Time with the Swiss

One grey Saturday morning this spring, I went to meet up with a group of like-minded people for a guided visit on Beziers’ architectural history.  The history of that town has fascinated me for a long time – it goes back so far, and there are so many different layers to discover.  The theme of the guided visit was Chez les Suisses, and very appropriately the visit started on a square just off Boulevard de Geneve.  The boulevard was given its name around 1904 after the town councillors of Beziers had had a particularly cordial welcome on a visit to Geneva.

During the later part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, there were strong commercial ties between Switzerland and Languedoc.  The Swiss would buy wines from the region, and in turn would sell grain.  Swiss merchants opened offices in Beziers, and built themselves sumptuous mansions with their profits.

On our visit we stopped at several of these mansions.  The first one we saw was built by Godefroid Meyer on Boulevard de la Liberte between 1926 and 1928 in a very pure art deco style.

We were fortunate in that the owner of this beautiful white house was one of the guides – there were several of them, each with a different field of expertise.  He had brought several photographs of the interior of the house to show to the group.  The interior looked as stunning as the outside. In fact, my pictures above do not do the building justice, it really has to be seen in person!

The next mansion we saw used to belong to the Bühler family.  Traugott Bühler bought an enormous plot of around 4500 square metres along Avenue Saint-Saëns, and proceeded to build not one but two mansions.  The one on the corner was used as offices, and is a relatively modest brick and stone confection with a mansard roof.

The initial of the family name still decorates the stonework at roof level, and the railings on the balcony just below hint at art nouveau.

The big mansion next door, completed in 1903, was designed by the architects Leopold and Louis Carlier, well-known architects from Montpellier.  The locals called it the Chateau Bühler, on account of its size and air of sumptuousness.

Both of the Bühler mansions have been split into apartments, and a large part of the park has been sold off and covered with very nondescript apartment buildings.  The facade of the chateau as well as the monumental wrought iron gates and railings have listed building status!  Here is one of our guides in front of the gates:

The last of the mansions we visited, was built for Otto Müller, another rich merchant of Swiss extraction, who, if I remember correctly, had married one of the Bühler daughters – or was she a Meyer?  The architect was Leopold Carlier.  He designed the mansion in the Flemish style, with gables and turrets.  The building was finished in 1870.  At the time there were few other buildings surrounding it.

You can still see Otto Müller’s initials on the monumental chimney:

In 1916, the mansion was bought by the brothers Guy.  In 1918, they engaged a renowned landscape architect to turn the land surrounding the house into a park.  They also commissioned original artwork from the local sculptors Antonin Injalbert and Jean Magrou for the park.  Once the Guy brothers bought the house, the locals started to call it Villa Guy.  It retains that name to this day.

We were fortunate in that the current owners of Villa Guy allowed our group to visit the grounds – we got a very close look at the building and the park.  Villa Guy is today an exclusive Bed and Breakfast and function venue.

Here is a selection of photographs of the building and of the sculptures in the park:

Farthest from the house is the Neo-Moorish garden, which was undergoing restoration when I visited.  At the time of writing this post, the fountains should be tinkling again!

And thus ended a fascinating visit into Beziers’ past!

 

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On rocky ground

It’s amazing what you can discover on walks around the villages in Languedoc! (I know that the area has now been renamed Occitanie, but I refuse to call it that!!)  A village which is full of interesting things to discover is Montouliers.  It is perched on a hill in the hinterland, not far from Bize Minervois and Argeliers.  Walk the narrow streets of the old part of the village up towards the chateau, and with a little imagination you could picture yourself transported back in time.

The narrow streets are paved with stones, a surface which is called calade.  Calade is a word that you’ll not find in a French dictionary – it has its roots in the old Gaulish word cal, meaning stone and height.  Calades were built using the materials to hand – stones which had been cleared from the fields to make them arable.  Skill was required so sort the stones and to place them, so that they would form a durable surface.  Mortar was not often used as that would have raised the cost.

