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.

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Discover Uzes

A couple of weeks ago, I told you about my trip to the Witches’ Market in Saint Chaptes. In order to be able to get to the market early in the morning, I stayed the previous night in Uzes. Getting to Uzes in good time gave me the chance to spend a few hours exploring the centre of town. Uzes is a town whose history dates back to Roman times. Most of you will have heard of the Pont du Gard, an aqueduct built by the Romans to bring water to Nimes. The Pont du Gard is not far from Uzes, and Uzes is where the Romans captured the water for Nimes. Here’s a picture of the Pont du Gard at sunset:

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The old town centre of Uzes is full of amazing buildings.  Unfortunately most of the streets are very narrow, so it was impossible to capture much more than some architectural details.  The “dressed up” door was for Halloween – the tape says ‘Caution – Enter if you dare’!  🙂

In the centre of the old town lies a large and irregular shaped square, it kind of meanders around several corners.  This is where the market takes place every Saturday – I’ve not yet visited that, but it’s on my list!!

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Some of the houses along this open space have arcades on the ground floor – here’s a picture of a stone-vaulted arcade:

Not far from the square lies the ducal castle.  The Duke of Uzes still owns the castle, and apparently the title is the highest ranking among French nobility.  The castle can be visited, I just didn’t have enough time.

Right across the street from the ducal castle stands a splendid building, which houses the town hall.

One wing of the building was home to the post office and telephone exchange at one time.  I imagine that both moved out some time ago!

The cathedral was destroyed several times.  The current building dates from the 17th century.  The arcaded belfry dates from the 11th century.

I found a some lovely door knockers on my walks:

As the day drew to a close, my thoughts turned to dinner – wouldn’t you know?? 🙂  I’d noticed a few restaurants throughout the town and in the end I decided on a restaurant called Midi a l’Ombre, which was tucked away a little, not far from the tourist office and the cinema.  It turned out to have been a great choice!  The dining room was very stylish and warm, and the chairs oh so comfortable.  You’ll be able to see pictures of the dining room on the restaurant’s own website – I didn’t take any since there were a fair number if diners already seated.  But I did take pictures of the food!  Here is the amuse bouche, a delicate jerusalem artichoke soup!

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Since I had a friend with me, here are two starters.  The first is a terrine of foie gras with figs, the second is a dish of scallop and prawn ravioli with crispy vegetables.

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Here is the main course – delicious and perfectly cooked john dory with polenta and ratatouille.

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The cheese selection was amazing!  I overheard the waiter describing the cheese under the plastic cloche as ‘the devil’s suppository’ to the guests at the next table, warning them that it was very smelly! 😀  I decided to give that particular cheese a miss…

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The desserts were a fitting end to a wonderful meal!  The first was a Grand Marnier mousse with crispy orange biscuits.  The second was a chocolate mousse cake, which was as light as a feather!

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Highly recommended!!

Beziers – Musee Bitterois

Beziers has several interesting museums, and I recently visited the Musee du Bitterois in an attempt to entertain my 15-year-old nephew, who came to visit during his school holidays.  I’m not sure how successful the entertaining part was (YOU try and get some kind of feedback from a 15-year-old teen!! :-)), but I was certainly impressed by the museum.  It is situated in part of the old barracks in the St Jacques neighbourhood of the old town, and the building itself is impressive, even more so on the inside.  It’s all very spacious and well-lit, arranged around what was an open courtyard at one point, and which is now partly roofed over.

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The exhibition is in chronological order, and starts with prehistoric finds.  I was particularly impressed by this beautiful menhir and the prehistoric burial urns on display.  I get confused as to what belongs to which period – so if you really want to know you’ll have to visit.

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The most ancient artifacts were juxtaposed with modern art – an interesting concept!

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The museum has a particularly rich collection of Roman artifacts – commonplace objects such as oil lamps,

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but also this exquisite carving, which I think is ivory.  It’s tiny and except for the missing head it’s perfect.

