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 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!

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!!

No ordinary seaside lunch

Earlier this year, I was given a recommendation for a restaurant in Valras Plage, called O Fagot.  Seaside towns are not always known for their restaurants, so I looked up the restaurant on the net.  I found that the chef had just participated in a reality show on French TV called Top Chef – by the time of our visit he’d already been “knocked out”.  However, his food looked very promising, the reviews for the restaurant were encouraging, and friends were keen to come along, so off we went to Valras Plage!

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The restaurant is located a little way away from the centre, in a residential part of Valras Plage.  The outside is unprepossessing – I learnt that Franck Radiu, the chef, had taken over the premises not long ago.  In its previous incarnation, the restaurant had been a pizzeria, and the wood-fired pizza oven is still in place at one end of the dining room!

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A reminder of Franck’s stint on Top Chef hung on the wall – a chef’s jacket, signed by the other contestants and the judges.

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The interior was sober and modern, the chairs were comfortable and the tables set with nice glasses and silverware.  But all that was incidental, the food was the star here.  On the picture below is our amuse bouche – we certainly amused ourselves with it! 🙂

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This starter was interesting for the different textures, and very delicious:  an egg yolk on a slice of crispy bread, over an artichoke cream with toasted hazelnuts.

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The foie gras was pan-fried and perfectly cooked.  It was accompanied by apple slices and shavings of mushrooms and fennel, as well as a wafer thin piece of crispy bread.

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The starter in the picture below was a soft boiled egg, which had been coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried.  The egg was sitting on a salad made with quinoa and lots of fresh herbs, shaped into an incredibly neat circle.

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The main courses looked as spectacular as they tasted!  Franck Radiu is Corsican and uses this wonderful ham from Corsica to add flavour and seasoning to his meat dishes – he uses salt sparingly, preferring the ham to add the salt to the dish.

The lamb was braised for 24 hours at low temperature.  Even though the meat was incredibly tender, it still had a good texture.

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The steak was very succulent, and accompanied by potato croquettes.

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Braised and grilled belly pork on a bed of lentils with foie gras – yummy!img_4360

Franck Radiu started his career as a Chef Patissier (pastry chef), working in some high class hotels and restaurants in France, and his love of desserts shows!

The fraisier was a light as a feather!

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Ma Passion Chocolat was almost a chocolate orgy, combining crispy, crunchy, smooth and cold, and the passion fruit added a nice kick!

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Praline/Framboise was another lovely combination of textures and flavours – fresh raspberries, crispy biscuits and smooth praline mousse.

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A great finish to a lovely meal!!

And to round off this wonderful experience, we went for a walk along the seafront, which was just around the corner!

I would strongly recommend that you book before you head to O Fagot – you can find the contact details on the facebook page for the restaurant here.

Up on high

If you have ever visited Languedoc, you might have caught a glimpse of a flat-topped mountain, which can be seen from far away.  Its official name is Mont Caroux, but locally it is called La Femme Allonge, the sleeping lady.  If seen in the right light, from the right viewpoint (and with enough imagination) the small peak on the left looks like a face in profile, with the crags resembling flowing tresses.  The picture below is not really showing that interpretation, but it gives you an idea of the general shape of the mountain, which can be seen from as far away as Valras Plage.  Apparently, the outline of Caroux has been used by mariners to help with navigation.

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The mountain is a paradise for hikers and wildlife alike!  There are many tracks and trails to be explored, and if you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of a mouflon,the big horned wild mountain sheep.  The roads are sinuous and sometimes narrow, but there are rewards for navigating these roads!!  The driver has to concentrate on the road, but the passengers can enjoy the glorious views!

I recently visited the village of Combes, which is located on the southern flank of Caroux at 500 meters altitude.  My reason for going there?  Food, of course!  I went with friends, to eat at the Auberge de Combes.

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The Auberge de Combes had been recommended to me a number of times over the years, and I was very much looking forward to the meal.  The drive was beautiful and the weather just perfect for eating outside, on the shaded terrace.  The views from the terrace and the dining room are  amazing!

And the food was wonderful too!!  Here is a picture of our amuse bouche, the pre-starter, to get us in the mood for what was yet to come:  Escalivade (roasted red pepper & anchovy filet), aubergine puree in a shortcrust pastry case, and gazpacho made with heirloom tomatoes!

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The starter was a delicious composition of crisp pastry, tender baby squid and tasty greens.

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The next course was a crayfish bisque with wild gambas – oh so very tasty!!

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For our main course, we had pan fried foie gras with roasted figs – wonderful!!