Steps were built to shore up the steeper slopes and to allow humans and animals (donkeys and horses in the main) to walk up and down more easily.

In most villages, the calades disappeared with the advent of tarmac in the early 20th century, the old making room for the new.  However, in some villages you can still find calades.  I know of two small patches in Saint-Chinian.

Here are a few more images from Montouliers – along with the Calades, the exteriors of the houses in the old part of the village have also been carefully renovated!

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Canalside dining

There’s something special about restaurants which overlook the water, be it the sea, a river or lake, or the Canal du Midi.  Many years ago, I spent an evening at a restaurant in Grau d’Agde called Les Ondines.  It’s terrace was on a pontoon in the river Herault, not far from where the river meets the sea.  I don’t quite recall the meal, but the sunset was absolutely wonderful!!

Sunset at Grau d’Agde

Along the Canal du Midi there are many beautiful spots for a variety of restaurants – some are very simple, others very fancy and then there are the ones in between.  Today I want to take you to three restaurants.  We’ll work our way from west to east, starting with the Auberge de la Croisade, at La Croisade, a tiny hamlet built at a crossroads.  I remember the building in the picture below when it was just a shell, before it was renovated and turned into a restaurant.  This was in the days before digital photography, but here is a picture of the restaurant as it is now:

Auberge de la Croisade by the Canal du Midi

Over the years I have eaten at this restaurant many times, and I have seen it evolve and grow.  One constant has been Bruno, the maitre d’hotel, who is unfailingly friendly and cheerful – a truly wonderful host!  I went to the restaurant with a group of friends not long ago, and we had a great time!  Here are some of the delicious starters we ate:

Main courses followed:

La Croisade has been serving a selection platter of desserts since the restaurant first opened:There was also delicious ice cream:Another great canal-side restaurant is located in Poilhes – La Tour Sarrasine.  It has a terrace from which you can watch the boats glide by as you sip a glass of perfectly chilled rose wine!  Another meal with friends, this one was to celebrate a birthday! 😉 The picture below was taken at the end of our meal – such a lovely spot!

The starters tasted as good as they looked!

Main courses followed – very nicely presented, expertly cooked and very tasty!

The cheese platter was very nice too:

And dessert was heavenly!

Farther east lies the village of Colombiers, where there’s an old favourite of mine: Restaurant Au Lavoir!  I’ve been there countless times, and I’m sure that I have mentioned the restaurant before.  There’s something old-fashioned about this restaurant, but in a very positive sense.  Here you can eat the kind of food that you don’t often find in restaurants anymore: cote de boeuf, soufflé, crepes Suzette etc.  The silverware is real silverware, and the glasses and tablecloths are beautiful.

Three of us went for dinner earlier this year, and what a feast it was!!  Here are three starters:

… and three delicious main courses:

We passed up on the cheese, although the cheese trolley looked very tempting!  Instead, we headed straight for some wonderful desserts:

If you fancy eating at any of these restaurants, do make a reservation to avoid disappointment.  And do tell them that you saw them on my blog! 🙂  Bon appetit!

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Summer festivities in Saint-Chinian

For this post I have decided to concentrate on the many things that will be going on in Saint-Chinian this summer!

The very popular night markets will be starting on July 4, 2017 and will take place every Tuesday throughout July and August.

Every Saturday there will be a Vide Grenier, a flea market, in the shade of the plane trees on the market square.

On Thursday nights there will be open-air cinema in front of the town hall building – July 6th and 20th, August 3rd, 10th, 17th and 24th.  Free admission!

On July 9th, Chateau la Dournie will be holding an open day from 10am to 6pm.  Visits of the cellars, wine tasting, craft market, picnic in the park.

The Fete du Cru will be taking place on July 23, 2017 – a great day of wine tasting in the market square!  The Fete du Cru is organised by the winemakers of the Saint-Chinian area to showcase their wines and to allow the public to discover the great variety of wines on offer.