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Another astounding find was a whole collection of stone heads of the imperial family, which turned up when a house in central Beziers was remodelled in the 19th century.  They were all  hidden in the same location and in beautiful condition!  Don’t ask me the names, I only remember Agrippa and Julie…

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Then there were these enormous stone blocks with an inscription which I’ve not yet been able to decipher, despite using google translations.  Something to do with hot mother’s  milk making you happy, and male heirs, but most likely I have that totally wrong, Latin was never a strong subject for me :-).  I couldn’t find a description for that particular exhibit, otherwise I could have told you what the inscription really meant.  But this way we can just make it up as we go along.

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And then there was this rather racy sounding inscription, but I think it’s something to do with six at home (??), and of course most of it is missing, so who knows??

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After all that Roman stuff the exhibition got to the medieval period, which meant a fair amount of religious art, and there was a fine statue of a headless St Aphrodise.  Finally we arrived at more modern times, and there was a charming reconstruction of an Auberge along the Canal du Midi, along with the workshop of a last potter of Beziers.

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The revolt of the wine growers was well documented, and the portrait of Ernest Ferroul caught my eye.  He seems to have been very active in the movement, but was also a very shrewd politician and changed allegiances frequently – sounds familiar?

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The Station Uvale looks very much like an art deco ornament.  By the looks of it everything do with grapes was being sold there.

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And here is yet another door knocker, this one made by a Mr Cordier towards the end of the 19th century, and pretty monumental in size!!

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Beziers’ industries were many, and this poster for Blayac brandy is particularly colourful.  I’ve not been able to turn up any information about the factory or the brand, but the name Blayac is still very common in Beziers.

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And here’s another representation of the famous camel (see the post about the occitan carnival) .  It’s somewhat smaller than the camel which is taken out for the processions, but it has a very jolly face!

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And finally, the old boat in the sunken exhibition space of the museum, along with the display cases of local fauna and flora.  Fancy a little cruise?

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The St Jacques neighbourhood surrounding the museum is pretty interesting too, full of old buildings and quirky details.

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One of the more interesting things to see is the site of the old Roman arena, which was completely built over after the fall of the Roman empire.  At some point during the past 20 years, the municipality decided to consolidate the remaining walls and create a small park open to the public.

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The museum has a hand-cranked model of the site, to give you an idea of what there was/is.

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The views from the edge of St Jacques neighbourhood are fantastic – you get a great view of the cathedral, and the surrounding plains.  It must have been a very strategic spot in olden times…

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And there you have it, an exploration of another small part of Beziers, full of history and interesting nooks and crannies.  Thanks for joining me!

Milling around..

Last weekend was the European Mills Weekend.  Each year the whole of Europe celebrates its milling heritage on the third weekend of May, with demonstrations of the millers craft, and buildings being opened to the public which are often not accessible for the rest of the year.  Once upon a time there were lots of mills in Languedoc; St Chinian alone had in excess of 10 water powered wheels and one windmill.  I visited Roquebrun on the Sunday, and the St Chinian windmill on the Monday, and since I don’t want to make this post overly long I will split it into two.

I’ll start in chronological order with Roquebrun.  Until 1870, when the bridge across the Orb was completed, Roquebrun was somewhat cut off from the rest of the plain by the river.  On the carte de l’etat major a map from between 1820 – 1866 the road to Beziers led via Causses et Veyran and it was probably no more than a track.  There was a ferryman at Roquebrun, so that the arable land on the other side of the river could be accessed, but that was it.  The village was more or less self-sufficient, and the mills played an important role.

The first mill I visited was an oil mill, which was in operation until the 1920s.  Waterpower was provided by the stream from Laurenque, and the mill consisted of a crushing mill to reduce the olives to pulp, and a press to extract the oil.  In the 1920s the oil mill transferred to a location on the edge of village, now the site of the cooperative winery.  In the old days every possible spot of land was cultivated, and olive trees provided families with their supply of oil for the year.

