King of the castle

This week I want to share a very special experience with you – one that you may not be able to replicate exactly the way I experienced it.  Some of you may remember my post about Carcassonne, a little while back.  Every summer, Carcassonne hosts a festival during the month of July, presenting music of all types, theatre, and dance all over the old and new towns, in a mixture of venues.  There’s jazz, pop, rock, opera, soul – you name it, it’s all there. Some of the concert highlights this year included Status Quo, Lana del Rey, Pink Martini, Franz Ferdinand, James Blunt, Vanessa Paradis, and Elton John.  You can find the full programme here.

If you’re into your music you might be getting somewhat excited by now – I think it’s a pretty amazing line-up for a town like Carcassonne.  And that’s just this year!  They have international musicians every year!

To get back to my story, I found myself in Carcassonne on July 15, the day after the spectacular fireworks extravaganza which takes place in Carcassonne every year (I will visit that for you another year, promise!!).   Carcassonne is always lovely to visit, there’s always something going on and the towers are lovely to look at.

I had arranged to meet friends for dinner before the concert, and I was early, so I had a little time to walk about.  The streets were busy with tourists, but despite the bustle this cat had a lovely time, stretched out in the shade 🙂 !!

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There’s always colour and quirkiness to be found in Carcassonne!

The restaurants on Place Marcou were already busy.

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Just the other side of Place Marcou I met up with my friends, and since we were too early for our restaurant, we had a drink in a neighbouring bar.  Dinner was booked at La Table d’Alais, a little restaurant tucked away in a row of houses on Rue du Plo.  We walked right past it to begin with, without realising that it was there.  The street entrance is just a small doorway, with the dining room and terrace all located on the first floor.

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It’s not easy picking a restaurant in Carcassonne – there are scores to choose from, and reviews on the internet can be variable and not always reliable.  We were very pleased with our choice though;  the food was delicious and the prices pretty reasonable for a town like Carcassonne.

The starters were beetroot salad with goat’s cheese mousse, foie gras, and gazpacho.  Can you guess who had the foie gras??

For main course there was tuna belly with courgette puree, pork fillet with mushrooms, and cassoulet.  Can you guess who had the cassoulet??  I admit, I pigged out a little, but both my dishes were very good!!  After we had finished our main courses, everyone got a little anxious as the time for our concert drew nearer.  We did get our desserts and in the rush I forgot to photograph it.  It was a tarte tatin made with golden delicious apples – well enough executed, but slightly uninspired.

The concert was in the open air Theatre Jean Deschamps in the Cite.  This theatre was created in 1908 on the site of the old Saint Nazaire cloisters, and named in 2006 after the French actor Jean Deschamps, who created the Carcassonne Festival in 1957.

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Above is a view from our seats down to the stage.  The orchestra stalls in front of the stage are called the Carre d’Or, the golden square.  What a nice name!! The first tier in front of us is called 1ere Serie, and we were in the second tier, predictably called 2eme Serie.  Now here’s a tip if you want to go to the festival.  Our seats were Rang B in the second tier, numbered 77 to 81 – the view was spectacular and because it was the first row of the second tier there was nobody sitting in front of us!

As we were taking our seats the warm-up act was just about finishing – I’m glad it didn’t last long :).  We had come to see Elton John, and his concert started on the dot at 9:30pm!

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There then followed one and a half hours of music and pure magic!  As the evening wore on, the sun was slowly setting behind the crenelated walls, and the atmosphere gradually changed.  It was magical!

Very early on in the concert, Elton made an announcement to say that, after the current round of concerts and touring, he would be retiring from the music business, to spend more time with his children.  I think it made the evening even more special for everyone.  Elton played song after song, without a break or long chatty bits, and his music still sounded fresh.  At the end of the concert he played a couple of encores, but we made a dash for it after the first one, trying to hit the road before the rest of the 5000 spectators did so.  And we were successful, and back in St Chinian just after 1am, tired but very happy!!

I’ll leave you with a few shaky videos of the evening – the piano playing especially was very good!  E-mail subscribers, please visit http://www.midihideaways.wordpress.com to watch the videos.

