Friday, October 2, 2015


You know that it's a very cold location when the windows are composed of two, doubled panes windows.  We had traveled to Toulouse, France, a land that is currently quite pleasant, warm during the day and brisk at night. However, when we saw our hotel windows, I immediately decided this was not a place to visiting them winter.

The city is a quiet place to explore, small streets, winding cobblestones taking you between ancient buildings, old churches and small shops nestled in the walls. Some areas have very modern looking shops with things you'd find anywhere. Pharmacies varied, from general over the counter stuff to one with an extensive herbal, homeopathic, fresh dried herbs and tinctures filling very nook and cranny! Wish I could have read the French! Turns out, they have regular medical pharmacies and para pharmacies that have homeopathic and other alternative medicines regularly available. If the green light is on, a pharmacist is available and from what I could see, readily able to talk with people about either form of health care (obviously observation and I could have misinterpreted but it sure seemed like that's what they were doing)

We wandered to an old Jacobin church. This particular church has seen many uses throughout the years, a church, a room for art exhibitions, as well as hiding some of the art works shipped out from the Paris art museum to protect them from the Germans. The gardens behind were small but very quiet for walking through. In one on the rooms off the garden, a young man was tuning a piano...the tuner only until he sat down to play. He was spectacular! He was actually Kataro Fukuma, the star performer for a concert coming up the next night. We enjoyed a 45 minute performance as he played song after song! Heavenly to have it so quiet, sitting in the gardens, two of only about 8 people in the audience.

Whoever designs and creates the display designs here should be awarded a medal. Or two. The Jacobin church also housed a display of maps of Toulouse. Primary documents! They had original maps dating back to the 1800s.  They were displayed, carefully framed between glass, preserving it yet allowing people to minutely study it, seeing the growth of the city, changes in street names and localities, even changes in the green spaces. The city has numerous parks, liberally sprinkled throughout the city, parks as old as the city itself as well as many new ones.  They even had some early aerial shots of the city, showing some of the major thoroughfares. Just a fascinating snapshot of history.

Talk about displays...we went to the museum of natural history today. They had one of the most outstanding gems display I've ever seen. The presentation was unique as well as intriguing  ...all the colors of fluorite and all the shapes.colors of calcite. Excellent comparisons...and al done I. French. It was so well done that we could follow what they were saying...helpful that Jeff both knew the gems and French, but even I was able to follow some of it. They had an entire wall of herbal remedies, pictures and samples of the flowers as well as some info about uses. Wish I could have understood that! I love displays that aren't limited to the need to understand everything in the language it was printed in.

We managed to be in town for their once a year Heritage Festival. They had a farmers market set in the middle of the town square, selling jewelry, gems, local honey, food, veggies and a lot more! Fun to wander through the stalls, checking things out. They also had a play of some kind with gargantuan puppets worn by men - a king, queen, knight, a few ladies in waiting...and a fisherman who seemed to be at he center of the story! I love accidentally running into things like that though I wish I understood more of what was going on.

Claire de Lune

The next morning we headed out to the train station and our trip to Narbonne. Supposedly, we'd be able to get a taxi and head on over to the hotel where we were to be picked up. was a Sunday and that made it quite difficult to find a taxi. The number didn't go through, the one we thought we snagged got away, so we walked a mile or so to the place - fortunately it was close, by our standards at least. The hotel sat on a small canal, behind a medieval garden with fountains, herbs, medical plants, and a play yard. Popular spot for a sunny afternoon. We enjoyed lunch watching the boats and then walked around the garden and up the canal. Turns out we spent a fair amount of time doing that is vacation. 

Claire de Lune - our floating hotel!
Joanne whisked in late that afternoon to pick up the six of us to take us out to the barge, the Clare de Lune. She's a whirlwind of action with a great sense of humor and an unbelievable treasure trove of knowledge about the region. We had three couples on our journey; Jerry and Lisa and Alan and Doreen - we were the spring chickens in the group and never ceased to amaze them with our walking and biking daily...even though sometimes it was only a few miles for the day!

The boat we were on is actually an old, completely refurbished barge that used to carry cargo through he canal. It has a large, well-appointed kitchen, a comfortable sitting and dining area and, of course, an outside sitting area to sit back, sip tea (or some adult beverages) and let the world go by. There were three cabins that were very comfortable and certainly put the given space to work!
Just one of the many delightful dishes!
Dinner. Oh my goodness...French dinners are spectacular. Now most people think of lots of meats and cheeses and wines and indeed those things were included but the vegetarian cuisine was nothing sort of spectacular! Alexandre, the chef, took it upon himself to create gastronomic delights for me! In fact, there were a couple of times when the ladies offered to be vegetarian also to enjoy my dish.