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Across from the oil mill stand the other two mills: on the edge of the river is the grain mill, which ground the locally grown cereals into flour or cattle feed. The inside of the mill can be visited, and usually houses exhibitions of local artists.

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At the entrance level there is a reproduction mill,  and on the next floor the beautiful roof timbers are visible.  The wheel room can be accessed from the outside, and the entrance to the mill-race is still visible from the banks. The old mill stone is now outside, propped up against a wall.

Next over and now surrounded by water is the moulin a genet, a mill which was used to process plant fibre extracted from the spanish broom which grows abundantly on the hillsides.  At one point this mill could be reached on foot, but a change in the river bed on the opposite side has meant that there is now water all round it.  In case you are wondering, the round structure atop of the building was a pigeonnier, providing meat for the table.  The broom fibre was used to make sheets and sacking and produced a somewhat coarse fabric.  A lot of houses had their own looms, and the open loggias at the top of a number buildings indicate that this is where the drying of the fibres and weaving was carried out.

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The mills look a little like stranded ships, the pointed bows have helped them withstand the floodwaters of the Orb river for centuries.  The dam which fed both mills used to be made with bunches of twigs, and was replaced in the 1960s with a new dam made of concrete.  It’s due for a major refurbishment shortly.  Both of the water mills fell into disuse at the end of 19th century, when the villagers no longer relied on self-sufficiency.

As part of the mill weekend in Roquebrun a guided visit of the Jardins de Limpach was on the program.  We were met by the president of the association Patrimoine et mémoire de nostre pais, which researches and promotes the history and heritage of the village.  Our visit started just a few yards down from the mills, and took us along the Laurenque stream, to the site of the first gardens in Roquebrun.  This area of France was occupied by the Moors from the 4th to 7th centuries, and the Moors brought with them a certain amount of know how where irrigation was concerned.  The water was captured in a canal further up the valley, and each garden along the valley had a beal, a channel made of stones, which in turn filled up a basin called a tane.  From the tane the water was distributed on to the ground with the aid of a large and slightly curved paddle, more of a large soup spoon perhaps.

Other systems existed to get water into the gardens, where the ground was too high to be fed by the stream.  Along the valley are cisterns, into which the water would flow.

Some of them are barely visible, but others still seem to be in good repair and use.  To get the water out of the cisterns there were various methods.  One was something called chaine a godet, literally translated as a bucket chain, which was hand-cranked.  For larger amounts of water there was also the noria, which worked on a similar principle as the chaine a godet, but was operated by a donkey.

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But the most common and probably least expensive was the chadouff (or shadoof), which is called pousalanque in Occitan and which involved a stone pillar, a slender tree trunk, some stones and a bucket.  Examples of this can be seen today in India, Egypt and elsewhere.  There are many stone pillars left in the jardins de Limpach but only one which is more or less working at the end of the walk.

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The bucket hangs on a chain, and is lowered into the water by pulling the chain downwards to lower the arm.  The counterweight at the end of the arm helps pull the full bucket up without much effort, and the water is then emptied into a channel, which spills into a tane, from where it is splashed ont the surrounding crops.  At the top of the valley there was also the fontaine intermittante – a spring which overflows at certain times.  In the days before running water, the women of the village used to come here with their pitchers to get water and no doubt have a chat.  Later the water was pumped up to a reservoir at the top of the hill, from where it fed a number of fountains.

I followed the path the women would have taken for centuries, and it looked as might have when they did.  I couldn’t resist the Iris which were flowering along the way.

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Looking into some fo the gardens there are series of stone pillars, some of them connected by iron hoops.  According to our guide, the first orange trees were planted in this valley, and the structures were orangeries, which could be covered in winter to protect against frost.

