Falling for Southern France, Part Three: Quillan

To get a feel for a place, it helps to experience some public transportation frequented by locals.   Toward this end, we started out to catch the train south from Limoux to Quillan (the end of that particular train line).  We aimed for the 10:18 listed online, only to find out that there was no 10:18, and the train was really a bus.   Long story, but lessons learned.

Once that was sorted, we boarded the 11:18 bus to Quillan.  This is a short but very scenic ride along the Aude River, through a series of historic towns including Alet-les-Bains (ruined abbey), Couiza (jumping off point for Rennes-le-Chateau of The Da Vinci Code fame), and Esperaza (both a dinosaur and a hat museum).  We did not get out to explore any of those places, but they all had promise for the adventurous tourist.

Wednesday is market day in Quillan, so we headed downtown to check out the action.  We didn’t find the produce market (it had probably already ended, seeing as we didn’t get there until after noon), but there was a lively flea market, where one could find everything from clothing to books, housewares to new age paraphernalia.   We spent some time pawing through a huge and very funky pile of t-shirts on offer from some Northern African merchants and chatted in my broken French with them.

Next, a short hike to the highest point in town, which was to become a theme in our wanderings around this part of France, but is always a good tourist strategy wherever you roam.  In Quillan, that would be the site of the ruined castle, just a big square stub of stone with a few decorative features left, the rest of which we learned later had been pilfered by the locals to build houses down in town.  (Even the gargoyles have made themselves to the end of the drain spouts of a couple of homes.)  Good for spectacular views across the Pyrenees, though.

Back down into town for lunch and a decision.  Bolt down lunch and make the next bus to go explore somewhere else, or enjoy a leisurely lunch and experience the rest of Quillan?   We opted for the latter.  After lingering over an excellent seafood salad and scads of baguette, we headed for the tourist office in order to find out how to take a deeper dive into the less obvious sites of the town.  (Note, tourist offices in smaller towns in these parts close from 12 – 2 so plan accordingly.)

The rest of the day was spent strolling the streets, visiting the church, taking in the view of fishermen fly-casting on the Aude, learning how the past prosperity of the town had come from hat factories and poking down alleyways, guided somewhat by a walking tour the tourist office attendant had printed out for us.  This was topped off by a reward of afternoon ice cream before boarding the 4:00 bus back to Limoux.

In short, Quillan did not offer the Medieval splendor of Carcassone, nor the tourist magnetism of some of the other remarkable places we visited during our trip, but spending a day there was a wonderful experience of feeling the rhythm of a midweek in this part of the country, and feeling pleasantly surprised by the little things.  A sun dial on the side of a house.  Front and back yard flower and vegetable gardens.  School children headed home.  Old friends greeting one another.   All in the setting of the age-old mountains and the winding Aude.  A most excellent day all around.

 

 

 

Falling for Southern France, Part Two: Carcassonne

Carcassonne – the word rolls off one’s tongue in a whisper.  To many, the Medieval walled portion of this bustling city is an item on their “bucket list.”  Others know it only as a board game.  It is a wonderful place to spend a vacation day.  (Next time I would stay longer, because it is hard to take it all in during just one day.)

We started our adventure by parking near the train station, which is close to the Canal du Midi – which figures later in the story – and setting out for the walled city.  In all the photos you see of the walled city (which is situated as every fortification worth its salt on a high and formidable hill) one would assume that it must loom up from the more modern part, and that you should be able to see it from everywhere you look.  Not so.

You walk and walk through the lower portion, past attractive shops, cafes and parks, and finally catch a glimpse of the ramparts high above, across the Aude River.  Your first thought is, how the heck do we get way up there?  Following the crowd that is inevidibly climbing the same way is one method.  A young person adept at smart phone way-finding is another.

However you get up there, you must climb steep pathways or series of stairs, but as usual in this part of the world, it is well worth it.  Once you reach the inner walls, you find yourself accosted by gift shops, tourist attractions such as The Torture Museum, and cafes touting the ever-present cassoulet (reportedly invented in this region of France and featuring enough types of meat to make you want to become a vegetarian after a close encounter with it).

