Keepers

My own definition of a keeper is a place I’m going to keep in my address book, somewhere I’ll want to go back to again!  The two restaurants in this article both fall into that category!!

On a recent visit to Montpellier, I had wanted to have lunch at L’Heure Bleue, an antiques store cum restaurant cum tearoom on Rue de la Carbonnerie.  The last time I had been to L’Heure Bleue was a few years ago.  I had fond memories of it’s cozy and kitsch decor and the delicious food!  The concept was fun – everything in the restaurant was for sale: the tables, the chairs, the china, literally anything around you could be bought and taken home, if you so wished.  When I pushed the door open on my most recent visit, there was none of the usual hum, and nobody was seated at the tables.  Perhaps I was a little too early?  Alas I was too late!  When I asked about having lunch, the owner said that they had stopped serving food about a year ago. 😦  He could see how disappointed I was (he probably was too), and suggested that I try another Salon de The just around the corner – L’Appart’The.  So off I went, down Rue de la Carbonnerie, turning right into Rue de l’Aiguillerie, and finally left into Rue Glaize.  I was so pleased when I spotted L’Appart’The, that I almost went flying when I missed a step outside the restaurant!   😲

There were tables outside the restaurant, and even though it was a nice and sunny day, it felt a little too cool for me to be sitting outside.  Inside, the dining room was small but bright, with a lovely warm feel to it.  There was space for only eight persons at four tables for two.  A counter at one end of the room separated the kitchen from the dining room, and allowed me to watch the chef preparing the dishes.  There were already some people seated and I felt a little too self-conscious to take photographs.

The menu was very simple: a choice of three starters, two main courses, and four desserts.  My dining companion and I both opted to have the fresh ravioli for our starters.  The ravioli were filled with mountain (raw cured) ham and curd cheese, and served with a creamy sauce.  The ravioli were very delicious!

For his main course, my dining companion chose the slowly braised pork chop:

I had the roast beef:

Both of the main courses were delicious!  What we really liked was that for once there was a good amount of vegetables on the plates – that happens so rarely in restaurants in France.  The vegetables were perfectly cooked and totally appropriate for the season: turnips, carrots, cabbage, sweet potato and regular potato.

From the five desserts on the menu I chose the apple tart:

and my companion chose the apricot dessert with a caramelized top:

Both desserts were very yummy!!  When I came to pay the bill at the counter (the menus were 25,50 Euros for three courses), I saw that there was a second room to the side, which was set up as a lounge with sofas, armchairs and coffee tables – very cozy and perfect for afternoon tea!


I came across another “find” recently on a visit to Capestang.  Again, I wasn’t able to go to the restaurant I had hoped to go to, which was La Galiniere.  I had timed my trip badly, it was the day off for the restaurant.  I knew that there were several restaurants around the main square in Capestang, so I walked there and had a look.  Le Caveau de la Place looked interesting and there were a couple of people outside, enjoying a drink in the sunshine, so I decided to give it a whirl.

The word caveau usually denotes a wine cellar where you can sample and buy wine. The interior of the restaurant made the wines a prominent feature:

The lunchtime menu was simple and straightforward – three courses, no choice of dishes, but what was on offer suited me fine.  The first course consisted of deep-fried squid nuggets with a little green salad.  The batter around the squid was very well seasoned, and the olive oil on the salad was wonderfully tasty.  The portion was very generous, almost a meal in itself!


For the main course there was blanquette de veau, veal in a creamy sauce with carrots and mushrooms, and accompanied by a creamy risotto.  The veal was lovely and tender, and oh-so-tasty!!

Dessert came in the form of a lemon meringue tart – not home-made I’m guessing, but good all the same!

To go with the food, I had a glass of white wine from Domaine Saint-Georges d’Ibry, a winery near Abeilhan.  In the photo below, the white wine was the bottle in the centre.

The three-course lunch with a (very generous) glass of wine came to €17.80 – great value!

