Dates for your diary

Courses Camarguaises – May to October 2017

If you want to see a bull-fight, but are not into blood sports, then a course camarguaise is for you!  The bull always leaves the ring alive, and the men in the ring have to be very nimble on their feet.  I wrote about one such bull-fight here, and you can find all the dates on the official website.

European museum night – 20 May 2017

Since 2005, European museum night has been enchanting visitors every year.  It’s a free event, which gives visitors the chance to discover the treasures of museums all over Europe in different ways.  You’ll be able to find the whole programme on this site .

Les Feeries du Pont, Pont du Gard – 2, 3, 9 and 10 June 2017

The Pont du Gard like you’ve never seen it before – lit up with flames and fireworks.  It’s an unforgettable show, and I was lucky to see it some years ago!  More information via this link.

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Vente de Charite, Saint-Chinian – 4 June 2017

This is a fixture on Saint-Chinian’s calendar of events – a sale of bric-a-brac, plants, clothes, second-hand household items, books and more, all sold for a good cause.  The sale takes place in the abbatiale, the former abbey church in Saint-Chinian, and in the cloisters, and it is open until noon.

Balade Gourmande, Saint-Jean-de-Minervois – 4 June 2017

This gourmet walk has become a very successful and enjoyable annual event.  I went on this gourmet walk back in 2015 and enjoyed it very much.  If you want to give it a try yourself, you can find out more via this link.

A wonderfully fragrant spot

A wonderfully fragrant spot

Fete de la Musique, all over Europe – 21 June 2017

Don’t miss this wonderful celebration of music all over France.  It’s a great occasion to listen to all kinds of music. I’ve written about some of my experiences here and here.  The official website for the event can be found via this link.

Fesitval de Carcassonne – 1 to 30 July 2017

Once again, Carcassonne is hosting an array of famous French singers and musicians during its summer festival!  For the full programme visit here.

Re-opening of the Fonserannes site, Beziers, 1 July 2017

The site around the staircase lock at Fonserannes on the Canal du Midi, on the edge of Beziers, has been given a complete makeover!  I am looking forward to when the site re-opens again in its new splendour.  The staircase lock is a marvel of engineering and worth a visit if you are in the area!

Feria de Beziers – 12 to 15 August 2017

With four days of bodegas, parties and bull fights, the feria in Beziers attracts visitors from all over.  If bull fights are not your thing, the party atmosphere in the town in the early evening is lovely to experience, with pop-up restaurants bars everywhere.  You can find out more via this link.

Fete du Fil, Labastide Rouairoux – 14 and 15 August 2017

This fete is a must for lovers of all things textile.  The textile museum will be open to visitors free of charge, there will be several exhibitions and the flea market.  Full details on https://lafetedufil.jimdo.com/

Fete de Saint-Louis, Sete – 17 to 22 August 2017

The Fete de Saint-Louis celebrates the patron saint of Sete with five days of concerts, street performances and the all-important water jousting tournament!  Full details can be found via this link.

Start of La Vuelta, Nimes – 19 August 2017

La Vuelta is Spain’s answer to the Tour de France, and this year the city of Nimes hosts the first stage of this race.  A must for all lovers of cycling!

 

 

Mediterranean delight

The village of Roquebrun is nestled against a steep hill, with the river Orb flowing at its feet.  The road twists and turns as you approach the village from the direction of Cessenon, passing the tiny village of Lugne, before crossing a range of hills.  Just past the top of the hill, as the road starts to descend again, the most beautiful panorama opens up.  There below is the Orb valley,  a lush and green expanse of fields and vineyards.  And in the distance you can see Roquebrun.  If you drive that way, think about making a stop at the little pull-in to take in that view!

The site where Roquebrun is today, has been occupied by humans for a long time.  Pre-historic and Roman vestiges have been found, and around AD 900 a castle was built, of which the tower is still standing, to protect against invasions from the south.

