Into the Languedoc

Sunday 30th October 2005, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc.
We arrived here yesterday under looming yellow grey skies more reminiscent of a November evening in England than lunchtime on the Mediterranean. The temperature though is certainly warmer and despite the overcast skies, drizzle and total humidity, we are still wearing tee-shirts and bare feet for most of the time.

Our route yesterday had brought us steeply down off the high windy Causse de Larzac along the impressively engineered twisting motorway with its long tunnels cut through the stark massive rock onto the milder plains of the Bas Languedoc.

Our “home” for the next few weeks is a three storey house – far bigger than we need, but wonderful after the confines of Modestine over the past few days – in the village of Ambre-les-Espagnolettes a short drive from Beziers (don’t try to find the village in your atlas, this is not its true name.) The fact that we are here at all is entirely due to the generosity of an English friend who, concerned at the thought of us without a roof over our heads during the winter period, lent us the keys to his holiday home to use as a base when he did not need it. Not only are we overwhelmed by such a gesture, we are thrilled to find chance has offered us an unexpected opportunity to discover a region completely new to us.

The house is in a very narrow lane, crowded in by other 19th century houses. There are heavy wooden shutters at the windows and a dark double front door with heavy iron furniture and leaded lights to give a ghostly glimmer to the hallway. No doubt cool and wonderful in summer, with the present gloomy weather it is really dark within. Over the door is the date 1878 and it seems fate that we should end up here as 1878 is the very year Stevenson and Modestine made their journey through the Cevennes. Inside it is like living in a 19th century museum. Many of the fittings are original – the pine dresser, marble sink, huge kitchen chimney with its wood burning stove, timber beamed ceilings and flag stoned floors. The rest is due to the skill and enthusiasm of the owners who have taken pains to find suitable furnishings – rugs, book cases, cupboards, wall decorations, prints and books. We were particularly delighted to discover an English library containing some of the works of Sabine Baring-Gould, including “A book of the Cevennes” and “The Deserts of Southern France”. We may well need to be prised out of here with a shoe-horn!

The wood-burning stove in the kitchen

Blogger at work at the kitchen table

Original sink in local marble

View down the stone stairwell

This little village is some forty kilometres inland from the coast. It is based on viticulture so is set within the surrounding vines, as are numerous similar little villages of the flat plains of Le Bas Languedoc. It is a community of several streets, a village fountain, a boules pitch in front of the mairie and a community hall for local activities. There are a couple of wine producers we have yet to investigate where they also sell wine by the cubi – plastic jerry-can rather than a smart bottle. We have been told by a sociable neighbour that we must try it as it is “better than a kiss on the mouth.” Wandering around the village in the gloom of yesterday afternoon we discovered a wrongly dated poster advertising the village Halloween activity at the mairie. Assuming correctly that it was last night we turned up to discover all the local children and several adults dressed as demons, devils and witches, some with flashing horns and most clutching candlelit pumpkins, ready to process around the village singing, banging on doors and receiving sweets.

Halloween in the village

This area appears to have something else going for it besides the vineyards. It is the regional headquarters of the “Centre National d’Education de Cirque” according to a poster we saw in the local town of St.Chinian. Who knows, we might ending up whiling away the winter evenings following classes in clowning or tightrope walking! Reading the notice-board outside the mairie of Ambre we were intrigued to learn that French lessons were being offered! The accent of the Occitan area can be difficult to understand sometimes and grammatical constructions are frequently contorted, but people seem to cope well enough with their own language!! We have since discovered that the area is overrun by the British and the poster is presumably directed at them! In fact in the one day we have been here, we have heard more English spoken than we have in the three months we have so far spent in Europe!

It is so overcast and gloomy outside we feel as if we are in permanent twilight and within the house it feels like night even at midday. This morning we drove through the rain to the Sunday market at St. Chinian which seemed a bustling, crowded little town where the local people all turned up, as much to chat with neighbours as to buy from the stallholders. The market is typical of those to be found a couple of times a week in most little towns around France, selling everything from clothes and shoes to spanners and ladders, charcuterie, cheeses and dairy produce and dozens of sorts of breads and pastries. Here you can buy oysters, mussels and seafood. We hadn’t realised how far we have been from the sea and for how long, until we smelt the whiff of seaweed when a wave of nostalgia for Devon suddenly swept over us. It was short-lived however and once the weather improves we will be paddling in the Mediterranean. Here we discovered a market butcher selling not only lean cuts of beef, pork and mutton, but huge steaks of horsemeat and even donkey! Donkey sausages could also be found on the charcuterie stall and Ian actually tried a proffered sample, but our thoughts were with Modestine. (Which one? We are getting confused!)

