Tour du Tarn

The weekend came around, and my former host parents found themselves with an American to entertain, their daughters both back in Toulouse taking final exams.  So, we hopped in the car and took to the hills of the northwest Tarn.  The arrondissement of Albi is dotted with ancient ruins, and the first stop on our trip was the Commanderie de Vaour, founded by the Knights Templar in 1140.  Despite its old age, it remains a fantastic relic of feudal France, its history preserved in its gray limestone bricks.  We were lucky to be the only ones there to wander around the site, and supposedly in the 12th and 13th centuries, the commandery itself only hosted a dozen or so knights at any one time, serving as an agricultural center in the region as opposed to artillery stronghold.

Moving on through the Vallée de l’Aveyron et de la Vère, we stopped at nearly ever village that we passed:

Penne, whose rocky mountaintop fortress was striking in the distance;

Bruniquel, where we climbed steep staircases to reach its medieval castel;

Puycelci, who was as scenic on the drive up as it was from the top, looking over the Vère;

Castelnau-de-Montmiral, one of « les plus beaux villages de France », where we walked the ramparts and feasted like kings at La table des consuls.

Filets de rougets marinés à la betterave et au gingembre, arame, concombres et radis en salade.

Goatfish filets marinated in beetroot and ginger, and a salad of kelp, cucumber and radish.

Filet de flétan, jus aux asperges et piment d’espelette, fèves, carottes, petits pois et asperges.

Halibut filet in asparagus and espelette pepper sauce, with fava beans, carrots, peas and asparagus.

And the best part?  There are hundreds of tiny villages still to explore in the Tarn!  Ce n’est qu’un début!  En outre, I absolutely must visit Milhars, not only to step foot in a town whose name is nearly my own, but also to find out what on earth these “rural families” are selling at the expo vente!!  Il faut que j’y aille tout de suite!


Après-midi à Toulouse

The ever-diligent Maëlle soon needed to be back in Toulouse to finish up her revisions and sit for her exams, so I accompanied her for an afternoon around the city.  I was on my own for a while, following Toulouse’s narrow, colorful streets, before meeting up with Maëlle’s sister, Anna, and her mother for a scoop of ice cream at Place du capitol, followed by dinner a few streets away.  We ate pizzas at the same open-air restaurant that they had taken me to years ago, a fact that we didn’t realize until half-way through our meal; then we remembered that on that same trip to Toulouse, we ordered bowls of sorbet in the heat of the day at the same café.

In fact, for most of the day, I intentionally and unintentionally revisited many of the sites I most associated with Toulouse from my trip there at sixteen – la mairie, l’ensemble conventuel des Jacobins, a view of the Garonne from Pont Neuf.  But, walking about town, what I remembered best from that day was how exciting it was to be in an unfamiliar place, speaking a new language, meeting wonderful people, and realizing that travel would absolutely be a priority in my life.  Mercés, Tolosa, t’estimi!  I will always have fond memories of the former capital of Languedoc (langue d’oc!), and hope that I can make the trip back soon, per Tolosa totjorn mai!

Sainte-Cécile, part 2

The Cathedral is in no way Albi’s only attraction.  While I’m one to unabashedly insist that every corner and alley requires careful study and deserves thorough appreciation, you really need only to go around to the backside of Sainte-Cécile (for a fleeting moment, Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” played in my head – what brain, what??) to see another of the city’s best sites.  The garden just behind the church is exquisite – tasteful topiaries, statues with the perfect amount of moss growing on them, and fantastic views overlooking the Tarn.  And with the weather well into the 30s, I was thankful for the shade and happily passed a large part of the afternoon admiring the other side of Cécile.


After two long days spent wandering around town, it was just as nice to come back to a place I really considered a second home, with lovely people and lovely memories.  Also nice was the air-conditioning, as even in the month of May, Albi was sweltering by Nantes standards!

Things like the sunny view from my third-floor bedroom, pictured above, were just as I had remembered them seven years before; Maëlle and I still took breakfast in the kitchen – big mugs of tea, fruit, and muesli…though Nutella and toast were welcomed guests, too, just like when we were fifteen and sixteen.  Their home is such a pleasant place, full of travel souvenirs and family photos.  And the house itself has an interesting history.  Originally two units, they were bought together in a state of complete disrepair.  There were holes in the ceilings and birds living in the rafters (which, to Maëlle, who has always had an interest in ornithology, was actually a key selling point).  Fixing up the house required a huge amount of work, and a lot of it was done by the family.  And as their home was once two free-standing buildings, they chose to incorporate both of their styles – inside and out!  Brick walls from one unit are exposed in the other and make it a really unique place.  I’m glad that I’ve been able to spend so much time there and am looking forward to the day that I can welcome the Bujauds into my own home!

But until then, I’ll delight in stuffing myself full of the most delicious cherries I have ever eaten, harvested from the trees in their backyard, on those wonderful, rare days that I am able to spend in Albi with great friends.

Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d’Albi

Left to my own devices on my second day in Albi, my adopted hometown in southern France, I took to its rosy streets, down rue Timbal to rue Mariés.  At its base, in Albi’s old town, sits Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d’Albi, the huge (really huge) brick cathedral, which was recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It stands tall over the city, but narrow streets make it tough to see until you’re right in front of it.  Or maybe I was too distracted by so much of Albi’s lovely architecture and natural beauty that I didn’t I notice until Sainte-Cécile and I were face-to-face.

A path behind Sainte-Cécile follows along the Tarn and offers some wonderful views of the city.  I spent two hours on its banks, taking photos, taking a brief nap, taking un verre…And though I cringe to say it, c’est la vie!

Picking up

The time has come not for me to recognize that I’ll never be a half-way decent blogger because I lack the motivation, but instead to foolishly say I’ll give this whole thing one more try.  Four months ago, I was hoping to close the book on my year studying abroad, and today, there still remains much to be said.

At the end of May, once classes had ended for the year, I made quick plans to travel the six hundred fifty or so kilometers to Albi, in Midi-Pyrénées.  It’s where I spent one of my loveliest summers, living with a family eager to help timid, fifteen year-old me, far away from home, improve my French and appreciate life along the Tarn.  I said goodbye after a short three weeks, in much more fluent French than when I had met them, with a much deeper understanding of French life and a friendship with four of the most generous and kindhearted people I have ever known.  As Thierry, Elisabeth, Anna and Maëlle bade me farewell at the train station, I remember crying as I was handed a Nutella sandwich made on fresh brioche.  Nutella and brioche I love, of course, but I’m not particularly fond of goodbyes.

Luckily, I was eased by the knowledge that Maëlle would soon be joining me and my family in California for three weeks.  And luckier still, when my family was arranging travel plans for the following summer, we were welcomed à bras ouverts to add Albi to our itinerary, allowing both of our families to meet for the first time.

So I really shouldn’t have been so surprised when my host family invited me to come back to Albi for a visit during my year in Nantes.  I took the train, stopping briefly in Bordeaux, before continuing on to Toulouse-Matabiau, where I met Thierry and Maëlle on the station platform.  On the road to Albi, Thierry and I caught up while Maëlle, a serious veterinary student, studied for final exams in the back seat (la pauvre).  Once in town, I felt completely at home.  The following morning I set out on my own, sometimes knowing the way, sometimes getting lost.  The streets of Albi, la vraie ville rose, were warm and cobbled and led from one picturesque spot to the next.  I returned home just in time for dinner, fatigued but ready to head out and do some more exploring.