Up in the air

For some time I’ve been thinking of visiting the Passerelle de Mazamet, a footbridge across a gorge above Mazamet.  The footbridge allows pedestrian access to the mediaeval village of Hautpoul, which is also on my list of places to visit!!

Here is a map of the location:

Since I’m not going to be able to visit any time soon – and even if I did visit, I might not be able to walk across the bridge because of my fear of heights – I thought I would share the post below with you.  It was published recently on www.francetaste.wordpress.com.  A big thank you to the author for allowing me to re-post the article!


IMG_5111What is it about humans that we love to look down on everything? To get up high, for a better view? The chill of vertige with the thrill of omniscience.IMG_5092On a balmy February day, a friend and I went to the Passerelle of Mazamet, which has been on my bucket list for a moment. One of those things that’s too nearby to miss, but far enough that I never got around to it. The drive from Carcassonne to Mazamet takes nearly an hour. Longer if a nervous retiree from a distant department is ahead of you and slowing to a crawl around the curves but, with a bigger engine, speeding like an idiot on the rare straightaways, as if that makes up for anything. IMG_5151The $*%&ing driver ahead of us aside, the route was absolutely gorgeous. It goes up and up and up, and the vegetation changes to dense forest. There were signs about the pass being open, snow markers on the sides of the road, but we were in fleece jackets and during our hike had to take those off. A weird winter. It was 70 F here yesterday.IMG_5129

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Lush February forest.

IMG_5117The passerelle was inaugurated in 2018. It’s 140 meters (460 feet) long over the Arnette river and 70 meters (230 feet) above the ground. It’s free and open 24/7, but you’d be crazy to go after dark. We were glad to be there in February–plus it was lunch time and the French do one thing during lunch time: eat. So we had the place almost to ourselves. It would be much less fun in the heat of summer with a gazillion people on the narrow path. Even worse, a gazillion people on the passerelle. It can hold 42 tons, which is a lot of people, but even a couple of other people walking made it bounce such that I was glad I hadn’t eaten.

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Into the void.

The only other people were grandparents with three girls. One was maybe two or three years old, and she galloped up and down the passerelle fearlessly. One was maybe 12 and she clung to her grandmother for dear life. We passed them in the middle of the passerelle on their way back. And we discovered another girl, maybe 7 or 8, on the other side, steadfastly refusing to budge.

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Looking down.

We saw the grandfather start back and figured he was coming to the aid of the middle girl. He stopped and took photos. Lots of photos. The littlest girl came tearing down toward him. She passed him, then turned around and came back to him. He never stopped taking photos.

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Going back.

We started back and were about halfway when the grandmother and the oldest girl, still clinging and looking like she was going to puke, came back. Grandpa wanted to film them. As if the granddaughter would want to remember this moment. Who was the middle girl supposed to hold onto? Grandma was taken, and grandpa was filming. Nobody seemed worried about the middle girl or even the little one. Yes, the passerelle had no holes where the little one could fall through, but she was at that nimble age where she could climb the chain link side, which came up to my armpit, and be over it in a flash, and grandpa still wouldn’t stop filming. His obliviousness reminded me of a type: “I’m doing this for you! You’re going to do it and enjoy it whether you like it or not!”

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Mazamet.

On the way down, we passed other grandparents out with the grandkids, starting to show up once it was 2 p.m. And more retirees. A lady with very inappropriate shoes (ballerinas with wedge heels…what are those called?).

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La Voie Romaine.

To go up, we took the steep route, called the Voie Romaine, or Roman Way, which was the ancient salt route, and partly paved with stones. It had a heart-pounding 19% grade, but I’d rather take that going up than down.

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Stone walls of the former gardens.
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This seems to have been a protohistoric home, naturally protected from the wind and rain on the south side of the slope. But I’m not sure. The gardens also had little towers.
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On the wall of the circular structure. Looks like a donkey to me.

IMG_5124IMG_5142IMG_5138The descent, on a path with an 8% grade, was via the Jardins Cormouls Houlès, which date to the middle of the 19th century, with interesting towers and stone walls. First we checked out the ruins of the church of Saint-Saveur, which dates to the 1100s. IMG_5099IMG_5101IMG_5098IMG_5113The church was built on a hilltop, for views. Up in the air. Like life right now, waiting to see where things will land, trying not to fall.

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A little shrine at the start of the path.
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Interesting plastic bottle for holy water. What will they think of next?
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Another bustling shrine.
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Am haunted by the possible meaning of that doll.

I’m leaving you with these ghostly images. I couldn’t pick one, so you get three.IMG_5130IMG_5131IMG_5132

The big picture

There are big pictures all over the place – murals that cover entire sides of buildings.  I’ve often heard them called muriels – have you heard them called that too??  In French, murals are often called trompe l’oeil, literally translated as “deceive the eye”.  Some of the murals in the following pictures are incredibly convincing and live up to their trompe l’oeil name!!