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After that interesting visit I went for a little walk around Roquebrun, there’s a lot more to see and of course there is the jardin mediterranean to visit at the top of the hill, but that’s for another blog.

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Now for two last pictures!  The giant asparagus is the beginning of an agave flower stalk, and the pale blue patch in the distance is a field of blue iris.

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Plant fairs, carpets and doorknockers

At the start of the week was a visit to La Petite Pepiniere in Caunes Minervois, last Sunday, for the annual Open Weekend. Despite all expectations to the contrary, Sunday turned out to be a little wet, but we set off undeterred. Gill Pound who runs La Petite Pepiniere has created the most magnificent garden from a former vineyard, and at 11am she welcomed us for a guided tour of her kingdom. The range of plants is vast, but all are planted with the same aim – to withstand the dry climate and the sometimes cold winter. If you’re a keen gardener a visit is a must, there is much to interest and of course Gill has a great range of plants for sale.  Towards the end of our visit a lady came to take a picture of our group – you can find the picture and accompanying article here –  yours truly is hidden behind the lady in the purple raincoat!

As part of the open weekend a number of artists and artisans were exhibiting their works over the two days, but because of the rain several had to pack up and leave early. One of the few who stayed was Garth Bowden, who was showing a range of wooden furniture and sculptures. I was particularly taken by his wooden benches, where the surface textures were simply wonderful. After lunch the drizzle stopped and it brightened up a bit. There was much excitement, when a rare orchid (see picture above) was found by one of the visitors, growing near the riverbank.

I treated myself to two plants for my garden, a verbena bonariense, for which I’ve yet to find a spot and an Amicia Zygomeris which is planted and getting established.  The rain was good for the garden, and I’ve managed to do a fair bit of weeding and general work.  The tomatoes are growing well and need to be tied to their supporting canes.  The kiwis have finished flowering and there a good many little furry fruits dangling!! On the grapevines the flowers are incredibly unspectacular, the petals are almost non-existent, but this year’s flowering looks very promising! The air is heavy with the heady perfume from the linden tree outside the garden, and there is a loud buzz from the bees in that tree! Oh, and the raspberries are starting to ripen – always a good sign!!
On the way home from Caunes I found one of the most spectacular fields of poppies ever – so much for me writing that there was not much of a show this year!  And the handsome flower-pot-man was found in Caunes Minervois too.

   
 

Thursday I made a trip to Lodeve with friends, to explore the town and to visit the Savonnerie carpet workshop.  Let’s start with Lodeve:  from the middle ages onwards this was an important town for the manufactue of woollen fabrics because of its location and the pure water of the two rivers running through it, and from Louis XIV it received the monopoly for supplying the fabric from which all soldier’s uniforms were made.  Booming during war times but poor during peace times.  Of course that monopoly did not last, and by 1960 the last mill closed in Lodeve, leading to the decline and depopulation of the town.  Go for a walk through the centre – it’s well worth it!! The architectural history is all there, be it the cathedral or humble lanes. One thing which holds much fascination for me are doors and door knockers – Lodeve has a great deal and  I could have found many more with a bit more time!  The shap of the knockers are only limited by the imagination of the creators:  hands (with and without a ring on the ring finger), animal heads, cornucopias, and some incredibly ornate designs.  The sad pictures are of the doors where you can see that the knocker has been removed, sometimes stolen, sometimes sold…. but I won’t include any of those here.There are many quirky details, such as the bell-pull on the side of an ancient doorway, and the bell still above the door inside!

   

And then we found an incredible mural at the end of a little alleyway.  The artist really got his perspectives right, from afar it’s difficult to distinguish what is real and what is painted on.

A few more bits and pieces, before I wrap it up for today – I think I know what a Frigoriste is, but what about Ressemelage?  I have no idea!!

In the next post I’ll tell you about lunch and the visit to the Manufacture Nationale de la Savonnerie.  And before I forget, the riddle photograph from last week showed the leaves of a cyca unfurling!