Friday, October 21, 2016

The 'mystic' side of Connecticut

It's been many years since I've been to New England in the fall. Although I grew up in Upstate New York and Pennsylvania, my recent trip to visit family ("The Great Beck Trek") took me to a state I don't recall ever before visiting: Connecticut.

Mystic, CT

The Charles W. Morgan in its home port at Mystic Seaport, Mystic CT

I'm staying in the seaside area in the state's southeastern corner known as Mystic Country. The village of Mystic, perhaps best known in pop culture for the 1988 film "Mystic Pizza," is located between Groton and Stonington. Mystic is bisected by the Mystic River, which flows into the Long Island Sound.

The Mystic River Drawbridge opens up to river traffic at 40 minutes past the
hour during the low season, more often in the summer.

With a rich colonial history, the Mystic Seaport showcases the village's richest legacy: shipbuilding. On my walk through town on this post-tourist-season weekday afternoon, I enjoy a lack of crowds (it's an ongoing traffic jam in the summertime), and two hours here allows me time to window-shop, watch the Mystic River Drawbridge in action, and of course, eat a scrumptious slice of cheese at from Mystic Pizza.

Of course I ate here: Mystic Pizza in Mystic, CT

First United Methodist Church in Mystic, CT

On another day, my sister and I tour Mystic Seaport, inspired by an oyster festival happening this day. The seaport is a living and working museum. The world's last wooden whaleship, the Charles W. Morgan, is docked here, and an entire museum is dedicated to her.

Shipyard workshop at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT

Mystic Seaport also contains a recreated 19th-century seafaring village with houses, gardens, a schoolhouse, doctor's office and various nautical crafts workshops. In the summer, this is a lively area with demonstrations, chanteymen and interpretors all making the village come alive for visitors. Those wishing to take to the sea can rent rowboats or sailboats, or take a ride on the Breck Marshall.

Admission to Mystic Seaport seems pricey to me ($26 adults/$17 ages 6-17 for a two-day pass) but locals can take advantage of annual membership rates, and it's clear that this is a National Historical landmark is worthy of preservation.

Wheel of the Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT 

Loom in one of the homes of the 19th-century village at Mystic
Seaport, Mystic, CT

Mystic River Scale Model at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT

Catboats on display at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT

On deck of one of the historical vessels at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT

Mystic trivia: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall honeymooned at the Inn at Mystic.


Noank, CT

Looking across the river in Noank, CT

Just a couple miles up the road is the lovely village of Noank. I attend a pleasant wine tasting at the local Package Store (where liquor is sold in Connecticut) and enjoy some nice walks along the water.

A flag flies on the harbor in Noank, CT. Morgan Point lighthouse
can be seen in the distance.

This area was the summer camping ground of the Pequots. Its name comes from the word Nauyang, meaning "point of land." Many of the houses here have historical markers. I come face to face with my own little historical milestone in Noank: my first lobster roll, from Ford's Lobsters. Yumerific!


Buoys hang on the shack at Ford's Lobsters in Noank, CT

Lobster roll and chips at Ford's Lobsters in Noank, CT

Noank trivia: Amelia Earhart and George Palmer Putnam got married in Noank on Feb. 7, 1931.


Stonington, CT

Little Narragansett Bay on Stonington Harbor, Stonington, CT

The riches of the bucolic village of Stonington were amassed in the sealing trade. The port withstood two naval attacks by the British — one during the American Revolution and another during the War of 1812. Today, visitors can tour the Old Lighthouse Museum or walk along the harbor. Fresh seafood, a dip at DuBois Beach and a vibrant sunset might round out a typical summer day in Stonington.

Old Lighthouse Museum in Stonington, CT

Pretty house in Stonington, CT

Reproduction of an original American flag
on a home in Stonington, CT

Stonington trivia: Author Peter Benchley wrote part of the novel "Jaws" in a converted chicken coop in Stonington.


