Please follow this link and those that follow it for our earlier blogs covering our arrival in the Languedoc and accounts of Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, St. Chinian and St. Pons back in 2005.
Sunday 17th May 2009, Roquebrun, Haut Languedoc
We are having something of a holiday, re-exploring this area so full of happy memories. For once there is not a great deal to write and only a few photos as we've already written so much about the area.
Yesterday was really hot and sunny so that we felt sticky, sneezy, itchy and burning for much of the day. In the morning we revisited St. Pons, wandered its dilapidated mediaeval streets and looked in at the cathedral for a few moments reprieve from the bright sunlight.
Later we drove down to St. Chinian where we intended camping but found it closed, until mid-July. As we'd been invited by Ivor and Lesley for supper at their house in Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, where they happen to be staying, this was something of a problem. Much of the rest of the day was spent revisiting familiar places around the area and searching for an open campsite. Cessenon was also closed and the tourist office told us the only one open was at Roquebrun, some distance from Ambre.
So we turned up for supper, not having found anywhere to spend the night but anxious not to make our hosts aware of the problem. We spent a really enjoyable and amusing evening with them, eating the delicious supper Lesley had prepared – we suspect Ivor's assistance is limited to pouring the wine and making the coffee - out on the roof terrace while martins wheeled and dived high overhead. It was pure nostalgia finding ourselves back in the old house, so full of character and intriguing curiosities, reflecting the eclectic taste of our hosts. We are having a definite love affair with the Languedoc and would love to spend another few months here sometime.
We left around 11.30pm. Modestine was waiting in the village square beside the mairie. So we simply camped there, sleeping very peacefully indeed. This morning we were off down to the Sunday market in St. Chinian before anyone in the village even noticed we'd been there overnight. Our "usual" bar, Les Balcons serves delicious croissants with either coffee or chocolate. It was real nostalgia watching the market visitors calling in for their regular beers and coffees. Today though, we could see across the room, while outside a haze of smoke hung over the terrace. The no smoking rules are rigorously applied in France even if the Spanish have found a way round them.
There are just so many foreigners living in and around St. Chinian. English and Dutch were spoken at least as frequently as French and we even heard Catalan, or possibly Occitan.
Stopping to look at prices for French properties in the estate agents we were accosted by a lady wanting to know whether we were English and were we looking for a house? She wanted to sell hers, but it was no good if we were Dutch because they wanted houses that were "clean, clean" while the English didn't mind, and her house definitely wasn't "clean, clean" but that was her way of living. She chatted on at full speed, thrusting details of her four bedroomed village house, coincidentally in Ambre, into our hands and telling us to ring her once we'd though about it. She was anxious to avoid estate agent's fees and probably thought she's seen a couple of Brits with more money than sense. 220,000 euros didn't sound cheap for an "unclean, unclean" house in the centre of a typically shabby village of southern France!
The Sunday market is nothing like the one in Caen but it has an excellent range of produce and throughout the morning almost everyone in the town seems to pass through, stopping to chat with stall holders, kiss friends and relatives, buy country bread – sold as enormous round brown crusty slabs that will last until next week's market. In Spain the markets were either foodstuffs or clothes. In France everything is there together, along with hardware goods, shoes, books, baskets and bongo drums. Stalls had dishes of free samples which we were pressed to taste without any pressure to buy. Ian has finally started to realise cheese is rather nice and very varied. Stopping to try some bright green cheese the vendor explained that it contained cannabis (actually it was basil). He cut slivers from several different cheeses for Ian to try, including one with spicy paprika which he assured us would work wonders for his libido! It was so nice we bought a small piece, explaining we were living in a small camping car with restricted space if the effect was all he claimed it to be! So definite was he of its aphrodisiac properties he's promised us our money back next week if it doesn't work! It's great to be back in a country where people are so colourful and we can share a joke with them. Although we did have amusing incidents in Spain, generally the people seemed more reserved and far less eccentric than the French.
Someone offered us a free honey and eucalyptus sweet. He had with him a piglet and a couple of little kittens. If we bought a box of his (grossly overpriced) sweets it would help save the lives of these poor little creatures. He was a bit vague about quite how eating cough drops would save them, and even whether he meant these particular animals, but we rejected his sweets and kept well clear of his corner of the market for fear of finding him slitting the piglet's throat, all because we'd refused to buy his honey sweets. What a weight of responsibility!
We'd spent several hours in and around the town of St. Chinian, so around lunch time we drove up to the windmill on the limestone ridge overlooking the town, and parked amidst the garrigue (Mediterranean woody shrubs, cactuses, wild roses, herbs and flowers) for a very enjoyable picnic lunch which included oriental couscous, bright green cheese and ripe cherries. In France we are spoilt for choice for easily prepared food. In Spain you can either open a tin of octopus or mussels, or else you can cook salted cod for hours on end.
During the afternoon we visited several familiar villages and Fontecaud Abbey before making our way to the Sunday car boot sale in Cessenon, ironically, held at the campsite. It's obviously more profitable than a few casual campers early in the season. As usual anyone with anything - but anything - to sell was there and it was a great social occasion. Hot churros and beer were in plentiful supply and everyone seemed to buy something. When we left I had a tiny raclette, intended for melting cheese to pour over ham and potatoes in Modestine, while Ian was delighted to have found a very worn French coin bearing the head of Louis XVI.
