There is something about the Aude region in western Occitanie of France that I can’t help but love. It seems every week I am seeing more of France and its wildly different regions, but I will return to the Cathar Country whenever the opportunity even vaguely presents itself. It’s not the most wild, it’s not the most conventionally beautiful, and it’s not the most easy to get around in, and yet it is so quintessentially “France” – soaking in wine and history, and the added bonus of extremely warm and welcoming people, even in the smallest of villages.
One such village is Tournissan, a small commune just southeast of the medieval village of Lagrasse. I was returning to the region for yet another house-sit, this time for a lovely couple on the outskirts of the village and their 19-year-old cat, Cadiz. As grumpy and vocal as Cadiz was, she absolutely won her way into my heart, and I marveled at just how much the skinny little thing could eat in one day. The house itself used to be a restaurant that was repurposed as a home, and the living area was spacious and full of sunlight during the day, with a fantastic kitchen that I wanted to pack into my suitcase and take with me.
It’s certainly a good thing I loved the house, since I spent more time there than I had anticipated.
Having grown up in the United States, it’s easy to feel a sense of meteorological safety in France in all seasons. There are no hurricanes, no earthquakes, no tornadoes to shelter from. As I learned in Tournissan, however, just because there are no extreme weather or natural events such as these, it doesn’t mean that it’s a calm weather region by any means. The most famous wind of France is certainly the “mistral”, a violent wind that comes from the north or northwest and powers through the south of France to the Mediterranean. (I highly recommend reading A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, which is where I first heard of it). In fact, there are quite a few winds that merit a name in Europe, and all of them depend on their direction, where they come from, and where they are going. The “tramontane” is a dry, cold wind that also comes from the north or northwest, but follows a corridor that is more to the west, alongside the Pyrenees. And I got to experience it firsthand.
For days, I was too nervous to go outside due to the high winds. The house I was staying in had gorgeous, uninterrupted views of the vineyards and hills beyond, which of course meant that the wind had an uninterrupted racecourse to get a good sprint going. My hosts had warned me to keep the doors locked, not for people, but for the wind. I half-believed them, until the one time I forgot to lock the door and the wind sucked the door open late at night with a sound that taxed me a few years of my life. During the day I watched the clouds speed across the sky in a race to the Mediterranean sea, and listened as the olive tree branches scratched at the windows. In the distance, ripples of rain shimmered across the valley in patches of sunlight, making it seem like the whole landscape was stuck behind a dream.
Hiking the Hills in Tournissan
When the winds were calm enough to brave going outside, I spent a good amount of time hiking the hills. Several paths twisted their way up through the rocky landscape and squat woodlands, leading to panoramic views at the top that went all the way to the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance.
Hiking through France is an altogether different experience than hiking in the United States. America is new, savage, and wild, and there always seems to be a thrilling sense of danger. Is that a bear, a snake, poison ivy? France can be wild, and nature is never to be underestimated, but the edges are softer here. Outside of an errant hunter that may have enjoyed a wine-heavy lunch, there’s not too much to look out for. It’s an old and battered land in the best sense of the words. This country has housed civilization for thousands of years. The landscape is old and tired and even broken in places, but full of life even still. When you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere and you feel ultimately removed from humanity, you can see something a little bit bizarre or with an odd shape, and you can wonder – was it some kind of natural phenomenon that did that, or was it someone hundreds of years ago who shaped these stones, and time has simply weathered the edges?
Electric Cars…The “QR code-riddled” Future
In contrast to these steps through the past, my transport for further afield than the hills next door was a tiny Fiat 500, my first electric car experience. The recent social unrest in France has resulted in an abnormally high number of canceled train journeys, many of mine being included. My only option that wouldn’t break the bank or take 20 hours by bus was to rent a car, and my only automatic option was electric. Ah, the future!