We bought a rotisseried chicken and a dish of roast potatoes cooked with tomatoes and onions before returning to Ambre for an easily prepared lunch. Then, still under a grey blanket of drizzle we drove to St. Pons where we understood there was a foire de châtaigne or chestnut fair taking place. This turned out to be great fun. Everyone for miles around turned up despite the weather, which was really awful, the streets running-over with water and sploshy potholes through which the nose-to-tail traffic lurched. The centre of the town is dominated by the large Romanesque cathedral church, rebuilt in the 15th century with marble baroque interior, eighteenth century choir and lovely wrought-iron grill, dated 1771. Our enthusiasm to examine the interior coincided neatly with the perpetual drizzle developing into a sudden downpour. The rain seemed to have enhanced the religious fervour of everyone else too, with the church having many more devotees than it can normally have expected to welcome on a Sunday afternoon.

The cathedral of St. Pons and surrounding houses

Façade of St. Pons cathedral

Outside, the square was covered in a layer of straw with mediaeval-style tents set up. There was a large cage of three real wolves, a reminder of how they roamed free here not so long ago. Men dressed in tabards, high boots and knight’s helmets jousted in the rain and ordinary people drank beers and coffees at tables under dripping sun canopies as they watched. Within the ancient walls of the old town, along the banks of the little river Jaur stalls were set up selling all kinds of regional produce and the narrow streets were crowded with good-natured customers clutching cones of scalding hot chestnuts cooked in massive quantities over roaring open fires. We bought some little biscuits made with chestnut flour and also sampled a number of different chestnut flour cakes and breads being handed out. Local craftsmen were demonstrating the ancient crafts of basket-making and wood-turning, including carving out entire tree trunks to create bee-hives which were then tiled with local slate. The concept quite fascinated us.

Ready for battle

Mediaeval life at St. Pons chestnut fair

On the banks of the Jaur

Cooking the chestnuts

Hollowing out a bee-hive

Girls in the local costume

Groups of musicians wended their way amongst the crowd. With the emphasise more on volume than technique, it could hardly have been called musical but with their pipes and drums it was certainly all very loud and jolly. One “mediaval peasant” was blasting happily away on a curly cowhorn until asked to desist by a neighbouring stallholder. “Ne vous gênez pas, il ne comprend rien de la musique” (don’t worry, he doesn’t understand anything about music) his friend consoled him.

In a corner, by the town bookshop we discovered a group of local writers, their publications displayed nearby, meeting their readers and signing copies of anything that may be sold. We browsed amongst several books on the Cathars and the history of the Languedoc region. One author told us that his publication was a collection of stories he’d made up for his nine year old grandson. He was acknowledged on the title page as he’s reminded granddad of all the bits he’d forgotten when he came to write down the tales. As the author told us “rendez à César ce qui est à César.”

An English book, French leaves: letters from the Languedoc by Christopher Campbell-Howes caught our attention. Copies were displayed in English, French and German. We started to chat with the author, automatically using French. We had all been talking for some time before Ian pointed out that it might just be easier to speak in English. This caused us all some amusement and chatting together proved a lovely way to pass a wet half-hour. It seems he moved here from Scotland some 12 years ago and submitted monthly articles about his experiences to his local newspaper back in home. The book is a synthesis of these articles. We decided to buy a copy as a quick introduction to the area and because it promised to make an amusing read. We have not been disappointed. His life here seems to have been full of rich experiences and he has integrated completely with the local community, even becoming a choir master conducting songs in Occitan at local competitions! In many respects, his recounted experiences with the mild but frequent eccentricities to be encountered amongst the French are not dissimilar to ours, particularly concerning attitudes to hunting, fêtes, snails and other culinary delights, beating state-initiated officialdom and the sacred two or three hour lunch break.

St. Pons is only about 25 kilometres from Ambre but lies in Haut Languedoc, high in the hills behind the flat winegrowing hinterland of the Mediterranean. The landscapes of Haut and Bas Languedoc are a world apart. To reach St. Pons we had to drive up and over a steep pass, the Col de Rodomouls, (563 metres) through dark, tree clad hills. More than this we could not see. As we’d climbed the swirling mist had become so thick we saw nothing but the road markings ahead. The clocks had been put back overnight and we had no wish to cope with the return journey in the complete dark, so headed home around 4pm. The fête looked set to continue well into the evening with queues of people still arriving as we left.