And the farewell to the music business?  A few days after the concert, the media picked up on it;  a spokesperson for Elton John said that he would not be retiring.  So we’ll see what happens…

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Spoilt for choice

Of late I have been “rationing” the restaurant write-ups somewhat – there has been so much else to write about. But the time has come for another restaurant round-up – I just wouldn’t want the foodies amongst you to feel neglected!! 🙂

The Cafe de Plaisance started out as a post relay in the old days of the Canal du Midi, located as it is right by the harbour in Beziers. Today the Cafe is run by Muriel and Laurence, whose grandparents once ran it – and the atmosphere has changed little since then, even though the kitchen and conveniences have been updated. It has a lovely old-fashioned feel to it, and sitting out under the massive plane trees is a joy.  The food is simple and delicious, and served only at midday.  The two course menu (starter & main course or main course & dessert) is priced at €14.50 and the full-works three course menu is €16.50.  There is also a choice from the a-la-carte menu.

In case you are wondering, the hydrangea was on the way to the restaurant and so spectacular that I just couldn’t resist sharing the picture!

My starter was a gazpacho, nice and tangy and a great opener.  For main course I had roasted guinea fowl, which was one of the day’s specials, while my dining companion had gambas with a lovely garlicky parsley butter.  The dessert, a home-made apple tart, was almost half eaten by the time I remembered to take a picture :)!

 

Le Terminus is a re-visit of sorts.  A restaurant has been in existence in the old railway station in Cruzy for as long as I know.  At one point it was rather rustic, but in its latest incarnation Le Terminus is definitely worth a visit!  Unfortunately it was somewhat cold and windy on the night of our visit so we sat inside.  No real hardship, the dining room looked nice and the chairs were comfortable.  Service was very good and the food, which soon appeared, was delicious!

All of us had the Terrine de Foie Gras to start our meal with. Very delicious it was, and we all liked the fun touch of presenting the salad in a Bonne Maman jam jar!  The warm bread on the plate was almost too good to be true, and in the little glass there was some Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois – always a good accompaniment to Foie Gras.

Main courses were varied – my dining companions opted for slowly cooked lamb shoulder (12 hours) and the red mullet fillets.  My Aberdeen Angus steak was cooked to perfection and the best piece of beef I have had in a very long time!!  AND the fries were home-made!

The cheese plate was perfect in size and selection:  Bethmale, Saint Nectaire, Combebelle goat’s cheese, and a sheep’s cheese with nettles.

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Ready for dessert??   Here they come:

What a great finish to a meal!

La Tour Sarrasine is yet another restaurant overlooking the Canal du Midi.  Its location is very picturesque – on a bend in the canal, in the village of Poilhes. The terrace, at the front of the restaurant, affords great views, especially if you sit by the railing as we did. Service was efficient if a tad heavy on “sales”.

An amuse-bouche of apple and celery smoothie was a good way to get the gastric juices flowing. It had a lovely punch and great flavour.

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For our starters there was, as so often, foie gras: just by itself with a fig chutney and toast, and as part of a salade gourmande with gizzards and air cured duck breast.  My starter was a crispy parcel filled with scallops and melted leeks.  I’m not sure about the white butter sauce, which seems blobbed over it all, but the overall taste was good.

During the little pause between starter and main course we watched the boats passing by, and who should come along but the Bonpas II.  Paule and Rene spotted us sitting there, and waved as though we were long-lost friends.   We had been out cruising with them only two weeks earlier, and that was a lovely touch!

P1100902Our main courses arrived soon after. Somehow everyone had opted for fish:  Cuttlefish with garlic and parsley butter, sea bream with gambas, monkfish and scallops on skewers, and a Montgolfiere, a small, puff pastry topped tureen, filled with scallops and cream.  Divine, according to my fellow diner who had eaten it!

We all decided to skip the cheese course and went straight for dessert.  The profiterole was enormous, and the choux pastry shell was lovely and crisp.  The nougat parfait with its red berry compote was delicious, and the strawberry smoothie a light and tasty ending to the meal.

And watching the wonderful sunset from the terrace was a bonus! 🙂

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Since I already hinted at my last cruise with the Bonpas, I might as well tell you about it.  A friend was visiting with her brother, who has mobility problems, and we hit on the idea of the cruise.  That way he’d be able to experience the canal, and we could all enjoy dinner together!  Paule and Rene were ever so helpful, and the whole evening was highly enjoyable.  I’ve previously written about a cruise on the Bonpas and you can find the article here.  We cruised on Bonpas I, but for the summer months Paule and Rene now have Bonpas II, a slightly larger and open sided boat.  Dinner cruises are still available, but the menu is somewhat different.