Now, I absolutely recommend an electric car for getting around towns, cities, and for short trips around a region. Mother Earth does too. However, driving cross country with an electric car on the autoroute was just… painful. At least it was easy to not get a speeding ticket (though I can’t say the same for a regular engine, as I would find out the hard way a few weeks later…). I had to stop and charge the darn thing every 180 km at highway speeds, and recharging took half an hour. I got to know French roadstops quite well. Luckily, every roadstop had charging stations, and it’s cheaper than gas. That being said, it’s incredibly convoluted to start charging. There are several different companies that provide the charging stations, and either you have an account and a card you can scan, or you have to scan a QR code with your phone and use your phone to complete the one time transaction. So naturally, that requires a good connection and a good website on their part, neither of which are guaranteed. On more than one occasion I simply gave up and drove to the next stop on a few sparks and prayer. Electric car infrastructure sure has come a long way, but it was a long way to go yet for convenience.
The Medieval Village of Lagrasse
It was a quiet Monday when I arrived in the medieval village of Lagrasse. The town was muted and gray, with a heavy mist and a strong threat of rain that couldn’t quite commit. Signs boast that it is one of the “Most Beautiful Villages of France”, a list that I’m beginning to lose confidence in as I see more and more of them, along with other gorgeous villages that don’t make the list. (It may very well be a “pay-to-join” situation, and a ploy for tourists, and I’d believe it). Luckily, the Abbey was open, and I got the place all to myself – much preferable to masses of tourists. But I could tell that it is built to accommodate a lot of tourists in the high season, and I wasn’t quite as taken with it as the Abbaye de Fontfroide, not 45 minutes away. It was more difficult to follow the directions in the Lagrasse abbey, and all of the English translations were vague and hidden behind pillars so I had to crane my neck. Everywhere I went I could hear the tinny sounds of the informational videos echoing through the cold, empty halls.
Outside the Abbey, there wasn’t a large amount to see in Lagrasse. There was a medieval covered market, though the only thing there were some parked cars and stopped-up fountains. All of the shops were closed for the season, so I contented myself with window-shopping only and stepping into the chilly, dark cathedral just to say that I did.
Pizza and Beer in Cathar Country
You would think that it would be the small village of Tournissan that was quiet and sleepy, and the more celebrated Lagrasse that would be lively. However, I found the case to be quite the opposite. My hosts introduced me to two other expats in town before they left, a couple from the United Kingdom that were also in the housesitting game, but had settled into the village after falling in love with the region (it’s not just me, then!). On Tuesday nights, the pizza truck comes into town, and folks gather at the bar for dinner, drinks, and even very serious card games that take up half the available tables. My new friends and I settled at the bar with our pizzas and local beer, and I watched as the place filled up slowly over the hours. Everyone knew each other, the friendly young bartender greeted everyone with a smile and their usual drink, and the camaraderie was a joy to behold. Most of the drinks ordered were a mystery to me. Apéritifs and digestifs, colors ranging from liquid amber to deep emerald green. Not wanting to be left out, I had my friends introduce me to “Kina Karo”, a regional wine-based herbal apéritif made by a young man in Lagrasse. It was sweet and layered, and as is my opinion of anything that isn’t wine or beer, quite strong. But don’t take a liquor-wimp’s word for it.
Villages like Tournissan are why I love slow travel. Why I love to take my time house sitting across Europe. It’s easy to define most of a country as “flyover” country – not worth the time or the effort to plan a visit, with no big attractions or historical markers to draw you in. And yet, hands-down the best experiences I have on my travels are in these out-of-the-way corners of each country, where the culture and tradition shine through, where I don’t have to dodge crowds of tourists taking pictures with their iPads, and where locals actually want to stop and talk to that strange girl from out of town.
OOOOHH I loved it !! Of course, I am biaised but I think this is one of your nicest posts … I liked the way you covered many subjects – well, of course, there wasn’t really one that would deserve too many pages but yet … And it seemed so sincere: I do hope we get to see you in Tournissan many times again over the years !!
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All your posts that I read are fab – this one is a favorite!
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Hope you got some video of what the high winds looked like in the trees, grasses, shutters of the house, etc – sounds interesting. We had the khamaseema in Jordan; about 50 days (where the name comes from) of high winds.
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