You can merely stroll around the walls, which offer lovely views of the hills in the distance, or you can go the historical interpretation route of a visit to the Chateau Comtal, the inner residence of the aristocracy of the city, which is now a museum.  (Even on a non-tourist heavy weekday, the line to enter this inner sanctum is long and slow, especially around lunch time, so maybe take the advice of some Trip Advisors and get tickets ahead.  Also, some of the ramparts are closed between 11:30 and 2 for some strange reason.)

The chateau is a maze of enchanting stairs  and towers that you wish would go on and on forever.  Here, a view of over the tiled roof to the courtyard.  There, a peak through some arrow slits.  Windows open to the bracing wind of the Midi, and views of the mountains beyond.  Even though the useful interpretive slide show at the beginning of the tour reminds us that much of the walled city was reconstructed, it still feels as though you are transported back to the heyday of the 12th century, before a hoard of Northerners laid siege to the castle and brought its inhabitants (including those notorious heretical Cathars) to their knees.

I must admit, my whole experience was colored by the reading of Kate Mosse’s romantic historical novel The Labyrinth, which is required reading before a visit to Carcassonne in my mind (thanks, Hanna!).  Though reading these Goodreads reviews, you might be tempted to skip it, I recommend wading through if you like your historical background sprinkled with plenty of blood, lust, intrigue and time travel.

We finally, and reluctantly, left the walled city and headed back to the canal for another history lesson wrapped in a relaxed boat ride.  The Canal du Midi is part of a system that runs from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.  You can take a commercial boat ride along it, or actually pilot your own canal boat for a leisurely holiday, which may be tempting some day with the right cast of characters.

As you glide down the plane tree lined canal a guide gives you excellent background information, you go through a lock to find out how those work, and you have a lovely rest stop at an old inn.  A whole different view from the rugged walled city, which you could not see from the part of the canal we toured.  It seemed something we had dreamed instead of actually having visited just hours before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Falling for Southern France, Part One: Limoux

My sister, the planner, booked a house (“villa” I should say) in Southern France over a year ago, and then populated it with family and friends for a September 2017 stay.  Her husband, my daughter and I were the family and two other couples who were friends of hers made up the balance.  None of us had ever heard of the town it was located in, Limoux, which is located in the southwestern portion of France known as Languedoc.  By the time we approached the date of the vacation, it had reached a sort of mythical status in our minds – the ideal French village, as my daughter half-joked, a la the opening scene of Beauty and the Beast (animation or live action, take your pick).

Tantalizing photos of the charms of the villa had been offered up by the booking agency, although Google street view made the exterior look bland and ordinary.  Opening the substantial front door, a whole new world was revealed.  A Medieval courtyard with vaulted ceiling led to a stage-set of a grand interior, with three floors and amazing views from all windows.  Here, the Gothic church across the River Aude.  There, a hillside with the ubiquitous vineyards.  I would not call it cozy, by any stretch, but rather intimidatingly majestic.

The first full day there, my daughter and I explored the town.  The obligatory historic central square was only a couple of blocks from the villa, over a scenic stone bridge, and had all the usual French town amenities – bakery, butcher shop, wine shop, cafes with sidewalk seating, and a fountain in the middle.   The first day we were there, it also had a portable stage with a spin class instructor blaring out music and loud speaker instructions to a cadre of stationary cyclists.  Welcome to the blend of old and new that is contemporary Europe.

Since we spend a lot of time exploring Limoux (two whole days and in between other excursions) I will only cover some highlights of the town without boring you to tears.  The details of someone else’s trip, I realize, grow tedious after a while.  Suffice it to say that Limoux has many charms, including some very interesting museums.  We started at the Museum of the Piano, which is housed in an old disused church, and was again only a couple of blocks from the villa.   Do you like pianos?  Well, you will love this museum then.  Even if you like old churches, and just nominally enjoy pianos, it is worth a visit.  It also features a concert area in the back, where we capped off our visit to Limoux at the end of the week with a wonderful piano and cello recital.

