Backstreet discoveries

Writing this blog every week has allowed me to discover so much, and I am very pleased to be able to share these discoveries with you.  I’ve been to some wonderful restaurants, found hidden architectural gems, and visited incredible historical sites, to name just a few things.  I’ve also learnt to look at things a little differently, such as looking up when walking through a village or town.  And I’ve learnt never to leave the house without a camera! 🙂

Narbonne is a town which richly rewards a little exploring.  The town has a very long history, dating back to Roman times.  I’ve written about some of the Roman finds in Narbonne here, and there are still more Roman finds & monuments in Narbonne to be visited and written about!  Some traces of Narbonne’s history can be discovered by simply taking a stroll around the town – please join me for a little meander down the streets of Narbonne!

Le’s start in the main square of Narbonne, where the former archbishop’s palace used to face the castle or palace of the viscount of Narbonne.  The viscount’s castle has long disappeared, to be replaced in the 19th century by a palace of commerce, an early department store called Aux Dames de France.

The former archbishop’s palace in Narbonne

Aux Dames de France, 19th century department store building in Narbonne

The facade of Aux Dames de France is richly decorated with all kinds of sculpted motifs!

The archbishop’s palace became municipal property after the French revolution, and today it houses the town hall, as well as several municipal museums.  Just behind the archbishop’s palace is the impressive cathedral!

Narbonne cathedral

Building work on the cathedral started in the 13th century, and only the choir was ever finished!  What was built is very impressive, with a footprint that is 40 x 60 metres and vaulting that soars to a height of 41 metres!!  There are only three cathedrals in France which are higher: the cathedrals in Beauvais, Amiens and Metz.

Interior of Narbonne cathedral

Like most churches, the cathedral “decorations” were modified through the ages, to suit the prevailing tastes.  A “storybook” altar was found some years ago, walled up behind a Victorian era marble altar.  The carvings are remarkably detailed

On the west wall of the cathedral is an immense pipe organ – I always wonder how they managed to fix that to the wall!!

Leaving the church via the cloisters and the archbishop’s garden brings you to outside the western end of the church, where building work halted and re-started several times.

Continue walking randomly through the streets of Narbonne – there is so much to discover – such as the amazing decorations on this building – you can see the pain and boredom in the faces of the atlantes!!

There are faces in many unexpected places – sometimes high up on a wall!

Sometimes the effect is a little unnerving, such as when you look at the tower below, and realise that there is someone at the window.

Other faces are tiny, and you need to look closely:

Then there are doors – all shapes and sizes – where do they lead to??

Decorative stonework has always been a sign of wealth – the bigger your wallet, the more you could decorate the outside of your house!

The building below has recently been given a new lease of life – for many years before that it was shut up, with the oriel tower supported by props, looking as though it could collapse at any moment.

Some of the decorations on the roofs are very ornate – is that a dragon?  The whole thing sits a little askew, it’s not the angle of the camera, I promise!!

The walls in the pictures below are the remnants of a church – it was probably repurposed a long time ago!

As Narbonne expanded, more modern architecture styles made their presence felt.  This is a beautiful example of art deco architecture:

This is just a tiny selection of all there is to admire in Narbonne – you could spend days walking and exploring!!

P.S.  If you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Narbonne, have a look at Villa Java!

If I had a hammer …

For a long time, I have known that the area around Saint-Chinian is particularly rich in study material for geologists.  The rock formations are spectacular, even to the untrained eye, but to me geology has always been like a closed book.  Some time ago, one of my guests sent me a link to a website where he had discovered an article about a self-guided tour of sites of geological interest around Saint-Chinian – more specifically, the sites were of the lower Ordovician period. The website can be found via this link – in addition to the tour around the Saint-Chinian area, there are several others on this page, no doubt equally interesting!

According to Wikipedia, “the Ordovician spans 41.2 million years from the end of the Cambrian Period 485.4 million years ago (Mya) to the start of the Silurian Period 443.8 Mya.”  To give you a visual idea of the timescale, here is a picture of a geological clock, found on Wikipedia – humans arrived only at two seconds before noon!

The website itself can be translated via one of the translation engines on the web such as translate.google.com but I’ve not been able to translate the PDF files of the itineraries.

