À la prochaine

Sunday morning I heard a few successive popping sounds in the hills above. Hunting season is on. There isn’t much game left in these whereabouts, but one wild animal there is a lot of is Sanglier, or boar. Given the density of the oak forests on these mountains, it’s not surprising. On a hike, we came across evidence of a passel, with earth rooted through and scattered in all directions.

On the road to Fontfréde, Céret

A hunter we spoke with said occasionally he hunts deer, too. And yesterday, on a short hike uphill through the forest, I spotted a female fox. Sadly, she moved too fast for me to catch her with my camera.

View from our balcony, Céret

Along with the hunting, the official arrival of autumn means the temperatures are suddenly much cooler, in the 70s F/20s C, which makes October a fine time to visit. But fewer people do. Although Céret isn’t ever packed with tourists, I usually encounter them on my morning stroll through town. Today, however, I was alone in the Place des Neuf Jets taking photos, until an elderly local with her Yorkie sat down to watch and then engage me in pleasant conversation about growing up speaking Catalan.

I am curious about what life is like here once the “season” is over. I note more cultural events on the city calendar, restaurant menus changing, some restaurants closing until next spring, espadrilles being replaced by sweaters in shop windows.

There are many fêtes of a Catalan flavor throughout the year, on religious holidays like Christmas with its chestnut specialities and the musical Procession at Easter, and the traditional folk festivals like the Feria Toriste (bull festival), which, sadly, includes a bull fight. Not even Barcelona holds bull fights any longer, but Céret is a holdout on that odious tradition. In May, a festival celebrates the new cherry crop (I’ve been making a delectable Kir Céretan, in which the fruity ingredient is local cherry syrup).

But we will be elsewhere. It’s hard to believe a month has passed, and that the whole, fabulous, four-month summer is nearly over, and that we’ll be back in Nice soon. I’ll make the mental switch to urban living, which has its pluses: movie theaters, high speed wifi, ethnic food, book clubs, and lots of café time with friends.

Posted in Céret, expat life, France, Occitanie, Pays Catalan, Pyrénées Orientales, Travel | 2 Comments

Serrabone

The road from Céret to Serrabone winds its way upwards at a slow pace for 600 meters, through a thick oak forest, stands of cork, olive groves, and an occasional cactus. We pass crumbling farmhouses and solitary villas and, surprisingly, through the trees spot a couple of hamlets, where we stop to stretch our legs and ask locals what people do with their time in such isolated places.

Then we are back on the narrow road, darkening as it plunges deeper into the forest,  hoping not to encounter any cars from the opposite direction.

The road to Serrabone

The road to Serrabone in the foothills of the Pyrenees

While today we are embraced by the quiet and solitude of the wilderness, the presence of an 11th century Priory as our destination speaks to a time when important regional events took place here. Communities sprang up around the convent that monks were establishing. In turn, Catalan lords propped up the convents, buying favor from God. Power struggles between church and state broke out again and again. Later, in the 17th century, as France negotiated with Spain to incorporate all of northern Catalonia within its borders, the fight to retain Catalan culture began.

The natural beauty we are enjoying from the car indubitably makes the excursion to the Priory worthwhile on its own. However, the topper for me waits here, at the medieval site at the end of the road. We have visited some lovely abbeys and churches in Occitanie, but Serrabone is worth all the others put together. Austere, somber, and dark — Romanesque architects hadn’t mastered the Gothic trick of thick walls and buttresses supporting large windows —  the solemn mood is offset by the joyful sculptures of medieval monsters, demons and angels on the cloister capitals and the facade of the exceptional Tribune.

the cloister of Serrabone

The odd, one-sided, crooked cloister of Serrabone

All this, perched on a mountaintop, overlooking waves of green mountain ridges, is almost more than I can absorb. I recall that “Serrabone” means “good mountain.”

 

 

Posted in culture, expat life, France, Occitanie, Pays Catalan, Pyrénées Orientales, Serrabone, Travel | 12 Comments

Occitanie

We are back in Céret in the foothills of the Pyrénées mountains, having visited last October for a few days with friends. Now we are ensconced for just under one month. Like the Auvergne and Creuse regions we passed through on our road trip south from Brittany, Occitanie has a lost world ambiance which we love. The bourgeoise in me couldn’t last here forever, but the part of me that disdains superficiality, consumerism and hyperactivity gets a massive lift.

In the Auvergne

Auvergne cow

Like an aged wine with loads of character, these parts of France are an evocative blend of peculiar environments and history. Here in Occitanie, the architecture is pre-Gothic, the towns are built through mountains on ancient pilgrimage paths, the many fortresses recall constant war between rival dynasties, and impressive Cathar strongholds such as Carcassonne tell the story of the violent persecution of Christian heretics.