We also visited the Museum of Automotons, which features life-sized figures created by the enthusiastic and talented artist in residence, brought to some semblance of life (movement at least) by a colleague.   Later in the visit, we tried in vane to find a place called Catharama (which still existed on some maps), only to discover it had met its demise several years back.  (More about the Cathars, infamous 12th century heretics who continue to capture the collective imagination at a later date.)  The Musee Petiet, a nice smallish art museum featuring the work of a local female painter, was well worth a visit as well.  We eventually found the Printing Museum (which is listed as being it two different places) near the river, but no one was inside though the door was open.

A few pointers about Limoux, in case you find yourself in the vicinity some day.  First:  food. Market day is Friday, and the food market is not in the central square but in and around the market building a few blocks from the square.  There are several green grocers in town, though if you crave fruit and veg, and their produce is reasonable and delicious.  (Best peaches ever!)  There are some smallish in-town grocery stores, and on the outskirts of town, there is one of the biggest grocery stores I have ever seen anywhere, not as charming but good for stocking up if you have a car.  It is a much better deal, and in keeping with the local customs, to go out for a leisurely two or three course lunch and make your own light dinner.  Cafes and restaurants abound, cheaper fare being pizzas and crepes off the square.

Next:  transportation.  The train station is convenient, and you can get north or south easily and pretty often, though northward you must change in Carcassonne no matter where you are headed, and southward, Quillan, about 40 minutes away, is the end of the line.  I guess the mountains get in the way from there.  Also, you buy a train ticket but only some of the conveyances are actually trains.  The others are buses, and you have to know the difference because you wait one place for trains and the other for buses.  And, the interior of the train station, with an actual service person to ask for clarification, is only open on the weekdays.  (Trial and error are the watchwords in this part of France.)

Recommended:  find the tourism office early in your visit.  That motto holds true for any town in this area of France, or elsewhere in the world I would guess.   In smaller places like Limoux, this helpful office and its usually cheerful personnel is not open during the lunch hour, however, so catch it before 12 or after 2.

Next up, day trips to Carcassonne, Quillan and Sete, with castles, water features, and sweeping views on offer.  Stay tuned if armchair travel is your thing!

 

 

On the Rocks at Trough Creek State Park

If you like rocks, you’ll love Pennsylvania.  I swear half of the state is made up of rocks, especially judging from the back (and front, and side) yard of our property in Fulton County.  Some of these rocks are more famous and picaresque than the ones in our yard, however.

Case in point, Trough Creek State Park, home of Balanced Rock.  My husband and I hiked up to this geological phenomenon this past weekend, after a false start.  Clue, if you go:  take a RIGHT after Rainbow Falls, not a left.  The trail map is not very helpful, and there is no sign directing you to said Rock.  Since you can’t see the Rock for the trees, so to speak, you just have to go on faith.

Once you find it, after a steep (and rocky) climb, the Rock does not disappoint.  It is a sizable formation that appears to be teetering precariously over the edge of the cliff, although it has been like that for centuries and presumably will be for centuries more.  As impressive as it is, though, the Rock has not made it to the ten most famous balancing rocks in the world, I am sad to report. Nor does it have a cool legend behind it like this rock in Finland.

We took photos of the rock and then retreated to hike along the Ledge Trail, which connects eventually, after much rock hopping and dodging, to the Rhododendron Trail (lots more rocks, but also huge rhododendrons that must be amazing during the spring bloom) and back over the wobbly suspension bridge near where we entered.  This bridge put me in mind of the Q’eswachaka suspension bridge, a model of which Peruvian participants built at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2016 (though that was a lot cooler).

Even if I make it to Peru and that bridge some day, I don’t think I would muster the courage to walk across it.  So, this Pennsylvania suspension bridge, maybe built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, was the next best thing.  If you fell off this one, you would only tumble into the (rocky) creek below and get scraped up, instead of plunging to certain death in an Andean river gorge.

And, so, to coin a phrase, Trough Creek State Park (and most of the rest of Pennsylvania) Really Rocks.