I had sent the itinerary to a friend who was very keen to follow it, and so one sunny day earlier this month we set off on our trip!  The first stop was near Berlou, at a site which illustrates the upper Cambrian and the start of the Ordovician.  On our way there, we walked past a flowering oak tree:

Stoechas lavender:

A cistus with tiny flowers:

And some wall pennywort, which the French name translates to Venus’s navel:

Unbeknown to me, my friend had done a course in geology at university in her younger years, and she’d found the hammer she used when at university!!  With erosion and exposure to the elements, the surface of rocks changes quite a bit, so splitting a rock with the help of a hammer will show its ‘true’ colours.  What fun we had with that hammer!!

Here are some bits of quartz, which we found at the same site.

And bands of quartz embedded in a rock.

 

On our way back to the car, we enjoyed looking at some very typical vegetation.  The heady smell of the garrigue was wonderful!

Our next stop was on the road to Berlou, at a place where a trench had been cut into the rock for the road.  The rocks on the left hand side of the cut were an outcrop of the Saint-Chinian formation, and on the right an outcrop of the La Maurerie formation was visible.  I’m not sure that I saw a lot of difference, but I’m no geologist 🙂  The view of the valley in the direction of Berlou was very beautiful though!

Onwards to the viewpoint, just outside Berlou, and another spectacular view of the mountain in the distance, Mont Caroux. The mountain is called ‘The Sleeping Lady’, and in the right light and with enough imagination, you might just about be able to imagine a reclining figure, with the head on the left hand side.

The road took us to the village of Berlou, and through beautiful countryside, past the villages of Escagnes and the hamlet of Mezeilles, before arriving at Vieussan.  We had planned to have lunch at Le Lezard Bleu in that village, but unfortunately the restaurant had to close on that day for maintenance.  We booked at table in Roquebrun instead, at Le Petit Nice. Just before we reached Roquebrun, we stopped once more – this time to observe a fold in the rock.

After a delicious lunch in Roquebrun, we continued towards the village of Saint-Nazaire-de-Ladarez.  On the way there, we stopped to admire the Landeyran valley with its sheer cliffs.  The cliffs are much used by rock climbers to test their skills on!

Our last stop of the day had nothing to do with the Ordovician, but was on the itinerary as a point of great geological interest, and because the road back was passing right by it!  The former Coumiac quarry has been designated a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP).  Wikipedia defines the GSSP as follows: “A Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point, abbreviated GSSP, is an internationally agreed upon reference point on a stratigraphic section which defines the lower boundary of a stage on the geologic time scale. The effort to define GSSPs is conducted by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, a part of the International Union of Geological Sciences. Most, but not all, GSSPs are based on paleontological changes. Hence GSSPs are usually described in terms of transitions between different faunal stages, though far more faunal stages have been described than GSSPs. The GSSP definition effort commenced in 1977. As of 2012, 64 of the 101 stages that need a GSSP have been formally defined.”

At Coumiac we are in the upper Devonian, at the transition between the Frasnian and the Fammenian.  I can’t make a great deal of sense of the scientific explanation, but the rocks are spectacular to behold!  The quarry is only a short walk from the car park beside the road. Two viewing platforms have been created to allow visitors safe access to the site.

The first glimpse of the quarry is of the GSSP – a huge slab of rock, covered in thousands of fossilised goniatites (prehistoric snail-like creatures), killed during what is called the Kellwasser event.

The quarry was in operation until 1965, with a type of ‘griotte’ marble being extracted – a red marble with small inclusions of white.  An example of a fireplace made of griotte marble can be found at Acanthus in Saint-Chinian.

Here is a closer view of the GSSP slab:

All in all, this was a very interesting day, and I learnt a lot!!  Do let me know if I have mis-translated any of the geological jargon, I’ll be happy to correct it!

Food and wine

Back in January, I attended a tutored wine tasting with food pairing at the Maison des Vins in Saint-Chinian (see post here).  Since then, I seem to have developed a bit of a fancy for this kind of event.  When the Maison des Vins announced a series of food and wine pairing dinners in collaboration with the restaurant Le Village in Saint-Chinian, I did not hesitate to make a reservation for the first one.  There are four more of these dinners – follow this link to see the list of dates!

