Saved in the nut of time

Some of you received this post as a completely blank message a few weeks ago – my apologies for not getting to grips with the new WordPress dashboard !! :)

The title refers to the Fete de la Chataigne, the chestnut festival, in St Pons which has been taking place every October for many, many years.  A few months ago, when I enquired for the exact date with the tourist office, I was told that there would be no chestnut festival this year, that it had been cancelled.  I was completely speechless – those of you who know me can attest that that’s not something which happens often! :D  How could one of the biggest autumn festivals in the area be cancelled?

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A little digging on the grapevine revealed some possible reasons.  During the municipal elections earlier in the year, the voters of St Pons had elected a new mayor.  It appears that some of the organisers of the festival had been on the losing ticket, and felt personally slighted during the electoral campaign.  They decided not to continue with the organising of the festival, and hence the information was put out that there was to be no Fete de la Chataigne this year.

Back in August I spoke with one of the traders who is a regular at the fete, and he was devastated at the prospect, as the fete is an important fixture in his sales calendar.  I imagine that for many of the clubs and associations in St Pons, such as the parent-teacher association and the rugby club, the fete is their main fundraiser of the year, and a cancellation would leave a fairly noticeable hole in their budgets.

As the time of the fete drew nearer, I checked again with the tourist office, and this time the answer was different – the fete would be taking place after all, on the last weekend of October, as before.  Yippee!!! :D  Apparently the new mayor and his council had mobilised as many of the local associations and clubs as they could, to help make sure that this year’s fete would be as good as ever.

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I visited the fete on the Saturday, as it’s usually the less frequented day of the weekend.  The weather was glorious, sunny and warm, in total contrast to the previous year – see the article here – when the weather was grey and drizzly.  I was joined by a few friends, and we got there early AND bagged a parking space not too far away :) !!

The very first stall we came to looked interesting: a food truck, offering a variety of chestnut themed food.  We decided to earmark that for our lunch, on our way back from exploring the fete!

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The selection of stalls at the fete was eclectic and wonderful, as always!  No changes there!!

From cheese to vanilla, via saffron, garlic, and sausages, from balloons to baby boots, and everything beyond – it was all there, and wonderful to see, smell, taste and buy!

In the big square the chestnuts were being roasted in enormous steel drums as always, with the wood for the fire piled up high.

Here, would you like to try one?  Careful, don’t burn yourself, they are quite hot!!

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There was so much tasty looking food, tempting us to stop for lunch, such as the aligot below (potato puree with fresh cow’s cheese), but we held onto our resolution to try the food truck.

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The nougat was looking luscious, and I know that my sister-in-law will be none too happy that I did not buy any for her…

The basket-weaver from last year was there too, with more beautiful offerings!

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And of course there were chestnuts for sale, either fresh for roasting, or dried, as flour, in syrup, in jars already cooked and peeled, or …  Seems that there is quite a lot you can do with chestnuts :D

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We did eventually head back towards the car, and “our” food truck for lunch.  The sign said Chez Tina, and the menu had been specially planned for the chestnut festival: small pizzas with bacon, caramelised onions, chestnut pieces, cheese, and chestnut honey; chestnut soup; chestnut gnocchi.  There was also pannacotta with chestnut honey caramel, and a chestnut cake, to follow our main course.  As we stood admiring the inside of the van, and deciding what to order, we noticed a sticker saying “Taos” on the counter.  So we asked Tina whether she’d visited there, and it turned out that she’s actually a native of Taos, New Mexico, who has lived in France for some time.  Her French was very good.  I would have never imagined her to be from the other side of the Atlantic ocean!  We had a good chat and a few laughs.  Here’s Tina preparing our pizzas in her wood-fired oven.

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We decided to have some chestnut soup followed by pizza – since chestnut soup can be a little rich we shared two portions between the four of us.

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But we each had our own pizza!!
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Of course we couldn’t resist dessert – and somehow I managed to miss taking pictures of the pannacotta, and the chestnut cake, with the chestnut honey caramel.  How greedy of me!  All the food was totally delicious, and we were all so glad we had waited with our lunch!!  Tina is a regular in St Pons with her food truck, and you can find out more via her website.  I can tell you she was planning to take some time off during the winter, but I am looking forward to seeing her again before too long!

