Hot, Hot, Hot!

It’s hot! Really, really hot! It’s so hot that friends in Australia are seeing stories on the news about how hot it is in France! The locals can talk about nothing but the extreme chaleur, unprecedented in their experience. The Carcassonaises are particularly frazzled because the only local swimming spot, Le Lac de la Cavayère, has been closed down due to an algal bloom outbreak, just has summer has arrived with a vengeance.

Le Lac de la Cavayère – no swimming!

Before the temperatures began to soar on Thursday, I continued my double regime of French class in the morning and writing in the afternoon and managed to push myself to 74,692 words before my attention was distracted by more exciting developments.

Old-fashioned roses – this week’s floral inspiration

My time as an authorial hermit was drawing to a close, and I was off to Marseilles to rendezvous with HWB. He flew in from Malta and I took the train. I’d love to say that we ran in slow motion towards each other and kissed passionately while he lifted me in his arms and twirled me round, but no. There was certainly some kissing, but it was way too hot to do any running or twirling. Despite the lack of rom-com action, it was a happy moment 🙂

Undaunted by the prospect of dissolving entirely in the heat, we gamely set out to explore Marseilles, the second largest city in France, and one which has a reputation as a gritty and edgy locale. We staggered through the sweltering streets and managed to take in the old port, Fort St Jean, the Cathédral de Major and the modern sea-front MuCEM before collapsing in a waterfront bar for a revitalising beer. Here, and everywhere we went in Marseilles, the vista was dominated by the famous hill-top Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, which is surmounted by a massive, golden statue of La Bonne Mère, the protective patron of the city. We caused significant amusement with our matchy-matchy yellow ensembles 🙂

Notre Dame de la Garde

On Saturday, unable to face another day boiling in the city, we decided to get out of town and visit the small seaside oasis of Cassis, about thirty minutes by train east of Marseilles. This picture post-card spot is most famous as the best place to go on boat adventures to Les Calanques. Plenty of other people had the same idea, and the town was thronged with overheated visitors dying to get in the sea for a swim.

Unlike Marseilles, Cassis is largely unspoilt, not having fallen victim to rampant development and mega population influxes. Its little u-shaped harbour is full of traditional fishing boats, whose skippers still sell their catch each morning on the quay.

HWB and I are both water babies, so of course we headed straight for the boating options. Our choice was a tour of three of the calanques followed by a swim beneath a remote and craggy cliff.

Happy sailors

The Parc National des Calanques stretches along the coast between Marseilles and Cassis and is littered with calangues – narrow, rocky coves or inlets which are accessible only by boat or via long hikes through the Parc. The limestone rock has been hewn into massive coastal cliffs – the tallest in Europe – and twisted into turreted towers and canyons that offer mouth-watering prospects for swimming, snorkelling and kayaking.

Calanque d’En-vau

Plunging into the Mediterranean for our cliff-side swim was heaven. Given that the mega-heat is anticipated to continue for the whole of the next two weeks I’m having my first regrets about Carcassonne’s inland location. More swimming on the Côte d’Azur has significant appeal right now.

Yesterday, HWB and I rounded off our reunion jaunt with another boat ride out to Château d’If, a formidable island fortress just off the coast of Marseilles Harbour. Those who’ve dabbled in French literature may recognise the name. It was the location where Alexandre Dumas imprisoned Edmond Dantès, the hero of his classic novel, The Count of Monte Christo. The 16th century castle did operate as a prison from 1580 to 1871, and was a favourite spot for the government to banish many real life political enemies of the state.

Château d’If

I enjoyed this literary excursion, but was battling with some subliminal authorial guilt. Observant readers will have noted that my previously mentioned word count of 74,692 is somewhat shy of my projected target this week of 80,000. However, due to the extraordinary circumstances of the reunion I have flexed my rules and am aiming to reach my writing summit by COB Tuesday, the day before HWB and I celebrate our wedding anniversary. If I bash away solidly, I’m confident I’ll get there, but I will be without the inspirational view from my window. The shutters are down and the fan is on …

Cranking Up …

It’s been a massive week here in Carcassonne – this whole experience is becoming richer, more exciting and more intensive as I travel along. I haven’t had a dull moment.

