Three cistus

You may have come across cistus plants under their common name of rock rose.  They grow very abundantly in the area around Saint-Chinian, and right now they are flowering their hearts out.  I went on a little photo safari last Saturday, to shoot a few pictures for you.

In the map below, you can see the itinerary I followed for my walk, and this link will take you to the geoportail website, where you can see the map, albeit without the itinerary markings.

I started my walk by the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  Most of the walk was on fairly well kept tracks which are used by vineyard workers and hunters.  If you want to do the walk yourself, you should wear reasonably sturdy shoes – high heels are definitely out of the question!!  The whole walk can be completed in an hour.  Of course it took me longer since I stopped frequently to take pictures! 🙂

Before starting the walk proper, I visited the cistus display bed beside the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  It was planted some years ago, and all of the plants have now reached maturity.  A plaque by the bed identifies the various species on show:

Cistus plants thrive in a Mediterranean climate and grow well on poor soils.  According to the wikipedia article, the seeds can lay dormant for up to 100 years before germinating.

Around Saint-Chinian, the most commonly encountered species of cistus are C. monspeliensis:

Cistus monspeliensis

Cistus monspeliensis

C. albidus:

Cistus albidus

Cistus albidus

… C. ladanifer:

Cistus ladanifer

Cistus ladanifer

… and C. salviifolius:

Cistus salviifolius

Cistus salviifolius

The display bed at the cooperative winery also contains a species which is more rarely seen around here:  C. populifolius:

Cistus populifolius

Cistus populifolius

The plant in the following picture was also growing in the display bed, but I could not find it on the panel.  Cistus species hybridise readily, so, if my identification is correct, this should be C. x purpureus, a cross between C. ladanifer and C. creticus.  It’s a plant with very pretty flowers, and you can see the heritage from c. ladanifer with the purple blotches at the base of the petals!

Cistus x purpueus

Cistus x purpureus

As I was starting my walk, I walked past this stand of trees.  A nightingale, well hidden from view, was singing directly at me.  I thought I would share the video with you!

My walk took me up and down some gentle slopes – being a little higher than the surrounding countryside always makes for nice views!

The first flower picture I took after I started my walk was of an orchid – orchis provincialis:

Orchis provincialis

Orchis provincialis

It wasn’t long before I came to a clump of C. salviifolius by the side of the path.

C. salviifolius

Cistus salviifolius

Wild garlic was also in flower along the path.  The flowers have a pleasant onion/garlic flavour and can be added to salads.

Wild garlic

Allium rosea

I couldn’t pass by this doughnut-shaped tree lichen without taking a picture!

Farther along I found a clump of C. albidus in full flower, it’s pink flowers standing out nicely from the the grey, woolly leaves.

Cistus albidus

Cistus albidus

Nature’s flower arrangements are always worth studying – here we have lavender and heather flowers, with a background of blackberry leaves! 🙂

The leaves of some cistus species secrete a sticky substance which has a lovely resinous fragrance.  C. ladanifer is one of these species.  Incidentally, the picture below shows the point where the walk starts to loop back.

C. ladanifer

Cistus ladanifer

I came across some more Orchis provincialis – a whole stand of them, in fact.  The leaf rosette showed the typical brown splotches.

In this close-up you can see some of the delicate markings on the flowers:

Orchis provencialis

Orchis provincialis

I rounded a bend in the path and came to this wonderful sight:  a whole hillside covered in flowering cistus bushes!!  The photograph doesn’t really do it justice – it was spectacular to behold!

Here’s a picture of C. monspeliensis – you can see the leaves glistening with the sticky resin.

C. monspeliensis

Cistus monspeliensis

I found some interesting flowers towards the end of my walk:  Serapias lingua is an orchid whose flower petals are like tongues sticking out at you (or me).

Serapias lingua

Serapias lingua

I’ve not been able to identify the following flower, but I think it’s a species of vetch.

Then I found a rather mysterious looking plant – it’s fairly tiny, with a pitcher like flower and one petal folded over that like a lid.  From the top you just see a kind of purple black leaf, about the size of a thumbnail, but when you tilt the flower somewhat, you can see that it’s part of the flower which is pitcher shaped.  I immediately wondered if it was part of the arum family or a carnivorous plant.  Looking through some of the plant books I have at home, it turns out to be Aristolochia pistolochia.

I found a violet limodore orchid just around the corner from the mystery plant above:

Limodorum abortivum

Limodorum abortivum

The last picture I took on my walk is of a white flowered tamarix shrub.  With the flowers not yet quite open, the buds look like white peppercorns, tightly clustered on the branches.  I’m sure it’ll look gorgeous in a week or so.

