Sunday 24th January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
The last couple of days it has been chilly and damp again. When the sun isn't there to encourage us to get up and out we linger over breakfast longer than we should.
Yesterday morning we spent on the library computers where we also enjoyed an excellent exhibition on local rural crafts of yesteryear. There were tools as used by 19th century carpenters and joiners, coopers, shoe makers and saddle makers together with photos. As we read the captions we realised just how limited our French really is. We knew very few of the technical terms in French for such things as drills, planes, chisels, awls, girths and bridles. Mind you, we probably wouldn't have known the English terms for many of the items displayed either!
In the afternoon we decided to make a final visit to Béziers after all. We parked beside the old mill down beside the river in an area far more pleasant than the seedy side street we'd used last time.
On this occasion we were pleased to note that some effort had been made to clean up the city centre. We were no longer ankle deep in cigarette stubs and animal deposits. Perhaps the city street cleaners had not been operating on our previous visit as it was between Christmas and New Year. If so it's astonishing how quickly the debris built up. No way could we say Béziers was clean this time. It was just less filthy.
We discovered several different parts of the city, mainly residential and generally in more reasonable condition than we'd seen previously. The buildings were all ancient but restoration work was under way. There is just so much to do though that it's doubtful whether the city will ever regain its original charm. And as fast as walls are painted and brickwork restored, the local inhabitants daub it with graffiti. There are just so many people sitting around on doorsteps and lounging on corners with nothing to do. Meanwhile, unaccompanied dogs too hang around the streets making a nuisance of themselves. There's no doubt it's a disturbing city.
This time we made our way to the bullring. French bull fighting is not as bloody as that of Spain. Here they fight the black bulls of the Camargue. But that's only in the summer months. Now it is shut and it too looks dirty and abandoned with broken brickwork, torn posters and an air of grubby desolation.
Seeking out the Roman amphitheatre we eventually located its ruins hidden away in a jungle of backstreets and blocks of flats. The nicest and cleanest part of Béziers we found was in the old cemetery on the edge of the town. Here there were neat avenues of detached family tombs like tiny houses set amongst cypress trees. Such places are always pleasantly melancholic and full of architectural interest with their tombs, crosses and statues, mainly dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Today, despite the rain, we drove to the Sunday market in St. Chinian. It is the last before we move on from here. There were fewer stalls because of the weather but the atmosphere was as cheerful and friendly as ever and some of the faces of the vendors have become familiar to us. This time we bought tapenade – a paste made from crushed green or black olives used for aperitifs, a bottle of chestnut beer and a loaf made from chestnut flour with figs and hazelnuts. The market vendor gave us free tastings of chestnuts in syrup and a couple of hot chestnuts each. The beer came from Corsica where there are large areas of chestnut forests. It tasted more like a cider than a beer to us but like beer, it includes hops.
We stopped for our usual coffee in the Cafe du Balcon where the owner's boxer dog sat scratching and licking herself on the seat at one of the tables before coming to sniff our hands. Why do we go? Because it's fascinating watching French rural life where customs and standards are just so very different from England. Everybody entering kissed the portly barman and gathered together round tables still wearing their flat hats as they enjoyed their beers and pastis.
After joining the queue in the market for a hot cooked chicken we returned to Modestine. There we found the "boss" of Ambre, the scruffy brown mongrel who has adopted us during our stay here, sitting beside Modestine waiting for us! He'd obviously recognised her and was hoping for a lift home! St. Chinian is several kilometres from our village so we presume he'd been called to attend an urgent committee meeting of the canine council and had run all the way there cross-country through the vineyards. He'd obviously been through a few puddles and streams on the way and was exhuding a strong aroma of dog! No way was he coming back with us! The hurt astonishment on his face as he watched us leave would have melted any but the strongest of hearts. Ours though are cast iron and Teflon coated so we left him there.