When I arrived back in Saint-Chinian there was a rainbow on the horizon – if you look carefully, you’ll be able make out the start of a second rainbow.  Just perfect!! 🙂

Going crackers

A few weeks ago, I announced the date for this year’s Cracker Fair Christmas market at the Abbaye de Valmagne near Villeveyrac.  As luck would have it, I entered a prize draw and I was lucky enough to win a free ticket to the Cracker Fair.  I don’t often win anything, so you can imagine how thrilled I was!

The Cracker Fair is a two day event, which takes its name from the traditional British Christmas cracker.  If you are unfamiliar with the tradition, you’ll find the Wikipedia article here.  Many years ago, when the fair first came into being, it was aimed at the British expat community, whose Christmas celebrations would not be complete without Christmas crackers!  In the years since, the fair has caught on with locals and expats alike, and it is now one of the highlights of the area during the run-up to Christmas, for vendors and shoppers alike!

I went to visit last Saturday, on a gloriously sunny day.  It had rained (and stormed) the previous night, and many of the stallholders had not known whether the weather would be good enough for them to set up their stalls.  As it turned out, the day was perfect, almost too nice for a Christmas market!

The path from the entrance gates to the former abbey buildings was lined with colourful booths on one side.

Along the path on the opposite side to the booths was a stall selling garden ornaments.  No garden gnomes here!!  I was very taken by the guinea hens and the chickens!

 

A food court had been set outside the entrance to the cloister.  All kinds of foods were on offer:  fish and chips, burgers, roasted chestnuts, pumpkin soup, fresh oysters, onion bhajis, crepes, tapas, grilled sausages, pastries, and more.

The ‘prize’ for the most original looking stall went to the one selling fish and chips, which was in the shape of a boat.  I treated myself to a lunch of fish and chips, accompanied by mushy peas, another British tradition.  If you don’t know what mushy peas are, you can find a recipe here.  In my excitement, I completely forgot to take a photograph of my lunch, but I can tell you that the fish was perfectly cooked, the batter was wonderfully crisp, and both the chips and mushy peas were delicious!

Before my lunch, I had visited the stalls inside the cloisters and the former abbey church.  Here are some of the stalls in the cloister:

There were many more stalls in the former abbey church:

Valmagne abbey was one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in Languedoc, and its church has almost cathedral-like proportions:  83 metres long and 24 metres high!  During the French Revolution, the abbey was dissolved and the buildings sold.  The church survived because it was used as a wine cellar!  Huge barrels were installed in the chapels.

The old refectory was turned into a living room during the 19th century.  And of cours, there were more stalls in there too!  The monumental fireplace was particularly impressive!!

The chapter house was off the cloister – it had the most amazing vaulted ceiling with a sawtooth pattern along the ribs of the vault.

Placed in the arcade that separated the chapter house from the cloister were some very ornately carved stone vases.  The face reminds me of someone. 🙂

In the cloister garden, opposite the door to the refectory, was a lavabo, a fountain where the monks would wash their hands.  Around the fountain was an octagonal structure which supported an ancient grape vine – lovely and shady in the summer!

Only two of these lavabos have survived in France, one of them at Valmagne!

Here is a picture of the fountain:

The abbey might have been rich, but life for the monks must have been fairly harsh – no central heating, washing outdoors summer and winter, no thermal underwear or fleecy sweaters…

Here is a view from the cloister garden towards the church.

And this is what the buildings of the abbey look like from the road:

I’ll be going back to visit Valmagne next summer, when I’ll be able to visit the mediaeval herb garden, and discover the buildings with fewer other visitors there.  I’ll report back, promise!!

A musical finale!

Having visited the old prison, the former archbishop’s palace, the cellars below the cloister of the cathedral, the market halls (for lunch 🙂 ), the Hotel de Montmorency, and the Theatre des Varietes on my day out in Beziers during the recent European Heritage Weekend, I finished my day at La Boite a Musique!