I hope you enjoyed the wonderful flowers that can be found around Saint-Chinian.  Thanks for coming along with me on this wonderful walk!

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Heaps of sheeps

Transhumance n. the seasonal migration of livestock to suitable grazing grounds [C20: from French transhumer to change one’s pastures, from Spanish trashumar, from Latin TRANS- humus ground]

The above definition comes from the Collins English Dictionary.  Transhumance seems to have been around as long as animal husbandry.  It is practiced wherever the seasonal conditions mean that it’s better for livestock to move to a different place.  For example, think of the alpine pastures that are rich and lush in the summer, but are under a thick layer of snow during the winter.  Or think of the coastal plains of the Languedoc, which grow lush during the winter but dry out during the summer months.

The village of Vendres is situated close to the coast, just beside a lagoon, and there is a lot of grazing land around it – the ideal area for a flock of sheep!  Grazing plays an important part in maintaining the ecosystems of the somewhat marshy lands, and in reducing the fire hazard that un-grazed land would present during the hot summer months.

For the past twelve years, the village of Vendres has been celebrating the occasion of the transhumance of the sheep with a fete.  The neighbouring villages of Lespignan and Nissan have also joined in, and so the Fete de la Transhumance has evolved into a three-day event!  I went to Vendres last Saturday, to enjoy a day at the Fete de la Transhumance!

The highlight of the day was the procession of the flocks of sheep through the village, accompanied by riders on horseback.  First though came the marching band!Closely behind them were the horses…

…and then came the shepherds and the sheep!  I’ve seen sheep before, but seeing a huge flock of sheep arrive in a village is something I’d never experienced!

The sheep seemed to be going round in circles, pushed one against the other, with the whole flock moving very slowly towards where I was standing.

The man standing to the left in the above picture was holding a branch, with which he blessed the sheep by sprinkling holy water over them.
Finally, the sheep made off down the road, but there were sheep as far as I could see!!

More shepherds and a couple of sheepdogs brought up the rear, and everyone followed them down the road and into the village.

We took a shortcut to get to the Place du Lavoir where a small market and a communal meal had been set up.  To my surprise, the sheep came right past that square – once more it was wall-to-wall sheep!!

By the old lavoir, the open-air wash house, barbecues had been set up, and people were preparing salads on long trestle tables.  On the bouledrome next to the lavoir, tables and chairs had been prepared for 600 people – they were expecting a crowd!!

Come 12.30, the tables were pretty much filled up and people were queuing to get their lunches.  The atmosphere was great – lots of laughter, families meeting up, strangers making new friends, children running through the rows!  Some people had even brought table cloths for their tables, along with real wine glasses!

On my tray I had the following:  green salad with tomatoes, onions and olives, grilled lamb with boulangere potatoes, a slice of sheep’s cheese, a slice of apple tart, a piece of bread (very important, we are in France after all!!) and, also important, a quarter of wine (in a plastic beaker).  Everybody else’s trays were the same, by the way!!

The food was all very good, and there was plenty of it!  The lamb was locally raised and the cheese was produced with milk from the flocks we had just seen.  The apple tart was divine!

The market stalls next door to the bouledrome had a variety of items on offer: wine, honey, plants, cakes, hams and sausages, cheese, knick-knacks, etc. My favourite pretzel lady was there too!!

It’s definitely a fete I’ll be going to again – the meal alone is worth the trip!  Keep your eyes peeled for details of next year’s Fete de la Transhumance.  You’ll be able to find details on http://www.ladomitienne.com

What’s coming up

Grands Crus Classiques, Saint-Chinian – 5 May 2019

The pianist Conrad Wilkinson is organising a series of classical music concerts in Saint-Chinian during 2019.  The next concert takes place on May 5 and features baritone Igor Morosov.

Vide Grenier, Saint-Chinian – 1 June 2019

The vide grenier (flea market) season will be starting in Saint-Chinian on April 27, 2019!  There will be a vide grenier every Saturday throughout the summer (from 7am to 4pm), and each one will be organised by a different association/club from Saint-Chinian.  On June 1st, it will be the turn of the association Institut de l’Ancienne Abbaye, of which I am a committee member.  So, come along on June 1st, buy some of the bric-a-brac that we’ll be selling, buy some raffle tickets, or better still, book your own stall!  Proceeds from the event will go towards organising concerts in Saint-Chinian.

