Winter in the Midi

Saturday 2nd January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
Today we arrived at the library in St. Chinian a few minutes before opening time, to ensure we got a place on one of the computers before they were all taken for the morning. The IT suite is only available for a couple of hours at a stretch on Wednesdays and Saturdays. As we always have so much to do sending blogs and email or searching Google we need nearly two hours each time. Today though, we found the library was still closed following yesterday's national holiday!

There is absolutely nowhere else we can get access locally just after New Year so decided to drive to Narbonne, some 30 kilometres away, in the hope of finding the library open there. The drive is very pleasant passing through the little towns of Puisserguier and Cruzy.

We have written about Narbonne on 14th November 2005 and 13th December 2005

Our delight at finding the sumptuously appointed public library in Narbonne open was short-lived. Yes, they did have wifi and they also had internet. There were lots of computers standing idle but we were told we couldn't use them as we were not members of the library. Our pleas and offers to pay fell on deaf ears. Les règles sont les règles. In the end we discovered an internet place open in town where we struggled with the French keyboard and slow loading, finally managing to upload one blog but having no time left to answer any emails or search for information about Narbonne. The hour we spent cost us over £5! Normally, with a good connection, we need at least six hours a week on the internet. We are horrified at how expensive and difficult access is in this part of France. Smaller blogs and less pictures are called for.

Later we returned to the library, which really is a librarian's dream, to clarify some points concerning the wine riots that afflicted the region in 1907. Everything we needed to know was available in English on the internet but of course we were not allowed to use that resource. Instead we grappled in the local history collection where the information was only available scattered throughout a number of resources all of which were in French. Fortunately such an unhelpful attitude towards foreign visitors is rare and library staff throughout Europe have generally done all in their power to help us. Usually they are also far less well endowed with resources than is pampered Narbonne.

We did though discover something rather interesting that now necessitates a visit to the museum in Cruzy. On 13th December 2005 we wrote about the wine riots and a collection of hand-painted banners carried by protesters that are now preserved as national treasures in the museum in Cruzy. One book we saw today had copies of photos taken during the riots and we recognised two of the banners, just showing amidst the crowds, as ones we'd photographed in the museum and placed on the blog. We took copies of the photos which we have now compared with our own photos of the hand-painted originals. On the computer we can enlarge them to see every detail. They are almost certainly the same banners but the name of the town has been changed, which implies the same banners must have been used in demonstations in more than one town and by more than one community of wine producers.

Protesters during the wine riots of 1907. The banners are possibly the ones now in the museum in Cruzy

On a different topic ... there are tiny stone igloos constructed in the vineyards all around this area. Most are quite ancient but many are still in quite good condition. They are known as capitelles and were originally used for sheltering shepherds or storing tools needed when working amongst the vines. They are circular, constructed from flat slabs of schist that are thickly scattered around the landscape. The slabs overlap gradually, closing in across the top. Today in the library we discovered a brilliant use for all those damaged and withdrawn books. Using the exact same technique a cosy reading corner had been constructed in the children's library! It was quite brilliant.

Capitelle near Ambre-les-Espagnolettes

Capitelle built from discarded books in the library at Narbonne

Inside the capitelle, Narbonne library

Once the Cathedral re-opened for the afternoon we explored inside. Had it ever been completed it would surely have been the largest in Europe. However, funding and enthusiasm ran out after the choir was built and the rest was abandoned. What was achieved though is beautiful, bringing to mind the massive gothic cathedrals of Northern France, rivalling Beauvais for vastness. It is none-the-less a beautiful and welcoming building with its high windows, soaring columns and rib-vaulted roof. Many of the delicately carved stone tombs, statues and altarpieces have been brutally hacked about during the French Revolution.
Outside, the Cathedral has an agreeable cloister with some delightful gargoyles.

Damaged tomb in the Cathedral, Narbonne

Damaged altarpiece in the Cathedral, Narbonne

Gargoyles in the cloisters, Narbonne

In the shopping area of Narbonne, Monoprix occupies a very attractive building constructed in 1907 at the very time the wine riots were taking place around it. Some of the materials were used by the protestors to build barricades to hold back the military sent to arrest the ring leaders - in particular the mayor of Narbonne.

Monoprix, Narbonne

Barricades being erected outside the town hall to protect the mayor from arrest by the military

Monday 4th January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
The last couple of days have been very cold and damp. Yesterday we joined the Sunday market in St. Chinian. It's something we have been looking forward to as the markets of Southern France are amongst the very best we've ever seen. St. Chinian is only a small town but everybody turns out on Sunday mornings. It's a chance for people to meet with friends and neighbours over a drink in one of the bars as well as to stock up on everything they may need over the coming week, be it bread, cheeses, meat, vegetables or freshly caught Mediterranean seafood, or something rather more prosaic such as socks and undies, a pruning knife, fluffy slippers or a new flowery nylon overall for Sunday best.

