Baubles at Boubals

Thursday 22nd December 2005, Ambre les Espagnolettes
We have not been particularly active over the past couple of days. It is almost as if we are hibernating. Certainly the days have been icy cold here in the village though there are so many different local micro-climates that other areas have long periods of warm sunshine during the day. At least the shortest day has now past and we look forward to the days gradually lengthening and the approach of the spring.

Both yesterday and today we have been on long afternoon walks, seeking out the flatter areas of the garrigue where the sunshine can reach. There are many patches of road on north facing slopes, where the shadow of the hills is present all day and the frost never melts. Today this became very unpleasant on some of the twisting roads in the hills when squeezing past oncoming vehicles. Wheels had a nasty habit of taking a different route than intended. Learning from these experiences we will stick to more major roads from now on.

This morning Doug and Karen arrived around 11am with a huge bag of fresh croissants and their daughter and son-in-law. The last two had flown in from Montana to Barcelona on Tuesday to spend Christmas with mum and dad. Together we visited the wine cellar of the neighbouring vine growers where we were made as welcome as ever by the delightful Mme. J whom we found in the kitchen of her adjoining home busy preparing for the family Christmas. For our American friends it was all quite an experience. Our 5 litre wine cubis were filled for us from the huge storage vat and we also purchased a selection of different cépages, either to try, or as presents. Mme J. explained in delightful English some of the problems of peace keeping in a family run business where the ideas of the young do not always accord with that of their parents. Their company has been in existence for many generations now and one of the wine labels even displays an old photo of their grandfather Emile. Doug bought us one of these bottles as a Christmas present.

We returned to our big warm 19th century kitchen to enjoy the croissants together around the table with large mugs of hot filtered coffee. (Like us, the Americans are not too keen on the usual French thimbles of strong expresso.)

Over Christmas our friends have hired a car, so once they had departed to explore the local countryside we profited from the afternoon sunshine by wandering around the circulade of the little old town of Puisserguier and its surrounding hills, pine woods and vineyards. Around 5pm as the temperature started to fall towards zero we returned home via the excellent supermarket at Cazoule-les-Béziers. Although we will not be here over Christmas, we anticipate the arrival of friends of the house owner in their camping car on 26th. As we have no idea when shops will be open over the Christmas period, or whether Colin and Jenny will have their own food, we thought it advisable to stock up on a few essentials.

Friday 23rd December 2005, Ambre les Espagnolettes
This morning we set the alarm for 6.30am as this was definitely the only way we would be able to fit in a sight-seeing visit to Montpellier. The thought of driving there with the low winter sun of morning in our eyes and returning directly into the sunset has always put us off making the journey. Today though, we determined to leave Modestine in Béziers and take an early train, making the maximum use of daylight.

We left Ambre just as daylight was beginning to lighten the horizon – clocks are an hour ahead of Britain so it gets light later here. First we had to chip away at the hard layer of ice covering Modestine’s windows. Fortunately other drivers were as cautious as us for once and we crawled along the icy roads through the surrounding white vineyards at a snail’s pace. The common perception that it is warm in the South of France is a complete myth! Between 10.30am and 3.30pm it does warm up considerably with bright sunshine and clear, brilliant blue skies, but the rest of the time the temperature hovers around freezing or below. Ponds are permanently coated in ice as there is insufficient time or warmth during the day to ever thaw them out.

The TGV sped us to Montpellier in just 40 minutes and a short walk from the station found us in the Place de la Comédie at the heart of this clean, exciting, sophisticated city. Traffic has been largely forced underground or removed from the centre except for smart modern trams running along the main boulevards lined by palm trees. The residential buildings, especially along the rue Maguelone leading up from the station, are very attractive, dating from the 18 and 19th century. The nearby park has a monument to the American vine, imported after French vines had been decimated by phylloxera in the late 19th century.

Tram in the Rue Maguelone, Montpellier

Monument to the American vine, Montpellier

Pedestriansed streets, crowded with shoppers and decorated for Christmas ran off from the Place de la Comédie, the main hub of the city, surrounded by the flamboyant opera/theatre building and numerous street cafes where during the warmth of the afternoon most tables were occupied.

