A little delayed again, but onto the second part of our holiday:
We arrived in the fetid heat of Toulouse station in the dead of night and were whisked away through dark country roads and sleeping villages towards the Black Mountains.
And the house of our next family friend.
It was only by the light of the next day that we got to properly appreciate the place.
An old mill by the river Sor, black and white marble floors, roughly hewn wooden ceilings, numerous bedrooms and a terrace shaded from the worst of the summer sun by a plethora of bright, orange-flowering trees.
The constant song of rushing water as it pushed its way over the little dam, innumerable wasps flicking under the eaves, menacing. Spiders galore to eat the bugs thriving on the water side. Carp the size of large dogs frolicking. And through it all the ‘pop’ of corks being pulled from bottles of chilled wine. Lovely.
Our host was wonderful and even after a few days it felt like we’d been living there for months. We had a whole lot of fun times together.
She’d hired a car, a little silver box from the local supermarket, to ferry us all around.
It was good to be relaxing in the countryside, but strange to feel so isolated and reliant upon a chauffeur. The undulating hills of the Tarn Prefecture were covered in fields of sunflowers and corn, scattered with little villages, and everything spread out beyond the wheels of the little car.
We went to Carcassone, the fortress city clinging to the top of its steep hill, the blue slate roofs a fairytale anachronism from its 19th Century restoration. The thick stone walls of the castle baked in the summer heat and the winding streets within the defences thronged with crowds of pink faced, happy tourists. We took a beer in a quiet courtyard shaded by an enormous chestnut tree that must’ve been several hundred years old, the tiled floors of the cafe scuffed by centuries of footsteps. We passed a crazy Spaniard dragging her black cat along by a rope, the poor animal’s claws scraped along the cobbles and its tongue lagged from its poor little mouth. We wanted to report her to RSPCA or something but didn’t know how. The shop windows were filled with wooden swords and toy knights, a 12 year old’s dream.
We went to Albi, a red brick city of winding streets and the most incredible cathedral – a leviathan of red bricks, a holy fortress soaring above the medieval alleys, grim and severe from the outside a stupendous feast of colour within. Every inch of the interior was decorated in medieval paintings and sculpture, the entire main wall behind the alter sporting a Flemish painting of Hell, Heaven and the place between; the bones of saints nestled in ornate golden display cases. We spent several hours with our necks craned, gazing in awe.
Albi was the target of the only Crusade directed (officially) against fellow Christians – the Cathar heretics – and the whole area is heavy with the bloody history. One of the priests leading the Crusade, when asked ‘how do we tell a Cathar from a Catholic?’ is reported to’ve replied ‘Kill them all – God will know his own.’. Gory stuff amongst the shady village squares and rolling hills of vinyards.
The Toulouse-Lautrec museum in the Bishop’s Castle, the vitality and freedom of his drawings still present so long after his death.
Lautrec itself, a quaint little hill town cascading down the slope, medieval houses crowding out the light in the narrow streets. A bar where a girl played piano accordion to the accompaniment of a tie-dyed hippy playing the jug. So good to hear live music in this half-abandoned little hamlet.
A barbeque at someone’s hilltop house, practicing our French, enjoying strong local reds and pungent cheeses with the natives.
Another little town, full of secondhand bookshops, a cool beer beneath the plane trees of the square, talking to an expat Welshman whose yellow skin and blackened teeth were incompatible with his professed 50 years.
Another little town, a covered market dating from the 15th Century, coffee with more expats – large and sweaty, you imagine them swatting at flies while Bogart sells them his bar in desperation.
Rowing a little boat down the river, no sound but the splosh of the oars and the soft buzz of insects; the water green, tranquil and so inviting.
Getting a little homesick as we discuss Melbourne with a new friend who will soon be heading there.
Visiting Castres, the town limp, languid under the incessant sun. The buildings facing the river like a little slice of Venice or Istanbul. The cathedral so cool and peaceful and covered in dust. We are the only two there, the cavernous space belongs to us, and our footsteps echo quietly as we wander through shafts of sunlight, gazing in wonder at all the glorious baroque ostentation.
Then the train trip home, the carriages clacking and clicking through the long night. We’re home, and for the first time in weeks we (kind of) know where a street leads, we can walk to the corner store or the bar and our ears are filled with the scream of traffic and such a density of people.