Monday 31st October 2005, , Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Today we had heavy bilious yellow/grey skies which gradually deteriorated throughout the day, culminated in a violent thunder storm. We didn’t mind really, having so much to sort out with settling in, catching up on correspondence, sorting our photos and preparing new pages for the blogsite. During a brief improvement in the weather we trotted round the corner to the cellar of the local wine grower, clutching our five-litre jerry can which was filled for us through a hosepipe by Mme J. directly from the vat. “Cinq litres de super, sans plomb” she announced cheerfully, and indeed it did seem rather like a garage. The wine though was very nice, deep velvet red with the warm rich taste of fruit and sunshine. Decanted into seven bottles back in our kitchen it should keep us mellow for a few days.

Mme. J proved to be a very friendly, chatty lady, knowledgeable about wine growing, local geology and bottling techniques. Her descriptions of the qualities of the different varieties of grapes were really poetic! She told us of her childhood here when she learnt Spanish quite naturally because she mixed with families from Spain living in this part of France as refugees during and after the Spanish Civil War.

We then explored the village. With around 240 inhabitants it is double the size of Champagne but still does not have a café or shop of any sort. There is a bus twice a day to Beziers and itinerant trades people deliver bread, meat and vegetable around the different villages.

Just outside of the old village is a new enclave of luxurious pink-rendered Spanish style villas with swimming pools. The names on all letter boxes are Dutch. We have the impression that there is a certain animosity amongst the resident French population towards “foreigners” buying expensive properties beyond the purse of local people. It is hardly surprising really. A glance in the local phonebook for Ambre shows an enormous number of non-French nationals living here.

The immediate surroundings are primarily vines but there are also acres of heavily laden olive groves. We don’t know when they are normally harvested but, as we discovered, there can surely be nothing more horrid to the taste than an unripe olive picked from the tree! There are also almond trees, the ground beneath littered with nuts. The shrubs and plants are all Mediterranean and mostly unfamiliar to us. At the corner of our lane is a bougainvillea, still producing masses of bright pink flowers. The soil, if such it can be called, is really poor, being nothing but stones, sand and broken rocks. How anything can thrive in it is a mystery. The entire area, where it has not been nurtured, seems a desert of scrubby wasteland and arid rock.

However, with the current weather it is also a soaking quagmire of muddy tracks, flooded roads and teaming ditches. The rain decided we’d been lured sufficiently far from home by its momentary lull and it started to pour down in torrents. We squelched home, peeled off and sat steaming gently in the kitchen with the first of our seven bottles for the rest of the evening.

Tuesday 1st November 2005, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Today has been a national holiday in France so almost everywhere has been closed tight shut. However, at last the sun has appeared and we have hung away our Craghopper rainwear and donned sandals once more.

We decided a trip into Béziers was a priority to seek out the two essentials for modern day nomadic life – internet access and a laundrette! After nearly two weeks deprived of both we were starved of news and overrun with grubby socks!

Our first surprise was to see the hills rising beyond the village. The landscape looked seductively attractive in the sunshine. Until today it had been quite blotted out by low cloud. If the good weather continues our folding bikes, Hinge and Bracket, can soon be released from their bags and set loose to roam the countryside.

Béziers looked lovely as we approached, the cathedral of St. Nazaire high above, overlooking the swollen river Orb. Unfortunately this impression did not last once we had found somewhere to park and cross the bridge into the town. It is perhaps unfair to judge from a single visit, and that on a national holiday when much of the town was closed. However, that does not excuse the fact that the town is both smelly and dirty. It is impossible to raise your eyes to the beauties of a town when you need to ensure your feet stay clear of the countless heaps of canine excrement. Not only that, but pavements, where they exist or are not used for parking cars, are narrow, broken, covered in cigarette butts and broken glass and there are many raised or missing drain covers. Maybe standards are just different in Southern Europe but it seems such a pity when there is so much potential for the place to be beautiful. The overall impression is of a white rendered old town with heavy orange-tiled roofs and steep narrow streets cobbled in shiny black stone. There is a large Arab community, the women dress in their jalapas and the older men sit chatting together at grubby street corners wearing their robes and fez. Béziers reminded Jill of Algecieras in Southern Spain.

Béziers from across the river Orb

The façade of the Cathedral of St. Nazaire

View back towards the hills around Ambre from the Cathedral parvis

We did find an internet shop run by young Arab men, therefore not closed for All Saints day. They were friendly and helpful and their internet access was really fast. We also found one of the only two laundrettes in the town. We were the only non-Arab customers. The instructions on the dryers were in English so we made ourselves useful translating them into French for an Arab gentleman having difficulties working out temperature settings.

