mardi, août 31, 2010

Albi, France

Albi (with the new and old bridges)

I went to Albi on the River Tarn for the first time a few weeks ago and have to admit that I've never heard of this city before then. I didn't know that it was an Episcopal city (governed by the Archbishops of Albi) nor that it was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites a few weeks ago.

It was one of the cities that lived through the bloody (20-year) crusade against the Cathares in the 13th century that almost eliminated Catharism and brought Occitania to the French Crown. In fact, it became a powerful Episcopal city after said crusade, its Cathedral built by the Roman Catholics to fortify their struggle against the Cathar heretics and as a demonstration of the power regained by the Church.

Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile

It is southern French Gothic in style and is made of local brick in red and orange colours (Albi is also known as la ville rouge), dominating the old city. Next to it is the very old and well-preserved Palais de la Berbie (housing the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum) overlooking the river and its old and new bridges, surrounded by residential quarters that date back to the Middle Ages.

Albi is also the birthplace of the famous post-Impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and contains a museum (with the largest public collection in the world) dedicated to him. In it you will find an impressive collection of his work (not less than 1000 pieces). Toulouse-Lautrec was from a very old aristocratic family in the region and couldn't grow to normal adult height because he suffered from a genetic disorder linked to inbreeding (his parents were first cousins). To cut a long story short (not that it was too long since he died at the age of 36 of alcoholism and syphillis), I have always associated him with the Moulin Rouge in Paris and that was where he hung out alot in his heyday, painting the cabaret dancers and also the prostitutes in the boudoirs at work (and catching syphillis while he was at it).

One of the exhibition rooms in the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum

I have to make a small mention of the nice lunch that we had in an Indian restaurant India Palace within walking distance of the Cathedral. Everybody including the children wanted to eat Indian food when we caught sight of the restaurant and so that was what we had. The service was slow, but the food was surprisingly good. The children's menu (tandoori tikka or chicken curry, rice and ice cream or semolina cake) was a great value at 7 euros and our only complaint was about the relatively high cost of the mango lassi (4,50 euros for a small glass).

The covered market

Parking is hard to come by in this city and expensive when you find it. But by all means give the parking under the covered market a try - it's nicely situated and allows you to walk to all the major sights easily.

Restaurant India Palace
13 rue H. Savary
81000 Albi
Tel : 05 63 76 92 86

Toulouse and Restaurant Au Bon Graillou

A street in pink Toulouse

We visited Toulouse (la Ville Rose), of course, and had an excellent lunch above its covered market which I will soon come to. Otherwise, it's the 4th largest city in France with a vibrant economy and a relatively young population thanks to its old and famous University giving it the 3rd largest student population in France.

Saint Sernin Basilica with its Bell Tower

The city is situated on the Garonne river in the Southwest and is halfway between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. When we started walking in the city, we noticed that the population there was quite mixed, meaning that you come across other races easily and there are many exotic restaurants lining the streets. A good sign.

Capitole de Toulouse

There are interesting buildings in the old city, but the city in general didn't particularly impress us. I guess that we are not too much into bricks. The highlight of our visit was actually lunch at Au Bon Graillou, a restaurant situated just above a very good covered market in the heart of town.

View of the street from the 1st floor of the covered market

SIL recommended the restaurant and I must admit that she has good taste. We love restaurants like that - vive, hearty, simple and good. We knew a number of similar restaurants when we were living in Paris and they don't seem to exist much outside of France. The setting, as you can imagine, is far from chic. But was it full! It was past 1pm and there were still loads of people waiting for a table, many sipping wine as they did so.

Grilled Scallops with Red Pepper & Cream Sauce

The whole menu was written on a blackboard and it comprised mainly of beef, duck and fish. The children's menu (a good-sized bavette with fries, home-made sauce and a real dessert) went for 10 euros and the adult's fixed menu for 17. Such a good value. I ordered from the main menu and the portions were of course bigger and the choice wider - and even then it was good value for money.

Bavette with Salad and Fries, sauce Oignons Confits

The food was really good. I've missed having such choice in a small restaurant : grilled fresh sardines, scallops, gambas or fish, foie gras in terrine or pan-fried, different cuts of the beef (with lovely sauces), duck, salads, lovely desserts - and all accompanied by their own sides. Even the wine was cheap and good - Hub kept saying that he could taste blackcurrants in his.

Raspberry and White Chocolate Tart

If you should visit Toulouse, book a table (they usually do 2 services) there and I daresay that you'll not be disappointed. For such a busy restaurant the young waiters were quite cool and nice, nothing at all like the grouchy French waiters we've all grown to expect and even like. We were so tempted to go back again on our way to the Dordogne region a few days later - but parking in Toulouse not being easy, we had to give up the idea.

