medieval themed restaurants, cheap souvenir shops, and throngs of tourists. Having performed in Renaissance Faires most of my adult life, I found myself thinking that at least Renaissance Faires look more period correct. Still, Carcassonne is definitely worth visiting, if not just to check it off your “France” list.
The menu item of the old city is undeniably “cassoulet”, a hearty, rich white bean stew with meats and herbs baked slowly in an oven. There wasn’t a restaurant that didn’t serve it, and most souvenir shops sold large jars of it to take home. Never before have shelf-stable stews been appetizing, but I admit, after trying it, I’m absolutely a fan. Cassoulet is the perfect dish for the wind, rain, and cold of winter, and the fact that they serve it in earthenware bowls makes it all the more appropriate.
We had cassoulet each time we came to Carcassonne, which was several since we didn’t want to rush our visits. But really, one short day is enough. The old city isn’t very big, and you can fit in the castle keep and the ramparts tour in a morning. The self-guided castle tour was definitely worth the entrance fee – we walked through large stone chambers and up onto the ramparts themselves, and read signs explaining the construction of the castle, the walls, and how Carcassonne kept itself well defended over the centuries. Inside is even the original statue of Dame Carcas, for whom the city is named. Legend says that Lady Carcas was in charge of the city during Charlemagne’s siege in the 8th century. After five years, the city’s inhabitants were in the depths of famine. Facing starvation and realizing all they had left was a bit of wheat and a young pig, she stuffed the pig to bursting with wheat and threw it over the city walls to land at the oppressor’s feet. The pig exploded in guts and wheat, and Charlemagne, believing that they must have an abundance of food left to waste it so, called off the siege. Lady Carcas rang the bells of the city in celebration, and “Carcas sonne” (“Carcas rings”) stuck. Perhaps a fanciful tale, but a fun one nevertheless.
Our guided tour around the ramparts was also full of history and legends. A jovial tour guide pointed out where in the walls we could see evidence of the Romans, and how the wall construction changed as you continued upwards depending on the century and inhabitants of the city. The city is bursting with history, and we are truly lucky to still have it with us in sites like this. Carcassonne’s preservation is mostly thanks to a French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who also restored such landmarks as Notre-Dame-de-Paris, Mont Saint-Michel, and Sainte Chappelle, and even took part in designing the Statue of Liberty. Not a bad résumé. I’m certainly grateful that the city still exists as it does, and that I got to visit.
Still, the number of tacky souvenir shops and throngs of tourists put a damper on the ambiance of such a place. As someone who grew up reading medieval histories and historical fantasy, I suppose I expected to be swept away by such a timeless place. But where Carcassonne perhaps didn’t live up to those expectations, a smaller site to the east certainly exceeded them.
L’Abbaye de Fontfroide
While Carcassonne was filled with tourists, the Abbaye de Fontfroide was empty by comparison. This Cistercian abbey slightly south of Narbonne and east of Carcassonne was originally founded in 1093, and like so many monasteries and churches, was dissolved in the aftermath of the French Revolution. It was refounded in 1858 and used until the monks were driven out of France in 1901 and the place was abandoned. Now, you can visit the abbey and its grounds, and partake of its delicious wine.
The abbey is quietly nestled deep in the hills. From the surrounding region, you’d never know it was there. Approaching the abbey from the parking lot set several hundred meters before the entrance made it feel like I was approaching Redwall Abbey from my favorite book series as a child, and actually entering the space only enhanced that perception. We visited on a cold and drizzly day, and on the last day before the abbey would be shut for the winter. This perhaps contributed to our feeling of isolation as we meandered the halls. We wended our way through the cellars and passageways, the cloisters and sanctuary, the dormoratories and medieval gardens. This was the walk through time I had been hoping for in Carcassonne. From the gardens on the hillside, you can look out over the enter Abbey grounds, the buildings a soft pink in the winter sun. Even in winter, the gardens were green and full with the promise of spring.
Walking through an old abbey is thirsty work, and we stopped into the tasting room before leaving. We sampled delicious wines of the Corbières region, but went home with Cartagènes, a red wine liquor that – and perhaps I exaggerate but probably not – is the nectar of the gods. The memories and tastes of the Abbaye de Fontfroide are absolutely a highlight of my stay in the land of the Cathars.
And who were the Cathars, when they’re at home? The Cathars were a Christian sect in the 12th through 14th century that broke away from the Catholic church. They believed in a dualist, “purer” form of Christianity, the equality of men and women, and living simply, among other things. And they lived quite peacefully with the medieval Catholic Church…. Kidding. Who did? The Cathars were violently persecuted and the victims of a Christian vs. Christian “crusade”, where Pope Innocent the II told northern French nobles that they could keep the riches and lands of Southern France if they drove out the heretics. Sure, seems fair. Massacres ensued, the Cathars were famously driven out of Carcassonne, and entire villages were burned. Persecution continued well into the 13th century, and surviving Cathars learned to practice their more tolerant faith in secret amidst the narrow-minded and dark shadow of medieval Catholicism. The history is so much more complicated than my plodding attempts to sum it up, and I encourage you to read up on it.
The Land of the Cathars, or as it is more modernly known, Southwest France, is a breathtaking corner of France even in the depths of winter. History comes alive, the wine flows like water, and the people are friendlier than I could ever imagine. I look forward to returning to the region quite soon in the spring, with several housesits already lined up. There is always more to discover in every pocket of France.
But wait, how was the World Cup final in France?
I did happen to be in France during the World Cup final between France and Argentina, but I admit I did not make the most of it. In fact, I forgot that it was going on, and didn’t even register the fact that at the Christmas market in Carcassonne there were a number of people walking around with the French flag painted on their cheeks and French flags tied across their shoulders like capes. That evening I had to drive Leo to the train station, and as we drove through Narbonne, it happened to be during the nail biting penalty shootout. The city was silent. Through restaurant windows, crowds of people stood stock still, riveted to TV screens. It was like the set of a horror film. Perhaps for them, given how the game ended, it really was. Good luck next time, France.