Saint-Chinian wine walk – 2 June 2019

A 6 km guided walk through the vineyards of Saint-Chinian, punctured by wine tastings.  Departures every 15 minutes from 9am to 11am.  Details and reservations via this link.

Festival Scenes dans les Vignes, Chateau la Dournie, Saint-Chinian – 6, 7 and 8 June 2019 at 9pm

Three evenings of humour and music in the beautiful park at Chateau la Dournie, a wine estate located on the edge of Saint-Chinian.  Details and bookings via this website.

Rendez-vous aux Jardins, all over France and Europe – 7, 8 and 9 June 2019

If you enjoy visiting gardens, then this event is for you!  All over France and Europe, gardens will be open to the public.  Some of these gardens are normally closed to the public and can only be visited during that weekend.  The full programme for France can be found here.  I have earmarked three gardens around Narbonne for my visit!

Marche des Potiers (pottery market), Marseillan – 22 and 23 June 2019 from 10am to 7pm

If you enjoy pottery then this will be a ‘must visit’ for you – dozens of potters displaying their wares in the village of Marseillan!  I can always find something to buy at this kind of fair!! 😀  For updates, have a look at the Facebook page for the event.

st pons pottery

Festival de Carcassonne – 29 June to 29 July 2019

The Carcassonne festival is one of the biggest in the area, attracting stars such as Elton John (some years ago).  This year’s star-studded line-up includes Joan Baez, Sting, Liam Gallagher and Eros Ramazotti.  You can find the full programme here.

I’ll be back back to let you know about more events in our area a little later in the season!!

Easter traditions in Perpignan

The colourful town of Perpignan is worth a visit at any time of year, but if you are interested in real spectacle you have to visit just before Easter.

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Every year on Good Friday, a procession winds its way through the narrow streets of old Perpignan, to commemorate the passion of Christ.  The origins of the procession can be traced back to Saint Vincent Ferrier, a Dominican monk who lived between 1350 and 1419.  La Confrerie de la Sanch, the Fraternity of the Holy Blood, was founded in October 1416 at the Church of Saint-Jacques in Perpignan, with the aim of accompanying those condemned to death, as well as their families, before and after the execution, and at the same time commemorating the passion of Christ.

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Perpignan Cathedral

The participants of the procession are called penitents – the men wearing black robes with hats pointing to the sky, their faces completely masked, some of them barefoot or only wearing sandals.  The women wear black veils on their head and are dressed head to toe in black.  The procession is always led by the Regidor, a figure dressed in a red robe, carrying an iron bell, which is rung intermittently, followed by a group of drummers.  The solemnity of the procession as it approached sent shivers down my spine.

In 1777 the authorities decided to confine the procession to the church grounds of the Saint-Jacques church, as it was deemed too baroque and Spanish.  The tradition of taking the procession through the streets of the old town was revived in 1950 and it’s been taking place ever since.

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Baroque is certainly a good term to describe the procession today, and the tradition is typically Catalan.   Other processions exist in Arles-sur-Tech and Collioure, where they are still being held at night.

After the Regidor and the drummers comes a very large cross, carried upright by just one man, which is decorated with a great many symbols, which I imagine are instruments of the Passion of Christ, but I could not make sense of all of them.

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Reliquary of St Vincent Ferrier

The penitents carry the Misteri on their shoulders, which show scenes from the passion.  So there are all kinds of statues, which are brought from the churches and chapels of Perpignan and the surrounding villages, including one enormous cross, which had to be lowered every so often to pass below the power lines crossing the road.  The statues of the Virgin are dressed in black with mourning veils, some carrying the crown of thorns in outstretched hands, and all with strong expressions on their wooden faces.  The Misteri are heavy,  and the Penitents are doing this not for the spectators who line the streets, but for their faith.  At times I felt very much like an intruder taking photographs, and I did not shoot any videos (sorry!).

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The procession passes in silence; the penitents do not speak, and most of the bystanders watch in awed silence.  The only noise comes from a PA system, where someone is explaining the origins of the Sanch and reading what sounded to me to be sacred texts, some in Occitan. The PA system is also playing the Goigs, the traditional Catalan Easter songs.  I would have preferred for there not to been any of that.  For me it didn’t add to the atmosphere.

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The start is at 3pm in Rue de l’Eglise Saint-Jacques, and the procession returns there at 6pm.  In between there are four stops to give those carrying the Misteri a break.   When there is a break, even a short one during the walk, each one of the bearers has a stick on which to rest the handles of their heavy load.  Some of those sticks look as if they’ve been used for a very long time.