After lunch the rain had eased slightly so we drove across the mountain range beyond the village to reach the Orb and the village of Vieussan. The drive was magnificent. What it lost in scenery because of the weather, it made up for in the way the mist shrouded the hillside with wreaths of white smoke rising from the valleys or tumbling from the rocks giving the countryside a primordial, volcanic atmosphere. With nobody else on the winding, narrow road we could stop to admire the changing landscape as we wished.
Crossing the Orb we parked beside the isolated "Lézard Bleu" which we'd found closed on my birthday. Today it was open and somebody called down to us from the terrace asking if we were staying in Ambre. He'd seen Modestine around several times recently and realised who we were.
We took a footpath up the steep wet hillside to the crumbled pink village of Vieussan clinging tenaciously to the rocky slopes. A few years ago it had been almost deserted until a Dutchman started renovating some of the houses and the English and Dutch began to move in. It looks though, quintessentially a mediaeval French village. We were met at the bottom of the steps up to a stone archway into the "main" street by a large black dog who guided us upwards, waiting for us at every corner. At the top he passed us on into the care of a large cream dog. And so it continued! We were always accompanied but our guides changed regularly.
Above the village a small communal garden has been constructed with a petanque area surrounded by shady trees for hot summer afternoons. There is also a walkway of rose bushes beyond which the cliff drops away sheer into a bend of the Orb with dark forested hillsides on the far side. On the far edge of the village we found the old cemetery with its tombs and cypress trees.
We were rather damp by now so returned down to the Lézard Bleu to dry out over coffees. Inside we found it a very agreeable place, quite unlike any of the other bars we've visited in the Languedoc. Bright and warm with cosy tables and a floor covered in lovely 19th century encaustic tiles similar to ones commonly found in churches. Here we had free wifi access and we happily spent a couple of hours working, drinking Fairtrade coffee and chatting with the ecowarrior customers, mostly French but some English. By the time we left it was dark outside and with the fog we didn't fancy returning over the mountains. So we took the longer but safer route along the valley via Roquebrun.
We parked Modestine at the top of the village and as we walked down towards our house the "boss" came out of a side alley where he'd been exploring something interesting. He stood looking at us for a second before turning his back on us and trotting contemptuously away. He's obviously not forgiven us yet for leaving him behind this morning!
Monday 25th January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
Last night we were both so absorbed in our work that we forgot to go to bed until we discovered it was 2am! Sad isn't it? Inevitably we were late getting started today. As we left the house the village "boss" came to see what we were up to. He's either forgiven us for abandoning him yesterday or simply forgotten. He couldn't stop though, having some important business to attend to in the drain down by the cemetery.
Today we went to Pezenas. This is the third visit we have made over the years and we still enjoy it greatly. When we last visited it was hot and crowded with tourists. Today it was deserted. The sun was pleasant for strolling the streets but the wind meant we didn't want to linger too much.
First we had a picnic lunch in the park, watched over by the imposing statue of Molière who spent time living, writing and producing his plays in the town where they were performed for the local nobility. Later we explored the empty winding streets at leisure, marvelling at the many wonderful old doorways in their various stages of decay. Many dated from the 17th century or earlier. Most were worm-eaten with blistereing paint but they were all a link back to the past still in daily use. Molière and his fellow actors would have walked these streets and passed through these very same doors.
A skilled team of ébénistes are working to restore the doors but when the decay has gone too far the doors are replaced and the originals find their way into the Pézenas door museum, a fascinating collection of doors and door furniture that we have written about elsewhere.
At the tourist office we discovered an exhibition on the history and geology of the area with displays about the building materials used and techniques employed to create the buildings of the town. There were fascinating displays of architectural tools and equipment and here at last we found the answer to something that has been nagging at us for several weeks. Many of the tiny stone-framed windows in the mediaeval towns have an iron bar with jagged spikes that would tear open the flesh of anybody trying to squeeze through. We wanted to know what they are called but not even knowing their name in English it was impossible to find it in a language dictionary. The man in the door museum couldn't help us – "Not my spécialisme love. You need a window museum for that one." Here in the tourist office though, one was on display and it is called a "grille estripecat". It's really satisfying finding that out! Wonder what it is in English.