Our personal requirements were a new kitchen knife as we'd accidentally left ours in Champagne, a wholemeal baguette with fruit and nuts inside and a rotisseried chicken where we joined a long queue waiting for them to finish cooking. Meanwhile sugar lollipops were handed out to keep people happy. "Kojak, c'est moi" announced the man in front of us licking happily.

Our mission accomplished and Ian's fingers turning white with the cold we crossed, as we always did, to the Cafe du Balcon to warm up with a hot chocolate. As usual it was crowded, with dogs and caged pigeons as well as customers. It was hot and steamy as the same waiter squeezed between the tables serving around forty customers with warm drinks, beers and aperos. For once nobody was braving the cold outside to smoke. It still amazes us to see the way the smoking ban has been accepted by the French who will frequently strike and protest over the most trivial matters.

Descriptions of the Sunday market in St. Chinian can be seen on 20th November 2005, 4th December 2005 and 23rd September 2007
After a nostalgic but chilly walk around the town we returned home for lunch. Comfortable and warm around our kitchen table it was a real effort to don walking boots and force ourselves out into the chilly afternoon to explore the surroundings of the village, so very prettily set, overlooked at a distance by the wooded hills and towering grey rocks of the Haut Languedoc. Numerous little streets lead off from the centre of the village; most eventually peter out in vineyards or olive groves. Following stony tracks edged with bushes of bay and thyme, scrambling through woods of arbusiers, heathers and kermis oaks, we walked until dusk, returning home once we could no longer see clearly on the stony footpaths.

Washing drying on the banks of the Vernazobre, St. Chinian

Ambre-les-Espagnolettes in its immediate surroundings

This morning we woke to a damp drizzle. As most places locally are closed on Mondays and it was too wet to go for a walk we decided to drive to Carcassonne and explore the restored mediaeval walled cité. There is an illustrated account of both the old and new parts of Carcassonne on 17th November 2005 Today the streets of the fairy tale castle were crowded with Russian tour groups, presumably trying to escape Moscow's chilly winter by exploring the French Mediterranean. They were obviously disappointed as they shivered in their fur hats, boots and heavy coats.

One of the city gates, Carcassonne

Down below the castle ramparts and on the far side of the river Aude we wandered the streets of the town. So many places were still closed and the museum and art gallery will remain shut until 10th January. We have come to realise that absolutely anywhere we wish or need to visit, will always be closed when we arrive, either for a three hour lunch break, or because it's Monday (or Tuesday or Wednesday for that matter), or for Christmas, or the New Year, or to mount an exhibition which will always start tomorrow. The notice, if displayed, always says "Merci de votre comprehension". The fact is though, we find it totally incomprehensible! In England we'd never dream of simply shutting up public buildings for days or even weeks at a time as they do here. The laundrette had a notice on the door telling us it would be open in February! And the mainline railway station buffet was closed too! The busiest place in town was Macdonalds offering cheap food and free wifi! (Something useful we've learnt today.)

Refusing to succumb to Macdonalds (and not having our computer with us) we found a bistro offering a bargain four course meal for less than 10 euros. It was a warm, comfortable place but the meal came with all the courses on the same plate together! It was okay though and you get what you pay for.

Cutting through a side street we discovered a free military museum that was open! As so often happens, the things that are really interesting are free. Up inside the battlements there were queues, even at this time of year, to see Viollet le Duc's fanciful reconstruction of the ruins of the mediaeval fortress, while down in the town we were the only people for several days who had visited the military museum. It turned out to be a tribute primarily to the French Resistance fighters and the Free French complete with newspaper cuttings and original documents. There was much too about the Catalonian Republican Spanish who worked with the French as Resistance fighters. Many had sought sanctuary in this part of France during the Spanish Civil War when the French had helped them in their struggle against Franco. During WW2 Fascist Spain remained neutral, though Franco's ideology supported the Nazis. Many Spanish felt themselves to be Catalan or part of the Pyrenees rather than Spanish and it was natural that they should fight with their fellow countrymen on the French side of the border. We were able to chat with the curator who seemed delighted to have visitors interested in his museum.

Returning to Modestine we stopped for fuel and shopping before leaving the city. It was dark long before we reached home but fortunately the traffic was minimal.

