The Romance of Travel: Carcassonne

Carcassonne distance

For many years I had longed to see the beautiful medieval city of Carcassonne and recently I was able to make that dream come true. Carcassonne did not disappoint.

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Located in the Languedoc region of southern France, Carcassonne is famous for its medieval citadel, La Cité, the largest walled city in Europe, with numerous watchtowers and double-walled fortifications. Languedoc is also famous for its wines and the hilltop city sits high above the surrounding vineyards.

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I arrived Carcassonne in the evening under a near-full moon. The hotel I stayed at was located at the foot of the hill, and I had a magnificent view of the fairytale city from my balcony.

Every day, I crossed the footbridge over the river Aude, climbed the steep cobblestone streets to the top of the hill, and entered the citadel through the lowered drawbridge. I spent hours wandering around the labyrinthine village, climbed the ramparts and spiral stairs of the towers, walked the walls which provided magnificent views of the valley below, and then rested and recharged at its many outdoor cafes.

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Carcassonne was occupied by the Romans and later the Visigoths. Its strategic hilltop location was fortified over the centuries with walls, towers, drawbridge and moat, a fortress, and a cathedral — the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire. Layers and layers of history pervade the stones and gargoyles, the slate roofs and worn steps.

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Today Carcassonne relies heavily on tourism and has several hotels, restaurants, and shops — even a small museum on the history of the French school system.

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The heraldic Occitan cross, which dates back to the 12th century, and the fleur-de-lis hearken back to its medieval history and can be seen throughout the city.

In the fall, Carcassonne has a particular beauty — pensive, tranquil, a bit wistful — and despite the tourists, a few quiet areas can always be found.

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It is at night when the magic of Carcassonne can most be felt — when the years of history fall away and you step into the past. The crenelated ramparts and rounded towers take on an architectural sharpness, accentuated by light and shadow.

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Crossing the drawbridge you can imagine the creak and clang of its chains, and you notice that the sounds inside the walled village are different — quieter, sometimes hushed. The interior of La Cité is softly lit by lampposts. Gold light pours onto the stone walls and archways and illuminates the curves of the cobblestone streets. It becomes a place of shadows and textures, mystery and beauty, drawing you further up into its heart.

Even in the off-season of late October, the hilltop is surprisingly alive at night and the sound of conversation and laughter fill the outdoor cafes that ring the small square at the center. Wandering through the narrow streets, you come across several restaurants and hotels that bid a warm welcome.

Carcassonne sets one to dreaming. Its deep history and beauty inspire, shift your perceptions, and bring about a silent exchange with the past. For many, it is representative of the unattainable — something actual, yet ever elusive. In 1887 Gustave Nadaud wrote a poem called “Carcassonne,” in which an old man dreams of seeing “fair Carcassonne” before he dies. To him, the city embodies the longing for an ideal, a place of profound meaning, an experience that could be his — yet it remains beyond his reach. The final line is “each man has his Carcassonne” — a beautiful distant dream.

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Carcassonne — medieval city, hilltop fortress, fairytale village, a step back in time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Miranda’s garden — autumn days

“The sun shone on the garden, thick with late summer flowers and early autumn blooms.”

Though most of the story of The Garden House takes place over summer, the book ends with the beginning of fall, and a sense of change. I imagine the main character, Miranda, strolling through her garden at this time of year, gathering a few autumn leaves that have fallen to the ground and clipping blooms for displays around her home.

She would use certain flowers and berries and turn them into wreaths,

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or pair them with candles to create a cozy fall ambiance.

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Most of the cut flowers would become arrangements that Miranda would place on bookshelves, counters, and tables throughout the house, with one special bouquet for the dining table.

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I imagine her preparing one of her special meals for her children who would visit over the weekend, or perhaps her friends next door would stop by for dinner.

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Miranda would add leaves and moss, or branches of berries and a few apples to the dining table to give it an autumnal feel.

And if the weather was mild, she would choose to have dinner under the trees on her beloved deck.

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As the autumn days grew cooler, Miranda would take a moment in her garden to curl up on a bench with a shawl, or find just the right spot to enjoy a cup of hot cocoa and good book.

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Beauty. Meaning. Books.
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Bookstores

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The longer nights and cooler temperatures of autumn are perfect for browsing through a good bookstore — and leaving with an armful of books.

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“There were fewer finer things in life … than spending time perusing the shelves of a good bookshop.” ― George Mann

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“The truly wide taste in reading is that which enables a man to find something for his needs on the sixpenny tray outside any secondhand bookshop.” ― C.S. Lewis

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“To my mind there is nothing so beautiful or so provocative as a secondhand bookstore.”
―Lionel Barrymore

 

“Perhaps that is the best way to say it: printed books are magical, and real bookshops keep that magic alive.” ― Jen Campbell

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“Books are an escape route. A refuge…. a tunnel to the outside world. A glimmer of something beyond.”―Chloe Coles

 

“Reality doesn’t always give us the life that we desire, but we can always find what we desire between the pages of books.”― Adelise M. Cullens

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Happy reading!

 

 

The autumn leaves are falling like rain…

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There’s a poem I’ve come across over the years that is simple, beautiful, and lyrical. It seems to find expression in different times, in slightly different wording. All the versions are evocative, stirring up rich images and emotions.