Last Sunday I took another of the excellent winery tours organised by the Office de Tourisme and as well as sampling some excellent vin, we visited a paper mill in Brousse which has been run by the same family for seven generations. The best bit, however, was that I met a fellow writer on the tour, Lainey Cameron, and we hooked up later in the week (more to follow).

The very lovely Moulin de Papier

I also began my intensive French language classes. After day one I thought I’d made a serious error of judgement. The assessment for the course was an online test, in which I think I performed pretty well as my capabilities for reading and writing French are reasonable. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for my comprehension and speaking skills and I feared I had been placed in a class far beyond my capacities. As the week went on, however, I gained confidence and ended up having a fantastic time with Dominique, the teacher, and my fellow students.

Ma Proffesseure et mes camarades étudiants

On Thursday we further enhanced our experience by undertaking a çours de cuisine français at a gorgeous boutique hotel called Métairie Montplaisir, about fifteen minutes from Carcassonne. Not only did we learn some secrets of cuisine nicoise with our host and enstructress, Amélie, but we got to eat the products of our labour. Yum!†

Le chef!

All this Frenching was heaps of fun, but it significantly increased the pressure on my writing targets. Despite being in class from 9 am. to 12.30 p.m. each day – and losing all of Thursday with the cooking adventure – I have ended the week only 509 words short of my target of 10,000. Yep, I’m very, very close to 70,000 words – which seems incredible – and am now on the homeward run.

The other factor that seriously disrupted my creativity was that I had bad news from home that my gorgeous cat, Bentley, was having seizures. For a couple of days we feared the worst, but my dear friend Hannah, and our lovely Narooma house-sitters have done a valiant job of caring for him, and we are now cautiously hopeful that he will be OK. It was, and remains, agony being here and not being able to look after and reassure him. Bentley’s illness has triggered my first and only bout of serious homesickness.


Friday 21 June is officially the first day of summer here in France and Carcassone celebrates by putting on a Fête de la Musique, with dozens of acts covering the spectrum from traditional and classical to hard rock and jazz. Lainey and I met up in the Place Carnot and had an excellent time sharing our writing experiences while the music and dancing flowed around us, before we bumped into Dominique and her husband Luc, and fellow student Brigitte. It wasn’t planned but we all ended up in my apartment listening to Edith Piaf, drinking wine and laughing and conversing en français. After so long hermitting in my eyrie, this was French living! My only wish was that HWB could have been there to share the fun. It’s not long now ’till he returns from Malta …

Yesterday, I rounded off a huge week with a day trip to the beautiful small city of Perpignan. This town was the capital of the Kingdom of Majorca during the 13th century, and it has a strong Catalan flavour to this day.

Palais des Rois de Majorque, Perpignan

I had another fix of castles, towers and markets, with a delicious lunch in the Place de République, and came home exhausted but happy. Once again I have to report something that I never thought I’d say, and it’s that I am suffering from spiral, stone staircase fatigue. The hoof to the top La Castillet did reward me with fabulous views over the old town, but I reflected that I was glad to have been born in the age of the elevator. The endurance of the climb, however, remains a strong metaphor for my writing journey. I just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Spiral fatigue

At the Moulin de Papier, my eye was caught by this citation from philosopher, writer and composer Jean- Jacques Rousseau, printed on a sample of the artisnal paper produced by la famille Durand. It pretty much sums up what I feel right now. I am replete with potent experiences that will stay with me forever, whether or not my literary output sees publication.

The person who has lived the most is not the one with the most years but the one with the richest experiences.

Throughout July, my town has a massive month-long party, Le Festival de Carcassonne. There will be hundreds of concerts and live music pretty much the whole time, and the town is dressing up for the festivities. With only one more week of writing to go, I’m looking forward to joining in …

Preparing to celebrate …

Hitting My Stride …

It’s Saturday night here in Carcassonne and I’m sitting back with a glass of wine feeling pretty pleased with myself. I’ve just clicked over 60,000 words – three quarters of the way up the mountain- and I’m hitting my stride.

It’s been a week of solid pegging away at the keyboard, trying to claw back the two days I lost last week. I’ve got there and can now abandon all care and enjoy the gratifying sensation of hitting my target – before I start up again on Monday.

