For several days, Tom and I stayed in the Bird’s Nest, an upper room in Palais el Mokri, which is truly a palace, on a hilltop above the medina in Fès.
The view from our “dining room”
It was a little like staying at Miss Haversham’s place. Built in 1906 for the Pasha of Casablanca, his descendants are now restoring their magnificent inheritance, an enormous project, and renting out rooms on Airbnb. They’ll also cook for you, and bring very decent meals to your rooms.
The place is magnificent. Dilapidated, but magnificent – and worth every penny of the $23/night we spent to stay there!
The windows in our bedroom
Coming up the stairs into the Bird’s Nest
Doors in the Bird’s Nest
Looking out over Fès from our room. See the grass on the roof tiles?
Palais el Mokri is about a ten minute walk from the souks, museums, and restaurants of the medina, or old city, of Fès.
By early September, it became clear that the papers necessary for me to acquire dual Austrian/American citizenship, and in turn an EU passport, were not going to arrive before our Schengen visas ran out. I’d diligently supplied the set of required documents to the Austrian consulate in Los Angeles but at each step the rules seemed to change, and there were more hoops to jump through. Our 90 out of every 180 days spent in the Schengen area would be up by mid-October.
The Schengen Area is a zone where 26 European countries abolished their internal borders. It covers most of theEU countries, except the UK, Ireland and the countries that are soon to be part of the EU: Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus. Although not members of the EU, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Lichtenstein are also part of the Schengen zone.
Our 180 days began when our visitor visas were stamped on our entry to France in May to explore the possibility of living there. Every time you go through passport control, your passport is scanned and a computer tells the border agent your Schengen status, so there’s no getting around obeying the rules.
We decided to apply for long term French visas, and we booked a trip to Morocco.
Ocean view from Salé
Casablanca is a noisy, dirty, sprawling, port city in the midst of major reconstruction. We rented an apartment between the port and the center city, a few blocks from the area along the ocean where many big hotels have been built and many more are coming. We could walk to the old medina where we enjoyed an outstanding meal at La Sqala, and sat at a lovely cafe on a small park.
In front of Hotel Central in the old medina
Lunch at La Sqala
From cafe near Hotel Central, old medina
Though it rained a little, we walked for hours, checking out Rick’s Cafe, an elegant reconstruction of the movie set, and Le Cuisto Traditionel, an excellent traditional/modern fusion restaurant in the downtown area. We also visited the Hassan II mosque, which was incredibly enormous and struck me as soulless.
Le Cuisto Traditionel
Hassan II mosque
Mosaic tiling at the mosque
Next, we took the train to Rabat/Salé. Rabat is the capital of Morocco and Salé is the huge mostly residential city across the river from it, Oakland to San Francisco.
Our Airbnb apartment was in a middle class neighborhood in walking distance from the old medina, the ocean, and the tram to Rabat.
Tom relaxing in our spacious living room in Salé
Our street in Salé
Three flights up and down
Salé is clean, relaxed, and very friendly. The first afternoon we were there, we noticed some construction going on next door. From our fourth floor windows we could see a long tarp over the narrow street below.
That night – it was a Friday – a crowd gathered and a sound system was tested. It was a massive tent they’d set up. From 8 pm that night till long past midnight, our flat was filled with the voices of two men singing long, exquisitely beautiful prayers, interspersed with poetic speech. We fell eventually fell asleep, enchanted.
Morning view from our apartment
The next day was beautiful. We bought food at the neighborhood stalls and planned to stay at home, relaxing and cooking.
Vegetable stall around the corner
In the early afternoon, though, the tent filled up again, the sound system was turned up, and the celebration began. It was a wedding! The music was live and very loud. Western music would’ve been harder to take for such a long time, but still. In the late afternoon we took the tram into Rabat for a few hours. The routine noise of the busy city seemed wonderfully quiet to us.
When we came back and Tom peeked into the back of the tent.
The wedding went on till just before midnight. Clearly, everyone had a great time – even without alcohol!
Over the next days, we made friends with the cashier at the local grocery store, visited the old medina, and sat at a fish restaurant across from the ocean enjoying an enormous meal.