New London, CT

Nathan Hale Schoolhouse in New London, CT

My sister's business in New London gives me an hour to explore the city on my own. It's a little early in the day, so some of the shops aren't open yet, but I do find a bakery where I buy a peanut butter-chocolate muffin (I'm enjoying peanut butter at every opportunity while I'm here). Ocean Beach Park is deserted, but I sit for awhile, look at the water and savor my pb treat. 

Brightly painted submarine art at Ocean Beach Park in New London, CT

Located on the mouth of the Thames River (which is pronounced differently from the Old London Thames) New London's wealth came from whaling. Its harbor was considered to be the best deep water harbor on Long Island Sound, thus making it a base of naval operations during the Revolutionary War. The United States Coast Guard Academy is located here, and New London harbor is the home port for the U.S. Coast Guard tall ship Eagle.

One of Connecticut's most famous heros was Nathan Hale, known for his last words as he was being hung by the British for spying during the American Revolution: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." The schoolhouse where he taught in 1774 and 1775 is located here.

Sculpture honoring playwright Eugene O'Neill who lived in New London, CT

New London was the childhood summer home of Eugene O'Neill. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright is honored with a bronze sculpture in downtown New London, and the family home, Monte Cristo Cottage, setting for "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "Ah, Wilderness," is a museum.

Mural in New London, CT, touts the city's vibrant art and music scene.

New London trivia (courtesy of Connecticut College's newspaper, The College Voice): There is a secret button located somewhere in New London that can blow up the bridge over the Thames River in the event of attack. 



Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The medieval extravagance of Carcassonne

La Cité de Carcassonne

Our recent ladies' bicycle journey continues 50 km down the Canal du Midi to Carcassonne, a medieval city best known for its breathtaking fortress on the hill known as La Cité. Contained in its walls are a castle, a basilica and a village.

La Cité de Carcassonne

We first visited Carcassonne five years ago on my husband's maiden voyage to France. With its 53 towers, stone walls and drawbridges, La Cité seems to be something out of a fairy tale. But its history, like much of the history of this part of France, is anything but a children's bedtime story. The fortress was built by the Romans about 2,500 years ago. After the Romans were kicked out, Carcassonne was fought over by various waring tribes. Ultimately the well-developed fortress was able to defend against an invasion of Edward the Black Prince during the Hundred Years' War.

An expressive gargoyle on the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire
in Carcassonne's medieval city

For several centuries, France and Spain went back and forth laying claim to Carcassonne, but after the Treaty of the Pyrénées, the area was finally claimed by France and La Cité's strategic importance faded. The 19th century found the fortress in serious disrepair. The famous architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc took on the task of renovating La Cité, and today it is one of France's most visited sites.

A peek through a wall in La Cité de Carcassonne

This is fellow cyclist Veronica-from-Vancouver's first visit to Carcassonne, so we opt to skip our late-afternoon siesta and instead walk up to La Cité. Not everyone is enamoured with the medieval city. With an over-abundance of shops and restaurants, it's very touristy, and in the high season it is way too crowded for my taste. But on this gorgeous autumn evening, most of the visitors have either left or are eating dinner, and Veronica and I enjoy a leisurely hour exploring the city.

La Cité de Carcassonne begs to be photographed in black-and-white.

Back in the new part of town, la Bastide Saint-Louis, our friends dine in an outdoor café in Place de Lattre de Tassigney, and we join them for a glass of wine. It's been a long day, and we all sleep well this night.

Place de Lattre de Tassigney in Carcassonne

Before we set off on our last day of riding, we have a few hours to tour Carcassonne. Bastide Saint-Louis, Carcassonne's town center, was built in the 13th century. The city sits on the Aude River (as well as the Canal du Midi). Among the highlights of this visit is a walk through Square Gambetta, which contains a good assortment of modern sculptures focusing on women and children.