 

 

Seaside Sojourne 2 (sort of) Colonial Beach edition

The widest parts of the Potomac River are not quite “seaside” but they have that sort of feel, nonetheless.  On a two-day tour through Maryland’s Western Shore (or, as some call it “Southern Maryland”), and the Northern Neck of Virginia, my friend Debi and I experienced a wide variety of sites, tastes, and even smells (fish guts on a public pier and fried food in a divey pub/Tiki Bar for instance).

For brevity purposes, I will concentrate on the Northern Neck portion of our journey.  For those of you who are uninitiated, the NN is the portion of land between the mighty Potomac and the Rappahannock Rivers.  This area is billed as, among other things, The Birthplace of the Nation since several founding fathers and other historic personages were born and/or grew up there.

We started our adventures in Colonial Beach.  The first thing we noticed was the mural that we parked near, depicted in the large photo at the top of this blog, which might tip one off to the fact that the town, while still charming in its own way, may have had its heyday at an earlier time period.  Other murals we encountered around town had a vintage feel as well (you can view a slide show of more of them here).  

What does one do in Colonial Beach?  We started out by indulging in some retail therapy at a very nice second hand store.  Then, we walked down and out onto to the town pier, where locals were catching some impressive catfish.  Next, walked along the beach on a pathway that leads to, among other things, the humongous Riverboat on the Potomac, a casino and restaurant which apparently gets around strict Virginia laws against such gambling establishments by being located on the river, which is technically part of Maryland.

When asked about the best crab cakes served in a beachside atmosphere, the proprietor of the second hand store recommended  The Dockside, a couple miles out of town.  Basically, you just follow the road that parallels the water until it ends in a marina and the sprawling restaurant, offering a slightly seedy but cool interior as well as two levels of “outside dining” – steamier but with water views.  There is a little beach and a small performance venue on the grounds, no doubt very popular on weekend evenings, and the de rigueur “tiki” furnishings – thatched huts and Hawaiian style decor.  The crab cakes and hushpuppies were very satisfying (I gave it a good rating on Tripadvisor.).

Our appetites being satiated, we next turned our attention to history.  Which eminent figure’s birthplace to visit?  George Washington seemed too obvious.  James Monroe was also vetoed.  Robert E. Lee…well, who could resist such a controversial and complex personage?  We headed for Stratford Hall, birthplace and boyhood home (till he was little more than a toddler) of REL.  This site did not disappoint.

In addition to the Great House, which has an oddly truncated appearance and layout despite its impressive cadre of brick chimneys, the museum at the visitor’s center and the grounds are worth lingering in.  Unfortunately, we caught the last tour of the day and didn’t have enough time to do the site justice.  But we caught the gist.

I came away feeling sad for Robert E. Lee, a brilliant and conflicted figure.  His father was a poor money manager and they had to leave this idyllic home on the Potomac for less impressive digs when the lad was four years old.  Our tour guide indicated that he seemed to yearn for this home for the rest of his life.  (The stately Lee Custis House now located in Arlington Cemetery was his wife’s family home.)  No denying, he was one of the most prominent Confederates and, of course, one of the statues in his honor was a major catalyst of the recent tragedies in Charlottesville.  But visiting his boyhood home also reminded us that he was a human being with an extremely complex history.

The Northern Neck is worth visiting for all of the above reasons:  crab cakes, scenic views, and historic circumstances that continue to haunt us all.

Sojourn by the Seaside, Ocean City Edition

It just started out as an innocent day trip to Salisbury, Maryland to deliver some maritime books I wanted to donate to the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art... but my friend Lora had other plans.  To be fair, I had requested a cultural experience (mostly of the food variety), but she went for the full package:  a trip to Ocean City.

We started at the Harborside, an OC institution and home of the Crab Club, pictured here.  This is a crab lovers dream, or nightmare perhaps, consisting of a generous crab cake on the bottom and a friend soft shell crab on the top, with the usual club sandwich accompaniments in between. (We opted out of the bacon, though, the better to savor the full crabby flavors.)

We then hit the boardwalk, which was crawling with August humanity.  Our destination was Trimper’s, a historic amusement arcade/park with some amazingly well preserved and somewhat scary features.  (Including the extensive shooting range featured above.)  After touring the sites, both historic and more contemporary, we gathered our quarters and embarked on some skee ball action.