The music festival will take place from July 26 to 30 this year.  Five days of concerts in the historic surroundings of the former abbey church, the cloister, and the parish church of Saint-Chinian.  A variety of concerts with different styles of music which are sure to appeal: Classical, New Orleans jazz, Latin rhythms, world music, choral, etc…  Full details can be found on www.festivalmusisc.wordpress.com

On August 4, 2017 the Cave Cooperative winery will hold its open day.  Free guided visits of the cellars throughout the day.  Unveiling of a new mural in the cellars, followed by an open-air meal and concert.

On Mondays during July and August, a guided visit of the architectural heritage of Saint-Chinian takes place, starting at 9am from the entrance hall of the town hall building.  Reservations via the tourist office.

On Tuesdays during July and August, there is a free guided visit of the Chapel of Notre Dame de Nazareth at 9am.  Meeting point is at the start of the path up to the chapel, where the D177 forks to Assignan and Babeau Bouldoux.  Reservations via the tourist office.

On Wednesdays during July and August, you have the option of a guided visit of the Capitelles, the little huts built with just stones and no mortar.  The visit is free of charge, reservations at the tourist office.  The meeting point is at the windmill, and the walk starts at 9am.

Thursday mornings during July and August are dedicated to guided visits of the Cave Cooperative, the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  The free guided visit starts at 10:30am and the visit is followed by a wine tasting.  Reservations via the tourist office.

The Canal de l’Abbe is the theme for a guided visit on Fridays during July and August.  This canal was built during the Middle Ages, originally to power a number of mills along the way.  To this day supplies the vegetable gardens in Saint-Chinian with river water!  The free visit starts at 9am from the town hall in Saint-Chinian.  Reservations via the tourist office.

On Saturday mornings during July and August, a visit of the former Abbey is on the agenda, showing the evolution of the buildings between 1656 and 1950. The free visit starts at 9am in the town hall building.  Reservations via the tourist office.

The windmill, which sits on the rocky ledge above Saint-Chinian, can be visited on Sundays.  The free guided visit starts at 9am at the windmill.  Reservations via the tourist office.

There’s never been a better time to visit Saint-Chinian, so book your stay now!

 

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Full of cheer

I’ve just received a lovely message from Noelle, one of the regular readers of this blog, and resident of Saint-Chinian:

I just wanted to thank you for a suggestion on your blog: “La randonnee de Bacchus” from Berlou.

Lucien and I took the hike on Sunday June 4.
After a week of not knowing if it was going to rain, we woke up to a beautiful day, sunny, just a little breeze.
As per instruction we were at Berlou for 10:30 AM. After registration we were given a glass to hang around our neck, and then we were on our way. Since we were among the last group to depart I never felt crowded on the walk. I was told we were around 350 people but I never saw such a crowd. Actually I thought a lot of the time Lucien and I were the only ones on the trail. At each stop the crowd was only around 50 people. The wines and matching food were excellent. Plenty of time to drink and eat, seating sometimes in the shade of a tree on the ground, on a long table with chairs, or on fallen tree which served as a bench. At each of the 7 stops we tried different wines: a sparkling wine, 2 roses, 1 white, 2 reds and a sweet wine. I thought I would get drunk drinking the mix but with plenty of water it did not happen.
The trail is not an easy one but the views are grandiose on the top of the mountain. With such a day, we were able to see very far, the sleeping Lady, towns, wineries…  We were even able to pick some cherries from a lonesome tree on the side of the trail – just refreshing. We did met a few people, mostly Belgiam English and French, living close by.
We ended the walk through the narrows streets of Berlou, a small and pretty village with many flowers on balconies, and on the bridge. At this time of the year it was a feast for the eyes with all the different colours.
Thank you again for suggesting this “randonnee”!
Have you followed in my footsteps and visited any of the places I have written about?  I’d love to hear about your experiences, feel free to share them!!

