On the evening before we left our rental near Mirepoix, as Gaston and I had supper on the terrace in front of the cottage, I watched the clouds drift from west to east across the southern horizon, picking up the blues and violets from the forest-shrouded hills. We hadn’t seen the Pyrenees since the evening we arrived: first the tramontane-driven rain socked in the valleys, and once that passed and the sun shone, humidity veiled the mountains. Occasionally you could make out dim outlines.

We got nice ganders at the midi-Pyrénées the morning we were in Tarascon-sur-Ariège. We were visiting the Grotte de Niaux, the only cave in France with Magdelena-era cave paintings (12,000 to 14,000 years) that the public is still permitted to see in the original. There are about 10 caves with artifacts or traces in the Tarascon area. The entrance to the Grotte de Niaux is at ~1000 feet above the valley, with views to the west. Sheer white limestone cliffs studded with conifers and hardwoods. And the air there: crisp and clear at mid-morning.

The cave paintings included some impressive, expressive bison, but were not nearly the colourful works of art that images from Lascaux in the Dordogne have created expectations of. The guide mystified us more than enlightened us: she had a canned talk and any questions from the group that delved deeper and required that she explain her statements—well, forget it: you were just going to be even more confused. The bison were nice though. And that the guide had the waxen, transparently pallid appearance of one who rarely sees daylight also led to some entertaining but quiet speculation. We decided, given our disappointing experiences in getting more information from her on other questions about cave dwellers, that we wouldn’t bring the subject up.

Perhaps she had been coated with her own layer of limestone slip. Mineral-based physical sunblocks are the new thing, after all. And certainly the water here in le sud de France contains sufficient lime to scale anybody nicely after a few weeks. The water at St-Gély was the hardest we’ve encountered: I couldn’t even get a lather up with that. It was less hard at Mirepoix. In Nézignan-l’Evèque, soap lathered, but more sediment was left behind. Paris leaves its own special imprint after a couple of showers. I suppose if we lived in southern Alberta, we wouldn’t even notice, but – oh – for the dulcet washes of west coast water.


Other than in Paris—where I suppose if you want to stay somewhere really nice, you just have to put up for paying correspondingly for it—we really lucked out on our rentals for the trip. We’ve determined from this experience that we prefer comfortable country living, with dark night skies, and quiet if any neighbours.

Living in small villages does mean limited privacy: you quickly get to know (by sight anyway) your neighbours on the street, what their daily patterns are, what music they listen to, and even what topics they discuss at the dinner table. In Nézignan, Gaston got in touch with his inner nosy Parker. He’s worse than madame next door. He would perch himself at the table by the window on the second floor and every time there was noise or movement on the street, he would stick his head out and find out what was going on: “Ah, madame’s domestic aid has arrived precisely on time this morning: I wonder what radio station she will be listening to this afternoon?”; “Madame down the street with the baby has just stepped out for her third smoke this morning: she doesn’t look happy today;” “Monsieur across the way slept in this morning: did you hear his big yawn? Oh, and there, you can see him through his second floor window in his PJs, scratching his belly;” “Monsieur, husband of madame with the baby, is out walking their pug. He went to the bakery and is bringing back today’s pain.” For more details on our Nézignan neighbours’ lives and habits, please contact Gaston directly.

Villages also mean church bells. Now, that sounds like it should be a charming and desirable thing to have where you’re vacationing. Well, in Nézignan, the bell would ring each hour twice: once on the hour, and then after a 30-second pause, again—just in case you had missed the dissonate, high-decibel, cracked-bell series of kuh-LANGs the first time round. Fortunately the dead of night also corresponds to the small-numbered hours, so the overall number of kuh-LANGS while you are trying to sleep in the bedroom at the very stuffy back of the 500-year-old, formerly part of the local St-John’s hospice, townhouse that continuously sheds stone dandruff from its walls and ceilings is less than during the day.

The apartment we rented in Paris partly shared a courtyard with a chapel, but they rang the bells only for service on Sunday morning, at a reasonable hour. Gaston who was determinedly sleeping in that day didn’t even hear them. However, the other courtyard that the apartment overlooked was also overlooked by tenants who had a big, noisy party on the Tuesday night/Wednesday A.M., and a dinner party above that part of the apartment on the Monday night. (Dinner starts at 9 A.M. at the earliest in Paris, so this event went on ‘til the wee hours.) That courtyard was also undergoing repairs to its ancient stucco as a result of wet damage, so at 7:30 every weekday morning, the clattering and pounding began. Fortunately, our bedroom, with its mattress that had never been flipped and that had been peed on by previous renters once too often was overlooking the chapel courtyard, so we had sleeping arrangement options: the folded up futon in the living room was far more comfortable, and I usually camped out there at some point during the night—unless the noise quotient was too high.