So it looks as though the future of the Fete de la Chataigne is in good hands and will continue to attract lots of visitors to St Pons each October. The only thing missing was the amateur dramatics piece, which is usually presented on a stage across the river, below the tourist office…  Perhaps next year??

Operation mincemeat

It’s this time of year, when I start to look forward to Christmas.  I try to keep Christmas firmly out of my mind until December has started, and I’m glad that the French have not yet fallen into the trap of starting to set out their Christmas merchandise as soon as August is over, or putting their Christmas decorations up at the beginning of November.  I know there are villages around here that never take down their Christmas lights, but at least they don’t turn them on until the appropriate moment.  I’m sure you can tell how I feel about timing in relation to Christmas, so I’ll stop the rant now!!  :)

For me Christmas isn’t Christmas without some mince pies.  I was fortunate to be given a recipe for mincemeat by my dear friend Nadine Holm.  She has been using it for her mincemeat for a very long time, and I believe it’s a fairly old recipe.  Why?  Because for this recipe you actually add meat!  Wikipedia has a fascinating article on mincemeat here.  I was very interested to read that the mince in mincemeat and mince pie comes from the Latin minutia, which means smallness.  When we mince something we usually make it small, as in chopping, so that makes perfect sense.

Anyhow, I digress.  A few months ago I decided to try Nadine’s recipe, and I enlisted the help of a friend to prepare it with me, and to share the resulting mincemeat.  Preparing the mincemeat months before Christmas means that the flavours have time to develop (much as for fruitcake and Christmas pudding) and that it will be much tastier.  It also means that you have one less thing to think about in the run up to Christmas!!  Here is the recipe (you’ll find a scanned copy of the recipe at the end of this post):

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I assembled the various ingredients – not all that easy, as ready prepared suet is unknown in France, and brown sugar is fairly difficult to find.  But where there is a will…

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Weighing out the sugar, raisins, suet and citrus peel was the easiest part.  I prefer to use brown sugar for all the recipes which contain lots of dried fruit, such as Christmas puddings, fruit cake and the mincemeat.  I managed to get the suet from a supermarket that stocks British products, but I have in the past prepared it myself, buying beef fat from the butcher and grating it – somewhat laborious to say the least!  The cooked meat was put through the meat grinder, and the apples were peeled, cored and chopped finely.  I ground the spices by hand, the aroma was wonderful!

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Soon we had everything mixed and in the largest pot I have in my house – as you can see it was a tight fit!! IMG_9384

The smell when the pan came to a boil was beautiful – and very reminiscent of Christmas!  As it simmered, the quantity in the pan reduced, and the texture changed from very liquid to a more jam-like consistency. I know the colour isn’t very appetising, partly due to the yellow cast from the lighting – I’m sorry!!

Soon it was time to put the mincemeat into jars.  It looks pretty good, doesn’t it?

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Oops, that one got filled a little too much :o

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And then we were done, and all the jars were stored on the shelf until we’re ready to make those delicious mince pies!  Roll on Christmas!!

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Nadine Holm's mincemeat recipe

On the beach again

During the late fall and winter there are often days when the sky is a bright blue colour, and when there isn’t a breeze stirring. Those days are perfect for a visit to the seaside!  In my case the closest seaside means Valras Plage, which is only 30 minutes by car from Saint Chinian, and that’s precisely where I went recently for a spot of lunch.

In the off-season, many restaurants and shops are closed in the towns along the coast.  But there are still enough cafes and restaurants open to choose from, and on my visit to Valras Plage I went to the aptly named Le Phare (the lighthouse), very close to the port, and to the beacon which marks the entrance to the harbour.

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Le Phare is under new ownership, but the restaurant and its menu haven’t changed very much since my last visit.

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The starter of the day was a tartar of salmon, which was very tasty: chopped raw salmon fillet, mixed with finely chopped cucumber and onion, and seasoned with olive oil and a little lemon and lime juice.

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There were mussels on the menu, with French fries, of course!!  And of course I chose that dish for my main course!  I can never resist eating moules frites by the seaside!!  There were some very large, yummy mussels in this pot.