We started with drinks in the bow of the boat, as Rene set off.  The landscape along the canal had changed since the last time, with swathes of plane trees disappearing (because of a fungal disease), but the canal is still beautiful. Rene kept us entertained with information about the canal, and when Paule was ready she called everyone to their respective tables.

Starter consisted of a vegetable mousse, accompanied by a salad with thin slivers of foie gras.

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Our group had two different main courses:  Roasted salmon filet and roasted breast of duckling – both delicious.

The cheese course was simple, but perfect in size and delicious!  The honey went with the fresh goat’s cheese, not the Camembert!!

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For our dessert, Paule had prepared a pear charlotte – light and wonderful!

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So there you have it – a variety of dining experiences to be had in Languedoc – all of them enjoyable and delicious!!

Wildflowers aplenty

A couple of Sundays ago, friends invited me to join them for a walk in Saint Pons de Thomieres.  It was to be a little adventure, followed by a picnic, and since the weather was hot we decided to leave early in the morning.  We were going to attempt part of the walk which loops around Le Lauzet, as on the map below.  You can find maps like this on http://www.geoportail.gouv.fr – it’s a great site for exploring the area in detail!

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We parked the car in the car park in front of the Cathedral in St Pons – if you want to find out a little more about the church have a look here and here.

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From the car park we walked along the narrow back roads, until we came to Rue du Truquet, and that’s where the climbing started!  Soon we took a turning onto Chemin du Coustou, looking back every so often to admire the view as we climbed higher and higher.

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Chemin du Coustou is fairly steep, so onwards and upwards we went.  Once we were past the last house, the road turned into a track, and we started to see the most wonderful wildflowers.

You can see how the view of the town was changing as we climbed ever higher up the mountainside.

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We passed some impressive stone walls, patinated by time, and looking as though they had been there forever.

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And still more wildflowers to be discovered!

The track turned into a path and vegetation drew closer, but it looked well-trodden, so we carried on.

We were all very excited when we found this orchid!

Its name is Himantoglossum Hircinum, or the Lizard Orchid – most impressive!!

The flowers we saw after that paled a little by comparison 🙂

But then we happened on a small meadow, completely covered in white flowers – what a stunning sight!!  You can just make out the path!!

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We were still climbing, and at the same time discovering new flowers!

St Pons became ever more distant as we neared the top of the mountain!  The views were glorious, and we could hear the church bells ringing down below, calling the faithful to mass!  There is a video below (e-mail subscribers, please visit the webpage to view the video), to give you an idea of how wonderful it was.  Make sure you turn up the volume! 🙂

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As we were getting closer to the top we realised that we had been on the wrong track for some time – we’d suspected as much – and now the track disappeared altogether!!  But we found ever more wildflowers, including a Cephalanthera rubra orchid!!

After we scrambled across some woodland, and walked past several patches of earth which had been newly dug up by some wild boar (we kept looking out for them in all directions), we finally reached the regular path again, and soon found ourselves with the most beautiful panorama laid out in front of us.

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The vegetation on the top of the mountain seemed to be somewhat different to what we had encountered further down, and we saw many plants and flowers we had not come across on our climb.

This bee was having fun on one of the cistus flowers – it seemed to be almost drunk on nectar!  There’s a very brief clip of it after the photograph.

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We were now at a spot used by the hunters during the hunting season, and there was a small shelter, with a makeshift table and a few chairs.  Perfect for a brief rest and a drink of water.  A little bug decided to pay me a visit – he really was tiny, but such a wonderful verdigris colour!

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We were now on the path which is marked on the map (see top of the post), and found ourselves very close to the marble quarry.  So we took a little detour, for a quick peek – but only a very quick peek, since it is really closed to the public!!  The piece of marble on the signpost was a hint, I guess, that we were walking on a marble mountain!

The path led us through a bit of woodland – most beautifully dappled with shade.

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And still there were new flowers to discover!!

Just before we got to the quarry we passed this butterfly sitting on a flower.  He was not at all shy and, to my surprise, stayed on the flower as we walked by.