Opera House, Place de la Comédie, Montpellier

Enjoying the sun, Place de la Comédie, Montpellier, 23 December

Montpellier is everything that poor old Béziers is not – elegant, animated, pedestrianised, clean, with a series of imposing perspectives extending out from the old town. We sought out sun and warmth along all of them. From the Place de la Comédie extends the Champ de Mars, with tree-lined façades and a very helpful Office de Tourisme at the start. The Christmas market was held here with tacky American seasonal songs blaring out over the wooden huts full of trinkets. We explored first the modern swathe of the city, starting with the Polygone, a smart multi-level shopping mall which could have been anywhere. This ended in a striking neo-classical façade with steps leading down to the cleverly-named Antigone, an esplanade extending almost a mile to the river Lez where the glass-fronted Hôtel de Région – the regional administration centre – closed the perspective.

The Polygone terraces at the start of Antigone, Montpellier

Hôtel de Région, Montpellier

Ricard Bofill, a Catalan architect, was responsible for the overall concept, which started to come to life in the 1980s, and the flats, shops, offices and restaurants are laid out in crescents and arcades which hearken back to some of the Renaissance buildings elsewhere in the city but in a distinctively modern idiom. Interest is added by trees, fountains and, in line with the way that the French always try to rub their citizens’ noses in Kulcher, copies of classical sculptures.

Place du Nombre d’Or, Antigone, Montpellier

Fountain in Antigone, Montpellier

Winged Victory of Samothrace, Esplanade de l’Europe, Montpellier

The massive development was finished off in about 2000 with much more modernist buildings, the Olympic swimming pool and the Médiathque Emile Zola – which only appeared to be open in the afternoons.

Médiathque Emile Zola, Montpellier

The whole thing may be held to be a little contrived, but personally we prefer the allusions to architectural heritage to the cold bare glass slabs to be found in modernist developments such as la Défense in Paris. Prince Charles would surely have approved!

Returning to the Place de la Comédie we continued along the tree-lined avenues of the Champ de Mars which is lined by elaborate buildings, including a delightful early cinema. The Esplanade Charles de Gaulle in the Champ de Mars ends up by Corum, a massive box of a conference centre, theatre and opera house, enlivened by a row of painted sculptures, possibly sponsored by Dulux.

The former Pathé Cinema, Montpellier

Statues by Corum, Montpellier

Our attempts to explore the centre of the old town were interrupted by the sight of the Arc de Triomphe erected on the site of one of the old gates of the city in about 1700 to the glorification of Louis XIV. Smartly restored a few years back, it led onto another grand perspective, the Place Royale du Peyrou with a pompous equestrian statue of the Sun King charging away from what must be one of the most beautiful water towers to be found anywhere. All this glorification of the man who revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 today seems insensitive, to say the least, in a city with a strong tradition of Protestantism.

Arc de Triomphe, Montpellier

Place Royale du Peyrou, Montpellier

The terraces by the water tower afford views over another remarkable construction, the 18th century Aqueduc St. Clement, which strides across the valley, its two tiers of arches reminiscent of the Roman Pont du Gard near Nîmes.

The water tower, Place Royale du Peyrou, Montpellier

Aqueduc St. Clement, Montpellier

There are also views from the water tower towards the Cathedral and this is where we made our way next. We passed the building of the Faculty of Medicine, its doorway flanked by statues of Barthez and Lapeyronie, two noted local practitioners. The medical school, established in the 13th century, brought together teachers from Christian, Islamic and Jewish backgrounds and made Montpellier the seat of one of the oldest European universities.

Doorway to medieval Faculty of Medicine, Montpellier

Neo-gothic building of Faculty of Medicine, Montpellier

The faculty building, in the oldest part of the city, adjoins the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre, built in 1364 as a Benedictine chapel and designated a cathedral only in 1536. The main, some guidebooks tells us the only, feature of interest is the incongruous baldachin, or stone canopy, dominating the west front, its lofty roof supported on stocky round columns.

Cathedral west front, Montpellier

Behind the Cathedral and Faculty of Medicine are the Tour des Pins, one of only two surviving medieval towers (there were originally 25), and the botanical garden, established in 1593, making it probably the oldest one in France. In it we found a memorial to perhaps the greatest alumnus of the medical school, the bawdy Renaissance writer François Rabelais.

Tour des Pins and Cathedral from Jardin des Plantes, Montpellier

Monument to Rabelais, Jardin des Plantes, Montpellier

Time was getting short before our train left, so we returned to the Gare Saint Roch through the streets of the old town, not so narrow, nor with so many obviously medieval houses as other towns in the region, but full of life and thronged by pre-Christmas shoppers. We did find an oratory of one of our favourite saints, the drop-out Saint Roch, baring his ulcerated leg as ever. Apparently he came from Montpellier, which is yet another stop on the pilgrim route to you-know-where as the scallop shells everywhere reveal. We even saw a modern-day pilgrim complete with hair shirt and cross.

