Friday, November 4, 2011

Puylaurens: Home of Marianne

On our penultimate night in France, we polished off our last bottle of Sancerre and enjoyed our usual in-room dinner menu of bread, cheese and ham. We spiced things up a bit this time, however, with an epi (a French loaf comprised of a series of French rolls strung together, thereby providing much more crunchy crust than a regular baguette) and some store-bought tabouli. Watching the finale of Master Chef, the French version of one of our favorite reality shows, Top Chef, topped off our relaxing evening. Almost identical in format and pacing to its American cousin, even down to the sometimes-cranky bald guy judge (Tom Colicchio’s long lost twin), Master Chef failed miserably in the selection of its lackluster female host who is very simply no Padma. And while the purse for the winner was a mere 15,000 euros, there was plenty of tension in the kitchen over masterpieces gone wrong.

On our last night in France for a long time, we’ll be having a lovely dinner at our hotel, the Cap de Castel. We could not have chosen a better place to spend our final nights in this country. About an hour east of Toulouse, it sits high in the hill town of Puylaurens and looks out over the gently rolling farmland at the base of Le Montagne Noire. Housed in buildings from the 1600s and beautifully renovated with exposed beams, earthen colored tile floors and ochre painted walls, the hotel is a real find. It’s a member of the Hotels de Charme et de Caractère association, which is how we found the little gem, and it definitely lives up to this label. We had dinner here on two nights of our stay (and are looking forward to a third tonight) and each superb meal was priced well below our budget. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our time here, and to add to our enjoyment is the fact that we paid less than $100 a night by taking advantage of the off-season stay-three-pay-for-two offer. We’re staying for a total of six and will only pay for four. There are definitely some advantages to traveling off-season.

We arrived in Puylaurens after a long drive from Andorra and at first glance, things weren’t so wonderful. The entire town was boarded up behind closed shutters and the roll-down, garage door-like steel security walls that hide businesses and restaurants when they’re closed. “Oh great,” we thought, “yet another abandoned town.” We finally realized, however, that it was the important French holiday weekend, La Toussaint (All Saints Day) and that almost all businesses would be closed for the entire weekend. November 1, All Saints Day, fell on a Tuesday this year and was an excellent excuse for a four-day weekend. Much like in the US prior to the seventies, it’s hard to find anything open on a Sunday or on any day of a holiday weekend. We’ve had more than one disappointment and change of plans because we forgot that Sunday means closed. It’s a regular reminder of just how different France and the US are and of the familiar generality that while the French work to live, Americans live to work. We’ve witnessed several anecdotal incidents that suggest that perhaps the profit motive isn’t quite as strong over here as it is back home. On multiple occasions in Paris when we lunched near the Eiffel Tower or walked through a park, men in business suits were reclined on benches taking long midday naps. What an attitude! Can’t imagine finding business people in Manhattan daring to take a full hour out of their workday to snooze in the sun. We’ve also seen restaurateurs turn away business at 2:10pm because they stopped serving lunch at 2. Most likely the cook had already gone home – no working overtime for him or her. When the long Toussaint weekend was over, the shutters opened and the steel walls went up and Puylaurens was back in business. Although not a particularly pretty town, it is a vibrant one with plenty of citizens on its streets and a busy open-air market on Wednesday morning. Wholly unexpected was learning that Puylaurens is the birthplace of the French national moniker Marianne. I never would have imagined that our itinerary would just happen to land us in the hometown of my French namesake. Just as Uncle Sam is a symbol for the US, so Marianne is the symbol of the French Republic, representing Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité and appearing on its stamps, euro coins and official seal. We’ve learned that the first use of Marianne as a symbol of France was in a song of the revolution (la Guérison de Marianne), composed in 1792 by the cobbler-poet Guillaume Lavabre – a native son of Puylaurens. Who knew?

The weather has been gorgeous during our stay in this little town: a mix of sun and clouds (and just a little rain) and temperatures in the high sixties. We did a six-kilometer randonnée (a government mapped and marked hike through the rolling farmland hills), ran seven miles along the Canal du Midi (the plane tree-lined waterway built in the 17th century to connect the Atlantic with the Mediterranean) and have read for hours on the sun-drenched hotel patio. We’ve done our best to enjoy the warm fall weather before packing up and departing at 0 dark 30 tomorrow morning to drop off the car in Toulouse and catch the train to Barcelona.

As we prepare to leave France, Spain is slowly coming into focus. After all the picturesque medieval spaces we’ve stayed in over the past month, with the cold drafts and spotty Internet that come along with them, I actually told Joe something I never thought I’d say. When he was researching and Googling possible Barcelona hotels, I actually heard myself caution, “Remember, Joe, we want bright and modern. We’ve had enough atmosphere to last us quite a while.” Being on the road for this long can sometimes change your priorities.

Pictures of our adventures:

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