Smile! ¬†ūüėÄ

You will have read by now that the population of France has been confined to their homes since noon last Tuesday. ¬†Extreme measures in order to stop the spread of the Coronavirus! ¬†President Macron announced a 15 day period in which people are to stay indoors, and I have a feeling that this may be extended. ¬†We’ll see how effective it will be, and how people are going to be able to live with this perceived loss of liberty. ¬†Personally, I am not particularly bothered. ¬†I have everything I need at home, and plenty of small projects to finish, books to read, etc. ¬†I’ll have time to telephone friends and family, write e-mails, and catch up with all kinds of things. ¬†I might even be able to start work again on my long-shelved cook book project!! ¬†Now, wouldn’t that be something?? ¬†ūüôā

People will be allowed to leave their homes to go to work if they cannot work remotely, or are working for one of several essential services (electricity, water, medical, food, etc.), to go shopping for essential supplies, to visit their doctor or pharmacy, for imperative family visits (childcare or care of elderly relatives), and for physical exercise or dog walking, the last two are to be done in strict isolation. ¬†The food shops will remain open, and no doubt the shelves will eventually be re-stocked with pasta, rice AND toilet paper!! ūüėÄ

It will certainly be challenging for people who live in France’s big cities or areas where population density is high. ¬†In Saint-Chinian we should be OK – people are pretty well spaced apart to begin with, and if contact is limited so should be the spread of the virus.

Last Tuesday morning, as I took a quick walk around my¬†garden, my eye was caught by the blooms on my tree peony. ¬†Seeing the sparkling water drops on the gorgeous blooms brought a smile to my face! ¬†I cut several stems to bring home with me, so I could admire them for a few days. ¬†I hope you’ll enjoy them too!

So, it might be¬†au revoir for a little while. ¬†Rest assured, I’ll write again as soon as inspiration strikes or whenever I feel I have something worth telling you about! ¬†Until then, stay well and safe, and smile! ūüôā

Keeping track

It might come as a surprise to you to know that there once was a railway station in Saint-Chinian! ¬†I’d known about the railway for a long time – there is an¬†Avenue de la Gare in Saint-Chinian after all. ¬†But it wasn’t until a reader sent me a link to Roger Farnworth’s blog that I got the full picture. ¬†The post below is based on the information I’ve been able to find on Roger’s blog as well as on some other French sites. ¬†The pictures are mostly from Roger’s site. ¬†I’d like to say a big THANK YOU to Roger for allowing me to use his content, and to Paul for sending me the link to Roger’s blog in the first place!!

During the boom years of the railway in the 19th century, the Compagnie du Midi was running the mainline trains, serving all the big towns in the area and linking to Paris via Beziers and Bedarieux. ¬†In 1865, the Herault Department decided to create a network of local trains. ¬†The Compagnie de l’Herault was brought into being that same year and the first line, from Montpellier to Palavas, was inaugurated in 1872!

The line from Beziers to Saint-Chinian was commissioned in three stages: ¬†from Beziers to Cazouls-les-Beziers in 1876, from Cazouls-les-Beziers to Cessenon in 1877, and from Cessenon to Saint-Chinian in 1887! ¬†The 10 year delay was a result of major financial difficulties of the¬†Compagnie de l’Herault.

Below is a map of the finished railway line from Beziers to Saint-Chinian:

The aerial image below shows the site of the railway station in Saint-Chinian in 1953.

Passenger traffic on the line stopped a year later, in 1954.  The railway line carried on with goods traffic until 1968, when the stretch from Cazouls-les-Beziers to Saint-Chinian was closed for good.

Here is a very recent picture of the same area as above:

The former station building is still there, indicated by the label “Pays Haut Languedoc et Vignobles”. ¬†The rest of the station buildings and the yard have all been replaced by a housing development.