Somehow, even though I have reached a fairly advanced age and have visited a many seasides, I had missed the experience of playing skee ball.   I found that I had no aptitude for the game whatsoever, but it was fun nonetheless.  After spending about two dollars worth of quarters trying to improve, I gave up and donated my meager stock of tickets (which you win for scoring a certain amount of points) to my intern Alison to add to her own so she could cash them in for a cheesy prize.

Crabs, check.  Boardwalk, check.  Skee ball, check.  Beach?  Well, we saw it in the distance, which was good enough.  All in all, an excellent day in OC.

Smithsonian Folklife Festival, #2017Folklife Edition

I’m back from the annual whirl of Smithsonian Folklife Festival planning, execution, and clean-up.  This year was the 50th anniversary of the Festival, and amazingly my 30th anniversary of working on it!  Thirty years of sweat, sometimes blood, and sometimes tears but mostly a connection to one of the most people-centric bonding experiences that was ever invented.  Staff (full time and temporary), interns, volunteers, participants, presenters and of course visitors – all pulling together to communicate across cultures, geographic divides, colors, religions, ages, points of view.

What-all did I do this year?  In the planning phase, I worked with staff from the Circus Arts Conservatory and the University of South Florida to plan the Circus Science family area (read about that in my work blog about this partnership).  This was a huge undertaking, which I know the CAC/USF people appreciated but not sure anyone other than my amazing interns really understood fully… scores of emails, long phone conversations, and drafts of activities and copying, cutting, gathering supplies over hundreds of “people” hours.  It was all worth while in the end, as thousands of “children of all ages” seemed to enjoy the area, and even to learn something!

 

 

 

 

 

I also presented in the Cookhouse foodways area of Circus Science.  I formed a great rapport with Chef Ray Slizewski, who cooked for six years for the Big Apple Circus and has great stories.  During the preparation of everything from pancakes to a cabbage an polish sausage skillet dish, we explored his experiences and had a lot of laughs.

And, then, the Main Attraction – the 50th Anniversary Reunion Weekend!   Tons of previous Festival workers, two days of discussions about the past, present and future of the event, two parties, a lot of running around and keeping people informed and happy.  A fit 30th celebration for me, in my natural Festival element of meeting, greeting, solving problems, laughing, communicating and having a general blast, shared with my colleague Arlene and great helpers who always seem willing to do anything asked of them.

No matter what the Festival, and my involvement in it, becomes in the future, it has been a defining part of my existence for almost half of my lifetime.  I have helped in my own way to shape it, improve it, keep it “up with the times,” use it as a training ground for the next generation, and generally keep it thriving.  And I will as long as I am able to continue to do so.

Long live the Festival, the “best adult summer camp” ever.  Even when it is a “trial by fire” (literally this year, but that’s another story), it is marvelous, miraculous and more than a little magical.

 

Canal Zone: Indianapolis

Indiana, the home of my graduate school days, beckoned me to a conference a couple of weeks ago.  While I spent most of my time there in the late 1970s and mid-80s in Bloomington, I did work, and live, in Indianapolis for the latter part of that time.

The city used to be a dead area after five p.m. in those days, when the office workers abandoned ship for their suburban areas mostly north of town.  You were hard pressed to find a happy hour spot in the immediate downtown.  All that has apparently changed, as have the shopping areas and – most impressive of all for walkers and water buffs – the canal.

I don’t even remember there being a canal when I worked downtown.  Yes, it was there (as it has been since the 1800s), but walking along it was not an option, so it was not on my radar screen.  My friend Peggy and I took a leisurely stroll along this sanitized waterway on a lovely May day.  We stopped into something called the Center for Inquiry and learned rather more than we really wanted to know about secular humanism.  We took selfies at the waterfall created from the lock at the end.  We sipped lemonade at a canalside cafe.