With the castle to protect them, people began to construct a village below and around it.  In turn this village got its own fortifications.  The medieval layout of that village can still be experienced as you walk up towards the tower, through narrow streets and passages.  The driver in the car was not from these parts.  He very nearly wrote off the car at the point  where it is in the picture below.

The passage of time can be seen in many charming ways on the streets of Roquebrun.

When early man settled in Roquebrun, one of the reasons was no doubt the microclimate that prevails.  Visit the village at the right moment – such as right now – and the air will be heavy with the fragrance of citrus blossoms.  It’s a beautiful fragrance, and there are citrus trees all over the village!

My destination was the Jardin Mediterraneen, which was created just over thirty years ago.   On the way to the garden I passed “La Rocheuse” – it’s a perfect house to rent if you want to stay in Roquebrun!

The microclimate of Roquebrun means that the plants which flourish here would have a hard time elsewhere in this area.

As you walk up towards the garden, there are signs in several places!

The garden was created on abandoned land above the village, and like most gardens it is a work in progress!  To date about 1000 tonnes of materials have been moved (stones and building materials) by donkeys and humans.  Since it’s almost at the top of the hill, your climb is rewarded with spectacular views!

Over 4000 plants from 400 odd species are being grown here!  I’ve been to the garden many times over the years, and have watched it evolve, and I feel that right now it is looking the best it ever has!

I would love to be a specialist on plants, but I still have a lot to learn.  The garden specialises in Mediterranean plants, plus cacti and succulents.  Here are some flowers:

And some plants which I would class as cacti (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong):

The microclimate at the garden is helped by the range of dolomite rocks, which store and refract the heat.

In this type of environment water is scarce, so only plants that have successfully adapted to the drought-like conditions will be able to survive.  After the spring rains, the garden is looking very lush, but even at the height of summer there will be something of interest!

Right at the top of the garden an enclosure has been built, to house two goats.  Their job is most likely to keep the undergrowth down!

From the goat enclosure I got a good view down towards the tower and the village – this was very high up!!

Several years ago, the ancient tower was restored, to stop it from falling apart.  In the picture below you can see quite clearly the square holes in the walls near the top of the tower.  These holes would have held beams which supported a wooden walkway.  The crenelations were added later.

From the viewing platform below the tower, stone stairs led down to the level of the entrance to the garden, past some lovely cistus bushes.  The bees were having a feast on the beautiful pink flowers!

The visit to the Mediterranean Garden was coming to an end, but the visit to Roquebrun was far from over.  On the way down the hillside, I snapped some more pictures!

A beautiful rosa banksia in full flower:

Another ancient door, with a marble door surround:

A well established wisteria, covering a little terrace:On Rue des Orangers, which runs along the river, is a restaurant called Le Petit Nice.  Its dining room has lovely views of the river, and this is where my friends and I had a bite to eat after all that walking!

Snails with garlic and parsley butter

Salad with smoked trout

Pan fried trout with almonds

Rabbit casserole

Pears poached in red wine

I’m not sure that we had walked off as many calories as we consumed, but I have no regrets – the meal was absolutely delicious, and the service so very friendly and efficient!

On the way back to the car there was one more remarkable sight – the esplanade which overlooks the river was renovated a few years ago, and planted with various climbing plants.  I was there just at the right time to see the beautiful wisteria flowers!  Two different kinds of wisteria, one a deep purple with double flowers, and the other with almost pink single flowers – stunning!

If you are in the area, be sure to visit Roquebrun.  It’s a beautiful and historic village with many attractions!

Spring events

With the days getting longer, the events calendar is filling up again.  Here is a selection of events which you might enjoy!  Please note – whilst I believe the information on this page to be correct at the time of publishing, I strongly recommend that you check with the organisers before attending an event.  If you want to visit the area and would like help in finding accommodation please head to www.midihideaways.com.   

Limoux Carnival – 2 January 2017 – 2 April 2017

The good people of Limoux take their carnival very seriously.  Different groups have the run of the central square every Saturday and Sunday during the carnival period.  It’s always an enjoyable festival to visit – I have previously written about it here, and you can find the full programme of this year’s events via this link.

