The Vacation, Part Two: Toulouse and the Languedoc
There's a practiced romance about France that's so suave and self-assured as to be intimidating. The most oft repeated association with Paris is love, after all. So while I felt both excited and oddly nostalgic walking through Paris, there was also a pressure building to maximize our experiences in such a short time.
In fact it wasn't until we left the harder greys and creams of the capital for the ochre and pinks of the south that we allowed France to have its way with us. Not soon after our arrival in Toulouse, Aus even wondered aloud if the trip was improving day upon day, or if it was just his image of it. A bit of both, I suppose. I also felt a little quieter and more relaxed.
It was with this general ease that we explored Toulouse. Aus even took to reading his book in and around its narrow, cobbled streets. In our two days there, we rode bikes around the twisted streets in Carmes and over the Garonne River and boated lazily down the Canal du Midi, listening to our guide point out buildings and historical things in excitable yet indecipherable French. We also spent a few hours wandering through the Victor Hugo covered market trying to decipher all the cured meats, jarred confit and mountain sheep's cheese. I think we'd all agree, though, that our dinner at Chez Navarre was the most unique part of the trip.
From Toulouse we rented a car and traveled south and east to the walled city of Carcassonne, which, while stunning, was filled with kitsch and sweet shops and more closely resembled Disney than any defense structure. Which seems appropriate, I suppose, considering it was restored in the mid-19th century to serve as a sort of historical monument.
From Carassonne we drove north through the Languedoc and into the conifer-covered Parc naturel régional du Haut-Languedoc. The hairpins sometimes made me feel queasy but the bright smell of conifers and the quaint hill towns like Olargues made it a highlight of the trip.
An hour or so before the sun was setting we came upon the Pont du Gard, a famous Roman aqueduct on the border between Languedoc and Provence. As we were rolling into the parking lot and people were streaming out of the place with beach towels and wet hair, we reflected on how cavalier of us it was to stroll up to such a famous site spontaneously and so late in the day. But one look at dusk climbing over those high stone arches made us especially glad we'd come. It's hard not to feel the weight of history while staring at something the Romans built 2,000 years ago. We lingered for a while, then finally made our way into Avignon and Provence.