The southern accent is decidedly a fading relic, but its coarseness still a reminder that we are far from the large and culturally sophisticated cities.

in Carcassonne

View from Carcassonne

Céret is a relatively large town in this area, with 7,705 people at last count. Occitanie means “the west” in Catalan, the dominant culture of the area, encompassing the former regions of Langedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées (France made changes to the official categories of regions in 2016). Languedoc itself was derived from the terms “langue d’occitanie” or “the lingo of the west.” To further complicate matters, the administrative département is Pyrénées Orientales.

From its immediate appearance, Céret would not be the most important attraction in the area. But it doesn’t take much of a stroll through town to feel yourself relax, unwind, pick up the laid back vibe, note the many small artist ateliers and want to join the locals in a glass of  Catalan red at a café under the leaf canopy of mottled plane trees.

If you are a fan of Romanesque cathedrals and abbeys, you’re in luck. You could visit one a day and not run out. The medieval art outpost of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, called The Cloisters (and one of my favorite hangouts when I was in college), obtained its Cuxa cloister in this area. If hiking gorges and forested mountain trails are what you live for, welcome. If 20th century art is a passion, you can follow the footsteps of the Fauves and others at the Cèret Musée d’ Art Moderne. There are several fine options for a thermal bath cure nearby. Mediterranean beaches? Collioure and others are a 40 minute drive or bus ride away.

These are just a few of the attractions. Soon, I’ll also be testing out the Catalan restaurants, for example. Stay tuned.

 

Posted in Céret, Collioure, expat, expat life, France, Occitanie, Pays Catalan, Pyrénées Orientales | 5 Comments

Le Départ

Cap Fréhel

It is the eve of September 1st and we are madly packing for our departure from Brittany and the Atlantic Ocean. This morning we took one last walk on the coastal path, I went to the fish restaurant a block away from our apartment for one more “choucroute de la mer” for the road, and we organized the car for the drive back towards the Mediterranean Sea and  Céret. Over the next week our road trip will take us to Angers, Guéret, Clermont-Ferrand and Toulouse in five of the 95 different Departments of France (the Maine-et-Loire, Creuse, Puy de Dôme, Tarn and Pyrénées Orientales).

We will miss this area. We’ve had more than a respite from a hot, humid and tourist-laden city. We’ve had experiences of nature and folklore that would have been difficult to replicate elsewhere.

Will Brittany remain this kind of throw-back, rural and peaceful haven? Probably not. We’ve noticed fields turned over to repetitive housing developments, and newly built glass-walled contemporary architecture tucked in-between the granite houses. Rennes, Saint Malo and Nantes are expanding their suburbs at a fast clip. It’s probably got a few good years left, however. We’ll be back.

 

 

 

Posted in Bretagne, Breton costume, Brittany, Céret, Côte d'Armor, expat, expat life, France | 9 Comments

Cap Fréhel et le Côte d’Armor

We are in Cap Fréhel, the last of our stops in Brittany for this season. We’d first made a visit here last year on a day trip from Rennes, seeking relief from a heat wave. What a glorious escape that was. The bracing morning mist had hovered over the heathery hills, the ocean barely perceptible below, to lift with clear sunshine and a refreshing breeze by noon. Inland, the hamlets of granite Breton houses with blue shutters and hollyhocks growing madly in every crevice emanated cool calm.
So we had to return. And it turns out last August was exceptionally hot, and this year it has been exceptionally cloudy and rainy.
Nevertheless, we’ve had enough lovely weather to spend a lot of time walking on those heathery hills. On the inclement days, we’ve visited historic towns like Lamballe and Moncontour. We drove to Rennes, our old haunt from last summer, and saw our friends  Ruth and John. And now the weather forecast is in the 70s F and sunny for days on end.

 

This part of Brittany, the Cote d’Armor, is significantly more popular than the more remote Crozon Peninsula and southern Finistere regions. Parisians occupy the Belle Epoque resort towns of St. Lunaire and Saint Briac sur Mer (you can tell they are Parisians because unlike the Bretons they don’t greet you with a civil “bonjour”). August is also peak season, which accounts for local beach parking lots being full by mid-morning. We don’t find the tourist presence overwhelming, however. Compared to even Cannon Beach in Oregon, it’s pretty quiet around here.
Mornings I am often on the Sentier des Douaniers, part of the afore-mentioned GR34 path along the entire Breton coast. It’s a couple of minutes’ walk from our rental, and it takes me to the remnants of one of the old quarries that hauled out the Grès Rose stone, responsible for the pinkish hue of the area houses.
Grès Rose stone house in Equy
Generally speaking, we daily visit a point of interest then stop by a market and a café before coming home for a late lunch and down time before our late afternoon picturesque walk. Yesterday was hot — 76F — enough for a long day at the beach in my wetsuit getting tossed by the waves.
If that’s not enough, there’s always the option of an evening drive down back roads and a  stop at the local microbrewery.
back road in Fréhel
It’s difficult to imagine having had a more perfect summer in France.
Posted in Bretagne, Brittany, Côte d'Armor, expat, expat life, France, Travel | 9 Comments