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So there I stood, awed by the whole thing, watching it go by, taking photographs of all the Misteri.  There had been a little wait before the procession arrived, and just across the street from where I stood was this rather fun sign, so here it is to lighten the mood 🙂

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There are many Misteri in the procession and many photographs I took, so I thought I would try and insert a slide show for you.

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So, if you ever are in the area around Easter, I would urge you to visit Perpignan on Good Friday, even if the weather does not look too good.  The procession will not leave you indifferent, and neither will the town of Perpignan!

Sepia toned

About a year ago, I discovered a restaurant in Valras Plage that I’d not been to before!  The restaurant was called Le Sepia, and at the time it had only been open for about 18 months.  I thoroughly enjoyed my meal there and had planned to write a blog post about my experience, but for one reason or another that never happened.

So, a few weeks ago I went to eat at Le Sepia again – purely in the interest of research, you understand!! 🙂

Le Sepia is located close to the seafront, and there’s a big car park close by.  The decor of the dining room has a nautical theme, very apt for a restaurant in a seaside town.  It’s all very discreetly and tastefully done though, so don’t expect ropes and fishing nets to be hanging from the ceiling and such!

The restaurant is run by Yann, the chef, and Isabelle the maitre d’hotel, who bring experience, professionalism and passion to their enterprise!

Our little group went for lunch one Sunday, for a special treat!  While we sipped our aperitifs, we “amused our mouths” (a very overly direct translation of amuse bouche!!) with the following:  parmesan shortbread, fish pate and little savoury chorizo “cakes”.

Two different starters were chosen by our party:  Brittany scallops and foie gras.  The scallops were cooked in their shells with coconut oil and dressed with a coconut sauce.  The scallop shells rested on delicious vegetable crisps, and they were topped with the lightest and crispest of crispy pastry shapes.  Yann hails from Brittany, and he does know how to cook fish – the scallops were cooked to perfection and the whole dish was divine.

My choice of starter was the foie gras – I’m a sucker for that, and I tend to order it whenever I find it on a menu.  The foie gras was accompanied by verjuice jelly (verjuice = juice pressed from unripe grapes), marinated onions and a lovely refreshing salad.  There was also some wonderful toasted country bread to go with the foie gras!

For the main course we had a choice of two dishes – fish or meat!!  🙂  The fish of the day was monkfish: it was cooked in the form of a grilled steak, served on a bed of mashed potatoes, with artichokes, clams, pea shoots and a saffron sauce.  Totally delicious!!

The other choice for main course was fillet steak – the meat came from the Aubrac region of France, which is famous for its beef.  Like the fish, the steak was also perfectly cooked, and it was divinely tender!  It was served with carrot puree, brussels sprouts, spinach and potatoes.

We skipped the cheese course, even though it was very tempting and the selection looked excellent.  Truth is, the portions were not skimpy, so we thought we had better save some room for dessert!!

The desserts were fantastically good!  Here they are:

Vanilla souflee with salted caramel ice cream:

A symphony of chocolate: chocolate shortbread, chocolate mousse, white and dark chocolate ice cream!  Heaven for chocolate lovers!!

Citrus and meringue: a marriage made in heaven!  A crisp meringue basket holding scoops of lemon and gin sorbet, topped with citrus foam and accompanied by a selection of citrus fruit and lemon cream.  Mmmmhhhh!

What a fabulous ending to a great meal!! Be sure you book your table if you want to enjoy the delicious food at Sepia.  You can find contact details on the website for the restaurant.

After that wonderful lunch, it was time for a walk along the seafront!  It was a beautifully sunny day,  perfect for a stroll!

Thank you, Kay, for such a special Sandy Sunday treat!

For badge holders only – part 2

Welcome to Part Two of our guided walk around Montpellier – for those who missed Part One, you can find it here.

At the end of last week’s post, we were on the corner of Rue de la Coquille, where we were admiring the most amazing architectural feature!

Xavier Laurent, our guide, continued our walk towards Rue Foch and its focal point, Montpellier’s Arc de Triomphe.  On the way there, we passed in front of the Palais de Justice, the central court-house.

The Palais de Justice translates literally (as you may have guessed) as “Palace of Justice”.  It certainly is a palatial building and it is definitely designed to impress!  A long flight of stone steps leads up to a huge portico of Corinthian columns, surmounted by a very ornate pediment.  On either side of the portico, wings of the building project forward, creating a courtyard, which is closed to the street by iron railings.

In the days when Montpellier was a fortified city, there was a gate in the place where the Arc de Triomphe stands today.  The Arc stands at one of the highest points of Montpellier.  Naturally, it is not as big as the one in Paris, but it is impressive all the same!