Tuesday 5th January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
Our local guidebook assured us that the museum at Cruzy was open every morning and afternoon. We are less naive now than when we arrived so rang the phone number provided for the museum to check this. The lady who eventually answered had absolutely no idea when it was open but gave us a number of somebody who would. The second lady who eventually answered had absolutely no idea when it was open but gave us the number of somebody who would. We gave up and went to Sète for the day instead.

Sète is where Ian ended up in casualty last May when he fell off his bike and dislocated his elbow so it was with some trepidation that we set off. On the way we were stopped by the police warning us of an accident on the road ahead. Just around the bend we found an ambulance and the smashed remains of a car that had skidded across the road to end up deep in the ditch on the far side. The road was steep and winding, but no sooner were we past the accident than we were overtaken on a series of blind bends by four tailing vehicles. So many drivers here seem to have a death wish.

Because our last trip to Sète was cut short when we had to return to England, there were several places we wished to see. We had first visited and written about the town on 15th December 2005 so this time we explored some of the places we had missed back then.

Having wandered around the port area from where ships depart for Algeria, we walked along the side of the Canal du Midi where it exits into the sea. The 17th century canal links the Atlantic with the Mediterranean without the necessity for ships to pass through the Straits of Gibraltar. Sète first grew to prominence under Louis XIV when his minister Colbert chose the town as the exit point for the planned canal which was engineered by Pierre-Paul Riquet from Beziers.

Sète canal

Canalside commercial buildings, Sète

Sète was once an island set amidst shallow marshy lagoons lying to the west of Montpellier. It eventually became linked to the mainland by two narrow sand spits behind which lies the Bassin de Thau. The town lies at the base of the limestone hill known as Mont St. Clair and it was not long before Ian decided the views would be spectacular and a quick scamper up from sea level to the chapel on the summit, nearly 600 ft above us would do us the world of good. The gradient of the road up is 1 in 5 but Ian reckoned there was a short cut up a flight of hundreds of broken, disused steps that were far, far steeper! We became really hot struggling up but felt virtuous knowing we were the only ones there who hadn't driven up. Back in August a special viewing platform had been inaugurated offering stupendous views out to the sea, along the coast, down onto the Canal du Midi, inland to the Bassin de Thau and back to the distant hills of the Herault. It really was an eagle's eye view.

Sète canal with Mont St. Clair behind

Sète seen from the top of Mont St. Claire

Panorama of Sète seen from Mont St. Claire

Two men working at cross purposes, Sète

Chapel to Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette, Mont St. Claire, Sète

Nearby two police cars and half a dozen police officers were crowded around a brand new automated toilet. The French love electronic doors, taps and toilet flushes. None of them ever work properly and on this occasion the automatic magnetic fastener for the door had jammed shut refusing to let the occupant out. However, the automatic cleansing system, activated by pressing the button to open the door, was in full operation with a soaking occupant frantically screaming to be let out! How long she'd been there we don't know but the police were still trying to calm her through the door and get her out when we eventually left the summit to make our way down again.

The steep side road we took down passed between beautiful peach and lemon coloured villas with heavy, rounded pinky-orange pantiles. They had terraces shaded by palm trees overlooking the sea, the town spread out below at the foot of the rock. Further down a pretty park with a lake and a fountain had a yellow wagtail, and couple of green parrots in the trees still bearing citrus fruits and the ground was squashy from fallen dates. (Small, hard and unpalatable though.) Back in the town again we watched a white egret with black beak and legs and yellow feet fishing for sea urchins along the edge of the canal.

Sète is famous for star shaped fish pies called tielles. We bought a couple for supper and were told they contained octopus and tomatoes. We call them octopies.

Octopies from Sète

The poet Paul Valéry came from Sète and is buried in the cemetery overlooking the sea. His poetry is full of beautiful sounding phrases that appear meaningless to me. (I suspect even Ian doesn't really understand them either actually.) Valéry claimed that the sea looked like a flat grey roof stretching to the horizon, which I thought a rather silly simile. So Ian challenged me to find a better one. Watching the waving, rolling motion of its silver grey surface I recalled a field of potatoes covered in plastic sheeting that we saw in Jersey. The wind had got beneath causing it to billow up while a duck was trying to pad its way across and the sun reflected off the surface like the shimmering of the sea. We speculated as to why it might be considered poetic to compare a plastic covered potato field with the gently undulating sea, while it was certainly not poetic to compare the waves of the sea with a plastic covered potato field. We've obviously been listening to too much French radio. In the Jura we despaired at how abysmal French television is. Here we have no television and have been listening to French radio instead. It can be unbelievably highbrow. None of the presenters would call a spade a spade - not least because they'd almost certainly be unable to recognise it for what it was! All children study philosophy at school – which is why they understand a poet like Paul Valéry while I do not. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the death of Albert Camus (famous French philosopher and author, you ignorant lot) and the entire day was given over to discussing his life, his works and their inner meaning. The previous day it was the painter Gustave Courbet beneath the spotlight and before that Emile Zola. Is there no middle way in France? Does the nation have to chose between watching fatuous TV adverts presented by beautiful people with syrupy voices, or listening to a professor of philosophy from the University of Montpellier arguing the niceties of what a particular author intended with a critic of 20th century literature from the University of Toulouse? Thank Heavens for the variety offered by BBC Radio 4.

