France Days 17 - 18: Bookish Toulouse + St. Cirq-Lapopie


Because I was in a hurry toward the end of my last post, I didn't tell you about the trip we made to the Toulouse branch of Palais des Thés and to another Toulouse tea shop called Lotus, or the fact that David was able to add to his already-sizable tea collection. It's very important to mention it here, however, because our second day in Toulouse was largely devoted to—you guessed it—books. I wouldn't want to give the impression that our destinations are all one-sided!

Because she is a woman after my own heart, Marie Christine greeted us at the door with, in additions to questions about which cheeses we'd tried so far on our trip to France, a pile of books for yours truly. It was based on conversations we'd had and on my France wish list:


  • Fatou Diome, Le vieil homme sur la barque: Marie Christine met the author of this slim volume at a wine and book festival this past year, and kindly had it autographed for me! Thanks, MC!
  • Alan-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes: I had never heard of this book before reading the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs, but it apparently fills roughly the same niche in France as To Kill a Mockingbird in the US: a beloved classic that everyone reads in middle school or high school. It was also the subject of a series of interesting posts by Amateur Reader recently.
  • J.M.G. Le Clézio, Désert: I've been meaning to read more by Le Clézio, especially after Claire's intriguing yet not altogether positive posts on The Prospector.
  • Marguerite Duras, Moderato Cantabile: Marie Christine doesn't share my utter fascination with Duras but was kind enough to put this aside for me. And acknowledges that it's worthwhile to read a nouveau roman every now and then. ;-)
  • Amélie Nothomb, Hygiène de l'assassin: Showed up on Three Percent's list of best translated fiction for the year, and sounded intriguing.
  • Véronique Tadjo, Reine Pokou: Recommended very convincingly by Jenny of Shelf Love, and also enjoyed by Marie Christine.
  • Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, L'Autre Rive: Something by Châteaureynaud also shows up on that Three Percent list, but this one is more controversial as Marie Christine has little use for it. We shall see where I come down.
  • Michel Erman, Le Bottin proustien: A handy little compendium of Proustian characters (and maybe themes?) to feed my preoccupation.
  • Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet: I've only read Père Goriot (and that in English), so looking forward to trying out more Balzac.
  • And lastly, a gorgeous book of photographs and meditations that's a gift for both David and I.
So generous! Thanks, lady. So, as if that weren't enough on top of my book-buying from Paris, the rest of the day yesterday was also devoted to books. We visited Toulouse's lovely Art Deco research library, where the parquet floors and 1930s stained glass were particular highlights (no photography allowed, unfortunately, though you can see a few images online). Then came a slight non-bookish detour in the form of Basilique Saint-Sernin, a lovely Romanesque basilica that was/is also an important pilgrimage site on the road to Santiago de Compostela. (NB: Ever since I lived for a summer near Santiago de Compostela 15 years ago, it's come up on almost every single major vacation I've taken, even those to such far-flung locations as New Hampshire and Australia. Odd!) The photo below was taken by David of the spire of St. Sernin when we returned there yesterday evening.


Marie Christine told us that the characteristic pink brick of Toulouse was less expensive and therefore less prestigious as a building material, so buildings made from white stone (which had to be shipped in from elsewhere) indicate wealth whereas the brick buildings are signs of more humble origins. The older parts of the basilica were built in stone, but funds ran short and the builders switched to brick, or a mix of brick and stone, at later stages of construction. It's interesting to be able to observe the difference in different parts of the building. In fact, one portal was never fully finished due to money shortages.


Another highlight of yesterday (taking things a bit out of order) was the covered market we visited, and the delicious regional dessert specialty we picked up there: a pastis gascon, which is a flaky pastry crust filled with apples that have been flambéd in Armagnac and covered with crinkles of a browned, buttery pastry similar to filo dough. Wow. Really good. If I am able to appreciate any food, it's dessert, and this was a winner.