Oratory of St Roch, Montpellier

Back to the draughty station to find that our train had been supprimé – yes it does happen in France as well! An hour to kill drove us to a nearby internet café (the station was wi-fi but we had thoughtlessly omitted to bring our laptop with us) and a chance to catch up on Christmas messages with our friends. We drove home from Béziers one hour later than intended into a darkening sky, the rosy glow of the sun having dropped below the horizon, attempting to distinguish the silhouettes of assorted drivers, pedestrians, dogs, bollards, dustbins, piles of rubble, open drains and gullies that make driving in France such an obstacle race.

Such a long day had quite exhausted Jill who retired to bed with a copy of Harry Potter in French leaving Ian to write up much of the cultural content of today’s blog.

Saturday 24th December 2005, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Christmas Eve in a foreign land. Apart from the many emailed seasonal greetings from friends, we received cards, sparkly Christmas stars and tiny presents from Neil, Jeev and Kate in the post. Presents that were full of love and humour rather than material value. We also received a lovely home-made card from the young people caring for our home in Exeter and a little parcel of thoughtfully selected and amusing bits and bobs from Genevieve in Caen. Around 11am Susanne rang from Champagne-sur-Loue for a chat and to wish us a happy Christmas. She and Roland will be spending the holiday in Dôle with Hughes and the family. This afternoon we will be returning up to Christine and Mostyn’s home near Bedarieux where we have been invited to a party this evening and to spend Christmas day. We really are so very lucky to have such wonderful friends and family.

Later at Boubals
We made our way up to Bédarieux through Berlou and the wonderful landscape of lowering grey hills. We called in at the supermarket on the outskirts of the town to see how the French coped with their last minute shopping. It seems Christmas is celebrated here with a family meal on Christmas Eve and that the 25th is rather low key. Here they tuck into quail stuffed with pâté de foie gras, goat’s cheeses coated in figs and raisins, cuisses de grenouille – yes frogs legs - but most of all, fresh salmon and sea food! There were queues buying the beautifully displayed mountains of coquilles St. Jacques, huitres, langoustines, crabs and freshly caught fish.

Le Caroux from near Berlou

Langoustines, squid, and frogs legs

Buying Christmas dinner in France

Christine and Mostyn had been working all day to prepare a wonderful evening for their guests, all English, several from the south west of England. The house was warm and bright and the hospitality boundless. Just a few weeks ago we had never met our hosts and fellow guests, yet here we were enjoying a delightful, happy evening as if we had known one another for ever. Outside it was an icy cold night in the mountains of France, inside it was a warm, comfortable animated British Christmas.

Christmas with friends

Christine and Jill

Sunday 25th December 2005, Bédarieux
We had been invited to spend the night rather than drive home through the hills in the early hours of Christmas Day morning. This morning the ground was white with frost and there was a low mist. Not a promising start for our planned Christmas Day picnic on the beach. Over breakfast however, as we sat watching the blue tits, robins and coal tits at the bird table, the cloud gradually lifted allowing the sun to melt the frozen grass which steamed in its warmth.

We packed up party remains – a wonderful array of cold meats, salmon, salads and chutneys, and with Mostyn driving so Jill was given a total break and able to fully enjoy the scenery, we made our way through little mountain villages down onto the plain of Languedoc to the quay at Marseillan on the Bassin de Thau, the huge lake behind the sand-spit separating it from the Mediterranean near Séte. The salt water lake was clear and still with fishing boats at anchor. At lunchtime there was nobody around and we were able to picnic in peace at the water’s edge with the sunshine pleasantly warm. Later as we drank hot coffee families started to appear for afternoon strolls and a couple of fishing boats set out to sea.

Unpacking the hamper

Christmas Day lunch by the sea

Lunch finished we moved on to the Grau d’Agde, the sea wall where the Hérault river meets the sea. Here it was colder with a breeze off the sea and many families out taking brisk strolls on the breakwater or along the sandy beach.

