The Lovebunnies in France

Day 5

Monday, September 23, 2002

    Well! Despite a late start at noon, we made a good day of it. We slowly wended our way north out of Peret, in the countryside, seeing the neighborhood. This is the garrigue, wild, rocky and lush all at the same time. Some similarity to the American southwest, especially in the colors, but yet not the same. B says limestone instead of sandstone gives different shapes to the mountains. We didn't get far before stopping to read a hand lettered sign posted on a chain link fence that enclosed a nice looking yard around an old house being renovated. Thieves broke in and stole building supplies. It took a long time to puzzle out the French.
    Further along we stopped again for photos--roadside sunflowers, grape harvesters and beautiful scenery. More driving and photos following the road to Lodeve. And finally, a Red Guide restaurant! But no, they served only from twelve to one-thirty, and it was now two. So on to the Intermarché where we spent over an hour selecting staples for the house and car lunch for today. Pâtés, cheeses, ancienne bread. Just like Italy, maybe even better! Finally, at four o'clock and getting hungry, we were on our way to Prieuré Saint-Michel de Grandmont for the dolmens.
    But, once there, we must take a guided tour to see the dolmens, no picnicking allowed, so lunch must wait! And certainly worth it--B translated what he could of our French guide's talk. She spoke slowly and with relish. We walked all through the grounds and she told us about the geology, history and legends of the place. She was very animated, seeming to enjoy her work very much. She shook a fruit tree so everyone could eat small, cherry-size fruits--red, filled with seeds covered by bumpy skin. B says you'd starve to death eating these things. As we walked, our guide pointed out lavender and mint growing wild, part of the typical garrigue flora. I picked some mint for our "botany" collection. There were only six of us on the tour and our guide allowed time for B to take photos.
    The wind was blowing hard on the mountain. B hung back a little because one of the other tourists seemed to be having a bit of a rough time walking the uneven ground in the wind. He asked, "Ca va?" and she began to answer him in French, of course. She quickly realized he was having his own rough time following, and switched to some poor English. She said there was a "vent sauvage, the wind." That has quickly become a catchphrase.
    B is doing really well (he says not) speaking what he calls his "high school French." People all seem to like that he tries, and often answer in French. He tells them he speaks "un petit peut." But they all open up when he does. Some people, especially older folks in our village, seem a bit scowly at first. Luckily we remember one of the travelogues we watched saying that "Every conversation begins with 'Bonjour.'" If we say "bonjour," even the scowliest face lights up and "Bonjour Madame, bonjour monsieur," is the smiling answer.
    When we went into the abbey buildings after touring the grounds (artificial fishpond lake with little island; overlook where we saw a glimpse of the sea; rocks "carved" with seats ("maybe"); path to the hermitage where the monks went to die, alone; dolmen and fruit trees) our guide offered us a written version, in English, of her talk. We also met a busy little champagne colored male poodle that liked to have his belly rubbed.
    Twelve clerics and lay priests—six of each—I think. This was the most austere order in all France. They never spoke, were strict vegetarians, and went barefoot all year. They were buried right in the ground without any coffins. The clerics (from the nobility) were clean shaven and the peasant lay priests bearded. The priory dates from the 12th century and is spare and simple like the hermits who inhabited it. There were a few small "loop" or "slit" windows in the common room, like the kind through which you shoot arrows, and no glass. There never was any: they were just openings in the thick stone walls, all year long!
    The cloister is the only one from this austere order that has been preserved, which makes it of particular historic and architectural interest. The order existed for only about five hundred years, and this particular priory died off when neighboring lords took over its lands.
    Finally, lunch—at six p.m.! But what a lunch: three cheeses, bacon, salami, two coarse pâtés and rich, crusty bread. Divinity!
    We drove up the highway to Couvertoirade, one of the "100 Most Beautiful Villages of France." Yes, it's true, there is an official list. And Couvertoirade is beautiful! The walled town is no longer not a living town, really, but all taken up by artisan shops, lodgings and restaurants.
    At first we didn't realize what we were going to see. We had to park in a lot on the edge of town. We began walking, and the houses along the lane were certainly pretty, mellow old stone, many low and rambling. B was a little further ahead. He said, "I think we're coming to the end." We had gotten back on the road that led past the parking lot. Then he said, "Oh no, wait." We saw a giant wall rising over the trees along the road. We went on, and he found the gate through the wall. We went through and there was Couvertoirade: a maze of tiny lanes between ancient old houses, with one end of town taken up by the crumbling old Templar church. Steps cut into the rock led up to its cemetery, dotted with circular crosses of stone. The view across the rooftops into the sunset was wonderful.
    Home again for a snack supper of leftover car lunch supplemented by muscat wine and muscat grapes tasting just like the wine (ah!). Now, bed. Tomorrow, back to the airport to find Elizabeth.

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