Here are some shots of what the railway terminus in Saint-Chinian looked like:

Here’s a modern image of the old station building:

And here’s a view of the station looking towards the town:

The building with the turrets that is towards the left hand side of the postcard was the station hotel, if my sources are correct. ¬†It’s still there – you’ll be able to see it in the picture below:

If this has piqued your interest, do visit Roger’s blog – it’s full of interesting information!! ¬†The former railway trackbed from Pierrerue to Cessenon has been converted into a greenway, which was opened only last year. ¬†It’s perfect for cycling or walking, and there may well be a blog post about that in the not too distant future! ūüôā

The big picture

There are big pictures all over the place – murals that cover entire sides of buildings. ¬†I’ve often heard them called muriels – have you heard them called that too?? ¬†In French, murals are often called trompe l’oeil, literally translated as “deceive the eye”. ¬†Some of the murals in the following pictures are incredibly convincing and live up to their trompe l’oeil¬†name!!

The first one is in Lodeve, and it is a very good example of a trompe l’oeil, as it blends real with fake – can you tell which windows are real and which are not?

The following mural is in Montpellier – the walls are pretty much flat, but the painting’s perspective makes it look incredibly 3D!The next mural is in Capestang, just right around the corner from the restaurant La Galiniere.

Beziers has a good number of murals – here is the oldest that I know of:

There appears to be a theme to the more recently painted murals in Beziers: famous artists and their works!

Here is L’Arlesienne by Georges Bizet:

Dejanire by Camille Saint-Saens:

Le Depit Amoureux by Moliere:

Jean Moulin, a native of Beziers and a hero of the Resistance, opened an art gallery in Nice as a cover for his resistance activities.  The following mural commemorates Jean Moulin and his gallery:

The mural in the last picture of this post is on a newly created square in Beziers.  The mural hides a series of what I imagine are run-down houses awaiting renovation Рa pretty neat idea!

This was to be my last article of 2019, but somehow it never got posted and ended up in my drafts folder! ¬†Since I wrote this post, Saint-Chinian has unveiled its own trompe l’oeil. It’s not quite finished yet, so I’ll post a picture of it when it is.

Bonne annee

At this time of year in France, when you see someone for the first time after New Year’s Eve, it is customary to exchange new year’s greetings. So, without further ado:

Bonne annee, bonne sante, meilleurs voeux to you all!!

This greeting is usually accompanied by a kiss on each cheek, not a real kiss but kind of touching cheeks and making the appropriate noise.  So please feel yourself virtually kissed!!

The new year’s greetings go on until the end of January!

Soon after Christmas, the galettes des rois or Epiphany cakes make an appearance in the shops and bakeries.  The tradition of the cake is closely tied to the three kings who came to Bethlehem bringing myrrh, gold and frankincense to baby Jesus.

Epiphany cakes come in one of two shapes:  there is the flat galette des rois, a frangipane filled puff pastry confection, or a ring shaped cake made with brioche dough which is often called a royaume and is decorated with sugar and/or with glacé fruit.  That same ring-shaped cake can also be found filled with cream!!

Common to all varieties is the fact that a favour is baked into them.  In olden days, the favour would have been a feve, a dried fava bean.  In France the favour is still called a feve and it is usually a tiny porcelain figure (watch your teeth!!).  Whoever finds the feve in their piece of cake is crowned king for the day.  Whenever you buy an Epiphany cake in any bakery or shop, a small cardboard crown is always part of the purchase!

Another tradition attached to the eating of the Epiphany cake concerns the dividing of the cake.  The youngest person usually sits under the dining table.  The cake is then cut into pieces, and the person under the table then calls out the name of the person who is to have the piece which has just been cut.

If you’re tempted to make your own galette des rois, have a look at this article where I give the recipe.

So, here’s to the start of the new year – let’s hope it’s a good one for all of us!!

The photographs for this post were taken at La Gourmandise bakery in Saint-Chinian.  Thank you, Carole!!

Going crackers

A few weeks ago, I announced the date for this year’s¬†Cracker Fair Christmas market at the Abbaye de Valmagne near Villeveyrac. ¬†As luck would have it, I entered a prize draw and I was lucky enough to win a free ticket to the Cracker Fair. ¬†I don’t often win anything, so you can imagine how thrilled I was!

The Cracker Fair is a two day event, which takes its name from the traditional British Christmas cracker. ¬†If you are unfamiliar with the tradition, you’ll find the Wikipedia article here. ¬†Many years ago, when the fair first came into being, it was aimed at the British expat community, whose Christmas celebrations would not be complete without Christmas crackers! ¬†In the years since, the fair has caught on with locals and expats alike, and it is now one of the highlights of the area during the run-up to Christmas, for vendors and shoppers alike!