The autumn leaves are falling like rain,
Although my neighbors are all barbarians,
And you, you are a thousand miles away,
There are always two cups at my table.   – Tang Dynasty poem

In this version, most likely translated from the original, I imagine a rugged landscape,

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perhaps the Great Wall of China,

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and a cup of tea.

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A quick search reveals a few remarkable facts about the period the poem was written in: “China’s Tang Dynasty, 618-907, is often considered the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. During this period, poetry was an important part of social life at all levels of society. Scholars were required to master poetry for the civil service exams, but the art was theoretically available to everyone. Tang poetry has had an ongoing influence on world literature.” (Wikipedia)

However, there are other, similar versions of the poem. Perhaps the poem has been been translated in various ways throughout the years, or perhaps different poets were moved by the universality of the poem and reworked it for their time and place.

For example, this later version about an earlier period, is said to describe the far reaches of Britannia under Roman rule:

Here at the frontier 
There are fallen gods 
And my neighbours 
Are all barbarians 
Although you 
Are thousands of miles away 
There will always be on my table 
Your cup.

Different imagery comes to mind: the wall morphs to Hadrian’s Wall, the landscape shifts to bleak highlands. I imagine damp cloaks, stomping horses, tents pitched next to a sputtering campfire.

And more recently, these lines, close to the original, appear in John Fowles’ The Magus:

“Here at the frontier there are falling leaves; although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, You are a thousand miles away. There are always two cups at my table.”

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All the versions suggest forced separation – perhaps by war, conquest, travel of some sort – contrasted with the memory of friendship, the comforts of home, civility.  They speak of longing, memory, and the hope for future togetherness. And most of all, they express that it’s the simple things in life that have the greatest pull on us.

 

 

 

 

October

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There’s an old green-covered book I open this time of year. The spine is split in some parts, the lettering on the cover is faded. It’s a book of poems by Robert Frost that my mother gave to me in high school. It was already worn back then. I don’t know if she bought it used somewhere around town or if someone made a gift of it to her years before. It wasn’t a formal presentation or given to mark a special occasion. It was like the other things she gave to us – a sort of “here’s something you might enjoy,” or “take a look at this.” Items that would simply appear on our dressers without any note at all – Classic Comics for my brothers, a porcelain bluebird for my sister’s collection, a red maple leaf, an exotic stamp off a letter from her brother who traveled widely. Things that would delight, pique our curiosity, entertain, or answer to inner longings.

The book of poems resonated deeply with me, especially the ones in the beginning of the book from the section “A Boy’s Will.” The autumn poems in particular became the ones that most spoke to me. “October” might have been the first poem I ever memorized, outside of school assignments. I memorized it because I wanted the words inside me, I wanted to walk through an autumn day and have the words at the ready: “O hushed October morning mild, Thy leaves have ripened to the fall, Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild, Should waste them all.”

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These many years later, the words are still there. As I walk through the neighborhood or cut through Central Park, a solitary leaf might float down from a tree on a mild autumn day, and I hear the words: “Release one leaf at break of day, At noon release another leaf.” The birds in the autumn sky might caw and without any prompting my heart recites: “The crows above the forest call; Tomorrow they may form and go.”

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The simple book of poems remains the touchstone of autumn for me – it embodies the solitary, the nostalgia and memories of other Octobers, and the deep connection of inner yearning with outer seasonal beauty.

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(Thank goodness Robert Frost didn’t stop at October. His poem “My November Guest” soon became my favorite.)

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Autumn Orchards

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A trip to the orchard always feels like stepping back in time, especially at this time of year. There is something quaint and old-fashioned about the crates of red, green, and yellow apples, the rows of trees and pumpkin fields under an open sky, the warm colors of autumn’s harvest all around.

Even the things you can buy at an orchard are wholesome and picturesque. Besides bags of apples, there are rows of jams and honey, pumpkins and gourds, and ears of Indian corn in those gorgeous colors that always surprise.

And who can pass up the apple cider, the caramel apples, and the apple cider donuts?

There were several orchards around the small town in Illinois where I grew up. But there was one we went to every fall, making almost weekly trips to buy apples. We’d also buy jars of apple butter, homemade peanut brittle, and containers of popping corn. Once I was visiting home during the Fall Festival and was lucky enough to find beautiful bunches of bittersweet for sale. They were tied in thick clusters, vibrant in color. I bought several bunches and they decorated my NYC apartment for many years.

The old-fashioned, romantic allure of the orchard  found its way into my WWII era Christmastime series. The main character, Lillian, was raised in upstate New York where the seasonal beauty of the orchards and fields influenced her as an artist. She moves to the city, but her sister, Annette, runs an orchard with her husband. Lillian is grateful to have that haven to return to, where she can reconnect with her girlhood and enjoy the pleasures of country living. And her two boys, Tommy and Gabriel, love the freedom of running through the orchard and playing in the cider house. And sometimes, they celebrate Christmas there.

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This time of year is all too brief — the harvest season, apples and pumpkins, the colors of fall, sweater weather. Soon the trees will soon lose their leaves, the temperatures will drop, and the orchards will close their doors.

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Before that happens, make a trip to an orchard — crunch into a juicy apple, take some cider home with you, treat yourself to a caramel apple. Or just stroll around the earthy charm of the orchard, and savor this beautiful time of year.

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