Christine and Jill at the Grau d’Agde

On our return journey we diverted to visit the little town of St. Gervais-sur-Mare where Christine had heard there was a remarkable Christmas crib. The chapel had been left open and an entire room had temporarily been given over to the crib. By putting a euro into the slot the crib lit-up and came to life with angels descending from heaven, choirs singing carols, the infant Jesus in the manger waving his arms in blessing, shepherds arriving with lambs under their arms and little tableaux of everyday country life with cattle and sheep, wood cutters, stone breakers, washerwomen and cheesemakers all depicted in the landscape surrounding the central crib scene. The costumed figures were each about nine inches high. It was an enormous undertaking and beautifully presented. The perfect end to our Christmas Day outing.

Le nouveau né est arrivé

The crib at St. Gervais sur Mare

Detail from the crib

Back at the house it was suggested that we might wish to stay the night to finish off Christmas as all four of us were together, away from our children for the first time ever. The idea of another genial evening with stimulating company in a warm, comfortable English home delighted us. Anyway we really did not fancy driving home in the dark and already ice was forming again, so we all settled down for the evening around the Christmas tree – with silver glass decorations that Mostyn, a retired glass-blower, had made himself – enjoying glasses of wine and a glowing log fire.

Monday 26th December 2006, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
This morning the frost was whiter and thicker than ever. The overnight temperature had been well below zero. The sun soon had everywhere steaming, bringing back colour to the landscape. We left Christine and Mostyn around 11am after a really happy, cheerful couple of days where we had been made most wonderfully welcome. (Thank you both so very much.)

On the way home we called off to visit Lamalou-les-Bains, which is quite unlike any of the other little mountain towns and villages. It is a small spa town and consequently rather chic with thermal baths, a casino, cinema and theatre cum opera. There are pleasant gardens, palm trees and attractive hotels and mansions from the 19th century. The streets are lined with restaurants and bars with terraces. The town is also the regional centre for the rehabilitation of road accident victims. There are always people to be seen in nearly every French town, on crutches or in wheel chairs. Seeing the way many people drive here we have come to realise why! However, it is not often that so many handicapped people can be seen coping with the results of careless driving as can be found on the streets of Lamalou. The majority are in electric wheelchairs where they stop and wait outside the shops for someone to come out to serve them. Others are on crutches, many have head injuries. Today, being lunch-time on a winter’s day there were fewer to be seen than usual. Even here, in a town designed to cope, the pavements were quite inadequate to accommodate wheelchairs and the road surfaces still presented hazards with broken kerb-stones, tree roots and road works.

The thermal spa at Lamalou

The theatre and casino at Lamalou

The theatre and casino with the gardens and bandstand presented a charming little complex. The musicians were just leaving the theatre after rehearsing for tonight’s concert which gave us the opportunity to peep inside. Then we crossed to the casino for a hot coffee in the warm lounge next to the machines à sous. Today may be Boxing Day in England but it is just a normal working day in France.

We returned through the mountains, moving in and out of icy patches at each bend in the road until we reached Roquebrun on the banks of the river Orb. Here we stopped and made our way to the stony riverside beach where some twenty white ibis were wading in the shallow water. From here there was a lovely view up to the village with the Mediterranean garden and the remains of a ruined castle on the summit.

Roquebrun seen from the bank of the Orb

We reached Ambre around 3.30pm, just ahead of Colin and Jenny, English friends of the house owner, who will be staying here for a while. They unpacked their camping car and parked it beside Modestine outside the mairie. Once settled in we got to know each other over wine and supper together in the kitchen. It will not be practical to all be in the house together from many points of view, not least because the electricity supply is insufficient for the amount of energy required to heat extra rooms. It seems practical therefore that we should go away for a few days leaving them to enjoy the house in peace, before returning to pack up and prepare to move on permanently. It has been an excellent opportunity to explore this area in some depth and we are immensely grateful to have been able to use this house as a base, but all things must come to an end and new opportunities beckon.

During supper Neil rang from Turkey to wish us a happy Christmas! It was wonderful to hear from him and it made Jill feel quite emotional. He and Jeev are having a wonderful time though temperatures range from -10 to +10. They have been mountain-biking and to Turkish baths. It was a year today, while we were with them in Didcot, that the Tsunami disaster occurred causing such widespread devastation. Jeev’s father and brother managed to ring from Sri Lanka immediately, before it was reported in England, so at least it was known that they were safe. Today in the church in Lamalou we saw a poster reminding people of the event and explaining how the funds raised in France are being used to rehabilitate the people of Asia.

Tsunami reminder at Lamalou