Old medina, Salé
Cart near the old medina, Salé
Wall around Salé
We also explored the beautiful city of Rabat, a stunning combination of ancient and modern. Such an adventure! And now we’re off to Fes.
Almohad necropolis – 12th century
At the gas station near our place
Entrance to Chellah: Phoenician, Roman, and Marinide ruins
old mosque near Roman ruins
Cats are everywhere. These are waiting for the remains of eels near the mosque at Chellah
Cordes-sur-Ciel was built as a safe haven for people who lost their homes in the nearby city of Saint Marcel, which was razed during the Albigensian Crusade. Said to be the first of the bastides, it has five walls built in concentric circles.
(More about the history of Cordes-sur-Ciel can be found here.)
A neighbor recently told us that the stone wall across from our home is the unfinished fifth wall. Indeed, our house is just below the Porte de l’Horloge, the eastern entrance to the medieval city, which is in the fourth wall, built between the 14th and 16th century. Our neighborhood, quartier du Barri, is a 17th century suburb of the medieval village.
Cordes sits on a rocky outcropping, and is entirely built of local stone: limestone, sandstone, and dolomite. The houses are stone and the streets in the medieval village are cobbled. Walls surround every garden and line every street.
There are walls upon walls upon walls.
Living without a car gives me plenty of time to appreciate stone walls all around. One of the most delightful things about Cordes is its authenticity: it looks like and is a place that has been continually inhabited since the 13th century. The walls reflect its history.
They bring me peace, connectedness, and a sense of stability. They are the keepers of the stories.
I never tire of their variety, their richness, their complexity.
In a village of art, the stone walls are perhaps the greatest art.
Most mornings I wake up before sunrise, open the shutters, roll out my rug and light a candle, and then do some stretches, breathe, and meditate for a while. When I open my eyes, the sun is up – or on its way up – and the view is so lovely, I try to save it in a photo.
These are some of the morning pictures I’ve taken. They begin in early August. The last one was taken this morning, the first day of fall.
Although it is a dog, a wonderful dog, who came to us almost immediately upon our arrival in Cordes, the village is better known for its cats.
Almost everyone in Cordes-sur-Ciel has a cat. And, like a mini-Istanbul, Cordes is home to many feral cats.
In addition to doing their regular work with the rodent population, these wild cats drink water from bowls left out for them and eat kibble sprinkled on people’s doorsteps. (Mocha is also a big fan of the kibble, and has to be convinced daily that it’s not for her.)
There’s an organization, Le Chat D’Oc, that catches, spays and releases, finds homes for, or keeps as many of the feral cats as they can, and individuals do their part, but there are still plenty of cats.
Mocha, at this point in her life, is a rabid cat-chaser. She’s not great with certain dogs either, but I haven’t seen a cat that doesn’t run from her yet. This one was coming up the Pater Noster stairway very confidently – until Mocha gave him the eye.
The next moment, he was gone.
Most of them keep their distance.
This guy, who lives along the footpath where we take our regular evening walk, has been getting braver daily.
I’m working on Mocha.
I don’t know how long I’ll be able to live here without a cat in the house.
Cordes-sur-Ciel, population roughly 1000, sits on a hill overlooking the valley of the Cérou, which flows into the Aveyron and then into the Tarn. Our house is on the south side of the hill; the Cérou is on the north. Just to the northwest of the village there is another even smaller village, Les Cabannes, though which the Cérou flows.
The Cérou in Les Cabannes
Les Cabannes, a fifteen minute walk from our house, is the home of the local quincaillerie, hardware store, a very important place when one is just moving into a new house.
At the post office, there’s a community center where you can print a page for 15 centimes, which makes getting a printer seem wasteful.
Tom enjoying a beer and the paper at the café in Les Cabannes
There’s also a bistro we like, Le Petit Café, with a dog called Luigi who’s in love with Mocha. This isn’t as endearing as one might think. Luigi is very passionate. He recently followed us to the post office with such enthusiasm that Mocha and I had to take refuge until the post mistress phoned the café to send someone to pick Luigi up. No one could come in or out of the post office until he was gone. Now one of us goes to the café in advance to ask them to hold onto Luigi while we’re there or when passing by.
About halfway between Les Cabannes and Cordes is our favorite grocery store, Prim’Frais,which specializes in local products. They have a nice selection of relatively exotic items, like fresh herbs, too.
