Bastille Day in a French Catalonian Village
By Julian I. Graubart
An invitation arrived from Seattle friends La Neu and Tom to join them for a week in July in a small French village. Mutual friends, Susan and David, also from Seattle, seemed likely to come. Lodging would be at Le Troubadour, a charming village inn that dates back approximately 1,000 years, the past 18 managed by friends of these friends. And our visit would coincide with the village’s annual Bastille Day celebration. Before you can say mais, oui! my wife Barbara and I decided to sign on.
The village is named Boule d’Amont, population 62, more or less. Its center sits in a hollow intersected by a gently flowing creek named the Boule River, and hills rise in both directions from the river up to an elevation topping 4,000 feet. Few cars pass through each day on the winding mountain road you take to get there. Entering the village, located in the foothills of the eastern Pyrenees just north of Spain, drivers see on a road sign the Catalonian name Bula d’Amunt beneath the French Boule d’Amont. Although you’re in France, not Spain, the region was once part of Catalonia, and even today the Catalonian language, culture, and flag commingle with the French.
La Neu, Tom, Barb, and I arrived in Boule d’Amont midafternoon, three days before Bastille Day. Tom pulled our rental car, a sporty little six-speed Fiat, into a narrow parking area parallel to the road, and we climbed a couple of wide flights of stone stairs into the old village. Liedeke van Leeuwen, who owns and runs Le Troubadour with her life partner, Sam Garrett, greeted us warmly in the small village square, which fronts the inn.
Liedeke offered us cool beverages and showed us around the inn. “Be thinking which room you’d like to stay in,” she said in Dutch-accented English. Then we joined her for a stroll outside. The afternoon was sunny and warm, but not humid, a preview of the near ideal weather we enjoyed during our stay in Boule d’Amont. Passing a few appealing old stone houses, a well-groomed cat lounging here and there, we soon reached a dirt path that ran alongside the Boule River. Uphill from the river and overlooking the mountains in the distance is Liedeke and Sam’s fabulous garden. The couple grows lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, eggplant, zucchini, string beans, herbs, and also fruit—raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries, apricots, and plums. Virtually every item we saw in the earth or on a tree figured in the breakfasts and dinners that Liedeke prepared for us and other Le Troubadour guests the following week. That evening we enjoyed the first of Liedeke’s tasty, wholesome, homemade dinners. It was also the first of what Barb described as a week of nightly dinner parties, each with a changing guest list.
The next morning in the village square, a neighbor gave us an impromptu lesson in the Catalonian folk dance, the Sardana, a group circle dance that sometimes breaks out in the course of Bastille Day celebrations, according to Sam. It involves a few easy steps. We did not embarrass ourselves, but more practice would be needed.
By the time we made it back to Le Troubadour in late afternoon from a vigorous hike and rewarding visit to the Serrabone Priory, a former monastery built in the late 11th century, our other friends from Seattle, Susan and David, had arrived. They had already had a walk around the village, including the historic Romanesque church built in the 11th century. Église Saint Saturnin contains several altars, a surprising number for a small, modest church. It is best known for its arched double wooden door, which was worthy of previous display in the Louvre. The excitement over the full group having arrived made for a festive dinner party that night. Yes, and chalk up another meal of distinction for Liedeke, whose entree was local venison sausage.
Unlike summer at home in Washington, DC, air conditioning is unnecessary in the Pyrenean foothills of Boule d’Amont—a good thing since air conditioning seemed to be absent. It cools down nicely overnight, and we could leave our screenless windows wide open. Sometime during each night, we moved from lying on top of the sheets and a thin blanket to under the bedding. Waking up, the only sounds that we heard each morning from bed were a gentle, high pitched whistle of house martins banking in the sky outside our window and a rooster crowing. Ah, but Bastille Day had arrived, and the still village was stirring.