If you look carefully at the picture above, you can just make out the heads of some people on the top of the Arc. Our group was larger than the maximum number allowed up there, so our guide split us into two groups.

The decorative reliefs are in homage of Louis XIV, glorifying his achievements during his long reign of 72 years!

To begin with, I thought the two faces of the Arc had identical reliefs, but on closer inspection they turned out to be different.  The reliefs in the pictures above are the ones celebrating the battle victories.  The two medallions in the pictures below celebrate the construction of the Canal du Midi, and the victory of Louis XIV over the French Protestants following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.  The central figure in the second medallion used to hold a cross in its raised hand, but that was knocked off some time ago!

The next medallion shows Louis XIV as Hercules, crowned by Victory, and the one below that remembers the capture of the town of Namur in Belgium by French troops.

After I took all those pictures, it was the turn of our part of the group to climb the 88 steps to the terrace atop the Arc!

Xavier, our guide, had told us that the views were worth the climb, and he had not promised too much – the views from the top were magnificent!!

The large open space on the other side of the Arc from Rue Foch is called the Promenade du Peyrou – a tree-lined public space with a statue of Louis XIV at the centre.  The statue which stands there today is a replica of the original, which (naturally) was melted down during the French revolution.  The original was monumental in size, and, according to our guide, no building in Montpellier could be taller than the tip of the fingers on the original statue’s raised arm!

The building behind the statue was the “Chateau d’Eau”, a water tower of sorts.  If you look carefully at the picture above, you can just make out the arcades of the aqueduct to the left of the building, which brought water to Montpellier and the “Chateau d’Eau” from 1768 until sometime in the 20th century – the aqueduct and the “Chateau d’Eau” are no longer in use today.

Once we had had our “fill” of the views from the top of the Arc de Triomphe it was time to descend the 88 steps of the spiral stone staircase.  The top of the  Arc de Triomphe can only be visited with a guide and I felt very privileged to have been there!

The next stop for our guided tour was a mysterious place – the medieval mikve.  A mikve “is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism” according to Wikipedia.  I found the Wikipedia article very interesting and instructive – do read it if you want to find out more.

The mikve is located in the cellar of a house in Rue de la Barralerie.  It was discovered by chance during renovation work:  the cellar had always been very damp, so it was decided to dig in attempt try and find the cause of the dampness.  In the process, the archaeologists were called in, and they discovered the remains of the medieval mikve.  If you’ve read the Wikipedia article, you’ll know that a mikve has to be filled with naturally occurring water, either rainwater or a spring or well.  In Montpellier, the mikve is filled by an underground water course.  No wonder that cellar was always damp!!  There is speculation that the synagogue was close by.  When the jews were chased from the French kingdom in the 13th century their places of worship would have been repurposed or destroyed.  It’s a miracle that the mikve survived!

The bath itself had been completely filled in with debris and covered over, but once it was all cleared out and restored, it filled up again with crystal clear water.  The water was so clear that it would have been easy to forget that it was there, had it not been for bits of leaves floating on top.

The picture above was taken from a small room above the bath, perhaps used for undressing / dressing oneself before and after immersion?

I felt quite awed when I climbed the stairs on my way out, thinking of the many centuries that this place had survived!

The mikve was the penultimate stop on our guided visit.  Xavier, our guide, walked us back to the Place de la Comedie – we stopped not all that far from where our visit had begun.  He gave us a little history of this magnificent square, which goes by the nickname of l’oeuf, the egg!  The Place de la Comedie is very much a 19th century creation, with its impressive buildings in the style of the Paris architect Haussmann surrounding it.  Originally there was an egg-shaped island on the square, with roads around it.  I’ve always known the Place de la Comedie in its present pedestrianised version, so that it’s difficult to imagine it with roads and cars.  Below is a picture from 1949, which shows a view of the square towards where the Polygone shopping centre is today.  You can see the egg shape quite clearly.  If you take a look at an aerial view of Place de la Comedie on g**gle maps, you can see that the egg shape is still there – for the moment, as plans are underway to resurface the entire square!

The square takes its name from the Opera Comedie, the 19th century opera house of Montpellier.  A succession of opera houses have stood on the self-same spot, all of them destroyed by fire, apart from the current one, which was built by a disciple of the architect Charles Garnier, of Paris opera fame!  I’ll leave you with a picture of the opera house at dusk, all lit up!  There’s much more to discover in Montpellier.  You’ll see for yourself when you next visit!