Vegetables at the Prim’Frais
Lately, we’ve been going to Les Cabannes almost every day.
In addition to the Prim’frais, there’s a gas station along the way. The mechanic has a junk yard for parts, and an eye for interesting stuff.
There’s the nose and cockpit of a crashed plane for example:
Here’s what it looks like inside:
There’s also a Renault that’s been there so long it’s getting covered in moss.
And, if you take Rue des Tanneries home, you might see a goat or two!
The evening Tom and I returned from Le Havre with our rented van full of the boxes we’d shipped from Los Angeles, our neighbors Ann and Leif greeted us in front of our house with sad news. Andreas, the other newcomer to our neighborhood, a Swiss artist who’d also moved to Cordes from California, had died suddenly.
His dog Mocha was staying with another neighbor, Dominique, who couldn’t keep her until Andreas’s relatives came, which could be several weeks. Not only did Pompom the cat object, but Mocha’s barking was bothering Dominique’s guests.
When we saw that the address on Mocha’s address was Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA, the solution was obvious. Mocha would come to stay with us until Andreas’s family decided where she would go.
The next day, after we returned the van to Albi where we’d rented it, we picked Mocha up at Dominique’s house. Mocha was not happy. She didn’t want to stay with us. It was clear that she loved Andreas very much and was grieving deeply.
So, when Tom opened the door take some empty boxes to the recycling, she was out like a flash.
Naturally, she headed back straight to Andreas’s place. Tom and I managed to corner her briefly, but when a car went by and we had to alter our very strategically chosen positions, she took off again, this time down the street toward the bistro where Andreas, like most Cordais, liked to sit.
We had pictures on my phone, and people knew Mocha, but no one had seen her. She was spotted near Andreas’s place several times. We left a note with Tom’s French phone number on his door; people called, but no one could catch her. Pretty soon half the village was involved.
At 10:30 that night we heard voices in front of our house and looked out the window to see Leif, who told us that Dominique found Mocha sleeping on Andreas’s step, scooped her up, and now had her in her car. She’d be right over.
So Mocha came home. She had chopped sausage and a little duck for dinner. And she went to sleep on our bed.
Day by day she is becoming more accustomed to her new home. She no longer pulls on the leash when we go near Andreas’s house. She enjoys hanging out at the bistro, where she’s very popular.
And she loves being groomed! (Not so much the bath.)
But a long walk, table food, and sleeping on a good bed suits her very well!
Now we’ve heard from the family that we can keep her!
Thank you, Andreas, for this wonderful new family member.
Perhaps August is the most beautiful month of the year in this medieval village in southwest France, or maybe it only seems so because it’s the beginning of our new life here and we’re seeing everything with fresh eyes.
Either way, here’s a series of pictures from our first two weeks. A few, like the one above, were taken from our bedroom window first thing in the morning; the view is enchanting.
After dinner we usually climb the hill behind our house. This picture was taken about half way to the top.Our neighbor, Lilliane, who comes from Paris every summer, tells us the best restaurant in the village is at the Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes. Rochelle, Tom, and I sat on the patio there, shaded by a 300 year old wisteria, until a thunderstorm chased us inside. Even inside it was dramatic. As I took the last bite of my oeufs brouillé au truffes (the English menu called them “blurred eggs with truffles”) one of the tall casement windows blew open with a bang, startling everyone in the room.
Later we sheltered under the roof of Les Halles, the covered square at the top of the village, and watched as lightning lit up the sky above the museum of contemporary art, once one of the grand houses of the village.When taking the footpath from our house to the lower village, bring a bucket for all the wild fruit: blackberries, plums, quince, apples and grapes.
I think my favorite meal is soup, salad, and bread, with a Gaillac rosé.
One day we were greeted by traditional Occitan music and dancing when we got off the bus from Albi.
Another view from the window:
A doorway on our street:
After Rochelle left, Garrett, Chris, and Ed visited. Garrett cooked us a spectacular Sichuan Chinese meal.
A walk in the upper village:
And a visit to the Musèe Charles Portal, the history and archeology museum, which rises high above the western gate to the city, the Charles Portal.
