Castres and the Minervois

Monday 17th January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
Before we went away for the weekend we closed all the shutters which we completely forgot to open again when we arrived back here last night. Thus it was gone nine before we woke this morning and we had absolutely no idea of just what a beautiful day it was outside until we hooked back the heavy wooden shutters at our bedroom window to be dazzled by the brightness of the sunlight!

Such a day is a bonus and we needed a good walk as we are becoming soft. Leaving Modestine in the centre of the isolated village of Berlou we took a ten kilometre walk up into the hills behind. This walk may have been slightly shorter than the one we did with Christine and Mostyn but we found it far steeper, climbing 320 metres overall. Most of the climbing was at the beginning and we started off wearing coats, scarves and gloves. Gradually, as we climbed we started to peel off the layers until in the end we were walking in light, sleeveless tops and still feeling hot and bothered. The views were excellent to begin with but eventually we were walking along a track where the shrubs had grown so high the landscape was hidden from view for much of the walk.

Sunshine in the hills above Berlou

Looking down from the path above Berlou

On the way we overtook a French couple of around our own age clutching the same book of local walks. They told us it will be cold again tomorrow so they decided "allez-op, on s'en va"! We surged on ahead up the hill leaving them plodding happily along behind. Not a good move as British pride then dictated we keep ahead and the pace became exhausting as we got hotter. Eventually we forgot and stopped to gather chestnuts in the woods. Thus we were the British hares, overtaken by the French tortoises. They stopped to chat for a while before striding on, arriving back in Berlou long before us.

Berlou wine is considered to be amongst the best from this area and we needed a bottle for this evening. At the wine cave we were offered tastings of several wines and finally returned back to Modestine with a ten litre bag-in-box of their darkest red. It should keep even us going for quite a while. Buying it that way we paid the equivalent of 1.8 euros a bottle. The same wine purchased in a bottle cost 5.9 euros. Bargain!

This evening Geneviève rang for a chat. It seems rapid progress is now happening with restoring her house after the fire and she is hopeful of returning home by early February. It has been a very tough few months for her and she is really eager to be back in her own home again, even if it will be decorated very differently inside and so many of her treasured possessions will no longer be there.

We are expecting to move on from Ambre in a week or so. Our intention had been to go on into Southern Spain and Portugal for a few weeks. However, we have now been invited to join our friend Ralph in Salies-de-Bearn where we will possibly stay on after Ralph returns home, giving us the opportunity to discover more about the area.

Tuesday 18th January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
The phone in the house has just rung. A French clairvoyant was offering Ivor his services! Not much of a clairvoyant if he didn't realise Ivor isn't here!

Today we have been to Castres and have only just returned home. It's about at the limit of how far we can get in a day from here at this time of year and it was already dark some time before we reached home.

Castres rates highly with us, being a cut above most of the other towns in the area. We wrote enthusiastically about the city when we first visited it in 2005 and we were not disappointed today. See 18th November 2005

It has a population of around 44,000, almost exactly the same as Carcassonne. It is though, altogether cleaner and smarter. The streets are spotless and there are no broken pavements, protruding spikes or potholes to trip the unwary as in almost all the towns of southern France. The buildings are attractive and generally well cared for. In Castres red brick is beginning to appear as a building material, as is so commonly used in the neighbouring cities of Toulouse and Albi.

During the day we strolled around the city, taking in the houses of the textile workers overlooking the river Agout, the town hall, the Goya museum with its astonishing collection of Spanish paintings and its beautiful French knot garden, the baroque cathedral of St. Benoit, several 17th and 18th century private properties known as hôtels particuliers, and of course the beautifully flamboyant theatre building.

Houses on the banks of the Agout dating back to mediaeval times and intended to accommodate weavers and dyers, Castres

The main incentive though for today's visit was to learn more about early 20th century French political history and the dawn of socialism. Castres is the birthplace of one of the nation's great socialist heroes, Jean Jaurès. Probably every town in the country has a street or college named after him and Castres has an entire museum dedicated to his life and achievements.