I went to visit last Saturday, on a gloriously sunny day.  It had rained (and stormed) the previous night, and many of the stallholders had not known whether the weather would be good enough for them to set up their stalls.  As it turned out, the day was perfect, almost too nice for a Christmas market!

The path from the entrance gates to the former abbey buildings was lined with colourful booths on one side.

Along the path on the opposite side to the booths was a stall selling garden ornaments.  No garden gnomes here!!  I was very taken by the guinea hens and the chickens!

 

A food court had been set outside the entrance to the cloister.  All kinds of foods were on offer:  fish and chips, burgers, roasted chestnuts, pumpkin soup, fresh oysters, onion bhajis, crepes, tapas, grilled sausages, pastries, and more.

The ‘prize’ for the most original looking stall went to the one selling fish and chips, which was in the shape of a boat. ¬†I treated myself to a lunch of fish and chips, accompanied by mushy peas, another British tradition. ¬†If you don’t know what mushy peas are, you can find a recipe here. ¬†In my excitement, I completely forgot to take a photograph of my lunch, but I can tell you that the fish was perfectly cooked, the batter was wonderfully crisp, and both the chips and mushy peas were delicious!

Before my lunch, I had visited the stalls inside the cloisters and the former abbey church.  Here are some of the stalls in the cloister:

There were many more stalls in the former abbey church:

Valmagne abbey was one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in Languedoc, and its church has almost cathedral-like proportions:  83 metres long and 24 metres high!  During the French Revolution, the abbey was dissolved and the buildings sold.  The church survived because it was used as a wine cellar!  Huge barrels were installed in the chapels.

The old refectory was turned into a living room during the 19th century.  And of cours, there were more stalls in there too!  The monumental fireplace was particularly impressive!!

The chapter house was off the cloister – it had the most amazing vaulted ceiling with a sawtooth pattern along the ribs of the vault.

Placed in the arcade that separated the chapter house from the cloister were some very ornately carved stone vases. ¬†The face reminds me of someone. ūüôā

In the cloister garden, opposite the door to the refectory, was a lavabo, a fountain where the monks would wash their hands.  Around the fountain was an octagonal structure which supported an ancient grape vine Рlovely and shady in the summer!

Only two of these lavabos have survived in France, one of them at Valmagne!

Here is a picture of the fountain:

The abbey might have been rich, but life for the monks must have been fairly harsh – no central heating, washing outdoors summer and winter, no thermal underwear or fleecy sweaters…

Here is a view from the cloister garden towards the church.

And this is what the buildings of the abbey look like from the road:

I’ll be going back to visit Valmagne next summer, when I’ll be able to visit the mediaeval herb garden, and discover the buildings with fewer other visitors there. ¬†I’ll report back, promise!!

A musical finale!

Having visited the old prison, the former archbishop’s palace, the cellars below the cloister of the cathedral, the market halls (for lunch ūüôā ), the Hotel de Montmorency, and the Theatre des Varietes on my day out in Beziers during the recent European Heritage Weekend, I finished my day at¬†La Boite a Musique!

La Boite a Musique is on Rue du Capus, in one of the oldest parts of Beziers, not all that far from the market halls and the Place de la Madeleine.  As I approached the door, I could hear music being played Рone of the reasons this was on my list of places to visit!

Inside, Pierre Charial was in the middle of a presentation.  The room was crowded with people Рold and young alike were listening intently to every word and every note!!

Pierre Charial was in the process of explaining and demonstrating a table top organette.  All around the walls of the room were floor-to-ceiling shelves, stacked high with cardboard books.

Pierre Charial is a¬†noteur¬†(a mechanical music notator) and the cardboard books are for making street organs come to life. ¬†Here’s how:

The cardboard strips pass through a “keyframe” and a hole in the cardboard means that the corresponding note will sound on the organ as it passes through the keyframe. ¬†Different types of organs have different numbers of keys, the smaller ones often have 24 keys, while some very large dance or fair organs have up to 101 keys!

Pierre Charial had a collection of different instruments in his workshop.  Below is a barrel piano, another street instrument, where a pinned barrel plays the music.  A spare barrel sat atop the instrument.