Wednesday 6th January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
Dire weather warnings, sub-zero temperatures, orange alert throughout most of France with roads closed in Normandy and Brittany. Across in England the south coast has been hit by the cold with freezing ice and snowfalls. Meanwhile – I feel guilty to say it – we woke to clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine. It was obviously icy cold with frozen puddles but when it's bright, dry and sunny you cannot be shivering and miserable can you?

In the morning we spent a couple of hours in the library at St. Chinian checking references in the encyclopaedias and using the computers. Driving back to Ambre for lunch we encountered our scruffy dog guardian sitting by the roadside half a mile outside the village trying to hitch a lift home. He'd obviously been investigating a muddy culvert and Modestine was adamant that she wasn't having him bouncing around inside her. He stared after us in complete disbelief as we drove by. He then chased us right the way back to the mairie at the top of the village where he eyed us reproachfully before accompanying us down the street to our house. I suppose we are a novelty for him but he certainly seems to think it his duty to keep an eye on us.

During the afternoon we drove to Cruzy where we found the museum open and the curator only too happy to talk about the hand-painted banners from the wine riots. He was impressed we'd recognised the banners in the photos we'd seen in Narbonne recently and told us they were indeed the same banners. They'd been commissioned by the town of Limoux from an artist in Cruzy and used in three different protests in 1907 – Narbonne, Montpellier and Carcassonne. Cruzy had been able to reclaim them after the riots died down and they were stored away only to be dusted down for another demonstration in the 1950s. At that date Limoux was overpainted with Cruzy and the year added to show their historical significance. The enthusiastic curator said that much of this information came from the artist's grandson.

The museum also has a superb mineral collection and palaeontology items including a mammoth's jaw, several dinosaur skeletons and a nest of dinosaur eggs.

Cruzy is a mediaeval village with a well standing in front of the fortified church. Over the centuries it has ceased to be used for drinking water and has been filled with rubbish forming an archaeologist's paradise. The museum staff have spent recent years excavating the well and have so far retrieved more than 30,000 pieces of broken pottery which they are reconstructing like a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The museum therefore displays an impressive collection of ceramic pots and watering cans, storage containers and domestic crockery. Much of it is waste from one of several pottery manufacturers that once existed in the town but failed in the 18th century.

The town now has a population of around 800. It was once far larger and we found it a very interesting place with its stone houses crushed in together with narrow alleys winding between them. A rounded stone archway led steeply down beneath one of the houses providing a rapid escape route in times of attack. Similar arches lead through to the church in the centre. Down by the river there is a lavoir where laundry was washed until recent times. Beyond the river lie the vineyards and there are small allotments along the quiet road we followed out from the village.

Because the sun was bright and the sky blue, even if the temperature was hardly above freezing, we set off for a walk following a track that led up through pine trees, winding its way to the top of the rocky hill from where we could look down onto the vines and the town. We soon became hot climbing, gathering sprigs of thyme and wild herbs as we went. On the way down, the track led between olive trees and across vineyards back towards the village. We passed clumps of fleshy, spiked cactuses their leaves edges with juicy, purple, prickly pears. We collected a few, the finely barbed, almost invisible hairs on their skin hooking into our hands and irritating badly. They weren't worth the effort really. Once we'd peeled and chopped them back home they looked like beetroot but were sweet tasting and full of hundreds of small, hard seeds. We won't bother again. We both now have sore hands and purple coloured fingers.