Jean Jaurès honoured in the city of his birth, Castres

He was a brilliant scholar and later became a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Toulouse before entering the world of politics where his strong convictions and powers of oratory turned him into a leading political figure of the era. He supported the working classes, siding with them in their strikes for better working conditions, wages and pensions. He was one of the leading supporters of the writer Emile Zola in his outspoken attack on the Government in his newspaper article "J'accuse" in which he accused the military of corruption and anti-Semitism, and the Government of a flawed conviction of a Jewish military officer accused of wrong-doing. The case divided France into two opposing factions and the arguments rumbled on until eventually irrefutable evidence of his innocence brought Dreyfus an apology and his return from exile overseas.

Accusation by the writer Emile Zola against policians and the military in what became known as the Dreyfus affair, Castres

Poster depicting the chief supporters of the Dreyfus cause, including Jean Jaurès, Castres

His support of the Dreyfus cause though earned him disfavour from fellow socialists who felt he should not have been supporting the cause a military officer from the bourgeoisie. The case though, was not simply about the false conviction of an innocent man, or even about anti-Semitism. For Jaurès it was more a case of making a stand against corruption in the higher echelons of French politics and upholding the rights of the individual.
As the outbreak of the First World War loomed, following the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, he became an ardent advocate for the peaceful reconciliation of political differences between Germany and France, earning him much hatred from French nationalists which resulted in his assassination in Paris at the end of July 1914.

So, quite a charismatic figure. It was certainly rather a lot for us to assimilate during a couple of hours where, perhaps not surprisingly, we had the museum to ourselves. We have picked up many different facets of European history as we have travelled around over the past few years and sometimes they interlink, giving us a gradually widening picture of Europe's political landscape. For more about the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand see 14th and 15th May 2007

Once we found ourselves back on the streets of Castres it was time to head for home. Crossing the main square, where Ian searched the ground hopefully for manhole covers, we chanced on a plaque covering the final resting place of the famed mathematician Pierre de Fermat who died in Castres in 1665.

Plaque marking the location where the mathematician Pierre de Fermat is buried, Castres

We decided to return by the scenic route across the Sidobre mountains. It takes longer and the roads are tortuous but it's a route we'd never done and we'd be back on the main road again before darkness. The route climbs up onto a granite landscape that has eroded strangely, leaving rounded boulders balanced on larger, similar boulders. There are a number of these strange rock formations including one weighing 900 tons that can be rocked with a simple wooden lever. When we found it somebody had placed a padlock and chain on it, presumably in case a thief came along to steal it over the winter! Up here the air was icy cold and as we continued the roadside and ditches were still packed with snow that has long disappeared from the rest of the region.

In the pleasant little town of Brassac we paused to look at the picturesque 12th century bridge across the river Agout (that later passes through Castres).

12th century bridge across the river Agout, Brassac

From here on our journey became darker and even colder with icy patches on the roads, snow in the fields and ditches and a scary, clammy fog amongst the endless chestnut forests as we wound our way down on the St. Pons side of the mountains. Fortunately we saw only four or five vehicles between Brassac and St. Pons. These uplands are a very deserted part of France. We left the fog behind as we entered the town where Modestine hungrily gulped down a tank-full of fuel before facing the long climb up and over the hills of the Haut Languedoc with its granite, marble, forests and snow, down onto the plain surrounding St. Chinian with its red sand, schist, olives and vines. The contrast takes us aback every time!

Thursday 21th January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
Today the sun is shining and we ought to be out exploring. Last night though we were too lazy to answer emails, write blogs or organise French printers, preferring to slump in front of a dvd with glasses of the delicious Berlou wine we purchased recently. So this morning we have work to do.