Tomorrow I’m off on a winery tour organised by the local tourism authority – a treat I discovered last week when I visited Vignobles de Carsac and Chateaux de Serres. It was a great day out taking in the wineries, two abbeys and a delightful cruise around the countryside beyond the town – something I haven’t been able to do up until now being sans car.

The first abbey we visited was St Hilaire where I discovered a little known but fascinating factoid.

Cloister of St Hillaire

You may have heard the story of how champagne was invented by a Benedictine monk called Dom Perignon. ‘Tis false. One hundred years before the fizz was popping in Champagne, the monks of St Hilaire discovered the secret of the magical brew. They call it blanquette de limoux and it happened in this cellar:

Birthplace of bubbles

It is even said that Dom Perignon visited St Hilaire to learn the secret and exported his newly acquired knowledge back to the north. Such questions raise heated debate in France where each region is fiercely proud of their spécialités.

From Limoux we travelled up to the Cabardes region where we dropped into the Abbey of St-Martin-le-Vieil, a ruined Cistercian house now in private hands. It was delightful, but I suspect that by the end of this trip even I – an inveterate history lover – will finally have achieved a surfeit of abbeys. I’m beginning to become blazé about cloisters.

The biggest treat of the week came on Thursday. I’m a huge fan of the author Kate Mosse whose historical novels are set in Carcassonne. In fact, her vivid descriptions of life in La Cité and La Bastide significantly influenced my choice of authorial location. I knew that Moss usually spends her summer months here and I’d been fantasising about meeting her, having a coffee and sharing my writing experience with her. One night I even went so far as to Google-stalk her, trying to work out a way to make contact.

So I was beside myself with excitement when I discovered she would be in town doing a book signing at Librairie Breithaupt. Champing at the bit, and clutching a copy of her latest offering, The Burning Chambers, I fronted up to meet the object of my adoration.

The very lovely Kate Moss

Our meeting was brief, but I was able to tell her about my Carcassonne sabbatical and my hopes of meeting her. I even confessed that I have a further fantasy where one day we sit on the same panel at a Writer’s Festival discussing the tribulations and triumphs of writing.

The poor woman must be continually pestered by aspiring writers but she was most gracious, even noting the ‘off chance’ of our meeting on a panel in the inscription she wrote in my book. I could see she secretly thought I was delusional but, dear readers, I have the temerity to believe that one day I will sit on that panel and when I do I’ll whip out my copy of The Burning Chambers and watch her eyes bug out.

Her final injunction to me was ‘keep writing’. And I will …

Step by step …

A Social Whirl…

After living absolutely alone in a state of Trappist seclusion for two weeks, I broke out into a round of social gaiety this week. It started with a nice long Skype chat with my fellow aspirational author, Fontella, who buzzed me on Sunday. It was pure pleasure being able to talk through the highs, lows and dilemmas of writing with her, and to hear a chirpy and encouraging Australian voice. Not that I’m not loving my French immersion experience, but there’s only so much conversational satisfaction to be gained from purchasing baguettes, cheese and coffee.

My second treat was a surprise meeting with HWB’s uncle and aunt who were visiting Carcassonne for a day as part of a Lions tour. We had a delightful lunch up in La Cité where I caught up on all the Maltese family news.

Then on Monday I jumped on the train to Moissac, a small town about an hour north of Toulouse, to meet up with dear friends who are walking the Comino. Sue, Jim and Lyn live in Melbourne, and Sue and I find it hillarious that the last three times we’ve caught up it’s been on the other side of the world.

Jim, Sue and Lyn

These intrepid travellers are walking more than 800 kilometres across France and they had just reached their midway point in Moissac. We had a wonderful time recounting our adventures, and realised we were all half way up our respective mountains. I love a nice long walk, and have had my own daydreams about walking to Santiago di Compostella, but committing to stomping upwards of 30 km per day, every day for 40 days boggles my mind. Sue says that writing 2000 words a day boggles hers.

Moissac was thoroughly charming, and the Abbey of St Peter was particularly evocative. It has the oldest enclosed cloister in the world and it remains a key destination for avid pilgrims. The achingly sweet sound of the nuns singing vespers in the cathedral will remain with me for a long time.

St Peter’s Cloister

Apart from the pilgrims passing through, Moissac is a quiet place, delightfully free of tourists and retaining all of its local, Garronnese charm. Its best gift to me though, was the lavish encouragement that Sue, Jim and Lyn bestowed upon my writing endeavours. It’s impossible to believe in failure when you’re given that kind of boosting. Thanks guys!

