St. Chinian and around

Saturday 19th November 2005, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
St. Chinian is growing on us. We have already become familiar with the town centre with its market place where twice a week stallholders arrive from the countryside to sell their produce to the people of the town and the surrounding villages. The mairie with its tourist information centre and médiatheque has proved central to our way of life as we are there most Wednesdays and Saturdays to load on a new blog page. The library staff now recognise us and are very friendly.

The Médiatheque really is a magnificent facility for a little town of some 2,000 people and an example of how go-ahead the community is. It was opened in May this year after a major six-year project to refurbish the abbey cloisters and buildings. It has a multimedia suite with ten terminals and an exhibition space which receives a changing programme of displays. At present there are paintings of vineyards by a Béziers artist but when we first visited the town there was a display of about 220 photographs, some as old as 1893, contributed by families in the Villeneuve-St. Laurent quarter. They were accompanied by historical documents, including the French equivalent of census enumerators’ returns for 1836, 1878 and 1962 - clearly no one hundred year rule applies in France.

We have also chatted with old ladies at the post office. We have used the local Spar supermarket and drunk coffee in one of the several local bars. We have also explored the retail outlet for the St. Chinian wine cooperative with wines from every one of the 200+ winegrowers entitled to use the St. Chinian AOC label which is much coveted!

Today has been freezing cold. We located hats, gloves and scarves somewhere in one of Modestine’s cupboards and decided a brisk walk around St. Chinian would warm us up.

Outside of the town centre, which is characterful but inevitably old and battered with narrow streets overrun with vehicles and pedestrians, we were delighted to discover there are streets of very nice, clean and tidy colour rendered houses with large tiled roofs and shady verandas, very much in the Spanish style. Each has its own neat garden with palm trees and cactuses, and there are delightful views to the surrounding hills. The town is considerably larger than we had realised and has the advantage over the surrounding villages of having regular bus services to the nearby towns of St. Pons and Béziers. There is a collège and in summer a swimming pool. It seems an active town that is very much at the centre of the surrounding community.

After lunch we explored the disused railway line passing between the vineyards nearby. The countryside was deserted as we walked several easy kilometres along the track to the little town of Cessanon on the river Orb. In places the track was still wet from the recent flooding and here we discovered quite large hoofprints in the mud where a sanglier had recently passed. So although we have yet to see one, they are most definitely out there.

Although we have driven through Cessanon several times we had not yet explored it properly. It is rather an untidy place, old, narrow and crumbling, but it has a great deal of character with a couple of bars and restaurants in the centre opposite the church with its huge old wooden door and iron lock. Normally there are people sitting at pavement tables drinking beers or coffees and the centre is invariably chaotic with locals chatting and shopping while cars navigate their way through the major road diversion cause by the Grand Rue being completely dug up and relaid. It looks as if it has already been going on for many months and will continue for many more. There is a pleasant feel to the town and with the camping area by the river it is probably a very animated place during the summer. The upper town is dominated by a tower, formerly the donjon of the castle, high on a rocky promontory with lovely views over the surrounding countryside and interesting orange roofscapes of the houses in the town. Below this are the narrow alleyways between the tight-packed little houses of the mediaeval circulade (constructed to a circular plan as described in an earlier blog). We returned along the railway as the sun set, reaching home just before dark.

Church door at Cessanon

Cessenon donjon, now used as a bell tower

Countryside around Cessenon

The rooftops of Cessenon

There are several winegrowers in this village but we have remained faithful to the nearest one to our house. Here we arrive at the chai - wine cellar - from time to time, with our 5 litre wine cubi requesting a refill. It is a family run business that has existed over many generations. The wine is superb -dark, rich, warm and sunny. Today Madame J, always sunny herself, was feeling particularly chatty and happy. Her children had phoned to say they were on their way back from a marketing expo in Zurich and had made some excellent contacts. In addition, the French wine guide bible, Hachette, had just awarded them a plaque announcing that their vin rosé had been selected for the 2006 edition. So happy was she that as we left she gave us a bottle of this remarkable wine “comme cadeau pour le weekend”. We were really touched and delighted by such a generous gesture. So many people have shown us unbelievable kindness and hospitality in so many different ways over recent months.

Sunday 20th November 2005, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
It was freezing last night and this morning we went for a chilly but cheerful visit to the Sunday market in St. Chinian. It is beginning to feel just a bit festive with Christmas stalls appearing with several selling pottery and jewellery. Today there was a lively jazz band playing and lots of athletic cyclists dressed in lycra gathering outside one of the cafes before setting off on a 64 km tour of the surrounding hills. The hot chestnut seller gave the jazz band players newspaper cones of chestnuts to thaw out their fingers during one of their breaks and the lady on the “Chien Chic” stall was doing a roaring trade selling tiny fleecy lined hooded jackets to all the local dog owners - for the dogs we mean! The first sign of cold weather and the canine owning fraternity go into panic!

Sunday market at St. Chinian

Ooh la la, comme il est beau!

Fruit and vegetables at St. Chinian market

Ooh la la, comme ils sont beaux!

Having bought chicken and roast potatoes to take home for lunch we stopped for a hot chocolate at one of the street cafes. Too cold outside but within there was a fug going as groups of local people sat crowded around little tables drinking pastis and exchanging gossip with their neighbours. It’s obviously very much a social event, the drinks being just the excuse to get together. One group in particular intrigued us, five local retired men, their faces so full of character, sitting together, each wearing a flat cap and with a glass of cloudy pastis in front of them. They looked for all the world like a French version of “dernier vin d’été”. Everyone who entered shook hands or made a bise (kiss on either cheek) with friends in the bar.

Café terrace opposite the market

During the afternoon the weather warmed up and we went for a walk near the village of Berlou, another of the great local wine appellations. There is a “table d’orientation set amidst the garrigue and vines and offering 360% views of the dark surrounding hillsides. The local school had set up a botanical trail through the scrub which was great as little labels with drawings by the children were attached to certain plants enabling us to identify many of those that are completely new to us as well as heathers, lavenders, herbs, agaves and stunted oaks and chestnuts. Geologically the terrain is fascinating, consisting mainly of contorted and twisted schists. What soil exists is little more than sparse yellow sand but generally it struck us as amazing that anything can even gain a foothold amongst the tumble of schisty rocks and shards. Yet this inhospitable arid landscape is capable of producing rich, rounded wines of first rate quality.

View from the orientation table towards Berlou

The perfect terrain for growing the perfect vine!

Just one of many wayside weeds

Our walk of about nine kilometres took us through woodland, scrub, open valleys and acres of vines. The sun sank behind the inky dark hills as dusk gradually fell over the deserted landscape. Following stony tracks we eventually arrived at the village of Berlou. It is not particularly picturesque though has existed for centuries. It is the hub of the local wine industry which involves every one in the village one way or another. Rather to our surprise we discovered an information centre about the industry actually open and were offered glasses of Berlou nouveau to taste as we looked around the exhibition about the entire wine making process and the local geology. It’s a bit like the Beaujolais nouveau and has to be drunk very soon after production. This red wine was only a month or so old but served chilled it was quite pleasant, light and refreshing and already 12.5% proof! A rather nice local touch is that each year the children in the primary school at Berlou design the labels for the bottles. This year the theme was the Olive tree.

Le vin nouveau de Berlou est arrivé

We returned home and prepared for our first visit away from here since we arrived three weeks ago. We plan to visit friends of Ian, Ralph and Ruth who live over near Pau, for a few days. Ralph and Ian worked together at Guildhall Library in London many years ago and both have an inordinate enthusiasm for maps (Jill’s opinion, not theirs!)