Against one wall stood a disc musical box:

And there were other organs:

Pierre Charial has been making organ books since 1975, preserving historical tunes and creating new arrangements of contemporary music. ¬†His catalogue lists around 1400 titles, and he’s still adding to it!

In 2004, Pierre Charial was given the title Maitre d’Art (Master Artist) by the French minister for culture, in recognition of his skills and his contribution to safeguarding a unique heritage. ¬†During the heyday of the street organ there were literally hundreds of¬†noteurs. ¬†Today, this dying art is practiced by very few people.

On the Maitres d’Art website, there’s an interesting video (in French) showing Pierre Charial in his former workshop in Paris: click here for the link.

It was getting to the end of the guided visit РPierre Charial kept the best for last!  He played his Limonaire Freres organ for us, a beautiful instrument!

Thank you very much to Mr Charial for opening his workshop for us – what a truly fascinating visit!!

A bit of variety

Following my exciting visit to the Hotel de Montmorency, I walked to the old Theatre des Varietes on Rue Victor Hugo.

It all began in 1864, when an imperial decree relaxed the regulations around the running of theatres. ¬†Prior to that decree, the running of theatres was very strictly controlled by a decree by Napoleon I dating from 1806. ¬†The 1806 decree limited the number of theatres, with the aim to avoid bancruptcies their knock-on effect on the people working in the theatres. ¬†The relaxation of that decree resulted in an explosion of new venues all over France. ¬†In Beziers. the Casino Musical was built that year the name being changed to L’Alcazar in 1867. ¬†Beziers’¬†L’Alcazar was a theatre of dubious reputation, and after a number of scandals it closed, to be transformed and reopened in 1904 as the¬†Theatre des Varietes.

Here’s what the theatre looked like not long after it opened in 1904:

In the 1950’s its facade was altered somewhat:

And this is what it looked like on the day of my visit:

When the¬†Theatre des Varietes opened in 1904 it was decorated in a style described as “Louis XVI rejuvenated”, very ornate and heavily influenced by art nouveau.

Inside, a spacious lobby gave access to the stalls, and there was a staircase to the first floor balcony. ¬†The staircase was decorated with an enormous mirror. ¬†The blue colour may or may not be original, your guess is as good as mine! ūüôā

Here’s the top of the mirror:

The lobby on the first floor was where people went to see and be seen.

When the theatre’s fortunes declined, it was turned into a cinema, and in the late 1970 it was turned into a discotheque.

Here’s what the auditorium would have looked like around 1920:

And this is what it looked like on the day of my visit:

On the upper balcony the walls were painted black. On the walls of the first floor balcony, and on the ground floor walls, there was a sparkling finish.  All of that dated from its incarnation as a discotheque.  The sparkling stuff had a very disco feel to it!!  That said, the paint was peeling and flaking everywhere!!

Luckily, the decorative plasterwork does not appear to have been affected too much as yet!

The holes you see in the ‘flower baskets’ were light bulb fittings! ¬†When the theatre opened in 1904, it was lit by over 300 light bulbs!! ¬†At that time the city did not yet have a general electricity supply, but the theatre had its own gas-powered generator!

At the opening of the theatre, the glass panels in the ceiling were decorated in the art nouveau style.  They probably got broken over time and were replaced with regular glass.

The discotheque closed in 1982, and since then the theatre has lain empty and abandoned. ¬†The building’s owners did what they could to slow decay, making sure that the roof was watertight. ¬†They also restored the facade around the entrance, removing the ugly 1950s additions. ¬†However, restoring the theatre to anything like its appearance during its heyday was beyond their means.

A group of local people had been advocating that the building be bought by the municipality so that it could be saved from redevelopment.  That finally happened earlier this year, and the future of the theatre looks somewhat rosier!

On the white sections in the pictures below, the paint has been stripped back to reveal the original plaster decorations underneath.

The stage:

Most of the original building is still intact, but a renovation is going to be costly all the same.

I do hope that the outside of the building will be given a face-lift too!

This was another fascinating discovery on my visit to Beziers during the recent European Heritage days.  I visited one additional interesting place after the Theatre des Varietes Рto be continued!!