A Summer Like No Other

September 14, 2020 by Heidi de Bethmann


What we love; what we miss

I suspect that I am not alone in saying that this summer has been like no other.  Aside from the temperature, it has hardly felt like one at all.  July 4 and Labor Day have come and gone, and my family and I have barely moved from NYC.

Summer, specifically August, is a time when I usually get an opportunity to reconnect with the country where I grew up: France.  Every trip brings a plan to visit friends or family wherever they spend their vacation, and with it, discoveries of locations of natural beauty or built environments steeped in history.

But no conversation about France is complete without a declaration of love for local foods and their source: “marchés” or open markets.  A visit to the marché is integral to any stay because it is the source of the most delicious food consumed during our time there: “crevettes grises” (tiny sweet grey shrimp),  charcuterie such as “rillettes” and “saussisson” (venison, wild boar, and plain old pork), fruits such as sweet melons from Cavaillon, “fraises des bois” (wild strawberries) and  apricots by the kilo, vegetables (multiple varieties of lettuces), and breads-and in a display of sustainability and entrepreneurship, homemade jams made from too-ripe fruits!

Carcassonne, my favorite

Several summers have led us to medieval fortified cities, towers, and dungeons.  Medieval architecture, with its very thick (up to 5-6’) walls offers fascinating history but also a consistently naturally cool (albeit a little damp) environment.

One of my personal favorites is the fortified city of Carcassonne, a Unesco World Heritage site.  It is built up on the highest point in the region, overlooking the beautiful valley. It is completely pedestrian, which definitely adds to its charm, as one can stroll through the cobblestoned town without a worry.  It is also the home of cassoulet, a delicious bean-based crock dish full of meats and sausages.  Lovers of “fruits confits” (candied fruits), usually presented in cube form, covered with sugar are also found here, but in their original fruit form.  It is hard to resist filling one’s bag with at least one of each type of glassy fruit treat.

The centerpiece of Carcassonne is its Chateau and its fortified walls.  It is built on a Gallo-Roman site, and one segment of the wall built at the time still remains as part of the 3km rampart.  The majority of the structure is medieval (13th century), with modifications made under Viollet Le Duc in the 19th century.  There are 52 unique towers, a combination of round roman ones and square medieval ones- my favorite has a slate pattern that makes the tower look like it’s smiling back at you- this is architecture communicating joy!  The dungeon, buried literally and figuratively in the center of the castle grounds, takes a backseat to the towers and fortified walls.

Other dungeons and keeps I have known

In Loches and Chatillon Sur Indre, the dungeons and keeps definitely are front and center, as they are stand-alone structures in less strategic locations.  The simplicity of the round form of the keeps and their surrounding walls and their generally partially deconstructed state give off a peaceful feeling that is contradictory to their less than friendly purpose.  Generally, the dungeons are built as far underground as the height of the keep, and it is hard to imagine what it would have felt like to spend days, months or years shackled to a wall in a dark, damp stone cell.  When you look down into the abyss, you are left with a sense of loss, many centuries later.

Until next summer

 In all cases, the marriage of materials old and new, their textures and colors provide a visual richness that makes me nostalgic for the country I grew up in.  And I’ll have to wait until next summer to set off on our next adventure. 

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