A Travellerspoint blog

October 2009

Over the Mountains and Far Away ...

sunny 23 °C

We’ve been mountaineering … O.K. Anyone who knows us well will immediately smell a rat - not that we’re incapable of making a moderate climb - it’s simply not really us. So we let the car do the climbing and then we walked about a bit when we got to the top. “But which mountain top?” you may ask.
Many, many mountain tops.
For the past two days we’ve been whipping our little Polo pony up and down the Black Mountains to visit 12th Century castles like this one at Lastours…

and Abbeys like this one 13th century one in Caunes Minervois….

This area is so historically endowed that it is simply a huge museum, but the real beauty is in the natural landscape. At this time of the year the mountains are an artist’s palette; the canopies of giant oaks and chestnuts glint golden against a dark green backdrop of pine, cypress and fir; acres of vineyards add wide splashes of red, orange and brown, while fields of high pasture are still lush with summer grass. In these sweet autumnal mornings, when the boulangerie’s wood smoke and fresh baked baguettes deliciously scent the village air, we watch as the warming sun vaporises the cottony blanket of mist to unveil the soaring mountains and above them, the clear azure sky.
Maybe you think we’re going a bit over the top … but we are not. Judge for yourself. Here is a valley of vineyards…


But driving in the mountains, (or even the towns), is not for the faint-hearted. The cars are generally very small, but some of the roads are too skinny for anything but a malnourished Citroen deux Chevaux, (the tiniest of French mini cars). Even our diminutive VW Polo refused to squeeze through some of the gaps that Dot, our SatNav gal, directed. Two-way single track roads thread their way along scary rock ledges and wind through ravines and gorges that are carved deep into granites and marbles by rivers that have cascaded down the mountainsides for millennia.
Here is some of the beautiful roadside marble …

And when the road emerges into a hamlet or medieval village it snakes its way through impossibly narrow streets like this one …

Every road here should come with a warning, “Unsuitable for People with a Nervous Disposition,” but we love the wandering roads, the mountains, the medieval villages, the canal, the castles, the food, the wine …. in short - we absolutely love this place. In fact, we love this place so much that we’ve cancelled our trip to Paris to stay here another week.

Posted by Hawkson 09:24 Archived in France Comments (1)

A Day on the Canal

sunny 25 °C

The Canal-du-Midi

As any reader of the C/Inspector Bliss mysteries will know, the recently retired British detective is an expert on the life and times of Louis XIV, the Sun King, who ruled France and its dominions from 1638 to 1715. Therefore, it would not be surprising to find the illustrious detective here in Languedoc Roussillon researching the next chapter for his long awaited novel concerning the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask.
Why here? Because one of Louis XIV’s greatest engineering feats - after Versailles - can still be seen much as it was in 1677 when it was completed by 15,000 workers under the guidance of Baron Pierre Riquet.
The 240 kilometre canal is a masterpiece of ingenuity; linking the Atlantic port of Bordeaux with the Mediterranean Sea by using the waters that flow from the Black Mountains of Languedoc Roussillon. Many of the bridges, aqueducts and other elements of the canal have remained unchanged for more than three hundred years. Here is one of the locks.....

Many of the trees that line the canal banks today were planted when the canal was new….
The reflections and shadows in the milky jade water produces artistic natural watercolours ….

And this mallard patiently posed on one leg for several minutes for this portrait....
There is no way to adequately describe the incredible beauty and serenity of this waterway, and as we walked the towpath into Carcassonne we decided that we would return as soon as possible to take a boat trip.

As we ate a picnic lunch by the canal in Carcassonne we enviously eyed a family group aboard an impressive boat that was just setting off on a cruise. “If only …” we mused, and went off in search of coffee in the central square.
But as we walked the towpath back to our starting point we found the same cruiser, “Carmen,” moored alongside the embankment. David, the English owner and skipper, warned us not to trip over his mooring ropes, and then invited us to join him and his family on a short cruise. David’s boat has a hull built in 1926 but, thanks to his hard work and engineering skill, it is a beautiful canal-worthy boat.
Here’s David at the helm

And here’s the view of a bridge from the bridge ….

Thanks to David and his family we had a day on the Canal-du-Midi to remember and our appetites have been whetted for an extended cruise on this beautiful waterway.

Posted by Hawkson 06:27 Archived in France Comments (0)

Sunday Market

sunny 24 °C

The French have been embroiled in religious wars since the dark ages and Languedoc Roussillon has seen more than its fair share of blood spilled in the name of god. So, for a country whose roots are so pedantically wedded to religion, it’s surprising to discover that the main Sunday morning attraction is no longer the church, it’s the market.
This market hall in Lagrasse, near Carcassonne, was built in 1324 and has been in use ever since…
The Parisian markets are legendary, but for a true taste of local produce you need to come here, to a market like this one in Collioure - a few miles north of the Spanish border - where the ancient market square is shaded from the bright sun by a canopy of plane trees …
Collioure is a quaint Mediterranean fishing port sheltering under the lee of the Pyrenees mountains. This part of the coast has a near tropical micro-climate and people are still sunbathing on the sandy beaches and even swimming in the sea. The port of Collioure is renowned for its anchovy fleet and a handful of castles built by the Knights Templar in the 13th and 14th Centuries.
Here are a few of the traditional anchovy boats in front of one of the castles. …
But, back to the market. We arrived a little late to grab the best of the fruit and veg but there was still plenty of local goodies on offer. Here’s the olive grower's finest products ….
… and the onion man's offerings... …
… and here's the flower gal…
We bought five-year-old Brebis - local sheep’s cheese that is so strong it bites back - from this stall …


a wild boar sausage - saucisson de sanglier - from this young lady…

and Herbs de Provence here….