The formula is simple – three courses and three wines, the whole for 25 Euros.

Menu soiree vigneronne – a food and wine pairing dinner.

The wines were presented by Elisabeth Poux from Domaine Pech Menel.  The meal started with steamed green asparagus and half a grilled artichoke heart, served with mountain ham and a mousseline sauce.   The mousseline sauce was made like a hollandaise sauce, using the Blanc de Pech Menel 2015 wine, which was served with this course.  Whipped cream was added to the hollandaise sauce just before serving it, to give it a mousse-like texture.  Mme Poux explained that the white wine was made with a blend of grenache, rolle (also called vermentino), roussanne and viognier grapes.  It was delightfully dry and crisp, with hints of honey and dried fruits.  This was the first time I had tasted the wines from Domaine Pech Menel, and I was impressed!

A starter of steamed asparagus, mountain ham and grilled artichoke heart, served with mousseline sauce and accompanied by Blanc de Pech Menel white wine.

After a little pause, to allow us to finish our wine, the main course arrived, accompanied by a different wine.  The wine was Chateau Vallouvieres-Pech Menel 2009, a full-bodied, deeply coloured red wine, made from 70% mourvedre grapes; carignan and grenache grapes made up the rest of the blend.  This wine was a wonderful accompaniment to the slow cooked lamb, which was served with home-made fries and a medley of vegetables.  The lamb was tender and succulent, the fries were lovely and crisp, and my only criticism could be the colour of the plate the dish was served on! 🙂  Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but on the whole I prefer food to be served on white plates.

Slow-cooked lamb with home-made fries and a vegetable medley, accompanied by Chateau Vallouvieres-Pech Menel red wine.

The dessert was all chocolate – perfect for me!!  On the plate in front of me were three different kinds of chocolate desserts: in the picture below from left to right – moelleux au chocolat, a kind of moist chocolate cake; mousse au chocolat, chocolate mousse; and crumble a la banane au chocolat, banana and chocolate crumble.  All three were delicious, but my favourite was the banana and chocolate crumble!  To accompany this dessert, Mme Poux had chosen a red wine called No Name.  This was a fairly young red wine, a 2013 vintage, made from a blend of syrah, grenache, mourvedre and cinsault grapes.  It was a fresh tasting wine with a hint of smokiness, and it had a slight petillance, very different from the wine we drank with the main course, but a perfect foil to the richness of the chocolate.  No Name could be a wine for every day drinking, and could be perfect for an aperitif if served slightly chilled.

It was a great evening, spent with good food, good wine and good friends!!  Having discovered the wines of Domaine Pech Menel, I’m looking forward to visiting the winery and tasting their other wines.

Dates for your diary

Courses Camarguaises – May to October 2017

If you want to see a bull-fight, but are not into blood sports, then a course camarguaise is for you!  The bull always leaves the ring alive, and the men in the ring have to be very nimble on their feet.  I wrote about one such bull-fight here, and you can find all the dates on the official website.

European museum night – 20 May 2017

Since 2005, European museum night has been enchanting visitors every year.  It’s a free event, which gives visitors the chance to discover the treasures of museums all over Europe in different ways.  You’ll be able to find the whole programme on this site .

Les Feeries du Pont, Pont du Gard – 2, 3, 9 and 10 June 2017

The Pont du Gard like you’ve never seen it before – lit up with flames and fireworks.  It’s an unforgettable show, and I was lucky to see it some years ago!  More information via this link.

Pont du Gard

Vente de Charite, Saint-Chinian – 4 June 2017

This is a fixture on Saint-Chinian’s calendar of events – a sale of bric-a-brac, plants, clothes, second-hand household items, books and more, all sold for a good cause.  The sale takes place in the abbatiale, the former abbey church in Saint-Chinian, and in the cloisters, and it is open until noon.

Balade Gourmande, Saint-Jean-de-Minervois – 4 June 2017

This gourmet walk has become a very successful and enjoyable annual event.  I went on this gourmet walk back in 2015 and enjoyed it very much.  If you want to give it a try yourself, you can find out more via this link.