Yesterday was quite warm but damp. We spent the morning working in St. Chinian's library and after lunch drove through the vines and garrigue to Minerve, the stunningly situated Cathar village situated on a rocky promontory between the gorges of the rivers Brian and Cesse. It held out as a Cathar stronghold because of its inaccessibility. All to no avail however as over 100 cathars were burned at the stake there in 1210. It is from the vines around Minerve that the well known wine appellation, Minervois, comes. There is an illustrated account of Minerve and a brief explanation about the Cathars at 4th November 2005 so we will not repeat it here. The village, usually packed in the summer, was quite deserted as we wandered its streets in the rain. Later we drove along the corniche above the steep-sided gorge of the Cesse.


Natural bridge formed beneath the rocks, with Minerve beyond

Gorge of the Cesse near Minerve

Returning home we stopped to rediscover the circulade of Aigne. In this area in particular mediaeval villages built on a rising hillside were frequently constructed in the form of a spiral, like the inside of a snail's shell. The single, narrow, rising street, tightly flanked on either side by houses, was easily defended in times of attack or siege. At the centre of the village stands the castle or church, a place of last refuge for the inhabitants if required. (We described Aigne with photos along with Minerve and the Cathars at the reference given above.)

Friday 22th January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
Having wasted precious sunshine working indoors yesterday morning, we made the most of the afternoon walking across country through the deserted vineyards, along beside the river Vernazobres to Cessenon where we knew we could find the village bar open for a beer before the walk back home. Having been snarled at by a particularly unpleasant dog we next found ourselves trapped on the wrong side of a ford that had risen because of recent rains. Fortunately our hiking boots proved watertight but we determined to find an alternative way back. As we walked beside the river we saw the brilliant blue flash of sunlight on the wings of a kingfisher while along the banks were wagtails and white egrets.

In the bar we were joined by an eager hiker who lives in Beziers. Having seen our boots and map he came over to tell us about his afternoon walk as he didn't want us to miss something he'd enjoyed so much! It was pretty much the same as the one we did a few days back but it was an opportunity for a very friendly chat and a chance for us to test our skills at understanding the eager babble of somebody with a very pronounced accent du Midi. The vowels really do sound so hammered flat and our new friend was making no allowances for us. We've been practicing saying "du peng, du veng et du bourseng" but I don't think we'll pass as natives.

Later we climbed to the ancient tower on the hill above the old village threading our way up between the high, tight-packed, dank stone houses, through narrow alleys where neither sunlight, nor mediaeval engines of war could ever have penetrated. There, snugly wrapped in a thick knitted pink shawl, we met an elderly village lady sitting on a bench in the sunshine, busily knitting something large and grey. She too was inclined to chat, telling us she couldn't stand it inside her dark house and had come up here for some daylight but sitting still she was feeling the cold. Our vowels – and no doubt my grammar – gave us away and she soon asked where we were from.

We returned home along the disused railway track. The lines across rural France were torn up back in the early 1960s, about the same time as Beeching was axing the rural railway network in Britain. From the track we enjoyed lovely views across to the Caroux mountains and the sun was still shining warmly as we reached home.

Today too dawned bright and sunny and we set off to explore the weekly market in Puisserguier, a little town we have passed through many times but never stopped. It has a pleasant atmosphere, but then in the warm sunshine on a January morning with the local people chatting and shopping, everywhere seems cheerful. Having sorted ourselves out with bread, mushrooms and tomatoes we bought a couple of croissants at the bakers and settled to enjoy them with coffees on the warm, sunny terrace of the local bar. It really was the first time we've felt comfortably warm to sit outside.

Have I mentioned nothing is ever open or working normally in France, even when opening hours are guaranteed, such as with state run organisations? It's just possible I have. The post office opens for only a couple of hours in the morning and a couple in the afternoon. There is always a long queue. After nearly fifteen minutes waiting to renew our French phone card this morning our turn finally came. "Desolé" we were told. "The computers have just gone down for the rest of the morning"! Of course, by the time we reached the next village of Montady the post office had just closed for the two hour lunch break, and when we returned to St. Chinian at 4.30pm, the post office there was shuttered up for the night. So this evening we are unable to make use of the phone in our house. If we miss our window of opportunity Saturday morning our next chance of finding the post office open will be Monday afternoon when the queue will have started to form thirty minutes beforehand, while M. Le Facteur is still savouring his crème caramel and petit café.