Dine at the Auberge

It has been nine years since I first met Sylvie and Claude Clapiers.  At the time, they had only just opened their restaurant, L’Auberge Vigneronne, in the tiny hamlet of La Bosque near Combejean.  Claude had retired from the police force, and Sylvie had always wanted to run a restaurant.  Claude’s parents were from La Bosque – they had vineyards there, and when it came to setting up the restaurant, they were very supportive.  An old farm building was converted to house the kitchen and dining room.

A former vineyard was turned into a car park.  A plot of land was cleared to house the bird enclosures.  Sylvie and Claude decided that they would raise all their own poultry:  chickens, geese, guinea fowl, turkeys and ducks.

They have made a name for themselves for roasting their poultry on a spit over an open fire.  In the winter, this is done in the big fireplace in the dining room, and it’s wonderful to watch.  For the summer months, Claude has a second fireplace outside, and it was there that I took the following picture:

The drive to La Bosque is along a sinuous road, winding up and up.  From a number of places along the way you have beautiful views!  When you get out of the car at La Bosque, you might notice the quiet calm all around you – only the sound of birds is usually heard!

My brother is visiting right now, and he badly wanted to go back to L’Auberge Vigneronne!  I was more than happy to oblige 🙂  It had been a little while since I’d been to eat there myself.  So on a balmy evening we sat outside on the terrace at La Bosque, with the sun setting behind us, enjoying a glass of delicious, chilled rose, whilst waiting for our starters to be prepared.

The food at L’Auberge Vigneronne is very unpretentious and down-to-earth.  Sylvie wanted to serve Cuisine de Grandmere in her restaurant, updated versions of her grandmother’s cooking, and she’s been doing just that with great success since she opened the restaurant!

The menu is very straightforward:  four courses for 22 Euros or five courses for 27 Euros, with a choice of dishes for each course (excepting the dessert).  There were four of us, and we decided to have two menus with four courses and two menus with five courses, so we could all have a taste of the fish course.

These were the starters:

Salade du Jaur

A salad with smoked trout, both hot and cold smoked.

Aumoniere de Chevre Chaud

A crispy parcel filled with goat’s cheese and leeks.

Salade Auberge

Gizzards, bougnette (a kind of large dumpling, made from stale bread, pork, eggs and seasonings) and melsat (a kind of sausage made with the same ingredients as the bougnette), all regional specialities.

For the fish course we ordered the scallops in wild mushroom sauce.  They were perfectly cooked and utterly delicious!!

Scallops in wild mushroom sauce

My sister-in-law opted for osso bucco for her main course.  She loved every mouthful of it!

Veal Osso Bucco

The rest of us ordered the spit-roasted chicken! 🙂  The chicken arrived on a large platter, already cut into pieces, along with some more mushroom sauce.  On our plates were creamy courgettes, a toast with chicken liver pate, sauteed potatoes and green beans.

We did manage to eat all but one of the chicken pieces – it was very delicious, but we were getting full!!

As night started to fall, we attacked the cheese board! Claude had prepared a great selection of cheeses.  I had vowed to skip the cheese course, but my resolve weakened the moment the platter was placed on the table! 🙂

Cheese board at L’Auberge Vigneronne

Once we’d done justice to the cheese board, Sylvie served the dessert, which was a selection of three mini-desserts:  cherry clafoutis, chocolate mousse and pannacotta with blackcurrant sauce.

What a wonderful evening we had, and what delicious food we ate!  I’m so glad my brother suggested it!

L’Auberge Vigneronne is one of the few restaurants which is totally off the beaten track; most of its patrons live locally.  The restaurant is open on Fridays for dinner, on Saturdays for lunch and dinner, and on Sundays and bank holidays for lunch only.  Groups of 10 and more can be accommodated during the week.  Be sure to telephone to book your table on +33 467 893 411 or +33 670 704 513.