And, naturally, this being a fishing port, here’s the fishmonger ...

The rich sedimentary soils of the valleys, the abundance of spring water and three hundred sunny days a year makes this a natural garden of Eden. What more could anyone pray for on a gloriously warm Sunday morning at the end of October?

Posted by Hawkson 09:26 Archived in France Comments (3)

The Vineyards of Languedoc

sunny 24 °C

The clocks have been turned back an hour and autumn is evident all around us, but it’s still in the low twenties by day, although there is a noticeable chill once the sun has set. With a little persuasion the garage door finally opened and we now sit around the fire each evening eating roasted, freshly picked chestnuts and drinking the local wine.
Languedoc Roussillon is probably Europe’s best kept secret. While well-heeled tourists have their pockets picked in the tarted up medieval villages of Provence and Tuscany, the savvy traveller seeks the authenticity and relative tranquility of this exquisite region at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains.
Here in Languedoc Roussillon there are quaint medieval villages by the bucketful and more ancient castles than you can cram onto a chessboard. The mountain scenery is breathtaking, the canal-du-midi is a serene aqueous artery and the local food and wine is a gourmet’s delight.
It is the wine, and the vines that grow the grapes under the sub-tropical sun that shapes this part of the world today. Wander into any wine merchants’ anywhere in the world and you are likely to find a Minervois, or a Fitou or a d’Oc, or Corbiere or Cotes du Roussillon. Not to mention classic aperitifs and dessert wines like Dubonnet, Rivesaltes and Banyuls. All of these wines, and many more, are produced within an hour or so of our new home.
The valleys and plains between the mountain ranges of the Pyrenees, the Corbieres and le Montagnes Noire, trap both sun and rain and provide the perfect climate for viniculture. But unlike Spain, where olives, oranges, almonds or grapes are each grown in specific regions to the virtual exclusion of all other crops, in Languedoc the vineyards are liberally scattered across a landscape which includes woodland, scrub and pasture.

Now that this year’s crop has been safely picked, pressed and bottled, the job of the vine’s leaves are over for another year and they turn golden and red in the sun.

But all is not well in the vineyards of France. Protectionism, over-production, cheap labour and hidden subsidies in many New World countries - including Canada - are forcing many traditional French vignerons like Henry Carbonnel to rip out their vines. Here’s Henry’s son-in-law, George, proudly selling Jim a bottle of his finest rose‘, pressed from hand-picked organically grown grapes, for a little more than the price of a Starbucks’ cappuccino.

It is frustrating that due to punitive taxation designed to protect Canadian growers we have to pay eighteen dollars a bottle for the same wine that costs only a few dollars here. But wait a minute… bottles of wine for just two dollars all year round ... maybe you can have too much of a good thing!!

Posted by Hawkson 07:21 Archived in France Comments (0)

Two Weeks in Languedoc ....

rain 20 °C

Two weeks in Languedoc - Not … “A Year in Provence.”

Dorothy, our SatNav senorita, put on a French accent once we had crossed the Pyrenees to pick up a car from Mr. Hertz in Perpignan. We gave Dot the address of our next domicile in Cuxac-Cabardes and sat back to enjoy the ride. She didn’t hesitate - she took us all around the one-way system in Perpignan straight back to the car hire office. Did she know something? Maybe she was trying to warn us?
“Rustique” would be the kindest description of our new home-from-home in the French mountains just north of the Pyrenees. “Our” house must be at least 300 years old and the plumbing, heating and electricity may well be original! We had three power cuts during our first evening.
“C’est normal,” explained our helpful neighbour, a kindly native who is prematurely aged by curvature of the spine. She later came to our door with an enormous bag of chestnuts. We didn’t want to appear greedy so took a few handfuls - not enough apparently, so we took more. After many “Merci biens” and “Bon soirees” she left. Five minutes later she was back, insisting that we should take the lot - but not the plastic grocery bag. She needed the bag, she joked, to put over her head so that people wouldn’t laugh at her in the street.
After a month dealing with the many different languages of Spain it’s nice to be able to converse with the locals here with a reasonable chance of being understood. And when we have slipped, we’ve often slipped into Spanish.
However, when it comes to dealing with the baker our French may not be up to snuff. The baker is the best informed person in any French village. Everyone goes to the Boulangerie and everybody gossips there. Our Boulanger is a wheezy, pot-bellied man who’s eaten far too many of his own loaves. On our first visit we found him plucking several songbirds that he had just shot - nothing is too small or pretty to end up in a French oven. He handed us the bread - who needs clean hands or wrapping paper - and carried on plucking.
Then we needed wood for the fire. This may be the south of France but up here in the mountains it can get mighty chilly at night so we asked him where we could buy some. “I can sell you a little …” he suggested, as if he would be sacrificing his own meagre supply. “For a very good price.” We agreed, we thought, on a small stack of wood for twenty euros. However, when the stack arrived it had doubled in size and price. “Too much,” we protested, but he didn’t really want to hear. “It is very good wood,” he explained.” “Undoubtedly,” we agreed, “but there’s no way we can burn that much in two weeks.” “It’ll keep,” he protested. “We’re only here for two weeks,” we said, but he wasn’t deterred. “Maybe when you come next year …”
We almost won in the end - half the load for half the price. But, for that price he could not deliver it all the way to the garage - he would drop it by the roadside and we would have to carry it the remaining fifty feet.
We carried it to the garage and triumphantly shut the door - and it locked!
We had opened and closed the garage door several times without a key - it didn’t have a key - and it didn‘t have a window either. So there we were, with twenty euros of the baker‘s finest firewood locked in our garage , facing a bleak night in the Black Mountains of Languedoc-Roussillon.

To be continued …


Posted by Hawkson 01:41 Archived in France Comments (1)

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