A wonderfully fragrant spot

A wonderfully fragrant spot

Fete de la Musique, all over Europe – 21 June 2017

Don’t miss this wonderful celebration of music all over France.  It’s a great occasion to listen to all kinds of music. I’ve written about some of my experiences here and here.  The official website for the event can be found via this link.

Fesitval de Carcassonne – 1 to 30 July 2017

Once again, Carcassonne is hosting an array of famous French singers and musicians during its summer festival!  For the full programme visit here.

Re-opening of the Fonserannes site, Beziers, 1 July 2017

The site around the staircase lock at Fonserannes on the Canal du Midi, on the edge of Beziers, has been given a complete makeover!  I am looking forward to when the site re-opens again in its new splendour.  The staircase lock is a marvel of engineering and worth a visit if you are in the area!

Feria de Beziers – 12 to 15 August 2017

With four days of bodegas, parties and bull fights, the feria in Beziers attracts visitors from all over.  If bull fights are not your thing, the party atmosphere in the town in the early evening is lovely to experience, with pop-up restaurants bars everywhere.  You can find out more via this link.

Fete du Fil, Labastide Rouairoux – 14 and 15 August 2017

This fete is a must for lovers of all things textile.  The textile museum will be open to visitors free of charge, there will be several exhibitions and the flea market.  Full details on https://lafetedufil.jimdo.com/

Fete de Saint-Louis, Sete – 17 to 22 August 2017

The Fete de Saint-Louis celebrates the patron saint of Sete with five days of concerts, street performances and the all-important water jousting tournament!  Full details can be found via this link.

Start of La Vuelta, Nimes – 19 August 2017

La Vuelta is Spain’s answer to the Tour de France, and this year the city of Nimes hosts the first stage of this race.  A must for all lovers of cycling!

 

 

Mediterranean delight

The village of Roquebrun is nestled against a steep hill, with the river Orb flowing at its feet.  The road twists and turns as you approach the village from the direction of Cessenon, passing the tiny village of Lugne, before crossing a range of hills.  Just past the top of the hill, as the road starts to descend again, the most beautiful panorama opens up.  There below is the Orb valley,  a lush and green expanse of fields and vineyards.  And in the distance you can see Roquebrun.  If you drive that way, think about making a stop at the little pull-in to take in that view!

The site where Roquebrun is today, has been occupied by humans for a long time.  Pre-historic and Roman vestiges have been found, and around AD 900 a castle was built, of which the tower is still standing, to protect against invasions from the south.

With the castle to protect them, people began to construct a village below and around it.  In turn this village got its own fortifications.  The medieval layout of that village can still be experienced as you walk up towards the tower, through narrow streets and passages.  The driver in the car was not from these parts.  He very nearly wrote off the car at the point  where it is in the picture below.

The passage of time can be seen in many charming ways on the streets of Roquebrun.

When early man settled in Roquebrun, one of the reasons was no doubt the microclimate that prevails.  Visit the village at the right moment – such as right now – and the air will be heavy with the fragrance of citrus blossoms.  It’s a beautiful fragrance, and there are citrus trees all over the village!

My destination was the Jardin Mediterraneen, which was created just over thirty years ago.   On the way to the garden I passed “La Rocheuse” – it’s a perfect house to rent if you want to stay in Roquebrun!

The microclimate of Roquebrun means that the plants which flourish here would have a hard time elsewhere in this area.

As you walk up towards the garden, there are signs in several places!

The garden was created on abandoned land above the village, and like most gardens it is a work in progress!  To date about 1000 tonnes of materials have been moved (stones and building materials) by donkeys and humans.  Since it’s almost at the top of the hill, your climb is rewarded with spectacular views!

Over 4000 plants from 400 odd species are being grown here!  I’ve been to the garden many times over the years, and have watched it evolve, and I feel that right now it is looking the best it ever has!

I would love to be a specialist on plants, but I still have a lot to learn.  The garden specialises in Mediterranean plants, plus cacti and succulents.  Here are some flowers:

And some plants which I would class as cacti (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong):

The microclimate at the garden is helped by the range of dolomite rocks, which store and refract the heat.

In this type of environment water is scarce, so only plants that have successfully adapted to the drought-like conditions will be able to survive.  After the spring rains, the garden is looking very lush, but even at the height of summer there will be something of interest!