Cruzy, as evening shadows fall across its vineyards

Thursday 7th January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
Having scraped the ice from Modestine's windscreen this morning we drove to Bédarieux. The quickest route is over the mountains to the west of the valley of the Orb but although there was no snow, the roads were icy and past experience has shown that it can be rather hazardous on steep bends. So today we discovered a route we've never done before. At one point, a few kilometres outside Bédarieux the road passes through a tunnel under one of the mountain peaks. Just beyond we turned off from our route and drove steeply up following a series of bends towards the summit. It was further and steeper than we'd realised and eventually we tucked Modestine onto a ledge from where she could look out across the blue mountains wreathed in white mist, while we continued to the very top (518 metres) on foot. It was certainly worth the effort. There is a radio transmitter on the summit and from its base we had views down onto Bédarieux spread out like a map far below, individual streets clearly visible, while around us were fold after fold of the Espinouse stretching away into the grey distance while low clouds hung in the deep valleys between the peaks. From far below rose the yelping of caged hunting dogs and the grass beneath our feet was white and crisp with hoarfrost. Beside the track previous visitors, in warmer weather, had gathered flat stones and balanced them together to form numerous little towers. They looked like something thought up by Andy Goldsworthy.

Looking down onto Bédarieux from the Pic de Tantajo

Bédarieux and the Espinouse from the Pic de Tantajo

Stone cairn on the Pic de Tantajo

It was too cold to stay for long and we returned with gratitude to Modestine's cosy interior to continue to Bédarieux. The town is larger than we'd realised, never before having ventured across the Orb to discover the other half of the town. Nevertheless, it is rather a shabby place with little to detain us for long – though we did find a laundrette and an internet shop, both closed for the three hour lunch break of course, along with all the other shops in the town. The library and museum were both still closed after Christmas!

The staff in the tourist office were friendly and helpful, but when we asked what we could see today in the town they looked blank. They gave us a stunning booklet about the Languedoc but the sun shone in every photo - fine in July but in January nothing was happening in Bedarieux. There is a publication especially for the English living here and they wanted to give us a copy. It's called "Blah, blah, blah" but they couldn't find it. We had to suppress out laughter as they discussed together "Mais c'est toi qui as le Blah, blah, blah." "Non, desolé mais il ne me reste aucun Blah, blah, blah" The blah, blah, blahing went on and on while we kept trying to interrupt to say it really didn't matter.

Next we drove up to the village of St. Gervais-sur-Mare, a pretty place with rambling mediaeval streets at its centre. When we were first here at Christmas 2005 we visited the crèche for which St. Gervais is famous. It is housed in a side chapel of the church and depicts not only the central nativity scene, but around it has been built up a tableau of everyday life in the Languedoc during the middle ages. So in addition to angels on invisible wires swinging low over the crib and heavenly choirs singing Christmas music when you put a euro in the slot, there are upwards of 300 figures, many moving, carrying out such activities as working in the vineyards, shearing sheep, shoeing horses, working at a forge, herding their flocks, working a windmill, cooking, washing linen in the stream and countless other activities. The figures are about eight inches high and are known as santons. Their production is a speciality of the region. It really was most impressive. Poor Susanne has some way to go with her little crib in the corner of the kitchen in Champagne-sur-Loue.

Crib at St. Gervais-sur-Mare

Street in St. Gervais-sur-Mare

Ancient doorway in St. Gervais-sur-Mare

We continued through the Espinouse, descending into the chestnut forests above Lamelou-les-Bains. On our last visit to this unusual little town, back in May last year it was a hot market day and the town was full of visitors, residents and patients from the spar and the accident rehabilitation centre. Today it was cold and gloomy with flurries of snow in the air and the streets were bare. Through the window of the PMU betting office we could see the TV screen showing the races as they happened. Today though we felt in need not only of hot coffee and warmth, but of a touch of comfort as well. So we headed for the bar of the casino where we watched Charlie Chaplin films as we enjoyed a warming coffee. Ian browsed a copy of a Poker in Europe magazine and was amazed that there was enough to say about the game to justify a regular glossy publication every month. He'd obviously never worked in a healthcare library. I was constantly amazed that for decades people have been writing fascinating articles in the weekly journal Kidney International!

Earlier descriptions of Lamelou can be read on 26th December 2005 and 20th May 2009

It couldn't decide whether to rain or snow as we drove home via Roquebrun in the gathering dusk. We stopped at the Blue Lizard, isolated along the valley of the Orb below the deserted hamlet of Vieussan. It has been recommended by our hosts Ivor and Lesley and we needed to investigate not only the alleged free wifi but also the opening times of the restaurant as it's my birthday next week. According to the sign on the door it was open but according to the padlock on the gate it definitely was not. We now learn that it will reopen after the Christmas break towards the end of next week! We'll ring before we go I think.

This evening the Languedoc is on orange alert for heavy snows. We've escaped so far while much of the rest of the country is suffering. How long will our luck hold, we wonder.