This is a continuation of a slightly longer blog post about a recent trip of mine to Carcassonne in France. You can find part 1 here.
I left off gushing about jousting. It was awesome. That was the Wednesday. On Thursday, I generally just pottered about. I sent postcards, bought trinkets and went on a boat tour of the Canal du Midi. It’s the Panama Canal of Europe, connecting the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. It was rather dull. The Bridgewater Canal is more scenic, and if a body of ‘water’ that oozes through Warrington bests southern France, you’ve got some problems… That afternoon though, I happily discovered my old job had paid me exactly twice what I was expecting as a final salary, so I immediately booked an extravagantly priced guided tour of the Aude countryside. The nice tourist office lady wrote down four different spellings of my name before giving up: “Trop compliqué. In this, you are Alex. D’accord?”
In the evening, I wandered up to the Spanish Feria festival. All the local businesses were running little food stalls, so I ended up gorging myself on tapas from one run by a gymnasium that seemed to have based its costumes on those of the Power Rangers. I didn’t care. They had sangria. I’d only planned on staying an hour or so, but then the band started up. Full brass, strings, funk rhythm section, five rotating lead singers (one, if my rusty French understood correctly, from the French version of The Voice) and even a gigantic bald French conductor. Brilliant. They started out with French songs, then moved into Spanish, then English. Three sangrias in, they played a Stevie Wonder five-song medley that segued into Earth, Wind and Fire. Unreal.
I swayed off at midnight on a gentle tide of sangria. I meant to go home, but Carcassonne had other plans. I was sidling past a pub where two musicians were setting up when I saw they were having technical difficulties. Normally, regular Al causes anything electrical to spontaneously ignite by sheer proximity, but apparently Sangria Al is a technical wizard. I fixed it, and as they swayed back into focus, I realised they were the buskers from the day before: an impossibly Dutch-looking couple who looked so alike I assumed they were siblings. But no, Michiel Schotanus and Lisanne de Jong, duo extraordinaire. Insane harmonies. They’d gotten one of only ten busking licenses dished out a year by la Cite, and had come over for seven weeks to camp and to play. They were brilliant, and the fools even let me play a few songs between their sets. When I finished, two things happened. First, the even more foolish bar owner invited me back to play a more fleshed-out set with Mike and Lisanne the next day, and second, a French lady sauntered over and immediately introduced herself rather knowingly as a ‘Desperate Housewife.’ I did my best impossibly possibly Hugh Grant impression until she buggered off. Terrifying.
The final day was the all-day tour. We went first to a village called Villerouge-Termenès to see a castle where the last ever Cathar was burnt at the stake (go Catholic church), and then to a town called Lagrasse with a 10th century abbey. As we wandered, my guide bemoaned all the tourists, quoting a friend: “the only French people in Lagrasse are in the cemetery.” My tour guide. Irony gods. But then she took me wine tasting, so I forgave her.
The winery was called the Château Villemagne – in Latin ‘the big villa,’ after the Roman house which previously stood there – and I thought we’d get one red, one white, one rosé then be booted unceremoniously out the door. Oh no. I actually lost track of how many we got: before dinner wines, after dinner wines, a specialty called ‘Blood from the Stone’ (tastes like wine mixed with whisky gasoline), identical wines from consecutive years to highlight the subtly different tastes (by this point: not a chance), award-winning vintages: we drank it all. And it was goooooood.
I was tenderly deposited back in Carcassonne in the evening, after which I toddled off to get some food before heading back to the pub. What a way to finish the holiday. By night’s end I was on guitar, Michiel was singing, and a huge ragtag crowd were shouting requests at us in six different languages. I played ‘em, Mike sang ‘em: we were there all night. There was even a pint glass for tips, and Mike & Lisanne kindly (moronically) split it with me. I went to bed forty euros better off than when I’d walked in. I also got an offer of free room above the pub any time from the owner, so long as I play. Yes, yes, yes.
Then I went to bed. Then I went home. Best holiday of my life.