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The main course was followed by a plate of tasty cheeses:

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The meal finished with dessert, and three different desserts made it to our table – there might have been more on the menu, but I don’t recall.  This was a peach soup with peach ice cream and a crunchy crumble topping:

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The raspberries were on a bed of light pastry cream, in a crisp pastry shell, served, of course, with raspberry sorbet.

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The chocolate vacherin was to die for – chocolate mousse, chocolate cream, mandarin cream, meringue AND mandarin sorbet!

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Now that I’ve eaten at the Auberge de Combes, I know that the people who recommended the restaurant were right – it’s definitely one to visit!!

After all that delicious food we needed a walk – badly!!  I suggested to my friends that we continue our drive up the mountain, and visit the hamlet of Douch.

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Douch is on the northern slope of Caroux, at 900 meters altitude, and the road ends there.  The hamlet is a popular starting point for the climb to the top of Caroux, and there is a greeter by the car park: a megalith made from locally quarried granite.

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On the way from the car park to the hamlet we passed some very neat vegetable gardens.

The houses are all clustered together, sheltering one another, no doubt!

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Just on the edge of the hamlet stands a communal bread oven.

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The bread oven was built in 2012 by the municipality with the help of local volunteers.  A sign on the wall invites visitors to make use of the oven.

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Everything is there: wood for the fire, a paddle to put bread and/or pizza in and out of the oven, even some brooms to sweep out the cinders.  There is a big table right next to the building, made from one huge stone slab!  Such a wonderful idea, and what a welcome for visitors!

I’ve made a mental note for a future outing to Douch, armed with pizza dough and toppings – it could be great fun!!

The little chapel was unfortunately closed.

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Before the advent of running water, this pump would have supplied the neighbourhood.

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At the end of this narrow alley stood a most magnificent hydrangea, surrounded by other plants and flowers.  Somebody must have a green thumb!

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The view from the hamlet was breathtaking – a wide expanse of hills and not much else!

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And then it was time to leave Douch and start our drive down the mountain again.  I’ll be back, before too long!

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After the rain

Last week we had two full days of rain – the first real rainfall since the spring!!  I was thinking of all the parched plants everywhere, and how this rain might just save some of them.

With rain, it’s either feast or famine here in our area – very rarely do we get a steady drizzle which lasts for days, and which would be so good for nature.  No, here it was heavy rainfall, torrential at times.  Slowly but steadily the ditches filled up with water, and the dried up gulleys turned into raging torrents.  The river in Saint-Chinian rose some, although not as much as I have seen it rise in the past.

The rain stopped Friday morning, and I had arranged to meet friends for lunch in La Caunette that day.  On the drive to La Caunette the sun started to peek through the clouds.  Before passing through Agel, there’s a spot where the river Cesse runs very close to the road.  For most of the year, the river here is dry, and in the winter there is sometimes a little water flowing, as in the picture below.

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After the rain, the river looked very different!

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With the sun coming out, the countryside looked sparkling, as though it had just been scrubbed clean – well, it really had had a good clean with all that rain!

Lunch at Restaurant La Cave in La Caunette was lovely; the food was good home-cooking, and as tasty as always, and the company was great!

Everybody chose the same starter from the daily menu, a tart with bacon, comte cheese and grapes.  The pastry was crisp and flaky, the tart hot from the oven, and the salad leaves were perfectly dressed.

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Everyone agreed on the same main course too: Parmentier of ox tail.  Succulent pieces of ox tail meat were hiding under a layer of mashed potatoes and carrots – a bit like a shepherd’s pie, really, and very tasty!

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When it came to dessert, opinions differed, and we finally had some variety on our table! 🙂

Pear poached in red wine:

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Chestnut mousse:

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Speculoos flan with caramel sauce (speculoos are spiced cookies from Belgium):

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All three were excellent.  We drank a very nice red wine with the meal, which came from Domaine Le Cazal, just outside La Caunette.

After lunch, a stroll around La Caunette was de rigeur.  Here’s a view of the village from the iron bridge, with the river below.  For most of the year there is no water in the river!  The founders of the village knew why they built the houses a way up the hill from the river!!

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In the village, there was water flowing seemingly everywhere – from under houses, above a garage, down gulleys…

Usually, la fontaine is a steady jet of water, rather sedate – the extra water pressure made for a very different jet!

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All too soon, the water will stop running and everything will go back to what it was like before all the rain!  I leave you with two pictures, both showing beautiful autumn colours.  One is of fruits on a vigne vierge, a Virginia creeper, the other is of pomegranates.  I hope you’ve enjoyed our little outing as much as I did!!