Preparations for Boule d’Amont’s celebration of Bastille Day—the French National Day that commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789—had been underway for weeks. Reservations and prepayment are required, and more than 170 people were expected to attend the afternoon picnic. The purchase of food, the setup of tents and long tables in the picnic area, the cooking, and the serving were all volunteer driven. Sam, a translator of Dutch fiction into English as well as co-innkeeper, had given us a vivid description of the day in an email he sent a month earlier. Le Troubadour guests are always welcome and typically have a lovely time, he wrote. The cost was 15 Euros per person (less than $18), covering a three- or four-course luncheon and including wine. Sam suspected we’d be interested in joining the fun. He was right.
The festivities began around 11:30 am. A cloudless blue sky complemented the small blue, white, and red French flags fluttering on ropes crisscrossing the village square and draped beneath the second-floor windows of the inn. A procession started about 100 yards down the hill from the inn next to the village hall (la mairie), led by a man carrying the French tricolor flag.
Behind him, a man carried a two-foot-tall wooden bust of a proud, determined woman, Marianne, a national symbol of the French Republic. The bust had been removed from its normal perch on a pedestal in La Mairie. Next came a person bearing the flag of Catalonia with its alternating yellow and red bands. We joined the procession as it made its way up to the square. The procession continued past the square, along the narrow street between a few stone houses adjacent to the inn, through an alley, down past the village’s church, and back around to the square. Total time: a little more than five minutes.
Sam and the man carrying the bust of Marianne entered Le Troubadour and secured the statue in the open second-floor window above the front door. It is the village’s traditional location for the day; it’s a perfect location. A recording of “La Marseillaise,” the national anthem, was played. Only a few sang along. The crowd of 50 or so listened attentively to a 10-minute speech presented by the village mayor, Yann Oheix, in which he looked back on the events of the past year and the passing of a beloved villager and neighbor. A moment of silence followed. Then we all, young and old, inched our way over to tables laden with appetizers and pitchers of sangria, courtesy of the municipality. Smiles lighted everyone’s faces.
An hour later the scene had changed to the nearby riverside picnic area, one of the few flat spots in the village. It was another warm, sunny day, and we were all thankful for the shade provided by the tents and the bottles of drinking water that arrived first at all the tables. Raffle tickets were for sale, and most members of our group bought a few euros worth. Two in our group won. Tom, whose gift was a bamboo pitcher and six-cup drink set in tiki bar design, kept one cup as a souvenir and passed the other pieces on to Liedeke for use by guests at Le Troubadour’s in-ground swimming pool. Vessels made of glass, understandably, were a no-no at the pool.
Then came lunch, with guests at each table, in turn, lining up to be served one course at a time. First came a halved melon and prosciutto with Banyuls, a robust fortified red wine from the nearby rocky Mediterranean coast, drizzled inside the melon. The main course was a stew of chicken, sausage, and langostino (similar to shrimp) with cubed potatoes on the side, nice crusty bread, and, bien sur, wine. Cheese and an apple tart dessert followed, leaving everyone sated. A few locals brought their dogs to the picnic, and a small, cuddly one nuzzled my legs under the table, hoping for a handout. I was hoping to hear traditional French music—think accordion—but the background music was lively pop, same as what you might hear at a Fourth of July picnic.
Sam had told us we’d have the opportunity to enter the pétanque competition. Pétanque is similar to bocce. Teams of two or three players roll metal balls, trying to land them close to a smaller wooden ball that is the target. I had always been a good bowler as a kid, and I figured I’d pick it up easily. But when Sam said the match goes on for two hours or longer, I begged off. A friend we made at the inn, a Finnish beekeeper named Kari, entered and had lots of fun—even though the match did go on and on. His French teammate received an award for being the worst in the competition, and she and Kari were still laughing about that the next day when they bumped into each other in the square.
It was approaching 5 pm, and Barb and I decided to follow our Boule d’Amont custom of a late afternoon siesta. When we rose around 7 pm, all was quiet at Le Troubadour. We walked over to the swimming pool, thinking our crew would be there. But we were alone and enjoyed the tranquil setting. There were still two more hours of daylight, but the sun was low in the sky and the tall trees near the pool shaded us. In the distance, we could hear music. “I think that’s coming from the party,” said Barb. We walked over, and sure enough, the party was still going strong. Many families had left, but about half the guests remained, including our group and Liedeke and Sam. Leftovers were brought out, and we all noshed on this and that. The wine was still flowing and bottles of beer could be purchased for only 1 Euro ($1.17). Several of us helped in taking down the tents and tables.