We stopped by Toulouse's Mediathèque, an expansive and beautifully designed modern library (bibliothèque) that embraces all forms of media. There's a lovely periodicals reading room, a whole floor devoted to music in all different formats complete with listening stations (I saw 45s, LPs and CDs as well as sheet music; I don't know if they have cassettes or mp3 lending), and of course several floors of books, organized by subject. There are also community events and common spaces, galleries, etc.: a really cool resource for the Toulousians, who seemed to be taking good advantage of the place. And the whole building is laid out around a contemporary-looking spiral staircase, in wood and metal. Lovely.


But a particularly appealing destination for me was Gilbert Joseph, the multi-floor bookstore chain that features a great selection of both new and used titles. I was already a bit concerned about my baggage weight so I didn't expect to buy many books, but so many were gently used and inexpensive! And then Marie Christine got into a conversation with the soft-spoken clerk about which Gallimard editions were on offer for free with the purchase of two Folios, and he brought out a huge box and told us to help ourselves. "How many do we get?" she asked, and he shrugged and said to take however many we wanted. Fatal words.

  • Merlin l'enchanteur was one of the free titles I snatched up: it compiles medieval tales about Merlin from many different sources. I've only ever been exposed to these stories in Disney-fied form, so this seems interesting.
  • Marcel Proust, Du côté de chez Swann: Goes without explanation, since reading Proust in English was the reason I started studying French to begin with.
  • Albert Camus, La Peste: I read and loved this in English many years ago, so it's time for a re-read. Especially with my newfound love of Beauvoir and Sartre.
  • Jean Genet, Les bonnes: Genet's play was one of the inspirations for the Barak Marshall dance piece I wrote about just before I left on this trip, and I am curious to read anything that would open up new perspectives on that work.
  • Alfred Jarry, Ubu roi: For Amateur Reader's Anything Ubu Reading Opportunity, whose intro post I very fortuitously happened to spot while doing a drive-by of the internet yesterday morning.
  • Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Vol de nuit: Since Toulouse is Saint-Exupéry's adoptive town, I thought it was only right to pick up something of his.
  • Simone de Beauvoir, La force des choses, I & II: The third part of Beauvoir's memoirs, split into two volumes.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Huis clos, suivi de Les mouches (No Exit and The Flies in English.): I've actually already started this, and it's unexpectedly hilarious! Especially interesting having just read Beauvoir's accounts of the composition of both plays.
  • Pierre Arditi, Les répliques les plus drôles du théâtre: A fun little volume that was one of the freebies. Witty repartee from French cinema.
  • Raymond Queneau, Zazie dans le métro: Another dose of Oulipo fun, about which Marie Christine was very enthusiastic. Having heard a bit about the storyline from her, I can totally see why this one would win hearts.
  • Nathalie Sarraute, Le planetarium: November pick for the Wolves.
  • Guy de Maupassant, Contes de la bécasse: Another freebie, and I have never read Maupassant. And was intrigued by yet another interesting series of posts chez Amateur Reader.
  • Émile Zola, Le Ventre de Paris: Yet another freebie, and after being surprised at my love of Germinal last year, I couldn't pass it up.
  • Molière, L'ecole des femmes: Also free, and giant of satiric theater whom I have never read. You see my difficulty.
  • Georges Perec, Les choses: High on the list of possible recommendations for next year's Wolves reading, should we do it again.
  • Romain Gary writing as Émile Ajar, Pseudo: This is another one from the Three Percent list, and I was totally intrigued by the blurb at Yale Press: "The Prix Goncourt made people all the keener to identify the real "Émile Ajar," and stressed by the furor he had created, Gary fled to Geneva. There, Pseudo, a hoax confession and one of the most alarmingly effective mystifications in all literature, was written at high speed. Writing under double cover, Gary simulated schizophrenia and paranoid delusions while pretending to be Paul Pawlovitch confessing to being Émile Ajar--the author of books Gary himself had written."
Whew. We topped off the evening by Marie Christine kindly donating an extra carry-on in which I can tote all these books, and by dining out all together at a local restaurant called La Madeleine de Proust, which is cozily decorated with lots of vintage French toys, and whose excellent food extends far beyond shell-shaped sponge cookies. (I got a whole grilled bream, and David some lamb, which we followed by a molten chocolate cake with blood-orange ice cream, and a chocolate mousse respectively.) Délicieux!