La Boite a Musique is on Rue du Capus, in one of the oldest parts of Beziers, not all that far from the market halls and the Place de la Madeleine.  As I approached the door, I could hear music being played – one of the reasons this was on my list of places to visit!

Inside, Pierre Charial was in the middle of a presentation.  The room was crowded with people – old and young alike were listening intently to every word and every note!!

Pierre Charial was in the process of explaining and demonstrating a table top organette.  All around the walls of the room were floor-to-ceiling shelves, stacked high with cardboard books.

Pierre Charial is a noteur (a mechanical music notator) and the cardboard books are for making street organs come to life.  Here’s how:

The cardboard strips pass through a “keyframe” and a hole in the cardboard means that the corresponding note will sound on the organ as it passes through the keyframe.  Different types of organs have different numbers of keys, the smaller ones often have 24 keys, while some very large dance or fair organs have up to 101 keys!

Pierre Charial had a collection of different instruments in his workshop.  Below is a barrel piano, another street instrument, where a pinned barrel plays the music.  A spare barrel sat atop the instrument.

Against one wall stood a disc musical box:

And there were other organs:

Pierre Charial has been making organ books since 1975, preserving historical tunes and creating new arrangements of contemporary music.  His catalogue lists around 1400 titles, and he’s still adding to it!

In 2004, Pierre Charial was given the title Maitre d’Art (Master Artist) by the French minister for culture, in recognition of his skills and his contribution to safeguarding a unique heritage.  During the heyday of the street organ there were literally hundreds of noteurs.  Today, this dying art is practiced by very few people.

On the Maitres d’Art website, there’s an interesting video (in French) showing Pierre Charial in his former workshop in Paris: click here for the link.

It was getting to the end of the guided visit – Pierre Charial kept the best for last!  He played his Limonaire Freres organ for us, a beautiful instrument!

Thank you very much to Mr Charial for opening his workshop for us – what a truly fascinating visit!!

Feeling festive?

As the days get shorter, my thoughts are turning to the festive season.  There’s quite a bit happening in and around Saint-Chinian, and things kick off with the Cracker Fair at the Abbaye de Valmagne.  The Cracker Fair is a two-day Christmas market on November 23 and 24, 2019, where you can find all your presents and more.  I’ve visited this Christmas market before (and I have written about it here) and will be heading there again this year!

Hot on the heels of the Cracker Fair comes the Christmas market in Saint-Chinian on December 1, 2019.  The market takes place in the Salle de l’Abbatiale (the former abbey church), the cloisters and in front of the town hall building.

Larger towns such as Montpellier and Carcassonne have Christmas markets which run for most of December.  The one in Montpellier (pictured below) runs from November 28 to December 28, 2019, and the one in Carcassonne is open from December 6, 2019 to January 5, 2020.

In the run-up to Christmas, stocking up on festive provisions is important!  The Foire au Gras, literally translated to “Fat Fair”, aims to fill the need for foie gras, duck fat and other poultry products.  Coursan holds such a fair on November 17, 2019; in Castelnaudary you can buy similar goodies on December 1, 2019; Limoux holds a Foire au Gras on December 23, 2019, just in time for Christmas!!

Truffles are also essential for a Christmas feast, so the truffle markets start just in time for the festive season.  You can find fresh truffles in Moussoulens on December 14, 2019, and in Talairan on December 21, 2019.

For those wishing to stock up on wine in time for Christmas, some of the Saint-Chinian winemakers are holding an open day on December 8, 2019!  For more information visit this site.

I’m saving the best for last – the highlight of the run-up to Christmas in Saint-Chinian!!  On December 11, 2019 at 6pm, there’ll be a concert in the parish church!  The chorus from the Montpellier opera house will be singing a programme of French music and ‘hit tunes’ from various operas!  Full details can be found here.

A bit of variety

Following my exciting visit to the Hotel de Montmorency, I walked to the old Theatre des Varietes on Rue Victor Hugo.

