A Travellerspoint blog

France

The Chestnut Lady Cometh ...

semi-overcast 18 °C

Our delightful neighbour, Arlette, has been popping by every night with bags of chestnuts. But we are Canadian and therefore culturally too damn polite to tell her that we simply can’t stomach another roasted chestnut… ever! So whenever she comes to the door with another bagful we thank her profusely and take them. By last Friday we had so many chestnuts we considered taking a stall at the weekend’s Fete de Chataignier; the annual Chestnut Festival in the nearby village of Villedonnel. But could we compete with these professional roasters?
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You can definitely have too much of a good thing. However, despite the fact that all of the roadsides and woodland paths are knee deep in fallen chestnuts this stallholder at the Festival was trying to make a buck.
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But chestnuts were not the only local produce at this fall festival. There was bread….
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Cheese
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….and , being France, Garlic.
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There were all manner of produce and local handicrafts and, of course, the wine for which this region is so famous. Here is the Chevalier de degustation offering us a taste of his late-harvested muscatel.
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We had a great afternoon at the chestnut festival, although we turned down many offers of roasted chestnuts.

Now back to the chestnut lady.
Our stock of chestnuts grew daily and we hadn’t the heart to throw them away. Jim’s son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter visited us for a few days last week and returned to Provence with a car full, and future renters of our holiday home may well find them stuffed in cupboards and wardrobes or even under the mattresses. Here’s Friday’s gift …a heap of the freshest, sweetest chestnuts that you will ever taste …

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We noticed last week that the supermarkets were selling chrysanthemums in a myriad of beautiful colours, so we bought a huge pot of orangey-red ones as a gift for our chestnut lady. She was absolutely delighted, she claimed, but we wondered why she didn’t put them alongside her other pot plants in front of her house.
“I put them in my garden,” she explained later and we thought no more of it - until ….wait for the punch line …. We went for a walk on Sunday morning and found that every single grave in every cemetery was adorned with a pot of chrysanthemums. Yes, dear reader, Saturday was All Souls Day, the day the French honour their dead by placing chrysanthemums on the graves. Here are some …
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So we realised we had committed a major cultural faux pas and had presented Arlette with the equivalent of a funeral wreath, but she was too damn polite to tell us. However, it is now Tuesday and we haven’t had a knock on the door for the past three nights. … alas, the chestnut lady cometh no more.

Posted by Hawkson 07:42 Archived in France Comments (0)

Location, location, location ...

sunny 22 °C

Estate agents claim that there are only three things that sell a property - Location, location and location. No - we’re not looking to buy property here, (although we could easily be persuaded). It is the numerous ancient castles of this region to which we refer.
But first, a quick history lesson.
This part of Languedoc Roussillon is known as Cathar Country because, about 900 years ago, groups of travelling apostles persuaded many of the locals that the Catholic Church had strayed from the correct teachings of god and that they could only be saved by becoming “Good Christians" again. These “Born Again” evangelicals called themselves “Bon Hommes” or “Good Men” but the Catholics called them Albigensians and sent an army to destroy them. From 1209 to 1229 thousands of Cathars were rounded up and burnt to death in mass executions. However, the Cathars continued to flourish so the Pope introduced the Inquisition whereby specially selected Monks would torture suspects until they admitted their sins and could be lawfully burnt at the stake. After 1244, when more than 200 Cathars were burnt to death on a single fire, many others went underground or fled.

Now - back to the incredible castles of Languedoc Roussillon . During the time of the Catholic crusade against the Cathars, many of the heretics sought refuge in the castles that had been built in the 8th and 9th Centuries to protect France from Aragon, ( now northern Spain - Remember Henry VIII’s wife, Catherine of Aragon?).
Here are a just a few of the many we have seen….

Collioure Castle

Collioure Castle

Chateau de Termes

Chateau de Termes

Peyrepertuse Castle

Peyrepertuse Castle

This one is called Chateau de Queribus - it stands on top of a two thousand foot high mountain.

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The view of the Pyrenees from the top is incredible….

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But back to the bit about the importance of location. Building a castle on a mountain top was a great way to stop invaders from getting in, but, as the Cathars discovered, once the enemy had you completely surrounded they could simply starve you out. Most of the castles were taken by siege and as the starved Cathars surrendered they were led straight to the bonfires. The Catholic inquisitions and burnings continued for nearly a hundred years until the last four suspected Cathars were burnt at the stake in Carcassonne in 1329.
Here is Carcassonne Castle …perhaps the most majestic of them all.

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Posted by Hawkson 09:13 Archived in France Comments (2)

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

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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…

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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 …
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And when the road emerges into a hamlet or medieval village it snakes its way through impossibly narrow streets like this one …
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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.....
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Many of the trees that line the canal banks today were planted when the canal was new….
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The reflections and shadows in the milky jade water produces artistic natural watercolours ….
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And this mallard patiently posed on one leg for several minutes for this portrait....
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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
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And here’s the view of a bridge from the bridge ….
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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…
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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 …
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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. …
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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 ….
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… and the onion man's offerings... …
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… and here's the flower gal…
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We bought five-year-old Brebis - local sheep’s cheese that is so strong it bites back - from this stall …

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a wild boar sausage - saucisson de sanglier - from this young lady…
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and Herbs de Provence here….
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And, naturally, this being a fishing port, here’s the fishmonger ...
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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)

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