By this time we felt we’d had enough, especially as we’d not found a useable loo all day so dared not drink anything and were feeling really thirsty. We returned to Ambre, leaving Modestine tethered outside the mairie at the top of the village street. Passing the open barn door of one of the houses we stopped to investigate a big heap of mushrooms being carefully cleaned and displayed by a lady who had obviously spent a happy day in the woods gathering the ceps and chanterelles for which this area seems noted. (Actually she called chanterelles girolles but said they were the same thing.) She said the Dutch were great “amateurs de champignons” and she hoped to sell her entire collection to them that evening.

Wednesday 2nd November 2003, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Modestine has developed a problem with her electrics which had left us without lights for the last night of our travels through the Cevennes. As the electrics are a complete mystery to us we drove to St. Pons this afternoon to a garage we’d noticed dealing with camping cars. Of course it was closed for the afternoon when we arrived. Everything in France is always closed when you need something. However, a very nice young man suggested a source of help from a nearby garage. He asked where we came from and chuckling said he’s visited Exeter and found it really nice. “C’est joli Exeter, mais ici c’est le Paradis” – here it’s paradise, he told us. He could be right. We are completely new to Southern France and at first glance it seems arid and untidy. On closer acquaintance though, it grows on you. There are lovely landscapes of hills and vines, deep gorges, tiny ochre coloured villages nestling in folds in the hills. It’s like Spain, Portugal and Crete rolled into one in a place where we have some understanding of the language.

The second garage was helpful but we’d need to return tomorrow when they would be less busy. A fifty kilometre round trip didn’t appeal so we’ve left it, hoping to find somewhere more convenient. We returned by a different route, taking us along the valley through the hills to Orlagues which looks beautiful and justifies a proper visit. Beyond there we turned up a steep, narrow twisting road that took us high over the stony mountain ridge and down the far side through hectares of vines and tiny age-old villages of pink walled houses clinging precariously to the hillside. Dusk had fallen as we descended through the final vines to emerge suddenly into our own village of Ambre.

Thursday 3rd November 2005, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Time to explore the coast of the Mediterranean. As it now gets dark before 6pm we made an early start, skirting Béziers to the north and after the monotonous drag through the town’s huge industrial and commercial hinterland we made our way to the Cap d’Agde. This is a summer paradise where the population must increase at least fifty fold between June and August when the promenades, marinas, boardwalks and beaches will be teaming with holiday makers and every apartment, hotel, villa, campsite and chalet will be occupied. Bars and restaurants will be crowded and parking an impossibility. Today though, we had the place to ourselves. It was clean, and open with the boulevards shaded by palm trees. The beaches and sand-dunes were deserted, the marinas packed with shiny white yachts overwintering and thousands of apartments and hotels shuttered tight against the ravages of the season. No sign of storms today! The sun shone, and we were really warm gathering shells on the sandy beach. Ian even went so far as to paddle! Quite unheard of! The water in the marinas was crystal clear and full of fish, some quite large other, smaller ones, swimming in shoals in perfect formation, right to the water’s edge. The dunes still had unknown plants in flower amongst the mallow, tamarisk and cactuses. There were huge aloes and prickly pears with their strange knobbly fruits. Jill discovered the hard way exactly why they are called prickly when she tried to eat one of the fruits. Her palms are still covered in almost invisibly fine barbed hairs hooked deep into the skin and almost impossible to remove. The fruits by the way were rather like beetroot red pomegranates but still a bit sour.

From Russia with Love.
Monument showing Honoré de Balzac presented to the People of France. (No idea why.)

The marina at Cap d’Agde

The dunes and beach

No, the camera does not lie!

Leaving the Cap we followed round the coast to Le Grau d’Agde where the estuary of the river Herault meets the sea, the banks on either side marked by lighthouses. Teams of rowers were pulling back upstream against the current and fishermen lined the banks, seemingly more disposed to enjoy the sunshine and chat than tend their rods. This place we liked even more than Cap d’Agde. In season it would be less brash and fashionable and certainly more fun for kids and sandcastles on the beach. The river Herault gives its name to the region and is quite likely to be found on those bottles of cheap dark red wine lining Sainsbury’s shelves.

Jetty beside the river Herault

View back from the end of the jetty

On the way home we became entangled and lost in the Béziers rush hour which was none too pleasant, but Ian’s navigational skills eventually got us out on the right side of the town. Passing through the crumbling little town of Cessenons we stopped at the Citroen garage to explain the problem with our electrics. In no time the problem was resolved by a very helpful “garagist” who explained all the workings about circuits, fuses, volts and amperes to us in the strangely accented French common to the Midi. He showed us exactly where the fault had occurred and then refused to take any payment for his troubles as it had only taken a few moments! We have met so much kindness from almost everyone during our time in France.