Pont-Canal du Cacor

Last night I really lashed out, and made my way up to La Cité once again, this time to see a concert in the Basilica of St Nazaire and indulge myself with a meal at one of the citadel’s restaurants. I may have had a moment of pensive reflection, wishing that HWB could have been there to share the experience, but when you have a view like this one with which to beguile your dining pleasure you can’t remain pensive for long.

Port Narbonnaise

The concert was a performance by the Cosaques de Kouban, a quintet of astonishingly talented singers/musicians who are all alumni soloists of the Red Army Choir. The Russians are the masters of melancholia and I was brought to tears by several of their more mordant laments. But then they’d switch to their roistering, jocular, exuberant alter-egos and I was grinning like a loon and swept up in a hand-clapping, foot-stamping frenzy. It was fantastic.

Check out that bass balalaika!

So, did I find any time for writing amidst this social whirl? Indeed, I did, with one rather significant glitch. On Tuesday, as I was heading back to Carcassonne on the train, I started feeling distinctly unwell. By 7 p.m. I was in the throes of a full-on gastro-spew assault – the less said the better. Since I was completely destroyed on Wednesday I had a daunting 3700 words to make up and though I’ve pegged away solidly and added an emergency Saturday session I’m still 1900 words short of my weekly target. Solution? I’ll just have to crank it up next week to 2500 words per day.

I finished my week with a visit to Église St Vincent, my local bell-chiming church which had a special annual open day allowing access to the bell-tower and roof-top eerie with stunorama views of La Bastide and La Cité. The bell-tower, I learnt, has 47 bells, so it’s not surprising that it can put on such a great show. As I plodded up the 232 perilous steps of the spiral stairway, worn into ruts by the footfalls of the faithful, I was reminded that I just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I will reach the top …

Keeping on climbing …

Half Way Up The Mountain …

After four weeks of furious writing I’m thrilled to report that I’ve hit the half-way mark of my writing journey – 40,604 words and counting! Only a month ago I had an idea for a story and a head full of dreams and today I have half a book beaming at me from the computer screen. The only thing I have to do now is repeat the whole process – easy!

Actually, of course it’s not easy. I did manage to recover from my Narbonne-induced melt-down last week by doing extra writing on Saturday and Sunday, but then the wretched lethargy hit me again on Monday. Cue round two of writhing guilt and misery and the need for another big haul on the bootstraps. I’ve had to bash out 2500 words for each of the remaining days this week to get myself back on track but thankfully the spirit moved me, and I have been able to enjoy this weekend off remorse and fancy-free.

With the Ascension Day holiday on Thursday, summer has officially arrived in Carcassonne and I had a perfect day for my Saturday ramble along the Canad du Midi to Trèbes.

Happy camper

The canal, which was built between 1662 and 1681 by one Pierre Paul Riquet with the backing of Louis XIV, aimed to link the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. They didn’t quite get all the way, but today the canal is a UNESCO-listed treasure, travelling 241 km from Toulouse to Étang de Thau on the coast. It is hugely popular as a holiday destination for barge/boat enthusiasts, cyclists and walkers – and a welcome verdant escape for one very happy writer based in Carcassonne.

Port de Carcassonne

The path along the river passed ports and locks, vineyards and farmsteads and each turn of the river revealed new vistas of delight. As a bonus, three hours of steady tramping allowed plenty of time for teasing out plot twists, toying with dialogue and planning out my writing for the next week.

Back at my desk, my view has been enhanced this week by a beautiful fuschia. I’m still indulging in my weekly bunch of flowers from the market, but I’m enjoying tending this living plant that is blooming before me as my book blooms under my busy fingers.

It is still a daily wonder to me that I’m here and living this life in Carcassonne. The reality is every bit as wonderful as the visions I nurtured in planning this adventure. Every day is painted with bright vivid colours, new impressions and experiences and I’m humbly grateful for this incredible opportunity live my dream.

One of my father’s favourite quotes was from Tennyson’s Ulysses:

I am a part of all that I have met; 
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ 
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades 
For ever and forever when I move. 

My Carcassonne experience is building new layers of my self, and I am stepping eagerly through the arch each day …