A friendly and forgotten part of the south
of France called Le
Roussillonin langue doc it means the red landsparkles
with ruined castles and Romanesque cloisters tucked into vineyards
and orchards. Hilltop villages are far removed from the crowded
beaches below. Summertime visitors rent Gîtessmall
inexpensive apartments or houses that have been restored as a
way of bringing money back into the largely empty region. Last
summer I took some old friends to a Gîte in the tiny village
of Le Vivier (population no more than 50 in the winter) with its
own hilltop castle ruins located high in the rolling hills of
the Fenouillèdes in the eastern Pyrenees.
Our apartment, made over from an old sheep barn, was on the edge of the village on a street that led up into the mountains. From its garden, we could look across a little mountain stream at a friendly horse, or up at the jagged, broken towers of the lord of Le Viviers long-abandoned 14th-century residence. A network of narrow roads wind up and down the vineyard-covered hills, connecting one village to another. Each village has its own distinctive character.
The church and cloister of St. Michel are a mile south from Prades on the road that leads up to the great mountain looming over the town of Le Canigou. Built of an unusual rose marble from a single local quarry, it was a prosperous and important religious center until the French Revolution when all monasteries were closed and emptied of their treasures. The remains of St. Michel, including the carved capitals of its magnificent rose marble cloister, were scattered throughout the region. Then, in 1907, an American sculptor, George Grey Barnard, saw a number of its marble pieces lying around Prades in private gardens. He told the New York Rockefellers, who in 1925 bought as many of them as they could cart offto form the crown jewels of a new museum, The Cloisters, that the Metropolitan Museum was putting up at the tip of Manhattan.
The mayor of Prades discovered the sales and stopped them. The Rockefellers, however, were not daunted. To finish the job they mined a load of pink marble from the same quarry, took it to New York, and had it carved to complete the perfect square that was once the cloister. Now, St. Michel de Cuxa is in two places: in its natural home in the Pyrenees and high on a hill overlooking the wide Hudson River.
Renting a Gîte in France
Visit the excellent official Gîtes
de France website for more extensive information about
all possible bookings using its search capabilities. Weekly
rentals average from 400 to 1000 euros per week ($440-$1100),
depending on size, location, and season. Off-season deals should be explored in the often-pleasant weather of early Spring and late Autumn, especially since there are so many other advantages to spending time in France with fewer tourists and greater interaction with locals living more normal day-to-day lives.
PIERRE EPSTEIN, an actor
and writer, was born in Toulouse, and has lived and traveled
all through southern France.