All of the dishes, no matter what they were, were presented as works of art. The salads were artfully swirled across the plate with contrasting colors carefully placed to show off the design. Swirls of oils, crumbled dried flowers, or fresh buds were added. Everyone else loved their food also but I have to say he went all out with my incredible cuisine!

Traveling by Barge - Canal du Midi

There was a pattern to our days. In the morning we'd have breakfast and then Yves, the captain, would start us moving up the canal. We usually travelled from around 9:00 - 12:30. It was our opportunity to walk or bike along the canal and then the barge would catch up with us at the last lock. Some days were only a total of 4-5 kms, others 10-12 kms but one day we did much closer to 20 kms or so. There were stretches that were closed off so we had limits on where or how far we could go at times. Sadly there's a fungus spreading trough the main sycamore trees on the canal and try haven't found a way to stop it except by cutting down the trees and burning them. The trees are all over France but at the moment the fungus is only along this canal they hope to find a way to kill it but also to stop it here. Sure hope it works!

The canals were spectacular it was so like riding through Aunt Flos picture of the autumn canal (hanging up in our condo at the moment). The colors were stunning and ever changing, the bridges interesting and varied, the paths strewn with multi-colored leaves, the water clear with gorgeous reflections of sky and trees. A fairy book trip, for sure.

It wasnt enough to just cruise along the canal, we also had wonderful outings to various castles, chateaus, and vineyards in the afternoons. Joanne, jack-of-all-trades, followed us along in the van so that it would be ready to whisk us off to the days excursion. She has a fabulous sense of humor and a vast wealth of knowledge about the people of the region, the old settlements, as well as the wines produced across the region.

The first morning out I went for a sunrise walk - spectacular scenery and fortunately caught a couple of wonderful pictures - at least for me!

Cathar Castle of Minerve and Wine!

Minerve at the confluence of two rivers
We began our first days excursion at the remains of the 12th Century Cathar Castle of Minerve, site of a horrific siege by Simon de Montfort during the Crusades. Minerve was a small village, perched on a wall of rock standing high on deep gorges between the meeting of two rivers. It was a well protected site with high visibility and double surrounding walls as well as overhanging ledges but sadly it wasnt enough to withstand the catapults set against it and the men who were anxious to loot the town and kill the Cathars.
The only thing left of the original fortress is a single, tall octagonal tower. The remaining village is composed of numerous narrow alleys and small homes with about 150 inhabitants. A walk through the town gives a bit of a view as to what life might have been like through the ages with the steep, cobblestone streets, small windowed homes but stunning vistas of the gorges and huge cliffs.

Note the trap door in the ceiling - that's how
they filled the barrels!
No trip out was complete without some kind of tasting opportunitythis one was at the winery of Massamier La Mignardel. Like so many of the wineries in this region, this is a relatively small, family run operation. We were treated to the story and wine sampling by the matron of the winery, the retired mother who proudly shared stories about the wines and their production. Despite their small size, their wine was selected as the best red wine at an International Wine Challenge in 2005.
The tasting room sported huge wooden vats with old trap doors in the ceiling that was how the wine was originally poured into the vats. While equipment has changed, the use of the room for wine tasting brought the in the permanence and long lasting nature of wine production.

Oulibo Olives and Goats!

Tuesday found us heading out to the Olive Cooperative Oulibo in Languedoc. Olives abound in this region because the tree requires long, hot and dry summers with warmer winters, and the Languedoc climate is perfect. Even though France does not have as large a market as other European locations, they still provide an amazing variety of olives for the French market.
The cooperative we visited buys and processes the olives from the local farmers and the variety of types is amazing. I honestly used to think there was black and green. They color actually just depends on when its harvested green is an early harvest, a purplish color when its full of the oil, and black last. The variety and processing gives us the wonderful variety of olives (hint: do not even think theyre even remotely like American black olives). This particular area is most famous for a bright green variety called Luques. We had the opportunity to taste their olive oil as well as olives delicious!

We headed out from there to a goat farm for the opportunity to taste their cheeses and watch the goats being milked! The farm we visited kept about 90 goats, roaming around on a huge open hillside. It was close to milking time so the ladies, of course, had wandered down to the barnwaiting for their turn.
I loved the high ramps they had for bringing the goats in and keeping them in their stalls for milking. The reason the goats are all so cooperative is the feed she has ready for them standard oats but with a slightly sweet treat (what it was got lost in translation).

I was amazed at the variety of cheeses they make, soft cheeses just drained for a varying number of days to hard cheeses, aged in a tightly controlled cave. Delicious