Bronze sculpture in Place Gambetta in Carcassonne

Bronze sculpture in Place Gambetta in Carcassonne

A building with a decorative clock Place Gambetta in Carcassonne

We take a little break in the courtyard of Saint Michel Cathedral before heading up to le Jardin du Calvaire. This unusual fortified garden in the southwest corner of Carcassonne is one of three remaining bastions in the city. Along its shady paths, dotted with cypress, olive and laurel trees, we pass the Stations of the Cross, a chapel built into the hillside and a large crucifixion tableau.

A gargoyle on Saint Michel Cathedral in Carcassonne

A gargoyle on Saint Michel Cathedral in Carcassonne

Joan of Arc statue at Saint Michel Cathedral in Carcassonne

Plaza at Saint Michel Cathedral in Carcassonne

The crucifixion table sits atop the Calvary Garden in Carcassonne.

The chapel at the Calvary Garden in Carcassonne is built into the hillside.

Except for the Château et Remparts de la Cité de Carcassonne, the city is not extremely touristy although it holds many more sites than we are able to visit on this day. After packing our paniers we get on our bikes and head on down the Canal. 



Tuesday, October 4, 2016

From Cathars to cassoulet: Castelnaudary

A recent biking trip along a section of the Canal du Midi includes an overnight in Castelnaudary — just enough time for a bit of sightseeing and a cassoulet dinner.

Moulin du Cugarel in Castelnaudary

Castelnaudary is located between Toulouse and Carcassone in the Aude department in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. I see only a few tourists, perhaps because it's midweek and after rentrée, meaning the kids have returned to school and vacation is over for most workers here in France.

Doorway of Hôtel Latapie in Castelnaudary

The city was pulled back and forth between the Cathars and the Catholics in the 13th century, survived the Inquisition, and was pillaged by the Black Prince during the Hundred Years' War. Castelnaudary prospered in the 17th century when it became the most important port on the Canal du Midi. Nowadays, le Grand Bassin, is used mostly for recreation.

Grand Bassin in Castelnaudary

Our hotel is located downtown, close to Place de République and Place de Verdun. After our bikes are safely stowed in the basement of our hotel, I head to the tourism office. I ask the staff to point out five places on the city map that are "not to be missed." He circles only four, and after a round of beer, my friends and I set out to explore Castelnaudary.

Flowers in an upstairs window in Castelnaudary

Building-topper in Castelnaudary

Our first stop is Collégiale Saint-Michel. The church has closed for the day but we are duly impressed by the enormous Gothic building with its nine-sided chapel and towering spire. Only later do I find out that the bell tower contains a carillon of 35 bells, one of the largest in Europe.

Bell tower of Collégiale Saint Michel in Castelnaudary

Gargoyle at Collégiale Saint Michel in Castelnaudary

Skipping the suggestion to visit le musée du Lauragais because it's also closed, we head to the north edge of town to visit Moulin du Cugarel. It's here that I take some of my favorite photographs of the day. The winds of Castelnaudary fueled this and 31 other mills a few centuries ago. Abandoned in 1921 and restored in 1962, the windmill is absolutely beautiful. In the summer months, visitors can see the inside of the mill. But this evening, simply walking around the outside of the mill and checking out the views of the surrounding countryside are satisfying enough.

Moulin du Cugarel in Castelnaudary

Millstone at Moulin du Cugarel in Castelnaudary

Moulin du Cugarel in Castelnaudary

On the way back to our hotel, we pass Castelnaudary's covered Halle, adorned with colorful flower baskets. The place seems to be a popular hangout for teens. 

Castelnaudary's market hall

French poet Prosper Estieu (I love that name!) was
a prominent citizen of Castelnaudary

It's finally dinner time, and despite the warm weather, I'm compelled to order the cassoulet. The white bean casserole with sausage and goose, is smoky and delicious, but it's more of a winter meal. And even though this is the hometown specialty, I believe my version, made with duck or chicken, is better.

Cassoulet is a specialty of Castelnaudary,

On our way out of town the next morning, we cross over Pont Vieux, ride along Grand Bassin, head into the wind, and set our sights toward Carcassone.

Castelnaudary's Pont Vieux was built in the 17th century.