We've written about Pezenas before. If you want to read more about this absorbing town so full of curiosities and interest, see 8th November 2005 and 20th May 2009
We arrived back in Ambre around 5.30pm in time to catch Mme. J. our neighbour before she locked up her wine cave for the evening. We've been meaning to find her before now but somehow our paths haven't crossed. Embarrassingly for us she said she's seen us at a distance and also recognised Modestine so had been expecting us. She'd even got a bottle of wine they were particularly pleased with waiting for us on one side! She is such a friendly, enthusiastic and generous person we actually feel guilty going to see her as she gives us expensive bottles when we only buy a few bag-in-boxes. We find them easier and lighter to carry than bottles and they are far cheaper.
Buying the wine is an incidental aside to catching up on news, The wine business is suffering because of the economy and they have run out of money to finish their new and very impressive cellar, so it is currently on hold. Now they have succeeded in selling some land which means work will soon be resumed. Apart from the wine, they are now producing small quantities of oil from their own olives. She then explained how the olives are crushed in a special mill in Cessanon, the oil being extracted from both the pulp and the stones. In earlier times every village had its own oil mill, including Ambre, but the market slumped and is only gradually recovering. She then insisted in giving us a bottle of olive oil to go with the wine she'd already given us! We felt so guilty we ended up buying yet another bag-in-box. We just hope Modestine won't object to carrying it all around over the coming weeks.
Tuesday 26th January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
Today has been our last full day for exploring before we move on. Truth to tell, the time we have spent here is exactly right. We have visited everywhere within reachable travelling distance and we are just about running out of new ideas without going over old ground too many times. With longer days and warmer weather it would have been good to get to Perpignan, Nimes, Avignon, Arles and Montpellier again. They will surely draw us back another time.
The sun has done us proud today though there was a fresh wind as we drove around Narbonne to reach the coast. Narbonne Plage and other coastal resorts were all closed and deserted, existing only for the summer trade. Along here there are miles of firm clean sand and our final view of the Mediterranean was of bright, azure blue water breaking in curling white waves, whipped up by the breeze, on to totally deserted beaches.
Narbonne was once a coastal port on the estuary of the river Aude, though nowadays it stands about a dozen kilometres inland. In Roman times the sea reached the city and also surrounded a handsome outcrop of white limestone now known as La Clape and it was this we wished to investigate. This now stands well inland surrounded by the silted up estuary of the Aude. La Clape is an area of rocky heath land consisting of sand and limestone, supporting pine trees, heather and wiry bushes. From its higher points there are stunning views across the flat polderland to the sea while along the coast the Cap d'Agde and the headland of Sète are easily recognisable.
After a picnic lunch we walked through the woods along tracks that reminded us rather of Woodbury Common near Exeter. Both places have similar flora and both offer vistas to the shining blue sea. We began to wonder why we were addicted to travel, remembering all the beauties we have on our own doorstep in Devon.
A stony track led to the curiously named Gouffre d'Oeil Doux. It turned out to be what must presumably be the top of an underground cavern where the roof has caved in. A narrow footpath leads around the rim and the bottom is filled with water. It was a spectacular sight as we scrambled right the way round amidst heathers, dwarf oaks, laurels and sharp, spiky Mediterranean shrubs. We were intrigued by the name. Why the soft eye? It was meaningless. Later we met a friendly local couple and stopped to chat. They of course had the strong accent of the Midi and as they spoke it suddenly dawned on us that the name would originally have been eau douce or something very similar in Occitan. This was confirmed when they told us the lake at the bottom was fresh water but there was a way from it out to the sea.
So that's it from Ambre-les-Espagnolettes. Join us again once we are in Pyrenées Atlantique at Salies de Béarn. We hope your vicarious travels in the Languedoc have been pleasurable. Thank you Ivor and Lesley for your continued generosity in allowing us to once again enjoy sheltering from the worst of the winter surrounded by your fascinating books and the spectacular local landscape.