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Dessert, anyone??  Of course — who could resist!! :)  Profiteroles or ice cream??  Ice cream for me, please!

After that lovely lunch, a walk around the town was de rigueur.  There were a fair few people on the beach; it was warm enough to lie in the sunshine after all!

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Valras used to be a small village mainly inhabited by fishermen.  All that changed with the arrival of a railway line in 1846.  People from and around Beziers could afford to travel to the seaside, and when the electric tram arrived in 1901, the village became ever more popular with seaside tourists.  Hotels and chalets, and bars and restaurants were built to accommodate the visitors, and the village started to expand along the beach and grew into a town.  The yacht harbour was constructed in the early seventies, and today there are moorings for 350 boats, in the harbour and along the Orb river, which flows into the sea at Valras.  A walk around the town will allow you to discover many buildings from some of the different epochs of the town.  The balcony railings look very art nouveau, and the bazaar could be from the 1930s.  Many of the older houses, especially along the seafront, have been replaced by bigger apartment buildings, but none of them are more than five stories tall.

The emblem of Valras Plage is the seahorse, and you can find it in many places around the town.  Here are just two:

So if the seaside is not for you in summer, maybe I can tempt you with a visit out of season??

 

Bring it on – a collection of recent cook club food

It’s been a few months since I last shared the exploits of our cookery group with you.  So it’s time to catch you up on what we’ve been cooking AND eating! :)  A note before I start – I don’t have the recipes for all of the dishes we cooked.  Where possible I have included the links to the relevant recipes.

Early in the summer, my friend in Narbonne hosted our get together with an Italian theme.  It was prime peach season, so we started our session with Bellini cocktails – peach juice and sparkling wine – way to go!!

For the starter we cooked stuffed round courgettes, which were accompanied by home-made foccacia bread.

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Our main course was vitello tonnato, thinly sliced cold veal (poached the day before), covered with a tuna fish mayonnaise sauce, and decorated with anchovy fillets.  With the vitello tonnato we had a beautifully crunchy salad of green beans and radishes.

For dessert we prepared peach amaretto mess – a take on Eaton mess.  For those of you not familiar with this dessert, it is generally made with whopped cream, meringues and crushed strawberries. You can see how decadent it looked, and it tasted very, very good!

A month later I hosted a Mexican themed session – I adore Mexican food, and perhaps I got a little carried away in my menu planning.  We had a lot to cook and eat!!  Here are the Mojitos we started with:

Some years ago visitors from Texas brought me a cast-iron tortilla press (THANK YOU, Susan and Alan!!), and I decided we could make use of that, to make our own corn tortillas.  For the first course we prepared Ham and chesese quesadillas with mango salsa:

This was followed by a Ceviche of scallops with avocado:

 

Our main course was Meat in tasty broth in the fashion of Guadalajara.  It really was very tasty, and a meal in itself, accompanied by beans and grilled spring onions.

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We also had a Spinach salad with amaranth seeds with our main course!  We were starting to feel rather full at this point!!  So full in fact, that we decided to forego the dessert we had prepared (bunuelos, a kind of doughnut, served with an anise flavoured syrup), and the Mexican hot chocolate!!  :)  We had a great time with all that lovely food though!

An afternoon of Caribbean food was hosted by my friends in Caunes-Minervois. I was put in charge of preparing the Simple Coconut and bean soup.  It was pretty simple and incredibly delicious!!

Jerk chicken kebabs with mango salsa were our main course, but we all agreed that the jerk seasoning mixture was too spicy and lacking depth of flavour.

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With the chicken kebabs we had exotic avocado salad, made prettier with the addition of pomegranate seeds. :)

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Our dessert that day was spiced glazed pineapple with cinnamon fromage frais – quite a mouthful, that recipe name, but a delicious ending to a wonderful meal!

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Our most recent get-together was held in La Caunette, and it had a vegetarian theme.  I have to admit that I was too distracted with the cooking, to be able to take many photographs.  The recipes we used were all taken from Simon Hope’s book “Entertaining with Friends”.

