As in the US, there are many foods associated with the traditions of Christmas in France. In our experience with friends the big feast has always been dinner on December 24 that begins with oysters and often foie gras and always served with champagne. Roasted turkey with chestnut stuffing for the main course and it wouldn’t be dessert without the Bûche de Nöel, that cylindrical cake beautifully decorated as a yule log. If you’re in Provence you’re likely to see 13 additional after-dinner sweet treats including dried fruits and nougat. In our house, especially if we’ve partaken in one of those bountiful Christmas Eve banquets we take the next day off from the dining table, preferring to have “small bites” in front of the fire. We then spend the day reading and today it will be with some of the following books to help us answer, “Where do we go on vacation next?”
Visits to Christmas markets have been an important part of our vacations in Europe since we first started coming here 30 years ago. An Internet search on the subject turns up numerous websites detailing “the best…iconic…top 5…the most magical” markets in more than a dozen countries, most of which we’ve had the good fortune to have seen. Even with some health restrictions in place last year we were able to spend time in 3 northern French cities decked out for the holidays. This year, after some incredible vacations in Spain, Switzerland, and Ireland we’ve decided to spend Noël right here in Carcassonne. As Bing Crosby sang in 1943, “Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams, I’ll be home for Christmas”.
Prior to visiting this port city in Normandy, our only connection was through the 1964 musical film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that starred Katherine Deneuve. We had gone there to catch a ferry the next day to Ireland so we had the afternoon and a morning to learn more about why the Vikings were attracted here in the 9th century. Those Scandinavian conquerors sailed into what would eventually become the world’s largest artificial harbor, a fact that would centuries later draw the attention of the British during the 100 Years’ War followed in World War II by the Germans and then the Allies who freed the people on June 30, 1944. Sadly, all of these wars destroyed a major part of the city; however, the history remains and we were happy to trace some of it simply by wandering the ancient streets.
The last time that Bill started a sentence with, “Let’s…” you can tell what happened by the title of our blog. His most recent suggestion using that word did not involve an international move; simply a train ride up to the capital and a couple of nights in a hotel. It only takes about 5 hours to go from downtown Carcassonne to downtown Paris and with our Senior railcards the one-way fares can be as low as 26€ in 2nd class or 30€ in 1st. Once you’ve arrived there’s a choice of 1600 hotels and 44,000 restaurants so something to appeal to anyone’s budget. With all of those advantages it was easy to say, “Let’s go!”
Long before we knew that we’d be retiring in another country, we looked across much of the US for the ideal place to settle. One option that we considered was a university town where we anticipated the excitement of a diverse environment, i.e., lots of different people with a range of ideas all open to discussion. Our visits to cities like this had shown us endless dining opportunities, a multitude of community events, concerts, films, plays, and art shows, plus—vital for us—being pedestrian friendly since we wanted to live without a car. That was a good idea as was our consideration of a beach house, living by (or floating on) a lake, or even going on-the-road full time in an RV as Bill’s parents had done for years. Then the possibility of retiring in Europe took the lead and here we happily are in a house that’s not on the water in a city that doesn’t have a university. Those thoughts persist, however, so when our local newspaper published an article called “What are the cheapest university towns in France?” I wanted to take a look.
If your town had been attacked 25 times over the centuries you would definitely want to surround it with solid stone walls (entrance photo here) which is exactly what the Romans did 2000 years ago. Charlemagne expanded them in the 800s, then they were enlarged in the 14th century, and now thanks to some recent restoration work, we were standing on the walls (photo across the top) that still encircle most of what was the medieval heart of Girona, Spain. That’s where we began our walking tour of this capital city that has attracted so much attention from so many potential conquerors including Napoleon Bonaparte.
During the last few years that we lived in the US, we entered a lot of different sweepstakes, as in 400 a day. These were all online so with a push of a button we could autofill each entry form and in a few seconds we were on to the next one. As you might expect, with that many daily entries our chances of winning something were pretty high. Most mornings there would be a “Congratulations!” email announcing our latest prize which was often a candy bar, a music download, or movie tickets but every week or so we’d get gift cards, cash, or trips. One especially festive weekend we scored vacations in New York, New Orleans, the Caribbean, and Paris. By the way, we had to pay income tax on all of those, but it was worth it. Although not as popular here, there are a few sweepstakes in France and a few weeks ago Bill got one of those “Félicitations!” emails from SNCF, the national railway of France, that he’d won 2 First Class tickets to Figueres, Spain. We were off to visit the birthplace of artist Salvador Dalí.