It all began in 1864, when an imperial decree relaxed the regulations around the running of theatres.  Prior to that decree, the running of theatres was very strictly controlled by a decree by Napoleon I dating from 1806.  The 1806 decree limited the number of theatres, with the aim to avoid bancruptcies their knock-on effect on the people working in the theatres.  The relaxation of that decree resulted in an explosion of new venues all over France.  In Beziers. the Casino Musical was built that year the name being changed to L’Alcazar in 1867.  Beziers’ L’Alcazar was a theatre of dubious reputation, and after a number of scandals it closed, to be transformed and reopened in 1904 as the Theatre des Varietes.

Here’s what the theatre looked like not long after it opened in 1904:

In the 1950’s its facade was altered somewhat:

And this is what it looked like on the day of my visit:

When the Theatre des Varietes opened in 1904 it was decorated in a style described as “Louis XVI rejuvenated”, very ornate and heavily influenced by art nouveau.

Inside, a spacious lobby gave access to the stalls, and there was a staircase to the first floor balcony.  The staircase was decorated with an enormous mirror.  The blue colour may or may not be original, your guess is as good as mine! 🙂

Here’s the top of the mirror:

The lobby on the first floor was where people went to see and be seen.

When the theatre’s fortunes declined, it was turned into a cinema, and in the late 1970 it was turned into a discotheque.

Here’s what the auditorium would have looked like around 1920:

And this is what it looked like on the day of my visit:

On the upper balcony the walls were painted black. On the walls of the first floor balcony, and on the ground floor walls, there was a sparkling finish.  All of that dated from its incarnation as a discotheque.  The sparkling stuff had a very disco feel to it!!  That said, the paint was peeling and flaking everywhere!!

Luckily, the decorative plasterwork does not appear to have been affected too much as yet!

The holes you see in the ‘flower baskets’ were light bulb fittings!  When the theatre opened in 1904, it was lit by over 300 light bulbs!!  At that time the city did not yet have a general electricity supply, but the theatre had its own gas-powered generator!

At the opening of the theatre, the glass panels in the ceiling were decorated in the art nouveau style.  They probably got broken over time and were replaced with regular glass.

The discotheque closed in 1982, and since then the theatre has lain empty and abandoned.  The building’s owners did what they could to slow decay, making sure that the roof was watertight.  They also restored the facade around the entrance, removing the ugly 1950s additions.  However, restoring the theatre to anything like its appearance during its heyday was beyond their means.

A group of local people had been advocating that the building be bought by the municipality so that it could be saved from redevelopment.  That finally happened earlier this year, and the future of the theatre looks somewhat rosier!

On the white sections in the pictures below, the paint has been stripped back to reveal the original plaster decorations underneath.

The stage:

Most of the original building is still intact, but a renovation is going to be costly all the same.

I do hope that the outside of the building will be given a face-lift too!

This was another fascinating discovery on my visit to Beziers during the recent European Heritage days.  I visited one additional interesting place after the Theatre des Varietes – to be continued!!

On Rue de Montmorency

This post is a continuation of my visit to Beziers during the recent European heritage days.  After my wonderful lunch at the market halls in Beziers, I made my way towards Beziers’ main square, the Allees Paul Riquet.  Along the way, a small hand-written sign drew my attention.  It led me a few steps along the Rue de Montmorency, to the Hotel de Montmorency, a building which I had walked past many times before.

Rue de Montmorency is in the heart of the mediaeval part of Beziers, and the building dates back to at least 1605, when it was recorded in a census as belonging to Guilhaume de Castilhon.  Guilhaume de Castilhon was secretary to the King of France, ordinary commissioner of wars, and secretary to Henri II de Montmorency.

Rue de Montmorency is incredibly narrow, so getting a picture of the entire facade was more or less impossible.