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Melitaea cinxia (Glanville Fritillary) on Scabius

On the way back he was still in the same spot – highly unusual I thought, so decided to take a closer look.  It turned out that he’d fallen prey to a spider, who had perfectly camouflaged itself by imitating the colour of the flower.  Look closely at the pictures and I think you’ll see!  What cruel fate for the poor butterfly!

Heading back to St Pons, we were watching out for the yellow markings which are painted on trees and stones along the path, to keep us on the right track!

The town soon came into view, but seen from a totally different angle than when we had started our climb.

Another couple of flowers…

… and we were back in town!  On the way down we realised where we went wrong – and how wonderful it was that we missed that turning to the right.  We’d have never seen all those wonderful views and wildflowers!!

And just to finish, here are some quirky images of St Pons, taken on our way back to the car.

Thank you, Pam and David, for sharing this beautiful walk!!  And the picnic?  We had that once we got back to St Chinian, in my potager, sitting below the wisteria. 🙂

Let’s dance

On June 21st, the whole of France celebrates the Fete de la Musique, with parties and concerts everywhere – and who am I to miss out on a party!!?? 😀

So I rounded up a  few friends and together we went to Beziers to see what we could listen to!  We left fairly early, and as we walked from the underground car park up the Allees Paul Riquet, it became clear that we had arrived a little too early.  But still, it was good to be able to have a look around without missing anything!  The food stalls looked colourful and the smells were tantalising!!

We headed for Place de la Revolution, where the Sardanistes would be dancing later in the evening.  The plan was to have dinner at Brasserie du Palais, and be able to listen to the music and watch the dancers from the comfort of our table.  On the way to Place de la Revolution I came across some interesting details.

The atmosphere in Beziers was very summery and festive – lots of people out in the streets, all getting ready to party in one way or another!

Our meal at Brasserie du Palais was delicious!  A large plate of tapas to share, followed by great main courses, and nice desserts.

The restaurant takes its name from the former archbishop’s palace, which is just across the square, and today houses the local courts of justice.  Next to it is the cathedral, and we had a fine view of that from our table.

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We were just about finishing our desserts, when the musicians started to gather on the stage, and it wasn’t long before they struck up their first tune.

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And as soon as they started to play, the dancers appeared – at first only a few of them joined hands to form a small circle.

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Now a word about the music and dancing – the Sardana is a Catalan tradition, played on instruments of which a few are not found elsewhere in France or Europe.  The band is called “Cobla” and the dancers are called “Sardanistes”.  For the full explanation please have a look at the Wikipedia entry, which I think explains it all very well.

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I was watching in blissful ignorance, enjoying the uplifting sound of the music and watching the dancers with fascination.  It seemed as though anyone could join in, and the circle grew larger and larger, until it was all around the fountain and the square.  The steps seemed to be very simple – it was only later, when talking to a couple of the dancers, that I found out that there was a lot more to it! 🙂 .

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The band, as well as the dancers I spoke with, had come from Perpignan, where they had already performed earlier that day.  They explained that the Sardana is a traditional dance, as opposed to a folkloric dance, so nobody wears any special costumes.  Both the dancers were wearing the traditional espardenya shoes though – you’ll be able to see these shoes in the video below (e-mail subscribers, please visit the webpage to view the video).

 

Did you notice how the flute player also plays the tiny drum, which is strapped to his arm?  The double bass has only three strings, and its player is really going for it!  We sat and listened and watched, and enjoyed every minute of it!!

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It was getting dark and the lights came on, and with the whole square alive with music and dance, it was just magical.

When we had had our fill of the Sardana, we wandered over to the cathedral, where another concert was just coming to the end:  Nicolas Celero at the piano, playing music by Franz Liszt, and Michael Lonsdale reading in between the musical performances.

On our way back we walked down Rue Viennet and passed Place du Forum, across the road from the town hall, which had all been transformed with strings of lights into the most magical of places.

The Eglise de la Madeleine looked very majestic, lit up against the black sky.

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And then we reached the Allees Paul Riquet once more, and wandered amongst the many people who were either watching the act on the main stage in front of the theatre, or just enjoying the start of summer.

Mark your calendar for next year, and plan to be in Herault around June 21st – I promise you’ll enjoy the festivities!