Our first course was a delicious salad topped with a goat’s cheese crouton:

The grilled tomatoes were for a sauce to accompany the corn fritters, which got eaten so quickly that I did not get a chance to take a picture :(

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The parsnip croquettes were delicious too!

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I was in charge of making the wild mushroom filo parcels – a delicious, if somewhat involved recipe.

I managed to slightly overcook the filo parcels – they were nicely crisp, but a little too brown to be photogenic!! :)  No, they weren’t burnt to cinders, how could you??

For dessert we had kiwi compote, which I enjoyed more than my fellow cooks did.

So here you have it, four very different cookery sessions, with very different foods.  What all the sessions have in common though, is that they were all highly enjoyable and that we would probably not have tried to cook the food we prepared on our own.  If you enjoy cooking and food, why not start your own cookery group with some of your friends??  You’ll have fun, I promise!!

 

The abbey in the desert

What do you do when you have friends visiting, and the weather is promising you the most beautiful sunny autumn skies???  Go on a day trip, of course!! :)

That’s how I found myself driving to Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert one sunny day last week.  In my mind Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert was always too far away to visit, but it turns out I was wrong.  The village can be reached in just a little over an hour’s drive from St Chinian, about the same time it takes to reach Montpellier or Carcassonne.  My reason for visiting?  Saint-Guilhem is one of the most beautiful villages of France — a site and sight worth visiting!  I think you’ll agree when you see this picture:

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This is the first glimpse of the old Abbey of Gellone, as you drive to the car park at the top of the village!  Pretty spectacular, wouldn’t you agree?

The village of Saint-Guilhem stretches along the narrow valley of the Verdus river, the houses lined up one next to another.  As you walk along the main street, from the bottom of the valley, the houses appear to tower above you, and there’s little sky to be seen.

But there are many things to admire other than the blue sky!  Along the streets there are a number of fountains, all of them running with fresh water.

Then there are the thistles, which are fixed on many front doors:

In the old days the thistles were collected and eaten, much as we eat artichokes today.  Over time they have become rarer, and today they are used to foretell the weather: when it’s sunny the petals are wide open, and when it’s due to rain the petals will curve in.  I imagine that’s due to the change in humidity?  You can see that it was definitely sunny on the day of my visit! :)

Scallop shells were also in evidence on many buildings — due to the fact that Saint-Guilhem used to be a stopping point on the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostella.  The scallop shell marked a place where the pilgrims were welcome and could stop for the night.

A small street branched off the main street and ran along the Verdus river.  There were many little cascades, burbling away.

There is a sense of drama when you first catch a glimpse of the abbey with the church ahead and above you.

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The buildings are beautifully simple, and yet incredibly impressive.  As you get closer you notice the details.

The foundation of the abbey dates back to 804, when Guilhem of Orange, a cousin of Charlemagne, decided to give up his warrior life and devote himself to God instead.  Charlemagne donated a piece of the true cross, and in time the abbey prospered and became an important place of pilgrimage through the middle ages.  The present day church was built in the 11th century in the romanesque style. When I first entered the church I was struck by the starkness of it — it is almost completely devoid of any decorations.  Initially it also felt very dark.

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But as my eyes got used to the light levels, I found it to be a very peaceful place.  The stone vaulting in the chapels on either side of the apse are amazing to contemplate.  The three windows high above the main altar are representative of the Holy Trinity.  The organ dates from 1789 and was built by Jean-Pierre Cavaille, the grandfather of the celebrated organ builder Aristide Cavaille-Coll.  You can read more about the instrument (in French) here.

Fast forward to the French revolution, when the abbey church became the parish church of the village, and the other buildings of the abbey were sold off.  One part became a spinning mill, another part a tannery.  After a devastating flood in 1817 the abbey buildings were used as a quarry of sorts, with the cut stones being used in the village and further afield.  The beautifully carved columns and capitals of the cloisters ended up scattered all over the area.  There is precious little left of the cloister, which was once the jewel of the abbey.