Journees Europeennes des Metiers d´Art – 31 March – 2 April 2017

The European Artistic Craft Days are held every year on the first weekend in April.  They give the public a chance to see expert craft makers in action.  Last year I visited a workshop where verre mousseline is made – see for yourself here.  You can find the full programme of this year’s event on the official French website.

Canal du Midi Boat Show 2017, Capestang – 8 April 2017

Your chance to see a selection of the most beautiful hotel barges on the Canal du Midi.  The show lasts for several days and is aimed at tourism professionals, but on this date it is open to the general public.

Procession de la Sanch, Perpignan – 14 April 2017

Each year on Good Friday, the town of Perpignan hosts the traditional Good Friday Procession.  The custom dates back 600 years, and it is a deeply moving spectacle, the only one of its kind in France.

Tournoi de la Citadelle, Carcassonne – 15 and 16 April 2017

This will be the first time that Carcassonne will be hosting this tournament, where competitors fight one another in full armour, just like in the Middle Ages!  You can find details on this website.

Balade Geologique dans le Saint-Chinianais, Cebazan – 22 April 2017

The area around Saint-Chinian is a geologist’s dream – to the point where groups of geology students from some of the UK universities are sent here to do field work and projects.  This guided visit will be by bus and is followed by a lecture.  Details from tourist office in Capestang via this link.

Fete de Saint-Aphrodise, Beziers – 28 April 2017

On the occasion of the fete of the patron saint of Beziers, the Basilica of Saint Aphrodise will be open to the public.  Restoration work has been ongoing since I wrote about the church back in 2013, and I am looking forward to seeing the interim results!

Grande Deballage, Pezenas – 7 May 2017

This event is not to be missed if you are into flea markets and antiques.  There will be in excess of 150 stalls, selling all kinds of “stuff”!!

Les Sentiers Gourmands, Narbonne – 21 May 2017

For the 14th time in as many years, this gourmet walk has been organised across the vineyards of La Clape. The full details can be found on the offical website, and if you want a ‘taste’ of what such a gourmet walk can be like, read my post about one such walk in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois here.

Walking through the vineyards

Walking through the vineyards

Walled in

Today I would like to take you on an outing to Villefranche-de-Conflent.  I hope you have the time to join me!  img_2225

Villefranche sits on the confluence of the Tet and Cady rivers, at the foot of the Pyrenees.  Because of its strategic location, the town was heavily fortified from the Middle Ages onwards.  In the 18th century, the fortifications were reinforced by Vauban, who was Louis XIV’s military engineer and advisor.

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Vauban added an extra layer to the fortifications, creating a vaulted gallery on top of the mediaeval ramparts, and topped this with another gallery which was covered with a slate roof!  So much more space for soldiers who could aim at the enemy from two different levels.

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The shape of the town was very much dictated by the rivers and the mountains – have a look at an aerial view on the internet here.  Its appearance has not much changed since Vauban’s major work in the 17th century …

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… except that there is now a new road to one side of the town, which takes traffic past the town and up into the mountains.  And there is now a railway line, which allows the famous ‘Canary’, the yellow train, to take travellers from Villefranche to the highest railway station in France, at Mont Louis, and beyond.

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The layout of the town has remained pretty much the same since mediaeval times – there are two main streets, Rue Saint Jacques and Rue Saint Jean.

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Because space was restricted, the houses were built tall.  On the ground floor, most houses would have large arched doors, which could be the entrances to shops or stables, or for storing carts.  The rooms on the first floor were usually reserved for workshops of artisans, and living accommodations were on the second floor.

img_2203 Many doors still sport beautiful door knockers – one of my particular passions!  Can you tell which of them are more recent than others?  Here’s a selection of them:

This side street leads to a gate in the fortifications, from where there is access to Fort Liberia, a citadel which was built by Vauban, high above the town!

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Statue of a saint above the gate to Fort Liberia – perhaps Saint Peter?