The property never belonged to the Montmorency family, but the connection between Castilhon and Montmorency must have been strong enough for the house and street to be named after the latter!   Guilhaume de Castilhon added to his property by buying neighbouring houses in 1609 and 1616.  His son, Jean de Castilhon added another part in 1646 and the ensemble of the buildings is thought to date from around that time.  The house passed through several hands over the course of the centuries.  During the latter part of the 19th century it was bought by a Mr Cavallier, who in 1877 “homogenised” the appearance of the building in the then fashionable neo-gothic and neo-renaissance styles.  In 1908 the house was bought by Achille Gaillard, a rich factory owner, who left it to his daughter Yvonne.  It stayed in the same family until 2009, when it was sold to a real estate company.

The doorway on Rue de Montmorency is big enough for a horse and cart!

I did some searching on the internet about the history of the building, and found that parts of it had been added to the register of listed buildings back in 1952.  In 2011, the entire building was placed on the register, which means that any alterations have to be approved by the French heritage commission.  I also found that in 2009, Carlos Carillo Gomez, a student from Barcelona university, did a survey of the building as part of his final year project.  If you’re interested in old buildings, the paper about the Hotel de Montmorency is very interesting!  It’s written in Catalan, and you can find it here.  The plans and elevation drawings, which are annexes to the paper can all be found here.  I found it absolutely fascinating!

Another source of fascinating information is the cadastre, a land registry plan, which shows the exact shape and size of a property.  The Hotel de Montmorency is No 32 at the centre of the picture, and the cadastre relates that the plot which the house stands on is 441 square metres in size.  With the courtyard in the centre being approximately 73 square metres, that leaves 368 square metres of floor space on each of floor of the building!

The only access to the house is via the door on the street, which gives into a vaulted passage.  The passage leads into the courtyard at the centre of the house.

As I stood in the courtyard looking around, a window on the first floor opened, and a young man waved and told me to come into the house.  It turned out that he worked for the owner of the real estate company, and he was in charge of the house during the visits.  The building was exactly as it had been left by the previous owners, nothing had been altered.  Electricity and water had been disconnected 10 years ago, so in some places it was a little too dark for good pictures.

Behind the large glass windows on the ground floor was a hallway with three doors.  The door straight ahead was decorative only, the one on the right led into a large room, and the one on the left led to a monumental staircase!  The windows on the half landing of the monumental staircase overlooked the street, and the stained glass windows were probably from the 1877 renovation project.

The handrail on the staircase was supported by finely sculpted brackets:

The ceiling of the staircase was incredibly ornate, and seemed to pre-date the 1877 renovations.

I’m adding a picture of the layout plan of the house – the one below is for the first floor.  The numbering of the rooms works in an anti-clockwise direction, my tour of that floor was in a clockwise direction.

On the first floor landing, the door straight ahead of me led into a rather gothic looking room.  The windows overlooking the courtyard were also made of stained glass, which gave the room a chapel-like appearance:

The ornate door surround at the opposite end of the room led into an enormous room.  At 41 square metres it was the second largest in the house (the largest room was on the ground floor).  The walls were lined with linenfold paneling and tapestry like fabric, and the ceiling was ‘a la francaise’, with closely spaced beams, which were beautifully painted.  The curtains matching the wall coverings were still in place, and there were two pieces of furniture:  a monumental glazed bookcase, which might have been made for this room during the 1877 renovations, and a somewhat incongruous looking 1920’s buffet.

To the right of the monumental fireplace, a door had been set into the panelling. It led into a little pantry of sorts, which communicated with a similar sort of pantry/closet off the room next door.  If you look at Gomez’s floor plan, this is marked (in Catalan) as ‘sala 4’ on the first floor.

Next door was ‘sala 5’, which might have been a bedroom once. It had two walk-in closets, one of which connected with the closet in ‘sala 4’.  One closet had a toilet and basin, the other one had just a basin.  The doors to the closets were rounded and were in the corners of the room along the same wall, so the bed could have been in the centre for ‘his and hers’ private facilities!!  The room had very elegant panelled walls, which were painted a creamy colour.  A beautiful white marble fireplace was on one wall.