After a bit of a slow start this morning, we were soon were bidding our generous hosts farewell and driving the extremely scenic route toward Rocamadour, our next two-night stop. Marie Christine packed enough sweets and savories with us for both lunch and dinner, so we meandered lazily through the countryside of south-central France, stopping for a picnic in a lovely town whose name I've forgotten, but whose center sported a little pond surrounded by stone benches, next to a structure that played the triple role of bus stop, telephone booth, and fireplace.


We then made our way to a scenic village suggested by Marie Christine: St. Cirq-Lapopie, which is nestled in the Causses du Quercy regional natural park. Perched on a hillside overlooking a river valley, it's hard to imagine a prettier place; the photo that opens this post is of part of the main village. We parked and strolled around the town, which David said made him feel like he was living in Tolkein's Shire. Adding to the feeling that we might all be hobbits was the unnatural size of some of the insects, notably this crazy moth. Large and hover-y enough to be a small hummingbird, it had long, thick antennae and an even longer, flexible proboscis. A small amount of internet research reveals it was undoubtedly a Hummingbird Hawkmoth: a suitably dramatic-sounding name for such a bizarre animal.


After a bit more wandering about the town (whose picturesque ruins reminded me forcibly of the Romantic poets, although in fact the most notable writer to live here was Surrealist André Breton), we headed back to the car. The remainder of the drive to Rocamadour was equally beautiful, being completely contained within the natural park, a land of green fields, red poppies, cliffs and caves. I'll leave Rocamadour itself for its own post, which it definitely deserves. One more shot from Saint-Cirq-Lapopie before heading to bed in preparation for another day of exploration.



  • Greetings Travelers,
    What a perfectly gorgeous place! Is the park where you went hiking? That moth is amazing and I'd sure like to know about the flower that delivered up dinner in such a spectacular fashion. And, the food you are describing...OMG! Especially the dessert in the photo above. We must see if a recipe can be found. I do believe the tea and books may crowd out what little room you still have in your condo....a house with space for a library and a tea room may be in your future. You two are quite the collectors.
    Love to you both,

    • We haven't done our big hike yet - that's tomorrow, and I'm psyched for it. Seems a perfect way to end our trip. Re: the dessert, I think one might be able to make a passable imitation of it with filo, although one shouldn't call it a pastis gascon if one did—"inspired by a pastis gascon," maybe. They are particular about their foodstuffs here!

      The very idea of another project the size of house-moving makes me shudder right now, but you may well be right.

  • Lovely post and quite interesting, I'll have to re-read it to let all the information sink down!
    And the moth is spectacular, in Dutch it is called the "Colibri butterfly", quite appropriate...

  • I'm trying to imagine a addition to your current abode, a mediateque (improved name for library), cantalevered out over the street. Oh, and with a cafe that serves only the finest teas from around the world, and madeleines and pastis gascon, served on that beautiful cloth that we catch a glimpse of in the photo. All the photos are interesting and well described.
    What a lovely park and charming off the beaten track village... and with picnics prepared by MC, almost too wonderful to be described.
    I loved reading about each book and sharing your excitement for every one of them.

  • You seem to be packing in more exquisite experiences into three weeks than seems possible by the laws of physics! I've never been to Toulouse or tasted a pastis gascon, but I can just about imagine it from your post. I'll be curious to hear your reaction to Pérec's Les Choses - I wonder if you will think it very dated or not? I can't decide myself. Thanks again for sharing all these delights with us.

    • Christine, I'm curious about the Perec as well - I read Life a User's Manual in English last year and loved it, but then a bunch of my blog friends read La disparition and didn't like it much. So the field is wide open on Les choses; I'll let you know! :-)

      And it was truly a gloriously full trip...I'll be mulling over our new experiences for some time to come.

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