Right at the top of the garden an enclosure has been built, to house two goats.  Their job is most likely to keep the undergrowth down!

From the goat enclosure I got a good view down towards the tower and the village – this was very high up!!

Several years ago, the ancient tower was restored, to stop it from falling apart.  In the picture below you can see quite clearly the square holes in the walls near the top of the tower.  These holes would have held beams which supported a wooden walkway.  The crenelations were added later.

From the viewing platform below the tower, stone stairs led down to the level of the entrance to the garden, past some lovely cistus bushes.  The bees were having a feast on the beautiful pink flowers!

The visit to the Mediterranean Garden was coming to an end, but the visit to Roquebrun was far from over.  On the way down the hillside, I snapped some more pictures!

A beautiful rosa banksia in full flower:

Another ancient door, with a marble door surround:

A well established wisteria, covering a little terrace:On Rue des Orangers, which runs along the river, is a restaurant called Le Petit Nice.  Its dining room has lovely views of the river, and this is where my friends and I had a bite to eat after all that walking!

Snails with garlic and parsley butter

Salad with smoked trout

Pan fried trout with almonds

Rabbit casserole

Pears poached in red wine

I’m not sure that we had walked off as many calories as we consumed, but I have no regrets – the meal was absolutely delicious, and the service so very friendly and efficient!

On the way back to the car there was one more remarkable sight – the esplanade which overlooks the river was renovated a few years ago, and planted with various climbing plants.  I was there just at the right time to see the beautiful wisteria flowers!  Two different kinds of wisteria, one a deep purple with double flowers, and the other with almost pink single flowers – stunning!

If you are in the area, be sure to visit Roquebrun.  It’s a beautiful and historic village with many attractions!

Time to dine

To follow up last week’s post about customs in French restaurants, I thought it would be appropriate to whet your appetite with some food pictures!!  WARNING – if you are feeling hungry, do not read any further – have something to eat first!! 🙂

The first meal in this post was at Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.  The kitchen at Auberge de l’Ecole is run by Brigitte – her style of food is down-to-earth regional cooking, and her cassoulet is very good and highly recommended!  Here are three starters:

Salad with goats cheese, smoked duck breast and pears

Beef carpaccio

Marinated sardines

Main courses:

Brigitte’s famous cassoulet

Braised lamb shank – very tender!

Grilled squid with Persillade (parsley and garlic)

L’Ecailler Gourmet in Narbonne is a restaurant which serves fish – and only fish – there’s no meat on the menu!  What they serve depends on the catch, and so the fish is always very fresh, and always expertly cooked!  A nice touch in this restaurant is the fact that they bring the fish to the table before it is cooked, so you can drool over what you’ll get while you wait 🙂

Fresh fish for three!

Gratinated oysters

Salmon mousse duo – smoked and fresh salmon

The main courses were beautifully presented and the fish oh-so-good!!

Swordfish steaks

Mixed grill – salmon, cod and prawn

Grilled sea bream fillets

Desserts are always important to me – I adore them!  The desserts in the pictures below tasted every bit as good as they looked!!

Variation on banoffee pie

Peach and strawberry soup

Fresh strawberries with strawberry sauce

The Guinguette du Chichoulet restaurant is right by the water, on the marina at Port Chichoulet, near Vendres Plage.

The food was simple, and service was very friendly!

Marinated sardines

A selection of deep fried food – squid rings, prawns and potoatoes

The mussels were plump and juicy, and the prawns cooked just so.

Moules mariniere

Grilled prawns

The bar/restaurant Le Vernazobre in Saint-Chinian was taken over by Murielle and Jeremy in autumn last year.  For the moment, food is served only at lunchtime, but during the summer months they will be serving food in the evenings too.  I’ve been a number of times recently, and have enjoyed my meal each time.  The choice of dishes on the menu is small, and the food is simple and well prepared.

Pate

Salad with tuna fish and hard boiled eggs

Goat’s cheese parcel

I was assured that the steak was tender – and it was very good indeed!

Grilled steak

Pork chop with creamy sauce

Seafood pie

Have you tried any of these restaurants yourself or any others in this area that you especially liked??  Do you have any tips to share??