Lace-making machinery from the early 20th century:
And more morning pictures:
Including some hot air balloons which floated gently over the village at daybreak.
One week into our sojourn in southwest France and we are awash in riches: we discovered the Saturday market and began the delightful process of meeting the neighbors.
When you live very close to the street in a small village and it’s warm enough to keep the windows wide open, it’s not unusual to hear a friendly “Allô?” from the front of the house. Friday morning it was our next door neighbor Simone, a charming 80 year old native Cordais, stopping by to introduce herself.
“Voulez-vous les arroser avec de l’essence? (Will you be watering these with gasoline?),” she asked, pointing to the shabby silk and plastic sunflowers I’d put in a blue pot outside the door. We instantly knew we’d love her, and I moved getting a live plant for that pot to the top of my mental shopping list.
That evening Simone came back and Tom invited her in for some chocolate and a glass of Pineau de Charentes, the popular French aperitif that came with our house. We sat at the table sharing and laughing till late.
Between her many funny stories and quips, Simone told us about Jean Jaurès, a socialist and anti-militarist hero born nearby, whose assassination in Paris in 1914 is often called the second assassination to cause the war. My kind of hero.
The following morning, Tom and I took our chariot de courses (wheeled shopping basket) down the hill early to avoid the crowds at the boulangerie. Days of the week not having fallen into place properly yet, we’d both forgotten it was Saturday, so we were surprised and pleased to see the center of the village overflowing with neighbors and goods.
The upper village rising above the market
$3.20 per dozen
Every variety of button
Baskets in all shapes, sizes, and colors
Dried fruits and vegetables
More of the same
The market offered an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, and dresses, hats, friperie (used goods), pillows and sheets, fabric and notions, even Chinese food, all set to lively Occitan music. It was very hard not to buy more than we needed.
Our friend Rochelle arrived just before lunch. After eating, we went up the hill, meeting my Instagram friend Lauren Clary in person for the first time, and then spending an extraordinary afternoon with the artist Jean-Jacques Enjalbert in his Anandamayi Ma exposition.
Three story obelisk from the base
In the evening, we found Simone and her small dog sitting on the bench in front of our house.
In no time a small crowd of neighbors joined us. I don’t have words for the pleasure I felt at finding such a warm welcome in this little village.
Tuesday was our fourth day as French homeowners and the first day all the shops are open after the weekend. It was also the last day we would have a rental car, so Tom and I went to Albi, a picturesque 20 minute drive from Cordes, to change the SIM card in his phone and set up French phone and Internet service. Coming from the US, we had the amusing idea that the task could be completed in one visit.
Turn out that in France, particularly in August, it’s more complicated than that.
For a start, to get a French phone number, you need a French bank account. Like many of the French cities we’ve visited, Albi’s central commercial district is largely closed off to cars and offers everything you could need, so we walked over to the Albi branch of the bank that also has a branch in Cordes.
In France, we discovered, an appointment is necessary to open a bank account. The Albi bank officer could make one for us in Cordes, but the next one available was on Thursday a week.
At the Albi branch, however, an appointment was available the following Tuesday. That seemed worth the bus trip, especially since we’d already found out that we’d have to return to the Apple store for a charger that’d had to be ordered. Tom said we’d take the Albi appointment.
The bank officer wrote down all the documents we’d need: passports, three months of bank statements from our California bank, proof of residency in France (which we already have – though how we got it so soon is another story), and several more documents that she kindly agreed to leave off the list, since we couldn’t possibly have them yet.
She’d also need our phone number, of course. It’s an American number, Tom said. But then the bank cannot call you to confirm! A French number is needed!
However, having already set a precedent regarding the missing documents, Tom was able to convince the officer to confirm the appointment right then.
Lesson learned: even when the red tape seems endless, a little dialogue goes a long way.
Credit goes to Tom’s excellent French, pleasant personality, and the willingness of the French to keep the conversation going and to negotiate.
It’s true we still have to go back to Albi in a week with the rest of the papers, and that surely won’t be the end of the steps we’ll have to follow – we’re told it takes about three weeks to get local internet and phone service set up – but Albi is such a beautiful place and I’m sure there will be other things we need that aren’t available here in the village, that I won’t mind going back.