Fireplace in ‘sala 4’ on the first floor

From this room there were two doors more or less next to one another – it was a little strange.  The one on the left led into a second staircase hall, which the architecture student denoted as a service staircase.  The door on the right, a little smaller than the one on the left, led diagonally across into the next wing of the building.  I have a theory for that: in one of the comments about the history of the building, an exterior spiral staircase was mentioned.  Such staircases could often be found on mediaeval and renaissance buildings.  The mention said that it was taken down in the 1990’s but I have a feeling that it might have been the 1890’s.  The staircase could have been located in the corner between two wings of the building, giving access to either wing.

The so called service staircase was almost as big as the monumental staircase at the entrance, and to my mind far too luxurious to be used by the servants alone.  I have a feeling that it might have been added during the 19th century renovations.

Continuing on the first floor, now in the wing opposite to where I entered the house, there were two bedrooms, and a bathroom which could be accessed from either of the bedrooms.

At the end of the bathroom, beyond the bidet was a separate WC.

Some details from the windows, these are espagnolettes, handles which are used to close the windows.

I moved on into the fourth wing, which was the one alongside the road.  A long corridor led to two bedrooms (dormitori 1 and dormitori 2), as well as to a bathroom and a separate WC.  One of the bedrooms had a niche with a wash basin and bidet.

The bathroom was done in the same kind of green tiles as the previous one.

Next came Sala 1, another large salon with a beautiful fireplace and elegant panelling.  The ceiling height in the rooms on the first floor was around 3.6 metres.

I imagine that this might have been used as a dining room once, since there was a kitchen right next door to it.

On the second floor the rooms were much simpler in their decorations; the ceiling height was lower, and the layout somewhat different from the floor below:

These are some of the fireplaces on the second floor.

And this is a picture of one of the two kitchens on this floor (cuina 2):

The monumental staircase ended on the second floor, but there was a smaller spiral staircase which continued upwards.

On the third floor awaited a little surprise – a loggia (covered terrace) which overlooked the courtyard – the views over the rooftops of Beziers were very interesting!!  If you scroll back up towards the beginning of this article, you’ll be able to see the loggia from the outside at the top of the building.

There was a great view down into the courtyard!

Next to the loggia was a bedroom which overlooked the street, and included an en-suite bathroom.  This suite was right above the monumental staircase.  And then there was another tiny spiral staircase which led up again!

The monumental staircase was in a tower-like building, and at the very top of the building was a room with windows on two sides – the views from here were spectacular!  It was very exciting to be able to visit this room!!

After this exciting discovery I went all the way down to the ground floor.  A few details from along the way:

On the ground floor was another suite of impressive rooms!

The light was not as good as upstairs, so it was difficult to take pictures.  The following are pictures of Sala 2, a room with dark brown wooden panelling and deep red wallpaper!

The kitchen on the ground floor was much larger than the ones on the upper floors.  It also did not seem to have been modernised very much – there was still the old fireplace to cook in/on!

The tiles were very pretty, perhaps dating to the 19th century or even earlier?

The cupboard next to the sink was topped with marble.

Sala 3 was a very elegant salon with grey/beige panelling and gold accents.  The fireplace was made from pink marble, and the ceiling was decorated with plasterwork rosettes. This was the largest room in the house!

Sala 4 was a more sombre room, with a wooden ceiling a la francaise, a dark marble fireplace, and exuberantly patterned wallpaper!

From Sala 4 the door led back into the entrance hall, and from there out into the courtyard!  But before we leave, here is a detail from the iron grilles at the bottom of the monumental staircase.  The stairs led down to the cellars which are under the building along the street – I was very curious, but I did not dare to turn that large key!

What an amazing visit – and just by chance!!  The Hotel de Montmorency is supposed to be transformed into a luxury hotel, just as they are planning to do with the former prison in Beziers.  I’m sure the real estate company who owns the building has been looking at ways to make it happen, and I wish them every success!

After this wonderful discovery I resumed my walk to the Allees Paul Riquet and towards my next destination, the Theatre des Varietes.  To be continued…