Here’s a picture of Fort Liberia, as seen from down below:

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Here is another statue – it sits in a niche high up on a facade.  It probably depicts another saint, but with the missing arm it’s difficult to figure out which saint.  I have a hunch that it could be Saint Barbara, but I’m not certain.

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No trip is complete without something to eat!  My travelling companions and I went to a restaurant called Le Patio on rue Saint Jean.  Some of the houses had internal patios – as did this restaurant – and that’s where we had lunch.

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None of us were overly hungry, so we decided to skip the starter and to have a main course, followed by dessert.  I don’t know about you, but for me dessert is a must!! 😀

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Tagliatelle with pesto

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Tagliatelle with smoked salmon sauce

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Octopus with potatoes

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Grilled sausages with country fries and garlic mayonnaise

The main courses were perfect for each of us – and the desserts were even better!  The Cafe Gourmand was a particular hit!!

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Tiramisu

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Chocolate pudding with a melting interior

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“Cafe Gourmand” – coffee with eight mini desserts!!

On the way back to the car, I noticed a few more details from Villefranche’s past:

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If you want to visit Villefranche-de-Conflent, and want to tie in your trip with a ride on the yellow train, be sure to visit the SNCF website for a timetable.

A winter walk

Winter is as good a time as any to go for a walk in or around Saint-Chinian. The days are often sunny and mild, and I always try to wear layers, in case I need to shed some clothes as I work up a sweat!  Today I’d like to show you a walk just up the road from Saint-Chinian.  The official starting point for this walk is on Avenue de Villespassans, but sometimes I make it easier for myself by taking the car up the hill, to the car park across the road from the windmill!. 🙂

The Pays Haut Languedoc et Vignobles, a federation of local councils, published a collection of 73 marked walks, which are available either individually or as a pack from the tourist office in Saint-Chinian.

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The walk I’m writing about is called Les clapas.  Clapas is the name for the impressive mounds of limestones which have been cleared from the fields and piled up by successive generations of shepherds and farmers.

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The leaflets for each walk give details of the walk as well as points of interest along the way.  Because of copyright issues, I’ll not reproduce the inside of the leaflet, but I’ve found a link to details of the walk here.

Most of the Les clapas walk is fairly gentle, especially as I avoided the steep climb out of the village by using the car and parking near the windmill – naughty I know! 😸   The countryside “up on the hill” is a mixture of vineyards and friches, which is the name for abandoned agricultural land.  In some cases the land has been abandoned for some time, but there can still be signs of the passage of humans.  Below is a piece of wood from an old shutter, with the hinge still attached – barely!

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A lot of the vineyards had already been pruned at the time of my visit.  Hard work, but it’s got to be done if there are to be grapes (and wine)!

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Even in the middle of winter, there is still interesting vegetation to be seen.  The plant below is commonly known as butcher’s broom (ruscus aculeatus).  The tips of the leaves are quite spiny!  I believe this plant is used in dried flower arrangements – I wouldn’t want to have to work with it!

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There were still a few olives on some trees – this one was probably missed when the rest of the olives on the tree were harvested.

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The limestone rocks were impressive!  But no, I didn’t have to climb up there!!

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Here was another vestige of humankind, in the middle of nowhere – an old car!!

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This was on the edge of a former friche – I guess the car wreck and the rocks were pushed there by a big digger when the land was cleared! The car must have sat in the wilderness for some time, by the looks of it!!

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The itinerary took me through the hamlet of Fontjun, where I spotted another old vehicle from a bygone age!

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And just around the corner there was second one!  It was painted the same blue colour, and somewhat better preserved.  These carts would have been used for work in the vineyards.

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I saw this beautiful doorway in Fontjun …

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… and a few steps away I spotted this sliding door.  I loved the colour and patina!

The piece of rusty old steel in the picture below was part of an old garden gate – wonderful detailing and patina!

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Along the path, in the middle of nowhere, I came across an abandoned hut.  It had had a fireplace once, and someone had left the bellows to get the fire going, but the chimney had long gone.