We'd had a full and very happy day so drove to Roquebrun to settle ourselves on the campotel – their fancy name for the municipal campsite. We've lovely views across the river Orb to the picturesque mediaeval village climbing up the hillside with its Mediterranean garden on the top. The sounds of off-key brass band music, played as only the French know how (thank God) lured us down to the river to discover what was happening. The village was celebrating its wines. All the local winegrowers had put up stalls in the main street and everyone had turned out in the sunshine for wine tastings with canapés. We may have found it rather quiet in the Loire Valley in the depths of winter, but as soon as the sun comes out, the French find any possible excuse to have fun. Next week, if we are still here, there is the Fête des Grenouilles. Unlike the "Fate des Cochons" today, we probably won't be asked to eat honey sweets to stop their legs being chopped off!
Incidentally, the regulations concerning wine growing and AOC labelling are very strict around St. Chinian. Some local scandal that has reached our ears is that the director of one of the local wine co-operatives is currently in prison for sticking Bordeaux labels onto his local wines and selling them on at a far higher price! The wine here is really excellent but doesn't carry the same prestige as Bordeaux.
Well, it's been a lovely day. Just time for a piece of spicy cheese before we turn in for the night!
Wednesday 20th May 2009, Brissac, Herault
Over the last few days it has been really hot and the air heavy with pollen. Thus we have both been sneezing, grumbling and seeking the shade. On Monday we holed up at the campsite in Roquebrun taking an admin and laundry day. So once again we are completely clean and fit to be seen. Making the most of this infrequent occurrence we spent Tuesday with our friends Christine and Mostyn who live near Bedarieux, about 30 kilometres further along the valley from where we were camping. We first met them during our stay at Ambre in 2005. They'd once lived and worked in Exeter and a mutual friend put us in touch with each other. They had invited us for lunch and I was also hoping for an opportunity to plunge into their pool.
On our way we stopped at Lamelou les Bains See also entry for 26th December 2005. It is a rather strange little town to find high in the empty hills, being a sophisticated little spa town specialising in the treatment of road accident victims and limb, joint and bone disorders. So the main street is frequently full of wheelchairs, people on crutches and those with arms braced up. The town has a casino, with a restaurant and theatre attached, and is a popular venue for the many British residents living in the surrounding villages. Rural it may be, but far nearer than Montpellier for winter concerts, operettas and plays.
In the sunshine yesterday Lamalou was a thriving, busy place full of tourists and holiday makers in light, bright summer clothes. They crowded the terraces along the main street as they sat with their coffees, ices and beers soaking up the very agreeable atmosphere. Further along, we found the street market with all its Mediterranean charm. Stalls were covered in the bright yellow and red fabrics of Provence, laid out with dishes of olives – just so many varieties! Others offered candied fruits for sale – cherries, strawberries, figs, prunes, bananas and wild berries. There were stalls selling honey and its derivatives – sweets, candles, soap, wax and propolis. There were stalls selling local ceramics, again in the bright colours of the Midi – yellow decorated with black olives, or red with grapes and vine leaves. There was also a stall selling rows of prettily coloured, perfumed soaps, les savons de Marseilles - lavender, apricot, jasmine and honeysuckle. On the patisserie stalls there were fantasy concoctions of fluffy cream and almonds, and trays of oreillettes de Languedoc – stiff sheets of fried batter, vaguely resembling an ear in size and shape, thickly smothered in sugar.
Mostyn was out walking in the hills when we arrived at Boubals but he returned in time for lunch. At this time of year they practically live outside, the table permanently set for the next meal beside the swimming pool, sheltered from the glaring sunlight by a shady awning. We spent a wonderfully relaxed day in their pretty garden, surrounded by the grey hills and green woodland of the Haut Languedoc.
Christine had anticipated my hope for a swim and later in the afternoon we continued our conversation as we swam leisurely up and down the pool, looking up through the branches of the pine trees to a cloudless blue sky, and towards the nearest village houses, old, battered and weatherworn but exuding Mediterranean charm with their brown stone walls and huge, rounded, low, pink tiles on the roof, held down by stones. Our friends have lived here now for over four years and are both delighted with their new lives, having mastered French and integrated well into the life of the community. Indeed, next week they are flying to Southern Ireland for ten days with some 25 residents from the local commune. Christine has booked and arranged the entire visit and will surely be kept on her toes translating for everybody once they arrive!
So far the season here has been wetter than normal so everywhere is bright green and very luxuriant. In the orchard the vines, apples and figs are beginning to develop fruit. The cherry trees have been attacked by birds but later we harvested an excellent crop of strawberries for supper. We even found several spears of wild asparagus! Armed with shears, Mostyn lead us across the orchard and down through the woodland to the river Orb which forms the boundary of their property. It runs wide and shallow here with trout in the deeper pools. The plants may be different but we all felt as if we'd hacked our way through dense, virgin jungle by the time we reached the river, though it is only two weeks since Mostyn was last down there!
Yesterday passed far too quickly. Once the sun set it was pleasantly cool sitting in the garden surrounded by deepening dusk, with a clear, starry sky overhead and the silent, waving arms of three aeolians silhouetted on the top of the nearest range of hills, whilst all around us were the sounds of the night. Bats fluttered and somewhere the irritating scop owl mourned for a mate, its one, brief, repetitive note driving us gently bonkers!