A young woman from the village serving as DJ put on dance music, and locals and village visitors strode over to the “dance floor”—a square-shaped rough pavement of perfect size. Her mischievous blond-haired boy watched on the edges of the dance pavement and ran around playing with a stick he pretended was a rifle. A few of the French participants continued to enjoy their cigarettes while dancing. Our group never did get to perfect its Sardana moves. But I was impressed by how wonderfully well our companions, all in the late 50s to 70 age range, danced to the Western pop music, both contemporary and classic rock. Around 11 pm, Barb and I called it quits. Few guests remained. A U2 song was playing and several of our friends, new and old, were still dancing as we trudged up the hill to Le Troubadour. Our first Bastille Day in France had been an absolute blast.
A few more delightful days in and around Boule d’Amont remained. The evening of our last day, La Neu, Tom, Barb, and I were the only guests at Le Troubadour, and our final dinner party was agreeably intimate—just the four of us and our hosts. After dinner, Liedeke and Sam surprised us, bringing out a bottle of cava, Spanish sparkling wine, to share. We could not have been more pleased about our week in Boule d’Amont, and we were touched by this warm gesture of friendship.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY
Le Troubadour, Placa Sant Sadurni, 66130 Boule d’Amont, 09-65-21-52-95, www.letroubadour.info
The handsome, homey three-story stonework inn has four double rooms, delicious fresh meals, a modest bar, and a swimming pool with a lovely mountain view. Price per room for two persons is 45 Euros per night and includes breakfast; per week the price is 280 Euros. Three-course dinners at 15 Euros per person are optional (no other dinner options exist in Boule d’Amont). Liedeke van Leeuwen and Sam Garrett also manage two nearby apartments, which are available starting at 300 and 350 Euros per week.
WHAT TO DO
Although secluded, Boule d’Amont is well-located for travelers wishing to explore the region. A scenic drive of an hour or less brings you to lively towns and beaches on the Mediterranean, to the small city of Perpignan, and to a host of interesting natural, historic, and cultural spots. And Boule d’Amont and the eastern Pyrenees provide numerous appealing opportunities for cyclists and hikers. The mountain roads make for challenging bicycling. The hiking trails are numerous, scenic, and range from easy to very strenuous.
Musee d’Art Moderne de Céret
8, Bd Marechal Joffre, 66400 Céret, 04 68 87 27 76, www.musee-ceret.com
The modern art museum in this small town of 8,000 contains works by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Braque, Miro and other illustrious 20th century painters. Open daily 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. from July 1 to September 30; the rest of the year, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Mondays. Admission 8 Euros; 6 Euros children 12 to 18 and students 18 to 27; children under 12 free. Féria de Céret, an annual street festival that is scheduled on a weekend close to Bastille Day, features the abrivado, the running of the bulls—right past the museum.
Prieure de Serrabona (Serrabone Priory)
66130 Boule d’Amont, 04-68-84-09-30, www.leDepartement66.fr
The former monastery, founded in the late 11th century, overlooks a serene valley in a forest of oaks. The church features a Romanesque rostrum made of pink marble. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Admission 4 Euros; 2 Euros seniors 65 and older and students 12 and older; children under 12 free.
Site des Orgues nature reserve
Chemin de Regleilles, 66130 Ille-sur-Tet, 04-68-84-13-13, lesorgues.ille-sur-tet.com
An easy one-hour walk mainly on a dirt path provides views of spectacular rock formations shooting to the sky. In some places they resemble columns of organ pipes (hence orgues); in other spots, the formations have window-like openings, the result of erosion. Open 9:15 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily (the summer hours, from June 15 to Sept. 14); various, more limited hours the rest of the year. Admission 5 Euros; 3.50 Euros children 10 to 13; children under 10 free.
Julian I. Graubart, a longtime resident of Washington, DC, published books in the medical field there for 24 years. Now a freelance writer, he also conducts tours of the Library of Congress and the Newseum. He authored the book Golf’s Greatest Championship: The 1960 U.S. Open.