Montady is, like most ancient little towns in the area, built on a hillside. It overlooks the drained lake we saw recently from the neighbouring hill of Enserune. Seeing it again today we are amazed at the engineering achievement of draining the lake back in the 1290s since when it has been in constant use, providing a massive circle of wedge-shaped fields suitable for growing arable crops and vegetables – quite something in an area where only vines are found. The drainage system enables surplus water to be removed through a drain in the centre. An underground tunnel then carries flood water through the hillside of Malpas near Enserune, to ultimately drain into a brook beyond. However, because crops require far more water than vines an irrigation system ensures water can be pumped in from the canal du Midi as required.

Drained Etang de Montady seen from above the village

Tower above the village of Montady

From the summit of the hill above Montady there were also clear, shining views to the white, snowy peaks of the Pyrenees. They stretched right along the horizon. It was only a few months ago, just before Ian had his accident, that we were over there, on the Spanish side, climbing up into Andorra. And in a few days time we will be leaving here to drive westwards along the French side of those same mountains.

Distant view of the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees (actually this was taken near Puisserguier from where they are also visible)

Leaving Montady we stopped beside the Canal du Midi for a picnic lunch. For the first time this year we took out our chairs, a table and comfy cushions to sit in the sun looking back across to the grey mountain range of the Espinouse. People passing were so friendly. Several gave little toots, a lady nearly drove into the canal waving and giving us thumbs-up signs while several lycra-clad cyclists shouted "bon appétit" as they zipped past. I suppose it must have looked idyllic with Modestine's back door wide open showing her kitchen area, a baguette on the table and us enjoying mugs of tea. Or maybe they just thought "crazy English".

This afternoon we have spent at Fonseranes on the edge of Béziers. At this point the Canal du Midi has to cross the river Orb and climb up to a higher level. When Pierre Riquet constructed the canal, along with cutting the tunnel through the hillside near Enserune, this was the biggest challenge he faced. His answer was to bring canal vessels down to the river through a couple of locks, cross the Orb and raise them up again by constructing a staircase of nine locks! This in the 1670s! At the time it was considered to be one of the wonders of the modern world. The locks are still in active use today though an aqueduct has been constructed to avoid the descent to river level and the dangers faced when the Orb was in flood. This now means that two of the locks are no longer needed.

Statistics and dates for the construction of the locks at Fonseranes

Staircase of locks seen from the top with all gates open, Fonseranes near Béziers

Several of the locks seen from below. Fonseranes near Béziers

Aqueduct to carry the Canal du Midi across the river Orb, seen from the banks of the Orb

As recently as the 1980s a special lift was constructed to supplement the locks. This hoists certain craft up an incline, raising them some 13 metres without the necessity of passing through the multiple locks. We could not work out whether it is still used.

Hoist for pulling boats up beside the locks, Fonseranes near Béziers

Incline for pulling boats up beside the locks, Fonseranes near Béziers

The afternoon was excellent, strolling the banks of the various interconnecting old and new canals and admiring the engineering skill that produced this waterway across France, facilitating the easy transportation of goods from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. In the canal basin were various craft tied up, perhaps waiting to climb the stairs. Particularly at this time of year the locks won't operate very often and the amount of water displaced must be phenomenal. At points along the route there are huge reservoirs to feed the canal.

Ian so much enjoyed working out how everything fitted together that he's made a little plan to clarify it all. Ecluses de Fonseranes, Canal du Midi, Béziers

Craft waiting in the canal basin, Fonseranes

We considered walking up into Béziers but remembering with distaste the state of the streets we decided it is a town that is best viewed at a distance. From Fonseranes it looks magnificent with its cathedral, more like a castle, and the palace of the bishops on the summit.
Cathedral at Béziers seen from the canal at Fonseranes

Our original account of the locks at Fonseranes and the major sights of Béziers can be seen on 13th November 2005