It was hard to imagine this urban oasis as the gritty transportation hub it once was, smelling of mule and sweat and coal.   I am not sure it reaches its goal of creating “an opportunity to engage people of all ages and enabl[ing] them to learn more about Indiana’s past, present and future.”  I don’t have a creative answer for how it might have been differently interpreted or put to use, any more than its sister reinterpreted waterways, from the Baltimore Inner Harbor to Cardiff Bay in Cardiff, Wales.

We can only imagine, through photos, illustrations, artifacts and words, the former conditions of these now pleasant strolls.  So there you have it.

Brunswick Stew Three Ways

Brunswick stew is an amalgamation of vegetables, meat, and other stuff.  And it shall eventually be the subject of this post.

This past weekend, as part of our 27th anniversary celebration, my husband and I ventured westward out toward the Blue Ridges.  On Saturday we visited Staunton, Virginia (looks like “Stawn-ton” but pronounced “Stan-ton” by the natives), home of Mary Baldwin College, the Woodrow Wilson birthplace and library, and Blackfriar’s Shakespeare Theater.  We did not encounter Brunswick stew there.

The concoction was featured on Sunday, when we attended the 2017 Apprenticeship Showcase of the Virginia Folklife Program.  As per usual, one of the finalists of the annual Brunswick stew championship of Virginia, the Proclamation Stew Crew from, of course, Brunswick County, were there stirring their gigantic pot and offering generous helpings for $1.00 a bowl.  Who could resist?

This reminded me not only of the time the crew came to the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival to slave over their hot cauldron for hours, but also a recent and not nearly as satisfying encounter with a so-called Brunswick Stew at a barbecue concession in the Charlotte, NC airport.  It was pretty terrible, consisting I think of all leftover bits of barbecue meat and veg from the sides that did not sell the day before all mashed together.

Which brings me to the final version of “Brunswick Stew” that I once inadvertently concocted during my Camp Randolph cooking days (see earlier post, Lake Effects, Part Three).  The former cook of Camp Randolph apparently used to cook up a full turkey dinner every Sunday (in the middle of the summer!) for the residents.  I compromised at a roast of some sort every Sunday, with turkey being featured every other week.    Still, turkey leftovers were rampant and had to be addressed.

One Friday, I took bits of turkey and mixed them up with the leftover stuffing, some vegetables, and gravy and served it as a sort of, well, stew.  “Marvy Brunswick stew!” declared one of the residents, and I had no idea what he was talking about.

Till years later, when I discovered the authentic Virginia version.  Because, though Georgians also claim the stew was first created there, in my opinion the Virginia version reigns supreme.

 

A Queasy Glimpse Into Infinity

I’ve been suffering from seasonal allergies, something that has never plagued me before.  Yes, this is a thing that can happen, called “late onset allergies.”  Coughing, sneezing, feeling general horrible and tired.  But one must soldier on, especially this time of year when work on our annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival is heating up along with the weather.  After a long day of meetings and emails at work, I go home, try to get enthusiastic about dinner although my taste buds are also off, and crash into bed to watch some Netflix.   Only to face another restless night of intermittent coughing fits.

This week after an all-day meeting outside the office let up early, instead of just high-tailing home to succumb to my sad state earlier than usual (or, heaven forbid, go back to the office for a couple of hours), I ducked into the Hirshhorn Museum to see the latest Smithsonian museum blockbuster “instagram” show, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors.  The majority of spring breakers had been there the week before, so it was relatively quiet.

If you have not heard of this show, it includes a series of small rooms that only two or at the most three people can view at once.  These rooms are full of mirrors and either art work or tiny lanterns and lights, and the effect is supposed to induce seeing yourself reflected into infinity.  I was prepared to be thrilled.  But mostly I was just dizzy, and glad instead of disappointed when my 30 seconds was over. I braved three rooms before giving up.

Perhaps I am not ready for infinity, especially in my current state of allergy-induced lethargy.  The only photo I took was the one above, of one of Kusama’s soft sculpture art installations.  It reflected what my brain has felt like all week, kind of squiggly and squishy and a sickly color of yellow.

Not much of an exhibition review, I know, and I would not discourage anyone from experiencing infinity at this show, which only runs till mid-May and is on the whole very cool.  Just don’t do it if you feel like this sculpture.