Imagine a cloister on two stories, with an amazing variety of columns and capitals.  Here is an impression of what it might have looked like:

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Pierre-Yon Verniere, a justice of the peace in nearby Aniane, had a passionate interest in romanesque art.  He managed to amass a collection of 148 pieces from the cloister in Saint-Guilhem, which were apparently used as decorations in his garden.  After his death in 1875, his children sold the collection, and it was eventually acquired by the American sculptor George Grey Barnard.  George Grey Barnard’s collection is today at the core of the Cloisters Museum in New York, and if you are ever there you can see the amazing work of the medieval stonemasons.  For now, you can see a little part of it, virtually, via this link.

Today some of the former abbey buildings are occupied by Carmelite nuns, who hold regular services at the church.  Just as I was about to leave the church, a group of Germans (perhaps pilgrims?) started to sing — the acoustics were wonderful, with the sound all around me.  I took a brief video for you (e-mail subscribers, please visit http://midihideaways.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/saint-guilhelm/ to watch the video).

The square outside the abbey is in great contrast to the atmosphere of peaceful contemplation inside the church.  There is a huge plane tree in the centre, planted in 1855, and all around are cafes and restaurants.

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On the fountain next to the tree, someone from one of the restaurants had lined up water carafes, in readiness for the midday midday meal.

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We had a delicious lunch at the Taverne de l’Escuelle, just off the square.

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There was gardiane de taureau, a tasty beef stew, an omelet with wild mushrooms; a chicken salad; and tartiflette, a combination of cooked, sliced potatoes, bacon pieces, onions, reblochon cheese and creme fraiche — can you guess what I ate??  For dessert there were sweet crepes!!

If you want to see Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert for yourself, I would recommend that you visit out of season.  The car park is fairly large, but as we left, it had filled up considerably.  Plan on spending the day, or combine your trip with a visit to nearby Saint-Jean-de-Fos and its pottery museum and studios.  More about that in another post soon!

Oh, I almost forgot — I know that some of you will be asking: “Why Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert?”  The desert was a place of spiritual retreat, harking back to the early Christian monks who lived in the Egyptian desert.  It could also relate to the fact that when Guilhem established his monastery the valley was very much remote and deserted.

Trick or treat?

There’s definitely a treat in this post – whichever way you look at it!  On October 31, I visited Mazamet with friends.  The town is not all that far from St Chinian,  just under an hour by car  along the D612, which connects Beziers to Albi.  The drive is a beautiful one, especially at this time of year with the fall colours.

We drove to Mazamet to have lunch at Mets & Plaisirs, a hotel-restaurant which my friends discovered a little while back.  The restaurant is close to the centre of the town, just across the road from a nice public park.

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We were welcomed at the door by Mr Blancard, the owner, and shown to our table in the cozy dining room.  Nice linen tablecloth and napkins, silver cutlery, quality glasses – all lovely!!

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Soon we had made our choices and were happily chatting away whilst sipping an aperitif.  These are the nibbles which came with the aperitif:  black olive tapenade, roquefort and walnut mousse, crispy bacon pieces and croutons.

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The “amuse bouche”, a kind of pre-starter, consisted of slices of salmon fillet, marinated with lemon juice and olive oil – very tasty!

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I couldn’t resist the foie-gras on the menu, and I’m glad I chose it – it really was very good!!

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My dining companions all opted for gravad-lax style salmon, which was incredibly tender and tasty.  I’ll order that next time :)!!

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I was very pleased with my choice of main course!  I had ordered veal, which was cooked to perfection, and served on a bed of chestnut puree.

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My dining companions all opted for the wild sea bass, which they pronounced excellent!

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I had to pass on cheese, but the cheese selection was very good (sorry about the blurry picture :( ), and the servings generous.

Desserts were heavenly, and this time we almost managed to have one of each amongst the four of us:  quince tarte tatin, roasted figs, and rum baba with pineapple.  I had the rum baba, and I tasted some of the quince tarte tatin – both were very good – the whole meal was a real treat!!

After all that wonderful food we needed to go for a bit of a walk, to exercise off some of the calories! :)

I had often driven through Mazamet, but only once stopped for a brief visit.  There is much to discover in the town, as I found out.  Mazamet had its heyday between the 1880s and 1950s, and its prime source of wealth was the processing of wool and leather.  The wealthy bourgeoisie built themselves beautiful mansions, often very close to their storehouses and factories, and there are many stunning buildings to be discovered!