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Towards the end of the walk, I took this picture of a capitelle, a stone hut built without any mortar!  This one was very picturesque against the blue sky.

img_6833It was a lovely walk, and I hope you enjoyed it!  I’ll be doing it again before too long – do let me know if you’d like to join me!

A feast of taste

It’s high time I wrote another food related post!  Luckily, I discovered a new restaurant last weekend, with the help of Charlotte and Phil from Languedoc Living!  I met Charlotte and Phil last fall, through mutual friends.  We immediately got to talking about food and restaurants, and agreed to go together to L’Ortensia in Saint-Gervais-sur-Marer!  Charlotte booked a table for last Saturday lunchtime, and so I drove to Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare on a grey and rainy day, along the beautiful Orb valley and over a mountain, to reach the village where L’Ortensia is located.

The restaurant is in a late 19th century mansion (set in a park), which had been bought by the local council some time ago.  The mansion sits high above the village, and it’s park was once a hydrangea nursery.  In 2013, after years of complete renovation, the property opened its doors to the public once more.  The kitchen is run by Eric Balan, who has worked with Alain Ducasse and Marc Veyrat.  His partner, Patricia Rochette, looks after the front of house.

The first impression was one of stark modernity.  A modern glass and metal conservatory extension to the main building serves as the entrance from the car park.  Stairs and a lift go down to the restaurant, which is two floors below.  However, Patricia’s warm welcome immediately broke the ice, and we were soon seated at a round table near the fireplace, where a lovely fire warmed us all.

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Once we’d had a chance to catch up with Charlotte and Phil, we turned to the menus and decided to go for the Menu Plaisir – and a pleasure it definitely was!

The meal started with a Prelude Gourmand, something to get us in the mood for what was to come!   First, we were served a tray of wonderful little morsels, to accompany our aperitif:  Roquefort macarons, crisp linseed “sails”, prunes wrapped in bacon, chorizo madeleines, and in the beaker four straws made with air-dried ham and filo pastry.  All incredibly delicious!!

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Then came an amuse bouche, a small bowl of mussel soup, very delicate, with tiny mussels and a sprinkling of pungent spring onions.

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The starter was pan-fried foie gras, served with quince puree and cranberries.  The foie gras was perfectly cooked and the flavour combination worked really well.  The red cabbage sprouts added an earthy note, which paired very well with the foie gras and the quince.

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After a little interlude, our fish course arrived.  Seared scallops were served on a bed of salsify puree, and garnished with pink grapefruit and bergamot lemon zest.  The citrus fruit in combination with the scallops was very delicious!  And the pretty looking baby leaves were of course edible too!

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Pigeon breast in a gingerbread crust was the main course, accompanied by different members of the brassica tribe: romanesco, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cress, and thin slices of radish.  Someone in the kitchen was having fun, and we enjoyed eating it!! 🙂

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Our dessert had a very sculpted look – two curved biscuits were holding a delicious “blond” chocolate cream, topped with pears poached in red wine, cubes of pear jelly, and citrus sorbet.  It was a sublime combination of flavours, and a dessert which had been very carefully constructed.  The “blond” chocolate used for the cream was Valrhona’s Orelys; the poached pear was a poire martin sec, an old (and mostly forgotten)  French variety of pear which is perfect cooked in red wine; the citrus sorbet was made with calamondines, a hybrid between a kumquat and a mandarin orange.  The sorbet was sharp with an incredible citrus flavour, a perfect foil for the sweetness of the chocolate cream.

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After dessert came coffee, and with it Les Mignardises – a beautiful selection of treats to round off this wonderful meal.  The beaker held a coffee foam;  the chocolate lollipop was flavoured with pear, and the madeleine with rhubarb.

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What a fantastic meal – wonderful food AND great company!

On the way back I stopped at Colombieres sur Orb to take a picture of the rather spectacular waterfall.

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Just by the waterfall is the starting point for a marked walk, up the Gorges de Colombieres – it looks like a really interesting hike, and I’ve earmarked it for the spring!