Les Fêtes Bretonnes

Within the extensive summer programming in Brittany, there is an important sub-category: the Breton culture festivals. From what I’ve been able to deduce, there are several main types of Breton festival including these: the religious Pardons honoring specific saints, the regional celebrations such as the Festival de Cornouaille, Fest Noz and other principally musical events, and those honoring traditional crafts. These appear to be quite popular events in Finistère Sud, a hot bed of traditional Breton culture.

Traditional Breton culture almost died out until undergoing a massive revival in the 1970s. It’s taken very seriously now, as these bumper stickers seen everywhere attest. “Breizh” is Breton for “Breton.” The headdress seen here, known as the “coiffe,” is one associated with the women of a certain area of Finistére, a “Bigoudène.” Every region, sometimes different villages within a region, has its own coiffe design.

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I attended the Festival des Brodeuses in Pont l’Abbé, at the end of its three-days’ run showcasing the intricate stitching and embroidery of the Breton costume. Participants wore costumes they or their mothers or grandmothers had made, and paraded through the small town before retreating to a public park where multiple stages held musical acts and festival goers sat at long tables under the trees with their cider and beer. The rousing Fireman’s bagpipe band was at my back as I waited in a long line for my buckwheat crepe. Good thing I like a good drone sound! Off on another stage, I could see a large band accompanying a dozen or so dancers. I was delighted to see these famous musicians in one of the parade bands.

Now, bear in mind that since I first saw Gauguin’s Pont-Aven paintings when I was in high school, I’ve been in thrall to them. However, until recently, it didn’t occur to me that one could still catch glimpses of what those Pont-Aven painters saw. As I mingled with the men, women and children before the start of the parade, I felt at times that I had crossed into the past, right into their paintings.

At the stands where individual “brodeueses” showed their craft, I chatted briefly with this expert. It turns out she is quite famous.

She is the last woman to wear the coiffe as part of her every day dress, and as such, a living symbol of the “Bigoudéne” culture. No doubt, it will live on as long as there are Bretons.

 

Posted in Bretagne, Breton costume, Breton music, Brittany, culture, Finistère, France | 9 Comments

Les Fêtes de l’été

There’s a general perception that the French have more leisure time than Americans. This is true. Having more practice with it, they also perform it better, in my opinion. Holidays are not so scarce that citizens go hysterical (read: wasted) when they finally get them. Many are designed to be community, family-friendly events.

This season is a time of traditional outdoor festivities, often referred to as “animations,” starting with the June 21st Fête de la Musique. Every city and village in France celebrates the arrival of summer with music-making of some kind (“faites musique” means “make music” but it sounds like “Fête”, get it?).

Although the Fête was launched in 1982 nationwide as a way to recognize amateur musicians (of which there are very many across France), in large cities like Paris the programming largely involves professional bands and symphonies.

Here in western Finistère, in the days preceding the Fête, we drove past many handmade signs outside villages announcing their own music fest. You could have Fête-hopped the solstice all night long within a very confined geographical area. No one would have judged you, though, because at that time of year the sun doesn’t set until almost midnight and bonfires bring the dusk to a blaze as the musicians play their last. Why go inside?

“Les Bretons sont chauvins,” a local told me. Proud of their heritage, they are indeed. The Bretons use the fine seasonal weather to trot out their local sonneurs (players of cornemuses, binioux and bombards) at Celtic-themed musical fests called “Fest Noz.” I go mad for this folk life stuff, and finding fests nearby is one of my constant preoccupations.

Pig Roasts (cochon grillé) are also popular. They serve the same purpose as a Lions Club pancake breakfast, raising funds for a community. These don’t appeal to me personally, but they are traditionally Breton. In fact, let’s just say that vegans should really stay away from fish, cow, sheep, goat and bee product-based rural Brittany.

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Milos Forman’s “The Fireman’s Ball” is one of my favorite films of all time. Until coming to Brittany this summer, I had no idea such events still took place anywhere. You can find quite a few “Bal des Pompiers” during the week prior to Bastille Day, where bands play and people sit along river quais or in public parks dancing and eating the local staple, Moules et Frites.

If folk life isn’t your thing, then maybe you’d go for the classical music concerts several times a week, in one medieval church or another. Or, Celtic rock concerts closer to the cities (no thank you).

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The Inter-Celtic extravaganza takes place every August in Lorient, too far for us to reach this time. But maybe next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Bretagne, Brittany, culture, expat, Finistère, France | 9 Comments