Today Mazamet is still a lively town of some 10,000 inhabitants, and there are many interesting shops, such as this chocolate and pastry shop!

… or this cheese shop:

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There were several florist shops, but the one in the picture had a particularly appealing display:

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The public spaces in Mazamet are well-kept and nicely planted, and I can imagine that the town is very busy on market days (Tuesdays and Saturdays).  I’ll definitely go back for another exploration of the town!

 

Have you ever been g**gled?

Earlier this year I visited Montpellier – perhaps there was a specific reason or perhaps it was just for a day out, I don’t remember.  The weather was beautiful, and as it got nearer to lunchtime I headed for the Place de la Comedie, a beautifully open square in the centre of Montpellier.  The square is lined on opposite sides with beautiful buildings, with the most impossibly ornate facades. Some of the detail on those facades is just amazing, and not really visible or able to be appreciated with the naked eye – you really need a very good zoom lens or a magnifying glass!!

The third side of the square is occupied by the Opera Comedie, Montpellier’s municipal opera house and theatre.

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As you can see, it’s pretty grand!  The fourth side is open, and leads towards the Polygone shopping centre, as well as the Esplanade, a beautiful tree-lined area, linking the Place de la Comedie with the Corum, the new opera house and performing arts centre.

To the left of the Opera Comedie stands the Grand Hotel du Midi – you can see the gold mosaic from that building in the first gallery of pictures above.  Walk past the entrance to the hotel, down the side of the theatre, and you get to the Brasserie du Theatre, which is in the same building as the hotel.  The restaurant has a very unassuming frontage onto the street, just a door really, leading into a little foyer, from which stairs lead up to the restaurant.  The interior of the restaurant is very much belle epoque, with mirrors and plaster work everywhere.  I felt too self-conscious to take pictures of the interior – I’m sorry!!  You can see some good shots of the interior on this site.  The weather was so nice that lunch was being served on the terrace.  :)   The terrace is on the first floor, so from the street you don’t really see it.

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The fountain in the centre was a nice touch, and added to the great ambience.  The midday menu was very reasonably priced at 15.90 EUR for two courses, and it included a glass of wine.  My dining companion and I decided to forego the starter and have dessert instead. :)  The steak was delicious, and the salmon was cooked to perfection.  The dessert of the day was tiramisu – yummy!!

After a relaxed and unhurried lunch, we went for a walk around the pedestrianised centre of Montpellier.  There’s much to look at, be it shop windows:

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…or architecture:

The amazing building above is the Hotel des Tresoriers de la Bourse, which dates from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Then there are of course the wonderful door knockers.  If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I have a kind of fetish for door knockers! :)  The variety is seemingly endless, and only limited by the fantasy and imagination of whoever designed and/or made them.

Whilst walking down Grand Rue Jean Moulin I came across this strange-looking car:

On closer examination it turned out to be a G**gle car, not the one which is driver-less, but the one which takes the pictures that allow us to virtually explore in street view.  Here’s the camera array:

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Nobody seemed to pay the G**gle car much attention – the shop windows and the shopping itself were much more interesting.  We continued with our walk, and found some more lovely things to look at:

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I’m sure the Maison Justin Boch is no longer trading, but the lettering is just lovely, and the square so inviting.  Just a few steps away was the Padova ice cream parlour.  It’s not as though I hadn’t had enough to eat at lunchtime, but I couldn’t resist it… :)

The Hotel Saint-Come is today part of the headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce.  The tourist office offers guided visits of the building in its program – I’m going to try and book that for a future visit.

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Down one of the side streets I found this wonderful glass veranda.  Look at the detail from the tiled frieze.

Back on the Esplanade I noticed the facade of an old Gaumont Cinema building:

And then it was back to the Place de la Comedie, where it all started.

Now, if you go to G**gle maps, and look at the street view of Grand Rue Jean Moulin, you might just be able to spot me with my camera in my hand, taking a picture of that car.  You’ll have to go to the May 2014 version though – for some reason the street was photographed again in June 2014.  And if you look very carefully, you might even spot me several times!  I had great fun walking past the car a number of times :)