The first one is in Lodeve, and it is a very good example of a trompe l’oeil, as it blends real with fake – can you tell which windows are real and which are not?

The following mural is in Montpellier – the walls are pretty much flat, but the painting’s perspective makes it look incredibly 3D!The next mural is in Capestang, just right around the corner from the restaurant La Galiniere.

Beziers has a good number of murals – here is the oldest that I know of:

There appears to be a theme to the more recently painted murals in Beziers: famous artists and their works!

Here is L’Arlesienne by Georges Bizet:

Dejanire by Camille Saint-Saens:

Le Depit Amoureux by Moliere:

Jean Moulin, a native of Beziers and a hero of the Resistance, opened an art gallery in Nice as a cover for his resistance activities.  The following mural commemorates Jean Moulin and his gallery:

The mural in the last picture of this post is on a newly created square in Beziers.  The mural hides a series of what I imagine are run-down houses awaiting renovation – a pretty neat idea!

This was to be my last article of 2019, but somehow it never got posted and ended up in my drafts folder!  Since I wrote this post, Saint-Chinian has unveiled its own trompe l’oeil. It’s not quite finished yet, so I’ll post a picture of it when it is.

Carnival!!

It’s at this time of year that the carnival celebrations start to get underway.

The Carnaval de Limoux started on January 19 this year!  It runs through to March 29, 2020, so there’s plenty of time to go and visit!  A few years ago, I wrote an article about my visit, which you can find here.   The programme of the Limoux carnival can be found via this link.

In our corner of Southern France, the celebrations kick off with the Fete de Saint Blaise on February 1st.  On the programme are guided visits of the chapel dedicated to Saint Blaise, a tasting of the herbal tea and the elixir of Saint Blaise (probably a liqueur), a carnival procession through the town, and to finish the evening, a communal meal followed by a dance.

Details can be found via this link.

A little farther afield, the town of Albi celebrates carnival with two big processions on February 16 and 23, 2020.  The full programme can be found here.

This year, Mardi Gras is on February 25.  Narbonne holds it annual carnival procession on the preceding Sunday, February 23.  This year’s theme is Les metiers, the trades, as in jobs.

Will you be celebrating carnival anywhere??

Truffle time again!!

I’m sure you have eaten truffles – but did you eat chocolate truffles or black truffles? 🙂

The black truffle, also called Perigord truffle, French black truffle, or, to give the Latin name, tuber melanosporum, is a native European truffle, and it ranks very high on the list of the most expensive foods!

It’s been prized for its flavour since antiquity, and it was regularly served on the tables of princes, kings and emperors.  Towards the end of the 19th century, France produced up to 1000 tonnes of black truffles per year.  Prices were much lower then than they are now, and black truffles were used in great quantities in classic French cooking at that time.

Since the end of the 19th century, France’s truffle output has fallen dramatically – at times it has been as low as 20 tonnes a year!  A variety of causes have contributed to this fall in production: destruction during the 1st and 2nd world wars, deforestation, acid rain, general pollution, changes in farming methods, changes in climate…

For a very long time, the way truffles grew was not very well understood, but by the early 1970s a technique had been developed which allowed hazelnut and oak saplings to be inoculated with truffle spores.  The resulting trees could produce truffles four to eight years after planting, but the success still depends on many factors such as soil type, amount of rainfall, temperatures, etc.

Lucky for us, a good many of the truffle orchards which were planted in Southern France are now producing truffles.  If you visit Languedoc at this time of year, you are in for a treat, as truffle markets in the area take place throughout the winter months.  I’ve visited several of these markets over the years, and I have written about one of these visits here.

Below, I give you a list of the forthcoming markets in the area.  Even if you don’t buy any truffles, these markets are well worth visiting, I promise you!

January 26, 2020 : 21es “Ampélofolies du Cabardès” à Moussoulens
January 26, 2020 : 4e Fête de la Truffe” à Béziers (pourtour des halles)
January 31 to February 2, 2020 : 14e “Fête de la truffe et des produits du terroir” à Nîmes, Place du Marché
February 1, 2020 : “Truffes en fête” à Talairan
February 8, 2020 : Marché aux Truffes” et 15e “Nuit de la Truffe” à Villeneuve-Minervois
February 9, 2020 : 25e Journée Paysanne” à Saint-Jean de Buèges
February 14, 2020 : “Marché aux Truffes de la Saint Valentin” à Narbonne, place de l’Hôtel de Ville de 9h à 13h.
February 16, 2020 : Marché aux truffes” à Castelnaudary
February 16, 2020 : 12e Fête de la Truffe et du terroir” à Claret
February 23, 2020 : 4e Carnaval des saveurs et de la truffe” à La Digne d’Aval
March 8, 2020 : “Truffe et patrimoine” à Trassanel

 

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.

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