I’m dividing the last two weekends into separate “journal entries,” one for each, since I have gotten behind on updating you, my wonderful family and friends both in the US and elsewhere, of my most recent travels.
During the first full week and a half that I spent in Toulouse, I found myself beginning to establish a daily routine and having to make a conscious effort to see the sights off of the “beaten path” of the commute to the conservatory, boulangerie, or grocery store. It’s amazing how quickly I can fall into a pattern in a new place—or even in a new country! I also successfully opened a bank account, auditioned for and was accepted into the conservatory on organ en perfectionnement, and had my first organ lessons (on Widor and Vierne) in St-Sernin—what a dream!
This newfound comfort within the city was broken up by an incredible trip of only three days (September 18-20) into the French countryside in the Midi-Pyrénées. I took a train from Toulouse to Cordes-sur-Ciel, a town constructed in a mere eight years by a Toulousian count in the early 13th century as a place to protect his Catalan people from the attacking French during the Albigensian Crusade. At the station, I was greeted by an Oberlin alumna and her husband who, amazingly, live a mere hour and a half outside of Toulouse. They were already showing yet another Oberlin alum around their favorite haunts. Where two or three Obies are gathered…
We explored this part of southwestern France, seeing places I never would have otherwise, including Nejac, yet anther medieval town, and Villefranche sur Rouergue, where I met the organ at the Collégiale Notre-Dame, which was first constructed 1506-1508, essentially replaced with a new instrument in 1626 by Claude Guillemin, and worked on later by both Pujol de Montauban and Théodore Puget in the 19th century and Maurice Puget in the 20th. It was such a thrill to play this stunning instrument between visiting these amazing places.
Châteaux, whether large or small, are as common as rolling hills in this part of France, since nearly every spot of high ground has one. They appear around every corner as you drive through the countryside, each featuring a unique history. We visited one where Queen Margot apparently stayed for a single night in September 1585. The whole château was filled with objects with unlikely stories behind them, including a mammoth tooth, dinosaur bone, and an early 16th-century Bible that was set out in the open air to be thumbed through as the visitor desired.
The marchés (markets) in France are truly something to be witnessed. In Toulouse, I have discovered a huge fruit and vegetable one that is completely overwhelming. I brought home the best mango and strawberries I think I have ever had. However, the marché at St-Antonin sur Val was another thing entirely. The center of this smaller French town bustled with tens of vendors selling meats, cheeses, wines, condiments, fruits, vegetables, coffees and teas, baskets, bonbons (candies), and even more. I left with three kinds of goat cheeses (from the vendor whose goat farm we visited only the day before!), a delectable mustard à l’ancienne (tastes like Dijon, but is not made in Dijon), and three kinds of saucisson (dried sausage, although if you ask three Frenchmen to tell you the difference between saucisse and saucisson, you will likely receive three different answers).
For a first trip to the French countryside, this was more than I had ever dreamed.