Restaurant Au Bon Graillou
Marché Victor Hugo (1er ètage)
31000 Toulouse
Tel : 05 61 21 80 19

lundi, août 30, 2010

Cité de l'Espace, Toulouse

A model of Ariane 5 at Cité de l'Espace

Toulouse is an important base for the European aerospace industry, hosting among others the HQs of Airbus, Galileo positioning system, the SPOT satellite system and CNES's Toulouse Space Centre (the largest space centre in Europe). It therefore seemed appropriate that we should visit its space theme park Cité de l'Espace when we were at SIL's.

My astronauts

You will need at least a day to visit this theme park. There are exhibitions, demonstrations, experiments, a Mir station, an Imax movie and 3D movies in the planetarium to catch. We didn't set out early enough and couldn't finish visiting the whole park.

The Mir station

Better not be claustrophobic

French food onboard

We started our visit with the Imax move Hubble 3D and it was really interesting. The earth looked really really beautiful when you looked at it from the Hubble. Then we visited the Mir station that they bought from the Russians, watched a few demonstrations and the Babies got to practise their moonwalk. Hub and Babinette also tried out this machine where they turned you round and shook you senseless in some kind of preparation for a space mission.

Are you resistent enough to go into space?

I particularly enjoyed our 45 minutes in the Planetarium. The seats were so comfortable and "gazing" at the stars in them so peaceful I could stay in that room for a long time. The film we caught set both Hub and myself into a renewed interest in the making of the universe and all the metaphysical questions that they entail and I would see him on his iPad in the days to follow reading up on the subject. He sort of exchanged his usual set of "Stars" for the real thing :-).


The ticket that you buy is valid for 24 hours so you can always return the next day (it's open like from 9:30 to 5/6/7) to finish your visit. The prices are quite high, but then Imax and 3D movies are often quite expensive and they are included in the price. We've enjoyed the visit very much.

Cité de l'Espace
Av. Jean Gonord
31506 Toulouse cedex 5

dimanche, août 29, 2010

Le Lac de Saint-Ferréol, Revel

3 Kids at Saint-Ferréol

Besides Cathares, another term that I would hear quite a bit of when travelling near Toulouse was Canal du Midi. SIL brought us to the Lac de Saint-Ferréol one afternoon so that she could invite us to lunch at the lovely Hotellerie du Lac. Really good food in a chic setting and believe it or not, the kids' menu offered a beef faux-filet and a dessert - for only 10 euros!

Hotellerie du Lac

Anyway, the hotel-restaurant was opposite an artificial lake with a (not-too-pretty) sandy beach. But you could swim in it and even do a spot of canoeing or kayaking if you wanted to. There was also a mini-tree climbing facility, mini-golf and sand pits for pétanque.

Lac de Saint-Ferréol

We took a walk after the rest of the family had canoed for a bit in the lake and ended up near a huge 17th century dam surrounded by a beautiful forest. And in its midst there was a little museum dedicated to the Canal du Midi.

3 Boys vs 2 Amazons (the latter won, of course)

Apparently the canal had been constructed by Pierre-Paul Riquet (born in 1609 in Béziers - the city whose population of nearly 20 000 was entirely massacred by the Cathar crusaders in the 13th century) to link the Garonne to the Mediterranean Sea in the South of France. This was to facilitate the transportation of wheat and wine between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The project was considered one of the greatest construction (génie civil) in the 17th century, opening up the way to the Industrial Revolution. Besides being an engineering feat, it was also an architectural wonder and work of art, with much pain taken to keep the various aqueducts, tunnels, reservoirs, bridges etc in some harmony with its natural environment. As a matter of fact, the Canal du Midi became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.

The dam at Saint-Ferréol was built to create a water reservoir that would aliment the Canal du Midi via "la Rigole de la plaine" - a small canal that would go all the way to the Seuil de Naurouze. The area around had also been landscaped with dense vegetation so that it actually became a tourist spot.

I stayed at the beach to look after our things and overheard a conversation among 3 women while I was alternating between looking at the sky and reading SIL's copy of Jane Austen's Emma. I've not read that book since I was 14 so it was a pleasure to read it again. Anyway, the conversation was mainly about how life was difficult financially for them and what they would do if they should win the lottery. So I put the book down and just stared at the sky thinking about what I would do if I should strike the lottery. Certainly something more interesting than what they proposed to do.

Market Day at Lavaur

Cathédrale Saint Alain de Lavaur

If you were French, you will usually love your baguette, croissant and your local markets. I had some baguette on our first evening in France and woke up the next morning with a craving for croissant and pain au chocolat. SIL dangled a visit to the market in the neighbouring town of Lavaur and with it came my hope of grabbing a good croissant from a bakery in town.

Saturday market

Market day in Lavaur was quite an event as nothing else exciting usually happens in these parts. The streets were full of people and vehicles and it was a miracle that we found a parking space as quickly as we did. We were greeted poultry stalls. People there still buy their poultry and rabbits live! You choose your feathered fowl and the seller packs them up in a cardboard box, makes a few slits in it to let in air and you're set. Yet other buyers carry their live purchases by the feet. Dizzy chickens, I imagine.

Where are you bringing me to?

Buy and go

Live ducks in the market

The small market was amazing. I've been twice to the one that takes place on Monday mornings in Modena. And I've not returned since. It was very big - but they weren't selling anything particularly interesting and much of the stuff looked cheap without being cheap. The one in Lavaur had vegetable stalls with the most beautiful pink garlic (ail rose de Toulouse), delicate French beans, small fragrant French melons...the butchers had marvelous cuts of beef, veal, lamb and pork, merguez and other sausages, duck (!!!) and foie gras. And bread - wow, what a choice...There were also exotic cooked food stalls, for the French while they love their own cuisine also enjoy trying that of other communities.

We bought foie gras entier mi-cuit and fresh magret de canard from a stall in the market and they tasted really good - rich taste, great texture, real food. Hub said that unless you've tasted what we had, you'll never know the difference between average factory-bred and top-quality farm-raised duck. Since food like duck and duck liver are getting more democratic i.e. accessible to everybody, its quality has suffered and it is getting more difficult to find the really good stuff in the mass offering.

A park in Lavaur

SIL brought us on a quick tour of the old town of Lavaur and it was small but pretty, with lovely old buildings, interesting new architecture and a beautiful park with very old trees and a lovely view of the surrounding forests. We bought croissants and other pastries (including a mille-feuille) from a bakery in the main street and they were so good! I have missed French pastries and bread, 5 years away from the Hexagone now seem like a lifetime...

While travelling in the region of Toulouse and Dordogne, I would see "Cathares" being mentioned in different sites. In Lavaur, the story goes that its castle was probably the last refuge for the Cathar heretics of Lavaur during the bloody siege by Simon de Montfort and his crusaders in May 1211 : dame Guiraude de Laurac, co-seigneuresse of Lavaur was thrown alive into a well and 400 Cathares burnt alive. A massacre commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church.

Belcastel, Tarn, France

The back of the old church in Belcastel

I would not take the liberty to inform you of my SIL's life (in detail) as she would skin me alive for that. Suffice to say that she's Hub's older and only sibling and is a free spirit who lives on her own out there in the little village of Belcastel in the Tarn, in the Midi-Pyrénées region.

The bell goes off very often, including more than 20 hits at 7 every morning

The old church seen from SIL's doorstep

But I must disabuse you of any notions that you may have of SIL as a country mouse. On the contrary, she has lived a major part of her life in the heart of the capital itself, has travelled quite a bit in the world (often as a nurse with humanitarian organisations), is an accomplished musician on several instruments (including the flute and the piano) and is also a linguist.

The "main" street in the village just behind the old church

SIL's house

As a matter of fact, the decision to leave Paris and settle in this village 26 km Northeast of Toulouse had in no time appeared quite rash to the lady in question as she started to discover that her quiet village of no more than 200 inhabitants is small both in population and in spirit. The region is still quite rural and most people there are not very educated, add that to the unreliable and clanish nature of the people in the South and you will understand how she should feel quite out of place there. On the other hand, she's living not too far away from where her mother's family used to live - near Rodez in Aveyron.

The living room

The spacious kitchen

She tiled this bathroom herself

In the meantime, she has bought herself a nice little old house in Belcastel just a few metres from the very old church and townhall. And has been spending the last year or so renovating it - on her own. We liked it very much actually. Found it charming and very nicely-built. The kids loved playing board games with their aunt, but we couldn't stay too long as she was working through most of Summer.

The garden

The back of the house

Babinette playing with the neighbour's cat (one of 40!)

View from SIL's garden

She has a nice little garden of her own with a fabulous view of the surrounding fields, her own fruit trees and a successful herb and vegetable patch and regaled us with tales of her battle with the escargots as we sipped wine in her terrace, had foie gras on toasts to start before we enjoyed her cooking. It was chicken curry one evening, duck magret on another, roast veal from the neighbour's farm and finally saucisse de Toulouse on our last night there.

Sunflower fields

We made a few day trips to nearby towns and villages during our stay in Belcastel and especially enjoyed driving past the surrounding fields often full of sunflowers - beautiful! In the past, the region would also have fields full of Isatis tinctoria flowers (aka woad), flowers that once fermented, dried, crushed and oxidised (often achieved by adding urine) would yield a blue tint (aka pastel).

A modernised pastel house seen from the road

The pastel was the only blue tint available in Europe until the arrival of indigo in the 17th century. In France, the Cocagne triangle comprising Toulouse, Albi and Carcassonne became very prosperous thanks to the pastel trade. Near Belcastel, we could see former pastel houses modernised to be lived in in the 21st century and they made for a lovely sight. There is also some attempt today to revive the use of the pastel - as a natural tint and for its medicinal properties (the Chinese have been using it for ages).

We've really enjoyed our stay in Belcastel and were glad to be able to visit SIL and her lovely stone house before she decides to sell it and move again. Hub's not the only person in the family with an itchy backside.